The Horrors of the Archdemon and Dreams of Smallclothes and Nug-Wrangling
The Darkspawn attacked the force holding the entrance of the Fort with a tenacity that had been entirely unexpected and the constant bombardments tested even Oghren's usually bottomless reserves. The Dwarven force had suffered several loses and Teagan was making a valiant effort to keep everyone going. Wynne's magic was indispensable though she saved her strength and used the major spells only when they were desperately needed. Leliana and the other archers scrounged for extra arrows when they had the chance and everyone wondered what was happening in the other areas of the city. The intense waves of Darkspawn were discouraging if they let themselves consider what this could mean and the next assault was the deadliest. Teagan lost three men and two more Dwarves fell to the monsters before the skirmish ended. And this only came about because unexpected help turned up.
The group of Darkspawn archers that had nearly taken complete control of the battlefield suddenly ignited and the Emissary competing with Wynne was lifted off the ground and slammed back down again. A force of roughly twenty men from Redcliffe and Denerim shouted fiercely as they swarmed the Darkspawn and the mages behind them, led be Irving and Solona, decimated any monsters that stood in their way.
"Leliana?" Solona greeted, pushing her blonde hair from those large green eyes. She glanced at Wynne as the enchanter approached and then her gaze found Oghren almost automatically, "Wynne? I would have thought you would be in the tower. Where is Ffion? Has she not made the move yet?"
"It was decided that a smaller group could scale the floors more quickly," Leliana answered and the whole of their dwindling force breathed a little easier with these additions, "The three of us were the ones chosen to hold the entrance here with Teagan's men and this portion of Lord Harrowmont's forces."
"What does the rest of the capital look like, Solona?" Wynne cut in, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, "The assault has been so intense here we haven't been sure what to think. Is it...?"
"No, not hopeless," Solona said firmly, finishing the enchanter's thought and leaning on her staff. Her face was set, making her look much older, "The armies are still fighting their way here, but the Darkspawn are... prolific. And we stumbled upon a group which was nearly organized until their ogre was taken down."
Leliana and Wynne exchanged glances as Oghren let out a huff of breath.
"'Nother general, huh?" He quizzed, "I hope yeh fried th' bastard."
Solona smiled at the Dwarf, amused by his antics, and pleased to find a soul so unalterable in this chaos.
"Does deep freezing work instead?" She asked and her eyes lit a little.
"Good 'nough," Oghren returned the grin and then glanced up at Wynne, "Wha' do yeh say t'chasin' the boss if more help is comin' this way?"
"'Chasing her?'" The enchanter repeated with a frown, "You mean leaving the post here?"
"Only if we are certain the Fort will remain in our hands, no? If this is the case, Wynne, why not?" Leliana agreed.
Solona straightened her slight body as the soldiers began bracing themselves for another attack.
"And I will go with you," She said and her staff flipped between her fingers as power surged around her. The ogre that led the charge coming their way was knocked off its feet, smashing into a dozen of the smaller Darkspawn and igniting a moment later, "Our friends shouldn't face this on their own."
Ffion and the others huddled in the meager protection the
entrance to the tower afforded. They could only stare at the Archdemon as it
spewed fire and stomped its powerful legs angrily. The fires from the city
reflected in the smoky air and the chill that pervaded the early evening was
dispelled by the heat of Archdemon's body. Rain was falling and it made the
deep purple of the monster's back glisten and the claws raked across the stone
that had started to get slick. The Archdemon was maybe a little smaller than
the dragon they had spotted in the Frostbacks, but with the thing on the
ground, swinging its spiked tail and ready to charge at the first sign of a
threat, that point was moot. Every now and then it would flap its wings in an
attempt to take to the sky and the whirling air it caused smelled like death.
There were a few soldiers left of the force that had escaped the onslaught
within the tower and these were just as panic-stricken as Ffion's companions.
Taking a deep breath and calming her nerves as much as she could, Ffion put the Archdemon on the back burner and studied their surroundings instead. The roof of the tower was wide with the innermost area sunken a few steps. Battlements ran around the perimeter and the archway the companions crowded in was mirrored across from them, though that one looked to be more for aesthetics than anything useful. The most interesting thing that Ffion saw and something that started her brain working, was the collection of a half dozen ballistae. She eyed these and remembered how well they worked with the Darkspawn and the rational side of her mind was demanding to know how they were going to prevent the Archdemon from just swarming up the steps and trampling the ballistae when the companions tried to use them. Her gaze went around and she did a quick headcount of the soldiers that weren't completely out of sight. Just four and she wasn't sure she would be able to convince them to stay and help. Wincing and ducking her head against the roar from the Archdemon and staggering into Tilly as the thing made the whole tower rock, she sought out Morrigan's gaze.
"Keep moving," She told her, apprehensive of the fear she saw in the witch's gold eyes, "And hit that thing with whatever will cause major damage."
"I don't suppose your mother would show up as a dragon and get rid of that bastard?" Alistair asked and the humor fell flat, "That seems like something she'd do."
Morrigan gripped her staff, ignored Alistair, and nodded at Ffion.
"We need a distraction," Ffion spoke absently, touching Tilly's head as the Mabari whined at her, "I want to use those ballistae like we did before, but the damn thing will probably just crush them the instant it sees us."
"Then take care of its eyes," Sten's clipped tones in that perfectly rational voice centered them and the Warden glanced up in surprise. She staggered a little as the Archdemon's body thudded down again and the Qunari continued quickly, not sure how much longer they had before the monster spotted them, "You and Zevran are both quite skilled with those knives. Alistair and I will distract the beast and make it bring its head low. Fire then and prevent it from seeing anything."
Ffion was quiet as she thought this over and Zevran slipped his knives loose without a word. She nodded her head and double-checked her own knives before taking another deep breath and letting it out slowly. Smiling weakly around at them, she pulled her shoulders straight.
"My friends, this is it," She said quietly and pushed one hand to Tilly's head, knowing with a wrench it would be the last time, "I should probably say something profound and uplifting, but..."
"But all that needs to be said is what our smelly Dwarf would want: Give 'em hell," Zevran added when Ffion's voice trailed off and he did a remarkable imitation of the Dwarf.
Her smile felt a little more real and then she bent, kissing Tilly's head, and bolted from the archway. She kept the Archdemon in her peripheral, but focused most of her attention on the ballista closest to the door. She felt Morrigan's power encompass the whole of the tower top and a moment later there was a distinct chill in the air as the witch surrounded the Archdemon in a frozen cloud. This didn't stop the beast, but it did slow its movements and the Warden turned about abruptly, her knife leaving her hand and sailing perfectly into one of the fierce orange eyes. The monster jerked its head up with a furious roar and Zevran missed his chance to destroy the other eye.
Sten and Alistair looked alarmingly small as they dodged the thing's stomping feet, stabbing and slashing at anything that looked particularly vulnerable. The soldiers that had been trapped here watched the fight as though they were seeing a vision and then one of them snapped to attention and charged down the steps to join Alistair and Sten. Ffion's headcount had been off and she was thrilled to see eight soldiers fighting alongside her companions.
Morrigan waited until the monster reared back and then her staff slammed into the ground, sending a blast of energy that staggered all of the fighters below her. Sten and two soldiers remained on their feet while the rest tumbled to the ground, rolling away from monster. Zevran let his own dagger fly then and his aim proved just as accurate as Ffion's. The Archdemon reeled back even further, waving its front arms and letting out a screech of pain that made them clap their hands over their ears. The thing was successfully blinded, but it came at a cost. The stomping feet caught two of the soldiers that weren't quick enough to duck out of the way and then fire spewed from the monster's mouth, sending the others scattering for cover.
The sinuous neck whipped back and forth and it sniffed the air until it pinpointed what it was looking for. Just about to the ballista, Ffion paused to watch the beast and a moment later found out what it was doing. It made a milder call and Morrigan was suddenly surrounded by shades. Heart dropping, the Warden took a step that way and saw the witch swing her staff and freeze the demons with very little effort. Zevran pushed Ffion towards the ballista.
"Keep to the plan," He said and flipped another knife at the half dozen shades that were converging on the soldiers, "Trust us with our own necks, dove."
Ffion swallowed her doubt and darted for the ballista. Unlike those in the hallway, this one had a crank that turned the whole thing about smoothly. Zevran already found the crates of projectiles and he shoved these at her and then dove at the shades that were making for them. Tilly was on his heels and they gave the Warden the opening she needed to load the weapon. It held a jumble of the projectiles at one time and the construction was such that it grabbed each individual one and flung it at the flip of a few switches.
The first few that she fired were merely an annoyance and the Archdemon hardly seemed to realize what she was doing. It didn't prove a total loss, however. The projectiles hit the shades instead and gave the men the chance to turn their attention fully to the Archdemon. Ffion fired the ballista a sixth and seventh time and these were better shots. They struck the monster's head in rapid succession and she had just flung an eighth when the beast caught her scent and charged the ballista.
Ffion dove clear, terrified by the thing's speed and Tilly was hot on her heels as she darted to the next ballista. The Archdemon's head was dripping blood and the Warden skidded for a moment before she found purchase. The men charged the steps to distract the monster again and Ffion pulled her blades loose when it gave that odd summoning call. The shades manifested before her and she swung the swords, decapitating two of them and whirling about the cut down a third. Tilly took care of a fourth and Morrigan blasted the last with a bolt of energy.
The witch turned her attack back to the Archdemon whose tail was whipping about dangerously and Ffion spun the ballista to aim at the monster. Its flank was exposed to her and this time she was able to do quite a bit of damage. Sten and Alistair were both quick to deal their own blows. The Qunari rolled beneath the monster's front legs, Asala gleaming viciously and blood dripped more steadily onto the stone of the tower. Alistair shot forward and his sword slashed at the base of that serpentine neck.
Roaring as Ffion nailed the tender spot just behind its front leg, the Archdemon whipped its neck around and hit one of the soldiers sending him screaming over the battlements. It honed in on Ffion's scent quicker this time and summoned more shrieks and shades as it darted towards her.
The Warden jumped from the ballista, having just enough time to pull one sword loose. She meant to carve her way through the demons diving at her and she collided with one as shards of the ballista flew around them. Tilly was yipping in pain and Ffion fell to the stone floor, tangled with the shriek. Her blade went up through its body and the Archdemon's enormous foot slammed down too close for comfort. She shoved the demon from her and rolled to a crouch, finding herself beneath the monster's heavy body. Blood seeped steadily from the wounds Alistair and Sten inflicted and there was a trembling in the leg to her right that was encouraging... and rather frightening.
Acting quickly, she yanked the other sword free and stabbed upward, piercing the tough flesh with both blades. She dragged the swords as far as she could, carving through the beast's body and feeling the hot blood pour down onto her hands. The shriek that ripped from the thing's lungs rocked everyone and Ffion pulled hard, freeing her blades, and rolling away across the floor.
The Archdemon's feet pounded down around her and it was clear, indestructible as this thing looked, it was finally weakening.
Ffion got to her feet to run for the next ballista and slipped in the blood and rain, smacking her cheek sharply off the stone and making her see stars. The flames the Archdemon spewed seared just over her and she could smell the scorched hair as heat swept by. She tasted blood where her teeth gouged her tongue and cheek and when the men's voices surrounded her, she scrambled to her feet again and bolted for the third ballista.
Morrigan sent another spell of frigid air over the Archdemon and the warriors were quick to take advantage. Zevran was busy with the shrieks and Ffion saw with relief that Tilly was bleeding but okay and chasing after the Elf, taking down one of the demons as she did so.
The Warden reached the ballista, tossing another knife at the shriek in her path. This one was aimed in the right direction and she dumped the ammunition in and fired at the Archdemon. The monster was rapidly losing blood and it staggered away from the soldiers, crushing two more in its retreat. It stumbled down the steps, barely able to keep its feet, and Alistair felt a thrill of excitement and apprehension. The Archdemon's tail swung fiercely, catching another soldier and hurtling him into the side of the tower where the door was. The man didn't move when he hit the floor. Sten was knocked out of the way and the two remaining soldiers backed away with looks of absolute horror. Alistair started forward to strike again only to have his way blocked by more shrieks. Morrigan was busy with some of the shadowy demons that swarmed her; Zevran and Tilly were still taking down the group that had chased after Ffion, and that left the Warden and her ballista alone against the beast.
The ammunition that she found had more of a kick than the others and the hits she landed scorched the tough skin with flares of intense flames that made the thing howl in rage and fury. Its tail whipped through the rainy night and intensified that smell of death. Morrigan blasted her shrieks with pure energy, knocking them back, but they were quick to rebound and she flung fire at them next. Zevran and Tilly had nearly become overwhelmed and Alistair had to break from his fight to charge towards them. Sten jumped to his feet and was on the ex-Templar's heels when the Archdemon struck again.
It bolted for Ffion, moving with a rapidity that they hadn't yet seen and the Warden was just as shocked as any of them. She left the ballista and meant to dive for cover but the Archdemon had already swung its neck. The ballista smashed into splinters and Ffion was caught by the sinewy neck as well. The force flung her across the tower and she landed in a heap at the base of a fourth ballista. Something in her arm snapped with a sickening sound and her head whirled in pain. She tried to work herself up into a sitting position, knowing the Archdemon would go for the kill now, and she was so shaken she didn't think she could do even that. Gasping at the intense pain that radiated through her and tasting blood again, she could only watch as the monster whipped around and lifted its head a little as it sniffed her out. It took a few uncertain steps forward and swayed with the blood loss. Ffion pulled one of her blades free, keeping her useless arm against her body and watched as the Archdemon started for her.
It half-fell down the stairs and worked itself up again; its useless eyes were on Ffion though it couldn't see her. She used the ballista for support and got her feet under her, one ankle giving way entirely and making her nauseous with pain. The monster struggled towards her, its tail still swinging, knocking Alistair and Sten out of the way and into the mess of a fight that Zevran and Tilly were still waging. Morrigan had weakened as well, her face was drawn and pale and she flung spells that had no effect on the Archdemon. Ffion worked her way around to the other side of the ballista, but didn't have a chance to use it. The Archdemon bumped into it and then with one swipe of its massive foot, smashed it out of the way in a mess of splintered wood.
Ffion fell to her knees and tightened her hold on her sword hilt. She watched warily as the Archdemon fumbled closer and barely heard the door across from her slam open. The next thing she knew, she could hear Oghren shouting battle cries, Leliana's bow singing as it took out the shrieks, and felt Wynne's distinctive magic. The Archdemon was suddenly engulfed in lightning and it shrieked again, rearing back on its hind legs before falling forward. Its chin landed on what was left of the ballista and Ffion turned her head to avoid getting splinters to her face. The monster's breathing was ragged and shallow and the Warden worked herself to her feet, gripping the sword even more tightly.
Alistair, still fighting the left-over shades, felt his heart twist in fear as he saw his Warden hobble to the Archdemon's head and raise her blade. He nearly sliced the demon he fought in half as he tried frantically to reach her. He wasn't going to be able to and he glanced at Morrigan in pure terror. The witch's expression mirrored his and he wasn't sure how to stop this. He couldn't let her go; he just couldn't! He wanted her to stay with him; if he couldn't have her as his queen, what was the point of living?
"Ffion!! Don't!" He shouted and punched one of the demons in the face as he started towards her.
The Warden met his gaze and knew there was nothing he could do to stop her. She sent him his smile, raised the sword in her good hand, and whispered,
"Good bye, Alistair, and forgive me."
She moved to the Archdemon's eye and then pointed the sword over the thing's ear. Tilly was barking and whining furiously, trying to dart for her and Zevran's expression became horrified. Not hesitating for a moment longer, knowing that she would lose heart should she do so, she glanced up to see the clouds part a little and reveal the stars. I'm coming, Marmie and Papa. Oriana, Oren... Fergus, I'm so sorry. Maker's balls, I've missed you! She didn't give this another thought and slammed the sword into the monster's head.
The thing screamed and a shaft of light shot up into the sky. Ffion was frozen where she was and her hand seemed glued to the sword. Morrigan took a couple of rapid steps in her direction and then froze when she felt an odd warmth start to sweep through her. The shrieks and shades disappeared with small pops and hisses and the light that engulfed Ffion and the Archdemon was so bright no one could look at it. The roaring of this echoed all around them and then with a bright flare up, the Archdemon was gone. The explosion of the thing's essence dispersing was enough to send everyone flying.
Ffion's body was thrown across the roof again and she landed at the top of the stairs. Alistair, his heart in his throat and his eyes burning with tears, ran for her. Tilly beat him there and she crouched low on her powerful legs, whining softly as she nudged her lady's face. Ffion was still and pale, her helm had been knocked completely off and blood matted in her chocolate curls. One arm hung uselessly and her face was lined with burns and scratches.
"Ffion...?" Alistair murmured. His voice was broken and hoarse and he took her in his arms gently. The Warden's head lolled a little and she didn't appear to be breathing. Tears started down his cheeks as the others slowly moved forward, not able to believe what they were seeing. Alistair bent his head to Ffion's and his heart constricted painfully, "Please, you can't... you can't leave me... Please..."
His voice broke and someone had stepped forward to press his shoulder. Eamon stood behind his nephew, bowing his head as he spoke a silent prayer for Ffion's soul. Tilly nudged her a few more times and then sat back on her haunches and howled. The mournful note cut through all of them and only Morrigan remained unmoved. She pressed her hands to her stomach and felt the warmth growing within her. She glanced down at Ffion's still, pale face and sent her own silent plea. Leliana was crying quietly, Oghren's morose expression matched Sten's; Wynne held her staff clasped in both hands like she was prepared to cast her healing magic and her utterly lost look warred with this. Zevran's heart was in his face and he crouched beside Tilly, reaching out to take Ffion's limp hand in his.
"Wait," Morrigan whispered the word and only Solona, standing nearby, heard her.
The young mage frowned and though her green eyes were saddened, she was quick to pick up on something amiss. Morrigan didn't get a chance to add anything else. Zevran gasped, leaning towards the Warden with a look of wonder, and Alistair's head jerked up as Ffion drew in a ragged breath. Her grey eyes flew open and she looked around at them all in alarm and confusion before her face fell.
"No," She whispered, "We've failed?"
Wynne grabbed Leliana in a tight hug before casting her magic. Oghren and Sten moved closer and the Qunari's smile transformed his face. Solona pressed Leliana's arm and Tilly went wild with joy, licking her lady's face and whining softly. Morrigan retreated further, seeing her opening and prepared to take it. She studied what she could see of Ffion's face and felt her heart lift. The Warden would be okay, she would live however much of this life that taint would give her, and this thought warmed the witch's cold heart. She would miss her and though it seemed cruel to leave without good byes, it was for the best.
"No, love, no," Alistair said and his voice shook with emotion. He would have pressed her close to him and refused to let her go, but she was struggling to sit up. Her broken arm was set and made her gasp again and Alistair steadied her, "It's over. We've won."
"But..." Her voice was hoarse and she looked around as her confusion deepened. The Archdemon's body was gone, though the havoc it wreaked was more evident than ever. Rain pelted down harder now and no one seemed to notice, "But, how?"
"Does it matter, my dove?" Zevran quizzed and his anger at Alistair was forgotten. Whatever deal the ex-Templar made, it kept his Warden here and he couldn't fault him for that, "The Archdemon is dead and gone and you are here with us. Did you wish it the other way around?"
Ffion couldn't help but smile at that and winced at the pain in her cheek and jaw. She reached up to touch her face and Tilly jumped at her again. The Warden allowed it, burying her face in the Mabari's fur and sending an apology to her family. The sting of being here was sharp, but she was thrilled to wake again... even if it was to a world of pain.
Wynne was working to combat this and she saw the strain in the enchanter's face when she lifted her head again. Waving for it to stop, she used Tilly as a crutch and struggled to her feet. Her ankle burned with pain and wouldn't take any weight. Everything hurt and she could feel the stickiness of the blood on her face. Her hands were crimson and she stared at them in amazement before she remembered slashing the Archdemon across its belly. This disappeared a moment later and she blinked up at Wynne who smiled gently at her.
"This is over, Ffion," Zevran added in a tender voice and wasn't in the least surprised by the uncharacteristic speechlessness this brought about in her, "Let us rest in that, yes? And worry about details later."
Ffion nodded her head without realizing it and felt that macabre desire... need of dying start to fade. Her companions were all grinning broadly at her, even Morrigan's lips were tipped at the corners. Alistair's words from ages ago echoed back to her: Are we a collection agency for crazies? She was half-tempted to turn and ask him if he still believed this, but his honey eyes were smouldering and making her heart thump heavily and she wasn't sure he would let her get a word in before acting on the desire written across his face. She nodded more firmly again and finally realized that Oghren, Wynne, and Leliana were standing there, too... She must have hit her head much harder than she thought. Eamon, Teagan, Solona, and a small force of Redcliffe's fighters were all surrounding them as well.
"What happened to 'guard the gate?'" She asked Oghren and felt a little more like herself.
The Dwarf's green eyes started dancing while Leliana and Wynne chuckled. They had their Warden back.
"Yeh gonna nail me on tha' now, boss?" Oghren asked, "We knew wha' we were doin' an' worried that yeh didn'. Can' fault us fer that."
Ffion smiled and shook her head.
"I still feel like I'm going to wake up in the middle of camp," She said softly, "This has to be a dream. Anytime now I'm going to look down and see I'm standing in nothing but my smallclothes watching Sten try to wrangle a nug."
Laughter rang out over the tower roof and Ffion was back to Ffion Cousland, surrounded by people who cared for her. This was what mattered: her companions; her collection of crazies... her family.
"You really are leaving then?" Alistair asked.
Morrigan glanced at him with arched brows. After leaving the tower, the company had returned to Eamon's estate which had been saved from the fires and other carnage along with a healthy chunk of the other noble homes. Those who could keep their eyes open long enough dined on very simple fare, just what was available from the cellars, and most stretched out wherever there was room and immediately fell asleep. Ffion was under Wynne's guard and Alistair, heading to his own room, ran across Morrigan as she slipped through the halls of the estate.
"You really think it wise for me to stay?" She answered and her voice was cold, the insult to his intelligence very obvious, "In my condition? Were you not horrified by what people would think and say?"
Alistair's cheeks colored but he refused to be swayed. He folded his arms over his chest and met her direct, mocking gaze.
"I thought you'd stay behind a little longer for Ffion," He said and saw the gold eyes flicker, "She won't rest easily when you disappear without a word."
Morrigan stilled the wrench her heart gave, hating the vulnerability.
"'Tis better this way and you know it," She cocked her head and her smile made his skin feel rather prickly, "Besides, you will keep her quite occupied, yes? Do not let her do anything stupid, Alistair, I will ensure that she cannot find me. But I do owe her a wish for the best this life will give her. Whether this includes you remains to be seen."
The ex-Templar's face reddened more deeply at her suggestive tones and then he drew himself back to reality.
"What has been done is done," She interrupted swiftly, "Your throne and city will remain safe from me and mine and I hope you find it within your heart to return the favor. I am gone."
She brushed by him and disappeared down the hall. A moment later, there was a small squeak of hinges when one of the windows opened and the same buzzing from the night before. Their Witch of the Wilds kept her word and vanished into the night.
Denerim was saved, but huge portions of the city were
razed or so damaged that there was no other option but to raze them. The
Alienage had born the assault well and the city guard and those nobles who
weren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and lend a hand, hired the Elves to
help in the clean-up and reconstruction. This was a huge boon to the Alienage
and made the Elves feel like they were part of this city life... for once.
Alistair would have glued himself to Ffion's side if Eamon and Teagan had given him the chance. His uncles knew how distracted he became when she was around; how his attention span went to that of a flea's when he saw her smile, and kept him from her.
Morrigan's absence caused a stir and Alistair worried Ffion would track down the witch and to hell with her other responsibilities. She definitely felt the sting of Morrigan's abandoning her without a word and it surprised her just how much it hurt. The witch had been one of the first to stand with her. She had been Ffion's support in the Deep Roads and an ally the Warden counted on to always come through at the last minute; and now she was gone without so much as a simple goodbye. And what was most painful was that Ffion had known deep down it would probably end this way. Morrigan was so intensely private and though she had loyally followed Ffion through everything, she hadn't ever hidden her distaste for some of the recipients of the Warden's mercy and none of the other companions, save Sten maybe, had been within her good graces. Ffion just hated the finality of the witch's action and couldn't help feeling saddened by it.
As a distraction, the Warden headed up the effort to sweep the city of the Darkspawn and the remainder of her party trailed in her wake as usual, unwilling to let her out of their sight for even a moment. Her injuries had been quite serious. The arm needed a strong dose of potions and magic both before it was back to normal; she had shattered her ankle again and four ribs had snapped with most of the others cracked in that last assault with the Archdemon. The bumps and bruises would take a while to fade away, but her spirit was that of the old Ffion. The one before the Circle and the Fade; the one that threw barbed jokes in every direction, blurting the first nonsense that entered her head, and laughed more often.
Zevran fell even more in love with his improved Warden and vowed never to leave her side... Marriage to Alistair or not. Wynne had also agreed to stay on as an advisor to Alistair, Oghren joined the armies' ranks; and Leliana and Sten remained close by as well, unsure of their futures for the time-being.
Refugees that had fled the city prior to the Darkspawn attack slowly began trickling back to see what was left of their homes. The nobles that had also flown Denerim returned, and merchants and builders leaped at this opportunity to get money flowing back to Ferelden once more. The ties with the outlying lands were as they had been before the Blight started, perhaps a bit more strain with Orlais and Kirkwall, but the others were happy to have a healthy trade flow again. Highever's lands were still fertile and there were several landowners both there and to the south that had evaded the Darkspawn filth entirely and had built up storehouses that would last well through the winter, with plenty to spare for trade.
The rebuilding of Denerim was going to be a lengthy process and Ffion split the armies into forces. She sent most of them out to ensure the Darkspawn's continued retreat and a vast majority of Harrowmont's soldiers went with them to protect Orzammar from the creatures in case there was trouble. Harrowmont himself stayed with a handful of nobles to be present at Alistair's coronation. Lanaya's tribe also remained, though when the Araval arrived from Redcliffe with Isolde, Conner, and another force of men and women, they set up camp outside the city and most of the members had little to do with even their city-born brethren.
The soldiers that helped with the reconstruction were under Ffion's command and she had more fun with this than she had had in ages. They worked long days, shoulder-to-shoulder, from the foot soldiers on up to the commanders and though the men were a little leery of a young woman as their commander, killer of the Archdemon and Hero of Ferelden or not, they warmed to her as everyone else did. And when they heard how she laughed at Oghren and Zevran's jokes, they claimed her as one of their own and watched after her like a troop of hawks. The long, exhausting days allowed Ffion more nights without nightmares and the taint within her was calming, proving Alistair's words true, but she still dreamt of her family and Zevran kept the chasm from her face with ease. They were working in the decimated area around Fort Drakon when Ffion received a surprise that kept that chasm even further from the forefront.
Ffion turned about automatically. She and Sten were cleaning up the burned-out remains of one of the outbuildings and she dropped the armful of charred wood into the wagon next to them before turning her attention to the group of men that approached. The rain that had pelted them for the past several days had finally abated and the morning was clear and cold. Tilly, sprawled underneath the wagon, lifted her head and sniffed the air. She crawled from her hiding place and trotted towards the men, whining softly. Ffion frowned at her, a frown that instantly transformed into a broad grin at the sight of Gilmore. His smile was just as bright and his green eyes danced. He looked more like his old self than ever and just before she could dart to him for a hug, he stepped to the side and she looked at the man behind him.
Her instant reaction was pity. Here was another poor soldier who had lived through the horrors of the Blight and looked it. His dark hair was disheveled and dusty and his lean frame rather gaunt. Her eyes traveled up to the thin, prematurely lined face and locked on a pair of ecstatic blue-grey eyes.
She let out a ragged gasp as Tilly went wild with joy and practically trampled Fergus Cousland where he stood. Ffion remained frozen in place, too afraid to even blink, thinking that somehow her brother would disappear. He slid his shield from his back, the same one he always used: the twin leaves faded and the blue backdrop almost grey, handed it to Gilmore, and took a cautious step forward.
"Oh, little one," He murmured in a voice hoarse with emotion, "It's not a dream."
She ran to him then and was caught up in his arms. Tears of joy stung her eyes and she laughed when he whirled her about, proving that his strength wasn't entirely gone. He set her on her feet again, his hands on her waist, and looked her over with the same intensity that she studied him. He was still the same Fergus: big and broad-shouldered, dark hair tumbling forward to hang in eyes that held the same shadows everyone else had acquired during the Blight. They had all seen too much death and destruction to come remotely close to what had been, but there was hope there now and this new beginning looked to be so much brighter than anyone believed.
Her clothes and hands had smudged charcoal across him and she smiled as he spoke.
"Ffion, I... I had no idea. When I got to Redcliffe and met Rick, it was unreal."
Her smile faded and she took his hands in hers. This had to be said, there was no way it could be left untouched between them.
"Oh, Fergus," She said quietly, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry about-"
"Don't, little one," He pulled her close for another hug, "You don't have to say anything. Rick told me. You did nothing wrong and the bastard has paid. Never forget them; and never think you were responsible."
She pushed away from him gently with a nod and he tugged her short curls. Her smile slowly came back to her face and Fergus saw his little sister in this fierce young woman before him. The hard shell was no surprise and her grey eyes were flintier than ever, but glimpses of the whirlwind girl with impish dimples were shining through. She grabbed his hand, tucking the sorrow away.
"How did you escape, Fergus? What happened? Where have you been?" She started and Gilmore gave a true laugh.
"Plenty of time for it later, Fi," He told her, "We should report to the Arl."
"'Report?'" She repeated after giving her friend a brief hug. She stepped away from him with a frown and glanced at the men that had hung back during this reunion, "Oh, you mean to the commanders. Well, you've reported. Welcome to Denerim-post-Armageddon."
She swung an arm at the razed buildings and the work that continued behind her. Her grey eyes danced a little as she gave Gilmore a nod to his unasked question.
"How's it feel?" Fergus quizzed, knowing exactly how heady it was to command a force of men. He missed the camaraderie.
"Amazing," She replied with another quick smile, "But we should get you to the estate. Alistair's coronation is tomorrow and we'll need to find a place to squeeze you all in. And then you and I will talk."
She added that last with her usual unfailing determination and glanced over her shoulder at Sten who had gone back to work. Though he had moved to a place quite a bit closer than before.
"I will take over, kadan, family is more important," His deep voice had gentled and he gave Fergus and Gilmore a nod before going back to his duties.
She thanked him and then fell in beside her brother and Gilmore, leading the way back to the Arl's estate. The other men trailed behind at a quick motion from Fergus and then he was looking down at Ffion's curly head and marveling at her hard-won maturity.
"And that was your Sten?" He asked.
"Yes, and I have to admit it took me ages to put two and two together," She frowned a little, "My head was a million miles away, clearly, when I met him. It was something Zevran said before I remembered the Qunari military names and made the connection."
"What is his name?"
She let out a huff of a sigh and shrugged her slender shoulders.
"I have no idea. Sten never asked us to call him anything different and in all honesty, it's none of my business. Besides I can't imagine him being called anything else."
Fergus blinked and felt the tug towards mischief that always intensified when Ffion was around.
"You have changed," He said in faux-surprise, "'None of my business?' The four words no one expects to hear from Ffion Cou-"
She immediately rounded on him with a grin and threw a punch. He dodged out of the way, laughing. Her heart leaped a little at the close call there and she prevented it the only way she knew how. But it was asinine to believe this concealment would last forever and it shocked her that no one had let it slip yet. She cast a quick, annoyed look at Gilmore which he studiously ignored. There was no way that he simply forgot to tell her brother the reason for the secrecy and she had to admit that she wasn't the least surprised that he had skipped over it. Gilmore had never been one for harmful cover-ups and she could only too easily see how this could hurt someone. She still dreaded what Alistair would say to her when he found out.
But then they were entering Eamon's estate and she learned with some relief that Alistair had gone to personally deliver an invitation to the ceremony tomorrow to Valendrian, Soris, and Shianni. At least the awkward questions would be postponed a bit further. The Arl was already aware of Fergus' presence and the small group of his men was given lodging in one of the abandoned noble's houses. The owner had not returned from the Blight infested lands and the place would have fallen into disrepair if the armies had not taken over.
Ffion took the opportunity to closet herself with her brother and Gilmore in the small upstairs office that Eamon lent her when her pile of missives and military records started growing larger. Valena, who had accompanied her lady from Redcliffe, came around with a tray of meat, cheese, and bread and a pitcher of water. Ffion accepted this and sent the girl on her way, serving the men herself.
"All right, Fergus," She said, handing him a loaded plate and passing one to Gilmore as well. She poured them all glasses and then settled into one of the low comfortable chairs after stirring the embers of the fire in the grate, "If you're up for it, tell me what happened."
Tilly perched on her haunches, looking between Gilmore and Fergus worshipfully, though it was for the food and not the men themselves. Fergus tossed her a bite, rubbed her chestnut head, and nodded to his sister.
"Maker, it's good to see she's with you," He replied quietly and then sobered, "And, yeah, I'm up for it; I'd rather you hear it from me. Well, we made it to Ostagar without much trouble and the morning of the day of the attack I took a small party of soldiers to scout."
"I know," Ffion said, her voice soft. She wished that she had something stronger than just water to drink while they had this conversation, but that was saved for the evening meals. Fergus glanced up at her in surprise, knocking the tousled black hair out of his eyes. He looked at Gilmore briefly in confusion and Ffion tried to inject the irreverence again, "Don't blame Rick for you not knowing. You can't expect him to remember every little detail. I was at Ostagar, too. I arrived the afternoon of that day and was told that you were scouting... So, you didn't make it back?"
"No," Fergus shook his head and hesitated a moment before pressing on. The pain of the memories was slowly losing its sting; very slowly, "No, we didn't make it back. We were ambushed by the bastards and only Kellar and I made it. Two out of fifteen... Kellar was more or less okay but I had taken quite a beating and don't really remember much of the stumbling away and hiding. A few of the beasts chased after us, that I do remember, and Kellar managed to find a hollow in the hillside to hide me in. He stood guard at the entrance of the place for hours, battling those damn things until one of them got him in the leg with an arrow. He managed to crawl back to me and we were ready to meet the Maker when the whole hillside lit up and the monsters disappeared. We could hear voices in the valley and a couple of apostate mages... well, Chasind, really, came up to get us. We were taken back to a little hovel in the middle of the forest and nursed quite kindly. They got Kellar on his feet and got me back to whatever normal there was in the aftermath. One of them saw the destruction of Ostagar and told us what that bastard Loghain had done and we stayed on with them for a long time. We weren't sure how to repay their kindness and so we helped where we could."
"It was a family?" Ffion questioned, reaching out to lift a slice of cheese from the tray.
"No, not a family," Fergus frowned, "Not in the traditional sense. There were eight of them, all living together in this clearing. Really, it was rather ideal. They had a spring not far from their homes, the valley was through the trees to the south and the mountains to the east. They were able to spot threats coming from miles away and the Darkspawn never found us while we were there. Although the Chasind's fears were more Circle-Templar based than the Blight."
His sister's expression was suddenly very thoughtful and she reached up to tousle her curls in a gesture that was as old as time.
"Huh, I wonder..." Her voice trailed off and she shook her head a little, "It doesn't matter, never mind. So what happened next? You stayed with the Chasind and then what? Did you hear about the Blight ending down there?"
"No, like I said, Kellar and I tried to – You remember Kellar, don't you? I should have asked sooner."
Ffion stuck her tongue out at Gilmore when he snorted with laughter and wanted to hit Fergus after she spotted the dancing amusement in his eyes. She remembered Kellar very well and they knew it. Tall, broad-shouldered, blond haired Kellar with his baritone voice and piercing blue eyes... When she was twelve or thirteen years old, she had been infatuated with him and Gilmore had teased her mercilessly, making her swear that she would never tell him about any other boy she liked... She was vaguely surprised that she would have missed him in the collection of men Fergus had had with him, but then again, seeing her big brother had been rather distracting.
"Maker's balls," She finally muttered as they both laughed at her, "Am I ever going to live that down?"
"Never," Gilmore replied promptly, "You never live down your first loss or your first love."
"And for you those came at the same time, right?" She answered, turning the full force of her dimpled grin at him and then dodging the crust of bread he threw at her.
Tilly bolted for it as Fergus laughed his old laugh and pulled them back to their topic.
"Peace, you two, let me finish. No, little one, to answer your question. As part of our repayment to the Chasind, Kellar and I helped to protect them and in the process, we took in more 'strays' as Rowan, their leader, called us. The men you saw with me today, they were all refugees from surrounding villages, one or two soldiers that were lucky enough to live through Ostagar, and travelers that were attacked on the roads. We only left Rowan and her Chasind three, three and a half months ago, and set out for Redcliffe. Me and Kellar thought that would be our best bet to get any news and sure enough, I find Rick and he tells me that not only are you still alive, you're a Warden, commander of the new king's armies, and now Hero of Ferelden," He smiled at her beaming embarrassment and added gently, "Father would be so proud... and Marmie, too, after she was finished being furious."
Ffion smiled so faintly just the ghost of her dimples appeared. She had definitely hardened, his little sister. Her emotions were evident because he knew her so well; she had learned how to keep them on a tight lead. Her laugh was a little shaky but her eyes were dry as she leaned forward and took his hand.
"If only they were here," She agreed quietly, "And Oren and Oriana... Ferelden almost lost the Couslands, Fergus; I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen again."
"And I'm with you," He answered, his voice thick with emotion at the mention of his family, "To the end. And now it's your turn. Rick was able to tell me quite a bit, but I want to hear it from you. Time to spread the tale of your greatness, little sister."
Ffion sat back, rolling her eyes at this ridiculousness and proceeded to tell him everything.
It was much later when Fergus finally stood and told them that he was going to go and check on his men. Gilmore remained sitting and Fergus nearly ran into Zevran who had returned from his own mission for the afternoon. Ffion was instantly amused at her brother's very obvious distaste for the Elf. Not that she blamed him. Attempt at suicide or not, Zevran did try to kill them all and it would take some time before Fergus got over that. But Zevran was so charming and his pleasure at meeting his Warden's brother was entirely genuine. So Fergus parted company from him feeling like the Elf might possibly be worth something.
He headed down the hall and reached the main stairs just as Alistair was climbing them. The ex-Templar gave him a polite, indifferent smile and Fergus saw the resemblance to Cailan in the younger man's face. He inclined his head.
"Highness," He said when Alistair reached him.
The ex-Templar made a face and extended his hand.
"Please," He replied, friendly as ever, "It's just Alistair until tomorrow. Eamon said a force accompanied Isolde and Conner. You're part of it, then?"
"Fergus Cousland," Fergus liked Alistair immediately. His honey eyes were direct and honest and he gave the impression that he would be fair with anyone no matter what, "I was just meeting with Ffion. It's been a while."
Alistair's brows went up and he glanced down the hallway towards Ffion's little office. The surprise of hearing that one of the Couslands still lived was over-shadowed by the fact that he knew Ffion.
"I'm sorry about your family, Fergus," He said, the response automatic, "It's a tragic loss, but I am glad you're well. And you know Ffion?"
Fergus frowned, his grey-blue eyes fastening on Alistair's face and quick to see the flicker of jealousy. Amazement and suspicion started to creep into his thoughts and he glanced quickly toward Ffion's rooms as well. Would she really have kept it from them? And why the hell should she?
"You might say forever," He answered, fishing for how much Alistair knew.
The honey eyes went back to him and confirmed his suspicions. Oh, little one, were you so desperate?
"'Forever?'" Alistair repeated and it was his turn to frown, "I know she's from the north, but I guess we've never really discussed where exactly."
"You really don't have any idea who you've been following all this time?" Fergus questioned and sent a silent apology to his sister, "No idea at all?"
Alistair's frown deepened even further and he met Fergus' gaze. Who Ffion was? There were so many different ways he could answer that: the girl who saved the Circle, rescued a crumbling Dwarven city; restored his uncle. She was the one to end a centuries' old curse and save the Dalish. She was the Warden who rallied the armies of Ferelden against the Blight, the one who killed the Archdemon... the woman he loved... but Fergus clearly meant something else entirely and Alistair was at a loss.
"I don't think I understand," He said slowly, "Why are you asking? Who is she?"
Fergus allowed a little smile and though some voice inside his head told him his sister had done this for a reason, he couldn't imagine that it meant anything anymore. He drew himself up and became the Teyrn's son.
"You have been tearing around the country with my little sister," He replied, "For a while, the Cousland, as far as she knew. The Warden, the Hero of Ferelden, is Ffion Cousland."
Alistair's jaw dropped and he stared at Fergus, speechless. Ffion Cousland!? He couldn't believe it at first and then as he studied Fergus' face, he could see some resemblance. The eye shape was the same, the straight nose, and dimpling smile; and this man would have no reason to lie to him. He thought back on their travels and could have kicked himself. All the times she had been able to gain access to seemingly unreachable targets; the way she moved and fought; her armor and learned speech. He felt like a fool! Even some of her comments should have tipped him off. I have lost enough to know what you are going through. He remembered that night so clearly: when he gave her the Warden pendant and they spoke about Duncan. Leaving him behind and facing off with Howe with a companion choice that suddenly made perfect sense...
And then a beautiful thought came to him, so beautiful that it overwhelmed his anger and made him forget it for a moment. A thought that also closed his mouth and conjured a sheepish smile.
"Well, I guess I was a little slow on the uptake," He finally said and let his gaze stray back to Ffion's office, "But there were so many other things going on, so many conflicts it... It doesn't matter anymore; nothing does, except this one last thing."
Fergus frowned, wondering what was going on in the ex-Templar's head. He crossed his arms over his chest and wished the younger man would quit beating around the bush.
"What I'm trying to say is, I've got a question for you now that I know who both of you are," Alistair interrupted in rather a rush and heard the nerves in his voice, "I mean to go about this the right way, now that I know it's really possible. So, please, hear me out."
Zevran beamed at Ffion after Fergus quit the room and
settled into the vacated chair. Gilmore's attitude towards him had warmed and
though there were still occasions where the Elf made him rather nervous, they
were becoming few and far between.
"This is wonderful news, dove," Zevran said and his amber eyes glowed.
Ffion's smile was real, the dimples genuinely denting her cheeks, and it thrilled him to see her so completely happy.
"It's unbelievable," She agreed and then leaned forward, "And what about you? Did you find anything?"
Zevran, true to form, had wasted no time in acquiring contacts within the city that would keep him apprised of any future Crow move against himself, Ffion, or Alistair. And in this process, he garnered valuable information about the dissidents that were already grumbling about their new king. Living up to his promise to keep her safe, he investigated the rumors himself.
"Indeed," He replied and inclined his head, "You need not trouble yourself, pet, the plot was halted before it began. Convenient, yes? Employing a former Crow."
"Very," She answered, "And I'm sure Leliana is very pleased with all of the gossip you glean."
Zevran grinned wickedly as Gilmore chuckled.
"As if our bard needs to wait for my information," The Elf said, "I know she told you of her past. She is nearly as good as I at this game."
Ffion laughed and glanced at Gilmore.
"You see? Assassins and spies, really no difference in their tactics. You're my witness; Oghren owes me a sovereign."
"Which he'll borrow from Wynne," Gilmore agreed, "She's way too soft with him."
Zevran protested the Warden's argument with faux-hurt as Ffion sent him another grin.
"Spies?" Zevran clarified, "They are bedded and then stabbed through the heart while they sleep... by the assassins."
Ffion's cheek colored a little while Gilmore laughed again. Her grey eyes danced and she was giddy with the return of her brother.
"You know, the very same argument was made about me and Zev, Rick. All the others thought I was crazy for being so soft after the abysmal failure of his attack," She said thoughtfully, pulling a curl and grinning at the Elf when he dramatically pressed one hand to his heart in more mock hurt, "But look what he's done for me. So far it's worked out."
The taint swirled to life within her, preceding Alistair's dry voice at her door.
"That doesn't mean the argument doesn't hold weight," He said and his eyes were fixed on his fellow Warden.
"Ah, suspicious Chirpy," Zevran greeted and felt a sharp jab at the tender protectiveness in Alistair's gaze as he looked at their Warden, "Why fret about what you cannot change?"
"I could change it," Alistair rose to the bait, as always, "Just-"
"Zev, quit provoking," Ffion interrupted and then smiled at Alistair, "Would you like something to eat or drink? Or did you want to sit and chat a bit?"
The ex-Templar knew there were more eloquent ways to do this, but her secrecy had hurt and even knowing he had permission for what he wanted to ask her, he wasn't ready to let this rest. And never mind the elation he still felt after his conversation with Fergus.
"Why didn't you tell me, Ffion?" He asked quietly and the change in the room was instantaneous.
It was as though a cloud rolled across the sun. Gilmore dropped his gaze to his hands, embarrassed for his friend; Zevran's face tightened with frustration, and Ffion's smile slowly faded from her mouth as her grey eyes flickered. First with confusion and then horrified realization. She swallowed hard and tried frantically to think of a way around this, and came up empty. Damn it, Fergus!!
"Well, I..." Her voice trailed off uncertainly and Tilly whined, shoving her head under her lady's palm, "It's... complicated?"
Alistair arched a brow at the way she tried to feel him out and hardly realized that this was the second time he was intentionally hurting her without a thought given to it.
"It must be," He replied and she winced.
"Now, Alistair, wait a minute," Gilmore said sharply, his green eyes flashing. He knew Ffion had been in the wrong here but that didn't mean it gave the ex-Templar reason to hurt her.
"No, Rick," Ffion cut in and her voice quieted, "He's right. I should never... I'm sorry, Alistair. It wasn't fair of me. You told me of your heritage and I should have returned the favor, but... it seemed like it would be so much easier to get to that bastard if he didn't know I was still alive."
"And after he was dead?" Alistair questioned, his anger still burning. Ffion simply looked at him and there was just the barest curve of a smile as her grey eyes became shuttered. The realization came to him then and he loosed the arms he had folded over his chest and felt his gaze widen, "You didn't think you'd survive... even the Fort... And we threw a wrench into your plans."
"Well," She said with a shrug. Gilmore was looking at her now and Zevran had turned his attention to the hearth, the amusement gone from his amber eyes, "You guys weren't the only ones. Darroch was... very convincing. He knew that you would come for me and play into Loghain's hands and I couldn't let you do that. But, to answer you, no I never expected to walk out of the bastard's estate. That would have solved everything and-"
"No," Zevran said roughly and then he altered in a blink. His amber eyes were suddenly lit and he smiled at the Warden, "Silly pet, what good would those eyes do if you were dead? And a noose would hardly suit you."
"Seconded," Gilmore agreed.
Ffion spared them both a brief smile, hardly looking away from the ex-Templar. He was clearly trying to get his head wrapped around the enormity of her wanting to die that night and his honey eyes had lost some of their fire.
"I truly am sorry, Alistair," She repeated quietly and felt her heart go out to him, "If it makes a difference, there were hardly any occasions where I really felt like a Cousland on the road."
"It doesn't," He replied gruffly and Fergus' answer to his question was still on the back burner of his mind, "You should have told me, Ffion."
Her grey eyes flashed a little and then Eamon's voice traveled down the hall to them.
"There you are, Alistair," He said and came level with his nephew. He smiled at Ffion, Zevran, and Gilmore, seeing Alistair's frustration and Ffion's discomfort. It was also very clear that this was nothing to do with the Warden becoming Alistair's queen. Anger flickered briefly over the Elf's face and Gilmore's eyes were pitying as they strayed to Ffion, "If I could borrow him for a moment, Ffion? Harrowmont is asking for an audience."
"Certainly," Ffion replied promptly and got to her feet, "I should probably wander over to the marketplace and see how much trouble Oghren is giving Leliana and Wynne."
"I'll come with you, Ffion," Gilmore offered as he stood, "It's been a while since I've seen Denerim's market."
"It is not quite what you will remember," Zevran warned and had also gotten to his feet, "The Darkspawn were not... conscientious, yes? And, dove, Solona accompanied Wynne as well. Oghren will not go against her."
"Well, that's something at least," She gave Alistair a last, brief apologetic look as they brushed by him and headed down the hall.
As soon as they disappeared, the ex-Templar rounded on his uncle.
"You knew?" He demanded, "Was I the only one kept in the dark? Ffion Cousland!"
"Ah, so that's what this is about," Eamon's patient voice was irksome, "Yes, I knew from the moment I saw her that she was Bryce's daughter, but then I had the benefit of knowing the Teyrn quite well. Ffion was wise to keep this quiet."
"The bastard's been dead for weeks now," He said swiftly and remembered Ffion's pointed look with a jab of pain, "She should have told me. It would have made things so much simpler earlier on."
The Arl's gaze quickened on his nephew's face and his lips started up at the corners.
"I see," He answered and the knowing gleam in his eyes made Alistair look sheepish, "I understand the anger, truly I do. You feel that she was dishonest with you and maybe she was though the only way I could envisioning this happening is if she lied outright when you asked. And I can see by your face that she didn't," Alistair's cheeks flushed with anger and his honey eyes sparked. Eamon stepped forward and put one hand on his shoulder, "My dear boy, now is the time to forget the evil that has been wrought and focus solely on the good. With any triumph there is a small time for mourning and this is no exception, but we have won this; won a tremendous victory and the days are bright. Let this victory be your rally now."
And Eamon's words had their desired effect. The talk of a victory brought Fergus' answer back to the forefront and with it came some trepidation. There was just one more victory left to claim.