WARNING: Prolonged Exposure to Forbidden Magic May Lead to Possessed Children
The next morning dawned bright and beautiful. It was difficult to believe that they had spent several hours the night before fighting to save the village. Birds had returned to the tree-tops and were singing happily, their voices echoing over the water and floating in the breeze. There seemed to be a certain kind of magic in those songs and the townsfolk were cheerier than they had been in days.
Ffion was the first one up and about from her group and she managed to snag a cup of coffee and escape to the wide porch of the Chantry. She moved to a pillar that was out of the way and sat on the stone slab, leaning against the carved wood, with Tilly beside her. She tipped her head back and enjoyed the sunlight as it warmed her face. She was still tired and very sore, her arms and legs covered in bruises from Murdock's tackle and those hits that the undead had landed. Her bath hadn't been nearly as long as she liked because she had hated being cornered by Morrigan and Leliana. She took a sip of the coffee and stroked Tilly's ears as the dog rested her head on her thigh. Footsteps sounded behind her and a deep voice said,
"I'd like a word with you, Warden."
She glanced up and behind her to meet Sten's serious gaze. He was empty handed, but, like her, had already fastened his armor in place, the broadsword slung across his back. He stood, waiting for her answer, and didn't move around to stand in front of her until after she motioned for him to do so.
"I wished to commend you for your bravery and determination last night," He said abruptly, "You are a... surprise to me. You're not what I thought you were."
Ffion was baffled. She took another sip of coffee and then allowed her tongue to rule the conversation.
"Do I want to know what you thought I was?" She asked and her grey eyes sparked, the desire to tease him too great to pass up, "Or is this just your way of flirting with me, Sten?"
Sten glowered at her, though he pressed on with his original intent.
"Are you trying to prove me wrong, again?"
"No, I'm sorry, I couldn't help it. You looked so serious and I just wanted to try and make you smile for once," She smoothed her face and added, "What did you think I was?"
"I told you when we met that you were impertinent," He answered matter-of-factly, "I soon realized that you are simply inexperienced and doing your best, which is impressive for one so young. I thought then that you were naïve. That is, I believed this until Alistair began talking more than any person has a need to and earning that title for himself. And last night, you were tireless and as stubborn as any of the fighters of the Beresaad, I didn't expect that."
This was the longest speech yet that Ffion had heard from the usually impassive Sten. She blinked in confusion, but felt her lips tip up in a small smile as she met his gaze.
"I'm sure that was meant to compliment me, Sten, and I thank you for it. But I have to prove my inexperience again: what is the Beresaad? You've mentioned it so many times and I've never had a good opportunity to ask you about it."
The Qunari almost returned the smile and his stare was less intimidating than usual. He leaned against the pillar in front of her and appeared relaxed for one of the first times since she met him.
"The Beresaad is the vanguard of the Qunari people," He explained, "I was sent here to investigate the Blight."
"The Blight?" Ffion repeated, "Then our paths are the same. I guess it's a good thing I'm not what you thought I was."
"It is," His voice cooled again, "You have yet to change my mind completely. Don't get lax, Warden."
Ffion was really smiling now, one cheek dimpling and grey eyes lighting up even more. She wasn't sure if he really meant that and she leaned towards the slim chance he didn't.
"And run the risk of disappointing you, Sten?" She said with mock horror, "Never."
This time his smile warmed his eyes a little and he gave her a solemn nod. At least she was gaining ground with him; she just wasn't sure she wanted to find out how big the sacrifice would be in winning his trust completely.
More footsteps rang behind them and Leliana's lilting voice wished them a cheerful 'good morning.' Morrigan and Alistair were trailing behind and the witch tipped her head in Ffion's direction before sending Sten a smirk.
"You look well this morning," Leliana observed, tugging on Ffion's long, thick braid. She added quietly, her blue eyes dancing with amusement, "Back to your proper color, I see. I'm sorry about last night, Ffion, I was just so happy we helped these poor people and I felt like laughing. I wish you hadn't born the brunt of it."
Ffion tipped herself so she could glance up at the Orlesian. She felt the prickles of unease again, but didn't let that stop her from accepting the apology.
"It's fine, Leliana," She answered with a smile, "We all needed some sort of release."
"Is this a story I should hear?" Alistair questioned and seemed caught in that same need for amusement that the Orlesian was.
Silently cursing how quickly her cheeks flushed, Ffion got to her feet and took another sip of coffee in a vain attempt to cover her embarrassment.
"No," Her voice was short and she tried to ignore Morrigan's soft chuckle. She added hesitantly, knowing it would sound more like Oriana than herself, "Just... girl talk."
The ex-Templar looked faintly disappointed, but his honey colored eyes were direct. He lifted his shoulders and spoke to Ffion,
"None of my business then. Teagan's waiting for us up at the crossroad by the mill whenever you're ready."
"Then let's go," She said, "As long as everyone else is ready?"
They all nodded and Ffion finished the last of her coffee and left the cup perched on the edge of the porch. They trekked back up the road and found Teagan standing at the edge of the platform by the mill with Ser Perth. The sails spun lazily and the whoosh in the air was oddly soothing. The castle looked more picturesque than ever in the morning sunlight, but without the soldiers on the parapets and having fought for their lives the night before, it was an eerie beauty. Save the birdsong from the trees, the air felt still and rather heavy and Teagan didn't turn as they approached. Ser Perth bowed to Ffion and moved away, giving them privacy.
"It's so strange to see this place so quiet," Teagan commented, knowing it was them without turning, "I've never seen it like this."
"So what happens now?" Alistair asked.
The Bann faced them and he appeared more his age now: his blue eyes were determined but uneasy and his jaw set stubbornly. Ffion was surprised to realize he wasn't much older than Alistair and herself. Last night, his talk of duty and honor had made him seem much older.
"I'm going into the castle," He said and spoke rapidly, not giving them a chance to interrupt him, "Someone has to... I have to. Eamon's my brother and I need to know his fate."
Ffion frowned and she crossed her arms over her chest. Her grey eyes didn't leave Teagan's blue and she motioned to the castle behind him.
"But how?" She questioned, "You said so yourself: we can't get in."
The Bann was suddenly self-conscious. He glanced between all of them and then dismissed the others and fixed his attention on Alistair and Ffion again.
"There is a way to get in," He confessed slowly, "I am a Guerrin and this castle is my home. There is a secret passage leading from this mill into the dungeons; a passage known only to the Guerrin family. I didn't tell you this yesterday because... we needed help and you wouldn't have stuck around to assist us if you had known. And, of course, you might not have survived the trip into the castle, not with the onslaught we faced last night."
"And you believe you will survive now? Are you mad?" Morrigan questioned.
"The attacks come only at night," Teagan answered and looked on the verge of pacing, "That must have some meaning and I don't think - Maker, Isolde!"
There were hurried footsteps behind them and Teagan's face lit up with shocked happiness. The others turned to see a very pretty blonde woman running down the road followed by a lone soldier. She was finely dressed and though her once immaculate bun was beginning to unravel, she held herself in a way that proclaimed noble blood and a privileged upbringing. At first, it looked like she was going to leap into Teagan's arms, but she brought herself up short and instead grasped his hands firmly in hers.
"Thank the Maker," She murmured, her face flushed with the exertion of running from the castle and her breathing rapid. Her Orlesian accent was thicker than Leliana's and her brown eyes drank in Teagan's appearance as though she never thought she'd see him again, "I had feared the worst and to see you alive... Oh, Teagan, this has been awful."
"Isolde, please, what's going on?" Teagan asked, "We thought everyone in the castle was... well, we haven't been sure what to think."
The soldier with Isolde stood a little apart and he seemed to be giving them privacy much as Ser Perth was. The woman was close to tears and she still ignored the others with the Bann.
"You are right, in part," She answered, "Most of those that lived in the castle are... dead, yes. When they come alive each night, they only focus on the village. They have not turned their attention to those of us still living."
"So you and Eamon-"
"There has been no change in my husband," Isolde's voice was close to breaking and she gripped Teagan's hands even harder, "This... evil force that controls the dead... it isn't giving me much time. It allowed me to leave because I begged, because I had to come and try to speak with you, but I must go back and I... I want you to come with me, Teagan, please. This evil is weakening everyone and I'm afraid that... that it is driving Conner... mad. Please, Teagan, you must come with me. You are Conner's uncle and we need you."
Ffion's frown had deepened and she stepped forward. She glanced between the two and cut into the conversation without waiting for an invitation.
"We're going to need more of an explanation than that, I think," She said with all the authority that she could muster.
Isolde pulled away from Teagan abruptly, startled by the sound of Ffion's voice. Her brown eyes flashed to the younger woman and her full lips parted in surprised insult.
"Teagan, who is this woman and the others?" Her voice was sharp and cold.
Alistair sighed and seemed quite used to the Arlessa's superiority. He met her gaze and stepped in before Ffion got her head snapped off.
"You remember me, don't you, Lady Isolde?"
She shifted her attention reluctantly to the ex-Templar and studied him before her expression cooled even more. She was truly confused now and she glanced at Teagan before answering,
"Alistair? Of all the people to... What are you doing here?"
"He's a Grey Warden, Isolde," Teagan was not the warm and amiable Bann. He didn't like Isolde's attitude and wasn't bothering to hide it from her, "And without him and these good people, we wouldn't have survived the night. But I have to agree with Ffion. We need more of an explanation. Like I said, we had no idea anyone was still alive in there."
The Arlessa paced away from them and then turned, her expression desperate. She looked on the verge of breaking down and her brown eyes flooded with tears.
"There isn't much more to tell," She said softly, "Eamon's health has not improved while Conner is ailing. This is becoming too much for all of us and I don't have time to explain anymore. Whatever has been driving this was not content to let me leave and will not rest if I don't come back. Please, Teagan, we need you!"
That last bit was added as such a pathetic plea that Ffion was tempted to tell Teagan to just go. But something about the situation seemed off to her and she wasn't sure she liked him going alone.
"Teagan-" Alistair began.
"Okay, Isolde," The Bann interrupted and didn't look away from his sister-in-law, "I'll come with you, but give us a moment here, please."
She inhaled quickly, rushing to wring his hand again and smile tremulously at him.
"Thank you, oh, thank you," She breathed, "I will wait for you by the bridge. Do not keep us too long."
They disappeared just as quickly as they had shown up and Teagan didn't waste any of his precious time. He turned and addressed Ffion, speaking rapidly and giving the impression that his thoughts were working even faster.
"I will accompany Isolde and try to distract whatever this power is that she's so terrified of," He said as he worked something from his pinky finger. Stepping closer, he pressed it into Ffion's palm, "Take my signet ring. It will open a trap door in the mill. When you reach the courtyard, open the main gate. Ser Perth and his men will be waiting and they can give you whatever aid you might need. If anything goes wrong, get Eamon out of the castle. Me, whatever soldiers have been left alive, Isolde... even Conner... We are all expendable. My brother is the priority."
Ffion's lips parted to argue with him, but his blue eyes were stern and he didn't give the impression that he willing to put up with anything from her. She met his gaze and closed her fist around the ring.
"I understand," She replied slowly, "But I will try to save whoever I can, if it's at all possible."
Teagan smiled a little, a smile that was too grim to be pleasant, and gave her a bow.
"Don't get too wrapped up in useless desires to play the hero," He admonished, too touched to scold her firmly, "But I appreciate the sentiment. You're a good woman, Ffion, one I'll never forget. Good luck and Maker watch over you."
The Bann disappeared and Ffion turned to the others with arched brows, the signet ring pressed between her thumb and forefinger.
"Do you need anything from the Chantry?" She asked the group as a whole and didn't allow her tinted cheeks to get the better of her. When they glanced at each other and then back at her negatively, she motioned to the mill, "Then let's go."
She led the way to the mill door. Ser Perth was standing to one side and she paused to speak with him.
"Be waiting at the gate, Ser Perth. As soon as we reach the courtyard, we'll open it. We'll need your help."
He nodded and then repeated Teagan's sentiment,
"Maker watch over you; over us all."
The interior of the mill was dark and cool, the swishing sound of the sails even louder. It was cramped and, stacked against every wall, there were thick cloth bags full of grain that had been ground in previous seasons. The one end of the hall dead-ended, while the other was stacked with more bags. Ffion began shifting them, hoping that this wasn't a wild-goose chase.
"Morrigan, the floor on the other side doesn't sound hollow, does it?" She asked as one of her shoulders bumped into Sten, who had stepped forward to help.
The witch moved away and one end of her staff tapped against the floor as she went. There was no change in the sound and she turned back to them, lifting her shoulders.
"No, 'tis not here."
Ffion nodded, figuring as much. Sten hoisted up two more of the bags and a woven mat covered the floorboards underneath them. In the middle of the rug was a small rise that seemed out of place. She waited until the Qunari was clear and then flipped the rug over itself. There, fitting so tight it was nearly invisible, was a trapdoor. The rise was caused by the covering for the lock that hadn't been pushed into place. She crouched and pried it up all the way before turning the signet ring around to match the pattern she had uncovered. The ring fit seamlessly and it spun with the merest flick of her wrist.
"Clever," Alistair's voice observed from behind her as the door popped up a little, "Let's just hope everyone can fit."
"It'll be fine," Ffion replied, but felt a prick of doubt. Once the door opened, she saw how narrow the squeeze would be down the ladder into darkness, "I'll go first. Morrigan, can we have some light?"
"Indeed," The witch's voice was cool, "Shall I simply burn the mill down or is it the secret passage you wish to ignite?"
There was a shuffling and then a small crash before Leliana appeared at Morrigan's elbow, dimpling and holding a torch in one hand.
"How about neither?" She answered and touched the tip of the torch to Morrigan's palm as the witch conjured a ball of fire, "You see, Morrigan? No need for venom."
The witch looked as though she wanted to light Leliana on fire, but Ffion accepted the torch and dropped from view. The ladder was much shorter than she thought it would be and her feet landed solidly on damp stone slabs after just eight steps. Darkness enveloped her and the torch flickered in the wet air. She hunted for a place to hang it, but the walls were bare and she went back to the trapdoor.
"It's all clear," She called up and stood out of the way as Alistair's legs swung down.
The ex-Templar dropped beside her and his eyes glinted a deeper brown in the poor light.
"It's a tight fit, Sten," He warned and studied the opening as the Qunari's feet appeared.
Sten took it easy and kept his arms up until he was sure his shoulders would squeeze through. There was only a brief moment when his armor caught and then he was standing beside Alistair, straightening the pauldrons calmly, as though nothing had happened. Morrigan was next and Tilly began whining, sticking her nose down and hunting for her lady, her brown eyes worried.
"She's in my way, Ffion," Leliana said, "Should I help her down?"
Ffion returned to the ladder, peering up at her dog who wasn't about to let her lady go on without her.
"No," She replied, "She can make it on her own. At home she used to go down... It's fine, Leliana. Come on, Tilly, come with me."
The dog needed no further encouragement. She placed her front feet on the top step and jumped, landing with a solid thud on the stone. Leliana followed and Ffion led the way down the tunnel. It took them underneath a portion of the lake and, like Teagan promised, it opened up again inside the castle's dungeons. Ffion lifted this door gingerly, just enough to see what they were going up against. The coast was clear and she pushed it up all the way. She could hear a distant clang of metal on metal and waved for silence over her shoulder when Alistair murmured her name.
She lifted herself up after handing the torch over to the ex-Templar. The tunnel had led them to a corner room of the dungeon and there was just a bare gleam of light coming through the arched windows well over her head. She eased to the doorway ahead, made sure that there wouldn't be any surprises, and then went back to the hidden tunnel.
Alistair handed the torch back and hoisted himself up to join her. Leliana and Morrigan followed and, before Ffion could even ask, Sten had lifted Tilly up to the floor. The Mabari seemed as surprised by this as her owner and she promptly turned to lick the Qunari's cheek when he came up the ladder. Ffion had a hard time stifling the giggle that threatened to burst from her and she put her back to Sten and headed to the doorway again. The others followed and there, at the end of the long, narrow hallway, was the source of the noise. Two of the undead were focused solely on gaining entry to a cell and didn't hear Ffion's band. Leliana's bow was in her hand in seconds and she once again knocked the head completely from one of the monsters. The other charged down the hallway, forgetting whatever it was that was in the cell. Leliana hardly blinked as she fired again and the undead was cut down.
They waited for a minute to make sure that there weren't any other undead and moved on. Before they reached the cell that the monsters were so taken with, a voice called out hesitantly,
"Who's there? If it's the guard... just kill me... Get it over with."
They stopped in front of the iron door and looked in on a young, black haired man with shadowed hazel eyes. He couldn't have been much older than Ffion, but with the haunted expression on his face, the torn and dirty Circle mage robes, and the beginning signs of desperate hunger, he looked ten years older. He straightened from the corner he had crammed into and eyed them with a sort of resigned acceptance until the light flickered off their armor and he frowned in confusion.
"You're not any of the Arlessa's men," He observed, "How did you get in here?"
"I might ask you the same thing," Ffion answered, handing the torch to Leliana, "We were told most of the castle's inhabitants were dead. Who are you?"
He came a little closer to the door and let the light fall across him more fully. His eyes were even more shadowed and the effects of poor sleep and terror were very evident.
"My name is Jowan," He began, "The Arlessa hired me to tutor her son, Conner."
"Tutor?" Alistair repeated, "Why would the Arlessa hire a mage to tutor Conner? Unless-"
"He had started to show... signs," Jowan hesitated again and he eyed them before he added, "You talk like you know the family. Who did you say you were?"
Sten shifted impatiently behind them and Ffion could tell what he was about to say before he opened his mouth. She wasn't willing to give him the chance, though, and answered first,
"Bann Teagan asked for our help. Alistair and I are Grey Wardens and these are our companions: Morrigan, Sten, and Leliana. We fought with the soldiers last night in defending the village and Teagan didn't want to go on without us," She gave him an appraising sort of look, "The only reason the Arlessa would hire a mage to come personally to the castle would be because she wouldn't want someone else to find out about her son. The Arl, maybe? Which is ridiculous, even the thickest person would find out sooner or later that their child was capable of casting spells."
Jowan was abashed for all his previous dignity in asking them about their motives. His hazel eyes slipped from Ffion's direct gaze and he absentmindedly rubbed some of the grime from the sleeve of his robe.
"The Arl was to be kept in the dark for as long as his wife could manage," He confessed hesitantly, "And then... Oh, what's the use hiding it anymore!... I poisoned the Arl and that's the reason he's sick."
Alistair was furious.
"You what?!" He shouted.
Ffion was just about to turn and clap her hand over his mouth when Morrigan's soft murmur silenced him just as effectively.
"Intriguing," The witch remarked and her gold eyes glittered, "This obsession with self-preservation 'tis most interesting, do you not agree, Alistair?"
Alistair was about to burst and Ffion smoothly stepped in. Her arms folded across her chest and she caught the flash of intense self-loathing Jowan wasn't quick enough to conceal.
"Tell me the truth," She started bluntly, "Was this something you were bribed into doing or did you think of it yourself?"
The mage paced restlessly in the cramped cell and this time his expression was rather tortured.
"Loghain got to me first," He said and his words were coming out in a rush, like he was afraid he was going to lose his nerve, "He told me that the Wardens were responsible for the King's death and since the Arl had defended the Order, he was just as guilty. He explained it in such a way that it... it seemed to make sense. He made promises to me, too. He said that if I were to do this for him, he would straighten things out for me with the Circle. I agreed mostly because I had no where else to turn. So when Loghain found out that the Arlessa was looking for a mage that would be willing to come and tutor Conner, he sent me here."
"Loghain! That filthy bas-"
"Be willing?" Ffion repeated, cutting off Alistair's angry words and frowning at Jowan, "What do you mean? And why did Loghain promise to sort out things with the Circle?"
He looked around helplessly and lifted his shoulders.
"It's kind of a long story," He answered.
This time it was Leliana that spoke, her lilting voice filled with dry humor.
"Do you have a pressing appointment elsewhere?"
That worked to break the tension and Jowan leaned forward, resting his forearms on the metal gate and meeting Ffion's gaze again.
"I'm an apostate, a wanted apostate, and that's what the Arlessa needed. She was looking for someone that had a vested interest in his own safety and well-being and I was the perfect candidate," He began, his voice sounding tired and young, "I escaped from the Circle just a week and a half before the battle at Ostagar. I shattered my phylactery and was caught by the First Enchanter, Knight-Commander, and a hand-full of Templars while trying to sneak out. It wouldn't have mattered so much had it just been me, but I had involved my best friend and an initiate that I'd fallen in love with. My friend had just gone through her Harrowing and when we were caught, the First Enchanter immediately stepped in for her. She had always been something of his pet pupil, so I had no worries about her fate, but the initiate... Lily... She wasn't so lucky. She was taken to Aeonar, as far as I know," He hesitated, his eyes going briefly to Alistair and then away again and Ffion had a feeling that was she was going to be very glad that Leliana had replaced her Chantry robes with leather armor. Having two people here that had been immersed in the Chantry practices guaranteed their hostility to whatever stories this mage would tell, "This was all brought about because Lily had heard that I was going to be made Tranquil. That meant I would have been stripped of my magic and consequently all feelings and emotions. I would have been an empty husk."
"As all mages should be," Sten commented as Jowan stopped once more.
This comment was ignored by everyone for the most part, though Morrigan sent the Qunari a bemused look.
"But why do that to you?" Leliana questioned and her gaze was just as suspicious as Alistair's was, "Had you done something to provoke such measures?"
"I was accused of blood magic," Jowan explained carefully and had eyes only for Ffion, "And Lily told me that the Templars had substantiated proof of this. I wasn't about to sit idly by and let them take away my love for her, the friendship I had with Solona, the pleasure I got from life itself, and so I acted. Loghain caught me at a desperate time and he promised to make all of this go away. Instead I find myself deeper in trouble and going through a personal hell."
"And you think that redeems you?" Alistair demanded, his honey colored eyes still flaming, "How does any of this change what you did to the Arl? Or change what this mess has done to Redcliffe? Were you even-"
"If you mean the monsters, I had nothing to do with that," Jowan was more spirited in the face of this new accusation, "Whatever's plaguing the castle and village happened after I was locked up. They found out that I had poisoned the Arl and threw me down here two days before the attacks started. The Arlessa came herself after the first attack and demanded that I undo whatever I had done. I thought she meant the Arl's sickness and she didn't believe me when I told her I knew nothing of the undead. She... she even had me tortured. But I can't fix a problem I know nothing about and I told her as much. She hasn't been back since and I was hoping those monsters would get in and end this when I heard your footsteps," His expression was helpless again; "I was stupid and selfish. I should never have run away in the first place and I was looking for someone else to solve my problems. Problems that no one else can solve. I know it's probably ridiculous for me to ask, but would you consider letting me out? I won't be running away again. I'll follow you and try to help reach the Arlessa. I have to do something in order to set this mess right and I will either find my retribution or allow those I've wronged to have their justice. Please, Warden?"
"We're not actually-"
Ffion held up one hand to stop Alistair from continuing.
"We're allowing Sten to search for his retribution. Why is this so different?" She asked softly to the group as a whole.
"Different?" The ex-Templar repeated, incredulous, "Ffion, this man has been accused of blood magic and who's to say he didn't escape from the Circle using it? Besides, Sten's not an apostate mage."
"No, he just committed a crime that got him locked in a cage to wait for the flood of Darkspawn that were going to be over-running Lothering within days," Ffion's voice was biting in its sarcasm, "There's no way that whatever he did was worse than blood magic with that type of punishment."
Alistair blinked at her but bounced right back.
"You are considering this," He half groaned the comment and closed his eyes a little too dramatically, "Morrigan's right, your mercy is going to get us killed."
The witch surveyed this argument with amusement and took the moment to add quite calmly,
"I agree with her this time. This mage was doing what he had to in order to win his freedom. Allow him to have it, I say."
This time Alistair tossed his hands up in defeat. He scowled, but wasn't about to oppose the whole group. Leliana was close to giggling over the situation, Morrigan and Ffion were allied against him, and Sten remained detached and aloof. There was no way he'd win that fight.
"I'll never understand women," He muttered.
"Why would you need to?" Morrigan questioned with assumed innocence, "'Tis not as if-"
"Enough," Ffion said with a sigh. She met Jowan's gaze apologetically, but her voice was stern, "If I let you out and you try anything but what you've promised, we won't hesitate in cutting you down."
"I'm a dead man either way, I think," He replied.
Ffion looked around the hallway and studied the two undead that Leliana had taken down with her bow. She glanced back up at the mage.
"Do you know where the key is?"
Jowan's face fell just as it had lit up and his eyes flickered about much as Ffion's had done.
"No, damn," He muttered, "I didn't even think about... I really thought that I'd get the chance to-"
"We don't need a key I think," Ffion crouched in front of the iron door, studying the lock. She pulled at one of the pins in her braid that was keeping stray strands of hair from tickling her neck. She proceeded to pick the old lock and talk in a distracted sort of way, "These old gates are usually pretty easy to..." There was a slight click that surprised even her and the door swung open a little, "Easy to pick."
She got to her feet, sending Alistair and Sten annoyed looks as they both stepped back and steeled themselves. The mage stepped from the cell with a relieved but resigned expression. He was smaller than Ffion originally thought, not much taller than Morrigan and his face more deeply etched with exhaustion and fear as Leliana's torch played across it.
"I'll follow your lead," He said and dutifully ignored Alistair and Sten's animosity.
Ffion didn't waste any time. She turned and headed up the passage again, into another section of the dungeons. Here, the doors had been removed and the small, domed rooms were used for storage rather than prisoners. They had crossed through and Ffion had one foot on the bottom step leading to the upper floors of the castle when there was a dry hiss and scrape. Sten shouted a warning and the others turned to see four of the undead shuffling towards them. Leliana fired at one and Ffion's knife was flung right at the neck of another. Alistair and the Qunari charged forward and Jowan moved faster than Morrigan could. He extended his arms, his hands cupping the air and making the atmosphere around them suddenly chill. A moment later and everyone's breath was visible before he released the spell, freezing the undead. Sten shattered one with a swing of the broadsword and Alistair took care of the other. Morrigan ignited the one that Ffion's quick knife toss had merely slowed down. As soon as the monsters were gone, they headed up the stairs.
Alistair took over and proceeded to lead the way down the hall, ditching the torch now that the walls were lined with them, and skirting a pretty little chapel that the other rooms were centered around. They ran into more undead that seemed weakened by the daylight and the ex-Templar knew the castle like the back of his hand. Without much trouble, they came into a long hallway that led to the kitchens and as they proceeded that way, Sten stopped them. His head cocked to one side and his strange violet eyes met Ffion's.
"I hear something," He said softly, "It almost sounds like someone is hiding in one of those rooms."
Ffion didn't hesitate in starting for the three doors beyond the kitchen. While the first two turned up nothing, the third stuck fast when she tried to open it. She could hear a terrified sort of moan behind the door and she waved for silence from the others. Softening her voice and once more trying her mother's trick of coercion, she called calmly,
"Is there someone there? Please, I was sent here by Bann Teagan and I'm trying to help. Won't you open the door?"
"H-how do I know I-I can trust y-you?" A young girl's voice answered.
"Is your name Valena?" Ffion was taking a leap here and she was rewarded by a quick intake of breath and the sudden, harsh scrape of something shoved from the door.
It was flung open and a pretty little blonde stood before them. Her green eyes were desperate as they looked over each person in Ffion's party and then landed on the young Warden.
"You've spoken with my father," She wasn't asking and her eyes swam with tears, "Where is he? Is he well?"
"He's back in the village, child," Leliana said soothingly, "And he has been frantic about you."
She set her chin stubbornly and straightened her shoulders. Ffion felt a little stab of grief. Valena wasn't much older than seventeen and Ffion was reminded sharply of herself at that age. This girl's determination called to mind exploits with Gilmore and the times she had butted heads with her parents over stupid trifles that had seemed so important to her... She had to forcibly shove it to the back of her head with everything else before smiling at the girl.
"I promised him that I would look for you if I got the chance to get into the castle and here I am," She told her, "But I don't think-"
"I'm not staying here another minute!" Valena exclaimed, "I can't! Not after the past nights! There must be a way out; you got in, didn't you? How?"
"Please, girl, that isn't the best-"
Jowan's protest was ignored and Ffion had interrupted him anyway.
"There's a secret passage back through the dungeons," She answered and had to put one hand on Valena's shoulder to prevent her from bolting, "Valena, it will be dangerous, probably more dangerous than staying here. But if you're sure you want to do this, we won't stop you."
The girl hesitated, her green eyes flickering with uncertainty for the first time since they found her.
"The Arlessa... She'll want to know what happened to me," She began slowly, "I'm her maid and she usually can't-"
"'Tis the least of her worries," Morrigan was the one to interrupt this time, her voice devoid of the usual snark. Her gold eyes watched Ffion speculatively and the knowing smirk on her lips was anything but reassuring, "Run, girl, your father misses you. 'Twill be the least of your own concerns to run across any of the monsters. I believe you will be quite safe."
Valena didn't wait a second longer. She gave the witch a nod and disappeared down the hall, running more quickly than anyone thought possible. Sten went back to the kitchen and the others trailed him. There was a little resistance, but it was no match for them, and soon they found themselves in a cellar area with more steps again leading up. Ffion spared a quick glance at Alistair.
"This will take us to the courtyard," He said, answering her unasked question.
"All right," She replied and was speaking to herself more than him, "As soon as we're up there, I'll open the gate and let Perth's men in. Just attack whatever's there, don't worry about me. Teagan's right, Arl Eamon is our priority."
"Ffion, I'm sure it won't-"
"Don't argue with me, Alistair, please," She spoke quietly now, "We're doing what we have to and this is part of the whole. Let's get it over with."
She didn't wait for his argument, instead she darted up the stairs and the others followed. The door to the courtyard was barred from the inside, but Sten made quick work of the heavy oak beam that was barricading it. Ffion shoved the door open and sprinted across the courtyard before she even glanced at what they were up against. She could hear the distinctive twang of Leliana's bow and Sten shouting war-cries in his native tongue. Underneath everything were the hisses of the undead and she only spared a glance after she had reached the portcullis. Stairs led up to the main door of the castle and archers lined the top of the wall there, while a dozen more of the undead circled around the rest of Ffion's party. Morrigan and Jowan were making the air crackle and burn with magic and Tilly's barks were especially ferocious as she defended her lady. Ffion managed to raise the portcullis and Ser Perth and his men ran to help them.
"Watch out for the revenant!" Alistair's voice shouted above all the others'.
Ffion turned without thinking and flung her knife at a towering figure that was bearing down on Sten. She didn't watch to see if it was taken down or not as there were more of the undead coming up against her and she was distracted. Her blades were spinning closer to one of the skeletons when suddenly she felt a tremendous jerk about her waist. She was pulled forward several yards and staggered to the ground when the pressure disappeared.
The menacing figure she had thrown the knife at hulked above her, its spiked helm glinting in the sunlight and the red eyes burning with hate. Terror flooded through her and she rolled across the dirt as the creature's sword swung down. She sprang to her feet and threw her blades up just in time to ward off the next blow. The revenant was much stronger than she was and it would have towered over Sten, but Ffion was quicker. She darted closer, taking sharp jabs at it when she had the advantage. A rush of icy air blew the strands of hair that had been loosed from her braid and the Warden was relieved that she was no longer fighting this thing on her own. Jowan blasted it with another frost spell and though it didn't freeze the creature, it slowed its swings to the point that Ffion was able to breathe easier. Sten was suddenly helping her as well and soon the revenant was surrounded by the three of them with Tilly dodging in and out, nipping at whatever seemed the most vulnerable.
"Ffion, duck!" Sten hollered.
She needed no further encouragement. The Warden darted out of the way and Sten hurled himself forward, his blade singing through the air, and cut the head entirely from the monster. Ffion didn't wait around to watch as the revenant thudded to the ground. She took the steps two at a time and Alistair was on her heels. They ran down opposite ends of the wall, cutting down the archers as they went while Morrigan, Jowan, and Leliana aided them from below with magic and arrows.
Alistair killed the ones he was up against before Ffion could finish hers off and he ran back to help her destroy the last two. As soon as they were gone, he leaned on the hilt of his sword, looking alarmingly like Teagan. He smiled the lopsided smile at her and Ffion wondered why her face felt hot.
"Good job," He congratulated, "We make a good team."
"We do," She agreed and added quietly as the others came up the stairs and started towards them, "We'll finish this, Alistair, the Wardens will be rebuilt."
He had time to give her a quick nod, his eyes flickering with respect, and then Leliana's voice was saying,
"Ser Perth says the door will be unlocked. He will remain out here and keep watch for us."
"Good," Alistair answered, "It will probably work better for us this way and they will be able hear if any fighting breaks out in the castle. Let's go."
Ffion didn't mind this switch of leadership at all and she gladly fell into step behind him as he led the way to the big front doors. Ser Perth came up the stairs and he nodded to them.
"Good luck, sers," He said, "And I thank you for your help."
Sten helped Alistair shove the doors open and they left them ajar as the entered the dim, cool front hall. Faintly, they could hear sporadic clapping in the next room and the absence of soldiers guarding the door was unnerving. There was no sign of Teagan or any of the undead that had been prolific outside and this only succeeded in setting them even more on edge.
Alistair was still leading them and Ffion moved up to fall in beside him. They entered the next room together and had only taken a few steps in when they both stopped short. The others were just behind them and all of them stared at the bizarre scene they had walked into.
Isolde stood on a dais in front of a blazing fireplace, her expression dazed and haunted. Eight soldiers formed a half-circle behind her and, doing somersaults across rug like he was five years old, was Teagan. Gone was the nobility that marked every interaction they had had with him, gone was the proud Guerrin blood, instead he was making a fool of himself. And it seemed it was all for a boy of about ten who was the source of the clapping they had heard.
Ffion's heart constricted painfully and she let out an audible gasp. She could feel the others' curious gazes and she thought quickly, putting one hand to her ribs, feigning an ache in her side. She had drawn the boy's gaze, too: Conner, she knew now, and he put up one hand. Teagan immediately stopped cavorting on the rug and plopped down on the dais next to his nephew. This made it clear to see that the Bann was under some sort of enchantment, but Ffion's eyes hadn't left Conner's. The boy could easily be mistaken for her own nephew, had Oren lived to see ten years old, and the resemblance was almost too much for her. His hair had the same reddish tint and his eyes were a dark green, just shades darker than Oren's. Even the face shape was the same: the pointed chin and prominent cheekbones, a straight nose and wide-set eyes with dark brows slanting over them. Oren would have rivaled his father in looks as he grew and Conner was obviously growing into a very good looking little boy.
"What are these, Mother? I don't remember telling you you could bring any other guests. We agreed on Uncle and that was it," The boy's voice was far too deep for his age and they could tell these were not his own words. His green eyes burned with a hatred that was entirely out of place and it was clear something was horribly wrong, "What is the one in front? I can't see it very well at all."
Isolde sent them a desperate, pleading look before carefully answering her son's question. Ffion had stepped a little forward of Alistair and she was surprised to hear the Arlessa speaking of her. She had been so wrapped up in studying Conner that she hadn't realized what was going on.
"This is a woman, Conner," Isolde said slowly, cautiously. She was unraveling fast. When they had seen her earlier, she was still in some command of her emotions and now she was close to her breaking point, "You know what women are, beloved, it is what I am."
"No," The boy responded promptly, "You're hardly anything like her. She's much younger and prettier than you are. Maybe I should replace you with her."
Though the Arlessa ignored this, her eyes flooded with tears.
"Oh, Conner, please," She whispered brokenly, never looking away from him. She was on the verge of throwing her arms around him, but satisfied herself by convulsively clenching and opening her hands, "Please."
"Doesn't that make you angry, Mother?" He asked, ignoring her plea and grinning in a nasty sort of way, "Doesn't that make you want to hurt her? Or maybe I should. This one did spoil my plans for the village. Should I cut off her ears, too, Mother? And feed them to the dogs like I did with the Elves?"
This statement, spoken calmly by a boy who shouldn't even dream of such atrocities, chilled them all and Isolde started to crack. She fell to her knees beside her son and extended her hands to him.
"No, no, Conner!" She exclaimed, "Please, you must come back to yourself! You must come back to me!"
Conner teetered briefly between whatever evil was controlling him and his true nature. He shook his head a little, his eyes clearing for a second and he looked at Ffion's band fearfully. He shrank close to Isolde and when he spoke, it was the voice of a little boy.
"M-mother? What's g-going on? W-where am I?"
Isolde exhaled a shaky breath and tears escaped down her cheeks. She smiled tremulously at her son and reached to brush his hair as he shook his head again.
"Oh, Maker be praised," She murmured, "Conner, Conner, can you hear me?"
He drew back from her abruptly, his eyes burning with deeper hatred. He impatiently knocked her hands from his face and straightened his back.
"Get away from me, fool woman!" He said angrily, "I don't need you fawning on me and I don't want your compassion."
Isolde snapped back, on her feet, and her jaw dropped open as she gaped at Conner. Her brown eyes were immeasurably sad and Ffion felt the iron fist around her heart tighten even more. She took a few steps forward and, though everything within her told her to crouch in front of Conner like she used to with Oren, she stifled it and spoke to the boy as an adult.
"Please, we only wish to speak with you," She said and had to work to keep the emotion from her voice.
Conner fixed his attention on her and didn't realize how tortured his mother was by this whole episode. The same hellish glow was obvious in his stare and Ffion had to wonder what they had gotten themselves into here.
"I agree," He replied and adopted her authoritative tone; "I have had enough of this woman insisting on telling me what to do. She doesn't understand that no one tells me what to do and you seem the type that would understand."
"No one tells him what to do! Nobody! Ha, ha!!" Teagan acted the herald, his voice jaunty and the laugh filled with more mockery than humor.
Conner turned on him just as quickly as he turned on his mother. His eyes snapped and his voice was sharp,
"Quiet, Uncle! I warned you that I didn't want any talk without my permission," His temper cooled and he looked back at Ffion, "But we did want to keep things civil, didn't we? Why do you want to talk? What could you possibly offer me that would make the destruction of my army seem less important to me? Tell me why I shouldn't have you killed right now."
"Conner, we've come to help," Ffion said cautiously, "We know your father is ill and we want to see if there's anything-"
"No!" He exclaimed, "It was a good deal! Father was kept alive and now I'm the one that gets to send out armies. Everything went as it was supposed to; it was fair!"
Ffion cast a half-glance back at the others and noted that Jowan had lingered in the doorway. She frowned at him and then turned her attention to Conner once more. The mage knew something of this situation that he wasn't telling and she was partly of a mind to put him on the spot, but Isolde was in dire need of their help. There was no use putting further pressure on her by announcing Jowan's presence.
"What of those people in the village?" She asked, waving for quiet as Alistair made a sound in his throat and Leliana shifted her weight, "Were they part of the deal?"
"They didn't have to fight," Conner responded, "If they had just surrendered, all the... unpleasantness would have been avoided. They brought their fate on themselves and I won't let you pin that on me."
These were definitely not the boy's words and Ffion was suddenly aware of how thin this ice was that they were crossing. Conner's eyes gleamed dangerously again and his explosive temper was close to bursting. She tried desperately to keep her tongue from getting the better of her and this practice of thinking before speaking was more foreign than she thought it would be. Before she could switch tactics on him, Leliana cut in, no longer willing to stay in the background.
"That doesn't justify this massacre that you have ordered," She said and then added with authority, "Release him, demon, he does not belong to you."
Conner smirked at the Orlesian and it was then that they truly saw the demon that had taken over the boy's body. His mother stumbled away from him, moaning under her breath in her own tongue. The hellish blaze in Conner's eyes was hotter then ever and when he spoke, it was not his voice.
"Never," He hissed in a deep, rasping whisper, "He is mine and you shall not have him."
The soldiers snapped to attention, Teagan jumped to his feet, and Leliana acted just as quickly. She shot two of the men as they charged forward and Jowan froze another that Sten knocked unconscious when they collided. Morrigan ignited three more and Ffion danced between the last two while Alistair battled with Teagan. He wasn't aiming to kill the Bann and as Sten and Tilly knocked the last soldier out of the picture, Ffion darted to Morrigan and grabbed the witch's wrist, preventing her from sending bolts of lightening at Teagan. Alistair succeeded in shoving him to the ground and the Bann's head banged roughly against the floor. He was dazed for a moment and, in the lull, Isolde flew to his side, putting one hand on his shoulder.
"Teagan?" She asked gently, her voice broken and tears staining her cheeks, "Are you okay?"
Ffion's eyes darted around the room, but Conner had disappeared. Unfortunately, half the soldiers had been killed in the fray, though the others were slowly getting to their feet.
"I am... fine, I think," Teagan's voice was hesitant, "I'm myself again at least. But we have to decide what we're going to do here."
"'Tis obvious, I think," Morrigan was once more cool and superior; "The child has become an abomination. This makes our choice clear, yes?"
Isolde went automatically to the defensive. Her brown eyes flashed up at the witch, her voice sharp even as her expression filled with more grief.
"No, that is not an option."
Morrigan's gold eyes gleamed and she ignored the Arlessa. She glanced at Ffion who seemed almost as torn as Isolde. The witch knew what she was thinking without hearing her words and she let out a long-suffering sort of sigh, leaning on her staff.
"So Conner is the source of these... monsters?" Ffion asked slowly, still treading with care.
Teagan got to his feet, rubbing the back of his head, and then sank onto a table pushed against the wall. He opened his mouth to answer, but his sister-in-law was faster.
"No!" She said and it was a half-believed cry, "He's just a boy. There's no way to... How would he..."
She trailed off, not able to keep up the ruse. There was no explanation for Conner's behavior other than what Ffion and Morrigan had stated. And as much as Isolde might hate that, she had to admit it.
"If I could say something?" Jowan's voice cut in. He wasn't looking at Isolde, instead he had his gaze fixed on Ffion, "Conner's abilities are untried for the most part. It is possible that he caused a tear in the Veil. If that's the case, then Morrigan is right. He's become an abomination and we need to decide what to do here."
"You?" Isolde hissed, "You! What are you doing here? I put you-"
"Please, Lady Isolde," Leliana interrupted, "He wanted to help and-"
"Help?!" Isolde exclaimed, her hands clenching so that her knuckles turned white, "He's the one who poisoned my husband and may be the cause for all of this and you think he wants to help?"
Jowan looked stricken, as well he should, but didn't let the Arlessa's anger deter him. He came more fully into the room, standing with Ffion, and tried to ignore how the soldiers had advanced a little.
"I know I have no right to speak with you so boldly, my lady, but you must hear me out," He spoke swiftly, proving that he was much younger than he looked. His desperation to set everything right was written on his face and caused Teagan to put one hand on Isolde's arm in a wordless request to allow the mage to speak, "I took advantage of your fears and I did something that I'll regret for the rest of my life. But with this dilemma, I may be able to help you."
"Is there a way to save my nephew without taking... drastic actions?" Teagan questioned, "I'm not an expert in the workings of the Circle, but I do know that when an abomination has been discovered, the only way out is... execution."
Isolde moaned in despair and turned to slump against the table beside the Bann. He didn't hesitate in placing one arm around her shoulders and allowing her to lean into him. One hand rubbed at her arm soothingly and his blue eyes didn't leave Jowan's.
"There is," The mage answered and he talked more hesitantly than ever. His hazel eyes flickered to Isolde and then to Alistair before he looked at Teagan with determination, like he wasn't going to allow anyone else to distract him, "I have... blood magic. It's possible for me to cast a spell that would allow another mage to enter the Fade and battle with the demon that has been holding Conner hostage."
"A way to enter the Fade?" Isolde repeated brightly, pulling away from Teagan and looking hopeful for the first time since they had seen her, "You can destroy the demon without hurting my boy?"
Jowan looked at her like he hated squashing this sudden joy, but he went on all the same.
"Yes, but since it is blood magic, this spell requires a blood sacrifice," He went on in a rush as though he sensed how close Leliana and Alistair were to exploding, "I would need a volunteer to give the blood and it would not be a mere prick of the finger. This kind of spell calls for all of it, I'm afraid. Your son would be saved, my lady, but a life would be taken all the same."
"Blood magic," Alistair sneered, interrupting Leliana's outburst, "How can more evil make any of this right?"
"The other option is killing the boy," Sten's deep voice was matter-of-fact, "Unfortunate, but it needs to be done."
Ffion had remained silent through the whole exchange. She felt Morrigan's gaze on her and she did her best to ignore it. Glancing side-long at Jowan, she asked,
"There's no way around someone giving their life to save him? To complete the spell and send another mage into the Fade?"
"I'm afraid not," He replied, "This is why it's blood magic. Forbidden, dangerous, and effective."
Isolde pulled herself from Teagan completely, standing straight and looking grim and determined.
"Then let it be my blood," She said firmly, her tone not allowing for arguments.
"Isolde," Teagan murmured, "You can't just jump into this. Consider what it would mean first. What about Eamon? What about Redcliffe? Who's to say this will actually work?"
"There's nothing to consider," She replied, "It's either someone kills Conner, which I will not allow, or I give my life to save my son. I know what I am choosing."
The Arlessa was not about to be talked out of this and she reminded Ffion sharply of Valena's stubborn ambition in getting out of the castle. She also thought of her mother and for a moment, allowed that little voice within her to be heard. Conner looked so much like Oren and Isolde's love and devotion to her little boy was akin to Oriana's. She couldn't let anyone harm this boy who reminded her of her nephew and she wasn't about to let Isolde sacrifice herself when there was the possibility of other solutions. Letting out a little breath, she snapped herself out of these thoughts and straightened her shoulders.
"Is there no other way?" She asked, "What are the steps that the Circle would take if they faced something like this? Surely they don't condone the murder of a child?"
"You know nothing of the Circle, do you?" Morrigan's voice was cold, "They would not hesitate to cut down anything remotely resembling a demon and those that do survive are stripped of all emotions. Jowan informed us all of this."
"If you were to make the trip to the Circle and explain the situation, the First Enchanter wouldn't waste a minute in helping, if he could," Jowan's voice held an edge of excitement, like he hadn't thought anyone was willing to take this path, "You would be guaranteed more mages and all the lyrium needed. No blood sacrifices, no deaths; the lyrium replaces the blood that I'd need to cast the same spell."
Ffion grabbed hold of this new revelation and looked at Teagan hopefully.
"How long would it take us to get to the Circle?" She asked, feeling better with this option than the others.
Teagan thought about this briefly and lifted his shoulders a little. His blue eyes were just as hopeful as hers, but he was eternally practical and he had to be the voice of reason.
"With a troop, it takes about two and a half, three days," He answered, "If you were to travel with just a few people, however, you may be able to make it in two days, perhaps even less. But you have to think of what would happen here. There's no guarantee that there won't be another attack."
Alistair fixed him with a firm, unblinking stare. Like Ffion, he had jumped on this opportunity, hating the alternatives.
"Is this a chance you're willing to take?" He questioned, "Considering what we can avoid if we get help from the Circle, you can't tell me that this isn't the better way."
Teagan waffled, looking at Isolde with a desperation that clearly betrayed his affections for her. He glanced around quickly and a frown creased his forehead, but his gaze was clear when he looked back at Ffion and Alistair.
"Yes, it is," He said stubbornly, "Isolde, I can't ask you to give your life up when there's the possibility to avoid it. I owe Eamon that much at least. If you mean to see this through, you should leave soon."
He talked to Ffion again and Morrigan's annoyed sigh and Sten's soft grumble went ignored. The Bann pulled a pouch loose from his belt and he stepped forward, pressing this into Ffion's hand.
"You don't need-"
"I do," He interrupted, "This will cover any expense. I wish I could give you horses as well, but they were the first to be attacked when all this started. Go with all the speed you can. I think that the village will be safe, now that Conner has been frightened. He seems to come back to his own mind from time to time and the fighting must have triggered this. Maker go with you and bless you for what you're doing."
Ffion felt his urgency and turned to face her group. She was startled by the animosity in Sten's gaze and not at all surprised by the annoyance in Morrigan's.
"You are proving my original perceptions correct," The Qunari told her, his violet eyes blazing, "This will waste time and does nothing to help us fight the Darkspawn."
"We need the Arl to gather the forces needed to battle the Blight," Ffion explained quite calmly, "And I will not allow an innocent boy to be killed because of a simple mistake. Nor will I let his mother sacrifice herself for the sake of convenience or the fact that it might save time. This is the right thing to do and nothing you say will convince me otherwise."
Alistair and Leliana were soundly on her side and Tilly shoved herself under Ffion's palm as though concurring as well.
"So in the meantime, we shall let this village-"
"You and Sten are going to stay here," Ffion interrupted Morrigan without pretense. She ignored the protests and continued, "Jowan, I'm guessing that since you would be performing the spell, another mage is needed to enter the Fade? Then Morrigan will be here to help if it comes to that. Sten, you have experience in leading men, right? If the village comes under attack, they'll need your expertise and your blade. I'm not going to listen to arguments and you won't talk me out of this. We'll be back as soon as we possibly can. Jowan, if there's any threat that Conner is getting worse, I trust you won't hesitate to act?"
The mage was on the verge of protesting, but it was very obvious that Ffion wasn't in the mood.
"I won't," He said, "But we'll wait until it's clear that you won't make it in time."
"That's all I can ask," She replied.
Then, with a last warning glance at Sten and Morrigan, she gathered up the bag Teagan gave her, motioned to Alistair, Tilly, and Leliana, and left them to hope and pray for her success.