The group of Wardens and the Legion of the Dead ate an incredible amount of food over the late meal; too busy stuffing faces, the noise settled down to a dull roar while we all finished up. There was enough chaos for me to eat like the Warden I was without raising suspicion. Poor Nathaniel and Varel looked vaguely ill watching it; Leliana, used to us by that point, just laughed.
Afterwards, Alistair, Conrad, Aedan, Nathaniel, Varel, and a couple of Legion dwarves stepped out to talk, leaving the rest of us to mingle and chat with the remainder of the Legion. I overheard multiple stories about the rescue in Kal’Hirol, some people amused by the destruction Dworkin wreaked with his explosives, while some of the dwarves were incensed. It was interesting that even among the Legion, who were largely former Casteless or dishonoured warriors and nobles like Bhelen, there was discrimination against surface dwarves. Bel and Oghren defended the pyromaniac, reminding everyone of the massive nest of broodmothers they’d uncovered and destroyed, almost without any injuries.
I spent some time chatting with Sigrun. She was unsurprisingly confused by my interest in her, poorly veiled as it was; I’d never claimed to be a good actress.
“Never been on the surface before,” she was saying. “It’s sort of…bright, you know?”
The other dwarves around her nodded as though she’d just said something incredibly profound; I had to restrain a giggle. I tried not to talk too much, not wanting to make her uncomfortable by acting like I knew her. She was sweet and somehow adorably naïve; I thought she and Leli could be friends, if only Leliana wasn’t planning on leaving.
I wondered what would happen now; with her Legion unit still alive, was she going to become a Warden? I got distracted before I could ponder it too much by Conrad waving to get my attention from the door.
“What’s up, Conrad?”
He looked up briefly, confused, before shaking his head with a hint of a smile. “Commanders want you in the meeting.”
I followed him down a hallway and around a corner to a closed door; it led to a moderate-sized sitting room with my brother, my husband, and their guests. Alistair held his arm out, and I squished myself into a space on the couch between him and Aedan with a smile.
I was introduced to the two dwarves, Trevian, the head of the Legion detachment, and Fargrim, his second in command.
“Trevian’s suggested that we work together for a time, make a formal arrangement between the Legion and the Wardens.”
I raised an eyebrow at the dark-haired, bushy-bearded dwarf. He grimaced slightly. “We’d like to retake Kal’Hirol, and we’ll need to borrow your masons to do it after what that stone-blind dunce did to it. In return, we can help patrol the Deep Roads under the Keep while you find the dwarven door your Commander claims is down there. And the Keep can have whatever stone you manage to salvage while digging out the Thaig.”
I nodded. “Makes sense. I don’t have any authority here, though – what do you need from me?”
Aedan smirked at me. “I’ve recommended one of the Legion join the Wardens as a sort of…liaison, I suppose. I thought I’d see if you had an opinion on which dwarf would be best suited for the role, given your skills at reading people.”
I beamed. Yes! “Join, as in become a Warden?” At Aedan’s nod, I continued. “Sigrun,” I replied immediately. “She’d be perfect.”
Fargrim gave me a patronising smile. “In the ten minutes you’ve been in there, you can tell that already? Our least-experienced Legionnaire?” He turned back to Trevian to say something else, when Alistair interrupted him.
“If my wife says Sigrun is the one, she’s the one we’ll take,” he declared, and Aedan nodded. I was grateful; Avernus’ new Joining potion might be an improvement over the original, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I wasn’t prepared to watch another dwarf die needlessly to assuage the arrogant dwarf’s concerns. I wasn’t aware Sigrun was their junior member, but I knew she was loyal, brave, and good in a fight, and best yet, she’d survive the Joining.
Trevian’s brow furrowed slightly as he regarded me, but finally nodded. “Sigrun, then.” His voice was gravelly, like someone who’d smoked for a century; given the lack of regular tobacco that I’d seen in Thedas – the occasional pipe not-withstanding – I wondered if he’d been born that way, or somehow injured his vocal cords. “When will you perform the Joining?”
“I’d like to offer her the chance directly, if you don’t mind. If she refuses, I will take your suggestion on who to approach next. We can talk with her tomorrow, after everyone has had a chance to get to know each other.”
“You have accommodations?” I asked.
Seneschal Varel nodded. “The main barracks are full, but there’s an outbuilding that used to house surplus guards and Amaranthine soldiers on duty. The roof will need some work before winter, but it’s acceptable for now.”
“My men are rather pleased with the opportunity to sleep in actual beds.” Trevian snorted. “We’d better go get things settled before the boys find the rest of the ale.”
Back in the dining room, Aedan made a speech welcoming the Legion, and all the members of both groups announced their names in turn. A keg of ale was opened, with Varel reminding everyone that would be it for drink for the evening, so we could get to work in the morning. None of the Legionnaires seemed upset to learn they’d be working with the Wardens, and mugs of ale began being passed around. We all drank to the Legion and the Wardens – I passed my almost entirely full ale to Oghren after the toast – and then allowed myself to be pulled in Alistair’s lap to catch up with our former companions and get to know our new ones.
When I looked up a few minutes later, I realised I couldn’t see Rolan anywhere; I soon forgot about him to enjoy my evening. Tired as we were from the travel, Alistair and I went to bed early, made love tenderly, and then passed out in the first real bed since we’d left Denerim.
We were woken early by servants banging on the door; it wasn’t quite the crack of dawn, but we hadn’t been allowed to sleep in much. We climbed out of bed reluctantly, and I put on one of my new pant suits and sat brushing my hair while Alistair struggled into his armour. I finally took pity on him and began helping him with buckles and straps.
“Why do they make armour so needlessly complicated?” I grumbled.
He chuckled. “We don’t have Earth’s fancy machines to make it, that’s why!”
I pouted and finally closed the last buckle. “You’re all set. What are the plans for the day?”
“First we’re all going to meet with everyone in the main hall. I’m taking one group of Wardens and some of the Legion into the basement to close that Deep Roads exit before we’re attacked. Conrad will be taking a second group to patrol the Wending Wood – you mentioned the darkspawn playing off the humans against the Dalish? And I think Aedan will be leaving for Amaranthine to help the Arl’s troops clear out smugglers and collapse down any back entrances into the city. The stone masons will start with plans for the walls.”
“And me?” I sighed. It was going to take some getting used to, being away from Alistair most days for separate duties. As much as camping in the rain was unpleasant, at least during the Blight we were together.
Alistair, sensing my melancholy, pulled me into a gentle hug. “I think Nate and the seneschal have plans for you. Administrative…something or other.” He kissed my pouting lips softly. “I will miss having you with me, but I won’t miss worrying about your safety.”
“So I’m just supposed to be the good little wifey, staying safe while my big, strong husband goes off to fight?”
He tilted my chin up with a tender hand on my jaw. “Not because you’re a woman, or my wife. You know that, right? It’s because you’re the Steward of Soldier’s Peak. As much as your business experience will help, I suspect there’s going to be a lot to learn to run what’s essentially an Arling. I think that’s a much more worthwhile use of your time than fighting darkspawn, don’t you?”
I sighed again. “You’re right, of course. I just worry about you. At least when we’re together, I have some illusion of control; I can pretend that I can help keep you safe.”
He kissed me again before taking my hand and leading me out into the corridor. “I love you, Sierra. Control freak issues and all.”
He stuck his tongue out at me, turning my glower into a laugh. We strolled down the more direct route to the main hall – a passing servant had taken pity on us the night before and showed us a way back to our room – and found ourselves something to eat in the dining room. The Wardens were all there, uncharacteristically quiet in the early morning, and I wondered briefly if one keg was enough alcohol to make them all hungover.
The Legion were there too, Trevian and Fargrim nodding at Alistair as we entered. The rest of the dwarves were much livelier than the wardens – whether more used to the early hour or less hungover, I couldn’t say.
Aedan was already there, Zevran at his side, silently shoveling food into their mouths and watching the Legionnaires banter. Alistair and I joined my brother, talking quietly around mouthfuls of porridge, thin-sliced meats, cheese, and thick-sliced bread. What I wouldn’t give for a proper toaster.
After everyone had eaten, Aedan sent Conrad, Rolan, Bel, and Mornwulf off to patrol the Pilgrim’s Path, with strict instructions not to aggravate the elves or allow the humans settled in the area to attack, and under no circumstances to go inside the old Silverite mine; I hoped they’d be in time to prevent the murders of so many of Velanna’s clan, and perhaps even prevent Seranni from being taken by the Architect, but really had no solid way of knowing when those events had happened. Hopefully, at the least, if it’s already too late they can waylay Velanna before she attacks too many merchant caravans. Varel wasn’t yet aware of any problems along the Pilgrim’s Path, so I had hope, anyway.
Aedan planned to take Zevran, Oghren, Alim, and Prince with him to Amaranthine, along with a number of the army troops assigned to the Vigil by Cailan. They had multiple goals there: they’d promised Nathaniel to find his sister, Delilah, and invite her to visit the Vigil; they had to help the city guard root out the smugglers plaguing the city and then find a way to close the smuggler’s routes to the coast so the darkspawn wouldn’t be able to make use of them later; Aedan wanted to post notices recruiting for the Wardens in the city; and they wanted to get some of the dwarven stone masons working on Amaranthine’s walls. A number of the soldiers travelling with them would be staying in Amaranthine, with more coming later to defend against any darkspawn invasion. Aedan predicted they’d be away for a couple of days to accomplish everything; they were taking a number of Nathaniel’s soldiers with them, and hoped to have the help of the city guard as well.
The remaining Wardens – Alistair, Anders, and Solona – along with Leliana and about half of the Legionnaires were going to go on an expedition into the Deep Roads underneath Vigil’s Keep. Voldrik and a couple of the stone masons would be behind them, waiting to close off the tunnel. Aedan and Alistair had agreed to pair Sigrun up with the Wardens, so Alistair could evaluate her before formally offering her the Joining. I knew it was only for appearance’s sake; Trevian and Fargrim were still weirded out by the fact that I’d chosen a candidate without hesitation after knowing them only a short time.
Sergeant Maverlies was being sent as a messenger in case they needed to send someone back while they were fighting. The fact that they felt the need to take a messenger did not make me any happier about the plan to go essentially into the Deep Roads. Alistair squeezed me reassuringly when I stiffened up at that revelation, and I shot him a dirty look.
I went into the courtyard to watch Aedan leave, and Alistair assemble with the Legionnaires and remaining Wardens. The dwarves had obviously had some time to adjust to being on the surface; none of them spent time staring up at the sky the way Oghren, Faren, and Bel had when we’d first emerged from Orzammar, though a couple of them still looked distinctly pale. Sigrun alone seemed enthused, examining the way the sun glinted off their armour, and pointing out shapes in the clouds. I grinned until I realised Fargrim had noticed me watching her; the arrogant dwarf had his eyebrows furrowed as he stared at me, and I moved away uncomfortably.
Once Aedan was gone, Alistair blew me a last kiss and disappeared through the door into the dungeons, and I was left standing alone in the courtyard. I reluctantly went back inside, and a servant found me and directed me to Nate’s study.
I spent the morning discussing my ‘skills’ with Nathaniel; it became clear that running Soldier’s Peak wasn’t going to be the difficult part for me. The part I would likely struggle with was much more related to understanding Fereldan politics and laws than the details of employing large groups of people, making a budget and the like. I also lacked some of the basic skills every even vaguely educated Thedosian had, such as legible writing with a quill and ink – Nate pulled out my letter to him in the Free Marches, and Varel’s eyes just about popped out of his head at my appalling penmanship. Calligraphy is hard! I also had minimal understanding of the hierarchies and entitlements of the Fereldan nobility, including titles. And I had never ridden a horse.
With a sigh, Varel set me a schedule for the foreseeable future. My mornings would consist of a couple of hours of sparring and training with the soldiers to keep in fighting shape, followed by horse-back riding lessons with an elf I recognised – Samuel, the groundskeeper. Afterwards, I would spend my afternoons divided between practicing my writing, reading political histories as chosen for me by Nathaniel, and essentially etiquette lessons with Varel. I used the rest of that afternoon to have servants help rearrange the furniture in the spare bedroom in Alistair’s and my suite, turning it into a reading room, with two comfortable wing-back chairs and a desk re-purposed from somewhere else. The look of surprise on their faces when I asked them to remove the bed was almost comical. Nate approved a small renovation – a proper door with a lock between the bathing room and the office, so that the office could be accessed from the hallway without anyone getting in to our room – and I expected that to be done over a week or so.
When Alistair came back that evening, covered in dust and sweat, he found me curled up in one armchair, a stack of books beside me. I jumped up in surprise when he walked in, staring around himself in awe at the change in the small room.
“Love? Maker, you’re filthy.”
He grimaced. “I know. I like what you’ve done with this room, by the way.”
“What is going on in that basement? I thought you’d be fighting darkspawn, not rolling around in the dirt.”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “Spent most of the day helping the diggers shift debris. You said Dworkin was responsible for the damage to the Keep, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. He might even have helped, honestly. The passages are mostly blocked, some with stone, but most with dirt and roots and wood. If we want to prevent the darkspawn coming through there, we need to clear the passageway first. It’s going to take days. I’ve set up a watch schedule between us and the Legion; whoever’s on watch will end up helping with the digging.”
“Does that mean you’re done for the day? You look wasted.”
He rubbed his forehead, smearing around the dirt through the sweat tracks. “I hope so.”
I smiled. “Let me help you out in the shower. Let’s get you clean.”
His exhausted look of abject horror made me giggle.
“I said clean, dearest, not dirtier. Come.”
I allowed him to shower off alone, rinsing the worst of the dirt, and then had him sit in the tub while I scrubbed his back and lathered shampoo into his hair. He slumped back against the side of the tub; between sheer weariness and enjoyment of someone taking care of him, I couldn’t have guessed which was more powerful. He was half asleep by the time he was clean, and I helped him dry off quickly before pushing him onto the bed, tossing a clean pair of sleeping pants his way.
“I’ll go bring us a private supper. I’m sure everyone else is also spent; we can eat and call it an early night.”
I found a servant in the dining area, and explaining who I was, requested she show me to the kitchen. To my resigned dismay, she insisted on arranging to bring a meal to us, and wouldn’t hear of me raiding the larder for something on my own. I was shooed back to my room, where Alistair had actually fallen asleep angled across the bed, pants on but undone; I just had time to throw a sheet over him when there was a knock on the door. Three servants stood outside, holding covered dishes of divine-smelling food; I had them put them on a small table near the hearth, and then ushered them out.
True to Warden form, Alistair woke up when the smell of food reached his nostrils; we sat on the rug by the fire and ate quickly. When we were done, we snuggled for a while; Alistair made a half-hearted attempt at making out, but kept having to interrupt himself to yawn. Bemused, I finally tucked him in bed and returned to my new study to read for a couple more hours.
The next morning, Alistair left early, and I put on my armour before heading to the training yard. I selected a couple of wooden practice daggers before warming up with a sparring dummy. There were a handful of soldiers also sparring, and a small group of young teenagers, obviously soldiers in training. Most of Nate’s troops, however, had been deployed either with Conrad, with Aedan, or in the basement of the Keep, just like the Wardens. I sparred with a couple of soldiers all-too-briefly, and then it was time for my horseback riding lesson.
It didn’t go well.
I popped by the stables to let them know I needed to change; Samuel, the groundskeeper and now apparent stable master, shook his head when I mentioned it.
“I was specifically told you’d be most likely to ride armed, my Lady; makes sense – if you were wearin’ a fancy dress, you’d be in a carriage. Armed means riding astride; good thing, too – I’m no expert on sidesaddle.”
I stared at him like he was speaking in tongues. “I’m not riding sidesaddle. Don’t even think about it.”
He chuckled. “Put yer helmet on, and let’s get started. Maybe it’ll protect yer head if ya fall.”
With that encouraging statement, we began. Poor Samuel was amazed and somewhat horrified to learn I’d never even been close to a horse, never mind mounted on one. I admitted I was a bit terrified; the only horses I’d seen in Thedas up to that point were massive beasts, like the ones that pulled Eamon’s carriage from Redcliffe to Denerim.
When I asked about that, Samuel laughed. “Those aren’t for riding, my Lady. Too big, too slow. They’d only break into a trot if the Archdemon himself was chasing them.” He slapped his knee, enjoying his own joke. “No, you’ll be riding one ‘a these.”
It turned out the truth was even worse than my expectations. While the carriage horses were indeed enormous, they were completely placid – too stupid to get startled, according to the elderly elf. There were a variety of breeds used for riding in Thedas, but most of them seemed to share certain characteristics, including being exceedingly cranky and high-strung. Samuel walked me through the stable, a large, drafty building that smelled of hay and manure, pointing out animals in stalls to either side.
There were striders and coursers, forders and chargers…I couldn’t have recalled a single detail about any of them, if asked later. They seemed large enough to me, if not quite as burly as the carriage horses, but they all seemed just sort of…nervous. They neighed and whinnied and shifted as we passed, and the one Samuel pulled out for me was no exception. It was saddled already, dancing around on the end of the leash – reins, he informed me, not a leash – snorting and pawing at the ground.
Samuel handed me an apple and advised me to hold out my hand. Terrified, I almost couldn’t look, taking the apple and turning away as I thrust the fruit in the direction of the tall, brown beast. To my relief, it didn’t take a finger as it took the apple and ate it in two large bites, and I relaxed somewhat. Its lips were soft and pliable, and it tickled as it touched my hand. However, evidently one apple wasn’t enough, and it began snuffling at me, blowing air through its nose and mouthing at me looking for more.
I giggled, half amused, half hysterical, and jerked away from its questing muzzle. This was the wrong choice, evidently. With a whinny, it yanked its head away and reared back, pulling Samuel half off his feet before he managed to calm it down. The elf stepped to the side, slapping it on the neck and crooning to it softly, and it settled again.
“Careful, my Lady,” he said, turning to me once he had it under control. “You scared the poor girl. Slow movements, that’s the key. Sadie here wouldn’t hurt a fly on purpose, she just likes apples. Come, try again.”
“I startled her?” I grumbled, stepping forward with exaggerated motions. The elf took my hand and brought it to Sadie’s neck, urging me to stroke her short fur softly. She stood still, watching me with one eye, but I took a deep breath again as nothing bad happened.
Taking my hand, he pulled me closer, handing me a nearby brush. “I think you both need to get a bit used to each other,” he informed me. “Best way to get on a horse’s good side is to take off her saddle and give her a good grooming.”
I spent the rest of the morning brushing Sadie after learning the basics of a saddle. I was sure, being apparently a noblewoman, that I wouldn’t be saddling my own horse often, but it made sense to understand how – if we had a problem while out riding, I’d need to be able to troubleshoot it on my own. Samuel informed me we’d try actual riding the next day. I was slightly less nervous after watching Sadie almost purr with delight as I brushed under her saddle.
I spent my lunch hour and a couple of hours after that being grilled by Seneschal Varel on table manners and forms of address for fellow nobles as well as the various functionaries I’d be surrounded by. Dull but necessary, he assured me. I sighed, secretly vowing vengeance on Cailan for putting me into the position.
I used the rest of my afternoon practicing with a quill and ink; I’d gotten ahead in my reading, thanks to a very boring youth spent speed-reading as a form of escapism and an early night with an exhausted husband. By the end of the day I was covered in ink and smelled like a horse, and I ended up joining a grimy Alistair in the shower when he appeared from the basement.
“I think we’ll break through tomorrow,” he crowed, happy to be done with digging. “Then we can guard that barrier door while Voldrik fixes it, and be done down there.”
We ate in the dining room that evening, and even had just enough energy to make love before falling asleep intertwined in our room.
My horse riding the next day was a challenge; it seemed Sadie could sense my fear, and she’d move every time I tried to swing up into the saddle. I fell a couple of times, not injuring myself badly, but getting more than my share of bruises; once, when I managed to get my foot in the stirrup and heave myself up, she shifted a different way so I tumbled across her back and found myself on the ground on the opposite side. Samuel covered his mouth, trying to hide his laughter as I cursed a blue streak and climbed to my feet again.
I finally managed to mount once, and the elf led Sadie around a ring a couple of times so I could get used to the feel of sitting on horseback. It was a bit exhilarating, I had to admit, feeling the powerful animal move under me. I raced inside after, changing and cleaning up quickly, wishing someone was around for me to share my excitement with.
I’d just finished up a very quiet lunch alone in the dining room when I saw a filthy, blood-streaked Sergeant Maverlies run through the main hall screeching the seneschal’s name. I abandoned my plate and chased after her, arriving breathless at Nathaniel’s door just in time to see Varel run past me the other direction. Nate was even paler than normal, struggling to maintain a calm facade as he fired incomprehensible instructions at Maverlies, who was nodding frantically. She also ran off, leaving me with the shaken nobleman, and less than no idea what was happening.
“What is it?” Nate blanched, refusing to meet my eyes. “Nate?”
“They found more darkspawn than they expected. The tunnels are full of them.”