Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Five: *Unexpected Results
“If you two don’t mind, could we talk?”
Seranni nodded, but Velanna sniffed derisively. “We need to speak with the Warden Commanders, as I understand it, Shemlen. We don’t have time for idle chatter.”
I stiffened, annoyed at her continuing rudeness. Not that it’s surprising, but…seriously?
Seranni barked something at her in Elvish, and Velanna blanched, softening her tone. “My sister sickens. These delays cannot be healthy. Please.”
I nodded. “I have my husband and brother’s leave to speak for them about your…situation. No more delays, I promise. Please, follow me.”
I turned and headed towards the small sitting room, trying to look confident, hoping the two would actually follow me. I heard a flurry of elvish from Seranni, obviously chastising her sister once again, and then breathed a sigh of relief as several sets of footsteps followed me out of the main hall.
I motioned to chairs inside the sitting room, seating myself on one after the two sat down; Wulf lingered behind me, foregoing a chair and leaning against the wall imposingly.
Velanna eyed me suspiciously. “Why are you the one we must talk to?”
“Didn’t jump back quickly enough when they asked for volunteers?” I joked. Velanna’s expression grew even more annoyed, and I sighed. “We thought it might be easier for you. Two large human men can be…intimidating. We were hoping this would be less uncomfortable.”
“So a flat-ear and a shem noblewoman were supposed to make us feel at home? I am not intimidated by two men.”
“Of course you aren’t,” I muttered, trying to avoid rolling my eyes. “I am not your typical noblewoman, and Wulf’s upbringing was…unique, but he isn’t from any Alienage. If you give us a chance, we may surprise you.”
Seranni and Velanna held a brief, acrimonious conversation in elvish; Velanna flushed, Seranni just looked frustrated, but eventually both nodded their agreement.
I took a deep breath.
“What I am going to tell you, you must promise to keep to yourselves. No one outside of the Grey Wardens knows, and the order is known for keeping their secrets. Those in Weisshaupt, the home of the original Grey Warden order, would not hesitate to have you killed for this knowledge. The Wardens here have separated themselves from Weisshaupt, but the risk remains. However,” I held up a hand to forestall Velanna’s obvious question, “we believe you deserve to know before you make your decisions.”
“What decision?” Velanna demanded. Seranni rolled her eyes at her sister, but the mage continued, “Just cure her. We do not desire any knowledge of your precious Wardens.”
“I know. But it isn’t that easy, unfortunately.”
Seranni squeezed Velanna’s arm in warning. “We will hear you out.”
“I need your word that you will not tell anyone the secrets you hear today. Not your friends or family, not your clan or Keeper.”
They nodded, Seranni looking curious, Velanna suspicious. “We give you our word.” Velanna said it out loud, for which I was grateful. Seranni’s agreement was apparent.
I sighed. “There is no cure for the darkspawn taint. No one who is infected will survive it.”
Velanna sputtered indignantly, while Seranni slumped, looking defeated.
I held up my hand again. “However, there is a way to slow down the progression.” Velanna lapsed into silence, while Seranni just stared at me with tear-filled eyes. “Normally an infected person would turn into a ghoul within a few days; there is a way to stretch that time out to years. Thirty, possibly even fifty years. Enough time to live a mostly normal life, assuming you are infected as an adult. However, there is a cost.”
I had both of their attention, and they stared at me as though transfixed. Neither even made a move to interrupt, which was so out of character for Velanna I nearly laughed.
“Grey Wardens have purposefully exposed themselves to the taint, in a special ritual that is responsible for the delay. That ritual makes a person into a Grey Warden, and it is the only way to slow the progression.
“It is not without risk. It is very unpleasant. Some who undergo the ritual will not survive – exposing yourself to the taint is not for the weak. And those who survive are…changed. They are stronger, more dexterous, have greater stamina, and can sense the darkspawn; darkspawn can also sense them. They see the darkspawn in their dreams. But they also must dedicate their lives to fighting darkspawn.
“If you stay, you may visit your clan, but you will never truly be one of them again. They will not understand the sacrifices you make to save them. You wouldn’t fit in, even if you tried. Even those who try to run away…they are still Grey Wardens. The taint is in their blood. One day, they will still become ghouls, unless they die first.
“So that is your choice, Seranni. Die now of the taint – either as a ghoul or during the Joining – or live a life very different from what you had planned, and die from the taint later.”
“I’m not much of a fighter.” Seranni worried at her lower lip with her teeth. “You said I’d have to fight darkspawn?”
“You’ll learn, if you choose to stay. We have many talented fighters in the Order. I couldn’t fight either, when I first met the Wardens. They’ll assess your skills and help you train in whatever style seems to fit. And I understand you’re skilled with plants and herbs? We could use that. You’ll be able to contribute.”
“What about my sister?” the blonde asked.
“We understand that Velanna has been exiled from your clan. It is possible that returning with a treaty of mutual aid negotiated with the Arl of Amaranthine would ameliorate that, and she could return home…but we would also be willing to offer the Joining to her.”
“Since Seranni is not an experienced fighter, I suppose this is your way of forcing me to become a Warden?” Velanna snapped. I could see hurt, resentment, but also fear in her eyes. She thinks we’ll let Seranni die if she refuses.
I sighed again. “It’s an offer, not a demand. Your skills would be useful, but you have the option to leave. We thought you might want to stay together. Arl Nathaniel,” I refused to call him Arl Howe, “would like the opportunity to make a treaty with your clan, with any nearby clans. Non-aggression, trade deals, that sort of thing. So you could go back to your clan. I’m sure they’d take you when you could guarantee them safe ground in Ferelden.”
“Why would you do that?” Velanna asked, looking unexpectedly vulnerable. “I…”
“We aren’t monsters, Velanna. I know you’ve had bad experiences. I’ve seen others with worse, believe me.” I felt Wulf twitch at my back, and I knew he understood I was thinking about Kallian. “Elves are treated worse than slaves, and the Dalish are treated like vermin to be exterminated. I don’t agree with it. I wasn’t raised to think like that. The King, the Arl…they’re trying to change it.
“But among the Wardens, everyone is equal. No one cares if you’re human, elf, or dwarf, male or female. All that matters is that you fight darkspawn. A lot of Wardens were outcasts of some sort – some were criminals, some just didn’t fit in, some acquired the taint and couldn’t survive any other way. No one asks, and no one cares. The Wardens are a family – dysfunctional, probably, but always there for each other. And if you wish to remain with your sister as a Warden, we would not say no. However, even if only one of you survives, we expect the other to remain with us, and that may be difficult to accept.”
I turned to Wulf. “Anything you’d like to add?”
He shook his head, unkempt mane of hair flying. “Just that what Sierra says is true. The Wardens treat me no differently than any of the humans or dwarves. I hadn’t expected that. It’s hard work, but it’s fulfilling, too.”
I turned back to the two women. “I’ll leave you to talk. Ask for me or Wulf if you have questions. But if you choose to stay, we should do the Joining no later than tomorrow morning.” I gestured at the black veins creeping up Seranni’s arms. “Wait too long, and the chances of success go down.”
I left them there with Wulf, and went in search of my husband. I found him with Aedan and Sigrun; the dwarf was smiling and nodding, and I gathered she’d agreed to become a Warden. They were telling her she would still be a member of the Legion of the Dead, and she assured them she would gladly give her loyalty to another group who fought darkspawn in any way they could, like the Legion.
She grinned at me, and I welcomed her warmly, but briefly, before excusing myself.
“I’m going to go take a nap,” I explained, pulling out of Alistair’s arms.
“It’s been a rough few days,” Aedan agreed. “Get some rest; we will see you at dinner.” He gestured to the door. “Why don’t you show me just how good you are with those daggers, Sigrun?” They left together, discussing weapons and sparring.
“Can I join you?” my husband asked, cupping my cheek with one big hand.
I looked up at him, his ridiculously handsome face bearing a slight smirk, eyes twinkling, and I shivered slightly at the promise I saw there. I nodded, and without a word, he took my hand and led me up the stairs.
Alistair’s lips were on mine the moment our door closed, his hands weaving into my curly hair, and I grabbed a handful of his tunic to hang on as I opened my mouth for him. His chest was hard and warm under my fingers, and his tongue stroked mine until I moaned, breathless.
“I thought we were going to be napping?” I panted.
“Oh, we will.” He stepped away, pulling his shirt up and over his head, revealing his perfect sculpted abs and shoulders. “After,” he continued, turning back and stalking towards me.
Afterwards, we lay there, boneless and tangled together, until we caught our breath and reluctantly disengaged.
He flopped onto his back, pulling me against him to rest my head on his shoulder, one of my legs thrown carelessly over his. I trailed my fingers mindlessly through his sparse chest hair, and he kissed my forehead softly.
“You’re incredible,” he murmured. “So beautiful.”
I flushed, embarrassed but secretly pleased. “That’s just the afterglow talking.”
“Don’t make me prove it to you. You said you wanted a nap, not another round.” He squeezed me, and I giggled. “I’ll do it.”
He moved as though to roll towards me, and I hurried to push against his chest, holding him down. “Okay, take it easy. Whatever you say, husband.” He snorted and settled back, and I snuggled back into his embrace. “Sleep, love.”
Taking my own advice, I drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
I was woken a while later by a noise; I was alone on the bed, and Alistair, wearing nothing but his loose sleeping trousers, was peeking out the door, talking to someone. He closed the door softly, turning around and smiling when he saw I was awake.
“Aedan,” he told me, “has asked to meet with us before supper. We’re doing the Joining tonight.”
“For how many?” I held my breath, not sure if I was hoping for one, two, or three.
“Two, tonight. Seranni and Sigrun. Velanna has asked permission to return to her clan – once she’s confirmed Seranni survives – and negotiate a peace treaty of sorts, and then she may Join later.”
“And we can’t afford to wait for her, with Seranni.” He nodded. “I wonder if Velanna will come back after. She can be so unpleasant, though I know she’s a good person underneath all that. I don’t even know which I hope for.” I slipped out of the bed. “How long do we have?”
His eyes darkened as they raked down my naked form. “Long enough,” he replied, untying the string on his trousers. I gulped and backed up, and he smirked at me. “Now, about the proof you seemed to require…”
An hour later, after a hasty shower and shoving my wet hair into a pony tail, Alistair and I joined Aedan and the rest of the Wardens in the small sitting room. Zevran shot us knowing looks, and while I blushed, Alistair just grinned, squeezed my hand, and joined Aedan at the front of the crowd. I looked around, and noted Rolan standing alone, with Oghren and Bel between him and the rest of the Wardens; everyone was ignoring him, and I wondered what he’d done to earn himself their anger. Knowing what I did about him, it wasn’t hard to guess it was something to do with the mages. Probably accused Alim of blood magic again or something. I ignored it, hoping that Alistair and Aedan would be successful at dealing with him. I did know that they were strictly monitoring his access to Lyrium, and wondered if that was making him cranky.
When Seranni and Sigrun arrived, Aedan sent the other Wardens all out to go get dinner, except Alim and Rolan, the two most junior Wardens. The two stood as far apart as it was possible to be within the small room, making me chuckle. He sent a scowling Velanna away as well, which I thought was for the best – knowing your sister might die in the next hour was bad, but watching it would certainly be worse. Anders had made up the Joining potion with blood taken from one of the darkspawn in the basement, and I saw the chalice sitting on a table to Aedan’s left.
Seranni stepped up to me nervously, and I nodded encouragingly at her. She had to be afraid, and I felt the urge to hug her, but resisted. Even though she was much more pleasant than her sister, I wasn’t sure she’d welcome physical affection from a shemlen. “I’m glad you’re here,” I whispered. And I was; she might not survive the Joining, but dying of the taint or ending up a ghoul wasn’t a better outcome. And just maybe she’d survive.
Sigrun smiled at me, and I grinned in response.
“Welcome, Seranni and Sigrun,” Aedan began. “Tonight…”
I didn’t catch what he tried to say next, because Rolan interrupted him. “Commander, should we really be discussing this in front of a civilian?”
It took an embarrassingly long moment for me to realise he meant me. While I was technically a Grey Warden, very few people knew, due to my strange response to the taint – something we assumed was due to whatever the Architect had done to me as a baby. So Rolan had no way of knowing I was a Warden, but it still surprised me that he objected, given who my husband and brother were, and the fact I’d been present at his own Joining. I raised my eyebrows and turned back to Aedan and Alistair, waiting to see how they’d respond.
“Your concern is noted, Rolan. However, this civilian knows as much about the Order as you or I, and has been to multiple Joinings. She will be our host and landlord once the darkspawn threat here has been dealt with, and she is somewhat responsible for the recruitment of both of our new Sisters. I also feel it is appropriate for a woman to be present at a Joining when all the recruits are female, and all the Wardens male. She stays.”
“But-“ the former templar objected.
“Thank you, Rolan. If I may continue?”
Rolan finally nodded, refusing to look directly at me. I rolled my eyes and looked back at my brother again.
“Tonight, we will be adding two names to the ranks of the Grey Wardens of Ferelden. I know you must both be nervous, but we welcome you with open arms.” He talked through a spiel similar to Duncan’s – the one I remembered from the game, and from more recent Joinings, about the formation of the Order and its aims. It ended with the Grey Warden motto: “In War, Victory. In Peace, Vigilance. In Death, Sacrifice. Here in Ferelden, having seen the unfortunate side to some of the politics involved, we have separated ourselves from Weisshaupt, with the hope that we can remain true to our goal – eradicating darkspawn and guarding against the next Blight. Our goals are the same, despite the schism.
“We speak only a few words before the Joining. Rolan, Alim, if you would?”
The two men, despite their differences, spoke in unison, the words heavy and evocative as always.
“Join us, sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten, and that one day, we shall join you.”
Aedan lifted the chalice, disturbing the murky contents, and the smell of darkspawn blood, so familiar to me after a year of fighting them, wafted across the room. Sigrun’s eyes widened as she seemed to realise what was expected of her; Seranni just nodded to herself resignedly.
“Sigrun, you are called upon to submit yourself to the taint.”
The dwarf glanced at me, expression slightly panicked.
“It’s going to be fine,” I whispered reassuringly. “Go on.”
Aedan handed her the chalice. She frowned, shrugged, and then lifted it to her lips. I remembered the burn of that disgusting drink, and I winced sympathetically as she gagged at the taste. Aedan snatched the chalice back quickly as Rolan stepped forward smoothly. Sigrun coughed, grabbed her throat, and then screamed; her eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped into Rolan’s arms.
I stepped forward, feeling her breath on my fingers at the same time I sensed the taint flowing through her veins – hers reminded me of the sensation of hugging a furry teddy bear. “She’s fine.”
Rolan settled her on the little couch, as Aedan turned to Seranni.
“Seranni, step forward. For the greater good,” he added, as she took the chalice.
She seemed almost eager, and I could see why; she’d lost some more hair, and the blackened veins were up past her elbow. Her skin was coated in a fine sheen of sweat, her complexion sallow, and her lips pale. It was clear to me she didn’t have long, and I wondered if she felt worse than she looked. The elf grimaced at the thick, smelly fluid, and took a breath. With one last look around, she smiled softly and drank.
I held my breath as she handed the cup back to Aedan; she went through the same set of actions as Sigrun: grabbing her throat, screaming; but as she fell, something different happened. Instead of going limp, she jerked against Alim, who cursed as he almost dropped her. Alistair jumped forward and the two men stabilised her and lowered her to the floor. She was flopping like a fish, mouth open in a silent scream, twitching; her back arched off the floor, her head rolling from side to side, her arms and legs thrashing, her breathing ragged and wet. Her head snapped back and made sickening contact with the floor; one arm knocked against a table leg. I’d never seen anything like it.
Aedan and Alistair traded startled looks that weren’t so much shocked as worried. Aedan grabbed a pillow off a nearby settee, propping the seizing woman’s head on it to keep her from banging it again. Alistair moved the nearby table. Their actions spoke of experience, like they’d done that before. Alim just stared at the seizing girl, as did Rolan from near Sigrun, unconscious on the couch.
“What?” I asked. “What is it? Why’s she doing that?”
Aedan looked over at me, a mask of careful neutrality coming over his features. “How many Wardens can you sense in this room, Alim?” he asked, never taking his eyes off me. It was clear the question wasn’t meant only for the mage. I shifted my attention to my senses and counted.
I could feel Alistair, my personal sunshine; Aedan and his crushing duty; Alim, agitated and angry; Rolan, suspicious and insecure; and Sigrun’s new fuzzy taint signature. From down the hall I could sense more, muted by distance, but in the room with me, I counted five.
I gasped. Aedan nodded. Alistair reached out for my hand, almost unconsciously pulling me close, just as Alim’s puzzled voice replied, “Four. Aedan, Alistair, Rolan, and Sigrun. With me that’s five. Only…only five. I can’t sense her.”