elyssacousland (elyssacousland) wrote in swooping_is_bad,
elyssacousland
elyssacousland
swooping_is_bad

There and Back - Chapter 74

Chapter Seventy-Four: Love is a Weakness

The next day, Solona was quite withdrawn; I walked with her, quietly, just trying to be supportive. She seemed to appreciate the effort, even if she didn’t want to talk. Jowan walked with us silently as well; when I thought about it, we’d hardly heard a peep from Jowan the entire trip.

When I asked Solona about it, she told me he was terrified that one of us with something against blood magic would change our minds and go after him, so he was doing his best to be unobtrusive. I resolved to try to be nicer to him; I wasn’t sure how I felt about him, really, but he was a Grey Warden now and what he’d done in the past wasn’t supposed to matter anymore.

Alistair and I made good use of our enchanted canvas tent; with now seven wardens, we could split the night into three or four watches and each of us get to sleep uninterrupted every second night. Alistair and I arranged for our watches to be on different nights, so we weren’t too tired to enjoy some alone time. Aedan and Zev seemed to do the same, but either they were masters of quiet sex, or they were leaving camp to do it, because I never heard them. Not that I’m disappointed by that – ugh! Thank goodness for that enchanted tent.

When my time of the month came, we spent a miserable few nights lying side by side, frustrated and horny, but it was light and painless, for which I was eternally grateful.

The non-Wardens, Sten, Shale, Gorim, Leliana, Zevran, Morrigan, and Prince, also took turns keeping watch with us. I enjoyed the chats with Morrigan, and hearing Leli’s and Zev’s stories, but it was a bit awkward sitting quietly for two or three hours with Sten or Shale. For their sakes, we tried to avoid putting Sten on watch with the mages; he scared them all senseless. It meant that the rest of the Wardens got more than our fair share of watches with the giant, which was always weird. I couldn’t complain though – at least he openly seemed to respect the four of us.

Sten refused to comment on the differences between Earth and Thedas we’d been discussing as a group. I tried using that topic as small talk, and the stoic giant just grunted. When I tried again the second night, he shut me down, pointing out that since I was no longer on Earth, it was time for me to learn my place in Thedas and let my past life go.

I disagreed, but didn’t think I’d get anywhere with the Qunari given their narrowly-defined roles within the Qun. Anyone who converted was expected to conform, not question.

No one asked why I was on watch without a Grey Warden; we’d decided to just claim it was something about my unique situation where the darkspawn ignored me, if asked. Having to hide this forever is…not going to be easy.

Aedan had slowly come to accept Alistair and me, and the two were soon back to bickering and making fun of each other. Periodically Anders would join them, and the three of them would have the rest of us in stitches for hours, eavesdropping. Alistair had stopped being jealous, again, so I didn’t have to worry about him if Anders came over to talk or Zevran pretended to flirt. Overall, I found happiness almost overwhelming as I walked along with my chosen family.

One day at camp, after using a nearby stream to clean up, I came back in time to hear Anders and Alistair talking as they gathered firewood. Everyone else was off doing their own thing, so no one else could overhear. The two men hadn’t heard me approach, and I stopped behind a large tree to listen.

“So you and Sierra…” Anders began.

Alistair’s reply was curt and irritable. “What about us?” Or perhaps I was premature in thinking Alistair wasn’t jealous of Anders.

“When I met you, you two were…not together.”

“True.” Alistair grunted and dropped his armload of firewood. I could picture him looking at Anders expectantly.

“But you were before that?”

“Yes.”

“And now you are again?”

“Yes. I love her. And don’t even think about-“

Anders interrupted. “No, no. I’m not interested in her like that. I’m just curious about what happened.”

“I was stupid, and eventually she forgave me. That’s all you need to know.”

“How do you apologise for doing something stupid? How did you even get her talking to you again?”

Alistair sighed. “I take it this is about Solona.”

There was a pause, and I assumed Anders nodded.

Alistair muttered, “I can’t believe someone came to me for relationship advice.” I almost broke out laughing. “Look, Anders, you’d do better talking to Zevran. Or Leliana. Or even Sierra. I’m not exactly a font of information, here. I’ve had precisely one relationship, and I almost ruined it. I’m just lucky Sierra’s been forgiving.”

“But…”

“Seriously. Go ask Sierra. For some reason, she seems to like you.”

I chuckled to myself, and tried to circle around silently. I was intensely curious about Anders’ side of the story, and Alistair had sent him straight to me.

It was another few days before Anders approached me. We’d finally met up with Bodahn and Sandal, and they turned their cart around to head back towards Orzammar. We figured we were maybe a week away. It was nice to be able to stow our gear again, and I sighed as I dropped my second pack onto the cart.

“Sierra?”

“Hi Anders.” I smiled. “Did you get your stuff packed away?”

“Yeah, I did. Um…could I talk to you?”

“Sure. What do you need?” I wonder if I’m any good at acting. Mind you, he’s so nervous right now he probably won’t notice.

“Somewhere private?”

I looked around, and then gestured off towards the woods nearby. I made sure Aedan saw us, and he nodded in my direction. Once we were out of sight of the camp, I sat on a rock and considered the tall lanky mage. He’d steadily been putting on weight since we’d recruited him, and he wasn’t looking quite as gaunt anymore; his hair and skin looked better, he’d acquired a bit of a sunburn making his cheeks and nose ruddy, and his eyes weren’t so sunken. It looked good on him.

“Alright, so, what’s up?”

He looked up, and I giggled. “I mean, what would you like to talk about?”

He sighed and sank down on a tree root. “I’m guessing Solona’s told you a bit about what happened. Between her and I.” I went to deny it, but he waved his hand. “I’ve seen you glaring at me. And it’s fine; she should have someone to talk to.”

I nodded. “She told me her perspective. That you two were together, that you were repeatedly unfaithful, and that every time she attempted to confront you about the infidelity, you ran away and escaped the tower.”

He looked at me, mouth agape, expression dumbfounded. After a moment, he shook his head. “She said that? She thinks I was running away from her?” His voice was pained, and I felt sorry for him. I’d guessed there was more to the story, and it seemed I was right.

“So tell me, then, what did happen? Was she wrong? Did you not lay with other people?”

He tried a bad joke to lighten the mood. “I wouldn’t say there was much laying involved. Mostly standing, at the tower, to be honest.”

Now that’s a mental image I didn’t need…

I scowled at him. “Anders…”

“Okay, I know. Yes, I did have sex with others. But it wasn’t…like that. And my escapes had nothing to do with Solona. I had to; I…”

“Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

He sighed. “I hated the tower. From the very first day, I hated it. I hated the cold stone, the stairs, the tiny windows. I hated the templars, watching…always watching. When I first came to the tower, they assigned me to a mentor. They do that for all new acquisitions.” I flinched. “Her name was Danielle. She was probably ten years older than me, and had just been made an enchanter, after passing her harrowing.

“She was beautiful, and I had a bad case of puppy love. She was kind to me, always helping me; I’d not seen kindness since being taken away, and the journey from the Anderfels had been a long one, accompanied only by faceless, nameless templars.” He shuddered. “They hadn’t been intentionally cruel, but they wouldn’t take off their helms, wouldn’t talk to me…I was terrified, and they just let me cry, and carried me if I refused to walk.

“Anyway, Danielle tried to make it better. She would give me little gifts, write me encouraging notes and leave them in my books, that sort of thing. She sat with me at meals so the bigger apprentices wouldn’t pick on me. She was like a big sister. Everyone liked her; I don’t even think she knew she was beautiful, but all the boys had crushes on her, and the templars watched her…

“There was one templar in particular who was taken with her. I never knew his name – he was just a bucket-head, to me – but he wouldn’t leave her alone. She never told me, or I’d have…I don’t know. I found out later he’d been harassing her. Following her to the bath, watching her when she changed, that sort of thing. She complained to Irving, and he was reprimanded, but of course, he wasn’t removed or punished. He was right back to work the next day, and then he was angry because she’d gotten him in trouble.

“He knew anything he did to her would be scrutinised, so he found a different way to get back at her: me. He knew she cared for me like a little brother, and he took advantage of that. He would smite me, and claim he had caught me doing forbidden magic. He’d convince the older apprentices to pick on me, and shelter them from the blame. I didn’t know why, and I went to Danielle. She tried to intervene, but he hadn’t done anything to me that could get him in trouble. He’d make my life miserable, and there was nothing to be done about it.

“But then he told her – submit to him, and he’d protect me. At first she refused, but things got worse and worse until she relented. I can only imagine the things he made her do to buy my protection. I didn’t know – I would have put a stop to it, somehow, if I did – but she never told me. She put up with rape, and beatings, and Maker knows what else, without complaint, and for the first time, I was safe in the tower.

“That’s when I met Solona. We became friends, and eventually so much more. But Danielle was still suffering for me.

“I only found out later, when he finally went too far. After having silenced her so she couldn’t heal herself, he accidentally beat her hard enough to put her in the infirmary. She was battered, bleeding internally from the rapes, and pregnant. When it all came to light, I had to help heal her, and almost wasn’t successful. She nearly died in my arms. I was in a coma from mana depletion, and she was transferred to the circle in Val Royeaux. I never saw her again, but I can guess what happened to that baby. The templar responsible was reprimanded again, but instead of being punished, or excommunicated, they transferred him and covered up his sins.”

“Oh, let me guess – to Kirkwall.”

Anders nodded, looking surprised. I just shook my head.

“When I found out what had happened, what he’d been doing to her, what she’d agreed to do for me…I lost my mind. I realised that love was too risky, in the tower. I decided to escape. I wanted Solona to come with me, but I wanted to be somewhere established first. I wanted to be able to protect her. But I was caught, and punished; they punished the entire apprentice class, trying to determine who had helped me. I realised that if they knew I loved Solona…”

“They’d use her against you, the way he used you against Danielle.”

He nodded, miserable. “Love is a weakness, in the tower. If you love something, it’s just something they can take away, something they can threaten. The only way to protect Solona was for no one to know how special she was. So I started working my way through the apprentices, even a couple of the templars. I tried to stay away from Solona, but I couldn’t. I loved her, and was drawn to her. So instead of protecting her, I hurt her, over and over.”

“And the escapes?” I asked softly.

“Especially before an escape, I’d make sure to be seen with multiple different people so no one would suspect how I felt about Solona. I didn’t want them to punish her for my escaping again. We’d fight about it, but we were fighting because I planned to escape. I didn’t escape because we fought.”

“Does she know? About Danielle?”

“No. I didn’t want to burden her with that. She was always afraid in the tower, and I didn’t want to make it worse.”

“And you wonder why she’s angry?”

He slumped. “Not really. I just…I don’t know what to do. I love her. We are both finally out of the tower. We have a chance, and she won’t even talk to me. I’d explain, now, if she’d let me. It might not be enough – Maker knows I don’t deserve her – but I’d like the chance to try.”

“So what do you want from me? Do you want me to tell her?”

“No! Maker’s balls, no. I need to. But I was hoping you’d have some ideas, some insight as to how I get her to listen.”

“What makes you think I’d have any idea?”

“Well, after Alistair…did whatever, how did he get back in your good graces?”

I thought. “I don’t entirely know. Apologising helped, and not trying to make excuses. He was annoyingly…there. Not creepy, or anything, just…every time I turned around, he was there. He didn’t expect anything from me, just protected me and took care of me every way he could. He’d put up my tent, carry my bags, do my chores for me…It drove me crazy, actually, but it was sort of sweet. I’d lose my temper and he’d just take it, just let me be angry…After a while, it was exhausting trying to stay mad at him. And then I wasn’t anymore.

“I’m not suggesting this is the path for you to take. One difference between Solona and I is that she can light you on fire. Plus, he never slept with anyone else. No matter how good your intentions, that’s not going to be easy to get past.”

He sighed. “She hates me, doesn’t she?”

“I don’t…think so. She thinks she does, perhaps, but she’s more hurt, I suspect. And not ready to trust you, in case you hurt her again. And besides, if she hates you, at least she still cares. If she didn’t give a crap about you, she wouldn’t bother hating you. And I suspect that would be worse.”

“I’m not convinced I’d prefer she hate me. Really.”

I rolled my eyes. “What about writing her a letter? Don’t tell her about Danielle, don’t go into any details, just tell her that you’d like the chance to explain some things she wasn’t aware of. Don’t make excuses, though.”

“Think she’ll agree?”

“You won’t know until you try.”

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about it.”

“For what it’s worth, good luck. What happened is not your fault. You deserve to be happy. I hope you two can make a go of it.”

I left him sitting thoughtfully in the woods. Aedan raised his eyebrow when he saw me return alone; I just shook my head. Not my secret to tell. I had to admit, though, that a big part of me wanted to play matchmaker. I was sure Solona would understand, would eventually forgive Anders if she knew the truth, but it wasn’t my place to get involved.

Instead, I went to Alistair, who was sitting near the fire chatting with Leli, crawled into his lap, and put my head on his shoulder. He leaned down and kissed my forehead, and I smiled.

The walking was easier once we didn’t have to carry our packs; not for the first time, I was thankful for Bodahn. Sandal had given me a giggling hug, and Bodahn smiled when he saw Alistair and me walking together, holding hands. Solona was still avoiding Anders, but I saw signs of him taking my advice: he’d set up her tent, bring her food, and carry her bedroll for her. He didn’t lurk, but kept her within line of sight at all times, and stood guard when she was washing or taking care of personal business. I just hope she finds it endearing, not creepy.

As we climbed the pass towards Orzammar it got colder, and I was grateful for the warmer cloaks and gloves Leli had bought in Redcliffe. No one was happy, though again Zevran seemed to suffer the most; the mages surprised me though – apparently Jowan knew a magical trick to stay warm, and promptly taught it to the others. The four of them walked through the cold in nothing but their robes – or in Morrigan’s case, her usual barely-more-than-rags – completely unfazed.

Alistair had taken to teasing me, while we walked; he would start talking to me with a Starkhaven accent, ‘accidentally’ fondle my ass when I was walking ahead of him, and whisper innuendos in my ear when no one was looking. It was an enormous turn-on, and it was a good thing we were surrounded by others or we’d never have made it out of our tent, never-mind all the way to Orzammar. I was so hot and bothered, by the time we made camp each night, that I’d virtually drag Alistair into the tent by the ear to have my way with him after supper, before either of us had to go on watch – and sometimes after watch, too. I was embarrassed, but insatiable, and he didn’t seem to be complaining any. It is his fault, anyway – he’s the one teasing me!

I’d started sparring again after about a week on the road, cautiously at first with just Tomas, but then with Sten too. It was easier in some ways and harder in others to fight someone with a two-handed sword. I could get in hits easier, but I had to be very careful – if he ever hit me, in a real fight, I’d be down for the count, so I couldn’t ever let my guard down. It was challenging and fun, and it seemed the giant enjoyed it too. When I challenged Aedan one night, and he tried to go easy on me, I actually scored a couple of hits before knocking him on his ass. Shocked, he gaped at me like a fish out of water, while I laughed and everyone cheered. He tried harder after that, but my improvement was clear. I wasn’t as good as Aedan or Zev, but I wasn’t a liability anymore.

The trip to Orzammar passed far too fast, and as much as I understood our hurry, I was disappointed. Despite the Blight, my ridiculous situation, and anticipating going into the Deep Roads, I was deliriously happy for the entire trip from Redcliffe to Orzammar, and I was sad those relatively carefree days were coming to a close.

The shanty town outside of Orzammar’s enormous gates was a bit of a revelation. We fought off a small group of mercenaries – I vaguely remembered them as bounty hunters, from the game – and then entered a tightly packed, over-populated city. The dwellings were made from wood, stone, and whatever could be scavenged, including crates and broken wagons. There were narrow, twisting alleys between them, and we had to proceed carefully, single file. In the centre, as in game, there was a decent sized open square, where a beleaguered dwarf was telling an angry crowd that no one was to be let in to Orzammar. The mood of the crowd was ugly, and I worried for the dwarf’s safety, until I saw him scurry back to the guard near the gates.

Around the central square were shops, mostly wooden tables with a merchant standing behind them, displaying a vast array of goods – silk and wool, carved wooden figurines, shoes…the only noticeable absences were quality weapons and armour, which made sense – they were made inside Orzammar, and couldn’t get out, while the luxury goods that were normally imported into Orzammar couldn’t get in.

Bodahn went to find a stall to set up his wares; he wouldn’t be allowed in Orzammar, but having been travelling, he had more variety of goods than the other merchants, and I figured he’d be busy. We all collected our gear, and with a promise to come find him as soon as we were done in Orzammar, we left him.

There were multiple checkpoints, not just the one, before we could access the gates of Orzammar, with angry people and dwarves shouting at nearly every one of them, but with a few words from Tomas to the guards at each checkpoint, we were waved forward. The press of people left behind each time were furious, and we all started fingering our weapons as things felt more threatening.

Gorim, despite being helmeted, took the worst of the abuse; I supposed the other dwarves were just angry that one of their own was being allowed to the front of the line. I hoped no one had recognised him.

At the last checkpoint, we finally ran across a representative from Loghain. On his armour, he was wearing the sigil of the crown’s personal guard – twin mabari rampant – and he appeared to recognise us, or at least, he recognised Tomas when his helmet came off. He’d been standing nearby, just watching the goings-on at the gate, but his eyes went wide when he saw Tomas. He whispered something furiously to a younger man standing beside him, who immediately ran off. I saw Tomas’ shoulders stiffen as the man approached.

It wasn’t Imrek, but apparently he was just as vapid, and just as arrogant.

“You!” he shouted, pointing at Tomas. “You’re Duncan! You’re the one who got King Cailan killed!”

Tomas – or, since the jig was clearly up, Duncan – sighed. The look on my face must have been tense; everyone around me put hands on sword hilts, while the mages gripped their staves. Duncan, though, looked unruffled, just slightly sad. He put his hand up, towards us, trying to keep everyone calm.

“I am Duncan, the Warden-Commander of Ferelden, but I did not kill King Cailan.”

The man’s face turned red, and his expression grew incredulous. “I was there! I saw the horde descend on the vanguard at Ostagar! And you put the King at the centre of it!”

“And your liege turned and left. Ostagar was a disaster, but there is plenty of blame to go around, don’t you think? Now if you don’t mind, I have business here. Please, step aside.”

The man sputtered and tried to rant; we all ignored him. Aedan approached Duncan and spoke softly; I could only hear because I was directly behind them. “Are you sure we should let him walk away? He knows who you are. He’ll report to Loghain.”

Duncan sighed again. “And what would you have us do? Kill him in cold blood? We knew this charade wouldn’t last forever. Let Loghain know I’m alive – perhaps it will give him pause in his civil war.” He turned back to the guard. “Go tell your master that the Grey Wardens know what really happened at Ostagar. Or would you prefer to risk a demonstration of why the Wardens are respected as warriors across all of Thedas?”

Sten, Alistair, Zev, Aedan, Shale, Prince, and Gorim stepped up behind Duncan, with Leli, me, and the mages behind; it felt like something from an Avengers movie. Duncan crossed his arms, and the man gulped and stepped back.

“I will tell him.”

With a dismissive nod, Duncan turned his back on him, and approached the seemingly amused dwarf standing nearby. He crossed his arms and bowed; the gesture was returned, respectfully, by the dwarf.

“I was sort of hoping you would manage that particular problem of mine in a more permanent fashion,” he drawled wryly, and Duncan grinned. I had to struggle a bit to understand him; he tended to smash his words together and mumble a bit, and I wondered if that was a common accent among dwarves.

“Sorry about that, friend, but I thought bloodshed on your doorstep might be less than politic.”

“Wouldn’t be any different than what’s happening behind the doors.” He barked a laugh, and then stepped forward to grip Duncan’s forearm. “S’good to see you, Duncan. Been a while.”

“Barik,” Duncan smiled. “It has been. These are my Wardens and associates – may we enter?”

“O’course, old friend. Just don’t expect any help, inside. At the moment, Orzammar’s a civilised-looking warzone.”

“Is the compound still available?”

“Far’s I know,” Barik replied. “Go on in, all of you, before that idiot gathers his friends.”

He opened what looked like a small sally-port beside the main gate, rather than the gate itself; single-file, we entered Orzammar. As the door closed, we heard a commotion; I’d have bet that Imrek had arrived and was making a fuss. I, for one, wasn’t sad to miss that fight, though punching the messenger right in the nose did sound somewhat gratifying.
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