There and Back Again Ch. 107-108

byElyssaCousland©

Aedan and Alistair shared another meaningful look, and my brother raised one eyebrow. Alistair nodded, and they turned back to Duncan in unison. "We'll share it."

Aedan continued, "Can we be co-Commanders? We can share the administrative duties, take turns leading in the field and remaining behind to hold the fort. We can figure out the details later."

Duncan smiled proudly. "That's what I hoped for, to be honest. I suggest Sierra, as technically the third-most senior Warden, as a tie-breaker should you fail to find agreement on important decisions. I will write my recommendations up and send them to Weisshaupt immediately." I scowled, and Aedan took the opportunity to stick his tongue out at me. I laughed.

"There's something else we need to discuss, however."

That sounded ominous. Aedan tilted his head curiously while Alistair frowned, recognising Duncan's tone as being more serious.

"We need to discuss relations between the Fereldan Wardens and Weisshaupt." Duncan rose, pacing back and forth across the small tent, three sets of eyes watching him attentively. "Cailan has some concerns, echoed by Loghain, about the politics at Weisshaupt, and what they will mean for the Grey Wardens left in Ferelden after the Blight." He turned to me. "Do you know anything about that?"

"Very little. There was an expansion to the game, starting six months after the Blight, describing the events with the Mother and the Architect, but there was very little said about Weisshaupt. They sent a rather unpleasant woman to be a treasurer of sorts, which struck me really as a way of trying to assert some control, but that was all. And the next game mentioned the Grey Wardens almost as an afterthought -- it was about the problems in Kirkwall with mages and templars and Qunari. There was supposed to be a third game, eventually, but I honestly don't know if it's been released yet. All that I know about Weisshaupt, really, was in a book written about your trip into the Deep Roads with Maric and Fiona, and it didn't leave me with a favourable impression. The reaction to Riordan's request for aid hasn't improved that any."

Duncan nodded. "I would like to disagree, but I have to admit I am also worried." He sat down abruptly again. "There are some ways in which Loghain was not wrong. The fact of the matter is that Weisshaupt has always treated the Fereldan Wardens as subordinates of those in Orlais. My orders, messages from Weisshaupt...all of them come through Orlais. I have always had far more contact with Commander Clarel than directly from Weisshaupt.

"I have fought that, tried to keep the influences of Orlais on us to a minimum -- and Clarel has no desire to be involved in Ferelden, which helps -- but I have been thwarted at every attempt to change things. When I've sent communications directly to the First Warden, or have recommended that politically, allowing my orders to come through Orlais is a bad idea, I've been ignored or reprimanded. I requested that they send Grey Wardens from Nevarra, Antiva, or the Free Marches instead of Orlais when it became clear the Blight would be in Ferelden, but they refused and offered only those from Orlais, which were, of course, blocked by Loghain.

"Even recruiting more Grey Wardens has been difficult -- they would routinely withhold Archdemon blood when I requested supplies. Before Ostagar, I had enough blood to perform perhaps one last Joining ritual. They claimed it was due to concerns that I would alienate the nobility if I recruited too freely, but there were plenty of good potential recruits who wouldn't have ruffled any feathers."

"So what is it you want us to do?" Alistair looked profoundly disturbed.

"King Cailan has suggested, and I don't disagree, that once the Blight is over, ended without the help of the rest of the Order, that the Grey Wardens of Ferelden declare themselves as separate from Weisshaupt. He has promised to provide tithes in the form of coin, supplies, and accommodations at Soldier's Peak indefinitely. In return, he has made some sensible requests to have the Wardens work with Ferelden's armies, especially the scouts, to increase our access to intelligence on the darkspawn's activities, and requested that we set up small stations throughout the country as watch posts and to foster improved relations with the people. He has recommended to Queen Sereda that Orzammar should have a more permanent Grey Warden presence, and suggested an alliance between Fereldan and dwarven Grey Wardens, as well as amending the treaty we currently hold so that Orzammar will provide aid only to the Fereldan Wardens. The Dalish have already agreed to such an amendment, and asked only for communication between the clans and the Wardens."

"Would Weisshaupt even accept that?" Aedan's brow was furrowed in thought.

"They wouldn't have much choice, especially if we were backed by the Fereldan nobility and army. The worst they could do is refuse aid in future against the next Blight, but as we've seen, they can already do that, not to mention that it is unlikely the next Blights will begin in Ferelden anyway -- it is far more likely they will be requesting aid from us. We could offer an alliance, treaties and the like, and we will have some leverage, once this Blight is ended, after all."

Aedan looked confused, but I immediately understood. "Archdemon blood."

Duncan nodded. "Blood, bone, scales...the last Blight was four hundred years ago. While they still have some stores of Archdemon blood, I imagine their supply is running low. We will have the only access to a fresh source. Which is another thing we need to discuss later."

"So you think we should do this? Declare our independence, and hold the Archdemon blood hostage for their agreement? Can we even do it, be Grey Wardens, without Weisshaupt's support?" Alistair looked like he felt ill, and I couldn't blame him. I could only wonder what sort of ripple effect such a massive change would have on the Thedas that I had originally experienced only through games.

"I think you must. I don't see the Fereldan monarchy accepting the hypocrisy we've seen -- the politics, the control tactics, refusing to acknowledge Ferelden as its own entity -- and continuing to support Grey Wardens if we're still part of the Order. I don't even want to think about what Weisshaupt's reaction will be to Avernus' altered Joining formula. I have sent a messenger with the new formula and what we know about it to all of the Warden Commanders in Thedas, as well as Weisshaupt -- they aren't going to be happy about it."

"Duncan! You rebel!" I couldn't help but be impressed.

We spent another few minutes discussing the processing required for Archdemon blood. It was certainly something I hadn't known about from the game, and I was sure if Duncan hadn't survived, the blood would have gone to waste. There were supplies needed, and only a Grey Warden could do any of the harvesting -- the risk to anyone else who came too near the extremely tainted substance would be enormous. Aedan and Alistair secured Duncan's agreement to inform the rest of the Grey Wardens about the process, just in case. Aedan also insisted he would offer the others a choice between remaining with the Fereldan Grey Wardens or being transferred elsewhere if they'd prefer.

When offered, not one wanted to leave.

That night, Alistair and I desperately made love in our tent; when we finished, as we cuddled together, something would set us off and we'd begin again. It probably wasn't the healthiest way of dealing with our fear, and the grief we knew we would be confronting within a few days, one way or the other, but it was all we had, and it was enough just to be together in every way.

I was woken from a dead sleep sometime later by Aedan rapping stiffly on the fabric of our tent. Knowing he wouldn't be able to hear my reply, I squirmed out of a confused, drowsy Alistair's arms, slipped into a nightgown, and stuck my head outside of the tent.

"What is it?" It was raining again, and I was irritated not only to be wet and cold, but also awake instead of sleeping soundly with my husband.

"Have you seen Zevran?"

I rolled my eyes. "Aedan, believe me, I haven't left this tent for hours. I've seen no one but Alistair."

"I can't find him. Sten and Oghren are also missing, as is Duncan."

Alistair pulled a tent flap aside, crawling over me to stick his own head out. "They're missing?"

Aedan looked absolutely inconsolable. I sighed. "Give us a minute to get dressed."

Alistair and I scrambled into our armour haphazardly, tumbling out of the tent a few moments later. The three of us closed our eyes, trying to feel if there were any Grey Wardens in directions we didn't expect. I could feel those I expected -- the three Orlesians and our junior Wardens -- but Duncan was apparently outside of my range. Alistair and Aedan found the same thing.

We searched the camp, and finding nothing, headed to Cailan's encampment within the nearest battalion. We split up to better cover the ground, and I'd reached the southern edge of the battalion's tent city when I caught a momentary sensation of the taint further south. Unable to determine, in that brief moment, whether it was Grey Warden or darkspawn, I fingered my daggers, debated my options, and headed out past the last row of tents. The sensation grew as I walked, and within fifty steps I was certain that what I felt was no raiding party; it was Duncan, but he wasn't alone. Anxious, remembering what had happened in the Deep Roads, I followed the taint further from camp, into the woods and to a small clearing.

I gasped, covering the last hundred feet at a run. I could see Duncan, looking unharmed, with several darkspawn corpses at his feet. I could feel two more Grey Warden signatures that I didn't recognise, which was strange, given we weren't missing any other Grey Wardens, but what had me tripping over myself to hurry was what, or rather who, was standing next to Duncan. I could see white-blond hair, bronze skin, and long, elegant ears. It was Zevran.

And he was holding a chalice.

"Stop!" I shouted, and the elf paused as he raised the chalice to his lips. I stumbled, falling to one knee, before leaping back to my feet. I got perhaps twenty feet away, near enough to see Sten and Oghren lying in the mud, and to hear the elf's words.

"I must, cara mia. Tell Aedan...tell him I am sorry." And then he lifted the chalice, before I could stop him, and drank. His eyes rolled back and he screamed, once.

I reached him just in time to catch him as he fell, and unprepared as I was, I crumpled to the ground, the unconscious elf in my arms weighing me down. I settled him to the ground, scrambling to check his pulse, but my Warden senses told me what I needed to know before the throbbing under my fingertips reassured me: he had survived. And so had Oghren and Sten, from the taint I could feel resonating from their blood.

I looked up at Duncan, holding the chalice with a sad, wary expression on his face. "Aedan may never forgive you." I looked back down at the Antivan, smoothing back a lock of hair that had fallen across his face.

"I know."

"Then...why?" I stood, glaring at my honourary father.

"He forced my hand." Duncan sighed, his frown deepening. "He volunteered. They all did. And when I refused, he threatened to tell Grey Warden secrets to anyone who would listen. He knew, Sierra. Knew he could die in the Joining, knew he could die killing the Archdemon. He wanted to be ahead of Aedan in the kill priority. He told the others that Aedan, or you, could die trying to kill the Archdemon, and they all insisted they Join."

I sighed. I feel like I should have seen that coming. "I'll kill him myself, if Aedan doesn't." I looked at the unconscious forms in a rough semi-circle around Duncan and sighed again. "You had to do this in the middle of nowhere?"

"Zevran's idea. He didn't want to chance Aedan stopping him."

"Of course." I rolled my eyes in exasperation. "I'll go get the others to drag them back to camp."

I found Alistair, first, frantically searching for me, worried I'd disappeared as well; I brought him with me to find Aedan, Faren, and Bel, insisting they follow me but not telling them why. I led them to the clearing, stepping aside to allow them to see what I'd seen and draw their own conclusions. It took a moment, the chalice now nowhere in sight as a visual clue, but the sensation of extra Grey Wardens in the clearing couldn't stay unnoticed for long, and as a group, the four of them gasped.

"No!" Aedan fell to his knees beside Zevran, pulling the elf's unmoving form into his arms.

I dropped to my knees beside my brother, arm around his shoulders. "He lives, Aedan. I checked before I came to get you. He's going to be fine."

Aedan shuddered and turned his face into my shoulder as Alistair checked on Sten and Oghren, confirming what I already knew -- they'd all survived. Thank God for Avernus...or I suppose I should thank the Maker.

Easing Zevran back down to the ground, Aedan stood and squared his shoulders to Duncan, scowling. "How could you?"

He took one step towards the Rivaini before I was in front of him, hands on his arms, hoping to circumvent the explosion I knew was coming. "He volunteered, Aedan."

"Doesn't matter. He should have refused!" He waved his arm in Duncan's direction, almost shaking me off.

"He did. And Zevran threatened to tell all of Thedas the secrets he's managed to ferret out."

Aedan practically growled. "So let him! We are separating from Weisshaupt anyway. What's the difference?"

I had no good answer for that one, even though I suspected he didn't really mean it. Fortunately, we were saved from an ugly confrontation by a moan and a shudder from the elf in question; Aedan immediately dropped to a knee beside him and gathered the semi-conscious assassin in his arms. "This isn't over," he threatened, and Duncan just nodded sadly. Aedan scooped Zevran up and headed off towards the camp. I hope Zev can convince him not to murder Duncan...

I turned to the two dwarves, and gestured to a sleeping Oghren. "Could you...?"

Faren sighed. "Why not? Isn't the first time, won't be the last..." He and Bel each grabbed an arm and hauled, dragging their red-headed friend back to his tent.

Alistair looked at Sten and whined. "Why do I have to carry the Qunari? He's heavy!"

I pulled Alistair's shoulder until he leaned down towards me and I could whisper in his ear. "How about because there's a reward?" He looked at me, confused, and I waggled my eyebrows in an Oghren impression. "What, you're going to let Duncan claim it?" I punctuated my innuendo with a flick of my tongue over Alistair's sensitive earlobe, smirking as he gasped. I released his shoulder and leaned over Sten's prone form. "Come on, you big baby, I'll help." In the end Duncan and I both had to help carry all eight feet of hornless kossith back, depositing the big man in his own tent.

I turned to Duncan. "I get it with Zevran, but why did Oghren do it? Or Sten? Did they say?"

"I'll let them tell you themselves. In the morning."

He looked so sad, I stepped in and gave him a hug, kissing his cheek gently. "Goodnight, Duncan."

And then I was dragged into our tent by Alistair, where I proceeded to give him his reward, and then some.

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