tagCelebrities & Fan FictionThere and Back Again Ch. 117-118

There and Back Again Ch. 117-118

byElyssaCousland©

Chapter One Hundred Seventeen: Burn It

"Alright, so...hear me out before you make a judgement, but...I want to burn down the Alienage," Cailan said.

I choked -- on what, I couldn't say -- and began coughing, while Alistair thumped me on the back. Aedan sputtered, face turning an unusual shade of crimson, but Kallian merely raised one eyebrow inquiringly.

Aedan finally managed to get out an entire sentence. "I think you're a lot more sleep-deprived than we thought, Cailan," he ventured.

"Or maybe you had a head injury you didn't tell anyone about during the battle?" I wondered.

Cailan rolled his eyes. "I did ask you to hear me out before you judge," he reminded us.

Alistair waved his arm in a 'go on' sort of gesture, and Cailan nodded at him before turning to Kallian.

"After Denerim was evacuated, it looks like there was a fire started in one of the homes in the Alienage. It burnt a large number of houses, and damaged more. No one was hurt, but it's going to have to be rebuilt. And it gave me an idea.

"Look, I know it's been your home, but the fact is, the Alienage is a mess. It's impossible to keep clean, the houses are falling down, plagues keep spreading there...no one should live like that."

"We've never exactly had much of a choice," Kallian defended.

Cailan threw up his arms excitedly. "No, no, I'm not blaming you. You've done the best you could with what you have. But that's the point, really. You didn't have much to work with, and then once people were living there, it was very difficult to do anything about it, even if someone had tried. We couldn't kick out dozens or hundreds of people while we renovated their homes, and doing it one building at a time was too expensive and time consuming, not to mention the nobility would not have approved the expenditure even if it were possible."

Cailan continued, breathless and enthusiastic, not allowing anyone else to get a word in edgewise, "That's why this is the perfect opportunity. The Alienage is empty, likely for a couple more weeks, and half of it is already destroyed. There's no one to displace. We have a few trustworthy mages available to help us, and the nobility are busy doing other things. If the rest of the Alienage burned while everyone was evacuated, they wouldn't have to approve a motion to rebuild, because I have sole discretion over the budget during an emergency -- and then we could do it right, without a fight. Highever and Amaranthine won't be ready for the stonemasons for a while yet, so those that came from Orzammar are going to be sitting on their thumbs anyway -- and we've already paid for their services. There's a lot of old stone quarries around Denerim that could be reopened.

"We could build multi-story stone buildings, give each family more space, and still have room to spare. We could expand the green space around the Vhenadahl, maybe build a school? It wouldn't even cost that much, especially if the returning residents helped with the construction. The biggest problem will be housing people during the reconstruction, but fortunately it's summer. We could set up temporary camps outside the gates, allow hunting nearby to supplement food stores...we have the army to build camps like we did in the Bannorn. As long as we can keep any rain off, it shouldn't be unbearable until the first buildings are ready, and then people can crowd in and share until everything is finished.

"It gives us an excuse to arm the elves -- they need to protect themselves while living outside of the city, and to hunt. It allows us to improve the Alienage, and even employ some of the elves temporarily as labourers during the building."

He finally stopped, gulping breaths of air rather comically at the end of his hurried speech. He glanced back and forth between Aedan and Kallian, expecting -- correctly -- that the two of them would have the strongest opinions on the subject.

I didn't know what to think. In some ways it made sense -- the Alienage really was a travesty, and burning it to the ground seemed like one of the few ways to recover it, especially if it was as badly damaged as Cailan said -- but where would all those people live during the construction? It would take a lot of time to build as much as he was suggesting, and the evacuees were expected back within weeks at the most. I was also concerned about the likelihood of backlash in the Landsmeet; most nobles' opinions on the city elves seemed to consist of a 'survival of the fittest' mentality. I doubted there was any money left in the Arl of Denerim's estate to cover it either, though it should have been the Arl's responsibility -- if only there was an Arl of Denerim right now -- and not Vaughn or Howe, either.

Aedan shared my concern about the cost, and he and Cailan immediately began debating the viability of the plan from that perspective. Kallian was surprisingly quiet. I expected her to be either enthusiastic at the prospect of making the Alienage livable, or angry at the idea of burning down the rest of her former home, but she just kept her gaze fixed firmly in her lap while Cailan and Aedan brain-stormed the funding aspect. I was barely listening, mind awhirl with possibilities and risks, but it sounded like Aedan thought it was possible.

Finally, when Kallian still hadn't said anything, Cailan addressed her directly. "What do you think?"

She looked up at him, tilting her head slightly. "I think nicer houses won't fix the biggest problem Ferelden -- and the rest of Thedas -- faces with elves." Cailan's face fell, and she held up a hand. "Don't get me wrong -- it would be nice not to worry that the next stiff breeze will blow down someone's home, and to have somewhere for the homeless to go, but without jobs, and income, and the ability to defend ourselves from those who would do us harm, it'll be just a differently-decorated slum. When most humans see us as less worthy of respect than the rodents we end up eating, why bother putting us in prettier houses?"

Cailan looked crestfallen. "I want to improve the elves' lives. I want you to have safe places to sleep and not risk frostbite all winter. I want you to be seen as citizens. It's not going to happen overnight, Maker knows, but can't we at least try? I will do my best to change our culture, a little at a time, but this might be our only opportunity to really address the housing situation. Once everyone is back, as it stands, most of the elves will be homeless, and I think we all know the nobility as a rule will leave them to fend for themselves."

Kallian examined Cailan's earnest face for a long silent moment, and I could almost see the wheels spinning. I wonder what she's looking for. Finally she nodded. "If you can manage the details -- housing for my people during the renovations, funds for the construction -- then I agree, and I will help you. Most people have taken their few valuables with them out of the Alienage, so it's as good a time as we're likely to get."

Aedan nodded agreement, and Cailan turned to Alistair and I, sitting together, stunned. "Yes?" he asked. "I'd like as much support as I can get."

Alistair squeezed my hand once, and it knocked me out of my reverie. "Yes, of course. If you think it can be done, we're behind you."

Aedan interjected, "Send messengers to Nathaniel and Fergus -- I know they'll back you too. Highever has always been better about elven rights, and Nathaniel's no racist. I bet Leonas and Alfstanna would too -- and the more obvious support you have, the less backlash. Lots of the nobility have gone home, but send messengers, and I'm sure at least some will agree."

"Right." Cailan ran his hand through his hair, rubbing his scalp thoughtfully. "If we're going to do this, it's got to be now -- as soon as possible. We need the mages to burn the rest of the Alienage right away, before anyone thinks to look at the extent of the damage. I 'borrowed' a handful of mages from the Circle -- in addition to the healers -- to supplement the army and eventually reinforce Amaranthine, and there's three I think would help us and keep their mouths shut. Do you suppose any of the Warden mages would help?"

I nodded. "I'll go ask, but I wouldn't be surprised. I'll be right back."

"Meet us by the east gate, instead -- we'll try to avoid too much notice, yes?" Cailan suggested.

I ran back to where our group had set up, finding Alim and Anders playing chess in the small dining room we'd borrowed. Solona was in her room -- a room she was sharing with Anders, I was pleased to note -- and quickly joined us when I called her. I avoided asking Wynne -- who was probably too busy healing anyway -- guessing that she'd be less than approving of our plan. Which should probably make me second guess the wisdom of the plan, but...Nah. It's got to be done.

I explained the plan in hurried whispers as we headed to the east gate; all three mages were more than happy to lend their aid to the cause.

"I'm not much good with fire," Anders declared, while I shushed him, looking around to see who could be listening. "I'm pretty good with ice, though, so I can help keep the fire from raging out of control," he whispered.

"Protect the Vhenadahl at all costs," I suggested. Alim nodded, but Anders just looked at me in confusion. "The big tree," I elaborated, and he nodded. "The walls should keep the fire from spreading to the rest of the city."

When we met up with Cailan, Aedan, Alistair, and Kallian, the four had three unfamiliar, elven mages with them, as well as Zevran, of course, and Wulf, who nodded at me when I arrived, but stayed firmly behind Kallian like a shadow. A number of soldiers also joined us, armed and armoured, though not wearing royal livery. The group of us left through the side gate, walking quickly but quietly across the city and through a large gate to the Alienage.

I stopped, shocked at the destruction the initial fire had caused; where Kallian's father's home had been, across a large square from the Vhenadahl, there was now nothing but a burnt out shell filled with rubble and mud. The fire had originated in the larger building next door, a run-down two-story affair that had barely looked inhabitable at the best of times, but it was now burned to the ground. All of the buildings around it -- mostly dilapidated shacks -- were damaged, and the fire had clearly spread across the roofs to the next few rows of houses as well. Several buildings were open to the sky, spears of charred wood no longer holding anything up standing all around.

It was depressing, but while I felt sad and slightly ill, Kallian looked remarkably unaffected, and then I remembered she'd already been to the Alienage to bring those who'd refused to evacuate to the Palace.

"It's a miracle no one was hurt," Alistair breathed, wrapping his arm around my waist as I stared somberly at the wreckage.

I was jolted from my shock when Cailan called out orders softly. "Spread out, search every remaining building -- I don't want any accidental deaths or injuries."

We all nodded and went to work, Alistair and some of the soldiers breaking down locked doors while Aedan, Wulf, and Zevran picked locks; Kallian and I followed and checked inside once the doors were open. It was horrifying, actually, violently breaking in to what was someone's home -- especially seeing the pathetic state of many of those houses. They were barren, as I would expect of an area that had been evacuated, but more than that it was obvious even so the abject squalor many of the elves lived in. There were homes that Kallian said housed six or eight people, but with only one, lumpy straw mattress surrounded by spaces where people had slept huddled on scrounged wooden planks or other makeshift pallets. Most had one or two chairs, at most, and many had no other furniture at all.

There were odd, abandoned belongings that, without words, Kallian and I began gathering up as we went, making a pile on a scavenged wooden slab: small stuffed animals and dolls, hand-carved toys, wooden and ceramic plant pots, articles of clothing, and other small keepsakes were all saved and put aside, and I hoped Kallian would be able to find their owners once everyone returned.

We didn't find anyone living there. Even squatters had found better places to stay, I supposed; the thought made me even sadder. Cailan looked horrified, and I wondered if it was his first time in the Alienage. Once the entire area was cleared, those of us without magic gathered near the Vhenadahl while the mages planned strategy. My spine tingled as Anders and two of the others started casting, laying down a thick layer of ice on the ground surrounding the tree, spreading it to the nearest walls facing onto the green space. Once that was done, Anders planted himself in front of the group of us as the other mages spread out throughout the Alienage.

The plan was to set small fires, and then use magic to encourage them to spread, rather than just blasting the entire place with magical flames; I held my breath as I felt the spells that started the fires. It didn't take long before there was smoke pouring out of the buildings the mages occupied, and soon the mages themselves were standing outside, arms spread, spells periodically magnifying the heat or containing the blaze to prevent it from burning out of control. As the flames crept nearer the Vhenadahl, Anders went to work with controlled blasts of ice, keeping the heat from rolling over those of us standing nearby.

In the end it took a couple of hours for the mages to drive the fires to all corners of the Alienage, scorching some of the surrounding stone walls for appearance's sake. As an observer, it was a frightening thing to see at times, with flames leaping from building to building and smoke pouring into the sky; evening fell, and it looked even more impressive, lighting up the night sky. As we finished, a large group of soldiers, following Eamon and a couple of other nobles I didn't recognise, showed up carrying axes and buckets -- obviously planning to fight the flames -- but by the time they'd arrived, the fires were all but out.

Eamon sputtered as he approached. "Your Majesty! What are you doing here?"

Cailan turned calmly towards the older man. "We had reports of a fire, so I grabbed the nearest mages and brought them here to combat it. Thanks to these Wardens, and mages on loan from the Circle, the fires have been put out -- but I'm afraid most of the Alienage is unsalvageable."

I had to hide my smile at Cailan's blatant lie, and I noticed several of the soldiers and mages suppressing smirks as well. Eamon began loudly bemoaning the destruction, and when the last of the mages gave us the nod, Cailan put his arm across the Arl's shoulders, ushering the man back towards the Palace, with us, the mages, and the soldiers following behind.

"Uncle," I heard Cailan say, "I had no idea you were so sensitive to the needs of city elves. I have an idea -- what if I put you in charge of the reclamation and rebuilding? I've got a budget in mind..."

I almost giggled at poor Eamon's surprised, reluctant agreement as the two began discussing stone work and unskilled labour as Cailan cleverly implied (without promising anything) that if Eamon performed well enough, he might be considered for the vaunted Royal Chancellor position I knew he'd been aiming for from the start.

The soldiers and mages returned to their quarters, but Kallian followed us back to our common area, laughing with us as we talked about poor Eamon's new role. I wondered how he'd react to working side-by-side with Kallian during planning and construction.

*****

For the next several weeks there was a flurry of activity around the Palace. Cailan had the stonemasons, some of the nobles, Kallian, and Eamon in meetings, drawing up plans for the reconstruction, and had tasked some of the army with building temporary housing for the elves outside of the gates of Denerim. They erected the wooden platforms the army had used to keep water and mud out of the tents, and built a few communal, covered wooden structures for cooking and dining. Some of the scouts were sent hunting, hoping to provide food not only for the elves, but for the returning peasants until the harvest could be brought in and the markets returned to normal.

Some of the soldiers had been miners or farmers before joining the battle, and those that could be spared were sent to help bring in harvest and re-open the stone quarries near Denerim, and stone blocks began slowly moving into the city for the construction. There wasn't much for the Wardens to do in Denerim, once all the returning soldiers had been declared free of the taint, so Aedan organised patrols for the roads between the quarries and the city to protect the caravans of stone.

Evacuees began slowly filtering back into the city; the families and staff of many of the nobles had been sent by boat to the Free Marches, and they were some of the first to return -- including Isolde and Connor. Commoners and elves started to return, and it wasn't long before the market district was again full of loud, boisterous activity.

Food was at a premium, but between the harvest coming in from nearby farmlands and the smoked meat brought in by the army, no one went hungry, though soldiers had to guard the carts that distributed the supplies to anxious residents to ensure everyone got only their fair share. There was grumbling when people realised elves were being fed exactly the same as the humans, but when the extent of the damage to the Alienage became obvious, most of the complaining was silenced.

It was going to be a lean winter, I knew, but with the extreme organization that Cailan had instituted, not to mention the messages being sent around Thedas hoping for disaster relief or at least favourable trade agreements, I had hope that Denerim would come out of the Blight relatively unscathed.

It became obvious, before long, that a fairly large number of the urban population had settled in the Free Marches, or wherever they had fled when Denerim was evacuated, and once it was clear that certain businesses would not reopen, Cailan cautiously gave permission for some of the elves to open booths in the market. They sold clothing, baskets, crafts, and whatever else they could make from what raw materials they could find or buy; there were those who refused to purchase items from the 'knife-ears', but it was reasonably well-received when it became clear that it would keep the prices low for necessary items.

As the camp outside the gate filled with elves, Kallian began working with some of the soldiers to teach a few of the elves basic combat techniques and hunting; a small militia was formed, with the goal of defending the camp from wildlife, bandits and the like, and they aided the guards with patrolling around the camp. Tensions flared at first, but began to relax as armed elves did not attack the human guards tasked with teaching or defending them, and the groups started working together.

I heard Anora had returned to the city, under guard; I didn't see her, and Cailan seemed to be doing well keeping her out of his thoughts. I didn't want to bring her up, not when he was doing so well, so I kept my curiosity to myself. I'll find out eventually, anyway.

During all of this activity, the Wardens remaining in Denerim and I ended up extremely bored. We couldn't go anywhere until the delegation from Weisshaupt arrived, and the celebration of the end of the Blight took place -- Cailan had planned it to coincide with All Soul's Day, a summer holiday celebration that would happen in a little under two months. There's only so much training even the Wardens can do.

Aedan received a letter from Fergus, saying they had taken back Castle Cousland without any difficulty, and that Nathaniel had tracked down Thomas Howe in some brothel in Highever -- named the Dewy Petal, of all the ridiculous things -- high out of his mind on opium. I didn't even know opium was a thing, in Thedas. Huh. Apparently Thomas had left the castle after news of his father's death and loss of titles had reached him, and after he assaultied a prostitute, some enterprising madam had hooked him on the addictive opium as a way of keeping him less aggressive. Nathaniel was going to take Thomas to Amaranthine and see what he was like once the drug withdrawal was over; Fergus had begun the recovery process in Highever, but promised to be in Denerim for the celebration.

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