pariswriter: (Default)
Title:  The Ferelden Chronicles - Chapter Eight
Author:  ParisWriter
Game:  Dragon Age: Origins
Summary:  Varia Surana thought her life had already been mapped out for her. She would be a mage of the Circle of Ferelden, studying and perfecting her craft. However, an unforseen series of events sends her headlong into a world thrown into chaos by the King's death and an impending Blight.
Rating:  T/PG-13
Pairings:  Cullen/Surana; eventual Alistair/Surana
Characters (This Chapter):  Varia Surana, Duncan, The Spoiled Princess Innkeeper, King Cailan
Disclaimer:  Dragon Age characters, settings, and any dialogue taken from the game ©BioWare. Varia belongs to me.  
Content Warning:  Mage Origin Spoilers; Overall game spoilers; Adult language; Mild violence; mature content in later chapters

In this chapter: Duncan and Varia make their way to Ostagar, but first Duncan informs her of what Irving's true intentions had been back at the tower... and he also reveals that a story she'd been hearing all her days as a mage is actually real.

Chapter Eight: The Road to Ostagar

Not another word passed through Varia's lips as she and Duncan continued on their short journey across Lake Calenhad and away from Kinloch Hold. Once they reached the dock on the other side, she continued to remain silent while Duncan helped her to dry land and thanked Kester for rowing them across before gathering her pack from the boat and leading her toward a small tavern nearby. An old, weather-worn sign swayed back and forth above the entry door, the words The Spoiled Princess scrawled across the decaying wood in a barely-legible script.

"I have a room here," Duncan told her, which explained the lack of his own pack full of belongings. Surely, she realized, he would not have traveled all the way from Ostagar without any sort of provisions. "We'll get a good night's rest, and then be off at first light."

Varia simply nodded and followed him into the tavern, her mind still reeling from the events of the day which had transpired. Out of everything that had happened, two distinct statements kept repeating themselves in the back of her mind: Jowan is a blood mage and I might never see Cullen again. She looked up wearily once they stepped into the warmer environment of the tavern, and the barkeep began calling out them.

"Welcome back, War--" His voice suddenly cut off mid-greeting when Varia lowered her hood.

"Pardon my asking, ser, but what is she doing here?" he questioned Duncan, turning viciously-narrowed eyes toward the tall man at her side.

"She is my newest recruit," Duncan politely answered, but she could hear a slight edge beneath his well-mannered tone. "I hope there will not be a problem with her spending the night with me here before we move on in the morning."

"I suppose not," the innkeeper said, eying her with contempt. The look on his face brought back a memory of one of her first days at the tower, and she gently grasped Duncan's arm and moved to stand a bit behind him much like she had done with Irving that day.

"I want to make it clear that you two are to be gone tomorrow, though," he warned, shaking a stern finger at them before picking up a glass to wipe it down with a dirty rag. "I don't want her kind in here, scarin' off my best patrons."

Varia almost asked the man, 'What patrons?' From where she was standing, she had a full view of the tavern and aside from her and Duncan the only other two people in the room were a dwarven woman standing near the bar – likely the serving girl – and a man in the corner who had passed out drunk and was sprawled across the top of his table.

"I understand," Duncan replied in his deep voice, bowing slightly to the man and nodding for her to follow him. She quietly stepped in his wake, but glanced back at the innkeeper as they began going up the stairs to the room Duncan had rented. She was surprised to see the man's loathing gaze had turned to one of fear, and when he noticed her looking at him he immediately turned back to his work.

"I suppose Anders was right," she said quietly as Duncan unlocked the door to one of the two rooms above the tavern. "People really do fear us, out here."

"As well they should," Duncan remarked, his voice full of nothing but awe as his dark eyes met her lighter gaze. "I have no doubt in my mind that you are one of the most powerful mages currently alive in Thedas. In fact, I knew from the first time I saw you just how talented you would turn out to be."

"What do you mean?" she asked him, standing stock still in the doorway while he went into the room and placed her pack on a chair in the far corner, next to what she assumed to be his own. Duncan simply turned to her and motioned for her to enter and after a moment she managed to step into the room and close the door behind her.

"I was there, that day," he informed her, leaning against the wall across from the bed. Varia walked over to the small pallet and sat down, not quite sure she understood what he meant. He was there what day?

"I saw what you did to that bandit in the woods," he clarified at her confused look and things suddenly clicked into place. He was speaking of the incident the other enchanters had always whispered about behind her back: the day she had supposedly killed a man.

"It's just a rumor," she denied it, shaking her head slowly from side to side. "It's a story the other mages in the tower concocted because they were jealous of the amount of attention the First Enchanter paid me."

"No, Varia," Duncan corrected her, his tone firm but kind. "You were dragged into the woods by a bandit and you killed him with your magic."

"No," she continued in her denial, standing up and putting herself as far away from where he was standing as she could. She kept her back to him, her arms wrapped tightly around herself to keep from shaking.

"I saw everything," Duncan told her, his voice growing closer as he spoke. "I had been traveling in those woods on my way to Redcliffe on personal business, when I saw that man dragging you through the trees by the collar of your dress. I knew what he would do to you, and so I was going to stop him – but I never got the chance. You screamed and a bolt of lightning shot from your hands and coursed through his entire body. He was dead on the ground by the time I reached him."

Varia's grey eyes filled with tears and she suddenly felt like she was going to be sick. She closed her eyes as tightly as she could and shook her head, attempting to dispel the words Duncan had said like they were some sort of evil curse. She did not kill someone. She couldn't have. Her magic couldn't have possibly been that strong, not at that young age.

"You were under great duress," Duncan continued, resting a hand on her shoulder in an effort to comfort her. "It is not your fault."

She flinched away from his touch, leaning forward against the wall and breathing in rapid, shallow gasps. No, no, no... The word repeated itself over and over in her head. She was a murderer. She was the worst sort of all mages, one who had used her power to harm another living soul. She was what the Chantry warned them about, what the templars said they were all capable of but she had never believed herself able to do. She was a monster.

"That is no excuse," she choked out after a long silence had passed between them. "I killed a man. Maker, how did they ever see fit to allow me to live?"

"Because you were a helpless, frightened child," Duncan replied. "If you had not killed that man, do you think he would have spared you? He would have had his evil way with you and then left you for dead if he didn't simply slit your throat when he was finished with you. And he likely would never have been caught and tried."

"But you were there, too?" she said, turning her tear-streaked face to look at him. "You were going to stop him?"

"Yes." Duncan nodded. "I would have done my best to reach you before he did anything to hurt you, and I would have killed him for trying to rape a child."

"So you're no different from me, then?" she asked, sniffling a bit. "You're a killer, too."

"When I must be, yes," he told her, his dark eyes somber. "But I do my best not to kill innocent people. That man, however, was far from innocent. Once I reached Redcliffe, I heard about what he and his friends had done to your mother and father--"

"What did they do?" she blurted out, cutting him off. "Please... I need to know. I don't remember anything about them. Are they still alive?"

"Your father was killed that day, my child," he informed her, reaching up with one of his large hands to soothingly stroke her hair, and for a moment he once again reminded her of Irving. "Your mother was violated, just as that man you killed had intended to violate you. As far as I know, however, she still lives. Eamon gave her a position on his serving staff after the incident, in fact."

"She's alive?" Varia asked, her eyes going wide with hope. "Do you think I might be able to meet her someday?"

"Perhaps," Duncan told her, nodding slightly. "I cannot promise it, though. The life of a Warden is a lonely, solitary existence. We forsake all of our family and friends to follow this noble calling. For that is what is is: a calling, a duty which cannot be forsworn. After this Blight is dealt with, however... Perhaps we can try to visit her at the arl's castle."

Varia smiled gratefully at him then, her sorrow at her own actions replaced with happiness that he was at least willing to consider taking her to see her mother. Every time she had asked about visiting her parents while in the tower, she had been told – not very kindly, by most people – that it was impossible. The fact that he would even entertain the idea gave her hope. The smile fell from her face as quickly as it had formed, however, when she remembered what Anders and Jowan had said about their parents' reactions to them having magic. Jowan's mother had shunned him and called him a monster while Anders' father had torn him from his mother's arms himself and gladly handed him over to the templars. It seemed most parents of the other mages she had known at the tower had been glad to be rid of their 'cursed' children, with the exception of the Amell siblings. All of them had been gifted with magic, and all of them had been torn away from parents who loved them and wanted nothing more than to keep them close and have them live a normal life.

Life wasn't normal when you were a mage, though. She knew that very well. The past fifteen minutes had opened her eyes and showed her that people really did consider them all monsters who could not control their power – and that it was a fear which had been well-earned. What if her own mother had hated her just as much as Jowan's did? What if they went to Redcliffe and the moment she set eyes upon her child for the first time in nearly fourteen years she got that same look in her eyes that Varia had seen in the eyes of the innkeeper downstairs?

"Maybe I shouldn't go," she quietly said, turning away from Duncan as her eyes once more filled with tears. "I wouldn't be able to stand it if she thinks I'm a monster."

"Your mother cried the day you were taken to the tower," Duncan informed her. "I do not doubt for a second that she would be overjoyed to hold you in her arms once again. After all, you are all she has left of her departed husband."

"You were there for that, too?" she asked him, laughing a bit. The man was certainly a busy-body with a strangely good sense of timing if he happened to witness not one but two of the most life-changing events in her childhood.

"I had business at the arl's castle, and I was leaving just as the First Enchanter arrived. I spoke to him briefly about you and then I hid in the shadows to observe as he tested you and then took you to live and study at the tower."

"I'm guessing it wasn't a coincidence at all, then, that you were at the tower today of all days, was it?"

She looked at him over her shoulder with a slight smile, and he chuckled deep in his throat.

"You are quite perceptive. No, it was no coincidence, at all. In fact, Irving had been planning this day for some time... the past month, at least."

"But why have me taken away so soon after my Harrowing?" she asked, shaking her head. "Or was my Harrowing delayed by Greagoir's meddling?"

Duncan sighed and went to stand against the wall across from the bed once more, running a hand over his tired face with a sigh. "Perhaps you should sit down. It appears I have much to explain to you about what went on today."

Varia raised a curious eyebrow, but did not speak. She simply returned to where she had been sitting on the bed and took a seat, watching him expectantly like a child waiting for a bedtime story from their father.

"You were romantically involved with a templar, Cullen," he began, and her posture immediately stiffened as her heart began to race in a panic. "Irving knew this. He kept his silence, however, for your sake as well as that of your beau – but only because he knew the relationship had not yet progressed to the point of intimacy. As far as he was concerned, the two of you could kiss all you want and it wasn't a breach of the vows he had made."

"He knew... All along, he knew about us?" she whispered, wrapping her head around the notion. How had he known? Had he caught them together? Had they simply been too obvious while interacting with one another? No matter how it happened, he had figured it out, just as she had feared. But Duncan had also said Irving had been covering for them. Perhaps she had misjudged him, once more.

"He loves you like a daughter, you know," Duncan's voice broke through her thoughts. "He has always wanted you to be happy. Well... as happy as one can be living in that tower," he added, not even trying to hide his disgust at the memory of the things the mages he had fought with over the years had told him about life in the Circles. "So when the templars started talking, when rumors started to get around that one of the knights was in love with a mage... He knew he had to act because it would only be a matter of time before they figured out that Cullen was the knight in question and you were the mage he was in love with.

"The original plan was to have you take your Harrowing, and then I would recruit you a week or two later – after you and Cullen had the chance to... consummate your love."

Varia blushed and when she glanced at Duncan she was surprised to see a slight pink tinge on his cheeks, as well. He was a much older man, probably close to the Knight-Commander's age, and he certainly must have had a fair amount of experience in that area with women. Still, it appeared he wasn't as comfortable with talking about it as others might be.

A gentleman, she thought, smiling a bit. He seems the type.

"All that had to change, however, when Uldred informed Irving about his suspicions that Jowan was practicing blood magic."

"Wait," Varia interrupted, holding up a hand to keep him from continuing with his explanation of the recent events in her life. "Uldred was the one who went to Irving about Jowan? Not Greagoir?"

"From what I understand, Uldred went to him first with the suspicion that someone was practicing blood magic. Greagoir was the person who put a name to the rumors."

"But they weren't just rumors," Varia quietly corrected him.

"No," Duncan said with a sigh. "Irving had hoped they were, though."

"He really was willing to make an innocent mage tranquil, then?" she wondered.

"He had no choice, you know that. The Chantry was forcing his hand. So he did what he had to in order to put you into a positive position so he could avoid losing you, as well."

"What do you mean?"

"Once Greagoir confirmed that you were the mage involved with Cullen, he would have sent you away to one of the other Circles, most likely the one in Kirkwall," Duncan informed her, his face grim.

Varia swallowed nervously. She knew all about the Kirkwall Circle. Anders' friend Karl had been sent there a few years ago, and from what Anders told her about the things Karl said in his letters, the place sounded worse than the Void, itself. It had once been a prison, called The Gallows, and the Chantry hadn't done much in the way of converting it into decent living quarters for the mages. They were locked up in their cells at night – like actual prisoners – and treated about as badly as the convicts who had once been housed there. Samson, the templar who Cullen had been brought in to replace, had been sent to The Gallows in order to get 'straightened out' after Greagoir had decided he was being too nice to the mages at Kinloch Hold. He hadn't been able to handle the way the mages were being treated there, though, and he'd ended up leaving the templars  after only a few months at his new post. Which meant things in The Gallows were really bad, because Samson had been the one keeping the other templars in line at the Ferelden Circle when he was serving there.

No... Varia certainly wouldn't have wanted to end up at the Kirkwall Circle.

"So now you see why Irving did what he did?" Duncan asked her.

"I'm beginning to," she replied, turning over everything he had told her so far in her mind.

"He was going to lose Jowan, no matter what. Greagoir would have surely seen to that. Whether or not he lost you, as well, depended upon your involvement with Jowan's plans."

"Let me see if I understand what you're trying to say, here," she said, then paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. "Irving knew Jowan and Lily were planning to escape together, somehow. He also knew Jowan would most likely confide in me and ask for my help, and that I would then go to him seeking his help, in turn. Am I on the right track?"

"So far, yes," Duncan replied, chuckling a bit.

"He forced me to help catch Jowan so that when Greagoir realized I was Cullen's um... sweetheart, he could point out how I'd helped apprehend a blood mage and convince him to let me stay in Ferelden."

"Exactly." Duncan nodded.

"Only Jowan turned out to actually be a blood mage, and instead of assisting in his capture, I ended up aiding in his escape," Varia added, a rueful smile on her face. "And so you had no choice but to conscript me then and there rather than giving Cullen and I some time together before you took me away from the tower for what will most likely be forever."

Duncan did not miss the bitterness in her final statement. She wasn't the first recruit he'd taken with him who resented him for it. He knew she expected him to apologize, but he couldn't. There was nothing he needed to apologize for. He had simply done his job. The fact that he had taken her from her home and the man she loved was of no consequence to him.

"Being a Warden means doing whatever is necessary for the greater good," he explained to her, his tone understanding, but firm. "I don't expect you to understand that, right now, but in time you will. Going back to the earlier topic of our conversation: I decided that day I witnessed your power in the woods that I wanted you for the Wardens once you were older and had taken your Harrowing. I wish that you could have had longer to experience the life of a fully-fledged mage within the Circle before I had to recruit you, but as I have already said several times, there is a Blight coming, and we don't have the luxury of time on our side."

"In that case, perhaps we shouldn't wait until morning to get started on the road," Varia remarked. She stood from her seat on the bed and went over to where he had placed her pack, then adjusted the straps before hoisting it up onto her shoulders.

"Traveling at night is not wise in these parts," Duncan warned her, remaining against the wall rather than moving to gather his own supplies. "There are many wild animals in the woods around here, and they will be using the darkness to their advantage for hunting prey."

"I thought being a Warden meant doing whatever is necessary for the greater good," she replied as she went to retrieve her staff from its place by the door. "Surely, it would be in the best interest of the greater good if we were to arrive in Ostagar as soon as possible. You seem strong, in spite of your age, so I doubt you're really afraid for your own hide when it comes to whatever nasty little beasties might be stalking the forest. Maybe you're just afraid of the dark, then? I have fire for that, you know."

"It is your hide I am concerned with," he informed her, earning himself an icy glare. "You may be a powerful mage, but even you have your limits. You would be no good to the Wardens if you were to end up gutted and gnawed upon by a wolf on the side of the road."

"I've brought plenty of lyrium potions with me," she assured him, though he could see her resolve waver slightly at his mention of what might happen to her. "And healing poultices, should either of us be injured. I don't know about you, but I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight. We might as well get on the road, yes? The sooner we arrive, the better, correct?"

Duncan continued to hold her gaze, attempting to intimidate her with the hardness in his dark eyes, but she refused to back down. Her hand on her hip, a single golden eyebrow raised, her foot tapping impatiently, she eyed him with an unspoken dare.

"Very well, you are right," Duncan finally agreed. He went over to the chair to gather his own pack, securing it on his back in a way that his daggers would still be at hand should he need them to fight off any unwanted enemies. "If we get on the road now, and stop only very briefly to eat here and there, then we should make it to the ruins by mid-day."

"Then let's go," Varia said before opening the door and stepping out into the hallway. She heard him follow her back down into the tavern, and was relieved the find that the owner had either retired for the night or had simply ducked into the back room. She really didn't want to have another confrontation with the man, because only the Maker knew what sort of words might come out of her mouth if he so much as made another off-handed comment about her. Duncan laid the key for the room on top of the bar, and they shuffled through the empty tables toward the door.

"Come back any time!" the dwarven barmaid called to them without looking up from where she was sitting at the bar, working on some sort of wood carving.

Varia simply stepped out into the night and sighed, her breath coming out in a puff of steam. She then pulled the cloak's hood back up over her head to protect her sensitive ears from the cold air and tapped her staff gently on the ground. Immediately, a glowing orb appeared at the end of the weapon, providing them the light they would need to travel by through the dark wooded area at the top of the nearby hill. If the cold became too unbearable, she would conjure fire in her hand to help her stay warm. But, for now, she decided it was best to reserve her mana lest they really encounter some dangerous creatures she would need to help Duncan fight off.

With a final look to the Warden, the two of them set off on their path to Ostagar.

"There it is," Duncan told her when they crested a hill just as the day was breaking. "The ruins of Ostagar."

Varia stepped up next to him and her breath caught in her throat as she laid eyes upon the valley stretching out before them. There were more trees than she had ever thought possible in that one area, as if the entire land mass was just made up of nothing but the forest – no earth, no grass, simply the branches reaching up out of the ground to sway in the light breeze sweeping through the valley. Within the thick forest there were various buildings, and even from a distance she could tell they were in various states of dilapidation.  The only building which still appeared fairly intact was a single spire located near the center of the ruins.

Duncan held one of his hands out to her and she placed her smaller hand in his own. He carefully led her down the opposite side of the hill, his own steps steady and sure as she stumbled and slid down the steep and rocky ground. At one point, she slipped and fell into him, and he let out a deep chuckle as he caught her and set her upright. Eventually they made it to a level path leading toward the ruins, and they decided to take a break and have something to eat before continuing on the final leg of their journey.

"I apologize for my callousness last night," Duncan remarked as he dug through his pack for the rations he'd brought. After a moment, he produced two skins of water and some dried fruit and handed some of each to her. "It's been a very long time since my own recruitment into the Wardens. I've forgotten what it's like to be thrust into a life you never wanted and a world you know nothing about."

"It's all right," Varia replied, blushing a bit and taking a small bite of one of the pieces of dried fruit he had given her. "I apologize, as well. I have no idea what would have become of me if you hadn't been there to step in the way you did. I owe you my life, and for that I'm thankful. I promise to do my best to serve the Wardens diligently, as is expected of me."

Duncan nodded in acceptance of her apology, but he hadn't missed the sad look in her grey eyes. She might have been swearing her loyalty to the Wardens, but he knew she was simply resigning herself to her fate. He made a mental note to be sure she was sent back to the Circle on a regular basis to scout for recruits in order to give her an opportunity to visit with the people she cared about. A small voice at the back of his mind reminded him that it wasn't the way they did things and that there was still a chance she might not even survive her Joining, but he pushed it aside.

"Where are we, anyway?" Varia asked after they had finished eating and once more started toward the ruins, taking in their surroundings with child-like wonder. "I never could have imagined a place with so many trees even existing."

"We are on the edge of the Korcari Wilds," Duncan informed her. "The Tevinter Imperium built Ostagar long ago to prevent the Wilders from invading the northern lowlands. It's rather fitting that we make our stand here, even if we face a different foe within that forest."

"So the darkspawn are already here?" Varia asked, her voice pitching upward slightly in worry.

"The king's forces have clashed with the darkspawn several times," he replied. "Here is where the bulk of the horde will show itself. There are only a few Grey Wardens within Ferelden at the moment, but all of us are here. And we can all feel the horde approaching like a great swarm. The Blight must be stopped here and now. If it spreads to the north, Ferelden will fall."

Varia followed him quietly the rest of the way, turning his words over and over in her head. Things sounded much more dire than he had originally let on when she spoke to him at Kinloch Hold. Before, he had led her to believe that the Blight hadn't even started, but now it was quite apparent that it had not only already begun, but that it was going to get much, much worse if they were unable to put an end to it quickly. She was so deep in her thoughts that she didn't even break her silence when a small pack of rabid wolves attacked them. She simply let loose a chain of lightning to disable them – deciding to forgo her usual fire spells for fear of setting the entire forest around them ablaze – while Duncan went from one to the next and made quick work of them with his dagger and sword. It was a pattern they had immediately fallen into during the occasional scuffles they'd had their journey from Lake Callenhad, and Varia had been quite impressed with how easily he avoided the brunt of her spells. He'd mentioned before that there were other mages in the Wardens, though, so she should have known he'd be well aware how to properly fight alongside those whose primary weapon was magic.

By the time they finally reached the ruins of Ostagar, the sun was already hanging high in the clear blue sky above them. Varia closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the feeling of the warm rays on her face while Duncan greeted the two guards who had been posted at the makeshift gate which was blocking their entry into the rest of the ruins, then continued following him after the gate had been opened to allow them to pass.

"Ho there, Duncan!"

Varia looked past her companion and saw a young man in finely-crafted gold armor walking toward them with a huge grin on his face. His blue eyes sparkled as he and Duncan shook hands in greeting.

"King Cailan? I didn't expect--"

"A royal welcome?" Cailan completed the thought for him, casting a brief glance in her direction before addressing the Warden once more. "Some of the scouts said they spotted you two approaching from the Wilds. I wanted to be the first to welcome you. I was beginning to worry you'd miss all the fun!"

"Not if I could help it, your Majesty," Duncan replied, his tone somewhere between amused and annoyed.

"Then I'll have the mighty Duncan at my side in battle after all!" the king boasted, patting the older man's shoulder before releasing his hand, his smile even wider than it had been before. "Glorious!

"The other Wardens told me you've found a promising recruit," he continued, moving closer to Varia and looking her over. "I take it this is she?"

Varia lowered her eyes to her hands, her face turning very hot under the man's gaze. He was the king, the ruler of all Ferelden, and here she was – a lowly elf and a mage, to boot. To be put under his scrutiny was even more stressful than finding out she was being taken for her Harrowing had been.

"Allow me to introduce you, your Majesty," Duncan offered.

"No need to be so formal, Duncan. We'll be shedding blood together, after all," Cailan lightly chastised him, chuckling a bit. "Ho there, friend! Might I know your name?"

It took Varia a moment to realize she was being addressed, and she briefly looked up to the king before quickly averting her gaze once more. She wasn't normally one to be so shy when meeting somebody new, but it was almost as if there was some sort of deep-rooted instinct within her which prevented her from fully making eye contact with the king.

"I am Varia, your Majesty," she answered quietly, bowing in respect.

"Is something wrong?" Cailan asked her.

"No, your Majesty," Varia assured him, shaking her head.

Cailan made a thoughtful sound and took another step closer to her, bowing his head to the side in order to catch her gaze with his own. When she finally met his eyes, he flashed her his most charming smile.

"A lovely young mage such as yourself shouldn't hide her face," he told her with a wink, earning himself a confused look from her. "Duncan has informed me of your situation. You need not worry, I won't yell or berate you. I'm glad you decided to come back with him."

Varia felt herself blush even more, but she stopped hiding her face and instead properly took him in. He was maybe ten years older than her, with hair the color of the sun and one of the handsomest faces she had ever seen. Despite the easy-gong smile, he had a regal air about him but it wasn't as oppressive as she had originally imagined it. She supposed her years of being around the templars had conditioned her to think that anyone wearing heavy armor was bound to speak abusively toward her, but it seemed the king was a far cry from those brutes.

"Thank you, your Majesty," she told him, a small smile pulling at her lips.

"The Grey Wardens are desperate to bolster their numbers, and I, for one, am glad to help them. I trust you have some spells to help us in the coming battle?"

"I am only recently out of my apprenticehood, but I promise I shall do my best," Varia assured him, her confidence slowly returning.

"Excellent," Cailan replied, reaching out and placing a hand on her shoulder. "We have too few mages here, another is always welcome. The Wardens will benefit greatly with you in their ranks."

"You're too kind, your Majesty," Varia mumbled, biting her lip to keep from giggling like a little girl. She'd heard stories of the king and his father before him, how they were both handsome men who made women swoon with their good looks and well-placed compliments, but she had never dreamed that she would ever be on the receiving end of such attention from a member of the legendary line of Calenhad the Great. Cailan's smile once more grew before finally falling as he let go of her shoulder with a sigh and turned to Duncan.

"I'm sorry to cut this short, but I should return to my tent. Loghain waits eagerly to bore me with more of his strategies."

"Your uncle sends his greetings and reminds you that Redcliffe forces could be here in less than a week," Duncan told him, causing Cailan to let out a short bark of laughter.

"Eamon just wants in on the glory. We've already won three battles against these monsters and tomorrow should be no different. I'm not even sure this is a true Blight. There are plenty of darkspawn on the field, but alas, we've seen no sign of an archdemon."

"Disappointed, your Majesty?" Duncan asked, his jaw tightening as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"I'd hoped for a war like in the tales!" Cailan said wistfully, staring off into the distance with a dreamy look on his face. "A king riding with the fabled Grey Wardens against a tainted god! But I suppose this will have to do."

He sighed and gave them both a slight bow, which Duncan and Varia returned. "I must go before Loghain sends out a search party. Farewell, Grey Wardens!"

Varia had quietly watched the exchange between the two men, and she didn't miss the fact Duncan had been in Redcliffe before arriving at the Circle, visiting with the arl. Which meant he'd been in the very castle where her mother was now employed. So why had he told her he didn't know whether or not her mother still lived? She supposed it was simply a matter of him only being there a short amount of time, though. After all, there were likely to be numerous servants at the castle and he really would have had no reason to seek out or inquire about the well-being of a single elven maid.

"What the king said is true," Duncan told her once Cailan and his personal guard were out of earshot. "They've won several battles against the darkspawn here."

"And yet you don't sound very reassured," Varia remarked, noting the deep worry lines on his face.

Duncan sighed and began walking in the direction the king had went, and Varia followed him. He remained quiet for a couple of minutes as they passed through what appeared to have once been some sort of courtyard before a grand ramp which led to another courtyard. Beyond that, she could see the tower she'd spotted before, rising high into the sky. They eventually reached a long bridge and Duncan stopped, turning to address her once more.

"Despite the victories so far, the darkspawn horde grows larger with each passing day. By now, they look to outnumber us. I know there is an archdemon behind this. But I cannot ask the king to act solely on my feelings."

"Why not?" Varia wondered. "He seems to regard the Wardens highly. Surely, he respects you enough to take you at your word on these things?"

"He does not wish to wait for reinforcements to arrive from the Grey Wardens of Orlais," Duncan explained, and she once more noticed the annoyed tone in his voice. "He believes our legend alone makes him invulnerable. Never mind that our numbers in Ferelden are too few. No... Cailan is a good king, a good man, but he is not a skilled military strategist. So we must do what we can and look to Teryn Loghain to make up the difference."

"Loghain? The Hero of River Dane?" Varia had heard the stories about him while growing up, mostly from the other children who used to argue about who would win in a brawl between him and King Maric. He was a legendary leader, a man who was well-respected by the entire nation as the one who had helped Maric free Ferelden from Orlesian rule and return the rightful line to the throne. Maric had thanked him for his help by raising him up from a commoner to a Teryn, the second-highest rank in nobility below the royal family, itself. It was a story which every child of common blood adored because it gave them hope – no matter how false that hope might be – that they, too, could one day make something greater of themselves and their lives.

"One and the same," Duncan replied with a nod. "To that end, however, we should proceed with the Joining ritual without delay."

"What do you mean? What ritual?"

"Every recruit must go through a secret ritual we call the Joining in order to become a Grey Warden. The ritual is brief, but some preparation is required. We must begin soon."

She had assumed that becoming a Grey Warden entailed nothing more than swearing an oath, but apparently there was much more to it than that and now she was beginning to have second thoughts. She had just undergone her Harrowing, and now she was being asked to take part in another secret ritual in order to join the Grey Wardens. The Harrowing had been taxing enough on her body, and she had no idea what she would be asked to do for this 'Joining' Duncan was speaking of. She wasn't sure if she would be able to handle it.

"Am I the only recruit you have?" she asked, hoping maybe if there were others she would be able to convince him to postpone her participation in this ritual in order to give herself more time to recover from her ordeal at the tower.

"No, there are two others here already. They have been waiting for us to arrive."

Varia let out a sigh of relief. "Wonderful. Let's get this over with, then."

"Feel free to explore the camp as you wish," Duncan offered, gesturing toward the other side of the bridge. "All I ask is that you not leave it for the time being. There is another Grey Warden in the camp by the name of Alistair. When you are ready, seek him out and tell him it's time to summon the other recruits. Until then, I have business I must attend to. You may find me at the Grey Warden tent on the other side of this bridge, should you need me."

"Very well," Varia told him, bowing slightly, then watched him head toward the camp.

It seemed strangely symbolic. As soon as she crossed that bridge, too, she would be officially starting on her journey to become a Grey Warden, for better or for worse. She still wasn't sure if it was a blessing or a curse that Duncan had chosen her and taken her from the Circle, but it was done.

With a deep breath to calm her nerves, she took her first steps across the bridge.
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