Reunions and separations abound, and Leliana contemplates them all.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 14: Before the Dawn)
Leliana sat beside the campfire, stroking the small child’s dark hair as he slept with his head in her lap. The entire group had been through more than their share of trials, but Connor Guerrin’s brief ten years of life had been fraught with far too much pain for one so young. The ritual to free him from the demon had been successful. But while his beloved father remained silent and still from the poison in his veins, and his mother wailed in flamboyant Orlesian misery, the poor traumatized boy was taken away from the only home he’d known, to be locked in a Circle tower forever.
It wasn’t right, the bard thought. Surely this was not what the Maker intended for his beloved children.
She was drawn from her thoughts by approaching footsteps, and gave Aedan a sad smile as he sat beside her. “How is he doing?” the Warden asked quietly.
She shrugged. “As well as can be expected, after being taken from his home and family. Though in truth, bringing him with us may be kinder than leaving him in Redcliffe would have been, even despite the chaos at the Circle tower.”
Aedan tried to lighten her mood. “Isolde tips the balance, I think. Escaping that melodramatic harpy always has to be the better alternative.”
“Believe it or not, she is far calmer than some of her Orlesian relatives. No, it’s true!” She laughed at his doubtful expression. “I wonder if Eamon knew magic runs in her bloodline? Though I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered. Bards of the time made much of the passionate romance between the governor’s daughter and the bold Fereldan rebel who claimed the girl’s heart as he reclaimed his lands.”
“Wait. They sang romantic songs about Eamon kicking out the Orlesians…in Orlais?”
“Of course! This is the heart of being Orlesian, to know there is nothing so dire it cannot be set aside in favor of a good story.”
Aedan snorted in typical Fereldan disgust, but he grinned when she giggled. Slowly, the look in his green eyes shifted from merriment to appreciation.
In her years as a bard, she’d seen that look in the eyes of many men, and more than a few women. She knew exactly where it could lead. But after her time in the Chantry, she hesitated…not for fear of the Maker’s disapproval, but because she did not want to fall back into her easy old habits of manipulation. She wanted real affection, not as a bard, but as herself.
‘He really is so young,’ she thought, looking at the Warden’s handsome face. Few would have guessed Aedan was ten years her junior. But something in his bearing enhanced him and belied his youth. Perhaps tragedy had aged him. Maybe it was the indefinable strength that made him a Grey Warden, or even the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Whatever the cause, Leliana didn’t see him as just another young admirer. He was…something more.
She carefully extricated herself from beneath the sleeping Connor, and extended a hand to the Warden. “Shall we go for a walk?” she asked.
And they did.
Just under a month after they left the mage tower, they made their safe return. Leliana smiled as Alistair helped Connor down from the dwarven merchant’s wagon. Though they weren’t truly related and the man had been sent away before the boy was born, Alistair’s behavior reminded her of nothing so much as an overprotective older brother. It was sweet.
Connor waved farewell to Bodahn’s son Sandal. Despite the young dwarf’s seemingly limited mental capacity, his sunny disposition had set the boy at ease. Between Sandal and Alistair, Wynne’s grandmothering, and Leliana’s care, Connor had found at least a few moments of peace. She beseeched the Maker to bring him similar comfort in the foreboding Circle tower.
When they’d reached the small dockside town late that morning, most of their party decided to stay in the inn for the day. Aside from the mages (minus Morrigan), the only ones waiting for the ferry were Aedan, Alistair, Rob, and herself. Leliana tried not to feel ancient as the three young men fell into now-familiar patterns of friendly harassment.
“Are you sure you can bear to be parted from your new light of love while we’re at the tower?” Alistair teased Rob, though he still wore a look of vague disgust at the whole idea.
When Rob didn’t reply, Aedan picked up the thread. “No, Alistair; it’s still daylight, so it’s fine,” the Warden grinned. “Morrigan won’t need him until later.”
Leliana stifled a laugh when innocent Alistair reacted far more than Rob, who simply stretched lazily and smiled. “You waiting for me to argue? It’s not like I go to her tent to play chess and discuss philosophy.”
“Tsk tsk,” said Aedan. “Whatever will your sister think of these antics? I’ll have to ask her.”
“Nah,” said Rob, smirking. “Have Alistair do it. I’m sure he’d be totally comfortable talking to Rae about sex.”
This time Leliana did laugh; it was impossible not to giggle at Alistair’s expression…a complex mix of disgruntled, horrified, embarrassed, and a tiny bit intrigued. He opened his mouth to retort, thought better of it, and, mustering all his composure, said haughtily, “I’m going to check on Connor.”
Leliana wiped her eyes as the other two burst out with renewed laughter. “You are a very bad man,” she said to Rob shaking her head with a grin.
The bard meandered toward the infirmary. The scholar had vanished after greeting them in the entry hall. Before Shanna started bombarding Rob with news, she’d told Leliana where Rae had probably gone.
Alistair was with the mages helping Connor get settled, and Aedan was celebrating his reunion with Hohaku by taking him to play with the youngest mage apprentices and templar recruits. Their elders no doubt disapproved of their roughhousing in the Great Hall, but their debt of gratitude to the Warden allowed him to do as he pleased.
So, the redhead had been at loose ends and went in search of her friend. But as she neared the door, she heard voices and stopped to listen.
“…and I told Shanna to tattle on you, so don’t think you can overdo it just because I’m gone,” said Raven, getting a disgruntled snort in response. “I mean it, Cullen. You’re doing much better, but I know pain is exhausting. I got shot in the arm a while back, and even that minor wound still hurts sometimes; I can’t imagine the aches you must have. But honestly, I’m more concerned about…all the rest. Promise me that if you’re having difficulty coping, or the nightmares get worse, you’ll talk to someone.” There was no reply until she softly added, “Promise me. Please.”
“Fine,” he sighed with ill grace. “You have my word.”
So, Leliana thought, leaning silently against the stone wall of the hallway and eavesdropping shamelessly, this was Alistair’s friend, the templar they’d freed from the blood mages. Raven was right to be concerned. The body healed more easily than the heart and mind.
“Shanna will meet you for lunch each day to make sure you’re eating. I’m leaving her reading primers with you, so you can work on her letters over lunch; she’ll complain, of course, but you know she hates being so far behind. I think I’m going to introduce her to Connor. I’m hoping she’ll take him under her wing, but he’s well-educated so maybe he can help her too.”
“I am not a nursemaid!” the templar snapped. “We still have no idea how many mages were compromised by the influence of blood magic, and…”
“Oh,” the woman interrupted sweetly. “My mistake, maybe I misunderstood. You are a templar, correct?”
“Of course, and—“
“And the duty of a templar is to protect civilians from mages, and mages from themselves?”
“I fail to see what—“
“When Shanna’s abilities manifested, she’d been frightened by a guard in the alienage. In her panic, she accidentally set a building on fire, killing two people. Connor was frightened when his father was poisoned. He almost became an abomination, and the demon trying to use him killed half of Redcliffe.”
“And you wonder why I keep trying to make you see that mages are dangerous?!?” Cullen shouted. Leliana saw where she was heading and admired the set-up.
“No, you’re right. Both children have the potential to be very dangerous. And since your job is to protect people from that danger…and since it was distress that made them behave dangerously in the past…then logically, the best way to protect everyone would be to ensure they experience as little distress as possible.”
There was a long pause, during which Leliana resisted the urge to snicker or applaud. “…but…”
The scholar’s voice grew soft again. “Cullen, I can’t stay here with Shanna, and Hohaku can’t either. She’ll be all alone. I’m worried about her, especially since everyone who’d usually handle the new apprentices is busy…or dead. The only thing that makes me feel better is knowing you’ll be here to watch out for her. Please say you will. I trust you to keep her safe.”
“You trust me to protect her? After all I’ve done?”
He relented, as was inevitable after that fine blend of “lady requests gentleman’s aid” and “lady admires brave protector.” Leliana was about to make her presence known when Rae spoke again. “Oh, one last thing. Alistair…deep breaths, remember; you’ve got this…Alistair is here. We’ll be leaving soon, but he’ll probably ask to see you. Do you want to see him?”
The templar’s hurried negation was strained. Alistair had spoken of their friendship fondly on the way to Redcliffe. Leliana wondered what had changed.
“Cullen, hey. It’s okay. I understand, and I don’t blame you. I’ll think of something to tell him. But I do ask that you trust me enough to let me explain things to him once we leave here. Would that be all right?”
“I…I don’t…does he have to know?”
“He’s your friend. He’ll understand. Otherwise, he’ll just be hurt, and I know that’s not what you want.”
“…no. I…I suppose you can tell him. I should do it myself. If I were a braver man, I would be able—“
“Stop that. No beating yourself up, remember?”
It seemed as good a time as any for an interruption, so the redhead backed up a few paces and then let her heels click on the floor as she approached. “Raven?”
“Here, Leliana.” The short brunette smiled in greeting. “Cullen, this is Leliana. She’s the Chantry sister I told you about who’s been helping the Wardens.”
“I remember.” He nodded, looking vastly improved from when she’d seen him last. His posture still showed hints of pain, and he was dressed casually instead of wearing his heavy armor. But his skin had lost its unhealthy pallor. Now that he was no longer gaunt and half-crazed, he was…quite handsome, actually. ‘Well hello,’ she thought.
“And Leliana, this is Cullen. He’s one of the best templars at Kinloch, and he’s been kind enough to help me take care of Shanna and teach her how to read.”
“Really? How wonderful! I know your brother was hoping the girl had made some friends.” She gave the templar a sunny smile.
“Yes, well. If you’ll forgive me, I must take my leave,” he said stiffly. “Lady Raven, you have my utmost gratitude for all your assistance. I shan’t forget what we discussed.” He left with a quick half-bow. Leliana was disappointed at his haste, since it afforded far too little opportunity to appreciate his backside.
Raven sighed. “How much did you hear?”
The bard was mildly offended at the implied slight on her eavesdropping skills. “What? Surely you did not sense any reason to believe I was listening?”
“No, I just figured it was a safe assumption.”
“Ah,” she giggled. “Well, what I heard is far less entertaining than what I saw. You really must tell me how you always manage to find such pretty men.”
Raven rolled her eyes and laughed. “It’s a gift.”
That evening, they all crowded onto the ferry back to the mainland. Wynne had elected to join them on their travels. She sat beside Aedan, asking him about future plans while he scratched Hohaku’s ears. Leliana was not displeased to be pressed against his other side. Raven was wedged between Alistair and Rob, too busy watching the Circle tower recede into the distance to complain about being jabbed by their armor.
Leliana frowned. Raven and Rob had disappeared for a while earlier, and returned looking unusually subdued. They’d both fretted over the little elf, Shanna; perhaps they were worried about leaving her? But no, the girl had handled their departure well. She’d agreed to keep an eye on “Ser Metalbritches” and “the spooky new shem boy.” The siblings had promised to write, telling her to practice reading so she’d be ready when their letters came, and that was that. What, then?
Alistair chattered aimlessly about Connor and Cullen, occasionally losing his train of thought when he looked down to see Raven so near, but she showed none of her usual blushing in return. As far as Leliana was concerned, that was proof something was wrong. She didn’t think Raven had feelings for the templar; she treated him more like a patient than a man, and he’d likely have a long road ahead before he was ready to be close to anyone. But what else could it be?
Hm. “Oh, Raven, I forgot to ask earlier…you were doing some research here, no? Was the library helpful?”
The scholar started, and her eyes fell. “No, I’m afraid not.” Rob’s jaw clenched and he looked away. Aha.
“That is a shame. Perhaps you’ll find other sources that will be of more help once we reach Denerim.”
Raven’s smile didn’t reach her sad eyes. “Maybe.” After looking thoughtful for a long moment, she leaned to one side and gingerly laid her head against Alistair’s armored shoulder. The copper-haired warden’s eyes went wide and he was silent the rest of the trip.
“So… you’re female, Leliana, right?”
The redhead raised a sarcastic eyebrow. “I am? That’s news. When did that happen?”
It was the night after they’d left the tower, and Leliana and the two Wardens were out gathering deadwood for the evening’s campfire, while Sten and Zevran hunted and the others set up the camp. Aedan snickered at her sarcasm; Alistair looked sheepish, but soldiered on. “I just wanted some advice. What should I do if…if I think a woman is special and—”
The other Warden laughed. “Alistair, spare yourself the embarrassment of these vague questions. You are not subtle; everyone sees how you act around Raven.”
The ex-templar’s mouth dropped open, and then closed with a snap. After a moment, he collected himself enough to respond, “I don’t know what you mean.” His furious blush belied his breezy reply.
“Of course not,” she said mildly. “But to answer your question, just be yourself. You are a little awkward, but it adds to your charm. It is endearing.”
“Yes, that is exactly how I hoped to appear,” he said dryly. “Endearingly awkward. After all, what woman could resist the allure of a man who blurts out random nonsense while sweating profusely?”
“But why are you nervous? Raven will not bite.” A mischievous streak made her add, “Well, perhaps if you ask nicely.” Her grin broadened at his glare.
“Why wouldn’t I be nervous? She’s smart, lovely, and kind…she sings like an echo of Andraste herself…she’s bold enough to tell off Isolde…brave enough to face a horde of attackers even though she’d never been in a battle in her life…” His sigh was a blend of dreamy infatuation and nervous anxiety, “She’s just…perfect.”
Leliana was forcibly reminded of her younger self speaking of Marjolaine, the woman who’d trained her to be a bard. The woman she’d thought was perfect…who she’d fallen in love with. Until she learned, much to her detriment, that she’d loved her own mental image of Marjolaine, not the reality.
The comparison was not fully apt, she knew. Raven, despite how well she’d manipulated that templar for his own good, would likely be appalled at the kind of deeds Marjolaine considered commonplace. But Alistair’s breathless admiration, that was the same.
“Alistair, no one is perfect. Believing otherwise will only cause you both pain.”
He rolled his eyes. “I know that; I just meant—“
“I know what you meant,” she interrupted, with a sharpness that surprised him. “You asked for my advice; here it is: do not think of how you feel around her. Focus on how she feels around you. Learn her dreams, her fears. What she loved as a child, and her hopes for when she is old. Find what lies in the deep quiet of her soul. When you do that, when you truly know her, and she feels she has really been seen…you will no longer need advice on how to woo her.”
Alistair gave a pensive nod, and taking up his bundle of dry sticks, he headed back to camp. Leliana looked back to find Aedan studying her thoughtfully.
“So,” he said, the corner of his mouth quirked in characteristic humor tempered with an unusual hint of shyness, “what sorts of things did you love as a child?”
She laughed, but she told him of her mother’s favorite flower, a small white blossom called Andraste’s Grace, and how its scent always made her think of home.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 16: Wisdom to Know the Difference)