This took a bit of replaying and a bit of thought, and so ended up taking longer than I would have liked -- though there was a vacation and some other personal nonsense in the middle, there, too. XD; Hopefully it'll be less than 3 months before the next bit, which follows pretty closely after this one.
Thank you to Sresla
for beta'ing this!Well-Woven Net, Knot 20:
An Unheralded HomecomingAuthor: jenovaRating:
The next morning, the company greeted Alessar with varying levels of curiosity and concern. Leliana seemed to be the first to notice his new accessory; after she hugged him and held him at arms' length to give him a looking-over, her eyes lingered on the earring, and she smiled knowingly. To the elven Warden's inward relief, though, she said nothing, just squeezed his hands as she stepped back. The simple fact that at least one person was happy for them lifted Alessar's spirits, and he greeted the rest of his friends with a somewhat brighter countenance.
Talk over their hurried breakfast was of inconsequential things: the day's weather, the banns who had already been seen in town for the Landsmeet, speculation about the next Arl of Denerim. Talk of Fort Drakon was studiously avoided, and no one mentioned Alistair's sudden betrothal, either. Alessar wondered if the other Warden had told anyone yet, or whether it was just a touchy subject. They'd have to talk more about it soon, just the two of them.
He glanced over at his friend, who at that moment was wearing an expression of exasperated dismay. Zevran — sitting next to him and grinning mischievously — was the likely cause. The assassin had looked tired this morning, and Alessar knew why, but the other elf hadn't uttered a word of complaint. A habitual early riser, he'd greeted Alessar with a kiss and a gentle caress along his bare arm once the Warden crawled out of bed, wordless reassurances that he was still there, still wanted
to be. He seemed fine now, as if he'd gotten plenty of sleep, but the Warden still felt guilty for it. He knew perfectly well that Zevran could get by on little sleep — all of them had been forced to do so at some time or other — but this had been a sacrifice made for Alessar's comfort more than anything. He'd already demanded too much of the other elf's attention in the past few days; stealing his rest was pure selfishness.
The Warden sighed silently. If they were fortunate, this uproar in the Alienage, whatever it was, could be settled peacefully, and fatigue wouldn't be an issue, but Alessar knew his kin, his people. For them to be stirred into rioting and unrest, something truly unpleasant must have been happening, and knowing that whatever it was had apparently been sanctioned by Howe and Loghain only worried him further.
He chose his team with care, feeling unexpectedly self-conscious about his former home. (Former,
he thought, as if I have any home at all now.
) He was in no mood for Morrigan's frequently disparaging comments, or Leliana's honest, but grating, pity. He couldn't even imagine the effect Sten's grim visage would have in the Alienage, and Oghren wouldn't be his first choice for dealing with so many elves, even if he meant well.
Zevran, of course, was a given. Wynne, Alessar suspected, had probably seen an alienage or two in her day. And Alistair... well. He was fairly nonthreatening, in spite of his plate mail, and for once, the elven Warden had an ulterior motive in bringing his friend along. If Alistair was going to be King, Alessar wanted him to know how all
of his subjects lived, especially right there in the capital city. When the elf had first arrived at Ostagar, Cailan told him that he'd never been allowed into the Alienage, and the Warden very much doubted Anora had ever been there, either, but if he could get Alistair to see what it was like...
Those were thoughts best saved for after the Blight, though — or at least after the Landsmeet. For now, they needed to take care of... whatever this was, and the sooner Alessar found out what was happening in the Alienage and saw his family again, the better he'd feel.
There was no guard posted at the Alienage gate near the market district today, perhaps due to confusion and a lack of orders in the wake of Howe's death. Unhindered, the group crossed over the bridge leading to the Alienage proper in silence, but Alessar halted at the foot of the bridge before stepping off.
It was foolish, but he was reluctant to take that last step. He realized that, deep down, he was afraid that if he entered the Alienage again, he'd never leave it. It had always seemed that way, when he was younger: older boys would try run away to the Dalish, but would later return — whether they'd actually found one of the wandering clans or not — resentful and ashamed; a successful family might try to move out and improve their lot, but the rancor of their human neighbors would drive them back into the Alienage walls. As long as you were city-born and pointy-eared, there was no other place for you.
He tried to tell himself that this was different: he was here to fix
something, to help his people, and hadn't come running here like a whipped dog with his tail between his legs. With a heavy sense of weakness, of failure, weighing him down, however, it was hard not to draw such comparisons...
A hand brushed along his forearm, a subtle touch of support. Alessar looked sidelong at Zevran, who had stepped up next to him. What if you
made a place for yourself?
the Warden wondered, his confidence slowly returning. If you carved out a place of your own, outside of these walls, and forced them to acknowledge you on your own terms?
Could Alessar achieve such a thing, as a Warden? And could he help others to do the same, either by example or by more direct means?
Well, he'd never accomplish much of anything by simply standing here, afraid to go forward. Taking a deep breath, he took that last step, back into the world where he'd lived his whole life until a year ago. The others, mercifully silent, followed.
In a few moments they came upon a startling sight — a group of young elves beating down a defenseless-looking human man. Meaning only to find out what was happening, Alessar shouted for them to stop, but the youths scattered before he could ask any questions, and the human, seeing the dragonhide-armored elven Warden with his hands on his daggers, begged not to be hurt as he staggered away. Alessar stared after him for a moment, at a loss.
"Unrest, indeed," Wynne said in a disapproving tone. "I take it such... outbursts are not the normal way of things, here?"
"Not when I was here," Alessar replied uneasily. "Something like that would bring the city guards down on us right away, and we all knew it."
"So either they do not care about the repercussions, or they know there will not be any," Zevran murmured. "Neither alternative is particularly promising."
"No," the younger elf agreed, shaking his head. He waved the group forward again, but was soon accosted by a beggar claiming to be a war veteran. Alessar recognized him, barely: his name was Mathel, a cabinet-maker's assistant, and his wife had died several years before. It was entirely possible he'd joined the King's army and marched to Ostagar, but in the Warden's mind, it didn't matter if he were truly a veteran or not; most of the Alienage elves were too proud to beg unless they were truly desperate. Since Alessar caught no hint of alcohol on the man's breath, he gave him a gold sovereign, hoping it would help for a little while.
"Andraste bless you, I won't forget your face, ser!" the man exclaimed, clutching the gold piece tightly.
The elven Warden managed a small smile before turning away, his fists clenched at his sides. They'd already
forgotten his face, hadn't they? Was a year really such a long time?
Soon the vhenadahl
came into view above the ramshackle buildings of the Alienage, moss hanging from its branches far overhead, just as Alessar remembered. The tree changed little through the years, except when a rare windstorm or heavy snowfall snapped boughs and sent them crashing to the ground. Most of the time, though, it bent to the wind and the burdens that weighed it down, much like the people who lived in its shade.
The muddy lane (it would have been generous to call it a street
) that wound through most the Alienage was oddly deserted. There were normally more people here, running errands or chatting with their neighbors while their children were at play. Today it looked as if the only folk out and about were a scant handful of beggars and some visibly and audibly sick folk, and Alessar felt the first tremors of unease in the pit of his stomach. "Where is everyone?" he asked quietly, not really expecting an answer.
Before one of his companions could offer some sort of calming remark, he began walking again, this time taking a few quick strides towards a very familiar door. With a motion ingrained into the muscles of his arm, he reached towards the knob, but then paused, as if some force had made it impossible for him to open the door. Perhaps one had, but the force wasn't physical in nature. What if some other family lived here now? What if his father...
"Your home, cielo?
" Zevran asked softly. Alessar could only nod in reply, his throat suddenly tight. "Do not keep your father waiting, my dear Warden," the Antivan elf urged him. "I am sure he will be very happy to see you."
The Warden glanced back at the others as he was struck by the sobering realization that he was the only one of them who'd been raised by his own parents. All three of them looked at him with slightly expectant looks of encouragement, and he suspected that Alistair would open the door in a moment if he didn't. With a small smile, he turned back and tried the door. It stuck slightly, as it tended to do in damp weather, but it wasn't locked, and it was a simple matter to push the door open and step inside.
At the rough-hewn wooden table by the fireplace, his cousin Soris had risen to his feet, and was now staring at him.
You're... you're back! Come in, come in!" Soris kept glancing at Alessar's companions, then back at him, obviously struggling to understand what exactly what happening. "We assumed you were with the other Wardens at Ostagar when... well, you know."
"The two of us," the elven Warden explained, gesturing towards Alistair, "were the only Fereldan Wardens who survived the battle. We're... all that's left." As he spoke, he glanced around, taking in the state of the place. It seemed neat, tidy as always; his father's gardening tools rested in their assigned places and looked well-tended, not dusty with disuse, and the firewood rack was full. The house felt strangely empty, though, quiet,
just as it had been outside.
"Oh." Soris was obviously trying to figure out what to make of this news. "That must be—"
"Where's my father?" Alessar interrupted, that sense of unease returning.
The red-haired elf seemed hesitant to answer at first, but after a moment, he said, "The healers took him into quarantine a few days ago. I'm sorry, cousin."
The Warden took a step back, as if trying to retreat from the words. "Healers? Quarantine?
Soris turned away, picking up one of the fire irons and agitatedly poking at the smoldering wood in the fireplace. "They say it's plague. It's something to do with the Blight, come out of the south with the refugees. Some healers came to help us, and they set up a hospice on the north side of the square. That's where they're keeping everyone who's been quarantined."Plague!
Alessar didn't even want to think about it. His father was healthy, he had to be fine. He'd just have to go to this hospice to see him, and talk to these healers. "On the north side of the square," he repeated. His cousin nodded, looking at him a little oddly. "You're here — where's Shianni? Valora? Nesiara?"
"Shianni's probably out at the square, harrassing the healers. She doesn't trust them — they're humans, and... well..." Soris looked from Alessar to the others, clearly not wanting to say too much. "You know." He shrugged slightly. "Nesiara went back to Highever. There wasn't really anything for her here, and her parents returned the bride-price to bring her home."
"Ah." There wasn't much the elven Warden could say to that, but he hoped that she was at least safe and back with her family. She had seemed like a pleasant enough girl, but... it simply wasn't meant to be, for a dozen different reasons. "And Valora?"
Soris simply looked at his cousin for a moment. "They took her into quarantine a week ago," he said finally. "They said she had the plague, too. I didn't believe it. I mean, she was fine! But I haven't seen her since they took her in."
Alessar frowned. "She seemed fine to you? And my father, too?"
"Valora seemed perfectly healthy to me," the other elf said, nodding, "and I hadn't heard of your father being ill..."
"How are these healers just... pulling people into quarantine? What's Valendrian got to say about this?" the Warden asked, trying to keep his voice from rising in a mixture of anger and anxiety.
Soris met his glance steadily, and after a moment of silence, he said, "They took Valendrian days ago. No one's seen or heard from him since."
"I... I see." Alessar had more questions, but his cousin was subdued and oddly unhelpful, as if he didn't want to be involved. Maybe Shianni would have more to say, or Alarith — the shopkeeper heard everything
that went on here. "I'm going to go find out what's going on in that hospice," he said as he glanced at his companions. They all gave him varying looks of agreement.
"All right." Soris was watching him, his expression hard to decipher. "It's been... difficult, since you've been gone, cousin, but it's good to see you again."Difficult? More so than it always is?
Well, if it was something urgent, surely Soris would have said so. "And you, cousin. We'll talk later." As soon as the other elf acknowledged him with a nod, Alessar turned to leave, the others on his heels.
"To the hospice, then?" Alistair asked as they stepped out into the lane.
"There's someone I want to talk to first," the elven Warden replied, shaking his head. "I don't like the sound of any of this." Setting a brisk pace, he led the group to Alarith's store, just off the square. He tried to keep his head down to avoid attracting any attention for the moment, but if Mathel's response was typical, he might not have been recognized anyway.
Alarith was just as surprised to see the elven Warden as Soris had been, though his laid-back manner might have made it difficult for Alessar's companions to tell as much. He had much the same news as Soris, with one additional bit of information.
"These healers are Tevinters?
" Wynne asked sharply.
"I know what you're thinking, ma'am," Alarith said, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender, "but the Chantry sent a Templar as soon as they heard the word 'magic.' And if they didn't drive them out, I guess they must be all right."
"Hmm, I suppose so," the mage agreed, though she didn't look entirely reassured.
After his experiences dealing with blood mages thus far, Alessar didn't like the sound of that, either. Why Tevinters? With the Fereldan Circle decimated, perhaps they'd been the only help available, but...
A few more minutes of conversation finally gave Alessar an explanation of those ominous words he'd heard months ago: the purging of the Alienage. When Howe had come to power in the wake of Vaughan's death, he'd sent soldiers into the Alienage to teach the elves "proper deference". They'd killed anyone who'd offered the slightest hint of resistance or belligerence, and the rest of the elves had turned on Soris, blaming him and his presumably deceased cousin for bringing this down on them.Never mind that we all agreed that the girls should be rescued,
Alessar thought bitterly. Never mind that we actually did it! Except for poor Nola, we brought them back. Was that the wrong thing to do? Were they supposed to be
sacrifices to the humans, to keep the peace?
"Lad, are you all right?" Alarith's voice pulled him from his thoughts, and he took a deep, ragged breath.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine, sorry. It's just..." he trailed off. "It's too much. Why is it so..." Unable to articulate his frustration and anger, the Warden just waved his hands helplessly.
"I know what you mean, believe me." The shopkeeper wore a small, sympathetic smile. "Why don't you go find Shianni? She'll be overjoyed to see you — and maybe you can talk some sense into her. If she keeps badgering those healers, their guards will try to shut her up..."
"Yes, I'd better find her," the Warden agreed distractedly. His thoughts kept coming back to one central point: others — many others, by the sound of it — thought he was to blame for all of this. Soris had been with him, but it had been Alessar who'd killed Vaughan and accepted the punishment, and Alessar who had left, not for a dungeon cell, but for the wider world as a Grey Warden. Once the people of the Alienage learned he was alive, would they turn all the venom they'd cast upon Soris towards him instead?I can handle being despised,
he told himself, remembering their treatment in Orzammar. As the group left the shop, he forced himself to ignore the fact that this was a great deal more personal to him than the bitter, deadly rivalries of dwarven politics, andthat people he'd known all his life might have cursed his name to the Black City when Howe's soldiers came. Regardless of whether they hated him or not, he was here to help them — and no matter what they said or did to him, he would not
let that stop him from finding his father. His duty to his family overshadowed whatever obligations he had to the Queen and to the Wardens, right now.
The square that surrounded the vhenadahl
was the Alienage's main gathering-place, and it seemed that most of the folk who lived inside the walls were there, many of them in line in front of what Alessar had to assume was now the hospice. It was one of the largest buildings in the Alienage, with pride of place so close to the vhenadahl
. He had to wonder what had happened to the Esterins, the family who had previously lived there. With their relative wealth (compared to the rest of the Alienage), had they managed to flee Ferelden entirely? Or had something more unpleasant happened? He'd have to ask Alarith later.
Elves seldom queued up for anything here; the unusual sight of so many of them in one place made Alessar painfully aware of how vulnerable they really were to any sort of epidemic. "If it's really plague... Maker's mercy..." he said, barely above a whisper.
"Blights bring disease in their wake," Wynne noted, her tone grave. "You've seen what happens to the very land itself." The mage's lips thinned in a severe frown. "But this matter of quarantining healthy people... that would only serve to spread the disease among those who did not have it. I'd like to speak with these healers, myself."
talk to them," Alessar promised, "and soon." His first priority, however, was finding his cousin. He stood in place for a moment, scanning the square for that distinctive red hair that marked so many of his relatives. The air was full of voices: worried, complaining, and angry tones rang out all around them. Above the general buzz of the crowd, though, one voice in particular caught his ear — a voice he had last heard from an illusion in the resting place of Andraste's ashes.
"Oh, you're helping
us, are you, shem? Like you helped Valendrian and my uncle Cyrion? Helped them never to be seen again?"
Shianni stood outside of the queue, near the door of the hospice; from behind, the Warden could see the defiance in her posture. The Tevinter mage she was addressing replied exasperatedly about not letting the plague spread by allowing visitors, but then Shianni rebutted with the question Alessar wanted to ask, himself — "If this healing spell of yours works, why are half the people you quarantine perfectly healthy?"
The mage ignored her, turning his attention back to the elves in the queue. Alessar saw Shianni's fists clench at her sides, but he also saw the armed guards standing at the door of the hospice with the mages. Before his cousin could press forward and get herself into real trouble, the elven Warden called her, drawing some curious, then disbelieving, looks from the crowd.
Shianni turned to look for whoever was addressing her, then saw Alessar and gaped in utter surprise. "I don't believe it," she said slowly, coming closer, but stopping out of arm's reach, as if afraid to come too close and pierce the illusion. "Maker's breath! They said all the Grey Wardens died with the king. We all thought... Valendrian even held a funeral for you."
Alessar shook his head, not even sure where to begin. "We're the only two Wardens left," he murmured, indicating Alistair with his thumb. "And we barely got away with our lives. We've been on the move constantly ever since."
All the elven woman could do was nod, still looking at him intently, as if trying to detect visually just how much he'd changed in the past year. "Cousin... you have no idea what's happened here, what it's been like since your wedding."
"I talked a little to Soris, and to Alarith," the Warden began, before Zevran interrupted him.
"A wedding?" The assassin spoke volumes with those two words. There was a sense of breathlessness in his voice — as if he'd had the wind knocked out of him,
Alessar thought guiltily. "So you do have a secretive side, after all."
"The wedding never actually happened," he said carefully, trying not to let the words all pour out in a rush. He ignored Shianni's curious look and Alistair's flabbergasted expression as he held Zevran's gaze.
"No?" The other elf's slightly cool expression turned to one of speculation. "Did she find out that you pre—"
"She was abducted," Alessar said quickly, his haste to interrupt making his voice sound harsher than he meant it to. "I've told you part of that
It only took a moment for Zevran to realize which story he meant. "Ah. Ah.
" He glanced briefly toward Shianni, who was now frowning fiercely at her cousin. "A fateful day, indeed," he said solemnly.
"Is this... um... fateful day something we should know more about?" Alistair said hesitantly in the brief moment of silence. "Does this have something to do with the 'purge' the others mentioned?"
Shianni looked as if she would say something sharp; Alessar raised a hand to forestall her and turned to the two humans.
"On the day I was to wed — Soris and I both — Vaughan Kendalls and two of his cronies came here, interrupted the wedding, and took away four women, including the two brides," he explained tersely, avoiding looking at Shianni as he spoke.
"So it's true?" Alistair asked, shaken. "You killed him for that?"
The elven Warden shook his head slightly. "Soris and I went into the palace to rescue the women, and that was all, but we had to go through Vaughan." After a moment he added, unable to keep the venom out of his voice, "Not that I wasn't happy to do so."
Wynne pursed her lips, but said nothing; Alessar couldn't tell if she was disapproving of his actions, or of Vaughan's, but at the moment he didn't much care. He glanced at his brother-Warden, who was trying to put all the pieces together.
"So... you killed Vaughan, but then... Duncan must have recruited you to save you." When Alessar nodded in agreement, the Templar trainee forged on. "But when Howe became Arl here, he attacked the Alienage because of what had happened."
Alessar nodded again, feeling his stomach twist into knots. How many had been killed for no reason...?
"It wasn't just because of Alessar," Shianni interjected, trying to defend her cousin. "The whole Alienage was in an uproar over the — the boldness of it, those bastards just walking in here and... and just taking
women like we're slaves! But..." She trailed off, looking at Alessar.
"But what Soris and I did gave them an excuse," the Warden said bleakly.
"That's not fair," the other elf objected, but she subsided at a level look from her cousin.
"Regardless of how unfair it may be, my dear Shianni," Zevran said smoothly, "it is an unfortunate bit of politics. It seems, however, that those events have little to do with these Tevinter healers. Or am I wrong?"
Shianni regarded the unfamiliar elf appraisingly. "No, you're right. They showed up after the sick refugees from the south started pouring in. They must have permission to be here, but they're up to no good in there, I know it!" Her voice rose in volume as she made her anger apparent.
"You're just paranoid, Shianni! They've helped us, and you know it!" a woman shouted from the queue. "Both of my sisters got protection from the plague, and they're fine!"
"Yeah, but they didn't go into
the hospice, did they?" Shianni snapped back. "What about your oldest niece, where is she? Or my uncle Cyrion? Or Valendrian?"
"Father— Soris said he'd gone to the hospice," Alessar cut in, looking not at his cousin, but at the building, and the guards at the door.
"He went yesterday," Shianni confirmed, turning back to the elven Warden with an expression of worry. "I told him not to! No one who's actually gone in—" here she turned to glare at the woman in the queue— "has come out."Just yesterday. He might still be—
Alessar didn't want to even think of the alternative. "All right. I'm going to find out what's going on in there." He glanced at the rest of his group to see if they meant to come along, because he intended to go, with or without them.
"Not alone, you're not," Alistair said staunchly. Wynne nodded in agreement, or approval, no doubt curious about what the Tevinters were up to, if nothing else.
Zevran merely gave his lover a thin smile, one that Alessar knew by now as his "assassin-work to be done" expression. Turning to Shianni, he asked, lowering his voice, "Does this building have a back door?"
"Yes, in the alleyway. There's only one guard back there, I think, and no crowds of people." The red-haired elf looked at Alessar, and the pride in her expression was almost too much to take. "Oh, cousin, it's so good to have you back. I knew you'd do something about this if you were here!"
The elven Warden's mind turned then to recent events that Shianni was blissfully unaware of; he wondered if she'd still have so much confidence in him if she knew.