"Tomorrow, we reach Denerim," Ned says in a soft voice, tinged with weariness. Despite the late hour, he is still wearing the armour, and the last batch of scouts and couriers has only left before Leliana's arrival. "The scouts have reported fires all over the horizon… there is no chance that she might hold long. Some parts, maybe – the palaces, the fort … the rest will have been overrun by the time we get there."
Leliana does not bother with attempts at comfort: they have known each other too long to voice vain hopes. Pray to the Maker and save what they can, there is no more that can be done, or hoped for. And pray she will, tonight and tomorrow, as she has ever since they met.
Maker preserve us, and find our hands worthy to do His work, to protect His children from the darkness.
"The outcome is far from certain," he continues. "Even with all our allies, our numbers are too small. I've been downplaying this, but the truth is that if we don't manage to engage the Archdemon soon, the darkspawn will simply wear us down with their sheer numbers. And even if we do…" He raises his eyes to her. "This may be the last time we actually have a chance to speak, Leliana."
She knows, oh Maker, she does, but for all her conviction, her throat still tightens. Impulsively, she leans forward, clasping his hand in hers. "The Maker won't let you fall. We won't let you fall."
He grips her hands hard, shaking his head. "No. Listen, Leliana. Whatever happens tomorrow, it's not me but Alistair who has to walk out of the fight alive, or we lose all we have strived for."
This is hard, though she has suspected something like that. "Shouldn't we consider then…"
"… to keep him out of the battle? Hardly possible." The faint grin vanishes all too quickly, and Ned averts his eyes for a moment. In the reddish glow, his face looks ghastly. "This is not an option, even if Alistair could be made to agree. It – it takes a Warden to kill the Archdemon… so we must all go. All three of us."
"I see." Leliana nods, swallowing hard to suppress a momentary churn in her stomach. Maker, be merciful… do not make me choose. And give me strength. Steeling herself, she straightens and squares her shoulders. "I'll do my best."
A flash of a smile again, so weary that it pains her to think how he used to smile before. "I know you will."
I'd never fail you, Ned. I'll do anything, just ask. There were times, if only you had asked me… Though you probably never even knew. "I am yours to command."
At her expectant gaze, Ned clears his throat and looks aside again. "There is actually one more thing I have to ask of you… only of you. Certain … measures. In case I don't make it out alive tomorrow…"
The hesitation is very unlike him, and under different circumstances, Leliana might find it a little amusing. For all he's been through, it practically screams how unskilled he is in these matters. She listens, not showing anything. Still so innocent, in a way…
It's rather uncommon, to see him flinch from her eyes every now and then.
A moment of silence.
"I hate to ask you this, Leliana," Ned repeats, his voice hoarse, "but…"
"… but there is no-one else you can commission with the task," she finishes. "Don't worry, Ned. I agree with you that this is necessary. I'll do it."
He takes a deep breath. "Alright, then. I want you to take this."
Leliana eyes with suspicion the tiny scroll he is handing her. "What's that?"
"The commission. Keep it safe. In case you get… compromised… I take full responsibility."
She blinks in disbelief. "This is nonsense."
"Take it, Leliana. I won't have Alistair question you motives." Then, as she still does not move, he repeats the command with that tone which hardly ever goes unheeded: "Take it."
After a convincing hesitation, she does.
There are other ways, after all.
As if reading her mind, Ned watches her with suspicion, but says nothing, and so Leliana quickly pecks him on the cheek. "Get some rest."
A quick embrace, before she leaves the tent: there will be neither the time nor place for such displays tomorrow. This may be the last time… Forcing back tears, Leliana quickly raises the tent flap.
Outside, that disturbing red sheen is even more prominent. No moon or stars, only the sky of unnatural red: the vapours of the Blight blending with the fire-lit horizon.
Quickly looking away from the ominous sky, her eyes fall on yet another prick into her heart.
Not so long ago, her visit to Ned's tent at this hour wouldn't go unnoticed; with the things as they are, she at least does not have to make up excuses.
A poor consolation, for her cold bed.
Leliana suppresses a sigh: it's no use yearning for what she cannot have. A king of Ferelden cannot dally with an Orlesian bard, and a king whose position is not of the strongest even less so.
I knew it had no future, didn't I?
And so, when he came to tell her soon after the Landsmeet, she smiled at him and kissed him one last time, assuring him that it was the right thing to do…
She still cried, later.
Turning away to head for her own tent, she pauses in midstep.
Half-hidden in the shadows, a pair of golden eyes watches her with suspicion bordering on hostility. Unsure how to respond, Leliana stands still for a moment; then, as the witch does not react, she mentally shrugs. "Good night, Morrigan."
She receives a reluctant nod, and with uncharacteristic hesitation, the witch heads for Ned's tent, even pausing before entering.
Rest and relief, she thinks somewhat sarcastically, and quickly shies away the pang of jealousy.
In the solitary shelter of her tent, Leliana lights a candle. Breaking the seal on Ned's scroll, she sighs and shakes her head. Well meant, but incredibly naïve, to put this in writing.
Naïve, and sweet of you… but it's the brother and idol who must not fall from his pedestal, not an Orlesian affair.
Putting the vellum into the flame, she watches it scorch as its existence ends.
Really, Ned. Never put anything on paper when you commission an assassination.
He listens for what seems like ages before he dares to open the door for but the tiniest gap, and after that even longer, before he makes sure that the estate is as it has been for the last few days: empty, except for the torn bodies on the main floor.
There will be enough time to do the cleaning later.
Slowly making his way into the wine cellar, Vaughan carefully shelters his candle and pauses every now and then, to listen for the nonexistent sounds.
A couple more days, until the order is restored, and he will find new servants and guards, soon enough. Even a new wench.
Sneering, he pours himself a generous fill of the rich Starkhaven wine. When the city was struck with panic over the approaching horde, he ordered his servants to bring as many supplies as they could into the dungeon… and then sent them for some more and locked the door. They were either new to his service, or traitors who had served Howe, anyway: he was neither willing to trust nor share with any of them.
Vaughan bares his teeth and spills some wine on the floor, watching the dark liquid spread in a blood-like pool. He would have much liked to lay his hands on Howe himself but that Cousland boy had taken care of that quite efficiently.
But, the old bastard had a progeny, or not? A son and a daughter, or was it two sons?
The thought makes his heartbeat quicken, and he feels the familiar throb in his groin. He had pondered taking his new wench to the dungeon with him, since she always whimpered most satisfactorily, but decided not to – there was no telling how long he would have to last on the supplies before the darkspawn would retreat again, and he wisely chose to forego pleasure, rather than food and water.
The Alienage is full of such wenches, who would consider themselves lucky to be chosen to warm a lord's bed and satisfy his whims… whatever they are.
It occurs to him that the Alienage may no longer exist: the few times he dared to peek out of the estate and speak with survivors, the fate of the elves was of no concern to him.
There have always been elves… and always will. Elves to serve his needs.
There were definitely more pressing issues to be found out, like whether the bastard would-be-king survived… which he did. Luckily. Sneering again, Vaughan nods to himself. Were Anora to get the throne back, she would have little appreciation for the man who voted against her father, whereas the bastard… Oh yes, His Bastard Majesty owes him.
Nodding frantically, Vaughan drinks again, then pours the rest of the wine on the floor. Even in the dim light of his candle, the colour is enticing.
Wine and blood…
There are great days ahead of him. The Mac Tirs gone, the Howes gone, even the Couslands, in fact – time for the Kendalls to rise. The arling of Denerim is just a start.
Grabbing a couple of bottles to replenish his supplies, Vaughan cautiously returns into the safety of his dungeon. He treads as silently as he can, ready to drop the bottles and scurry behind the sturdy door.
When he reaches his sanctuary and fastens the bolts, he contentedly heads for his provisional bedroom – and nearly faints at a sound coming from the direction of the main torture chamber.
A thief? Did anyone dare to sneak past the remnants of the darkspawn slaughter, strewing the main floor? Slowly, Vaughan puts down the bottles and blows the candle. He is no fighter, but he knows this place, even in the dark. There cannot be more than one person… and for a single person, a single blow from behind will be enough. The dagger slides into his palm almost by itself.
Putting a considerable effort into moving silently, he approaches the torture chamber, pausing only as he hears yet another sound… and soft singing.
Puzzled, he shakes his head. A woman? Some thieving whore, feeling overly confident?
A quick peep into the room, lit with a hooded lamp, reveals that it is truly so.
A woman. Solitary. Red-haired. Sitting on the edge of the rack, with her back to the door, inspecting something in her lap, softly humming to herself.
Straightening, Vaughan lowers the dagger and enters. The woman does not notice, until she suddenly turns when he is only a couple of steps from her.
"Good evening, my Lord," she says in a pleasant melodic voice, with a slight trace of Orlesian accent. "How nice of you to have come by."
Frowning, Vaughan grips the hilt more firmly: it doesn't go the way he has expected. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
Deftly, the woman jumps from the rack. "Oh. Forgive my manners: we have already met here, but we were not properly introduced. My name is Leliana. As to the reason of my presence, I merely thought it would be appropriate to pay a visit… with a couple of friends. I believe you have met them all, as well."
Only as she gestures with her head, Vaughan realizes that they are no longer alone: one, two, three… more and more hooded figures ensue into the chamber, both from the corridor and from the small adjacent room where the torturers used to rest.
Instinctively, he backs a few steps, even as the red-hair continues in the same merry tone as before. "I am afraid that their names may have slipped your memory, so I'll kindly remind you. This is Shianni, and Tylarra. Here we have Dela, Marissa and Justine…"
"Knife ears!" He blurts, recognizing the distinct shapes as the hoods are pulled down, one by one… recognizing also the pale face framed with the dark hair, and the green eyes that he used to bring open wide with pain and fear: the elven wench he found himself in the Alienage right after the glorious victory at the Landsmeet. "What games are you playing, bitch –" His voice catches in his throat, seeing those green eyes glow with hatred – and seeing also the knife in her slender hand.
Seeing the knives in their hands, as they are closing in on him.
"Leave at once! I command you! I am the Arl of Denerim!"
"You were the Arl of Denerim." The knife-ear wench whose fiery hair seems vaguely familiar. "There has been no trace of you in the last few days, and for all everyone knows, the darkspawn got you. We are here merely to rectify their omission."
"You cannot harm me! I am the Arl of Denerim!" his voice squeaks as the elves draw nearer and nearer. "Leave at once! Leave – leave me!"
The circle of blades never wavers.
"I command you! I am the Arl of Denerim!"
The arrogant tone is tinged with fear, and turns to screams soon enough.
No longer heeding the secrecy, Leliana strides faster and faster through the corridors, finding herself short of breath, almost suffocating –
– her own sobs and pleas, and the crude guffaw –
"Oh, good evening, my lord. Shall I rein the guys? Would you like a go on her first?"
"No need to, I have my own wench upstairs. I guess I might just watch for a while."
Pushing the back door open, she keenly gulps the night air: even though it smells of burn, it still feels fresh after the dungeon.
She presses her cheek against the stone, to cool herself, her hand twitching and gripping the doorframe before she manages to keep the memories at bay. So much for settling scores…
Finally, she straightens, taking a deep breath and routinely checking her arms and gear. She will have to return down there, eventually, to help clean the mess and make sure that the amateur avengers did not leave any obvious tracks.
There are things we do for others, as well as for ourselves.
Making a couple of steps into the garden, she watches the dark silhouette of the royal castle, overlooking the destruction of the city from its height. A few windows are still lit, even at this late hour: undoubtedly, Alistair is behind one, foregoing sleep to fit in his new role and rebuild his kingdom from the ashes; behind another, Wynne guards Ned's shallow breath.
The two men I love, and neither is for me.
Not meaning I won't do what's best for them, asked or not.
Her eyesight drawn to the towers, obscured by the dark, she presses her lips. Maker in His providence prefers to use our hands, not those of the darkspawn, she reminds herself, yet the thought that behind one of those dark windows, the former queen still dreams her dream of revenge, is disquieting.
Her shoulders set, Leliana watches the quiet outline. Just you dream a little longer. They may not have seen your face when you were being led out of the Landsmeet, but I did. I won't let you harm them, viper. And since such as yourself are never completely harmless, not even with your teeth plucked out…there is but one way.
Not right now, probably not even here…but your days are measured.
Meanwhile, I'll keep an eye on you, and pray to the Maker to guide my hand.
A/N: This is somewhat AU, since I do not think that Leliana would take the risk of introducing amateurs into the business, but I felt that for a scum like Vaughan, some poetic justice was necessary. As for the AU-ness of the rest of the story… I'm not sure myself, since Leliana has been very tight-lipped as to the extent of her commission :-)