Chapter Fifteen: She's So Lovely

About six hours after we left Redcliffe, I was sucking down my third and final health potion thinking that if this is the way the Maker treats his Bride's Herald, She should really consider filing for divorce. The way to Lace's house was clear, they'd said. No rifts, no bandits, no skirmishing Templars or Mages, just a smooth road to the Crossroads, then a countryside path, then a bit of wandering in some woods that Lace knew like the back of her hand. So we decided to go alone, on horseback. Which meant that when we stumbled into three separate Mage-Templar fights ten minutes south of the Crossroads, we were desperately undermanned, but we survived, which is more than anyone can say about the Mages or Templars. Thank the Maker we had the good sense to make the trip wearing armor. When the rift showed up forty-five minutes after that, however...

"Nessa! Duck!" Lace called out. I did, and an arrow flew directly over my head. Good. I'd been trying to create enough room for Lace to use her bow rather than her knives, and it looked as though after the eighth demon this rift spit out, I was finally able to do that. Three nocked arrows later, and I was able to use my final bit of energy to slam the rift shut before falling to my knees.

"Nessa!" Lace called, dashing over to where I lay. I was okay, but I wasn't going to be getting up any time soon. She put a soft kiss on my forehead, and collapsed right next to me.

"I'll be okay, vhenan," I said. "I just need a bit of a rest. Let's just sit here for a minute, and then - shit."


"Where did the horses go?"

They had, apparently, been spooked by the rift and attendant demons, and run the other direction, proving that they were far more intelligent than either Lace or I. Too exhausted to do anything more than shake our heads at the loss of our means of transportation, food, water, and changes of clothes, we sat there for several minutes just staring into space.

"Did you just call me 'vhenan?'," Lace asked.

"Is - is that okay?"

"Very okay," she replied, grabbing my hand and kissing the back of it. "I wish some Dwarven terms of endearment had made it up from Orzammar."

"What's 'Salroka' mean, then?" I asked.

"It means 'friend,' 'buddy,' 'pal' - something like that."

"Is that how you see me? Because some of the things we've been up to aren't things I'd be doing with a 'buddy.'"

"Not hardly. It just seemed that if you were calling me 'Lethallin,'"

"Lethallan," I corrected. "Definitely Lethallan."

"My eyes are up here, Nessa."

"Yeah, but your tits are there," I replied.

"I'd reach over and smack you if I weren't too tired, you lech."

I made a half-hearted attempt at rolling away from her, but I wound up with my head in her lap, which was, all things considered, a much better place to be.

"Anyway, to get back to what I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by your wandering eyes, I figured if you were calling me something in Elvhen, I could give you a bit of Dwarven in return."

I struggled for a minute or two to attach a dirty joke to that before giving up. Meanwhile, my eyes had just closed a second, but in that time the sun had dropped nearly into the horizon.

"Shit," Lace said, shaking me. "Nessa, wake up. We fell asleep, and it's almost dark, and we really don't want to be out here on foot after the sun goes down. There's a camp up at the top of that lake, it's about a kilometer over those rocks."

Scrambling over the rocks was no fun, but we rolled into camp just as twilight was fading into night. There were two scouts and four support personnel at the camp, and every one of them snapped to attention as we walked in.

"At ease, folks," Lace said, smiling, and they all seemed to exhale at once.

"Scout Lieutenant?" one of the scouts asked. Human boy, Ferelden, maybe 20 years old, if that, who was trying very hard not to look put-out by Lace's punch-drunk giggles.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to laugh, but it's so cute when you say 'left-tenant' like that," Lace replied. "Anyway, report, scout. What's going on?"

"The name's Vicar, ma'am. We heard of the trouble up in Redcliffe, but didn't know that yourself and the Herald would be joining us. We have some Nug Surprise that's just about ready and there's room in the women's tent, but we're not really prepared to receive guests."

"Vicar, we're not here to inspect your camp, we're here because we ran into some trouble on our journey and we need a place to sleep. Can you send someone with us to the lake so we can get washed up?" I asked.

"Absolutely, Your Worship, and we can clean your armor for you and the Lieutenant, too."

"That sounds terrific, except our clothes took off with our horses, and it's been a very long day, so if it's all the same to you, we'll just wash up, get some of that nug, and sleep."

"As you say, Your Worship."

Well, it wasn't quite 'as I said,' because there was a bottle of rotgut whiskey from Abermaw left for us in the women's tent to help us warm up from the lake, and by the time we woke up the next morning, our armor had been cleaned, including a polish on Lace's breastplate, and our horses had been found with their saddlebags intact.

"Vicar, you are getting a fucking raise," I said, patting my horse's hindquarters. "Wait- I probably shouldn't have said that, but I am going to tell Nightingale about this."

"Tracking your horses was all Thresher's doing, Your Worship," Vicar said, pointing to an elven man who was standing by the potions table. "He said he could find them, so I took an extra watch and he went and did it."

Thresher wasn't wearing any vallaslin, which meant his horse tracking skill probably didn't come from hunting with a Dalish clan, but while I was staring at him trying to figure all that out, he answered my unasked question.

"Horse thief out of Amaranthine, Your Worship. We used to steal them by letting them loose then tracking them down."

"Did your life of crime extend to bottles of rotgut whiskey?" I asked.

"Can't put one past you, Herald. Got it in one," he replied with a smile and a wink.

"Then I'm going to need to get you both raises," I quipped, and Lace shot me a very pointed look.

"What the Herald of our Blessed Lady Herself means is 'thank you very much, gentlemen, and we'll be happy to report to Nightingale on the kind attention we received here,'" she said, with just enough bite that I let it go.

Breakfast wasn't leisurely, but it also wasn't hurried. The Hardings were only a two hour ride from the camp, so we didn't need to be gone at daybreak, but we did want to get there. Of course, nothing about this trip had gone as planned, so I wasn't at all surprised when Vicar showed up with a from Leliana.

"Lace, we've got an errand to run still. Sorry."

"No worries, we're not really off duty. What's the errand?"

"There's a Grey Warden around here who Leliana wants us to question. Apparently most of them have disappeared since the Conclave blew up, and Leliana wants to see if those two things are related."

"Oh, right. Sorry about that, Your Worship, that was me," Vicar said. "But it is rather curious, innit? The timing, I mean."

"It's fine, Vicar. You were doing your job, and now we'll do ours. It's not far out of our way, and I'm sure there aren't any Mages or Templars or demons or anything that… Oh for fuck's sake, why do you two look like that?"

"There have, em, actually been a couple of bandits spotted in that area, Your Worship. This Warden - Blackwall's his name - has been helping the local farmers out keeping them at bay."

"Have you been helping them, too?" I asked.

"With just the two of us here, plus the four support staff? I'm not sure how we could, Your Worship."

"Hearts and minds is also not what we've been recruited for. That's kinda why we have you and your folks, Vhenan," Lace added, to the amusement of Thresher and the fellow with Vallaslin manning the potions station.

"What?" Lace asked, a bit put out at the snickering.

"Nothing, Scout Lieutenant," Thresher answered. "It's just - I've never heard that said in a Dwarven accent before."

"Well, I think it was perfect," I said, and planted a soft kiss on her lips.

"Right, then," Vicar said, "let's get you two off before the rest of us start missing our sweethearts back home."

We laughed and climbed onto our horses' backs with what was left of our dignity and took off for Blackwall's last known location.

The bandits that were terrorizing the farmers were hardened men who put up a fight. As for the farmers that Blackwall had trained, well, they did their best, but it was a good thing he, Lace, and I were there to help. As it was, the bandits were routed, the farmers got their stuff back, and Blackwall surprised them by releasing them from service to the Wardens.

"Wait - you conscripted them… for fun?" I asked.

"Not for fun," Blackwall replied. "I did it so they would stand up for themselves, for their families, for their community. They realized they must stand or die, so they stood. It's a lesson they'll only have to learn once."

"Still," I replied, "that seems a little harsh. I have a friend in the Wardens, who I've only seen once in the 10 years since she was conscripted, and that's when she came riding in to save our Alienage. So your guys thought they'd be leaving their homes and families, and then it was some kind of learning experience?"

"Regardless, it worked. Now, did you have a purpose in coming here, or did you just need to question my methods?"

"Right. Introductions. My name is Nessa Ghilani, and this is Scout Lieutenant Harding. We're with the Inquisition, and we have some questions for the Wardens about what happened at the Conclave."

"Were there darkspawn at the Conclave that we didn't hear about?" Blackwall asked.


"Then we didn't have anything to do with it."

"I get that," I replied. "But then all of them but you mysteriously up and vanish about that same time. That's odd. We're not accusing anyone of anything, yet, but when odd things happen at the same time as the whole world goes to shit, people have questions."

"And I have no answers for you."

"Then I guess we're done here," Lace said, grabbing my arm and pulling me back towards the lake path. "Sorry to have wasted your time, Warden Blackwall."

We didn't get far before we heard him calling us back. An hour or so later, we'd recruited an actual Grey Warden, and we were finally on our way to Lace's folks.

"You were downright cordial back there, Nessa," Lace said after we left Blackwall at Vicar's camp, "to a human and everything. Are you getting soft on me?"

I laughed. "He's a Grey Warden. Kallian and King Alistair were the only ones who thought to look after the Alienage during the blight. They brought a whole squad of Dalish archers with them to stop a Darkspawn assault at our back gate, and that's after they rescued us from the Tevinter slavers. Wardens are alright, even if they're shems."

The rest of the trip to Lace's house in the Hinterland woods was blessedly uneventful, and we got there just as supper was ending. I knew we weren't in the city, but even still I was surprised at just how much property they had, and how much of it was in use. There was a room for Helga's tailoring work, a small shed out back for any inventory Jerrik was saddled with (which at that moment was 25 sheepskins, two crates of horseshoes, and a dozen boxes of nails), a spartan kitchen, a sitting room, two bedrooms, and a little house for the not-so-little mabari, Contessa. When I got there, I was immediately made to feel welcome, first by Contessa, who had me knocked arse over tits almost as soon as I could see the front door, then by Helga and Jerrik, who warmed up the stew (the Hardings eat a lot of stew), took care of the horses, got our things settled in Lace's old room, and sat down to ask us about our travels.

I should have known by the way Helga called me "Your Worship" that the pleasant domesticity wasn't going to last. After supper, there were prayers. Then, in Lace's room, we saw a copy of the Cumberland edition of the Chant of Light opened to the Canticle of Shartan.

"Lace, I thought you said your folks weren't religious."

"They're not," she said. "Or, at least they weren't. I have no idea what's going on here."

"Can we ask them in the morning?" I pleaded. "It's late."

"Of course, My Lady Herald," she replied with a grin, taking my swat to her shoulder in stride.

I slept in that next morning, waking only to the smell of porridge and grilling sausages, and the sound of Lace grilling her mother.

"You're making her really uncomfortable with all this," Lace said.

"Darling, the Herald of Andraste has come to our little house, did you think we were going to do nothing?"

"She doesn't even believe she is that."

"What do you believe she is?" Helga asked.

"I believe she is one of the kindest, fiercest women I've ever met, who's doing the best she can living up to an impossible job she never asked for," Lace replied, raising her voice.

"Ask your father what he believes, then. Because he saw her in action. He saw her close a rift up on the hill by Tyrdda's Lover's tree that had been terrorizing people, spitting out demons for weeks, then she ran off to find the Collins's pet druffalo like she'd done nothing special."

"That was an easy rift," I answered, walking into the kitchen. "The one by the river nearly killed us three times over. But they're all horrible, and I'm glad I could help out."

"Good morning, Your Worship," Helga said, and I thought she was going to drop into a curtsy before coming to her senses.

"Helga, please," I said. "Lace is right. This whole thing makes me feel very uncomfortable, and more than anything, I need to be treated like a person, not a cause. I've been failing pretty badly recently at being a cause," I continued, tears starting to well up, "so for a few days, I'd like to try to be a person, if that's okay."

"Oh, Vhenan," Lace said, running over to me and pulling me into a hug. "You're perfect and amazing."

"I'm glad you think so," I said, sniffling. "I'm not sure about the rest of the Inquisition, though."

"Sod them, then," Lace replied, squeezing me tighter. "I can't think of anyone who'd be doing any better in your position."

"Almost as if the Maker Himself had ordained it?" Helga asked, causing me to tense up.

"Mother, would you please?" Lace said. "Can't you see? She really doesn't need this right now."

"Oh, alright," Helga said. "But, er, Nessa, this isn't a show for your benefit, my dear. There are a few of us from the area who've really taken what you've shown us to heart. We've started travelling to Redcliffe every week for Chantry services, and some of us are even thinking of tearing down that superstitious tree-"

"No! What are you thinking?" I asked. "That tree has been up there for ages. And Tyrdda's Leaf-Eared Lover? Do you really think I of all people would want her tree cut down? She's probably the only famous elf the shems never tried to destroy, and she's a myth."

I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and continued. "Look, you want to be a good Andrastian? Go to your Chantry services; I'm sure they're lovely, and I know a lot of people get a sense of peace there. Help folks in need; there are plenty of them around here. If you see the shems abusing elves, remember that Andraste went out of her way to help free us from slavery, and chose Shartan specifically to help her at her darkest hour. You're already good people; you don't have to change much. Just keep your community strong, help the folks around you when they need it, don't let the elves be abused, and you're doing plenty."

By the time I was finished, Helga's mouth was hanging open, and even Lace was looking at me funny.

"As you say, Your Worship," Helga said, bowing her head and dipping all the way into a curtsy this time.

"Maker's balls," I muttered, and walked back to Lace's room. I closed the Chant of Light (carefully - those things are worth hundreds of sovereigns), removed the Andraste icon from the wall, and buried myself under the covers, at least for a few minutes, until Lace came in with some breakfast.

"You're not going to start with this stuff, too?" I asked her, not yet certain I wanted to emerge from my hiding place.

"I just have some breakfast, sweetheart," she said. "It's safe to come out."

"You didn't warm it up on a bowl of fire or anything, did you?"

She laughed. "No, just the usual."

"What was that all about back there?" I asked. "I literally just told her to be nice to people, and then she treats me like some sort of prophet?"

"It sounds a whole lot different when it comes from you, Vhenan. To be honest, it sounded a bit like a sermon you'd hear in the Chantry. Coming from a Herald instead of a priest, that's kind of a big deal."

"Can you at least ask her to stop with the bowing and the 'Your Worship?' And maybe your father, too, preemptively?"

"Already done, Nessa. I told them that the best way they could help would be to let you relax as much as possible - and showed them my orders to that effect."

"Wait - you're really being ordered to do this?" I asked.

"Oh, it's a terrible burden, believe me," she replied. "I have to visit my family, spend time with my girlfriend, sleep indoors on an actual bed. The horrors!"

"And they make you eat good food," I added, my mouth half full of bread and blood sausage. "I'm going to have to tell Nightingale to increase your pay, too."

Lace was mostly successful getting her parents to tone down the whole worship thing. We still sat with them for evening prayers, but they finally relented in calling me by my first name, and the food stayed amazing. Lace brought me by her neighbor's to show me what tending sheep is like (or, at least what fooling around in the grass while Contessa looks after the flock is like), Jerrik and I had a very enlightening discussion on futures markets in commodities trading, at least until I mentioned how much it looks like what Gorim and Tegrin did with lyrium, and Helga, well, she asked if I could help her with the cooking one evening. She didn't make that mistake again.

Going to visit the Hardings was a mission for the Inquisition. The objective was to secure some rest and refreshment for the Herald of Andraste, and as such it was wildly successful. I needed the time with Lace, I needed the time away from making decisions, time away from being the one great hope for peace in Thedas, and I'm glad that's what I got, because the first thing we saw as we rode into Haven was Leliana, Josephine, Cullen, Cassandra, and that strange Solas guy waiting for us.

"Um, hi folks," I said. Lace steered her horse closer to me and grabbed my hand. "What's going on?"

When a group of people as battle-hardened and experienced as the five in front of me are afraid to open their mouths, it's never a good sign. Two of Dennet's stableboys had come by to take our horses, so Lace and I dismounted, and I walked the group to the Chantry's war room.

"Okay," I said, closing the door behind us. "One of you is going to tell me what this is all about, right?"

Cassandra finally threw up her hands in disgust. "Fine. I will tell her. Your Worship, it seems as though not enough mages followed us from Redcliffe. We can't seal the breach."