One Step at a Time (Closed)

[24th Firstfall, 9.34; vicinity of Alec's cabin in the woods, with ]

Humming lightly beneath her breath, Leliana made her way through the forest, intent on reaching the darling little cabin which nestled amongst the tall evergreens.  Over the last few weeks, she had monitored any and all reports regarding Teyrna Ainsley and the Quirke family, judging when it might be appropriate to approach Alec with the invitation to accompany her to Orlais.  But with the nearing of the year end, Leliana wished to be on her way so that she might visit with Dorothea, concerned about the whispers that Divine Beatrix III was suffering rapidly declining health.  So she concluded her business elsewhere, visited friends and assured them of her return, then travelled to Amaranthine in search of the young woodsman who might be her companion.

However, as she neared the cabin, Leliana slowed in her steps and whistled to alert Lucky to her presence.  She was unsure whether the wolf was in the vicinity, not being familiar with her habits if not accompanying Alec, but it would never do to startle a wild creature. 

"Alec?" she called.  "The merchants in the town told me that you were likely to be here."  Too often, people were unnerved by her ability to locate them but in truth, it was no great feat.  Only Bards knew well enough how to conceal themselves effectively.  "We have plans, no?"
It had been several weeks since he'd returned from Gwaren, and though Alec wasn't happy about leaving his sister in mourning Kahrin had urged him not to uproot his entire life for her. She was fine, she said. And if she needed him, she'd send for him.

So, he'd returned to his cabin and picked up where he left off. Business was still good, though he knew that sometime soon Leliana would come to him and say it was time to go. He kept a pack ready, just in case, so that he could leave quickly. A letter addressed to his parents was ready to go, too, so that Da knew to come and tend to the cabin in his absence.

When the day finally came, Alec had been busy mending a hole in his favorite cloak. Lucky was asleep by the fire, her ears perked in alert as always even as her chest rose and fell in steady intervals. Then, her ears twitched and she lifted her head. Alec looked at the wolf curiously. "Did you hear something?"

"Alec?" called a familiar, melodic voice from outside. Leliana. He grinned and set his cloak down as he went to the door.

"G'morning," he called back, as he watched her approach.

"The merchants in the town told me that you were likely to be here,"
Leliana said. "We have plans, no?"

Alec rubbed the back of his neck and nodded. "I'm just about ready to go. Come in," he said, stepping aside and extending an arm to let her pass by him. "I just need to put out the fire." He moved over to the hearth, stepping around the wolf who was eyeing their visitor calmly, and spread the remaining embers around and then poured the remaining water he'd collected from the stream to put them out. "How have you been?" he asked over his shoulder as he made sure the hot spots were extinguished.
Rubbing at the back of his neck as he nodded his agreement, Alec stepped to one side as he gestured with his arm that Leliana should enter into the darling cabin.  "I'm just about ready to go. Come in," he invited.  "I just need to put out the fire.

Leliana bowed slightly to Lucky who was watching her entrance from the warmth of the fireside, her ears pricked but with no sense of alarm.  "I did not think you would be so ready to depart," she observed with a soft laugh, glad that this trip was still something which interested him.  She would not have held it against Alec had he decided to remain in Ferelden given what had occurred in Gwaren.

Fussing over the fire to ensure it was thoroughly extinguished, Alec spoke over his shoulder.  "How have you been?"

"Very well," she smiled.  "I have spent time in Denerim with good friends.  It is a simple pleasure, no?"  She tilted her head to one side, regarding her soon-to-be travelling companion.  "And what of you, Alec?  You need not pretend your sister's grief does not weigh upon you."

She folded her arms across her chest.  "I ask that you speak honestly.  If you wish to be home sooner, we should sail to Val Royeaux and I can show you the land from there.  But if you are content to take longer, we may travel the Frostbacks and through Orlais itself."
Leliana entered his home and he watched as she greeted Lucky. As Alec gathered the rest of his things, he asked Leliana how she had been since they'd last seen each other. A lot had happened, but he was sure Leliana already knew that already.

"Very well," she smiled that bright, wonderful smile of hers. "I have spent time in Denerim with good friends. It is a simple pleasure, no?" She tilted her head to the side. "And what of you, Alec? You need not pretend your sister's grief does not weigh upon you."

Alec turned to her, a touch of a smile pulling up at the corner of his mouth. "It does, but Kahrin is stronger than people give her credit for. I asked her if she wanted me to stay. I offered to stay, but she told me she didn't want me to put my life on hold for her." He shook his head. "She said she'd be able to send word for me if she needed me. I guess that's something fancy, important people can do."

Leliana folded her arms over her chest. "I ask that you speak honestly. If you wish to be home sooner, we should sail to Val Royeaux and I can show you the land from there. But if you are content to take longer, we may travel the Frostbacks and through Orlais itself."

Alec smiled wider. "I can do that, easy enough. Ent been a Quirke that doesn't speak a little too honestly most of the time. I'm itching to see the world, though. Especially with someone who can tell me stories about it as we go along."

He looked at Lucky. "D'ya reckon we'll have much trouble bringing Lucky along? She'll be good for tracking and hunting along the way." He hated the idea of leaving her behind.
The cheeky grin which spread across Alec's face was a sight to behold.  Leliana pressed her fingers to her mouth to muffle the giggle which threatened to spill at seeing such mischief in his expression.  "I can do that, easy enough," he assured her with regards her insistence that he be honest.  "Ent been a Quirke that doesn't speak a little too honestly most of the time. I'm itching to see the world, though. Especially with someone who can tell me stories about it as we go along."

Delight sparkled in her eyes.  "I will share as many as you wish, Alec."  It was a simple pleasure to entertain with the innumerable different tales she had gathered while travelling.

Glancing towards the wolf, Alec added, "d'ya reckon we'll have much trouble bringing Lucky along? She'll be good for tracking and hunting along the way."

"She is also welcome," Leliana assured him, smiling brightly at the wolf.  "We are a trio, no?  It is a fitting number for adventuring."  The presence of the wolf also confirmed that they would travel by the Frostbacks, though to save time travelling across Ferelden soil, Leliana had arranged passage to Stormgard from Amaranthine.  They would then travel upon the North Road as it merged into the Imperial Highway and arrive at Gherlen's Pass.  All in all, it should take five days travel, particularly as Leliana knew a few shortcuts along the way.

She stepped towards the door, seeing no need to tarry.  "If we are ready, let us be on our way.  I have only to collect supplies from the city and we can begin our journey."

~~~

[30th Firstfall, 9.34 - at Gherlen's Pass]

Even without scaling the imposing heights of the Frostbacks themselves, the chill of winter was in the air, reddening Leliana's cheeks and turning her breath into pretty wisps.  She was glad for the slope of the ground under her feet, the exertion helping to warm her blood, and set a robust pace as they began their travels through the Pass.

"If you should wish," she addressed her companion, turning her head and pulling down the scarf about her face just enough so that he might catch her smile, "we may visit the gates of Orzammar.  You can see the impressive stonework of the gate as well as speak with the dwarven merchants who trade just outside of it."
Alec had never really considered how much ground one could cover in just a matter of days. It had been nearly a week since they'd left Amaranthine, and now they had found themselves in the Frostback Mountains. The chill Alec felt was nothing compared to the beauty of everything he saw around him. His breath seemed to dance in front of him when he dared pull down the scarf he had wrapped around his face. Instead, he enjoyed the warmth of his own breath underneath the fabric.

Lucky did not seem to mind it at all. She walked with them, though just on the edge of the treeline. Sometimes the wolf disappeared from view, but she always came back. Alec knew she wouldn't go far, and would alert him to any danger that she might find herself in.

As they walked up the trail, Leliana turned to him. "If you should wish," she smiled, pulling her scarf down just far enough to speak, "we may visit the gates of Orzammar. You can see the impressive stonework of the gate as well as speak with the dwarven merchants who trade just outside of it."

"Orzammar!" Alec didn't attempt to hide his wonder. "I probably won't find myself with another chance to see it anytime soon. It's not too far out of our way?" he asked her, readjusting his pack over his shoulder. "I could use a trip to a merchant, too. Maybe they'll have some fancy arrows I can't say no to." 

In truth, he was hoping to find some sort of a gift to bring back to his sister. Maybe even something for Ma and Da. He supposed if he found something for Brecken it'd be alright, but he wasn't terribly concerned about that. "What d'ya know about Orzammar?" he asked as they walked. "You came here with the Hero, yeah?"
Her suggestion was met with eyes rounded in wonder.  "Orzammar!"  Alec echoed, almost reverently.  "I probably won't find myself with another chance to see it anytime soon. It's not too far out of our way?"  He hoisted his pack higher over his shoulder.  "I could use a trip to a merchant, too. Maybe they'll have some fancy arrows I can't say no to."

Leliana let loose a light laugh which curled as white mist into the air between them.  "Then we shall go!"  The route towards the splinter mountain pass which led towards the gates of Orzammar was still a few hours ahead of them.

While they continued to walk, Alec filled the time with conversation.  "What d'ya know about Orzammar?" Glancing towards him, Leliana raised her brow in silent question.  Did he mean personal experience or the stories shared between minstrels?  "You came here with the Hero, yeah?"

"I did, yes."  Her memories of Orzammar ranged from fond friendship to heart-stopping terror.  Perhaps it was the most difficult of the location which the Hero had visited to enforce the treaties.  Something about being so deep underground, so far from the light of the Maker, had unsettled her throughout their adventures.  She had been glad to return to the surface despite the sights and stories she had gained from their time amongst the children of stone.  "There was still political uncertainty within Orzammar when we visited.  The Hero had to perform many difficult tasks to earn the favour of the dwarves."

She beamed at Alec, eyes twinkling.  "We do not have the ancient treaty of the Order of the Grey to ensure entry into the city."  Perhaps, if she were alone, Leliana might succeed in gaining entry.  But she doubted that she held sway to influence permission for another human to roam within their capital without considerable debate.  "However, we will find a small number of merchants outside the large intricately carved stone doors.  If we are to find ingeniously designed arrows, it will be amongst these merchants, I am certain."
Leliana confirmed that she had traveled to Orzammar, like the stories said. He marveled at how much more of the world than he had seen. Granted, he had never been wrapped up in anything quite like this before. He felt incredibly lucky to be given the chance to travel with someone like her. Alec asked what she knew about the dwarven kingdom, since what he knew was next to nothing.

"There was still political uncertainty within Orzammar when we visited," she said. "The Hero had to perform many difficult tasks to earn the favour of the dwarves."

"Yeah, I remember hearing about that in the stories. It's always hard to know what's real and what's just in there for effect. Guess it's better if us regular folks don't know though, yeah?" He grinned at his companion. "D'ya reckon we'll be able to go in?"

"We do not have the ancient treaty of the Order of the Grey to ensure entry into the city," she replied. Alec nodded, a little disappointed though he understood. "However, we will find a small number of merchants outside the large intricately carved stone doors. If we are to find ingeniously designed arrows, it will be amongst these merchants, I am certain."

That brightened his spirits a bit. "I hope so. There's a dwarf at the Amaranthine market that usually has some really fine arrows for sale. He says he's not allowed back in the city, but I guess that doesn't stop 'em from getting their wares. I mean, they wouldn't have a lot of lucky selling otherwise, I guess." As the great stone gates of Orzammar came into his view, Alec's eyes widened. "Wow," he breathed. "I've never seen anything like that before."
There was no hiding the disappointment with which Alec received the news that it was almost impossible that they would gain entry into the ancient underground city.  Yet his expression brightened with mention of the topsider merchants who boasted as fine a crafting skill as their brethren below the surface.

"I hope so," he remarked.  "There's a dwarf at the Amaranthine market that usually has some really fine arrows for sale. He says he's not allowed back in the city, but I guess that doesn't stop 'em from getting their wares."  She shook her head, confirming that trade routes out of the city were firmly established, though there were strict rules.  Those below did not breach topside and those above were not permitted the freedoms of the city.  It was complicated and one which Leliana had yet to fully unravel herself.  "I mean, they wouldn't have a lot of lucky selling otherwise, I guess."  Charmed, she laughed softly beneath her breath, acknowledging the complications which a merchant would encounter if he could not source his wares.

Yet the conversation abruptly ended when the gates of Orzammar came into view.  Eyes wide as he marvelled over the sight, Alec murmured, "Wow. I've never seen anything like that before."

"That is precisely why we were to see it, no?" she teased him lightly, climbing the few stone steps which led to the communal area, overlooked by the great gates.  There were a handful of carts gathered there with a few other travellers arranging trades.

She approached one of the merchants who had a range of weaponry available on his cart.  After enquiring about arrows, specifically ones with enhanced properties, he nodded and retrieved a long narrow box from beneath the cart.  He lifted the lid to reveal a variety of arrows which were nestled together, pinned into place, and explained that these were samples of what he could arrange to be delivered.

"Arrange from where?" Leliana enquired, peering into the box with a raised brow.  Some types she recognised while others were unfamiliar to her.

As expected, the dwarf admitted that his supplies came from Orzammar itself.  Raising her head, Leliana sensed an opportunity.  "We do not have time to linger while you send for additional supplies.  Would we be permitted to make contact with your associate ourselves?"

The merchant shrugged, explaining that it was a matter for the guards at the gates.  But it would not harm their attempt to have a specific reason to venture into the city.  Even so, they would need to prove they actually required direct contact with the Orzammar merchant, as opposed to himself.

Leliana looked to Alec, eyes shining.  "A special commission would require direct communication, no?  Have you ever considered how you would wish an arrow to be crafted, Alec?"
Alec marveled at the sights before him, his eyes drawn higher than the tallest buildings in Amaranthine at least. The artistry and skill that it would have taken to carve such detail... he could barely contain himself, though he did try to keep some semblance of control to keep Leliana from teasing him too badly.

He followed her towards the market stalls set up outside the grand gates, looking eagerly at the wares that were available. While Leliana spoke with one of the merchants outside, Alec picked up a handsome shortbow that felt solid yet light in his hands. He looked over as Leliana asked the merchant where he got his wares, who unsurprisingly said they came from Orzammar.

"We do not have time to linger while you send for additional supplies," she said. "Would we be permitted to make contact with your associate ourselves?"

The dwarf said it was a matter for the guards and Alec looked at his companion.

"Are you trying to get us into the city?"
he asked, brows raised with a mixture of surprise and elation.

As always, Leliana's eyes glittered as she spoke. "A special commission would require direct communication, no? Have you ever considered how you would wish an arrow to be crafted, Alec?"

"Well, it's always nice to have something with a sharp tip made of a stronger metal,"
he said. "I've had a few shoddily constructed arrows where the tips broke off in my targets. But I know you're pretty good with the bow yourself. What would you look for?" 
Catching onto her intent, Alec readily provided his ideal requirements for a specially commissioned arrow.  "Well, it's always nice to have something with a sharp tip made of a stronger metal," he observed.  "I've had a few shoddily constructed arrows where the tips broke off in my targets."  Though he was keen to involve Leliana in the design process as well.  "But I know you're pretty good with the bow yourself. What would you look for?"

Throughout her travels, Leliana had witnessed a many different designs for arrows.  Some had proven more successful in design than others.  Yet what fascinated her was the singular manner in which each design sought to surprise those against whom the arrow was fired.  Any small thing which disrupted strategies was an advantage.

"I am open to ideas," she replied with a bright smile.  "My skills lies in shooting, not crafting, no?  Though I, too, would like to own a few of the arrows you describe."  She turned and made further enquiries of the merchant, pressing coin into his hand in payment for providing the name of his Orzammar associate.  Even if they did not gain entry into the dwarven city, the man deserved monetary recognition for his assistance.  It would have been simple to dismiss them and their enquiries.

She beckoned that Alec should follow and made her way across to the large stone doors.  The guards were sceptical at first, grunting their responses rather than speaking, but once Leliana had proven herself to be a former companion of the Hero, as much as she disliked associating herself in that manner, they were more receptive to her request.  Even so, it took a great deal of questioning as to why she and Alec wished to speak with the Orzammar merchant before they would agree, and it still involved a very strict time limit on their visit.  That was more than acceptable given their own itinerary for the journey.

So it was that they found themselves walking through the large tunnels leading to Orzammar, the statues of Paragons on either side.  They emerged into the outskirts of the city where the Commons and Market District was located; they were permitted no where else for the duration of their time here.

With the city spread before them, and no shortage of curious looks from the dwarven citizens, Leliana looked to Alec.  "Welcome to Orzammar," she said, recalling the wonder she had felt when she first visited here.  "Is it how you imagined?"
Alec wasn't quite sure how Leliana had worked her magic to get them into the city, but there they were walking through the large stone doors. Alec's breath caught in his throat as he looked around the large tunnel and caught sight of the stone carvings that lined the walls. How was that possible? He certainly didn't know.

Then they found themselves going through another set of large doors and there was the city spread out before them. Alec stopped in his tracks, his eyes wide with wonder and completely oblivious to the stares they were getting from the dwarves that passed them by.

"Welcome to Orzammar," Leliana said. "Is it how you imagined?"

Alec let out a breathy laugh and pushed a hand through his hair. "It's... incredible." He shook his head in disbelief and laughed again. "Can you imagine how much time it would have taken to build all of this? The skill? How many generations worked until the city was complete?" He ran his hand over the stone banister with took the few steps down below to what he figured to be the market. Smooth and cool to the touch. "It must take years to master this kind of craftmenship."
Laughing beneath his breath, Alec pushed his hand through already-tousled hair.  Adorable, no?  "It's... incredible," he said of the view.  Shaking his head, he let loose another laugh, clearly over-awed.  "Can you imagine how much time it would have taken to build all of this? The skill? How many generations worked until the city was complete?"  He trailed his fingers over a railing which led down the steps into the market.  "It must take years to master this kind of craftmenship."

She smiled, his wondrous joy reflected in her own expression.  "The dwarves record their memories in stone.  Time has a different meaning beneath the surface."  She turned her head to look out over the city, admiring anew the beauty of it.  "Each caste takes pride in ensuring their knowledge is passed down the generations; they are trained from birth in the craft of their caste."  She did not linger on the matter of those who were born without caste or who chose to venture beyond the restrictions of their caste.  It was appropriate to discuss such matters when guests within the city.

"Come."  Striding forward, Leliana made for the stall which the surfacer dwarf had described as belonging to his business partner.  Laid out on the stall was all manner of weaponry but it was the collection of arrows which confirmed that they had the correct vendor.

"Well-met," Leliana greeted the dwarf standing close-by.  He eyed them, torn between suspicion and the possibility of a valuable sale.  "We gained entry into the city specifically to speak with you."  She went on to explain what they required from the merchant, detailing the very special requirements.  The longer that Leliana spoke, the more intrigued the dwarf became.  Eventually, he nodded and confirmed that he would fashion arrows which met all of those demands, though it would cost a significant amount.  Leliana set down a handful of coin and the dwarf rubbed his hands together with glee.  He assured them that he would have their arrows ready within a matter of hours.  How that might be possible, Leliana did not press.

She turned to Alec.  "Let us explore a little more of what we may," she suggested.  "If you wish, we can take our lives in our hands at Tapster's Tavern.  There is nothing so potent as the taste of lichen ale."  
Orzammar was the sort of place Alec had only ever dreamed of seeing, and one that had totally surpassed his expectations. Everything he'd ever heard about it had been from dwarves on the surface, and he wasn't even sure how many of them had ever set foot in the underground kingdom to begin with. Some of it, he was finding out, was true.

It was an incredible place with incredible architecture. The skills of the craftsmen was evident in every detail, both on the stone walls that crept up higher than the largest trees he'd ever climbed, and in the armor and weaponry that was for sale at the stores.

Leliana was doing the talking, which was fine by Alec. He was too preoccupied with staring to really think too hard about words, after all. When she paid the man she'd asked for in regards to a custom set of arrows, she turned to Alec.

"Let us explore a little more of what we may," she suggested. "If you wish, we can take our lives in our hands at Tapster's Tavern. There is nothing so potent as the taste of lichen ale."

Alec let out a laugh. "It can't be much worse than the shit we drink in Amaranthine. Dragon Piss. You'll have to ask my sister about that sometime." He grinned widely, crinkling the tattoo that lined his eye, and looked around. "You'll have to lead the way, though. I'll never find it."

They walked towards the tavern and Alec looked over at his companion. "So has it changed much since you were here the last time? Orzammar, I mean. I can't imagine they're keen on bringing in visitors very often. Must've been something to have so many newcomers here at once. Especially during the Blight." 
Her warnings with regards lichen ale were met with a hearty laugh by Alec.  "It can't be much worse than the shit we drink in Amaranthine."  She arched a brow, inviting further clarification, to which he added, "Dragon Piss. You'll have to ask my sister about that sometime.

"I shall be sure to do so," she giggled beneath her breath.  Such invitations to make further enquiries would be rude to refuse, no?

A wide grin split his face at her agreement, his tattoo wrinkling around his eye.  He could not stop himself from looking all around even while they spoke, however.  "You'll have to lead the way, though. I'll never find it."

"Oh, that is easily solved."  Every path through Orzammar eventually wound its way through Tapster's, she had discovered.  A rite of passage for each visitor to the dwarven city.

Making their way through the streets, Alec glanced towards Leliana.  "So has it changed much since you were here the last time? Orzammar, I mean."  He considered for a moment.  "I can't imagine they're keen on bringing in visitors very often. Must've been something to have so many newcomers here at once. Especially during the Blight."

She hummed her agreement.  "There was much occupying those who dwell here when I visited with the Hero," she explained, not wishing to divulge specifics while amongst those who might still harbour resentments over what transpired during that time.  "Though for the dwarves, a Blight upon the surface usually grants them a rare reprieve from the onslaught of darkspawn."  Raising her head, Leliana examined the vast structures which filled the subterranean space.  "But no, the sight of it has not changed.  I do not think that would be possible in only one lifetime."  Change did not come easily to those who forged their lives through stone.

They arrived at Tapster's and Leliana led the way inside.  Sitting down at a booth, she ordered one lichen ale for Alec and a less potent drink for herself.  In addition, she requested a selection of dishes so that they might enjoy the range of culinary experience which the dwarves had to offer.

"Once we have finished here," she explained, settling into her stone carved seat, "we will collect our arrows and then return to the surface.  It would not be polite to remain here longer than necessary."

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