Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Eight

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Brother Genitivi’s house was reasonably easy to spot, set back in one of the dim, old-fashioned little mews that lay off the western end of the market, and marked out by a bushy collection of plants that rambled, unkempt, around its frontage. The area was quiet, relatively genteel—at least compared to most of the district—and it seemed pleasant enough. Just the sort of place a man of letters might choose to make his home, I supposed, and I thought with a certain unease of the good brother’s dog-eared book, and its gaudy hyperbole and bright, impossible tales.

I hung back as Alistair knocked on the door. It was hard to shake the notion we were being watched, though I couldn’t make out a single soul among the dimming shapes of the houses. The cathedral bells tolled the hour, and I wondered whether we might make it out of town before the gates were shut for the night. I wanted to leave, I realised… more than I’d ever thought possible.

I blinked as the little house’s door creaked open, the thin, vulpine face of a young man appearing in the shadowed couple of inches’ gap.

“Yes? What are you doing here? What d’you want?”

Well, this was a promising start. I glanced at Leliana, and found her face a careful study in blankness, all porcelain and sapphire. Her gaze slipped quickly to me, and I could see from the tiny frown that flittered almost imperceptibly across her brow that she was uneasy. ‘Be alert’, she seemed to say, though I wasn’t sure what she might mean by that.

“Er,” Alistair began doubtfully, “we’re looking for Brother Genitivi.”

“He’s not here,” the man said flatly, and began to close the door.

Alistair stuck his foot into the gap, and winced as the stout wood connected with his boot.

“Ow. Yes, but if we could just—”

“If we could just take a moment of your time,” Leliana put in, stepping gracefully forwards, her head tilted elegantly to the side. “We really won’t be more than a moment. It’s on behalf of the Chantry’s authentication committee, regarding some of Brother Genitivi’s work on the Birth Rock of the Blessed Andraste.”

She could lie with the ease of an evening shadow falling across a sundial, that woman. I tried to hide my smile as the figure behind the door reluctantly opened it another couple of inches, revealing a little more of himself. He seemed very young; no more than a boy, with a mop of curly black hair and tight-drawn, worried eyebrows. His thin hand, the fingers almost like spider’s legs, picked nervously at the wood of the door as he surveyed us.

“W-well, all right. If it’s important, I-I suppose….”

“Good man,” Alistair said briskly, and pushed the door fully open, propelling the lad gently backwards.

Leliana and I followed him in, past the cowed… well, apprentice, I supposed. He gave off that air, the sense of mild indecision and the absence of responsibility. I couldn’t help a twinge of unease as the door closed, and the latch clicked behind us. The whole place seemed to smell of musty paper, dirty floors, and a chimney that badly needed a clean.

“You’re the brother’s assistant, I take it?” Leliana smiled kindly at the boy.

“Y-yes, that’s right. W-Weylon. I’ve been with Brother Genitivi for nearly five years. But—”

Something was off. That much was obvious as we entered the cottage’s main room. A fire burned in the hearth, and the table was set with glasses and decanters, but there were no boots by the door, and the curtains hadn’t been drawn. A layer of dust edged the chair nearest the fire, I noticed.

“—why are you looking for him? I-If you have papers, you can leave them here, and—”

“So, he’s still off searching for the Urn of Sacred Ashes, is he?” Alistair smiled jovially. “That’s what we’d heard.”

“What?” Weylon blinked rapidly, fingers worrying at the cuff of his shirt, and shrugged. “Well, yes… he was on the trail of the Urn of Sacred Ashes, yes. Whether he found it, the Maker only knows. He hasn’t sent word for some time.”

The room wasn’t large, and it was edged with bookcases and shelves, each one of them crammed with curios as well as books. Bits of rock, crystals, clay tablets, statues… even the mantelpiece was loaded with obscure-looking odds and ends. I hardly dared move for fear of knocking something flying.

“We’d heard he may be missing,” Leliana said, as she crossed nonchalantly to the fireplace.

I saw what she was doing. It was the simple and innocent gesture of a guileless woman inspecting someone else’s knick-knacks… but she’d distanced herself from Alistair and me, and forced Weylon to divide his attention between us.

“I-I haven’t seen Brother Genitivi in weeks,” the boy said, shaking his head. “He’s sent no word; it’s so unlike him.”

“That must be a terrible worry for you,” Leliana said smoothly, picking up a small clay vase painted with a bright, strange, geometric pattern. Her gaze flicked back to him, sharp and quick as a blade. “Do you think something might have happened to him?”

I followed her lead, my calm, unhurried steps taking me to the bookshelves that filled the opposite wall. So many books… and all so well-used. The titles were rubbed off many of the spines, and some were parting company entirely from their bindings. A shelf in the middle held a roll of fine brushes, a block of wood, and a jar of fish glue.

“It is possible Genitivi’s research into the Urn may have led him into danger,” Weylon conceded, glancing at me in unconcealed alarm, and apparently growing more uncomfortable by the second.

“Really?” Alistair sounded almost companionable. “Now, why would you think that?”

“Well, I-I… I don’t know. He was very excited when he left, and said he would be back with all the answers.” Weylon twisted the hem of his shirt in those thin, spidery hands, and bit his lip. “Perhaps something has happened. Perhaps the Urn has been lost all these years for a reason.”

“You do believe it’s real, then?” I put in, causing the boy to gawp hopelessly at me.

“I-I didn’t say that!”

Part of me felt a little cruel for the way we were treating him, but he was so clearly hiding something… and part of me, on that day, might even have relished making a human squirm.

“I don’t know,” he protested. “That is, Genitivi thought so. Thinks so, I mean…. Please, ser,” he added, looking imploringly at Alistair. “You see how it is, surely? I pray for my master’s safety, but hope dwindles with each passing day. What am I supposed to think?”

Leliana tutted. “Oh, you poor thing. It must be such a worry.”

As Weylon glanced at her, distracted, Alistair shot me a brief glance, then nodded to a door at the far end of the room. I followed his gaze and saw what had attracted his attention: the door was tight shut, a heavy iron key in its lock.

“Have you reported him missing, then?” Alistair asked. “There must be some clue as to where he was headed, some way of finding him.”

Weylon licked his lips and swallowed heavily. “W-well, I…. There were some knights who came from Redcliffe not long ago. They were looking for Genitivi too, and I-I told them everything I knew. But there’s been no word since, so I assume they’ve disappeared as well. Wouldn’t you think the worst, ser?”

The faint tang of human sweat marked the air, a sharp note against the must of paper and the soot-choked fire. The boy wasn’t as distraught over his master’s disappearance as much as he was desperate to see the back of us. That much was clear, and it worried me.

Alistair, however, was playing things nonchalantly. He sucked his teeth and looked over at Leliana, while I began to edge my way towards the locked door.

“We-ell, I don’t know. Maybe they took Genitivi back to Redcliffe with them.”

Weylon frowned. “I… I suppose that’s possible. I-I don’t know.”

“Oh, I think it is,” Leliana said encouragingly. “Perhaps if you tell us exactly what route the brother took when he left, then—”

“No, don’t ask me that! You mustn’t ask me that!” Weylon’s sweaty nervousness gave way suddenly to a high-pitched desperation, and he turned sharply to the fire, wringing his thin little hands. “Please… I can’t tell you. You’ll go after them, and what if ill-luck should befall you, too?”

He seemed genuinely afraid. I stepped a little closer to the door. It was probably Genitivi’s private study, I thought. The only place we might find some kind of organised clue in all this paper chaos.

“Oh,” Leliana said sweetly, “come now. You can tell us, I promise.”

The boy’s frown deepened and he stared wretchedly at her.

“Please… I don’t know. All Brother Genitivi said before he left was that he would be staying at an inn near Lake Calenhad, investigating something in that area.”

“Lake Calenhad?” Alistair echoed.

I was surprised, too. That should have put the brother within a couple of days of Redcliffe, if he’d ever even arrived at his destination. It seemed odd Ser Perth’s knights hadn’t managed to make that connection… or perhaps we were being fed an entirely different story to the one they’d been told. Either way, something felt very wrong indeed.

Alistair seemed to think the same. He frowned.

“Hmm. And I don’t suppose you know anything else?”

Weylon shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. I’m just Brother Genitivi’s assistant. I… I just follow instructions.”

There was an odd, plaintive note clinging to those words. I didn’t like it one little bit.

“You won’t mind if we take a look around, then?” I asked, reaching my hand to the locked door, and its heavy iron key.

At once, Weylon whirled around, his pallid face suddenly flushed with panicked anger.

“No! I-I mean, you mustn’t go in there!”

“Oh?” I arched my brows. “Why not?”

He wet his lips, his gaze darting nervously around the room as he struggled to keep all three of us in his sight. The firelight caught at a thin sheen of sweat beading on his forehead.

“That room isn’t for guests. It’s full of Genitivi’s private papers, and they mustn’t be disturbed.”

“Oh, we’ll be careful,” Alistair said cheerfully. “We won’t mess anything up.”

My fingers closed on the cool metal of the door handle.

“I said no,” Weylon snapped. “Don’t touch that door!”

He flung his hands out, and the air seemed to split around them. The smell of dry books and the open fire was lost beneath a great, violent wave of magical energy, roaring in a peal of white flame. I threw myself to the ground, rolled, and cursed the way my brown dress tangled itself around my legs. Leliana ducked and wove, her Chantry robe a flare of red and gold as she rounded behind Weylon—or whoever he really was—and pulled a dagger from her boot.

He spun, sending a bolt of fire towards her, his face contorted by a wordless scream of terrified rage. Flamelight danced over his narrow features, making him seem so young and fragile, yet there was some inner core driving the boy—some anger, some kind of desperate passion—that frightened me. I got to my feet as Alistair charged into him, body slamming body with a dull thud. He landed one good punch to the mage’s jaw, but it didn’t keep him down for long… he was far more powerful than he looked. As Alistair pulled back, wincing and shaking out his bloodied hand, magic burned the air. White light seared my eyes, and I heard Leliana cry out.

My fingers closed on the wooden chair that stood by the fireplace and, as Weylon turned, an orb of crackling energy already swelling between his palms, I swung the thing round, straight into the backs of his knees.

He swore, sagged, and lost his spell, that momentary lapse of concentration was enough. Leliana lunged forwards, and all I saw was the brief flash of steel, then a cravat of red that gulped erratically down the front of the young mage’s shirt. His spider-like hands flexed on empty air, his mouth slackening, and his eyes bulged a little as he blinked. He seemed to murmur something, then folded slowly to the floor. Blood pooled on the bare boards as his body stilled, and after that terrible roar of magic and anger, the room seemed horribly quiet.

I looked down at the vacantly staring eyes, and the blood-wet curls, then glanced up at my companions.

“Everyone all right?”

Alistair nodded. Between us, a few split knuckles and some bumps and bruises were barely worth noticing.

Leliana had pulled a square of cloth from a pouch at her belt, and was carefully wiping her dagger upon it. She pursed her lips as she slipped the blade back into her boot.

“It is a shame that poor boy had to be so difficult. I do not like all this death.”

“Well, he did start it,” Alistair pointed out, crossing to the locked door that had caused all the trouble. “Wonder what he was so keen to protect?”

I rubbed my palm absently against the rough broadcloth of my dress, unnerved by those blank, dead eyes, and the dancing reflections of firelight in the pooling blood. That all-too-familiar smell, like old copper, lodged itself at the back of my throat, and it seemed strange not to find it laced with rotted flesh or sweat and hot steel. Simple death, untouched by anything demonic or foul, still had power over me then.

“Don’t know,” I managed, as Alistair jiggled the key and gave the door a hearty shove. “But I get the feeling things just got more complicated.”

Alistair snorted. “Huh. You can say that again.”

The door finally gave way, and he stepped into Brother Genitivi’s study, raising his voice for us as he started to ferret through in search of clues.

“Hey, there’s a lot of stuff back here. I don’t think Genitivi ever threw anything away. It looks like there might be something in… oh, Maker’s breath, what is that smell? It— oh. Eww.”

Leliana and I exchanged looks, and then Alistair re-emerged, nose wrinkled and eyes narrowed.

“I, er, I don’t think our surly friend there was the real Weylon,” he said, nodding to the corpse on the floor. “I think he’s in here. Or… most of him, anyway.”

I swore under my breath. Wonderful. And, with our luck, there’d be a Watch patrol on the doorstep any second, enquiring about the strange noises in a usually peaceful sidestreet. How observant were the neighbours, anyway? I supposed it was just a blessing the mage’s fire spells hadn’t managed to send this entire place up like a tinderbox.

“Then, for all we know, Brother Genitivi could be dead too,” Leliana said doubtfully. “But who would do something like this? Kill his assistant and try to take his place? That’s just—”

“We’ll have time to work out why later,” I said, glancing at the unshuttered windows. Anyone could have glimpsed in by now. “But, if the brother was dead, why stay here anyway? And why feed us that Lake Calenhad story?”

Alistair grimaced. “Good point. There’s something fishy about this whole thing.”

“Mm.” I bit my lip. “There is. We should get out of here… but not without seeing if there’s anything we can use. I’ll check the back of the house.”

“I’ll take in here,” Leliana volunteered, eyeing the shelves as if she thought some clue might be hidden among the tomes.

“Oh, good,” Alistair said darkly. “I’ll just go and… see if there’s anything under the decomposing body, then.”

We split up and searched the house with an efficiency of purpose that was almost cold. I’d like to say it was something I didn’t recognise in myself; that I was at odds with the girl who stepped calmly over the corpse of the mage and headed into the kitchen… but it was simply necessity that drove me.

There are things that can compel all of us, perhaps, to do the grimmest deeds.

Nausea lurched in me when I saw the congealed blood, half-scrubbed from the dirty flagstones. It was, I assumed, where Brother Genitivi’s assistant had been killed, and possibly dismembered. I tried not to dwell on it, and not to think at all as I stole two loaves of stale bread, several bags of dried peas and beans, some salt fish, and a dried blood sausage from the pantry.

After a moment’s consideration, I put the blood sausage back.

Alistair had turned up little of value, except an old notebook that seemed to be in Genitivi’s hand. Mostly illegible, it contained vast tracts of excited scrawl, maps, diagrams and what, to me, looked like nothing more than the ramblings of a madman. He also had a stack of books, their bindings ragged and one half-burnt, and I raised my eyebrow suspiciously.

“A little light reading?”

He curled his lip. “Well, you know how easily I get bored in the evenings. No… these were hidden, along with the notebook. Like someone didn’t want them found. See this one?” Alistair held up a squat volume with a grubby, singed cover of dark blue leather. “A history of dragon cults. What does anyone need a book on Tevinter dragon cults for?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with Brother Genitivi going missing, but if you want to take them….”

Alistair didn’t appear to be listening. He was looking over my shoulder at Leliana, and he widened his eyes incredulously.

“Oh, no. We’re not—”

“I think our current need is greater than his, Alistair,” she said gently, glancing at the mage’s cooling body.

Two fat coin purses clinked in her hands. Behind her, at the far end of the room, a compartment hidden behind a dummy back to one of the bookshelves hung open. Clever, I thought, realising it hadn’t been clues to the brother’s whereabouts that Leliana had recognised in the room, but telltale hints of a far more material nature.

“It’s stealing,” Alistair protested. “Actual stealing. Of money. Which is wrong. That’s probably the poor man’s life savings, or—”

“Which he won’t need if he does turn out to be dead,” I said crisply. “Come on. We need to go. Now.”

He sighed, and nodded miserably. “Yes, yes. All right. Fine.”

His misgivings aside, we bundled our loot up in a tablecloth, which I carried, and made for the city gates. Outside, the sky was bathed in red, afire with burnished coils of cloud. The air had grown cool and thick, laced with dew, and rarely had I been so pleased to leave anywhere.

I don’t think I looked back as we put the city behind us, and that almost shocked me. I still knew Denerim as my home, the core of everything, and whatever had been burned out of my heart it should still have held something. And yet, I didn’t even spare a silent prayer for Father as my feet ate away at the cobbles. My family, my home, my old life… all gone, doused in yet more bloodshed. I should not have been so eager to cast away the memories and the echoes of the past, or to bury the whispers of my dead.

We pulled away from the massed knots of traders, pilgrims, and travellers, and headed back onto the West Road, with the intention of cutting south to the pass—and the rendezvous point—by moonlight if we had to. I drove the pace hard, stomping my way along the road without thought or consideration for the others… not that they struggled to keep up. Things were very quiet, though. Subdued to the point of discomfort.

“What d’you think it means?” Alistair ventured, after a while, as the sky deepened out above us, and midges began to fly in the dusk. “Those books of Genitivi’s… dragons and everything.”

“Dunno.” I shrugged, and didn’t break stride. At least he was taking a turn carrying the bundle of things we’d thieved.

“Well, this is the Dragon Age,” Leliana put in. “Perhaps he is interested in the symbolism. You know, I heard there was a high dragon in the Frostback Mountains. Razed a whole village, they say. They are apparently very majestic creatures.”

“Hm.” Alistair sounded doubtful. “Not when you’re getting toasted by one, I imagine. Or stomped on. Or chomped in half. Or—”

Leliana pulled a face. “Oh, stop it! That sounds awful.”

“Well, it’s probably not fun,” he admitted. “I don’t think it’s meant to be. Death by dragon.”

“We’re not going to fight dragons,” I called over my shoulder, realising even as I said it that I was missing a particularly salient point. “Except the… you know.”

Something flittered overhead—an early bat, maybe, or an owl waking for the night—and I nearly flinched, the echoes of nightmares past stretching their black wings above me.

“Yes.” Alistair nodded sagely. “Of course, the you know might not even be a real dragon. Have you thought of that? I mean, it looks like it, in the… you-know-whats. But it might not be. It could be a thingummy.”

I laughed at his daft wordplay, despite myself, and despite every dream or vision I’d had of a huge, dark beast made completely of horns and claws and teeth, railing against its imprisonment and screaming its rage deep in the heart of the earth.

Leliana looked confused. “What in the Maker’s name are you two talking about?”

“The archdemon,” Alistair said helpfully. “You know. The you-know-what. Big dragony thing, huge teeth, talons the size of a man’s arm, innumerable hordes of darkspawn in thrall to its evil will? Pesky thing.”

My grin widened, and Leliana shook her head in quiet disbelief.

~o~O~o~

We got the rendezvous point well before the others. I wasn’t sure whether that was a good sign or not. It seemed eminently possible Morrigan and Sten would have torn each other apart somewhere deep in the forest, while Zevran absconded into the night with the rest of the money and any saleable goods he could lift.

Still, there wasn’t much point fretting. Alistair set to building a fire, whistling tunelessly as he worked, and I sat down to rest at the edge of the clearing, realising for the first time that day how sore my feet were.

I barely heard Leliana draw up behind me, only the soft rustle of her robes giving her away.

“Are you all right?” she asked, lowering herself to the ground beside me.

I blinked, aware of how impossibly graceful she managed to be, even when she was hunkering down in the mud. “Hmm?”

“It’s true, isn’t it?” Those glass-hard eyes softened as she gazed at me, filling with a compassion that was frightening in its sheer depth. “About the alienage… the purge. I heard people saying Loghain had—”

“I don’t know exactly what’s happened,” I said, perhaps a little too shortly.

“But, your family…?”

I looked away, unable to withstand Leliana’s welling fount of pity.

“They could well be dead, yes.” I shrugged. “Probably are. I don’t know. The guard wouldn’t let me in. They… they’ve closed it all off. Walled everyone up.”

I swallowed heavily, wishing I could wall up the surreal melding of memories and imaginings that tainted my mind. I kept picturing dead bodies with familiar faces, burned ruins and the shouts of guardsmen, and there was nothing I could do about any of it.

“I’m sorry,” Leliana said softly.

She touched my shoulder, and squeezed very gently. I looked up, a little startled, and I could have drowned in the sadness of her smile. It was cloying, suffocating… and so painfully genuine. I didn’t quite know how to respond.

“If they are dead, then I am sure they will have gone to the Maker’s side,” she said, with calm certainty. “If not, you will see them again. I feel sure of that. And, whatever the pain you feel now, both of those things are cause to be glad, no?”

I struggled to see how there was any jollity whatsoever in meeting your end on the point of a pikestaff, or in the months of sickness and deprivation that would follow the purge for survivors. I’d heard enough of Father’s stories to know why the wrath of the city was something we feared—why we were prepared to walk the lines the humans gave us—and I wasn’t about to bloody smile over it.

But, Leliana was trying to help. So, I smothered my anger, and nodded.

“Thank you.”

She inclined her head, that soft smile widening. “I will pray for them, if I may.”

I managed to choke out a smile in return, and a strangled ‘thank you’, and that seemed to be enough.

Alistair had finally finished with the fire, and was breaking out stolen bread and a few rations of mousetrap cheese. Glad of the distraction, I moved over to join him, and the three of us settled around the flames. The brooding silhouette of the forest seemed to creep closer, this whole area folding around us like some insidious grasp. The point where the pass carved through the hills, fringed with trees and brush, seemed to be an afterthought, an intrusion in a landscape that felt wild… wilder still for how comparatively close it was to the city. Denerim wouldn’t be half so well protected without Dragon’s Peak, I thought to myself, and fell to thinking idly about how defensible it would be if the horde made it this far.

Or when, perhaps.

Of course, there wasn’t much to stop the darkspawn, was there? Only us… which wasn’t saying a lot. My stomach tightened at the mere thought, and the hunk of bread I was chewing on suddenly seemed leaden and bitter.

“I hope they’re all right,” Leliana remarked, casting a nervous glance up at the sky. “The others, I mean. I thought they’d be here by now.”

“Yes… unless Morrigan’s killed and eaten them all.”

“Alistair!” she chided, though she couldn’t hide her smile.

“Or left them for dead in the middle of the forest,” he added thoughtfully, and glanced enquiringly at me. “Which d’you think’s more likely?”

I shrugged. “Hard to say. You really think she could take Sten down? He’s pretty fast for a big guy.”

Leliana tutted and shook her head. Alistair just grinned at me.

“Yes, but she’s sneaky. And evil.”

“I don’t know… it’d still be three on one,” I said doubtfully. “Four, if you count the dog. I know she’s impressive, but—”

Alistair nodded sagely. “Never underestimate an apostate. First thing they tell you in templar training, that is… apart from where the lavatories are, and the rules for Confession Day pillow fights.”

I sniggered, and Leliana gave a small sigh. For just a second, I was reminded of Duncan, just before the smoke and chaos of battle broke out, as Alistair made a joke about shimmying down the darkspawn line in a frock, and I’d been unable to control my giggles. At the time, I’d taken his sigh for weary resignation, and yet now I couldn’t help thinking of the affection underscored in it… or all the kindnesses he’d shown me on our long ride from Denerim.

It seemed so unfair that he was gone.

I shook the thoughts abruptly, unwilling to allow myself the indulgence of that parade of broken memories. So many people, all lost, and I was still here.

“So,” Alistair said, breaking the silence that had begun to fall, “assuming they do turn up, what do we do? Go to Lake Calenhad? I’m not sure I believe that story about Brother Genitivi being there.”

“I don’t,” Leliana said, with uncharacteristic bluntness. “Whatever was going on in that house, and whoever that boy was, you can wager there’s someone behind it who doesn’t want the brother found. I think that can only mean one thing.”

I glanced up at her, my heart sinking a little at the look of righteous determination that sharpened her features. The firelight played off the red of her hair, and brought roses to her pale cheeks. I knew exactly what she was going to say.

“Well?” Leliana looked impatiently between us. “Isn’t it obvious? The Urn of Sacred Ashes has been discovered. That is powerful knowledge. Whoever knows the location has taken steps to ensure it remains protected.”

“Or,” Alistair said thoughtfully, poking a stick into the depths of the fire, “Brother Genitivi was heavily in debt and staged his own disappearance to avoid his creditors. What?”

“Including murdering his own assistant and placing an impostor in his house?” She scowled. “I hardly think a religious scholar—”

“We don’t know what sort of man he is!” Alistair protested. “I’m just saying, it all seems a bit convenient that—”

“Of course it’s convenient! It’s probably a trap.”

“Oh, so we should just blunder cheerfully into it, then? What if—”

“Look,” I cut in, wondering at his propensity for picking fights with women, and still not entirely sure whether it was some peculiar way humans had of flirting with each other, “I don’t see what else we can do, except go back to Redcliffe and tell Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde what we’ve learned.”

An uncomfortable moment of silence settled between the three of us, and I knew it was up to me to voice the unspoken words. I sighed.

“And, if we do that, the arlessa is only going to want to know what’s at Lake Calenhad. If… if Arl Eamon is still alive by the time we return, that is.”

I didn’t like saying it. I didn’t like the sober flinch that passed over Alistair’s face, either. He frowned.

“Yes. You’re right. We can’t not investigate it, can we? Even if it is all a bit….”

“Exactly.” I stared gloomily into the fire, and watched the sparks leap at its heart. “It’s either that, or tell them we can’t waste any more time, and head west for Orzammar, and the other treaties. I’m not even sure it’s worth pursuing the Dalish.”

Alistair shook his head. “We need them. We need Redcliffe’s forces, too. You know that. The numbers are bad enough anyway, and if we’re to have any hope of—”

“I know.”

We lapsed into uneasy quiet. No one liked facing the impossibilities in our futures. Leliana shivered.

“It’s getting cold. I hope they’re not long.” She glanced down towards the road, and narrowed her eyes. “What’s that? Is that…? Is that a wagon?”

She was right. Beyond the crackle of the fire and the rustling of things in the bushes, the distant creak of an axle touched the air, and a dark shape was rumbling towards the mouth of the pass.

I rose to my feet, craning to get a better look. It seemed to be laden down with goods, which was strange. What merchant would be travelling at this time of night? Stranger still was the shadow loping along beside the wagon… a very familiar shadow that, as the cart neared the curve in the road, picked up its speed and gave a joyful bark.

A grin split my face. I’d have known that hound anywhere.

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Volume 3: Chapter Nine
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Seven

 

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Nerves rippled unpleasantly through me as we left The Shambles behind us and headed out through the lower end of the market district. The cries of poultry and caged geese, and the smell of open-air butchery, gave way to the stench and noise of down-wind tanneries and leather workers. Between the crooked rows of buildings, I thought I caught sight of the alienage wall.

My steps quickened, though I had no idea why. I couldn’t just… walk in. I couldn’t— well, I didn’t know what I was going to do.

“You’re, um, smiling,” Alistair said, as we sidestepped a pile of filth and crossed under the lee of a small wooden gantry that ran between the houses.

“Stops you gagging,” I replied conversationally, swiping a kick at a particularly bolshy rat that had bared its teeth at me. “Anyway, that’s practically home. I—”

I broke off abruptly, and shot him a faltering glance, not sure why I should suddenly feel embarrassed. Alistair shrugged, and smiled thinly. He didn’t look much as if it was helping with the smell.

“I’ll head back up to the market if you like. I expect you’ve people to see.”

The look in his eyes told me he’d assumed I’d go home… assumed that there were people waiting for me, people who wanted to see me, hold me tight and tell me everything was fine.

Why he’d think that, after what I’d told him about the way I left, I didn’t know, but I had certainly never found myself being envied by a human before.

He looked away, boots scuffing on the cobbles and those golden brows pulled into a despondent frown.

“Come too,” I said, stupidly… blindly. As if, even at the best of times, walking into the alienage with a shem next to me would have been anything less than ridiculous.

“Oh, I-I couldn’t—”

“We’ll walk round to the south gate.” I pointed past the crowded tenements and the patchy wattle of the wall visible between them. “I’ll… I just need to see what’s going on. That’s all. I mean, it’s not going to be tea and cake, not after….”

I shrugged wordlessly, and Alistair nodded. I flattered myself that he understood, because having someone who did, at that point, was important. It meant I wasn’t entirely alone.

“I just want to know they’re all right,” I murmured, then hunched my shoulders and strode on, my incongruously serviceable boots ticking on the cobbles.

For once, it was Alistair who had to hurry to keep up.

~o~O~o~

There were few crowds at the far end of the market district, where the colour and the scent of spices and trade goods faded, just like the afternoon sun. Still, I glanced at the faces of the people we did see. Maybe I thought the girl who’d walked from this place all those weeks ago might have left an echo among them.

Fat chance. Even my borrowed frock didn’t fit the same way it had.

Something was wrong, though. That much was evident right away. The gates were shut. That wasn’t right. The market wasn’t dead yet… where were all the women doing gate trade? It was an established, respectable part of life. There should have been girls like Shianni and me, over-charging on bunches of bruised tulips, or women selling second-hand gloves and scarves, or whatever odds and ends they’d sewn or knitted.

There was… nothing. Just a guardsman in city armour, leaning up against the wall and looking bored. I stopped, the sight of him an unpleasant reminder that brought me up short, but I needed to know.

Zevran’s words about the state of things in the city after Vaughan’s murder—and the number of people who wanted my head on a pike—whispered back to me. I tried to push them away, clenching and unclenching my hands as I stood there, balling up the courage to cross those last few feet of ground.

The alienage walls loomed up high and crooked. They’d never seemed so tall before, and I wondered if I’d ever really seen them.

Behind me, Alistair started to speak, but I didn’t wait to hear what he wanted to say. I shook my head and, fists clenched, marched over to the gate, my shoulders back and all pretence at the role of humble servant forgotten. I heard him cuss, footsteps crunching as followed me.

As we drew closer, the city guard lowered his poleaxe, and the pitted metal blade clinked against the gate.

“Can’t let you go any further,” he said, in a weary, disinterested tone. “By order of the new arl of Denerim, no one is to enter the alienage.”

“But I’m from the alienage!” I protested, my hand already closing on the bars.

I couldn’t see in, couldn’t hear anything… that must mean the inner gate was shut too. That wasn’t normal. The guard tapped his weapon on the inch of metal above my grasp. It made a dull ting, but didn’t dissuade me.

“You might not want to say that too loudly,” he observed, glancing over my head at Alistair.

You might not want to let her say that too loudly.

That was what he meant. The unspoken rephrasing hung in the air, and it pissed me off. I glared at the human.

“You’re just trapping all those people in there, then?”

He rolled his eyes. “Maker, don’t be so melodramatic. It’s a temporary lockdown, not a performance of Dane and the Werewolf.”

Oh, I could have shown him melodrama. Anger blistered my tongue, and I wanted to curse and yell, because that way I might be able to avoid the sense of dreadful inevitability that tugged at my chest.

How long exactly had it been since I’d left? A month? No, more than that. Two months? Maybe less, maybe longer. The days had started to slide into each other a while ago, and it had been easy to forget how quickly time passed in the city.

“Why, then?” I demanded, my voice rough, as if the question itself feared the answer. “What’s happened?”

The guard looked me up and down, apparently mildly surprised at my ignorance. He was a pallid, doughy sort of man, who looked like he made a habit of acquiring the patrols that mostly concerned standing somewhere quiet, out of the rain. He shrugged, perhaps indicating that my stupidity was no more than one could expect from a knife-ear.

“Well, they were rioting, weren’t they? Killed the arl’s son.”

I stepped back from the gate, my fingers falling from the bars and the cobbles slipping beneath my feet. No. My first thoughts were too brief, too tangled to be thoughts at all; just bright, bloody snatches of colour and fear that gave way to a sudden, bitter sense of betrayal.

He promised….

Duncan never had, of course. Safe enough, he’d said. For now.

Had I ever believed that? Perhaps I’d clung to it, made pictures out of hopes and worn them pinned to my heart, like it might actually make them real.

I shook my head. “N-no. That….”

“Nah, they did,” the oblivious guard said, drawing a small paper of baccy from his belt. “’Course, Arl Urien didn’t make it back from Ostagar. With all the Kendalls dead, the regent appointed Rendon Howe of Amaranthine the new arl of Denerim. First thing he did was lead a purge of the alienage.”

The last slivers of sunlight slipped behind a cloud, and the air turned cold. Shadows fell over the market, and the trade flags and canopies flapped like wet flannel. A costermonger’s barrow squeaked as it passed and, somewhere, a caged cockerel crowed.

Purged.

They’d all be dead, then, wouldn’t they? My fault. All of it. All my fault….

The guard unfolded his baccy paper and teased out a wad, which he slipped between his blunt, brown teeth. “’Bout bleedin’ time, if you ask me.”

I was very vaguely aware of Alistair’s hand clamping down on my shoulder, not so much a gesture of comfort as one of firm indication that we should go. Now. I wanted to shake it off, but the air was thick and echoey, as if I had my head under water, and any movement seemed unduly complex.

The shem sniffed philosophically. “Anyway, it’s a mess in there. When things are put back in order, the gates will be reopened. No more than a day or two, I’d wager. A week at most. Now, on your way.”

He jerked his head back to the main drag of the market. Still full of life, still thronged with people, and the gold-hued glint of trade. The wind ruffled the trader’s stands, the clouds rolled by, and those weak shafts of sun were back, picking at the cobbles.

I didn’t move. I couldn’t walk away again. Not like this. I could see them all: Shianni, Soris, Valora… Father. All our friends and neighbours, the sprawling, spider-silk connections of community and extended family, cut in an instant. Had they burned the houses, or had people just vanished into the night? There were so many things that could happen, so many little accidents ready to befall the unwary…. The jingle of harness and the thud of marching boots beat over and over in my head.

“But—” I started to speak, somewhere between a plea and a protest, though I had no idea what I was going to say.

The guard sighed irritably and looked at Alistair.

“You want to put her on a leash, mate. Go on, get going.”

I felt rather than heard Alistair’s indignance; it was there in the way his fingers bunched on the back of my frock, but he managed to stay diplomatic.

“Right. Um… yes. C’mon, Meri. We should… we should go, I think.”

I was still staring at the gate, or staring through it, back into a different world where I hadn’t been such a fool, hadn’t done so many stupid things that had caused so much pain and endangered the lives of people I loved, people who never deserved—

“Merien. Come on.”

Alistair’s grip on me tightened—a proper scruff-of-the-neck grab now—and his voice held an urgent, serious tone that brooked no argument.

“Huh.” The guard sniggered dryly, and spat a glob of brown, sticky foulness on the cobbles by my feet. “Go on, girl. You want to earn the switch, eh?”

For a second, I thought he’d spot my soldier’s boots as he spat at them, but he just lifted his head and shot Alistair a sardonic sneer. “I tell you, mate, they’re more trouble than they’re bleedin’ worth, right?”

Alistair mumbled something in response that I barely heard through the rushing in my ears. My legs had turned leaden and useless, and I was only partially aware of my fingers clenching into fists, itchy with the urge to close on weapons I didn’t have with me… and missed so very, very badly.

Alistair hissed something at me about not making a scene, and I suppose my face gave away exactly what I wanted to do. He dragged me away, at one point almost me lifting me off the cobbles, and we’d rounded the corner into a nearby alley, away from the wide expanse of the square, before I managed to twist out of his grip.

“Meri, what— what are you doing?”

I didn’t answer, too busy diving past the mouldy warehouses and piss-stained corners, back to the great dark shape of the wall. It ran behind everything, and I slipped between the buildings, following its tangled, ragged jumble. I knew it so well, better than I’d ever thought I did; every inch of texture, every one of the overlapping patches of cracked, faded wood, and every plank and board holding them together.

My fingers skimmed the rough timbers, lichen and splinters snagging my skin. There were weak spots. Always weak spots. It was just a matter of finding them. There were plenty of little rat-holes between here and the river. There had to be a way….

At last, I found what I was looking for—the cluster of elfroot plants, the patchy growth of lichen on the age-silvered wood—the place we’d snuck back into the alienage, the day that started everything. But something was wrong. I dropped to my knees, scrabbling at the base of the plants, seeking out the loose planks, but my fingers found no purchase, nothing that would yield.

I cussed and smacked a fist against the wood. Nailed up tight… probably along with every other potential squeeze-through or foothold.

Bastards!

I lumbered to my feet, pressing my way along the wall where it curved off into the narrow, unsavoury spaces behind the alleyways and warehouses. Of course… the wall was still there, but it was shored up by other walls, other bits of buildings. The back ends of gables and roofs, and the forgotten, crumbling bits of disused warehousing and shady dens.

There would be some way there, some chance of… what? I wasn’t sure. Climbing the wall, or finding some overlooked, forgotten spot that we could—

Footsteps thudded behind me, signalling Alistair catching up.

“Maker’s breath, woman! What are you trying to— oh, no. No, you can’t….”

I’d found a small ledge, of sorts, where the planks and their lashings didn’t quite fit. I got one foot into the crevice, my hands scrabbling at the timbers, and tried to pull myself up.

“You can’t—”

I ignored him, blinded by my own anger and frustration. My foot slipped, and I slid back down, wrenching my ankle.

“Damn!”

Alistair was there, trying to catch me, pull me away from the wall, but I kicked out, pushing him back.

“Get off! Look, I can get up, I can—”

“People are going to see,” he warned. “If we get caught, we lose what little chance we have got of doing anything to help anyone. You know that. You can’t just… just start climbing walls a-and stabbing guards, so… get down. Now.”

It should have occurred to me that Alistair had barely even tried to tell me what to do since the Tower of Ishal. If it had, I might have wondered why his words sounded so much less like an order instead of an awkward, desperate plea.

Unfortunately, I was too busy being pig-headed, locked into a blind swathe of fury about bloody shems and how dare they tell me what to do, and I just gritted my teeth and swore at him. I think my heel caught the side of his head as I resumed the climb.

My feet were already slipping, yet I clung on, scrabbling for purchase with fingers, knees and elbows, ignoring the scratches and creaking timbers. I was about six feet up, the top of the wall a good three feet above me, and I could feel myself beginning to fall. I didn’t care. I slammed my palm against the wood, yelling the names of those I had to believe were still there. They had to be.

There was no sound from within. Visions of houses standing empty, with unwashed steps and shuttered windows, peopled my head. I couldn’t breathe, and I skidded further down the wall in a wave of outrage and desolate despair. Tears came. I hated them—hated myself for the weakness and the lack of control—but I couldn’t stop.

I half-fell, half-slid the rest of the way down, and Alistair caught my waist, his grip shifting hurriedly to my arms as I landed on the cobbles, knees jolted and ankles bowing with the impact. I fought him, but he held on, clamping me at arm’s length while I struggled, until I either gave up or realised how utterly ridiculous I looked—I don’t remember which happened first—and folded against him, sobbing.

Alistair held me tentatively by the shoulders, waiting until the tears gave way to a hot, horrible embarrassment, and I pulled away, scrubbing at my face with my sleeve and gulping great, snotty breaths of air.

“S-sorry,” I mumbled, the start of a garbled chain of apologies he brushed away with a shake of his head.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re going for a drink.”

I didn’t argue. It was nice, for once, to see him take the lead.

~o~O~o~

The tavern was called The Blue Boar. I’d never been inside—Father, I thought, with a tear-sodden gulp, would have been horrified at the merest notion—but I knew the name. It was one of the places the boys used to go: one of the city’s many grubby little establishments, where ale was cheap and faces anonymous.

Alistair plonked me down at a table not far from the door, told me not to move, and disappeared. I stared at nothing until he came back, bearing two mugs of foaming, brown ale.

“Drink up,” he ordered, lifting his pint.

I curled my fingers obediently around the cheap clay mug, and took a swig. The stuff was foul—sour and harsh—but at least it felt real. I swallowed heavily, regretting the way I’d behaved.

“I’m sorry,” I said again, the taste of the ale furring my tongue. “I shouldn’t have—”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

I blinked. I knew exactly what he meant, and it brought the hot sting of tears back to my eyes.

“It wasn’t,” Alistair repeated evenly, looking at me over his mug. “None of it was your fault.”

“Everyone I know,” I whispered. “They’re… they’re all…. No. I have to get in. Find someone, some way to—”

“It’s dangerous enough just being here,” he said reproachfully, lowering his voice. “You know that.”

“They’re my family,” I shot back, and it was a low, underhanded thing to do.

Alistair winced. “How about if we ask around? Just… find out what’s going on before you do anything… rash.”

I gave him an old-fashioned look, and he wrinkled his nose.

“You know what I mean. We’re here to ask questions anyway.”

He was right about that. I grimaced, recalling the fact we were meant to be doing something useful… something relevant to why we were here, instead of just flinging ourselves at our respective personal problems.

The bitter hollowness of that thought surprised me, and I was appalled at myself for a moment. The alienage had been everything I’d ever known, until the day I followed Duncan out through the cauldron of boiling resentment in the market, half-expecting to be knifed before we even reached the West Road. However far away it felt, that place had been my life. Those people…. It didn’t feel real to think they were all dead. But they must be, mustn’t they?

And I wasn’t a part of that world anymore. I hadn’t been, for so long now. Did that matter? Did it change how I felt? I barely knew, barely had any awareness of my own thoughts as they swirled through me, hardly touching my flesh.

I supposed, for the first time, I really understood how Alistair had felt after Ostagar.

It wasn’t a good feeling.

The world seemed to hold nothing but desolate grey plains, dry and featureless, and teeming with unchanging disappointment and regret. I thought of the Blight, and the darkspawn… and I didn’t even care. They didn’t seem real. I didn’t seem real, and there didn’t seem to be any point in anything.

Alistair’s foot smacked into my ankle, the sudden sharp pain of a reinforced toecap shocking me from my maudlin thoughts.

“Think Leliana’s having better luck?” he asked, swigging his ale. “We haven’t heard alarm calls going up from the cathedral. Not yet, anyway.”

I gave a noncommittal grunt, aware that he knew how I felt, and was trying to do for me what I’d done for him during those first few days in the Wilds, when he’d been so close to losing himself in grief.

Later, I would appreciate the gesture, and the kindness, and the understanding. At the time, I simply felt irritated, and wished he’d shut up.

He was still talking, though the words washed over me a bit. Something about Genitivi, and what Ser Perth had said about the brother being an inveterate wanderer, and then he was pushing a short stack of coppers across the grubby table, along with one slightly bent silver coin.

I blinked, and realised that was all the money we had left. Little more than spare change.

“Hmm?”

Alistair stifled a small sigh, and repeated what he’d probably just said.

“Kitchens. They’re where the gossip is. Where people know things. I don’t expect taverns are very different to monasteries that way… and they’re much more likely to talk to you. Just ask.”

“Oh.”

Grudgingly, I got the gist of what he wanted me to do, and nodded. I knocked back about a third of the greasy beer, palmed the money, and set off in search of the door to the Boar’s kitchens.

I found it near the bar, where a knot of human dockers were evidently just off shift, and settling themselves in to drink their pay. A big, meaty hand clapped me on the backside as I passed, and I flinched, which fed their unpleasant laughter.

“Come on, darlin’,” one crowed, “give us a smile!”

Thick fingers closed around my wrist, pulling me into the group of men. As I turned, mouth open either to swear or protest—or possibly both—I suppose I wasn’t as enticing a prospect as I’d been from the back. One of the dockers laughed, and shoved the one who’d pinched me between the shoulder blades.

“G’on, Yorin! She’ll be grateful!”

I was on the verge of bringing my boot down on his instep when the barkeep intervened.

“Now, then, boys,” he said, with a calm, good-natured smile. “This one’s not on the menu. Come in with some posh nob, din’t you, girl?”

In the private world behind my eyes, I pulled the well-used dagger from the belt of my leathers, spiked the grabby bastard’s hand to the bar, and stood back to watch Morrigan spear the barkeep through the middle with a violent lance of pure ice.

Unfortunately, I had neither weapons, nor armour, nor a sorceress at my back. I dropped my gaze to the sticky floorboards, head bent. “Yes, ser.”

The shem leered. “And I ’spect he wants a room, don’t he? And a tray of something tasty from the kitchens?”

A chorus of laughter, ‘ooohs’ and ‘get in there, sons’ went up from the dockers, who were clearly already well-oiled enough to enjoy the show. The barkeep—a youngish man with dark hair and a thin, rather weedy moustache—seemed to thrive on the attention.

“Well,” he said, less to me than his merry band of onlookers, “we don’t do no hourly rents. It’s six bits a share, or a silver for yer own room, and I daresay Cook’ll do you a twopenny dinner if you ask nice.”

I nodded dumbly.

“Well?” The barkeep snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Pay up, then, you stupid tart.”

I gritted my teeth and handed over the slightly bent silver. The dockers tittered and roared as the barkeep gave me a small brass key, and I was just grateful that Alistair was at the far end of the tavern, blurred out by the smoky miasma and the noise, not hearing and not seeing this.

I got away on the pretext of seeing Cook about a tray, and slipped off before the heat in my cheeks flamed any hotter. At least it was anger, I told myself, and not shame. Not completely, anyway.

Nothing more than the Grey Warden’s lackey… or possibly his whore.

Somehow, it was more bearable when people at least knew Alistair was a Warden, and not some merchant’s younger scion with a penchant for elven wenches.

I stumbled into the kitchens, and almost collided with a scullery maid, which brought me to the immediate attention of Cook. She was a thin woman with blonde hair fading to grey, and deep lines scored around her eyes, nose and mouth.

“Whatchoo want?” she demanded.

The great furnace of a fire belched at one end of the long, low room, two huge black pots boiling over it, and three birds on a spit in front of them. The table was laden with things being chopped, kneaded, pounded and peeled, and scullions—both elven and human, like the tiny, wide-eyed girl I’d nearly cannoned into—darted to and fro, each apparently doing a dozen jobs at once.

“Er….”

It was clever of Alistair, I would realise later, to send me on that particular errand. I had to think on my feet, force myself to engage with the world and the intense, brutal hierarchy of the kitchen, and it left no room for the cold, grey places of grief.

~o~O~o~

When I rejoined him, the tavern was growing noisier. A whole cacophony of voices—laughter, arguments, insults; the full range of life—thrummed against the walls, filling the close, musky space, and the air was rank with the smell of sweat, grease, and ale. Alistair sat hunched up at the table, staring morosely into the remnants of his pint, his difference to the other patrons marked by both his silence and his comparative sobriety. We shouldn’t linger here, I decided.

He looked up as I drew level with the table, and I wondered what he’d been thinking about. Goldanna, probably: the ragged ghosts of dreams and possibilities seemed to chase his eyes until he blinked, and pushed them all away.

“Hm?”

“There’s good news and bad news,” I said, sliding onto the bench beside him so I didn’t have to raise my voice above the crowd. “The good news is that Genitivi used to drink here sometimes. They know him, and his apprentice, Weylon.”

Alistair nodded and gave me an apprehensive wince. “What’s the bad news?”

“No address, except somewhere off the market district, and Cook called him a crazy old coot. Said she wouldn’t trust him to map his way to the boghouse and back.”

The wince became a frown, and I bit my lip in tacit agreement. With Arl Eamon being kept alive by magic, and any hope we had of being taken seriously by the Bannorn resting, I suspected, on either Teagan or Lady Isolde assuming control of his arling, we hardly needed to throw in our lot with some filibustering snake-oil chaser. And yet, we couldn’t return to Redcliffe empty-handed.

“We should go and meet Leliana,” Alistair said grimly, as he began to get to his feet. “Did you find out anything else?”

“A little. No, not that way. We’ll go out the back.” I slipped off the bench and, as he stood, caught his sleeve and nodded to the grubby hallway that led off to the right of the bar. “They all think we’re here for… you know.”

A blush started to crest my neck, the stuffy warmth of the tavern competing with the look of incomprehension on Alistair’s face to draw the most discomfort from me.

“I had to pay for a room,” I muttered, mugging frantically. “You know… right?”

“Oh. Oh! Er… um. Right.”

I dropped my hand from his arm as his expression transitioned magnificently from blankness to utter terror, and then a combination of embarrassment, shame, and disbelief.

I turned, and led the way, glad that this was one time I wasn’t expected to walk behind him. There was a little laughter, some jeering… I didn’t look to see if Alistair was still in tow until we cleared the bar and got into the shabby hallway, lined with rough wooden doors. Muffled noises seemed to be coming from one of the other rooms, but I didn’t stop to identify them.

Alistair cleared his throat and avoided eye contact. A potboy crossed the mouth of the corridor, keg on his shoulders and disinterested expression on his face. I nodded to where he’d come from.

“That way, I suppose. Out and round the alleys, back up to the market square?”

“Sounds good,” Alistair agreed, somewhat fervently.

I grinned, and we made our escape, mercifully without attracting anyone’s attention. I still had the little brass key in the pocket of my dress. It might, I supposed, prove useful if we needed somewhere to rest come nightfall… though I doubted it, no matter how widely the weedy little barkeep might grin if he saw Alistair accompanied by an elven wench and a stunning Orlesian sister.

As we picked our way through the overflowing gutters and piss-stained alleys, I decided that sounded like the beginning of one of the kind of jokes Soris used to get into trouble for repeating in front of Father. The shard of memory was bittersweet, and pierced deeper than it might have done no more than a day ago.

~o~O~o~

We met Leliana at the appointed spot in the chantry courtyard, just as the sun was going down. Merchants were packing up, furling their colours and nagging their servants, and dull threads of gold touched the edges of the pink-hued shadows. Denerim looked softer at dusk, I thought, and I stared out across the square, aching for the glimmers of candles in windows and the tread of men’s boots on the cobbles, because this was when they came home, tired and smelling of sweat and grime, yet still talking, still laughing. The sound of them filled up the streets, and I’d go to meet Father at our door, and there would be the scent of the dumplings Mother was cooking, and the wideness of his smile when he swung me up into his arms and hugged me, before we both had to go and wash up for supper.

“…really much of a record-keeper,” Leliana said, “but at least I have his last known address. It’s not far.”

She was looking expectantly at me, which seemed odd. Already, I’d all but forgotten how it felt to have people treating me like I was in charge. I blinked, and glanced at Alistair. He covered for me, for which I was grateful, but the glare he gave me was a little sharp.

“We should go now, I think,” he said. “There’s an apprentice, or assistant or something… if he’s there, he might have some information. The Chantry don’t have any more recent records than the Birth Rock transcriptions?”

“No.” Leliana shook her head, and twitched the sleeve of her robe back just enough to show the roll of parchment concealed inside it. “But I… borrowed a few things that might be useful.”

Alistair’s eyes widened briefly, as if he was contemplating shock or protest, but he just gave a weary sigh. He glanced at the patchy few knots of people between us and the edge of the square; evening service was still a little way off, though a few faithful had gathered by the Chanter’s Board, and there were two templars flanking the massive chantry doors.

“Right,” he muttered, evidently managing to quell whatever mantras of morality the monastery had beaten into him at an early age. “No, that’s… fine. We’ll just—”

“We should get going,” I said, grounding myself back in the present, forcing myself to take at least some semblance of control. “Alistair’s right. Thank you, Leliana.”

There was a hollowness to my voice that they must have heard, yet neither of them challenged me, nor gave any hint of being anything but pleased to follow my lead as I headed out towards the street Leliana named.

She walked at my shoulder, while Alistair dropped a few paces behind, apparently glad to relinquish the façade of being in charge. We didn’t seem to attract much attention, not in this half-light, twilit world, between the thronged excitement of the day and the nefarious hush of the night. The first watch patrols weren’t out yet, and most of the other people still about were more concerned with getting home.

All the same, I wondered whether it was sensible.

 

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Volume 3: Chapter Eight
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Six

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I hated splitting the group up, but as difficult as it was to face simply walking into Denerim—and everything that entailed—I knew it would have been worse going in together. Of course, that didn’t mean I had to be comfortable with the notion of Zevran, Morrigan and Sten wandering around loose at the neck of the Brecilian Forest, with only Wynne to keep them under control, and to prevent them from killing each other. Wynne and Maethor, I corrected myself. He didn’t want to be left, either.

We had one last night, camped in the wooded edges of someone’s farm, with the Highway and the North Road knotted into each other at our backs, and the distant, jagged outline of Dragon’s Peak cutting into the sky. The mabari was stuck to me like wet flannel, trailing at my heel and whining piteously as I did the usual firewood round.

“It’s no good complaining,” I said, looking down into the huge, liquid brown eyes. “You’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

Maethor groaned, tilted his head to the side, and wagged his stumpy tail uncertainly. I sighed, glanced around us, and then tossed one of the sticks I’d gathered for kindling across the clearing. He went bounding after it with a delighted bark, huge paws scrabbling on the soft ground. For once, it wasn’t actually raining, which made for a pleasant change.

Things were practically convivial that evening, despite the amount there was to do. We’d been lucky enough to find a small stream—probably some kind of tributary of the Drakon—which provided a very welcome opportunity for a proper wash… and some laundry.

If Alistair, Leliana and I were going to escape notice in Denerim, wandering about in bloodstained armour wouldn’t be an option. We needed to blend in, she said, which apparently meant the opposite of disguise. I frowned, not quite understanding. Alistair looked crestfallen, and voiced disappointment at not being able to don a shadowy cowl and a false moustache.

“That’s exactly what I meant, silly!” Leliana giggled. “You don’t dress to hide, you dress to fit in. That is what a perfect disguise is.”

“Ah, certo,” Zevran chimed in. “The ability to walk a mile in the shadow of the man you intend to kill… without him ever knowing you are there.”

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence, as we considered the rather recent relevance of that statement. Alistair wrinkled his nose.

“What, until you drop a tree on him and then spring an elaborate trap involving tripwires, crossbows, and an apostate mage with a nasty line in fireballs?”

Zevran shrugged. Perched on a tree stump, left leg propped across his right knee, he was contemplatively stroking a whetstone along the blade of one narrow, cruel-looking dagger.

“Yes. I can’t think why it didn’t work.”

He smiled amiably at us, firelight glimmering on his tanned skin, and inclined his head to Leliana.

“Still, my original point was recognition of your brilliance, my dear. Beauty, shrewdness and talent… you are indeed devastating.”

She gave a small ‘hm’, a noise somewhere between triumph and disapproval, and picked up the bundle of clothes we’d sorted from our pooled resources. For her, the Chantry robes she’d worn when we met her in Lothering. For Alistair, a hasty patch job on his one decent shirt, plus breeches, boots, and one of the oiled leather cloaks from Redcliffe, which would cover a multitude of sins.

I’d dug out the brown dress Valora had given me the day I left home. It had been wadded up at the bottom of my pack ever since Ostagar—one of the only possessions of mine to survive Ishal—and Leliana’s face had screwed up in horror when I shook it out. Still, it wasn’t as if I had anything else, and I could hardly enter the city in my leathers.

I followed her down to the water and helped with the wash. For a while, it almost felt like something familiar, like the echo of an old routine. No pump, though. No knots of gossiping women… no Shianni, teasing me and swapping stories.

We dried everything out by the fire, ate an interesting meal of partially charred rabbit—thanks, once more, to Alistair’s culinary prowess—and tried not to let the mood settling over the camp be one of melancholy farewells.

I couldn’t help thinking of how different things were from when we’d left the Wilds, packed on our way by an old woman who was so much more than she seemed. I was different. I felt… stronger, I supposed, in a peculiar way. I was still here, still alive, and that counted for a damn sight more than it ever had before.

Also, despite the things I’d told Alistair about my conscription, he didn’t seem to have pulled away from me. There was a certain sense of reserve between us, perhaps… which I suspected was my fault. I could have worded so much differently, though I had to admit that talking about it had been a burden lifted. And he didn’t look at me as if I was a monster. Neither did Zevran… although he had a manner of looking at everybody that was altogether far more unsettling.

~o~O~o~

We started early the following day. There was camp to pull up, and everything to repack, and I was queasy with nerves. Leliana, by contrast, couldn’t seem to keep the grin off her face.

“It’s rather fun, isn’t it?” she said, giving me a conspiratorial smile as we sorted our clothes for the journey.

“Um… yeah,” I managed, still sleepy and clad in my shirt and breeches, the morning chill nipping at my gritty eyes.

I’d allowed Maethor to sneak into my bedroll in the night. He was a fidgety sleeping companion, but a comfort when the dreams came. Just whispers and humming in the darkness, and then the straining of a great, dark body imprisoned in an earthen tomb, roaring and thirsting for its freedom. Alistair’d had a bad one; I’d heard him cry out, heard Wynne wake and call his name, dragging herself out of her own tent to check on him.

Funny, I supposed, that I hadn’t gone myself. I’d thought about it, unsure why I hesitated. It didn’t matter now, anyway.

I took the opportunity of another wash in the creek, delighting in the freshness of clean face and hands, and slipped on the much-abused broadcloth dress. The good scrubbing had got rid of almost all the stains, though there was something unwholesome on the hem that I suspected was darkspawn blood. The worst of the wrinkles were out, but the poor thing still looked more like a dishrag than an example of delicate elven tailoring. It didn’t fit terribly well although, with my shirt on beneath and a belt and scrip around my waist, I started to look and feel more the part.

I smoothed the dress down, and felt every fibre sing with memories beneath my hands. Valora, smiling weakly as she gave me the things she’d taken from her own trousseau—this dress, the money she’d hidden in the pack—and the smells, sights and sounds of home.

Had it really been so long? I’d lost count of the days. Weeks slipped by too easily, and I supposed we should be keeping a more careful track of the time. We needed to, if we were to anticipate the movement of the horde, or of Loghain’s men… and the very fact that I could think like that showed me just how long it had been since I left home.

I combed my hair out, parted it as neatly as I could, and looked down at my clumpy, muddy, extremely serviceable boots. They gave me away: a soldier’s footwear, not a servant’s. Still, I doubted most humans would give me a second glance, much less look too closely at my feet. As long as we were quick, quiet, and didn’t attract attention, we’d be fine.

“All ready?” Leliana asked brightly, as I arrived back at the clearing.

She looked as serene as ever, and beautiful, with her Chantry robes clean and hair neatly dressed, and a scattering of braids woven into the glossy, deep red locks. I felt dowdy next to her; even more so when I thought of how she looked in archer’s leathers, hair slicked back and an arrow nocked and sighted.

I nodded. “As ready as I’m going to be, I think.”

“I still say you are all insane,” Morrigan declared, arms crossed over her chest as she stood by the pile of packs and bags that, until recently, had been our camp. “If you are caught and killed by the man you seek to depose, do not think for a moment I shall hesitate in abandoning this ridiculous quest.”

“Oh, I don’t think anyone was thinking that,” Alistair said, emerging from his own ablutions. “We all just assumed you’d chicken out.”

She glowered at the implication of cowardice, and I started to say that, technically speaking, no one was planning on deposing anyone, but I didn’t get very far.

“I feel naked,” Alistair announced, waving his hands loosely in the region of what was usually mail and weaponry. “Without my… stuff.”

Clad in a shirt, cloak, and breeches, scrip at his belt and boots buffed but not polished to a shine, he resembled pretty much what I’d thought he was the first time I’d met him: the younger son of some unimportant merchant or minor pretender to the gentry. He still carried himself like a soldier—it was obvious he wasn’t just any old commoner, and that thought amused me briefly—but maybe we could get away with it.

Morrigan snorted. “I suggest we all consider ourselves lucky ’tis merely a feeling.”

Zevran, apparently materialising out of the shadows in that disturbing way of his, tutted wistfully as he eyed the three of us.

“Tsk. For such a beautiful woman, Morrigan, you have a shameful lack of appreciation for the charms of others, no?”

He gave Alistair a look of openly lascivious admiration, and murmured something I took to be Antivan… and probably obscene. Alistair blinked, looked panicky, and started to turn faintly pink. Leliana giggled, hand to her mouth in a girlish gesture curiously at odds with her robes.

Sten, standing at the edge of the clearing with Maethor sitting at his feet, appeared to be waiting for us all to stop messing around. He loosed a short sigh.

“When you have all finished admiring each other, it would be helpful to begin the journey.”

That dragged another stifled splutter from Leliana, but we did get moving. At the edge of the road, we said our goodbyes and—though they wouldn’t be for long—I still hated doing it. Wynne squeezed my hand tightly and smiled at me, those clear blue eyes full of warmth and trust.

“Take care,” she said. “And good luck.”

I nodded. “You too.”

Privately, I suspected she’d need it. But, with rendezvous points agreed, money and maps divided up between us, Morrigan huffing impatiently and Maethor doing another round of piteous whining, it was time to move on.

We left the five of them at the roadside, and set off north, not looking back. The sun was up, its early warmth not yet really lifting the chill from the earth, but the light gilded everything, making it seem clear and bright.

As I fell into step beside Alistair, he looked me up and down, and then grinned, which left me expecting some wisecrack or other.

“You know,” he said instead, “you look really… different like that.”

“Er.” I blinked. “Thanks?”

He smiled awkwardly and turned his attention back to the road. Overhead, birds were beginning to flit and call, and a light breeze ruffled the trees. Dragon’s Peak stood dark and solid on the horizon, and I felt the pull of the city at its foot. Just a little way on, wrapped in walls and stone; all that life, that chaos and glorious mess. Home… and yet still tainted with so much fear and apprehension. Part of me wanted to turn tail and run after the others—off to find the Dalish, the way people joked of doing back… home.

No word had ever throbbed so loudly in my thoughts.

Leliana was walking a little ahead of us, the sunlight glinting on the red and gold of her robes. I slipped a sidelong glance at Alistair, without quite meaning to.

Clean, almost tidy, and reasonably well-dressed, he looked very… well, very… handsome. Not that I was about to say so, of course. It was bad enough admitting it in the privacy of my own head.

In any case I had, I reminded myself sharply, been the one to tell him that elves considered shems dirty. That is, that we considered… that…. And we did. It was. I’d been brought up thinking that.

Humans, in all their gross, blatant physicality, didn’t have the same standards as us. They were lazy, impatient, rude, violent, disrespectful, dissolute… and there were things you just did not do. Things you did not consider. Looking at a human man that way was unthinkable. And I wasn’t thinking it, I told myself. I didn’t… wasn’t. No.

Of course not.

~o~O~o~

We travelled faster without all our gear, but the journey still took the best part of a day… and I wasn’t really prepared for how things would feel when we arrived.

The day I’d left Denerim, with Duncan, the gates had been a chaotic throng of activity. Outside them, we’d seen all manner of traders, travellers, transients and less-than-salubrious merchants… a whole second city beyond the walls, and beyond the jurisdiction of the guard. I expected to see it there still when we arrived, but things seemed much more subdued now; just a steady influx of people heading in, and a few heading out, but the whole scene so much quieter, almost devoid of colour and joy.

Denerim was grieving, and afraid. I could feel it.

I didn’t know how long it had been exactly since the news of Ostagar and Cailan’s death had broken, or how firmly ensconced Loghain was in the palace, but the atmosphere was seeping out of the city like a dark tide, rising greasily… and we were heading straight into its swell.

We joined the knots of people traipsing through the southern gate, and tried not to look too out of place. It could have been worse; a tinker and his cart were occupying the guards’ attention, and an argument appeared to be brewing over the legality of his wares. I fell back, behind Alistair, affecting the position of elven subservience that did not come as easily to me as it once had. Head down, shoulders hunched… the back of my neck prickled as we edged on our way, and I saw the small, tucked smile that Leliana shot me, from the corner of my eye.

I wished I could say it felt good to be back.

In so many ways, the city hadn’t changed. The market square was still busy, still thronged with people and stalls. Merchants’ banners and canopies flapped in the dingy air, their colours bright against all the stone and wood. The day I’d left it behind me, I’d looked back at Denerim—with all its crooked buildings and cracked foundations—and thought of a fat old woman, bursting out of ill-fitting corsets. It still stank of dung and humans and livestock… I could pick out stables, taverns, and even the distant bilges of the docks on the air.

“All right?”

I drew in a sharp breath, stupidly startled by the sound of Alistair’s voice, and nodded.

“Mm-hm. Um… we should, er….”

I blinked, aware that this wasn’t happening at all the way we’d talked about it. The making of sensible, rational plans—inasmuch as being here at all was sensible—had occupied us while we walked. Leliana had come up with the suggestion that she make straight for the chantry and its archives, inconspicuous in her lay sister’s robes, leaving Alistair and I to follow up the meagre leads Ser Perth had given us. It seemed reasonable to assume that Brother Genitivi would have left some traces behind him, and I should have been thinking about that, I knew—thinking about what we were here to do, to learn—and not just standing there, rooted to the spot, as if the whole guard was going to suddenly turn on me.

There were elven servants among the stalls, like always. Lithe merchants’ girls in shem dresses, with gathered bodices and pleated skirts, their hair hanging loosely down their backs, or messengers or errand boys, or…. I caught myself staring at each of them, looking for anyone I knew, any cousin or sister or friend of a familiar face. Stupid, really. It felt as if there were fewer of them, unless I was imagining it. I assumed I was; too long among humans, where another elven face was a rarity, and now I saw them all as alien, the same way I looked at Zevran.

“We should arrange where we’re going to meet up,” Leliana said, and I barely felt her hand grasp my arm, drawing me aside. “I think by the well in the chantry courtyard, at sundown. That should give us plenty of time, no?”

She’d ushered us into the lee of a gable-ended warehouse, all cool flint-knapped walls and rough edges. I leaned against it, felt stones dig into my back, and nodded slowly.

She smiled, evidently still enjoying the whole clandestine operation thing, and gave a small giggle. I stared glassily, and the confirmations and ‘good luck’ wishes all passed over my head, or near enough. We watched Leliana walk away, swaying serenely in her red-and-gold robe, and Alistair exhaled deeply.

“Are you sure she’s not crazy?”

I glanced up at him, still a bit unused to the lack of armour and weaponry, and the way the lax lacing of his shirt left his throat bare, and I shrugged.

“Well… maybe not more than most of us,” I volunteered.

He grinned. “Good point. All right… where are we heading first?”

I wet my lower lip, a small frown pulling at my brow. It was so damn hard to hold onto thoughts when every second echoed with the footfalls of memories.

Alistair had the addresses noted down; the area of Genitivi’s home address, the last places in the city he’d been seen… and that other address, scrawled on the ragged slip of paper he thought I hadn’t seen him thumbing ever since we pulled up camp.

We should head to Goldanna’s first, I supposed. At least that way, Alistair wouldn’t be so preoccupied for the task ahead. Plus, he wouldn’t want me hanging around; I could slip away, cut across the south end of the market… just peer across the bridge and know that Zevran had been right, and Loghain hadn’t deemed the alienage worth burning.

Even if I couldn’t make my presence openly known, surely that wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

I cleared my throat. “Er, where’d you say your sister’s place was?”

Alistair’s eyes widened slightly, and I thought he was going to start back-pedalling, but he prevailed.

“B-Birdcage Walk. I… don’t know where that is, so—”

Alarms started to hum at the back of my mind as soon as he said it. Father might have kept Shianni and I on a tight leash where excursions outside the alienage district were concerned, but the lower end of town—with its open-air butcheries, poultry keepers, and generally messy, unpleasant businesses—was common enough territory. The place Alistair mentioned was at the edge of The Shambles, which itself abutted a portion of the alienage wall… enough for us to get the midday sun on the piles of rotten offal that the butchers sluiced downhill, anyway.

I wrinkled my nose and pointed to the westerly end of the market. “That way. It’s, um… it’s not the best neighbourhood,” I added, uncomfortably needled by thoughts of a pretty cottage with a blue-painted door.

It wasn’t my dream, I told myself, and even Alistair had known it was a dream. He wouldn’t be expecting that, would he? Not deep down, not really. No one could be that naïve.

~o~O~o~

I led the way, while maintaining the fiction of walking behind him. It seemed to make Alistair very uncomfortable, and he muttered a lot about how odd it all felt. Actually, he just muttered a lot about everything… I recognised that nervous babbling of his, ineffectively cloaking the rising panic. He couldn’t see me smiling, for which I was grateful. I felt for him, but it still struck me as funny, the way he could be so brave in the face of battle, yet turned to gibbering mush by something like this.

Of course, a battlefield is something dependable. You’ll either live or die, stand or fall. An enemy comes at you with just one thought: to kill, or maybe disable. Other people are the only ones who can leave us dead and scarred inside with nothing but words for weapons.

So, I went with him. I followed, and the market slipped by around us, with bright, clear colours and hazy afternoon sunlight. And, almost without realising it, I found that I did not mind trailing in Alistair’s wake, thinking of how his clean skin and his clean hair seemed to smell a little bit like fresh, green apples and sweet sawdust.

I pushed the thoughts away hurriedly, ashamed of them. Anyway, it wasn’t as if someone like him would… obviously, he’d be far more likely to reciprocate Leliana’s interested glances. That said, however, she hadn’t been watching him with so much of that hungry optimism lately… not since the Circle Tower. Not that I’d noticed, naturally. Not really. Not in the sense of consciously, actually….

Oh, Maker’s balls. Shut up, Meri.

I shook my head, and was almost grateful for the encroaching smell of old meat and boiled linen, which signalled our arrival in the business end of the market district, and made it harder to have silly, frivolous thoughts.

With the bright colours and the wide spaces behind us, this was where the streets turned narrow and winding, and the smaller artisans’ shops, galleried houses and two-bit laundries huddled. Further beyond, buildings butted up against the narrow, filthy alleys onto which open air butchers’ shops fronted, with carcasses pegged out and stinking, and bloody entrails in the gutters before them.

The sounds of geese and chickens from behind a tall, wooden gate to our left, leading to the narrow yard behind one of the houses, spoke of how the place had found its name: cage upon cage of city-bred birds, raised up on the cobbles and the filth, and sold to rich men’s tables to bring a few coppers for the women who kept them.

Alistair frowned, then glanced along the street.

“Is… is this it?”

I nodded. “Birdcage Walk. Do you know which one it is?”

His frown deepened as he surveyed the row of grubby frontages, and I hoped he wasn’t looking for a neat, blue door.

“Over there, I think. I’m almost sure of it.”

The house was one of a row of narrow, crooked buildings, its roof sharp-pitched and lumpy. A clay pot stood on the faded, peeling wooden windowsill, and held a straggly, pale clump of flowers that someone had obviously tried to tend.

“She could be inside,” Alistair murmured. “Couldn’t she? She could….”

He trailed off and bit his lip, looking lost and slightly pale. I scuffed my boot against the cobbles and rubbed a palm against my dress. Funny that I should feel so awkward, I thought. I’d worn clothes like this all my life, and now I missed my battle-scarred leathers.

“Right. I’ll, um… well, I can wait for you along here, and—”

“What?” Alistair stared at me, wide-eyed. “You’re not coming too?”

I should have expected it. I shrugged. “I thought you’d want some privacy, but—”

“Do I seem a little nervous?” His throat bobbed as he swallowed heavily, and he gave me an imploring look. “I-I am. Um… I really don’t know what to expect. I’d like you to be there with me, if you’re willing.”

A note of desperate pleading entered his voice, somewhere between the rising pitch of nerves and the brittle, flippant panic.

“Or we could… leave, I suppose. Couldn’t we? Maybe we should do that. We really don’t have time to pay a visit, anyway. We should… yes. Probably just go….”

“Fine.” I sighed and shook my head wearily. At this rate, he wasn’t even going to walk up to the door without a blade pressed to his back. “Let’s see if she’s home.”

Alistair had actually started to pale, uncertainty contorting his face. “D’you think she’ll know who I am? Does she even know I exist? Maybe she doesn’t— hey, come back! You can’t just knock on the door… oh, Maker….”

I’d taken matters into my own hands, strode up to the messuage, and rapped on the peeling wood. There was no lock. Alistair shifted from foot to foot behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see him chewing his lip.

“See? She’s not even—”

A voice called out from within, indistinct but definitely there, and I thought he’d swallow his tongue. I pushed the door gently, just enough to start forcing it back on creaking hinges, and smiled at the widening of those hazel eyes.

“Lead on,” I said quietly. “My prince.”

The jibe—that hark back to Redcliffe, when he’d first trusted me enough to tell me the truth—pulled Alistair from the edge of his panic, and he glared at me, eyes narrowed. I grinned.

“Very funny,” he muttered, squaring his shoulders before he headed inside.

I followed, aware of the smells of soap, starch, and wet cloth. She was a laundrywoman, then, this sister of his. As we stepped into the house, blue streaks marring our vision with that first moment of adjusting to the dimness, nostalgia wreathed me, and I remembered the women back home who used to take in laundry. Great, boiling coppers, wooden paddles, and twists of shems’ wet underthings hung up all over the place. Once, when we were children, Shianni dared me to steal a vest off someone’s line. I did it, and we giggled at the size of the thing and pantomimed about, pretending to be big, fat humans… and then, when we inevitably got caught, Father gave me the leathering of a lifetime.

I blinked, dragged back to the present by Alistair’s strangled cough of politeness.

“Er… hello?”

Wet clothes criss-crossed the room, hanging in ranks around a small fire, the smell of damp cloth and soap making the air humid and stale, while the bare floorboards were splashed with drips.

We waited, and a tall, thin woman came out from the rear of the house. Looked like there was a whole scullery back there, I thought, and at least another two rooms. Palatial, by alienage standards, though I knew I shouldn’t be comparing.

She… wasn’t the woman of Alistair’s dreams, to put it as delicately as I know how. Neither did she look anything like him—at least not to my eyes. Her pale brown hair held a shimmer of the same reddish-gold, perhaps, but trying to see any real resemblance was like looking for clouds in puddles.

She wore a plain green dress, cut low on the shoulder, with a full apron that must have started the day white and, as she came to greet us, she wiped her large, red-knuckled hands upon it. Everything about her was raw-edged, it seemed; all hard angles, tight planes, and slightly threadbare corners, worn down by years of hard graft and even harder pride. I recognised all of that in the first glance… I just wasn’t quite used to recognising it in humans.

Goldanna reached up, tucking a fall of hair behind her ear, one thin brow arched in enquiry. Her other hand came to rest on her hip, and she stood perfectly straight, fixing Alistair with a sharp grey gaze.

“Eh? You have linens to wash?” The other hand came to rest on her waist. “I charge three bits on the bundle. You won’t find better. And don’t trust what that Natalia woman tells you, either. She’s foreign and she’ll rob you blind.”

She hadn’t so much as glanced at me until then, but at that point she did, and she seemed faintly puzzled, as if wondering why I wasn’t carrying a groaning bag of my master’s laundry. The passingly snide thought that—given what I knew from our time on the road—Alistair’s socks could probably jump into a copper of their own accord, if properly herded, seemed unkind, especially when I was so aware of him tensing beside me.

“I’m… not here to have any wash done,” he said, sounding faintly bewildered and, frankly, terrified. “My name’s Alistair. I’m… well, this may sound sort of strange, but are you Goldanna?”

The breath hitched in my chest, acute discomfort making me wish I could be anywhere but here. I supposed I ought to be a good little elven wench and stare at the floor, but I’d already seen the woman’s face hardening.

“I am Goldanna, yes.” She frowned suspiciously. “Why?”

Alistair swallowed heavily and took a deep breath. “I… well, I suppose I’m your brother.”

There was a moment of deep, intense silence, which then cracked loudly under the weight of Goldanna’s broad Denerim vowels.

“My what?” The frown became a scowl, her eyes narrowing as she glared at him. “What kind of tomfoolery are you up to?”

Her skinny chest rose with indignation, and flesh-memories of an alienage childhood had me already tensing, waiting for the moment she’d seize a broom and chase us out of the house with it. My shoulders tightened in expectation of the first blow, and maybe that was why I opened my big, stupid mouth. Some feeling of camaraderie, some ache for the days when I was one of a pack of urchins with scraped knees and ill-fitting second-hand shoes flapping on the cobbles.

“He’s telling the truth,” I blurted. “Please… just listen to him.”

Goldanna wrinkled her lip and gave me the kind of look usually reserved for things found on the bottom of boots. She started to frame a reply, but Alistair got in first.

“Look, our mother… she worked as a servant in Redcliffe Castle, a long time ago. Er, before she died, I mean….”

Maker help him, he was useless. I winced a little, but there was no crack in the torrent of words to slide a blade, much less an interruption.

“I know that much,” Alistair added, apparently oblivious to the change seeping over Goldanna’s face. “Then, when she had me, she—”

Maybe it was the reference to Redcliffe. Maybe few people knew about it… or maybe she could just see something of their kin in him now, standing there in the dim-lit room, grubby sun-streaked daylight coming in through the shutters and picking at the gold in his hair and the terror in his eyes.

Whatever it was, the association wasn’t a happy one for Goldanna. Her eyes narrowed to slits, those red, thin hands bunching on her hips as her face tore open around a vicious sneer.

“You! You’re him… I knew it! They told me you was dead!” One hand left the band of her apron, coming up to stab an accusatory finger in Alistair’s general direction, while her voice grew shrill and jagged. “They told me the babe was dead along with Mother, but I knew they was lyin’!”

I sensed this wasn’t going to end well, and shifted my weight awkwardly, wishing I’d stayed outside. Alistair didn’t even have the sense to shut up, cut out and run. He just stammered a bit and looked confused.

“Wh…? T-they told you I was dead? Who? Who told you that?”

“Them’s at the castle!” she spat, scowling, though she wasn’t even looking at him anymore, rather off into some distant, bitter memory. “I told them the babe was the king’s, and they said he was dead. Gave me a coin to shut my mouth and sent me on my way! I knew it!”

I didn’t dare look at Alistair. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time a woman was tossed aside, dead or alive, after servicing a noble’s whim… and it made sense, I supposed, for Arl Eamon to have kept Maric’s little embarrassment where he could be easily watched over.

None of that was going to make it easier for him to hear, though. I winced again as I heard him speak, low-voiced and heavy-hearted. He knew he wasn’t going to get the acceptance he’d wanted here, yet he was still clinging to the hope enough to keep driving forward, offering up fistfuls of dreams to her, even as they slipped through his fingers like cold ashes.

“I’m sorry. I… didn’t know that. But the babe didn’t die. I’m him. I’m… your brother.”

Goldanna scoffed and crossed her arms over her chest, the thin fall of reddish hair brushing her shoulder as she shrugged.

“For all the good it does me! You killed Mother, you did, and I’ve had to scrape by all this time. That coin didn’t last long, and when I went back they ran me off!”

Standing beside him as I was, I heard the breath catch in his throat. Such a small sound, a reaction choked down with years of practice, but it twisted like a blade in my flesh.

“Well, that’s hardly Alistair’s fault,” I protested, though I’d meant to stay quiet.

Goldanna turned, glaring at me, her mouth a tight line, etched with bitter years of hard work and little reward. It was like looking down a tunnel at my past, as if I could see there every woman on every corner back home.

“And who in the Maker’s name are you?” she demanded. “Some elf to follow him about and carry his riches for him?”

It stung. I couldn’t deny that… or the fact that, for some stupid reason, it shocked me. It shouldn’t have. It was what I was dressed as, what I’d been for most of my life: just another elf. It was what I knew most people thought when they saw me, armour or no, and yet—for the first time, perhaps—it didn’t feel like me.

I raised my head, met her hard, sharp gaze, and opened my mouth to snarl back just as much spite as she’d given me. I just didn’t expect Alistair to stand up for me.

“Hey! Don’t speak to her that way!”

I glanced at him, possibly almost as taken aback as Goldanna appeared to be. He bristled, shoulders squared defensively… defending me, for the Maker’s sake, and to her, of all people.

I shut my trap, humbled as his frown slipped and softened into something a little like a look of confusion.

“She’s… she’s my friend,” he said, turning his head slightly towards me, though his gaze stayed focused on Goldanna. “A-and a Grey Warden, just like me.”

Uncertainty pitched through my gut, a direct and opposite twin to the confidence that saying those words so obviously gave him. Alistair looked hopeful, even wistfully proud… as if the statement was as powerful a shield as the curved ash board I’d seen him pummel darkspawn with.

I wasn’t so sure he should be quite that eager to announce our affiliation with an outlawed order. Especially here, or now. I fidgeted a bit, my gaze wandering past the curtains of wet laundry to the door.

Goldanna stared, and then looked as if she might burst out laughing, had she not been quite so full of curdled anger. The noise that broke from her was a sharp, ugly cough, and her mouth curled unpleasantly around it.

“Ohhh, a Grey Warden, is it? Really? And a prince, too.” She fixed Alistair with a glare as tough as old hide, and wiped her hands on her grubby apron, eyes pale slits of disgust. “Well, who am I to think poorly of someone so high and mighty compared to me?”

No, definitely not a good idea. The scorn in her voice suggested she might not believe him, but I doubted she’d let it stand in the way of calling the guard, if she either remembered or knew of Loghain’s bounty.

“I don’t know you, boy,” Goldanna said, her words as low and vicious as snake strikes. “Your royal father forced himself on my mother and took her away from me, and what do I got to show for it? Nothing.”

If her words hit me like a punch to the kidneys, I could only imagine what they did to Alistair. I glanced at him, cut by the look of utter desolation on his face.

“I—”

Mouth slack and the colour draining from him, he tried to marshal a reply, but she wasn’t giving an inch.

“They tricked me good, didn’t they?” Goldanna sneered. “I should have told everyone! Like they’d have believed me…. Well, I got five mouths to feed, and unless you can help with that, I’ve less than no use for you.”

Her mouth snapped shut, a thin line amid the hard planes of her face, and those eyes that were so little like his blazed out from shadowed, hollow sockets. I knew that anger, that resentment—that glaring, blinding rage at injustice and stagnation and all those other things—and yet it didn’t stop me from wanting to claw those cruel words right off her tongue.

“I… I’m sorry,” Alistair murmured. “I… don’t know what to say….”

Of course he didn’t. Him, with his head full of hopes and his heart stacked up with empty spaces. It wasn’t fair, what she was doing to him, and I opened my stupid mouth again, plunging into a fight that shouldn’t have been anything to do with me.

“Goldanna, please… Alistair came here hoping to find his family. Can’t you at least—”

“So? He found it,” she barked. “And what good is that to me? None, that’s what, unless he can see to it that his bleedin’ family lives as it should!”

She tilted her chin up, her face hard as marble. From the back room, a baby started to cry, and I saw her gaze flick briefly away from us, her stance shifting as her body registered the need to tend to the infant.

“You think on that,” she sneered, jabbing a finger at the region of Alistair’s chest, “your Majesty.”

I hadn’t realised, until she swept from the room, off to see to the baby, that my hands had curled themselves into fists. I unclenched them, rubbed at the little red half-moons on my palm, and listened to the sound of footsteps on worn floorboards… and Alistair’s small sigh. All around us, wet clothes dripped onto the bare floor, probably warping the boards a little more every day.

It was awkward. I didn’t want to look at him, and so I frowned at my hands, and made a show of inspecting them. He cleared his throat softly, trying to attract my attention.

“Well… I-I could give her some money, couldn’t I?”

I groaned inwardly. At that moment, I think I’d have done anything to have been somewhere else. Not much chance of that, though. I started to raise my head.

“What d’you think?” Alistair said quietly, and I knew before I looked at him that I wasn’t going to disagree… I just wasn’t prepared for the full magnitude of the kicked-puppy expression, or the subdued tone of his voice. Hopeful desperation filled those hazel eyes, and he raised his brows. “For my nieces, or nephews, or…?”

He didn’t even know how many of each there were, and he already wanted to feed, clothe and educate them all. I sighed, and nodded.

“Of course. Go on. Just… oh, never mind.”

I don’t think he even heard the last part. I wished there was even the faintest possibility of my being annoyed with him, and wondered if the woman really did have five kids. He started fiddling with the coin purse at his belt, and I did a mental count of how much money we had, how much I’d left in Wynne’s keeping, how much we’d need for food and anything else that might crop up in the time it would take to track down this bloody cleric and get back to Redcliffe….

At the jingle of coins, Goldanna swept back in, baby on her hip, almost as if she’d been listening at the doorway.

The child looked less than a year old: small and pudgy, with a red, snotty nose, pink cheeks, and tufts of dark blond hair. Tiny stars of hands clutched at Goldanna’s dress and, as she swiped her thumb across the little one’s eye, wiping away the smears of sleep, her face softened immeasurably.

Our coin purse clinked in Alistair’s hand. He was staring, mouth hanging very slightly open. For a moment, I could almost have believed we were back in the Fade, in that dream I thought he’d never wake from, where a sister who loved him lived in a pretty cottage with a blue-painted door, and the smell of baking bread made the air feel like home.

It hurt me, too; I couldn’t deny it. Not just his pain, which I shared with a jealous sympathy, as if I had a right to it, but—and this I had not expected—the simple fact of another woman’s child. A reminder of something I would never have… a clarion to recall everything that had been stripped, taken from me. It was a dry, coarse agony, to look at that sharp-edged bitch and know I could never be her… never know that gift, or share it with someone I loved.

“F-Fifteen sovereigns,” Alistair managed, jerking me very suddenly out of my reverie. “I know it’s not that much, but… we don’t have a lot right now. Maybe when things are more settled, I can—”

Not much? It was everything we’d brought with us—more than two-thirds of the entire camp kitty! I bit my tongue so hard I tasted blood.

Goldanna’s eyes widened briefly at the mention of the amount, though that fleeting surprise was soon replaced by a more familiar scowl. She reached out and snatched the purse he offered, weighed it briskly in one hand, and then scoffed disparagingly.

“Is that it? You march in here, sayin’ all them things, all clean and smart with your doxy on your heels—”

I really didn’t like her, I decided. Had she been elven, she’d have been the kind of woman Father would have called vulgar.

“—and this is all you got to offer? You must think I’m very stupid.”

She glared at him as she tucked the purse away into the folds of her apron. Quick to disparage the charity, I noticed, but not so quick to refuse it.

The little one’s hand waved out to pat its mother’s face, and Goldanna twisted her head away, reaching up to catch the tiny pink star and—barely a breath away from her bitter contempt—pop a little kiss on the child’s palm. It giggled, and I was reasonably sure I actually heard Alistair’s heart break.

“I don’t think that at all!” he protested, the pitch of his words rising to confused panic as the last shreds of whatever fantasy reunion he’d pictured slipped away from him. “I… I want to help, if I can. I—”

“Alistair,” I said softly, aware he wasn’t listening.

“You want to help?” Goldanna scoffed, and the minute she looked away from the child, her face was stiff as hide again. She curled her lip. “Well, you go to whatever high-and-mighty folks you run with, and you tell them you’ve got nephews and nieces that aren’t living as they’ve a right to! You do that!”

She couldn’t have done worse to slap him in the face.

“But… I….”

“Let’s go,” I murmured, touching his arm gently. “Alistair? I think it’s time to go.”

I tugged on his sleeve, harder this time. He blinked, and looked at me just the way he had in the Fade, when he realised that beautiful dream wasn’t real. He nodded, brow pinched into a tired, bleak frown.

“You’re right. I’m starting to wonder why I came.”

Goldanna snorted. “I don’t know why you came, either, or what you expected to find. But it isn’t here. Now get out of my house, the both of you!”

We did, stumbling over excuses and the broken ends of apologies and, before we knew it, deposited back outside in the hazy sunlight, with the smells of the butcheries and wet laundry on the air.

Even as the door slammed, Alistair was already walking. I couldn’t blame him. I’d have done the same, because the only thing to do when life hurts you is put distance between yourself and the wound. He was heading the wrong way, though… away from the market and down into the far end of The Shambles. I swore to myself and loped after him, boots clattering on the cobbles.

The buildings drew tighter here, streets so narrow that the roofs almost touched each other. The smell of blood and meat washing up from the gutters, and the semi-distant sound of men hauling carcasses behind the work sheds, didn’t sicken me the way it used to.

I’d almost caught up with Alistair as he stopped, suddenly, in the lee of a boarded-up chandler’s shop. I suspect he thought I didn’t see the deep, wobbly breath he took.

He turned and gave me one of those lop-sided grins, except it came out weak and twisted.

“Well, that was… not what I expected. To put it lightly.”

“I’m sorry.”

I wasn’t sure what else to say. Somewhere back behind us, the cathedral bells started to mark the ninth hour. Alistair winced and shook his head.

“Huh… me too. That’s the family I’ve been wondering about all my life? That gold-digging harridan? I can’t believe it. Wish I hadn’t given her that money.”

“Don’t judge her too harshly,” I said, trying not to think about the fact we were now flat broke, except for the handful of coins I’d left in Wynne’s care, and whatever coppers he might have had left in his pockets. “Poverty can… do strange things to people.”

Alistair gave me a very peculiar look. I supposed I hadn’t sounded terribly convinced by my own words. Goldanna’s house, while not exactly in the best part of town, was a vast improvement on the alienage tenements, and she’d been so dismissive of fifteen sovereigns!

I thought of the day Dilwyn and Gethon had given me a hundredth of that amount, and I’d clutched the purse to my chest, more coin than I’d ever seen in a lifetime.

Still, it occurred to me that we were going to have to explain what he’d done at some point. I didn’t even want to picture the look on Morrigan’s face.

“I guess so,” he said doubtfully. “At least the money should help, right?”

“Right,” I agreed, hoping that thinking about it like that gave him some means of escape from the things echoing inside his head.

Had the bitch tried, she probably couldn’t have managed a more complete rejection.

Shadows played up against the damp wooden walls, and a pervasive smell of piss lingered at the footings of the buildings. We set to walking, because it was better than standing around dwelling on things, though Alistair apparently wasn’t done talking.

“I don’t know… I guess I was expecting her to accept me without question. That’s what family is supposed to do, isn’t it?” He heaved a sigh. “I… I just feel like a complete idiot.”

It was hard to talk him out of the downward spiral when I agreed with everything he was saying, but I had to try. A rat scurried past, clinging to the edge of the gutter. It wasn’t as big as the ones we got… back home. Just the thought of the words choked me. We were less than six streets from the far side of the alienage. Third ward, I reckoned, where my cousin Andar had lived until he left to get married, two summers ago.

“No.” I cleared my throat. “You’re not an idiot. If anyone is, it’s her—missing out on the chance to know her own blood. Anyway, family’s what you make of it. You, uh… you have others who… care for you.”

Alistair wasn’t even looking at me.

“Such as?” He swiped a boot savagely at the weeds poking up through the cracked cobblestones. “The only person who ever cared about me was Duncan. And he’s gone.”

I found my mouth suddenly dry, my chest tight and my forehead buzzing with the fluttering hum of a pulse. It was silly. Ridiculous, even. Here I stood, in a stone’s throw of home, with so much weight on my shoulders it was a wonder I could still stand… and there was only one thought in my head. It was something too wild, too shapeless to have a form, but it was there, nonetheless, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

“I-I do,” I mumbled gracelessly. “I, um….”

Alistair stopped, and I knew he was looking at me, but I stared doggedly at the cobbles, afraid of raising my head. Funny, when I’d just started getting used to looking humans in the eyes. Maybe it was being back in Denerim that did it. Maybe it was just him.

“Oh?”

Bastard. I didn’t want him to make me say it. I wasn’t sure enough of anything myself. Unbidden, the echoes of all he’d done for me ran through my head. His blade, between me and the darkspawn, more times than I could count. Him kneeling in the mud, bandaging my feet when they were bloody and raw with blisters. The way he’d stood up for me, so many times—in Redcliffe, in Lothering, and even here, with the sister he’d so ached to find—always upbraiding the people who spoke to me like an elf instead of a woman… a Warden, I corrected.

Maybe I really didn’t know myself anymore. I took a deep breath, and let the sour air fill my lungs.

“I said, I care about you,” I mumbled, and the words felt very small.

I looked up, expecting to see that lop-sided grin Alistair so often hid behind but, for once, there was no dissembling. Just a man who’d had his most deeply cherished, longest-held dreams ripped down and pissed on.

He swallowed, and bowed his head.

“I… um, thank you. I’m glad you came with me.”

A small, weak smile touched the edge of his lips, and his hand brushed against my arm; just a gentle pressure, a companionable squeeze of my elbow, and yet it seemed to say a lot.

His eyes really were flecked with gold, I decided. A shifting palette of colours, as open and easy to read as the rest of him… sort of.

My nervous return of his smile flittered into nothingness and I moved away, pointing us towards the far neck of The Shambles, and the nest of backstreets that would bring us out by the lower gate.

Much better to be walking, I thought, than standing around and dwelling on things.

 ———————————
Volume 3: Chapter Seven
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A Father’s Regret: 4. Bitter Truths

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Cyrion was in the marketplace when he heard the first of the news. There was still ill-feeling—you had to be careful to keep quiet and stick to the margins, not attracting anyone’s attention—though so far the alienage had remained untouched. The guard had been doubled, and Valendrian had warned them to take no risks, raise no hackles… everyone knew the shems were just waiting for an excuse.

It was a pleasant enough day, though the city’s general miasma of dust and busy crowds took the edge off the sky’s sharp blue. Tradesmen’s flags flapped in the square, the covered stalls blazoned with bright colours, and the smells of half a dozen different food hawkers’ wares mixing with the distinctive odour of ox dung.

Shianni’s healing was progressing well, and she and Valora were taking in needlework and linens, earning sorely needed coppers… which almost made up for the trouble Soris was having with work. Seemed like, with Merien gone, people were of the opinion he should have either hanged or caught the draft too. Not two nights ago, he’d come home with a black eye and a split lip, and Cyrion had been able to get no names or details out of the boy.

Still, it didn’t matter. They would get by. They always did. He’d bought bread and potatoes, and they would eat, and sit before the fire as they did every evening, and he would not think of his daughter, so far from home and surrounded by strangers.

There was something different, though. Some dark crackle of dissent in the air. Gossip was running rife in the city, and Cyrion stopped in the lee of one of the stores that fronted the stalls, and pretended he wasn’t listening.

The men were large, bleary of eye and fat of face, the smell of ale and tavern floors ingrained in their clothing. They spoke in hushed tones, but he caught enough to understand the importance of the words.

“What? I don’t believe that.”

“It’s true. My wife’s brother’s been in the King’s Fifth for years. She had a letter from him last week, saying how they was all holed up on the edge of the Korcari Wilds.”

“Well, did he say it was…?” the second chimed, and Cyrion wondered what it should be that he was so unwilling to voice.

“Nah. Not as such, anyway. Said they weren’t allowed to talk about details, nor put ’em in letters home. S’got to be somethin’ ’orrible, we knew that, but—”

“Darkspawn, though.” The second man shook his head. “It don’t seem real.”

“They say they’re pushin’ ’em back. That it’ll be over any day soon. S’what Finnal’s letter said, anyway. They’ve got mages and Maker knows what else down there. Grey Wardens, too.”

Cyrion almost dropped his bag, fingers clutching earnestly into the hemp.

“Are there even any of them left? I thought—”

“Nah, King Maric—Maker rest his soul—he let ’em back in, din’t ’e? They’ll sort ’em out. S’posed to be wossname, aren’t they? Warriors of great legend.”

The second man grunted. “Hm. Sound like a shifty load of buggers to me. Anyway, why’d they need a whole army down there? That’s what bothers me. I didn’t think darkspawn were s’posed to break above ground, except in a Blight. ’Ere, you don’t think…?”

“What?” The first human snorted. “Oh, come off it. Don’t talk rubbish, Geraint.”

“Well, it could be, couldn’t it?”

“Nah… s’probably not— well, it wouldn’t be.”

But the damage had already been done, the thought set free and the possibilities beating against the sky with wide, black wings.

Cyrion was no longer guarding his posture, keeping himself set back against the wall. His mind filled with the imagined carnage of war, the heat of blood and battle… and the small figure at the centre of it who he knew could not possibly stand against such odds. She wasn’t a soldier. She was a child. She was too young, too inexperienced, and not ready for the chaos and terror into which she would be flung. He’d thought somehow it would be service, that these Grey Wardens would have her bound to brewing tea and shining boots, and all the other liberties men heavy with the tension of arms might take with a barracks wench—and Maker knew that was bad enough—but this….

He should have minded himself, he supposed. Yet he flinched when the first human glared at him, fat mouth crinkled in offended displeasure.

“What you lookin’ at, knife-ears?” the man demanded, stepping around his companion to loom threateningly at this insolent interloper.

Cyrion dropped his gaze to the ground and let his shoulders slump forwards, hands hanging loosely at his sides, the hemp bag dangling from his fingers.

“Forgive me, ser. Nothing. I merely—”

“Bloody elves!”

He knew the blow was coming, but he didn’t flinch. It was a slack, half-effort of a slap, back-handed and careless. Cyrion rolled with it, took care to make it seem as if the human had more strength in him than he really did. Pain bloomed through his cheek as the man’s knuckles jarred the bone, and his head snapped to the side, his eyes shut against the sudden, nauseating flashes of blue and purple that spotted his vision.

“Spying, were you?” barked the second human. “Or jus’ waitin’ for the opportunity to stick a blade in our ribs?”

Cyrion swayed, catching his balance before his knees bobbed beneath him.

“N-No, ser. I was—”

Stupid. He should have stayed quiet, or run when he had the chance. The second blow—a proper punch this time—caught him in the side of the head and sent him sprawling. The bag fell from his grasp, bread scudding into the dust and potatoes rolling across the ground.

Cyrion folded up on the cobbles. Best thing to do. Let them have their fun. A boot connected with his jaw. He spat, his mouth full of bloody saliva, and thin streaks of it dribbled down his lips and chin. As the darkness closed over him, his heart thudding and his head ringing, he was dimly aware of how ironic it would be to die like this… almost exactly the same way as Adaia.

“All right, boys, enough! Break it up.”

He stayed down, though the blows stopped coming. Another foot met his ribs—a last parting shot, he thought—but then there was gruff muttering, and the sounds of the two men being shoved away by a third.

A large hand grabbed hold of the back of Cyrion’s jerkin, and unceremoniously dragged him to his feet. The man was tall, well-built and clean-shaven, with a weary expression in his blue eyes. His leather armour marked him out as a guardsman, but he wore no helmet, and Cyrion couldn’t help but notice that he hadn’t yet drawn his sword. The man looked him over briskly, apparently satisfied there was no lasting damage, and shook his head.

“Honestly. Sometimes I think you lot are your own worst enemies. Not hurt? Good. I suggest you get yourself back to the alienage, old man. I’ve trouble enough to deal with without this.”

He bowed his head, mumbled a thankful apology, and was aware of a second guardsman drawing up beside the first.

“Sergeant Kylon, ser… Bodric says to come right away, ser. Fight in the Gnawed Noble, sarge—there’s teeth all over the place, and someone said Lord Elren’s youngest son’s been stabbed.”

“Oh, Maker’s cock… all right, I’m coming.” The sergeant sighed wearily, and shot Cyrion a brief glance. “You still here? Go on… I’d move along if I were you.”

He nodded shakily. They strode off in a jangle of harness and roughshod footfalls, leaving Cyrion to kneel, dizzy and light-headed, and try to gather the food he’d bought. Someone laughed and kicked a potato away from his grasp, just before his fingers closed on it.

He let it go and, straightening up, began the slow, unsteady walk home to a house that smelled of laundry soap and dirty water.

~o~O~o~

If the awkward, unpleasant tautness in the city had been difficult, it was nothing compared to what followed.

A little after a week later, news started to filter into Denerim. It came on swift hooves, via mud-speckled guild messengers and breathless, wild-eyed travellers who scarcely seemed to believe it themselves, but the rumours took hold firm and fast.

The king was dead, the army routed at Ostagar… all was devastation and disaster.

Once the news broke, it seemed to crack the city in two. People wept in the streets, an air of aching loss and violent grief slowing the foot traffic, and grinding the whole pace of life to a standstill. He’d been so young, that seemed to be the crux of it. Not yet thirty, and so much the mirror of his father at that age…. Those who were old enough to remember the rebellion, River Dane and Maric the Saviour looked at Cailan though squinted eyes, and glossed him with the remnants of legends. To the rest, he’d been a Theirin, and a Fereldan, and that was good enough. He’d also, by all accounts, been popular with his men, and that counted for a lot. A ready smile, a ready wit… the people liked that in a king.

The mood that seized the city was one of betrayal, of angry hurt and sharp, reflexive violence. As if things in the alienage had not been bad enough already, it lapped up against the walls in furious waves, and Valendrian gave the word that no one was to pass the inner gates, unless it was absolutely necessary.

Outside, one word seared the streets, like a black-tongued flame that ripped from mouth to mouth.

Darkspawn.

The tale changed with every telling. First, it was an ambush—a burst of fury flying out of those barbaric wildlands—and then a full horde, an army, raised by devilry and set against Good King Cailan’s brave men by some impossible, horrific power. A new Blight, people began to whisper. The stuff of legends, the stories used to frighten children… could it be true? Was it even possible? Surely the foul creatures had been beaten back for the last time long ago. Such things didn’t happen anymore, not in this new, united Ferelden. This was a modern age, with no time for myths and superstition.

Rumour had it the queen was beside herself with grief—or that she was calling a Landsmeet to assess the danger from the south. One of the two.

For Cyrion, every new whisper fomented fresh agony. The alienage’s self-imposed isolation was hot-housing a violent pressure of resentment and anger. Food had become scarce, as virtually no one was working. The whole district seemed to exist under a greasy cloud of tension, and every day it hung heavier, darker, until it felt as if something must happen… some explosive, brutal conclusion.

He no longer cared.

He should, he knew. He had other responsibilities, other concerns… yet his mind was fixed only on her. His little girl, dying in a place so far from home, surrounded by strangers and monsters; thrown into a life for which she was not fitted. A fate from which he had failed to protect her.

He’d tried to avoid thinking of it, ever since she left. Oh, he knew what everyone was saying. The talk of the Grey Wardens—if that’s what the human had truly been—and their role in what had happened did nothing to lend her memory the sheen of respect. Within these walls she’d always be the Tabris girl, who left in shame and ruin, and on whom her people could blame everything. If the order was truly responsible for the defeat in the south… well, that only proved the point, didn’t it?

That night, they sat before the fire—same as every evening, every damn day a repetitive, shapeless thing, drifting past Cyrion as if he had no control over even these few threads of a life that were left to him—and the room was draped in wet laundry. The warm, muggy damp of it made the air hang thick on his skin, and his fingers were curled, knuckles standing proud of his hands like jagged, snow-capped peaks.

“P-perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds,” Valora suggested timidly, peering up from her needlework. “Perhaps—”

“The king is dead,” Soris said bluntly, from his slumped position closest to the fire, shoulders bowed and hands dangling loosely between his knees. “Everyone’s dead. A whole army, gone. They wouldn’t be saying it if it wasn’t true.”

Her mouth thinned, those big doe-eyes darting nervously to her husband, and then back down to the darning. Everyone was aware Soris had not left the house today. The smell of wet laundry was on his rumpled clothes—same ones as yesterday—and he had done little but sit in that chair and stare at the hearth. His lip was marked by a thick, black-edged cut, though the bruising on his face had worn down to a tight, shiny bloom, and the wound he had taken to his arm on that day had healed well enough to be less noticeable.

If only, Cyrion thought, all hurts were so easily mended.

Shianni sighed. “Poor Meri.”

There was a collective moment of held breath, as if no one could actually believe she’d really said it. The sound of the name reached into Cyrion’s chest like a knife, and twisted there, gouging at the places that should still have been flesh and blood. He’d thought he’d been beyond hurting, but it wasn’t so.

Soris frowned at his sister. “They’re saying it was the Wardens’ fault.”

“Oh, as if anyone believes that!” she retorted and, just for a few seconds, they were almost children again, arguing and teasing in braids and short trousers.

“Just because our cousin, the all-conquering hero, is with them doesn’t mean—”

“Don’t you talk about her like that!” Shianni snapped. “Not in that tone. You watch your damn mouth!”

“—they could still be traitors!” Soris countered, raising his voice over hers, more tired strain than real shouting.

He was like his father, Cyrion thought, remembering with a grimace the way Merenir had turned to the comforts of drink. He did not relish the prospect of doing everything for his nephew that he’d done for his brother… though he would do it, he knew, if it was needed.

Valora set her sewing aside and cleared her throat. “Um… would anyone like tea? I-I could brew some more. I think the pot’s still warm.”

The hard, dark tension in the room slumped to mere discomfort, and Soris flopped back against the wooden chair, glaring at his sister.

“I don’t want any tea,” he muttered.

She met his gaze, chin tilted up, her tone sweet and crisp. “I’d love one, Valora. Thank you.”

Cyrion nodded, mumbled his agreement, and Valora set to brewing and pouring three cups. Soris scoffed, folded his arms, and glowered into the fire, which popped and crackled quietly to itself.

This was his mess to resolve. He knew that. It was his role as elder here, as head of this house. He should take them both in hand, ensure they made peace and that—most of all—they did not break beneath this. They had to endure it, as they had to all things.

And yet, he stayed silent. He sat, waiting in this grim, prickly quiet as Valora made tea, and he thought of his girl, and the day she had left, and the ache of watching her walk away.

Cyrion hadn’t seen much of the Grey Warden on that day. Just a figure: dark skin and bright plate, a white surcoat and black hair. Oppositions and contrasts, somewhere in the blur of things after the women had been taken, and uproar broke out in the square.

He frowned, and looked at his nephew. Soris seemed to feel his gaze, for he raised his head, pale brows lifted in enquiry.

Valora pressed a warm stoneware cup into his hands, and Cyrion felt a little guilty for the smile he gave her, brief as an afterthought. She wafted away again, curling quietly into her chair, needlework once more in hand.

“What was he like?” Cyrion heard himself say, unsure exactly where the question came from. “The… the human?”

“The Grey Warden?” Soris shrugged. “What are they supposed to be like? He was… just a shem. Armoured. With weapons… a lot of weapons.”

Cyrion nodded slowly. He hadn’t expected much different. Outside of stories, who knew what the order was. Giants bristling with armaments, or shrivelled old priests dwindled to rags and bones while they sifted through the ancient remnants of their relevance. Maybe both, maybe neither. There had been no griffons, and no darkspawn, for centuries. Whatever fallacies of fallen glory the Grey Wardens wanted to chase, Cyrion would have assumed they could draw a better calibre for their ranks than trawling beneath the gallows, dragging the condemned and the desperate to them as last resorts.

Soris shifted uncomfortably, like a child forced to admit an untruth.

“He was very respectful,” he said reluctantly. “I didn’t expect that. He… actually bowed to us. I guess he… seemed all right.”

Shianni let out a short, rather shrill laugh, and Valora looked up from her sewing, eyes wide and lips softly parted.

Soris shrugged again, evidently aware of the attention, and not appreciating it. “Don’t look at me like that. Anyway, the hahren’s the one to ask about him.”

“What?”

He looked at Cyrion with unusually acerbic disbelief. “You didn’t know, Uncle? They’re old friends, Valendrian and the Warden. We heard it from the hahren himself. Known each other for twenty years.”

Cyrion stared. That… couldn’t be true. Valendrian would have said something, surely. Some word or explanation. Twenty years. No. Surely not. He would have—

“Uncle?”

He blinked, and realised how far out of himself he had travelled, how steep the silence had been, and how little he had done to fill it. Shianni was watching him, her head tipped to the side in something that might have been a genuine gesture of enquiry, or might just have been her trying to see out of her bad eye.

It was starting to clear now the swelling had gone down, but the white of it was still a bright pool of red, and he couldn’t look at it without feeling his own eyes start to water.

He shook his head. “I… was unaware of that.”

Soris let out another scoff, a soft, bitter breath of mirthless laughter, and turned his face to the fire.

“Weren’t we all, Uncle? Weren’t we all?”

A spark leapt from the flames, and burned itself out on the stone hearth. The smell of tallow candles painted the air with grease, and Cyrion stared down at the rag rug on the floor between them, the one spot of colour and warmth in the room.

~o~O~o~

He waited until the following evening to visit Valendrian, thinking somehow that the anger he was almost too numb to feel might have abated, instead of hardening into an unyielding, thickened thing, like a callus across his heart.

The hahren was standing in the middle of his parlour when Cyrion arrived, almost as if he’d been expecting him. A fire burned low in the hearth, and the warm glow of candles lit the long, low room. Towards the back of the house, Nera was kneading bread, and the thud of dough made for a comforting, familiar rhythm.

“My friend.” Valendrian inclined his head.

Cyrion couldn’t contain the cynical twist of his mouth.

“You knew,” he said flatly.

If the hahren understood his meaning, he didn’t show it. His expression barely altered at all.

“Did I? Let us sit, and you can tell me what—”

“I did not come for platitudes!” Cyrion snapped. “This… Grey Warden. You knew. You knew what they would be facing, what was happening in the south. You called the human ‘friend’.”

“Ah.”

Valendrian gestured to one of the wooden chairs, and folded slowly into its twin. He was older of the two, yet he moved with less pain, less stiffness… just one more mark of life’s unfairness, Cyrion decided. He shook his head, pride and anger keeping him on his feet, impolite as it was.

“Yes.” The hahren sighed wearily. “If it pleases you to hear it. Duncan wrote to me a little more than a month ago, expressing his concerns over the sightings of darkspawn in the south. I don’t know whether he was aware of how rapidly things would— well, I don’t imagine anyone could have foreseen what we hear of happening. I… am sorry, you know.”

Cyrion winced. ‘Sorry’ hardly helped.

Valendrian gestured again to the other chair. “Please… sit.”

From the back of the house, the repetitive thud of bread dough to board thumped like a heartbeat. Cyrion drew himself up, standing as tall as his joints allowed.

“You knew he would be recruiting. This… friend of yours. What order of warriors recruits from an alienage?”

“An order that does not judge by prejudice,” Valendrian replied, meeting his gaze steadily. “Duncan is—was—a good man. He will have treated her kindly, and with respect.”

His words knocked against Cyrion with all the force of a half-curled blow, and the marks they left were no less livid for being invisible. He sat, humbled by necessity and the weakness in his legs. The edge of the hard wooden seat knocked against the backs of his knees as he folded down, and the breath seemed to leach from him like water from a split skin.

“But why… why her?”

He could hear the plaintive note in his voice: an old man’s child-like whine. He hated it, but it was as impossible to curb as the breeze. It choked him, choked him with the vehemence of all the tears and rage and humiliation—none of which would bring her back.

Valendrian tapped his fingers thoughtfully against the arm of the chair.

“Would you rather they’d let her hang?”

“Of course not! But—”

“I did what I could, my friend. That much I swear. And we were fortunate, in a way; Duncan intended to be in Denerim earlier than he in fact arrived. Business called him to Redcliffe, and to the Circle of Magi, and—”

“And you did everything you could to push the wedding ceremony forwards,” Cyrion supplemented, understanding sluicing through him like a sunrise.

He felt small, and guilty, and stupid. Why had he not seen any of this? Why had he not understood? Why, above all things, had he not even asked?

“I did.” Valendrian nodded. “I hoped, if he could see her settled, it might be enough, Blight or no Blight. As it was….”

Cyrion winced, unwilling to let the memories of that day creep up on him afresh. His fingers flexed uselessly against the edge of the chair. He still wanted to hit something… someone; still wanted to let all the rage and pain course out, let it flow until he was a dried, empty husk, unable to feel or think anymore.

“What they’re saying,” he murmured, and the words spun like cinders in the air, settling between the two men but not dying. “This talk of treachery—”

“For what it’s worth, I don’t believe it,” the hahren said flatly. “The Grey Wardens have one interest and one interest only: the darkspawn. They stand apart from the politics of nations. To betray King Cailan would bring them no gain.”

“Then you think it was chaos, not design?”

Cyrion watched the other elf’s face carefully, but if there was any flicker of change in Valendrian’s expression, the shadows hid it from him.

“That is one explanation, yes.”

Cyrion sighed and leaned back against the chair. Occasionally, he’d used to think how frustrating it must be for Valendrian—a man of keen intelligence and ability—to be stuck here among their kind. Had he been born human, he might have gone anywhere, done anything… even if he’d been cursed with magic, he’d have had the education that mages received. Few others who ever left the alienages could claim that, when all that awaited even the elves who made a success of life beyond the walls was an existence reliant on brigandry or servitude in some other form. You saw them, from time to time, in the taverns: travellers arrogant in their comparative finery, with fingers too quick to move to their weapons, their stars always hitched to some thug, smuggler or crime lord.

Looking at him now, it was possible to think Valendrian could have followed such a path. His face had acquired that closed-in, mask-like quality he employed when dealing with the garrison, and Cyrion did not care to be on the receiving end of it. Yet neither did he wish to argue further. Whatever else he was, the hahren was their elder. Their leader, their pillar of strength. His word was, Cyrion supposed, what law would be if there was actually any sense of justice in the world.

He closed his eyes, tension drawing a deep furrow across his forehead. At the rear of the house, Nera had set the bread to prove, and slipped quietly from the back door, leaving the parlour empty and silent, a hollow cocoon of a place where nothing stood between Cyrion and his grief.

“I am sorry,” Valendrian repeated, his voice low and calm. “Your daughter was a fine girl.”

“We don’t know she’s dead,” Cyrion blurted, squeezing his eyes ever tighter shut. “She could have… she could….”

He didn’t believe it, unable to cling to hope when all it did was cut like a string pulled too tight, biting into unguarded flesh.

“We’ll see about a service for her,” Valendrian said quietly. “Perhaps. Once things are—”

“Yes.” The word slipped from him, a resigned murmur.

Cyrion’s forehead stung with the weight of blood rushing to his head. Another funeral, just like Adaia’s, for another woman he had failed to protect.

It would have been so different, had she been there. He knew it. She would have incited a riot in the street, risen up in her magnificent anger and struck them all down. It would have been a disaster, but a completely different kind of disaster. His wild Marcher rascal, with her knives and her bright, black eyes, and that way she had of curving her mouth, teeth bared, like a challenge to the whole damn world.

A merchant’s servant, the matchmaker had said, all those years ago. When Adaia confessed the rest—yes, the merchant had been rich, but also dishonest, and yes, she had been his servant, but also his mistress, his bodyguard, his watchdog—Cyrion had already been too in love with her to care. He’d kept her secrets, her shame and her dishonour, and he kept them still. Maker knew he had little enough left of her.

At least, with Merien’s body abandoned on the battlefield at Ostagar, he would not have to face carrying her to the paupers’ field, the way they’d had to do for her mother.

He glanced up, aware of Valendrian’s gaze on him. There was compassion in the hahren’s face; no empty gesture, either, but the true sympathy of one who had shared this loss. His son, dead from fever twelve years ago, his wife lost to a wasting sickness three years later. Was there a reason they should all suffer so? If there was, Cyrion couldn’t fathom it. He inclined his head, and accepted the hand Valendrian placed on his arm.

“The… the Grey Warden,” he said softly, searching the hahren’s face for the glimmer of a reaction. “How did you know him?”

Valendrian pulled back then, though the movement was calm and controlled, like everything he did… as if he was neither surprised nor shamed by the question.

“I think,” he said, after a moment, “you already have an idea.”

Cyrion’s jaw tightened. “Twenty years,” he murmured. “It… was a long time ago.”

Another world, maybe. Another wedding, and the threshold of something bright and wonderful.

“Yes.” Valendrian smiled mirthlessly. “You’re right. Duncan was a younger man then, in Denerim with his mentor. Maric had just rescinded the decree that banned their order from these shores, and they were desperate to swell their numbers. They wanted Adaia.”

A tired kind of regret washed over Cyrion, and he nodded slowly. So much that made sense, and so many things he could have understood, if only he’d bothered to look. She smiled at him from the recesses of distant memory, with their baby daughter on her hip and her hair spilling down her back and, Maker guide him, he felt so very old.

“I see.”

“The offer was never made,” Valendrian said quietly. “They came to me. Duncan and I spoke at great length, and I asked him to consider you, and the family that she would have here. You were both so young… so well-matched.” A small, grim smile curled the edge of his wide mouth. “I thought I was saving her.”

Cyrion winced. “Did she know?”

“No.” Valendrian shook his head. “Duncan always asked after Adaia in his letters. I suppose there may have been a hope that, one day, she would want to join them… but I never told her.”

“Why not?”

The hahren shrugged. “I was worried she might just do it.”

After a beat of silence, Cyrion lifted his head and looked the elder full in the face. Slowly, a smile spread across his lips: an awkward, stiff thing at first, as if he’d forgotten how. Valendrian echoed the expression, and then they were laughing—actually laughing—and it tumbled from Cyrion as a wild, desperate catharsis.

It stopped just as suddenly, and he was heaving for breath, eyes damp and chest sore. She would have. Oh, yes. Like a shot, instead of with all that reticence and fear of Merien’s. The smile died on Cyrion’s face as he recalled the way his little girl had clung to him for the last time, the moment they’d said their final farewell.

You were brave, weren’t you?

Her face, already blooming with bruises, and the glassy terror in her eyes… things he wanted to forget, but couldn’t bear to let go. He’d wanted to protect her from so much—had tried to keep her safe, her whole life—and yet, in his failure, she had shown just how much stronger she was than he’d ever allowed himself to believe.

The truth was a bitter thing, Cyrion supposed, but he couldn’t begrudge it. If she truly was gone, then he must remember her as the woman she had been. Not just his little girl, but someone who’d lent her aid without being asked, who had given everything to defend those she loved, and accepted the price for it, even when Fate had towed her in a different direction.

He would remember that. He would remember her.

Eventually, he bade Valendrian goodnight. There was more to discuss, of course: a funeral to plan, of sorts, and the question hanging over them all of what would happen now that Arl Urien was gone. Their king and their arl, both dead. The alienage would mourn, Cyrion imagined, only once they were sure of who their new lord would be. No sense spilling tears in grief when they might need them for hardship.

After all, tomorrow was always another day.

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