The forest is only getting stranger, and Meri is hard pressed to cope with it. Not even the Joining prepared her for this.
First update in far too long! I’m back after surgery! Hurrah! Merien is still stuck in the bloody Brecilian Forest, and she’s almost as sick of it as I am! However, the group encounter their first clue in finding the werewolves’ lair. If they can manage not to kill each other before they get there, that will be great.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
Morrigan rejoined us a little before first light, slinking in like a bedraggled cat. She looked rough and torn at the edges, as if she hadn’t slept at all, and I saw Alistair glowering fiercely at her.
The preparations were underway to get Deygan moved back to the Dalish camp, though I wasn’t sure whether he truly was fit enough for it. Wynne had been working on him for some time, while the hunters were arguing about who would go and who would stay to press on with the rest of us. I was tired of hearing them snipe over it, but it wasn’t my place to make the decision for them. I doubted they’d have listened to me if I’d tried to weigh in, anyway.
Alistair and I were near the blackened, doused scar of the fire, readying to get going, and still caught in the same stiff, unyielding awkwardness that had plagued us the night before. I could tell how heavily his misgivings about this whole endeavour sat on him, and his attempts to back away from arguing about it had been so transparent and clunky—so stained with what tasted to me like disapproval and maybe even jealousy—that I barely wanted to talk to him at all.
He, however, had other ideas.
“I don’t trust her,” Alistair muttered, still scowling at Morrigan as he tightened his boots.
“You’ve never trusted her,” I reminded him, but he just snorted.
“I don’t mean that. I mean… well, where did she go last night? She wasn’t in camp, and when I went looking for her—”
So that’s where he’d been. I didn’t much care for the thought of him following Morrigan through the woods, and it probably showed on my face.
“What?” he asked, frowning petulantly as I wrinkled my nose. “Well, she was doing that again. You know. Wilder magic.”
“Shapechanging?” I folded my arms across my chest, affecting a nonchalant shrug. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know what she could do, after all, and he’d suspected it since the beginning.
“Mm.” He nodded. “I lost track of her after a while, but she damn well wasn’t wearing feathers. That’s my point.”
I wanted to ask what he meant by that—and I wanted to ask what in the Maker’s name he’d thought he was doing, wandering off when we knew how dangerous the forest was—but light Dalish feet stirred the dried leaves behind me and, with a pang of resignation, I heard Rhyn’s bitter tones.
“You think you have a tame witch,” he muttered, as I turned to find him scowling at the pair of us. “A foolish belief.”
There hadn’t been much to have in the way of breakfast, but Leliana had worked her own wonders with a seasoned oatmeal gruel, the lingering aroma of which still hung on the crisp air. It grew stronger as Sten drew closer, carrying the newly rinsed cooking pot back from the creek. He’d evidently overheard, for his eyes narrowed as he inclined his head slightly in the hunter’s direction.
“Something I have said on many occasions,” he observed dryly.
The modicum of respect Sten seemed to accord Rhyn had not escaped me, and I had to admit I was a little jealous. I wasn’t sure I completely accepted the beliefs he held about the terrible dangers of magic—especially given the number of times it had saved my life—but I did appreciate the sentiment. Even I wasn’t naïve enough to trust Morrigan completely. Nevertheless, she’d given me no real cause to doubt her loyalty and, as she sat, hunkered down at the edge of the camp while the others busied themselves with the preparations for moving on, she looked so exhausted that I couldn’t help feeling a little protective of her.
“Morrigan’s been of great help to us,” I said, as Taen came to join us, moving to Rhyn’s side like a silent acolyte, his eyes wide and his mouth a thin, small scar across his face. He watched me intently, and I supposed the Dalish must have made their choice over who was going and who was staying. I nodded to him, then turned my attention back to Rhyn. “Besides, your keepers use magic. There’s no Circle of Magi out here, so what makes Dalish mages so different to someone like her?”
“Well, she is an evil bi—” Alistair began, breaking off as I shot him a reproachful look.
He shrugged churlishly, and I was aware of Taen muttering something in a blend of Common and Elvish that I found very hard to follow. I only caught one word: Asha’bellannar.
“What’s that?” I wanted to know, but he just shook his head and, turning slightly, spat into the dead leaves at his feet… just like the old folks used to do, back in the alienage.
“She took wolf form,” Rhyn said shortly. “Your creature. Last night: she became the wolf. Perhaps she brought Witherfang’s messengers here, did you consider that?”
“What?” I stared. “Morrigan wouldn’t—”
Alistair sighed tersely. “That’s what I was trying to tell you. She was… furry. With teeth. I didn’t see where she went, but it’s not—”
I held up my hands. “Enough. Everybody. Just… I’ll speak with her. I will speak with her, all right?” I added, with a sharp look at Alistair. “I’m sure, whatever she was doing, she had her reasons. And… honestly? If Morrigan meant us harm, we’d have been dead a long time ago.”
Rhyn curled his lip, showing a hint of small, pale teeth as his eyes hardened. I didn’t look at Alistair, but I heard his bitter huff of breath. He would probably be sulking for hours.
“If I were you, Grey Warden,” Rhyn said darkly, the air misting a little before his mouth, curling around the disdain with which he injected his words, “I would be wary. Does that not mean she merely has a purpose for you?”
“Perhaps. But it’s my concern, not yours.”
He glared at me, his eyes widening almost imperceptibly at the slight: probably just as surprised as me by my rudeness. The strength of my words—the lingering venom in them, even—thickened the air between us, and Rhyn’s mouth grew tighter, the way a dog tenses before it snaps.
“Then maybe it is well we part now,” he said curtly. “No wise man treads in the steps of a fool.”
I was starting to see why he and Sten appeared to get on so well. All the same, I couldn’t just let it go. He’d riled me too much for that.
“Oh? And I thought I’d been following you, hunter.”
Taen looked back and forth between the two of us, his face etched with the pained desperation of a small child that either needs to relieve itself, or wants to intervene in an older boys’ argument, and doesn’t know how.
“Lethallin,” he said, raising a hand to his brother’s elbow as Rhyn looked fit to either punch me or curse me. “Hamin, lethallin. Come… if we start early, there will be less ground to make up.”
They were going, then. I was relieved, though I knew how stupid that was. Rhyn was easily the most capable fighter, the strongest leader… I shouldn’t have been so pleased to see the back of him. Of course, I shouldn’t have been butting heads and picking fights, either, but such wisdom seemed so remote to me then.
He snorted, his breath coiling on the cold air. “All right. You understand this, Warden? Taen and I will take Deygan back to the camp. We can manage with just the two of us.”
“If you’re sure,” I said uncertainly, which earned me a dirty look.
“Yes. The others have elected to remain,” Rhyn added scornfully, his mouth bowed into a sneer. “Taen and I will speak to Zathrian of what we have seen. He must know. Here, Revasir will leave signs along your path. When Deygan is returned to the clan, my brother and I will re-enter the forest, and we will try to catch you up… if you remain to be caught.”
“Oh, good. Yes,” Alistair agreed dryly, his voice just a little louder than necessary, as if to remind us elves of his presence. “If not, maybe you could just bury as many bits as you can find? That’d be great. We’d appreciate it.”
I ignored him, much as the Dalish did—though Taen’s look of discomforted worry flickered slightly into incomprehension—and nodded my approval.
“Fine. We’ll leave as much as we can open for you, and I doubt we’ll move much quicker than we have been doing, even if the beasts know we’re here. It’s not as if there’s anywhere we can run,” I admitted, my bravado sinking a little as, for the first time, I realised just how disadvantaged and trapped we were going to be, especially with two fewer bodies on our side.
Still, if Witherfang—whatever it was—knew we were here, and his white wolves had found us once already, just why hadn’t we been wiped out? Maybe, as Rhyn had said of Morrigan, it just meant that someone had a plan for us. However, when that someone was potentially an ancient and probably demonic werewolf, the thought hardly filled me with glee.
I tried not to think about it, and concentrated on holding Rhyn’s gaze as he continued to glare at me. I used to see boys posture and strut at each other like this all the time back home. Part of me was faintly, ridiculously amused at being a participant this time, but that sense of mirth was soon diminished.
“Ma dirth,” Rhyn said, his shoulders relaxing slightly. He glanced over to where Wynne and Leliana were wrapping Deygan in blankets, preparing him for as comfortable a journey out of the forest as possible. “We will leave soon. Creators guide you,” he added, giving me one last—and surprisingly unchallenging—look, before hitching up his belt and striding off across the remnants of the camp.
Taen still lingered uncertainly, wincing a little as he looked at me.
“Abelas. It is Rhyn’s way to… to—”
Be an arsehole?
“I understand,” I said instead. “And I swear I will do everything I can to end this right. You have my word.”
He inclined his head. “Dareth,” he said, looking sadly at me and then, to my surprise, at Alistair. “Be safe, Grey Wardens. Our clan’s hearts go with you.”
He loped off after Rhyn, who was already conversing with—or possibly just barking orders at—Revasir.
Alistair cleared his throat. “Well, that was… bracing. Have you got a knife on you?”
I glanced at him, frowning in confusion, my mind still elsewhere. “Why d’you need a—”
“Oh, I’d just like to try cutting this atmosphere, that’s all.”
The words dripped with his customary sarcasm, but there was a note of disapproval in his voice, and a hardness in his face that I found difficult to bear. The hazel eyes I’d seen filled with such warmth were narrowed against the weak, low sun that lanced through the trees, and Alistair seemed distant somehow, like he was making a conscious effort not to say what he was thinking.
I marshalled a weak smile, and mumbled something about checking my pack, all too eager to turn away.
I stood by the thick trunk of an old, weathered oak, watching them go. Rhyn and Taen had Deygan slung behind them on a makeshift stretcher cobbled together from a couple of blankets and a few branches, and I watched the hunter’s prone body loll gently as they carried him… we all watched. We watched until they were out of sight, and we could no longer see Rhyn’s hunched shoulders, or that sullen scowl still fixed to his face.
Whether Deygan lived or died, the rest of us were now two blades worse off than we had been, and with the forest pressing in on us from all sides… not that there was time to dwell on it.
“This way,” Revasir said, pointing between the trees. He was remarkably prosaic about the whole thing, I thought.
He took the lead, with Zevran and Farriel skirting close behind him. Morrigan stalked behind on the right, stabbing at the ground with her staff, while Maethor made his usual sweeping patterns, weaving in and out of the brush and investigating as many smells as he could. Leliana and I were in the middle of the group, with Daeon and Aegan, and Wynne walked a little to one side, being shepherded solicitously by Alistair. Sten seemed to drop behind slightly, and more than once I caught him staring up at the trees, his face drawn even tighter and darker than usual. I wondered what he was thinking about, but I didn’t ask. I knew I needed to find a moment to talk to Morrigan, too, and I wasn’t looking forward to that. In fact, no one seemed to feel like conversation. We walked in near silence. After a while, soft rain began to rattle the canopy again, although it wasn’t as if the mood could have been dampened much further.
The land seemed to change around us again, and I had yet to get used to that sensation. It reminded me of the ride from Denerim with Duncan: the first time I’d ever left the city in my life. Then, I’d felt the trees were almost creeping up on me, the landscape shifting like a live thing instead of remaining still as we careened across it. I also remembered Hahren Sarel’s words about the forest being its own creature, and the two impressions sat uneasily beside each other in my mind. Still, as we pushed on, the ground grew less uneven, and the trees seemed to thin.
That surprised me. I had expected that, the deeper we pressed into the forest, the thicker everything would become. Instead, there were mossy cuts and gullies, and we briefly passed whole clearings where you could see the sky. I felt less threatened by the trees, and went so far as to remark that, even with the rain, this part of the forest seemed beautiful.
Aegan shot me a disdainful look, his thick blond knot of hair fuzzy and beaded with moisture. “You know why there are fewer trees here?” he asked, his words clipped and his eyes hard.
I sighed inwardly, gathering that I’d got it wrong yet again. “No. Why?”
He jutted out his chin in an expression of righteous pride—getting another one over on the shem-witted flat-ear, I surmised—and he nodded at the ground we walked on, so thickly carpeted with the softness of moss and leaf litter.
“All this? Many years ago, when the shemlen brought their war… all burned. All destroyed. The west of the forest used to extend much farther. Where we walk now, thousands died. This was all battlefields. All bones. All corpses. Now, it is setheneran. We tread on the edges of the Beyond.”
His words nudged at the discomfort hanging in the air, and I saw recognition on the faces of Wynne and Morrigan: the silent admissions of mages who felt the darkness in this place, no matter how quaintly dappled its light. I pursed my lips.
“Yes, well… bloodshed makes the Veil thin. We saw it at the Circle Tower, too, and Redcliffe. Demons,” I added, emphasising the word. “There was an abomination in Redcliffe, and dozens of them in the Tower. We killed all the demons, destroyed the corruption. It can be done.”
Aegan said nothing, and just kept looking straight ahead. Daeon, however, slipped me an admiring glance.
“Really? Dozens of demons?”
I shrugged, starting to regret my bragging. “Well… there were a lot.”
“Scores,” Zevran chimed in shamelessly. “So I hear, although this was before I joined the Warden’s party. There had been a terrible rebellion among the mages. Our good friend Wynne here was one of the few to withstand it—blood magic, you know, and the most unspeakable horrors, of course—but the Warden slew the perpetrators heroically. Stood upon a pile of corpses, her blade smoking with the corrupted blood of the fallen… you know how it is. I, naturally, was not remotely surprised to learn of the details. I have, after all, seen her in action.”
Farriel was gazing at him raptly, his mouth curved into a look of intent, hungry interest, like a child ready to devour tales of dragons and princes.
I groaned. “It… it really wasn’t quite like that. We—well, we were all—”
“It was a painful ordeal,” Wynne said shortly. “I lost many friends. But, it is true, without the help you gave us, we would all have perished.”
She was looking at Alistair when she spoke, and I felt both insensitive for bringing the subject up at all, and also firmly put in my place. Aegan made a small noise in the back of his throat.
“At least you’ve wet your feet in blood, outsider. I hope it prepares you.”
I frowned grumpily to myself, taking thorough offence at his off-handedness. As far as I had pieced together, the Dalish hunters chased game no bigger than wolves or boar. I had faced demons, walking corpses, darkspawn… even a Void-taken ogre. He had no right to belittle me—to belittle any of us. And yet, for all I’d done and all I’d seen, I knew I couldn’t draw an arrow as quickly as the Dalish could, or move as quietly through the trees, or scythe my blade with such speed and accuracy. Everything I’d done up until that point felt like luck, not honed skill, and it was that which kept my lips sealed and my gaze downcast.
We walked for an age… and at least that felt normal. There was almost a kind of peace in it; rhythms that were beginning to seem natural. Revasir led us through the trees, and I watched the light dapple the soft ground. Whatever Aegan said, I still thought it was beautiful. Everyone seemed to have relaxed slightly, too: we spread out a bit, and it was as if the less dense tree coverage gave us room to breathe. The Dalish seemed very at home, anyway. Once, a low call broke through the air, drifting distantly from what I thought was the west. Revasir looked up like a dog scenting the air, then grinned broadly and said something in Elvish to Aegan. I picked out the word ‘halla’, and the name of Hahren Elora, their herdmistress, so I guessed there must be some of the white deer-things living wild nearby.
No one said anything else, though Farriel gave a loud, bored sigh, and kicked half-heartedly at a tree root. We walked on, the rhythm only broken every time Revasir paused to leave one of the trail signs Rhyn had mentioned, cut into the bark of a tree. I didn’t bother trying to read them. They just looked like scuff marks to me.
“So,” Daeon said, at length, falling into stride beside me.
I blinked, the sound of his voice cutting through my thoughts, and tried my best to seem nonchalant. I raised an eyebrow. “So?”
He glanced back over his shoulder, as if to assure himself no one was eavesdropping. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that most of my companions had ears that would put a bat to shame, no matter how many paces there were between us. Picking up on gossip, banter, arguments, and lively debates had become important skills in passing the long, dreary hours of travel.
“Well…. I’m curious, that’s all.”
“About what?” I asked, picking my way over the tussocks and tree roots.
Daeon rolled his eyes. “You, you ass! And this Grey Warden business.”
“Oh.” I had to admit, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen that one coming. I shrugged as lackadaisically as I could. “I told you the story.”
“No, you told us what happened.” He slipped me a sly sidelong glance. “You never said much about the Wardens. What, this human just recruited you? Swooped down off a magic carpet? And what in the Creators’ name happened at that battle in the south?”
I winced a little to hear him speak of Dalish gods. It felt strange; like a malformed echo in an empty room. I welcomed it, I supposed. I didn’t want either of us to remind me too much of home.
“I told you,” I repeated stubbornly. “There really wasn’t anything more to it. Duncan had been to a lot of places, recruiting for the Wardens. I wasn’t the only one from Denerim.”
A momentary vision of Daveth passed behind my eyes: the man who’d reminded me so much of the boys at home, with dirty knees and perfectly combed hair. Even looking back then—Maker, even looking back now—it felt strange to think someone so irrepressible should have died so easily, and it was hard to keep from wondering how we’d have fared if he’d survived the Joining. Maybe Alistair would have been forced to step up to command, if only to keep the rogue in line, or maybe Daveth himself would have taken charge. For all I knew, he’d have done no worse a job than me… or what if both he and Jory had lived? What if I’d died, or if all of us had? The possibilities I’d tried so hard not to cram my head with clamoured for attention, and I pushed them all away. There was no sense in wondering, anyway.
Above us, the tree branches creaked gently in a light breeze, and a few russet leaves filtered down to the soft forest floor. Somehow, it didn’t feel as cold as it had done, and I supposed that was something to be thankful for.
“Army recruiters don’t go to alienages,” Daeon said pointedly. “What’d be the point? Elves can’t join up. We have no place in an army, except as servants or wh—”
“The Grey Wardens don’t make a distinction,” I said, breaking in before I could hear that damn word again. “You know, some of their greatest warriors have been elven. Like Garahel, who ended the Fourth Blight.”
Daeon smirked. “Right. Children’s stories and legends.”
“They’re not just stories.”
“No?” He snorted, glancing across at Alistair, who appeared to be having trouble with the undergrowth, and had just stumbled over a briar. “Hm.”
“What?” I didn’t much care for his tone, or the hardness in his face when he looked at my friend.
“Makes no difference what you call it. Still, it’s a good life for a woman, is it?” Daeon drawled, shifting his gaze slyly back to me. “Good way of keeping yourself?”
Once, shame might have pricked at me with those words. It was clear enough what he meant—what he thought. I bridled slightly, if only because I believed I’d been so subtle. I knew my keeping Alistair at arm’s length since we’d entered the camp had been cruel, and probably a horrible mistake, but I truly thought I’d guarded my secret. I had, hadn’t I? I hadn’t seen the looks of accusation I was so afraid of on the faces of Dalish women… or maybe they did all think it was true, and simply didn’t care, because I wasn’t one of them to start with.
That thought stuck with me, coarse as brambles and bitter as pitch. Still, I had too much anger in me to waste on being embarrassed. I shrugged crisply.
“Huh. S’all right. Except for the Blight, the darkspawn, the civil war… the fact our entire order got massacred at Ostagar. Up until then, it was just fine.”
Daeon pursed his lips. “Civil war?”
He listened as I gave him a brief account of Ostagar, Loghain’s betrayal, and everything we knew of that had followed. I might not have been as objective as I could, or made clear quite how much of our information relied on conjecture, but it was a succinct summary.
“So, that’s what you’re going to do, is it?” Daeon looked doubtful. “Try to hammer a few allies together, throw yourselves at the darkspawn, and hope you’ll win?”
“Well, we don’t have much choice.”
He snorted. “You don’t have much chance, either. You need numbers, woman! What about sending word to the Free Marches?”
I shook my head. “Unlikely. There’s not enough time… and we’d still have to get a message there. There were supposed to be reinforcements coming from Orlais, but it looks like Loghain pushed them back. Or something.”
Massacred them, more like, but I didn’t say so. Perhaps part of me was still holding onto the improbable hope that other Wardens would come from somewhere and fix everything… or at least tell us what in the Maker’s name we were meant to be doing.
Daeon had fallen strangely silent. I squinted at him, and saw his lips moving soundlessly while he frowned.
“Thirteen,” he said eventually. “I think. Thirteen clans that travel Ferelden, the Marches, and pretty much up to the Orlesian borders. If Zathrian sent runners and caught them all before they’ve crossed the sea, that’s… what? I know some clans are bigger’n others, but… seven, eight hundred Dalish, easy. Maybe more. That’s an army right there, Tabris.”
I nodded glumly. “Maybe.”
“What?” Daeon’s mouth moved in a sharp slice of a smile, curled at one corner. “You don’t think you can do what the Keeper asked? This Witherfang is one demon. You’ve fought dozens.”
To the right of us, I heard Zevran’s stifled snigger, and I grimaced.
“Anyway,” Daeon said brightly, “if Redcliffe’s on your side, you have those troops, plus whatever of the Bannorn is loyal to this Eamon. That’s how it works, isn’t it?”
“Near enough,” I said, though frankly I had no idea. I still possessed an elf’s view of politics—that smaller holdings did what bigger holdings said, regardless of personal or historical alliances, simply because it was common sense—and any kind of nuance to the system passed me clean by. Besides, being born and bred in Denerim, I had very little understanding of what did lay out there. The dozens of arls and banns were unknown names to me, their lands nothing more than lines on a map I still couldn’t really read.
I cleared my throat, aware somehow of Alistair’s gaze on my back, his scrutiny like the uncomfortable warmth of midday sun.
“That’s, uh, that’s assuming Arl Eamon can be cured, of course,” I mumbled. “We… we need to, er, work… on that.”
Daeon grinned cheerfully, scuffing up the dried leaves with the toe of his Dalish boot. “Hah… after this? Come on… you finish off a demon wolf and cure a cursed plague, one shem’s fever’ll be a breeze!”
I smiled uncomfortably, and wished he’d shut up.
Ahead of us, Revasir suddenly held up a hand, dropping into a warrior’s stance with his blade half-drawn. Maethor growled softly and, as the rest of us stilled, I saw something move in the trees. It was a white shape and, for a brief, hopeful moment, I thought maybe it was a halla, but there was no mistaking the predatory, slinking gait.
It was one of the white wolves. It moved like silvered light through the trees, a good forty yards ahead of us, though it wasn’t coming any closer. Aegan had an arrow nocked and sighted, quick as a breath, but Revasir motioned him to hold.
“They have been following us for a while now,” Zevran remarked quietly. “See? On the top of the ridge.”
He nodded his head very gently towards the cut bank that curved away from us to the right, a scar running across the gentle swell of the land, perhaps about five or six feet high. The great masses of tree roots—ancient monoliths overturned years ago by long-forgotten storms—had formed an earthen embankment, upon which new growth had thrived, the old roots curling through it and poking out like coiled ropes. I caught my breath as I saw another pale shadow shimmer between the straight trunks of young firs and birches.
We were being watched, and stalked like prey.
“How many?” I murmured.
Revasir glanced back at me and held up four fingers.
“We took them before,” Farriel said, drawing his dagger. “What are more of these dogs? Let them come!”
“Brasca!” Zevran snapped, with a sharpness that surprised me. “Don’t be a fool. Sheath your knife and shut your mouth, da’assan. They are waiting. Watching, and waiting. They do not mean to attack this time… but they will not be alone.”
Maethor took that opportunity to throw back his head and howl: a real, squealing, echoing peal of sound that seemed to twist and shake from his jaws. It was horrible. He backed up as the rest of us drew together in a circle, assuming that defensive stance we’d begun to get so well honed—and which made the divisions between us and the Dalish woefully apparent—and the hound’s paws scrabbled on the leaf litter. His tail and ears were clamped down flat, and strings of drool dribbled from his mouth as he puffed out small, high-pitched whines. I heard the soft, metallic hiss of Sten’s sword leaving its sheath, and he said something to Maethor in his own tongue.
It didn’t seem to calm the dog. We were all straining our eyes to see what was out there: was that movement in between the tree trunks? I could hear no sound of footsteps… or paws. The air shivered as Morrigan allowed power to bloom between her palms, and Wynne muttered something about holding steady.
“You may if you wish, old woman,” Morrigan replied tartly, “but I, for one, do not intend to be torn apart by a pack of savage beasts.”
I heard Alistair snort softly. “You’ve probably got bigger teeth than them, anyway.”
She made a disparaging growl, and, to my immediate left, Aegan spat on the ground and muttered a couple of Elvish words under his breath. I wished I knew what they meant.
There had been no other sign of the white wolves. No more pale shimmers in the dappled trees. Maybe, I thought, Farriel had a point, and the fact we’d killed the others meant these would hesitate to attack… but we were not in an easily defensible position. The bank left us vulnerable from above, and while the ground was more open in this part of the forest, and easier to fight on, there was also more room for any enemy to get up speed as they charged us. Not to mention, for all his trail craft and sure footsteps through the trees, I doubted that Revasir—or any of the Dalish—knew these woods as well as whatever beasts were stalking us.
Something moved in the undergrowth. A shape seemed to dart between the tall, straight trunks… or was that just a trick of the light? I stiffened. The hackles had risen all along Maethor’s spine, his crinkled ears pressed flat to his head as he growled.
Leliana lifted her bow, and we all tensed, waiting for whatever was lurking there to burst forth, like the white wolves had done the night before.
Nothing happened. Farriel was whispering under his breath, just on the edge of hearing. It took me a moment to realise he was praying.
The greasy crackle of magical energy washed over me as Morrigan allowed the spell she’d been holding in readiness to subside, a curse dangling on her lips, and Sten let out a long, uneasy breath, like the creak of a strained rope.
A howl split the air then. It didn’t sound like Maethor’s: something sharper, like a feral cry. The mabari whined and growled, but did not loose another bay in reply.
“Get ready,” Alistair warned, sword already half-drawn as we pulled tighter together, both Dalish and non-Dalish bunching close now, back-to-back as we scanned the trees.
It was impossible to see where they came from. They burst out on us with the suddenness of summer rain: one moment, just that insufferable tension, and then the next, a torrent of the beasts, pouring from the trees.
If I had never faced darkspawn—if I had not already believed in monsters—I wouldn’t have imagined they could be real.
They were several of them. I couldn’t count: they moved too fast. Wolves… and yet not wolves. Their whole bodies were bent and attenuated, bowed and unnaturally proportioned, hunched at the shoulders like a dog trying to walk on two legs, but with terrible grace, speed, and power.
I saw one loping straight towards me, bursting from the trees like a firecracker, its mouth a gaping red wound… and it straightened up as it ran, moving from four legs to two and then leaping, flinging itself through the air with an ear-splitting roar. I braced my stance, my sword drawn—sod daggers, I thought: I wanted as much distance between me and these things as possible—ready to impale the bastard as it came down, but magic split the air above me, as Wynne let loose with a blast of something that seemed to turn the world to shimmering white.
We broke formation quickly when one leapt from the top of the bank, landing almost directly on Sten’s shoulders. He roared, and shucked it off like it was nothing more than an irritation, the sheer weight of his momentum throwing the beast clear. I saw it flex and turn in the air, its hips rotating and distinctly canine legs paddling, and yet it righted itself, landing in a neat crouch on the fallen leaves, with what I could only think of as its arms spread wide to balance itself.
I had never seen anything like it. Not even in books. In the stories of werebeasts that permeated Fereldan myth, they were more metaphor than physical description—the savage within the man, the untamed wild to which civilisation had to be brought—and there was never any hint about them of the horror I saw in these creatures.
The beast in front of me was not a wolf. Not a wolf, and not a man, but a midpoint somewhere between the two… and it was not a happy compromise. It was a twisted, deformed thing, standing on two legs in a body that seemed not built for it. The knees faced backwards, like a dog’s, and the thighs and hips were curved the same, but bent and shaped wrongly. The spine had an odd slant to it, the shoulders hunched and jagged, set far lower than a man’s would have been, and the arms—or, I wasn’t sure, maybe front legs—were too long, too loosely coupled. The whole chest and ribcage jutted forwards from a long, hollowed-out stomach, leading the creature to that bent-over, top-heavy kind of movement, and yet giving it extraordinary depth of breath and muscle. A thick, long neck rose from its curved shoulders, and ended in a broad, elongated head: a heavy skull with rough-furred ears set further down than a dog’s would be—Maker, they were more like an elf’s, I thought with distaste—and something between a muzzle and a face. A wrinkled, snarling nose, shorter than a wolf’s, and malformed, yet packed with vicious, yellow teeth, seemed to sit oddly against its half-squared jaw.
The creature’s entire body was covered with a ragged, matted coat, but there was no denying the muscles that rippled beneath… or the power in that distorted form.
The sounds of battle filled my ears—the thuds of flesh and weapons—and another of them barrelled past, just in time for me to kick out at its dog-like legs. My boot cracked against its knee and it spun, snapping and slavering as it started to fall… only to right itself and lunge at me. I pushed it back, propelling the flat of my blade straight across its chest. Its rank breath fell hotly on my face, and yet what frightened me most was its eyes. I suppose I’d expected to see darkspawn’s eyes, full of bloodlust and death. Instead, something terrifyingly familiar greeted me. There was anger, and fear, and everything that I felt in myself… and they were eyes that could have belonged to anyone I knew.
I shoved hard, and as the beast broke away I brought my sword around, ready to strike and stab. One of Morrigan’s ice spells lanced the air, and I heard a werewolf yelp. A shout followed—one of the Dalish hunters—and I looked up towards the bank. Another of the beasts had broken away and scaled the bank, and at first I thought it meant to leap down on us like the other, but it clung to the slim trunk of a young tree that grew there, snarling down, its whole face split around a terrible, rippling growl.
The other weres fell back around us, snapping and baring their teeth, but they weren’t lunging anymore. A tense, difficult sort of truce seemed to be in place but, as my companions and I stood ready, holding our positions, it was eerily clear that it was not we who had brokered it.
The werewolf on the bank—their leader, it seemed, who glared down with such ferocity and yet held itself like a creature with intelligence—clawed one rangy arm through the air, like a demand for silence.
And then it spoke.
It was a guttural, twisted sound, a voice born of a throat, jaw, and tongue not made for speech, and the words seemed torn from the air, tortuously sculpted and overlaid with violent snarls.
I lurched in surprise, almost falling into the dead leaves. The creature raised its long shaggy arm again, its brindled coat—not unlike a longer version of Maethor’s, I thought, even as I noted the incongruity of the observation—matted with mud and blood.
It pointed at Revasir, peeling its lips back into a snarling grimace. A low growl curled through the air and, with some difficulty, words fell again from the beast’s panting maw.
“Hrrrr… Enough, Dalish. You… come from your clan to put us… in our place?” It spread its lips wider, baring its teeth and its red, shining gums, and a low growl slid from it, menacing and as heavy as tar. “Make us pay for the attack?”
I stared. No one had imagined they would talk—that they would reason like this. Zathrian had said they were incapable of it, hadn’t he? I looked to Revasir, wanting to say that—wanting to say something through the thrum of panic in my head—but he looked just as wild as the wolves.
His hair hung riotously about his shoulders, his features contorted with rage and hate beneath his vallaslin, the ink like dark, whipping vines. He glanced at me with his lips pulled back in a sneer, his eyes wide voids of distrustful darkness. He frightened me then. Oh, the Dalish had unnerved me in so many ways since the beginning… but I’d never been truly afraid of him before.
I tightened my hold on my weapon, digging my heels into the muddy leaf litter. “No one said they could talk,” I warned. “Let’s just—”
“They lie!” Revasir shouted, fury staining his face. “They are beasts! Nothing but savage things!”
The werewolf let out a roaring growl, and a couple of the others started to fidget, snapping their jaws impatiently.
“We are beasts,” it snarled, “but we are no longer simple and mindless. Let that thought chill your spine, Dalish.”
The air almost crackled with tension. I glanced back at the rest of my group, worried by how ready the hunters were for this to end in a bloodbath. We might have outnumbered them, but I wasn’t at all sure we could take the beasts. Alistair caught my eye warily, his face tight and alert, and looked at Wynne. She shook her head almost imperceptibly, and I could see the same current run through all my companions: this was not going as it ought.
I took a deep breath and pushed forwards, stepping close to the foot of the bank, craning my neck to look up at the beast… and placing myself in front of Revasir and the other hunters.
The creature glared down at me, its wrinkled snout twitching as it took in my scent. I could see saliva glisten on its teeth.
“Please… I-I’m not Dalish. I… don’t understand.”
“Hrrr… another elf,” it grumbled, the word almost swallowed in the abrupt closing of its jaws.
“But not Dalish,” I protested, my voice growing a little higher, and a little wobblier. “I’m a Grey Warden. My friends and I—”
It was part word, part bark, and it jolted me into silence. The werewolf lurched forwards, falling to a crouch on the edge of the bank as it leaned down towards us, its jaws slightly open. I could smell the rankness of its coat—they all had a strong musk about them, far worse than Maethor—and I fought the urge to lean back, though there were still several feet between us.
The were dug its claws into the soft earth and leaned further down, its long neck stretched out in one strong, corded line. The powerful swells of its shoulders and back heaved as it huffed deeply and, all the while, it watched me with bright, intelligent eyes.
“You… hrrr… go back to Dalish masters, elf. Tell them you failed. Hrrr… tell them Swiftrunner—” It slapped one clawed hand against its chest, and the thought that they named themselves, that they had words and names and minds pounded in my head like a terrible drum. “—says we shall gladly watch them suffer the same curse we have suffered… for too long! Hrrr….” It lifted its head, snarling as it took in the hunters. “We will see you pay.”
I thought Revasir was going to throw himself at the bank and climb up to put the creature’s eyes out with his thumbs. Neither he nor Aegan seemed able to hold back much longer, though at least Daeon looked rooted with fear, which meant he probably wouldn’t do anything stupid.
“Why?” I blurted, playing for time, playing for any way of keeping things from deteriorating further. “Why do you hate them so much?”
The beast’s shaggy head swung towards me, its eyes narrowed to gleaming slits. Its breath puffed in damp coils on the air, and a low growl leaked from between the bars of its teeth.
“Hrrr… You do not know? Was it not Zathrian who sent you, hrrr?”
“Filth!” Revasir burst out. “How dare you even speak his name?”
He started to move, his stance threatening but—in a fraction of an instant—the werewolves were snarling and circling again, and I had put out my arm, barring him from the bank and the beast that called itself Swiftrunner.
I looked at Revasir, and at my own arm and my leather-gloved hand, stretched out about six inches in front of his chest, like I had a right to command him. He looked at the limb too, and then at my face, and a complicated moment passed—one of those long stretches of time condensed somehow into a fleeting blink—during which I felt quite sure he would have liked to slap me across the face and send me back to the human gutter I’d come from.
Perhaps, if that moment had stretched a little further, he would have relented.
Instead, Alistair spoke up, his tone arch and his words unhelpful. “Er… shouldn’t we be rather more concerned about how they know his name? Your keeper told us we were chasing savage animals. No one said anything about them talking… or having plans. Or names, come to that….”
He was right. I didn’t want him to be right, or to voice the precise things I’d thought, but that made no difference.
Revasir looked positively blind with anger as he turned, his cheeks flushed beneath his vallaslin, and I could feel what solidity our group might have had beginning to crack and bend beneath my feet.
“Let’s all try and stay calm,” I said, stupidly, for there was no calm to be had.
The creature snarled at me from the bank—a real, honest expression of the desire to bite and rend. Its ears were flattened to its head, its eyes less than slits in a face already monstrous and deformed by anger. I tried hard to resist the urge to draw my weapon, though I could hear the tensing of bodies behind me: to a one, we were ready to fight, and I felt sure it would come to it, whatever bloodshed I wanted to avert.
“You know nothing, do you?” the beast growled, its words as gnarled and bent as tree roots. “Nothing! Nothing of us…hrrr… and even less of those you serve. Hrrr…you are a fool!”
I bridled at that, almost ready to throw my anger in with Revasir’s… could this animal not see what I was trying to do? The werewolf straightened up then—less an act of standing, more an unfolding of its misshapen body—and threw its head back, letting a panting, snuffling growl slip through those wet, ragged jaws. Leaves shuffled underfoot, scuffed up as the other beasts jostled eagerly around us, penning us in… readying for the kill.
Swiftrunner jerked its head irritably, snapping those ugly jaws at me with dismissive violence. “Hrrr…enough. We speak no more. Run from the forest while you can! Run back to Dalish masters…hrrr… tell them they are doomed.”
I could have sworn I felt the air break around us, like the crack of lightning and the roll of sudden thunder across a darkened summer sky, or the shatter of a clay jug on rough stones. Perhaps things would have gone differently if we hadn’t had the hunters with us. Perhaps, if I’d been stronger, braver, then I’d have managed to talk the beasts round… but then I’d been castigating myself for failing ever since Soris and I didn’t make it to Vaughan’s chambers in time to save Shianni, and maybe even long before that.
All I knew was that no force in the world could have held Revasir and Aegan back then. The latter pulled out his belt-knife and roared, lunging at the nearest of the werebeasts, at exactly the same moment as everything turned to splinters, and they leapt at us. I saw Swiftrunner jump from the bank in a horrible ballet of outstretched limbs and bared teeth—they were less like wolves than nightmarish creatures of the canopy, so nimbly they leapt, like foul birds in flight—and I fumbled for a weapon, yelling a warning that I didn’t need to voice.
It was a messy, brutal fight. I knew the steps my companions made—used as we were to each other, or near enough—but the Dalish were new to our mix and, despite their expertise, they brought chaos along with skill.
The creature called Swiftrunner had cleared me in its bound, aiming straight for Revasir as the group split outwards, and he anticipated it, deflecting the beast and swiping one of those cruel, curved Dalish blades at its knees. It dodged, feinted, and then Sten was between me and them, bringing one arm—still clad in the hodgepodge armour that didn’t fit him—down heavily across the snout of another werewolf before bringing his sword around in a wide arc that sent the beasts momentarily scattering. I heard Maethor yelp, then snarl, and saw a blur of movement as he darted after one of the white wolves, paws scrabbling to bring his solid, stocky body in line with its lithe form. I saw his jaws close on the ruff of its neck, heard the bays and growls of beasts that walked on four and two legs alike… and then had my own problems to face.
A werewolf leapt at me, its lips pulled back in a horrific grin that exposed long, yellow teeth. I brought my sword arm up fast, swiping a hilt-first blow that cracked across its cheek and sent it pitching sideways, just enough for me to dive out of the way before it got up. The dull ache from the blow’s connection reverberated all the way up my arm, but I levelled my blade in preparation for a strike… a strike I didn’t want to make. The thing looked at me balefully as it scrambled back to its feet, snarling and lashing out with its clawed, twisted hands. They definitely were more hands than paws, I thought, as we circled each other in the maelstrom of slashing, scrapping bodies. How many of these creatures had been elves once? How many of them shems? Was there a difference anymore?
The beast lunged, and I parried, the flat of my blade hitting its forearm, but barely pressing through the matted, stinking fur. It bore down on me with its full weight in retaliation, using the height it had over me, its hot breath rolling over my face as it strained to get closer, to bite and rend. I kicked it in the kneecap as hard as I could, and heard it squeal as it went down. And—compassion be damned—I’d have put my sword through its back if another of the bastards hadn’t cannoned into me from the side. I felt the sharp, dense pressure of jaws on my arm, and fear flooded me… but not the high, tight, intensifying fear of battle, where the blood pounds and the air tastes of sweat, because every tiny breath of a moment is the decider between life and death. This was genuine terror; terror at the thought of yellow teeth piercing my second-hand Dalish leathers, of this curse—this monstrous affliction—pouring into my tainted blood.
I think I screamed… the sounds of anger and outrage, the way I’d screamed in the lower levels of Redcliffe Castle, when we fought walking corpses that still wore the vestiges of their guardsmen’s armour. I writhed, punched, elbowed, gouged, and got the thing off me. It was a huge, broad, powerful beast with shaggy, grey-flecked fur, and it would not stay down. It sprung at me, and I tried to duck to the side, but it caught me with one impossibly long, brawny arm—an arm that reached out like a human’s, catching and grabbing, but ended in a beast’s long, terrible claws—and struck me hard, sending me off-balance. Pain bloomed sharply across my left cheek, all fire and acid against the cold air. I staggered back, readying to swing my blade, but it came at me again too quickly. With a face full of fetid, rotten breath, I barely missed a swipe of its claws, and I pushed my blade out, trying to turn the creature from me… but it wasn’t like a human opponent, or even a darkspawn. Something that stands on two legs can usually have its weight used against it—as Mother had taught me, the finest gift a blade can give is the ability to deflect—but the werebeasts stood and balanced differently. Where I lunged and parried, they jumped and pounced, and it was all I could do to deal out a few small scratches.
My companions didn’t seem to be doing any better. Magic lanced the air over and over—Wynne and Morrigan working in that strange concert of theirs, so oddly complementary—but the wolves seemed to know magic as well as mages did, for they dodged at every turn. Even Sten’s two-handed blows rarely struck home, though a squeal from one of the beasts told me Zevran had landed a hit. It knocked me off-centre at first, because I thought the noise came from Maethor and, in the moment I turned my head, another of the creatures cannoned into me, jaws spread and straining for my neck.
I ducked my head, rammed into its chest and threw it back, bringing my blade up in a short swing, aiming for its gut, but it twisted neatly away, still snarling. I saw Revasir then, behind the beast, grappling with another of its kind. The wolf I had just thrown off began to turn, spinning on him like a dog who’s had his tail yanked, and I lunged forwards, driving my sword into its thigh. It screamed, and bore back down on me even as I tucked and threw myself to the ground, trying to avoid the pounce of teeth and claws.
I hit the mud hard, knees first, and tried to strike at the first set of bipedal paws I saw before I came up again. I tasted sweat, metal, and blood—hard to tell whether it was mine or not—but Revasir had avoided being caught between the two beasts. I met his eye briefly as we danced past each other, ducking and parrying, and he seemed as feral a creature as the wolves, with his teeth bared and his knotted hair flying. I heard a growl close to my left—close enough to reverberate against my skin—and saw his blade skim the chest of one of the beasts, narrowly missing its throat as he pushed hard away.
Something heavy hit me then, knocking the wind from me and sending me sprawling to the ground. In the confusion of legs and weaponry, I didn’t see what it was. I saw the dark, matted shape of a werewolf above me as I lay, starry-eyed, in the mud, and I thrust my blade up, catching it with a shallow blow to the stomach. There was a howling yelp, and I heard the one that called itself Swiftrunner growling out a word that seemed a misshapen snarl of agony and frustration.
I had barely scrambled to my feet again before I realised the werewolves were running. The commotion of scattering, fleeing feet and snarling, whining cries faded to a disorientating silence as they receded through the trees, with a couple of icy bursts of magic from Morrigan to light up their tails.
We’d killed one. Daeon was near its corpse, a bloodstained knife in his hand, screaming obscenities at the retreating beasts—pure alienage gutter vowels, flecked with spittle and spite—and his face was a twisted mask of furious hatred.
“…fucking run, you flea-bitten nug-licking bastards!”
Panting, he spat on the ground, then wiped the back of his wrist across his forehead, apparently only just realising that he was bleeding from a gash to the temple.
I bent over, hands on my knees as I tried to clear the fog from my vision and get the air back into my lungs.
“Everyone alive?” I managed, as I straightened up.
They looked it. Sten, Morrigan, and Wynne were all unscathed, and Maethor stood beside them, one ear inside out, his tongue lolling as he panted heavily. He looked surprisingly bright-eyed and pleased with himself, despite the bloody bitemarks on his neck and back, and took a few steps towards me, wagging his tail uncertainly.
“Good boy,” I muttered, casting a glance around the rest of the group.
Zevran was swearing a blue streak in Antivan under his breath as he rubbed at his weak arm, but he seemed unhurt, and Farriel hovered solicitously at his shoulder, looking just as disconcertingly chipper as the mabari. I noticed the gentle protectiveness with which he laid hold of Zev’s wrist, examining the tanned skin for injury… and I saw the way that Aegan regarded his clansman.
The hunter scowled, and then turned that scowl on me, which I took to mean that he was all right. I looked around for Revasir, and saw him climbing stiffly to his feet near the base of the bank, limping but apparently not bleeding. I let out a small breath of relief, though the head count was not complete, and, very slowly, it dawned on me that what had cannoned into me, throwing me to the ground, was Alistair. His shield lay in the mud near the dead werewolf, but he wasn’t with it, and panic began to grip me.
“Here,” he said, emerging from a few feet away, easing himself tentatively to his feet. “Are you all right? It didn’t—?”
His voice sounded thin and shaky. The sudden lurch of fear made me dizzy as I looked at him, and the awkward way he held himself, with his left hand clasped to his right side.
I went to him at once, terrified of what I’d find. He’d obviously fallen hard: mud and leaf-litter streaked his hair, face, and armour, and he looked pale beneath the sheen of sweat. I couldn’t look him in the eyes—I didn’t want to—but I could smell the fear on him. Blood welled between his fingers, thick and richly red. It was at the place his worn splintmail armour joined. The boiled leather was torn, the metal ruptured, the strap broken… the same kit he’d had since Lothering, and which had seen so many repairs there probably wasn’t an original inch left of it. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t found him something better. Something safer.
“Let me see,” I pleaded, reaching out to pull his hand from the wound.
He resisted, even when I tugged harder at his wrist, and shook his head.
“It’s not a bite,” he protested weakly. “Really, it’s—”
It didn’t matter. I was convinced he’d saved my life, pushed me aside with a willingness to take the curse for me, and words could not describe how terrible I felt. Worried hazel eyes met mine from within a muddy, battered face, and I found a blend of incomprehension, regret, and—worst of all—resentment in them that made my chest feel cold, and my throat turn dry.
I turned at the sound of Wynne’s voice, and the ominous hollowness with which she called my name.
We were still one short, and I realised what had happened as the mage beckoned me to the other side of the bank.
Leliana lay on the ground, propped up slightly on her elbows, her pale skin turned to deathly white. She raised her head and looked apologetically at me, her mouth twisted into a shallow, rueful little smile as she struggled for breath.
“I’m sorry. I… I think I was a little too slow, no?”
The wound was raw-edged and livid, puncture wounds between the torn stretches of skin clearly visible beneath the smears of blood. It stretched from her collarbone to the centre of her chest. Her armour had provided some protection, but not enough, and deep scratches marked her neck and arms.
She had been bitten, and bitten badly.
I knelt beside her, not knowing what to do, what to say… I wanted to weep. For so long, the threat of death had been with us every day, and I hadn’t realised that such a constant thrum of it had so hard-inured me to fear that it had made me believe we were immortal.
I looked at Wynne, full of blind hope and expectation. “You can do something, can’t you? We should… we should get some water, or—”
“I’ll be all right, I’m sure,” Leliana protested. “And we can’t be far from the creatures’ lair. We must press on, and—”
“You’re not going anywhere, my girl,” Wynne said, beginning to roll up her sleeves as I uncorked my water skin.
Behind me, I was aware of Farriel and Aegan lingering, looking worried and fearful, like superstitious old men. Everyone was silent, which made the sound of Leliana’s laboured breathing seem louder. Even Zevran was tight-lipped, and Daeon looked terrified.
“I-Is she going to die?” he asked, probably not as quietly as he thought he had.
“Stupid,” Morrigan remarked, pushing past him to crouch beside Leliana. “This is sheer carelessness.”
“She hardly meant to get bitten, you heartless cow,” Alistair exclaimed sourly. He was leaning against a tree, still holding his side. “If you can’t keep your mouth shut—”
“Oh, shut your own, idiot,” the witch snapped, cupping her hands together, fingers splayed out like the interlaced bars of a cage. “I have no patience for your prattling.”
Wynne put her hand on Leliana’s shoulder, her expression tightening. “Morrigan, if I may… such healing as can be done is probably better—”
Morrigan raised her head, her teeth bared and her eyes twin points of yellow-gold venom. “Shut up, old woman, and let me concentrate. All of you. Quiet.”
She looked down at her hands, her eyelids drooping a little as power began to swell between her palms, and I felt it running through everything like one great, dark wave. Her lips twitched, her dark hair somewhat dishevelled, with strands escaping from its elegant binds, rustling against the pale skin of her cheeks just as the black feathers danced at her shoulders.
“What’s she doing?” Leliana asked weakly, her hands pushing faintly at the earth. “That… that doesn’t look like a healing spell. I don’t want—”
“Shhh, child,” Wynne said, patting her shoulder soothingly. She glanced up at me, and motioned me to move to Leliana’s other side.
I obeyed, placing a comforting—and restraining—hand on her arm as Morrigan began to sway her head gently from side to side.
The Dalish were growing uneasy. I saw Daeon make a warding sign with his left hand—old alienage habits coming back, Creators or no Creators—and Revasir spat into the leaves, watching our little tableau with guarded, uncertain eyes. Farriel moved close to Zevran, standing behind him and threading an arm through his like a frightened child cowers in the folds of its mother’s skirts. Aegan alone turned away and stalked off a few paces, muttering under his breath.
Morrigan separated her palms, revealing a curl of magical energy nestled in her palm: a glow that seemed to shimmer darkly, more a translucent flame that lived and burned than the white, hot light of Wynne’s healing magics.
She reached out her other hand, reached without looking to where the corpse of the werewolf lay, the bloodstains still wet on the leaf litter. Morrigan flexed her fingers, a tiny frown pinching her brow, and I shuddered. It felt like a sudden crawling, slimy movement, as if the whole clearing itself was trying to turn inside out.
Sten loosed a single word in abrupt Qunari, his face a picture of distaste, and turned his head, though he didn’t budge from his position.
Leliana began to protest, and Wynne shushed her, first with words and then—before she had a chance to argue—a soft bloom of healing light, applied to her forehead.
“Hold her,” she murmured.
I did. I gripped Leliana’s shoulder and arm until my knuckles turned white. Maethor whined and licked his nose. Alistair was still leaning against the tree and applying pressure to his side, though I saw the movement of his head as he looked up. I was busy holding Leliana, and holding myself in check as Morrigan guided whatever dark energy she had harnessed towards us.
She began to mutter under her breath—words that didn’t even seem to have shapes, just sequences of fluid sound—and even I could feel the power building. When she laid her hands on Leliana’s wound, the light seemed to intensify, everything tasted salty and bitter, and a whole violent wave of pressure washed up all around us. It knocked the air from me in one sharp cough, but it was over fast, and I was left light-headed as I stared down at the bloody, torn flesh, watching the ragged edges of skin appear to smoke faintly.
Morrigan sat back on her haunches and brushed her hands together.
“There. At least she shall have enough strength to fight it.”
Wynne glowered, those sharp blue eyes full of outrage and, I thought, maybe even fear. I was ready for her to savage Morrigan with a furious tirade, but she merely pursed her lips and, when she spoke, it was a low, modulated reproach.
“One might question whether using the force of the curse itself to feed her healing is not going to do more harm than good. However,” she added, turning her attention sharply back to Leliana, “I suppose it was a good use of entropic fields. We teach students to perform exercises in a very similar manner in the Circle.”
Morrigan narrowed her eyes, then rose and stalked off.
I was confused, and it probably showed.
“The life force of the dead,” Wynne said gently, stroking Leliana’s hair back from her face. “Instead of allowing it to dissipate naturally after the moment of death, the magic of entropy may harness such forces of decay and use them to provide… power. It is a complex principle.”
I grimaced, unable to avoid glancing at the dead werebeast.
“So… that is now—”
My lesson ended sharply, as Leliana let out a low groan, her body beginning to contort violently. Wynne gave quick, calm orders, and I followed, looking up to see Zevran kneeling on the bard’s feet, holding her ankles down. A very nervous Farriel accompanied him, pinning Leliana’s other arm when instructed.
It was rough, ugly doctoring. Wynne healed Leliana as best she could—healed the wound, and the broken collarbone, and most of the damaged tissue around the bite itself—but it was clear to all of us that it wasn’t enough.
She’d told me that the curse was like the taint, and that what the Dalish had suffered was much like the Joining. I couldn’t shake that thought, or the fear that accompanied it… the fear of what lay in store for my friend.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
We didn’t eat badly that night, all things considered. The Dalish had some dry, rusk-like bread—and unfortunately also the deer jerky—but we had dried meat and a little pottage that Leliana made up with the bare minimum of water and a small pouch of meal.
All the same, it wasn’t an easy rest, full bellies or no. Rhyn and Taen claimed to have found werewolf tracks by the creek.
“They are close,” Rhyn insisted, as I crouched by the muddy, blurred prints, pretending I could see them as clearly as the Dalish seemed to. “We must move on.”
There were a lot of them. They were like dog tracks, but bigger, and longer… unless that was just the slippage of the mud. I imagined huge creatures, loping on four long legs, with wrinkled snouts like mabaris, and teeth that dripped with drool.
“We can’t,” I said, as I straightened up, nodding back towards our fire. “Not until morning. And even then someone’s going to have to take Deygan back to camp.”
Rhyn’s perpetual scowl deepened. “There are few enough of us. You would divide your men now, Grey Warden?”
I wanted to smirk at the thought of this motley band being my men. I had no illusions that Taen and the others would follow my command if we were under attack… or, perhaps, that Rhyn would do anything other than act in their interest. Not that I could blame him for that; he was here purely for Witherfang, and his clan.
“Well?” I said, instead of voicing anything more controversial. “Would you rather leave Deygan to die?”
The hunter’s face was thunderous. Taen glanced nervously at his brother, and then shot me a look that seemed to suggest he thought I was a madwoman.
“No… but he may yet turn,” Rhyn added, lowering his voice. “I cannot weigh his life against the whole clan’s.”
“He might not turn,” I replied. “You were right; it’s almost impossible to tell what’s claws or bite marks. Anyway, Zathrian said it’s the blood that carries it, didn’t he? Maybe not every bite is enough to spread the curse.”
Footsteps sounded in the brush behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder. Wynne had come to investigate the alleged tracks—or possibly she just wanted a breath of air away from the smell of Deygan’s infected wounds. She nodded at me, and inclined her head respectfully to the hunters. I felt slightly smug, as if she had appeared on cue to support my argument, so I asked her how her patient was doing.
“He is growing a little stronger,” she said, her voice thin, and those sharp blue eyes dimmed by fatigue. “I have him sleeping, for now. He has a great deal of fight in him, I can tell you that… but whether it is enough to beat the curse, I don’t know.”
Rhyn snorted and muttered something in Elvish, but the mage merely looked calmly at him.
“He is very badly wounded, that is true. However—” She turned her attention to me, her expression curiously solemn. “—he is fighting it. This is not something I have encountered before… but I do believe he has a chance.”
The discomfort in her face told me that there was something more; something she didn’t want to discuss it in front of the hunters. Taen fidgeted beside his brother, evidently not as wary as Rhyn was of a human mage’s healing.
“You think you can save him?”
Wynne looked almost apologetic, her hands loosely curled in the worn, travel-stained sleeves of her robe.
“It is a… a sickness,” she said quietly. “Something that magic may not break, but may aid in fighting. I have done everything I can for Deygan, and he is strong. The Dalish are a strong people,” she added, with a brief glance at Rhyn. “If he receives good care, and if the source of the contamination can be found before it is too late, then yes, I think he may survive.”
“The source? You mean Witherfang?” Taen asked, wide-eyed behind his vallaslin. He looked cautiously at his brother, as if he expected to need Rhyn’s permission to be hopeful. “If the wolf’s heart breaks the curse, like Zathrian said… they’ll all be saved, won’t they? Deygan, and all the rest of them?”
Rhyn didn’t seem convinced. He frowned at Wynne, and then at me, though doubt had already begun to settle in the lines around his eyes. He gave a heavy, resigned sigh. The thick, dim light of the forest’s dark—a cool gloom now, lit only by our fire, and the thin, dying shreds of dusk, soon to give way to a pale moon—clung to his outline, and the lines of his vallaslin seemed to be worn ever deeper into his skin.
I wondered who his patron god was. Were those Andruil’s arrows on his cheeks, representing the unwavering flight of truth? It must be a wonderful thing, I thought, to have such a strong sense of identity, to belong so completely to his world. I envied him, and I barely realised then how much.
“Take him back,” I said quietly. “In the morning. If he’s still alive, two or three of you should take him back. Tell Zathrian where we found him, and about the tracks, and tell him what Wynne has said. The rest of us will go on.”
I thought Rhyn would argue, but he didn’t. He just grew tight-lipped and taut-faced, and then he nodded crisply, his eyes heavy with tiredness.
“You risk much, outsider,” he said darkly, giving me a chary frown. “But Deygan is our clansman. I… will do as you ask.”
He gave me little chance to respond, and moved off back to the fire with Taen bobbing in his wake like a worrity fishing float. I already had my mouth open to thank him with the kind of formal honour I supposed I ought, but I shut it on the words, and an uncomfortable silence lapped around the hunters’ footsteps.
“I suspect he thinks you want the honour of the kill yourself,” Wynne observed.
Outsider, I’d noticed. Not “Warden” this time. I blinked, distracted. “What?”
Wynne smiled as I looked up at her. “If you do what their Keeper has asked, it will be a great deed.” The corners of those blue eyes crinkled a little as her smile deepened with rather cynical amusement. “I have no doubt the Dalish storytellers will sing of it for years to come.”
I pulled a face. “If. Nothing is ever certain. Still, I suppose we’ve faced worse things.”
A cool breeze snaked through the trees, shaking the droplets of moisture from the fronds of firs and rippling the surface of the muddy creek. The rain had stopped, but everything still felt damp and boggy.
Wynne just smiled; that same smile that I couldn’t help feeling she was using as a mask. “Indeed,” she said, and there was something in her voice that made me feel exposed.
I wanted to say she was wrong in what she appeared to imply; to protest that honour wasn’t what I had set out to gain, but… somehow, in that dark little space between the gully and the paw prints in the mud, it was difficult to look the mage in the eye and say I didn’t want the Dalish to know my name.
I sighed, shook my head, and moved to head back to the fire myself, but Wynne reached out a hand.
“Just a moment. I… I would like to speak with you.”
There was an odd formality in her tone; a scholar’s crispness that seemed so very different from the warm, compassionate woman I had grown used to seeing her as. It made my back straighten and my heart clench in apprehension.
“Of course, Wynne. What is it?”
Her fingers curled in on themselves again, her thin hands retreating into the warmth of her robes. Her thick, dark green cloak hung in heavy folds around her, mud splashes a good four inches deep up the hem.
“About the Dalish boy… the curse.” Her sparse grey brows drew together, narrow lips tentatively framing words she seemed afraid of saying. “As far as I can tell, the werebeasts’ curse is not unlike the taint.”
My stomach lurched a little at that. It was unexpected, and I was as revolted as I was surprised.
I glanced furtively back towards the fire, anxious that no one should overhear. Wynne nodded.
“Yes…. What that boy is going through now, it’s not unlike what a Grey Warden experiences after the Joining.” Her frown deepened. “I… don’t profess to know much about the ritual, but, as you know, I have been a Senior Enchanter of the Circle for many years. I have an understanding of how the preparations are made, how such complex… things are enacted,” she finished vaguely, the fleeting archness in her voice pleading with me not to ask questions she could not—or perhaps would not—answer.
A cold feeling traced its way down my back. It wasn’t the first time I’d wondered what dark rites went into the Joining ceremony. There was a chalice, and blood, and magic… and I doubted there could be any wholesome combination of those things. But how could what afflicted Deygan be in any way the same?
Wynne lowered her voice, leaning forwards a little as she tried to explain.
“I think that the curse has a source, and I don’t mean Witherfang’s spirit. I mean… it feels like a kind of magic that has been made, not the kind that simply is.”
Suddenly, it seemed hard to forget the experiments Avernus had been conducting up in Soldier’s Peak, knowledge and curiosity corrupted by both time and power. I shuddered. “But who’d make a curse like that? Why?”
Wynne shook her head. “I don’t know. I may be wrong… I hope I am. But, if I am not, we should be wary. I certainly do not think things are as simple as Zathrian wanted you to believe.”
Well, I knew that. I crossed my arms over my chest, hugging my middle tightly. “He wants his clan saved,” I said doubtfully, perhaps even a little defensively. “That’s all. I think he’s overestimated the wolves, but… I don’t know. He did say Witherfang is some kind of spirit—a demon, maybe? It’s something a powerful demon could do, isn’t it?”
It made sense: an ancient, vindictive rage demon, as Alistair had supposed from Hahren Sarel’s story.
“It’s possible,” Wynne admitted. “But, whatever the truth of the matter, if Zathrian knew and withheld that information from you, then—”
“He withheld nothing!” I snapped.
That wasn’t true, though I hadn’t meant to lie when I opened my mouth.
“I mean… I told Zathrian we would bring him the wolf’s heart, if it can break the curse. He’s had to keep some things back from the clan. Of course he has. They… they didn’t need to know. You saw inside the healer’s tent,” I murmured, that reflexive sharpness dropping from my voice.
Would we have to kill Deygan before he became a monster? I pushed away the thoughts of the dead, and the little red blossoms the healer’s knife made on the clean bandages.
Wynne’s mouth pursed, and I supposed I’d been too eager to defend Zathrian… to defend the clan.
“I did,” she said quietly.
I nodded, and looked cautiously at her. I didn’t want to apologise; I wanted to be right, and to believe that I could trust both the decisions I’d made, and the man who had inspired me to make them. I would bring the keeper the heart of the white wolf—demon or no—and I would have my elven army, even if I couldn’t be a bright, wild creature like one of the Dalish.
All the same, I still wanted nothing more than to win their respect, their gratitude, and their acceptance… by whatever means I could get it.
I cleared my throat, made uneasy by the hardness in Wynne’s face and yet even more determined to hold onto my fixed ideas. “Um, but… what you said about Deygan? You said it’s like the Joining. If he survives, you mean he could conquer it?”
Wynne seemed to have difficulty meeting my eye then, and I assumed I understood why. She knew the thing I tried so often to put from my mind: the fact that there was truly no ‘conquering’ the taint. It either killed you at once or, like Alistair and me, you just walked around dying slowly, waiting for the corruption to kick in.
“I don’t know,” she said with a small shrug. “I suppose it explains why not all the Dalish in the camp were affected the same way. I… I have never seen such a thing before. But I do believe you should tread with care. Zathrian may not have told you everything, and—”
“The Keeper was in a difficult position,” I said hotly, though even I didn’t know why I was so quick to defend him… especially when I knew he’d hidden plenty from the clan. “And why should he trust me completely? I’m not elvhen, I’m travelling with sh— with humans.”
She just looked at me with those sharp eyes closely guarded, and her silence only made me spill out more stupid things.
“You haven’t seemed comfortable with the Dalish from the start,” I said, a little accusingly. “I suppose their way of life is very different to the Circle. Their attitudes to magic.”
Wynne’s gaze grew hard, like glass, and her mouth tightened a little. “I do not disapprove, if that’s what you mean.”
The trees rustled around us, bearing damp needles of wet shaken from the upper branches by the breeze. I bit back the smart retort I wanted to give, suddenly aware that my father had not raised a girl who would show this argumentative disrespect to her elders… and, for all my whole-hearted embracing of the Dalish hahrens and their stories, I still thought of Wynne the same way as the elders I’d known all my life. At least a little bit, anyway.
I shrugged gracelessly, toeing the mud with my boot. “Well, I guess they’re not the same as the elves you have in the Circle. That’s all.”
We both heard the meaning that sat behind my words. You don’t know us. You can’t judge us. I remembered the elven boy who’d first approached us in the Tower, ready to fight to defendthe others. I remembered how brave he’d been: afraid, but not because he was facing humans, merely wary because there was danger. An elf, in fine robes, with magical power at his hands… and, oh, how very strange he’d seemed to me.
Wynne sighed. She sounded weary, frustrated, and sad. I thought I’d disappointed her, and I glowered at the mud under my feet.
“Perhaps they are,” she said quietly. “But the elves who come to the Circle are not Dalish. They are alienage-born, just like you. Their… mistrust of humans can be just as strong.”
I looked up at that, already frowning, but any protest—any foolish protest, for how could I dispute that?—died unspoken when I saw the haunted expression in her eyes.
“My first apprentice was elven,” Wynne explained. “All he knew of humans was what he’d seen in the alienage he came from,and it had made him wary. He needed time; time to get used to his new home, time to emerge from his shell… but I was young, arrogant, and impatient. I did not give him what he needed. It was the greatest mis-step of my life.”
She looked down at her robes, her hands emerging from the folds of her cloak to straighten the fabric, brushing ineffectively at the specks of dirt and mud. I wondered if she regretted leaving the Circle Tower, and all the comforts the mages must have had there.
“I’m sure you didn’t guide him wrong, Wynne,” I said, grappling awkwardly for something soothing to say, because it felt like it was expected of me.
All the sharpness flooded back into her tired eyes when she looked at me, and it hit me like a slap to the cheek.
“No,” she said, the word as low and quick as a snake strike. “That’s just it: I did. ‘He is a mage,’ I thought. ‘He needs to grow up and act like one’.” She shook her head. “I expected too much from Aneirin, too quickly. I gave no consideration to his origin, or his feelings. And yet, as he retreated further from me, all I could think of was how stubborn he was… how he was throwing away all his talent and his potential, just to be difficult.”
I didn’t see why she needed to tell me this now. Was it because she was so exhausted, or because the boy had been an elf? Maybe I was supposed to see how hard-headed I was being, or maybe it was her way of telling me she understood.
For once, I had no idea, and I didn’t care to know. My head was full of Deygan, lying there with a demon’s curse beating in his blood, and the possibility that it was the same magic as the taint I bore… which meant, by extension, that everything Avernus had hinted at was true. The Joining was blood magic, and I was corrupted, and we were all wandering about this wet, filthy forest, waiting to be attacked by terrible creatures, simply because I had thrown my support behind Zathrian.
All I really wanted was to go and sit by the fire, and hope the beasts that had made the tracks in the mud would stay away for tonight. Instead, I sniffed, and tried to take an interest in Wynne’s story.
“Was he very talented, then?”
“Oh, yes.” She nodded distantly. “Sometimes, I would catch him practising on his own, but if I asked him to show me what he could do, he would freeze up, or fumble terribly. You cannot plant crops in the cold wintry ground; you cannot teach a student who is closed off and unresponsive. Patience is what I needed, and I learned that too late to help him.”
“Really?” I was growing very slightly irritable with the mage’s parables, though courtesy should have compelled me to try and disguise it a little better.
“Yes,” Wynne said tightly. “Really. All I had to do was listen to him. He tried to talk to me a few times… about the alienage, and about the Dalish. Always the Dalish.” She shook her head again, and turned her face to the dark, damp trees. “He talked of going to find them, talked of the stories he’d heard back in the alienage….”
I bit the inside of my lip. Her words sounded like dry, dusty moralising to me, and it seemed as if the stain of her disapproval had spread out over the camp, and that her very human self-righteousness cast its long, long shadow over my own foolish dreams.
“Let me guess: one day he did, but they weren’t anything like he thought, and he learned a valuable lesson.”
“Hmph!” Wynne snorted sharply, the dismissive and angry gesture cutting through my snideness like butter. “That is,” she corrected hesitantly, as if she regretted the denial a little, “I don’t know. Aneirin ran away from the Circle… and that was my fault. I had berated him over some trivial, ridiculous matter that I no longer even remember. A child—barely fourteen at the time—and I drove him away because I did not listen, because I was not patient with him.”
She hunched her arms around herself, like the night was colder than it really was… or maybe she just felt it more. I shut up, realising for the first time since the mage had begun this tale that it wasn’t a story in her usual vein. She wasn’t telling me this from some desire to educate me, or push me towards seeing my own idiocy; she was spilling a confession.
“Of course,” Wynne continued, addressing the faceless ranks of the trees, “the templars had his phylactery… the vial of blood they take from each apprentice,” she added, anticipating my lack of knowledge. “Blood is connected to life, and your blood can be used to track you down. And they did. They called him ‘maleficar’, hunted him like a dog… but he was just a child, misunderstood and lost. I begged the templars to tell me if he suffered, if they gave him a quick death. I got no answers from them. I was his mentor and they wouldn’t even tell me what became of him. I… I cannot look at the Dalish we have seen in this forest without thinking of Aneirin. How frightened he must have been, and how far he might have run.”
Her breath misted slightly on the cool air, and it was probably more than my imagination that hinted at the thickness of tears beneath her words. Wynne was such a strong, composed, calm woman; it frightened me to see her crack, although my first impulse was to offer comfort.
“Maybe he did find a clan,” I said, moving tentatively towards her, and feeling properly guilty now for my self-absorbed unpleasantness. “We could ask, back at the camp. I’m sure someone would know, if—”
She shook her head smartly. “I doubt it. The templars are well-trained and thorough. That he still lives… it would be a vain hope. Besides,” she added, straightening her shoulders and, for the first time since she had spoken of her apprentice, turning to face me, “we have plenty to concern us in the meantime.”
I wrinkled my nose, partially because that was a good point, and partially because I had very rarely seen Wynne look so vulnerable. Not since the Circle Tower, in fact. I remembered her terrible dream: trapped with the bodies of her dead, shackled to the guilt of having failed to protect those for whom she was responsible. I remembered her hands, moving over and over in the ballet of laying out corpses only she could see, and the struggles as Leliana, Alistair and I had tried to convince her to let them go. I had spoken to her of guilt, and acceptance, and moving forward… and had I ever taken my own advice?
I wondered if she’d seen Aneirin’s body in the Fade. Maybe she saw him every night, the way that—in between the steadily more regular nightmares of red rocks swarming with black bodies, and bloody, mutilated flesh—I still sometimes heard Shianni screaming in my ears when I woke up.
“You’re right,” I said instead, nodding obediently. “We’ll press on in the morning, once Rhyn and the others have made way with Deygan. If these tracks are as fresh as they seem, the beasts can’t be far now.”
“Indeed.” Wynne took a breath, and smiled faintly at me. “We must move forwards, mustn’t we, and not allow ourselves to become caught up in what might have been.”
I inclined my head for all agreement. I should have known she managed to slip a moral in there someplace.
We did not have an easy rest. We took it in turns to take watch, but no one really slept much. Even Maethor kept growling at shadows.
I woke from a light doze to find the gully lit with the pale twinkle of moon and starlight; eerie bands of grey and blue painted against the blackness of the forest, and the dim circle of our banked-down fire. Leliana was sitting with Deygan again. Sten was a monolithic horizontal bar, on a bedroll the other side of the fire, with Wynne lying not far away. Maethor lay in a scrape nearby, chin on his paws and his ears half-cocked, and the Dalish hunters were packed in as close to the smouldering flames as they could get, top-to-toe like puppies… or like families used to share beds, back home.
As I sat up, propping myself on my elbow and blinking the fuzziness from my gritty eyes, my gaze settled on Daeon’s upside-down face, all sharp, dark features and a tangle of short hair, his incipient frown and tight mouth evened out by sleep. He looked younger, and it was hard not to remember him as he had been, and, by extension, impossible not to remember Soris, and Shianni, and everybody else. Homesickness hit me hard, right in the centre of my chest, and I thought—for the briefest, most fleeting of moments, before the cobwebs left my head, and I recalled where I was and why—that I might just die of it.
I caught my breath before it began to race, and reined in my thoughts, as I’d grown so used to doing. The low murmur of voices pulled at my attention, and I looked around… not really realising until my eyes adjusted to the dull patina of the firelight that I was looking for Alistair. I didn’t see him, or Morrigan, but I could see Zevran sitting at the edge of our scraped-together camp, hunkered down on his haunches with Farriel standing behind him. The fire’s dimmed, reddish glow just burnished the edges of their bodies, picking at the tooling on their leathers, and at the beads worked into Farriel’s hair. He was braiding Zev’s hair, I noticed… braiding it in the Dalish fashion, twisting tiny locks and plaits into the pale gold tresses, and working with quick, clever fingers.
I watched him bend low, fingertips sliding from the softness of hair to the smoothness of skin as he stroked a hand down Zevran’s neck, leaning in to whisper into his ear.
Zev smiled then, and it seemed a very wide, open kind of smile although, in the dimness, I thought he looked sad. He reached up, caught Farriel’s hand in his, and then there was some complicated, delicate kind of movement that I was sure I must have dreamed—or that perhaps Antivan assassins learned for just this sort of occasion—because Zev had turned, risen, and without the single crack of a twig or scuffle of leaves, had pivoted and pulled the boy to him. They kissed in the way I’d seen them kiss before; all heat and hands, want and balletic magnetism, like both of them knew where the other wanted them to be. Lips, mouths, bodies… I turned my face away, wishing I could lie back down again, pull a blanket over my head and pretend to be asleep. I supposed I could have broken it up, perhaps with the excuse that they evidently weren’t keeping watch very effectively, but I doubted a man of Zevran’s… well, manifold talents… would have struggled much with combining seduction and vigilance.
I wasn’t sure if I believed the stories about him seducing marks in order to assassinate them once they were off their guard. Or, more correctly, I believed the stories could easily have been true, just not whether Zevran had been telling the truth when he told them. To be honest, as I watched—or, rather, tried not to watch—the progressively more passionate lip-locking going on across the gully, I was even wondering whether he’d seduced the Dalish boy at all. At that precise moment, it was Farriel who was attempting to unlace Zevran’s breeches, and Farriel who had the Antivan’s lower lip snared between his teeth, their two shadowed forms dancing in the quiet glow of the flames, balancing over a precipice between light and shadow.
It embarrassed me, and left me a little confused… and envious. As Zevran tore away, his lips moving over words I couldn’t hear and his eyes shimmering in the darkness, he looked alive. He looked bright, vital, in a way very like he looked when we were fighting, but without the grim, focused determination of battle. His new Dalish braids hung a little stiffly around his face, and I couldn’t decide whether he was a hunter playing with his prey, or whether Farriel was more a mink than a rabbit.
The boy glanced over his shoulder then, and I looked away quickly, though he hadn’t even turned in my direction. They stifled their smiles and, with him tugging impatiently at Zevran’s wrist, padded towards the more heavily shadowed embrace of the trees.
I supposed we should probably all be thankful for at least a little bit of modesty.
“Hmm… sweet together, aren’t they?”
I glanced up, surprised to find that Leliana was no longer sitting by Deygan’s side, and evidently hadn’t been resting as quietly as I thought she had. She had crossed to the fire, apparently to stretch her legs, and she stood with both hands on the small of her back, her body arched like a bow as she rolled her neck. The flamelight picked dully at her leathers, and turned her hair to golden crimson as she smiled dreamily.
“Well, that’s one word for it,” I said, getting to my feet, and feeling distinctly crusty in my sleep-stiffened jack.
Footsteps crunched behind me, the familiar tread signalling Alistair returning to the circle of the camp. I glanced over my shoulder, wanting to know where he’d been—I still couldn’t see Morrigan with us, either—and yet not wanting to ask him. He looked terrible, like a corpse warmed over and pulled along by strings.
“Not the first one I’d pick,” he commented, wrinkling his nose. “They’re both men, and—”
“And why should that make a difference?” Leliana asked swiftly, her soft, quiet voice holding a sharp, delicately honed edge.
The twist of amusement at the corner of her mouth saved her from sounding like a shrew though, in that moment, something of her accent did faintly remind me of Lady Isolde. I supposed it was an Orlesian thing… as was the attitude she clearly held to lovers who shared a gender.
I wasn’t sure what the rest of Ferelden thought but, where I was from, it was normal enough. Something that the boy or girl concerned was meant to grow out of in time to make a good marriage, of course, because for us children were the greatest blessing life could possibly bring, and its ultimate goal. Still, not every marriage was a happy one, and there had always been a handful of confirmed bachelors or spinsters in the alienage, for whatever combination of reasons.
For my part, it wasn’t something I’d thought about much. When I’d noticed other girls before, my interest had been more envious than curious, and—not having had brothers or sisters who shared my pallet at night—I hadn’t encountered the kinds of casual touches or experimental intimacy that often formed siblings’ first experiences of the flesh in our close-knit, cheek-by-jowl world.
“I’m not saying it does,” Alistair protested quickly, though the way his cheeks had started to shade to pink made me wonder whether he was lying, or whether it was the subject of romance itself that embarrassed him.
Maker, he’d even blushed when he kissed me… although I had to admit that the memory of those few, clumsy embraces we’d shared warmed me a little, too. I tried not to think about it and, more importantly, not to catch Alistair’s eye while I oh-so-determinedly wasn’t thinking about it.
“I should think not,” Leliana said, gently chiding with an air of quiet amusement. “After all, you were raised in a monastery, no? All boys together?”
“What? No! No, I— Well, I mean, I… well, yes, there was quite a bit of… er. I mean… not me, but… um,” he finished lamely, with an awkward cough lingering at the back of his throat. “That’s not the point. What I meant was that ‘sweet’ isn’t really the first word I’d associate with Zevran. He’s an assassin, and he tried to kill us.”
He looked expectantly at me then, as if I needed reminding that it had been my decision to bring Zev with us in the first place. Mild annoyance trickled within me; after all, Alistair had hardly been willing to slit his throat and leave him in the mud.
I shrugged, rubbing my arm absently in defence against the cold. The leather strappings wound around the limb felt rough and strange under my fingers… almost as strange as the whispers of crackling leaves and creaking boughs that so disorientated me from within the black-stained shadows of the forest.
“I’m not even sure it’s our business. Besides, Farriel does want to help.”
Alistair didn’t look pleased at that. I suspected he’d wanted me to disapprove of something… I just wasn’t sure quite what.
“You knew about it? About them?”
Ah, there it was. That slight breath of accusation in his tone. I screwed up my face.
“I was… aware. Why? Is it so awful?”
“So you told him he could come with us, then?”
I frowned, surprised by his sharpness, and surprised by how like aggression it sounded. “No. I told him if Zathrian willed it, I couldn’t object—and you can see can how far that one got me.”
Leliana cleared her throat delicately. “I should… see if…. Change the dressings,” she murmured, and I’d barely even noticed her backing away until she’d almost crossed the gully.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Alistair said, rather snidely, as he turned to face me full-on. “It’s hard to tell. You seem very… cosy with them, that’s all.”
It was hard to make out his features in the darkness. Everything was blurred and grainy, just like the boundaries between us, and I wasn’t sure whether I was tired, or angry, or just very alone. Maybe all of those things.
The only part of Alistair that seemed to shine in the gloom was his eyes. I could see the white of them catch the dim firelight, and I didn’t miss his glance over to where Revasir and the other hunters lay, still slumbering like a nest of pups.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time with them,” he added, his words carrying the trace of a sulky huff, though we were both keeping our voices low.
“I want to know as much I can learn,” I said defensively. “Why shouldn’t I?”
A night breeze rippled through the canopy, and though I should have been used to them by now—all these sighs and groans of the forest—the tracks by the creek made everything seem more real. Yellow eyes seemed to burn in every shadow.
“Because you’re—” Alistair bit the word in two, swallowing down whatever it was he wanted to say and cloaking it all in a shake of his head and a hunch of his shoulders. “No. It doesn’t matter. I just… I think you should be careful. You’re still an outsider to them, just like we are.”
“I’m elven,” I pointed out. “Daeon’s elven. Even flat-ears like us can learn.”
“Huh.” Alistair frowned, his mouth puckered into a morose pout that made me quite sad he’d shied away from the confrontation. “Hey, why do they call you that, anyway?” He squinted at me suspiciously. “Your ears aren’t any different to theirs.”
I smiled mirthlessly, partly because I knew he wouldn’t like hearing the answer, and partly because humans never could see the differences in two elves’ ears.
“They think we’re like you. That we may as well not have our points. That our ears deserve to be flat,” I added, seeing his confusion. “Round and flat, like yours. That’s all it means. The opposite of ‘knife-ear’. See?”
He nodded hesitantly, but he looked like the words had physically hurt, that they’d burned or scratched into his flesh, and when he opened his mouth, nothing came out except the strangled start of speech, just grazing the cold air between us.
“Well….” Alistair looked embarrassed. “That’s not true.”
I shrugged. Across our little rag-tag camp, Deygan was stirring weakly on his bedroll, and Leliana had gone to wake Wynne. Taen rolled over in his sleep, and, by the tree line, the faint rustle of the undergrowth presaged the emergence of a rather dishevelled and yet extremely cheerful-looking Farriel.
There were a good few hours of darkness left. I suppose I thought I could hide things in them.
“The stories say it was living close to humans that made the ancients lose their immortality,” I said dully, keeping my voice low, and not quite looking at Alistair’s face, even as the words tumbled out of me with a child’s stubborn, obsessive enthusiasm. “We quickened… grew old and weak. That’s why the Dalish stay so far apart from humans, and they live longer because of it. Did you know that? The stories all say that, and it’s true. The clan say Zathrian has devoted many years to recovering the arts of the Old Ones. Rhyn says he’s been their keeper for more than a century.”
It was only a rumour. I didn’t think I even believed it… and, if I did, I doubted it was a good thing.
Alistair shook his head. “That can’t be true.”
“Can’t it?” I lofted a brow. “Sophia Dryden’s body was still walking around Soldier’s Peak. Tell me the things we’ve seen are stranger.”
He frowned again. “That was blood magic… demons. You don’t think—?”
Blood. Everything seemed to be about blood. The taint, the curse… Avernus’ horrible experiments. Everything was blood and corruption, and there seemed to be nothing but an invincible mire ahead of us, where any tiny bit of good we did was a light snuffed out immediately in the mud.
“Has Wynne talked to you about Deygan?” I asked, peering carefully at Alistair through narrowed eyes. About the Dalish?
I doubted she’d told him the story of her lost apprentice. At first, I’d assumed she would have done—they were close, after all; close enough for me to feel a childish pang of jealousy at all the hours they spent sitting together, with him hanging on her words like an eager schoolboy—but her tale hadn’t dulled at the edges like something often repeated. Besides, as so often seemed hard to believe, Alistair had almost been a templar. I doubted Wynne would have been quick to lay the burden of an innocent child’s death at his feet, knowing how easily he acquired guilt. It was like a wick on spilled oil with him.
“No,” he said cautiously. “Why?”
I glanced over towards the fire. Zevran had returned to us as well, and the watch was changing over. Wynne muttered an incantation and tossed a thin gout of flame onto the fire, causing it to crackle and swell briefly. The smell of woodsmoke and charred sap burst in the air.
“She said the curse is like our taint,” I said, keeping my voice as low as I could. “Something… made. Maybe by a demon… I think that’s what we’re dealing with. That’s what Zathrian’s afraid of.”
Alistair said nothing, but he looked at me for a long while, his mouth firmly set and his brow deeply scored by a frown.
“Meri…,” he began finally, but I never heard what he wanted to say.
Across the gully, Maethor leapt up from his scrape beside the fire, already giving vent to a tremendous snarl.
I turned and ran to see what had startled the hound, my hand already going for my blade, and there was a whole collision of activity as the camp splintered and spun into movement.
At first, it was impossible to see what had caused the commotion—I’d seen and heard nothing—but then there was a glimmer of something in the trees, some shadow among the shadows, and I heard a growl that wasn’t Maethor.
I had my dagger in my hand. My sword was still by my bedroll—stupid of me to leave it there. It was too dark to see, too cold to smell anything but the fire and the pungent tang of grease and leather… and mud. And then I saw it. It burst through the briars and the bushes then: just a pale streak with a deep, bone-shaking growl.
A huge, white wolf that sprung from nowhere and cannoned into the camp like no animal ever should. Maethor was going crazy, lunging and baying, and he went straight for it, but the thing barely seemed to notice him. There was a mad scuffle of fur—a brindled body against that rank pelt of pale, ragged grey—and I heard the mabari yelp. An arrow vibrated through the air close by me, and there was another canine scream, but not from my hound. I hadn’t even realised there was more than one wolf but, as I turned, panicked and wrong-footed, I saw Aegan nocking another arrow as Rhyn pitched to the ground beneath another pale body.
The air parted with that soft, deadly whisper, and Aegan’s second arrow embedded itself in the wolf’s neck. Rhyn kicked the corpse off himself savagely, levering it away with his shield, and he pointed to the trees as he yelled something in Elvish.
I ducked through the press of people, anxious about Maethor, and almost got myself knocked flying in the chaos… and then it was all over.
As quickly, as madly as it had begun, there was a wild yelp, followed by sudden silence. I stood in the flickering light of the fire, and stared at Farriel, kneeling over the bloodied body of the white wolf, with his knife in his hand and a dark, hard smile on his face. He had its scruff clenched in one fist, the beast’s head pulled back to bare its throat, and its blood was still leaching onto the ground.
Footsteps crashed in the leaves as the hunters established there had been no more than these two creatures, and I glanced to the side, seeing Sten crouching beside a cowed and bitten Maethor. The hound’s broad, strong back end was shaking lightly, and he was licking his wrinkled nose. Fear rose up in me as I saw the dark wetness on his shoulders and haunches.
Farriel released the dead wolf’s head and stood, eyeing the other Dalish coldly. He sneered as he looked at Rhyn.
“There. Is that pelt enough for you, da’len?”
Rhyn scowled, but I could see even in the dimness that he had turned pale. He muttered and shook his head, but I didn’t understand the fear that seemed to cloud his eyes.
“What were those?” Leliana asked, as the hunters began to pull the bodies clear. “There weren’t ordinary wolves. Look at the size of them. And no animal would just attack like that….”
I was kneeling by Maethor, holding his head as he moaned sorrowfully, and Wynne inspected the bites he had received. I glanced up as Revasir spat into the fire, scowling darkly.
“Messengers,” he said shortly. “Witherfang’s messengers. The white wolves are his kin, or so it is said. His eyes and ears in the forest. Not werebeasts; something else entirely.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as the mabari nudged his snout into my palm, and I rubbed at his soft, crinkled ears.
“If those weren’t weres, he’s not in danger from the curse… right?”
Wynne looked at me across the dog’s broad back, her eyes ringed with such heavy shadows that they looked bruised.
“Let’s hope so,” she said, summoning a thin glow of light that enveloped her palm.
Maethor whined and pressed his head against my shoulder.
“On the plus side,” Alistair announced, surveying our scuffled, damaged camp, “at least we can be sure the big scary demon wolf knows we’re here. So, you know… that’s good.”
Daeon was the only one of the hunters who smiled bitterly. The others just looked at Alistair like he was a crazy shem and, shaking their heads, carried on with the business of making sure no one else had been bitten, and pulling their arrows from the bodies.
It was going to be a long wait until dawn.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
Despite my mild concern, the Dalish hunters were a boon as the trees drew in around us and, with the camp’s relative openness falling away behind us, the ground turned thick with drifts of leaves and twigs. They moved through the dappled shafts of light like ghosts, and they seemed to disturb nothing, nor leave even footprints as they walked.
I’d been a little unsure as to whether we should really have accepted their company, but I could hardly have declined without it seeming a slight to their skill… and it wasn’t as if we didn’t need the help. I was just surprised we hadn’t had to fight Farriel off as well. I hadn’t seen the boy anywhere in the camp. I didn’t know if Zevran had. Maybe he’d already met with him again and convinced him our task wasn’t safe. Either way, the assassin was keeping very quiet, padding soundlessly after Daeon and the others, while the bigger of the two redheaded elves—who’d introduced himself, somewhat tersely, as Rhyn, and the other as his brother Taen—took point.
Morrigan was at the far left of the group, picking her way through the undergrowth with practiced ease, and Leliana was near enough keeping pace with the Dalish. From the back she almost looked like one of them, her leathers lending her lean frame a boyish squareness, and her height putting her just a little above the taller of the elven men. I felt short, though I knew I wasn’t that much smaller. Anyway, I had far nicer ears than her.
To my right, Zevran prowled silently, shooting intermittent worried glances towards the trees. I supposed he had plenty to be wary of after last time he’d been in the forest, and I was just glad we were all together. Maethor seemed to agree, for the hound was practically glued to my heel, trotting along with his nose to the ground, spine stiff, ears and tail twitching at every creak of a branch or flutter of a leaf.
Behind me, Alistair and Sten were like a small troop of infantry clanking through the forest, with Wynne bringing up the rear. It had occurred to me that we should have made more effort to be quiet but, I supposed, if we did encounter werewolves, they would probably smell us long before they saw or heard us. That thought—far from comforting as it was—lingered with me a little as we moved through the pathless undergrowth, and I realised I wasn’t the only one thinking about it.
Leliana was humming quietly, almost under her breath. As I listened, I recognised the tune as part of one of the battle songs from Dane and the Werewolf. I glanced at her and, caught with the melody on her lips, she smiled guiltily at me.
“Well, it is a little apt, no?”
Morrigan snorted. “I suppose you think that funny, do you? We shall see how you laugh when the beasts are ripping the flesh from your bones.”
Daeon turned and looked back at the women, his brow furrowed. As his gaze caught mine, it was like peering down a tunnel of years; I was staring right back into the alienage… and we had both changed so much.
“Huh. Don’t remember you always finding such cheerful company, Tabris.”
I shrugged, a little frisson of pleasure at being called that again rippling through me. It had been so long, and I almost didn’t mind the bittersweet tug of memories.
“Well, you know how it is,” I said, squinting up at the trees in an affectation of unconcern. “All those long nights around the campfire. You’ve got to talk about something, right? Even if it is severed limbs.”
Here, the canopy was thick, the eyeless guards of trunks and interlocked boughs comprised of dark branches almost entirely bared for the winter, and heavy, ferny arms of pine and fir, sharp with narrow green needles and ever-damp with mist or dew. The weak, chequered sunlight that filtered down between them caught on the odds shapes the trees made against each other. They seemed both clothed and unclothed; almost like corpses, with some torn open, right down to the bones.
Daeon swore under his breath. “That’s horrible! Huh… you know, time was, you were just another girl to me. I never knew there was so much bloodlust under the surface.”
I snorted bitterly and Revasir, the dark-haired hunter who’d tried to be friendly before, turned to look back at me.
“Fierce,” he said, in that clipped accent of his, and he tapped a hand against his ornately tooled breastplate as he gave me a yellow-toothed smile. “Good way to be. Like the bear: she knows when to rise up, fight back… but not always shouting.”
That seemed to amuse Daeon, for he laughed and nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah. Quiet until the guts come out. Like what you did to that shem lord, right?”
Their mirth tasted bitter to me. I grimaced and looked away, not keen to dwell any more on Vaughan Kendalls. The Dalish may have liked the story—and they certainly grinned about it then, with more smiles and nods passing between the hunters, along with a few choice Elvish words—but I wished I’d never told it.
“So, um, did… did you two know each other well?” Alistair asked suddenly, picking up his pace from the back of the group.
The question made an awkward kind of silence pool over the top of the endless, boot-trudging footsteps and the crunch of leaves and mud, and Daeon glanced over his shoulder with a look of mild suspicion.
“In the alienage, I mean,” Alistair continued, the note of determined brightness in his voice suggesting he wasn’t going to shut up until he got an answer. “I know you said your brother was—”
“Not really,” Daeon said shortly, with another glance back at me, and a brief, half-heartedly apologetic smile. “You were just there, weren’t you? Never thought about it much. Anyway, we lived at the other end of the ward. I think Father thought about matching you to Taeodor once, but nothing ever came of it.”
“Did he?” I blinked, caught between genuine surprise and embarrassed discomfort, both at the new information and the way Daeon had so effortlessly excluded Alistair. “I, uh… I didn’t know that.”
It was just starting to rain lightly, though little of it drifted down through the trees. Daeon shrugged as he turned to face ahead once more. I watched the back of his leathers move, his dark cropped hair already misted with a scattering of raindrops, and wondered whether he was smiling mischievously.
“Well, it was just after your mother died, as I recall,” he said, raising his voice a little over the damp trudge of non-Dalish feet. “You were pretty young, and I don’t think your father liked the idea much. Guess he was holding out for a better offer.”
“Nothing wrong with Taeodor,” I said, wondering why Father had never mentioned the idea to me. He’d been a nice enough boy, and Soris’ friend to boot… and maybe there had even been a time when I thought him a little handsome.
“Oh, well! I’m glad you approve, Your Highness,” Daeon teased snidely, raising one hand to me over his shoulder in a mocking flourish of a salute.
I wrinkled my nose. “That’s not what I meant. I meant—”
“Whatever.” He shook his head, and peered back at me again, his small, dark eyes narrowed to slits. “I don’t know. Your father always had some strange ideas. Never knew how much coin he dropped to get you fixed up with that fancy looker from Highever, anyway.” A rather unkind smirk curved his lips, the hint of teeth bared behind them. “I wish I had seen him. Was he as flashy as they said? Nice pair you’d have made, I bet!”
And there it was again; the boy I remembered, and the taunts that had always stung, even after I grew used to hearing them.
I said nothing. The past was another country, and the possibilities that had been stolen from us were no more than whispers on the wind. For all I knew, Nelaros and I might indeed have been a terrible match. He might very well have thought me downright ugly, or at least too plain to bear, and swanned off into the arms of another woman even before our honey-month was over. Plenty of marriages ended up that way although—as long as the husband still put food on his family’s table—a lot of women were quite happy to be freed from the trials of conjugal responsibility.
I doubted I’d have minded much. After all, I’d never really expected that kind of affection to play a big role in my life… and I stared fixedly at the ground then, afraid of the way my pulse quickened, and the way my mind prodded me towards uncomfortable assessment of the atmosphere thickening around me.
I didn’t mean to snatch a sideways glance at Alistair, or to find him peering at me, with his mouth glumly pursed and his brows drawn low. He looked like he might be about to say something, and I turned my gaze away hurriedly, suddenly finding something terribly interesting in the drifts of rotting leaves my boots scuffed up with every step.
We hadn’t gone that much farther when Rhyn stopped us, holding out one hand at hip-height in a brisk, silent gesture.
Something rustled in the trees. Maethor growled, deep in his chest, and I reached for my dagger. It surely couldn’t be werewolves already… we were barely a half hour away from the camp.
Rhyn, poised and ready, drew his blade—a thick, curved thing, like a ridged claw; the type of weapon I’d heard the Dalish call Dar’Misaan—his mass of matted and braided red locks spilling down the centre of his back like a mane. He wore a round shield on his left arm, which I guessed was of ironbark, after hearing Master Varathorn describe the wood. It had a bluish hue to it, beneath the painted design that so closely matched the vallaslin on Rhyn’s pale skin: delicate, flowing lines, yet spiked with hard angles and sharp tendrils. The shapes made me think of some ancient creature, lying folded in wait.
Taen and Aegan tensed as the brush cracked, and I think we all drew a collective breath, ready to be set upon by monsters… until Farriel detached himself from the shadows, slipping delicately between the gnarled trunks of two bare trees.
Rhyn swore under his breath and scowled viciously at the boy, while the other hunters seemed to look amongst themselves for reassurance, all caught between confusion and annoyance. Daeon seemed the most perplexed, like he didn’t understand why Rhyn should be so angry. I knew without turning to look at my companions that only one of them would recognise the boy, but I didn’t spare Zevran a glance.
Farriel looked different with his hair bound up and extra hide pads strapped to his arms and shins, added protection to the crafter’s leathers he usually wore. A small pack was slung over his back, and a series of sheathed blades hung at his belt. He stared defiantly at the other Dalish before his gaze flashed to Zev, then moved to me. He inclined his head very slightly, into what I supposed was the nearest he ever came to a gesture of respect.
I could feel the elves glaring at me, like this was all my fault… and it probably was, wasn’t it? I should have told him no; I should have said we didn’t want him. I certainly shouldn’t have given the boy any hint of hope—and yet it was Zevran I felt angry with, even as I gritted my teeth and nodded at Farriel.
“I didn’t expect you to follow us.”
Behind me, Morrigan snorted. “A hanger-on, is it? Hmph. Well, the more the merrier when the werebeasts attack.”
Farriel’s dark eyes flitted over the group, but he said nothing, his expression a taut mask as he tried to gauge his welcome.
“He is no hunter,” Rhyn said, directing his irritation at me as he pointed accusingly at Farriel. “He does not belong with us. The hunt for Witherfang is no nursing place for children.”
“I may be no hunter,” Farriel retorted, “but nor am I ‘child’.”
“Your vallaslin is still wet! Go home, craftsman.”
I winced as the boy spat back some Elvish insult it was probably a blessing I didn’t understand. Arguing about his presence was hardly going to help us—not to mention the time we’d waste doing it. The sunlight that passed through the trees was turning from weak strips to wide bands of gold; if this carried on, it would be past noon before made it any further into the forest.
Zevran had moved silently to my shoulder, and I shot him an accusatory look. He shrugged minutely, those golden brows arched in an affectation of innocence.
“Come, lethallin,” Revasir wheedled. “Go back, yes? While you can.”
“No.” Farriel crossed his arms and scowled. “I pledged my blade to the Warden,” he added, nodding at me like I was the subject of a merchant’s barter. “She said I could come.”
Naturally, they all turned and looked at me. My heart sank.
“Now, wait a minute. I didn’t— I said I would speak with Zathrian,” I protested, aware that this was one argument I was not likely to win, even as I looked back at my companions, eager for them to believe I’d had no part in the boy’s plan… although I couldn’t have said why that seemed so important. “I said, if he—”
“What does it matter?” Morrigan cut across me, evidently losing patience with the unfolding drama. “He’s here now. Let him come, if he so wishes. He will die, or not die, and on his head be it.”
Daeon frowned at her. Of all the elves, he seemed to be the most uncomfortable around her. I’d noticed that in the distance he placed between himself and the witch, and I’d wondered whether it was because Morrigan’s Wilder magic was that little bit closer to the kind of mysticism the Dalish were steeped in; they didn’t find her as strange as we did. Had I had the time to think about it then, I might have asked myself what that should mean for me, and all my eagerness to do Zathrian’s will.
Farriel just looked coolly at us, and shrugged. “If I had asked the keeper, he would have said no.”
“Fool!” Rhyn snapped. “Why should you wish to get yourself killed? There is no honour in this.”
“And who says I shall die? I can fight. Better than the flat-ear,” Farriel added, sparing a sneer for Daeon. “He is no truer hunter than I.”
That was almost enough to bring us to a fistfight.
“Take that back!” Daeon demanded, all but lunging towards him. “All right, so I’m city-born, but I’ve earned what I have here. I made my kill on the first time out!”
Farriel scoffed. “One mangy wolf. One wolf, seth’lin… and no vallaslin.”
The words flew between them like sharp, dark things in the brush, and their voices seemed loud against the trees. Something rattled high in the branches—a crow, maybe, though I hadn’t heard any birds for a while. There didn’t seem to be many of them in the deeper parts of the forest; either they were afraid to venture in, or perhaps they were just more sensible than we were.
I didn’t know what ‘seth’lin’ meant, but Daeon evidently did and—from his wide-eyed, angry glare—it wasn’t anything pleasant.
“It was my pelt!” he all but shouted, colour splashing onto his bare, uninked cheeks. “My kill! By your own clan law, I am more a hunter than you, apprentice!”
“Hamin!” Rhyn’s eyes narrowed as he looked between the two of them. “You know what Zathrian ruled. Daeon was to be given the chance to prove himself. His vallaslin will follow when he is ready. That was the Keeper’s word… and these are uncommon times.”
Farriel scoffed quietly. “Yet you won’t welcome me. Ma emma harel, lethallin. I have more iron in me than the flat-ear can hope for.”
I was finding him far less amenable than I had during our brief meeting the night before but, as I glanced at Zevran, I saw no hint that the assassin intended to take his pet in hand. That annoyed me, I suppose—or perhaps it was Farriel’s attitude to Daeon. Perhaps it was the awkwardness of being surrounded so closely by the hunters, and knowing that the grains of respect I’d gleaned from my own companions counted for nothing among them.
Whatever my idle fancies about winning the respect of the Dalish, it felt excruciatingly clear in that moment that we were two parties travelling together, not one united force. It was probably that which made me step forwards, trying to command the attention of the men in my second-hand, patched-up Dalish jack.
“Enough. We don’t have the time to stand around arguing. I don’t care much for being lied to—” I looked pointedly at Farriel, whose insouciantly insolent expression was, as my father would have said, inviting a slap. “—but I believe Rhyn is right. These are uncommon times… and I won’t turn away help.”
I probably shouldn’t have said it. I’d all but promised Zevran I’d put the boy’s offer aside, and I was sure I could feel his gaze burning into the back of my neck, disapproval and annoyance radiating off him like a heat haze.
Still, would he have been safer if I’d told Farriel to head back to the camp? It seemed he’d been following us since we left—and the hunters hadn’t noticed his presence, or at least hadn’t admitted to it. That made me wonder if the boy wasn’t a better blade than they thought… or whether they’d simply pretended he wasn’t there. Maker, for all I knew, Zevran had known he was following us too, and never said a word, which I didn’t find the least bit comforting.
I felt more like an outsider than ever, and I disliked that sensation. Yet, even as the gazes of the Dalish and my companions alike turned to me—in varying shades of disbelief, irritation, and uncertainty—I found I didn’t care whether they approved or not. I didn’t care whether I was satisfying the honour and traditions of the wild elves, or living up to the Warden that Zevran might or might not have believed me to be.
All I wanted was to end this fragmentation, and to press on into the forest… no matter what came of it.
The light rain that had been filtering down through the canopy—little more than a fine mist—seemed to seep into everything, like a soft gauze that covered the world.
Taen looked anxiously at Rhyn. Physically, the brothers were very much alike, though I thought Rhyn was probably the elder by a couple of years; he certainly seemed bigger, stronger, and bossier. Then there was that look of slightly worried uncertainty shading Taen’s face, in amongst the discomfort and annoyance. I saw the same blend of worry and damped-down anger in Aegan, like they thought I was an upstart. I knew it couldn’t be because of my sex; Aegan and Revasir had been happy enough to obey Mithra. No, it wasn’t my gender… it was my kind. They thought me not just an upstart, but a flat-ear upstart, I decided. A seth-lin, maybe, whatever that was.
Revasir and Daeon were looking at me too, though I saw more subdued reservation than outright rebellion in their faces. Past this unquiet knot of elves stood Sten, silent and—to most observers—impassive, though I had begun to learn the slight tensions of his hard-hewn face, and the subtle shifts in his posture that spoke of impatience and irritation.
I realised something then, as the rain began to tap harder at the interlaced branches above us, thin droplets flinging down to the musty, fragrant earth like escapees from a great pressing throng. We stood in a quiet, closed-in place, with just the trees and the brush clasping tight around us, and it was like a tomb. This silent space held us and our words still… and no matter how close it drew us, like superstitious farmers afraid of the shadows behind their barns, it still left us islanded, and apart.
And, if I didn’t do something, I would lose hold of my companions, and my tenuously won Dalish allies alike.
Leliana cleared her throat, probably about to slide in with some soothing comment or supportive gesture, and it was all I could do not to glare irritably at her. Standing there, a flame-haired sylph in well-oiled leather, she made me doubt myself—doubt even my own elvenness—and I was sick of feeling like a clumsy fool.
“We go on,” I said shortly. “This is still the path the other hunters trod, isn’t it? We head where they did: into the forest. Anyone who wants to turn back is welcome to; but I mean to find Witherfang, and I’ll take an offer from anyone who’s with me. Clear? I won’t have it said the Grey Wardens back out on a promise.”
A series of uncertain looks passed between the motley assemblage. I didn’t dare meet Alistair’s eye; if either of us should have been making proclamations of the Wardens’ credo, it was him, not me… though I didn’t imagine for a moment that he’d argue. Perhaps part of me wished he would.
Farriel smiled smugly at the other Dalish, then turned an altogether warmer look on Zevran, which I thought probably served the assassin right. Wynne pursed her lips, and I assumed she thought I should have sent the boy back to the camp… but then she hadn’t looked comfortable from the first minute we’d first set foot among the Dalish, and I couldn’t work out why. Maybe it was their magic that worried her, or their wildness. Maybe she wasn’t so far cultivated above the prejudices of the Circle and the templars as she liked to think.
Sten grunted. “We should move on. If you are ready?”
The elves exchanged a series of testy looks that seemed to carry a myriad of hidden mutterings in them. Only one or two were directed at me. I wasn’t sure if they were waiting for Rhynn to step forwards and lead us on, so I threw myself into the breach and strode ahead, cracking twigs and scuffing leaves beneath my mud-choked boots.
The atmosphere was thick as pitch for a while, but at least nobody argued.
If the truth be told, I expected to encounter much more than we did as we moved deeper into the forest. But, with the Dalish hunters guiding us, we saw no possessed trees, no terrible beasts, and very little sign that anything was amiss.
It seemed as if we’d been travelling for hours, and perhaps we had; I struggled to keep track of time properly when there was a dark canopy of boughs and branches between me and the sun… or the grey wisps of cloud covering it, anyway. The light rain that had begun earlier now dripped from the narrow green needles of stately pines, filling the air with a dank kind of thickness.
Rhyn stopped a couple of times, pointing out scratches on bark, or scuff marks in the leaf litter that didn’t look like anything to me, but apparently told him that we were still following the route the other hunters had taken.
“Maybe they killed more of the beasts than Zathrian thought,” Farriel suggested, because apparently he didn’t even have the grace to keep his mouth shut once he’d been allowed to come along.
Rhyn glared at him. “Maybe the beasts are waiting.”
Their mutual antipathy had been casting something of a pall over the group, and it wasn’t surprising that Alistair was the first to crack. He sighed loudly from the back of the party.
“Yes, well, you never know… maybe the werewolves are just really, really full up. You know what it’s like after a big meal.”
I shot him a disapproving glare. True though it might well be, the Dalish had lost too many people too recently, and the remark was in poor taste. Aegan and Taen both looked shocked, while Rhyn stared daggers at him, further demarcating the boundaries in our mismatched group. Daeon merely curled his lip bitterly, sneering at the ground ahead as we hiked on through the brush.
We passed through what felt like miles of overgrown, knotted forest, and the most exciting thing we saw was a squirrel. Aegan drew an arrow, ready to shoot it—and it was a beautiful, fluid movement, a real wonder to behold—but Maethor had already barked and lunged up at the tree the thing was skittering along, so the elf let his bow drop with a frown and a muttered curse.
The rain didn’t let up. Not once. It was a veiled curtain, a thin and gauzy mist that got into everything, clinging just as wetly to skin and armour as to the trees themselves. The ground grew soggy underfoot, and the soft whisper of raindrops on leaves and pine needles seemed like the breathing of the forest itself.
I’d just started thinking about the fact my belly was feeling rather empty when Aegan dropped to a crouch near one of the trees and began to inspect the ground. He held up a hand and gestured and, for a moment, I tensed—along with several of the others—my fingers curling on the hilt of my sword as I scanned the dense stands of trees for potential threats.
Leliana moved over to where the hunter knelt and crouched beside him, touching the ridged and muddy leaf litter with careful fingers, then glancing up at the heavy trunks of the trees.
Whatever they saw written into the place in which we stood, it was a language I couldn’t read. I frowned, unsettled and nervous of what they might be seeing.
“There was a struggle here,” Leliana confirmed, pointing behind me to yet another group of large, gnarled trees, their leaves shed but for a few blackened, wet rags of foliage, and their bark warped into strange patterns with age. Damp lichen scored the trunks, and a few of the smaller branches had been broken. “You see? Many, many more tracks, and many arrows were loosed here.”
Wynne frowned, her lips drawn into a thin line. She’d looked uncomfortable to begin with, but now she huddled beneath her cloak, rubbing her thin hands together as she surveyed the trees.
“I wonder if we shall find who fired them,” she said quietly, her face lined with something that looked altogether darker than mere anxiety.
I wanted to ask what she felt, or perhaps suspected, but the Dalish had formed a tight knot, Rhyn and Aegan whispering earnestly in their fragmented Elvish, which always seemed so much more indecipherable to me because of the few words I could understand.
The rain pattered down around us, and something scurried in the bushes, but Maethor didn’t even seem to have the heart to go after it. As I glanced down, looking at the wetness on the leaf litter—wondering how much of it might have been elven blood, had we been here but a day or so earlier—a large, fat, black-bodies beetle scuttled across the toe of my boot. I caught my breath and shook it away hurriedly, determined to tell the hunters we were moving on again. After all, if this was where their last advance party had met an end, we needed to press on and make as much haste as we could.
It was then that the Dalish broke their small conference, and Rhyn moved over to the thickest of the tree trunks. He took a knife from his belt, cut a small shape into the bark, and spat across the place he’d cut, then pressed his hand to it, like he was saying a prayer. I was familiar enough with superstitions, but then he began to… well, sing, almost. It was a low chant, melodic and gentle, and I was surprised that so beautiful a sound could come from someone as hard-edged as him.
I couldn’t understand the words, but I took it as a lament for the dead. The other hunters stood quiet and sombre, while Farriel—looking pale and frightened, in stark contrast to his earlier bombast—inched closer to Zevran.
We all stood in silence while whatever ritual Rhyn was performing finished, and when he was done we pressed on again… not without a certain degree of awkwardness. There is often something uncomfortable about watching the private moments of faith that belong to another; like the unwanted glimpse of their nakedness. Not to mention, the goosebumps that had risen on my flesh wouldn’t go down. The rain kept on, and it felt like I was being swaddled in layers of something unreal and choking.
Later—when I had the chance to learn at leisure about the ways of the People—I would discover that Rhyn’s prayer was not a lament, so much as a supplication. The Dalish believed that, in the old times, before elves lost their immortality to the quickening that humans brought, our ageless sleep was guided by two brothers, Falon’Din and Dirthamen. In death, Falon’Din, or Lethanavir, as they also called him, the ‘friend to the dead’, was called upon to guide their path and calm their souls, and it was this that Rhyn asked for his lost brethren… a path home, to a safe and peaceful rest.
I am glad I didn’t know it then. I would rather have had the uneasiness of strange mysticism than the sharpness of a familiar sorrow.
We moved on, and the ground grew rougher underfoot. The forest seemed to sprout hills and gullies that lay masked by the drifts of leaves and the monolithic corpses of fallen trees, and the pathless woodland ahead must have had at least a dozen twists and turns. I was almost certain that I could hear running water somewhere, but it was hard to tell beneath the rain.
The mood was morose; more so, since we’d found the site of that skirmish and—given the change in terrain—the fact that it now looked worryingly like an ambush. Zathrian’s assertion that the werebeasts were mindless seemed… naïve, I suppose. I was puzzling over it as we walked, half-inclined to call a halt. Of course, that wouldn’t have helped. Stopping would only have made us a target for the creatures that were undoubtedly out there, watching us. I couldn’t stop looking for faces in the trees.
We were coming to the rise of another ridge when Maethor—who had been padding along in silence, barely even dignifying the ground with more than the occasional sniff—lifted his head and, ears pricked, suddenly bounded off between the trees. I called out in surprise as his brindled body slipped through the black trunks vanishing from my sight.
“Probably a rabbit,” Daeon said.
The hound loosed a bark that echoed through the trees, and I shook my head.
“No,” I said, as I started to follow the sound. “He never just runs off like that. He’s found something, I’ll bet.”
As I began to push through the heavy, rough branches that grabbed and tugged at my cloak, I heard Alistair’s grim speculation:
“Maybe, but is it something the rest of us want to see? If he’s rolling in another dead fox, you’re on your own, y’know!”
In my hound’s defence, he had only done that once. However, as I scrambled down the surprisingly steep bank that shelved away from the trees, my boots skidding on the muddy leaf litter, I saw Maethor. He was a good thirty feet down the ridge, near to what looked like a narrow creek, so we must have been getting closer to the water I’d thought I’d heard. Everything was mud-sodden and wet, and the lichen-splashed trees offered only treacherous barbs and hard obstacles… and yet the mabari had managed to find something, bundled up near the gnarled roots of an old oak.
At first I thought it was a corpse, which struck me as reasonable, and perhaps even a relief. We’d seen no bodies at the site of the attack, and I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing, even if no one voiced it aloud. After all, if the werewolves had left no corpses, we could only assume the hunters had all either turned, or been taken. Neither prospect was pleasant. The healers’ tent at the camp had been bad enough, but I was also battling to keep memories of Ostagar from my mind, and the soldiers’ gossip of darkspawn that dragged their prisoners underground to be eaten alive.
“There’s someone down here!” I called, scudding the last few feet on my backside and scrambling to get up again.
The body was wrapped in the same kind of cloak that Rhyn and the other hunters wore, though it was heavily muddied and bloodstained. I didn’t really want to try and roll the corpse over, afraid of the mess I’d see, but Maethor kept nosing at it. He looked up at me, his wrinkled snout huffing inquisitively, and whined.
I reached out and gripped the cold, sodden bundle, brushing away some of the slimy fallen leaves, and rolled it over. I hardly expected to see a face, but there was one, behind the mud and the blood. The elf had skin so pale as to be nearly translucent, criss-crossed with livid, rust-coloured vallaslin, and his hair was pale brown. His eyes were closed and his mouth hung open slackly. He felt cold to the touch and yet, as I moved him, the impossible seemed to happen.
A few of the others were making their way down the bank behind me—I could hear footsteps, voices, and the crashing of bodies through the undergrowth—but I distinctly heard the soft, empty breath that scraped from the Dalish hunter’s body.
He was alive. Barely, but alive.
That moment changed our plans completely. I called to the others, yelled desperately for Wynne, and whatever healing tools or poultices Morrigan had brought with her. As Alistair, Sten, and the hunters got to my side, we started to lift the elf out of the muddy detritus of the forest floor. He was badly wounded; great swathes of bloody flesh marked his arms, with some terrifying tears and ruptures to his armour.
We pitched a hasty camp between the small creek—really little more than a brackish, muddy cut through this part of the forest, rife with strange-looking algae and some fearsome insect life—and the far side of the gully, and set to seeing what could be done for the wounded man.
On Wynne’s instructions, I helped Leliana strip off his ravaged clothes, exposing the extent of his injuries. He had to have been out there for days. The edges of his wounds were already black-lipped, and gave off a smell like bitter almond paste, the dark red flesh pocked with pus and clotted blood. He didn’t even wake when we washed him down with the evil-smelling concoction Morrigan drew from her scrip, or when Wynne began to prepare for the healing.
Rhyn prowled restlessly behind us as she started to summon her powers, her hands pulsing with great spheres of blinding white light. He knew the hunter—his name was Deygan, apparently—and, however little he trusted a human mage, he knew better than to refuse the kind of help that could save a life. The other Dalish stood a little further back, though whether it was from fear or Wynne, or Deygan’s wounds, I wasn’t sure. I did know that I’d never seen Wynne’s power surge so magnificently. Even when she’d knitted my burst ribs back together in the Circle Tower—and I had no great wish to recall either that particular agony, or passing out not long after—I hadn’t known it to be like this.
Her whole body seemed to glow, wrapped in a silvery sheen as she poured her magic, or her energy, or whatever it was she did, into Deygan’s prone body. I suppose I expected to see colour flush into his cheeks, or for him to suddenly sit up or something… but nothing really happened. After several minutes of working in burst after burst of energy, Wynne lifted her hands from him. She was deathly pale, shaking a little, and I thought the look of such terrible sadness on her face was because it hadn’t worked, but then the elf gave another slow, weak breath, and his chest began to move more regularly.
Wynne looked fit to collapse as Alistair led her away to rest, leaving Leliana and I to dress the hunter’s wounds, while the others dragged together a fire. There was no question of moving on just then, werewolves or no. We would have to make camp where we were, and hope the position we’d chosen was defensible enough when nightfall came… if the werebeasts left us alone until the dusk.
It was as I wrapped bandages around the deep lacerations on Deygan’s left forearm, the gauze wet and sticky with an ointment Morrigan had provided—something that smelled quite similar to the stuff she’d given me for my bloody, red-raw feet, when we’d first started out on the road—that he first seemed to stir.
His eyelids flickered, though his eyes stayed closed, and his pale lips twitched.
“He’s trying to wake up,” Leliana observed, putting her hand to his brow. “Poor thing. We should finish dressing these quickly.”
Sten stood close by, watching the unconscious elf with apparent dispassion, as Rhyn continued to prowl behind him.
“Hmm.” The qunari grunted. “You should be prepared. We do not know what will wake.”
“He has not turned,” Rhyn snapped, glaring at Sten as if the size difference between them didn’t matter in the slightest. “You cannot even know he was bitten, fool!”
Dalish bravery knew no height or breadth, I thought, as I tucked the ends of the bandage neatly into the knot I’d made.
“Not turned on the outside,” Sten observed. “Yet.”
Unpalatable though it was, he made a good point. I wasn’t about to stir the argument further by saying so, however, so I reached for a different subject.
“He’ll have to be taken back to the camp,” I said. “As soon as Wynne says he can be moved… as soon as possible, really.”
Rhyn wrinkled his nose, though his gaze was fixed on Deygan. “We cannot just turn back.”
I felt the indecision in his voice, and I sympathised. It was tempting to reach for this reason with both hands, to all turn tail and return to Zathrian, with Deygan borne among us and a hundred questions on our lips. And yet, there were all those Dalish already lying wounded. Delay would cost everyone dearly and—if Zathrian had been less than truthful before, would he really be honest now? I glanced at Deygan’s pale form, hoping he might come back to himself enough to tell us something.
His lips moved then, but all that came out was a rough breath and something that sounded like a word but might not have been.
“Aereyna,” Rhyn said flatly.
I frowned. “What does that mean?”
He gave me a tired, sullen, ugly look. “It is the name of his bride.”
And, with that, the hunter turned and stalked away from me. Overhead, the slips of sky that peered through the trees seemed to be darkening. It was difficult to tell whether that just meant more rain, or the first encroachments of the evening.
Deygan did not wake as quickly as I’d hoped, bearing easy answers and good excuses. Wynne said moving him was out of the question until at least the morning, so we dragged him closer to the fire, kept him warm, and kept watch while she poured more magic into him. She did it time and again, visibly weakening herself, and I began to wonder why she was so aggressive in the act. It was as if she was fighting him, almost daring him not to die.
For the rest of us, it was a difficult wait. We gathered around the fire in shifts, two people always keeping watch over the ridge, and our collective breath catching every time a twig broke or a bird landed on a branch. Morrigan absented herself briefly, returning a short time later with that ruffled look that suggested she’d been in another form, and declared that there was no sign of other survivors or, more importantly, werebeasts, anywhere nearby. Alistair—who’d barely left Wynne’s side, and seemed to be glued to her like a nursemaid—snidely commented that the witch hadn’t noticed Deygan, either, or found a path to Witherfang’s lair. He suggested that her skills at airborne observation left something to be desired (I paraphrase; the words ‘blind as a bat’ may have been bandied around), and she took predictable offence, threatening as she so often did to turn him into something unsavoury.
I had, by that point, long suspected that the pair of them found comfort in the rhythms of tormenting each other, so I didn’t intervene… although I would have appreciated a little comfort of my own. It was beginning to grow dark, the afternoon thinning away into an early evening, and I was cold, damp, tired, and afraid.
Daeon and Aegan were taking watch. Taen sat with Leliana by Deygan’s side, frowning pensively at every uneven breath he took, while Wynne rested and Alistair and Morrigan continued to swipe at each other. Sten and Rhyn had hunkered down on the other side of the fire, and the qunari seemed to be showing the elf a tattered book, which struck me as odd. I hadn’t known Sten carried reading matter with him, much less that the two of them should find something in common to discuss. Weary as I was, I decided it wasn’t my business… and neither was whatever Zevran and Farriel were up to. They had secreted themselves a little way off, just out of the fire’s reach, and yet not so far as to be lost among the trees. I caught the white flash of Zevran’s smile as the boy’s arms wound themselves around his neck, and decided not to look any closer.
Maethor had the right idea, I decided. He was, as was his custom, sprawled out in front of the fire, with his belly towards the flames. I hunkered down beside him, wondering half-heartedly whether we’d be able to stretch the rations we’d brought far enough, and just how we were going to get Deygan back to the Dalish camp… if he survived the night.
“You are tired,” a voice announced, in familiarly clipped tones.
I glanced up as Revasir sat down beside me; a respectful distance away, but still close enough to offer me what looked like a handful of twigs.
“Here. Eat. Dried deer meat,” he explained, thrusting the strips of leathery looking matter at me again. “S’good.”
“Um… thank you.” I took one politely, and tried to surreptitiously sniff it.
I didn’t want to offend him, but the stuff made the dried meat we carried in our supplies look positively succulent. He was still smiling cheerfully at me, though, so I had to lift it to my mouth and try to take a bite… and it was at that point I realised how badly I wished I had good teeth.
It was salty as cheap dried fish and tougher than month-old boiled mutton, and it felt like chewing petrified wood. The place where my tooth had been knocked out back at Redcliffe had healed over well, though I still winced at the feel of the deer jerky getting stuck painfully in the socket, biting into my sore gums. Revasir didn’t seem to notice.
“You save someone again,” he observed genially. “Like in your story.”
I blinked, confused and a little unsettled. Firstly, Deygan was hardly saved. Not yet, and possibly not ever. Secondly, it was Maethor who’d found him, not me. Thirdly—
“Story?” I echoed, even as I realised, with some degree of despondency, what he meant.
Revasir nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! What you did to the shemlen lord, because he touched your clansmate.”
“Oh.” I winced, mostly at his words, but also at the leathery deer meat, which was proving extremely difficult to swallow. “That. Yes…. My cousin.”
He nodded again, apparently satisfied. “If you earned vallaslin,” he said, looking at me thoughtfully through half-lidded eyes, “you would put your pledge to Mythal, I think.”
I shook my head tentatively, confused but not really wanting to say out loud that I didn’t understand. Revasir smiled and raised a hand, gesturing to his tattoos.
“Vallaslin comes when you leave childhood behind. There are many rituals, but you dedicate yourself to the patron you choose, and the marks are part of it.”
I hadn’t known that. I’d seen similarities between the designs and the motifs that marked many of the Dalish landships, but I hadn’t understood it.
“They, what, they represent different gods?” I asked, though it seemed an inadequate explanation.
“Yes.” He seemed to approve of my interest. “Mine are for Ghilan’nain, the Mother of the Halla. She is my patron; my guide.”
“Gillana…?” I faltered, hopeless as ever at wrapping my tongue around the Elvish words. I’d started to wonder if my ancestors had been elven at all.
“Ghilan’nain,” Revasir repeated patiently. “She was a mortal woman once, beloved of Andruil, the goddess of the hunt. But she became one of the Creators, and she is our guide. She leads us, as the halla pull our aravels.”
He smiled thinly as he sat back a little, tearing off another strip of the deer jerky with his sharp, yellow teeth, and chewing it noisily. At my feet, Maethor stirred fitfully, probably half-heartedly contemplating the possibility of begging for scraps.
“Before I had my vallaslin, everyone thought I would choose the mark of Andruil… and she is dear to me, but more so Ghilan’nain. The guide in the dark place, moves through the forest and into the light.”
Revasir touched the lines on his face delicately, tracing the pattern he clearly knew perfectly, though the ink had obviously been there for years, and I hadn’t seen a single looking glass in the Dalish camp.
“You see? Here… the hawk, the arrows… the paths of the trees. Every symbol tells a story.”
I squinted at his face, the ink’s heaviness softened by the dusk and the firelight. It would be growing dark before long, and I couldn’t relish the prospect of the night to come. All the same, I was intrigued, even if I couldn’t see the meanings in the vallaslin that he described. I thought of the stories Mother used to tell me about the stars—how each one was a captive princess, or a great hero, or this and that star were tragic lovers, pinned in the heavens for eternity—and I never had seen the shapes in those properly, either.
Of course, that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Just because I didn’t have a poet’s way of looking didn’t make me blind to the magic that did exist in my world.
“What’s in the symbol of Mythal, then?” I asked, not really understanding why that made Revasir smile so widely. “I know she was in the story of El… Elgannan and the sun, the one Hahren Sarel told.”
“She is the Great Mother,” the hunter said, with disarming simplicity, and he didn’t even correct my pronunciation. “She watches over us, protects us, and cares for us. She is the strength of compassion and merciful justice.”
Heat bloomed in my cheeks at such grandiose comparisons, and I started to stammer a protest, but Revasir shook his head.
“No, I think so. You care for others, like her. You save them, protect them. There is much gentleness in you, but what you are fighting for—what you are trying to do—it is strong, and just.”
He grinned at me, and tore off another hunk of deer jerky, staring into the fire as he chewed. I’d just about managed to finish mine, with no small effort. My mouth still tasted faintly of blood and salty leather.
I wasn’t sure if I believed what Revasir said. It was flattery, really. After all, I was no munificent goddess—and certainly no great mother, nor ever likely to be, as far as I knew—but there was enough in his words to strike home… enough to make me think about the Blight, and the Grey Wardens, and all the things that were probably happening beyond the bounds of the forest.
We had no way of knowing how far the darkspawn horde had travelled. No way of knowing how fast they were moving, or how ill-prepared Ferelden was; had word spread, or was Loghain keeping the whole Bannorn tied to his assertions that the Blight wasn’t a genuine threat? He couldn’t keep that façade up forever, but if news hadn’t hit the north by now, whatever we did would probably come too late… just like the beacon at Ishal.
I cast a glance across the fire. Alistair was still sitting with Wynne, worry etched into his face as he looked at her. She was pale and seemed a little unfocused. Withdrawn, even. I should have been concerned about her but, in that moment, all I thought about was my fellow Warden.
It was strange, maybe, but I missed Alistair then; a sudden, violent ache that left me feeling cold and unsteady. I wanted that quiet intimacy back, and the times we’d sat and talked around the fire… and yes, I wanted the comfort of his touch, his lips. I’d never been truly lonely before—there had always been too many people around, or too many things to do—but I felt it then. I felt it like a yawning void in my chest, pulling me down into myself until the air was choked out of my lungs.
I thought maybe he’d feel it too; that he’d look up and see me, but he didn’t. I looked away again then, silently humiliated, and buried my uncertainty in the fire’s dancing warmth.
I didn’t expect Revasir to speak again, and his words came through the flickering light like dark stones, hard and polished as the flames licked against them.
“You lost a husband, didn’t you? When you fought for your clansmate.”
“Betrothed,” I corrected quietly, though it felt a little like the distinction was a betrayal. Nelaros had given his life for me, and I should have honoured that, instead of distancing myself from it… or any of the other things I’d been doing—the other things I wanted—that were probably a disgrace to his memory. “I mean, we never married. We would have, but—”
“Ah.” Revasir’s expression softened, and the firelight glimmered in his eyes, painting shadows across his face that blended eerily with his vallaslin, until the lines seemed to sway together under my gaze. “Had you been intending to bond for a long time?”
I didn’t understand what he meant at first, and I suppose my confusion showed, for he smiled awkwardly and tried again.
“Your… uh… your courtship?”
The Dalish did a lot of things differently to us, I realised. I shook my head hurriedly. “Oh, no. No, no… we… we didn’t really know each other. It was an arranged match. Do, um, do you not… do that?”
The camp was settling for the evening. Morrigan had retreated to sit beside a heavy oak tree, and appeared to be reading one of the books we’d taken from Brother Genitivi’s house, reminding me of the pressure of time on us. Would there be anything left of his trail when we got out of the forest? Was Arl Eamon still alive, even as we sat here?
Revasir smiled. “No. We choose. The hahrens guide us, of course, but… we choose. Vir vhenan,” he added, with an encouraging nod that told me that was meant to be a joke. “Even when it is not entirely suitable, no?”
“I don’t understand,” I admitted, and he nodded again, as if my thin grasp of Elvish could be jollied along with patient enthusiasm.
“Vir Tanadahl. The Way of Three Trees, as Andruil taught us. Vir Assan,” he explained, counting off on his thick, knotted fingers, “is the Way of the Arrow, to fly true and not waver. Vir Bor’Assan, the Way of the Bow, to bend but never break, and Vir Adahlen is the Way of the Forest, which teaches we are stronger together than as one. This is how we live. Three pillars, three prayers.”
Footsteps thumped quietly on the wet leaves as Rhyn and Taen relieved Daeon and Aegan from watch. Daeon looked exhausted, as if every breath the forest took ate away at his nerves and left his bones bare to the night. He slouched over to the fire and threw himself down in front of it with a groan. Leliana had left Deygan’s side briefly, as Wynne moved over to begin another round of healing, and began to rummage for the dry rations we’d brought. It wouldn’t be a magnificent meal tonight, and I suspected Revasir was probably going to offer round the rest of the deer jerky. My stomach griped a bit at the mere thought, even while my mind was still working over this three pillars idea.
I’d never known there was so much to the Dalish way of thinking. It seemed both wonderful and strange… natural and unreal, all at the same time.
Revasir’s smile widened out as he shook his head, his gaze dropping to the musty ground. “But I am not a teller of words. You should ask Lanaya, the Keeper’s First. She tells the story well.”
“I will,” I said. “When we get back.”
And that was when, not if, I told myself.
We would get back.
“So, what is Vir veenan?”
“Vhenan,” he corrected, looking me in the eye as he tapped the centre of his jack. “Way of the heart. Yes?”
I finally got the joke, and I smiled widely—for once forgetting about my horrible teeth—so proud and pleased to actually understand something.
“What the heart wants,” I agreed, as he chuckled, indulging my exploration of this new idea. “I get it. That’s… that’s funny. And very true.”
Revasir nodded again, in that animated manner of his. Clearly, not all the hunters were staid, taciturn types like Rhyn and Aegan… and I found I rather liked his enthusiasm.
“Sometimes, the hahrens get very angry. Say, a boy wants a girl, but he has not yet taken a pelt. If he cannot prove he is a man, how can he show he is good enough, hmm?” He grinned slyly and leaned forwards, his gaze shifting to the edge of our little camp. “Sometimes, that boy, he has Vir vhenan, and he goes to her anyway, and maybe she wants to bond with him too… such things happen, though the hahrens do not really approve. They prefer more organised ways. You know, many, many matches are made at Arlathvhens. That’s where Rhyn met his wife.”
That surprised me. Somehow, it was hard to imagine Rhyn exchanging more than four words with anyone, let alone being married to them. I frowned.
“What is… Arlathvan?”
“Arlathvhen,” Revasir repeated slowly, indulging me. “They are gatherings,” he explained, waving one hand in a loose, all-encompassing sort of gesture. “Different clans, from all over. Everyone. So much happens… apprentices go to new masters. Also, there are, marriages, contracts. Some leave their families to go to new clans, some rejoin their original clans after many years. Big, big celebrations, always. We reunite, as one people.”
It sounded very beautiful. I guess I must have had a little naivety left in me because, in my mind’s eye, it was like the market square in Denerim, but on the biggest feast day ever. It would be full of huge, colourful tents, with merchants’ banners flapping and lots of singing and dancing, and sweet ale and wine… and then I felt very homesick indeed, in the instant before sadness poured into me like water.
I hunched my shoulders, pulling my cloak tightly around myself. The rain stung my ears slightly as it pattered down on them, and the ground smelled of musky earth. The fire was getting low, choking on damp wood. Across from where we sat, Wynne broke from her care of Deygan to mutter an incantation and send a small burst of flame into its core, cracking the kindling and heating the ash. I noticed Daeon staring suspiciously at her, and also the uncharacteristic glumness with which she glared at the fire.
But Revasir was still looking at me expectantly, and my mind was still turning over these thoughts of big Dalish gatherings, and what it must mean to give up one’s clan. Funny, really, how near it was to our way of keeping blood fresh.
“That’s a little like we wed, in cities,” I said, noting the interest that sparked in his face. “Matchmakers arrange things between families and, once an agreement’s struck, the boy or the girl will usually travel to a new alienage to be with their spouse. It makes sure the alienages see new faces… it’s hard to travel otherwise.”
“Yes!” He seemed pleased with that, and he nodded again, his locks shifting in a shimmy of enthusiasm. “I have heard Zathrian say we must not let ourselves grow too intertwined. The People must stay pure, but without letting the old bloodlines grow weak. You know,” he added, with a little more of that conspiratorial air as he leaned closer to me, “Hahren Sarel says we are the last of the old ones. Noble elves of the time of Arlathan. Good blood. Old blood. We owe it to the ancients to preserve that, and to keep safe the old ways. Vir Assan, Vir Bor’Assan, Vir Adahlen.”
There was something sad in his face then, as he sat there with his chin tilted high and his eyes fixed so earnestly on me. I wondered if it was true. Were the Dalish I saw before me the remnants of ancient elven aristocracy? I wasn’t sure I liked that idea; it made people like me seem even less important.
Revasir smiled at me again, and I supposed there was a rumpled, faded kind of glamour to the thought… something that sat well amongst the bare trees and the earthy scent of the forest’s decay.
Perhaps the forest would swallow them up, years and traditions and all, and wrap them in time until the old ways could be birthed forth once more.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
After Sarel’s tale was done, the clan began to retire. Some of them hung back to speak with Zathrian, and he received them gracefully, though I couldn’t help noticing how much like a favour it seemed. The Dalish regarded their Keeper with far more mystical awe than we’d ever treated Valendrian, and I suppose I felt slightly guilty for that.
We began to head back to our tents, aware of the need for rest before we headed out in the morning. I saw Daeon watch me go from across the fire, and noticed the tension in his body as he waited for a moment with Zathrian.
Morrigan swept off ahead of the rest of us, with a snide mumble about ‘superstitious nonsense and pointless stories’, while Leliana had Wynne by the elbow and was cooing about how powerful the Dalish tales were.
“…and, you know, I once knew an elven woman in Orlais who sang the most beautiful songs. She was a servant of Lady Cecilie’s, but I believe her mother was Dalish. She often spoke of her heritage, but I don’t think she knew many stories like that. I suppose she wouldn’t have, would she? Anyway….”
Maethor, padding at my heel, licked his nose and yawned hugely. Sten was characteristically quiet, though I got the feeling he was thinking about Sarel’s tale, too. Elements of it had reminded me of the story he’d told us in the tavern at Redcliffe, about the ashkaari and the drought-struck village.
Nothing grew there except the bitter memory of gardens.
That was like the Dalish, I thought. For all their pride and their wildness, they were defined most of all by what they’d lost… what we’d all lost. And yet, in Sten’s story, the ashkaari had told the miserable villagers that, if the world changed to their disadvantage, they must change it back.
Change yourself. You make your own world.
I wondered at the truth of that, and at the sweet pull the words held for me, and I didn’t realise how furrow-faced I must have looked until Alistair drew level with me as we crossed the dark grass, clearing his throat to attract my attention.
“Oh, good. You are with us. I said, it was an interesting story, wasn’t it?”
I glanced apologetically at him. “Ah. Yes… yes, it was…. It was,” I finished lamely, lacking the words to express what I wanted.
He nodded slowly. The air was cold this far from the fire, and the trees creaked at the bounds of the camp.
“Hmm. You know, in the monastery, we were taught that the Maker created everything and placed us at the centre of it.” Alistair smiled ruefully. “Can’t imagine what old Brother Petripp would make of this. Doesn’t bear thinking about, to be honest.”
“No?” I arched a brow, and he shrugged.
“The Chantry tends to breed… set ideas. Brother Petripp was especially, um, wary of outside influences.”
He rubbed one palm across his knuckles as he spoke, fiddling a little with the worry token he wore. I caught sight of the echoes of a long-grown little boy in the movement, nervous of a master’s cane and longing for the comfort of someone to answer his questions… to tell him that his curiosity wasn’t worthless.
That was the child I imagined Alistair had been. That, and the kind of ill-behaved, attention-starved little horror some of his anecdotes described. I smiled, despite how caught I still was in the web of Sarel’s stories.
“It wasn’t much like what we heard in the alienage, either.”
His brow crinkled. “Really? I thought you’d have had, you know… elven stories.”
I shook my head emphatically. “No. Not like that. Not… well, not like that. I thought it was wonderful.”
He looked at me a little askance, and I realised how breathless I must have sounded. My enthusiasm embarrassed me, and I wanted to turn my head away, but I didn’t want him to think I was turning from him. Not again, no matter how hard it was to be near him, or how hard it was to see the regret in his eyes.
“Yes… you did, didn’t you?” Alistair smiled sadly, and something heavy and silent settled inside my chest. He straightened his shoulders and gestured towards the tents with the kind of crispness he got when we were on the road, and he was convinced about some shortcut or other that would end up leading us through four miles of cabbage fields. “Well, I guess we should get some sleep. It all starts tomorrow, right?”
I nodded. “Mm-hm. Well… g’night.”
“’Night,” he echoed, a gentle cusp of sadness in his voice.
I smiled, rather uselessly, and pointed vaguely to the brook, indicating by some stupid combination of gesticulating and mumbling that I meant to wash up a bit before retiring. Alistair nodded awkwardly, and I stood there as I watched him go, trailing after the others like a despondent child.
I hated myself.
The water was cold and murky in the darkness, and my fingers trailed against something that felt like duckweed, though the camp’s torches didn’t really yield enough second-hand light for me to tell. Still, there was something pure about the brook’s cool, dark water, and as I splashed my face I could almost pretend that the confusion and frustration was washed from my eyes like grit.
The camp was a strange place to be that night, perhaps because I felt so caught between belonging and being a stranger; so wrapped up in everything I wanted to believe in, and yet aware of the forest hanging over us. Every breath seemed to come through a shroud of leaves and damp boughs.
All the same, I took a little peace from an old, old habit. I crouched down and washed my face and hands, like I used to do before I went to bed, back when we had water enough for cleaning, and I had chores to burden myself with, instead of a Blight. It was nice to feel tidy, even if it was only for a short while.
I rose, stood in the quiet and took one last, long look around the Dalish wagons, with their folded sails and great, swelling hulls. Halla calls drifted softly on the air, and the trees creaked and groaned with the breeze high in their branches. Somewhere, an owl hooted, and a fox yelped. The great fire had been swaddled for the night; a dimmer glow than the warm little beacon we had by our tents still. I should head up there, I told myself… away, back to the boundary of the camp, to the little scrap of belonging I knew was my own. Not elvhen—not even the elven girl I’d been, whose reputation Daeon had been happy to trust. Could anything be remade from something so badly broken?
I didn’t really want to think about it. I didn’t want to think about the memories of Denerim, and the smoky, burned houses I hadn’t seen but knew must be there, hiding behind the walls.
I’d hoped to see Daeon again before we left in the morning, but that didn’t look likely. I wondered if he was giving his remembrances to Taeodor tonight, or whether he’d taken Dalish religion now. What did they do for their dead? I should probably have asked, I realised, though I’d been too busy in the healer’s tent being shocked at the nature of the curse to question whether they burned the bodies.
Wiping my damp hands on my breeches, I started to move back towards the edge of camp, and the line of our tents. I passed a couple of the smaller aravels, all darkened and shut up for the night, and didn’t expect to see another soul.
Needless to say, I jumped like a startled rabbit at the sound of a voice emerging from the shadows.
“Ah, the ever-dutiful Warden,” Zevran said, in tones laced with the sultry smokiness of complete relaxation. “I trust you have had an enjoyable evening?”
I turned to the landship in whose lee I stood, and found him on its steps, the weak light of a small lantern that burned within the wagon gilding his face. His hair and shirt both had the kind of rumpled look that spoke of hurried dressing, but his face was a picture of smug, lazy comfort.
Warmth began to rush to my cheeks as a few connections dropped into place, but I was determined not to give him the satisfaction of believing he’d embarrassed me.
“P-Perhaps not as, uh, enjoyable as yours,” I said, and it would have sounded more acidly tart if I’d managed not to stumble on the words.
He just beamed, those hooded eyes glimmering like citrine in the dimness. A shape moved within the shadows at the aravel’s door, and a pale hand slipped out to grasp at Zevran’s shoulder, moving swiftly to the neck of his shirt. I heard a murmured protest, and looked away as he reached up to catch the questing fingers in his.
“What’s this? Ah… enough, you greedy creature. Basta! What did I say, hmm?”
He’d evidently wasted no time with the elf who’d caught his eye earlier. The boy emerged into the candle-tinted moonlight, still trying to pull Zevran back in with him, and despite my attempts at not looking, I could hardly miss how stunning he was. His skin seemed light against Zev’s, his vallaslin a poem of dark ink on a pale, unblemished page, and that thick fall of braids and embellished locks hung wildly about his shoulders.
He was lithe, feral, beautiful… and very naked.
The warmth that had flooded my cheeks crashed into a full and complex blush, and I took Andraste’s name in blasphemous vain under my breath, swiftly turning away to stare at the grass.
Soft laughter and the insistent warmth of kisses hung on the air, perfumed with hints of sweat and spice that were so suggestive I tried to stop breathing in altogether.
“Shh… I must have rest, da’assan. Would you work me until I cannot fight, and leave me to die pathetically among the trees?”
The elf muttered a Dalish imprecation, and then something else I didn’t hear. I was still staring implacably at the grass, watching the dark silver shape of a spider creeping along one small tussock, and fervently wishing I’d either not stopped in the first place, or had some way of excusing myself.
I cleared my throat, ready to mumble some tangled farewell, but I didn’t get a chance.
“I really don’t think—” Zevran began, but the boy wasn’t listening to him.
He leaned over the aravel’s rail, fixed on catching my attention in that very Dalish way: a hiss of breath, almost, pushed through his teeth. It was brisk and insolent, reminding me that I was not one of his kin, and had yet to earn their respect.
I raised my chin, already a little annoyed, even before the moonlight and the weak glow of candles picked out every bold and hard angle on the boy’s face. Just looking at him made me feel inferior.
“I want to come with you,” he said, his Common burred with the clipped lilt I’d heard in several of the elvhen. “Into the forest.”
Zevran winced. “That—”
The boy turned his head suddenly, braids scattering across his bare shoulders, and fixed Zevran with a look of imploring rawness.
“You said this woman leads you. She is the Grey Warden. If I want to offer her my bow—”
Despite the awkwardness of the meeting, that caught me by surprise. I shot Zev a questioning glance, and he had the grace to look embarrassed as he raised a hand to quiet his new friend.
“Yes, but…. Ah, brasca. Fair enough. Warden, this is Farriel. He is apprentice to the clan’s carpenter.”
“Athras,” Farriel supplemented, and I nodded.
“I met him.”
Zevran nodded tartly. “Well, everyone knows everyone. How charming. You will show some respect to the Warden,” he added, the words slipping low and seeming to strike Farriel like the slaps of a belt.
The boy’s shoulders stiffened, and he faced me with something very much like defiance, though it was mitigated with a terse kind of deference in the way he inclined his head.
“I mean it,” he said, with only the slight hint of a sulk as he raised his eyes to mine, the darkness making them look like huge, open pools. “I have won my vallaslin, Warden. I am no child. I wish to go with you, for the honour of my clan, and the aid of my people.”
I let a slow breath leak between my lips. It had been a long, strange few days, and now this beautiful young man wanted to die with us. Perhaps it was testament to how far all my long weeks on the road had driven me that, at that moment, he seemed to be an echo of Sarel’s tale. I looked at him—painted in moonlight, standing there as a silvered echo to Zevran’s tanned skin and golden hair—and he was the reflection of the sun, the glowing earth gathered by Mythal and placed in the sky. He was the point where glory and compassion met, and he didn’t seem real at all.
I shivered, reining my thoughts in and swallowing down the stories that were still running rampant in my mind. Alistair had probably been right to look so disappointed at the eagerness with which I opened myself to Dalish whispers.
“We, uh, we leave early,” I said, narrowing my eyes as I looked from Farriel to Zevran, and taking in the stiff, mask-like blankness the Antivan’s face had acquired. “I’ll speak with Zathrian before we go. If your Keeper wills it, and you can fight, I see no reason why not. But, for now, I think we all need rest. Zevran?”
I heard the coolness in his voice, no doubt signalling deep disapproval, but the boy looked proud enough to burst. Farriel inclined his head, his braids swinging forwards as he almost bowed to me.
A smile danced at the corner of his mouth as he looked to Zev, hand lighting briefly on his shoulder, and I knew it wasn’t for me, or the Grey Wardens—or maybe even his clan—that he wanted to fight with us. It was foolish, and sweet, and sad, and it made my chest tighten a tiny little bit.
Zevran raised his hand, fingers lightly touching Farriel’s knuckles, and then moving to the line of his jaw.
“Sogni d’oro, caro,” he purred, and the look that passed between them made me blush afresh.
Farriel pressed in close, and he kissed Zev… well, in a way I certainly hadn’t ever kissed anybody, much less thought to be kissed. It was a fierce, hungry kind of passion, his hand rising to clasp the other elf’s jaw, as if lips alone couldn’t bring them close enough. His fingers moved sinuously over the tattoo that hugged Zevran’s cheekbone, tracing the lines; caressing them without even having to look at their shape.
I turned away again to studiously examine the grass, and decided that the two of them couldn’t have wasted a single moment since I’d left Zevran by the aravels that afternoon. Heat flamed in my cheeks and, yes, I suppose my city-bred morals were offended.
Outside the alienage, I know what people think. I knew it then, and it is not something that has changed with the years. To be seen as elven is to be fair game—to be a servant, or a whore, or a criminal, because such are our lots in life. Within the walls, plenty of people accept that for truth; sometimes not even knowing they’re doing it.
When I was a child, I grew used to the taunts of those who thought my father put on airs. Yes, he was strict, and yes, our end of the district was a great deal different to the tenement buildings where dice games and girls in shem dresses spilled out into the streets… but, outside the walls, no one ever made those distinctions. They saw the mud on me, perhaps, and never thought that it washed off.
It was a wonder to me that night that, somehow, Zevran seemed more of a gutter-rat than I could ever have been.
“Mmm. You should go inside,” he said as they finally parted, casting a soft smile the length of Farriel’s bare body, “before you get any colder, no?”
The boy grinned. “Mahvir,” he said, and the word was a whisper of promise.
He looked to me, and gave me a respectful nod as Zevran moved down the steps of the aravel, but I knew he wasn’t really seeing me.
He watched until Zev joined me, and we began to cross the darkened camp, and then he finally retreated into his wagon. I didn’t think Zevran had looked back even once.
I supposed it wasn’t my place to pass comment, but I couldn’t hold it in.
“What did you think you were doing? I— I mean,” I added hurriedly, aware even before the assassin’s eyebrows finished climbing skywards that I should probably rephrase that one, “was… that…really a good idea?”
He smirked pityingly at me and shook his head.
“Tch… if you have to ask, my dear, then you have never experienced the rewards. At least—”
“Never mind what I’ve experienced,” I said sharply, aware of the wicked grin spreading across his face. “I meant—”
“I know what you meant, o most virtuous one.”
The grin got even wider, and I was grateful for the darkness masking my blush, though I still wanted to kick him.
“He was simply curious. About my marks,” Zevran added, gesturing elegantly with two fingers at his cheek. “Yes? I saw no harm in indulging that curiosity a little.”
From where I was standing, it looked more like a lot of indulging, but I didn’t say so. Zevran smirked again, which I took to mean he thought I disapproved, and was enjoying the fun of tormenting me.
“He was a quick learner, mind you.”
“I don’t want to know,” I said hastily. “Aren’t the Dalish a bit… proper about that kind of thing?”
The warm beacon of our small fire was looming closer, the little forest of tents and ropes like an oasis of familiar things; canvas, and split wooden poles, and all the gear we’d carried since Redcliffe, which seemed so very, comfortingly, different to the ornate, alien wildness of Dalish ware. The grass, damp with late evening dew, crunched softly under my boots.
Zevran shrugged. “They are rather set in their ways regarding the courtships between men and women, I suppose. Proofs of worth must be made before a couple bonds, but there the intent is the bearing of children, yes? Besides, Farriel has been alone since his mother died—not long before the werebeasts attacked, he said—and, so, really, who needs to know, hmm?”
I can’t say why that surprised me. Perhaps it wasn’t what he said as how he said it, so perfumed with insouciance and genuine unconcern. He walked beside me as if he was tripping on air, his gait loose and easy, his smile faint but wolfish… and yes, maybe I was a little jealous.
“So, you just…?”
I didn’t know what I wanted to accuse him of. Toying with Farriel, perhaps, or some kind of moral laxness, or maybe just having so much more freedom than I’d ever dreamed of. Either way, I didn’t know what to do with the frustration bubbling up between my words. I couldn’t even finish a sentence.
“I mean,” I tried again, “you just…. Do you even…? Do you care for him at all?”
Zev looked sharply at me then. We were nearing the stand of our tents, the others already safely ensconced in their respective bedrolls, with the exception of Morrigan, who I could see silhouetted against the fire, crouching there like some kind of sentinel outlined in flame.
I knew I’d overstepped a mark between us, but I didn’t understand why his eyes suddenly seemed so cold.
“Ah,” he said, his voice oddly devoid of expression, “what it is for love to be beautiful, and life simple. Such are the wonders of youth.”
I frowned. I didn’t like being made fun of, but Zevran didn’t give me the opportunity to complain.
“Of course,” he said quickly, looking away from me, across to the tree line, and whatever lurked within it, “you will not allow him to come with us tomorrow.”
“No.” He glanced back at me, a slight look of worry flickering over his eyes. “He is a woodsmith, not a hunter. Farriel is quick, agile… fast to learn, yes. But he is not skilled enough to fight by my side, or yours.”
I snorted, unbidden memories of our first meeting washing through my mind, and how I’d ended up sitting on the ground with a dead would-be assassin draped over me, and my boot stuck in the jaws of a claw trap.
“To be fair, I’ve been on something of a steep slope of learning these past few months.”
Zevran smiled darkly. “Perhaps. But the things you have seen, things you have done… they have given you great strength. Even greater, I think, than the formidable qualities you already possessed. Farriel does not have this,” he added, ignoring my half-ready attempt to disagree about my ‘formidable’ anything. “He has bravery, yes, but it is not the same. If he follows us, he will die stupidly and—though it is extremely possible that we all will, following this insane mission of yours—I would rather not be responsible for that particular death.”
He had his tongue firmly wedged in his cheek with that little speech, but the sarcasm overlaid an honesty I had not expected. He was watching me very carefully, his gaze knife-sharp behind the suave insolence of his expression.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll do my best to put him off.”
Zevran treated me to a shallow, simple, and yet very elegant bow that—in anyone else, at any other time—I would taken for mockery. His eyes never left my face; just two chips of amber, hard and glittering.
We said goodnight, and went to our separate tents. I nodded to Morrigan, though she barely seemed to see me. She was staring into the fire, her lips moving gently but soundlessly, as if she was counting under her breath. It gave me the shivers, though I doubted it was anything dreadful. For a start, I wasn’t as suspicious of her as Alistair was and, secondly, Wynne would surely have known if she was using blood magic. I had no doubt of that, because I trusted the older mage’s integrity completely… and because, even after the Circle Tower, my actual understanding of magic, and the power of maleficarum, was limited. I’d never seen true blood magic in action, subtly bending the minds of those it touched. I had no notion of how the seed of a thought could be planted, and a person’s will warped until they believed they were acting of their own volition, and not that the of the creature controlling them.
At that point, I even still believed that every choice I’d made in the Dalish camp had been my own.
I ducked into my tent, half of me full up with trepidation for the morning, and the other half still lingering somewhere between Sarel’s stories and the cold, muddy reality that was so damnably full of awkwardness.
I make-believed to myself that I hadn’t glanced towards Alistair’s tent on the way, and make-believed that I wasn’t thinking of him. I didn’t believe my own lies, of course. I missed him—inasmuch as I’d had him in the first place—and I was afraid that I’d pulled so far away from him in the past two days that the damage couldn’t be repaired. I wasn’t even sure I wanted it so, much less understood why I felt lingering threads of irritation towards him. Everything just seemed so bloody complicated.
Maethor had huddled himself up in my bedroll, and obviously rooted through my pack in search of anything edible or worth chewing. There were odds and ends of such possessions as I still had scattered all around him: a tin mug, the brown dress I clung to like a relic, a few spare bandages, and an extremely grubby sock, partially chewed. I was too tired to be annoyed. He cocked an ear and whined softly, rolling over to show me the thinly furred expanse of belly, those great big paws flopping like rags from his thick, muscular legs.
“Horror,” I chided, and poked the hound in the stomach. “Go on. Move over.”
He gave a creaky little canine groan, deep in his chest, and wagged his stubby tail, but lolled over onto his side and allowed me to pull the blankets out from under him.
I didn’t mind his warmth that night… or the smell of dog.
The morning came bright and clear, and cold as knives.
I was awake to see it; I’d slept only a little, and that the kind of thin sleep that a body takes just to keep itself going. Maethor had vacated my bedroll and, when I straightened myself up and slipped out of my tent, I found him sprawled out in front the dying fire, washing his underparts with a series of unpleasant snuffling, slurping noises.
Everything was, apart from that, very quiet. Sten was already up, busy packing his gear—the bare minimum we might need, for there wasn’t likely to be room to set a proper camp in the forest, much less the opportunity. He glanced up and nodded to me, which I thought a gesture of surprising respect. If I hadn’t known better, after our previous run-in with the terrors of the Brecilian Forest, I’d have thought the qunari was afraid.
The others rose in their turns. Alistair looked like he’d been awake half the night too, and Wynne was almost ashen-lipped, she looked so pale and grim.
“Where’s Morrigan?” Leliana asked, as she looped the strap of a bag full of healing supplies across her body.
There were bandages and splints and all manner of things in there; goods she’d assembled with some kind of optimistic sense that, if any of us were bitten, there might be use in treating it.
Nearby, a raven croaked coarsely and, in a rattle of tree branches and wings, her question seemed answered.
“Oh,” Leliana mouthed, hooking her quiver over her shoulder.
As a group, we ostentatiously avoided looking to the tree line until, a moment or so later, Morrigan reappeared, still adjusting her robes.
“I saw nothing,” she announced. “There are tracks all over the forest, but the beasts move as swiftly and silently as the blasted elves. They may leave traces of their presence, but they cover their tracks. All I can say is that the storyteller was not entirely wrong: the forest is like a live thing, and it protects its secrets. I could see nothing of deep wildwood. Nothing at all.”
Her gaze swept across us, hard and cold, and lingered on me like she blamed me for the entire endeavour. Alistair sighed wearily.
“Great. Demon trees and camouflaged werewolves. Throw in some possessed squirrels, it’d make my day complete.”
Zevran finished scuffing earth over the extinguished fire, and shouldered his pack. “I would not joke about it. They could probably give you a very nasty bite. Not as bad as a werewolf, perhaps, but you take my point.”
Alistair wrinkled his nose. “You know, when you say it like that, it… well, it really doesn’t help at all.”
I shook my head, quietly pleased that they could at least manage a degree of banter. “All right. Let’s get moving. Looks like Zathrian’s waiting for us.”
I nodded towards the centre of the camp, where a small crowd had already begun to gather. I noticed the keeper, standing beside his aravel, with several hunters around him… and one or two familiar faces.
It didn’t take long to assemble our gear, and the goods that Master Varathorn had spared for us. Zevran was proudly sporting his half-Dalish leathers, every inch the fierce adventurer, and Sten looked like a veritable war machine, hung about with packs and supplies, and two axes strapped to his back, in case we needed to carve a path through the forest. From what I’d gathered, it was not the Dalish way to do harm to the living wood, but they seemed practical about the necessities of removing the obstacles… enough to gift us with extra blades and rope for the job, anyway. Leliana had her hair slicked back, her freshly polished leathers glimmering dully, while Morrigan slunk behind her, skin pale as snow in a shroud of feathers and rags.
She hadn’t looked entirely well since Soldier’s Peak, I thought, but it was easy enough to ascribe it to the task we were tackling, and the privations of the road. Besides, had I fully recovered from the demons we’d faced there?
Alistair and Wynne joined us as we moved towards the keeper’s aravel, and I didn’t miss the mage’s fleeting look of concern. I could only guess what they’d been talking about… or how much more than me they both guessed of what we’d find within the forest. Even Maethor seemed subdued as he padded at my side, his ears cocked as the crowd of elves turned to greet us.
Much of the camp was gathered to see us off. I saw Athras at the back of the group, and Lanaya at Zathrian’s shoulder, looking pale and worried. Mithra and her two compatriots were among them, as was Daeon, though I didn’t spot Zevran’s friendly apprentice. The elves were waiting patiently for us, however. Seemingly, we were to be accorded a farewell of respect and gratitude… and I took that to mean that they didn’t expect us back.
“Warden.” Zathrian addressed me, inclining his head slightly, one hand wrapped around his staff and the other clasping the folds of his heavy cloak closed.
Alistair was right beside me, yet he didn’t seem to bristle at being so ostentatiously ignored. He just stood there, square-shouldered and keen-eyed, watching the gathered Dalish with poorly disguised trepidation.
“Keeper,” I returned, bowing shallowly.
“We thank you for your efforts.” Zathrian’s voice was just loud enough to carry around the centre of the camp, gifting us with his benediction. It smacked of ceremony… or perhaps eulogy. “Creators guide you on your path and, with their blessing, may you succeed where those before you fell.”
A murmur went through the elves, and I tried not to look at their faces. One woman had her child with her: one of the skinny, wild little ones who’d been so interested in our arrival. He stared at us the same way he’d stared before, a look of challenge and curiosity, but no trace of fear. His mother’s hand lay on his shoulder, her knuckles pale as she gripped the patterned cloth of his tunic.
I knew I ought to say something, but I wasn’t sure what. I had no heroic promises of victory and—just to the right of my eye line, a squat shape against the trees—I was very aware of the healer’s tent, full of the sick and dying. I took a deep breath.
“If Witherfang can be found, we’ll find him. If the curse can be lifted, we will see it done.”
I sounded surprisingly confident. Maybe, somewhere inside, I really believed it… and why not? We had already done remarkable things and—though I tried not to let myself dwell on the fact that, every day, the odds on victory lengthened even further—we were a formidable, and exceptionally lucky, band. My silver dreams of Garahel and an elven army had grown a little tarnished in the daylight, what with the very real prospect of werebeasts and demon trees ahead of us, but I kept my head up, and I met the keeper’s gaze steadily as he surveyed us.
“Serannas. I pray that your determination finds you favour with the gods.” Zathrian leaned his staff towards the group of young men to his right, gesturing them to step forward. “You also have… volunteers.”
There was an echo of disdain in the word, and I soon saw why. The little group of hunters who stood ready to join us comprised Revasir and Aegan, the two men whom we’d first encountered with Mithra, together with two red-headed elves I didn’t know, and Daeon, trussed up in tooled leather and bristled with a quiver full of arrows.
“We’re coming with you,” he said, stepping out of the crowd and glaring at me like it wasn’t an offer of help at all, but some kind of challenge.
Perhaps it was. Perhaps, I supposed, it was more than the clan could stomach to have outsiders try to mend their troubles… and more than Daeon could stand to let me take any of the credit.
I saw how brave he was being, though, and I guessed how hard he’d had to fight Zathrian for this. Had it been him who instigated it, or had the others weighed in too? I had no idea, but the atmosphere in the camp was tight as a nobleman’s purse.
I swallowed thickly, casting around for something gracious to say. “Uh… well, if you’re sure. Thank you.”
There had probably been more rousing rallying cries in the history of those marching to war.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
During the afternoon, I finally got my bath… or near enough. We took turns standing knee-deep in the cold water in our smallclothes, downstream from the camp, and sluicing anything that became available before we started to shiver too much. Wynne, Leliana, Morrigan and I went first, and when we headed back up to the camp we were still flushed with the chill of it, bright-eyed and breathless.
Leliana had spent part of the day in the halla pens with Hahren Elora and, evidently enraptured by the beasts, was explaining to us how they were so much a part of the life of the clan. Elora had told her how they pulled the aravels, but not because they were beasts of burden, like the horses, oxen, or mules used by humans, but because the halla themselves consented to assist. Of course, that had struck a chord with Leliana, and she appeared to be a breath away from penning some kind of song about the spiritual, enigmatic beauty of the creatures.
I wasn’t sure about that, but I did know that the smell of their manure was apparently pretty hard to scrub off.
In any case, I hadn’t seen much of them; just big, pale creatures that looked a bit like I imagined stags did and, being a child of the city, I’d never seen them outside of the occasional book, tapestry, or carcass hanging on a trader’s stall for feast days. I was wary of the halla, anyway, sacred part of Dalish culture or not. They looked large and muscular, with great twisting horns that could probably gore, and their round, lowing calls seemed to throb right through my head. I’d stayed well away.
Leliana enjoyed chattering about them, though, the same way she liked to talk about everything. Her way of reaching out, I supposed, as we ducked back to our tents to tidy ourselves up. She asked me if I wanted her to braid my hair, and looked a little disappointed when I politely declined. I sat on my pack and watched her busy fingers thread through her own red tresses, making twist after twist and tiny braid after braid, the thinning afternoon light catching dust in its glances as it touched her. She was humming. She was always humming, then, and she seemed oddly cheerful for someone caught so far out of where she should be… and oddly cheerful for someone about to head into the teeth of the forest.
I glanced over my shoulder, hearing Sten and Alistair returning from their own brief wash and brush-up. No Zevran, I noticed, although that wasn’t entirely surprising. I gave them a brief smile in greeting, anyway, and tried to pretend it wasn’t so easy to watch them… or, rather, to watch him. Either way, I couldn’t help wishing I’d been born just a little bit different.
For the evening, we had been given leave to join the clan at their great fire, and there was a slight sense of formality to it, as if the Dalish were both gathering to pay grudging respect to those who were willing to risk their lives for them, and to gawk at our idiocy. Zathrian wasn’t in evidence, though many of the clan were already sitting around the fire as dusk began to draw in, and while they set and kindled the flames, I got my first look at the man who was clearly the master of this particular ceremony.
Hahren Sarel was the clan’s keeper of stories. I thought I knew what that meant. I thought he’d be the same as our Valendrian, who had always spread wisdom, peace, and tolerance with his words, countering every story of Halamshiral—the tales we’d clamoured to hear as children—with a cautionary moral maxim, or an improving extract from the life of Andraste.
He’d kept us safe that way; moulded our minds when we were young with the subtle threads of belief that told us it was better, somehow, to submit and acquiesce. He’d made it seem like it was our culture that he was sharing, but it wasn’t. The stories Valendrian had told under the shade of vhenadahl were a pale reflection of elven tales, just as the tree—the great tree that I remembered reaching higher than the walls themselves—had been revealed as a stunted sapling from the first moment I laid eyes on the Brecilian Forest.
Sarel, too, was a vibrant figure, wild and striking. I couldn’t tell his age. He had enough wrinkles for a man in his middle fifties: old, by alienage standards, or at least old to be unbowed and as hale as he seemed. He was still broad and strong, and his hair hung loose and uncombed, a mane of dark coppery auburn salted with silver. His brows were thick and wiry, a little darker than the hair on his head, and they seemed perpetually knitted in an incipient scowl, as if nothing about the world was good enough for him. His whole face had an angular, tightly drawn look, set against heavy features, with wide, strong ears, and large, ice-blue eyes. His vallaslin comprised several intricate designs, all whorls and jagged, thick sweeps of earthy colour that served to make his pale stare seem all the brighter, as if he could read the thoughts on the inside of a person’s head.
He wore thick furs and greasy looking leathers, with a heavy grey cloak wrapped around his shoulders, and a large round pin securing it, the metal worked into a shape that looked like a vine leaf… and if his glare could have set fire to the air, we’d all have burned alive.
He pointed silently to one of a few heavy logs that had been dragged close to the fire. The several elves who were drawing near sat either on them, or in scrapes in the dry earth near the fire, or on small, three-legged stools—the kind of thing I supposed Athras made—that they seemed to bring from their own tents and landships. One log had been left empty for us, I saw; we were to be kept carefully contained, maybe even on show while we were allowed to view the gathering.
I nodded politely, and we made to take our seats. An air of quiet intensity hung over everything, and expectation painted the rows of faces I saw looking towards me. Maethor, who had been padding quietly behind me, settled himself near my feet, and I was glad of his presence. The hound’s muscular, broad back was something comforting to look down at when I felt unsure of the Dalish’s stares.
Children sat amongst them. Not many, but quite a few. They were watching us too; and they were proud, wild little beasts, almost all unafraid of the strangers in their midst. Looking at them gave me a brief pang of homesickness.
Nearby, a young elf with short-cropped blond hair, and the traces of puppy fat still rounding his face, kept casting hopelessly yearning looks in the direction of a pretty redheaded girl who sat the other side of the fire. She appeared either not to notice, or to be ignoring him.
Like before, Leliana sat on the ground, near Wynne. She had her legs folded neatly under her, and the red of her hair caught the reflection of the fire that some of the younger elves were already kindling. I hadn’t missed the echoes of Dalishness she so delicately presented—her bow, her braids, her quiet obeisance—and I suppose I resented a little the fact that she seemed to know what to do. They didn’t appear to dislike her for it, anyway, or to view her as a shem with pretensions to understanding them. She just… blended in, more or less, but for her unmistakeable human qualities. I noticed just how much then, and I envied Leliana that talent, almost as much as I envied Zev his effortless connection with the wild elves; a connection I guessed he was still busily deepening, because he wasn’t with the rest of us.
Even Morrigan had deigned to join us. She wrapped herself tightly in her robes and sat on the far end of the log, her staff clasped firmly in one hand, her whole body tucked and tensed in such a way as to suggest she was trying to let as little of herself as possible come into contact with the world. Once she’d taken her seat she barely moved, except for those yellow eyes, constantly appraising and surveying the gathered camp. Sten was equally terse and silent. He squatted beside the log, the way he usually hunkered down in front of his tent flap and, as ever, he reminded me of some kind of carved sentinel, with the firelight catching at his dark skin and haunting it with shadows, casting a faint orange glow across his pale braids… like he wasn’t real at all; a motionless statue, a mountain from which untold wrath could crack, and yet slumbered silently, just waiting.
Something sprung unbidden into my mind then: a dream, or an imagining, or some dark breath of foreboding. Dragon’s Peak as we’d seen it on the road from Denerim—a black shape against a dark grey sky, too far away to even look like a mountain at all, too far for its weight and breadth to seem like anything more than an illusion. Maybe it was waiting, too; waiting for the other dark shape that lived in my dreams and reared up out of the shadows, screaming with the fire and anger of ages.
Maybe there was a whole other world beneath our feet, and it would break free from the rocks and the earth, and scatter us all in fire. Maybe it was inevitable.
I blinked, pushing the thoughts away. They were nothing, I told myself; just worry, and tiredness, and this gnawing sense of being so far from safety. Maethor groaned softly and put his head on my boot, so I reached down to ruffle his ears.
As I glanced up at the others, I noticed Wynne watching me with what appeared to be mild concern. She raised her brows very slightly, and I shook my head, signalling that I was fine. Although she probably didn’t believe me, she didn’t press the issue… but I saw the look that then passed between her and Alistair. There was a world of communication that those two shared, and sometimes it made me very slightly irritable.
All around the clearing, younger elves busied themselves with the chores of the coming night. I recognised the routine, in some strange ways; their equivalents of sweeping out the floors, fixing the supper, battening the shutters and making sure the elders were comfortable and the children clean and behaving properly. It was a warped echo of things I was used to, and it made me want to look away.
That was when I noticed the way that Hahren Sarel was watching us. It was a half-frown; a stare of open hostility tempered only with the kind of curiosity found in someone who loves stories. He might have hated our presence there, I decided, but it was less Zathrian’s word stopping him from leaping up and cutting us open, than it was the desire to know our tales.
I wasn’t really expecting the hahren to speak to me. Perhaps he caught the way I was watching the women work, or perhaps he just wanted to pick a fight. Either way, every word that passed the man’s lips seemed like a challenge.
“So,” he said, his tone clipped and hard, “you are all Grey Wardens?”
That icy glare flickered over us, and Morrigan snorted loudly.
“A Grey Warden? I? Bite your tongue, storyteller!”
Her voice dripped with venom, but Sarel merely peered haughtily at her, as if she was just some inconsequential follower of ours. Despite the blossoming fire, I could have sworn the temperature of the clearing dropped a good few degrees.
I cleared my throat hurriedly. “Uh, Morrigan is a… er… a Wilder, elder. From the Korcari Wilds, to the south. Um. This is—”
“A Sten of the Beresaad,” Sten interjected, as the firelight danced across his face, the unbound fall of his braids shifting against his chest when he moved his head. “Not a Warden.”
“Neither am I,” Wynne added, leaning forward a little to smile graciously at the hahren, as if she hadn’t even noticed his hard demeanour. “My name is Wynne. I am of the Circle of Magi. It is a pleasure to meet you… I admit, I never thought I would ever set foot in a Dalish camp!”
Sarel’s expression remained unchanged, though I saw one thick brow rise very slightly. Wynne meant well, I knew, and her enthusiasm was as genuine as her desire to help both the surviving Dalish and their injured, but she had yet to see that—to these people, with their pride and their years of isolation—it seemed like the bookish curiosity of a scholar, and nothing more.
Leliana was no less awkward, for all her innate grace and charm. I bit the inside of my lip as she smiled winningly at the elf.
“I am Leliana, and I am no Grey Warden at all, but I am so honoured to be here; I’ve heard so much about your people.”
The great fire cracked and popped as one of the young women fed it another armful of dry twigs, and the smell of crisp bark and hot sap melded on the cool air with the dusty beginnings of the evening, and the mustiness of earth and bracken.
Sarel looked steadily at Leliana, his mouth a hard curve just shy of a sneer, and the flamelight stained the ground between them. She kept smiling beatifically, but it was a shell just as hard as his; glass and porcelain, like I’d so often thought of her, and I noticed how pale and bright her eyes seemed.
I blinked, aware of Alistair attempting his own clumsy introduction.
“I’m one, though. A Grey Warden, I mean. Um. Yes. Alistair. Pleased to meet you. Nice, uh… campfire you have there.”
He gestured hopelessly to the great fire, and I wanted to put my head in my hands. It was a strange thing, to feel so close to those people—the people I’d travelled with, fought with, risked my life for and been saved so often by—and yet to be so embarrassed by them. They truly were the closest thing I’d ever have to a family, I supposed… and that thought wasn’t precisely a comforting one.
Hahren Sarel’s nostrils flared slightly, and he gave Alistair a withering look all the more devastating for the fact it was accompanied only by cool silence.
Alistair coughed nervously. “Uh…. We were at Ostagar, Merien and me. Where the darkspawn first attacked. We— well, that is, Meri… um. We’re the only Wardens left,” he finished awkwardly, shooting me a worried glance. “As far as we know, anyway.”
“Hm.” Sarel eyed me suspiciously. “I have heard your tale. Your clansman, Daeon… he speaks well of you. Between that, and what we hear of your deeds to date, perhaps you will best the beasts that brought this curse upon us. Or perhaps you will die trying.” He shrugged, and tugged his cloak tighter around his shoulders, turning his face to the firelight as he did so, his profile a blade against the dull orange flare of the flames. “Either way, it makes little difference.”
I said nothing, because clearly nothing I could say—even pointing out that Daeon was no blood of mine, whatever he’d said to Zathrian in my defence—would have won me any sympathy from the storykeeper. His bitterness laced the air with the heaviness of thick perfume, and he scowled at the fire as if it held all the blame the world had spawned since Arlathan.
“Well… if we can help you,” Alistair said uncertainly, “I mean, that would—”
If I’d been sitting any closer, I’d have kicked him.
We were interrupted, however. One of the younger elves—a girl probably my age, with a thick braid of dark blonde hair hanging down her back, and fresh vallaslin etched into her cheeks, the ink still a vibrant blue-black, and her skin still slightly scabby from it—brought around bowls of soup. I saw something of the kind of etiquette I was used to in the gesture: we were served first, because we were guests, and she made a point of not quite staring, peering up through her lashes as she pushed the carved wooden bowls into our hands. She had large, leaf-green eyes flecked with amber gold, and a wide, smooth forehead unmarked by the tattoos. A small wrinkle had lodged itself there; a kind of half-frown, like she wasn’t sure whether she liked serving us or not.
I thanked her, anyway, as we all did. The soup was rather watery, but it smelled good. There was wild garlic in there, and I could identify things that looked like potato, carrot, and maybe even meat floating in between the delicate fronds of whatever herb gave it that aromatic, spicy fragrance. My stomach growled, taking the wait while the hahren and the assembled elves were served as a challenge.
To my left, Morrigan sniffed her bowl suspiciously, though the Dalish appeared to ignore the insult. As we ate—supping, certainly in my case, quick and eager mouthfuls from the shallow, carved bone spoon—I watched the rhythms of the camp’s life unfold, and began to understand something of the customs their nights held.
They were like us or, rather, we were like them, I supposed, because they were closer to the ancients than my people were… and I was coming to the realisation that, for the Dalish, elven and elvhen were indeed two completely separate things. It’s hard to describe how that made me feel. At the time, I thought I was just chastened; a little crumpled and sore because part of me had really wanted to believe there was going to be some kind of homecoming for me among them. It wasn’t until later that I would understand how much that idea had meant to me… or how much I would have done in the name of acceptance.
In fact, it would take me a long while to realise how foolish I had been.
Still, they fascinated me. I saw familiarities in the little things—the way the Dalish sat, the groups in which they moved or spoke. The hahrens were the pillars of their community, their leaders and advisors, and they were just as stubborn and old-fashioned as city-bred elders, by the looks of things. Then there were the hunters. We didn’t see as many of them as I expected the clan comprised; most of those still in the camp were the younger men, and a couple of seasoned, grey-haired veterans, stern-faced and pitted with scars. Old or young, these were the men who had been left to guard the clan’s more vulnerable members—inasmuch as anyone could have called any Dalish defenceless—and there certainly seemed to be a degree of resentment bubbling over it. The Dalish being Dalish, of course, it was buttoned up and kept away from us outsiders: there was only an undercurrent of disquiet, hiding behind the words and the suspicious, tight-drawn faces.
They treated their women a little differently than I was used to; that much I did understand. As far as I could judge, they still cooked and cleaned and healed, but there was absolutely no taboo about women fighting or carrying arms.
I watched one young, blonde elf squatting near the fire, glaring thoughtfully at Alistair across the flames, with her mouth twisted into a small, hard curve of undisguised suspicion. She wore leathers like the other hunters’—like Mithra, though she looked a few years younger—and her hair was a wild mass of braids tied with feathers and beads, her face scored with a delicate, intricate pattern of vallaslin that seemed light as lace. Her pale blue eyes caught the firelight and flung it back, until they appeared to blaze with it, and she seemed to me the single proudest, most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.
I didn’t stare, though. It would no doubt have been just as rude among the Dalish as it would have been back home… and, besides, the way she watched Alistair made me uncomfortable. No matter how conflicted I was, I still felt bad about the way so many of the Dalish treated him. They looked at him like he was a shem—which of course he was—and it just riled up all the complexities and contradictions I’d been picking at since… well, how long had it been? I wasn’t even sure.
I sneaked a glance at him in the burnished orange of the firelight, and he looked flushed and on edge, his attention ostentatiously buried in his soup bowl. For some reason, I was reminded in sharp, sudden, vivid detail of the night after the battle at Redcliffe, when we were all so elated to be alive, and we got really rather drunk in that grubby little tavern. I remembered Sten being unusually loquacious, and the militiamen’s bawdy drinking songs… and Alistair and I stumbling down the cliffside to the chantry in the small hours of the morning, shushing each other and snorting with ill-suppressed giggles.
Maybe it had been then. Maybe before, maybe later. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know… and it didn’t matter, amid all the violence and death and terror that was spilling over the world. All that mattered, I supposed, was what we had to do. I should be thinking of that—of the Blight, and the treaties—above my own wishes, my own desires, and any ill-advised entanglements that went along with them.
And yet, a little part of me still bristled like an angry cat when I watched that beautiful Dalish girl staring at him. I sat drinking my soup quietly, seething with bottled up envy and resentment and yearning… and I almost didn’t hear when Leliana started asking questions of the storyteller.
“So, is it true that the Dalish are the last guardians of Arlathan’s tales?” She leaned forwards eagerly, blue eyes wide, ready to be graced with the bounty of Sarel’s knowledge. “I spent many years in Orlais, and I often heard mention of the history and legends the elven people had collected. You must have such interesting stories about the Dales!”
I wasn’t sure whether she was genuinely intrigued, or trying to coax him into some kind of competition. Sarel looked at her with wary disdain, then shrugged.
“We guard our knowledge, yes, and we seek to understand and safeguard our history. From this comes many tales… but Arlathan?” He snorted, his lip curling into a bitter sneer. “Even those of us who keep the ancient lore have no record of what truly happened. What we do have are accounts of the days before the fall, and a fable of the whims of the gods.”
Well, that was like throwing a steak in front of a mabari. Leliana’s face lit up.
“Oh! Still, I am sure—”
“I thought ’twas the old Imperium that crushed the elven states,” Morrigan interjected darkly. “No god needs interfere where soldiers tread.”
The cooling air was full of glittering Dalish eyes, and anyone less bold than Morrigan would surely have quaked beneath their stares. She didn’t even seem to notice, and went on calmly with her soup.
“The human world changed,” Sarel said, his voice a taut edge between the fire and the shadows, carrying with it the cadence and strength of a storyteller. “Even as we slept. Gone were their clans and tribes, and up rose the empire of Tevinter. We do not know why they wanted to conquer Elvhenan but, when they breached the great city of Arlathan, they came with magic, demons, and even dragons at their behest.”
He’d told this story before, many times. I could see it in the way the firelight painted his face, and in the way the Dalish that were gathered around the flames settled into the rhythm of his words. Some closed their eyes, their meals done and their bowls cradled in their laps. Some nodded or murmured to their companions as they ate… and a few of the children sat with wide eyes and starry faces, their minds evidently full of glorious battles and fire-breathing beasts.
Sarel took a breath, allowing the silence to settle into the cracks and pops of the fire. He was merely warming up, I realised: his answers to Leliana’s clumsy questions were a performance as much for his own people as for her. A snide, unkind smile danced at the edge of his mouth when he looked at her, the flames throwing dark rings beneath his eyes.
“Yes, the shemlen marched upon Arlathan, destroying homes and galleries and amphitheatres that had stood for innumerable ages. Our people were corralled as slaves, and worse was to come.” His smile split into a grimace, showing white teeth against the dimness. “Contact with the humans quickened our blood… stole our years. We lost our immortality.”
They dragged us down to the mud with them….
Ah, yes. A familiar cry from my childhood, that one. The things people would say after too many beers, and one of the ragged truths we’d so tightly clung to: that we were, somehow, intrinsically better than shems. We were lither, quicker, cleverer… and they were clumsy, slow and stupid, with their sweating and their shunting, and their dull souls. We had once been so much more, and through those cruel comparisons, we could blame every shortcoming of our lives on the things the humans had taken from us.
I concentrated on spooning up the last of my soup, until I’d practically gouged a hole through the bottom of the bowl.
“It is said,” Sarel went on, “that the elvhen called to their ancient gods, but there was no answer, for Fen’Harel—the Dread Wolf and Lord of Tricksters—had wrought a terrible treachery upon the world. He went to the ancient gods of good and evil, and proposed a truce. The gods of good would remove themselves to heaven, and the lords of evil would exile themselves to the abyss, and neither would ever again enter the other’s lands.”
A murmur went around the campfire. Stories were important for the Dalish, as I would learn. Tales and ancient things beat in their blood… and they needed to believe that as earnestly as, where I was from, we paved the slums with the belief that we had better standards than humans.
“But the Dread Wolf is a trickster,” Sarel said, his voice low and venomous, the fire beating against the lines of his vallaslin until they coiled like snakes on his face. “Fen’Harel feasts upon the trust of fools, and though they had trusted him, and treated him as a brother, he betrayed the Creators. By the time his falseness was laid bare, he had sealed both realms, and neither the gods nor the Forgotten Ones would ever pass into the mortal world again.”
There was more nodding of heads, more closed eyes. I could almost taste the belief in the air.
Morrigan scoffed. “’Tis no more than an excuse!” she said acidly. “And a weak one at that. This is the reason you give for the loss of your lands?”
A moment of silence followed, into which her words rang like dark bells. The fire cracked, and I was convinced the night was going to end with our bodies skinned and slung over the lowest boughs of the nearest tree.
Sarel eyed the witch steadily. “It is a fable, to be sure, but those elves who travel the Beyond claim that Fen’Harel still roams the world of dreams, keeping watch over the gods lest they escape from their prisons. I’m betting you are not unfamiliar with the strangenesses of this world, Lady. Would you say you can answer every mystery yourself?”
Morrigan glared at him, but the hahren simply smiled.
“Whatever the case, Arlathan had fallen to the very humans our people had once considered mere pests.” His gaze lingered a little on her, and that same small, hard smile touched his mouth as he turned his head away, casting a look across the gathered elves. “The world had turned anew, and we had to face it, with or without the Creators. That is how we came to join with the army of Andraste.”
The mere sniff of religion seemed enough to put Morrigan off. She grimaced, but she said nothing, and just tugged her cloak tighter around herself in a rustle of disdainful annoyance and raven feathers.
Leliana, on the other hand, looked almost fit to explode with glee. “Oh, yes! You know, I have read all of the Canticle of Shartan… everything about the elves’ part in Andraste’s Exalted March. It is such a wonderful story!”
I winced as I set my empty bowl down by my foot. Maethor stuck his nose in the bowl and busied himself cleaning out whatever scrapings I’d missed. I nudged him with my toe, but the sorrowful look he gave me meant I really didn’t have the heart to tell him to stop it. I didn’t have the heart to say anything about Exalted Marches, either… though I was all too well aware that the Chantry had not exactly been a friend of the Dales, and I doubted Hahren Sarel would share Leliana’s reverence for the Holy Prophet.
Certainly, he was giving her a dark look, his mouth drawn into a tight line, when Alistair cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“Er… ye-es, but I think that was probably, um….”
I looked along our ramshackle seating arrangements, and he caught my eye, mugging hopelessly as Leliana utterly failed to heed the warning.
“It was so noble,” she went on, apparently oblivious to Sarel’s dryly arched brow. “Such a powerful unity. I mean, we all have to face terrible threats together, don’t we? Just like the Blight.”
I wasn’t much of a one for praying, but I really hoped she wasn’t going to mention her vision.
Hahren Sarel sniffed eloquently. “It is the shemlen who name that woman prophet,” he said, his voice laden with steel. “We knew Andraste as a war leader: one who, like us, had been a slave and dreamed of liberation. Yes, we joined her rebellion. Those who had been trodden beneath the shemlen’s feet rose bravely with her, and became her vanguard. They were our heroes, and they died beside her, unmourned, in Tevinter bonfires.”
Leliana inclined her head, seeming to realise her mistake. “Oh… well, of course. I mean—”
“But we stayed with our so-called allies,” Sarel went on, raising his voice over the murmurs of the elves and the cracking of the fire, the anger glowing like embers in his eyes. “We stayed until the bitter end. And we had our reward. We had a land of our own—the Dales, in the south of what you call Orlais,” he added dismissively. “And we made the Long Walk to our new home, to Halamshiral, ‘the end of the journey’; our capital, our place beyond the reach of the humans. We came across deserts, across oceans… and we would crossed the Beyond itself for that place. It was to be somewhere we could once again forget the incessant passage of time; somewhere our people could begin the slow process of recovering the culture and traditions we had lost to slavery… but even then, it was not to last.”
That was the part of the story I knew best, the part that Valendrian had always emphasised the most: how elven pride and the refusal to tolerate human interference had resulted in the skirmishes that marked our doom. I bent my head and studied my hands, suddenly uncomfortable with some tone or sense in the hahren’s voice. Tension seemed to linger in the air around us.
The firelight played along the darkening ground, and the night seeped into the edges of everything. My knuckles looked clenched, like bare bones beneath the freckled skin, which had grown rough and loose, patched with wrinkles and the signs of wear. I’d never had a lady’s soft, delicate palms, but they’d not been washerwoman’s paws… and now they were becoming the hard, sword-callused hands that ought to have fitted a soldier, and I wasn’t that, either.
“Of course,” Hahren Sarel intoned, with a hard, unpleasant edge to his tone, “it did not last. Your Chantry, not content with letting us be, sent missionaries into the Dales. We threw them out. We wanted none of them. We just wanted what Andraste had promised us: our freedom. The freedom to return to the ways of Arlathan.”
I glanced up, hearing the disappointment crack in Leliana’s voice. The light seemed to fade in her face, and the flames of the great fire sent shadows skittering at the corners of her eyes and down her cheeks. They made her look older somehow, and tired… as if, in that moment, her belief faltered a little.
“But that wasn’t—”
“The templars came then,” he said, and I wondered if he was actually enjoying it. There seemed to be a dark kind of glee in the storyteller’s face, whipping beneath the lines of his vallaslin. “Soldiers of your Chantry’s whim, filled with hatred, and they scattered us just as the Tevinters did. Halamshiral burned, Andraste’s promises broken, and our people were left with nothing.”
I heard the soft clink of buckles as Alistair shifted uncomfortably, and I was grateful for the fact we hadn’t mentioned his association with the templars. Vows or not, it would have made things immeasurably worse.
Leliana looked wounded, as if the hahren’s distaste for the Chantry was a direct personal assault… which it was, for her, I supposed. Strange, because she knew all too well how the machinery of faith could turn against someone. Her time in Lothering—for all the secrets she still held from me then—had not been without argument. I wanted to say something then, to intervene somehow or set Sarel’s tormenting down a different track, but I didn’t get a chance… and it wasn’t my place anyway. I knew that when I saw the look he gave me, his mouth already wrapping around cruel words.
“We did as we always done. We endured. Some took refuge in the cities of the shemlen, living in squalor, tolerated only a little better than vermin—”
My spine stiffened slightly, but I said nothing. I had begun to see how different the Dalish thought themselves—how different they truly were—and it was useless to pretend they accorded my kind the respect I’d imagined they would. Maybe we deserved it. Maybe the shems were right, anyway. Maybe the Dalish were right, and we were weak. Maybe we were weak for submitting, and weak for all our subservience and careful quiet, and weak for not being more like them.
I lifted my chin a little, looking into the fire’s warmth and the glowing hearts of the logs that smouldered red at its base. I looked until the light reflected back so brightly into my eyes that it hurt, and I blinked, hoping to see Daeon’s face in the gathered elves beyond the flames.
He wasn’t vermin to them. He’d crossed the bridge, become one of the clan… he was earning their respect and their loyalty. Perhaps, I thought, I could do the same.
I blinked, my cheeks warmed by the fire, and looked away. Hahren Sarel was reciting a particularly florid description of the elvhen’s “self-imposed exile”, and the Dalish safe-guarding of the remnants of elven knowledge and culture.
Leliana still looked upset. She hugged her knees, and the firelight glimmered on her braided hair as she worked her lips over a protest.
“But…. Forgive me, but the historians all agree that the elves were not blameless. Chantry historians, perhaps, but… but you cannot deny there were tensions on both sides. The Chantry did not attempt to exterminate your people, nor attack them from spite!”
Wynne placed a hand on her shoulder, in some blend of comfort and restraint, but Leliana didn’t appear to notice it. I was fairly convinced this was going to blow up into a full-scale fight but, to my surprise, Sarel chuckled, and there was as much amiability in it as bitter mirth.
“My, my… such faith you have. Oh, I am certain we played a part in our own downfall. Such is usually the case.” He shrugged, and cast a guarded look around the fire. “Perhaps we believed the shemlen would not revoke their prophet’s gift so lightly. Of course, we were wrong. Yet, what did we do to anger them? One attack on a human village, and the Chantry army marched. They took our lands, forced us to abandon our gods and left us living as beggars in filthy shemlen cities.”
I bit the inside of my lip, my mind full of the memories of front steps cleaned to a shine, and Mother washing down our table until the wood was white with scrubbing. But, why would they understand?
“You should have fought,” Sten said.
I hadn’t expected him to speak, and I looked along the log in surprise. He had turned from gazing into the fire, and he was regarding Sarel with an impassive stare tinged, I thought, with just a little of that bored qunari disapproval—a kind of tedium for his kind, probably, because nothing ever seemed to match up to the way they ran life.
Hahren Sarel raised his eyebrows, evidently distracted from baiting Leliana even further. “Oh?”
Sten grunted. “You should have fought to the last of you. Better that than to submit.”
The storyteller’s face flexed into a mask of dark amusement, though I could see the firelight glimmer on cold fury in his eyes.
“Indeed? Is it not the qunari way to force others to submit? Surely fighting would not be your advice to my people, were they attacked by the mighty qunari.”
I cringed inwardly, seeing visions of body parts strewn across the camp, and the treaty we’d had such fond notions of seeing honoured hung on a nail next to the bushes the Dalish used for a privy.
Sten narrowed his eyes. “That would be different,” he said, with an element of consideration I had only heard from him infrequently before. His upper lip twitched lightly… possibly the nearest he ever got to a smile. “The qunari would improve your people, storyteller. The humans have improved upon nothing.”
A complicated silence fell, during which it seemed likely either laughter or war would break out. I held my breath, wishing I had something to say. Sarel was still watching Sten, with a kind of curiosity in his face that made me think the qunari would end up in a story of his own before long. It was Alistair who broke the silence, though, leaning forward and clearing his throat.
“Right. Well, we’ve… um… we’ve established that, I think. But the thing is, ser—elder,” he corrected, with a quick, sly glance at me, “we’re here for the Grey Wardens, and the Wardens aren’t just humans, or elves, or dwarves… we stand outside race, outside politics. We have to, because there’s one thing that threatens everyone, and that’s what we stand against.”
There was an echo of Duncan in his words but, from the look on his face, I thought Alistair probably felt he hadn’t done his mentor justice. All the same, I was proud of him… and a little shamed by him. I should have spoken up, put my voice to that unity of races, and yet I hadn’t even thought about it. I’d been so preoccupied with the Dalish, and my own nature—and my fantasies of a new Garahel marching under the banner of an elven army—that perhaps I’d even started to forget what had drawn us here.
The forest can do that to a person. You get so hedged in and choked with trees and vines, until their roots start to worm their way into your head, and every blurred path or dead end is another set of briars snatching you down inside it.
Sarel looked consideringly at him, and the tension around the fire seemed to deepen, taking on a new complexity as the gathered elves watched in silence. I wasn’t sure what they made of Alistair. Maybe they’d been expecting him to protest, to argue the rights of humans and the Chantry’s interpretation of history. Either way, the Dalish watched their storyteller and, when he spoke, his words were careful, clipped, and they hung over the fire like smoke.
“And yet, Grey Warden, you offer to enter the forest and seek the heart of Witherfang. This task our Keeper would give you… this is not your sole purpose, your ‘one thing you stand against’.”
Alistair looked momentarily discomfited. He glanced sidelong at me—whether for reassurance or answers, I didn’t know—and the firelight ruddied his skin, catching the gold in his hair and turning it red. I thought of Cailan then, with the dying sun flaming on his gilt armour, and I wondered if any of us were truly determined by our blood, human or elven… Dalish or flat-ear.
“Well, no,” Alistair said, turning to meet Hahren Sarel’s gaze. “But some things are just right, aren’t they? Your people need help. Anyway, Merien’s decision is good enough for me. She leads us,” he added, and I felt a shiver go around the fire.
I was grateful he didn’t look at me then. Many of the assembled Dalish did, and I suddenly felt very small and very awkward. It was a very public affirmation of faith… and maybe more than faith… and though it swelled me up with pride, it also scared me.
Sarel was watching me—so many people were watching me—and the firelight seemed to splinter around my feet. The weight of their gazes hung on me, full of expectation and quiet opinion. I didn’t know what they thought. I didn’t want to know, maybe.
Instead, I leaned in, my shoulders square, and kept my voice as clear as I could as I met the storyteller’s eye.
“We mean to do the best we can, elder. But perhaps… perhaps you know better than most what lies within the forest? We are not so hide-bound we wouldn’t humbly accept your advice.”
It was a little formal, a little awkward—a clumpy kind of way of asking for anything—but it made the boundaries clear. I’d tried to, anyway, and I couldn’t do more than that. It was what I’d done since the beginning: put myself in between things, and try to hold the calm together.
Hahren Sarel regarded me coolly for a few moments, his eyes guarded and the flamelight shading along the planes of his cheeks. Then he scoffed, somewhere between a dry chuckle and a snort of derision, and the pale blade of a smile split his face.
“I know a few stories, you may be sure,” he said, with quietly burnished pride. “Our legends say that the Brecilian Forest was a place of our ancestors that predated even Arlathan. It was the shemlen who gave the place its name.”
I frowned. “There were elves here? Settled?”
“Who knows?” Sarel shrugged and, leaning his head to the side, cast a look around his audience. The brief moment of silence was a punctuation to the story that, in his hands, became a masterful piece of emphasis, a stroke of meanings unsaid and tales that were yet to be told.
“If there were,” he went on, edging forwards a little, as if he was imparting something secret to us, “those elves were either slain or enslaved. We know only that a great many battles were fought here; these trees grew upon the graves of those who fell—shemlen and elvhen both.”
He raised up one hand, fingers spread against the silhouettes of the trees. Nightbirds called in the far branches, and the darkness seemed to slink around us, as if the shadows had life and form. I suppressed the urge to shiver, glad of my cloak when I suddenly felt so cold.
Wynne nodded thoughtfully. “Battles that… tore the Veil?”
The young women tidying up, busying themselves collecting up the bowls and the detritus from the finished meal, and feeding more kindling to the fire, stirring up sparks and the whispers of ashes. Some of the Dalish had begun to drift away from this central place in the camp, back to their own aravels. Mothers were taking the smallest children to bed, and it heartened me to see a few of the older ones pleading in earnest murmurs to be allowed to stay up; obviously, we weren’t the sort of thing that happened often in camp, and sitting up to stare at us was a far more inviting prospect than going to bed.
“Very wise of you, I’m sure,” Sarel said, shooting the mage a look of mild annoyance. “Death has a way of ripping up all that is real. Such are the legends that speak of Witherfang. An ancient spirit, passing freely into this world, seizing the form of a wolf… and passing on its curse of rage.”
“A rage demon,” Alistair muttered. “Great. Well, at least we’ve dealt with those before.”
The hahren’s brow crinkled, but he hid his surprise well, and I didn’t give him the opportunity to delve into any questions. The Dalish had their own ways where magic and superstition were concerned. That much was clear to me and, while they didn’t spit and cross their fingers at the mention of demons, like the old men in the alienage, I doubted that going into any great detail over the Circle Tower would help us.
“Witherfang is old, then?” I asked, trying hard not to think of Sophia Dryden’s withered corpse, held together mostly by the armour she’d died in, and corrupted by the demon that had taken her. “I mean, if the legends go back so far….”
Sarel nodded. “Yes. Zathrian insists the wolf still lives. He says Witherfang does not age as the werewolves do. The creature spread its curse to the shemlen, and thus it has come to us, but Witherfang endures. It is as much spirit as beast… immortal, perhaps. Perhaps it cannot even be slain. At the very least, it is old and powerful, much as Zathrian himself.”
Something about the way he said those words reminded me of Athras, and I was curious as to how deep Zathrian’s bond with his clan truly ran. In the short time we’d been in the camp, I’d seen the terrible loyalty his people had to him, but it was tainted with a kind of awe… as if they really believed he was more than them somehow. It was a very different kind of respect and, just as I’d said to Alistair, he was a very different kind of hahren. I told myself it was because of the magic. Keepers had secrets to hold and dark things to watch against. Their role was far more mystical than the tussling with city guards and bureaucrats that Valendrian had occupied himself with… and yet I found myself thinking of our hahren more than ever. There was a warmth in his guidance—even when we were children, strapped across the backs of our knees for disobedience, or cuffed alongside the head for misbehaviour—that I missed, and that I wasn’t sure I could see in the Dalish way of being.
Were they really so very different?
To my left, Alistair let out a small sigh of frustration and ran a hand over his hair, frowning as he seemed to chew over logistics.
“All right. So… this thing has been out there for Maker only knows how long. And it’s never spread the curse to your people before?”
Sarel glanced across the fire. The clan kept late evenings, apparently, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were clinging to the flames, keeping some kind of quiet vigil against the dark, while their sick lay dying… waiting to be taken either by the curse, or the healer’s silent blade.
“No,” he said softly. “Only the shemlen. When they lived here, the curse would spread anew to a few of them with each passing year. They would run off into the forest, howling with anger and shame. Eventually, they abandoned their villages. The forest consumed the empty places, as it does. We thought we would be safe… from them, and from the curse. But we were wrong.”
Leliana spoke up then, for the first time since Sarel’s acid denunciation of the Chantry. She was still sitting by Wynne’s feet, her arms hooked around her knees, and the firelight made her eyes look like turquoise glass bathed in gold.
“Was it long ago that the humans left? If it has been many years, perhaps there are few of the werebeasts left.”
He gave her the kind of look an impatient father gives a child that is full of foolish questions, but I could see the pain that sluiced behind his eyes.
“There were enough to nearly destroy us all. Enough to kill us… to kill my wife,” Sarel snapped, turning his face to the darkened tree line, as if he could lose the words there. “And my son.”
Awkward solemnity hung in the air. Expressions of condolence seemed empty, especially when they would only break against the wall of his bitterness. Leliana tried anyway, and there was true empathy in her voice… which probably just served to make the storyteller angrier.
“Oh, I am so sorry. I—”
“One assumes,” Sarel said sharply, cutting her off with a dark look, “that the creatures survive by passing their curse to their offspring. They have had no new blood… until now, that is.” He snorted derisively as he glanced towards the distant shape of the hospital tent. “Zathrian maintains none of the hunters have turned. I doubt that. Since the attack, I have seen one or two making for the forest’s heart, already more beast than elf. The rest of the sick will follow; either die or turn. It calls them: the curse, and the wildwood. It is the savage nature of the beast and, make no mistake, the forest is as a thing alive.”
He was staring at the fire again, as the flames broke higher, rising on the dark red embers and the sap-strong flush of fresh wood. The night air had grown cold, and where some of the clan had returned to their wagons, others had come to join the circle. A sense of expectation seemed to settle over them, and I watched Hahren Sarel’s hard, sharp profile carve a line through the shadows, his eyes hooded as he watched the leaping, dancing sparks.
“It changes as it wills,” he said, as if rolling the words of a long-cherished story around his mouth. “Paths close behind you, and new ones open up. Oh, yes… the forest lives. And, were I you, Warden, I would endeavour not to make an enemy of it.”
He glanced at me then, and the mix of hostility, pain, and anger in his face frightened me, and yet filled me with sorrow. I knew loss, and I knew violence, but I’d suffered neither the way Sarel had. At that moment, the world seemed to hold nothing but new ways of inflicting horror on a person, and I wished we’d never tried to enter the forest, much less agreed to a plan that appeared more hopeless by the hour.
But I couldn’t admit to that, even if I’d wanted to. No matter how hopeless the plan, I was the one leading the charge. That still seemed crazy to me and yet, for the first time, it felt real, and right… like something I could do, not because I’d simply found myself thrown into the waves of a tempest, but because I had accepted the storm, whether it was my destiny to float or drown.
“Thank you, elder,” I said, inclining my head politely. “That seems like very good advice.”
He snorted. “Aye. And much good may it do you.”
Movement stirred at the edge of the gathering, and I looked over to see Zathrian emerging from the direction of his aravel and drawing near the fire, his robes bundled up around him and his face tired and drawn. A couple of the young women bustled about him, and a space was made for the Keeper to sit close to the flames.
Zathrian settled himself, holding out his palms for warmth. He nodded at us politely, and I heard Hahren Sarel’s soft exhalation of breath.
The Keeper’s arrival at the fire marked a change in the evening. The strained atmosphere seemed to crack, tension leaking from the air, and it was as if the elves still gathered around us seemed comforted by Zathrian’s presence. It was a ritual, of a kind, I supposed. He would come and join with his people, like a king holding court, and it soothed them.
There were traditions, too. This, we discovered, was the time for stories… stories, and skins of elvhen mead, which was decanted into small wooden cups and passed around with great reverence. The first went to Zathrian, and then Lanaya, and the hahrens. Then, the veteran hunters, the elders and the craftsmen, and then the apprentices and the clansmen and, finally, with words of thanks from Zathrian for the help we had pledged the clan, we were offered cups of the clear liquor too. It smelled faintly of honey, and tasted like fire and turpentine. I gathered from the looks on some of the Elvhen’s faces that the honour we were being accorded was not universally approved of, but their Keeper had spoken, and we all managed not to splutter or cough our way through the quiet, ceremonious sipping… although I did think, at one point, I might choke. Sten seemed to actually like the stuff; I heard his quiet grunt of approval as he drank it down.
The moon had risen, though it was hard to see it behind the trees. Ragged shades of cloud painted the sky, black on dark, like shadows swimming between the points of the stars.
Sarel was to tell a story. Zathrian requested it, and the hahren responded graciously. It was, I realised, another ritual; another way of reaffirming the bonds of clan and blood that the Dalish so depended upon.
I did not, however, expect the way that it moved me.
“Aye, I shall tell a tale,” Sarel said, raising his voice so it carried to the edge of the circle. “Listen, and I shall tell the greatest tale of all!”
It was a call that demanded an answer, it seemed, for a soft susurration ran through the gathered Dalish, and Sarel nodded approvingly. He placed his hands on his thighs, elbows out like an old man beginning a lecture, and leaned forward, until the firelight’s reflection gleamed on his face. He was different then to the way he’d been when he was talking with us. This was a story that performed: a tale that lived and breathed through him as he gave it shape. I had never been so close to a piece of elven history before, but I touched the face of it in Sarel’s story.
“As it was told by Gisharel, Keeper of Clan Ralaferin, blood of my blood and my birth, I tell it to you. This is the tale of Elgar’nan and the Sun; the tale of Mythal’s Touch; the tale of all that was and came to be… and of the light that comes where darkness falls.”
As if on cue, the fire leapt up, and sparks spiralled in the dark air. I glanced up, and saw Daeon and some of the other boys from earlier, sitting on the far side of the circle near where Lanaya was perched on a small stool, dwarfed by her voluminous robes.
“Long ago, when time itself was young, the only things in existence were the sun and the land.” Sarel raised his clenched fist, showing the sun, and held the other flat, fingertips to elbow a line before him that marked the land. The movements were slow, deliberate… a pantomime he’d played a hundred times before, I imagined, and yet every eye there was fixed upon him. “The sun grew curious about the land. Day by day, he bowed his head closer to her body—” His hands moved, fist uniting with fingertips and then both palms pressing together, before splaying out in a slow, almost hypnotic gesture. “—and Elgar’nan was born in the place where they touched.”
A small, collective sigh left some of the gathered elves, and it pooled in the silence Sarel left, painting pictures with the gaps between his words.
“The sun and the land both loved Elgar’nan greatly. As a gift to him, the land brought forth the birds and beasts of sky and forest, and all manner of wonderful green things. And yes, Elgar’nan did love his mother’s gifts. He praised them highly and walked amongst them often.” Sarel’s hands, spread wide again to encompass all of creation, came slowly to rest upon his knees as he leaned forwards, allowing the firelight to catch at his vallaslin, making the shadows beneath his eyes dance in jagged tears. “But the sun, looking down upon the fruitful land, grew jealous. He could not abide the sight of Elgar’nan’s joy in the works of the land and, out of spite, he shone his face full upon all the creatures she had created, and burned them all to ashes. The land cracked and split from bitterness and pain, and cried salt tears for the loss of all she had wrought. The pool of those tears became the ocean, and the cracks in her body the first rivers and streams.”
I could have sworn I heard water rushing beneath the sound of his voice. The sun’s heat burned in the fire, in the light that splintered over the toes of my boots, and a soft shiver rose on the back of my neck.
“Elgar’nan was furious at what his father had done, and he vowed vengeance. He lifted himself into the sky and wrestled the sun, determined to defeat him.” Sarel’s lean hands moved in swift, sharp swoops, describing the fierceness of the battle as his voice grew hard and low. “They fought for an eternity, but eventually the sun grew weak, while Elgar’nan’s rage was unabated. His anger knew no bound nor end and, finally, Elgar’nan threw the sun down from the sky and buried him in the deepest abyss, the darkest place created by the land’s sorrow.”
The back of the storyteller’s fingers struck his other palm, then his hands drew together, locked in one still, clenched ball. The night seemed to grow darker, shadows pulling in around the fire and the still, wide-eyed faces of the Dalish.
Sarel was silent for a moment. I almost thought the story ended there, but the way his gaze roved steadily over his audience told me otherwise, beyond the fact that I knew the sun still rose. The sun had to rise in the Dalish’s stories, because the forest can’t grow without light.
“But,” Sarel said softly, that one word drifting into the fire’s smoke like a moth, and seeming to echo my very thoughts, “with the sun gone, the world was covered in shadow. All was darkness and cold, and all that was left in the sky were the reminders of Elgar’nan’s battle with his father: drops of the sun’s lifeblood, which twinkled and shimmered in the darkness.”
He sat back, letting the weight of the words wash over us. I hadn’t realised I was holding my breath. It was beautiful, in a terrible, fearsome sort of way, and I couldn’t stop myself from glancing up at the darkened sky, searching out the pinpricks of stars between the trees.
Mother had never told me stories like this. To her, the stars had all had names, or been part of tales of their own—the captured princess, the wily trickster, or the faithful lovers—and this new image was stark and unsettling… and wholly absorbing. It was something wild, primal, and above all elven. Our gods. Our world. Our land, and our stars.
The night was cold, the dry burn of elven mead still ached in the back of my throat, and yet none of it mattered. I was caught completely.
“So… that is how it was,” Sarel said contemplatively, shaking his head as he surveyed us, his manner now more that of a weary grandfather than some wild sage. He paused, fingers smoothing the knee of his breeches, and the silence pressed in, broken only by the crackle of the fire.
A small child sitting near the front, not far from where Maethor lay, looked as if she was about to burst in anticipation.
“Elgar’nan had defeated his father, the sun,” Sarel mused. He looked down at where the children sat. “All was covered in darkness. He was pleased with himself—and had not his victory been mighty?”
A ripple went through the elves; agreement, and the knowing of the story, right down, bone-deep. He nodded, apparently satisfied with the response.
“Aye. Thus, Elgar’nan sought to console his mother by replacing all that the sun had destroyed. But the earth knew that this could not be. Without the sun, nothing could grow. She whispered to Elgar’nan this truth, and pleaded with him to release his father, but Elgar’nan’s pride was great. His vengeance was terrible, and he refused.”
Sarel left another pause in the tale, allowing the fire and the silence to shape his telling. I was leaning forward, my elbows propped on my knees, almost oblivious to everything but his words. I was vaguely aware of the others—of Morrigan’s quiet disdain, Leliana’s intent and possibly at least partially professional interest, and the discomfort that seemed to emanate from Alistair—and yet I was thinking of nothing apart from how the story ended.
Hahren Sarel tilted his head to the side, letting the reflections of the flamelight skitter on his hair and ears, his vallaslin like dark fingermarks across his skin. Shadows danced in the heavy folds of his cloak and, when he spoke, it was slow and considering… as if the rest of the tale had yet to be written.
“It was at this moment,” he said, letting each word drop slowly into place, “that the Great Mother, Mythal, the Protector, came into being. She walked out of the sea of the earth’s tears and onto the land, and she placed her hand on Elgar’nan’s brow.”
He held up his right hand, the fingers lightly curved, and a shiver ran down my back.
“At her touch, he grew calm… and he knew that his anger had led him astray.” Sarel slowly lowered his hand, and another soft sigh left the gathered elves. He folded his palms together, and the fire’s light flicked shadows into the grooves of his fingers, making them a complexly entwined knot. “So humbled, Elgar’nan went to the place where the sun was buried and he spoke to his father. No one knows what was said, or what the words were that raised the sun, but Elgar’nan did agree to release him, on condition that he promised to be gentle, and to return to the earth each night. The sun, filled with remorse at what he had done, agreed.”
His hands spread wide again, free and light as birds, and my mind was full of the glorious blaze of a triumphant dawn that he conjured there, bathed in the fire’s brightness. The smell of wood sap and smoke and earth seemed to fade, and instead I breathed in crisp, clean air fragrant with dew.
“And so it was that the sun came to rise again in the sky, and shone his golden light upon the earth.” Sarel let his hands rest upon his knees, and leaned back a little, watching the sea of quiet, intent faces. “Elgar’nan and Mythal, with the help of the earth and the sun, brought back to life all the wondrous things that the sun had destroyed, and they grew and thrived. And,” he added, scooping one hand slowly through the air and curling into a soft, protective fist, “that night, when the sun had gone to sleep, Mythal gathered the glowing earth around his bed, and formed it into a sphere to be placed in the sky, a pale reflection of his true glory.”
I looked up then. I couldn’t help it; the storyteller might as well have had my head on a string.
“This we know,” Sarel said, and the words carried the tone of a prayer, “by our lore and our telling, and by the land beneath our feet, and the sun and the moon above us.”
As if by magic, the clouds that raced darkly across the sky sped on, and the sallow, pitted face of the moon peered at me from between the trees’ spiked silhouettes.
I caught my breath, but I couldn’t look away.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
The others did not take my decision well. At least, not all of them.
“Well, I think it’s a worthy effort,” Leliana said, sitting before our fire and tightening the straps of her boot. She smiled up at me. “It is the right thing, to offer these people aid.”
Morrigan snorted dismissively but said nothing, her arms folded across her bosom and her golden eyes narrowed to slits. I really hoped she didn’t have any smart comments planned, and I suppressed a frustrated sigh as Alistair strafed his fingers through his hair, the disbelief and annoyance scribed plainly on his face as he clearly struggled to keep calm.
“I’m not saying it isn’t, but—”
“It’s not the first time we’ve run into complications,” I pointed out, bristling a little as he glared at me. “What about the Circle? Redcliffe?”
He exhaled tersely, a muscle bunching in his jaw. “Yes, fine. Seems like everywhere we go people have their own problems. All I’m saying is that—”
“I do not see the quandary,” Morrigan broke in, her tone flat and hard. “’Tis merely a trade. Find this wolf, kill it, give the elf its heart, and you will compel the clan to fulfil their obligations.”
“Oh, yes,” Alistair sniped. “I’m sure it’ll be just that easy. Come on… werewolves? Curses? A forest filled with ancient and unspeakable evil?” He screwed up his face. “Ooh, no. Can’t imagine what could possibly go wrong.”
Sten, currently propped against a tree and watching the debate, rumbled darkly.
“No army was ever gained with ease,” he observed, his gaze fixed on the centre of the Dalish camp.
For all our busy argumentation, the mood among the wild elves seemed to have lifted a little. People criss-crossed between the land-ships, and although life in the camp was, in the light of day, clearly not normal, the looks some of the Dalish directed towards us suggested they thought we might suddenly be more than a suspicious inconvenience. There was a cautious kind of hope in some of those glances, which filled me with twin terror and awe.
After my arrival back from speaking with Zathrian, a little before dawn, a woman had even brought us breakfast. Bread, dried meat and fruit… it had seemed luxurious. I was mildly appalled that, now, we should apparently need to have this disagreement. Last night, pledging our help had seemed natural, simple… the only possible thing I could do. I knew it wasn’t simple, but it hadn’t seemed like a choice. This morning, I supposed I could have chosen differently. I wasn’t surprised it was causing ructions although, if I was honest, it hurt that Alistair should be the one to be wariest of the decision I’d confessed to making.
“Sten’s got a point,” I said, perhaps a trifle sharply. “And we will have an army, if the clans can be gathered. That’s worth it, isn’t it? That’s the whole point of what we’re trying to do, right?”
My friend faced me down, looking tired and grubby, his hair sticking out at odd angles like soft clumps of gold. Baggy smudges of fatigue were swiped under his eyes, and I wondered if they really had been there since Ostagar… and whether any of us could keep going long enough to see this through.
“Fine.” Alistair exhaled brusquely, shaking his head. “Fine, but… look, even if we can help these people, are they going to be in any state to fight darkspawn? Can they even find the other clans?”
The words were like a slap in the face.
I glowered at him. “What, you’d prefer we abandon them because they might not be useful enough?”
“I didn’t say that, and you know it! But—”
“I think everyone should calm down,” Wynne said, holding up her hands.
Her quiet grace carried weight, and the gentleness of her voice held an edge of steel. That sharp, clear blue gaze danced between Alistair and me, and he heaved another sigh, this one full of theatrical resignation.
“I’m not not calm,” he muttered. “I’m just saying it’s a big risk. We nearly got ourselves killed getting this far… does anyone feel particularly eager to have another go at it?”
“We’ve almost been killed plenty of times,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “And I didn’t see you running from anything before.”
Alistair glared at me again, and every plane and angle of his face was set into a clenched grimace of frustrated irritation. I was about to let myself get truly angry with him—bloody hard-headed shem, staring at the task in front of us with blinkers on, unable to see beyond Eamon and the sodding darkspawn—when I saw the look in his eyes.
He was scared. Scared for me.
I should have been comforted. I should have felt the affection in those muddy hazel eyes fill me up, because all I’d ever been raised to know of things between men and women was that a woman should be glad of a man’s protection. He was her shield and her provider and, if she did all she should, he would cherish her. My heart ought to have fluttered at this: my knight, my bastard prince, who was so much more than I was… and yet who, for some strange reason, seemed to care for me.
Unfortunately, I ground my teeth, petulantly aggrieved at the thought Alistair didn’t believe I could do what I’d promised Zathrian.
I let myself believe he thought me weak—and, of course, I knew I was. I couldn’t fight like him, or Sten. I had none of the skills Leliana or Zevran did, nor Wynne or Morrigan’s magic, and however far I’d come, I was convinced it was down to blind luck and a sheer bloody-minded refusal to die.
But this… this was different.
I was going to have my elven army, and I was going to cure the sick and heal the wounded, and we were going to march out of the Brecilian Forest with our heads held high, and our honour intact.
And, just maybe, I would start believing that I could forgive myself for what Loghain had done to the alienage.
“So? Why start now?” I asked softly.
It was a cruel thing to say.
Alistair’s brow furrowed, and the light in his eyes dimmed as he shrugged, looking to Wynne for support.
“I’m not running,” he muttered bitterly. “I’m not talking about running. Just— I mean,” he tried again, waving one hand hopelessly, as if he was aware he couldn’t say a damn thing I intended to listen to. “Well… as far as darkspawn go, we know what we’re dealing with. Demons, we’ve had experience facing. We know what they are, what they’re capable of. I just don’t know that charging headlong into this, completely blind, is a good idea.”
Morrigan tutted gently from her stance behind the fire. “One would think you were afraid, Alistair….”
“Shut up,” he said, without either turning or missing a beat. “I’m not— I-I just think that—”
“Werewolves,” I said flatly. “I doubt there’s much more complicated about them than teeth and claws. From what Zathrian says, this Witherfang creature may well be a demon… but you just said yourself, we have experience with those.”
Alistair’s expression tightened, but he couldn’t deny I’d scored a point. I was probably a little more smug than I needed to be; Father would have given me a clip around the back of the head and reminded me how smart mouths invariably got their owners into trouble.
I turned to the others, my gaze passing over each face in turn. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: if you don’t want to follow, stay here. But I’m going to do what I told the Keeper I would. Anyone who’s with me is welcome to join the hunt.”
Sten pushed away from the tree against which he’d been leaning, and nodded curtly. “Finally. When do we begin this task?”
I inclined my head to the qunari. “Soon. Zathrian has offered us the hospitality of the camp, and access to what supplies they have. He suggested we restock, rest, then start the journey tomorrow morning. Apparently, the… creatures are more active at night, and one more day probably won’t make much difference to the sick.”
Because this isn’t going to be a quick errand, and the ones that are infected are dead already.
I kept my thoughts to myself, and hoped my face didn’t betray them. Sten grunted, and I wasn’t sure whether it was relieved assent, or an aspersion on the keeper’s logic. I didn’t want to return to any details about the elves already dying in Zathrian’s makeshift hospital tents. I’d had to explain what I’d seen to my companions, and I’d left out the parts about the mercy of the healer’s knife sparing those about to turn, allowing my words to imply that sickness took them. I had no desire to think more of it… or to dwell on what might happen if one of us was bitten. In truth, I don’t think that thought had even sunk in; all I wanted was this one moment of leadership, to do this one thing that, in my addled mind, was both redemption and resolution.
Perhaps it was the nights sullied with dreams, or the long weeks of hard travel with slim rations and the shadow of death at our heels. Perhaps it was the ghost of Soldier’s Peak still on my back. Whatever the cause, I would learn that a soldier’s logic should never be sullied with sentiment.
“You know,” Wynne said, eyeing me carefully before she looked back at Alistair, “werewolves are beasts not unlike abominations. Possessed wolves driven mad… or so it is written. Perhaps this will not be so far removed from anything we have already encountered.”
“Great,” he muttered, with a sour glance at me. “Sounds as if it’ll be easy-peasy. Should we pack a picnic?”
Leliana got to her feet, dusting her palms against the deep russet brown of her leather breeches. “I think it will be an adventure. And, if there is even the slightest chance that we can help these people—and help them make good on the promises in their treaty—it’s worth it, no?”
I smiled at her, swelling a little more with pride at each vote of confidence.
Morrigan sniffed philosophically, affecting a look of intense boredom.
“I would not mind seeing more of the forest,” she said, ostensibly examining her fingernails. “In many ways, ’tis like the Wilds. There may be some interesting herbs that do not grow further south… and I should gladly take the opportunity to find some fresh meat that is neither rabbit nor half-chewed vole.”
Those last words were directed with a sneer at Maethor, and the hound whined quizzically from his scrape by the fire. My smile widened. Even if every last one of them had abandoned me, I’d known he wouldn’t.
None of them would, though, would they? I realised that slowly, with a wash of proud, golden glee filling me. No matter how foolish or unbelievable it seemed, they had placed their trust in me. I was a leader, a warrior… their Warden.
Words that had always rung hollow in my head seemed to take on new weight, new depth, and the rich taste of the power they gave me was a sweet, wonderful wine.
“What about you?” I asked, turning to Zevran.
He’d seated himself on his pack, one foot crossed over his knee while he idly watched the debate.
“Mm?” Those amber eyes glittered as they met mine. “You truly need to ask? Did I not swear my fealty to you, hmm? Your man, without reservation, even as we plunge headlong into the most idiotic danger?”
I snorted, and the half-hidden smirk at the corner of his mouth blossomed into a small, dark smile.
“I don’t recall you putting it quite like that.”
“Eh, maybe not.” Zevran shrugged, giving a small, smooth, cat-like stretch as he rose to his feet. “Still, my original point remains unchanged: I will follow. Besides, I never was a one to walk away from the promise of treasure,” he added speculatively. “There will be treasure, no? An ancient forest, the site of a terrible war, wherein I imagine no one ever returned to retrieve any interesting artefacts?”
Alistair muttered something none-too-subtle about whether the grave robbing should come after the picnic or before, but not even his sulking could rupture my sense of achievement.
In my mind, green shoots were already struggling forth from the ashes of the purge, and my head rang with the clarion shouts of an elven army.
It pains me a little to write it, because no one likes to revisit the idiocies of their youth, but I was strutting like a bantam as we prepared ourselves. I felt brave and righteous, and full of my own importance… even more so when a young Dalish boy, perhaps no more than thirteen, came over to introduce himself as the apprentice of the clan’s crafts master. He wished to extend to us the offer of any supplies or repairs to our armour or weapons we might require, and it was a more polite and chivalrous invitation—despite the lad’s stuttering and wide-eyed awkwardness—than I’d expected.
The clan were still wary of us, of course. Their open hostility had quieted to icy civility, but they didn’t trust us—and why should they, until we’d proved ourselves worthy of my fine words? Not that I doubted we could do it, for once.
We would be ready, armed, fully primed… and we would be unstoppable. I believed it. After all, what worse things could werewolves do than abominations and demons?
Having the whole day to make our preparations and plans was liberating, too. It had been a long time since we allowed ourselves real rest, and the promise of getting our gear fixed up was almost as appealing as the prospect of a good wash. Water would come from the brook near the camp, and we were given leave to take whatever we wished from such supplies as the clan had left.
Lanaya came to show us to their stores, and introduce us to the elders who kept the wheels of life there turning; she suggested we speak with their storyteller, Hahren Sarel, and take what advice he had regarding the forest, as well as availing ourselves of Master Varathorn’s expertise.
Obviously, I thought, the Dalish believed strongly in the truth of stories, as well as their own culture, and the power that legends had to shape the world. As the day got underway, and the prospect of charging headlong into the forest—to use the words of Alistair’s that had so annoyed me—grew clearer, the enormity of the task started to sink in. I wasn’t so sure that a few songs and tales would make anything easier, but at least the preparations gave us time to ready our minds as well as our packs and blades.
The Dalish were still watching us closely, but Zathrian’s word had given us leave to move freely through the camp. I wondered, as I made my way down to the brook for water, glad of a moment’s quiet, just how far I had Daeon to thank for it all… and where he was. I hadn’t seen him that morning, or any of the young hunters he seemed to be so friendly with.
When I thought back to the alienage, it was almost hard to believe it was real; that either of us should have travelled so far from our roots, or changed so much. And yet, we had—and he, like me, had achieved so much—but I still thought of those lost faces with mingled regret and shame.
My shoulders tensed at the sound of my name, the various assorted water skins and leather flasks I carried rattling against each other as I turned. I’d thought Alistair had gone with Sten and Zevran to survey the possibility of weapons or repairs, but apparently not.
He lengthened his stride, catching me up easily, and I just stood there, full of awkwardness and mild resentment, telling myself that the look of apology on his face wasn’t enough to cut through my annoyance at the things he’d said.
“Meri, hold on.”
We were between the ranks of the elvhen’s wagons and the brook, a little downstream of where I’d intended to draw water. The stream bubbled cheerfully, and the golden light of a good, bright day filtered down through the half-bare trees. The ground was patched with coarse grass between the wheel ruts and mud and, above us, there was enough sky visible in the clearing to make out streaks of watery blue, with little wisps of cloud.
Winter had not yet sunk its teeth into the forest, but the cold was coming.
I glared at Alistair, perhaps more ferociously than I’d meant to. His expression faltered for a moment—open honesty growing guarded and irritable—but then he regained himself, and the frown faded from his brow.
“Look… you know I do want to help these people, don’t you? All I meant—”
“I know what you meant,” I said crisply. “And you’re right, I suppose. We have to balance everything against the Blight. But if it means having the support of all the Dalish clans… we have to at least try, don’t we?”
He nodded, but there was a kind of discomfort in his expression, like there was something else he didn’t want to admit. I bit the inside of my lip, knowing what was coming.
“Yes, but…. It’s just, with Eamon so ill—”
I saw red then. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the idea of one shem noble being more important in his mind than the whole Dalish clan, or perhaps it was his very loyalty to Eamon itself, so stubborn and unyielding.
Maybe I was just plain jealous.
“For all we know, he could be dead already,” I snapped. “And even if he does recover, will he be well enough to address the Bannorn? You don’t know that, Alistair.”
He frowned, and it only made me angrier to realise how precisely I’d mirrored what he’d said before. I steeled myself, fully expecting him to use my own words against me.
Would you prefer we abandon him because he might not be useful enough?
They were written plainly on Alistair’s face, etched into every annoyed line of his scowl, but then he shook his head and the frown faded. He looked away, squinting into the treeline and, when he spoke, his voice was tight and low.
“No, I don’t. But I’m hoping for it. He’s probably the only chance we’ve got.”
I disagreed, but I hadn’t the belly to fight about it. Not then, at least. I gritted my teeth and managed a grunt of assent that I hoped didn’t sound too grudging.
Across the camp, I could see Maethor being approached by a couple of Dalish children. They were all gawky knees, elbows, and feral curiosity, and he stood waiting for them, wagging his stumpy tail and panting happily through those jaws that could crush bone.
No one ever had just one side to their nature, I supposed; we were all different things, bound up in ourselves and in each other. We were givers and takers, both blessed and sinning, and sometimes we found the best of ourselves in one another. Sometimes, it was within us, and it took as much bitterness as sweetness to bring it out.
My antipathy towards everything Arl Eamon represented—a faceless shemlen noble, a man who’d tossed aside the child that had grown into someone I cared for a great deal, and an as yet unknown quantity in the Bannorn—didn’t matter. In all probability, nothing would matter in the path of the Blight, army or no army… and I supposed we would all rather have faced our fate knowing we’d done things as right as we could.
Still, compromise left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
“Look… as soon as this is done,” I said quietly, “we’ll go to the place Genitivi mentioned. And if there’s anything to find, we’ll find it. We’ll find him.”
Alistair nodded, and gave me a small smile. The dappled sunlight touched the gold in his hair, and made the hazel of his eyes look brighter and greener.
“And, if you get your way,” he said, a slight mischievousness in his face, “we’ll have an army at our backs. Darkspawn won’t be able to argue with that.”
I wasn’t sure whether he was making fun of me, but I elected to believe not. I shrugged.
“It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
He snorted. “Yes. Yes… that it is. Right. D’you want a hand with those?”
Alistair gestured to the water skins I’d almost forgotten I was carrying and, when I nodded my thanks, he moved to help me with them. We made our way to the brook, and I knelt on the damp ground, holding the skins beneath the clear, cool, rippling current, one by one, until their bodies bulged and their necks were full.
It was certainly a nicer way of drawing water than the daily trudge to the pump that a city-dweller like me was used to, and part of me was already idling in fancies of what life was like for the Dalish. The clan’s current predicament aside, their wagons looked comfortable, and they all seemed clean and well-fed and, but for a few details, perhaps the stories I’d gorged myself on as a child hadn’t been all that far-fetched.
My fingers brushed Alistair’s as I reached up to take the next empty skin from him, and he smiled shyly. The last residue of my anger melted away, as if we’d never been at odds at all, and I realised how long it seemed since I’d last kissed him.
I turned quickly from the thought, and concentrated on drawing the water. Alistair cleared his throat.
“So… what do you think of Zathrian, then?”
I shrugged, and frowned at the bubbles popping in the stream. The water was clear as glass, flowing briskly over a bed of sand and rounded stones, and my fingers were gradually going numb with the cold.
“He’s a very different kind of hahren,” I said carefully. “Lanaya said the keepers know magic, that they hold all the clan’s secrets. He seems wise… worried for his people, of course. But—”
“And the whole ‘curse’ thing?” Alistair prompted. “Werewolves? The ones who are sick… are they really…?”
“Just like I told you.” I nodded curtly, still not keen to revisit the things I’d seen in the hospital tent. “Why?”
I corked the skin I’d been filling, and passed it to him. He frowned thoughtfully as he gave me the last empty one, and glanced back towards the centre of the camp. It didn’t look like we were being watched or overheard but, where the Dalish were concerned, it was hard to tell.
“Well, it seems… odd, doesn’t it? You said Zathrian reckons the werewolves are mindless beasts—like abominations, Wynne said—and yet they ambushed the clan?” Alistair wrinkled his noise doubtfully. “To have done as much damage as they seem to, they’ve either got to be more ferocious than Morrigan at the wrong time of the month, or there’s something we don’t know. Either way, it feels… off, somehow, don’t you think?”
I fastened the last skin and straightened up slowly, shaking the water from my fingers. He had a point, but I didn’t plan on letting it sway me.
“Maybe,” I acknowledged. “I think Zathrian underestimated them. I think that’s what he’s unwilling to admit. I think he believes he should have known an attack would happen… he claims to have known about the Blight for some time. I don’t know. I’m not familiar with whatever magic the Dalish have… and, sure, I don’t much like the idea of going up against possessed wolves, but—”
“We’ve faced worse,” Alistair finished, giving me an airy, sardonic little smile. “How hard can it be? As long as you promise me you won’t get bitten.”
It was a deftly plied blade of a thing, saying that. I’d barely entertained the possibility. I wasn’t stupid enough to think I was immortal or anything; it was just that, since Ostagar, I’d been on the edge of death every time someone swung something pointy at my head. For me, the imminence of battle was the difference between living and dying… never before had I considered the prospect of turning into something else.
I shuddered as I recalled the dead elf Zathrian had shown me, with his crushed, mangled jaw and oddly distended teeth.
“Promise,” I assured Alistair. “Nor you?”
“I’ll do my best,” he said, and the smile was all but gone from his face.
We were close enough for it to be barely no movement at all when he reached for my hand. Beneath the grime, he smelled like new-split wood and apples, and yet when his fingers brushed against my knuckles, I flinched away like I’d been burned.
“We should, uh, go see the craftsmaster. And we ought to speak to Hahren Sarel, too,” I murmured, glancing over my shoulder to the bustle of the camp’s centre. “If anyone knows more about what we can expect from the forest, he will.”
I didn’t dare look at Alistair. I knew I’d hurt him by the texture of the breath I heard him take, all stiff and stifled, and I wished so much that I was braver. I wished I hadn’t been so stung by his loyalty to Eamon, and that I didn’t feel the unseen eyes of imagined Dalish ancients upon me, etching insults into the breath of the breeze.
“Right,” Alistair said, and the leaves crunched underfoot as he took a step back, a step away from me.
I was glad of it. Stupidly, terribly glad. Easier that than to endure the looks I was afraid of seeing on the elvhen’s faces, or the feelings of guilt and recrimination that gnawed at me.
The water skins sloshed in the awkward silence as I gathered them about me, and headed off towards the camp.
Meeting Master Varathorn was an education. He turned out to be one of the most civil and welcoming of the Dalish that I’d met, probably because he barely seemed to notice anything outside of his work.
He made all of the clan’s equipment, from bows to blades, armour to tiny, beautifully carved amulets. When I got to his wagon, I was surprised at the amount of industry going on, despite the sickness and travail that had struck the Dalish. There was a charcoal kiln set up in the shade of its sail, and great expanses of whetstones, hammers, tools and all manner of works in progress were strewn about the place. The boy from before—apparently just one of Master Varathorn’s young apprentices—was being soundly berated for mistreating a bow he’d been trying to make, and he cowered like a puppy under the white-haired elf’s fierce glare. Like all the other adult Dalish I’d seen, the craftsmaster bore intricate tattoos on his face, and the lines were worn into his weathered, sunburned skin, as if he’d been born with them. Pale amber eyes peered out from beneath a huge, bushy pair of eyebrows, and there was a saggy, sunken look to his face that gave him an air of sombre sincerity. I was just glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of the tongue-lashing.
Sten and Zevran were already perusing the goods, Zev wheedling information easily out of another of the nervous-looking apprentices… nervous, I imagined, because they’d probably never seen a qunari before.
Leliana was there, fondling a shortbow with breathless reverence, and quizzing one of the young elves about heartwoods. She smiled cheerfully at our approach, and we were drawn into the throng, for all the world as if it was a busy market day, with gossip and chatter floating like pennants between the traders’ stands.
I learned more about Dalish weapons and armour in that short time than any book or quartermaster could ever have taught me. Master Varathorn, once you got him going, had some very strong opinions on everything that was wrong with human-made work… which was how I came to find myself at the centre of a group of three apprentices, with the craftsmaster gesturing disdainfully at my leathers.
“This is exactly what I was talking about! You see this? The cutting is all wrong. This is typical shoddiness. The shemlen do not think of hide as skin, but as something that may be cut and shaped like parchment. Not to mention these… alterations,” he added dubiously, looking at the trimmed-down parts of my jack, and the clumsy straps that held the human-sized pieces of clothing in place over the greyish gathering of material that might once have been called a shirt. “What is this padded with?”
“Horsehair,” I said, wincing at Master Varathorn’s look of appalled distaste.
“No, no… all wrong,” he muttered, his rough, bowed fingers curling in a gesture of dismissal. “Come. I don’t have much left, but you must take what will be of use.”
I tried to protest, but it didn’t get me anywhere. It seemed as if the craftsmaster had taken my cut-down armour as a personal insult, and he didn’t rest until we were all outfitted with the most serviceable items he had left in his stores… well, most of us. Leliana’s polite and knowledgeable interest in the weapons the Dalish favoured most had apparently allowed Master Varathorn to conveniently forget she was human and, though his armour was only sized for elven frames, he was happy enough to gift her a bow and a quiver full of those short, dark-tipped arrows. The tooling on the leather was the same kind of swirling, intricate design I saw all over the camp, in everything from the tattoos to the shapes painted on the prows of the landships… aravels, I learned they were called. I picked the word out when one of the craftsmaster’s apprentices—a young boy, one of three crowded around me and carrying on snippets of several conversations at once in a strange, hard to follow patter of Common and broken Elvish—was sent to fetch a bundle of leatherwork from inside.
“It means ‘journey’, or something very like it,” Zevran said, doing his favourite trick of apparently materialising behind me. “Thing that is for the journey, perhaps. There is a degree of flexibility in the translation.”
I looked over my shoulder, feeling somewhat exposed in the grubby shirt and breeches I’d stripped to while I waited for the spare jack I’d been promised. I thought ruefully of my first outfitting at the quartermaster’s store back at Ostagar, and the press of eager chaos as countless soldiers jostled for the supplies. It had been the first time I was treated with respect at the camp—clutching Duncan’s promissory note in front of me like a shield—and I’d walked out of there with my head held high, believing I was dressed like a Warden, or at least a soldier. Of course, I had no such ticket to respectability among the Dalish, however much I wanted one… and there was very little chance of me looking half as at home as Zev did.
He still had most of his Antivan leather on—the ornate chestpiece, the same fringe of metal-tipped plackets at his thighs—but he wore Dalish bracers now, and guards on his upper arms and elbows… plus shoulderpieces, breeches, and a new, wider belt, all with the same Dalish designs tooled into the leather. The hide was dyed, like much of their leatherwork, and its deep, burnished copper colour brought out the gold in his skin. He smiled casually at me, apparently enjoying his new finery, and all the attention that came with it.
“They do us remarkable honour by this act, you know,” he said, lowering his voice. “You are aware it is your fault?”
I turned to face him, grimacing warily. Behind him, I could see Master Varathron engaging in earnest, terse discussion with Sten. It looked as if the elf was genuinely curious, trying to work out how to equip someone so very different to his own proportions. Alistair stood sullenly near where Leliana was still chattering about bows, and I looked away quickly before he had time to meet my eye.
“How come?” I asked, turning my attention back to Zevran.
He smiled again, and it was the glimmer of a softly drawn blade. “Ah…! They are talking about you already, corragiosa. You might not be of the Elvhen, but they like the story of what you did to the human lord.”
I winced, and my stomach tightened. “Vaughan? I only told Daeon what—”
Zevran shook his head and tutted incredulously as he cast a look toward Master Varathorn’s aravel, from which one of the boys was emerging with a bundle of leathers.
“Indeed,” he said, leaning in as another apprentice slipped past us, and a cruel kind of mirth marked his features. “However, I think the tale grows bloodier with every whisper.”
“Oh,” I said despondently.
And there I’d been, thinking it was the noble gravitas of the Grey Wardens’ reputation that had convinced the clan not to turn on us.
The craftsmaster wouldn’t accept any gesture of payment for the odds and ends of armour, weapons, and running repairs he made to our gear. That was just as well, really, as we didn’t have much to offer. I knew Zevran had some trinkets salted away from Soldier’s Peak, but it seemed the Dalish had as little use for old scrolls or silver inkwells as they did for coin. In fact, I worried I’d offended Master Varathorn by trying to pay.
The elvhen, I learned, operated by barter… when they traded at all. Mostly, the clan did things for each other because they were clan. Everyone had their place, their role, and they fulfilled it in the secure expectation that every other elf would do their share, and thus everybody would have their needs met. Within it, as with all places and all people, there were friendships, rivalries, and favours passed around, but the usual rhythms of life were clear.
Sten seemed strangely comfortable with it, noting tersely that the elves’ ways were ‘not entirely senseless’, though he seemed to have little sympathy with their plight. Certainly, he didn’t appear to approve when I agreed to look for ironbark in the forest. It was Master Varathorn’s suggestion—not quite a request—and I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was the payment he expected for what he’d given us, or a genuine plea for help in the hope we were as skilled as Zathrian’s apparent confidence in us suggested.
“We are forbidden us from going any further in,” the craftsmaster explained, with a trace of something in the words that wasn’t quite disdain, but ran rather close to it. “I suppose Zathrian has no choice, but it makes things very difficult. If I had ironbark, I could make more supplies—you know, properly fashioned, it yields armour light as air but strong as steel—but we have lost too many to the werebeasts already, without risking those who are left. If they go, there is no one to protect the clan, after all, and there is no point in making armour for dead men.” He sighed dismally. “Perhaps Hahren Sarel is right, and we will have no choice but to flee to the north.”
The others, all except Sten and I, had drifted away from the craftsmaster’s domain, duly furnished with whatever he could give them. We two were the last, me having adjustments to my new jack (a piece belonging to one of the dead hunters, which had been in for repair—I very much hoped not immediately after his death—and, with a little cutting down, had been persuaded to fit me), and Sten waiting patiently while the gaggle of apprentices carefully rebound the hilt of his broadsword and repaired his boots.
“It is curious,” he observed, ostensibly to himself, yet clearly aware that Master Varathorn could hear him, “how they so easily choose to run from trouble.”
Not for the first time, I was stunned by Sten’s lack of tact… although I supposed I shouldn’t have been. If knowing him had taught me anything about the qunari, it was that they apparently had no purpose for sparing anyone’s pride.
The craftsmaster took it well, however, and just snorted.
“No,” he said tartly. “There is no ease in such a choice. But, it is hopeless to fight.”
“It is never hopeless,” Sten retorted, those startlingly bright eyes flashing in his dark face, like chips of quartz caught against rocks. “Not while you draw breath.”
The old elf smiled bitterly and handed him back the newly repaired broadsword.
“I truly wish you well, stranger,” he said darkly. “And may you not live to wish those words unsaid.”
Sten muttered something in his own tongue. I didn’t understand it, though I did make out the word ‘parshaara’ which, by that point, I had guessed meant something more or less akin to ‘enough!’. I wanted to apologise for him, anyway, but there seemed little point. Master Varathorn was done with us, and Sten had barely strapped his boots back on before he was striding off back into the camp, and I had to quicken my pace to catch up.
“That was—” I began, but I gave up when the look on Sten’s face told me just how futile any attempt at criticism would be. I sighed, and gestured vaguely at his blade. “They did a good job on your sword, anyway. Maybe be a bit kinder because of that?”
He scoffed: a deep rumble, right at the back of his throat. “Kindness? To overlook faults, to ignore weakness? That is merely foolish. It is no benefit to be made blind to inadequacy.”
That great, craggy brow folded in on itself, and Sten scowled at the damp grass. His braids hung loose against his chest, their stark white grubby and greyed next to the dark leather and splinted mail he wore. We’d been promised a chance to bathe somewhere downstream, once we’d familiarised ourselves with the camp, and I imagined we were all looking forward to it.
Even if we died stupidly in the forest, at least we could do it smelling relatively fresh.
“In any case,” Sten added, glaring at a tussock on the dappled, clean-swept ground, “this is not my sword.”
“What?” I blinked, and looked in confusion at the sheathed blade slung over his back. “Sten, it’s as much yours as—”
“No. It is not my sword.”
I stopped, letting him put a couple of paces between us as I tried to wrap my mind around what he meant. He halted, and looked back at me impassively.
“I don’t understand.”
“No,” he said, his tone lightening just a little, as if my evident stupidity amused him, albeit with some bitter kind of aftertaste. “You would not.”
With that, Sten stalked off, leaving me to stand there in my second-hand leathers, mouth emptily framing a few choice cusses.
It had been a very long time since I’d had anything that resembled as much free time as we were granted in the Dalish camp. Fair enough, most of it was to be put to good use either resting, restocking, or finding out whatever we could about what might lie ahead of us, while the sombre tenor of things—not to mention the tents full of the sick and dying—prevented any sense of real relaxation or festivity. All the same, I started to unwind just enough to realise how much my muscles hurt. All the fatigues and niggling pains the past few months had piled up seemed to seep back into my consciousness, and it felt as if I’d fall apart if I stood still long enough to think about it… so I didn’t. I mingled, as far as the clan would have me, and probably made a fool of myself asking questions so simple they would have shamed a child.
I learned a great deal, though. I learned that the Dalish did not speak their own language as completely as it first seemed, and that Elvish itself appeared to be more of a mix of Common and reappropriated words than anything, but I did glean a clutch of new words. I started with ‘aravel’ and soon added ‘vallaslin’, for the tattoos that the Dalish bore… though I quickly discovered that they were sacred, and no one liked talking about them with an outsider.
Some of the clan made no secret of not wishing to speak to me at all. They moved away before I approached, or brushed me off with the fewest words possible. Some of the men looked at me like I was an aberration, especially wearing cast-off Dalish armour. Some of the women just stared with a mix of revulsion and pity, and I didn’t really understand why. It wasn’t as if Dalish women didn’t fight, after all. My thoughts turned briefly to Alistair, and I hated the guilt and shame that rose up in me, and found myself quietly glad that at first glance around the camp I couldn’t see him.
As far as I could tell, the others were all doing the same as me: making the most of the opportunities we’d been given.
I found Morrigan on the other side of the brook, toeing through the plants that clung to the muddy banks and seizing on handfuls of straggly, pale green leaves. She glanced up at my approach, recognition rapidly giving way to irritation.
“Oh. ’Tis you.”
“Herbs?” I asked, nodding at the plants she was gathering.
She grimaced. “No… I am picking pretty flowers for the sheer delight of it. Mayhap I shall weave them into a crown and declare myself a princess.”
Her yellow-gold glare narrowed like a knife, but it didn’t faze me. If anything, it made me think she was glad of my company, however silly that seemed.
I gestured to the bundle of thin stalks she held. “That’s woundwort, isn’t it? I don’t know that one.”
Morrigan held out the damp little plant she’d just plucked, and I leaned in to get a closer look. It had wide, wrinkled leaves and small, star-shaped white blossoms with pinkish centres… rather like the flower I’d gathered for the kennel master back at Ostagar, except this one smelled faintly of pondwater and cat piss.
“Lesser Healspeed, the Wilders call it,” Morrigan said, as I screwed up my nose at the smell. “We do not use it much, though I am surprised to find it this far north. Perhaps because the summer was mild. It is a poor substitute for the greater kind, but most potent in certain healing potions. Of course, the Dalish have scoured this place of almost everything usable… yet they seemed content to let me forage.”
She tucked the herbs into one of the leather pouches at her belt, and I allowed myself a small smile. Even as fierce as the Dalish presented themselves to be, it was hard to picture anyone telling Morrigan she couldn’t do something.
“Maybe your skills can help them,” I suggested, at which she gave me a very withering look. “Knowledge from a different place, or…?”
“The old woman has already insinuated herself,” Morrigan said dryly. “I have been given leave to gather and brew, but I doubt my potions will be of use to the elves. Better take them with us, lest we meet more in the forest than werebeasts.”
She said it with a grim kind of certainty that made me want to shudder, as if she knew exactly what was awaiting us. I didn’t push for details, and I let her wave me away with the pretence of irritation, crossing back past the brook and into the body of the camp.
The great curved shapes of the aravels shaded everything, with their half-folded sails, their proud hulls and high, arches wheels. Three children peered out at me from behind one: a grubby, feral little group, with wide eyes and sharp, knowing faces. They stared at me unabashed when I caught them looking, and after a moment’s suspended breath and tension, burst out from the landship’s cover and pinwheeled into a run, scrambling over each other in their haste to dart away. The oldest—a boy with coarse blond hair falling to his jaw and eyes the colour of spring skies—turned back and cat-called a word at me before pelting off in fits of breathless giggles.
I didn’t know what it meant, but I guessed it wasn’t complimentary.
The sound of footsteps on the leaves behind me made me turn… or, more precisely, the sound of someone deliberately finding a dry leaf and a couple of twigs to tread on. I smiled.
“Are you trying to make me feel better about my ability to pick out a target?”
Zevran chuckled softly and shrugged. “Well, you complained of my stealth, no? A gentleman always put a lady at her ease.”
I opened my mouth for the obvious riposte, saw the look on his face, and shut it again abruptly.
“That’s… very gallant,” I said instead. “Been busy?”
He gave another small shrug: a slow, cat-like flexing of the muscles beneath his half-Antivan, half-Dalish leathers.
“Not as busy as I’d like,” he said, looking past my right shoulder in a pointed manner.
I glanced behind me and, following Zevran’s gaze, I noticed a young, dark-haired elf standing by one of the aravels. He hadn’t been there before, I was sure. Ostensibly, he was inspecting the wheel rims, and not looking at us at all… but I knew dissembling when I saw it.
“Shh.” Zev hushed me with barely a twist of his lips, and continued to watch the elf from beneath hooded eyes. “It would be a crime to frighten away something so lovely, no?”
His words were almost a whisper, but I wondered if the elf had heard them, because he glanced up, looked fleetingly embarrassed—or as near it as I suspected the Dalish were able to be—and moved to the other side of the landship. Zevran just smiled, and I blinked, a little surprised by his open, calculated admiration. The elf was handsome, in that very Dalish way. His hair was almost black, a heavy fall of braids and locks pinned at the back of his head, and his skin bore the rough, weathered look that most of the clan had, though it was pale enough for the sinuous lines of his tattoos to seem very dark against it.
He wore leathers, but not like those of the hunters. They were still of that exquisite Dalish make—dark, oiled hide, tinted to shades of grey and green and tooled with the swirling shapes of vines and spirals—but they weren’t as intricate, and his shoulders were capped with a rough, fur-lined cape.
He was still watching us… or, at least, watching Zevran. I shrugged, not much caring for the sense of being a crass intruder on a private moment, and somewhat unsettled by the feeling that Zev had been chasing him across the camp like a deer.
“Well, I should probably go and… um….”
“Yes,” Zev murmured. “Yes, you probably should. I shall see you later, yes?”
He wasn’t even looking at me, and I found the predatory set to his face a bit unnerving. This wasn’t playfully flirtatious Zevran, who passed time on the road annoying Wynne with bosom jokes, or calling me beautiful just to see the colour I turned.
I took my leave, but glanced over my shoulder as I went, just in time to see the assassin hunting down his prey. There was something measured in his stride; a carefully calibrated seducer, I thought, noting that the boy just straightened up, standing his ground and smiling as Zevran approached.
Apparently, the elvhen held discoveries for us all.
The prude in me was a little embarrassed as I walked away, quickening my pace. I had thoughts of heading to the hospital tents to see if Wynne had found any success in speaking with the healers—she had seemed so quiet and tense since we’d come to the camp, and I suspected the gruesome nature of the curse had upset her—but I was waylaid by an elf with jaw-length red hair and an anxious expression.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, his palms pressed together, and thick, rough-hewn fingers curled around each other. “Forgive me. I was hoping I would have a chance to speak you with you, stranger.”
I blinked curiously, a little intimidated by the heavy, angular tattoos on his face (stupidly so, given the striking looks of my companions; amazing that I could travel every day with Sten beside me, and still find anyone daunting), and the wide, pale green eyes that stared so hopefully at me.
He bent his head, and when he next spoke I realised his voice lacked that crisp, clipped delivery so many of his clansmen had, as if he was more used to the common tongue than they were. His clothes were different, too: a thick, woven shirt, fur-lined cloak and boots, and serviceable leather breeches, but not the garb of a hunter. If he hadn’t been Dalish, I’d have thought he was a tradesman.
“My name is Athras.”
Those pale eyes flickered for a moment, and my stomach started to sink. All right, so my naming of the mabari hound had been off, but did my own name mean something stupid in Elvish as well? I dreaded to think. As far as I knew, I’d simply been named for my uncle Merenir—which, admittedly, wasn’t the most auspicious connection in the world—and Mother had once told me that the root of the word meant something like ‘brave’ or ‘strong’, but that probably wasn’t true. If it meant anything at all, I just knew it wasn’t going to be complimentary.
Athras didn’t say anything, though. He gave me a small smile, and glanced nervously towards the centre of the camp.
“I… I hope my people have not been too harsh in their treatment of you? We do not encounter many outsiders, but it is good to see another elf, even if you’re not of the clans.”
No one like a Dalish for back-handed compliments, I thought ruefully, but I shook my head.
“Not at all. Everyone has been quite, um, accommodating.”
“Good.” He looked relieved, and his hands came unclenched, though he still held them cupped together. “We welcome our brethren, even if they have forgotten the old ways. That is our charge, after all: to keep the old lore alive until we can bring it back for all… but this is not what I wished to speak to you about.”
Athras looked down at his heavy knuckles, and seemed tempted to worry his fingers together again. He had the hands of a carpenter, I thought, or a smith.
“I understand you will search for the wolves in the forest,” he said quietly, casting a sly look across the camp… in the direction of the keeper’s aravel. “You are seeking the white wolf?”
“We hope to help, if we can,” I said, perhaps a little more guarded than I needed to be. “Why?”
The elf rubbed one broad thumb anxiously against his palm, like he was struggling with something that shouldn’t be said, and yet itched to come out.
We were already quite a way from most of the aravels, but he took a few steps to the side, closer to the shade of the treeline, and implored me to follow with the pained look in his eyes. The earthy smell of the forest seemed to rise up from the pines, marking more clearly than ever the strange dichotomy of this place: both within the Brecilian Forest’s bounds, and yet not truly inside it. I’d never known there were so many degrees of forest. I’d thought it was either dense trees or nothing, not these cycles of copse and clearing, ringed around the dark heart of the forest like mayflies kissing the surface of a river.
I followed Athras, and waited patiently for his tale.
“I am not a hunter,” he said, as if disclosing something shameful. “I make… crafts. Furniture, such as we use, and tools. But, when the ambush came, I fought the werebeasts—and so did my wife, Danyla.” His face softened, and yet great pain marked his expression. “She has far more skill with blade and bow than I, but she was gravely injured in the attack.”
Athras nodded his acknowledgement, but he was frowning at the sparse grass between us, staring back into Maker alone knew what horrible memories.
“Zathrian… demanded that those who were injured be kept apart from us. To protect us, he said,” Athras added, both bitterness and suspicion running coldly beneath the words. “He told me there was nothing he could do—just ease her pain. He said she died, but he won’t let me see the body. He… he refuses to let us see the bodies.”
I said nothing. Would I want to see the corpse of a loved one, already half-mangled by so vile a curse? No doubt the first few to be infected had turned completely, before the healers established the last safe point between drugging and killing the poor bastards.
The very real threat that awaited us began to tug darkly at my mind, and I tried to tell myself it was no different to the ever-present danger of being ripped apart by darkspawn. Death was death, however it came.
“The thing is,” Athras went on, urgently now, looking at me as if I somehow held answers, “I think there is something more to it. I think she… she became one of them, and I think she got away.”
“Got away?” I echoed incredulously. This was beginning to sound like the desperate hope of a bereaved man and, though my heart went out to him, I saw nothing I could do for Athras.
“Maybe.” Those pale green eyes found mine again, and his gaze almost shook with indignation. “I think Zathrian is telling us all what he believes will stop us chasing off into the forest, and I know he wants to protect us, but…. He has forbidden everyone from entering. The hunters, the craftsmen—how are we meant to feed ourselves, or gather supplies? Besides, I… I found this.”
Athras reached, fumble-fingered, into a pouch at his belt, and pulled out a soft roll of fabric. He passed it to me with a kind of reverence, and I saw it was a scarf, of the kind I’d seen some of the Dalish women wearing. They were beautiful pieces of embroidery: finely woven fabric in a dark, mossy green, with patterns of delicate vines and flowers picked out in a lighter green thread. Elven stitchwork had been well known in the market in Denerim, and our needlewomen were sought after—even if ‘seamstress’ was frequently a less-than-subtle euphemism in certain parts of the alienage—but this put the best embroidery I’d seen to shame.
“This was your wife’s?”
Athras nodded. “I found it yesterday morning, behind our aravel. Just… just over there.” He turned, and pointed to a small landship at the fringe of the camp. A spinning wheel and small treadle loom sat on the grass near its steps. “You see? What else can I think? Anyway, it may sound foolish, but… but I know she is alive. I am sure of it. I… I would know if she was dead,” he finished quietly, his voice choked somewhere between certainty and blind, determined hope as he stared at the scarf I held. “You know, don’t you,” he murmured, “when someone you love is gone? I… I think you understand what I mean.”
“Yes,” I said thickly, wondering how far the story I’d told Daeon had spread through the camp—bloodier with every whisper, as Zevran had said—or whether it was just branded on my forehead. “Yes, I do.”
And yet, did I know? A little seed of doubt settled in my mind then, though I did my best to ignore it. I didn’t know what had happened to anyone back home. Soris, Shianni, Valora, Taeodor… any or all of them might be dead, or they might have missed the worst that soldiers could do. I doubted it. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t believe Shianni would have been all right—not after the way I’d last seen her—and my heart was an open wound when I thought of my father. He’d never seemed an old man before that day, but I knew what had happened had all but broken him. It seemed impossibly optimistic to believe he could have survived a second purge… but I hadn’t felt it when it happened. I hadn’t believed, until we set foot back in the city on that ill-fated day, that what I’d done would have such repercussions.
Against my ignorance—a badge I’d all too bloodily won—I found Athras’ certainty unnerving, but I didn’t argue.
“Look, I can try to seek her out, if she’s in the forest,” I suggested. “And maybe I could speak with Zathrian. It does seem as if the werewolves are not as mindless as he believes. If—”
“No!” Athras widened his eyes. “No. Zathrian is very, uh, firm of purpose. He will not listen to… speculation. Better that you just look, if you are willing. I will be greatly in your debt. Please, take the scarf. If you find her—even if she is dead, or worse—just knowing would bring me peace. I don’t have much, but I’m sure I can find something to—”
I shook my head. “I don’t need a reward.”
Athras clasped his hands afresh, and bowed clumsily. “Ma serennas, Grey Warden. Thank you. I will wait… and I will not tell anyone what we have spoken of.”
The agreement lingered wordlessly in the air, and Athras excused himself as I tucked his wife’s scarf carefully into my scrip.
I watched him lope cautiously back to his landship, and wondered at just how much Zathrian was keeping from his clan.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
We started early, well before dawn, and the dew hung on the trees like a film of wet ice, unmoving in the damp, stagnant air.
Everything seemed so awfully quiet. That was the worst thing. We were all tired and prickly after an uncomfortable night, and though at the time it had seemed such safe intimacy, that morning I felt exposed by having talked so much.
The greater part of it was probably the fact we were admitting failure. We were picking our way out of the forest, tails between our legs, maintaining a fiction of keeping a weather eye out for the Dalish as we moved, yet in truth thinking of nothing more than getting as far away from that place as we could.
We’d discussed it as we pulled up camp, although in the most cursory of manners. Sten’s disapproval had radiated over things like a heat haze, and he’d grunted out a few choice phrases about ‘abandoning all resolve at the first obstacle’, but I’d been surprised to find that the others were largely behind me. Morrigan affected smugness, reminding me she’d said the forest was full of hidden dangers, while even Wynne agreed that, if continuing the search for the Dalish took us deeper into places so very full of demons then, as turned around as we already were, it was unlikely we’d ever get out alive, much less as quickly as we wanted to.
Zevran was my staunchest supporter. He took it all in stride and, with a cheerful smile, clapped me on the shoulder as he strolled past, pack in hand, and said it was ‘better to cut one’s losses while one is still holding the knife’.
Leliana put on a polite show of agreement, but appeared to be very crestfallen. I wasn’t sure how far it was disappointment in my decision, or discomfort at not feeling secure enough in her own position to argue with me. Either way, I was frankly just grateful nobody made a scene.
My mood was already pitching towards my boots. I felt like a traitor, and a coward, and all number of other uncomplimentary things, and I couldn’t even summon up any enthusiasm for the idea that I was making this choice because it was right… because it safeguarded these people for whom I felt responsible, and because—a solid three weeks’ journey to the west, near enough—there was a man who lay dying and needed our help.
Given those thoughts of Arl Eamon, Alistair’s silence on the matter of leaving the forest was telling. All he said was ‘if you think that’s best’, and he didn’t even meet my eye when he said it. Part of me felt mildly hoodwinked, like somehow he’d got his way without even having to try and convince me… and I resented that, though I didn’t want to blame him for it. Maybe he disagreed; I had no way of knowing, and I didn’t want to ask.
All in all, none of it made for a good atmosphere as we trudged through the damp brush, with the canopy’s dusty, filtered light spilling slow streaks of sunshine onto our backs.
We were silent, and morose, and there was a slight tang of fear on the air. Maethor padded close to me, ignoring even the tell-tale skitter of squirrels in the trees, and his stumpy little tail was clamped right down, ears flat to his skull and nose quivering as he snuffed noisily at the air.
By the time the sun was properly up, it felt like we’d been walking for hours, and I was sure I’d seen the same tree root three times already.
We were meant to be arcing south-west, in a general sort of theory; avoiding the area where we’d encountered the dyads before, but shaving off a little time by not back-tracking towards the north. It was Morrigan’s route, which naturally roused the normal kind of back-biting between her and Alistair.
“I don’t see why you couldn’t just fly over and—”
“Ugh, not this again….” She rolled her eyes, stabbing her staff savagely into the soft ground with every step. “How many times must I try to drive information into that pumpkin you call a head? What need do I have to see again what I have already seen? This is the route. Believe me or do not; I no longer care.”
“Could’ve flown over and looked for the Dalish, then,” he muttered darkly. “Might’ve found them from the air.”
Morrigan gave a frustrated growl. “Fool. You think they would leave themselves so easily visible? Had we more time, perhaps I could spend days hopping from branch to branch, inspecting the woods for clues… but it seems we do not possess such luxuries.”
There was a moment’s lull in the sniping, filled with the mismatched clumps of footfalls. I wondered if what she said was true, or merely a defence for the fact she couldn’t sustain the form of the bird for as long as it would have taken either to lead us out of the forest, or search the trees for the Dalish. I wasn’t sure, but there was no way I was going to wade into the argument, so I kept my mouth firmly shut.
Alistair scowled at the witch.
“My head doesn’t look anything like a pumpkin,” he said indignantly, the insult having apparently just filtered through, at which she bared her teeth, but apparently felt no need to make further comment.
She still didn’t seem quite herself, I thought. I’d been putting it down to tiredness, and there had been a change in her when she got near the forest… the way a dog grows fidgety close to home. All the same, I couldn’t help worrying a little. I thought back to Soldier’s Peak, and the uncharitable part of me was frightened at someone with Morrigan’s ruthless acquisitiveness coming in such close contact with a creature like Avernus, not to mention all the dark knowledge he’d left behind.
We should have burned all of it, I supposed. Archives and everything, and yet I believed so firmly that we’d need them. It was the first thing I wanted to do, as soon as we got near Lake Calenhad; send word to the mages, and have people who understood things like that go and deal with it. I suppose I wanted to think there’d be some secret answer buried there, as if the Blight was no more than a riddle and, somehow, all those past generations of Wardens would have left us the key.
I told myself that was stupid… as was my worry over Morrigan. Not trusting her completely was one thing, but I wasn’t as paranoid about her as Alistair. Besides, she’d been so badly hurt. She’d had no opportunity to learn from the blood magic Avernus had been using, and we’d certainly seen her use none of her own, whatever Alistair liked to mutter about maleficarum.
So, we trudged on, and the overbearing silence made it too easy for me to dwell on the fact we weren’t going to find the Dalish. Worse, that we were abandoning the hope of it—that I was abandoning the very idea of them—and that was a horrible feeling. The memories of childhood stories refused to let me go, filling my mind with wisps of tales and half-recalled gossip. Leaves crunched and scuffled beneath our feet, and the weak threads of the sun trickled through the fringes of red, gold, and greenish-brown foliage still clinging to the trees, while the great feathered boughs of pines and firs ate up all the rest of the light.
At one point, I thought I saw another Dalish arrowhead lying in the brush, but it turned out to be a stone. No one laughed at my mistake.
We traipsed on and, ahead of me, Zevran was peering up at the trees as he walked, the weak sun glimmering on his hair, but it wasn’t the idle speculation of a man enjoying the scenery. He was watching everything, taking note of every detail… almost as if he was aware of something I wasn’t.
I wanted to ask him what he could see but, on top of the misidentified arrowhead, I didn’t really wish to make myself look like even more of an idiot.
Overhead, the trees rustled, but no birds cawed. We’d seen very few of them since entering the forest; I suspected horrible things happened to anything living that went too near some of the trees.
Maethor huffed softly to himself and cocked a leg against a stand of ragged grass. I watched him, noting the tension in that wide, muscular body, even in the act of relieving his bladder, and realised he was just as wary as Zevran.
There was something out there, definitely. I looked to Leliana, unsurprised to find her gentle tranquillity barely masking a keen alertness, those glass-clear eyes fixed intently on the trees ahead of us. Even Alistair had started to look fidgety, and Morrigan had developed a certain degree of stiffness in her stride. I glanced over my shoulder, reaffirming my knowledge of where everyone was, just in case we were suddenly called on to draw weapons.
“I don’t think we’re alone,” Leliana said softly, her brows drawing into a frown. “D’you think…?”
Up ahead, the trees were not so much thicker as older: a stand of great, knotted trunks and branches, many grizzled with late autumn leaves turning rotten on the bough, and others heavy with the fronds of dank, dark needles. The way seemed uncomfortable, if not impassable, and I peered to either side of us, hoping for an easier route.
“Brasca,” Zevran muttered, his body already beginning to drop into a loose-limbed, predatory crouch.
My fingers twitched towards my daggers as, at my heel, Maethor loosed a low rumble.
“Oh, sod,” Alistair said, reaching for his sword. “There’s not going to be more demons, are there? I could really get sick of demons.”
Something rustled in the trees ahead, but I could see nothing. Just the oddly dappled light coming through the leaves… like this was some pleasant, sunlit grove, and death wasn’t awaiting us in every shadow.
Maethor lunged forwards, paws skittering on the dry leaves, and barked angrily.
“You are in luck, then,” Zevran said, raising his voice a little. “There are no demons here, Alistair. Just ghosts.”
He straightened up, his hands relaxing, and I didn’t understand why he’d dropped his guard. I turned, ready to ask what in the Maker’s name he thought he was doing, but then it became extremely, pointedly, clear.
Three elves emerged from the trees ahead of us, melting from the shadows as if they were made of them… and they were all armed.
Two carried tall, slender bows, and the arrows that were already nocked and trained on us bore familiar flint tips. The third was a woman, tall and athletic, her face marked with a dark and complex pattern of lines, like paint or ink traced over her skin. She too had a bow across her back, but carried in her hand a long, wicked-looking blade, curved like a fang, with a cloth-wrapped hilt. She held it low, but there was no mistaking the threat, or the hard, violent distrust in her face as she stared at us.
“They have been following us for some time,” Zevran murmured, as Maethor grumbled, low in his chest, and pressed protectively against my leg. “They were either waiting to see what we would do, or they wanted us out of the forest.”
The woman scowled at him, and made a sharp gesture with her left hand.
“Dar’then,” she snapped, presumably addressing the men with her, for they moved to flank us, slowly sidestepping foot-over-foot, soft-shod in low-cut leather boots, and yet their aim never wavered.
At Ostagar, I’d watched men practicing at the butts. I’d even learned to fire a crossbow, but I’d never seen any archer who looked as coolly assured and, frankly, bloody terrifying as this. There was no doubting that one of those cruel, flint-tipped arrows—slim though they might be—could end any of us in under a second, and there was something about the way the elves moved, with that cat-like, unhurried grace, that was truly frightening.
We outnumbered them almost three to one, yet they weren’t worried. If anything, they seemed affronted at the very fact of our presence. I wondered why they’d revealed themselves at all. Why not wait until we left the woods? Were we really that far off target? Maybe they’d grown tired of waiting, and just decided to kill us now.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the way Zevran was standing: straight, yet relaxed, his head held up but his gaze fixed on the trees, not the woman giving the orders, and his hands well away from his more obvious weapons. It seemed sensible to follow suite, so I did, and gradually the others mirrored my movement. Even Maethor, sticking close to my heel, and deathly quiet in the way that he always was just before he decided to attack, eased his posture slightly.
We stood, silent, and time seemed to slow to the pace of treacle. I tried to keep my breathing in check, but as the three elves stared at us, and the woman who led them began to step forwards, one thought and one thought only beat over and over in my head.
They are Dalish. Real, live Dalish. Really real Dalish elves….
Common sense forgotten, my heart pounded, every thud of it in my chest echoing until my head swam and my blood fizzed. We’d found them. We’d really found them. Or, perhaps, they’d found us… but the details didn’t matter, did they? Even as we’d thought we were leaving every chance of it behind, here they were— and they were real.
The moment stretched out, growing taut and thin, but I didn’t care. I’d tried to follow Zev’s example and not make eye contact, but I couldn’t keep from looking at them.
They were not, to put it lightly, what I had imagined they would be.
All three wore leather armour, but of a kind unlike anything I’d ever seen. The hides were dyed, for a start, all in tones of dark green and russet, and every inch of leather was embossed or decorated with intricate, swirling designs. The men wore brigandines cut low on the neck, but that reached to mid-thigh, with dark, rough shirts beneath, and heavy belts about their waists, no doubt bristling with other weaponry. The woman’s armour was of a slightly different style; high-necked, with a heavier chestpiece that bore what looked like the shape of a great tree, picked out in scrolled lines and curves. Her breeches were thick, her boots high and lashed with heavy shin-guards, and a skirt of leather plackets and knotted cords fringed the bottom of her jack, while a wide leather belt at her hips held at least one more blade.
Her pale brown hair was swept up into a short, sleek tail at the crown of her head, highlighting cheekbones sharp as razors, and long, finely tapered ears. As she drew closer, as if prowling forwards to inspect a kill, I could see more clearly the strange lines that crossed her features. They were tattoos: thick, black curves and angular patterns that, like Zevran’s marks, hugged the outlines of her face, and yet almost made another skin on top of it. I tried to follow the lines, but I got lost amongst them. They went everywhere… arcing over her forehead, her cheeks, and even down her jaw, towards her neck. I didn’t know much about how the things were applied, but it must have been agonising.
As I stared, her gaze met mine, and the breath was wrung from me completely.
Oh, I had seen plenty of stunning eyes before. Lots of girls in the alienage had possessed what shemlen men liked to call ‘elven eyes’; those pale and shimmering hues of green, amber, or lavender that they seemed to find so appealing. I’d even grown used to Morrigan’s golden stare, and Sten’s disturbingly bright gaze.
Nevertheless, I was not prepared for the sheer brilliance of the Dalish woman’s eyes. They were light grey, almost ghostly, with pupils black as buttons, and they bit into me like blades, so full of challenge and anger.
Her thin lips parted, and she made a small noise in the back of her throat, her gaze leaving mine to survey those I stood with. Her grip tightened on that wicked blade, and she took a step nearer, her shoulders squared.
She was taller than me—almost of human height, as were the men with her, I thought, thought it was harder to tell while they were busy aiming arrows at our heads. One of the archers was blond, his skin reddened and wind-chapped, his long hair twisted into a rough knot at the back of his neck. The other had dark hair, bound into dozens of tiny locks and plaits, and loosely pinned behind his ears. They both had those markings on their faces too, but the patterns weren’t alike. I guessed they represented something, but I had no idea what. Clans? Families, maybe?
I thought I should say something—explain we meant no harm, perhaps—but my tongue felt thick and dry, and my head was buzzing. It didn’t seem real. None of it seemed real. I swallowed heavily.
“Um… er, we—”
I didn’t know what that meant, but ‘stop talking’ seemed a reasonable translation. My mouth snapped shut, and the Dalish woman glared at me.
“Hamin, Mithra,” said the blond-haired archer, without breaking his aim.
She glanced at him, and a rapid exchange in Elvish followed, ending with her glowering at me—and the rest of my companions—before she stepped back abruptly, and gave a stiff nod of her head.
“You are outsiders,” she said, and her heavily accented words were crisp but uneven, as if she wasn’t comfortable speaking the common tongue. “Why are you here?”
That pale, uncompromising gaze roved over us all, and I knew I should speak. I should press myself forwards, declare our business and maybe mention the treaties, and—
“We have been seeking the Dalish,” Zevran said smoothly, his voice rolling with that honeyed tone of persuasiveness he could use so well. “We are honoured you allow us this meeting.”
The woman sneered. “And why should we not kill you, vir’din?”
“Because you have been tracking us, no?” Zevran smiled at her, which I imagined—from the woman’s expression—was not something that happened often when she had archers pointing their weapons at people. “My companions and I seek an audience with your Keeper. This is all we ask. No harm. Just words. These two,” he added, indicating Alistair and me with a nod of his head, “are Grey Wardens.”
That earned me another glare. Not Alistair, however, I noticed. The elf seemed adept at completely ignoring him… as well as every other human present, not to mention Sten, which was quite a feat in itself.
“This is true?” she demanded.
I nodded, and finally found my voice. “Y-Yes. We are. There’s, uh, there’s a Blight. A horde of darkspawn massing in the south. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but the king’s army fell. We need allies, if we’ve any hope of stopping this.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she moved closer to me. The smell of leather and skins, mixed with the smell of the forest—that dark, pine-sour earthiness—filled my nostrils, and brought with it other scents. There was the sharpness of wood smoke, as if the camp these three had come from wasn’t far, and a rich, sharp aroma, like perfume or resin, seemed to blend with it. I couldn’t be sure if it was rising off the leather of her armour, or her skin itself. I blinked and, unable to hold her gaze, let my eyes fall to the hide thong she wore at her throat. A small group of beads had been threaded upon it; carved bone, painted wood, and something that looked like a shell. I thought of the string of shells hanging in Alarith’s shop, hanging like bleached teeth in the shadows, up amongst the rafters and clutter of his goods, and I wondered if people like this really did save people like him.
Were the Dalish very different if you encountered them by accident, as a waif or a wandering stray? I supposed we didn’t exactly look harmless, blundering about the woods with our armour and weapons. They’d have plenty of reason to be wary of us.
“Not our concern,” the woman said eventually, rolling the words around her mouth before practically spitting them at me. “Run back to your shemlen nobles and tell them the Dalish do not care.”
“They’re not my nobles,” I said, more quickly and more hotly than I should have done.
She narrowed her eyes and snorted dismissively. “You may be of my kind, outsider, but you are not elvhen. Flat-ears such as yourself are little different to the shemlen.”
Something inside me shrivelled a little at the venom in her voice. I stared at her in disbelief too enormous to be tainted with anger, and yet my palm itched for the welcome weight of my sword hilt against it. I wanted blood and vengeance for those words, but I also wanted to run away and hide from them. I’d seen the look she was giving me often enough before; always on the faces of old women in the alienage when a girl walked by in gathered skirts, dressed like a shem’s tart.
That wasn’t true, and it wasn’t fair… and it still made rage and humiliation boil in me. I met her gaze, and bit down on my tongue so hard that I tasted blood.
“If you already know of the Blight,” I said levelly, willing myself not to flinch at those wild grey eyes, “then you know it’s not about shems or elves. If the horde makes it up the valley, we all die. Now, I don’t stand here for anyone but the Grey Wardens, and it is as a Warden I tell you we have treaties the Dalish signed four ages ago. We want to know if you will honour them or not. So, will you let us speak with your leader?”
Her nostrils flared, and a positively murderous look flickered across her face, buried under all those dark lines. Behind me, I heard Sten shifting slightly, the gentle clink of his armour unmistakeable.
I prayed to the Maker, and Andraste—and any other gods who might possibly be around to hear me—that this wouldn’t end up in a fight. The difficult, lumpy silence stretched out, and for a little while violence felt inevitable. My back prickled, and sweat dampened the base of my spine. I didn’t move, didn’t blink and, finally, the Dalish woman stepped back, her head snapping up with the air of command.
“Huh.” She addressed me, but her eyes were scanning my companions, her expression tight and, while not precisely neutral, giving little away. “A Grey Warden. This is not a lie many would attempt. Fewer still would question the honour of the elvhen. But… we will bring you to the Keeper, as you ask.”
I tried to hold back my breath of relief, but as I opened my mouth to thank her, she cut straight across me.
“Come.” She glanced back at the two archers and nodded, before gesturing us to follow. “We go. You will follow. When we reach the camp, you will keep your hands to yourselves. You will touch nothing, and you will know there are arrows upon you, outsiders. Always.”
As she said it, the men behind her lowered their bows, but I got the distinct impression she didn’t mean them. I glanced into the trees, suddenly much less nervous than I had been about demons, and more concerned by the possibility of unseen archers.
The woman turned abruptly and stalked off through the trees. The archers were hanging back, waiting for us to follow her, no doubt so they could bring up the rear, and so there seemed little else to do.
Zevran glanced at me with a slight nod of his head, a small smile curving the edge of his lips, and then fell seamlessly, confidently into step behind her. I looked to the others, noting Morrigan’s tight-lipped displeasure—she really did loathe being treated like that, no matter whether she was at arrow-point or not—and Wynne’s guarded expression. Leliana was watching the elves’ every movement, and she inclined her head respectfully at the blond archer as she passed him, falling in behind Zevran. He didn’t acknowledge the gesture, though his gaze followed her minutely.
I caught Alistair’s eye for the briefest of moments before we moved on. It would have been nice to draw some comfort from that, but he looked nervous and ruffled, and the choked sort of half-smile he shot me wasn’t very reassuring.
We followed the three Dalish through the forest for what felt like miles. Or, more accurately: we were accompanied… with extreme attentiveness and caution. It felt almost as if we were captives; a sensation I quickly dismissed, because this had been exactly the thing we’d wanted. We’d been trying to find them, and one can’t be a captive if one is being taken to where one wants to go—or so I told myself repeatedly on that long walk.
In any case, they had not been as aggressive as, say, Brother Genitivi’s Travels had made out. Not really, anyway.
“Your name?” the dark-haired archer asked me as we walked.
He was just behind my shoulder, padding along almost soundlessly, and I’d not been expecting him to speak. When he did, it made me jump, and I was suddenly very aware both of his proximity and his strangeness. His words, like the woman’s, were wreathed in a heavy accent, and he frowned when I didn’t reply, presumably thinking he’d mispronounced something. He tried again.
“Emma Revasir,” he said slowly, putting one weatherworn hand to his chest. He pointed across to the blond archer, and then to the woman. “Aegan. Mithra. What is your name?”
I blinked. He wasn’t dirty—less dirty than me, given how long we’d been on the road—but the skin of his hands was like wood-grain, traced with ground-in soil and roughness. Even so, as I looked more carefully at him, I could see that beneath the tattoos his face was that of a young, albeit hard-worn, man: narrow cheeks, high forehead and wide ears, and a long nose and chin. The freshness of his skin had been chapped by wind and sun—though less noticeably than the other, fairer man, the one he called Aegan—and his eyes were a murky, greyish blue.
“Merien,” I said, and he tilted his head to the side, as if trying out the unfamiliar sound in his mind.
He looked fleetingly confused, but covered it well, and even managed to smile more or less politely at me as he nodded, his attention drifting to Maethor, who was padding warily at my side.
“The hound,” Revasir said, pointing at the mabari. “Is yours?”
I nodded. “Yes. Well, mabari choose their owners, or so I was told. He… found me.”
Maethor clearly knew he was being spoken of; he looked up and wagged his tail tentatively, liquid brown gaze flicking between me and the archer.
“I-I gave him an elven name,” I said, in the spirit of fostering some kind of camaraderie. “He is called ‘Maethor’. You know… ‘warrior’? I thought it was right.”
Revasir had been looking down at the dog in studied admiration, but at that he smirked, and gave a short cough of laughter. Over to my left, the blond archer snorted, and Mithra glanced back sharply.
Confused, I looked for an explanation, and Revasir shook his head, sending the little braids and fuzzy locks in his loosely pinned cascade of hair quivering. A few of them had beads and trinkets plaited into them but, as he carefully explained the reason for his mirth, I stopped noticing details.
“That word? It does not mean what you think it means. Is….” He waved one sunburned hand, evidently searching for the right term. “Stick? One who… wields stick,” he said, making a swinging motion through the air with his arm, and nodding. “Yes. Like a child. Play.”
I didn’t know what else to say. The dull warmth of a blush threatened my cheeks, but the chill in the air—and the numbing embarrassment I felt cresting up over me in a great, silent wall—seemed to hold it off. I stared down at the dog, and focused on the myriad of little patterns in the mud-streaked brindle of his coat. Maethor looked up at me, his eyes questioning, and that wrinkled muzzle puffed out hot coils of damp breath, a string of drool hanging from his baggy lips. I wriggled my fingers gently, and he butted his head against my hand, so I could scratch his ears as we walked.
My first sight of the Dalish camp took my breath away; I can’t deny that.
Mithra and her scouts had led us on an exhaustively opaque route, picking through the dark and twisted channels between moss-layered trees, every new turn another challenge to what little sense of direction I had left. I suspected Morrigan had been able to keep better track than me, though I didn’t draw attention to the question by looking at her. We all walked in silence, mute and meek, and I felt as if I was stumbling through a dream.
When we finally arrived, it was like stepping through a curtain and into another world. The trees stood as numinous sentinels, their heavy, dank branches an interlocking wall of green. Either there were no demons in this part of the forest, or the Dalish had a talent for avoiding them. Given how uneventful our escorted trip had been, I suspected the latter.
Mithra ducked between the thin, clawed twigs and prickly needles, and barked out a warning to watch our steps. I looked down as my boots skidded a bit on the leaves and pebbles, and found we were descending a ridge. I hadn’t even known there was a hill here… and yet we must have been climbing one side of it. The ground sloped sharply away and, coming through the trees, we were faced with a whole new vista laid out below us.
I suppose I’d expected something mean and muddy, with the same ragged kind of comforts as we made for ourselves when we stopped for the night. Naturally, the wild elves had far more style.
Below us, the thickets broadened out into a wide clearing, peppered with a few tall trees—those ancient, rigidly straight guardians of the forest, as I thought of them. The sound of running water bubbled close by, and around the clearing itself stood several large shapes that, at first, I mistook for tents. They stretched up against the trees, broad canvas blanks like sails… but then I saw that, below those wide swathes of cloth—some in red, others grey, and others still bright, vibrant greens—they had wheels, and bodies like wagons. They were big, broad things, and how they could move through the forest perplexed me, especially when they clearly had shafts, yet I saw no horses to draw them.
There were tents too, as well as the wagons; large and small structures tossed up over temporary wooden frames, with low fires burning like jewels before them. Thin coils of bluish-grey smoke curled on the air—and before Maethor almost skidded into the back of my leg, nearly knocking me down the slippery, treacherous ridge—I’d counted more than a dozen tents and wagons combined.
The hound looked up at me apologetically, and loosed a huffy little whine through his jowls as I steadied myself with a hand on the top of his head.
“It’s all right,” I murmured, which earned me a quick wag of his stumpy tail… though I wasn’t sure whose benefit I was really saying it for.
As we edged our way down the ridge, the smells of the camp rose to greet me, and they were immensely comforting. The tang of leather and canvas met the acrid perfume of wood smoke, with the earthy undertones of the forest swelling in all around. Somewhere, something was cooking… probably broth or stew. Down below, among the tents and the wagons with those strange canvas sails, I could see other people moving about—other elves. And they were Dalish: a true, live, real people, here before me instead of hiding in whispers and stories. Many bore those peculiar tattoos on their faces, from what I could see, but not all of them, and though some were dressed in the same intricate leather garb as the three who’d brought us here, several of the crowd that was beginning to gather wore more simple arrays of cloth and fur.
None of them looked particularly welcoming. I saw a small boy run out from behind one of the wagons, then stop and stare up at us. The expression on his face changed and, even at the distance at which I was standing, I could quite clearly see the way his body straightened, his brows drawing low and his chin jutting out. No intimidated or frightened child, this; his was a look of unveiled and indignant hatred. Who were we, and how dare we set foot here? As we reached the bottom of the incline, a woman in a green dress, her face criss-crossed with tattoos, came forwards to lay a hand on his shoulder and draw him away.
Mithra turned and glared at us. “You will wait here. We shall see if the Keeper will receive you.”
She strode away from us without a backward glance, the two archers following, and they headed for the largest of the wagons, which seemed to be at the centre of the camp. Beyond it lay a couple of large, long tents, but I could see little else past the gathering knots of elves who’d emerged to stare at us.
“D’you think they’re going to wait ’til later to lynch us?” Alistair queried through gritted teeth, his voice a low whisper. “Or will they want the mess over with before supper?”
I turned my head enough to glance sidelong at him. “I have no idea. Maybe it’ll be the evening’s entertainment.”
He winced. Zevran shot me a brief look, his face a mask of good-natured neutrality.
“Just do not make eye contact, hmm? And do not allow yourself to appear too subdued. A show of respect, they like. A show of inferiority, and… well, you’re on your own.”
He said it while barely moving his lips, a slim glimmer in those amber eyes the only indication that he might have been as nervous as the rest of us. I peered over my shoulder at the others, torn between pride and envy for the way they were holding themselves. Wynne was a model of quiet and steely grace, Morrigan her usual prickly self, and Sten an impassively monolithic presence, despite how uncomfortable I suspected this place made him. Leliana, like Zevran, was able to make her face blank, but those sharp eyes of hers were always on the move, taking in every tiny detail. She didn’t seem fazed by anything in the camp, no matter how strange it appeared to me, and I wondered if she too had some greater familiarity with the Dalish than I knew of.
On that point, I narrowed my eyes as I looked back at Zev.
“If you know so much, perhaps you’d care to deal with this yourself?”
The hint of a smile flickered at the edge of his lips as he turned his head back to the wider clearing, his hands clasped primly in front of him.
“Ah, but I am not the Grey Warden here, o most beguiling one.”
“You’ll be the only one here with one eye in a minute,” I muttered darkly, but he just stared straight ahead, the slight crease at the corner of his mouth suggesting a vein of amusement.
His smugness infuriated me, though of course he’d been the one to warn me we shouldn’t expect welcome banners and free slices of pound cake. I contented myself with glowering quietly, and then trying to put forth as proud and respectable a face as I could.
Across the clearing—an expanse of ground left bare between us, the forest floor darkly rich and silty—the Dalish gathered, and they watched us in silence. As Zevran had said, I avoided meeting anyone’s gaze, but I was drawn to looking at them as a moth can’t help but dance with a flame.
Back home, we’d get a couple of lads a year who might decide to run off and find the clans or—every so often—decide that they were already as good as Dalish. I remembered one boy, six years or so older than me, who used to paint his face in swirls and squiggles and shout a lot about freedom from oppression. It never seemed to get him far, and he was usually drunk. Eventually, he got married off to somewhere in the Free Marches, and people said he was lucky to have survived long enough to see his wedding.
These people were nothing like that… nothing like anything I’d pictured. They were tall, proud, beautiful, and fierce, with their wild hair and their ink-stained flesh, and their leathers, furs, and cloth all dyed in greens and purples, blues and russets. They were like the blooms that crept between the roots of trees: secret wonders that hid within the forest’s heart.
And they just stood there, watching us.
The tension was practically palpable, and I was extremely glad when Maethor did a little to break it by sitting down beside me with a leaf-rustling thump and having a damn good scratch.
Finally, Mithra emerged from the wagon. She strode back towards us, flanked by Aegan and Revasir, and her face was full of thunder.
Several of the other elves watched as she bore down on us, and one or two murmured to each other behind their hands. She stopped a few feet in front of me, her entire body almost quivering with barely suppressed displeasure.
“The Keeper wishes to speak with you,” she said, the words ‘for some reason I cannot fathom’ trailing, unspoken. “You will show him respect.”
“Thank you.” I nodded, formulaic and old-fashioned words coming back to me from a long-ago lifetime of cobbled streets and po-faced elders. “You do us honour by your generosity. We welcome that most humbly.”
I meant well by it, but she looked at me like I was a babbling child, and gestured brusquely to the wagon, and the fire before it.
At first, I wasn’t sure if we were all meant to accompany her or not, but I was comforted a little by the way the others started to move with me, as if quietly, politely iterating that—while we would respect the wild elves’ ways—we would neither be parted nor controlled.
I shot a glance at Alistair as we crossed the clearing, the crowd of onlookers peeling back from us like steam spilling from a kettle. He grimaced at me, his back tense and his steps uncertain.
As we neared the wagon, close enough for the heat of the fire before it to spill out in waves—reminding me painfully of just how cold I was—the curtain hanging over the wagon’s open door twitched, and a figure emerged from within.
He was an old man, older than our hahren, wrapped in a thick, dark green woollen cloak and clinging to a large, heavy staff for support. Long, thin hands with raised veins on their backs, like mottled blue rivers against brown, leathery skin, ended in the knotted curls of fingers, crabbed with age and swollen joints. He should have looked frail… and he would have done, but for the gaunt, dark-shadowed face that topped his hunched, cloth-swathed frame.
His cheeks were sunken, his mouth a thin and withered line, with deep troughs gouged from its corners to his nose, which soared in a high, thin sickle over a narrow, angular profile. I wasn’t surprised to see the tattoos on his face: faded curves and sweeps of dark brown, blue, and green that formed knots and whorls on his cheeks, chin, and forehead, and thin lines that bisected the areas of skin in between. His head had been shaved—something I’d never seen on an elf before, excepting cases of ringworm or really bad lice, or the rare occasion a girl who’d made some questionable choices got herself caught by a group of her peers who didn’t approve of whores. That strange juxtaposition jarred me, as did the inexplicable sense of nervous anticipation I felt as I stared at the elf’s face, and the pale green eyes that seemed to shimmer as his gaze flicked over us.
Mithra bowed low as she spoke to him, her voice for once devoid of all that challenge and hardness. Though I didn’t understand what she said, I gathered she was presenting as ‘the outsiders’, and probably indicating her discomfort with our presence.
He held up a hand, the folds of his cloak shifting a little as he let them go, and I caught a glimpse of layers of cloth beneath, evidently protection for an old man’s weakness against the cold. He stopped on the middle step of the wagon and surveyed us and, when he spoke, his voice was soft, with just a hint of age’s rasp to its warm, rounded tone.
“Ma serennas, Mithra,” he said, looking steadily at her. “You did right. Now you may return to your post.”
It surprised me to hear him address her in the common tongue, and with much less trace of an accent than I’d heard so far. I supposed he was demonstrating his command of the language, so we knew he spoke and understood it. Only later would I learn how little Elvish the Dalish truly possessed.
“Ma nuvenin, Keeper.” She bowed again, but she gave me a look filled with deep distrust as she left the fireside, the archers following on behind.
I was aware of the splintered crowd lingering beyond the fire. They were still watching, albeit from a distance. I imagined they held their elder in high enough regard that, if any one of us should so much as look at him the wrong way, we wouldn’t leave this place in one piece. I took a slow breath, watching the firelight dance against the high sides of the Keeper’s wagon—a huge thing, with a prow like a ship, and the same kinds of strange lines and curves I saw everywhere here, painted in twirling arabesques over its notched wooden planks—and tried to summon the courage to meet the man’s eye.
He descended the last few steps slowly, his leather-shod feet almost soundless, but his staff knocking hollowly on the wood. I couldn’t help feeling the impression of frailty was a shallow one; I was too used to the tough, unflappable elders of the alienage, marinated in their own hardship until the only thing that seemed to kill them off was a momentary lapse of concentration. Besides, I’d have had to be blind to miss the glyphs and runes etched into that staff. Was he a mage? That thought was strange to me, too. Did the Dalish have magic? Elven magic? It was possible, I supposed. There were no templars out here to snatch children with the curse off to the Circle, and maybe that meant they didn’t grow up fearing it as we had.
Maybe it was the way we’d been once, in the time of Arlathan.
He reached the bottom step, and stood level with us on the ground: a tall man, like so many of the elves I’d seen here. He was only a couple of inches shorter than Alistair, though he managed to look at us all as if we were beneath him.
“Greetings. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Zathrian, Keeper of this clan, its guide and preserver of our ancient lore. And you are?”
It was a hahren’s voice, I thought: warm and comforting, and full of reassurance and authority. Maker, he even managed to make me feel calmer, despite the tension that cramped the air.
“Merien Tabris, Keeper,” I said promptly, bowing from the chest as I would have done to any elder, and adding a little belatedly: “Of the Grey Wardens. Um. This is my fellow Warden, Alistair, and our companions… Leliana, Wynne, Sten, Morrigan, and—”
“Zevran Arainai. Arhim atish’an, Keeper.”
My mouth closed around the half-made introductions. Of course Zevran spoke the bloody language. Obviously. I straightened up, observing that, naturally, he bowed with great elegance, and—to me, at least—his accent sounded perfect. I tried not to hate him for it.
Zathrian looked consideringly at him, and then nodded crisply. “Andaran atish’an.”
Beside us, the fire leapt and crackled. There was a loud pop, and for a moment I thought of Mother, who always said such things were omens. Maybe Zathrian thought so too, for one knotted hand closed more tightly around his staff, and those piercing green eyes found mine.
“Warden, my people have been aware of your presence in the forest. We waited to see if you would leave, but you did not. If you were seeking us in order to bring us news of the Blight in the south, it is not needed. I have long sensed its corruption.”
I inclined my head respectfully. “I’m afraid we don’t come bearing news so much as asking for help, Keeper. Many years ago—”
Zathrian winced impatiently. “Yes. The treaties. Mithra mentioned this. May I see them?”
I looked over my shoulder at Alistair. He’d already taken the leather wallet from its place of safety in his pack, and came forwards to offer it for inspection. At first, I thought Zathrian actually expected me to play intermediary and pass the documents to him, but he moved and took the thick parchment from Alistair’s fingers, albeit with a slight lapse of grace. The treaties’ mouldy, stagnant smell rose up, ripe with age, as Zathrian’s fingers moved reverently over the pages, skimming the signatures and heavy wax seals at the bottom.
“Truly,” he murmured, apparently to himself, “I had never thought to see…. Of course, one hopes such a day will not come, but still! Thank you,” he said, addressing me, and passing the treaties into my hands. “It is an honour to see these papers, and to have Grey Wardens among us. I… I must apologise for the lack of an appropriate welcome.”
Well, he’d changed his tune. Had we sufficiently proved our identity, then? Did the Dalish consider Grey Wardens so magnificent? I didn’t know, and the not knowing made me nervous. I gave the treaties back to Alistair, the awkward discomfort of this little interview beginning to tell in the way my fingers grew clumsy. For a moment, I thought I might end up dropping four-centuries-old Grey Warden documents straight into the fire, but I prevailed.
“Not at all,” I managed. “I understand the need to guard your people’s privacy, especially from armed travellers.”
Zathrian’s expression grew a little less stern, and he nodded slowly. “Indeed. However, I am afraid that, this time, the Dalish shall not honour their commitment.”
“What?” Alistair interjected, though the elf ignored him. “But—”
“The Blight is a threat that affects everyone,” I protested. “We must unite—”
“I am well aware of that,” Zathrian said sharply, fixing me with a withering look. “But you come late, Warden. The clans have already moved north. We are the last to leave, though not by my choice.”
I frowned. “I… I don’t understand.”
The keeper sighed and leaned upon his staff, those shimmering eyes growing hooded and weary.
“No. This will require some explanation. I expected as much. We… have been afflicted by sickness, Warden.” Zathrian raised his head and nodded at the scattered crowd of Dalish, still keeping their distance from his wagon, but watching us intently. “You see here perhaps half of the clan. Many of us may not survive, and we are certainly in no shape to march to war.”
I glanced over my shoulder, the reflexive city-bred fear of disease clenching around my heart. Whatever it was, I hoped it wasn’t catching.
Zathrian lifted one crabbed hand, gesturing behind him to the long, low tents we’d seen as we descended the ridge, and which lay to the farthest side of the camp.
“Our sick are tended here. We cannot save them, but we will not abandon them. I am sorry we are not better equipped to help you… but perhaps you will accept an offer of hospitality? Share our camp and our food, tonight. Be on your way in the morning. Is that acceptable?”
“That is… generous,” I said carefully, little bells of warning tinkling at the back of my mind.
Zathrian’s scouts had tracked us through the forest. He had known of our presence, I had no doubt, and yet he seemed very keen to be rid of us.
Zevran had told me that, if we found the Dalish, it would be because they allowed us to do so. I didn’t know if that was what had happened; perhaps, if it hadn’t been for Zev himself, we’d have got out of the forest without ever knowing Mithra and her archers had been there. Or perhaps that was what I was meant to think.
I didn’t know, and the conflicting possibilities were beginning to weigh heavily on the back of my neck. I turned and glanced at my companions. Wynne was the first to catch my eye and, at a slight nod from me, she stepped forwards and inclined her head respectfully to Zathrian.
“We thank you for your hospitality at this difficult time, Keeper. If I may… my name is Wynne, and I am an enchanter of the Circle of Magi. I have some small skill as a healer, and—”
Zathrian shook his head abruptly. “No. Your kindness is appreciated, but no. What ails our clan cannot be cured with magic. Not your kind.”
She bristled a little, though she hid it well, and I cleared my throat, slipping in before anyone had a chance to mess this up.
“Then it’s settled. Thank you, Keeper. We most gratefully accept.”
He looked faintly relieved. “Good. I shall have my First show you where you may pitch your tents. Please, familiarise yourself with the camp. I ask only that you leave the sick in peace.”
Well, it was better than nothing, I supposed. I nodded and mustered as much grace as I could to thank him… grace that Zathrian brushed away like it was nothing more than an irritation.
I wasn’t sure what a Keeper’s First was. It turned out to be an apprentice of some kind, in the form of a small, delicate girl who introduced herself as Lanaya.
Dressed like Zathrian, in long robes covered by a voluminous cloak, she wore her fair hair in a mess of short braids and pigtails, and even the lines of her tattoos seemed dainty, like they’d been sketched over her smooth skin by a lighter hand than the thick, dark shapes I’d seen on the scouts.
She led us across the clearing, pointing out all the necessary bits of the camp along the way, and naming what she called their hahrens. I was confused at first, until I realised they used the word—our word—the same way we used ‘elder’ in the alienage; as a term of respect, but not always leadership. My brain raced as I tried to keep up, for the soft sweetness of Lanaya’s voice was a cunning disguise for a brisk, relentless pace. That meant, then, that the Dalish held certain members of their clan in high esteem. She pointed out their storykeeper, Hahren Sarel, their craftsmaster, Hahren Varathorn—with whom we might trade, if he permitted it, should we need anything—and Hahren Elora, who was indicated with a brief wave of one small hand as being at the foot of the clearing, down by the stream that curved, unseen, behind the tree line, and where we might draw water.
“She is our halla mistress,” Lanaya said, glancing wistfully in the direction she’d pointed, “and a most experienced healer. Although not even she can help those poor people.”
I frowned, still stuck on what a halla was. Alistair cleared his throat.
“Pardon me for asking, but… what exactly is this sickness?”
Lanaya blinked and looked at him in surprise. In the few moments we’d been talking with her, she’d seemed much more amenable than the other Dalish we’d met, but she still didn’t appear to have expected him to address her directly. As I looked at her, the briefest flicker of real fear seemed to pass over her eyes, but it was gone so fast I thought I’d imagined it.
“I… I really couldn’t say,” she murmured, drawing to a halt at a patch of ground a respectable distance from the rest of the camp, but still sheltered by the trees. A soft lowing sound, like that of cattle, drifted on the air. “It would not be my place to discuss the affairs of the clan. If you were to ask the Keeper….”
“He doesn’t seem all that free with his information.” Alistair wrinkled his nose doubtfully. “In fact, I rather got the impress—ow!”
“Oh, I do apologise,” Zevran said, making a show of dropping his pack on Alistair’s foot… and narrowly disguising the fact he’d just kicked him. “How clumsy of me.”
“Thank you for your help,” I said hurriedly. “We’ll, um, we’ll try not to be any trouble.”
Lanaya smiled at me, but didn’t utter any polite ameliorations. She left us to settle ourselves—quite ostentatiously set apart from the clan, so we could make our own fire, cook our own food… not that we were to feel unwelcome, of course—and retired, leaving us not entirely alone. Most of the Dalish who’d gathered to watch our meeting with Zathrian had dispersed, the entertainment (or perhaps the immediate threat) being over, but a few still lingered. Ostensibly, they were mostly occupied, stacking sacks of supplies, or inspecting the wheel rims of wagons, or other such non-tasks, though a couple did just stand and stare without any pretext or pretence.
“Makes you awfully exposed, doesn’t it?” Leliana said quietly, as we started to pitch our tents.
I nodded. “I don’t like this at all. They’re….”
I didn’t want to say ‘hiding something’. There were far too many people around.
“They don’t trust us,” Alistair observed, slinging canvas over the poles. He frowned slightly as he looked at me. “They don’t even trust you.”
I grimaced. He was right, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant a sensation.
“To be fair,” Zevran chipped in, kneeling to begin scraping a space for a fire, “they don’t trust any of us, elven or not. Are they still watching?”
“Mm-hm.” I glanced surreptitiously at the knot of three men beside the nearest wagon. Two of the men weren’t even pretending to be doing anything; they were just standing there, glaring at us.
As I did my best not to be seen looking, I noticed a fourth stride up to join them, leaning in behind the others and starting a hastily whispered conversation. He was young and, unusually among what I’d seen of the Dalish, bore no tattoos. The only ones without them I’d spotted so far were the few children scampering about, but I didn’t stop to stare. Obviously, the news of our presence was spreading even among those of the clan who hadn’t been there when we arrived… and that prospect hardly filled me with glee.
I turned my back and we got on quietly with the business of making camp, mindful to show our gratitude at being allowed these crumbs of hospitality. It wasn’t what I’d expected, and it certainly wasn’t anything like the stories I’d so eagerly devoured when I was a child. No Emerald Knights here; no magnificent, beautiful people with the wild hearts of the woodland, and the gentle compassion of a storybook’s broad pen.
I determined that, when the evening drew in, we’d find out more about this sickness, and—if the Dalish truly couldn’t honour the treaty—we’d leave in the morning, and at least we’d know. I tried to tell myself that, like it made everything better. We’d know, instead of sloping away to the west in the fugue of failure… and that was something. Maybe, even if Zathrian’s clan couldn’t help us, they could get word to the other clans, the ones who’d already headed north. That seemed a sensible prospect to hold onto, and I tried to force myself into believing that it might happen.
I was so deep in contemplating it, I barely noticed the young Dalish elf crossing the clearing towards me.
“Hey! I said, hey. It is, isn’t it?”
We had most of the tents up, and Sten was taking his usual duty of coaxing a fire from recalcitrant wood. Morrigan had evidently decided she’d done enough to help, and settled herself by one of the trees, while Leliana and Wynne had just gone to investigate the drawing of water.
I turned, frowning in mild confusion. Maethor grumbled at the interloper, and Alistair started to tense, like he really thought the clan honestly intended to string him up.
“Merien… Merien Tabris?”
The Dalish boy looked about my age, his deep tan skin not yet as weathered as many of the clan. His dark, reddish-chestnut hair was fairly short, too, and hung in roughly cut layers, just long enough to tuck behind his wide-set, heavy ears. He wore a patched, rather mismatched ensemble of deep green and brown broadcloth—with muddy, fur-stitched boots and a cloak that looked as if it probably smelled like dead dog and ditch-water—and yet there was something about him that seemed familiar. He certainly stood out among the sharp-featured, haughty Dalish… and, as I looked at his face, with its rounded nose and flared, high cheekbones, a sense of insane impossibility washed over me.
I opened my mouth to speak, but my tongue was dry. It couldn’t be, could it?
He seemed to be thinking much the same thing. As he gazed at me, his small, dark eyes widened. “It is you, isn’t it? I don’t believe it! The… the last I heard of you, you were meant to be marrying a blacksmith or something. What—?”
My voice finally unglued itself, and I stuttered jerkily.
“D-Daeon?” His name left me in a choked breath, a whisper of a world I’d thought I’d left behind forever. I didn’t know whether to laugh or run, and settled for shaking my head in disbelief. “Yes, it’s… I mean, it’s me. I-I don’t know what to— Maker! You… you actually found them?”
Daeon shrugged. “Well, I always said I would, didn’t I?”
Oh, yes… that was the boy I knew. The arrogant, stubborn boy with the scraped knees and patched breeches, who used to drive his older brother to distraction. That sharp hint of pride in his voice could have anyone who didn’t know better mistaking him for Dalish, but he wasn’t.
He was a gutter rat flat-ear, just like me.
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
We pressed on again and, walking beside Leliana, I caught the sweet smell of the flowers she had gathered. It was familiar… a little like elfroot, but with a rosier aroma. The kind of fragrance you got in good soap, I thought, with wistful rags of dreams about hot baths and daily cleanliness passing fleetingly through my head.
She gave me a sidelong look, and smiled. “It’s a pretty scent, isn’t it?”
I blinked, a little chagrined at being caught staring. The tiny white blossom she’d strung into her hair winked at me, a pale star amid tresses of deep, fiery auburn.
“Yes,” I admitted. “It is. Andraste’s Grace, right? It’s a nice name, too. Um… what do they call them in Orlais?”
Leliana shook her head, smiling again, like I’d made a joke. “As a matter of fact, these little flowers are very rare there. I think they only grow in Ferelden… so I suppose my mother brought them with her when she left. My mother was Fereldan, you see. She was from Denerim originally… but she died when I was very young. The scent of these flowers? It is really the only thing I remember of her.”
“Oh.” I suddenly felt rather awkward. “I-I’m sorry.”
I should have thought of something better to say but, in that moment, my head was full of the memories I had of my own mother. They’d seemed clouded in the years since she died—mainly because Father had so often refused to speak of her—and I’d mourned the edges of details I thought I might have lost. Yet, it struck me then how much I had remembered, how much of Mother I’d had… and how terribly unfair it must be to have nothing but broken memories and whispered impressions.
Leliana was looking at me, perhaps a little expectantly, and it was hard to tell whether she was mildly amused by my discomfort, or just waiting to see if I was going to say anything else. I cleared my throat.
“Er. I thought you were, um, Orlesian, though?”
It was a bit clumsy, but served to change the subject. She smiled sadly and gave a neat little shrug.
“Most people do. In truth, I suppose I am—I was born there, after all. But, you know, I consider myself a Fereldan.”
I nodded politely. She also considered herself blessed with visions from the Maker, and religious beliefs that most of the Chantry probably considered heretical, so I wasn’t going to argue.
Instead, I opted for making conversation. “How did your mother end up in Orlais, then, if she was from Denerim?”
There were a couple of assumptions it was reasonable to make, but I wanted to hear what Leliana thought of as the truth. For myself, I was too young to remember the end of the occupation and, in all honesty, I suspected alienage life under the Orlesians had been much the same as under any Fereldan ruler. Still, there were stories. Father had always spoken of the Orlesians with as much bitterness as I’d heard him speak of anything, and he had laid a great deal of store by equanimity and tolerance when it came to humans. He didn’t want me growing up full of hatred or, worse, cocky—not that, after what happened to Mother, there’d been much chance I’d escape with unbiased opinions.
All the same, I didn’t think there had ever been much of influx of Fereldans desperate to claw their way back into the Empire.
Leliana’s expression grew a little distant; a kind of dreamy vagueness that might have been mistaken for a wistful smile, had I not suspected she was avoiding mention of something.
“Oh, well…. My mother served an Orlesian noblewoman who lived here when Orlais ruled,” she said softly, gazing at the trees. “After Orlais was defeated and the common folk began to resent the presence of any Orlesian, the lady returned to Orlais. She took my mother with her.”
I said nothing, refusing to allow the implications swirling behind her words to surface in my mind.
“I was born in Orlais,” Leliana continued, “and I did not set foot in Ferelden until much later. But, you know, Mother was always telling me stories of her homeland. I think she missed it.”
I nodded slowly, actually beginning to take in her words. So, the daughter of a servant… probably just as illegitimate as Alistair, though likely with a much less illustrious sire. A ridiculous, yet oddly pleasing vision flitted through my head—that deep, glossy, red hair of Leliana’s, so like and yet not like the red that ran through Father’s side of the family—and I wondered, for a moment, if maybe our prettily mannered, graceful bard wasn’t elf-blooded. Perhaps she was the result of some Orlesian nobleman’s whim, forced on a hapless, foreign maid… but my imagination was running away with me, and giving me a spurious sense of superiority at apparently being the only member of our party who had come from a loving, at least partially secure home.
“Was she not happy in Orlais, then?” I asked delicately, peering at Leliana as if she might give something away with a flinch or a wince.
She just shook her head, and smiled that small, tight, wistful smile that she hid so easily behind.
“Oh, she wasn’t unhappy. We had a good life, and she liked Orlais well enough. I loved it, though. Val Royeaux was so vibrant… colourful. And, of course, Mother died when I was very young. I really know very little of her. I can’t say whether she would ever have chosen to come back or not, had she been able.”
I nodded again, affecting sage wisdom, as if I truly understood. I thought I did, perhaps. In that moment—despite the leaf mould and mud gluing my boots to the ground further with every step, and the trees closing in around us like the jaws of some ramshackle trap—I thought very highly of my powers of perception, and my idle fancies made me feel very brave indeed.
“It must have been hard for you,” I offered, but Leliana widened those clear, beautiful eyes.
“Oh, no. No, not at all. In fact, I was very lucky. Lady Cecilie let me stay with her. Of course, I had no one else, and she had been fond of my mother. She was quite old by then, and I think it gave her pleasure to give me the kind of opportunities a young girl would enjoy. She had me study music and dance, and I entertained her. She was very kind to me, and I had many advantages… though I have always thought it unfair that I have more memories of Cecilie than I do my own mother.”
Up ahead, Maethor growled and snapped at something in the undergrowth. It rocketed out from under the bracken and then shot up a tree. A squirrel, I realised, as the mabari bounced up on his hind legs, forepaws scrabbling at the trunk in hot pursuit.
“Idiot hound,” Morrigan observed, as Maethor staggered backwards, momentarily bipedal, and landed on his rump in an ungainly sprawl, still huffing indignantly at the rodent.
“Maybe next time, boy,” Alistair said, ruffling the hound’s ears as he passed.
Maethor grumbled, but got up and padded after him. Beside me, Leliana giggled prettily and that sound—that small, musical, delicate sound—made visions of ballrooms filled with painted lords and bouffanted ladies dance behind my eyes; all the things that, growing up in Ferelden, we thought we knew about Orlais.
When I was a child, people used to say that Val Royeaux’s alienage saw no sun until midday because the walls were so high. We heard murmurs about the brutality and imaginative cruelty of Orlesian masters, and tutted at the rumours that said ten times the number of elves as were in our district were packed into a space a third the size. Of course, we had those stories because we were elves, and nursed a perpetual need to feel we were better off than someone else… but I’d always thought there was a grain of truth there.
I glanced at Leliana. She was many things, but she had never seemed intentionally cruel to me. Naïve, perhaps, in some strange ways, and wily in others—and I believed what Alistair had said about her being a bard, and possibly more—but, even then, I still couldn’t work her out.
She had her chin slightly tilted, face tipped towards the trees as we walked, almost as if she was a child gazing with wonder at the scene of a woodland picnic… and yet I got the feeling she was studying and quietly gauging every single leaf.
“Do you miss anything about Orlais?” I asked, my voice low.
She looked sharply at me, and then flashed a shallow, delicate smile.
“Sometimes,” she admitted, and she gave a small sigh. “Hmm… I do miss Val Royeaux. It is truly like nowhere else. In other cities, the people are the lifeblood and the character, but Val Royeaux was always her own person, and her people little more than decorations.”
Well, that was a minstrel’s answer if ever there was one.
“Oh?” I lofted an eyebrow, a little surprised by such an obviously artful answer.
Not just that, either… I wasn’t sure I liked the notion of people being decorations. It was an upside down way of making a city—which, admittedly, did sound distinctly Orlesian.
“There was always music in Val Royeaux,” Leliana continued, her voice lent the roseate tone of nostalgia, and her words like the lines of a poem. “It would stream down from the many windows, both quiet refrains and triumphant choruses, and the glass would glitter like gold in the sunshine. And, of course, always floating above all that, you would hear the Chant coming from the Grand Cathedral. It was truly magnificent.”
I didn’t doubt it. There were probably poulterers and tanners and blacksmiths, too, of course… and butchers and carters and all those other people who made a city, and the multi-layered bouquet of aromas that went with it. Even Val Royeaux had to have nightsoilmen, after all, although I suspected no one would have thanked me for the suggestion.
“It sounds wonderful,” I said instead, watching that porcelain-perfect face grow dreamy and wreathed with memories.
Perhaps they really were more than a bard’s pretty lines.
Leliana smiled at me again, and it seemed more genuine.
“Oh, it would take me days to tell of the many splendours of Orlais: her golden fields, her lush meadows…. You asked if I missed it? Of course, there were good things and bad things about Orlais, like anywhere else. Sometimes I miss it dearly, and sometimes I am glad I am rid of it.” Her smile widened, and she inclined her head, leaning down a little to bridge the couple of inches in height between us. “You will laugh at this, I think, but what I miss most are the fine things I had when I was in Orlais.”
She laughed softly, and I supposed my confusion was written across my face.
“Fine things?” I echoed.
“You know!” Leliana waved a hand in the air, a gesture of vaguely explanatory dismissal. “Dresses. Fine dresses and furs. And shoes! Of course, the shoes. One can’t mingle with nobility with bad shoes, you see.”
My brow furrowed. “Oh. Can you not?”
“No, no. Orlais is very fashionable,” Leliana assured me, with an authoritative air that made me think I was being teased. “Almost ridiculously so, in truth. Ahh… but the shoes! Living with those ridiculous trends was worth it for the shoes.”
And, at that point precisely, she lost me.
Mingling with nobility was something I didn’t understand either—something that filled me with a faint nausea and a sense of inverted snobbery, to be honest—but to speak of shoes in tones that sounded practically romantic… that was a stretch too far.
“Were they… ridiculous shoes?” I hazarded.
She laughed. “Sometimes. You know, about ten years ago all the ladies went mad for shoes with soles as large and heavy as bricks. But it isn’t always that silly. When I left Orlais, the fashion was shoes with delicate, tapered heels and embellishments in the front—a ribbon, perhaps, or embroidery.” Her hands moved quickly through the air, describing the shapes and fripperies she could so clearly see in her head. “In soft colours, of course,” she added, as if that was important. “Naturally: it was the spring.”
Leliana looked expectantly at me, and I nodded, my brow still knotted.
“Ah. Shoes. Right. Wouldn’t, um… wouldn’t they be hard to walk in?”
She shrugged, looking a little crestfallen. “Perhaps. I certainly wouldn’t want to run in them, or have to enter battle, but for lounging in a lady’s sitting room? Perfect.”
I nodded again, absently, like my head was a ball on a string bouncing untended. From what she said, Orlais really was a foreign land… or maybe it was just me.
Despite the fact that, next to Leliana, I resembled little more than a smear of mud beside a rare and striking flower, I did have a few vestiges of femininity left. I understood the pleasure of a soft pair of leather slippers, of the kind we used to wear for best. I knew the importance of fine embroidery—even if my own skill with it was limited—and I appreciated a good piece of chintz or delicate lawn as much as the next girl… or as much as that girl who, so long ago, had run her hands down the silk panels in her wedding attire, and felt like a princess.
But… shoes for lounging in? Shoes dictated by fashions and bored noblewomen who had nothing more to do with their days than change their clothes?
The very thought made me shudder, and I couldn’t help wondering if Leliana knew that, somehow. She was still talking, though, and still wittering on cheerfully about shoes.
“…they were exquisite,” she said, waving her hand again, long fingers trailing a wistful arc through the air. “Beautifully made, and so elegant! Not at all like these clunky fur-lined leather boots you have in Ferelden. Ugh… just look at them.”
She made a grimace of distaste, and I peered down at my boots. They were soldier’s boots, caked with mud and rain spatters. Somewhere inside, under two pairs of odiferous, hairy socks, were my feet. Not soldier’s feet, but heading that way. I didn’t get such bad blisters now as I had at the beginning, and I was building up some heavy pads of callusing, but drying out the sweat and bandaging the leaky bits in front of the campfire still formed the basis of more evenings than I’d have preferred.
I wriggled my toes, and their movement didn’t even dent the leather of my boots. They just stood there, mud seeping around them, looking stolid and immoveable.
I glanced up. Leliana was still walking, as the others were. Wynne was coming up behind me, and I kicked my pace in again, catching up with Leliana as we passed yet another rotted monolith of a dead tree.
“At least they keep the cold out,” I observed.
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, very well, they’re sturdy shoes, yes, but sometimes a girl just wants to have pretty feet. Don’t you agree?”
She looked hopefully at me, and I truly couldn’t decide whether she genuinely didn’t understand the differences between us, wanted to underline them, or was just trying to bridge them in the best way she knew.
It would have been very easy to hate her then. So easy to look at her—beautiful, graceful, and charming—and let all my insecurities, my jealousies and guarded winces pour forth a lake of ice that I would never cross.
However, she had shown me her worth. For all that was hidden or suspicious about her, Leliana was compassionate. She had been kind to me, mostly, and she’d really cared about the people of Redcliffe, even before they bore her on their shoulders and made her their flame-haired Orlesian folk hero (and, oh, they would be telling stories about her for years to come!).
Besides, there was still a lot of road ahead of us, and camp was a small place with no room for sourness. At least, not any more of it than we were already carting around.
I nodded tentatively. “’Spose so. You can’t dance in boots like these.”
Leliana beamed. “You like to dance?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “We used to dance a lot back home. Harvest, Satinalia, Wintersend, Summerday… well, I say dance…. It was any excuse for a knees-up, really. But there was dancing. And drinking. And… well, fun.”
It was my turn to smile wistfully, and the echoes of old faces and old times pressed against my mind, bringing with them the taste of sweetened ale, the sound of fiddles, hand drums and pipes, and the half-forgotten rhymes of songs with very questionable lyrics. I remembered the Harvest dance when I had my first kiss, and Father coming around the side of Alarith’s shop and finding out about it, then fetching the boy concerned a hefty thump alongside the head before he dragged me home.
Happy days, generally speaking.
Leliana chuckled. “Hmm. I think I remember fun. In very vague terms, anyway.” She gave me a sidelong look, those glass-clear eyes alight with some bright new idea. “We should make time for music more, don’t you think? I have my lute now… I shall play some songs sometime, when we make camp.”
I snorted, more at her optimism than the idea itself. “Yes, and if we practice hard enough, perhaps we can dazzle the darkspawn with our performance. Maybe Alistair can break out his Remigold,” I added, though I didn’t even mean to.
She looked understandably perplexed, and I started to feel a little remorseful for my glibness.
“Only if there’s going to be a really pretty dress,” Alistair called from a little way ahead. “I won’t just wear any old feed bag, you know.”
I hadn’t realised he was listening, much less that he remembered that dark little moment of absurd humour before Duncan’s fire, but my remorse instantly fled, and—as he glanced back at me over his shoulder and grinned, sniggering at Leliana’s open-mouthed confusion—I laughed.
The others might not understand it, but it was a good, honest, pure burst of mirth… and the sounds of merriment filtered up into the trees for what felt like it might have been the first time in centuries.
The forest changed as we got further in. I’d thought we had already entered it when we crossed through the pass—that the differences in the ground, the thickness of the trees, were markers enough—but I was wrong. I realised that when I looked up, and saw not gnarled, crooked trunks, heavy branches of pine and fir, and a ragged canopy of leaves, but tall, straight trees rising up all around us. I’d never seen the like before; to me, they were strange, as if someone had carved them, made struts and supports for this ethereal, silent world. I didn’t know anything could grow like that, but it was age that had done it. They were truly ancient trees, who’d long since ceased to compete for light or water, and now dominated the wildwood. The ground under our feet was thick and soft with their leavings, a carpet of brown needles and leaf mould, with the sprawling scrabble of fresh young growth springing up wherever light fell.
I don’t think it was quite what I expected although, at the time, I had no idea what I had imagined it would be. The Brecilian Forest was an ancient place, shrouded in numinous secrecy and terrible rumours, and the very air I breathed seemed stifled and dark.
Of course, in stories, the enchanted forest is always green and verdant, and it is always spring or summer.
There were no paths to speak of. We began to slow, every direction just another mass of trees, and I swiftly realised that, with no purpose to our wandering, it would be all too easy for the first suggestion of heading back to be thrown.
Alistair glanced around us at the thickened throngs of trees.
“Where was it that you encountered the, uh… thing?” he asked nervously.
Zevran shrugged. “Further east, I believe, which would be—let me see—that way. The north is the side of the tree with the most moss on it, yes?”
Leliana wrinkled her nose. “These all have moss on them.”
Morrigan gave a terse, disparaging sigh—but I didn’t see her pointing out the way ahead. She just stood by a rough clump of bracken, her arms folded, glaring at the rest of us and, as I surveyed our fragmented little group, I worried that I was losing them.
I hadn’t forgotten how eager Alistair was to get back to tracking down Brother Genitivi, if it meant the possibility of saving Arl Eamon’s life, and that thought in itself made me square my shoulders, contrarily determined to continue.
I pointed towards a gap in the trees, marked by the remains of a fallen oak, now another mostly-rotted log, because decay seemed to be a constant in this place.
“That way,” I announced, and headed off as if I had the slightest clue of what I was doing.
We had yet to find any sign of the Dalish, or even any hint of water, but I had to keep hoping, even as the forest drew in around us, making the light itself thick and heavy. It was like being underwater, surrounded by a soft, timeless shell of silence, a cavernous cathedral of still, dim green.
We pushed on, our footsteps seeming cacophonous with the crack of every twig and the rustle of every leaf. I should have been concentrating more, but I was so determined that we would find some clue, some proof that the Dalish were there, that I was foolish enough to allow myself a moment’s arrogance.
I suppose I thought Zevran’s experience—well, all their experiences—would have meant we’d know before something happened, but that was an assumption turned out to be as dangerous as it was optimistic.
It was the exact thing I’d known I had to guard against, and to watch for, and yet I didn’t even see it coming.
That particular patch looked no different to any other we’d passed through: tall, straight trees dwarfing crippled, stunted ones, with every square foot of the forest floor shrouded in a slough of dead leaves, bracken, straggly, winding weeds, and verdant clumps of ferns. The sky was visible only in broken patches through the canopy, and everywhere I looked I saw the rough pillars of bark and lichen, and low branches spreading out like arms.
Morrigan was walking a little ahead again, and I looked quizzically at her when she stopped, apparently listening for something. I didn’t see or hear anything, and neither she nor Wynne gave a call of alarm.
Maethor growled softly, and I had just started to think that maybe it was another squirrel that had distracted the witch, when it happened.
All I heard was the creak of branches, the groan of wood protesting and, for a moment, I was back at the site of Zevran’s ambush, diving for my life as a tree smashed into the ground and arrows began to rain upon me.
I glanced reflexively over my shoulder, half-expecting to see splinters of wood and massed ranks of hired thugs, but instead there was the ancient, coarse bark of trees and, among them, one tree… moving. Had I not known what was coming, I might have told myself if was my eyes playing tricks, or that it was just the movement of the breeze—but there was precious little wind, and definitely no mistaking the decisiveness with which those branches swung through the air.
I heard Zevran swear, and Morrigan loosed a blinding flash of energy that leapt up in a sheet between us and the creature.
In form, it was still a tree, though it had a more twisted, bent-over shape than those tall, stately giants of the forest, almost as if it had struggled against its own growing. It had, in a way, I supposed. Crooked branches protruded from its cracked trunk, and they crashed towards us like fists. Dead, brown leaves scattered like ashes, only a sparse crop remaining on its puckered, twisted limbs.
Wood splintered, the quiet of the place destroyed by the impact of those flailing limbs smashing through the undergrowth, and even other trees. This part of the forest was neither densely packed nor open clearing, and the great wooden clubs of branches hit out at their brethren, scything through them as if they were nothing but straw dolls.
We pulled back, scattering a little, the ground not to our advantage. I found my back pressed against a tall pine tree, tears of its sticky sap filling my nose with a sharp, faintly acrid smell, and my heart pounded as, less than twelve feet away, a demon in a wooden prison screamed in fractured silence, thrashing with rage at the life it felt pass by.
I supposed it was stupid to take shelter against another tree, and I glanced up at my protector. It wasn’t moving, or trying to kill me. That was probably a good thing, but was there only one of them here?
I leaned out around the pine, trying to see what was happening, and almost caught a face full of splintered wood. It was like the most violent storm imaginable, yet made all the more frightening by the fact the creature—despite its obvious anger—was not making a sound. I was used to things that wanted me dead roaring and snarling at me, and in truth I would have preferred the growls of darkspawn, or even the guttural, broken susurrations of the walking dead.
I couldn’t see all of the others, but Sten had drawn his greatsword and appeared to be trying to face the thing down.
“Anaan esaam Qun!” he bellowed, taking a swing at the nearest branch.
His blade crushed and cleaved the limb, and the air was filled with the sharp smell of sap and green wood. A stale kind of wind seemed to whip the trees then, though it was hard to tell whether it was the back draught of those flailing blows or some other, more ethereal thing. I could have sworn I heard a scream of rage upon it, and I unsheathed my sword, wriggling out of my pack and dumping it to the ground as I began to dodge and dart my way to Sten’s side.
Maethor was barking and snapping at the tree-demon, but it caught him easily with one bough—they were surprisingly supple, I saw, capable of bending and slapping back with great flexibility and terrible force—and he yelped as he was thrown aside.
A burst of ice encased one angry branch, courtesy of Morrigan, and Sten lunged to swing at it, almost missing the twin that was coming up behind him. I yelled, and he ducked, feinting right and then pulling back to land another mighty blow on the wood.
Splinters, leaves, and small chips of wood flurried like snow around us, and I tried to squint at the place the tree joined the earth.
“Can it move?” I asked, raising my voice above the cracks and raging roars. “It can’t move… can it?”
Sten didn’t answer me, and I threw myself to the side to avoid the club of another branch. The thing never stopped moving… it made it almost impossible to work out how many limbs it had, and what it meant to do with them. Leliana sprinted behind me, dodging the deadly boughs effortlessly as she tried to get a better look.
“I don’t think so,” she called, as a flare of light burst near the tree’s trunk, and the creak of wood gave way to the grating of stone.
Wynne had attempted to petrify it… magic I’d not seen before, or even thought possible. I looked towards her and saw the mage sagging, pallid and visibly trembling as she reached for support from the nearest non-possessed tree. Her spell had encased most the thing’s main trunk in a second skin of stone, but it was fighting back. Its branches jerked and rustled in angry spasms, the whole rough head of its curled, dark leaves shaking as it appeared to try and strike at the nearest whisper of life.
The thing seemed pretty thoroughly rooted to the ground, as far as I could see. It thrashed and strained, its roots creaking like the mooring ropes of some great ship, and though its reach was far enough to give us plenty of cause for alarm—and far enough to rip through a large circle of trees around it—it couldn’t physically follow us if we ran… could it? Surely not. Even if there was a demon in there, it was still constrained by the physical form of the tree.
I began to breathe a little more easily through my disbelief… until I heard the sound of creaking start to come from behind me as well. Maethor snarled, and I recalled, with no little amount of horror, just how many trees we were amongst.
“There are others!” Morrigan shouted, whirling to face the potential avenue of demons. “They scent us now, like wolves!”
She was right. Wynne’s petrification spell was failing, and there were more of the trees beginning to move, the hatred and hunger of the demons spreading like the susurrations of a warm summer breeze.
Alistair looked at me, wide-eyed and fear-streaked across the littered ground.
“Run?” he suggested.
I nodded vehemen tly, casting a desperate look around my disparate, panicked little group. “Run!”
We did. All of us, breaking ranks and pelting back the way we’d come, ducking and dodging the swiping blows. I snatched up my pack and, head down, ran with the undergrowth tearing at my legs, and thuds of branches crashing behind me. The air was thick with splinters, falling leaves and clods of flying earth, the whole forest apparently alive with the roaring, creaking, wordless howls of these crazed dyads.
Only Sten tried to stand his ground, bellowing a qunari warcry as his sword hacked at one low-swiping branch. I saw him, cussed, and, dropping my pack again, dashed back. Alistair yelled at me not to be an idiot, but I ignored him and, hurdling a fallen bit of wooden debris—a severed tree limb, all green sap and fresh wood—flung myself at Sten.
“Come on!” I yelled, tugging at his arm. “Leave them!”
He spun, the force of his movement shaking me away as if I was nothing more than a housefly; a minor irritation to be swatted. I thought that was the fate awaiting me when those brilliant violet eyes glared down at me, Sten’s rough-cast face contorted into a grin of rage.
“Go!” I shouted. “Leave them!”
A crescent of four trees surrounded his right side, and I would have sworn to the fact they hadn’t all been there when we first hit that particular spot. One tree might look like another… but it somehow didn’t seem so fanciful to think these demonic creatures could drag themselves through the forest that contained them.
Sten’s blade swung past me, intercepting another blow, and wood shattered in great chips that cascaded through the air.
“You would flee? Leave these demons here?” he demanded, as the greatsword aced above my head.
I ducked, wishing I’d left him to get himself killed if his stupid bloody qunari pride demanded it. The whole avenue was alive now, ranks of the damn trees blocking our retreat to the others.
“They’re not important,” I yelled, which seemed blindingly stupid, because the thing that’s trying to kill you is always, at that moment, the most immediate thing you can dwell on. “We don’t need this fight!”
Sten’s eyes locked onto mine, then narrowed, and he nodded. With a great bellow of effort, he brought his sword down across another thrashing branch and, ducking, diving, and frankly just running on sheer luck and terror, we scrambled our way through the maddened trees.
We couldn’t get back the way we’d come, though I could hear Maethor barking, just the other side of what now seemed an impenetrable thicket. It was impossible; the forest couldn’t just move around us like that, could it?
Of course it could, I reminded myself. The whole bloody place was lousy with demons, the Veil so thin it was little more than a pocket handkerchief laid over the gaping holes that led to the Fade… or maybe the Void itself.
We ran, Sten and I, searching for a way back through the trees, and succeeding only in getting so thoroughly turned around it was a wonder we didn’t find ourselves back in the middle of the demons. I was sure they’d come upon us from behind, moving somehow… threading through the forest in its very lifeblood, their roots running under this sandy, rotten loam, then breaking from beneath the ground to strangle us.
As I was starting to panic—and knew that I had underestimated how truly uncomfortable I really felt in this crowded, green place, at once choked and left vulnerable by the great living monoliths that were so unlike safe, solid walls of timber and stone—I saw flames burst in the air.
Wynne and Morrigan, working in concert, were blasting a path through the trees; fire tamed by ice, used like a blade to carve its way towards us. I headed towards the smell and the brightness of their magic, Sten’s footsteps thudding heavily behind me. Dead leaves and the litter of the woodland floor scuffed up in our wake, yet the forest itself appeared to shrink back around us, the way suddenly clearer… and that seemed reasonable. Trees would fear fire, wouldn’t they? That, above all other things because, demons or not, they had no defence against it.
Zevran picked his way through the broken, torn edges of the path the mages had cut, and nodded at me. His face betrayed his fear, and showed just close we had come to falling prey to those things. He glanced up at Sten, and smiled mirthlessly.
“You know, you really should learn not to take every single demon as a personal insult.”
Sten grunted, and the soft hiss of steel told me he was sheathing his sword. I looked down, and saw my own blade was still clutched tightly in my hand. My fingers were almost numb and, as I tried to slow my breathing, it took a conscious effort to fumble the sword back into its scabbard.
I sniffed, and glanced at my companions. Mostly, they all looked worried, and with perfectly good reason. We should have expected a concerted attack like that—should have been prepared for it—and we’d failed. We didn’t even know how to take the damn things down properly. I should have made sure we’d discussed it more thoroughly, should have insisted there was a better plan than just hoping it didn’t happen. It was my fault, and it could have been so much worse.
I saw that blame on their faces; saw it in Wynne’s ashen shakiness and Leliana’s grim quiet, in Morrigan’s yellow-eyed stare… and even in the hot, angry glare that Alistair shot me.
That, I hadn’t really expected, and it stung. I looked away, chastened, and a little unsure as to whether I should take it as a sign of his concern for my safety, or a challenge to what little authority I possessed. I tried to focus on the former.
Still, though we were safe, we were turned around and—I had to admit it—lost. It was hard to maintain any sense of direction in the vastness of the forest, or even an idea of the passing time.
“So,” Zevran said, his gaze shifting slowly from me to Alistair, then to Morrigan, and lastly Wynne. “Where do we go now?”
I squinted at the trees surrounding us. They looked just like all the other bloody trees, and there was no use whatsoever in my trying to tell directions by stupid things like moss or leaves. I was blind and confused, and I wished we’d just headed straight for Lake Calenhad, and stuck to the simplicity of the Imperial Highway.
“Um… I… I don’t know,” I admitted grudgingly, frowning at the ranks of the mottled tree trunks around us, ancient bark interspersed with the dark, foreboding greens of pines and firs that seemed to swallow the light. “I… really don’t know.”
Oh, yes. What a leader I was.
Morrigan sighed irritably. “’Tis growing tedious. I shall find somewhere for us to make camp.”
“Oh?” Alistair sneered, but he only really managed a very half-hearted jibe. “You’re suddenly a woodland scout, are you?”
She ignored him, and fixed me with that ochre-gold stare that I found very hard to challenge. “I suggest we rest, then attempt to regain some ground tonight. If the Dalish are to be found anywhere within this part of the forest, ’twould be easier to look for campfires, would it not?”
I nodded slowly. “Perhaps. But—”
“Then it is settled. Much preferable to wasting any more time traipsing through the mud for no good reason.”
A small frown dented her pale forehead and, if it hadn’t been Morrigan, I’d have said she looked nervous and unsure. She smoothed down the front of her robes with one hand, then cleared her throat, shucked off her pack, and unceremoniously shoved her black iron staff into Wynne’s hands.
“You will all stand back and give me some room. I would prefer you do not watch while I… change, although if it saves you gawping later, you may do so. I care not.”
I didn’t understand what she was talking about, but I knew a lie when I heard it. In anyone else, it would have been a whimper of self-conscious vulnerability. I started to frame a question, but then I heard Wynne’s intake of breath, and I felt a strange sensation crawling up my spine, like cold water trickling in reverse.
Morrigan closed her eyes, took a long, slow breath, and then the world seemed to flex a bit, as if the air itself was pushing against my eyes, trying to turn inside out.
Magical energy began to coil in dark glimmers along her bare arms. Sten shifted uncomfortably and muttered a word in the qunari tongue that sounded like a disbelieving imprecation. I heard Zevran give a low whistle, and then there was a sudden thump, and a great, dull echo of a sound that seemed to come from inside my own head. It coincided with a flash of light that wasn’t so much actual light as the sudden absence of it… as if the place Morrigan had been standing had simply eaten itself up, and shrunk down to the size of a copper piece, condensed into black nothingness.
At that precise moment, two other things happened. First—with a whisper of cloth, the jangle of metal, and the soft thud of leather—Morrigan’s robes hit the ground, stirring up the leaf-litter all around them. Secondly, there was a shrill, coarse, cawing and, where the witch had stood, a large raven with glossy black feathers was beating its wings, flapping awkwardly against the air. Maethor growled and loosed a short, sharp bark, but stayed where he was and didn’t lunge for the bird… or whatever it was.
The raven dropped to the ground in a tangle of feathers, and cawed again, which sounded almost exactly like a frustrated curse. Its head bobbed, and I stared at its huge golden eyes. There was absolutely no mistaking their colour, but I didn’t see Morrigan staring back at me; just a bird, albeit a highly intelligent one. Its beak opened in another sharp call and, those broad wings spread out wide, the raven took off and barrelled between the trees, flying up towards the canopy.
We all stood there in silence, listening to the creature rattle about in the branches, and to those angry-sounding caws growing more distant.
After what seemed like several minutes, Leliana cleared her throat gently and, leaning forwards, scooped up Morrigan’s robes. She brushed the dead leaves and twigs from them, taking care to tuck the witch’s ornate jewellery into the folds of cloth.
“She’ll want these for later, I expect,” she said. “It must be very inconvenient, always having to come back for them. Imagine if someone just walked off with your clothes!”
Zevran sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “It does tend to put a damper on the day, I’ll give you that. And you can forget about being inconspicuous.”
“Well, you would know, I imagine,” Leliana said mildly, and he gave her a suave smile.
I was amazed that either of them could take it so easily in their stride. We had just watched Morrigan turn into a bird and fly off, and despite knowing that shouldn’t surprise me—I knew what she was, and Alistair had been speculating about Chasind shapeshifting magic since we’d been following her out of the Korcari Wilds—but… I don’t know. I just hadn’t expected to actually see her do it.
I glanced at Wynne, and found her peering up into the trees with a strange look on her face, her lower lip drawn in and her brows tight.
“You read about it, of course,” she murmured, apparently half to herself. “But to see it done is quite another matter. Quite another matter indeed….”
Overhead, the branches rattled again, and a few leaves drifted down as the raven settled on a nearby tree, cawed for our attention, then took off again. We exchanged glances, and then trooped obediently after the bird.
Alistair grumbled and hefted his shield on his arm, holding it so high it was virtually over his head as he eyed the canopy suspiciously.
“What are you doing?”
He looked at me as if I was an idiot. “What does it look like? I told you she was a shapeshifter. That bird’s still Morrigan, and I don’t trust her not to—”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” I shook my head, and followed on after Wynne, Maethor padding at my heels with his nose quivering curiously.
“She’d do it,” Alistair said darkly, trudging on behind me. “You mark my words. She would do it.”