Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Thirteen

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It was hard to know whether Morrigan had helped or hindered. Hard for me to understand, anyway… especially as Leliana grew so ill in the hours that followed. We made a small camp close to the bank; at least enough to give her shelter while Wynne worked on the injuries, and I saw how the Dalish retreated from both the patient and healer alike—not to mention how they stared at Morrigan.

No one seemed to want to touch the corpse she’d taken her magic from, until at last Sten hefted the dead werewolf over his shoulder and, muttering under his breath, carted it off into the undergrowth.

I was helping Wynne. Zevran stayed, and so did Farriel, alone among his clansmen in his preparedness to be so near Leliana. It was awful. She bucked, arched, yelled, vomited… and we helped her through it. I remembered the night of my Joining, and the old temple at Ostagar where the stones were etched with strange symbols, and I’d lain unconscious on them with no idea what passed between the world turning black and my waking again. Daveth had died horribly, wracked and arched with pain, and I sometimes wondered whether I’d thrashed around before I woke, fighting the foulness pouring through my blood like he had—like Leliana was doing now—or whether it had all been quiet and terrible, the way she turned after the worst of it was over.

We drew blankets around her, in defence against the bitter cold that the nights brought with them now, and I wiped her face with a damp cloth while Farriel cleaned up and Zevran sealed the little bender tent he’d fashioned around us, tucking in all the edges of the oiled leather that hung from pegged down tree branches, and making sure the ground was soft. It was a cocoon that smelled of hide, grease, and fear and, all the while, the searing, steady light of Wynne’s magic burned, her face a carved mask in bone—all stern lines and strong, flat planes—and the smell of it washed up around us, like copper and warm bread.

I’d grown used to that smell, and maybe even started to find it comforting. After a skirmish or a long day’s travel, Wynne’s healing magic could be like a mother’s balm calmly applied to a squirming child.

It wasn’t like that now.

Leliana didn’t seem to move or speak much, and it was difficult to know how aware she was of anything. If the curse was even remotely like the taint, Maker alone knew what she would have to go through in the night to come… or maybe longer. After all, none of us had any idea how long it could take. We’d found Deygan alive almost a week after the hunters had entered the forest, but neither Wynne nor any of the Dalish could guess how long he’d lain there, and whether the curse was still burning in his blood, or whether it had faded to some kind of dormancy, and allowed the more prosaic problems of physical infection and decay to set in.

Either way, things looked bleak for Leliana, even after we got her through the worst of it, and induced sleep finally claimed her.

Zev and Farriel had gone by then, dismissed by a weary looking Wynne. They both seemed glad to be out of it, and I couldn’t blame them. The others had been busy pitching the tents around our small, rather paltry fire, and scrabbling together what comforts could be had from our rations. We’d already boiled some of the drinking water to clean Leliana’s wounds and, by the fire, I could hear Aegan and Revasir discussing the possibility of venturing back a little along the way we’d come to find a clean water source, and maybe fresh meat. The consensus seemed to be that it was too dangerous, and probably not worth it.

I knelt by Leliana’s head still, smoothing back her hair as Wynne laid the last caresses of the sleep spell around her. Bloody pads and bandages swathed her chest, but her porcelain skin had grown dull and translucent, each shallow breath shuddering within her.

‘Healing by degrees’, Wynne had called it. What you did when magic alone couldn’t cure an injury, or when the healer had arrived too late. That was when I first learned that magic couldn’t heal everything flawlessly… and the point at which I realised how lucky I’d been. The small scars I still bore—the little whitish puckers and faintly shiny marks where darkspawn arrows had once blossomed from me like a tree full of foul blooms—were the results of powerful magic (and I was aware that I probably didn’t want to know exactly how Flemeth had revived me). Wounds I’d had since, and the injuries in the Circle Tower… all of these things had been healed so quickly, so cleanly.

I’d been so busy wrapping my head around the idea of magic as something to be thankful for, instead of fearful and suspicious of, that I hadn’t paused to truly appreciate the magnitude of Wynne’s skill. It frightened me to realise, all of a sudden, that her abilities were not infinite, and that sometimes magic could only alleviate the worst of an injury, and not spirit it away as if it had never happened.

The mage was exhausted, in any case. Alistair had refused to let her expend any more energy on healing him, and now he was sitting by one of the tents, perched on his pack, his armour still on and his whole posture that of a man trying to adjust himself around a painful wound.

“Prideful boy,” Wynne muttered, probably to herself, as she glanced at him through the shelter’s draped opening. “That injury is going to need dealing with, whether he likes it or not.”

“I could take a look,” I offered—Maker alone knew why; my mother’s big mouth showing itself, Father would have said—and, after a small pause, Wynne nodded gratefully, gesturing with a tired wave of her hand to the pots of ointments and small vials of liquid that sat in a leather bag beside the now-slumbering Leliana.

“Thank you, dear. There are some clean rags in the pot. Help him clean it up, and I’ll… well, I… I think I’ll just sit for a moment….”

I gathered the things together and, with a deep breath, tried to put on the best no-nonsense demeanour I could as I went to play healer.

Alistair looked up at my approach, his expression dull and tired.

“How is she?”

“Sleeping,” I said, struggling to hold his gaze. “Wynne’s done as much as she can for now. She wants me to take a look at your side.”

“It’s all right,” he protested, wincing a little as he drew breath, presumably to ask something else about Leliana.

I didn’t want to hear it. I was fighting hard enough to drown the screams of blame in my head, now the dulling shock of what had happened was beginning to wear away.

“Let me help,” I said, kneeling before him in the leaf litter.

He didn’t move. He seemed so stiff and cold with me, and I took that to mean he blamed me—oh, everyone blamed me, I was sure—but I was too full of the needles of anxious, tired guilt and worry to react. I just sighed, and set the bag, the rags, and the water canteen down by my side, my hands falling uselessly into my lap.

“Alistair….”

The echoes of the battle beat in my head: the blow I was sure he’d taken for me, that I hadn’t even seen coming, and the moment Leliana had fallen that I hadn’t even seen at all. So much blood, chaos, and craziness… and the werewolves, with their voices and their strange words.

No one had said they could talk. They were supposed to be nothing but savage beasts. Animals. Demons.

Zathrian had misled me but, worse than that, I’d known he wasn’t telling me everything. I’d known since I’d spoken with Athras that the keeper’s own clan suspected him of hiding the truth, and—no matter how hard I tried—it was becoming increasingly impossible to believe that he’d done it purely to protect them.

Oh, I was no stranger to being manipulated. My whole life had been defined by the alienage—our rules and customs and the stupid things we told our young, which I had both begun to resent, and yet so desperately missed believing in—but I was only just beginning to wake from that dream. I had barely begun to open my eyes to the sheer breadth of things I didn’t understand, and the knowledge left me stunted, crippled: incapable of anything more.

Awkward silence had pooled between us, and at first Alistair did nothing to break it. He just looked down at me, his expression oddly detached.

His face was still streaked with dirt. Bathing at the Dalish camp seemed a distant memory, but then you always feel worse when you start to get dirty after being clean. When it’s new dirt on top of old, it doesn’t matter so much. We all stank, anyway, and the rime of old sweat felt caked under my arms.

I cleared my throat awkwardly, and made a vague gesture at his armour. “Well… let’s take a look, then.”

Alistair lowered his voice, shifting uncomfortably on his pack as he leaned forwards. “I can’t reach the straps,” he admitted. “And I can’t…. I think I might have cracked a rib.”

“Ah. All right. Hold still.”

He looked embarrassed as I shuffled on my knees through the leaves, and we began the painfully awkward ballet of trying to help him out of his breastplate and jack.

I was too tired, too preoccupied to think before I acted, only realising once I had my hands full of leather and splintmail how close the action brought us… and how truly uncomfortable it was for us both. My aching, sore fingers stumbled on strappings and fixings, my lack of familiarity with Alistair’s armour making the task go slowly. He winced at every pull, every tug, and still tried to hide it, and I am sure we both felt as exposed as each other, despite the fact that the others barely looked our way once—with the notable exception of Daeon, who I could feel staring at me from across the camp.

Finally, with Alistair stripped to his undershirt, I could see the bloody hole in the fabric, and I carefully lifted the hem, exposing the wound. He sat still, moving only to lift the garment further, taking the hem from my fingers and holding it out of the way to grant me access. He seemed to be trying not to breathe, and I tried not to think about how little we had spoken to each other, and how very strong the smell of his blood was.

It was a nasty gash, about three inches long, a half-inch wide, and deep with it, and he was probably right about the rib. A thick pad of reddened, swollen flesh marked the place that would bloom to bruising in a day or so, and he sucked air sharply through his teeth when I touched it.

We didn’t speak as I began to cleanse the wound, carefully washing dirt and pulling loose threads from it. He looked the other way, and I held my breath for as long as I dared, divorcing myself from the actions as if I could pretend that my hands didn’t belong to me, and that I didn’t feel so small as I did when I saw the coldness in his face.

Eventually, I had to breathe, and I had to admit that I could smell his sweat, his blood, and his skin, and that I could feel his warmth even through my chilled, dissociated fingers. It made the gulf between us so much more palpable and, when I exhaled again, the breath left me in a rush, turning to coils of white on the cold air.

Alistair glanced down at me, his mouth taut, and I looked up as he did so, the question dragged from me on a reluctant tongue.

“Are you angry with me?” I asked softly, opening the jar of wound ointment we’d used on Leliana. The sharp, bitter smell of it wafted up between us. “If I hadn’t pushed so hard to come here—”

“No.” Alistair frowned as he looked down at my hands. “No. That’s not— I mean… all right, things haven’t exactly gone to plan, I’ll give you that.”

The balm slicked my fingers with its thick, greenish greasiness. I hated the way it got worked into the sides of my fingernails, ingraining itself into my skin. I had no idea what was in it—the stuff was far nastier than the ointment Morrigan had once given me for blisters—and I supposed I probably didn’t want to know.

Alistair sighed tightly. “I… I do think you’ve been a fool, though.”

“Oh.”

I just knelt there for a moment, not sure what to say. I expected to find heat flaming in my cheeks—the burn of humiliation and embarrassment roasting me upon its coals—but there was nothing. Everything felt a little bit more like nothingness, and I kept my gaze focused on my hands, so I didn’t have to see anything else.

Above us, the bare tree branches rattled, and the breeze whispered through the clothed boughs of firs and spruce.

“You’ve been blinded by it,” Alistair said slowly, his words quiet and punctuated by small silences that might have been uncertainty, or unwillingness, or just the complaints of his injury making themselves known. “I mean, yes, you had a point in pushing us… the Dalish were here to be found and, if the clans can be brought together, that’s an army in itself, but…. Well, it’s a big ‘if’, isn’t it?”

He was still holding his shirt up, baring his side to the night air. The edges of the glob of ointment had begun to melt on my skin, which seemed odd, because my hands felt so cold. I blinked at the greasy scoop of balm, and I addressed it rather than him when I spoke, because somehow that was easier.

“So, you think it would have been better if we’d cut our losses and gone after a cure for the arl instead?” My voice was quiet and even, but I could hear the ice in it; coldness I didn’t want to be there, goading for an argument I didn’t know why I wanted to have. “Some people might say trying to track down an ancient relic that probably doesn’t even exist, in order to save a man who might already be dead, is a pretty big ‘if’, too.”

There was a small pause; a shallow silence between us that felt like a yawning gulf.

“It’s not the same,” Alistair said tightly.

My lip curled. “No. Of course it isn’t.”

“Well?” he demanded, his voice positively twanging with restrained anger. “Look at what happened today. You know Zathrian didn’t tell you the truth. Those weren’t mindless beasts. I told you that—”

I rocked back on my heels, jutting my chin out as I glared up at him. “Oh? Really? Wonderful. That helps, Alistair. Thank you.”

He exhaled heavily, and with a rather theatrical expression of annoyance.

“You know what I mean. You’ve been too eager to put your trust in the Dalish, when you’re not like them. They’re not like you. Just because they’re elves—”

He was making a valid, sensible point. That much was true. And it was true he had been suspicious of Zathrian’s handling of us, but he’d held off arguing with me… and now I wished he hadn’t. Now, I managed to blame him for that, and for everything, and for having the Void-taken insensitivity to remind me of my own idiocy. I scowled, and managed to read a lifetime of alienage gutters and shemlen prejudices into what he was trying to say.

‘Just because they’re elves’? You don’t know what that is! And you know what? The Dalish are here. They’re alive. Even if Zathrian was holding back, at least the clan’s real. Not like running after a fairytale.”

“That’s not the point!” Alistair snapped, proper anger finally clouding his face as he glowered down at me.

I almost welcomed it, and I almost wanted to push him further, just to see how far he’d go. “Oh? Isn’t it?”

“No!” He grimaced, as if my ignorance was more physically painful than the wound in his side. “Maker’s teeth…. Are you really so caught up here that you can’t even see that?”

“Only as caught up as you are with the arl,” I countered bitterly. “Whatever you think you owe to him—”

“It’s not about that!”

“Yes, it is!” I protested, my own bottled-up frustration finally bursting out in a way that, if I could have looked at the two of us, posed in that absurd tableau—him with his shirt held up and me with green goo all over my hand—I would have found comical. “You’ve said as much yourself, Alistair, whether you think so or not. But he abandoned you. He gave you up… doesn’t that mean anything? He’s no more family to you than your half-sister!”

It was a stupid, hurtful thing to say. At some level I knew that, but I didn’t seem to care.

Alistair’s expression hardened, his brows drawn low and his eyes clouded. “It doesn’t make any difference… just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. I thought you believed that.”

There was an undercurrent of such hopelessness in his voice; a mournful kind of tone that I barely registered while I was so intent on hurting him.

“That’s what I’m trying to do here! Or isn’t all this worth as much as one nobleman? Is your idea of ‘the right thing’ different for elves and shems?”

Suddenly, our little argument—my bantam strutting, drawing lines in the sand and ruffling my feathers as I paraded along them—sounded hollow, and I could see my own contorted reflection echoed back in his eyes.

Alistair’s frown grew sullen, his gaze sliding away from me.

“You’re not usually so stupid,” he muttered—something he’d never, ever called me before. “But you are bloody stubborn. And I still wish you’d just look at what you’re getting into.”

“You think I didn’t? I never ordered anybody into this! You put me in charge, but I’ve never—”

“You’d have come into the forest on your own, though, wouldn’t you?” he demanded, glaring at me with renewed ire, the shadows sharpening his face. “When Zathrian asked, you’d have jumped at the chance. You couldn’t see a bloody thing except your precious sodding Dalish, and maybe, just maybe—if you’d listened—”

“—Leliana wouldn’t have been bitten?” I supplemented. “No. I know that! Do you think I don’t know that?”

We both shut up then, sharp words and hot tempers cracking into abrupt silence as we glared at each other. I could see so much disappointment in his face; maybe I’d put it there myself, or maybe I just pulled it from the shadows and imagined it. Either way, it hurt, and what hurt even more was that, in that silence, Alistair didn’t rush to comfort me. There was no ‘I didn’t say that’ or ‘That’s not what I meant’… just a wordless admission of my guilt.

Across the clearing, Zevran coughed loudly and tried to strike up a conversation with Sten about the qunari antaam. I was grateful to him, though it heightened my awareness of just how little privacy there was.

I lowered my gaze—I didn’t want to be the first to break eye contact, but I couldn’t stand the look on Alistair’s face anymore—and stared blankly ahead of me. His wound was bleeding again, just lightly, and his skin had sprouted goosebumps.

“You’re cold,” I said flatly.

He set his jaw. “I expect I’ll survive it. Look, give me the—”

“No.”

I gritted my teeth, and began to smear the ointment on my fingers carefully around the wound. Alistair tensed at my touch, but kept looking straight ahead. It was probably one of the most awkward things I’d ever done in my life, and yet I’d rather have died than give up that little pot of greasy balm.

I tried to concentrate on what I was doing, smearing the preparation into that ugly tear across his flesh, hating the fact it made him flinch and yet—in a way that made me feel more than a little ashamed—relishing the fact I could cause him discomfort. My fingers skated carefully over the bloody gash itself, and the bruised flesh, and I could feel his ribs, and the solid curves of his torso, and no matter how much he’d irritated or scalded me, I couldn’t escape the fact I was touching him. This man—this human—who had taken so many of the prejudices, confusions, and reservations I had, and single-handedly crumpled them like paper… he had an effect on me unlike anything I’d ever known before, and it scared me.

Across the camp, the others had managed to make enough conversation to distract themselves. The fire burned, pushing back the shadows—for a little while, at least—and Wynne had emerged, looking very slightly less tired.

“Look, Meri…,” Alistair began, as she started to come towards us.

I didn’t respond. Instead, I straightened up, climbing stiffly to my feet and wiping my hands on the seat of my leathers as I nodded to Wynne.

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted to stitch it or not,” I said, inclining my head in Alistair’s general direction, as if he was nothing more than the wound; nothing more than an ‘it’.

She looked rather unimpressed, though in the blue-grained dimness of the night, it was hard to really see the difference between fatigue and disapproval. I ducked out of the whole thing, and left Wynne to deal with the difficult business of the healing alone. She could talk Alistair down this time, I decided, not me.

Just for once, not me.

Instead, I wandered over to the fire, hoping for some brief relaxation and a chance to calm my aching muscles. Any thought of that was quickly expunged by the reception I got from the others. I could feel it in their gazes, taste it on their breath… and the look that Revasir gave me was withering.

That night, I occupied the unenviable position between scapegoat and traitor. To my companions—my friends, who should have been able to trust me—I was responsible for what had happened. To the Dalish, I had made myself suspect by so loudly arguing about Zathrian, and with the human I called comrade. It was Daeon who put the tin lid on it, by muttering as I passed him:

“Huh. Never thought I’d see you on your knees in front of a shem, Tabris.”

I turned smartly on my heel to glare at him, lip pulled back and—though I’d not even known I was doing it—my right hand almost on the hilt of my dagger. His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t flinch away or bluster about it, the way fights got picked in the alienage. He just stood his ground, a callous smirk on his face, and Dalish tooling on his leathers.

I wanted to be away from them. All of them. Wordlessly, I turned from him and crossed to the edge of the camp, where I found a piece of dry log to sit on, and—with the very edges of the firelight playing against my back, and dropping in rags around my feet—I settled in for a bloody good sulk.

Ahead of me, the forest dissolved into darkness. There was no real way of making out individual trees or pathways through the shadows and the fuzzed, blue-black boundlessnesses of the night. It all seemed as amorphous as the mess my days had slid into—no calendar, no regular routine of market days, Chantry services, washing, cleaning, and working—and I wished there was a clear way ahead.

I remembered the Imperial Highway, with its great white stones and cracked archways, like broken ribs over the paved roadway, and how numbingly dull the hours of that repetition had been. I missed them. I missed the certainty there had been, too, though then it hadn’t felt like that… and yet had I been such a different person?

I frowned, my breath misting on the air as I recalled the bandits we’d run into. What had it been… just a handful of days since we’d left the Wilds? Not long after we’d looted the abandoned Chasind huts, which had felt too much like thieving for comfort, and Alistair had voiced his first suspicions about Morrigan being a shapeshifter. (He’d been right about that, too, Maker damn him. I’d already known he wasn’t half as stupid as he liked to pretend, but still… why had I not been listening to him more?)

I remembered putting my dagger to the neck of their leader—how short he was for a shem, that I barely had to reach high—and how the bitter battle-call of it had beat in my blood. No vacillation then. No self-pity. So why was it so hard to be that clear-headed now? Was it the responsibility that had been piling on me since, and the ever-increasing number of people who looked to me for answers? Or was I still not over the things I’d seen in Denerim? The ache of loss was still there, though I had believed I’d accepted it—and maybe I had, until I met Daeon again. Maybe it was his fault, I told myself, because I so badly wanted to believe that I wasn’t falling apart.

A soft rustle among the leaves made me look up, straining my useless night-vision for a glimpse of something in the darkness.

As if she had been waiting for the opportunity to do it with the best dramatic effect, Morrigan melted out of the shadows, slinking between the trees in a slack-boned manner that made me wonder if she was still adjusting to being human again. Her skin seemed almost luminously pale; just narrow slips of it between the folds of heavy cloth, feathers, and leather. She had a dark cloak wrapped loosely around her, with the hood up, and it lent a disturbing shadowy quality to her face. The make-up she wore was, unusually for her, close to rubbing away, leaving uneven swoops of shadow on her skin, and I almost smiled to think of the times I’d wondered whether she glamoured it on with magic.

“We will have to make haste at first light,” she said, coming to sit beside me unceremoniously, both uninvited and apparently uncaring. “Move quickly to the werebeasts’ lair, and bring this to an end.”

I scoffed, turning my head to watch her stare at the same patch of shadows I’d been glaring at.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Huh.” Morrigan’s lips twitched impatiently, but she continued to watch the darkness, as if there was something mildly interesting there, just for her. “We are close. You think they would have attacked if we were not? Anyway, ’tis not us they want. We will merely be bait, or messengers.”

I frowned, my thrumming mind gradually feeding me small realisations. “Zathrian?”

“Mmm.” Her dark-smudged mouth moved into something almost like a lazy little smile, as if she considered this a potentially intriguing opportunity. “Indeed. Now, there’s a clever fellow.”

“Not the first word I’d choose,” I muttered. “Why would he lie like he did? It doesn’t make sense.”

Morrigan took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, like she was savouring the aroma of damp earth, pine needles, and decay. For all I knew, it smelled like home to her, though I recalled the flora of the Wilds being somewhat different to the forest.

“Doesn’t it? Perhaps you should ask your Dalish friends. They hold their keeper in very high regard, don’t they? I’m sure they will be only too happy to explain,” she added as she rose to her feet, her voice taking on precisely the same light, spiteful tone she used to taunt Alistair.

“They don’t trust you,” I said, rather uselessly, because who of us really did?

When Rhyn had put me on the spot, I’d managed to say no better of this woman—to whom I owed my life—than that, if she’d wanted us dead, we would have been already. It was hardly a vote of moral confidence.

It had grown late. Tired, sore, and sick of the forest, I rubbed my forehead and pushed my hand back through my greasy, lank hair, scratching at the itchy scalp beneath.

“You know what they’re worried about, don’t you?”

Morrigan lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted, disinterested shrug, indicating that she neither knew nor cared.

“You can take the form of a wolf. They think you brought the wolves to us.”

She crossed her arms, her darkened lips curling into a bitter sneer. “And why should I do that?”

“I don’t know. To follow them back? See where they go?”

Her lips parted further, and a small laugh dripped between them, choked out as if she couldn’t be bothered with giving vent to it in full.

“Idiocy. Stupidity, and superstition.”

“Really? After what you did with that corpse?” I asked, in a moment of foolhardy bravado. “Because that looked a lot like blood magic.”

The sneer hardened into a snarl on Morrigan’s face, a pale knife in the gloom, and her ochre-gold gaze speared mine.

“Then you have never seen blood magic,” she snapped. “If you had, you should not mistake it so easily. It is a terrible power—immense, and hungry, and insatiable—and it can never be truly controlled.”

“You gave Leliana strength from something dead,” I said dully. “That’s….”

“Blood magic is nothing to do with life or death,” Morrigan retorted. “Blood is life, yes; it is energy, and power, but it is not the source of that magic. A mage who has embraced blood magic—made the bargains that must be struck to seal such pacts—has looked into the eyes of a demon, and promised it all it desires. Do you think me such an eager thrall?”

I shook my head. “No… I don’t see you making deals with anyone.”

She snorted softly; I wasn’t sure whether it was amusement or offence.

“Well, then,” Morrigan said, rather more gently now, the scorn dropping slightly from her voice. “Perhaps you should go and tell those Dalish you have quelled the witch, and let them cease their gawking at me. It is most tiresome.”

I smiled at that, but she just waved a hand testily.

“Go on. You have moped enough, and we have precious little time to waste.”

She had a point… not that I was going to admit it. I wrinkled my nose.

“Sure. In a little while.”

Morrigan shrugged, and slunk away, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

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Volume 4: Chapter Fourteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Twelve

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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 clunkyso 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.

~o~O~o~

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.

~o~O~o~

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 followedone of the Dalish huntersand 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.

Enough!

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

No!”

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 coatthey 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 ushrrr and even less of those you serve. Hrrryou 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 thenless an act of standing, more an unfolding of its misshapen bodyand 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. “Hrrrenough. We speak no more. Run from the forest while you can! Run back to Dalish mastershrrr 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.

Watch out!”

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.

Retreat.

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.

Alistair?”

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.

But—”

Merien.”

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.

Oh, Maker….”

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.

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Volume 4: Chapter Thirteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Eleven

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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.

Darkspawn?

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 protestany 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.

~o~O~o~

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.

Wh— I….”

What?”

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 bedrollstupid 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 wolf.

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.

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Volume 4: Chapter Twelve
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Ten

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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.

Warden.”

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.

~o~O~o~

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.

~o~O~o~

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.

~o~O~o~

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?”

Oh.

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.

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Volume 4: Chapter Eleven
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Nine

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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.

Hm?”

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.

~o~O~o~

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?”

Warden.”

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… thatreally 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?”

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.”

Thank you.”

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.

~o~O~o~

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.

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Volume 4: Chapter Ten
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