The Laurel and the Rose: Chapter Three


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It was hard to know quite where it had all gone so horribly wrong, although Isobel thought about it a great deal. She counted through, moment by moment, trying to find that crack, that flaw… that single point at which the rot had set in.

The road had been normal. Quiet, but normal. She had half-expected the south to be thick with refugees or crawling with troop movements, but that wasn’t the case. Lothering might have had its swells of destitute farmhands, but they barely saw anyone between there and Redcliffe.

Isobel hadn’t expected her first sight of the village to be so impressive. That great waterfall, thundering down from vast red rocks, and the cottages spread out below like the dollhouses she’d had as a child… she’d stopped to admire it for a while, and not realised that anything that pretty must be a mirage.

Alistair, in his typical muddle-headed fashion, had tried to talk to her then. She’d brushed him off, told him to wait until later, and he’d turned oddly petulant, which irritated her.

He could have pushed the issue. He should have, and Isobel had doubted she would forgive him for it. He’d made her look such a fool.

Bann Teagan was perfectly charming, despite the difficult circumstances. Oh, that Arl Eamon’s sickness was some sort of a magical poison—some malady that normal healing could neither identify nor cure—had been obvious, but somehow no one had expected ravening hordes of undead. That was just too much, and then to have to find out there, in front of everyone, exactly how Alistair knew the Guerrin family…!

Isobel could have sworn he took a perverse delight in her embarrassment. Teagan’s expression, as he tried to conceal his surprise that she didn’t know, had burned into her, and she took refuge in the stiffly formal court manners her mother had taught her. That, and the assault that nightfall brought.

It had seemed so much easier to deal in facts like that—in matters of men, and equipment, and the practicalities of barricades—than speaking of it further. She had pushed past Alistair’s attempt to apologise, her anger making her brusque instead of icily crisp, and glared at him until he shut up and followed orders.

She should have seen it, she supposed. She imagined he had thought she would, or that she would at least have suspected. The daughter of a teyrn, who should have been so familiar with Cailan’s court… how had she missed it? He couldn’t have known that, despite the fact there was not that much of a familial resemblance between him and the late king, Isobel had only ever been presented at court once, more than two years ago. Naturally, she would rather have walked barefoot into the Black City than admit it.

So, that wound was set to fester.

They fought side-by-side that night, nevertheless. Leliana and Morrigan, too… and Ryder, flinging himself at the massed ranks of walking corpses, until the air was choked with the stench of rotted flesh, and they stood ankle-deep in bodies.

Dawn came at great cost. Barely a handful of the militia had still been standing. Murdock was dead, the village virtually flattened, only smoking, gutted ruins left… and when she saw the faces of the people creeping out of the chantry, the breath leaked from Isobel’s lungs like cold fire. There were women and children—pale, weak and terrified—who’d lost everything, and they did not look at Isobel and her companions as if they were saviours.

There had been no time to rest, no opportunity to recoup their strength.

They had pressed forwards to the castle, bone-tired and aching, their wounds hastily bound and the blood still spattering their armour. What they found within those walls sickened her. More death, more filth, more violence… things were worse than Isobel had feared.

It wasn’t my fault.

What else were we supposed to do?

So many had already died. So many had suffered, and the arl was virtually on his deathbed. There was no time.

When they found the boy, Connor, it was clear that Lady Isolde had lied to protect him. She knew the child was possessed, that it was his desire to spare his father’s life that had sundered the Veil, and not the blood mage who had posed as his tutor.

Isobel remembered, through the haze of fatigue, standing in the great hall, her armour sticky with the congealed blood and partially rotted flesh of corpses, her blade heavy in her hand while they all argued. The arlessa had cried and protested… even Teagan suggested they consider the ultimate method of neutralising the threat, and Alistair had been wavering towards agreeing.

Leliana pressed a hand to her mouth, aghast at the notion of killing a child. But there was no other way… no other sane choice.

Of course, in such circumstances, the insane fast becomes rational.

The blood mage, Jowan, offered a solution. Isolde had him dragged up from the dungeon, her rage palpable. She still blamed him, pouring her fury and her guilt into a hysterical tirade against his magic. By contrast, when he spoke, his voice was so small, and his words faltered as he offered his forbidden knowledge to make amends for the evil that had been unleashed.

Isobel hadn’t wanted to hear it. Blood for blood, a sacrifice so that the child might be spared and the demon within him defeated. It was a vile, distasteful thing… and yet the only sensible course. Isolde even volunteered, her anger replaced by such terrible calm when the reality of the choice was made plain.

Kill Connor, or perform the blood ritual.

Oh, the mages might have helped. The Circle Tower might have had enough lyrium to power such an endeavour without this heinous need for flesh, but they were more than a day’s journey away, and there had been no guarantee that Connor would remain passive that long.

Isobel had shaken her head as she said as much, her words falling with finality across the strained silence. Alistair had the nerve to look at her as if she was a monster, yet hadn’t he vacillated between wanting to beg for the Tower’s help and saying they must face the necessity of killing the boy? She’d known that she couldn’t let his indecision hamper them any longer.

Of all of them, Morrigan alone had understood. Her golden eyes glimmered in the light of the torches that burned on the stone walls, and she had nodded to Isobel. She would be part of it, and enter the Fade. With her power, and the strength of Jowan’s ritual, they stood a good chance of seeing the demon defeated.

It was the only sensible choice. A willing sacrifice: a mother’s blood, given freely that her child might be spared the consequences of his folly.

Put like that, it almost seemed noble, and those were the silver threads of hope that Isobel clung to, even as the ability to feel anything seemed to ebb from her.

They had carried out the preparations virtually in silence. Lady Isolde’s quiet dignity was magnificent. When Connor was fetched—still pliant and small and nearly his normal self—and placed within the circle that Jowan drew, he looked up at his mother with wide, questioning eyes, and asked her what was happening.

Nothing, Connor. Everything will be all right. I love you, my son.

With the soft white glow of Jowan’s sleep spell enveloping him, the boy had slumped, the arlessa’s pale hand still resting upon his cheek.

At Isobel’s side, Ryder had flung back his head and howled. Leliana murmured something about not being able to watch this and, turning, fled from the hall. Isobel had nodded at her hound, dismissing him, and the mabari seemed only too pleased to follow Leliana.

She’d glared at Alistair then, his dark-shrouded stare like a burr on the back of her neck, but he’d folded his arms in silent refusal. He wouldn’t leave.

He had stayed, just as Isobel had.

She watched every visceral, bloody moment of it. She watched the way Jowan’s face contorted as the arlessa’s blood fountained from her body, the wash of power and triumph that engulfed him, and of hunger… and she knew Morrigan felt it too. There was something feral about the pair of them. Something sinister and frightening, and then the whole room reeked of copper and meat, and there was a vile, dark stain that tainted every last one of them.

Isobel had felt it deep within her, beating to the pulse of the darkness that corrupted her own blood. That flesh-song, that brutal, raw thing… the oldest, bluntest kind of magic. She had known that none of them would ever be quite the same for it.

And yet, when it was all over and Connor was free of the demon, it had been deemed a success. A sober, terrible success.

Bann Teagan, ashen-faced and solemn, hurried his nephew from the room, arms protectively encircling the boy as his piping voice asked why Mama was lying down. Even Morrigan, for all her indomitable steeliness, had looked shaken.

Isobel had offered her an arm—intending nothing more than a gesture of support—but found herself briskly rebuffed as the shapechanger stalked from the hall. She would not see her again until the following dawn.

One by one, they left, until the room was empty except for her, Alistair, and a pair of elven servants who had been sent to begin laying out the body. One had brought a mop and bucket with her, for the blood that still marked the flagstones.

Isobel supposed she should say something. She didn’t know what, or where to begin and, as she had moved forwards, her hand extended as if to touch the back of Alistair’s arm, he’d flinched away. He tore his gaze from Lady Isolde’s lifeless face, and looked at Isobel with a mix of rage, hatred, and guilt that chilled her to the core.

With a few muttered words about going to the tavern, he had left, and barely spared her another glance.

The servants had no use for her either, and so Isobel had left them to their work. She had been on her feet and fighting for the best part of twenty-six hours without rest, and the fatigue hit heavily.

The castle being in no state to receive visitors, she had made her way back down to the chantry.

As a child, Isobel had often found peace in Mother Mallol’s chapel. It had been a small, quiet island of rest and learning amid the bustle of the castle, and there had been times it became her sanctuary. Not so, in Redcliffe. The dispossessed, the bereaved, the wounded… they were everywhere, and she didn’t know how to help them. Unlike Leliana, who had immediately begun assisting the revered mother in tending to the needy, Isobel had no skills as a healer, and no expertise in comforting the grieving.

Instead, she had sat in one of the oak pews, gazed up at the blessed visage of Andraste, and wondered why it seemed so hard to weep.

Later, with Ryder at her heels, she had stood on the top of the ridge and looked out across the lake. Darkness drew in with the dusk, the last of the sunlight dying in a murmur of gold beneath heavy-bellied clouds.

A light breeze rippled through the thick air, still a little rimed with soot and death. It had tugged at Isobel’s hair, pulling a few greasy blonde strands from the rumpled knot at the back of her neck, and she had thought longingly of hot baths and clean clothes… things that Bann Teagan had promised them before they left.

They had promised until after the funerals. It seemed only right. One more dawn in that forsaken place, one more day… and then back on the road.

Isobel had looked down, and seen the villagers building the pyres. She had watched the people criss-crossing the square with what little timber they had left, gutting their own houses to bid proper farewell to their dead.

She had seen Alistair, too, throwing up behind the tavern. Repeatedly. It had looked quite possible that he was crying.

She’d heaved a deep sigh. She could have crossed the ridge, scrambled down the gritty path and gone to him, she supposed. Been the friend he wanted. Apologised for making the decisions that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And yet she didn’t leave her position on the ridge. Aloft, alone… her feet firmly planted on the hard, red rock, she had watched, and wondered how much all this had changed things, and just where it was that it had all turned so bitter.

He barely said a word to her until after they left Redcliffe. Partially, she imagined it was the hangover. He’d looked awful, anyway. Passing the night in the bare comfort of the chantry hadn’t helped much, and then there had been the horrendous solemnity of the obsequies to endure before they departed.

It was no wonder that, when they’d finally hit the West Road again, ploughing on over the unforgiving terrain with Ryder insisting on putting up every single bird he found, tensions were strained.

Now, as the quiet of the camp seeped into every available space, filling up with the soft rustle of night creatures in the bushes, and the low crackle of the fire, Isobel sat and stared into the flames.

She had been replaying the whole thing over and over in her mind, trying to find that one point, that key moment when it had all changed and she had steered them into such a blind corner. Perhaps if they’d planned the assault differently, if she’d never allowed Bann Teagan to return unaccompanied to the castle, or if the village’s defences had been better manned, and they’d had greater numbers, or if more of Ser Perth’s men had been able to go with them… but such thoughts were useless, weren’t they?

What had happened had happened, and no amount of mulling over it would change that.

At her feet, Ryder gave a small, despondent groan, and stretched out in the scrape he’d dug himself. Alistair, sitting a quarter turn around the fire from her, let out a long breath that seemed a cross between a sigh and a groan of frustration.

He glanced at her, and Isobel could feel the tension creaking in the air. It was inevitable, she supposed. This was the first time they had been alone since Redcliffe. Morrigan had excused herself once again, and Leliana had retired to her tent with a prayer book the revered mother had given her.

There was no one here to stand between them, and nowhere she could go to hide from his censure. She met his gaze, and arched her brows.

“Did you want to say something?”

“Plenty,” he said dryly. The fire’s orange-hued shadows painted hollows on his cheeks, and the shadows around him were steep and unforgiving. “I just can’t believe you let her do it, that’s all.”

Isobel frowned. “It was Lady Isolde’s own choice. And it’s done. Do we really have to talk ab—”

“Yes, we have to talk about this!” Alistair snapped. “You think Arl Eamon would have allowed it? You think that Connor—”

“Connor would be dead if we hadn’t, and Arl Eamon may still die,” she retorted, meeting him head-on. “Someone had to make a decision!”

Neither of them was doing all they should to keep their voice down. The words poured out, pools of vituperative anger, and Isobel was suddenly embarrassed by that. She rose briskly to her feet and began to stride away from the fire, taken aback by the heat burning in her cheeks. She didn’t expect Alistair to follow her, or for the brunt of his outrage to fall so swiftly across her.

“But… blood magic!”

She turned, and found him closer than she’d anticipated. His face was an odd combination of the hollow, desolate grief she’d seen on him in the Wilds, and a fierce, stubborn anger that was rather more unfamiliar. Isobel gritted her teeth, and met it with completely equal fury.

“And what other choice was there? Run crying to the Magi and hope there was still a castle there when we got back? Or would you have killed the child? Would you have done that, hm? Held a blade to his neck and—”

“Stop it!” He winced as if she’d lashed out and scratched him. “No, I— I just… she was Arl Eamon’s wife! What do you think he’ll say when we revive him?”

Isobel snorted. “If he revives… if we can even find the Urn. If that happens, I trust he’ll see what was at stake. Wouldn’t you?”

Alistair started to shake his head, his mouth twisted. True revulsion seemed to stain his eyes as he looked at her.

“I… don’t know how you could make the decision you did,” he said, his voice dropping from outraged injury to a softer, more dangerous tone. “There should have been another way. We should have… I should have— I don’t know. I owed the arl more than this.”

“Huh.” Isobel crossed her arms, unwilling to sympathise with that hangdog look of martyrdom he had now. “Of course. This isn’t about you disagreeing with me. This is about you and him… about your so-called family.”

“What? No!”

The fire leapt and crackled, and he winced guiltily, hanging his head as she glared at him. Isobel was still smarting from the embarrassment of that particular revelation. She arched an eyebrow.

“Well?”

“All right… maybe. I don’t know,” Alistair admitted, scowling at the grass as he dug the toe of his boot into the mud. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s done. And it’ll have to be enough, won’t it?”

“It was what had to be done,” Isobel said tersely, repeating the same damn argument that didn’t make her feel any better. “Do you think it was easy?”

The night was folding in around them. The fire popped, and an owl called in the trees beyond their camp. Alistair’s face stiffened, and he seemed unwilling to meet her eye. She wasn’t sure whether it was defiance or guilt.

“No. I didn’t say that. But Arl Eamon—”

“Took you in because you were Maric’s bastard,” she said, her frustration whetting a blade of cruelty in the words, “and then tossed you aside. Stop pretending you owe him more than you do, Alistair!”

He scowled, his mouth half-open, and Isobel wondered if this was the closest he’d ever come to slapping a woman in anger. She wanted him to, she realised, in the strangest of ways… just so she could have the pleasure of hitting him back.

“I owed him enough to save his family. We should have gone to the Circle. We should have done something… anything that didn’t involve blood magic, that’s for sure.”

The words left him like small polished stones, each one spat into the mud between them. Isobel curled her lip.

“Don’t be such a bloody idealist! We did what we could, and there are those who’ve lost a damn sight more than Eamon, or even Isolde. At least she chose to give her life for her son.”

She glared, meeting him eye for eye, her head full of the echoing memories of one castle that was so like another, and the screams of death and betrayal seeping through the corners of her mind. Oren’s tiny, bloody body shimmered in her mind’s eye, so small and unnaturally crumpled against the grey stone floor.

Alistair exhaled tightly, and his gaze wavered. “I… yes. I suppose you… I mean, I guess it’s easy to question when you’re not the one making the decisions. And I’ve let you do just that, haven’t I?”

It sounded like he was backing down, but she could hear every barb that laced the words, and there was real steel behind his gaze.

“Oh?” She rested her hands on her hips. “Does this mean we’re going to have to arm-wrestle for control?”

She didn’t need to be so argumentative, she supposed. She could have ended it more gracefully… but Isobel resented the implication that, somehow, Alistair’s lack of will to lead had allowed her to exercise her own poor judgement. She was damned if she’d let him get away with that one.

He shook his head irritably, the look on his face one of defeat, and sighed. “Forget it. I’m… sorry. It’s done, and that’s all there is to it.”

He turned and sloped back to the fire, with a muttered comment about volunteering to take first watch. Isobel grunted her assent, silently fuming at his infuriating ability to make ‘I’m sorry’ sound exactly like ‘you’re wrong’.

When she finally crawled into her tent, Isobel was only too glad to hide beneath the blankets and the musty-smelling pelts. At least it meant that no one could see the slow, uneven tears that gradually began to score their way down her cheeks.

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Chapter Four
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eighteen

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The whole of Redcliffe practically crackled with energy, as if the rumours already abounding since our return from the Tower could be seen on the air, like fleet streaks of fire. Torches burned along the paths and, as we got down to the ridge, with the entire village laid out at our feet, I could see the busy throngs of activity in between the gutted houses and dismantled barricades.

The chantry had its doors wide open—charity, relief, and the glow of candlelight in the softening night—and people were still coming and going, carrying bundles of clothes or furniture. The shrouded band of the lake, blurry in the encroaching darkness, was haloed by a thin glimmer from the rising sickle of the moon. It seemed a long while since we’d been on the water, though I couldn’t say I missed it.

Lloyd’s tavern was packed. Most of the militia boys were in, along with Wulff, Elwyn, and any other man who’d been able to sneak away from the business of patching his home back together. It was women’s work, I supposed, the tending to the sick and injured and ruined. It usually was.

For now, the bodies had been burned, the news from the castle was good—at least in part—and those who were left needed to throw themselves into the proof of life.

A thick waft of hot air hit us as we entered the inn, along with the mingled smells of unwashed bodies, grease, sweat, beer and wood smoke. A gale of raucous laughter sounded, and I could make out someone playing a fiddle; rough, squawky notes that, just for a moment, sounded like home.

Sten gave a small, disapproving sigh. I didn’t know what soldiers did for fun where he came from, but it probably wasn’t this.

“Ugh.” Morrigan curled her lip. “And how long are we expected to stay here?”

“You didn’t have to come,” Alistair said airily.

“True. Although I admit to a certain curiosity… I wish to see whether ale can, in fact, make you even more stupid.”

He snorted. “Probably. At least we’ll all have fun finding out, won’t we?”

“That,” Morrigan said dryly, “I sincerely doubt.”

Leliana sighed and shot me a quick grin. “Well, looks like everything’s back to normal, then, doesn’t it?”

I chuckled. “Mm. It’s almost restful, don’t you think?”

She laughed and, following on behind the repetitive rhythms of that constant bickering, we edged our way through the crowd. She, of course, was greeted with cheers—even blind drunk, the people of Redcliffe knew their flame-haired Orlesian she-devil—and the same expansive acceptance was extended to the rest of us. These were, after all, the men we’d fought beside, the men whose homes and lives we’d defended. It was as near to belonging as I’d felt in a long while.

Even Lloyd greeted us with genial effusiveness, those great meaty hands spread wide, and a buttery smile smeared over his face.

“Well, look who’s back! Heroes of the hour! Now, what can ol’ Lloyd get you, eh?”

Not that there was much choice. We were given greasy mugs full of watered-down ale that smelled of wet bracken and sawdust, and a rickety table in the corner nearest the fire, where the heat baked our faces and a sweaty press of bodies crowded between us and the bar, all elbows and sloshing mugs. The redheaded waitress with the tired smile hovered nearby, carrying a wooden tray and a pitcher as she provided refills and, occasionally, used the tray to hit over-friendly militiamen with.

“You keep yer grubby paws to yerself, Lanner Cartwright! I know your sister!”

I smiled to myself, and raised my mug when Alistair declared a toast to Redcliffe, and to the arl. The beer was foul, but that didn’t matter too much after the first couple of swigs; it was bad enough to actually numb the tongue.

The man with the fiddle—a bearded fellow with a crooked nose and a heavily patched leather jerkin—started up a new tune, and I watched Leliana tapping her fingers absently against the side of her mug, following the song. A look of slightly distant sadness touched her face, and I wondered what she was thinking about… and where it was that her memory wandered.

Maethor was lying under the table, a dead weight on my feet. The waitress had slipped him a beef bone from the kitchen, and he was more than happily occupied, gnawing away at it.

“So… Sten,” Alistair said conversationally, eyeing the qunari over the second half of his pint. “You said you were in the army.”

Sten gave a single nod of that great, square-jawed head. “I am.”

His hand almost encircled his mug; mine barely reached halfway around. I watched the way he sat there, unapologetically dominating the space around him, easily the most foreign thing in the room.

“Why would the qunari send soldiers here, then?”

That startlingly bright gaze swivelled towards Alistair, and Sten regarded him with something approaching weary resignation.

“The antaam are the eyes, hands, and mouth of the qunari,” he said, his voice a low rumble that swept effortlessly beneath the noise of the tavern. “We are how my people know the world.”

Alistair frowned as he took another mouthful of his ale. “Doesn’t that make your view a bit… skewed?”

Sten’s eyebrow arched almost imperceptibly. “Compared to what?”

“Huh… good point.”

I stifled a smile. Whatever else he was, Sten certainly didn’t fit the idea of the evil, bloodthirsty savage that the Chantry liked to project onto his people.

“What does anyone truly know of the world?” he asked, apparently rhetorically, as he lifted his mug to his lips. “The world changes. We change. The antaam observe what we can, just as you do.”

He drank down a third of the mug in one draught, then lowered it with equal slow, careful precision, and replaced it on the greasy table.

Alistair looked confused, and opened his mouth to speak, but I cut across him.

“I think what Alistair meant is, what was the purpose of the… antaam,” I tried, rolling the peculiar, alien word around my mouth, “coming to Ferelden?”

Sten glanced at me, face impassive and eyes hard as rocks. “To answer a question.”

I wondered if this was his way of having fun at our expense, but I didn’t plan on giving up quite that easily.

“All right. What was the question?”

“The arishok asked, ‘What is the Blight?’. By his curiosity, I am now here.”

Alistair lowered his mug and frowned over the rim. “What’s an arishok?”

“The one,” Sten supplied wearily, “who commands the antaam—the body of the qunari.”

“Oh. Right.”

“And did you find the answer to his question?” I asked, both genuinely curious and intrigued by the unusual fact of Sten actually speaking whole sentences at once. “What was it?”

He looked stiffly at me, his expression a taut, tight-drawn thing, as unflinching as a mirror.

“Were you not at Ostagar when the army was overwhelmed?”

I winced. Stupid question, then. As if I didn’t know what the Blight was, what it could yet be…. The laughter and the celebration all around us felt hollow, for a moment, and full of mockery.

“I— Yes,” I said meekly. “I see.”

Our table turned silent then, as ghosts began to crowd at our shoulders. Leliana cleared her throat and looked enquiringly at Sten.

“So, will you need to report back to your commander?”

“Yes.”

He drained the rest of his mug and set it back on the scarred wood. I’d barely drunk an inch of my beer.

“I suppose,” Leliana went on, “it will be a very long journey for you. Will—”

“Not really.”

She stopped, drawing in her upper lip and giving a small, thwarted huff before she shook her head and addressed her ale. She took a sip, pulled a face, and then smiled brightly at the rest of us.

“So, who’s sleeping in the castle tonight? Bann Teagan’s offered us the use of their guest accommodation… despite the mess.”

I snorted. “Not bloody likely. I’ll take my chances in the chantry, thank you.”

I cringed even as I said it, hearing the way it slipped out, full of the back end of the market and grubby alienage vowels. I could almost feel the hard flick of Father’s thumb across the back of my head, and his voice sharply reminding me to open my mouth properly when I spoke… and not to cuss. Sometimes, it seemed like, every day, I was growing further away from the girl he’d raised.

Alistair grinned. “Ooh, chicken, are we?”

I swigged my sour ale. “No, just… thinking about everything that— well, y’know. Anyway, it’s….”

I trailed off, shrugged, and tried to hide the sudden twinge of embarrassment. It was true that I’d rather be down among the destitute and wounded than up there in the cold, stone halls of a nobleman’s castle, still echoing with the whispers of demons—not to mention other unpleasant associations—but I didn’t really want to admit it. Had we been alone, I might have made a crack about bedding down in the kennels, but I wasn’t sure what was off-limits regarding the stories of his childhood, and what people did or did not know.

Besides, there was something else that needed to be said.

“Thing is, though….” I raised my mug, and looked to Sten and Morrigan. “I haven’t said this yet. Not properly, but… thank you. Both of you. What you did saved Connor’s life.”

I meant it as an honest, open gesture, but I suspected it came out as a little mawkish. Morrigan sneered.

“Indeed. So the child may be taken into the Circle and indoctrinated, confined…. Yes, I am sure we did him a great service.”

Alistair spluttered on his ale. “What? You’re really going to sit there and say you think he’d be better off dead?”

“Freedom has its price,” she snapped. “I can think of nothing worse than being corralled like cattle, templar fools watching my every move….”

You don’t know what it was like. The templars were watching… always watching…. The magic was a means to an end.

I blinked, pushing the memories away. Sten snorted, and Morrigan glared at him.

“Oh, and I imagine you have an opinion? The qunari do have mages, do they not?”

“Not the same as you,” he said darkly, as the redheaded waitress emerged to top up our mugs. “You would not understand.”

“Not understand?” she echoed, the words taking on a brittle, taunting pitch. “Truly? Is it mental capacity that you believe I lack? Or are you worried I will sympathize with my so-called brethren?”

“Hmph.” Sten grunted. “Take your pick.”

I glanced nervously towards the door, wondering just how fast I could run if a fight broke out. Whatever had happened during our journey to the Tower, the tension between the two of them was palpable and bitter. The waitress smiled blithely as she filled our mugs, and tossed Alistair a friendly wink. He turned very slightly pink.

Morrigan laughed, and it was like the sound of a mirror shattering.

“Is that supposed to make me angry, Sten? Perhaps you should tell us what your… civilised mind thinks the proper treatment for a mage.”

He set his mug down and stared evenly at her.

“In my land, mages are beasts in the shape of men. No more than this. We keep them penned and leashed, and we cut out their tongues, so they may not cause harm.”

A small, cold pool of silence spilled out over the table, broken only by the glup of ale sloshing into mugs, and the faint click of Morrigan’s fingernails on the tabletop. The militiamen were still drinking, talking, laughing… but all the sound seemed to collapse in on itself, eaten up by the sheer ferocity of the still, dangerous quiet emanating from the witch.

The redheaded waitress made herself scarce, holding up her wooden tray like a shield. Alistair’s brow furrowed.

“You… pen them?” he asked, aghast, lifting his second pint. “What, in—”

“They are controlled,” Sten said simply. “It is better that way. ‘As a fish stranded by the tide knows the air, or a drowning man knows the sea, so does a mage know magic.’”

Morrigan looked fit to actually implode. Her pale cheeks had begun to darken, and she was staring at Sten as if that molten gold gaze could truly burn through his flesh.

I was still trying to envisage the cutting out of the tongue part, and wondering whether my earlier conclusion regarding vile and bloody savages hadn’t been a little premature. It occurred to me that someone ought to say something, ought to step in between the two of them before there was bloodshed, and Leliana did so with the utmost grace.

“I suppose all things are dangerous in excess,” she said carefully. “But magic is not entirely evil. It is as the Chantry says: magic may serve man, but not rule him. As long as—”

“Some things come only in excess.” Sten took a mouthful of his ale. “There is no such thing as a little drowning, is there? And magic is horror and perversion. It is a sword with no hilt.”

Abruptly, Morrigan placed her palms on the table and rose, straight as a rush.

“I appear to be suddenly tired,” she said flatly. “Enjoy your… carousing.”

With a rustle of feathers and the flap of robes, she turned and stalked from the tavern. I was faintly impressed at the way the sea of drunken militiamen parted for her—probably without even realising they’d done it—and supposed that, had Sten wanted a display of the control a mage could show, he couldn’t have asked for a better one than that.

Alistair sucked a breath in over his teeth. “Wow…. You’re not remotely afraid of being turned into a frog, then?”

The qunari looked nonplussed.

“Someone should probably go after her,” Leliana said doubtfully, though she made no move to get up, and gave Sten a reproachful glance. “That was not terribly kind, you know. The Chantry says—”

“Your Chantry says many things. That does not make them true. If humans looked for wisdom more often beyond its walls, there might be a chance they would find it.”

Well, he was on fine form this evening. I supposed this might be why he didn’t talk all that much. Leliana looked as if she’d just been slapped with a wet fish. Alistair appeared to choke on his ale, halfway between stifled laughter and serious spluttering.

“There is some wisdom in the Chant, you must admit,” she said stiffly.

“Oh? Tell me, where is the wisdom in crying out for a derelict god to save you?”

“The Maker is not—”

“I’m sure Sten means we must accept responsibility for ourselves,” I said quickly, nudging Leliana with my elbow. “Even if you can’t change your fate completely, you can’t sit around complaining about it, either. You believe that, don’t you? Or else you’d never have left Lothering.”

Her expression crumpled, and a small frown pinched that porcelain brow. Across the room, a knot of lairy militiamen broke into a rousing chorus of Polly Was A Sailor’s Girl, complete with all the dirty words.

“But—”

“My people have a tale,” Sten announced. The great, guttering fire, belching dry, dirty heat from its wide hearth, painted shadows over his rough-hewn face and—without waiting for assent or comment—he began to speak. “A great ashkaari, during his travels, came upon a village in the desert. There, he found the houses crumbling. The earth was so dry and dead that the people tied themselves to each other for fear a strong wind would carry the ground from under their feet. Nothing grew there except the bitter memory of gardens.”

My mug stopped partway to my lips and I exchanged a glance with Leliana. Of all things, I hadn’t really expected Sten to sound… poetic.

“The ashkaari stopped the first man he saw, and asked, ‘What happened here?’. ‘Drought came, and the world changed from prosperity to ruin,’ the man told him. The askhaari replied: ‘Change it back.’”

Alistair snorted. “I hope the villager slapped him one!”

Leliana shot him a stern glance. “Shhh! Sorry, Sten. Please, go on. I don’t think I have ever heard a qunari story before… it is very interesting.”

He gave her a look that, stiff and impenetrable as ever, seemed to be slightly tinged with disapproval. I wondered if the qunari thought of their philosophy as stories, and how they usually responded to the condescension of foreigners… but I didn’t say anything.

“The villager became angry then,” Sten continued, thick fingers wrapping themselves around his mug. “He believed the ashkaari mocked him, for no one could simply change the world on a whim… to which the ashkaari answered, ‘then change yourself. You make your own world.’”

“I like that,” Alistair observed, with a swig of his ale. “Can I make one with no darkspawn in?”

Sten ignored him. Leliana nodded slowly, though her mouth was drawn into a tight bow, and she didn’t look convinced.

“But,” she said doubtfully, “sometimes people need faith in a higher power to change. Would you deny them that?”

“Sometimes people use faith as an excuse not to change,” Sten replied. He shrugged, those massive shoulders shifting like boulders beneath the heavily adapted leather arming jack that now served as clothing, in place of the rags he’d worn since we found him in that cage. The seams kept threatening to burst every time he moved too suddenly… we’d have to see about getting him outfitted properly, I supposed. “Believe in whatever you like: absent creators, or whimsical gods. Follow prophets, or ashkaari, or omens in the earth and sky. You will find wisdom only if you seek it.”

“You… you have given me a lot to think about,” Leliana said, peering into her ale with a slightly troubled frown.

A huge cheer went up from the militia as Polly entered the fourth verse—the one about the goat, the monkey, and the coil of rope—and there suddenly seemed to be something so ridiculous about sitting here discussing philosophy and religion, with a squawky fiddle scraping notes in the background and the smell of sweat and sour beer rising on the heat of the fire.

I settled to drinking my pint, and the slight light-headedness that I wasn’t really used to crept up on me. I’d got down to the bottom third of the mug, where odd, slightly chewy bits floated in the soupy liquid, when Leliana made her excuses and bade us goodnight. Sten followed not long after, determining that we would have to leave early if we intended to be on the road in good time.

“Absolutely,” Alistair said, with such solemn sincerity that the sarcasm positively dripped off the word.

Sten gave him a long, dry look, then made a dissatisfied noise in the back of his throat, and nodded to me.

“Good night, Sten,” I managed, raising my mug.

He walked out looking stone cold sober, and I was idly wondering how much it would take to actually get him drunk when Alistair’s foot prodded my ankle.

“S’…whassit… creepy, isn’t it?” He nodded to the door as it swung shut in the qunari’s wake. “Sten. Way he looks at you, with those eyes. And he’s so quiet, for someone so big…!”

The militiamen were still singing, still cheering; it rang in my ears, the sound and the noise smearing together across the hot, stuffy, vivid shadows of the inn. I stifled a belch.

“True. It’s… unsettling.”

“Yet he doesn’t seem quite so bad as the Chantry tells us.” Alistair drained the last of his pint and, setting the mug down, held up a finger to count off his points. “His philosophy is supposed to be vile and evil, yet he seems so reasonable… yet,” he added, counting off another finger, “he killed all those people. Doesn’t even deny it. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Mm.” I shrugged, uncertain and feeling rather rootless. “He seems to regret it, though.”

“Huh. Does his regret even mean the same as it would for us? I don’t know. And all that stuff about wisdom….”

I glanced up, aware of our friendly waitress hoving back into view, pitcher in hand.

“Fair ’nough,” I admitted. “I don’t understand the qunari sense of… thing. Honour. Philos… philosophy. But he’s dedicated, I’ll give him that.”

Alistair nodded. “True. Dedicated. And creepy.”

I chuckled. The waitress took the opportunity of our table being emptier now to lean forward while she filled up our mugs, and Alistair smiled genially at her bosom. She grinned at him.

“There you are, now. On the house, Lloyd says. Nothing’s too good for our brave Warden… know what I mean?”

We had names for girls like her back home. Still, I was mellow and fuzzy enough just to laugh softly, especially when Alistair’s smile blurred a bit at the edges and, frowning in faint confusion, he waved a finger in my general direction.

“Wardens,” he corrected. “There’s… I mean, I’m not the only… er. Yeah.”

The woman shook her head ruefully and straightened up, one red-knuckled hand propped on her hip.

“’Course you’re not, love. You drink up now, eh? The pair of you,” she added, glancing at me briefly before she disappeared back into the throng.

I looked down dubiously at the topped-up mug. We’d probably had enough. Under the table, Maethor had gone to sleep with his head on the remnants of the beef bone, twisted around so that his belly was exposed to the warmth of the flames. He emitted a strong doggy odour, not to mention the occasionally growl in his sleep, somewhere between the wheezy snores.

“I… you know, I don’t know why people do that,” Alistair said, peering into the depths of his mug. “I mean, there’s two of us. S’not like I’m the only Grey Warden. Which is good,” he added thoughtfully. “Really good. But… it’s odd. All right, so we haven’t got a uniform, but all the same, they shouldn’t just—”

I snorted, almost getting ale up my nose. He couldn’t possibly have lived that sheltered a life.

“It’s because I’m an elf.”

“What? But….”

I couldn’t help smiling. He looked so genuinely confused. I set my mug back down on the pitted table and shook my head.

“You don’t see it, do you?” I lowered my voice, glancing around us at all the red, smiling faces, sweaty with relief and exhilaration. “All these people… all the places we go. It’s like in Lothering. First look, and they think I’m your servant or something.”

Alistair’s eyebrows shot up, and he almost choked on his ale.

“What? No, I—”

“Elf,” I repeated, finding a perverse enjoyment in his appalled expression.

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

I reached for my drink and took a long swallow. It really was swill; Lloyd had obviously been watering the kegs so long people round here barely noticed anymore.

“Not really,” I said at last. “It could be worse.”

“Worse?” His voice, though roughened a bit by beer and fatigue, took on that familiar sarcastic twang. “Worse than people judging you by what you are, treating you like some kind of second-class….”

He stopped to belch, and I bit back on the words already bubbling on my tongue. He didn’t understand, but then there was no reason why he should, was there?

For a moment, I thought about saying that passing for a lackey was better than putting up with the casual cruelty reserved for alienage-dwellers, or the kind of prejudice that came with shems seeing an elf wield authority… but that would have meant explaining things which I really didn’t want to discuss. I didn’t want to talk about bruised faces and bare tables, open sewers and families who shared one pair of boots between them. I didn’t want to make him look at me like that—every glance darkened with knowledge of the things I’d done, the places that had made me, and the tattered shreds of absurd pride that I still clung to, however ragged they’d become.

Anger started to itch in me then… gnarled, self-righteous anger at the fact he’d made me ashamed of who I was, where I came from, and— well, he hadn’t, had he? It was one thing I couldn’t blame on Alistair, however much I wished I could.

“Doesn’t matter, anyway,” I said, a trifle brusquely. “M’ a woman, too.”

“That,” Alistair said, smirking blearily at me from behind his pint, “had not escaped me. I’m not as dumb as people think, y’know.”

I frowned. “I mean, they wouldn’t treat me equally anyway. People. Even without… thing.”

I gesticulated vaguely in the region of my ears. My hair had dried flat and frizzy, combed back and tucked behind them as neatly as I could manage, though the shorter bits at the front still clung stubbornly to my cheekbones, like a fringe I was trying to grow out. With a trace of self-consciousness, I reached up and brushed the hair aside, glancing at him across the greasy, stuffy miasma of the tavern.

It was true enough, though among humans my gender was less of an issue than my race. Odd, that, I supposed. Elves couldn’t join the military, or even the city guard back home, and there were carefully scribed laws in place to keep us from carrying weapons, owning property… having any rights or autonomy at all. Yet my people—we who had so much barred from us—seemed to actually work at segregating ourselves even further. We defined so many stupid differences, from gender to which end of the alienage you lived, and none of them should matter. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it was true, wasn’t it? All those notions of pride, morality, and propriety that we so doggedly clung to… they were just as stultifying as the shems’ ugly rules.

I blinked, and tried to wash those thoughts away with ale. That was my upbringing, the rigid core of what I knew to be clean and right and decent, and I should not be so eager to watch it erode in front of my eyes.

I thought of the ride from Denerim, with Duncan, and how I’d been so mortified at making camp alone with a man. A human man. Mortified, too, at the fact I’d had to bunch my skirt up to sit astride the horse, and bare my legs (or at least my winter smallclothes). It seemed almost laughable now, especially since I’d grown used to living in breeches, and yet I remembered those dark, damp nights on the road—the first time I’d ever been outside the city—when Duncan and I had sat before a tiny campfire, and he’d told me of the elven Warden, Garahel, and how he had ended the Fourth Blight.

So… great things were possible, perhaps. In legends.

In the cold, muddy reality of life, I knew what people would think… what I would have thought, in their shoes. At first glance, I was just another elven servant, following on after her master. Back home, they were a copper a dozen in the market; merchants’ girls, wearing gathered bodices and pleated skirts, like shem women, and trading in smiles and favours. That’s what they’d think, wasn’t it? All these people. They’d see Alistair before they saw me—just like Bann Teagan did—and I’d be nothing more than the Grey Warden’s lackey… or possibly his whore.

That thought was sudden, unexpected and violent, punching its way into my head like a fist.

Heat rose in my cheeks, and I was grateful for the fire and the stagnant warmth of the room. The smells of tallow candles, cheap ale, and human sweat, of grease, wood polish, metal, leather… all these things pooled around me, and I knocked back the rest of my beer too fast. My throat burned, my stomach clenched, and I peered at Alistair, watching him frown moodily into his mug.

We fell silent, drinking and thinking, a little pool of morose quiet in the raucous chaos.

“You know,” Alistair said, after a while. “Maybe this isn’t the best time to be thinking about this, but I’ve something to ask you.”

I quirked an eyebrow, my mouth full of ale. “Mmn?”

He probably wasn’t drunk enough for the question to be terribly embarrassing, I supposed, and if it was, I could always pretend I was too drunk to answer.

“We-eell,” he said slowly, “you know, in the Fade, right? When—”

“I know.” I nodded briskly, not really wishing to revisit the subject.

“No, listen…. You, uh, you saw the whole… y’know. With my—”

“Yes, I remember.”

I struggled to shelve the dream-memories of Father, and Shianni, and a beautiful sunny day in a place that was a little too nice to be home… and I struggled to forget a picture-perfect cottage with a blue-painted door, and a lovely woman at the stove.

I glanced at Alistair, mildly concerned. He’d drive himself mad if he kept dwelling on it, I thought. Reaching for dreams is one thing, until you stretch too far and fall flat on your face.

He was chewing the inside of his lip thoughtfully, and frowning.

“Well, it… it—”

“It was just dreams,” I said quietly. “Just hopes.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I mean, yes, but… I actually do have a sister. Well, a half-sister, anyway.”

“Wait, what? She’s real? G—” My mug stilled en route to my lips as I fumbled for the name, the label attached to the dream-creature I’d thought was nothing more than Alistair’s hopeless fantasy. “Goldanna?”

He nodded. “Mm. I never knew about her. I don’t think she knew about me, either, but then they did keep my birth a secret, and our mother died just after I was born, so….” He shrugged. “After I became a Grey Warden, I tried to find out more about her and her family, and that’s when I discovered Goldanna. She’s still alive. In Denerim.”

Across the bar, the militiamen’s latest drinking song roared into a mighty chorus, and someone fell off their chair. I slugged back another mouthful of my ale, mainly to distract myself from the shiny-eyed, hopeful look on Alistair’s face.

“That’s… well, that’s good, isn’t it?” I said, swallowing hard. “Have you contacted her?”

“No.” He shook his head ruefully. “I thought about writing, but I didn’t have the nerve. And then we were called down to Ostagar and….”

He shrugged. I did my best to look sympathetic, and realised I felt rather dizzy. Annoying, really. Perhaps the ale wasn’t that watered down.

“She’s the only real family I have left,” Alistair said mournfully, rubbing his thumb along the handle of his mug. “At least, the only family not also mixed up in the whole royal thing. So, I guess I was wondering, if we’re heading there… maybe…?”

The heat and the colour seemed to seep out of the world, and left it pale and curled at the edges, like a book set too near to the fire.

“You want to find her,” I said numbly.

“Mm. I’ve just been thinking that… well, you know. With the Blight coming and everything, I don’t know if I’ll ever get another chance. Maybe I can help her, warn her about the danger. I don’t know.”

He shrugged again. It was typical of him, that shift from needy hopefulness to vague, desperate chivalry, and it made me feel so inferior. That knotted, mixed up mess of anger, fear, anxiety, and Maker knew what else that lived inside me started to thresh anew, and I tried to pretend that I wasn’t scared… that the very thought of walking into Denerim didn’t frighten me to death. All the ghosts I’d left behind, and all the spectres of what might await… and now this, too.

“All right,” I said, because Alistair deserved that much. “We’ll try to find her while we’re there.”

“Could we? I’d appreciate that.” He smiled sadly. “If something happened, and I never went to at least see her, I don’t know if I could forgive myself. She lives in the market district somewhere… I have an address. Not all that far from the alienage, I think.”

Dread pressed in against my chest, a cold and crushing weight. He’d just assumed, hadn’t he? Assumed I’d go home again, that there were people in the city who missed me… and who were there to be hugged and smiled at, as safe as they’d ever been.

I swallowed the last of my ale, with no little difficulty, and nodded.

“Mm. Yes. Sure.”

Alistair seemed to realise he’d said something that had struck at me. He looked as if he wanted to ask some question or other, but he didn’t say anything, and the silence between us—so small and insignificant against all the noise in the tavern—felt hot and oppressive.

I could talk about it, I supposed. The truth was meant to be a balm. And I should tell him. All right, so we were more likely to have trouble with Loghain and his bounty on the Wardens than we were with my crimes against Arl Urien’s family, but… that wasn’t the point.

Of course, I could have said something back in the privy chamber, when Teagan and the arlessa were happily laying this burden on us—chattering like magpies, as if every sentence didn’t contain an impossible task—and I hadn’t. I should, I told myself, say something… but I didn’t.

Instead, I pushed my mug away and stood up, trying to ignore the slight wobble in my knees and the pitching of the grubby wooden floor. The place was stifling, muggy, and still busy, even now.

“I— I’m gonna… gonna call it a… thingy,” I said vaguely.

“Hm?”

“Night.” I waved fuzzily in the general direction of the door. “Call it a night. Get some… rest.”

I banged my knee on the chair, splayed an outstretched palm to the greasy table, and tottered a bit on my way to the door. A couple of militiamen raised their tankards to me as I passed, and I smiled weakly, really not wanting to be drawn back into anything. The door seemed a very long way away. Maethor groaned sleepily, got to his feet, and padded after me.

Outside, it had grown dark. A few faint stars twinkled in the deepening sky. I leaned against the tavern’s wall and took a deep breath, relishing the cool, clear air. Couldn’t get enough of it after all the dank, corrupted, enclosed places we’d been. I should probably head back to the chantry, I supposed, and get some rest. Ought to leave early in the morning, make a good start. Long journey, and all that.

I closed my eyes at the sound of the tavern door opening. The brief blast of hot air, the roar of voices raised in song… and that particular silence of Alistair’s.

The door closed behind him, muffling the noise from within, and I knew without looking that he was coming to lean on the wall beside me. I didn’t want his questions, or his sympathy.

“Are you all ri—”

“Mm. Aren’t you going up to the castle?”

Alistair shrugged. “Maybe.”

His insouciance annoyed me, at that moment, more than I had imagined it could. My mind filled with pictures no more real than his make-believe cottage, with the blue windowboxes and the chubby-cheeked children, and I didn’t know why not understanding—not knowing why the demon had made that dream for him, instead of a castle with pennants and high, straight walls—should make me so angry.

I had no right to know, I supposed. The glimpses I’d had into the dreams of others were just glimpses. They gave me no privileges, united us by no common bonds. Not really. But still… hadn’t he ever been happy in this place? For a boy cast away so easily by the man who’d taken him in, Alistair bore such deep, rigid loyalty to Arl Eamon, and I didn’t know what to make of it… or of him. There were too many contradictions, too many mixed signals and, so very, very stupidly, I wasn’t sure I was ready to forgive him for the accident of his birth.

Alistair cleared his throat. “So, what—”

“Why did you keep it a secret?” I demanded. “About Mar— about your father, I mean.”

Not like me to snap so abruptly, to use a question for a weapon. But I wanted it to cut, I realised. I wanted it to sting, and to push him so far away from asking anything of his own.

Alistair said nothing at first. I stared down over the bare, red rocks, the mica and pebbles in the paths glittering in the dim, eerie light. I didn’t feel properly drunk, not really. Just so incredibly tired.

“You could have told me before,” I said, arch and reproachful, and scowling at the rocks as if it was their fault. “After the battle. You didn’t.”

He exhaled slowly. “Well, you never asked.”

“That’s cheap.”

I wanted to give him a withering, furious glare but, when I turned to do so, he just looked defeated and rather miserable. The shadows clung to his face, making him seem older somehow, his eyes cloaked in the darkness.

“All right, then. Would you believe me if I said I didn’t think it was important?”

“You’re the son of a king!” I protested, surprising myself with the strength of the indignance in my voice. “You’re one of—”

One of them. Was that what I meant? I wasn’t sure I even knew, and I was glad I’d bitten the word off before I sounded like a complete fool.

Alistair snorted. “At best, I’m the son of an indiscreet man and a star-struck chamber maid. At worst… well. I don’t know which is more true.”

“Oh.”

That shut me up. I hadn’t thought of it like that, I realised, but he must have done. Plenty of times, over the years. Of course, I knew all too well what rights some noblemen thought they had to a woman, and I saw no reason that Maric should have been any different. Strip away the half-truths and hyperboles, and all idols are flesh at their core.

“Anyway,” Alistair said quietly, “I’m illegitimate. Unrecognised. It was only an issue because the arl’s household knew, and if anyone had mentioned it… well, I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else. I… I didn’t want you to think I’d lied, although I guess part of me did kind of like you not knowing.”

“Huh?” I scoffed incredulously. “You… what, you enjoyed not telling me?”

There was steel in my voice; I heard it, squared up and spoiling for a fight, but Alistair didn’t rise to it.

“People treat me differently when they know,” he said wearily. “Suddenly, I’m the Bastard Prince, instead of just being me. I suppose I was afraid of that. I wanted you to like me for who I am, and not… you know.”

A great, clanging silence followed those words. The salt-stained breeze that came up from the lake, carrying the scent of smoked fish and creosote, brushed against my cheeks. I glanced at him, taking in the downcast eyes and slumped shoulders, and sighed.

Alistair looked up, meeting my gaze uncertainly. “That probably sounds stupid, doesn’t it? I bet—”

“No.” I shook my head. “It doesn’t sound stupid at all. And I do, anyway.”

“Hm?”

I leaned my head back against the rough wooden wall, spinning lightly on the sensation of being drunk, but not quite as drunk as I really wanted to be. I snorted, because at that moment all humans appeared to be complete fools.

“I do like you,” I said, closing my eyes. “In spite of your blood.”

It was true. I couldn’t imagine having done any of it without him, and how much I valued his friendship—his loyalty, and the unwavering support he’d given me—only seemed to sink in then, all mixed up with the beer and the warm fuzziness of a long day finally ending.

I valued, I realised, the friendship of a human above almost everything else in the world. The absurdity of that tickled me, and a sleepy grin spread across my face.

“Oh.” Alistair sounded genuinely surprised. “Really? I… oh. You see, I didn’t know that.”

I laughed. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but it felt good.

“Come on,” I said. “We should get some rest. Early start.”

“Right.”

I pushed away from the wall, wavering a little bit, and we headed back down the gritty slope—which seemed an awful lot steeper and more slippery than it had before—and towards the wide, welcoming doors of the chantry. More comfortable than another night under canvas, I supposed, and less intimidating than the castle.

I glanced at Alistair, who appeared to be concentrating extremely hard on not falling over as we made our way down to the village square, and wondered just what I saw when I looked at him. Not a bastard prince, certainly… though I did catch myself thinking of Cailan. Was there the whiff of similarity there? Same puppyish enthusiasm, perhaps, though Alistair’s was coloured over with that dry humour; easily recognisable to me as the product of years which had not been so kind as they might. Not that he knew what a hard life really was, I reminded myself, ale lending me a certain degree of maudlin self-indulgence.

Anyway, they looked nothing alike. I remembered Cailan as bright and fair, all good cheekbones and clear blue eyes, like a heroic portrait waiting to happen. Alistair was… weathered, by comparison. His hair was a darker blond, his expression always an eighth of an inch from weary sarcasm, and his eyes were that very particular hazel, like a dark green flecked with gold.

I frowned, not entirely sure when I had made a note of that fact, and squinted muzzily at him, trying to ascertain whether I’d made it up or not. He looked at me curiously, cocked an eyebrow, and then grinned.

“What? Hey, are… are you drunk?”

“Hm? No! No,” I protested, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. “Of course not. I… I don’t drink to excess. I’m a respectabab— a respectable girl.”

Alistair sniggered. “You are! You’re drunk!”

“So are you,” I pointed out, and he laughed—really laughed—as if it was the most acutely amusing thing anyone had ever said.

I got the giggles too and, by the time we reached the chantry, we were teetering along in an exaggerated pantomime of being quiet, stifling our laughter and making it worse by trying to do so.

There were still plenty of wounded, homeless, and terrified people in the chantry, which curbed our amusement a bit, and the sight of the gaggles of newly orphaned children under Mother Hannah’s care was more rapidly sobering than any bucket of iced water.

I took the thin woollen blanket that was offered to me, and thanked the lay sister who directed us to the side chapels currently serving as shelters. Men to one side, women to the other… and everything quiet, but for the coughs and moans of the injured, or the piping voices of little ones who couldn’t sleep for the bad dreams and empty spaces beside them.

I bade Alistair goodnight beneath the blankly benevolent gaze of the chantry’s dark windows, admitting thin slips of moonlight to augment the torches, and he gave me a small, solemn smile.

“No dreams, right?” he whispered.

“No dreams,” I promised, not sure whether he was talking about the Fade, or the darkspawn.

“Good. Night, then.”

“Night.”

I watched him go, listening to the sound of familiar footsteps on the stone.

The side chapel was crowded, but I settled myself in a spot between an old woman, already snoring, and a young girl with a baby in her lap, wrapped in a green shawl. When sleep finally did take me, it was a deep and effortless slumber, and it left no footprints of memories behind it.

~o~O~o~

The morning came unexpectedly quickly and, when I woke, the chapel was a great deal emptier. Sunlight streamed through the beautiful windows, the coloured glass sending a dozen different, dappled shades of pink, green, blue and orange scattering across my vision.

“Ow,” I declared, shut my eyes again and, with a groan, flung an arm across my face.

A foot prodded me unceremoniously in the ribs.

“Come on.”

I recognised the voice as Alistair’s, laced with an unholy cheerfulness, and I groaned again.

“Time to get going,” he said brightly. “There’s actual breakfast before we leave, with bacon and kippers and everything. I could get used to this heroing business.”

“Ohhh….” My stomach lurched. “Eating? They want us to eat?”

I peered out from under the crook of my elbow. It was still horribly bright, and he was grinning at me, haloed by spinning, searing beams of light. A smell distressingly reminiscent of smoked fish and lard was coming from somewhere nearby, and my gut roiled again.

Urrrrrgh….”

“Huh. That sister said you were dead to the world. Come on… we’ll get something greasy down you, and you’ll feel better in no time. It’s not even as if you had that much to drink.”

“Elf,” I muttered, both defence and explanation as, eyes shut tight, I held out my other arm and let Alistair pull me to my feet.

There was less of me than there was of him and, for all the similarities, elven bodies were different to humans. Less body fat equated to greater sensitivity to the cold… and alcohol, to name but two weaknesses. Still, once I was up and the world stopped spinning a little bit, things weren’t quite as bad. I even ventured to peer at my friend, and had the satisfaction of seeing he was a bit bleary-eyed, even if the sod was able to cope with it better than me.

“Kippers?” he asked innocently.

I clenched my teeth and growled between them: “Bastard.”

“Hey… that’s royal bastard to you.”

“Very well,” I said, my tongue thick and apparently furry. “Lead on… my prince.”

Alistair scowled. “Oh, yes. Hilarious.”

I grinned, which made my face hurt, and followed him outside.

It had been a rush getting everything ready and—though the people who’d helped set us on our way would have never have admitted it—we were taking a lot from Redcliffe, and for very little coin. Bann Teagan had settled or promised to settle plenty of debts on our behalf, but there was the armour, the new boots, the supplies… even proper canvas tents, stitched out of old sailcloth and waxed against the weather. There were things I thought of as luxuries, too: a couple of fur pelts, for warmth, oilcloth bedrolls… finer things than I’d ever had back home. We were still travelling light, but we had enough for our needs, and that was a pleasant change from the journey so far, although it didn’t ease any of the worries I had about the direction we were headed in, or the tasks we had before us.

Ser Perth and a few of his men—including one Ser Donal, whom Alistair apparently knew, I gathered from his time with the templars—had passed on what little knowledge they had about Brother Gentivi. The short of it was ‘not much’, especially as those of the knights who’d been farthest away from Redcliffe had yet to return, or send word of whether they’d found him. The good brother, Ser Donal said, was something of a wanderer… and I finally realised why the name seemed familiar. He was the author of In Pursuit of Knowledge: the Travels of a Chantry Scholar, the dog-eared volume Mother had given me when I was a child, and from whose pages I’d cobbled together most of the preconceptions I had about the world outside Denerim… preconceptions which, in the main, had so far generally been wrong.

Privately, I suspected that did not bode too well for the insane business of recovering ancient relics but—seeing as hunting down the Urn of Sacred Ashes was probably no more insane than walking straight back into the lion’s den that was Denerim—I said nothing. After all, we’d received enough help and goodwill from Teagan and Isolde that we could hardly refuse to at least try and find some information.

However, the journey would take a good couple of weeks, all told, and twin fangs of indecision and apprehension were still scoring me over whether we’d made the right choice.

I didn’t much like the scattering of nervous, pale faces who’d come to see us off, either. The villagers crowded along the ridge, showing their support for their flame-haired hero—and, marginally, the rest of us—whom the faithful were already convinced would return victorious and save their arl. Leliana smiled graciously and pretended not to notice the attention, though I could see her basking in it like a lizard on a rock.

All told, we didn’t really get going until mid-morning, tied up with all the preparations and farewells. Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde came down to the square to say goodbye, and the skies were blue and clear, a bright, early sun splitting the lake into glittering shards of gold.

Teagan shook my hand warmly, smiled at me, and said I was a good woman. I mumbled something vague, and blamed the combination of nausea and embarrassment I felt on my stinking hangover. For Sten and Morrigan, there were restrained and respectful nods; for Alistair, a firm grip of hands that dissolved into a rough, avuncular hug. Leliana, he bowed to… called her ‘my lady’, and wished that the Maker would guide her on the road. She dropped one of those graceful curtseys, despite wearing breeches, and looked at him from under her lashes as she thanked him and returned the words.

A lesson in how to handle the nobility, I supposed… had I been of a mind to learn it. Instead, I glanced at Wynne—all ready to go, with a brand new pack and countless bags of supplies about her person—and smiled thinly. I still had serious doubts about accepting the mage’s offer to join us, but it wasn’t as if we were in a position to pick and choose allies.

Maethor barked impatiently as we began to head out of the village, skittering on ahead of us up the ridge. He didn’t have a pack to carry, I reflected, and wonderful though it was to at last be in possession of boots that fitted, and actual tents for sleeping in (Maker bless the people of Redcliffe, and all the merchants’ stocks they’d plundered for us!), I wasn’t relishing the prospect of marching hundreds of miles with all this weight on my back.

I took one last look at the gutted timber buildings and the scorched, parched red earth of the square. Even if we did, by some improbable odds, manage to succeed, who was to say Redcliffe would still even be here when we came back? It was all too easy to picture it gone, swallowed by the darkspawn.

However bright and clean the sky looked now—however strong the smell of salted and smoked fish, and however sharp the angles of the cliffs and the straight, tall trees—I couldn’t help those thoughts. Oh, we were leaving here drenched with optimism, and burdened by the hopes and desperation of these people… but other, darker things weighed my feet down. We might have had a victory at our back, but we were surely heading towards certain defeat. There were too many things ahead of us, too many things to face in Denerim: not least Loghain… and, for me, the deeper shadows of my own past.

Yet I could not turn away. There was no running, no hiding… just the clean, simple knowledge that this was our duty, and it had to be fulfilled.

It was that which kept my steps faltering forwards that day, as we headed out along the cliff path. Behind us, the gulls swooped and screamed above the water, dark shapes against a crisp, clear sky.

I tilted my chin up, and fixed my gaze on the horizon.

 ———————————
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Seventeen

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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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Endings are rarely truly endings. Despite the symbolism of the dawn, there was no line drawn under the events of the night, no moment where we knew it was really finished.

In the great hall, the mages were all seated or standing, propped like empty pitchers, looking exhausted and worn through. Connor, wrapped in a blanket, cried for his mother in the small, thin voice of a frightened child, and Isolde sat with him in the centre of the floor, holding her son tightly to her and unable to explain to him why she was sobbing, too.

The fire had burned down low in the hearth. Morrigan stood beside it, tight-lipped and outlined in the shadows of the flames. She looked at us—at me—across the expanse of the room, and I couldn’t make out the meaning in her face.

The boy was taken back to his chamber, weak and afraid, confused by the strange people crowded in around him, and not understanding the pain he found himself in. He remembered nothing, it seemed. Wynne and two of the other mages went with the arlessa and her maid—Valena, the blacksmith’s girl, who’d showed surprising loyalty, I thought, by returning from the village the moment the castle was safe to be with her mistress. I didn’t dare imagine the gossip that must be searing through the place by now.

There was talk of magical healing and protective wards to be placed upon the child, at least until he was well enough to travel. Kinloch Hold might still be in turmoil, but Irving was apparently of a mind to see Connor sent to Cumberland, or some other far-off, safe place, as soon as possible. Bann Teagan looked solemn and reluctant when it was mentioned—discussed in whispers, far from Lady Isolde’s hearing—and muttered that it would probably be for the best.

“Should Eamon recover,” he said, his voice still sounding pale and hollow, “he will scarcely believe this. His son, a mage… and responsible for so much devastation….”

“It wasn’t Connor’s fault,” Alistair pointed out. “He only wanted to help his father. Speaking of which, First Enchanter…?”

Irving nodded wearily, and agreed the arl’s condition should be assessed. The conversation turned to what had already been tried—talk of highly paid healers and exotic potions from foreign merchants—and it was agreed that, once Connor was settled, Wynne and the others best versed in the healing arts would examine Eamon.

I excused myself and slipped down to the chapel, leaving the strangely calm chatter behind me, and grateful for the chance to do so. As the tension splintered away from the hall, stagnant relief pooling in the dry spaces it left, I’d spotted Morrigan deep in discussion with Enchanter Salter, and I didn’t know why I found that so unsettling. I did, though… even more so than watching Alistair slot so easily into place against the fabric of the castle’s life.

Maethor had looked imploringly at me when they carried Connor upstairs, and I’d nodded my permission for him to follow. I hoped having that great hairy brute to keep him company helped the boy feel a little better, and I wondered, as I made my way down the ravaged hallways, how many generations of fine pedigree and faultless breeding had been wiped out in the arl’s kennels.

Elven culture lacked the same deep bond with the mabari that human nobility had forged, but we were still Fereldan, and we knew the value of those dogs, both in coin and in heart. The thought of dead hounds piled on the floors of the kennels chilled and revolted me, and I was still thinking about it when I entered the chapel.

It was a peaceful space, all dark wood and the smell of beeswax polish and dust—though tinged a little with smoke and the heavy overlay of pine incense, presumably burned as part of the reblessing. There were more people here than I’d expected; a few familiar faces from the village, along with Mother Hannah and two of the lay sisters. I supposed the priest who normally had control here was numbered among the dead, like so many others.

At the far end of the chapel stood a marble statue of Andraste. The carving seemed finer than any I’d seen before—of Orlesian make, perhaps. Either way, it looked real enough that the prophet might suddenly turn and blink her eyes, or as if that full-lipped mouth, slightly parted, might suddenly open in song so pure and wonderful as to turn the Maker’s gaze onto this very spot. She was beautiful, of course. Cowled and demure, and perfect in blameless white stone.

The mumble of voices, shapeless strands of prayer and busy organisation, faded a little. I slid into one of the pews at the back, awkwardly bent my head over clasped and folded hands and, closing my eyes, searched in the darkness for the small, shining beacons of hope or understanding. I didn’t know what it was I was praying for—if it was really prayer at all, that stream of silent need, aching to be filled with certainty—but I felt a little stronger afterwards. Strong enough to be thankful, and to give thanks for what had been saved or, at least, was not yet lost.

I half-expected Leliana to be standing behind me when I rose, smiling that inward smile of faithful acknowledgement she had, but instead I found her at the front of the chapel, helping Mother Hannah order a shelf full of books. They were great, illuminated tomes, full of history and the tales of ages, by the look of them. I doubted I’d be any more capable of reading them than I was those damn treaties… not that it mattered.

“Oh!” Leliana’s mouth bowed in concern. “You are— Is it finished?”

I nodded. “Yes. Connor’s all right. They did it.”

“Oh, thank the Maker!”

She clasped her hands in front of her mouth, and I almost thought she’d drop to her knees in prayer right then. Mother Hannah let out a sigh of relief and bowed her head.

“I confess,” she said, looking at me with a slight darkness in her eyes, “I did not think such a plan could succeed. The boy is truly… well?”

“He will be, I think,” I answered, and hoped it was truthful.

I wondered about that, though. Connor would be taken to a tower, and raised a mage, and he would one day face the Harrowing. Could a boy who’d willingly given himself to a demon once before ever be completely safe from their touch? It wasn’t my place to judge, I supposed. For all I knew, Connor’s experiences might make him stronger. He had survived, hadn’t he? And the mages might have learned something from his case, some way of guarding against the dark horrors that could lurk within the mind, tempting and corrupting.

“Then there is cause for celebration,” Mother Hannah said, the edges of her mouth curling slightly. “Maker knows this place has seen enough death and despair. Something good has come at last, and we shall mark that.”

I smiled uneasily, and made noises about needing to get back to Bann Teagan.

Redcliffe could have its celebrations but—as long as Arl Eamon remained ill—we still had no voice, no great benefactor. There were the treaties, and the weight of the Circle behind us, but I wasn’t convinced it counted for much. With no way of knowing how fast the horde was moving, or how rapidly the Blight could engulf the land, our next course of action hardly seemed clear.

Part of me wanted to think no further than a wash, some sleep, and a set of clean smallclothes, but too much hung over us to be forgotten.

~o~O~o~

Gradually, the castle was coming back to life. Those of the servants who’d escaped the carnage—and a few survivors from the village, probably motivated as much by curiosity as any sense of duty—had begun to get to work on the clean up, and the dark atmosphere of the place was beginning to fracture.

Bann Teagan played the hospitable host. While the mages went upstairs to examine the arl, we were offered hot water, relatively fresh clothes, and whatever ends of tough bread and salt pork the kitchen could yield. Alistair vacillated for a few moments, watching the bright flags of silken robes depart for the stairway to the upper floor, but relented. Eamon was, after all, hardly likely to wake just yet.

Alienage life had never equipped me with the expectations of privacy but, even so, it felt odd to strip down to my underthings in a small, dim scullery off the day kitchen and try to wash the dried blood, soot, dirt and Maker knew what else away. Leliana helped me, and it was the most naked I’d ever been in front of a human. Six bowls of water came up grey and scummy before we were done but, eventually, I started to feel clean. She tutted when she saw the scars I carried from Ostagar… though they were really nothing at all, just the occasional small dimples that Flemeth’s magic had left behind. There was one on my side, too—newer and redder, the skin tight and shiny—where Wynne had healed me at the Tower.

“Does it hurt?” Leliana asked, soft fingers squeezing the rough washcloth over my back.

I shook my head, arms crossed defensively over my breasts. “Nn-nn.”

Warm water slipped down my spine, making everything else feel cold in comparison. The shabby, greyed broadcloth of my smallclothes, half-peeled down, seemed baggier on my hips than when I’d left home.

“You know,” Leliana remarked, rinsing the cloth, “you have such a nice figure. I wish my waist was so slim.”

“Er….” I blinked. “Thank you?”

It hadn’t really occurred to me that elven and human women might compare themselves in that way before. My only awareness had been of how much I lacked in comparison to Leliana—and, indeed, Morrigan—and I hadn’t thought for a moment that a human woman could envy my slender frame. I supposed I was too used to the way the city guards had looked at us back home—that lechery born half from distaste—and growled ugly promises of showing us skinny wenches what ‘real men’ were.

She chuckled, a pleasing, musical sound, and rubbed my shoulders dry with a clean cloth.

Funny, I thought. Our races were similar enough, sure, but I’d always known elves characterise the shems by their bodies as if it was a failing. We talked of their slowness, their fat, flabby, lumpy forms—true of most of the merchants in the market square, but not all humans, admittedly—and we made fun of their palpable physicality… all that hair, on their bodies and on their faces, and the sweating, of which they seemed to do so much more than we did. We made them grotesque, parodies of creatures whose disdain could not hurt us… and I hadn’t realised before how wildly uneven those perceptions were. Either that, or I’d been so long amongst shems now that I’d stopped noticing things.

Maybe it was a little bit of both.

~o~O~o~

Food, a wash, and a change of clothes certainly helped, but there was a meeting with Bann Teagan in the arl’s privy chamber standing between us and any possibility of rest.

We reassembled and traipsed in. Sten was already there; he’d been investigating the armoury and, with the combined permission of Bann Teagan and the effusive helpfulness of an ever-grateful Owen—thrilled to the marrow to have his daughter back—had secured new kit for all of us. We’d need to be properly fitted, but after the stained and beaten leathers that had been falling off me since Lothering, not to mention the leaky, blister-chafing boots, nothing was too much trouble if it meant dry feet and something reliably solid between me and the next sword-point coming at my ribs. And there would, I felt sure, be more of those in my future.

Still, I knew something was off when I saw Lady Isolde, Wynne, Irving, and two more enchanters all crammed into the chamber as well. It wasn’t a large room; the grey stone walls were neatly faced and hung with tapestries that depicted hunting scenes, and a large rectangular table dominated the space. The remains of a few broken chairs had been cleared away, and a fire lit in the comparatively small hearth. It threw a warm, deceptively cosy light over the gathering… and I noticed a large map, spread across the table.

“Wardens.” Teagan inclined his head and, though he addressed both of us, he was looking at Alistair. “I’m glad you’re all here.”

The clammy weight of apprehension pulled at me as I glanced at the row of solemn faces.

“Arl Eamon?” Alistair asked hoarsely. “Is he—?”

The First Enchanter cleared his throat. “The poison that was administered was complex. We believe blood magic created it. Had Jowan not… escaped,” he added pointedly, avoiding looking at Morrigan, “we might have been able to learn more, but it is of little matter. The demon—in order to gain control of Connor—did spare the arl’s life, and halt the poison’s corruption.”

“Then he’ll live?”

Irving gave Alistair a guarded, mournful look. “It is not so simple.”

“But—”

Halted the corruption,” the mage repeated, that low, grating voice drawing out around the words. “Not cured. As of now, Eamon’s spirit wanders far from his flesh, held in the Fade.”

I glanced at Alistair, fully expecting the tightening of his jaw, the squaring of his shoulders… the petulance in his tone.

“Then we’ll enter the Fade, or the mages can do it, and we’ll—”

“It’s not possible, Alistair,” Bann Teagan said gently. “Eamon’s body is too weak. First Enchanter Irving believes that magic can sustain him—perhaps heal him, at least a little—but we cannot wake him.”

“Then… he’s going to die?”

The silence that swallowed the room was answer enough for everyone. Against the quiet, the arlessa’s voice came as a soft murmur, a whisper between pale, dry lips.

“There… there may be something that can save him.”

I’d thought of the woman as a faded rose before, and now I did so again, seeing all her doubts and fears furled around the grain of faith to which she so desperately clung. It was there, burning in those dark eyes: she had to believe, because giving up meant losing everything.

She reminded me, for a moment, of the white marble Andraste in the castle’s chapel, and then my stomach lurched with the cold pang of realisation.

“Wait… the Urn of Sacred Ashes? That the knights were sent to find?”

Behind me, Morrigan scoffed disparagingly. “Only a fool would pin their hopes on a legend. Who truly believes that the bones of—”

“Lady Isolde,” Alistair said quickly, and a little too loudly, in his effort to cut across the witch. “Forgive me, but… if you’re suggesting we try to find the Urn… I mean, it may be no more than a legend.”

Not to mention, I thought, we had the darkspawn to contend with. The horde was hardly likely to wait patiently for us to finish chasing stories. I wet my lower lip tentatively, watching the arlessa’s expression harden. She was evidently a woman used to getting her own way… and it surprised me to see Bann Teagan shake his head wearily, fingers swiping across his brow as if he could physically push away his less comfortable thoughts.

“I’ll admit, Alistair, I agree… but Isolde and I have been discussing this, and it is not mere grasping at straws. Eamon had been funding the research of a scholar—this… Brother Genitivi—who was studying the inscriptions on Andraste’s Birth Rock. He claimed to have proof the Ashes were in Ferelden. If that is true—”

If it is true,” Morrigan remarked sharply.

I ignored her, and glanced at the First Enchanter. He returned my gaze levelly, inclining his head a fraction.

“We believe the relic is real enough,” he said, his voice cutting through the thickening atmosphere. “The Tower’s library holds… held many tomes of history and lore, and there is indeed a reputation of great power attached to the Urn.”

I couldn’t help feeling that we’d been ambushed somehow, and I was very aware of the weight of so many gazes upon me as I cleared my throat.

“Yet the knights couldn’t find this scholar,” I said doubtfully. “If he’s missing, then—”

“Then someone as formidable as you and your companions should be able to find him,” the arlessa countered, and the hair on the back of my neck rose up like hackles.

If it hadn’t been for the rough edges gained through her recent ordeal, I swore I’d have been able to taste the sugar in her voice.

She smiled at me then. Actually smiled. It was a dry, rather forced expression, creased and careworn and threaded through with that desperate, hungry hopefulness that made me feel so terribly empty.

“Please… you know the Grey Wardens will need my husband in what is to come. Find Genitivi, and he will lead you to the Urn.”

I shot Alistair a sidelong glance, hoping that he’d have some argument, some reason against abandoning our central purpose to pursue what might be no more than a cloud-chase, but I could see the indecision racking him. He swallowed heavily, frowning. I sighed, and looked to Bann Teagan.

“Can’t you speak for us? In Arl Eamon’s stead, or… or do we even need to—”

Teagan shook his head, and looked slightly chagrined. “I… have already made myself somewhat unpopular with Loghain’s allies. I spoke out after his return from Ostagar, before I knew Eamon was even ill, and I fear I did more harm than good. Besides, my influence is but a fraction of my brother’s.” He smiled grimly. “I fear any attempt at intercession I might make with the Bannorn would do more harm than good.”

I bit my tongue, trying to curb the urge to say something I’d probably regret.

The room turned quiet, the ghosts of sheathed arguments roiling in the spots of silence. The fire crackled to itself, and I stared glumly at the warm light dancing on the flagstones. On the wall opposite, one of the tapestries—which had, for the most part, escaped damage over the past few days—showed a white stag being set upon by two mabaris, while a hunter rained arrows from atop a small hill. The rest of the scene was dark, thick vegetation, the twisted grasp of trees binding the image in intricate weaves of thread, while the stag shone out, bright and pure against the bloodshed. It didn’t seem to be expressing any pain; no open mouth, no rolling eyes. Just rearing up on its hind legs, as if it could stretch away from the attack, and offer itself up to the heavens.

Leliana broke the silence, her voice the quiet, gentle mirror to Isolde’s; a softer bloom, more used to coercing by kindness than coarse flattery and demands.

“If it is possible to save a life by this task, it is worth trying, no? And you do need all the allies you can find… speaking of which, you still have treaties to deliver, I believe. If we are travelling to accomplish that, then perhaps finding this man will not be so far out of our way?”

Morrigan snorted eloquently, but said nothing. Sten’s silence was almost deafening, though he hadn’t moved from his ramrod-straight position by the table, and he was still staring fixedly at the far wall, as if he was nothing more than a sentry on guard.

I took a deep breath, not liking to admit my annoyance at Leliana’s reasoning. One life, yes… against how many that might be lost in the meantime? And yet, I knew I couldn’t argue. My reluctance to take the fastest, bluntest route with Connor had sealed this bargain; if I hadn’t stood for killing the child, and had gambled so much on our journey to the Tower, I could hardly refuse to take the chance at securing Eamon’s recovery—and his support—through this.

“Where would we start looking for the scholar?” I asked, avoiding the arlessa’s eye. “Because our intention was to begin heading to Orzammar, and—”

She leapt on the first hint of my acquiescence like a dog on a fresh pound of offal.

“Then you will seek out the Brother? The Maker will guide you to him—I know it! His home is in Denerim, and all his research was there… you will find some clue, I am certain. I have gone through all of Eamon’s papers, and I have here—”

I heard less than half of what she said, the absolute impossibility of the plan crashing in around me like falling rubble. I opened my mouth, but Alistair got there first.

“What? No, no… we can’t just walk into Denerim!”

“Outlaws,” I added helpfully, amazed at the naivety of the woman’s mind. Had she no notion of what this would entail?

Besides, I couldn’t go back… not there. Could I?

“Right.” Alistair nodded. “Loghain’d love that, I bet. The minute we—”

“If he found you,” Bann Teagan said dryly. He shrugged. “A little subtlety may be necessary… but I do not see how else we can proceed.”

It might have been the fatigue, the frustration—perhaps even the proximity of so many thick-headed shems who I was sure didn’t understand what they were asking—but I wanted to rant and rail then, to swear and scream at them all. I felt betrayed, used… ambushed, indeed.

I just exhaled a long, resigned breath, and nodded.

It was not the end of the discussion, but it was the moment at which I knew I’d lost the battle.

Still, whatever fate held in store for Arl Eamon, Redcliffe was standing solidly behind us. The temporary leadership of Bann Teagan—and everything we’d done for the village—secured that. We were to be fully equipped, given all the supplies we could carry and, while we were attempting to track down this Brother Genitivi, Teagan would be mustering the forces of the entire arling, and those of Rainesfere, under Eamon’s banner.

Politics, it seemed, still needed the brute weight of force behind it.

We talked over every detail of things until my head felt as if it would burst.  The map in the arl’s privy chamber was fully unrolled and used to outline what broad plans we might build upon; I’d never seen a thing like it before. Squinting down at the spidery patchwork of lines and colours on the parchment before me, none of it made sense, or seemed to equate remotely to real things. Mountains were simple, jagged lines, and Redcliffe a stylised turret above a red mound, inked at the centre of a nest of swirling lines.

Jewel-like bursts of blue and green criss-crossed the map—lakes, rivers and plains—with roads and highways marked out in black, and towns and cities daubed like fingerprints upon the land.

I struggled to understand it, to envisage the distances involved or the reality of the terrain. Alistair leaned over my shoulder, forefinger sketching out broad sweeps across the country that, once, I’d thought was big enough to be the whole world. He and Teagan outlined timescales, reasonable schedules for journeys, and possible routes that would keep us both swift and safe. Occasionally, one or the other of them looked at me… as if I might actually offer some kind of confirmation.

I just nodded, let myself be swept along with it, and before I really understood it all, it was settled. We would head north to Denerim, striking northeast, skirting the borders of the Hinterlands and the Southron Hills to avoid the main roads and, if possible, getting word to some of the Dalish clans. I nearly laughed aloud at that. ‘Find the Dalish’, they said, like it wasn’t a total impossibility in its own right.

Back home, it was almost a euphemism. Sometimes, it was. Wives, when their husbands were out late drinking, would say to their friends ‘he’s off to find the Dalish, and no bread left for supper’, or some such bitter thing. When boys really did run away, refusing to believe the alienage was all there was to life, their families spoke of it with mixed embarrassment and anger… and there was always a right leathering in store for the lads who came sloping back days later, hungry, cold, and ashamed.

Here, though, no trace of irony. No permitting ourselves to believe it was impossible, I supposed… because what choice did we have but to try?

So, I kept my mouth shut, stared at the map, and tried to imagine myself walking along all those little lines. A tiny, paper me heading westwards along the coast road, the way Alistair was talking about, and making for some mountainous pass.

It didn’t feel real. None of it did… and that was probably a good thing. A great deal more can be accomplished when it feels as if it’s happening in a dream.

~o~O~o~

And so, it was settled. The remainder of the day was to be given over to resting, get ourselves outfitted and properly supplied for what lay ahead and then, with luck, we would leave in the morning.

There was to be another addition to our number, too: Wynne surprised me by declaring, right there in the privy chamber, that she wished to accompany us. She made a rather grand speech to the First Enchanter—a speech, I suspected, that was designed more for everyone else’s benefit than Irving’s—and spoke about the importance of what the Grey Wardens were tasked to do, and how stopping the Blight must unite us all. There was a certain smugness in her face when Irving gave her official permission to leave the Circle, and she shot me a look that glittered with quiet knowing.

I said we would be honoured to have her, and that the Grey Wardens—all two of us—were pleased to consider her an ally. Morrigan scowled darkly and muttered something about preachy schoolmarms, but didn’t press the issue.

Eventually, the meeting splintered up, and we drifted our separate ways; the mages to rest, before they returned to the Tower and their own rebuilding efforts, Isolde to her son’s bedside, and Teagan to the great hall, where he apologetically declared that business awaited him.

After so long on my feet, lurching from fight to fight and trying to stay constantly alert, winding down to rest felt strange. It wasn’t easy to do—particularly in the castle, where there was still so much evidence of discord, and the uncomfortable reality of watching elven servants scrubbing blood off the floors.

There was more magical healing, too; properly done this time, so it didn’t hurt so much, and designed to take away the lingering stiffness and throbbing, to guard against infection and strengthen bodies already battered. I was nervous, so I watched Alistair go first, wounded shoulder stripped bare and bathed in pulsing white light. The mages’ hands glowed as they moved over him, and the air smelled of hot leather.

It wasn’t as bad as I expected.

Once that was all over, rest was welcome… and by the time the day had worn itself away, with evening drawing in over the lake, even those of us who’d protested we couldn’t possibly sleep had dozed through a good few hours.

I was in the day kitchen when Alistair came down, sprawled on a wooden chair, legs stretched out before me in front of the fire. Warm, sleepy… and enjoying my new boots, which actually fitted. I had new breeches and a clean shirt, too, plus studded leathers—currently sitting with my new pack—that, while still originally made for a human, Owen had cut down and judiciously splinted. Almost as good a fit as custom-made gear, he’d said, before sighing wistfully about the things he could do for us if he only had the time.

He’d done wonders, considering. Sten now had armour that properly covered at least two-thirds of him, instead of ramshackle odds and ends just tied on, and Owen had reworked several pieces of mail for Alistair that blended protection with wearability. As we’d crowded into the hazy heat of the forge, I’d been in a good enough mood to tease him about templar plate and purple tunics, and he’d pulled a face at me and said at least he didn’t have to everything adjusted because he was a shrimp. I kicked him.

Now, though, without all the buckles and the padding, and with that look on his face that told me he’d been upstairs again, sitting beside Arl Eamon’s bed, Alistair didn’t seem quite as well-rested.

He glanced around the kitchen, taking in the couple of remaining servants—Alen and Rhiannon, as they’d reluctantly told me, before going back to their duties and completely shutting me out—and gave me a brief smile.

“Bann Teagan thinks it would be a good idea if we show our faces in the village tonight. They’re… celebrating. Fancy a pint?”

I nodded. “Wouldn’t say no.”

“Come on, then.”

I stretched luxuriously, groaned, and got to my feet. It seemed such a shame to leave the fire, but I snagged my gear and sloped after him.

We met up with the others in the forecourt—Teagan had evidently suggested a show of solidarity—and I surveyed the faces of the people I had come to call companions… people who, a month or so ago, I’d have flung myself in the mud to avoid, had I met them in the market square. Well, that was a little harsh. Maybe not all of them.

Morrigan, certainly, with her strange, feral stare and aura of untamed confidence, would have terrified me. She still unnerved me now; I couldn’t fault what she’d done for us, yet I couldn’t quite trust her, either. Sten, I would probably have hidden at the sight of, because qunari mercenaries in Denerim usually worked for the sort of people no one wanted to be noticed by. I’d never given a moment’s thought to their culture, their individuality… and I wanted to ask him so many things. I should be afraid of him, I supposed, and yet I wasn’t anymore, whatever the truth of the things he’d done. Unsettled, maybe, but not afraid.

Leliana, perhaps, might not have scared me, had I seen her in her gentle, Chantry mode. Of course, that slight hint of otherness trailed beneath even her calmest moments; I knew that now I’d seen her armed and fighting. She was like a flame: bright and pure until the draught caught her, when she burned jagged, quick, and unpredictable.

And as for Alistair… I was a little ashamed to admit it, even to myself, but I doubted I’d have noticed him at all. He’d just have been another shem, wouldn’t he? Whether I’d seen him in civvies or armour, I wouldn’t have looked—eyes down, head bent, keep moving—and he wouldn’t have looked at me. Strange, I thought, how the prejudices were there on both sides, albeit in different ways. I’d never seen that until now… but I was glad of his presence, and even his tuneless whistling as we walked out into the dusk.

Maethor had trotted out to join us as well, which I guessed meant Connor was asleep, still under the aegis of Wynne and the other two mages taking shifts to care for him. I tousled my hound’s ears as we started off down the gritty slope towards the village, Lloyd’s tavern, and the promise of watered-down ale and merriment.

An elf, travelling with three shems and a Northern Giant, adopted by her very own mabari… that, I would never have seen coming.

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Volume 2: Chapter Eighteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Twelve

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Deciding to travel to the Circle Tower was one thing. Determining how to get there, however, was entirely another matter. The cliff path—the fastest route to get from Redcliffe back onto the Highway, which led right up to the shores of Lake Calenhad—meant a two-day round trip on foot, and it was highly unlikely we had that long.

Two of Ser Perth’s men were sent to examine the possibility of fresh horses from the arl’s stables, but reported back queasily that the majority were either dead or in no state for such a journey.

I frowned thoughtfully, thinking of the rows of little quays and jetties, fringed with smokehouses, down by the lakeside.

“What about going straight across the lake?” I asked. “Would that be quicker?”

“Across?” Bann Teagan stared at me. “By boat, you mean?”

I glanced at the men around me, and the looks of surprise on their faces. Perhaps I’d just said something stupid.

“Well… it’s a fishing village, isn’t it?”

“It’s a long way,” Alistair said doubtfully. “For a small boat. And that’s if we could even find one to carry us, and someone who knows the waters. The lake’s pretty treacherous.”

I nodded. Stupid idea, obviously.

“But,” he added, a speculative light touching his eyes. “It would be quicker.”

Teagan sighed. “All right. Murdock would be bound to know if there’s anyone who can help. Get yourselves back down to the village, and tell him I’ll pay double the charter for any man willing to guide you.”

“Right.”

Alistair pulled himself up to something vaguely approaching attention, the tightness around his eyes relaying the trouble he must have been having with that arrow wound.

We said brief farewells. None of it really seemed real, and Maethor whined pitifully when I told him to stay with Teagan. I patted his head and told him he was a good dog, which earned me a wag of that stumpy tail, but it was hard to leave him behind. The mabari was the only one there—apart from Alistair, perhaps—who I didn’t think was looking at me as if I was running away.

It was my imagination, my guilt… nothing more. I forced myself to believe that, and loped after Alistair, scurrying a bit to keep up as we left the great hall.

I heaved in a lungful of air as we stepped out into the courtyard, relieved to be back in daylight, despite the vestiges of bloodshed on the stones. The gates were open—Ser Perth’s men had come this way, no doubt—so at least we wouldn’t have to negotiate the route back to the village through cobwebs and choked walls of dust.

We stopped at the sound of running feet coming up behind us, but before we could draw blades a familiar voice called out.

“Wait! Wait… I’m coming with you!”

Leliana jogged to a halt at the top of the steps, the sunlight threading flares of gold through her red hair, and those bold eyes narrowed against the brightness. With a bow slung over her shoulder and Owen’s hastily tweaked leather armour neatly tapered to her slim curves, she didn’t look like the sort of woman it was sensible to refuse.

I glanced at Alistair. He sighed wearily, obviously not prepared to argue.

“Fine. If we can find a big enough boat.”

~o~O~o~

By the time we got back down into the village, part of me was almost hoping we wouldn’t be able to find passage across the water. I’d forgotten how big Lake Calenhad looked… and boats were, frankly, either things I’d seen in books, or giant wooden monsters up at the docks, whose creaking hulls were like moveable walls.

I tried not to think about it, just as I tried to ignore that other, darker hope that nestled within me. Maybe Connor will turn again while we’re gone, it whispered, that thin and ghastly voice that I didn’t want to believe was part of who I was. Maybe the others would have to deal with him, and I wouldn’t be called upon to choose… or to kill.

The village was buzzing with a strange mix of jubilation and bitterness. Those who weren’t resting were drinking, or grieving, or building pyres. Smoke stained the sky and lent the air a greasy, tangy quality, but the people greeted Leliana like a hero.

We found Murdock and related both the plan and Bann Teagan’s incentive. His great, bushy brows drew together, those hooded eyes narrowing before he gave a curt nod and growled out an assent.

“Aye, I know just the man… if he’s still sober.”

It didn’t sound all that promising, but we were hardly blessed with an abundance of alternatives. Murdock agreed to find our captain, and suggested we saw Mother Hannah to get ourselves patched up—as he put it, with a dubious glance at Alistair—before the journey.

Alistair started to say something about time being of the essence, and how we needed to hurry, but Leliana cut across him and unusually, I thought, he didn’t push it.

I saw why when we got into the chantry. Mother Hannah greeted us, outstretched hands and cheek-kisses for Leliana, and grateful smiles for Alistair and me.

“I suppose I must admit that your… subtlety with the truth paid off, Warden,” she said, giving me an old-fashioned look. “These people have found their belief again, and their courage. But I see it has been paid for in blood.”

My split lip tightened painfully as I tried to smile. The raw-edged empty socket was still oozing, coating my mouth with the aftertaste of blood.

“We’d appreciate a little assistance before we leave, Mother,” I said, and I explained our intention to journey to the Circle.

I kept the story of Connor’s possession as brief as possible, not wanting to outline enough details of what was going on up at the castle to excite the interest of a mob, but the priest’s face grew stern.

“I see,” she said, guiding us to a small side chapel, and sending one of the sisters for hot water and towels. “Well, of course… all we have is at your disposal. We can at least get you cleaned up.”

“Mm. Might as well try and look presentable when we meet the mages,” Alistair said, grunting as he peeled off his armour.

Leliana gasped. “Oh, Maker…. We need to get that seen to.”

“Huh?”

Buckles loosened, his leathers and the padded jack beneath mostly off, Alistair glanced down at the ripped, bloody swathe of shirt hanging from his shoulder, and the gory nub of arrow shaft still sticking out of the torn flesh at the top of his arm. He gulped, and started to turn a very pale shade of whitish-green.

“Wow. That’s… that’s a lot of blood,” he observed woozily. “Um. Is it all mine?”

Mother Hannah, with well-versed and swift efficiency, called for more hot water, cloths, and needle and thread. Redcliffe might not have had mages, but the chantry sisters did possess a certain expertise with battle wounds… that much they’d had to learn in recent weeks, I supposed.

Removing the remnants of the arrow was simple enough. There was a sharp knife, more blood, and a certain degree of tooth-gnashing and stifled yelling.

Alistair was fairly brave about it, though I suspected the number of women dancing attendance on him might have had something to do with that. Leliana’s skills, once again, knew no bounds. Not only was she the hero of the people, the rescuer of the abandoned and the saviour of the downtrodden, but she turned out to have a very neat and tidy hand when it came to stitching.

I wanted to make myself useful, but there didn’t seem to be much for me to do, so I went to wash my face and hands, clean up our armour as best I could, and scrounge Alistair a clean shirt from the chantry’s pile of charitable garments meant to outfit the dispossessed. My mind didn’t stray far from what might be happening at the castle, and nagging doubts assailed me. Were we doing the right thing?

~o~O~o~

By the time Murdock came to find us, we were as presentable as we were going to get. Alistair was pale and shadow-eyed, though all sewn up and shooting grateful looks at Leliana. She brushed away the thanks, muttering that one picked up skills when one travelled, and it was nothing more than that.

I kept my curiosity to myself. Back home, I’d fetched and carried for the older women enough times when one of the boys had done something stupid. I’d seen my share of bloody faces, of knife and bottle scars, and I’d boiled water and washed wounds, and held bowls when all that blood and pain brought on the inevitable retching. But, for all the kitchen-table doctoring we were used to in the alienage, we didn’t see the damages of battle… of properly wielded weapons that were actually designed to kill.

Leliana had, I’d have wagered, and it made me wonder all the more about what life she must have left behind her when she joined the cloister. What life she’d fled from, perhaps.

Outside the chantry, Murdock’s captain was waiting for us. His name was Wulff and he was, the mayor said, the best skipper in the village. Thirty years on the water, and the lake had blessed him, or so people said. As I was to learn, living so close to such a large body of water lent Redcliffe’s inhabitants a certain poetic reverence when it came to the lake, and tempered it with a healthy respect.

I expected to see a great, grizzled bear of a man, but Wulff was small, wiry, and red-faced, skin blasted to a crumpled, rough canvas by years of work out on the water. His eyes were perpetually squinting as if to catch the edge of the horizon, and his red-knuckled hands always seemed clenched on the cords of an invisible net. He even moved with wary circumspection, that bony frame bowed and head always at a slight angle, as if he was sniffing us out.

I tried to recall whether I’d seen the man fighting last night, but I couldn’t place him, and guessed he must have been in the chantry… or he had a talent for melting into the background.

Wulff looked the three of us over critically.

“Hmph.” He snorted, and turned to Murdock. “These be they, aye?”

Murdock nodded. “Aye.”

“Aye,” Wulff echoed, shooting me a disparaging look. “Well, we’d best get a move on. Murdock says you need to reach the Tower.”

“Yes,” Alistair began. “We—”

Wulff held up a thin, crooked hand. “Then let’s no’ stand around jawing, lad. You’ll want to get a move on. And no extra weight, you hear me?”

With that, he turned and stalked off down towards the lake. We exchanged glances, but followed meekly on behind.

The village was a gutted, desiccated wreck. I hadn’t appreciated how bad the damage had been but, as we passed the husks of houses and storefronts—their timbers cannibalised for barricades, and many of their owners quite possibly already on pyres—I saw how much it was going to take to put this place right. My mind drifted to Lothering, lying defenceless against the oncoming horde, and I wondered how far north the darkspawn had already travelled… how many places they had tainted and destroyed.

Had we really done Redcliffe any favours by saving it from the undead?

The lake filled my vision then, spilling out ahead as we came down the slope, and it was an impressive sight. Golden sunlight split the water into a thousand glistening, molten planes, reflections flaring back against the red rocks and setting the coarse dirt ablaze with colour. Smokehouses, gutters’ quays, little wooden jetties, the spooled-up clutter of ropes and nets and, of course, boats—their dry bellies hauled up on the earth like sad, ownerless, dead things—fringed the shore. It was all just so much bigger than I remembered it being in the moonlight.

Wulff strode on ahead. A strapping great lad who looked faintly familiar—he’d been fighting last night, I thought, and I assumed he was some sort of son or grandson—stood by one of the jetties, a mooring rope in his hands. There was indeed a boat. Later, I would learn the fishermen called them dories although, at that point, I couldn’t have distinguished between a dinghy and a clinker if my life had depended upon it. All I saw was a wooden shell of about fifteen feet in length, slung low in the water. Oars nestled in the rowlocks, rough wooden benches crossed its innards, and what I thought of as the pointy end rose up in a large curve, decorated with a very ornately carved fish. Unevenly worn off paint showed that, once, the fish had been picked out in red and gold, its bulbous eyes a bright, staring green.

“Oh, isn’t it pretty?” Leliana exclaimed.

Wulff headed down to the jetty, waving vaguely at us to follow, with all the arrogant insouciance that suggested he didn’t care whether we did or not.

I tried to nudge my unwilling feet into action. Leliana was still prattling cheerfully about the way the light caught the water and how it reminded her of the most wonderful seafood dish she’d once had in Orlais. Alistair made his way down to the jetty and started to toss the few supplies we were bringing with us—the leather satchel containing those all-important treaties, for one thing—into the keel.

“All right?” he prompted, glancing back at me.

I stepped tentatively down to the water’s edge. Wulff was muttering to the lad, gesturing towards the northerly side of the lake, and the horizon. In the distance, shrouded by the haze of sunshine and slight mist, I thought I could make out the Circle Tower itself, looming skywards. There was a strong smell of fish, almost worn into the boat’s timbers.

Leliana breezed past me and hopped delicately into the dory. I watched it rock and sway as she did so, very aware of the sound of water lapping against the jetty, and against the shoreline. That, and the creak of timbers, and the distant cries of gulls, echoing on the rocks.

“Er.” I cleared my throat. “We’re not going to sink, are we? Or get attacked by… things? I mean, how big do the fish get here?”

A grin spread across Alistair’s face, but quickly softened.

“Big enough. You’re not—oh, you are, aren’t you? Scared of water?”

“No,” I said, too quickly, pouncing on denial like a cat on a mouse. “No! Not… water in general. Just, um, that this is quite a lot of… deep…. Er. I-I can’t swim,” I finished lamely.

Wulff clapped his lad on the arm, then nodded to the boat. The boy got in, taking up the huge pair of oars as if they were nothing but toothpicks, as the old man stepped in behind him and settled on the furthest bench. He glanced over his shoulder at Alistair, wizened red face a picture of barely concealed irritation.

“Come on, boy! The elf comin’ or not?”

Alistair’s smile stiffened and then faded.

“The Grey Warden,” he called, without turning around, “will be right with us. Come on,” he added, lowering his voice for my benefit. “You won’t have to swim. It’ll be fine.”

The sun picked at the sandy gold in his hair, and his eyes held both encouragement and a hint of tired pleading. I sighed.

Alistair was, in my opinion, a far more believable Grey Warden than I could ever have been. I didn’t doubt that he’d have much more luck petitioning the magi than me, but I also knew I couldn’t leave him to go alone.

After all, if we were going to be the treasonous dregs of an outlawed order, we might as well do it together.

~o~O~o~

It took me a while to get used to the rhythm of the dory. Wulff sat hunched up at the bow, barking out orders to the boy—Elwyn, as he stutteringly introduced himself when Leliana asked—and muttering under his breath.

The little boat lurched and clipped and, though the lake was calm and the day virtually without wind, it seemed to me as if the water tugged at the dory’s shallow hull in a hundred different ways. Every moment brought fresh instability, and peering over the side at the murky deepness did little to soothe my nerves.

Alistair, in his usual helpful manner, recounted the stories he’d heard as a child, about the horrible things that dwelt in the lake’s darkest corners. Monsters as big as a man, with teeth like butcher’s knives, just waiting for the unwary to swim by….

“Huh.” Wulff grunted, unexpectedly favouring us with a direct acknowledgement of our presence. “It be they bleedin’ mages. Things they dump in our lake. Wuz a kiddie got her arm near snatched off las’ summer. ’Twas a pikehead grown to seven feet long. ’Orrible bugger. We ’ad ’im, though, din’t we, boy?”

“Aye,” Elwyn agreed, still rowing.

He didn’t speak much, I noticed; just kept pulling the oars back in stroke after stroke, his heavy muscles bunching and cording, and his solid, expressionless face staring out at the water, and the shore receding behind us. There was something faintly unnerving about the lad, really… though not as unnerving as looking out at the lake’s breadth, and thinking I could see things rippling beneath the surface.

We fell silent, at least until the dark, huddled shape of the castle loomed up on the ridge, far above us, and all three of us found ourselves glancing towards it. Watching… wondering. Hoping, perhaps. Leliana’s lips moved softly—framing some soundless prayer, I imagined—and then she turned away, gazing out at the water and the far shore instead. There was such a terrible melancholy in her face; as if she felt such sympathy with those we’d left up there that it caused her true, physical pain.

Alistair cleared his throat, cutting through the repetitive rhythms of oars splashing, and Wulff’s mumbling.

“So, have you had a chance to look at the treaties yet?”

I winced. “Not really. Well… uh, a bit, maybe.”

The truth was not especially palatable. Morrigan had caught me with the papers the last night we’d camped along the Highway, before we reached Redcliffe. She knew. I could still hear her brittle, tinkling laugh.

You can’t read a word of those, can you?

I’d blinked, blustered, and protested. Of course I can! I… I mean, they’re just a bit…. Well, they’re very old.

It hadn’t fooled her.

True, I could read well enough, but the letters and figures Mother had taught me to reckon were nothing like the ornate calligraphy and archaic, official language of the treaties. Their ancient vellum was loaded with flowery signatures and thick, waxy seals… and it made about as much sense to me as spilled ink mopped up with a dishrag.

“Do they really still hold true, though?” I peered at Alistair across the dory’s shallow keel. “I mean… they’re hundreds of years old. The mages, the dwarves… will they really keep to bargains signed that long ago?”

“I think so.” He nodded thoughtfully, a look of weary pride touching his face. “For the Grey Wardens, anyhow. We might not be as strong as we once were, but they still respect us.”

The hint of pride started to congeal, and Alistair frowned. I imagined he’d stumbled on the difference between the ‘us’ that was the order—in a heraldic, abstract sense, redolent of glory and victory—and the ‘us’ that was him and me, soon to be standing in front of the First Enchanter in scruffy armour and waving a wallet of mouldy documents.

I glanced at Leliana, thinking that at the very least her gracious manners and battle-maiden looks might weigh in our favour. She appeared to be dozing, head delicately bowed and eyes hooded. I couldn’t blame her. When this was over, I’d promised myself, I was going to sleep for a month.

“I hope you’re right,” I murmured, my gaze slipping back to Alistair. He was starting to look a bit better than he had earlier, though the strain of the past few days showed plainly. “How’s the shoulder?”

He flexed it experimentally and curled his lip. “Ow…. Yep, still there. How about you?”

I snorted. Yes, we’d make a fine impression: two battle-weary warriors and an elven wench with a fat lip.

“I’ll live,” I said. “My blisters are a lot better, anyway.”

He chuckled dryly and, for a moment, seemed to consider asking something more of me, but no questions came. The sun reflected back off the rippling water, warming me, and I touched my fingers absently to the chain at my neck, grounding myself with the feel of the smooth metal there. My ring, my pendant… everything that had been, and was yet to be.

I looked out at the wide expanse of the lake, every shift of the water changing that mutable landscape, breaking its translucent surface into innumerable new planes, new possibilities.

Whether Alistair was right about the treaties or not, I realised, we were all there was behind them now. With Arl Eamon lying sick—and likely to die, in all probability, even if we managed to save Connor—any vague, hopeful notion I’d had of allowing someone else to handle the politics had completely evaporated.

We were on our own, and the things we were facing had never seemed more insurmountable.

I rested my hand on the smooth-worn wood of the dory’s side, and watched the water slip darkly by as we continued our slow, relentless edge towards the Circle Tower.

We were making good time, as far as I could judge, though the pace felt so leisurely that at times I wondered whether walking wouldn’t have been quicker. It was far too easy to allow myself to be lulled by the boat’s gentle rocking and, like Leliana, to give into the numbing fatigue and just… rest. I think, eventually, we all grabbed a few minutes’ sleep—or the next best thing to it, at any rate.

As the village and the shoreline slipped away, and the edges of the world grew thin and flat, bounding us only with more water, and the walls of red rock that held the lake in check, I grew nervous. The boat felt extremely small and fragile, and Wulff rose up from his hunched position, perched like a bird in the bow and peering keenly ahead.

I didn’t realise it at first, but the emptiest stretches of the lake were the most dangerous. Knife-edged rocks, odd eddies of currents, and whatever else might lurk down there… none of it boded well. As if to emphasise that point, the sun shrouded itself in wisps of grey, and clouds boiled over the horizon. A slight but cold breeze whipped at the water, and Wulff began to bark orders at Elwyn, navigating a fresh path across whatever maps he held in his head.

The dory lurched and rocked, and the rhythm of the oars quickened, Elwyn grunting with the effort. Alistair’s offer to help was summarily rebuffed, and Wulff didn’t even have the grace to pretend it was on account of his wound.

“No good,” he growled. “You don’t know the rhythm of this water, boy, an’ it don’t know you. Best tha’ sits quiet, aye?”

I suppressed the urge to smile at Alistair’s indignant expression and looked away, ahead of us to where the Circle Tower could now plainly be seen: a great, single spire, jutting blackly against the dimming sky.

~o~O~o~

The Tower had not always been on an island. Once, it had been an important node on the Imperial Highway, and the broken white ribs of that familiar road still ran up towards it, though the lake had swallowed the edges of the land.

As we drew closer, I could see it was no fairytale tower, either—no sleek and solitary column, as it looked from the distance. The place was huge; an enormous, hulking building that owed much to the Tevinter architecture I’d seen at Ostagar. Briefly, the similarity to the Tower of Ishal roused unpleasant memories, and I forced them back into the shadows, where they belonged.

The main body of the tower rose skywards in a great bulk of stone. At its foot clustered several other, smaller buildings, and rings of walls that encircled the grounds. Later, I’d learn there were beautiful gardens, servants’ quarters… even a long, low hut where one of the old enchanters had kept breeding pairs of falcons. The place was an entire community, almost a village within itself. At the time, I was just awed into silence. The Tower looked so dark and quiet that it frightened me, and I couldn’t think for all the memories and associations of magic that still clung on from my childhood.

When I was little, a girl a year or so younger than me had been found to have magic. I could see her behind my eyes—a dark, sharp-faced child with few friends—and I reached out into the past for her name. Ari Surana. That was it. I’d been too young to pay much attention, but there had been murmurings over the girl’s head for weeks before they came to take her away. I never even knew what was happening until that day. We didn’t speak of it, as if it was something shameful… it was, really. Her mother wept in the street, and her father grew tight-lipped and silent after it was all over. No one spoke of her anymore, like she’d never even been born.

A while later, the old couple moved into the floor above us. We barely knew them to speak to, but they never had much to say. I thought of Lady Isolde’s words—her tainted blood, with its threat of power—and wondered if magic really was a curse that passed that way, slipping from generation to generation like thin hair or short legs, always waiting to rise unexpectedly in a child.

My ponderings were interrupted, as usual.

“Something’s not right,” Alistair announced, leaning out to the side, craning for a better view of the Tower.

The boat rocked gently under us, and I held on to the rough wooden bench beneath me. “What d’you mean?”

I squinted, following his gaze. There was a muggy, hazy feel to the afternoon air, as if the greying of the sky had fallen down to earth, dropping over everything like an oily mist. Elwyn’s steady oars were bringing us up on the eastern side of the island, and I could see across to the far shore of the lake. Here, at last, the seemingly endless walls of red rock broke and, as if hollowed out of the cliff, there was a small settlement. It wasn’t much; just a few buildings huddled together under the broad span of the Highway, fringing the shore like the lake’s mud-washed leavings. Still, there were people there. There was a small boat, hauled up by the jetty, and… templars, in armour. I frowned. Did they usually stand guard over the ferry? Or was something really wrong? Either way, they’d seen us, and they were waving us in to the dock.

“Eh.” Wulff bared his teeth in a mirthless, cynical grimace. “’Tis a welcome committee.”

His words dripped with scorn, and I wondered how much the people of Redcliffe usually had to do with the Tower and its guardians. Wulff’s voice seemed to hold a whiff of something more than just suspicion, but my mental images of disputed territorial rights over the lake (did apprentices ever try to escape that way? They must be tempted to, surely….) were brushed aside by nerves. I glanced at Alistair.

“This is your area, isn’t it? Templars?”

He grimaced. “Well, technically, I never— I mean, you’re not exactly supposed to leave. So, er… it might be one of things it’s best not to mention.”

Great. Now he told me.

I probably didn’t look terribly impressed, because he gave me a weak, sickly smile.

“Oh, come on… it could be worse. We could have brought Morrigan.”

I snorted at that, as the boat scythed gently towards the dock. Given the circumstances of our arrival here—and everything I’d left laid at the witch’s feet back at the castle—it was pitch-black humour, but I couldn’t help laughing. It wasn’t just the thought of rolling up into the middle of a garrison of templars with an obvious apostate in tow… but how outraged I could imagine her being if they’d even dared lay a finger on her.

The snigger died away, though, as I thought about it properly. It wasn’t something we’d really encountered so far, but we would at some point, wouldn’t we? Out of the Wilds, as Alistair had said the day Flemeth entrusted her to us, Morrigan was an apostate.

All right, so the people of Redcliffe had hardly been in any state to turn away help, whatever form it came in, but if we were truly on our own—if we truly needed to bring the Bannorn to our side against the coming Blight—then we would need to think very carefully about our allies, and how the world perceived them.

Dangerous friends, I reflected, might end up doing us more damage than the darkspawn ever could.

The dory bumped against the jetty, wrenching me back down through the disjointed clouds of thoughts that kept filling my head. I needed sleep. Proper sleep… as did we all.

I looked up, and found an old man leaning down to us, readying to help Wulff with the mooring rope. They were probably of a similar age, though beyond that the difference outweighed the sameness. This human was simply but neatly dressed, his hair was trimmed and brushed, and his face, though weathered, lacked Wulff’s sunburnt gruffness.

“Bad time you picked to come here,” he observed, helping to tie the boat. “Travellers, is it? We don’t usually get folks come right across the lake.”

Leliana clambered up on the wooden jetty, gracefully accepting the hand the old man extended to help her. Across the patchy grass slope that ran down to the shore, I could see two templars striding officiously towards us, though they didn’t seem to be in a hurry.

“We need to get to the Circle Tower,” Leliana said, as she brushed herself down.

I admired the subtle inflection in her voice. It was girlish and enquiring and, combined with the Orlesian lilt, enough to have the old man proffering information in a heartbeat.

“Oh, and good luck to you, missy! Not lettin’ anyone across, they ain’t. Even impounded my boat…  my Lissie. Named for my grandmum, she was,” he added regretfully. “I’m Kester, the ferryman—leastwise, I was. No one’s been allowed across for days now, though. Out of a job, I am. Poor old Kester….”

I wondered whether I’d been too hasty in attributing Leliana with the skill to get the old boy talking. It appeared he couldn’t actually stop.

Alistair frowned as he hauled himself up onto the jetty. “Is something wrong up at the tower, then?”

“Oh, I couldn’t say.” Kester shrugged and shook his head. “Anyhow, they don’t tell me nothing. But, if I know them mages, I’m better off keeping out of their business. If I had to guess, I’d guess it had to do with magic… but then the tower’s always got something to do with magic, hasn’t it?”

The way he said it made it sound like a dirty word; I could almost hear the temptation to spit. I was last out of the boat, made clumsy by its rocking and pitching. Alistair stretched down and lent me his hand and, as I pulled myself up by that broad, calloused palm, I could feel the strength of Kester’s gaze.

“Oh-ho-ho!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “Well, look at you! I’ve never seen one of you knife-ears dressed up like the king of Ferelden before. You made good for yourself, eh?”

I let go of Alistair’s hand, momentarily disorientated by the feel of solid ground under my feet again. There was a brief, dry, uncomfortable silence, then fatigue prodded me towards sarcasm, and I smiled thinly at the old man.

“Yes,” I said, glancing down at my stained, beaten leathers. “I made good.”

The armour might have been second-rate, but he was right; I was an unusual enough sight for an elf. The shem blinked, then licked his lips hurriedly.

“Oh, no, I don’t mean no offence. I know I shoot my mouth off….” He raised one hand and gesticulated vaguely towards me. “I’m just not used to your kind trussed up all fancy, that’s all.”

Alistair cleared his throat, and I wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or a warning. I didn’t meet his eye. Instead, I bit back on all the sharp-edged things I wanted to say, and nodded towards Wulff and Elwyn. The lad looked exhausted, and the rough, red welts of oarsman’s blisters marked his enormous hands.

“I see there’s a tavern here. D’you think you could help these gents to a pint and a warm place to sit? Beer’s on us,” I added, as Kester’s face split into a broad grin. “For yourself, too, of course.”

After a quick rummage in the scrip Bann Teagan had handed over, and a bit of clinking, Alistair drew out a couple of silvers and gave them to the ferryman.

“Well, much obliged,” Kester said, beaming. “Much obliged indeed, I must say. Your type don’t usually give my type the time of day,” he added, looking at me with a peculiar light in his eyes.

It was as good as a kick in the stomach. I opened my mouth, then shut it again, and wondered if the old bugger had actually meant to whittle me down to an inch in height.

Still, as Wulff and Elwyn were gratefully heading off towards the tavern—no doubt to have all the gossip regarding these strange travellers prised from them—the templars were bearing down on us. My back stiffened with the inbuilt reaction to large men in armour… particularly those who, like one of the humans coming towards us, had their faces obscured by blank steel helms.

“Hoi! You there!” The other templar—a young man with broad, rather doughy features—pointed imperiously at us. “What d’you lot think you’re up to?”

“We need to see—” Alistair began, barely getting the first few words out before they were trampled.

“You’re not looking to get across to the tower, are you? Because I have strict orders not to let anyone pass!”

“But it’s important that we see the First Enchanter, at once.”

The templar folded his arms across his breastplate, gauntlets clinking against the embossed image of the flaming sword of mercy. I doubted compassion was going to be this man’s strong suit.

“No,” he said, with altogether far too much satisfaction.

“You don’t understand,” Leliana put in. “There are lives at stake here! We’ve been travelling for hours to get here, to—”

“Then you’d better turn around and start travelling back, hadn’t you?” The human’s wide face spread into a fleshy smile, smug and tight. “Wouldn’t want to be out on the lake after sundown. There’s some nasty things in that water.”

This was going nowhere, and I was fed up with obstructions.

“We’re Grey Wardens,” I snapped. “We’ve come to seek the assistance of the mages against the darkspawn. If you don’t let us cross—”

It was a desperate gambit. For all I knew, they might have tossed us in chains then and sent word to Loghain to start bagging up the bounty money. The Circle might have been well-known for its impartiality in most things, but the same didn’t necessarily extend to the Chantry.

However, the templar just arched his brows, turned to his colleague and, arms still folded over his chest like a busty fishwife, pulled an incredulous face.

“Oh, a Grey Warden, is it? Are you?”

Anger started to twist in my gut. I’d known it would be like this… and why shouldn’t it? Some scrap of a knife-eared wench, claiming to be something even she didn’t fully believe she was.

The templar’s expression hardened as he turned back to face me.

“Prove it.”

I met his gaze, inch for inch. “Alistair, show him the treaties.”

I didn’t blink, didn’t look away. Neither did the human. I heard the rattle of the leather wallet, the crinkle of ancient vellum and parchment… smelled the smell of mouldy paper and ancient must.

The templar broke eye contact, glancing down at the documents Alistair thrust towards him. He scanned the page briefly and peered at the thick seal on the bottom of it, before pushing the parchment away unceremoniously.

“Yes? You know, I have some documents, too. They say I’m the Queen of Antiva. What do you think of that?”

Alistair—still grappling with shuffling the treaties back into their wallet—made a small noise of disbelieving irritation.

“I’d say your armourer hasn’t done justice to your figure,” I snapped. “I thought most queens were female.”

The second templar sniggered, the noise echoing from within his bucket-like helmet. I could barely even make out the suggestion of eyes behind the narrow slit in the visor, and it unnerved me.

The reaction evidently didn’t go down too well with his friend. I earned myself a squint-eyed glare, and the first templar jabbed a finger at me.

“Don’t question royalty. Now, go on. On your way. Right now. Go.”

Holding back on the urge to rant and swear, I poked my tongue into the empty socket in my jaw, and the sudden lance of pain made me focus. I was taking a deep breath and looking for some other angle to try when Leliana spoke up again, all sweetness and soft, musical words.

“Gentlemen… I’m sure we can reach a compromise here, no? Whatever is happening in the tower, your superior surely doesn’t need the extra inconvenience of you slighting such honoured guests. The Wardens and I have come directly from Redcliffe Castle, you know.” She tilted her head to the side, fixing both men with those uncommonly blue eyes, and pursed her lips just a little. “I am certain he would not like you to dismiss emissaries from the arl.”

Clever, I thought. They definitely wouldn’t know about Redcliffe’s troubles from up here… they might not even have heard about Eamon’s illness, and the association of nobility carried plenty of weight.

“Oh, really, eh?” The young templar shifted uneasily, but the bombast had begun to drop from his voice. “You think Greagoir would be upset with me for not letting you in, do you?”

The second man tapped him on the shoulder with one heavy gauntlet, his mumble muffled rather by his helm. “Er… Carroll?”

That pudgy face creased into an expression of crestfallen realisation, and the templar frowned.

“You know, you may have a point. He might.”

“Well, then,” Alistair said brightly, “we should try our best to avoid that, shouldn’t we? Wouldn’t want to get you into trouble.”

The templar bristled. “Huh… yes. Well. Greagoir’s the big guy around here. I bet he could deal with a couple of Grey Wardens. Alleged Grey Wardens,” he added, sneering. “All right. Come along. I suppose.”

 

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Volume 2: Chapter Thirteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eleven

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Bright sunlight filled the courtyard. We’d come out at the far edge, the last vestige of the bustling, labyrinthine passageways that served the castle’s daily business. The smell of dead bodies and musty tapestry cloth soiled with dried blood was still rank on me, and it felt strange to see that—in the midst of all this death and violence—there could still be sunshine, and fluffy white clouds scudding across a flawless blue sky.

A stone stairway led up to the main doors, which I knew without looking would be heavily barred and bolted. Below, down a slight slope, the portcullis and double-walled gates that separated the forecourt from the route down to the village were still tightly closed. It was all as serene as a painting, but for the bits of discarded equipment and scuffmarks in the dirt that told of the fight the arl’s guards must have put up before they fell. There were no bodies, of course. Not just lying there, anyway.

I glanced at Morrigan, curious as to what she sensed. Her breathing was tight, shallow, and she scanned the borders of the courtyard as if she knew there was something there—something that was aware of our presence, and just waiting for us to walk into its trap. I began to think Alistair had been right, and that splitting up hadn’t been such a good idea.

There wasn’t much time to think about it, though. Up on the walls, crouching behind the crenellations and now rising, aiming at us with sightless eyes, were at least half a dozen archers and crossbowmen. They bore Eamon’s badge, and so did the corpses pouring down from the cover of the guard towers. Like the others we’d seen, these were more than shambling flesh-puppets. They wielded weapons and, worse, the tempered steel of pure hatred, knapped to an edge with maddened fury. As a hail of arrows splintered down from the parapets, we scattered. Morrigan flung out a blaze of magical energy intended to blind and disorient the creatures, while Sten raised his sword and unleashed a terrifying qunari battle cry that, under other circumstances, would have made me wonder if all their words sounded so violent.

A few slim, elegant ash trees dotted the courtyard. In defiance of the coming winter, they still held onto the last of their leaves and, as I ducked behind one pale trunk, I was briefly amazed at the brightness of the colours. Stark, red-tinged green, so sharp against the blue sky. It seemed unbelievable—as if none of this was more than a paper cut-out, a stage upon which we danced—yet it wasn’t as if I was unused to seeing brutality next to beauty. I gritted my teeth and swung out from behind the tree, plunging into the fray as weirdly detached as before. I know I took risks: overextended my sword arm, misjudged blows and dodged attacks by sheer blind luck. Somewhere, through the fog and the comfortable cushion of pain—that barrier of exhaustion and aching fatigue that stopped me really thinking about anything—I was floating through it all. Nothing mattered except the weight of the blade and the thud of steel biting dead flesh.

Alistair was yelling about cover. I remember peering dreamily across the courtyard at him, frowning as I spotted the arrow sticking out of his shoulder, and then seeing Morrigan pirouette across the debris-strewn ground. Her robes spiralled around her like the beating wings of some ragged bird, and the sunlight glinted sharply on the jewels she wore. Her black iron staff sailed through strange, wild angles, spurting ice and flares of light, and the hair crackled on the back of my neck. Without her, we’d have been dead a dozen times over, but it didn’t mean I was comfortable with her magic.

Now, she was everywhere, all at once holding them back and striking them down, positioning herself between Alistair and the onslaught. I fought my way over, barely even seeing the corpses I hacked through and, somewhere at my core, slightly sickened by that knowledge. His wound could have been worse; he was still standing, and still swinging at anything that came close, though his shield arm was obviously weak. Sten was out in the centre of the courtyard, a little way from us, and I cursed my stupidity at first dividing our numbers, and then allowing us to wander blindly into this mess.

That said, watching the qunari fight was like witnessing an entire battlefield in motion. He moved between stances effortlessly, as if he anticipated the enemy’s every move. They swarmed him, but he never faltered. It made what came next worse, somehow.

Morrigan yelled the word. Revenant. I didn’t know what it was, what she meant… just that there was a moment of panic, and she turned her fire towards the far corner of the courtyard. I thought there was another wave of corpses coming, and then it hit.

I’d felt the force of her magic before—but nothing like this. It caught all four of us, the sensation that of something warm and slightly prickly, like a dry summer wind, gritty with the sweltering debris of the city. A greasy, metallic taste clogged my mouth, and I blinked owlishly, not understanding what the witch had warned against. I still didn’t know what it was when we went flying through the air, tossed aside as easily as dolls and flung against one of the great stone buttresses that supported the inner courtyard wall.

We landed tangled in a muddled, yelling heap. The arrow in Alistair’s shoulder had broken off at the shaft, and blood welled through the jagged ruptures in his armour. A ripped, bloody swatch of shirt was visible between the torn leather bands, but he could use the arm well enough to help support himself as he scrambled to his feet. We were all stunned, weakened… my head spun, and I couldn’t quite believe it had really happened. Things moved too fast for me to grasp, seconds running into each other like muddy raindrops. Sten and Morrigan were both up, and I had my sword in one hand, and a dagger in the other—and it still wasn’t enough.

The creature was unlike any of the other corpses, though it was of the same mould. The body it was using had, I judged, once belonged to one of Ser Perth’s men; I recognised the badge that held the ragged cloak about its shoulders, and the same bright tracery on the armour. He’d been tall, broad… a well-muscled and experienced knight, his face hidden beneath the square steel shell of a helm that glinted in the sunlight. The blow that had killed him—a great, tearing gash to his side—was still visible, the metal armour sundered and dented, and the flesh beneath beginning to turn black. I thought I saw the pale wriggle of a maggot, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on details.

The revenant took a few paces sideways across the courtyard, looking at us with its head tilted as it moved, much the way a cat might inspect incapacitated prey. A knight’s sword—a blade of impressive, ornately tooled steel, easily the length of my arm and half again—swung delicately in one heavy gauntlet, as if the thing was merely toying with the idea of a fight.

We were pressed in tight together, knotted up in deference to being both outnumbered and, quite possibly, outclassed. Tension burned the air as the seconds spun out, no one making the first move. The remaining handful of corpses were holding back; waiting, I thought, for this new monster’s command.

At my right, Sten jostled impatiently. Morrigan put out her arm, a barrier to impulsive action.

“These things strike hard,” she warned. “It is a demon of pride, or greed. Powerful. You have seen its command of magic. Do not give it the advantage.”

“Right,” Alistair said dryly, pain etched into the hoarseness of his voice. “I’ll bear that in mind when it’s holding me down and hacking my arms off.”

Sten gave a low, unsettling growl. “The remedy to that,” he rumbled, “is to be the one doing the hacking.”

I let out a short bark of laughter that was probably symptomatic of hysteria, though the tail of it died as sparks guttered from Morrigan’s fingers. She was bent into a ready crouch, staff held at an angle and thick silver bangles clinking on her bare, white arms. The dead knight’s helm tilted from side to side as magical energy rippled in the air before her. I didn’t understand what she was doing at first—neither striking or preparing an assault, just keeping a tiny pulse of light moving at the ends of her fingers. Her face was a tight mask of concentration, lips parted over small, even teeth.

“You see it?” she murmured, those ochre-gold eyes unblinking. “See….”

I did. The creature was watching her, apparently fascinated. The blankness of that bloodied helm frightened me; I could easily have believed there was a dull red glow where the eyes should have been, or that there was nothing beneath the armour but a nightmare, waiting to pull me into its centre the way the shades had tried to do. That wasn’t true, though, was it? There was a body there, a thing that had once been a man, and it could fall.

“On three,” Alistair said quietly. “One….”

Sten nodded, leaving me the only one who didn’t quite know what was going on.

“Two….”

“Er, hang on. What—”

‘Three’ didn’t quite happen. Sten yelled, Morrigan loosed a burst of ice, and there was a mad tumble of steel and legs that broke all that aching, painful tension into tiny pieces.

The revenant was a demon of pride, desire and greed. It fed on those impulses, and in turn they defined it. Like all its kind, its existence on the mortal plane was a troubled one, driven by hunger and need, and the ravening insanity that stalked close behind. It sensed Morrigan’s power the way she felt its presence, and it desired it. After all, a dead body provided easy pickings for a creature of the Fade, but the residual shreds of life were nothing beside the tempting promise of a powerful mage.

Its greed was its undoing, distracting it just enough—just long enough—for the three of us to hit up close, hard and fast. As Morrigan’s frost burst disorientated the creature, Sten swung in at the front, smashing a mighty blow into its chest. Alistair took the left flank, an arc of metal and violence, and I found myself in my usual position: spitting dust amid a forest of legs.

The remaining corpses were no longer holding back, and the melee quickly grew chaotic. I ducked, rolled, and came up behind the demon, seeking a weakness in all that dented plate armour. The knight’s ornate, keenly balanced sword swished past my head with a noise like tearing silk, and pain erupted at the tip of my left ear. I yelped, and thrust my blade into the revenant’s back as it spun, trying to tackle assailants from three different angles. Morrigan screamed at us to pull back, and it was clear she had problems enough of her own. Corpses clawed at her, and she struggled to hold them off alone. As the other two pulled away from the fight, I hesitated, thinking we would draw the demon onto her. Alistair grabbed the back of my jerkin and, as he dragged me out of the way, I understood the strategy no one had bothered to tell me.

The revenant struck its sword against the flagstones once more, preparing whatever foul magic it was that had sent us spinning through the air before but, this time, the remaining undead bore the brunt of the damage. Greed had its uses, I supposed; particularly where blinding a fool was concerned.

The demon succeeded only in breaking its own allies against the stones, which made them easier to dispatch, and left it unguarded. It howled with rage, and Morrigan ploughed towards it like some mad, dancing black flame, lobbing spell after spell at the creature. We piled back on it, and the smell of frostburnt carrion and dead, rotting flesh was so far down the back of my throat I almost failed to notice it. When Sten struck the killing blow that, at long last, saw the creature slow, topple, and finally fall, it seemed we’d been fighting for hours.

There was such silence in the courtyard… and no sense of triumph. We stood, panting, looking down at the thing, and the body seemed small, despite the sword still clutched in the metal-sheathed grasp. Alistair bent down and pulled it from the dead knight’s gauntlet.

“This should get back to Ser Perth. He’ll know who this man was.”

I glanced around at the bits of other bodies, other men… hadn’t they all had names, and families? Or did knighthood impart some greater worth?

I winced, and absently reached up to pat the sore tip of my ear, staring dispassionately at the blood that glossed my fingers when they came away. Just a nick, for which I was absurdly thankful. It wasn’t as if I’d been pretty to start with—but I had no wish to lose my points.

“Let’s just find Bann Teagan,” I said, wiping my hand on my filthy breeches. “It’s this way, right?”

~o~O~o~

Under less abnormal circumstances—and with fewer bloody body parts strewn around the place—the castle would have been impressive. I might have cowered as Alistair led us up through the main doors, and stared in wonder at the bas-reliefs and gilded fixtures.

Instead, I shivered as the mighty panels of carved oak closed behind me, and squinted into the darkness of a dank, filthy hallway. There were beeswax candles in iron sconces, but they’d been ripped from the walls, just like the tapestries, and the whole place smelled of death.

It was too quiet as we made our way towards the main hall; no sound but the mismatched paces of four sets of boots, and Morrigan’s iron staff clicking on the stones in counterpoint.

We were all tense. I glanced at Alistair, but he intimidated me. Silent, thin-lipped, and with the revenant’s sword still in his hand, he wasn’t entirely the comrade I’d begun to grow used to fighting beside. The arrow wound in his shoulder looked bad, but he just shook his head when I asked if he was all right, and said it was fine. I didn’t argue, though I didn’t like the pallid, waxy cast to his face.

One more turn of a corner, one more corridor full of smashed statuary and torn fabric, and we were almost there.

“It’s close,” Morrigan said softly. “I… believe we are expected.”

I looked dubiously at the wall, and what had once been a very beautiful painting of a young woman. She was in tatters now, dark scraps of canvas fluttering from a gilt frame. Alistair grunted.

“Hm. Maybe we’ll get lunch.”

It wasn’t his usual flippancy. There was a dull, hollow quality to his voice, and it prodded me towards the same unthinkable truth that I’d been trying so hard to avoid: if Connor had really been possessed, then surely there was only one possible course of action. My stomach clenched, and I glanced back over my shoulder, wondering where Leliana was now.

Too late to wonder, though. We’d found what we sought.

The doors to the main hall were open, as if everything within was being framed just for us, no more than a play, a revel.

It was a huge space, the fine stonework hung with cloth-of-gold tapestries and the high ceiling a mass of interlocking beams and bosses. At the far end, a great fire roared, and there was a dais, which held a small dining table, groaning beneath the weight of fine decanters and salvers of food. Other benches were ranged the length of the hall, though they’d been pushed back to the walls, as if to make space for a party.

Guards thronged the edges of the room, each one standing stock still with a crossbow or sword in his hand, and a blank, empty look on his face. It was hard to tell, at first glance, whether they were alive or dead… but my eyes did not linger on them.

On the dais, seated at the table, was the boy I guessed must be Connor. He was young—Maker, so very much younger than I’d thought—and he laughed and clapped delightedly as, on the floor in front of him, Bann Teagan rolled and tumbled like a jester.

Lady Isolde stood by the boy’s shoulder, her body hunched and her eyes downcast, her mouth a curve of misery. The fire leaped and danced, tongues of amber light throwing eerie patterns across this absurd scene.

We came to a halt in the open doorway, and I heard Alistair’s intake of breath. Bann Teagan performed a dramatic somersault, landing on his hands, and then—as Connor stood up, attention suddenly switching from him—he collapsed to the stones, limp as a wet rag.

The boy came to the edge of the dais, looking down the length of the hall at us. I’d never seen such an expression on so young a face. Pale skin, with the well-fed peachiness of a human child, and an amply covered frame… yet the look in his face was one of feral curiosity, and the barely suppressed anger of madness.

“These are our visitors,” he said, his thin, boy’s voice echoing off the stones as he tilted his head, peering at us the way the revenant had done… almost as if he couldn’t see us, but sensed us by smell or some other, horrible method. “The ones you told me about, Mother. Isn’t that right?”

She’d known all along. Known, and let us walk blind into the trap. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised. Connor was her son, and he was just a boy… he couldn’t have been much more than nine or ten years old.

The arlessa nodded wretchedly. “Y-yes, Connor.”

She raised her head and looked at us, and I thought I could see the firelight catch at tears on her cheeks. The guardsmen hadn’t moved, hadn’t even blinked or glanced at us. They were still as… well, as corpses, which worried me. Bann Teagan crawled across the floor and sprawled himself at the foot of the steps leading up to the dais, ankles crossed and arms propped upon his knees. He grinned inanely into the middle distance, and giggled to himself.

I’d never seen magic that could do such a thing to a person—never even thought it could exist. My heart hammered at my ribs, and I fervently wished we’d discussed what we planned to do. I looked at Alistair, just in time to catch him striding forwards across the neat flagstones, firelight glimmering on the sword he still held.

“What have you done with Bann Teagan?” he demanded.

“Uncle?” Connor smiled unpleasantly. “But Uncle Teagan is right here. Say hello, Uncle.”

The bann looked up at him and waved mechanically. “Hello, Uncle!”

“Dear Uncle was very full of himself earlier,” the boy confided, lips drawing back into a smug sneer. “I think being a jester rather suits him.”

He reached out to the laden table, pulled the leg off a stuffed chicken and threw it to Teagan, who caught it and at once began to guzzle the meat. Connor chuckled, and it was a horrible mix of a child’s laughter and something much older, much darker than any boy should ever know.

“So….” His gaze ranged coolly over us. “These are the ones who defeated the soldiers I sent to reclaim my village? It won’t do. Won’t do at all. And look at this one!”

The child’s face warped into an expression of outraged, appalled horror, and he pointed a finger at me. I gritted my teeth, determined I would neither flinch nor cringe.

“Look at it! It’s staring at me, Mother.”

Isolde whimpered, and her voice shook when she spoke, though her tone was striving to be that of a woman speaking to her child. She still believed he was in there, I realised. She still hoped.

“She is an elf, Connor. You… you’ve seen elves before. We have them here in the castle, and—”

“Yes!” He clapped his hands and let out a snort of laughter. “I remember… I had their ears cut off and fed to the dogs!”

My stomach knotted in a sudden fist of revulsion and, I am ashamed to admit, hate. The child—the creature—must have sensed the reaction, for Connor turned to me again, head tilted to the side, and grinned. He lifted one hand and gently fingered his own ear.

“The dogs chewed for hours. Such fun! This one has been insolent, Mother… shall I send it to the kennels?”

The arlessa let out a stifled sob and began to move towards the boy, her tapered, white hands outstretched.

“C-Connor, I beg you, don’t hurt anyone!”

She dropped to her knees, her fine gown smattered with dust and dirt, and clutched at his arm. He resisted at first, shook his head, and then seemed to blink as if he was waking from a dream, confused and disorientated.

“M-Mother?” The same voice, but clearer, not burred with that hard edge of hatred. “What… what’s happening? Where am I?”

“Oh, thank the Maker!” Isolde cried, seizing the child by both arms now, shaking him hard. “Connor! Connor, can you hear me?”

His moment of clarity did not last long. Connor broke away from her, and I swore I saw the change in him; the way his face grew pinched and his brows drew tight together, eyes clouding over and body becoming taut and somehow angular.

“Get away from me, fool woman!” he snapped. “You are beginning to bore me.”

The arlessa put those white hands to her mouth, and wept bitterly. I saw Alistair look to me, his face grim. Isolde was right: the boy was still in there. The demon had control, but it was not complete. I wanted to think there was some way we could save him, some hope that we would not have to—

I swallowed hard. Had I thought of it? Truly? Thought of what it would mean to sink my blade into the neck of a child, and watch his blood spill out onto my hands?

“Please!” Lady Isolde’s cry was a heart-wrenching, ragged wail, broken through with tears and edged with pain. “Please… can’t you see? He’s not responsible for this. It’s not his fault!”

She reached for her son, but Connor brushed her roughly away, and she fell to her hands and knees on the dais, sobbing afresh.

“Protecting him the way you have hasn’t made this any easier,” Alistair said darkly.

Even the air in the room seemed to taste bitter. My gaze flicked nervously between them as the arlessa raised herself to her knees, her face twisted with fury and hurt.

“You dare to—” she began, the bile cut off by a mangled cry that was half sob, half snarl of rage. “No! Connor did not mean this! It was that mage, the one who poisoned Eamon—he is to blame. Connor was just trying to help his father!”

The boy was prowling, keeping his distance behind the small dining table. His chubby, childish fingers picked impatiently at the treats sprawled out across the cloth, shoving candies and sweetbreads into his mouth, but the dark, shadowed rings of his eyes never left Alistair. He—it—knew what would have to come.

Behind me, Morrigan snorted. “Was he? And he made a deal with a demon to do so? Foolish child.”

Connor scowled. “It was a fair deal!” he shouted, spraying crumbs across the table, gobs of half-chewed food dropping from his greasy lips as if suddenly forgotten. “Father is alive, just as I wanted, and now it’s my turn to sit on the throne and send out armies to conquer the world! Nobody tells me what to do anymore!”

“Nobody tells him what to do!” Bann Teagan parroted, rocking in his hunched position at the foot of the dais. “Nobody! Ha!”

The fire seemed to be drawing warmth out of the hall instead of providing it. I tried to suppress a shiver as Connor—or whatever we should have termed the thing currently wearing his skin—curled a dismissive lip.

“Quiet, Uncle,” he snapped. “I warned you what would happen if you kept shouting, didn’t I? Yes, I did. But let’s keep things civil. These people have come for an audience, and they should have it. Tell us… what is it you want?”

There was a moment of harsh, dry silence. The fire cracked, and Alistair’s boots scraped on the flagstones as he took a step forwards.

“To stop you, demon. We know what you are… and this will end here.”

He sounded brave. For a brief, absurd moment, I thought of the lurid tales in my childhood books, where princes faced down terrible monsters and triumphed with their pure hearts and magic swords. Alistair still had the revenant’s sword in his grasp; the tip of it touched the flagstones next to his worn, dusty, bloodstained boots. His armour—the rough, mismatched kit we’d bought third-hand in Lothering—was dishevelled and stained, his ash-wood shield marked with all sorts of unpleasant mementoes of battle. Dried blood caked the left side of his face, and he appeared to be swaying very slightly.

Connor scoffed, and that thread of darkness, that otherness that was not the child’s voice, saturated his words.

“I doubt that very much, mortal.”

Something deeply unsettling happened to the room; it was like a flash of lightning on a grey summer’s day, when a storm breaks without warning, the sky seems to turn inside out, and the world catches it breath. I heard a howl, a scream of something in terrible pain, and realised it was Connor… fighting whatever it was that was within him. The air shook, the fire roared, every torch in the place blew out—and the guards that fringed the room suddenly seemed much more alert.

Connor flung out his arms, a sheet of white light projecting not just from his hands, but his whole body. I felt myself knocked to the ground, my eyes burning with the imprinted shape of something not human, something… something I did not, at that point, understand.

I didn’t see much after that except the guards piling on us. That they appeared to be already dead—puppets rather than corpses animated by possession, as far as I was any judge—was little consolation. We fought hard. Morrigan put everything she had into driving them back, while Sten held the centre of the room, his greatsword whirling in devastating patterns. Alistair was wielding two blades—the knight’s sword and his own—in a furious flash of steel and desperation, and I found myself wresting the windlass from one man before he could fire the thing, and cracking his head open with the stock. When a blow to the back of my neck knocked me flying, I let the crossbow fall from my hand and spun, dagger ready to open up my assailant… only to find it was Bann Teagan.

The look on my face must have mirrored the horrified shock I could see deep in his eyes, and my blade faltered. Stupid, because he—or whatever force had control of him—brought his fist around in a generous arc and smacked it squarely into my mouth. My whole head jarred, and pain burst in sharp white stars as my vision swam. I lurched, knees wobbling, and the taste of blood had me spitting and retching. I watched my loose tooth skid across the flagstones in a splatter of thin, red saliva, and caught myself on my hands as I fell. Thinking that I should have seen that one coming, and probably dodged it, I stuck out my leg and tripped the bann as he lunged towards me. He went down, I scrabbled to pick up my blade and scrambled over, and we were a tangled, thrashing mess on the floor. I wanted to hold him, not kill him, but it wasn’t the first time I’d had my arm around the throat of a human man, squeezing and choking as he clawed at me in desperate agony.

I let go as soon as he went limp, and flung myself away from his prone form, panting.

~o~O~o~

When the dust settled, Lady Isolde was standing by the fire, its amber light haloing her pale figure, eyes great pools of horror in that white, oval face, and her honey-coloured hair dishevelled. Connor was long gone. Two large, iron-bound doors led out of that end of the room, one each side of the fireplace. The boy could have fled through either one… or she could have shoved him through either one, I corrected.

I started to heave myself to my feet, lungs sore and throbbing and my head light.

“What have you done?” Alistair demanded, pushing past me to where Bann Teagan lay.

I didn’t have an answer, barely able to breathe as I was. The hall was littered with bits of bodies, the bitter copper tang of blood tainting the air. I hung back, feeling useless and stupid as there was a general flapping and fanning to revive the unconscious nobleman.

Sten was wiping down his blade, surveying the mess with apparent disinterest… though I had begun to learn not to judge the qunari by appearances. Morrigan stood to one side, leaning heavily on her staff, the rise and fall of that artfully framed bosom the only suggestion of her exertion. She met my gaze, and the look in her eyes confused me. It was strange; part satisfaction, part cool mischievousness, and partly almost like some kind of fellow feeling. We were both outsiders, I supposed, adrift and unwanted by the world in which we now found ourselves.

Her lips curled into an odd, tired, snarling smile—was that respect I saw there?—and she nodded at me. I looked away, aware now of the intense throbbing in my lip and jaw, and the taste of blood in my mouth. I spat again, a thin dribble of it hitting the stones, and tried to avoid probing the ragged, empty tooth socket with my tongue.

Bann Teagan was coming round. That was good, I realised blearily. The arlessa was fussing at him like a wet handkerchief, tugging at his arm in that peculiarly girlish manner—embarrassing, we would have said back home, in a woman of her years.

“Teagan! Oh, Teagan… are you all right?”

The bann sat up, coughed, and nodded, pushing her gently away. “I-I’m fine, Isolde. I am myself again.”

His voice was as rough as mine had been after we met the corpses in the dungeons, and I had no doubt I’d left my mark on him. Still, as he turned those dark blue eyes to me, Teagan found strength enough to smile grimly.

“That’s… that’s quite an arm you have there, Warden.”

I inclined my head, not all that keen to let my relief show. “Your left hook’s not so bad either, ser.”

Maker, but talking hurt. Teagan’s smile widened a flicker, then his face turned solemn, brows drawing close over that long, sharp nose.

“I am truly sorry. Are you—”

“Fine.” I brushed away the concern, and glanced to the doors at the far end of the room. “Where’s Connor?”

Alistair helped Teagan to his feet, shooting me a look of guarded, tight apology as he did so. I gave him a small nod. It didn’t matter. He cleared his throat.

“I didn’t see him go, but… the family quarters are upstairs. I suppose—”

“Please!” Isolde cut in. “No… Connor is not responsible for this! It’s not his fault. He—”

“You knew about this all along, Isolde,” Bann Teagan reproached sharply. “If you had only said something…!”

Her mouth crumpled, her whole face like a faded rose wrapped in layers around the girl she must once have been.

“I was afraid,” she murmured. “I didn’t speak, because I believed we could help him. I still do.”

A heavy, awkward silence fell, into which the fire crackled ominously. I looked at Alistair, hoping he’d have some diplomatic, sensible thing to say—did a templar’s training extend to comforting the relatives of blood mages they were about to kill?—but he was looking at me, probably with much the same expectation.

I supposed I might as well make myself the scapegoat.

“Lady Isolde,” I began, pushing the words past the sticky rawness of my split lip, and hearing how thick they sounded. “Connor is not in control. The demon that possesses him has killed countless numbers of—”

“And what do you know?” she demanded, glaring at me. “My son is not always the demon you saw! Connor is still there. You saw it!”

She was right, but it changed nothing. The arlessa turned back to Teagan, tugging again at his arm, tears filling her great doe-eyes.

“Please, Teagan! I just want to protect my son!”

He frowned. “Isn’t that what started this? You hired the mage to teach Connor in secret… to protect him.”

“They would have taken him away!” she protested, her voice rising to a tremulous quaver. “I thought if he learned just enough to hide it, then—”

This was going nowhere.

“Why did Connor run?” I asked, cutting across the woman.

She treated me to another glower, but managed to squeeze out a tight-lipped answer.

“Violence… scares him. I know that sounds strange, given everything that— It is him, don’t you see? Not the demon. From time to time, he does come back into himself. That is why I know he can be helped!”

Alistair nodded thoughtfully. “But he’s passive now. Which would mean he might be, uh….”

He trailed off, shifting uncomfortably and clearly unwilling to say what I supposed we were all thinking.

“Vulnerable,” Teagan supplemented bitterly.

The arlessa’s hand went to her mouth. “No… you can’t be suggesting—no! He remembers nothing… he is so frightened. He doesn’t know what— Blessed Andraste, he is but a child!”

“What about Arl Eamon?” I asked, hoping to divert the woman from another peal of fractured agony. I understood her pain—or so I thought—but it didn’t make the choice ahead of us any easier. “He’ll be upstairs too, yes?”

Teagan nodded. “His sickbed is at the top of the east staircase. The creature has shown no interest in harming him so far, but, if Connor did make a pact with the demon to save his father, then….”

His words fell leaden into the air. Yet another complication. I glanced at Alistair, taking in the closed-in set of his face, the glassy look in his eyes. To think we’d come here expecting sanctuary, and the answer to all our problems.

I closed my eyes, took as deep a breath as I dared to do, and tried to think. It was horrifying to discover—somewhere above all the pain and fatigue, and the awful weight of indecision—that one bright thread, silver and terrifyingly clear, running right down the middle of my mind. I grasped hold of it and, in the blackness behind my eyes, everything suddenly seemed simple.

Item: the mage-child was possessed. Maker alone knew how many deaths he’d caused already. He had to be stopped. Item: if the demon was destroyed, Arl Eamon might never recover. A possibility, but a dangerous one.

However, should that happen, surely his estates would pass to Teagan, or at least to Isolde? I had no experience of how the nobility ran their inheritances, but it seemed likely. Everything we had come to Redcliffe for—supplies, men, the pledge of support to warn and unite the country against this accursed Blight—we would still be able to get, whether Eamon lived or died.

Probably.

I opened my eyes, and the silver thread vanished in the dimness of the hall. There were anxious, tight-lipped faces, and bodies on the floor, and for all the clear, simple truths in the world, I did not want to be the one who murdered a frightened child.

I sighed, and turned to the figure in black, waiting at the edge of the room like a shadowed ghost.

“Morrigan…?”

She stepped forwards, her staff clicking on the stones. The firelight picked at those golden eyes, and she twitched her lips impatiently.

“Hm. You would have my advice, I suppose?”

Alistair clenched his jaw and, for a moment, I thought there’d be a comment coming, but he said nothing. I nodded.

“Please. You know better than me… is there anything that can be done for Connor?”

The witch looked thoughtful, then inclined her head. “Perhaps.”

“What?” Lady Isolde’s face segued brilliantly from vituperative indignation—the haughty ‘who is this woman?’ obviously trembling on her lips—to desperate hope. “You must tell us!”

Morrigan’s gaze hardened. I guessed must did not sit well with her. Still, she shrugged, as if none of this was more than a trifling matter.

“A mage may be possessed by a demon, through weak will or carelessness… but to give oneself willingly as part of such a deal as this is a different matter. It is possible that the demon might be driven out, and the boy’s life spared. But,” she added quickly, “I do not know how to perform such a ritual and, even if I did, it could not be done alone.”

“But it is something!” the arlessa said, raw faith and hope grating in her voice. “You see? A chance, however small… we must take it!”

Her face was alight with this new possibility, and I saw what Jowan had meant when he spoke of her piety. She must— oh.

Jowan.

“You’d need, what, then?” I asked Morrigan, a frown creasing my brow. “Another mage?”

She snorted. “Several. Such an undertaking would require many mages, and a great deal of lyrium. I… suppose you are thinking of the boy in the dungeons?”

You couldn’t sneak much by her, and we were hardly overwhelmed with options. Magic was magic, surely, and if Jowan could aid her, I bet we’d be able to overlook his affiliations.

I nodded. “Would it be worth…?”

Morrigan narrowed her eyes, the swoops of shadow she wore making her precise expression hard to read.

“It is a possibility. Such magic may harness great power, after all. There are those who say that is why your Chantry forbids it.”

“Wait….” Alistair frowned. “You don’t mean—”

“If you prefer,” Morrigan said icily, “by all means, take your blade to the boy. Do it while he is weak, and hope he is not waiting up there in ambush.”

He bridled, and I couldn’t blame him. As was so often the case, the witch’s words held a degree of hard truth, but they left a horrible taste in the air.

~o~O~o~

The argument was a bitter one, and Lady Isolde did not help matters. Her initial reaction to the idea of sending for Jowan bordered on the hysterical, yet the very thought of our attacking Connor had her almost flinging herself in front of the door to defend him.

We did not have the time to weave in her endless circles of impossible choices, and I for one was fast losing patience. Decisions had to be made and—as had been happening with increasing regularity—my companions looked to me for the making of them. The absurdity of that still did not fail to surprise me, and it birthed a hard knot of resentful anger that, in a way, I suppose I was grateful for. It gave me the strength to be the one who shouldered the blame.

I had Sten and Alistair make the iron-bound doors secure and pile up the corpses that still strewed the floor. We would hold the hall, if nothing else. Bann Teagan was given the ornate sword Alistair had wrested from the revenant, and sent to get word to Leliana and Jowan, whom we assumed were still somewhere between the village and the wing of the castle we’d already fought our way through. He promised to return with them, and Ser Perth’s men, as quickly as possible, and that left me to sit with Morrigan and Lady Isolde, and try to piece together a fuller picture of how the whole affair had begun.

Arl Eamon had fallen ill, from what I could make out, within days of the battle at Ostagar. I knew, recalling Duncan’s words to Cailan as we arrived at the fortress, that Eamon had been hale enough to agree to the plan of holding his forces back—though whose idea that was I still couldn’t be sure—and to send word to remind the king of their readiness. I wondered how much difference it would have made if Cailan had listened… how much difference it made now, come to that.

But had it been planned to coincide? I didn’t want to believe it, and I told myself it didn’t matter. Whatever Loghain’s motives—although there was a lingering stink of opportunism in the way things looked—it didn’t seem possible that one man could orchestrate such a coup. Still, it didn’t matter now. Connor and the demon within him were our immediate concerns.

“He is a gentle boy,” Isolde kept saying, in between sniffles. “This is why I know it is not— He wouldn’t hurt anyone!”

The weary breath of a sigh rattled between Morrigan’s teeth, and she stared fixedly at the wall opposite. I cleared my throat, and tried to drag the arlessa back to speaking of the first signs he’d shown.

It hadn’t been much, apparently. Glasses that shattered when he lifted them, plants in the little corner of the kitchen garden they had tilled together that grew twice as big as the seeds she had sown.

“I-I told him he had green fingers,” Isolde said mournfully. “But I knew. There is a… history of it in my family. Terrible, wicked men, who have all had magic. I did not want that for my boy! I prayed it would not be so… that he might be delivered from the curse….”

She dissolved into weeping again, and I caught Morrigan’s eye. One delicate brow arched, and those painted lips pursed themselves into a tight bow. I shrugged. The shoulders of the arlessa’s white gown shook as she sobbed convulsively, and I reached out hesitantly, laying a grubby hand on the fine cotton lawn.

“Um. There, now,” I tried. “You had his, er, best interests at heart.”

She looked up, glaring at me through the veil of tears. I withdrew my hand, reading in her face the boundaries I had overstepped.

“Do you have children?” she demanded. “No? Then you cannot understand. Do not presume to give me false comforts. I know what I have done—all the death I have brought—and I would do it again. That is my shame, and you know nothing of what it is to bear!”

I shut up and sat back, put firmly in my place.

The waiting was not easy. The great hall was relatively safe but, though the walls were thick, we could still hear the occasional odd noise coming from elsewhere in the castle. There were thumps, crashes… things that sounded like cries, from time to time. It sent a shiver down my spine, and the silence we sat in began to feel thick and awkward.

The only one of us who seemed able to wait patiently was Sten. He sat on the floor, near the fire, and it surprised me that someone so large could hunker down into so still and compact a position. Those odd, violet eyes were half-hooded, and he seemed to be gazing at some distant point, far beyond the immediate reality of this tense, siege-like existence. I wondered if it was prayer. Did the qunari pray? The Chantry would have had us believe they were bloodthirsty animals, and I supposed I could see where the impression sprung from, but it certainly wasn’t all there was to them.

At that moment, Sten exuded such a sense of tranquillity and calm that I was rather envious. I would, I decided, find some way to ask him about his people… and maybe about the truth of what had happened in Lothering, though I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to know.

Like Morrigan, Sten’s usefulness outweighed any moral qualms I could allow myself to indulge regarding his presence… and I wondered quite when I’d grown so hard and pragmatic. Somewhere atop the Tower of Ishal, I supposed, shot full of arrows and dying in a roar of blood and agony.

I had those dreams more often than I cared to admit. We were there again, with the smell of paraffin and blood and the rankness of ogre-flesh making the world draw in like a scream, and the flames were rising higher and higher, and then the darkspawn came… but I didn’t pass out. They closed over me, ripping me to pieces, and I felt every tooth and blade as they stripped my body to the bone.

I’d wake, then, and the dream would still be sticking to me, clammy and horribly real. Once or twice, Alistair had been standing over my bedroll, looking down at me with a worried frown. We didn’t talk about it. No point, I supposed. I knew he had dreams too and he had, I didn’t doubt, experienced the same strange gamut of changes that followed the Joining, though there were some things I couldn’t have asked him about, even if I’d wanted to.

I hadn’t had a normal course since leaving Denerim. At first, I’d thought it was the stress of the journey and the events of my conscription, but time was wearing on, and things weren’t as they should have been. Still, that was the least of my worries, I supposed, and if nothing else it freed me from the inconveniences of rags and cramps. I should have been grateful for that, whatever the reason.

Alistair’s boots echoed on the stones as he paced—bored, apparently—the length of the hall and back again.

“Is it just me,” he said, “or is anyone else hungry?”

Morrigan snorted. “You are always hungry.”

I smiled gently, careful of my split lip, but grateful for the break in the tension. The small dining table still sat on the dais, holding the remnants of the food Connor had been glutting himself on. Roast chicken, sweetmeats… all manner of delicacies, some of which I couldn’t even identify.

Lady Isolde waved imperiously at the spread.

“Eat it,” she muttered. “You always were one to think with your stomach, Alistair.”

He’d already wandered over to the table, ostensibly oblivious to her disdain, and was prodding at the food. Having satisfied himself there was nothing demonic about it, he helped himself to half a chicken and a bunch of grapes.

“Well?” Mouth full, he raised his eyebrows defensively. “When’s the last time we ate anything, hm?”

A belated growl from my stomach forced me to admit he had a point and, after a brief struggle with my pride, I hauled myself up and sloped over to join him. It was a long while since my last meal, and who knew how long it would be until the next. That said, I didn’t eat much. Something about the prospect of imminent bloodshed saps the enjoyment from food, and everything tasted of copper and salt anyway.

Still, when the sound of boots pounding in the corridor beyond the large double doors alerted us to the fact Bann Teagan and the others had returned, we must have looked like we were enjoying an impromptu picnic. Even Morrigan was tucking away a few morsels.

Sten lifted the bar from the doors and admitted the relief party: Ser Perth, the knights, Teagan, Leliana… and Maethor, who bounded straight up to me, barking happily, and almost knocked me to the ground as a tongue like a side of bacon gave me the most thorough wash I’d had since leaving home.

“I do hope we’re not interrupting,” Leliana said, the delicate twists of her accent wreathed with mirth.

~o~O~o~

Castle Redcliffe’s great hall had, in its time, probably seen its fair share of bitter meetings. ‘No powerful man rests easy’, as Father used to say. Hard choices were bred into the very rock places like this were built on, and without that degree of ruthlessness, the strongest walls might crumble.

Still, I thought there would be blows.

Ser Perth and his detachment of knights were at Teagan’s back, surprisingly bright-faced after the long night they’d had. They jostled like a pack of terriers, eager to be loosed on the castle and claim back their arl’s safety—and the symbol of his rule—and they did not take kindly to Jowan’s presence. It was a wonder the mage had made it this far without ‘accidentally’ tripping over someone’s boot. He’d been bandaged, but the more obvious of his wounds could hardly be disguised beneath linen and plaisters, and he shrank when he saw Lady Isolde.

Naturally, she was hardly the model of grace and humility, even though she’d expected his arrival.

You!” She rose from her seat on the dais, her face pinched with violent fury. “You did this to Connor! You summoned that—that thing…!”

“I didn’t! I didn’t summon any demon,” Jowan protested. “I told you, my lady! Please, if you’ll just let me help—”

Help?” the arlessa shrieked. “Help? You betrayed me! I brought you here to help my son and in return you poisoned my husband!”

Bann Teagan went to her side, laying a warning hand on her arm, without which it seemed entirely possible Lady Isolde would have flung herself at the mage, an iron-clawed creature of vengeance and anger.

“Isolde… Isolde, you must calm yourself. These people have done a great deal of good. If it wasn’t for this young man, and… and Leliana,” he added, his gaze sliding to the Orlesian, head respectfully inclined, “there are several survivors who would never have made it back to the village alive.”

She curled her lip, eyes still blazing, but she did relent. I looked to Leliana, and she nodded. It was true, then: they’d got Valena to safety, and been fortunate enough to find others who’d escaped the demon’s wrath. That was good… unexpected, but good.

Later, I would discover that our flame-haired battle maiden was well on the way to becoming a folk hero in those parts. Redcliffe would, for years after, be abuzz with tales of the Orlesian sister who came to free them, with fire in her eyes and music in her voice. She had the kind of face well-fitted to legends.

“I only want to help, my lady,” Jowan repeated diffidently. “Please. If what my lord tells me is true….”

The atmosphere in the hall was like whetted steel, with seconds sliding on a glistening, dangerous edge. Ser Perth stood by the doors, watching the exchange intently. Like the other knights, he still wore the silver-cast symbol of Andraste around his neck. I wondered if faith and conviction would be enough to see any of us through what had to come. Beside me, Maethor whined softly, and without looking I reached out and touched my fingers to his warm, bullet head. A wet, wrinkled nose shoved itself into my palm.

“The child has become an abomination,” Morrigan said, her voice cutting cleanly across all the highly wrought emotional tension in the room. She addressed Jowan, stepping forwards with her back to the arlessa, the firelight painting a dim, amber aura around her. “But it was a willing deal, and the creature’s possession is not complete. The boy has much ability, yes?”

“Indeed.” Jowan nodded. “I saw that, even in the short time I had with him. But he’s young, and he has very little control. You think…?”

Morrigan tilted her chin. “Can you do it?”

He sagged visibly, his hands worrying at the torn sleeves of his robe, and his head bowed. Bann Teagan shook his head.

“I confess, I don’t understand. You’re saying there is a way to destroy the demon without… without harming Connor?”

Jowan looked up, his bruised, swollen face warped into an apprehensive grimace.

“There may be,” he said hesitantly. “It is… technically possible for a mage to confront the demon in the Fade.”

“What do you mean?” Teagan appeared nonplussed. “Is the demon not within Connor?”

“No, my lord. At least, not physically. Not fully. The demon approached Connor in the Fade while he dreamt, and it controls him from there. We can use the connection between them to find the demon, and hopefully… well, defeat it.”

This was an eerie, unsettling realm of which I knew nothing. I thought briefly of the mages I’d seen at Ostagar: guarded by templars and cocooned in their own strange, sparkling shells of white. I glanced at Alistair, and found him watching Morrigan, his mouth tight and his face full of quiet disapproval.

Lady Isolde spoke next; all hopeful, earnest curiosity that was in such marked contrast to her last outburst that I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.

“You can enter the Fade, then, Jowan? Kill the demon without hurting my boy?”

He looked wretchedly at her, and opened his mouth to reply, but it was Morrigan who answered.

“It is not that simple. Such a ritual requires a great deal of power. Lyrium… a lot of lyrium, and mages. More than we have at our disposal.”

“E-Except,” Jowan stammered, his voice growing thin and reedy in the stifling, thick air, “I… I have blood magic. I… think I know a way.”

I knew we had to consider using him, but I didn’t have to like it. Back home, old men would have spat on the floor. Women would have made warding signs with their fingers, and pulled their children away. We didn’t speak of foul things. All magic was distrusted, but—

“Blood magic is forbidden for a reason,” Alistair said sharply.

The distaste radiated off him; I felt it in the way Ser Perth and his men shifted uncomfortably, too. I glanced at Leliana, and saw those icy eyes narrowing. She was still buoyed by the satisfaction of victory, I would have bet, carried on the smiles and thanks of the people she’d returned to their homes.

From somewhere above the hall, a noise echoed… something like the thud of furniture falling over, and glass breaking. We all raised our heads, and for a moment no one seemed to breathe, but then everything fell silent again, and the arlessa let out a short, ragged sigh.

“If there’s a way, I must know it. Please! Tell us what you mean, Jowan.”

He winced. “L-Lyrium provides the power for the ritual… but I believe I can take that power from someone’s life energy. From blood. But the ritual requires a lot of it… perhaps all, in fact.”

“My lord!” Ser Perth protested, starting forwards, but Teagan held up a hand.

“You’re saying someone must die? Someone must be sacrificed?”

A cold, dark fist clenched my stomach. Hard choices indeed. Nothing but hardness and death in these dim stone halls, and more blood to drench this parched red rock.

“Yes,” Jowan said, the word barely more than a whisper. “I… I think I know how to perform such a ritual, though I’ve never done anything of this… complexity before.” He twisted the hem of his sleeve awkwardly in his fingers, that quire of dark hair flopping down over his brow, and I was struck by how young he seemed. “Still, I, uh, I should be able to send another mage into the Fade.”

He glanced up, looking from face to face for some kind of assurance, some grain of a decision. Young, I thought, but that youth was misleading. Maker only knew what dark things he’d done, and my gut roiled at the mere thought of what he was suggesting. I’d thought bringing Jowan back here might be a way to prevent more death—not ensure it.

To sacrifice an innocent on the off-chance that we might have the opportunity to defeat the demon…. What if it didn’t work, and we still had to kill the child? Or what if yet more horror was unleashed? And how could anyone even be sure that Connor wouldn’t play host to something worse in the future?

I knew precious little about magic, but this was too bitter for me.

“No.” I shook my head, and found my voice surprisingly loud in the quiet. “Not if it means this. The price is too high.”

Jowan nodded solemnly and lowered his gaze.

“I disagree,” Lady Isolde said sharply. “I think we should do it. Let it be my blood. I will be the sacrifice.”

A chilled, terrible hush echoed in my ears, but no deathly silence fell in the hall. A chorus of outrage broke from Ser Perth’s knights, and Bann Teagan stared at the woman, aghast.

“What? Isolde, are you mad? Eamon would never allow this!”

She shrugged, every trace of that passionate ferocity suddenly condensed into a hard, glassy determination. He tried to take her arm—jar sense in her the way she’d tried to shake some humanity back into Connor—but she jerked away, firm and deliberate.

“No, Teagan. Either someone kills my son to destroy that thing inside him, or I give my life so my son can live. To me, the answer is clear.”

I stared at the arlessa, impressed and unwillingly humbled by her swift, resolute decision. She’d taken no moment to think, and she expressed no grief, no regret… I admired that, but I didn’t take it for balanced, rational thinking.

Morrigan must have caught my unease. I didn’t dare look at her, expecting irritation. Maker, it had been me to suggest finding a use for Jowan… I just hadn’t envisaged it would mean this. Yet, when she spoke, Morrigan was uncharacteristically hesitant, her usually arch tone dropping to something nearing gentleness.

“It does seem like a sensible choice, with a willing participant.”

The arlessa turned her gaze on me, and I saw the full force of her pain and determination in those dark eyes. Her mouth was a pale, guarded furrow; faded petals drawn tight around a paper rose. I swallowed heavily, and shook my head.

“I… I don’t….”

I didn’t know what to say. I had no clever words, no brilliant arguments. I wished I had—knew I should have had, because of what I was now. Grey Wardens were supposed to be heroes, weren’t they? Surely they didn’t deal in blood magic. We shouldn’t stand by and let this happen.

Lady Isolde’s expression hardened and she turned away, ignoring me with all the arrogant grace she’d had the first time I saw her, at the bridge. She pulled at Teagan’s arm again, the way she’d done then, and I could see how easy it must always have been for her to make men do as she pleased.

“Teagan, you know this is the only way. When it’s over, I want you to tell Connor—”

“Lady Isolde, please!” Alistair’s voice was roughened by fatigue and tension. “You can’t… I mean, we’re not seriously considering allowing this?”

He looked at me—like I had a casting vote here. All that clear, honest intensity… I felt about two inches high, and jealous of his ability to see things so simply. How he could not be torn in two, the way I was?

“I-If the only other way is to kill the boy—” I began, before Leliana cut across me.

“Murder a child? Really?” She folded her arms over her chest, her blood-spattered armour lent an oily sheen by the fire, and her face was hard as porcelain. “I don’t like this talk of blood magic, but—”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” Alistair protested.

Behind him, Sten shifted subtly… or as subtly as someone of his size could. I looked at him, hoping somehow that all his silent focus might result in a pearl of balanced philosophy. He inclined his head, acknowledging my attention, and offered his opinion.

“It is an abomination,” he said simply. “The child obviously lacks the strength necessary for a mage. Either it dies now, or later.”

I had the horrible sense of my stomach dropping into my boots.

“My son is not an ‘it’!” Isolde cried, and I almost expected her to start a tirade on the temerity of bringing a qunari into her home—she seemed to be drawing breath for it—but instead she shook her head violently. “Connor is blameless in this, do you not see? He should not have to pay the price!”

Things were heading in circles again. I knew, if something wasn’t done fast, we’d still be arguing about this when Connor grew bored with hiding.

I looked at Alistair, shamed by the prickles of guilt crawling down my back. His stance was slumped, his wounded shoulder heavily favoured, and he returned my gaze with dusty, wretched hopelessness.

“I wouldn’t normally suggest killing a child,” he said quietly. “But….”

Highly charged emotion began to give way to shouting among the others. Ser Perth was trying to convince Bann Teagan that the arlessa should not be allowed to sacrifice herself and that, rather, he should give his life if it meant the chance to save the arl’s family. Some of the other knights were offering theirs. Before long, I thought sourly, they’d be fighting over the privilege.

“There has to be another way,” I said, though I didn’t know where to look for one.

Jowan was standing dumbly in the middle of the floor, head down and hands half-hidden in the sleeves of his robe. I looked at Morrigan, who appeared to be watching the back-and-forth of the argument with interest.

“You said there would have to be more mages,” I reminded her. “How many more?”

She blinked, wresting her attention from the bickering nobility and giving me a small frown. “Several, depending upon their power. And lyrium. A great deal of lyrium.”

Jowan glanced up, overhearing us. He nodded glumly.

“Almost an entire stockroom’s worth,” he said, and the words seemed to chime against some memory. He stopped, mouth half-open, and eyes narrowing speculatively. “They, uh, they would have everything you need at the Circle Tower. Whether the First Enchanter would agree to help, of course, is another matter. Irving, er… doesn’t take kindly to blood magic, in any form. They might demand the boy be… you know.”

I wrinkled my nose. Executing their own? Where I came from, we’d always assumed the magi looked after each other.

“It’s true,” Alistair added. “Mages are tested for their ability to resist demons. They call it the Harrowing. If they fail— well, that’s where the templars come in.”

It seemed like an unnecessary cruelty, and I was about to comment on the fact, when a thought struck me with all the beauty of a spring sunrise.

The treaties… from the archive. Arl Eamon might be in no state to help us use them, but they still had status, didn’t they? Sure, Alistair and I were the only two left in the country, but we were Grey Wardens.

“What if we made them help? Compelled them? We… we have the treaties, right? You said one’s for the Magi.”

Alistair’s expression shifted as he lit on the thread of my idea. “That is a good point. Technically, the treaty only requires them to aid against the Blight, but—”

“Then we’ll convince them,” I said briskly, and in that moment I believed it. “How far is it to the Tower? Could we get there quickly?”

“It’s at least a day’s journey each way….” Alistair frowned doubtfully. “I don’t know if Connor would remain passive that long.”

Hearing her son’s name, Lady Isolde broke from arguing with Teagan.

“What is this?” she demanded coldly.

Alistair winced, shying from meeting her gaze. She barely looked at me.

“The Circle Tower.” I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. “If we could get there and petition the mages for help… the demon might be defeated without resorting to blood magic.”

I could hear my voice thinning as I spoke. The room was growing quiet, every pair of eyes turning to me. I felt their scrutiny, their disbelief. Part of me knew it was a silly, desperate idea… that same part of me that wanted to slink away into the shadows, ashamed of trying to assert authority where I deserved none. But I didn’t have the luxury of doubting myself anymore, and I stood my ground, refusing to give in to the weakness.

“Y-You said Connor comes back to himself,” I said, meeting Lady Isolde’s stony expression. “How long do those bouts last?”

She blinked, and I wondered if I could trust her to tell me the truth.

“I… I don’t know. It is hard to say. Sometimes no more than a few minutes but, other times, many hours. After the first attack on the village, he hid in his room all day. We… we thought it was over, until we tried to help him, and the demon—” She broke off, reaching for Bann Teagan’s arm. “Teagan? Do you think it’s possible?”

He shook his head, his face grim and tightly drawn. “It might be, but… it is a tenuous chance.”

Well, I supposed, why should they trust my judgement?

“We’d have to move fast,” Alistair said, and I knew he sounded so much more believable than I had, “but we have the means to persuade the Circle to help. They have an obligation to the Grey Wardens.”

Teagan frowned. “You mean to use the treaties then, Alistair?”

“If we can. If Merien thinks… uh, well….”

He glanced at me, his bloodied, dirty face full of complexities. It was a gesture of loyalty, yes, but also one of fear. He was just as afraid of what we might have to do as I was… and just as afraid of taking the lead.

“I believe it’s worth a try,” I said, as firmly as I could. “But there should be… preparations, just in case.”

I turned to Morrigan, and saw the recognition of what I was asking in her eyes. She nodded curtly, and it was hard to tell whether determination or disapproval most marked her face.

“If Connor becomes… hostile again… you know what you need to do, don’t you?”

That ochre-gold gaze hardened, but she inclined her head. I let out a long breath, too tense for relief, but tinged with a seed of hope.

“Good. Sten?” I sought the second most unnerving set of eyes in the room, and found the qunari’s expression as impenetrable as ever. “I would like you to stay too. If anything happens—”

“I understand,” he said, and I hoped Lady Isolde did not fathom the depth of meaning conveyed in those simple words.

“Thank you.”

“And what about me?” Leliana asked crisply. I gathered from the coolness of her tone that she did know exactly what had been meant.

I glanced at Alistair. He was wounded, exhausted… as were we all. My head reeled gently with the tatters of ideas—fast horses, breakneck gallops that might get us there and back again in double time—but I didn’t know if they’d work. If I’d thought for a moment I wouldn’t have been thrown out on my backside the minute I arrived, I’d have volunteered to go alone.

“You should stay,” I told her. “If Connor doesn’t remain passive, then—”

“Neither of you are fit enough for such a journey!” Leliana complained. “It is madness.”

“Is it?” Lady Isolde demanded. “Madness, to try to save my son? My family?”

The two women stared at each other for a moment across the cold expanse of the flagstones, and Leliana was the first to look away.

“Forgive me, my lady,” she murmured, lowering her gaze. “But….”

“We’ll at least try,” I said, my voice gaining firmness. “Connor’s life is worth that much.”

There was a tense, uneasy silence. I wondered if any of them knew that what might sound like bravery was born completely out of fear.

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Twelve
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Ten

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“Ugh, it’s all in my hair!”

Leliana stopped for the third time in almost as many steps, frantically trying to claw bits of spider web from herself. The stuff seemed to hang from every unseen corner down here; thick, brittle, ancient stalactites that wafted in the dank currents of air, and stuck themselves to every unsuspecting head that passed by. I was glad I was the shortest one there, save for Maethor.

Morrigan sighed irritably. She appeared to have no trouble whatsoever negotiating the narrow passageway we were traipsing through… not that I was surprised by that. It was more than could be said for Sten. He’d been nearly doubled over for the first thirty feet or so after the dirt-packed walls closed in. Once we’d got out of the roomier end, leading on from the mill’s storage cellars and undercrofts, the passage was barely more than a dark, dusty, clammy shaft, pitch dark and stale-smelling. We groped our way with nothing but the glimmer of a single rag torch, and Alistair’s childhood memories of the castle’s layout to lead us.

The trick, I found, was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not think about the tons of earth above my head. We were lucky, inasmuch as the passage remained usable, though it had long been abandoned. Still, things skittered in the darkness, and I held my breath, tempted to close my eyes in case the weak flame Alistair held lit up anything I didn’t want to see. Redcliffe might yet be free of darkspawn, but Maker only knew what might have been down here, undisturbed until now….

Maethor whined, and I glanced down at the hound, the torchlight catching on his brindled coat and making the darker streaks seem blacker. His pupils were enormous, his expressive eyes swallowed up into saucer-like voids of apprehension.

“I know,” I whispered, reaching out to pat his hard, flat head. “I don’t like it any more than you.”

He wagged his stubby little tail weakly, and padded on beside me. Amazing, I thought, how much warmth could be drawn from the loyalty of a dog.

Leliana let out another squeak and brushed more swags of old, decayed web from her hair.

“You know,” Morrigan said conversationally, “in places such as this, where the Veil is thin, or has perhaps been sundered, the pooling of magical energy can wreak peculiar changes in things such as spiders.”

“I do not want to hear it,” Leliana said grimly, hefting her bow higher on her shoulder.

The witch smiled in the dim, flickering light.

“Oh, but it is quite fascinating. They can grow to ridiculous sizes, and develop the most virulent poisons. I remember once, when I was young, Flemeth sending me out to a ruin in the Wilds frequented by such beasts. Fangs quite as long as my hand, as I recall… and the most uncanny ability to spit—”

Leliana yelped, and Morrigan giggled herself into silence, at least for a while.

Gradually, the passage started to change. The air was getting damper, less like the stale dankness of packed earth, and more like something decaying, something… wet, and probably mouldy. The dirt and timber that framed the walls, replete with spider webs, began to give way to a pattern of stones, visible beneath the years’ accumulation of thick dust and grime.

“We’re probably just about underneath the moat,” Alistair said, peering ahead dubiously. “It’ll lead into the old dungeons, I bet. There’s a maze of chambers, undercrofts, tunnels… all kinds of things built under the castle, right into the cliff.”

“Dungeons?” Leliana enquired, tossing her head back as she completed retying her sleek ponytail—now completely free of spider webs.

Old dungeons,” he repeated. “I don’t think the arl ever had much use for them. Not when I was here, anyway.”

“Hm.” Sten gave a disapproving rumble, and the sound echoed against the walls. “That does not sound like a practical system of governance. Punishment should follow crime.”

“Oh?” Morrigan intoned. “Crimes such as yours, you mean?”

A few seconds of searingly awkward silence blistered the passageway. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to believe the things she came out with, although the qunari appeared unruffled.

“I am here, am I not?” he said dryly.

Morrigan chuckled.

Our footsteps were definitely hitting stone now and, as we went on, the passage wound its way from disused tunnel to something that was identifiably part of a larger structure.

“It’s romantic, really, I suppose,” Leliana ventured, shooting me a small smile. “Don’t you think? You can just picture forbidden lovers making their way to secret trysts through these dark, winding miles…. Of course, it was probably a lot cleaner back then.”

She reached up and ran a nervous hand over her hair. I shrugged.

“Perhaps. ’Course, it’d be a good way to get stuff out of the castle, too. Wine, brandy, meat from the kitchens… maybe more, depending on how well-guarded the armoury and the cellars were.”

She gave me a rather odd look, and I shut up, suspecting I’d just been pegged for a thief. That wasn’t true at all—Father would have leathered me to within an inch of my life, for a start—but, in my experience, the black market’s existence was a simple fact. The less people had, the more they were willing to risk for luxuries… and sometimes necessities. Back home, few elves who worked in service had never ‘borrowed’ a loaf of bread from a tavern kitchen, or made light measure when changing the beer casks. If that meant the shems called us thieving scum, well, we were used to prejudice. It just made us careful not to get caught with any definite proof.

For all his strict values and even stricter rules, I knew Father had been just as guilty. Not often, and not much: just the occasional few odds and ends. Kitchen scraps from the bann’s table, I thought bitterly… and it struck me as odd that it was something I’d never been bitter about. Not until now.

Ahead of us, the passageway sloped up and, it seemed, came to a dead end. Alistair put the torch to the slimy, mould-streaked stonework, revealing the grooves and disused hinges of a hidden door, presumably designed to be used from the other side.

“We could try to lever it open,” he said doubtfully. “It might give.”

“Well, we don’t have many options,” I agreed, looking along the length of the wall.

We seemed to have hit the entry point into the castle proper, though whether we’d got here after Bann Teagan and the arlessa had arrived—and whether they had done so safely—was impossible to tell. Time had a way of falling in on itself down here.

“I will do this.”

Sten stepped forwards, not waiting for assent or thanks, the greatsword that had dispatched so many walking corpses weighed purposely in his hands.

“Move aside,” he said, glancing disparagingly at Alistair. “You are… small for this work.”

Alistair looked affronted, and I smothered a laugh.

“Right,” he muttered. “I’ll just, uh, hold the torch, then.”

Sten jammed the blade into the crack, and it bit with the tooth-scratching ferocity of steel on stone. I was only too pleased to get out of the way and leave him room to move… and he was impressive. Even beneath the hotchpotch of armour Owen had strung together for him, the starkly obvious landscape of muscles and sinews churned with all the unstoppable power of a waterwheel. That, and the expression of intense, oddly placid focus on his face, was enough to make me uneasy. I watched the startlingly white braids pinned at the back of his neck swing rhythmically as he drove the sword into the narrow groove over and over, gouging out years’ worth of grime and mortar and, slowly, beginning to shift the stones.

Not so much a hidden door, then, as a door that had been bricked over—and from the village side, I noted. I was half-heartedly wondering whether that was important when Sten growled, and a chunk of masonry thudded to the ground by his feet. Little by little, he wrenched the stones away, revealing the wood behind them, and then set to demolishing the door. It didn’t take much; it was damp down here, the wood already softened with rot. Still, it must have taken a stonemason at least half a day to seal the passage off, and Sten had undone all that work in less than half an hour.

He stepped back from the pile of stones and ruptured timber, barely panting, and still stooped over a little, though the passageway had widened out.

“It is done.”

“Er, yes.” Alistair blinked at the mess, and the ragged hole that now led into the castle’s dungeons. “It certainly is.”

“Thank you, Sten,” I added, because politeness seemed sensible; especially after that display.

However, remarkable though the qunari was, I had to concede that all that crashing and banging had probably lost us any element of surprise we might have had. As we headed through the remains of the doorway, I wondered what might await us in the bowels of the castle.

I didn’t have to wonder for long.

~o~O~o~

At first, we found nothing but decayed corridors and empty alcoves, probably once storage spaces. Leliana was wondering aloud about when the passage had been sealed off, and spinning some elaborate hypothetical tale about possible resistance cells using it to attack the Orlesian incumbent of the castle during the occupation. That surprised me. I suppose I’d assumed her sympathies lay across the border somehow but, of course, none of us were so simply, easily defined.

I should have learned that by then.

As we approached another corner, another crumbled archway, Alistair held up a hand. I recognised the gesture; my fingers were already closing on the hilt of my dagger. We stilled, and listened. Sure enough, I caught the same sounds of movement he’d heard, and there was somehow unpleasantly familiar about them.

“Walking corpses,” he muttered, passing the torch to Morrigan. “Twenty, maybe thirty yards?”

I nodded. “We should try to draw them out. See what we’re dealing with. There’s no telling how many there might be.”

The dull light of our rapidly dimming torch picked out the discoloured trails and rivulets coursing down the walls. Damp, dark, and tomblike… and now with yet more undead. It wasn’t a heartening prospect. At least on the surface we’d had the chilly night air to blow the stink away, and there had been much more room. I didn’t relish the prospect of fighting with my back to the clammy stonework.

Alistair looked as if he was about to reply but, before he could, a thin and reedy scream echoed from the passage ahead. It was a real howl of anguish, an agonised cry of pain, and there wasn’t time to analyse anything else, because then we were running… running towards it, which went against everything I’d ever learned in the alienage.

Not all of the cells were completely disused, it seemed.

Five corpses—guards, once, judging by the liveried uniforms that still clung to their bodies—were trying to wrench the bars from one of the doors. Immediately, I noticed something different about them: their anger. One by one, shambolic and ungainly, they turned ravaged faces towards us, and each had his lips pulled back into a grimace that was as much fury as it was a mask of death. When the first left its prey and came lumbering at us, it let out a snarl that I could scarcely believe a human throat was capable of loosing. It was an ugly, twisted thing, but it chilled me right to the core.

One of Leliana’s arrows whistled past my shoulder and buried itself in the creature’s left eye, just as Morrigan’s first blast of ice—coming as it did with a burst of bright, burning magical energy that ripped the dimness to pieces—nearly blinded us all.

I thought I’d known pain before then. The buffeting my body had taken, in terms of fighting and fatigue; the blisters, the route marches, the apparently endless coshes on the head… I seemed to float on a cushion of them all, pain wound upon pain until I could feel practically nothing. I’d been awake for more than a day, wielding a weapon for most of the past twelve hours or so, and now I was high above myself, connected to my body by only the most tenuous of silver threads. It was beautiful, in a strange and unholy way. I was aware of ducking, lunging, cutting, thrusting… and of having my dagger knocked from my clumsy hand by a furious corpse that screamed into my face, all dead breath and bloody, brown teeth as its hard, cold hands wrapped around my neck, fingers digging into the flesh. Nails ripped, blood welled, and I wriggled frantically. There were dark echoes that called to me from the recesses of memory. Twisted ones, as if Fate was enjoying a joke at my expense, but they were there all the same… armoured guards, the unmapped portions of an arl’s estate, with all these faceless corridors and empty rooms. It seemed I was destined to keep finding myself here, fighting for my life over and over again.

This time, however, I’d had more practice.

I kicked, twisted, dropped from the corpse’s grasp… drew the light, narrow sword I carried and—with a terrible, efficient calmness that I witnessed as if it was happening to someone else—struck off the creature’s head.

It crumpled to the ground, and it was only then that I realised I’d been screaming profanities.

For once, we’d outnumbered the undead, and we made short work of them. I straightened up, sheathed my blade and coughed, aware that my throat was rough and sore from the corpse’s attentions.

“You’ll have bruises,” Leliana remarked, and touched my elbow gently, as if she was testing whether or not I’d lash out when she did.

I looked down at my hands. They were, as usual, dirty. Dried blood crazed my knuckles, and I clenched my fingers into my palms… which, for a while, stopped the shaking.

“I always have bruises,” I muttered, giving her a sickly smile.

A whimper from the cell drew my attention, and pushed back the clouds from my head. I lurched forwards, eager to see what the monsters had been so intent on hunting.

“Hello?” I croaked. “Anyone alive in there?”

I turned, reached for the torch from Morrigan, and held it up, peering into the shallow cell. A figure was huddled into the corner—a mage, judging by what was left of his dirty, torn robes. One sleeve was badly ripped, blood oozing from a nasty gash to his forearm and, as he cautiously raised his head and peered at me, I saw his face bore the mottled, swollen marks of a really thorough beating.

“Wh-who are you?” he asked, flinching from the torchlight and raising one thin hand to shield his eyes. “You… you don’t look like the arlessa’s guards. Are you from outside the castle?”

The mage climbed unsteadily to his feet, those knot-jointed hands clinging to the bars for support as he pressed close to the cell door, trying to see all of us, yet squinting against the torchlight. He must have been down here a while, I guessed. Alone, in the dark. The thumbnail was missing from his right hand; nothing left but a caked mess of blood and torn skin.

Staring in revulsion at the wound, I found myself evenly divided between pity and fear.

He is… an infiltrator.

The arlessa had warned of a mage, hadn’t she? And Alistair and Morrigan—for once—agreed that blood magic was the most likely cause of the evil besieging Redcliffe. Yet the skinny, pale-faced young man before me, with floppy dark hair and nervous, uneven breathing, couldn’t possibly be the one Lady Isolde had meant. Could he?

I took a step backwards. “I think you’re the one who should be answering questions, mage.”

He nodded, head lowered and eyes downcast… like a dog that’s been whipped too often to think of biting. Leliana tutted.

“This poor boy is in need of healing, not an interrogation!”

“He’s also the only person we’ve seen so far who’s alive,” I retorted. “I’d like to know why before I break out the ointments.”

She looked unimpressed, but I was too damn tired to argue. The mage curled his hands tighter around the bars of his cell door.

“It’s all right, I understand,” he said in that curiously light, wheedling voice of his. “I… I know this looks bad, but it wasn’t my doing, I swear to you. My name’s Jowan. Lady Isolde hired me to tutor her son. But—”

“You!” Alistair scowled. “You’re the one who poisoned the arl!”

“I’m not proud of it!” Jowan yelped, flinching away again. “It wasn’t—”

“Just tell me why we shouldn’t kill you right now!”

The thunder rolling across Alistair’s face exploded into vituperative rage. It startled me to see he already had his sword half unsheathed, and I put out my hand, resting my palm on the bars, my arm a barrier between the two men.

“We should at least hear what he has to say, shouldn’t we?”

Alistair exhaled tightly. He relented, but kept the mage pinned with a sulphurous glare, and the way Jowan cringed made me doubt he could have the nerve to do anything under his own volition.

“All right,” Alistair grumbled, and I wondered whether he would really have run the boy through.

“I-It wasn’t the arlessa’s fault,” Jowan said anxiously, pressing his face close to the bars. “Honestly. She had no idea. When she took me in, she just wanted a… a mage from outside the Circle. She wasn’t to know what I’d been hired to do.”

“Outside the Circle?” Alistair’s scowl deepened even further. “Why did Lady Isolde need—”

I cut across him. “What do you mean? Who hired you?”

Jowan swallowed heavily. “T-Teyrn Loghain. It’s true, I swear. I—”

“That traitorous bastard!”

I winced. I’d wanted to derail Alistair’s anger, not fuel it. Still, it shocked me… it shouldn’t have, but it did. I thought of the elven spy in the pay of Rendon Howe, sitting up in the tavern and watching the castle, waiting for— well, waiting for the first signs of the arl’s sickness. It made sense now, didn’t it? They’d been watching. Waiting for the arl to weaken. Waiting for the moment when all the cards were in place, and there would be no resistance….

Ever since Ostagar, and the debacle at the Tower of Ishal, I’d been prepared to believe this whole business was a mistake. I hadn’t perceived the treachery and intrigue that Alistair had, and I’d thought it was some failing on my part; that his anger came from the depths of his grief and loss, that he needed Loghain to be the villain, because the deaths of all those men—of the king, and of Duncan—were too terrible a price to be laid on chaotic error. Too terrible a price, perhaps, to know that we were responsible for. Plenty of nights since the battle, I’d told myself the beacon wouldn’t have mattered, even if we’d lit it on time. The darkspawn had outmanoeuvred the king’s army, and Loghain might have pulled his men anyway. They might all have died too… and there was nothing we could have done differently.

Of course, this changed everything. If it was true.

I tightened my grip on the cell door, centring myself on the feel of cool metal beneath my palm, when the world felt ever less real around me.

“Loghain? You mean, someone who was working for him?”

Jowan shook his head vehemently. “No! No, it was Teyrn Loghain himself. I-I knew it was him. I’d seen paintings. The Hero of River Dane. He came to see me in Denerim, while I was, er, a-awaiting execution.”

He hung his head, but the show of remorse didn’t win him much sympathy.

“I knew it!” Alistair snorted. “You’re a blood mage, aren’t you?”

Jowan nodded miserably.

“Truly?” Morrigan quirked her lips. “Well, I would never have guessed.”

I glanced at the witch, trying to decide whether the interest in her expression—and the slight hint of respect in her voice—were there just to annoy Alistair, or because she really was impressed.

“I dabbled in the forbidden arts,” Jowan protested. “A bit. But that’s all. It was for— oh, it doesn’t matter now. The teyrn told me I could atone for my crimes, if I did what he asked. He… he told me Arl Eamon was a threat to Ferelden, dangerous to the nation, and that if I dealt with him, then not only would I be helping my country, but that he’d personally see to it that matters with the Circle would be, um, settled.” He raised his head and looked imploringly at me, his swollen eyes beginning to glaze with tears. “I thought I was being given a chance to redeem myself, but Loghian’s abandoned me here, hasn’t he? Everything’s fallen apart, and I’m responsible!”

His voice cracked, and the tears started to fall. If it was an act, it was a good one.

“You’re the reason we’re knee-deep in corpses, then?” I asked sharply, because remorse alone is not atonement.

“What? No!” His eyes widened, as far as they could, and he shook his head fervently. “No, that wasn’t me. I was already imprisoned when the killings began.”

Alistair frowned. “But Lady Isolde said—”

“Lady Isolde is a pious woman. She hates magic. That’s why, when Connor started to show signs—”

“Wait, what?” Alistair’s frown deepened incredulously. “Connor’s a mage?”

“That’s why I was hired,” Jowan explained patiently. “Not just for scholarship. I told you, the arlessa wanted someone outside of the Circle. She was so afraid of anyone finding out… even her husband. She said that the arl would ‘do the right thing,’ even if it meant losing their son, and that infuriated her. She just wanted me to teach Connor enough to hide his talents. That way he wouldn’t be taken away.”

Alistair’s frown stiffened, then faded, and he sighed wearily. “Oh, no.

He glanced at me, waiting to see if I’d made the connection he obviously had, and I must have looked nonplussed.

“The Circle of Magi takes apprentices away from their families, yes. But, more than that, a mage can’t inherit a title.”

“Ah.” I nodded slowly. “And Connor is the arl’s only heir?”

“Exactly.”

It made sense, and a small part of me was perversely pleased to be justified in my initial distrust of the arlessa. A dark and inescapable conclusion hovered over us, though, and I looked grimly at Jowan.

“Then, the walking corpses, the… whatever’s going on here. It’s the boy?”

He nodded. “I think so. He’s still very young, and he doesn’t know much, but… it is possible he could have done something inadvertently. I don’t know. They locked me up here after the arl fell ill. I was new to the castle, so they suspected me at once. The first I knew of the killings was when Lady Isolde came down here with her men, demanding that I reverse what I’d done. I thought she meant my poisoning of the arl, but she was convinced I’d summoned a demon to torment her family and destroy Redcliffe. She… had me tortured. There was nothing I could do or say that would appease her.”

His fingers flexed convulsively against the bars, and I trained my gaze on the bloodied mess of his thumb. It was far too easy to imagine what they’d done—and what they would have done next. I doubted a mage valued many things in life more highly than his hands.

“Why didn’t they just kill you?”

“I’m not sure. I think they intended to come back for me. But the screams, they just got worse and… nobody came. I’d started trying to get out, but then those things came after me, and I figured I was safer just hiding, until they found me. They’d have killed me if you hadn’t come. I owe you my life. Please… let me out, and I’ll help. Somehow. I have to at least try to make things right!”

There was a clear, desperate note in his voice that sounded genuine to me, but I looked to Alistair for a decision. He narrowed his eyes.

“You don’t think you’ve done enough already?”

“Please!” Jowan’s knuckles whitened on the bars. “I made a stupid mistake at the Circle, and now I’ve made an even greater one. I’m… not a bad person. There’s no reason for you to believe me, but I’m not. I have to make up what I’ve done. I have to try.”

I looked carefully at Jowan, my hand still lingering on the cool metal of the cell bars. Only those few inches of iron separated us, flaked with rust and pitted with years of dents and dings. I knew nothing of how blood magic worked, but I’d seen Morrigan cast enough spells to realise that, had he wanted, the mage should have been able to set us all aflame, imprisoned or not. The arlessa hadn’t taken all of his hands. Not yet, anyway.

“You’re very… eager,” I said doubtfully.

He curled his lip, and I could see where they’d knocked a tooth from his jaw. Upper right, almost the same place as one of mine was still loose from last night’s fighting.

“What? I’m not allowed regrets?”

His tone was harder, sharper… for a moment, with the dim light picking out the bloody shadows on his face, it was nearly possible to believe a boy like Jowan really was a maleficar. That comforted me, in an odd way.

The gentle clink of jewellery told me Morrigan was folding her arms across her chest, and I knew that penetrating amber gaze would be burning into the back of my neck.

“I say this boy could still be of use to us,” she announced. “But, if not, then let him go. Why keep him prisoner here?”

I didn’t want to look at her. I agreed, much to own horror. Whatever Jowan had done, he seemed repentant… had I not freed Sten under the same morals?

Alistair didn’t sound convinced. “Hey, let’s not forget he’s a blood mage. You can’t just… set a blood mage free!”

“Better to slay him?” Morrigan snapped. “Better to punish him for his choices? Is this Alistair who speaks or the templar?”

Ouch. She’d hit a nerve there. I felt it in the way his stance shifted, though I didn’t turn my head, didn’t bother to see whether his face was as stony as his voice. I was watching Jowan, expecting there to be some whiff of desperation about him, some impatience to see his fate decided. He just stood there, gaze downcast, swaying slightly… as if he didn’t care what happened to him anymore.

“I’d say it’s common sense,” Alistair said brusquely. “We don’t even know the whole story yet.”

He had a point. For my own part, I was more inclined to believe Jowan’s version of events over the arlessa’s, but he had just as much reason to lie, if not more. What if we let him out, and then discovered he was the one who’d summoned the demon? No, that was silly. If he was, he’d be better protected, wouldn’t he? Not alone in a cell, harried by walking corpses. I hadn’t quite forgotten those screams of his, either… unless it was a bluff, some kind of trick. Maybe he was a demon. I blinked, trying to focus through the tiredness and confusion, and more aware than ever that I was out of my depth.

Behind me, Leliana was wading into the debate.

“He wishes to redeem himself! Doesn’t everyone deserve that chance?”

“Hmph.” Morrigan scoffed. “Like yourself, you mean?”

“Everyone deserves a chance to redeem themselves in the Maker’s eyes,” Leliana said evenly. “This man no less than any.”

Jowan glanced up then, looking at her with unexpected softness, his mouth slightly open… almost as if she reminded him of someone. A pang of sympathy stuck me; we all trailed our pasts behind us, like kites on silver strings, their tails knotted with memories—and regrets.

“What d’you think, Merien?” Alistair prompted, obviously unwilling to make a decision. Again.

I sighed, and hoped he wasn’t banking on me to stand up to Morrigan for him.

“You’re right,” I said. “We don’t know the whole story. But I’m not about to leave him caged and defenceless.”

Jowan brightened. “You mean you’ll give me a chance? You won’t regret it, I promise. I’ll… I’ll find some way to help.”

“And after that?”

I didn’t know why I asked. I suppose part of me wanted to hear that he’d run, escape somehow… that he could.

“Afterwards?” A hollow, dark emptiness settled in at the edges of Jowan’s expression, almost eclipsing the hope that had flashed so vibrantly there. “I… don’t know. I assume I’ll be arrested. Or executed. Or whatever people like me get. But I’m tired of running from the Circle. I need to account for what I’ve done.”

I looked at Alistair: a moment’s silent enquiry. He nodded slightly, though those hazel eyes did not hold mine, and I knew he wasn’t sure whether to believe the mage, or whether to trust my judgement. Given that, his loyalty was touching.

“All right,” I said, stepping back from the cell. “Sten? Would you mind?”

The qunari had not contributed an opinion, but now he detached himself silently from the shadows and moved forwards, monolithic and implacable. Jowan whimpered.

“I’d cover your eyes,” I suggested. “And get back as much as you can.”

Sten sniffed philosophically as he squared up to the door.

“This would never have happened among my people,” he observed. “We keep our mages under much more effective control.”

He took hold of the door and, with a grunt of effort, wrenched the bars a good inch out of their settings. The mortar crackled and crumbled, and the metal squealed. Another few tugs, and the cell door ruptured off its hinges, allowing Jowan to squeeze through.

~o~O~o~

For all his assurances about wanting to help, it was abundantly clear in the first few minutes that the young mage was too badly hurt to keep up—and I doubted he’d be much of use if we ran into more trouble.

I suggested he use the passageway and head back to the village, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I have to make it right,” he kept saying, clutching one hand to ribs I suspected were broken, as he limped between Alistair and me. “I have to… to at least try.”

There wasn’t time to waste arguing. The rest of the dungeons were reasonably empty—though we did discover that the cells nearest the back staircase had not been half as disused as Alistair recalled. Slop buckets, unrusted shackles, and a pack of cards on a small table—a guards’ game of Blind Boy Beggar left eerily unfinished—told of a part of the castle’s life he had either never seen, or perhaps conveniently forgotten.

Maybe, I thought, one eye on Jowan’s injuries, it wasn’t naivety. Maybe things really had changed since he’d left… or since the arl’s illness had allowed Lady Isolde a firmer hand on the place.

In any case, it made no difference. We crept up the back stairs and, oh Maker, I was reminded of the last time I’d done this, skulking through faceless corridors and chambers, heart fit to beat through my chest.

The castle was very different to Arl Urien’s estate, in scale, layout and style, though I recognised many similar touches. As we reached the main floor—where noble folk would wander, and not like to be offended by the sight of plain woodwork or the feel of chilly draughts around their shoulders—the basement’s bare, ugly walls gave way to clean, fine stonework festooned with tapestries. The doors were universally heavy, oak, and carved with bas-relief scenes that mainly seemed to involve hunting hounds. Properly lit up with torches, and with the sounds of life and bustle ringing through the halls instead of this ghastly silence, I imagined it would be very pleasant. Nevertheless, a small part of me refused to move beyond the thought that, if these rooms were full of life, it would be the life of servants. Scores of them, scrubbing and dusting, fetching and carrying, and catering to the needs of the arl’s household. Certainly, someone like me would never see the inside of this place, unless it was on my knees, with a pail of water at my side.

Maethor growled, and I pushed the sneaking, insidious thoughts to the back of my mind. They were small, jealous things, and not for now. The mabari had trotted a few paces ahead of us, hackles up as he pointed his wrinkled snout towards the large double doors that lay before us.

Alistair drew his sword. “I think that’s the library. Past it, there’s a way down to the courtyard, via the old chapel. That’ll be the quickest way to get to the main hall. If Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde are still alive, I’d bet that’s where they’ll be… along with whatever’s been causing this.”

I grimaced. “You’re going to tell me there’s no side entrance now, aren’t you?”

He shot me a dry, acerbic smirk. “Oh, if it was easy, you’d just get bored.”

I snorted. At that point, boredom really looked good.

We were about to enter the chamber when, behind me, I heard Morrigan’s sudden intake of breath. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw her eyes widen, gleaming with an intense alertness. Jowan felt it too: he tensed, and almost fell, clutching at his ribs.

“C-Careful!” he called, as Alistair’s fingers closed on the handle. “It’s waiting for—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence. The second the door opened, something rushed out. I never saw it clearly. It was like a black, gritty wind; first one shape, then two, then three, whirling around us, impossible to strike at or escape. I didn’t know what they were, just that my bones seemed to be made of lead, and my flesh hung from them like wet sand. I could barely move, rooted to the spot by a horrible, undeniable weakness.

“Shades!” Jowan yelled, which meant nothing to me. “They’re demons! Don’t let them deceive you!”

I didn’t understand. My ears were full of that rushing, grinding wind, and then a face—or a near parody of one—reared up before me, screaming out of the ripped cloud. It resembled a twisted skull, but it was as if it was carved from the grain of the air itself… so immeasurably different to the revolting physicality of the walking corpses. These were creatures of the Fade, I realised; they spurned the rules and the realities of this plane.

I am greater than this, the skull seemed to say. I am greater than you all.

It was a dark, metallic sound… not a voice, but the impression of a voice, as if I remembered the creature speaking, whether or not I’d truly heard it. The gaping, sucking mouth, and the holes where eyes should have been, pulled at me, and I felt my whole centre shift, as if it could draw me into it, suck me dry and leave nothing behind but a desiccated rind. All my thoughts, memories, dreams—everything I was, had been and might yet be—that was what it wanted, what it hungered for. I had to resist. I knew that, and yet….

“You’ll have to do better than that!” Morrigan shouted, a bolt of white light leaping from her staff and striking one of the creatures.

It hissed—or screamed. I wasn’t sure which; hard to tell when the sound seemed to lodge itself right in my brain without ever having passed my ears. The shape of a clawed hand scythed through the air and caught her on the side of the head, and it snapped a thought into focus. Demons in their own forms, not trapped inside the body of another… how were we supposed to kill them?

Alistair cannoned into the third shade, shield up and all his bodyweight behind the blow. It hit something, at least—the thing howled, and it seemed to stretch out, its shape changing and thinning, as if all it had to do to deflect this world was simply bend, simply reach away. He stumbled, thrown off balance by its easy avoidance, and the thing came back hard. It slammed into him, and it had physical form enough to send him sprawling.

To my right, Jowan sent a weak pulse of magical energy against the creatures. It caught one’s attention, and it sprung around, clawing through the air towards him. Everything stank of mould and staleness, and I flung myself forwards, knowing he was too weak to resist it alone.

“What do we do?” I yelled, swiping madly at the shadows and feeling nothing but cold and weakness enfold me.

“Draw them,” he shouted, lurching back and trying to hold himself up. “Draw them out! Don’t… don’t let them see you!”

I didn’t know what he meant at first, but it soon became clear. These things fed on the spirit, drawing all the life—the messy, chaotic jumble of things it meant to be mortal—from their prey, and draining them. Keeping them on edge, never letting them train their attention on any one of us for too long, was the only way we had of not sinking into that shrouded oblivion. I felt it, though: snaking around me, pushing at the edges of everything, tugging me and beckoning me towards it. Rest. Sleep. That was how they did it; like spiders numbing their meals with a bite, then emptying them completely.

We fought hard, fast and nimble. Distractions and flurried attacks that fell on bodies made of little more than cloth and whispers. It was like wrestling nightmares… and hadn’t I done enough of that in the past few weeks?

Still, we kept them busy while, together, Jowan and Morrigan focused their magic on the demons. The creatures weren’t as strong as they’d first appeared. The struggles weakened them, and it certainly seemed as if they could be hurt, maybe even killed. I wasn’t sure if that’s what happened, or if they just retreated, slunk back to the Fade, or to some other hidden corner of existence. Either way, first one went down, and then the others followed. Each was the same: a roar, and a whirl of that gritty, dark wind, then it was just… gone. We were all left standing there like idiots, panting and clutching naked blades, armed against an empty room.

I glanced around me, seeing the space for the first time, and found myself awestruck. There were shelves as high as the ceiling, all full of books. Endless rows; more than anyone could read in a lifetime, surely. Lecterns, some with tomes open upon them, and well-worn chairs beside the cold, unbanked fire, suggested that someone had used this room regularly, though maybe not for a while. Small, high windows allowed shafts of light to fall on the smooth flagstones, and the centre of the floor was thickly carpeted with an enormous red rug. Doors led off to the left and right and, not knowing which way we should go, I looked to Alistair for directions. He was staring at the fireplace, mouth tight and gaze fixed on some distant pinpoint of memory. Easy to forget how much this must hurt him, I supposed, but my sympathy was stained with misgivings. I still wondered: how often had he been back here? How many letters had passed between him and the arl, or Teagan? And how close to all of this—the politics, the power, the privilege—had he really been?

A thud behind me signalled Jowan falling over, and Leliana rushed to help him up. I blinked, ashamed of myself. We had no time for petty jealousy.

“Is he all right?”

“He needs a healer,” she said firmly, hauling the mage to his feet, his arm around her shoulders.

Jowan groaned and mumbled something about being fine, which his pale, sweaty face rather belied.

“We go this way,” Alistair said, pointing to the left-hand door. “It should lead out towards the courtyard. From there, we can open the gates. You could… get him back to the village faster than trying to get through the passageway.”

He sounded reluctant, but it seemed unlikely that Jowan would be able either to escape, or perpetrate any kind of unclean magic, given the shape he was in. For one so weakened, he’d put a lot into fighting the shade demons, and I supposed we had to trust in that.

I nodded. “All right.”

~o~O~o~

Things did not go as easily as we’d hoped. Despite the number of bodies we’d cut our way through in the village, it seemed the castle held more surprises. Most of the wing between the library and the courtyard was running with undead; they came out of nowhere, teeming like silverfish on damp wood. There were more elves among them. Servants, I supposed. It shouldn’t have made it harder, but it did. Hollow eyes, snarling mouths… bodies and faces too like my own. My blade faltered on the first one: a girl, probably about my age when she died, or maybe a little younger. She was blonde, and pretty, with pale blue eyes that had turned milky and opaque in death. Her white skin had a mottled, blue undertone, and her grey dress was stained and dirty. I stared at it, thinking how ashamed she’d be of that, how it just wasn’t right, and my sword hung, limp and useless.

Sten pushed me aside, a hand almost as large as my head easily brushing me out of his path. I stumbled, though I didn’t fall. He took her down in a single stroke, clean and efficient, and all I could do was watch the neatly detached head roll on the stone floor.

Something of the previous night’s grim rhythm returned for a while; nothing but the dull thuds of flesh and the bite of steel, broken by the occasional groan or growl of a corpse, or a grunt of effort. Only once it was over did we hear the sniffling coming from one of the small side-chambers.

It turned out to be Valena, the smith’s daughter, and that provided a moment of such unadulterated joy. I might have promised Owen we’d find her, but I hadn’t necessarily believed it—especially once the state of things in the castle became clear. At best I’d assumed that, if we even got back to the village alive, we’d have to tell him she was probably among the walking dead… but here she was, very much alive. Corpses definitely didn’t scream so much.

I tried to calm her, but the sight of an armour-clad elf wielding a blade and splattered with blood and bits of brain matter didn’t seem to help, so I stood back and let Leliana take over. She was, I had to admit, much better at it than me. She did the hair-smoothing, back-rubbing thing, cradling the girl like a child and hushing her with that sweet, musical voice. Eventually, she stammered out enough scraps of information to confirm what we thought—that Master Connor had, as she put it, ‘been took’ by something, but fear had won out over curiosity and, as soon as the trouble started, she’d hidden instead of trying to flee. It had probably saved her life.

“I just want to go home,” she wailed, and Leliana looked imploringly at me.

“There could be more survivors, no? We should look for them. Not everyone in the castle can have perished.”

“Foolishness!” Morrigan snorted. “The more time we waste turning out every storeroom and cupboard, the more likely we are to attract the demon’s attention. It almost certainly knows we’re here anyway… it is just a matter of whether or not it chooses to attack.”

I rubbed a hand across my brow. My head hurt, not that I really noticed it. Everything hurt, and my tongue felt thick and dry.

“All right…. Leliana, take Jowan and Maethor. Make sure Valena gets back to the passageway safely. It might not be the quickest route, but at least we know we’ve cleared most of the creatures out down there. If you find anyone else alive, that’s great, but we have to push on. You can catch up with us in the main hall, which is across the courtyard, right?” I glanced at Alistair, waiting for him to confirm my grasp on the castle’s layout.

He nodded hesitantly. “Yes, but are you sure splitting up is a good idea?”

I shrugged. “The mage is injured. Leliana’s right: he needs healing. And this girl needs to get home. Would you rather she goes alone?”

“Well….”

He didn’t sound entirely convinced, but then I knew I was no tactician… not that any other bastard was coming up with a plan.

I looked at Morrigan, half-expecting her to argue, but she said nothing. Sten was doing his statutory impression of a rock-face, and Maethor was licking Valena’s salty cheek. Leliana nodded.

“All right. I shall do it. But we must move fast, yes?”

“Yes.”

We rose, divided, and the sense of unease was almost tangible. That small, weak voice at the back of my mind—my alienage brain, I told myself—kept beating the same chant over and over: who did I think I was? What right had I to think I could take charge, to think I could do anything but get us all killed? I was nothing but a foolish child, a chit of a girl who should have been strung up for her bloody-minded insolence the day she dared take up arms against her betters.

You’ll die here. You’ll all die… and none of it will matter.

I blinked and shook my head, trying to concentrate on following Alistair down yet another stone-walled corridor. Was it my own imagination, conjuring threats from my fear, or something else? I knew nothing about demons, except that they came from the Fade. Just the same as dreams, then, I supposed. Yet anyone who says dreams can’t hurt you has never had a bad one. Half-real memories swam behind my eyes; blood-red rock and swarming, teeming bodies, black and jagged against a thick, putrid fog. As I’d been learning since my Joining, dreams could be many things, and their boundaries were both flexible, and dangerous.

Nearer to the heart of the castle, we found more traces of the carnage the past few days had seen. Tapestries ripped from the walls, floors and rugs soiled with blood and filth… doors, furniture and statues broken into pieces. There were a few bits of corpses, too, though they remained fortunately inanimate. I’d lost all track of where we were, which was north or east, left or right. There were too many twists and turns, too many staircases and side chambers. Alistair seemed to know where he was going, at least. He stomped through, tight-lipped and intensely focused, checking every door and corner we passed for the possibilities of traps or ambushes. No one wanted to get taken by surprise, especially now our presence must have been noticed.

“I don’t like this,” he announced in hushed tones, as we came off the foot of a winding stone staircase, beside a small, squat wooden door that led out into the courtyard.

From the staircase’s narrowness and rough finish, I guessed it was for servants’ access… and it occurred to me that so were most of the routes Alistair had led us down. I’d thought it was meant for stealth, but just for a moment it struck me as odd. The thought floated away like mist, and I frowned.

“No,” I agreed. “S’quiet.”

“It is too quiet,” Sten put in. He already had a firm grip on his sword.

Morrigan’s black iron staff scraped the flagstones as she shifted restlessly behind me.

“Then I say we go out there and make some noise,” she said, and her voice held an unsettling hunger.

She could feel something, I guessed. Something powerful… which meant we must have been getting close.

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Eleven
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Nine

 
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The sense of celebration in the village was palpable. Relief hung thick, like garlands of blossom, and if the people hadn’t been so damn tired, I’d have bet they’d have been dancing in the streets.

Murdock sent a couple of men to scout the perimeters, making sure everything was clear, and we set once again to the grim business of clearing the bodies before he banged on the chantry doors and declared it was safe.

They came out hesitantly, mothers holding their children close to them, trying to shield their eyes from the carnage. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be in there all night, listening to the sounds of battle, only to walk out and face piles of dismembered corpses, each one once a friend or neighbour. We’d done our best to keep them out of the way—the heads, at least—but there would still be the grisly business of identifying and naming the dead. I was glad I wouldn’t have to be a part of it.

We stood back and let the villagers stumble out into the sunlight. I watched women fling themselves at their men, damp with tears of relief and gratitude. Even Murdock cracked a smile, buried somewhere under the expansive hugs of a broad, determined-looking wife, and four young daughters.

I glanced at my companions, battle-weary and filthy as we were. It was still so hard to believe we’d lived through the night… that we’d worked together, and prevailed. Leliana looked exhausted, though she smiled as she watched the villagers’ tender scenes of reunion. Morrigan appeared oblivious to them. Sitting on the chantry’s steps, hands loosely linked around the neck of her staff, she bore that waxy, vacant look that worried me… although even implacable, impassive Sten seemed a little bowed by fatigue, and I told myself that was all it was. We were all tired.

Maethor was stretched out on the dirt at my feet, apparently content to grab a quick doze, and I envied the canine ease with which he slipped from moment to moment. Alistair looked as tired as I felt, and just as in need of a damn good wash. He glanced at me, and his grin was lop-sided and threadbare, soot and dried blood still streaking his forehead.

It was embarrassing, I suppose, to realise how little we belonged there. In amongst all those people, so pleased to be alive and torn between gratitude for their survival, and grief at what they’d lost, we were outsiders, and there was something awkward about standing there, suddenly purposeless and bereft.

It didn’t last. The militiaman with the grey beard disengaged himself from the crowd and, swaying slightly, came over to shake my hand. He had a white-haired woman in a green shawl and a young man on crutches with him. The lad barely looked more than fifteen but, judging by the bloody mass of bandages swathing his left leg, I guessed he’d already seen some action over the past week.

“Thank you, Warden,” the militiaman said, pumping my hand vigorously before he turned to the boy. “You see, Rethyn? These are the people who saved us… an’ saved your pa. You thank ’em proper.”

“Um, there’s really no—” I began, but it was useless.

There were effusive thanks, rounds of back-slapping and hand-shaking, and the ebullient sense of relief coiled everywhere, tugging us all into its wake. Morrigan sneered, clearly uncomfortable with the attention, which surprised me, though I couldn’t blame her.

Ser Perth’s men, Dwyn and his heavies, and the others who’d made their stand at the ridge all limped down into the square, tired but satisfied. I even recognised the elf from the tavern, wearing mismatched ends of armour and looking rather stunned. Somehow, my companions and I found ourselves backed up onto the steps of the chantry, with dozens of eager, exhausted faces staring up at us… and it got worse when Bann Teagan mounted a barrel and, arms outstretched, called for quiet from the gathered masses.

“Dawn arrives, my friends,” he called, spreading out his hands to encompass the whole square, “and all of us remain. We are victorious!”

He raised a clenched fist, and a cheer went up; weary and a bit ragged, but all the more fervent for it. I squirmed under the scrutiny of so many people and looked to my left, meaning to step back and let Alistair—as both the senior Warden, and the one who was responsible for coordinating the village’s defence—take the credit that Teagan so obviously wanted to give, but he wasn’t there. At that moment, an elbow jabbed me in the small of the back, shoving me forwards and rather unwillingly into the spotlight.

I would, I decided, make him pay for that one.

Without breaking the rhythm of his speech, Bann Teagan jumped down from his impromptu plinth and put his hand on my shoulder. The wound beneath my battered armour was still open and angry, and I gritted my teeth.

“It is these good folk you see beside me that we have to thank for our lives today,” the bann said brightly, gesturing to my ragtag company. “Without their heroism, surely we would all have perished.”

Another cheer erupted from the assemblage, and Teagan turned to me, his face solemn and his well-spoken words ringing out across the square with terrible, awful clarity.

“The Maker truly smiled on us when he sent you here, in our darkest hour. Dear lady, I bow to you.”

And he did. Bended knee and everything. I didn’t know where to put myself.

An audible intake of breath sounded from the crowd, and then it was swallowed in cheers and applause. Bann Teagan straightened up, beaming widely, and beckoned to a boy I now saw hanging back by the chantry doors. He seemed breathless, and carried a bundle of oiled cloth, which Teagan took from him and unwrapped, revealing a large, heavy steel helmet. It glimmered dully in the early morning sun, and the light caught on the intricately engraved patterns that ran over the brow and nosepiece of the thing. I’d never seen armour like it. As the bann held it aloft, I could see it had wings, like some immense, ancient bird. It was old, that much was clear; as if the patina of years was pressed into the gleaming metal.

The people knew what it meant. It was a symbol they understood. They clapped; a brisk, intense beat that stormed us over us, and took the breath from my body. Teagan’s voice rose above it, and then he was holding the helmet out to me, like a priest extending a blessing.

“Allow me to offer you this: the helm of Ser Ferris the Red, my great-uncle and hero of Ferelden. He would approve passing it to one so worthy.”

A symbol, a ritual… a ceremony. The villagers had to see it. Tired, bloody and beaten, they needed this. I could see all of that written in the bann’s angular face as he made a great show of handing the helm to me, and I couldn’t do anything but bow in return, and humbly accept a gift more magnificent—and a great deal heavier—than I could possibly use.

I managed some short string of words about how honoured we were, how the battle had been won on the bravery of the people of Redcliffe, and how I’d felt privileged to fight beside them, and then I was only too glad to hand over to Mother Hannah. The priest led a brief prayer for those who had fallen in the course of the attacks, and for the souls of those whose bodies had been so evilly corrupted, and then the talk fell to the tasks ahead, and to the needs of the men who’d been up all night, and required food, drink and bandages… possibly not in that order.

She dealt with them efficiently, I noticed. She had a kindly firmness, directing the sisters to help here, or insist there, with no more than a gentle wave of her hand. Her voice was an even, undeniable constant that, I suspected, had run through the fabric of life here for more years than most of these people could remember, and that was comforting. Little by little, then, normality would return to Redcliffe, and it would be women like Mother Hannah who brought it. Unless the corpses came back at nightfall, of course. I wanted to push those thoughts away, and let nothing sour the taste of the victory we’d won here, but my head was too foggy to cling on to one strand of anything for long.

I think I was swaying a bit as we moved off the chantry’s steps, clearing the way for the traffic of people who needed aid, rest, and time to deal with the mess that was left of their homes. At first, I was barely aware of Bann Teagan speaking—lower this time, no longer an address to an eager crowd—and it took a moment before I realised he was talking to me… to us.

“We truly cannot thank you all enough,” he said.

I glanced up, and then back at the tattered, exhausted faces behind me. Sten grunted. I hadn’t forgotten how prepared he’d been to leave this place defenceless, considering it an irrelevance, a lost cause… or how I’d couched my argument in terms of winning allies, banking on the possible support of the arl, if he still lived. Did that really make us heroes? I wasn’t so sure, and I blinked blearily at the bann.

“Er….”

“These people owe you their lives,” Teagan went on, smiling beneficently at the drabs of the crowd now thinning out, mostly in search of hot food and somewhere to lie down. “They will not forget what you have done here. Nor shall I.”

The look of genuine affection in his face as he gazed at those people surprised me. I’d grown up so far removed from how Denerim was actually run—what the nobility were actually for, when we rarely saw any authority beyond the city guard—that I was nonplussed. The villagers here knew this man, and trusted him, though he held a title and wore clothes worth more than they’d make in a year. It was… odd, to me. Then again, wavering as I was on the ghostly twin surfs of sapped adrenaline and fatigue, I’d long passed the point of trying to make sense of anything.

“They deserve their celebration,” Teagan said, turning back to us with a sober look in his eyes.

That keen blue gaze slipped past my shoulder and sought out Alistair, and I gathered from the hint of beseeching that crept into the bann’s voice that we were not going to be allowed much rest.

“You have helped us immeasurably, but there is still more to be done. Mother Hannah will see you cleaned up and provisioned, but I must ask this—”

“You want to get into the castle.” Alistair nodded. “While… whatever’s up there is weak, or distracted?”

Teagan’s jaw tightened, a dark determination shadowing his face. “Yes. I have a plan, but… I fear we must act quickly. Meet me at the mill, and I shall explain.”

And that was it. With a curt incline of the head, the bann took his leave, and I found myself looking dubiously at Alistair. He sighed, weariness inscribed in the slump of his shoulders and the dark rings beneath his eyes.

“Well,” he said, “if Arl Eamon’s still alive….”

I nodded grimly and glanced at the others. “Look, if any of you would rather stay here, then—”

Sten snorted. “Is that not defeating the purpose of all we fought for?”

Maethor barked, apparently in agreement, and Leliana gave me a small, tired smile.

“You said yourself that we should take any chance to get into the castle.”

I was pretty certain that wasn’t quite what I’d said, but she made it sound like encouragement, and I was prepared to forgive her for twisting my words.

“Ugh, very well.” Morrigan rose to her feet, lip curled sullenly. “If you insist. Although, I confess, I do have a wonder to see what is behind this. It could prove… interesting.”

Alistair grimaced. “By ‘interesting’, I imagine you mean incredibly horrible and gruesome? That is your sort of thing, after all.”

“It may have escaped your notice,” she sniped, “for, naturally, many things do, but this world is not all rainbows and sunshine.”

“Not when you’re around, no.”

Well, at least something was back to normal.

~o~O~o~

People fussed around us in the chantry. It was… awkward. There wasn’t time, space, or facilities for much beyond a quick rub-down with a damp rag, a few sips of waters, and the most rudimentary healing. Supplies were scarce, and there were others in greater need than we. Still, the villagers were in good spirits; I even heard someone saying Lloyd had come out of his cellar, and was going to open the tavern.

We made our way back up to the ridge, where we found Bann Teagan, Ser Perth, and a couple of the knights standing in the shadow of the mill. The outline of the castle was clearly visible through the morning mist, grey-shrouded and blurred, like the sleeping shape of some great, fantastical beast. It seemed so much more foreboding now.

“Odd how quiet the castle looks from here,” Bann Teagan said, gazing out towards it, his voice strained and hollow. “You would think there was nobody inside at all.”

There might not be, I supposed, though I didn’t like to say so. The piles of corpses down in the square were stacked ten and fifteen high. The pyres would be burning for weeks.

Teagan turned from the fortress’ fog-paled silhouette, and shook his head.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t delay things further. Thank you for coming, Wardens. All of you,” he added, looking beyond me to the others.

“We will defeat whatever is responsible for this evil, your grace,” Leliana piped up. “I swear it.”

Bold words, and unexpected ones, too. I glanced back to see her dropping a delicate curtsey that, somehow, didn’t even look incongruous, despite the leather armour. For a moment, I marvelled at that, before my sluggish brain prodded me back to the matter in hand.

“Er… you said you had a plan, ser?”

“Yes.” Teagan blinked, and seemed to consciously drag his gaze from the Orlesian. “There is a secret passage that runs from beneath the mill up to the castle. It hasn’t been used in years, but it could provide a way in. I would have tried before, but I couldn’t leave the villagers, and the sheer numbers of those things….”

Alistair nodded slowly. “Right. A small group might get in undetected, take advantage of the disarray.” He frowned. “But… we can’t let you go. It could be dangerous. Even if—”

The bann’s face darkened. “Alistair, if Eamon is still alive, I—”

“But you’re needed here!”

I narrowed my eyes, almost entirely sure that fatigue and the weak gold glare of the morning sun were the only reasons the two men seemed to sound alike, as if this burgeoning argument was the offshoot of some tussle for independence begun a decade before. Not that it mattered, I reminded myself.

“Where would the passage bring us out?” I asked.

“The basements somewhere, I think,” Teagan said, after a moment’s calculation. “Beneath the kennels, probably.”

“All right. Alistair, do you know that part of the castle?”

He snorted. “Oh, yes. Banished to sleep with the hounds more times than I can count.”

And that’s a lot. I can count pretty high.

I pushed the recollection of those words—of that easy camaraderie—from my mind, annoyed to find my view of him so easily changed… and my temper still so sharp. Stupid, I told myself. Petty.

“Then it’s settled. We’ll go in. All of you,” I added, glancing back over my shoulder, “who are with me. Yes?”

Maethor barked enthusiastically, front paws pattering at the ground. Leliana and Morrigan both voiced their assent, one with golden optimism and the other with dismal sullenness, as different as night and day. Sten just grunted, which I took for an affirmation. After all, it wasn’t as if I could actually force him to do a damn thing he didn’t want.

I nodded, a small bloom of satisfaction working its way through the fatigue.

“Good. Then you, my lord, will stay here. Alistair’s right—the villagers need you to look to, and there’s no guarantee that what’s waiting up there isn’t worse than walking corpses.”

Bann Teagan looked rather surprised at my bluntness. Not used to being told what to do, I imagined, especially by the likes of me. Smugness swaddled me up in a warm and ignobly comforting glow, not that it lasted long. He set his jaw.

“I still maintain—”

The argument was destined to be cut short. Maethor let out another bark and, further up the path, where some of the lads were still clearing bits of bodies, a figure could be seen pelting towards us. My body tensed automatically, flesh-memories of the night still raw, and every thrust and swing etched into my aching muscles… but this was no corpse. It was a woman, obviously unused to running, and ill-dressed for it. The skirts of her white gown were bunched in her hands, and the tight lacing of her fancy velvet bodice must have made it hard to breathe. As she drew nearer, the militiamen piling up the dead stopped work and stared after her, their expressions almost as shocked as Bann Teagan’s.

“Maker’s breath!” he exclaimed.

He went to her, met her halfway across the ridge. She almost fell into his outstretched arms, clasping his hands to hold herself up as she panted for breath. Her honey-blonde hair was bound into an elaborate chignon, wisps escaping to frame a face from which the youthful bloom had faded, but was not yet wholly erased. Exertion coloured her cheeks, sweat beading her forehead, while her parted lips and large, brown eyes expressed panicked, imploring desperation.

“Teagan!” She dug white, slender fingers into his sleeves, her voice cracking as she dragged words from the ragged pool of breaths. “Teagan… oh, thank the Maker you yet live! There is not much time… quickly!”

The familiar twirls and lilts of an Orlesian accent—though apparently weathered by years in Ferelden—laced her speech, and I began to realise who this peculiar, dishevelled dervish must be.

She tugged at the bann’s arms, already half-turning back to the path, as if she could physically drag him with her.

“Please! I cannot explain it here. I slipped away from the castle as soon as I saw the battle was over, but I must return quickly. You have to come, Teagan. I… need you to return with me. Alone.”

Well, nobility or not, I wasn’t standing for that—especially when we’d already agreed that the bann was to stay in the village. Every instinct I possessed screamed ‘trap!’, and urged me to prise the woman off him.

“Careful,” I said instead, my tone brusquer than it should have been, “this could be an ambush.”

The arlessa—for who else could she have been?—broke away from her brother-in-law and stared at me in surprise, as if she hadn’t noticed my presence. In the space of less than a second, her expression shifted from desperate plea to unabashed vitriol; it was like watching a stone sink under dark water, without a trace left behind it. Of course, I realised, the nobility were good at masks… especially where she came from.

The brown doe eyes were hard now, like polished cobnuts, as she took in those who stood behind me—the massive, armoured presence of Sten, Leliana in her archer’s garb, and Morrigan in her artful rags and leather—and the arlessa’s lips bowed in distaste, as if someone had just wafted a week-old haddock under her nose.

“Teagan, who are these… people?”

Alistair sighed wearily. “You remember me, Lady Isolde, don’t you?”

Her gaze shifted to him, and the curvature of lips became a jagged line, turning a face that might have been considered beautiful into something thoroughly repellent.

“Alistair?” She sounded genuinely appalled. “Of all the— Why are you here?”

A stab of indignation went through my gut on his behalf. Bann Teagan cleared his throat.

“They are Grey Wardens, Isolde. I owe them my life. We all do,” he added pointedly.

Her face shifted again, a curtain of civility falling across the flash of temper, but I’d been learning enough about these circles of human etiquette to know the bow of her head was too fleeting, too shallow to be even passingly sincere.

“Forgive me,” she said, turning back to the bann, “but there is no time to exchange pleasantries. I must return to the castle and, Teagan, you—”

“Lady Isolde,” Alistair tried again. “Please.”

I glanced at him, unsure whether I’d seen a fleeting hint of hurt in his expression. Maybe it was the light, or perhaps the fatigue. Either way, the look she gave him was venomous.

“We had no idea anyone was even alive within the castle. If there’s anything you can tell us about what’s happening… we need answers.”

The arlessa switched her attention back to the bann, face softening into girlish entreaty once again, those pretty hands tugging, pulling at his sleeves.

“Teagan… make them see! I… I don’t know what is safe to tell. I know you will want explanations but I-I cannot. I—”

“Calm yourself,” Teagan soothed, taking hold of her hands again, one broad palm upon her quaking shoulder. “Come, Isolde. You must tell us what you know.”

She looked from him to Alistair and back again, then erupted into tears.

“There… there is a terrible evil within the castle,” she managed, gulping between sobs. “It is horrible! The dead waken and hunt the living. The mage responsible was caught, but still it continues….”

I saw Alistair’s face stiffen. He nodded almost imperceptibly; he’d been right about the blood magic. Isolde shook her head, wringing Teagan’s hand in hers and continuing to weep piteously.

“And I think—” She brought her voice down to a frail, damp whisper, knuckles standing proud as she gripped Teagan’s wrist. “—I think Connor is going mad. We have survived but he won’t flee the castle. He has seen so much death! You must help him, Teagan. You are his uncle. You could reason with him. I do not know what else to do!”

The bann looked anxiously at Alistair, and I was dismayed at how much effect a woman’s tears obviously had on the pair of them. Not that I wasn’t moved by the arlessa’s heartfelt display… just that I didn’t entirely trust it.

“What about this mage you mentioned?” Alistair asked, glancing at me over the top of her bowed, trembling, honey-coloured head.

I caught the meaning in his face—that none of this was coincidence, none of it was chance—and I didn’t like the steeliness I found in his eyes.

“He is an… infiltrator, I think,” Isolde said, and something about the way her gaze brushed down to the ground, the words halting as they dropped from those sculpted lips, struck me as odd. Dangerous, even. “One of the castle staff, that’s all I know. We discovered he was poisoning my husband. That is why Eamon fell ill.”

“Eamon was poisoned?” Bann Teagan echoed incredulously.

Isolde nodded, her chin dimpling as she fought back more tears. The big brown eyes were suddenly alert again, shiny and imploring, her gaze darting between the two men. My gut had turned to lead before she even got the next words out.

“He claims an agent of Teyrn Loghain’s hired him. But,” she added, accenting the doubt with a delicate sniff, “I don’t know… he may be lying. I cannot say.”

Alistair looked fit to explode. Dull fire burned in his face, as if the suggestion of Loghain’s guilt was a disappointment and an outrage, but not a surprise. A muscle jumped rhythmically in his jaw, and I could have sworn he was grinding his teeth. I should have told him about the elf in the tavern, I knew it. Only… if this was true, what did it mean? Loghain had meant to use the Blight to seize the throne? No man would be that mad, surely—and certainly not the great general and tactician whose name rang through history as the saviour of our independence.

It couldn’t… it mustn’t be so, I thought, and pulled myself up short. Whatever the truth, or otherwise, it was a matter for another time.

“But does the arl live?” I asked, aware that my voice was an incongruous addition to the discussion.

Lady Isolde shot me a look that might almost have been irritation, and addressed her reply to Bann Teagan.

“So far. He is being… kept alive, thank the Maker.”

Teagan frowned. “Kept alive? Kept alive by what?”

“Something the mage unleashed,” she said vaguely, shaking her head. “I don’t know…. So far Eamon, Connor, and myself have been spared. It wants us to live, but I do not know why. It allowed me to come for you, Teagan, because I begged, because I said Connor needed help….”

I blinked. Hadn’t she said she’d ‘slipped’ from the castle? I started to open my mouth, but I knew I couldn’t question her… shouldn’t question her. Not now.

“This ‘evil’,” Alistair said thoughtfully, “could it be some kind of demon?”

“I… I do not know.” Isolde’s eyes widened even further. “But I can’t let it hurt my Connor! You must come back with me, Teagan… please. You must hurry. For Connor’s sake. Come back with me, and come alone. There isn’t much time!”

She was still pawing at him, for all the world like a petulant and demanding child. I folded my arms, the twinge in my bandaged shoulder not doing much to extend my tolerance. I was tired, sore… scared. This whole business sounded worse by the second, and for a moment I forgot my place.

“Maybe that’s why I get the feeling you’re not telling us everything,” I muttered darkly, making little effort to hide my impatience, or my suspicion.

“I beg your pardon?” The arlessa glared at me coldly. “That’s a rather impertinent accusation!”

Her choice of words made the edge of my lips curl, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d have picked the same ones if I’d been human. Still, after the night I’d had, I could muster little sympathy for the woman. My temper was short, and what internal censorship I usually engaged somehow didn’t cut in until after I’d opened my mouth.

“Not if it’s true.”

Bann Teagan appeared surprised—and distinctly unimpressed—while Alistair gave me a look of desperate, appalled astonishment, the small but frantic movements of his eyebrows signalling it would be good if I shut up now. I could have shrunk in on myself, mumbled an apology, stared at the ground… I would have, once, but now I stood my ground. There was more at stake here than whether or not the local gentry were offended by the churlish manners of an insolent knife-ear.

The arlessa’s scowl trembled and then dissolved into another wretched sob. She appealed to Teagan, white hands flying in frantic arcs.

“Teagan! I came here for help… what more do you want from me? An evil I cannot fathom holds my son and husband hostage! What if it thinks I am betraying it? It could kill Connor! Please… must I beg?”

“Very well.” The bann sighed, and looked wearily from me to Alistair. “The king is dead, and we need my brother now more than ever. I will return to the castle with you, Isolde.”

She let out a quivering cry, and I couldn’t decide whether it was one of triumph or gratitude, but she fell to weeping again, and kissed his hands.

“Oh, thank the Maker! Bless you, Teagan! Bless you!”

I caught Alistair’s eye, and for a moment I thought he’d look away, but he didn’t. He just nodded grimly.

“It seems you have little choice, Bann Teagan,” he said.

“Oh, I have no illusions of dealing with this evil alone,” Teagan assured, prising himself from the arlessa’s grip. He patted her hand gingerly. “Isolde, will you excuse us for a moment? Then I shall return with you.”

She nodded, mopping at her eyes. “I will wait by the bridge. Please… do not take too long!”

We watched her pace away. The golden morning light flooded the ridge, and the world seemed sharp and crisp and clear; just like the dangers that lay before us. Alistair bit his lip.

“You really mean to—?”

“Yes.” Teagan nodded. “I will go in with Isolde. You and your companions use the passage, as we discussed. Perhaps I will… distract whatever is inside and increase your chances of getting in unnoticed. What do you say?”

“This is insane! It’s too dangerous. We can’t let—”

“Alistair.” I shook my head, resigned to the way I now saw things had to be. “What choice do we have? Any of us?”

“She’s right,” Teagan said, which surprised me. “If your business with Eamon is important, you’re going to have to go inside to find him.”

It didn’t come naturally to me to side with the nobleman, but he had a point.

“You said yourself,” I pointed out, with a slight waver of guilt, “that we need Arl Eamon’s support. If the Wardens are to challenge Loghain’s assessment of the Blight—”

“Yes, all right.” Alistair’s tone verged on the waspish. He exhaled tersely. “Fine. But, can’t Ser Perth’s men follow you or something?”

Bann Teagan glanced dubiously towards Lady Isolde, standing by the bridge and impatiently twisting her fingers together. Behind me, Morrigan snorted.

“If she truly relies on the goodwill of a demon to seek help, the creature would know of the knights’ presence long before they even reached the castle.”

The witch took a step nearer, bringing with her that customary waft of warm leather and dried herbs, and it comforted me in a strange way… the thought that the burden of the decision was no longer mine alone, perhaps.

We shall be lucky to get in undetected,” she added, and I glanced at her, not expecting the resolve I found in her eyes.

‘We’. Small word, but it meant a lot.

“Then have them hang back,” I said, trying to plot possibilities in the air before me, without having any idea where the next few hours might lead. “At least long enough for you and the arlessa to return, and us to— How long will it take to get through the passageway and into the castle?”

Alistair shrugged. “Twenty minutes, maybe? Half an hour? Depends exactly where we come out, and whether there’s… resistance at the other end, I suppose.”

I grimaced. “All right. Then you’ll have to play for time, Bann Teagan. And distraction. We’ll use whatever advantage we have, and….”

I trailed off. I hadn’t the faintest notion what we’d do, what we’d face… the world was swimming around me in syrupy, dreamlike strands, and it suddenly eminently possible that we were all going to our deaths. Even the lingering sweetness of that hard-won victory was turning to something rank and fetid in my mouth.

Down below, at the lakeside, the first of the funeral pyres was being lit, and it wouldn’t be long before the men started piling the bodies up. No ceremony. No time for the proper offices, when so many had to be dealt with. The first thin trails of smoke started to trace the sky, and I looked away, back at the worried faces of my companions.

Leliana frowned. “So we are just going to send him with that woman? It seems so dangerous!”

Teagan dredged up a smile for her. It was weak, but warm.

“You’re a good woman, my lady,” he said kindly. “The Maker smiled on me indeed when He sent you and your companions to Redcliffe.”

“He always knows best the paths on which He sets his children,” she countered, with a gentle bow of her head, “that He may guide us when we are lost, and steady us when we falter.”

There was a subtle, shifting moment of silence and then Teagan cleared his throat.

“I, ah, I must delay no longer, then. Allow me to bid you farewell… and good luck.”

With a shuffle of assorted agreements—no one really wanted to say goodbye, it seemed, least of all Alistair, who still looked racked by indecision—he left us, and rejoined the arlessa.

Silently, we watched Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde begin to make their way up the cliff path, and cold fingers of dread traced the back of my neck. Beyond the ridge, the castle waited, wreathed in mist and dank foreboding, its dark shape filling up the sky.

It wasn’t as if we had a choice.

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Volume 2: Chapter Ten
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eight

 
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We met up with Leliana and Morrigan, as promised, down by the lakeside. They’d found the house belonging to Dwyn, the dwarven trader, though apparently he refused to even open his door.

“He was really quite unreasonable,” Leliana said disapprovingly. “I didn’t think there was any need to be rude. Especially in front of a child.”

I looked at the small boy, smut-faced and wearing ragged short trousers, upon whose shoulder she had her hand.

“Er. Yes,” I said doubtfully. “Is this…?”

“Tell the nice lady your name,” Leliana prompted. “Go on.”

The child stared up at me, big-eyed, and looked as if he might wet himself.

“B-Bevin,” he stammered.

I smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Bevin. My name’s Merien. Are you going to go back to your sister now?”

He nodded sullenly, and stared at the ground. Leliana squeezed his shoulder.

“Indeed,” she said, smiling serenely. “He has had quite enough of hiding, haven’t you?”

“’s, m’m,” the boy mumbled.

I had no idea where she’d found him, but the poor mite looked cowed and terrified. Small bits of straw clung to his hair, and his knees were grubby… henhouse, perhaps? In any case, I doubted that, for all Leliana’s good intentions, he was much buoyed by yet another woman in robes telling him what to do.

“I am going to take Bevin back to the chantry, and make sure he doesn’t run off again. He’s promised. We decided your poor sister has enough to worry about, no?”

He glanced up nervously, the edges of tears clinging to his voice.

“Y-Yes, ma’am.”

“All right.” I nodded. “Um, well done. We’ll see you there.”

Morrigan tutted as Leliana began to lead the boy away, back up to the relative safety of stout walls and weeping women.

“Yes, yes. Lovely. Shall we next begin rescuing kittens from trees?”

“Look, the dusk’s setting in,” I said briskly. “Shall we just—”

“Oh, eager to get to the fighting, are we?”

I winced. “Hardly. Did you find out anything useful?”

She shrugged, feathers rustling at her bare shoulders and jewellery clinking gently. There were moments when, for all her claws and vinegar, Morrigan reminded me of nothing so much as an ill-tempered magpie. She turned her head away, glaring out towards the lake and offering me nothing but her pale, hard profile.

Lake Calenhad did present a beautiful view… or it should have done. I’d never seen such a vast stretch of water, and the low sun turned it to a rippling pool of molten gold. Flashes of light caught at the water, the sky huge and endless, wreathed with the deepening shapes of clouds and the whole basin framed by the steep walls of those red, hard cliffs. Small boats were moored or hauled up all along the shore, and the jetties were packed with barrels and spooled nets, testament to the normal course of business here, ruined by the madness that had spilled across it.

“These people are superstitious fools,” Morrigan said coldly. Golden eyes scanned the horizon, and the suggestion of derision curved her delicate upper lip. “They speak of the dead returned to claim vengeance on the living, of a god wreaking punishment upon them.”

“They think it’s the Maker?” Alistair sounded incredulous. “Why would—”

“I do not know,” she snapped. “Ask me why the ocean is wet, why don’t you? What is clear is that the Veil has been sundered in this place. There is something… powerful.”

“Something?” I echoed.

Morrigan sighed irritably and turned to face me, with the air of someone explaining a simple truth to a young and rather dim child.

Something had to have made them into corpses. No… spirits are always there, pushing against the boundaries of the Fade, seeking ways into this world.”

“Demons, you mean,” Alistair muttered darkly, giving her a look shadowed with distrust.

Morrigan sneered. “Call them what you will. They… hunger for it. The weaker ones may find a way through and, unable to distinguish between what is living and what simply has lived, possess corpses; dead flesh which has no will to resist them.”

I tried, and failed, to suppress a shiver. “We’re going to be fighting demons?”

Her dark-painted lips twisted dismissively. “Of a kind. The stronger ones rarely bother with such pointless endeavours. They seek more sophisticated prey. But, still, the numbers the men here speak of are… concerning.”

Her face had grown tense and sombre, and her eyes flickered with something not unlike apprehension. If Morrigan was worried, I had the horrible feeling the rest of us should be terrified.

“Blood magic,” Alistair murmured, apparently to himself. “I’d bet on it.”

For once, she didn’t outright disagree. Her jaw tightened, and the suggestion of some barbed comment seemed to play at the corner of her mouth, but she said nothing. I frowned.

“Why—?”

“Call it a hunch,” he said dryly, gazing steadily at Morrigan. “Summoning demons, causing untold death and destruction… all those things maleficarum tend to do.”

I could have cut the air between them with my dagger. She glared, eyes two slits of ochre-yellow malice set like jasper chips into the swooping band of shadow that ran across her face. Even so, I felt a strange surge of sympathy for Morrigan. True, magic frightened me. Her magic, and the whole concept in general, though I knew I owed my life to it several times over; both Flemeth’s healing, and her daughter’s more violent arts. Yet, since the Wilds, she hadn’t shirked a single fight—not the darkspawn, the bandits, or even Loghain’s men. Any of those times, she could have disappeared as easily as mist, left us on our own… but she hadn’t. Neither had I seen her use anything I would have called foul magic, though I supposed I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway. Perhaps it was, or perhaps she had the arts of illusion and glamour down so well that she could hide any truth she chose.

Painfully aware of my ignorance, I didn’t stand up for her. I had an inkling that apostate and maleficar might not always be the same thing, but my grasp on the matter was shaky, and I shied from the potential argument. Instead, I sighed wearily, and suggested we turn our attention back to the fast-approaching night, and everything that it would bring.

Alistair tried raising Dwyn, but no amount of banging on his door yielded anything more than a muffled ‘sod off’.

I nodded to Morrigan. “I think, this time, fireballs are acceptable.”

A small smile split her painted mouth and she stepped forward, fingers already flexing around a pinpoint of light that swelled and crackled in the palm of her hand. Alistair hopped hurriedly out of the way as she fed the pulsing flame into the lock and, with a loud crack, the door jarred off its hinges. I was grateful no one appeared to have noticed me jump at the noise.

Morrigan raised her staff in both hands and, rather elegantly, prodded the heavy wood. It creaked and, almost in slow motion, fell in.

It would have been comical, had we not found a heavily armed dwarven warrior and two very large, tattooed men standing inside. Understandably, perhaps, they didn’t look pleased.

“Wonderful,” the dwarf said acidly. “I hope you’ve got a damn good reason for busting down my door.”

I looked at the splintered bits of doorframe, still fizzing with residual magical energy.

“Well,” I said, hearing the manic, brittle cheerfulness in my tone, “we did try the polite way.”

Smart mouth, Father would have said. You never learn….

The dwarf glowered at me. I’d never met one of his kind face-to-face before. There used to be traders in the market in Denerim, and a few travellers from the west, but none that I’d really seen close up. It had been Father’s opinion that they were not to be trusted—unscrupulous thieving bastards was his preferred turn of phrase—but he’d never said exactly why and, as I wasn’t supposed to listen when the men were talking around the fire of an evening, I could hardly ask.

I looked down curiously at the dwarf. He was a clear foot shorter than me, which was a novelty in itself, and stocky, with his dark hair and beard bound into intricate braids. Small, dark eyes glittered beneath heavy, scowling brows, and his wide nose wrinkled as he sneered at my insolence.

“Hmph. So you did. Well, if we’re being polite… the name’s Dwyn. Pleased to meet you. Now get out.”

One of the thugs at his side was elven. I hadn’t noticed that before, registering just the strange, blocky tattoos that ran over both men’s arms and faces, and the tell-tale bulges beneath their plain, workaday clothing, that spoke of weapons not so much concealed as held in readiness. We saw people like them back home, too; close to curfew, the night-crawlers always started to come out of the woodwork.

I glanced briefly at the elf. There was no glimmer of recognition there, and nor should there have been. Wherever his home had originally been, he’d cast it behind him even more emphatically than I had mine… and I wanted to be appalled at the sour little twist of judgemental anger that flared in me. Who was I, to make those assumptions? I dragged my gaze back to Dwyn, and shook my head.

“Murdock says he needs you for the militia.”

“So what?” The dwarf snorted. “You’re recruiting for him? I’ll tell you what I told Murdock: I’m not risking my neck for this town.”

The small fire burning in the stone hearth belched out a crackle. It was the only light set in the room, though there were plenty of brackets for candles along the walls. Behind me, lazy, dusty sunlight poured incongruously through the hole where the door should have been, and it outlined Dwyn and his heavies in coronae of milky gold.

Outside, distant footsteps scuffled on grit. Murdock was shouting to one of his men and, below us, I assumed, the lake was lapping steadily at the jetty’s stilts.

“Isn’t there any way we could change your mind?” Alistair asked. “He said you were a warrior. You could help these people. You could—”

“Get myself killed? Huh… fighting’s the reason I left Orzammar. Why would I get involved with this? I’m a merchant now. Right, boys?”

The tattooed men smirked unpleasantly. “Yur,” one grated. “Respectable an’ everyfink.”

“So you’ll just stay shut up and here and watch them die?” Alistair demanded, his tone hardening as his patience evidently wore thin.

“No,” Dwyn said evenly. “Usually, we bar the windows and sit it out in the back room. Don’t see a thing.”

His words bristled with a humour so dark it passed all the way through irony and came out somewhere in the region of cold, bitter truth. The same bone-clenching weariness clung to these men as permeated the rest of the village, but the dwarf was entitled to want to save his own skin… whether we liked it or not. I exhaled a tight breath of frustration.

“There’s nothing we can say, then? Nothing we can offer?”

The elven heavy at Dwyn’s shoulder gave me a look of open, unabashed appraisal, curled his lip, then glanced at Morrigan and loosed a grubby, throaty chuckle. I swear I felt the ice in her glare—it was a wonder the air itself didn’t freeze over.

Dwyn folded his arms, the leather-gloved fingers of one hand drumming on his sleeve.

“I doubt it. Of course, if you really wanted to make it worth my while….”

“We could talk to Bann Teagan,” Alistair suggested, leaping on that first chink of hope. “Put in a good word for you. Think of the goodwill, the… possibilities for a man in your, er, position if, let’s say, he were to cut the market licenses you pay for trading in Redcliffe?”

He was clutching at straws. Even the briefest glance around the house showed it was little lived-in, and I guessed the back room Dwyn had mentioned lay behind the heavy, locked door I could see past his shoulder… and it was probably stacked full of dubious wares. I very much doubted the dwarf took much notice of local bye-laws and trading rates, especially when the village—with all its outside smokehouses and loose-planked little jetties—had so many useful places to hide goods, and the cliffs no doubt led to a plethora of hidden paths. We had smugglers where I came from, too.

Sure enough, the dwarf’s brow creased in amused derision. “Huh. Keep tryin’, friend.”

The thugs were growing restless, and the atmosphere in the cramped little house was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I glanced at Morrigan, uneasy with the firm grip she had on her staff, and the sharp, alert expression in her eyes, both so at odds with the calmness of her posture.

“All right, well… what about gold?” Alistair said, a hint of desperation clinging to the words. Dwyn might be an arsehole, but it didn’t take a genius to see that, especially with his heavies on hand, he was an arsehole with enough muscle and experience to make a real difference when the sun went down. “Would that convince you?”

Dwyn snorted. “Are you serious?”

For a moment, I was sure it was going to end badly, but Alistair stood his ground.

“Yes. Would it?”

“I won’t even stick my head out my door for less than five sovereigns,” the dwarf said obstinately. “Up front, mind you.”

“Five…?” Alistair looked crestfallen. “W-We don’t have that kind of coin. But these people are desperate. They need—”

“Here.”

I’d barely known I was doing it; action without conscious thought, no proper decision…. My fingers had moved to the chain that hung around my neck, bearing both the pendant I’d received after my Joining, and the ring Nelaros had made for me. Two warm, smooth metal surfaces, alike in their terrible reminders of loss and burden. Sometimes, they seemed to weigh more than my whole pack.

I fumbled a bit as I unfastened the clasp, pulled the ring from the slim silver chain, and held it out to the trader.

“This is the only gold I have. Take it.”

Dwyn appeared surprised, but he didn’t resist as I dropped the ring into his hard, calloused palm. He peered at it briefly, then gave a short bark of laughter.

“Huh… you’re kidding, right? This is just scraps of gilding. Barely got half the weight of a sovereign!”

Heat blazed in my cheeks, and I fought not to blink, not to admit to the embarrassment, the humiliation. Of course, I thought bitterly, it stood to reason, didn’t it? Nothing of ours had any value outside the alienage. The hours Nelaros had worked, the months squirreling away enough material from the off-cuts at his father’s forge… laughable.

I clenched my jaw, forcing the anger down. Best leave it buried deep, I told myself; I’d need it later.

“All right.” I looked at Alistair, willing him to back me up. “Then we’ll get the money from Bann Teagan. He’ll see you paid… whatever you want.”

It was a risk, but I imagined—hoped, rather—that Alistair’s prior acquaintance with the bann would be enough to ensure he paid up and didn’t make me a liar. He must have caught the meaning in my glance, because he nodded.

“Wh—? Oh. Yes. Absolutely.”

Dwyn looked dubiously at us, turning Nelaros’ ring thoughtfully in his fingers. The sneer dropped from his face and, from the quiet curiosity with which he stared at me, I suspected he’d been expecting some kind of protest about the value of the ring. Maybe it was worth more… I had no idea. There was a long silence, taut and full of things beneath its surface. Dwyn shook his head, his expression an unreadable façade of dwarven resilience, with whatever he really thought locked tight away beneath.

“All right. If Teagan gives me his word, you’ve got yourself a deal.” He nodded gruffly, apparently oblivious to the heavies exchanging nervous glances above his head. “You’re getting off easy, but I guess you’re right. This town does need a hero… so long as you’re going to be out there too when the sun goes down. I’m not fighting for a lost cause, you hear me?”

“We will,” I promised. “And thank you.”

Dwyn grunted and tossed the ring back to me. More shocked than anything, I nearly didn’t catch it.

“Maybe do the thanking later… if we survive. And you can have your wedding ring back, girlie. Come on, boys.”

They trudged out towards the square, and we followed. I could feel Alistair’s gaze on the back of my neck, and I knew he was bursting to ask me something, but I didn’t want to give him the opportunity. I didn’t want to talk about anything.

~o~O~o~

A sharp chill underscored the growing dark as we made our way back up to the village square. It sent nerves coursing through me, the way the smell of frost sends horses skittish and jumpy, and I couldn’t shake the undeniable sense of foreboding. Demons and walking corpses… it didn’t seem real. Still, I reminded myself, up until that first encounter in the Korcari Wilds, I hadn’t believed the darkspawn were more than stories.

Murdock was pleased to see us, his former brusqueness tempered with guarded optimism—not least, I suspected, because Owen had finished the repairs, and now Sten stood among the militiamen, towering above the ranks and looking like some sort of gigantic warhorse, in a patchwork of armour made from leather, chain, and odd ends of metal plate strung together across his massive frame. His expression suggested that the entire palaver was beneath his dignity, but I thought he looked impressive. I also thought about what the people of Lothering had locked him up for, and tried not to dwell on it. Marching with a murderer at my back had not made for an easy minute since we’d freed him, but neither had Sten given the slightest indication of being a blood-crazed psychopath… and we would be glad of him tonight, I felt sure.

Leliana was there too, although I almost didn’t recognise her. The travel-stained Chantry robes were gone, replaced by grubby, patched leathers, much like those the militiamen wore, and I guessed a product of Owen’s rapid repairs. Her hair bound back into a tight, rather severe ponytail, she had a longbow and a full quiver slung across her back, and the well-polished hilts of steel daggers glinted at her hips. She smiled and waved at us, but there was something altogether harder and sleeker about her, and it unnerved me.

We left Morrigan and Maethor outside the chantry, the pair of them looking out of place amid the flurrying activity of the militiamen, and Alistair and I slipped inside, buffeted by the ragged press of people now streaming into the building. A low hum echoed off the walls. It was the buzz of frightened chatter; tens of thin, over-eager voices. Children, mainly, and the women trying to quiet them. Too many white, pinched faces… too many who knew what to expect from tonight, I thought.

Alistair went to brief Bann Teagan, and secure the promise of payment for Dwyn, while I sought out Mother Hannah. I found her in a side chapel, helping an old man lay out bedrolls for himself, his wife, and a small pack of grandchildren… or perhaps they weren’t all his. The little ones almost didn’t look like humans; a great sprawling gaggle of them, skinny and bright-eyed. A burst of pensive nostalgia tugged at me and, when the priest looked up and, with a nod, began to pick her way across the crowded floor, I blinked rapidly and cleared my throat.

“Your Reverence.” I bowed my head.

She nodded. The revered mother was an elderly woman, though age sat on her like a fine gauze rather than a sharp-edged burden, and it had certainly not dimmed the intensity of the grey eyes that now regarded me coolly.

“You are the other Warden,” she observed.

“Um….” I supposed I was and, for the briefest moment, almost the last words Duncan had said to me echoed in my mind: I expect you both to be worthy of that title. I pulled my shoulders back and met the woman’s eye. “Yes.”

Mother Hannah smiled thinly. “You are of elven blood, and a stranger, yet you defend a home that is not your own. We are grateful for that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t help?”

She put a slim, red-knuckled hand, traced with proud-standing veins, upon my arm, and guided me away from the side chapel and back into the main body of the chantry. The statuary—the carved figures of old kings and heroes, and the perfect, marble face of Andraste—peered silently down at the throngs of the dispossessed. I couldn’t help wondering if the Maker really was watching.

“Many elves would say that humans would not do the same for them.”

Mother Hannah’s voice was low and gentle, but matter-of-fact… and she had a good point. We’d have been right in our assumption, as well, I suspected.

“Perhaps,” I said diplomatically. “And perhaps I am a Grey Warden before all else.”

She smiled again, wider this time, though it was still a careworn, tired expression.

“Perhaps,” the priest echoed. “Now, what can I do to assist you, Warden? We have precious little, as you can see, but if I can offer any aid….”

I glanced around at the crowded ranks of villagers. Near the altar, I caught sight of Alistair talking earnestly with Bann Teagan. The nobleman appeared to be frowning—discussion of Dwyn’s payment, I assumed—but then he shook his head, cracked a chary, disbelieving smile, and clapped Alistair on the shoulder. Agreement, it seemed… and the tail end of a gesture that, once, might have been the tousling of a muddy, boyish head. I turned back to the priest.

“Just how safe is the chantry?” I asked, lowering my voice.

Her lips thinned; as clear an answer as I might have had. “It is the sturdiest building in the village, but we have taken several nights of attacks. In truth, I… I do not know how much longer the walls will withstand it. Once the doors are locked, Murdock’s men will barricade us in, and we must pray those defences hold.”

I nodded. “Right. And, er… Ser Perth said he’d asked you for holy protection, for the knights? He seems a devout man.”

The worry in Mother Hannah’s face turned to mild irritation, and she tutted.

“Oh, that man…! I am sorry, but what Ser Perth asks is not in my power to grant. Prayer is one thing, but he seeks the assurance that his men have the Maker’s protection in some tangible, physical sense. I cannot—”

My gaze fell to the silver symbol that hung from her neck: a circle, with a blazing flame at its heart. It was familiar. We’d had one on the wall at home; rough-carved from holly wood. When I was little, Mother taught me the comforting litany of prayers to say in front of it… and I couldn’t quite remember when all that had slipped away.

Down both sides of the nave, people were beginning to light candles and tapers—small glimmers of hope to last through the night to come—and I fancied I could see the light reflected in the holy flame, bringing the polished surface to life.

“Morale is a powerful thing, Mother,” I said softly. “As no doubt the Prophet found when she led her armies against the Imperium.”

The priest narrowed her eyes. “Do not presume to bandy theology with me, Warden,” she said, though her tone was not entirely hard. “I will not lie to those men, or tell them I have power I do not possess.”

I inclined my head. “Of course not. But if you can help them, if you can give them a means to find strength in their own faith—”

She sighed tersely, and those thin fingers reached up to touch the shimmering flame. “Very well. I see your point. We… have a box of these symbols in the back. I shall have them sent to Ser Perth at once. And you, Warden? How fairs your faith?”

It was a small, sharp barb, tacked onto the resignation of her words, and it took me by surprise.

“I….”

I truly didn’t know. It was a nebulous, peculiar thing, of which I had not thought in a long time, though I supposed I should. I’d believed once, hadn’t I? When I was younger, and Mother Boann’s well-meaning outreaches had not seemed patronising, because all I saw were women with well-dressed hair and beautiful clothes, who smelled of flowers and hardly seemed like humans at all.

I wondered why I hadn’t prayed since my conscription. Or since the arl’s estate, since Ishal… since Lothering, and all the loss and devastation. If I couldn’t manage to beg forgiveness for my own sins, surely I could manage to feel something for those who had lost everything.

Mother Hannah looked steadily at me with those calm grey eyes.

“Will you take a blessing?”

I nodded, suddenly humbled when I’d tried to be so clever, and bowed my head. The priest placed her palm upon my hair, and her voice was low and soft, yet the words rang with clarity they hadn’t held for me in a long while.

“Blessed art thou who exists in the Maker’s sight. Blessed art thou who seeks His forgiveness. Blessed art thou who seeks His return. Blessed is the Prophetess, His daughter, sacrificed to the holy flame. May the Chant reach the Maker’s ears and tell Him of our contrition.”

Behind my closed eyes, there was only darkness. There was no warm glow, no enveloping feeling of love or trust. Instead, I felt the edges of old wounds begin to open. I could smell the clean scent of firewood, and soap, and Father’s old leather jerkin, and I remembered dogs barking and children laughing, and the long, long walk down to the water pump.

“In Andraste’s name, I call upon the Maker to watch over His child and creation. Watch over her path, O Maker. Give her light in darkness.”

I opened my eyes, and candle flames danced across my vision, burning the shadows and the memories away. I blinked, smiled my thanks at the priest, and assured her that we would do all we could for Redcliffe tonight.

“I do not doubt it,” she said. “Maker watch over you.”

“And over you,” I murmured mechanically.

Alistair was waiting for me by the doors; they were preparing to close them, with heavy wooden bars ready to be hauled across. Dozens of pale, frightened faces watched us go. In the midst of them, Bann Teagan stood, the revered mother at his side, his face set with grim resolve.

We didn’t speak as we made our way back out into the square. The others were waiting. Murdock’s small band of men were in readiness, prepared to hold fast in the centre of the village, and all that remained was for us to get back up to the mill and take our place beside the knights.

After that, all we could do was wait.

~o~O~o~

The sunset should have been beautiful, especially from the top of the ridge. The whole sky was alight, burning in flames of golden orange and bruised with soft fingers of purple, the delicate fronds of lace-white cloud fanning out into trails that passed the sun’s sinking, burnished face as gently as the breath of sighs. It melted behind the cliff, liquid gold painting the hard, red earth and catching against every glint of mica in the rock.

We waited. The air stank of oil and apprehension. The soaked barricades stood between us and the route down from the castle, and unlit torches wavered in the hands of militiamen shaking with fear.

Ser Perth and his knights stood at our back. Dwyn and his boys—duly paid up, it appeared—were there too, and altogether I supposed we made a pretty formidable force. The question was whether that would be enough. The sails of the windmill creaked in the still dusk; there wasn’t enough wind to turn anything, much less shift the stubborn sense of foreboding that hung over us all like the smell of rotting meat.

I kept my eyes fixed on the narrow path ahead, and the blind corner that led up to the castle. It must have been cut from the cliff that way for a specific reason, once. Choke points, in case the villagers rose up against the arl, or insurance against the threat of foreign invasion or something. It was easy to forget that, until the years just before my birth, Ferelden had been an occupied land. Easy, too, for me to forget that all these great lords and their castles were for something more than show. Leliana had probably been right when she said there was blood in the bedrock of this place. Of course, that might as well be true of anywhere.

My thoughts were rambling, I told myself. Nerves. My fingers itched to draw my blade, just to feel the weight of something in my hand and know I wasn’t defenceless… yet we had to pace ourselves. This would be no quick skirmish.

“Whatever happens,” Alistair said quietly, “hold the line. All right?”

I glanced at him, and found his face intensely serious, an unsettling focus in his expression. I nodded.

“Good. The longer we can hold without having to fall back, the better. Ser Perth reckons there’s a good few hours’ burn time in the barricades… if that actually holds them up much.”

“Hmm.” I grimaced, not heartened by the thought of unstoppable walking dead that also happened to be on fire. “I think I’m sticking to the ‘hack until it falls over’ plan, myself.”

He sniggered, and we drew a couple of odd looks from some of the knights. Not much to laugh about, really, I supposed. The last streaks of gold raked their way across the sky, the clouds shadowed into shelving banks of purple-blue, and night drawing close behind them.

It reminded me of that long, damp dusk at Ostagar, where the lines between the marshy dankness of the Wilds and unsettled sky were so blurred that nothing ever seemed certain. No clear division of night from day, light from dark… just the cold and the wet, and the mud. We’d been out in the forest for what felt like days, only to face the etched stones of the ancient temple, and all the mysteries within it. I almost shuddered at the memories, wrought as they were now into a strange, complex mix, packed tight away among things still too painful to unpick, too big to fully comprehend.

There should have been time for it. Duncan had meant there to be. A long, slow induction that would have equipped me for whatever the future yielded… not that even he would necessarily have foreseen this. Undead pouring down the cliffside. A village in desperation, and Arl Eamon probably already dead… what would Duncan have done? I wondered briefly, and put the thoughts aside, knowing I might as easily ask what it was like to stand on the moon. I didn’t think like him; I was no commander of men, no great tactician. I was just blindingly lucky to still be alive, and bloody well determined to keep it that way.

It was almost dark. I dragged in a deep lungful of air, and it was greasy with oil, and rough with the faint breath of sulphur.

They were coming.

The fog was the first sign of it, as Ser Perth had warned us. We could see it begin to billow at the top of the cliff, and the shout went up. The militia were running to their posts, and I could hear the sound of the last bars going down over the chantry doors, the heavy clang of iron and wood drifting up from the square below. To my right, Leliana was murmuring a quiet stream of prayer, and Ser Perth gave the order to light the barricades.

Two of the militiamen stumbled forwards, flint, tinder and torches at the ready. The oil went up quick enough to singe their eyebrows and, in seconds, the carefully stacked fires were roaring. I could see a thin band of dark rock above the dancing flames, heat haze making the air shimmer, and my vision was pricked by the light. Too easy for my elven eyes to catch at the pattern of the flames, and too hard to pierce the shadows so far beyond them. I hated the shadows.

Still, we waited. It was unbearable, interminable… every time I thought I saw something, and nothing came. The darkness, the fog, the indescribable tension—it seemed it would never end, until Leliana drew her bow, the first to sight something moving at the top of the path.

“Here they come!” she cried, loosing an arrow.

I didn’t even see where it hit. I expected whatever she’d struck to cry out, but heard nothing beyond a faint thud, and the suggestion of something scrabbling on the gritty slope.

Later, I would realise that made sense. They were already dead. What need did these creatures have of rattling, ugly breaths, of roars or screams? The things that inhabited the flesh-shells were mostly already mad, too far gone to understand the power of speech or communication, or to have forethought enough to terrify us with it.

Nevertheless, there would be something about the silent ranks of walking corpses that would stay with me for a very long time. Longer, even, than the stench of the damn things.

The first wave of them came out of the fog in a strange, shambling gait, too awkward to seem remotely human, but too fast to leave any doubt over their intent. Some of them walked—as far as the term could be applied—on the edges of their feet, or on their ankles, the usual rules of anatomy disregarded by whatever was inside them. The arms and necks of many were disjointed, the angles all wrong… but all of them had once been people. That was far more obvious—more chillingly evident—than I had hoped it would be, and I was not prepared.

There were men and boys, women… even a few elves, probably once servants at the castle. What clothes they had hung in bloody tatters, and their flesh was little better. Skin and hair had begun to peel from a few, unseeing eyes rotting in their sockets and foul, leaking mouths held slack, giving the impression of creatures that found their way by scent, like blind pups butting their way towards the warmth of a bitch’s teat.

All around, steel sang as weapons were drawn. I had a blade in each fist, but I felt far less comforted by the fact than I’d hoped I would. Leliana and the others armed with bows loosed the first assault, and a few of the creatures went down, but they didn’t stay there. They clambered up again, slow but unstoppable, and they just kept coming, faster than it seemed dead flesh should ever be able to move. It had been just moments since I had my first glimpse of them through the fog, yet they were already at the first barricade, and I could make out the shapes of more pressing on behind.

The creatures—because it was so much more preferable to think of them like that than to accept the fact that, once, they’d had names and families—definitely burned… but the fire barely seemed to slow them, and they certainly didn’t treat it as more than an inconvenience. They just kept coming, pushing on with dead hands outstretched, some clutching weapons and others armed only with the singular determination of destruction. The smell of filthy, rotting flesh filled the air—almost as bad as the stench of darkspawn, I thought, although a different flavour of corruption—and it was tinged with the vile stench of charred fat and meat, enough to turn the strongest stomach.

Sten gave a warcry in his own tongue, and it broke the silence and the tension. Everything shattered around me. The shadows and the leaping flames, the knights’ burnished armour and their holy symbols, and the ungainly, terrifying ranks of undead all became part of a mad, kaleidoscopic vision through which I was running, my mind a clear, silver strand floating somewhere high above my body.

We charged, meeting the corpses as they lurched through the fire, and ending them as thoroughly as blades could allow. It was messy, gruesome work, especially after the barricades had slowed them. I encountered body after body, furnaces of hot, foul breath burning from blistered mouths, eyes like shelled boiled eggs and skin singed through to red, glistening muscle over which no pulse beat, and no blood flowed. After a while, the stench got so far down the back of my throat that I stopped retching… until the little boy with maggots where his tongue should have been.

I wanted to close my eyes, to stop seeing the differences in their faces, the different heights and shapes, and just hack blindly until it was over—and, if there truly was a Maker, and He had any mercy whatsoever, it had to be over soon—but I learned to be alert. Just not quickly enough, as it happened.

The thing that lurched out of the fire towards me had once been a tall, strong, young man… probably one of those who’d died trying to defend his village, not that it was possible to tell for sure now. The hair had all been burned from his head, only the last scraps of toughened leather armour clinging to his body. He swung at me with his right arm, and I parried, the force of the blow jarring my shoulder and almost dislodging my footing. I brought my dagger back, readying a strike under his ribs, the blade of my sword still buried in dead, mottled flesh. The unblinking, slack-mouthed corpse stared down at me, and then slammed his left fist into the side of my head.

“Watch it!”

Alistair’s voice came through a muffled fog as I pitched to the ground, for the first time truly understanding the full meaning of the phrase ‘dead weight’. My vision was blurred, the fractured shards of torchlight piercing unnatural pulses of bright blue and purple that burst in front of my eyes. I rolled, instinctively, the world still spinning above me in a dull roar, and the corpse that had sent me flying hit the gritty earth beside me… minus its head.

I hauled myself up on hands and knees, spat, and felt the distinct wobble of a loose tooth. The metallic taste of blood furred my tongue, and I could feel a wet trickle making its way down the side of my head.

“Sod,” I muttered, pulling my sword out of the now rather-more-dead undead, and giving the thing a hard kick on my way to scrambling up.

I glanced fuzzily at Alistair. Bloodied and panting, shield lacquered with gore and soot streaking his face, he nodded. I returned the gesture, assuring him I was all right, and we parted ways again. I lost sight of him somewhere in the next wave of the assault, and there was nothing but the firelight glancing off the knights’ bright armour, and the perpetual thuds, crunches and raw, graunching sounds of steel on flesh. It was endless; a vital, dark song that wound itself so deeply into my blood that, when the next lull in the attack came, I was shaking so much I could hardly stand. It wasn’t fear. Well, not completely. It was… like nothing I’d ever experienced.

I’d known bloodlust—the true desire to cause pain and to revel in the power to inflict it, and to end the life of another being—and, that day that felt a hundred years ago, back in the arl of Denerim’s estate, I had tasted its bitter, addictive fruit. At Ostagar, I’d fought in arms for the first time and learned what it was like to drive myself beyond what I thought I could do, to push beyond everything in the blind determination to survive. This was different. I was part of a team, and we had a goal, a strategy against an enemy that was identifiable, and knowledge we could use…. It was an edge I was not accustomed to having.

On the right flank, Maethor stood with two of Ser Perth’s knights, ready to mop up anything that got around the barricades. The mabari’s short brindled coat was filthy, though most of the blood didn’t seem to be his. His lips were pulled back, full-blown snarls and barks breaking from deep within the heavy body, those massive paws skittering on the earth as he all but danced in place, flanks shivering with excitement.

To the other side of the barricade, Morrigan was set well apart from the rest of the ranged attack; a whirlwind of sparks and violence, her black iron staff rimed with ice and her pale skin almost glowing in the darkness. She sent bolt after bolt into the encroaching lines, and though the things we fought had no capacity for fear, she terrified me.

“Maker’s breath!” exclaimed Leliana, somewhere behind my left shoulder. “How many more of them can there be?”

I turned, shaking my head and feeling the drying blood pull at my hairline.

“Don’t know,” I said with a wince. “How many have we…?”

She wrinkled her nose, and I glanced at the piles of hacked, mutilated bodies. Hard to count kills when it was difficult enough to work out how many bits belonged to the same corpse.

Dwyn’s boys had started to help the knights shift the… remains, I supposed we should call them. It was undignified, but the majority got thrown onto the barricades or heaped up as makeshift defences in their own right. The worst part of it was that I didn’t even manage to feel horrified. I just sheathed my blades and pitched in, grabbing whatever became available—leg, arm, half-shelled head or bit of torso—then lifting and throwing as if we were doing no more than stacking firewood.

Still, the flames burned on. The extra supplies Alistair had commandeered from Lloyd’s cellar, combined with lumber cannibalised from some of the abandoned shops and cottages, extended the life of the barricades considerably. I couldn’t even smell the stink of oil and burnt flesh anymore, but then I couldn’t smell anything.

“A-Are they still up there?” one of the militiamen asked in a tense whisper.

“Maybe it’s… stopped,” another said, his voice pitched high with frail, brittle hope. “Maybe there aren’t any more.”

To my right, Dwyn grunted and spat onto the bloody earth. “Fat chance of that. They’re there, all right. Can’t you smell ’em?”

Murmurs of assent ran through the men. I said nothing. After tonight, I very much doubted I’d ever be able to use my nose for anything but sneezing.

But, we were back to the waiting. Cold, uncomfortable, unbearable waiting. I clenched and unclenched my hands, trying to stop the shaking. My legs wanted to wobble and twitch, so I took to pacing to keep them steady… and myself as calm as I could manage. Wounds were bandaged, though we’d been lucky, and it seemed no one was seriously hurt. A few of Ser Perth’s knights kissed their holy amulets and offered thanks to Andraste and the Maker.

When the next wave came, we were tired, but ready.

Stars pricked the velvet night with cold, violent clarity, bidding to outshine the fat, pitted quarter of the moon. The barricades were burning with thick, greasy flames, belching soot into the chilly air. The creatures came in fewer numbers now, knots and gaggles instead of the massed ranks that had hit at first.

Morrigan fell back to the rear of the group, looking sweaty and exhausted. Knowing nothing of magic or the wielding of it, I didn’t understand how much the assault had taken out of her, and there was no time to stop and ask.

The creatures kept coming. I was numb, and the world was grey and muffled. I saw flesh, not faces, and I worked my way through body after body, their weight and their stink pressing in on me until there was nothing left to feel but the pounding of blood and the rough, jagged resistance of steel dragging through meat.

The worst of them was a young woman—or something that had once been one—tottering down the cliff path, half-rotted, in the remnants of a white gown. Clumps of blonde hair hung raggedly from what was left of her head, and putrid skin peeled from her breasts and arms, the flesh sloughed away from her ribcage to reveal the white glare of bone. She raised her arms and—caught between the fire and the pale dance of the moonlight—there was something hypnotic and terrifying about her. She swayed towards us, dead eyes rotted to black pits in the remains of a mottled face, and she held more power than the entire first rush of the corpses combined.

Sten cleaved her in two with one enormous blow… not that there was much of her to resist his sword. I saw one of the knights drop to his knees and clasp his hands in prayer, but then Leliana distracted me, darting across the path to clamber up onto the rock, peering up towards the castle.

The thick, sulphurous fog still wreathed the ground, adding yet another layer of filth and stink to the ridge, and making it near impossible to see what was up there. She leaned forwards, bow in her hand, a delicate figure painted in outlandish, flickering shadows, like some pagan goddess of war. That she was more than a simple Chantry sister had been evident from the start, but that night I saw just how much lay hidden beneath her veneer of cheerful, pious humility.

She jumped lightly down from the rock, shaking her head. The soot-streaked flame of her hair swished emphatically, and those ice-blue eyes were narrowed into shrewd, suspicious slits.

“I can’t see anything. It looks like there are no more up there, but… they could be waiting. How long is it before dawn?”

“Too long for it to be this quiet,” Ser Perth said grimly. “We must not grow complacent.”

He ordered his men to clear more of the bodies, and I slipped back to see Morrigan. She still looked pale, weary—drained, I supposed was the word—though she clearly felt well enough to savage me for taking the trouble to enquire after her health.

“Do I bother you with pointless questions?” she snapped. “What do you think, that magic comes at no cost? That my energy is as boundless as your ignorance?”

She gripped her staff tightly as she rose to her feet, scowling imperiously at me as if I couldn’t see how heavily she was leaning on the thing… or how that ample, elegantly framed bosom of hers was rising and falling to the strained rhythm of ragged, painful breaths. I held her gaze, watching the barricades’ fires dance on those amber discs and, just for once, Morrigan was the one to look away first.

“I… will be fine,” she muttered gracelessly. “Just let me catch my breath.”

I nodded, and I would have asked more irritating questions, but the cry went up as another knot of corpses shambled down towards us. Sten was at the front of the line, tackling them magnificently. Owen had fitted him out with a greatsword that would have been enormous on most humans—another of those things I’d barely seen outside of storybooks, and the heroic tales of knights in tournaments and battles—and, though he certainly didn’t dwarf the blade, the qunari wielded it with impressive ease. There was barely anything left for the rest of us to mop up, not that I really minded.

The respite didn’t last long. Just as we were being drawn back into committing ourselves to the latest wave of the assault, shouts and alarms broke out below, and one of Murdock’s militiamen came pelting up the path behind us.

“They’re attacking from the lake!” he yelled, gasping for breath. “They’re almost at the barricades! Quick, we need help!”

There was a horrible moment of indecision, ripped through with the twang and hiss of arrows flying, and the jumbled mess of fighting.

“Go!” Ser Perth yelled. “We have the path!”

Alistair nodded and barked orders. Leliana and two other archers were to fall back to the midsection of the ridge; Ser Perth’s men would hold their position with Dwyn and his boys, and the rest of us would plunge to Murdock’s aid. I didn’t think, just reacted, water-weak legs scrambling beneath me as we ran down the ridge, greeted by the sight of the undead swarming in on the village square. There were dozens of them; that same jerky, unnatural gait, those broken, misshapen bodies… the militia had already fallen back to protect the chantry, and the taint of desperation soured the air.

A rain of arrows flew over us, but served only to slow the creatures down. In the centre of the square, opposite the chantry doors, a huge bonfire burned. Flanked by the barricades it was one great, towering pyre of flame, casting a guttering, uneven light into the darkness… and providing, in its own way, an undeniable gesture of defiance.

Sten ran forwards, raging like some wild beast, and scythed through three of the corpses in a single stroke, severing limbs and heads like ears of corn. I should have been revolted. It should have been frightening, but I’d gone past that. I was wrapped in the hard, mouldering heart of something overwhelming and all-consuming, and I followed him with my weapons drawn and a wordless, furious warcry wrenched from my throat.

We dived headlong into the fray. It was chaos; bloody, dark, rampant chaos. No one had expected the creatures to come the way they had… but then they’d never been held back so effectively at the ridge before. It was impossible to know whether it was some kind of tactical decision on their part, or the mindless surging of insects, intent of swarming through any available chink. There was hardly an opportunity to discuss it rationally.

Morrigan let loose a tremendous blast of magical energy that knocked a dozen of the creatures to the ground—and a goodly number of the militiamen—and we set about the same grisly, methodical business as before.

It was worse down here. There were too many hidden corners, too many ways for the things to come. Over and over again, we thought we had them pushed back, only for some putrid, ravening corpse to lunge at us from behind a wall. I started to think they were coming out of the lake itself—who knew how many had drowned in there over the centuries?—but there was little room for fantasy with so much fighting at close quarters.

I took a bad blow to my shoulder; felt the armour part company and the blood start to flow. Pain cinched my left arm tight to my body, left me one-handed and awkward. The thing that faced me had once been a dark-skinned human, the remnants of black curls still clinging to his ravaged scalp. The shadows sculpted unimaginable horrors into the crevasses of his dead flesh. Hard, cold fingers dug at my skin, ripping hanks of my hair out at the root as unseeing eyes rolled in a rotten skull. Crusted, dry blood, too old to be from this battle, caked the corpse’s face, and I could have sworn it sought not just to wrest the life from me, but to feast on whatever was left behind. Yellow, stained teeth snarled and snapped, and the sickly, putrid mockery of breath—the vapours of death, not life—washed over me.

I yelled as I hit the ground, pulled my legs up and, sticking my feet into the creature’s middle, used the bulk of its weight to roll it over my head and towards the large bonfire in the middle of the square. The flames caught surprisingly quickly and, as cinders and sparks leapt into the cold air, the corpse lumbered back out of the fire, still burning. One of Murdock’s men, a man with a grey beard and pouchy, dark eyes, pushed out of the melee behind the corpse and clobbered it across the back of the head with his mace. It spun, attacked… and no matter how many times I saw it, I couldn’t get used to the terrible ease with which the things could inflict such horrible damage. The man’s arm was almost pulled from its socket and, as he crumpled to the dirt, screaming, the creature reached down, like it could just pluck the flesh from his face. Perhaps it could. I didn’t give it the opportunity, though severing the head from the creature’s shoulders was a hard, unforgiving endeavour, and I ended up clinging on to its back as it bucked in circles, trying to throw me off. The last traces of dying flames burned my leg, though I barely felt it.

Finally, the deed done, the corpse pitched to the ground and I followed suit, blade, hands and most of the rest of me befouled with the grease and vileness of rotten flesh. The militiaman lay a foot or so away, a rivulet of blood tracking its way into his beard. He turned his face to me, his cheeks sweat-damp and trembling. I crawled over, my mouth full of grit and dust and my head ringing. He needed healing; badly dislocated arm, wounds to his head and one leg. A burst of ice lit up the night above me and—with a visceral, shattering thud—I heard a shield smash into a frozen corpse, probably rendering it as effectively decapitated as any sword could. I yelled for Morrigan, not sure she could even hear me, and not sure I could get to my feet again yet.

“Help’s coming,” I said to the militiaman, my hand on the thick leather that covered his rapidly panting chest.

Or, at least, I tried to say it. I suspect, if the man was aware of anything at all, it was a wide-eyed elf gibbering at him with the slurred words of an early concussion. Still, a whirl of feathers and black cloth heralded Morrigan kneeling beside me, her staff biting into the thick, grimy dust.

“What?”

I turned my head, and found those golden eyes unnaturally bright with what I could only think of as hunger. The witch’s pale face was a twisted gasp, her lips curled and baring neat, white teeth.

“Help him,” I shouted, pointing to the fallen man. His breathing was growing ever more shallow. “He needs healing!”

The curled lips bent into a sneer, and her gaze hardened. “I am no healer! You know this. I….”

“Please!”

Had there been more time, more space to breathe, I’d have realised the look that crossed Morrigan’s face in that briefest of seconds was one of nervous indecision. She rarely did anything in which she was not confident of success and, later, I would understand why.

She looked away abruptly, and laid her hand on the man’s pallid head. Another of the corpses broke through between the barricades and, seizing my dagger, I staggered to my feet and lurched towards it, neither waiting to thank her or to judge her success. I heard the militiaman screaming, but by the time I’d helped take down the interlopers that threatened the line, it had stopped and—as I could plainly see—he was rising to his feet, helped by Morrigan and Tomas, the lad who’d first met us on the bridge.

I shot Morrigan a bone-weary but sincere nod of gratitude. She could do more than she knew, I remember thinking… which turned out to be naivety of the worst order. She just shook her head, then raised that black iron staff and loosed a furious flare of ice towards the western side of the barricade, stopping another two undead in their tracks, and allowing Sten to bash them into oblivion with his greatsword. I winced and looked away. Frozen chunks of flesh littered the ground, and I could only imagine what they’d be like when they thawed.

The numbers dwindled after the first hour or so. I had privately decided that, whatever evil this was, there couldn’t be a single dead body left at the bottom of the lake, or in any graveyard or paupers’ field for a hundred miles. We’d cut our way through so many, I was sure I’d see nothing else when I closed my eyes… probably not for the rest of my life. The moon had passed its way across the sky; it couldn’t be that long until dawn. As breaths were caught and wounds were quickly, temporarily bandaged, I cherished the wisp of a memory from home. Mother used to tell a story about the moon and her lover: a mortal man who had been cursed by a magister, and doomed to wander eternally without rest. The moon loved him so that she wrought herself a chariot of stars, and followed him every night, though she could never catch him. I couldn’t remember how it ended. Not well, I assumed. Stories never seemed to.

When the creatures came again, they appeared to be warier. They lingered on the gangways, held back at the corners of the streets and alleys that ran between the square and the lake’s edge. It was as if they were taunting us. Hisses and groans left them like catcalls, and their oddly angled arms jerked, bodies twitching in horrible, impatient pulses. A few of the militiamen, fired up and not thinking, started to run out into the network of blind turns and dark shadows, but Alistair was out at the front of the line, yelling at them to hold their positions. Murdock weighed in behind him, threatening to cut the balls off the first man who moved, and that seemed to get their attention.

It was a tense, ugly stand-off, with Leliana, Morrigan, and the rest of those armed for ranged combat sending short volleys across the dirt. They didn’t do much except apparently enrage the creatures and, when they finally did come blundering towards us, they crashed against the barricades with such ferocity that I thought we’d all be dead by morning.

After that, there was one more wave, light in numbers but as horrendous as anything that had gone before. We were tired, numb… and determined. They fell as the others had fallen, and the darkness seemed to be fading. The chill of night was giving way to the dampness of a coming dawn, and the shadows paled against the outlines of trees and rooftops. Up on the ridge, I could make out the flames of torches, and the black shapes of Ser Perth and his men.

“It’s over,” one of the men said, his voice cracking with disbelief, and he was rapidly shushed.

“Ain’t over ’til sun-up,” someone else said, and every pair of eyes seemed to turn to the east.

We stared for what felt like hours. Nothing. The darkness still wreathed the village and, though no more corpses came, the waiting was unbearable until finally, as we watched, the sun began to rise beyond the silvery horizon, breaking the surface of the lake into a thousand glittering planes.

A worn, ragged cheer went up from the militamen, and I dropped to my knees, watching the tentative veins of pink thread through the bruised, purple-blue underbelly of cloud. At that moment, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

The coolness of the morning bathed my face, damp air breathing new life into aching, stale lungs. We were all still here, still alive… we’d done it.

It was the first victory I’d ever known.

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Volume 2: Chapter Nine
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Seven

 
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There was a girl over by the chantry’s wide, wooden doors. She was hunched against the wall, her shoulders shaking as she tried to hide her sobs. As I turned away from the others, leaving them to the quiet murmurs of indecision—and Morrigan’s scouring displeasure—she caught my attention. I wouldn’t normally have approached, given that most of the humans here were in some degree of distress and would probably not welcome elven interference, but she seemed to be completely alone, and she couldn’t have been more than thirteen, maybe fifteen years old.

I cleared my throat. “Um. Are you all right?”

“I-I’m sorry….” The girl looked up at me; cheeks tear-stained and nose running. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

Her face creased up and she slid down the wall, arms wrapped around her head as she sobbed and hiccoughed. I swallowed hard, suddenly not seeing a shem sitting there anymore, but Shianni, scrabbling to cover herself with a torn and filthy dress, and crying so hard she couldn’t stand.

Maethor padded past me and shoved his wrinkled snout straight into her lap, wagging his stumpy tail encouragingly. I had to smile. Despite the muddy clumps in his filthy coat, the muscles outlined underneath like frogs in oil, the terrible breath and his habit of rolling in every pile of foulness he found on the road, he had a very compassionate nature.

“Oh….” The girl sniffed and blinked in surprise. “H-Hello, there.”

Maethor licked her hand, and a brief, shaky smile teetered across her lips. I crouched down beside her, and reached a tentative hand to her shoulder.

“What happened to you?”

“Those… those things dragged my mother away.” She peered blearily up at me, and gave a thick, wet snort. “I just… I can hear her screaming all the time, everywhere!”

Maethor whined, and my heart went out to the girl. I squeezed her shoulder, not sure what else I should do. She curled her fingers hesitantly around the mabari’s small, soft, creased ears.

“Now my brother’s run off too,” she managed, her voice rising to a pale, querulous tremor. “Bevin’s only little, he doesn’t understand about what happened to Mother, he doesn’t… oh, what if he’s gone looking for her? What… what if they got him, too? I’m so scared he’s—”

She dissolved into explosive, racking sobs, holding onto Maethor like he was the last defence she had against grief. I patted her back gingerly, knowing as I tried to rub away some of the hurt that it couldn’t possibly do any good.

Glancing up, I was aware of Leliana standing behind me, looking down at the girl with an expression of intense, lucid sympathy.

“How terrible! You poor thing… I wish there was something we could do to help.”

I hadn’t realised the others had noticed my absence, much less begun to head over to join me. The girl looked up at Leliana tearfully, and sniffed again.

“I went to our house… it’s by the square, b-but Bevin wasn’t there. I searched all over. I called and I called but he never answered. He could have run off into the woods, or—”

“If that is the case,” Morrigan observed coolly, “then he is no doubt already dead. You should get used to that fact.”

The girl’s lip trembled and, with a wail, she burst into a round of renewed sobbing. Maethor whined and licked her face. It was either a gesture of sympathy, or appreciation for the salt, I supposed.

“Nice,” Alistair muttered. “Maybe you want to kick her in the head while you’re at it?”

The witch snorted and folded her arms. “Shall we comfort her with lies? If she is to face death, better she face it honestly.”

The girl bawled, red-faced and howling. I patted her shoulder and cast around for something helpful to say.

“Er….”

“Maybe we could look for him,” Leliana suggested, giving me an expectant glance.

Behind me, Morrigan groaned theatrically. The girl didn’t seem to notice it, though. She raised her head, fingers still curled on Maethor’s flat bullet of a skull.

“Y-You will? Thank you so much! Please… please find him!”

Morrigan started to mutter something about not being in the business of recovering corpses, but the girl was apparently deafened enough by hope not to hear it.

“M-My name’s Kaitlyn,” she said, looking up at me with a wide-eyed awe that I was not used to seeing on humans. “Our house is just on the side of the square, past Master Otho’s shop. If you find Bevin, tell him how worried I’ve been….”

“I’ll do my best.” I patted her hand and was only too glad to extricate myself.

The chantry had begun to feel far too oppressive. That dusty, pervasive smell of beeswax furniture polish and stifled sanctity—so familiar from my few visits to the cathedral back home, yet such a pale shadow here, nudging my memories with only a few threads of commonality—tickled in the back of my throat. At least half the village had to be in here, I thought, which begged the question of where the other half were… or what had happened to them.

“Excuse me?”

Another voice, this one older and softer, its edges worn down by an altogether quieter grief, tugged at me. I turned and found a woman with dark hair tingeing to grey pulled back from her temples, her face lined and heavily shadowed, though her manner was restrained.

“I apologise,” she said, with politeness that still sent a light shiver of confusion through me, “but I couldn’t help overhearing. You… you are Grey Wardens?”

Alistair and I exchanged glances. Not that it mattered; this place was such a mess of chaos and confusion that everyone would hear soon enough… and probably no one would care. Besides, even if the bounty on our heads was deemed temptation enough, who could we be turned in to?

I nodded. “Yes, we are.”

Relief flushed her cheeks, for a second wiping away some of the haggardness, and her lips formed an imperfect ‘o’.

“Please… were you at Ostagar? In the Korcari Wilds?”

She looked from one of us to the other, and it was Alistair who answered her, with a tight nod of his head.

“Yes.”

The woman exhaled, one hand going to her mouth and the other outstretched in a gesture of terrible pleading.

“My husband and son were both there. They were missionaries, sent to bring the Chant of Light to the Chasind, but I haven’t heard from them since.”

Alistair looked nonplussed, and as if he was about to reach for an excuse, but recognition knocked at the back of my mind, nudging its way through my burgeoning headache.

“Are you Jetta?” I asked, dropping my pack from my shoulder.

“I am.” Her brow furrowed apprehensively. “You’ve heard of me?”

“Um, yes….” I couldn’t quite bring myself to meet her eye, and ferreted busily in the pack, looking for the scuffed little box that had miraculously survived Ishal, when so many of my own belongings had been lost.

I thought briefly of the moment I’d unearthed the thing, buried beneath the firepit in the missionary’s wrecked camp, and how I’d stowed it away out of some vague sense of respect, while Daveth had been cheerfully jemmying the dead man’s supply trunk. Funny, because recalling it now reminded me of those damp, chilly hours in the Wilds, when I’d believed the men I was with would be my new comrades, not yet more lost faces I would leave behind.

I straightened up, holding out the lockbox, and hoping I wouldn’t have to spell out what it meant. If Jetta recognised the thing immediately, she was trying to deny it to herself. A frown creased her forehead and a strange look crossed her eyes. I didn’t fully understand it then, though I could distinguish the rough shape of the thing. It was the pain of fearing a truth, but only being stung by its full breadth after too long not knowing… the way I feared all the things that might already have happened back home, I supposed, absurdly surprised at the common ground this woman and I shared. It was a feeling that, in time, I would learn to know better, and I would realise that, in such circumstances, hope can only be clung to for so long before it becomes more of a millstone than a comfort.

“His lockbox,” she murmured, shaking her head slowly, and I could see that the battle between acceptance and denial was over. “Oh, Rigby…. Our son, too?”

“Yes. I’m very sorry,” I said, pushing the box towards her. “Your husband wanted you to have this. I’d been hoping we’d be able to find you.”

Jetta’s face crumpled, though her dignity was magnificent. “Thank you.”

She took the lockbox, fingers tracing its lid and hinges tenderly, and tears misted her eyes.

“We, er, gave them both a decent burial,” I said, with a glance at Alistair.

He blinked, then nodded belatedly. “Ah, er… yes.”

Well, it was half-true. We’d given Missionary Rigby back to the earth, because the Wilds were too wet and full of darkspawn to spend time trying to light a fire, but Jogby had been too decomposed to even bother fishing out of the stagnant water we’d found him in. Still, half a truth was better than nothing, I supposed.

“Thank you so much for bringing this to me.” Jetta sniffled. “It means a great deal, and… well, at least I know now. I appreciate what you did. Maker’s blessings upon you, Wardens.”

I could feel the weight of Morrigan’s bored disapproval pressing against the back of my neck, and I didn’t dare look round. Sten’s little gaggle of admirers wasn’t far behind, either: wide-eyed children, distracted for just a moment from the fear and discomfort of the village’s suffering by the appearance of this strange and striking giant. They kept creeping between the pews, staring up at him and then scampering back, giggling, whenever he moved. His tight exhalation of breath—like a dry wind through a wide cavern—reminded me we should probably head back outside.

There was much to do, as Bann Teagan had said, and not a lot of daylight left.

~o~O~o~

Outside the chantry, men in ill-fitting odds and ends of armour were criss-crossing the dirt-packed expanse of the square, shoring up the barricades and carrying out what looked to be futile attempts at preparation for the night to come. These people had nothing, I realised; nothing except the grimly packed determination and fear of those who have not yet lost everything, but are readying themselves to do so. The sense of hopelessness was almost palpable, and I shivered.

The man we’d spotted before, with the dark moustache—the man I now assumed to be Murdock—nodded at us, and strode evenly across the square, meeting us beside one of the barricades.

“So, you’re the Grey Wardens, are you?” Those small, dark, heavy-lidded eyes roved charily over Alistair, then me, and the man gave a short cough of bitter laughter, his low, gravely voice thick with scorn. “Huh. I didn’t think they made… women Grey Wardens.”

I knew exactly what he meant and, though he’d at least had the grace to leave it unsaid, it was unclear whether my gender or my race appalled him more. I waited a beat before I answered, taking care to keep my face as blank as I could.

“And why ever would you think that?”

There was a sharp, brittle edge to the words that didn’t sound quite like me. I wasn’t sure how it had snuck in there… or whether I liked it.

Murdock snorted. “For more reasons than you’d care to hear, I bet. Still, there’s no reason to think Bann Teagan’s lost his mind. We aren’t going to turn aside anyone who wants to help… we’re not ingrates or nothing.”

“Well, we do want to help,” Alistair said, his earnest sincerity almost disguising Morrigan’s quiet scoff. “You can trust us.”

“Hmm.” The man sniffed, and folded his broad arms across his chest. “All right, then. Name’s Murdock, mayor of what’s left of the village.”

We shuffled through the introductions, Alistair having the presence of mind to gloss over the origins of our companions as best he could. The people of Redcliffe might be desperate, but there were still political sensitivities that surrounded marching into a place, flanked by an Orlesian, an apostate and a qunari… besides the fact it sounded like the start of a bad joke.

I glanced at the barricades, quietly counting the paths up the cliff, and reading the turns and blind corners in the village’s narrow streets. It was a lot like the market district back home, though there would be more to worry about running into here than shems with greasy sneers and busy hands. Still, there were—I counted under my breath—three, maybe four routes that fed into the square. From there, the chantry had its broadest side, and the back of the building was set solidly against rock and the rears of other buildings, with a slope leading down to the lakeside. It was solidly built; easily the largest, most durable structure in the village, next to the rows of cottages and stores with their narrow-pitched roofs and the odd, stilt-supported platforms that overhung the water down at the shoreline. Wooden smokehouses lined the lower part of the slope, testament to the reliance the place must have on fish.

No boats out today, by the look of things, nor for some time.

Alistair was asking Murdock pertinent questions about the nature of the attacks, the losses, and the quantities of men and arms at the village’s disposal. None of it was good news. The things swarmed down from the castle, killing and destroying without mercy or distinction, and those they slew only swelled their ranks. With no way out, no supplies, and no military training… well, it was a miracle the villagers had survived this long.

“So you fall back to here?” I asked absently, narrowing my eyes against the glare of the lowering sun as I scanned the ridge above us.

Strange how, from up there, the place had looked so quiet and peaceful.

“Aye.” Murdock nodded. “We’re the last defenders of them folks in the chantry—the women, elderly, and the children. They’re the ones we need to protect.”

Behind me, Sten grunted derisively. The others had been silent up until now, and I peered back at him, faintly surprised, though I found his face as deadpan as ever, locked into that slight scowl of disapproval. His gaze met mine, and his words dropped like hot coals.

“The weak must learn to protect themselves.”

“Right,” Alistair said, arching an eyebrow. “Yes. Those helpless bastards. How dare they?”

I doubted his sarcasm was truly lost on Sten, but it went unacknowledged.

“No qunari would ever cower helplessly,” Sten stated flatly. In a less monolithic sort of person—or had I known him better then—it might have been possible to detect a whiff of nostalgic pride. “Not woman, nor elder, nor child. They would fight for their survival with tooth and nail.”

There was a beat of dry silence, during which I supposed we were all contemplating that less-than-soothing image. Murdock cleared his throat.

“Well… we’re not qunari. And I’m not asking those folk to fight monsters.” He wrinkled his nose, falling back on belligerence to hide his discomfort, I supposed. “No matter what happens, we can’t let them evil things in there… and that’s that.”

“All right.” I nodded slowly, beginning to grasp something of the local character in these parts. Typical Fereldan bull-headedness was one thing, but this was an altogether grittier resolve, and I was grudgingly impressed. “Then what we can do to help?”

“Well, we need what little armour and weapons we’ve got repaired, and quickly, or half of us will be fighting without either.” Murdock’s moustache bristled as he sucked his teeth, eyes narrowed. “Owen’s the only blacksmith who can do it, but the stubborn fool refuses to even talk. If we’re to be ready for tonight, we’ll need that crotchety bastard’s help.”

Great, I thought. Walking undead and cantankerous shems.

“Er… why does he refuse to talk?”

“Huh. His daughter, Valena, is one of the arlessa’s maids, so he hasn’t heard from her since this whole business started. He demanded we attack the castle, break down the gate, and force our way in.” He shook his head incredulously. “I said it was impossible, but he wouldn’t listen. He’s locked himself in the smithy now. I can’t force him to do the repairs… especially when he says he’d rather die first.”

I glanced at Sten, half-expecting either him or Morrigan to suggest we grant the man’s wish, but both were mercifully silent.

“We’ll talk to him,” I promised. “Is there anything else you need?”

Murdock shrugged, and I could read his thoughts plainly on that strip of sunburnt face. He didn’t think for a moment we’d make any difference, and he most likely considered me an insolent knife-eared wench, but I could see the interest with which he eyed my companions.

“Some extra bodies’ll be handy,” he conceded, looking over my shoulder at Sten. “And having a veteran like Dwyn in the militia would help a lot, but he flat out refuses.”

“Who’s Dwyn?”

Murdock barely acknowledged my question, and I’d have wagered good coin he was trying to work out how to cobble together armour the right size for a qunari.

“Hm? Oh, he’s a trader, a dwarf. Lives near the lake. Locked himself up in his home with some of his workers, he has, says he doesn’t need any of us. As you can imagine, it doesn’t exactly help morale.”

“What about supplies?” Alistair asked.

“Err… commerce isn’t exactly our first concern right now,” Murdock said dryly. “No one’s trading. There’s nothing to be had… though you might try Lloyd, up at the tavern.” He pointed to the top of the ridge. “Chances are he could have a few odds and ends he’s been keeping back. I wouldn’t be surprised. Other than that, the stores are all boarded up or empty. We’ve taken everything we can use… much good it’s done us.”

“Well,” I said dubiously, “I suppose we should try talking to Owen.”

The tail of a question hid beneath the words, and I looked at Alistair as I spoke, rather hoping he might have some impulsive burst of leadership, or be busily formulating some miraculous strategy. He just nodded, and waited until I sighed and trudged off across the square, following Murdock’s directions towards the smithy. Irritation prickled beneath my skin… as if I didn’t already have enough reasons to be annoyed with him.

It was neither the time nor place, however, so I forced the exasperation down, wadded it up into a dark little ball, and made my way up to the front of the forge, aware not just of my companions traipsing behind me, but of Murdock and his militiamen watching us.

The door of the smithy was locked up tight, stout and heavy enough to be immovable. A quick glance around the building’s low frontage confirmed there was no other way in: the windows were shuttered up and too small even for me to squeeze through.

“It would be quicker to break it down,” Sten observed.

“Maybe,” I agreed, “but it won’t make the man any likelier to be helpful.”

He grunted, which I took as a show of support for the do-as-I-say-or-I’ll-rip-your-arms-off school of encouragement. I suspected it would have its place in the events to come, but decided I’d rather try diplomacy first.

I bunched up a fist and knocked sharply on the smithy door.

“Hello?”

After a second knock, a man’s voice came, muffled, through the studded wood.

“Go away, curse you! Can’t you leave me in peace? You’ve already taken everything out of my stores! There’s nothing left!”

The words were coupled with the mangled sound of wood barking on stone, like someone tripping over a small table. I winced, and leaned closer to the door.

“Is this Owen, the blacksmith? I need to speak with you.”

“What?” Another stumbling clatter, and the voice seemed a bit closer, though no clearer. “Who’s that? What do you want? I’ve been through enough….”

Sten shifted, giving silent but undeniable expression to his irritation.

“I say melt out the lock,” Morrigan muttered. “’Tis simple enough. Just a small fireball—”

“No fireballs!” I hissed. “Just… just a minute.”

It was becoming embarrassing: the five of us—six including Maethor, who was widdling up a nearby tree—crowded around the smithy door and getting absolutely nowhere. I hoped Murdock and his boys were having a good laugh at our expense; Maker knew they needed to grab the opportunity while they could.

“Look,” Alistair tried, raising his voice. “It would be much better if we could speak to you, er, not through a door. Can we come in? Please?”

Morrigan snorted. He pulled a face at her.

“We only want to talk to you,” Leliana put in, and I wondered if the prospect of an Orlesian girl on his doorstep might change Owen’s mind. “Please?”

There was some further shuffling from within, and something that sounded like the faint glug of liquid.

“No,” barked the voice, apparently after some consideration. “I… I don’t know you people, and I don’t want to. Go away!”

I groaned in frustration. My head hurt and I was increasingly tempted to let Sten rip the door off its hinges, if he was so inclined. I smacked my palm against the wood.

“We need your help, smith! And I’m not moving until someone opens this bloody door, so you can either let us in, or I’ll stand here annoying you all day.”

There was a long, dramatic sigh. “Oh, all right, all right…. I don’t know why you’re so determined. Here, I’ll get the locks.”

I grinned, relishing the small flush of triumph, and we waited as what sounded like an entire costermonger’s barrow was drawn back behind the thick wood.

Inside, the smithy was stifling: dark and choked with the stink of cheap booze and stale human sweat. The forge itself lay cold and soot-smudged, no work going on, nor any care for the tools abandoned on the benches. Drifts of empty bottles and broken jugs littered the floor. I could see what Owen had meant by Murdock’s militia plundering his stock. The racks on the walls were empty, and the whole place looked like it had been turned over by a hurricane… possibly a very, very drunk hurricane.

“Maker’s breath!” Leliana gasped. “What is that smell? It’s like someone set a brewery on fire!”

“Somebody’s been drinking,” Alistair observed, in a quiet sing-song tone.

He wasn’t wrong. As the smith himself lurched out from behind the door, I was hard-pressed not to recoil in disgust. It appeared to be a miracle Owen could actually stand up, much less formulate complete sentences. The combined odours of unwashed shem, stale piss, vomit, soot, leather, and rat-spit brandy were like an impenetrable, solid aura, extending several feet beyond his pouch-eyed, dishevelled person. A matted grey beard reached halfway to his chest, and his breath could have stripped paint.

“All right,” Owen slurred. “So I let you in. You wanted to talk; now we’re talking. Mind telling me who you are?”

I stifled a cough. “My… my name is Merien. My friends and I are… are here to, er, help….”

“Oh, yeah?” He cast a bleary glance over our ragtag band, and wrinkled his nose. “Huh. Takes all kinds, I s’pose. Funny, you didn’t sound like an elf through the door. Can’t say I expected that.”

My back tensed a little, but the human didn’t appear to be holding it against me. He looked me up and down—or at least peered vaguely at the bit of the room spinning in my direction—and shrugged as he reached for a half-empty bottle that stood by the bellows.

“Anyhow, my name’s Owen… though you might already know that.” He raised the bottle, swigged, belched, and then offered it out in a wavering salute. “Care to join me as I get besotted?”

“Er… no, thanks,” I said, as tactfully as I could manage. “How long have you been shut up in here?”

The man’s great, scored brow furrowed, and he sneered.

“Dunno. Two days, maybe. Three? Not that it matters. My girl… she’s up there in the castle, dead or soon to be. And that bastard Murdock won’t even try to find her.”

I crossed my arms. Slightly firmer ground here; no worse than dealing with my late Uncle Merenir on one of his rougher days.

The smith glared fuzzily at me, swaying slightly. “You… you don’t unnerstan’, you don’t…. Valena’s been my life since my wife passed on. Without her, I don’t care what happens to me, or the village, or anyone.”

“So you’re going to drink yourself to death?” I demanded. “D’you think she’d be proud of you?”

“She won’t know if she’s dead.” Owen scoffed. “And why shouldn’t I? I’ve failed her, and it’s not like any of us are gonna live past the night anyhow. Or are you going to save us?”

Scorn seeped from his voice, but it was hard to tell whether it was genuine hostility, or just the booze. I was aware of the restive shifting of feet behind me, and felt acutely defenceless, pierced by scrutiny on all sides. That rankled, and I rebelled against it, no longer prepared to tolerate the derision of humans.

“I intend to try,” I said haughtily.

“Oh, is that so?” The bottle stilled on the way to Owen’s lips. He paused, then swigged, and grimaced. “Huh. Maybe it’s the drink talking, but you almost sound like you believe that.”

I set my jaw. “I do. So, will you help?”

The smith’s bloodshot gaze wavered as I stared at him, unflinching, and after what felt like an age, he snorted.

“You do somethin’ for me, and I’ll consider it.” Owen belched again, and pointed the almost empty bottle at me. “It’d do me a world of good, say, to think maybe someone could get up to the castle and find my girl.”

“But no one can get into the castle!” Alistair protested. “Don’t you think you’re being unrea—”

“It might be possible,” I said quickly, cutting across him. “But to do that, we would need your help. Think about it. If you stay locked in here, and you do nothing to help, those men out there—those men trying to defend this village—they’ll die. Everyone will die, and no one will ever find Valena. But help us tonight… and we might have a chance.”

Owen narrowed his eyes, mouth crumpling into a sour twist. He shook his head.

“Not good enough,” he grumbled, slamming the empty bottle down on the bench. “Murdock said jus’ the same damned thing. You promise me. Promise, you hear?”

I’d heard it before: the wheedling, childlike whine of a drunk just short of throwing a punch. It was usually the point where Soris used to come knocking at our door and ask Father to go back with him. He would, and sometimes he’d bring Uncle Merenir round to ours, where he could calm down and sober up in the quiet.

Of course, familiarity didn’t give me any more patience. I sighed—a terse, hard breath of frustration—and I obviously wasn’t alone in my irritation.

“You are asking a great deal, you wretched little man,” Morrigan snapped, grip tightening on the neck of her staff.

The smith was either too drunk or too distraught to take the warning, and he wobbled unsteadily as he lurched towards me, one meaty finger pointed at my face. A father’s agony of loss twisted in the patchwork of broken veins that ran across his nose and cheeks.

“I want a promise,” he slurred. “You… you promise me that you’ll look for her, that you’ll bring her back to me if you can.”

For all his flabby, stinking, matted humanness—everything I’d been brought up to revile and despise in shems—I felt sorry for the man. No loss is ever easy, even in the teeth of the most monstrous circumstances.

“And if she’s dead?” I asked, his potent breath fanning my face.

It felt cruel; I knew it was when I saw the lurch of a knife turning in Owen’s pale, runny eyes.

“Then at least I’ll know,” he grated out thickly. “You’ll give an old man that, won’t you?”

“All right.” I nodded. “I promise you: I’ll find her.”

He rocked backwards in a gale of fumes and relief, and let out a sigh that it would have been extremely dangerous to put a match to.

“Hm.” Behind me, Sten gave a small, disapproving grunt. “Is this a promise we do not intend to keep?”

“Let’s hope not,” Morrigan muttered, gaze fixed on the red-shadowed ceiling.

“Eh?” Owen was drunk, but not so drunk he missed that. “What’s this?”

Sten narrowed those peculiarly bright eyes of his. “I said nothing to you, human.”

The smith nodded uncertainly, a small frown still knitting his sweaty brow. “Right. Well, then. I suppose there’s no point in me sitting around. Time to re-light the forge and get the smithy going, eh? Murdock’ll be pleased.”

He glanced around at the mess, seeming almost not to notice the strewn chaos and devastation. I wanted very much to be outside again, away from this claustrophobic, stifling space, but I knew we weren’t quite finished yet.

“You’ll need some help with the forge, yes?” I asked, nodding at the bellows.

“Hm? Oh….”

Owen squinted muzzily at the cold ashes, as if he couldn’t remember the fire going out. He probably couldn’t, I guessed. I turned to Sten and gave him a meaningful look.

“My friend has a strong arm. If he helps you, perhaps you could see your way clear to fixing him up with some armour that fits? He has terrible trouble finding anything in the right size.”

If we survived this little escapade, I was going to get my arms torn off later. I was fairly certain of the fact, though Sten’s expression barely flickered. Owen peered at him and then gave a rough, brackish chuckle.

“Yeah… big lad, aren’t yer? All right, I’ll see what I can do. Much obliged. And if you need anything else before tonight, you jus’ say the word.”

I nodded, and managed a grim little smile. “Thank you.”

~o~O~o~

Outside the smithy, we paused to count through what still needed to be done before sunset. I couldn’t quite adjust to the way they were all looking at me, expecting decisions and… what? Orders?

“So,” Alistair said hopefully, “what now?”

I scratched my head, aware of how greasy my hair was, and how much of the road’s dust and grime clung to my skin, despite all the effort we’d made at looking presentable for our arrival here… our arrival at the castle. Not that there was any sense in dwelling on how off-course all our assumptions had been, I supposed—or what it would mean for the wider shadows that loomed above us. Every hour that passed could mean the darkspawn edging further north, and there was nothing we could do about it. Not yet… but thinking about it would only bring madness, and before anyone had time to go mad, we had a job to do.

“Um… right.” I glanced up at the sky. Late afternoon sun painted the clouds with thick streaks of lazy gold, but it was hard to see the beauty in it. I dragged my attention back to the matter in hand. “Leliana, would you please let Murdock know that Owen’s willing to undertake the repairs?”

She nodded. “I will do it.”

The way she drew herself up ever so slightly, shoulders squared and face calm, made me want to shudder with fear. This wasn’t what I’d pictured, what I’d ever imagined that— I pulled myself away from the thoughts, and the overwhelming sense of fraudulence. No time to let it fester now. I had to think.

“Now, Morrigan—”

The witch gave me an insouciant glare. “Oh, I am to jump to your order now too, am I?”

The gentle clink of fitments on armour spoke of Alistair tightening his stance beside me. I wasn’t sure if it was a show of loyalty or just plain irritation, but we didn’t have time for the two of them to square off now. I shrugged, pretending the ferocity in her flame-like eyes didn’t scare me.

“Do it or don’t do it, but I imagine you know best of all of us what we’re likely to see once the sun goes down.”

She blinked—oh, very briefly, but I saw it—and I took the advantage of having wrong-footed her.

“Before, when we spoke with Bann Teagan, you mentioned spirits possessing the dead… even n-necromancy.” I bit back just in time on saying ‘foul magic’ and spitting, like the old folks back home, and made myself meet that unsettling golden gaze. “I think you should speak with the men who’ve faced these things, see if you can find out what might be going on here. Corpses don’t just get up and walk… there must be a reason, and if we can work out what it is, we’ll have an advantage.”

I would have liked it to sound like a rousing, commanding speech—as if I really had a plan, or indeed any idea what I was doing—but the words came out in a rushed tumble, and I was sure my nerves were showing.

Morrigan’s lips twitched, a subtle little twist of something that, for a moment, almost resembled respect.

“You’re letting her loose on the village?” Alistair queried, eyebrows raised. “Really? You don’t think they have enough problems?”

She glowered at him. “I would say she is simply showing a much-needed grain of intelligence. In any case, I shall do it.”

I inclined my head. “Thank you. Alistair and I will see Ser Perth, then meet you both down by the jetty and try to find this dwarven merchant. Sound fair?”

There was assorted nodding and murmurs of assent. We had an accord, it seemed… and nobody had questioned me. I almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of that although, as I headed back up to the ridge, I had to admit that having both Alistair and Maethor pacing at my side lent me a certain amount of authority.

It was a start, anyway.

The mill was an ungainly structure, and its wooden exterior bore the marks of years of running repairs. It was a big, ugly, hard-working building, and it should have been central to the village. There should have been workers, trade carts, women going to and fro with bags of flour… all sorts of hubbub and activity, but the place was deserted, except for a small band of the arl’s knights standing guard.

There wasn’t wind enough today to drive the great, ragged sails, and evidently no ox or pony was harnessed inside. Still, they creaked, shifting slightly against their own weight, like they were straining for the momentum to push forwards and being to turn, as if the very fabric of the building wanted things to be back to normal, to cling to the routines and small sanities of life.

I hung back a little at the top of the cliff, unsure as to how to approach the group of tall, well-armed humans. The knights wore heavy plate armour that glinted in the thick, syrupy light, the sun flaring from half a dozen broad bodies. Their chests and shoulders were etched with unfamiliar heraldry that seemed to me to comprise the snorting, snarling faces of strange beasts and weird creatures, and the shields slung across their backs bore what I guessed must be the symbol of the arling: a stylised tower that stood starkly atop a red cliff, unsupported and alone, as if daring the heavens to strike it down.

Maethor thrust his cold, wet nose into my palm, and I almost took off, glancing down reproachfully at him. The mabari wagged his tail, and I scratched his ears.

“All right,” I muttered. “I’m going.”

We’d been spotted, in any case. The first of the knights—whom I assumed to be the commander Bann Teagan had mentioned—was crossing the gritty earth towards us, one hand raised in an awkward sort of greeting.

“Greetings, Grey Wardens,” he called as we drew closer.

“Greetings,” Alistair echoed. “Ser Perth, I assume?”

“Indeed.”

The man clinked as he moved; a great, bright, keen presence with sharp features and lines of deep fatigue and worry carved into his fair skin. He inclined his head, but his formal politeness was stained with a very earnest desperation. I could almost smell it on him.

“I am as relieved as Bann Teagan is to see you here,” he said. “Your arrival is… most fortuitous.”

“Well, anything we can do to help. I’m Alistair, by the way.”

“An honour, ser.”

Another of those polite nods, and Ser Perth turned to me. I expected the momentary flicker of surprise, though he had the manners to try to hide it.

“Merien,” I supplemented.

I got the same incline of the head as Alistair, or as far as I could see. If I’d been raised in the sort of circles where etiquette was about bows and handshakes, rather than clean doorsteps and respecting the elder’s word, I might have been better able to read the subtleties of it.

“My l— um….” Ser Perth cleared his throat, looking at me with a faintly unsettling curiosity. He smiled awkwardly. “I’m sorry. I must admit I know not how to address an elf in your position. I do not wish to be rude.”

I blinked. Had he just nearly called me ‘my lady’? At least the man had nous enough to know how much like mockery it would have sounded.

“Merien does just fine,” I reassured. “Or Meri, to my friends.”

It slipped in just the cosy side of cheekiness, and Ser Perth’s smile widened, giving me a slight glimpse of the man beneath all that plate and harness. He nodded.

“As you wish, and thank you kindly.”

Alistair had been looking up towards the castle—its silhouette a great, dusty rampage beyond the next ridge, shrouded in thin fog like some distant mountain peak—and he seemed to be counting under his breath.

“…four…. These are all the knights you have?”

“Yes.” Ser Perth peered over his shoulder at the group of men. “We are but a small number of those who volunteered to seek out the Urn. I, and a few of the others, were passing close enough to Redcliffe to hear rumours of the attacks, and of course we returned at once.” He shook his head. “Would that more of us had been here… I don’t know. Perhaps we might have fended off whatever evil befell the castle and began all this.”

Alistair frowned. “The arlessa really thinks Andraste’s Ashes will…?”

He trailed off, apparently unwilling to voice what he actually wanted to say, and some kind of silent communication that made no sense whatsoever to me flitted between the two men. Ser Perth’s expression tautened, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Nothing else had worked, and the sickness is… unnatural.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Well, it was very sudden. First, the arl began to thirst for water. Then he just grew weaker and weaker. He worsened by the hour, and Lady Isolde became desperate. She even brought in a mage, but he could do nothing. The arlessa believed her husband was cursed and that we needed the power of Andraste herself, or he would surely perish.”

Alistair’s frown deepened. “But the Urn’s been lost for centuries. Why would she think it can be found now?”

“Arl Eamon had been funding the studies of a scholar who was researching the life of Andraste. He claimed to have proof the Ashes are in Ferelden, but… I don’t know.” The movement of Ser Perth’s upper body suggested a shrug flexing somewhere beneath the heavy armour. “As far as I am aware, none of us have found a trace of the scholar, let alone the Urn, but most of the knights are still out there—too far away to recall—and with no idea of what’s happening here.”

“Then, the forces who remained,” Alistair asked, “what of them? Eamon never sent his men to Ostagar, right? There should be at least—”

“I can’t tell you,” the knight said mournfully. “There may be survivors up at the castle, or they may all be dead, transformed into those… things. The thought chills my blood.”

He was not alone. And, in any case, all this talk of legendary religious artefacts might have left me trailing hopelessly behind, but I could at least work out that this did not bode well for the reinforcements we so badly needed. The whole point of heading for Redcliffe had been garnering the arl’s support—and the weight of his men. I glanced nervously at Alistair, but he wasn’t looking at me, and I didn’t quite know how to interrupt.

“Well,” he said, squinting at the low-slung sun, reaching its lengthening fingers into every crevice of the red rock face, “we’ll help however we can. We have a… mage, and, er, a few extra bodies.”

Ser Perth brightened, despite the unease writ large on Alistair’s face, and I wondered if the knight would still be so pleased once he’d actually met Morrigan.

“This is good to hear, and it will do wonders for the men’s morale. After all, with the Grey Wardens aiding our defence, perhaps all is not lost.”

A shudder of apprehension worked its way down my spine, though I tried not to let it show.

“Is there anything else we can do?” I asked.

The knight glanced down at me, smiling tightly. “Beyond your assistance, I think not. We are better prepared and better trained than Murdock’s militia, but… well, it is a steep task. I have asked Mother Hannah for holy protection—just something the men could have to let them know the Chantry hasn’t forgotten them—but she has not yet responded. Other than that… I suppose we are as ready as we can be.”

His face held the clear-eyed, hopeful uncertainty of a devout man wavering before impossible odds, and I nodded, wishing there was something I could do, something I could say, that would make the coming night a less terrifying prospect.

“What about the… things?” Alistair asked thoughtfully, peering up towards the castle. “Do arrows bring them down?”

Ser Perth shook his head. “They slow them, that’s all. It’s a help, but…. We’ve put what archers we have here, and over there, atop that rock. All that really stops them is… brute force, I’m afraid. Take the heads off, and the bodies fall.”

For all my attempts at stoicism, I grimaced. Lovely.

Alistair and Ser Perth went on to speak more of tactics, inasmuch as there were room for any… limited mainly to the positioning of too few archers and crossbowmen, and the problems of holding a line over the entire night. I stood there dumbly, feeling rather small and stupid as they bandied terms I didn’t know, and Alistair waved his arms around and talked about where Morrigan might inflict most damage from. I was sure she’d be delighted to know he’d already planned her role in the battle.

“And they don’t come any other way?” he asked, turning and peering down over the village. “What about by the lake? Isn’t there a path from the northwest side of the castle? Where the old kennels used to be….”

I saw the flicker of understanding in Ser Perth’s eyes; he hadn’t known Alistair had any knowledge of the castle. Of course, I told myself, it was useful that he did. He was useful… and it was petty and ridiculous of me to suddenly feel so resentful. I’d probably change my tune later tonight, when we were attempting to behead the endless ranks of walking corpses.

“They have not so far,” Ser Perth said doubtfully, “but, on every previous attack, we have been forced to fall back. There would have been no need for the creatures to find another way in.”

More discussion followed, and I was about as much use as a glass hammer, though I tried to keep up. The lie of the land worked partially in our favour, it seemed; the only accessible routes down from the castle on this side of the ridge meant the attack was funnelled into choke points at the mill, and at the mid-point of the cliff path. Barricades doused liberally in oil and set light could slow the creatures but, like the efforts of the archers, slowing them was all they did. It was the sheer numbers and the tenacity of the things that made them impossible to drive back.

“Hmm.” Alistair bit his lip. “No point in dividing what forces we have, then.”

“No. The best we can do—and all we’ve done so far—is to wait it out,” Ser Perth said, with a shake of his head. “Between us, and the militia, we take as many of them down as possible, but they always return. It’s… unholy.”

“We’ll stand with you tonight,” Alistair assured him. “You have my word.”

“Thank you, Warden.” Ser Perth smiled and, turning to me, bowed his head. “Thank you both.”

I managed some sort of clumsy bow and we took our leave, arranging to use the last few hours of daylight to drum up whatever extra supplies or support that could be found in the dried-out husk of the village.

As we walked away from the knights, Alistair looked tight-lipped and worried. He glanced at me, a slight frown on his brow.

“You were quiet.”

“Seemed like you knew what you were talking about,” I said glibly, not particularly wanting to discuss it.

He snorted mirthlessly. “Oh, right. You were just dumb-struck at me not being entirely useless.”

“Maybe.”

“Oh, ow. That stings, y’know.”

I smirked as we crossed the ridge and headed up towards the tavern, perched atop the cliff path opposite the little stone bridge.

It had seemed like a good idea to stop in on our way back down to the lakeside and just see whether this Lloyd fellow had anything worth bartering for or commandeering but, as we neared the rough-hewn building, there didn’t seem to be much life in the place. The shabby, wooden building was still and quiet… except for one of Murdock’s boys, doubled over by the outhouse, heaving his guts up from a surfeit either of booze or fear.

~o~O~o~

Redcliffe was a place of odd contrasts, I thought, as we entered the tavern. For all those well-kept cottages and their little gardens—and all the big, wide-fronted stores down in the square where, in better times, merchants must crowd from all over—this was a poky, sparse inn. Either the Chantry’s views on temperance were better heeded here than in Denerim or, I mused, Eamon’s arling was not as wealthy as I’d imagined.

The interior smelled of stale rushes, wood polish, sweat and cheap ale—very cheap ale, in fact, which was an absurdly comforting reminder of home for me. We blinked a bit, adjusting to the dimness punctuated by a low fire and a couple of tapers, and it was possible to make out the crowded clutter of tables and benches. There weren’t many drinkers; the place was empty but for a gaggle of militiamen over on one side of the tavern and—I was surprised to see—an elf, ensconced in the opposite corner, hunched behind a tankard of ale and apparently trying to make himself invisible.

“Oh, what’s this? More doomed souls come to drown their sorrows, I see.”

A red-headed woman with a tired, worldly smile and a stained apron greeted us, wiping her hands on a grubby cloth. She frowned dubiously at Maethor, gave me a cursory glance and, predictably enough, addressed Alistair when she spoke again.

“If you came for a drink, ser, you’ll have to talk to Lloyd. He’s got a vice grip on the spigots. I’m just here to keep the boys from mutiny.” She bunched the cloth up in one hand, the other resting on her hip as she looked him up and down, evidently appreciating what she saw. “Unless there’s somethin’ else I can do you for?”

Alistair cleared his throat, awkwardness positively rolling off him.

“I, er… no. Um. I mean… uh, shouldn’t you be at the chantry?”

I choked down the impulse to laugh. Was he actually blushing? The woman smiled, and tucked the corner of the cloth into the belt of her apron.

“Later on, yes.” She glanced across at the bar, lowering her voice a little. “Ol’ Lloyd’ll lock himself in the cellar and I’ll go to the chantry.” She looked up at Alistair from under her lashes, hesitantly curious. “You’re the ones they’re talking about, aren’t you? Are you… fighting tonight?”

“We are.”

He sounded so full of certainty; as if he wasn’t just saying we’d fight, but that we’d actually win. I wished I could hang onto a glimmer of that conviction.

“That’s… good to hear.” The woman nodded slowly, her smile growing sad and faded. “I didn’t know that. Well, good luck to you. Keep safe.”

“Er, thank you. And you,” Alistair managed.

It was hardly the epitome of chivalry, but perhaps it was close enough in her eyes. She swayed off to top up the militiamen, and I restrained the urge to snigger… though clearly not very successfully. Alistair shot me a reproachful look.

“Come on.”

He headed across to the bar and, with a glance down at Maethor, who cocked his head to the side and whined companionably, I followed.

The innkeeper was a great, greasy man with a belly like a side of pork, barely contained beneath his capacious apron. I recognised the type at once—right down to the big, meaty hands that spread out on the bar top as he leaned over to give us a buttery smile, and left smeared sweat-prints behind them.

“Hello there, friend,” he oozed. “Can’t say we’ve ever met before. Strangers to the village, I take it? And what’s this, then?” His sandy brows arched as he looked at me. “Another elf! We don’t get many of you lot out here. You a runaway from the city, eh?”

I made to speak, but my mouth was dry. Stupid, I told myself. An old, unneeded reaction, and I pushed it from me, squaring my shoulders and preparing an icy reply… which I didn’t get the opportunity to wield.

“A ‘runaway’?” Alistair intoned disdainfully. “What, she can’t be a traveller too?”

The shem’s face adjusted itself around the evidently unexpected experience of being put in his place, but business sense won out over any urge to argue, and he shrugged.

“I suppose so,” he said doubtfully. “Never thought about it, really. Anyway, name’s Lloyd. What can I get you folks? You are here to drink, I hope?”

“Actually, we were hoping—”

“Yes,” I said, cutting in quickly and slapping three of the last ten silvers we had down on the sticky bar. “Yes, we are. And one for the brave boys over there, defending the village tonight,” I added, raising my voice.

“Well, then….” Lloyd’s expression warmed a little. “Very good.”

I left him pulling the pints, and Alistair probing him for information—and the possibility of whatever he had stashed away in that cellar of his—while, Maethor padding at my heel, I slipped across to the far side of the tavern, and the hunched figure in the corner.

The sight of another elven face had struck a clear, ringing chord within me—a swell of recognition and relief that I hadn’t felt in so long—and though he was unlike any elf I’d seen in the alienage, I couldn’t deny the ache for contact, for reassurance… and for the possibility of news from home.

He was tall and thin, his face narrow, as if drawn tight over a long, straight nose and high cheekbones. Like me, he wore light leather armour that had seen better days, though his appeared to be tattered more through travel than any violent use, which I supposed was comforting. A long, dark braid hung down his back, and his fingers worried at the handle of his mug in a quick, repetitive tattoo.

“Not looking for company,” he said, without turning, as I approached the table.

Undeterred, I crossed to the bench opposite him and sat down. Maethor flopped into an ungainly sprawl on the floor beside me, hind legs splayed and jaws open just wide enough for a hint of thick, wide tongue to loll between them.

The elf frowned. “I said—”

“Sorry,” I said breathlessly. “I was hoping you might have some news from Denerim. Have you come from the north? It’s just that I’ve heard nothing, nothing at all since I left, and I-I thought, seeing another elf here….”

“Yes?” He gave me a brief, dismissive glance. “Well, that’s all that we have in common.”

His coldness took me aback. Oh, I’d felt the sting of rejection at Ostagar, when the army camp’s elven servants wouldn’t meet my eye because I was wearing armour, but this… weren’t we the same?

I clenched my jaw. Perhaps it was true. Everything people said about the alienage, and how we were better off behind our gates and walls.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I just thought….”

“I’m not here to talk,” he snapped. “I don’t know anything about Denerim, and just because you’re an elf doesn’t…. I was told to— I mean… just leave me alone!”

His eyes widened, then winced to slits, and the corners of his mouth grew tight. I frowned.

“Told? What exactly were you ‘told’ to do?”

“Nothing,” he said, far too quickly, and with the hint of a tremble in his voice. “Nobody told me to do anything… a-a-and just because you’re a Grey Warden—”

“And what makes you think that?” I snapped.

The elf panicked. He was a terrible liar.

“I just… overheard it. That’s all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to get to the chantry before the sun goes down, and—”

He stood, hands on the table as he rose to his feet, but he was jumpier than a cat and far too slow to stop me grabbing his wrist. I twisted it ever so slightly, applying just enough pressure to cause him to think that sitting down again, nice and slowly, might be a good idea.

“I don’t want trouble,” he mumbled wretchedly. “Just… just leave me alone.”

I pressed my thumb into the hollow of the elf’s wrist, and leaned across the table.

“It’ll be easier if you tell me what you’re hiding,” I murmured.

My thumb dug in deeper, and Maethor put his head gently on the man’s knee. His lips didn’t move, but the low, quiet growl, deep in his chest, was impossible to ignore.

“All right, all right!” The elf glanced down at the hound and then, wide-eyed and turning pale, looked back at me. “I’ll tell you.”

I let go of him, but made no motion to call the dog off. The elf rubbed his wrist and peered nervously at me.

“This is more than I bargained for,” he muttered. “Look, everybody has to make a living, right? I… occasionally find myself hired by, uh, interested parties, to gather information.”

“You’re a spy,” I said flatly.

He shrugged. “Usually, people don’t notice an elf. No one cares what I overhear. I’m sure you understand.”

I said nothing, and he let out a short sigh.

“They just paid me to watch the castle and send word if anything should change. That’s all… but they never said anything about monsters! I haven’t even been able to report anything since this started. I’m stuck, same as you, I swear.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Who are ‘they’? Who hired you?”

“A tall fellow… he never told me his name. He, uh, said he was working for Howe. Arl Rendon Howe. He’s an important man… Teyrn Loghain’s right hand. So, I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?” he wheedled.

I barely heard the words. My gut had turned to lead, and I glanced at the bar, where Alistair was still talking to Lloyd. They seemed to be negotiating over something, and I guessed from the hushed tones and furtive looks that, whatever it was, Murdock had been right in his suspicions about the innkeeper.

“What….” I blinked, trying to get my thoughts in order. “What were you supposed to watch the castle for?”

“Just to report any changes, honest! But all I could send word about was the arl getting sick. After that, monsters started coming from the castle, and—”

“So you know how this happened?”

“I don’t know anything about these creatures! I swear….” The elf looked down at Maethor, and licked his lips anxiously. “W-When the arl got sick, I was scared people might think I was involved. But it’s not true. I was here to watch, that’s all. Please….”

My lip curled. “How do I know you’re not lying?”

“I’m telling the truth!”

His eyes widened, twin pools of dark fear that, just for a moment, chastened me. Did he really think I’d run him through if I didn’t like what I heard? No one had ever looked at me like that before… and it wasn’t a comfortable experience.

“I just thought I was serving the king,” he whined. “Well, the regent. Just doing my duty… and making a bit of coin on the side. That’s the truth. You have to believe me!”

I did, though I wasn’t happy about it. I stared into his taut, angular face, the tense silence between us odd against the clink of mugs, the crackle of the fire, and all the other usual tavern hubbub, subdued as it was in this half-empty, half-doomed place. The seconds stretched out, like a moment drawn through time, and my head whirled with horrible possibilities.

Loghain’s right hand….

I nodded grudgingly. “All right.”

“It is the truth. I promise.” The elf pressed his lips tightly together, and seemed contrite. “And… and I haven’t been in Denerim in months. I’m sorry. All I’ve heard is about the teyrn taking over as regent. Nothing else. I’m from South Reach. I just want to get out of here, go home….”

In that moment, I didn’t care. I didn’t give a damn about this man, with all his fear and conflict that felt so familiar, like looking into a sodding mirror. I didn’t want to give a damn about the fact I knew that, in his place, I would probably have done the same thing.

“I think you should help defend Redcliffe tonight,” I said.

“W-What?”

“Go see Murdock, help the militia. They need every able body they can get.”

I glanced at Maethor and, right on cue, the hound rumbled again, head still on our new friend’s knee. The elf swallowed heavily.

“A-All right. I’ll do it. Thank you… I…. Would you please call your dog off?”

I winked at the mabari and he stepped back, allowing the elf to stand, somewhat shakily. He nodded at me and, nervousness scrawled all over him as obviously as the graffiti etched into the tavern’s tables, stumbled his way out of the door.

I sighed and rested my head in my hands, elbows on the tabletop and fingers pushed deep into my hair. Why would Loghain want a spy in Redcliffe? What change could he have expected to see at the castle… unless he was waiting for Arl Eamon to fall ill? But that wasn’t possible… was it?

“Good news or bad news first?” Alistair asked cheerfully.

I looked up. I hadn’t even heard him coming.

“Er….”

“The bad news is that someone drank your beer. And that we no longer have two coppers to rub together. On the bright side, our friend Lloyd turns out to have a cellar full of brandy and lamp oil, which Ser Perth should find very useful. They’re taking it up to the barricades now.” He glanced at the door. “So, who was he?”

I dragged myself to my feet. “Another volunteer for the militia. Well, he is now. We… we should catch up with the others.”

Alistair nodded, and I think he knew I hadn’t told him everything, though he didn’t call me out. I wanted to tell him. I should tell him, I supposed. But perhaps not just yet.

After all, who knew if we’d even survive the night?

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Eight
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Six

 
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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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The journey put us all in a ruminative mood, I supposed. When dawn broke, we were already walking again, but things felt easier… more intimate, almost. We’d shared food, made camp together and, although the past two nights hadn’t exactly been full of cosiness and comfort, everyone was still upright and breathing. More than that, we were leaving the Imperial Highway behind us, and heading west towards the mountains, Redcliffe, and the hope of salvation.

It was a pleasant change to be off the grim stone monotony of the Highway, despite the fact the road here wasn’t as even or well-maintained. Most parts of it were still essentially paved, and good enough for the few trade carts and refugee wagons we saw. At first, no one noticed they were all heading north-east. We were thinking about what lay ahead, no doubt, and perhaps basking a little in the tranquillity of a dry, bright morning, as the sun bleached the last traces of rain and discomfort from the trees and wooded fields around us.

“And so, pray tell, Alistair….” Morrigan’s voice cut through the peaceful background sounds of birdsong, the faint jingle of armour and weaponry, and boots beating mismatched paces against the ground. “Precisely what welcome should we expect from this castle of yours?”

“What?”

He blinked, and looked guiltily at her, as if his mind had been somewhere completely different. It probably had. Alistair had been suspiciously quiet all morning, and I thought I knew why. I didn’t know if he regretted telling me what he had last night—about his mother, Arl Eamon’s curious generosity, and the loneliness of the Chantry—but coming back still had to be hard.

“It’s not my— I mean, I… I haven’t been in Redcliffe in years. It isn’t—”

He glanced at me, and I shook my head. I hadn’t said anything. It didn’t bother me that he seemed to think I might have. Not really.

“Oh.” Morrigan’s dark-painted lips twitched into that familiar smirk of triumph, like a cat who’s just pinioned something under one paw. “Then what, one might ask, do you base your assumption of a welcome upon? Are we to sweep in, expecting to be congratulated for bearing ill tidings?”

I wondered, idly, how she kept that warpaint of hers looking so immaculate. Did she have pots and potions secreted away in her pack, and did she spend precious minutes in the dark before dawn, fiddling with powder, paint, and hair-pins, while the rest of us were damping down the fire and shaking out our blankets? Or was it all witchcraft and glamoury? It could be, I reasoned. If she really was a shapeshifter, like the legends of the Witches of the Wilds said, who was to say what her true form was?

“If you’re worried, Morrigan,” I said conversationally, “you can always stay outside the village. I know you’re not, er, used to being so far from home.”

She whipped around like a snake, glared hotly at me, and Alistair managed to have a sudden coughing fit. I shrugged, not even trying to outstare those eerie, ochre-gold eyes, and glanced up at the sky. It was a clear blue, fringed by the rustling tops of trees and streaked with dirty-white tails of cloud, but promising a fine day, nonetheless.

“I am not ‘worried’,” she said, voice oozing with scorn. “I have no fear of the world of men. You know this. I simply question—”

“Look,” Alistair said wearily. “All we can do is give Arl Eamon a full account of what happened at Ostagar. I can’t believe the Bannorn would unite behind Loghain that easily, but if that’s the case—and if he really has named himself regent—then we’ll definitely need Eamon’s help to convince them of the danger the Blight poses. I imagine he’ll call a Landsmeet, and—”

“Wonderful.” Morrigan scoffed. “Politics. Maybe your nobles will consent to talk the darkspawn to death, and save everyone the trouble of fighting.”

He didn’t argue, I noticed. He just shook his head and stared at the road, rising on before us. Nobody was mentioning the Orlesian reinforcements. I wondered about that. I still believed they would come—that they might even already be in Ferelden—and that, somehow, this whole mess would straighten itself out.

The land was beginning to change again. It was a strange thing to me, used as I was to the constants of Denerim’s unalterable wood, stone, daub, and plaster. I’d never imagined the country could be full of so many contrasts. First, the flat lands of the north had become the damp, inhospitable outcrops of the Wilds, riven with the ancient stones of Ostagar and its Tevinter heritage. Then, the cold, dank forest gave way to lusher farmland, eking its existence out of the mud. Now, the ground was growing gritty and coarse, the muted colours of the holdings giving way to richer, ruddier hues. Fewer trees edged the fields, and the swells and ridges of foothills had begun to dig at the horizon.

“Redcliffe… I wonder how the name came to be,” Leliana mused, breaking the rather prickly silence that had fallen. “Is the clay there red?”

Alistair nodded. “Mm. It’s a fishing village, mostly. Hard, red earth, not much good for farming… or so I understand. Bakes in the summer, boggy in the winter.”

“I confess,” she said, “I know little of the place, except that the castle has long been considered a formidable fortress. They say the last man to breach it was your King Calenhad, the Silver Knight.”

Her light, musical voice skimmed over the words, charged with the promise of the story behind them, and my mind went at once to the colourful histories Mother had given me to read as a child. The tales I’d loved best were the ones of Arlathan, and the distant make-believe of a magical, elven world, but few of those were written down. The story of Calenhad Theirin and his suit of enchanted, silver-white armour—rendering him invulnerable to blade or bow as long as he stood on Fereldan soil—was almost as good. He’d united the land for the first time, hadn’t he? Funny, I supposed, how the Theirin bloodline was so closely tied to the history of Ferelden. Superstitiously so, almost.

I thought sadly of Cailan, and that first moment I’d met him at Ostagar; that glittering whirlwind in gilt-traced armour, who was young and bold and magnificent. It had been easy to believe, in that moment, that his blood—that ancient, venerable line—conveyed some gleam of legends and fables upon him, that it made him more than just a man… though I remembered chastising myself for such foolish thoughts at the time. Right before he bowed to me, and looked me in the eye, and made me feel so ridiculously, incomprehensibly invincible.

He hadn’t deserved the death that came to him. Not that way. It wasn’t… fair.

“Of course,” Leliana was saying, still trooping valiantly on, speaking as casually as if she were just thinking aloud, “there are places in the world where the earth is a bright, strange red, and often, in the legends of such places, it is the red of blood. The blood of a thousand men slaughtered in battle, or that of an innocent unjustly slain; it stains the land that it may never be forgotten.”

“Hm.” Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Cheery.”

“Oh, I am not suggesting it is so. Perhaps this Redcliffe has such a tale, but I do not know it.”

“Huh.” Morrigan grunted. “Maybe we shall find a pleasant little tavern, with charming local characters who can regale us with their many tales and anecdotes. Or, maybe we shall be busy, attempting to stem the threat of the darkspawn horde.”

Leliana narrowed her eyes. “You know, Morrigan, there is much we can learn from stories. Only the very arrogant or the very foolish dismiss them out of hand.”

“Indeed? And what of those who dismiss them simply because they are complete rubbish, and unimportant to anyone with half a working brain?”

Somewhere over my shoulder, I could have sworn I heard Sten sigh wearily.

~o~O~o~

The usual bickering aside, we pushed our pace hard and, not long after midday, we had Redcliffe in our sights.

The castle, the village, and the outlying holdings all fringed Lake Calenhad, and I was silently but preposterously excited at the prospect of seeing it, straining my eyes to catch the first hint of that great body of water silvering the horizon. The bulks and silhouettes of the cliffs came before that, however; the last strips of woodland and arable fields thinned out and gave way to bald, bare land, specked with mica. The air tasted different, too. Up in Denerim, if the wind was in the right direction, we sometimes scented the sea. To me, it was a fetid, dank stench—equal parts salt, sewage, and whatever mingled cargoes and filths blew up from the docks—and this was nothing like it. Not salty, but… fresh, full of water and fish, and sawdust.

We followed a packed dirt road now, the southerly approach to the village that took us over the cliff path. The track was marked with wheel ruts but peculiarly devoid of wagons. A few cottages and smallholdings stood aside from the road, shuttered up tight, but I didn’t stop to wonder whether anyone was at home. I was too busy looking at the way people wove fences here, their gardens boxed in with densely knotted panels of willow, and raised beds filled to bursting with flowers, vegetables and herbs. Obviously, good earth for growing was at a premium, and gave the villagers something to compete over. Nevertheless, those well-tended patches, and the square wooden houses with shingled roofs and tight-beamed frames, were beautiful. They were familiar, in a way, to the kind of buildings I was used to—and a welcome change from all the grim Tevinter stone that seemed to characterise the south—but they were different enough to be exotic, almost.

At the top of the cliff path, we got our first glimpse of the village, spread out below us like a child’s discarded toys. I could see the vaulted outline of the chantry, the main square, the forge, a cluster of stores and row upon row of houses spreading back towards the great, shimmering expanse of the lake. Gentle puffs of smoke wafted from the chimneys of the little houses, and tugged wistfully at the sky. The castle rose up behind the next cliff, a great shadow like the humped back of some fantastic creature, edged with towers and the flickering dots of pennants flapping in the breeze.

I stopped, pausing to take it all in. The others didn’t seem as struck. To them, it was a nondescript little fishing village, I supposed. To Alistair, something more, perhaps, but I expected the meaning the place held for him was very different to what I saw there.

Gradually, I became aware of his presence. He was standing at my shoulder and I blinked, pulling myself from my foolish awe, and assuming he wanted to get a move on. We’d made it earlier than we’d hoped; it was mid-afternoon, and we might yet catch the arl before the castle was fully taken up with the business of the evening.

The others hadn’t stopped to stare. They were heading off up the path, Leliana trying to convince Morrigan that she might care to hear the story of an Orlesian knight who’d once battled a sea monster to prove his love for a princess. She was not meeting with a great deal of approval. Sten paced silently behind them, and Maethor trotted happily along, snuffling at the ground and wagging his stumpy tail every time he caught an interesting scent.

I turned, and found Alistair slightly closer than I’d expected, lips pressed into a tight line, his face a mask of discomfort.

“I was just—” I began, but he spoke at the same time, and we fell over each other in an awkward tangle of words.

“Look, can we—” He winced, glanced up the path at the others, and then back to me, a flurry of fleeting things muddying his hazel eyes. “Sorry. Can we talk for a moment?”

I could feel a perplexed frown tightening my brow, but I didn’t want to seem unsympathetic. Whatever parting memories he had of this place—or of Arl Eamon—they must have been eating away at him since we broke camp. Something certainly had been.

“What’s on your mind?”

Alistair let out a short, stiff sigh and looked at his boots, almost as if he was having trouble meeting my eye.

“I… I need to tell you something I, ah, should probably have told you earlier.”

Well, that didn’t sound good. The rest of our party was still heading on without us: probably not quite out of earshot yet, but moving that way. The sun picked lazily at the rocky dirt, and the fittings on Alistair’s armour gleamed dully. I caught the traces of the foul-smelling polish we’d used on everything when he moved, all mixed up with the scent of leather and human sweat.

I raised an eyebrow. “All right. I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, still staring guiltily at his feet like a recalcitrant schoolboy. “I doubt it. I’ve never liked it, that’s for sure.”

Somewhere overhead, a gull circled, its harsh call echoing off the cliffs. Maethor barked at it, and made a half-hearted bounce, front paws lifting off the ground as he focused on a prey he could never possibly reach. Alistair raised his head, looked down at me miserably, and drew a deep breath.

“Right. Well, let’s see… I told you how Arl Eamon raised me, right? About my mother, and—”

“Mm?”

It was meant to be gentle encouragement, but it came out sounding impatient, and left me annoyed with myself.

“Yes, well….” He cleared his throat, something that looked very much like genuine panic stalking behind his eyes. “The, er, reason he did that was b-because… well, my father… was King Maric.”

My stomach pitched towards my boots, and I stared at him. He looked at me, painfully hopeful, mouth crumpled into an uncertain, apologetic crease. There was a heavy, awkward silence that seemed to spin out into a great, looping spool, thick like honey. I didn’t know what to say, my head full of half-formed notions of blood and lineage and impossible, ridiculous things that were sliced through with one other, clear, singular thought, before I could even sort their different threads apart.

I know who I was told was my father. He… he’s dead now, anyhow. It isn’t important.

He had lied to me. I’d asked, and he’d lied.

The anger burned hotter than it should have done, and I found myself perversely pleased by the discomfort twisting his face. I sucked a slow breath in across my teeth, and nodded, scrabbling to make sense of what I’d just heard.

“Right. So… that made Cailan your, what, half-brother?”

Alistair winced again. “Not that we were close, but yes, I suppose.”

He was watching me carefully, and I didn’t know why my reaction should be so important. Was I supposed to fall at his feet and pledge fealty, or did he expect the kick in the shin he so richly deserved for not telling me sooner? It certainly cast a different light over everything we’d talked of before, and I disliked thinking of that time now, the glow of the firelight seeming dull and deceitful in my memory. All the same, the glimmer of a gratifying little thought pulled a thin smile to my lips.

“Then you’re not just a bastard, but a royal bastard?”

Alistair snorted, the worried tautness in his face cracking into a sickly, relieved smile. “Ha! Yes, I guess it does, at that. Maybe I should use that line more often.”

His grin faded, replaced by a look of uncomfortable apology. I suspect I was a touch tight-lipped and stern, arms folded across my chest and head tipped expectantly to the side. I still couldn’t believe it. Not that I was any kind of a superstitious royalist, but… him? Carrying four centuries of regal blood in his veins?

“I….” Alistair sighed. “I should have told you. I would have, but… it never meant anything to me.”

I didn’t believe that for a minute, and I couldn’t contain the cynical rise of my brows. He looked chastened.

“Well, it didn’t matter. I was inconvenient, a possible embarrassment; that was all. They kept me secret, and then the arl shipped me off to the Chantry, and I— well, I’ve never talked about it to anyone.”

He let out a long, weary breath, and I found myself annoyed at my own self-absorption. Bolt from the blue or not, this revelation was his. It wasn’t about me, and what he had or hadn’t told me… and, stung though I was, I could see how twisted up he was by the telling. I bit the inside of my lip. Probably twisted up by a damn sight more than that, too. At least it explained Arl Eamon’s willingness to raise a maid’s bastard brat.

“Were you… told not to tell?” I asked gently. “Or was it your—”

“I knew I wasn’t supposed to, right from the start. No doubt about that. Not that I ever wanted to tell anyone. Everyone who knew either resented me for it or they coddled me,” he blurted. “Even Duncan kept me out of the fighting because of it.”

His words hit me like a sock full of wet sand. Was that true? I’d believed Duncan had kept us both back from the front line because we were green—or because I was, more likely. It had been Alistair’s misfortune, I’d thought, to be stuck babysitting me, and I’d been amazed he didn’t seem to resent me for it. I wondered if he based his notion on anything more than grief-riddled guilt… and, slowly, I started to have some idea of what he meant.

I knew what it was to have every aspect of your life defined by what you were, albeit in a very different way. His blood didn’t shout itself the way my ears did; he could hide his otherness, but I wasn’t jealous of that. What marked me out also gave me a sense of belonging, while his did the very opposite.

“It’s just….” Alistair scuffed his boot at the ground, brow furrowed. “Everyone ends up treating me differently,” he mumbled. “So I… I didn’t want you to know for as long as possible. Stupid, I s’pose. I’m sorry.”

As apologies went, it was graceless, but heart-felt. I cast a look up the path, where the rest of our motley little band had hauled in and were waiting for us. Morrigan looked annoyed and kept tapping her foot. Maker only knew what they thought we were talking about… unless Leliana could lip-read, I supposed. She was peering curiously at us, and ventured to give me a cheerful little wave. I nodded, as if to assure her we wouldn’t be a minute. Maethor was sitting at Sten’s feet and having a damn good scratch. What it must be, I thought, to have nothing more pressing in life to concern you than fleas.

Alistair still looked uncomfortable. He watched me nervously now, as if he wanted—needed, perhaps—my assurance, or forgiveness, or… something. I didn’t know what. I wanted to stay angry with him, to keep the irritation and the ire wadded up and fresh, right at my fingertips, but I had to admit I knew what it was like to have a secret… to be afraid of what people would think if they knew the truth.

We all had our own pasts.

“It’s all right.” I exhaled slowly. “I think I understand.”

Relief broke over his face like sunlight, and he grinned broadly.

“You do? Oh, good. I’m glad. It’s not like I got special treatment for it, anyhow.”

I quietly wondered at that, but declined to comment.

“Anyway, that’s it,” Alistair said briskly. “That’s what I had to tell you. Just thought you ought to know.”

Hiding behind that cheerful, flippant veneer again. Like everything was back to normal. The irritation resurfaced, a dark wave of it slipping through me. I clenched my jaw.

“And that’s it? You’re sure you’re not hiding anything else?”

He smirked. “Besides my unholy love of fine cheese and a minor obsession with my hair, no. That’s it. Just the prince thing.”

Oh, I’d get him for that one.

“So… I should be calling you Prince Alistair?” I asked innocently.

It wiped the grin off his face, at any rate. He actually paled a little bit.

“No! Maker’s breath, just hearing that gives me a heart attack! It’s not true, anyhow… I’m the bastard son of a commoner, and a Grey Warden to boot. It was always made clear to me that the throne is not in my future.”

I smiled, feeling very slightly as if I’d scored some kind of point. His next words knocked the mirth out of me, though, delivered with slumped shoulders and such bitter resignation.

“Anyway, there you have it. I just didn’t want to walk into Redcliffe Castle and… well, have you not knowing. It would have been awkward. Now, can we move on? I’ll just pretend you still think I’m… some nobody who was too lucky to die with the rest of the Grey Wardens.”

I frowned. “That’s not really what you think, is it?”

Alistair glanced at me, and he seemed so incredibly tired.

“No, I suppose not.” His face softened a little, and he smiled weakly. “At least I have a chance to make things right. And I’m not alone.”

“True. You’re not.”

My fingers clenched on the air. Almost without realising it, I’d half-raised my hand, ready to punch him affectionately on the arm, the way I would have done with Soris, or any of the boys back home. I smiled clumsily, and took refuge in teasing.

“Well, then,” I said, clearing my throat. “At your command… my prince.”

He groaned, even when I curtseyed.

“Oh, lovely. I’m going to regret this. Somehow I just know it.”

We caught up with the others, and I smiled brightly, doing my best to deflect Leliana’s enquiring gaze.

If we are all quite ready?” Morrigan asked archly, long, pale fingers clasped loosely on the neck of her staff.

Alistair glanced at me, and I understood. I wasn’t going to relay what he’d told me for the benefit of eager observers. I nodded, and jerked my head towards the path.

“Come on, then,” I said, and strode off, feet crunching on the gritty dirt.

~o~O~o~

A little way on, the ground was split in two by a great rush of raging white water, pouring down from the top of the cliff and flowing down into the village and, eventually, the lake. We could see more of Redcliffe spread out below us, including the mill, and the creak of the slowly turning wheel filtered up on the air. A stone bridge crossed the pounding river, and from its vantage point we could see right across to the lake, and even the distant silhouette of the Circle Tower, pricking the sky on its far shore.

“Seems… quiet, doesn’t it?” Alistair said, peering down at the empty square.

“Very,” I agreed.

Beyond the bridge, the path led up to a great wooden gate, set into the cliff and marking, I assumed, the village boundary. I expected guards, and maybe a few awkward questions, but only one lone figure was manning the post.

He was young, little more than a boy, and he wasn’t even armoured. Messy red-brown hair framed his pale, pudgy face, and he shambled clumsily forwards as we approached, looking sweaty and frightened.

“Oh, thank the Maker! I… I thought I saw travellers coming down the road, though I scarcely believed it. Have you come to help us?”

That didn’t sound promising. I glanced at Alistair, noting his concerned frown and the way he drew himself up, his voice taking on that authoritative edge he so seldom used.

“Help you? What do you mean?” he demanded. “Is something wrong?”

The lad’s eyes widened, his pallid, rubbery lips working in obvious disbelief. “W-What, you… you don’t know? Has nobody out there heard?”

“Heard what, man? What are you talking about?”

“The arl’s sick, or… or dead, for all we know.” The hapless guard’s eyes widened and he shook his head, his face a skull-like picture of hopeless fear. “Nobody’s heard from the castle in days, and… oh, ser, we’re under attack! Monsters pour down from the fortress every night. They just keep coming, and they don’t stop ’til dawn. Everyone’s been fighting… and dying. We’ve no army to defend us, no arl, and no king to send us any help. So many are dead, and those left are terrified they’re next. Please… we need help!”

“Wait,” I said, trying to lever a word in between the boy’s desperate pleas. “What exactly is it that’s attacking you?”

Alistair glanced at me, and I supposed he must have been thinking the same thing: darkspawn would be unlikely to retreat with the dawn. The lad fixed me with his wide, terrified eyes, fogged in confusion.

“I… I don’t rightly know, miss. I’m sorry. Nobody does.”

He was unusually polite for a shem, especially one that reeked of fear, and I found myself wrestling the urge to pat him on the shoulder and murmur something comforting.

“I-I should take you to Bann Teagan,” he said, almost hopping foot-to-foot like a desperate puppy. “He’s all that’s holding us together. He’ll want to see you. Please….”

“Bann Teagan?” Alistair sounded surprised. “Arl Eamon’s brother? He’s here?”

“Yes.” The lad nodded, already trying to usher us towards the gate. “Please. It’s not far, if you’ll come with me.”

I peered briefly at my companions, and began to frame my lips around an agreement—not that the guard had actually addressed me. He was looking at Alistair, waiting for him to take charge. Not an unreasonable assumption, I supposed, given that the rest of us were either foreigners or women, and he did at least look like a soldier.

“Er… right,” Alistair said eventually, apparently realising that something was expected of him.

The lad looked gratefully relieved, and scampered off to open the gate. Morrigan gave a short, terse sigh of frustration, and shook her head.

“Wonderful. Did you not think we had enough to occupy our time?”

Alistair shot her a look of pure venom, but didn’t say anything. I guessed from the tightness of his expression that the news of the arl’s illness had knocked him sideways. True, it was a blow we could have done without. I tried not to let myself run ahead of what we already knew but, if Redcliffe had fallen, what hope did we have to marshal any kind of stand against the Blight?

“Let’s just find out what’s going on,” I said, edging myself between them. “Or, if you’d rather wait here….”

She gave me a haughtily disparaging glare, and did not dignify me with a reply. The creak and scrape of heavy wood against the hard, red soil signalled the gate opening, and the guard waved us through. We followed him down a wide, gritty path worn into the cliff and lined with torches, and the whole village was laid out below us, empty and silent. Every house we passed was boarded up, shuttered and barred, and there was no breath of sound except for the gulls that wheeled above, shrieking harshly.

We were led to the chantry, which stood to one side of the main square, and there I did see a small group of men. They were gathered under the porch, one of them—a man with a huge, dark moustache and small, heavy-lidded eyes—was pointing down towards the lake, and seemed to be giving some kind of orders to the others. Like the guard who’d met us, each one of them looked ashen-faced and nervous, with that blank, empty way of staring at things which only comes with looking too directly, and too much, at hopeless and impossible horrors.

There were barricades all around the square, I noticed. Makeshift piles of broken tables, chairs… anything and everything that could be found, built up and packed solid at every possible choke point.

We were being watched. I could feel it. More eyes than we could see, but they were there. The whole place had a tense, hostile atmosphere, a little like the desperation and fear that had saturated Lothering, but without the sense that there was anywhere to run. The great wooden doors scraped back, and we were led into the chantry.

Back home, we’d been allowed to attend some services; Valendrian encouraged it, in fact. It was, I’d always thought, one of the ways he had of trying to instil in us an attitude of humility. We would file out across the market square—small groups of us, usually the young and the children, and a handful of elders, for the sake of propriety—and it was a treat, a departure from routine that marked Satinalia, or Harvest, or some other festival where it felt, even if just for a moment, that things were good.

The cathedral in Denerim, of course, was an enormous and impressive building, full of people and a hub of all kinds of activity. I was used to skulking in as part of one of those small groups, and sitting at the back with somebody’s little one on my knee, marvelling at the high ceilings, the statues… everything, really. For me, the associations of the place had never been so much religious as architectural and aesthetic. It was the only time we ever got to see real works of art, and then there was the Chant itself, in all its echoing, complex beauty and rich harmony. I remembered that, and the way the light fell through windows made of coloured glass, like thick, dusty beams of painted sunshine.

Redcliffe’s chantry was a small, pale comparison. It was wood-walled, and though higher than most of the surrounding buildings, it still wasn’t huge. Nevertheless, beneath that wide, vaulted roof, dust motes danced in the shafts of tinted light, and the statues and carvings lent a familiar quality to the place… though it was far from serene.

The chantry was packed with people, but they weren’t worshippers, or petitioners waiting for their claims to be dealt with. Women, children, and old folk all clustered on the floor and on any available seat. Mothers held babies close to their chests, or clutched the hands of young ones, and tried to keep them calm. There were tears, and soft, muffled sobs, and the coughs and sighs of the infirm and wounded. We didn’t see much as we were led to the far end of the aisle, but the village’s suffering, and the destitution of its people, was obvious enough.

Our guard brought us to a well-dressed man of middle years, talking in low tones to a woman I took for the revered mother. He was neither tall nor broad, but he looked fit, strong… and very, very tired. His beard and moustache were well-trimmed, and the same bright, reddish-brown as his hair, which he wore ear-length, with one narrow braid, the way men used to do for remembrance in the alienage. I wondered: did it have the same meaning for humans, or was it simply a matter of taste? It wasn’t an important thought, and I blinked it away, uncomfortably aware that I was looking at a nobleman. The last time I’d found myself in such a position, things had ended very badly. I tried to ignore the nauseous swirl diving in my stomach, and gave myself a mental kick. No good thinking with my alienage mind, I told myself. It didn’t belong to me anymore, nor I to it.

The revered mother nodded and, with a glance at us, took her leave of the bann. Our guard coughed, and drew himself up to something approaching attention.

“Er, my lord?”

The nobleman turned, meeting the boy with a genial look of enquiry. “Ah, it’s… Tomas, yes? And who are these people with you? They’re obviously not simple travellers.”

“No, my lord.” The lad shook his head. “They just arrived, and I thought you would want to see them.”

The bann nodded, managing a tired smile of acknowledgement for the boy.

“Well done, Tomas.”

He looked us over, and aside from a brief hardening of his eyes, presumably as he choked down his disbelief, there was very little change in his calm, faintly aloof expression. I couldn’t blame him; Maker alone knew what we looked like. Maethor gave a small grumble, deep in his chest, then whined and sat down at my foot, probably in his doggy mind claiming ownership over me as much as if I were a tree or interesting rock. The nobleman’s eyebrow raised a very small fraction as he glanced at the mabari, and when he smiled it seemed a little more genuine.

“Greetings, friends,” he said, his wary look passing over each of us in turn. “My name is Teagan, Bann of Rainesfere, brother to the arl.”

Alistair cleared his throat. “I remember you, Bann Teagan, though the last time we met I was a lot younger and, uh, covered in mud.”

He smiled sheepishly, as the bann’s frown of confusion gave way to a broad, delighted grin.

“Covered in mud? Wh— Alistair? It is you, isn’t it? You’re alive! Well, this is wonderful news!”

“Still alive, yes.” He nodded, with a sidelong glance at me, and gave Teagan a rueful look. “Though not for long, if Teyrn Loghain has anything to say about it.”

“Hm. Indeed. Loghain would have us believe all the Grey Wardens died along with my nephew… though it hasn’t stopped him putting a bounty on anyone found to belong to the order. Rumours have been rife since Ostagar, but— well, it’s been hard to know what’s true and what is simply propaganda.”

“You don’t believe Loghain’s lies, then?” Alistair said, his tone dark and dry.

I wished I could see the world as clearly as he did, but I said nothing. Bann Teagan curled his lip.

“What, that he pulled his men in order to save them? That Cailan risked everything in the name of glory? Hardly. Loghain calls the Grey Wardens traitors, murderers of the king. I don’t believe it. It’s the act of a desperate man.”

It was good to know we weren’t about to given up to the nearest platoon of the teyrn’s men, but for a moment I thought we’d be drawn into yet another dissection of the battle, and the beacon… and everything else that still burned too close to the surface. I glanced at Alistair, and saw the pain of betrayal etched into his face. Every day, I worried it was hardening into an implacable desire for revenge.

He looked at me, and his expression shifted—almost self-conscious, as if he’d forgotten the rest of us were here.

“Um, sorry. I should…. Bann Teagan, may I introduce Merien? She’s a Grey Warden too. And our, er, companions: Leliana, Morrigan… and this is, um, Sten.”

There was a rather awkward shuffling of introductions. Leliana’s delicate greeting was well-schooled, but my bow was clumsy and nervous, and neither Morrigan or the qunari managed more than a brusque nod. We were attracting quite a lot of attention, too; Leliana looked the least out of place in her Chantry robe, but Morrigan’s raven feathers and heavy jewellery were hardly non-descript, and of course Sten towered over every human there. A gaggle of pale, wide-eyed children at the corner of the nave were staring at him in awe—not all that less obviously than their elders. I supposed we gave the destitute a passingly interesting distraction.

Still, Bann Teagan managed a graceful nod of his head, and a diplomatic smile. Obviously, I supposed, Alistair’s presence with our motley band was guarantee enough for him that we weren’t about to rip the place to pieces… either that, or Redcliffe was already so far gone that we couldn’t have done much damage. I was inclined to think the latter, which wasn’t a comforting thought.

“A pleasure to meet you all. I only wish it were under better circumstances.” The bann turned to me, looked me up and down—an action I did not find comfortable—and flashed a disarming smile. “So, you are a Grey Warden as well?”

A note of curiosity and surprise lingered in his voice, which wasn’t unexpected. I nodded.

“Yes.”

My lord. The words—an honorific I knew I ought to use—trembled on my tongue, but I closed my lips tight, absurdly unwilling to say them. Nobleman or not, I wasn’t going to kowtow. Not this time. Instead, I met Bann Teagan’s gaze, and had the sense that I was being briefly but thoroughly assessed.

An assessment of my own filtered through my tired, muddled brain. Six months, Alistair had said he’d been a Grey Warden. The bann knew of it. Did it mean they’d kept in touch, or was Teagan simply well-informed?

Hmmph. Younger and covered in mud. No sooner had I begun to think more comfortably of Alistair as my comrade, than I’d caught myself starting to wonder who he really was. A dull, lingering anger at that—and at him—twisted within me, and I looked forward to the opportunity of letting it out. Not now, though. No time now. Instead, I cleared my throat, and drew myself up to my full height, which brought me about level with Bann Teagan’s nose.

“We had hoped to appeal to Arl Eamon for help,” I said. “But I understand there’s a problem?”

“To put it lightly.” Teagan nodded. “My brother fell ill just before the battle at Ostagar. His condition was grave but, in recent days, we have lost all contact with the castle. No guards patrol the walls, and no one has responded to my shouts. The attacks started a few nights ago. Evil… things… surged from the castle. We drove them back, but many perished during the assault.”

I frowned. “‘Evil things’? What kind of—”

The bann clenched his jaw, eyes narrowed and expression guarded, as if he feared we would think him insane.

“Some call them the walking dead; decomposing corpses returning to life with a hunger for human flesh….” He shook his head, appearing not to want to believe it himself. “Men who… who are ceaseless, continuing despite the gravest wounds. They hit again the next night, and every night since, with greater numbers than before, their ranks swelled by… by the fallen. With Cailan dead and Loghain starting a war over the throne, no one has responded to my urgent calls for help.”

Walking dead… wonderful. It was like something out of one of those lurid, gruesome adventure tales Father didn’t approve of me reading.

Behind me, Morrigan made a small ‘hmm’ in the back of her throat.

“Undead… or spirits possessing the dead. Necromancy, perhaps.”

I peered at the woman, thinking for one foolish moment she was showing compassion for the horror these people must have faced, but I saw only mild, rather academic, interest in her expression. She arched one thin brow, and shrugged.

“There could be several causes behind such a thing, none of them pleasant.”

Alistair frowned. “It all seems too convenient for my liking. Bann Teagan, you said the arl fell ill just before Ostagar?”

Teagan nodded hesitantly. “Yes, but… Alistair, you’re not suggesting what has happened here is related to Cailan’s death?”

I sighed inwardly. He wouldn’t be satisfied, it seemed, until he’d built himself an incontrovertible proof of Loghain’s treachery. I still struggled to believe it. Ostagar had been a disaster, not a trap—the darkspawn had outmanoeuvred us, plain and simple.

Yet… we didn’t know the truth of things since then, did we? The teyrn declaring himself regent, setting the bounty on Grey Wardens…. Either he genuinely believed, in some addled way, that we were responsible, or it was an effort to silence the only survivors who knew what he’d done. But to think that it might have been part of some wider plan, some premeditated bid to seize power….

Based on what I knew, I didn’t trust myself to choose between those options. I hadn’t thought I’d have to. Redcliffe was supposed to save us from that. It was supposed to be the place where all the problems were solved, and the questions answered… and that wasn’t working out so well, was it?

I cleared my throat, and looked warily at Alistair before addressing the bann.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but Arl Eamon is an heir to the throne now, isn’t he?”

Teagan winced. “Our sister was Cailan’s mother. I suppose we’ve royal blood, but it’s a shaky claim to the throne… though still marginally better than Loghain’s.” His brows drew into a dark pinch above sharp, blue eyes. “It does mean Eamon could intervene in Loghain’s bid for the throne. But we shouldn’t leap to conclusions. However this madness began, my primary concern now is protecting these people—and I have a feeling that tonight’s assault will be the worst yet.” His mouth tightened, and he looked beseechingly at Alistair. “I hate to ask this, but—”

My gut plummeted. Still, pitting ourselves against legions of undead—if such things really existed—couldn’t be much worse than the darkspawn, could it? I glanced at Alistair, and found him looking utterly wretched. He shook his head.

“It isn’t just up to me….” he began, and shot me an uncomfortable, imploring look.

They were all looking at me, I realised. My companions, and the nobleman before me, and the white, frightened faces of the dispossessed.

Maker’s balls….

I still wasn’t quite sure at exactly what point I’d been landed with the mantle of command or, perhaps more accurately, the fingerless mittens of gentle suggestion. Looking at those who travelled with me, I didn’t think for a moment that—if I chose to declare something as an order—they would leap to it without question. I wouldn’t take orders from me… not that I was about to start barking them, in any case.

I frowned, bit my lip, and glanced at Alistair again before I addressed the bann.

“Of course we’ll help, if we can. I… don’t know if I speak for all of us, though.”

A look over my shoulder confirmed my suspicion. Sten’s face shifted into a disapproving scowl, like a rockslide in slow motion, and he folded his arms across his massive chest.

“There are no darkspawn here, and nothing to gain. It is a fool’s errand.”

“There is nothing foolish about defending the helpless,” Leliana protested. “Look at these people! We must help them.”

Morrigan snorted. “Pointless, when they face an impossible battle—one that is apparently already half-lost. One would think we had enough to contend with elsewhere.”

“And so you would leave them to their fate?” Leliana widened her eyes incredulously. “Well, I cannot. I say we offer whatever aid we can.”

I cleared my throat, and was unnervingly aware of the way silence fell, and four pairs of eyes fixed on me.

“It, er, seems to me,” I began hesitantly, “that if Loghain’s determined to have us down as traitors, we need an ally to convince the bannorn on our behalf.”

“Yet the man you seek for the role may already be dead,” Morrigan snapped. “If we have any business here at all, it is at the castle, not among—”

“Ooh, brilliant, yes.” Alistair scoffed. “The very large, impenetrable fortress that the massed ranks of walking dead are coming from? No, you’re right. Maybe if we go up and knock on the gates, they’ll let us in after all.”

She scowled, and I felt the first twinges of a headache begin to thud at my temples.

“We don’t know the arl is dead,” I said shortly, raising my voice a little. It echoed off the chantry’s beautifully carved stonework. “And we’re not exactly overrun with allies. Even if you don’t feel compassion for these people, the support of Redcliffe is worth fighting for, surely?”

Morrigan’s dark-painted lips folded in on themselves, and the eerie golden gaze grew a little harder, but she tilted her head to the side in dismissive acknowledgement, like a dog gracelessly accepting its bone being taken away.

“If you say so,” she muttered.

I looked at Bann Teagan. “Would it be enough?” I asked hesitantly. “If we help you fight these… things… would there be a chance of getting into the castle, seeing if the arl can be saved?”

He nodded fervently. “Yes. That is certainly my hope. If we can find the source, then— So, you will help us?”

I glanced at Sten. His unsettling violet eyes, glaring out from beneath the crevasse of his brow, narrowed slightly. He inclined his head—a barely perceptible nod—and I returned the gesture, hoping I at least appeared as dignified as he, and that no one could tell my heart was thumping like a frightened rabbit.

“We will,” I said, with a small smile. “I hope it makes a difference.”

A breathless sigh of relief broke from the bann. “Thank you! Thank you, this… this means more to me than you can guess. Tomas, please tell Murdock what transpired. Then return to your post.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The boy who’d brought us down from the cliff path bowed, and darted away, no doubt full of gossip.

Bann Teagan nodded, seeming a little less weary than he had before.

“I’ve put two men in charge of the defence outside. Murdock, the village mayor, is outside the chantry. Ser Perth, one of Eamon’s knights, is just up the cliff at the windmill, watching the castle.”

“The arl’s knights are here in the village?” I asked, faintly confused.

“A few,” he replied. “Those that have returned from their quest… I take it you do not know of this?”

I shook my head. “No.”

Teagan’s mouth tightened; something on the way to a mirthless smile.

“Hm. After my brother fell ill, we tried everything to cure him. Nothing worked. The arlessa became convinced that the Urn of Sacred Ashes was the answer.” He looked faintly embarrassed. “It is reputed to have miraculous powers, but… I am a practical man, while Lady Isolde is a woman of great faith. I can’t say I agreed with her decision to send so many men off in search of a relic that may never be found. Still, what’s done is done.”

“I… see.”

I recalled the vague mention Alistair had made of the arlessa. Not exactly a flattering portrait.

“I assume,” he said, “that you can’t evacuate the village?”

The briefest look around the chantry would have answered that question, I thought. These people were exhausted, many of them too old, too young, or too weak to travel.

Bann Teagan shook his head. “Believe me, we’ve tried. Those who tried to leave were attacked on the road—in broad daylight, no less. Any attempt at escape simply brings an immediate attack.” He leaned in, lowering his voice, his face clouded and dour. “I am afraid, whatever is behind this evil, it has no intention of stopping until… well. You see how desperate things are.”

Alistair and I exchanged looks. That much was certainly obvious. Twin impulses beat in me, split evenly between the desire to help these people, and the urge to flee, writing Redcliffe off as a lost cause.

However this had begun, I couldn’t see a way it could end well, and nor could I see a way that those in the castle would have been spared. The mere thought of what might lie up there—the possibility of demons and unnameable horrors, the like of which I’d only ever read about in storybooks, and never taken seriously, even then—turned my spine to water. Maybe, I told myself, Morrigan was wrong. At least… I hoped so.

“Now, there is not much daylight left.” Bann Teagan clapped his hands together, trying to inject a brisk, busy brightness into his words. It didn’t do much to disguise his anxiety. “I must see that everyone is gathered safely, and we will begin building the barricades. Luck be with you, my friends.”

He bowed his head to us, and excused himself to help the revered mother shepherd a gaggle of children into one of the side chapels. One of them was bawling, red-faced, for its mother. I had the sense we’d been summarily dismissed, and turned to look at my companions.

Morrigan crossed her arms and gave me a rather self-satisfied smile.

“Well, then. Pleased with ourself, are we?”

The low-grade thump in my temples began to spread out in a band across the whole front of my head. I met her gaze.

“Ask me again in the morning,” I said dryly.

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Volume 2: Chapter Seven
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