Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Sixteen

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It was a relief to shuck off at least some of my armour and, as I fumbled with buckles and strappings, my aching muscles and weak, sore hands protesting every movement, I thought wistfully of the little wooden tub before our fire back home, filled with hot water and with half a cake of soap sitting beside it. Father always used to let me take first dip, and Shianni and Soris would often come round to take their turns for bathing night. I could almost hear my cousin’s laughter, and see the firelight glimmering on her red hair.

They wouldn’t ever leave me, I thought. Those memories. All I had left of home, and so I wrapped them up and hid them away, and let the chilly night air and the smell of the trees and the hillsides seep back in around me. Cold comfort, but safer than allowing myself to wander too long in might-have-beens.

After I’d tidied myself up as best I could, I ducked out from my tent again, respectable and relatively clean in breeches and padded jack. The others were starting to gather near the fire; I saw Alistair there, along with Zevran, and Levi, still talking animatedly. Maethor and Sandal were curled up together, basking in the warmth of the flames and, as I watched them, I almost missed the heavy footfalls behind me that spoke of another’s approach.

I turned, and nodded respectfully at Sten. He just glowered down at me, and I wondered what I’d done wrong in his eyes this time.

He’d obviously been cleaning himself up too, though being dressed in the ragged clothes he’d had since Lothering didn’t make him any less intimidating. The evening was overcast, and the thin shreds of light that seeped through the clouds—the moon must already have risen, I supposed—touched his braids in a strangely sharp way, making them look clean and white as fish bones, highlighted against the breadth of his dark shape.

“You look like a woman,” he said shortly.

I glanced reflexively at my jack and breeches. I didn’t… not any kind of woman we had where I was from, anyway. He might have meant it relatively, perhaps, only I didn’t think my appearance of femininity had really increased over the past couple of days.

“Er… thank you?” I hazarded.

Sten did not look amused. He folded his arms across his chest, the movement slow and decisive, like the turning of a millwheel.

“You are a Grey Warden. It follows that you cannot be a woman.”

I frowned. “I don’t think that’s true. The order allows women, just like the army does. In fact—”

“Women are priests, artisans, shopkeepers, or farmers,” he said, blunt as a whetstone, his voice low and his tone brooking no argument of any kind. “They don’t fight.”

My frown deepened. Was he suggesting I had been a hindrance at the Peak? I distinctly recalled doing quite a lot of fighting, and doing it well—at least given the fact I’d never had the formal combat training he, or Alistair, or even Zevran or Leliana had received. It raised my hackles to think I was being told otherwise. However, if I had learned one thing since having the qunari travelling with us, it was that outright argument got one nowhere with him.

So, I just cocked my head to the side and listened, waiting for whatever it was Sten intended to say. His glower shifted like the grating movement of a rock face, and became a full-blown scowl.

“It makes no sense for women to wish to be men.”

Ah. I started to see what he meant, and I crossed my arms, mirroring his gesture, my feet planted firmly apart.

“Then women cannot fight, because only men fight? It’s their role, and theirs alone?”

“Exactly.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “But don’t any of the qunari ever want to change their lot in life? Choose something different?”

Those violet eyes narrowed, but Sten answered almost at once, as if the question was ridiculous enough to need virtually no thought.

“Why? A person is born: qunari, or human, or elven, or dwarf. He doesn’t choose that. The size of his hands, whether he is clever or foolish, the land he comes from, the colour of his hair. These are beyond his control. We do not choose, we simply are.”

A soft breeze rippled through the trees that shielded our camp, and I thought I heard the suggestion of night birds rustling among them. The smell of pines and bracken made the air seem sharp and crisp… with maybe just a hint of coming frost.

“Isn’t it what you make of it that matters?” I asked, genuinely curious to know how Sten’s people thought in that respect. “I mean, plenty of people change their lives. Look at Levi: his family was nobility once, and now he’s a trader, but he’s done everything he could to assist the Grey Wardens.”

Not the brightest example I could have chosen, I supposed, but I knew why I’d thought of it.

We can do it a different way. We can be different.

Sten made a small, irritated noise in the back of his throat.

“This is what is wrong with this country,” he grumbled. “No one has a place here. Your farmers wish to be merchants. The merchants dream of being nobles, and the nobles become warriors. No one is content to be who they are.”

“But it is possible to change,” I insisted. “If—”

Sten shook his head, apparently immovable on this point. “It accomplishes nothing. The farmer who buys a shop is never a merchant. He is always a farmer-turned-merchant. He carries his old life with him as a turtle carries its shell.”

I frowned, still rather unused to Sten’s moments of poetic clarity, and struggled to find a suitable response on the same level. At that moment, too, the thought of a warm shell, carried around everywhere I went, and into which I could retreat and hide, seemed rather pleasing.

“But….” I bit my lip thoughtfully. “The turtle’s shell makes him stronger.”

I looked up at the qunari, pleased with myself for my concise and sensible argument, only to find him studying me with something that might have approached curiosity. He lofted one pale brow, those vibrant eyes glimmering softly in the dimness.

“Does it? It is also his weakness. If he stumbles and falls, it pins him on his back.”

“Oh.” I deflated a bit, and my arms drooped to my sides. “I… well, yes, I suppose that’s true.”

If it had been anyone else, I’d have thought Sten looked momentarily smug.

“No.” He shook his head. “It is better to armour yourself with no more than what you need. One life, one duty.”

I said nothing. I was horribly afraid that he was right.

~o~O~o~

Bodahn had pulled out all the stops for supper: vegetable stew with dried mushrooms and a few shreds of real beef, and bread, and a couple of skins of sweet wine. He didn’t even ask us for payment… although I did notice Levi exchanging plenty of quiet murmurs with the dwarf. I wasn’t sure exactly how deep their intentions to throw their lots in with the Grey Wardens ran—or whether it was still a current plan, given everything we’d seen at the Peak—but I suspected they’d both already sketched out plenty of potentials for profit.

Maybe they’d thought, when they found us, we’d have been a proper detachment of the order, laden with men and camp followers who needed tradesmen to keep them supplied. I almost smiled at the image as I sat down beside Wynne, lowering myself carefully to one of the three flaky, lichen-peppered bits of fallen tree that had been dragged up to the fire.

“Sore?” she asked, smiling gently at me.

I winced, and nodded. “Mm. And you? Are you all right, after…?”

Her fall. I didn’t really want to voice it, because it would sound like I was questioning her capability, and I’d always been brought up to not be rude to my elders. Anyway, I hadn’t seen the collapse itself. For all I knew, she’d just tripped. However, I had seen how worried Alistair looked as he helped her to her feet. Despite all the things he did for Wynne that he seemed to think no one noticed—like carrying half her gear, or complaining about being tired, when he could see she was and yet would never have mentioned it, so that we stopped for the break she evidently needed—I doubted his concern was misplaced.

Her sharp, clear blue eyes—undimmed, even after that endless, aching, pig of a day—seemed to harden a little, though it didn’t last long, and she glanced at the fire, stretching out her hands to warm from the flames.

“I’m fine, my dear. But thank you.”

I frowned. “You, um, took quite a nasty fall.”

Bodahn was making passes with the soup pot, ladle clanging loudly, and the clatter of bowls and grumbling stomachs drowned out much opportunity I had to make myself heard.

Wynne shook her head. “It was nothing, really. I thought, for a moment… but it doesn’t matter. I’m all right.”

Thought what?

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” I pressed, as the proximity of dinner began to distract my faithless flesh, suddenly much more drawn to the prospect of eating than asking questions.

Wynne flashed me a rather sharp little smile. “Thank you, dear. Your kindness certainly warms my rickety old bones.”

I shut up and ate after that, put firmly in my place.

It was no great hardship, however; we hadn’t eaten so well since the night Zevran first joined us, and broke the ice on that uncomfortable gathering with cheese and fresh bread. There is definitely something about spending several hours fighting for one’s life in an apparently inescapable fortress of death that whets, hones and otherwise transforms the appetite into an insatiable creature.

As I hunched over my bowl, manners forgotten, shovelling sodden bits of bread into my mouth with my fingers, I caught Alistair watching me from across the fire. He smiled, and I remembered that joke of his about Grey Wardens suddenly sprouting huge appetites… wolfing down dinners, gravy all over the face, and so forth.

Are you calling me a pig?

I chewed, swallowed, and grinned at the memory as I looked away, letting my gaze rest in the depths of the fire. It warmed the night—colder, now, as the year turned, with the promise of blustery winds and frosts on the way—and pushed back the shadows, and I was grateful for that.

~o~O~o~

After we’d eaten, we sat around the fire a little longer, all full-bellied and perhaps too drawn to the soothing lull of the flames to move. Leliana shivered, and peered up at the inky trees.

“Ooh, it is a dark night. You know, on nights like this, stories are often the best comfort.”

“Story!” Sandal echoed happily from his scrape beside the fire, where he was cuddled up with Maethor, the mabari busily licking every trace of stew from his hands.

Leliana smiled. “Quite so. I think it would be only right to tell a story of the Grey Wardens… but I don’t know any Fereldan ones. Only the tales of Ayesleigh, and the elven Warden, Garahel.”

I didn’t quite manage to stop myself from wincing. The Ballad of Ayesleigh was, given the current improbability of the task before us, far too depressing. Oh, heroic deaths and sacrifice were all very well, if someone was left at the end of it to make sure the final victory was established… but we were light on numbers to start with, and it was my feeling that no one needed to listen to a song about the glorious dead rising. We’d had enough walking bones for one day, and I had heard enough about Garahel to last me a good few months… even if a lot of the things had been drawn out of my own head.

Probably because of that, in fact.

“I have one,” Wynne said, weighing in before the bard could break out any ancient heroic epitaphs. “A story of the Grey Wardens of old.”

Leliana beamed. “You do? Oh, I would love to hear it, Wynne!”

“Story,” Sandal added encouragingly, apparently oblivious to Bodahn shushing him.

Morrigan snorted contemptuously. “You do not think we have all endured quite enough of the Grey Wardens’ hubris for one day, old woman?”

Wynne brushed her hands over her knees primly and ignored the witch, instead glancing at the rest of us assembled around the fire.

“Shall I tell it?”

“Go on, Wynne,” Leliana implored. “Please. There are so many wonderful old tales about the order. I should like very much to hear a Fereldan one.”

“Indeed,” Zevran chipped in, “we are intrigued.”

He was sprawled across a dry patch of grass in front of one of the logs, basking in the firelight like a cat. Alistair glanced at him, then briefly at me, and I smiled faintly at the sardonic look on his face.

Still, neither of us were going to interrupt Wynne if she wanted to share this particular tale, so we stayed quiet.

“Well,” she began, “I’m sure all of us recall the legends of that noble, heroic order. It was said that watching the Wardens ride in on their white griffons was enough to rouse a weary heart, and put the dance back into the step of an old man. The Grey Wardens were powerful—”

“Griffons!” Sandal erupted, clapped his hands.

Alistair grinned and shifted, stretching his legs out in the fire’s warmth. “When I was at the compound at Denerim, there were loads of tapestries with griffons on. Great big ones.”

The boy’s eyes widened to saucers, and his mouth bowed around an awed ‘ooh’. I couldn’t help thinking of all the griffon motifs at the Peak, on those carved fireplaces and tattered hangings, like faded remnants of glory that held a totally different meaning from that they might once have had.

I pushed the thoughts away. They didn’t help and, anyway, if meanings could change once, they could change again. We could change them.

“Griffons?” Sandal looked pleadingly at Wynne, and she smiled indulgently.

“Yes, yes… there are griffons in the story. Now, listen. The Grey Wardens were very powerful then—both respected and feared in equal measure—and yet they brought hope to the common people. This was a long time ago, when a terrible Blight had ravaged the land for many months. The armies of all the great kings had amassed for one last stand, knowing they must face the threat before them, or perish in the attempt.”

Well, this was cheery. I shifted my position slightly, the fire warming my sore knees and aching feet. All gathered around it like this, the way we were, the press of our bodies gave up an overwhelming smell of hot leather and unwashed flesh. I wondered idly where we might find some small stream or brook. There had to be at least one somewhere in the foothills and, if the Dalish were nomads, the way the stories said, then they probably planned their movements around… water.

I foundered a bit on that thought, as the realisation struck me that, with the Peak behind us, we should be focusing again on finding the Dalish. After what had happened to Zevran, I wasn’t even sure we should risking heading into the forest at all—and there was Arl Eamon’s sickness to consider, and the importance of tracking Brother Genitivi before his trail turned cold—but… well, the Dalish were legendary, as much in terms of skill as their actual existence.

It was a quandary, and I didn’t really listen that closely to Wynne’s story.

“As the sun burst through the clouds that boiled and churned in the dark sky above,” she was saying, her hands spread wide as if to mimic the scene she spoke of, just as Leliana did when she told her tales, “it illuminated a vast seething horde of darkspawn, with the archdemon at its head. And it was then—when courage seemed to fail, and all lost to death and despair—that the Grey Wardens came. They arrived with the beating of wings like mighty war drums—”

“Griffons!” cried Sandal, clapping his hands.

Alistair snorted and collapsed into ill-disguised giggles.

“—and stood before the armies of men. Yes, griffons,” Wynne said, just a trifle impatiently. “Great, big, white ones, with wings as broad as a mighty tree is tall, and beaks sharp as blades. Their huge talons tore at the ground, and their fiery eyes struck fear into all who saw them. Now, hush.”

Sandal stared, wide-eyed and fascinated, his mouth hanging open.

I thought for a moment—strangely so, perhaps—of Duncan, and the symbol he’d borne on his surcoat. The griffon to me, then, was a strange beast, a thing of fantasies and nonsense. I didn’t understand what it symbolised, either at the Peak, or to the idea of the Wardens generally. In time, I would learn. I would hear old stories, and have ancient truths explained to me that made clear so many layers of things—meanings etched so deep into the years that they remained only as snatched pieces of legend, whispers of myths and tales.

The griffon, part eagle and part lion, combines the power to rise above the world of men with the strength and wisdom to protect them. It is fire and air, valour and insight, vigilance and vengeance.

At the time, I saw only Sandal’s wide, innocent eyes, and heard the stirring yet bleak words of Wynne’s story, and it seemed to me that, no matter whether they made old men dance or inspired legions of soldiers, there were probably better things in the world to be than a Grey Warden.

“Grim and fearless, the Grey Wardens marched forth, ever between the men and the encroaching darkspawn.” Wynne’s eyes shone in the firelight, and it looked as if she truly believed in the heroism she was describing… or, perhaps, that she believed we needed to believe it. “They formed a shield of their own bodies and held that line until the archdemon was dead and the last darkspawn lay trampled in the dirt. And then, demanding neither reward nor recognition for their sacrifice, the Grey Wardens simply departed.”

Without a hot bath, a decent meal, or a new pair of boots. And definitely without a nice, long rest in a proper bed….

I bit down on those snide little thoughts. After all, legends were legends, and we were us—and legends didn’t need to sleep.

Wynne sat back, her hands on her knees, and did one of those dramatic pauses that made me think she really had been learning from Leliana.

“So, what happened then?” Alistair asked, cocking his head to the side.

His voice seemed carefully neutral, and I couldn’t make out whether he was hiding conflicted reactions to the story, or just not taking it very seriously.

“Ah,” Wynne said, nodding sagely. “When the clouds finally rolled back and the sun shone full upon the blighted ground, the great kings knew that they had lost no men, and none of their blood had been spilled.”

The fire crackled, and Zevran leaned forwards to prod at the logs with a stick.Sparkspopped from the mantle of ash, and spiralled lazily upwards in the warm air, like tiny glowing stars in the night.

I frowned, not really meaning to speak aloud, though the words slipped out all the same. “Surely everybody takes losses in war? Wouldn’t—”

“I don’t think this story is about a specific battle,” Alistair said, eyeing Wynne speculatively as the flamelight painted shadows on his face, and turned his hair to dusk-smeared gold.

She smiled fondly. “Very observant. No… this is a tale about no battle the Grey Wardens have fought, and yet about them all. They have always defended us from the darkspawn, taking losses so we do not have to. People may have forgotten over the centuries, but nothing has changed. I think, especially tonight, that is something important upon which to reflect… and something that is worthy of honour.”

Morrigan scoffed, muttered something about ‘sanctimonious waffle’, and declared that she was retiring for the night.

Leliana yawned, and agreed it was getting late, but she thanked Wynne effusively for the story, and bade the rest of us a very pretty goodnight as Morrigan stalked away into the shadows.

“Come along, my boy,” Bodahn said, raising Sandal from his seat by the fire. “Best get you to bed as well.”

Sandal made the sleepy yet resentful ‘do I have to?’ face that even I recognised from my own childhood, and sloped off to bed down on the wagon.

“Goodnight,” he said, when prompted, and smiled at the recognition of receiving a handful of goodnights in return.

Maethor watched the boy go, then looked up at me and whined. I leaned over to scratch him behind the ears.

“You can’t keep him,” I said quietly. “And he can’t come with us. It’d be too dangerous.”

The hound huffed, and then licked my hand. I smiled as I stood, wiping my hand absently on my breeches.

“Soppy creature. Go on, then.”

He wagged his stumpy tail and, scrambling up on those over-sized paws, trotted off happily towards the wagon to accompany his favourite dwarf to his bedroll.

~o~O~o~

The clouds seemed to have trailed away, like the clouds in Wynne’s tale, and the moon was bright as a silver piece and white as new linen, set into a black, smooth sky against which the stars seemed to spin in place, so strong was their light.

When I was little, Mother used to point up through the patchwork of washing lines, walls, towers and ramparts, to our ragged little swatch of alienage sky, and name the stars for me. I recalled snatches of the stories she’d attached to them—there were lovers, torn apart and waiting for their reunion in the heavens, wild chariots, and the souls of dragons and heroes, placed forever in the cold darkness—but not the stories themselves, not fully, and I mourned that loss. It felt like letting her down.

The others had all retired, or near enough, and I was by my tent, which lay furthest from the wagon, the heavy darkness of the trees closing in on my right-hand side. Familiar footfalls behind me made me turn, and I found Alistair approaching. Clad in that worn-out broadcloth shirt of his, and the breeches he wore under his armour, he looked tired and probably about as sore as I felt, if not more so.

His tent was the other side of Leliana’s, two along from mine, so I assumed he wanted to ask me something… probably about the Peak, or when we should head out in the morning, not that I’d given it any proper thought. I hadn’t really considered anything past actual sleep and much-needed rest.

“So, what did you think of Wynne’s story?”

His voice was hushed and, as he drew nearer, I could see the dark circles that had settled in under his eyes. The moonlight seemed harsher on him than it ever had before, or perhaps it just washed away the deceits of the firelight.

The fire still smouldered at the centre of the camp, banked down for the night, laden with ash and the mumble of embers. I glanced over to it as I shrugged, looking for a way around admitting I’d been unsettled by Wynne’s words.

“It was very… uh, mythic.”

Alistair smiled. “Wasn’t it? ‘We are the guardians of men, beholden to the greater good; however mighty our power, it confines us, for we must exist to serve, united by duty, lest our strength become the grip of tyranny.’”

I raised my eyebrows. “Very good. What’s that from?”

He shrugged. “Oh, some book or other. Just something Duncan said to me, not long after my Joining, about what being a Grey Warden meant. How it was a burden, yet also a blessing, if you chose to see it that way.”

“Hmm.”

At that moment, I could have felt more blessed. I understood what he meant, though, and naturally I wasn’t about to argue with any pearls of wisdom that had dropped fromDuncan’s lips.

I looked curiously at Alistair, wondering what had brought on this sudden philosophical moment, and what had motivated him to share it with me.

“You never met them all, did you?” he asked. “At Ostagar. The other Wardens.”

I shook my head. Duncan had said I would, after the battle. I’d been heartened by the look of warmth that touched his face when he said it… back when I’d thought I was going to be part of something, that I might belong.

“Well, they were quite a group,” Alistair said, with the hint of a wistful smile. “An extended family, almost, seeing as how we were all cut off from our former lives. And we… you know, we laughed more than you’d think. That sounds strange, I suppose, but—”

“No.” I shook my head. “That’s what you do with family.”

He blinked, and there was a deepness in his eyes that seemed to have been put there by more than just the moonlight.

I folded my arms across my chest. I was tired beyond all belief, but if he needed to talk, the least I could do was make it easier for him. Alistair deserved that much, plus it would mean I could turn in sooner. Anyway, he’d virtually never spoken of the other Wardens before, and I was a little curious.

“So, were there many women?”

Strange thing to ask, I thought, almost as soon as I’d said it. I supposed I was looking for traces of myself in his memories; someone I could identify with being, as if I had really belonged among the camaraderie of Ostagar. Maybe I was a bit jealous.

Alistair wrinkled his nose. “No, none. Not while I was there, at least. There were some portraits at the compound: former Wardens who were, well, female. Sort of. Very, uh… formidable. Not like— er, I mean….”

“Not like me?” I supplemented dryly.

He smirked a bit, but looked rather chastened. “Um. No.”

I snorted, though I was too aware of my own failings to be properly offended. Alistair had let slip once before how he hadn’t thought I’d survive the Joining, scrappy little slip of a thing as I’d been the first time we met. How had he put it? Armour falling off me, face all bruised… I’d been just as surprised I made it through as he had.

“All right, then,” I said, tilting my chin. “How about elves? Any elves?”

That seemed to be firmer footing. Alistair nodded dubiously.

“Well, er… yes, just one. A man named Tarimel. He kept to himself, mostly. I got the impression that his life before the Grey Wardens wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I don’t know any more than that. Thinking about it, I don’t even know where he was from,” he added, a frown passing over his brow. He blinked hurriedly. “Anyway, the point is, I… I was thinking. They were good men. I didn’t know them for long, but it was long enough to see that.”

The light fingers of a night breeze rippled through the trees, and plucked at the canvas of my tent. It rustled a little and, as I turned my head, my breath misted on the air.

That was what we had to take from Soldier’s Peak, I supposed: the fact that we were all just people. All of us, capable of good and evil, right and wrong. Whatever the Wardens had turned to in the past—dark magic, the tyranny of military rule, or even the secrets that kept recruits like me green and stupid until long after our time—they could be changed. And they had to be, if we were going to complete the task before us… something we had no hope of doing without the help of every ally we could get our hands on.

“You were right,” Alistair said softly. “What you said at the Peak. You weren’t just talking me down. I-I mean, you were, and it really did help, but—”

He took a step towards me, then stopped abruptly, his words falling over themselves, and we both smiled with a similar kind of awkwardness.

“Thanks.” The heat of a blush began to prickle at the base of my neck, and I looked away, embarrassed.

“I mean it,” he said softly. “And… um… I mean— I wanted to thank you. And to, er—” He broke off, clearing his throat in a terribly self-conscious way, simultaneously trying to be quiet and trying to get out whatever the words were that were in danger of choking him.

I hugged my arms around my middle, rubbing a little warmth into myself, and peering at him in confusion. “What?”

A graduated wash of pink had begun to bloom on his cheeks, and was making its way up to meet with the reddening of his ears.

“I wanted to say something else, but I don’t know if it’s… I mean, if—”

Alistair bit his lip, looking baffled and bemused and, oddly, I thought, nervous. I didn’t know why that should be, and I wanted him to know he could talk to me, if he needed, or if he wanted to, but then he took a breath, and charged on with words that came out in a hushed, stumbling rush.

“If I don’t, though, if I never said— I… oh, damn.” He lifted a hand and scratched at the back of his neck. “Um, look, it… I know it probably does sound strange, considering we haven’t really known each other for very long—and m-maybe it is because we’ve gone through all this together, and Maker knows I couldn’t have done it alone—but, er… I… I mean, I’ve come to, uh… to care for you. A great deal.”

He swallowed heavily and looked at his boots. A sudden, steep, and insurmountably difficult chasm of silence seemed to yawn between us. I drew in a long, soft breath, but the cold air gave me no feeling of realness or stability. Perhaps I’d heard wrong. Perhaps he hadn’t meant… what I thought he’d meant. Only, it sounded like he had, and that was impossible. I’d lost my mind, evidently, and drifted into dreams.

Maker, I’m supposed to say something, aren’t I?

I opened my mouth, but he raised his head and looked at me then, imploring and hopeful. Heat washed over my face, and yet I couldn’t quite manage to look away.

“I’m, um… I’m probably fooling myself,” Alistair said, his voice low and a touch husky. “Or imagining things. That is, I know you probably— I mean, I remember what you said, about all the things that happened to you before you… well, before Duncan… um, you know. I didn’t forget about that, and I… I understand how you must, uh, think of… of… well, men. Human men, I mean, and….”

There was a moment of not-quite-silence, but nothing could be truly quiet while my pulse was thudding like that in my ears, and while I was so very aware of Alistair’s rapid breathing, and the sheer solidity of his presence. We were little more than a foot apart, and I could smell the leather polish and grease on him, and all those mingled scents of sweat and grime and flesh that were so very human… and yet that I barely noticed anymore.

I realised what he was talking about, and the shame washed over me in a torrent. Of all the stupid things I’d ever said, it had to be this! Those cast-off words when I told him of Shianni and Vaughan; how he’d ruined her, and how, to us, a woman allowing herself to be touched by a human, even when it wasn’t rape, wasn’t right, or proper—or clean.

It’s dirty to go with shems.

How had I said that? Why? Why had I been such a fool?

I bit my lip, and Alistair peered tentatively at me from under his lashes.

“I just… thought I should tell you. That’s all. I, uh, I don’t suppose you would, would you, anyway? Care about a-a human man, I mean, in that sort of—”

“I don’t think of you that way,” I blurted.

“Er… oh.”

His shoulders slumped and his face stiffened, expression shifting from apprehension to crushed embarrassment as I realised how my words sounded.

Stupid, stupid, stupid….

I wanted to kick myself, but the blood was rushing too hard and too fast for me to even breathe, let alone move. I swallowed, my tongue clumsy and my pulse skittering like a rat.

“I mean….” I started, but I didn’t know what to say.

If he’d just stop looking at me like that, I thought perhaps I’d have a chance, but it all felt so very impossible. All those things that had been drilled into me from my earliest years seemed distant and nebulous now. The world was different, and I was different, and there was nothing to hold onto, except for hope… and the tangled shreds of guilt that were wound around me.

“I….”

I didn’t want to hurt him. And I did care, didn’t I? However much I’d tried not to admit to myself, it was true. I liked him, trusted him, admired him… but what that really meant, what it became in the seclusion of an honest heart, I was suddenly so afraid to confront.

In that moment, something inside me pitched, and all I could think of was what Father would say if he could see me now. An avalanche of terror, remorse, regret, and sadness hit me, muddled up with the absurd desire to laugh.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair murmured. “I shouldn’t have—”

“No,” I said quickly, looking up at him. The awkward mix of confusion and embarrassment on his face stung me badly, and I wanted to… Maker’s blood, what did I want? To comfort him? Touch him? Everything was so much more complicated. I shook my head. “It’s not that. I don’t think of you as human,” I murmured. “I think of you as you.”

“Oh,” he breathed. It was less a word than a soft exhalation, a murmur of hope in the darkness.

Heat crawled up the back of my neck and prickled again at my cheeks. I looked away, burying my gaze in the cool, shadow-speckled grass. The blush had me on its horns now, though I wasn’t alone. Between us, we were probably generating enough heat to outdo a bonfire.

“And I do,” I whispered, my voice barely scraping the air as I stared at the scrubby, muddy ground. “I… I care for you, Alistair. Very much.”

“Oh?”

A smile pulled at my lips as I heard the exultation and disbelief seeping through that small, single sound. I glanced shyly at him, afraid of what this new confession meant—what it would mean, when there was this great, dark threat hanging above us, and this was hardly the most sane or sensible thing to be discussing—but just looking at him made me feel a little better.

“So, you…? Really?” Alistair grinned, not so much a smile as a great crashing rush of relief and joy sweeping over his face like a tide demolishing a breakwater. “You see, I didn’t know that. But that… that is very good to know.”

My smile widened too. He still looked haggard and tired under the moon’s bright glare, and we were both still grimy and unwashed, worn down with fighting and travelling, but his eyes shone and, to me, he could not have been more handsome. I let myself think it, admit it openly for the first time and even celebrate it. This man, whose opinion and friendship had come to mean so much… he cared for me. I almost wanted to mouth the words, as if that might make them real, but before I could, I realised what this shy, self-conscious smiling thing was going to become.

Alistair and I drew closer, slowly and clumsily. It was coming, I knew. And I wanted it, despite the dizziness and the dry mouth and the sweating palms and the thin, bright streak of panic collapsing in on itself like a streaming star in the darkness of my head. It was infinitesimally slow, and so awkward, both of us leaning into the other, yet neither quite making the final movement. I closed my eyes. Then, after too many long, dusty seconds, breath held and heart thudding, it was real.

Alistair’s lips were dry and rough, but gentle, as if he thought I’d break. The pressure of the kiss was light, yet it lingered: a bond as strong as steel and as weightless as air. His fingertips grazed my cheek, chasing a shiver through my flesh, and I leant into the contact, my hands clenching on the threadbare fabric of his shirt. The kiss deepened, which I don’t think either of us really expected. It just… happened, and he tasted like warm sunlight on furs, and fresh bread. When we parted, I was blushing and breathless, and I couldn’t quite stop the embarrassing trembling.

He looked shyly at me, his face an endearing mix of hazy, smug glee and tentative anxiety.

“That… that wasn’t too soon, was it?”

The air seemed to shake a little between us. I’d never wanted anyone like this—certainly no one like him—and it scared me. It felt as if I was holding onto him just to stop myself from falling over, but the warmth of his proximity, his scent, made me dizzier than ever. I smiled, feeling the tendrils of this unfamiliar, yet not unpleasant, confusion unwinding lazily through me.

“Well, I-I don’t know,” I said, affecting seriousness, albeit not very hard. “I think I might need more testing to be sure.”

“Oh?” Alistair grinned, his smile washed through with relief and affection. “I’ll have to arrange that, then, won’t I?”

I didn’t leave it up to him. A gentle rock on the balls of my feet, and I pressed my mouth to his again, seeking the comfort of his acceptance… and rewarded with so much more.

“Maker’s breath,” he murmured appreciatively, his thumb gently stroking the line of my jaw as we parted once more.

The corners of his eyes crinkled a bit as he smiled at me, and if I could have blushed any more, I probably would have. I still didn’t know whether it was a good idea or not but, just maybe, there was room amid all that strife and darkness for one small light.

Somewhere high up in the trees, something moved, and an owl’s call fluttered through the branches.

We broke apart, and Alistair cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Uh….”

“I should….” I gestured vaguely over my shoulder, towards my tent, then blushed a bit more at the realisation of what I was pointing at. “Um. And, er, you should… uh.”

“Yes. Right.” He pushed his fingers through his hair and looked embarrassed. “Er, well, then. Um, goodnight.”

It was late, and cold, and yet I didn’t really want to move away from him.

I smiled. “Goodnight.”

We looked at each other for a moment that felt so very long, and the smiles widened out into soft, stifled laughter. Alistair sloped reluctantly off to his tent, and I crawled into mine, where I bunched myself up beneath the blankets, and listened to the canvas rustle in the breeze.

The air felt cold on my face, and I realised I was still smiling. I closed my eyes, and the tiredness came winding its way back. Sleep took me quickly, and it wasn’t to be an easy rest. There were dreams that night—black, heavy, painful ones, filled with the hum of darkspawn and the taunts of guilt and memories—but, in those few precious moments between waking and sleeping, life felt beautiful.

~o~O~o~

When morning came, I woke to the quiet buzz of voices. On emerging from my tent, I found it was Levi and Bodahn, standing near the dwarf’s cart and engaged in earnest conversation. Levi was gesticulating in the air, a bright-eyed look on his face that reminded me of an over-eager ferret, and Bodahn had a small tally-stick in his hand. He kept nodding and counting notches against the thing, and an inexplicable sense of unease assailed me.

I heard Maethor bark and looked round, smiling as I saw him playing fetch with Sandal. The hound was wagging his stumpy tail so hard his entire back end was shaking, and the boy looked just as happy. I hated to think that, soon, we’d be back on the road again, and I’d have to split them up.

Well, there wasn’t much call for a merchant where we were headed, was there?

“Morning, sleepy!”

I screwed up my nose at the sound of Alistair’s voice, turning to see him in breeches and shirtsleeves with a skillet in his hand, heading towards the fire that was burning at the centre of the camp.

He grinned at me. “Breakfast? You’ll never guess what Bodahn had squirreled away. Eggs.”

My stomach rumbled traitorously, then my head caught up and I blinked awkwardly at him, suddenly extremely aware of the night before… and of that kiss.

Alistair evidently recalled it as well, because his ears turned slightly pink as he held my gaze, then he looked at his feet and waved the skillet aimlessly.

“Um… anyway, I-I thought you’d want breakfast, and… uh. Yes.”

“Thank you,” I said softly. “I do.”

He looked up, all big, boyish eyes and broad shoulders, and smiled, and I found myself recalling in acute detail the warmth of his arms and the taste of his lips. Had either of us been a little more experienced in the arts and games of attraction, we might have taken the opportunity to indulge in some kind of teasing, playful banter about hunger and appetites that would have made Zevran proud.

As it was, I started to blush, and so did Alistair, and then we both grinned at each other in a kind of shared, guilty, happy embarrassment.

I headed over to the fire, where most of the others were already gathered. Zevran smiled at me in such a way as to make me wonder if he’d been eavesdropping, but I dismissed it as part of his usual manner, and told myself sternly that there really were more immediate things to focus on.

Alistair cooked breakfast. Scrambled eggs and fried bread turned out to be one thing he couldn’t mess up—at least not irreparably—and he seemed very cheerful. I tried to keep my smiles to myself, and concentrated on smoothing out the wrinkles of embarrassment that still clung to me.

We ate, and everyone seemed better for the rest.

Levi and Bodahn announced their intentions to mount and equip an expedition to fully reclaim Soldier’s Peak, utilising the manpower and expertise of assorted Warden sympathisers. If the trader was to be believed, it seemed there was quite a network of people loyal to the idea of the order, and I supposed we hadDuncanto thank for that, and his role in returning the Wardens to Ferelden.

“There’s plenty of people my family knows,” Levi said. “Plenty who’s faithful to the Wardens, and ’ave been for years, not to mention those who don’t support the regent. Given a good few weeks, now them demons are gone, we can clean the place up, clear out everything salvageable from the old armoury and that, and really see about pressing the old place into service again.”

Alistair grimaced. “Do we really want to attract that much attention?”

Morrigan snorted. She seemed much improved, though she still looked paler than usual and a bit battered… but then that was true of all of us.

“Loghain will already know you are on the move. It is merely a matter of controlling how much he knows.”

“Morrigan has a point,” Wynne admitted, giving the witch a sidelong look. “Word of what happened at the Circle Tower will no doubt have reached him by now, no matter how discreet Irving and Greagoir have been in pledging their support to you. Not to mention, if there is as much unrest as it seems, civil war may be inevitable.”

I frowned. I wanted to believe that was a matter for Loghain and the Bannorn, and that all we needed to worry about was the Blight, but I had the feeling it wasn’t going to be that simple.

Sten, seated to the far side of the fire like some kind of immovable monolith, made a small growl at the back of his throat. He’d been silent up until then, and I glanced curiously at him.

“If a leader loses the loyalty of the people,” he said, gazing steadily into the fire, “they will flock to whoever is not him. Your cause will become theirs, whether they believe in it or not. You would do well to use that.”

“We’re not here to raise a rebellion,” I began, but even I could hear the lack of conviction in my voice.

We needed the Bannorn. We needed the network of sympathisers and supporters Levi spoke of… and we needed to use the resources we had carefully. Possibilities, odds, and chances all weighed up in my head, crowding out the little bits of room I’d left for optimism.

“Hm.” Alistair looked archly at the qunari. “That’s an interesting strategy, anyway.”

Sten shrugged, his face impassive. “It is what your kind do. They know no better. They have no certainty, know no place of their own. My people would respond differently.”

“Oh?”

“I’m sure they would,” I said hurriedly, raising my voice just enough to disrupt any potential baiting, and giving Alistair a warning glance. I meant it to be stern, but I suspected it wasn’t, and I cleared my throat. “But we don’t have the luxury of the entire antaam at our disposal. Unfortunately. And the Peak itself has stayed hidden for a long time.” I looked at Levi, rather hoping he might back me up with some practical observations. “Maybe, if you’re right, it can be brought back into use, as a staging post for people prepared to help us, if nothing else.”

“Oh, it’ll be more than that,” the trader said enthusiastically. “We already know there’s plenty there worth salvaging. You mark my words, Warden: next time you see the place, you’ll hardly recognise it!”

I forced a smile. Maybe he was right. Zevran had certainly picked up a few curios from his scavenging—enough baubles and saleable trinkets to convince anyone the Peak was worth further investigation, now it was safe to do so. He’d struck a deal with Bodahn on a couple of silver goblets that I knew about… there was probably a lot more secreted away that I didn’t know of, but I wasn’t going to pry.

A fat, curved piece of branch Leliana had been using earlier to coax the fire into life lay at my feet. I picked it up, and gazed thoughtfully at the mottled stripes of colour on the bark, and how they faded down into the blackened tip. My fingers traced the rough patches of lichen and aged wood.

“Maybe, when we pass back by Lake Calenhad, we can send word to the Magi. They have scholars and, if they can spare them, they can make a start on those libraries. That, and make sure everything’s… properly dealt with,” I said vaguely, not really wanting to revisit the practicalities of demons and foul magic.

“Much appreciated.” Levi nodded, his expression turning a little sombre. “That’s what Duncan thought, you know. All the knowledge the Wardens had back then; all that culture and history, what had to be brought back…. ‘We are but temp’ry keepers of our wisdom,’ he said to me.” He shook his head. “I’m glad you fulfilled his promise.”

A faintly awkward silence fell, and for a moment it almost felt as if man’s ghost itself was whispering around the edges of the camp.

I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry we can’t stay to see the work start on the Peak. And… thank you. Thank you both,” I added, glancing at Bodahn. “We didn’t know there were already people out there ready to listen to Grey Wardens.”

“Oh, we are. We are indeed,” the dwarf said suavely, giving me a big smile from behind his beard.

A little way away, Sandal was off again, playing happily with Maethor. I returned Bodahn’s smile, though I still wasn’t sure whether his involvement was more to do with profit or politics.

I weighted the bit of branch in my hand, and prodded at the fire. It was a nice morning, with golden light streaming into the clearing, picking at the mica in the hillsides, and making the tufts of grass on them into delicate cobwebs that wafted gently in the breeze. Against the brightness, the flames seemed diaphanous, like they didn’t really belong.

Leliana shifted, stretching out her long, leather-clad legs. Apart from during our trip into Denerim—which I would rather have forgotten completely, had I been able to—she hadn’t changed back into her Chantry robes since Redcliffe, and yet she still managed to look unmistakeably feminine. Now, the sunlight caught on the red of her hair, and made a dozen different colours glimmer in it. She wrinkled her nose, those clear blue eyes narrowed against the sun as she squinted at me.

“So… what happens now?”

I shrugged, and gave the fire another, rather more savage poke. “We have two choices, I guess. We try to find the Dalish, or give them up as a lost cause and start back towards Redcliffe and Lake Calenhad. There’s the good brother to follow up on still.”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “It will take, what, at least another two or three weeks to get back to Redcliffe, no?”

Alistair exhaled uneasily. “I hope Arl Eamon’s no worse. I don’t like this whole Brother-Genitivi-being-missing business. If we could just have found him, then—”

“We would already know he is nothing more than a fool intent on chasing after the bones of a madwoman,” Morrigan drawled, her voice sharp and hard, “and he will be of no use to your dying arl.”

“He’s not dying!” Alistair snapped. “They said… the mages said… magical healing can sustain him. It’s just—”

Not enough to bring him back. He didn’t say it, and fell to scowling at the fire instead. I suspected, like me, part of him didn’t believe we’d find the brother, and the whole exercise was simply a political one; shoring up the support we would need to extract from either Isolde or Teagan—depending on who took control of Eamon’s estates, as regent or successor—with the balm of having at least tried to help the arl.

Or perhaps Alistair didn’t think that at all. Maybe all his thoughts were for his guardian, the man for whom he still had all that loyalty and affection. I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t help to be so suddenly reminded of the ties Alistair had to… well, to the Guerrins and more.

A human, and not just any human. Son of a king, and raised in a castle… what do you get yourself into, girl?

“He will be well cared for,” Wynne said smoothly. “You know that, Alistair. Even if the healing cannot continue indefinitely.”

His scowl deepened, the edges of it scored with discomfort. “Maybe we should turn and head for the lake, then?” He raised his head, casting a glance around the group for support before he looked at me. “I mean, if Genitivi’s missing, we have to follow up on his trail before it goes cold, right?”

I suppressed a smile. That train of thought was familiar… and yet it was also mired in a little bit of annoyance. I coughed gently.

“The Dalish will be moving too. And we’re already within a couple of days of the pass. If we don’t try to find them now, chances are we won’t find them at all.”

Alistair frowned. “Yes, but—”

“We need allies, don’t we?” I raised my brows, trying hard not to think of this as another moment when the needs of some human nobleman—even one potentially on his deathbed—were put above my people. “I say we give it a shot. Just a day, maybe two, to find some trace of them in the forest. We know they were here, and recently… but if there’s nothing, then they’ve probably already moved on. But we won’t know until we look.”

Alistair opened his mouth, probably already framing an argument, but he didn’t push the point. He just shrugged, albeit with rather poor grace.

“Fine.”

“Does anyone disagree, then?” I asked, glancing around at my assembled companions. “Any other ideas?”

Wynne shook her head. “An admirable plan… although I wonder if your timing might not be a tad optimistic.”

“Wynne has a point,” Leliana added. “The Brecilian Forest is enormous. Not to mention the legends that—”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Alistair held his hands up, palms out. “Don’t tell me! Horrific battles, death, mayhem and occult destruction, with a side order of demonic pandemonium. Am I getting warm?”

“Not to mention the trees,” Zevran added dryly, flexing the arm that had been so badly injured and, though now largely healed, did still bear a thin, white scar. “With the groping and the rending? Really, it was like being back in a cheap Nevarran tavern.”

I smiled, despite myself, and shook my head. Zevran caught my eye, and gave me a disarmingly suave smile.

“Nevertheless, if it is what you desire, fair Warden, I shall run headlong into the branches of death.”

“We can only hope,” Morrigan muttered.

“Thank you.” Ignoring her, I nodded at Zev, and then turned my attention to Sten. “What’s your opinion, Sten?”

Those unsettlingly bright violet eyes surveyed me critically.

“It is a matter of weighing gain against risk. I have heard stories of the Dalish elves. There are no better archers among humans, no warriors more vicious and skilled. Secure their help and, should they provide sufficient numbers, you may have less chance of failing quite so spectacularly.”

I grinned widely. “Then I’m taking that as a vote of confidence. Thank you.”

The qunari’s face remained as impassive as ever, though the breath he exhaled was eloquent.

“You may take it however it pleases you.”

So, there we had it. A slightly ragged consensus, but it was enough.

We would, we decided, spent a few more hours at rest before pulling up camp, bidding our farewells to Levi, Bodahn and Sandal, and heading north to the pass that led into the neck of the Brecilian Forest. Alistair—though clearly still not quite at one with my decision—unfurled the map, and there was some checking of distances and discussion of potential routes. The majority of it passed over my head, though I could at least distinguish the part of the map that marked out the forest.

It was a huge, sprawling thing, like an ink stain, but cut through with dozens of little ragged lines that I supposed were meant to represent the trees. There seemed to be no indications of terrain or landmarks. Just ‘here be forest’, which wasn’t comforting.

Still, a grain of excitement bloomed in me. I thought of the arrowhead Wynne had found: real, tangible, recent evidence of the Dalish. Wild elves…. They had never been anything more than stories to me, but oh, such wonderful stories! All those tales of Arlathan and Halamshiral, of the Emerald Knights, and our beautiful, immortal ancestors.

When, a little aftermidday, we shouldered our gear and began to head for the road, I couldn’t deny I was eager to see where the journey took us.

Perhaps I was naïve enough to believe in stories. Perhaps I was simply optimistic.

Either way, I had no idea what would lay ahead.

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On to Volume 4: Waking in Shadows
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Ten

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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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Alistair and Levi had been poring over the maps for ages. I gave up trying to take an interest in our projected route when it became apparent that what I thought was the symbol for a landmark peak in the Southrons was actually Highever.

I left them to it and went to help with packing the wagon. We had decided to leave in no great hurry, despite the fact that this detour was unplanned and, as I was still partially convinced, a delay we could ill afford. I’d made my decision, though, and I couldn’t back away from it now without looking like a fool or, perhaps worse, seeming weak and foolish.

In any case, the prospect of Soldier’s Peak—a whole base, and a symbol of security we might so desperately need—was enticing, added to the fact that, after the chaos of Denerim and Zevran’s injury, none of us were in much of a state to throw ourselves at the forest.

It called out to me from beyond the pass, all the same. The wind that rustled through the trees seemed to speak of Emerald Knights, and all the wondrous, beautiful things I thought the Dalish were. I wondered if we’d ever find them, or if we’d even manage to come back once the Peak had been inspected. Perhaps we’d find ourselves pushing on in the search for the Urn. The part of me that was still doused in alienage bitterness suspected that would be true; wasn’t it always elven matters that got brushed aside when some shem noble snapped his fingers?

Of course, I felt guilty for thinking of Arl Eamon like that, even briefly. And, in any case, there was no time to dwell on things.

Once we were fully loaded up, we set off, a more conspicuous baggage train than we’d been before now. Bodahn’s cart—which, I found, was positively stuffed full of goods—was a useful way of carrying our gear, and would speed us up considerably, especially as Zevran and Wynne were able to ride in amongst the bundles and crates.

She said she was fine, no matter her years, or the blows she’d taken in the Brecilian Forest, but the resentment she showed at being fussed over wasn’t strong enough to really make me believe it.

Zevran, too, was oddly quiet, not that I was surprised. Earlier that morning, I’d helped Wynne change the dressings on his arm, and my stomach had twisted at the sight of the messy, ragged joins in that smooth, tanned flesh. It had evidently been a close call, and though Wynne’s healing magic sped the recovery considerably, he’d not had sufficient aid quickly enough to properly avert the damage. I hadn’t even been there, and yet the guilt of that clung to me like wet rags. This man who’d made his oath to me—overly theatrical though that moment had been—had run close to being killed protecting people I called companions. I felt responsible.

Still, for a silver lining, I supposed what had happened meant we couldn’t doubt that oath of his anymore. Or could we?

Naturally, Zevran made light of the injury and, as I had wiped and washed and rolled bandages, and Wynne had murmured incantations, he’d kept saying how it was merely a scratch and he’d had far worse during his years in Antiva. The Crow initiation alone, he told us through gritted teeth, was painful enough to ensure only the hardiest recruits survived.

I didn’t doubt it.

Now, as the wagon’s axles rumbled and the oxen trudged onwards, Zevran sprawled among the bundles in the back like a cat. Thin, autumnal sunlight gilded his pale hair, and he had his face tipped back and his eyes partially closed. In pointed contrast, Wynne sat neatly on one of Bodahn’s tight-lashed crates, her elbows and knees tucked in and a small frown on her face as she read one of the books we’d lifted from Brother Genitivi’s house.

I’d had a look at them. Heavy stuff. I didn’t really understand what they were about… oh, the words made sense, individually, but not once they all got together in sentences and ganged up on me. The high-flown erudition of history scholars had never had much place in the alienage. I’d been lucky to know my letters as well as I did, and for Mother to take the time to teach me to appreciate the stories that she’d read.

Zevran opened one eye lazily and peered down at me.

“Why don’t you come up here, hm? There’s room, and you’ll spare your feet.”

Alistair, heading us up a few strides ahead of the oxen, glanced over his shoulder. I thought he was going to make some kind of crack about soldiers who didn’t know how to route march, but he looked rather tight-lipped.

I was walking a little behind the cart—and to the left, about level with the wheel, but away enough to avoid being splattered with too much mud—and felt surprisingly relieved to be back in my leathers. Valora’s brown dress lay neatly folded at the bottom of my pack once more, and I didn’t miss it the way I’d thought I would.

I shook my head as I looked up Zevran. “I’m fine. Feet are a lot better, actually.”

It was true. The various balms I’d used had healed up the worst of the sores and blisters, and having boots that fitted reasonably well definitely helped. Alistair had joked about how I’d eventually develop proper soldier’s feet, tough as old hide and smelly as rotten cheese, and that was a measure of the way our little band had been growing closer, I supposed.

Zevran sighed. “Ah, well. Pity. A journey is always more enjoyable with congenial company.”

He was clearly feeling better enough to flirt. That was a good sign… possibly.

I grinned. “You already have Wynne up there with you.”

The mage looked up sharply from her reading. “Don’t encourage him. If I hear one more remark about my bosom, I will not be held responsible for my actions.”

There was a strangled cough from Alistair, but Zevran just smiled.

“All I said was that it was a magnificent bosom… and it is. A bounteous feat of womanly virtue, which has held up surprisingly well in someone of your years, and—”

I snorted, despite myself, as Wynne slipped her finger between the pages of the book to mark her place, and fetched him a swift, efficient thump on the leg with it, before demurely returning to her reading.

Zevran winced, lips moulded around an ‘o’ of imperfect agony. The way his eyes watered suggested there was some bruising, or perhaps a light wound, in the area Wynne had so surgically targeted.

He blinked, and shook his head before shooting me a sly smile. “You see this, Warden? Such grace and poise! Ah, and with such a bosom!”

Wynne scowled. “I’m old enough to be your mother, maybe even your grandmother.”

I bit my lip, trying to keep a lid on the giggles bubbling up within me as Zevran shrugged.

“What? I like women with a little experience. Or a lot. A lot is good, yes?”

Wynne sighed in exasperation and dropped the book to her lap.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake. Please, just… come and sit between us. I don’t know if I trust myself enough.”

She looked pleadingly at me and, against most of my better judgement, I nodded, and clambered up onto the creaking flatbed of the cart.

It was a pleasant enough way to ride; sheer luxury, really, next to the endless walking, and the ground here was not that easy underfoot, a mix of shale and grit along with the mud. Having forsaken the road, we were clinging to the edge of the Southrons themselves, looking for the so-called pass or path that was marked on Levi’s map. He said he knew how to get there, and that it would be simply a matter of finding the right way, then probably cutting through several decades of abandoned brush… unless the Peak had been overrun by bandits or squatters, of course. The thought had crossed my mind, just one of many.

I still wasn’t sure about the wisdom of thinking we could even try to reclaim a Grey Warden base within so short a distance of Denerim. If the Peak was where Levi said, it would be little more than four days from the city, and I couldn’t believe Loghain wouldn’t know of it. Alistair reasoned it was unlikely, if even the Wardens had all but forgotten about it, but I remained uneasy. What if we got there and found it was all a trap?

It didn’t bear thinking about and, I supposed, we had to take risks if we were to reap rewards. There was, in our current situation, no other alternative.

So, I sat among the packed crates and barrels, and watched Maethor snuffling his way along the front of the group, ahead of the oxen. Bodahn and Sandal sat up front, with Levi alongside, while Morrigan did her usual trick of distancing herself slightly from the group, keeping easy pace at the right of the beasts. Leliana and Sten were to the left, him with that mighty, ground-eating stride that made it look as if he was able to walk all day without tiring—which I’d long suspected he could—and her, still in her Chantry robes, seeming the vision of a misplaced missionary wandering the countryside. Alistair looked much more comfortable at being back in his armour, shield slung across his back, and I thought what a sight we would have been for anyone we might have met on the road.

“So,” Morrigan said after a while, breaking the uneasy quiet that the unfamiliarity of our new companions had left hanging in the air, “about your trip into Denerim?”

She cast an imperious glance at Alistair across the oxen’s white, swaying backs, and he groaned.

“You don’t really want to ask about that, do you?”

It was something we’d been over already before we broke camp, summarising for Bodahn and Levi and, in my case, avoiding as much detail as possible. It was too late, though; the majority of the story was already out.

“You met with that sister of yours?” Morrigan enquired delicately, her voice a thin blade of black slate, applied with the precision of a butcher’s knife.

“Half-sister, ye-es,” Alistair said, the words swathed with clear discomfort.

I wished there was some way I could distract her—he didn’t need the whole thing dredged up again—but she was like a cat with a new piece of prey to play with, and I doubted she’d give it up any time soon.

“And she did not fall upon your neck, weeping with joy to discover you?”

Overhead, the clouds were thin, grey streaks across the pale blue sky, like torn lace overlaying watered silk. The cart’s axles rumbled, and I noticed Wynne look up from her book, distaste bowing her lips.

“No,” Alistair said dispassionately, staring fixedly ahead. “No, she didn’t.”

“My, my.” Morrigan gave a small, brittle chuckle. “How surprising!”

A slight greasy taint seemed to smear the air, then Alistair sniffed philosophically.

“Yes, well, I think you’d have liked her. You’d have a lot in common.”

His words clanged across the leaden atmosphere, the insult barely concealed. Morrigan arched her thin brows, the widening of those ochre-gold eyes intensified by the swoops of shadow across her face.

“Oh?” she said icily. “Indeed. And yet you gave her money. A great deal of money, in comparison to what—”

“Yes.”

His tone was brusque; we had already imparted this news, and going over it again wasn’t going to make anyone approve of the decision any more. From the look on her face when Alistair had admitted it last night, even Wynne thought we’d been too generous… especially given the two sovereigns she’d had to pay the wise woman who set Zevran’s arm.

Morrigan’s lips tightened. “One simply wonders—”

“I expect you do,” Alistair said shortly. “But then that’s the difference between us, isn’t it?”

She stopped mid-word, her mouth still framing a protest. I had to stifle a smile, and wondered if it was very wrong for pride to well up in me the way it did.

Still, the witch wasn’t going to let him get away without a parting shot.

“Sometimes,” she snapped, “I wonder at the difference between you and a toadstool.”

Alistair continued to stare at the horizon, but with a very self-satisfied grin.

The silence seeped back in, though, and I sought to fill it, a little afraid of the way the quiet was broken by nothing but the cart’s creaking and the occasional rattle of birds in the trees.

I glanced at Zevran, somewhat unnerved to find him already looking at me, those golden-brown eyes calmly alert, his face serene.

He arched one pale brow. “Mm?”

Back ho— back in the alienage, we’d had our share of cheeky boys. When you lived that close to filth, and when so many were forced to confront the ugly sides of physicality, or seek refuge in the joyous ones, then despite all our standards, morals, and rigid constraints—or maybe even because of them—there were bound to be rebels. I remembered them as the boys with short-razored hair, defying convention with skull-close crops, delicately feathered around their ears, or spiked up at the front, spotless tunics with gaudy embroidery, and cocky walks. They’d gather outside Alarith’s in the evenings, and knock back jars of ale while they whistled at the girls, or they’d sneak out and blow a week’s wages apiece at one of the marketside taverns, and reel home singing and puking in the small hours.

They were the boys Father warned me about… but they were nothing like Zevran.

Oh, he had the looks. The hair, the clothes, the luxury—more of everything than we’d ever had where I grew up—but there was something altogether different behind it. Nothing about him screamed of hunger, for a start, or even of the kind of cruel and petty violence we saw in those who sought a life outside the alienage, and found it only in crime.

Zevran simply was as he was, and yet a fine, dark, silken presence pooled beneath that carefully constructed image. I could feel it, somehow. He was cultured, and dangerous, and I’d never encountered that combination before.

It scared me.

My gaze fell to the tattoo that hugged his cheek: those oddly curving lines that seemed just as shadowy and sinuous as he did.

“I w-was wondering something,” I said tentatively. “About what you said before.”

“Oh?” He smirked softly. “This should be good.”

“The Crows,” I persisted, unabashed, and earned myself another raised eyebrow from him. “The initiation you spoke of. Do they really…?”

Zevran’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly. In context, it might have been the equivalent of a hearty laugh; I wasn’t sure.

“Ah, yes. It’s all true. The beatings, the endurance of terrible pain. How else would they foster the proper… competitive attitude in young apprentices?”

I wanted to believe he was joking, but I doubted it. I wrinkled my nose.

“Rewarding the survivors,” I observed darkly. “Hm.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.” He shifted his position against the crates as the wagon pitched a little over the rutted ground. “If you do poorly in your training, you die. Simple. And it’s no great loss to the Crows. They buy all their assassins on the slave market: young, and cheap, and they raise them to know nothing but murder.”

He kept fixed, even eye contact with me as he spoke, as nonchalantly as if we were discussing nothing more than the weather. I regretted having tried to ask in the first place. He was testing me, waiting for a rise of shocked reaction, but I didn’t yield that easily.

“That system really works, does it?”

Wynne had looked up from the book again, those sharp blue eyes darting between us, her lips tight and the hint of disapproval lingering in her face. I knew the Circle kept its mages sheltered from the world, but I suspected Wynne had experienced much more of life than she let on, and I doubted she could really be so naïve.

Zevran gave a lackadaisical shrug and tilted his head to the side, regarding me coolly as a small smile touched the corner of his lips.

“Should it not? You compete against your fellow assassins. Fail, and die. Survive, and you may be rightly proud of it. Besides, in Antiva, being a Crow gets you respect.”

He’d kept himself so calm, so nonchalant, yet his eyes hardened just a little on that last word, the thick burrs and lilts of his accent spitting it from his mouth like a crisp, dangerous thing.

“I’m sure it does,” I said carefully.

Wynne looked silently appalled. I wasn’t sure if any of the others were listening in. They could probably hear us, although Sandal had started to hum quietly, swinging his feet as he sat on the top of the driver’s box.

Ahead of us, a rabbit dashed from the brush. Maethor bounded after it, but it was too quick, and he lost it under a thorn bush.

“Oh, shame!” Alistair exclaimed. “That could have been dinner.”

Morrigan made a tart comment about charred meat and limited culinary repertoires, but I was watching Zevran as he nodded slowly.

“It does,” he said, his words soft and slightly sinister. “It gets you wealth. It gets you women, men… whatever you might fancy. But it means doing what is expected of you, always. And it means being expendable.”

That light, tawny gaze held mine, and I found myself wondering how much he knew about the people he’d been contracted to kill. Did he know about the oaths Grey Wardens swore? Or did Loghain, for that matter?

Did he know about what we did—what we took into ourselves, a sacrifice to corruption—and how we were given to the Blight, tied to the darkspawn, in order to be their destruction?

I shivered a little, though the breeze was not that cold. In some ways, we were more alike than I felt comfortable admitting.

Zevran shrugged again, indolent and easy, and gave me a rueful smile.

“It is a cage, if a gilded one. Pretty, but confining. As for what it takes to get there… eh, quite frankly, the truth is that all being an assassin requires is a desire to kill people for a living. It’s surprising how well you can do in such a field, especially within an organisation such as the Crows.”

He made it sound simple, matter-of-fact… and I very nearly nodded in agreement. Wynne gave a small scoff of disgust as she lowered her book and glared at him.

“You sound as if you actually enjoyed it!”

“And why not?” He turned those heavy-lidded eyes to her, and raised his brows. “There were many things to enjoy about being a Crow in Antiva, my dear Wynne. Respect, fear… a certain degree of exemption from the law. There were many—how would you say?—little perks. As for the killing part, well… some people simply need assassinating. Or do you disagree?”

The mage blustered, a dozen different reproaches apparently struggling to escape her thin lips. I couldn’t tell if Zev was winding her up or not, yet when he glanced back at me—encouragement to come and help him play at baiting his prey—I saw something deathly serious in his face. My mind passed back through the months as if they were water, and I remembered the taste of blood in my mouth, and the feel of sweat burning in my eyes as I stood over Vaughan Kendalls’ corpse.

A part of me was convinced Zevran had seen it; that somehow he could look into my eyes and read the memories, know all the secrets. I hated the thought… almost as much as I hated the memories.

“The thing is,” he said easily, as if merely confiding a preference for a certain type of cheese, “I often find myself the instrument of fate, ending a life for one necessity or another. I console myself with the notion that most of them had it coming. As far as enjoying the act of killing itself, why not? There is a certain artistry to the deed, the pleasure of sinking your blade into their flesh and knowing that their life is in your hands.”

His gaze bored into me and, though Wynne had finally found her voice and was—rather shrilly, it had to be admitted—demanding to know if he actually understood that murder was wrong, I barely heard her.

There was a blood-slicked floor beneath my feet, and I felt the hilt of a borrowed sword in my hand, the resistance of flesh yielding to the path of vengeance I twisted through it.

I remembered pale green eyes turned to weeping, bloodshot slits as the face of a monster became the face of a puling, crying child. I’d made that bastard scream, and my only regret before we left the arl’s estate had been not having the time or skill to take his balls, and being forced to let him die a complete man, whimpering and squealing in the mess of his own blood and piss.

Zevran looked steadily at me, and I knew he saw it. He saw every dirty, stained, crumpled piece of my soul.

“Naturally,” he said brightly, with a quick glance at Wynne, “there were many things about being a Crow that were not enjoyable. But… honestly? I can’t say it was entirely unpleasant.”

“That is appalling,” Wynne grumbled. “You don’t even seem to have a grain of remorse!”

The corner of Zevran’s lips curled again; that little whisper of a smile that was all at once lazily sensual and oddly cynical. It made me feel unpleasantly exposed, and I wished I’d stuck with walking behind the cart.

He winked at me then. Maker’s truth: an actual conspiratorial wink.

“You know,” he said, turning to Wynne, “you are right. Now that I think about it, you are right about everything. I am a terrible person. Please… I wish to cry. May I rest my head on your bosom?”

I clapped a hand over my mouth to try and stop the snort of laughter, but it was useless, no matter how heartfelt Wynne’s growl of frustration was. She brought the book down again sharply on his leg, but I suspected—in the greater scheme of things—Zevran didn’t mind enduring a little pain for a moment as well worth it as that.

~o~O~o~

It was almost sundown when we broke for camp. There had been a little consternation to do with maps and the geography of the hills; we were pushing deeper into the Southrons now, and whether Levi was right about the fortress being hidden within them or not, there was an increasing danger of getting horribly lost and spending the rest of the Blight looking for a way out.

The trader assured us—in his customary nervous, faintly oily way—that the maps were correct, and we’d hit Soldier’s Peak the next morning, if we were lucky. Sten did that soft growl in the back of his throat thing, and managed to intimate very successfully by so doing that, if we were not lucky, someone was going to get their arms ripped off.

Still, all things considered, I had to admit that there had been many worse nights. The tang of frost was on the air, but our fire burned big and bright, and Bodahn had a plentiful array of supplies. He even took the opportunity to try and sell us some of his manifold wares—and the dwarf seemed to have absolutely everything, from cheap jewellery to well-made shoes and second-hand weapons. I didn’t want to think about what had happened to the people who’d owned them firsthand.

Morrigan, of course, felt compelled to point out how broke we were, on account of certain people ‘frittering’ our money away, but all in all the evening was pleasant. It was rather nice to have the security of the hills ranging up around us, like the solid embrace of some protective fortification.

I thought so, anyway, until Leliana drifted into one of her stories, and began recounting the tale of the Rebel Queen’s campaign against the Orlesians, and how Maric the Saviour and the rebel army had come out of the bones of the land to overthrow the usurper-tyrant, Meghren.

It surprised me a little that she should take such pleasure in that story, but I supposed a bard knew when a tale’s core merits outweighed its social and political sensitivities. Everyone sat, enraptured, as Leliana wove the tale, and I wondered if any of them even remembered that several of the key players—not least bloody Loghain Mac Tir—were the reason we were in our current mess.

One look at Sandal’s face, though, mouth hanging open and pale eyes big as saucers as he leaned forwards, legs crossed and hands clenched in the dirt, told me no one needed to hear my complaints. I slipped quietly away from the fire… just as Alistair had done, rather than listen to the saga of his father’s heroics.

I had some thought about going to my tent, maybe cleaning my weapons or buffing my boots a bit, when I saw Alistair’s familiar shape—smaller, without the armour, stripped down to that over-mended, comfortable shirt—outlined on the other side of the canvas peaks. He seemed to be looking away into the blank eyes of the hills, as if he could sense something in their blind nooks and crannies. I really, really hoped it wasn’t darkspawn… but then I’d have felt too, wouldn’t I?

I supposed so, though it was hard to know what I felt a lot of the time. He turned and smiled at me, and I couldn’t help noticing the way his thumb was working at the worry token on his left forefinger.

“All right?” he asked.

“Mm-hm.” I nodded, and it was only partially a lie. I glanced back past the bulk of the wagon, towards the fire. “Didn’t need to hear that one, then?”

Alistair grimaced. “Not really. You?”

“No. It’s a good story, but… no.”

The dusk skimmed shadows across everything, the last light of the day glancing oddly off the small white stones in the dirt. The closer we got to scrambling in amongst the peaks themselves, the more the earth seemed sown with hardness, as if Leliana’s tales were true, and the Southrons were bursting up out of the land like teeth, as proud and fierce as the rebels who’d once owned them.

I frowned. “If the rebel army was here during the uprising, wouldn’t they—?”

“I thought that.” Alistair nodded sagely. “I suppose, either Levi’s right and the Peak is so well hidden they never found it, or they did, and it was useless.”

Just a ruin… a hollowed out husk of a thing. Yes, that would about suit our luck, wouldn’t it?

I winced. “Seems logical. I just don’t know if any of this is… well, you know.”

“I know.” He began to cross the few feet of dirt that separated us, his face strangely hopeful in the gloom. “It’s the right thing, though. I’m sure of that. If Duncan believed it… a-and more than that, if we can do this for the Grey Wardens, then….”

The words trailed off, and I felt the strength of the belief behind them. Alistair rubbed at his worry token again—full-scale, with the fingers of the other hand this time, not just his left thumb. Something serious was bothering him, I decided. I wished I had his faith in the order; that I’d had the chance to see something perfect and beautiful and heroic in it before I joined.

“I just hope whatever we find will be helpful,” I said, gazing down at those strong, square hands of his, and the winking disc of gold. “Maybe we’re about due some good luck.”

Alistair snorted softly. “Yeah… maybe.”

I glanced towards my tent. “Um. I-I should, uh—”

“Wait.”

The word was a quick gulp, and it pinned me to the spot, though I didn’t quite understand why, or how.

“Yes?”

“Er… I… I just wanted to say something.” Alistair cleared his throat awkwardly. “I mean… um.”

“Something wrong?” I prompted.

“What? No… no, it’s not that.” He looked over my shoulder, down towards the fire, as if satisfying himself that we weren’t going to be overheard. “No, it’s just that I really appreciate what you did, that’s all. In Denerim.”

I blinked, not wanting the reminders and already beginning to turn away, but he stepped closer and, for a moment, I thought he’d reach out and take my arm to stop me. I looked up, and found him a little closer than I’d expected.

He smelled… well, human, that clean scent of apples and green wood that was somehow him overlaid with the sweat and grime of travel. I smelled nerves on him, too, and I didn’t know why.

“Oh. I—”

“You didn’t have to do it,” Alistair went on stubbornly, refusing to let me brush him off. “But you took me to find my sister, and… and you were there to talk me down after we left. I appreciate that.”

My lips moved soundlessly. I wanted to say that it was nothing, but that wouldn’t really have been true. Meeting Goldanna, however badly it had turned out, had meant a great deal to him, and we both knew how much.

Alistair frowned and stared at the dirt, a mix of regret and embarrassment colouring his face.

I managed a weak smile. “Really, it was—”

“No, you’re… you’re a true friend,” he said quietly, raising his gaze to mine. “I just wanted to tell you that.”

I said nothing for a moment, my mouth dry and my lips parched. The cold night air nipped at my cheeks, and I realised how hot they felt in comparison.

“Well,” I murmured, despite the way my voice seemed to want to stick in my throat, “we’re in this together, aren’t we?”

Alistair smiled, and the warmth of it flooded his eyes. The dusk-bathed dimness made him look younger… boyish, almost. I didn’t want to remember as vividly as I did how—by the impenetrable alienage walls, raw with all we’d learned there—I had wept on his chest, and how I’d wanted him to hold me, even as his hands rested tentatively on my shoulders, trying to convey comfort without touch. That respectful distance he had always left between us—never pressing an advantage, never assuming a permission—filled me with gratitude, and yet I wanted to rip it all away.

I swallowed heavily, unaccustomed to feeling like this. Ashamed and a little angry at myself, I wanted to get away, yet my feet were leaden.

“That we are,” Alistair agreed. “And… you know I have your back, right?”

I nodded, and the smile I gave him in return was wide—wider than my usual fare, because I forgot all about the chips and the missing tooth, until the cool air touched the bare socket of my gum. The grin wiped from my face, I looked down at the earth, the blue-tinged light making those little white pebbles seem opalescent amid the dark soil and tufts of black grass.

“’ppreciate it,” I murmured.

“Mm. Bet you’ll miss it when it’s all over, though, won’t you?”

I looked up, an incredulous frown already creasing my brow. That light, sarcastic tone leavened his words, like he wanted to detach himself from all the seriousness. His thumb was working at the worry token again, threatening to polish away the runes.

You know… the endless route marches, the brushes with death, the constant battles with the whole Blight looming over us… all that?”

It seemed a rather optimistic thing to say, given the current state of our rag-tag war effort. We had no idea just what, in real and practical terms, ending the Blight would actually involve, never mind being bold enough to assume we’d all be alive to see it.

That thought slipped quickly through my head, like a fish slicing beneath dark water, and it left ripples of fear behind it. Just thinking about it—about any of us falling in battle—chilled my flesh, but I couldn’t escape the sudden images that speared my mind.

Blood on blond hair, hazel eyes staring blankly into oblivion…. My throat clenched convulsively, and I fixed my gaze on Alistair, as if I needed to prove to myself that he was still there. He raised his eyebrows, and I forced out a small, dry laugh.

“Huh… why, will you?”

He gave me an odd sort of half-smile, his face a little distant, as if he was trying to remember the punchline of a particularly good joke. Then he blinked, and puffed out his lips.

“Pfft, definitely! I tear up just thinking about it. I mean, there’ll be no more running for our lives. No more darkspawn and—” He paused to groan theatrically. “—oh! No more camping in the middle of nowhere!”

I chuckled, and he scuffed at the grass with the side of his boot, his smile gradually fading.

“I suppose what I mean to say is, um… well, I know it… might sound strange—”

He broke off, raising his head abruptly at the same moment I turned, my hand automatically flying to the hilt of my dagger. Movement to the left of us made me flinch, my heart thudding dully against my ribs in that stupid, breathless moment.

It was only Sandal.

The boy stood near the back of the wagon, his mouth slightly open and eyes wide. He looked at us solemnly, and then glanced towards the rise of the hills.

“The big castle’s scary,” he confided, in those ethereal child-like tones.

“What big castle?” Alistair asked, his brow furrowed.

He was too brisk with the lad, and Sandal shook his head; either a refusal to impart a secret, or an admission that he lacked the words. I couldn’t be sure.

“Where is the castle, Sandal?” I asked, taking a soft step towards him. “Do you mean Soldier’s Peak?”

He raised a hand and pointed at the hills. Northeast, I noticed, like Levi’s interpretation of the maps said.

“Over there.” Sandal’s pale, pudgy face creased into a frown. “I don’t like it.”

I wanted to ask what he meant—whether it was the Peak he spoke of, and how he knew he didn’t like it—but Bodahn’s voice cut across the night, calling his son.

“Ah, there you are,” the dwarf said, relieved, as he emerged from behind the wagon.

Sandal looked at his father blankly. I supposed there must be an acknowledgement of recognition there, but I couldn’t see it.

“Come along now, my boy,” Bodahn said smoothly, putting an arm around his shoulders. “You leave the Grey Wardens to their business. Mighty important task it is they’ve got, and we’ve the cart to see to. I hope he’s been no trouble,” he added, glancing at us.

“Of course not,” I said, dredging up a smile. “In fact—”

“Well, good night to you, then.” Bodahn squeezed the boy’s shoulders, and began to lead him away.

Alistair and I echoed our goodnights. I wondered if the merchant had overheard us, and if there was some reason he felt that Sandal should not be questioned.

As they retreated out of earshot, Alistair shot me a wary look.

“What was that about?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, but somehow it doesn’t fill me with confidence.”

“I know exactly what you mean. Well… I, er, suppose… um. Better get some rest.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of his tent, his arm swinging loosely, and cleared his throat. “Sleep, and all that. ’Night, then.”

“Goodnight,” I said, slightly puzzled as I watched him take his leave.

He never had told me what he was going to say.

———————————
Volume 3: Chapter Eleven
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Nine

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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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Maethor bore me to the muddy ground as I ran to meet the wagon, his stubby tail wagging enthusiastically and his enormous jaws wide open, great strings of slobber flying with every delighted lick.

“Wh… what…?” I managed, trying to peer over the hound to see what was going on, albeit with limited success.

The cart stilled at the mouth of the pass, and the heavy pair of oxen pulling it nodded their heads, breath steaming as they grunted at the night air. Thick candles in glass lanterns were set atop the driver’s box, where a dwarf with a neatly braided beard and a heavily embroidered tunic sat holding the whip. He looked past me and smiled genially at Alistair.

“You’re the Grey Warden, then, ser?”

His voice was rather high and sharp, marked with a born salesman’s easy charm, and an accent that I couldn’t quite place.

“Er…,” Alistair began, as two familiar figures dismounted from the back of the cart.

I began to tense. We’d worked very hard at not identifying ourselves as Wardens, and my first thought was this was some kind of trap, some kind of—

“Yes,” Morrigan announced, her air of weary resignation not quite covering the flash of relief in her face as she surveyed the three of us. “These are they. The suspicious, dim-witted one… and the elf.”

Maethor got off me and sat by my side, tongue lolling from between the white bars of his teeth as Morrigan gave me a look that wasn’t entirely disparaging.

“Nice to see you too,” I managed, clambering to my feet and brushing myself off, still decidedly wary. “What…?”

Sten stood at her shoulder, his impressive bulk outlined with the stains of thin moonlight glimmering on his custom-built armour. His expression was as inscrutable as ever, heavy brows drawn tight over those glittering violet eyes.

“Where’s Wynne?” Alistair demanded. “And Zevran? And who’s—”

Maethor barked, wagged his tail again, and capered off to the back end of the wagon. I could see another man disembarking, giving his hand to assist Wynne down, and there seemed to be two more figures climbing out from among the packed crates, bundles and barrels… another dwarf, and the slim, golden-haired outline of Zevran. Relief washed through me, but it was still heavily rimed with uncertainty.

Someone,” Morrigan said coldly, folding her arms across her bosom, “required urgent healing of a standard the old woman was not able to provide.”

“Healing?” Dread lurched in my gut. “What…?”

Wynne glared at the witch and, behind her, I saw Zevran smile sheepishly as he got down from the wagon and stepped—or, rather, limped—forwards. One arm was tightly bound in a sling, and his showy, leg-baring armour was gone, replaced by a simple linen shirt and rough, rather tatty breeches. He shrugged nonchalantly, and didn’t quite manage to hide the wince of pain the action evoked.

“You Fereldans,” he sneered. “You have such a distaste for civilisation, you cannot be content with bandits in your forests. Even the trees themselves must be bloodthirsty. It is quite simply ridiculous.”

My incomprehension reached such dizzying new heights that I decided the stresses of the day must finally have driven me mad. I stared blankly at him.

“You got into a fight with a tree?” Alistair snorted. “What? You fell out of it? Or—”

“No,” Sten said shortly, the syllable rolling across the conversation like a boulder. He gave a sound like a small growl at the back of his throat, as if he disapproved strongly of what he was about to say, and wished that his disapproval alone was enough to change its reality. “The forest. Its trees have… life. Of a kind. Some are possessed. They strike without warning, and with great anger.”

Beside me, Leliana gasped softly. I glanced at her in surprise, amazed I could have forgotten how soundlessly she moved.

“Oh… I had always wondered if it was truly so. They say the Brecilian Forest has seen so much death that the Veil itself is drawn thin there. I had heard tales of it being haunted, but—” She put a hand to her mouth as she surveyed Zevran’s wounds. “You poor thing. Were you badly hurt?”

He smirked. “I survived. But, if you are concerned, I am sure I will need my dressings changed….”

“He is fine,” Morrigan cut in. “He is still speaking. Incessantly, I might add.”

She glowered, and his smile widened. For all her show of annoyance, it looked to me as if there was a note of relief, or maybe even pride, in those golden eyes, and I wondered exactly what had happened. Zevran wasn’t clumsy by nature, after all.

Yet, as I glanced at the crowded merchant’s wagon, the two dwarves, and the other man who had alighted, distinct unease settled over me. They appeared to be doing their best to ignore the conversation—doing everything but whistling nonchalantly and staring at the sky—and yet it remained that our band had been reunited in the presence of strangers… and strangers that it seemed we owed a debt to, at that.

The notion worried me, and I shivered as a cold night breeze slipped through the grass. A little way into the pass, set back from sight of the road, our campfire was still burning. I wasn’t sure whether it was safe to head back there.

“I’m afraid we were a little slow off the mark,” Wynne said, by way of explanation. “Or, I was. My reflexes may not be all they once were… but, without Zevran, the rest of me would be a little less intact, too.”

I felt my eyebrows climb incredulously and, as I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, Alistair took the words right out of it.

“Wait, what? Hold on… you were injured trying to help—”

Zevran shrugged, affecting uncharacteristic modesty, and said nothing.

“None of us expected the attack,” Morrigan snapped. “We were less than half a morning’s journey into the forest when it happened. And, as much as it pains me to admit, the assassin probably saved our lives. However, his wounds were more than I knew how to heal, and the old woman was of little use, so—”

“Wynne, are you all right?” Alistair asked at once, to which the mage smiled and nodded.

“I was winded, that’s all. I’m much better now. Really.”

She looked tired, I noticed; even more so than the rest of us. It had probably been worse than she was prepared to confess, especially given the tautness in Morrigan’s face. For her, I suspected that whatever had happened had been tantamount to a failure… and she didn’t react well to that.

“—as I was saying,” she said crisply, narrowing those golden eyes, “we were forced to retreat in search of aid. We were… extremely fortunate to encounter it.”

Morrigan glanced towards the cart, arms still tightly folded across her chest. The dwarven driver set aside his whip and climbed down from his perch, striding forwards with a confidence that—never having met any of his kind before—I found odd in someone even shorter than me.

“Bodahn Feddic’s my name,” he announced cheerfully, grinning first at Alistair, and then me. “Merchant and entrepreneur. This is my boy, Sandal. Say hello to the Grey Wardens, Sandal.”

He held out his arm, looking to the shadowy figure of the other dwarf, who was loitering beside the cart. He came slumping forwards, and I gathered from his broad, clear, moon-like face that he was what Father would have called simple… and what mostly everyone else in the alienage would have called backward. The daughter of one of the dockhands who lived in the same tenement as Soris had been that way. Sweet girl, as I recalled; until she ended up with a round-eared baby she didn’t understand how she’d come by, and her father tried to hide her shame by keeping both of them locked indoors.

I blinked away the recollection, and the painful thoughts that swallowed it, and did my best to smile at the young, blond dwarven boy, with those peculiarly pale, bright eyes. He twisted his thick fingers together, his lips moulded into a coil of uncertainty as he stared up at Alistair, then glanced at me.

“Hello,” he said, very deliberately, and began to blush.

“Hello, Sandal,” I said, as kindly as I could manage. “Um…?”

Maethor gave one of those talkative canine grunts and bounded away from my side, lolloping over to the boy. Sandal’s face split into an immense grin and—from the way he fell to his knees, fussing the mabari and chuckling happily at the enthusiastic licks to his cheeks he received in return—I guessed he and the hound had already started forging a bond.

“And this,” Bodahn added, before I had a chance to form a full question, “is my business associate, Levi Dryden.”

The other man was a thin-faced human in a worn but well-tailored jerkin, a good linen shirt, and wide cloth trousers. A heavy belt at his waist, hung with tallies and scrips, marked him out as a merchant, and his light brown hair was pinned in a loop at the back of his neck, with two thin braids hanging at his temples. He came forwards nervously, and looked between Alistair and me with a smile so ingratiating as to be oily.

“My pleasure, ser… and, um, miss.”

I nodded at him, and shot Alistair a perplexed glance. He rubbed a weary hand over his forehead, and looked about as confused as I felt.

“Yes, hello. Er, look, I’m sure we’re all very grateful, but… what exactly—?”

“We met them on the West Road,” Wynne explained. “They were looking for you. For the Grey Wardens.”

Alarm bells had already been ringing in my ears… and yet these people didn’t seem like bounty hunters.

“That’s right,” Levi Dryden assured, beaming awkwardly. “And, lemme tell you, you’re ’ard people to find. There’s been rumours ever since Ostagar that some of you got away, but… no, where are my manners? We should make camp for the night, shouldn’t we? Plenty of time to talk, and I expect your friend needs rest.”

His weaselly glance flickered to Zevran, who held up his one unbound hand.

“Please. I’ve been worse. Although, for what it’s worth, I can assure you these gentlemen seem honest enough.”

There was a beat of hesitation in the air, the damp and the dark drawing in all around us, caught as we were between the mountains and the forest. I let a sigh leak from me, part defeat and part some small, secret hope that maybe this insanity was a good thing in disguise. We were due some luck, weren’t we?

“I… I suppose we should thank you for your help,” I said, looking from Dryden to the dwarf. “We have a fire, just up the ridge. And the rest of our gear….”

Bodahn smiled broadly at me. “All on the cart,” he said, and I got the oddest feeling that, somehow, it was going to cost us money. “Much obliged, I’m sure. Much obliged. Right, then! Come along, Sandal, look lively… let’s get settled, shall we?”

Before I knew it, I was jumping back out of the way, and the ox-cart was rumbling past, up to the mouth of the pass. We’d suddenly swelled from a party of three to eleven, and the babble of voices and movement on the air seemed loud and chaotic.

Still, there wasn’t much to do but follow on. The tents were already being unloaded, and the fire stoked up… and no matter how screamingly strange it felt, I had to admit I was curious.

~o~O~o~

It had been a long, strange day, and it got stranger.

We gathered around the fire, sitting in the lee of the wagon, tents lazily pitched for the bare minimum of shelter on what promised, for once, to be a dry night. There were good, solid rations—fairly fresh bread, salt meat, cheese, and skins of water and wine—that paled what we’d stolen from Brother Genitivi’s house into insignificance, and so much to talk about.

The full story of Zevran’s injury would, I suspected, develop into a heavily embroidered anecdote with successive tellings. The arm now bound into a sling had been ripped open, the bleeding heavy and uncontrolled. Wynne, knocked out by the first blow of the tree-spirit, or demon, or whatever it was we were to call them—and, honestly, the whole concept of mobile, violent trees was definitely something I was still adjusting to—had been in no state to stem or treat the wound. Between them, Sten, Maethor, and Morrigan had vanquished the… thing… but they’d been forced to collect the wounded and flee back through the pass in search of help.

It had been sheer good luck that, as they stumbled back to the road, they’d met Bodahn and Levi’s wagon. The merchants had offered aid, and healing potions, and even taken them to a bone-setter half a day south-east of the city, which was where they’d been returning from at the late hour we’d seen them arrive.

It all seemed far too fortunate to me, and far too like coincidence—not something we could afford to trust—but as Levi Dryden took over the tale, I had to admit he sounded very genuine. There was a certain greasy, panicked honesty to the man that was difficult to ignore.

They’d been on our tails for nearly a week, he said. Come all the way from the west, originally, up past the Frostbacks, and had been meaning to head to Ostagar, before they caught the news of the massacre.

“What business did you have there?” Alistair asked warily.

“Wee-eell,” Levi said, leaning forwards and warming his palms over the fire, “I was meant to see a friend of mine.Duncan. I’m sure you knew him, seeing as how he was the leader of—”

“Yes. I knew Duncan.” Alistair’s voice fell heavily across the merchant’s words and, as he nodded briefly at me, I saw the pained look in his eyes. “We both did. He… he was my mentor.”

Levi’s face softened. “Ah. I’m sorry. What happened down there… it was a tragedy, it was.”

“Yes,” Alistair said tightly. “It was.”

The firelight daubed shadows across his face, and the civilian clothes that he still wore, suddenly so at odds with the way his posture had stiffened, his back ram-rod straight and his shoulders tense.

I cleared my throat. “How did you know Duncan, if you don’t my asking?”

Levi blinked, and seemed to brighten. “Oh, we went years back, we did. I done a lot of trading with the Wardens… well, all around, really. Levi of the Coins, they call me. Heh… Levi the Trader.”

He flashed that obsequious grin again, and rubbed his palms against his knees, glancing at his gathered audience.

On the other side of the fire, Sandal, the dwarven boy, was sitting on the ground with Maethor. He had his arms around the mabari’s neck, giggling quietly while his father sank a skin of wine. The rest of our companions were sitting close by, all of us drawn around the flames like moths, and it was strangely convivial. Even Sten and Morrigan had stayed at the centre of the makeshift camp, instead of withdrawing to their respective corners at the first opportunity.

I tried to smile encouragingly, and nodded. “Yes?”

Levi coughed. “We-ell… it’s a bit of a tale, to be honest, but I was there when the Grey Wardens come back to Ferelden, I was. I… well, I was one of the ones what spoke out on your order’s behalf. There were a lot of us, but… yes, I was there.”

He licked his lips nervously, that thin, ferret-like face lit with the glow of remembered pride.

Alistair frowned incredulously. “What, when King Maric rescinded Arland’s decree?”

Levi nodded, and I must have looked nonplussed, because he took pity on me and added an explanation.

“First Grey Wardens in Ferelden for a century, they were. After Maric, Andraste bless him, freed us from the Orlesians, the Wardens begged to meet with him—some internal business or other—and there was a mess of us sympathisers who spoke out. Well… Teyrn Loghain was dead set against having them set foot across the border—”

“No surprises there,” Alistair muttered, at which the trader grinned.

“—being foreign and all, but the king was a fair-minded man, and he let them in. So, I was there when Commander Genevieve presented herself to the king. Proudest day of my life, that was.”

His narrow chest puffed up, eyes shining, and I tried to picture the events he spoke of. It all seemed a very long way off; those twining complexities of politics and legality that had never had a place in my life.

I frowned. “So… that’s when you met Duncan?”

Levi nodded. “Yep. Over twenty years ago, now.”

About the time Duncan had tried to recruit my mother, then. The thought reared up, unbidden, and I had to bite down hard on it, pushing it back into the dark, alongside all the more recent horrors I needed to hide there. Levi took a slug from a skin of wine Wynne passed along to him, and laughed as he lowered it from his lips.

“Hah… ’course, Duncan was a bit of a scamp back then, would you believe.”

Well, that was an unexpected description. I glanced at Alistair, expecting him to be shocked, or possibly offended, and was surprised to see him just smiling into the fire, as if some tender memory had been touched.

Levi shook his head fondly. “We were of an age, and we struck up a friendship. ’Course, the king himself went with the Wardens on their mysterious business. Then, when he returned, he repealed King Arland’s ban on the order, and the Wardens came back to Ferelden for good.”

“One wonders,” Morrigan said archly, from her position opposite us, glowering across the flames, “what they did to get themselves expelled in the first place.”

I was surprised at her taking an interest in the tale, even if it was to poke fun. Alistair opened his mouth, presumably to tell her to shut up, but Levi appeared to have hit his stride, and answered fluidly.

“We-ell… can’t rightly say, really, can you? Some reckon it’s because the Wardens had become terribly unpopular, just soaking up tithes and not doing a bleeding thing for the kingdom.” He sniffed, and cast a look around the camp. “’Course, I say that’s bollocks, as recent events have shown.”

Alistair, who’d just taken a swig from the wine skin, coughed, and Levi grinned.

“Oh, yeah… we ’eard, on our travels, what you done at Redcliffe, and all about how the Circle of Magi stands behind the Wardens. There’s rumours flying from the Bannorn to Amaranthine about how the Grey Wardens have survived, and shall bring an end to the Blight, whatever Teyrn Loghain says. Make no mistake,” he added, leaning in to the fire, his face earnest and oddly intense, “there’s plenty who’ll come to your banner, right enough. The Grey Wardens have loyal supporters, all through Ferelden.”

A sense of faint dizziness tugged at me, like I was standing on a high parapet, peering over the edge at some great plain laid out below me, and not knowing what was about to come charging across it. It felt very odd, and very uncomfortable, to be on the receiving end of those words, fine and grand though they might have been.

I looked at Alistair, rather hoping he might handle this one. The wine skin hung slackly in his fingers, and a mildly stunned expression had settled on his face, coupled with an uncertain awkwardness.

“Er… right,” he said, fumbling a bit with the wine skin as he passed along to me, and shooting me a pleading look that left me no other option but to smile at Levi, and incline my head.

“Thank you.” I nodded to the trader, who beamed expectantly, and a sea of dread lapped within me.

I didn’t like the undercurrent that clung to this story of his: the twenty-year-old revolution of a visionary, a king whose blood ran in the veins of the man sitting beside me. Whether Alistair liked it or not—whether anyone knew it or not—he united both the Theirin line and the myth of the Grey Wardens… and if it did come to civil war, that was a potent weapon for us. He might not have wanted the truth broadcast, and I certainly had no intention of making it public, but even then I wondered if we’d have a choice. Levi had already mentioned rumours and, however much I still clung to the hope that we would be able to make Loghain see the Blight’s true threat, and avoid unnecessary bloodshed, I was uneasy about what might lie ahead.

What unsettled me most, I think, was the fire and pride in the man’s eyes. When he looked at us—when he looked at Alistair—he saw memories of heroes… and that struck me as dangerous.

“So.” I cleared my throat, because evidently no one else was going to ask the relevant questions. “When you were heading to Ostagar, to meet Duncan… what exactly…?”

I glanced across the fire at Bodahn, who had been quiet all through Levi’s tale, and now smiled cheerfully at me.

“Oh, we joined up on the road, miss,” he said, with a nod at Sandal. “The boy and I left Orzammar behind us, didn’t we? That’s where we’re from originally. Heard a great many tales about the Grey Wardens there, that’s true…. When I heard Master Dryden was trying to make his way to the king’s camp, well, I thought to myself, it was our duty to combine our efforts.”

His smile widened, small blue eyes glittering in that broad, ruddy face, his braided beard resting like laurels against his chest. He was lying. If I’d had to put money on it, I’d have said he was running from something, but I didn’t know enough to guess what, and the time wasn’t right to ask. Besides, at that point, Sandal looked up very gravely, and nodded.

“We left Orzammar,” he said, apparently with great deliberation.

Bodahn chuckled indulgently. “That’s right! That’s right, my boy. Maybe one day we’ll see it again.”

Sandal didn’t seem to have an opinion on that; he just went back to stroking Maethor’s ears. I watched the hound’s stubby tail wag happily, and wished—not for the first time—that I could take such simple joy in life, moment by moment.

“Truth of the matter was,” Levi said carefully, weighing his words, “I had a favour to ask of Duncan. Something we’d talked about before, like.”

I blinked. Somehow, that didn’t seem remotely surprising.

“A favour?” Alistair echoed. “What kind of favour?”

The trader gave us another ferrety grin. “We-ell… my family, y’see… bit of a chequered past. Been looked at for some years with an element of disdain.”

“Oh?”

I heard the note of sarcasm in Alistair’s tone, but I wasn’t sure if Levi did; he was already embarking on the tale of his forebears. The man could evidently talk the hind leg off a donkey, or any other given pack animal.

“My great-great-grandmother, Sophia Dryden, was the Warden-Commander of Ferelden, back when the Wardens were known as freeloaders. So, when King Arland banished the order, he took all of House Dryden’s land and titles.” Levi wrinkled his nose, jutting his chin forwards as he frowned into the fire. “’Course, when he died, there was a huge civil war. Lot of papers lost, things destroyed and all turned around…. We rebuilt, became merchants. Us Drydens are tough, you see? And we never lost our pride.”

I rubbed my fingers along my arm, suddenly feeling the night’s chill through the thin cloth of my dress. There was something horribly familiar about those words—that stubborn, indomitable refusal to give in, to cease clinging to the wreckage of a name, an identity. I couldn’t help thinking of Goldanna, and how much a vision of home she’d seemed to me, with all her tired bitterness and worn-down spite.

We weren’t so different, my people and the shems. Not so different as I’d thought, or been told, or grown up believing we were… and it was the hardest time possible to reflect on that fact.

“So,” Alistair said, prodding the trader gently back to his original point, “what was this favour you asked of Duncan?”

Levi gave him a look of surprisingly guileless innocence.

“Well, the truth, ser. That… and maybe a little give-and-take.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, but he carried on before I had a chance to comment.

“See, the old Grey Warden base, Soldier’s Peak, it’s been lost for years… since my great-great-grandmother’s time. The family always thought Sophia died there, when King Arland’s men laid siege to the place, but we never had no proof. Well, it’s taken me years, but certain, er, maps have come into my possession—rare as hen’s teeth, you understand, yes?—and I think I’ve plotted out a route to the Peak. I think there’s a chance to reclaim it for the Wardens. That’s what Duncan and I meant to do… what I knew I had to bring to you, when I ’eard there was Wardens what had survived Ostagar.”

The fire crackled, but the air had grown still. Everyone seemed to be watching Levi and Alistair, listening to this staggering droplet of news. I furrowed my brow.

“A… a Grey Warden base?” I asked. “I thought there was nothing in Ferelden, except the compound in Denerim.”

Alistair shook his head. “That’s what I thought. I’ve never heard of… well, we wouldn’t have, if it was ‘lost’, would we?”

He shot Levi a highly suspicious glance, and I couldn’t blame him at all for being wary. Still… a base. A vestige of the Wardens’ power from a century ago. Chances were, even if it existed and this wasn’t all some elaborate kind of trap, that the place would be nothing more than a decayed ruin. Even so, there might be something worth salvaging, mightn’t there?

I thought of the overgrown, ruined tower from which we’d been sent to retrieve the Grey Warden treaties, back in the Korcari Wilds. It felt like a lifetime ago. Was that all that remained for us to rely on? Broken bits of history, old seals and musty parchment, and abandoned forts that had long been forgotten?

Alistair narrowed his eyes. “Where exactly is this base?”

Levi grinned. “Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s close by. No more than a few days’ travel. It’s deep in the hills, see; protected by ’em. The story in my family goes that there’s tunnels leading right up under the fortress. It’s taken a long while, but the maps I have show the way. So, it’s like I said toDuncan… the Wardens can reclaim their base, and us Drydens can have our history back, maybe learn the truth about old Sophia. Sounds like a fair deal, doesn’t it?”

Alistair didn’t look entirely convinced, but I could already see the sense of obligation crawling over his face.

“And Duncan promised you this, did he?” he asked doubtfully

I stifled a sigh. If Levi had made him believe Duncan had promised him a banquet of queen cakes and fairy dust, all served on a magic toadstool, Alistair would have been determined to see it through.

Still, I couldn’t deny that my curiosity had been piqued. Not to mention the fact that it could genuinely be a useful opportunity. I shot a look at Bodahn, who returned it with a cheerful smile.

“It’s quite the story, isn’t it? I know! Moved, I was, when Master Dryden first told me. I said to myself, ‘Bodahn, this is an offer you can’t afford to refuse’. Why, offering my goods and services to the Grey Wardens themselves… seems a national duty, doesn’t it?”

I squeezed a smile from unwilling lips. It seemed unlikely that was what had really seen these two merchants join forces, but I wasn’t about to argue. I could feel the weight of Alistair’s gaze on me, even as I cast a look at the rest of our companions, and found every bloody one of them studiously inspecting their feet, or their fingernails, or the damn grass.

“What do you think?” Alistair murmured, as quietly as the total lack of privacy here allowed.

I didn’t know. We still had the Dalish to find—if that was even possible, without being ripped to shreds by demon trees. Then there was the issue of the Urn; whether we should follow up the lead we’d been fed about Lake Calenhad, or just return to Redcliffe and beg for troops and a diplomatic intervention in Denerim. The possibilities—endless actions I didn’t know how to second-guess—piled up ahead of me, and I could see myself too easily paralysed by fear, too anxious to choose any single course.

I looked at him, my heart sinking at the sight of that eager, uncertain, open face, hazel eyes clouded with indecision in the firelight.

“If Duncan thought it was a good idea,” he began, faltering a little over the name, as if it still hurt to say it.

It probably did, I supposed. I sighed, and nodded.

“He has a point. If it’s still there, and useable… I mean, it’s not like we’re overwhelmed with supplies or facilities. This could give us an advantage.”

Alistair looked heartened, like he’d been hoping I might say that.

“Exactly. I think we should… I mean, if you think—”

I rubbed a hand over my forehead. I was so tired of decisions, and I wondered at how quickly he’d shaken that mantle of responsibility he’d begun to take on in Denerim.

“All right,” I said briskly. “Yes.”

Levi was watching us intently. He must have been able to hear, I guessed, but he pretended he hadn’t.

“We’ll help you,” I said, louder, for clarity’s sake.

“Are you mad?” Morrigan demanded. “Do we not have enough—”

“I think,” I snapped, “we can all agree that, the way things are going, we need as much weight behind us as we can get. If Soldier’s Peak can be brought back into service, it gives us somewhere to centre whatever forces we muster… some kind of focus. We need that presence if we’re to make Loghain back down. Besides, if it was something Duncan believed was right….”

I didn’t need to finish the sentence, wretched as I felt for invoking his name.

We were all tired; I saw the ripples of discomfort on their faces. In daylight, with sleep behind us, I would probably have had an argument on my hands but, right then, I had an advantage and I pressed it.

“A thousand blessings upon you, Warden!” Levi exclaimed, grinning broadly. “I’ll show you the maps. Two days, I think, at most. Why, with luck, it could be even less. Oh, this… I can’t tell you what this means….”

I smiled tightly, and suggested we all get some rest.

~o~O~o~

And so it was decided. I wasn’t sure it was a good decision, but I was too tired and too raw to worry about it anymore.

With politely bade goodnights, eyes baggy and yawns no longer stifled, everyone splintered off to their respective tents and shelters. The moon was up, the dapplings of cloud chasing its face as night’s chariot raced across the sky… or so that story of Mother’s used to say.

I didn’t want to think about her, or the purge, or the boy we’d murdered in Genitivi’s house, or Father and Shianni and Soris and… there was too much and, no matter how tired I felt, the unfamiliarity of our company put a barrier between me and sleep.

I excused myself, muttering something about standing watch, and began to move a little way from the body of the camp, straying from the warmth of the fire. Maethor had made himself a scrape outside Bodahn and Sandal’s tent, and he looked up at me, ears cocked. I shook my head, and he laid his muzzle down on his paws, watching me. He was the reason, up until now, we hadn’t bothered much with a rota of watches. Very little got past the mabari, and we’d not run into much trouble on the road.

That, I suspected, was going to change. We were lurching towards a precipice, and it was beginning to have less and less to do with the Blight. There would be a war, unless we could stop it, and I didn’t see how that could happen. I didn’t see we had the slightest chance of standing against the Blight, either… but I couldn’t let myself give in to those thoughts. I knew that much.

I took a long breath, pulling the night air into my body as if I could shed my flesh and fly away on it, and it was cold. The smell of the trees, and the oxen tethered over by the cart, the fire, and the sparse, rough dew-laden grass caught at my nose, filling my mouth and lungs. My eyes stung, and I realised I was shaking. I blinked, hating the wetness on my cheeks.

“Meri?”

Alistair’s voice, behind me. I’d thought he’d already turned in and, because I couldn’t stand the thought of crying in front of him again, I raised my hand and, without turning, waved dismissively. The sides of the pass, cut deep into the hills and cloaked with trees, rose up around us, and I pushed further into the shadows they cast.

I heard his footsteps, as if he meant to follow, but he didn’t. There was a rustle of fabric, then Wynne’s voice, hushed and almost too soft to hear.

“Is she all right?”

My mouth crumpled as I struggled to hold in a sob, and I sat heavily on a small tussock, clinging desperately to the pretence of being on watch, and hardly daring to breathe in case my shoulders shook.

“I hope so,” I heard Alistair say doubtfully, lowering his voice. “Denerim… wasn’t good.”

They moved away, their voices too soft for me to hear. I didn’t know if he was telling her about it… about the alienage, and how what I’d done had left the way open for my whole world to burn. Probably. I was glad of that, in a way. I could be angry at him for telling, and anger was a bright thread to hold onto, somewhere in the seeping, uncontrollable mist of fear and grief.

Slowly, my breathing calmed, and the boiling sobs throttled in me gave way to sane tears. I let them come, and let myself grieve for people it was easier to assume were dead.

It’s a mess in there.

Perhaps it was better if they were. Maybe better that than the horror of what had happened; the disease and hunger, the rapes and violence, and the fury of those left who would know that, in the absence of his daughter the criminal, it was Cyrion Tabris they should blame.

I sighed and wiped my face on the sleeve of Valora’s brown dress. Well, it was done now.

The wounds wouldn’t close any time soon, but my mourning had to end, or at least be put back until I had the time to grieve.

I sniffed wetly, and heard the soft tread of feet behind me, the air traced with the light delicacy of lavender and white soap. A mirthless smile bent my lips, and I knew I should have expected it.

“Feeling better?” Wynne asked gently.

I looked over my shoulder, and found her proffering a clean linen handkerchief, originally white but faded to a dull grey. I took it with a weak smile of thanks, blew my nose, and shook my head ruefully.

“Not yet. I’m trying.”

With a small grunt of effort, the mage lowered herself to the ground beside me, and folded her hands demurely into her lap. She peered out into the darkness while I wiped my eyes, and seemed to be watching the shadows shift.

“Alistair told me about what happened,” she said, after a moment. “What Loghain has done to the alienage. I wanted to say how sorry I am.”

I nodded, not entirely trusting myself to speak, and wondering just how much he had said. I wasn’t angry anymore; wasn’t anything except wrung out and confused. I scrubbed Wynne’s damp hanky over my cheeks, and the night air felt chilly on my salt-hot skin.

“Truly,” she said, “it sickens and saddens me to hear what men in power inflict on those whom they ought to serve and protect.”

I cleared my throat, and looked at her in slight confusion as I refolded the soggy handkerchief. Generally, very few people thought elves merited protection.

“Did… did he tell you how Duncan conscripted me?”

I assumed he had, but Wynne shook her head, and shot me a look I didn’t fully understand, hardness lingering in those clear blue eyes.

“No,” she said consideringly. “He did not. Zevran… mentioned a few things.”

Well, that wasn’t surprising. I snorted.

“Huh. I murdered the arl of Denerim’s son.”

The words didn’t have so much weight to them now. Too much blood had flowed, washing away the awe-struck horror I’d once felt at repeating them. Besides, guilt bound me to the confession, pure and simple, although not without the bitterness of justification.

“He… he and his men,” I said softly, tasting the words, feeling the metallic darkness of them against my mouth, “between them, they killed my friend, and the man I was meant to marry, and they raped my cousin.”

I glanced at Wynne, and took no pleasure, no deep-seated gratification, in the way her face stiffened and blanched. She didn’t look shocked, I noted, and she nodded, very slowly.

“I see.”

Perhaps Zevran had already furnished them with the story; the blood-soaked bride, tearing her way through the arl’s palace with vengeance dripping from her stolen sword. Oh, yes… suitably melodramatic, I supposed. Maybe that was the way they were telling it in some corners of Denerim. Maybe the other version—where Soris and I were cast as outlaws, intent on robbery and violence, and Lord Vaughan had died a hero in defence of his father’s estate—was more popular.

If I was Loghain, I thought, I’d push that one. A city as tense as Denerim needed scapegoats, and knife-ears usually did well enough for that.

“I shouldn’t have done it.” I scuffed my boot against a tuft of grass that had done nothing to warrant such rough treatment. “That day, we should… we should just have gone with them and, I don’t know… done what they wanted. Even if— I mean, I should have known what we’d bring down.”

Wynne said nothing, as was her talent. Somehow, her silence drew the words from me, and I couldn’t spool them back in.

“I should never have… I mean, all right, I didn’t know Duncan was going to conscript me. I didn’t have a choice, fair enough, but… I abandoned them. All of them, and now—”

I broke off, embarrassed and aware of the futility in my words. There was no changing anything now, no going back.

No turning back.

Duncan had said that so many times, hadn’t he? I wondered if I’d really understood it back at Ostagar, before the Joining… or if I understood it even now.

Wynne sighed quietly, and stared up at the trees.

“You know,” she said, “I have heard stories that some templars who hunt maleficarum do not end the hunt with a clean death. That they subject the victim to countless… abuses and indignities before they finish it.”

I blinked. Was that supposed to be comparable, or make me feel better somehow?

She shrugged. “It is just a rumour. It is not something they speak of willingly, if at all, and especially not to mages.”

I passed her handkerchief back, a little apologetic about the dampness. She took it with those lean, strong fingers, and tucked it away into a pouch at her belt.

“I suppose,” I said warily, “that even if you know something is wrong, it’s not always possible to challenge it without causing more harm.”

“Maybe.”

Her voice was neutral, and I couldn’t tell if she agreed or not. I frowned, and reached for the slippery tail of some small truth, floundering a little as it tried to escape me.

“You just have to try and do the right thing, then. Not just what’s right for you, but… something bigger. That’s the only way you’re not blinded by yourself. Right?”

Wynne continued to stare straight ahead, but inclined her head a little.

“Mm.”

It was infuriating. I wanted her to tell me things as they were, to give me words of comfort and wisdom, if she was going to lead me towards philosophy.

“That’s what being a Grey Warden is, isn’t it?”

It seemed logical. I hoped it was; it was all I had left to throw myself into. Not to mention the issue of duty, that yawned before me—before all of us, I supposed—and threatened to swallow us whole before the Blight was ended.

Wynne glanced at me, her face a little softer than before.

“I think so. Ultimately, being a Grey Warden is about serving others, serving all people, whether elves or dwarves or men. Protecting them,” she added tentatively.

I scoffed. “I don’t have the best record there.”

“Tch, nonsense.” Her lips twitched impatiently, but warmth touched her eyes. “Think of it this way: if you live apart from others, your actions affect only you. But if you have power, influence and strength, your every action will be as a drop of water in a clear, still pond. The drop causes ripples, and ripples spread. How far they will go, and how wide will they become? How will they affect the pond?”

I frowned, utterly lost. I could think of nothing but the standpipes by the privies back home, and the pools of stagnant, fetid water that collected on the uneven ground when it rained heavily. There were always stray dogs drinking there, and children stamping in the water, pushing and shoving and laughing.

I shook my head—trying to dislodge the memories, to make everything a little bit clearer—and peered out at the treeline that fringed the pass.

“Do you think they’re out there?” I asked. “The Dalish, I mean.”

Wynne said nothing at first, but reached into one of the various pouches at her belt. She drew out something small, and held it out to me on the flat of her palm. I squinted. It looked like an arrowhead, with perhaps two inches of broken shaft still attached. The head itself was knapped flint, polished and so delicate it almost looked like glass. It had been set into the wooden shaft using some kind of hide thong, and the work was more precise than any I’d seen… although admittedly my experience was limited.

“I found this just before our little fracas earlier. It is of Dalish make, and looks fairly new, wouldn’t you say?”

I nodded, gingerly running a finger along the length of the tiny flint blade. It was wickedly keen, and she was right; it showed no sign of having been buried or decayed.

“They’re there,” Wynne said, tucking the find back into her pouch. “It will simply be a matter of finding them… and being careful over how we do it. I confess, I did not think so many of the legends about this place could be true. There are powerful, wild magics here.”

I didn’t doubt it. My brow furrowed again.

“You think we should focus on finding the Dalish, or the Urn, and not go chasing off after whatever mad tale some incredibly convenient merchant springs up with?”

Wynne smiled, and the dark ripple of a breeze whispered through the grass. My body longed for a bed, and sleep, even if my mind refused to quiet.

“I think I trust your decisions, my dear,” she said. “After all, someone has to make them.”

I stared. That was possibly the least helpful thing anyone could have said… and she bloody well knew it.

With a small shiver, Wynne hunched her shoulders and, hands pressed to her knees, began to rise.

“Ooh, it’s late. And chilly. I think I will retire… and you may want to do the same. Even Grey Wardens need their rest.”

She slipped me a wry little smile, self-aware enough of her mother hen status to make those small jokes.

“Wynne?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Hm?”

“Thank you.”

The mage smiled again—broader this time, though a trifle sad—and inclined her head. She turned and headed back to the centre of camp, and her tent.

I watched her go and, with a sigh, supposed I might as well go to bed too. Everyone else had, and it wasn’t as if there was much of the night left during which we could be surprised by anything.

Once I was under the blankets, listening to the dim chorus of other people’s snoring, farting, and rustling, the full force of tiredness hit. My eyes were too heavy to keep open, and the grainy blur of canvas soon faded to blackness as sleep stole swiftly over me, replacing the burden of responsibility with the yoke of my ever-present dreams.

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Volume 3: Chapter Ten
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