Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eight

 
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We met up with Leliana and Morrigan, as promised, down by the lakeside. They’d found the house belonging to Dwyn, the dwarven trader, though apparently he refused to even open his door.

“He was really quite unreasonable,” Leliana said disapprovingly. “I didn’t think there was any need to be rude. Especially in front of a child.”

I looked at the small boy, smut-faced and wearing ragged short trousers, upon whose shoulder she had her hand.

“Er. Yes,” I said doubtfully. “Is this…?”

“Tell the nice lady your name,” Leliana prompted. “Go on.”

The child stared up at me, big-eyed, and looked as if he might wet himself.

“B-Bevin,” he stammered.

I smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Bevin. My name’s Merien. Are you going to go back to your sister now?”

He nodded sullenly, and stared at the ground. Leliana squeezed his shoulder.

“Indeed,” she said, smiling serenely. “He has had quite enough of hiding, haven’t you?”

“’s, m’m,” the boy mumbled.

I had no idea where she’d found him, but the poor mite looked cowed and terrified. Small bits of straw clung to his hair, and his knees were grubby… henhouse, perhaps? In any case, I doubted that, for all Leliana’s good intentions, he was much buoyed by yet another woman in robes telling him what to do.

“I am going to take Bevin back to the chantry, and make sure he doesn’t run off again. He’s promised. We decided your poor sister has enough to worry about, no?”

He glanced up nervously, the edges of tears clinging to his voice.

“Y-Yes, ma’am.”

“All right.” I nodded. “Um, well done. We’ll see you there.”

Morrigan tutted as Leliana began to lead the boy away, back up to the relative safety of stout walls and weeping women.

“Yes, yes. Lovely. Shall we next begin rescuing kittens from trees?”

“Look, the dusk’s setting in,” I said briskly. “Shall we just—”

“Oh, eager to get to the fighting, are we?”

I winced. “Hardly. Did you find out anything useful?”

She shrugged, feathers rustling at her bare shoulders and jewellery clinking gently. There were moments when, for all her claws and vinegar, Morrigan reminded me of nothing so much as an ill-tempered magpie. She turned her head away, glaring out towards the lake and offering me nothing but her pale, hard profile.

Lake Calenhad did present a beautiful view… or it should have done. I’d never seen such a vast stretch of water, and the low sun turned it to a rippling pool of molten gold. Flashes of light caught at the water, the sky huge and endless, wreathed with the deepening shapes of clouds and the whole basin framed by the steep walls of those red, hard cliffs. Small boats were moored or hauled up all along the shore, and the jetties were packed with barrels and spooled nets, testament to the normal course of business here, ruined by the madness that had spilled across it.

“These people are superstitious fools,” Morrigan said coldly. Golden eyes scanned the horizon, and the suggestion of derision curved her delicate upper lip. “They speak of the dead returned to claim vengeance on the living, of a god wreaking punishment upon them.”

“They think it’s the Maker?” Alistair sounded incredulous. “Why would—”

“I do not know,” she snapped. “Ask me why the ocean is wet, why don’t you? What is clear is that the Veil has been sundered in this place. There is something… powerful.”

“Something?” I echoed.

Morrigan sighed irritably and turned to face me, with the air of someone explaining a simple truth to a young and rather dim child.

Something had to have made them into corpses. No… spirits are always there, pushing against the boundaries of the Fade, seeking ways into this world.”

“Demons, you mean,” Alistair muttered darkly, giving her a look shadowed with distrust.

Morrigan sneered. “Call them what you will. They… hunger for it. The weaker ones may find a way through and, unable to distinguish between what is living and what simply has lived, possess corpses; dead flesh which has no will to resist them.”

I tried, and failed, to suppress a shiver. “We’re going to be fighting demons?”

Her dark-painted lips twisted dismissively. “Of a kind. The stronger ones rarely bother with such pointless endeavours. They seek more sophisticated prey. But, still, the numbers the men here speak of are… concerning.”

Her face had grown tense and sombre, and her eyes flickered with something not unlike apprehension. If Morrigan was worried, I had the horrible feeling the rest of us should be terrified.

“Blood magic,” Alistair murmured, apparently to himself. “I’d bet on it.”

For once, she didn’t outright disagree. Her jaw tightened, and the suggestion of some barbed comment seemed to play at the corner of her mouth, but she said nothing. I frowned.

“Why—?”

“Call it a hunch,” he said dryly, gazing steadily at Morrigan. “Summoning demons, causing untold death and destruction… all those things maleficarum tend to do.”

I could have cut the air between them with my dagger. She glared, eyes two slits of ochre-yellow malice set like jasper chips into the swooping band of shadow that ran across her face. Even so, I felt a strange surge of sympathy for Morrigan. True, magic frightened me. Her magic, and the whole concept in general, though I knew I owed my life to it several times over; both Flemeth’s healing, and her daughter’s more violent arts. Yet, since the Wilds, she hadn’t shirked a single fight—not the darkspawn, the bandits, or even Loghain’s men. Any of those times, she could have disappeared as easily as mist, left us on our own… but she hadn’t. Neither had I seen her use anything I would have called foul magic, though I supposed I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway. Perhaps it was, or perhaps she had the arts of illusion and glamour down so well that she could hide any truth she chose.

Painfully aware of my ignorance, I didn’t stand up for her. I had an inkling that apostate and maleficar might not always be the same thing, but my grasp on the matter was shaky, and I shied from the potential argument. Instead, I sighed wearily, and suggested we turn our attention back to the fast-approaching night, and everything that it would bring.

Alistair tried raising Dwyn, but no amount of banging on his door yielded anything more than a muffled ‘sod off’.

I nodded to Morrigan. “I think, this time, fireballs are acceptable.”

A small smile split her painted mouth and she stepped forward, fingers already flexing around a pinpoint of light that swelled and crackled in the palm of her hand. Alistair hopped hurriedly out of the way as she fed the pulsing flame into the lock and, with a loud crack, the door jarred off its hinges. I was grateful no one appeared to have noticed me jump at the noise.

Morrigan raised her staff in both hands and, rather elegantly, prodded the heavy wood. It creaked and, almost in slow motion, fell in.

It would have been comical, had we not found a heavily armed dwarven warrior and two very large, tattooed men standing inside. Understandably, perhaps, they didn’t look pleased.

“Wonderful,” the dwarf said acidly. “I hope you’ve got a damn good reason for busting down my door.”

I looked at the splintered bits of doorframe, still fizzing with residual magical energy.

“Well,” I said, hearing the manic, brittle cheerfulness in my tone, “we did try the polite way.”

Smart mouth, Father would have said. You never learn….

The dwarf glowered at me. I’d never met one of his kind face-to-face before. There used to be traders in the market in Denerim, and a few travellers from the west, but none that I’d really seen close up. It had been Father’s opinion that they were not to be trusted—unscrupulous thieving bastards was his preferred turn of phrase—but he’d never said exactly why and, as I wasn’t supposed to listen when the men were talking around the fire of an evening, I could hardly ask.

I looked down curiously at the dwarf. He was a clear foot shorter than me, which was a novelty in itself, and stocky, with his dark hair and beard bound into intricate braids. Small, dark eyes glittered beneath heavy, scowling brows, and his wide nose wrinkled as he sneered at my insolence.

“Hmph. So you did. Well, if we’re being polite… the name’s Dwyn. Pleased to meet you. Now get out.”

One of the thugs at his side was elven. I hadn’t noticed that before, registering just the strange, blocky tattoos that ran over both men’s arms and faces, and the tell-tale bulges beneath their plain, workaday clothing, that spoke of weapons not so much concealed as held in readiness. We saw people like them back home, too; close to curfew, the night-crawlers always started to come out of the woodwork.

I glanced briefly at the elf. There was no glimmer of recognition there, and nor should there have been. Wherever his home had originally been, he’d cast it behind him even more emphatically than I had mine… and I wanted to be appalled at the sour little twist of judgemental anger that flared in me. Who was I, to make those assumptions? I dragged my gaze back to Dwyn, and shook my head.

“Murdock says he needs you for the militia.”

“So what?” The dwarf snorted. “You’re recruiting for him? I’ll tell you what I told Murdock: I’m not risking my neck for this town.”

The small fire burning in the stone hearth belched out a crackle. It was the only light set in the room, though there were plenty of brackets for candles along the walls. Behind me, lazy, dusty sunlight poured incongruously through the hole where the door should have been, and it outlined Dwyn and his heavies in coronae of milky gold.

Outside, distant footsteps scuffled on grit. Murdock was shouting to one of his men and, below us, I assumed, the lake was lapping steadily at the jetty’s stilts.

“Isn’t there any way we could change your mind?” Alistair asked. “He said you were a warrior. You could help these people. You could—”

“Get myself killed? Huh… fighting’s the reason I left Orzammar. Why would I get involved with this? I’m a merchant now. Right, boys?”

The tattooed men smirked unpleasantly. “Yur,” one grated. “Respectable an’ everyfink.”

“So you’ll just stay shut up and here and watch them die?” Alistair demanded, his tone hardening as his patience evidently wore thin.

“No,” Dwyn said evenly. “Usually, we bar the windows and sit it out in the back room. Don’t see a thing.”

His words bristled with a humour so dark it passed all the way through irony and came out somewhere in the region of cold, bitter truth. The same bone-clenching weariness clung to these men as permeated the rest of the village, but the dwarf was entitled to want to save his own skin… whether we liked it or not. I exhaled a tight breath of frustration.

“There’s nothing we can say, then? Nothing we can offer?”

The elven heavy at Dwyn’s shoulder gave me a look of open, unabashed appraisal, curled his lip, then glanced at Morrigan and loosed a grubby, throaty chuckle. I swear I felt the ice in her glare—it was a wonder the air itself didn’t freeze over.

Dwyn folded his arms, the leather-gloved fingers of one hand drumming on his sleeve.

“I doubt it. Of course, if you really wanted to make it worth my while….”

“We could talk to Bann Teagan,” Alistair suggested, leaping on that first chink of hope. “Put in a good word for you. Think of the goodwill, the… possibilities for a man in your, er, position if, let’s say, he were to cut the market licenses you pay for trading in Redcliffe?”

He was clutching at straws. Even the briefest glance around the house showed it was little lived-in, and I guessed the back room Dwyn had mentioned lay behind the heavy, locked door I could see past his shoulder… and it was probably stacked full of dubious wares. I very much doubted the dwarf took much notice of local bye-laws and trading rates, especially when the village—with all its outside smokehouses and loose-planked little jetties—had so many useful places to hide goods, and the cliffs no doubt led to a plethora of hidden paths. We had smugglers where I came from, too.

Sure enough, the dwarf’s brow creased in amused derision. “Huh. Keep tryin’, friend.”

The thugs were growing restless, and the atmosphere in the cramped little house was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I glanced at Morrigan, uneasy with the firm grip she had on her staff, and the sharp, alert expression in her eyes, both so at odds with the calmness of her posture.

“All right, well… what about gold?” Alistair said, a hint of desperation clinging to the words. Dwyn might be an arsehole, but it didn’t take a genius to see that, especially with his heavies on hand, he was an arsehole with enough muscle and experience to make a real difference when the sun went down. “Would that convince you?”

Dwyn snorted. “Are you serious?”

For a moment, I was sure it was going to end badly, but Alistair stood his ground.

“Yes. Would it?”

“I won’t even stick my head out my door for less than five sovereigns,” the dwarf said obstinately. “Up front, mind you.”

“Five…?” Alistair looked crestfallen. “W-We don’t have that kind of coin. But these people are desperate. They need—”

“Here.”

I’d barely known I was doing it; action without conscious thought, no proper decision…. My fingers had moved to the chain that hung around my neck, bearing both the pendant I’d received after my Joining, and the ring Nelaros had made for me. Two warm, smooth metal surfaces, alike in their terrible reminders of loss and burden. Sometimes, they seemed to weigh more than my whole pack.

I fumbled a bit as I unfastened the clasp, pulled the ring from the slim silver chain, and held it out to the trader.

“This is the only gold I have. Take it.”

Dwyn appeared surprised, but he didn’t resist as I dropped the ring into his hard, calloused palm. He peered at it briefly, then gave a short bark of laughter.

“Huh… you’re kidding, right? This is just scraps of gilding. Barely got half the weight of a sovereign!”

Heat blazed in my cheeks, and I fought not to blink, not to admit to the embarrassment, the humiliation. Of course, I thought bitterly, it stood to reason, didn’t it? Nothing of ours had any value outside the alienage. The hours Nelaros had worked, the months squirreling away enough material from the off-cuts at his father’s forge… laughable.

I clenched my jaw, forcing the anger down. Best leave it buried deep, I told myself; I’d need it later.

“All right.” I looked at Alistair, willing him to back me up. “Then we’ll get the money from Bann Teagan. He’ll see you paid… whatever you want.”

It was a risk, but I imagined—hoped, rather—that Alistair’s prior acquaintance with the bann would be enough to ensure he paid up and didn’t make me a liar. He must have caught the meaning in my glance, because he nodded.

“Wh—? Oh. Yes. Absolutely.”

Dwyn looked dubiously at us, turning Nelaros’ ring thoughtfully in his fingers. The sneer dropped from his face and, from the quiet curiosity with which he stared at me, I suspected he’d been expecting some kind of protest about the value of the ring. Maybe it was worth more… I had no idea. There was a long silence, taut and full of things beneath its surface. Dwyn shook his head, his expression an unreadable façade of dwarven resilience, with whatever he really thought locked tight away beneath.

“All right. If Teagan gives me his word, you’ve got yourself a deal.” He nodded gruffly, apparently oblivious to the heavies exchanging nervous glances above his head. “You’re getting off easy, but I guess you’re right. This town does need a hero… so long as you’re going to be out there too when the sun goes down. I’m not fighting for a lost cause, you hear me?”

“We will,” I promised. “And thank you.”

Dwyn grunted and tossed the ring back to me. More shocked than anything, I nearly didn’t catch it.

“Maybe do the thanking later… if we survive. And you can have your wedding ring back, girlie. Come on, boys.”

They trudged out towards the square, and we followed. I could feel Alistair’s gaze on the back of my neck, and I knew he was bursting to ask me something, but I didn’t want to give him the opportunity. I didn’t want to talk about anything.

~o~O~o~

A sharp chill underscored the growing dark as we made our way back up to the village square. It sent nerves coursing through me, the way the smell of frost sends horses skittish and jumpy, and I couldn’t shake the undeniable sense of foreboding. Demons and walking corpses… it didn’t seem real. Still, I reminded myself, up until that first encounter in the Korcari Wilds, I hadn’t believed the darkspawn were more than stories.

Murdock was pleased to see us, his former brusqueness tempered with guarded optimism—not least, I suspected, because Owen had finished the repairs, and now Sten stood among the militiamen, towering above the ranks and looking like some sort of gigantic warhorse, in a patchwork of armour made from leather, chain, and odd ends of metal plate strung together across his massive frame. His expression suggested that the entire palaver was beneath his dignity, but I thought he looked impressive. I also thought about what the people of Lothering had locked him up for, and tried not to dwell on it. Marching with a murderer at my back had not made for an easy minute since we’d freed him, but neither had Sten given the slightest indication of being a blood-crazed psychopath… and we would be glad of him tonight, I felt sure.

Leliana was there too, although I almost didn’t recognise her. The travel-stained Chantry robes were gone, replaced by grubby, patched leathers, much like those the militiamen wore, and I guessed a product of Owen’s rapid repairs. Her hair bound back into a tight, rather severe ponytail, she had a longbow and a full quiver slung across her back, and the well-polished hilts of steel daggers glinted at her hips. She smiled and waved at us, but there was something altogether harder and sleeker about her, and it unnerved me.

We left Morrigan and Maethor outside the chantry, the pair of them looking out of place amid the flurrying activity of the militiamen, and Alistair and I slipped inside, buffeted by the ragged press of people now streaming into the building. A low hum echoed off the walls. It was the buzz of frightened chatter; tens of thin, over-eager voices. Children, mainly, and the women trying to quiet them. Too many white, pinched faces… too many who knew what to expect from tonight, I thought.

Alistair went to brief Bann Teagan, and secure the promise of payment for Dwyn, while I sought out Mother Hannah. I found her in a side chapel, helping an old man lay out bedrolls for himself, his wife, and a small pack of grandchildren… or perhaps they weren’t all his. The little ones almost didn’t look like humans; a great sprawling gaggle of them, skinny and bright-eyed. A burst of pensive nostalgia tugged at me and, when the priest looked up and, with a nod, began to pick her way across the crowded floor, I blinked rapidly and cleared my throat.

“Your Reverence.” I bowed my head.

She nodded. The revered mother was an elderly woman, though age sat on her like a fine gauze rather than a sharp-edged burden, and it had certainly not dimmed the intensity of the grey eyes that now regarded me coolly.

“You are the other Warden,” she observed.

“Um….” I supposed I was and, for the briefest moment, almost the last words Duncan had said to me echoed in my mind: I expect you both to be worthy of that title. I pulled my shoulders back and met the woman’s eye. “Yes.”

Mother Hannah smiled thinly. “You are of elven blood, and a stranger, yet you defend a home that is not your own. We are grateful for that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t help?”

She put a slim, red-knuckled hand, traced with proud-standing veins, upon my arm, and guided me away from the side chapel and back into the main body of the chantry. The statuary—the carved figures of old kings and heroes, and the perfect, marble face of Andraste—peered silently down at the throngs of the dispossessed. I couldn’t help wondering if the Maker really was watching.

“Many elves would say that humans would not do the same for them.”

Mother Hannah’s voice was low and gentle, but matter-of-fact… and she had a good point. We’d have been right in our assumption, as well, I suspected.

“Perhaps,” I said diplomatically. “And perhaps I am a Grey Warden before all else.”

She smiled again, wider this time, though it was still a careworn, tired expression.

“Perhaps,” the priest echoed. “Now, what can I do to assist you, Warden? We have precious little, as you can see, but if I can offer any aid….”

I glanced around at the crowded ranks of villagers. Near the altar, I caught sight of Alistair talking earnestly with Bann Teagan. The nobleman appeared to be frowning—discussion of Dwyn’s payment, I assumed—but then he shook his head, cracked a chary, disbelieving smile, and clapped Alistair on the shoulder. Agreement, it seemed… and the tail end of a gesture that, once, might have been the tousling of a muddy, boyish head. I turned back to the priest.

“Just how safe is the chantry?” I asked, lowering my voice.

Her lips thinned; as clear an answer as I might have had. “It is the sturdiest building in the village, but we have taken several nights of attacks. In truth, I… I do not know how much longer the walls will withstand it. Once the doors are locked, Murdock’s men will barricade us in, and we must pray those defences hold.”

I nodded. “Right. And, er… Ser Perth said he’d asked you for holy protection, for the knights? He seems a devout man.”

The worry in Mother Hannah’s face turned to mild irritation, and she tutted.

“Oh, that man…! I am sorry, but what Ser Perth asks is not in my power to grant. Prayer is one thing, but he seeks the assurance that his men have the Maker’s protection in some tangible, physical sense. I cannot—”

My gaze fell to the silver symbol that hung from her neck: a circle, with a blazing flame at its heart. It was familiar. We’d had one on the wall at home; rough-carved from holly wood. When I was little, Mother taught me the comforting litany of prayers to say in front of it… and I couldn’t quite remember when all that had slipped away.

Down both sides of the nave, people were beginning to light candles and tapers—small glimmers of hope to last through the night to come—and I fancied I could see the light reflected in the holy flame, bringing the polished surface to life.

“Morale is a powerful thing, Mother,” I said softly. “As no doubt the Prophet found when she led her armies against the Imperium.”

The priest narrowed her eyes. “Do not presume to bandy theology with me, Warden,” she said, though her tone was not entirely hard. “I will not lie to those men, or tell them I have power I do not possess.”

I inclined my head. “Of course not. But if you can help them, if you can give them a means to find strength in their own faith—”

She sighed tersely, and those thin fingers reached up to touch the shimmering flame. “Very well. I see your point. We… have a box of these symbols in the back. I shall have them sent to Ser Perth at once. And you, Warden? How fairs your faith?”

It was a small, sharp barb, tacked onto the resignation of her words, and it took me by surprise.

“I….”

I truly didn’t know. It was a nebulous, peculiar thing, of which I had not thought in a long time, though I supposed I should. I’d believed once, hadn’t I? When I was younger, and Mother Boann’s well-meaning outreaches had not seemed patronising, because all I saw were women with well-dressed hair and beautiful clothes, who smelled of flowers and hardly seemed like humans at all.

I wondered why I hadn’t prayed since my conscription. Or since the arl’s estate, since Ishal… since Lothering, and all the loss and devastation. If I couldn’t manage to beg forgiveness for my own sins, surely I could manage to feel something for those who had lost everything.

Mother Hannah looked steadily at me with those calm grey eyes.

“Will you take a blessing?”

I nodded, suddenly humbled when I’d tried to be so clever, and bowed my head. The priest placed her palm upon my hair, and her voice was low and soft, yet the words rang with clarity they hadn’t held for me in a long while.

“Blessed art thou who exists in the Maker’s sight. Blessed art thou who seeks His forgiveness. Blessed art thou who seeks His return. Blessed is the Prophetess, His daughter, sacrificed to the holy flame. May the Chant reach the Maker’s ears and tell Him of our contrition.”

Behind my closed eyes, there was only darkness. There was no warm glow, no enveloping feeling of love or trust. Instead, I felt the edges of old wounds begin to open. I could smell the clean scent of firewood, and soap, and Father’s old leather jerkin, and I remembered dogs barking and children laughing, and the long, long walk down to the water pump.

“In Andraste’s name, I call upon the Maker to watch over His child and creation. Watch over her path, O Maker. Give her light in darkness.”

I opened my eyes, and candle flames danced across my vision, burning the shadows and the memories away. I blinked, smiled my thanks at the priest, and assured her that we would do all we could for Redcliffe tonight.

“I do not doubt it,” she said. “Maker watch over you.”

“And over you,” I murmured mechanically.

Alistair was waiting for me by the doors; they were preparing to close them, with heavy wooden bars ready to be hauled across. Dozens of pale, frightened faces watched us go. In the midst of them, Bann Teagan stood, the revered mother at his side, his face set with grim resolve.

We didn’t speak as we made our way back out into the square. The others were waiting. Murdock’s small band of men were in readiness, prepared to hold fast in the centre of the village, and all that remained was for us to get back up to the mill and take our place beside the knights.

After that, all we could do was wait.

~o~O~o~

The sunset should have been beautiful, especially from the top of the ridge. The whole sky was alight, burning in flames of golden orange and bruised with soft fingers of purple, the delicate fronds of lace-white cloud fanning out into trails that passed the sun’s sinking, burnished face as gently as the breath of sighs. It melted behind the cliff, liquid gold painting the hard, red earth and catching against every glint of mica in the rock.

We waited. The air stank of oil and apprehension. The soaked barricades stood between us and the route down from the castle, and unlit torches wavered in the hands of militiamen shaking with fear.

Ser Perth and his knights stood at our back. Dwyn and his boys—duly paid up, it appeared—were there too, and altogether I supposed we made a pretty formidable force. The question was whether that would be enough. The sails of the windmill creaked in the still dusk; there wasn’t enough wind to turn anything, much less shift the stubborn sense of foreboding that hung over us all like the smell of rotting meat.

I kept my eyes fixed on the narrow path ahead, and the blind corner that led up to the castle. It must have been cut from the cliff that way for a specific reason, once. Choke points, in case the villagers rose up against the arl, or insurance against the threat of foreign invasion or something. It was easy to forget that, until the years just before my birth, Ferelden had been an occupied land. Easy, too, for me to forget that all these great lords and their castles were for something more than show. Leliana had probably been right when she said there was blood in the bedrock of this place. Of course, that might as well be true of anywhere.

My thoughts were rambling, I told myself. Nerves. My fingers itched to draw my blade, just to feel the weight of something in my hand and know I wasn’t defenceless… yet we had to pace ourselves. This would be no quick skirmish.

“Whatever happens,” Alistair said quietly, “hold the line. All right?”

I glanced at him, and found his face intensely serious, an unsettling focus in his expression. I nodded.

“Good. The longer we can hold without having to fall back, the better. Ser Perth reckons there’s a good few hours’ burn time in the barricades… if that actually holds them up much.”

“Hmm.” I grimaced, not heartened by the thought of unstoppable walking dead that also happened to be on fire. “I think I’m sticking to the ‘hack until it falls over’ plan, myself.”

He sniggered, and we drew a couple of odd looks from some of the knights. Not much to laugh about, really, I supposed. The last streaks of gold raked their way across the sky, the clouds shadowed into shelving banks of purple-blue, and night drawing close behind them.

It reminded me of that long, damp dusk at Ostagar, where the lines between the marshy dankness of the Wilds and unsettled sky were so blurred that nothing ever seemed certain. No clear division of night from day, light from dark… just the cold and the wet, and the mud. We’d been out in the forest for what felt like days, only to face the etched stones of the ancient temple, and all the mysteries within it. I almost shuddered at the memories, wrought as they were now into a strange, complex mix, packed tight away among things still too painful to unpick, too big to fully comprehend.

There should have been time for it. Duncan had meant there to be. A long, slow induction that would have equipped me for whatever the future yielded… not that even he would necessarily have foreseen this. Undead pouring down the cliffside. A village in desperation, and Arl Eamon probably already dead… what would Duncan have done? I wondered briefly, and put the thoughts aside, knowing I might as easily ask what it was like to stand on the moon. I didn’t think like him; I was no commander of men, no great tactician. I was just blindingly lucky to still be alive, and bloody well determined to keep it that way.

It was almost dark. I dragged in a deep lungful of air, and it was greasy with oil, and rough with the faint breath of sulphur.

They were coming.

The fog was the first sign of it, as Ser Perth had warned us. We could see it begin to billow at the top of the cliff, and the shout went up. The militia were running to their posts, and I could hear the sound of the last bars going down over the chantry doors, the heavy clang of iron and wood drifting up from the square below. To my right, Leliana was murmuring a quiet stream of prayer, and Ser Perth gave the order to light the barricades.

Two of the militiamen stumbled forwards, flint, tinder and torches at the ready. The oil went up quick enough to singe their eyebrows and, in seconds, the carefully stacked fires were roaring. I could see a thin band of dark rock above the dancing flames, heat haze making the air shimmer, and my vision was pricked by the light. Too easy for my elven eyes to catch at the pattern of the flames, and too hard to pierce the shadows so far beyond them. I hated the shadows.

Still, we waited. It was unbearable, interminable… every time I thought I saw something, and nothing came. The darkness, the fog, the indescribable tension—it seemed it would never end, until Leliana drew her bow, the first to sight something moving at the top of the path.

“Here they come!” she cried, loosing an arrow.

I didn’t even see where it hit. I expected whatever she’d struck to cry out, but heard nothing beyond a faint thud, and the suggestion of something scrabbling on the gritty slope.

Later, I would realise that made sense. They were already dead. What need did these creatures have of rattling, ugly breaths, of roars or screams? The things that inhabited the flesh-shells were mostly already mad, too far gone to understand the power of speech or communication, or to have forethought enough to terrify us with it.

Nevertheless, there would be something about the silent ranks of walking corpses that would stay with me for a very long time. Longer, even, than the stench of the damn things.

The first wave of them came out of the fog in a strange, shambling gait, too awkward to seem remotely human, but too fast to leave any doubt over their intent. Some of them walked—as far as the term could be applied—on the edges of their feet, or on their ankles, the usual rules of anatomy disregarded by whatever was inside them. The arms and necks of many were disjointed, the angles all wrong… but all of them had once been people. That was far more obvious—more chillingly evident—than I had hoped it would be, and I was not prepared.

There were men and boys, women… even a few elves, probably once servants at the castle. What clothes they had hung in bloody tatters, and their flesh was little better. Skin and hair had begun to peel from a few, unseeing eyes rotting in their sockets and foul, leaking mouths held slack, giving the impression of creatures that found their way by scent, like blind pups butting their way towards the warmth of a bitch’s teat.

All around, steel sang as weapons were drawn. I had a blade in each fist, but I felt far less comforted by the fact than I’d hoped I would. Leliana and the others armed with bows loosed the first assault, and a few of the creatures went down, but they didn’t stay there. They clambered up again, slow but unstoppable, and they just kept coming, faster than it seemed dead flesh should ever be able to move. It had been just moments since I had my first glimpse of them through the fog, yet they were already at the first barricade, and I could make out the shapes of more pressing on behind.

The creatures—because it was so much more preferable to think of them like that than to accept the fact that, once, they’d had names and families—definitely burned… but the fire barely seemed to slow them, and they certainly didn’t treat it as more than an inconvenience. They just kept coming, pushing on with dead hands outstretched, some clutching weapons and others armed only with the singular determination of destruction. The smell of filthy, rotting flesh filled the air—almost as bad as the stench of darkspawn, I thought, although a different flavour of corruption—and it was tinged with the vile stench of charred fat and meat, enough to turn the strongest stomach.

Sten gave a warcry in his own tongue, and it broke the silence and the tension. Everything shattered around me. The shadows and the leaping flames, the knights’ burnished armour and their holy symbols, and the ungainly, terrifying ranks of undead all became part of a mad, kaleidoscopic vision through which I was running, my mind a clear, silver strand floating somewhere high above my body.

We charged, meeting the corpses as they lurched through the fire, and ending them as thoroughly as blades could allow. It was messy, gruesome work, especially after the barricades had slowed them. I encountered body after body, furnaces of hot, foul breath burning from blistered mouths, eyes like shelled boiled eggs and skin singed through to red, glistening muscle over which no pulse beat, and no blood flowed. After a while, the stench got so far down the back of my throat that I stopped retching… until the little boy with maggots where his tongue should have been.

I wanted to close my eyes, to stop seeing the differences in their faces, the different heights and shapes, and just hack blindly until it was over—and, if there truly was a Maker, and He had any mercy whatsoever, it had to be over soon—but I learned to be alert. Just not quickly enough, as it happened.

The thing that lurched out of the fire towards me had once been a tall, strong, young man… probably one of those who’d died trying to defend his village, not that it was possible to tell for sure now. The hair had all been burned from his head, only the last scraps of toughened leather armour clinging to his body. He swung at me with his right arm, and I parried, the force of the blow jarring my shoulder and almost dislodging my footing. I brought my dagger back, readying a strike under his ribs, the blade of my sword still buried in dead, mottled flesh. The unblinking, slack-mouthed corpse stared down at me, and then slammed his left fist into the side of my head.

“Watch it!”

Alistair’s voice came through a muffled fog as I pitched to the ground, for the first time truly understanding the full meaning of the phrase ‘dead weight’. My vision was blurred, the fractured shards of torchlight piercing unnatural pulses of bright blue and purple that burst in front of my eyes. I rolled, instinctively, the world still spinning above me in a dull roar, and the corpse that had sent me flying hit the gritty earth beside me… minus its head.

I hauled myself up on hands and knees, spat, and felt the distinct wobble of a loose tooth. The metallic taste of blood furred my tongue, and I could feel a wet trickle making its way down the side of my head.

“Sod,” I muttered, pulling my sword out of the now rather-more-dead undead, and giving the thing a hard kick on my way to scrambling up.

I glanced fuzzily at Alistair. Bloodied and panting, shield lacquered with gore and soot streaking his face, he nodded. I returned the gesture, assuring him I was all right, and we parted ways again. I lost sight of him somewhere in the next wave of the assault, and there was nothing but the firelight glancing off the knights’ bright armour, and the perpetual thuds, crunches and raw, graunching sounds of steel on flesh. It was endless; a vital, dark song that wound itself so deeply into my blood that, when the next lull in the attack came, I was shaking so much I could hardly stand. It wasn’t fear. Well, not completely. It was… like nothing I’d ever experienced.

I’d known bloodlust—the true desire to cause pain and to revel in the power to inflict it, and to end the life of another being—and, that day that felt a hundred years ago, back in the arl of Denerim’s estate, I had tasted its bitter, addictive fruit. At Ostagar, I’d fought in arms for the first time and learned what it was like to drive myself beyond what I thought I could do, to push beyond everything in the blind determination to survive. This was different. I was part of a team, and we had a goal, a strategy against an enemy that was identifiable, and knowledge we could use…. It was an edge I was not accustomed to having.

On the right flank, Maethor stood with two of Ser Perth’s knights, ready to mop up anything that got around the barricades. The mabari’s short brindled coat was filthy, though most of the blood didn’t seem to be his. His lips were pulled back, full-blown snarls and barks breaking from deep within the heavy body, those massive paws skittering on the earth as he all but danced in place, flanks shivering with excitement.

To the other side of the barricade, Morrigan was set well apart from the rest of the ranged attack; a whirlwind of sparks and violence, her black iron staff rimed with ice and her pale skin almost glowing in the darkness. She sent bolt after bolt into the encroaching lines, and though the things we fought had no capacity for fear, she terrified me.

“Maker’s breath!” exclaimed Leliana, somewhere behind my left shoulder. “How many more of them can there be?”

I turned, shaking my head and feeling the drying blood pull at my hairline.

“Don’t know,” I said with a wince. “How many have we…?”

She wrinkled her nose, and I glanced at the piles of hacked, mutilated bodies. Hard to count kills when it was difficult enough to work out how many bits belonged to the same corpse.

Dwyn’s boys had started to help the knights shift the… remains, I supposed we should call them. It was undignified, but the majority got thrown onto the barricades or heaped up as makeshift defences in their own right. The worst part of it was that I didn’t even manage to feel horrified. I just sheathed my blades and pitched in, grabbing whatever became available—leg, arm, half-shelled head or bit of torso—then lifting and throwing as if we were doing no more than stacking firewood.

Still, the flames burned on. The extra supplies Alistair had commandeered from Lloyd’s cellar, combined with lumber cannibalised from some of the abandoned shops and cottages, extended the life of the barricades considerably. I couldn’t even smell the stink of oil and burnt flesh anymore, but then I couldn’t smell anything.

“A-Are they still up there?” one of the militiamen asked in a tense whisper.

“Maybe it’s… stopped,” another said, his voice pitched high with frail, brittle hope. “Maybe there aren’t any more.”

To my right, Dwyn grunted and spat onto the bloody earth. “Fat chance of that. They’re there, all right. Can’t you smell ’em?”

Murmurs of assent ran through the men. I said nothing. After tonight, I very much doubted I’d ever be able to use my nose for anything but sneezing.

But, we were back to the waiting. Cold, uncomfortable, unbearable waiting. I clenched and unclenched my hands, trying to stop the shaking. My legs wanted to wobble and twitch, so I took to pacing to keep them steady… and myself as calm as I could manage. Wounds were bandaged, though we’d been lucky, and it seemed no one was seriously hurt. A few of Ser Perth’s knights kissed their holy amulets and offered thanks to Andraste and the Maker.

When the next wave came, we were tired, but ready.

Stars pricked the velvet night with cold, violent clarity, bidding to outshine the fat, pitted quarter of the moon. The barricades were burning with thick, greasy flames, belching soot into the chilly air. The creatures came in fewer numbers now, knots and gaggles instead of the massed ranks that had hit at first.

Morrigan fell back to the rear of the group, looking sweaty and exhausted. Knowing nothing of magic or the wielding of it, I didn’t understand how much the assault had taken out of her, and there was no time to stop and ask.

The creatures kept coming. I was numb, and the world was grey and muffled. I saw flesh, not faces, and I worked my way through body after body, their weight and their stink pressing in on me until there was nothing left to feel but the pounding of blood and the rough, jagged resistance of steel dragging through meat.

The worst of them was a young woman—or something that had once been one—tottering down the cliff path, half-rotted, in the remnants of a white gown. Clumps of blonde hair hung raggedly from what was left of her head, and putrid skin peeled from her breasts and arms, the flesh sloughed away from her ribcage to reveal the white glare of bone. She raised her arms and—caught between the fire and the pale dance of the moonlight—there was something hypnotic and terrifying about her. She swayed towards us, dead eyes rotted to black pits in the remains of a mottled face, and she held more power than the entire first rush of the corpses combined.

Sten cleaved her in two with one enormous blow… not that there was much of her to resist his sword. I saw one of the knights drop to his knees and clasp his hands in prayer, but then Leliana distracted me, darting across the path to clamber up onto the rock, peering up towards the castle.

The thick, sulphurous fog still wreathed the ground, adding yet another layer of filth and stink to the ridge, and making it near impossible to see what was up there. She leaned forwards, bow in her hand, a delicate figure painted in outlandish, flickering shadows, like some pagan goddess of war. That she was more than a simple Chantry sister had been evident from the start, but that night I saw just how much lay hidden beneath her veneer of cheerful, pious humility.

She jumped lightly down from the rock, shaking her head. The soot-streaked flame of her hair swished emphatically, and those ice-blue eyes were narrowed into shrewd, suspicious slits.

“I can’t see anything. It looks like there are no more up there, but… they could be waiting. How long is it before dawn?”

“Too long for it to be this quiet,” Ser Perth said grimly. “We must not grow complacent.”

He ordered his men to clear more of the bodies, and I slipped back to see Morrigan. She still looked pale, weary—drained, I supposed was the word—though she clearly felt well enough to savage me for taking the trouble to enquire after her health.

“Do I bother you with pointless questions?” she snapped. “What do you think, that magic comes at no cost? That my energy is as boundless as your ignorance?”

She gripped her staff tightly as she rose to her feet, scowling imperiously at me as if I couldn’t see how heavily she was leaning on the thing… or how that ample, elegantly framed bosom of hers was rising and falling to the strained rhythm of ragged, painful breaths. I held her gaze, watching the barricades’ fires dance on those amber discs and, just for once, Morrigan was the one to look away first.

“I… will be fine,” she muttered gracelessly. “Just let me catch my breath.”

I nodded, and I would have asked more irritating questions, but the cry went up as another knot of corpses shambled down towards us. Sten was at the front of the line, tackling them magnificently. Owen had fitted him out with a greatsword that would have been enormous on most humans—another of those things I’d barely seen outside of storybooks, and the heroic tales of knights in tournaments and battles—and, though he certainly didn’t dwarf the blade, the qunari wielded it with impressive ease. There was barely anything left for the rest of us to mop up, not that I really minded.

The respite didn’t last long. Just as we were being drawn back into committing ourselves to the latest wave of the assault, shouts and alarms broke out below, and one of Murdock’s militiamen came pelting up the path behind us.

“They’re attacking from the lake!” he yelled, gasping for breath. “They’re almost at the barricades! Quick, we need help!”

There was a horrible moment of indecision, ripped through with the twang and hiss of arrows flying, and the jumbled mess of fighting.

“Go!” Ser Perth yelled. “We have the path!”

Alistair nodded and barked orders. Leliana and two other archers were to fall back to the midsection of the ridge; Ser Perth’s men would hold their position with Dwyn and his boys, and the rest of us would plunge to Murdock’s aid. I didn’t think, just reacted, water-weak legs scrambling beneath me as we ran down the ridge, greeted by the sight of the undead swarming in on the village square. There were dozens of them; that same jerky, unnatural gait, those broken, misshapen bodies… the militia had already fallen back to protect the chantry, and the taint of desperation soured the air.

A rain of arrows flew over us, but served only to slow the creatures down. In the centre of the square, opposite the chantry doors, a huge bonfire burned. Flanked by the barricades it was one great, towering pyre of flame, casting a guttering, uneven light into the darkness… and providing, in its own way, an undeniable gesture of defiance.

Sten ran forwards, raging like some wild beast, and scythed through three of the corpses in a single stroke, severing limbs and heads like ears of corn. I should have been revolted. It should have been frightening, but I’d gone past that. I was wrapped in the hard, mouldering heart of something overwhelming and all-consuming, and I followed him with my weapons drawn and a wordless, furious warcry wrenched from my throat.

We dived headlong into the fray. It was chaos; bloody, dark, rampant chaos. No one had expected the creatures to come the way they had… but then they’d never been held back so effectively at the ridge before. It was impossible to know whether it was some kind of tactical decision on their part, or the mindless surging of insects, intent of swarming through any available chink. There was hardly an opportunity to discuss it rationally.

Morrigan let loose a tremendous blast of magical energy that knocked a dozen of the creatures to the ground—and a goodly number of the militiamen—and we set about the same grisly, methodical business as before.

It was worse down here. There were too many hidden corners, too many ways for the things to come. Over and over again, we thought we had them pushed back, only for some putrid, ravening corpse to lunge at us from behind a wall. I started to think they were coming out of the lake itself—who knew how many had drowned in there over the centuries?—but there was little room for fantasy with so much fighting at close quarters.

I took a bad blow to my shoulder; felt the armour part company and the blood start to flow. Pain cinched my left arm tight to my body, left me one-handed and awkward. The thing that faced me had once been a dark-skinned human, the remnants of black curls still clinging to his ravaged scalp. The shadows sculpted unimaginable horrors into the crevasses of his dead flesh. Hard, cold fingers dug at my skin, ripping hanks of my hair out at the root as unseeing eyes rolled in a rotten skull. Crusted, dry blood, too old to be from this battle, caked the corpse’s face, and I could have sworn it sought not just to wrest the life from me, but to feast on whatever was left behind. Yellow, stained teeth snarled and snapped, and the sickly, putrid mockery of breath—the vapours of death, not life—washed over me.

I yelled as I hit the ground, pulled my legs up and, sticking my feet into the creature’s middle, used the bulk of its weight to roll it over my head and towards the large bonfire in the middle of the square. The flames caught surprisingly quickly and, as cinders and sparks leapt into the cold air, the corpse lumbered back out of the fire, still burning. One of Murdock’s men, a man with a grey beard and pouchy, dark eyes, pushed out of the melee behind the corpse and clobbered it across the back of the head with his mace. It spun, attacked… and no matter how many times I saw it, I couldn’t get used to the terrible ease with which the things could inflict such horrible damage. The man’s arm was almost pulled from its socket and, as he crumpled to the dirt, screaming, the creature reached down, like it could just pluck the flesh from his face. Perhaps it could. I didn’t give it the opportunity, though severing the head from the creature’s shoulders was a hard, unforgiving endeavour, and I ended up clinging on to its back as it bucked in circles, trying to throw me off. The last traces of dying flames burned my leg, though I barely felt it.

Finally, the deed done, the corpse pitched to the ground and I followed suit, blade, hands and most of the rest of me befouled with the grease and vileness of rotten flesh. The militiaman lay a foot or so away, a rivulet of blood tracking its way into his beard. He turned his face to me, his cheeks sweat-damp and trembling. I crawled over, my mouth full of grit and dust and my head ringing. He needed healing; badly dislocated arm, wounds to his head and one leg. A burst of ice lit up the night above me and—with a visceral, shattering thud—I heard a shield smash into a frozen corpse, probably rendering it as effectively decapitated as any sword could. I yelled for Morrigan, not sure she could even hear me, and not sure I could get to my feet again yet.

“Help’s coming,” I said to the militiaman, my hand on the thick leather that covered his rapidly panting chest.

Or, at least, I tried to say it. I suspect, if the man was aware of anything at all, it was a wide-eyed elf gibbering at him with the slurred words of an early concussion. Still, a whirl of feathers and black cloth heralded Morrigan kneeling beside me, her staff biting into the thick, grimy dust.

“What?”

I turned my head, and found those golden eyes unnaturally bright with what I could only think of as hunger. The witch’s pale face was a twisted gasp, her lips curled and baring neat, white teeth.

“Help him,” I shouted, pointing to the fallen man. His breathing was growing ever more shallow. “He needs healing!”

The curled lips bent into a sneer, and her gaze hardened. “I am no healer! You know this. I….”

“Please!”

Had there been more time, more space to breathe, I’d have realised the look that crossed Morrigan’s face in that briefest of seconds was one of nervous indecision. She rarely did anything in which she was not confident of success and, later, I would understand why.

She looked away abruptly, and laid her hand on the man’s pallid head. Another of the corpses broke through between the barricades and, seizing my dagger, I staggered to my feet and lurched towards it, neither waiting to thank her or to judge her success. I heard the militiaman screaming, but by the time I’d helped take down the interlopers that threatened the line, it had stopped and—as I could plainly see—he was rising to his feet, helped by Morrigan and Tomas, the lad who’d first met us on the bridge.

I shot Morrigan a bone-weary but sincere nod of gratitude. She could do more than she knew, I remember thinking… which turned out to be naivety of the worst order. She just shook her head, then raised that black iron staff and loosed a furious flare of ice towards the western side of the barricade, stopping another two undead in their tracks, and allowing Sten to bash them into oblivion with his greatsword. I winced and looked away. Frozen chunks of flesh littered the ground, and I could only imagine what they’d be like when they thawed.

The numbers dwindled after the first hour or so. I had privately decided that, whatever evil this was, there couldn’t be a single dead body left at the bottom of the lake, or in any graveyard or paupers’ field for a hundred miles. We’d cut our way through so many, I was sure I’d see nothing else when I closed my eyes… probably not for the rest of my life. The moon had passed its way across the sky; it couldn’t be that long until dawn. As breaths were caught and wounds were quickly, temporarily bandaged, I cherished the wisp of a memory from home. Mother used to tell a story about the moon and her lover: a mortal man who had been cursed by a magister, and doomed to wander eternally without rest. The moon loved him so that she wrought herself a chariot of stars, and followed him every night, though she could never catch him. I couldn’t remember how it ended. Not well, I assumed. Stories never seemed to.

When the creatures came again, they appeared to be warier. They lingered on the gangways, held back at the corners of the streets and alleys that ran between the square and the lake’s edge. It was as if they were taunting us. Hisses and groans left them like catcalls, and their oddly angled arms jerked, bodies twitching in horrible, impatient pulses. A few of the militiamen, fired up and not thinking, started to run out into the network of blind turns and dark shadows, but Alistair was out at the front of the line, yelling at them to hold their positions. Murdock weighed in behind him, threatening to cut the balls off the first man who moved, and that seemed to get their attention.

It was a tense, ugly stand-off, with Leliana, Morrigan, and the rest of those armed for ranged combat sending short volleys across the dirt. They didn’t do much except apparently enrage the creatures and, when they finally did come blundering towards us, they crashed against the barricades with such ferocity that I thought we’d all be dead by morning.

After that, there was one more wave, light in numbers but as horrendous as anything that had gone before. We were tired, numb… and determined. They fell as the others had fallen, and the darkness seemed to be fading. The chill of night was giving way to the dampness of a coming dawn, and the shadows paled against the outlines of trees and rooftops. Up on the ridge, I could make out the flames of torches, and the black shapes of Ser Perth and his men.

“It’s over,” one of the men said, his voice cracking with disbelief, and he was rapidly shushed.

“Ain’t over ’til sun-up,” someone else said, and every pair of eyes seemed to turn to the east.

We stared for what felt like hours. Nothing. The darkness still wreathed the village and, though no more corpses came, the waiting was unbearable until finally, as we watched, the sun began to rise beyond the silvery horizon, breaking the surface of the lake into a thousand glittering planes.

A worn, ragged cheer went up from the militamen, and I dropped to my knees, watching the tentative veins of pink thread through the bruised, purple-blue underbelly of cloud. At that moment, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

The coolness of the morning bathed my face, damp air breathing new life into aching, stale lungs. We were all still here, still alive… we’d done it.

It was the first victory I’d ever known.

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Nine
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Six

 
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The journey put us all in a ruminative mood, I supposed. When dawn broke, we were already walking again, but things felt easier… more intimate, almost. We’d shared food, made camp together and, although the past two nights hadn’t exactly been full of cosiness and comfort, everyone was still upright and breathing. More than that, we were leaving the Imperial Highway behind us, and heading west towards the mountains, Redcliffe, and the hope of salvation.

It was a pleasant change to be off the grim stone monotony of the Highway, despite the fact the road here wasn’t as even or well-maintained. Most parts of it were still essentially paved, and good enough for the few trade carts and refugee wagons we saw. At first, no one noticed they were all heading north-east. We were thinking about what lay ahead, no doubt, and perhaps basking a little in the tranquillity of a dry, bright morning, as the sun bleached the last traces of rain and discomfort from the trees and wooded fields around us.

“And so, pray tell, Alistair….” Morrigan’s voice cut through the peaceful background sounds of birdsong, the faint jingle of armour and weaponry, and boots beating mismatched paces against the ground. “Precisely what welcome should we expect from this castle of yours?”

“What?”

He blinked, and looked guiltily at her, as if his mind had been somewhere completely different. It probably had. Alistair had been suspiciously quiet all morning, and I thought I knew why. I didn’t know if he regretted telling me what he had last night—about his mother, Arl Eamon’s curious generosity, and the loneliness of the Chantry—but coming back still had to be hard.

“It’s not my— I mean, I… I haven’t been in Redcliffe in years. It isn’t—”

He glanced at me, and I shook my head. I hadn’t said anything. It didn’t bother me that he seemed to think I might have. Not really.

“Oh.” Morrigan’s dark-painted lips twitched into that familiar smirk of triumph, like a cat who’s just pinioned something under one paw. “Then what, one might ask, do you base your assumption of a welcome upon? Are we to sweep in, expecting to be congratulated for bearing ill tidings?”

I wondered, idly, how she kept that warpaint of hers looking so immaculate. Did she have pots and potions secreted away in her pack, and did she spend precious minutes in the dark before dawn, fiddling with powder, paint, and hair-pins, while the rest of us were damping down the fire and shaking out our blankets? Or was it all witchcraft and glamoury? It could be, I reasoned. If she really was a shapeshifter, like the legends of the Witches of the Wilds said, who was to say what her true form was?

“If you’re worried, Morrigan,” I said conversationally, “you can always stay outside the village. I know you’re not, er, used to being so far from home.”

She whipped around like a snake, glared hotly at me, and Alistair managed to have a sudden coughing fit. I shrugged, not even trying to outstare those eerie, ochre-gold eyes, and glanced up at the sky. It was a clear blue, fringed by the rustling tops of trees and streaked with dirty-white tails of cloud, but promising a fine day, nonetheless.

“I am not ‘worried’,” she said, voice oozing with scorn. “I have no fear of the world of men. You know this. I simply question—”

“Look,” Alistair said wearily. “All we can do is give Arl Eamon a full account of what happened at Ostagar. I can’t believe the Bannorn would unite behind Loghain that easily, but if that’s the case—and if he really has named himself regent—then we’ll definitely need Eamon’s help to convince them of the danger the Blight poses. I imagine he’ll call a Landsmeet, and—”

“Wonderful.” Morrigan scoffed. “Politics. Maybe your nobles will consent to talk the darkspawn to death, and save everyone the trouble of fighting.”

He didn’t argue, I noticed. He just shook his head and stared at the road, rising on before us. Nobody was mentioning the Orlesian reinforcements. I wondered about that. I still believed they would come—that they might even already be in Ferelden—and that, somehow, this whole mess would straighten itself out.

The land was beginning to change again. It was a strange thing to me, used as I was to the constants of Denerim’s unalterable wood, stone, daub, and plaster. I’d never imagined the country could be full of so many contrasts. First, the flat lands of the north had become the damp, inhospitable outcrops of the Wilds, riven with the ancient stones of Ostagar and its Tevinter heritage. Then, the cold, dank forest gave way to lusher farmland, eking its existence out of the mud. Now, the ground was growing gritty and coarse, the muted colours of the holdings giving way to richer, ruddier hues. Fewer trees edged the fields, and the swells and ridges of foothills had begun to dig at the horizon.

“Redcliffe… I wonder how the name came to be,” Leliana mused, breaking the rather prickly silence that had fallen. “Is the clay there red?”

Alistair nodded. “Mm. It’s a fishing village, mostly. Hard, red earth, not much good for farming… or so I understand. Bakes in the summer, boggy in the winter.”

“I confess,” she said, “I know little of the place, except that the castle has long been considered a formidable fortress. They say the last man to breach it was your King Calenhad, the Silver Knight.”

Her light, musical voice skimmed over the words, charged with the promise of the story behind them, and my mind went at once to the colourful histories Mother had given me to read as a child. The tales I’d loved best were the ones of Arlathan, and the distant make-believe of a magical, elven world, but few of those were written down. The story of Calenhad Theirin and his suit of enchanted, silver-white armour—rendering him invulnerable to blade or bow as long as he stood on Fereldan soil—was almost as good. He’d united the land for the first time, hadn’t he? Funny, I supposed, how the Theirin bloodline was so closely tied to the history of Ferelden. Superstitiously so, almost.

I thought sadly of Cailan, and that first moment I’d met him at Ostagar; that glittering whirlwind in gilt-traced armour, who was young and bold and magnificent. It had been easy to believe, in that moment, that his blood—that ancient, venerable line—conveyed some gleam of legends and fables upon him, that it made him more than just a man… though I remembered chastising myself for such foolish thoughts at the time. Right before he bowed to me, and looked me in the eye, and made me feel so ridiculously, incomprehensibly invincible.

He hadn’t deserved the death that came to him. Not that way. It wasn’t… fair.

“Of course,” Leliana was saying, still trooping valiantly on, speaking as casually as if she were just thinking aloud, “there are places in the world where the earth is a bright, strange red, and often, in the legends of such places, it is the red of blood. The blood of a thousand men slaughtered in battle, or that of an innocent unjustly slain; it stains the land that it may never be forgotten.”

“Hm.” Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Cheery.”

“Oh, I am not suggesting it is so. Perhaps this Redcliffe has such a tale, but I do not know it.”

“Huh.” Morrigan grunted. “Maybe we shall find a pleasant little tavern, with charming local characters who can regale us with their many tales and anecdotes. Or, maybe we shall be busy, attempting to stem the threat of the darkspawn horde.”

Leliana narrowed her eyes. “You know, Morrigan, there is much we can learn from stories. Only the very arrogant or the very foolish dismiss them out of hand.”

“Indeed? And what of those who dismiss them simply because they are complete rubbish, and unimportant to anyone with half a working brain?”

Somewhere over my shoulder, I could have sworn I heard Sten sigh wearily.

~o~O~o~

The usual bickering aside, we pushed our pace hard and, not long after midday, we had Redcliffe in our sights.

The castle, the village, and the outlying holdings all fringed Lake Calenhad, and I was silently but preposterously excited at the prospect of seeing it, straining my eyes to catch the first hint of that great body of water silvering the horizon. The bulks and silhouettes of the cliffs came before that, however; the last strips of woodland and arable fields thinned out and gave way to bald, bare land, specked with mica. The air tasted different, too. Up in Denerim, if the wind was in the right direction, we sometimes scented the sea. To me, it was a fetid, dank stench—equal parts salt, sewage, and whatever mingled cargoes and filths blew up from the docks—and this was nothing like it. Not salty, but… fresh, full of water and fish, and sawdust.

We followed a packed dirt road now, the southerly approach to the village that took us over the cliff path. The track was marked with wheel ruts but peculiarly devoid of wagons. A few cottages and smallholdings stood aside from the road, shuttered up tight, but I didn’t stop to wonder whether anyone was at home. I was too busy looking at the way people wove fences here, their gardens boxed in with densely knotted panels of willow, and raised beds filled to bursting with flowers, vegetables and herbs. Obviously, good earth for growing was at a premium, and gave the villagers something to compete over. Nevertheless, those well-tended patches, and the square wooden houses with shingled roofs and tight-beamed frames, were beautiful. They were familiar, in a way, to the kind of buildings I was used to—and a welcome change from all the grim Tevinter stone that seemed to characterise the south—but they were different enough to be exotic, almost.

At the top of the cliff path, we got our first glimpse of the village, spread out below us like a child’s discarded toys. I could see the vaulted outline of the chantry, the main square, the forge, a cluster of stores and row upon row of houses spreading back towards the great, shimmering expanse of the lake. Gentle puffs of smoke wafted from the chimneys of the little houses, and tugged wistfully at the sky. The castle rose up behind the next cliff, a great shadow like the humped back of some fantastic creature, edged with towers and the flickering dots of pennants flapping in the breeze.

I stopped, pausing to take it all in. The others didn’t seem as struck. To them, it was a nondescript little fishing village, I supposed. To Alistair, something more, perhaps, but I expected the meaning the place held for him was very different to what I saw there.

Gradually, I became aware of his presence. He was standing at my shoulder and I blinked, pulling myself from my foolish awe, and assuming he wanted to get a move on. We’d made it earlier than we’d hoped; it was mid-afternoon, and we might yet catch the arl before the castle was fully taken up with the business of the evening.

The others hadn’t stopped to stare. They were heading off up the path, Leliana trying to convince Morrigan that she might care to hear the story of an Orlesian knight who’d once battled a sea monster to prove his love for a princess. She was not meeting with a great deal of approval. Sten paced silently behind them, and Maethor trotted happily along, snuffling at the ground and wagging his stumpy tail every time he caught an interesting scent.

I turned, and found Alistair slightly closer than I’d expected, lips pressed into a tight line, his face a mask of discomfort.

“I was just—” I began, but he spoke at the same time, and we fell over each other in an awkward tangle of words.

“Look, can we—” He winced, glanced up the path at the others, and then back to me, a flurry of fleeting things muddying his hazel eyes. “Sorry. Can we talk for a moment?”

I could feel a perplexed frown tightening my brow, but I didn’t want to seem unsympathetic. Whatever parting memories he had of this place—or of Arl Eamon—they must have been eating away at him since we broke camp. Something certainly had been.

“What’s on your mind?”

Alistair let out a short, stiff sigh and looked at his boots, almost as if he was having trouble meeting my eye.

“I… I need to tell you something I, ah, should probably have told you earlier.”

Well, that didn’t sound good. The rest of our party was still heading on without us: probably not quite out of earshot yet, but moving that way. The sun picked lazily at the rocky dirt, and the fittings on Alistair’s armour gleamed dully. I caught the traces of the foul-smelling polish we’d used on everything when he moved, all mixed up with the scent of leather and human sweat.

I raised an eyebrow. “All right. I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, still staring guiltily at his feet like a recalcitrant schoolboy. “I doubt it. I’ve never liked it, that’s for sure.”

Somewhere overhead, a gull circled, its harsh call echoing off the cliffs. Maethor barked at it, and made a half-hearted bounce, front paws lifting off the ground as he focused on a prey he could never possibly reach. Alistair raised his head, looked down at me miserably, and drew a deep breath.

“Right. Well, let’s see… I told you how Arl Eamon raised me, right? About my mother, and—”

“Mm?”

It was meant to be gentle encouragement, but it came out sounding impatient, and left me annoyed with myself.

“Yes, well….” He cleared his throat, something that looked very much like genuine panic stalking behind his eyes. “The, er, reason he did that was b-because… well, my father… was King Maric.”

My stomach pitched towards my boots, and I stared at him. He looked at me, painfully hopeful, mouth crumpled into an uncertain, apologetic crease. There was a heavy, awkward silence that seemed to spin out into a great, looping spool, thick like honey. I didn’t know what to say, my head full of half-formed notions of blood and lineage and impossible, ridiculous things that were sliced through with one other, clear, singular thought, before I could even sort their different threads apart.

I know who I was told was my father. He… he’s dead now, anyhow. It isn’t important.

He had lied to me. I’d asked, and he’d lied.

The anger burned hotter than it should have done, and I found myself perversely pleased by the discomfort twisting his face. I sucked a slow breath in across my teeth, and nodded, scrabbling to make sense of what I’d just heard.

“Right. So… that made Cailan your, what, half-brother?”

Alistair winced again. “Not that we were close, but yes, I suppose.”

He was watching me carefully, and I didn’t know why my reaction should be so important. Was I supposed to fall at his feet and pledge fealty, or did he expect the kick in the shin he so richly deserved for not telling me sooner? It certainly cast a different light over everything we’d talked of before, and I disliked thinking of that time now, the glow of the firelight seeming dull and deceitful in my memory. All the same, the glimmer of a gratifying little thought pulled a thin smile to my lips.

“Then you’re not just a bastard, but a royal bastard?”

Alistair snorted, the worried tautness in his face cracking into a sickly, relieved smile. “Ha! Yes, I guess it does, at that. Maybe I should use that line more often.”

His grin faded, replaced by a look of uncomfortable apology. I suspect I was a touch tight-lipped and stern, arms folded across my chest and head tipped expectantly to the side. I still couldn’t believe it. Not that I was any kind of a superstitious royalist, but… him? Carrying four centuries of regal blood in his veins?

“I….” Alistair sighed. “I should have told you. I would have, but… it never meant anything to me.”

I didn’t believe that for a minute, and I couldn’t contain the cynical rise of my brows. He looked chastened.

“Well, it didn’t matter. I was inconvenient, a possible embarrassment; that was all. They kept me secret, and then the arl shipped me off to the Chantry, and I— well, I’ve never talked about it to anyone.”

He let out a long, weary breath, and I found myself annoyed at my own self-absorption. Bolt from the blue or not, this revelation was his. It wasn’t about me, and what he had or hadn’t told me… and, stung though I was, I could see how twisted up he was by the telling. I bit the inside of my lip. Probably twisted up by a damn sight more than that, too. At least it explained Arl Eamon’s willingness to raise a maid’s bastard brat.

“Were you… told not to tell?” I asked gently. “Or was it your—”

“I knew I wasn’t supposed to, right from the start. No doubt about that. Not that I ever wanted to tell anyone. Everyone who knew either resented me for it or they coddled me,” he blurted. “Even Duncan kept me out of the fighting because of it.”

His words hit me like a sock full of wet sand. Was that true? I’d believed Duncan had kept us both back from the front line because we were green—or because I was, more likely. It had been Alistair’s misfortune, I’d thought, to be stuck babysitting me, and I’d been amazed he didn’t seem to resent me for it. I wondered if he based his notion on anything more than grief-riddled guilt… and, slowly, I started to have some idea of what he meant.

I knew what it was to have every aspect of your life defined by what you were, albeit in a very different way. His blood didn’t shout itself the way my ears did; he could hide his otherness, but I wasn’t jealous of that. What marked me out also gave me a sense of belonging, while his did the very opposite.

“It’s just….” Alistair scuffed his boot at the ground, brow furrowed. “Everyone ends up treating me differently,” he mumbled. “So I… I didn’t want you to know for as long as possible. Stupid, I s’pose. I’m sorry.”

As apologies went, it was graceless, but heart-felt. I cast a look up the path, where the rest of our motley little band had hauled in and were waiting for us. Morrigan looked annoyed and kept tapping her foot. Maker only knew what they thought we were talking about… unless Leliana could lip-read, I supposed. She was peering curiously at us, and ventured to give me a cheerful little wave. I nodded, as if to assure her we wouldn’t be a minute. Maethor was sitting at Sten’s feet and having a damn good scratch. What it must be, I thought, to have nothing more pressing in life to concern you than fleas.

Alistair still looked uncomfortable. He watched me nervously now, as if he wanted—needed, perhaps—my assurance, or forgiveness, or… something. I didn’t know what. I wanted to stay angry with him, to keep the irritation and the ire wadded up and fresh, right at my fingertips, but I had to admit I knew what it was like to have a secret… to be afraid of what people would think if they knew the truth.

We all had our own pasts.

“It’s all right.” I exhaled slowly. “I think I understand.”

Relief broke over his face like sunlight, and he grinned broadly.

“You do? Oh, good. I’m glad. It’s not like I got special treatment for it, anyhow.”

I quietly wondered at that, but declined to comment.

“Anyway, that’s it,” Alistair said briskly. “That’s what I had to tell you. Just thought you ought to know.”

Hiding behind that cheerful, flippant veneer again. Like everything was back to normal. The irritation resurfaced, a dark wave of it slipping through me. I clenched my jaw.

“And that’s it? You’re sure you’re not hiding anything else?”

He smirked. “Besides my unholy love of fine cheese and a minor obsession with my hair, no. That’s it. Just the prince thing.”

Oh, I’d get him for that one.

“So… I should be calling you Prince Alistair?” I asked innocently.

It wiped the grin off his face, at any rate. He actually paled a little bit.

“No! Maker’s breath, just hearing that gives me a heart attack! It’s not true, anyhow… I’m the bastard son of a commoner, and a Grey Warden to boot. It was always made clear to me that the throne is not in my future.”

I smiled, feeling very slightly as if I’d scored some kind of point. His next words knocked the mirth out of me, though, delivered with slumped shoulders and such bitter resignation.

“Anyway, there you have it. I just didn’t want to walk into Redcliffe Castle and… well, have you not knowing. It would have been awkward. Now, can we move on? I’ll just pretend you still think I’m… some nobody who was too lucky to die with the rest of the Grey Wardens.”

I frowned. “That’s not really what you think, is it?”

Alistair glanced at me, and he seemed so incredibly tired.

“No, I suppose not.” His face softened a little, and he smiled weakly. “At least I have a chance to make things right. And I’m not alone.”

“True. You’re not.”

My fingers clenched on the air. Almost without realising it, I’d half-raised my hand, ready to punch him affectionately on the arm, the way I would have done with Soris, or any of the boys back home. I smiled clumsily, and took refuge in teasing.

“Well, then,” I said, clearing my throat. “At your command… my prince.”

He groaned, even when I curtseyed.

“Oh, lovely. I’m going to regret this. Somehow I just know it.”

We caught up with the others, and I smiled brightly, doing my best to deflect Leliana’s enquiring gaze.

If we are all quite ready?” Morrigan asked archly, long, pale fingers clasped loosely on the neck of her staff.

Alistair glanced at me, and I understood. I wasn’t going to relay what he’d told me for the benefit of eager observers. I nodded, and jerked my head towards the path.

“Come on, then,” I said, and strode off, feet crunching on the gritty dirt.

~o~O~o~

A little way on, the ground was split in two by a great rush of raging white water, pouring down from the top of the cliff and flowing down into the village and, eventually, the lake. We could see more of Redcliffe spread out below us, including the mill, and the creak of the slowly turning wheel filtered up on the air. A stone bridge crossed the pounding river, and from its vantage point we could see right across to the lake, and even the distant silhouette of the Circle Tower, pricking the sky on its far shore.

“Seems… quiet, doesn’t it?” Alistair said, peering down at the empty square.

“Very,” I agreed.

Beyond the bridge, the path led up to a great wooden gate, set into the cliff and marking, I assumed, the village boundary. I expected guards, and maybe a few awkward questions, but only one lone figure was manning the post.

He was young, little more than a boy, and he wasn’t even armoured. Messy red-brown hair framed his pale, pudgy face, and he shambled clumsily forwards as we approached, looking sweaty and frightened.

“Oh, thank the Maker! I… I thought I saw travellers coming down the road, though I scarcely believed it. Have you come to help us?”

That didn’t sound promising. I glanced at Alistair, noting his concerned frown and the way he drew himself up, his voice taking on that authoritative edge he so seldom used.

“Help you? What do you mean?” he demanded. “Is something wrong?”

The lad’s eyes widened, his pallid, rubbery lips working in obvious disbelief. “W-What, you… you don’t know? Has nobody out there heard?”

“Heard what, man? What are you talking about?”

“The arl’s sick, or… or dead, for all we know.” The hapless guard’s eyes widened and he shook his head, his face a skull-like picture of hopeless fear. “Nobody’s heard from the castle in days, and… oh, ser, we’re under attack! Monsters pour down from the fortress every night. They just keep coming, and they don’t stop ’til dawn. Everyone’s been fighting… and dying. We’ve no army to defend us, no arl, and no king to send us any help. So many are dead, and those left are terrified they’re next. Please… we need help!”

“Wait,” I said, trying to lever a word in between the boy’s desperate pleas. “What exactly is it that’s attacking you?”

Alistair glanced at me, and I supposed he must have been thinking the same thing: darkspawn would be unlikely to retreat with the dawn. The lad fixed me with his wide, terrified eyes, fogged in confusion.

“I… I don’t rightly know, miss. I’m sorry. Nobody does.”

He was unusually polite for a shem, especially one that reeked of fear, and I found myself wrestling the urge to pat him on the shoulder and murmur something comforting.

“I-I should take you to Bann Teagan,” he said, almost hopping foot-to-foot like a desperate puppy. “He’s all that’s holding us together. He’ll want to see you. Please….”

“Bann Teagan?” Alistair sounded surprised. “Arl Eamon’s brother? He’s here?”

“Yes.” The lad nodded, already trying to usher us towards the gate. “Please. It’s not far, if you’ll come with me.”

I peered briefly at my companions, and began to frame my lips around an agreement—not that the guard had actually addressed me. He was looking at Alistair, waiting for him to take charge. Not an unreasonable assumption, I supposed, given that the rest of us were either foreigners or women, and he did at least look like a soldier.

“Er… right,” Alistair said eventually, apparently realising that something was expected of him.

The lad looked gratefully relieved, and scampered off to open the gate. Morrigan gave a short, terse sigh of frustration, and shook her head.

“Wonderful. Did you not think we had enough to occupy our time?”

Alistair shot her a look of pure venom, but didn’t say anything. I guessed from the tightness of his expression that the news of the arl’s illness had knocked him sideways. True, it was a blow we could have done without. I tried not to let myself run ahead of what we already knew but, if Redcliffe had fallen, what hope did we have to marshal any kind of stand against the Blight?

“Let’s just find out what’s going on,” I said, edging myself between them. “Or, if you’d rather wait here….”

She gave me a haughtily disparaging glare, and did not dignify me with a reply. The creak and scrape of heavy wood against the hard, red soil signalled the gate opening, and the guard waved us through. We followed him down a wide, gritty path worn into the cliff and lined with torches, and the whole village was laid out below us, empty and silent. Every house we passed was boarded up, shuttered and barred, and there was no breath of sound except for the gulls that wheeled above, shrieking harshly.

We were led to the chantry, which stood to one side of the main square, and there I did see a small group of men. They were gathered under the porch, one of them—a man with a huge, dark moustache and small, heavy-lidded eyes—was pointing down towards the lake, and seemed to be giving some kind of orders to the others. Like the guard who’d met us, each one of them looked ashen-faced and nervous, with that blank, empty way of staring at things which only comes with looking too directly, and too much, at hopeless and impossible horrors.

There were barricades all around the square, I noticed. Makeshift piles of broken tables, chairs… anything and everything that could be found, built up and packed solid at every possible choke point.

We were being watched. I could feel it. More eyes than we could see, but they were there. The whole place had a tense, hostile atmosphere, a little like the desperation and fear that had saturated Lothering, but without the sense that there was anywhere to run. The great wooden doors scraped back, and we were led into the chantry.

Back home, we’d been allowed to attend some services; Valendrian encouraged it, in fact. It was, I’d always thought, one of the ways he had of trying to instil in us an attitude of humility. We would file out across the market square—small groups of us, usually the young and the children, and a handful of elders, for the sake of propriety—and it was a treat, a departure from routine that marked Satinalia, or Harvest, or some other festival where it felt, even if just for a moment, that things were good.

The cathedral in Denerim, of course, was an enormous and impressive building, full of people and a hub of all kinds of activity. I was used to skulking in as part of one of those small groups, and sitting at the back with somebody’s little one on my knee, marvelling at the high ceilings, the statues… everything, really. For me, the associations of the place had never been so much religious as architectural and aesthetic. It was the only time we ever got to see real works of art, and then there was the Chant itself, in all its echoing, complex beauty and rich harmony. I remembered that, and the way the light fell through windows made of coloured glass, like thick, dusty beams of painted sunshine.

Redcliffe’s chantry was a small, pale comparison. It was wood-walled, and though higher than most of the surrounding buildings, it still wasn’t huge. Nevertheless, beneath that wide, vaulted roof, dust motes danced in the shafts of tinted light, and the statues and carvings lent a familiar quality to the place… though it was far from serene.

The chantry was packed with people, but they weren’t worshippers, or petitioners waiting for their claims to be dealt with. Women, children, and old folk all clustered on the floor and on any available seat. Mothers held babies close to their chests, or clutched the hands of young ones, and tried to keep them calm. There were tears, and soft, muffled sobs, and the coughs and sighs of the infirm and wounded. We didn’t see much as we were led to the far end of the aisle, but the village’s suffering, and the destitution of its people, was obvious enough.

Our guard brought us to a well-dressed man of middle years, talking in low tones to a woman I took for the revered mother. He was neither tall nor broad, but he looked fit, strong… and very, very tired. His beard and moustache were well-trimmed, and the same bright, reddish-brown as his hair, which he wore ear-length, with one narrow braid, the way men used to do for remembrance in the alienage. I wondered: did it have the same meaning for humans, or was it simply a matter of taste? It wasn’t an important thought, and I blinked it away, uncomfortably aware that I was looking at a nobleman. The last time I’d found myself in such a position, things had ended very badly. I tried to ignore the nauseous swirl diving in my stomach, and gave myself a mental kick. No good thinking with my alienage mind, I told myself. It didn’t belong to me anymore, nor I to it.

The revered mother nodded and, with a glance at us, took her leave of the bann. Our guard coughed, and drew himself up to something approaching attention.

“Er, my lord?”

The nobleman turned, meeting the boy with a genial look of enquiry. “Ah, it’s… Tomas, yes? And who are these people with you? They’re obviously not simple travellers.”

“No, my lord.” The lad shook his head. “They just arrived, and I thought you would want to see them.”

The bann nodded, managing a tired smile of acknowledgement for the boy.

“Well done, Tomas.”

He looked us over, and aside from a brief hardening of his eyes, presumably as he choked down his disbelief, there was very little change in his calm, faintly aloof expression. I couldn’t blame him; Maker alone knew what we looked like. Maethor gave a small grumble, deep in his chest, then whined and sat down at my foot, probably in his doggy mind claiming ownership over me as much as if I were a tree or interesting rock. The nobleman’s eyebrow raised a very small fraction as he glanced at the mabari, and when he smiled it seemed a little more genuine.

“Greetings, friends,” he said, his wary look passing over each of us in turn. “My name is Teagan, Bann of Rainesfere, brother to the arl.”

Alistair cleared his throat. “I remember you, Bann Teagan, though the last time we met I was a lot younger and, uh, covered in mud.”

He smiled sheepishly, as the bann’s frown of confusion gave way to a broad, delighted grin.

“Covered in mud? Wh— Alistair? It is you, isn’t it? You’re alive! Well, this is wonderful news!”

“Still alive, yes.” He nodded, with a sidelong glance at me, and gave Teagan a rueful look. “Though not for long, if Teyrn Loghain has anything to say about it.”

“Hm. Indeed. Loghain would have us believe all the Grey Wardens died along with my nephew… though it hasn’t stopped him putting a bounty on anyone found to belong to the order. Rumours have been rife since Ostagar, but— well, it’s been hard to know what’s true and what is simply propaganda.”

“You don’t believe Loghain’s lies, then?” Alistair said, his tone dark and dry.

I wished I could see the world as clearly as he did, but I said nothing. Bann Teagan curled his lip.

“What, that he pulled his men in order to save them? That Cailan risked everything in the name of glory? Hardly. Loghain calls the Grey Wardens traitors, murderers of the king. I don’t believe it. It’s the act of a desperate man.”

It was good to know we weren’t about to given up to the nearest platoon of the teyrn’s men, but for a moment I thought we’d be drawn into yet another dissection of the battle, and the beacon… and everything else that still burned too close to the surface. I glanced at Alistair, and saw the pain of betrayal etched into his face. Every day, I worried it was hardening into an implacable desire for revenge.

He looked at me, and his expression shifted—almost self-conscious, as if he’d forgotten the rest of us were here.

“Um, sorry. I should…. Bann Teagan, may I introduce Merien? She’s a Grey Warden too. And our, er, companions: Leliana, Morrigan… and this is, um, Sten.”

There was a rather awkward shuffling of introductions. Leliana’s delicate greeting was well-schooled, but my bow was clumsy and nervous, and neither Morrigan or the qunari managed more than a brusque nod. We were attracting quite a lot of attention, too; Leliana looked the least out of place in her Chantry robe, but Morrigan’s raven feathers and heavy jewellery were hardly non-descript, and of course Sten towered over every human there. A gaggle of pale, wide-eyed children at the corner of the nave were staring at him in awe—not all that less obviously than their elders. I supposed we gave the destitute a passingly interesting distraction.

Still, Bann Teagan managed a graceful nod of his head, and a diplomatic smile. Obviously, I supposed, Alistair’s presence with our motley band was guarantee enough for him that we weren’t about to rip the place to pieces… either that, or Redcliffe was already so far gone that we couldn’t have done much damage. I was inclined to think the latter, which wasn’t a comforting thought.

“A pleasure to meet you all. I only wish it were under better circumstances.” The bann turned to me, looked me up and down—an action I did not find comfortable—and flashed a disarming smile. “So, you are a Grey Warden as well?”

A note of curiosity and surprise lingered in his voice, which wasn’t unexpected. I nodded.

“Yes.”

My lord. The words—an honorific I knew I ought to use—trembled on my tongue, but I closed my lips tight, absurdly unwilling to say them. Nobleman or not, I wasn’t going to kowtow. Not this time. Instead, I met Bann Teagan’s gaze, and had the sense that I was being briefly but thoroughly assessed.

An assessment of my own filtered through my tired, muddled brain. Six months, Alistair had said he’d been a Grey Warden. The bann knew of it. Did it mean they’d kept in touch, or was Teagan simply well-informed?

Hmmph. Younger and covered in mud. No sooner had I begun to think more comfortably of Alistair as my comrade, than I’d caught myself starting to wonder who he really was. A dull, lingering anger at that—and at him—twisted within me, and I looked forward to the opportunity of letting it out. Not now, though. No time now. Instead, I cleared my throat, and drew myself up to my full height, which brought me about level with Bann Teagan’s nose.

“We had hoped to appeal to Arl Eamon for help,” I said. “But I understand there’s a problem?”

“To put it lightly.” Teagan nodded. “My brother fell ill just before the battle at Ostagar. His condition was grave but, in recent days, we have lost all contact with the castle. No guards patrol the walls, and no one has responded to my shouts. The attacks started a few nights ago. Evil… things… surged from the castle. We drove them back, but many perished during the assault.”

I frowned. “‘Evil things’? What kind of—”

The bann clenched his jaw, eyes narrowed and expression guarded, as if he feared we would think him insane.

“Some call them the walking dead; decomposing corpses returning to life with a hunger for human flesh….” He shook his head, appearing not to want to believe it himself. “Men who… who are ceaseless, continuing despite the gravest wounds. They hit again the next night, and every night since, with greater numbers than before, their ranks swelled by… by the fallen. With Cailan dead and Loghain starting a war over the throne, no one has responded to my urgent calls for help.”

Walking dead… wonderful. It was like something out of one of those lurid, gruesome adventure tales Father didn’t approve of me reading.

Behind me, Morrigan made a small ‘hmm’ in the back of her throat.

“Undead… or spirits possessing the dead. Necromancy, perhaps.”

I peered at the woman, thinking for one foolish moment she was showing compassion for the horror these people must have faced, but I saw only mild, rather academic, interest in her expression. She arched one thin brow, and shrugged.

“There could be several causes behind such a thing, none of them pleasant.”

Alistair frowned. “It all seems too convenient for my liking. Bann Teagan, you said the arl fell ill just before Ostagar?”

Teagan nodded hesitantly. “Yes, but… Alistair, you’re not suggesting what has happened here is related to Cailan’s death?”

I sighed inwardly. He wouldn’t be satisfied, it seemed, until he’d built himself an incontrovertible proof of Loghain’s treachery. I still struggled to believe it. Ostagar had been a disaster, not a trap—the darkspawn had outmanoeuvred us, plain and simple.

Yet… we didn’t know the truth of things since then, did we? The teyrn declaring himself regent, setting the bounty on Grey Wardens…. Either he genuinely believed, in some addled way, that we were responsible, or it was an effort to silence the only survivors who knew what he’d done. But to think that it might have been part of some wider plan, some premeditated bid to seize power….

Based on what I knew, I didn’t trust myself to choose between those options. I hadn’t thought I’d have to. Redcliffe was supposed to save us from that. It was supposed to be the place where all the problems were solved, and the questions answered… and that wasn’t working out so well, was it?

I cleared my throat, and looked warily at Alistair before addressing the bann.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but Arl Eamon is an heir to the throne now, isn’t he?”

Teagan winced. “Our sister was Cailan’s mother. I suppose we’ve royal blood, but it’s a shaky claim to the throne… though still marginally better than Loghain’s.” His brows drew into a dark pinch above sharp, blue eyes. “It does mean Eamon could intervene in Loghain’s bid for the throne. But we shouldn’t leap to conclusions. However this madness began, my primary concern now is protecting these people—and I have a feeling that tonight’s assault will be the worst yet.” His mouth tightened, and he looked beseechingly at Alistair. “I hate to ask this, but—”

My gut plummeted. Still, pitting ourselves against legions of undead—if such things really existed—couldn’t be much worse than the darkspawn, could it? I glanced at Alistair, and found him looking utterly wretched. He shook his head.

“It isn’t just up to me….” he began, and shot me an uncomfortable, imploring look.

They were all looking at me, I realised. My companions, and the nobleman before me, and the white, frightened faces of the dispossessed.

Maker’s balls….

I still wasn’t quite sure at exactly what point I’d been landed with the mantle of command or, perhaps more accurately, the fingerless mittens of gentle suggestion. Looking at those who travelled with me, I didn’t think for a moment that—if I chose to declare something as an order—they would leap to it without question. I wouldn’t take orders from me… not that I was about to start barking them, in any case.

I frowned, bit my lip, and glanced at Alistair again before I addressed the bann.

“Of course we’ll help, if we can. I… don’t know if I speak for all of us, though.”

A look over my shoulder confirmed my suspicion. Sten’s face shifted into a disapproving scowl, like a rockslide in slow motion, and he folded his arms across his massive chest.

“There are no darkspawn here, and nothing to gain. It is a fool’s errand.”

“There is nothing foolish about defending the helpless,” Leliana protested. “Look at these people! We must help them.”

Morrigan snorted. “Pointless, when they face an impossible battle—one that is apparently already half-lost. One would think we had enough to contend with elsewhere.”

“And so you would leave them to their fate?” Leliana widened her eyes incredulously. “Well, I cannot. I say we offer whatever aid we can.”

I cleared my throat, and was unnervingly aware of the way silence fell, and four pairs of eyes fixed on me.

“It, er, seems to me,” I began hesitantly, “that if Loghain’s determined to have us down as traitors, we need an ally to convince the bannorn on our behalf.”

“Yet the man you seek for the role may already be dead,” Morrigan snapped. “If we have any business here at all, it is at the castle, not among—”

“Ooh, brilliant, yes.” Alistair scoffed. “The very large, impenetrable fortress that the massed ranks of walking dead are coming from? No, you’re right. Maybe if we go up and knock on the gates, they’ll let us in after all.”

She scowled, and I felt the first twinges of a headache begin to thud at my temples.

“We don’t know the arl is dead,” I said shortly, raising my voice a little. It echoed off the chantry’s beautifully carved stonework. “And we’re not exactly overrun with allies. Even if you don’t feel compassion for these people, the support of Redcliffe is worth fighting for, surely?”

Morrigan’s dark-painted lips folded in on themselves, and the eerie golden gaze grew a little harder, but she tilted her head to the side in dismissive acknowledgement, like a dog gracelessly accepting its bone being taken away.

“If you say so,” she muttered.

I looked at Bann Teagan. “Would it be enough?” I asked hesitantly. “If we help you fight these… things… would there be a chance of getting into the castle, seeing if the arl can be saved?”

He nodded fervently. “Yes. That is certainly my hope. If we can find the source, then— So, you will help us?”

I glanced at Sten. His unsettling violet eyes, glaring out from beneath the crevasse of his brow, narrowed slightly. He inclined his head—a barely perceptible nod—and I returned the gesture, hoping I at least appeared as dignified as he, and that no one could tell my heart was thumping like a frightened rabbit.

“We will,” I said, with a small smile. “I hope it makes a difference.”

A breathless sigh of relief broke from the bann. “Thank you! Thank you, this… this means more to me than you can guess. Tomas, please tell Murdock what transpired. Then return to your post.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The boy who’d brought us down from the cliff path bowed, and darted away, no doubt full of gossip.

Bann Teagan nodded, seeming a little less weary than he had before.

“I’ve put two men in charge of the defence outside. Murdock, the village mayor, is outside the chantry. Ser Perth, one of Eamon’s knights, is just up the cliff at the windmill, watching the castle.”

“The arl’s knights are here in the village?” I asked, faintly confused.

“A few,” he replied. “Those that have returned from their quest… I take it you do not know of this?”

I shook my head. “No.”

Teagan’s mouth tightened; something on the way to a mirthless smile.

“Hm. After my brother fell ill, we tried everything to cure him. Nothing worked. The arlessa became convinced that the Urn of Sacred Ashes was the answer.” He looked faintly embarrassed. “It is reputed to have miraculous powers, but… I am a practical man, while Lady Isolde is a woman of great faith. I can’t say I agreed with her decision to send so many men off in search of a relic that may never be found. Still, what’s done is done.”

“I… see.”

I recalled the vague mention Alistair had made of the arlessa. Not exactly a flattering portrait.

“I assume,” he said, “that you can’t evacuate the village?”

The briefest look around the chantry would have answered that question, I thought. These people were exhausted, many of them too old, too young, or too weak to travel.

Bann Teagan shook his head. “Believe me, we’ve tried. Those who tried to leave were attacked on the road—in broad daylight, no less. Any attempt at escape simply brings an immediate attack.” He leaned in, lowering his voice, his face clouded and dour. “I am afraid, whatever is behind this evil, it has no intention of stopping until… well. You see how desperate things are.”

Alistair and I exchanged looks. That much was certainly obvious. Twin impulses beat in me, split evenly between the desire to help these people, and the urge to flee, writing Redcliffe off as a lost cause.

However this had begun, I couldn’t see a way it could end well, and nor could I see a way that those in the castle would have been spared. The mere thought of what might lie up there—the possibility of demons and unnameable horrors, the like of which I’d only ever read about in storybooks, and never taken seriously, even then—turned my spine to water. Maybe, I told myself, Morrigan was wrong. At least… I hoped so.

“Now, there is not much daylight left.” Bann Teagan clapped his hands together, trying to inject a brisk, busy brightness into his words. It didn’t do much to disguise his anxiety. “I must see that everyone is gathered safely, and we will begin building the barricades. Luck be with you, my friends.”

He bowed his head to us, and excused himself to help the revered mother shepherd a gaggle of children into one of the side chapels. One of them was bawling, red-faced, for its mother. I had the sense we’d been summarily dismissed, and turned to look at my companions.

Morrigan crossed her arms and gave me a rather self-satisfied smile.

“Well, then. Pleased with ourself, are we?”

The low-grade thump in my temples began to spread out in a band across the whole front of my head. I met her gaze.

“Ask me again in the morning,” I said dryly.

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Seven
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