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It was hard to know quite where it had all gone so horribly wrong, although Isobel thought about it a great deal. She counted through, moment by moment, trying to find that crack, that flaw… that single point at which the rot had set in.
The road had been normal. Quiet, but normal. She had half-expected the south to be thick with refugees or crawling with troop movements, but that wasn’t the case. Lothering might have had its swells of destitute farmhands, but they barely saw anyone between there and Redcliffe.
Isobel hadn’t expected her first sight of the village to be so impressive. That great waterfall, thundering down from vast red rocks, and the cottages spread out below like the dollhouses she’d had as a child… she’d stopped to admire it for a while, and not realised that anything that pretty must be a mirage.
Alistair, in his typical muddle-headed fashion, had tried to talk to her then. She’d brushed him off, told him to wait until later, and he’d turned oddly petulant, which irritated her.
He could have pushed the issue. He should have, and Isobel had doubted she would forgive him for it. He’d made her look such a fool.
Bann Teagan was perfectly charming, despite the difficult circumstances. Oh, that Arl Eamon’s sickness was some sort of a magical poison—some malady that normal healing could neither identify nor cure—had been obvious, but somehow no one had expected ravening hordes of undead. That was just too much, and then to have to find out there, in front of everyone, exactly how Alistair knew the Guerrin family…!
Isobel could have sworn he took a perverse delight in her embarrassment. Teagan’s expression, as he tried to conceal his surprise that she didn’t know, had burned into her, and she took refuge in the stiffly formal court manners her mother had taught her. That, and the assault that nightfall brought.
It had seemed so much easier to deal in facts like that—in matters of men, and equipment, and the practicalities of barricades—than speaking of it further. She had pushed past Alistair’s attempt to apologise, her anger making her brusque instead of icily crisp, and glared at him until he shut up and followed orders.
She should have seen it, she supposed. She imagined he had thought she would, or that she would at least have suspected. The daughter of a teyrn, who should have been so familiar with Cailan’s court… how had she missed it? He couldn’t have known that, despite the fact there was not that much of a familial resemblance between him and the late king, Isobel had only ever been presented at court once, more than two years ago. Naturally, she would rather have walked barefoot into the Black City than admit it.
So, that wound was set to fester.
They fought side-by-side that night, nevertheless. Leliana and Morrigan, too… and Ryder, flinging himself at the massed ranks of walking corpses, until the air was choked with the stench of rotted flesh, and they stood ankle-deep in bodies.
Dawn came at great cost. Barely a handful of the militia had still been standing. Murdock was dead, the village virtually flattened, only smoking, gutted ruins left… and when she saw the faces of the people creeping out of the chantry, the breath leaked from Isobel’s lungs like cold fire. There were women and children—pale, weak and terrified—who’d lost everything, and they did not look at Isobel and her companions as if they were saviours.
There had been no time to rest, no opportunity to recoup their strength.
They had pressed forwards to the castle, bone-tired and aching, their wounds hastily bound and the blood still spattering their armour. What they found within those walls sickened her. More death, more filth, more violence… things were worse than Isobel had feared.
It wasn’t my fault.
What else were we supposed to do?
So many had already died. So many had suffered, and the arl was virtually on his deathbed. There was no time.
When they found the boy, Connor, it was clear that Lady Isolde had lied to protect him. She knew the child was possessed, that it was his desire to spare his father’s life that had sundered the Veil, and not the blood mage who had posed as his tutor.
Isobel remembered, through the haze of fatigue, standing in the great hall, her armour sticky with the congealed blood and partially rotted flesh of corpses, her blade heavy in her hand while they all argued. The arlessa had cried and protested… even Teagan suggested they consider the ultimate method of neutralising the threat, and Alistair had been wavering towards agreeing.
Leliana pressed a hand to her mouth, aghast at the notion of killing a child. But there was no other way… no other sane choice.
Of course, in such circumstances, the insane fast becomes rational.
The blood mage, Jowan, offered a solution. Isolde had him dragged up from the dungeon, her rage palpable. She still blamed him, pouring her fury and her guilt into a hysterical tirade against his magic. By contrast, when he spoke, his voice was so small, and his words faltered as he offered his forbidden knowledge to make amends for the evil that had been unleashed.
Isobel hadn’t wanted to hear it. Blood for blood, a sacrifice so that the child might be spared and the demon within him defeated. It was a vile, distasteful thing… and yet the only sensible course. Isolde even volunteered, her anger replaced by such terrible calm when the reality of the choice was made plain.
Kill Connor, or perform the blood ritual.
Oh, the mages might have helped. The Circle Tower might have had enough lyrium to power such an endeavour without this heinous need for flesh, but they were more than a day’s journey away, and there had been no guarantee that Connor would remain passive that long.
Isobel had shaken her head as she said as much, her words falling with finality across the strained silence. Alistair had the nerve to look at her as if she was a monster, yet hadn’t he vacillated between wanting to beg for the Tower’s help and saying they must face the necessity of killing the boy? She’d known that she couldn’t let his indecision hamper them any longer.
Of all of them, Morrigan alone had understood. Her golden eyes glimmered in the light of the torches that burned on the stone walls, and she had nodded to Isobel. She would be part of it, and enter the Fade. With her power, and the strength of Jowan’s ritual, they stood a good chance of seeing the demon defeated.
It was the only sensible choice. A willing sacrifice: a mother’s blood, given freely that her child might be spared the consequences of his folly.
Put like that, it almost seemed noble, and those were the silver threads of hope that Isobel clung to, even as the ability to feel anything seemed to ebb from her.
They had carried out the preparations virtually in silence. Lady Isolde’s quiet dignity was magnificent. When Connor was fetched—still pliant and small and nearly his normal self—and placed within the circle that Jowan drew, he looked up at his mother with wide, questioning eyes, and asked her what was happening.
Nothing, Connor. Everything will be all right. I love you, my son.
With the soft white glow of Jowan’s sleep spell enveloping him, the boy had slumped, the arlessa’s pale hand still resting upon his cheek.
At Isobel’s side, Ryder had flung back his head and howled. Leliana murmured something about not being able to watch this and, turning, fled from the hall. Isobel had nodded at her hound, dismissing him, and the mabari seemed only too pleased to follow Leliana.
She’d glared at Alistair then, his dark-shrouded stare like a burr on the back of her neck, but he’d folded his arms in silent refusal. He wouldn’t leave.
He had stayed, just as Isobel had.
She watched every visceral, bloody moment of it. She watched the way Jowan’s face contorted as the arlessa’s blood fountained from her body, the wash of power and triumph that engulfed him, and of hunger… and she knew Morrigan felt it too. There was something feral about the pair of them. Something sinister and frightening, and then the whole room reeked of copper and meat, and there was a vile, dark stain that tainted every last one of them.
Isobel had felt it deep within her, beating to the pulse of the darkness that corrupted her own blood. That flesh-song, that brutal, raw thing… the oldest, bluntest kind of magic. She had known that none of them would ever be quite the same for it.
And yet, when it was all over and Connor was free of the demon, it had been deemed a success. A sober, terrible success.
Bann Teagan, ashen-faced and solemn, hurried his nephew from the room, arms protectively encircling the boy as his piping voice asked why Mama was lying down. Even Morrigan, for all her indomitable steeliness, had looked shaken.
Isobel had offered her an arm—intending nothing more than a gesture of support—but found herself briskly rebuffed as the shapechanger stalked from the hall. She would not see her again until the following dawn.
One by one, they left, until the room was empty except for her, Alistair, and a pair of elven servants who had been sent to begin laying out the body. One had brought a mop and bucket with her, for the blood that still marked the flagstones.
Isobel supposed she should say something. She didn’t know what, or where to begin and, as she had moved forwards, her hand extended as if to touch the back of Alistair’s arm, he’d flinched away. He tore his gaze from Lady Isolde’s lifeless face, and looked at Isobel with a mix of rage, hatred, and guilt that chilled her to the core.
With a few muttered words about going to the tavern, he had left, and barely spared her another glance.
The servants had no use for her either, and so Isobel had left them to their work. She had been on her feet and fighting for the best part of twenty-six hours without rest, and the fatigue hit heavily.
The castle being in no state to receive visitors, she had made her way back down to the chantry.
As a child, Isobel had often found peace in Mother Mallol’s chapel. It had been a small, quiet island of rest and learning amid the bustle of the castle, and there had been times it became her sanctuary. Not so, in Redcliffe. The dispossessed, the bereaved, the wounded… they were everywhere, and she didn’t know how to help them. Unlike Leliana, who had immediately begun assisting the revered mother in tending to the needy, Isobel had no skills as a healer, and no expertise in comforting the grieving.
Instead, she had sat in one of the oak pews, gazed up at the blessed visage of Andraste, and wondered why it seemed so hard to weep.
Later, with Ryder at her heels, she had stood on the top of the ridge and looked out across the lake. Darkness drew in with the dusk, the last of the sunlight dying in a murmur of gold beneath heavy-bellied clouds.
A light breeze rippled through the thick air, still a little rimed with soot and death. It had tugged at Isobel’s hair, pulling a few greasy blonde strands from the rumpled knot at the back of her neck, and she had thought longingly of hot baths and clean clothes… things that Bann Teagan had promised them before they left.
They had promised until after the funerals. It seemed only right. One more dawn in that forsaken place, one more day… and then back on the road.
Isobel had looked down, and seen the villagers building the pyres. She had watched the people criss-crossing the square with what little timber they had left, gutting their own houses to bid proper farewell to their dead.
She had seen Alistair, too, throwing up behind the tavern. Repeatedly. It had looked quite possible that he was crying.
She’d heaved a deep sigh. She could have crossed the ridge, scrambled down the gritty path and gone to him, she supposed. Been the friend he wanted. Apologised for making the decisions that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And yet she didn’t leave her position on the ridge. Aloft, alone… her feet firmly planted on the hard, red rock, she had watched, and wondered how much all this had changed things, and just where it was that it had all turned so bitter.
He barely said a word to her until after they left Redcliffe. Partially, she imagined it was the hangover. He’d looked awful, anyway. Passing the night in the bare comfort of the chantry hadn’t helped much, and then there had been the horrendous solemnity of the obsequies to endure before they departed.
It was no wonder that, when they’d finally hit the West Road again, ploughing on over the unforgiving terrain with Ryder insisting on putting up every single bird he found, tensions were strained.
Now, as the quiet of the camp seeped into every available space, filling up with the soft rustle of night creatures in the bushes, and the low crackle of the fire, Isobel sat and stared into the flames.
She had been replaying the whole thing over and over in her mind, trying to find that one point, that key moment when it had all changed and she had steered them into such a blind corner. Perhaps if they’d planned the assault differently, if she’d never allowed Bann Teagan to return unaccompanied to the castle, or if the village’s defences had been better manned, and they’d had greater numbers, or if more of Ser Perth’s men had been able to go with them… but such thoughts were useless, weren’t they?
What had happened had happened, and no amount of mulling over it would change that.
At her feet, Ryder gave a small, despondent groan, and stretched out in the scrape he’d dug himself. Alistair, sitting a quarter turn around the fire from her, let out a long breath that seemed a cross between a sigh and a groan of frustration.
He glanced at her, and Isobel could feel the tension creaking in the air. It was inevitable, she supposed. This was the first time they had been alone since Redcliffe. Morrigan had excused herself once again, and Leliana had retired to her tent with a prayer book the revered mother had given her.
There was no one here to stand between them, and nowhere she could go to hide from his censure. She met his gaze, and arched her brows.
“Did you want to say something?”
“Plenty,” he said dryly. The fire’s orange-hued shadows painted hollows on his cheeks, and the shadows around him were steep and unforgiving. “I just can’t believe you let her do it, that’s all.”
Isobel frowned. “It was Lady Isolde’s own choice. And it’s done. Do we really have to talk ab—”
“Yes, we have to talk about this!” Alistair snapped. “You think Arl Eamon would have allowed it? You think that Connor—”
“Connor would be dead if we hadn’t, and Arl Eamon may still die,” she retorted, meeting him head-on. “Someone had to make a decision!”
Neither of them was doing all they should to keep their voice down. The words poured out, pools of vituperative anger, and Isobel was suddenly embarrassed by that. She rose briskly to her feet and began to stride away from the fire, taken aback by the heat burning in her cheeks. She didn’t expect Alistair to follow her, or for the brunt of his outrage to fall so swiftly across her.
“But… blood magic!”
She turned, and found him closer than she’d anticipated. His face was an odd combination of the hollow, desolate grief she’d seen on him in the Wilds, and a fierce, stubborn anger that was rather more unfamiliar. Isobel gritted her teeth, and met it with completely equal fury.
“And what other choice was there? Run crying to the Magi and hope there was still a castle there when we got back? Or would you have killed the child? Would you have done that, hm? Held a blade to his neck and—”
“Stop it!” He winced as if she’d lashed out and scratched him. “No, I— I just… she was Arl Eamon’s wife! What do you think he’ll say when we revive him?”
Isobel snorted. “If he revives… if we can even find the Urn. If that happens, I trust he’ll see what was at stake. Wouldn’t you?”
Alistair started to shake his head, his mouth twisted. True revulsion seemed to stain his eyes as he looked at her.
“I… don’t know how you could make the decision you did,” he said, his voice dropping from outraged injury to a softer, more dangerous tone. “There should have been another way. We should have… I should have— I don’t know. I owed the arl more than this.”
“Huh.” Isobel crossed her arms, unwilling to sympathise with that hangdog look of martyrdom he had now. “Of course. This isn’t about you disagreeing with me. This is about you and him… about your so-called family.”
The fire leapt and crackled, and he winced guiltily, hanging his head as she glared at him. Isobel was still smarting from the embarrassment of that particular revelation. She arched an eyebrow.
“All right… maybe. I don’t know,” Alistair admitted, scowling at the grass as he dug the toe of his boot into the mud. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s done. And it’ll have to be enough, won’t it?”
“It was what had to be done,” Isobel said tersely, repeating the same damn argument that didn’t make her feel any better. “Do you think it was easy?”
The night was folding in around them. The fire popped, and an owl called in the trees beyond their camp. Alistair’s face stiffened, and he seemed unwilling to meet her eye. She wasn’t sure whether it was defiance or guilt.
“No. I didn’t say that. But Arl Eamon—”
“Took you in because you were Maric’s bastard,” she said, her frustration whetting a blade of cruelty in the words, “and then tossed you aside. Stop pretending you owe him more than you do, Alistair!”
He scowled, his mouth half-open, and Isobel wondered if this was the closest he’d ever come to slapping a woman in anger. She wanted him to, she realised, in the strangest of ways… just so she could have the pleasure of hitting him back.
“I owed him enough to save his family. We should have gone to the Circle. We should have done something… anything that didn’t involve blood magic, that’s for sure.”
The words left him like small polished stones, each one spat into the mud between them. Isobel curled her lip.
“Don’t be such a bloody idealist! We did what we could, and there are those who’ve lost a damn sight more than Eamon, or even Isolde. At least she chose to give her life for her son.”
She glared, meeting him eye for eye, her head full of the echoing memories of one castle that was so like another, and the screams of death and betrayal seeping through the corners of her mind. Oren’s tiny, bloody body shimmered in her mind’s eye, so small and unnaturally crumpled against the grey stone floor.
Alistair exhaled tightly, and his gaze wavered. “I… yes. I suppose you… I mean, I guess it’s easy to question when you’re not the one making the decisions. And I’ve let you do just that, haven’t I?”
It sounded like he was backing down, but she could hear every barb that laced the words, and there was real steel behind his gaze.
“Oh?” She rested her hands on her hips. “Does this mean we’re going to have to arm-wrestle for control?”
She didn’t need to be so argumentative, she supposed. She could have ended it more gracefully… but Isobel resented the implication that, somehow, Alistair’s lack of will to lead had allowed her to exercise her own poor judgement. She was damned if she’d let him get away with that one.
He shook his head irritably, the look on his face one of defeat, and sighed. “Forget it. I’m… sorry. It’s done, and that’s all there is to it.”
He turned and sloped back to the fire, with a muttered comment about volunteering to take first watch. Isobel grunted her assent, silently fuming at his infuriating ability to make ‘I’m sorry’ sound exactly like ‘you’re wrong’.
When she finally crawled into her tent, Isobel was only too glad to hide beneath the blankets and the musty-smelling pelts. At least it meant that no one could see the slow, uneven tears that gradually began to score their way down her cheeks.
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