Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Eleven

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We didn’t eat badly that night, all things considered. The Dalish had some dry, rusk-like bread—and unfortunately also the deer jerky—but we had dried meat and a little pottage that Leliana made up with the bare minimum of water and a small pouch of meal.

All the same, it wasn’t an easy rest, full bellies or no. Rhyn and Taen claimed to have found werewolf tracks by the creek.

They are close,” Rhyn insisted, as I crouched by the muddy, blurred prints, pretending I could see them as clearly as the Dalish seemed to. “We must move on.”

There were a lot of them. They were like dog tracks, but bigger, and longer… unless that was just the slippage of the mud. I imagined huge creatures, loping on four long legs, with wrinkled snouts like mabaris, and teeth that dripped with drool.

We can’t,” I said, as I straightened up, nodding back towards our fire. “Not until morning. And even then someone’s going to have to take Deygan back to camp.”

Rhyn’s perpetual scowl deepened. “There are few enough of us. You would divide your men now, Grey Warden?”

I wanted to smirk at the thought of this motley band being my men. I had no illusions that Taen and the others would follow my command if we were under attack… or, perhaps, that Rhyn would do anything other than act in their interest. Not that I could blame him for that; he was here purely for Witherfang, and his clan.

Well?” I said, instead of voicing anything more controversial. “Would you rather leave Deygan to die?”

The hunter’s face was thunderous. Taen glanced nervously at his brother, and then shot me a look that seemed to suggest he thought I was a madwoman.

No… but he may yet turn,” Rhyn added, lowering his voice. “I cannot weigh his life against the whole clan’s.”

He might not turn,” I replied. “You were right; it’s almost impossible to tell what’s claws or bite marks. Anyway, Zathrian said it’s the blood that carries it, didn’t he? Maybe not every bite is enough to spread the curse.”

Footsteps sounded in the brush behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder. Wynne had come to investigate the alleged tracks—or possibly she just wanted a breath of air away from the smell of Deygan’s infected wounds. She nodded at me, and inclined her head respectfully to the hunters. I felt slightly smug, as if she had appeared on cue to support my argument, so I asked her how her patient was doing.

He is growing a little stronger,” she said, her voice thin, and those sharp blue eyes dimmed by fatigue. “I have him sleeping, for now. He has a great deal of fight in him, I can tell you that… but whether it is enough to beat the curse, I don’t know.”

Rhyn snorted and muttered something in Elvish, but the mage merely looked calmly at him.

He is very badly wounded, that is true. However—” She turned her attention to me, her expression curiously solemn. “—he is fighting it. This is not something I have encountered before… but I do believe he has a chance.”

The discomfort in her face told me that there was something more; something she didn’t want to discuss it in front of the hunters. Taen fidgeted beside his brother, evidently not as wary as Rhyn was of a human mage’s healing.

You think you can save him?”

Wynne looked almost apologetic, her hands loosely curled in the worn, travel-stained sleeves of her robe.

It is a… a sickness,” she said quietly. “Something that magic may not break, but may aid in fighting. I have done everything I can for Deygan, and he is strong. The Dalish are a strong people,” she added, with a brief glance at Rhyn. “If he receives good care, and if the source of the contamination can be found before it is too late, then yes, I think he may survive.”

The source? You mean Witherfang?” Taen asked, wide-eyed behind his vallaslin. He looked cautiously at his brother, as if he expected to need Rhyn’s permission to be hopeful. “If the wolf’s heart breaks the curse, like Zathrian said… they’ll all be saved, won’t they? Deygan, and all the rest of them?”

Rhyn didn’t seem convinced. He frowned at Wynne, and then at me, though doubt had already begun to settle in the lines around his eyes. He gave a heavy, resigned sigh. The thick, dim light of the forest’s dark—a cool gloom now, lit only by our fire, and the thin, dying shreds of dusk, soon to give way to a pale moon—clung to his outline, and the lines of his vallaslin seemed to be worn ever deeper into his skin.

I wondered who his patron god was. Were those Andruil’s arrows on his cheeks, representing the unwavering flight of truth? It must be a wonderful thing, I thought, to have such a strong sense of identity, to belong so completely to his world. I envied him, and I barely realised then how much.

Take him back,” I said quietly. “In the morning. If he’s still alive, two or three of you should take him back. Tell Zathrian where we found him, and about the tracks, and tell him what Wynne has said. The rest of us will go on.”

I thought Rhyn would argue, but he didn’t. He just grew tight-lipped and taut-faced, and then he nodded crisply, his eyes heavy with tiredness.

You risk much, outsider,” he said darkly, giving me a chary frown. “But Deygan is our clansman. I… will do as you ask.”

He gave me little chance to respond, and moved off back to the fire with Taen bobbing in his wake like a worrity fishing float. I already had my mouth open to thank him with the kind of formal honour I supposed I ought, but I shut it on the words, and an uncomfortable silence lapped around the hunters’ footsteps.

I suspect he thinks you want the honour of the kill yourself,” Wynne observed.

Outsider, I’d noticed. Not “Warden” this time. I blinked, distracted. “What?”

Wynne smiled as I looked up at her. “If you do what their Keeper has asked, it will be a great deed.” The corners of those blue eyes crinkled a little as her smile deepened with rather cynical amusement. “I have no doubt the Dalish storytellers will sing of it for years to come.”

I pulled a face. “If. Nothing is ever certain. Still, I suppose we’ve faced worse things.”

A cool breeze snaked through the trees, shaking the droplets of moisture from the fronds of firs and rippling the surface of the muddy creek. The rain had stopped, but everything still felt damp and boggy.

Wynne just smiled; that same smile that I couldn’t help feeling she was using as a mask. “Indeed,” she said, and there was something in her voice that made me feel exposed.

I wanted to say she was wrong in what she appeared to imply; to protest that honour wasn’t what I had set out to gain, but… somehow, in that dark little space between the gully and the paw prints in the mud, it was difficult to look the mage in the eye and say I didn’t want the Dalish to know my name.

I sighed, shook my head, and moved to head back to the fire myself, but Wynne reached out a hand.

Just a moment. I… I would like to speak with you.”

There was an odd formality in her tone; a scholar’s crispness that seemed so very different from the warm, compassionate woman I had grown used to seeing her as. It made my back straighten and my heart clench in apprehension.

Of course, Wynne. What is it?”

Her fingers curled in on themselves again, her thin hands retreating into the warmth of her robes. Her thick, dark green cloak hung in heavy folds around her, mud splashes a good four inches deep up the hem.

About the Dalish boy… the curse.” Her sparse grey brows drew together, narrow lips tentatively framing words she seemed afraid of saying. “As far as I can tell, the werebeasts’ curse is not unlike the taint.”

My stomach lurched a little at that. It was unexpected, and I was as revolted as I was surprised.

Darkspawn?

I glanced furtively back towards the fire, anxious that no one should overhear. Wynne nodded.

Yes…. What that boy is going through now, it’s not unlike what a Grey Warden experiences after the Joining.” Her frown deepened. “I… don’t profess to know much about the ritual, but, as you know, I have been a Senior Enchanter of the Circle for many years. I have an understanding of how the preparations are made, how such complex… things are enacted,” she finished vaguely, the fleeting archness in her voice pleading with me not to ask questions she could not—or perhaps would not—answer.

A cold feeling traced its way down my back. It wasn’t the first time I’d wondered what dark rites went into the Joining ceremony. There was a chalice, and blood, and magic… and I doubted there could be any wholesome combination of those things. But how could what afflicted Deygan be in any way the same?

Wynne lowered her voice, leaning forwards a little as she tried to explain.

I think that the curse has a source, and I don’t mean Witherfang’s spirit. I mean… it feels like a kind of magic that has been made, not the kind that simply is.”

Suddenly, it seemed hard to forget the experiments Avernus had been conducting up in Soldier’s Peak, knowledge and curiosity corrupted by both time and power. I shuddered. “But who’d make a curse like that? Why?”

Wynne shook her head. “I don’t know. I may be wrong… I hope I am. But, if I am not, we should be wary. I certainly do not think things are as simple as Zathrian wanted you to believe.”

Well, I knew that. I crossed my arms over my chest, hugging my middle tightly. “He wants his clan saved,” I said doubtfully, perhaps even a little defensively. “That’s all. I think he’s overestimated the wolves, but… I don’t know. He did say Witherfang is some kind of spirit—a demon, maybe? It’s something a powerful demon could do, isn’t it?”

It made sense: an ancient, vindictive rage demon, as Alistair had supposed from Hahren Sarel’s story.

It’s possible,” Wynne admitted. “But, whatever the truth of the matter, if Zathrian knew and withheld that information from you, then—”

He withheld nothing!” I snapped.

That wasn’t true, though I hadn’t meant to lie when I opened my mouth.

I mean… I told Zathrian we would bring him the wolf’s heart, if it can break the curse. He’s had to keep some things back from the clan. Of course he has. They… they didn’t need to know. You saw inside the healer’s tent,” I murmured, that reflexive sharpness dropping from my voice.

Would we have to kill Deygan before he became a monster? I pushed away the thoughts of the dead, and the little red blossoms the healer’s knife made on the clean bandages.

Wynne’s mouth pursed, and I supposed I’d been too eager to defend Zathrian… to defend the clan.

I did,” she said quietly.

I nodded, and looked cautiously at her. I didn’t want to apologise; I wanted to be right, and to believe that I could trust both the decisions I’d made, and the man who had inspired me to make them. I would bring the keeper the heart of the white wolf—demon or no—and I would have my elven army, even if I couldn’t be a bright, wild creature like one of the Dalish.

All the same, I still wanted nothing more than to win their respect, their gratitude, and their acceptance… by whatever means I could get it.

I cleared my throat, made uneasy by the hardness in Wynne’s face and yet even more determined to hold onto my fixed ideas. “Um, but… what you said about Deygan? You said it’s like the Joining. If he survives, you mean he could conquer it?”

Wynne seemed to have difficulty meeting my eye then, and I assumed I understood why. She knew the thing I tried so often to put from my mind: the fact that there was truly no ‘conquering’ the taint. It either killed you at once or, like Alistair and me, you just walked around dying slowly, waiting for the corruption to kick in.

I don’t know,” she said with a small shrug. “I suppose it explains why not all the Dalish in the camp were affected the same way. I… I have never seen such a thing before. But I do believe you should tread with care. Zathrian may not have told you everything, and—”

The Keeper was in a difficult position,” I said hotly, though even I didn’t know why I was so quick to defend him… especially when I knew he’d hidden plenty from the clan. “And why should he trust me completely? I’m not elvhen, I’m travelling with sh with humans.”

She just looked at me with those sharp eyes closely guarded, and her silence only made me spill out more stupid things.

You haven’t seemed comfortable with the Dalish from the start,” I said, a little accusingly. “I suppose their way of life is very different to the Circle. Their attitudes to magic.”

Wynne’s gaze grew hard, like glass, and her mouth tightened a little. “I do not disapprove, if that’s what you mean.”

The trees rustled around us, bearing damp needles of wet shaken from the upper branches by the breeze. I bit back the smart retort I wanted to give, suddenly aware that my father had not raised a girl who would show this argumentative disrespect to her elders… and, for all my whole-hearted embracing of the Dalish hahrens and their stories, I still thought of Wynne the same way as the elders I’d known all my life. At least a little bit, anyway.

I shrugged gracelessly, toeing the mud with my boot. “Well, I guess they’re not the same as the elves you have in the Circle. That’s all.”

We both heard the meaning that sat behind my words. You don’t know us. You can’t judge us. I remembered the elven boy who’d first approached us in the Tower, ready to fight to defendthe others. I remembered how brave he’d been: afraid, but not because he was facing humans, merely wary because there was danger. An elf, in fine robes, with magical power at his hands and, oh, how very strange he’d seemed to me.

Wynne sighed. She sounded weary, frustrated, and sad. I thought I’d disappointed her, and I glowered at the mud under my feet.

Perhaps they are,” she said quietly. “But the elves who come to the Circle are not Dalish. They are alienage-born, just like you. Their mistrust of humans can be just as strong.”

I looked up at that, already frowning, but any protestany foolish protest, for how could I dispute that?died unspoken when I saw the haunted expression in her eyes.

My first apprentice was elven,” Wynne explained. “All he knew of humans was what he’d seen in the alienage he came from,and it had made him wary. He needed time; time to get used to his new home, time to emerge from his shell but I was young, arrogant, and impatient. I did not give him what he needed. It was the greatest mis-step of my life.”

She looked down at her robes, her hands emerging from the folds of her cloak to straighten the fabric, brushing ineffectively at the specks of dirt and mud. I wondered if she regretted leaving the Circle Tower, and all the comforts the mages must have had there.

I’m sure you didn’t guide him wrong, Wynne,” I said, grappling awkwardly for something soothing to say, because it felt like it was expected of me.

All the sharpness flooded back into her tired eyes when she looked at me, and it hit me like a slap to the cheek.

No,” she said, the word as low and quick as a snake strike. “That’s just it: I did. ‘He is a mage,’ I thought. ‘He needs to grow up and act like one’.” She shook her head. “I expected too much from Aneirin, too quickly. I gave no consideration to his origin, or his feelings. And yet, as he retreated further from me, all I could think of was how stubborn he was… how he was throwing away all his talent and his potential, just to be difficult.”

I didn’t see why she needed to tell me this now. Was it because she was so exhausted, or because the boy had been an elf? Maybe I was supposed to see how hard-headed I was being, or maybe it was her way of telling me she understood.

For once, I had no idea, and I didn’t care to know. My head was full of Deygan, lying there with a demon’s curse beating in his blood, and the possibility that it was the same magic as the taint I bore… which meant, by extension, that everything Avernus had hinted at was true. The Joining was blood magic, and I was corrupted, and we were all wandering about this wet, filthy forest, waiting to be attacked by terrible creatures, simply because I had thrown my support behind Zathrian.

All I really wanted was to go and sit by the fire, and hope the beasts that had made the tracks in the mud would stay away for tonight. Instead, I sniffed, and tried to take an interest in Wynne’s story.

Was he very talented, then?”

Oh, yes.” She nodded distantly. “Sometimes, I would catch him practising on his own, but if I asked him to show me what he could do, he would freeze up, or fumble terribly. You cannot plant crops in the cold wintry ground; you cannot teach a student who is closed off and unresponsive. Patience is what I needed, and I learned that too late to help him.”

Really?” I was growing very slightly irritable with the mage’s parables, though courtesy should have compelled me to try and disguise it a little better.

Yes,” Wynne said tightly. “Really. All I had to do was listen to him. He tried to talk to me a few times… about the alienage, and about the Dalish. Always the Dalish.” She shook her head again, and turned her face to the dark, damp trees. “He talked of going to find them, talked of the stories he’d heard back in the alienage….”

I bit the inside of my lip. Her words sounded like dry, dusty moralising to me, and it seemed as if the stain of her disapproval had spread out over the camp, and that her very human self-righteousness cast its long, long shadow over my own foolish dreams.

Let me guess: one day he did, but they weren’t anything like he thought, and he learned a valuable lesson.”

Hmph!” Wynne snorted sharply, the dismissive and angry gesture cutting through my snideness like butter. “That is,” she corrected hesitantly, as if she regretted the denial a little, “I don’t know. Aneirin ran away from the Circle… and that was my fault. I had berated him over some trivial, ridiculous matter that I no longer even remember. A child—barely fourteen at the time—and I drove him away because I did not listen, because I was not patient with him.”

She hunched her arms around herself, like the night was colder than it really was… or maybe she just felt it more. I shut up, realising for the first time since the mage had begun this tale that it wasn’t a story in her usual vein. She wasn’t telling me this from some desire to educate me, or push me towards seeing my own idiocy; she was spilling a confession.

Of course,” Wynne continued, addressing the faceless ranks of the trees, “the templars had his phylactery… the vial of blood they take from each apprentice,” she added, anticipating my lack of knowledge. “Blood is connected to life, and your blood can be used to track you down. And they did. They called him ‘maleficar’, hunted him like a dog… but he was just a child, misunderstood and lost. I begged the templars to tell me if he suffered, if they gave him a quick death. I got no answers from them. I was his mentor and they wouldn’t even tell me what became of him. I… I cannot look at the Dalish we have seen in this forest without thinking of Aneirin. How frightened he must have been, and how far he might have run.”

Her breath misted slightly on the cool air, and it was probably more than my imagination that hinted at the thickness of tears beneath her words. Wynne was such a strong, composed, calm woman; it frightened me to see her crack, although my first impulse was to offer comfort.

Maybe he did find a clan,” I said, moving tentatively towards her, and feeling properly guilty now for my self-absorbed unpleasantness. “We could ask, back at the camp. I’m sure someone would know, if—”

She shook her head smartly. “I doubt it. The templars are well-trained and thorough. That he still lives… it would be a vain hope. Besides,” she added, straightening her shoulders and, for the first time since she had spoken of her apprentice, turning to face me, “we have plenty to concern us in the meantime.”

I wrinkled my nose, partially because that was a good point, and partially because I had very rarely seen Wynne look so vulnerable. Not since the Circle Tower, in fact. I remembered her terrible dream: trapped with the bodies of her dead, shackled to the guilt of having failed to protect those for whom she was responsible. I remembered her hands, moving over and over in the ballet of laying out corpses only she could see, and the struggles as Leliana, Alistair and I had tried to convince her to let them go. I had spoken to her of guilt, and acceptance, and moving forward… and had I ever taken my own advice?

I wondered if she’d seen Aneirin’s body in the Fade. Maybe she saw him every night, the way that—in between the steadily more regular nightmares of red rocks swarming with black bodies, and bloody, mutilated flesh—I still sometimes heard Shianni screaming in my ears when I woke up.

You’re right,” I said instead, nodding obediently. “We’ll press on in the morning, once Rhyn and the others have made way with Deygan. If these tracks are as fresh as they seem, the beasts can’t be far now.”

Indeed.” Wynne took a breath, and smiled faintly at me. “We must move forwards, mustn’t we, and not allow ourselves to become caught up in what might have been.”

I inclined my head for all agreement. I should have known she managed to slip a moral in there someplace.

~o~O~o~

We did not have an easy rest. We took it in turns to take watch, but no one really slept much. Even Maethor kept growling at shadows.

I woke from a light doze to find the gully lit with the pale twinkle of moon and starlight; eerie bands of grey and blue painted against the blackness of the forest, and the dim circle of our banked-down fire. Leliana was sitting with Deygan again. Sten was a monolithic horizontal bar, on a bedroll the other side of the fire, with Wynne lying not far away. Maethor lay in a scrape nearby, chin on his paws and his ears half-cocked, and the Dalish hunters were packed in as close to the smouldering flames as they could get, top-to-toe like puppies… or like families used to share beds, back home.

As I sat up, propping myself on my elbow and blinking the fuzziness from my gritty eyes, my gaze settled on Daeon’s upside-down face, all sharp, dark features and a tangle of short hair, his incipient frown and tight mouth evened out by sleep. He looked younger, and it was hard not to remember him as he had been, and, by extension, impossible not to remember Soris, and Shianni, and everybody else. Homesickness hit me hard, right in the centre of my chest, and I thought—for the briefest, most fleeting of moments, before the cobwebs left my head, and I recalled where I was and why—that I might just die of it.

I caught my breath before it began to race, and reined in my thoughts, as I’d grown so used to doing. The low murmur of voices pulled at my attention, and I looked around… not really realising until my eyes adjusted to the dull patina of the firelight that I was looking for Alistair. I didn’t see him, or Morrigan, but I could see Zevran sitting at the edge of our scraped-together camp, hunkered down on his haunches with Farriel standing behind him. The fire’s dimmed, reddish glow just burnished the edges of their bodies, picking at the tooling on their leathers, and at the beads worked into Farriel’s hair. He was braiding Zev’s hair, I noticed… braiding it in the Dalish fashion, twisting tiny locks and plaits into the pale gold tresses, and working with quick, clever fingers.

I watched him bend low, fingertips sliding from the softness of hair to the smoothness of skin as he stroked a hand down Zevran’s neck, leaning in to whisper into his ear.

Zev smiled then, and it seemed a very wide, open kind of smile although, in the dimness, I thought he looked sad. He reached up, caught Farriel’s hand in his, and then there was some complicated, delicate kind of movement that I was sure I must have dreamed—or that perhaps Antivan assassins learned for just this sort of occasion—because Zev had turned, risen, and without the single crack of a twig or scuffle of leaves, had pivoted and pulled the boy to him. They kissed in the way I’d seen them kiss before; all heat and hands, want and balletic magnetism, like both of them knew where the other wanted them to be. Lips, mouths, bodies… I turned my face away, wishing I could lie back down again, pull a blanket over my head and pretend to be asleep. I supposed I could have broken it up, perhaps with the excuse that they evidently weren’t keeping watch very effectively, but I doubted a man of Zevran’s… well, manifold talents… would have struggled much with combining seduction and vigilance.

I wasn’t sure if I believed the stories about him seducing marks in order to assassinate them once they were off their guard. Or, more correctly, I believed the stories could easily have been true, just not whether Zevran had been telling the truth when he told them. To be honest, as I watched—or, rather, tried not to watch—the progressively more passionate lip-locking going on across the gully, I was even wondering whether he’d seduced the Dalish boy at all. At that precise moment, it was Farriel who was attempting to unlace Zevran’s breeches, and Farriel who had the Antivan’s lower lip snared between his teeth, their two shadowed forms dancing in the quiet glow of the flames, balancing over a precipice between light and shadow.

It embarrassed me, and left me a little confused… and envious. As Zevran tore away, his lips moving over words I couldn’t hear and his eyes shimmering in the darkness, he looked alive. He looked bright, vital, in a way very like he looked when we were fighting, but without the grim, focused determination of battle. His new Dalish braids hung a little stiffly around his face, and I couldn’t decide whether he was a hunter playing with his prey, or whether Farriel was more a mink than a rabbit.

The boy glanced over his shoulder then, and I looked away quickly, though he hadn’t even turned in my direction. They stifled their smiles and, with him tugging impatiently at Zevran’s wrist, padded towards the more heavily shadowed embrace of the trees.

I supposed we should probably all be thankful for at least a little bit of modesty.

Hmm… sweet together, aren’t they?”

I glanced up, surprised to find that Leliana was no longer sitting by Deygan’s side, and evidently hadn’t been resting as quietly as I thought she had. She had crossed to the fire, apparently to stretch her legs, and she stood with both hands on the small of her back, her body arched like a bow as she rolled her neck. The flamelight picked dully at her leathers, and turned her hair to golden crimson as she smiled dreamily.

Well, that’s one word for it,” I said, getting to my feet, and feeling distinctly crusty in my sleep-stiffened jack.

Footsteps crunched behind me, the familiar tread signalling Alistair returning to the circle of the camp. I glanced over my shoulder, wanting to know where he’d been—I still couldn’t see Morrigan with us, either—and yet not wanting to ask him. He looked terrible, like a corpse warmed over and pulled along by strings.

Not the first one I’d pick,” he commented, wrinkling his nose. “They’re both men, and—”

And why should that make a difference?” Leliana asked swiftly, her soft, quiet voice holding a sharp, delicately honed edge.

The twist of amusement at the corner of her mouth saved her from sounding like a shrew though, in that moment, something of her accent did faintly remind me of Lady Isolde. I supposed it was an Orlesian thing… as was the attitude she clearly held to lovers who shared a gender.

I wasn’t sure what the rest of Ferelden thought but, where I was from, it was normal enough. Something that the boy or girl concerned was meant to grow out of in time to make a good marriage, of course, because for us children were the greatest blessing life could possibly bring, and its ultimate goal. Still, not every marriage was a happy one, and there had always been a handful of confirmed bachelors or spinsters in the alienage, for whatever combination of reasons.

For my part, it wasn’t something I’d thought about much. When I’d noticed other girls before, my interest had been more envious than curious, and—not having had brothers or sisters who shared my pallet at night—I hadn’t encountered the kinds of casual touches or experimental intimacy that often formed siblings’ first experiences of the flesh in our close-knit, cheek-by-jowl world.

I’m not saying it does,” Alistair protested quickly, though the way his cheeks had started to shade to pink made me wonder whether he was lying, or whether it was the subject of romance itself that embarrassed him.

Maker, he’d even blushed when he kissed me… although I had to admit that the memory of those few, clumsy embraces we’d shared warmed me a little, too. I tried not to think about it and, more importantly, not to catch Alistair’s eye while I oh-so-determinedly wasn’t thinking about it.

I should think not,” Leliana said, gently chiding with an air of quiet amusement. “After all, you were raised in a monastery, no? All boys together?”

What? No! No, I— Well, I mean, I… well, yes, there was quite a bit of… er. I mean… not me, but… um,” he finished lamely, with an awkward cough lingering at the back of his throat. “That’s not the point. What I meant was that ‘sweet’ isn’t really the first word I’d associate with Zevran. He’s an assassin, and he tried to kill us.”

He looked expectantly at me then, as if I needed reminding that it had been my decision to bring Zev with us in the first place. Mild annoyance trickled within me; after all, Alistair had hardly been willing to slit his throat and leave him in the mud.

I shrugged, rubbing my arm absently in defence against the cold. The leather strappings wound around the limb felt rough and strange under my fingers… almost as strange as the whispers of crackling leaves and creaking boughs that so disorientated me from within the black-stained shadows of the forest.

I’m not even sure it’s our business. Besides, Farriel does want to help.”

Alistair didn’t look pleased at that. I suspected he’d wanted me to disapprove of something… I just wasn’t sure quite what.

You knew about it? About them?”

Ah, there it was. That slight breath of accusation in his tone. I screwed up my face.

I was… aware. Why? Is it so awful?”

So you told him he could come with us, then?”

I frowned, surprised by his sharpness, and surprised by how like aggression it sounded. “No. I told him if Zathrian willed it, I couldn’t object—and you can see can how far that one got me.”

Leliana cleared her throat delicately. “I should… see if…. Change the dressings,” she murmured, and I’d barely even noticed her backing away until she’d almost crossed the gully.

Oh, I don’t know,” Alistair said, rather snidely, as he turned to face me full-on. “It’s hard to tell. You seem very… cosy with them, that’s all.”

It was hard to make out his features in the darkness. Everything was blurred and grainy, just like the boundaries between us, and I wasn’t sure whether I was tired, or angry, or just very alone. Maybe all of those things.

The only part of Alistair that seemed to shine in the gloom was his eyes. I could see the white of them catch the dim firelight, and I didn’t miss his glance over to where Revasir and the other hunters lay, still slumbering like a nest of pups.

You’ve been spending a lot of time with them,” he added, his words carrying the trace of a sulky huff, though we were both keeping our voices low.

I want to know as much I can learn,” I said defensively. “Why shouldn’t I?”

A night breeze rippled through the canopy, and though I should have been used to them by now—all these sighs and groans of the forest—the tracks by the creek made everything seem more real. Yellow eyes seemed to burn in every shadow.

Because you’re—” Alistair bit the word in two, swallowing down whatever it was he wanted to say and cloaking it all in a shake of his head and a hunch of his shoulders. “No. It doesn’t matter. I just… I think you should be careful. You’re still an outsider to them, just like we are.”

I’m elven,” I pointed out. “Daeon’s elven. Even flat-ears like us can learn.”

Huh.” Alistair frowned, his mouth puckered into a morose pout that made me quite sad he’d shied away from the confrontation. “Hey, why do they call you that, anyway?” He squinted at me suspiciously. “Your ears aren’t any different to theirs.”

I smiled mirthlessly, partly because I knew he wouldn’t like hearing the answer, and partly because humans never could see the differences in two elves’ ears.

They think we’re like you. That we may as well not have our points. That our ears deserve to be flat,” I added, seeing his confusion. “Round and flat, like yours. That’s all it means. The opposite of ‘knife-ear’. See?”

He nodded hesitantly, but he looked like the words had physically hurt, that they’d burned or scratched into his flesh, and when he opened his mouth, nothing came out except the strangled start of speech, just grazing the cold air between us.

Wh— I….”

What?”

Well….” Alistair looked embarrassed. “That’s not true.”

I shrugged. Across our little rag-tag camp, Deygan was stirring weakly on his bedroll, and Leliana had gone to wake Wynne. Taen rolled over in his sleep, and, by the tree line, the faint rustle of the undergrowth presaged the emergence of a rather dishevelled and yet extremely cheerful-looking Farriel.

There were a good few hours of darkness left. I suppose I thought I could hide things in them.

The stories say it was living close to humans that made the ancients lose their immortality,” I said dully, keeping my voice low, and not quite looking at Alistair’s face, even as the words tumbled out of me with a child’s stubborn, obsessive enthusiasm. “We quickened… grew old and weak. That’s why the Dalish stay so far apart from humans, and they live longer because of it. Did you know that? The stories all say that, and it’s true. The clan say Zathrian has devoted many years to recovering the arts of the Old Ones. Rhyn says he’s been their keeper for more than a century.”

It was only a rumour. I didn’t think I even believed it… and, if I did, I doubted it was a good thing.

Alistair shook his head. “That can’t be true.”

Can’t it?” I lofted a brow. “Sophia Dryden’s body was still walking around Soldier’s Peak. Tell me the things we’ve seen are stranger.”

He frowned again. “That was blood magic… demons. You don’t think—?”

Blood. Everything seemed to be about blood. The taint, the curse… Avernus’ horrible experiments. Everything was blood and corruption, and there seemed to be nothing but an invincible mire ahead of us, where any tiny bit of good we did was a light snuffed out immediately in the mud.

Has Wynne talked to you about Deygan?” I asked, peering carefully at Alistair through narrowed eyes. About the Dalish?

I doubted she’d told him the story of her lost apprentice. At first, I’d assumed she would have done—they were close, after all; close enough for me to feel a childish pang of jealousy at all the hours they spent sitting together, with him hanging on her words like an eager schoolboy—but her tale hadn’t dulled at the edges like something often repeated. Besides, as so often seemed hard to believe, Alistair had almost been a templar. I doubted Wynne would have been quick to lay the burden of an innocent child’s death at his feet, knowing how easily he acquired guilt. It was like a wick on spilled oil with him.

No,” he said cautiously. “Why?”

I glanced over towards the fire. Zevran had returned to us as well, and the watch was changing over. Wynne muttered an incantation and tossed a thin gout of flame onto the fire, causing it to crackle and swell briefly. The smell of woodsmoke and charred sap burst in the air.

She said the curse is like our taint,” I said, keeping my voice as low as I could. “Something… made. Maybe by a demon… I think that’s what we’re dealing with. That’s what Zathrian’s afraid of.”

Alistair said nothing, but he looked at me for a long while, his mouth firmly set and his brow deeply scored by a frown.

Meri…,” he began finally, but I never heard what he wanted to say.

Across the gully, Maethor leapt up from his scrape beside the fire, already giving vent to a tremendous snarl.

I turned and ran to see what had startled the hound, my hand already going for my blade, and there was a whole collision of activity as the camp splintered and spun into movement.

At first, it was impossible to see what had caused the commotion—I’d seen and heard nothing—but then there was a glimmer of something in the trees, some shadow among the shadows, and I heard a growl that wasn’t Maethor.

I had my dagger in my hand. My sword was still by my bedrollstupid of me to leave it there. It was too dark to see, too cold to smell anything but the fire and the pungent tang of grease and leather… and mud. And then I saw it. It burst through the briars and the bushes then: just a pale streak with a deep, bone-shaking growl.

A wolf.

A huge, white wolf that sprung from nowhere and cannoned into the camp like no animal ever should. Maethor was going crazy, lunging and baying, and he went straight for it, but the thing barely seemed to notice him. There was a mad scuffle of fur—a brindled body against that rank pelt of pale, ragged grey—and I heard the mabari yelp. An arrow vibrated through the air close by me, and there was another canine scream, but not from my hound. I hadn’t even realised there was more than one wolf but, as I turned, panicked and wrong-footed, I saw Aegan nocking another arrow as Rhyn pitched to the ground beneath another pale body.

The air parted with that soft, deadly whisper, and Aegan’s second arrow embedded itself in the wolf’s neck. Rhyn kicked the corpse off himself savagely, levering it away with his shield, and he pointed to the trees as he yelled something in Elvish.

I ducked through the press of people, anxious about Maethor, and almost got myself knocked flying in the chaos… and then it was all over.

As quickly, as madly as it had begun, there was a wild yelp, followed by sudden silence. I stood in the flickering light of the fire, and stared at Farriel, kneeling over the bloodied body of the white wolf, with his knife in his hand and a dark, hard smile on his face. He had its scruff clenched in one fist, the beast’s head pulled back to bare its throat, and its blood was still leaching onto the ground.

Footsteps crashed in the leaves as the hunters established there had been no more than these two creatures, and I glanced to the side, seeing Sten crouching beside a cowed and bitten Maethor. The hound’s broad, strong back end was shaking lightly, and he was licking his wrinkled nose. Fear rose up in me as I saw the dark wetness on his shoulders and haunches.

Farriel released the dead wolf’s head and stood, eyeing the other Dalish coldly. He sneered as he looked at Rhyn.

There. Is that pelt enough for you, da’len?”

Rhyn scowled, but I could see even in the dimness that he had turned pale. He muttered and shook his head, but I didn’t understand the fear that seemed to cloud his eyes.

What were those?” Leliana asked, as the hunters began to pull the bodies clear. “There weren’t ordinary wolves. Look at the size of them. And no animal would just attack like that….”

I was kneeling by Maethor, holding his head as he moaned sorrowfully, and Wynne inspected the bites he had received. I glanced up as Revasir spat into the fire, scowling darkly.

Messengers,” he said shortly. “Witherfang’s messengers. The white wolves are his kin, or so it is said. His eyes and ears in the forest. Not werebeasts; something else entirely.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as the mabari nudged his snout into my palm, and I rubbed at his soft, crinkled ears.

If those weren’t weres, he’s not in danger from the curse… right?”

Wynne looked at me across the dog’s broad back, her eyes ringed with such heavy shadows that they looked bruised.

Let’s hope so,” she said, summoning a thin glow of light that enveloped her palm.

Maethor whined and pressed his head against my shoulder.

On the plus side,” Alistair announced, surveying our scuffled, damaged camp, “at least we can be sure the big scary demon wolf knows we’re here. So, you know… that’s good.”

Daeon was the only one of the hunters who smiled bitterly. The others just looked at Alistair like he was a crazy shem and, shaking their heads, carried on with the business of making sure no one else had been bitten, and pulling their arrows from the bodies.

It was going to be a long wait until dawn.

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Volume 4: Chapter Twelve
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