Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Fifteen

First update in far too long! I’m back after surgery! Hurrah! Merien is still stuck in the bloody Brecilian Forest, and she’s almost as sick of it as I am! However, the group encounter their first clue in finding the werewolves’ lair. If they can manage not to kill each other before they get there, that will be great.


 

We rested longer than we’d intended to, snatching sleep from the night’s cold, iron jaws. As I sat before the fire, huddled in a rough blanket, I wondered if the urgency had somehow left us—as if we’d all started to believe that we’d never get out of the forest alive, and therefore it didn’t matter if we moved more slowly than we should have done. It seemed possible. Besides, with Leliana’s injuries and all the things that probably awaited us to consider, perhaps our reticence wasn’t surprising. No one was that eager to face the wolves again.

I didn’t want to think it was true. Sure, the likelihood of our actually pushing back the Blight was next to none, especially with the entire country in a tangle and no help to be had from what remained of the Grey Wardens beyond Ferelden… but it was one thing not to be confident of success, and quite another to admit defeat.

The way things were as I sat there, staring glumly into the flames, it felt like we were all close to giving up. I didn’t want that. I told myself it was a betrayal of the dead at Ostagar, although the bitter voice in the back of my head asked what the army of a shemlen king should have meant to me. I thought briefly of Cailan in his golden armour, smiling when Duncan presented me to him—me, meeting the king! What would Father have said?—and taking my words away with his bold, majestic pomp.

No… if my despondency was a betrayal of anyone, it was Duncan. I often thought of him, wondered what he’d seen in me, and wondered what he’d known of my mother. I picked at the questions like half-dried scabs, trying to prise them up and feeling the tearing of new skin beneath not yet ready to be exposed to the world.

It hurt. All of it hurt. My past, my present, my future—nothing but loss and grief and pain, or so it seemed at that moment.

My old self-indulgent moping, come to claim me once again. It was a hole I’d tried to pull myself out of before, and I forced myself to think of the pep talks I’d had from Wynne and from Alistair… only thinking of that stung all the more.

I was exhausted, and I couldn’t clear my mind. Thoughts hung on me like wet clothes, and the atmosphere in our little camp remained thick and rancid, tight with the anticipation of more swipes and bickering. Just past the glow of the flames, I could see Wynne working on Leliana’s wolf bite. So far, nothing had changed, though the mage’s grave expression and intense concentration said much. I was afraid to ask her any questions, and I burrowed down beneath my blanket.

Not even Maethor was near me; he’d settled into his own scrape by the fire, though he glanced at me from time to time, and I drew a certain amount of comfort from the attention.

Eventually, my gritty eyelids drooped, and I let myself fall into the void of sleep. I don’t know how long I was out, but I dreamed that darkspawn erupted from under the ground, tearing up the roots of screaming, writhing trees, and chewing the bones of the dead—shemlen and elvhen alike—in their jagged, yellow-toothed mouths.

They swarmed like ants, pouring through the wreckage of the forest the way they’d poured through the broken stones at the Tower of Ishal, and just before I woke I felt the flesh being stripped from me. I was swallowed in their tide, pulled down among them and torn to pieces but, instead of blood, greasy black ichor spilled from my wounds, and it bubbled between my lips when I tried to scream… I think I drowned in it. Either way, I awoke with a jolt, catching my breath in the uncertainty of whether I’d cried out or not. I hoped I hadn’t—I disliked embarrassing myself like that—but the camp seemed quiet, so I took advantage of the silence and lay perfectly still beneath my blanket, trying not to shiver, and trying not to panic.

Somewhere in the thick of the trees, birds’ wings rustled, and I glanced across the low-burning fire. Morrigan wasn’t there. I must have slept for at least a few hours, though the sky wasn’t yet light. I lay back against the hard ground, and waited for my breaths to slow and the world to start seeming normal again. Foolish, of course. Nothing had been normal for so long now.

Some nights, when I woke like that, I’d lie still and count an inventory in my head of everything I missed. Father, Soris, Shianni… our house, and the knots in my pallet that dug into my back when I slept. The crooked floorboards, and the buckets of flowers girls sold on gate trade. The goats and chickens, geese and sheep brought into the square on market day, and the colours of traders’ stalls. My mother’s stories, and her laughing brown eyes. My innocence, and the way I’d once believed that I would live my whole life in the alienage, and die an old woman who had seen the births of her grandchildren.

The only death that awaited me now was one of violence. Wherever and whenever it found me—now, or when the Archdemon led the horde through the valley—that was how I’d go, and I wouldn’t even have been married, much less old and happy.

There was no sense in letting myself get maudlin, of course, so I turned over and tried to put the thoughts from my mind. I was cold, and I couldn’t get warm. Daeon wouldn’t have his alienage life either… I thought of that, but it didn’t sting the same way my losses did. I told myself I was selfish: would he ever have a Dalish wife and half-bred children? Well, all right, maybe he would, if he got out of this mess alive. The clan took those who proved themselves as their own; their acceptance was complete, once earned, and that led me back to Revasir’s unsettling intimations. Not that it mattered. Whether the Dalish might ever have a place for me or not, I was a Warden, and I had my duty; the duty I’d never wanted, but which had been the price for all I’d done. Did I deserve it? I wasn’t sure. In the blood-bathed light of everything that had happened since I left Denerim, I no longer felt any shred of guilt or remorse for Vaughan’s death. If it had ever really felt like murder, it didn’t anymore.

The first life I’d ever taken—the guard I’d choked, the way an elven girl should never have found the strength to do—didn’t hang on me as heavily as it had done. None of them did. Sometimes, I wondered if I was beginning not to care… or if it didn’t matter so much because they’d been shems.

Vaughan didn’t matter. I was sure of that. The only way that bastard had ever mattered was because killing him and his friends had brought such terrible repercussions for the alienage, and the people I loved. That was the only way I could count his death as a sin, and it wasn’t his blood that I regretted… just how far it had spilled.

I wondered, as I lay there, whether that made me a bad person, or a harder person than I’d once been. Was I growing bitter and cold? The horrible thought crept through me that, just maybe, it was the taint. Perhaps, with every day, I was losing a little more compassion, a little more decency, until eventually I’d become the withered, corrupted thing I saw in my dreams, lost among the seething throng of vile, cankerous flesh.

I told myself not to think things like that, and I tried to turn my mind to the future—a good, clean future, where the Blight was ended and this insufferable, impossible darkness lifted—but it was hard. I doubted somehow that I’d live to see it, and dreaming of distant days that might or might not come to pass wasn’t exactly something in which I’d ever been well-versed. I’d lived in the present my whole life, because I’d had to; in the alienage, there was no luxury of maybes for us.

I stared at the deep russet embers of the fire, vaguely aware of soft sounds and movements beyond it. Most of us were bunked down in blankets and the occasional Dalish fur—no sense in putting up the tents when it took so much time and effort, and made us vulnerable.

I blinked and, after a moment, realised that the jumble of shapes and murmurs was Zevran and Farriel, and that they were… being somewhat intimate. I caught a glimpse of bodies half-shrined in blankets, mouths meeting and bare limbs grappling beneath their woollen cocoon, a snatch of calf or elbow visible, then hidden again. Briefly, I saw Zevran’s bare back, with the intricate, scrolling lines of Crow tattoos running across it, and I blushed and turned onto my other side, trying to pretend I wasn’t aware of what they were doing. In truth, I couldn’t be entirely sure exactly what that was—presumably two men did most of the same things other people did, not that I had a lot of experience or imagination on that score—but the quiet breaths of laughter and purrs of pleasure gave me enough of an idea. And they were doing it right there by the fire. Next to everybody.

I pulled the blanket up to my ears, silently scandalised, hotly embarrassed… and maybe more than a little bit jealous.

~o~O~o~

We moved out shortly before dawn. It was cold and dark, the dew and the frost riming everything, turning the forest to a crisp, silver, skeletal world around us, and I struggled to put one foot in front of the other in the blackness. We walked, though. We had to. We had to press on, deeper into the forest’s heart, and the lair of the beasts.

It just wasn’t as simple as that first seemed.

In Denerim, I had been used to walking. Every day, we had trudged back and forth for water, for gate trade… just to get from chore to chore. There, the inconveniences and the obstacles became part of the furniture of privation. You had to walk so many yards, avoid so many grates and sewers, and so many slop buckets being thrown from upper storey windows… but you became accustomed to the routine. Here, the forest seemed to move around us, every tree a mangled grasp of hands that threatened to snare and challenge. Revasir had kept up with the trail signs, and more than once we seemed to come across a sign he’d already left. He grew frustrated and angry, and the hunters took to talking amongst themselves in irate Elvish, drawing away from the rest of us to squabble.

Alistair huffed out a breath, squinting up at the trees. “We’re lost, aren’t we?” he said quietly, apparently to the forest at large. “Completely bloody lost.”

The sun was just beginning to come up, and the whole place was wreathed in thick white mist. It clung to the ground, slinking along the leaf litter and coiling around the tree roots; moisture dripped from the bare trees. I was reminded of the all-pervading dampness in the Korcari Wilds, and the way the dankness in the air there had seeped right into everything. I hunched my shoulders, staring across at the hunters and their hushed arguments.

Wynne pursed her lips. “I do not think we’re going to make any progress. There’s something… unusual here. I don’t believe this mist is entirely natural, and we certainly have been this way before. We will be back at the beginning again at this rate.”

Leliana looked white and pinched, but she was holding her own, determinedly keeping pace. She glanced dubiously at the trees. “As long as we’re not caught in the middle of more of those… things.”

Zevran grimaced, a soft whistle passing through his teeth in agreement. “Yes. And it hard to know which of the trees have eyes, no? And claws.”

At his side, as ever, Farriel frowned. He inclined his head to Zev’s and spoke quietly; I caught the tail end of his broken blend of Common and Elvish, and discerned a question there… presumably about the injury the assassin had suffered before. Zevran shook his head and murmured a reply, and the boy touched his arm, fingers lightly tracing the leather guard beneath which the scar still ran over that tanned skin. It occurred to me that Farriel had seen more of Zevran’s assorted scars—not to mention his Crow tattoos—than any of us, and at once I tried to push those thoughts away, if not because they were unseemly then because they weren’t any of my business. Or so I told myself firmly.

In truth, I remained uncomfortable with what Zev was doing. That is, what I thought— well, no… what I perceived as his taking advantage of someone. For all his knowingness, Farriel’s affection—so obvious, so open and generous—seemed to me to be different to Zevran’s calculated worldliness, and I had a horror of seduction that Father would have been proud of instilling in me.

Oh, it wasn’t that I thought it wrong so much as I worried it was callous. I didn’t understand how Dalish morals—Dalish ways of knowing, of loving, of opening the heart and soul—differed from ours and, frankly, what did I know of love then, anyway? I was naïve and inept, and my discomfited concern showed itself in a way that looked a lot like prudery. If I’m honest, I can acknowledge there may have been a little personal frustration involved, though that isn’t the name I would have put to it at the time. I just knew I felt envious every single damn time Farriel touched him. Not that I was jealous of him, or wanted Zevran myself; it was the freedom with which they expressed themselves that I envied, and the casual ease of their affection that confused and unnerved me.

I shot a glance at Revasir, who was ferreting about in the brush again, and cleared my throat pointedly.

“Can you tell that? Which trees have the… the demons in them?”

He looked up from inspecting the ground for trail signs, another fragment of something that looked like ancient arrowhead in his fingers. “Sylvans? We have avoided them so far, no? But the path is changing. The forest—” He broke off, flexing one gloved hand as he groped for the right words, and he nodded at Wynne. “As she says. This mist….”

Aegan muttered something in Elvish under his breath, and spat on the ground. I didn’t understand the word, but I saw the way it made Daeon’s face pinch. He caught me looking at him and he shrugged, for a moment looking so like Soris in the act of trying to tell a lie that it made my throat tight.

“The Forgotten Ones,” Daeon said vaguely. “They’re… tricksters. Old gods who do no good. They were locked away from the world when the Dread Wolf betrayed the Creators, but… I don’t understand what—”

“Great,” Alistair announced, tipping his head back as a thin fall of rain opened over us like a curtain. “I knew it. We’re utterly lost. In the middle of a forest that’s moving around us. The storyteller said that, didn’t he? The forest is alive. It’s alive… and it doesn’t like us. Why does nothing ever like us?”

“Your boundless personal charm, I imagine, Alistair,” Morrigan said dryly.

She’d been skulking silently at the back of the group but, as the hunters exchanged dark, sour glances, I was glad of the familiar rhythm of side-swipes and snideness. The rain pattered against the wet leaves, and fat droplets started to slide down my ears.

My charm? You’re the one who calls people names.”

“Only when they deserve it,” Morrigan said, crossing her arms across her chest and glowering at him. “Idiot.”

“You see? This is why everything we meet tries to kill us….”

Wynne sighed wearily, and I rubbed the back of my hand over my face, wiping the rain from my eyes as I watched the Dalish pretend that—even in the midst of all this bickering—we hadn’t hit on a grain of truth.

“Is it true?” I asked. “What Hahren Sarel said? The forest is alive? I-It moves?”

Aegan scowled at me, as if my mouth was defiling his clan. “No. Maybe. I… what? Should that be so impossible?” he demanded. “You have seen the sylvans for yourself. Trees, corrupted by evil, turned to monsters. Yes, the forest lives! It is one creature, as it is many. Just as the Dalish.”

One clan, many hearts. Individuals, together as one people. His words had the ring of one of the storykeeper’s tales, and the anger in his eyes spoke of the hard place between belief and philosophy. I knew what it was to struggle in reconciling things I’d been raised to know as true with the world I saw around me, but I fell short of actually pitying him.

Sten grunted, the breath moving through his teeth like a storm wind as those bright violet eyes narrowed. “The trees do not walk,” he said shortly; the first he’d spoken since at least the day before, as far as I knew. “We have fought these things. They may be demons, but they are rooted.”

Aegan’s scowl deepened as he glared up at the qunari. I couldn’t help wondering if all Dalish hunters ended up weathered into suspicious distrust, the way he and Rhyn had both seemed to be. Was their life really so hard? I couldn’t believe they had it worse than alienage elves, whatever polemic the clan liked to spit about ‘outsiders’.

“Rooted, maybe,” he said darkly, “but there are more than demons here. This place is old. Even our tales only go back so far… who is to know what causes the forest’s heart to beat, or its body to breathe?”

Sten curled his lip. Perhaps those words sounded a little too close to his brand of qunari philosophy; perhaps, like the rest of us, he just wanted to be out of this damn place.

“So, the forest’s alive, then?” Alistair said, squinting into the trees again, and apparently not expecting an answer from the elves. “With a mind of its own? That’s what you’re saying? Turning us around… like an illusion. Mages can do that. Illusions, I mean. Enchantments. To protect things.”

Aegan looked unimpressed, his lips twisted into a sneer as if he wished the damn shem would just stop talking.

“What are you thinking?” I prompted, only too aware that the look filtering across Alistair’s face was the one that usually preceded some bright idea or other. As long as it wasn’t any sentence that started with the words ‘There should be a shortcut somewhere in this direction…’, I figured it was probably worth hearing.

He glanced at me, a slight frown on his face but a glitter of odd interest in his eyes, and, with the streaks of mud across his cheek and forehead, he looked like an excited little boy, alive with a puzzle suddenly solved before him.

“The war that was fought here,” he said, pointing at the soft ground beneath our feet as if this precise spot was relevant. “Elves, men… I’m sure there’ve been a lot of battles. Bet some of them were Tevinter fighters. Magisters. They fought the barbarians in this part of the country once. Ages ago… I remember reading about it. A great general led Tevinter forces against the Clayne tribesmen, and—”

Revasir scoffed, shaking his head. “Dead names do not matter. Shemlen have fought amongst themselves forever.”

“No, listen!” Alistair protested, earning himself another set of Dalish scowls, though he barely seemed to notice them. “There was a magister who made him this set of armour—made it with blood magic—and it made the general almost invincible, but it turned his lieutenants mad with envy, and they rebelled. The whole outpost fell, tearing itself to pieces because each of the men started to want this fabled armour for himself, until the magister who’d made it murdered the last of them in revenge. The Clayne destroyed the outpost, and it was all lost, but—”

“But they said that the magister bound the souls of the traitors to the magical armour he had wrought,” Leliana cut in, smiling that strange, sadly sweet smile she reserved for the recollecting of poetically horrible stories. “Yes! I know the tale. His last act, before the leader of the Clayne fell upon the fort, was to scatter the pieces of the armour with the dead men, binding them to guard the secrets for eternity. There is a song of it, I think. But… I thought the barbarian lands were further south.”

Alistair shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it was here. Maybe it wasn’t even true. Point is, if there are old enchantments on this place, I’m betting they’re Tevinter. It could be, couldn’t it? Old magic, rotted in place.”

Aegan grimaced and muttered something in Elvish, at which Revasir smirked. I caught Daeon’s eye, and he looked away guiltily. As far as I understood what had been said, the gist was that bloody humans never could see further than their own backsides… and I had to admit that the Dalish had a point.

Yes, perhaps we were walking on old Tevinter bones. But I strongly doubted that everything in the forest was shemlen-made.

“Well,” I said, peering suspiciously at the trees, “whether that’s true or not, I’m starting to think we’re going in circles. We either need to retrace our steps and try to get back to the camp, or work out how to push on. Morrigan?”

I looked enquiringly at her, and she heaved a theatrical sigh, scowling like a wild cat. “You wish me to search for a route from above, I suppose? ’Twill do little good, but I suppose I can try. Here,” she added, thrusting her staff at Leliana. “Hold this. Do not drop it.”

With her typical poor grace, Morrigan stalked off between the trees, and there was an awkward silence—during which my companions and I dutifully stared at the ground, or our boots, or the sky, and the Dalish just looked perplexed—followed by the impatient cawing of a raven. She burst through the branches, wings flapping furiously as she adjusted to the new shape, and alighted on the ground ahead of us, glaring back with those bright golden eyes.

Aegan spat into the grass and rubbed at one of the wooden charms bound into his hair, while Revasir swore under his breath—I didn’t know what the Elvish word meant, but it sounded salty—and Daeon made a warding sign with the fingers of his left hand. It amused me slightly; he’d been quick enough to take Dalish religion, but he didn’t forsake old alienage superstition so soon.

“I’ll get her things,” I said, ducking between the tree trunks to fetch Morrigan’s robes, pack, and jewellery.

Once I returned with them bundled up in my arms, the raven let out a hoarse cry and shot upwards, rattling the trees in her wake. Maethor bounced, rising up a little on his hind legs and whimpering softly. He seemed to identify the bird, if not as Morrigan, then at least as not-prey (though for all I knew he did recognise it was her; mabari were certainly bright enough, even if she probably smelled different), but it was still a flappy bird-thing, and presumably extremely tempting to chase. I patted his thick shoulders soothingly as he padded to my side, grumbling low in his chest.

“Good dog.”

All that remained, it seemed, was to wait and see if our tame witch—as the Dalish had called her—could figure out a path through the forest… ideally before it closed in around us.

~o~O~o~

We headed on, following Morrigan’s raven form, and maybe I did let my mind wander to the human legends Alistair had mentioned; magic-infused armour and Tevinter magisters murdering slaves to fuel their blood rites. All I could think was that we were treading on rotten bones, wherever we went in this place, and it sickened me.

Everything was turning bitter: my distaste for the forest and the deceits of trees, my fond hopes of finding familiarity amongst the Dalish, and my equally foolish pretensions to leadership. All my insistence on doing things my way had done was get us irreparably lost, and—probably, at the rate things were going—killed. I knew I was moping in self-pity, and even as I seethed to myself I hated my own self-indulgence, but it bubbled along anyway, like one of Shianni’s glutinous mystery meat stews.

I’d thought of my cousin several times when I looked at the Dalish, although I’d tried to push the thoughts away. I saw something of her fire and obstinacy in them, beneath the formality of their ways, and it galled me a little when I looked at Daeon. Why should he be here, and not her? The absurdity of that was obvious. I knew why, just as I knew Shianni would never have run away from the alienage even if she’d had the opportunity—that was no more likely than my leaving would have been, if I’d had any kind of a choice—but it seemed unfair. I daydreamed her into Daeon’s place, almost; maybe I thought I could lessen the guilt I still carried that way.

It didn’t last, of course, particularly when I grew aware of him striking up a conversation with Leliana as we walked, still keeping our eyes fixed on the raven flapping awkwardly between the trees above us.

“So… you’re a bard?” Daeon asked tentatively, as if he thought he was going to get into trouble with the others for voluntarily talking to a shem.

He probably would, I supposed, though at that point I didn’t care anymore. I was cold, wet, lost, and feeling less charitable than I had towards the heroic romance of the Dalish.

“Yes,” Leliana said, smiling knowingly. “I am.”

“An Orlesian bard?” he pressed. “Does that mean—”

“Yep,” Alistair chimed in helpfully. “An Orlesian bard, not just a bard from Orlais. They’re famous, you know.”

Daeon looked at Leliana with a new wide-eyed awe. “That explains why you’re here, then. With the Wardens, I mean.”

The Wardens. That made me want to laugh. Like we were more than a ragged pretence at the order; my motley band of companions who had achieved so much, and yet worn themselves so thin in trying.

“You’re assassins, I heard,” Daeon said boldly. “Skilled… subtle. Dangerous.”

At the other side of the group, Farriel murmured something quietly in Elvish, a filthy and exceedingly smug smile bursting over his face. Zevran, keeping pace beside him, snorted softly and—with a look at the boy that was part chastisement and part peculiarly unguarded affection—he made a muted but flawlessly accented reply. I gathered the whole exchange was something about assassins and their deadly weapons, though I missed the part of the punchline that came after “well-polished dagger”. Daeon let it slide, politely ignoring the gaping innuendoes occurring to his right.

“It must be quite a life, is all,” he said, glancing at the other hunters, as if he needed to apologise for trying to engage a shem in conversation.

I admired him for what he was trying to do; any attempt to lessen the palpable tension in the group was well worth it.

Leliana shrugged meekly. “I saw a great many wonderful things in Orlais. Also many terrible ones. It is a life that holds much beauty, and much ugliness.”

“But they do train you to kill?” Daeon pushed. “I mean, not just— uh. You know, the stories they tell about the bards from Orlais, they’re much more than just….”

He was getting flustered and growing pink in the cheeks, making plain what he alluded to. Leliana smiled, though she kept looking straight ahead, and there was a weariness to her expression that I suspected spoke as much of the past she’d been trying to outrun—this mysterious Marjolaine, and the treasonous plot which had nearly cost Leliana her life—as the curse beating in her blood.

“We are trained in all of the courtly arts, if that is what you mean. Unlike the Antivan Crows—present company excepted,” she added, sparing Zevran a polite nod which he acknowledged with a graceful wave of his fingers and a glittering smirk, “we are taught not just how to blend in, to disguise ourselves until the moment we strike, but also how to be of use to our employers as more than hired blades.”

“Like… spies?” Daeon said, not realising the comparison was—to Leliana—not just a clumsy and unfortunate one, but one that cut to the marrow.

The corner of her lips twitched, and her head shook slightly… more a gesture of reluctance than an outright demurral.

“I wouldn’t say that, precisely. Things are done differently in Orlais. The Game is more subtle than that, you know.”

As we trudged through the forest, Morrigan cawing hoarsely in the boughs above, The Game seemed about as far removed from anything as the ladies’ salons and drawing rooms Leliana had told me about before. I remembered her enthusiasm as she talked of shoes with pretty ribbons and tapered heels (how did you walk in those, anyway?), and was thankful that my life had never contained any Orlesian subtlety.

“I don’t know about subtle,” Alistair said, with more than a trace of ignoble glee in his voice. “I mean, the stories I heard were a little… racier. It had to do with how a bard assassinated her target. How they were, uh, lulled into complacency….”

I had been squinting up at the trees, trying to catch the edge of the sun through the branches, but I glanced at Daeon in time to see him look as if he’d swallowed his own tongue.

“Erk. Er… really? What, you mean the people you’re meant to kill, you—?”

Leliana raised an eyebrow, the twist at the edge of her lips a quietly knowing one. “Hm. But, if those stories were true, who would ever agree to entertain a bard in their court?”

“Oh, I don’t know….” Alistair sounded positively wistful, and mischief glittered in his face, under the streaks of mud. “There’s a certain allure to danger, isn’t there? And besides, you couldn’t all be assassins. I’d take my chances.”

Leliana raised both brows then, though she didn’t look at all surprised. “Oh, you would, would you?”

He grinned. “Well, if the stories were true, that is….”

Daeon looked wide-eyed as a cat, his mouth already open to ask—if I knew alienage boys at all—exactly what was in those racy stories, how many of them there were, and if you could buy them on a penny song-sheet, but I didn’t want to hear the rest of the conversation.

Given that I had pushed him away so hard, I knew I had little right to feel affronted by Alistair’s playfulness… if that was what it was, and not outright flirtation. I wasn’t sure I could tell; maybe I was too guarded, too quick to find a sting of jealousy to clasp tight and wound myself on. He was still grinning, though, and Leliana was shaking her head and smiling wearily, and I couldn’t help that pulsing little thought at the back of my mind that said—as it had said so often before—that she was a better match for him than I could ever dream of being.

I kept trudging forwards in any case, staying out of the conversation and giving myself a good, hard mental kick for thinking those things. It was stupid of me, just as it was stupid to feel annoyed at the idea Alistair might enjoy flirting with her, or that he might be drawn to those saucy tales, that “allure of danger”. My mind rebelled at that, because it wasn’t a taste I shared. We had spent so much time fighting, skirting death and bloodshed, and I was so tired. All I wanted was an end to the mud and the weariness and the bone-aching difficulty of the task before us. I could see nothing exotic or appealing in danger, or in the masques and velvet-draped assassin-whores of the raunchier Orlesian stories. I didn’t want him to see it, either. I wanted him to see me, and to see past the things I’d said to him… and then, as my thoughts boiled sullenly over themselves, I started to feel guilty for letting myself tar Leliana in such a way, even inside my own head. Who was I to judge her, or him, or anyone?

I frowned, as if I could squeeze the thoughts out between the wrinkles growing on my brow, and glanced sidelong at my companions.

Leliana snorted dismissively. “Really! We had rules about that sort of thing, Alistair. Strict rules.”

“Oh?” He sounded hopeful, still grinning genially. “Such as…?”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

Daeon leaned past her. “She’s not gonna tell us. You’re not, are you?”

Leliana smiled politely, fixing her gaze on the trees ahead. “Let’s just say I had plenty of reasons to join the Chantry, shall we? And leave it at that.”

“Spoilsport,” Alistair muttered.

At the edge of the group, Revasir snorted and said something quietly in Elvish to Aegan. I didn’t hear what it was, but I guessed it was something noncomplimentary about shems, and I glumly resigned myself to feeling offended on Alistair’s behalf, even though I knew that was just as stupid as my fits of jealousy and resentment.

I did not, I decided, care for this romance business. In fact, I liked it even less than leadership.

~o~O~o~

We kept on for what felt like hours, Morrigan seeking out a path from above and leading us on a scramble across brooks and banks that caused plenty of thorn scratches, banged elbows, and wrenched ankles. Sten observed aridly that we did not seem to be making any more effective headway than we had done wandering pointlessly in circles, but at least we were seeing some different parts of the forest.

Anyway, despite the rock-bottom morale and navigational concerns, I was convinced we were pressing deeper into the forest’s heart… not that this was necessarily a good thing. The mist Wynne had voiced such suspicion of kept growing thicker, slinking along the ground like a permanent companion. I wouldn’t have said it aloud, but—whatever finding Witherfang would or would not mean for us and the Dalish clan—I was already sure we weren’t ever coming out from among the trees again.

Morrigan tired, unable to hold her form any longer, and we took a short rest break in a mossy, dank gully that smelled of brackish rainwater and rotting leaves.

“We’re starting to run low on supplies,” Alistair announced, glumly passing around the canteen.

Aegan—chewing on a piece of that ghastly Dalish deer jerky—pulled a sneering face. “It should never have taken this long. Too many days. Clan sickens, people dying… we are still going in circles.”

From his position leaning against the flaking bark of an ancient fir, Revasir shrugged with surprisingly nonchalance. “We are nearer the centre of the forest. You can feel it.”

“I didn’t say we weren’t making progress,” Alistair said stiffly, and the undisguised annoyance on his face told me he was too tired to make an effort at diplomacy. “Just—”

Aegan cast a dismissive glance in his direction, and cut him off with a terse phrase in Elvish directed at Revasir. He replied, and the two hunters’ sharp discussion began to rise into something that sounded like an argument. Alistair scowled, swore under his breath—not very subtly—and, rising to his feet, stomped off to the far end of the gully.

Leliana, sitting on her pack, looking pale and sore, started to say something conciliatory, at which Morrigan snapped with a snide comment about “insipid do-goodery”.

“I think we should all calm down,” Wynne suggested, in the dry, hard tone of voice that made plain she herself—for all her usual composure—was far from calm. “We’re all tired, but this is not helping. Why don’t—”

“Why don’t you bite your tongue, old woman?” Morrigan sneered. The day was growing thin, the dimming light casting shadows across her paint-darkened face, and her eyes seemed to burn yellow in the dimness. “You and I both know the nature of this place. ‘Calm’ will keep no one alive.”

Daeon, left out of the Dalish bickering and caught between the two rapidly fracturing groups, glanced nervously towards me. “What does she mean by that?”

I had no wish to be pulled into anything, but I did catch myself glaring accusingly at the witch. Did she know more of the forest than she was letting on, or did she just feel the extent of its power? When I looked into her eyes, I had my answer, and it terrified me.

Morrigan was afraid.

I blinked, and she turned her head away, scowling into the bushes. I held the breath in my lungs, forcing myself to form a reply for Daeon… forcing myself to try and do what I’d been doing for so long: to keep everyone together, and keep us pushing on. I wasn’t sure I could do it anymore. More than that, I was beginning to truly believe I couldn’t.

“I think we can all agree this place is twisted,” I said, eyeing the disparate, angry people around me. “I don’t know if it’s the Veil being thin, whether it’s the forest itself, the things that have happened here, or something else. But I do know we need to keep together. We’ve come this far, and there’s no sense in tearing each other to bits now. Let’s… let’s take another few moments, get our breath, then we’ll move on and see if we can get a little farther before dusk.”

The jaded, irritated faces that looked back at me were not those of a group of comrades, eager to unite beneath a commander they trusted. In that moment, I was convinced that almost every one of them would cheerfully have throttled me and left my body to rot in the leaf litter.

Farriel scoffed, though the sharp look Zevran gave him wiped a little of the open defiance from his face. He still clearly thought I was a fool, though I doubted he was any older or wiser than I was.

“If we can still see by then,” he said in his oddly accented Common, kicking at the brush for emphasis. “This mist… it thickens. Not natural, like the woman says.”

Wynne inclined her head, her mouth drawn tight. “The Dalish stories of the forest protecting itself may have truth in them,” she acknowledged. “I don’t know, perhaps some form of barrier is at work.”

“We’d see that, wouldn’t we?” Alistair asked, frowning suspiciously at the trees. “I mean, it would have to be obvious. Something… tangible. A magical barrier isn’t exactly easy to maintain. It’s big, and complicated, and—”

“So is the forest,” Morrigan said darkly, “and I imagine it has more brains than you.”

“Oh, shut—”

“For once,” she continued, drowning out Alistair’s snappish retort, “I agree with Wynne. It is an old kind of magic… magic that weaves confusion in the mind.” She shook her head, as if she was annoyed with herself, her lips pressed tightly together, and I could see tendrils of her carefully arranged hair falling down to brush her cheeks. “I should have known. ’Tis not an uncommon magic, though ’tis rarely used, perhaps. I felt it when I flew above the trees. Up there, I was freer. I could still not see far, and hardly at all through the forest itself, but down here— When I returned, I knew. Down here, the trees whisper among themselves. They feel our presence, and they do not like it.”

Silence pooled thickly in the clearing as her words hung in the air, and there was a general shuffling of feet and consternated discomfort. I would like to say I didn’t feel a shiver run down my back, but that would be a lie. My spine might as well have been ice, and every knothole in every trunk I glanced at was suddenly an evil eye.

Alistair cleared his throat loudly. “Great. Well, thanks for mentioning that. I don’t sleep that well anyway, so—”

“What would you have had me say?” Morrigan demanded, rounding on him with her lip curled. “It changes nothing! Flemeth may have used similar charms to keep our hut from the prying eyes of templars, but—”

“Oh, so you’re familiar with this, then?” His voice rose, and anger thundered in his face. “And you couldn’t just say something? Of course not! That would have been far too bloody convenient!”

“There will still be a barrier!” she snarled. “And we have no way to cross it, no way to undo the charm unless we can find the source!”

The air almost crackled with the frustration and fury it held. I could feel the fight that wanted to break out pressing against my skin—everybody, just ready to sink into rage and vituperative hate—and I didn’t know how to hold them back anymore. Maethor began to bark, and I thought it was the raised voices that had unsettled him, but I was wrong.

I was halfway across the gully, trying to make myself heard over Alistair and Morrigan’s spatting, Leliana weighing in to calm them both, Sten grumbling about undisciplined chaos, and the Dalish taking loud offence at everything.  Between that and the mabari barks, it was no wonder I didn’t hear the movement in the trees.

It was Farriel who raised the alarm—his cry of “Wolf!” brought the argument to a crashing halt, and we splintered from each other, rage at once curdling to panic as we looked for the onslaught of the beasts.

At first I saw nothing, heard nothing… then the flicker of movement, the stirring of feet on uneven ground. Maethor lunged forwards, growling, but he held back, uncertain. Revasir had dropped to a crouch, his blade drawn before I’d even brought a hand to my dagger, and he held up one finger, glancing back at me with confusion in his face.

I frowned. I didn’t understand it, either. Only one of them? Unless this was a scout or a straggler of some kind, it was odd. The beasts hunted in packs. Was this a trick of some kind, an ambush?

Steel rang behind me—a song of drawn swords and readied stances. Ahead, the brush cracked, and something stumbled through the trees.

Maethor loosed a low, warning growl just as the beast came lumbering through the undergrowth… but it was no planned attack. What appeared before us was a wounded creature, doubled over, stumbling and bloody. It barely seemed to see us as it half-fell, half-crawled between the trees.

I moved too. Moved towards it, though all reason should have told me not to.

“Wait,” I said, pushing past Revasir as he raised his weapon.

He shot me a look of violent disapproval, but stayed his hand… as did the others. If I’d been paying attention to that fact, I might have better believed that my friends still trusted me. As it was, I was thinking only of the fact that—at that precise moment—we had within our reach a werebeast that was vulnerable, and which might just yield answers to our questions.

“Be careful,” Alistair warned as I drew close to the creature. I nodded… not that I was really going to be.

The creature had stilled, a hunched and stinking pile of fur at the edge of the gully, its head down and its breathing ragged. The smell of wet fur and old blood rose off it with all the thick, vile, cloying sweetness of decay.

Everything seemed very quiet. The sounds of the trees, the heartbeat of the forest… everything slowed and grew still, and all I knew was the taut, desperate breaths of the wolf. Even bowed on the ground, it was a huge creature. Far bigger than me. The twisted curve of its back, matted hair over bunched muscles, gave way to those attenuated limbs that seemed so long and loose, and yet were capable of such immense power.

I drew my sword, preferring a little more blade between me and the beast than a dagger afforded, but I held it softly at my side.

“What do you want?” I asked, addressing the beast, though why I felt the need to practically shout the words, the Maker alone knew. Even then, my voice still wobbled. “Where are the rest?”

Behind me, Farriel and Aegan both voiced the opinion that we should just kill the thing, that this was some kind of trick. Swiftrunner and his kin—beasts that could speak, reason, and try to convince us to see things from their point of view—had obviously made no impression on them. I should have marvelled at how deeply Zathrian’s teaching of hatred was ingrained in his clan.

The werewolf lifted its head and, when it looked up at me, I caught my breath. I saw, not beast’s eyes, and not the wild, intelligent stare of the weres we’d encountered before, but a look of utter hopelessness, of agony and despair. Staring, bloodshot eyes, sunken into a twisted and malformed head, matted with fur and mud… and yet they seemed familiar, like the eyes of an elf or a man; something that walked on two legs, and didn’t kill with curved teeth and claws.

They were eyes that knew remorse, and fear.

H…helllp,” it croaked, the sound mangled but its meaning clearly distinguishable. “Please… hrr… help me….”

The words were punctuated with horrible, growling breaths; I couldn’t tell whether it was the creature fighting its nature and resisting the urge to attack, or whether it was suffering so badly as to make speech nearly impossible. I couldn’t see any obvious wounds on its body, though it was still hunched before me. My grip shifted on the hilt of my sword, but it was hard to stand firm with those searing eyes boring into me, begging for help.

“Please…hrr… listen!” the creature entreated, reaching out one clawed, paw-like hand that scrabbled in the brush, scratching against the toe of my boot. “I-I am not the mindless beast I appear to be.”

I tried to step back, repulsed and a little frightened by its touch. It didn’t look quite like the other weres we’d seen. Its skin seemed pitted, the fur growing jaggedly, as if over scars, and the way it held its limbs suggested a terrible pain and stiffness in their joints.

“What happened to you?” I asked, my curiosity overwhelming my logic.

The creature bared its teeth. They were white, clean… not the jaws of a beast born to rending flesh and cracking bone. It seemed disgusted, though I couldn’t tell whether my question or its own predicament had caused the offence. It shook its head, claws again pawing at my boot.

“Careful,” Alistair said, starting forwards, his sword half-drawn.

He stopped as I raised my hand, but he didn’t move back. Maethor was moving to my other side, stiff-legged with his hackles up all the way from his neck to his tail, no sound coming from between his slightly parted jaws.

“They… the curse. I— hrr… I am cursed, turned into this creature!” A low growl swallowed the end of the words, and the werewolf lowered its head mournfully. “The curse… hrr… it burns in me. Always burning. I fled into the forest. The werewolves took me in, but… hrr… I cannot—”

It growled again, lips pulled back over white teeth and bloody gums, its whole twisted form apparently racked with pain. When its bloodshot eyes rolled around to fix on me once more, the creature saw the hunters behind me, and it gave a softer, rumbling growl, low in its throat.

Hrr… am I home? Am I back… hrr… with the clan? I… I wanted… hrr… to return. To… to die with you.”

“You are—were Dalish?” Revasir demanded, moving closer to the beast. “The others? They are as you now?”

I glared at him; those weren’t the questions we needed to ask. Although, had I been in his place, what would I not have given to believe my kin still had some of their minds intact, instead of having the whole of themselves consumed by the curse. Even like this, even in pain and malformed agony, they would still be kin… wouldn’t they?

I didn’t dare look behind me to see if Leliana was watching this grim picture. It chilled my blood to think that, if we didn’t find a way out of this mess soon, she would become as this matted, snarling thing: an unidentifiable mass of flesh and corruption.

The beast’s gaze rolled up to me again, its muzzle twitching, and its ragged ears flicked forward as recognition seemed to pass across its face.

“You… hrr… not Dalish. Elf, but not… hrr… Yet, you have his scent.”

One huge clawed, paw-like hand rose to scratch at my hip, and my first reflex was to pull back—until I realised what the creature wanted.

“Wait!” I said quickly, trying to calm the tension that sprang from that movement. Both Alistair and the Dalish had pressed forwards, ready to draw on the creature, and Maethor gave a sharp snarl that the werewolf responded to—a spittle-flecked growl that it barely seemed aware of, like two street dogs snapping over a bone.

I knew then what I was looking at. Who. Horror poured through me liked iced water, filling me up until it flowed over the outside of my skin, leaving me numb. My fingers fumbled as I pulled the intricately embroidered scarf Athras had given me from my scrip.

“You’re Danyla,” I said, holding the fabric out to the beast. “Aren’t you? Athras’s wife?”

It—she—growled softly and snatched the scarf from me with surprising grace and gentleness. She held it to her muzzle, drawing deeply on the scent. I heard Revasir muttering under his breath in Elvish, but I couldn’t tell whether it was a string of swear words or an invocation to the gods.

“Athras asked me to find you,” I said, struggling to keep my voice calm. “He gave me the scarf. He said he found it outside his aravel. I think you left it there for him. Is that what happened?”

Her eyes seemed to grow clearer for a moment, a glimmer of something soft breaking through the pain. “Yes. Hrr… yes.” The scarf wilted like a stained petal in her claws. “I wanted… hrr… wanted him to know— Zathrian did not speak truth.”

The words dissolved into bestial grunts again as she pitched forwards, snarling, her snout buried in the cloth and the muscles of her back rippling. It was like watching the flesh boil. I was terrified to think that the creatures’ mutations were all like this… but were they, or had Danyla’s gone so badly wrong? I thought of the men who’d taken the Joining with me, of Daveth lying contorted on the ancient stones of Ostagar’s ruined temple.

Revasir and Aegan jostled at my sides, demanding more from Danyla; what did she mean to say such things of the Keeper, where were the other wolves, what healing or magic could help her? I wanted to shout them into silence, knowing this pressure wouldn’t help her, but she pushed back first, lunging and snapping at her clanmates in a fury of spittle and growling.

In her face, twisted as it was by the curse, I saw Dalish pride and wildness. The dark, coarse fur matted along her muzzle might as well have been vallaslin, tracing vines and whorls around her bloodshot eyes.

She reared up on her haunches as if threatening to attack and, for the first time, I saw the wounds on her belly and sides. Great black-lipped gashes marked the flesh, blood darkening the hair. Teeth and claws had torn at her—but what would make the werewolves turn on one of their own? If they were truly not the animals Zathrian said they were, if they truly had reclaimed their minds from the curse, what had happened to Danyla, and what else was there we didn’t know?

She snarled, half-falling and half-lunging forwards, grabbing my arm roughly and dragging me closer to her face. Her breath, hot and sour, panted against my skin. I was intensely aware of her claws digging into my leathers… and of the teeth to which I was so very close.

Hrr… you… hrr… listen, outsider,” she growled, glaring steadily at me, the words bubbling from her throat in ever threadier strings. “Zathrian… hrr… he has told you… of Witherfang?”

I nodded. She barely waited for my response, pulling her lips back farther over her fangs.

Hrr… I know why. But… hrr… no time to explain. You… hrr… you must do something for me, outsider. Take… hrr… a message to Athras. Tell him… hrr… tell him I love him. That I am… with the gods now.”

I thought I was beginning to understand. Danyla had hoped for so much more. Slinking around the camp, leaving messages for her husband—she must have believed, once it became clear that the curse was not quite what Zathrian claimed, there was hope. I just wished I knew what had happened to destroy that.

“Danyla!” Aegan protested, speaking rapidly to her in Elvish.

I took the words to mean his disbelief; she wasn’t dead, and it was wrong to lie to her mate.

Danyla growled, her ragged ears flattened to her skull. “No! I will be, soon enough. Too late. I just… hrr… I want him to be at peace.”

She turned her gaze back to me, and I couldn’t have refused her even if I’d wanted to. “All right.” I nodded brusquely. “Fine. But listen, we need answers. You need to tell us where the others are, the other werew—”

“One more thing. End my pain… hrr… I will tell you… what you ask, but… hrr… you must promise. Hrr… end… this.”

A horrible realisation slipped over me, as cold and dank as the mist. I shifted my grip on the hilt of my sword. I’d never killed anyone who’d asked me to; never killed anyone with whom I’d had so coherent a conversation, either. Nausea roiled in my gut, and I swallowed hard.

“All right.”

My voice was quiet, but there seemed to be such a heavy silence in the gully that it fell like a shout. Danyla growled softly, lowering her head. Her claws relaxed a fraction on my arm before tensing again, and her lips peeled back over those long, shiny teeth.

“Then… hrr… know this. There is… hrr… a ruin… in the centre of the forest. The lair is there… beneath the ground. You will find… Witherfang. Hrr… the others will be there… they will… hrr… they will think you mean to kill them….”

“Don’t we?” Alistair asked quietly. I heard Wynne shush him.

A grunt of pain broke through Danyla’s laboured breathing and she snarled, her grip tightening with painful suddenness on my arm. I grabbed a handful of her dank fur and shook hard, trying to tug her back to me.

“How do we get there? To the ruins? How do we get past this mist?”

“The… hrr… the tree,” she managed as the focus began to slip from her eyes. “Hrr… her enchantment begins there. Please… do as you promised. End it… end it now….”

“Wait! What tree? What—?”

“Danyla!” Revasir reached past me, taking hold of the scruff at her neck and trying to heave her head up. He spoke to her in rapid Elvish, his hands knotted in the matts of hair on her twisted cheeks.

At first she seemed to respond, and a few Elvish words escaped her, mixed into those horrible snarls.

“Tell her it doesn’t have to be like this,” I told him. “Tell her we’ll find the cure, we can take her back to the camp… back to Athras. We could—”

“No!” Danyla growled, digging her claws deeper into my arm. “No… hrr… he must not see me like this!

Revasir was shouting desperately at her in Elvish, and Aegan pushed me aside, both hunters trying to communicate with her and yet managing only to aggravate the situation. Her claws tore at my bracer as I stumbled backwards, and just before I managed to save myself from tumbling backside-first into the mud, I saw Danyla rear up again, lunging and snarling.

Alistair raised his sword, ready to lunge, not that he had a clear shot at her, and I thought at least one of the two Dalish would be bitten. There was a tangle of movement and anger… and then Danyla was suddenly still, her snarls abruptly ceasing as shocked silence overtook the hunters.

Zevran had moved behind her and buried a dagger deeply in her back. It was the quietest, cleanest, subtlest kill I’d ever seen—and the first time I’d witnessed him strike without warning. The look on his face was one of detached concentration, but for the hard curve to his mouth. There was something about that which spoke of a kind of enjoyment, a relishing of the power he had to end a life so succinctly, and with such ease. His eyes were as flat as coins, and he pulled the blade out quickly once he was sure of its work, wiping it on the muddied fur of Danyla’s shoulder as her corpse folded heavily to the ground.

Revasir and Aegan stared at him in horror, but Zev merely shrugged impassively, the Dalish braids Farriel had wound in his hair falling softly around his face.

“What? You don’t think it was a mercy?”

Logic said it was. We could have done nothing for her, not with her wounds, and whatever chaos the curse had wrought in her blood. No magic could have healed her, and who knew how long she would have had to wait for us to find Witherfang and bring an end to this whole mess.

Still… if anyone had done it, I was sure it should have been me. I could still see those crazed and yet so very intelligent eyes staring into mine, and still feel her breath on my face.

I could have done it. I should have done it. I shouldn’t have let myself be pushed aside again. But I was so very glad I had been.

Zevran’s words were not soothing the hunters. Revasir swore at him, and drew his blade. Farriel—white-faced and wide-eyed, but either remarkably loyal or remarkably stupid—darted between them, and an argument broke out in Elvish far too quick and fractured for me to understand.

“Enough!” I stomped irritably past the menfolk, inserting myself between the body of Danyla and elf who had ended her. “What’s done is done. Would you rather she’d attacked you and forced you to hack her to pieces?”

Revasir and Aegan both glared at me, something very near hatred burning behind their vallaslin. For all I knew, such a death was more honourable to the Dalish than the quick, easy end that Zevran had provided. Equally, it was just as probable that whatever I said would make me a target for their ire. I was, as she had called me, “outsider”. Elf, but not clan. Not elvhen. And I never would be.

I nodded at the body. “She’s told us something worth knowing. ‘The tree’. ‘Enchantment begins there’. Do you know what that could mean?”

The hunters gave me sullen looks. I sighed.

“All right. Make whatever rites you need to for her, then we move out. We’ll try to find this… tree,” I muttered lamely, sending a forlorn glance towards the others and wishing someone would back me up.

Looking for a tree in the middle of a forest. Maker! If Duncan could have heard me, I was sure he’d have been sorry he ever saved me from the gallows.

I caught Zevran’s eye as I turned back to the Dalish, and gave him a small nod of thanks, which he returned with that elegant inclination of his head, his eyes half-hooded and his mouth subtly tightened.

Perhaps I’d never really thought about it, or perhaps I’d been over-confident in our numbers… but, for the first time, I was fully aware of his skills, and I recognised just how easily he could have killed at least one or two of us before now, if he’d wanted. Alistair had had a point about that.

At least, I told myself, I had a proof as solid as stone that I could trust in the loyalty of an assassin. And that in itself seemed to sum up the insanity that had become my life.

I smiled grimly to myself as I turned away.

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Volume 4: Chapter Sixteen
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