Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Five

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We started early, well before dawn, and the dew hung on the trees like a film of wet ice, unmoving in the damp, stagnant air.

Everything seemed so awfully quiet. That was the worst thing. We were all tired and prickly after an uncomfortable night, and though at the time it had seemed such safe intimacy, that morning I felt exposed by having talked so much.

The greater part of it was probably the fact we were admitting failure. We were picking our way out of the forest, tails between our legs, maintaining a fiction of keeping a weather eye out for the Dalish as we moved, yet in truth thinking of nothing more than getting as far away from that place as we could.

We’d discussed it as we pulled up camp, although in the most cursory of manners. Sten’s disapproval had radiated over things like a heat haze, and he’d grunted out a few choice phrases about ‘abandoning all resolve at the first obstacle’, but I’d been surprised to find that the others were largely behind me. Morrigan affected smugness, reminding me she’d said the forest was full of hidden dangers, while even Wynne agreed that, if continuing the search for the Dalish took us deeper into places so very full of demons then, as turned around as we already were, it was unlikely we’d ever get out alive, much less as quickly as we wanted to.

Zevran was my staunchest supporter. He took it all in stride and, with a cheerful smile, clapped me on the shoulder as he strolled past, pack in hand, and said it was ‘better to cut one’s losses while one is still holding the knife’.

Leliana put on a polite show of agreement, but appeared to be very crestfallen. I wasn’t sure how far it was disappointment in my decision, or discomfort at not feeling secure enough in her own position to argue with me. Either way, I was frankly just grateful nobody made a scene.

My mood was already pitching towards my boots. I felt like a traitor, and a coward, and all number of other uncomplimentary things, and I couldn’t even summon up any enthusiasm for the idea that I was making this choice because it was right… because it safeguarded these people for whom I felt responsible, and because—a solid three weeks’ journey to the west, near enough—there was a man who lay dying and needed our help.

Given those thoughts of Arl Eamon, Alistair’s silence on the matter of leaving the forest was telling. All he said was ‘if you think that’s best’, and he didn’t even meet my eye when he said it. Part of me felt mildly hoodwinked, like somehow he’d got his way without even having to try and convince me… and I resented that, though I didn’t want to blame him for it. Maybe he disagreed; I had no way of knowing, and I didn’t want to ask.

All in all, none of it made for a good atmosphere as we trudged through the damp brush, with the canopy’s dusty, filtered light spilling slow streaks of sunshine onto our backs.

We were silent, and morose, and there was a slight tang of fear on the air. Maethor padded close to me, ignoring even the tell-tale skitter of squirrels in the trees, and his stumpy little tail was clamped right down, ears flat to his skull and nose quivering as he snuffed noisily at the air.

By the time the sun was properly up, it felt like we’d been walking for hours, and I was sure I’d seen the same tree root three times already.

We were meant to be arcing south-west, in a general sort of theory; avoiding the area where we’d encountered the dyads before, but shaving off a little time by not back-tracking towards the north. It was Morrigan’s route, which naturally roused the normal kind of back-biting between her and Alistair.

I don’t see why you couldn’t just fly over and—”

Ugh, not this again….” She rolled her eyes, stabbing her staff savagely into the soft ground with every step. “How many times must I try to drive information into that pumpkin you call a head? What need do I have to see again what I have already seen? This is the route. Believe me or do not; I no longer care.”

Could’ve flown over and looked for the Dalish, then,” he muttered darkly. “Might’ve found them from the air.”

Morrigan gave a frustrated growl. “Fool. You think they would leave themselves so easily visible? Had we more time, perhaps I could spend days hopping from branch to branch, inspecting the woods for clues… but it seems we do not possess such luxuries.”

There was a moment’s lull in the sniping, filled with the mismatched clumps of footfalls. I wondered if what she said was true, or merely a defence for the fact she couldn’t sustain the form of the bird for as long as it would have taken either to lead us out of the forest, or search the trees for the Dalish. I wasn’t sure, but there was no way I was going to wade into the argument, so I kept my mouth firmly shut.

Alistair scowled at the witch.

My head doesn’t look anything like a pumpkin,” he said indignantly, the insult having apparently just filtered through, at which she bared her teeth, but apparently felt no need to make further comment.

She still didn’t seem quite herself, I thought. I’d been putting it down to tiredness, and there had been a change in her when she got near the forest… the way a dog grows fidgety close to home. All the same, I couldn’t help worrying a little. I thought back to Soldier’s Peak, and the uncharitable part of me was frightened at someone with Morrigan’s ruthless acquisitiveness coming in such close contact with a creature like Avernus, not to mention all the dark knowledge he’d left behind.

We should have burned all of it, I supposed. Archives and everything, and yet I believed so firmly that we’d need them. It was the first thing I wanted to do, as soon as we got near Lake Calenhad; send word to the mages, and have people who understood things like that go and deal with it. I suppose I wanted to think there’d be some secret answer buried there, as if the Blight was no more than a riddle and, somehow, all those past generations of Wardens would have left us the key.

I told myself that was stupid… as was my worry over Morrigan. Not trusting her completely was one thing, but I wasn’t as paranoid about her as Alistair. Besides, she’d been so badly hurt. She’d had no opportunity to learn from the blood magic Avernus had been using, and we’d certainly seen her use none of her own, whatever Alistair liked to mutter about maleficarum.

So, we trudged on, and the overbearing silence made it too easy for me to dwell on the fact we weren’t going to find the Dalish. Worse, that we were abandoning the hope of it—that I was abandoning the very idea of them—and that was a horrible feeling. The memories of childhood stories refused to let me go, filling my mind with wisps of tales and half-recalled gossip. Leaves crunched and scuffled beneath our feet, and the weak threads of the sun trickled through the fringes of red, gold, and greenish-brown foliage still clinging to the trees, while the great feathered boughs of pines and firs ate up all the rest of the light.

At one point, I thought I saw another Dalish arrowhead lying in the brush, but it turned out to be a stone. No one laughed at my mistake.

We traipsed on and, ahead of me, Zevran was peering up at the trees as he walked, the weak sun glimmering on his hair, but it wasn’t the idle speculation of a man enjoying the scenery. He was watching everything, taking note of every detail… almost as if he was aware of something I wasn’t.

I wanted to ask him what he could see but, on top of the misidentified arrowhead, I didn’t really wish to make myself look like even more of an idiot.

Overhead, the trees rustled, but no birds cawed. We’d seen very few of them since entering the forest; I suspected horrible things happened to anything living that went too near some of the trees.

Maethor huffed softly to himself and cocked a leg against a stand of ragged grass. I watched him, noting the tension in that wide, muscular body, even in the act of relieving his bladder, and realised he was just as wary as Zevran.

There was something out there, definitely. I looked to Leliana, unsurprised to find her gentle tranquillity barely masking a keen alertness, those glass-clear eyes fixed intently on the trees ahead of us. Even Alistair had started to look fidgety, and Morrigan had developed a certain degree of stiffness in her stride. I glanced over my shoulder, reaffirming my knowledge of where everyone was, just in case we were suddenly called on to draw weapons.

I don’t think we’re alone,” Leliana said softly, her brows drawing into a frown. “D’you think?”

Up ahead, the trees were not so much thicker as older: a stand of great, knotted trunks and branches, many grizzled with late autumn leaves turning rotten on the bough, and others heavy with the fronds of dank, dark needles. The way seemed uncomfortable, if not impassable, and I peered to either side of us, hoping for an easier route.

Brasca,” Zevran muttered, his body already beginning to drop into a loose-limbed, predatory crouch.

My fingers twitched towards my daggers as, at my heel, Maethor loosed a low rumble.

Oh, sod,” Alistair said, reaching for his sword. “There’s not going to be more demons, are there? I could really get sick of demons.”

Something rustled in the trees ahead, but I could see nothing. Just the oddly dappled light coming through the leaves… like this was some pleasant, sunlit grove, and death wasn’t awaiting us in every shadow.

Maethor lunged forwards, paws skittering on the dry leaves, and barked angrily.

You are in luck, then,” Zevran said, raising his voice a little. “There are no demons here, Alistair. Just ghosts.”

He straightened up, his hands relaxing, and I didn’t understand why he’d dropped his guard. I turned, ready to ask what in the Maker’s name he thought he was doing, but then it became extremely, pointedly, clear.

Three elves emerged from the trees ahead of us, melting from the shadows as if they were made of them… and they were all armed.

Two carried tall, slender bows, and the arrows that were already nocked and trained on us bore familiar flint tips. The third was a woman, tall and athletic, her face marked with a dark and complex pattern of lines, like paint or ink traced over her skin. She too had a bow across her back, but carried in her hand a long, wicked-looking blade, curved like a fang, with a cloth-wrapped hilt. She held it low, but there was no mistaking the threat, or the hard, violent distrust in her face as she stared at us.

They have been following us for some time,” Zevran murmured, as Maethor grumbled, low in his chest, and pressed protectively against my leg. “They were either waiting to see what we would do, or they wanted us out of the forest.”

The woman scowled at him, and made a sharp gesture with her left hand.

Dar’then,” she snapped, presumably addressing the men with her, for they moved to flank us, slowly sidestepping foot-over-foot, soft-shod in low-cut leather boots, and yet their aim never wavered.

At Ostagar, I’d watched men practicing at the butts. I’d even learned to fire a crossbow, but I’d never seen any archer who looked as coolly assured and, frankly, bloody terrifying as this. There was no doubting that one of those cruel, flint-tipped arrows—slim though they might be—could end any of us in under a second, and there was something about the way the elves moved, with that cat-like, unhurried grace, that was truly frightening.

We outnumbered them almost three to one, yet they weren’t worried. If anything, they seemed affronted at the very fact of our presence. I wondered why they’d revealed themselves at all. Why not wait until we left the woods? Were we really that far off target? Maybe they’d grown tired of waiting, and just decided to kill us now.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the way Zevran was standing: straight, yet relaxed, his head held up but his gaze fixed on the trees, not the woman giving the orders, and his hands well away from his more obvious weapons. It seemed sensible to follow suite, so I did, and gradually the others mirrored my movement. Even Maethor, sticking close to my heel, and deathly quiet in the way that he always was just before he decided to attack, eased his posture slightly.

We stood, silent, and time seemed to slow to the pace of treacle. I tried to keep my breathing in check, but as the three elves stared at us, and the woman who led them began to step forwards, one thought and one thought only beat over and over in my head.

They are Dalish. Real, live Dalish. Really real Dalish elves….

Common sense forgotten, my heart pounded, every thud of it in my chest echoing until my head swam and my blood fizzed. We’d found them. We’d really found them. Or, perhaps, they’d found us… but the details didn’t matter, did they? Even as we’d thought we were leaving every chance of it behind, here they were— and they were real.

The moment stretched out, growing taut and thin, but I didn’t care. I’d tried to follow Zev’s example and not make eye contact, but I couldn’t keep from looking at them.

They were not, to put it lightly, what I had imagined they would be.

All three wore leather armour, but of a kind unlike anything I’d ever seen. The hides were dyed, for a start, all in tones of dark green and russet, and every inch of leather was embossed or decorated with intricate, swirling designs. The men wore brigandines cut low on the neck, but that reached to mid-thigh, with dark, rough shirts beneath, and heavy belts about their waists, no doubt bristling with other weaponry. The woman’s armour was of a slightly different style; high-necked, with a heavier chestpiece that bore what looked like the shape of a great tree, picked out in scrolled lines and curves. Her breeches were thick, her boots high and lashed with heavy shin-guards, and a skirt of leather plackets and knotted cords fringed the bottom of her jack, while a wide leather belt at her hips held at least one more blade.

Her pale brown hair was swept up into a short, sleek tail at the crown of her head, highlighting cheekbones sharp as razors, and long, finely tapered ears. As she drew closer, as if prowling forwards to inspect a kill, I could see more clearly the strange lines that crossed her features. They were tattoos: thick, black curves and angular patterns that, like Zevran’s marks, hugged the outlines of her face, and yet almost made another skin on top of it. I tried to follow the lines, but I got lost amongst them. They went everywhere… arcing over her forehead, her cheeks, and even down her jaw, towards her neck. I didn’t know much about how the things were applied, but it must have been agonising.

As I stared, her gaze met mine, and the breath was wrung from me completely.

Oh, I had seen plenty of stunning eyes before. Lots of girls in the alienage had possessed what shemlen men liked to call ‘elven eyes’; those pale and shimmering hues of green, amber, or lavender that they seemed to find so appealing. I’d even grown used to Morrigan’s golden stare, and Sten’s disturbingly bright gaze.

Nevertheless, I was not prepared for the sheer brilliance of the Dalish woman’s eyes. They were light grey, almost ghostly, with pupils black as buttons, and they bit into me like blades, so full of challenge and anger.

Her thin lips parted, and she made a small noise in the back of her throat, her gaze leaving mine to survey those I stood with. Her grip tightened on that wicked blade, and she took a step nearer, her shoulders squared.

She was taller than me—almost of human height, as were the men with her, I thought, thought it was harder to tell while they were busy aiming arrows at our heads. One of the archers was blond, his skin reddened and wind-chapped, his long hair twisted into a rough knot at the back of his neck. The other had dark hair, bound into dozens of tiny locks and plaits, and loosely pinned behind his ears. They both had those markings on their faces too, but the patterns weren’t alike. I guessed they represented something, but I had no idea what. Clans? Families, maybe?

I thought I should say something—explain we meant no harm, perhaps—but my tongue felt thick and dry, and my head was buzzing. It didn’t seem real. None of it seemed real. I swallowed heavily.

Um… er, we—”

Halam!”

I didn’t know what that meant, but ‘stop talking’ seemed a reasonable translation. My mouth snapped shut, and the Dalish woman glared at me.

Hamin, Mithra,” said the blond-haired archer, without breaking his aim.

She glanced at him, and a rapid exchange in Elvish followed, ending with her glowering at me—and the rest of my companions—before she stepped back abruptly, and gave a stiff nod of her head.

You are outsiders,” she said, and her heavily accented words were crisp but uneven, as if she wasn’t comfortable speaking the common tongue. “Why are you here?”

That pale, uncompromising gaze roved over us all, and I knew I should speak. I should press myself forwards, declare our business and maybe mention the treaties, and—

We have been seeking the Dalish,” Zevran said smoothly, his voice rolling with that honeyed tone of persuasiveness he could use so well. “We are honoured you allow us this meeting.”

The woman sneered. “And why should we not kill you, vir’din?”

Because you have been tracking us, no?” Zevran smiled at her, which I imagined—from the woman’s expression—was not something that happened often when she had archers pointing their weapons at people. “My companions and I seek an audience with your Keeper. This is all we ask. No harm. Just words. These two,” he added, indicating Alistair and me with a nod of his head, “are Grey Wardens.”

That earned me another glare. Not Alistair, however, I noticed. The elf seemed adept at completely ignoring him… as well as every other human present, not to mention Sten, which was quite a feat in itself.

This is true?” she demanded.

I nodded, and finally found my voice. “Y-Yes. We are. There’s, uh, there’s a Blight. A horde of darkspawn massing in the south. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but the king’s army fell. We need allies, if we’ve any hope of stopping this.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she moved closer to me. The smell of leather and skins, mixed with the smell of the forest—that dark, pine-sour earthiness—filled my nostrils, and brought with it other scents. There was the sharpness of wood smoke, as if the camp these three had come from wasn’t far, and a rich, sharp aroma, like perfume or resin, seemed to blend with it. I couldn’t be sure if it was rising off the leather of her armour, or her skin itself. I blinked and, unable to hold her gaze, let my eyes fall to the hide thong she wore at her throat. A small group of beads had been threaded upon it; carved bone, painted wood, and something that looked like a shell. I thought of the string of shells hanging in Alarith’s shop, hanging like bleached teeth in the shadows, up amongst the rafters and clutter of his goods, and I wondered if people like this really did save people like him.

Were the Dalish very different if you encountered them by accident, as a waif or a wandering stray? I supposed we didn’t exactly look harmless, blundering about the woods with our armour and weapons. They’d have plenty of reason to be wary of us.

Not our concern,” the woman said eventually, rolling the words around her mouth before practically spitting them at me. “Run back to your shemlen nobles and tell them the Dalish do not care.”

They’re not my nobles,” I said, more quickly and more hotly than I should have done.

She narrowed her eyes and snorted dismissively. “You may be of my kind, outsider, but you are not elvhen. Flat-ears such as yourself are little different to the shemlen.”

Something inside me shrivelled a little at the venom in her voice. I stared at her in disbelief too enormous to be tainted with anger, and yet my palm itched for the welcome weight of my sword hilt against it. I wanted blood and vengeance for those words, but I also wanted to run away and hide from them. I’d seen the look she was giving me often enough before; always on the faces of old women in the alienage when a girl walked by in gathered skirts, dressed like a shem’s tart.

That wasn’t true, and it wasn’t fair… and it still made rage and humiliation boil in me. I met her gaze, and bit down on my tongue so hard that I tasted blood.

If you already know of the Blight,” I said levelly, willing myself not to flinch at those wild grey eyes, “then you know it’s not about shems or elves. If the horde makes it up the valley, we all die. Now, I don’t stand here for anyone but the Grey Wardens, and it is as a Warden I tell you we have treaties the Dalish signed four ages ago. We want to know if you will honour them or not. So, will you let us speak with your leader?”

Her nostrils flared, and a positively murderous look flickered across her face, buried under all those dark lines. Behind me, I heard Sten shifting slightly, the gentle clink of his armour unmistakeable.

I prayed to the Maker, and Andraste—and any other gods who might possibly be around to hear me—that this wouldn’t end up in a fight. The difficult, lumpy silence stretched out, and for a little while violence felt inevitable. My back prickled, and sweat dampened the base of my spine. I didn’t move, didn’t blink and, finally, the Dalish woman stepped back, her head snapping up with the air of command.

Huh.” She addressed me, but her eyes were scanning my companions, her expression tight and, while not precisely neutral, giving little away. “A Grey Warden. This is not a lie many would attempt. Fewer still would question the honour of the elvhen. But… we will bring you to the Keeper, as you ask.”

I tried to hold back my breath of relief, but as I opened my mouth to thank her, she cut straight across me.

Come.” She glanced back at the two archers and nodded, before gesturing us to follow. “We go. You will follow. When we reach the camp, you will keep your hands to yourselves. You will touch nothing, and you will know there are arrows upon you, outsiders. Always.”

As she said it, the men behind her lowered their bows, but I got the distinct impression she didn’t mean them. I glanced into the trees, suddenly much less nervous than I had been about demons, and more concerned by the possibility of unseen archers.

The woman turned abruptly and stalked off through the trees. The archers were hanging back, waiting for us to follow her, no doubt so they could bring up the rear, and so there seemed little else to do.

Zevran glanced at me with a slight nod of his head, a small smile curving the edge of his lips, and then fell seamlessly, confidently into step behind her. I looked to the others, noting Morrigan’s tight-lipped displeasure—she really did loathe being treated like that, no matter whether she was at arrow-point or not—and Wynne’s guarded expression. Leliana was watching the elves’ every movement, and she inclined her head respectfully at the blond archer as she passed him, falling in behind Zevran. He didn’t acknowledge the gesture, though his gaze followed her minutely.

I caught Alistair’s eye for the briefest of moments before we moved on. It would have been nice to draw some comfort from that, but he looked nervous and ruffled, and the choked sort of half-smile he shot me wasn’t very reassuring.

~o~O~o~

We followed the three Dalish through the forest for what felt like miles. Or, more accurately: we were accompanied… with extreme attentiveness and caution. It felt almost as if we were captives; a sensation I quickly dismissed, because this had been exactly the thing we’d wanted. We’d been trying to find them, and one can’t be a captive if one is being taken to where one wants to go—or so I told myself repeatedly on that long walk.

In any case, they had not been as aggressive as, say, Brother Genitivi’s Travels had made out. Not really, anyway.

Your name?” the dark-haired archer asked me as we walked.

He was just behind my shoulder, padding along almost soundlessly, and I’d not been expecting him to speak. When he did, it made me jump, and I was suddenly very aware both of his proximity and his strangeness. His words, like the woman’s, were wreathed in a heavy accent, and he frowned when I didn’t reply, presumably thinking he’d mispronounced something. He tried again.

Emma Revasir,” he said slowly, putting one weatherworn hand to his chest. He pointed across to the blond archer, and then to the woman. “Aegan. Mithra. What is your name?”

I blinked. He wasn’t dirty—less dirty than me, given how long we’d been on the road—but the skin of his hands was like wood-grain, traced with ground-in soil and roughness. Even so, as I looked more carefully at him, I could see that beneath the tattoos his face was that of a young, albeit hard-worn, man: narrow cheeks, high forehead and wide ears, and a long nose and chin. The freshness of his skin had been chapped by wind and sun—though less noticeably than the other, fairer man, the one he called Aegan—and his eyes were a murky, greyish blue.

Merien,” I said, and he tilted his head to the side, as if trying out the unfamiliar sound in his mind.

He looked fleetingly confused, but covered it well, and even managed to smile more or less politely at me as he nodded, his attention drifting to Maethor, who was padding warily at my side.

The hound,” Revasir said, pointing at the mabari. “Is yours?”

I nodded. “Yes. Well, mabari choose their owners, or so I was told. He… found me.”

Maethor clearly knew he was being spoken of; he looked up and wagged his tail tentatively, liquid brown gaze flicking between me and the archer.

I-I gave him an elven name,” I said, in the spirit of fostering some kind of camaraderie. “He is called ‘Maethor’. You know… ‘warrior’? I thought it was right.”

Revasir had been looking down at the dog in studied admiration, but at that he smirked, and gave a short cough of laughter. Over to my left, the blond archer snorted, and Mithra glanced back sharply.

Confused, I looked for an explanation, and Revasir shook his head, sending the little braids and fuzzy locks in his loosely pinned cascade of hair quivering. A few of them had beads and trinkets plaited into them but, as he carefully explained the reason for his mirth, I stopped noticing details.

That word? It does not mean what you think it means. Is….” He waved one sunburned hand, evidently searching for the right term. “Stick? One who… wields stick,” he said, making a swinging motion through the air with his arm, and nodding. “Yes. Like a child. Play.”

Oh.”

I didn’t know what else to say. The dull warmth of a blush threatened my cheeks, but the chill in the air—and the numbing embarrassment I felt cresting up over me in a great, silent wall—seemed to hold it off. I stared down at the dog, and focused on the myriad of little patterns in the mud-streaked brindle of his coat. Maethor looked up at me, his eyes questioning, and that wrinkled muzzle puffed out hot coils of damp breath, a string of drool hanging from his baggy lips. I wriggled my fingers gently, and he butted his head against my hand, so I could scratch his ears as we walked.

~o~O~o~

My first sight of the Dalish camp took my breath away; I can’t deny that.

Mithra and her scouts had led us on an exhaustively opaque route, picking through the dark and twisted channels between moss-layered trees, every new turn another challenge to what little sense of direction I had left. I suspected Morrigan had been able to keep better track than me, though I didn’t draw attention to the question by looking at her. We all walked in silence, mute and meek, and I felt as if I was stumbling through a dream.

When we finally arrived, it was like stepping through a curtain and into another world. The trees stood as numinous sentinels, their heavy, dank branches an interlocking wall of green. Either there were no demons in this part of the forest, or the Dalish had a talent for avoiding them. Given how uneventful our escorted trip had been, I suspected the latter.

Mithra ducked between the thin, clawed twigs and prickly needles, and barked out a warning to watch our steps. I looked down as my boots skidded a bit on the leaves and pebbles, and found we were descending a ridge. I hadn’t even known there was a hill here… and yet we must have been climbing one side of it. The ground sloped sharply away and, coming through the trees, we were faced with a whole new vista laid out below us.

I suppose I’d expected something mean and muddy, with the same ragged kind of comforts as we made for ourselves when we stopped for the night. Naturally, the wild elves had far more style.

Below us, the thickets broadened out into a wide clearing, peppered with a few tall trees—those ancient, rigidly straight guardians of the forest, as I thought of them. The sound of running water bubbled close by, and around the clearing itself stood several large shapes that, at first, I mistook for tents. They stretched up against the trees, broad canvas blanks like sails… but then I saw that, below those wide swathes of cloth—some in red, others grey, and others still bright, vibrant greens—they had wheels, and bodies like wagons. They were big, broad things, and how they could move through the forest perplexed me, especially when they clearly had shafts, yet I saw no horses to draw them.

There were tents too, as well as the wagons; large and small structures tossed up over temporary wooden frames, with low fires burning like jewels before them. Thin coils of bluish-grey smoke curled on the air—and before Maethor almost skidded into the back of my leg, nearly knocking me down the slippery, treacherous ridge—I’d counted more than a dozen tents and wagons combined.

The hound looked up at me apologetically, and loosed a huffy little whine through his jowls as I steadied myself with a hand on the top of his head.

It’s all right,” I murmured, which earned me a quick wag of his stumpy tail… though I wasn’t sure whose benefit I was really saying it for.

As we edged our way down the ridge, the smells of the camp rose to greet me, and they were immensely comforting. The tang of leather and canvas met the acrid perfume of wood smoke, with the earthy undertones of the forest swelling in all around. Somewhere, something was cooking… probably broth or stew. Down below, among the tents and the wagons with those strange canvas sails, I could see other people moving about—other elves. And they were Dalish: a true, live, real people, here before me instead of hiding in whispers and stories. Many bore those peculiar tattoos on their faces, from what I could see, but not all of them, and though some were dressed in the same intricate leather garb as the three who’d brought us here, several of the crowd that was beginning to gather wore more simple arrays of cloth and fur.

None of them looked particularly welcoming. I saw a small boy run out from behind one of the wagons, then stop and stare up at us. The expression on his face changed and, even at the distance at which I was standing, I could quite clearly see the way his body straightened, his brows drawing low and his chin jutting out. No intimidated or frightened child, this; his was a look of unveiled and indignant hatred. Who were we, and how dare we set foot here? As we reached the bottom of the incline, a woman in a green dress, her face criss-crossed with tattoos, came forwards to lay a hand on his shoulder and draw him away.

Mithra turned and glared at us. “You will wait here. We shall see if the Keeper will receive you.”

She strode away from us without a backward glance, the two archers following, and they headed for the largest of the wagons, which seemed to be at the centre of the camp. Beyond it lay a couple of large, long tents, but I could see little else past the gathering knots of elves who’d emerged to stare at us.

D’you think they’re going to wait ’til later to lynch us?” Alistair queried through gritted teeth, his voice a low whisper. “Or will they want the mess over with before supper?”

I turned my head enough to glance sidelong at him. “I have no idea. Maybe it’ll be the evening’s entertainment.”

He winced. Zevran shot me a brief look, his face a mask of good-natured neutrality.

Just do not make eye contact, hmm? And do not allow yourself to appear too subdued. A show of respect, they like. A show of inferiority, and… well, you’re on your own.”

He said it while barely moving his lips, a slim glimmer in those amber eyes the only indication that he might have been as nervous as the rest of us. I peered over my shoulder at the others, torn between pride and envy for the way they were holding themselves. Wynne was a model of quiet and steely grace, Morrigan her usual prickly self, and Sten an impassively monolithic presence, despite how uncomfortable I suspected this place made him. Leliana, like Zevran, was able to make her face blank, but those sharp eyes of hers were always on the move, taking in every tiny detail. She didn’t seem fazed by anything in the camp, no matter how strange it appeared to me, and I wondered if she too had some greater familiarity with the Dalish than I knew of.

On that point, I narrowed my eyes as I looked back at Zev.

If you know so much, perhaps you’d care to deal with this yourself?”

The hint of a smile flickered at the edge of his lips as he turned his head back to the wider clearing, his hands clasped primly in front of him.

Ah, but I am not the Grey Warden here, o most beguiling one.”

You’ll be the only one here with one eye in a minute,” I muttered darkly, but he just stared straight ahead, the slight crease at the corner of his mouth suggesting a vein of amusement.

His smugness infuriated me, though of course he’d been the one to warn me we shouldn’t expect welcome banners and free slices of pound cake. I contented myself with glowering quietly, and then trying to put forth as proud and respectable a face as I could.

Across the clearing—an expanse of ground left bare between us, the forest floor darkly rich and silty—the Dalish gathered, and they watched us in silence. As Zevran had said, I avoided meeting anyone’s gaze, but I was drawn to looking at them as a moth can’t help but dance with a flame.

Back home, we’d get a couple of lads a year who might decide to run off and find the clans or—every so often—decide that they were already as good as Dalish. I remembered one boy, six years or so older than me, who used to paint his face in swirls and squiggles and shout a lot about freedom from oppression. It never seemed to get him far, and he was usually drunk. Eventually, he got married off to somewhere in the Free Marches, and people said he was lucky to have survived long enough to see his wedding.

These people were nothing like that… nothing like anything I’d pictured. They were tall, proud, beautiful, and fierce, with their wild hair and their ink-stained flesh, and their leathers, furs, and cloth all dyed in greens and purples, blues and russets. They were like the blooms that crept between the roots of trees: secret wonders that hid within the forest’s heart.

And they just stood there, watching us.

The tension was practically palpable, and I was extremely glad when Maethor did a little to break it by sitting down beside me with a leaf-rustling thump and having a damn good scratch.

Finally, Mithra emerged from the wagon. She strode back towards us, flanked by Aegan and Revasir, and her face was full of thunder.

Several of the other elves watched as she bore down on us, and one or two murmured to each other behind their hands. She stopped a few feet in front of me, her entire body almost quivering with barely suppressed displeasure.

The Keeper wishes to speak with you,” she said, the words ‘for some reason I cannot fathom’ trailing, unspoken. “You will show him respect.”

Thank you.” I nodded, formulaic and old-fashioned words coming back to me from a long-ago lifetime of cobbled streets and po-faced elders. “You do us honour by your generosity. We welcome that most humbly.”

I meant well by it, but she looked at me like I was a babbling child, and gestured brusquely to the wagon, and the fire before it.

Come.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if we were all meant to accompany her or not, but I was comforted a little by the way the others started to move with me, as if quietly, politely iterating that—while we would respect the wild elves’ ways—we would neither be parted nor controlled.

I shot a glance at Alistair as we crossed the clearing, the crowd of onlookers peeling back from us like steam spilling from a kettle. He grimaced at me, his back tense and his steps uncertain.

As we neared the wagon, close enough for the heat of the fire before it to spill out in waves—reminding me painfully of just how cold I was—the curtain hanging over the wagon’s open door twitched, and a figure emerged from within.

He was an old man, older than our hahren, wrapped in a thick, dark green woollen cloak and clinging to a large, heavy staff for support. Long, thin hands with raised veins on their backs, like mottled blue rivers against brown, leathery skin, ended in the knotted curls of fingers, crabbed with age and swollen joints. He should have looked frail… and he would have done, but for the gaunt, dark-shadowed face that topped his hunched, cloth-swathed frame.

His cheeks were sunken, his mouth a thin and withered line, with deep troughs gouged from its corners to his nose, which soared in a high, thin sickle over a narrow, angular profile. I wasn’t surprised to see the tattoos on his face: faded curves and sweeps of dark brown, blue, and green that formed knots and whorls on his cheeks, chin, and forehead, and thin lines that bisected the areas of skin in between. His head had been shaved—something I’d never seen on an elf before, excepting cases of ringworm or really bad lice, or the rare occasion a girl who’d made some questionable choices got herself caught by a group of her peers who didn’t approve of whores. That strange juxtaposition jarred me, as did the inexplicable sense of nervous anticipation I felt as I stared at the elf’s face, and the pale green eyes that seemed to shimmer as his gaze flicked over us.

Mithra bowed low as she spoke to him, her voice for once devoid of all that challenge and hardness. Though I didn’t understand what she said, I gathered she was presenting as ‘the outsiders’, and probably indicating her discomfort with our presence.

He held up a hand, the folds of his cloak shifting a little as he let them go, and I caught a glimpse of layers of cloth beneath, evidently protection for an old man’s weakness against the cold. He stopped on the middle step of the wagon and surveyed us and, when he spoke, his voice was soft, with just a hint of age’s rasp to its warm, rounded tone.

Ma serennas, Mithra,” he said, looking steadily at her. “You did right. Now you may return to your post.”

It surprised me to hear him address her in the common tongue, and with much less trace of an accent than I’d heard so far. I supposed he was demonstrating his command of the language, so we knew he spoke and understood it. Only later would I learn how little Elvish the Dalish truly possessed.

Ma nuvenin, Keeper.” She bowed again, but she gave me a look filled with deep distrust as she left the fireside, the archers following on behind.

I was aware of the splintered crowd lingering beyond the fire. They were still watching, albeit from a distance. I imagined they held their elder in high enough regard that, if any one of us should so much as look at him the wrong way, we wouldn’t leave this place in one piece. I took a slow breath, watching the firelight dance against the high sides of the Keeper’s wagon—a huge thing, with a prow like a ship, and the same kinds of strange lines and curves I saw everywhere here, painted in twirling arabesques over its notched wooden planks—and tried to summon the courage to meet the man’s eye.

He descended the last few steps slowly, his leather-shod feet almost soundless, but his staff knocking hollowly on the wood. I couldn’t help feeling the impression of frailty was a shallow one; I was too used to the tough, unflappable elders of the alienage, marinated in their own hardship until the only thing that seemed to kill them off was a momentary lapse of concentration. Besides, I’d have had to be blind to miss the glyphs and runes etched into that staff. Was he a mage? That thought was strange to me, too. Did the Dalish have magic? Elven magic? It was possible, I supposed. There were no templars out here to snatch children with the curse off to the Circle, and maybe that meant they didn’t grow up fearing it as we had.

Maybe it was the way we’d been once, in the time of Arlathan.

He reached the bottom step, and stood level with us on the ground: a tall man, like so many of the elves I’d seen here. He was only a couple of inches shorter than Alistair, though he managed to look at us all as if we were beneath him.

Greetings. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Zathrian, Keeper of this clan, its guide and preserver of our ancient lore. And you are?”

It was a hahren’s voice, I thought: warm and comforting, and full of reassurance and authority. Maker, he even managed to make me feel calmer, despite the tension that cramped the air.

Merien Tabris, Keeper,” I said promptly, bowing from the chest as I would have done to any elder, and adding a little belatedly: “Of the Grey Wardens. Um. This is my fellow Warden, Alistair, and our companions… Leliana, Wynne, Sten, Morrigan, and—”

Zevran Arainai. Arhim atish’an, Keeper.”

My mouth closed around the half-made introductions. Of course Zevran spoke the bloody language. Obviously. I straightened up, observing that, naturally, he bowed with great elegance, and—to me, at least—his accent sounded perfect. I tried not to hate him for it.

Zathrian looked consideringly at him, and then nodded crisply. “Andaran atish’an.”

Beside us, the fire leapt and crackled. There was a loud pop, and for a moment I thought of Mother, who always said such things were omens. Maybe Zathrian thought so too, for one knotted hand closed more tightly around his staff, and those piercing green eyes found mine.

Warden, my people have been aware of your presence in the forest. We waited to see if you would leave, but you did not. If you were seeking us in order to bring us news of the Blight in the south, it is not needed. I have long sensed its corruption.”

I inclined my head respectfully. “I’m afraid we don’t come bearing news so much as asking for help, Keeper. Many years ago—”

Zathrian winced impatiently. “Yes. The treaties. Mithra mentioned this. May I see them?”

I looked over my shoulder at Alistair. He’d already taken the leather wallet from its place of safety in his pack, and came forwards to offer it for inspection. At first, I thought Zathrian actually expected me to play intermediary and pass the documents to him, but he moved and took the thick parchment from Alistair’s fingers, albeit with a slight lapse of grace. The treaties’ mouldy, stagnant smell rose up, ripe with age, as Zathrian’s fingers moved reverently over the pages, skimming the signatures and heavy wax seals at the bottom.

Truly,” he murmured, apparently to himself, “I had never thought to see…. Of course, one hopes such a day will not come, but still! Thank you,” he said, addressing me, and passing the treaties into my hands. “It is an honour to see these papers, and to have Grey Wardens among us. I… I must apologise for the lack of an appropriate welcome.”

Well, he’d changed his tune. Had we sufficiently proved our identity, then? Did the Dalish consider Grey Wardens so magnificent? I didn’t know, and the not knowing made me nervous. I gave the treaties back to Alistair, the awkward discomfort of this little interview beginning to tell in the way my fingers grew clumsy. For a moment, I thought I might end up dropping four-centuries-old Grey Warden documents straight into the fire, but I prevailed.

Not at all,” I managed. “I understand the need to guard your people’s privacy, especially from armed travellers.”

Zathrian’s expression grew a little less stern, and he nodded slowly. “Indeed. However, I am afraid that, this time, the Dalish shall not honour their commitment.”

What?” Alistair interjected, though the elf ignored him. “But—”

The Blight is a threat that affects everyone,” I protested. “We must unite—”

I am well aware of that,” Zathrian said sharply, fixing me with a withering look. “But you come late, Warden. The clans have already moved north. We are the last to leave, though not by my choice.”

I frowned. “I… I don’t understand.”

The keeper sighed and leaned upon his staff, those shimmering eyes growing hooded and weary.

No. This will require some explanation. I expected as much. We have been afflicted by sickness, Warden.” Zathrian raised his head and nodded at the scattered crowd of Dalish, still keeping their distance from his wagon, but watching us intently. “You see here perhaps half of the clan. Many of us may not survive, and we are certainly in no shape to march to war.”

I glanced over my shoulder, the reflexive city-bred fear of disease clenching around my heart. Whatever it was, I hoped it wasn’t catching.

Zathrian lifted one crabbed hand, gesturing behind him to the long, low tents we’d seen as we descended the ridge, and which lay to the farthest side of the camp.

Our sick are tended here. We cannot save them, but we will not abandon them. I am sorry we are not better equipped to help you but perhaps you will accept an offer of hospitality? Share our camp and our food, tonight. Be on your way in the morning. Is that acceptable?”

That is… generous,” I said carefully, little bells of warning tinkling at the back of my mind.

Zathrian’s scouts had tracked us through the forest. He had known of our presence, I had no doubt, and yet he seemed very keen to be rid of us.

Zevran had told me that, if we found the Dalish, it would be because they allowed us to do so. I didn’t know if that was what had happened; perhaps, if it hadn’t been for Zev himself, we’d have got out of the forest without ever knowing Mithra and her archers had been there. Or perhaps that was what I was meant to think.

I didn’t know, and the conflicting possibilities were beginning to weigh heavily on the back of my neck. I turned and glanced at my companions. Wynne was the first to catch my eye and, at a slight nod from me, she stepped forwards and inclined her head respectfully to Zathrian.

We thank you for your hospitality at this difficult time, Keeper. If I may… my name is Wynne, and I am an enchanter of the Circle of Magi. I have some small skill as a healer, and—”

Zathrian shook his head abruptly. “No. Your kindness is appreciated, but no. What ails our clan cannot be cured with magic. Not your kind.”

She bristled a little, though she hid it well, and I cleared my throat, slipping in before anyone had a chance to mess this up.

Then it’s settled. Thank you, Keeper. We most gratefully accept.”

He looked faintly relieved. “Good. I shall have my First show you where you may pitch your tents. Please, familiarise yourself with the camp. I ask only that you leave the sick in peace.”

Well, it was better than nothing, I supposed. I nodded and mustered as much grace as I could to thank him grace that Zathrian brushed away like it was nothing more than an irritation.

~o~O~o~

I wasn’t sure what a Keeper’s First was. It turned out to be an apprentice of some kind, in the form of a small, delicate girl who introduced herself as Lanaya.

Dressed like Zathrian, in long robes covered by a voluminous cloak, she wore her fair hair in a mess of short braids and pigtails, and even the lines of her tattoos seemed dainty, like they’d been sketched over her smooth skin by a lighter hand than the thick, dark shapes I’d seen on the scouts.

She led us across the clearing, pointing out all the necessary bits of the camp along the way, and naming what she called their hahrens. I was confused at first, until I realised they used the wordour wordthe same way we used ‘elder’ in the alienage; as a term of respect, but not always leadership. My brain raced as I tried to keep up, for the soft sweetness of Lanaya’s voice was a cunning disguise for a brisk, relentless pace. That meant, then, that the Dalish held certain members of their clan in high esteem. She pointed out their storykeeper, Hahren Sarel, their craftsmaster, Hahren Varathornwith whom we might trade, if he permitted it, should we need anythingand Hahren Elora, who was indicated with a brief wave of one small hand as being at the foot of the clearing, down by the stream that curved, unseen, behind the tree line, and where we might draw water.

She is our halla mistress,” Lanaya said, glancing wistfully in the direction she’d pointed, “and a most experienced healer. Although not even she can help those poor people.”

I frowned, still stuck on what a halla was. Alistair cleared his throat.

Pardon me for asking, but what exactly is this sickness?”

Lanaya blinked and looked at him in surprise. In the few moments we’d been talking with her, she’d seemed much more amenable than the other Dalish we’d met, but she still didn’t appear to have expected him to address her directly. As I looked at her, the briefest flicker of real fear seemed to pass over her eyes, but it was gone so fast I thought I’d imagined it.

I I really couldn’t say,” she murmured, drawing to a halt at a patch of ground a respectable distance from the rest of the camp, but still sheltered by the trees. A soft lowing sound, like that of cattle, drifted on the air. “It would not be my place to discuss the affairs of the clan. If you were to ask the Keeper.”

He doesn’t seem all that free with his information.” Alistair wrinkled his nose doubtfully. “In fact, I rather got the impressow!”

Oh, I do apologise,” Zevran said, making a show of dropping his pack on Alistair’s foot… and narrowly disguising the fact he’d just kicked him. “How clumsy of me.”

Thank you for your help,” I said hurriedly. “We’ll, um, we’ll try not to be any trouble.”

Lanaya smiled at me, but didn’t utter any polite ameliorations. She left us to settle ourselves—quite ostentatiously set apart from the clan, so we could make our own fire, cook our own food… not that we were to feel unwelcome, of course—and retired, leaving us not entirely alone. Most of the Dalish who’d gathered to watch our meeting with Zathrian had dispersed, the entertainment (or perhaps the immediate threat) being over, but a few still lingered. Ostensibly, they were mostly occupied, stacking sacks of supplies, or inspecting the wheel rims of wagons, or other such non-tasks, though a couple did just stand and stare without any pretext or pretence.

Makes you awfully exposed, doesn’t it?” Leliana said quietly, as we started to pitch our tents.

I nodded. “I don’t like this at all. They’re….”

I didn’t want to say ‘hiding something’. There were far too many people around.

They don’t trust us,” Alistair observed, slinging canvas over the poles. He frowned slightly as he looked at me. “They don’t even trust you.”

I grimaced. He was right, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant a sensation.

To be fair,” Zevran chipped in, kneeling to begin scraping a space for a fire, “they don’t trust any of us, elven or not. Are they still watching?”

Mm-hm.” I glanced surreptitiously at the knot of three men beside the nearest wagon. Two of the men weren’t even pretending to be doing anything; they were just standing there, glaring at us.

As I did my best not to be seen looking, I noticed a fourth stride up to join them, leaning in behind the others and starting a hastily whispered conversation. He was young and, unusually among what I’d seen of the Dalish, bore no tattoos. The only ones without them I’d spotted so far were the few children scampering about, but I didn’t stop to stare. Obviously, the news of our presence was spreading even among those of the clan who hadn’t been there when we arrived… and that prospect hardly filled me with glee.

I turned my back and we got on quietly with the business of making camp, mindful to show our gratitude at being allowed these crumbs of hospitality. It wasn’t what I’d expected, and it certainly wasn’t anything like the stories I’d so eagerly devoured when I was a child. No Emerald Knights here; no magnificent, beautiful people with the wild hearts of the woodland, and the gentle compassion of a storybook’s broad pen.

I determined that, when the evening drew in, we’d find out more about this sickness, and—if the Dalish truly couldn’t honour the treaty—we’d leave in the morning, and at least we’d know. I tried to tell myself that, like it made everything better. We’d know, instead of sloping away to the west in the fugue of failure… and that was something. Maybe, even if Zathrian’s clan couldn’t help us, they could get word to the other clans, the ones who’d already headed north. That seemed a sensible prospect to hold onto, and I tried to force myself into believing that it might happen.

I was so deep in contemplating it, I barely noticed the young Dalish elf crossing the clearing towards me.

Hey! I said, hey. It is, isn’t it?”

We had most of the tents up, and Sten was taking his usual duty of coaxing a fire from recalcitrant wood. Morrigan had evidently decided she’d done enough to help, and settled herself by one of the trees, while Leliana and Wynne had just gone to investigate the drawing of water.

I turned, frowning in mild confusion. Maethor grumbled at the interloper, and Alistair started to tense, like he really thought the clan honestly intended to string him up.

Merien… Merien Tabris?”

The Dalish boy looked about my age, his deep tan skin not yet as weathered as many of the clan. His dark, reddish-chestnut hair was fairly short, too, and hung in roughly cut layers, just long enough to tuck behind his wide-set, heavy ears. He wore a patched, rather mismatched ensemble of deep green and brown broadcloth—with muddy, fur-stitched boots and a cloak that looked as if it probably smelled like dead dog and ditch-water—and yet there was something about him that seemed familiar. He certainly stood out among the sharp-featured, haughty Dalish… and, as I looked at his face, with its rounded nose and flared, high cheekbones, a sense of insane impossibility washed over me.

I opened my mouth to speak, but my tongue was dry. It couldn’t be, could it?

He seemed to be thinking much the same thing. As he gazed at me, his small, dark eyes widened. “It is you, isn’t it? I don’t believe it! The the last I heard of you, you were meant to be marrying a blacksmith or something. What?”

My voice finally unglued itself, and I stuttered jerkily.

D-Daeon?” His name left me in a choked breath, a whisper of a world I’d thought I’d left behind forever. I didn’t know whether to laugh or run, and settled for shaking my head in disbelief. “Yes, it’s… I mean, it’s me. I-I don’t know what to Maker! You… you actually found them?”

Daeon shrugged. “Well, I always said I would, didn’t I?”

Oh, yes that was the boy I knew. The arrogant, stubborn boy with the scraped knees and patched breeches, who used to drive his older brother to distraction. That sharp hint of pride in his voice could have anyone who didn’t know better mistaking him for Dalish, but he wasn’t.

He was a gutter rat flat-ear, just like me.

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Volume 4: Chapter Six
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