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I understood why Morrigan had been reticent about changing her form in front of us. Assuming she could do different animals, and not just the raven, then the magic explained all those neat kills on hunting trips (of course, I’d never figured her for using snares or traps), and that was deeply unsettling knowledge to be faced with.
Somehow, just having suspected her of being capable of it was very different to having seen it happen first-hand, and I clearly wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Certainly, I wouldn’t have cared to be on the receiving end of the looks we were all guilty of giving her when, finally, we stopped in a small clearing.
That is, Morrigan stopped. The raven flapped down to the ground, then made a violent stirring of the leaves, cawing and beating its wings at us every time we tried to enter the clearing, rising up a good four or five feet and screaming in hoarse fury.
“I, er, I think she needs a moment of privacy,” Leliana suggested, coming forwards with the bundle of Morrigan’s clothes.
The bird cawed again, and allowed Leliana into the clearing to put the robes down. She retreated, and stood with the rest of us behind a clump of trees and bracken, while a series of peculiar noises—followed by some deep breathing, and the rustle of fabric and leather—indicated Morrigan regaining her normal self.
I stared studiously at the canopy until she barked a crisp “Come!” and, with relief, we filed into the clearing she’d found.
She had done well, however, and led us to a place that seemed safe enough to stay while we rested, and tried to work out exactly how far away we were from where we’d entered the forest. Trees still fringed everything, of course, and I nearly shivered just to look at them, but the thick leaf-litter on the ground and the fronds of fern and bracken in the brush had the look of soft comforts, while the fallen tree at the far edge of the clearing—obviously a fairly recent casualty of age, or perhaps a storm—had opened up the canopy a little, and made things feel just slightly less stifling.
All the same, we inspected every single tree in the clearing before we made camp. None of them grew violent in response to a quick kick, so things appeared safe enough… at least for a while.
Sten built a small fire. Wood was more plentiful than it had been in ages, but actually using it felt a little odd. The supplies we’d had from Bodahn were lasting well, though we weren’t carrying a great deal of food. Being Bodahn, naturally, he’d had more in the way of interesting artefacts and drawn-out tales to sell us than rations, but nevertheless Wynne and Leliana managed to make something approaching a meal out of a few bits of dried meat, some grains, and three cups of our jealously guarded water.
Putting the tents up seemed almost wasted effort when we didn’t mean to rest too long, but it was a better prospect than sleeping out in the open, unprotected. Anyway, as the canvas began to go up, and the smell of dinner started to tug on the air, things did start to feel a little bit safer.
Morrigan retreated from the rest of us, of course, as far as space would allow. She moved right over to the far side of the clearing and made herself a scrape by one of the trees, her staff stuck in the ground beside her like a pennant or a warning sign.
The others were sprawled out by the tents or sitting by the cookpot, anticipating the prospect of food. Only Maethor looked up as, finished with the business of my own tent, I brushed my hands against my leathers, and began to venture tentatively over towards her. Alistair glanced up as I passed him, and shot me a questioning look, the opinion that I was either wasting my time or taking my life in my hands written large on his face. I said nothing.
She barely blinked at my approach. The angle of her head shifted a little at the sound of my footsteps crackling on the leaves, but that was all.
I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Um… Morrigan?”
She waved a hand dismissively at me. I decided to take it as an invitation, and squatted opposite her in the musty, damp, sweet-earth smell of the leaf-litter.
“I was, uh, wondering—”
“So. Full of questions, are you?” she asked darkly, her tone flat and cynical.
I hadn’t imagined she’d make it easy for me. My fingertips dandled idly in the crisp leaf-litter, and I tilted my head to the side.
“Can you blame me? I’d never seen anything like that before. It was… very impressive.”
Her head snapped around, and despite the strength of that golden stare she seemed very tired. The swoops of shadow she painted around her eyes were worn, her lips rubbed to a near-normal shade, and her pale skin had that ashen hue I’d seen when she exhausted herself before. Clearly, changing one’s shape was no mere party trick, even for a mage as powerful as I believed her to be.
She glared at me, and the hardness of her eyes seemed both challenge and defence. I wet my lower lip, and tried again.
“I wasn’t raised around magic. You know that… so, I’m ignorant, I suppose. Is it a gift? Something you’re born able to do, or—?”
Morrigan curled her lip. “’Tis a skill. A skill of Flemeth’s, taught over many years in the Wilds.”
“Oh. And hard to learn, right?”
The hardness in those ochre-yellow eyes seemed to lessen just a little, and she snorted. “Perhaps.”
It was growing dark now, rather earlier than we’d hoped, and the shadows folded around us like wings. Over near the fire, Wynne clanged the ladle against the side of the cookpot, and Maethor whined impatiently. Zevran was talking quietly—quietly for him, at any rate, with very little expansive or suave smiling—and, from the few words I caught, I gathered it was about the Dalish. I supposed he’d decided to share the story of his mother with the others. Maybe he thought it would help them, or focus their thoughts on what we were looking for… or maybe it was just another opportunity to glamorise himself. Either way, I wished him well of it.
“Anyway,” I said, looking studiously at the witch, “I was concerned. I am, I mean. After the beating you took at the Peak—”
She sneered, reminding me of the reasons I hadn’t pressed the subject before.
“I am healed,” Morrigan snapped. “The old woman does have her uses. And we rested before moving on again. There is nothing wrong with me, and ’twould take more than a few changes of my form to sap my strength entirely. You may all be sure of that.”
I sighed, a little annoyed by the brusqueness with which she pushed away almost every attempt I made to be friendly. Besides, I couldn’t help feeling she was protesting too much. “That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but I’m glad to hear it, I suppose.”
Morrigan’s lips twitched, something rather like an amused smirk playing around her mouth.
“The Chasind tell of us, you know,” she said, after a moment, and her tone was curious… a cross between taunting and wheedling.
Unsurprised, I arched my brows. “Do they?”
“Indeed. They say how we witches assume the forms of creatures to watch them from hiding, and how—when a child is alone and separated from his tribe—we strike.”
Well, that didn’t sound pleasant.
“Strike?” I echoed.
She snorted softly. “Mm. We drag the young boy, kicking and screaming, to our lair to be devoured. A most amusing legend… though whether ’tis truth or not, I cannot say. My lifespan is but a fraction of Flemeth’s. That she has never done it in my experience is not proof of anything.”
It seemed wonders never ceased. Morrigan was showing me her sense of humour. I was more than a little honoured by it, though I didn’t want to admit that, or indeed to admit how intrigued I was by the witch and her craft. Her magic—the magic we had seen that day—fascinated and repelled me in equal measure, just as did so much about the mage herself, and that dark, brutal whisper of the Wilds that still clung to her.
I smiled, despite myself, and as her lips curved further, exposing a hint of white teeth beneath the unevenly worn paint, a thought tugged at my mind.
“C-can you be, um, people, too? I mean, another human, or—?”
Morrigan’s smile vanished, informing me that I’d said something silly, and she shook her head curtly.
“No. The form of an animal is different from my own. A bird, a wolf, a cat… these are forms I know. One may study the creature, learn to move as it does, to think as it does.” She leaned forwards a little, and her eyes seemed to burn with a fierce kind of pride in the knowledge, before she appeared to realise there was little point speaking of it with me. She shrugged. “In time, this allows one to become as it is. I gain nothing by studying another human. I already am the same as they are; I learn nothing.”
My brow furrowed. It seemed odd that she would fail to see the advantages of such a thing, though I supposed she’d never had need of it.
I couldn’t help thinking, though, if I had that power, if I could become someone else… would I? Would I ever have crept from my own wilderness and ventured into a foreign place, if it meant the freedom to walk untrammelled, to run as wild as the wolves she spoke of?
It wasn’t something I had ever imagined before, yet suddenly I could almost taste how wonderful it would be to soar as an eagle, run as a hound… walk as a man.
I shook the thoughts away. They were deceitful and cheap, and I wasn’t a mage anyway, so there was no sense in taunting myself with impossibilities. I looked carefully at Morrigan, and tried to ignore the way my stomach was tightening on the approaching prospect of food. The air was cold, and smelled of stew and leather, overlaying the damp earthiness of the woodland floor, and yet the ever-present shapes of trees seemed to loom blacker than the darkness itself.
“So… you haven’t, or you actually can’t?” I asked… perhaps foolishly.
The witch glared at me. “I told you: there would be no point. I would learn nothing.”
“You only, uh, change to learn, then?”
Morrigan’s gaze wavered a little, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d exposed an inconsistency, or struck at a nerve she’d been trying to conceal.
“Yes,” she said, though the smallest trace of uncertainty seemed to cling to the word. “That is to say…. Well, you may look upon this world and think you know it well. You do not. I have smelled it as a wolf, listened as a cat, an prowled shadows that you never dreamed existed.”
She leaned forward again, the look on her face a fierce, sudden challenge, and I fought to hold my ground, my back tightening so I wouldn’t sway away from the heat of her gaze, and land on my arse in the leaves.
Her mouth bowed, like a dog about to bare its teeth, and the grainy dimness of shadows wreathed her face, making her look like the white centre to some strange, night-blooming flower. The fire at the other side of the clearing burned brighter by contrast and—as something Zevran said appeared to make Leliana laugh softly—I fought the urge to glance over towards it.
I held the look of unwavering, contemptuous confrontation in Morrigan’s eyes and then, in a moment, she seemed to soften, as if something I’d said or done had been the passing of an invisible test.
“There were nights the Wilds called to me.” She shrugged dismissively. “That is true, and it was a life with little amity. I neither knew nor wished to know the world of men, filled with people and buildings and… things.”
Her hand twitched again, an irritable little movement that, for a moment, looked the ruffling of a bird’s wing. I watched the motion of her half-spread fingers in the air, and wondered how difficult it was for her to shake off the mind of the raven.
“’Twas of no matter, you see. If I wished companionship, I ran with the wolves and flew with the birds. If I spoke, ’twas to the trees.”
Distracted by my thoughts, I glanced at the blind-eyed oaken monoliths fringing our camp. Ugh. “And did they speak back?”
Morrigan curled her lip. “Do not be foolish.”
“Sorry. I just meant— well, when you’re like… that….” It was my turn to gesticulate vaguely, though my hard, freckled little paws didn’t resemble white bird’s wings in the way hers did. “What do they think of you? The wolves, or…?”
She arched those thin brows, and the worn creases of shadow around her eyes shifted like dark wrinkles. “Think of me? Hmph. I could not say. They do not shy away… perhaps they do not even recognise that I am different. But, what they think, I do not know. No matter my form, I am still human, and they still beasts. I am not,” she added, with a touch of steel in her tone, “like them.”
“No,” I said, turning my face from that hard, ochre glare. “I suppose not.”
Well, truer words were rarely spoken. Morrigan was like nothing I’d ever encountered, and I still hadn’t come to terms with her nature.
The kindnesses she’d done—sparing the life of the blood mage at Redcliffe, or pressing balms for my feet upon me—loomed in my mind, and I wanted to believe that her cruelty was a façade, a spiky shell she hid behind to save herself from embarrassment in a world that felt just as alien to her as it did to me… but we weren’t sisters. We weren’t any kind of natural kin in spirit, race, or history, and I couldn’t ignore the feeling that there was much more to these different sides of Morrigan than I could possibly understand.
To me, that night, she was like the forest itself. Her duality and her mystery seemed knitted into the shadows that fell between the tree roots, and in that wild place she was every bit as dangerous as the dyads we’d encountered. I was under no illusions about that, and yet I found myself wondering just how much of everything I knew about her was illusion.
For all her dark glamour and hard edges, Morrigan seemed to have vulnerabilities, and I wasn’t sure if they were there because they were true… or because she wanted me to see them.
I frowned as I ventured to look up again. Near the fire, Wynne was smiling at Alistair. I’d gathered he was still worried about her by the way he was sticking so closely to her side, though she didn’t look as pale or weary as she had. Leliana was sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees, managing to look femininely boyish as the firelight glimmered on her skin. I turned my gaze to Morrigan, and felt the coolness of the night on my cheeks; the two of us, sitting here, swathed in shadows.
“I did once creep beyond the edge of the Wilds,” she said, and she sounded almost wistful, her stare fixed on the tangled mass of bracken and brambles beside us.
Deep in the undergrowth, something scurried… a mouse, probably. Morrigan’s eyes seemed to track the sound, as if she could pinpoint the creature by its scampering rustles.
“I did so in animal form, remaining in the shadows and watching these strange townsfolk from afar.”
“You were… curious?”
Not as little interest in the human world as she’d said, then. I watched the fleeting look of cool disapproval flit across her face.
“I was but a child, used only to the templars who would occasionally come to seek us. Mother would have me play bait for them—a little girl to scream and run, and lure them ever closer to their doom—but they were fools.”
She almost seemed to relish saying it, and I couldn’t hide my wince, though I said nothing. I might have grown up almost entirely ignorant of magic and thinking templars were just guardsmen in another uniform but, ever since the first time Alistair and I were led to Flemeth’s strange little hut, I’d been learning more every day about the realities of mages and their hunters.
Besides, I knew all too well that, sometimes, survival brings with it a steel-cold, dark taste of pleasure at winning… delight in taking a victor’s blade to one who would have ended you upon it.
“You wanted to see what the world was like for them,” I said instead, expecting her to stare me down, or declare this oddly convivial little chat of ours emphatically over. “Why shouldn’t you?”
Morrigan smiled then; an actual, honest smile. It was only small, but I saw it.
“So, what did you find?”
She shrugged, the feathers and ragged edges of her robes shifting against her pale shoulders. “I happened upon a noblewoman by her carriage, adorned in sparkling garments the like of which I had never before seen. I was dazzled. This, to me, seemed what true wealth and beauty must be.”
Again, Morrigan’s face took on that contemplative look, and she stared thoughtfully into the bushes.
“I snuck up behind her, and stole a golden hand mirror from the carriage. ’Twas encrusted with gems—a most valuable thing—and I hugged it to my chest with delight as I sped back into the Wilds.”
She tilted her head to the side, like someone recalling a particularly lovely melody, and her lips parted just a little… only for that small, nostalgic smile to be wiped away, replaced with a look of haughty coldness.
“Naturally, Flemeth was furious with me. I had not yet come into my full power, but I had risked discovery for the sake of a pretty bauble—risked both of us, for doubtless, had I been captured and put to torture, I would have revealed her whereabouts. So, to teach me a lesson, Flemeth took the mirror and smashed it upon the ground. I was heartbroken.”
Those ochre-yellow eyes met mine again, once more full of challenge and mild disdain. They narrowed at my look of wounded incomprehension, and the thinning of Morrigan’s lips told me, even before the words were out of my mouth, that my reaction was living down to her expectations.
“But you were just a child! That was—”
Cruel, I was going to say. She didn’t let me finish.
“Foolish,” Morrigan said sharply. “No, Flemeth was right to break me of my fascination. Beauty and love are fleeting and have no meaning. Survival has meaning. Power has meaning. Without those lessons I would not be here today, as difficult as they might have been.”
I stared, aghast. Such words were the antithesis to all I’d ever been, all I’d ever known. I wanted to be appalled, and yet… what had love and family and closeness brought me?
The memory of Mother’s death welled like a fresh, bleeding wound in my mind, and after it came others. My uncle Merenir, killing himself slowly with drink; those dark nights when Soris would come to our door with a black eye or a split lip, and ask Father to help. He always would, and—because we were family—the cracks would be daubed over until it happened again. A dozen faces surged behind my eyes. Nessa, who would have been better off if I’d never tried to help her, and Nola, and poor little Valora, and my beloved Shianni, memories of her muddled up so that she was at once weeping at her father’s funeral, and sobbing like I’d never heard anyone sob before… and never wanted to hear again. And now they were all gone, the whole alienage purged to a cinder because of me… simply because I had been one of them.
Perhaps belonging wasn’t worth as much as it seemed.
Perhaps, as the witch said, love was merely a fleeting thing, and only survival mattered. And I was still here, wasn’t I? I was still alive, awakening to the shadows that shrouded me, because what mattered was the task that lay ahead. What mattered was ending the Blight, and Grey Wardens were meant to do that, whatever the price.
“I suppose,” I said consideringly, peering at Morrigan in the dimness, “thinking like that, it makes you stronger, doesn’t it?”
She nodded. “Yes. And strength, after all, is power.” One bare shoulder flexed again, and the light of the rising moon glinted in a thin sliver against the jewels she wore at her neck. “Perhaps I find myself, at times, wondering what might have become of the girl with the beautiful golden mirror… but such fantasies have no place amidst reality. And such is how it must be, do you not agree?”
I wrinkled my nose, and nodded grudgingly. My legs were sore from so long crouching, and my stomach grumbled at the clinking of bowls from beside the fire. Wynne was about to begin serving supper, and I noticed Maethor presenting a very stately sitting position in hopes of titbits.
Affection washed through me, despite the hard words… affection for all of them, these people who had joined with me because—whatever their own reasons—they believed in doing something right.
A sneaking voice at the back of my mind told me that was idealism. Morrigan was here because Flemeth had forced her to join us, and Sten because he was a convict with no other option. Zevran—whether he truly believed he was repaying a debt or an oath of fealty—was just lucky we hadn’t killed him and, while Leliana claimed her vision had motivated her, the day we’d met her, she’d already had a pack with her and had been trying to get out of Lothering. I half-suspected she’d been on the run since Orlais, though I had no notion of what might lay behind her. Even Maethor had imprinted himself on me by chance and happenstance rather than conscious decision.
No, of all of us, only Wynne had actively chosen to come when she could have stayed at the Tower. Even Alistair—and, my newer and more complicated feelings aside, I still believed he was the best of us—was in the middle of this mess simply because he couldn’t be anywhere else. He and I had survived where others had fallen, and we had a price to pay for that, however bitter it seemed.
I looked at Morrigan, her dark brows arched in enquiry.
“You’re right,” I said softly.
“Indeed?” She sounded more than a little smug, and her lips twitched into a smirk. “Then you do not consider me an unnatural abomination to be put to the torch?”
I shook my head wearily as Wynne began to serve the stew, and rose to my feet.
“Honestly, Morrigan? No. I don’t think so. I think doing that would just make you angry.”
She surprised me then. Those dark lips split wide and, throwing her head back to reveal that long, white neck, she laughed. It was a sound as delicate and sharp as black glass breaking and, as I turned towards the fire, I felt the others’ quizzical glances on me.
It was going to be a long night.
We ate, but it was hard to rest, even after we agreed to take the majority of the night in the clearing, staying longer than we’d initially planned, and moving on before the dawn. Morrigan was a little twitchy about it, but grudgingly conceded we could probably all do with the break. We decided to split the night into watches—something we’d rarely bothered to do before, as Maethor was such a useful guard dog, and we’d faced so little danger on the road—but it was clear no one was going to get more than the minimum of sleep.
Though I was to take second watch alongside Alistair, it was not with anticipation that I lay, still dressed, upon my bedroll, waiting as the minutes slipped past. Fatigue tugged at me, and yet worry painted ugly scenes behind my eyes. In the morning, I decided we’d have to head out of the forest. Whether the Dalish were here or not, it wasn’t worth getting ourselves killed over… no matter how much I hated myself for thinking that. I wanted to find them. I wanted to find them so badly—to know they were real, know they were alive—but I had to be reasonable, didn’t I? And yet, it was reasonable to believe we needed the Dalish. We needed every ally we could get and, if they were as magnificent in battle as Sten said, perhaps their aid could be the one thing that turned back the darkspawn horde.
I wanted to think that. I wanted to fall asleep so I could have the hazy half-dream that danced across my mind, in which elves saved all of Thedas from destruction, and even King Cailan himself got down on bended knee to thank them… only, of course, Cailan was dead.
I rolled onto my side, my head suddenly and uncomfortably full of memories of Ostagar, on a night when the sky turned red with fiery arrows, and I ran past the bodies of men torn in half, only to reach a tower full of monsters.
One good thing about the Brecilian Forest, I thought bitterly, was that it seemed mercifully free of darkspawn. In fact, we’d not encountered any since the rogue band south-east of Lake Calenhad, and that made me wonder how slowly the horde was travelling. I wished I could read the map better, or know more things about how armies moved… if the darkspawn did move like an army, instead of a pestilent swarm. I had no idea how long we had before they gushed up the valley like a torrent. Would Redcliffe even be there, if we managed to find Brother Genitivi and his magic cure? The castle was in a defensible position, yes, but they wouldn’t hold out forever. Nothing could, not against that kind of onslaught, surely.
I opened my eyes then, afraid of the possibility of dreams, and the great, dark shape that spread its wings over them.
Movement outside my tent made me catch my breath, before a familiar low whistle sounded.
“Psst. You awake?”
I ducked out of the tent flap and found Alistair, looking frowsty in partial armour, with his sheathed sword in his hand, standing close by. On the other side of the smouldering fire, I saw Leliana and Zevran retiring to their respective tents, and I nodded companionably. Zev had already ducked into his tent, but Leliana gave me a quiet, tired smile.
Alistair stifled a huge yawn and scrubbed the back of his wrist across his mouth. “Ugh… what?”
I dredged up a grin for him, despite the weariness congealed in my flesh.
“Hmm. I’m more awake than you are, by the look of it.”
He wrinkled his nose. “I’ll have you know, madam, that it’s been a very long day.”
‘Madam’ made me snort with smothered laughter, but he had a point. We were all tired. I stooped back into my tent to retrieve my daggers and sword belt, along with a rag and a jar of gritty, greasy polish. Bodahn might not have had huge quantities of edible supplies, but we had managed to stock up on all the most foul-smelling leather and metal cleansers… of course.
“Great minds think alike,” Alistair observed, flourishing his own sword belt and the cloth tucked into his palm. “If we have to be up, might as well make use of the time, right?”
We settled ourselves by the fire, side-by-side, cross-legged on the ground, our movements small and our voices hushed so as not to wake anyone, and for a while we didn’t speak much. The cold night air seemed blade-sharp, and the light breeze picking at the trees whetted itself on my cheeks in a strange and eerie mirroring of the motion my cloth made against my sword. Once the leaf litter was swept back a bit, the ground was a soft carpet of old, barely damp mud, moss, and pine needles. There were less comfortable things to be seated on, I supposed.
I stilled, and peered out into the darkness. We’d stoked the fire a little, but it was burning low, throwing a narrow pool of warm, flickering light to the ground at our feet… and the shadows seemed to swallow that whole. Pitch blackness threatened between the trees, and the sky was a tangled weave of dark clouds. I was never able to see well in the dark to start with—my elven eyes were against me—but I hated feeling so blind. I breathed in, trying to believe I could sense the forest the way we were meant to sense darkspawn… the way I had, once before.
We were supposed to be able to do this, weren’t we? Grey Wardens, sensing the darkspawn with our bitter gifts, feeling the darkness on the edge of the world. I exhaled slowly, and there were stirrings that spoke to me. Something hard to explain, like the soft silver of a fisherman’s line cast deep into the darkness, welled from me and seemed to find its way into the night, reaching into the hidden places. I felt as if I could read the tremors in it, hear the whispers of all it touched and, slowly, I realised Alistair was watching me.
“All right?” he asked, as I glanced up guiltily, my stomach lurching.
“Mm-hm.” I nodded, not really wanting to talk about something that, in all honesty, made me feel uncomfortable and faintly nauseous. I was reasonably sure that the idea of Grey Wardens’ senses was meant to be a heroic ability, not the precursor to a bad migraine. I cleared my throat. “Like you said: long day. I’m just a bit bruised. You?”
Alistair smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Me? Oh, you know me. I bounce. I’m… fine. Still, it was weird, wasn’t it?”
“What? Trees that—”
“Move. Yeah. I could manage quite happily without seeing that again.” He frowned, lowering the sword belt in his stain-smudged hands, and his fingers flexed as he seemed to think of reaching for my wrist. “When you ran back there, after Sten, I thought….”
“Don’t,” I murmured, because I didn’t want to argue, or to have his fear shown to me.
I needed to believe Alistair was stronger than me, that he could do all the things I couldn’t, and knew all the answers that I didn’t. He stopped, though, his lips pressed into a tight line, and after a heartbeat of silence, he went back to industriously cleaning the leather.
Oh, sod it.
I hadn’t meant that I didn’t want him to touch me. I did. I wanted the safe, complicated seclusion of his arms, and I wanted to kiss him, and… and I wanted to negotiate what came after that, whatever it might be.
We were nervous of each other, yes, but we were not truly afraid. I knew I wasn’t, anyway. Ever since Ostagar, I’d felt safer knowing I was with him… although I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought. Alistair had lost so much there; it was hard to imagine I could be anything but a bad reminder of all the people who hadn’t survived. He’d never once thrown it back at me, though, so I supposed I might have been misjudging him. It was still often difficult for me to second-guess someone who, in so many ways, was so different to me, however familiar he’d come to seem.
“D’you still think about them?” I heard myself ask, and I blinked as the words slipped from my lips.
“Hm?” Alistair looked up from his polishing, the broad planes of his hands working over the leather without the need for concentration. “Who?”
“The others,” I said quietly, wishing I’d had the sense to keep my mouth shut. “The other Wardens. I… I was just wondering, that’s all… about how it was, back in Denerim.”
“Oh.” He smiled distantly. “Well, yes. ’Course I do. I told you, didn’t I? They were a good bunch.”
I nodded. An extended family. We’d talked of it a little before, at the Peak, when we’d left the darknesses of the order’s old choices behind us, and I’d promised him we would do things a better, cleaner way. Alistair had needed calming then, and I’d done it as best I could. Now, I wanted to hear him talk because it staved off the night, and because the forest seemed so big. Dying here would be no different to Ostagar, I thought; just bones left to crumble in the mud, and the innumerable ranks of trees all around us, like the massed bodies of darkspawn.
I tried to blink that image away. It was too much like a dream bleeding over into reality, and I didn’t want the pictures to cloud my eyes. I looked at Alistair, and fixed myself—full of tiredness and aching limbs and worn-out, crumpled fear, as I was—to the flecks of firelight in the muddied hazel of his eyes.
“…terribly well-equipped,” he was saying, apparently giving me a running inventory of the compound as it had been when he was there. “And there was always a shortage of chairs, for some reason. But there were a lot of tapestries. Big ones, with griffons and all kinds of heraldic stuff on them—great for keeping the draughts out. And, of course, it was right on the edge of the palace district, by the river, so every third morning the barge used to pass by from the brewery—The Two Tuns, with the red circles painted on the sign? Did you know it?”
I smiled thinly, remembering the smell of damp barley and sewage, and the dank, stale outpourings we used to get downriver. “Mm-hm. I know the sign. Had a cousin who worked there for a while.”
“Did you? Well, we used to get all the beer from them. I think Duncan had some sort of arrangement. I mean, the bunkhouse wasn’t that grand, but the old hall was full of carvings, and there was this huge fireplace…. There’d be these long tables, and we’d sit there after dinner. Drink, tell stories. Well…they’d tell stories. I mostly listened.” He grinned to himself as he worked a glob of polish into the sword belt. “There was this one time— well, you probably don’t want to hear stories about men you didn’t know.”
The grin started to fade, and I shook my head.
“No, go on. I’d like to hear about them.”
His cloth slowed on the leather, almost stilling completely, as if he was scared of frightening the memory away, like some rare bird. I watched him stare into nothingness, the shadows and the reflected firelight duelling in a complex pattern across his face.
“There was one Grey Warden who came all the way from the Anderfels. Grigor, his name was. He was a big, burly man with the biggest, fuzziest beard you’ve ever seen. And the man could drink…!” Alistair winced, an echo of awe touching his eyes. “You know, he drank all the time but never got drunk. Finally we all made a pool to see just how many pints it would take to put him under the table.”
I smiled. Sounded suspiciously like home and, for a moment, the ghosts of a wedding party that had never happened sang in my ears. Who knew? I might even have fitted in well among the Wardens.
“So?” I prompted, as Alistair continued to gaze into the distance, smiling absently and saying nothing. “How many did it take?”
“Hm?” He blinked, and glanced at me sheepishly. “Oh, we never did find out. Grigor said he’d drink a pint for every half-pint that the rest of us drank. He was still going by the time we were all passed out. I’m told that Duncan walked in later on and saw us all, passed out from one end of the hall to the other, and Grigor still drinking. Duncan laughed until he nearly… until….”
And then it all folded in on itself. All that wistful recollection, those fleetingly happy memories, touched with the indelible stain of one single, burning loss. Pain sluiced over Alistair’s face, and his voice faded away to a dry, choked whisper. He blinked again, rapidly, and I saw how unguarded he’d been in that moment… how far down the walls had really come.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured.
“Thought I was done with this,” Alistair muttered, rubbing the back of his wrist across his face. “Sorry. Gets you by surprise sometimes.”
He cleared his throat and shot me an apologetic look, yet it shocked me to see just how visible the dampness was in his eyes. Alistair was the first human I’d ever seen cry but, this time, he didn’t even make an attempt to hide it. I watched as he rubbed roughly at his face with the heel of his palm, sniffed, and gave me a wet, wan little smile.
I reached out and laid my hand on his wrist. His skin was warm, bathed in the firelight that caught at the little golden hairs there… and humans did seem to sprout those in the strangest places. He looked at my fingers as if they were some sort of alien creature, and swallowed heavily.
“You’re never done with grieving, Alistair,” I said softly. “And you never should be. But it gets easier. In time, you can remember the good things without the bad hurting so much.”
His face softened, but a terse kind of disbelief lingered there. “Can you?”
He sounded lost, and my heart ached for him, so I tried to prove my point… perhaps not with the best example.
“Mm-hm. After my mother died, we barely spoke of her. It hurt too much. But, now, I can remember her as she was, and I know that she’ll always live in the memories I have that don’t— well, that aren’t to do with how she died.”
He looked inquisitively at me, the cloth and sword belt all but forgotten by his foot, just as I’d let my own task drop. My hand was still on his wrist, and I was very aware of the narrow sliver of space between us as he moved—so carefully, and so gently—to fold his fingers around mine. The feel of his thumb brushing my knuckles warmed me, and his voice was as low as the banked-up fire.
“What was she like? If, uh, I mean, if you don’t mind—”
“I don’t mind.”
A small smile tugged at my mouth, and perhaps I was too eager to reassure him. Of course, it didn’t surprise me that Alistair should be curious, and though I didn’t want to taunt him with the happy memories of a loving home, part of me wanted to share my remembrances. For so long, Father had all but forbidden us from mentioning her name and yet—ever since I’d spoken with Leliana about her Fereldan ancestry—my mother had been in my thoughts.
“Her name was Adaia, and she was… lovely,” I said, letting my gaze slide back to the fire and the thick crazing of pale ash through which the embers now slumbered, with a few dark flames licking at the remains of the wood. “A strong woman, but not a battleaxe. She was kind, and patient… most of the time, anyway. She had a temper, though—and a smart mouth. It used to get her into trouble in the alienage. She wasn’t like a lot of the other women. I mean, she fitted in—but I think she’d had to learn to do it, you know?”
Alistair said nothing, but he squeezed my fingers lightly, and my smile widened. For a moment, Mother flickered to life once more in the firelight, and I could almost hear the music of her warm laughter.
“She knew all kinds of things, though. She was clever. She taught me to read, and to do… figuring,” I added tentatively, my pride in that rare elven attribute lessening a bit as I remembered Alistair’s monastery education.
I might have been one of only a few children in our end of the ninth ward who could unravel the mysticism of letters and numbers but, compared to him, I might as well have stayed illiterate.
“Mother loved stories, though,” I added, on slightly firmer ground, because stories weren’t the same as reading. “She used to get books for me in the market sometimes, and we’d read them together… all those pictures, and… words. And, when she couldn’t do that, she’d just say them instead—and she had stories about everything. About how the stars came to be there, or how the rivers started to run, and old tales, like Dane and the Werewolf… only it was always a little different, every time she told it.” I smiled at the memory, suddenly less grounded by the touch of Alistair’s hand than the remembrance of Mother’s rough apron, and her low voice weaving threads of magic through a warm, firelit evening. “Or the really old stories… about Halamshiral, and the Emerald Knights, and… well… the Dalish.”
It felt silly to say it, silly to admit that those we were searching for were part of the cherished fabric of my childhood. I wondered what Alistair thought I was hoping to find among them, and I glanced at him, expecting judgement in his face but finding only quiet, faintly melancholy interest.
“Did she know much about the Dalish?”
I shook my head. “Not more than anyone else, I don’t think. Only stories. She certainly didn’t have any Dalish blood, if that’s what you’re thinking. She was from the Free Marches originally, though she never really talked about it. I’m not sure where exactly, but I know she’d spent some time in service there.”
My brow furrowed a bit as I realised how very little I did know… and that, now, I’d never learn anything more. Mother was gone, and Father was gone, and I was a speck of dust on the wind.
I sniffed, and pushed away this revolting tendency to feel so sorry for myself. No matter what had come to be, I’d been loved, and safe, and we’d had good times. I had to hold onto that in the face of everything else.
“She, um… she came to Denerim when she and my father were matched. I think it was hard for her to settle at first, but then I was born and, in time, they grew to love each other very much, so— What?”
Alistair looked perplexed, but he shook his head dismissively. “No. Sorry, no. Nothing. It’s, well, it’s just I always thought those two things went the other way around, that’s all. Sorry. I remember how you explained about that, though. The, uh, the way your people, um…. The matches,” he finished lamely, looking embarrassed.
My marriage, I thought bitterly. Yes, I’d explained about that, hadn’t I? And now here we were, our fingers intertwined before a fading fire.
“Yes.” I cleared my throat, afraid that this sweet, calm quietness would suddenly start feeling awkward, and my grip on his hand tightened a little, as if I really believed I could hold him. I smiled mirthlessly at the dark grass, avoiding Alistair’s eye. “No one ever said it was a good system.”
He chuckled dryly. “Oh, I don’t know. Still, your mother and father were happy, right? So it worked for them.”
I nodded, and glanced down at the heavily patched and somewhat greasy knees of my leather breeches. It all seemed surreal for a moment: sitting there amid the fallen leaves, with the wintry night caressing my cheeks, clutching at this small and tentative act of tenderness. My hand, and his, and his broad frame… and his knee, almost close enough to touch mine, and yet separated by that breath of space he’d left between us, which might either have been nerves or respect. I wasn’t sure, but it was a distance I wanted to close, no matter the consequences.
Alistair was big, compared to me, and yet not terrifyingly so, and not as burly as some of the older, battle-hardened soldiers I’d seen at Ostagar, or Redcliffe. That in itself served to remind me of his youth… something so easy to forget, when my mind was busy burdening him with every panicked hope of greatness.
Was that what I wanted from this? A man to hide behind, to be my shelter and protection? I wondered. It was what I’d been brought up to expect, more or less. A woman’s role was to keep a home, to be the helpmeet her husband needed and, Maker willing, the mother to his children. That was where our value lay—our crowning achievement, and the thing that made us the precious jewels our menfolk would cherish and protect—and it was something that was no longer in my future.
Sitting there, the night’s chill not quite reaching my bones, I think perhaps I was numb to other truths too… or perhaps I chose not to dwell on them.
Whatever the truth of it, I smiled shyly at Alistair when he tilted his head and peered curiously at me.
“Do you look like her?”
He seemed keen to know. Probably, I guessed, because the only sense of belonging to someone by blood he’d ever had was an inconvenient, if somewhat watered-down, resemblance to Cailan, and presumably Maric himself.
I shrugged. “A little. She was very pretty, though. Delicate. Long, chestnut hair, skin like fresh cream—dark eyes. My eyes are like hers,” I added, remembering with a smile the way Father used to tell me that, “but not as dark.”
A gentle curve touched the corner of Alistair’s lips as he squeezed my hand. “I think you have lovely eyes,” he murmured, flushing slightly.
My smile widened, heat sluicing my cheeks, and I lowered my gaze.
Despite everything I wanted, it was hard to make that leap. I was a useless flirt and, tangled up in memories and insecurities, with the eyeless forest holding secrets in every shadow, I reached out for the thread of my tale, and clung to that.
“It was… difficult for Father after she died. He closed off for a while. I thought he was angry with her, but it wasn’t that. Well, not just that. Even now— I mean,” I corrected myself, with the burn of regret flashing behind my eyes, “before I left, he barely ever spoke of her. He just… didn’t ever bring the matter up.”
Alistair nodded slowly. The ripple of a breeze murmured through the trees and, for a moment, it sounded almost like footsteps stirring among the leaves. I looked up, but there was nothing to be seen. The moon’s last shreds had sunk behind clouds once more, and the fire was a dully glowing mound. The sounds of quiet, guarded sleep came from the stand of tents around us, and I wondered briefly how many of the others were truly sleeping, or just laying there, trying to pretend they were at rest.
“How did she die?” Alistair asked, his voice a shallow ghost of a thing, as if he almost didn’t want to hear the answer.
My back stiffened a little, though I’d known he’d ask the question. Part of me didn’t want to tell him. This had been so nice, this bittersweet intimacy, and we felt so close that I didn’t want to put anything between us.
“Sorry. If you’d rather not—”
“No, it’s all right.” I took a breath, and tasted wood smoke and dew on the air, together with the hints of grease and steel that I’d begun to find so comforting. “She was… uh… she was killed. By a guardsman, in the market.”
I didn’t look at him. He was still holding my hand, and I felt the tension in his fingers. There was disbelief in his voice, like he really hadn’t known it could happen.
Somehow, that didn’t truly surprise me.
“Mm. She used to take work on the stalls, fetching and carrying for the traders. Just that once, some h— I mean, somebody accused her of short-changing him or something, and she should’ve just admitted it, even if it wasn’t her fault, and taken the switch but, like I said, she had a big mouth. She made a fuss, and the guard intervened.” I shrugged, trying not to remember the day too clearly, to feel once more beneath my fingers the pitted metal bars across the outer gate of the alienage, quickly shut to stop the trouble spreading. “I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it, but… he hit her, she fell, and she came up fighting. You don’t do that. You just… don’t.”
He let out an indignant breath, like a half-word of protest, and I shook my head. It had already happened. A good nine years ago now, and it couldn’t be changed.
“Father was working in the palace district then. We got word later, and we had to go and get her, clean her up… take her to the paupers’ fields,” I said dully, remembering the coldness of my mother’s skin beneath my fingers as I helped the hahren’s sister lay the body out. It had seemed as if I’d never rid myself of that fleshly chill. “They, um… they burn them twice a week. More, if there’s sickness in the city. It’s not fancy, but it’s respectable. Or near enough.”
And yet she deserved so much more.
Words to that effect had been one of the last things Father had said about my mother, as we stood with the few other families who’d come to the burning, watching the flames leap and gout. I remembered looking up at him, seeing the firelight reflected in the thin trails of tears on his cheeks, and feeling the world crack beneath me.
The alienage usually did funerals its own way. It wasn’t normally as sparse as that—so few mourners, so little respect—but Mother had forfeited everything the moment she transgressed.
Just like me, I supposed.
“I’m so sorry, Meri,” Alistair murmured. “I didn’t know—”
Of course he didn’t. And of course he was sorry. He truly was, because that was him all over.
“The point is,” I said wearily, “that you never forget what happened. And you shouldn’t, because it did happen and—for my mother, and for Duncan, and for all those men who died at Ostagar—it wasn’t right, or fair. But it can’t rule you completely. If I’d given myself over to hating shems for what happened to Mother, or Shianni, I wouldn’t be here now. You have to set that aside, and let time bring you the good memories… and make your life in the moment, your family in the people around you.”
The words echoed roundly, and I saw the way he grinned, full of recognition and sheepish amusement overlaying a rawer sentiment, the dregs of which still hung between us.
“Huh. Wynne gave you that speech too, did she?”
I smiled. “Yeah. Guess I’m getting some use out of it, though.”
Alistair snorted, and his amusement was contagious. It should have seemed wrong, I suppose, to move so quickly from the story of my mother’s death to sharing stifled, childish giggles… but it didn’t.
It felt natural, just as it did when Alistair took his hand from mine, and wrapped his arm around my shoulders, drawing me close with a playful roughness that belied his tenderness, and pressing a kiss to the top of my head. My arms slid around him, the two of us suddenly locked in a comfortably awkward seated hug.
We stayed that way for a while, his mouth and his measured breaths warming my scalp, with me cleaving to him like damp on cheap plaster.
Overhead, the clouds were beginning to lift, and the night had begun to thin, bringing us closer to the promise of dawn… and the task of finding our way back out of the forest.