Truths are told and decisions are made in the heart of the forest.
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I sat apart from the others for most of the night, pretending to myself that we needed someone to keep watch, and I needed space and quiet to think. It wasn’t true; like Morrigan had said, I was moping. And sulking. I even managed to take an absurd kind of martyr’s pride in the fact that, when I bundled myself up in my cloak and sat with my back against a tree trunk, its bark dug into my shoulders, and the night dew dripped down my neck.
After a while—after the others had mostly settled, and the fire had died down to a low burn against the cold—I was almost numb, and my discomfort grew great enough to see me slope back in search of warmth.
They were all asleep, save for Sten. He sat on the far edge of the circle of firelight, his great bronze face painted with shadows and his eyes turned to dark, bruised embers by the flames. I picked my way between the slumbering bodies: the Dalish, thrown together like pups, except for Farriel, who was tucked comfortably into Zev’s arms; Wynne, snoozing gently by the bender tent in which Leliana lay; and Alistair, propped on his side under two blankets, head resting on one arm and the other hand rubbing his nose as he mumbled in his sleep. Maethor had bedded down as close to the fire as he could get, and he alone looked up at my arrival, wagging his stumpy tail sleepily.
“Warden,” Sten observed quietly.
I blinked. Sometimes, it was ridiculously easy to be surprised by Sten breaking a silence.
Out of politeness—or maybe a desire for company that I didn’t really want to admit to—I went to hunker down near him, holding my hands out to the fire’s warmth. My fingers were bluish-white beneath the freckles, and the joints and knuckles had turned a raw, vibrant orange-red. I hadn’t realised I was shaking so much.
“S’cold, isn’t it?” I said, smiling at him before I remembered that was essentially a pointless gesture. Sten wasn’t usually much of a one for the niceties of small talk… although, just as I was thinking that, he surprised me.
“It will get colder,” he said bluntly, then, before I could say anything about not looking forward to fighting darkspawn in the snow: “But for the cold, much of this place reminds me of my homeland.”
He lifted his head, glancing at the bare branches and fronded boughs of the trees, everything made into a tapestry of darkness where our firelight couldn’t reach. The forest seemed deathly, chokingly still, as if the shadows were a weighted shroud that swaddled the land. I shivered, and wished we had more firewood.
“S-Seheron has jungles, doesn’t it?” I asked, relying on the knowledge of the world I had from Brother Genitivi’s hyperbolic book, and the brief mentions Sten had made before of the smells of tea and incense. I confess, I had a rather romanticised notion of an exotic port city filled with bazaars, where the qunari lived civilised, ordered lives in huge, square houses with enormous, square doors.
“Yes.” Sten wasn’t looking at me, rather he was gazing into the night, and I recognised at once the look of a man staring into his memories. “There are jungles, and forests. And monsters. The only difference is that our fiends wear the faces of men.”
“Huh.” I nodded slowly. “Well, that’s cryptic. Fiends who wear the faces of men? You mean like… blood mages?”
It was the first example I could think of, not a good one. He grunted, those vibrant eyes narrowing as he glared into the shadows.
“No. We do not permit a saarebas that corruption. It is why we monitor them so carefully, from the moment they are discovered. There is no blood magic in Seheron.”
The statement sounded oddly like something drummed in by an elder or a teacher, and I bit my lip, restraining the questions I wanted to ask. Perhaps I had spent too much time with Morrigan and Wynne, but… surely, if qunari mages were so heavily controlled—collared and blinkered, to call it what it was, with their tongues torn out and their bodies shackled—then they were not permitted to learn magic as the Circle taught it. If that was the case, then they could neither turn to blood magic nor turn away from it; they were raw, unchannelled weapons, untrained vessels that could barely contain their own power. No wonder the qunari thought them unpredictable and dangerous… just like I’d once considered all magic.
I didn’t want to open up that particular debate, so I just rubbed my hands together and nodded politely.
“I see. So, they’re… what? Criminals? Everywhere has criminals, I suppose. Are they ‘fiends’?”
Sten snorted, and turned to look at me. Beyond the fire, the somnolent shuffle of sleepy bodies was the only sound in the darkness. His eyes glimmered, unnervingly bright shreds of colour caught in the firelight, and turned to hard, cutting jewels.
“Darkspawn, abominations, plagues, and storms: men are far more dangerous than these. One moment of betrayal can bring more ruin than an earthquake. You know this.”
Loghain. My chest tightened a little at the involuntary remembrance of Ishal, and the never-ending tide of darkspawn. The boy I’d seen die in front of me… the men on the broken bridge with their legs torn off. Alistair, pushing me behind him as the ’spawn flooded the top of the tower.
At the time, I’d been so focused on not dying that I didn’t even comprehend Loghain’s act of betrayal. I still didn’t, though the full ramifications of what he’d done had begun to unfold before me. Whatever his motives—whatever he’d meant to save, or gain, by what he did—the whole country was paying the price. And the Blight wouldn’t stop at Ferelden’s borders.
I nodded grudgingly. “Yes. You’re right. So… what betrayals did these fiends of yours commit?”
“They are Tal-Vashoth,” Sten said, spitting the word out like it tasted foul.
I looked at him in surprise as he turned his face back to the shadows. I’d rarely seen him so overtly emotional about anything, but this wasn’t just anger: he seemed genuinely appalled, as if he’d been forced to name some taboo bogeyman that was both forbidden and vile.
“What does… that mean?” I asked, shying from trying to repeat the word.
His lip curled back, underscoring his distaste. “They say there are ‘the grey ones’. True, in the knowledge of themselves. It is false. They are gaping holes where men used to be. Nothing can fill them.”
That sounded ominous, and yet—given the rather hyperbolic distrust Sten’s people seemed to reserve not just for mages, but almost anything outside the remit of the Qun—I was a little wary of agreeing without question.
“What’s so terrible about them?”
He turned his face to the side, the thin strips of flamelight picking at his broad nose and cheeks, and the pinched, slanting point to his ear; highlighting everything about him that was so far from human, and so far from elven.
“There was a village in the mountains of Seheron. Farmers,” he added, sounding strangely reflective. “They grew cinnamon and nutmeg trees in perfectly ordered rows. There would always be one person waiting. A foreman, a harvester… rank didn’t matter.”
Sten’s pale brows drew together, and I found myself frowning in sympathy, for his look was so clearly that of a man caught in the vice of the past. His voice remained a muted rumble, so as not to wake the sleepers nearby, but a new layer of mournful quiet seemed to shroud the words, even as I struggled to make out the meaning of the story.
Someone waiting? Waiting for what?
Enigmatic pronouncements were not entirely uncommon where Sten was concerned, but usually his stories—like the one about the ashkaari and the drought-struck village—made as much sense as any parable ever did.
I wet my lip tentatively. “Um… who…?”
He shook his head slightly: a small, single movement, as if he didn’t wish to believe his own recollection. “Often, they would say nothing. Simply watch as we worked to examine the empty house—a new one each time—that had once been the home of a colleague, a friend.”
The fire crackled softly. One of the Dalish—hard to tell which, from where I was sitting—moved in his sleep, and Maethor lifted his head, ears pricking briefly before he lowered his chin again and gave a soft, doggy groan.
“We always made a point of searching,” Sten said, and I had never thought that someone so implacably physical, so strong as him could ever exude such a sense of vulnerability. “Now and then, a body would turn up in a river, eaten by rain and crows. More often, we found nothing. Even in the worst parts of the jungle, the villagers would send someone with us, to see the tiniest piece of bone or cloth. Anything contained the possibility of their lost friend.”
I was confused; I couldn’t tell whether he meant the Tal-Vashoth killed these people, or whether they spirited them away to become a part of their ranks… these ‘grey ones’. True knowledge. Hmm…. The thought was at least a little bit amusing to me: wasn’t that also what Grey Wardens said of themselves?
I gathered, however, that asking for clarification probably wasn’t going to get me far, so I tried a different tack.
“Why do the T— why do they fight you?”
Sten snorted, and didn’t turn to look at me. “Isn’t it the nature of a wound to bleed?”
I winced. Bloody wounds were rather too close to home—too livid in very recent memory—for comfort. He seemed to realise that, maybe even to share the sentiment, I thought, for his face became very still and, after a moment, he shook his head again.
“I have no more answers than you, Warden.”
“They must give reasons,” I said, perhaps a little optimistically. “Don’t they give reasons for fighting?”
In my innocence, I thought that was how all wars started.
“Huh. Now and then,” Sten said, sounding as dubious as I’d ever heard him. He curled his lip dismissively, as if curtailing his own admission. “Do the reasons matter? It makes little difference to those they fight.”
“Is that all of the qunari, then?” I asked. Although I knew my questions probably irritated him beyond measure, I couldn’t help it; Sten’s otherness made me so curious sometimes that I forgot to be nervous of it… or afraid of the things he was supposed to have done. “The… T-Talvashoth hate the Qun? Why do—”
Sten exhaled slowly, like a long, weary sigh. “Tell me, Warden: why do you fight?”
“Me?” I blinked again, confused afresh. “Um. Because… because I have to, I suppose. I mean, the darkspawn aren’t going to just stop.”
“Yes.” He inclined his head, as if relieved at a very stupid child finally understanding a simple sentence. “There is no other reason. The Tal-Vashoth wish us dead. And we wish to go on living. The point of our war is war.”
“Oh.” There was a certain logic to that, grim though it was. All the same, he’d made me too curious to leave it alone. “But… perhaps they have a point. The Tal-Vashoth, I mean.”
“Undoubtedly. They’ve used it to kill countless people.”
I winced. “Yes, but… a lot of what you’ve said about the qunari is a little… rigid. And there are many people who don’t wish to live under the Qun. Maybe the Tal-Vashoth are responding to something they believe is, uh, oppressive.”
“Oppressive? Death is also oppressive, Warden.”
That one stunned me into silence. As I exhaled, my breath misted on the cold air, and the fire crackled quietly. The smell of frost and wood smoke—something so familiar it had started to seem like home—sank its bitter claws into the back of my throat.
“I’m s—” I began, inclining my head as I remembered Sten’s dislike of apologies. “I mean, I did not intend to offend you by speaking of this, Sten.”
He grunted again: a low rumble, deep in his throat, as his eyes scanned the trees. “I have no feelings you can hurt.”
“I… I didn’t—”
I floundered, and was lost upon the roiling waves of embarrassment, confusion, and the certain knowledge that I had, once more, stuck my foot in it.
The night wasn’t kind to me, and the morning wasn’t much better. As we all sat, haggard and bleary-eyed, around the fire, Wynne emerged from Leliana’s bender tent to inform us she was a great deal improved. As my relief over that began to subside, I struggled to tell whether Wynne’s apparent coolness towards me was because she blamed me for the whole mess, because of my outburst at Alistair, or merely due to the fact she’d spent so much time forced to work together with Morrigan. From what I could work out, each had augmented the other’s power, and Leliana owed her life to it… but did it come at a price?
Morrigan was keeping even more to herself than usual. She looked sickly, like she had at Soldier’s Peak, but she was being so spiky if anyone did dare to speak to her that it was hard to gauge how unsettled she really was.
Still, as we discussed our options that morning, things did seem a little brighter… briefly.
“She’s not going to die, then?” Daeon piped up, thumbing a gesture towards the tent. “Is she going to turn, or—”
“You know what happened at the camp!” Aegan snapped, glaring at him. “You know what the keeper said! Those who were wounded in the attack died, or turned. That is all there is!”
“Then she’ll become a werewolf?”
“We don’t know that!” Alistair protested, earning himself a series of filthy scowls from the assembled Dalish, who apparently still believed that, if they had to suffer the indignity of travelling with shems, this one could at least have the decency to keep his mouth shut. “Wynne said—”
I wanted to intervene, but I feared making it worse. It felt like everyone was angry with me even before I opened my mouth, and all I could think about was Sten’s words from the night before… his grey fiends wearing the faces of men.
What face would Leliana be wearing, if we couldn’t get help for her? And what of the rest of us? There were dark, ugly shadows in all our natures, and my own flaws seemed closer to the surface than ever.
“How soon could Leliana be moved?” I asked Wynne, cutting across the burgeoning argument and receiving glares from all sides for my trouble. “Because we have one of two choices here. Either we split up, and you stay to look after her, or she’s strong enough to come with us. They know we’re here. We can’t just back out of the forest. Maker only knows how long it’ll be before those things attack again… and we might see Witherfang himself next time.”
Farriel bristled, and started to say something in a broken blend of Common and Elvish about beating the filthy dogs like we had last time. Zevran kicked him on the ankle: quick as a snake strike, but a dismissive, lazy movement, as if he was hushing a dog.
“Still,” he said, regarding me coolly, and apparently oblivious to Farriel’s angry protests. “If you seek the demon’s heart in the first place….”
“On our terms!” I said, shaking my head vehemently. “If we wait, next time there’ll be more of them. They’ll be prepared. They’re not stupid, and you can bet they know what we’re here for. If Zathrian knows about the power of Witherfang’s heart, then I’m sure they do too.”
“It’d all be a damn sight easier if he’d just been honest to start with,” Alistair grumbled… which didn’t endear him to the hunters.
“You dare question the keeper?” Aegan demanded, his face blazing with ire.
“Yes!” Alistair snapped. “I don’t blame him alone for this, but we wouldn’t be in quite such a mess if he’d been just a tiny bit more truthful, don’t you think?”
Revasir shot me an awkward look, like he wanted to take a side in the fight but didn’t know which way to turn, and that shocked me. As little as a day or so ago, I wouldn’t have believed he’d falter for a minute in his devotion to his Keeper. Still, I didn’t like to see any of them conflicted. Yes, Zathrian had lied, but would hearing that the beasts were clearly intelligent beings have given us anything more to work with? There was no way to reason with them, nothing we had to barter… what else could we do but keep pushing down the path we’d made?
Of course, we argued around each other in circles for a while longer. Finally, Wynne grew annoyed and quieted the debate with sharp, frosty words—accused us all of acting like children when there was so much more at stake than the petty squabbles over whose injured pride throbbed worst. Things almost burst into another row at that, our respective tempers and humiliations only silenced by Leliana herself, making her first tentative movement from the bender tent. No one had expected that, but evidently she’d had enough of allowing herself to be the invalid over whom we quarrelled.
Morrigan was assisting her, and she was still deathly pale and swaddled in bandages, but she was moving, and more or less upright.
I was astounded, and I realised for the first time how convinced I’d been that she would die where we’d laid her, or wake as something more terrible than I could imagine.
“I think we should move on,” she said, her voice still and small, and her breathing a little shallow, but her resolve clearly firm. “We are so near the centre of the forest—the beasts’ lair cannot be far. We mustn’t give up.”
Wynne glowered at all of us with self-righteous smugness, and a grudging kind of consensus was reached… though no one seemed keen to look the woman who’d brokered it in the eye.
Leliana appeared to accept that. She stood, slightly stooped, her face pale and her cut-glass eyes lowered, and she seemed so quiet. I could hardly bear to look at her, but not from revulsion at what she bore in her blood. Her wounds—the bloody dressings still so evident at the neck of the loose tunic she wore—felt like they were scored into my flesh, and I wished they might have been.
“Come now,” Wynne chided, removing her patient from Morrigan’s clutches. “You’ve made your point, but you really should be resting….”
Leliana glanced at me as, decisions made, the group began to fragment again, but I looked away and found some chore with which to busy myself… like the coward I was.
We agreed to rest up until later in the day, giving the mages time to recuperate, and ensuring we all had full bellies, so we could walk into the night if need be. The atmosphere was tense and strained, and the smell of Sten’s ground-rations stew did nothing to diffuse it.
The Dalish withdrew to a tight knot as far from the rest of us as they could get, and barely anyone spoke. Wynne was terse and cool when she came to tell me that Leliana wanted to speak with me.
“Don’t you dare tire her out,” Wynne warned, and there was no note of playful teasing in her voice.
I promised I wouldn’t and, after she nodded and took her leave, I watched her head over towards Alistair, who immediately looked away, as if he hadn’t been peering in our direction at all.
Everything felt so hopelessly, irreparably awkward, and I hated it… almost as much as I hated crawling into Leliana’s little tent. It felt like squeezing into her deathbed, though I knew full well the curse wouldn’t take her yet and that, thanks to the sheer volume of healing she’d had, she would be walking from it soon enough. All the same, there was that thick, greasy smell of ointment, and the coppery, bitter residue of magic in the air. I couldn’t help but associate it with blood, and fear, and pain.
She was sitting up, bandaged heavily, and clad in her leather breeches and the tunic I’d noticed before: some sort of soft, earthy brown garment that she must have had stashed in her pack. It looked like a man’s clothing, and I wondered where she’d got it from—and why someone as interested in femininity as her would have it with her—but I was too tongue-tied to ask.
Leliana smiled weakly at me, the dimness under the leather tarp muting the colour of her hair and making her skin seem dull. The shapeless tunic skimmed over her slender curves, and made her look almost boyish.
“You’re having a time of it, aren’t you?” she asked softly.
“Me?” I pulled a face. “It could be worse.”
I could have been the one bitten….
She shook her head. “It’s been hard for you. All of this. We can all see it… you don’t fit in the way you thought you would. I know what that’s like.”
She gave me a sorrowful, sympathetic look, and I was caught between humiliation—wonderful, that my short-comings were so very obvious to everybody!—and anger at her assumption of understanding. She, who had blended so well into the fabric of the camp, who had been second only to Zevran in the flawless ease with which she took to the Dalish.
And yet… here she lay, bloodied and bandaged, and I couldn’t allow myself to resent her.
I puffed a breath between my lips ruefully. “Do you? You always seem so sure about everything. And I thought people who… who do what you do… I thought they were meant to be good at fitting in.”
Leliana smiled. “Only on the surface. And doing that makes it harder to truly fit in anywhere.”
I wriggled, adjusting my crunched-up seat on the hard ground. I had my legs folded beneath me, and I lacked the padding of blankets that she had. Outside the tent, I could hear weapons being sharpened, but I couldn’t tell who was doing the job until a few words of muttered Elvish suggested it was either Revasir or Aegan, one conversing with the other as he worked.
Leliana looked at me thoughtfully, and I squirmed, finally unable to keep in what was boiling in my mind.
“It’s been that obvious, has it? Everything I’ve fouled up?” I snorted, shaking my head incredulously. “It’s a mess… it’s been a mess since Redcliffe. And if I can’t organise this properly, what hope do we have against the darkspawn? I… don’t know. I don’t know how to plan for an army. I-I… I can’t even plan for myself!”
Her smile widened, and she chuckled. “You sound like Alistair. And we both know he sells himself short.”
I shut my mouth abruptly, feeling my cheeks pinken with warmth. Leliana’s smile faded slowly, but her gaze stayed fixed on mine.
“No… you have done so much more than you realise, Merien. You’ve kept us all together, kept us moving forwards. It’s no wonder you feel lost now; you’ve given a great deal of yourself to bring us this far. You just need to keep going… keep being who you are.”
I tried to keep the disdain off my face. It sounded like vacuous advice to me and, besides, who I was hadn’t seemed to be helping much recently.
“I’ll try,” I said instead, and Leliana nodded, apparently satisfied with that.
She seemed to be growing tired, and I thought I should prod her towards what she’d originally wanted to speak with me about. She smiled again when I asked, but it was a glassier, shallower kind of expression.
“Mm.” She reached out and, to my surprise, patted my arm lightly. “Yes. There’s something I wanted to tell you. I… I wasn’t entirely truthful before.”
My first thought was about the curse, and my heart clenched around the fear of what she might confess to feeling, but I need not have worried about fangs and fur.
“I need to tell you something… about Orlais,” Leliana said softly, almost as if she was beginning one of her stories.
At once, I thought of the lyrical things she’d said before—about the people who were simply the decorations to Val Royeaux’s great ballet of life, and the fashions for shoes that apparently consumed the ladies there—and I cringed inwardly, convinced I couldn’t possibly go through another conversation like that.
“It… it’s not true that I left because I was tired of the life,” she said, her gaze lowered to the blankets, where her hands were delicately folded. “Well, in a way I was… but there is more that you should know.”
“It’s all right,” I soothed. “You don’t have to tell me anything. Not right now, anyway. We can talk about Orlais when you’re feeling stronger, and—”
“You must listen,” she said, gently but firmly. “This is important, Merien. It may affect us… you, I mean… if I don’t—”
“No!” I made a strangled sort of noise, somewhere between panic and protest. “N-no… Wynne said how much better you were doing. You’ll be…. It’s going to be all right.”
Leliana just smiled sadly at me, and I felt my stomach lurch. She reached out to me again, and squeezed my fingers lightly.
“The truth of the matter is, I was being hunted in Orlais.”
I frowned. “Hunted? Why? By who?”
She sighed, and it was a small, sad sound that seemed to take the life from her voice, like the last of winter sunlight winking out behind a cloud.
“I was framed, betrayed by someone I thought I knew and could trust. Her name was Marjolaine. She was my mentor, my friend. She was the one who taught me the bardic arts—how to enchant with words and songs, to carry myself like a high-born lady, or blend in as a servant….”
Leliana blinked, the corner of her lips twisting into a wry little curl at the admission, and my frown deepened, though I said nothing. Beyond what little privacy the bender tent afforded, the small sounds of movement in the camp sneaked through the leather tarp; I could hear Maethor snuffling around outside. He never did like to leave me on my own for too long.
“I think Alistair already guessed, no?” Those clear turquoise eyes met mine, and a weary kind of sorrow seemed lodged there. “I have overheard it mentioned… an open secret in our little party, I suppose. You know what it is to be a bard in Orlais?”
Oddly enough, the intricacies of the Orlesian nobility’s love for one-upping each other through the use of genteel assassins was wildly outside the bounds of my experience. I knew only what Alistair had told me when we’d spoken—all right, gossiped—about his suspicions before and, given that we had accepted Zevran into our group without too much trouble, it had never seemed either appropriate or necessary to quiz Leliana about her past. If we allowed an Antivan Crow to travel with us, why not her?
Still… here it was from her own lips. I felt like I was the only one of us who hadn’t known, or fully understood.
“You were a— what? A spy?” I hazarded.
Leliana smiled softly. I hated it. If my innocence amused one more person, I was fairly certain I’d end up planting a dagger in them.
“In a way,” she said diplomatically. “You have heard of the Game? In Orlais, the nobility present their smiling faces to each other, but in secret they plot and scheme, always to outdo one another… it is a part of life for them. Always conniving to gain favour with the Empress, to outwit or humiliate their rivals in the court, but without ever once appearing rude or—worse—unfashionable. Of course, those rivalries, and the plots themselves, range from petty cruelties to the most vicious savagery. That… well, that is where the bards come in. We were the eyes, ears, and hands of our employers; but we were never more than playing pieces in the Game, whatever we were contracted to do.”
I tried to keep the evidence of my discomfort from my face. The images I had in my head were probably nothing like the realities. I’d been born too late to remember the occupation, and my mental pictures of masked, mincing Orlesians who played with cruelty like pleasure were the stuff of stories, nothing more. Still, stories were all I had; stories had told me of the elven alienage in Val Royeaux that barely ever saw sunlight, and Leliana’s own well-meaning callousness had hardly helped. All her tales of grand ladies, and shoes, and how, in Orlais, elven servants who were pretty to look and had nice manners were so very highly valued by their masters—like prize-winning animals, as I’d rather acerbically suggested—left me very cold indeed.
However, despite everything we didn’t have in common, and despite everything I knew I didn’t know about her, I still thought of Leliana as my friend. And, sitting in the grim, waxy den that had been made around her illness, with her face so bleached of colour, and the flesh-memories of battle and fear still so deeply etched into my body, I couldn’t find it within myself either to reject her… or to be truly surprised at what she told me.
“So, this… Marjolaine—” I groped for the name. “—she betrayed you?”
“Yes.” Leliana nodded sadly, though her face grew tight, as if she was suppressing a great raft of emotions she would rather not have shared.
I wondered whether she hadn’t been at least a little as naïve as me, for what kind of spy was blind to betrayal? As she spoke, however, I got the sense that more lingered beneath the surface; not the bard she had been, whatever that truly meant, but the fragile intersection of her life as a bard and a woman.
“Marjolaine was a remarkable person.” Leliana’s gaze softened slightly, turning distant and hazy as she stared wistfully at the wrinkles in the blanket folded across her knees. “I cannot fully express the admiration I had for her, or the depth of my affection.”
It might have been the look in her eyes, or the way her fingers flexed, her thumb rubbing across her neat, smooth fingernails. I wasn’t sure exactly at what point her meaning became clear, but when it did hit me with clarity, I blinked a bit and felt clumsy. Leliana politely ignored my gaucheness; maybe she genuinely didn’t notice it.
“I loved her very much,” she went on, “but my devotion to her blinded me to her— well, I suppose you could say less than noble attributes. You can say it was my fault. Perhaps it was.”
She gave a little shrug, taking care in the gesture not to pull at her dressings, but even her skilful mask of nonchalance couldn’t hide the whole of her sadness. It was clearly a deep, deep hurt that she bore, and I was a little afraid of tugging at its edges.
“What happened?” I prompted.
“There was a man I was sent to kill,” Leliana said quietly. “I was to bring Marjolaine everything he carried. I don’t know who this man was… she gave me a name and a description, that’s all. I hunted him down and I found documents on his body… sealed documents.”
“Important documents?” I echoed dumbly, trying to keep pace with her tale, though my mind was busy trying to adjust, trying to filter this new information into the view I had of the woman I thought I’d known.
It was stupid of me to be so shocked, naturally. After all, I didn’t know her, not really. It had been clear from the start that Leliana’s skills with a blade weren’t born of the chantry cloister. And yet I felt wrong-footed, like I had since we entered the bloody forest, and perhaps that was what it was. Maybe what I felt was the corruption of the place—its very roots lousy with the demonkin taint of Witherfang’s curse—creeping up through the moss and the dead leaves, and ingraining itself into my skin.
She gave a soft, mirthless laugh. “Hmm… well, yes, it turns out that they were. You see, my curiosity got the better of me, and so I looked at the letters. I don’t know why. Something told me that I needed to know what was in them.”
Ah, now that sounded more like the Leliana I knew. She’d probably convinced herself that the Maker had ordained she should peek beneath the seal.
“What I saw shocked me. Marjolaine… had been selling all kinds of information about Orlais to other countries. Nevarra and Antiva, among others. It was treason.” She made a small, self-deprecating little expression, somewhere between a smile and a look of embarrassment. “Some—perhaps many bards—do work in such a way, but I had always believed that Marjolaine did not. This was an unhappy surprise for me.”
“Because she was a traitor?”
That little half-smile tugged at Leliana’s lips again. “Hmm… my life as bard taught me that my loyalties should be kept fluid. My main concern was that her life would be in danger if she was caught.” She shrugged delicately as I attempted to keep my face impassive, and my surprise at such political nonchalance in check. “Well, Orlais has been at war with so many countries. It takes a harsh view of such things… as I later discovered.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, glad of something to latch onto that drew us away from the matter of the crime itself.
She shook her head, the little Dalish-style braids she still wore in her hair swaying amongst the red tresses. “I should have left well alone, but I didn’t. I had to tell Marjolaine I feared for her life. Of course, she brushed aside my concern, and said it was all in the past. That is why the documents had to be destroyed, she said.”
I’d had the sense since the beginning that this story wouldn’t end well, and I pressed my lips together glumly. “She lied?”
Leliana nodded. “I believed her, though. That was the thing. I kept believing, right up until the moment they showed me the documents, altered by her hand to make me look the traitor.”
“The Orlesian guards. They captured me… did terrible things to make me confess and reveal my conspirators.” She shuddered, the memories clearly shifting within her like dark tides, and her fingertips worked across the knuckles of her other hand as she stared at the folds of the blanket. “I endured a traitor’s punishment, and at the end of it, all that awaited me was eternity in an unmarked grave. Still… the skills Marjolaine had taught me proved useful, for I was able to escape as soon as I saw an opportunity.”
“You didn’t try to find her, after what she’d done to you?”
I don’t know why I asked. Would I have done that? It was unlikely. If it had been me, enduring all the horrors that my brain could conjure as things that happened to traitors, then I would have fled and gone to ground with my pain, my humiliation… my betrayal.
Leliana shook her head, quite certainly, and I was almost surprised. So much of me still saw her as the bright, unwavering flame she’d been when she became a hero to the folk of Redcliffe. It seemed impossible to believe she could be as fragile as her story suggested.
As easily broken as me.
“No. I was tempted to confront her, certainly; I was furious, betrayed, but what could I do against her? If she thought I was coming for her, Marjolaine would only have had me caught again.” She sighed, but it sounded less sad this time; more like a reflection than a breath of sorrow. “No… I fled, to Ferelden, to the Chantry and the Maker. I believe, whatever else happened, it was the hand of the Maker that guided me to Lothering. My time there was healing. You see, Ferelden protected my person, and the Maker saved my soul.” Leliana looked up at me shyly, and smiled. “And then He brought me to you. Everything I said about my vision—that’s true. And that is the reason I am here. The real reason. No more lies between us, at least in this.”
Lying there, still pale, with the bandages and the man’s over-sized tunic dwarfing her frame, she was such a strange mix of strength and vulnerability. I didn’t know whether this new truth of hers was the whole truth, or whether there was some other version of events loitering in the shadows of her past. The story felt unfinished and, if I knew anything about Leliana, I knew she wasn’t one to let a narrative hang unended.
“So… what of Marjolaine?” I asked. “She just, what, got away with it?”
Leliana gave me a small smile. “So far. I don’t know. I suppose, one day, I should like to settle that old score. But… well, for now, we have more pressing worries, don’t we?”
I tried not to look at the bandages that peeped from the neck of her tunic.
“We won’t be in this bloody forest forever,” I said, though I wasn’t even sure I believed that myself.
Already, it seemed an eternity since we’d first set foot in this horrible place. I’d promised my friends we’d spend just a few days searching for the Dalish and securing a signature on the treaties… and instead, we were mired in more strife, and I had lost sight of myself among the trees.
Leliana’s smile faded. “No,” she said quietly. “I doubt we will. But there is something else. Wynne and Morrigan have done so much for me—and I have no doubt at all that we will find Witherfang, and we will end this terrible curse—but… but there is something I wanted to say.”
She reached out again, taking my hand in hers, and squeezing my fingers gently. The gesture surprised and unsettled me; it felt like affection, but the kind of affection that comes with a burden, the way responsibility hedges a mother’s smile.
I wet my lower lip nervously. “What…?”
“If the worst should happen,” Leliana murmured, “or if I was to— well, you know…. I want you to promise me that you won’t let me hurt anyone. Do you understand? Before it happens… I would rather you strike me down than let me destroy any of our friends.”
I stared at her. Little patches of light seemed to spot my vision as my head spun, and yet my thoughts were clear. She was asking no more, no different than I would, if I was in her place, but it was still so horrible an image.
I swallowed heavily and managed to nod, clenching my hand on hers and feeling her slender fingers press together against my palm.
“Yes,” I croaked. “I mean, if…. Yes. I promise I’ll try. I won’t let— I mean, if….”
“If,” she echoed kindly. “Yes. Thank you.”
She let go of my hand, and agreed when I said she should rest before Wynne gave her another dose of healing and then, in a few hours’ time, we began to think about moving out.
It felt so ridiculous to say those things—to plan for anything—when I had agreed to put a knife in her throat, but I didn’t know how else to react. The words spun through me in a daze, and I was glad to get out of the tent, gulping down the cold air and the smell of frost on the breeze, the way a prisoner tries to glut himself on the sky.
I went back to the centre of our camp shaken and silent. My head seemed to buzz with words, but I couldn’t think clearly. The others were sitting around the dry scar of the fire; Wynne and Morrigan were arguing about something… Wynne didn’t seem happy that day unless she was picking holes in someone.
“I owe you no explanation,” Morrigan was saying, her face wrapped around a scowling sneer. “There is no writing upon my brow that says: ‘Please, guide me!’.”
Wynne snorted, one hand extending to gesture to the awkwardly assembled bodies. “You are travelling with these people! It behoves you to be civil.”
Alistair was squatting nearby, rooting through his pack in search of something. He looked up guiltily, with an expression that clearly said ‘Leave me out of it’, but neither mage seemed to be listening. Zevran, meanwhile, continued to lounge against one of the tree trunks, smiling faintly, as if he was enjoying the chaos.
“You are transparent, old woman,” Morrigan spat. “Do not bring up our companions, when all you wish is for me to be civil to you. I am not one of your Circle apprentices, to hang on your every word! I am not Alistair, who sees in you some surrogate mother.”
Wynne’s face blazed with barely suppressed irritation. I glanced reflexively at my friend, just in time to see him begin to turn red, and return with determined industriousness to finding whatever it was he was looking for in his pack. Morrigan seemed satisfied, her golden eyes half-lidded, and her lips curved into a hard, cruel smirk.
For a moment, I truly thought we’d have a duel erupt in front of us, with fireballs and pillars of ice and flame… but Wynne merely straightened her back to poker-like heights of propriety, and raised her chin.
“No,” she said stiffly. “It is clear you are nothing like Alistair.”
His ears had turned so red I thought they might drop off, and Zevran finally couldn’t contain his gentle sniggering.
I wanted to say something, but I knew it would do no good. Morrigan crossed her legs, spreading her robes out around her, and causing the raven feathers she wore to rustle like some indignant bird as she shrugged.
“Indeed. Then take your lectures elsewhere,” she said dismissively. “They mean nothing to me.”
I should have been used to the witch’s habit of finding people’s raw nerves and dancing across them until the torment was too much to bear, but I couldn’t stand it at that moment. I crossed to the far side of the camp, away from the fire and the tent, and the warmth, and there—amid the ragged trees and soft mud—I sat on the ground and found a little peace and quiet.
Breathing deeply, inhaling the musk of the earth and the sharpness of rot and pine sap, I wondered if the Creators ever spoke in this kind of silence. It had always been hard to believe in the hand of the Maker upon my life, but his seemed as good a name as any to put to the things of the world that I didn’t understand. Growing up, the Chantry had taught us a lot about mystery and the acceptance of it: as elves, our lot was to tolerate the unknowable and acquiesce to the station we were born to; no more, no less.
I still had a great deal of thinking to do about the Chantry, and a great deal to realise what humans had made it into. I knew so little of the place where politics and faith join together, or the struggles for dominance between them.
Of course, from where I sat, the Dalish didn’t look so perfect anymore. I no longer thought they had all the answers, and I was beginning to see the holes in their masks—the eyes and the lips behind the faces of proud, wild, true elves, who still saw and spoke like the losers of a great war.
A heard a gentle cough, and opened my eyes to see Revasir standing before me, which was an ironic enough codicil to my thoughts to make me smile. He raised his thick, dark brows, and held out a piece of his horrible deer jerky: the last left of it, by the looks of things. I tried not to grimace, but shook my head, fairly sure I couldn’t manage to be that polite.
“No, thank you. It’s all right.”
He grunted and sat down heavily beside me, his sharp scent of leather and moss invading the air around me, and propped his elbows on his knees before giving a short, deep sigh.
I blinked, with some incongruous, ridiculous impulse of alienage modesty flitting through me. A man had invited himself to sit at my side, and I wasn’t sure why, or how I should react. I glanced curiously at him. He looked troubled, and he had something clenched in his other hand. I raised my eyebrows and—with this strangely comfortable wordlessness between us, as if we didn’t need to speak—he unfurled his thick, weathered fingers to show me a small, dark arrowhead. It was narrow, like the others of Dalish make we’d found before we located the camp—all right, before Mithra had located us. I had no idea why he’d picked it up, much less brought it to show me, but I almost didn’t want to ask. I was afraid to break the silence, only to fill it with more mistakes and misunderstandings. Afraid of things I didn’t want to hear, perhaps, as well as the things I wished I didn’t already know.
Revasir watched me carefully. His vallaslin curled like shadowed vines across his skin, his knotted hair frizzed and rough with the dozens of little trinkets tied into it. I supposed each of them had meaning: maybe the Dalish exchanged them as gifts, or won them through trials or ties of passage or something. I hadn’t asked before, and doing so now felt clumsy… although I should probably not have worried about that. I’d made a fool of myself often enough, and in front of enough people, that I should have thrown off all the pride and dignity that bitter gossips back in the alienage used to say were the airs and graces Father put on.
Revasir pushed his open palm towards me, encouraging me to take the arrowhead. I wasn’t sure why, but I obeyed. As my fingers brushed his skin, I was aware of its warmth… or maybe how cold I felt. Winter would be upon us in its full ferocity soon, and I didn’t want to think about it. Back in Denerim, the cold and the ice and the mud were bad enough, but the city had things like cobblestones and paving—things that used to be the bedrock my life was built on—and I didn’t relish trying to negotiate the Fereldan landscape without them. It had been hard enough going so far… though, before that, we did have to get out of the forest alive.
Funny how such a grim thought could be so appeasing.
I realized Revasir was still watching me expectantly, so I peered at the arrowhead that now lay in my palm. It felt light, and it was made of a greyish kind of flint, its edges knapped to a thin, almost flaky finish.
“Old,” he said quietly, his voice a hushed murmur. “Older than any I have seen.”
I turned the thing in my fingers, surprised at its delicacy. It felt as if it should be fragile, it was so light; as if it might crumble away at my touch.
I didn’t want to speak, I found. I was sick of my own voice, my own heart, my own head—sick of my insecurity and self-pity.
Revasir reached across, picking the arrowhead from my hand. His touch made me catch my breath, simply because I hadn’t expected it.
“Yes,” he said, turning the arrowhead thoughtfully in his fingers. “We are close to something here. The People have walked in this place many years. But not so far into the forest’s heart. Not in my time; not in my father’s.”
“Because of the war?” I asked. “The Veil being thin, and everything?”
He nodded. “Mm.”
The thinning light seemed to turn soft on the arrowhead’s edges. It wouldn’t be long until dusk began to draw in… I was hoping we would have put some ground under our feet by then.
“What is it, d’you think? Where the elves used to camp? Maybe people who went in after the werewolves,” I added, half to myself in some spool of speculation. “I don’t know what their lair’s going to be like. Do they make dens? Tunnels, or something?”
He shrugged. “We will see, yes? When we face them again.”
There was no outright accusation in anything Revasir had said, but guilt still seeped into me—the way the cold and the damp did—and it chilled my bones, making them achingly heavy. Trying to tell myself it wasn’t my fault didn’t help. It seemed like they were all thinking it, all blaming me for what had happened to Leliana—and though I knew those were stupid thoughts, they came all the same. Just the same as the purge. My fault.
“You worry about her,” Revasir observed. “Your friend.”
A thin glimmer of dying sun gilded the trees, making those that had any semblance of leaves clinging to them look like lace, or crystals of ice against the grey shreds of sky. I glanced at him, watching the fleeting look of sympathy scatter across his hard profile.
“How long? After there weres attacked, how long did it take for the people who were wounded—?”
“I don’t know,” Revasir said tightly. “The keeper… kept such things hidden from us.”
I said nothing. The undercurrent of uncertainty in his voice was enough. He shrugged again, frowning at the leaf litter between his feet.
“Is good. No one wants to see their clansman become such. But… Deygan remained alive several days. Unturned.”
“Mm.” I nodded slowly, thinking of the dead I’d seen in the healer’s tent.
The ambush had been a week ago then, Zathrian said, and not all the sick had begun to turn. That meant Leliana had time—if she was lucky—but how much of that time would be nothing but pain and suffering? I thought of Zathrian’s wounded, kept drugged and mumbling, lying on their backs and waiting for death, either from the maulings they’d received, or from the healer’s blade.
If the worst came to the worst, could I do that for her? Could I do what she’d asked? And was it such a pure blessing, when Zathrian’s portrayal of the creatures as mindless beasts was so clearly wrong?
They had speech, and intelligence enough to plan, to reason… and they burned with such hatred for him.
“How long has Zathrian been your keeper?” I asked.
Revasir puffed out a breath before he answered, like a man who wasn’t sure how to count that many years. “Long time. Before my birth, and my father’s. Longer than that. He has been with us for more than a hundred seasons, at least. Our light, blessed by the Creators. He will lead us back to Arlathan.”
The way he said it made it sound like the certainty of catechism. I nodded politely, though. It didn’t seem unbelievable to think that the keeper was that old. He’d certainly seemed ancient to me; an old man with a mage’s curious fragility about him… that kind of terrible strength wrapped in weakness. After all, at first glance, Wynne was an old woman, and Morrigan was a pale, slender woman with wrists as narrow as a child’s. Who knew what secrets lay behind the swathes of Zathrian’s robes?
“You have those dreams,” Revasir said, with the confidence of one acknowledging something that is obvious to him.
At first, I thought he meant Grey Warden dreams, and I started to wince.
“Arlathan,” he clarified, glancing sidelong at me. “You would be as one of the People, no?”
No one had put it quite so succinctly before. I looked uncertainly at him, but the denial I had in mind didn’t quite leave my lips.
“You could become elvhen, in time,” Revasir said nonchalantly, peering out across the trees, towards the knot of the camp. “You have much strength, much kindness, in you. Honour, too. Like a Dalish woman.”
He looked at me thoughtfully, and I wasn’t sure if this was flirtation, or whether there was a ‘but’ coming. Either way, I started to feel self-conscious and embarrassed.
“This is why I do not know why you allow it.”
I frowned. “Allow what?”
“The human,” he said, shrugging dismissively as if he was merely commenting on the weather… though I noticed the way he was avoiding my eye. “The other Grey Warden.”
Despite myself, and the wash of a blush already cresting my neck, I wanted to smile at that. The other Grey Warden. That epithet was usually reserved for me, not him. Still, I wasn’t as mortified as I expected to be. I wasn’t ashamed, I realized. Not truly. Not anymore. What did I have to be ashamed of now, except for the way I’d treated Alistair?
He’d done everything for me—Maker, he’d put himself in front of the weres’ jaws for me—and all I could do was shower him with spite and bitter anger.
“You, ah….” Revasir cleared his throat awkwardly. “You are not bonded?”
I looked at him uncertainly. “Does that mean, I don’t know… like, married? I-I don’t know how the Dalish….”
He shook his head as my words trailed off. “No. Not always married. Meaning to marry, perhaps?”
I wasn’t sure I knew what to say to that. Alistair and I hadn’t talked about anything. We’d barely even managed to acknowledge that we liked each other, much less examine what that really meant. What could it mean, anyway, when we were in the middle of all this? There was the Blight, the darkspawn, the war… not to mention my wholesale rejection of the man I was supposed to care for.
I shifted uncomfortably, avoiding Revasir’s gaze.
“We’re… well, it’s not— It’s complicated,” I finished lamely.
He grunted; it was hard to tell whether that was acceptance or derision.
“Is it? Surely it does not have to be. A man makes his intention clear to a woman; she denies or accepts him. They talk, they agree to present themselves to the elders. An agreement is made.”
I frowned petulantly. “I don’t have any elders. Not anymore.”
The hunter’s expression stiffened, then softened, his vallaslin shifting like the easing of taut ropes. His eyes glittered in, and he let out a slow breath.
“No. Forgive me. But… you would do. If you became elvhen. Like your kinsman.”
I blinked owlishly. “What?”
Revasir shrugged. “Daeon has proved himself. He has shown his willingness to learn our ways; be one of us. The Creators accept this. In time, he will take his vallaslin, and he will stand as one of the People.”
I blinked some more. Somehow, I seemed to have the grit of wood ash and confusion in my eyes, and breaking up the little hollow of our camp into slivers that caught behind my eyelids was the only way I could make sense enough of the moment to think.
“Maybe,” Revasir said slowly, his accent lending the word an odd lilt as he drew it out, “if these things come to a good end, it shall be so.”
“Er….” I said, rather hopelessly. Was he really suggesting what it sounded like he was?
I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure of anything in that uncomfortable scrape of minutes, and my answer to that was to scramble in an ungainly way to my feet, dusting my hands against the seat of my breeches.
“We should get a move on if we’re going,” I declared, galvanised into action by the sheer force of panic.
My feet crunched on the leaves as I moved briskly back towards the others; back towards the journey we had ahead of us, towards everything I had come to know and to trust… back towards the duty I had as a Warden, and the bonds that were too sacred to break.