Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
The others did not take my decision well. At least, not all of them.
“Well, I think it’s a worthy effort,” Leliana said, sitting before our fire and tightening the straps of her boot. She smiled up at me. “It is the right thing, to offer these people aid.”
Morrigan snorted dismissively but said nothing, her arms folded across her bosom and her golden eyes narrowed to slits. I really hoped she didn’t have any smart comments planned, and I suppressed a frustrated sigh as Alistair strafed his fingers through his hair, the disbelief and annoyance scribed plainly on his face as he clearly struggled to keep calm.
“I’m not saying it isn’t, but—”
“It’s not the first time we’ve run into complications,” I pointed out, bristling a little as he glared at me. “What about the Circle? Redcliffe?”
He exhaled tersely, a muscle bunching in his jaw. “Yes, fine. Seems like everywhere we go people have their own problems. All I’m saying is that—”
“I do not see the quandary,” Morrigan broke in, her tone flat and hard. “’Tis merely a trade. Find this wolf, kill it, give the elf its heart, and you will compel the clan to fulfil their obligations.”
“Oh, yes,” Alistair sniped. “I’m sure it’ll be just that easy. Come on… werewolves? Curses? A forest filled with ancient and unspeakable evil?” He screwed up his face. “Ooh, no. Can’t imagine what could possibly go wrong.”
Sten, currently propped against a tree and watching the debate, rumbled darkly.
“No army was ever gained with ease,” he observed, his gaze fixed on the centre of the Dalish camp.
For all our busy argumentation, the mood among the wild elves seemed to have lifted a little. People criss-crossed between the land-ships, and although life in the camp was, in the light of day, clearly not normal, the looks some of the Dalish directed towards us suggested they thought we might suddenly be more than a suspicious inconvenience. There was a cautious kind of hope in some of those glances, which filled me with twin terror and awe.
After my arrival back from speaking with Zathrian, a little before dawn, a woman had even brought us breakfast. Bread, dried meat and fruit… it had seemed luxurious. I was mildly appalled that, now, we should apparently need to have this disagreement. Last night, pledging our help had seemed natural, simple… the only possible thing I could do. I knew it wasn’t simple, but it hadn’t seemed like a choice. This morning, I supposed I could have chosen differently. I wasn’t surprised it was causing ructions although, if I was honest, it hurt that Alistair should be the one to be wariest of the decision I’d confessed to making.
“Sten’s got a point,” I said, perhaps a trifle sharply. “And we will have an army, if the clans can be gathered. That’s worth it, isn’t it? That’s the whole point of what we’re trying to do, right?”
My friend faced me down, looking tired and grubby, his hair sticking out at odd angles like soft clumps of gold. Baggy smudges of fatigue were swiped under his eyes, and I wondered if they really had been there since Ostagar… and whether any of us could keep going long enough to see this through.
“Fine.” Alistair exhaled brusquely, shaking his head. “Fine, but… look, even if we can help these people, are they going to be in any state to fight darkspawn? Can they even find the other clans?”
The words were like a slap in the face.
I glowered at him. “What, you’d prefer we abandon them because they might not be useful enough?”
“I didn’t say that, and you know it! But—”
“I think everyone should calm down,” Wynne said, holding up her hands.
Her quiet grace carried weight, and the gentleness of her voice held an edge of steel. That sharp, clear blue gaze danced between Alistair and me, and he heaved another sigh, this one full of theatrical resignation.
“I’m not not calm,” he muttered. “I’m just saying it’s a big risk. We nearly got ourselves killed getting this far… does anyone feel particularly eager to have another go at it?”
“We’ve almost been killed plenty of times,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “And I didn’t see you running from anything before.”
Alistair glared at me again, and every plane and angle of his face was set into a clenched grimace of frustrated irritation. I was about to let myself get truly angry with him—bloody hard-headed shem, staring at the task in front of us with blinkers on, unable to see beyond Eamon and the sodding darkspawn—when I saw the look in his eyes.
He was scared. Scared for me.
I should have been comforted. I should have felt the affection in those muddy hazel eyes fill me up, because all I’d ever been raised to know of things between men and women was that a woman should be glad of a man’s protection. He was her shield and her provider and, if she did all she should, he would cherish her. My heart ought to have fluttered at this: my knight, my bastard prince, who was so much more than I was… and yet who, for some strange reason, seemed to care for me.
Unfortunately, I ground my teeth, petulantly aggrieved at the thought Alistair didn’t believe I could do what I’d promised Zathrian.
I let myself believe he thought me weak—and, of course, I knew I was. I couldn’t fight like him, or Sten. I had none of the skills Leliana or Zevran did, nor Wynne or Morrigan’s magic, and however far I’d come, I was convinced it was down to blind luck and a sheer bloody-minded refusal to die.
But this… this was different.
I was going to have my elven army, and I was going to cure the sick and heal the wounded, and we were going to march out of the Brecilian Forest with our heads held high, and our honour intact.
And, just maybe, I would start believing that I could forgive myself for what Loghain had done to the alienage.
“So? Why start now?” I asked softly.
It was a cruel thing to say.
Alistair’s brow furrowed, and the light in his eyes dimmed as he shrugged, looking to Wynne for support.
“I’m not running,” he muttered bitterly. “I’m not talking about running. Just— I mean,” he tried again, waving one hand hopelessly, as if he was aware he couldn’t say a damn thing I intended to listen to. “Well… as far as darkspawn go, we know what we’re dealing with. Demons, we’ve had experience facing. We know what they are, what they’re capable of. I just don’t know that charging headlong into this, completely blind, is a good idea.”
Morrigan tutted gently from her stance behind the fire. “One would think you were afraid, Alistair….”
“Shut up,” he said, without either turning or missing a beat. “I’m not— I-I just think that—”
“Werewolves,” I said flatly. “I doubt there’s much more complicated about them than teeth and claws. From what Zathrian says, this Witherfang creature may well be a demon… but you just said yourself, we have experience with those.”
Alistair’s expression tightened, but he couldn’t deny I’d scored a point. I was probably a little more smug than I needed to be; Father would have given me a clip around the back of the head and reminded me how smart mouths invariably got their owners into trouble.
I turned to the others, my gaze passing over each face in turn. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: if you don’t want to follow, stay here. But I’m going to do what I told the Keeper I would. Anyone who’s with me is welcome to join the hunt.”
Sten pushed away from the tree against which he’d been leaning, and nodded curtly. “Finally. When do we begin this task?”
I inclined my head to the qunari. “Soon. Zathrian has offered us the hospitality of the camp, and access to what supplies they have. He suggested we restock, rest, then start the journey tomorrow morning. Apparently, the… creatures are more active at night, and one more day probably won’t make much difference to the sick.”
Because this isn’t going to be a quick errand, and the ones that are infected are dead already.
I kept my thoughts to myself, and hoped my face didn’t betray them. Sten grunted, and I wasn’t sure whether it was relieved assent, or an aspersion on the keeper’s logic. I didn’t want to return to any details about the elves already dying in Zathrian’s makeshift hospital tents. I’d had to explain what I’d seen to my companions, and I’d left out the parts about the mercy of the healer’s knife sparing those about to turn, allowing my words to imply that sickness took them. I had no desire to think more of it… or to dwell on what might happen if one of us was bitten. In truth, I don’t think that thought had even sunk in; all I wanted was this one moment of leadership, to do this one thing that, in my addled mind, was both redemption and resolution.
Perhaps it was the nights sullied with dreams, or the long weeks of hard travel with slim rations and the shadow of death at our heels. Perhaps it was the ghost of Soldier’s Peak still on my back. Whatever the cause, I would learn that a soldier’s logic should never be sullied with sentiment.
“You know,” Wynne said, eyeing me carefully before she looked back at Alistair, “werewolves are beasts not unlike abominations. Possessed wolves driven mad… or so it is written. Perhaps this will not be so far removed from anything we have already encountered.”
“Great,” he muttered, with a sour glance at me. “Sounds as if it’ll be easy-peasy. Should we pack a picnic?”
Leliana got to her feet, dusting her palms against the deep russet brown of her leather breeches. “I think it will be an adventure. And, if there is even the slightest chance that we can help these people—and help them make good on the promises in their treaty—it’s worth it, no?”
I smiled at her, swelling a little more with pride at each vote of confidence.
Morrigan sniffed philosophically, affecting a look of intense boredom.
“I would not mind seeing more of the forest,” she said, ostensibly examining her fingernails. “In many ways, ’tis like the Wilds. There may be some interesting herbs that do not grow further south… and I should gladly take the opportunity to find some fresh meat that is neither rabbit nor half-chewed vole.”
Those last words were directed with a sneer at Maethor, and the hound whined quizzically from his scrape by the fire. My smile widened. Even if every last one of them had abandoned me, I’d known he wouldn’t.
None of them would, though, would they? I realised that slowly, with a wash of proud, golden glee filling me. No matter how foolish or unbelievable it seemed, they had placed their trust in me. I was a leader, a warrior… their Warden.
Words that had always rung hollow in my head seemed to take on new weight, new depth, and the rich taste of the power they gave me was a sweet, wonderful wine.
“What about you?” I asked, turning to Zevran.
He’d seated himself on his pack, one foot crossed over his knee while he idly watched the debate.
“Mm?” Those amber eyes glittered as they met mine. “You truly need to ask? Did I not swear my fealty to you, hmm? Your man, without reservation, even as we plunge headlong into the most idiotic danger?”
I snorted, and the half-hidden smirk at the corner of his mouth blossomed into a small, dark smile.
“I don’t recall you putting it quite like that.”
“Eh, maybe not.” Zevran shrugged, giving a small, smooth, cat-like stretch as he rose to his feet. “Still, my original point remains unchanged: I will follow. Besides, I never was a one to walk away from the promise of treasure,” he added speculatively. “There will be treasure, no? An ancient forest, the site of a terrible war, wherein I imagine no one ever returned to retrieve any interesting artefacts?”
Alistair muttered something none-too-subtle about whether the grave robbing should come after the picnic or before, but not even his sulking could rupture my sense of achievement.
In my mind, green shoots were already struggling forth from the ashes of the purge, and my head rang with the clarion shouts of an elven army.
It pains me a little to write it, because no one likes to revisit the idiocies of their youth, but I was strutting like a bantam as we prepared ourselves. I felt brave and righteous, and full of my own importance… even more so when a young Dalish boy, perhaps no more than thirteen, came over to introduce himself as the apprentice of the clan’s crafts master. He wished to extend to us the offer of any supplies or repairs to our armour or weapons we might require, and it was a more polite and chivalrous invitation—despite the lad’s stuttering and wide-eyed awkwardness—than I’d expected.
The clan were still wary of us, of course. Their open hostility had quieted to icy civility, but they didn’t trust us—and why should they, until we’d proved ourselves worthy of my fine words? Not that I doubted we could do it, for once.
We would be ready, armed, fully primed… and we would be unstoppable. I believed it. After all, what worse things could werewolves do than abominations and demons?
Having the whole day to make our preparations and plans was liberating, too. It had been a long time since we allowed ourselves real rest, and the promise of getting our gear fixed up was almost as appealing as the prospect of a good wash. Water would come from the brook near the camp, and we were given leave to take whatever we wished from such supplies as the clan had left.
Lanaya came to show us to their stores, and introduce us to the elders who kept the wheels of life there turning; she suggested we speak with their storyteller, Hahren Sarel, and take what advice he had regarding the forest, as well as availing ourselves of Master Varathorn’s expertise.
Obviously, I thought, the Dalish believed strongly in the truth of stories, as well as their own culture, and the power that legends had to shape the world. As the day got underway, and the prospect of charging headlong into the forest—to use the words of Alistair’s that had so annoyed me—grew clearer, the enormity of the task started to sink in. I wasn’t so sure that a few songs and tales would make anything easier, but at least the preparations gave us time to ready our minds as well as our packs and blades.
The Dalish were still watching us closely, but Zathrian’s word had given us leave to move freely through the camp. I wondered, as I made my way down to the brook for water, glad of a moment’s quiet, just how far I had Daeon to thank for it all… and where he was. I hadn’t seen him that morning, or any of the young hunters he seemed to be so friendly with.
When I thought back to the alienage, it was almost hard to believe it was real; that either of us should have travelled so far from our roots, or changed so much. And yet, we had—and he, like me, had achieved so much—but I still thought of those lost faces with mingled regret and shame.
My shoulders tensed at the sound of my name, the various assorted water skins and leather flasks I carried rattling against each other as I turned. I’d thought Alistair had gone with Sten and Zevran to survey the possibility of weapons or repairs, but apparently not.
He lengthened his stride, catching me up easily, and I just stood there, full of awkwardness and mild resentment, telling myself that the look of apology on his face wasn’t enough to cut through my annoyance at the things he’d said.
“Meri, hold on.”
We were between the ranks of the elvhen’s wagons and the brook, a little downstream of where I’d intended to draw water. The stream bubbled cheerfully, and the golden light of a good, bright day filtered down through the half-bare trees. The ground was patched with coarse grass between the wheel ruts and mud and, above us, there was enough sky visible in the clearing to make out streaks of watery blue, with little wisps of cloud.
Winter had not yet sunk its teeth into the forest, but the cold was coming.
I glared at Alistair, perhaps more ferociously than I’d meant to. His expression faltered for a moment—open honesty growing guarded and irritable—but then he regained himself, and the frown faded from his brow.
“Look… you know I do want to help these people, don’t you? All I meant—”
“I know what you meant,” I said crisply. “And you’re right, I suppose. We have to balance everything against the Blight. But if it means having the support of all the Dalish clans… we have to at least try, don’t we?”
He nodded, but there was a kind of discomfort in his expression, like there was something else he didn’t want to admit. I bit the inside of my lip, knowing what was coming.
“Yes, but…. It’s just, with Eamon so ill—”
I saw red then. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the idea of one shem noble being more important in his mind than the whole Dalish clan, or perhaps it was his very loyalty to Eamon itself, so stubborn and unyielding.
Maybe I was just plain jealous.
“For all we know, he could be dead already,” I snapped. “And even if he does recover, will he be well enough to address the Bannorn? You don’t know that, Alistair.”
He frowned, and it only made me angrier to realise how precisely I’d mirrored what he’d said before. I steeled myself, fully expecting him to use my own words against me.
Would you prefer we abandon him because he might not be useful enough?
They were written plainly on Alistair’s face, etched into every annoyed line of his scowl, but then he shook his head and the frown faded. He looked away, squinting into the treeline and, when he spoke, his voice was tight and low.
“No, I don’t. But I’m hoping for it. He’s probably the only chance we’ve got.”
I disagreed, but I hadn’t the belly to fight about it. Not then, at least. I gritted my teeth and managed a grunt of assent that I hoped didn’t sound too grudging.
Across the camp, I could see Maethor being approached by a couple of Dalish children. They were all gawky knees, elbows, and feral curiosity, and he stood waiting for them, wagging his stumpy tail and panting happily through those jaws that could crush bone.
No one ever had just one side to their nature, I supposed; we were all different things, bound up in ourselves and in each other. We were givers and takers, both blessed and sinning, and sometimes we found the best of ourselves in one another. Sometimes, it was within us, and it took as much bitterness as sweetness to bring it out.
My antipathy towards everything Arl Eamon represented—a faceless shemlen noble, a man who’d tossed aside the child that had grown into someone I cared for a great deal, and an as yet unknown quantity in the Bannorn—didn’t matter. In all probability, nothing would matter in the path of the Blight, army or no army… and I supposed we would all rather have faced our fate knowing we’d done things as right as we could.
Still, compromise left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
“Look… as soon as this is done,” I said quietly, “we’ll go to the place Genitivi mentioned. And if there’s anything to find, we’ll find it. We’ll find him.”
Alistair nodded, and gave me a small smile. The dappled sunlight touched the gold in his hair, and made the hazel of his eyes look brighter and greener.
“And, if you get your way,” he said, a slight mischievousness in his face, “we’ll have an army at our backs. Darkspawn won’t be able to argue with that.”
I wasn’t sure whether he was making fun of me, but I elected to believe not. I shrugged.
“It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
He snorted. “Yes. Yes… that it is. Right. D’you want a hand with those?”
Alistair gestured to the water skins I’d almost forgotten I was carrying and, when I nodded my thanks, he moved to help me with them. We made our way to the brook, and I knelt on the damp ground, holding the skins beneath the clear, cool, rippling current, one by one, until their bodies bulged and their necks were full.
It was certainly a nicer way of drawing water than the daily trudge to the pump that a city-dweller like me was used to, and part of me was already idling in fancies of what life was like for the Dalish. The clan’s current predicament aside, their wagons looked comfortable, and they all seemed clean and well-fed and, but for a few details, perhaps the stories I’d gorged myself on as a child hadn’t been all that far-fetched.
My fingers brushed Alistair’s as I reached up to take the next empty skin from him, and he smiled shyly. The last residue of my anger melted away, as if we’d never been at odds at all, and I realised how long it seemed since I’d last kissed him.
I turned quickly from the thought, and concentrated on drawing the water. Alistair cleared his throat.
“So… what do you think of Zathrian, then?”
I shrugged, and frowned at the bubbles popping in the stream. The water was clear as glass, flowing briskly over a bed of sand and rounded stones, and my fingers were gradually going numb with the cold.
“He’s a very different kind of hahren,” I said carefully. “Lanaya said the keepers know magic, that they hold all the clan’s secrets. He seems wise… worried for his people, of course. But—”
“And the whole ‘curse’ thing?” Alistair prompted. “Werewolves? The ones who are sick… are they really…?”
“Just like I told you.” I nodded curtly, still not keen to revisit the things I’d seen in the hospital tent. “Why?”
I corked the skin I’d been filling, and passed it to him. He frowned thoughtfully as he gave me the last empty one, and glanced back towards the centre of the camp. It didn’t look like we were being watched or overheard but, where the Dalish were concerned, it was hard to tell.
“Well, it seems… odd, doesn’t it? You said Zathrian reckons the werewolves are mindless beasts—like abominations, Wynne said—and yet they ambushed the clan?” Alistair wrinkled his noise doubtfully. “To have done as much damage as they seem to, they’ve either got to be more ferocious than Morrigan at the wrong time of the month, or there’s something we don’t know. Either way, it feels… off, somehow, don’t you think?”
I fastened the last skin and straightened up slowly, shaking the water from my fingers. He had a point, but I didn’t plan on letting it sway me.
“Maybe,” I acknowledged. “I think Zathrian underestimated them. I think that’s what he’s unwilling to admit. I think he believes he should have known an attack would happen… he claims to have known about the Blight for some time. I don’t know. I’m not familiar with whatever magic the Dalish have… and, sure, I don’t much like the idea of going up against possessed wolves, but—”
“We’ve faced worse,” Alistair finished, giving me an airy, sardonic little smile. “How hard can it be? As long as you promise me you won’t get bitten.”
It was a deftly plied blade of a thing, saying that. I’d barely entertained the possibility. I wasn’t stupid enough to think I was immortal or anything; it was just that, since Ostagar, I’d been on the edge of death every time someone swung something pointy at my head. For me, the imminence of battle was the difference between living and dying… never before had I considered the prospect of turning into something else.
I shuddered as I recalled the dead elf Zathrian had shown me, with his crushed, mangled jaw and oddly distended teeth.
“Promise,” I assured Alistair. “Nor you?”
“I’ll do my best,” he said, and the smile was all but gone from his face.
We were close enough for it to be barely no movement at all when he reached for my hand. Beneath the grime, he smelled like new-split wood and apples, and yet when his fingers brushed against my knuckles, I flinched away like I’d been burned.
“We should, uh, go see the craftsmaster. And we ought to speak to Hahren Sarel, too,” I murmured, glancing over my shoulder to the bustle of the camp’s centre. “If anyone knows more about what we can expect from the forest, he will.”
I didn’t dare look at Alistair. I knew I’d hurt him by the texture of the breath I heard him take, all stiff and stifled, and I wished so much that I was braver. I wished I hadn’t been so stung by his loyalty to Eamon, and that I didn’t feel the unseen eyes of imagined Dalish ancients upon me, etching insults into the breath of the breeze.
“Right,” Alistair said, and the leaves crunched underfoot as he took a step back, a step away from me.
I was glad of it. Stupidly, terribly glad. Easier that than to endure the looks I was afraid of seeing on the elvhen’s faces, or the feelings of guilt and recrimination that gnawed at me.
The water skins sloshed in the awkward silence as I gathered them about me, and headed off towards the camp.
Meeting Master Varathorn was an education. He turned out to be one of the most civil and welcoming of the Dalish that I’d met, probably because he barely seemed to notice anything outside of his work.
He made all of the clan’s equipment, from bows to blades, armour to tiny, beautifully carved amulets. When I got to his wagon, I was surprised at the amount of industry going on, despite the sickness and travail that had struck the Dalish. There was a charcoal kiln set up in the shade of its sail, and great expanses of whetstones, hammers, tools and all manner of works in progress were strewn about the place. The boy from before—apparently just one of Master Varathorn’s young apprentices—was being soundly berated for mistreating a bow he’d been trying to make, and he cowered like a puppy under the white-haired elf’s fierce glare. Like all the other adult Dalish I’d seen, the craftsmaster bore intricate tattoos on his face, and the lines were worn into his weathered, sunburned skin, as if he’d been born with them. Pale amber eyes peered out from beneath a huge, bushy pair of eyebrows, and there was a saggy, sunken look to his face that gave him an air of sombre sincerity. I was just glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of the tongue-lashing.
Sten and Zevran were already perusing the goods, Zev wheedling information easily out of another of the nervous-looking apprentices… nervous, I imagined, because they’d probably never seen a qunari before.
Leliana was there, fondling a shortbow with breathless reverence, and quizzing one of the young elves about heartwoods. She smiled cheerfully at our approach, and we were drawn into the throng, for all the world as if it was a busy market day, with gossip and chatter floating like pennants between the traders’ stands.
I learned more about Dalish weapons and armour in that short time than any book or quartermaster could ever have taught me. Master Varathorn, once you got him going, had some very strong opinions on everything that was wrong with human-made work… which was how I came to find myself at the centre of a group of three apprentices, with the craftsmaster gesturing disdainfully at my leathers.
“This is exactly what I was talking about! You see this? The cutting is all wrong. This is typical shoddiness. The shemlen do not think of hide as skin, but as something that may be cut and shaped like parchment. Not to mention these… alterations,” he added dubiously, looking at the trimmed-down parts of my jack, and the clumsy straps that held the human-sized pieces of clothing in place over the greyish gathering of material that might once have been called a shirt. “What is this padded with?”
“Horsehair,” I said, wincing at Master Varathorn’s look of appalled distaste.
“No, no… all wrong,” he muttered, his rough, bowed fingers curling in a gesture of dismissal. “Come. I don’t have much left, but you must take what will be of use.”
I tried to protest, but it didn’t get me anywhere. It seemed as if the craftsmaster had taken my cut-down armour as a personal insult, and he didn’t rest until we were all outfitted with the most serviceable items he had left in his stores… well, most of us. Leliana’s polite and knowledgeable interest in the weapons the Dalish favoured most had apparently allowed Master Varathorn to conveniently forget she was human and, though his armour was only sized for elven frames, he was happy enough to gift her a bow and a quiver full of those short, dark-tipped arrows. The tooling on the leather was the same kind of swirling, intricate design I saw all over the camp, in everything from the tattoos to the shapes painted on the prows of the landships… aravels, I learned they were called. I picked the word out when one of the craftsmaster’s apprentices—a young boy, one of three crowded around me and carrying on snippets of several conversations at once in a strange, hard to follow patter of Common and broken Elvish—was sent to fetch a bundle of leatherwork from inside.
“It means ‘journey’, or something very like it,” Zevran said, doing his favourite trick of apparently materialising behind me. “Thing that is for the journey, perhaps. There is a degree of flexibility in the translation.”
I looked over my shoulder, feeling somewhat exposed in the grubby shirt and breeches I’d stripped to while I waited for the spare jack I’d been promised. I thought ruefully of my first outfitting at the quartermaster’s store back at Ostagar, and the press of eager chaos as countless soldiers jostled for the supplies. It had been the first time I was treated with respect at the camp—clutching Duncan’s promissory note in front of me like a shield—and I’d walked out of there with my head held high, believing I was dressed like a Warden, or at least a soldier. Of course, I had no such ticket to respectability among the Dalish, however much I wanted one… and there was very little chance of me looking half as at home as Zev did.
He still had most of his Antivan leather on—the ornate chestpiece, the same fringe of metal-tipped plackets at his thighs—but he wore Dalish bracers now, and guards on his upper arms and elbows… plus shoulderpieces, breeches, and a new, wider belt, all with the same Dalish designs tooled into the leather. The hide was dyed, like much of their leatherwork, and its deep, burnished copper colour brought out the gold in his skin. He smiled casually at me, apparently enjoying his new finery, and all the attention that came with it.
“They do us remarkable honour by this act, you know,” he said, lowering his voice. “You are aware it is your fault?”
I turned to face him, grimacing warily. Behind him, I could see Master Varathron engaging in earnest, terse discussion with Sten. It looked as if the elf was genuinely curious, trying to work out how to equip someone so very different to his own proportions. Alistair stood sullenly near where Leliana was still chattering about bows, and I looked away quickly before he had time to meet my eye.
“How come?” I asked, turning my attention back to Zevran.
He smiled again, and it was the glimmer of a softly drawn blade. “Ah…! They are talking about you already, corragiosa. You might not be of the Elvhen, but they like the story of what you did to the human lord.”
I winced, and my stomach tightened. “Vaughan? I only told Daeon what—”
Zevran shook his head and tutted incredulously as he cast a look toward Master Varathorn’s aravel, from which one of the boys was emerging with a bundle of leathers.
“Indeed,” he said, leaning in as another apprentice slipped past us, and a cruel kind of mirth marked his features. “However, I think the tale grows bloodier with every whisper.”
“Oh,” I said despondently.
And there I’d been, thinking it was the noble gravitas of the Grey Wardens’ reputation that had convinced the clan not to turn on us.
The craftsmaster wouldn’t accept any gesture of payment for the odds and ends of armour, weapons, and running repairs he made to our gear. That was just as well, really, as we didn’t have much to offer. I knew Zevran had some trinkets salted away from Soldier’s Peak, but it seemed the Dalish had as little use for old scrolls or silver inkwells as they did for coin. In fact, I worried I’d offended Master Varathorn by trying to pay.
The elvhen, I learned, operated by barter… when they traded at all. Mostly, the clan did things for each other because they were clan. Everyone had their place, their role, and they fulfilled it in the secure expectation that every other elf would do their share, and thus everybody would have their needs met. Within it, as with all places and all people, there were friendships, rivalries, and favours passed around, but the usual rhythms of life were clear.
Sten seemed strangely comfortable with it, noting tersely that the elves’ ways were ‘not entirely senseless’, though he seemed to have little sympathy with their plight. Certainly, he didn’t appear to approve when I agreed to look for ironbark in the forest. It was Master Varathorn’s suggestion—not quite a request—and I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was the payment he expected for what he’d given us, or a genuine plea for help in the hope we were as skilled as Zathrian’s apparent confidence in us suggested.
“We are forbidden us from going any further in,” the craftsmaster explained, with a trace of something in the words that wasn’t quite disdain, but ran rather close to it. “I suppose Zathrian has no choice, but it makes things very difficult. If I had ironbark, I could make more supplies—you know, properly fashioned, it yields armour light as air but strong as steel—but we have lost too many to the werebeasts already, without risking those who are left. If they go, there is no one to protect the clan, after all, and there is no point in making armour for dead men.” He sighed dismally. “Perhaps Hahren Sarel is right, and we will have no choice but to flee to the north.”
The others, all except Sten and I, had drifted away from the craftsmaster’s domain, duly furnished with whatever he could give them. We two were the last, me having adjustments to my new jack (a piece belonging to one of the dead hunters, which had been in for repair—I very much hoped not immediately after his death—and, with a little cutting down, had been persuaded to fit me), and Sten waiting patiently while the gaggle of apprentices carefully rebound the hilt of his broadsword and repaired his boots.
“It is curious,” he observed, ostensibly to himself, yet clearly aware that Master Varathorn could hear him, “how they so easily choose to run from trouble.”
Not for the first time, I was stunned by Sten’s lack of tact… although I supposed I shouldn’t have been. If knowing him had taught me anything about the qunari, it was that they apparently had no purpose for sparing anyone’s pride.
The craftsmaster took it well, however, and just snorted.
“No,” he said tartly. “There is no ease in such a choice. But, it is hopeless to fight.”
“It is never hopeless,” Sten retorted, those startlingly bright eyes flashing in his dark face, like chips of quartz caught against rocks. “Not while you draw breath.”
The old elf smiled bitterly and handed him back the newly repaired broadsword.
“I truly wish you well, stranger,” he said darkly. “And may you not live to wish those words unsaid.”
Sten muttered something in his own tongue. I didn’t understand it, though I did make out the word ‘parshaara’ which, by that point, I had guessed meant something more or less akin to ‘enough!’. I wanted to apologise for him, anyway, but there seemed little point. Master Varathorn was done with us, and Sten had barely strapped his boots back on before he was striding off back into the camp, and I had to quicken my pace to catch up.
“That was—” I began, but I gave up when the look on Sten’s face told me just how futile any attempt at criticism would be. I sighed, and gestured vaguely at his blade. “They did a good job on your sword, anyway. Maybe be a bit kinder because of that?”
He scoffed: a deep rumble, right at the back of his throat. “Kindness? To overlook faults, to ignore weakness? That is merely foolish. It is no benefit to be made blind to inadequacy.”
That great, craggy brow folded in on itself, and Sten scowled at the damp grass. His braids hung loose against his chest, their stark white grubby and greyed next to the dark leather and splinted mail he wore. We’d been promised a chance to bathe somewhere downstream, once we’d familiarised ourselves with the camp, and I imagined we were all looking forward to it.
Even if we died stupidly in the forest, at least we could do it smelling relatively fresh.
“In any case,” Sten added, glaring at a tussock on the dappled, clean-swept ground, “this is not my sword.”
“What?” I blinked, and looked in confusion at the sheathed blade slung over his back. “Sten, it’s as much yours as—”
“No. It is not my sword.”
I stopped, letting him put a couple of paces between us as I tried to wrap my mind around what he meant. He halted, and looked back at me impassively.
“I don’t understand.”
“No,” he said, his tone lightening just a little, as if my evident stupidity amused him, albeit with some bitter kind of aftertaste. “You would not.”
With that, Sten stalked off, leaving me to stand there in my second-hand leathers, mouth emptily framing a few choice cusses.
It had been a very long time since I’d had anything that resembled as much free time as we were granted in the Dalish camp. Fair enough, most of it was to be put to good use either resting, restocking, or finding out whatever we could about what might lie ahead of us, while the sombre tenor of things—not to mention the tents full of the sick and dying—prevented any sense of real relaxation or festivity. All the same, I started to unwind just enough to realise how much my muscles hurt. All the fatigues and niggling pains the past few months had piled up seemed to seep back into my consciousness, and it felt as if I’d fall apart if I stood still long enough to think about it… so I didn’t. I mingled, as far as the clan would have me, and probably made a fool of myself asking questions so simple they would have shamed a child.
I learned a great deal, though. I learned that the Dalish did not speak their own language as completely as it first seemed, and that Elvish itself appeared to be more of a mix of Common and reappropriated words than anything, but I did glean a clutch of new words. I started with ‘aravel’ and soon added ‘vallaslin’, for the tattoos that the Dalish bore… though I quickly discovered that they were sacred, and no one liked talking about them with an outsider.
Some of the clan made no secret of not wishing to speak to me at all. They moved away before I approached, or brushed me off with the fewest words possible. Some of the men looked at me like I was an aberration, especially wearing cast-off Dalish armour. Some of the women just stared with a mix of revulsion and pity, and I didn’t really understand why. It wasn’t as if Dalish women didn’t fight, after all. My thoughts turned briefly to Alistair, and I hated the guilt and shame that rose up in me, and found myself quietly glad that at first glance around the camp I couldn’t see him.
As far as I could tell, the others were all doing the same as me: making the most of the opportunities we’d been given.
I found Morrigan on the other side of the brook, toeing through the plants that clung to the muddy banks and seizing on handfuls of straggly, pale green leaves. She glanced up at my approach, recognition rapidly giving way to irritation.
“Oh. ’Tis you.”
“Herbs?” I asked, nodding at the plants she was gathering.
She grimaced. “No… I am picking pretty flowers for the sheer delight of it. Mayhap I shall weave them into a crown and declare myself a princess.”
Her yellow-gold glare narrowed like a knife, but it didn’t faze me. If anything, it made me think she was glad of my company, however silly that seemed.
I gestured to the bundle of thin stalks she held. “That’s woundwort, isn’t it? I don’t know that one.”
Morrigan held out the damp little plant she’d just plucked, and I leaned in to get a closer look. It had wide, wrinkled leaves and small, star-shaped white blossoms with pinkish centres… rather like the flower I’d gathered for the kennel master back at Ostagar, except this one smelled faintly of pondwater and cat piss.
“Lesser Healspeed, the Wilders call it,” Morrigan said, as I screwed up my nose at the smell. “We do not use it much, though I am surprised to find it this far north. Perhaps because the summer was mild. It is a poor substitute for the greater kind, but most potent in certain healing potions. Of course, the Dalish have scoured this place of almost everything usable… yet they seemed content to let me forage.”
She tucked the herbs into one of the leather pouches at her belt, and I allowed myself a small smile. Even as fierce as the Dalish presented themselves to be, it was hard to picture anyone telling Morrigan she couldn’t do something.
“Maybe your skills can help them,” I suggested, at which she gave me a very withering look. “Knowledge from a different place, or…?”
“The old woman has already insinuated herself,” Morrigan said dryly. “I have been given leave to gather and brew, but I doubt my potions will be of use to the elves. Better take them with us, lest we meet more in the forest than werebeasts.”
She said it with a grim kind of certainty that made me want to shudder, as if she knew exactly what was awaiting us. I didn’t push for details, and I let her wave me away with the pretence of irritation, crossing back past the brook and into the body of the camp.
The great curved shapes of the aravels shaded everything, with their half-folded sails, their proud hulls and high, arches wheels. Three children peered out at me from behind one: a grubby, feral little group, with wide eyes and sharp, knowing faces. They stared at me unabashed when I caught them looking, and after a moment’s suspended breath and tension, burst out from the landship’s cover and pinwheeled into a run, scrambling over each other in their haste to dart away. The oldest—a boy with coarse blond hair falling to his jaw and eyes the colour of spring skies—turned back and cat-called a word at me before pelting off in fits of breathless giggles.
I didn’t know what it meant, but I guessed it wasn’t complimentary.
The sound of footsteps on the leaves behind me made me turn… or, more precisely, the sound of someone deliberately finding a dry leaf and a couple of twigs to tread on. I smiled.
“Are you trying to make me feel better about my ability to pick out a target?”
Zevran chuckled softly and shrugged. “Well, you complained of my stealth, no? A gentleman always put a lady at her ease.”
I opened my mouth for the obvious riposte, saw the look on his face, and shut it again abruptly.
“That’s… very gallant,” I said instead. “Been busy?”
He gave another small shrug: a slow, cat-like flexing of the muscles beneath his half-Antivan, half-Dalish leathers.
“Not as busy as I’d like,” he said, looking past my right shoulder in a pointed manner.
I glanced behind me and, following Zevran’s gaze, I noticed a young, dark-haired elf standing by one of the aravels. He hadn’t been there before, I was sure. Ostensibly, he was inspecting the wheel rims, and not looking at us at all… but I knew dissembling when I saw it.
“Shh.” Zev hushed me with barely a twist of his lips, and continued to watch the elf from beneath hooded eyes. “It would be a crime to frighten away something so lovely, no?”
His words were almost a whisper, but I wondered if the elf had heard them, because he glanced up, looked fleetingly embarrassed—or as near it as I suspected the Dalish were able to be—and moved to the other side of the landship. Zevran just smiled, and I blinked, a little surprised by his open, calculated admiration. The elf was handsome, in that very Dalish way. His hair was almost black, a heavy fall of braids and locks pinned at the back of his head, and his skin bore the rough, weathered look that most of the clan had, though it was pale enough for the sinuous lines of his tattoos to seem very dark against it.
He wore leathers, but not like those of the hunters. They were still of that exquisite Dalish make—dark, oiled hide, tinted to shades of grey and green and tooled with the swirling shapes of vines and spirals—but they weren’t as intricate, and his shoulders were capped with a rough, fur-lined cape.
He was still watching us… or, at least, watching Zevran. I shrugged, not much caring for the sense of being a crass intruder on a private moment, and somewhat unsettled by the feeling that Zev had been chasing him across the camp like a deer.
“Well, I should probably go and… um….”
“Yes,” Zev murmured. “Yes, you probably should. I shall see you later, yes?”
He wasn’t even looking at me, and I found the predatory set to his face a bit unnerving. This wasn’t playfully flirtatious Zevran, who passed time on the road annoying Wynne with bosom jokes, or calling me beautiful just to see the colour I turned.
I took my leave, but glanced over my shoulder as I went, just in time to see the assassin hunting down his prey. There was something measured in his stride; a carefully calibrated seducer, I thought, noting that the boy just straightened up, standing his ground and smiling as Zevran approached.
Apparently, the elvhen held discoveries for us all.
The prude in me was a little embarrassed as I walked away, quickening my pace. I had thoughts of heading to the hospital tents to see if Wynne had found any success in speaking with the healers—she had seemed so quiet and tense since we’d come to the camp, and I suspected the gruesome nature of the curse had upset her—but I was waylaid by an elf with jaw-length red hair and an anxious expression.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, his palms pressed together, and thick, rough-hewn fingers curled around each other. “Forgive me. I was hoping I would have a chance to speak you with you, stranger.”
I blinked curiously, a little intimidated by the heavy, angular tattoos on his face (stupidly so, given the striking looks of my companions; amazing that I could travel every day with Sten beside me, and still find anyone daunting), and the wide, pale green eyes that stared so hopefully at me.
He bent his head, and when he next spoke I realised his voice lacked that crisp, clipped delivery so many of his clansmen had, as if he was more used to the common tongue than they were. His clothes were different, too: a thick, woven shirt, fur-lined cloak and boots, and serviceable leather breeches, but not the garb of a hunter. If he hadn’t been Dalish, I’d have thought he was a tradesman.
“My name is Athras.”
Those pale eyes flickered for a moment, and my stomach started to sink. All right, so my naming of the mabari hound had been off, but did my own name mean something stupid in Elvish as well? I dreaded to think. As far as I knew, I’d simply been named for my uncle Merenir—which, admittedly, wasn’t the most auspicious connection in the world—and Mother had once told me that the root of the word meant something like ‘brave’ or ‘strong’, but that probably wasn’t true. If it meant anything at all, I just knew it wasn’t going to be complimentary.
Athras didn’t say anything, though. He gave me a small smile, and glanced nervously towards the centre of the camp.
“I… I hope my people have not been too harsh in their treatment of you? We do not encounter many outsiders, but it is good to see another elf, even if you’re not of the clans.”
No one like a Dalish for back-handed compliments, I thought ruefully, but I shook my head.
“Not at all. Everyone has been quite, um, accommodating.”
“Good.” He looked relieved, and his hands came unclenched, though he still held them cupped together. “We welcome our brethren, even if they have forgotten the old ways. That is our charge, after all: to keep the old lore alive until we can bring it back for all… but this is not what I wished to speak to you about.”
Athras looked down at his heavy knuckles, and seemed tempted to worry his fingers together again. He had the hands of a carpenter, I thought, or a smith.
“I understand you will search for the wolves in the forest,” he said quietly, casting a sly look across the camp… in the direction of the keeper’s aravel. “You are seeking the white wolf?”
“We hope to help, if we can,” I said, perhaps a little more guarded than I needed to be. “Why?”
The elf rubbed one broad thumb anxiously against his palm, like he was struggling with something that shouldn’t be said, and yet itched to come out.
We were already quite a way from most of the aravels, but he took a few steps to the side, closer to the shade of the treeline, and implored me to follow with the pained look in his eyes. The earthy smell of the forest seemed to rise up from the pines, marking more clearly than ever the strange dichotomy of this place: both within the Brecilian Forest’s bounds, and yet not truly inside it. I’d never known there were so many degrees of forest. I’d thought it was either dense trees or nothing, not these cycles of copse and clearing, ringed around the dark heart of the forest like mayflies kissing the surface of a river.
I followed Athras, and waited patiently for his tale.
“I am not a hunter,” he said, as if disclosing something shameful. “I make… crafts. Furniture, such as we use, and tools. But, when the ambush came, I fought the werebeasts—and so did my wife, Danyla.” His face softened, and yet great pain marked his expression. “She has far more skill with blade and bow than I, but she was gravely injured in the attack.”
Athras nodded his acknowledgement, but he was frowning at the sparse grass between us, staring back into Maker alone knew what horrible memories.
“Zathrian… demanded that those who were injured be kept apart from us. To protect us, he said,” Athras added, both bitterness and suspicion running coldly beneath the words. “He told me there was nothing he could do—just ease her pain. He said she died, but he won’t let me see the body. He… he refuses to let us see the bodies.”
I said nothing. Would I want to see the corpse of a loved one, already half-mangled by so vile a curse? No doubt the first few to be infected had turned completely, before the healers established the last safe point between drugging and killing the poor bastards.
The very real threat that awaited us began to tug darkly at my mind, and I tried to tell myself it was no different to the ever-present danger of being ripped apart by darkspawn. Death was death, however it came.
“The thing is,” Athras went on, urgently now, looking at me as if I somehow held answers, “I think there is something more to it. I think she… she became one of them, and I think she got away.”
“Got away?” I echoed incredulously. This was beginning to sound like the desperate hope of a bereaved man and, though my heart went out to him, I saw nothing I could do for Athras.
“Maybe.” Those pale green eyes found mine again, and his gaze almost shook with indignation. “I think Zathrian is telling us all what he believes will stop us chasing off into the forest, and I know he wants to protect us, but…. He has forbidden everyone from entering. The hunters, the craftsmen—how are we meant to feed ourselves, or gather supplies? Besides, I… I found this.”
Athras reached, fumble-fingered, into a pouch at his belt, and pulled out a soft roll of fabric. He passed it to me with a kind of reverence, and I saw it was a scarf, of the kind I’d seen some of the Dalish women wearing. They were beautiful pieces of embroidery: finely woven fabric in a dark, mossy green, with patterns of delicate vines and flowers picked out in a lighter green thread. Elven stitchwork had been well known in the market in Denerim, and our needlewomen were sought after—even if ‘seamstress’ was frequently a less-than-subtle euphemism in certain parts of the alienage—but this put the best embroidery I’d seen to shame.
“This was your wife’s?”
Athras nodded. “I found it yesterday morning, behind our aravel. Just… just over there.” He turned, and pointed to a small landship at the fringe of the camp. A spinning wheel and small treadle loom sat on the grass near its steps. “You see? What else can I think? Anyway, it may sound foolish, but… but I know she is alive. I am sure of it. I… I would know if she was dead,” he finished quietly, his voice choked somewhere between certainty and blind, determined hope as he stared at the scarf I held. “You know, don’t you,” he murmured, “when someone you love is gone? I… I think you understand what I mean.”
“Yes,” I said thickly, wondering how far the story I’d told Daeon had spread through the camp—bloodier with every whisper, as Zevran had said—or whether it was just branded on my forehead. “Yes, I do.”
And yet, did I know? A little seed of doubt settled in my mind then, though I did my best to ignore it. I didn’t know what had happened to anyone back home. Soris, Shianni, Valora, Taeodor… any or all of them might be dead, or they might have missed the worst that soldiers could do. I doubted it. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t believe Shianni would have been all right—not after the way I’d last seen her—and my heart was an open wound when I thought of my father. He’d never seemed an old man before that day, but I knew what had happened had all but broken him. It seemed impossibly optimistic to believe he could have survived a second purge… but I hadn’t felt it when it happened. I hadn’t believed, until we set foot back in the city on that ill-fated day, that what I’d done would have such repercussions.
Against my ignorance—a badge I’d all too bloodily won—I found Athras’ certainty unnerving, but I didn’t argue.
“Look, I can try to seek her out, if she’s in the forest,” I suggested. “And maybe I could speak with Zathrian. It does seem as if the werewolves are not as mindless as he believes. If—”
“No!” Athras widened his eyes. “No. Zathrian is very, uh, firm of purpose. He will not listen to… speculation. Better that you just look, if you are willing. I will be greatly in your debt. Please, take the scarf. If you find her—even if she is dead, or worse—just knowing would bring me peace. I don’t have much, but I’m sure I can find something to—”
I shook my head. “I don’t need a reward.”
Athras clasped his hands afresh, and bowed clumsily. “Ma serennas, Grey Warden. Thank you. I will wait… and I will not tell anyone what we have spoken of.”
The agreement lingered wordlessly in the air, and Athras excused himself as I tucked his wife’s scarf carefully into my scrip.
I watched him lope cautiously back to his landship, and wondered at just how much Zathrian was keeping from his clan.