Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Six

———————————
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————

“I can’t believe you’re the outsider the clan’s talking about.”

Daeon started to cross towards me, but stopped halfway, his face screwed up in critical incredulity. The three men near the wagon were staring openly, and one leaned over to mutter something to his fellows. I was aware of a handful of other Dalish coming over to form an interested little knot behind them, while at my back there was a decidedly nonchalant shifting of bodies. Maethor was already standing at my side, and of course Zevran just happened to drift to my elbow, smiling genially at the wild elves.

I shook my head, tired and cold and flat-out broken with confusion. This boy—this man before me—was a cold breath of home, and it filled me with a bizarre mixture of glee and terror to see him again… and to see him like this.

“It doesn’t seem possible.” Daeon put his hands on his hips, surveying our ragged, mismatched group, and frowned suspiciously. “The last I heard, you were meant to be marrying a blacksmith or something.”

Curiosity prickled at the air around me, and I shrugged, suddenly feeling awfully exposed. “It’s a long story.”

“A friend of yours, I take it?” Zevran enquired solicitously, his gaze moving slowly between Daeon and the gaggle of Dalish behind him.

One of the young hunters by the wagon snorted as he crossed his arms over his leather-padded chest, and muttered something in Elvish, in the calculated tones of a false whisper. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I saw Daeon wince. He turned to glance back at the men, gesturing vaguely in my direction as he did so.

“Yes, I know this woman from the alienage in Denerim. Her cousin is a good friend of my brother’s, and she is of honourable family. That much, I can vouch for.”

Well, let me just catch myself from swooning….

I snatched up the uncharitable thoughts and scolded myself for them. After all, what else should I have expected?

“I knew him as Daeon Ebron,” I told Zevran, lowering my voice just a little. “He was the middle of three brothers. Always talking about running off to join the Dalish… used to drive people crazy. Daeon left Denerim with his younger brother, looking for the Dalish, just before— uh, before my wedding,” I finished, feeling my expression tighten a little as the weight of old, half-healed wounds throbbed within my memories.

Behind me, Alistair was keeping his distance from any potential confrontation, but I could almost taste the curiosity humming off him. He’d moved forwards a little, his presence just behind my shoulder a comforting thing, with the rime of sweat and the gentle clink of splinted armour.

Daeon glanced at me and frowned. The frown deepened into a scowl as he surveyed the humans behind me, and he crossed his arms over his chest, his thin frame all taut challenge and suspicion. He looked strange like that, I thought. Like he was wearing the Dalish’s hostility the way a little boy wears his father’s coat.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re the elven Warden Mithra found? You? Cyrion Tabris’ daughter is a Grey Warden?”

His lip curled, and a stiff, reflexive pride welled in me. I mirrored his stance, folding my own arms, and jutting out my chin in a manner that probably wasn’t very attractive.

“Yes. You could at least try not to sound so surprised.”

Daeon snorted. “Well, you always had a big mouth, but at least you used to make an effort to keep it under control. I just…. How did it happen? What, was your betrothed so ugly you had to run away? Bet your father wasn’t pleased. All that coin he splashed around the place….”

I winced. That was the boy I knew; standing on a corner by one of the tenements, a jar of ale in his hand, drawing courage from the sneering, giggling lads behind him. I watched the young Dalish hunters lingering at Daeon’s back, grinning over his shoulder, and wondered if maybe our two ways weren’t so different after all.

“Things… happened,” I said slowly. “Things you don’t know about. You ought to hear them. You and Aelwyn both, if he’s—”

Daeon’s face darkened. “Ael’s not here. He didn’t make it.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t know what to say and, as all the arrogance and bluster seemed to seep out of Daeon’s face, I was afraid to ask what had happened.

“I… I’m sorry.”

He cleared his throat, frowning at the scrubby grass, and answered the question I had yet to frame.

“We ran into some thugs on the road, barely a day south of Denerim.” Daeon shrugged bitterly. “We had nothing worth stealing, but I guess they thought they’d have a little fun. They left us both spitting blood by the roadside. We found somewhere to rest but, come the morning, Ael didn’t wake up.”

I pressed my lips together tightly, watching the shifting stances of the Dalish behind him. They knew the story, obviously, and it still angered them. A few soft murmurs in Elvish moved through the knot of hunters and lean, hard-faced lads, and I started to worry for the humans who accompanied me.

I glanced nervously at Zevran but, if he was thinking the same, he didn’t show it. His face was carefully blank; unreadable, the way I’ve often heard shems say that elves can be. One who passes a brook only to cross to the other side never sees the shingle in the stream’s bed… or so Father used to say.

It hit me then: I wasn’t shocked or aggrieved by what Daeon said. True, I’d barely known any of the three brothers. Taeodor had been Soris’ friend, not mine… but I didn’t know whether the sudden twinge of concern I felt for my companions had blotted out the things I should have felt, or whether I’d grown so far away from my roots I couldn’t even feel them being burned.

“I had to leave him,” Daeon said softly, still looking at the ground by my feet. “So I just… ran. I don’t even remember where. Didn’t look back. I was half-dead by the time the clan stumbled across me and—by the grace of the Creators—they took me in. It’s been, what, a little over three moons now, I suppose.”

I blinked. So long? And yet it hardly felt like any time at all. He smiled darkly.

“I’ve a long way to go before I’m really elvhen, and I guess I’ll always be a flat-ear, but I believe I’m starting to fit in… isn’t that right?” he added, turning to a couple of the young men behind him.

There were a few surly smiles, and a little bit of rough shoving and shoulder-clapping, but I hadn’t been let out from under the lens yet, and their attention turned back to my motley group soon enough.

“Doesn’t explain this, though,” Daeon said archly, nodding at the shallow camp we’d been putting together. “And… you. Mind if I join you? I’d like to hear the story.”

I nodded, gestured vaguely at the fire Sten was putting together, and tried to hide my wince. “Please.”

It wouldn’t be the first time I’d told my tale; but it would be one of the hardest tellings.

~o~O~o~

We ended up with Daeon sitting at our fire, accompanied by a straggly handful of Dalish. They didn’t deign to sit with us, but stood in a rough half-circle around the edge of the clearing, ostentatiously listening and probably passing judgement.

Darkness began to draw in, and our fire was a smaller, tidier, paler version of the great fire at the centre of the camp: the place where the elders sat, and the children were gathered in to warm by the flames, and where it had been made quietly obvious that we were not welcome.

I introduced the others and—Maethor laying at my feet, and the flames smouldering sluggishly, with a thin curl of gritty smoke rising from the slightly damp wood—I began to talk. I told Daeon of the wedding, and of the things that had happened and, even if I’d wanted to pare back the details, I couldn’t. He wouldn’t let me. Of course, he knew every inch of the alienage as well as I did, not to mention almost every face in the story.

When I got to Vaughan’s second interruption of our celebrations, try as I did not to dwell on what had happened, Daeon scowled blackly and spat into the grass.

“Shemlen bastards! What, he just took them? Didn’t anyone do anything? Say something?”

Ripples of unease and anger ran through the Dalish gathered behind him. I’d noticed others drifting to join them and, much as I didn’t want to be the evening’s tuppenny entertainment, I was at the centre of several people’s attention.

“I… I don’t know,” I said, glancing across the fire.

To my left, Alistair was sitting on his pack and looking decidedly nervous. He was easily the most identifiably human of us; Morrigan was clinging to her aura of Wilder strangeness like a shield, and had retreated to a taut crouch in the shadows, her staff held pointedly across her knees, while Leliana was seated demurely at Wynne’s feet, the mage perched carefully on a piece of dry log. I wasn’t sure whether the Orlesian had calculated the image of obeisance to an elder as one that might assuage Dalish sentiments, or whether it was just happenstance, or even the desire to offer Wynne a little protection.

Either way, it wasn’t her that the Elvhen kept glaring at.

“What d’you mean you don’t know?” Daeon demanded, the firelight flaring brightly against his dark skin, his eyes glowing with its reflections like hot coals. “You were there! How can you not know?”

Alistair cleared his throat and shifted, but held his tongue. I shrugged, trying to be as dismissive as I could, like the retelling didn’t stir up everything I wanted to keep buried.

“One of them hit me. I was out cold; only woke up once we were in the arl’s estate, and there wasn’t really time to talk. They… they split us up after that. Killed one of the girls when she resisted. Did… did you know Nola Elran?”

“Old Tormey’s daughter?” Daeon’s face turned bleak and angry, and he nodded curtly. “Mm. Taeodor used to work with her brother, before he went to the Bannorn. She…?”

I nodded. “Mm-hm.”

The mutterings grew louder. A couple of the Dalish boys cussed, and one said something that was evidently challenging enough to make one of the women who’d joined them shush him with a stern look.

I moved on as fast as I could, giving as few details as possible. I underlined what Duncan had done for us, but made no mention of what he’d said about my mother, and I made much of the bravery Soris had shown, without saying anything of what we’d seen in Vaughan’s chambers. I suppose it was as much for me as for them; I had no wish to remember Shianni that way, or to let myself wonder whether she’d even begun to recover before Loghain burned the alienage down around her.

Still, even with my omissions, there was outrage, and I could see why humans were so vocal in their wariness of the Dalish. For the first time, I was glad of the forest and the wild, bleak, desolateness of the place. It seemed like, if the camp had been close to any human settlement, we’d have seen a barn or two burned that night, and I didn’t want to be responsible for inciting a second Red Crossing.

I ploughed on, speaking as passionately as I knew how of Ostagar, and the reality of the darkspawn threat. I told of Loghain’s withdrawal from the battle, and the way he’d blamed the Grey Wardens for betraying the king. That clearly meant little to the Dalish—they cared nothing for the vagaries of human politics, and their opinion of shems’ honour was so low they didn’t seem surprised at the treachery.

They didn’t blink much at my tales of darkspawn, either, and I started to think nothing could shake these people. Daeon had grown hard-eyed, silent, and still, his shoulders hunched and his brow furrowed darkly.

I glossed over most of Redcliffe and the Circle Tower; they didn’t need to believe us to be in the service of some human nobleman, even if it felt a little bit like that was true, what with Alistair’s constant mentions of Arl Eamon’s condition. He would probably be glad we’d be back on the road again come the morning, I thought with just a hint of bitterness.

Finally, I did what I so badly wanted not to do, and told of the climate in Denerim… and of the purge. I wasn’t sure I should—it was plain how angry it would make the Dalish—but I had already talked until my throat was rough and dry, and Daeon deserved to know. I deserved to tell it, too, I supposed; to admit that it was my fault, the result of what I’d done.

The elvhen whispered among themselves, and the whispers took flight, rising up like birds against the darkened trees. I felt their stares on me, felt their oddly mingled disapproval and disbelief, like I was some kind of ill omen, a talisman of bad luck and bloodshed. I almost started to believe it too, until I made myself remember what little good we had done. Redcliffe, and the people we’d saved at the Circle Tower… I’d brought good fortune to them, and I clung quietly to that.

Daeon gazed into the fire, all the hard lines and angularity of his anger slumped into a sullen, wounded stillness.

“Taeodor,” he murmured. “I… I didn’t know.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, though I knew it wouldn’t do much to help.

Deep in the undergrowth that fringed the clearing, small creatures scuffled and, in the dark of the trees, night birds waited on creaking branches, the occasional muffled call of an owl echoing through the shadows. Somewhere, a fox barked, its voice a wailing yelp on the cold air.

Daeon glanced up at me, his eyes small and dark as the kind of black beans we used to keep packed under sand, salted away for the long winters. Mother used to make a stew with them that tasted like old shoe leather. It seemed such a stupid thing to remember, such a silly piece of nonsense to think of then… and yet it made me ache for home

“What about your family, though?” he asked softly. “Soris? And—”

“Truthfully? I don’t know. We couldn’t get in.” I shook my head. I didn’t want to think about it any more. “But I doubt there are many families left unchanged. You’ve heard the stories, haven’t you?”

Daeon nodded bitterly. The Elvhen around us had turned disturbingly quiet. None of my companions had uttered a word either, and that left me unnerved. I disliked being the focus of so many gazes, and I wasn’t used to people hanging on my words.

I stole a sidelong glance at Zevran, because he seemed to be the only one who would speak in front of the Dalish—the only one who might carry any weight here—but he was simply sitting quietly, as elegant and still as an oiled blade.

“I’m sorry, Merien,” Daeon said eventually, which surprised me, because apologies were like tooth-pullings for boys like him. “I… I suppose I can’t help thinking, if Ael and I hadn’t gone when we did, or if—”

“It wouldn’t have changed anything,” I said, not because I believed it, but because I knew how pointless that particular exercise was.

He frowned again and hung his head, his knotted fingers working, one hand against the other, as he stared into the flames.

Well, who was to say what might have been different? If I’d behaved differently on the day of the wedding, done something or not done something, then yes, perhaps it would have passed without incident. Perhaps it would have been another day, another moment that flared up and brought the world crashing down around us. Perhaps not.

Perhaps, at this very moment, I would be sitting before a warm fire, listening to the song of Nelaros’ hammer on some semi-distant anvil, my fingers busily darning baby’s clothes, and my memories full of mundane joys and tears, instead of the magnitudes of war.

Perhaps we never know what is meant to be.

Still, one thing I learned that night was that there was little point in trying to deny the Dalish notion of clan. As my tale finished its telling, it became clear that Daeon’s pain was the clan’s pain. His anger was their anger, and their comfort was there for him.

He bade me goodnight, nodding with surprising respect to my companions and, as he turned to leave, the young men who’d stood with him gathered around him. One placed a hand on his shoulder and, watching him walk away with heavy, slow steps, I felt glad that he had that… and angry, too, in a strange way. Bitter, that he should have found this place, and that it should be so unlike the worlds we’d dreamed of when we were children, when my head was full of Halamshiral and legends of the Emerald Knights.

The Dalish dispersed, and I shivered in the night air. Zevran slapped his palms against his knees and gave an exaggerated sigh.

“Ah, well… time to turn in, I believe. We should rest while we have the chance, no?”

I nodded dumbly, but made no move. The rustles and movements of blankets and bodies passed me by like summer breeze, and I looked up the trees, their thin fingers shadows against shadows, silhouettes against a deeper darkness.

The dreams came more often than not then, and every so often I would feel the same sort of sensation when I was awake. I felt it then; the creeping pull of something that was out there… darkspawn, I supposed. Just our luck to find them running feral in the forest, though if they were already this far north, and this far east, Ferelden was as good as lost—especially if we couldn’t count on the Dalish. I wondered how we’d ever thought a four hundred year old treaty would compel them. My decision, naturally. My eagerness to see the wild elves, to fall into the arms of brethren I had yet to meet… huh. I was a fool, I decided, and I wouldn’t let my folly set us back again.

Tiny pinpricks of rain began to mist from the darkness then; less an actual fall than the subtle moistness of dew breathing on the air. I blinked slowly, and let the night wet my eyelids.

“You all right?”

I opened my eyes at the sound of Alistair’s voice, and found him loitering uncertainly between me and the fire, which was slowly dying down to a steady, dimmed glow. Close behind him, Wynne was humming softly as she shook out her bedroll, with a small tsk of annoyance as what looked like a half-darned sock dropped out of it.

“Of course.”

I marshalled a smile, which probably more resembled a sickly grimace, and earned me a raised eyebrow. Alistair moved aside to give Wynne room, and looked as if he’d have liked to say something more, but our camp was even more confined than usual, and I couldn’t bear any more talking. I ducked past him with another weak grin, and headed to my tent, with Maethor padding after me.

For once, the smell of wet dog seemed like a wonderful, comforting thing.

~o~O~o~

I expected to rise early in the morning. We’d meant to leave quickly, with the minimum of fuss, and preferably before we outstayed our welcome.

I didn’t expect that I would be awoken before first light—barely a few hours after I’d laid down to rest—and met at the flap of my tent by Zathrian, all swathed in his keeper’s robes, leaning on his staff and holding a brass lantern with a tallow candle inside, throwing chequered patterns across his puckered, frowning face.

“Warden.”

He greeted me cordially, as if I hadn’t just fallen out of my bedroll, hair like a haystack and clothes rimed with sleep. I longed for the days when I actually used to bathe and change my dresses and undershirts… they’d never seemed farther away.

“Keeper,” I returned, inclining my head respectfully as I pulled my woollen cloak tighter around myself, in defence against the cold, dark, damp air. “Um, we were going to move on as soon as—”

“A number of the clan have been to speak with me this night,” he said, flexing one thin hand around his staff to silence me, those green eyes shimmering faintly in the candlelight as he studied the look of incomprehension I no doubt wore. “I have heard a great deal of your deeds.”

“Um…?”

“Walk with me,” Zathrian suggested, gesturing to the camp.

Past his narrow frame, I saw Leliana poke her head from her tent, catching my eye with a questioning expression. I nodded.

“It would be my honour,” I said with another slight bow, still so mired in the ways I was accustomed to addressing elders… even ones so far removed from anything I was used to as Zathrian.

Perhaps it was foolish, allowing him to escort me away from my companions, but I didn’t think of it like that; I wanted to follow, and I flattered myself he was treating me as a Grey Warden—as the Grey Warden, perhaps. So often, I’d been used to people facing Alistair with that title and, while I didn’t begrudge him it, that sense of my own dignity and importance puffed me up as I walked in the keeper’s footsteps.

Zathrian took me to the long, low tents that housed the clan’s sick. As we crossed the camp, drawing close, I heard stifled moans and quiet cries denting the air: the sounds of pain, and of those too weak to scream. I’d heard the same at Ostagar, and my first thought was darkspawn corruption. Had they come this far? Was it the Blight causing the sickness we’d heard mentioned? Was that what I felt, poisoning everything? I nearly wanted to believe it, because that would have meant the darkness I felt wasn’t within me… wasn’t changing me.

Zathrian halted, and he lifted up the lantern he carried, its orange glow spilling over his lined face. The tattoos on his skin seemed to leap and crawl like live vines, and for a moment I was reminded of the dyads that had nearly seen us out of the forest. A shiver traced my spine as he leaned in, his voice quiet and earnest, his eyes shimmering in the reflected light.

“Forgive me for rousing you in this manner, but I would have you know the reason we cannot aid you, Warden. I… apologise for my lack of candour before, although I am sure you understand. You see, I did not realise someone would vouch for you.”

I blinked, my gaze sliding nervously to the tents. So, this was the harvest I reaped from Daeon recognising me, was it? I wondered just how much of my tale—how much of everything I’d spilled at the campfire—had returned to Zathrian’s eager ears. Clearly, there was no underestimating the clan’s ability to spread gossip with just as much silent elegance as any bunch of steel-eyed old alienage wives, trading disapproving whispers in dark doorways.

“I appreciate your need to safeguard your people, Keeper,” I said, trying to avert my attention from the dim, squat outlines of the tents.

Zathrian gave me a small, tight-lipped smile. It was almost as if he resented speaking with me, I thought, which seemed strange, because it was he who had woken me, he who had requested this peculiar little audience… and yet I got the feeling that it wasn’t his idea. Moreover, I was fairly certain we were being watched.

I glanced surreptitiously past his shoulder, past the thin spool of light his lantern threw out. The shadowed masses of the aravels lingered close by, their sails creaking in the night air like great moored beasts. Landships, they called them. I’d never spent much time near Denerim’s sprawling docks, but the Dalish wagons did make me think of the great, heavy-hulled vessels that used to feed the city; the kind that ate hundreds of men a year, and spat them out changed and weathered.

Figures almost certainly loitered by the wagons, but they weren’t clear enough for me to make out. Zathrian lowered the lantern, and shadows swarmed us once again. He nodded to the tents, motioning me to accompany him.

“Would that I had held them safe,” he said bitterly, shaking his head. “Ah… but allow me to explain.”

A soft cry came from one of the tents. I saw a light move within, shadows and flickers playing against the thick canvas. There was another pale, keening sound, and then silence—the silence of ended suffering, I thought. Death’s whisper brushed my ears, for I’d seen enough of it to know it, even in the shapeless dark.

Zathrian winced, and turned his head away, his brows tightly drawn.

“It has always been our custom to keep to the forest when we are in the east of Ferelden,” he said, as the lantern-light burnished his features. He did not meet my eye. “Yes, there are dangers here… but it is easier than travelling in human lands. What we did not expect—what I did not foresee—was the beasts lying in wait for us.”

I frowned. “Darkspawn? The horde shouldn’t have—”

“No.” Zathrian raised his head, and those piercing green eyes had grown dull, like clouded gems. “Beasts of another kind. Werewolves.”

“What?”

My horror and disbelief must have been evident, for he sighed shortly and continued, as if explaining to a small child.

“There was a time in Ferelden’s history when werebeasts roamed the lands in great numbers. There are plentiful stories of this, I am sure.”

“Yes, but they’re—” I stopped, and clamped my mouth shut before my stupidity got the better of me completely.

Zathrian arched an eyebrow. “‘Only stories’?”

I bowed my head. “Forgive me, Keeper. But—”

It was foolish, of course. Why be so unready to believe in werewolves? Had I not, until the first time I faced one in the Korcari Wilds, believed that darkspawn were nothing more than a story to frighten children?

After everything I’d seen—demons, abominations, and monsters of every description—I firmly believed the world could hold no greater horrors.

Naturally, I was wrong.

“They ambushed us,” Zathrian went on, speaking briskly now, as if it pained him to dwell on the matter. “We drove them back, but we were… unprepared. Much damage was done, as you will see.”

He motioned me towards the tent. As we drew close, a woman emerged from within, holding another lantern. She looked a little younger than Zathrian, though not by much, and her grey hair was caught in twin braids knotted at the nape of her neck. She wore long, dark robes, their original colour probably some sort of russet brown, though they were spattered with stains… several of which looked like blood. Her face, like the keeper’s, was an intricate pattern of lines and tattoos, framing large, pale eyes the colour of spring skies. I hunched myself even further into my cloak and, as she looked at me, the sadness and hopelessness in her expression seemed to cleave right into my flesh.

The smell hit me first: blood, soil and urine, and close-packed, dense sweat of bodies, and death. Stretchers and makeshift cots lay end-to-end and side-by-side beneath the timber and canvas frame, and a single lantern, aside from the one held by the woman who had greeted us, stood at the far end of the tent. Its faint glow outlined the shapes of elves—men and women, some older and a few younger than me, almost children—contorted in agony.

Every last one of them had been bandaged. Bloody dressings and splinted limbs abounded, and yet their pain seemed… quiet. Many lay frighteningly still, their chests heaving in shallow, thin gasps, their eyes blankly gazing at nothing. Sweat slicked their skin, and fear crawled inside me, for it was like the sicknesses that used to plague the alienage after particularly hot, wet summers. People would cough, and choke, and scream with pain, and then they would grow thin and still… and finally they would die, staring at nothing, wet with sweat and weighing less than a feather.

I blinked, trying to force the thoughts from my mind. If what the keeper said was true, this was no sweating sickness.

“They attacked without warning or mercy,” Zathrian said, close behind me. “They are savage and unrelenting; creatures possessed by terrible spirits. Their bloodlust knows no bounds. It is a curse,” he added, his staff ticking dully against the packed earth beneath our feet as he passed by me, moving to the side of the nearest cot. “A curse that runs rampant in their blood, and it is the blood that passes it on, make no mistake.”

He stilled by the unmoving body of the elf on the narrow pallet, and lifted his lantern. Zathrian’s face was sheathed in shadows, but I watched as the light fell on the young man before him… I watched, and I did not believe what I saw.

He was the same as the others. A boy of the same age as Daeon and the hunters who’d stood beside him—all lean muscles and wiry sinew, with his hair braided back in a mass of tiny plaits, woven with small trinkets of bone and wood. Bloodstained bandages wrapped his arms, and a dirty blanket had been drawn up to his chest. His swaddled hands laid neatly atop it, crossed beneath his collarbones.

He was dead, and death should have made him peaceful. He’d been tended, his wounds dressed, and yet there was no repose. What, in life, must have been a face like any other—yet to be marked with tattoos, yet to be lined with living—was twisted, mutated, turned to something terrible. His mouth was pulled back, his whole jaw shifted in shape and, for a moment, I thought it had been broken before he died… but it wasn’t a break. The entire set of his face had changed, the muscles pulled and corded beneath the taut-drawn skin, and his eyes lay wide, staring in eternal terror at something I could not see.

“Those who are tainted with it suffer great agony,” Zathrian said, his hand moving almost tenderly over the dead elf, pausing to skim the outline of his cheek. “Then death. Ultimately. We lost many this way after the ambush.”

Somewhere further down the row of pallets, another elf moaned in pain. The woman who had met us moved to her patient’s side, and the glow of lanterns diminished as she left. I saw her hands move: she poured the contents of a small vial between the elf’s lips, and his cries grew softer. I wasn’t sure whether they drugged them to ease the pain, or just to keep the sick ones quiet. She turned, moving further away, her lantern held before her.

Only Zathrian’s light remained, and that in one pool upon the dead body before me. I watched the keeper’s long, knotted fingers, crabbed with years, touch the young man’s slack, unmoving mouth. He pushed back the upper lip, and the glint of teeth caught the candlelight… long, pointed teeth, interlocked like the canines of a dog.

“Death,” Zathrian said softly, “or a transformation into something monstrous.”

His hand moved from the boy’s mouth, touching with gentle reverence the only wound I saw on him that seemed fresh: the bloom of red blood above his heart, just peeping from the bandages.

I stared for a long moment and, for that same stretch of empty, aching time, Zathrian remained still too. We just stood there, by the body of the half-turned elf, while all around us other Dalish lay in pain, consumed by this curse of which their keeper spoke.

The stench of sickness filled my throat. All I could think of was getting out, but a part of me was intrigued. That part of me, hardened by all I’d seen, all I’d never believed possible and had yet had so irrevocably proven, right before my eyes… that part of me was enthralled by what I saw.

“Is—” I wet my lower lip uncertainly. “Is there no way to help them?”

Zathrian turned slowly to me, the light of the lantern washing between us. The shadows folded around his face, his eyes twin points of paleness in the gloom. I couldn’t make out his expression but, when he spoke, his voice was full of the weary sadness of an old man who knows an uncomfortable truth.

“I doubt it, Warden. The only thing that could help them must come from the source of the curse itself, and that… that would be no trivial task to retrieve.”

The glow of the other lantern—why keep the dead, or soon-to-be dead in anything but darkness, I supposed—began to make its way back down the length of the tent. My gaze darted to it, like a moth helplessly drawn to a flame, or perhaps to a glimmer of hope.

I blinked, and wet my lip nervously. “You’re… you’re talking about a werewolf?”

“No.” Zathrian’s eyes narrowed, and he regarded me critically, as if judging whether I was fit to hear his truth. “No, not a werewolf. The one who made the werewolves come to be.”

He gestured to the mouth of the tent, indicating we should speak alone. I nodded, more than happy to leave that place.

The cold air scraped my skin like a blade, and I breathed deeply as I glanced across to the far fringes of the camp, wanting to pull all the damp earth and pine and smoke smells right down into the pits of my lungs. The others had stayed in the little enclave we’d been allowed; I couldn’t see them past the great fire, just the outlines of our tents. I wasn’t even sure they’d believe me if I told them what I’d seen, and I suppressed a small shiver as Zathrian emerged behind me.

“There is a great wolf,” he said, his words clipped and succinct. “We call him Witherfang. He dwells deep in the heart of the forest, right at its centre, where the old magic is strong and the wildwood has reclaimed much.”

He began to head back towards his aravel. I followed, my steps a little clumsy, hugging my cloak around myself. Figures moved in the gloom; I supposed I had no way of knowing how many Dalish were watching. Perhaps Daeon was among them.

“The forest has a history of blood and terror. Centuries of it… perhaps much more. Things much worse than werewolves dwell there. Witherfang may be such a creature: more demon than beast.”

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to hear that.

“I know there was a war here,” I said, quickening my steps to keep pace with Zathrian. “And I know bloodshed thins the Veil. I’ve seen demons. Killed them, too.”

“Hmm.”

He said it without judgement or condescension—just a small, incredulous noise in the back of his throat—and that only made me more determined.

“This wolf,” I insisted. “This Witherfang… he is the cause, then?”

Zathrian nodded curtly, without turning to look at me. “It was within him that the curse originated, and through his blood that it has been spread. If he were to be killed and his heart brought to me, perhaps I could destroy the curse.”

I drew level with him as we halted in the lee of his wagon. The lantern’s light was growing dim and, high overhead, the first ghosts of dawn had begun to light the black, skeletal edges of the trees.

“Perhaps?” I echoed uncertainly.

Zathrian turned, fixing me with those old, shrouded eyes, his face set into a strange kind of look that I thought meant he found me impudent and stupid. Maybe he did. I knew I’d never felt less elven in my life, for all the honour he’d shown me. It would have been easy to let us just leave come the morning and never show me these things, never tell me the truth of what had happened to his clan. I wasn’t sure why he was telling me… it couldn’t be Daeon’s doing, surely. Perhaps the fact of that connection alone was enough, though; the fact that, once before, I had stood up for us, for my people, no matter the consequences. Maybe, I thought, in the keeper’s eyes, I was brave like a Dalish, and not the shemlen’s pet they took people like me for.

I wanted that to be true. And I wanted to help those elves who lay dying, waiting for the release of a nurse’s knife or a draught of blindweed. For all else there was crowding in—the darkspawn, and Loghain, and Eamon, and the very chaos the Blight had already wrought on the world—I wanted to believe we could do this.

The keeper looked coolly at me, his thin lips drawn into a tight line.

“I make no guarantee,” he said quietly. “But it should be possible. Witherfang’s blood holds the key to eliminating the curse, of that I am certain… but to find, let alone kill the beast, would be a difficult task. Our hunters have already tried. I allowed a group of our best men to enter the forest a week ago, and they have not returned.” He nodded towards the fire, and the spread-out ring of wagons beyond it. “You see how badly we are crippled here, Warden? I cannot risk any more of my people, nor allow the clan to move on. We—”

“Need help,” I supplemented, holding firm despite Zathrian’s wince of distaste.

He sighed, and turned his face towards the great fire at the centre of the camp. He looked tired, and more than tired: weary, as if the act of drawing breath itself had become a burden for him.

“Yes,” he admitted grudgingly. “I would not ask you this, Warden. I know of the esteem in which your order is held, but….”

But I didn’t exactly look like a hero, I thought wryly. He had a point. If I’d been in Zathrian’s position, I wouldn’t have trusted me, or the oddly assembled fellowship I travelled with.

“You are of our kind,” he said doubtfully, peering at me from the corner of his eye. “And, given the manner in which your clansman speaks of you, I felt it only fair that you know the truth.”

I nodded slowly, not about to correct him by saying Daeon wasn’t my blood.

“And,” Zathrian added, turning his face away once more, as if simply delivering the words into the empty air, “if you were able to slay Witherfang… if the curse could be lifted… we may be in a position to send runners north. Few of my own men remain, but if the clans could be brought together, as your treaty compels…. Of course, we would need to act quickly. There is no way of knowing how far they may have gone. Clan Sabrae, for example, is known to travel as far as the Marches.”

I frowned, the perfection of the moment soured slightly by his offer of such a deal, despite the fact we sorely needed it. Still, I’d wanted to make a grand gesture, not a bartered bargain, and I straightened my shoulders, tilting my chin up as the first dusky fingers of light began to poke at the clouds’ dark underbellies.

“You have no need to ask, Keeper. I pledge you my blade. I will find this Witherfang.”

Zathrian smiled sadly. “Ma serannas, Warden. Your companions, though? Do you speak for them also?”

I blinked, my great notions of noble bravery suddenly stilted. The others weren’t going to like this idea… not in the least. I could all too easily imagine the look on Alistair’s face when I said we were going further into the forest, instead of pursuing a cure for Arl Eamon.

And yet, wasn’t this more important? Why should one human nobleman—who might or might not already be dead, and might or might not recover, even if we did track down Genitivi and his elusive research—be more important than the Dalish clansmen who lay here dying?

If we did this one thing, we would have an army of our own. An elven army… and that, I think, was the dream that sold me. My head was full of fluttering banners and the silver whisper of Garahel, my mind as surely tainted as it had been back at Soldier’s Peak.

“Yes,” I said, sounding strangely confident. “Yes, I believe I do.”

I was a fool indeed.

———————————
Volume 4: Chapter Seven
———————————
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————
Home
———————————

Leave a Reply