Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Ten

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Despite my mild concern, the Dalish hunters were a boon as the trees drew in around us and, with the camp’s relative openness falling away behind us, the ground turned thick with drifts of leaves and twigs. They moved through the dappled shafts of light like ghosts, and they seemed to disturb nothing, nor leave even footprints as they walked.

I’d been a little unsure as to whether we should really have accepted their company, but I could hardly have declined without it seeming a slight to their skill… and it wasn’t as if we didn’t need the help. I was just surprised we hadn’t had to fight Farriel off as well. I hadn’t seen the boy anywhere in the camp. I didn’t know if Zevran had. Maybe he’d already met with him again and convinced him our task wasn’t safe. Either way, the assassin was keeping very quiet, padding soundlessly after Daeon and the others, while the bigger of the two redheaded elves—who’d introduced himself, somewhat tersely, as Rhyn, and the other as his brother Taen—took point.

Morrigan was at the far left of the group, picking her way through the undergrowth with practiced ease, and Leliana was near enough keeping pace with the Dalish. From the back she almost looked like one of them, her leathers lending her lean frame a boyish squareness, and her height putting her just a little above the taller of the elven men. I felt short, though I knew I wasn’t that much smaller. Anyway, I had far nicer ears than her.

To my right, Zevran prowled silently, shooting intermittent worried glances towards the trees. I supposed he had plenty to be wary of after last time he’d been in the forest, and I was just glad we were all together. Maethor seemed to agree, for the hound was practically glued to my heel, trotting along with his nose to the ground, spine stiff, ears and tail twitching at every creak of a branch or flutter of a leaf.

Behind me, Alistair and Sten were like a small troop of infantry clanking through the forest, with Wynne bringing up the rear. It had occurred to me that we should have made more effort to be quiet but, I supposed, if we did encounter werewolves, they would probably smell us long before they saw or heard us. That thought—far from comforting as it was—lingered with me a little as we moved through the pathless undergrowth, and I realised I wasn’t the only one thinking about it.

Leliana was humming quietly, almost under her breath. As I listened, I recognised the tune as part of one of the battle songs from Dane and the Werewolf. I glanced at her and, caught with the melody on her lips, she smiled guiltily at me.

Well, it is a little apt, no?”

Morrigan snorted. “I suppose you think that funny, do you? We shall see how you laugh when the beasts are ripping the flesh from your bones.”

Daeon turned and looked back at the women, his brow furrowed. As his gaze caught mine, it was like peering down a tunnel of years; I was staring right back into the alienage… and we had both changed so much.

Huh. Don’t remember you always finding such cheerful company, Tabris.”

I shrugged, a little frisson of pleasure at being called that again rippling through me. It had been so long, and I almost didn’t mind the bittersweet tug of memories.

Well, you know how it is,” I said, squinting up at the trees in an affectation of unconcern. “All those long nights around the campfire. You’ve got to talk about something, right? Even if it is severed limbs.”

Here, the canopy was thick, the eyeless guards of trunks and interlocked boughs comprised of dark branches almost entirely bared for the winter, and heavy, ferny arms of pine and fir, sharp with narrow green needles and ever-damp with mist or dew. The weak, chequered sunlight that filtered down between them caught on the odds shapes the trees made against each other. They seemed both clothed and unclothed; almost like corpses, with some torn open, right down to the bones.

Daeon swore under his breath. “That’s horrible! Huh… you know, time was, you were just another girl to me. I never knew there was so much bloodlust under the surface.”

I snorted bitterly and Revasir, the dark-haired hunter who’d tried to be friendly before, turned to look back at me.

Fierce,” he said, in that clipped accent of his, and he tapped a hand against his ornately tooled breastplate as he gave me a yellow-toothed smile. “Good way to be. Like the bear: she knows when to rise up, fight back… but not always shouting.”

That seemed to amuse Daeon, for he laughed and nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah. Quiet until the guts come out. Like what you did to that shem lord, right?”

Their mirth tasted bitter to me. I grimaced and looked away, not keen to dwell any more on Vaughan Kendalls. The Dalish may have liked the story—and they certainly grinned about it then, with more smiles and nods passing between the hunters, along with a few choice Elvish words—but I wished I’d never told it.

So, um, did… did you two know each other well?” Alistair asked suddenly, picking up his pace from the back of the group.

The question made an awkward kind of silence pool over the top of the endless, boot-trudging footsteps and the crunch of leaves and mud, and Daeon glanced over his shoulder with a look of mild suspicion.

In the alienage, I mean,” Alistair continued, the note of determined brightness in his voice suggesting he wasn’t going to shut up until he got an answer. “I know you said your brother was—”

Not really,” Daeon said shortly, with another glance back at me, and a brief, half-heartedly apologetic smile. “You were just there, weren’t you? Never thought about it much. Anyway, we lived at the other end of the ward. I think Father thought about matching you to Taeodor once, but nothing ever came of it.”

Did he?” I blinked, caught between genuine surprise and embarrassed discomfort, both at the new information and the way Daeon had so effortlessly excluded Alistair. “I, uh… I didn’t know that.”

It was just starting to rain lightly, though little of it drifted down through the trees. Daeon shrugged as he turned to face ahead once more. I watched the back of his leathers move, his dark cropped hair already misted with a scattering of raindrops, and wondered whether he was smiling mischievously.

Well, it was just after your mother died, as I recall,” he said, raising his voice a little over the damp trudge of non-Dalish feet. “You were pretty young, and I don’t think your father liked the idea much. Guess he was holding out for a better offer.”

Nothing wrong with Taeodor,” I said, wondering why Father had never mentioned the idea to me. He’d been a nice enough boy, and Soris’ friend to boot… and maybe there had even been a time when I thought him a little handsome.

Oh, well! I’m glad you approve, Your Highness,” Daeon teased snidely, raising one hand to me over his shoulder in a mocking flourish of a salute.

I wrinkled my nose. “That’s not what I meant. I meant—”

Whatever.” He shook his head, and peered back at me again, his small, dark eyes narrowed to slits. “I don’t know. Your father always had some strange ideas. Never knew how much coin he dropped to get you fixed up with that fancy looker from Highever, anyway.” A rather unkind smirk curved his lips, the hint of teeth bared behind them. “I wish I had seen him. Was he as flashy as they said? Nice pair you’d have made, I bet!”

And there it was again; the boy I remembered, and the taunts that had always stung, even after I grew used to hearing them.

I said nothing. The past was another country, and the possibilities that had been stolen from us were no more than whispers on the wind. For all I knew, Nelaros and I might indeed have been a terrible match. He might very well have thought me downright ugly, or at least too plain to bear, and swanned off into the arms of another woman even before our honey-month was over. Plenty of marriages ended up that way although—as long as the husband still put food on his family’s table—a lot of women were quite happy to be freed from the trials of conjugal responsibility.

I doubted I’d have minded much. After all, I’d never really expected that kind of affection to play a big role in my life… and I stared fixedly at the ground then, afraid of the way my pulse quickened, and the way my mind prodded me towards uncomfortable assessment of the atmosphere thickening around me.

I didn’t mean to snatch a sideways glance at Alistair, or to find him peering at me, with his mouth glumly pursed and his brows drawn low. He looked like he might be about to say something, and I turned my gaze away hurriedly, suddenly finding something terribly interesting in the drifts of rotting leaves my boots scuffed up with every step.

We hadn’t gone that much farther when Rhyn stopped us, holding out one hand at hip-height in a brisk, silent gesture.

Something rustled in the trees. Maethor growled, deep in his chest, and I reached for my dagger. It surely couldn’t be werewolves already… we were barely a half hour away from the camp.

Rhyn, poised and ready, drew his blade—a thick, curved thing, like a ridged claw; the type of weapon I’d heard the Dalish call Dar’Misaan—his mass of matted and braided red locks spilling down the centre of his back like a mane. He wore a round shield on his left arm, which I guessed was of ironbark, after hearing Master Varathorn describe the wood. It had a bluish hue to it, beneath the painted design that so closely matched the vallaslin on Rhyn’s pale skin: delicate, flowing lines, yet spiked with hard angles and sharp tendrils. The shapes made me think of some ancient creature, lying folded in wait.

Taen and Aegan tensed as the brush cracked, and I think we all drew a collective breath, ready to be set upon by monsters… until Farriel detached himself from the shadows, slipping delicately between the gnarled trunks of two bare trees.

Rhyn swore under his breath and scowled viciously at the boy, while the other hunters seemed to look amongst themselves for reassurance, all caught between confusion and annoyance. Daeon seemed the most perplexed, like he didn’t understand why Rhyn should be so angry. I knew without turning to look at my companions that only one of them would recognise the boy, but I didn’t spare Zevran a glance.

Farriel looked different with his hair bound up and extra hide pads strapped to his arms and shins, added protection to the crafter’s leathers he usually wore. A small pack was slung over his back, and a series of sheathed blades hung at his belt. He stared defiantly at the other Dalish before his gaze flashed to Zev, then moved to me. He inclined his head very slightly, into what I supposed was the nearest he ever came to a gesture of respect.

Warden.”

I could feel the elves glaring at me, like this was all my fault… and it probably was, wasn’t it? I should have told him no; I should have said we didn’t want him. I certainly shouldn’t have given the boy any hint of hope—and yet it was Zevran I felt angry with, even as I gritted my teeth and nodded at Farriel.

I didn’t expect you to follow us.”

Behind me, Morrigan snorted. “A hanger-on, is it? Hmph. Well, the more the merrier when the werebeasts attack.”

Farriel’s dark eyes flitted over the group, but he said nothing, his expression a taut mask as he tried to gauge his welcome.

He is no hunter,” Rhyn said, directing his irritation at me as he pointed accusingly at Farriel. “He does not belong with us. The hunt for Witherfang is no nursing place for children.”

I may be no hunter,” Farriel retorted, “but nor am I ‘child’.”

Your vallaslin is still wet! Go home, craftsman.”

I winced as the boy spat back some Elvish insult it was probably a blessing I didn’t understand. Arguing about his presence was hardly going to help us—not to mention the time we’d waste doing it. The sunlight that passed through the trees was turning from weak strips to wide bands of gold; if this carried on, it would be past noon before made it any further into the forest.

Zevran had moved silently to my shoulder, and I shot him an accusatory look. He shrugged minutely, those golden brows arched in an affectation of innocence.

Come, lethallin,” Revasir wheedled. “Go back, yes? While you can.”

No.” Farriel crossed his arms and scowled. “I pledged my blade to the Warden,” he added, nodding at me like I was the subject of a merchant’s barter. “She said I could come.”

Naturally, they all turned and looked at me. My heart sank.

Now, wait a minute. I didn’t— I said I would speak with Zathrian,” I protested, aware that this was one argument I was not likely to win, even as I looked back at my companions, eager for them to believe I’d had no part in the boy’s plan… although I couldn’t have said why that seemed so important. “I said, if he—”

What does it matter?” Morrigan cut across me, evidently losing patience with the unfolding drama. “He’s here now. Let him come, if he so wishes. He will die, or not die, and on his head be it.”

Daeon frowned at her. Of all the elves, he seemed to be the most uncomfortable around her. I’d noticed that in the distance he placed between himself and the witch, and I’d wondered whether it was because Morrigan’s Wilder magic was that little bit closer to the kind of mysticism the Dalish were steeped in; they didn’t find her as strange as we did. Had I had the time to think about it then, I might have asked myself what that should mean for me, and all my eagerness to do Zathrian’s will.

Farriel just looked coolly at us, and shrugged. “If I had asked the keeper, he would have said no.”

Fool!” Rhyn snapped. “Why should you wish to get yourself killed? There is no honour in this.”

And who says I shall die? I can fight. Better than the flat-ear,” Farriel added, sparing a sneer for Daeon. “He is no truer hunter than I.”

That was almost enough to bring us to a fistfight.

Take that back!” Daeon demanded, all but lunging towards him. “All right, so I’m city-born, but I’ve earned what I have here. I made my kill on the first time out!”

Farriel scoffed. “One mangy wolf. One wolf, seth’lin… and no vallaslin.”

The words flew between them like sharp, dark things in the brush, and their voices seemed loud against the trees. Something rattled high in the branches—a crow, maybe, though I hadn’t heard any birds for a while. There didn’t seem to be many of them in the deeper parts of the forest; either they were afraid to venture in, or perhaps they were just more sensible than we were.

I didn’t know what ‘seth’lin’ meant, but Daeon evidently did and—from his wide-eyed, angry glare—it wasn’t anything pleasant.

It was my pelt!” he all but shouted, colour splashing onto his bare, uninked cheeks. “My kill! By your own clan law, I am more a hunter than you, apprentice!”

Hamin!” Rhyn’s eyes narrowed as he looked between the two of them. “You know what Zathrian ruled. Daeon was to be given the chance to prove himself. His vallaslin will follow when he is ready. That was the Keeper’s word… and these are uncommon times.”

Farriel scoffed quietly. “Yet you won’t welcome me. Ma emma harel, lethallin. I have more iron in me than the flat-ear can hope for.”

I was finding him far less amenable than I had during our brief meeting the night before but, as I glanced at Zevran, I saw no hint that the assassin intended to take his pet in hand. That annoyed me, I suppose—or perhaps it was Farriel’s attitude to Daeon. Perhaps it was the awkwardness of being surrounded so closely by the hunters, and knowing that the grains of respect I’d gleaned from my own companions counted for nothing among them.

Whatever my idle fancies about winning the respect of the Dalish, it felt excruciatingly clear in that moment that we were two parties travelling together, not one united force. It was probably that which made me step forwards, trying to command the attention of the men in my second-hand, patched-up Dalish jack.

Enough. We don’t have the time to stand around arguing. I don’t care much for being lied to—” I looked pointedly at Farriel, whose insouciantly insolent expression was, as my father would have said, inviting a slap. “—but I believe Rhyn is right. These are uncommon times… and I won’t turn away help.”

I probably shouldn’t have said it. I’d all but promised Zevran I’d put the boy’s offer aside, and I was sure I could feel his gaze burning into the back of my neck, disapproval and annoyance radiating off him like a heat haze.

Still, would he have been safer if I’d told Farriel to head back to the camp? It seemed he’d been following us since we left—and the hunters hadn’t noticed his presence, or at least hadn’t admitted to it. That made me wonder if the boy wasn’t a better blade than they thought… or whether they’d simply pretended he wasn’t there. Maker, for all I knew, Zevran had known he was following us too, and never said a word, which I didn’t find the least bit comforting.

I felt more like an outsider than ever, and I disliked that sensation. Yet, even as the gazes of the Dalish and my companions alike turned to me—in varying shades of disbelief, irritation, and uncertainty—I found I didn’t care whether they approved or not. I didn’t care whether I was satisfying the honour and traditions of the wild elves, or living up to the Warden that Zevran might or might not have believed me to be.

All I wanted was to end this fragmentation, and to press on into the forest… no matter what came of it.

The light rain that had been filtering down through the canopy—little more than a fine mist—seemed to seep into everything, like a soft gauze that covered the world.

Taen looked anxiously at Rhyn. Physically, the brothers were very much alike, though I thought Rhyn was probably the elder by a couple of years; he certainly seemed bigger, stronger, and bossier. Then there was that look of slightly worried uncertainty shading Taen’s face, in amongst the discomfort and annoyance. I saw the same blend of worry and damped-down anger in Aegan, like they thought I was an upstart. I knew it couldn’t be because of my sex; Aegan and Revasir had been happy enough to obey Mithra. No, it wasn’t my gender… it was my kind. They thought me not just an upstart, but a flat-ear upstart, I decided. A seth-lin, maybe, whatever that was.

Revasir and Daeon were looking at me too, though I saw more subdued reservation than outright rebellion in their faces. Past this unquiet knot of elves stood Sten, silent and—to most observers—impassive, though I had begun to learn the slight tensions of his hard-hewn face, and the subtle shifts in his posture that spoke of impatience and irritation.

I realised something then, as the rain began to tap harder at the interlaced branches above us, thin droplets flinging down to the musty, fragrant earth like escapees from a great pressing throng. We stood in a quiet, closed-in place, with just the trees and the brush clasping tight around us, and it was like a tomb. This silent space held us and our words still… and no matter how close it drew us, like superstitious farmers afraid of the shadows behind their barns, it still left us islanded, and apart.

And, if I didn’t do something, I would lose hold of my companions, and my tenuously won Dalish allies alike.

Leliana cleared her throat, probably about to slide in with some soothing comment or supportive gesture, and it was all I could do not to glare irritably at her. Standing there, a flame-haired sylph in well-oiled leather, she made me doubt myself—doubt even my own elvenness—and I was sick of feeling like a clumsy fool.

We go on,” I said shortly. “This is still the path the other hunters trod, isn’t it? We head where they did: into the forest. Anyone who wants to turn back is welcome to; but I mean to find Witherfang, and I’ll take an offer from anyone who’s with me. Clear? I won’t have it said the Grey Wardens back out on a promise.”

A series of uncertain looks passed between the motley assemblage. I didn’t dare meet Alistair’s eye; if either of us should have been making proclamations of the Wardens’ credo, it was him, not me… though I didn’t imagine for a moment that he’d argue. Perhaps part of me wished he would.

Farriel smiled smugly at the other Dalish, then turned an altogether warmer look on Zevran, which I thought probably served the assassin right. Wynne pursed her lips, and I assumed she thought I should have sent the boy back to the camp… but then she hadn’t looked comfortable from the first minute we’d first set foot among the Dalish, and I couldn’t work out why. Maybe it was their magic that worried her, or their wildness. Maybe she wasn’t so far cultivated above the prejudices of the Circle and the templars as she liked to think.

Sten grunted. “We should move on. If you are ready?”

The elves exchanged a series of testy looks that seemed to carry a myriad of hidden mutterings in them. Only one or two were directed at me. I wasn’t sure if they were waiting for Rhynn to step forwards and lead us on, so I threw myself into the breach and strode ahead, cracking twigs and scuffing leaves beneath my mud-choked boots.

The atmosphere was thick as pitch for a while, but at least nobody argued.

~o~O~o~

If the truth be told, I expected to encounter much more than we did as we moved deeper into the forest. But, with the Dalish hunters guiding us, we saw no possessed trees, no terrible beasts, and very little sign that anything was amiss.

It seemed as if we’d been travelling for hours, and perhaps we had; I struggled to keep track of time properly when there was a dark canopy of boughs and branches between me and the sun… or the grey wisps of cloud covering it, anyway. The light rain that had begun earlier now dripped from the narrow green needles of stately pines, filling the air with a dank kind of thickness.

Rhyn stopped a couple of times, pointing out scratches on bark, or scuff marks in the leaf litter that didn’t look like anything to me, but apparently told him that we were still following the route the other hunters had taken.

Maybe they killed more of the beasts than Zathrian thought,” Farriel suggested, because apparently he didn’t even have the grace to keep his mouth shut once he’d been allowed to come along.

Rhyn glared at him. “Maybe the beasts are waiting.”

Their mutual antipathy had been casting something of a pall over the group, and it wasn’t surprising that Alistair was the first to crack. He sighed loudly from the back of the party.

Yes, well, you never know… maybe the werewolves are just really, really full up. You know what it’s like after a big meal.”

I shot him a disapproving glare. True though it might well be, the Dalish had lost too many people too recently, and the remark was in poor taste. Aegan and Taen both looked shocked, while Rhyn stared daggers at him, further demarcating the boundaries in our mismatched group. Daeon merely curled his lip bitterly, sneering at the ground ahead as we hiked on through the brush.

We passed through what felt like miles of overgrown, knotted forest, and the most exciting thing we saw was a squirrel. Aegan drew an arrow, ready to shoot it—and it was a beautiful, fluid movement, a real wonder to behold—but Maethor had already barked and lunged up at the tree the thing was skittering along, so the elf let his bow drop with a frown and a muttered curse.

The rain didn’t let up. Not once. It was a veiled curtain, a thin and gauzy mist that got into everything, clinging just as wetly to skin and armour as to the trees themselves. The ground grew soggy underfoot, and the soft whisper of raindrops on leaves and pine needles seemed like the breathing of the forest itself.

I’d just started thinking about the fact my belly was feeling rather empty when Aegan dropped to a crouch near one of the trees and began to inspect the ground. He held up a hand and gestured and, for a moment, I tensed—along with several of the others—my fingers curling on the hilt of my sword as I scanned the dense stands of trees for potential threats.

Leliana moved over to where the hunter knelt and crouched beside him, touching the ridged and muddy leaf litter with careful fingers, then glancing up at the heavy trunks of the trees.

Whatever they saw written into the place in which we stood, it was a language I couldn’t read. I frowned, unsettled and nervous of what they might be seeing.

There was a struggle here,” Leliana confirmed, pointing behind me to yet another group of large, gnarled trees, their leaves shed but for a few blackened, wet rags of foliage, and their bark warped into strange patterns with age. Damp lichen scored the trunks, and a few of the smaller branches had been broken. “You see? Many, many more tracks, and many arrows were loosed here.”

Wynne frowned, her lips drawn into a thin line. She’d looked uncomfortable to begin with, but now she huddled beneath her cloak, rubbing her thin hands together as she surveyed the trees.

I wonder if we shall find who fired them,” she said quietly, her face lined with something that looked altogether darker than mere anxiety.

I wanted to ask what she felt, or perhaps suspected, but the Dalish had formed a tight knot, Rhyn and Aegan whispering earnestly in their fragmented Elvish, which always seemed so much more indecipherable to me because of the few words I could understand.

The rain pattered down around us, and something scurried in the bushes, but Maethor didn’t even seem to have the heart to go after it. As I glanced down, looking at the wetness on the leaf litter—wondering how much of it might have been elven blood, had we been here but a day or so earlier—a large, fat, black-bodies beetle scuttled across the toe of my boot. I caught my breath and shook it away hurriedly, determined to tell the hunters we were moving on again. After all, if this was where their last advance party had met an end, we needed to press on and make as much haste as we could.

It was then that the Dalish broke their small conference, and Rhyn moved over to the thickest of the tree trunks. He took a knife from his belt, cut a small shape into the bark, and spat across the place he’d cut, then pressed his hand to it, like he was saying a prayer. I was familiar enough with superstitions, but then he began to… well, sing, almost. It was a low chant, melodic and gentle, and I was surprised that so beautiful a sound could come from someone as hard-edged as him.

I couldn’t understand the words, but I took it as a lament for the dead. The other hunters stood quiet and sombre, while Farriel—looking pale and frightened, in stark contrast to his earlier bombast—inched closer to Zevran.

We all stood in silence while whatever ritual Rhyn was performing finished, and when he was done we pressed on again… not without a certain degree of awkwardness. There is often something uncomfortable about watching the private moments of faith that belong to another; like the unwanted glimpse of their nakedness. Not to mention, the goosebumps that had risen on my flesh wouldn’t go down. The rain kept on, and it felt like I was being swaddled in layers of something unreal and choking.

Later—when I had the chance to learn at leisure about the ways of the People—I would discover that Rhyn’s prayer was not a lament, so much as a supplication. The Dalish believed that, in the old times, before elves lost their immortality to the quickening that humans brought, our ageless sleep was guided by two brothers, Falon’Din and Dirthamen. In death, Falon’Din, or Lethanavir, as they also called him, the ‘friend to the dead’, was called upon to guide their path and calm their souls, and it was this that Rhyn asked for his lost brethren… a path home, to a safe and peaceful rest.

I am glad I didn’t know it then. I would rather have had the uneasiness of strange mysticism than the sharpness of a familiar sorrow.

We moved on, and the ground grew rougher underfoot. The forest seemed to sprout hills and gullies that lay masked by the drifts of leaves and the monolithic corpses of fallen trees, and the pathless woodland ahead must have had at least a dozen twists and turns. I was almost certain that I could hear running water somewhere, but it was hard to tell beneath the rain.

The mood was morose; more so, since we’d found the site of that skirmish and—given the change in terrain—the fact that it now looked worryingly like an ambush. Zathrian’s assertion that the werebeasts were mindless seemed… naïve, I suppose. I was puzzling over it as we walked, half-inclined to call a halt. Of course, that wouldn’t have helped. Stopping would only have made us a target for the creatures that were undoubtedly out there, watching us. I couldn’t stop looking for faces in the trees.

We were coming to the rise of another ridge when Maethor—who had been padding along in silence, barely even dignifying the ground with more than the occasional sniff—lifted his head and, ears pricked, suddenly bounded off between the trees. I called out in surprise as his brindled body slipped through the black trunks vanishing from my sight.

Probably a rabbit,” Daeon said.

The hound loosed a bark that echoed through the trees, and I shook my head.

No,” I said, as I started to follow the sound. “He never just runs off like that. He’s found something, I’ll bet.”

As I began to push through the heavy, rough branches that grabbed and tugged at my cloak, I heard Alistair’s grim speculation:

Maybe, but is it something the rest of us want to see? If he’s rolling in another dead fox, you’re on your own, y’know!”

In my hound’s defence, he had only done that once. However, as I scrambled down the surprisingly steep bank that shelved away from the trees, my boots skidding on the muddy leaf litter, I saw Maethor. He was a good thirty feet down the ridge, near to what looked like a narrow creek, so we must have been getting closer to the water I’d thought I’d heard. Everything was mud-sodden and wet, and the lichen-splashed trees offered only treacherous barbs and hard obstacles… and yet the mabari had managed to find something, bundled up near the gnarled roots of an old oak.

At first I thought it was a corpse, which struck me as reasonable, and perhaps even a relief. We’d seen no bodies at the site of the attack, and I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing, even if no one voiced it aloud. After all, if the werewolves had left no corpses, we could only assume the hunters had all either turned, or been taken. Neither prospect was pleasant. The healers’ tent at the camp had been bad enough, but I was also battling to keep memories of Ostagar from my mind, and the soldiers’ gossip of darkspawn that dragged their prisoners underground to be eaten alive.

There’s someone down here!” I called, scudding the last few feet on my backside and scrambling to get up again.

The body was wrapped in the same kind of cloak that Rhyn and the other hunters wore, though it was heavily muddied and bloodstained. I didn’t really want to try and roll the corpse over, afraid of the mess I’d see, but Maethor kept nosing at it. He looked up at me, his wrinkled snout huffing inquisitively, and whined.

I reached out and gripped the cold, sodden bundle, brushing away some of the slimy fallen leaves, and rolled it over. I hardly expected to see a face, but there was one, behind the mud and the blood. The elf had skin so pale as to be nearly translucent, criss-crossed with livid, rust-coloured vallaslin, and his hair was pale brown. His eyes were closed and his mouth hung open slackly. He felt cold to the touch and yet, as I moved him, the impossible seemed to happen.

A few of the others were making their way down the bank behind me—I could hear footsteps, voices, and the crashing of bodies through the undergrowth—but I distinctly heard the soft, empty breath that scraped from the Dalish hunter’s body.

He was alive. Barely, but alive.

~o~O~o~

That moment changed our plans completely. I called to the others, yelled desperately for Wynne, and whatever healing tools or poultices Morrigan had brought with her. As Alistair, Sten, and the hunters got to my side, we started to lift the elf out of the muddy detritus of the forest floor. He was badly wounded; great swathes of bloody flesh marked his arms, with some terrifying tears and ruptures to his armour.

We pitched a hasty camp between the small creek—really little more than a brackish, muddy cut through this part of the forest, rife with strange-looking algae and some fearsome insect life—and the far side of the gully, and set to seeing what could be done for the wounded man.

On Wynne’s instructions, I helped Leliana strip off his ravaged clothes, exposing the extent of his injuries. He had to have been out there for days. The edges of his wounds were already black-lipped, and gave off a smell like bitter almond paste, the dark red flesh pocked with pus and clotted blood. He didn’t even wake when we washed him down with the evil-smelling concoction Morrigan drew from her scrip, or when Wynne began to prepare for the healing.

Rhyn prowled restlessly behind us as she started to summon her powers, her hands pulsing with great spheres of blinding white light. He knew the hunter—his name was Deygan, apparently—and, however little he trusted a human mage, he knew better than to refuse the kind of help that could save a life. The other Dalish stood a little further back, though whether it was from fear or Wynne, or Deygan’s wounds, I wasn’t sure. I did know that I’d never seen Wynne’s power surge so magnificently. Even when she’d knitted my burst ribs back together in the Circle Tower—and I had no great wish to recall either that particular agony, or passing out not long after—I hadn’t known it to be like this.

Her whole body seemed to glow, wrapped in a silvery sheen as she poured her magic, or her energy, or whatever it was she did, into Deygan’s prone body. I suppose I expected to see colour flush into his cheeks, or for him to suddenly sit up or something… but nothing really happened. After several minutes of working in burst after burst of energy, Wynne lifted her hands from him. She was deathly pale, shaking a little, and I thought the look of such terrible sadness on her face was because it hadn’t worked, but then the elf gave another slow, weak breath, and his chest began to move more regularly.

Wynne looked fit to collapse as Alistair led her away to rest, leaving Leliana and I to dress the hunter’s wounds, while the others dragged together a fire. There was no question of moving on just then, werewolves or no. We would have to make camp where we were, and hope the position we’d chosen was defensible enough when nightfall came… if the werebeasts left us alone until the dusk.

It was as I wrapped bandages around the deep lacerations on Deygan’s left forearm, the gauze wet and sticky with an ointment Morrigan had provided—something that smelled quite similar to the stuff she’d given me for my bloody, red-raw feet, when we’d first started out on the road—that he first seemed to stir.

His eyelids flickered, though his eyes stayed closed, and his pale lips twitched.

He’s trying to wake up,” Leliana observed, putting her hand to his brow. “Poor thing. We should finish dressing these quickly.”

Sten stood close by, watching the unconscious elf with apparent dispassion, as Rhyn continued to prowl behind him.

Hmm.” The qunari grunted. “You should be prepared. We do not know what will wake.”

He has not turned,” Rhyn snapped, glaring at Sten as if the size difference between them didn’t matter in the slightest. “You cannot even know he was bitten, fool!”

Dalish bravery knew no height or breadth, I thought, as I tucked the ends of the bandage neatly into the knot I’d made.

Not turned on the outside,” Sten observed. “Yet.”

Unpalatable though it was, he made a good point. I wasn’t about to stir the argument further by saying so, however, so I reached for a different subject.

He’ll have to be taken back to the camp,” I said. “As soon as Wynne says he can be moved… as soon as possible, really.”

Rhyn wrinkled his nose, though his gaze was fixed on Deygan. “We cannot just turn back.”

I felt the indecision in his voice, and I sympathised. It was tempting to reach for this reason with both hands, to all turn tail and return to Zathrian, with Deygan borne among us and a hundred questions on our lips. And yet, there were all those Dalish already lying wounded. Delay would cost everyone dearly and—if Zathrian had been less than truthful before, would he really be honest now? I glanced at Deygan’s pale form, hoping he might come back to himself enough to tell us something.

His lips moved then, but all that came out was a rough breath and something that sounded like a word but might not have been.

Aereyna,” Rhyn said flatly.

I frowned. “What does that mean?”

He gave me a tired, sullen, ugly look. “It is the name of his bride.”

And, with that, the hunter turned and stalked away from me. Overhead, the slips of sky that peered through the trees seemed to be darkening. It was difficult to tell whether that just meant more rain, or the first encroachments of the evening.

~o~O~o~

Deygan did not wake as quickly as I’d hoped, bearing easy answers and good excuses. Wynne said moving him was out of the question until at least the morning, so we dragged him closer to the fire, kept him warm, and kept watch while she poured more magic into him. She did it time and again, visibly weakening herself, and I began to wonder why she was so aggressive in the act. It was as if she was fighting him, almost daring him not to die.

For the rest of us, it was a difficult wait. We gathered around the fire in shifts, two people always keeping watch over the ridge, and our collective breath catching every time a twig broke or a bird landed on a branch. Morrigan absented herself briefly, returning a short time later with that ruffled look that suggested she’d been in another form, and declared that there was no sign of other survivors or, more importantly, werebeasts, anywhere nearby. Alistair—who’d barely left Wynne’s side, and seemed to be glued to her like a nursemaid—snidely commented that the witch hadn’t noticed Deygan, either, or found a path to Witherfang’s lair. He suggested that her skills at airborne observation left something to be desired (I paraphrase; the words ‘blind as a bat’ may have been bandied around), and she took predictable offence, threatening as she so often did to turn him into something unsavoury.

I had, by that point, long suspected that the pair of them found comfort in the rhythms of tormenting each other, so I didn’t intervene… although I would have appreciated a little comfort of my own. It was beginning to grow dark, the afternoon thinning away into an early evening, and I was cold, damp, tired, and afraid.

Daeon and Aegan were taking watch. Taen sat with Leliana by Deygan’s side, frowning pensively at every uneven breath he took, while Wynne rested and Alistair and Morrigan continued to swipe at each other. Sten and Rhyn had hunkered down on the other side of the fire, and the qunari seemed to be showing the elf a tattered book, which struck me as odd. I hadn’t known Sten carried reading matter with him, much less that the two of them should find something in common to discuss. Weary as I was, I decided it wasn’t my business… and neither was whatever Zevran and Farriel were up to. They had secreted themselves a little way off, just out of the fire’s reach, and yet not so far as to be lost among the trees. I caught the white flash of Zevran’s smile as the boy’s arms wound themselves around his neck, and decided not to look any closer.

Maethor had the right idea, I decided. He was, as was his custom, sprawled out in front of the fire, with his belly towards the flames. I hunkered down beside him, wondering half-heartedly whether we’d be able to stretch the rations we’d brought far enough, and just how we were going to get Deygan back to the Dalish camp… if he survived the night.

You are tired,” a voice announced, in familiarly clipped tones.

I glanced up as Revasir sat down beside me; a respectful distance away, but still close enough to offer me what looked like a handful of twigs.

Here. Eat. Dried deer meat,” he explained, thrusting the strips of leathery looking matter at me again. “S’good.”

Um… thank you.” I took one politely, and tried to surreptitiously sniff it.

I didn’t want to offend him, but the stuff made the dried meat we carried in our supplies look positively succulent. He was still smiling cheerfully at me, though, so I had to lift it to my mouth and try to take a bite… and it was at that point I realised how badly I wished I had good teeth.

It was salty as cheap dried fish and tougher than month-old boiled mutton, and it felt like chewing petrified wood. The place where my tooth had been knocked out back at Redcliffe had healed over well, though I still winced at the feel of the deer jerky getting stuck painfully in the socket, biting into my sore gums. Revasir didn’t seem to notice.

You save someone again,” he observed genially. “Like in your story.”

I blinked, confused and a little unsettled. Firstly, Deygan was hardly saved. Not yet, and possibly not ever. Secondly, it was Maethor who’d found him, not me. Thirdly—

Story?” I echoed, even as I realised, with some degree of despondency, what he meant.

Revasir nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! What you did to the shemlen lord, because he touched your clansmate.”

Oh.” I winced, mostly at his words, but also at the leathery deer meat, which was proving extremely difficult to swallow. “That. Yes…. My cousin.”

He nodded again, apparently satisfied. “If you earned vallaslin,” he said, looking at me thoughtfully through half-lidded eyes, “you would put your pledge to Mythal, I think.”

I shook my head tentatively, confused but not really wanting to say out loud that I didn’t understand. Revasir smiled and raised a hand, gesturing to his tattoos.

Vallaslin comes when you leave childhood behind. There are many rituals, but you dedicate yourself to the patron you choose, and the marks are part of it.”

I hadn’t known that. I’d seen similarities between the designs and the motifs that marked many of the Dalish landships, but I hadn’t understood it.

They, what, they represent different gods?” I asked, though it seemed an inadequate explanation.

Yes.” He seemed to approve of my interest. “Mine are for Ghilan’nain, the Mother of the Halla. She is my patron; my guide.”

Gillana…?” I faltered, hopeless as ever at wrapping my tongue around the Elvish words. I’d started to wonder if my ancestors had been elven at all.

Ghilan’nain,” Revasir repeated patiently. “She was a mortal woman once, beloved of Andruil, the goddess of the hunt. But she became one of the Creators, and she is our guide. She leads us, as the halla pull our aravels.”

He smiled thinly as he sat back a little, tearing off another strip of the deer jerky with his sharp, yellow teeth, and chewing it noisily. At my feet, Maethor stirred fitfully, probably half-heartedly contemplating the possibility of begging for scraps.

Before I had my vallaslin, everyone thought I would choose the mark of Andruil… and she is dear to me, but more so Ghilan’nain. The guide in the dark place, moves through the forest and into the light.”

Revasir touched the lines on his face delicately, tracing the pattern he clearly knew perfectly, though the ink had obviously been there for years, and I hadn’t seen a single looking glass in the Dalish camp.

You see? Here… the hawk, the arrows… the paths of the trees. Every symbol tells a story.”

I squinted at his face, the ink’s heaviness softened by the dusk and the firelight. It would be growing dark before long, and I couldn’t relish the prospect of the night to come. All the same, I was intrigued, even if I couldn’t see the meanings in the vallaslin that he described. I thought of the stories Mother used to tell me about the stars—how each one was a captive princess, or a great hero, or this and that star were tragic lovers, pinned in the heavens for eternity—and I never had seen the shapes in those properly, either.

Of course, that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Just because I didn’t have a poet’s way of looking didn’t make me blind to the magic that did exist in my world.

What’s in the symbol of Mythal, then?” I asked, not really understanding why that made Revasir smile so widely. “I know she was in the story of El… Elgannan and the sun, the one Hahren Sarel told.”

She is the Great Mother,” the hunter said, with disarming simplicity, and he didn’t even correct my pronunciation. “She watches over us, protects us, and cares for us. She is the strength of compassion and merciful justice.”

Heat bloomed in my cheeks at such grandiose comparisons, and I started to stammer a protest, but Revasir shook his head.

No, I think so. You care for others, like her. You save them, protect them. There is much gentleness in you, but what you are fighting for—what you are trying to do—it is strong, and just.”

He grinned at me, and tore off another hunk of deer jerky, staring into the fire as he chewed. I’d just about managed to finish mine, with no small effort. My mouth still tasted faintly of blood and salty leather.

I wasn’t sure if I believed what Revasir said. It was flattery, really. After all, I was no munificent goddess—and certainly no great mother, nor ever likely to be, as far as I knew—but there was enough in his words to strike home… enough to make me think about the Blight, and the Grey Wardens, and all the things that were probably happening beyond the bounds of the forest.

We had no way of knowing how far the darkspawn horde had travelled. No way of knowing how fast they were moving, or how ill-prepared Ferelden was; had word spread, or was Loghain keeping the whole Bannorn tied to his assertions that the Blight wasn’t a genuine threat? He couldn’t keep that façade up forever, but if news hadn’t hit the north by now, whatever we did would probably come too late… just like the beacon at Ishal.

I cast a glance across the fire. Alistair was still sitting with Wynne, worry etched into his face as he looked at her. She was pale and seemed a little unfocused. Withdrawn, even. I should have been concerned about her but, in that moment, all I thought about was my fellow Warden.

It was strange, maybe, but I missed Alistair then; a sudden, violent ache that left me feeling cold and unsteady. I wanted that quiet intimacy back, and the times we’d sat and talked around the fire… and yes, I wanted the comfort of his touch, his lips. I’d never been truly lonely before—there had always been too many people around, or too many things to do—but I felt it then. I felt it like a yawning void in my chest, pulling me down into myself until the air was choked out of my lungs.

I thought maybe he’d feel it too; that he’d look up and see me, but he didn’t. I looked away again then, silently humiliated, and buried my uncertainty in the fire’s dancing warmth.

I didn’t expect Revasir to speak again, and his words came through the flickering light like dark stones, hard and polished as the flames licked against them.

You lost a husband, didn’t you? When you fought for your clansmate.”

Betrothed,” I corrected quietly, though it felt a little like the distinction was a betrayal. Nelaros had given his life for me, and I should have honoured that, instead of distancing myself from it… or any of the other things I’d been doing—the other things I wanted—that were probably a disgrace to his memory. “I mean, we never married. We would have, but—”

Ah.” Revasir’s expression softened, and the firelight glimmered in his eyes, painting shadows across his face that blended eerily with his vallaslin, until the lines seemed to sway together under my gaze. “Had you been intending to bond for a long time?”

I didn’t understand what he meant at first, and I suppose my confusion showed, for he smiled awkwardly and tried again.

Your… uh… your courtship?”

Oh.

The Dalish did a lot of things differently to us, I realised. I shook my head hurriedly. “Oh, no. No, no… we… we didn’t really know each other. It was an arranged match. Do, um, do you not… do that?”

The camp was settling for the evening. Morrigan had retreated to sit beside a heavy oak tree, and appeared to be reading one of the books we’d taken from Brother Genitivi’s house, reminding me of the pressure of time on us. Would there be anything left of his trail when we got out of the forest? Was Arl Eamon still alive, even as we sat here?

Revasir smiled. “No. We choose. The hahrens guide us, of course, but… we choose. Vir vhenan,” he added, with an encouraging nod that told me that was meant to be a joke. “Even when it is not entirely suitable, no?”

I don’t understand,” I admitted, and he nodded again, as if my thin grasp of Elvish could be jollied along with patient enthusiasm.

Vir Tanadahl. The Way of Three Trees, as Andruil taught us. Vir Assan,” he explained, counting off on his thick, knotted fingers, “is the Way of the Arrow, to fly true and not waver. Vir Bor’Assan, the Way of the Bow, to bend but never break, and Vir Adahlen is the Way of the Forest, which teaches we are stronger together than as one. This is how we live. Three pillars, three prayers.”

Footsteps thumped quietly on the wet leaves as Rhyn and Taen relieved Daeon and Aegan from watch. Daeon looked exhausted, as if every breath the forest took ate away at his nerves and left his bones bare to the night. He slouched over to the fire and threw himself down in front of it with a groan. Leliana had left Deygan’s side briefly, as Wynne moved over to begin another round of healing, and began to rummage for the dry rations we’d brought. It wouldn’t be a magnificent meal tonight, and I suspected Revasir was probably going to offer round the rest of the deer jerky. My stomach griped a bit at the mere thought, even while my mind was still working over this three pillars idea.

I’d never known there was so much to the Dalish way of thinking. It seemed both wonderful and strange… natural and unreal, all at the same time.

Revasir’s smile widened out as he shook his head, his gaze dropping to the musty ground. “But I am not a teller of words. You should ask Lanaya, the Keeper’s First. She tells the story well.”

I will,” I said. “When we get back.”

And that was when, not if, I told myself.

We would get back.

So, what is Vir veenan?”

Vhenan,” he corrected, looking me in the eye as he tapped the centre of his jack. “Way of the heart. Yes?”

I finally got the joke, and I smiled widely—for once forgetting about my horrible teeth—so proud and pleased to actually understand something.

What the heart wants,” I agreed, as he chuckled, indulging my exploration of this new idea. “I get it. That’s… that’s funny. And very true.”

Revasir nodded again, in that animated manner of his. Clearly, not all the hunters were staid, taciturn types like Rhyn and Aegan… and I found I rather liked his enthusiasm.

Sometimes, the hahrens get very angry. Say, a boy wants a girl, but he has not yet taken a pelt. If he cannot prove he is a man, how can he show he is good enough, hmm?” He grinned slyly and leaned forwards, his gaze shifting to the edge of our little camp. “Sometimes, that boy, he has Vir vhenan, and he goes to her anyway, and maybe she wants to bond with him too… such things happen, though the hahrens do not really approve. They prefer more organised ways. You know, many, many matches are made at Arlathvhens. That’s where Rhyn met his wife.”

That surprised me. Somehow, it was hard to imagine Rhyn exchanging more than four words with anyone, let alone being married to them. I frowned.

What is… Arlathvan?”

Arlathvhen,” Revasir repeated slowly, indulging me. “They are gatherings,” he explained, waving one hand in a loose, all-encompassing sort of gesture. “Different clans, from all over. Everyone. So much happens… apprentices go to new masters. Also, there are, marriages, contracts. Some leave their families to go to new clans, some rejoin their original clans after many years. Big, big celebrations, always. We reunite, as one people.”

It sounded very beautiful. I guess I must have had a little naivety left in me because, in my mind’s eye, it was like the market square in Denerim, but on the biggest feast day ever. It would be full of huge, colourful tents, with merchants’ banners flapping and lots of singing and dancing, and sweet ale and wine… and then I felt very homesick indeed, in the instant before sadness poured into me like water.

I hunched my shoulders, pulling my cloak tightly around myself. The rain stung my ears slightly as it pattered down on them, and the ground smelled of musky earth. The fire was getting low, choking on damp wood. Across from where we sat, Wynne broke from her care of Deygan to mutter an incantation and send a small burst of flame into its core, cracking the kindling and heating the ash. I noticed Daeon staring suspiciously at her, and also the uncharacteristic glumness with which she glared at the fire.

But Revasir was still looking at me expectantly, and my mind was still turning over these thoughts of big Dalish gatherings, and what it must mean to give up one’s clan. Funny, really, how near it was to our way of keeping blood fresh.

That’s a little like we wed, in cities,” I said, noting the interest that sparked in his face. “Matchmakers arrange things between families and, once an agreement’s struck, the boy or the girl will usually travel to a new alienage to be with their spouse. It makes sure the alienages see new faces… it’s hard to travel otherwise.”

Yes!” He seemed pleased with that, and he nodded again, his locks shifting in a shimmy of enthusiasm. “I have heard Zathrian say we must not let ourselves grow too intertwined. The People must stay pure, but without letting the old bloodlines grow weak. You know,” he added, with a little more of that conspiratorial air as he leaned closer to me, “Hahren Sarel says we are the last of the old ones. Noble elves of the time of Arlathan. Good blood. Old blood. We owe it to the ancients to preserve that, and to keep safe the old ways. Vir Assan, Vir Bor’Assan, Vir Adahlen.”

There was something sad in his face then, as he sat there with his chin tilted high and his eyes fixed so earnestly on me. I wondered if it was true. Were the Dalish I saw before me the remnants of ancient elven aristocracy? I wasn’t sure I liked that idea; it made people like me seem even less important.

Revasir smiled at me again, and I supposed there was a rumpled, faded kind of glamour to the thought… something that sat well amongst the bare trees and the earthy scent of the forest’s decay.

Perhaps the forest would swallow them up, years and traditions and all, and wrap them in time until the old ways could be birthed forth once more.

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Volume 4: Chapter Eleven
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