Feasting on Dreams, Volume Four: Chapter Thirteen

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It was hard to know whether Morrigan had helped or hindered. Hard for me to understand, anyway… especially as Leliana grew so ill in the hours that followed. We made a small camp close to the bank; at least enough to give her shelter while Wynne worked on the injuries, and I saw how the Dalish retreated from both the patient and healer alike—not to mention how they stared at Morrigan.

No one seemed to want to touch the corpse she’d taken her magic from, until at last Sten hefted the dead werewolf over his shoulder and, muttering under his breath, carted it off into the undergrowth.

I was helping Wynne. Zevran stayed, and so did Farriel, alone among his clansmen in his preparedness to be so near Leliana. It was awful. She bucked, arched, yelled, vomited… and we helped her through it. I remembered the night of my Joining, and the old temple at Ostagar where the stones were etched with strange symbols, and I’d lain unconscious on them with no idea what passed between the world turning black and my waking again. Daveth had died horribly, wracked and arched with pain, and I sometimes wondered whether I’d thrashed around before I woke, fighting the foulness pouring through my blood like he had—like Leliana was doing now—or whether it had all been quiet and terrible, the way she turned after the worst of it was over.

We drew blankets around her, in defence against the bitter cold that the nights brought with them now, and I wiped her face with a damp cloth while Farriel cleaned up and Zevran sealed the little bender tent he’d fashioned around us, tucking in all the edges of the oiled leather that hung from pegged down tree branches, and making sure the ground was soft. It was a cocoon that smelled of hide, grease, and fear and, all the while, the searing, steady light of Wynne’s magic burned, her face a carved mask in bone—all stern lines and strong, flat planes—and the smell of it washed up around us, like copper and warm bread.

I’d grown used to that smell, and maybe even started to find it comforting. After a skirmish or a long day’s travel, Wynne’s healing magic could be like a mother’s balm calmly applied to a squirming child.

It wasn’t like that now.

Leliana didn’t seem to move or speak much, and it was difficult to know how aware she was of anything. If the curse was even remotely like the taint, Maker alone knew what she would have to go through in the night to come… or maybe longer. After all, none of us had any idea how long it could take. We’d found Deygan alive almost a week after the hunters had entered the forest, but neither Wynne nor any of the Dalish could guess how long he’d lain there, and whether the curse was still burning in his blood, or whether it had faded to some kind of dormancy, and allowed the more prosaic problems of physical infection and decay to set in.

Either way, things looked bleak for Leliana, even after we got her through the worst of it, and induced sleep finally claimed her.

Zev and Farriel had gone by then, dismissed by a weary looking Wynne. They both seemed glad to be out of it, and I couldn’t blame them. The others had been busy pitching the tents around our small, rather paltry fire, and scrabbling together what comforts could be had from our rations. We’d already boiled some of the drinking water to clean Leliana’s wounds and, by the fire, I could hear Aegan and Revasir discussing the possibility of venturing back a little along the way we’d come to find a clean water source, and maybe fresh meat. The consensus seemed to be that it was too dangerous, and probably not worth it.

I knelt by Leliana’s head still, smoothing back her hair as Wynne laid the last caresses of the sleep spell around her. Bloody pads and bandages swathed her chest, but her porcelain skin had grown dull and translucent, each shallow breath shuddering within her.

‘Healing by degrees’, Wynne had called it. What you did when magic alone couldn’t cure an injury, or when the healer had arrived too late. That was when I first learned that magic couldn’t heal everything flawlessly… and the point at which I realised how lucky I’d been. The small scars I still bore—the little whitish puckers and faintly shiny marks where darkspawn arrows had once blossomed from me like a tree full of foul blooms—were the results of powerful magic (and I was aware that I probably didn’t want to know exactly how Flemeth had revived me). Wounds I’d had since, and the injuries in the Circle Tower… all of these things had been healed so quickly, so cleanly.

I’d been so busy wrapping my head around the idea of magic as something to be thankful for, instead of fearful and suspicious of, that I hadn’t paused to truly appreciate the magnitude of Wynne’s skill. It frightened me to realise, all of a sudden, that her abilities were not infinite, and that sometimes magic could only alleviate the worst of an injury, and not spirit it away as if it had never happened.

The mage was exhausted, in any case. Alistair had refused to let her expend any more energy on healing him, and now he was sitting by one of the tents, perched on his pack, his armour still on and his whole posture that of a man trying to adjust himself around a painful wound.

“Prideful boy,” Wynne muttered, probably to herself, as she glanced at him through the shelter’s draped opening. “That injury is going to need dealing with, whether he likes it or not.”

“I could take a look,” I offered—Maker alone knew why; my mother’s big mouth showing itself, Father would have said—and, after a small pause, Wynne nodded gratefully, gesturing with a tired wave of her hand to the pots of ointments and small vials of liquid that sat in a leather bag beside the now-slumbering Leliana.

“Thank you, dear. There are some clean rags in the pot. Help him clean it up, and I’ll… well, I… I think I’ll just sit for a moment….”

I gathered the things together and, with a deep breath, tried to put on the best no-nonsense demeanour I could as I went to play healer.

Alistair looked up at my approach, his expression dull and tired.

“How is she?”

“Sleeping,” I said, struggling to hold his gaze. “Wynne’s done as much as she can for now. She wants me to take a look at your side.”

“It’s all right,” he protested, wincing a little as he drew breath, presumably to ask something else about Leliana.

I didn’t want to hear it. I was fighting hard enough to drown the screams of blame in my head, now the dulling shock of what had happened was beginning to wear away.

“Let me help,” I said, kneeling before him in the leaf litter.

He didn’t move. He seemed so stiff and cold with me, and I took that to mean he blamed me—oh, everyone blamed me, I was sure—but I was too full of the needles of anxious, tired guilt and worry to react. I just sighed, and set the bag, the rags, and the water canteen down by my side, my hands falling uselessly into my lap.

“Alistair….”

The echoes of the battle beat in my head: the blow I was sure he’d taken for me, that I hadn’t even seen coming, and the moment Leliana had fallen that I hadn’t even seen at all. So much blood, chaos, and craziness… and the werewolves, with their voices and their strange words.

No one had said they could talk. They were supposed to be nothing but savage beasts. Animals. Demons.

Zathrian had misled me but, worse than that, I’d known he wasn’t telling me everything. I’d known since I’d spoken with Athras that the keeper’s own clan suspected him of hiding the truth, and—no matter how hard I tried—it was becoming increasingly impossible to believe that he’d done it purely to protect them.

Oh, I was no stranger to being manipulated. My whole life had been defined by the alienage—our rules and customs and the stupid things we told our young, which I had both begun to resent, and yet so desperately missed believing in—but I was only just beginning to wake from that dream. I had barely begun to open my eyes to the sheer breadth of things I didn’t understand, and the knowledge left me stunted, crippled: incapable of anything more.

Awkward silence had pooled between us, and at first Alistair did nothing to break it. He just looked down at me, his expression oddly detached.

His face was still streaked with dirt. Bathing at the Dalish camp seemed a distant memory, but then you always feel worse when you start to get dirty after being clean. When it’s new dirt on top of old, it doesn’t matter so much. We all stank, anyway, and the rime of old sweat felt caked under my arms.

I cleared my throat awkwardly, and made a vague gesture at his armour. “Well… let’s take a look, then.”

Alistair lowered his voice, shifting uncomfortably on his pack as he leaned forwards. “I can’t reach the straps,” he admitted. “And I can’t…. I think I might have cracked a rib.”

“Ah. All right. Hold still.”

He looked embarrassed as I shuffled on my knees through the leaves, and we began the painfully awkward ballet of trying to help him out of his breastplate and jack.

I was too tired, too preoccupied to think before I acted, only realising once I had my hands full of leather and splintmail how close the action brought us… and how truly uncomfortable it was for us both. My aching, sore fingers stumbled on strappings and fixings, my lack of familiarity with Alistair’s armour making the task go slowly. He winced at every pull, every tug, and still tried to hide it, and I am sure we both felt as exposed as each other, despite the fact that the others barely looked our way once—with the notable exception of Daeon, who I could feel staring at me from across the camp.

Finally, with Alistair stripped to his undershirt, I could see the bloody hole in the fabric, and I carefully lifted the hem, exposing the wound. He sat still, moving only to lift the garment further, taking the hem from my fingers and holding it out of the way to grant me access. He seemed to be trying not to breathe, and I tried not to think about how little we had spoken to each other, and how very strong the smell of his blood was.

It was a nasty gash, about three inches long, a half-inch wide, and deep with it, and he was probably right about the rib. A thick pad of reddened, swollen flesh marked the place that would bloom to bruising in a day or so, and he sucked air sharply through his teeth when I touched it.

We didn’t speak as I began to cleanse the wound, carefully washing dirt and pulling loose threads from it. He looked the other way, and I held my breath for as long as I dared, divorcing myself from the actions as if I could pretend that my hands didn’t belong to me, and that I didn’t feel so small as I did when I saw the coldness in his face.

Eventually, I had to breathe, and I had to admit that I could smell his sweat, his blood, and his skin, and that I could feel his warmth even through my chilled, dissociated fingers. It made the gulf between us so much more palpable and, when I exhaled again, the breath left me in a rush, turning to coils of white on the cold air.

Alistair glanced down at me, his mouth taut, and I looked up as he did so, the question dragged from me on a reluctant tongue.

“Are you angry with me?” I asked softly, opening the jar of wound ointment we’d used on Leliana. The sharp, bitter smell of it wafted up between us. “If I hadn’t pushed so hard to come here—”

“No.” Alistair frowned as he looked down at my hands. “No. That’s not— I mean… all right, things haven’t exactly gone to plan, I’ll give you that.”

The balm slicked my fingers with its thick, greenish greasiness. I hated the way it got worked into the sides of my fingernails, ingraining itself into my skin. I had no idea what was in it—the stuff was far nastier than the ointment Morrigan had once given me for blisters—and I supposed I probably didn’t want to know.

Alistair sighed tightly. “I… I do think you’ve been a fool, though.”

“Oh.”

I just knelt there for a moment, not sure what to say. I expected to find heat flaming in my cheeks—the burn of humiliation and embarrassment roasting me upon its coals—but there was nothing. Everything felt a little bit more like nothingness, and I kept my gaze focused on my hands, so I didn’t have to see anything else.

Above us, the bare tree branches rattled, and the breeze whispered through the clothed boughs of firs and spruce.

“You’ve been blinded by it,” Alistair said slowly, his words quiet and punctuated by small silences that might have been uncertainty, or unwillingness, or just the complaints of his injury making themselves known. “I mean, yes, you had a point in pushing us… the Dalish were here to be found and, if the clans can be brought together, that’s an army in itself, but…. Well, it’s a big ‘if’, isn’t it?”

He was still holding his shirt up, baring his side to the night air. The edges of the glob of ointment had begun to melt on my skin, which seemed odd, because my hands felt so cold. I blinked at the greasy scoop of balm, and I addressed it rather than him when I spoke, because somehow that was easier.

“So, you think it would have been better if we’d cut our losses and gone after a cure for the arl instead?” My voice was quiet and even, but I could hear the ice in it; coldness I didn’t want to be there, goading for an argument I didn’t know why I wanted to have. “Some people might say trying to track down an ancient relic that probably doesn’t even exist, in order to save a man who might already be dead, is a pretty big ‘if’, too.”

There was a small pause; a shallow silence between us that felt like a yawning gulf.

“It’s not the same,” Alistair said tightly.

My lip curled. “No. Of course it isn’t.”

“Well?” he demanded, his voice positively twanging with restrained anger. “Look at what happened today. You know Zathrian didn’t tell you the truth. Those weren’t mindless beasts. I told you that—”

I rocked back on my heels, jutting my chin out as I glared up at him. “Oh? Really? Wonderful. That helps, Alistair. Thank you.”

He exhaled heavily, and with a rather theatrical expression of annoyance.

“You know what I mean. You’ve been too eager to put your trust in the Dalish, when you’re not like them. They’re not like you. Just because they’re elves—”

He was making a valid, sensible point. That much was true. And it was true he had been suspicious of Zathrian’s handling of us, but he’d held off arguing with me… and now I wished he hadn’t. Now, I managed to blame him for that, and for everything, and for having the Void-taken insensitivity to remind me of my own idiocy. I scowled, and managed to read a lifetime of alienage gutters and shemlen prejudices into what he was trying to say.

‘Just because they’re elves’? You don’t know what that is! And you know what? The Dalish are here. They’re alive. Even if Zathrian was holding back, at least the clan’s real. Not like running after a fairytale.”

“That’s not the point!” Alistair snapped, proper anger finally clouding his face as he glowered down at me.

I almost welcomed it, and I almost wanted to push him further, just to see how far he’d go. “Oh? Isn’t it?”

“No!” He grimaced, as if my ignorance was more physically painful than the wound in his side. “Maker’s teeth…. Are you really so caught up here that you can’t even see that?”

“Only as caught up as you are with the arl,” I countered bitterly. “Whatever you think you owe to him—”

“It’s not about that!”

“Yes, it is!” I protested, my own bottled-up frustration finally bursting out in a way that, if I could have looked at the two of us, posed in that absurd tableau—him with his shirt held up and me with green goo all over my hand—I would have found comical. “You’ve said as much yourself, Alistair, whether you think so or not. But he abandoned you. He gave you up… doesn’t that mean anything? He’s no more family to you than your half-sister!”

It was a stupid, hurtful thing to say. At some level I knew that, but I didn’t seem to care.

Alistair’s expression hardened, his brows drawn low and his eyes clouded. “It doesn’t make any difference… just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. I thought you believed that.”

There was an undercurrent of such hopelessness in his voice; a mournful kind of tone that I barely registered while I was so intent on hurting him.

“That’s what I’m trying to do here! Or isn’t all this worth as much as one nobleman? Is your idea of ‘the right thing’ different for elves and shems?”

Suddenly, our little argument—my bantam strutting, drawing lines in the sand and ruffling my feathers as I paraded along them—sounded hollow, and I could see my own contorted reflection echoed back in his eyes.

Alistair’s frown grew sullen, his gaze sliding away from me.

“You’re not usually so stupid,” he muttered—something he’d never, ever called me before. “But you are bloody stubborn. And I still wish you’d just look at what you’re getting into.”

“You think I didn’t? I never ordered anybody into this! You put me in charge, but I’ve never—”

“You’d have come into the forest on your own, though, wouldn’t you?” he demanded, glaring at me with renewed ire, the shadows sharpening his face. “When Zathrian asked, you’d have jumped at the chance. You couldn’t see a bloody thing except your precious sodding Dalish, and maybe, just maybe—if you’d listened—”

“—Leliana wouldn’t have been bitten?” I supplemented. “No. I know that! Do you think I don’t know that?”

We both shut up then, sharp words and hot tempers cracking into abrupt silence as we glared at each other. I could see so much disappointment in his face; maybe I’d put it there myself, or maybe I just pulled it from the shadows and imagined it. Either way, it hurt, and what hurt even more was that, in that silence, Alistair didn’t rush to comfort me. There was no ‘I didn’t say that’ or ‘That’s not what I meant’… just a wordless admission of my guilt.

Across the clearing, Zevran coughed loudly and tried to strike up a conversation with Sten about the qunari antaam. I was grateful to him, though it heightened my awareness of just how little privacy there was.

I lowered my gaze—I didn’t want to be the first to break eye contact, but I couldn’t stand the look on Alistair’s face anymore—and stared blankly ahead of me. His wound was bleeding again, just lightly, and his skin had sprouted goosebumps.

“You’re cold,” I said flatly.

He set his jaw. “I expect I’ll survive it. Look, give me the—”

“No.”

I gritted my teeth, and began to smear the ointment on my fingers carefully around the wound. Alistair tensed at my touch, but kept looking straight ahead. It was probably one of the most awkward things I’d ever done in my life, and yet I’d rather have died than give up that little pot of greasy balm.

I tried to concentrate on what I was doing, smearing the preparation into that ugly tear across his flesh, hating the fact it made him flinch and yet—in a way that made me feel more than a little ashamed—relishing the fact I could cause him discomfort. My fingers skated carefully over the bloody gash itself, and the bruised flesh, and I could feel his ribs, and the solid curves of his torso, and no matter how much he’d irritated or scalded me, I couldn’t escape the fact I was touching him. This man—this human—who had taken so many of the prejudices, confusions, and reservations I had, and single-handedly crumpled them like paper… he had an effect on me unlike anything I’d ever known before, and it scared me.

Across the camp, the others had managed to make enough conversation to distract themselves. The fire burned, pushing back the shadows—for a little while, at least—and Wynne had emerged, looking very slightly less tired.

“Look, Meri…,” Alistair began, as she started to come towards us.

I didn’t respond. Instead, I straightened up, climbing stiffly to my feet and wiping my hands on the seat of my leathers as I nodded to Wynne.

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted to stitch it or not,” I said, inclining my head in Alistair’s general direction, as if he was nothing more than the wound; nothing more than an ‘it’.

She looked rather unimpressed, though in the blue-grained dimness of the night, it was hard to really see the difference between fatigue and disapproval. I ducked out of the whole thing, and left Wynne to deal with the difficult business of the healing alone. She could talk Alistair down this time, I decided, not me.

Just for once, not me.

Instead, I wandered over to the fire, hoping for some brief relaxation and a chance to calm my aching muscles. Any thought of that was quickly expunged by the reception I got from the others. I could feel it in their gazes, taste it on their breath… and the look that Revasir gave me was withering.

That night, I occupied the unenviable position between scapegoat and traitor. To my companions—my friends, who should have been able to trust me—I was responsible for what had happened. To the Dalish, I had made myself suspect by so loudly arguing about Zathrian, and with the human I called comrade. It was Daeon who put the tin lid on it, by muttering as I passed him:

“Huh. Never thought I’d see you on your knees in front of a shem, Tabris.”

I turned smartly on my heel to glare at him, lip pulled back and—though I’d not even known I was doing it—my right hand almost on the hilt of my dagger. His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t flinch away or bluster about it, the way fights got picked in the alienage. He just stood his ground, a callous smirk on his face, and Dalish tooling on his leathers.

I wanted to be away from them. All of them. Wordlessly, I turned from him and crossed to the edge of the camp, where I found a piece of dry log to sit on, and—with the very edges of the firelight playing against my back, and dropping in rags around my feet—I settled in for a bloody good sulk.

Ahead of me, the forest dissolved into darkness. There was no real way of making out individual trees or pathways through the shadows and the fuzzed, blue-black boundlessnesses of the night. It all seemed as amorphous as the mess my days had slid into—no calendar, no regular routine of market days, Chantry services, washing, cleaning, and working—and I wished there was a clear way ahead.

I remembered the Imperial Highway, with its great white stones and cracked archways, like broken ribs over the paved roadway, and how numbingly dull the hours of that repetition had been. I missed them. I missed the certainty there had been, too, though then it hadn’t felt like that… and yet had I been such a different person?

I frowned, my breath misting on the air as I recalled the bandits we’d run into. What had it been… just a handful of days since we’d left the Wilds? Not long after we’d looted the abandoned Chasind huts, which had felt too much like thieving for comfort, and Alistair had voiced his first suspicions about Morrigan being a shapeshifter. (He’d been right about that, too, Maker damn him. I’d already known he wasn’t half as stupid as he liked to pretend, but still… why had I not been listening to him more?)

I remembered putting my dagger to the neck of their leader—how short he was for a shem, that I barely had to reach high—and how the bitter battle-call of it had beat in my blood. No vacillation then. No self-pity. So why was it so hard to be that clear-headed now? Was it the responsibility that had been piling on me since, and the ever-increasing number of people who looked to me for answers? Or was I still not over the things I’d seen in Denerim? The ache of loss was still there, though I had believed I’d accepted it—and maybe I had, until I met Daeon again. Maybe it was his fault, I told myself, because I so badly wanted to believe that I wasn’t falling apart.

A soft rustle among the leaves made me look up, straining my useless night-vision for a glimpse of something in the darkness.

As if she had been waiting for the opportunity to do it with the best dramatic effect, Morrigan melted out of the shadows, slinking between the trees in a slack-boned manner that made me wonder if she was still adjusting to being human again. Her skin seemed almost luminously pale; just narrow slips of it between the folds of heavy cloth, feathers, and leather. She had a dark cloak wrapped loosely around her, with the hood up, and it lent a disturbing shadowy quality to her face. The make-up she wore was, unusually for her, close to rubbing away, leaving uneven swoops of shadow on her skin, and I almost smiled to think of the times I’d wondered whether she glamoured it on with magic.

“We will have to make haste at first light,” she said, coming to sit beside me unceremoniously, both uninvited and apparently uncaring. “Move quickly to the werebeasts’ lair, and bring this to an end.”

I scoffed, turning my head to watch her stare at the same patch of shadows I’d been glaring at.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Huh.” Morrigan’s lips twitched impatiently, but she continued to watch the darkness, as if there was something mildly interesting there, just for her. “We are close. You think they would have attacked if we were not? Anyway, ’tis not us they want. We will merely be bait, or messengers.”

I frowned, my thrumming mind gradually feeding me small realisations. “Zathrian?”

“Mmm.” Her dark-smudged mouth moved into something almost like a lazy little smile, as if she considered this a potentially intriguing opportunity. “Indeed. Now, there’s a clever fellow.”

“Not the first word I’d choose,” I muttered. “Why would he lie like he did? It doesn’t make sense.”

Morrigan took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, like she was savouring the aroma of damp earth, pine needles, and decay. For all I knew, it smelled like home to her, though I recalled the flora of the Wilds being somewhat different to the forest.

“Doesn’t it? Perhaps you should ask your Dalish friends. They hold their keeper in very high regard, don’t they? I’m sure they will be only too happy to explain,” she added as she rose to her feet, her voice taking on precisely the same light, spiteful tone she used to taunt Alistair.

“They don’t trust you,” I said, rather uselessly, because who of us really did?

When Rhyn had put me on the spot, I’d managed to say no better of this woman—to whom I owed my life—than that, if she’d wanted us dead, we would have been already. It was hardly a vote of moral confidence.

It had grown late. Tired, sore, and sick of the forest, I rubbed my forehead and pushed my hand back through my greasy, lank hair, scratching at the itchy scalp beneath.

“You know what they’re worried about, don’t you?”

Morrigan lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted, disinterested shrug, indicating that she neither knew nor cared.

“You can take the form of a wolf. They think you brought the wolves to us.”

She crossed her arms, her darkened lips curling into a bitter sneer. “And why should I do that?”

“I don’t know. To follow them back? See where they go?”

Her lips parted further, and a small laugh dripped between them, choked out as if she couldn’t be bothered with giving vent to it in full.

“Idiocy. Stupidity, and superstition.”

“Really? After what you did with that corpse?” I asked, in a moment of foolhardy bravado. “Because that looked a lot like blood magic.”

The sneer hardened into a snarl on Morrigan’s face, a pale knife in the gloom, and her ochre-gold gaze speared mine.

“Then you have never seen blood magic,” she snapped. “If you had, you should not mistake it so easily. It is a terrible power—immense, and hungry, and insatiable—and it can never be truly controlled.”

“You gave Leliana strength from something dead,” I said dully. “That’s….”

“Blood magic is nothing to do with life or death,” Morrigan retorted. “Blood is life, yes; it is energy, and power, but it is not the source of that magic. A mage who has embraced blood magic—made the bargains that must be struck to seal such pacts—has looked into the eyes of a demon, and promised it all it desires. Do you think me such an eager thrall?”

I shook my head. “No… I don’t see you making deals with anyone.”

She snorted softly; I wasn’t sure whether it was amusement or offence.

“Well, then,” Morrigan said, rather more gently now, the scorn dropping slightly from her voice. “Perhaps you should go and tell those Dalish you have quelled the witch, and let them cease their gawking at me. It is most tiresome.”

I smiled at that, but she just waved a hand testily.

“Go on. You have moped enough, and we have precious little time to waste.”

She had a point… not that I was going to admit it. I wrinkled my nose.

“Sure. In a little while.”

Morrigan shrugged, and slunk away, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

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Volume 4: Chapter Fourteen
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