Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
We pressed on again and, walking beside Leliana, I caught the sweet smell of the flowers she had gathered. It was familiar… a little like elfroot, but with a rosier aroma. The kind of fragrance you got in good soap, I thought, with wistful rags of dreams about hot baths and daily cleanliness passing fleetingly through my head.
She gave me a sidelong look, and smiled. “It’s a pretty scent, isn’t it?”
I blinked, a little chagrined at being caught staring. The tiny white blossom she’d strung into her hair winked at me, a pale star amid tresses of deep, fiery auburn.
“Yes,” I admitted. “It is. Andraste’s Grace, right? It’s a nice name, too. Um… what do they call them in Orlais?”
Leliana shook her head, smiling again, like I’d made a joke. “As a matter of fact, these little flowers are very rare there. I think they only grow in Ferelden… so I suppose my mother brought them with her when she left. My mother was Fereldan, you see. She was from Denerim originally… but she died when I was very young. The scent of these flowers? It is really the only thing I remember of her.”
“Oh.” I suddenly felt rather awkward. “I-I’m sorry.”
I should have thought of something better to say but, in that moment, my head was full of the memories I had of my own mother. They’d seemed clouded in the years since she died—mainly because Father had so often refused to speak of her—and I’d mourned the edges of details I thought I might have lost. Yet, it struck me then how much I had remembered, how much of Mother I’d had… and how terribly unfair it must be to have nothing but broken memories and whispered impressions.
Leliana was looking at me, perhaps a little expectantly, and it was hard to tell whether she was mildly amused by my discomfort, or just waiting to see if I was going to say anything else. I cleared my throat.
“Er. I thought you were, um, Orlesian, though?”
It was a bit clumsy, but served to change the subject. She smiled sadly and gave a neat little shrug.
“Most people do. In truth, I suppose I am—I was born there, after all. But, you know, I consider myself a Fereldan.”
I nodded politely. She also considered herself blessed with visions from the Maker, and religious beliefs that most of the Chantry probably considered heretical, so I wasn’t going to argue.
Instead, I opted for making conversation. “How did your mother end up in Orlais, then, if she was from Denerim?”
There were a couple of assumptions it was reasonable to make, but I wanted to hear what Leliana thought of as the truth. For myself, I was too young to remember the end of the occupation and, in all honesty, I suspected alienage life under the Orlesians had been much the same as under any Fereldan ruler. Still, there were stories. Father had always spoken of the Orlesians with as much bitterness as I’d heard him speak of anything, and he had laid a great deal of store by equanimity and tolerance when it came to humans. He didn’t want me growing up full of hatred or, worse, cocky—not that, after what happened to Mother, there’d been much chance I’d escape with unbiased opinions.
All the same, I didn’t think there had ever been much of influx of Fereldans desperate to claw their way back into the Empire.
Leliana’s expression grew a little distant; a kind of dreamy vagueness that might have been mistaken for a wistful smile, had I not suspected she was avoiding mention of something.
“Oh, well…. My mother served an Orlesian noblewoman who lived here when Orlais ruled,” she said softly, gazing at the trees. “After Orlais was defeated and the common folk began to resent the presence of any Orlesian, the lady returned to Orlais. She took my mother with her.”
I said nothing, refusing to allow the implications swirling behind her words to surface in my mind.
“I was born in Orlais,” Leliana continued, “and I did not set foot in Ferelden until much later. But, you know, Mother was always telling me stories of her homeland. I think she missed it.”
I nodded slowly, actually beginning to take in her words. So, the daughter of a servant… probably just as illegitimate as Alistair, though likely with a much less illustrious sire. A ridiculous, yet oddly pleasing vision flitted through my head—that deep, glossy, red hair of Leliana’s, so like and yet not like the red that ran through Father’s side of the family—and I wondered, for a moment, if maybe our prettily mannered, graceful bard wasn’t elf-blooded. Perhaps she was the result of some Orlesian nobleman’s whim, forced on a hapless, foreign maid… but my imagination was running away with me, and giving me a spurious sense of superiority at apparently being the only member of our party who had come from a loving, at least partially secure home.
“Was she not happy in Orlais, then?” I asked delicately, peering at Leliana as if she might give something away with a flinch or a wince.
She just shook her head, and smiled that small, tight, wistful smile that she hid so easily behind.
“Oh, she wasn’t unhappy. We had a good life, and she liked Orlais well enough. I loved it, though. Val Royeaux was so vibrant… colourful. And, of course, Mother died when I was very young. I really know very little of her. I can’t say whether she would ever have chosen to come back or not, had she been able.”
I nodded again, affecting sage wisdom, as if I truly understood. I thought I did, perhaps. In that moment—despite the leaf mould and mud gluing my boots to the ground further with every step, and the trees closing in around us like the jaws of some ramshackle trap—I thought very highly of my powers of perception, and my idle fancies made me feel very brave indeed.
“It must have been hard for you,” I offered, but Leliana widened those clear, beautiful eyes.
“Oh, no. No, not at all. In fact, I was very lucky. Lady Cecilie let me stay with her. Of course, I had no one else, and she had been fond of my mother. She was quite old by then, and I think it gave her pleasure to give me the kind of opportunities a young girl would enjoy. She had me study music and dance, and I entertained her. She was very kind to me, and I had many advantages… though I have always thought it unfair that I have more memories of Cecilie than I do my own mother.”
Up ahead, Maethor growled and snapped at something in the undergrowth. It rocketed out from under the bracken and then shot up a tree. A squirrel, I realised, as the mabari bounced up on his hind legs, forepaws scrabbling at the trunk in hot pursuit.
“Idiot hound,” Morrigan observed, as Maethor staggered backwards, momentarily bipedal, and landed on his rump in an ungainly sprawl, still huffing indignantly at the rodent.
“Maybe next time, boy,” Alistair said, ruffling the hound’s ears as he passed.
Maethor grumbled, but got up and padded after him. Beside me, Leliana giggled prettily and that sound—that small, musical, delicate sound—made visions of ballrooms filled with painted lords and bouffanted ladies dance behind my eyes; all the things that, growing up in Ferelden, we thought we knew about Orlais.
When I was a child, people used to say that Val Royeaux’s alienage saw no sun until midday because the walls were so high. We heard murmurs about the brutality and imaginative cruelty of Orlesian masters, and tutted at the rumours that said ten times the number of elves as were in our district were packed into a space a third the size. Of course, we had those stories because we were elves, and nursed a perpetual need to feel we were better off than someone else… but I’d always thought there was a grain of truth there.
I glanced at Leliana. She was many things, but she had never seemed intentionally cruel to me. Naïve, perhaps, in some strange ways, and wily in others—and I believed what Alistair had said about her being a bard, and possibly more—but, even then, I still couldn’t work her out.
She had her chin slightly tilted, face tipped towards the trees as we walked, almost as if she was a child gazing with wonder at the scene of a woodland picnic… and yet I got the feeling she was studying and quietly gauging every single leaf.
“Do you miss anything about Orlais?” I asked, my voice low.
She looked sharply at me, and then flashed a shallow, delicate smile.
“Sometimes,” she admitted, and she gave a small sigh. “Hmm… I do miss Val Royeaux. It is truly like nowhere else. In other cities, the people are the lifeblood and the character, but Val Royeaux was always her own person, and her people little more than decorations.”
Well, that was a minstrel’s answer if ever there was one.
“Oh?” I lofted an eyebrow, a little surprised by such an obviously artful answer.
Not just that, either… I wasn’t sure I liked the notion of people being decorations. It was an upside down way of making a city—which, admittedly, did sound distinctly Orlesian.
“There was always music in Val Royeaux,” Leliana continued, her voice lent the roseate tone of nostalgia, and her words like the lines of a poem. “It would stream down from the many windows, both quiet refrains and triumphant choruses, and the glass would glitter like gold in the sunshine. And, of course, always floating above all that, you would hear the Chant coming from the Grand Cathedral. It was truly magnificent.”
I didn’t doubt it. There were probably poulterers and tanners and blacksmiths, too, of course… and butchers and carters and all those other people who made a city, and the multi-layered bouquet of aromas that went with it. Even Val Royeaux had to have nightsoilmen, after all, although I suspected no one would have thanked me for the suggestion.
“It sounds wonderful,” I said instead, watching that porcelain-perfect face grow dreamy and wreathed with memories.
Perhaps they really were more than a bard’s pretty lines.
Leliana smiled at me again, and it seemed more genuine.
“Oh, it would take me days to tell of the many splendours of Orlais: her golden fields, her lush meadows…. You asked if I missed it? Of course, there were good things and bad things about Orlais, like anywhere else. Sometimes I miss it dearly, and sometimes I am glad I am rid of it.” Her smile widened, and she inclined her head, leaning down a little to bridge the couple of inches in height between us. “You will laugh at this, I think, but what I miss most are the fine things I had when I was in Orlais.”
She laughed softly, and I supposed my confusion was written across my face.
“Fine things?” I echoed.
“You know!” Leliana waved a hand in the air, a gesture of vaguely explanatory dismissal. “Dresses. Fine dresses and furs. And shoes! Of course, the shoes. One can’t mingle with nobility with bad shoes, you see.”
My brow furrowed. “Oh. Can you not?”
“No, no. Orlais is very fashionable,” Leliana assured me, with an authoritative air that made me think I was being teased. “Almost ridiculously so, in truth. Ahh… but the shoes! Living with those ridiculous trends was worth it for the shoes.”
And, at that point precisely, she lost me.
Mingling with nobility was something I didn’t understand either—something that filled me with a faint nausea and a sense of inverted snobbery, to be honest—but to speak of shoes in tones that sounded practically romantic… that was a stretch too far.
“Were they… ridiculous shoes?” I hazarded.
She laughed. “Sometimes. You know, about ten years ago all the ladies went mad for shoes with soles as large and heavy as bricks. But it isn’t always that silly. When I left Orlais, the fashion was shoes with delicate, tapered heels and embellishments in the front—a ribbon, perhaps, or embroidery.” Her hands moved quickly through the air, describing the shapes and fripperies she could so clearly see in her head. “In soft colours, of course,” she added, as if that was important. “Naturally: it was the spring.”
Leliana looked expectantly at me, and I nodded, my brow still knotted.
“Ah. Shoes. Right. Wouldn’t, um… wouldn’t they be hard to walk in?”
She shrugged, looking a little crestfallen. “Perhaps. I certainly wouldn’t want to run in them, or have to enter battle, but for lounging in a lady’s sitting room? Perfect.”
I nodded again, absently, like my head was a ball on a string bouncing untended. From what she said, Orlais really was a foreign land… or maybe it was just me.
Despite the fact that, next to Leliana, I resembled little more than a smear of mud beside a rare and striking flower, I did have a few vestiges of femininity left. I understood the pleasure of a soft pair of leather slippers, of the kind we used to wear for best. I knew the importance of fine embroidery—even if my own skill with it was limited—and I appreciated a good piece of chintz or delicate lawn as much as the next girl… or as much as that girl who, so long ago, had run her hands down the silk panels in her wedding attire, and felt like a princess.
But… shoes for lounging in? Shoes dictated by fashions and bored noblewomen who had nothing more to do with their days than change their clothes?
The very thought made me shudder, and I couldn’t help wondering if Leliana knew that, somehow. She was still talking, though, and still wittering on cheerfully about shoes.
“…they were exquisite,” she said, waving her hand again, long fingers trailing a wistful arc through the air. “Beautifully made, and so elegant! Not at all like these clunky fur-lined leather boots you have in Ferelden. Ugh… just look at them.”
She made a grimace of distaste, and I peered down at my boots. They were soldier’s boots, caked with mud and rain spatters. Somewhere inside, under two pairs of odiferous, hairy socks, were my feet. Not soldier’s feet, but heading that way. I didn’t get such bad blisters now as I had at the beginning, and I was building up some heavy pads of callusing, but drying out the sweat and bandaging the leaky bits in front of the campfire still formed the basis of more evenings than I’d have preferred.
I wriggled my toes, and their movement didn’t even dent the leather of my boots. They just stood there, mud seeping around them, looking stolid and immoveable.
I glanced up. Leliana was still walking, as the others were. Wynne was coming up behind me, and I kicked my pace in again, catching up with Leliana as we passed yet another rotted monolith of a dead tree.
“At least they keep the cold out,” I observed.
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, very well, they’re sturdy shoes, yes, but sometimes a girl just wants to have pretty feet. Don’t you agree?”
She looked hopefully at me, and I truly couldn’t decide whether she genuinely didn’t understand the differences between us, wanted to underline them, or was just trying to bridge them in the best way she knew.
It would have been very easy to hate her then. So easy to look at her—beautiful, graceful, and charming—and let all my insecurities, my jealousies and guarded winces pour forth a lake of ice that I would never cross.
However, she had shown me her worth. For all that was hidden or suspicious about her, Leliana was compassionate. She had been kind to me, mostly, and she’d really cared about the people of Redcliffe, even before they bore her on their shoulders and made her their flame-haired Orlesian folk hero (and, oh, they would be telling stories about her for years to come!).
Besides, there was still a lot of road ahead of us, and camp was a small place with no room for sourness. At least, not any more of it than we were already carting around.
I nodded tentatively. “’Spose so. You can’t dance in boots like these.”
Leliana beamed. “You like to dance?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “We used to dance a lot back home. Harvest, Satinalia, Wintersend, Summerday… well, I say dance…. It was any excuse for a knees-up, really. But there was dancing. And drinking. And… well, fun.”
It was my turn to smile wistfully, and the echoes of old faces and old times pressed against my mind, bringing with them the taste of sweetened ale, the sound of fiddles, hand drums and pipes, and the half-forgotten rhymes of songs with very questionable lyrics. I remembered the Harvest dance when I had my first kiss, and Father coming around the side of Alarith’s shop and finding out about it, then fetching the boy concerned a hefty thump alongside the head before he dragged me home.
Happy days, generally speaking.
Leliana chuckled. “Hmm. I think I remember fun. In very vague terms, anyway.” She gave me a sidelong look, those glass-clear eyes alight with some bright new idea. “We should make time for music more, don’t you think? I have my lute now… I shall play some songs sometime, when we make camp.”
I snorted, more at her optimism than the idea itself. “Yes, and if we practice hard enough, perhaps we can dazzle the darkspawn with our performance. Maybe Alistair can break out his Remigold,” I added, though I didn’t even mean to.
She looked understandably perplexed, and I started to feel a little remorseful for my glibness.
“Only if there’s going to be a really pretty dress,” Alistair called from a little way ahead. “I won’t just wear any old feed bag, you know.”
I hadn’t realised he was listening, much less that he remembered that dark little moment of absurd humour before Duncan’s fire, but my remorse instantly fled, and—as he glanced back at me over his shoulder and grinned, sniggering at Leliana’s open-mouthed confusion—I laughed.
The others might not understand it, but it was a good, honest, pure burst of mirth… and the sounds of merriment filtered up into the trees for what felt like it might have been the first time in centuries.
The forest changed as we got further in. I’d thought we had already entered it when we crossed through the pass—that the differences in the ground, the thickness of the trees, were markers enough—but I was wrong. I realised that when I looked up, and saw not gnarled, crooked trunks, heavy branches of pine and fir, and a ragged canopy of leaves, but tall, straight trees rising up all around us. I’d never seen the like before; to me, they were strange, as if someone had carved them, made struts and supports for this ethereal, silent world. I didn’t know anything could grow like that, but it was age that had done it. They were truly ancient trees, who’d long since ceased to compete for light or water, and now dominated the wildwood. The ground under our feet was thick and soft with their leavings, a carpet of brown needles and leaf mould, with the sprawling scrabble of fresh young growth springing up wherever light fell.
I don’t think it was quite what I expected although, at the time, I had no idea what I had imagined it would be. The Brecilian Forest was an ancient place, shrouded in numinous secrecy and terrible rumours, and the very air I breathed seemed stifled and dark.
Of course, in stories, the enchanted forest is always green and verdant, and it is always spring or summer.
There were no paths to speak of. We began to slow, every direction just another mass of trees, and I swiftly realised that, with no purpose to our wandering, it would be all too easy for the first suggestion of heading back to be thrown.
Alistair glanced around us at the thickened throngs of trees.
“Where was it that you encountered the, uh… thing?” he asked nervously.
Zevran shrugged. “Further east, I believe, which would be—let me see—that way. The north is the side of the tree with the most moss on it, yes?”
Leliana wrinkled her nose. “These all have moss on them.”
Morrigan gave a terse, disparaging sigh—but I didn’t see her pointing out the way ahead. She just stood by a rough clump of bracken, her arms folded, glaring at the rest of us and, as I surveyed our fragmented little group, I worried that I was losing them.
I hadn’t forgotten how eager Alistair was to get back to tracking down Brother Genitivi, if it meant the possibility of saving Arl Eamon’s life, and that thought in itself made me square my shoulders, contrarily determined to continue.
I pointed towards a gap in the trees, marked by the remains of a fallen oak, now another mostly-rotted log, because decay seemed to be a constant in this place.
“That way,” I announced, and headed off as if I had the slightest clue of what I was doing.
We had yet to find any sign of the Dalish, or even any hint of water, but I had to keep hoping, even as the forest drew in around us, making the light itself thick and heavy. It was like being underwater, surrounded by a soft, timeless shell of silence, a cavernous cathedral of still, dim green.
We pushed on, our footsteps seeming cacophonous with the crack of every twig and the rustle of every leaf. I should have been concentrating more, but I was so determined that we would find some clue, some proof that the Dalish were there, that I was foolish enough to allow myself a moment’s arrogance.
I suppose I thought Zevran’s experience—well, all their experiences—would have meant we’d know before something happened, but that was an assumption turned out to be as dangerous as it was optimistic.
It was the exact thing I’d known I had to guard against, and to watch for, and yet I didn’t even see it coming.
That particular patch looked no different to any other we’d passed through: tall, straight trees dwarfing crippled, stunted ones, with every square foot of the forest floor shrouded in a slough of dead leaves, bracken, straggly, winding weeds, and verdant clumps of ferns. The sky was visible only in broken patches through the canopy, and everywhere I looked I saw the rough pillars of bark and lichen, and low branches spreading out like arms.
Morrigan was walking a little ahead again, and I looked quizzically at her when she stopped, apparently listening for something. I didn’t see or hear anything, and neither she nor Wynne gave a call of alarm.
Maethor growled softly, and I had just started to think that maybe it was another squirrel that had distracted the witch, when it happened.
All I heard was the creak of branches, the groan of wood protesting and, for a moment, I was back at the site of Zevran’s ambush, diving for my life as a tree smashed into the ground and arrows began to rain upon me.
I glanced reflexively over my shoulder, half-expecting to see splinters of wood and massed ranks of hired thugs, but instead there was the ancient, coarse bark of trees and, among them, one tree… moving. Had I not known what was coming, I might have told myself if was my eyes playing tricks, or that it was just the movement of the breeze—but there was precious little wind, and definitely no mistaking the decisiveness with which those branches swung through the air.
I heard Zevran swear, and Morrigan loosed a blinding flash of energy that leapt up in a sheet between us and the creature.
In form, it was still a tree, though it had a more twisted, bent-over shape than those tall, stately giants of the forest, almost as if it had struggled against its own growing. It had, in a way, I supposed. Crooked branches protruded from its cracked trunk, and they crashed towards us like fists. Dead, brown leaves scattered like ashes, only a sparse crop remaining on its puckered, twisted limbs.
Wood splintered, the quiet of the place destroyed by the impact of those flailing limbs smashing through the undergrowth, and even other trees. This part of the forest was neither densely packed nor open clearing, and the great wooden clubs of branches hit out at their brethren, scything through them as if they were nothing but straw dolls.
We pulled back, scattering a little, the ground not to our advantage. I found my back pressed against a tall pine tree, tears of its sticky sap filling my nose with a sharp, faintly acrid smell, and my heart pounded as, less than twelve feet away, a demon in a wooden prison screamed in fractured silence, thrashing with rage at the life it felt pass by.
I supposed it was stupid to take shelter against another tree, and I glanced up at my protector. It wasn’t moving, or trying to kill me. That was probably a good thing, but was there only one of them here?
I leaned out around the pine, trying to see what was happening, and almost caught a face full of splintered wood. It was like the most violent storm imaginable, yet made all the more frightening by the fact the creature—despite its obvious anger—was not making a sound. I was used to things that wanted me dead roaring and snarling at me, and in truth I would have preferred the growls of darkspawn, or even the guttural, broken susurrations of the walking dead.
I couldn’t see all of the others, but Sten had drawn his greatsword and appeared to be trying to face the thing down.
“Anaan esaam Qun!” he bellowed, taking a swing at the nearest branch.
His blade crushed and cleaved the limb, and the air was filled with the sharp smell of sap and green wood. A stale kind of wind seemed to whip the trees then, though it was hard to tell whether it was the back draught of those flailing blows or some other, more ethereal thing. I could have sworn I heard a scream of rage upon it, and I unsheathed my sword, wriggling out of my pack and dumping it to the ground as I began to dodge and dart my way to Sten’s side.
Maethor was barking and snapping at the tree-demon, but it caught him easily with one bough—they were surprisingly supple, I saw, capable of bending and slapping back with great flexibility and terrible force—and he yelped as he was thrown aside.
A burst of ice encased one angry branch, courtesy of Morrigan, and Sten lunged to swing at it, almost missing the twin that was coming up behind him. I yelled, and he ducked, feinting right and then pulling back to land another mighty blow on the wood.
Splinters, leaves, and small chips of wood flurried like snow around us, and I tried to squint at the place the tree joined the earth.
“Can it move?” I asked, raising my voice above the cracks and raging roars. “It can’t move… can it?”
Sten didn’t answer me, and I threw myself to the side to avoid the club of another branch. The thing never stopped moving… it made it almost impossible to work out how many limbs it had, and what it meant to do with them. Leliana sprinted behind me, dodging the deadly boughs effortlessly as she tried to get a better look.
“I don’t think so,” she called, as a flare of light burst near the tree’s trunk, and the creak of wood gave way to the grating of stone.
Wynne had attempted to petrify it… magic I’d not seen before, or even thought possible. I looked towards her and saw the mage sagging, pallid and visibly trembling as she reached for support from the nearest non-possessed tree. Her spell had encased most the thing’s main trunk in a second skin of stone, but it was fighting back. Its branches jerked and rustled in angry spasms, the whole rough head of its curled, dark leaves shaking as it appeared to try and strike at the nearest whisper of life.
The thing seemed pretty thoroughly rooted to the ground, as far as I could see. It thrashed and strained, its roots creaking like the mooring ropes of some great ship, and though its reach was far enough to give us plenty of cause for alarm—and far enough to rip through a large circle of trees around it—it couldn’t physically follow us if we ran… could it? Surely not. Even if there was a demon in there, it was still constrained by the physical form of the tree.
I began to breathe a little more easily through my disbelief… until I heard the sound of creaking start to come from behind me as well. Maethor snarled, and I recalled, with no little amount of horror, just how many trees we were amongst.
“There are others!” Morrigan shouted, whirling to face the potential avenue of demons. “They scent us now, like wolves!”
She was right. Wynne’s petrification spell was failing, and there were more of the trees beginning to move, the hatred and hunger of the demons spreading like the susurrations of a warm summer breeze.
Alistair looked at me, wide-eyed and fear-streaked across the littered ground.
“Run?” he suggested.
I nodded vehemen tly, casting a desperate look around my disparate, panicked little group. “Run!”
We did. All of us, breaking ranks and pelting back the way we’d come, ducking and dodging the swiping blows. I snatched up my pack and, head down, ran with the undergrowth tearing at my legs, and thuds of branches crashing behind me. The air was thick with splinters, falling leaves and clods of flying earth, the whole forest apparently alive with the roaring, creaking, wordless howls of these crazed dyads.
Only Sten tried to stand his ground, bellowing a qunari warcry as his sword hacked at one low-swiping branch. I saw him, cussed, and, dropping my pack again, dashed back. Alistair yelled at me not to be an idiot, but I ignored him and, hurdling a fallen bit of wooden debris—a severed tree limb, all green sap and fresh wood—flung myself at Sten.
“Come on!” I yelled, tugging at his arm. “Leave them!”
He spun, the force of his movement shaking me away as if I was nothing more than a housefly; a minor irritation to be swatted. I thought that was the fate awaiting me when those brilliant violet eyes glared down at me, Sten’s rough-cast face contorted into a grin of rage.
“Go!” I shouted. “Leave them!”
A crescent of four trees surrounded his right side, and I would have sworn to the fact they hadn’t all been there when we first hit that particular spot. One tree might look like another… but it somehow didn’t seem so fanciful to think these demonic creatures could drag themselves through the forest that contained them.
Sten’s blade swung past me, intercepting another blow, and wood shattered in great chips that cascaded through the air.
“You would flee? Leave these demons here?” he demanded, as the greatsword aced above my head.
I ducked, wishing I’d left him to get himself killed if his stupid bloody qunari pride demanded it. The whole avenue was alive now, ranks of the damn trees blocking our retreat to the others.
“They’re not important,” I yelled, which seemed blindingly stupid, because the thing that’s trying to kill you is always, at that moment, the most immediate thing you can dwell on. “We don’t need this fight!”
Sten’s eyes locked onto mine, then narrowed, and he nodded. With a great bellow of effort, he brought his sword down across another thrashing branch and, ducking, diving, and frankly just running on sheer luck and terror, we scrambled our way through the maddened trees.
We couldn’t get back the way we’d come, though I could hear Maethor barking, just the other side of what now seemed an impenetrable thicket. It was impossible; the forest couldn’t just move around us like that, could it?
Of course it could, I reminded myself. The whole bloody place was lousy with demons, the Veil so thin it was little more than a pocket handkerchief laid over the gaping holes that led to the Fade… or maybe the Void itself.
We ran, Sten and I, searching for a way back through the trees, and succeeding only in getting so thoroughly turned around it was a wonder we didn’t find ourselves back in the middle of the demons. I was sure they’d come upon us from behind, moving somehow… threading through the forest in its very lifeblood, their roots running under this sandy, rotten loam, then breaking from beneath the ground to strangle us.
As I was starting to panic—and knew that I had underestimated how truly uncomfortable I really felt in this crowded, green place, at once choked and left vulnerable by the great living monoliths that were so unlike safe, solid walls of timber and stone—I saw flames burst in the air.
Wynne and Morrigan, working in concert, were blasting a path through the trees; fire tamed by ice, used like a blade to carve its way towards us. I headed towards the smell and the brightness of their magic, Sten’s footsteps thudding heavily behind me. Dead leaves and the litter of the woodland floor scuffed up in our wake, yet the forest itself appeared to shrink back around us, the way suddenly clearer… and that seemed reasonable. Trees would fear fire, wouldn’t they? That, above all other things because, demons or not, they had no defence against it.
Zevran picked his way through the broken, torn edges of the path the mages had cut, and nodded at me. His face betrayed his fear, and showed just close we had come to falling prey to those things. He glanced up at Sten, and smiled mirthlessly.
“You know, you really should learn not to take every single demon as a personal insult.”
Sten grunted, and the soft hiss of steel told me he was sheathing his sword. I looked down, and saw my own blade was still clutched tightly in my hand. My fingers were almost numb and, as I tried to slow my breathing, it took a conscious effort to fumble the sword back into its scabbard.
I sniffed, and glanced at my companions. Mostly, they all looked worried, and with perfectly good reason. We should have expected a concerted attack like that—should have been prepared for it—and we’d failed. We didn’t even know how to take the damn things down properly. I should have made sure we’d discussed it more thoroughly, should have insisted there was a better plan than just hoping it didn’t happen. It was my fault, and it could have been so much worse.
I saw that blame on their faces; saw it in Wynne’s ashen shakiness and Leliana’s grim quiet, in Morrigan’s yellow-eyed stare… and even in the hot, angry glare that Alistair shot me.
That, I hadn’t really expected, and it stung. I looked away, chastened, and a little unsure as to whether I should take it as a sign of his concern for my safety, or a challenge to what little authority I possessed. I tried to focus on the former.
Still, though we were safe, we were turned around and—I had to admit it—lost. It was hard to maintain any sense of direction in the vastness of the forest, or even an idea of the passing time.
“So,” Zevran said, his gaze shifting slowly from me to Alistair, then to Morrigan, and lastly Wynne. “Where do we go now?”
I squinted at the trees surrounding us. They looked just like all the other bloody trees, and there was no use whatsoever in my trying to tell directions by stupid things like moss or leaves. I was blind and confused, and I wished we’d just headed straight for Lake Calenhad, and stuck to the simplicity of the Imperial Highway.
“Um… I… I don’t know,” I admitted grudgingly, frowning at the ranks of the mottled tree trunks around us, ancient bark interspersed with the dark, foreboding greens of pines and firs that seemed to swallow the light. “I… really don’t know.”
Oh, yes. What a leader I was.
Morrigan sighed irritably. “’Tis growing tedious. I shall find somewhere for us to make camp.”
“Oh?” Alistair sneered, but he only really managed a very half-hearted jibe. “You’re suddenly a woodland scout, are you?”
She ignored him, and fixed me with that ochre-gold stare that I found very hard to challenge. “I suggest we rest, then attempt to regain some ground tonight. If the Dalish are to be found anywhere within this part of the forest, ’twould be easier to look for campfires, would it not?”
I nodded slowly. “Perhaps. But—”
“Then it is settled. Much preferable to wasting any more time traipsing through the mud for no good reason.”
A small frown dented her pale forehead and, if it hadn’t been Morrigan, I’d have said she looked nervous and unsure. She smoothed down the front of her robes with one hand, then cleared her throat, shucked off her pack, and unceremoniously shoved her black iron staff into Wynne’s hands.
“You will all stand back and give me some room. I would prefer you do not watch while I… change, although if it saves you gawping later, you may do so. I care not.”
I didn’t understand what she was talking about, but I knew a lie when I heard it. In anyone else, it would have been a whimper of self-conscious vulnerability. I started to frame a question, but then I heard Wynne’s intake of breath, and I felt a strange sensation crawling up my spine, like cold water trickling in reverse.
Morrigan closed her eyes, took a long, slow breath, and then the world seemed to flex a bit, as if the air itself was pushing against my eyes, trying to turn inside out.
Magical energy began to coil in dark glimmers along her bare arms. Sten shifted uncomfortably and muttered a word in the qunari tongue that sounded like a disbelieving imprecation. I heard Zevran give a low whistle, and then there was a sudden thump, and a great, dull echo of a sound that seemed to come from inside my own head. It coincided with a flash of light that wasn’t so much actual light as the sudden absence of it… as if the place Morrigan had been standing had simply eaten itself up, and shrunk down to the size of a copper piece, condensed into black nothingness.
At that precise moment, two other things happened. First—with a whisper of cloth, the jangle of metal, and the soft thud of leather—Morrigan’s robes hit the ground, stirring up the leaf-litter all around them. Secondly, there was a shrill, coarse, cawing and, where the witch had stood, a large raven with glossy black feathers was beating its wings, flapping awkwardly against the air. Maethor growled and loosed a short, sharp bark, but stayed where he was and didn’t lunge for the bird… or whatever it was.
The raven dropped to the ground in a tangle of feathers, and cawed again, which sounded almost exactly like a frustrated curse. Its head bobbed, and I stared at its huge golden eyes. There was absolutely no mistaking their colour, but I didn’t see Morrigan staring back at me; just a bird, albeit a highly intelligent one. Its beak opened in another sharp call and, those broad wings spread out wide, the raven took off and barrelled between the trees, flying up towards the canopy.
We all stood there in silence, listening to the creature rattle about in the branches, and to those angry-sounding caws growing more distant.
After what seemed like several minutes, Leliana cleared her throat gently and, leaning forwards, scooped up Morrigan’s robes. She brushed the dead leaves and twigs from them, taking care to tuck the witch’s ornate jewellery into the folds of cloth.
“She’ll want these for later, I expect,” she said. “It must be very inconvenient, always having to come back for them. Imagine if someone just walked off with your clothes!”
Zevran sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “It does tend to put a damper on the day, I’ll give you that. And you can forget about being inconspicuous.”
“Well, you would know, I imagine,” Leliana said mildly, and he gave her a suave smile.
I was amazed that either of them could take it so easily in their stride. We had just watched Morrigan turn into a bird and fly off, and despite knowing that shouldn’t surprise me—I knew what she was, and Alistair had been speculating about Chasind shapeshifting magic since we’d been following her out of the Korcari Wilds—but… I don’t know. I just hadn’t expected to actually see her do it.
I glanced at Wynne, and found her peering up into the trees with a strange look on her face, her lower lip drawn in and her brows tight.
“You read about it, of course,” she murmured, apparently half to herself. “But to see it done is quite another matter. Quite another matter indeed….”
Overhead, the branches rattled again, and a few leaves drifted down as the raven settled on a nearby tree, cawed for our attention, then took off again. We exchanged glances, and then trooped obediently after the bird.
Alistair grumbled and hefted his shield on his arm, holding it so high it was virtually over his head as he eyed the canopy suspiciously.
“What are you doing?”
He looked at me as if I was an idiot. “What does it look like? I told you she was a shapeshifter. That bird’s still Morrigan, and I don’t trust her not to—”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” I shook my head, and followed on after Wynne, Maethor padding at my heels with his nose quivering curiously.
“She’d do it,” Alistair said darkly, trudging on behind me. “You mark my words. She would do it.”