Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Fifteen

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It took a while to recover from that fight, and I knew the whole expedition itself would leave its marks on us… very definitively so, in Morrigan’s case.

She had me worried for a while, lying there still and deathly white as Wynne worked healing and cleansing magics around her head, and Levi and I took turns following instructions to clean, compress, and bandage the wound through which Avernus had drawn so much of her blood. Maethor came to lie beside her head, nose on his paws as he whined quizzically.

“She’ll do better once we get her back to camp,” Wynne said, and fatigue made her voice sound thin and old. “But she’s not ready to move yet.”

“How long?” I asked, not wanting to rush the mage, but not wanting to face the thought of spending the night at the Peak, either.

Wynne shook her head. “Not too long.” She glanced up at the others, all still strewn around the chamber in various stages of dishevelled recuperation. “Best to give them time, too, don’t you think?”

A small frown squeezed my brow. I didn’t understand at first, but slowly the realisation kicked in. She meant me to step up, I thought… to be a leader, instead of merely stumbling along at the front.

Awkwardly, I rose to my feet and, brushing my palms together—palms that were smeared with Morrigan’s blood, and my blood, and the detritus of Maker alone knew how many demons—cleared my throat.

“Uh… she’ll live. She’s… going to be all right, but we need a little more time to get her ready to move. We should check the pyres, set anything else that needs to burn, and make one last pass to see if there’s anything worth taking with us.”

Zevran, leaning against the chamber’s far wall, bruised and bloodied and looking thoroughly disgruntled, nodded. “There were some valuable paintings in the keep, although they will not be easy to move. A few books that may have worth… and the armoury may have something intact. Also, a place like this? They will have a cache somewhere. The Commander’s private chamber, I expect. I can check.”

“Fine,” I said, determined not to speculate on how he knew the things he knew, or how experienced he was at judging the worth of an object… and finding somewhere to fence it.

Sten took the task of the pyres, and removing the more fleshly remains that still littered the chamber. I winced and looked away as he passed, the reek of the abomination’s corpse a fetid reminder of how things might have ended differently.

Alistair frowned, evidently trying to hold onto a thought long enough to express it with any kind of coherence. He still looked a little groggy, and he’d refused any magical healing, so Wynne had enough strength to tend to Morrigan. I was very tempted to tell him I was going to relay that information to her when she woke up, but I’d so far resisted.

“What about downstairs?” he asked, as Sten’s weight made the treads creak into the stillness. “The mage’s… things?”

I frowned at the reference to Avernus’ notes, and those so-called experiments of his. It still didn’t seem real. That the Grey Wardens had raised rebellion and courted noble factions in a war was one thing, but blood magic, and all the filth that followed it? I couldn’t accept that.

Or, at least, I didn’t want to.

“Burn them,” I said, after a moment. “No, wait…. I— I don’t know.”

Alistair gave me a look that felt like it was tinged with disappointment. I was sure I’d fallen short of those shining ideals of his, and that he thought I was a breath away from condoning the evil that it seemed the Wardens here had fallen into, but then he nodded sadly.

“You’re right. We should look through them first. Whatever he was involved in, whatever happened… there are centuries of Grey Warden knowledge in this place.” He rose to his feet, still limping, though not as badly, and gave me a thin smile. “I’ll go and take a look. If anyone hears me screaming, come and get me before my eyes drop out, all right?”

I half-expected Leliana to go with him, but she didn’t. She stayed, and took over Levi’s portion of the wound dressing, which he was only too grateful to yield to her.

“Maker’s breath,” the trader muttered, looking down at himself. “I shall be glad when we get back to camp and there’s a bit of a clean up to be had!”

“Agreed,” I said, as I helped Wynne bring the edges of a makeshift bandage around Morrigan’s waist, and the realisation of that—that we had survived, and there was, out there, away from the fortress, a wagon with all our goods on it, and a campfire burning in the dusk—was something potent to cling to indeed.

We had Morrigan’s torso stripped for ease of dressing the wounds, though the nature of her robes meant they hadn’t required much removal, and her modesty was still as protected as it ever was.

All the same, I was fairly sure she was going to be cross when she woke, if for no reason other than the damage to her oh-so-artfully tattered clothes.

As we finished the task and Wynne’s healing began to make those shadowy lines beneath her skin recede, a little colour started to return to Morrigan’s flesh, in place of those black cobwebs and that sickly pallor.

Slowly, her greasy, darkened eyelids began to open, and a sliver of that familiar golden gaze swept the chamber, and lit upon me.

“Wh—” she began, her lips flexing around the dry husks of words.

Wynne put a hand on her shoulder to stop her from trying to sit up, and Morrigan glared at the mage.

“Is it dead?” she croaked. “It must be, else you would not live. Ughhh… there is a foul taste on my tongue. And why am I undressed?”

Wynne gave the witch a tired smile. “You are not. Not much less than usual, anyway. Be still a little longer, then be careful when you do move. You will need more healing. I believe you know why.”

Morrigan let her head drop back against the floorboards, her eyes drooping to half-closed slits. She raised a hand to her face, those long, pale fingers skimming her loosened hair and sweat-stained skin, and bared her teeth in a sneer.

“I am a mess.” Her glare fell on Levi this time. “Go away, little man. There is no more of me for you to see.”

He didn’t need telling twice, and scampered off as she turned her attention to Maethor, who was still laying close by, watching her with his deep, dark, intelligent eyes. He pricked up his ears, wrinkled snout quivering as he scented the air.

Morrigan scowled. “At least that explains the smell. Wretched hound.”

He wagged his tail and made a happy little canine groan, deep in his chest. Leliana tutted reprovingly.

“It’s nice to see you feeling more like your old self, Morrigan.”

The witch gave her a look of pure venom, but she just smiled sweetly. As Morrigan’s golden eyes turned to me, I braced myself for the inevitable cat-swipe, and supposed at least a bit of vitriol proved she was alive.

She sniffed, and fixed me with an inscrutable stare. Her eyes were flat and hard as two sovereigns, and yet I had the feeling that it was less a glare of reproach than a protective shield.

“You… were not as slow to react as you might have been,” Morrigan said grudgingly. “Though you could have moved more quickly. Was it not evident the mage was demon-bound?”

I wasn’t sure whether that was an accusation or a thank you. Either way, it stung a little because, yes, in retrospect it was easy to see. I should have seen it. I should have acted differently, chosen differently… fought differently.

Everything, in a perfect world, would have been different.

“The Veil is closed.” I bit my lip, and shrugged. “He’s dead, you’re alive… thanks to Wynne. We’ll talk more of it later, if you want. When you’re stronger.”

It would probably have been impossible to have annoyed Morrigan more unless I’d claimed her survival was a miracle of Andraste. Still, it did her good to have something to gnash her teeth over and fight against. She and Alistair were more alike than they knew, I thought.

I excused myself and said I should round everyone up before we began to head back to camp. Leliana and Wynne were fully occupied with their recalcitrant patient, but Maethor padded down the stairway after me, down into the long, low chamber that was full of the debris of Avernus’ century of madness.

It was easy to write it off like that, of course. Easy to throw up one’s hands in horror and denounce everything that had happened here, or say that Sophia Dryden and her men had been heretics, aberrations… that they were not what we were, or what we stood for.

As my footsteps echoed on the winding, narrow stairs, and the shadows of the tower parted before me, darkness yielding to the soft, crowded glow of torches and candlelight, I knew it wasn’t that simple. We’d seen evidence of what had happened here, what Arland’s men had done… and I knew all too well what depths the caprices and cruelties of nobles could hold. Perhaps he had been a monster. Perhaps their cause had been righteous.

Perhaps, sometimes, ordinary people needed somewhere to turn; someone who would go beyond what was normal, or maybe even what was right, in order to set the balance of the world back to where it had to be.

Maybe, I thought, when it came to matters of justice and survival, the ends could justify the means.

I wasn’t sure I believed that. I wasn’t sure what I believed, as I stood in that chamber, and shivered to think of the things that had happened there.

The twisted and broken bits of detritus I’d noticed before—a cage, a wrenched piece of metal—now seemed to have much darker significance. Ugly possibilities smouldered in the candlelight, and even the piles of scrolls and books seemed to mock me.

I wanted to talk to Alistair, but he wasn’t there. I frowned, taking in the scattering of books on the worktable, and the candle that had been moved from its previous position, and decided he’d obviously had as much of the mage’s scribblings as he could stand.

I sighed, and headed for the stairs.

Outside the tower, the whole of the Peak seemed to smell of ashes. Fleetingly, I did wonder whether the pyre smoke would give away the fortress’ position, but it seemed unlikely anyone we’d rather didn’t know about the place would see it. The shield of the Southrons had stood Soldier’s Peak in good stead for centuries, and if even King Maric’s rebel forces hadn’t found it….

And, on that thought, I faltered, and not just because thinking of Maric the Saviour—our great king, our idol, our lost and lamented lord—felt very different these days.

Maybe they had found it, and deemed it unusable. Maybe they’d known about it, and thought—rightly enough—that it was haunted, or cursed, or whatever other manner of label normal people affixed to places like this. I smiled grimly to myself. Back home, we had only ever talked about magic and demons in hushed whispers, and I thought fondly of the old folk who would spit at the mention, because we propped ourselves up with our superstitions.

It seemed unreal that I should already have seen so much that I’d never even thought possible… that the insane should so fast be becoming normal to me. Of course, I’d always thought darkspawn were nothing but a myth, a thing muttered about to frighten children, so I supposed I shouldn’t complain.

There was no one to complain to, anyway, and no choice but to buck up and get on with it. At least, I thought bitterly, my background had prepared me for that.

I hurried across the cracked and weed-strewn courtyard, as flakes of ash floated on the dusk-leavened air like flurries of grey snow.

~o~O~o~

I found Alistair at the southwest rampart, looking down across the ridge we’d had to scramble over to get here. The first of the evening was drawing in, the light growing soft and heavy, although there wasn’t much of a view to start with, except for trees, loose scree slopes and hills, and the winding pass edged with the broken reminders of masonry. There was a statue nearby, covered with moss and some kind of yellowish-green creeper. It seemed to be a man in heavy armour… the Warden-Commander’s armour, I saw as I drew nearer. His gauntlets rested on a huge sword, and if his face hadn’t been covered with vegetation, he’d have been staring down over the gates like an eternal sentinel.

“Asturian,” Alistair said, without turning around. “There’s a plaque at the bottom.”

I peered at the statue’s worn base, and made out an engraved piece of marble beneath the twisted strands of the creeper. The script was archaic, rather formal, and I probably couldn’t have read it if I’d tried.

“Oh.”

A frown pinched my brow as I looked at my friend. His shield and sword were slung across his back, the harness looking a little the worse for wear, and his armour was filthy, caked with blood and grime. With his helmet off, I could see the tidemark of dirt on the back of his neck, and the greasiness of his short-cropped hair. His shoulders were slumped, his head slightly bent, and his whole posture seemed tired and defeated.

“Alistair?”

I stepped forwards, my boots crunching a little on the dirt and debris. He turned, and it hurt to see that he looked just the way he had in the Wilds, reeling with shock and grief and loss.

Oh, I felt it too: every hope, every belief or shred of knowledge I’d thought I had about what we were meant to be, torn down and turned inside out. For Alistair, though… well, I wasn’t sure. At least, before Duncan recruited me, I’d had a life that was mine, and that I loved. If you prised the Grey Wardens from Alistair, what had he left?

“We’ll be heading back to camp soon,” I said softly. “Morrigan’s awake. And complaining.”

He nodded absently, a faint smile flickering over his face. “Mm. She’ll be fine, then.”

“Looks like it,” I agreed, and there was a tense moment of silence that, another time, might have been filled with his dark, trenchant observations about maleficarum and apostates.

He didn’t say anything, though. I knew I ought to ask him about the mage’s writings. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to know.

Alistair frowned, and looked back out over the pass, his eyes narrowed. As he exhaled, his breath coiled on the cooling air, and he bit his lip thoughtfully.

“They were all about blood. What… he was doing. Experiments. On the people trapped here after the siege, and on Arland’s men. Torturing them, trying to…. The ones that weren’t Grey Wardens died quickly, but those who had the taint resisted demons better. It confuses them, I think, from what I could make out.”

I winced. The words left him like tiny, hard pebbles spat out onto the earth, like just talking about it made him feel dirty.

“He seemed to be under the impression that the way the taint… changes us,” Alistair said slowly, still squinting out at the hillside, “can be harnessed, and not just for sensing darkspawn.”

My feet scuffed the mossy ground as I stepped closer, coming to stand beside him. I leaned my arms on the rough, worn stonework of the rampart, and realised just how much my body ached… and just how much there was that was foreign, beating in my veins.

“Well,” I said, wetting my lower lip, though my tongue felt dry, and I could still taste ashes on the air, “we know it does change you.”

He grunted, and I thought of how hard he’d tried to be kind when he broke the news to me, told me those things that new recruits were meant to hear gently. The spectre of my early death didn’t seem so bad at that moment, and I supposed that was one thing to be said for facing peril at every turn, the way we seemed to be fated to do. Thirty years or thirty days: it didn’t matter, when I was getting so very used to looking down the wrong end of a blade at unexpected moments.

“It’s different, though,” Alistair said, a strained rasp on the air.

We’d missed the sunset. There was no puffy, gilded rank of rose and golden clouds, no veins of purple threading through the deepening sky. It was just an overcast, dim, and rather clammy evening.

“He wrote that the Wardens he…. That they resisted the demons, and that the blood magic he used made them stronger, made them capable of withstanding the taint’s other effects. For a time, anyway.”

I suppressed a shudder, and frowned down at the stone blocks of the rampart beneath my fingers.

“That’s how he stayed alive so long?”

Moss and thin, tiny-leaved creepers swathed the stone, and I picked half-heartedly at the weeds, until their juice bled onto the fingertips of my glove. Beneath the plant life, the bones of the fortress were solid enough. The stones were still intact, and still solid, whatever had grown over them. If all that could be cleared away, like the briars and corpseweed that had choked the courtyards, maybe the Peak could be brought back to its old glory… or had the roots gone too deep to be pulled up without damaging anything?

I thought fleetingly of the vhenadahl, standing at the centre of the alienage and spreading out with roots and branches alike, holding us all cupped in its shadows. The roots used to break up from beneath the packed dirt in the square sometimes, make it crack and split open, and there always seemed to be some slight meaning in that; the roots of our old ways, our traditions, easing their way into unexpected corners of life.

Father used to say, when there was last a purge, the soldiers tried to burn the tree. It had survived… and I wondered if it still stood.

“I think so.” Alistair nodded. “He used the taint to feed off the demons, even after he couldn’t control them any longer. It’s blood magic, but— I don’t know. I couldn’t make out a lot of it, but it makes me wonder… I mean, the Joining… what if that’s—?”

His voice dropped to a whisper, and I didn’t want to think about it any more than he did. All of us, when we drank from that cup: unknowing collaborators, unwilling victims…. For a moment, I could feel the coolness of chased silver beneath my fingers, and I shook my head slowly.

“No. At Ostagar, the Circle mages were involved in preparing the ritual, weren’t they? I remember Duncan saying something about that. They wouldn’t have—”

“Oh, right, and there were no blood mages in the Circle Tower,” Alistair said mordantly.

I shot him a sidelong glance. I was prepared to be the punching bag for his disillusionment, if he needed it, but he was already pulling back on that bitter frown. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and he looked guiltily at me.

“Sorry. It’s just… I can’t believe Warden-Commander Dryden allowed it to happen. I mean, this whole place, it’s not what I expected. Asturian,” he added, with a glance over his shoulder, as if the statue behind us might really be able to overhear, “building this whole— well, it’s like a fortified town.”

I didn’t really understand the undercurrent of outrage in Alistair’s voice, and I shrugged.

“Armies need food. Soldiers need rest. If there were going to be any number of Wardens here… recruits, training grounds, then—”

“I know, I know.” Alistair shook his head irritably. “It’s not that so much as…. Ugh, it’s hard to explain. You know what they say about Weisshaupt, don’t you?”

I gave him a blank look and cleared my throat. “Really only what Duncan told me. Maybe a few stories: fortress of white rock, deep in the Anderfels, home of hard-bitten, heroic warriors who conquered the First Blight. That’s about it.”

Alistair exhaled sharply and stared out at the darkening pass again, chewing the inside of his cheek. I got the feeling my ignorance was a bit of a trial… and also that his studies of history were probably more in-depth than any of us—especially Morrigan—gave him credit for.

“Some people say,” he said softly, as I watched the shadows play along the outline of his profile, “that the Grey Wardens effectively rule there, that over the centuries they’ve grown… accustomed to the power that the threat of Blights gives them.”

Oh.

I suspected I could see the direction this was heading in, but I didn’t say anything. Alistair spoke quietly, turning wistfully solemn as he touched recollections he’d evidently held close for some time.

“Duncan told me that, not long after my Joining. He said power can corrupt all men, and that it’s only by remembering our true purpose that we avoid falling to the shadow of greed. All this….” He glanced back over his shoulder, towards the courtyards, the keep and the towers that rose up behind us, black against the softening sky. “We’re not meant to be rulers, not meant to have a part in nobles’ squabbles, or… or any of that. What Commander Dryden did—what she allowed to be done here—I never thought it could happen in Ferelden.”

The silence that lapped at the edges of his words was deep and thick, and I wasn’t sure how to fill it. Nothing would come remotely close to holding a candle to any words of Duncan’s, anyway, no matter what I said.

“They believed they were doing the right thing,” I hazarded. “At the time. Maybe that’s all anyone can say.”

“Nothing excuses the things they did,” Alistair muttered. “Nothing—”

“I know,” I said quietly. “But—”

“I mean, raising a rebellion against the king… even if he was a tyrant.” His voice started to rise in pitch as the memories of Duncan subsided; or maybe it was those memories that made him sound so petulant and outraged. “It’s completely against everything the Grey Wardens have ever stood for! It’s—”

“Not that different to what we plan on doing to Loghain.”

Whoops.

I all but clapped a hand over my mouth. Stupid…. I hadn’t meant to say it aloud; it just slipped out, and Alistair gave me a look of sour reproach, as if my words were a betrayal. I stood my ground, though, refusing to blush, or wince, or look away, even though I might have wished I hadn’t said it.

He sighed heavily, his reprove fading to a tired kind of resignation.

“Hmm. Can’t say I’d thought of it that way… but I suppose you have a point.” He shrugged despondently. “Maybe Commander Dryden and her mage were right. Maybe that’s really what ‘whatever it takes’ means.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it. You don’t really think that, do you? You think Duncan thought that, when he agreed to come back here?”

It was a low blow, but the man’s name had been bandied around anyway, even if using it the way I did felt like invoking some kind of sacred word.

“No.” Alistair shook his head. “I don’t know. I just….”

“I know,” I said soothingly. “Still, there is another way to look at it.”

“Oh?”

He raised his brows, as if daring me to say something that made any of this all right, though he looked too tired to really care much for an argument. The dull thread of a breeze, laden with pyre ash and the staleness of decay, drifted across the stones, and it ruffled my lank, unwashed hair.

We all needed the filth of that place scrubbed away.

“What happened here resulted in the Grey Wardens being banished for decades,” I said, tilting my head and waiting for Alistair to meet my eye. “What Duncan was doing was bringing them back. New… better. Cleaner. If you and I are the only ones left, we don’t have to be like Dryden’s people were. We can do it a different way. We can be different.”

Alistair blinked, and the shadows that clung to his face seemed to soften.

“Duncan would have wanted that,” I said quietly. “Don’t you think?”

He swallowed, and nodded. “Mm-hm.”

“Well, then.” I squeezed out a small, tired smile. “Come on. We should head back while there’s still light to see by.”

Alistair nodded glumly, and then shot me a small, shy look.

“Thank you.”

I frowned. “Why?”

“For talking me down. Again.” The corner of his lips twitched into a self-deprecating little smirk. “Guess I can always count on you for that, can’t I?”

“Always.” My smile widened a bit. “I mean, not everyone can be good with witty one-liners, after all. Has to be something I’m good for.”

He snorted and, as he turned, heading back towards the centre of the fortress, he passed close to me, and his hand landed heavily—warmly—on my shoulder. It was only a small, fleeting contact, but it felt real.

~o~O~o~

So, it was over. Soldier’s Peak, for good or ill, was free of demons, abominations, horrors, and walking dead. Avernus—whatever he had been—was gone, and it was as if a cloud had begun to lift from the fortress, allowing the thinning evening light to touch the stones for the first time in a century.

Unfortunately, the place was a complete mess, and Maker alone knew what it would take to get the place serviceable again. We were patched up and ready to leave, but the Peak itself was far from healed. The grittiness of pyre smoke still stained the air, and there was much to be cleared away… there were possibilities, though, however narrow and tenuous they seemed. I clung to that thought, and the hope that, maybe, it made everything we’d gone through worthwhile.

As we left the fortress behind us, making our weary progress back towards the scree slopes and dusk-cloaked foothills of the Southrons, Levi was already talking excitedly about bringing the forge back into use. His cousin, the master smith, had been looking for somewhere to set up shop, and it seemed he had a wide-ranging, sprawling family that could be pressed into service in re-establishing the Peak… or so he said.

I was amazed, after everything he’d seen there, that he was prepared to countenance the idea but, when I expressed my surprise, he just sucked his teeth and said ‘needs must in times like these, Warden’. I suspected there was more to it than that, but I was too tired to ask any more questions.

It felt like a longer walk back than it had on the way out. We could, I suppose, have stayed at the Peak overnight, and passed a few hours’ rest somewhere with a roof, which would have been quite a change. Unsurprisingly, though, no one suggested it.

It was late when we scrambled back through the ridges and scree-slopes, and made our return to the camp. Bodahn welcomed us effusively, and Maethor bounded right up to Sandal and licked the boy’s face in between excited woofs.

“Ooh! Smelly doggy!” Sandal observed, though he ruffled the dog’s ears and giggled.

I thought ruefully of Father, fussing every time we played with a stray dog in the alienage, in case someone got bitten or the creature had some kind of disease. Not that Maethor would have ever been anything but gentle with the boy… it was just the amount of dried blood caking his fur, and no doubt the tang of it still on his breath, that I worried about. It didn’t seem to bother Sandal, though, so I let them be.

We fell back to our normal routines with strange ease, given everything that had passed. Sten went to gather wood to bank up the fire, which Wynne insisted Morrigan settle in front of while her rough and ready bandages were inspected—she had walked back unaided, healed enough to stand, though she looked terrible—and Leliana went to help prepare supper.

Bodahn bustled and clucked like a mother hen, emptying out all the medical supplies and potentially useful bits and pieces he had on his cart, while Levi recounted the bones of what had happened.

I had no wish to hear it again, so I decided to make a quick round and see how our various injured parties were doing.

Zevran was emerging from his tent as I crossed the camp, dressed in loose breeches and a linen shirt the colour of clotted cream. He had a thick brown cloak over one arm, and was muttering to himself as, head cocked to the side, he refastened the thin braid drawn from his temple, and looped it to the back of his head. Most of the blood had brushed out of his hair, by the look of it, and he’d managed a wipe down with a cloth, though water was not as plentiful as any of us needed it to be. The scrapes and swellings on his face spoke of bruises to come tomorrow, but I supposed I didn’t look any better.

“Ah.” He nodded graciously to me. “Our victorious battle maiden approaches.”

I pulled a face. “Just wanted to see if you were all right.”

He arched his back slightly, like a cat stretching itself out, his hands pressed to the curve of his waist, and wrinkled his nose.

“Mmm… I have survived worse. But, I admit,” he added, peering up with distaste at the foothills and stands of scrubby trees fringing our camp, “not usually in such cold, harsh climates.”

I chuckled, thinking of the chilly southern winds that had torn through Ostagar and the Korcari Wilds. We weren’t far enough down country now for anything like that kind of cold dankness, but there was, of course, all the promise of a freezing, wet, muddy Fereldan winter on the way.

“Don’t like Fereldan weather, then?” I teased, arching a brow.

Zevran shrugged. “This is a fine country, with its dogs and its mud,” he said mildly, those amber eyes hooded as he gazed at me. “And, yes, the people are spirited… even if they can’t tell the difference between an assassin and a mere killer.”

“But you miss Antiva,” I suggested, choosing to let the jibe slide.

He smiled, and it was the worn, weary smile of Zevran actually finding something amusing, instead of that pretty, predatory curve he used when he was teasing. It passed quickly, but it was nice to see it.

“Antiva is… substantially warmer,” he admitted, shaking out the cloak he’d been carrying and draping it around his shoulders. “‘It rains often, but the flowers are always in bloom,’ as the saying goes.”

I glanced at the workmanship of his cloak. The leather fastenings and neatly sewn lining indicated quality, like the rest of his gear—even his tent was nicer than the ones we’d been given when we left Redcliffe—but I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether I thought he’d bought the things he owned, or stolen them.

“Hmm. And so are the assassins, right?”

He laughed softly—an almost disparaging sound—and tutted as he shook his head.

“My, such cynicism in one of such youth! Ah! Every land has its assassins. Some are simply more open about their business than others, no?”

I wondered if, in Antiva, an elf striding around in ornately tooled armour and carrying as intricate a collection of weapons as Zevran did was a common sight. I didn’t really like to ask, as I suspected it was a Crow thing, not an elven thing… and, that being the case, very few people who actually saw said elf got much opportunity to reflect on it afterwards.

It was almost easy to forget how lucky we’d been. More so, how lucky I had been. An inch either way, and the man I was standing and talking to could have been my murderer.

My gut told me to believe in the vow of fealty Zevran had given me—and, Maker knew, he’d risked his life since for me, and for Wynne, and that should mean something—but it was still hard to adjust.

Zevran seemed to pick up on the unease of my thoughtful silence, for he drew the laces of his cloak tight with a flourish, and took a deep breath, as if savouring some distant recollection.

“Hmm. You know what is most odd? We speak of my homeland, and for all its wine and its dark-haired beauties and lillo flutes of the minstrels… I miss the leather the most.”

“Oh?” I peered warily at him. “Wait, is that some kind of euphemism?”

Well, you never did know with Zevran.

“Ah, very good!” He gave a warm, throaty laugh, and amusement danced in those amber eyes. “It may as well be, I suppose… but not this once, no. I mean the smell. You see, for years I lived in a tiny apartment nearAntivaCity’s leather-making district, in a building where the Crows stored their youngest recruits. Packed us in like crates, in fact.”

I nodded, the distant glistening of realisation pricking at the edges of my mind. ‘Poor as a chantry mouse’ was the way he’d described it, wasn’t it? All the money, the wealth and the favours… they went to the Crows, not the assassin himself. He was an expendable commodity, and I supposed, when you boiled it down, for all Zevran’s expansive charm, his bright and glittering life was just another kind of servitude.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

“There was a tannery back home,” I said, stumbling a bit over an effort at commonalities. “Near the east gate. Stank something awful, especially when the sun hit the vats.”

Zevran smiled. “True, it is a… piquant odour, yes? Still, I grew accustomed to the stench, even though the humans complained of it constantly. To this day, the smell of fresh leather is what reminds me most of home, more than anything else.”

He was still smiling, still keeping things light and simple, though I heard the subtle ache in his voice. Heard it, and knew it, right down to the bone. I wondered if it was the blows to the head that had inspired him to share this little revelation… or maybe I was just scalded into thinking that way by how easy it was to feel that we shared something then; that he understood.

“You sound as if you’ve been away from home forever,” I said quietly.

He shrugged. “It’s not so long. But I had never left Antiva before, and… yes, I suppose it is the thought of never returning which makes me think of it so often.”

Over by the fire, Wynne had finally finished with Morrigan, much to the witch’s loudly exclaimed relief. I knew, if I glanced over my shoulder, I’d see them all there, painted in the flickering orange and gold of the firelight, with the wagon’s bulk a comfortable backdrop between our little sanctuary and the shadows beyond.

Zevran looked steadily at me, the dark curves of his tattoos shading one cheek, and the thin lines of bloodied wounds, healing to scabs already, marking the planes of forehead and his other cheekbone. Neither side of that mirrored image, though, detracted from the cool amber of his eyes, and all the ruthless assessment in them.

It was, I supposed, useless to pretend.

“Mm.” I blinked, looking down as I scuffed my boot in the dirt, dampened with the evening dew. “Knowing it isn’t there to go back to is hard. That everything is… gone. Still,” I added, raising my head with a sniff. “You can go back, can’t you? Some time.”

“Maybe,” he said doubtfully. “If I was to evade the Crows. But… who knows, eh? I suppose this teaches us to live in the moment, as they say.”

I smiled weakly. A small condolence, and a fairly empty one, at that. Not that I should have expected much different from someone like him, who’d never had the luxury of family, and had been so dismissive of our alienages.

Zevran smirked, and shook his head, as if recalling something amusing.

“You know,” he said, with the faint air of conspiracy, “before I left, I was tempted to spend what little coin I possessed on a pair of boots I spotted in a store window. Finest Antivan leather, perfect craftsmanship…. I thought to myself, ‘Ah, Zevran, you can buy them when you return as a reward for a job well done!’ Of course, I was a fool to leave them.”

He shook his head again, ruefully this time, and I was fairly sure that impulse shopping sprees weren’t what most people meant by living in the moment, but I was distracted from saying so.

“Hmm.” I narrowed my eyes. “If I remember correctly, the job was killing me, wasn’t it?”

Zevran looked very briefly chastened—although not seriously so—then flashed me a pearly smile. “You are not going to keep bringing this up, are you? Honestly, one little flesh wound between friends… but, yes, that was it. More the fool I, no? Both for leaving the boots, and assuming so formidable a woman as yourself would be so easily dispatched.”

And there he was, playing again, all swaddled up in a clean shirt and a thick cloak, with that droll little curl to the corner of his mouth, like a smile kept in waiting, just as easy to unsheathe as one of his daggers. If it hadn’t been for the points on his ears, I’d have thought he looked like some kind of merchant prince.

“Still, such is life,” he said, with a languorous flex of his shoulders, too sinuous to be a shrug. “One simply never knows what is to come next. How could I have suspected I would end up defeated by a beautiful Grey Warden, a woman who then spares my life? I could not.”

Well, I hadn’t been expecting that one, even if the shine in his eyes told me not to take it seriously.

“Beau—?” I snorted, not even dignifying the word with a proper repetition.

Zevran glanced unashamedly at my figure, still clad as I was in muddy, blood-spattered leathers, with ash and grease plastering my hair to the back of my neck and my face. His gaze travelled slowly over me, toe to… well, what little bosom I had, and his lips pursed into a considering pout.

“You have your charms, my dear. And, well, there is a great deal to be said for a woman who looks as if she doesn’t mind messing up her hair a little, no?”

I stared at him, trying desperately to think of some snappy retort before the blush that threatened to crest my cheeks actually did so. It was not a battle I was likely to win.

“That,” he went on, evidently enjoying himself, “and the rather charming aura of… innocence you exude. Deadly and demure. It is a fascinating combination. ”

“I…. You— I mean, that’s not—”

There had been wittier rejoinders in the history of conversation. Zevran just laughed throatily, and the blush crashed over me, roasting me shamelessly upon its open coals. I wouldn’t have minded the flirtation—we’d had enough cheeky sods among the boys back home—but it was the sense that he was playing with me that left me confused and slightly irritated… largely because I got the feeling that, for him, the game had very different rules.

I mumbled some sort of excuse and stomped off in the direction of my tent, grateful for the night’s cool darkness. The smell of stew was beginning to tug at the air and, as I crossed the camp, I passed Alistair, apparently en route to coming to find me. He stopped, blinked a bit, and looked faintly embarrassed before heading back towards the fire.

Maker only knew what he thought Zevran had said to me.

 
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Volume 3: Chapter Sixteen
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