Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Five

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We broke camp early the next morning. The sky was rose-streaked, the long, golden bellies of fluffy clouds tinted pink against a pale sky. The air smelled clean and fresh, and it was cool on my face, dew misting on everything like a gossamer veil.

At one point, not long after we set off, I thought I could see Dragon’s Peak just on the edge of the horizon, and a mix of dread and excitement fired in me… but it turned out to be just another dark shape along the northern edge of the Southrons, a testament to my inexperience and lack of familiarity with the country out here. I didn’t even know whose lands we were crossing, or what the nearest town or landmark might be.

It brought into sharp relief how jumpy I was, and I wondered at the fact no one else seemed to have noticed. Of course, if they had, they hadn’t said anything. Conversation—which flowed a little better that morning, probably because we were well-rested and comfortably fed—mainly centred on the proximity of the Brecilian Forest, and idle speculation about the Dalish.

When Leliana asked him if he’d heard anything of the clans in these parts, Zevran nodded grudgingly. (Did she do that simply because he was elven? I wasn’t sure, and I was mildly annoyed with myself for contemplating it.) He said he had passed briefly through South Reach in the past week, where merchants spoke of the tribes possibly heading north. He wasn’t sure, he said, but it sounded sensible. The Dalish, just like anyone else, would want to escape the threat of the Blight and—if they were truly real, and truly lived wild on the land—it made sense that they would be acutely aware of the danger it, and they, faced. Or so I imagined. I was considering the fact I might as well have been pondering about pixies and fairy dust when that rich, burnished voice prodded me out of the thoughts.

“These treaties of yours, then…?” Zevran glanced curiously at Alistair, then me, eyebrows raised. “You intend to, what, raise an army?”

“We intend to gain support,” I said, a little stiffly. “Ferelden has to face the Blight united, or… well….”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Forgive me, but did the last Blight not take many, many years to defeat? A conglomeration of nations, a terrible war without apparent end… all that sort of thing?”

“Yes.” Alistair sighed. “Thanks. You’re a real ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”

The Antivan shrugged. “I merely recollect a little history. But… perhaps it is not a true Blight, hm? After all, such a thing has not occurred in so very long. Perhaps you are simply chasing a goal that is improbable, rather than suicidally impossible, and—what? I am being optimistic, no?”

“No,” Alistair said flatly.

Zevran pursed his lips and heaved a theatrical sigh. “Ah, well. Suit yourself.”

At about midday, we started to come up on a merchant’s cart, plodding along the road ahead. One fat human, his head wrapped in a silk-stitched cowl, sat on top of the cart, next to the man driving the big, solid pair of oxen. Barrels, boxes and bundles of goods were piled up on the back, and two other shems sat in amongst them, legs dangling down over the wooden sides of the cart. They stared warily at us as we crested the rise of the road, and one scrambled forwards to mutter something to his master, long before we’d actually neared them. Maethor barked cheerfully and wagged his tail, which probably didn’t make as good as impression as the hound thought it did.

Still, I supposed we did look a bit… unnerving.

“We could ask them if they’ve heard any news,” Alistair suggested, lifting a hand to wave to the cart, just as the driver cracked his whip over the beasts’ shoulders, and the rumble of axles working harder creaked distantly on the air.

The cart picked up a bit of speed, and the heavies sitting in amongst the goods hunched up, chins tucked deep into their jerkins and hands resting conspicuously on the weapons they probably had on their belts.

“Or not,” I said, glancing sidelong at Sten.

It was hard to tell, really, whether the sight of him was any more of a screamingly obvious signifier of trouble than Morrigan, with her feathers, warpaint, and Wilder rags… or whether it was the effect we had as a group.

I suspected the latter, and it was something we spoke of when we broke to rest by the roadside. The merchant’s cart had long since passed out of sight, and we’d seen little else except what looked like a guild messenger, huddled up in a hooded cloak, cantering past on a heavy brown horse. It reminded me of riding down to Ostagar with Duncan, and I thought wistfully of how impractical that kind of transport would be for us now… if we could even have afforded it, or had anywhere to find horses in the first place.

“I just think we’ll be… conspicuous,” Alistair was saying, perched awkwardly on a tree stump and levering a stone out of the sole of his boot with a twig. “Maybe we should think about, I don’t know, going in under cover of darkness, or… or—”

“In disguise?” Morrigan supplemented, arms crossed beneath her bosom and eyebrow arched disdainfully.

He shrugged. “Bann Teagan did say subtlety might be our best option.”

The witch snorted. “Then ’twould seem you are doomed before you begin….”

Alistair sneered at her and, the stone finally springing free of his boot, dropped the twig and brushed the mud off his hands.

“I don’t think you should go at all,” Leliana said firmly, apparently unfazed by the disbelieving stares suddenly directed at her. “Well? The two of you have a bounty on your heads. It would be much more sensible for us to make camp within a day or so of Denerim, and let someone else venture into the city.”

I saw what she was suggesting, and nodded slowly. “Ah-huh. Someone like you?”

“I would do it,” she said. “If need be.”

Zevran smiled widely. “Beautiful and virtuous. I should have attended the chantry more often…. You know, the good sister makes a pertinent case. Walking straight into the lion’s den, so to speak, may not be the best idea. Particularly with so many such, hm, easily identifiable companions? Perhaps it would be better to, you know, delegate this particular—”

“We’re going,” Alistair said bluntly, and I knew why.

Oh, I’d seen the folded paper he kept thumbing. A letter, maybe, or a scribbled address, a name to which he could attach all that bright, shiny hope… this half-sister of his.

I felt a bit grubby thinking about it, after the way I’d seen into the dreams the sloth demon had made for him. I’d seen what he wanted, what he would have given anything for; the pretty woman with the long blonde hair and the well-swept cottage, and the apple-cheeked children. Blue-painted window sills and the smell of fresh bread. His dream had been strong enough to nearly drown me in it… and I worried over what would happen if reality didn’t quite match up.

Not that I had grounds for argument. Bounty or no bounty—assassins or no assassins—I was going into Denerim. Somehow. I needed to see the alienage, to at least stand by the market gate and squint across the bridge and see that it was still there, still more than burned stumps of wood and empty streets. I didn’t care if it was safe or not. I didn’t care if the guard jumped on me or if I was recognised and lynched in the square….

Well, that wasn’t completely true. I did. I was terrified, but it was a stubborn, hard-edged kind of terror that only made me more determined, that set the course of action ahead of us into a cold, clear stream of undeniable need.

Still… Leliana had a point.

“I, uh, suppose we could split up,” I said, eyeing the others cautiously. “The map shows a pass through to the forest, doesn’t it? About a day south of Dragon’s Peak? We could divide our efforts… make a quick sortie into Denerim, and try to get word to the Dalish.”

It was probably better than eight of us rolling up in the marketplace and looking more obvious than a bad toupee.

Zevran nodded, long fingers rubbing thoughtfully at his chin. “Hmm. It is a big city. Civilian clothes, the proper demeanour… you could disappear among the crowds.”

“You would walk, unarmed and unarmoured, into the seat of your enemy’s power?” Morrigan shook her head incredulously. “Surely ’tis better to wait until nightfall, creep in, and while you are there—”

“Oh, you’re not still on about the assassinating Loghain plan?” Alistair curled his lip. “What part of ‘very large palace’ and ‘extremely large number of guards’ was it you didn’t actually understand?”

She scowled, and drew breath to strike back, so I held up my hands and at least tried to intercede.

“Look… we need to find this Brother Genitivi. Best place to ask is either the market or the chantry, right? Way I see it, Zevran’s right. Just a couple more people in a crowd. If we’re in and out fast, there’s not so much danger of being caught, and if things in Denerim are as chaotic as you said….” I glanced at the assassin, faintly unable to believe I was quoting his opinion back, as if I actually trusted him. I shrugged. “I think it’d be all right. We shouldn’t need to go any further in than Rope Walk, anyway. I know that part of town.”

That was hopeless overstatement. Father had let Shianni and I do gate trade but, especially after what happened to Mother, there had never been any question of me wandering about the market district unattended, taking the kind of work that might have left me—as he had put it—vulnerable. I’d never been sure whether he was frightened for my virtue, or frightened of me opening my big mouth and getting myself killed, just like her.

Morrigan glared at me, and the painted shadows that framed her face seemed to dance, golden eyes glittering with outrage.

“You are insane.”

Sten grumbled in the back of his throat, his heavy brows shifting into a frown.

“It is all of limited relevance,” he said, eyeing me critically. “The darkspawn will head north. The lie of the land gives them nowhere else to go. They will come, and you waste time that could be spent readying.”

I stared, nonplussed. What would he have had me done? Pile up sandbags and sharpen a few pikes?

We were still hugging the line of the West Road, still a group ragged little outcasts darting for cover between the hills and the river, unsure of what we might run into, and as likely to fail now as ever before. Our position was tenuous, fragile… I shook my head.

“No.” I looked up, met those hard, violet eyes, and repeated the gesture. “No, it’s not wasted. The south has not yet fallen. If we can do this… well, whatever we do, we need the allies the treaties can provide us with. I think that’s the key thing. So… yes, we’ll… um. We’ll do that, then.” I set my jaw, determined to try and sound as if I knew what I was talking about, as I truly had an iron conviction in the words. “Divide up. One group to Denerim, the other to the pass, and the forest, then regroup, and… see what we’ve learned. At the very least, we’ll know how Loghain stands in the city… and what we’re up against.”

Sten gave me a long, cold look, and I held it… admittedly not quite unflinchingly as I’d hoped to. Eventually, he snorted and, those massive shoulders lowering a little, turned away from me to squint towards the road.

“It is an… interesting strategy.”

I bit my tongue, scrappy shreds of anger and irritation tensing along my spine.

“I don’t see we have much choice.”

It wasn’t the end of the argument; it merely opened up the next can of worms. Morrigan took poorly to the idea of, as she put it, being dismissed on a pointless and implausible errand, and it was hard to tell her the way she looked, dressed and acted would have been enough to get us arrested before anyone even crossed the gates. I appealed instead to her experience of the Wilds, and said that if anyone could find traces of the Dalish clans, it would be her. We needed her, I said, and the faintest touch of smug pride touched the edges of her brusque, grudging acceptance.

Wynne had stayed quiet throughout the entire slanging match, though she deigned to offer an opinion. She knew little of Denerim, she said, and would be happy to brave the pass. I was grateful for that, thinking her influence might calm tensions, and mean Morrigan and Sten wouldn’t actually have ripped each other to pieces by the time I saw them next.

Leliana, by contrast, was determined that Alistair and I should not go alone. She still had her Chantry robes, she said, and was already merrily plotting an entire, elaborate subterfuge to track down the missing Brother. Her enthusiasm unnerved me.

Zevran offered to come into the city too, and that presented a problem. If it was a choice between having him where I could see him and letting him run loose, I’d have preferred the former, but allowing him free rein in a crowded market?

Morrigan snorted. “Oh, yes. A fine idea. A knife to the back before he disappears into the throng… or perhaps delivers you to Loghain alive, and ready for whatever ingenious tortures the man can construct.”

The Antivan narrowed those golden-brown eyes, and his lips curled into a sensuous smirk as he regarded her lazily.

“Madam, you wound me. Truly. But… I admit, in other circumstances, it would be a good plan. Better than the original one, in fact.”

I groaned, and looked at my boots, as if clarity and salvation might wait in the dried, pale smears of mud.

~o~O~o~

So, it was… not so much decided, as a compromise achieved through the congealing of conflicting opinions. By nightfall, we were too tired to keep arguing, and an ill-favoured, graceless kind of consensus hung over things.

Within the next two days, we would split off; Zevran, Morrigan, Sten, Maethor and Wynne would head for the pass through the Southrons, leading them to the northern neck of the Brecilian Forest, and the last traces of civilisation before it. Alistair, Leliana and I would press on towards Denerim.

Somehow, I hadn’t really expected her to be coming with us. Silly, of course. A part of me felt uneasy with it, and I wasn’t sure why. Possibly, it was something to do with the fixed little smile she had when she talked about how exciting it would be. Alistair just nodded and looked very slightly tense around the eyes… and eventually we all fell silent again.

I took refuge in the repetitive business of making camp, stomping through damp bracken and gathering firewood, and glad of the fact no one expected me to speak. Maethor put up a hare, and it fought back, kicking him in the eye before he lunged and took the back of its neck out. He deposited it proudly at my feet, wagged his tail and, head cocked to the side, whined… as if he knew I wasn’t at my best.

I patted his flat bullet of a head, and he shoved his muzzle into my palm. It was still unpleasantly wet and sticky with blood, and I absently wiped my hand on my breeches as we walked back to where the tents were going up—those familiar dark points against a cooling, encroaching dusk. We’d come far enough north for it to feel a bit warmer, which I supposed was something, though there was still that undeniable autumnal chill, presaging the changing seasons. Not for the first time, I wondered if we’d still be doing this—this endless, muddy traipsing across the countryside—when there was snow on the ground and ice on the trees, but I pushed the thoughts from my head.

There were other things I had to deal with tonight… and I had no idea how to do it.

I meant to find Alistair later on, after supper, once everyone was settled for the evening. I didn’t know what to say, though I knew I did have to say it—preferably before Zevran did.

As it turned out, Alistair found me. I was sluicing out the cookpot at the edge of camp, the fire a thin echo behind me, and shadows swaddling the muddy ground. He cleared his throat, announcing his presence, and I glanced over my shoulder, registering the familiar shape. I didn’t really even need to look to know the campfire’s light would be picking out thin streaks of gold in his hair, or that the broadcloth shirt he wore—growing increasingly threadbare with each passing day—would be partly unlaced at the neck for the sake of comfort, after all that time he spent trussed up in armour. The stuff Owen had fixed him up with back at Redcliffe was hardly heavy plate, but he still looked smaller without it… younger, maybe. It had been easy to forget there probably weren’t more than a couple of years been us.

I straightened up, and smiled tentatively. The last time he’d wanted to talk to me, I’d heard things I’d rather never have known. I hoped this wasn’t going to follow the same pattern.

Alistair gave me a concerned, confused frown. “Are you all right?”

“Hm? Yes. Yes, I’m… it’s fine.”

He didn’t look as if he believed me. I shifted my weight, and accidentally clanged the cookpot with my foot. I glanced down at the thing as it wobbled, and stepped to the side, as if I could move away from my own clumsiness. I wasn’t fine, and neither was anything else… but there were certain things we didn’t have the luxury of changing, so it seemed pointless to complain.

“You know, if you need to talk, it’s—” He broke off awkwardly, and shrugged. “Anyway. I guess I… um. Denerim, right?”

I tensed. He was going to ask me, wasn’t he? He’d want to know what Zevran had meant about the events of my conscription, and I was going to have to bloody tell him. My mind raced, struggling to keep ahead, and I nodded slowly.

“Uh-huh.”

“Leliana seems to be taking it very… seriously. Is it wise to take her with us?”

Was he challenging me? His expression was earnest, sincere, as if he actually wanted to know what I thought.

I wrinkled my nose. “Look, if you disagree, Alistair, you’re more than welcome to take charge. I never—”

In a second, the sober sincerity melted into a wide-eyed grin and, apparently aghast, he shook his head.

“Take charge? What, lead? Me? Noo-ooo. No leading. Bad things happen when I lead,” he added, edging closer and affecting an ominous, conspiratorial tone. “We get lost, people die, and the next thing you know I’m stranded somewhere—without any pants.”

And there, in one moment, he pushed things from the tense concerns of leadership and duty, out to the utterly absurd… and I was so grateful for it. I spluttered with laughter, and Alistair looked triumphant.

“Best not, then,” I managed, once both the giggles and the faintly disturbing mental image had subsided. “That would attract attention.”

He grinned afresh. “Well, not to boast, but—”

“Leliana seems keen,” I said briskly. “About going, I mean. And if she can ask at the chantry without arousing suspicion… maybe get a look at some records, that would help, wouldn’t it?”

Alistair nodded thoughtfully. “True. It’s just— well, I don’t know what to make of her sometimes.”

She’d pinioned him with religious debate again, I suspected. Maker only knew what she was trying to prove, or what she wanted to get him to say.

I allowed myself a small smile. “She’s a very, uh, persuasive woman.”

“You think so?” Alistair looked mildly uncertain. “She’s… well, she’s more than she seems, definitely. I think she was a bard, back in Orlais. It makes sense—and she certainly didn’t pick up those skills in the cloister.”

My brow furrowed. “Bard? I mean, yes, she said she was a minstrel, but—”

“Not the same thing,” he said cryptically. “In Orlais, bards are… different. Spies, envoys… assassins, sometimes.”

I stared, aware of my lips parting slightly, my confusion undisguised. Alistair shrugged.

“I don’t know. Just thinking aloud, I guess. Sometimes, you look at her, and she just looks so… sad. I feel kind of guilty about taking her away from the life she had in Lothering.”

It occurred to me to point out that Lothering was probably either buried in disease and chaos or full of darkspawn by now, but I didn’t say so.

“Soft touch,” I teased.

He grimaced. “Oh, fine. Stomp on my one little feeling. I just… find it hard to reconcile what she can do with the things she says. And that so-called vision of hers…. Even the Chantry believes that most claims of visions and such are usually people’s minds playing tricks on them. Wishful thinking at best.”

A soft breeze rippled through the camp, and somewhere an owl hooted. Maethor, lying sprawled out by the fire, rolled half-over and raised his head to give a small, sleepy huff of warning… just in case the bird should be tempted to intrude.

“And what do you think?”

Alistair shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m not sure what I think.”

“Well, she certainly believes in it.”

“Hm.” He gave me a considering look. “That she does.”

Something a little unsettling lingered in his face. I wasn’t quite sure what it was until I realised that was still looking at me… still looking for something. I raised an eyebrow.

“You, er, didn’t want to talk about Leliana, though. Did you?”

He said nothing, and just kept looking at me, that hazel gaze unshakeable and unmoving. He didn’t push, didn’t demand… I could have told him to get lost, or pretended I didn’t understand what he meant, right up until the point he folded his arms across his chest and, tipping his head to the side, lowered his voice. The words were soft and small, and broke me a little bit.

“No. You’ve been… different, these past few days. I’d, uh, quite like to know what’s wrong. Maybe I can help.”

I nodded hollowly. Of course he’d say that. It stung.

“Denerim,” I said, as if that could explain it all. It didn’t, obviously. I sighed, and glanced back towards the rest of the camp.

No one was likely to overhear us, to wander over or blunder in. Still, it wasn’t privacy enough. I rubbed a hand across my mouth and looked up at Alistair, taking in the strong, even lines of his face, so clear and honest so much of the time, as if he was actually incapable of deceit. That wasn’t true, of course—he’d lied to me before, and he hid shamelessly behind that flimsy façade of idiocy even when he didn’t need to. It bothered me, to a degree, though I understood it. We all had our defences, the shields—and the weapons—we put between ourselves and the world.

I just wasn’t sure I was ready for mine to slip this far.

“Did… um, Duncan ever say anything about how he found me?”

I took a few steps back as I spoke, edging that little bit further from the camp and the firelight, and towards the shadows that lay between us and the road. The land curved away slightly, enough brush and trees to guard our presence from the immediate notice of any travellers who might pass. The soft current of a breeze chased over my face, stirring my hair from my shoulders.

Alistair shook his head. “Not really. His note arrived the morning before the two of you did. All it said was that you were last recruit he was bringing… that you were an elf, and from Denerim. ‘A young woman of great resilience and strength,’” he added, with a touch of faint reverence for Duncan’s words, and a slightly amused warmth. “He thought highly of you, you know.”

“Oh.”

I hadn’t known he’d said that. For some reason, it made this harder. I blinked, and stared at my boots, dimly aware of Alistair closing those few feet I’d put between us, ambling casually over to me.

“Well… thing is, I was in some trouble with the guard.”

“Oh?”

And there it was, starting. That change in intonation, the surprise and incipient disapproval, coloured over with the same attitude I remembered him having towards Daveth. Alistair shrugged, evidently hauling some forgiveness out for this scrap of a creature Duncan had, for some reason, put his faith in.

How magnanimous of him, I thought bitterly.

“Well, that doesn’t really matter,” Alistair said, managing to sound reasonably genial. “Once the Right of Conscription’s invoked, they can’t touch you. And I’m sure, whatever happened, there are probably bigger things to—”

“I killed someone,” I said, my voice a dry, curiously dispassionate thing, and frowned, almost as if I was trying to recall the last item on a misplaced list. “Several… actually, yes. Several people.”

Ashamed, I buried my gaze in the dark grass, hands hanging uselessly at my sides and a silent farewell bade to the easy, comfortable way we’d been talking not minutes before. I heard his intake of breath, and then silence stretched out in the darkness.

I regretted it, this bitter and pallid truth. Much better to have kept it to myself, kept my secrets and just prayed nothing bad happened when we got to the city. Why in the Maker’s name had I worked up this need to share it, to ruin everything?

“What?”

The word was a taut, sharp exhalation, not a question. Maybe Alistair didn’t believe me… maybe he was already appalled. I took a deep breath of night air, tainted with wood smoke and the lingering smell of stew. I couldn’t look at him. Memories I’d tried so hard to choke down, to push to the farthest pit of my mind, began to claw their way out of the darkness once again, climbing past all the monstrous things I’d seen and done since that day. Guardsmen with bloody swords and contorted faces stretched out to me from the shadows, obscenities on their pale lips.

“I never meant to,” I murmured, slightly petulant. “I should have been able to stop it, never let it get so far…. I— I let everybody down.”

Great, now I wasn’t even making sense.

“Er…?”

I glanced up—didn’t mean to, instantly regretted it—and saw the hurt confusion, the lost look of a man floundering beneath an unexpected weight. Alistair’s eyes had darkened, his mouth a hard curl of bewilderment. I sighed and shook my head, right arm moving defensively across my body to take hold of my left wrist, thumb rubbing a nervous strip on the bare skin. I wanted to prove I could feel it, I suppose, to keep some physical anchor to that moment, that place… even if I couldn’t hold his gaze.

“You, uh, you remember I told you I was betrothed?”

“Uh… huh.” Alistair nodded slowly, obviously not understanding how my arranged match connected remotely to me killing anyone—not that I could really blame him.

“Mm. It was meant to be this huge… great big thing. Double wedding. My cousin, Soris, was getting married too. Father paid for everything. Music, flowers, drink… the whole alienage was out there. That was what Duncan walked into, that day. Recruiting. Turned out he knew our hahren,” I added, declining to mention that he’d said he’d known my mother. If only there’d been time… time to ask all those damn questions. I shrugged. “So, uh… I don’t know. There was a lot of drinking, dancing… music. I guess that was what brought them down there.”

“Who?”

Alistair’s voice prodded at me through the memories. The dappled light that came through the vhenadahl, the strains of dirty limericks and cackling laughter on the breeze… the feel of someone spilling half a flagon of ale down the back of my beautiful new dress as I pushed my way through the crowd. Someone, somewhere, coaxing a scratchy tune out of a fiddle.

“Some, uh, lordlings from the hill,” I said reluctantly, stomach clenching on the recollection. “Noblemen’s sons.”

I didn’t want to taint the memory with his name, and it passed my lips as a thickened, sour word.

“Vaughan. Um. L-Lord Vaughan… the Arl of Denerim’s son. He… he brought some friends with him. Wanted to… take his right with the brides.”

My gaze slid to the dark grass again, and I knew I hadn’t kept the bitterness from my voice. Alistair let out a short, disbelieving breath.

“Wait, what? He…?”

“Things got out of hand,” I said quickly, not wanting to dwell on the details of the injustice. “I could have stopped it, tried to defuse things, but…. It all went wrong. Turned ugly. They… took us up to the arl’s estate. Both brides, and the bridesmaids. There were five of us. One of the girls resisted. They… killed her.”

I closed my eyes, hugged my arms around myself as I tried not to remember Nola’s gurgling death rattle, and the finger-shaped bloodstains on her pale cheeks as Arith cradled her head. The smell of that poky, damp little cell seemed to force itself into my nostrils, and my breathing quickened, my lungs trying to outpace the stench.

“They separated us, took the others away. Soris and my betrothed, Nelaros, snuck in to rescue us. Duncan lent them weapons,” I added, an earnest hint of pride… as if it justified things somehow. The words flew light and fast now. I wasn’t sure if they all made sense, but it seemed important that they came out. “The guards killed Nelaros. He was just… lying on the floor, his head was….” One hand broke free, shaking a little as it went to my neck, to the pendant and ring I wore, clammy fingers touching the thin circle of gold. “He made this for me. I took it off his body, once those bastards were dead. Because… because we couldn’t take him with us. Or Nola. They should have… should have been taken care of, but we couldn’t. Guards, everywhere. We had to find Vaughan’s rooms, but… but we weren’t fast enough.”

The words were no more than a whisper, an expressionless husk around the twisted grain of a memory. I squeezed my eyes even tighter shut, until the darkness behind them was blotched with bright blue, but it didn’t stop the pictures coming.

Part of me knew we were still in camp, but the air felt cold around me, the faint sounds of night creatures in the grass and soft wind in the trees foreign and threatening.

“Soris’ sister, Shianni… my cousin. She was meant to be my bridesmaid. Sh-she’s younger than me,” I murmured, hearing the odd, tight tone my voice had acquired. Altered, somehow, almost like an awed whisper. I didn’t like it. My eyes flew open to demand justice, to force understanding from an unfeeling bastard of a world, even if I couldn’t string the words together to ask for it. “She… she wasn’t…. There were three of them, and she… she just kept screaming, and they… they laughed. The whole time, they just… laughed.”

The look on Alistair’s face caught me off-balance, all appalled outrage and raw hurt. There was a little part of me that was still confused, that still didn’t realise a shem could be so moved by a story like mine. My eyes stung, and my fingers clenched on the ring, driving its outline into my flesh as my throat spasmed and choked around the weight of tears I refused to shed.

“Maker’s blood, Meri….”

Had he called me that before? The short version of my name was an odd, refracted echo of home, placed in an unfamiliar mouth, but not all of me was there to hear it. And, somewhere, Shianni was still screaming.

“He… he offered us money,” I said hoarsely. “That… whoreson bastard. F-forty sovereigns, to just… walk away.”

The revulsion in Alistair’s appalled wince was a comfort. I sniffed wetly.

“Soris said we’d talk, that we’d tell the whole city what he did… but he said it wouldn’t matter. He said,” I added, glaring into the shadows, and the twisted, violent faces they held, “that no one would care about elven whores. That he was only… ‘using animals as they were meant to be used.’”

I enunciated the words carefully, the memory of Vaughan’s arrogant drawl still so fresh, so painful. They cracked beneath me, and hot, humiliating tears splashed my cheeks. I reached up, scrubbing impatiently at them with the heel of my palm.

Alistair’s face was blurry, but I heard his short, tight breath, and I felt him reach out, felt the tentative weight of his hand on my arm. It was nothing more than the ghost of a touch, as if he didn’t know whether it was welcome, torn between the desire to console, and the fear of making it worse.

I wanted him to, I realised. To touch me. I wanted warmth, security. Solidity. Instead, he drew away again, and I felt the loss as a physical hurt, an ache that ran deeper than I expected.

“He’d have killed them,” I murmured, dragging my gaze out of the dark, forcing myself to look at the man before me. “All of us. Out… out of spite, or just because we didn’t matter. He’d done it before. I didn’t want to fight, but… we did. And I killed him. Me ‘n’ Soris, we— we killed them.”

Saying it made it feel real all afresh, and I had to stop myself from allowing my lips to keep framing the words over and over again. We killed them. Had it been luck, or fate, or some kind of curse? A dim, grating whine at the back of my mind kept telling me it would have better for so many people if Vaughan had won that fight. Even unjust balances are sometimes worse for being upset. But then there was the Blight, wasn’t there? The darkspawn, and this great, sacred duty I was meant to have. Meant to care about.

I blinked, my lashes matted and damp and my eyes stinging, and tried to make myself remember all the things that had happened since that day. I’d come so far, seen so much… and to think, I’d worried once about losing my memories of home.

“What happened to the girl?” Alistair asked softly. “Your cousin. Was she—?”

I frowned up at him, momentarily dislocated and confused. A white, freckled face with swollen, black eyes and bloody bruises danced in my mind. Beaten and torn to pieces, and she’d thanked me. Told me she loved me. My chest seemed to twist, to fold in on itself like the wings of a bird, as if sheltering from the sheer weight of the pain.

“Shianni? We took her home,” I mumbled glassily. “The others, too. She was… hurt. He— well.” I sniffed curtly, done with the crying, tears drying to a thick, snotty weight behind my eyes, my throat aching and tight. “Of course, she’ll never find a match.”

Alistair’s brow creased, incomprehension added to the clouds on his face. I didn’t want to have to spell it out but, at the same time, I drew a vile kind of satisfaction from it; something too perverse and ugly to be called pleasure. It felt… right… to see the horror on his face, simply because he was human, and shems never knew what they did to us. Had I been thinking clearly, I’d have reminded myself they never knew because we kept our customs and traditions to ourselves, jealously guarding the standards we had and the ways we bound our people with them. Why would they know? Why should he?

“He ruined her,” I said resentfully. “Took her honour. We… we’re big on that. Marriage is the start of your life. A good match is everything, and a girl has to be… y’know.” I shrugged. “No man’d want her now. That bastard saw to that. And he was human.”

I saw the look on Alistair’s face—all mortified revulsion, like I’d just said something truly barbaric—and he seemed to struggle with the question he already had his mouth half-framed around, and the realisation that he probably shouldn’t ask it.

“But— no. Sorry. I…. I mean, that hardly seems… fair,” he finished lamely.

He was right. It wasn’t. Yet the righteous, defensive fire of anger flared in me. It was our kind of gross unfairness, and we had a right to it. The stupidity of that struck me even as I started to glare at him, and I felt lost, rootless… shaken.

“It’s how things are. Vaughan… spoiled her,” I muttered awkwardly. “And even if it hadn’t been… like it was… it’s still— It’s… dirty to go with shems.”

Stiff, difficult silence pooled around those words. I frowned at the grass and the mud, and felt the almost physical waves of Alistair’s discomfort lap around me.

“Oh,” he said, eventually.

I flexed my shoulders in a tight, resigned shrug, still staring doggedly at the ground.

“I… I think she’ll heal, in time, but… no man worth having would take her. Not the way we do things. So, she’ll be a child forever.”

An odd, absurd thought pricked me, the way it had once before, as I left Denerim behind me for the first time. I lifted my head.

“Huh. I’m a child. I’ll never… I mean, not after all of this. Nobody would—”

I broke off abruptly, choked back the words that sounded so like self-pity. It didn’t matter. I didn’t belong there now, anyway. I was barely elven anymore… like Zevran, I supposed. Foreign and adrift, as much of an outsider as any of us.

Alistair looked gravely at me, the bluish grey of the night air honing the lines of his face, cloaking his eyes in folds of shadow.

“So, uh… the guard caught you, then?”

I nodded. It was near enough true. “Mm-hm. There was nowhere else to go except back to the alienage. The garrison didn’t waste much time. I did try to— I didn’t let them take Soris. He stayed out of the way, and I… I would have gone,” I murmured, the breath leaving me in one long, miserable sigh. “I would have paid. I would. But Duncan was there, and he… stepped in. Next thing I know, it’s fast horses and open country, all the way to Ostagar. I’ve been trying to find out what happened back home ever since.”

That gentle breeze rippled across the brush-strewn clearing again, trees and unkempt bushes whispering in its wake, and I rubbed absently at my wrist. From the way Alistair was looking at me, I suspected he was busy piecing things together… recalling the bruises on my face and that hunched, wide-eyed air I’d had when we first met. It felt like a lifetime ago.

“Zevran says there’s… unrest,” I said carefully, not meeting Alistair’s gaze. “Arl Urien didn’t come back from the south, so this man, Howe, is the new arl. Loghain’s man. There’s been no purge, but—”

“Purge?” Alistair echoed, confused.

I looked wearily at him. “It’s what it sounds like. The alienage gets too out of line, we get slapped down. People… disappear. Houses burn. Soldiers come, and we end up bleeding. Father said once, under King Meghren, they tried to burn the vhenadahl.”

His frown deepened; he obviously didn’t know what a vhenadahl was, and he probably didn’t believe what I’d said about the soldiers. I sighed. I’d got so used to Alistair being brighter and shrewder than he pretended that it was easy to forget there was a genuine core of innocence there, sheltered and puritan and so readily shocked by the most surprising things.

“It’s a big tree.” I gesticulated vaguely in the air. “In the middle of the alienage. Supposed to represent… our heritage, or… something. The point is, there would have been repercussions. Punishments.”

He still looked confused. “You mean, they can do that? Surely the guards can’t just march in and start—”

“The whole alienage is human-owned, Alistair,” I snapped. “We can’t own property, inherit land… join the guard, or the army. We don’t have rights, and we don’t expect justice.”

He winced, expression tightening like I’d just scalded him, and I was annoyed at myself. I didn’t want him to pity me. I didn’t want to be stained with his guilt or embarrassment… and I didn’t want to draw this out into politics. Yet I couldn’t let it go.

“Anyway,” I said brusquely, hunching my shoulders, “that’s it. I should probably have said something before. I… apologise.”

“Don’t. Don’t,” Alistair repeated, shaking his head. “I-I… I mean, I had no idea that—”

“No.”

He hadn’t, because I hadn’t wanted him to. And now I didn’t have any choice in the matter. The silence that bloomed between us was itchy and unyielding, and I sought a way to break it.

“I, er, don’t know if it will affect anything,” I said, scuffing my boot in the grass. “In Denerim. But… if—”

“I won’t let anything happen,” Alistair said, quite suddenly and abruptly, and the words were full of honest hopefulness, as if he wanted to try and patch up the torn scraps of my past with some gesture of… what? He looked at me in the dimness, that muddy, gold-flecked gaze all faith and apology, his lips curled into an uncertain pinch that, gradually, became a strangled sort of smile. “Anyhow, if we keep our heads down, try not to be noticed… I’m sure it’ll be all right. We’ll find your family.”

I lowered my gaze and nodded. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him resemble Cailan so much. A thought crossed my mind, and I looked up, returning his smile with a sickly one of my own.

“And yours.”

“Hm?” Nervous doubt flickered over Alistair’s face. “Ah. Yes.”

My smile widened. So… ready to fling himself at the entirety of the Denerim guard—and possibly Loghain, too—but terrified of meeting his own flesh and blood? I cocked an eyebrow.

“S’only fair. You watch my back in front of the garrison and the alienage… I’ll watch yours when we find your sister.”

He grimaced at the last word. “You know, that still sounds strange. Sister. Sis-terrr….”

He rolled the word around his mouth, clowning for me again, and I chuckled, floating lightly on the sense of relief. Overhead, the waxing sickle of a bright, clear moon had risen, its edges haloed with a thin, weak corona. Stars gleamed from between dark sheaths of cloud and, just maybe, I supposed, things might be all right.

It was something to cling on to, anyway.

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Volume 3: Chapter Six
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