Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Nine

———————————
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————-

Maethor bore me to the muddy ground as I ran to meet the wagon, his stubby tail wagging enthusiastically and his enormous jaws wide open, great strings of slobber flying with every delighted lick.

“Wh… what…?” I managed, trying to peer over the hound to see what was going on, albeit with limited success.

The cart stilled at the mouth of the pass, and the heavy pair of oxen pulling it nodded their heads, breath steaming as they grunted at the night air. Thick candles in glass lanterns were set atop the driver’s box, where a dwarf with a neatly braided beard and a heavily embroidered tunic sat holding the whip. He looked past me and smiled genially at Alistair.

“You’re the Grey Warden, then, ser?”

His voice was rather high and sharp, marked with a born salesman’s easy charm, and an accent that I couldn’t quite place.

“Er…,” Alistair began, as two familiar figures dismounted from the back of the cart.

I began to tense. We’d worked very hard at not identifying ourselves as Wardens, and my first thought was this was some kind of trap, some kind of—

“Yes,” Morrigan announced, her air of weary resignation not quite covering the flash of relief in her face as she surveyed the three of us. “These are they. The suspicious, dim-witted one… and the elf.”

Maethor got off me and sat by my side, tongue lolling from between the white bars of his teeth as Morrigan gave me a look that wasn’t entirely disparaging.

“Nice to see you too,” I managed, clambering to my feet and brushing myself off, still decidedly wary. “What…?”

Sten stood at her shoulder, his impressive bulk outlined with the stains of thin moonlight glimmering on his custom-built armour. His expression was as inscrutable as ever, heavy brows drawn tight over those glittering violet eyes.

“Where’s Wynne?” Alistair demanded. “And Zevran? And who’s—”

Maethor barked, wagged his tail again, and capered off to the back end of the wagon. I could see another man disembarking, giving his hand to assist Wynne down, and there seemed to be two more figures climbing out from among the packed crates, bundles and barrels… another dwarf, and the slim, golden-haired outline of Zevran. Relief washed through me, but it was still heavily rimed with uncertainty.

Someone,” Morrigan said coldly, folding her arms across her bosom, “required urgent healing of a standard the old woman was not able to provide.”

“Healing?” Dread lurched in my gut. “What…?”

Wynne glared at the witch and, behind her, I saw Zevran smile sheepishly as he got down from the wagon and stepped—or, rather, limped—forwards. One arm was tightly bound in a sling, and his showy, leg-baring armour was gone, replaced by a simple linen shirt and rough, rather tatty breeches. He shrugged nonchalantly, and didn’t quite manage to hide the wince of pain the action evoked.

“You Fereldans,” he sneered. “You have such a distaste for civilisation, you cannot be content with bandits in your forests. Even the trees themselves must be bloodthirsty. It is quite simply ridiculous.”

My incomprehension reached such dizzying new heights that I decided the stresses of the day must finally have driven me mad. I stared blankly at him.

“You got into a fight with a tree?” Alistair snorted. “What? You fell out of it? Or—”

“No,” Sten said shortly, the syllable rolling across the conversation like a boulder. He gave a sound like a small growl at the back of his throat, as if he disapproved strongly of what he was about to say, and wished that his disapproval alone was enough to change its reality. “The forest. Its trees have… life. Of a kind. Some are possessed. They strike without warning, and with great anger.”

Beside me, Leliana gasped softly. I glanced at her in surprise, amazed I could have forgotten how soundlessly she moved.

“Oh… I had always wondered if it was truly so. They say the Brecilian Forest has seen so much death that the Veil itself is drawn thin there. I had heard tales of it being haunted, but—” She put a hand to her mouth as she surveyed Zevran’s wounds. “You poor thing. Were you badly hurt?”

He smirked. “I survived. But, if you are concerned, I am sure I will need my dressings changed….”

“He is fine,” Morrigan cut in. “He is still speaking. Incessantly, I might add.”

She glowered, and his smile widened. For all her show of annoyance, it looked to me as if there was a note of relief, or maybe even pride, in those golden eyes, and I wondered exactly what had happened. Zevran wasn’t clumsy by nature, after all.

Yet, as I glanced at the crowded merchant’s wagon, the two dwarves, and the other man who had alighted, distinct unease settled over me. They appeared to be doing their best to ignore the conversation—doing everything but whistling nonchalantly and staring at the sky—and yet it remained that our band had been reunited in the presence of strangers… and strangers that it seemed we owed a debt to, at that.

The notion worried me, and I shivered as a cold night breeze slipped through the grass. A little way into the pass, set back from sight of the road, our campfire was still burning. I wasn’t sure whether it was safe to head back there.

“I’m afraid we were a little slow off the mark,” Wynne said, by way of explanation. “Or, I was. My reflexes may not be all they once were… but, without Zevran, the rest of me would be a little less intact, too.”

I felt my eyebrows climb incredulously and, as I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, Alistair took the words right out of it.

“Wait, what? Hold on… you were injured trying to help—”

Zevran shrugged, affecting uncharacteristic modesty, and said nothing.

“None of us expected the attack,” Morrigan snapped. “We were less than half a morning’s journey into the forest when it happened. And, as much as it pains me to admit, the assassin probably saved our lives. However, his wounds were more than I knew how to heal, and the old woman was of little use, so—”

“Wynne, are you all right?” Alistair asked at once, to which the mage smiled and nodded.

“I was winded, that’s all. I’m much better now. Really.”

She looked tired, I noticed; even more so than the rest of us. It had probably been worse than she was prepared to confess, especially given the tautness in Morrigan’s face. For her, I suspected that whatever had happened had been tantamount to a failure… and she didn’t react well to that.

“—as I was saying,” she said crisply, narrowing those golden eyes, “we were forced to retreat in search of aid. We were… extremely fortunate to encounter it.”

Morrigan glanced towards the cart, arms still tightly folded across her chest. The dwarven driver set aside his whip and climbed down from his perch, striding forwards with a confidence that—never having met any of his kind before—I found odd in someone even shorter than me.

“Bodahn Feddic’s my name,” he announced cheerfully, grinning first at Alistair, and then me. “Merchant and entrepreneur. This is my boy, Sandal. Say hello to the Grey Wardens, Sandal.”

He held out his arm, looking to the shadowy figure of the other dwarf, who was loitering beside the cart. He came slumping forwards, and I gathered from his broad, clear, moon-like face that he was what Father would have called simple… and what mostly everyone else in the alienage would have called backward. The daughter of one of the dockhands who lived in the same tenement as Soris had been that way. Sweet girl, as I recalled; until she ended up with a round-eared baby she didn’t understand how she’d come by, and her father tried to hide her shame by keeping both of them locked indoors.

I blinked away the recollection, and the painful thoughts that swallowed it, and did my best to smile at the young, blond dwarven boy, with those peculiarly pale, bright eyes. He twisted his thick fingers together, his lips moulded into a coil of uncertainty as he stared up at Alistair, then glanced at me.

“Hello,” he said, very deliberately, and began to blush.

“Hello, Sandal,” I said, as kindly as I could manage. “Um…?”

Maethor gave one of those talkative canine grunts and bounded away from my side, lolloping over to the boy. Sandal’s face split into an immense grin and—from the way he fell to his knees, fussing the mabari and chuckling happily at the enthusiastic licks to his cheeks he received in return—I guessed he and the hound had already started forging a bond.

“And this,” Bodahn added, before I had a chance to form a full question, “is my business associate, Levi Dryden.”

The other man was a thin-faced human in a worn but well-tailored jerkin, a good linen shirt, and wide cloth trousers. A heavy belt at his waist, hung with tallies and scrips, marked him out as a merchant, and his light brown hair was pinned in a loop at the back of his neck, with two thin braids hanging at his temples. He came forwards nervously, and looked between Alistair and me with a smile so ingratiating as to be oily.

“My pleasure, ser… and, um, miss.”

I nodded at him, and shot Alistair a perplexed glance. He rubbed a weary hand over his forehead, and looked about as confused as I felt.

“Yes, hello. Er, look, I’m sure we’re all very grateful, but… what exactly—?”

“We met them on the West Road,” Wynne explained. “They were looking for you. For the Grey Wardens.”

Alarm bells had already been ringing in my ears… and yet these people didn’t seem like bounty hunters.

“That’s right,” Levi Dryden assured, beaming awkwardly. “And, lemme tell you, you’re ’ard people to find. There’s been rumours ever since Ostagar that some of you got away, but… no, where are my manners? We should make camp for the night, shouldn’t we? Plenty of time to talk, and I expect your friend needs rest.”

His weaselly glance flickered to Zevran, who held up his one unbound hand.

“Please. I’ve been worse. Although, for what it’s worth, I can assure you these gentlemen seem honest enough.”

There was a beat of hesitation in the air, the damp and the dark drawing in all around us, caught as we were between the mountains and the forest. I let a sigh leak from me, part defeat and part some small, secret hope that maybe this insanity was a good thing in disguise. We were due some luck, weren’t we?

“I… I suppose we should thank you for your help,” I said, looking from Dryden to the dwarf. “We have a fire, just up the ridge. And the rest of our gear….”

Bodahn smiled broadly at me. “All on the cart,” he said, and I got the oddest feeling that, somehow, it was going to cost us money. “Much obliged, I’m sure. Much obliged. Right, then! Come along, Sandal, look lively… let’s get settled, shall we?”

Before I knew it, I was jumping back out of the way, and the ox-cart was rumbling past, up to the mouth of the pass. We’d suddenly swelled from a party of three to eleven, and the babble of voices and movement on the air seemed loud and chaotic.

Still, there wasn’t much to do but follow on. The tents were already being unloaded, and the fire stoked up… and no matter how screamingly strange it felt, I had to admit I was curious.

~o~O~o~

It had been a long, strange day, and it got stranger.

We gathered around the fire, sitting in the lee of the wagon, tents lazily pitched for the bare minimum of shelter on what promised, for once, to be a dry night. There were good, solid rations—fairly fresh bread, salt meat, cheese, and skins of water and wine—that paled what we’d stolen from Brother Genitivi’s house into insignificance, and so much to talk about.

The full story of Zevran’s injury would, I suspected, develop into a heavily embroidered anecdote with successive tellings. The arm now bound into a sling had been ripped open, the bleeding heavy and uncontrolled. Wynne, knocked out by the first blow of the tree-spirit, or demon, or whatever it was we were to call them—and, honestly, the whole concept of mobile, violent trees was definitely something I was still adjusting to—had been in no state to stem or treat the wound. Between them, Sten, Maethor, and Morrigan had vanquished the… thing… but they’d been forced to collect the wounded and flee back through the pass in search of help.

It had been sheer good luck that, as they stumbled back to the road, they’d met Bodahn and Levi’s wagon. The merchants had offered aid, and healing potions, and even taken them to a bone-setter half a day south-east of the city, which was where they’d been returning from at the late hour we’d seen them arrive.

It all seemed far too fortunate to me, and far too like coincidence—not something we could afford to trust—but as Levi Dryden took over the tale, I had to admit he sounded very genuine. There was a certain greasy, panicked honesty to the man that was difficult to ignore.

They’d been on our tails for nearly a week, he said. Come all the way from the west, originally, up past the Frostbacks, and had been meaning to head to Ostagar, before they caught the news of the massacre.

“What business did you have there?” Alistair asked warily.

“Wee-eell,” Levi said, leaning forwards and warming his palms over the fire, “I was meant to see a friend of mine.Duncan. I’m sure you knew him, seeing as how he was the leader of—”

“Yes. I knew Duncan.” Alistair’s voice fell heavily across the merchant’s words and, as he nodded briefly at me, I saw the pained look in his eyes. “We both did. He… he was my mentor.”

Levi’s face softened. “Ah. I’m sorry. What happened down there… it was a tragedy, it was.”

“Yes,” Alistair said tightly. “It was.”

The firelight daubed shadows across his face, and the civilian clothes that he still wore, suddenly so at odds with the way his posture had stiffened, his back ram-rod straight and his shoulders tense.

I cleared my throat. “How did you know Duncan, if you don’t my asking?”

Levi blinked, and seemed to brighten. “Oh, we went years back, we did. I done a lot of trading with the Wardens… well, all around, really. Levi of the Coins, they call me. Heh… Levi the Trader.”

He flashed that obsequious grin again, and rubbed his palms against his knees, glancing at his gathered audience.

On the other side of the fire, Sandal, the dwarven boy, was sitting on the ground with Maethor. He had his arms around the mabari’s neck, giggling quietly while his father sank a skin of wine. The rest of our companions were sitting close by, all of us drawn around the flames like moths, and it was strangely convivial. Even Sten and Morrigan had stayed at the centre of the makeshift camp, instead of withdrawing to their respective corners at the first opportunity.

I tried to smile encouragingly, and nodded. “Yes?”

Levi coughed. “We-ell… it’s a bit of a tale, to be honest, but I was there when the Grey Wardens come back to Ferelden, I was. I… well, I was one of the ones what spoke out on your order’s behalf. There were a lot of us, but… yes, I was there.”

He licked his lips nervously, that thin, ferret-like face lit with the glow of remembered pride.

Alistair frowned incredulously. “What, when King Maric rescinded Arland’s decree?”

Levi nodded, and I must have looked nonplussed, because he took pity on me and added an explanation.

“First Grey Wardens in Ferelden for a century, they were. After Maric, Andraste bless him, freed us from the Orlesians, the Wardens begged to meet with him—some internal business or other—and there was a mess of us sympathisers who spoke out. Well… Teyrn Loghain was dead set against having them set foot across the border—”

“No surprises there,” Alistair muttered, at which the trader grinned.

“—being foreign and all, but the king was a fair-minded man, and he let them in. So, I was there when Commander Genevieve presented herself to the king. Proudest day of my life, that was.”

His narrow chest puffed up, eyes shining, and I tried to picture the events he spoke of. It all seemed a very long way off; those twining complexities of politics and legality that had never had a place in my life.

I frowned. “So… that’s when you met Duncan?”

Levi nodded. “Yep. Over twenty years ago, now.”

About the time Duncan had tried to recruit my mother, then. The thought reared up, unbidden, and I had to bite down hard on it, pushing it back into the dark, alongside all the more recent horrors I needed to hide there. Levi took a slug from a skin of wine Wynne passed along to him, and laughed as he lowered it from his lips.

“Hah… ’course, Duncan was a bit of a scamp back then, would you believe.”

Well, that was an unexpected description. I glanced at Alistair, expecting him to be shocked, or possibly offended, and was surprised to see him just smiling into the fire, as if some tender memory had been touched.

Levi shook his head fondly. “We were of an age, and we struck up a friendship. ’Course, the king himself went with the Wardens on their mysterious business. Then, when he returned, he repealed King Arland’s ban on the order, and the Wardens came back to Ferelden for good.”

“One wonders,” Morrigan said archly, from her position opposite us, glowering across the flames, “what they did to get themselves expelled in the first place.”

I was surprised at her taking an interest in the tale, even if it was to poke fun. Alistair opened his mouth, presumably to tell her to shut up, but Levi appeared to have hit his stride, and answered fluidly.

“We-ell… can’t rightly say, really, can you? Some reckon it’s because the Wardens had become terribly unpopular, just soaking up tithes and not doing a bleeding thing for the kingdom.” He sniffed, and cast a look around the camp. “’Course, I say that’s bollocks, as recent events have shown.”

Alistair, who’d just taken a swig from the wine skin, coughed, and Levi grinned.

“Oh, yeah… we ’eard, on our travels, what you done at Redcliffe, and all about how the Circle of Magi stands behind the Wardens. There’s rumours flying from the Bannorn to Amaranthine about how the Grey Wardens have survived, and shall bring an end to the Blight, whatever Teyrn Loghain says. Make no mistake,” he added, leaning in to the fire, his face earnest and oddly intense, “there’s plenty who’ll come to your banner, right enough. The Grey Wardens have loyal supporters, all through Ferelden.”

A sense of faint dizziness tugged at me, like I was standing on a high parapet, peering over the edge at some great plain laid out below me, and not knowing what was about to come charging across it. It felt very odd, and very uncomfortable, to be on the receiving end of those words, fine and grand though they might have been.

I looked at Alistair, rather hoping he might handle this one. The wine skin hung slackly in his fingers, and a mildly stunned expression had settled on his face, coupled with an uncertain awkwardness.

“Er… right,” he said, fumbling a bit with the wine skin as he passed along to me, and shooting me a pleading look that left me no other option but to smile at Levi, and incline my head.

“Thank you.” I nodded to the trader, who beamed expectantly, and a sea of dread lapped within me.

I didn’t like the undercurrent that clung to this story of his: the twenty-year-old revolution of a visionary, a king whose blood ran in the veins of the man sitting beside me. Whether Alistair liked it or not—whether anyone knew it or not—he united both the Theirin line and the myth of the Grey Wardens… and if it did come to civil war, that was a potent weapon for us. He might not have wanted the truth broadcast, and I certainly had no intention of making it public, but even then I wondered if we’d have a choice. Levi had already mentioned rumours and, however much I still clung to the hope that we would be able to make Loghain see the Blight’s true threat, and avoid unnecessary bloodshed, I was uneasy about what might lie ahead.

What unsettled me most, I think, was the fire and pride in the man’s eyes. When he looked at us—when he looked at Alistair—he saw memories of heroes… and that struck me as dangerous.

“So.” I cleared my throat, because evidently no one else was going to ask the relevant questions. “When you were heading to Ostagar, to meet Duncan… what exactly…?”

I glanced across the fire at Bodahn, who had been quiet all through Levi’s tale, and now smiled cheerfully at me.

“Oh, we joined up on the road, miss,” he said, with a nod at Sandal. “The boy and I left Orzammar behind us, didn’t we? That’s where we’re from originally. Heard a great many tales about the Grey Wardens there, that’s true…. When I heard Master Dryden was trying to make his way to the king’s camp, well, I thought to myself, it was our duty to combine our efforts.”

His smile widened, small blue eyes glittering in that broad, ruddy face, his braided beard resting like laurels against his chest. He was lying. If I’d had to put money on it, I’d have said he was running from something, but I didn’t know enough to guess what, and the time wasn’t right to ask. Besides, at that point, Sandal looked up very gravely, and nodded.

“We left Orzammar,” he said, apparently with great deliberation.

Bodahn chuckled indulgently. “That’s right! That’s right, my boy. Maybe one day we’ll see it again.”

Sandal didn’t seem to have an opinion on that; he just went back to stroking Maethor’s ears. I watched the hound’s stubby tail wag happily, and wished—not for the first time—that I could take such simple joy in life, moment by moment.

“Truth of the matter was,” Levi said carefully, weighing his words, “I had a favour to ask of Duncan. Something we’d talked about before, like.”

I blinked. Somehow, that didn’t seem remotely surprising.

“A favour?” Alistair echoed. “What kind of favour?”

The trader gave us another ferrety grin. “We-ell… my family, y’see… bit of a chequered past. Been looked at for some years with an element of disdain.”

“Oh?”

I heard the note of sarcasm in Alistair’s tone, but I wasn’t sure if Levi did; he was already embarking on the tale of his forebears. The man could evidently talk the hind leg off a donkey, or any other given pack animal.

“My great-great-grandmother, Sophia Dryden, was the Warden-Commander of Ferelden, back when the Wardens were known as freeloaders. So, when King Arland banished the order, he took all of House Dryden’s land and titles.” Levi wrinkled his nose, jutting his chin forwards as he frowned into the fire. “’Course, when he died, there was a huge civil war. Lot of papers lost, things destroyed and all turned around…. We rebuilt, became merchants. Us Drydens are tough, you see? And we never lost our pride.”

I rubbed my fingers along my arm, suddenly feeling the night’s chill through the thin cloth of my dress. There was something horribly familiar about those words—that stubborn, indomitable refusal to give in, to cease clinging to the wreckage of a name, an identity. I couldn’t help thinking of Goldanna, and how much a vision of home she’d seemed to me, with all her tired bitterness and worn-down spite.

We weren’t so different, my people and the shems. Not so different as I’d thought, or been told, or grown up believing we were… and it was the hardest time possible to reflect on that fact.

“So,” Alistair said, prodding the trader gently back to his original point, “what was this favour you asked of Duncan?”

Levi gave him a look of surprisingly guileless innocence.

“Well, the truth, ser. That… and maybe a little give-and-take.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, but he carried on before I had a chance to comment.

“See, the old Grey Warden base, Soldier’s Peak, it’s been lost for years… since my great-great-grandmother’s time. The family always thought Sophia died there, when King Arland’s men laid siege to the place, but we never had no proof. Well, it’s taken me years, but certain, er, maps have come into my possession—rare as hen’s teeth, you understand, yes?—and I think I’ve plotted out a route to the Peak. I think there’s a chance to reclaim it for the Wardens. That’s what Duncan and I meant to do… what I knew I had to bring to you, when I ’eard there was Wardens what had survived Ostagar.”

The fire crackled, but the air had grown still. Everyone seemed to be watching Levi and Alistair, listening to this staggering droplet of news. I furrowed my brow.

“A… a Grey Warden base?” I asked. “I thought there was nothing in Ferelden, except the compound in Denerim.”

Alistair shook his head. “That’s what I thought. I’ve never heard of… well, we wouldn’t have, if it was ‘lost’, would we?”

He shot Levi a highly suspicious glance, and I couldn’t blame him at all for being wary. Still… a base. A vestige of the Wardens’ power from a century ago. Chances were, even if it existed and this wasn’t all some elaborate kind of trap, that the place would be nothing more than a decayed ruin. Even so, there might be something worth salvaging, mightn’t there?

I thought of the overgrown, ruined tower from which we’d been sent to retrieve the Grey Warden treaties, back in the Korcari Wilds. It felt like a lifetime ago. Was that all that remained for us to rely on? Broken bits of history, old seals and musty parchment, and abandoned forts that had long been forgotten?

Alistair narrowed his eyes. “Where exactly is this base?”

Levi grinned. “Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s close by. No more than a few days’ travel. It’s deep in the hills, see; protected by ’em. The story in my family goes that there’s tunnels leading right up under the fortress. It’s taken a long while, but the maps I have show the way. So, it’s like I said toDuncan… the Wardens can reclaim their base, and us Drydens can have our history back, maybe learn the truth about old Sophia. Sounds like a fair deal, doesn’t it?”

Alistair didn’t look entirely convinced, but I could already see the sense of obligation crawling over his face.

“And Duncan promised you this, did he?” he asked doubtfully

I stifled a sigh. If Levi had made him believe Duncan had promised him a banquet of queen cakes and fairy dust, all served on a magic toadstool, Alistair would have been determined to see it through.

Still, I couldn’t deny that my curiosity had been piqued. Not to mention the fact that it could genuinely be a useful opportunity. I shot a look at Bodahn, who returned it with a cheerful smile.

“It’s quite the story, isn’t it? I know! Moved, I was, when Master Dryden first told me. I said to myself, ‘Bodahn, this is an offer you can’t afford to refuse’. Why, offering my goods and services to the Grey Wardens themselves… seems a national duty, doesn’t it?”

I squeezed a smile from unwilling lips. It seemed unlikely that was what had really seen these two merchants join forces, but I wasn’t about to argue. I could feel the weight of Alistair’s gaze on me, even as I cast a look at the rest of our companions, and found every bloody one of them studiously inspecting their feet, or their fingernails, or the damn grass.

“What do you think?” Alistair murmured, as quietly as the total lack of privacy here allowed.

I didn’t know. We still had the Dalish to find—if that was even possible, without being ripped to shreds by demon trees. Then there was the issue of the Urn; whether we should follow up the lead we’d been fed about Lake Calenhad, or just return to Redcliffe and beg for troops and a diplomatic intervention in Denerim. The possibilities—endless actions I didn’t know how to second-guess—piled up ahead of me, and I could see myself too easily paralysed by fear, too anxious to choose any single course.

I looked at him, my heart sinking at the sight of that eager, uncertain, open face, hazel eyes clouded with indecision in the firelight.

“If Duncan thought it was a good idea,” he began, faltering a little over the name, as if it still hurt to say it.

It probably did, I supposed. I sighed, and nodded.

“He has a point. If it’s still there, and useable… I mean, it’s not like we’re overwhelmed with supplies or facilities. This could give us an advantage.”

Alistair looked heartened, like he’d been hoping I might say that.

“Exactly. I think we should… I mean, if you think—”

I rubbed a hand over my forehead. I was so tired of decisions, and I wondered at how quickly he’d shaken that mantle of responsibility he’d begun to take on in Denerim.

“All right,” I said briskly. “Yes.”

Levi was watching us intently. He must have been able to hear, I guessed, but he pretended he hadn’t.

“We’ll help you,” I said, louder, for clarity’s sake.

“Are you mad?” Morrigan demanded. “Do we not have enough—”

“I think,” I snapped, “we can all agree that, the way things are going, we need as much weight behind us as we can get. If Soldier’s Peak can be brought back into service, it gives us somewhere to centre whatever forces we muster… some kind of focus. We need that presence if we’re to make Loghain back down. Besides, if it was something Duncan believed was right….”

I didn’t need to finish the sentence, wretched as I felt for invoking his name.

We were all tired; I saw the ripples of discomfort on their faces. In daylight, with sleep behind us, I would probably have had an argument on my hands but, right then, I had an advantage and I pressed it.

“A thousand blessings upon you, Warden!” Levi exclaimed, grinning broadly. “I’ll show you the maps. Two days, I think, at most. Why, with luck, it could be even less. Oh, this… I can’t tell you what this means….”

I smiled tightly, and suggested we all get some rest.

~o~O~o~

And so it was decided. I wasn’t sure it was a good decision, but I was too tired and too raw to worry about it anymore.

With politely bade goodnights, eyes baggy and yawns no longer stifled, everyone splintered off to their respective tents and shelters. The moon was up, the dapplings of cloud chasing its face as night’s chariot raced across the sky… or so that story of Mother’s used to say.

I didn’t want to think about her, or the purge, or the boy we’d murdered in Genitivi’s house, or Father and Shianni and Soris and… there was too much and, no matter how tired I felt, the unfamiliarity of our company put a barrier between me and sleep.

I excused myself, muttering something about standing watch, and began to move a little way from the body of the camp, straying from the warmth of the fire. Maethor had made himself a scrape outside Bodahn and Sandal’s tent, and he looked up at me, ears cocked. I shook my head, and he laid his muzzle down on his paws, watching me. He was the reason, up until now, we hadn’t bothered much with a rota of watches. Very little got past the mabari, and we’d not run into much trouble on the road.

That, I suspected, was going to change. We were lurching towards a precipice, and it was beginning to have less and less to do with the Blight. There would be a war, unless we could stop it, and I didn’t see how that could happen. I didn’t see we had the slightest chance of standing against the Blight, either… but I couldn’t let myself give in to those thoughts. I knew that much.

I took a long breath, pulling the night air into my body as if I could shed my flesh and fly away on it, and it was cold. The smell of the trees, and the oxen tethered over by the cart, the fire, and the sparse, rough dew-laden grass caught at my nose, filling my mouth and lungs. My eyes stung, and I realised I was shaking. I blinked, hating the wetness on my cheeks.

“Meri?”

Alistair’s voice, behind me. I’d thought he’d already turned in and, because I couldn’t stand the thought of crying in front of him again, I raised my hand and, without turning, waved dismissively. The sides of the pass, cut deep into the hills and cloaked with trees, rose up around us, and I pushed further into the shadows they cast.

I heard his footsteps, as if he meant to follow, but he didn’t. There was a rustle of fabric, then Wynne’s voice, hushed and almost too soft to hear.

“Is she all right?”

My mouth crumpled as I struggled to hold in a sob, and I sat heavily on a small tussock, clinging desperately to the pretence of being on watch, and hardly daring to breathe in case my shoulders shook.

“I hope so,” I heard Alistair say doubtfully, lowering his voice. “Denerim… wasn’t good.”

They moved away, their voices too soft for me to hear. I didn’t know if he was telling her about it… about the alienage, and how what I’d done had left the way open for my whole world to burn. Probably. I was glad of that, in a way. I could be angry at him for telling, and anger was a bright thread to hold onto, somewhere in the seeping, uncontrollable mist of fear and grief.

Slowly, my breathing calmed, and the boiling sobs throttled in me gave way to sane tears. I let them come, and let myself grieve for people it was easier to assume were dead.

It’s a mess in there.

Perhaps it was better if they were. Maybe better that than the horror of what had happened; the disease and hunger, the rapes and violence, and the fury of those left who would know that, in the absence of his daughter the criminal, it was Cyrion Tabris they should blame.

I sighed and wiped my face on the sleeve of Valora’s brown dress. Well, it was done now.

The wounds wouldn’t close any time soon, but my mourning had to end, or at least be put back until I had the time to grieve.

I sniffed wetly, and heard the soft tread of feet behind me, the air traced with the light delicacy of lavender and white soap. A mirthless smile bent my lips, and I knew I should have expected it.

“Feeling better?” Wynne asked gently.

I looked over my shoulder, and found her proffering a clean linen handkerchief, originally white but faded to a dull grey. I took it with a weak smile of thanks, blew my nose, and shook my head ruefully.

“Not yet. I’m trying.”

With a small grunt of effort, the mage lowered herself to the ground beside me, and folded her hands demurely into her lap. She peered out into the darkness while I wiped my eyes, and seemed to be watching the shadows shift.

“Alistair told me about what happened,” she said, after a moment. “What Loghain has done to the alienage. I wanted to say how sorry I am.”

I nodded, not entirely trusting myself to speak, and wondering just how much he had said. I wasn’t angry anymore; wasn’t anything except wrung out and confused. I scrubbed Wynne’s damp hanky over my cheeks, and the night air felt chilly on my salt-hot skin.

“Truly,” she said, “it sickens and saddens me to hear what men in power inflict on those whom they ought to serve and protect.”

I cleared my throat, and looked at her in slight confusion as I refolded the soggy handkerchief. Generally, very few people thought elves merited protection.

“Did… did he tell you how Duncan conscripted me?”

I assumed he had, but Wynne shook her head, and shot me a look I didn’t fully understand, hardness lingering in those clear blue eyes.

“No,” she said consideringly. “He did not. Zevran… mentioned a few things.”

Well, that wasn’t surprising. I snorted.

“Huh. I murdered the arl of Denerim’s son.”

The words didn’t have so much weight to them now. Too much blood had flowed, washing away the awe-struck horror I’d once felt at repeating them. Besides, guilt bound me to the confession, pure and simple, although not without the bitterness of justification.

“He… he and his men,” I said softly, tasting the words, feeling the metallic darkness of them against my mouth, “between them, they killed my friend, and the man I was meant to marry, and they raped my cousin.”

I glanced at Wynne, and took no pleasure, no deep-seated gratification, in the way her face stiffened and blanched. She didn’t look shocked, I noted, and she nodded, very slowly.

“I see.”

Perhaps Zevran had already furnished them with the story; the blood-soaked bride, tearing her way through the arl’s palace with vengeance dripping from her stolen sword. Oh, yes… suitably melodramatic, I supposed. Maybe that was the way they were telling it in some corners of Denerim. Maybe the other version—where Soris and I were cast as outlaws, intent on robbery and violence, and Lord Vaughan had died a hero in defence of his father’s estate—was more popular.

If I was Loghain, I thought, I’d push that one. A city as tense as Denerim needed scapegoats, and knife-ears usually did well enough for that.

“I shouldn’t have done it.” I scuffed my boot against a tuft of grass that had done nothing to warrant such rough treatment. “That day, we should… we should just have gone with them and, I don’t know… done what they wanted. Even if— I mean, I should have known what we’d bring down.”

Wynne said nothing, as was her talent. Somehow, her silence drew the words from me, and I couldn’t spool them back in.

“I should never have… I mean, all right, I didn’t know Duncan was going to conscript me. I didn’t have a choice, fair enough, but… I abandoned them. All of them, and now—”

I broke off, embarrassed and aware of the futility in my words. There was no changing anything now, no going back.

No turning back.

Duncan had said that so many times, hadn’t he? I wondered if I’d really understood it back at Ostagar, before the Joining… or if I understood it even now.

Wynne sighed quietly, and stared up at the trees.

“You know,” she said, “I have heard stories that some templars who hunt maleficarum do not end the hunt with a clean death. That they subject the victim to countless… abuses and indignities before they finish it.”

I blinked. Was that supposed to be comparable, or make me feel better somehow?

She shrugged. “It is just a rumour. It is not something they speak of willingly, if at all, and especially not to mages.”

I passed her handkerchief back, a little apologetic about the dampness. She took it with those lean, strong fingers, and tucked it away into a pouch at her belt.

“I suppose,” I said warily, “that even if you know something is wrong, it’s not always possible to challenge it without causing more harm.”

“Maybe.”

Her voice was neutral, and I couldn’t tell if she agreed or not. I frowned, and reached for the slippery tail of some small truth, floundering a little as it tried to escape me.

“You just have to try and do the right thing, then. Not just what’s right for you, but… something bigger. That’s the only way you’re not blinded by yourself. Right?”

Wynne continued to stare straight ahead, but inclined her head a little.

“Mm.”

It was infuriating. I wanted her to tell me things as they were, to give me words of comfort and wisdom, if she was going to lead me towards philosophy.

“That’s what being a Grey Warden is, isn’t it?”

It seemed logical. I hoped it was; it was all I had left to throw myself into. Not to mention the issue of duty, that yawned before me—before all of us, I supposed—and threatened to swallow us whole before the Blight was ended.

Wynne glanced at me, her face a little softer than before.

“I think so. Ultimately, being a Grey Warden is about serving others, serving all people, whether elves or dwarves or men. Protecting them,” she added tentatively.

I scoffed. “I don’t have the best record there.”

“Tch, nonsense.” Her lips twitched impatiently, but warmth touched her eyes. “Think of it this way: if you live apart from others, your actions affect only you. But if you have power, influence and strength, your every action will be as a drop of water in a clear, still pond. The drop causes ripples, and ripples spread. How far they will go, and how wide will they become? How will they affect the pond?”

I frowned, utterly lost. I could think of nothing but the standpipes by the privies back home, and the pools of stagnant, fetid water that collected on the uneven ground when it rained heavily. There were always stray dogs drinking there, and children stamping in the water, pushing and shoving and laughing.

I shook my head—trying to dislodge the memories, to make everything a little bit clearer—and peered out at the treeline that fringed the pass.

“Do you think they’re out there?” I asked. “The Dalish, I mean.”

Wynne said nothing at first, but reached into one of the various pouches at her belt. She drew out something small, and held it out to me on the flat of her palm. I squinted. It looked like an arrowhead, with perhaps two inches of broken shaft still attached. The head itself was knapped flint, polished and so delicate it almost looked like glass. It had been set into the wooden shaft using some kind of hide thong, and the work was more precise than any I’d seen… although admittedly my experience was limited.

“I found this just before our little fracas earlier. It is of Dalish make, and looks fairly new, wouldn’t you say?”

I nodded, gingerly running a finger along the length of the tiny flint blade. It was wickedly keen, and she was right; it showed no sign of having been buried or decayed.

“They’re there,” Wynne said, tucking the find back into her pouch. “It will simply be a matter of finding them… and being careful over how we do it. I confess, I did not think so many of the legends about this place could be true. There are powerful, wild magics here.”

I didn’t doubt it. My brow furrowed again.

“You think we should focus on finding the Dalish, or the Urn, and not go chasing off after whatever mad tale some incredibly convenient merchant springs up with?”

Wynne smiled, and the dark ripple of a breeze whispered through the grass. My body longed for a bed, and sleep, even if my mind refused to quiet.

“I think I trust your decisions, my dear,” she said. “After all, someone has to make them.”

I stared. That was possibly the least helpful thing anyone could have said… and she bloody well knew it.

With a small shiver, Wynne hunched her shoulders and, hands pressed to her knees, began to rise.

“Ooh, it’s late. And chilly. I think I will retire… and you may want to do the same. Even Grey Wardens need their rest.”

She slipped me a wry little smile, self-aware enough of her mother hen status to make those small jokes.

“Wynne?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Hm?”

“Thank you.”

The mage smiled again—broader this time, though a trifle sad—and inclined her head. She turned and headed back to the centre of camp, and her tent.

I watched her go and, with a sigh, supposed I might as well go to bed too. Everyone else had, and it wasn’t as if there was much of the night left during which we could be surprised by anything.

Once I was under the blankets, listening to the dim chorus of other people’s snoring, farting, and rustling, the full force of tiredness hit. My eyes were too heavy to keep open, and the grainy blur of canvas soon faded to blackness as sleep stole swiftly over me, replacing the burden of responsibility with the yoke of my ever-present dreams.

———————————
Volume 3: Chapter Ten
———————————
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————
Home
———————————

Leave a Reply