Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Six

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I hated splitting the group up, but as difficult as it was to face simply walking into Denerim—and everything that entailed—I knew it would have been worse going in together. Of course, that didn’t mean I had to be comfortable with the notion of Zevran, Morrigan and Sten wandering around loose at the neck of the Brecilian Forest, with only Wynne to keep them under control, and to prevent them from killing each other. Wynne and Maethor, I corrected myself. He didn’t want to be left, either.

We had one last night, camped in the wooded edges of someone’s farm, with the Highway and the North Road knotted into each other at our backs, and the distant, jagged outline of Dragon’s Peak cutting into the sky. The mabari was stuck to me like wet flannel, trailing at my heel and whining piteously as I did the usual firewood round.

“It’s no good complaining,” I said, looking down into the huge, liquid brown eyes. “You’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

Maethor groaned, tilted his head to the side, and wagged his stumpy tail uncertainly. I sighed, glanced around us, and then tossed one of the sticks I’d gathered for kindling across the clearing. He went bounding after it with a delighted bark, huge paws scrabbling on the soft ground. For once, it wasn’t actually raining, which made for a pleasant change.

Things were practically convivial that evening, despite the amount there was to do. We’d been lucky enough to find a small stream—probably some kind of tributary of the Drakon—which provided a very welcome opportunity for a proper wash… and some laundry.

If Alistair, Leliana and I were going to escape notice in Denerim, wandering about in bloodstained armour wouldn’t be an option. We needed to blend in, she said, which apparently meant the opposite of disguise. I frowned, not quite understanding. Alistair looked crestfallen, and voiced disappointment at not being able to don a shadowy cowl and a false moustache.

“That’s exactly what I meant, silly!” Leliana giggled. “You don’t dress to hide, you dress to fit in. That is what a perfect disguise is.”

“Ah, certo,” Zevran chimed in. “The ability to walk a mile in the shadow of the man you intend to kill… without him ever knowing you are there.”

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence, as we considered the rather recent relevance of that statement. Alistair wrinkled his nose.

“What, until you drop a tree on him and then spring an elaborate trap involving tripwires, crossbows, and an apostate mage with a nasty line in fireballs?”

Zevran shrugged. Perched on a tree stump, left leg propped across his right knee, he was contemplatively stroking a whetstone along the blade of one narrow, cruel-looking dagger.

“Yes. I can’t think why it didn’t work.”

He smiled amiably at us, firelight glimmering on his tanned skin, and inclined his head to Leliana.

“Still, my original point was recognition of your brilliance, my dear. Beauty, shrewdness and talent… you are indeed devastating.”

She gave a small ‘hm’, a noise somewhere between triumph and disapproval, and picked up the bundle of clothes we’d sorted from our pooled resources. For her, the Chantry robes she’d worn when we met her in Lothering. For Alistair, a hasty patch job on his one decent shirt, plus breeches, boots, and one of the oiled leather cloaks from Redcliffe, which would cover a multitude of sins.

I’d dug out the brown dress Valora had given me the day I left home. It had been wadded up at the bottom of my pack ever since Ostagar—one of the only possessions of mine to survive Ishal—and Leliana’s face had screwed up in horror when I shook it out. Still, it wasn’t as if I had anything else, and I could hardly enter the city in my leathers.

I followed her down to the water and helped with the wash. For a while, it almost felt like something familiar, like the echo of an old routine. No pump, though. No knots of gossiping women… no Shianni, teasing me and swapping stories.

We dried everything out by the fire, ate an interesting meal of partially charred rabbit—thanks, once more, to Alistair’s culinary prowess—and tried not to let the mood settling over the camp be one of melancholy farewells.

I couldn’t help thinking of how different things were from when we’d left the Wilds, packed on our way by an old woman who was so much more than she seemed. I was different. I felt… stronger, I supposed, in a peculiar way. I was still here, still alive, and that counted for a damn sight more than it ever had before.

Also, despite the things I’d told Alistair about my conscription, he didn’t seem to have pulled away from me. There was a certain sense of reserve between us, perhaps… which I suspected was my fault. I could have worded so much differently, though I had to admit that talking about it had been a burden lifted. And he didn’t look at me as if I was a monster. Neither did Zevran… although he had a manner of looking at everybody that was altogether far more unsettling.

~o~O~o~

We started early the following day. There was camp to pull up, and everything to repack, and I was queasy with nerves. Leliana, by contrast, couldn’t seem to keep the grin off her face.

“It’s rather fun, isn’t it?” she said, giving me a conspiratorial smile as we sorted our clothes for the journey.

“Um… yeah,” I managed, still sleepy and clad in my shirt and breeches, the morning chill nipping at my gritty eyes.

I’d allowed Maethor to sneak into my bedroll in the night. He was a fidgety sleeping companion, but a comfort when the dreams came. Just whispers and humming in the darkness, and then the straining of a great, dark body imprisoned in an earthen tomb, roaring and thirsting for its freedom. Alistair’d had a bad one; I’d heard him cry out, heard Wynne wake and call his name, dragging herself out of her own tent to check on him.

Funny, I supposed, that I hadn’t gone myself. I’d thought about it, unsure why I hesitated. It didn’t matter now, anyway.

I took the opportunity of another wash in the creek, delighting in the freshness of clean face and hands, and slipped on the much-abused broadcloth dress. The good scrubbing had got rid of almost all the stains, though there was something unwholesome on the hem that I suspected was darkspawn blood. The worst of the wrinkles were out, but the poor thing still looked more like a dishrag than an example of delicate elven tailoring. It didn’t fit terribly well although, with my shirt on beneath and a belt and scrip around my waist, I started to look and feel more the part.

I smoothed the dress down, and felt every fibre sing with memories beneath my hands. Valora, smiling weakly as she gave me the things she’d taken from her own trousseau—this dress, the money she’d hidden in the pack—and the smells, sights and sounds of home.

Had it really been so long? I’d lost count of the days. Weeks slipped by too easily, and I supposed we should be keeping a more careful track of the time. We needed to, if we were to anticipate the movement of the horde, or of Loghain’s men… and the very fact that I could think like that showed me just how long it had been since I left home.

I combed my hair out, parted it as neatly as I could, and looked down at my clumpy, muddy, extremely serviceable boots. They gave me away: a soldier’s footwear, not a servant’s. Still, I doubted most humans would give me a second glance, much less look too closely at my feet. As long as we were quick, quiet, and didn’t attract attention, we’d be fine.

“All ready?” Leliana asked brightly, as I arrived back at the clearing.

She looked as serene as ever, and beautiful, with her Chantry robes clean and hair neatly dressed, and a scattering of braids woven into the glossy, deep red locks. I felt dowdy next to her; even more so when I thought of how she looked in archer’s leathers, hair slicked back and an arrow nocked and sighted.

I nodded. “As ready as I’m going to be, I think.”

“I still say you are all insane,” Morrigan declared, arms crossed over her chest as she stood by the pile of packs and bags that, until recently, had been our camp. “If you are caught and killed by the man you seek to depose, do not think for a moment I shall hesitate in abandoning this ridiculous quest.”

“Oh, I don’t think anyone was thinking that,” Alistair said, emerging from his own ablutions. “We all just assumed you’d chicken out.”

She glowered at the implication of cowardice, and I started to say that, technically speaking, no one was planning on deposing anyone, but I didn’t get very far.

“I feel naked,” Alistair announced, waving his hands loosely in the region of what was usually mail and weaponry. “Without my… stuff.”

Clad in a shirt, cloak, and breeches, scrip at his belt and boots buffed but not polished to a shine, he resembled pretty much what I’d thought he was the first time I’d met him: the younger son of some unimportant merchant or minor pretender to the gentry. He still carried himself like a soldier—it was obvious he wasn’t just any old commoner, and that thought amused me briefly—but maybe we could get away with it.

Morrigan snorted. “I suggest we all consider ourselves lucky ’tis merely a feeling.”

Zevran, apparently materialising out of the shadows in that disturbing way of his, tutted wistfully as he eyed the three of us.

“Tsk. For such a beautiful woman, Morrigan, you have a shameful lack of appreciation for the charms of others, no?”

He gave Alistair a look of openly lascivious admiration, and murmured something I took to be Antivan… and probably obscene. Alistair blinked, looked panicky, and started to turn faintly pink. Leliana giggled, hand to her mouth in a girlish gesture curiously at odds with her robes.

Sten, standing at the edge of the clearing with Maethor sitting at his feet, appeared to be waiting for us all to stop messing around. He loosed a short sigh.

“When you have all finished admiring each other, it would be helpful to begin the journey.”

That dragged another stifled splutter from Leliana, but we did get moving. At the edge of the road, we said our goodbyes and—though they wouldn’t be for long—I still hated doing it. Wynne squeezed my hand tightly and smiled at me, those clear blue eyes full of warmth and trust.

“Take care,” she said. “And good luck.”

I nodded. “You too.”

Privately, I suspected she’d need it. But, with rendezvous points agreed, money and maps divided up between us, Morrigan huffing impatiently and Maethor doing another round of piteous whining, it was time to move on.

We left the five of them at the roadside, and set off north, not looking back. The sun was up, its early warmth not yet really lifting the chill from the earth, but the light gilded everything, making it seem clear and bright.

As I fell into step beside Alistair, he looked me up and down, and then grinned, which left me expecting some wisecrack or other.

“You know,” he said instead, “you look really… different like that.”

“Er.” I blinked. “Thanks?”

He smiled awkwardly and turned his attention back to the road. Overhead, birds were beginning to flit and call, and a light breeze ruffled the trees. Dragon’s Peak stood dark and solid on the horizon, and I felt the pull of the city at its foot. Just a little way on, wrapped in walls and stone; all that life, that chaos and glorious mess. Home… and yet still tainted with so much fear and apprehension. Part of me wanted to turn tail and run after the others—off to find the Dalish, the way people joked of doing back… home.

No word had ever throbbed so loudly in my thoughts.

Leliana was walking a little ahead of us, the sunlight glinting on the red and gold of her robes. I slipped a sidelong glance at Alistair, without quite meaning to.

Clean, almost tidy, and reasonably well-dressed, he looked very… well, very… handsome. Not that I was about to say so, of course. It was bad enough admitting it in the privacy of my own head.

In any case I had, I reminded myself sharply, been the one to tell him that elves considered shems dirty. That is, that we considered… that…. And we did. It was. I’d been brought up thinking that.

Humans, in all their gross, blatant physicality, didn’t have the same standards as us. They were lazy, impatient, rude, violent, disrespectful, dissolute… and there were things you just did not do. Things you did not consider. Looking at a human man that way was unthinkable. And I wasn’t thinking it, I told myself. I didn’t… wasn’t. No.

Of course not.

~o~O~o~

We travelled faster without all our gear, but the journey still took the best part of a day… and I wasn’t really prepared for how things would feel when we arrived.

The day I’d left Denerim, with Duncan, the gates had been a chaotic throng of activity. Outside them, we’d seen all manner of traders, travellers, transients and less-than-salubrious merchants… a whole second city beyond the walls, and beyond the jurisdiction of the guard. I expected to see it there still when we arrived, but things seemed much more subdued now; just a steady influx of people heading in, and a few heading out, but the whole scene so much quieter, almost devoid of colour and joy.

Denerim was grieving, and afraid. I could feel it.

I didn’t know how long it had been exactly since the news of Ostagar and Cailan’s death had broken, or how firmly ensconced Loghain was in the palace, but the atmosphere was seeping out of the city like a dark tide, rising greasily… and we were heading straight into its swell.

We joined the knots of people traipsing through the southern gate, and tried not to look too out of place. It could have been worse; a tinker and his cart were occupying the guards’ attention, and an argument appeared to be brewing over the legality of his wares. I fell back, behind Alistair, affecting the position of elven subservience that did not come as easily to me as it once had. Head down, shoulders hunched… the back of my neck prickled as we edged on our way, and I saw the small, tucked smile that Leliana shot me, from the corner of my eye.

I wished I could say it felt good to be back.

In so many ways, the city hadn’t changed. The market square was still busy, still thronged with people and stalls. Merchants’ banners and canopies flapped in the dingy air, their colours bright against all the stone and wood. The day I’d left it behind me, I’d looked back at Denerim—with all its crooked buildings and cracked foundations—and thought of a fat old woman, bursting out of ill-fitting corsets. It still stank of dung and humans and livestock… I could pick out stables, taverns, and even the distant bilges of the docks on the air.

“All right?”

I drew in a sharp breath, stupidly startled by the sound of Alistair’s voice, and nodded.

“Mm-hm. Um… we should, er….”

I blinked, aware that this wasn’t happening at all the way we’d talked about it. The making of sensible, rational plans—inasmuch as being here at all was sensible—had occupied us while we walked. Leliana had come up with the suggestion that she make straight for the chantry and its archives, inconspicuous in her lay sister’s robes, leaving Alistair and I to follow up the meagre leads Ser Perth had given us. It seemed reasonable to assume that Brother Genitivi would have left some traces behind him, and I should have been thinking about that, I knew—thinking about what we were here to do, to learn—and not just standing there, rooted to the spot, as if the whole guard was going to suddenly turn on me.

There were elven servants among the stalls, like always. Lithe merchants’ girls in shem dresses, with gathered bodices and pleated skirts, their hair hanging loosely down their backs, or messengers or errand boys, or…. I caught myself staring at each of them, looking for anyone I knew, any cousin or sister or friend of a familiar face. Stupid, really. It felt as if there were fewer of them, unless I was imagining it. I assumed I was; too long among humans, where another elven face was a rarity, and now I saw them all as alien, the same way I looked at Zevran.

“We should arrange where we’re going to meet up,” Leliana said, and I barely felt her hand grasp my arm, drawing me aside. “I think by the well in the chantry courtyard, at sundown. That should give us plenty of time, no?”

She’d ushered us into the lee of a gable-ended warehouse, all cool flint-knapped walls and rough edges. I leaned against it, felt stones dig into my back, and nodded slowly.

She smiled, evidently still enjoying the whole clandestine operation thing, and gave a small giggle. I stared glassily, and the confirmations and ‘good luck’ wishes all passed over my head, or near enough. We watched Leliana walk away, swaying serenely in her red-and-gold robe, and Alistair exhaled deeply.

“Are you sure she’s not crazy?”

I glanced up at him, still a bit unused to the lack of armour and weaponry, and the way the lax lacing of his shirt left his throat bare, and I shrugged.

“Well… maybe not more than most of us,” I volunteered.

He grinned. “Good point. All right… where are we heading first?”

I wet my lower lip, a small frown pulling at my brow. It was so damn hard to hold onto thoughts when every second echoed with the footfalls of memories.

Alistair had the addresses noted down; the area of Genitivi’s home address, the last places in the city he’d been seen… and that other address, scrawled on the ragged slip of paper he thought I hadn’t seen him thumbing ever since we pulled up camp.

We should head to Goldanna’s first, I supposed. At least that way, Alistair wouldn’t be so preoccupied for the task ahead. Plus, he wouldn’t want me hanging around; I could slip away, cut across the south end of the market… just peer across the bridge and know that Zevran had been right, and Loghain hadn’t deemed the alienage worth burning.

Even if I couldn’t make my presence openly known, surely that wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

I cleared my throat. “Er, where’d you say your sister’s place was?”

Alistair’s eyes widened slightly, and I thought he was going to start back-pedalling, but he prevailed.

“B-Birdcage Walk. I… don’t know where that is, so—”

Alarms started to hum at the back of my mind as soon as he said it. Father might have kept Shianni and I on a tight leash where excursions outside the alienage district were concerned, but the lower end of town—with its open-air butcheries, poultry keepers, and generally messy, unpleasant businesses—was common enough territory. The place Alistair mentioned was at the edge of The Shambles, which itself abutted a portion of the alienage wall… enough for us to get the midday sun on the piles of rotten offal that the butchers sluiced downhill, anyway.

I wrinkled my nose and pointed to the westerly end of the market. “That way. It’s, um… it’s not the best neighbourhood,” I added, uncomfortably needled by thoughts of a pretty cottage with a blue-painted door.

It wasn’t my dream, I told myself, and even Alistair had known it was a dream. He wouldn’t be expecting that, would he? Not deep down, not really. No one could be that naïve.

~o~O~o~

I led the way, while maintaining the fiction of walking behind him. It seemed to make Alistair very uncomfortable, and he muttered a lot about how odd it all felt. Actually, he just muttered a lot about everything… I recognised that nervous babbling of his, ineffectively cloaking the rising panic. He couldn’t see me smiling, for which I was grateful. I felt for him, but it still struck me as funny, the way he could be so brave in the face of battle, yet turned to gibbering mush by something like this.

Of course, a battlefield is something dependable. You’ll either live or die, stand or fall. An enemy comes at you with just one thought: to kill, or maybe disable. Other people are the only ones who can leave us dead and scarred inside with nothing but words for weapons.

So, I went with him. I followed, and the market slipped by around us, with bright, clear colours and hazy afternoon sunlight. And, almost without realising it, I found that I did not mind trailing in Alistair’s wake, thinking of how his clean skin and his clean hair seemed to smell a little bit like fresh, green apples and sweet sawdust.

I pushed the thoughts away hurriedly, ashamed of them. Anyway, it wasn’t as if someone like him would… obviously, he’d be far more likely to reciprocate Leliana’s interested glances. That said, however, she hadn’t been watching him with so much of that hungry optimism lately… not since the Circle Tower. Not that I’d noticed, naturally. Not really. Not in the sense of consciously, actually….

Oh, Maker’s balls. Shut up, Meri.

I shook my head, and was almost grateful for the encroaching smell of old meat and boiled linen, which signalled our arrival in the business end of the market district, and made it harder to have silly, frivolous thoughts.

With the bright colours and the wide spaces behind us, this was where the streets turned narrow and winding, and the smaller artisans’ shops, galleried houses and two-bit laundries huddled. Further beyond, buildings butted up against the narrow, filthy alleys onto which open air butchers’ shops fronted, with carcasses pegged out and stinking, and bloody entrails in the gutters before them.

The sounds of geese and chickens from behind a tall, wooden gate to our left, leading to the narrow yard behind one of the houses, spoke of how the place had found its name: cage upon cage of city-bred birds, raised up on the cobbles and the filth, and sold to rich men’s tables to bring a few coppers for the women who kept them.

Alistair frowned, then glanced along the street.

“Is… is this it?”

I nodded. “Birdcage Walk. Do you know which one it is?”

His frown deepened as he surveyed the row of grubby frontages, and I hoped he wasn’t looking for a neat, blue door.

“Over there, I think. I’m almost sure of it.”

The house was one of a row of narrow, crooked buildings, its roof sharp-pitched and lumpy. A clay pot stood on the faded, peeling wooden windowsill, and held a straggly, pale clump of flowers that someone had obviously tried to tend.

“She could be inside,” Alistair murmured. “Couldn’t she? She could….”

He trailed off and bit his lip, looking lost and slightly pale. I scuffed my boot against the cobbles and rubbed a palm against my dress. Funny that I should feel so awkward, I thought. I’d worn clothes like this all my life, and now I missed my battle-scarred leathers.

“Right. I’ll, um… well, I can wait for you along here, and—”

“What?” Alistair stared at me, wide-eyed. “You’re not coming too?”

I should have expected it. I shrugged. “I thought you’d want some privacy, but—”

“Do I seem a little nervous?” His throat bobbed as he swallowed heavily, and he gave me an imploring look. “I-I am. Um… I really don’t know what to expect. I’d like you to be there with me, if you’re willing.”

A note of desperate pleading entered his voice, somewhere between the rising pitch of nerves and the brittle, flippant panic.

“Or we could… leave, I suppose. Couldn’t we? Maybe we should do that. We really don’t have time to pay a visit, anyway. We should… yes. Probably just go….”

“Fine.” I sighed and shook my head wearily. At this rate, he wasn’t even going to walk up to the door without a blade pressed to his back. “Let’s see if she’s home.”

Alistair had actually started to pale, uncertainty contorting his face. “D’you think she’ll know who I am? Does she even know I exist? Maybe she doesn’t— hey, come back! You can’t just knock on the door… oh, Maker….”

I’d taken matters into my own hands, strode up to the messuage, and rapped on the peeling wood. There was no lock. Alistair shifted from foot to foot behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see him chewing his lip.

“See? She’s not even—”

A voice called out from within, indistinct but definitely there, and I thought he’d swallow his tongue. I pushed the door gently, just enough to start forcing it back on creaking hinges, and smiled at the widening of those hazel eyes.

“Lead on,” I said quietly. “My prince.”

The jibe—that hark back to Redcliffe, when he’d first trusted me enough to tell me the truth—pulled Alistair from the edge of his panic, and he glared at me, eyes narrowed. I grinned.

“Very funny,” he muttered, squaring his shoulders before he headed inside.

I followed, aware of the smells of soap, starch, and wet cloth. She was a laundrywoman, then, this sister of his. As we stepped into the house, blue streaks marring our vision with that first moment of adjusting to the dimness, nostalgia wreathed me, and I remembered the women back home who used to take in laundry. Great, boiling coppers, wooden paddles, and twists of shems’ wet underthings hung up all over the place. Once, when we were children, Shianni dared me to steal a vest off someone’s line. I did it, and we giggled at the size of the thing and pantomimed about, pretending to be big, fat humans… and then, when we inevitably got caught, Father gave me the leathering of a lifetime.

I blinked, dragged back to the present by Alistair’s strangled cough of politeness.

“Er… hello?”

Wet clothes criss-crossed the room, hanging in ranks around a small fire, the smell of damp cloth and soap making the air humid and stale, while the bare floorboards were splashed with drips.

We waited, and a tall, thin woman came out from the rear of the house. Looked like there was a whole scullery back there, I thought, and at least another two rooms. Palatial, by alienage standards, though I knew I shouldn’t be comparing.

She… wasn’t the woman of Alistair’s dreams, to put it as delicately as I know how. Neither did she look anything like him—at least not to my eyes. Her pale brown hair held a shimmer of the same reddish-gold, perhaps, but trying to see any real resemblance was like looking for clouds in puddles.

She wore a plain green dress, cut low on the shoulder, with a full apron that must have started the day white and, as she came to greet us, she wiped her large, red-knuckled hands upon it. Everything about her was raw-edged, it seemed; all hard angles, tight planes, and slightly threadbare corners, worn down by years of hard graft and even harder pride. I recognised all of that in the first glance… I just wasn’t quite used to recognising it in humans.

Goldanna reached up, tucking a fall of hair behind her ear, one thin brow arched in enquiry. Her other hand came to rest on her hip, and she stood perfectly straight, fixing Alistair with a sharp grey gaze.

“Eh? You have linens to wash?” The other hand came to rest on her waist. “I charge three bits on the bundle. You won’t find better. And don’t trust what that Natalia woman tells you, either. She’s foreign and she’ll rob you blind.”

She hadn’t so much as glanced at me until then, but at that point she did, and she seemed faintly puzzled, as if wondering why I wasn’t carrying a groaning bag of my master’s laundry. The passingly snide thought that—given what I knew from our time on the road—Alistair’s socks could probably jump into a copper of their own accord, if properly herded, seemed unkind, especially when I was so aware of him tensing beside me.

“I’m… not here to have any wash done,” he said, sounding faintly bewildered and, frankly, terrified. “My name’s Alistair. I’m… well, this may sound sort of strange, but are you Goldanna?”

The breath hitched in my chest, acute discomfort making me wish I could be anywhere but here. I supposed I ought to be a good little elven wench and stare at the floor, but I’d already seen the woman’s face hardening.

“I am Goldanna, yes.” She frowned suspiciously. “Why?”

Alistair swallowed heavily and took a deep breath. “I… well, I suppose I’m your brother.”

There was a moment of deep, intense silence, which then cracked loudly under the weight of Goldanna’s broad Denerim vowels.

“My what?” The frown became a scowl, her eyes narrowing as she glared at him. “What kind of tomfoolery are you up to?”

Her skinny chest rose with indignation, and flesh-memories of an alienage childhood had me already tensing, waiting for the moment she’d seize a broom and chase us out of the house with it. My shoulders tightened in expectation of the first blow, and maybe that was why I opened my big, stupid mouth. Some feeling of camaraderie, some ache for the days when I was one of a pack of urchins with scraped knees and ill-fitting second-hand shoes flapping on the cobbles.

“He’s telling the truth,” I blurted. “Please… just listen to him.”

Goldanna wrinkled her lip and gave me the kind of look usually reserved for things found on the bottom of boots. She started to frame a reply, but Alistair got in first.

“Look, our mother… she worked as a servant in Redcliffe Castle, a long time ago. Er, before she died, I mean….”

Maker help him, he was useless. I winced a little, but there was no crack in the torrent of words to slide a blade, much less an interruption.

“I know that much,” Alistair added, apparently oblivious to the change seeping over Goldanna’s face. “Then, when she had me, she—”

Maybe it was the reference to Redcliffe. Maybe few people knew about it… or maybe she could just see something of their kin in him now, standing there in the dim-lit room, grubby sun-streaked daylight coming in through the shutters and picking at the gold in his hair and the terror in his eyes.

Whatever it was, the association wasn’t a happy one for Goldanna. Her eyes narrowed to slits, those red, thin hands bunching on her hips as her face tore open around a vicious sneer.

“You! You’re him… I knew it! They told me you was dead!” One hand left the band of her apron, coming up to stab an accusatory finger in Alistair’s general direction, while her voice grew shrill and jagged. “They told me the babe was dead along with Mother, but I knew they was lyin’!”

I sensed this wasn’t going to end well, and shifted my weight awkwardly, wishing I’d stayed outside. Alistair didn’t even have the sense to shut up, cut out and run. He just stammered a bit and looked confused.

“Wh…? T-they told you I was dead? Who? Who told you that?”

“Them’s at the castle!” she spat, scowling, though she wasn’t even looking at him anymore, rather off into some distant, bitter memory. “I told them the babe was the king’s, and they said he was dead. Gave me a coin to shut my mouth and sent me on my way! I knew it!”

I didn’t dare look at Alistair. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time a woman was tossed aside, dead or alive, after servicing a noble’s whim… and it made sense, I supposed, for Arl Eamon to have kept Maric’s little embarrassment where he could be easily watched over.

None of that was going to make it easier for him to hear, though. I winced again as I heard him speak, low-voiced and heavy-hearted. He knew he wasn’t going to get the acceptance he’d wanted here, yet he was still clinging to the hope enough to keep driving forward, offering up fistfuls of dreams to her, even as they slipped through his fingers like cold ashes.

“I’m sorry. I… didn’t know that. But the babe didn’t die. I’m him. I’m… your brother.”

Goldanna scoffed and crossed her arms over her chest, the thin fall of reddish hair brushing her shoulder as she shrugged.

“For all the good it does me! You killed Mother, you did, and I’ve had to scrape by all this time. That coin didn’t last long, and when I went back they ran me off!”

Standing beside him as I was, I heard the breath catch in his throat. Such a small sound, a reaction choked down with years of practice, but it twisted like a blade in my flesh.

“Well, that’s hardly Alistair’s fault,” I protested, though I’d meant to stay quiet.

Goldanna turned, glaring at me, her mouth a tight line, etched with bitter years of hard work and little reward. It was like looking down a tunnel at my past, as if I could see there every woman on every corner back home.

“And who in the Maker’s name are you?” she demanded. “Some elf to follow him about and carry his riches for him?”

It stung. I couldn’t deny that… or the fact that, for some stupid reason, it shocked me. It shouldn’t have. It was what I was dressed as, what I’d been for most of my life: just another elf. It was what I knew most people thought when they saw me, armour or no, and yet—for the first time, perhaps—it didn’t feel like me.

I raised my head, met her hard, sharp gaze, and opened my mouth to snarl back just as much spite as she’d given me. I just didn’t expect Alistair to stand up for me.

“Hey! Don’t speak to her that way!”

I glanced at him, possibly almost as taken aback as Goldanna appeared to be. He bristled, shoulders squared defensively… defending me, for the Maker’s sake, and to her, of all people.

I shut my trap, humbled as his frown slipped and softened into something a little like a look of confusion.

“She’s… she’s my friend,” he said, turning his head slightly towards me, though his gaze stayed focused on Goldanna. “A-and a Grey Warden, just like me.”

Uncertainty pitched through my gut, a direct and opposite twin to the confidence that saying those words so obviously gave him. Alistair looked hopeful, even wistfully proud… as if the statement was as powerful a shield as the curved ash board I’d seen him pummel darkspawn with.

I wasn’t so sure he should be quite that eager to announce our affiliation with an outlawed order. Especially here, or now. I fidgeted a bit, my gaze wandering past the curtains of wet laundry to the door.

Goldanna stared, and then looked as if she might burst out laughing, had she not been quite so full of curdled anger. The noise that broke from her was a sharp, ugly cough, and her mouth curled unpleasantly around it.

“Ohhh, a Grey Warden, is it? Really? And a prince, too.” She fixed Alistair with a glare as tough as old hide, and wiped her hands on her grubby apron, eyes pale slits of disgust. “Well, who am I to think poorly of someone so high and mighty compared to me?”

No, definitely not a good idea. The scorn in her voice suggested she might not believe him, but I doubted she’d let it stand in the way of calling the guard, if she either remembered or knew of Loghain’s bounty.

“I don’t know you, boy,” Goldanna said, her words as low and vicious as snake strikes. “Your royal father forced himself on my mother and took her away from me, and what do I got to show for it? Nothing.”

If her words hit me like a punch to the kidneys, I could only imagine what they did to Alistair. I glanced at him, cut by the look of utter desolation on his face.

“I—”

Mouth slack and the colour draining from him, he tried to marshal a reply, but she wasn’t giving an inch.

“They tricked me good, didn’t they?” Goldanna sneered. “I should have told everyone! Like they’d have believed me…. Well, I got five mouths to feed, and unless you can help with that, I’ve less than no use for you.”

Her mouth snapped shut, a thin line amid the hard planes of her face, and those eyes that were so little like his blazed out from shadowed, hollow sockets. I knew that anger, that resentment—that glaring, blinding rage at injustice and stagnation and all those other things—and yet it didn’t stop me from wanting to claw those cruel words right off her tongue.

“I… I’m sorry,” Alistair murmured. “I… don’t know what to say….”

Of course he didn’t. Him, with his head full of hopes and his heart stacked up with empty spaces. It wasn’t fair, what she was doing to him, and I opened my stupid mouth again, plunging into a fight that shouldn’t have been anything to do with me.

“Goldanna, please… Alistair came here hoping to find his family. Can’t you at least—”

“So? He found it,” she barked. “And what good is that to me? None, that’s what, unless he can see to it that his bleedin’ family lives as it should!”

She tilted her chin up, her face hard as marble. From the back room, a baby started to cry, and I saw her gaze flick briefly away from us, her stance shifting as her body registered the need to tend to the infant.

“You think on that,” she sneered, jabbing a finger at the region of Alistair’s chest, “your Majesty.”

I hadn’t realised, until she swept from the room, off to see to the baby, that my hands had curled themselves into fists. I unclenched them, rubbed at the little red half-moons on my palm, and listened to the sound of footsteps on worn floorboards… and Alistair’s small sigh. All around us, wet clothes dripped onto the bare floor, probably warping the boards a little more every day.

It was awkward. I didn’t want to look at him, and so I frowned at my hands, and made a show of inspecting them. He cleared his throat softly, trying to attract my attention.

“Well… I-I could give her some money, couldn’t I?”

I groaned inwardly. At that moment, I think I’d have done anything to have been somewhere else. Not much chance of that, though. I started to raise my head.

“What d’you think?” Alistair said quietly, and I knew before I looked at him that I wasn’t going to disagree… I just wasn’t prepared for the full magnitude of the kicked-puppy expression, or the subdued tone of his voice. Hopeful desperation filled those hazel eyes, and he raised his brows. “For my nieces, or nephews, or…?”

He didn’t even know how many of each there were, and he already wanted to feed, clothe and educate them all. I sighed, and nodded.

“Of course. Go on. Just… oh, never mind.”

I don’t think he even heard the last part. I wished there was even the faintest possibility of my being annoyed with him, and wondered if the woman really did have five kids. He started fiddling with the coin purse at his belt, and I did a mental count of how much money we had, how much I’d left in Wynne’s keeping, how much we’d need for food and anything else that might crop up in the time it would take to track down this bloody cleric and get back to Redcliffe….

At the jingle of coins, Goldanna swept back in, baby on her hip, almost as if she’d been listening at the doorway.

The child looked less than a year old: small and pudgy, with a red, snotty nose, pink cheeks, and tufts of dark blond hair. Tiny stars of hands clutched at Goldanna’s dress and, as she swiped her thumb across the little one’s eye, wiping away the smears of sleep, her face softened immeasurably.

Our coin purse clinked in Alistair’s hand. He was staring, mouth hanging very slightly open. For a moment, I could almost have believed we were back in the Fade, in that dream I thought he’d never wake from, where a sister who loved him lived in a pretty cottage with a blue-painted door, and the smell of baking bread made the air feel like home.

It hurt me, too; I couldn’t deny it. Not just his pain, which I shared with a jealous sympathy, as if I had a right to it, but—and this I had not expected—the simple fact of another woman’s child. A reminder of something I would never have… a clarion to recall everything that had been stripped, taken from me. It was a dry, coarse agony, to look at that sharp-edged bitch and know I could never be her… never know that gift, or share it with someone I loved.

“F-Fifteen sovereigns,” Alistair managed, jerking me very suddenly out of my reverie. “I know it’s not that much, but… we don’t have a lot right now. Maybe when things are more settled, I can—”

Not much? It was everything we’d brought with us—more than two-thirds of the entire camp kitty! I bit my tongue so hard I tasted blood.

Goldanna’s eyes widened briefly at the mention of the amount, though that fleeting surprise was soon replaced by a more familiar scowl. She reached out and snatched the purse he offered, weighed it briskly in one hand, and then scoffed disparagingly.

“Is that it? You march in here, sayin’ all them things, all clean and smart with your doxy on your heels—”

I really didn’t like her, I decided. Had she been elven, she’d have been the kind of woman Father would have called vulgar.

“—and this is all you got to offer? You must think I’m very stupid.”

She glared at him as she tucked the purse away into the folds of her apron. Quick to disparage the charity, I noticed, but not so quick to refuse it.

The little one’s hand waved out to pat its mother’s face, and Goldanna twisted her head away, reaching up to catch the tiny pink star and—barely a breath away from her bitter contempt—pop a little kiss on the child’s palm. It giggled, and I was reasonably sure I actually heard Alistair’s heart break.

“I don’t think that at all!” he protested, the pitch of his words rising to confused panic as the last shreds of whatever fantasy reunion he’d pictured slipped away from him. “I… I want to help, if I can. I—”

“Alistair,” I said softly, aware he wasn’t listening.

“You want to help?” Goldanna scoffed, and the minute she looked away from the child, her face was stiff as hide again. She curled her lip. “Well, you go to whatever high-and-mighty folks you run with, and you tell them you’ve got nephews and nieces that aren’t living as they’ve a right to! You do that!”

She couldn’t have done worse to slap him in the face.

“But… I….”

“Let’s go,” I murmured, touching his arm gently. “Alistair? I think it’s time to go.”

I tugged on his sleeve, harder this time. He blinked, and looked at me just the way he had in the Fade, when he realised that beautiful dream wasn’t real. He nodded, brow pinched into a tired, bleak frown.

“You’re right. I’m starting to wonder why I came.”

Goldanna snorted. “I don’t know why you came, either, or what you expected to find. But it isn’t here. Now get out of my house, the both of you!”

We did, stumbling over excuses and the broken ends of apologies and, before we knew it, deposited back outside in the hazy sunlight, with the smells of the butcheries and wet laundry on the air.

Even as the door slammed, Alistair was already walking. I couldn’t blame him. I’d have done the same, because the only thing to do when life hurts you is put distance between yourself and the wound. He was heading the wrong way, though… away from the market and down into the far end of The Shambles. I swore to myself and loped after him, boots clattering on the cobbles.

The buildings drew tighter here, streets so narrow that the roofs almost touched each other. The smell of blood and meat washing up from the gutters, and the semi-distant sound of men hauling carcasses behind the work sheds, didn’t sicken me the way it used to.

I’d almost caught up with Alistair as he stopped, suddenly, in the lee of a boarded-up chandler’s shop. I suspect he thought I didn’t see the deep, wobbly breath he took.

He turned and gave me one of those lop-sided grins, except it came out weak and twisted.

“Well, that was… not what I expected. To put it lightly.”

“I’m sorry.”

I wasn’t sure what else to say. Somewhere back behind us, the cathedral bells started to mark the ninth hour. Alistair winced and shook his head.

“Huh… me too. That’s the family I’ve been wondering about all my life? That gold-digging harridan? I can’t believe it. Wish I hadn’t given her that money.”

“Don’t judge her too harshly,” I said, trying not to think about the fact we were now flat broke, except for the handful of coins I’d left in Wynne’s care, and whatever coppers he might have had left in his pockets. “Poverty can… do strange things to people.”

Alistair gave me a very peculiar look. I supposed I hadn’t sounded terribly convinced by my own words. Goldanna’s house, while not exactly in the best part of town, was a vast improvement on the alienage tenements, and she’d been so dismissive of fifteen sovereigns!

I thought of the day Dilwyn and Gethon had given me a hundredth of that amount, and I’d clutched the purse to my chest, more coin than I’d ever seen in a lifetime.

Still, it occurred to me that we were going to have to explain what he’d done at some point. I didn’t even want to picture the look on Morrigan’s face.

“I guess so,” he said doubtfully. “At least the money should help, right?”

“Right,” I agreed, hoping that thinking about it like that gave him some means of escape from the things echoing inside his head.

Had the bitch tried, she probably couldn’t have managed a more complete rejection.

Shadows played up against the damp wooden walls, and a pervasive smell of piss lingered at the footings of the buildings. We set to walking, because it was better than standing around dwelling on things, though Alistair apparently wasn’t done talking.

“I don’t know… I guess I was expecting her to accept me without question. That’s what family is supposed to do, isn’t it?” He heaved a sigh. “I… I just feel like a complete idiot.”

It was hard to talk him out of the downward spiral when I agreed with everything he was saying, but I had to try. A rat scurried past, clinging to the edge of the gutter. It wasn’t as big as the ones we got… back home. Just the thought of the words choked me. We were less than six streets from the far side of the alienage. Third ward, I reckoned, where my cousin Andar had lived until he left to get married, two summers ago.

“No.” I cleared my throat. “You’re not an idiot. If anyone is, it’s her—missing out on the chance to know her own blood. Anyway, family’s what you make of it. You, uh… you have others who… care for you.”

Alistair wasn’t even looking at me.

“Such as?” He swiped a boot savagely at the weeds poking up through the cracked cobblestones. “The only person who ever cared about me was Duncan. And he’s gone.”

I found my mouth suddenly dry, my chest tight and my forehead buzzing with the fluttering hum of a pulse. It was silly. Ridiculous, even. Here I stood, in a stone’s throw of home, with so much weight on my shoulders it was a wonder I could still stand… and there was only one thought in my head. It was something too wild, too shapeless to have a form, but it was there, nonetheless, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

“I-I do,” I mumbled gracelessly. “I, um….”

Alistair stopped, and I knew he was looking at me, but I stared doggedly at the cobbles, afraid of raising my head. Funny, when I’d just started getting used to looking humans in the eyes. Maybe it was being back in Denerim that did it. Maybe it was just him.

“Oh?”

Bastard. I didn’t want him to make me say it. I wasn’t sure enough of anything myself. Unbidden, the echoes of all he’d done for me ran through my head. His blade, between me and the darkspawn, more times than I could count. Him kneeling in the mud, bandaging my feet when they were bloody and raw with blisters. The way he’d stood up for me, so many times—in Redcliffe, in Lothering, and even here, with the sister he’d so ached to find—always upbraiding the people who spoke to me like an elf instead of a woman… a Warden, I corrected.

Maybe I really didn’t know myself anymore. I took a deep breath, and let the sour air fill my lungs.

“I said, I care about you,” I mumbled, and the words felt very small.

I looked up, expecting to see that lop-sided grin Alistair so often hid behind but, for once, there was no dissembling. Just a man who’d had his most deeply cherished, longest-held dreams ripped down and pissed on.

He swallowed, and bowed his head.

“I… um, thank you. I’m glad you came with me.”

A small, weak smile touched the edge of his lips, and his hand brushed against my arm; just a gentle pressure, a companionable squeeze of my elbow, and yet it seemed to say a lot.

His eyes really were flecked with gold, I decided. A shifting palette of colours, as open and easy to read as the rest of him… sort of.

My nervous return of his smile flittered into nothingness and I moved away, pointing us towards the far neck of The Shambles, and the nest of backstreets that would bring us out by the lower gate.

Much better to be walking, I thought, than standing around and dwelling on things.

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Volume 3: Chapter Seven
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