Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Sixteen

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It was a relief to shuck off at least some of my armour and, as I fumbled with buckles and strappings, my aching muscles and weak, sore hands protesting every movement, I thought wistfully of the little wooden tub before our fire back home, filled with hot water and with half a cake of soap sitting beside it. Father always used to let me take first dip, and Shianni and Soris would often come round to take their turns for bathing night. I could almost hear my cousin’s laughter, and see the firelight glimmering on her red hair.

They wouldn’t ever leave me, I thought. Those memories. All I had left of home, and so I wrapped them up and hid them away, and let the chilly night air and the smell of the trees and the hillsides seep back in around me. Cold comfort, but safer than allowing myself to wander too long in might-have-beens.

After I’d tidied myself up as best I could, I ducked out from my tent again, respectable and relatively clean in breeches and padded jack. The others were starting to gather near the fire; I saw Alistair there, along with Zevran, and Levi, still talking animatedly. Maethor and Sandal were curled up together, basking in the warmth of the flames and, as I watched them, I almost missed the heavy footfalls behind me that spoke of another’s approach.

I turned, and nodded respectfully at Sten. He just glowered down at me, and I wondered what I’d done wrong in his eyes this time.

He’d obviously been cleaning himself up too, though being dressed in the ragged clothes he’d had since Lothering didn’t make him any less intimidating. The evening was overcast, and the thin shreds of light that seeped through the clouds—the moon must already have risen, I supposed—touched his braids in a strangely sharp way, making them look clean and white as fish bones, highlighted against the breadth of his dark shape.

“You look like a woman,” he said shortly.

I glanced reflexively at my jack and breeches. I didn’t… not any kind of woman we had where I was from, anyway. He might have meant it relatively, perhaps, only I didn’t think my appearance of femininity had really increased over the past couple of days.

“Er… thank you?” I hazarded.

Sten did not look amused. He folded his arms across his chest, the movement slow and decisive, like the turning of a millwheel.

“You are a Grey Warden. It follows that you cannot be a woman.”

I frowned. “I don’t think that’s true. The order allows women, just like the army does. In fact—”

“Women are priests, artisans, shopkeepers, or farmers,” he said, blunt as a whetstone, his voice low and his tone brooking no argument of any kind. “They don’t fight.”

My frown deepened. Was he suggesting I had been a hindrance at the Peak? I distinctly recalled doing quite a lot of fighting, and doing it well—at least given the fact I’d never had the formal combat training he, or Alistair, or even Zevran or Leliana had received. It raised my hackles to think I was being told otherwise. However, if I had learned one thing since having the qunari travelling with us, it was that outright argument got one nowhere with him.

So, I just cocked my head to the side and listened, waiting for whatever it was Sten intended to say. His glower shifted like the grating movement of a rock face, and became a full-blown scowl.

“It makes no sense for women to wish to be men.”

Ah. I started to see what he meant, and I crossed my arms, mirroring his gesture, my feet planted firmly apart.

“Then women cannot fight, because only men fight? It’s their role, and theirs alone?”

“Exactly.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “But don’t any of the qunari ever want to change their lot in life? Choose something different?”

Those violet eyes narrowed, but Sten answered almost at once, as if the question was ridiculous enough to need virtually no thought.

“Why? A person is born: qunari, or human, or elven, or dwarf. He doesn’t choose that. The size of his hands, whether he is clever or foolish, the land he comes from, the colour of his hair. These are beyond his control. We do not choose, we simply are.”

A soft breeze rippled through the trees that shielded our camp, and I thought I heard the suggestion of night birds rustling among them. The smell of pines and bracken made the air seem sharp and crisp… with maybe just a hint of coming frost.

“Isn’t it what you make of it that matters?” I asked, genuinely curious to know how Sten’s people thought in that respect. “I mean, plenty of people change their lives. Look at Levi: his family was nobility once, and now he’s a trader, but he’s done everything he could to assist the Grey Wardens.”

Not the brightest example I could have chosen, I supposed, but I knew why I’d thought of it.

We can do it a different way. We can be different.

Sten made a small, irritated noise in the back of his throat.

“This is what is wrong with this country,” he grumbled. “No one has a place here. Your farmers wish to be merchants. The merchants dream of being nobles, and the nobles become warriors. No one is content to be who they are.”

“But it is possible to change,” I insisted. “If—”

Sten shook his head, apparently immovable on this point. “It accomplishes nothing. The farmer who buys a shop is never a merchant. He is always a farmer-turned-merchant. He carries his old life with him as a turtle carries its shell.”

I frowned, still rather unused to Sten’s moments of poetic clarity, and struggled to find a suitable response on the same level. At that moment, too, the thought of a warm shell, carried around everywhere I went, and into which I could retreat and hide, seemed rather pleasing.

“But….” I bit my lip thoughtfully. “The turtle’s shell makes him stronger.”

I looked up at the qunari, pleased with myself for my concise and sensible argument, only to find him studying me with something that might have approached curiosity. He lofted one pale brow, those vibrant eyes glimmering softly in the dimness.

“Does it? It is also his weakness. If he stumbles and falls, it pins him on his back.”

“Oh.” I deflated a bit, and my arms drooped to my sides. “I… well, yes, I suppose that’s true.”

If it had been anyone else, I’d have thought Sten looked momentarily smug.

“No.” He shook his head. “It is better to armour yourself with no more than what you need. One life, one duty.”

I said nothing. I was horribly afraid that he was right.

~o~O~o~

Bodahn had pulled out all the stops for supper: vegetable stew with dried mushrooms and a few shreds of real beef, and bread, and a couple of skins of sweet wine. He didn’t even ask us for payment… although I did notice Levi exchanging plenty of quiet murmurs with the dwarf. I wasn’t sure exactly how deep their intentions to throw their lots in with the Grey Wardens ran—or whether it was still a current plan, given everything we’d seen at the Peak—but I suspected they’d both already sketched out plenty of potentials for profit.

Maybe they’d thought, when they found us, we’d have been a proper detachment of the order, laden with men and camp followers who needed tradesmen to keep them supplied. I almost smiled at the image as I sat down beside Wynne, lowering myself carefully to one of the three flaky, lichen-peppered bits of fallen tree that had been dragged up to the fire.

“Sore?” she asked, smiling gently at me.

I winced, and nodded. “Mm. And you? Are you all right, after…?”

Her fall. I didn’t really want to voice it, because it would sound like I was questioning her capability, and I’d always been brought up to not be rude to my elders. Anyway, I hadn’t seen the collapse itself. For all I knew, she’d just tripped. However, I had seen how worried Alistair looked as he helped her to her feet. Despite all the things he did for Wynne that he seemed to think no one noticed—like carrying half her gear, or complaining about being tired, when he could see she was and yet would never have mentioned it, so that we stopped for the break she evidently needed—I doubted his concern was misplaced.

Her sharp, clear blue eyes—undimmed, even after that endless, aching, pig of a day—seemed to harden a little, though it didn’t last long, and she glanced at the fire, stretching out her hands to warm from the flames.

“I’m fine, my dear. But thank you.”

I frowned. “You, um, took quite a nasty fall.”

Bodahn was making passes with the soup pot, ladle clanging loudly, and the clatter of bowls and grumbling stomachs drowned out much opportunity I had to make myself heard.

Wynne shook her head. “It was nothing, really. I thought, for a moment… but it doesn’t matter. I’m all right.”

Thought what?

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” I pressed, as the proximity of dinner began to distract my faithless flesh, suddenly much more drawn to the prospect of eating than asking questions.

Wynne flashed me a rather sharp little smile. “Thank you, dear. Your kindness certainly warms my rickety old bones.”

I shut up and ate after that, put firmly in my place.

It was no great hardship, however; we hadn’t eaten so well since the night Zevran first joined us, and broke the ice on that uncomfortable gathering with cheese and fresh bread. There is definitely something about spending several hours fighting for one’s life in an apparently inescapable fortress of death that whets, hones and otherwise transforms the appetite into an insatiable creature.

As I hunched over my bowl, manners forgotten, shovelling sodden bits of bread into my mouth with my fingers, I caught Alistair watching me from across the fire. He smiled, and I remembered that joke of his about Grey Wardens suddenly sprouting huge appetites… wolfing down dinners, gravy all over the face, and so forth.

Are you calling me a pig?

I chewed, swallowed, and grinned at the memory as I looked away, letting my gaze rest in the depths of the fire. It warmed the night—colder, now, as the year turned, with the promise of blustery winds and frosts on the way—and pushed back the shadows, and I was grateful for that.

~o~O~o~

After we’d eaten, we sat around the fire a little longer, all full-bellied and perhaps too drawn to the soothing lull of the flames to move. Leliana shivered, and peered up at the inky trees.

“Ooh, it is a dark night. You know, on nights like this, stories are often the best comfort.”

“Story!” Sandal echoed happily from his scrape beside the fire, where he was cuddled up with Maethor, the mabari busily licking every trace of stew from his hands.

Leliana smiled. “Quite so. I think it would be only right to tell a story of the Grey Wardens… but I don’t know any Fereldan ones. Only the tales of Ayesleigh, and the elven Warden, Garahel.”

I didn’t quite manage to stop myself from wincing. The Ballad of Ayesleigh was, given the current improbability of the task before us, far too depressing. Oh, heroic deaths and sacrifice were all very well, if someone was left at the end of it to make sure the final victory was established… but we were light on numbers to start with, and it was my feeling that no one needed to listen to a song about the glorious dead rising. We’d had enough walking bones for one day, and I had heard enough about Garahel to last me a good few months… even if a lot of the things had been drawn out of my own head.

Probably because of that, in fact.

“I have one,” Wynne said, weighing in before the bard could break out any ancient heroic epitaphs. “A story of the Grey Wardens of old.”

Leliana beamed. “You do? Oh, I would love to hear it, Wynne!”

“Story,” Sandal added encouragingly, apparently oblivious to Bodahn shushing him.

Morrigan snorted contemptuously. “You do not think we have all endured quite enough of the Grey Wardens’ hubris for one day, old woman?”

Wynne brushed her hands over her knees primly and ignored the witch, instead glancing at the rest of us assembled around the fire.

“Shall I tell it?”

“Go on, Wynne,” Leliana implored. “Please. There are so many wonderful old tales about the order. I should like very much to hear a Fereldan one.”

“Indeed,” Zevran chipped in, “we are intrigued.”

He was sprawled across a dry patch of grass in front of one of the logs, basking in the firelight like a cat. Alistair glanced at him, then briefly at me, and I smiled faintly at the sardonic look on his face.

Still, neither of us were going to interrupt Wynne if she wanted to share this particular tale, so we stayed quiet.

“Well,” she began, “I’m sure all of us recall the legends of that noble, heroic order. It was said that watching the Wardens ride in on their white griffons was enough to rouse a weary heart, and put the dance back into the step of an old man. The Grey Wardens were powerful—”

“Griffons!” Sandal erupted, clapped his hands.

Alistair grinned and shifted, stretching his legs out in the fire’s warmth. “When I was at the compound at Denerim, there were loads of tapestries with griffons on. Great big ones.”

The boy’s eyes widened to saucers, and his mouth bowed around an awed ‘ooh’. I couldn’t help thinking of all the griffon motifs at the Peak, on those carved fireplaces and tattered hangings, like faded remnants of glory that held a totally different meaning from that they might once have had.

I pushed the thoughts away. They didn’t help and, anyway, if meanings could change once, they could change again. We could change them.

“Griffons?” Sandal looked pleadingly at Wynne, and she smiled indulgently.

“Yes, yes… there are griffons in the story. Now, listen. The Grey Wardens were very powerful then—both respected and feared in equal measure—and yet they brought hope to the common people. This was a long time ago, when a terrible Blight had ravaged the land for many months. The armies of all the great kings had amassed for one last stand, knowing they must face the threat before them, or perish in the attempt.”

Well, this was cheery. I shifted my position slightly, the fire warming my sore knees and aching feet. All gathered around it like this, the way we were, the press of our bodies gave up an overwhelming smell of hot leather and unwashed flesh. I wondered idly where we might find some small stream or brook. There had to be at least one somewhere in the foothills and, if the Dalish were nomads, the way the stories said, then they probably planned their movements around… water.

I foundered a bit on that thought, as the realisation struck me that, with the Peak behind us, we should be focusing again on finding the Dalish. After what had happened to Zevran, I wasn’t even sure we should risking heading into the forest at all—and there was Arl Eamon’s sickness to consider, and the importance of tracking Brother Genitivi before his trail turned cold—but… well, the Dalish were legendary, as much in terms of skill as their actual existence.

It was a quandary, and I didn’t really listen that closely to Wynne’s story.

“As the sun burst through the clouds that boiled and churned in the dark sky above,” she was saying, her hands spread wide as if to mimic the scene she spoke of, just as Leliana did when she told her tales, “it illuminated a vast seething horde of darkspawn, with the archdemon at its head. And it was then—when courage seemed to fail, and all lost to death and despair—that the Grey Wardens came. They arrived with the beating of wings like mighty war drums—”

“Griffons!” cried Sandal, clapping his hands.

Alistair snorted and collapsed into ill-disguised giggles.

“—and stood before the armies of men. Yes, griffons,” Wynne said, just a trifle impatiently. “Great, big, white ones, with wings as broad as a mighty tree is tall, and beaks sharp as blades. Their huge talons tore at the ground, and their fiery eyes struck fear into all who saw them. Now, hush.”

Sandal stared, wide-eyed and fascinated, his mouth hanging open.

I thought for a moment—strangely so, perhaps—of Duncan, and the symbol he’d borne on his surcoat. The griffon to me, then, was a strange beast, a thing of fantasies and nonsense. I didn’t understand what it symbolised, either at the Peak, or to the idea of the Wardens generally. In time, I would learn. I would hear old stories, and have ancient truths explained to me that made clear so many layers of things—meanings etched so deep into the years that they remained only as snatched pieces of legend, whispers of myths and tales.

The griffon, part eagle and part lion, combines the power to rise above the world of men with the strength and wisdom to protect them. It is fire and air, valour and insight, vigilance and vengeance.

At the time, I saw only Sandal’s wide, innocent eyes, and heard the stirring yet bleak words of Wynne’s story, and it seemed to me that, no matter whether they made old men dance or inspired legions of soldiers, there were probably better things in the world to be than a Grey Warden.

“Grim and fearless, the Grey Wardens marched forth, ever between the men and the encroaching darkspawn.” Wynne’s eyes shone in the firelight, and it looked as if she truly believed in the heroism she was describing… or, perhaps, that she believed we needed to believe it. “They formed a shield of their own bodies and held that line until the archdemon was dead and the last darkspawn lay trampled in the dirt. And then, demanding neither reward nor recognition for their sacrifice, the Grey Wardens simply departed.”

Without a hot bath, a decent meal, or a new pair of boots. And definitely without a nice, long rest in a proper bed….

I bit down on those snide little thoughts. After all, legends were legends, and we were us—and legends didn’t need to sleep.

Wynne sat back, her hands on her knees, and did one of those dramatic pauses that made me think she really had been learning from Leliana.

“So, what happened then?” Alistair asked, cocking his head to the side.

His voice seemed carefully neutral, and I couldn’t make out whether he was hiding conflicted reactions to the story, or just not taking it very seriously.

“Ah,” Wynne said, nodding sagely. “When the clouds finally rolled back and the sun shone full upon the blighted ground, the great kings knew that they had lost no men, and none of their blood had been spilled.”

The fire crackled, and Zevran leaned forwards to prod at the logs with a stick.Sparkspopped from the mantle of ash, and spiralled lazily upwards in the warm air, like tiny glowing stars in the night.

I frowned, not really meaning to speak aloud, though the words slipped out all the same. “Surely everybody takes losses in war? Wouldn’t—”

“I don’t think this story is about a specific battle,” Alistair said, eyeing Wynne speculatively as the flamelight painted shadows on his face, and turned his hair to dusk-smeared gold.

She smiled fondly. “Very observant. No… this is a tale about no battle the Grey Wardens have fought, and yet about them all. They have always defended us from the darkspawn, taking losses so we do not have to. People may have forgotten over the centuries, but nothing has changed. I think, especially tonight, that is something important upon which to reflect… and something that is worthy of honour.”

Morrigan scoffed, muttered something about ‘sanctimonious waffle’, and declared that she was retiring for the night.

Leliana yawned, and agreed it was getting late, but she thanked Wynne effusively for the story, and bade the rest of us a very pretty goodnight as Morrigan stalked away into the shadows.

“Come along, my boy,” Bodahn said, raising Sandal from his seat by the fire. “Best get you to bed as well.”

Sandal made the sleepy yet resentful ‘do I have to?’ face that even I recognised from my own childhood, and sloped off to bed down on the wagon.

“Goodnight,” he said, when prompted, and smiled at the recognition of receiving a handful of goodnights in return.

Maethor watched the boy go, then looked up at me and whined. I leaned over to scratch him behind the ears.

“You can’t keep him,” I said quietly. “And he can’t come with us. It’d be too dangerous.”

The hound huffed, and then licked my hand. I smiled as I stood, wiping my hand absently on my breeches.

“Soppy creature. Go on, then.”

He wagged his stumpy tail and, scrambling up on those over-sized paws, trotted off happily towards the wagon to accompany his favourite dwarf to his bedroll.

~o~O~o~

The clouds seemed to have trailed away, like the clouds in Wynne’s tale, and the moon was bright as a silver piece and white as new linen, set into a black, smooth sky against which the stars seemed to spin in place, so strong was their light.

When I was little, Mother used to point up through the patchwork of washing lines, walls, towers and ramparts, to our ragged little swatch of alienage sky, and name the stars for me. I recalled snatches of the stories she’d attached to them—there were lovers, torn apart and waiting for their reunion in the heavens, wild chariots, and the souls of dragons and heroes, placed forever in the cold darkness—but not the stories themselves, not fully, and I mourned that loss. It felt like letting her down.

The others had all retired, or near enough, and I was by my tent, which lay furthest from the wagon, the heavy darkness of the trees closing in on my right-hand side. Familiar footfalls behind me made me turn, and I found Alistair approaching. Clad in that worn-out broadcloth shirt of his, and the breeches he wore under his armour, he looked tired and probably about as sore as I felt, if not more so.

His tent was the other side of Leliana’s, two along from mine, so I assumed he wanted to ask me something… probably about the Peak, or when we should head out in the morning, not that I’d given it any proper thought. I hadn’t really considered anything past actual sleep and much-needed rest.

“So, what did you think of Wynne’s story?”

His voice was hushed and, as he drew nearer, I could see the dark circles that had settled in under his eyes. The moonlight seemed harsher on him than it ever had before, or perhaps it just washed away the deceits of the firelight.

The fire still smouldered at the centre of the camp, banked down for the night, laden with ash and the mumble of embers. I glanced over to it as I shrugged, looking for a way around admitting I’d been unsettled by Wynne’s words.

“It was very… uh, mythic.”

Alistair smiled. “Wasn’t it? ‘We are the guardians of men, beholden to the greater good; however mighty our power, it confines us, for we must exist to serve, united by duty, lest our strength become the grip of tyranny.’”

I raised my eyebrows. “Very good. What’s that from?”

He shrugged. “Oh, some book or other. Just something Duncan said to me, not long after my Joining, about what being a Grey Warden meant. How it was a burden, yet also a blessing, if you chose to see it that way.”

“Hmm.”

At that moment, I could have felt more blessed. I understood what he meant, though, and naturally I wasn’t about to argue with any pearls of wisdom that had dropped fromDuncan’s lips.

I looked curiously at Alistair, wondering what had brought on this sudden philosophical moment, and what had motivated him to share it with me.

“You never met them all, did you?” he asked. “At Ostagar. The other Wardens.”

I shook my head. Duncan had said I would, after the battle. I’d been heartened by the look of warmth that touched his face when he said it… back when I’d thought I was going to be part of something, that I might belong.

“Well, they were quite a group,” Alistair said, with the hint of a wistful smile. “An extended family, almost, seeing as how we were all cut off from our former lives. And we… you know, we laughed more than you’d think. That sounds strange, I suppose, but—”

“No.” I shook my head. “That’s what you do with family.”

He blinked, and there was a deepness in his eyes that seemed to have been put there by more than just the moonlight.

I folded my arms across my chest. I was tired beyond all belief, but if he needed to talk, the least I could do was make it easier for him. Alistair deserved that much, plus it would mean I could turn in sooner. Anyway, he’d virtually never spoken of the other Wardens before, and I was a little curious.

“So, were there many women?”

Strange thing to ask, I thought, almost as soon as I’d said it. I supposed I was looking for traces of myself in his memories; someone I could identify with being, as if I had really belonged among the camaraderie of Ostagar. Maybe I was a bit jealous.

Alistair wrinkled his nose. “No, none. Not while I was there, at least. There were some portraits at the compound: former Wardens who were, well, female. Sort of. Very, uh… formidable. Not like— er, I mean….”

“Not like me?” I supplemented dryly.

He smirked a bit, but looked rather chastened. “Um. No.”

I snorted, though I was too aware of my own failings to be properly offended. Alistair had let slip once before how he hadn’t thought I’d survive the Joining, scrappy little slip of a thing as I’d been the first time we met. How had he put it? Armour falling off me, face all bruised… I’d been just as surprised I made it through as he had.

“All right, then,” I said, tilting my chin. “How about elves? Any elves?”

That seemed to be firmer footing. Alistair nodded dubiously.

“Well, er… yes, just one. A man named Tarimel. He kept to himself, mostly. I got the impression that his life before the Grey Wardens wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I don’t know any more than that. Thinking about it, I don’t even know where he was from,” he added, a frown passing over his brow. He blinked hurriedly. “Anyway, the point is, I… I was thinking. They were good men. I didn’t know them for long, but it was long enough to see that.”

The light fingers of a night breeze rippled through the trees, and plucked at the canvas of my tent. It rustled a little and, as I turned my head, my breath misted on the air.

That was what we had to take from Soldier’s Peak, I supposed: the fact that we were all just people. All of us, capable of good and evil, right and wrong. Whatever the Wardens had turned to in the past—dark magic, the tyranny of military rule, or even the secrets that kept recruits like me green and stupid until long after our time—they could be changed. And they had to be, if we were going to complete the task before us… something we had no hope of doing without the help of every ally we could get our hands on.

“You were right,” Alistair said softly. “What you said at the Peak. You weren’t just talking me down. I-I mean, you were, and it really did help, but—”

He took a step towards me, then stopped abruptly, his words falling over themselves, and we both smiled with a similar kind of awkwardness.

“Thanks.” The heat of a blush began to prickle at the base of my neck, and I looked away, embarrassed.

“I mean it,” he said softly. “And… um… I mean— I wanted to thank you. And to, er—” He broke off, clearing his throat in a terribly self-conscious way, simultaneously trying to be quiet and trying to get out whatever the words were that were in danger of choking him.

I hugged my arms around my middle, rubbing a little warmth into myself, and peering at him in confusion. “What?”

A graduated wash of pink had begun to bloom on his cheeks, and was making its way up to meet with the reddening of his ears.

“I wanted to say something else, but I don’t know if it’s… I mean, if—”

Alistair bit his lip, looking baffled and bemused and, oddly, I thought, nervous. I didn’t know why that should be, and I wanted him to know he could talk to me, if he needed, or if he wanted to, but then he took a breath, and charged on with words that came out in a hushed, stumbling rush.

“If I don’t, though, if I never said— I… oh, damn.” He lifted a hand and scratched at the back of his neck. “Um, look, it… I know it probably does sound strange, considering we haven’t really known each other for very long—and m-maybe it is because we’ve gone through all this together, and Maker knows I couldn’t have done it alone—but, er… I… I mean, I’ve come to, uh… to care for you. A great deal.”

He swallowed heavily and looked at his boots. A sudden, steep, and insurmountably difficult chasm of silence seemed to yawn between us. I drew in a long, soft breath, but the cold air gave me no feeling of realness or stability. Perhaps I’d heard wrong. Perhaps he hadn’t meant… what I thought he’d meant. Only, it sounded like he had, and that was impossible. I’d lost my mind, evidently, and drifted into dreams.

Maker, I’m supposed to say something, aren’t I?

I opened my mouth, but he raised his head and looked at me then, imploring and hopeful. Heat washed over my face, and yet I couldn’t quite manage to look away.

“I’m, um… I’m probably fooling myself,” Alistair said, his voice low and a touch husky. “Or imagining things. That is, I know you probably— I mean, I remember what you said, about all the things that happened to you before you… well, before Duncan… um, you know. I didn’t forget about that, and I… I understand how you must, uh, think of… of… well, men. Human men, I mean, and….”

There was a moment of not-quite-silence, but nothing could be truly quiet while my pulse was thudding like that in my ears, and while I was so very aware of Alistair’s rapid breathing, and the sheer solidity of his presence. We were little more than a foot apart, and I could smell the leather polish and grease on him, and all those mingled scents of sweat and grime and flesh that were so very human… and yet that I barely noticed anymore.

I realised what he was talking about, and the shame washed over me in a torrent. Of all the stupid things I’d ever said, it had to be this! Those cast-off words when I told him of Shianni and Vaughan; how he’d ruined her, and how, to us, a woman allowing herself to be touched by a human, even when it wasn’t rape, wasn’t right, or proper—or clean.

It’s dirty to go with shems.

How had I said that? Why? Why had I been such a fool?

I bit my lip, and Alistair peered tentatively at me from under his lashes.

“I just… thought I should tell you. That’s all. I, uh, I don’t suppose you would, would you, anyway? Care about a-a human man, I mean, in that sort of—”

“I don’t think of you that way,” I blurted.

“Er… oh.”

His shoulders slumped and his face stiffened, expression shifting from apprehension to crushed embarrassment as I realised how my words sounded.

Stupid, stupid, stupid….

I wanted to kick myself, but the blood was rushing too hard and too fast for me to even breathe, let alone move. I swallowed, my tongue clumsy and my pulse skittering like a rat.

“I mean….” I started, but I didn’t know what to say.

If he’d just stop looking at me like that, I thought perhaps I’d have a chance, but it all felt so very impossible. All those things that had been drilled into me from my earliest years seemed distant and nebulous now. The world was different, and I was different, and there was nothing to hold onto, except for hope… and the tangled shreds of guilt that were wound around me.

“I….”

I didn’t want to hurt him. And I did care, didn’t I? However much I’d tried not to admit to myself, it was true. I liked him, trusted him, admired him… but what that really meant, what it became in the seclusion of an honest heart, I was suddenly so afraid to confront.

In that moment, something inside me pitched, and all I could think of was what Father would say if he could see me now. An avalanche of terror, remorse, regret, and sadness hit me, muddled up with the absurd desire to laugh.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair murmured. “I shouldn’t have—”

“No,” I said quickly, looking up at him. The awkward mix of confusion and embarrassment on his face stung me badly, and I wanted to… Maker’s blood, what did I want? To comfort him? Touch him? Everything was so much more complicated. I shook my head. “It’s not that. I don’t think of you as human,” I murmured. “I think of you as you.”

“Oh,” he breathed. It was less a word than a soft exhalation, a murmur of hope in the darkness.

Heat crawled up the back of my neck and prickled again at my cheeks. I looked away, burying my gaze in the cool, shadow-speckled grass. The blush had me on its horns now, though I wasn’t alone. Between us, we were probably generating enough heat to outdo a bonfire.

“And I do,” I whispered, my voice barely scraping the air as I stared at the scrubby, muddy ground. “I… I care for you, Alistair. Very much.”

“Oh?”

A smile pulled at my lips as I heard the exultation and disbelief seeping through that small, single sound. I glanced shyly at him, afraid of what this new confession meant—what it would mean, when there was this great, dark threat hanging above us, and this was hardly the most sane or sensible thing to be discussing—but just looking at him made me feel a little better.

“So, you…? Really?” Alistair grinned, not so much a smile as a great crashing rush of relief and joy sweeping over his face like a tide demolishing a breakwater. “You see, I didn’t know that. But that… that is very good to know.”

My smile widened too. He still looked haggard and tired under the moon’s bright glare, and we were both still grimy and unwashed, worn down with fighting and travelling, but his eyes shone and, to me, he could not have been more handsome. I let myself think it, admit it openly for the first time and even celebrate it. This man, whose opinion and friendship had come to mean so much… he cared for me. I almost wanted to mouth the words, as if that might make them real, but before I could, I realised what this shy, self-conscious smiling thing was going to become.

Alistair and I drew closer, slowly and clumsily. It was coming, I knew. And I wanted it, despite the dizziness and the dry mouth and the sweating palms and the thin, bright streak of panic collapsing in on itself like a streaming star in the darkness of my head. It was infinitesimally slow, and so awkward, both of us leaning into the other, yet neither quite making the final movement. I closed my eyes. Then, after too many long, dusty seconds, breath held and heart thudding, it was real.

Alistair’s lips were dry and rough, but gentle, as if he thought I’d break. The pressure of the kiss was light, yet it lingered: a bond as strong as steel and as weightless as air. His fingertips grazed my cheek, chasing a shiver through my flesh, and I leant into the contact, my hands clenching on the threadbare fabric of his shirt. The kiss deepened, which I don’t think either of us really expected. It just… happened, and he tasted like warm sunlight on furs, and fresh bread. When we parted, I was blushing and breathless, and I couldn’t quite stop the embarrassing trembling.

He looked shyly at me, his face an endearing mix of hazy, smug glee and tentative anxiety.

“That… that wasn’t too soon, was it?”

The air seemed to shake a little between us. I’d never wanted anyone like this—certainly no one like him—and it scared me. It felt as if I was holding onto him just to stop myself from falling over, but the warmth of his proximity, his scent, made me dizzier than ever. I smiled, feeling the tendrils of this unfamiliar, yet not unpleasant, confusion unwinding lazily through me.

“Well, I-I don’t know,” I said, affecting seriousness, albeit not very hard. “I think I might need more testing to be sure.”

“Oh?” Alistair grinned, his smile washed through with relief and affection. “I’ll have to arrange that, then, won’t I?”

I didn’t leave it up to him. A gentle rock on the balls of my feet, and I pressed my mouth to his again, seeking the comfort of his acceptance… and rewarded with so much more.

“Maker’s breath,” he murmured appreciatively, his thumb gently stroking the line of my jaw as we parted once more.

The corners of his eyes crinkled a bit as he smiled at me, and if I could have blushed any more, I probably would have. I still didn’t know whether it was a good idea or not but, just maybe, there was room amid all that strife and darkness for one small light.

Somewhere high up in the trees, something moved, and an owl’s call fluttered through the branches.

We broke apart, and Alistair cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Uh….”

“I should….” I gestured vaguely over my shoulder, towards my tent, then blushed a bit more at the realisation of what I was pointing at. “Um. And, er, you should… uh.”

“Yes. Right.” He pushed his fingers through his hair and looked embarrassed. “Er, well, then. Um, goodnight.”

It was late, and cold, and yet I didn’t really want to move away from him.

I smiled. “Goodnight.”

We looked at each other for a moment that felt so very long, and the smiles widened out into soft, stifled laughter. Alistair sloped reluctantly off to his tent, and I crawled into mine, where I bunched myself up beneath the blankets, and listened to the canvas rustle in the breeze.

The air felt cold on my face, and I realised I was still smiling. I closed my eyes, and the tiredness came winding its way back. Sleep took me quickly, and it wasn’t to be an easy rest. There were dreams that night—black, heavy, painful ones, filled with the hum of darkspawn and the taunts of guilt and memories—but, in those few precious moments between waking and sleeping, life felt beautiful.

~o~O~o~

When morning came, I woke to the quiet buzz of voices. On emerging from my tent, I found it was Levi and Bodahn, standing near the dwarf’s cart and engaged in earnest conversation. Levi was gesticulating in the air, a bright-eyed look on his face that reminded me of an over-eager ferret, and Bodahn had a small tally-stick in his hand. He kept nodding and counting notches against the thing, and an inexplicable sense of unease assailed me.

I heard Maethor bark and looked round, smiling as I saw him playing fetch with Sandal. The hound was wagging his stumpy tail so hard his entire back end was shaking, and the boy looked just as happy. I hated to think that, soon, we’d be back on the road again, and I’d have to split them up.

Well, there wasn’t much call for a merchant where we were headed, was there?

“Morning, sleepy!”

I screwed up my nose at the sound of Alistair’s voice, turning to see him in breeches and shirtsleeves with a skillet in his hand, heading towards the fire that was burning at the centre of the camp.

He grinned at me. “Breakfast? You’ll never guess what Bodahn had squirreled away. Eggs.”

My stomach rumbled traitorously, then my head caught up and I blinked awkwardly at him, suddenly extremely aware of the night before… and of that kiss.

Alistair evidently recalled it as well, because his ears turned slightly pink as he held my gaze, then he looked at his feet and waved the skillet aimlessly.

“Um… anyway, I-I thought you’d want breakfast, and… uh. Yes.”

“Thank you,” I said softly. “I do.”

He looked up, all big, boyish eyes and broad shoulders, and smiled, and I found myself recalling in acute detail the warmth of his arms and the taste of his lips. Had either of us been a little more experienced in the arts and games of attraction, we might have taken the opportunity to indulge in some kind of teasing, playful banter about hunger and appetites that would have made Zevran proud.

As it was, I started to blush, and so did Alistair, and then we both grinned at each other in a kind of shared, guilty, happy embarrassment.

I headed over to the fire, where most of the others were already gathered. Zevran smiled at me in such a way as to make me wonder if he’d been eavesdropping, but I dismissed it as part of his usual manner, and told myself sternly that there really were more immediate things to focus on.

Alistair cooked breakfast. Scrambled eggs and fried bread turned out to be one thing he couldn’t mess up—at least not irreparably—and he seemed very cheerful. I tried to keep my smiles to myself, and concentrated on smoothing out the wrinkles of embarrassment that still clung to me.

We ate, and everyone seemed better for the rest.

Levi and Bodahn announced their intentions to mount and equip an expedition to fully reclaim Soldier’s Peak, utilising the manpower and expertise of assorted Warden sympathisers. If the trader was to be believed, it seemed there was quite a network of people loyal to the idea of the order, and I supposed we hadDuncanto thank for that, and his role in returning the Wardens to Ferelden.

“There’s plenty of people my family knows,” Levi said. “Plenty who’s faithful to the Wardens, and ’ave been for years, not to mention those who don’t support the regent. Given a good few weeks, now them demons are gone, we can clean the place up, clear out everything salvageable from the old armoury and that, and really see about pressing the old place into service again.”

Alistair grimaced. “Do we really want to attract that much attention?”

Morrigan snorted. She seemed much improved, though she still looked paler than usual and a bit battered… but then that was true of all of us.

“Loghain will already know you are on the move. It is merely a matter of controlling how much he knows.”

“Morrigan has a point,” Wynne admitted, giving the witch a sidelong look. “Word of what happened at the Circle Tower will no doubt have reached him by now, no matter how discreet Irving and Greagoir have been in pledging their support to you. Not to mention, if there is as much unrest as it seems, civil war may be inevitable.”

I frowned. I wanted to believe that was a matter for Loghain and the Bannorn, and that all we needed to worry about was the Blight, but I had the feeling it wasn’t going to be that simple.

Sten, seated to the far side of the fire like some kind of immovable monolith, made a small growl at the back of his throat. He’d been silent up until then, and I glanced curiously at him.

“If a leader loses the loyalty of the people,” he said, gazing steadily into the fire, “they will flock to whoever is not him. Your cause will become theirs, whether they believe in it or not. You would do well to use that.”

“We’re not here to raise a rebellion,” I began, but even I could hear the lack of conviction in my voice.

We needed the Bannorn. We needed the network of sympathisers and supporters Levi spoke of… and we needed to use the resources we had carefully. Possibilities, odds, and chances all weighed up in my head, crowding out the little bits of room I’d left for optimism.

“Hm.” Alistair looked archly at the qunari. “That’s an interesting strategy, anyway.”

Sten shrugged, his face impassive. “It is what your kind do. They know no better. They have no certainty, know no place of their own. My people would respond differently.”

“Oh?”

“I’m sure they would,” I said hurriedly, raising my voice just enough to disrupt any potential baiting, and giving Alistair a warning glance. I meant it to be stern, but I suspected it wasn’t, and I cleared my throat. “But we don’t have the luxury of the entire antaam at our disposal. Unfortunately. And the Peak itself has stayed hidden for a long time.” I looked at Levi, rather hoping he might back me up with some practical observations. “Maybe, if you’re right, it can be brought back into use, as a staging post for people prepared to help us, if nothing else.”

“Oh, it’ll be more than that,” the trader said enthusiastically. “We already know there’s plenty there worth salvaging. You mark my words, Warden: next time you see the place, you’ll hardly recognise it!”

I forced a smile. Maybe he was right. Zevran had certainly picked up a few curios from his scavenging—enough baubles and saleable trinkets to convince anyone the Peak was worth further investigation, now it was safe to do so. He’d struck a deal with Bodahn on a couple of silver goblets that I knew about… there was probably a lot more secreted away that I didn’t know of, but I wasn’t going to pry.

A fat, curved piece of branch Leliana had been using earlier to coax the fire into life lay at my feet. I picked it up, and gazed thoughtfully at the mottled stripes of colour on the bark, and how they faded down into the blackened tip. My fingers traced the rough patches of lichen and aged wood.

“Maybe, when we pass back by Lake Calenhad, we can send word to the Magi. They have scholars and, if they can spare them, they can make a start on those libraries. That, and make sure everything’s… properly dealt with,” I said vaguely, not really wanting to revisit the practicalities of demons and foul magic.

“Much appreciated.” Levi nodded, his expression turning a little sombre. “That’s what Duncan thought, you know. All the knowledge the Wardens had back then; all that culture and history, what had to be brought back…. ‘We are but temp’ry keepers of our wisdom,’ he said to me.” He shook his head. “I’m glad you fulfilled his promise.”

A faintly awkward silence fell, and for a moment it almost felt as if man’s ghost itself was whispering around the edges of the camp.

I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry we can’t stay to see the work start on the Peak. And… thank you. Thank you both,” I added, glancing at Bodahn. “We didn’t know there were already people out there ready to listen to Grey Wardens.”

“Oh, we are. We are indeed,” the dwarf said suavely, giving me a big smile from behind his beard.

A little way away, Sandal was off again, playing happily with Maethor. I returned Bodahn’s smile, though I still wasn’t sure whether his involvement was more to do with profit or politics.

I weighted the bit of branch in my hand, and prodded at the fire. It was a nice morning, with golden light streaming into the clearing, picking at the mica in the hillsides, and making the tufts of grass on them into delicate cobwebs that wafted gently in the breeze. Against the brightness, the flames seemed diaphanous, like they didn’t really belong.

Leliana shifted, stretching out her long, leather-clad legs. Apart from during our trip into Denerim—which I would rather have forgotten completely, had I been able to—she hadn’t changed back into her Chantry robes since Redcliffe, and yet she still managed to look unmistakeably feminine. Now, the sunlight caught on the red of her hair, and made a dozen different colours glimmer in it. She wrinkled her nose, those clear blue eyes narrowed against the sun as she squinted at me.

“So… what happens now?”

I shrugged, and gave the fire another, rather more savage poke. “We have two choices, I guess. We try to find the Dalish, or give them up as a lost cause and start back towards Redcliffe and Lake Calenhad. There’s the good brother to follow up on still.”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “It will take, what, at least another two or three weeks to get back to Redcliffe, no?”

Alistair exhaled uneasily. “I hope Arl Eamon’s no worse. I don’t like this whole Brother-Genitivi-being-missing business. If we could just have found him, then—”

“We would already know he is nothing more than a fool intent on chasing after the bones of a madwoman,” Morrigan drawled, her voice sharp and hard, “and he will be of no use to your dying arl.”

“He’s not dying!” Alistair snapped. “They said… the mages said… magical healing can sustain him. It’s just—”

Not enough to bring him back. He didn’t say it, and fell to scowling at the fire instead. I suspected, like me, part of him didn’t believe we’d find the brother, and the whole exercise was simply a political one; shoring up the support we would need to extract from either Isolde or Teagan—depending on who took control of Eamon’s estates, as regent or successor—with the balm of having at least tried to help the arl.

Or perhaps Alistair didn’t think that at all. Maybe all his thoughts were for his guardian, the man for whom he still had all that loyalty and affection. I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t help to be so suddenly reminded of the ties Alistair had to… well, to the Guerrins and more.

A human, and not just any human. Son of a king, and raised in a castle… what do you get yourself into, girl?

“He will be well cared for,” Wynne said smoothly. “You know that, Alistair. Even if the healing cannot continue indefinitely.”

His scowl deepened, the edges of it scored with discomfort. “Maybe we should turn and head for the lake, then?” He raised his head, casting a glance around the group for support before he looked at me. “I mean, if Genitivi’s missing, we have to follow up on his trail before it goes cold, right?”

I suppressed a smile. That train of thought was familiar… and yet it was also mired in a little bit of annoyance. I coughed gently.

“The Dalish will be moving too. And we’re already within a couple of days of the pass. If we don’t try to find them now, chances are we won’t find them at all.”

Alistair frowned. “Yes, but—”

“We need allies, don’t we?” I raised my brows, trying hard not to think of this as another moment when the needs of some human nobleman—even one potentially on his deathbed—were put above my people. “I say we give it a shot. Just a day, maybe two, to find some trace of them in the forest. We know they were here, and recently… but if there’s nothing, then they’ve probably already moved on. But we won’t know until we look.”

Alistair opened his mouth, probably already framing an argument, but he didn’t push the point. He just shrugged, albeit with rather poor grace.

“Fine.”

“Does anyone disagree, then?” I asked, glancing around at my assembled companions. “Any other ideas?”

Wynne shook her head. “An admirable plan… although I wonder if your timing might not be a tad optimistic.”

“Wynne has a point,” Leliana added. “The Brecilian Forest is enormous. Not to mention the legends that—”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Alistair held his hands up, palms out. “Don’t tell me! Horrific battles, death, mayhem and occult destruction, with a side order of demonic pandemonium. Am I getting warm?”

“Not to mention the trees,” Zevran added dryly, flexing the arm that had been so badly injured and, though now largely healed, did still bear a thin, white scar. “With the groping and the rending? Really, it was like being back in a cheap Nevarran tavern.”

I smiled, despite myself, and shook my head. Zevran caught my eye, and gave me a disarmingly suave smile.

“Nevertheless, if it is what you desire, fair Warden, I shall run headlong into the branches of death.”

“We can only hope,” Morrigan muttered.

“Thank you.” Ignoring her, I nodded at Zev, and then turned my attention to Sten. “What’s your opinion, Sten?”

Those unsettlingly bright violet eyes surveyed me critically.

“It is a matter of weighing gain against risk. I have heard stories of the Dalish elves. There are no better archers among humans, no warriors more vicious and skilled. Secure their help and, should they provide sufficient numbers, you may have less chance of failing quite so spectacularly.”

I grinned widely. “Then I’m taking that as a vote of confidence. Thank you.”

The qunari’s face remained as impassive as ever, though the breath he exhaled was eloquent.

“You may take it however it pleases you.”

So, there we had it. A slightly ragged consensus, but it was enough.

We would, we decided, spent a few more hours at rest before pulling up camp, bidding our farewells to Levi, Bodahn and Sandal, and heading north to the pass that led into the neck of the Brecilian Forest. Alistair—though clearly still not quite at one with my decision—unfurled the map, and there was some checking of distances and discussion of potential routes. The majority of it passed over my head, though I could at least distinguish the part of the map that marked out the forest.

It was a huge, sprawling thing, like an ink stain, but cut through with dozens of little ragged lines that I supposed were meant to represent the trees. There seemed to be no indications of terrain or landmarks. Just ‘here be forest’, which wasn’t comforting.

Still, a grain of excitement bloomed in me. I thought of the arrowhead Wynne had found: real, tangible, recent evidence of the Dalish. Wild elves…. They had never been anything more than stories to me, but oh, such wonderful stories! All those tales of Arlathan and Halamshiral, of the Emerald Knights, and our beautiful, immortal ancestors.

When, a little aftermidday, we shouldered our gear and began to head for the road, I couldn’t deny I was eager to see where the journey took us.

Perhaps I was naïve enough to believe in stories. Perhaps I was simply optimistic.

Either way, I had no idea what would lay ahead.

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On to Volume 4: Waking in Shadows
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