Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Ten

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Alistair and Levi had been poring over the maps for ages. I gave up trying to take an interest in our projected route when it became apparent that what I thought was the symbol for a landmark peak in the Southrons was actually Highever.

I left them to it and went to help with packing the wagon. We had decided to leave in no great hurry, despite the fact that this detour was unplanned and, as I was still partially convinced, a delay we could ill afford. I’d made my decision, though, and I couldn’t back away from it now without looking like a fool or, perhaps worse, seeming weak and foolish.

In any case, the prospect of Soldier’s Peak—a whole base, and a symbol of security we might so desperately need—was enticing, added to the fact that, after the chaos of Denerim and Zevran’s injury, none of us were in much of a state to throw ourselves at the forest.

It called out to me from beyond the pass, all the same. The wind that rustled through the trees seemed to speak of Emerald Knights, and all the wondrous, beautiful things I thought the Dalish were. I wondered if we’d ever find them, or if we’d even manage to come back once the Peak had been inspected. Perhaps we’d find ourselves pushing on in the search for the Urn. The part of me that was still doused in alienage bitterness suspected that would be true; wasn’t it always elven matters that got brushed aside when some shem noble snapped his fingers?

Of course, I felt guilty for thinking of Arl Eamon like that, even briefly. And, in any case, there was no time to dwell on things.

Once we were fully loaded up, we set off, a more conspicuous baggage train than we’d been before now. Bodahn’s cart—which, I found, was positively stuffed full of goods—was a useful way of carrying our gear, and would speed us up considerably, especially as Zevran and Wynne were able to ride in amongst the bundles and crates.

She said she was fine, no matter her years, or the blows she’d taken in the Brecilian Forest, but the resentment she showed at being fussed over wasn’t strong enough to really make me believe it.

Zevran, too, was oddly quiet, not that I was surprised. Earlier that morning, I’d helped Wynne change the dressings on his arm, and my stomach had twisted at the sight of the messy, ragged joins in that smooth, tanned flesh. It had evidently been a close call, and though Wynne’s healing magic sped the recovery considerably, he’d not had sufficient aid quickly enough to properly avert the damage. I hadn’t even been there, and yet the guilt of that clung to me like wet rags. This man who’d made his oath to me—overly theatrical though that moment had been—had run close to being killed protecting people I called companions. I felt responsible.

Still, for a silver lining, I supposed what had happened meant we couldn’t doubt that oath of his anymore. Or could we?

Naturally, Zevran made light of the injury and, as I had wiped and washed and rolled bandages, and Wynne had murmured incantations, he’d kept saying how it was merely a scratch and he’d had far worse during his years in Antiva. The Crow initiation alone, he told us through gritted teeth, was painful enough to ensure only the hardiest recruits survived.

I didn’t doubt it.

Now, as the wagon’s axles rumbled and the oxen trudged onwards, Zevran sprawled among the bundles in the back like a cat. Thin, autumnal sunlight gilded his pale hair, and he had his face tipped back and his eyes partially closed. In pointed contrast, Wynne sat neatly on one of Bodahn’s tight-lashed crates, her elbows and knees tucked in and a small frown on her face as she read one of the books we’d lifted from Brother Genitivi’s house.

I’d had a look at them. Heavy stuff. I didn’t really understand what they were about… oh, the words made sense, individually, but not once they all got together in sentences and ganged up on me. The high-flown erudition of history scholars had never had much place in the alienage. I’d been lucky to know my letters as well as I did, and for Mother to take the time to teach me to appreciate the stories that she’d read.

Zevran opened one eye lazily and peered down at me.

“Why don’t you come up here, hm? There’s room, and you’ll spare your feet.”

Alistair, heading us up a few strides ahead of the oxen, glanced over his shoulder. I thought he was going to make some kind of crack about soldiers who didn’t know how to route march, but he looked rather tight-lipped.

I was walking a little behind the cart—and to the left, about level with the wheel, but away enough to avoid being splattered with too much mud—and felt surprisingly relieved to be back in my leathers. Valora’s brown dress lay neatly folded at the bottom of my pack once more, and I didn’t miss it the way I’d thought I would.

I shook my head as I looked up Zevran. “I’m fine. Feet are a lot better, actually.”

It was true. The various balms I’d used had healed up the worst of the sores and blisters, and having boots that fitted reasonably well definitely helped. Alistair had joked about how I’d eventually develop proper soldier’s feet, tough as old hide and smelly as rotten cheese, and that was a measure of the way our little band had been growing closer, I supposed.

Zevran sighed. “Ah, well. Pity. A journey is always more enjoyable with congenial company.”

He was clearly feeling better enough to flirt. That was a good sign… possibly.

I grinned. “You already have Wynne up there with you.”

The mage looked up sharply from her reading. “Don’t encourage him. If I hear one more remark about my bosom, I will not be held responsible for my actions.”

There was a strangled cough from Alistair, but Zevran just smiled.

“All I said was that it was a magnificent bosom… and it is. A bounteous feat of womanly virtue, which has held up surprisingly well in someone of your years, and—”

I snorted, despite myself, as Wynne slipped her finger between the pages of the book to mark her place, and fetched him a swift, efficient thump on the leg with it, before demurely returning to her reading.

Zevran winced, lips moulded around an ‘o’ of imperfect agony. The way his eyes watered suggested there was some bruising, or perhaps a light wound, in the area Wynne had so surgically targeted.

He blinked, and shook his head before shooting me a sly smile. “You see this, Warden? Such grace and poise! Ah, and with such a bosom!”

Wynne scowled. “I’m old enough to be your mother, maybe even your grandmother.”

I bit my lip, trying to keep a lid on the giggles bubbling up within me as Zevran shrugged.

“What? I like women with a little experience. Or a lot. A lot is good, yes?”

Wynne sighed in exasperation and dropped the book to her lap.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake. Please, just… come and sit between us. I don’t know if I trust myself enough.”

She looked pleadingly at me and, against most of my better judgement, I nodded, and clambered up onto the creaking flatbed of the cart.

It was a pleasant enough way to ride; sheer luxury, really, next to the endless walking, and the ground here was not that easy underfoot, a mix of shale and grit along with the mud. Having forsaken the road, we were clinging to the edge of the Southrons themselves, looking for the so-called pass or path that was marked on Levi’s map. He said he knew how to get there, and that it would be simply a matter of finding the right way, then probably cutting through several decades of abandoned brush… unless the Peak had been overrun by bandits or squatters, of course. The thought had crossed my mind, just one of many.

I still wasn’t sure about the wisdom of thinking we could even try to reclaim a Grey Warden base within so short a distance of Denerim. If the Peak was where Levi said, it would be little more than four days from the city, and I couldn’t believe Loghain wouldn’t know of it. Alistair reasoned it was unlikely, if even the Wardens had all but forgotten about it, but I remained uneasy. What if we got there and found it was all a trap?

It didn’t bear thinking about and, I supposed, we had to take risks if we were to reap rewards. There was, in our current situation, no other alternative.

So, I sat among the packed crates and barrels, and watched Maethor snuffling his way along the front of the group, ahead of the oxen. Bodahn and Sandal sat up front, with Levi alongside, while Morrigan did her usual trick of distancing herself slightly from the group, keeping easy pace at the right of the beasts. Leliana and Sten were to the left, him with that mighty, ground-eating stride that made it look as if he was able to walk all day without tiring—which I’d long suspected he could—and her, still in her Chantry robes, seeming the vision of a misplaced missionary wandering the countryside. Alistair looked much more comfortable at being back in his armour, shield slung across his back, and I thought what a sight we would have been for anyone we might have met on the road.

“So,” Morrigan said after a while, breaking the uneasy quiet that the unfamiliarity of our new companions had left hanging in the air, “about your trip into Denerim?”

She cast an imperious glance at Alistair across the oxen’s white, swaying backs, and he groaned.

“You don’t really want to ask about that, do you?”

It was something we’d been over already before we broke camp, summarising for Bodahn and Levi and, in my case, avoiding as much detail as possible. It was too late, though; the majority of the story was already out.

“You met with that sister of yours?” Morrigan enquired delicately, her voice a thin blade of black slate, applied with the precision of a butcher’s knife.

“Half-sister, ye-es,” Alistair said, the words swathed with clear discomfort.

I wished there was some way I could distract her—he didn’t need the whole thing dredged up again—but she was like a cat with a new piece of prey to play with, and I doubted she’d give it up any time soon.

“And she did not fall upon your neck, weeping with joy to discover you?”

Overhead, the clouds were thin, grey streaks across the pale blue sky, like torn lace overlaying watered silk. The cart’s axles rumbled, and I noticed Wynne look up from her book, distaste bowing her lips.

“No,” Alistair said dispassionately, staring fixedly ahead. “No, she didn’t.”

“My, my.” Morrigan gave a small, brittle chuckle. “How surprising!”

A slight greasy taint seemed to smear the air, then Alistair sniffed philosophically.

“Yes, well, I think you’d have liked her. You’d have a lot in common.”

His words clanged across the leaden atmosphere, the insult barely concealed. Morrigan arched her thin brows, the widening of those ochre-gold eyes intensified by the swoops of shadow across her face.

“Oh?” she said icily. “Indeed. And yet you gave her money. A great deal of money, in comparison to what—”

“Yes.”

His tone was brusque; we had already imparted this news, and going over it again wasn’t going to make anyone approve of the decision any more. From the look on her face when Alistair had admitted it last night, even Wynne thought we’d been too generous… especially given the two sovereigns she’d had to pay the wise woman who set Zevran’s arm.

Morrigan’s lips tightened. “One simply wonders—”

“I expect you do,” Alistair said shortly. “But then that’s the difference between us, isn’t it?”

She stopped mid-word, her mouth still framing a protest. I had to stifle a smile, and wondered if it was very wrong for pride to well up in me the way it did.

Still, the witch wasn’t going to let him get away without a parting shot.

“Sometimes,” she snapped, “I wonder at the difference between you and a toadstool.”

Alistair continued to stare at the horizon, but with a very self-satisfied grin.

The silence seeped back in, though, and I sought to fill it, a little afraid of the way the quiet was broken by nothing but the cart’s creaking and the occasional rattle of birds in the trees.

I glanced at Zevran, somewhat unnerved to find him already looking at me, those golden-brown eyes calmly alert, his face serene.

He arched one pale brow. “Mm?”

Back ho— back in the alienage, we’d had our share of cheeky boys. When you lived that close to filth, and when so many were forced to confront the ugly sides of physicality, or seek refuge in the joyous ones, then despite all our standards, morals, and rigid constraints—or maybe even because of them—there were bound to be rebels. I remembered them as the boys with short-razored hair, defying convention with skull-close crops, delicately feathered around their ears, or spiked up at the front, spotless tunics with gaudy embroidery, and cocky walks. They’d gather outside Alarith’s in the evenings, and knock back jars of ale while they whistled at the girls, or they’d sneak out and blow a week’s wages apiece at one of the marketside taverns, and reel home singing and puking in the small hours.

They were the boys Father warned me about… but they were nothing like Zevran.

Oh, he had the looks. The hair, the clothes, the luxury—more of everything than we’d ever had where I grew up—but there was something altogether different behind it. Nothing about him screamed of hunger, for a start, or even of the kind of cruel and petty violence we saw in those who sought a life outside the alienage, and found it only in crime.

Zevran simply was as he was, and yet a fine, dark, silken presence pooled beneath that carefully constructed image. I could feel it, somehow. He was cultured, and dangerous, and I’d never encountered that combination before.

It scared me.

My gaze fell to the tattoo that hugged his cheek: those oddly curving lines that seemed just as shadowy and sinuous as he did.

“I w-was wondering something,” I said tentatively. “About what you said before.”

“Oh?” He smirked softly. “This should be good.”

“The Crows,” I persisted, unabashed, and earned myself another raised eyebrow from him. “The initiation you spoke of. Do they really…?”

Zevran’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly. In context, it might have been the equivalent of a hearty laugh; I wasn’t sure.

“Ah, yes. It’s all true. The beatings, the endurance of terrible pain. How else would they foster the proper… competitive attitude in young apprentices?”

I wanted to believe he was joking, but I doubted it. I wrinkled my nose.

“Rewarding the survivors,” I observed darkly. “Hm.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.” He shifted his position against the crates as the wagon pitched a little over the rutted ground. “If you do poorly in your training, you die. Simple. And it’s no great loss to the Crows. They buy all their assassins on the slave market: young, and cheap, and they raise them to know nothing but murder.”

He kept fixed, even eye contact with me as he spoke, as nonchalantly as if we were discussing nothing more than the weather. I regretted having tried to ask in the first place. He was testing me, waiting for a rise of shocked reaction, but I didn’t yield that easily.

“That system really works, does it?”

Wynne had looked up from the book again, those sharp blue eyes darting between us, her lips tight and the hint of disapproval lingering in her face. I knew the Circle kept its mages sheltered from the world, but I suspected Wynne had experienced much more of life than she let on, and I doubted she could really be so naïve.

Zevran gave a lackadaisical shrug and tilted his head to the side, regarding me coolly as a small smile touched the corner of his lips.

“Should it not? You compete against your fellow assassins. Fail, and die. Survive, and you may be rightly proud of it. Besides, in Antiva, being a Crow gets you respect.”

He’d kept himself so calm, so nonchalant, yet his eyes hardened just a little on that last word, the thick burrs and lilts of his accent spitting it from his mouth like a crisp, dangerous thing.

“I’m sure it does,” I said carefully.

Wynne looked silently appalled. I wasn’t sure if any of the others were listening in. They could probably hear us, although Sandal had started to hum quietly, swinging his feet as he sat on the top of the driver’s box.

Ahead of us, a rabbit dashed from the brush. Maethor bounded after it, but it was too quick, and he lost it under a thorn bush.

“Oh, shame!” Alistair exclaimed. “That could have been dinner.”

Morrigan made a tart comment about charred meat and limited culinary repertoires, but I was watching Zevran as he nodded slowly.

“It does,” he said, his words soft and slightly sinister. “It gets you wealth. It gets you women, men… whatever you might fancy. But it means doing what is expected of you, always. And it means being expendable.”

That light, tawny gaze held mine, and I found myself wondering how much he knew about the people he’d been contracted to kill. Did he know about the oaths Grey Wardens swore? Or did Loghain, for that matter?

Did he know about what we did—what we took into ourselves, a sacrifice to corruption—and how we were given to the Blight, tied to the darkspawn, in order to be their destruction?

I shivered a little, though the breeze was not that cold. In some ways, we were more alike than I felt comfortable admitting.

Zevran shrugged again, indolent and easy, and gave me a rueful smile.

“It is a cage, if a gilded one. Pretty, but confining. As for what it takes to get there… eh, quite frankly, the truth is that all being an assassin requires is a desire to kill people for a living. It’s surprising how well you can do in such a field, especially within an organisation such as the Crows.”

He made it sound simple, matter-of-fact… and I very nearly nodded in agreement. Wynne gave a small scoff of disgust as she lowered her book and glared at him.

“You sound as if you actually enjoyed it!”

“And why not?” He turned those heavy-lidded eyes to her, and raised his brows. “There were many things to enjoy about being a Crow in Antiva, my dear Wynne. Respect, fear… a certain degree of exemption from the law. There were many—how would you say?—little perks. As for the killing part, well… some people simply need assassinating. Or do you disagree?”

The mage blustered, a dozen different reproaches apparently struggling to escape her thin lips. I couldn’t tell if Zev was winding her up or not, yet when he glanced back at me—encouragement to come and help him play at baiting his prey—I saw something deathly serious in his face. My mind passed back through the months as if they were water, and I remembered the taste of blood in my mouth, and the feel of sweat burning in my eyes as I stood over Vaughan Kendalls’ corpse.

A part of me was convinced Zevran had seen it; that somehow he could look into my eyes and read the memories, know all the secrets. I hated the thought… almost as much as I hated the memories.

“The thing is,” he said easily, as if merely confiding a preference for a certain type of cheese, “I often find myself the instrument of fate, ending a life for one necessity or another. I console myself with the notion that most of them had it coming. As far as enjoying the act of killing itself, why not? There is a certain artistry to the deed, the pleasure of sinking your blade into their flesh and knowing that their life is in your hands.”

His gaze bored into me and, though Wynne had finally found her voice and was—rather shrilly, it had to be admitted—demanding to know if he actually understood that murder was wrong, I barely heard her.

There was a blood-slicked floor beneath my feet, and I felt the hilt of a borrowed sword in my hand, the resistance of flesh yielding to the path of vengeance I twisted through it.

I remembered pale green eyes turned to weeping, bloodshot slits as the face of a monster became the face of a puling, crying child. I’d made that bastard scream, and my only regret before we left the arl’s estate had been not having the time or skill to take his balls, and being forced to let him die a complete man, whimpering and squealing in the mess of his own blood and piss.

Zevran looked steadily at me, and I knew he saw it. He saw every dirty, stained, crumpled piece of my soul.

“Naturally,” he said brightly, with a quick glance at Wynne, “there were many things about being a Crow that were not enjoyable. But… honestly? I can’t say it was entirely unpleasant.”

“That is appalling,” Wynne grumbled. “You don’t even seem to have a grain of remorse!”

The corner of Zevran’s lips curled again; that little whisper of a smile that was all at once lazily sensual and oddly cynical. It made me feel unpleasantly exposed, and I wished I’d stuck with walking behind the cart.

He winked at me then. Maker’s truth: an actual conspiratorial wink.

“You know,” he said, turning to Wynne, “you are right. Now that I think about it, you are right about everything. I am a terrible person. Please… I wish to cry. May I rest my head on your bosom?”

I clapped a hand over my mouth to try and stop the snort of laughter, but it was useless, no matter how heartfelt Wynne’s growl of frustration was. She brought the book down again sharply on his leg, but I suspected—in the greater scheme of things—Zevran didn’t mind enduring a little pain for a moment as well worth it as that.

~o~O~o~

It was almost sundown when we broke for camp. There had been a little consternation to do with maps and the geography of the hills; we were pushing deeper into the Southrons now, and whether Levi was right about the fortress being hidden within them or not, there was an increasing danger of getting horribly lost and spending the rest of the Blight looking for a way out.

The trader assured us—in his customary nervous, faintly oily way—that the maps were correct, and we’d hit Soldier’s Peak the next morning, if we were lucky. Sten did that soft growl in the back of his throat thing, and managed to intimate very successfully by so doing that, if we were not lucky, someone was going to get their arms ripped off.

Still, all things considered, I had to admit that there had been many worse nights. The tang of frost was on the air, but our fire burned big and bright, and Bodahn had a plentiful array of supplies. He even took the opportunity to try and sell us some of his manifold wares—and the dwarf seemed to have absolutely everything, from cheap jewellery to well-made shoes and second-hand weapons. I didn’t want to think about what had happened to the people who’d owned them firsthand.

Morrigan, of course, felt compelled to point out how broke we were, on account of certain people ‘frittering’ our money away, but all in all the evening was pleasant. It was rather nice to have the security of the hills ranging up around us, like the solid embrace of some protective fortification.

I thought so, anyway, until Leliana drifted into one of her stories, and began recounting the tale of the Rebel Queen’s campaign against the Orlesians, and how Maric the Saviour and the rebel army had come out of the bones of the land to overthrow the usurper-tyrant, Meghren.

It surprised me a little that she should take such pleasure in that story, but I supposed a bard knew when a tale’s core merits outweighed its social and political sensitivities. Everyone sat, enraptured, as Leliana wove the tale, and I wondered if any of them even remembered that several of the key players—not least bloody Loghain Mac Tir—were the reason we were in our current mess.

One look at Sandal’s face, though, mouth hanging open and pale eyes big as saucers as he leaned forwards, legs crossed and hands clenched in the dirt, told me no one needed to hear my complaints. I slipped quietly away from the fire… just as Alistair had done, rather than listen to the saga of his father’s heroics.

I had some thought about going to my tent, maybe cleaning my weapons or buffing my boots a bit, when I saw Alistair’s familiar shape—smaller, without the armour, stripped down to that over-mended, comfortable shirt—outlined on the other side of the canvas peaks. He seemed to be looking away into the blank eyes of the hills, as if he could sense something in their blind nooks and crannies. I really, really hoped it wasn’t darkspawn… but then I’d have felt too, wouldn’t I?

I supposed so, though it was hard to know what I felt a lot of the time. He turned and smiled at me, and I couldn’t help noticing the way his thumb was working at the worry token on his left forefinger.

“All right?” he asked.

“Mm-hm.” I nodded, and it was only partially a lie. I glanced back past the bulk of the wagon, towards the fire. “Didn’t need to hear that one, then?”

Alistair grimaced. “Not really. You?”

“No. It’s a good story, but… no.”

The dusk skimmed shadows across everything, the last light of the day glancing oddly off the small white stones in the dirt. The closer we got to scrambling in amongst the peaks themselves, the more the earth seemed sown with hardness, as if Leliana’s tales were true, and the Southrons were bursting up out of the land like teeth, as proud and fierce as the rebels who’d once owned them.

I frowned. “If the rebel army was here during the uprising, wouldn’t they—?”

“I thought that.” Alistair nodded sagely. “I suppose, either Levi’s right and the Peak is so well hidden they never found it, or they did, and it was useless.”

Just a ruin… a hollowed out husk of a thing. Yes, that would about suit our luck, wouldn’t it?

I winced. “Seems logical. I just don’t know if any of this is… well, you know.”

“I know.” He began to cross the few feet of dirt that separated us, his face strangely hopeful in the gloom. “It’s the right thing, though. I’m sure of that. If Duncan believed it… a-and more than that, if we can do this for the Grey Wardens, then….”

The words trailed off, and I felt the strength of the belief behind them. Alistair rubbed at his worry token again—full-scale, with the fingers of the other hand this time, not just his left thumb. Something serious was bothering him, I decided. I wished I had his faith in the order; that I’d had the chance to see something perfect and beautiful and heroic in it before I joined.

“I just hope whatever we find will be helpful,” I said, gazing down at those strong, square hands of his, and the winking disc of gold. “Maybe we’re about due some good luck.”

Alistair snorted softly. “Yeah… maybe.”

I glanced towards my tent. “Um. I-I should, uh—”

“Wait.”

The word was a quick gulp, and it pinned me to the spot, though I didn’t quite understand why, or how.

“Yes?”

“Er… I… I just wanted to say something.” Alistair cleared his throat awkwardly. “I mean… um.”

“Something wrong?” I prompted.

“What? No… no, it’s not that.” He looked over my shoulder, down towards the fire, as if satisfying himself that we weren’t going to be overheard. “No, it’s just that I really appreciate what you did, that’s all. In Denerim.”

I blinked, not wanting the reminders and already beginning to turn away, but he stepped closer and, for a moment, I thought he’d reach out and take my arm to stop me. I looked up, and found him a little closer than I’d expected.

He smelled… well, human, that clean scent of apples and green wood that was somehow him overlaid with the sweat and grime of travel. I smelled nerves on him, too, and I didn’t know why.

“Oh. I—”

“You didn’t have to do it,” Alistair went on stubbornly, refusing to let me brush him off. “But you took me to find my sister, and… and you were there to talk me down after we left. I appreciate that.”

My lips moved soundlessly. I wanted to say that it was nothing, but that wouldn’t really have been true. Meeting Goldanna, however badly it had turned out, had meant a great deal to him, and we both knew how much.

Alistair frowned and stared at the dirt, a mix of regret and embarrassment colouring his face.

I managed a weak smile. “Really, it was—”

“No, you’re… you’re a true friend,” he said quietly, raising his gaze to mine. “I just wanted to tell you that.”

I said nothing for a moment, my mouth dry and my lips parched. The cold night air nipped at my cheeks, and I realised how hot they felt in comparison.

“Well,” I murmured, despite the way my voice seemed to want to stick in my throat, “we’re in this together, aren’t we?”

Alistair smiled, and the warmth of it flooded his eyes. The dusk-bathed dimness made him look younger… boyish, almost. I didn’t want to remember as vividly as I did how—by the impenetrable alienage walls, raw with all we’d learned there—I had wept on his chest, and how I’d wanted him to hold me, even as his hands rested tentatively on my shoulders, trying to convey comfort without touch. That respectful distance he had always left between us—never pressing an advantage, never assuming a permission—filled me with gratitude, and yet I wanted to rip it all away.

I swallowed heavily, unaccustomed to feeling like this. Ashamed and a little angry at myself, I wanted to get away, yet my feet were leaden.

“That we are,” Alistair agreed. “And… you know I have your back, right?”

I nodded, and the smile I gave him in return was wide—wider than my usual fare, because I forgot all about the chips and the missing tooth, until the cool air touched the bare socket of my gum. The grin wiped from my face, I looked down at the earth, the blue-tinged light making those little white pebbles seem opalescent amid the dark soil and tufts of black grass.

“’ppreciate it,” I murmured.

“Mm. Bet you’ll miss it when it’s all over, though, won’t you?”

I looked up, an incredulous frown already creasing my brow. That light, sarcastic tone leavened his words, like he wanted to detach himself from all the seriousness. His thumb was working at the worry token again, threatening to polish away the runes.

You know… the endless route marches, the brushes with death, the constant battles with the whole Blight looming over us… all that?”

It seemed a rather optimistic thing to say, given the current state of our rag-tag war effort. We had no idea just what, in real and practical terms, ending the Blight would actually involve, never mind being bold enough to assume we’d all be alive to see it.

That thought slipped quickly through my head, like a fish slicing beneath dark water, and it left ripples of fear behind it. Just thinking about it—about any of us falling in battle—chilled my flesh, but I couldn’t escape the sudden images that speared my mind.

Blood on blond hair, hazel eyes staring blankly into oblivion…. My throat clenched convulsively, and I fixed my gaze on Alistair, as if I needed to prove to myself that he was still there. He raised his eyebrows, and I forced out a small, dry laugh.

“Huh… why, will you?”

He gave me an odd sort of half-smile, his face a little distant, as if he was trying to remember the punchline of a particularly good joke. Then he blinked, and puffed out his lips.

“Pfft, definitely! I tear up just thinking about it. I mean, there’ll be no more running for our lives. No more darkspawn and—” He paused to groan theatrically. “—oh! No more camping in the middle of nowhere!”

I chuckled, and he scuffed at the grass with the side of his boot, his smile gradually fading.

“I suppose what I mean to say is, um… well, I know it… might sound strange—”

He broke off, raising his head abruptly at the same moment I turned, my hand automatically flying to the hilt of my dagger. Movement to the left of us made me flinch, my heart thudding dully against my ribs in that stupid, breathless moment.

It was only Sandal.

The boy stood near the back of the wagon, his mouth slightly open and eyes wide. He looked at us solemnly, and then glanced towards the rise of the hills.

“The big castle’s scary,” he confided, in those ethereal child-like tones.

“What big castle?” Alistair asked, his brow furrowed.

He was too brisk with the lad, and Sandal shook his head; either a refusal to impart a secret, or an admission that he lacked the words. I couldn’t be sure.

“Where is the castle, Sandal?” I asked, taking a soft step towards him. “Do you mean Soldier’s Peak?”

He raised a hand and pointed at the hills. Northeast, I noticed, like Levi’s interpretation of the maps said.

“Over there.” Sandal’s pale, pudgy face creased into a frown. “I don’t like it.”

I wanted to ask what he meant—whether it was the Peak he spoke of, and how he knew he didn’t like it—but Bodahn’s voice cut across the night, calling his son.

“Ah, there you are,” the dwarf said, relieved, as he emerged from behind the wagon.

Sandal looked at his father blankly. I supposed there must be an acknowledgement of recognition there, but I couldn’t see it.

“Come along now, my boy,” Bodahn said smoothly, putting an arm around his shoulders. “You leave the Grey Wardens to their business. Mighty important task it is they’ve got, and we’ve the cart to see to. I hope he’s been no trouble,” he added, glancing at us.

“Of course not,” I said, dredging up a smile. “In fact—”

“Well, good night to you, then.” Bodahn squeezed the boy’s shoulders, and began to lead him away.

Alistair and I echoed our goodnights. I wondered if the merchant had overheard us, and if there was some reason he felt that Sandal should not be questioned.

As they retreated out of earshot, Alistair shot me a wary look.

“What was that about?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, but somehow it doesn’t fill me with confidence.”

“I know exactly what you mean. Well… I, er, suppose… um. Better get some rest.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of his tent, his arm swinging loosely, and cleared his throat. “Sleep, and all that. ’Night, then.”

“Goodnight,” I said, slightly puzzled as I watched him take his leave.

He never had told me what he was going to say.

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Volume 3: Chapter Eleven
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