Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Three

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We encountered a small band of darkspawn the next day. There were not many; about eight hurlocks, two already wounded. Perhaps they had straggled their way up from the Hinterlands, to the southwest, or splintered away from the main horde, which by now must have been well and truly out of the Wilds. I tried not to think about how long it might be before it was pressing upon Redcliffe’s boundaries. Either way, I supposed it explained what I’d felt… even if it I doubted they’d been stalking us.

The darkspawn were vicious bastards, though what frightened me most about the whole thing was not the fight itself, but the things that preceded it. The burning, scratching, whispering… knowing they were there, that they were coming, and then the moment when they crested the hill before us and charged down, snarling and howling as they drew their blades. It was so much than before.

It plunged us into disarray, if not quite panic. Dumping packs, drawing weapons… the hundred or so yards of breathless expectation before the six that hadn’t been picked off by the mages, or Leliana’s bow, met us in the fetid clash of rough blades and rotten flesh. I’d almost forgotten what they were like close up, my most recent memories papered over by Redcliffe’s walking dead and the abominations of the Circle Tower. Darkspawn were different. So full of hatred and violence, driven like rabid creatures by a sick, twisted core… yet too keenly aware, too vividly cunning, to be dismissed as mindless.

It was, I thought, the first time Leliana had fought them. Once it was over—the hacking, the slashing and the bleeding—she looked pale, shaky, and rather nauseous. Alistair, Sten and I hauled the bodies up together, and we set them burning before we moved on. About a half hour later, we found what had injured the darkspawn: the remains of a wolf pack, some already dead, and some with muzzles matted, covered in that dark, foul blood. The corruption could affect them, it seemed, just as it did people, and it already appeared to be wreaking changes. The creatures fought like crazed things, fierce to the point of insanity. Leliana felled three with well-placed arrows to their red, bloodshot eyes, and the others succumbed to magic and steel, leaving us panting and ankle-deep in churned, blood-stained mud, with the smell of burnt hair, wet fur and damp earth on the air.

Another pyre, another cloud of thick, black smoke. We paused for a while, waiting as the flames started to take the diseased bodies. I couldn’t help but think what the horde would bring with it; they tainted the land itself, so people said. Turned everything rotten, fetid… killed all they touched. I hadn’t seen the full extent of it yet, the way the darkspawn swarmed a place and stripped it bare, leaving nothing but bones and burnt ash behind, a scar that could take decades to heal.

We moved on, striking north-north-east across open country, sandwiched between the rangy undulations of the Southrons and the line of the Drakon River. The land was changing around us again, the strips of lush farmland growing harder and stonier, and the hills rising ever higher, fringed with the dark, jagged shapes of trees. The Brecilian Forest lay further east, beyond the networks of paths and passes that marked the hills, and I kept catching myself glancing towards that shadowy march of silent shapes, as if bands of savage Dalish might emerge from between the tree trunks, and rain arrows down on us at any moment.

None appeared, of course. We’d seen and heard nothing of them, nor found anyone to ask. Alistair reckoned that, with luck, we could make Denerim in about nine days. He sounded so bloody chirpy about it I wanted to hit him, but I said nothing.

The damp was seeping into everything, and the cold made us all crabby and uncomfortable, with the exception of Morrigan. She strode out, a little away from the rest of us, her robes dancing in the wind and her staff stabbing the ground in even, bold strokes as she walked. Fearless… a part of this strange, foreign world. I didn’t like it. I missed the broad, repetitive comfort of the Highway, so fed up with tussocks and hillocks and things dripping down the back of my neck that I almost started to wish Duncan had never conscripted me, and I could be rotting in a dungeon somewhere… which would probably have been warmer. They were silly, stupid thoughts, and they vanished before they were even fully formed, shrouded with the wisps of worry and guilt, and the memories of everyone I’d left behind—or abandoned, more like—to face Maker only knew what punishment on my behalf.

It didn’t improve my mood, or my ability to keep the rest of us sane and buoyant. We were turning into a surly, sullen bunch, despite the occasional interludes of civility, and I knew someone had to do something about it. Yet, when we did talk, conversation kept turning to the Dalish, or Denerim, or Alistair’s musings over how Arl Eamon might be faring, and none of it filled me with anything except stodgy, glowering discomfort.

~o~O~o~

I felt no better that evening when, amid all the damp bustle and repetitive ritual of making camp, Alistair edged over and elbowed me in the back of the ribs.

“Hey.”

“Sod,” I said, as I dropped the tent pegs I’d been trying to coax into the wet, stony ground.

The feet of the Southrons were criss-crossed by small, gritty roads, the whole flavour of the country defined by thinly spread, hardy farms and endless rocky outcrops, topped by trees and dense, wooded bands. We’d picked a spot in the lee of one such rise, and it felt like bandits were about to leap out from behind every rock.

“Sorry.” Alistair looked crestfallen, and knelt to help me fix the flapping canvas to the bare earth. “I just, um… I thought we should talk.”

I rocked back on my heels and looked carefully at him, taking in the unusually sombre set of his face, and the wary look in those hazel eyes. There had been something hanging between us, that was true; ever since those odd hours in the hallways of Redcliffe Castle, when we’d spoken of so much and yet not quite everything.

He’d wanted to say something to me then, hadn’t he? About what it meant to be a Warden, or… possibly some other dark piece of news I didn’t really want to hear.

I shrugged. “All right.”

Leliana and Wynne were preparing a pottage of vegetables and barley, Maethor begging scraps at their feet. Sten sat silent and impassive as ever, at the mouth of his already erected tent, like a carved god staring into some distant future. Morrigan was near the fire, hunched over a small leather-bound book, frowning and occasionally muttering to herself.

“Right.” Alistair straightened up, but his peculiar expression still lingered.

He nodded awkwardly to the sparse brush fringing the camp. We’d staked a claim to a sandy, dry little clearing, with a few straggly trees clinging to the pale, rocky rise of the hill. The grass was patchy and yellowish, a far cry from the lush farmland that lay further down towards the line of the river. My knees creaked a bit as I got up, and I followed him. The light was growing thin and dim, the wide expanse of sky above us fading from greyish blue to a bruised, yellow-streaked purple. The hillside took on a mantle of shadows, and bugs droned aimlessly in the dusk. Our feet crunched on the dirt, and I was reminded a little of that last night at Redcliffe, threaded through with cheap beer and deep conversation.

Alistair cleared his throat. “So, um… I guess I owe you a few answers. And I thought we should talk… about the Wardens.”

“Ah.” I nodded slowly. He’d said that before, as we wiled away the hours waiting for the Circle mages to finish with Connor. I’d known then there were things Duncan hadn’t mentioned. Things I was supposed to have been told, and most likely didn’t want to know. I wet my lower lip with an apprehensive tongue. “Well… um, yes.”

“You probably have questions, right?”

The slightly pained look on Alistair’s face didn’t do much to reassure me. I suspected this was to do with more than my starting to sense the darkspawn.

“Some,” I said warily.

“Well,” he said, pausing to clear his throat again. “Obviously, some things change after the Joining, and—”

“The dreams.” I nodded. “Yes. I know that part. And… feeling them. I felt them, today. It was horrible.”

“Mm.” A muscle clenched in Alistair’s jaw, and he frowned. “Duncan said we tap into their… well, ‘group mind’, I suppose you’d call it. I know it doesn’t seem like it at first, but it does get easier to block out… at least a bit. It’s never exactly going to be pleasant.”

“No.” My left palm itched, and I scrubbed it absently against my breeches. “S’pose not.”

It was impossible to ask him the questions I wanted to. The alienage—and all the rules of decency and modesty that had been drummed into me—had not receded far enough into my past to leave me that open. Yet, I hadn’t been blind to the changes. Even with all the route marches, the fighting, and the light rations, I knew my body was not behaving as it ought. It scared me.

I’d heard enough of the grotesque rumours that had flown around the army camp about the poison carried in darkspawn blood. They said it could take a man in hours, turn him to a foul, corrupted thing… and I’d assumed that was exaggeration, because we were still here, weren’t we? Still alive. Next to everything that could have gone wrong, a few missed courses and some funny dreams were hardly worth sweating over.

And yet, Alistair’s drawn, tense countenance—so little given to dissembling—told me there was more to it. He seemed a little rougher at the edges than he had, the clear, even planes of his face tight and shrouded. I wondered why he’d put this veil of privacy between us and the others. What was it I was supposed to be told, that I had to hear in private?

“There are, uh… well,” I began hesitantly, “physical changes, though. Right?”

He smiled thinly. “Yes. You know, after my Joining, I asked Duncan about it too. All I got was ‘You’ll see’.”

I frowned. “He wouldn’t tell you?”

Alistair sighed, and squinted up at the hillside. “Well, it wasn’t that he wanted to keep it secret… not exactly. It’s just that it doesn’t get discussed much.”

The dusk was growing thicker, and he reached up a hand to swat away a gnat that drifted in crazed zig-zags through the air between us. He shrugged, and gave me another long, uncomfortable look, as if he didn’t know how to broach whatever it was he was struggling with.

“The first change I noticed,” he said, a little too quickly, blurting the words out into the stillness, “was an increase in appetite.”

“Uh… huh?” I frowned, nonplussed.

He nodded enthusiastically, and I recognised the way his shoulders tensed and his hands raised, ready to shape themselves around the corners of whatever anecdote was to come.

“Mm-hm. I used to get up in the middle of the night and raid the castle larder. I thought I was starving. I’d slurp down every dinner like it was my last, my face all covered in gravy.” He paused for effect, grinning encouragingly at me. “When I’d look up, the other Grey Wardens would stare… then laugh themselves to tears.”

It was certainly an image, but my frown deepened, and I wasn’t that moved to laugh. “I haven’t felt anything like that. Should—”

“Really?” Alistair smirked. “Because I was watching you wolf down food the other day and I thought, ‘ooh, it’s a good thing she gets a lot of exercise….’”

The tension cracked as I realised he was pulling my leg and, despite myself, I chuckled. The cool air was growing damp as the night drew in, and the pebbles scuffled beneath my boot as I made to kick him.

“Are you calling me a pig? You— well!” I grinned and, with a shrug, smoothed my hands over the front of my leathers. “What can I say? I’m a growing girl.”

“I’ll say,” Alistair quipped, then spluttered as I raised a hand in mock preparation to thump him. “Argh, no… I didn’t mean it like that. Don’t hit me! I bruise easily!”

I shook my head incredulously. He’d got me that time, and I didn’t mind admitting it. Looking back, it surprises me that I didn’t see how effortlessly he manipulated me, or wonder at why he put so much work into doing it… into softening the blow, perhaps.

In any case, I was still smiling, but the mirth had faded from Alistair’s face. The look in his eyes sobered me quickly.

“There are… other things, though.”

“Oh?”

He strafed a hand over his hair, dusky shadows clinging to his skin. The warm, cosy circle of firelight seemed a long way off, and the smell of barley pottage tugged at the air. Something small and probably squeaky rustled through the undergrowth.

“Yes.” Alistair let a small, low breath slide from his lips, and didn’t quite meet my eye. “The taint… it does change you. Um. All the, uh, all the Grey Wardens I met who’d had children, for instance… they, er, all had them before they Joined.”

The shadows seemed to lengthen, the chill to the thickening air growing bitter.

“Oh.”

Well, I’d worked that out for myself, hadn’t I? Not that it made it easier to hear it confirmed.

Back home, we had names for women like that; women with the core burned out of them, barren and ill-favoured. Dry, useless… because that was what life held for us, and it was the role we were expected to fulfil. As mothers, as wives, we could be respected and cherished. We were the centre of our community and, just as the wedding Father had wanted to give me should have marked the start of my full, real life, so should the children I bore Nelaros have made me complete.

I’d wanted that… albeit in a nebulous, far-off kind of way. Something I’d assumed would happen, in the same way I’d taken the impending marriage for granted. Perhaps that very laziness was what made it hurt all the worse now. Stupid to burn so badly at losing something I’d never truly ached to possess.

I blinked, aware of the heaviness behind my eyes, and aware of Alistair watching me closely, as if he was afraid I might suddenly burst into tears. I cleared my throat, pulled my shoulders back and met his gaze, determined to show I was fine… unaffected. I didn’t understand why he looked like he’d just been punched in the gut or why, when he spoke, his voice was low and slightly husky.

“You see… those who survive the Joining, they resist the taint. Withstand it, if you like. But no one can do that indefinitely. It does change you and, ultimately, it— well, your body won’t be able to take it.”

A bird landed in the trees above, home to roost, the branches rattling and a few leaves dislodged in the dimness. They fluttered down, soft dark shapes with no weight, no consequence. My breaths were slow, but my heart quickened, and the slippery edges of a cold, steep void opened up in the pit of my stomach.

“I… don’t understand,” I lied.

I did. I just wasn’t ready to accept it, preferring to believe I’d misheard, misunderstood… that he didn’t really mean it. The trees were black, skeletal shapes against the darkening sky, and a breeze rustled through them, a dry murmur in the brush.

Alistair winced. He was trying to keep his expression neutral, but unlike Duncan, who had mastered the art of the impassive mask, he wasn’t all that good at it.

He blinked and nodded reluctantly. When he spoke, his words soaked with hard-edged, sardonic bitterness.

“All right. I mean, there’s no easy way to put it, is there? So… in addition to all the other wonderful things about being a Grey Warden, you don’t need to worry about dying from old age. You’ve got thirty years to live. Give or take.”

The blood seemed to rush in my ears, a swirling, deafening roar that left me dizzy and shaky, like I was no more than a paper doll caught in the wind. Alistair wasn’t looking at me. He was frowning away into the scrub, his face tight and drawn. I should say something, I supposed. Prove that I wasn’t about to break down into great racking sobs… that I could face whatever had to come. I’d stumbled close to death enough times already, hadn’t I? It should have lost its mystery by now.

And yet, when I tried to speak, nothing came. I opened my mouth, and only managed the barest rasp of a breath. Alistair glanced at me guardedly, his lower lip folded between his teeth.

Breathing seemed important then. I did it slowly and deeply, unable to keep meeting his gaze. Instead, I stared down at the scuffed toes of my boots, and nodded, as if what he’d said was a perfectly reasonable statement. Well, it was, wasn’t it? I wasn’t the first to hear this news, the first to live this lingering death… and I was oddly aware of the air’s texture as I breathed, as if the air was sand, trickling in fleeting grains within me.

“You all right?”

I started to shake my head—no, I wasn’t, despite how much I’d rather have pretended otherwise—but I stopped. Stupid. Everything was still just the same as it had been before he’d told me. What difference did knowing make? Maybe… maybe I’d already known, somehow. I’d felt the changes, heard the whispers of my own body… I should have known. All those nagging worries about my feminine plumbing, and losing the ability to pod babies was probably the least of my troubles. I felt so stupid, so useless… so afraid.

“I’m going to die,” I said hollowly, eyes fixed on the dark grass at my feet. It didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. There was just a rush of empty husks of things. Thoughts, feelings… numbness.

“We’re all going to die,” Alistair said quietly.

It didn’t help. The look on my face probably indicated that, and I struggled to hold down the urge to snap, my resentment reflexive and shallow. He let out a low, tired breath and tilted his head, trying to catch my eye. I looked away.

“You know, when Duncan told me, I was… angry. He put his hand on my shoulder and said this.”

The weight of a broad, solid palm landed gently on me and I jerked my head up, meeting a look of such warm, apprehensive, sorrow-clouded sympathy in his face that it almost seemed to burn. Alistair squeezed my shoulder, and quoted Duncan’s words in very much the same way as, at my Joining, he’d recited the Grey Warden oath… an oath which I was only now beginning to understand.

“‘It’s not how you die that’s important. It’s how you live.’”

I bit my lip, pushing back all the parts of me that wanted to scream, cry, rail and panic. He was right. I knew he was right… not that the knowing lessened anything. The moment drew out: seconds of real time, but long minutes in my mind. Eventually, I sniffed, nodded, and Alistair’s hand dropped awkwardly to his side. Even through my leathers and my shabby cloak, it felt like there had been warmth there to miss, once it was gone. I cleared my throat.

“Thanks. I guess. I, er….”

“I know,” he said briskly, injecting a tired, thin jollity into his voice. “Anyway, there you have it. And you wondered why we keep the Joining a secret from the new recruits!”

I forced a smile from unwilling lips. “Mm. S’pose so.”

Alistair chuckled mirthlessly. “Yeah…. Still, if we asked for volunteers, the Grey Wardens probably wouldn’t exist. Well, maybe a few. You wouldn’t be here. Neither would I, most likely. And the Blight needs to be stopped.”

Sudden, irrational anger stabbed at my gut. Yes, that was all well and good, but why did it have to be me? Why us? Why… why any of it? The impossibilities and the hopelessness rose up before me like a mountain, and I wondered why in the Maker’s name we hadn’t just fled straight out of the Wilds and gone to the nearest port to get a ship to somewhere safe, with reinforcements and people who knew what they were doing and… and what?

It was too late for that kind of thinking. Too late for running.

I nodded slowly. “Yes.”

My voice sounded pale, strained. Alistair looked critically at me, then the corner of his mouth twitched, and he frowned.

“You know, Duncan started having the nightmares again. He told me that, in private. It’s what happens, when your time comes. They get… worse. He said it wouldn’t be long before he’d go to Orzammar.”

I raised my brows, reluctant to ask the question. The nightmares could get worse? Well, the good news just kept on coming.

“Orzammar? What have the dwarves got to do with—”

“It’s tradition.” He shrugged. “I mean, obviously there’s no shortage of darkspawn on the surface during a Blight, but… normally, it’s what the oldest Grey Wardens do. Go down into the Deep Roads, for one last, glorious battle.”

“Lovely,” I said, without much emphasis.

I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting, only to end up dead in a pit along with rotting darkspawn corpses….

Those words made sense now—and I agreed with them, fervently.

“Well,” Alistair said, with a trace of reproach, “it’s better than sitting around… waiting. So they say. And the dwarves respect us for it.”

At that moment, what a load of beardy, stumpy little bastards thought didn’t matter a damn to me. The idea that, one day, all this would be over—that there would be an end to the blood and the terror and the constant threat of being hacked apart—had been giving me something to hold onto, and I wasn’t sure I could bear it being taken away. Not that, and not being bound to the darkspawn this way. My whole life—or what remained of it, suddenly stripped of sunset years and mapped out in the decay of a steady corruption—was to be tied to those… things. Tainted, unclean.

I blinked, aware of every breath I took stinging, and the weight of tears I was too numb to shed sitting at the bridge of my nose. Alistair’s face had turned grave, reverential… the mere mention of Duncan enough to wipe everything but the loss and grief from his eyes.

“I guess he got what he wanted,” he said wistfully. “I just wish it had been something worthy of him.”

I realised some response was expected of me, and I bit back on the hard, spiteful anger of a wounded child; the temptation to say ‘bugger Duncan’ and, moreover, bugger the Wardens, the darkspawn, the poxy Blight, and everything else. Instead, I sniffed again, and choked out a platitude.

“He’ll be remembered, Alistair.”

He nodded sadly. “I know. Um. You sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah.” I wrinkled my nose, cleared my throat, and turned away so I didn’t have to see the look on his face. “Yes, I’m…. I’ll just have a few minutes.”

“Ah. Right. Of course.” Alistair stepped back, as if he was nervous of me bursting into tears or throwing up on his boots, but he lingered hesitantly. “If you need… well. You know.”

I nodded, arms hugged around myself, pulling my thin cloak tight. I didn’t dare look at him; I’d probably only cry.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, and stepped clumsily away, taking myself off to the stand of trees, where the shadows they cast onto the stony ground were devoid of judgement and consequence.

He got the hint, left me alone, and I stayed there for a while, my forehead resting against rough bark, as I stared blankly into the night, and a future that somehow seemed bleaker than ever.

~o~O~o~

We started to veer northwards the next day, intending to make it back to the river and cross over, exchanging the hilly ground for the easier terrain of the road. There had been no more villages, no more unpleasant incidents with refugees or bounties, and Alistair seemed to be growing increasingly concerned that we push on fast, as if every hour we wasted on resting brought Arl Eamon closer to death.

Morrigan snapped first, declaring what the rest of us were probably thinking—what I was, anyway—and sneeringly suggesting that the arl was likely to be dead before we even got to Denerim, much less back to Redcliffe. It didn’t go down well. Leliana pitched in on Alistair’s side of the argument, proclaiming that, if it was a matter of trying to help or doing nothing, then there was no choice at all.

I was still quiet and bruised, stinging with the new truths I had to digest, but someone needed to step in and be the voice of compromise. I spoke up, agreed that yes, we were doing the right thing, and kept to myself the opinion that—even if Eamon’s ashes were cold and buried by the time we returned—the fact we’d been seen to try would look better than if we’d refused. That would, I thought, matter… particularly if Isolde took control of her husband’s arling.

If we were to be alone in this mess, we needed both allies and enough moral high ground to win good opinion from those who had yet to be convinced by the facts. I may not have had much of a grasp on the murky realities of politics, but I understood how people’s minds worked… how reputations had to be hammered out like iron, faultless and resilient, and relied upon like armour.

So, we plodded on, in increasingly prickly silence. From time to time, I caught myself thinking about Lothering, and the floods of refugees from the Wilds and the Hinterlands. We’d passed the road that led to the village more than a week ago, but not close enough to see what was happening there. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, though we’d have to think about it at some point.

I wondered what the future would hold. Would the horde’s movements even be predictable? They’d erupted in the Wilds, started washing north like a dark, foul tide, but what did that mean for the rest of Ferelden? They would spread, I assumed, trailing corruption and filth in their wake, but exactly how would that happen? Was it even possible to guess where and how they would swarm? The way I saw it, Ostagar had been lost either because the archdemon had outmanoeuvred the army—and been a damn sight more cunning than anyone had imagined—or because Loghain really was the treacherous bastard that Alistair thought.

At least… that was how it looked. Reason told me there must be middle ground, some palette of greys and half-truths, but it was hard to find.

To make matters worse, Maethor was getting jumpy. I thought at first it was his sore paw. Wynne had treated the dog, and Morrigan had grudgingly made up a hot elfroot poultice to take down the swelling, leaving the foot almost as good as new, despite the amount of walking we were doing. However, he’d been acting oddly, growling at shadows and howling in the small hours of the morning. I wondered about what the kennel master back at the army camp had said—how the darkspawn corruption could affect the hounds—and thought of the strange flower he’d used for treatment. Be nice to know if it also worked for Grey Wardens, I supposed. I doubted it. The blood we drank we did so intentionally, not just through the chaos of battle, and Maker only knew what the Circle mages who helped prepare the Joining ritual did to it. The fleeting thought that, just maybe, magic and blood was never a good combination did occur to me, but it didn’t seem… well, the Wardens wouldn’t use blood magic, would they?

It was probably just me, not understanding. There was, after all, a lot I didn’t know. Of course, I chalked a great deal up to ignorance then. Perhaps it was easier like that.

In any case, I put Maethor’s jitteriness down to the tension brooding over the whole group, and I did my best to leaven it. When we stopped, near the river, I took the advantage of a clear, warmish evening, and washed out a lot of our clothes in the water while Wynne prepared her trademark vegetable stew.

Camp that night was… cosy. Linens dripping over broken branches, propped near the fire, and us with full bellies, wet hair and clean-scrubbed skin. Sten and Alistair had made a sortie into the surrounding area, and there was much talk of a pass through the hills they’d found, which seemingly led to the northern neck of the forest, and quite possibly the Dalish… or so Alistair seemed to think. From the way he talked, it sounded like he really believed we’d just shimmy into Denerim, take afternoon tea and a quick chat with this elusive scholar, then bump into a wandering clan of Dalish for supper. I wasn’t sure if it was desperation or sarcasm.

Leliana, in a convivial mood, enlivened the flickering firelight with a story about the wild elves.

“You know, of course, how Andraste began Her Exalted March against the Imperium, rising up against the wickedness of the Tevinter magisters….”

Morrigan snorted, which our resident minstrel ignored, leaning into the dancing tongues of gold and orange light, her hands spread wide like elegant doves, sweeping through the tale.

“It was only natural that the elves—enslaved for a thousand years, in cruelty and oppression—should rise up and join with Her against their masters. The great elven leader, Shartan, born in captivity, foresaw a future where his people were free, and pledged his life to the Prophet’s cause.”

It was an odd experience, hearing a human tell that story. Leliana’s version was certainly different to Valendrian’s, but I had to admit that, the last time I’d heard it, I’d been different, too.

“Shartan perished when Andraste was betrayed,” Leliana went on, her voice growing sweetly mournful as she painted the Prophet’s martyrdom with words I’d heard before: the upturned face, the pure song, the sword of mercy….

No one ever talked about exactly how Shartan had died, I realised. At my feet, Maethor rolled over for a belly rub and, dutifully, I extended my hand and scratched the broad, hairy stomach.

“Yet, even with their leader gone, the elves continued to fight, eventually breaking free of the Imperium. It was a mighty triumph, and the elves finally claimed the Dales in the south, settling there as they had dreamed of doing, in a land of their own.”

I frowned slightly. Not entirely true… not the way I knew it. Those who fought the Imperium hadn’t wanted to forge something new. They’d wanted the rightful return to the cities they’d once had; to reclaim the lost world of Arlathan, and the culture and history stripped from them by the shems. Childhood stories of the Emerald Knights turned lazily over at the back of my mind, and I thought of how I’d pictured ancient elves to be when I was a little girl: proud and wild, and never having to go to bed when their parents told them to.

I suppressed a smile, and watched Leliana continue to spin her story. Maybe stories were all the ancients had ever been. Impossible to know, I supposed.

“For centuries, the elves lived in the Dales. They resurrected the worship of their elven gods, and would allow the building of no chantry. This greatly angered the Divine, and hostility between the two sides finally broke out into open war.” She sat back, her hands upon her knees, a small silence for effect as she glanced around her assembled audience. “A new Exalted March was declared, named for Andraste’s rebellion against the Imperium, and the Dales were sacked, the elven state completely dissolved.”

It seemed strange to me that Leliana didn’t emphasise what Valendrian had always called our fall of pride… how elves attacking the village of Red Crossing had brought the wrath of the Chantry down on the Dales, and how humility and tact were always the safer option. A story I could have stood to listen to more carefully, perhaps.

Morrigan arched one thin eyebrow, dark-painted lips quirked into a smile.

“’Tis most remarkable how your Chantry so often appears to be grinding some group or other beneath its heel, is it not?”

Leliana shrugged amiably. “Some do say the elves struck first. I do not know whether that is true. There are usually faults on both sides in any dispute. All I know is that there was great devastation… a terrible war. When it ended, some of the elves bitterly accepted their fates, and surrendered to human rule.”

My hand stilled on Maethor’s short, brindled coat. It was hard to say why the words pained me. Perhaps it was the phrase ‘human rule’. We, who put so much effort into painting ourselves as cleverer than them, as more cunning and more respectable—and who, every day, grubbed a dozen new reasons out of the dirt for why things shouldn’t have to be any other way—we didn’t think in terms of words like that.

“But others,” Leliana was saying, and I had to blink and concentrate on her voice, “they would not bow. Fiercely proud of their heritage, they refused to live beneath the humans as second-class citizens, little better than the slaves they had been… and instead became homeless wanderers. They were—and they remain—the elves of the Dales: the Dalish.”

She finished the tale with a pretty flourish, and gained a ripple of appreciation, though mine was perhaps less enthusiastic than it should have been. It was the ‘little better than slaves’ bit that stuck in my craw, much like that crack from Sten about excelling at poverty. They didn’t know us, and they didn’t understand. And… and that was an excuse, wasn’t it?

When the time came to slope off to bed, I was still mulling it over: all those issues of prejudice and stagnant, in-born thinking that had been bothering me for a while, and were only getting worse. Maethor barked at the stand of trees that edged the camp, and I glanced up, already chastising him for being daft. And yet, for a moment, I could have sworn there was something there… some figure in the shadows.

There wasn’t, of course. No darkspawn, no bandits, and definitely no Dalish haunting our footsteps. I crawled into the confined, muggy space of my tent, and fell into a strange, torpid sleep, in which Soris was shooting a bow and wearing deerhides. He kept trying to talk to me, but instead of his words all I heard was whispering and, eventually, he was lost in the black mist that rolled in, and the roar of that unholy voice that filled a canyon of blood-red rock.

~o~O~o~

A little way from the main thoroughfare of the West Road, there were a number of smaller paths and roadways, and it was those we stuck to as best we could. The general theory was that it would be less dangerous. The closer we got to Denerim, after all, the more eager eyes would have devoured Loghain’s bounty posters.

So, the following morning, we were following one such packed-dirt route. Blue sky, cool breeze… the road growing narrow, banks rising either side of the track, thick with trees and ferns. Even the light took on a slightly dappled, greenish hue, and I had the sensation of following a sloping path down into somewhere it might not be a good idea to linger.

Maethor was trotting along, snuffling at the ground, when a figure broke from the brush ahead, and he jerked his head up, grumbling inquisitively. A woman in torn, ragged clothes came running up the path towards us, waving her arms and calling for help.

“Oh, thank the Maker!” She gasped as she drew closer, bending over to catch her breath. “At last! We need help. Please… they attacked the wagon… please help us!”

She addressed Alistair, of course. People usually did.

“Calm down,” he said, glancing briefly at me, as if he wasn’t sure what to do. “Who—”

I shrugged. She certainly did look like she needed help, her dress splattered with mud and her hair ragged and unkempt, but I wasn’t crazy about running towards the scene of a bandit ambush. For a start, who knew whether they’d all left?

The woman reached out her hands to him, face contorted with desperation.

“There’s no time! Please… follow me. Come on, I’ll take you to them.”

She flashed a wide-eyed look of panic at him, turned and started to scamper back off up the path, pausing only to wave impatiently for us to follow.

“Come on! We need help!”

Alistair winced, then hefted his pack on his shoulders and headed off after the woman, with an inquisitive glance back at the rest of us.

Behind me, Morrigan sighed theatrically. “One wonders, does one not, if people can ever do anything for themselves.”

Maethor barked and loped after the blonde, mud-smirched traveller, and I supposed we had little choice. At least it made a change from being ambushed or set upon, and I wondered if, at some cosmic level, lending a bit of aid to a stricken caravan might make up for the deaths at that blighted village back west.

Overhead, sunlight filtered down through the bright, acid greens of the trees, and paved the dirty road with slabs of flickering gold.

There was, sure enough, a ruined wagon. It had been burned, the throats of the oxen had been slit, and broken crates and barrels lay across the path. A couple of carrion crows perched on the corpses of the beasts, wings stretched out for balance, and beaks tearing at the livid red wounds in their white coats. There were not, as far as I could see, any other bodies… or any other survivors.

I frowned, suddenly uncomfortable with the scene we’d stumbled into. It felt too perfect, too convenient, and I wasn’t alone in my unease.

“I don’t like this,” Leliana murmured. “There are no real signs of struggle here. I don’t think—”

She was stopped by a great cracking sound overhead. I glanced up just in time to see the lichen-patched trunk of a dead tree beginning to fall from the bank, and flung myself forwards, pushing her ahead of me and landing in an ungainly sprawl in the mud. As the tree crashed to the ground, splinters of woody shrapnel flying off in all directions, I was already struggling out of my pack and reaching for my dagger.

All around the clearing, heavily armed men and women sprung from the shadows, or rose up from the artfully arranged wreckage of that well-staged chaos. One glance was not enough to take them all in, but it did tell me how well and truly caught in this trap we were… and that was when I saw another figure rise up from behind the broken wagon. He was elven, but the points on his ears did not attract my attention as immediately as the slim, wicked dagger in each hand, his ornately tooled leather armour… or his heavily accented cry of command as, one hand scything through the air and signalling what I now took to be his men, he bellowed:

“The Grey Wardens die here!”

Great, I thought. Not so much of a change from being ambushed after all.

Half a dozen bows unleashed volley on volley of arrows, and the woman who had first approached us showed her true colours, wheeling around with hands drawn up like claws at the level of her stomach, the blue crackle of magical energy already spilling from her palms. She flung the first burst and we scattered to the smell of scorched grass and mud. I found my feet, adrenaline forcing me up on wobbly legs that seemed to know how to run, even if the rest of me didn’t, and for some reason I appeared to be heading straight towards the mage. I hunched my shoulders, dimly aware of an arrow scudding past my ear, and the familiar icy blast of Morrigan’s wrath rending the air above me—and, from the sound of it, causing one of the crossbowmen terminal discomfort—and cannoned into the woman with the full force of my weight.

She went over backwards, landing with a cry of pain and me astride her, smashing a curled fist into her jaw. She fought back, struggling to throw me off and fire some arcane bolt into my face. I caught her wrists, fought to keep her hands from doing their work. She writhed, cursed and clawed. Sparks blinded and burned as we tussled, her screaming part in rage and maybe even part in fear. She ended the scream with a wet gurgle and the dagger I’d managed to pull from my belt in her neck, her body turning limp beneath me as the life left her eyes and blood pooled beneath her, matting her blonde hair. I’d have started to feel sick, but a hot thread of pain bloomed in the back of my ribs and, rolling away from both the body and the agonising surprise, I found I struggled to breathe. On my knees, hand automatically going to the source, I felt wetness… blood. The yelling and the sounds of battle all around me seemed a little dimmer and, blinking muzzily, I could see a pair of fine leather boots before me, their well-polished finish spattered with mud.

I squinted upwards, and saw the fair-haired foreign elf looking down at me, bloody dirk in hand and a glittering smile—sharp as a sword-edge and just as hard—on his face.

“You bastard,” I managed.

His grin widened. “Nothing personal,” he said, just before he lunged in for the kill.

I moved, too: pitched sideways as fast as I could, lashed out with my dagger, aiming for the back of his leg. Unbalanced, he missed me, and ended up toppling forwards into the body of the treacherous mage. He snarled something that I had no doubt was a curse, but I was busy lurching to my feet and taking advantage of the opportunity to kick him as hard as possible in the groin while he was down. The curse became a full-blooded yell of pure male agony, and the elf balled up, clutching himself.

My armour seemed to have turned aside the worst of the wound he’d inflicted—I’d been lucky, I thought—but it didn’t protect me from the second assailant, who barrelled in from the right, sword scything towards me. I swore, ducked, parried, and found myself pushed back into the melee, fighting to the last inch. We’d taken at least half of them down, as far as I could see. Between them, Morrigan and Wynne were holding the path, for all their differences standing shoulder to shoulder, ice and light surging from twin staves. Leliana had snatched a piece of high ground; she stood balanced on the fallen tree meant to crush us, arrows flying from her bow with swift and terrifying accuracy. I saw at least one of the crossbowmen go down with a familiar flight protruding from his eye.

Sten and Alistair had cut a swathe through the others, though it was Maethor who came to my rescue as I faced the particularly wicked sword of one opponent. He grinned down at me—a broad-faced human with dark skin and bloodshot eyes, the thrill of triumph curling his lips—and I stepped backwards, preparing to meet the swing of his blade, but instead yelling as the jaws of a concealed trap clamped around my ankle, rendering me helpless. I fell into the piled up bracken and mud disguising the trap, wrenching my knee in the process, my eyes full of the sword about to swing down on me. There was a ferocious growl, and a blur of movement, then the human screamed wetly… and I winced. There are few more unpleasantly visceral noises than that of the dog who frequently shares your bedroll shaking a grown man by the throat.

Silence descended over the clearing, except for the brief, horrible sound of Sten putting one of the would-be assassins out of his misery, and the clink of buckles and fitments as he paced the area, checking to see whether the remaining kills had been clean. I tried not to think about it, and focused on the pile of mud and debris I was sitting in, instead of the corpse’s leg draped across mine. My ankle was still stuck in the trap and, though the thing hadn’t fully pierced my boot, it was a less than comfortable experience, made worse by the fact I couldn’t pry its jaws apart, no matter how hard I tried.

“Um… hello?” I peered up, looking for assistance, and waved pathetically. “Help?”

Alistair, blood-spattered and sweaty, shook his head as he came over. “Honestly. Do you never look where you’re going?”

I pulled a face, and gritted my teeth as he hunkered down and wrenched the trap open, allowing me to wriggle my foot out.

“Ow. Thanks.”

“We should be careful,” Leliana observed, picking her way delicately through the clearing, eyes on the ground in front of her. “They’re likely to have set more. That looks like a tripwire….”

A little way ahead, at the foot of the bank, Sten held up a hand.

“This one is alive,” he said, nudging the prone body of the blond elf. “Their leader. They were no mere bandits… it may be wise to ask some questions before you kill him.”

I winced, limping a bit as I got to my feet and hobbled over, hand pressed to the flesh wound that had so narrowly missed my kidneys. Ashen-faced and tight-lipped, Wynne frowned at me.

“You’re hurt.”

“I’ll keep,” I assured her, peering at the others. “Everyone else all right?”

She had blood on her robe. It didn’t appear to be hers. The concerned, slightly disapproving frown deepened, and Wynne’s mouth crumpled reproachfully. They were fine… bloodied, tired, and a little surprised, but fine. That was good. I took a deep breath, and nodded.

“Right. We should, uh… wake him up. Find out what… um. Yes. Tie his hands. In the front,” I added, as Alistair knelt beside the elf. “Make sure we can see where they are.”

There was some brief scuffling, picking over the mess for a suitable bit of rope, and then the undignified business of hauling our prisoner up out of the mud and binding him. At first, I thought he wouldn’t wake; a gash to his temple, bruised eye, and blood all over his flamboyant, impractical armour would have fooled me, though his narrow chest rose and fell to a regular, albeit weak rhythm.

He was a curious creature, unlike any elf I’d ever seen. The leathers he wore left his arms and legs partly bare, with heavily tooled spaulders capping his shoulders, and every inch of the chestpiece covered with intricate, scrolled designs. The fringe of plackets that ended his tunic was finished with delicate silver bevels that hung against his thighs… which I blinked and looked hurriedly away from. Heavily embossed, ornate boots and gloves in thick, dark leather stood out in contrast to his showy armour, and his deeply tanned skin was smooth and supple, his body clearly unmarked by deprivation. His hair—that strikingly bright, fair hair—was soft and shiny, bound by two immaculate braids fastened at the back of his head, and one thin loop of gold hung from his right earlobe.

Where I came from, the only elves who paid as much attention to their looks as this were the pretty girls whose faces could be their fortune… and their undoing.

Our prisoner certainly did have the kind of face that couldn’t be forgotten in a hurry. Despite the blood, bruises, and slack-lipped unconsciousness, he was extremely good-looking; a honed, well-practised kind of handsome, I supposed. A full mouth, sharp, high cheekbones and clean jaw, long neck and well-set, strong ears… yet my eyes were drawn to the strange, dark marking that hugged the outline of his left cheek. Two sinuous lines, following the sculpted plane of his face: a tattoo, but unlike any I’d seen before. Usually, we only saw ink on mercenaries and thugs in the lower reaches of the market district, stamped like warnings on the kind of people it was sensible not to make eye contact with.

I edged back then, allowing Wynne to lean over the elf. With that pulsing shroud of white light enveloping her hand—something I had yet to feel really comfortable around—she made a quick pass across his head, her palm not quite touching his skin. He stirred, flinched and mumbled, his thick, golden brows drawing close together as the gash on his temple knitted itself.

“He’s all right,” she said, straightening up and dusting her hands together.

Collectively, we tensed, watching as the elf came to.

“Mmm… what? I… oh.”

Those heavy, lazy-lidded eyes flickered open, and he cast a glance around all of us before fixing me with a slightly bleary—but exceptionally knowing—gaze. Odd, I thought, trying not to be distracted by the feeling that those light, golden-brown eyes could dance their way right through every thought in my head without me even knowing it.

Whatever he was, the elf was no mere hired blade. It did not comfort me that his mouth then curled into a sleepy grin, and he flexed a little, obviously feeling the bonds at his wrists and ankles, and testing them gently… apparently completely unperturbed.

“How interesting,” he said, in those warm, thickly accented tones, as if remarking on nothing more than a clement change of weather. “You know, I rather thought I would wake up dead. Or not wake up at all, as the case may be… but I see you haven’t killed me yet.”

He flashed me a disarming grin.

“That could easily change,” I said, mindful of the sore patch at the back of my ribs, and how very easily I could have breathed my last on the end of his dagger. “Right now, I have some questions.”

“Ah! So I’m to be interrogated?” He shifted against the bonds again, as if getting himself comfortable, the heels of those expensive boots making small ruts in the cracked mud. “Let me save you some time.”

My confusion must have been apparent, because his smile widened, and it flummoxed me completely. I couldn’t understand how someone who woke to find himself bound and surrounded by people he’d just failed to kill could be so blasé about it. Either he knew something we didn’t, or he truly didn’t care about dying… and neither of those options was terribly reassuring.

“My name is Zevran. Zev to my friends. I am a member of the Antivan Crows, brought here for the sole purpose of slaying any surviving Grey Wardens… which I have failed at, sadly.”

“Ye-es,” Alistair said dryly. “How terrible.”

Zevran shrugged, as best he could with his hands tied. “Eh, I suppose you would say that.”

I rubbed the back of my thumb across my forehead, trying to keep up. “Wait, wh…? Crows? What are—”

“I can tell you that,” Leliana said, looking down at the elf with a peculiar mix of respect and pity. “They are an order of assassins out of Antiva. Very powerful, and renowned for always getting the job done… so to speak.”

Wynne nodded. “Indeed. I understand they almost run that nation, and are hired only at great expense.”

I was still stuck on ‘assassin’, my mouth flapping uselessly around various expressions of disbelief. Zevran looked smugly up at me.

“Quite right. I’m surprised you haven’t heard much of the Crows out here. Back where I come from, we’re rather infamous.”

“Oh,” I said faintly. “Good. So… hang on, you came all the way from Antiva?”

The sense of absurdity weighed in heavily on me. The staged carnage along the wooded path, the bodies that still littered the grass… the stink of death and dead flesh, and this strange, foreign elf, who could sit there and look so damn pleased with himself, while the blood was still wet on the ground.

“Not precisely,” Zevran said, wrinkling his high-set, patrician nose. “I was in the neighbourhood when the offer came. The Crows get around, you see.”

I didn’t, not at all, and I wished I felt as if I was the one in control of this interrogation.

“Who hired you?” I demanded, determining to be forceful and brusque.

It had no impact whatsoever. Zevran simply quirked the corner of his mouth and gave me a look that—on anyone else—would have been the obvious feigning of wide-eyed innocence. On him, it was as far from innocent as black from white… in fact, it was positively obscene.

“Well, let me see… a rather taciturn fellow in the capital. Loghain, I think his name was? Yes, that’s it.”

My heart sank, disbelief warring with dread and nausea as I realised what that meant. This wasn’t just a bounty. It wasn’t even soldiers stirring up discontent with a few badly copied likenesses and the promise of a handful of coins. This was so very much worse than that.

“That treacherous bastard!” Alistair erupted, predictably. “As if it wasn’t enough to—”

He was sliding into a rant I’d heard too many times before, and I shook my head.

“—even admit what he did, the two-faced—”

“You’re the regent’s man, then?” I asked, glaring down at Zevran.

He actually chuckled, which unsettled me.

“What? Ha! No. I have no idea what his issues are with you. The usual, I imagine. You threaten his power, yes?”

Those were emphatically not the words I’d have chosen. We weren’t a threat. We were stupidly lucky, maybe, but that was probably as far as it went. Still, one thick, golden brow curved above that heavy-lidded amber gaze, and I wondered just how much the assassin knew. More than he was telling, I’d have guessed. Zevran shook his head.

“No, I’m not loyal to him. I was contracted to perform a service, that is all.”

I nodded slowly. Well, we were headed to Denerim. Perhaps there was an advantage to be gleaned here.

“All right. When were you to see him next?”

“I wasn’t,” Zevran said glibly. “If I had succeeded, I would have returned home and the Crows would have informed your Loghain of the results… if he didn’t already know. If I had failed, I would be dead. Or I should be, at least as far as the Crows are concerned. No need to see Loghain then.”

Alistair gave an incredulous snort. “If you’d failed?”

Zevran flashed another of those disarming grins. “What can I say? I am an eternal optimist… although the chances of succeeding at this point seem a bit slim, don’t they?” He chuckled throatily, but the laughter faded into a frosty silence, and he sighed. “No, I don’t suppose you’d find that funny, would you?”

I crossed my arms over my chest, frowning grumpily at this strange, flamboyant creature. Even his elvenness was foreign to me… dressed up in fancy gear, primped and beautified, like the lap-dog servants Leliana spoke of in Orlais. I’d never knowingly met an Antivan, and I wondered if they were all like this, dripping with dangerous false charm and exoticism. Yet, he didn’t seem to laying it on that thickly. There was something else there… the naked indifference of a man who either truly believed he was already dead or, for whatever reason, didn’t care whether we killed him or not. Either a brilliant liar or a complete nutcase, I decided. Great.

Abruptly, the carrion birds lifted off the bodies behind us, their harsh calls and the flap of their wings grating against the trees. A clever trap, this, I thought… and very elaborate. I narrowed my eyes.

“How did you find us?”

Zevran looked mildly affronted. “Well, that would be my job, no? Or… part of it, at least. If you must know, we have been keeping track of you for several days. It was simply a matter of choosing the right time and place.”

A fleetingly wistful expression crossed his face, and I got the distinct impression he was making a mental note about having picked the wrong terrain or time of day. I frowned, but Alistair cut across before I got a chance to speak.

“All right, then… how much did that bastard pay you for our heads?”

I wasn’t paid anything,” Zevran said, with the air of someone gently correcting a child. “The Crows, however, were paid quite handsomely. Or so I understand. Which does make me about as poor as a chantry mouse, come to think of it.” He shrugged. “Being an Antivan Crow isn’t for the ambitious, to be perfectly honest.”

Zevran stretched a little against his bonds, but with the air of a man lounging on the grass on a summer’s afternoon, rather than a captive wriggling for freedom. He peered at me and smiled dryly.

“But don’t let my sad story influence you. The Crows aren’t so bad. They keep one well supplied—wine, women, men… whatever you happen to fancy—though the whole severance package is garbage, let me tell you. If you were considering joining, I’d really think twice about it.”

There was something deeply unsettling about a man in his position who could crack a joke like that. A small, anxious frown pinched my brow.

“Right. Thanks. I’ll, er, bear that in mind.”

“Well, you seem like a bright girl,” he said cheerfully. “I’m sure you’ve other options. As a matter of fact, perhaps you’d care to discuss… options?”

“Do we want to discuss anything with him?” Alistair asked, suspicion twisting his mouth. “He did just try to kill us.”

Sten shifted, subtly but very noticeably, hands on the hilt of his large, heavy sword, the tip of its blade resting on a tussock of grass, the metal still marked with dull streaks of blood. My gaze flicked from the qunari to the prone assassin, and I had to admit I was impressed at the fact he barely missed a beat.

Zevran swiped his tongue across his lower lip and fixed me with a very sharp look, and the fleeting hint of an engaging smile. He flexed one shoulder in a small shrug, and arched his eyebrows.

“All right. Here’s the thing. I failed to kill you, so my life is forfeit. That’s how it works. If you don’t kill me, the Crows will. Thing is, I like living… and you obviously are the sort to give the Crows pause. So, let me serve you instead.”

His words found a hollow, slightly stunned silence. I blinked, and looked at Leliana. She didn’t seem surprised and, catching my eye, nodded.

“As far as I understand it, what he says is true. The Crows operate a strict honour code. Failure is… not tolerated. It is why they are so successful.”

“Most of the time,” Zevran added helpfully. “But, not today, it seems, eh?”

That cheerful grin again. I felt as if I was watching the world slide away beneath me, like honey off a hot spoon, taking every ounce of common sense and normality with it. One thing I did know for certain was that it would be exceptionally hard to kill anyone I’d exchanged this many words with. Perhaps that had been his plan.

Alistair snorted incredulously. “Marvellous. And we could expect the same amount of loyalty from you, could we?”

“I happen to be a very loyal person,” Zevran retorted, pouting slightly. “Up until the point where someone expects me to die for failing. That’s not a fault, really, is it? I mean, unless you’re the sort who would do the same thing. In which case I… don’t come very well recommended, I suppose.”

He chuckled happily, apparently pleased with little piece of self-deprecating humour, and glanced between the two of us, probably establishing the best way to play us off each other. I would have liked to think, coming from where I did, I was wise to his kind of bullshit, but that wasn’t strictly true.

Only once I’d left the alienage did I realise how sheltered Father had tried to keep me… from the worst points of our world, as well as the ones beyond the walls.

I sighed tightly. “Say we accept your offer. What do you want in return?”

“Well… let’s see.” Zevran’s gaze tracked slowly up my body, undisguised and unabashed. I scowled, and he flashed me a mischievous leer. “All right… being allowed to live would be nice, and would make me marginally more useful to you. And somewhere down the line, if you should decide that you no longer have need of me, then I go on my way. Until then, I am yours. Is that fair?”

I snorted. “You must think I’m royally stupid.”

He tilted his head to the side, those dancing eyes balanced on me like throwing knives, and I wasn’t sure if the gesture was more reminiscent of a bird or a snake.

“I think you’re royally tough to kill,” he said lightly, leavening the words with a smirk. “And utterly gorgeous. Not that I think you’ll respond to simple flattery. But there are worse things in life than serving the whims of a deadly sex goddess, no?”

“I— That….” The words faded into useless obscurity, cracking off my tongue as I realised, in horror, that I was about to blush, hugely and embarrassingly.

Some hours later, I would think of the comeback I’d wish I’d made: an icy glare and the calm, unruffled suggestion that, if he really didn’t want me to gut him where he sat, he should watch his mouth. Unfortunately, at the time, all I managed was some mortified huffing, and quite probably a passable impersonation of a beetroot.

Alistair harrumphed into the prickly silence. “And why would anyone even want your… services?”

On reflection, it probably wasn’t the best choice of words. Zevran’s smirk widened into a broad, white smile.

“Why? Because I am skilled at many things, in addition to the fighting. I know twelve different card games, seven kinds of exotic massage, and plenty of stories for telling around the campfire. I could also warn you and your colleague should the Antivan Crows attempt something more… sophisticated… now that my attempts have failed.”

Zevran switched his attention back to me, eyebrow cocked and eyes glittering with mischief.

“Or I could simply stand around and look pretty, if you prefer. Warm your bed? Fend off unwanted suitors? No?”

I was painfully aware of the heavy glances on me, and the blush scalding my cheeks. I cleared my throat.

“Er… no.”

He chuckled. “I like a woman who knows exactly what she wants, I really do. So, what say you? I’ll even shine armour. You won’t find a better deal, I promise.”

I looked around the clearing, at the faces of my uncertain companions, and at the bodies littering the ground, and the wreckage of the carefully laid trap we had so miraculously evaded. If there was a next time, these Crows might be harder to escape and—though I hated to admit it—there was something coldly logical about using one of their own against them.

If I told myself that, I supposed I might come to believe I hadn’t been swayed by a big pair of brown eyes, and a whole lot of glib patter. I wasn’t that stupid, was I?

Zevran grinned winsomely up at me. Rather too winsomely, I thought, for someone potentially about to get a blade in the neck. Still… at this point, what did he have to lose? I sighed wearily.

“All right. Fine. You come with us.”

“What?” Alistair yelped. “Merien, have you lost your mind? You’re letting the assassin tag along now? He just tried to kill us!”

Morrigan chuckled dryly. “She allows you to tag along, does she not? What’s another cast-off to add to the collection?”

Alistair winced. “Ouch. That… I mean, it may be true, but… ouch.”

I leaned down and unknotted Zevran’s bonds. “You can walk between them,” I said quietly. “And if that doesn’t drive you to knife someone, you’ll have proved you’re on the level.”

He grinned, and I helped him to his feet, feeling rather like the dowdy peahen beside a flamboyant and glittering male. There didn’t seem to be an inch of clothing, arms or armour on him that wasn’t decorated or tooled, and that wasn’t even touching on the curious, sinuous tattoo that hugged the outline of his cheekbone. Beneath the grime and sweat of battle, I also caught an odd, foreign scent… like the attars and oils they used to sell in the market. The deepness of roses, the headiness of musk, and the sharpness of spice.

I brushed my hand against my breeches and glanced at Alistair.

“Anyway, you were the one who said we needed all the help we could get.”

He curled his lip. “Yes, but… oh, all right. Still, if there was a sign we were desperate, I think it just knocked on the door and said hello.”

Zevran beamed cockily at him. “Hello.”

I groaned. Not only was someone else dealing out the cards I had to play with, but the entire pack was made of jokers.

“A fine plan,” Morrigan said archly. “Although, if I were you, I would inspect my food and drink a great deal more closely from now on.”

Zevran cast an undisguised look of appraisal over the witch and nodded, apparently unfazed. “Very sensible advice… and all the sweeter when it comes from a beautiful woman.”

She sneered, baring her small, white, even teeth.

“Well, I think it is wonderful to have an Antivan Crow join us,” Leliana said. “Welcome, Zevran. I am Leliana… pleased to have you with us.”

“Oh?” He arched one golden brow. “The pleasure is all mine, I am sure. I was not aware such loveliness existed amongst adventurers.”

The grin widened even further, and I decided that this was a man who could probably make ‘good morning’ sound lascivious. Leliana’s expression locked, the smile stiffening and fading.

“Or… maybe not.”

Alistair cleared his throat. “Well, there’ll be time for proper introductions once we get moving. We shouldn’t hang around here.”

I squinted back down the road. He had a point. There’d been little enough traffic—the quietness of this place probably the reason Zevran’s people had chosen it—but we’d burned enough daylight as it was.

“No,” I said. “We shouldn’t. We’ll strip anything we can use, clean up, and get going.”

For a moment, I almost sounded as if I thought I was in charge.

Zevran nodded sagely. “Very well. But allow me to make this official yes?”

I didn’t understand what he meant, more occupied by the gnawing pain in the back of my ribs. He bowed low before me and—to my immense surprise—got down on one knee in the mud, head bent. He was like a picture in a storybook; one of those princely thieves humbled by a genie.

“I hereby pledge my oath of loyalty to you, until such a time as you choose to release me from it. I am your man, without reservation… this I swear,” he added, raising his head to fix me with those heavy-lidded, almond-shaped eyes.

“Er… thanks,” I said, faintly embarrassed.

Zevran got up, brushed himself down, and glanced around the clearing at the bodies of his men.

“So,” he said brightly. “Are we going to take their boots?”

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Volume 3: Chapter Four
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