Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Two

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Less than a week after leaving Redcliffe, we needed to stop to resupply. For me, at least, rationed drinking water was one of the biggest struggles about being on the road. Whatever deprivations we’d suffered in the alienage, we’d had our pumps and standpipes and, disregarding the occasional brownish tint or coppery flavour, the water was fine. It was also free. We could boil and drink it, wash our bodies and our clothes (and plenty of shem laundry, at a bit a bundle) and—in that traditional, fiercely competitive pastime of elven women—clean our homes until the front steps sparkled and the tables were scrubbed smooth. Making do with dirty hands, greasy hair, and a perpetually dry mouth did not come easily to me, and I was grateful when we spotted the first hint of a village.

It wasn’t much of a place, just a blot not even marked on the map, but I had no doubt there would be a well, and fresh water, and—

“Maker’s breath!” Leliana exclaimed, as we drew closer to the settlement. “Look at them all. Those poor people… it’s just like Lothering.”

She was right: the place was crawling with refugees. From the looks of it, they were mainly farmholders and hamlet folk, all clustered around the shabby excuse for a market square—just a few wooden shopfronts with tattered awnings above them, and a small building identifiable as a chantry only by the symbol of the holy flame above its doors. Arguments were breaking out where too many people wanted to barter for too few goods, with too little coin, and the whole place reeked of the combined staleness of desperation and exhaustion.

“Why don’t you all wait here?” Leliana suggested. “I will go and see what I can find out. They must have a well, no?”

“And precious little of anything else, I imagine,” Morrigan said dryly. “We are wasting our time here.”

I watched the scuffle of people in front of the chantry start to throw punches, before one man’s family pulled him away, and another’s wife clung to his arm, weeping.

“We should probably be grateful we have the option to move on,” I said, eyeing the uneasy crowd. “It’s more than these poor sods.”

Leliana slipped me a small, encouraging smile. “I won’t be long.”

She took our stack of empty skins and sauntered off towards the scrum. Wynne murmured something about lending a hand and followed on, leaving me to loiter like a spare part, unsure if I’d do more harm than good if I tried to help. The two women were definitely the least likely of our eclectic little group to draw attention. Redcliffe had seen all of us—with the notable exception of Morrigan, who’d loudly proclaimed not to need charity or change—outfitted with new gear, so at least we looked respectable… in a way. Splinted mail and chain for Alistair and Sten, leathers for me and Leliana, and heavy cloaks all round; even the mages could bundle themselves up and try to pass for normal. Yet, we were still an obvious enough aberration on the road. Armed and armoured adventurers… mercenaries, troublemakers, or worse. It made sense to stay back from the square, and attract as little attention as possible.

Morrigan sighed loudly and, with a complaint about the refugees’ pathetic scurrying, wailing and gnashing of teeth, took herself off to lounge against a wall.

It was a good opportunity to split up and have a breather. In truth, we were probably all glad to get a break from each other. Ten minutes to sneak a quick piss behind the nearest shack, and maybe take the weight off weary, aching feet, was more privacy or luxury than any of us had been used to recently.

I told Maethor to stay quietly behind the houses, and took myself off… alone. It was liberating.

~o~O~o~

A little way from the square, in the dogleg of an alleyway formed by two scruffy houses, I was surprised to spot a family of elves. The sight of elven faces filled me with a combination of joy and apprehension, and I made my way over without thinking, skirting past the crowd in front of the chantry.

There were three of them; a man and his wife, and a young girl, her chestnut hair bound in two thick braids. Had I seen them back in the alienage, I’d have thought them wealthy, for their clothes were good quality, if marred by the dust and dirt of travel. The woman had a stomacher sewn from a single piece of good chintz, and her husband’s tunic bore intricate embroidery around the neck.

It stung to see how he looked at me when I caught his eye. The warmth of recognition for another elf came first, but it didn’t last. One glimpse of my armour—and the weapons I couldn’t completely conceal—and his face tightened, his hand dropping protectively to his daughter’s shoulder.

I was reminded of the way the elven messengers and servants had looked at me when I first arrived at Ostagar; how, as soon as I was outfitted with armour and weapons, they wouldn’t meet my eye… as if I wasn’t truly elven anymore.

Inclining my head, I made a small, rather over-formal gesture of greeting.

“Greetings to you, my lady,” the man said stiffly.

My lady…. There could have been no greater statement of my otherness. It hurt, though I supposed I had no right to expect anything different. What would I have thought, in his place, had I seen an elf who looked like me?

“Hale….” the woman said cautiously, peering at me from beside her husband, fingers curled on his sleeve. “Hale, don’t—”

He glanced at her, his hand covering hers in a brief touch of reassurance, and then he looked to me again, his expression one of uncomfortable supplication. Begging, I decided, did not come easily to these people.

“If it’s not too much trouble,” he said hesitantly, “c-could you perhaps spare some bread or… or coin? We fled our home more than a week ago, brought almost nothing with us. What little we did have we’ve lost to bandits and… and my daughter is hungry. Please?”

The child stared up at me, wide-eyed, her narrow face pale and freckly… like me at her age, I supposed, though better dressed. The whole family had a look about them I’d seen all too often before; that of pride brought low and dragged through the mud. I had no idea where the nearest alienage was, but I’d have wagered these people weren’t from it. They’d probably eked a living somewhere, the way elves could do in smaller communities—or so people said back home. If you were lucky enough to lease a workshop or find a place with a good shem craftsman, you could be viewed as a local novelty instead of a menace.

I reached for the coin purse at my belt. There wasn’t much in it. We’d already talked about pooling all the money we had, together with the few sovereigns Bann Teagan had given us, though I supposed we were all still clinging stubbornly to the bits and pieces we could call our own. I was, at least, and I was sure Leliana definitely had more coin than the rest of us knew about secreted in her pack. She thought, I suspected, that the charity she’d showed the boy, Bevin, and his sister, Kaitlyn, back in Redcliffe had gone unremarked… but it was surprising how far, and how fast, the gossip travelled.

I might not have been the beloved folk hero of the people—the flame-haired Orlesian beauty who strode out of the night, fought for them, and gave them both a handful of gold and a future—but, in this grubby alley, I could at least give a hungry family the price of a hot meal.

“Here,” I said, pressing the last few silvers I had into the man’s hand. “It’s not much, but… perhaps it could buy me some information?”

Sometimes, the greatest charity is to make a gift look like a purchase.

The gratitude on his face deepened, and his dark eyes met mine. “Thank you. I… well, what is it you wish to know?”

“I, uh, don’t suppose you’ve heard anything from Denerim?” I asked, the hope resting thick in my throat. “I’m trying to find news from there, and—”

Hale shook his head. “I’m sorry, no. We’ve come from further south… a village called Esher. There were rumours of darkspawn, and terrible fighting. A large number of Chasind Wilders came through, and sacked one of the farms. Everyone was so scared, especially with the stories they’re telling about Ostagar, and the king…. We fled, and we’ve heard nothing from the north, save the fact that Teyrn Loghain is set to become the new regent.”

His wife nodded, panic glazing her pale green eyes. She had a heavy fringe of dark blonde hair, which reminded me faintly of Valora, and it shook a little when she nodded fervently.

“Yes. Maker be praised. If anyone can lead us out of this mess, it’s Teyrn Loghain. We should be thankful he was spared.”

“Oh.” It had been a small chance, I supposed, and I forced a smile through the sudden fog of distaste and unease. “Well, never mind. Thank you anyway, and… good luck. Take care of yourselves, and maybe… think about heading north, if you can. Soon.”

Hale’s expression tightened, his fingers flexing on his little girl’s shoulder.

“You think so? We had thought to go to Redcliffe, but they say something bad’s happened there. Darkspawn, maybe, or… some kind of sickness. I don’t know.”

I saw the look in his eyes, the wariness with which he still regarded me. I couldn’t blame him for it, and I shrugged.

“I’d go north. Maybe make for the coast. The fighting in the south may get worse before it gets better. So I’ve heard, anyway.”

There was a small, hard beat of silence, and I wondered what the family thought of that: the words of an oddly dressed, armed stranger. Was it advice they would heed? And would it even help them if they did?

Still, Hale thanked me, and I took my leave, aware that I should catch up with the others before Morrigan set fire to something or someone decided Sten should be lynched for being qunari without a permit. Hunger and fear do not build tolerance in the dispossessed.

~o~O~o~

We met up on the far side of the square; I could hear Alistair and Morrigan bickering long before I got there, and Wynne greeted me with a strained smile.

“Ah, good. All together again. We should move on, I think.”

I nodded, and we headed out of the village boundaries and on towards the farmlands lying beyond, where the road swept east and would, eventually, take us past all this civilised landscape, and along the northerly edge of The Hinterlands.

The dying breaths of Alistair and Morrigan’s latest tussle—something about the legends of Chasind men being stolen by the Witch of the Wilds, and the luring of templars to an unholy doom in the swamps—foundered to an impasse, with both of them settling for quiet glares and mutterings as we walked. It was into that lull in the conversation that Leliana murmured:

“Don’t look now, but I think we’re being followed.”

I knew she was right. I could feel it. Someone was watching or, rather, lots of someones.

“How many?” I asked, hand beginning to move to the blade at my hip.

“Not sure,” she said, as we still headed forwards in an easy, nonchalant manner. “Several men. Not well armed… and not used to staying out of sight.”

A farmhouse rose up to the right, a single long, low building with a small vegetable garden behind a low stone wall. Post-and-rail fences marked off the fields either side of the track and, with the village at our backs, there was little choice but to keep moving. Whatever company we had, they appeared to be sticking to the sparse stands of trees that fringed the roadway… and I hoped they would leave us alone once we were out of sight of the houses.

I clung to that thought until the first stone bounced off the back of my head.

“Ow!” I swore and, hand going to what was sure to be a fine lump when the swelling came out, spun round.

At my heel, Maethor growled, ears pressed flat to his bullet skull.

They were coming out of the trees, and out from behind the farmhouse and its outbuildings… the most desperate ambush I’d ever seen. There were twenty of them, at best count. Farmhands, labourers, refugees… some armed with pitchforks and cudgels, others just standing there with bare fists and clenched teeth.

“Oi!” A heavy-set human at the front of the group, with dirty fair hair and wide, pale eyes, pointed a finger at Alistair. “We know who you are. You and the knife-ear. You’re Grey Wardens. Teyrn Loghain’s men been through ’ere not two days ago, putting the word out about you.”

They were drawing closer, and we didn’t have anywhere to run.

“Oh, Maker,” Alistair muttered. He held up his hands, aiming for conciliation. “Look, you really don’t want to—”

“Fools!” Morrigan barked. “Do you truly wish to court your deaths?”

“All I know is there’s a bounty on your ’eads as would fill a lot of hungry bellies,” the man said, his voice cracked with desperate determination. “Get them!”

My gut pitched. The men charged us, and it seemed to happen in a long, winding moment, stretched close to breaking. There was no choice for us, no option but to defend ourselves, and I clutched at that thought as a human in ragged trousers and tunic ran at me, swinging a pitchfork in his hands.

I drew my sword, and my arm felt like lead. He wasn’t huge for a shem, but he was still bigger than me; dark-skinned, broad-shouldered… blank-faced to the point of not even seeming alive. I thought of the walking corpses at Redcliffe, and the night they’d come in endless droves, dead flesh powered forwards by a sheer core of anger and hate.

Even that would have been easier than this. These men, who had nothing, who had lost everything… wouldn’t I have done the same in their place?

The pitchfork swung around, the blunt end of the handle driving at my head. I ducked, but it still connected with my cheekbone, hard, and my vision blurred, teeth juddering in my jaw. I got one good look at the man as I lurched to the side, and I saw the mingled fear, fury and anguish breaking over his face, waves of realisation and sheer, blind terror.

Behind me, I heard metal hitting wood, hitting flesh… the sounds of the refugees throwing themselves against what they must have known would be a hopeless cause. I heard cries, screams, and that familiar sound of Morrigan’s staff unleashing a burst of ice that ripped through the air, catching at unguarded flesh. The smell of blood met the crisp coldness, and the shem before me brought his pitchfork around again, trying to drive it into my midriff as if I was a bale of hay. They weren’t fighters. It took very little to turn his weapon aside, and to see the fright in his eyes when he thought I was about to run him through.

I brought my knee up, sharp and short, and drove a punch into the bridge of his nose as he doubled over. The pitchfork slipped from his fingers and he grunted, bloody and wincing, but at least had the sense to stay down when he fell. Pain bloomed hotly through the knuckles of my left hand and I cursed, shaking it out as I spun and dived, trying to avoid the next threat that barrelled towards me. Another farmhand… his fist caught the back of my ribs, knocking the breath from me.

“Knife-eared bitch!” he spat.

I knew the shapes of the words; saw them, felt them rather than heard them, through the mess of the brawl. It was turning ugly… of course. They could hardly back down. I tried not to look when I thrust my blade into the man’s flesh. He fell forward, an expression of intense surprise on his face, and blood spilled from his lips. I couldn’t both extract my sword and step out of the way, so I tried to catch him. He was too heavy, and I staggered in the press of bodies, arms and elbows flying all around me, magic burning through the air above and so much shouting… I could hear Maethor snarling, defending his pack against these ill-equipped, desperate people, and then I was on my back in the mud, under the weight of a stinking, warm, dead human.

I whimpered as I scrambled out, tendrils of panic tugging at me. Slippery, damp hands fought to pull my blade from the body, then brought it around without conscious thought or impulse, thwacking into the gut of another man who was lashing out at Leliana, a blunt woodaxe in his hand.

It was all clumsy, messy and awful. When it was finally over and we stood, seven strong to the pile of twenty-odd bodies on the muddy dirt road, everything seemed very quiet. There was silence, broken only by ragged breathing, and the dull roar of blood in my ears.

“A-Are they all dead?” Leliana asked.

She sounded horrified, but there was a core of something dark beneath the words… a hard, seasoned practicality.

Morrigan prodded one of the prostrate farmhands with her black iron staff, and curled her lip. Fine droplets of blood speckled her pale, bare arms, and a thin streak of it marked one cheek.

“This one is. If some live, we should—”

“We should go,” Alistair said flatly, staring at the devastation. He looked across at me, his face tight and shadowed. “Just go. Right?”

I nodded, and glanced back down the road towards the village. “I agree. We need to… not be here, and fast. Off the road, too. What are the chances of cutting across country?”

He grimaced. “Not good, but I don’t see we have much choice.”

I wiped my sword in the scrubby grass at the side of the road, trying not to see the outstretched hands and blank faces of men, left crumpled in the dirt. Did we all feel like murderers? I wondered. It was the first time, for me, that killing had been such a clammy, dirty business. Self-defence, yes, but no demons, darkspawn, or foul magic to make it easy. No fine-honed swords or guard uniforms, or any other tidy, reasonable excuses.

“Then that’s what we do,” I said, trying to inject some confidence into my voice, and pretend it didn’t sound so pale and shaky. I peered at my companions. “Everyone else all right?”

There was a half-hearted chorus of assents. Wynne looked the most rattled and Sten, predictably, was so calm and implacable he could have been waiting for a mail coach. He barely even had any blood on him, as far as I could see.

Maethor whined, and I glanced down to see him favouring his right front paw. I knelt and held out a hand.

“C’mon, boy. What is it?”

Tentatively, the mabari gave me his paw, his wide toes almost overlapping my palm. His great, trap-like jaws were open, rank and bloody dog-breath assailing me through the bars of his teeth, but those liquid eyes were full of trust… and greater intelligence than I’d seen on some shems.

He had a cut on the back of his pad, and his wrist had been sorely wrenched, but there wasn’t much I could do about it then, save tying on a quick bandage, and hoping for the best.

We had to get moving if we wanted to avoid the prospect of local lawmen… or an angry mob.

~o~O~o~

Things were strained after that little encounter. We cut across the farmland that lay—according to Alistair’s map—in a swathe between the Hinterlands and the foothills of the Southrons, and we pushed our pace hard to put as much distance as possible between us and that damned village. Had it even had a name? I almost wished I knew it, so I could have something to attach the bitter memories to.

No one talked much. I think we all felt a little dirty, a little angry and ashamed. I hope so, anyway. Death should never be something unimportant, and none of those poor bastards had deserved it, even if they had attacked us first.

Later, of course, I would learn how to guard myself against being so deeply cut by things I could not control. There are only so many ghosts one person can let walk in her wake, and those who are there by their own choosing must not be allowed to wail the loudest.

The girl I was that day, though… she didn’t understand that. She was shaken, and afraid, and as we walked, she thought more and more of what the men had said.

“He wants us dead, doesn’t he?”

I’d quickened my pace, drawing level with Alistair as we hiked over some farmer’s boggy lower field, mud sucking at our boots and crows cawing overhead.

“Hm?” He glanced at me, evidently somewhere deep in his own thoughts.

“Loghain. He knows we’re alive… and he wants us dead. That must mean we really are the only ones left.”

I’d been wrestling with the notions for the past half hour or so, and I suppose I wanted to hear that they sounded silly, that I was being melodramatic, or that, somehow, there was some reasonable explanation for it all.

Alistair snorted bitterly. “Sure looks that way, doesn’t it? And it means he knows that we know what he did. All of it. Abandoning the king at Ostagar, maybe even setting us up at the Tower of Ishal. It could all have been part of his plan.”

“I d— well… it could,” I said, as diplomatically as possible.

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

They were dark, final words, and Alistair returned to scowling at the horizon. I let out a breath, feeling defeated and rather lonely. We were fracturing… I could feel it. All of us. Splitting apart and bowing beneath the weight of the thing, and it was still a very long way to Denerim. Someone needed to hold us together, but there was a big difference between realising that fact, and knowing how to even start going about it.

Morrigan didn’t help. As the hours wore on and the farms slipped by, everyone began to grow tired and grumpy. She sniped at Alistair, he carped back, and Leliana—with uncharacteristic shrill anger—told them both to shut up. Silence rolled back over us and, to cap off a perfectly wonderful day, the rain started again. I pulled my cloak tight around myself, and sought out a desolate stand of trees on the horizon, at the foot of a hill.

“We’ll head for there,” I said, my voice sounding unexpectedly loud in the bristling quiet. “Shelter. Should be quiet enough. We’ll make camp for the night, maybe wait out this weather.”

I half-expected someone to challenge me, or to hear some snide comment or argument, but nothing came. I frowned to myself and walked on, boots squelching but, thankfully, not leaking. Maethor, still favouring his sore paw, trotted obediently at my side, and every stride felt a little bit wobbly, unused as I was to the acquiescence of others.

~o~O~o~

Camp was a welcome relief, if a repetitive routine. Wet trees, damp earth, no dry wood… the musky, sickly smell of rotting leaves and debris. Part of me was faintly amazed to catch myself tossing out what almost sounded like orders as we shucked our packs in the small clearing we’d found.

“Right. Sten? Would you please start getting a fire together? We could all do with drying out. Perhaps Wynne or Morrigan can help with setting a flame. The rest of us’ll get the tents up… the more shelter, the better. I’ll see about scaring up a couple of rabbits or something once we’re done. I think it’s my turn to cook anyway, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ser,” Alistair murmured, somewhere behind my left shoulder.

I turned, prepared to apologise, but he’d actually cracked a smile. Beyond that, the others were—to my surprise—doing what I said, and with barely any comment. Alistair’s smile widened as he looked away, and he shook his head, busying himself with unrolling the first of the heavy canvas tents.

We worked quickly, making the clearing into a passably comfy place to spend the night. It seemed relatively safe, as well. Aside from a few clumsy poachers’ snares, which I grubbed out and hung on one of the trees (growing up with the alienage’s unique brand of rats had taught me plenty about spotting, and using, wire loops and nooses), the copse was remarkably free of any signs of activity. No bandits, no refugees… it was the one bright point in an otherwise horrible day.

Still, I was glad to slip away once everyone was settled. A magically assisted fire lent a warm, partially comforting glow to the centre of the camp, and I took Maethor—sore paw now treated and bound up—with me out into the dark, in search of fresh meat.

It was then that I felt it. Whispers, murmurs that came from the shadows. Like a low-grade burning, an unscratchable itch at the centre of my back, or even beneath my skin…. It had never happened when I was awake before. They were dream-voices, not real things, not… not real.

I stopped, the night rain cold on my cheeks, and crouched in the muddy brush. Maethor was beside me, staring intently at the hedgerow we were hugging, the border to whoever’s farm we’d been trespassing on. I reached out, wanting the solidity of the dog’s warmth beneath my hand. He whined softly, and I buried my fingers in the loose-skinned folds of his shoulders, his short coat cool in comparison to the blood-heat of his body. I held on and listened to the rhythm of the mabari’s breathing… to the rhythm of my own.

We stayed there like that, crunched up in the muddy bushes, with me barely daring to move. Eventually, it went away. The murmurs passed, the burning ceased, and I felt dizzy and wiped out. My skin prickled, and I wanted to wash it from the inside. Maethor grumbled, deep in his chest, then pounced on something inoffensive and squeaky, and deposited most of it proudly at my feet.

“Good dog,” I said absently. “But that won’t feed everyone.”

He whined uncertainly, then plunged away into the darkness, snuffling and growling softly. I followed, blind in the dark, brambles and twigs scratching at my inept, city-dweller’s stumbles.

I wondered how sensing darkspawn actually worked, and how accurate it was. Were they here, now? Watching me… waiting? How many were they? Had they sensed me, or Alistair? I supposed I’d learn, with time, how to tell such things. It wasn’t a prospect that filled me with glee.

~o~O~o~

When we got back to the copse, the fire was the first thing I saw. It almost washed away some of the cold, and the fear, and the uncertainty… the sight of those flames a cheerful, comforting thing. Wynne was sitting close to it, apparently arguing with Morrigan over the Circle Tower. I got the feeling I’d come in halfway through a pretty good fight.

Leliana, seated on the ground and drying her boots out, glanced up and gave me a weary roll of her eyes. Sten was already in his usual position, sitting at the flap of his tent and apparently staring at nothing, and I expected to see Alistair engaged in chipping the mud off some piece of armour, but he wasn’t immediately near the fire. I caught sight of him at the edge of the trees, peering out into the darkness and, when he saw me, he seemed almost relieved. He nodded, shoulders dropping a bit, and appeared to relax a little.

He’d felt it too, I assumed, but beyond that I knew nothing. I had questions, but they weren’t the kind that needed asking on an empty stomach, so I went to the cookpot and settled down to gut and skin the catch, and do something in the way of supper.

“But surely,” Wynne protested, either still goading Morrigan or allowing herself to be goaded, “you and your mother must have drawn notice from time to time. No matter how powerful you claim to be, you would not wish the full attention of the Chantry.”

Morrigan let out a dark, disparaging chuckle. “Hunters did come into the Wilds from time to time. They did not leave.”

I peered up from my work, watching the two mages face each other across the flames, testing their strength like circling dogs, ready to snap and lunge.

“And the interest of the Chantry was never aroused?” Wynne made a pretence of smoothing her robe across her knees, the deep red cloth catching the fire’s glimmer. “I find that difficult to believe.”

Morrigan scoffed and tossed her head back, the feathers on her shoulders ruffling like some exotic mane.

“I imagine you find many things difficult to believe, old woman. Your own preference for the leash you wear, for instance.”

Wynne rose above the ‘old woman’ line gracefully, and just shrugged. I was watching so intently I almost cut my thumb on my new knife—yet another useful piece of kit garnered in Redcliffe.

“There are good reasons for the world for fear mages,” she said, gazing into the fire and reminding me of the conversation we’d had a few days ago. “Despite our best intentions.”

I dropped the bits of meat into the cookpot. I’d been quick, clean and efficient, and kept the job to myself. With some judicious seasoning and a dash of luck, nobody would notice the rabbit stew was made partly from rat.

Morrigan raised one slim, pale hand and inspected her nails, sitting bolt upright beside the fire as if she was on show like some fancy lord’s wife at a Summerday parade.

Your best intentions, perhaps,” she said archly. “Their fear concerns me not at all.”

Wynne laughed softly, which struck me as a rather dangerous sound.

I poured a little of our hard-won water into the pot from the skin I had beside me, just enough to stop the stew sticking, and dropped in a handful of herbs. At least the great outdoors had plentiful supplies of something… not that wild mustard and jack-in-the-green would keep us going indefinitely.

They definitely made an odd pair, those two, sitting opposite each other like bookends on the same shelf. So different: one ordered and neat, the other ostentatiously wild—perhaps a trifle artificially so, it had to be said—yet both so particular in certain ways… and both hard as stone. I wondered which would shatter first when they smashed against each other. If they did. Maybe they’d just grind away at each other, wearing a path to grudging tolerance along the way.

“Do you truly believe that?” Wynne asked, tilting her head to the side. “That the Circle of Magi is a leash? You’ve never been part of it, never—”

“You speak of it as if it is a loss. No, I have never seen your precious tower, never been one of the mages herded like cattle… yet one would have to be a fool to think otherwise. Of course it is a leash.”

Wynne nodded slowly. “Ah. Then you would prefer a world where young mages were slain by the ignorant for their talent? Taught to fear their abilities?”

“Is that not what the Circle already preaches?” Morrigan snorted disparagingly. “You fear your abilities, instead of revelling in them. You do not teach… merely constrain.”

I wasn’t sure whether they knew they were providing such riveting entertainment for the rest of the camp. Morrigan probably did… and I wouldn’t have put it past Wynne. Still, even Maethor was lying quietly by the fire, watching the humans posture and pose at each other. We were all rapt, and Alistair couldn’t hide his grin.

“Believing ourselves to be superior over other men is what led to the Imperium,” Wynne pointed out. “And the darkspawn.”

Well, that wasn’t strictly true. Or was it? I thought of the first time I’d met her, at Ostagar, when she’d talked of allegory and interpretation… and then the rather brisker explanation of darkspawn I’d heard from Alistair. ‘We don’t know’ was not what I’d expected, but then nothing ever seemed to be what I expected. I hadn’t truly believed the damn things were more than stories, right up until I found myself face-to-face with one in the Korcari Wilds.

Morrigan let out a short cough of disbelief. “Oh? I cannot believe you give credence to such drivel!”

“Those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,” Wynne said sagely… with a touch of smug condescension.

I suspected she was having altogether too much fun with this game. Morrigan scowled.

“Indeed? Then you need look no further than the elves for an example of what occurs when you allow others to hold your leash.”

That, although not superficially directed at me, stung nevertheless. I clanged the ladle against the side of the cookpot, and privately determined to give the witch a bowl with a bit of rat in it.

There was a grain of truth to it, of course… especially if Valendrian’s stories were to be believed. He’d always made such a point of hammering home the mistakes in our people’s history. It was as if he wanted us to think we were worth no more than the place we were given, and I suppose in a way that was true. He could keep us safe, if only we kept our heads down, and didn’t make trouble for ourselves, or anyone else.

A pang of homesickness assailed me then, a violent ache of nostalgia and guilt. I still dreamed about it. Still heard the screams, saw the faces of the people I’d lost, and imagined myself back there… only to find nothing but smoke and ruins. It was getting worse, the more I thought about this damn return to Denerim. I should have argued, should have told Bann Teagan the Blight was our priority, that the arl would have to take his chances, or that Ser Perth’s knights would have to track down this missing scholar.

“Well, then, Morrigan,” Wynne said evenly, “let us assume the Circle does not exist. Would you advocate a return to the day of the old Imperium?”

“I advocate nothing. Nature simply dictates that the strong survive, if they have the will.”

Wynne nodded and smiled, as if a student had just proven an interesting point. She folded her hands neatly across her knees, and arched her thin, grey brows.

“So, you prefer a life of hardship and fear, so long as you believe you aren’t tethered and are free to do as you wish. Is that correct?”

“That is so,” Morrigan said breezily, daring her to challenge.

“I see. But… are you not here because your mother wished you to be?”

Beyond the campfire, Alistair’s splutter of laughter was hastily transformed into a cough. Morrigan narrowed her ochre-gold eyes, and sat perfectly still.

“I could leave if I desired to.”

Her voice was like a shard of dark ice, but Wynne didn’t flinch. She just smiled genially and nodded again, like an old woman taking a polite interest in someone else’s grandchildren.

“Oh, of course. Of course. It… well, it simply strikes me as odd that one who believes in such freedom has never spent any time alone and unprotected. That is all.”

The fire cracked and spat into the steeply shelving void of silence between the two women. Their gazes met, and I half-expected the air to burst into flame. Alistair’s coughing fit had grown inexplicably worse, and I took the opportunity to haul the cookpot off the heat and declare—brightly and, above all, loudly—that supper was done.

~o~O~o~

We ate in relatively good humour, despite the dampness and the scars of the day. No one complained about the food, and Wynne and Morrigan’s dog-fight had, oddly enough, broken a lot of the tension in camp.

Still, after we’d cleared up and started to splinter off to our respective tents, I found myself thinking that someone should make some kind of conciliatory effort where Morrigan was concerned. That… and every time I thought about trying to go to sleep, I started picturing the dead refugees we’d left on the roadside, or wondered whether the night would be filled with more whispering in my head. I hadn’t had a chance to speak to Alistair about it. I didn’t know what to say, really; perhaps I was frightened of going mad. People said that, didn’t they? The taint drove those it touched insane, destroyed them from the inside out, until they were nothing but twisted, empty husks, ghouls with hate and godless rage where their souls should be. And yet the Wardens were supposed to be immune… and yet, we had these nightmares, these scratchy murmurings in the shadows, that others did not. We were… what? Bonded? I shuddered at the thought, and decided that maybe there were some things I wasn’t ready to understand.

So, I brushed my way through the trees, away from the glow of the fire, and towards the corner of the camp Morrigan had carved out for herself, as she seemed to prefer to do. Not far from where she’d pitched her tent, her staff was stuck firmly into the soft ground, like a pennant. A thin black cord hung around its neck, a raven’s feather and two small stone beads strung onto it. As I looked, the feather seemed to shift slightly, as if caught by the wind, although I couldn’t feel any breeze.

“Yes?”

My shoulders tightened a little at that arch, crisp voice.

“I… just wondered if I could talk to you for a moment,” I said, dragging my gaze away from the staff.

Morrigan stood next to her tent—had she been there a second ago?—the slip of a pale form in the dimness, wrapped in those Wilder’s rags of hers, a peculiar juxtaposition of heavy leather and diaphanous wisps of cloth. She folded her arms across her chest, a rustle of fabric and feathers in the stillness, then tilted her head to the side and regarded me coolly.

“Oh?”

It wasn’t exactly outright hostility. In fact, I had to admit that there seemed to have been a slight softening of her attitude towards me since those first few days in the Wilds. She’d never savaged me the way she did Alistair, but there had been fewer snide comments… perhaps even the first stirrings of a mutual respect. It didn’t stop me wanting to keep her at arm’s length.

“I, er, appreciate it must be a little… uncomfortable,” I said awkwardly, groping for the right words, the right way to say what I wanted without suggesting weakness on her part. “The past week or so. All the business with the Circle mages, those things Sten talked about… and now having Wynne along, it—”

Morrigan snorted and dropped her hands to her hips, pausing for a moment before she crossed to the open flap of her tent, crouching to rummage in a large leather bag I hadn’t seen before.

“You think I am easily perturbed, then,” she said, those hard, white hands delving through whatever the bag contained. I caught a whiff of something bitter and musty, like dried herbs of some description. “Should I ball myself up and cry, woebegone at all I have missed, or shamed by everything I am?”

I started to think I shouldn’t have bothered trying to bridge the distance between us, but something pushed me forward. It was the lingering guilt I felt at having left her at Redcliffe, standing guard over Connor the way I hadn’t had the guts to do. Oh, people had been so thankful, said how wonderful it was we’d tried so hard to save his life… but I knew the truth. I’d simply been too much of a coward to take the easier, blunter path, and I had left her there, assuming the boy would turn again before we reached the Circle, and hoping she’d have to finish him for me. I suspected Morrigan knew that.

“No,” I said, rocking back on my heels and glancing up at the velvet night, barred by the rustling shadows of trees, and pricked with the cold gleam of stars. “No one can do anything about the past. Of course, that doesn’t stop you wondering… I know that. We’re all what we are because of where we come from.”

“How philosophical,” she said, sarcasm dripping from the words.

“Like you,” I went on, unabashed. “You grew up in the Korcari Wilds, didn’t you?”

Morrigan straightened up, a small pouch in her hand. It looked like it contained herbs or resin or something, and I could smell the bitter tang of its contents on the cool air. I stared at the pouch, mainly to avoid the accusatory glare of those hard, eerie golden eyes.

“Why do you ask me such questions?” she demanded. “I do not probe you for pointless information, do I?”

I shrugged. “Well, you could if you wanted. We don’t have to be strangers, do we?”

Morrigan scoffed and shook her head. “What is it you asked? If I ‘grew up’ in the Wilds? A curious question. Where else would you picture me?”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” I said evenly. “It must be… strange, I guess, to be in the middle of this. Even for you.”

Those golden eyes narrowed, but then her expression seemed to relax a little, and Morrigan flexed one white shoulder.

“True enough. For many years it was simply Flemeth and I. The Wilds and its creatures were more real to me than her tales of the world of men although, in time, I grew curious. I left the Wilds to explore what lay beyond… though never for long.” The corner of her mouth twitched, and she stared away into the darkened trees. “Brief forays into a civilised wilderness.”

She must feel more comfortable here than any of us, I thought. At home in the shadows, guarded by the embrace of branches and brambles that, to me, were sharp, accusing fingers. The only one of us to find comfort or familiarity in places that seemed barren and empty.

“But you kept going back to the Wilds,” I said; an observation, not a question.

Morrigan glanced at me, her thin brows arched. “Would you not do the same? Your world is an unforgiving and cold place.”

She had a point. I nodded ruefully. “It can be. I know.”

Her mouth twisted into a curl of what, in anyone else, I might have said was regret, and she switched the pouch of herbs into one hand as she bent down to pick a clay jar out from the leather bag at her feet.

“There was much Flemeth could not teach me. When to look into another’s eyes, how to eat at a table, how to bargain without offending… none of these things I knew.” Morrigan uncorked the jar, revealing a greasy ointment that smelled like hog lard, and tipped the contents of the pouch into it. “I still do not understand it all, truth be told. Such as the touching—why all the touching for a simple greeting?”

I frowned, watching as she tucked the empty pouch into her robe and snapped a twig from a nearby tree, with which she began to stir the herbs into the ointment, releasing a strong, bitter odour.

“Er… touching? What, like a handshake?”

“To begin with, yes.” She glanced up, glaring at me as if I should know the answer to her question. “What is the point of touching my hand? I find it an offensive intrusion.”

I started to shrug. “Well, it— I’m not sure. I think it’s supposed to be a gesture of good faith. Respect. Showing you have no weapon ready… I suppose.”

Something of a hollow gesture where a mage was concerned, probably. I didn’t mention it, and Morrigan just gave me a withering stare.

“It is ridiculous.”

“Wh— well, yes.” I relented meekly. “I suppose it is.”

She made a small ‘hm’ in the back of her throat and, without looking, reached out to set the clay jar on the lower branch of a tree, just as I might have used a handy table or shelf.

“So, all the times you left,” I said, framing on impulse a question I probably shouldn’t have asked, “and ventured out into the world, did no one ever…? I mean, you weren’t in danger from the templars, or anything?”

Morrigan regarded me with a cool, critical stare and then, unexpectedly, flashed a small, terse smile.

“Only once was I accused of being a Witch of the Wilds, and that by a Chasind who happened to be travelling with a merchant caravan. He pointed and gasped and began shouting in his strange language, and most assumed he was casting some curse upon me.” She sounded almost as if she was recounting a fond memory, and a trace of that smile appeared again, incongruous and mildly unsettling. “I acted the terrified girl, and naturally he was arrested.”

I tried not to picture the scene. Chaos and shouting, and a small, fragile child full of more power and steel than any mighty barbarian man… and she actually seemed proud of it.

“That was… quick thinking,” I said diplomatically.

Morrigan gave a dismissive shrug, and I watched the feathers shift at her shoulders. “Men are always willing to believe two things about a woman: one, that she is weak, and two, that she finds them attractive. I merely played the weakling and batted my eyelashes at the captain of the guard. Child’s play. The point is that I was able to move through human lands fairly easily. Whatever they thought a Witch of the Wilds looks like, ’tis not I.”

I nodded slowly. It was an encouraging thing to hear. Most of the places we’d been so far had been too deeply mired in their own problems to be concerned by the presence of an apostate—much less a Witch of the Wilds—but I had the feeling that we would not be so fortunate in the long run.

“Well,” I said, “I… I’m glad we could talk, anyway.”

It seemed a hopelessly clumsy thing to say, and Morrigan gave me a typically contemptuous look.

“It’s just,” I ploughed on, aware I was probably digging myself deeper into the conversational hole, “I know if you did want to leave, you would, so… you know. And, er, I am grateful for your help. Thought I should, um, say.”

It was very hard to say anything at all under the strength of that unflinching gaze, like being pinioned in place by two chips of amber. Morrigan said nothing for a few moments then, abruptly, stooped to the leather bag and drew out another clay jar, much like the one now sitting on the tree branch. She thrust it at me, arm straight, as if she was wielding a weapon.

“Here. This one has been strained and matured. For your feet,” she added, as I stared blankly at her. “A balm of woundbind, elfroot and redwort. You are almost out of the ointment you’ve been using.”

She was right, but I’d had no idea how she’d know that… although I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised. Tentatively, I took the jar from her, and smiled my awkward thanks.

“Thank you, Morrigan. I… appreciate it.”

She shrugged and looked away, as if it was of no importance, and the little patch of clearing somehow felt colder. Gathering my rather thin welcome had been outstayed, I mumbled a good night and sloped back to my tent, chilly, tired and undeniably troubled.

Maethor had already crawled in and usurped my bedroll, where he was sprawled out, snoring and dribbling. I didn’t have the heart to move him, plus the fact that he was warm, so I drew up the flap and curled up beside him, glad of the hound’s presence, if not his doggy odour. He grumbled and kicked a bit, but settled again, and I lay there, looking up at the canvas and waiting for sleep to claim me.

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Volume 3: Chapter Three
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