Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eighteen

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The whole of Redcliffe practically crackled with energy, as if the rumours already abounding since our return from the Tower could be seen on the air, like fleet streaks of fire. Torches burned along the paths and, as we got down to the ridge, with the entire village laid out at our feet, I could see the busy throngs of activity in between the gutted houses and dismantled barricades.

The chantry had its doors wide open—charity, relief, and the glow of candlelight in the softening night—and people were still coming and going, carrying bundles of clothes or furniture. The shrouded band of the lake, blurry in the encroaching darkness, was haloed by a thin glimmer from the rising sickle of the moon. It seemed a long while since we’d been on the water, though I couldn’t say I missed it.

Lloyd’s tavern was packed. Most of the militia boys were in, along with Wulff, Elwyn, and any other man who’d been able to sneak away from the business of patching his home back together. It was women’s work, I supposed, the tending to the sick and injured and ruined. It usually was.

For now, the bodies had been burned, the news from the castle was good—at least in part—and those who were left needed to throw themselves into the proof of life.

A thick waft of hot air hit us as we entered the inn, along with the mingled smells of unwashed bodies, grease, sweat, beer and wood smoke. A gale of raucous laughter sounded, and I could make out someone playing a fiddle; rough, squawky notes that, just for a moment, sounded like home.

Sten gave a small, disapproving sigh. I didn’t know what soldiers did for fun where he came from, but it probably wasn’t this.

“Ugh.” Morrigan curled her lip. “And how long are we expected to stay here?”

“You didn’t have to come,” Alistair said airily.

“True. Although I admit to a certain curiosity… I wish to see whether ale can, in fact, make you even more stupid.”

He snorted. “Probably. At least we’ll all have fun finding out, won’t we?”

“That,” Morrigan said dryly, “I sincerely doubt.”

Leliana sighed and shot me a quick grin. “Well, looks like everything’s back to normal, then, doesn’t it?”

I chuckled. “Mm. It’s almost restful, don’t you think?”

She laughed and, following on behind the repetitive rhythms of that constant bickering, we edged our way through the crowd. She, of course, was greeted with cheers—even blind drunk, the people of Redcliffe knew their flame-haired Orlesian she-devil—and the same expansive acceptance was extended to the rest of us. These were, after all, the men we’d fought beside, the men whose homes and lives we’d defended. It was as near to belonging as I’d felt in a long while.

Even Lloyd greeted us with genial effusiveness, those great meaty hands spread wide, and a buttery smile smeared over his face.

“Well, look who’s back! Heroes of the hour! Now, what can ol’ Lloyd get you, eh?”

Not that there was much choice. We were given greasy mugs full of watered-down ale that smelled of wet bracken and sawdust, and a rickety table in the corner nearest the fire, where the heat baked our faces and a sweaty press of bodies crowded between us and the bar, all elbows and sloshing mugs. The redheaded waitress with the tired smile hovered nearby, carrying a wooden tray and a pitcher as she provided refills and, occasionally, used the tray to hit over-friendly militiamen with.

“You keep yer grubby paws to yerself, Lanner Cartwright! I know your sister!”

I smiled to myself, and raised my mug when Alistair declared a toast to Redcliffe, and to the arl. The beer was foul, but that didn’t matter too much after the first couple of swigs; it was bad enough to actually numb the tongue.

The man with the fiddle—a bearded fellow with a crooked nose and a heavily patched leather jerkin—started up a new tune, and I watched Leliana tapping her fingers absently against the side of her mug, following the song. A look of slightly distant sadness touched her face, and I wondered what she was thinking about… and where it was that her memory wandered.

Maethor was lying under the table, a dead weight on my feet. The waitress had slipped him a beef bone from the kitchen, and he was more than happily occupied, gnawing away at it.

“So… Sten,” Alistair said conversationally, eyeing the qunari over the second half of his pint. “You said you were in the army.”

Sten gave a single nod of that great, square-jawed head. “I am.”

His hand almost encircled his mug; mine barely reached halfway around. I watched the way he sat there, unapologetically dominating the space around him, easily the most foreign thing in the room.

“Why would the qunari send soldiers here, then?”

That startlingly bright gaze swivelled towards Alistair, and Sten regarded him with something approaching weary resignation.

“The antaam are the eyes, hands, and mouth of the qunari,” he said, his voice a low rumble that swept effortlessly beneath the noise of the tavern. “We are how my people know the world.”

Alistair frowned as he took another mouthful of his ale. “Doesn’t that make your view a bit… skewed?”

Sten’s eyebrow arched almost imperceptibly. “Compared to what?”

“Huh… good point.”

I stifled a smile. Whatever else he was, Sten certainly didn’t fit the idea of the evil, bloodthirsty savage that the Chantry liked to project onto his people.

“What does anyone truly know of the world?” he asked, apparently rhetorically, as he lifted his mug to his lips. “The world changes. We change. The antaam observe what we can, just as you do.”

He drank down a third of the mug in one draught, then lowered it with equal slow, careful precision, and replaced it on the greasy table.

Alistair looked confused, and opened his mouth to speak, but I cut across him.

“I think what Alistair meant is, what was the purpose of the… antaam,” I tried, rolling the peculiar, alien word around my mouth, “coming to Ferelden?”

Sten glanced at me, face impassive and eyes hard as rocks. “To answer a question.”

I wondered if this was his way of having fun at our expense, but I didn’t plan on giving up quite that easily.

“All right. What was the question?”

“The arishok asked, ‘What is the Blight?’. By his curiosity, I am now here.”

Alistair lowered his mug and frowned over the rim. “What’s an arishok?”

“The one,” Sten supplied wearily, “who commands the antaam—the body of the qunari.”

“Oh. Right.”

“And did you find the answer to his question?” I asked, both genuinely curious and intrigued by the unusual fact of Sten actually speaking whole sentences at once. “What was it?”

He looked stiffly at me, his expression a taut, tight-drawn thing, as unflinching as a mirror.

“Were you not at Ostagar when the army was overwhelmed?”

I winced. Stupid question, then. As if I didn’t know what the Blight was, what it could yet be…. The laughter and the celebration all around us felt hollow, for a moment, and full of mockery.

“I— Yes,” I said meekly. “I see.”

Our table turned silent then, as ghosts began to crowd at our shoulders. Leliana cleared her throat and looked enquiringly at Sten.

“So, will you need to report back to your commander?”

“Yes.”

He drained the rest of his mug and set it back on the scarred wood. I’d barely drunk an inch of my beer.

“I suppose,” Leliana went on, “it will be a very long journey for you. Will—”

“Not really.”

She stopped, drawing in her upper lip and giving a small, thwarted huff before she shook her head and addressed her ale. She took a sip, pulled a face, and then smiled brightly at the rest of us.

“So, who’s sleeping in the castle tonight? Bann Teagan’s offered us the use of their guest accommodation… despite the mess.”

I snorted. “Not bloody likely. I’ll take my chances in the chantry, thank you.”

I cringed even as I said it, hearing the way it slipped out, full of the back end of the market and grubby alienage vowels. I could almost feel the hard flick of Father’s thumb across the back of my head, and his voice sharply reminding me to open my mouth properly when I spoke… and not to cuss. Sometimes, it seemed like, every day, I was growing further away from the girl he’d raised.

Alistair grinned. “Ooh, chicken, are we?”

I swigged my sour ale. “No, just… thinking about everything that— well, y’know. Anyway, it’s….”

I trailed off, shrugged, and tried to hide the sudden twinge of embarrassment. It was true that I’d rather be down among the destitute and wounded than up there in the cold, stone halls of a nobleman’s castle, still echoing with the whispers of demons—not to mention other unpleasant associations—but I didn’t really want to admit it. Had we been alone, I might have made a crack about bedding down in the kennels, but I wasn’t sure what was off-limits regarding the stories of his childhood, and what people did or did not know.

Besides, there was something else that needed to be said.

“Thing is, though….” I raised my mug, and looked to Sten and Morrigan. “I haven’t said this yet. Not properly, but… thank you. Both of you. What you did saved Connor’s life.”

I meant it as an honest, open gesture, but I suspected it came out as a little mawkish. Morrigan sneered.

“Indeed. So the child may be taken into the Circle and indoctrinated, confined…. Yes, I am sure we did him a great service.”

Alistair spluttered on his ale. “What? You’re really going to sit there and say you think he’d be better off dead?”

“Freedom has its price,” she snapped. “I can think of nothing worse than being corralled like cattle, templar fools watching my every move….”

You don’t know what it was like. The templars were watching… always watching…. The magic was a means to an end.

I blinked, pushing the memories away. Sten snorted, and Morrigan glared at him.

“Oh, and I imagine you have an opinion? The qunari do have mages, do they not?”

“Not the same as you,” he said darkly, as the redheaded waitress emerged to top up our mugs. “You would not understand.”

“Not understand?” she echoed, the words taking on a brittle, taunting pitch. “Truly? Is it mental capacity that you believe I lack? Or are you worried I will sympathize with my so-called brethren?”

“Hmph.” Sten grunted. “Take your pick.”

I glanced nervously towards the door, wondering just how fast I could run if a fight broke out. Whatever had happened during our journey to the Tower, the tension between the two of them was palpable and bitter. The waitress smiled blithely as she filled our mugs, and tossed Alistair a friendly wink. He turned very slightly pink.

Morrigan laughed, and it was like the sound of a mirror shattering.

“Is that supposed to make me angry, Sten? Perhaps you should tell us what your… civilised mind thinks the proper treatment for a mage.”

He set his mug down and stared evenly at her.

“In my land, mages are beasts in the shape of men. No more than this. We keep them penned and leashed, and we cut out their tongues, so they may not cause harm.”

A small, cold pool of silence spilled out over the table, broken only by the glup of ale sloshing into mugs, and the faint click of Morrigan’s fingernails on the tabletop. The militiamen were still drinking, talking, laughing… but all the sound seemed to collapse in on itself, eaten up by the sheer ferocity of the still, dangerous quiet emanating from the witch.

The redheaded waitress made herself scarce, holding up her wooden tray like a shield. Alistair’s brow furrowed.

“You… pen them?” he asked, aghast, lifting his second pint. “What, in—”

“They are controlled,” Sten said simply. “It is better that way. ‘As a fish stranded by the tide knows the air, or a drowning man knows the sea, so does a mage know magic.’”

Morrigan looked fit to actually implode. Her pale cheeks had begun to darken, and she was staring at Sten as if that molten gold gaze could truly burn through his flesh.

I was still trying to envisage the cutting out of the tongue part, and wondering whether my earlier conclusion regarding vile and bloody savages hadn’t been a little premature. It occurred to me that someone ought to say something, ought to step in between the two of them before there was bloodshed, and Leliana did so with the utmost grace.

“I suppose all things are dangerous in excess,” she said carefully. “But magic is not entirely evil. It is as the Chantry says: magic may serve man, but not rule him. As long as—”

“Some things come only in excess.” Sten took a mouthful of his ale. “There is no such thing as a little drowning, is there? And magic is horror and perversion. It is a sword with no hilt.”

Abruptly, Morrigan placed her palms on the table and rose, straight as a rush.

“I appear to be suddenly tired,” she said flatly. “Enjoy your… carousing.”

With a rustle of feathers and the flap of robes, she turned and stalked from the tavern. I was faintly impressed at the way the sea of drunken militiamen parted for her—probably without even realising they’d done it—and supposed that, had Sten wanted a display of the control a mage could show, he couldn’t have asked for a better one than that.

Alistair sucked a breath in over his teeth. “Wow…. You’re not remotely afraid of being turned into a frog, then?”

The qunari looked nonplussed.

“Someone should probably go after her,” Leliana said doubtfully, though she made no move to get up, and gave Sten a reproachful glance. “That was not terribly kind, you know. The Chantry says—”

“Your Chantry says many things. That does not make them true. If humans looked for wisdom more often beyond its walls, there might be a chance they would find it.”

Well, he was on fine form this evening. I supposed this might be why he didn’t talk all that much. Leliana looked as if she’d just been slapped with a wet fish. Alistair appeared to choke on his ale, halfway between stifled laughter and serious spluttering.

“There is some wisdom in the Chant, you must admit,” she said stiffly.

“Oh? Tell me, where is the wisdom in crying out for a derelict god to save you?”

“The Maker is not—”

“I’m sure Sten means we must accept responsibility for ourselves,” I said quickly, nudging Leliana with my elbow. “Even if you can’t change your fate completely, you can’t sit around complaining about it, either. You believe that, don’t you? Or else you’d never have left Lothering.”

Her expression crumpled, and a small frown pinched that porcelain brow. Across the room, a knot of lairy militiamen broke into a rousing chorus of Polly Was A Sailor’s Girl, complete with all the dirty words.

“But—”

“My people have a tale,” Sten announced. The great, guttering fire, belching dry, dirty heat from its wide hearth, painted shadows over his rough-hewn face and—without waiting for assent or comment—he began to speak. “A great ashkaari, during his travels, came upon a village in the desert. There, he found the houses crumbling. The earth was so dry and dead that the people tied themselves to each other for fear a strong wind would carry the ground from under their feet. Nothing grew there except the bitter memory of gardens.”

My mug stopped partway to my lips and I exchanged a glance with Leliana. Of all things, I hadn’t really expected Sten to sound… poetic.

“The ashkaari stopped the first man he saw, and asked, ‘What happened here?’. ‘Drought came, and the world changed from prosperity to ruin,’ the man told him. The askhaari replied: ‘Change it back.’”

Alistair snorted. “I hope the villager slapped him one!”

Leliana shot him a stern glance. “Shhh! Sorry, Sten. Please, go on. I don’t think I have ever heard a qunari story before… it is very interesting.”

He gave her a look that, stiff and impenetrable as ever, seemed to be slightly tinged with disapproval. I wondered if the qunari thought of their philosophy as stories, and how they usually responded to the condescension of foreigners… but I didn’t say anything.

“The villager became angry then,” Sten continued, thick fingers wrapping themselves around his mug. “He believed the ashkaari mocked him, for no one could simply change the world on a whim… to which the ashkaari answered, ‘then change yourself. You make your own world.’”

“I like that,” Alistair observed, with a swig of his ale. “Can I make one with no darkspawn in?”

Sten ignored him. Leliana nodded slowly, though her mouth was drawn into a tight bow, and she didn’t look convinced.

“But,” she said doubtfully, “sometimes people need faith in a higher power to change. Would you deny them that?”

“Sometimes people use faith as an excuse not to change,” Sten replied. He shrugged, those massive shoulders shifting like boulders beneath the heavily adapted leather arming jack that now served as clothing, in place of the rags he’d worn since we found him in that cage. The seams kept threatening to burst every time he moved too suddenly… we’d have to see about getting him outfitted properly, I supposed. “Believe in whatever you like: absent creators, or whimsical gods. Follow prophets, or ashkaari, or omens in the earth and sky. You will find wisdom only if you seek it.”

“You… you have given me a lot to think about,” Leliana said, peering into her ale with a slightly troubled frown.

A huge cheer went up from the militia as Polly entered the fourth verse—the one about the goat, the monkey, and the coil of rope—and there suddenly seemed to be something so ridiculous about sitting here discussing philosophy and religion, with a squawky fiddle scraping notes in the background and the smell of sweat and sour beer rising on the heat of the fire.

I settled to drinking my pint, and the slight light-headedness that I wasn’t really used to crept up on me. I’d got down to the bottom third of the mug, where odd, slightly chewy bits floated in the soupy liquid, when Leliana made her excuses and bade us goodnight. Sten followed not long after, determining that we would have to leave early if we intended to be on the road in good time.

“Absolutely,” Alistair said, with such solemn sincerity that the sarcasm positively dripped off the word.

Sten gave him a long, dry look, then made a dissatisfied noise in the back of his throat, and nodded to me.

“Good night, Sten,” I managed, raising my mug.

He walked out looking stone cold sober, and I was idly wondering how much it would take to actually get him drunk when Alistair’s foot prodded my ankle.

“S’…whassit… creepy, isn’t it?” He nodded to the door as it swung shut in the qunari’s wake. “Sten. Way he looks at you, with those eyes. And he’s so quiet, for someone so big…!”

The militiamen were still singing, still cheering; it rang in my ears, the sound and the noise smearing together across the hot, stuffy, vivid shadows of the inn. I stifled a belch.

“True. It’s… unsettling.”

“Yet he doesn’t seem quite so bad as the Chantry tells us.” Alistair drained the last of his pint and, setting the mug down, held up a finger to count off his points. “His philosophy is supposed to be vile and evil, yet he seems so reasonable… yet,” he added, counting off another finger, “he killed all those people. Doesn’t even deny it. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Mm.” I shrugged, uncertain and feeling rather rootless. “He seems to regret it, though.”

“Huh. Does his regret even mean the same as it would for us? I don’t know. And all that stuff about wisdom….”

I glanced up, aware of our friendly waitress hoving back into view, pitcher in hand.

“Fair ’nough,” I admitted. “I don’t understand the qunari sense of… thing. Honour. Philos… philosophy. But he’s dedicated, I’ll give him that.”

Alistair nodded. “True. Dedicated. And creepy.”

I chuckled. The waitress took the opportunity of our table being emptier now to lean forward while she filled up our mugs, and Alistair smiled genially at her bosom. She grinned at him.

“There you are, now. On the house, Lloyd says. Nothing’s too good for our brave Warden… know what I mean?”

We had names for girls like her back home. Still, I was mellow and fuzzy enough just to laugh softly, especially when Alistair’s smile blurred a bit at the edges and, frowning in faint confusion, he waved a finger in my general direction.

“Wardens,” he corrected. “There’s… I mean, I’m not the only… er. Yeah.”

The woman shook her head ruefully and straightened up, one red-knuckled hand propped on her hip.

“’Course you’re not, love. You drink up now, eh? The pair of you,” she added, glancing at me briefly before she disappeared back into the throng.

I looked down dubiously at the topped-up mug. We’d probably had enough. Under the table, Maethor had gone to sleep with his head on the remnants of the beef bone, twisted around so that his belly was exposed to the warmth of the flames. He emitted a strong doggy odour, not to mention the occasionally growl in his sleep, somewhere between the wheezy snores.

“I… you know, I don’t know why people do that,” Alistair said, peering into the depths of his mug. “I mean, there’s two of us. S’not like I’m the only Grey Warden. Which is good,” he added thoughtfully. “Really good. But… it’s odd. All right, so we haven’t got a uniform, but all the same, they shouldn’t just—”

I snorted, almost getting ale up my nose. He couldn’t possibly have lived that sheltered a life.

“It’s because I’m an elf.”

“What? But….”

I couldn’t help smiling. He looked so genuinely confused. I set my mug back down on the pitted table and shook my head.

“You don’t see it, do you?” I lowered my voice, glancing around us at all the red, smiling faces, sweaty with relief and exhilaration. “All these people… all the places we go. It’s like in Lothering. First look, and they think I’m your servant or something.”

Alistair’s eyebrows shot up, and he almost choked on his ale.

“What? No, I—”

“Elf,” I repeated, finding a perverse enjoyment in his appalled expression.

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

I reached for my drink and took a long swallow. It really was swill; Lloyd had obviously been watering the kegs so long people round here barely noticed anymore.

“Not really,” I said at last. “It could be worse.”

“Worse?” His voice, though roughened a bit by beer and fatigue, took on that familiar sarcastic twang. “Worse than people judging you by what you are, treating you like some kind of second-class….”

He stopped to belch, and I bit back on the words already bubbling on my tongue. He didn’t understand, but then there was no reason why he should, was there?

For a moment, I thought about saying that passing for a lackey was better than putting up with the casual cruelty reserved for alienage-dwellers, or the kind of prejudice that came with shems seeing an elf wield authority… but that would have meant explaining things which I really didn’t want to discuss. I didn’t want to talk about bruised faces and bare tables, open sewers and families who shared one pair of boots between them. I didn’t want to make him look at me like that—every glance darkened with knowledge of the things I’d done, the places that had made me, and the tattered shreds of absurd pride that I still clung to, however ragged they’d become.

Anger started to itch in me then… gnarled, self-righteous anger at the fact he’d made me ashamed of who I was, where I came from, and— well, he hadn’t, had he? It was one thing I couldn’t blame on Alistair, however much I wished I could.

“Doesn’t matter, anyway,” I said, a trifle brusquely. “M’ a woman, too.”

“That,” Alistair said, smirking blearily at me from behind his pint, “had not escaped me. I’m not as dumb as people think, y’know.”

I frowned. “I mean, they wouldn’t treat me equally anyway. People. Even without… thing.”

I gesticulated vaguely in the region of my ears. My hair had dried flat and frizzy, combed back and tucked behind them as neatly as I could manage, though the shorter bits at the front still clung stubbornly to my cheekbones, like a fringe I was trying to grow out. With a trace of self-consciousness, I reached up and brushed the hair aside, glancing at him across the greasy, stuffy miasma of the tavern.

It was true enough, though among humans my gender was less of an issue than my race. Odd, that, I supposed. Elves couldn’t join the military, or even the city guard back home, and there were carefully scribed laws in place to keep us from carrying weapons, owning property… having any rights or autonomy at all. Yet my people—we who had so much barred from us—seemed to actually work at segregating ourselves even further. We defined so many stupid differences, from gender to which end of the alienage you lived, and none of them should matter. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it was true, wasn’t it? All those notions of pride, morality, and propriety that we so doggedly clung to… they were just as stultifying as the shems’ ugly rules.

I blinked, and tried to wash those thoughts away with ale. That was my upbringing, the rigid core of what I knew to be clean and right and decent, and I should not be so eager to watch it erode in front of my eyes.

I thought of the ride from Denerim, with Duncan, and how I’d been so mortified at making camp alone with a man. A human man. Mortified, too, at the fact I’d had to bunch my skirt up to sit astride the horse, and bare my legs (or at least my winter smallclothes). It seemed almost laughable now, especially since I’d grown used to living in breeches, and yet I remembered those dark, damp nights on the road—the first time I’d ever been outside the city—when Duncan and I had sat before a tiny campfire, and he’d told me of the elven Warden, Garahel, and how he had ended the Fourth Blight.

So… great things were possible, perhaps. In legends.

In the cold, muddy reality of life, I knew what people would think… what I would have thought, in their shoes. At first glance, I was just another elven servant, following on after her master. Back home, they were a copper a dozen in the market; merchants’ girls, wearing gathered bodices and pleated skirts, like shem women, and trading in smiles and favours. That’s what they’d think, wasn’t it? All these people. They’d see Alistair before they saw me—just like Bann Teagan did—and I’d be nothing more than the Grey Warden’s lackey… or possibly his whore.

That thought was sudden, unexpected and violent, punching its way into my head like a fist.

Heat rose in my cheeks, and I was grateful for the fire and the stagnant warmth of the room. The smells of tallow candles, cheap ale, and human sweat, of grease, wood polish, metal, leather… all these things pooled around me, and I knocked back the rest of my beer too fast. My throat burned, my stomach clenched, and I peered at Alistair, watching him frown moodily into his mug.

We fell silent, drinking and thinking, a little pool of morose quiet in the raucous chaos.

“You know,” Alistair said, after a while. “Maybe this isn’t the best time to be thinking about this, but I’ve something to ask you.”

I quirked an eyebrow, my mouth full of ale. “Mmn?”

He probably wasn’t drunk enough for the question to be terribly embarrassing, I supposed, and if it was, I could always pretend I was too drunk to answer.

“We-eell,” he said slowly, “you know, in the Fade, right? When—”

“I know.” I nodded briskly, not really wishing to revisit the subject.

“No, listen…. You, uh, you saw the whole… y’know. With my—”

“Yes, I remember.”

I struggled to shelve the dream-memories of Father, and Shianni, and a beautiful sunny day in a place that was a little too nice to be home… and I struggled to forget a picture-perfect cottage with a blue-painted door, and a lovely woman at the stove.

I glanced at Alistair, mildly concerned. He’d drive himself mad if he kept dwelling on it, I thought. Reaching for dreams is one thing, until you stretch too far and fall flat on your face.

He was chewing the inside of his lip thoughtfully, and frowning.

“Well, it… it—”

“It was just dreams,” I said quietly. “Just hopes.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I mean, yes, but… I actually do have a sister. Well, a half-sister, anyway.”

“Wait, what? She’s real? G—” My mug stilled en route to my lips as I fumbled for the name, the label attached to the dream-creature I’d thought was nothing more than Alistair’s hopeless fantasy. “Goldanna?”

He nodded. “Mm. I never knew about her. I don’t think she knew about me, either, but then they did keep my birth a secret, and our mother died just after I was born, so….” He shrugged. “After I became a Grey Warden, I tried to find out more about her and her family, and that’s when I discovered Goldanna. She’s still alive. In Denerim.”

Across the bar, the militiamen’s latest drinking song roared into a mighty chorus, and someone fell off their chair. I slugged back another mouthful of my ale, mainly to distract myself from the shiny-eyed, hopeful look on Alistair’s face.

“That’s… well, that’s good, isn’t it?” I said, swallowing hard. “Have you contacted her?”

“No.” He shook his head ruefully. “I thought about writing, but I didn’t have the nerve. And then we were called down to Ostagar and….”

He shrugged. I did my best to look sympathetic, and realised I felt rather dizzy. Annoying, really. Perhaps the ale wasn’t that watered down.

“She’s the only real family I have left,” Alistair said mournfully, rubbing his thumb along the handle of his mug. “At least, the only family not also mixed up in the whole royal thing. So, I guess I was wondering, if we’re heading there… maybe…?”

The heat and the colour seemed to seep out of the world, and left it pale and curled at the edges, like a book set too near to the fire.

“You want to find her,” I said numbly.

“Mm. I’ve just been thinking that… well, you know. With the Blight coming and everything, I don’t know if I’ll ever get another chance. Maybe I can help her, warn her about the danger. I don’t know.”

He shrugged again. It was typical of him, that shift from needy hopefulness to vague, desperate chivalry, and it made me feel so inferior. That knotted, mixed up mess of anger, fear, anxiety, and Maker knew what else that lived inside me started to thresh anew, and I tried to pretend that I wasn’t scared… that the very thought of walking into Denerim didn’t frighten me to death. All the ghosts I’d left behind, and all the spectres of what might await… and now this, too.

“All right,” I said, because Alistair deserved that much. “We’ll try to find her while we’re there.”

“Could we? I’d appreciate that.” He smiled sadly. “If something happened, and I never went to at least see her, I don’t know if I could forgive myself. She lives in the market district somewhere… I have an address. Not all that far from the alienage, I think.”

Dread pressed in against my chest, a cold and crushing weight. He’d just assumed, hadn’t he? Assumed I’d go home again, that there were people in the city who missed me… and who were there to be hugged and smiled at, as safe as they’d ever been.

I swallowed the last of my ale, with no little difficulty, and nodded.

“Mm. Yes. Sure.”

Alistair seemed to realise he’d said something that had struck at me. He looked as if he wanted to ask some question or other, but he didn’t say anything, and the silence between us—so small and insignificant against all the noise in the tavern—felt hot and oppressive.

I could talk about it, I supposed. The truth was meant to be a balm. And I should tell him. All right, so we were more likely to have trouble with Loghain and his bounty on the Wardens than we were with my crimes against Arl Urien’s family, but… that wasn’t the point.

Of course, I could have said something back in the privy chamber, when Teagan and the arlessa were happily laying this burden on us—chattering like magpies, as if every sentence didn’t contain an impossible task—and I hadn’t. I should, I told myself, say something… but I didn’t.

Instead, I pushed my mug away and stood up, trying to ignore the slight wobble in my knees and the pitching of the grubby wooden floor. The place was stifling, muggy, and still busy, even now.

“I— I’m gonna… gonna call it a… thingy,” I said vaguely.

“Hm?”

“Night.” I waved fuzzily in the general direction of the door. “Call it a night. Get some… rest.”

I banged my knee on the chair, splayed an outstretched palm to the greasy table, and tottered a bit on my way to the door. A couple of militiamen raised their tankards to me as I passed, and I smiled weakly, really not wanting to be drawn back into anything. The door seemed a very long way away. Maethor groaned sleepily, got to his feet, and padded after me.

Outside, it had grown dark. A few faint stars twinkled in the deepening sky. I leaned against the tavern’s wall and took a deep breath, relishing the cool, clear air. Couldn’t get enough of it after all the dank, corrupted, enclosed places we’d been. I should probably head back to the chantry, I supposed, and get some rest. Ought to leave early in the morning, make a good start. Long journey, and all that.

I closed my eyes at the sound of the tavern door opening. The brief blast of hot air, the roar of voices raised in song… and that particular silence of Alistair’s.

The door closed behind him, muffling the noise from within, and I knew without looking that he was coming to lean on the wall beside me. I didn’t want his questions, or his sympathy.

“Are you all ri—”

“Mm. Aren’t you going up to the castle?”

Alistair shrugged. “Maybe.”

His insouciance annoyed me, at that moment, more than I had imagined it could. My mind filled with pictures no more real than his make-believe cottage, with the blue windowboxes and the chubby-cheeked children, and I didn’t know why not understanding—not knowing why the demon had made that dream for him, instead of a castle with pennants and high, straight walls—should make me so angry.

I had no right to know, I supposed. The glimpses I’d had into the dreams of others were just glimpses. They gave me no privileges, united us by no common bonds. Not really. But still… hadn’t he ever been happy in this place? For a boy cast away so easily by the man who’d taken him in, Alistair bore such deep, rigid loyalty to Arl Eamon, and I didn’t know what to make of it… or of him. There were too many contradictions, too many mixed signals and, so very, very stupidly, I wasn’t sure I was ready to forgive him for the accident of his birth.

Alistair cleared his throat. “So, what—”

“Why did you keep it a secret?” I demanded. “About Mar— about your father, I mean.”

Not like me to snap so abruptly, to use a question for a weapon. But I wanted it to cut, I realised. I wanted it to sting, and to push him so far away from asking anything of his own.

Alistair said nothing at first. I stared down over the bare, red rocks, the mica and pebbles in the paths glittering in the dim, eerie light. I didn’t feel properly drunk, not really. Just so incredibly tired.

“You could have told me before,” I said, arch and reproachful, and scowling at the rocks as if it was their fault. “After the battle. You didn’t.”

He exhaled slowly. “Well, you never asked.”

“That’s cheap.”

I wanted to give him a withering, furious glare but, when I turned to do so, he just looked defeated and rather miserable. The shadows clung to his face, making him seem older somehow, his eyes cloaked in the darkness.

“All right, then. Would you believe me if I said I didn’t think it was important?”

“You’re the son of a king!” I protested, surprising myself with the strength of the indignance in my voice. “You’re one of—”

One of them. Was that what I meant? I wasn’t sure I even knew, and I was glad I’d bitten the word off before I sounded like a complete fool.

Alistair snorted. “At best, I’m the son of an indiscreet man and a star-struck chamber maid. At worst… well. I don’t know which is more true.”

“Oh.”

That shut me up. I hadn’t thought of it like that, I realised, but he must have done. Plenty of times, over the years. Of course, I knew all too well what rights some noblemen thought they had to a woman, and I saw no reason that Maric should have been any different. Strip away the half-truths and hyperboles, and all idols are flesh at their core.

“Anyway,” Alistair said quietly, “I’m illegitimate. Unrecognised. It was only an issue because the arl’s household knew, and if anyone had mentioned it… well, I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else. I… I didn’t want you to think I’d lied, although I guess part of me did kind of like you not knowing.”

“Huh?” I scoffed incredulously. “You… what, you enjoyed not telling me?”

There was steel in my voice; I heard it, squared up and spoiling for a fight, but Alistair didn’t rise to it.

“People treat me differently when they know,” he said wearily. “Suddenly, I’m the Bastard Prince, instead of just being me. I suppose I was afraid of that. I wanted you to like me for who I am, and not… you know.”

A great, clanging silence followed those words. The salt-stained breeze that came up from the lake, carrying the scent of smoked fish and creosote, brushed against my cheeks. I glanced at him, taking in the downcast eyes and slumped shoulders, and sighed.

Alistair looked up, meeting my gaze uncertainly. “That probably sounds stupid, doesn’t it? I bet—”

“No.” I shook my head. “It doesn’t sound stupid at all. And I do, anyway.”

“Hm?”

I leaned my head back against the rough wooden wall, spinning lightly on the sensation of being drunk, but not quite as drunk as I really wanted to be. I snorted, because at that moment all humans appeared to be complete fools.

“I do like you,” I said, closing my eyes. “In spite of your blood.”

It was true. I couldn’t imagine having done any of it without him, and how much I valued his friendship—his loyalty, and the unwavering support he’d given me—only seemed to sink in then, all mixed up with the beer and the warm fuzziness of a long day finally ending.

I valued, I realised, the friendship of a human above almost everything else in the world. The absurdity of that tickled me, and a sleepy grin spread across my face.

“Oh.” Alistair sounded genuinely surprised. “Really? I… oh. You see, I didn’t know that.”

I laughed. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but it felt good.

“Come on,” I said. “We should get some rest. Early start.”

“Right.”

I pushed away from the wall, wavering a little bit, and we headed back down the gritty slope—which seemed an awful lot steeper and more slippery than it had before—and towards the wide, welcoming doors of the chantry. More comfortable than another night under canvas, I supposed, and less intimidating than the castle.

I glanced at Alistair, who appeared to be concentrating extremely hard on not falling over as we made our way down to the village square, and wondered just what I saw when I looked at him. Not a bastard prince, certainly… though I did catch myself thinking of Cailan. Was there the whiff of similarity there? Same puppyish enthusiasm, perhaps, though Alistair’s was coloured over with that dry humour; easily recognisable to me as the product of years which had not been so kind as they might. Not that he knew what a hard life really was, I reminded myself, ale lending me a certain degree of maudlin self-indulgence.

Anyway, they looked nothing alike. I remembered Cailan as bright and fair, all good cheekbones and clear blue eyes, like a heroic portrait waiting to happen. Alistair was… weathered, by comparison. His hair was a darker blond, his expression always an eighth of an inch from weary sarcasm, and his eyes were that very particular hazel, like a dark green flecked with gold.

I frowned, not entirely sure when I had made a note of that fact, and squinted muzzily at him, trying to ascertain whether I’d made it up or not. He looked at me curiously, cocked an eyebrow, and then grinned.

“What? Hey, are… are you drunk?”

“Hm? No! No,” I protested, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. “Of course not. I… I don’t drink to excess. I’m a respectabab— a respectable girl.”

Alistair sniggered. “You are! You’re drunk!”

“So are you,” I pointed out, and he laughed—really laughed—as if it was the most acutely amusing thing anyone had ever said.

I got the giggles too and, by the time we reached the chantry, we were teetering along in an exaggerated pantomime of being quiet, stifling our laughter and making it worse by trying to do so.

There were still plenty of wounded, homeless, and terrified people in the chantry, which curbed our amusement a bit, and the sight of the gaggles of newly orphaned children under Mother Hannah’s care was more rapidly sobering than any bucket of iced water.

I took the thin woollen blanket that was offered to me, and thanked the lay sister who directed us to the side chapels currently serving as shelters. Men to one side, women to the other… and everything quiet, but for the coughs and moans of the injured, or the piping voices of little ones who couldn’t sleep for the bad dreams and empty spaces beside them.

I bade Alistair goodnight beneath the blankly benevolent gaze of the chantry’s dark windows, admitting thin slips of moonlight to augment the torches, and he gave me a small, solemn smile.

“No dreams, right?” he whispered.

“No dreams,” I promised, not sure whether he was talking about the Fade, or the darkspawn.

“Good. Night, then.”

“Night.”

I watched him go, listening to the sound of familiar footsteps on the stone.

The side chapel was crowded, but I settled myself in a spot between an old woman, already snoring, and a young girl with a baby in her lap, wrapped in a green shawl. When sleep finally did take me, it was a deep and effortless slumber, and it left no footprints of memories behind it.

~o~O~o~

The morning came unexpectedly quickly and, when I woke, the chapel was a great deal emptier. Sunlight streamed through the beautiful windows, the coloured glass sending a dozen different, dappled shades of pink, green, blue and orange scattering across my vision.

“Ow,” I declared, shut my eyes again and, with a groan, flung an arm across my face.

A foot prodded me unceremoniously in the ribs.

“Come on.”

I recognised the voice as Alistair’s, laced with an unholy cheerfulness, and I groaned again.

“Time to get going,” he said brightly. “There’s actual breakfast before we leave, with bacon and kippers and everything. I could get used to this heroing business.”

“Ohhh….” My stomach lurched. “Eating? They want us to eat?”

I peered out from under the crook of my elbow. It was still horribly bright, and he was grinning at me, haloed by spinning, searing beams of light. A smell distressingly reminiscent of smoked fish and lard was coming from somewhere nearby, and my gut roiled again.

Urrrrrgh….”

“Huh. That sister said you were dead to the world. Come on… we’ll get something greasy down you, and you’ll feel better in no time. It’s not even as if you had that much to drink.”

“Elf,” I muttered, both defence and explanation as, eyes shut tight, I held out my other arm and let Alistair pull me to my feet.

There was less of me than there was of him and, for all the similarities, elven bodies were different to humans. Less body fat equated to greater sensitivity to the cold… and alcohol, to name but two weaknesses. Still, once I was up and the world stopped spinning a little bit, things weren’t quite as bad. I even ventured to peer at my friend, and had the satisfaction of seeing he was a bit bleary-eyed, even if the sod was able to cope with it better than me.

“Kippers?” he asked innocently.

I clenched my teeth and growled between them: “Bastard.”

“Hey… that’s royal bastard to you.”

“Very well,” I said, my tongue thick and apparently furry. “Lead on… my prince.”

Alistair scowled. “Oh, yes. Hilarious.”

I grinned, which made my face hurt, and followed him outside.

It had been a rush getting everything ready and—though the people who’d helped set us on our way would have never have admitted it—we were taking a lot from Redcliffe, and for very little coin. Bann Teagan had settled or promised to settle plenty of debts on our behalf, but there was the armour, the new boots, the supplies… even proper canvas tents, stitched out of old sailcloth and waxed against the weather. There were things I thought of as luxuries, too: a couple of fur pelts, for warmth, oilcloth bedrolls… finer things than I’d ever had back home. We were still travelling light, but we had enough for our needs, and that was a pleasant change from the journey so far, although it didn’t ease any of the worries I had about the direction we were headed in, or the tasks we had before us.

Ser Perth and a few of his men—including one Ser Donal, whom Alistair apparently knew, I gathered from his time with the templars—had passed on what little knowledge they had about Brother Gentivi. The short of it was ‘not much’, especially as those of the knights who’d been farthest away from Redcliffe had yet to return, or send word of whether they’d found him. The good brother, Ser Donal said, was something of a wanderer… and I finally realised why the name seemed familiar. He was the author of In Pursuit of Knowledge: the Travels of a Chantry Scholar, the dog-eared volume Mother had given me when I was a child, and from whose pages I’d cobbled together most of the preconceptions I had about the world outside Denerim… preconceptions which, in the main, had so far generally been wrong.

Privately, I suspected that did not bode too well for the insane business of recovering ancient relics but—seeing as hunting down the Urn of Sacred Ashes was probably no more insane than walking straight back into the lion’s den that was Denerim—I said nothing. After all, we’d received enough help and goodwill from Teagan and Isolde that we could hardly refuse to at least try and find some information.

However, the journey would take a good couple of weeks, all told, and twin fangs of indecision and apprehension were still scoring me over whether we’d made the right choice.

I didn’t much like the scattering of nervous, pale faces who’d come to see us off, either. The villagers crowded along the ridge, showing their support for their flame-haired hero—and, marginally, the rest of us—whom the faithful were already convinced would return victorious and save their arl. Leliana smiled graciously and pretended not to notice the attention, though I could see her basking in it like a lizard on a rock.

All told, we didn’t really get going until mid-morning, tied up with all the preparations and farewells. Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde came down to the square to say goodbye, and the skies were blue and clear, a bright, early sun splitting the lake into glittering shards of gold.

Teagan shook my hand warmly, smiled at me, and said I was a good woman. I mumbled something vague, and blamed the combination of nausea and embarrassment I felt on my stinking hangover. For Sten and Morrigan, there were restrained and respectful nods; for Alistair, a firm grip of hands that dissolved into a rough, avuncular hug. Leliana, he bowed to… called her ‘my lady’, and wished that the Maker would guide her on the road. She dropped one of those graceful curtseys, despite wearing breeches, and looked at him from under her lashes as she thanked him and returned the words.

A lesson in how to handle the nobility, I supposed… had I been of a mind to learn it. Instead, I glanced at Wynne—all ready to go, with a brand new pack and countless bags of supplies about her person—and smiled thinly. I still had serious doubts about accepting the mage’s offer to join us, but it wasn’t as if we were in a position to pick and choose allies.

Maethor barked impatiently as we began to head out of the village, skittering on ahead of us up the ridge. He didn’t have a pack to carry, I reflected, and wonderful though it was to at last be in possession of boots that fitted, and actual tents for sleeping in (Maker bless the people of Redcliffe, and all the merchants’ stocks they’d plundered for us!), I wasn’t relishing the prospect of marching hundreds of miles with all this weight on my back.

I took one last look at the gutted timber buildings and the scorched, parched red earth of the square. Even if we did, by some improbable odds, manage to succeed, who was to say Redcliffe would still even be here when we came back? It was all too easy to picture it gone, swallowed by the darkspawn.

However bright and clean the sky looked now—however strong the smell of salted and smoked fish, and however sharp the angles of the cliffs and the straight, tall trees—I couldn’t help those thoughts. Oh, we were leaving here drenched with optimism, and burdened by the hopes and desperation of these people… but other, darker things weighed my feet down. We might have had a victory at our back, but we were surely heading towards certain defeat. There were too many things ahead of us, too many things to face in Denerim: not least Loghain… and, for me, the deeper shadows of my own past.

Yet I could not turn away. There was no running, no hiding… just the clean, simple knowledge that this was our duty, and it had to be fulfilled.

It was that which kept my steps faltering forwards that day, as we headed out along the cliff path. Behind us, the gulls swooped and screamed above the water, dark shapes against a crisp, clear sky.

I tilted my chin up, and fixed my gaze on the horizon.

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