Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eleven

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Bright sunlight filled the courtyard. We’d come out at the far edge, the last vestige of the bustling, labyrinthine passageways that served the castle’s daily business. The smell of dead bodies and musty tapestry cloth soiled with dried blood was still rank on me, and it felt strange to see that—in the midst of all this death and violence—there could still be sunshine, and fluffy white clouds scudding across a flawless blue sky.

A stone stairway led up to the main doors, which I knew without looking would be heavily barred and bolted. Below, down a slight slope, the portcullis and double-walled gates that separated the forecourt from the route down to the village were still tightly closed. It was all as serene as a painting, but for the bits of discarded equipment and scuffmarks in the dirt that told of the fight the arl’s guards must have put up before they fell. There were no bodies, of course. Not just lying there, anyway.

I glanced at Morrigan, curious as to what she sensed. Her breathing was tight, shallow, and she scanned the borders of the courtyard as if she knew there was something there—something that was aware of our presence, and just waiting for us to walk into its trap. I began to think Alistair had been right, and that splitting up hadn’t been such a good idea.

There wasn’t much time to think about it, though. Up on the walls, crouching behind the crenellations and now rising, aiming at us with sightless eyes, were at least half a dozen archers and crossbowmen. They bore Eamon’s badge, and so did the corpses pouring down from the cover of the guard towers. Like the others we’d seen, these were more than shambling flesh-puppets. They wielded weapons and, worse, the tempered steel of pure hatred, knapped to an edge with maddened fury. As a hail of arrows splintered down from the parapets, we scattered. Morrigan flung out a blaze of magical energy intended to blind and disorient the creatures, while Sten raised his sword and unleashed a terrifying qunari battle cry that, under other circumstances, would have made me wonder if all their words sounded so violent.

A few slim, elegant ash trees dotted the courtyard. In defiance of the coming winter, they still held onto the last of their leaves and, as I ducked behind one pale trunk, I was briefly amazed at the brightness of the colours. Stark, red-tinged green, so sharp against the blue sky. It seemed unbelievable—as if none of this was more than a paper cut-out, a stage upon which we danced—yet it wasn’t as if I was unused to seeing brutality next to beauty. I gritted my teeth and swung out from behind the tree, plunging into the fray as weirdly detached as before. I know I took risks: overextended my sword arm, misjudged blows and dodged attacks by sheer blind luck. Somewhere, through the fog and the comfortable cushion of pain—that barrier of exhaustion and aching fatigue that stopped me really thinking about anything—I was floating through it all. Nothing mattered except the weight of the blade and the thud of steel biting dead flesh.

Alistair was yelling about cover. I remember peering dreamily across the courtyard at him, frowning as I spotted the arrow sticking out of his shoulder, and then seeing Morrigan pirouette across the debris-strewn ground. Her robes spiralled around her like the beating wings of some ragged bird, and the sunlight glinted sharply on the jewels she wore. Her black iron staff sailed through strange, wild angles, spurting ice and flares of light, and the hair crackled on the back of my neck. Without her, we’d have been dead a dozen times over, but it didn’t mean I was comfortable with her magic.

Now, she was everywhere, all at once holding them back and striking them down, positioning herself between Alistair and the onslaught. I fought my way over, barely even seeing the corpses I hacked through and, somewhere at my core, slightly sickened by that knowledge. His wound could have been worse; he was still standing, and still swinging at anything that came close, though his shield arm was obviously weak. Sten was out in the centre of the courtyard, a little way from us, and I cursed my stupidity at first dividing our numbers, and then allowing us to wander blindly into this mess.

That said, watching the qunari fight was like witnessing an entire battlefield in motion. He moved between stances effortlessly, as if he anticipated the enemy’s every move. They swarmed him, but he never faltered. It made what came next worse, somehow.

Morrigan yelled the word. Revenant. I didn’t know what it was, what she meant… just that there was a moment of panic, and she turned her fire towards the far corner of the courtyard. I thought there was another wave of corpses coming, and then it hit.

I’d felt the force of her magic before—but nothing like this. It caught all four of us, the sensation that of something warm and slightly prickly, like a dry summer wind, gritty with the sweltering debris of the city. A greasy, metallic taste clogged my mouth, and I blinked owlishly, not understanding what the witch had warned against. I still didn’t know what it was when we went flying through the air, tossed aside as easily as dolls and flung against one of the great stone buttresses that supported the inner courtyard wall.

We landed tangled in a muddled, yelling heap. The arrow in Alistair’s shoulder had broken off at the shaft, and blood welled through the jagged ruptures in his armour. A ripped, bloody swatch of shirt was visible between the torn leather bands, but he could use the arm well enough to help support himself as he scrambled to his feet. We were all stunned, weakened… my head spun, and I couldn’t quite believe it had really happened. Things moved too fast for me to grasp, seconds running into each other like muddy raindrops. Sten and Morrigan were both up, and I had my sword in one hand, and a dagger in the other—and it still wasn’t enough.

The creature was unlike any of the other corpses, though it was of the same mould. The body it was using had, I judged, once belonged to one of Ser Perth’s men; I recognised the badge that held the ragged cloak about its shoulders, and the same bright tracery on the armour. He’d been tall, broad… a well-muscled and experienced knight, his face hidden beneath the square steel shell of a helm that glinted in the sunlight. The blow that had killed him—a great, tearing gash to his side—was still visible, the metal armour sundered and dented, and the flesh beneath beginning to turn black. I thought I saw the pale wriggle of a maggot, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on details.

The revenant took a few paces sideways across the courtyard, looking at us with its head tilted as it moved, much the way a cat might inspect incapacitated prey. A knight’s sword—a blade of impressive, ornately tooled steel, easily the length of my arm and half again—swung delicately in one heavy gauntlet, as if the thing was merely toying with the idea of a fight.

We were pressed in tight together, knotted up in deference to being both outnumbered and, quite possibly, outclassed. Tension burned the air as the seconds spun out, no one making the first move. The remaining handful of corpses were holding back; waiting, I thought, for this new monster’s command.

At my right, Sten jostled impatiently. Morrigan put out her arm, a barrier to impulsive action.

“These things strike hard,” she warned. “It is a demon of pride, or greed. Powerful. You have seen its command of magic. Do not give it the advantage.”

“Right,” Alistair said dryly, pain etched into the hoarseness of his voice. “I’ll bear that in mind when it’s holding me down and hacking my arms off.”

Sten gave a low, unsettling growl. “The remedy to that,” he rumbled, “is to be the one doing the hacking.”

I let out a short bark of laughter that was probably symptomatic of hysteria, though the tail of it died as sparks guttered from Morrigan’s fingers. She was bent into a ready crouch, staff held at an angle and thick silver bangles clinking on her bare, white arms. The dead knight’s helm tilted from side to side as magical energy rippled in the air before her. I didn’t understand what she was doing at first—neither striking or preparing an assault, just keeping a tiny pulse of light moving at the ends of her fingers. Her face was a tight mask of concentration, lips parted over small, even teeth.

“You see it?” she murmured, those ochre-gold eyes unblinking. “See….”

I did. The creature was watching her, apparently fascinated. The blankness of that bloodied helm frightened me; I could easily have believed there was a dull red glow where the eyes should have been, or that there was nothing beneath the armour but a nightmare, waiting to pull me into its centre the way the shades had tried to do. That wasn’t true, though, was it? There was a body there, a thing that had once been a man, and it could fall.

“On three,” Alistair said quietly. “One….”

Sten nodded, leaving me the only one who didn’t quite know what was going on.

“Two….”

“Er, hang on. What—”

‘Three’ didn’t quite happen. Sten yelled, Morrigan loosed a burst of ice, and there was a mad tumble of steel and legs that broke all that aching, painful tension into tiny pieces.

The revenant was a demon of pride, desire and greed. It fed on those impulses, and in turn they defined it. Like all its kind, its existence on the mortal plane was a troubled one, driven by hunger and need, and the ravening insanity that stalked close behind. It sensed Morrigan’s power the way she felt its presence, and it desired it. After all, a dead body provided easy pickings for a creature of the Fade, but the residual shreds of life were nothing beside the tempting promise of a powerful mage.

Its greed was its undoing, distracting it just enough—just long enough—for the three of us to hit up close, hard and fast. As Morrigan’s frost burst disorientated the creature, Sten swung in at the front, smashing a mighty blow into its chest. Alistair took the left flank, an arc of metal and violence, and I found myself in my usual position: spitting dust amid a forest of legs.

The remaining corpses were no longer holding back, and the melee quickly grew chaotic. I ducked, rolled, and came up behind the demon, seeking a weakness in all that dented plate armour. The knight’s ornate, keenly balanced sword swished past my head with a noise like tearing silk, and pain erupted at the tip of my left ear. I yelped, and thrust my blade into the revenant’s back as it spun, trying to tackle assailants from three different angles. Morrigan screamed at us to pull back, and it was clear she had problems enough of her own. Corpses clawed at her, and she struggled to hold them off alone. As the other two pulled away from the fight, I hesitated, thinking we would draw the demon onto her. Alistair grabbed the back of my jerkin and, as he dragged me out of the way, I understood the strategy no one had bothered to tell me.

The revenant struck its sword against the flagstones once more, preparing whatever foul magic it was that had sent us spinning through the air before but, this time, the remaining undead bore the brunt of the damage. Greed had its uses, I supposed; particularly where blinding a fool was concerned.

The demon succeeded only in breaking its own allies against the stones, which made them easier to dispatch, and left it unguarded. It howled with rage, and Morrigan ploughed towards it like some mad, dancing black flame, lobbing spell after spell at the creature. We piled back on it, and the smell of frostburnt carrion and dead, rotting flesh was so far down the back of my throat I almost failed to notice it. When Sten struck the killing blow that, at long last, saw the creature slow, topple, and finally fall, it seemed we’d been fighting for hours.

There was such silence in the courtyard… and no sense of triumph. We stood, panting, looking down at the thing, and the body seemed small, despite the sword still clutched in the metal-sheathed grasp. Alistair bent down and pulled it from the dead knight’s gauntlet.

“This should get back to Ser Perth. He’ll know who this man was.”

I glanced around at the bits of other bodies, other men… hadn’t they all had names, and families? Or did knighthood impart some greater worth?

I winced, and absently reached up to pat the sore tip of my ear, staring dispassionately at the blood that glossed my fingers when they came away. Just a nick, for which I was absurdly thankful. It wasn’t as if I’d been pretty to start with—but I had no wish to lose my points.

“Let’s just find Bann Teagan,” I said, wiping my hand on my filthy breeches. “It’s this way, right?”

~o~O~o~

Under less abnormal circumstances—and with fewer bloody body parts strewn around the place—the castle would have been impressive. I might have cowered as Alistair led us up through the main doors, and stared in wonder at the bas-reliefs and gilded fixtures.

Instead, I shivered as the mighty panels of carved oak closed behind me, and squinted into the darkness of a dank, filthy hallway. There were beeswax candles in iron sconces, but they’d been ripped from the walls, just like the tapestries, and the whole place smelled of death.

It was too quiet as we made our way towards the main hall; no sound but the mismatched paces of four sets of boots, and Morrigan’s iron staff clicking on the stones in counterpoint.

We were all tense. I glanced at Alistair, but he intimidated me. Silent, thin-lipped, and with the revenant’s sword still in his hand, he wasn’t entirely the comrade I’d begun to grow used to fighting beside. The arrow wound in his shoulder looked bad, but he just shook his head when I asked if he was all right, and said it was fine. I didn’t argue, though I didn’t like the pallid, waxy cast to his face.

One more turn of a corner, one more corridor full of smashed statuary and torn fabric, and we were almost there.

“It’s close,” Morrigan said softly. “I… believe we are expected.”

I looked dubiously at the wall, and what had once been a very beautiful painting of a young woman. She was in tatters now, dark scraps of canvas fluttering from a gilt frame. Alistair grunted.

“Hm. Maybe we’ll get lunch.”

It wasn’t his usual flippancy. There was a dull, hollow quality to his voice, and it prodded me towards the same unthinkable truth that I’d been trying so hard to avoid: if Connor had really been possessed, then surely there was only one possible course of action. My stomach clenched, and I glanced back over my shoulder, wondering where Leliana was now.

Too late to wonder, though. We’d found what we sought.

The doors to the main hall were open, as if everything within was being framed just for us, no more than a play, a revel.

It was a huge space, the fine stonework hung with cloth-of-gold tapestries and the high ceiling a mass of interlocking beams and bosses. At the far end, a great fire roared, and there was a dais, which held a small dining table, groaning beneath the weight of fine decanters and salvers of food. Other benches were ranged the length of the hall, though they’d been pushed back to the walls, as if to make space for a party.

Guards thronged the edges of the room, each one standing stock still with a crossbow or sword in his hand, and a blank, empty look on his face. It was hard to tell, at first glance, whether they were alive or dead… but my eyes did not linger on them.

On the dais, seated at the table, was the boy I guessed must be Connor. He was young—Maker, so very much younger than I’d thought—and he laughed and clapped delightedly as, on the floor in front of him, Bann Teagan rolled and tumbled like a jester.

Lady Isolde stood by the boy’s shoulder, her body hunched and her eyes downcast, her mouth a curve of misery. The fire leaped and danced, tongues of amber light throwing eerie patterns across this absurd scene.

We came to a halt in the open doorway, and I heard Alistair’s intake of breath. Bann Teagan performed a dramatic somersault, landing on his hands, and then—as Connor stood up, attention suddenly switching from him—he collapsed to the stones, limp as a wet rag.

The boy came to the edge of the dais, looking down the length of the hall at us. I’d never seen such an expression on so young a face. Pale skin, with the well-fed peachiness of a human child, and an amply covered frame… yet the look in his face was one of feral curiosity, and the barely suppressed anger of madness.

“These are our visitors,” he said, his thin, boy’s voice echoing off the stones as he tilted his head, peering at us the way the revenant had done… almost as if he couldn’t see us, but sensed us by smell or some other, horrible method. “The ones you told me about, Mother. Isn’t that right?”

She’d known all along. Known, and let us walk blind into the trap. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised. Connor was her son, and he was just a boy… he couldn’t have been much more than nine or ten years old.

The arlessa nodded wretchedly. “Y-yes, Connor.”

She raised her head and looked at us, and I thought I could see the firelight catch at tears on her cheeks. The guardsmen hadn’t moved, hadn’t even blinked or glanced at us. They were still as… well, as corpses, which worried me. Bann Teagan crawled across the floor and sprawled himself at the foot of the steps leading up to the dais, ankles crossed and arms propped upon his knees. He grinned inanely into the middle distance, and giggled to himself.

I’d never seen magic that could do such a thing to a person—never even thought it could exist. My heart hammered at my ribs, and I fervently wished we’d discussed what we planned to do. I looked at Alistair, just in time to catch him striding forwards across the neat flagstones, firelight glimmering on the sword he still held.

“What have you done with Bann Teagan?” he demanded.

“Uncle?” Connor smiled unpleasantly. “But Uncle Teagan is right here. Say hello, Uncle.”

The bann looked up at him and waved mechanically. “Hello, Uncle!”

“Dear Uncle was very full of himself earlier,” the boy confided, lips drawing back into a smug sneer. “I think being a jester rather suits him.”

He reached out to the laden table, pulled the leg off a stuffed chicken and threw it to Teagan, who caught it and at once began to guzzle the meat. Connor chuckled, and it was a horrible mix of a child’s laughter and something much older, much darker than any boy should ever know.

“So….” His gaze ranged coolly over us. “These are the ones who defeated the soldiers I sent to reclaim my village? It won’t do. Won’t do at all. And look at this one!”

The child’s face warped into an expression of outraged, appalled horror, and he pointed a finger at me. I gritted my teeth, determined I would neither flinch nor cringe.

“Look at it! It’s staring at me, Mother.”

Isolde whimpered, and her voice shook when she spoke, though her tone was striving to be that of a woman speaking to her child. She still believed he was in there, I realised. She still hoped.

“She is an elf, Connor. You… you’ve seen elves before. We have them here in the castle, and—”

“Yes!” He clapped his hands and let out a snort of laughter. “I remember… I had their ears cut off and fed to the dogs!”

My stomach knotted in a sudden fist of revulsion and, I am ashamed to admit, hate. The child—the creature—must have sensed the reaction, for Connor turned to me again, head tilted to the side, and grinned. He lifted one hand and gently fingered his own ear.

“The dogs chewed for hours. Such fun! This one has been insolent, Mother… shall I send it to the kennels?”

The arlessa let out a stifled sob and began to move towards the boy, her tapered, white hands outstretched.

“C-Connor, I beg you, don’t hurt anyone!”

She dropped to her knees, her fine gown smattered with dust and dirt, and clutched at his arm. He resisted at first, shook his head, and then seemed to blink as if he was waking from a dream, confused and disorientated.

“M-Mother?” The same voice, but clearer, not burred with that hard edge of hatred. “What… what’s happening? Where am I?”

“Oh, thank the Maker!” Isolde cried, seizing the child by both arms now, shaking him hard. “Connor! Connor, can you hear me?”

His moment of clarity did not last long. Connor broke away from her, and I swore I saw the change in him; the way his face grew pinched and his brows drew tight together, eyes clouding over and body becoming taut and somehow angular.

“Get away from me, fool woman!” he snapped. “You are beginning to bore me.”

The arlessa put those white hands to her mouth, and wept bitterly. I saw Alistair look to me, his face grim. Isolde was right: the boy was still in there. The demon had control, but it was not complete. I wanted to think there was some way we could save him, some hope that we would not have to—

I swallowed hard. Had I thought of it? Truly? Thought of what it would mean to sink my blade into the neck of a child, and watch his blood spill out onto my hands?

“Please!” Lady Isolde’s cry was a heart-wrenching, ragged wail, broken through with tears and edged with pain. “Please… can’t you see? He’s not responsible for this. It’s not his fault!”

She reached for her son, but Connor brushed her roughly away, and she fell to her hands and knees on the dais, sobbing afresh.

“Protecting him the way you have hasn’t made this any easier,” Alistair said darkly.

Even the air in the room seemed to taste bitter. My gaze flicked nervously between them as the arlessa raised herself to her knees, her face twisted with fury and hurt.

“You dare to—” she began, the bile cut off by a mangled cry that was half sob, half snarl of rage. “No! Connor did not mean this! It was that mage, the one who poisoned Eamon—he is to blame. Connor was just trying to help his father!”

The boy was prowling, keeping his distance behind the small dining table. His chubby, childish fingers picked impatiently at the treats sprawled out across the cloth, shoving candies and sweetbreads into his mouth, but the dark, shadowed rings of his eyes never left Alistair. He—it—knew what would have to come.

Behind me, Morrigan snorted. “Was he? And he made a deal with a demon to do so? Foolish child.”

Connor scowled. “It was a fair deal!” he shouted, spraying crumbs across the table, gobs of half-chewed food dropping from his greasy lips as if suddenly forgotten. “Father is alive, just as I wanted, and now it’s my turn to sit on the throne and send out armies to conquer the world! Nobody tells me what to do anymore!”

“Nobody tells him what to do!” Bann Teagan parroted, rocking in his hunched position at the foot of the dais. “Nobody! Ha!”

The fire seemed to be drawing warmth out of the hall instead of providing it. I tried to suppress a shiver as Connor—or whatever we should have termed the thing currently wearing his skin—curled a dismissive lip.

“Quiet, Uncle,” he snapped. “I warned you what would happen if you kept shouting, didn’t I? Yes, I did. But let’s keep things civil. These people have come for an audience, and they should have it. Tell us… what is it you want?”

There was a moment of harsh, dry silence. The fire cracked, and Alistair’s boots scraped on the flagstones as he took a step forwards.

“To stop you, demon. We know what you are… and this will end here.”

He sounded brave. For a brief, absurd moment, I thought of the lurid tales in my childhood books, where princes faced down terrible monsters and triumphed with their pure hearts and magic swords. Alistair still had the revenant’s sword in his grasp; the tip of it touched the flagstones next to his worn, dusty, bloodstained boots. His armour—the rough, mismatched kit we’d bought third-hand in Lothering—was dishevelled and stained, his ash-wood shield marked with all sorts of unpleasant mementoes of battle. Dried blood caked the left side of his face, and he appeared to be swaying very slightly.

Connor scoffed, and that thread of darkness, that otherness that was not the child’s voice, saturated his words.

“I doubt that very much, mortal.”

Something deeply unsettling happened to the room; it was like a flash of lightning on a grey summer’s day, when a storm breaks without warning, the sky seems to turn inside out, and the world catches it breath. I heard a howl, a scream of something in terrible pain, and realised it was Connor… fighting whatever it was that was within him. The air shook, the fire roared, every torch in the place blew out—and the guards that fringed the room suddenly seemed much more alert.

Connor flung out his arms, a sheet of white light projecting not just from his hands, but his whole body. I felt myself knocked to the ground, my eyes burning with the imprinted shape of something not human, something… something I did not, at that point, understand.

I didn’t see much after that except the guards piling on us. That they appeared to be already dead—puppets rather than corpses animated by possession, as far as I was any judge—was little consolation. We fought hard. Morrigan put everything she had into driving them back, while Sten held the centre of the room, his greatsword whirling in devastating patterns. Alistair was wielding two blades—the knight’s sword and his own—in a furious flash of steel and desperation, and I found myself wresting the windlass from one man before he could fire the thing, and cracking his head open with the stock. When a blow to the back of my neck knocked me flying, I let the crossbow fall from my hand and spun, dagger ready to open up my assailant… only to find it was Bann Teagan.

The look on my face must have mirrored the horrified shock I could see deep in his eyes, and my blade faltered. Stupid, because he—or whatever force had control of him—brought his fist around in a generous arc and smacked it squarely into my mouth. My whole head jarred, and pain burst in sharp white stars as my vision swam. I lurched, knees wobbling, and the taste of blood had me spitting and retching. I watched my loose tooth skid across the flagstones in a splatter of thin, red saliva, and caught myself on my hands as I fell. Thinking that I should have seen that one coming, and probably dodged it, I stuck out my leg and tripped the bann as he lunged towards me. He went down, I scrabbled to pick up my blade and scrambled over, and we were a tangled, thrashing mess on the floor. I wanted to hold him, not kill him, but it wasn’t the first time I’d had my arm around the throat of a human man, squeezing and choking as he clawed at me in desperate agony.

I let go as soon as he went limp, and flung myself away from his prone form, panting.

~o~O~o~

When the dust settled, Lady Isolde was standing by the fire, its amber light haloing her pale figure, eyes great pools of horror in that white, oval face, and her honey-coloured hair dishevelled. Connor was long gone. Two large, iron-bound doors led out of that end of the room, one each side of the fireplace. The boy could have fled through either one… or she could have shoved him through either one, I corrected.

I started to heave myself to my feet, lungs sore and throbbing and my head light.

“What have you done?” Alistair demanded, pushing past me to where Bann Teagan lay.

I didn’t have an answer, barely able to breathe as I was. The hall was littered with bits of bodies, the bitter copper tang of blood tainting the air. I hung back, feeling useless and stupid as there was a general flapping and fanning to revive the unconscious nobleman.

Sten was wiping down his blade, surveying the mess with apparent disinterest… though I had begun to learn not to judge the qunari by appearances. Morrigan stood to one side, leaning heavily on her staff, the rise and fall of that artfully framed bosom the only suggestion of her exertion. She met my gaze, and the look in her eyes confused me. It was strange; part satisfaction, part cool mischievousness, and partly almost like some kind of fellow feeling. We were both outsiders, I supposed, adrift and unwanted by the world in which we now found ourselves.

Her lips curled into an odd, tired, snarling smile—was that respect I saw there?—and she nodded at me. I looked away, aware now of the intense throbbing in my lip and jaw, and the taste of blood in my mouth. I spat again, a thin dribble of it hitting the stones, and tried to avoid probing the ragged, empty tooth socket with my tongue.

Bann Teagan was coming round. That was good, I realised blearily. The arlessa was fussing at him like a wet handkerchief, tugging at his arm in that peculiarly girlish manner—embarrassing, we would have said back home, in a woman of her years.

“Teagan! Oh, Teagan… are you all right?”

The bann sat up, coughed, and nodded, pushing her gently away. “I-I’m fine, Isolde. I am myself again.”

His voice was as rough as mine had been after we met the corpses in the dungeons, and I had no doubt I’d left my mark on him. Still, as he turned those dark blue eyes to me, Teagan found strength enough to smile grimly.

“That’s… that’s quite an arm you have there, Warden.”

I inclined my head, not all that keen to let my relief show. “Your left hook’s not so bad either, ser.”

Maker, but talking hurt. Teagan’s smile widened a flicker, then his face turned solemn, brows drawing close over that long, sharp nose.

“I am truly sorry. Are you—”

“Fine.” I brushed away the concern, and glanced to the doors at the far end of the room. “Where’s Connor?”

Alistair helped Teagan to his feet, shooting me a look of guarded, tight apology as he did so. I gave him a small nod. It didn’t matter. He cleared his throat.

“I didn’t see him go, but… the family quarters are upstairs. I suppose—”

“Please!” Isolde cut in. “No… Connor is not responsible for this! It’s not his fault. He—”

“You knew about this all along, Isolde,” Bann Teagan reproached sharply. “If you had only said something…!”

Her mouth crumpled, her whole face like a faded rose wrapped in layers around the girl she must once have been.

“I was afraid,” she murmured. “I didn’t speak, because I believed we could help him. I still do.”

A heavy, awkward silence fell, into which the fire crackled ominously. I looked at Alistair, hoping he’d have some diplomatic, sensible thing to say—did a templar’s training extend to comforting the relatives of blood mages they were about to kill?—but he was looking at me, probably with much the same expectation.

I supposed I might as well make myself the scapegoat.

“Lady Isolde,” I began, pushing the words past the sticky rawness of my split lip, and hearing how thick they sounded. “Connor is not in control. The demon that possesses him has killed countless numbers of—”

“And what do you know?” she demanded, glaring at me. “My son is not always the demon you saw! Connor is still there. You saw it!”

She was right, but it changed nothing. The arlessa turned back to Teagan, tugging again at his arm, tears filling her great doe-eyes.

“Please, Teagan! I just want to protect my son!”

He frowned. “Isn’t that what started this? You hired the mage to teach Connor in secret… to protect him.”

“They would have taken him away!” she protested, her voice rising to a tremulous quaver. “I thought if he learned just enough to hide it, then—”

This was going nowhere.

“Why did Connor run?” I asked, cutting across the woman.

She treated me to another glower, but managed to squeeze out a tight-lipped answer.

“Violence… scares him. I know that sounds strange, given everything that— It is him, don’t you see? Not the demon. From time to time, he does come back into himself. That is why I know he can be helped!”

Alistair nodded thoughtfully. “But he’s passive now. Which would mean he might be, uh….”

He trailed off, shifting uncomfortably and clearly unwilling to say what I supposed we were all thinking.

“Vulnerable,” Teagan supplemented bitterly.

The arlessa’s hand went to her mouth. “No… you can’t be suggesting—no! He remembers nothing… he is so frightened. He doesn’t know what— Blessed Andraste, he is but a child!”

“What about Arl Eamon?” I asked, hoping to divert the woman from another peal of fractured agony. I understood her pain—or so I thought—but it didn’t make the choice ahead of us any easier. “He’ll be upstairs too, yes?”

Teagan nodded. “His sickbed is at the top of the east staircase. The creature has shown no interest in harming him so far, but, if Connor did make a pact with the demon to save his father, then….”

His words fell leaden into the air. Yet another complication. I glanced at Alistair, taking in the closed-in set of his face, the glassy look in his eyes. To think we’d come here expecting sanctuary, and the answer to all our problems.

I closed my eyes, took as deep a breath as I dared to do, and tried to think. It was horrifying to discover—somewhere above all the pain and fatigue, and the awful weight of indecision—that one bright thread, silver and terrifyingly clear, running right down the middle of my mind. I grasped hold of it and, in the blackness behind my eyes, everything suddenly seemed simple.

Item: the mage-child was possessed. Maker alone knew how many deaths he’d caused already. He had to be stopped. Item: if the demon was destroyed, Arl Eamon might never recover. A possibility, but a dangerous one.

However, should that happen, surely his estates would pass to Teagan, or at least to Isolde? I had no experience of how the nobility ran their inheritances, but it seemed likely. Everything we had come to Redcliffe for—supplies, men, the pledge of support to warn and unite the country against this accursed Blight—we would still be able to get, whether Eamon lived or died.

Probably.

I opened my eyes, and the silver thread vanished in the dimness of the hall. There were anxious, tight-lipped faces, and bodies on the floor, and for all the clear, simple truths in the world, I did not want to be the one who murdered a frightened child.

I sighed, and turned to the figure in black, waiting at the edge of the room like a shadowed ghost.

“Morrigan…?”

She stepped forwards, her staff clicking on the stones. The firelight picked at those golden eyes, and she twitched her lips impatiently.

“Hm. You would have my advice, I suppose?”

Alistair clenched his jaw and, for a moment, I thought there’d be a comment coming, but he said nothing. I nodded.

“Please. You know better than me… is there anything that can be done for Connor?”

The witch looked thoughtful, then inclined her head. “Perhaps.”

“What?” Lady Isolde’s face segued brilliantly from vituperative indignation—the haughty ‘who is this woman?’ obviously trembling on her lips—to desperate hope. “You must tell us!”

Morrigan’s gaze hardened. I guessed must did not sit well with her. Still, she shrugged, as if none of this was more than a trifling matter.

“A mage may be possessed by a demon, through weak will or carelessness… but to give oneself willingly as part of such a deal as this is a different matter. It is possible that the demon might be driven out, and the boy’s life spared. But,” she added quickly, “I do not know how to perform such a ritual and, even if I did, it could not be done alone.”

“But it is something!” the arlessa said, raw faith and hope grating in her voice. “You see? A chance, however small… we must take it!”

Her face was alight with this new possibility, and I saw what Jowan had meant when he spoke of her piety. She must— oh.

Jowan.

“You’d need, what, then?” I asked Morrigan, a frown creasing my brow. “Another mage?”

She snorted. “Several. Such an undertaking would require many mages, and a great deal of lyrium. I… suppose you are thinking of the boy in the dungeons?”

You couldn’t sneak much by her, and we were hardly overwhelmed with options. Magic was magic, surely, and if Jowan could aid her, I bet we’d be able to overlook his affiliations.

I nodded. “Would it be worth…?”

Morrigan narrowed her eyes, the swoops of shadow she wore making her precise expression hard to read.

“It is a possibility. Such magic may harness great power, after all. There are those who say that is why your Chantry forbids it.”

“Wait….” Alistair frowned. “You don’t mean—”

“If you prefer,” Morrigan said icily, “by all means, take your blade to the boy. Do it while he is weak, and hope he is not waiting up there in ambush.”

He bridled, and I couldn’t blame him. As was so often the case, the witch’s words held a degree of hard truth, but they left a horrible taste in the air.

~o~O~o~

The argument was a bitter one, and Lady Isolde did not help matters. Her initial reaction to the idea of sending for Jowan bordered on the hysterical, yet the very thought of our attacking Connor had her almost flinging herself in front of the door to defend him.

We did not have the time to weave in her endless circles of impossible choices, and I for one was fast losing patience. Decisions had to be made and—as had been happening with increasing regularity—my companions looked to me for the making of them. The absurdity of that still did not fail to surprise me, and it birthed a hard knot of resentful anger that, in a way, I suppose I was grateful for. It gave me the strength to be the one who shouldered the blame.

I had Sten and Alistair make the iron-bound doors secure and pile up the corpses that still strewed the floor. We would hold the hall, if nothing else. Bann Teagan was given the ornate sword Alistair had wrested from the revenant, and sent to get word to Leliana and Jowan, whom we assumed were still somewhere between the village and the wing of the castle we’d already fought our way through. He promised to return with them, and Ser Perth’s men, as quickly as possible, and that left me to sit with Morrigan and Lady Isolde, and try to piece together a fuller picture of how the whole affair had begun.

Arl Eamon had fallen ill, from what I could make out, within days of the battle at Ostagar. I knew, recalling Duncan’s words to Cailan as we arrived at the fortress, that Eamon had been hale enough to agree to the plan of holding his forces back—though whose idea that was I still couldn’t be sure—and to send word to remind the king of their readiness. I wondered how much difference it would have made if Cailan had listened… how much difference it made now, come to that.

But had it been planned to coincide? I didn’t want to believe it, and I told myself it didn’t matter. Whatever Loghain’s motives—although there was a lingering stink of opportunism in the way things looked—it didn’t seem possible that one man could orchestrate such a coup. Still, it didn’t matter now. Connor and the demon within him were our immediate concerns.

“He is a gentle boy,” Isolde kept saying, in between sniffles. “This is why I know it is not— He wouldn’t hurt anyone!”

The weary breath of a sigh rattled between Morrigan’s teeth, and she stared fixedly at the wall opposite. I cleared my throat, and tried to drag the arlessa back to speaking of the first signs he’d shown.

It hadn’t been much, apparently. Glasses that shattered when he lifted them, plants in the little corner of the kitchen garden they had tilled together that grew twice as big as the seeds she had sown.

“I-I told him he had green fingers,” Isolde said mournfully. “But I knew. There is a… history of it in my family. Terrible, wicked men, who have all had magic. I did not want that for my boy! I prayed it would not be so… that he might be delivered from the curse….”

She dissolved into weeping again, and I caught Morrigan’s eye. One delicate brow arched, and those painted lips pursed themselves into a tight bow. I shrugged. The shoulders of the arlessa’s white gown shook as she sobbed convulsively, and I reached out hesitantly, laying a grubby hand on the fine cotton lawn.

“Um. There, now,” I tried. “You had his, er, best interests at heart.”

She looked up, glaring at me through the veil of tears. I withdrew my hand, reading in her face the boundaries I had overstepped.

“Do you have children?” she demanded. “No? Then you cannot understand. Do not presume to give me false comforts. I know what I have done—all the death I have brought—and I would do it again. That is my shame, and you know nothing of what it is to bear!”

I shut up and sat back, put firmly in my place.

The waiting was not easy. The great hall was relatively safe but, though the walls were thick, we could still hear the occasional odd noise coming from elsewhere in the castle. There were thumps, crashes… things that sounded like cries, from time to time. It sent a shiver down my spine, and the silence we sat in began to feel thick and awkward.

The only one of us who seemed able to wait patiently was Sten. He sat on the floor, near the fire, and it surprised me that someone so large could hunker down into so still and compact a position. Those odd, violet eyes were half-hooded, and he seemed to be gazing at some distant point, far beyond the immediate reality of this tense, siege-like existence. I wondered if it was prayer. Did the qunari pray? The Chantry would have had us believe they were bloodthirsty animals, and I supposed I could see where the impression sprung from, but it certainly wasn’t all there was to them.

At that moment, Sten exuded such a sense of tranquillity and calm that I was rather envious. I would, I decided, find some way to ask him about his people… and maybe about the truth of what had happened in Lothering, though I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to know.

Like Morrigan, Sten’s usefulness outweighed any moral qualms I could allow myself to indulge regarding his presence… and I wondered quite when I’d grown so hard and pragmatic. Somewhere atop the Tower of Ishal, I supposed, shot full of arrows and dying in a roar of blood and agony.

I had those dreams more often than I cared to admit. We were there again, with the smell of paraffin and blood and the rankness of ogre-flesh making the world draw in like a scream, and the flames were rising higher and higher, and then the darkspawn came… but I didn’t pass out. They closed over me, ripping me to pieces, and I felt every tooth and blade as they stripped my body to the bone.

I’d wake, then, and the dream would still be sticking to me, clammy and horribly real. Once or twice, Alistair had been standing over my bedroll, looking down at me with a worried frown. We didn’t talk about it. No point, I supposed. I knew he had dreams too and he had, I didn’t doubt, experienced the same strange gamut of changes that followed the Joining, though there were some things I couldn’t have asked him about, even if I’d wanted to.

I hadn’t had a normal course since leaving Denerim. At first, I’d thought it was the stress of the journey and the events of my conscription, but time was wearing on, and things weren’t as they should have been. Still, that was the least of my worries, I supposed, and if nothing else it freed me from the inconveniences of rags and cramps. I should have been grateful for that, whatever the reason.

Alistair’s boots echoed on the stones as he paced—bored, apparently—the length of the hall and back again.

“Is it just me,” he said, “or is anyone else hungry?”

Morrigan snorted. “You are always hungry.”

I smiled gently, careful of my split lip, but grateful for the break in the tension. The small dining table still sat on the dais, holding the remnants of the food Connor had been glutting himself on. Roast chicken, sweetmeats… all manner of delicacies, some of which I couldn’t even identify.

Lady Isolde waved imperiously at the spread.

“Eat it,” she muttered. “You always were one to think with your stomach, Alistair.”

He’d already wandered over to the table, ostensibly oblivious to her disdain, and was prodding at the food. Having satisfied himself there was nothing demonic about it, he helped himself to half a chicken and a bunch of grapes.

“Well?” Mouth full, he raised his eyebrows defensively. “When’s the last time we ate anything, hm?”

A belated growl from my stomach forced me to admit he had a point and, after a brief struggle with my pride, I hauled myself up and sloped over to join him. It was a long while since my last meal, and who knew how long it would be until the next. That said, I didn’t eat much. Something about the prospect of imminent bloodshed saps the enjoyment from food, and everything tasted of copper and salt anyway.

Still, when the sound of boots pounding in the corridor beyond the large double doors alerted us to the fact Bann Teagan and the others had returned, we must have looked like we were enjoying an impromptu picnic. Even Morrigan was tucking away a few morsels.

Sten lifted the bar from the doors and admitted the relief party: Ser Perth, the knights, Teagan, Leliana… and Maethor, who bounded straight up to me, barking happily, and almost knocked me to the ground as a tongue like a side of bacon gave me the most thorough wash I’d had since leaving home.

“I do hope we’re not interrupting,” Leliana said, the delicate twists of her accent wreathed with mirth.

~o~O~o~

Castle Redcliffe’s great hall had, in its time, probably seen its fair share of bitter meetings. ‘No powerful man rests easy’, as Father used to say. Hard choices were bred into the very rock places like this were built on, and without that degree of ruthlessness, the strongest walls might crumble.

Still, I thought there would be blows.

Ser Perth and his detachment of knights were at Teagan’s back, surprisingly bright-faced after the long night they’d had. They jostled like a pack of terriers, eager to be loosed on the castle and claim back their arl’s safety—and the symbol of his rule—and they did not take kindly to Jowan’s presence. It was a wonder the mage had made it this far without ‘accidentally’ tripping over someone’s boot. He’d been bandaged, but the more obvious of his wounds could hardly be disguised beneath linen and plaisters, and he shrank when he saw Lady Isolde.

Naturally, she was hardly the model of grace and humility, even though she’d expected his arrival.

You!” She rose from her seat on the dais, her face pinched with violent fury. “You did this to Connor! You summoned that—that thing…!”

“I didn’t! I didn’t summon any demon,” Jowan protested. “I told you, my lady! Please, if you’ll just let me help—”

Help?” the arlessa shrieked. “Help? You betrayed me! I brought you here to help my son and in return you poisoned my husband!”

Bann Teagan went to her side, laying a warning hand on her arm, without which it seemed entirely possible Lady Isolde would have flung herself at the mage, an iron-clawed creature of vengeance and anger.

“Isolde… Isolde, you must calm yourself. These people have done a great deal of good. If it wasn’t for this young man, and… and Leliana,” he added, his gaze sliding to the Orlesian, head respectfully inclined, “there are several survivors who would never have made it back to the village alive.”

She curled her lip, eyes still blazing, but she did relent. I looked to Leliana, and she nodded. It was true, then: they’d got Valena to safety, and been fortunate enough to find others who’d escaped the demon’s wrath. That was good… unexpected, but good.

Later, I would discover that our flame-haired battle maiden was well on the way to becoming a folk hero in those parts. Redcliffe would, for years after, be abuzz with tales of the Orlesian sister who came to free them, with fire in her eyes and music in her voice. She had the kind of face well-fitted to legends.

“I only want to help, my lady,” Jowan repeated diffidently. “Please. If what my lord tells me is true….”

The atmosphere in the hall was like whetted steel, with seconds sliding on a glistening, dangerous edge. Ser Perth stood by the doors, watching the exchange intently. Like the other knights, he still wore the silver-cast symbol of Andraste around his neck. I wondered if faith and conviction would be enough to see any of us through what had to come. Beside me, Maethor whined softly, and without looking I reached out and touched my fingers to his warm, bullet head. A wet, wrinkled nose shoved itself into my palm.

“The child has become an abomination,” Morrigan said, her voice cutting cleanly across all the highly wrought emotional tension in the room. She addressed Jowan, stepping forwards with her back to the arlessa, the firelight painting a dim, amber aura around her. “But it was a willing deal, and the creature’s possession is not complete. The boy has much ability, yes?”

“Indeed.” Jowan nodded. “I saw that, even in the short time I had with him. But he’s young, and he has very little control. You think…?”

Morrigan tilted her chin. “Can you do it?”

He sagged visibly, his hands worrying at the torn sleeves of his robe, and his head bowed. Bann Teagan shook his head.

“I confess, I don’t understand. You’re saying there is a way to destroy the demon without… without harming Connor?”

Jowan looked up, his bruised, swollen face warped into an apprehensive grimace.

“There may be,” he said hesitantly. “It is… technically possible for a mage to confront the demon in the Fade.”

“What do you mean?” Teagan appeared nonplussed. “Is the demon not within Connor?”

“No, my lord. At least, not physically. Not fully. The demon approached Connor in the Fade while he dreamt, and it controls him from there. We can use the connection between them to find the demon, and hopefully… well, defeat it.”

This was an eerie, unsettling realm of which I knew nothing. I thought briefly of the mages I’d seen at Ostagar: guarded by templars and cocooned in their own strange, sparkling shells of white. I glanced at Alistair, and found him watching Morrigan, his mouth tight and his face full of quiet disapproval.

Lady Isolde spoke next; all hopeful, earnest curiosity that was in such marked contrast to her last outburst that I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.

“You can enter the Fade, then, Jowan? Kill the demon without hurting my boy?”

He looked wretchedly at her, and opened his mouth to reply, but it was Morrigan who answered.

“It is not that simple. Such a ritual requires a great deal of power. Lyrium… a lot of lyrium, and mages. More than we have at our disposal.”

“E-Except,” Jowan stammered, his voice growing thin and reedy in the stifling, thick air, “I… I have blood magic. I… think I know a way.”

I knew we had to consider using him, but I didn’t have to like it. Back home, old men would have spat on the floor. Women would have made warding signs with their fingers, and pulled their children away. We didn’t speak of foul things. All magic was distrusted, but—

“Blood magic is forbidden for a reason,” Alistair said sharply.

The distaste radiated off him; I felt it in the way Ser Perth and his men shifted uncomfortably, too. I glanced at Leliana, and saw those icy eyes narrowing. She was still buoyed by the satisfaction of victory, I would have bet, carried on the smiles and thanks of the people she’d returned to their homes.

From somewhere above the hall, a noise echoed… something like the thud of furniture falling over, and glass breaking. We all raised our heads, and for a moment no one seemed to breathe, but then everything fell silent again, and the arlessa let out a short, ragged sigh.

“If there’s a way, I must know it. Please! Tell us what you mean, Jowan.”

He winced. “L-Lyrium provides the power for the ritual… but I believe I can take that power from someone’s life energy. From blood. But the ritual requires a lot of it… perhaps all, in fact.”

“My lord!” Ser Perth protested, starting forwards, but Teagan held up a hand.

“You’re saying someone must die? Someone must be sacrificed?”

A cold, dark fist clenched my stomach. Hard choices indeed. Nothing but hardness and death in these dim stone halls, and more blood to drench this parched red rock.

“Yes,” Jowan said, the word barely more than a whisper. “I… I think I know how to perform such a ritual, though I’ve never done anything of this… complexity before.” He twisted the hem of his sleeve awkwardly in his fingers, that quire of dark hair flopping down over his brow, and I was struck by how young he seemed. “Still, I, uh, I should be able to send another mage into the Fade.”

He glanced up, looking from face to face for some kind of assurance, some grain of a decision. Young, I thought, but that youth was misleading. Maker only knew what dark things he’d done, and my gut roiled at the mere thought of what he was suggesting. I’d thought bringing Jowan back here might be a way to prevent more death—not ensure it.

To sacrifice an innocent on the off-chance that we might have the opportunity to defeat the demon…. What if it didn’t work, and we still had to kill the child? Or what if yet more horror was unleashed? And how could anyone even be sure that Connor wouldn’t play host to something worse in the future?

I knew precious little about magic, but this was too bitter for me.

“No.” I shook my head, and found my voice surprisingly loud in the quiet. “Not if it means this. The price is too high.”

Jowan nodded solemnly and lowered his gaze.

“I disagree,” Lady Isolde said sharply. “I think we should do it. Let it be my blood. I will be the sacrifice.”

A chilled, terrible hush echoed in my ears, but no deathly silence fell in the hall. A chorus of outrage broke from Ser Perth’s knights, and Bann Teagan stared at the woman, aghast.

“What? Isolde, are you mad? Eamon would never allow this!”

She shrugged, every trace of that passionate ferocity suddenly condensed into a hard, glassy determination. He tried to take her arm—jar sense in her the way she’d tried to shake some humanity back into Connor—but she jerked away, firm and deliberate.

“No, Teagan. Either someone kills my son to destroy that thing inside him, or I give my life so my son can live. To me, the answer is clear.”

I stared at the arlessa, impressed and unwillingly humbled by her swift, resolute decision. She’d taken no moment to think, and she expressed no grief, no regret… I admired that, but I didn’t take it for balanced, rational thinking.

Morrigan must have caught my unease. I didn’t dare look at her, expecting irritation. Maker, it had been me to suggest finding a use for Jowan… I just hadn’t envisaged it would mean this. Yet, when she spoke, Morrigan was uncharacteristically hesitant, her usually arch tone dropping to something nearing gentleness.

“It does seem like a sensible choice, with a willing participant.”

The arlessa turned her gaze on me, and I saw the full force of her pain and determination in those dark eyes. Her mouth was a pale, guarded furrow; faded petals drawn tight around a paper rose. I swallowed heavily, and shook my head.

“I… I don’t….”

I didn’t know what to say. I had no clever words, no brilliant arguments. I wished I had—knew I should have had, because of what I was now. Grey Wardens were supposed to be heroes, weren’t they? Surely they didn’t deal in blood magic. We shouldn’t stand by and let this happen.

Lady Isolde’s expression hardened and she turned away, ignoring me with all the arrogant grace she’d had the first time I saw her, at the bridge. She pulled at Teagan’s arm again, the way she’d done then, and I could see how easy it must always have been for her to make men do as she pleased.

“Teagan, you know this is the only way. When it’s over, I want you to tell Connor—”

“Lady Isolde, please!” Alistair’s voice was roughened by fatigue and tension. “You can’t… I mean, we’re not seriously considering allowing this?”

He looked at me—like I had a casting vote here. All that clear, honest intensity… I felt about two inches high, and jealous of his ability to see things so simply. How he could not be torn in two, the way I was?

“I-If the only other way is to kill the boy—” I began, before Leliana cut across me.

“Murder a child? Really?” She folded her arms over her chest, her blood-spattered armour lent an oily sheen by the fire, and her face was hard as porcelain. “I don’t like this talk of blood magic, but—”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” Alistair protested.

Behind him, Sten shifted subtly… or as subtly as someone of his size could. I looked at him, hoping somehow that all his silent focus might result in a pearl of balanced philosophy. He inclined his head, acknowledging my attention, and offered his opinion.

“It is an abomination,” he said simply. “The child obviously lacks the strength necessary for a mage. Either it dies now, or later.”

I had the horrible sense of my stomach dropping into my boots.

“My son is not an ‘it’!” Isolde cried, and I almost expected her to start a tirade on the temerity of bringing a qunari into her home—she seemed to be drawing breath for it—but instead she shook her head violently. “Connor is blameless in this, do you not see? He should not have to pay the price!”

Things were heading in circles again. I knew, if something wasn’t done fast, we’d still be arguing about this when Connor grew bored with hiding.

I looked at Alistair, shamed by the prickles of guilt crawling down my back. His stance was slumped, his wounded shoulder heavily favoured, and he returned my gaze with dusty, wretched hopelessness.

“I wouldn’t normally suggest killing a child,” he said quietly. “But….”

Highly charged emotion began to give way to shouting among the others. Ser Perth was trying to convince Bann Teagan that the arlessa should not be allowed to sacrifice herself and that, rather, he should give his life if it meant the chance to save the arl’s family. Some of the other knights were offering theirs. Before long, I thought sourly, they’d be fighting over the privilege.

“There has to be another way,” I said, though I didn’t know where to look for one.

Jowan was standing dumbly in the middle of the floor, head down and hands half-hidden in the sleeves of his robe. I looked at Morrigan, who appeared to be watching the back-and-forth of the argument with interest.

“You said there would have to be more mages,” I reminded her. “How many more?”

She blinked, wresting her attention from the bickering nobility and giving me a small frown. “Several, depending upon their power. And lyrium. A great deal of lyrium.”

Jowan glanced up, overhearing us. He nodded glumly.

“Almost an entire stockroom’s worth,” he said, and the words seemed to chime against some memory. He stopped, mouth half-open, and eyes narrowing speculatively. “They, uh, they would have everything you need at the Circle Tower. Whether the First Enchanter would agree to help, of course, is another matter. Irving, er… doesn’t take kindly to blood magic, in any form. They might demand the boy be… you know.”

I wrinkled my nose. Executing their own? Where I came from, we’d always assumed the magi looked after each other.

“It’s true,” Alistair added. “Mages are tested for their ability to resist demons. They call it the Harrowing. If they fail— well, that’s where the templars come in.”

It seemed like an unnecessary cruelty, and I was about to comment on the fact, when a thought struck me with all the beauty of a spring sunrise.

The treaties… from the archive. Arl Eamon might be in no state to help us use them, but they still had status, didn’t they? Sure, Alistair and I were the only two left in the country, but we were Grey Wardens.

“What if we made them help? Compelled them? We… we have the treaties, right? You said one’s for the Magi.”

Alistair’s expression shifted as he lit on the thread of my idea. “That is a good point. Technically, the treaty only requires them to aid against the Blight, but—”

“Then we’ll convince them,” I said briskly, and in that moment I believed it. “How far is it to the Tower? Could we get there quickly?”

“It’s at least a day’s journey each way….” Alistair frowned doubtfully. “I don’t know if Connor would remain passive that long.”

Hearing her son’s name, Lady Isolde broke from arguing with Teagan.

“What is this?” she demanded coldly.

Alistair winced, shying from meeting her gaze. She barely looked at me.

“The Circle Tower.” I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. “If we could get there and petition the mages for help… the demon might be defeated without resorting to blood magic.”

I could hear my voice thinning as I spoke. The room was growing quiet, every pair of eyes turning to me. I felt their scrutiny, their disbelief. Part of me knew it was a silly, desperate idea… that same part of me that wanted to slink away into the shadows, ashamed of trying to assert authority where I deserved none. But I didn’t have the luxury of doubting myself anymore, and I stood my ground, refusing to give in to the weakness.

“Y-You said Connor comes back to himself,” I said, meeting Lady Isolde’s stony expression. “How long do those bouts last?”

She blinked, and I wondered if I could trust her to tell me the truth.

“I… I don’t know. It is hard to say. Sometimes no more than a few minutes but, other times, many hours. After the first attack on the village, he hid in his room all day. We… we thought it was over, until we tried to help him, and the demon—” She broke off, reaching for Bann Teagan’s arm. “Teagan? Do you think it’s possible?”

He shook his head, his face grim and tightly drawn. “It might be, but… it is a tenuous chance.”

Well, I supposed, why should they trust my judgement?

“We’d have to move fast,” Alistair said, and I knew he sounded so much more believable than I had, “but we have the means to persuade the Circle to help. They have an obligation to the Grey Wardens.”

Teagan frowned. “You mean to use the treaties then, Alistair?”

“If we can. If Merien thinks… uh, well….”

He glanced at me, his bloodied, dirty face full of complexities. It was a gesture of loyalty, yes, but also one of fear. He was just as afraid of what we might have to do as I was… and just as afraid of taking the lead.

“I believe it’s worth a try,” I said, as firmly as I could. “But there should be… preparations, just in case.”

I turned to Morrigan, and saw the recognition of what I was asking in her eyes. She nodded curtly, and it was hard to tell whether determination or disapproval most marked her face.

“If Connor becomes… hostile again… you know what you need to do, don’t you?”

That ochre-gold gaze hardened, but she inclined her head. I let out a long breath, too tense for relief, but tinged with a seed of hope.

“Good. Sten?” I sought the second most unnerving set of eyes in the room, and found the qunari’s expression as impenetrable as ever. “I would like you to stay too. If anything happens—”

“I understand,” he said, and I hoped Lady Isolde did not fathom the depth of meaning conveyed in those simple words.

“Thank you.”

“And what about me?” Leliana asked crisply. I gathered from the coolness of her tone that she did know exactly what had been meant.

I glanced at Alistair. He was wounded, exhausted… as were we all. My head reeled gently with the tatters of ideas—fast horses, breakneck gallops that might get us there and back again in double time—but I didn’t know if they’d work. If I’d thought for a moment I wouldn’t have been thrown out on my backside the minute I arrived, I’d have volunteered to go alone.

“You should stay,” I told her. “If Connor doesn’t remain passive, then—”

“Neither of you are fit enough for such a journey!” Leliana complained. “It is madness.”

“Is it?” Lady Isolde demanded. “Madness, to try to save my son? My family?”

The two women stared at each other for a moment across the cold expanse of the flagstones, and Leliana was the first to look away.

“Forgive me, my lady,” she murmured, lowering her gaze. “But….”

“We’ll at least try,” I said, my voice gaining firmness. “Connor’s life is worth that much.”

There was a tense, uneasy silence. I wondered if any of them knew that what might sound like bravery was born completely out of fear.

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Volume 2: Chapter Twelve
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2 thoughts on “Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eleven

  1. analect says:

    Whee! Nice to see you here – and thanks!
    Yeah, it was a close run thing… but whether it turns out to be the ‘right’ choice is still hanging in the balance. Mwahaa. 😉

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