Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Five

 
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Two days, that was the theory. With Lothering behind us, we’d use the straight, clear route of the Highway to take us north, about a day’s march, then break for camp, bear west at first light, and be in Redcliffe by nightfall. Apparently. Alistair said he knew where he was going, anyway.

Admittedly, there weren’t any wrong turns to take on the Highway. It was just mile after repetitive mile of stone, and any sense of familiarity it had, any ability to remind me of the cracked flagstones and mossy plantlife of Ostagar, soon wore its welcome very thin.

The ice was breaking within our little group, however. Sten remained his wordless, impassive self, though I saw him watching Maethor trot ahead, with all the interest of a man looking at a new kind of siege weapon. I made a mental note, if I attempted conversation with the qunari again, to say something about dogs.

Leliana started to sing a little while after sunrise. The sky was drenched with pink-edged floods of gold and grey, and her song was one I’d heard in childhood, about a tavern girl who gave her life to save the highwayman she loved from the gallows. Her voice was very sweet, clear and pure as crystal, with a freshness to it that made the song seem more beautiful than I remembered. It certainly took my mind off my blisters and, for once, not even Morrigan had anything snide to say.

When, an hour or so later, Leliana fell into stride beside me, I was in a genial enough mood not to immediately recoil from her questions.

“You have not been a Grey Warden for very long, have you?”

“Er… no,” I admitted, wondering whether she already knew the answer, or whether my inexperience was that blindingly obvious.

“It is an important calling. You must be very proud.”

“Um. I suppose so,” I said dubiously, trying not to think of Daveth lying dead on the flagstones, black blood oozing from his mouth, or Jory being driven to madness by the depth of his fear. Or the innumerable other Wardens, nameless and unknown to me, hacked to pieces and rotting in the mud at Ostagar.

I peered at the woman, wondering what she actually wanted to ask me. I didn’t have to wait for long.

“And before that?” Leliana asked. “Did you come from an alienage?”

I took in the look of pitying sympathy, the slightly parted lips and soft blue eyes, ready to coax my sad story from me… possibly so it could be woven into the tapestry of some song or tale. I wondered if she dyed her hair, and stifled a smile because the thought was so out of place.

“Yes.” I nodded. “Denerim. Lower ward, by the—”

Of course, that was pointless. Humans didn’t understand the distinctions. The Orlesian didn’t care which end of the district I was from… she probably didn’t even realise we divided the place up for our own reference. I bit the end of the word off, and just smiled awkwardly. She gave me an encouraging nod.

“Really? I have often been to Denerim, but never to the alienage. Was it very terrible? I hear life is very hard, and there is so much squalor….”

Yes, this was familiar enough ground. Another place, another time, and she’d have been buying a bunch of bruised tulips from me for twice their market value, and smiling sweetly as she told me to keep the change. I struggled against the sneer I could feel beginning to curl my lip, but my voice still carried a cold, brittle edge.

“We get by.”

“Oh, I am sure you do,” Leliana said kindly.

I rather hoped she was finished but, after a thoughtful pause, that light, musical voice was chattering away again, like sunlight on water.

“You know, in Orlais, most elven servants live in the homes of their masters, often in great wealth and luxury.”

It took a great deal of effort to keep my feet moving forwards, and the soles of my boots scuffed at the stones. In a way, I was almost glad of the lingering pain of the blisters; something to focus on amid the swirling urges to either hit the woman or be extremely rude.

“I… did not know that.”

And in Ferelden we are free. We may not have much, but it is ours, and that is worth more than any extravagance you could speak of.

I left the litany of irritation to rumble within me, and tried to make my face diplomatically blank, the way I’d seen Duncan do.

“Oh, it is true! In fact, I have known elven servants with servants of their own.”

She said it as if it was something remarkable, like a dog walking on its hind legs. I bit my tongue, unable to imagine few things worse. The sun was a wet jewel in a watery, grey sky, gilding the top of the Highway’s ruined arches, tracing the silver lines of spider webs, and picking out the ancient veins of white in the stone.

“Goodness,” I murmured. “You don’t say.”

“Indeed. Of course, a well-trained elven servant is highly valued in Orlais. They are nimble and dextrous… and many people find them pleasing to look at.”

Alistair cleared his throat noisily, but I was already loosing an acerbic barb.

“Like a prize-winning animal?”

Leliana blinked and looked confused. “Wh— no, I did not mean it that way!”

I wondered just what other way there was to mean such words—animals… used as they were meant to be used—but I didn’t say anything. She, however, genuinely seemed apologetic.

“My words were clumsily chosen. I did not mean to offend. I… I am sorry.”

Perhaps she was, I thought, looking warily at the bright, pale eyes, suddenly cloudy, like cheap glass. I shrugged.

“It’s all right. No offence taken,” I lied. “But I doubt I shall go running off to pledge myself to service any time soon.”

Leliana smiled timidly. “No, I don’t expect so. Although you have given me a lot to think about.”

She was certainly quieter for a while, anyway. We kept up our pace, weary feet chewing away at mile after mile, and the road stayed weirdly empty. There were a few scatterings of refugees; not the great outpourings that had flooded Lothering, but handfuls of grimly determined people. They were starting the long, hard slog north to Denerim, their carts methodically crammed with every possession, and children perched on the top of the piles like rag dolls, staring wide-eyed as the countryside rolled by around them.

They looked warily at us, and I supposed we did present a strange and threatening sight. A pack of mercenaries, maybe, or bandits taking advantage of the chaos that threatened the south. At any rate, we overtook them—they seemed to slow down enough to ensure it, with one man stopping his horse and claiming the cart was unbalanced, though I could see his wife didn’t believe him—and we trudged on.

Morrigan and Alistair were scratching half-heartedly at each other again. She, claiming her interest had been piqued by the noticeable presence of templars in Lothering, started tossing jibes about failed religious instruction, and I saw Leliana perk up at the mention of something with which she was evidently familiar.

“I didn’t fail at it,” Alistair protested. “I was recruited into the Grey Wardens. There’s a difference.”

“Oh, of course,” Morrigan said airily. “Indeed. Most who choose to abandon their vocations, after all, do so of their own free will. ’Twould only stand to reason you should need to be led by the hand.”

He winced. “That… that is so not how it happened.”

“Really?” She looked smug, evidently pleased at having been able to rile him and drag what was, admittedly, not quite a secret out into the open, all in one breath.

“You were a templar, Alistair?” Leliana asked.

The sun was reaching its full height, which was the only way I had of guessing how long we’d been walking. My blistered feet had settled into a dull, steady throb, punctuated by bursts of sharp pain, though the ointment seemed to have improved things a bit.

Alistair was summarising his story for the Orlesian, and I listened with half an ear, an awareness flickering into life of a question I’d left unasked. Latent bits of memory surfaced, and brought with them specks of curiosity, dancing in the sunlight like dust motes.

No, I know him. Eamon wouldn’t dismiss us out of hand.

“I was… given to the Chantry when I was young,” Alistair said vaguely. “I trained for it, but the Grey Wardens recruited me before I took my final vows.”

“How exciting!” Leliana gave him one of those encouraging, do-go-on smiles. “And how brave to have given up so much to join them.”

“Er… I didn’t mind, really. I didn’t actually want to—”

“And do you miss it? Do you regret leaving the Chantry?”

“Nope,” he said, before the words were even fully past her lips. “No, never.”

Leliana’s brow furrowed delicately. “You don’t? Oh. I was glad of the peace I found in the cloister. The kind of peace I’ve never known.”

He chuckled. “Sometimes, it used to get so quiet at the monastery that I would start screaming until one of the brothers came running… and I’d tell them I was just checking. You never know, right?”

I smiled to myself, watching him grin at the memory, and try to pull Leliana into the game. She looked nonplussed, and shook her head.

“No, I never did anything like that. I enjoyed the quiet.”

“Suit yourself.” Alistair shrugged. “The look on their faces was always priceless.”

Morrigan snorted. “And just think… but for the grace of one man, you could have had a lifetime of it to look forward to. Tell me, what would have happened had you had not been recruited, hm?”

If her reference to Duncan was calculated to disarm, Alistair rallied well. He smiled tightly.

“Well, let’s see… I would have turned into a drooling lunatic, slaughtered the grand cleric and run through the streets of Denerim in my smallclothes, I guess.”

I laughed, mostly at him, and partly at Leliana’s expression of open-mouthed shock. I think even Morrigan birthed a smile.

“Your self-awareness does you credit,” she said dryly.

“I do my best.”

At least it made a change from flat-out bickering.

I looked over my shoulder at Sten, still pacing silently at the back of the group, staring fixedly into the distance. In a strange way, I suppose I felt a degree of kinship with him. We were both outsiders, in different ways, though I had yet to forgive him for the ‘excel at poverty’ crack.

“It will rain later,” he observed, which made me jump, because it felt as if he was responding to something I hadn’t even said.

I glanced up at the sky. It was still bright enough, but I could see the clouds he meant, banked ahead of us in fluffy rows of streaked grey and yellow. The Highway’s ceaseless stone reflected the sunlight and made it seem warmer than it should for the time of year, I supposed, and a light breeze ruffled the trees, dislodging leaves along the way. They bowled along the road with dry, skittering noises, harbingers of a winter that would soon be here.

~o~O~o~

Sten was right about the rain. It started in the early afternoon, and it was as if someone had stuck a knife in the belly of the heavens. We were soaked within minutes, and where the Highway’s cracked arches and straight, constant lines had been a trap for the warmth of the sun, they now seemed to funnel the rain straight into every nook, crevice and chink in my clothing.

“Anyone else’s boots leaking?” Alistair asked, breaking the heavy, damp silence as we trudged on.

There was a chorus of muttered, slightly squelchy, assent. Leliana sneezed, in a very dainty and ladylike manner. I didn’t realise it at the time, still being so fixed on the idea that Redcliffe would be the end of our journey, but those wet, monotonous hours, and many others like them, would come to characterise so much of what lay ahead. For all the fighting, the battle and the bloodshed—and all the stories that would sound so much more dramatic than they really were, when told again in a dry, warm tavern—everything was built on this. The slow, tedious grind of placing foot after foot, long after the body grows weary and the soul drifts into mindless torpor… there isn’t much that is heroic about it.

I have often thought that, when bards tell stories of great adventures and those they would call heroes, they skip a great deal of the meat of the matter; the wet socks and the stony ground, the dearth of clean smallclothes and hot water.

By the time the light began to fail and we stopped to make camp, everyone was soaked and tempers were short. Morrigan had turned her attention from baiting Alistair to picking half-hearted fights with Leliana about the nature of organised religion. ‘Primitive fear of the moon’, she called it, and the Maker an imaginary absent father-figure whose image the gullible clung to in order to spare themselves from the irrepressible, primal power of Nature.

Leliana seemed to indulge the spikes and barbs with what I saw as a certain self-righteousness. Her faith was evident; unshakeable, it seemed, and that I found unsettling.

Back home, we’d never really been a religious household, and certainly less so after Mother died. Father always held that people had to make their own sense of things, rather than relying on the Maker’s ineffable plans, or on the blanket of faith to shield them. Of course, the Chantry never seemed to go out of its way for the alienage, either. A few of the sisters used to come in and preach, and there was a vague and intermittent effort at outreach for the poor and needy, the same as in other deprived parts of the city, but we were not… included, as such. All Valendrian’s attempts to foster a sense of gratitude in us, an ethic of tolerance and understanding, fell rather flat when we’d gather, politely, to hear these well-scrubbed, neatly coiffed human women stand beneath the vhenadahl and speak of mercy and forgiveness.

They were foreign to us, though they meant well, and their stories were not our stories. Their belief, when it came dressed in good silk and smelling of rosewater, was not our belief. That was what intrigued me about Leliana, I supposed.

She dressed like them, maybe even looked like them, but there was something different about her… and not just the huge, clunking shadow of a past that trailed behind her like a banner. I took the opportunity to ask her about it when—with a rather puny little fire smouldering in the damp evening air—we were trying to make a meal out of some dried peas, salt meat, and most of a rabbit that Maethor had proudly deposited at my feet.

“You’re… not really going to put that in there, are you?”

She looked at me in alarm as I cracked the backbone, nicked the back paws with my dagger, and set to skinning the thing. I shrugged.

“Part of it. S’good meat, and it hasn’t been that badly chewed.”

Maethor, settled happily at my feet, gave a small whine. I nudged him with my toe.

“Pig,” I said affectionately. “You’ve eaten enough.”

He had indeed turned out to be a fine hunter of small, inoffensive squeaky things, and seemed to spend most of his day putting up rats, mice, voles, and anything else he found along the road. In the short time he’d been with us, I’d already grown very fond of the hound. There was something incredibly comforting about a broad, warm, powerful beast who never seemed to doubt me, rarely left my side… and took every opportunity to usurp my bedroll when he thought he could get away with it.

Leliana looked queasy when I got to the gutting—the dog had only had the head, after all—and I chanced my question.

“It seems odd, I must say, for someone like you to have been cloistered in Lothering.”

“Oh?” She dropped a handful of jack-by-the-hedge into the stewpot. “And what is meant by ‘someone like me’?”

I slipped two fingers into the rabbit’s cavity and twisted out the innards, taking care not to break the gut, and tossed the mess to Maethor, who slurped it down with a truly disgusting noise.

“You… just don’t seem to belong in a cloister,” I said carefully. “You said you’d had a more, er, colourful life, and then there’s your skill with a blade, so I—”

“The Chantry does not pry, and you should?” That porcelain face grew a little stiffer, and I suspected it wasn’t just the blood on my hands that Leliana was avoiding looking at. “I desired time apart from the world, that is all.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. Just curious,” I said, starting to cut the carcass into smaller pieces. The flesh was wet and slippery, and my dagger wasn’t really made for the job. “You are from Orlais, though?”

“My mother was Fereldan but, yes, I spent a great deal of time in Orlais. I was a travelling minstrel there.” She sighed, her eyes taking on a mist of memory and, perhaps, happier times. “Tales and songs were my life. I performed, and they rewarded me with applause and coin.”

“You do have a very beautiful voice,” I prompted.

Leliana smiled. “You think so? Thank you! I do love to sing. It lifts my spirits like nothing else. There’s nothing better than a good song to brighten the day, no?”

“Can’t carry a tune in a bucket, me,” I said cheerfully, dumping the bits of rabbit into the pot, where they sank beneath the ominous surface of our rather watery concoction. “I like to listen, though. Do you know On Hills of Green Heather?”

“Oh, yes!” She nodded fervently. “Now, if we could just find a lute….”

“And maybe you’d tell me something about this vision of yours, too.”

She blinked, and gave me an admonishing look, though it was tinged with the hint of a smile; recognition of a game well-played, rather than the reproach of one who has been truly offended.

“Hmm. And now you are trying to trick me, no?”

“No.” I shook my head. “But I am curious. You said the Maker… told you to—?”

She sighed. The pot was beginning to bubble.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Leliana said eventually, lowering her voice a little. “In my dream, there was an impenetrable darkness. It was so dense, so real. And there was a noise, a terrible, ungodly noise….”

I stiffened, mid-way through wiping my hands on my breeches.

“Er. Yes?”

“Mm.” She nodded, and stirred the weak soup with the ladle. “I stood on a peak and watched as the darkness consumed everything… and when the storm swallowed the last of the sun’s light, I… I fell, and the darkness drew me in.”

“You dreamed of the Blight,” I said hollowly. She took it as a question—as if dreams and I were unfamiliar acquaintances.

“I suppose I did. That’s what the darkness was, no? Anyway, when I woke, I went to the chantry’s gardens, as I always do. But that day, the rosebush in the corner had flowered.” A small, sad smile touched her lips. “Everyone knew that bush was dead. It was grey and twisted and gnarled—the ugliest thing you ever saw, but there it was—a single, beautiful rose. It was as though the Maker stretched out His hand to say ‘Even in the midst of this darkness, there is hope and beauty. Have faith’.”

Or it was the final effort of a dying plant, making one last push to thrust its seed into the world. I didn’t say so; signs and omens are found everywhere by those who wish to seek them.

“Doesn’t the Chantry say the Maker has left us?”

Leliana shook her head and tapped the ladle on the side of the pot. It wasn’t an impassioned rebuttal, just a cool, clear refusal.

“No. He is still here; I hear Him in the wind and the waves, I feel Him in the sunlight that warms my skin.”

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the crackle of the fire and the faint glurp of the soup. A bit of rabbit crested the surface, grey-sheened and nearly cooked, by the look of it.

“Um. Right.”

I could see why she had been in the process of leaving Lothering. I didn’t understand enough about the politics and bureaucracies of the Chantry to know whether views like hers were heresy or not, but I imagined they didn’t sit well with the hierarchy. If the crux of the Chant of Light was, as I’d always been taught, contrition, the whole point of it to turn the Maker’s mercy back to the world he had forsaken, then Leliana’s words were complacent arrogance. And yet—perhaps especially now, when everything seemed so inescapably bleak, and there had been so much death and loss—I wanted to believe what she said. I wanted, very much, to see the signs of benediction in the world around me… but I didn’t know where to start looking.

Leliana’s lips twitched dismissively. “I know what the Chantry says about the Maker, but what should I believe, hmm? What I feel in my heart, or what others tell me?”

She arched her pale brows, and gave me a look of surprising hardness. I tripped over my tongue, and stammered out the least insulting platitude I could manage.

“Well, I-I don’t…. You have to trust yourself, I suppose.”

I could believe that, at least. Leliana smiled at me, and I got the feeling that, rather than answering her question, I had simply betrayed more of myself than I cared to.

“Thank you,” she said sweetly. “It’s nice to find someone who agrees. You see, I know what I know, and no one will ever make that untrue.”

I nodded, and wondered how long it would take us to get to Redcliffe in the morning. For all that would probably await us, I was looking forward to being somewhere safe and dry, and among lots of other people, where everything might stop feeling as if it was pressing in so much, devolving upon me when I was in no position to bear the weight.

~o~O~o~

After supper (which really wasn’t that bad, all things considered) I decided to seek Alistair out, with a view to getting a couple of questions answered. I might not be ready to present the case we’d have to put forward in Redcliffe—and who would, claiming treachery against the hero of River Dane, of all people?—but at least I could try to be forewarned.

He’d settled, cross-legged by the fire, and was cleaning his way through the company’s pooled stack of armour and weapons, chiselling the day’s worth of mud off and trying to work up a shine on the dull steel and cracked leather. Sensible to try and make a good impression when we arrived, I supposed… as far as we could. However, none of it had been particularly good gear to start with, and what little we had did not stretch so far as to outfit Sten, who was still clad in his ragged shirt and breeches. Not that anything made for humans would fit him, of course.

Alistair glanced up at me and smiled genially.

“Don’t suppose you’ve come to lend a hand?”

“Sure. Spare cloth?”

He tossed me a rag streaked with foul-smelling polish, and pointed to the collection of earthenware pots on the ground before him.

“That one’s for scouring, that one’s for greasing, and that one—”

“Is for leather,” I finished for him. “I might be a new recruit, but I have cleaned things before.”

He grinned. I hunkered down on the ground to his right, hauling a sword too big for me to wield into my lap.

There were no two ways about it: however presentable we tried to get this stuff, we were still going to roll up at the castle with a wild-eyed barbarian sorceress, a foreigner in a Chantry robe, and a qunari whose tattered strips of clothing really didn’t do anything to make him look less threatening.

And just who were ‘we’, anyway? I ran my cloth down the blade’s length, working with the fine, folded grain of the metal, watching the firelight flicker on the imprint of every beaten sheet of steel, forged deep within its surface. There had been so many new things to think about recently, so many assaults on the opinions and beliefs I’d grown up with—too deeply ingrained to even be called preconceptions—that I wasn’t even sure who I was some of the time. Too much of everything that had defined me had been left behind, first in the alienage and then at Ostagar, and now, like a crab stripped of its shell, I felt naked and vulnerable.

The smell of the polish scratched at the back of my throat, and I sniffed. “So… can I ask you a question?”

“Ask away,” Alistair said amiably.

I almost regretted bringing the matter up, but I wasn’t about to back down.

“How did you come to know Arl Eamon?” I asked tentatively. “When you speak of him, you… well, you sound as if you know him. Yet you said you’d spent your life in the Chantry before you were recruited.”

“Ah.” Alistair’s cloth worked briskly over the shoulder piece of his armour. “Well, now, that’s what you get for listening to me, you see. You really shouldn’t—”

“I thought you were gentry or something, when I first met you,” I said shortly, not really in the mood for playing games. He loosed a sharp, bitter laugh, but I carried on, undeterred. “No, I did. Some rich merchant’s son, shunted off into the army… you’re not, though, are you?”

I glanced at him, and watched him wad up the polishing cloth in his hand, the smile gradually slipping from his face. He shook his head.

“No.”

“So? What, then?”

Alistair sighed. The fire cast tanned shadows across his face, and cruelly picked out in thin highlights of flame the suggestions of secrets I guessed he would rather have kept.

“Let’s see…. All right. How do I explain this? I’m a bastard,” he said curtly, shooting me a sly look, eyes narrowed. “And before you make any smart comments, I mean the fatherless kind.”

A smile tugged at my mouth. “I… see.”

I wouldn’t have passed judgement—or stooped so low as the obvious pun—but it did no harm to play along. In any case, my mind was buzzing ahead of me, jumping to conclusions.

He fell back to buffing the armour he held, focusing intently on raising a dull sheen on the hardened leather. I recognised the comfort drawn from a routine, mundane job, and the pent-up frustration taken out on an inanimate thing. His words were stilted, awkward… I assumed he was embarrassed.

“My mother was a serving girl in Redcliffe Castle. She died when I was very young. Arl Eamon took me in, put a roof over my head.”

“That was… kind of him.”

Alistair glanced up sharply. “He wasn’t my father. And he didn’t have to do it. But he was good to me, all the same. I respect the man and I… I don’t blame him any more for sending me off to the Chantry once I was old enough.”

I nodded slowly, pieces falling into place, and the unspoken parts of the story unfolding their own truths. The smell of the polish crackled in the back of my throat, and I worked the grease up and down the blade I held, the sound of the cloth a soft, rhythmic breach in the quiet.

Unplanned, abandoned, then cast away: a hard life, by the sound of it. Perhaps not as hard as some, but still…. I frowned.

“He gave you to the Chantry?”

“Mm. He… he didn’t owe me anything. I mean, there was no reason—”

“That must have hurt.”

Alistair’s cloth stilled on the armour, and he exhaled tightly.

“I was young and resentful and not very pious. I didn’t want to go. I remember screaming at him like a little child… well, I was a child, so I doubt he was surprised.”

A sour grimace curled his lip as he stared into whatever distant memory was playing out before him.

“I expect he understood,” I said gently.

Alistair blinked, glanced at me and looked… grateful, that was the word. It surprised me. I hadn’t often seen behind the defences he so carefully constructed around himself—not counting those first few days after Ostagar, of course. Not that we spoke of those.

I decided to push my luck a little further.

“So, why did the arl send you away? The education?”

He shook his head ruefully, frowning at the armour again and, when he spoke, the words started slowly, then flooded out, measured but unstoppable, like a rising tide.

“Arl Eamon married a young woman from Orlais… which caused all sorts of problems between him and the king, because it was so soon after the war. But he really loved her. Anyhow, the new arlessa resented the rumours that pegged me as his bastard. They weren’t true, though of course they existed. The arl didn’t care, but she did. So, off I was packed to the nearest monastery at age ten.”

I knew I ought to say something, but I wasn’t sure what, hampered by the feeling Alistair had probably been lucky, given the circumstances of his birth. Granted, I knew there were differences between the way elves and humans dealt with the realities of service, but all the girls I knew of who’d found themselves in trouble had been summarily dismissed then, in most cases, disowned by their families. No ten years under the roof of an arl for those babies… but I reined the thoughts in, guilty at how easy it was for me to judge. No one can really know anything beyond their own experience and, in any case, what should I tell him? That it could have been worse?

He shrugged, refolding his cloth and swiping it through the polish again, working a glob of the stuff into the armour until the hide gleamed dully.

“It was just as well, I suppose,” he said flatly. “The arlessa had made sure the castle wasn’t a home to me by that point.”

Which meant it must have been before, I supposed, and I frowned. That was cruel.

I watched him pretend to focus on his buffing, as if his life depended on a shiny breastplate, and it was all too easy to see a small boy sitting there, all knees and elbows and untidy hair. Alone, and convinced that he was unloved.

“That’s a terrible thing to do to a child,” I said, without really meaning for the words to slip out.

“Hm. Maybe.” Alistair didn’t look up. “She felt threatened by my presence, I can see that now. I… I can’t say I blame her, anyhow. She wondered if the rumours were true herself, I bet.”

I wanted to say that wasn’t the point, that no one should take out their insecurities on a child… but it probably wouldn’t have helped.

Back in the alienage, family wasn’t just important; it was everything. We regarded children as blessings, and we loaded them down with unconditional love and hope. As babies, they were coddled and adored. Once they were older, they ran riot in the streets, caked in mud and chaos, their growth wild and joyful before the cares and the restrictions of life there impinged.

Casting a child off the way Alistair described was inconceivable to me. A boy of that age needed life, and colour—and a good larruping when he misbehaved—but most of all, to know that he belonged. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like, to have no family of his own, and then for what he did have to be so unkindly stripped from him.

“I remember….” He cleared his throat, as if almost reconsidering what he was going to say. “I, uh, I had an amulet with Andraste’s holy symbol on it. The only thing I had of my mother’s. I was so furious at being sent away I tore it off and threw it at the wall and it shattered. Stupid, stupid thing to do.”

I lifted one shoulder in a small, ameliorating shrug. “You were young.”

Alistair snorted. “It was no excuse for the way I acted. But maybe all young bastards act like that, I don’t know.”

“Maybe. Did… did you see the arl again after you left?” I asked cautiously.

I didn’t want to pry more than I ought, but I was starting to worry about the reception we might receive in Redcliffe… not to mention a lingering suspicion about Arl Eamon’s altruism. Admittedly, my experience of the nobility was limited—and pretty damn negative—but I still doubted most of them made a habit of boarding their servants’ illegitimate whelps.

“Yes.” Alistair nodded. “He came by the monastery a few times to see how I was, but I was stubborn. I hated it there and I blamed him for everything. Eventually, he just… stopped coming.”

“And you stayed there, then?” I prompted, keen not to let him dwell on his regrets. “Until Duncan recruited you?”

“Not in the same monastery, no.” He tossed the rag down, finally relinquishing the armour, which was now thoroughly drenched with polish. “Once it was suggested I begin the templar training, they moved me to Denerim. Not that that was much better. The initiates from the poor families thought I put on airs, while the noble ones called me a bastard and ignored me.” A self-deprecating smile dented his cheek, and he shook his head. “I was still determined to be bitter, but I took some solace in the training itself, I guess. I was actually quite good at it.”

“Mm.” I glanced down the length of the sword I still held, which had been clean enough for some time. “I’ve seen you fight.”

“Ooh!” He smirked, which I took to mean either an improvement in his mood, or the walls going back up. “Was that a compliment?”

I smiled. “Near enough.”

He chuckled. “Well, some good came out of it. I enjoyed the education, and the discipline, I suppose. It was good for me… especially as I wasn’t exactly, er, the religious type. I was banished to the kitchens to scour the pots more times than I can count. And that’s a lot; I can count pretty high.”

I lofted an eyebrow. “What, even without taking your socks off?”

“Very funny.” The withering look Alistair tried to give me didn’t hide the splutter of laughter, and he reached for his sword belt, working the cloth into the crevices of the leather. “Anyhow, I was lucky, I guess. When Duncan came looking for recruits, I just remember praying fervently to the Maker that he would pick me… and he did. I was so grateful. I thought I’d never… well, you know. The grand cleric didn’t want to let me go, that was for sure. She was furious when Duncan conscripted me—I thought she’d have us both arrested. It wasn’t even as if I was worth that much to the Chantry. She just couldn’t bear the thought of giving anything to the Grey Wardens, I think.”

The deluge of words stopped as suddenly as it had started, and I glanced at Alistair, mildly curious. Mentioning Duncan had brought that tight, drawn look back into his face, but he was fighting it.

“I kept up with the training because Duncan thought it would be useful against the kind of magic the darkspawn use,” he said, working his way around the sword belt, buffing the polish into every loop and edge. “But I can’t say I miss anything about the Chantry… except maybe the uniform.”

He shot me a wry look, but I was confused. My cloth paused on the next in the pile of blades I’d been greasing, and I frowned.

“Er… don’t templars mainly wear heavy plate?”

“Oh, that’s just in public.” Alistair grinned. “In private we have these yellow and purple tunics, right? Much more comfortable, and you don’t break the beds when you jump on them during a pillow fight.”

I snorted, happy to admit that he’d got me that time—and happy to see he was more or less himself, as far as I could judge what normal was for him. It didn’t cross my mind that he was trying to distract me. Ironic as it was, I thought him too honest for that.

“Pillow fights?”

“Yep.” The grin widened. “On Confession Day we could go all night.”

I guffawed; a real, proper laugh, like I wasn’t used to doing outside of home, with Soris’ friends sharing some dirty joke or bawdy song. Across from the fire, I saw Leliana peer curiously at us, and I tried to get a hold of my giggles.

“Somehow,” I managed, “I’m not surprised.”

“No?” Alistair smirked. “Well, being a templar isn’t all about chasing men in skirts and hiding behind priests, you know.”

“Hmm.” I set down the last of the weapons, newly cleaned and greased, and reached for the nearest pair of boots, and the leather polish. “You’ll have to tell me all about it.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Oh, you don’t really want to know…. Aside from the pillow fights and the exquisite tailoring, it’s pretty boring.”

“So?” I shrugged, the ends of laughter still prickling at the corners of my mouth. “Just make up something more exciting.”

It was his turn to laugh then, unstaged and unaffected, and it reminded me how unlike most humans of my experience Alistair was. I buffed the uppers of the boots I was working on, and tried to pretend there wasn’t a flicker of anger somewhere in the darkest heart of me. It wasn’t precisely humiliation; more like a sharp sting of annoyance at how readily I reached out for this… this camaraderie, which felt like friendship, and yet carried the bitter core of treachery about it.

He’s still a shem, I’d catch myself thinking. And what did that make me? No better than every human who looked my way and saw nothing but a thin-boned knife-ear with skinny legs and a big nose.

Alistair elbowed me in the ribs, and nearly sent both boots and rag flying from my fingers.

“Ha! You know, I like the way you think.”

I smiled uneasily. Stupid thoughts. The Blight would hardly hold back to make distinctions over race or class. Besides, it wasn’t even as if I was truly elven anymore, was it? Only to them. To my own kind, I was half-lost already. Adrift, and abandoned.

I glanced at Alistair, still buffing away on the stack of harness. The job was almost done now; it had gone by quickly with the two of us working.

“Um. Thanks, though.” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Er. For telling me about the arl, and… y’know.”

“Oh.” His cloth paused, his brow furrowed, and then he nodded, not looking up at me. “Right. Yes, well… that’s really all there is to the story.”

“So you never knew who your father was, then?”

It was blunt, and clumsy, and ordinarily I would never have asked, but the words just blurted themselves out. Alistair blinked. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and I suspected I’d touched a nerve. Perhaps he was ashamed… or just annoyed.

“I mean, if it wasn’t the arl….” I scrabbled, digging the hole I’d landed myself in even deeper.

He shook his head, and I shut up.

“I know who I was told was my father,” Alistair said carefully, wiping the polish off his hands. “He… he’s dead now, anyhow. It isn’t important.”

And I accepted that. I nodded glumly, toyed with the idea of apologising but didn’t quite have the guts to admit weakness by actually doing it, and we finished up the cleaning more or less in silence, just watching the flames dance.

My thoughts wandered to home and family, to the prejudices and questions that still clung to me, and to the lingering, remorseful wish that things could have been different. Of course, everyone wished that, I supposed, in one way or another.

Everyone nursed dreams, held tight to their chests in the stillness. Sometimes, they withered there, clasped too firm and choked off with wanting. Sometimes, they were let free to fly, and were ripped to shreds by cruel gales, or—like mine, perhaps—snatched away in an instant by a sudden, malicious breath of wind.

Perhaps, I thought, it wasn’t the expectations that were important. A way of thinking could change, in time… and what mattered more than that was the actions a person took.

After all, life was to be lived, not dreamed.

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Volume 2: Chapter Six
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