Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Four

 
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My decision to free the qunari continued to prod at me as we put Lothering behind us and hit the Imperial Highway. In truth, I hadn’t really expected him to follow, but there he was: a silent, enormous, implacable presence, keeping stride effortlessly with our strange, ragtag band.

I caught Alistair looking curiously at me a couple of times, and assumed he disagreed with what I’d done. I wouldn’t have blamed him. I knew almost nothing about the qunari people beyond what I’d read in books or heard whispered, and little of that was positive. Oh, they were supposed to be at peace, since the Llomerryn Accord—excepting their continued fight with the Imperium—but that didn’t wash away the stains of the bloodbath that they’d wrought in the First War and, though Rivain and Par Vollen were a long way from Ferelden, the stories had wings.

Still, despite my lingering unease, I had to admit that the presence of Sten, and perhaps Leliana, had at least drawn a temporary truce from Alistair and Morrigan. She had gained back a little of her former poise, stalking along with her head up and her staff striking at the ground with rhythmic, echoing clips against the pitted stone of the road. He was quiet and withdrawn again, as he’d been when we first left Flemeth’s hut, and after the silence settled so heavily around our little group, I started to wonder whether I hadn’t preferred the bickering.

The only one of us who didn’t seem awkward and subdued was Maethor, trotting ahead happily and carrying out his usual combination of sniffing and peeing as geographical surveillance.

As for me, my thoughts pattered all over the place, like raindrops, each one muddying up the puddle of my mind… and they were just as easy to control. I was tired. Bone-achingly tired, unused as I was to the kind of route march we’d been on over the past few days. Ponderings of the qunari gave way to wondering about Leliana, and how it had come to be that she had apparently already left the cloister before she met us. No one had quite managed to ask her that yet—or just how an Orlesian had ended up there in the first place. An Orlesian who had visions in which the Maker spoke to her, no less… which was slightly alarming, I supposed, considering her speed and skill with a blade. After all, the only thing worse than a crazy zealot is a crazy zealot wielding a knife they actually know how to use.

She seemed lucid enough, though. And whether she was crazy or not, who was I to judge a woman running from something? It wasn’t as if that made us so very different, to my eyes.

That, naturally, led to the sour ache that came with thinking of home. I’d been doing a little less of it recently, which I almost felt guilty for… as if the heartsickness of the first days after I’d left was a wound that could scab over, and become a dull throb instead of an insistent, biting sting.

It could, perhaps, until I thought about it. Everything started to come back then; pale flurries of possibilities, the ghosts of panic and desperate hope, interwoven with the faces of those I longed to see again.

They will be safe enough.

I wanted to believe Duncan had been right, but—Maker forgive me, I thought—despite how much he’d done for me, and the perfidy of his death, I wasn’t sure I trusted any human that much.

Would they be all right? I’d hoped that Lothering would offer some chance to hear news from Denerim, or maybe send a letter or something… just some shred of communication. If the worst had happened, and Arl Urien had ordered a purge (and I shuddered to even think the word), then word would have started to travel, wouldn’t it? How long did news take to get this far south from the capital? Damn it, I didn’t even know how many days it had been since I left, or since Ostagar, or… anything. Flemeth had never been exactly forthcoming on the subject of how long Alistair and I had lain unconscious in her hut, or how badly we’d really been hurt.

I didn’t remember much from the last of the battle. Just the pain, and the noise, and… blackness, folding over me like some nightmarish sea. Parts of me still twinged and itched and throbbed, but beyond that I had no idea what kind of state I’d been in when Flemeth—did whatever she’d done. I wasn’t sure I wanted to speculate on the details.

It all still seemed so unreal, in so many ways. Yet we kept walking, and the blisters and the constant, changeless pace of the road felt real enough; grindingly real, like only things which are muddy, cold, and unpleasant can.

Alistair was the first to break the silence, as the grubby little shape of Lothering disappeared over the horizon behind us, leaving nothing but the smudges of chimney smoke against the sky.

“I wonder what’s going to happen to all those people.”

An inane statement, on the face of it. We knew—he and I probably better than most—what awaited that place, already defenceless and consumed by despair. I wondered how long he’d been thinking about it.

“Some of them will find their way to Denerim,” Leliana said. “Many will die. It is as the Maker wills.”

Morrigan laughed sharply. “And that is the mercy of your Chantry, is it? I am so glad I am not dependent on such tender charity!”

“I thought you believed in letting the weak die off,” Alistair sniped.

“It is the natural order,” she said, with a blithe certainty in her voice that I could only dream of.

“If the Blight isn’t stopped,” Leliana observed, “everyone will die. Yes, it is hard to leave those who are suffering, but we are serving the greater good, are we not?”

Her words brought back a horrible reminder of the Joining, and a flash of irrational anger coursed through me. What did she know about the greater good, the burden of sacrifice… and what did I know about her, I reminded myself. I held my tongue.

Alistair didn’t sound convinced, at any rate. “So it’s all right to let some people die for the greater good? I… I’m not so sure about that. I felt bad leaving all those people there, all panicked and helpless.”

He’d been thinking about it for a while, then. As had we all, I suspected.

“You are doing what you must, Alistair,” Leliana said smoothly. “There will be worse to come yet, I am sure. You will need to steel yourself… you know this, surely?”

“Yes, but… I’ve never been very good at that. The steeling myself part. I find it better sometimes to just be a little weak.”

His tone was dry, but I remembered his grief in the Wilds, and flattered myself that I understood; compassion wasn’t weakness, but the weak are seldom called to wield the hardest judgements.

“A little?”

Morrigan spluttered, drawing breath to make some further charming comment, and I decided it was time to blurt out my contribution to the discussion.

“Is it me, or is the light starting to go? Anyone else think we ought to find somewhere to make camp before it gets dark?”

I could have just told them all to shut up, I supposed. But, despite the fact I was walking at the front of the group, I didn’t feel that much like a leader.

~o~O~o~

It did turn out to be almost dark by the time we found somewhere to pitch camp. The Highway had been oddly quiet—we passed nothing but a couple of covered wagons and a farmer’s ox-cart—and Lothering was fast becoming a distant memory beyond the horizon. There was little but open fields, acres of brown mud and the stubble of recently harvested crops, until we eventually hit upon a small copse at the side of the road, dividing one farm from another.

Further investigation revealed it to be free of bandits, refugees, darkspawn, or anything else unpleasant, and there was even a clean, narrow brook running through it, offering good drinking water and a chance to wash up properly.

For me, that was better than any prospect of rest or hot food… the result, I supposed, of being raised to the scrupulous standards of alienage hygiene. Back home, we had two standpipes by the privies, and anyone who didn’t make full use of them was considered to be showing herself up, with greasy hair or a dirty face second only in squalid dishonour to a grubby doorstep. Every morning I used to fetch sufficient water for Father and I to scrub ourselves, with enough left over for me to do out the floors, table, front step and the open gutter that ran past the door. Baths were twice weekly, and meant at least four trips to the pump, plus time spent heating the water over the fire, but it was always worth it.

I thought of the last bath I’d had; the one Shianni had drawn for me as I slept, the morning she snuck in and started on the chores, because that was the day I was supposed to be a bride. Her laughing as she woke me up, the firelight dancing on her face, and those clever fingers of hers working the knots and kinks out of my wet hair as I sat there, nervous as a new lamb….

“Best get some wood together, then,” Alistair said, dumping his pack, sword and shield next to a convenient tree stump. “See if we can get a fire going.”

I blinked, brought suddenly and rather abruptly back to this damp, chilly clearing, with the rustle of leaves underfoot and the earthy smell of mud and rotting wood on the dimming air.

“I’ll go,” I volunteered, setting my own kit down.

It didn’t take long for me to discover—never having been much of an outdoorsman—that a great deal less wood than can be found lying around under trees is actually useful for anything. I was tossing down the umpteenth damp stick when a crack overhead made me flinch and, looking up, I found Sten nonchalantly breaking off a large part of a tree branch.

He gave me a look I could only think of as weary, and it worried me that someone as large as him should be able to move so quietly.

“Thank you.” I cleared my throat. “Er… I was meaning to ask you, Sten. Are you all right? You were in that cage for a long time.”

“You are concerned?” He stripped the remaining leaves from the branch by running one huge hand down its length, then proceeded to break it neatly in two. I swallowed hard as that violet gaze flicked dismissively over me. “No need. I am fit enough to fight.”

“Well, that wasn’t quite what I—” I tried another tack. “You were in there for weeks. That’s a long time to go without food or water.”

“For you, maybe.”

“All right.” I tucked a dryish piece of kindling under my arm, and wondered if he was being purposely difficult. “Forgive my ignorance, but I’ve never seen a qunari before. I don’t know what’s… normal for you. Perhaps, if you told me something of your peop—”

Another great crack, and another branch came down. He’d obviously decided we were never going to get enough dry wood if the job was left to me… and he probably had a point.

“No.”

The word thudded with finality, but it wasn’t an angry denial; just a statement of fact. I was nonplussed.

“Um. Please?”

Sten snorted, and stripped down the second branch. “People are not simple. They cannot be summarised for easy reference in the manner of ‘The elves are a lithe, pointy-eared people who excel at poverty’.”

Heat flamed in my cheeks, and I was grateful for the growing darkness.

“Right, then,” I mumbled, scrabbling for the few bits of dry wood I’d gathered and heading back to the clearing.

Well, that shut me up. Had I been braver, or had the qunari been smaller, I might have been angry, all that new-found bravado of mine boiling over into argumentative rage. Instead, I just hunched up and scurried, embarrassed and then furious with myself.

It was a bitter and poisonous truth, that was the worst of it… beyond the fact that an outsider—someone more of an outsider even than I would ever be—could be so eloquently, unpleasantly cruel. I dumped the wood back to where Alistair was fiddling about with flint and tinder, and turned the things the Chantry said about the qunari over in my mind, quietly adding ‘arsehole’ to the list of barbarisms.

Something else bothered me, too, and had been niggling at me since the Highway. All this talk of fighting, and the worse things there were to come…. Somehow, I’d managed not to think of it, or to think of it in such abstract terms as barely touched me at all. It wasn’t true, though: I would still have to fight. This war, this Blight, was still coming, irrefutable and inescapable, and I felt less able to cope with it than ever before.

I was a fool, a child. What had I thought would happen? We would go to Redcliffe, tell Arl Eamon our tale, then sit cosily by the fire while someone else took care of the darkspawn?

The night seemed to fold in closer, and there was little comfort to be found in the darkness.

Somewhere behind me, Alistair bashed his thumb with the flint and yelped. I heard a dry, throaty chuckle, and turned to see Morrigan standing a little way to my right, her thin lips curled into a smug smile and her arms full of folded clothes. She shifted her gaze to me, and for once it was not entirely cold.

“Here.” She held out the pile of garments. “I have no notion of what will fit either of you, but at least you shan’t be so… offensive to the rest of us.”

I smiled, despite myself. They were the same kind of third- and fourth-hand clothes as the lay sisters had been handing out to the refugees in Lothering; a couple of over-darned shirts and smocks, and a few pairs of socks. Not much, but better than the rags I was wearing under my wrecked armour.

“Thank you, Morrigan.”

She sneered, exhaled irritably and made to stomp off back to her own little corner of the campground, already staked out as far as possible from everyone else, and marked by her staff, stuck into the ground like a pike.

“Wait,” I said, seizing my moment. “I… I’d like to ask you something.”

She halted, mid-turn, the raven feathers on the shoulders of her robe ruffling slightly, as if hunched in apprehension. The grainy, dim light picked a thin slice of blue along her pale jaw, and I could just make out the corner of her mouth twitch.

“Oh? If you must, I suppose.”

I was ready for it when she faced me, prepared for the full strength of the folded arms and the dismissive, tawny gaze, as if I was nothing more than something unpleasant that, once stepped in, could be wiped upon the nearest tussock. It didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps, I supposed, because if she were truly as cruel and vicious as she made out, she’d have resorted to violence with Alistair by now.

Still, I clasped the clothes tightly to my chest as I spoke.

“You, er… you’ve never been this far out of the Wilds before, have you?”

Morrigan arched her brows, the broad sweeps of dark shadow with which she painted her face shifting like wraiths. “I have entered the world of men from time to time, though ’tis true I always returned. Mother… wished me to expand my horizons beyond the forest. Why do you ask?”

“Well… is it what you want?”

Something that—had I not known better—I might have taken for confusion flitted across her face, and was quickly swallowed. She was silent for a few moments but, when she spoke, there was a hunger in her voice that I’d not heard before, laced with an unguarded quality that sounded almost like hope.

“What I want… what I want is to see mountains. I wish to witness the ocean and step into its waters. I want to experience a city rather than see it in my mind.” She fixed me with an eerily intent gaze, as if daring me to repeat any of that to anyone else, and her mouth flexed into the smallest hint of an acquiescent smile. “So, yes, this is what I want. I suppose.”

“Good.” I nodded slowly. “Um. Thanks again for the… clothes.”

~o~O~o~

Alistair had actually got the fire going and, when I ambled over, he was sprawled proudly in front of it, unlacing his boots.

“Here you go,” I said, tossing over his portion of the clean clothes. “I don’t know what you’ve still got, but… better than nothing, right?”

He held up one of the shirts, and poked a finger through a hole under the arm.

“Hmm. Probably.”

I smiled, and sat down gratefully in front of the fire. At least, with what few bits of equipment we’d managed to scrape together, we might make it to Redcliffe looking halfway to presentable, instead of resembling a rabble of complete lunatics. Still, as I eyed the ravaged remains of my pack, I could have wished I’d salvaged more.

The brown dress Valora had given me had survived, wadded up at the bottom, though it was stained with who knew what, and horribly crumpled. Of the various culinary treasures I’d bought at Ostagar, two pouches of seasoning and one small, limp packet of sugared pound cake had made it, though not even Maethor would eat the cake. Pretty much all I’d had of home was gone, however, and that hurt.

“Well,” Alistair announced, as I was still staring mournfully at the few belongings I had left. “I think I’ll go and scrub up. Leliana said she’d cook supper.”

I glanced up in faint alarm. “Really? How… nice.”

“Yes. Isn’t it? You never know, she might see the future in the soup pot.”

He smirked and headed off down to the brook. I put my pack aside and looked warily at my boots.

Time for you to come off.

I hadn’t been looking forward to this. Back home, I’d never been exactly idle, but this level of exertion was new to me. Given that I had still been a child to elven eyes—and given Father’s slightly over-protective nature—I’d never been allowed out of the alienage to take casual work in the market, or elsewhere in the city. I’d done what we called ‘gate trade’; scrabbling together slightly bruised fruit, or flowers, or whatever odds and ends were available, and selling them at cut prices off barrows by the alienage’s market-side gate. Other elves bought the goods, or sometimes shems who couldn’t afford anything better, or felt sorry for us and wanted the warm, fuzzy glow of charity.

In any case, save for going to collect the goods in the early morning, it was a matter of standing rather than walking, and I was learning just how different a prolonged route march was to simply being on my feet all day.

I gritted my teeth as I eased the boot off my left foot and gently tugged off the outer sock. It was wet and filthy, crusted with grime and mud, and I tossed it aside, bracing myself for peeling off the next layer.

“Oww….” I moaned to myself, as I began to unroll the second sock.

A large, soggy, white piece of skin sloughed off along with it, and I wrinkled my nose. The fire crackled to itself, and I propped my ankle across my right knee, reluctantly ready to inspect the damage.

I’d never walked so far in my life, and pain wasn’t the only payment.

Blisters the size of sovereigns weltered on the ball and heel of my foot, and just beside the base of my big toe. It was a mess: flesh rubbed red-raw, dotted with swollen, fluid-filled lumps—one already burst and oozing—and ragged bits of skin peeling at the slightest touch.

“Eww.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Alistair observed, padding back into the shifting circle of firelight.

I glanced up, surprised I hadn’t heard him coming. He hadn’t taken long, but he looked better for it, even in the ill-fitting, fourth-hand shirt and breeches. His hair was damp, and his skin bore a fresh, scrubbed pinkness.

“I mean,” he added thoughtfully, “used to it in that you won’t get so many. Not that you’ll just not notice them. You can’t not notice blisters.”

“No,” I agreed, gingerly lowering my foot so that only my heel rested on the ground, and beginning to unlace my other boot. “I’d noticed that.”

The wordplay seemed to amuse him, though he stopped grinning when he looked at my foot.

“Ouch! That is bad.”

I didn’t offer a comment, having my teeth clenched as I levered my other boot off and started peeling down the outer sock. My feet might as well have been on fire.

Alistair wandered over to his pack and started ferreting through it. I didn’t pay much attention, concentrating on unearthing the equally unpleasant state of my right foot.

“Here you go.”

I looked up, holding one sweaty sock, replete with bits of blister-skin dropping from it, between my thumb and forefinger. He was proffering a small earthenware jar with a smudged label, and a roll of densely-woven bandages.

“Soldier’s best friend,” he said helpfully. “Elfroot and slippery weed.”

I dropped the vile sock into the top of my boot and took the jar.

“Thanks.”

Tentatively, I unstopped it and peered inside. The ointment within was a virulent shade of green, and stank of hog’s lard and something else… a bit like rotten cabbage. I pulled a face.

“Maker’s breath!”

Alistair chuckled. He didn’t have to be so kind to me, I reflected, but I was glad of it. He fetched a cloth, wetted in the brook, and hung around while I dabbed at my feet, wincing and muttering words under my breath that Father would probably have been surprised I knew. The ointment stung like crazy, so I supposed it must be doing some good.

“Want some help with the bandages?”

I hesitated, unnerved to discover I’d already opened my mouth to say ‘yes, please’. The bonds of comradeship between us were still new, however intense the fires in which they’d been forged, and despite the oaths of the Joining, that bound us as sworn kin, of a sort, I wasn’t sure I wanted Alistair touching my feet.

He was still a human, I told myself… yet now I found I shrank from that justification, as if I was ashamed of hiding behind it.

The world I had stepped into was bigger than the alienage. So much bigger, and it grew wider with every moment. I had to grow too, I knew, but I’d never felt smaller. And now, just to compound all my prejudices and pass them back to me, tied up neatly with a ribbon of congratulation, Alistair was on his knees in front of me, carefully bandaging my bloody, oozing feet.

Wonderful.

“I don’t mind,” he said cheerfully, as I dug my fingers into the cold ground and tried not to squeak. “Long as you don’t kick my teeth out.”

“Can’t… promise,” I managed. “Ouch!”

He tied off the left foot and moved on to the right, and I blinked dampness from my eyes.

“We’ll have to see about getting you boots that fit properly as soon as we get to Redcliffe.” A faint smile tugged at his mouth. “Hmm. They say an army marches on its stomach, but Duncan always said they wouldn’t get past breakfast without good boots.”

The words trailed off into awkward silence, and I watched his smile pall and fade. Alistair tucked the end of the bandage in at my ankle and cleared his throat, making a show of wiping the traces of ointment from his hands.

I bit my lip.

“Er, look. If… you, uh, want to talk about it….” I offered. He looked blankly at me, so I tried again. “Um. About… Duncan, I mean.”

Alistair’s expression tightened, but it didn’t hide the momentary flash of pain that crossed his eyes.

“You don’t have to do that,” he said briskly, rocking back on his heels. “I know you didn’t know him as long as I did.”

He turned his face to the fire, and the shifting planes of light danced over his profile. I watched the ripple of self-control falter, noted the rapid blinking.

“All right.” I shrugged. “But, if you need to talk….”

He held it for a moment, and then he sagged, shoulders bowing forwards as he frowned at the musty earth. A muscle jumped rhythmically in his jaw, like he was counting the losses all over again, the spare end of the roll of bandage trailing uselessly in his fingers.

“I should have handled it better,” he muttered. “Duncan warned me right from the beginning that this could happen. Any of us could die in battle.”

“You couldn’t have prepared for it,” I said, looking diplomatically into the flames as his voice started to thicken. “No one could have been ready for what happened.”

“But I shouldn’t have lost it, not when so much is riding on us, not with the Blight and… and everything. I’m sorry.”

I frowned; slightly startled, I suppose. He didn’t owe me any kind of contrition.

“It’s all right,” I murmured, stupidly surprised at the fact I reached out and laid my hand on his arm. “You don’t have to apologise to me.”

We both looked at it; my lean, freckly hand, dried blood crazing the grazed knuckles, all hard joints and short, stubby nails. Somehow incongruous against his clean shirt, I thought, and perhaps a familiarity too far. I removed it, just in case, and glanced across the camp, pleased to find that the others were busying themselves elsewhere, unlikely to overhear or disturb us.

I heard Alistair’s tell-tale sniff and, as I looked back at him, caught the furtive swipe of a knuckle passing over an eye. He smiled weakly at me.

“Thanks. I’d… like to have a proper funeral for him. Maybe once this is all done, if we’re still alive. I don’t think he had any family to speak of.”

“He had you,” I said. “And the rest of the Grey Wardens.”

“I suppose he did.” Another damp, wan smile. “You know, it probably sounds stupid, but part of me wishes I was with him. In the battle. I feel like I abandoned him.”

My throat tightened, fingers of the same sharp sting of loss squeezing my heart.

“Mm-nn.” I shook my head. “It doesn’t sound stupid. I… I understand that.”

The fire crackled, and he gave a small, mirthless chuckle.

“Of course I’d be dead, then, wouldn’t I? It’s not like that would make him happier.”

I stared at the flames for a moment, watching the colours dance in and out of each other, weaving themselves into shapes and patterns. Mother used to say the future spoke in the fire, if you knew how to read it… but she’d never told me how, or even claimed to have that knowledge.

“Do the Wardens do anything special for their fallen?” I asked, trying to prod Alistair gently away from the maudlin end of his grief. “I mean, is there a—”

He sighed. “I really don’t know. I wish I did. Duncan came from Highever, I think, or so he said. Maybe I’ll go out there sometime, see about putting something up in his honour. I don’t know.”

“That sounds nice,” I agreed. “S’a good idea.”

“Hm.”

We both sat and stared at the fire in companionable silence for a moment, me stretching out my bandaged feet and letting the warmth baste them, and him fiddling with the end of the roll of dressing, something apparently niggling at him. Eventually, Alistair looked at me, a strange curiosity in his face.

“Have you… had someone close to you die?” he asked tentatively. “Er. That is, I don’t mean to pry, I just—”

“Yes,” I said shortly, and realised at once I’d been too blunt.

I didn’t want him to regret asking, but what could I say? There were too many faces behind my eyes, too many names that crowded for my attention. I chose the deepest hurt, not the freshest.

“My… my mother died, about eight years ago,” I said, the words feeling clumsy and heavy on my tongue.

“I’m sorry.”

I gave him the mask of a smile: an acknowledgement of his sympathy without really looking at him. It wasn’t a story I could share, I knew that. Not with him. Mother’s quick, dark eyes—rich as port wine—looked out at me from a sunlit corner of memory, smiling and gently chiding. She’d never have wanted me to be bitter… but I still didn’t want to talk about it.

Father would have had her do nothing but gate trade, if he’d had his way. He certainly didn’t want her working, as he did, at some noble’s estate with its delicate balance of perks and payouts. Mother was, after all, a pretty woman. And she was stubborn.

She used to hate watching him come home, worn through and exhausted, but Father wouldn’t budge. It was one of the few times I ever saw them really fight. Eventually, she compromised and found herself a job in the market, fetching and carrying for one of the traders. If she had only known when to keep her mouth shut, she’d have been fine.

I wasn’t there the day it happened, but I heard it all second-hand… and when they shut the outer gate, to stop the trouble spreading, I was in the crowd. Through the pitted metal bars, I saw the blood on the cobblestones, marking the place she fell.

An argument broke out, apparently, over some item or other being low-grade, some coin short-weight. The trader’s honesty was called into question, it turned ugly, and the guard intervened. Mother—being the nearest elf to hand—was blamed, and she could just have accepted it, had her wages garnished, and gone home in one piece. But she resented being called a thief. She shot her mouth off, they said, and when some shem guard slapped her to the ground and called her an insolent wench, she came up fighting.

It was a stupid thing to do, and I was angry with her for so long afterwards…. Father was too, I imagine, though I think for him the guilt weighed heavier.

We were lucky to get her back. I helped Nera, the hahren’s sister, lay her out before we wrapped her up and took her to the paupers’ field. I didn’t do much—just washed the blood off and tried not to think about how cold she was—but it made a memory that time would never diminish, and helped carve a gulf that was hard for me to bridge.

“Anyway, it’s hardly the same.” I cleared my throat and blinked at the damp, shadowy ground. “But I… I have… lost enough to understand, I think.”

An odd look crossed Alistair’s eyes. For a moment, I thought it was pity, but then it seemed to even out into something else, something quietly respectful, that I wasn’t used to seeing in his kind.

“Yes, I… I imagine you really have.” The silence that folded around his words hung on just long enough to begin to grow awkward, and then he smiled, broader this time. “Thank you. Really. I mean it. It was good to talk about it, especially with someone I… hope I can call a friend.”

He dusted his palms against his knees, and rose, looking vaguely self-conscious.

My cheeks warmed, equal parts embarrassment and a peculiar sense of pride… of belonging, I supposed, however strange that was. I smiled up at him.

“Hey… maybe I’ll go to Highever with you, when you go.”

Alistair nodded. “I’d like that. Duncan would, too, I think.”

I hoped so.

~o~O~o~

The dreams came that night.

For supper, Leliana favoured us with rations she said the revered mother had given her for her journey—tough, nutty, wholegrain biscuits, and dried vegetables she boiled into a weak broth—but she still managed to deflect questions about exactly why she’d been in the process of leaving. We were probably all too tired to argue, and as thin, watery moonlight filtered down through the trees, we all peeled away and bedded down, each seeking their own small attempt at privacy without straying too far from the comfort of the fire.

It felt strange, trying to settle to sleep in breeches and a third-hand undershirt, on an unfamiliar bedroll and in the presence of three humans… and Sten. He was silent and seemingly disapproving as ever, apparently unsurprised that we were all weak enough to need sleep and food, but annoyed at the delay nevertheless. I thought I’d lie there, petrified of him killing us all in the night, but I was out like a candle as soon as I closed my eyes.

I slept densely at first, but then they stole in—the dreams—blackening the smudged, blurry hours before dawn, when nothing felt real anyway, and I thought the Veil would rip right open and swallow me whole.

They started normally enough. Faces I knew, people I missed… Shianni standing at the water pump, looking at me over her shoulder and demanding to know why I wasn’t helping, when I knew we had to fill the ocean by sundown, and all we had to do it with were two buckets that just kept on shrinking. Soris and Valora were there, and she was carrying a baby, wrapped up in a blue shawl. It had blond hair, and bright blue eyes. I wanted to know where Father was, but everyone kept saying he was busy, and Shianni kept complaining about the buckets… and then her voice started to change.

I shifted in my sleep, trying to get away from the feeling that something was wrong, but I couldn’t escape it. The words melted, the shapes dropping away until there was nothing but a jagged, bitter roar, and I was certain I was back in the Tower of Ishal, ready to feel the heat of fires on my skin and the breath of monsters on my face. There was battle-blood, and screaming, and the sleep-clogged mires of my mind reached out for things to attach the images to; for Duncan, and the king, and the fallen whom I still felt, somehow, that I’d failed. Yet it wasn’t Duncan who filled my dreams. No familiar face came to me from the weaving planes of shape and colour… just a wall of rock, red as blood and heaving with black bodies. I struggled against it, afraid of the void and of falling, and every terror I’d endured as the dreams that came with the Joining claimed me—and, this time, it was no better.

The roar became identifiable, in two parts. One was the bloodlust of the horde—a constant, horrendous pulse—and the other was the dragon. It threshed, it screamed, it… growled like some hideous, pained beast, mad with fear and anger and the hunger for revenge. The stench of blood and rot choked me. Decay was everywhere, staining the walls of the chasm, everything corrupted with filth and the violent, sulphuric stink of the place. The noise swelled and keened, drilling through my head until I was sure my skull cracked open, and I could feel myself about to fall, teetering as I had before on the edge of a long, dark abyss. The rage pulled at me, the ravening snares of minds that were not my own, hungers that were not mine… I could almost taste the foul, rotten bloom of blood in my mouth. And then I woke, sweating, the blanket kicked clear of my legs and the light in the clearing blurry, bluish and grainy. The fire had burned down to embers, glowing gently beneath a mantle of white ash.

I stared at it muzzily, trying to breathe deeply and convince myself that I was all right.

“Bad dreams, huh?”

I flinched. Alistair was developing the unnerving habit of catching me at my most vulnerable… though, given the kind of mess we’d each seen the other in, I supposed any illusions I had of privacy or dignity should have been long gone.

He was lacing his boots on the other side of the fire. It wasn’t yet light enough to be too close to dawn but, beyond him, I could make out the shapes of other movement. Early start for everyone, apparently.

“It seemed so… real,” I said thickly, rubbing at my eyes.

He straightened up, the shadows clinging to him and making his expression hard to read. I could see he’d donned most of the armour he’d bought in Lothering, and wondered whether it was a case of expecting trouble on the road, or just being prepared.

“Well, it is real,” he said matter-of-factly. “Sort of. You’re starting to… hear them. Bet you wondered how long it would take.”

“Mm.” I started to roll my blanket up. “Couldn’t wait.”

“I know what it’s like,” Alistair said, and I knew it would be churlish to refuse the offer of sympathy. I looked up at him, and caught the flicker of fear in his eyes. “The archdemon, it… ‘talks’ to the horde, and we feel it just as they do. It was scary at first for me, too.”

A shiver traced the back of my neck, and I frowned.

“The dragon, you mean? That’s the…?”

He nodded. “Well, I don’t know if really is a dragon, but it sure looks like one, yes. You know, it takes a bit, but eventually you can block the dreams out.”

I was tempted to ask if he could, but from the look on his face I doubted it and, at that moment, I only wanted to think of Alistair as the Grey Warden I would become. I wanted him to know all the answers, and have none of the weaknesses that scared me.

“Right.”

He cleared his throat. “Anyhow, when I heard you thrashing around, I thought I should tell you.”

I marshalled a weak and rather feeble smile. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for. To deliver unpleasant news and witty one-liners.”

He grinned, though it wasn’t entirely convincing, and I wondered if he’d had the same dream and, if he had, how recently it had pulled him from his sleep.

Either way, we couldn’t get to Redcliffe soon enough.

 
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Volume 2: Chapter Five
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