Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Nine

 
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The sense of celebration in the village was palpable. Relief hung thick, like garlands of blossom, and if the people hadn’t been so damn tired, I’d have bet they’d have been dancing in the streets.

Murdock sent a couple of men to scout the perimeters, making sure everything was clear, and we set once again to the grim business of clearing the bodies before he banged on the chantry doors and declared it was safe.

They came out hesitantly, mothers holding their children close to them, trying to shield their eyes from the carnage. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be in there all night, listening to the sounds of battle, only to walk out and face piles of dismembered corpses, each one once a friend or neighbour. We’d done our best to keep them out of the way—the heads, at least—but there would still be the grisly business of identifying and naming the dead. I was glad I wouldn’t have to be a part of it.

We stood back and let the villagers stumble out into the sunlight. I watched women fling themselves at their men, damp with tears of relief and gratitude. Even Murdock cracked a smile, buried somewhere under the expansive hugs of a broad, determined-looking wife, and four young daughters.

I glanced at my companions, battle-weary and filthy as we were. It was still so hard to believe we’d lived through the night… that we’d worked together, and prevailed. Leliana looked exhausted, though she smiled as she watched the villagers’ tender scenes of reunion. Morrigan appeared oblivious to them. Sitting on the chantry’s steps, hands loosely linked around the neck of her staff, she bore that waxy, vacant look that worried me… although even implacable, impassive Sten seemed a little bowed by fatigue, and I told myself that was all it was. We were all tired.

Maethor was stretched out on the dirt at my feet, apparently content to grab a quick doze, and I envied the canine ease with which he slipped from moment to moment. Alistair looked as tired as I felt, and just as in need of a damn good wash. He glanced at me, and his grin was lop-sided and threadbare, soot and dried blood still streaking his forehead.

It was embarrassing, I suppose, to realise how little we belonged there. In amongst all those people, so pleased to be alive and torn between gratitude for their survival, and grief at what they’d lost, we were outsiders, and there was something awkward about standing there, suddenly purposeless and bereft.

It didn’t last. The militiaman with the grey beard disengaged himself from the crowd and, swaying slightly, came over to shake my hand. He had a white-haired woman in a green shawl and a young man on crutches with him. The lad barely looked more than fifteen but, judging by the bloody mass of bandages swathing his left leg, I guessed he’d already seen some action over the past week.

“Thank you, Warden,” the militiaman said, pumping my hand vigorously before he turned to the boy. “You see, Rethyn? These are the people who saved us… an’ saved your pa. You thank ’em proper.”

“Um, there’s really no—” I began, but it was useless.

There were effusive thanks, rounds of back-slapping and hand-shaking, and the ebullient sense of relief coiled everywhere, tugging us all into its wake. Morrigan sneered, clearly uncomfortable with the attention, which surprised me, though I couldn’t blame her.

Ser Perth’s men, Dwyn and his heavies, and the others who’d made their stand at the ridge all limped down into the square, tired but satisfied. I even recognised the elf from the tavern, wearing mismatched ends of armour and looking rather stunned. Somehow, my companions and I found ourselves backed up onto the steps of the chantry, with dozens of eager, exhausted faces staring up at us… and it got worse when Bann Teagan mounted a barrel and, arms outstretched, called for quiet from the gathered masses.

“Dawn arrives, my friends,” he called, spreading out his hands to encompass the whole square, “and all of us remain. We are victorious!”

He raised a clenched fist, and a cheer went up; weary and a bit ragged, but all the more fervent for it. I squirmed under the scrutiny of so many people and looked to my left, meaning to step back and let Alistair—as both the senior Warden, and the one who was responsible for coordinating the village’s defence—take the credit that Teagan so obviously wanted to give, but he wasn’t there. At that moment, an elbow jabbed me in the small of the back, shoving me forwards and rather unwillingly into the spotlight.

I would, I decided, make him pay for that one.

Without breaking the rhythm of his speech, Bann Teagan jumped down from his impromptu plinth and put his hand on my shoulder. The wound beneath my battered armour was still open and angry, and I gritted my teeth.

“It is these good folk you see beside me that we have to thank for our lives today,” the bann said brightly, gesturing to my ragtag company. “Without their heroism, surely we would all have perished.”

Another cheer erupted from the assemblage, and Teagan turned to me, his face solemn and his well-spoken words ringing out across the square with terrible, awful clarity.

“The Maker truly smiled on us when he sent you here, in our darkest hour. Dear lady, I bow to you.”

And he did. Bended knee and everything. I didn’t know where to put myself.

An audible intake of breath sounded from the crowd, and then it was swallowed in cheers and applause. Bann Teagan straightened up, beaming widely, and beckoned to a boy I now saw hanging back by the chantry doors. He seemed breathless, and carried a bundle of oiled cloth, which Teagan took from him and unwrapped, revealing a large, heavy steel helmet. It glimmered dully in the early morning sun, and the light caught on the intricately engraved patterns that ran over the brow and nosepiece of the thing. I’d never seen armour like it. As the bann held it aloft, I could see it had wings, like some immense, ancient bird. It was old, that much was clear; as if the patina of years was pressed into the gleaming metal.

The people knew what it meant. It was a symbol they understood. They clapped; a brisk, intense beat that stormed us over us, and took the breath from my body. Teagan’s voice rose above it, and then he was holding the helmet out to me, like a priest extending a blessing.

“Allow me to offer you this: the helm of Ser Ferris the Red, my great-uncle and hero of Ferelden. He would approve passing it to one so worthy.”

A symbol, a ritual… a ceremony. The villagers had to see it. Tired, bloody and beaten, they needed this. I could see all of that written in the bann’s angular face as he made a great show of handing the helm to me, and I couldn’t do anything but bow in return, and humbly accept a gift more magnificent—and a great deal heavier—than I could possibly use.

I managed some short string of words about how honoured we were, how the battle had been won on the bravery of the people of Redcliffe, and how I’d felt privileged to fight beside them, and then I was only too glad to hand over to Mother Hannah. The priest led a brief prayer for those who had fallen in the course of the attacks, and for the souls of those whose bodies had been so evilly corrupted, and then the talk fell to the tasks ahead, and to the needs of the men who’d been up all night, and required food, drink and bandages… possibly not in that order.

She dealt with them efficiently, I noticed. She had a kindly firmness, directing the sisters to help here, or insist there, with no more than a gentle wave of her hand. Her voice was an even, undeniable constant that, I suspected, had run through the fabric of life here for more years than most of these people could remember, and that was comforting. Little by little, then, normality would return to Redcliffe, and it would be women like Mother Hannah who brought it. Unless the corpses came back at nightfall, of course. I wanted to push those thoughts away, and let nothing sour the taste of the victory we’d won here, but my head was too foggy to cling on to one strand of anything for long.

I think I was swaying a bit as we moved off the chantry’s steps, clearing the way for the traffic of people who needed aid, rest, and time to deal with the mess that was left of their homes. At first, I was barely aware of Bann Teagan speaking—lower this time, no longer an address to an eager crowd—and it took a moment before I realised he was talking to me… to us.

“We truly cannot thank you all enough,” he said.

I glanced up, and then back at the tattered, exhausted faces behind me. Sten grunted. I hadn’t forgotten how prepared he’d been to leave this place defenceless, considering it an irrelevance, a lost cause… or how I’d couched my argument in terms of winning allies, banking on the possible support of the arl, if he still lived. Did that really make us heroes? I wasn’t so sure, and I blinked blearily at the bann.

“Er….”

“These people owe you their lives,” Teagan went on, smiling beneficently at the drabs of the crowd now thinning out, mostly in search of hot food and somewhere to lie down. “They will not forget what you have done here. Nor shall I.”

The look of genuine affection in his face as he gazed at those people surprised me. I’d grown up so far removed from how Denerim was actually run—what the nobility were actually for, when we rarely saw any authority beyond the city guard—that I was nonplussed. The villagers here knew this man, and trusted him, though he held a title and wore clothes worth more than they’d make in a year. It was… odd, to me. Then again, wavering as I was on the ghostly twin surfs of sapped adrenaline and fatigue, I’d long passed the point of trying to make sense of anything.

“They deserve their celebration,” Teagan said, turning back to us with a sober look in his eyes.

That keen blue gaze slipped past my shoulder and sought out Alistair, and I gathered from the hint of beseeching that crept into the bann’s voice that we were not going to be allowed much rest.

“You have helped us immeasurably, but there is still more to be done. Mother Hannah will see you cleaned up and provisioned, but I must ask this—”

“You want to get into the castle.” Alistair nodded. “While… whatever’s up there is weak, or distracted?”

Teagan’s jaw tightened, a dark determination shadowing his face. “Yes. I have a plan, but… I fear we must act quickly. Meet me at the mill, and I shall explain.”

And that was it. With a curt incline of the head, the bann took his leave, and I found myself looking dubiously at Alistair. He sighed, weariness inscribed in the slump of his shoulders and the dark rings beneath his eyes.

“Well,” he said, “if Arl Eamon’s still alive….”

I nodded grimly and glanced at the others. “Look, if any of you would rather stay here, then—”

Sten snorted. “Is that not defeating the purpose of all we fought for?”

Maethor barked, apparently in agreement, and Leliana gave me a small, tired smile.

“You said yourself that we should take any chance to get into the castle.”

I was pretty certain that wasn’t quite what I’d said, but she made it sound like encouragement, and I was prepared to forgive her for twisting my words.

“Ugh, very well.” Morrigan rose to her feet, lip curled sullenly. “If you insist. Although, I confess, I do have a wonder to see what is behind this. It could prove… interesting.”

Alistair grimaced. “By ‘interesting’, I imagine you mean incredibly horrible and gruesome? That is your sort of thing, after all.”

“It may have escaped your notice,” she sniped, “for, naturally, many things do, but this world is not all rainbows and sunshine.”

“Not when you’re around, no.”

Well, at least something was back to normal.

~o~O~o~

People fussed around us in the chantry. It was… awkward. There wasn’t time, space, or facilities for much beyond a quick rub-down with a damp rag, a few sips of waters, and the most rudimentary healing. Supplies were scarce, and there were others in greater need than we. Still, the villagers were in good spirits; I even heard someone saying Lloyd had come out of his cellar, and was going to open the tavern.

We made our way back up to the ridge, where we found Bann Teagan, Ser Perth, and a couple of the knights standing in the shadow of the mill. The outline of the castle was clearly visible through the morning mist, grey-shrouded and blurred, like the sleeping shape of some great, fantastical beast. It seemed so much more foreboding now.

“Odd how quiet the castle looks from here,” Bann Teagan said, gazing out towards it, his voice strained and hollow. “You would think there was nobody inside at all.”

There might not be, I supposed, though I didn’t like to say so. The piles of corpses down in the square were stacked ten and fifteen high. The pyres would be burning for weeks.

Teagan turned from the fortress’ fog-paled silhouette, and shook his head.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t delay things further. Thank you for coming, Wardens. All of you,” he added, looking beyond me to the others.

“We will defeat whatever is responsible for this evil, your grace,” Leliana piped up. “I swear it.”

Bold words, and unexpected ones, too. I glanced back to see her dropping a delicate curtsey that, somehow, didn’t even look incongruous, despite the leather armour. For a moment, I marvelled at that, before my sluggish brain prodded me back to the matter in hand.

“Er… you said you had a plan, ser?”

“Yes.” Teagan blinked, and seemed to consciously drag his gaze from the Orlesian. “There is a secret passage that runs from beneath the mill up to the castle. It hasn’t been used in years, but it could provide a way in. I would have tried before, but I couldn’t leave the villagers, and the sheer numbers of those things….”

Alistair nodded slowly. “Right. A small group might get in undetected, take advantage of the disarray.” He frowned. “But… we can’t let you go. It could be dangerous. Even if—”

The bann’s face darkened. “Alistair, if Eamon is still alive, I—”

“But you’re needed here!”

I narrowed my eyes, almost entirely sure that fatigue and the weak gold glare of the morning sun were the only reasons the two men seemed to sound alike, as if this burgeoning argument was the offshoot of some tussle for independence begun a decade before. Not that it mattered, I reminded myself.

“Where would the passage bring us out?” I asked.

“The basements somewhere, I think,” Teagan said, after a moment’s calculation. “Beneath the kennels, probably.”

“All right. Alistair, do you know that part of the castle?”

He snorted. “Oh, yes. Banished to sleep with the hounds more times than I can count.”

And that’s a lot. I can count pretty high.

I pushed the recollection of those words—of that easy camaraderie—from my mind, annoyed to find my view of him so easily changed… and my temper still so sharp. Stupid, I told myself. Petty.

“Then it’s settled. We’ll go in. All of you,” I added, glancing back over my shoulder, “who are with me. Yes?”

Maethor barked enthusiastically, front paws pattering at the ground. Leliana and Morrigan both voiced their assent, one with golden optimism and the other with dismal sullenness, as different as night and day. Sten just grunted, which I took for an affirmation. After all, it wasn’t as if I could actually force him to do a damn thing he didn’t want.

I nodded, a small bloom of satisfaction working its way through the fatigue.

“Good. Then you, my lord, will stay here. Alistair’s right—the villagers need you to look to, and there’s no guarantee that what’s waiting up there isn’t worse than walking corpses.”

Bann Teagan looked rather surprised at my bluntness. Not used to being told what to do, I imagined, especially by the likes of me. Smugness swaddled me up in a warm and ignobly comforting glow, not that it lasted long. He set his jaw.

“I still maintain—”

The argument was destined to be cut short. Maethor let out another bark and, further up the path, where some of the lads were still clearing bits of bodies, a figure could be seen pelting towards us. My body tensed automatically, flesh-memories of the night still raw, and every thrust and swing etched into my aching muscles… but this was no corpse. It was a woman, obviously unused to running, and ill-dressed for it. The skirts of her white gown were bunched in her hands, and the tight lacing of her fancy velvet bodice must have made it hard to breathe. As she drew nearer, the militiamen piling up the dead stopped work and stared after her, their expressions almost as shocked as Bann Teagan’s.

“Maker’s breath!” he exclaimed.

He went to her, met her halfway across the ridge. She almost fell into his outstretched arms, clasping his hands to hold herself up as she panted for breath. Her honey-blonde hair was bound into an elaborate chignon, wisps escaping to frame a face from which the youthful bloom had faded, but was not yet wholly erased. Exertion coloured her cheeks, sweat beading her forehead, while her parted lips and large, brown eyes expressed panicked, imploring desperation.

“Teagan!” She dug white, slender fingers into his sleeves, her voice cracking as she dragged words from the ragged pool of breaths. “Teagan… oh, thank the Maker you yet live! There is not much time… quickly!”

The familiar twirls and lilts of an Orlesian accent—though apparently weathered by years in Ferelden—laced her speech, and I began to realise who this peculiar, dishevelled dervish must be.

She tugged at the bann’s arms, already half-turning back to the path, as if she could physically drag him with her.

“Please! I cannot explain it here. I slipped away from the castle as soon as I saw the battle was over, but I must return quickly. You have to come, Teagan. I… need you to return with me. Alone.”

Well, nobility or not, I wasn’t standing for that—especially when we’d already agreed that the bann was to stay in the village. Every instinct I possessed screamed ‘trap!’, and urged me to prise the woman off him.

“Careful,” I said instead, my tone brusquer than it should have been, “this could be an ambush.”

The arlessa—for who else could she have been?—broke away from her brother-in-law and stared at me in surprise, as if she hadn’t noticed my presence. In the space of less than a second, her expression shifted from desperate plea to unabashed vitriol; it was like watching a stone sink under dark water, without a trace left behind it. Of course, I realised, the nobility were good at masks… especially where she came from.

The brown doe eyes were hard now, like polished cobnuts, as she took in those who stood behind me—the massive, armoured presence of Sten, Leliana in her archer’s garb, and Morrigan in her artful rags and leather—and the arlessa’s lips bowed in distaste, as if someone had just wafted a week-old haddock under her nose.

“Teagan, who are these… people?”

Alistair sighed wearily. “You remember me, Lady Isolde, don’t you?”

Her gaze shifted to him, and the curvature of lips became a jagged line, turning a face that might have been considered beautiful into something thoroughly repellent.

“Alistair?” She sounded genuinely appalled. “Of all the— Why are you here?”

A stab of indignation went through my gut on his behalf. Bann Teagan cleared his throat.

“They are Grey Wardens, Isolde. I owe them my life. We all do,” he added pointedly.

Her face shifted again, a curtain of civility falling across the flash of temper, but I’d been learning enough about these circles of human etiquette to know the bow of her head was too fleeting, too shallow to be even passingly sincere.

“Forgive me,” she said, turning back to the bann, “but there is no time to exchange pleasantries. I must return to the castle and, Teagan, you—”

“Lady Isolde,” Alistair tried again. “Please.”

I glanced at him, unsure whether I’d seen a fleeting hint of hurt in his expression. Maybe it was the light, or perhaps the fatigue. Either way, the look she gave him was venomous.

“We had no idea anyone was even alive within the castle. If there’s anything you can tell us about what’s happening… we need answers.”

The arlessa switched her attention back to the bann, face softening into girlish entreaty once again, those pretty hands tugging, pulling at his sleeves.

“Teagan… make them see! I… I don’t know what is safe to tell. I know you will want explanations but I-I cannot. I—”

“Calm yourself,” Teagan soothed, taking hold of her hands again, one broad palm upon her quaking shoulder. “Come, Isolde. You must tell us what you know.”

She looked from him to Alistair and back again, then erupted into tears.

“There… there is a terrible evil within the castle,” she managed, gulping between sobs. “It is horrible! The dead waken and hunt the living. The mage responsible was caught, but still it continues….”

I saw Alistair’s face stiffen. He nodded almost imperceptibly; he’d been right about the blood magic. Isolde shook her head, wringing Teagan’s hand in hers and continuing to weep piteously.

“And I think—” She brought her voice down to a frail, damp whisper, knuckles standing proud as she gripped Teagan’s wrist. “—I think Connor is going mad. We have survived but he won’t flee the castle. He has seen so much death! You must help him, Teagan. You are his uncle. You could reason with him. I do not know what else to do!”

The bann looked anxiously at Alistair, and I was dismayed at how much effect a woman’s tears obviously had on the pair of them. Not that I wasn’t moved by the arlessa’s heartfelt display… just that I didn’t entirely trust it.

“What about this mage you mentioned?” Alistair asked, glancing at me over the top of her bowed, trembling, honey-coloured head.

I caught the meaning in his face—that none of this was coincidence, none of it was chance—and I didn’t like the steeliness I found in his eyes.

“He is an… infiltrator, I think,” Isolde said, and something about the way her gaze brushed down to the ground, the words halting as they dropped from those sculpted lips, struck me as odd. Dangerous, even. “One of the castle staff, that’s all I know. We discovered he was poisoning my husband. That is why Eamon fell ill.”

“Eamon was poisoned?” Bann Teagan echoed incredulously.

Isolde nodded, her chin dimpling as she fought back more tears. The big brown eyes were suddenly alert again, shiny and imploring, her gaze darting between the two men. My gut had turned to lead before she even got the next words out.

“He claims an agent of Teyrn Loghain’s hired him. But,” she added, accenting the doubt with a delicate sniff, “I don’t know… he may be lying. I cannot say.”

Alistair looked fit to explode. Dull fire burned in his face, as if the suggestion of Loghain’s guilt was a disappointment and an outrage, but not a surprise. A muscle jumped rhythmically in his jaw, and I could have sworn he was grinding his teeth. I should have told him about the elf in the tavern, I knew it. Only… if this was true, what did it mean? Loghain had meant to use the Blight to seize the throne? No man would be that mad, surely—and certainly not the great general and tactician whose name rang through history as the saviour of our independence.

It couldn’t… it mustn’t be so, I thought, and pulled myself up short. Whatever the truth, or otherwise, it was a matter for another time.

“But does the arl live?” I asked, aware that my voice was an incongruous addition to the discussion.

Lady Isolde shot me a look that might almost have been irritation, and addressed her reply to Bann Teagan.

“So far. He is being… kept alive, thank the Maker.”

Teagan frowned. “Kept alive? Kept alive by what?”

“Something the mage unleashed,” she said vaguely, shaking her head. “I don’t know…. So far Eamon, Connor, and myself have been spared. It wants us to live, but I do not know why. It allowed me to come for you, Teagan, because I begged, because I said Connor needed help….”

I blinked. Hadn’t she said she’d ‘slipped’ from the castle? I started to open my mouth, but I knew I couldn’t question her… shouldn’t question her. Not now.

“This ‘evil’,” Alistair said thoughtfully, “could it be some kind of demon?”

“I… I do not know.” Isolde’s eyes widened even further. “But I can’t let it hurt my Connor! You must come back with me, Teagan… please. You must hurry. For Connor’s sake. Come back with me, and come alone. There isn’t much time!”

She was still pawing at him, for all the world like a petulant and demanding child. I folded my arms, the twinge in my bandaged shoulder not doing much to extend my tolerance. I was tired, sore… scared. This whole business sounded worse by the second, and for a moment I forgot my place.

“Maybe that’s why I get the feeling you’re not telling us everything,” I muttered darkly, making little effort to hide my impatience, or my suspicion.

“I beg your pardon?” The arlessa glared at me coldly. “That’s a rather impertinent accusation!”

Her choice of words made the edge of my lips curl, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d have picked the same ones if I’d been human. Still, after the night I’d had, I could muster little sympathy for the woman. My temper was short, and what internal censorship I usually engaged somehow didn’t cut in until after I’d opened my mouth.

“Not if it’s true.”

Bann Teagan appeared surprised—and distinctly unimpressed—while Alistair gave me a look of desperate, appalled astonishment, the small but frantic movements of his eyebrows signalling it would be good if I shut up now. I could have shrunk in on myself, mumbled an apology, stared at the ground… I would have, once, but now I stood my ground. There was more at stake here than whether or not the local gentry were offended by the churlish manners of an insolent knife-ear.

The arlessa’s scowl trembled and then dissolved into another wretched sob. She appealed to Teagan, white hands flying in frantic arcs.

“Teagan! I came here for help… what more do you want from me? An evil I cannot fathom holds my son and husband hostage! What if it thinks I am betraying it? It could kill Connor! Please… must I beg?”

“Very well.” The bann sighed, and looked wearily from me to Alistair. “The king is dead, and we need my brother now more than ever. I will return to the castle with you, Isolde.”

She let out a quivering cry, and I couldn’t decide whether it was one of triumph or gratitude, but she fell to weeping again, and kissed his hands.

“Oh, thank the Maker! Bless you, Teagan! Bless you!”

I caught Alistair’s eye, and for a moment I thought he’d look away, but he didn’t. He just nodded grimly.

“It seems you have little choice, Bann Teagan,” he said.

“Oh, I have no illusions of dealing with this evil alone,” Teagan assured, prising himself from the arlessa’s grip. He patted her hand gingerly. “Isolde, will you excuse us for a moment? Then I shall return with you.”

She nodded, mopping at her eyes. “I will wait by the bridge. Please… do not take too long!”

We watched her pace away. The golden morning light flooded the ridge, and the world seemed sharp and crisp and clear; just like the dangers that lay before us. Alistair bit his lip.

“You really mean to—?”

“Yes.” Teagan nodded. “I will go in with Isolde. You and your companions use the passage, as we discussed. Perhaps I will… distract whatever is inside and increase your chances of getting in unnoticed. What do you say?”

“This is insane! It’s too dangerous. We can’t let—”

“Alistair.” I shook my head, resigned to the way I now saw things had to be. “What choice do we have? Any of us?”

“She’s right,” Teagan said, which surprised me. “If your business with Eamon is important, you’re going to have to go inside to find him.”

It didn’t come naturally to me to side with the nobleman, but he had a point.

“You said yourself,” I pointed out, with a slight waver of guilt, “that we need Arl Eamon’s support. If the Wardens are to challenge Loghain’s assessment of the Blight—”

“Yes, all right.” Alistair’s tone verged on the waspish. He exhaled tersely. “Fine. But, can’t Ser Perth’s men follow you or something?”

Bann Teagan glanced dubiously towards Lady Isolde, standing by the bridge and impatiently twisting her fingers together. Behind me, Morrigan snorted.

“If she truly relies on the goodwill of a demon to seek help, the creature would know of the knights’ presence long before they even reached the castle.”

The witch took a step nearer, bringing with her that customary waft of warm leather and dried herbs, and it comforted me in a strange way… the thought that the burden of the decision was no longer mine alone, perhaps.

We shall be lucky to get in undetected,” she added, and I glanced at her, not expecting the resolve I found in her eyes.

‘We’. Small word, but it meant a lot.

“Then have them hang back,” I said, trying to plot possibilities in the air before me, without having any idea where the next few hours might lead. “At least long enough for you and the arlessa to return, and us to— How long will it take to get through the passageway and into the castle?”

Alistair shrugged. “Twenty minutes, maybe? Half an hour? Depends exactly where we come out, and whether there’s… resistance at the other end, I suppose.”

I grimaced. “All right. Then you’ll have to play for time, Bann Teagan. And distraction. We’ll use whatever advantage we have, and….”

I trailed off. I hadn’t the faintest notion what we’d do, what we’d face… the world was swimming around me in syrupy, dreamlike strands, and it suddenly eminently possible that we were all going to our deaths. Even the lingering sweetness of that hard-won victory was turning to something rank and fetid in my mouth.

Down below, at the lakeside, the first of the funeral pyres was being lit, and it wouldn’t be long before the men started piling the bodies up. No ceremony. No time for the proper offices, when so many had to be dealt with. The first thin trails of smoke started to trace the sky, and I looked away, back at the worried faces of my companions.

Leliana frowned. “So we are just going to send him with that woman? It seems so dangerous!”

Teagan dredged up a smile for her. It was weak, but warm.

“You’re a good woman, my lady,” he said kindly. “The Maker smiled on me indeed when He sent you and your companions to Redcliffe.”

“He always knows best the paths on which He sets his children,” she countered, with a gentle bow of her head, “that He may guide us when we are lost, and steady us when we falter.”

There was a subtle, shifting moment of silence and then Teagan cleared his throat.

“I, ah, I must delay no longer, then. Allow me to bid you farewell… and good luck.”

With a shuffle of assorted agreements—no one really wanted to say goodbye, it seemed, least of all Alistair, who still looked racked by indecision—he left us, and rejoined the arlessa.

Silently, we watched Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde begin to make their way up the cliff path, and cold fingers of dread traced the back of my neck. Beyond the ridge, the castle waited, wreathed in mist and dank foreboding, its dark shape filling up the sky.

It wasn’t as if we had a choice.

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Volume 2: Chapter Ten
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