Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Seven

 
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There was a girl over by the chantry’s wide, wooden doors. She was hunched against the wall, her shoulders shaking as she tried to hide her sobs. As I turned away from the others, leaving them to the quiet murmurs of indecision—and Morrigan’s scouring displeasure—she caught my attention. I wouldn’t normally have approached, given that most of the humans here were in some degree of distress and would probably not welcome elven interference, but she seemed to be completely alone, and she couldn’t have been more than thirteen, maybe fifteen years old.

I cleared my throat. “Um. Are you all right?”

“I-I’m sorry….” The girl looked up at me; cheeks tear-stained and nose running. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

Her face creased up and she slid down the wall, arms wrapped around her head as she sobbed and hiccoughed. I swallowed hard, suddenly not seeing a shem sitting there anymore, but Shianni, scrabbling to cover herself with a torn and filthy dress, and crying so hard she couldn’t stand.

Maethor padded past me and shoved his wrinkled snout straight into her lap, wagging his stumpy tail encouragingly. I had to smile. Despite the muddy clumps in his filthy coat, the muscles outlined underneath like frogs in oil, the terrible breath and his habit of rolling in every pile of foulness he found on the road, he had a very compassionate nature.

“Oh….” The girl sniffed and blinked in surprise. “H-Hello, there.”

Maethor licked her hand, and a brief, shaky smile teetered across her lips. I crouched down beside her, and reached a tentative hand to her shoulder.

“What happened to you?”

“Those… those things dragged my mother away.” She peered blearily up at me, and gave a thick, wet snort. “I just… I can hear her screaming all the time, everywhere!”

Maethor whined, and my heart went out to the girl. I squeezed her shoulder, not sure what else I should do. She curled her fingers hesitantly around the mabari’s small, soft, creased ears.

“Now my brother’s run off too,” she managed, her voice rising to a pale, querulous tremor. “Bevin’s only little, he doesn’t understand about what happened to Mother, he doesn’t… oh, what if he’s gone looking for her? What… what if they got him, too? I’m so scared he’s—”

She dissolved into explosive, racking sobs, holding onto Maethor like he was the last defence she had against grief. I patted her back gingerly, knowing as I tried to rub away some of the hurt that it couldn’t possibly do any good.

Glancing up, I was aware of Leliana standing behind me, looking down at the girl with an expression of intense, lucid sympathy.

“How terrible! You poor thing… I wish there was something we could do to help.”

I hadn’t realised the others had noticed my absence, much less begun to head over to join me. The girl looked up at Leliana tearfully, and sniffed again.

“I went to our house… it’s by the square, b-but Bevin wasn’t there. I searched all over. I called and I called but he never answered. He could have run off into the woods, or—”

“If that is the case,” Morrigan observed coolly, “then he is no doubt already dead. You should get used to that fact.”

The girl’s lip trembled and, with a wail, she burst into a round of renewed sobbing. Maethor whined and licked her face. It was either a gesture of sympathy, or appreciation for the salt, I supposed.

“Nice,” Alistair muttered. “Maybe you want to kick her in the head while you’re at it?”

The witch snorted and folded her arms. “Shall we comfort her with lies? If she is to face death, better she face it honestly.”

The girl bawled, red-faced and howling. I patted her shoulder and cast around for something helpful to say.

“Er….”

“Maybe we could look for him,” Leliana suggested, giving me an expectant glance.

Behind me, Morrigan groaned theatrically. The girl didn’t seem to notice it, though. She raised her head, fingers still curled on Maethor’s flat bullet of a skull.

“Y-You will? Thank you so much! Please… please find him!”

Morrigan started to mutter something about not being in the business of recovering corpses, but the girl was apparently deafened enough by hope not to hear it.

“M-My name’s Kaitlyn,” she said, looking up at me with a wide-eyed awe that I was not used to seeing on humans. “Our house is just on the side of the square, past Master Otho’s shop. If you find Bevin, tell him how worried I’ve been….”

“I’ll do my best.” I patted her hand and was only too glad to extricate myself.

The chantry had begun to feel far too oppressive. That dusty, pervasive smell of beeswax furniture polish and stifled sanctity—so familiar from my few visits to the cathedral back home, yet such a pale shadow here, nudging my memories with only a few threads of commonality—tickled in the back of my throat. At least half the village had to be in here, I thought, which begged the question of where the other half were… or what had happened to them.

“Excuse me?”

Another voice, this one older and softer, its edges worn down by an altogether quieter grief, tugged at me. I turned and found a woman with dark hair tingeing to grey pulled back from her temples, her face lined and heavily shadowed, though her manner was restrained.

“I apologise,” she said, with politeness that still sent a light shiver of confusion through me, “but I couldn’t help overhearing. You… you are Grey Wardens?”

Alistair and I exchanged glances. Not that it mattered; this place was such a mess of chaos and confusion that everyone would hear soon enough… and probably no one would care. Besides, even if the bounty on our heads was deemed temptation enough, who could we be turned in to?

I nodded. “Yes, we are.”

Relief flushed her cheeks, for a second wiping away some of the haggardness, and her lips formed an imperfect ‘o’.

“Please… were you at Ostagar? In the Korcari Wilds?”

She looked from one of us to the other, and it was Alistair who answered her, with a tight nod of his head.

“Yes.”

The woman exhaled, one hand going to her mouth and the other outstretched in a gesture of terrible pleading.

“My husband and son were both there. They were missionaries, sent to bring the Chant of Light to the Chasind, but I haven’t heard from them since.”

Alistair looked nonplussed, and as if he was about to reach for an excuse, but recognition knocked at the back of my mind, nudging its way through my burgeoning headache.

“Are you Jetta?” I asked, dropping my pack from my shoulder.

“I am.” Her brow furrowed apprehensively. “You’ve heard of me?”

“Um, yes….” I couldn’t quite bring myself to meet her eye, and ferreted busily in the pack, looking for the scuffed little box that had miraculously survived Ishal, when so many of my own belongings had been lost.

I thought briefly of the moment I’d unearthed the thing, buried beneath the firepit in the missionary’s wrecked camp, and how I’d stowed it away out of some vague sense of respect, while Daveth had been cheerfully jemmying the dead man’s supply trunk. Funny, because recalling it now reminded me of those damp, chilly hours in the Wilds, when I’d believed the men I was with would be my new comrades, not yet more lost faces I would leave behind.

I straightened up, holding out the lockbox, and hoping I wouldn’t have to spell out what it meant. If Jetta recognised the thing immediately, she was trying to deny it to herself. A frown creased her forehead and a strange look crossed her eyes. I didn’t fully understand it then, though I could distinguish the rough shape of the thing. It was the pain of fearing a truth, but only being stung by its full breadth after too long not knowing… the way I feared all the things that might already have happened back home, I supposed, absurdly surprised at the common ground this woman and I shared. It was a feeling that, in time, I would learn to know better, and I would realise that, in such circumstances, hope can only be clung to for so long before it becomes more of a millstone than a comfort.

“His lockbox,” she murmured, shaking her head slowly, and I could see that the battle between acceptance and denial was over. “Oh, Rigby…. Our son, too?”

“Yes. I’m very sorry,” I said, pushing the box towards her. “Your husband wanted you to have this. I’d been hoping we’d be able to find you.”

Jetta’s face crumpled, though her dignity was magnificent. “Thank you.”

She took the lockbox, fingers tracing its lid and hinges tenderly, and tears misted her eyes.

“We, er, gave them both a decent burial,” I said, with a glance at Alistair.

He blinked, then nodded belatedly. “Ah, er… yes.”

Well, it was half-true. We’d given Missionary Rigby back to the earth, because the Wilds were too wet and full of darkspawn to spend time trying to light a fire, but Jogby had been too decomposed to even bother fishing out of the stagnant water we’d found him in. Still, half a truth was better than nothing, I supposed.

“Thank you so much for bringing this to me.” Jetta sniffled. “It means a great deal, and… well, at least I know now. I appreciate what you did. Maker’s blessings upon you, Wardens.”

I could feel the weight of Morrigan’s bored disapproval pressing against the back of my neck, and I didn’t dare look round. Sten’s little gaggle of admirers wasn’t far behind, either: wide-eyed children, distracted for just a moment from the fear and discomfort of the village’s suffering by the appearance of this strange and striking giant. They kept creeping between the pews, staring up at him and then scampering back, giggling, whenever he moved. His tight exhalation of breath—like a dry wind through a wide cavern—reminded me we should probably head back outside.

There was much to do, as Bann Teagan had said, and not a lot of daylight left.

~o~O~o~

Outside the chantry, men in ill-fitting odds and ends of armour were criss-crossing the dirt-packed expanse of the square, shoring up the barricades and carrying out what looked to be futile attempts at preparation for the night to come. These people had nothing, I realised; nothing except the grimly packed determination and fear of those who have not yet lost everything, but are readying themselves to do so. The sense of hopelessness was almost palpable, and I shivered.

The man we’d spotted before, with the dark moustache—the man I now assumed to be Murdock—nodded at us, and strode evenly across the square, meeting us beside one of the barricades.

“So, you’re the Grey Wardens, are you?” Those small, dark, heavy-lidded eyes roved charily over Alistair, then me, and the man gave a short cough of bitter laughter, his low, gravely voice thick with scorn. “Huh. I didn’t think they made… women Grey Wardens.”

I knew exactly what he meant and, though he’d at least had the grace to leave it unsaid, it was unclear whether my gender or my race appalled him more. I waited a beat before I answered, taking care to keep my face as blank as I could.

“And why ever would you think that?”

There was a sharp, brittle edge to the words that didn’t sound quite like me. I wasn’t sure how it had snuck in there… or whether I liked it.

Murdock snorted. “For more reasons than you’d care to hear, I bet. Still, there’s no reason to think Bann Teagan’s lost his mind. We aren’t going to turn aside anyone who wants to help… we’re not ingrates or nothing.”

“Well, we do want to help,” Alistair said, his earnest sincerity almost disguising Morrigan’s quiet scoff. “You can trust us.”

“Hmm.” The man sniffed, and folded his broad arms across his chest. “All right, then. Name’s Murdock, mayor of what’s left of the village.”

We shuffled through the introductions, Alistair having the presence of mind to gloss over the origins of our companions as best he could. The people of Redcliffe might be desperate, but there were still political sensitivities that surrounded marching into a place, flanked by an Orlesian, an apostate and a qunari… besides the fact it sounded like the start of a bad joke.

I glanced at the barricades, quietly counting the paths up the cliff, and reading the turns and blind corners in the village’s narrow streets. It was a lot like the market district back home, though there would be more to worry about running into here than shems with greasy sneers and busy hands. Still, there were—I counted under my breath—three, maybe four routes that fed into the square. From there, the chantry had its broadest side, and the back of the building was set solidly against rock and the rears of other buildings, with a slope leading down to the lakeside. It was solidly built; easily the largest, most durable structure in the village, next to the rows of cottages and stores with their narrow-pitched roofs and the odd, stilt-supported platforms that overhung the water down at the shoreline. Wooden smokehouses lined the lower part of the slope, testament to the reliance the place must have on fish.

No boats out today, by the look of things, nor for some time.

Alistair was asking Murdock pertinent questions about the nature of the attacks, the losses, and the quantities of men and arms at the village’s disposal. None of it was good news. The things swarmed down from the castle, killing and destroying without mercy or distinction, and those they slew only swelled their ranks. With no way out, no supplies, and no military training… well, it was a miracle the villagers had survived this long.

“So you fall back to here?” I asked absently, narrowing my eyes against the glare of the lowering sun as I scanned the ridge above us.

Strange how, from up there, the place had looked so quiet and peaceful.

“Aye.” Murdock nodded. “We’re the last defenders of them folks in the chantry—the women, elderly, and the children. They’re the ones we need to protect.”

Behind me, Sten grunted derisively. The others had been silent up until now, and I peered back at him, faintly surprised, though I found his face as deadpan as ever, locked into that slight scowl of disapproval. His gaze met mine, and his words dropped like hot coals.

“The weak must learn to protect themselves.”

“Right,” Alistair said, arching an eyebrow. “Yes. Those helpless bastards. How dare they?”

I doubted his sarcasm was truly lost on Sten, but it went unacknowledged.

“No qunari would ever cower helplessly,” Sten stated flatly. In a less monolithic sort of person—or had I known him better then—it might have been possible to detect a whiff of nostalgic pride. “Not woman, nor elder, nor child. They would fight for their survival with tooth and nail.”

There was a beat of dry silence, during which I supposed we were all contemplating that less-than-soothing image. Murdock cleared his throat.

“Well… we’re not qunari. And I’m not asking those folk to fight monsters.” He wrinkled his nose, falling back on belligerence to hide his discomfort, I supposed. “No matter what happens, we can’t let them evil things in there… and that’s that.”

“All right.” I nodded slowly, beginning to grasp something of the local character in these parts. Typical Fereldan bull-headedness was one thing, but this was an altogether grittier resolve, and I was grudgingly impressed. “Then what we can do to help?”

“Well, we need what little armour and weapons we’ve got repaired, and quickly, or half of us will be fighting without either.” Murdock’s moustache bristled as he sucked his teeth, eyes narrowed. “Owen’s the only blacksmith who can do it, but the stubborn fool refuses to even talk. If we’re to be ready for tonight, we’ll need that crotchety bastard’s help.”

Great, I thought. Walking undead and cantankerous shems.

“Er… why does he refuse to talk?”

“Huh. His daughter, Valena, is one of the arlessa’s maids, so he hasn’t heard from her since this whole business started. He demanded we attack the castle, break down the gate, and force our way in.” He shook his head incredulously. “I said it was impossible, but he wouldn’t listen. He’s locked himself in the smithy now. I can’t force him to do the repairs… especially when he says he’d rather die first.”

I glanced at Sten, half-expecting either him or Morrigan to suggest we grant the man’s wish, but both were mercifully silent.

“We’ll talk to him,” I promised. “Is there anything else you need?”

Murdock shrugged, and I could read his thoughts plainly on that strip of sunburnt face. He didn’t think for a moment we’d make any difference, and he most likely considered me an insolent knife-eared wench, but I could see the interest with which he eyed my companions.

“Some extra bodies’ll be handy,” he conceded, looking over my shoulder at Sten. “And having a veteran like Dwyn in the militia would help a lot, but he flat out refuses.”

“Who’s Dwyn?”

Murdock barely acknowledged my question, and I’d have wagered good coin he was trying to work out how to cobble together armour the right size for a qunari.

“Hm? Oh, he’s a trader, a dwarf. Lives near the lake. Locked himself up in his home with some of his workers, he has, says he doesn’t need any of us. As you can imagine, it doesn’t exactly help morale.”

“What about supplies?” Alistair asked.

“Err… commerce isn’t exactly our first concern right now,” Murdock said dryly. “No one’s trading. There’s nothing to be had… though you might try Lloyd, up at the tavern.” He pointed to the top of the ridge. “Chances are he could have a few odds and ends he’s been keeping back. I wouldn’t be surprised. Other than that, the stores are all boarded up or empty. We’ve taken everything we can use… much good it’s done us.”

“Well,” I said dubiously, “I suppose we should try talking to Owen.”

The tail of a question hid beneath the words, and I looked at Alistair as I spoke, rather hoping he might have some impulsive burst of leadership, or be busily formulating some miraculous strategy. He just nodded, and waited until I sighed and trudged off across the square, following Murdock’s directions towards the smithy. Irritation prickled beneath my skin… as if I didn’t already have enough reasons to be annoyed with him.

It was neither the time nor place, however, so I forced the exasperation down, wadded it up into a dark little ball, and made my way up to the front of the forge, aware not just of my companions traipsing behind me, but of Murdock and his militiamen watching us.

The door of the smithy was locked up tight, stout and heavy enough to be immovable. A quick glance around the building’s low frontage confirmed there was no other way in: the windows were shuttered up and too small even for me to squeeze through.

“It would be quicker to break it down,” Sten observed.

“Maybe,” I agreed, “but it won’t make the man any likelier to be helpful.”

He grunted, which I took as a show of support for the do-as-I-say-or-I’ll-rip-your-arms-off school of encouragement. I suspected it would have its place in the events to come, but decided I’d rather try diplomacy first.

I bunched up a fist and knocked sharply on the smithy door.

“Hello?”

After a second knock, a man’s voice came, muffled, through the studded wood.

“Go away, curse you! Can’t you leave me in peace? You’ve already taken everything out of my stores! There’s nothing left!”

The words were coupled with the mangled sound of wood barking on stone, like someone tripping over a small table. I winced, and leaned closer to the door.

“Is this Owen, the blacksmith? I need to speak with you.”

“What?” Another stumbling clatter, and the voice seemed a bit closer, though no clearer. “Who’s that? What do you want? I’ve been through enough….”

Sten shifted, giving silent but undeniable expression to his irritation.

“I say melt out the lock,” Morrigan muttered. “’Tis simple enough. Just a small fireball—”

“No fireballs!” I hissed. “Just… just a minute.”

It was becoming embarrassing: the five of us—six including Maethor, who was widdling up a nearby tree—crowded around the smithy door and getting absolutely nowhere. I hoped Murdock and his boys were having a good laugh at our expense; Maker knew they needed to grab the opportunity while they could.

“Look,” Alistair tried, raising his voice. “It would be much better if we could speak to you, er, not through a door. Can we come in? Please?”

Morrigan snorted. He pulled a face at her.

“We only want to talk to you,” Leliana put in, and I wondered if the prospect of an Orlesian girl on his doorstep might change Owen’s mind. “Please?”

There was some further shuffling from within, and something that sounded like the faint glug of liquid.

“No,” barked the voice, apparently after some consideration. “I… I don’t know you people, and I don’t want to. Go away!”

I groaned in frustration. My head hurt and I was increasingly tempted to let Sten rip the door off its hinges, if he was so inclined. I smacked my palm against the wood.

“We need your help, smith! And I’m not moving until someone opens this bloody door, so you can either let us in, or I’ll stand here annoying you all day.”

There was a long, dramatic sigh. “Oh, all right, all right…. I don’t know why you’re so determined. Here, I’ll get the locks.”

I grinned, relishing the small flush of triumph, and we waited as what sounded like an entire costermonger’s barrow was drawn back behind the thick wood.

Inside, the smithy was stifling: dark and choked with the stink of cheap booze and stale human sweat. The forge itself lay cold and soot-smudged, no work going on, nor any care for the tools abandoned on the benches. Drifts of empty bottles and broken jugs littered the floor. I could see what Owen had meant by Murdock’s militia plundering his stock. The racks on the walls were empty, and the whole place looked like it had been turned over by a hurricane… possibly a very, very drunk hurricane.

“Maker’s breath!” Leliana gasped. “What is that smell? It’s like someone set a brewery on fire!”

“Somebody’s been drinking,” Alistair observed, in a quiet sing-song tone.

He wasn’t wrong. As the smith himself lurched out from behind the door, I was hard-pressed not to recoil in disgust. It appeared to be a miracle Owen could actually stand up, much less formulate complete sentences. The combined odours of unwashed shem, stale piss, vomit, soot, leather, and rat-spit brandy were like an impenetrable, solid aura, extending several feet beyond his pouch-eyed, dishevelled person. A matted grey beard reached halfway to his chest, and his breath could have stripped paint.

“All right,” Owen slurred. “So I let you in. You wanted to talk; now we’re talking. Mind telling me who you are?”

I stifled a cough. “My… my name is Merien. My friends and I are… are here to, er, help….”

“Oh, yeah?” He cast a bleary glance over our ragtag band, and wrinkled his nose. “Huh. Takes all kinds, I s’pose. Funny, you didn’t sound like an elf through the door. Can’t say I expected that.”

My back tensed a little, but the human didn’t appear to be holding it against me. He looked me up and down—or at least peered vaguely at the bit of the room spinning in my direction—and shrugged as he reached for a half-empty bottle that stood by the bellows.

“Anyhow, my name’s Owen… though you might already know that.” He raised the bottle, swigged, belched, and then offered it out in a wavering salute. “Care to join me as I get besotted?”

“Er… no, thanks,” I said, as tactfully as I could manage. “How long have you been shut up in here?”

The man’s great, scored brow furrowed, and he sneered.

“Dunno. Two days, maybe. Three? Not that it matters. My girl… she’s up there in the castle, dead or soon to be. And that bastard Murdock won’t even try to find her.”

I crossed my arms. Slightly firmer ground here; no worse than dealing with my late Uncle Merenir on one of his rougher days.

The smith glared fuzzily at me, swaying slightly. “You… you don’t unnerstan’, you don’t…. Valena’s been my life since my wife passed on. Without her, I don’t care what happens to me, or the village, or anyone.”

“So you’re going to drink yourself to death?” I demanded. “D’you think she’d be proud of you?”

“She won’t know if she’s dead.” Owen scoffed. “And why shouldn’t I? I’ve failed her, and it’s not like any of us are gonna live past the night anyhow. Or are you going to save us?”

Scorn seeped from his voice, but it was hard to tell whether it was genuine hostility, or just the booze. I was aware of the restive shifting of feet behind me, and felt acutely defenceless, pierced by scrutiny on all sides. That rankled, and I rebelled against it, no longer prepared to tolerate the derision of humans.

“I intend to try,” I said haughtily.

“Oh, is that so?” The bottle stilled on the way to Owen’s lips. He paused, then swigged, and grimaced. “Huh. Maybe it’s the drink talking, but you almost sound like you believe that.”

I set my jaw. “I do. So, will you help?”

The smith’s bloodshot gaze wavered as I stared at him, unflinching, and after what felt like an age, he snorted.

“You do somethin’ for me, and I’ll consider it.” Owen belched again, and pointed the almost empty bottle at me. “It’d do me a world of good, say, to think maybe someone could get up to the castle and find my girl.”

“But no one can get into the castle!” Alistair protested. “Don’t you think you’re being unrea—”

“It might be possible,” I said quickly, cutting across him. “But to do that, we would need your help. Think about it. If you stay locked in here, and you do nothing to help, those men out there—those men trying to defend this village—they’ll die. Everyone will die, and no one will ever find Valena. But help us tonight… and we might have a chance.”

Owen narrowed his eyes, mouth crumpling into a sour twist. He shook his head.

“Not good enough,” he grumbled, slamming the empty bottle down on the bench. “Murdock said jus’ the same damned thing. You promise me. Promise, you hear?”

I’d heard it before: the wheedling, childlike whine of a drunk just short of throwing a punch. It was usually the point where Soris used to come knocking at our door and ask Father to go back with him. He would, and sometimes he’d bring Uncle Merenir round to ours, where he could calm down and sober up in the quiet.

Of course, familiarity didn’t give me any more patience. I sighed—a terse, hard breath of frustration—and I obviously wasn’t alone in my irritation.

“You are asking a great deal, you wretched little man,” Morrigan snapped, grip tightening on the neck of her staff.

The smith was either too drunk or too distraught to take the warning, and he wobbled unsteadily as he lurched towards me, one meaty finger pointed at my face. A father’s agony of loss twisted in the patchwork of broken veins that ran across his nose and cheeks.

“I want a promise,” he slurred. “You… you promise me that you’ll look for her, that you’ll bring her back to me if you can.”

For all his flabby, stinking, matted humanness—everything I’d been brought up to revile and despise in shems—I felt sorry for the man. No loss is ever easy, even in the teeth of the most monstrous circumstances.

“And if she’s dead?” I asked, his potent breath fanning my face.

It felt cruel; I knew it was when I saw the lurch of a knife turning in Owen’s pale, runny eyes.

“Then at least I’ll know,” he grated out thickly. “You’ll give an old man that, won’t you?”

“All right.” I nodded. “I promise you: I’ll find her.”

He rocked backwards in a gale of fumes and relief, and let out a sigh that it would have been extremely dangerous to put a match to.

“Hm.” Behind me, Sten gave a small, disapproving grunt. “Is this a promise we do not intend to keep?”

“Let’s hope not,” Morrigan muttered, gaze fixed on the red-shadowed ceiling.

“Eh?” Owen was drunk, but not so drunk he missed that. “What’s this?”

Sten narrowed those peculiarly bright eyes of his. “I said nothing to you, human.”

The smith nodded uncertainly, a small frown still knitting his sweaty brow. “Right. Well, then. I suppose there’s no point in me sitting around. Time to re-light the forge and get the smithy going, eh? Murdock’ll be pleased.”

He glanced around at the mess, seeming almost not to notice the strewn chaos and devastation. I wanted very much to be outside again, away from this claustrophobic, stifling space, but I knew we weren’t quite finished yet.

“You’ll need some help with the forge, yes?” I asked, nodding at the bellows.

“Hm? Oh….”

Owen squinted muzzily at the cold ashes, as if he couldn’t remember the fire going out. He probably couldn’t, I guessed. I turned to Sten and gave him a meaningful look.

“My friend has a strong arm. If he helps you, perhaps you could see your way clear to fixing him up with some armour that fits? He has terrible trouble finding anything in the right size.”

If we survived this little escapade, I was going to get my arms torn off later. I was fairly certain of the fact, though Sten’s expression barely flickered. Owen peered at him and then gave a rough, brackish chuckle.

“Yeah… big lad, aren’t yer? All right, I’ll see what I can do. Much obliged. And if you need anything else before tonight, you jus’ say the word.”

I nodded, and managed a grim little smile. “Thank you.”

~o~O~o~

Outside the smithy, we paused to count through what still needed to be done before sunset. I couldn’t quite adjust to the way they were all looking at me, expecting decisions and… what? Orders?

“So,” Alistair said hopefully, “what now?”

I scratched my head, aware of how greasy my hair was, and how much of the road’s dust and grime clung to my skin, despite all the effort we’d made at looking presentable for our arrival here… our arrival at the castle. Not that there was any sense in dwelling on how off-course all our assumptions had been, I supposed—or what it would mean for the wider shadows that loomed above us. Every hour that passed could mean the darkspawn edging further north, and there was nothing we could do about it. Not yet… but thinking about it would only bring madness, and before anyone had time to go mad, we had a job to do.

“Um… right.” I glanced up at the sky. Late afternoon sun painted the clouds with thick streaks of lazy gold, but it was hard to see the beauty in it. I dragged my attention back to the matter in hand. “Leliana, would you please let Murdock know that Owen’s willing to undertake the repairs?”

She nodded. “I will do it.”

The way she drew herself up ever so slightly, shoulders squared and face calm, made me want to shudder with fear. This wasn’t what I’d pictured, what I’d ever imagined that— I pulled myself away from the thoughts, and the overwhelming sense of fraudulence. No time to let it fester now. I had to think.

“Now, Morrigan—”

The witch gave me an insouciant glare. “Oh, I am to jump to your order now too, am I?”

The gentle clink of fitments on armour spoke of Alistair tightening his stance beside me. I wasn’t sure if it was a show of loyalty or just plain irritation, but we didn’t have time for the two of them to square off now. I shrugged, pretending the ferocity in her flame-like eyes didn’t scare me.

“Do it or don’t do it, but I imagine you know best of all of us what we’re likely to see once the sun goes down.”

She blinked—oh, very briefly, but I saw it—and I took the advantage of having wrong-footed her.

“Before, when we spoke with Bann Teagan, you mentioned spirits possessing the dead… even n-necromancy.” I bit back just in time on saying ‘foul magic’ and spitting, like the old folks back home, and made myself meet that unsettling golden gaze. “I think you should speak with the men who’ve faced these things, see if you can find out what might be going on here. Corpses don’t just get up and walk… there must be a reason, and if we can work out what it is, we’ll have an advantage.”

I would have liked it to sound like a rousing, commanding speech—as if I really had a plan, or indeed any idea what I was doing—but the words came out in a rushed tumble, and I was sure my nerves were showing.

Morrigan’s lips twitched, a subtle little twist of something that, for a moment, almost resembled respect.

“You’re letting her loose on the village?” Alistair queried, eyebrows raised. “Really? You don’t think they have enough problems?”

She glowered at him. “I would say she is simply showing a much-needed grain of intelligence. In any case, I shall do it.”

I inclined my head. “Thank you. Alistair and I will see Ser Perth, then meet you both down by the jetty and try to find this dwarven merchant. Sound fair?”

There was assorted nodding and murmurs of assent. We had an accord, it seemed… and nobody had questioned me. I almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of that although, as I headed back up to the ridge, I had to admit that having both Alistair and Maethor pacing at my side lent me a certain amount of authority.

It was a start, anyway.

The mill was an ungainly structure, and its wooden exterior bore the marks of years of running repairs. It was a big, ugly, hard-working building, and it should have been central to the village. There should have been workers, trade carts, women going to and fro with bags of flour… all sorts of hubbub and activity, but the place was deserted, except for a small band of the arl’s knights standing guard.

There wasn’t wind enough today to drive the great, ragged sails, and evidently no ox or pony was harnessed inside. Still, they creaked, shifting slightly against their own weight, like they were straining for the momentum to push forwards and being to turn, as if the very fabric of the building wanted things to be back to normal, to cling to the routines and small sanities of life.

I hung back a little at the top of the cliff, unsure as to how to approach the group of tall, well-armed humans. The knights wore heavy plate armour that glinted in the thick, syrupy light, the sun flaring from half a dozen broad bodies. Their chests and shoulders were etched with unfamiliar heraldry that seemed to me to comprise the snorting, snarling faces of strange beasts and weird creatures, and the shields slung across their backs bore what I guessed must be the symbol of the arling: a stylised tower that stood starkly atop a red cliff, unsupported and alone, as if daring the heavens to strike it down.

Maethor thrust his cold, wet nose into my palm, and I almost took off, glancing down reproachfully at him. The mabari wagged his tail, and I scratched his ears.

“All right,” I muttered. “I’m going.”

We’d been spotted, in any case. The first of the knights—whom I assumed to be the commander Bann Teagan had mentioned—was crossing the gritty earth towards us, one hand raised in an awkward sort of greeting.

“Greetings, Grey Wardens,” he called as we drew closer.

“Greetings,” Alistair echoed. “Ser Perth, I assume?”

“Indeed.”

The man clinked as he moved; a great, bright, keen presence with sharp features and lines of deep fatigue and worry carved into his fair skin. He inclined his head, but his formal politeness was stained with a very earnest desperation. I could almost smell it on him.

“I am as relieved as Bann Teagan is to see you here,” he said. “Your arrival is… most fortuitous.”

“Well, anything we can do to help. I’m Alistair, by the way.”

“An honour, ser.”

Another of those polite nods, and Ser Perth turned to me. I expected the momentary flicker of surprise, though he had the manners to try to hide it.

“Merien,” I supplemented.

I got the same incline of the head as Alistair, or as far as I could see. If I’d been raised in the sort of circles where etiquette was about bows and handshakes, rather than clean doorsteps and respecting the elder’s word, I might have been better able to read the subtleties of it.

“My l— um….” Ser Perth cleared his throat, looking at me with a faintly unsettling curiosity. He smiled awkwardly. “I’m sorry. I must admit I know not how to address an elf in your position. I do not wish to be rude.”

I blinked. Had he just nearly called me ‘my lady’? At least the man had nous enough to know how much like mockery it would have sounded.

“Merien does just fine,” I reassured. “Or Meri, to my friends.”

It slipped in just the cosy side of cheekiness, and Ser Perth’s smile widened, giving me a slight glimpse of the man beneath all that plate and harness. He nodded.

“As you wish, and thank you kindly.”

Alistair had been looking up towards the castle—its silhouette a great, dusty rampage beyond the next ridge, shrouded in thin fog like some distant mountain peak—and he seemed to be counting under his breath.

“…four…. These are all the knights you have?”

“Yes.” Ser Perth peered over his shoulder at the group of men. “We are but a small number of those who volunteered to seek out the Urn. I, and a few of the others, were passing close enough to Redcliffe to hear rumours of the attacks, and of course we returned at once.” He shook his head. “Would that more of us had been here… I don’t know. Perhaps we might have fended off whatever evil befell the castle and began all this.”

Alistair frowned. “The arlessa really thinks Andraste’s Ashes will…?”

He trailed off, apparently unwilling to voice what he actually wanted to say, and some kind of silent communication that made no sense whatsoever to me flitted between the two men. Ser Perth’s expression tautened, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Nothing else had worked, and the sickness is… unnatural.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Well, it was very sudden. First, the arl began to thirst for water. Then he just grew weaker and weaker. He worsened by the hour, and Lady Isolde became desperate. She even brought in a mage, but he could do nothing. The arlessa believed her husband was cursed and that we needed the power of Andraste herself, or he would surely perish.”

Alistair’s frown deepened. “But the Urn’s been lost for centuries. Why would she think it can be found now?”

“Arl Eamon had been funding the studies of a scholar who was researching the life of Andraste. He claimed to have proof the Ashes are in Ferelden, but… I don’t know.” The movement of Ser Perth’s upper body suggested a shrug flexing somewhere beneath the heavy armour. “As far as I am aware, none of us have found a trace of the scholar, let alone the Urn, but most of the knights are still out there—too far away to recall—and with no idea of what’s happening here.”

“Then, the forces who remained,” Alistair asked, “what of them? Eamon never sent his men to Ostagar, right? There should be at least—”

“I can’t tell you,” the knight said mournfully. “There may be survivors up at the castle, or they may all be dead, transformed into those… things. The thought chills my blood.”

He was not alone. And, in any case, all this talk of legendary religious artefacts might have left me trailing hopelessly behind, but I could at least work out that this did not bode well for the reinforcements we so badly needed. The whole point of heading for Redcliffe had been garnering the arl’s support—and the weight of his men. I glanced nervously at Alistair, but he wasn’t looking at me, and I didn’t quite know how to interrupt.

“Well,” he said, squinting at the low-slung sun, reaching its lengthening fingers into every crevice of the red rock face, “we’ll help however we can. We have a… mage, and, er, a few extra bodies.”

Ser Perth brightened, despite the unease writ large on Alistair’s face, and I wondered if the knight would still be so pleased once he’d actually met Morrigan.

“This is good to hear, and it will do wonders for the men’s morale. After all, with the Grey Wardens aiding our defence, perhaps all is not lost.”

A shudder of apprehension worked its way down my spine, though I tried not to let it show.

“Is there anything else we can do?” I asked.

The knight glanced down at me, smiling tightly. “Beyond your assistance, I think not. We are better prepared and better trained than Murdock’s militia, but… well, it is a steep task. I have asked Mother Hannah for holy protection—just something the men could have to let them know the Chantry hasn’t forgotten them—but she has not yet responded. Other than that… I suppose we are as ready as we can be.”

His face held the clear-eyed, hopeful uncertainty of a devout man wavering before impossible odds, and I nodded, wishing there was something I could do, something I could say, that would make the coming night a less terrifying prospect.

“What about the… things?” Alistair asked thoughtfully, peering up towards the castle. “Do arrows bring them down?”

Ser Perth shook his head. “They slow them, that’s all. It’s a help, but…. We’ve put what archers we have here, and over there, atop that rock. All that really stops them is… brute force, I’m afraid. Take the heads off, and the bodies fall.”

For all my attempts at stoicism, I grimaced. Lovely.

Alistair and Ser Perth went on to speak more of tactics, inasmuch as there were room for any… limited mainly to the positioning of too few archers and crossbowmen, and the problems of holding a line over the entire night. I stood there dumbly, feeling rather small and stupid as they bandied terms I didn’t know, and Alistair waved his arms around and talked about where Morrigan might inflict most damage from. I was sure she’d be delighted to know he’d already planned her role in the battle.

“And they don’t come any other way?” he asked, turning and peering down over the village. “What about by the lake? Isn’t there a path from the northwest side of the castle? Where the old kennels used to be….”

I saw the flicker of understanding in Ser Perth’s eyes; he hadn’t known Alistair had any knowledge of the castle. Of course, I told myself, it was useful that he did. He was useful… and it was petty and ridiculous of me to suddenly feel so resentful. I’d probably change my tune later tonight, when we were attempting to behead the endless ranks of walking corpses.

“They have not so far,” Ser Perth said doubtfully, “but, on every previous attack, we have been forced to fall back. There would have been no need for the creatures to find another way in.”

More discussion followed, and I was about as much use as a glass hammer, though I tried to keep up. The lie of the land worked partially in our favour, it seemed; the only accessible routes down from the castle on this side of the ridge meant the attack was funnelled into choke points at the mill, and at the mid-point of the cliff path. Barricades doused liberally in oil and set light could slow the creatures but, like the efforts of the archers, slowing them was all they did. It was the sheer numbers and the tenacity of the things that made them impossible to drive back.

“Hmm.” Alistair bit his lip. “No point in dividing what forces we have, then.”

“No. The best we can do—and all we’ve done so far—is to wait it out,” Ser Perth said, with a shake of his head. “Between us, and the militia, we take as many of them down as possible, but they always return. It’s… unholy.”

“We’ll stand with you tonight,” Alistair assured him. “You have my word.”

“Thank you, Warden.” Ser Perth smiled and, turning to me, bowed his head. “Thank you both.”

I managed some sort of clumsy bow and we took our leave, arranging to use the last few hours of daylight to drum up whatever extra supplies or support that could be found in the dried-out husk of the village.

As we walked away from the knights, Alistair looked tight-lipped and worried. He glanced at me, a slight frown on his brow.

“You were quiet.”

“Seemed like you knew what you were talking about,” I said glibly, not particularly wanting to discuss it.

He snorted mirthlessly. “Oh, right. You were just dumb-struck at me not being entirely useless.”

“Maybe.”

“Oh, ow. That stings, y’know.”

I smirked as we crossed the ridge and headed up towards the tavern, perched atop the cliff path opposite the little stone bridge.

It had seemed like a good idea to stop in on our way back down to the lakeside and just see whether this Lloyd fellow had anything worth bartering for or commandeering but, as we neared the rough-hewn building, there didn’t seem to be much life in the place. The shabby, wooden building was still and quiet… except for one of Murdock’s boys, doubled over by the outhouse, heaving his guts up from a surfeit either of booze or fear.

~o~O~o~

Redcliffe was a place of odd contrasts, I thought, as we entered the tavern. For all those well-kept cottages and their little gardens—and all the big, wide-fronted stores down in the square where, in better times, merchants must crowd from all over—this was a poky, sparse inn. Either the Chantry’s views on temperance were better heeded here than in Denerim or, I mused, Eamon’s arling was not as wealthy as I’d imagined.

The interior smelled of stale rushes, wood polish, sweat and cheap ale—very cheap ale, in fact, which was an absurdly comforting reminder of home for me. We blinked a bit, adjusting to the dimness punctuated by a low fire and a couple of tapers, and it was possible to make out the crowded clutter of tables and benches. There weren’t many drinkers; the place was empty but for a gaggle of militiamen over on one side of the tavern and—I was surprised to see—an elf, ensconced in the opposite corner, hunched behind a tankard of ale and apparently trying to make himself invisible.

“Oh, what’s this? More doomed souls come to drown their sorrows, I see.”

A red-headed woman with a tired, worldly smile and a stained apron greeted us, wiping her hands on a grubby cloth. She frowned dubiously at Maethor, gave me a cursory glance and, predictably enough, addressed Alistair when she spoke again.

“If you came for a drink, ser, you’ll have to talk to Lloyd. He’s got a vice grip on the spigots. I’m just here to keep the boys from mutiny.” She bunched the cloth up in one hand, the other resting on her hip as she looked him up and down, evidently appreciating what she saw. “Unless there’s somethin’ else I can do you for?”

Alistair cleared his throat, awkwardness positively rolling off him.

“I, er… no. Um. I mean… uh, shouldn’t you be at the chantry?”

I choked down the impulse to laugh. Was he actually blushing? The woman smiled, and tucked the corner of the cloth into the belt of her apron.

“Later on, yes.” She glanced across at the bar, lowering her voice a little. “Ol’ Lloyd’ll lock himself in the cellar and I’ll go to the chantry.” She looked up at Alistair from under her lashes, hesitantly curious. “You’re the ones they’re talking about, aren’t you? Are you… fighting tonight?”

“We are.”

He sounded so full of certainty; as if he wasn’t just saying we’d fight, but that we’d actually win. I wished I could hang onto a glimmer of that conviction.

“That’s… good to hear.” The woman nodded slowly, her smile growing sad and faded. “I didn’t know that. Well, good luck to you. Keep safe.”

“Er, thank you. And you,” Alistair managed.

It was hardly the epitome of chivalry, but perhaps it was close enough in her eyes. She swayed off to top up the militiamen, and I restrained the urge to snigger… though clearly not very successfully. Alistair shot me a reproachful look.

“Come on.”

He headed across to the bar and, with a glance down at Maethor, who cocked his head to the side and whined companionably, I followed.

The innkeeper was a great, greasy man with a belly like a side of pork, barely contained beneath his capacious apron. I recognised the type at once—right down to the big, meaty hands that spread out on the bar top as he leaned over to give us a buttery smile, and left smeared sweat-prints behind them.

“Hello there, friend,” he oozed. “Can’t say we’ve ever met before. Strangers to the village, I take it? And what’s this, then?” His sandy brows arched as he looked at me. “Another elf! We don’t get many of you lot out here. You a runaway from the city, eh?”

I made to speak, but my mouth was dry. Stupid, I told myself. An old, unneeded reaction, and I pushed it from me, squaring my shoulders and preparing an icy reply… which I didn’t get the opportunity to wield.

“A ‘runaway’?” Alistair intoned disdainfully. “What, she can’t be a traveller too?”

The shem’s face adjusted itself around the evidently unexpected experience of being put in his place, but business sense won out over any urge to argue, and he shrugged.

“I suppose so,” he said doubtfully. “Never thought about it, really. Anyway, name’s Lloyd. What can I get you folks? You are here to drink, I hope?”

“Actually, we were hoping—”

“Yes,” I said, cutting in quickly and slapping three of the last ten silvers we had down on the sticky bar. “Yes, we are. And one for the brave boys over there, defending the village tonight,” I added, raising my voice.

“Well, then….” Lloyd’s expression warmed a little. “Very good.”

I left him pulling the pints, and Alistair probing him for information—and the possibility of whatever he had stashed away in that cellar of his—while, Maethor padding at my heel, I slipped across to the far side of the tavern, and the hunched figure in the corner.

The sight of another elven face had struck a clear, ringing chord within me—a swell of recognition and relief that I hadn’t felt in so long—and though he was unlike any elf I’d seen in the alienage, I couldn’t deny the ache for contact, for reassurance… and for the possibility of news from home.

He was tall and thin, his face narrow, as if drawn tight over a long, straight nose and high cheekbones. Like me, he wore light leather armour that had seen better days, though his appeared to be tattered more through travel than any violent use, which I supposed was comforting. A long, dark braid hung down his back, and his fingers worried at the handle of his mug in a quick, repetitive tattoo.

“Not looking for company,” he said, without turning, as I approached the table.

Undeterred, I crossed to the bench opposite him and sat down. Maethor flopped into an ungainly sprawl on the floor beside me, hind legs splayed and jaws open just wide enough for a hint of thick, wide tongue to loll between them.

The elf frowned. “I said—”

“Sorry,” I said breathlessly. “I was hoping you might have some news from Denerim. Have you come from the north? It’s just that I’ve heard nothing, nothing at all since I left, and I-I thought, seeing another elf here….”

“Yes?” He gave me a brief, dismissive glance. “Well, that’s all that we have in common.”

His coldness took me aback. Oh, I’d felt the sting of rejection at Ostagar, when the army camp’s elven servants wouldn’t meet my eye because I was wearing armour, but this… weren’t we the same?

I clenched my jaw. Perhaps it was true. Everything people said about the alienage, and how we were better off behind our gates and walls.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I just thought….”

“I’m not here to talk,” he snapped. “I don’t know anything about Denerim, and just because you’re an elf doesn’t…. I was told to— I mean… just leave me alone!”

His eyes widened, then winced to slits, and the corners of his mouth grew tight. I frowned.

“Told? What exactly were you ‘told’ to do?”

“Nothing,” he said, far too quickly, and with the hint of a tremble in his voice. “Nobody told me to do anything… a-a-and just because you’re a Grey Warden—”

“And what makes you think that?” I snapped.

The elf panicked. He was a terrible liar.

“I just… overheard it. That’s all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to get to the chantry before the sun goes down, and—”

He stood, hands on the table as he rose to his feet, but he was jumpier than a cat and far too slow to stop me grabbing his wrist. I twisted it ever so slightly, applying just enough pressure to cause him to think that sitting down again, nice and slowly, might be a good idea.

“I don’t want trouble,” he mumbled wretchedly. “Just… just leave me alone.”

I pressed my thumb into the hollow of the elf’s wrist, and leaned across the table.

“It’ll be easier if you tell me what you’re hiding,” I murmured.

My thumb dug in deeper, and Maethor put his head gently on the man’s knee. His lips didn’t move, but the low, quiet growl, deep in his chest, was impossible to ignore.

“All right, all right!” The elf glanced down at the hound and then, wide-eyed and turning pale, looked back at me. “I’ll tell you.”

I let go of him, but made no motion to call the dog off. The elf rubbed his wrist and peered nervously at me.

“This is more than I bargained for,” he muttered. “Look, everybody has to make a living, right? I… occasionally find myself hired by, uh, interested parties, to gather information.”

“You’re a spy,” I said flatly.

He shrugged. “Usually, people don’t notice an elf. No one cares what I overhear. I’m sure you understand.”

I said nothing, and he let out a short sigh.

“They just paid me to watch the castle and send word if anything should change. That’s all… but they never said anything about monsters! I haven’t even been able to report anything since this started. I’m stuck, same as you, I swear.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Who are ‘they’? Who hired you?”

“A tall fellow… he never told me his name. He, uh, said he was working for Howe. Arl Rendon Howe. He’s an important man… Teyrn Loghain’s right hand. So, I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?” he wheedled.

I barely heard the words. My gut had turned to lead, and I glanced at the bar, where Alistair was still talking to Lloyd. They seemed to be negotiating over something, and I guessed from the hushed tones and furtive looks that, whatever it was, Murdock had been right in his suspicions about the innkeeper.

“What….” I blinked, trying to get my thoughts in order. “What were you supposed to watch the castle for?”

“Just to report any changes, honest! But all I could send word about was the arl getting sick. After that, monsters started coming from the castle, and—”

“So you know how this happened?”

“I don’t know anything about these creatures! I swear….” The elf looked down at Maethor, and licked his lips anxiously. “W-When the arl got sick, I was scared people might think I was involved. But it’s not true. I was here to watch, that’s all. Please….”

My lip curled. “How do I know you’re not lying?”

“I’m telling the truth!”

His eyes widened, twin pools of dark fear that, just for a moment, chastened me. Did he really think I’d run him through if I didn’t like what I heard? No one had ever looked at me like that before… and it wasn’t a comfortable experience.

“I just thought I was serving the king,” he whined. “Well, the regent. Just doing my duty… and making a bit of coin on the side. That’s the truth. You have to believe me!”

I did, though I wasn’t happy about it. I stared into his taut, angular face, the tense silence between us odd against the clink of mugs, the crackle of the fire, and all the other usual tavern hubbub, subdued as it was in this half-empty, half-doomed place. The seconds stretched out, like a moment drawn through time, and my head whirled with horrible possibilities.

Loghain’s right hand….

I nodded grudgingly. “All right.”

“It is the truth. I promise.” The elf pressed his lips tightly together, and seemed contrite. “And… and I haven’t been in Denerim in months. I’m sorry. All I’ve heard is about the teyrn taking over as regent. Nothing else. I’m from South Reach. I just want to get out of here, go home….”

In that moment, I didn’t care. I didn’t give a damn about this man, with all his fear and conflict that felt so familiar, like looking into a sodding mirror. I didn’t want to give a damn about the fact I knew that, in his place, I would probably have done the same thing.

“I think you should help defend Redcliffe tonight,” I said.

“W-What?”

“Go see Murdock, help the militia. They need every able body they can get.”

I glanced at Maethor and, right on cue, the hound rumbled again, head still on our new friend’s knee. The elf swallowed heavily.

“A-All right. I’ll do it. Thank you… I…. Would you please call your dog off?”

I winked at the mabari and he stepped back, allowing the elf to stand, somewhat shakily. He nodded at me and, nervousness scrawled all over him as obviously as the graffiti etched into the tavern’s tables, stumbled his way out of the door.

I sighed and rested my head in my hands, elbows on the tabletop and fingers pushed deep into my hair. Why would Loghain want a spy in Redcliffe? What change could he have expected to see at the castle… unless he was waiting for Arl Eamon to fall ill? But that wasn’t possible… was it?

“Good news or bad news first?” Alistair asked cheerfully.

I looked up. I hadn’t even heard him coming.

“Er….”

“The bad news is that someone drank your beer. And that we no longer have two coppers to rub together. On the bright side, our friend Lloyd turns out to have a cellar full of brandy and lamp oil, which Ser Perth should find very useful. They’re taking it up to the barricades now.” He glanced at the door. “So, who was he?”

I dragged myself to my feet. “Another volunteer for the militia. Well, he is now. We… we should catch up with the others.”

Alistair nodded, and I think he knew I hadn’t told him everything, though he didn’t call me out. I wanted to tell him. I should tell him, I supposed. But perhaps not just yet.

After all, who knew if we’d even survive the night?

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Eight
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