Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Six

 
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The journey put us all in a ruminative mood, I supposed. When dawn broke, we were already walking again, but things felt easier… more intimate, almost. We’d shared food, made camp together and, although the past two nights hadn’t exactly been full of cosiness and comfort, everyone was still upright and breathing. More than that, we were leaving the Imperial Highway behind us, and heading west towards the mountains, Redcliffe, and the hope of salvation.

It was a pleasant change to be off the grim stone monotony of the Highway, despite the fact the road here wasn’t as even or well-maintained. Most parts of it were still essentially paved, and good enough for the few trade carts and refugee wagons we saw. At first, no one noticed they were all heading north-east. We were thinking about what lay ahead, no doubt, and perhaps basking a little in the tranquillity of a dry, bright morning, as the sun bleached the last traces of rain and discomfort from the trees and wooded fields around us.

“And so, pray tell, Alistair….” Morrigan’s voice cut through the peaceful background sounds of birdsong, the faint jingle of armour and weaponry, and boots beating mismatched paces against the ground. “Precisely what welcome should we expect from this castle of yours?”

“What?”

He blinked, and looked guiltily at her, as if his mind had been somewhere completely different. It probably had. Alistair had been suspiciously quiet all morning, and I thought I knew why. I didn’t know if he regretted telling me what he had last night—about his mother, Arl Eamon’s curious generosity, and the loneliness of the Chantry—but coming back still had to be hard.

“It’s not my— I mean, I… I haven’t been in Redcliffe in years. It isn’t—”

He glanced at me, and I shook my head. I hadn’t said anything. It didn’t bother me that he seemed to think I might have. Not really.

“Oh.” Morrigan’s dark-painted lips twitched into that familiar smirk of triumph, like a cat who’s just pinioned something under one paw. “Then what, one might ask, do you base your assumption of a welcome upon? Are we to sweep in, expecting to be congratulated for bearing ill tidings?”

I wondered, idly, how she kept that warpaint of hers looking so immaculate. Did she have pots and potions secreted away in her pack, and did she spend precious minutes in the dark before dawn, fiddling with powder, paint, and hair-pins, while the rest of us were damping down the fire and shaking out our blankets? Or was it all witchcraft and glamoury? It could be, I reasoned. If she really was a shapeshifter, like the legends of the Witches of the Wilds said, who was to say what her true form was?

“If you’re worried, Morrigan,” I said conversationally, “you can always stay outside the village. I know you’re not, er, used to being so far from home.”

She whipped around like a snake, glared hotly at me, and Alistair managed to have a sudden coughing fit. I shrugged, not even trying to outstare those eerie, ochre-gold eyes, and glanced up at the sky. It was a clear blue, fringed by the rustling tops of trees and streaked with dirty-white tails of cloud, but promising a fine day, nonetheless.

“I am not ‘worried’,” she said, voice oozing with scorn. “I have no fear of the world of men. You know this. I simply question—”

“Look,” Alistair said wearily. “All we can do is give Arl Eamon a full account of what happened at Ostagar. I can’t believe the Bannorn would unite behind Loghain that easily, but if that’s the case—and if he really has named himself regent—then we’ll definitely need Eamon’s help to convince them of the danger the Blight poses. I imagine he’ll call a Landsmeet, and—”

“Wonderful.” Morrigan scoffed. “Politics. Maybe your nobles will consent to talk the darkspawn to death, and save everyone the trouble of fighting.”

He didn’t argue, I noticed. He just shook his head and stared at the road, rising on before us. Nobody was mentioning the Orlesian reinforcements. I wondered about that. I still believed they would come—that they might even already be in Ferelden—and that, somehow, this whole mess would straighten itself out.

The land was beginning to change again. It was a strange thing to me, used as I was to the constants of Denerim’s unalterable wood, stone, daub, and plaster. I’d never imagined the country could be full of so many contrasts. First, the flat lands of the north had become the damp, inhospitable outcrops of the Wilds, riven with the ancient stones of Ostagar and its Tevinter heritage. Then, the cold, dank forest gave way to lusher farmland, eking its existence out of the mud. Now, the ground was growing gritty and coarse, the muted colours of the holdings giving way to richer, ruddier hues. Fewer trees edged the fields, and the swells and ridges of foothills had begun to dig at the horizon.

“Redcliffe… I wonder how the name came to be,” Leliana mused, breaking the rather prickly silence that had fallen. “Is the clay there red?”

Alistair nodded. “Mm. It’s a fishing village, mostly. Hard, red earth, not much good for farming… or so I understand. Bakes in the summer, boggy in the winter.”

“I confess,” she said, “I know little of the place, except that the castle has long been considered a formidable fortress. They say the last man to breach it was your King Calenhad, the Silver Knight.”

Her light, musical voice skimmed over the words, charged with the promise of the story behind them, and my mind went at once to the colourful histories Mother had given me to read as a child. The tales I’d loved best were the ones of Arlathan, and the distant make-believe of a magical, elven world, but few of those were written down. The story of Calenhad Theirin and his suit of enchanted, silver-white armour—rendering him invulnerable to blade or bow as long as he stood on Fereldan soil—was almost as good. He’d united the land for the first time, hadn’t he? Funny, I supposed, how the Theirin bloodline was so closely tied to the history of Ferelden. Superstitiously so, almost.

I thought sadly of Cailan, and that first moment I’d met him at Ostagar; that glittering whirlwind in gilt-traced armour, who was young and bold and magnificent. It had been easy to believe, in that moment, that his blood—that ancient, venerable line—conveyed some gleam of legends and fables upon him, that it made him more than just a man… though I remembered chastising myself for such foolish thoughts at the time. Right before he bowed to me, and looked me in the eye, and made me feel so ridiculously, incomprehensibly invincible.

He hadn’t deserved the death that came to him. Not that way. It wasn’t… fair.

“Of course,” Leliana was saying, still trooping valiantly on, speaking as casually as if she were just thinking aloud, “there are places in the world where the earth is a bright, strange red, and often, in the legends of such places, it is the red of blood. The blood of a thousand men slaughtered in battle, or that of an innocent unjustly slain; it stains the land that it may never be forgotten.”

“Hm.” Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Cheery.”

“Oh, I am not suggesting it is so. Perhaps this Redcliffe has such a tale, but I do not know it.”

“Huh.” Morrigan grunted. “Maybe we shall find a pleasant little tavern, with charming local characters who can regale us with their many tales and anecdotes. Or, maybe we shall be busy, attempting to stem the threat of the darkspawn horde.”

Leliana narrowed her eyes. “You know, Morrigan, there is much we can learn from stories. Only the very arrogant or the very foolish dismiss them out of hand.”

“Indeed? And what of those who dismiss them simply because they are complete rubbish, and unimportant to anyone with half a working brain?”

Somewhere over my shoulder, I could have sworn I heard Sten sigh wearily.

~o~O~o~

The usual bickering aside, we pushed our pace hard and, not long after midday, we had Redcliffe in our sights.

The castle, the village, and the outlying holdings all fringed Lake Calenhad, and I was silently but preposterously excited at the prospect of seeing it, straining my eyes to catch the first hint of that great body of water silvering the horizon. The bulks and silhouettes of the cliffs came before that, however; the last strips of woodland and arable fields thinned out and gave way to bald, bare land, specked with mica. The air tasted different, too. Up in Denerim, if the wind was in the right direction, we sometimes scented the sea. To me, it was a fetid, dank stench—equal parts salt, sewage, and whatever mingled cargoes and filths blew up from the docks—and this was nothing like it. Not salty, but… fresh, full of water and fish, and sawdust.

We followed a packed dirt road now, the southerly approach to the village that took us over the cliff path. The track was marked with wheel ruts but peculiarly devoid of wagons. A few cottages and smallholdings stood aside from the road, shuttered up tight, but I didn’t stop to wonder whether anyone was at home. I was too busy looking at the way people wove fences here, their gardens boxed in with densely knotted panels of willow, and raised beds filled to bursting with flowers, vegetables and herbs. Obviously, good earth for growing was at a premium, and gave the villagers something to compete over. Nevertheless, those well-tended patches, and the square wooden houses with shingled roofs and tight-beamed frames, were beautiful. They were familiar, in a way, to the kind of buildings I was used to—and a welcome change from all the grim Tevinter stone that seemed to characterise the south—but they were different enough to be exotic, almost.

At the top of the cliff path, we got our first glimpse of the village, spread out below us like a child’s discarded toys. I could see the vaulted outline of the chantry, the main square, the forge, a cluster of stores and row upon row of houses spreading back towards the great, shimmering expanse of the lake. Gentle puffs of smoke wafted from the chimneys of the little houses, and tugged wistfully at the sky. The castle rose up behind the next cliff, a great shadow like the humped back of some fantastic creature, edged with towers and the flickering dots of pennants flapping in the breeze.

I stopped, pausing to take it all in. The others didn’t seem as struck. To them, it was a nondescript little fishing village, I supposed. To Alistair, something more, perhaps, but I expected the meaning the place held for him was very different to what I saw there.

Gradually, I became aware of his presence. He was standing at my shoulder and I blinked, pulling myself from my foolish awe, and assuming he wanted to get a move on. We’d made it earlier than we’d hoped; it was mid-afternoon, and we might yet catch the arl before the castle was fully taken up with the business of the evening.

The others hadn’t stopped to stare. They were heading off up the path, Leliana trying to convince Morrigan that she might care to hear the story of an Orlesian knight who’d once battled a sea monster to prove his love for a princess. She was not meeting with a great deal of approval. Sten paced silently behind them, and Maethor trotted happily along, snuffling at the ground and wagging his stumpy tail every time he caught an interesting scent.

I turned, and found Alistair slightly closer than I’d expected, lips pressed into a tight line, his face a mask of discomfort.

“I was just—” I began, but he spoke at the same time, and we fell over each other in an awkward tangle of words.

“Look, can we—” He winced, glanced up the path at the others, and then back to me, a flurry of fleeting things muddying his hazel eyes. “Sorry. Can we talk for a moment?”

I could feel a perplexed frown tightening my brow, but I didn’t want to seem unsympathetic. Whatever parting memories he had of this place—or of Arl Eamon—they must have been eating away at him since we broke camp. Something certainly had been.

“What’s on your mind?”

Alistair let out a short, stiff sigh and looked at his boots, almost as if he was having trouble meeting my eye.

“I… I need to tell you something I, ah, should probably have told you earlier.”

Well, that didn’t sound good. The rest of our party was still heading on without us: probably not quite out of earshot yet, but moving that way. The sun picked lazily at the rocky dirt, and the fittings on Alistair’s armour gleamed dully. I caught the traces of the foul-smelling polish we’d used on everything when he moved, all mixed up with the scent of leather and human sweat.

I raised an eyebrow. “All right. I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, still staring guiltily at his feet like a recalcitrant schoolboy. “I doubt it. I’ve never liked it, that’s for sure.”

Somewhere overhead, a gull circled, its harsh call echoing off the cliffs. Maethor barked at it, and made a half-hearted bounce, front paws lifting off the ground as he focused on a prey he could never possibly reach. Alistair raised his head, looked down at me miserably, and drew a deep breath.

“Right. Well, let’s see… I told you how Arl Eamon raised me, right? About my mother, and—”

“Mm?”

It was meant to be gentle encouragement, but it came out sounding impatient, and left me annoyed with myself.

“Yes, well….” He cleared his throat, something that looked very much like genuine panic stalking behind his eyes. “The, er, reason he did that was b-because… well, my father… was King Maric.”

My stomach pitched towards my boots, and I stared at him. He looked at me, painfully hopeful, mouth crumpled into an uncertain, apologetic crease. There was a heavy, awkward silence that seemed to spin out into a great, looping spool, thick like honey. I didn’t know what to say, my head full of half-formed notions of blood and lineage and impossible, ridiculous things that were sliced through with one other, clear, singular thought, before I could even sort their different threads apart.

I know who I was told was my father. He… he’s dead now, anyhow. It isn’t important.

He had lied to me. I’d asked, and he’d lied.

The anger burned hotter than it should have done, and I found myself perversely pleased by the discomfort twisting his face. I sucked a slow breath in across my teeth, and nodded, scrabbling to make sense of what I’d just heard.

“Right. So… that made Cailan your, what, half-brother?”

Alistair winced again. “Not that we were close, but yes, I suppose.”

He was watching me carefully, and I didn’t know why my reaction should be so important. Was I supposed to fall at his feet and pledge fealty, or did he expect the kick in the shin he so richly deserved for not telling me sooner? It certainly cast a different light over everything we’d talked of before, and I disliked thinking of that time now, the glow of the firelight seeming dull and deceitful in my memory. All the same, the glimmer of a gratifying little thought pulled a thin smile to my lips.

“Then you’re not just a bastard, but a royal bastard?”

Alistair snorted, the worried tautness in his face cracking into a sickly, relieved smile. “Ha! Yes, I guess it does, at that. Maybe I should use that line more often.”

His grin faded, replaced by a look of uncomfortable apology. I suspect I was a touch tight-lipped and stern, arms folded across my chest and head tipped expectantly to the side. I still couldn’t believe it. Not that I was any kind of a superstitious royalist, but… him? Carrying four centuries of regal blood in his veins?

“I….” Alistair sighed. “I should have told you. I would have, but… it never meant anything to me.”

I didn’t believe that for a minute, and I couldn’t contain the cynical rise of my brows. He looked chastened.

“Well, it didn’t matter. I was inconvenient, a possible embarrassment; that was all. They kept me secret, and then the arl shipped me off to the Chantry, and I— well, I’ve never talked about it to anyone.”

He let out a long, weary breath, and I found myself annoyed at my own self-absorption. Bolt from the blue or not, this revelation was his. It wasn’t about me, and what he had or hadn’t told me… and, stung though I was, I could see how twisted up he was by the telling. I bit the inside of my lip. Probably twisted up by a damn sight more than that, too. At least it explained Arl Eamon’s willingness to raise a maid’s bastard brat.

“Were you… told not to tell?” I asked gently. “Or was it your—”

“I knew I wasn’t supposed to, right from the start. No doubt about that. Not that I ever wanted to tell anyone. Everyone who knew either resented me for it or they coddled me,” he blurted. “Even Duncan kept me out of the fighting because of it.”

His words hit me like a sock full of wet sand. Was that true? I’d believed Duncan had kept us both back from the front line because we were green—or because I was, more likely. It had been Alistair’s misfortune, I’d thought, to be stuck babysitting me, and I’d been amazed he didn’t seem to resent me for it. I wondered if he based his notion on anything more than grief-riddled guilt… and, slowly, I started to have some idea of what he meant.

I knew what it was to have every aspect of your life defined by what you were, albeit in a very different way. His blood didn’t shout itself the way my ears did; he could hide his otherness, but I wasn’t jealous of that. What marked me out also gave me a sense of belonging, while his did the very opposite.

“It’s just….” Alistair scuffed his boot at the ground, brow furrowed. “Everyone ends up treating me differently,” he mumbled. “So I… I didn’t want you to know for as long as possible. Stupid, I s’pose. I’m sorry.”

As apologies went, it was graceless, but heart-felt. I cast a look up the path, where the rest of our motley little band had hauled in and were waiting for us. Morrigan looked annoyed and kept tapping her foot. Maker only knew what they thought we were talking about… unless Leliana could lip-read, I supposed. She was peering curiously at us, and ventured to give me a cheerful little wave. I nodded, as if to assure her we wouldn’t be a minute. Maethor was sitting at Sten’s feet and having a damn good scratch. What it must be, I thought, to have nothing more pressing in life to concern you than fleas.

Alistair still looked uncomfortable. He watched me nervously now, as if he wanted—needed, perhaps—my assurance, or forgiveness, or… something. I didn’t know what. I wanted to stay angry with him, to keep the irritation and the ire wadded up and fresh, right at my fingertips, but I had to admit I knew what it was like to have a secret… to be afraid of what people would think if they knew the truth.

We all had our own pasts.

“It’s all right.” I exhaled slowly. “I think I understand.”

Relief broke over his face like sunlight, and he grinned broadly.

“You do? Oh, good. I’m glad. It’s not like I got special treatment for it, anyhow.”

I quietly wondered at that, but declined to comment.

“Anyway, that’s it,” Alistair said briskly. “That’s what I had to tell you. Just thought you ought to know.”

Hiding behind that cheerful, flippant veneer again. Like everything was back to normal. The irritation resurfaced, a dark wave of it slipping through me. I clenched my jaw.

“And that’s it? You’re sure you’re not hiding anything else?”

He smirked. “Besides my unholy love of fine cheese and a minor obsession with my hair, no. That’s it. Just the prince thing.”

Oh, I’d get him for that one.

“So… I should be calling you Prince Alistair?” I asked innocently.

It wiped the grin off his face, at any rate. He actually paled a little bit.

“No! Maker’s breath, just hearing that gives me a heart attack! It’s not true, anyhow… I’m the bastard son of a commoner, and a Grey Warden to boot. It was always made clear to me that the throne is not in my future.”

I smiled, feeling very slightly as if I’d scored some kind of point. His next words knocked the mirth out of me, though, delivered with slumped shoulders and such bitter resignation.

“Anyway, there you have it. I just didn’t want to walk into Redcliffe Castle and… well, have you not knowing. It would have been awkward. Now, can we move on? I’ll just pretend you still think I’m… some nobody who was too lucky to die with the rest of the Grey Wardens.”

I frowned. “That’s not really what you think, is it?”

Alistair glanced at me, and he seemed so incredibly tired.

“No, I suppose not.” His face softened a little, and he smiled weakly. “At least I have a chance to make things right. And I’m not alone.”

“True. You’re not.”

My fingers clenched on the air. Almost without realising it, I’d half-raised my hand, ready to punch him affectionately on the arm, the way I would have done with Soris, or any of the boys back home. I smiled clumsily, and took refuge in teasing.

“Well, then,” I said, clearing my throat. “At your command… my prince.”

He groaned, even when I curtseyed.

“Oh, lovely. I’m going to regret this. Somehow I just know it.”

We caught up with the others, and I smiled brightly, doing my best to deflect Leliana’s enquiring gaze.

If we are all quite ready?” Morrigan asked archly, long, pale fingers clasped loosely on the neck of her staff.

Alistair glanced at me, and I understood. I wasn’t going to relay what he’d told me for the benefit of eager observers. I nodded, and jerked my head towards the path.

“Come on, then,” I said, and strode off, feet crunching on the gritty dirt.

~o~O~o~

A little way on, the ground was split in two by a great rush of raging white water, pouring down from the top of the cliff and flowing down into the village and, eventually, the lake. We could see more of Redcliffe spread out below us, including the mill, and the creak of the slowly turning wheel filtered up on the air. A stone bridge crossed the pounding river, and from its vantage point we could see right across to the lake, and even the distant silhouette of the Circle Tower, pricking the sky on its far shore.

“Seems… quiet, doesn’t it?” Alistair said, peering down at the empty square.

“Very,” I agreed.

Beyond the bridge, the path led up to a great wooden gate, set into the cliff and marking, I assumed, the village boundary. I expected guards, and maybe a few awkward questions, but only one lone figure was manning the post.

He was young, little more than a boy, and he wasn’t even armoured. Messy red-brown hair framed his pale, pudgy face, and he shambled clumsily forwards as we approached, looking sweaty and frightened.

“Oh, thank the Maker! I… I thought I saw travellers coming down the road, though I scarcely believed it. Have you come to help us?”

That didn’t sound promising. I glanced at Alistair, noting his concerned frown and the way he drew himself up, his voice taking on that authoritative edge he so seldom used.

“Help you? What do you mean?” he demanded. “Is something wrong?”

The lad’s eyes widened, his pallid, rubbery lips working in obvious disbelief. “W-What, you… you don’t know? Has nobody out there heard?”

“Heard what, man? What are you talking about?”

“The arl’s sick, or… or dead, for all we know.” The hapless guard’s eyes widened and he shook his head, his face a skull-like picture of hopeless fear. “Nobody’s heard from the castle in days, and… oh, ser, we’re under attack! Monsters pour down from the fortress every night. They just keep coming, and they don’t stop ’til dawn. Everyone’s been fighting… and dying. We’ve no army to defend us, no arl, and no king to send us any help. So many are dead, and those left are terrified they’re next. Please… we need help!”

“Wait,” I said, trying to lever a word in between the boy’s desperate pleas. “What exactly is it that’s attacking you?”

Alistair glanced at me, and I supposed he must have been thinking the same thing: darkspawn would be unlikely to retreat with the dawn. The lad fixed me with his wide, terrified eyes, fogged in confusion.

“I… I don’t rightly know, miss. I’m sorry. Nobody does.”

He was unusually polite for a shem, especially one that reeked of fear, and I found myself wrestling the urge to pat him on the shoulder and murmur something comforting.

“I-I should take you to Bann Teagan,” he said, almost hopping foot-to-foot like a desperate puppy. “He’s all that’s holding us together. He’ll want to see you. Please….”

“Bann Teagan?” Alistair sounded surprised. “Arl Eamon’s brother? He’s here?”

“Yes.” The lad nodded, already trying to usher us towards the gate. “Please. It’s not far, if you’ll come with me.”

I peered briefly at my companions, and began to frame my lips around an agreement—not that the guard had actually addressed me. He was looking at Alistair, waiting for him to take charge. Not an unreasonable assumption, I supposed, given that the rest of us were either foreigners or women, and he did at least look like a soldier.

“Er… right,” Alistair said eventually, apparently realising that something was expected of him.

The lad looked gratefully relieved, and scampered off to open the gate. Morrigan gave a short, terse sigh of frustration, and shook her head.

“Wonderful. Did you not think we had enough to occupy our time?”

Alistair shot her a look of pure venom, but didn’t say anything. I guessed from the tightness of his expression that the news of the arl’s illness had knocked him sideways. True, it was a blow we could have done without. I tried not to let myself run ahead of what we already knew but, if Redcliffe had fallen, what hope did we have to marshal any kind of stand against the Blight?

“Let’s just find out what’s going on,” I said, edging myself between them. “Or, if you’d rather wait here….”

She gave me a haughtily disparaging glare, and did not dignify me with a reply. The creak and scrape of heavy wood against the hard, red soil signalled the gate opening, and the guard waved us through. We followed him down a wide, gritty path worn into the cliff and lined with torches, and the whole village was laid out below us, empty and silent. Every house we passed was boarded up, shuttered and barred, and there was no breath of sound except for the gulls that wheeled above, shrieking harshly.

We were led to the chantry, which stood to one side of the main square, and there I did see a small group of men. They were gathered under the porch, one of them—a man with a huge, dark moustache and small, heavy-lidded eyes—was pointing down towards the lake, and seemed to be giving some kind of orders to the others. Like the guard who’d met us, each one of them looked ashen-faced and nervous, with that blank, empty way of staring at things which only comes with looking too directly, and too much, at hopeless and impossible horrors.

There were barricades all around the square, I noticed. Makeshift piles of broken tables, chairs… anything and everything that could be found, built up and packed solid at every possible choke point.

We were being watched. I could feel it. More eyes than we could see, but they were there. The whole place had a tense, hostile atmosphere, a little like the desperation and fear that had saturated Lothering, but without the sense that there was anywhere to run. The great wooden doors scraped back, and we were led into the chantry.

Back home, we’d been allowed to attend some services; Valendrian encouraged it, in fact. It was, I’d always thought, one of the ways he had of trying to instil in us an attitude of humility. We would file out across the market square—small groups of us, usually the young and the children, and a handful of elders, for the sake of propriety—and it was a treat, a departure from routine that marked Satinalia, or Harvest, or some other festival where it felt, even if just for a moment, that things were good.

The cathedral in Denerim, of course, was an enormous and impressive building, full of people and a hub of all kinds of activity. I was used to skulking in as part of one of those small groups, and sitting at the back with somebody’s little one on my knee, marvelling at the high ceilings, the statues… everything, really. For me, the associations of the place had never been so much religious as architectural and aesthetic. It was the only time we ever got to see real works of art, and then there was the Chant itself, in all its echoing, complex beauty and rich harmony. I remembered that, and the way the light fell through windows made of coloured glass, like thick, dusty beams of painted sunshine.

Redcliffe’s chantry was a small, pale comparison. It was wood-walled, and though higher than most of the surrounding buildings, it still wasn’t huge. Nevertheless, beneath that wide, vaulted roof, dust motes danced in the shafts of tinted light, and the statues and carvings lent a familiar quality to the place… though it was far from serene.

The chantry was packed with people, but they weren’t worshippers, or petitioners waiting for their claims to be dealt with. Women, children, and old folk all clustered on the floor and on any available seat. Mothers held babies close to their chests, or clutched the hands of young ones, and tried to keep them calm. There were tears, and soft, muffled sobs, and the coughs and sighs of the infirm and wounded. We didn’t see much as we were led to the far end of the aisle, but the village’s suffering, and the destitution of its people, was obvious enough.

Our guard brought us to a well-dressed man of middle years, talking in low tones to a woman I took for the revered mother. He was neither tall nor broad, but he looked fit, strong… and very, very tired. His beard and moustache were well-trimmed, and the same bright, reddish-brown as his hair, which he wore ear-length, with one narrow braid, the way men used to do for remembrance in the alienage. I wondered: did it have the same meaning for humans, or was it simply a matter of taste? It wasn’t an important thought, and I blinked it away, uncomfortably aware that I was looking at a nobleman. The last time I’d found myself in such a position, things had ended very badly. I tried to ignore the nauseous swirl diving in my stomach, and gave myself a mental kick. No good thinking with my alienage mind, I told myself. It didn’t belong to me anymore, nor I to it.

The revered mother nodded and, with a glance at us, took her leave of the bann. Our guard coughed, and drew himself up to something approaching attention.

“Er, my lord?”

The nobleman turned, meeting the boy with a genial look of enquiry. “Ah, it’s… Tomas, yes? And who are these people with you? They’re obviously not simple travellers.”

“No, my lord.” The lad shook his head. “They just arrived, and I thought you would want to see them.”

The bann nodded, managing a tired smile of acknowledgement for the boy.

“Well done, Tomas.”

He looked us over, and aside from a brief hardening of his eyes, presumably as he choked down his disbelief, there was very little change in his calm, faintly aloof expression. I couldn’t blame him; Maker alone knew what we looked like. Maethor gave a small grumble, deep in his chest, then whined and sat down at my foot, probably in his doggy mind claiming ownership over me as much as if I were a tree or interesting rock. The nobleman’s eyebrow raised a very small fraction as he glanced at the mabari, and when he smiled it seemed a little more genuine.

“Greetings, friends,” he said, his wary look passing over each of us in turn. “My name is Teagan, Bann of Rainesfere, brother to the arl.”

Alistair cleared his throat. “I remember you, Bann Teagan, though the last time we met I was a lot younger and, uh, covered in mud.”

He smiled sheepishly, as the bann’s frown of confusion gave way to a broad, delighted grin.

“Covered in mud? Wh— Alistair? It is you, isn’t it? You’re alive! Well, this is wonderful news!”

“Still alive, yes.” He nodded, with a sidelong glance at me, and gave Teagan a rueful look. “Though not for long, if Teyrn Loghain has anything to say about it.”

“Hm. Indeed. Loghain would have us believe all the Grey Wardens died along with my nephew… though it hasn’t stopped him putting a bounty on anyone found to belong to the order. Rumours have been rife since Ostagar, but— well, it’s been hard to know what’s true and what is simply propaganda.”

“You don’t believe Loghain’s lies, then?” Alistair said, his tone dark and dry.

I wished I could see the world as clearly as he did, but I said nothing. Bann Teagan curled his lip.

“What, that he pulled his men in order to save them? That Cailan risked everything in the name of glory? Hardly. Loghain calls the Grey Wardens traitors, murderers of the king. I don’t believe it. It’s the act of a desperate man.”

It was good to know we weren’t about to given up to the nearest platoon of the teyrn’s men, but for a moment I thought we’d be drawn into yet another dissection of the battle, and the beacon… and everything else that still burned too close to the surface. I glanced at Alistair, and saw the pain of betrayal etched into his face. Every day, I worried it was hardening into an implacable desire for revenge.

He looked at me, and his expression shifted—almost self-conscious, as if he’d forgotten the rest of us were here.

“Um, sorry. I should…. Bann Teagan, may I introduce Merien? She’s a Grey Warden too. And our, er, companions: Leliana, Morrigan… and this is, um, Sten.”

There was a rather awkward shuffling of introductions. Leliana’s delicate greeting was well-schooled, but my bow was clumsy and nervous, and neither Morrigan or the qunari managed more than a brusque nod. We were attracting quite a lot of attention, too; Leliana looked the least out of place in her Chantry robe, but Morrigan’s raven feathers and heavy jewellery were hardly non-descript, and of course Sten towered over every human there. A gaggle of pale, wide-eyed children at the corner of the nave were staring at him in awe—not all that less obviously than their elders. I supposed we gave the destitute a passingly interesting distraction.

Still, Bann Teagan managed a graceful nod of his head, and a diplomatic smile. Obviously, I supposed, Alistair’s presence with our motley band was guarantee enough for him that we weren’t about to rip the place to pieces… either that, or Redcliffe was already so far gone that we couldn’t have done much damage. I was inclined to think the latter, which wasn’t a comforting thought.

“A pleasure to meet you all. I only wish it were under better circumstances.” The bann turned to me, looked me up and down—an action I did not find comfortable—and flashed a disarming smile. “So, you are a Grey Warden as well?”

A note of curiosity and surprise lingered in his voice, which wasn’t unexpected. I nodded.

“Yes.”

My lord. The words—an honorific I knew I ought to use—trembled on my tongue, but I closed my lips tight, absurdly unwilling to say them. Nobleman or not, I wasn’t going to kowtow. Not this time. Instead, I met Bann Teagan’s gaze, and had the sense that I was being briefly but thoroughly assessed.

An assessment of my own filtered through my tired, muddled brain. Six months, Alistair had said he’d been a Grey Warden. The bann knew of it. Did it mean they’d kept in touch, or was Teagan simply well-informed?

Hmmph. Younger and covered in mud. No sooner had I begun to think more comfortably of Alistair as my comrade, than I’d caught myself starting to wonder who he really was. A dull, lingering anger at that—and at him—twisted within me, and I looked forward to the opportunity of letting it out. Not now, though. No time now. Instead, I cleared my throat, and drew myself up to my full height, which brought me about level with Bann Teagan’s nose.

“We had hoped to appeal to Arl Eamon for help,” I said. “But I understand there’s a problem?”

“To put it lightly.” Teagan nodded. “My brother fell ill just before the battle at Ostagar. His condition was grave but, in recent days, we have lost all contact with the castle. No guards patrol the walls, and no one has responded to my shouts. The attacks started a few nights ago. Evil… things… surged from the castle. We drove them back, but many perished during the assault.”

I frowned. “‘Evil things’? What kind of—”

The bann clenched his jaw, eyes narrowed and expression guarded, as if he feared we would think him insane.

“Some call them the walking dead; decomposing corpses returning to life with a hunger for human flesh….” He shook his head, appearing not to want to believe it himself. “Men who… who are ceaseless, continuing despite the gravest wounds. They hit again the next night, and every night since, with greater numbers than before, their ranks swelled by… by the fallen. With Cailan dead and Loghain starting a war over the throne, no one has responded to my urgent calls for help.”

Walking dead… wonderful. It was like something out of one of those lurid, gruesome adventure tales Father didn’t approve of me reading.

Behind me, Morrigan made a small ‘hmm’ in the back of her throat.

“Undead… or spirits possessing the dead. Necromancy, perhaps.”

I peered at the woman, thinking for one foolish moment she was showing compassion for the horror these people must have faced, but I saw only mild, rather academic, interest in her expression. She arched one thin brow, and shrugged.

“There could be several causes behind such a thing, none of them pleasant.”

Alistair frowned. “It all seems too convenient for my liking. Bann Teagan, you said the arl fell ill just before Ostagar?”

Teagan nodded hesitantly. “Yes, but… Alistair, you’re not suggesting what has happened here is related to Cailan’s death?”

I sighed inwardly. He wouldn’t be satisfied, it seemed, until he’d built himself an incontrovertible proof of Loghain’s treachery. I still struggled to believe it. Ostagar had been a disaster, not a trap—the darkspawn had outmanoeuvred us, plain and simple.

Yet… we didn’t know the truth of things since then, did we? The teyrn declaring himself regent, setting the bounty on Grey Wardens…. Either he genuinely believed, in some addled way, that we were responsible, or it was an effort to silence the only survivors who knew what he’d done. But to think that it might have been part of some wider plan, some premeditated bid to seize power….

Based on what I knew, I didn’t trust myself to choose between those options. I hadn’t thought I’d have to. Redcliffe was supposed to save us from that. It was supposed to be the place where all the problems were solved, and the questions answered… and that wasn’t working out so well, was it?

I cleared my throat, and looked warily at Alistair before addressing the bann.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but Arl Eamon is an heir to the throne now, isn’t he?”

Teagan winced. “Our sister was Cailan’s mother. I suppose we’ve royal blood, but it’s a shaky claim to the throne… though still marginally better than Loghain’s.” His brows drew into a dark pinch above sharp, blue eyes. “It does mean Eamon could intervene in Loghain’s bid for the throne. But we shouldn’t leap to conclusions. However this madness began, my primary concern now is protecting these people—and I have a feeling that tonight’s assault will be the worst yet.” His mouth tightened, and he looked beseechingly at Alistair. “I hate to ask this, but—”

My gut plummeted. Still, pitting ourselves against legions of undead—if such things really existed—couldn’t be much worse than the darkspawn, could it? I glanced at Alistair, and found him looking utterly wretched. He shook his head.

“It isn’t just up to me….” he began, and shot me an uncomfortable, imploring look.

They were all looking at me, I realised. My companions, and the nobleman before me, and the white, frightened faces of the dispossessed.

Maker’s balls….

I still wasn’t quite sure at exactly what point I’d been landed with the mantle of command or, perhaps more accurately, the fingerless mittens of gentle suggestion. Looking at those who travelled with me, I didn’t think for a moment that—if I chose to declare something as an order—they would leap to it without question. I wouldn’t take orders from me… not that I was about to start barking them, in any case.

I frowned, bit my lip, and glanced at Alistair again before I addressed the bann.

“Of course we’ll help, if we can. I… don’t know if I speak for all of us, though.”

A look over my shoulder confirmed my suspicion. Sten’s face shifted into a disapproving scowl, like a rockslide in slow motion, and he folded his arms across his massive chest.

“There are no darkspawn here, and nothing to gain. It is a fool’s errand.”

“There is nothing foolish about defending the helpless,” Leliana protested. “Look at these people! We must help them.”

Morrigan snorted. “Pointless, when they face an impossible battle—one that is apparently already half-lost. One would think we had enough to contend with elsewhere.”

“And so you would leave them to their fate?” Leliana widened her eyes incredulously. “Well, I cannot. I say we offer whatever aid we can.”

I cleared my throat, and was unnervingly aware of the way silence fell, and four pairs of eyes fixed on me.

“It, er, seems to me,” I began hesitantly, “that if Loghain’s determined to have us down as traitors, we need an ally to convince the bannorn on our behalf.”

“Yet the man you seek for the role may already be dead,” Morrigan snapped. “If we have any business here at all, it is at the castle, not among—”

“Ooh, brilliant, yes.” Alistair scoffed. “The very large, impenetrable fortress that the massed ranks of walking dead are coming from? No, you’re right. Maybe if we go up and knock on the gates, they’ll let us in after all.”

She scowled, and I felt the first twinges of a headache begin to thud at my temples.

“We don’t know the arl is dead,” I said shortly, raising my voice a little. It echoed off the chantry’s beautifully carved stonework. “And we’re not exactly overrun with allies. Even if you don’t feel compassion for these people, the support of Redcliffe is worth fighting for, surely?”

Morrigan’s dark-painted lips folded in on themselves, and the eerie golden gaze grew a little harder, but she tilted her head to the side in dismissive acknowledgement, like a dog gracelessly accepting its bone being taken away.

“If you say so,” she muttered.

I looked at Bann Teagan. “Would it be enough?” I asked hesitantly. “If we help you fight these… things… would there be a chance of getting into the castle, seeing if the arl can be saved?”

He nodded fervently. “Yes. That is certainly my hope. If we can find the source, then— So, you will help us?”

I glanced at Sten. His unsettling violet eyes, glaring out from beneath the crevasse of his brow, narrowed slightly. He inclined his head—a barely perceptible nod—and I returned the gesture, hoping I at least appeared as dignified as he, and that no one could tell my heart was thumping like a frightened rabbit.

“We will,” I said, with a small smile. “I hope it makes a difference.”

A breathless sigh of relief broke from the bann. “Thank you! Thank you, this… this means more to me than you can guess. Tomas, please tell Murdock what transpired. Then return to your post.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The boy who’d brought us down from the cliff path bowed, and darted away, no doubt full of gossip.

Bann Teagan nodded, seeming a little less weary than he had before.

“I’ve put two men in charge of the defence outside. Murdock, the village mayor, is outside the chantry. Ser Perth, one of Eamon’s knights, is just up the cliff at the windmill, watching the castle.”

“The arl’s knights are here in the village?” I asked, faintly confused.

“A few,” he replied. “Those that have returned from their quest… I take it you do not know of this?”

I shook my head. “No.”

Teagan’s mouth tightened; something on the way to a mirthless smile.

“Hm. After my brother fell ill, we tried everything to cure him. Nothing worked. The arlessa became convinced that the Urn of Sacred Ashes was the answer.” He looked faintly embarrassed. “It is reputed to have miraculous powers, but… I am a practical man, while Lady Isolde is a woman of great faith. I can’t say I agreed with her decision to send so many men off in search of a relic that may never be found. Still, what’s done is done.”

“I… see.”

I recalled the vague mention Alistair had made of the arlessa. Not exactly a flattering portrait.

“I assume,” he said, “that you can’t evacuate the village?”

The briefest look around the chantry would have answered that question, I thought. These people were exhausted, many of them too old, too young, or too weak to travel.

Bann Teagan shook his head. “Believe me, we’ve tried. Those who tried to leave were attacked on the road—in broad daylight, no less. Any attempt at escape simply brings an immediate attack.” He leaned in, lowering his voice, his face clouded and dour. “I am afraid, whatever is behind this evil, it has no intention of stopping until… well. You see how desperate things are.”

Alistair and I exchanged looks. That much was certainly obvious. Twin impulses beat in me, split evenly between the desire to help these people, and the urge to flee, writing Redcliffe off as a lost cause.

However this had begun, I couldn’t see a way it could end well, and nor could I see a way that those in the castle would have been spared. The mere thought of what might lie up there—the possibility of demons and unnameable horrors, the like of which I’d only ever read about in storybooks, and never taken seriously, even then—turned my spine to water. Maybe, I told myself, Morrigan was wrong. At least… I hoped so.

“Now, there is not much daylight left.” Bann Teagan clapped his hands together, trying to inject a brisk, busy brightness into his words. It didn’t do much to disguise his anxiety. “I must see that everyone is gathered safely, and we will begin building the barricades. Luck be with you, my friends.”

He bowed his head to us, and excused himself to help the revered mother shepherd a gaggle of children into one of the side chapels. One of them was bawling, red-faced, for its mother. I had the sense we’d been summarily dismissed, and turned to look at my companions.

Morrigan crossed her arms and gave me a rather self-satisfied smile.

“Well, then. Pleased with ourself, are we?”

The low-grade thump in my temples began to spread out in a band across the whole front of my head. I met her gaze.

“Ask me again in the morning,” I said dryly.

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Volume 2: Chapter Seven
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