Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
I came to in the templars’ make-shift field hospital, with very little idea of how I’d got there. I started to sit up, gulped a bit, lay back down, and waited for the high vaulted ceiling somewhere above me to swim into focus. Torches burned in the sconces, and I was aware of movement, of voices… of Leliana, standing close by.
She glanced over at me and smiled. “Oh, good. You’re awake.”
She cast a final look at whatever was happening on the other side of the chamber, and came over to hunker down beside me. One lean, graceful hand rested briefly against my forehead, and the contact felt strange… almost invasive, though I knew it was motivated by concern. Those glass-shard eyes narrowed a little, and Leliana smiled softly.
“You had everyone a little worried for a moment there. You need to rest. Honestly, I think you and Alistair are as bad as each other…. here you are, don’t try to sit up too fast….”
She helped me, and the threat of nausea subsided. I blinked, fingers groping at the edge of the coarse woollen blankets on which I lay.
“As bad as…?” I queried, confused and squinting.
“You need to take a deep breath,” Leliana chided gently, her hand resting between my shoulder blades, “and realise that you can’t do everything at once.”
I didn’t understand what she meant. I was too busy being angry with myself for… what? Fainting? Ugh, was that what had happened? My head pounded and my tongue tasted foul. Wynne’s rough-and-ready healing magic, with all its incredible agonies, might have knitted my body back together, but it had done nothing for the pain, or the bruises. Across the chamber, my blurry vision yielded a group of mages, headed up by the First Enchanter, arguing animatedly with the Knight-Commander and a small knot of templars. Wynne was there, pitching right into the middle of the fight, and Alistair, too. He was partially unarmoured, and his shoulder appeared to have been redressed, a wad of bloody bandage clasped to his tattered shirt. He looked over to us, and mouthed ‘help’.
I groaned, and staggered awkwardly to my feet. As I got closer, I realised what the argument was about. There were several strands to it, ranging from the question of whether the mages could be trusted after Uldred’s rebellion—Maker only knew how far any of them had been corrupted, after all—to the total impossibility of anyone leaving the Tower to return with us to Redcliffe.
To hear Greagoir speak, it seemed as if the entire Circle should be placed in quarantine, and that outraged the magi. I could understand their anger, but I also saw the need for caution… not that I was going to be the one to voice it.
Wynne, all bare fury and brittle politeness bent to breaking, was jabbing a finger at the Knight-Commander’s chest, demanding to know exactly what he thought gave him the right to judge… especially when he had been so quick to condemn them all to the mercy of the abominations in the first place.
I winced. Greagoir bristled, and the whole tangle of raised voices and wounded egos lurched back to the beginning of the argument.
“Ah, the other Warden,” said a familiar, slightly nasal voice.
Looking to my right, I saw one of the mages without whose help we probably wouldn’t have defeated Uldred. He’d cleaned up a bit, though the marks of the ordeal were still clear on him to anyone who knew how to look. He gave me a tight, thin smile.
“We owe you and your companions a great debt,” he said, the smile widening cautiously to expose a narrow rank of yellow teeth.
He spoke just loud enough—and his voice was carrying enough—to cut through the barrage of chatter. With a sense of heated discomfort, I grew aware of the mages, the Knight-Commander, the templars… all turning to look at me.
“Senior Enchanter Salter is quite right,” Irving said levelly, and his low, gravel-pocked tones held a tight measure of diplomatic nuance. I caught the way his gaze flicked to Greagoir, and sensed just how complex the relationship between the Circle and its watchdogs must be. He smiled at me. “And I see you are at least a little recovered, Warden. That is something.”
They called me Warden. It still felt strange. I mumbled a thank you, not sure where to put myself among all these men in their fine robes and shiny plate. Alistair chuckled.
“Well, she is,” he said, and I glanced up sharply as the words tailed off into a throat-clearing cough. “I mean, she… we… couldn’t have… uh.”
“We came here because we need help,” I said wearily. “What assistance the Grey Wardens have given the Circle, or the templars, we gave freely… but now we must ask for something in return. The treaties we carry compel the Circle to aid us against a Blight—and that Blight is coming. Ostagar was only the beginning.”
It was my voice, and yet it hardly seemed like it; husky and strained with fatigue, working around words that were unnatural and alien to me. They stayed so quiet as I spoke… so many still, silent faces, just watching me. I swallowed heavily, and went on:
“We are entitled to demand your aid, First Enchanter. We will not. We ask, just as we ask you to help save Arl Eamon’s son. If we have learned nothing else here… gentlemen,” I added, wetting my lower lip with a nervous tongue, “it is that things are not always simple. Uldred’s rebellion did terrible things to this place—things you will be struggling to right for many years, I am sure—but it also showed what the magi can withstand. These men have faced abominations, and retained their minds, have they not?”
Greagoir scowled blackly at me. “Blood magic is not so simply defined as—”
“Blood magic had a hold in this tower before the rebellion,” I snapped, and a small part of me, somewhere inside my head, was amazed at my insolence. “That much seems clear, Commander.”
“Are you saying that the templars—”
“I am saying that there will always be those who seek power by unscrupulous means, even if they think they’re doing the right thing. Uldred’s argument was based on winning greater freedoms for the Circle… don’t you think that, by stifling them now, you’ll add weight to that very cause?”
The man fumed, those great grey brows drawn into a colossal frown. I couldn’t help myself tensing up; my body expected a backhanded slap, even though I knew it wouldn’t come. That little grain of knowledge in itself was powerful. That I could say such things, look into the eyes of men like the Knight-Commander, and have them listen… it was exhilarating.
Either that, or the lack of food and sleep was cutting in.
I would like to say I made an incisive, stirring speech, that the Circle and the templars both leapt to action and we returned at once to Redcliffe. That wasn’t the case. There was further argument, tussling over details and a great deal of haggling, like old women trying to get the best price on their market day lace. Eventually, Greagoir relented and—in what seemed to be a rare occurrence—agreed with Irving. They would both lend their support to the Grey Wardens, though the templars’ involvement would be more tacit than the Circle’s brazen solidarity.
There was politics at play, of course. Dozens of dancing skeins of it to follow, and it made my head hurt even worse. The Circle felt betrayed by Loghain’s withdrawal at Ostagar, an injury compounded by Uldred trying to curry favour for him. They distrusted the new regent and, I suspected, would be only too happy to use a declaration of support for the Wardens as an opportunity to publicly humiliate the teyrn. Irving seemed to positively delight in the prospect.
Greagoir was altogether shyer. He rumbled about the need to send messengers to Denerim and clarify matters with the grand cleric… which nearly started another argument. Several of his men—and many of the mages—believed it to be Loghain’s fault that the reinforcements from the capital had not arrived, bringing the Rite of Annulment with them. It sounded like paranoia to me, when the messenger Greagoir had sent could just as easily have fallen victim to darkspawn—or even Redcliffe’s walking dead, if he’d taken the route along the cliffs—but there was no arguing with the vehemence of those who wanted to blame Loghain.
The Knight-Commander grew impatient. He asked if we were raising an army. He asked whether, if it came to it, the Grey Wardens would rebel against the throne, regardless of who was upon it. I didn’t know how to answer him. I said we would stand against the Blight, and do whatever it took to see it ended.
That seemed to be enough for him. He nodded, and gruffly stated that—should such an army form—regardless of his order’s official position, he would not hold to discipline any of his men who saw fit to join us.
After what felt like hours, things were finally settled. Irving would lead a deputation of senior enchanters back with us to Redcliffe. They would try to exorcise the demon from Connor—providing we were not already too late—and see if anything could be done to help the arl.
Naturally, three templars were also selected to join us… and no one needed to ask what they were being sent for.
As the preparations for our leaving began, there was much talk of supplies, and of sending word to Kinloch’s sister towers, in Orlais and in the north. I got the feeling the mages thought a war was coming… and quite possibly not the same one the rest of us were staring towards.
Still, it was no longer our place to argue. We had what we’d come for—what the treaty allowed us to compel—and I hoped that was enough.
A busy throng of activity followed all the talking, and it astounded me. Alistair took over once I was all gabbed out, relaying everything we knew of Connor’s deal with the demon, and his condition. It elicited great interest from the enchanters, and what had begun as the promise to help save a life soon degenerated into detailed discussion of academic principles and precepts. Most of it went over my head but—while they were arguing amongst themselves over what treatise or paper said this or that about the nature of demonic possession, and whether so-and-so’s theorem of such-and-such was an accurate measure of probable success—at least the boat was getting packed.
I sloped outside, back down to the little jetty, gladder than I ever thought I’d be to breathe in cold, muddy air and smell stockfish and lakewater sludge on the breeze. It was dark, the distant points of stars beginning to lance through the thickness of the night. The water lapped at the island’s shore, and I listened to the creak of rope and wood, and the soft splashes of… things… turning lazily under the surface. Maybe the stories of seven-foot fish with razor-sharp teeth were true. After everything I’d seen, I doubted I’d have been surprised.
The return to Redcliffe passed in something of a haze. There was another boat, and the lulling rock of a wooden hull, and not even being pressed in amongst half a dozen portly human men (and Wynne, who’d insisted on coming too) in long silk and velvet robes—all smelling of musty fabric, tobacco smoke and sweat—could stop me from grabbing some much-needed sleep.
I didn’t dream. It was the bare, deep darkness of total exhaustion and, when I woke, we were nearing the shore. My head was resting on Leliana’s shoulder and, a little embarrassed, I pulled myself up, blinking rapidly.
She smiled at me. “We’re nearly there. And in good time.”
I rubbed at the grit in my eyes and muttered something about hoping we weren’t too late.
The village was tucked down for the night when we got there, but there were still enough people around to stare at us as we made our way back up to the castle. They had good reason: their flame-haired hero had returned, bringing with her a cavalcade of mages. There was whispering and pointing… and the smell of the pyres still clung to everything.
Torches burned along the route to the castle gates, and the forecourt was lit up. It was almost welcoming. Ser Perth greeted us; a small knot of his men were on guard here, and few traces of the carnage the place had seen remained visible.
Just like Leliana had said, I supposed. Built on blood, generation after generation, until it seeped into the rock itself, and no one remembered the names of the battles anymore.
“You have returned!” the knight exclaimed, as if it had begun to seem improbable. “This is wonderful. We’d started to think— well, you must go to the great hall at once.”
“What about Connor?” Alistair asked. “Is he—?”
Ser Perth’s clear, honest face was not given to dissembling. His expression tightened, and he shook his head.
“Your… friend, the, er… mage. She banned almost everyone from the chamber. The boy turned again, and— you should see for yourselves. We haven’t been back in.”
Alistair shot me a grim look. I said nothing. I’d known Morrigan would do what needed to be done, if the worst had happened. Yet it seemed so unfair… that we’d got through everything at the Circle Tower, only to return here and find we were too late.
We paced the dim stone halls with the phalanx of mages behind us. More torches lit up the damage done to the castle, and it was hard to stop myself looking for monsters in the shadows they cast, though at least the bodies had been moved.
When we reached the double doors that led into the great hall, they were shut and barred from within. Alistair strode up and thumped the wood with a clenched fist.
Somewhere through the pounding heartbeats and the fuzzy nerves, it occurred to me that, if she had done what I’d asked, he’d never forgive her. They’d hardly been comfortable allies to start with but, after this, I doubted I’d get them to travel together without open hostilities and bloodshed.
The doors graunched slowly open, revealing the immense figure of Sten, filling up the portal. I’d forgotten how big he was. We could definitely have done with him at the tower. He gave no nod or smile of greeting; just the bare flicker of recognition in those startlingly violet eyes, which faded to mild distaste as he surveyed the mages and templars we’d brought with us.
Behind me, I heard one of the enchanters mutter some exclamation of surprise that ended in ‘…damned qunari, look!’, and I winced.
“Good to see you, Sten,” I managed, and it was; I drew a sense of relief, somehow, from the sheer bulk of his presence.
He grunted non-committally, and a familiar voice arced the length of the chamber.
“’Tis about time you returned! What took you so long?”
“Hm. Actually wasn’t as easy as you might think,” Alistair countered, as our odd band of saviours began to traipse into the great hall.
Morrigan scoffed. “Why does that not surprise me?”
She stood at the far end of the hall, on the small dais, hands on her hips and that ragged ensemble of leather, cloth, feathers and jewels shining with the orange-gold tongues of firelight that outlined her. Aside from Sten, there was no one else in the chamber, and a feeling of cool apprehension skittered down my back. Why did she need to hold us off here? What was so bad that we shouldn’t see it? Those dark-painted lips tightened as Morrigan looked us over—taking in, I imagined, both the state we were in and the selection of companions we’d brought back—and I realised how tired she seemed.
“Where is Connor?” I asked tentatively. “And Lady Isolde? Bann Teagan… Jowan?”
“Jowan?” the First Enchanter echoed incredulously. “Jowan is the blood mage you spoke of? Wh—”
I winced. Trying to outline Redcliffe’s problems cogently and concisely before our arrival had not been an easy task.
“Well, yes… but—”
“He is gone,” Morrigan said bluntly, folding her arms across her ample chest.
Ah. That was why she’d come down here to meet us, then.
She took a few nonchalant paces down from the dais, and I was aware of the effect her swaying gait—and that artfully bolstered bosom—was having on the more mature members of the Circle. One of the senior enchanters coughed loudly.
“Gone?” Irving sounded displeased. “That boy is an apostate, a maleficar… had I known it was he whom the arlessa hired, I…. Woman, do you not know how many he injured in his escape from the Tower?”
I tried not to notice the way those golden, cat-like eyes narrowed as Morrigan fully absorbed that particular form of address. Something steely and dark hung in the air as she cast a lingering glance over the company, and as they stared back at her. The soft clank of armour told me one of the templars accompanying us was shifting uneasily.
“This woman is clearly an apostate,” he began, drawing breath presumably to declare the whole castle in need of immediate purging. “Who’s to say she—”
Morrigan curled her lip. I suspected she’d enjoy playing with the toys we’d brought her, but the danger in the game was real, and we didn’t have time for it.
“She is under the protection of the Grey Wardens,” I blurted, “and without her we wouldn’t even have been able to get to the Circle Tower, so… she will be accorded some respect. Um. Sers.”
A prickly, terse silence fell. I cleared my throat. Jowan was probably running for his life along the cliff path as we spoke. I didn’t doubt that Morrigan had let him go the minute she knew we’d returned… if not sooner. Part of me blamed her for it, because blood magic was blood magic, and all prices had to be paid, but part of me—especially after all we’d seen at the Tower, and all the enchanters’ endless talking, chewing over the politics of every tiny thing—could not. He’d seemed penitent, hadn’t he? Spoken of mistakes, and a desire to right his wrongs… just like the blood mage I’d let go had spoken of the yearning for change.
Maybe, I thought, it was the sin that was wrong, not the sinner. Yet, for a mage, whose actions were the physical manifestations of their will, could those two things ever be truly separated?
I fought down the urge to make a warding sign on the fingers of my left hand, and decided that every last damn one of them was more foreign that I’d ever thought possible.
“Where’s Connor?” I asked again, dread rising from the fact she hadn’t told me. “And the others? Did—”
Morrigan broke from staring at the mages, and addressed me coolly.
“He is upstairs, in his chamber. His mother and uncle remain at his side. The boy is… confined. He turned again not long after you left, but we were able to subdue him.”
“Subdue?” I repeated hollowly, not liking the tone of her voice.
It was arch, as ever, but there was something cold and brittle in the way Morrigan spoke, as if she wished to distance herself from the words.
Sten exhaled, a grumble of disapproval from the side of the chamber.
“It would have been more efficient to kill the child, but the shrieking woman made it… complicated.”
“Lady Is—?” I stopped. I didn’t even need to ask. “Ah.”
“My people,” Sten observed, “would have dealt with it differently.”
“I… I’m sure,” I said, looking uncertainly at the firelight washing over that immense, bronze-hewn figure. “Then you didn’t…?”
He shook his head, once. “The witch required we wait. I did not concur. We… compromised.”
I looked between the two of them, curiosity battling with trepidation. What it must have been to watch Morrigan facing off to the qunari…!
“We would have performed the blood ritual at dawn,” she said shortly. “It was the only way, and we could wait no longer. You do know you were gone for more than two days?”
“What?” Alistair frowned. “That’s not….”
I thought of Niall and the whispering, sliding world of the Fade… and how lucky we’d been to get out.
Still, I wondered why Morrigan had waited. Had she wanted to give us every opportunity to spare the boy, or merely doubted her own chances for success?
There was barely room enough in the family accommodations for all of us. Mages, templars, guardsmen… we all piled up the stairs, following Morrigan. Sten had apparently organised a small number of Ser Perth’s knights and Murdock’s militia into a strategic force to clear out and hold the upper floors of the castle. There might still have been dark things lurking in its hidden corners but, slowly, everything was being brought back to order.
However, that didn’t make what we found in Connor’s room any less terrible.
It was a well-appointed chamber, small compared to the great rooms on the floors below, but far too big for me to think of as a bedroom. Bright, richly coloured rugs covered the floor, the plastered walls painted with a cheerful blue frieze. Shelves held finely made wooden toys—soldiers, horses, and even an ornately carved dragon, its eyes picked out with red glass beads—and a painted drum stood next to a stack of fine, leather-bound books. There was a carved wooden armoire, and a large bed hung with dark velvet drapes, beside which sat Lady Isolde and Bann Teagan. The bann started up as our motley brigade began to enter, and he looked white and strained.
“You’ve returned,” he said, his voice thin and hushed, and his gaze immediately seeking Alistair. “Thank the Maker! But… what—?”
“It’s a long story, Bann Teagan,” Alistair said, brushing away the questions. “We’ve brought help from the Circle. They… well, they think Connor can still be saved.”
Isolde let out a stifled sob, and buried her head in her hands, shoulders shaking convulsively. Teagan looked as if someone had physically drained him, the breath rushing out of his body in a tumble of relief and exhausted hope. He reached down, patted the arlessa absently, and nodded, obviously making an effort to draw himself up and address the mages.
“Th-thank you. Thank you, gentlemen. Of course, anything you need… anything at all….”
Irving stepped forwards, introduced himself to the bann, and began to speak of moving the child downstairs, using the great hall for the ritual. Haste was key, making use of his weakened state… I’d heard enough of the voices of mages to last me a month.
A familiar doggy whine came from the end of the bed, and I saw Maethor spread across the coverlet, his massive paws dangling over the edge of the mattress. He raised his head, tail wagging frantically as he looked at me, great jaws cracked open into a tongue-lolling canine smile and wrinkled little ears pricked up, but he didn’t move.
I couldn’t help grinning. “Still on guard, are you?”
The mabari groaned, low in his chest, and cocked his head to the side. I stepped closer, hand already lifted to scratch his ears—Maker, but I’d missed him—and I got my first proper look at Connor.
He was… shrunken. Very, very small, and so pale. That would happen to a child who lost so much blood, I supposed. They’d broken his hands. Crushed, mangled, and bound in heavy swathes of bandages. Unusable… at least for now. The wounds on his head had been dressed, too, making it hard to see how serious they were, or how they’d been inflicted. Sten, I supposed, and I purposefully shook away the thoughts of the things they said he’d done in Lothering. I didn’t want to think, didn’t want to know… didn’t want any part of anything to do with the bruised, bloodied little boy lying unconscious in that bed. Dark circles ringed his eyes, the thin purple-blue tracery of veins running across the swollen, shiny lids. His lips were dry, softly parted as shallow, wheezing breaths creaked too slowly between them. The mark of something—a cord, or belt, perhaps—ran across his neck, a narrow, livid line.
However awful it looked, I knew it was mercy. They could have killed him. They could, but they hadn’t. They’d kept him weak, kept the demon locked within him… but it couldn’t last forever. Connor was dying, and I didn’t know if we had enough time to save him.
Things moved relatively quickly after that. Connor was bound and brought down to the great hall, where the fire was stoked up and an impromptu bed laid in the centre of the chamber. The mages worked fast, setting out all their books and potions and strange paraphernalia, and chasing out all those who were not essential to the ritual.
“But… but I could… help, or—” Alistair protested, as we were ushered unceremoniously out of the great hall, through a side door.
“We will call when it is done,” Enchanter Salter said firmly, and I caught one last glimpse of his narrow, hawk-nosed face before the heavy oaken door closed.
He looked nervous. They all did.
“But… Morrigan’s allowed to stay,” Alistair complained, addressing the wood’s knotted grain. “That’s… not… oh, damn.”
Despite everything, I couldn’t help sniggering. At my heel, Maethor whined reproachfully and, as I glanced down, cocked his head and gave a small grumble.
“Apostate or not,” I reminded Alistair, “she’s still a mage. They’re probably content to put principles aside if she’s useful. The only thing you can do is… well, the thing I guess we’re all hoping no one’ll have to do.”
I hadn’t really meant to voice it; not that I could avoid thinking about it. Those three templars were a very obvious presence.
Alistair sagged visibly, and sighed. “True. But still….”
I knew what he meant. Teagan and Isolde had been allowed to stay, if for no other reason than that it would have proved impossible to drag the arlessa away from her son’s side, but that hardly made the waiting easier on the rest of us.
The only one who seemed at ease was Sten. He just went to the far end of the corridor and took up position opposite the large double doors that formed the main entrance to the great hall. A few guttering torches cast snatches of light along the stones, flickers of orange and gold whispering over the broken statues and torn tapestries, dancing in and out of the shadows that painted that lonely figure. I was reminded of the immense stone statues that had watched over the Tevinter ruins at Ostagar; ancient heroes, or magisters, or… well, who knew. But, for all the world, Sten looked like one of those silent guardians, and I wasn’t sure whether I found that comforting or unsettling.
One thing was certain, at least: we couldn’t stand here staring at the door all night.
“Revered Mother Hannah is reblessing the chapel,” Leliana said, and the way she seemed to materialise behind us made me jump. “I’m going down there now to see if she needs help… and to pray for that poor boy. You’re welcome to come too, if you want.”
Alistair blinked and, from the way a muscle leapt briefly in his jaw, I guessed he’d managed to bite down on something caustic. I hadn’t forgotten his disparaging sarcasm for the Chantry at the Tower… and I was sure Leliana hadn’t, either.
“Thank you,” I said quickly, smiling at her. “Um. Maybe in a little while.”
She nodded, giving us a look somewhere between tremulous pity and resigned sadness, and pressed her lips together. The torchlight glimmered on her flame-red hair, so much deeper and glossier than Shianni’s had ever been, and that porcelain face seemed to harden for a moment.
Leliana turned and walked purposefully off down the corridor, her stride lengthening out into the gait of a woman too tired or anxious to be truly relaxed but who could, at last, see the faint spark of hope on the horizon.
I wished I could think so positively.
We watched her go. I glanced at Alistair, who grimaced and then let out a long, weary breath. He shook his head.
“It’s not that… I mean, I believe in the Maker well enough, but—”
He broke off, looking faintly embarrassed. I smiled, recognising the well-worn creases the Chantry had pressed into the boy he must have been. They ran deep indeed, to leave him so guilty and twisted up, even now.
The gentle, fleeting memory of flowers and sweet perfume filtered through my mind, like the light caress of a spring breeze, and I thought of the sisters who’d visited the alienage, with all their well-meaning compassion and condescension. There would be a time for prayer, I supposed… later, and probably in the still, dark hours before dawn.
Maethor butted his nose into the palm of my hand and leaned against my leg, his considerable weight pushing me off-balance.
The mabari groaned talkatively, and nudged me again with that wrinkled snout. I looked over to the far end of the corridor, and saw the rank of wooden benches positioned beneath the high, narrow windows. Maethor wagged his tail, and I grinned.
“You’re a bully, dog.”
He whined and head-butted me playfully, hindquarters shaking with the vigorous to-and-fro of that stumpy appendage, and Alistair chuckled.
“He has a point. You need to rest… don’t want you fl—”
“We all need rest,” I said briskly, not wanting any reference to that embarrassing episode in the Harrowing Chamber, “but… oh, all right! Don’t shove.”
I gave in, and plonked down with a certain amount of relief on the hard wood. Maethor gave me a look of great satisfaction and sat at my feet, positioned perfectly for ear and neck rubs. I let my hand work over his short, brindled coat, the hard muscles and pitted scars of a wardog at odds with the happy little groans gurgling out of his deep, barrel chest. He tipped his head back and gave me a gooey, upside-down stare, tongue lolling out and ears flying at half-mast. I laughed softly, almost forgetting for a moment where we were, everything that had happened in this place… and what would be beginning soon, behind those heavy doors.
I didn’t know what to expect from the mages and their ritual. In truth, there wasn’t all that much in the way of noise from the great hall… a few muffled voices, and what sounded like the intoned words of incantations or spells. Light played under the doors from time to time, and there was a definite feeling of strangeness to the atmosphere, but that was really all there was to designate the battle being played out for the life of a child.
We sat on that wooden bench for the best part of four hours, Alistair and I. Maethor alternated between lying at my feet and clambering up to sit with us, head in my lap, when the draughts grew too cutting. The high ceilings and dank, dark stonework seemed to fold in around me, guttering torchlight shading patterns along the walls. Those high windows afforded a few glimpses of the sky: the rough textures of clouds drifting across a dim, moonless night. Everything had been stone in recent weeks, I realised. Permanent, indelible… grey, unforgiving, and etched with the stories of years. I almost missed the transient stopgaps of alienage houses; our cramped, dingy cottages and jerry-built tenements, where the smell of damp and dry rot was drowned out by the boghouses every time the wind came from the south.
I thought of the Fade then, and the dream that had pulled me into its heart, offering me sweet, comfortable lies which I would have given anything to cling to, and whose loss burned with an incredible intensity. Still, I wondered: had I ever thought of our house as cramped and dingy when I lived there?
A small frown pinched my brow, and my fingers wandered to the chain at my neck, seeking the bevelled edge of Nelaros’ ring, and the grounding weight of the pendant I wore. I squeezed the ring between my thumb and forefinger, tight enough the feel its outline press into my flesh, and then let it drop. It knocked against the silver pendant with a soft, metallic chink, and I did the same thing twice more, letting that small sound fall into the air like the first drop of rain into a glass-smooth puddle as I stared at the wall opposite me.
I’d thought Alistair had dozed off; it surprised me when he cleared his throat and attempted to marshal words together in something approximating a question.
“Can I, uh, I mean… um… can I ask you something?”
“Hm?” I blinked, dragging myself out of the cobwebbed recesses of memories, and becoming vaguely aware that my backside had gone numb. “Oh. Mm-hm. ’Course.”
The hand that been playing with my necklace dropped to prop across my knee (somewhere, Father’s voice was telling me to sit up straight and not hunch like that) and I tried to pretend I’d been completely alert.
“Your, er… y’know,” Alistair said, less than eloquently. “The, uh, the ring.”
Realisation prodded me with a grubby finger, and I recalled that silly gesture I’d made in the house of the dwarven merchant down by the lake.
You can have your wedding ring back, girlie.
Of course it was no more than scraps of gilding. What else had I expected the thing to be? If I kept fiddling with it, it’d probably tarnish and turn to brass anyway.
That… wasn’t what Alistair meant, though. He was looking at me with a mix of tentative curiosity and intense solemnity, and frowning very slightly.
“Is it true what that dwarf— I mean, are you really… were you—”
“Married?” I supplemented.
He nodded, apparently absurdly relieved at not having to actually say the word. I wondered what was so ridiculous about the notion, and shook my head.
“No… no, I wasn’t. I was, um, betrothed, but not married. He—” I stopped, staring down at the flagstones; my turn to clear my throat now, struggling with words I hadn’t imagined it would be quite so hard to say. “He died.”
“Oh,” Alistair said, and the word barely scraped the air.
Part of me wanted to tell him the story… to tell him the truth. He deserved to know it, especially when he’d parted company with his own secrets, but I was reluctant. Alistair’s royal blood was one thing; my admitting what I’d done that day at the arl’s estate—and why it had been done, and why Nelaros had died and I had left my people behind, lost to the shattered remnants of their lives—was something else entirely.
I might have managed it, though, if he hadn’t spoken again.
“I-I’m so sorry. That… that must have been awful.”
I blinked. Had it? Yes, it had. The whole day, the whole bloody, filthy episode—but he didn’t mean that. He didn’t know. I made the mistake of looking at him then, and found a terrible, searing compassion in his face, yet there wasn’t an ounce of pity. Those hazel eyes held regret, apology… respect.
I blinked more, and looked away again.
“’nk you,” I mumbled. “It… well, it’s not exactly— I mean, we didn’t know each other. He was a good man, I think, but….”
I could almost hear Alistair’s confused frown.
“I thought you said—”
“Arranged matches,” I said curtly. “They’re… traditional.”
I risked another glance up at him. He was studying the far wall, nodding thoughtfully.
“I didn’t know that.”
I shrugged. “No reason you should.”
Alistair winced, and I supposed that had probably sounded a little brusquer than I’d meant. Still, a grain of irritation flickered in me. Humans didn’t know our traditions, our customs. They didn’t give a damn, preferring to fit us to their stereotypes, their ugly, twisted ideas. Whores, tarts, and servants, that’s all we were. Why should they understand anything… and why, I wondered, should I be annoyed at Alistair for not knowing what I expected him not to know?
His brow crinkled again, and he shot me an enquiring look.
“So, really? You just… marry someone you hardly know?”
I sighed. The grain of irritation became a wad, and it didn’t go away, but I tried not to blame him for it.
“Tradition,” I repeated carefully, because people always said you had to say things twice to a shem. “The elders arrange everything. There isn’t much travel between alienages, so usually a broker gets paid… a dowry goes out, new blood comes in…. It works. And it’s a big thing, a wedding. Celebrations, music… dancing. Good matches do happen,” I added, not sure why my voice sounded so hollow. “A lot of the time.”
“Right.” Alistair nodded again. “I see.”
It sounded like a diplomatic response. I arched an eyebrow.
“Is it so different for humans, then?”
He shrugged, and gave me a small, self-deprecating smile. “I suppose so. I can’t really… um. Y’know. Chantry.”
“Ah.” I smiled. “Yes.”
We fell silent for a little while, and watched a pale band of light play under the great hall’s doors. It was impossible to know what was going on in there, but the air all along the corridor seemed to thicken, prickling with cold needles. I shivered.
“Wynne says they’ll combine their power,” Alistair volunteered, “send a group of mages into the Fade, and force the demon to let Connor go. Kill it, if they can. They’ll be there now.”
Our own experiences with that realm of shadows and dreams were far too close for comfort, and I knew I failed to hide my revulsion at the thought.
“Mm,” he agreed. “Listen… about that.”
Maethor had gone to sleep on my foot; wriggling my toes was not keeping the numbness at bay.
“I didn’t thank you. For… you know. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d probably still—”
“It’s all right,” I said hastily. “It was—”
“No.” Alistair corrected me, gently but irrefutably. “You were brave. Really… brave. Everything you did, in the Tower. You stood up for those people, and you… well… you kept us all together.”
Sod it, I’m blushing… I am, aren’t I?
I was. I stared doggedly at the flagstones, and the mabari hound currently occupying them, massive paws twitching in time to the running pace of whatever dream he was having.
“I’m sorry for the things I said to you,” I murmured. “In the dream. About—”
“You got me out,” Alistair countered. “That’s what matters.”
There was a small, hot silence, creaking with things nobody really wanted to say. When I looked at him, he was chewing the inside of his cheek, a frown of indecision knitting his brows together.
“Mine was like yours,” I said, offering it as conciliation, or solidarity… or something. “My dream. Family.”
“It was?” He looked surprised, then smiled tentatively. “Oh. That’s… I mean…. D’you come from a big family?”
I shook my head. “Only child. Lots of cousins, though, always in and out. Extended… um. Thing.”
Because elves run in packs, like rodents.
I pushed the thoughts away—not even proper human stereotypes, but the nasty, corroded dregs of them, twisted around in my mind and tarnished by the association of vulgar, horrible memories. It was what they all thought, though, to some extent. Huge families, crammed into tiny rooms, because we knew no restraint when it came to breeding.
Alistair’s smile widened. “That sounds nice.”
I balled up my stupid, blinkered prejudices and wadded them together with the memories of his make-believe sister and her beautiful, rosy-cheeked children. Hard to believe we could share wounds that ran so nearly parallel. At least I’d had something true for the demon to steal, though.
“It was,” I said, and I tried to let it sound casual, like I didn’t miss home so badly it hurt.
I don’t know if he believed me. He let out a sigh, stretched his legs out and leaned back, letting his head rest against the cold stone wall, face tipped up towards the windows. The various cuts, bruises and gashes were either starting to heal or at least scab over, and I watched the dying threads of torchlight pick at the streaks of dirt and soot that ran across his skin. There would be time to clean up later, I supposed. We all needed to. We didn’t need, really, to be sitting out here like a bunch of spare buckles, but I wasn’t about to suggest leaving what felt so much like a post… as if, just by being here, keeping watch somehow, we were doing something.
“So,” I said, because we’d started talking and now, when we stopped, the silence felt unwieldy and strange, “tell me about the Grey Wardens.”
“Hm? Oh.” Alistair snorted. “Yes… such as they are.”
He heaved in a deep breath and stared up at that high, vaulted ceiling. When he exhaled, it was a long, bruised sigh.
“You never did get told any of the important stuff, did you? Just… in at the deep end.”
I shrugged. “I’ll learn. What do we, er, what do we do, though? I mean… there are other Wardens somewhere, right?”
Alistair scuffed the heel of his boot half-heartedly against the stones. “In Orlais, yes… and the Free Marches, probably. Not that I know how to actually contact them. The order’s main base is in the Anderfels, and that’s more than a thousand miles away.”
Maethor rolled over, and I looked down at the broad expanse of his belly.
“Those Orlesian reinforcements aren’t coming, are they?”
I bit the inside of my lip, and thought wistfully of things like clean water and tooth powder, and a world where we weren’t completely on our own.
“I’d imagine,” Alistair added dryly, “that Loghain has seen to that.”
I nodded, glumly recalling that torchlit war council back at Ostagar, when my wide eyes had drunk in the arguments between Cailan and the teyrn.
How fortunate that Maric did not live to see his son ready to hand Ferelden over to those who enslaved us for a century!
Frightening, really, how far prejudice could blind a person… and more so when its bitter vine had grown from the seed of experience. I should learn from that, I supposed.
“If he doesn’t believe the Blight is real,” I said slowly, weighing the words and the implications they carried, “and he doesn’t trust the Grey Wardens, then what Greagoir said, about rebelling against the throne… we could end up having to—”
“Oh.” I frowned. “But—”
Alistair wrinkled his nose. “There are those in the Landsmeet who’d listen, but not just to us. I guess our best bet is to try and use the treaties. We have the Circle behind us, and that’s something…. If the dwarves will accept the Blight’s a genuine threat, their word will mean just as much as any men they can provide. The Landsmeet would have to listen, and Loghain would have no choice but to— well. That’s a lot of maybe, isn’t it?”
I glanced sidelong at him, watching the shifting calculations of possibilities and improbabilities play over his face as he frowned in thoughtful apprehension.
“Maybe we could find a way to get word north,” I suggested. “To the Marches, or… I don’t know. There’s really no base or anything, here in Ferelden? Nothing?”
Alistair shrugged. “Duncan said our numbers were small. There’s the compound in Denerim, but it’s right in the middle of the palace district, so I expect Loghain’ll already have control of that.” He let out a long, low breath, and stared mournfully at the far wall. “Nope. Aside from you and me, they’re all gone. Everything… everyone.”
That familiar dark note of grief lurked in his voice, and I knew I shouldn’t let him head back down that murky path.
“The order can be rebuilt, though,” I said, squeezing all the brittle optimism I could muster into the words. “We were forced out before and came back. Maybe—”
“Maybe.” Alistair’s tone was sardonic, but it paled to weary disillusionment as he shook his head. “I don’t know. Perhaps. But… eventually, we’d have to use the Joining to make more Grey Wardens, right? I don’t know how to do that, just that it involves lyrium and some other magic, and it’s really difficult to prepare. Beyond that….”
“We could ask Irving,” I offered. “When they’re… done.”
A beat of uncomfortable silence signalled the fact that neither of us wanted to dwell on what the next few hours might hold. Through those high, narrow windows, with their neatly faced lintels and smooth, stone sills, the night sky was beginning to fade into the musty blur of pre-dawn. Somewhere, the first few birds were warming up, grating out the rusted chirrups of song that would eventually rise to greet the sun.
At my feet, Maethor woke up. It was an elegant, fluid transition from sleep to full alert. He rolled over, ears partially inside-out and twitching, their pink inners focused on some movement within the great hall, eyes fixed on the door. I looked, but saw nothing… heard nothing.
Alistair leaned forwards, and I suspected we were both holding our breath for a second. “Don’t know. No idea how long it takes to….”
Whatever had woken the mabari, nothing seemed to come of it. Maethor groaned a bit, heaved himself up, and padded around in a circle on the flagstones before flopping back down and laying his head on his paws.
“Still,” Alistair said thoughtfully, “for what it’s worth… given the circumstances, I, er, I’m grateful that you’re here. You know, instead of… some other Grey Warden. Um.”
Non-plussed, I shot him a curious look. “Oh?”
He grimaced. “All right, look, that sounded better in my head. What I mean is that things could have been so much worse. If… if you weren’t here. Or if you weren’t you. Uh, should I stop talking now?”
I smiled, bigger and broader than I had in a long while… until I remembered about the new gap in my teeth, and tried to convert it to a more demure, lips-closed sort of smirk. I shook my head incredulously.
“No. I’m glad we’re both us, as well,” I said, which got a grin. “We’re in this together, right?”
“Right.” Alistair seemed relieved, though a hint of something else touched his face as he looked at me. I couldn’t quite make out what it was: sadness, or trepidation? He cleared his throat. “We, um… we should talk more about the Wardens, too. I know you missed out on a lot, and there are things I guess I should try to—”
He didn’t get a chance to say whatever it was he’d planned to. Movement echoed from within the great hall, and the heavy oak door opened.
As one, the three of us started up, Maethor quivering to attention, four-square, Alistair wincing at the pull in his wounded shoulder, and me wobbling a bit when I realised my right leg had gone to sleep and didn’t want to hold my weight.
Bann Teagan emerged from the hall, one hand on the doorframe, his face pale and rimed with fatigue. His clothes were rumpled—was that blood on his jerkin?—and his eyes heavy. He nodded to us in acknowledgement and, when he spoke, his voice was a dry, distant shell.
“It is over.”
The breath caught in my throat; I was afraid to ask. The bann took a step forwards, like a man lurching to freedom after years imprisoned.
“A success,” he said softly, as if he almost didn’t believe it himself. “Connor remembers nothing, but he is his old self. He is free.”
There was a yelp of joy—I think it came from me—and there were shell-shocked, delighted smiles. Teagan reached out and grabbed a fistful of Alistair’s shirt, half a triumphant clap on the back and half the rough hug he might once have given to a small boy. Maethor barked happily and wagged his back end so hard he almost spun in circles.
Above our heads, those narrow little windows began to let in the first tender fingers of a cold, pale dawn. Weak sunlight lanced through the greyish gloom, and struck dimly against the stone.
Volume 2: Chapter Seventeen
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