Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Three

 
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The tavern wasn’t in a much better state than the rest of the village. The sign outside bore the name Dane’s Refuge, though the place looked more like a last resort.

Inside, it stunk of cheap ale and unwashed bodies, and there was a press of people so thick I could barely see the floor or the far wall. A large fire blazed in the inglenook and, to the right, the innkeeper and two weary-looking girls were serving mug after mug of beer. Bedrolls and blankets lined the edges of the room, the rush-strewn boards littered with people trying to claim a spot of their own. Women with babies and small children on their laps, the elderly, and the sick all stared up, big-eyed and pale-faced, with that same glassy, hollow look.

A handful of chantry sisters were here, trying to minister to the needy, and up a short staircase, even the mezzanine was crowded with refugees. A travelling bard and his woman were playing, the song she sang little more than a shadow beneath the buzz and hum of the tavern. All the same, it brought me up short. It seemed such a long time since I’d heard music. I supposed I’d never really thought about how much a part of life it had been in the alienage; always a song or a tune to any daily task, leavening the dreary hours, or breaking like a bird from cover once work was over, in a burst of unexpected and unrepentant joy.

I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, though I knew a lot of the words. This one sounded very much like In Amaranthine Fair, though I didn’t have time to listen harder, aware of Alistair tensing beside me.

“Uh-oh,” he muttered. “Loghain’s men. This can’t be good.”

I followed his gaze. The soldiers should have been the first thing I noticed. There was a pack of them over by the far side of the bar, all in leather and heavy chain, and I felt my stomach clench. Several of the men were swinging mugs, raucous with booze and the over-confidence that came from the roughest kind of authority. Each bore the teyrn’s badge on his shoulder, and without that I could easily have mistaken them for the kind of guard shift we used to get on the alienage gates on long winter evenings: bored, bad-tempered, and waiting for an excuse for malice.

Their captain looked sober, though, and it was he who pointed over towards us, just as I was realising there wasn’t much point in trying to back out of the tavern quietly. Practically every eye in the place was on us already although, from the gallery, the bards were valiantly attempting to carry on with their song.

“And she was the lady with golden hair
And eyes soft as sweet rain.
And she was my love, in Amaranthine fair,
Who ne’er I’ll see again….”

The woman’s clear, mellow voice, and the round, warm notes of the lute gradually tapered away, just as every patron standing between us and the teyrn’s soldiers suddenly seemed to find a reason to be elsewhere.

“Well, well,” the captain boomed. “Look what we have here, men. I think we’ve just been blessed!”

My backbone seemed anxious to slide out from under my skin and make a bid for freedom. I didn’t move; laying a hand on a weapon would only give them the cause they were looking for.

Another of the soldiers edged forwards: eager and obsequious at his superior’s side.

“That’s them, isn’t it, ser? The tall, fair one, and the elf.”

“Indeed, Corporal. Looks like our sources were correct.” The shem leered unpleasantly at us and, extending two fingers of his left hand, waved his men forwards. “Come along, boys. We’re taking the Grey Wardens into custody.”

The sound of a wooden chair being pushed back barked on the floor, and a woman in a chantry robe rose, coming to put herself between us and the soldiers. The firelight glimmered on the red-and-gold embroidery of her clothing, and made flames of her striking auburn hair, a deeper red than I’d ever seen on anyone. It was almost as remarkable as the calmness with which she faced down the entire band of drunken, restless men.

“Gentlemen,” she said sweetly, her voice carrying the lilts and twirls of Orlesian consonants, “surely there is no need for trouble. These are no doubt simply more poor souls seeking refuge.”

I risked a glance at my companions. Morrigan’s grip on her staff had grown slightly more tense, her stare unblinking, and Alistair slipped me an almost imperceptible nod. By my heel, Maethor was standing four-square, attentive, his jaws open a fraction… just enough to show the white gleam of his teeth.

The captain scoffed. “They’re more than that. Now stay out of our way, Sister. You protect these traitors, and you’ll get the same as them.”

I had no desire to add bloodshed to Lothering’s list of woes, but we couldn’t back down. At least, I supposed, this answered my question about whether Loghain knew we were alive—and how long he planned for us to remain that way.

“Look….” I ran my tongue over my dry, cracked lips, aware my appearance didn’t present a very convincing picture. “Let’s just talk about this, shall we?”

The human curled his lip disparagingly, reminding me for a fleeting moment of the last time I’d tried to divert violence with words.

Maybe you should invite it over for dinner!

The chantry sister shook her head and, turning around, fixed me with an ice-blue gaze like two chips of bright glass in a heart-shaped, porcelain face.

“I doubt he would listen,” she said, in that musical, mellifluous tone. “He blindly follows his master’s commands.”

“I am not the blind one!” the captain retorted angrily. “I served at Ostagar, where the teyrn saved us from the Grey Wardens’ treachery! I serve him gladly!”

“Then you’re blind and a fool!” Alistair snapped. “It was Loghain who betrayed—”

“Lies!” The captain drew his sword, sending a scattering of mugs on the bar crashing to the rushes. “They’re ours, lads! Kill the sister and anyone else who gets in your way.”

For men who’d been drinking hard, their reflexes were fast. The discipline of army life would do that a person, I supposed, as one heavy shem lunged at me, his fleshy mouth curled around a roar of anger. I ducked and, as the ale-foul dankness of his breath washed over me and his blade arced through the air above my head, I came up with my knee already bent, making a short and powerful thrust into his crotch. His cry of rage became a retching, agonised howl, cut off when my fist met the bridge of his nose and—pain exploding through my knuckles—I felt the shift of cartilage wrenching.

He collapsed backwards, taking a perfectly innocent chair with him, and I clutched my bloody hand to my chest, swearing a blue streak. Maethor was taking care of a soldier of his own, shaking the man’s arm in his mouth like it was a rag toy, while the flash of sharp white light that pulsed through the air, making my sinuses throb, told me Morrigan was busy tormenting anyone foolish enough to rush her. My first concern was for the sister who had tried to help us, and it was with some surprise that I saw she had slipped a dagger from her boot, and was merrily disarming the slimy little corporal.

I didn’t have much opportunity to wonder where she’d learned those skills, because Alistair yelled my name and, without breaking for breath, I pitched to the ground, just before another of the teyrn’s men tried to break a chair over my head.

I got a mouthful of tavern-floor rushes, and rose up spitting, sword drawn and splinters of wood in my hair. I saw Alistair slam the captain to the ground with his shield, the sheer weight of anger and betrayal behind his blow sending the man scudding a good two feet along the floor.

It wasn’t right. None of it was right. These men didn’t want us taken alive, whatever they claimed their orders were… and Alistair certainly wasn’t inclined to mercy. All I saw as I glanced around the scrum were the ranks of terrified faces; people pressed to the walls where they hadn’t been able to get out of the door. Children were crying into their mothers’ bosoms, and an old man had positioned himself in front of his wife, his arms spread out to guard her from the flurry of blades.

“Enough!” I yelled, bringing the pommel of my blade back into the teeth of the man coming up behind me, and stomping down on his foot.

Across the room, a burst of that unsettling magical ice proved that Morrigan had to have the last word on everything but, gradually, the fighting stilled. The bright ting of metal and the fleshy thuds of blows ceased, leaving only ragged breathing, the squalling of babies, and sobs of children… and the pained groans of the handful of men still on the ground.

The captain had yet to rise. From the way he was sweating and lying there on his back, groping for his sword with his left hand, I guessed Alistair’s shield blow had broken his arm.

Alistair didn’t look bothered by the fact; if anything, he seemed mildly annoyed that he wasn’t going to get to finish the job. When he looked at me—a silent question as I crossed the room, picking my way through the mess—I expected to see hardness in his face, anger or… well, something other than that tight, desperate ache.

I couldn’t hold his gaze. I looked away, down at Loghain’s lackey, and the sweat beading on his poorly shaven upper lip. Behind me, I was aware of those of his men still standing, caught in an awkward moment of hiatus, unsure what they should do.

The shem scowled at me, his dark eyes narrow and ever-flickering, like a rat.

“T-Traitors!” he gurgled.

I placed my foot delicately over his broken arm, and listened to him catch his breath. I don’t know quite why I did it, but it felt good. Just a little more pressure, and I could make the bastard scream like a woman in labour.

“Do you yield, ser?” I asked, loud enough for the whole tavern to hear me.

He gave me a look of pure hatred, but nodded his head.

“All right… yes. Yes, we yield. You’ve won,” he growled, and I could have sworn that ‘knife-ears’ was just dangling from his tongue, unsaid but as good as shouted.

The Orlesian chantry sister gave a small, bright sigh. “Good. They’ve learned their lesson and we can all stop fighting now.”

I removed my foot from the soldier’s arm and nodded to Alistair to help him up. He did it, but not with terribly good grace.

“The Grey Wardens didn’t betray King Cailan,” he muttered, grabbing the man’s left arm and hauling him roughly to his feet. “Loghain did.”

“I was there!” The captain’s lip curled back into a snarl. “The teyrn pulled us out of a trap!”

They were nose-to-nose now, fair against dark, Alistair still harshly clasping the man’s arm… and probably set to break that one, too.

“There was no trap!” he protested. “Ishal was overrun! The beacon went up, and the teyrn left the king to die!”

Whatever the truth of that night, and whatever had lain behind it, I had to admit that the loyalty Teyrn Loghain inspired in his men was impressive. The captain refused to back down, the anger in his voice every bit as tempered with betrayal and pain as Alistair’s.

I wondered how much of the carnage on the battlefield he’d seen at Ostagar.

“The Wardens led the king to his death!” he spat. “The teyrn could do nothing!”

“That’s a lie! Our men—”

This wasn’t helping. I snaked out a foot and kicked Alistair on the ankle, savagely but quickly.

“Ow!”

“Take a message to Loghain,” I told the captain, getting in while I had the chance, and supplementing my words with a little shove to his chest.

It had the benefit of getting Alistair to let go of him, yet maintaining the look of the argument.

“W-what would you have me tell him?”

The bastard was looking at Alistair, not me. I almost wished I’d let him get his other arm broken.

“Tell him,” I said sharply, “that the Grey Wardens know what happened at Ostagar and, if he thinks he can outmanoeuvre the Blight, he’s wrong.”

Something changed behind those hard, angry eyes. The captain’s white, sweaty face seemed, just for a moment, fearful. He opened his mouth, but right now I had the advantage, and I wasn’t about to let it go.

“Now get out!” I said, raising my voice and turning, catching the whole band of them up in what I hoped was a suitably wrathful gesture. “All of you!”

The teyrn’s men bolted for the door, the greasy little corporal aiding his injured captain. Several of them were sporting cut lips and bloody faces, I noted, with rather unpleasant pride. Then again, my knuckles were throbbing and scraped raw… but at least everyone else seemed all right.

I cast a glance around the tavern, taking in the terrified faces, smashed chairs, and blood on the floor with a sinking sense of culpable embarrassment.

“Ahem.”

The innkeeper rose from behind the bar and looked at us meaningfully over his thick, greying moustache.

“Er….” I said, aware of how very quiet it suddenly seemed. “Sorry about the mess.”

There was a drawn-out silence, in which the man gave me a long, considering stare. Eventually, he shrugged.

“Eh, they had it coming, and they were trouble enough themselves. So long as you don’t start anything else, I won’t get excited.”

It was as if someone had touched a feather to the glass-smooth surface of a pond, and ripples were free to spread across its width once more. A breath of relief seemed to gust through the tavern and, slowly, the buzz of normal conversation and movement returned. The bards even resumed their performance, with the strains of a lute picking up the first few bars of If I Were A Soldier… which I could only assume was someone’s idea of a joke.

“Now then, folks.” The innkeeper cleared his throat pointedly. “What can I get you?”

“Ah.” I glanced back at my companions. The price of a round of drinks was probably worth the inconvenience we’d caused him. “Um….”

We ended up crowded around a small, rickety wooden table near the fire, with people staring at us like we might be about to start smashing the place up again at the slightest provocation. Coin purse completely emptied, we each nursed a mug of ale the innkeeper had overcharged massively for, and tried to look relaxed. The only one of us succeeding at that was Maethor, sprawled out on his back with his legs in the air, warming his belly in front of the flames.

The whispers were already moving. I could feel them winding their way through the firelight, heavy and barbed, changing as they spread from the tavern and out into the dusty streets beyond. Our presence was known now, and it wouldn’t be safe to linger.

The Orlesian sister had joined us. She hadn’t asked; just sat down at the table, beside Morrigan, and started smiling at us encouragingly. It made things extremely awkward.

“I apologise for interfering,” she said, “but I couldn’t just sit by and not help. Let me introduce myself. I am Leliana, one of the lay sisters of the chantry here in Lothering.”

She extended a pale, smooth-skinned hand with nails shaped like almonds, and that cheerful little smile broadened. The firelight danced on her skin, and lent a slightly mysterious cast to that bright, glass-like gaze. I couldn’t escape the feeling that, somehow, she was looking straight through me, into some other world.

“Er… right.” I reached out and shook her hand gingerly, the drying blood cracking on my knuckles. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Merien. This is Alistair, and Morrigan… that’s Maethor.”

The mabari looked up at us over a swathe of warm, pink belly, and wagged his tail. Alistair cleared his throat.

“So, uh, tell me,” he said, idly thumbing the handle of his mug, “where does a lay sister learn to fight like that?”

Leliana’s smile became a shy, secret twist of prettily shaped lips; a coquettish flutter of those unusually pale eyes.

“I wasn’t born in the Chantry, you know,” she said, with the tone of reproach a woman might use to warn a man he hasn’t commented on her new hairstyle. “Many of us had more… colourful lives before we joined.”

“Ah… huh.” Alistair lifted his pint and took a long swallow.

Morrigan wore an expression of barely concealed distaste, shoulders hunched, one elbow propped on the sticky table, and long fingers tapping out patterns on the rim of her mug. She was watching the door, I imagined, and waiting to see if we would have any further unexpected surprises.

All I wanted to do was get rid of the strange foreign woman with the penchant for concealed weaponry, and get going. Food would have to wait. We’d be bound to find a farmhold or somewhere we could buy—or if need came to it—liberate a chicken or two.

Leliana turned that disarming smile on me.

“They said you were Grey Wardens,” she said conversationally.

I fought the urge to look around me. There wasn’t anyone here who didn’t already know and, if they weren’t prepared to rush us when the teyrn’s men were here and armed, they weren’t going to do it now. I nodded, aware that every word was being overheard.

“We are.”

She’s not,” Alistair added, looking at Morrigan. “They don’t let just anyone in, y’know.”

She curled her lip at him and, from the fire-warmed rushes, Maethor made a small canine groan of dissent. I wasn’t sure if he was taking sides, or just threatening violence if they started up again.

“Hmm.” Leliana tipped her head to the side; a quick, rather bird-like movement, I thought, and surprising in one who seemed to radiate such a sense of calm. “I’m surprised you’re an elf, but elves must want the Blight defeated as much as humans, no?”

Something about the way she said it—that smooth, almost dismissive tone, papered over by the pretty, cadenced accent—raised my hackles.

They say that, in Val Royeaux, ten thousand elves live in a space no bigger than Denerim’s market, and the walls are so high that daylight doesn’t reach the vhenadahl until midday….

I tried not to dwell on the thought. Snippets of memory: stories, rumours… nothing more. Every alienage wanted to believe it had it better than every other. In Val Royeaux, they probably said the same thing about Denerim.

“I suppose so,” I said carefully.

“Well, I know after what happened, you’ll need all the help you can get. That’s why I’m coming along.”

My mug halted halfway to my lips. Morrigan snorted, and Alistair was trying to pretend he hadn’t just choked on his ale.

I raised an eyebrow. “Er… sorry?”

Leliana seemed unfazed. She just kept looking at me with that small, cheerful, unflappable smile.

“Look, that’s very, um—” I set my mug down on the table, staring into its froth-rimed innards in the hope of finding some kind of useful ammunition there. “—kind of you. But… really… we’re just heading to Redcliffe, and—”

“Why would you want to come with us?” Alistair asked. “Exactly?”

“The Maker told me to,” she said, with serene gravity.

Morrigan sniggered, and swigged her ale. I didn’t dare look at Alistair. The woman obviously meant well, but we really didn’t need a religious lunatic trailing after us. I suspected it was going to be hard enough to convince Arl Eamon of our story in the first place.

“Er. Right,” I said. “Um….”

Leliana’s smile faltered and she blinked, looking down at the tabletop.

“I-I know that sounds… absolutely insane. But it’s true! I had a dream… a vision.”

“More crazy?” Alistair muttered. “I thought we were all full up.”

I shot him a reproachful glance, though it was hard to actually disagree. Yet, in the shifting firelight, with the bards playing and the quiet, subdued murmur of conversation pressing in around us, Leliana didn’t seem crazy. There was an honesty to the way she spoke, a seriousness in those pale eyes that was difficult to ignore.

“Look at the people here,” she said. “They are lost in their despair, and this darkness, this chaos… it will spread.”

I didn’t need to turn in my seat to see what she meant. Row upon row of refugees, the lost and the hungry… it was far too easy to picture the horde washing north, bringing darkness and destruction with it. And it wasn’t just the darkspawn that threatened the land. A tide of panic pushed ahead of them, I realised. People began to flee their homes, which opened up the way for thieves and bandits, the desperate and the dishonest. Rumours ran riot, grew warped and blackened and, once madness got its foot in the door, the whole structure of life began to topple.

It was quite possible that Lothering would have ripped itself to pieces long before the darkspawn actually got here.

“The Maker doesn’t want this,” Leliana said earnestly. “You are Grey Wardens. What you do, what you are meant to do, is the Maker’s work. Let me help!”

I blinked, unsure. “Well, we need more than prayers, Sister….”

“I can fight. I can do more than fight. As I said, I was not always a lay sister. I put aside that life when I came here, but now, if it is the Maker’s will, I will take it up again. Gladly. Please let me help you.”

I sighed, and looked at Alistair.

“Well? What do you think?”

Morrigan scoffed. “You are not seriously considering allowing her to tag along? Your skull must have been cracked worse than Mother thought.”

I ignored her. Alistair looked apprehensive.

“The Grey Wardens have always taken allies where they could find them,” he said doubtfully. “And we’re not in much of a position to turn away help when it’s offered. But….”

“We’re just going to Redcliffe,” I said, as a hopeful smile burst across Leliana’s face like a spring dawn. “It’s really not a—”

“Thank you!” She almost bounced in her seat. “Truly! I appreciate being given this chance. I will not let you down.”

Morrigan groaned and drained the rest of her ale. I smiled uneasily, and we finished our drinks under the innkeeper’s watchful eye, given to understand—in no uncertain terms—that we could be on our way now, thank you very much.

~o~O~o~

We left the tavern and started to head northwards, meaning to pick up the Highway and travel on until nightfall. It was hard to leave like that, when so many people were clearly so much in need—and knowing what fate awaited them—but we had no real choice. The knowledge hung uncomfortably in the air, pale and dreadful, and with the possible exception of Morrigan, I don’t think any of us left the village without regrets or discomfort. Certainly, as we struck out from the square, the ale sat sourly in my empty stomach. There was also an angry throbbing in my boots, which promised that, when I finally got to take them off, it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience. I supposed some of our problems weren’t so far removed from those of the refugees… and perhaps I tried to cling to that, in the hope it would make it easier to walk away.

Trade routes aside, it seemed that part of Lothering’s wealth came from a small mine that lay outside the village. We could see the outline of the works as we passed behind the north end of the square, through the rows of boarded-up stores and shuttered houses. Leliana—apparently full of wisdom about everything—informed us that work had halted there almost two weeks ago, the men driven out by strange noises and tremors beneath the ground, and frightened by all the talk of darkspawn in the south. They had battened down the entrances, and left nothing but the wind-powered pump turning, its sails an eerie, rhythmic creak in the still air.

I looked at Alistair, and gathered from the tightness around his eyes and mouth that he was probably thinking much the same thing as me.

The darkspawn came up through the lower levels. They’re everywhere!

The bastards knew how to find a weakness and exploit it, that was certain. The only question was whether they’d pour out of the ground, or just sweep over the place like a plague. I wondered how much of the countryside they had their claws into already, how far their insidious taint had spread… and how long it would take for me to begin feeling it.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but I supposed I’d have to ask Alistair about it sooner or later. Try as I might to ignore the questions I had, they niggled at the back of my mind, never entirely forgotten. I knew so little about what I was supposed to have become—what it would mean, the ways it would change me—and he was the only source of knowledge I had on the Grey Wardens. That was worrying in itself, I supposed, reminded of the sheepish way he’d introduced himself back at Ostagar: ‘the new Grey Warden’. The Order’s junior and general dogsbody, more like, and now here he was—here we were—all that was left of it.

Empty crop fields spread out to our right, bare, brown and muddy, the sky a bright, stinging blue against the muted colours of the land. The hard stone line of the Highway curved away to the left, and I supposed it wouldn’t be long before we could join it and start picking up our pace. Just under two days, Alistair reckoned it should take us.

We were walking in awkward silence, Maethor padding along ahead and snuffing the ground, widdling up interesting-looking blades of grass and fenceposts, but the rest of us rather subdued by the presence of our new addition. Prior to leaving the tavern, Alistair had asked Leliana if she needed to collect any belongings from the chantry, or speak with her revered mother before she left. Of all of us, I suppose he was the most painfully aware that cloistered brothers and sisters weren’t meant to just get up and leave.

It was mildly worrying when she hauled a leather pack out from beneath her chair and shook her head, smiling.

In fact, I found a great deal about her worrying, but I supposed—as he’d pointed out—we were hardly in a position to be choosy about the allies we picked up along our way. Of course, he probably didn’t include Morrigan in that statement… but she was still here. Odd, that. I’d half-expected the witch to disappear as soon as we were out of the Wilds, but she’d lingered—and been of more use to us than I really wanted to admit.

I would have liked to have taken a moment to speak with her before we hit the Highway, but the opportunity didn’t present itself and, nervous of trying to force such a chance, I hung back, cloth-tongued and hesitant.

At the edge of the village, there was a crossroads and—in the way of such places—a gallows where the condemned would swing in the breeze. The faint shiver of possibility skated through me at the sight of it, whispers of thoughts that reminded me how close I had come to feeling a rope around my own neck… and the bittersweet memories of the man who’d saved me, and now was lost himself.

I pushed them from my mind, and realised that there was a sound here beyond the cawing of the crows perched in the trees. It was the low murmur of a voice, shaping itself around words uttered with all the reverence and solemnity of prayer… just not in any language I’d ever heard spoken.

Maethor barked, and assumed the one-front-paw-raised pointing position he normally reserved for rabbits, his short muzzle twitching as he stared intently at what I now saw was a metal cage, set back behind the gallows. Back in Denerim, the slang for those things was bird coop—the place they put you when they couldn’t be arsed to hang you, so it was said. You just got left until you starved, or the rats had your fingers and toes, or some kind passer-by decided to gut you and take your teeth.

There was a prisoner in this one… not that he looked like anything I’d ever seen before. He was enormous, easily bigger than any human, though he was hunched on the floor of the cage, and probably unable to stand to his full height. He’d been left with clothes enough to cover his modesty—a ragged shirt and breeches, barely containing his massive bulk—but they did little to disguise the sheer size and power of the creature. Yet, for all that, he just sat, unmoving as we approached, murmuring his strange and constant chant.

He was dark, but not in the way of any human or elf I’d seen; the tones of his skin were deepest brown and gold, like his flesh was hammered bronze. It lent him a strange, unearthly appearance, and made the pure white of his hair all the more striking. He wore it in rows of tight braids, bound together at the back of his head and hanging down to the middle of his broad shoulders. His ears were pointed, but not like an elf’s… more like a human’s, just clipped at the tip. His face was all wide planes and sharp angles, as if he’d been carved from some great wall of rock, the rough edges buffed away by a careful sculptor, then life breathed into him by another, higher hand.

“The qunari prisoner,” Leliana murmured, drawing to a standstill a few feet from the cage.

A look of immeasurable sadness and pity touched her face, and I had the horrible feeling she was about to ask a favour of us. Yet, instead of rushing on, I was distracted, my mouth framing that strange word she’d used.

“Qunari…?”

I’d seen it written, seen mention of that foreign, warlike race; the greatest threat to Thedas since the Fourth Blight, people said. I hadn’t seen one before, though I knew a few of them even showed up in Denerim from time to time, usually as walking enforcement weapons for those who could afford to pay. The Chantry warned they were a violent, bloodthirsty, soulless people… but the prisoner in the cage, quietly intoning his prayers, did not look any of the three.

As if he felt my scrutiny, his chant stopped, his eyes flicked open, and I found myself confronted with a gaze almost as disconcerting as Morrigan’s. His eyes were a vivid, reddish violet, rimmed with black, like some bruised and bloodied flower, and they held a look of such intense awareness that I felt instantly humbled, and ignorant.

“You are not one of my captors,” he rumbled, in a voice like the slow growth of giant trees. “I have nothing to say that would amuse you, elf. Leave me in peace.”

“What are you?” I blurted, my curiosity trampling all over the manners Father had taken such pains to instil in me.

“A prisoner. I’m in a cage, am I not? I was placed here by the Chantry.”

“It’s true.” I was aware of Leliana stepping up behind me, lowering her voice into the kind of stage whisper that can carry across a crowded room. “The revered mother said he slaughtered an entire family. Even the children.”

It sounded appalling. My stomach knotted at the mere thought… yet it was hard to doubt the capabilities of the man sitting before us. Each of those colossal hands looked easily able to inflict a killing blow, or crush a windpipe… after all, I’d once killed a man with my bare hands. Well, bare arm. I knew just how hard it was, and how long it took, and I shuddered both at the memory, and the imaginings of what this prisoner must have done, with or without a weapon.

“I-Is that true?” I heard myself ask, perhaps wanting to hear a lie. He didn’t look like a ravening killer.

His gaze did not waver. “It is as she says.”

My flesh crept. I didn’t know what to say, but I found it hard to look away from those strange, solemn eyes. I glanced at the bars of his cage, and frowned.

“They must have had difficulty capturing you.”

“No.”

He offered no explanation, and his silence did not invite questions. Yet, there was a flicker of something there, some glimpse of… what? Was it regret, or remorse? I wasn’t sure, but I was intrigued. Surely, no ruthless, uncaring murderer would sit and wait to be imprisoned for his crime—and Lothering had little in the way of law enforcement to send after such a man.

“He has been here for weeks,” Leliana volunteered. “I am surprised he is not dead yet. No food, no water… it is inhumane!”

The qunari looked briefly at her, his face impassive. “I am not human.”

The observation set a smile tugging at the corner of my mouth. So coldly logical it could almost be taken for sarcasm.

“And… they did not execute you?” I asked.

He inclined his head. “The priestess said she would leave my fate to her god. Either I will be dead before the darkspawn come, or I shall die facing them.”

“From in there?” Alistair sounded as horrified as I felt. “With no weapon?”

He was right; it was a sickening image. Morrigan let out a terse, frustrated breath.

“This,” she said bitterly, “is a proud and powerful creature, trapped as prey for the horde. If you cannot see a use for him, I suggest releasing him for mercy’s sake alone.”

Surprised, I glanced at her, almost expecting to see compassion flooding those golden eyes. Instead, there was an almost violent outrage, her mouth a thin line of fury.

Alistair snorted. “Mercy? I wouldn’t have expected that from you.”

“Hm.” She crossed her arms and glared at him, tone suddenly less impassioned than before. “I would also suggest that Alistair take his place in the cage.”

“Ah. Yes, that’s what I would’ve expected.”

Leliana looked piteously at me. “To be left here to starve, or to be taken by the darkspawn… no one deserves that, not even a murderer. I wonder, would the revered mother release him into your custody? You are Grey Wardens.”

The qunari raised his head, suddenly seeming interested. I winced, not really comfortable with anyone poking about at the ironic truth behind that statement. That Alistair and I were Grey Wardens was one thing… but neither of us was properly equipped to start conscripting recruits any time soon.

“My people have heard legends of the Grey Wardens’ strength and skill,” the qunari said, that odd gaze tracking over both of us. “Although I suppose not every legend is true.”

Alistair gave a small, rather piqued ‘hmph’, and I could have sworn I heard the breadth of Morrigan’s smile. Still, I was uneasy. We seemed to be acquiring people left, right and centre. First Morrigan, then Maethor, then Leliana… it wasn’t as if we trying to raise an army.

My gaze lit on a sizeable rock lying beneath a cluster of straggly plants at the roadside. I bent, picked it up, and weighed it thoughtfully in my hand. Behind me, Leliana and Alistair were debating how best to frame a request to the revered mother.

“Er… what are you going to do with that?” Alistair enquired, breaking for a moment from the argument.

I ignored him, and looked at the qunari.

“What would you do if we freed you?” I asked, watching for change in that mighty, glacial face.

“Seek my atonement in battle,” he said solemnly. “Following the Grey Wardens seems as likely to bring my death as waiting here.”

I wanted to ask if he could only find atonement through death, but it didn’t seem like the moment for a theoretical debate. I wasn’t entirely sure about this following us business, either.

“All right,” I said instead. “What is your name?”

“I am Sten of the Beresaad—the vanguard—of the qunari peoples.”

“And I am Merien.” I smiled, which didn’t appear to be a concept he was familiar with, and debated the wisdom of calling myself ‘of’ something… if only I knew quite what it should be.

I brought the rock up under the hinge of the cage and, with a couple of sharp blows, the pin jumped clean out of its bolt. The same technique, applied to the top hinge, had the door loose enough to prise away from the bars, and left the prisoner free to step from the cage.

He looked warily at the ground, then at me.

“Simply opening the cage does not make me free.”

I groped for the best piece of philosophy I could find, which was not an easy task.

“Well… perhaps no man is truly free,” I ventured. “We are all bound by destiny, duty… honour. And you can always stay there if you’d prefer. At least you’ll be able to get a better grip on the darkspawn without the door in the way.”

Part of me was amazed at myself. Father always used to say I had my mother’s smart mouth, but I didn’t usually shoot it off in front of people who looked like they could pick me up and break me in two with one hand.

The qunari appeared to consider his position and, after several moments, began to uncurl himself, setting first one great foot and then the other to the dusty ground. The cage creaked and groaned as he edged himself from it and, finally, he stood before us, seeming surprisingly hale after his captivity.

“And so it is done,” he observed. “Now may we proceed? I am eager to be elsewhere.”

He wasn’t the only one.

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Volume 2: Chapter Four
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