Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Twelve

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Deciding to travel to the Circle Tower was one thing. Determining how to get there, however, was entirely another matter. The cliff path—the fastest route to get from Redcliffe back onto the Highway, which led right up to the shores of Lake Calenhad—meant a two-day round trip on foot, and it was highly unlikely we had that long.

Two of Ser Perth’s men were sent to examine the possibility of fresh horses from the arl’s stables, but reported back queasily that the majority were either dead or in no state for such a journey.

I frowned thoughtfully, thinking of the rows of little quays and jetties, fringed with smokehouses, down by the lakeside.

“What about going straight across the lake?” I asked. “Would that be quicker?”

“Across?” Bann Teagan stared at me. “By boat, you mean?”

I glanced at the men around me, and the looks of surprise on their faces. Perhaps I’d just said something stupid.

“Well… it’s a fishing village, isn’t it?”

“It’s a long way,” Alistair said doubtfully. “For a small boat. And that’s if we could even find one to carry us, and someone who knows the waters. The lake’s pretty treacherous.”

I nodded. Stupid idea, obviously.

“But,” he added, a speculative light touching his eyes. “It would be quicker.”

Teagan sighed. “All right. Murdock would be bound to know if there’s anyone who can help. Get yourselves back down to the village, and tell him I’ll pay double the charter for any man willing to guide you.”

“Right.”

Alistair pulled himself up to something vaguely approaching attention, the tightness around his eyes relaying the trouble he must have been having with that arrow wound.

We said brief farewells. None of it really seemed real, and Maethor whined pitifully when I told him to stay with Teagan. I patted his head and told him he was a good dog, which earned me a wag of that stumpy tail, but it was hard to leave him behind. The mabari was the only one there—apart from Alistair, perhaps—who I didn’t think was looking at me as if I was running away.

It was my imagination, my guilt… nothing more. I forced myself to believe that, and loped after Alistair, scurrying a bit to keep up as we left the great hall.

I heaved in a lungful of air as we stepped out into the courtyard, relieved to be back in daylight, despite the vestiges of bloodshed on the stones. The gates were open—Ser Perth’s men had come this way, no doubt—so at least we wouldn’t have to negotiate the route back to the village through cobwebs and choked walls of dust.

We stopped at the sound of running feet coming up behind us, but before we could draw blades a familiar voice called out.

“Wait! Wait… I’m coming with you!”

Leliana jogged to a halt at the top of the steps, the sunlight threading flares of gold through her red hair, and those bold eyes narrowed against the brightness. With a bow slung over her shoulder and Owen’s hastily tweaked leather armour neatly tapered to her slim curves, she didn’t look like the sort of woman it was sensible to refuse.

I glanced at Alistair. He sighed wearily, obviously not prepared to argue.

“Fine. If we can find a big enough boat.”

~o~O~o~

By the time we got back down into the village, part of me was almost hoping we wouldn’t be able to find passage across the water. I’d forgotten how big Lake Calenhad looked… and boats were, frankly, either things I’d seen in books, or giant wooden monsters up at the docks, whose creaking hulls were like moveable walls.

I tried not to think about it, just as I tried to ignore that other, darker hope that nestled within me. Maybe Connor will turn again while we’re gone, it whispered, that thin and ghastly voice that I didn’t want to believe was part of who I was. Maybe the others would have to deal with him, and I wouldn’t be called upon to choose… or to kill.

The village was buzzing with a strange mix of jubilation and bitterness. Those who weren’t resting were drinking, or grieving, or building pyres. Smoke stained the sky and lent the air a greasy, tangy quality, but the people greeted Leliana like a hero.

We found Murdock and related both the plan and Bann Teagan’s incentive. His great, bushy brows drew together, those hooded eyes narrowing before he gave a curt nod and growled out an assent.

“Aye, I know just the man… if he’s still sober.”

It didn’t sound all that promising, but we were hardly blessed with an abundance of alternatives. Murdock agreed to find our captain, and suggested we saw Mother Hannah to get ourselves patched up—as he put it, with a dubious glance at Alistair—before the journey.

Alistair started to say something about time being of the essence, and how we needed to hurry, but Leliana cut across him and unusually, I thought, he didn’t push it.

I saw why when we got into the chantry. Mother Hannah greeted us, outstretched hands and cheek-kisses for Leliana, and grateful smiles for Alistair and me.

“I suppose I must admit that your… subtlety with the truth paid off, Warden,” she said, giving me an old-fashioned look. “These people have found their belief again, and their courage. But I see it has been paid for in blood.”

My split lip tightened painfully as I tried to smile. The raw-edged empty socket was still oozing, coating my mouth with the aftertaste of blood.

“We’d appreciate a little assistance before we leave, Mother,” I said, and I explained our intention to journey to the Circle.

I kept the story of Connor’s possession as brief as possible, not wanting to outline enough details of what was going on up at the castle to excite the interest of a mob, but the priest’s face grew stern.

“I see,” she said, guiding us to a small side chapel, and sending one of the sisters for hot water and towels. “Well, of course… all we have is at your disposal. We can at least get you cleaned up.”

“Mm. Might as well try and look presentable when we meet the mages,” Alistair said, grunting as he peeled off his armour.

Leliana gasped. “Oh, Maker…. We need to get that seen to.”

“Huh?”

Buckles loosened, his leathers and the padded jack beneath mostly off, Alistair glanced down at the ripped, bloody swathe of shirt hanging from his shoulder, and the gory nub of arrow shaft still sticking out of the torn flesh at the top of his arm. He gulped, and started to turn a very pale shade of whitish-green.

“Wow. That’s… that’s a lot of blood,” he observed woozily. “Um. Is it all mine?”

Mother Hannah, with well-versed and swift efficiency, called for more hot water, cloths, and needle and thread. Redcliffe might not have had mages, but the chantry sisters did possess a certain expertise with battle wounds… that much they’d had to learn in recent weeks, I supposed.

Removing the remnants of the arrow was simple enough. There was a sharp knife, more blood, and a certain degree of tooth-gnashing and stifled yelling.

Alistair was fairly brave about it, though I suspected the number of women dancing attendance on him might have had something to do with that. Leliana’s skills, once again, knew no bounds. Not only was she the hero of the people, the rescuer of the abandoned and the saviour of the downtrodden, but she turned out to have a very neat and tidy hand when it came to stitching.

I wanted to make myself useful, but there didn’t seem to be much for me to do, so I went to wash my face and hands, clean up our armour as best I could, and scrounge Alistair a clean shirt from the chantry’s pile of charitable garments meant to outfit the dispossessed. My mind didn’t stray far from what might be happening at the castle, and nagging doubts assailed me. Were we doing the right thing?

~o~O~o~

By the time Murdock came to find us, we were as presentable as we were going to get. Alistair was pale and shadow-eyed, though all sewn up and shooting grateful looks at Leliana. She brushed away the thanks, muttering that one picked up skills when one travelled, and it was nothing more than that.

I kept my curiosity to myself. Back home, I’d fetched and carried for the older women enough times when one of the boys had done something stupid. I’d seen my share of bloody faces, of knife and bottle scars, and I’d boiled water and washed wounds, and held bowls when all that blood and pain brought on the inevitable retching. But, for all the kitchen-table doctoring we were used to in the alienage, we didn’t see the damages of battle… of properly wielded weapons that were actually designed to kill.

Leliana had, I’d have wagered, and it made me wonder all the more about what life she must have left behind her when she joined the cloister. What life she’d fled from, perhaps.

Outside the chantry, Murdock’s captain was waiting for us. His name was Wulff and he was, the mayor said, the best skipper in the village. Thirty years on the water, and the lake had blessed him, or so people said. As I was to learn, living so close to such a large body of water lent Redcliffe’s inhabitants a certain poetic reverence when it came to the lake, and tempered it with a healthy respect.

I expected to see a great, grizzled bear of a man, but Wulff was small, wiry, and red-faced, skin blasted to a crumpled, rough canvas by years of work out on the water. His eyes were perpetually squinting as if to catch the edge of the horizon, and his red-knuckled hands always seemed clenched on the cords of an invisible net. He even moved with wary circumspection, that bony frame bowed and head always at a slight angle, as if he was sniffing us out.

I tried to recall whether I’d seen the man fighting last night, but I couldn’t place him, and guessed he must have been in the chantry… or he had a talent for melting into the background.

Wulff looked the three of us over critically.

“Hmph.” He snorted, and turned to Murdock. “These be they, aye?”

Murdock nodded. “Aye.”

“Aye,” Wulff echoed, shooting me a disparaging look. “Well, we’d best get a move on. Murdock says you need to reach the Tower.”

“Yes,” Alistair began. “We—”

Wulff held up a thin, crooked hand. “Then let’s no’ stand around jawing, lad. You’ll want to get a move on. And no extra weight, you hear me?”

With that, he turned and stalked off down towards the lake. We exchanged glances, but followed meekly on behind.

The village was a gutted, desiccated wreck. I hadn’t appreciated how bad the damage had been but, as we passed the husks of houses and storefronts—their timbers cannibalised for barricades, and many of their owners quite possibly already on pyres—I saw how much it was going to take to put this place right. My mind drifted to Lothering, lying defenceless against the oncoming horde, and I wondered how far north the darkspawn had already travelled… how many places they had tainted and destroyed.

Had we really done Redcliffe any favours by saving it from the undead?

The lake filled my vision then, spilling out ahead as we came down the slope, and it was an impressive sight. Golden sunlight split the water into a thousand glistening, molten planes, reflections flaring back against the red rocks and setting the coarse dirt ablaze with colour. Smokehouses, gutters’ quays, little wooden jetties, the spooled-up clutter of ropes and nets and, of course, boats—their dry bellies hauled up on the earth like sad, ownerless, dead things—fringed the shore. It was all just so much bigger than I remembered it being in the moonlight.

Wulff strode on ahead. A strapping great lad who looked faintly familiar—he’d been fighting last night, I thought, and I assumed he was some sort of son or grandson—stood by one of the jetties, a mooring rope in his hands. There was indeed a boat. Later, I would learn the fishermen called them dories although, at that point, I couldn’t have distinguished between a dinghy and a clinker if my life had depended upon it. All I saw was a wooden shell of about fifteen feet in length, slung low in the water. Oars nestled in the rowlocks, rough wooden benches crossed its innards, and what I thought of as the pointy end rose up in a large curve, decorated with a very ornately carved fish. Unevenly worn off paint showed that, once, the fish had been picked out in red and gold, its bulbous eyes a bright, staring green.

“Oh, isn’t it pretty?” Leliana exclaimed.

Wulff headed down to the jetty, waving vaguely at us to follow, with all the arrogant insouciance that suggested he didn’t care whether we did or not.

I tried to nudge my unwilling feet into action. Leliana was still prattling cheerfully about the way the light caught the water and how it reminded her of the most wonderful seafood dish she’d once had in Orlais. Alistair made his way down to the jetty and started to toss the few supplies we were bringing with us—the leather satchel containing those all-important treaties, for one thing—into the keel.

“All right?” he prompted, glancing back at me.

I stepped tentatively down to the water’s edge. Wulff was muttering to the lad, gesturing towards the northerly side of the lake, and the horizon. In the distance, shrouded by the haze of sunshine and slight mist, I thought I could make out the Circle Tower itself, looming skywards. There was a strong smell of fish, almost worn into the boat’s timbers.

Leliana breezed past me and hopped delicately into the dory. I watched it rock and sway as she did so, very aware of the sound of water lapping against the jetty, and against the shoreline. That, and the creak of timbers, and the distant cries of gulls, echoing on the rocks.

“Er.” I cleared my throat. “We’re not going to sink, are we? Or get attacked by… things? I mean, how big do the fish get here?”

A grin spread across Alistair’s face, but quickly softened.

“Big enough. You’re not—oh, you are, aren’t you? Scared of water?”

“No,” I said, too quickly, pouncing on denial like a cat on a mouse. “No! Not… water in general. Just, um, that this is quite a lot of… deep…. Er. I-I can’t swim,” I finished lamely.

Wulff clapped his lad on the arm, then nodded to the boat. The boy got in, taking up the huge pair of oars as if they were nothing but toothpicks, as the old man stepped in behind him and settled on the furthest bench. He glanced over his shoulder at Alistair, wizened red face a picture of barely concealed irritation.

“Come on, boy! The elf comin’ or not?”

Alistair’s smile stiffened and then faded.

“The Grey Warden,” he called, without turning around, “will be right with us. Come on,” he added, lowering his voice for my benefit. “You won’t have to swim. It’ll be fine.”

The sun picked at the sandy gold in his hair, and his eyes held both encouragement and a hint of tired pleading. I sighed.

Alistair was, in my opinion, a far more believable Grey Warden than I could ever have been. I didn’t doubt that he’d have much more luck petitioning the magi than me, but I also knew I couldn’t leave him to go alone.

After all, if we were going to be the treasonous dregs of an outlawed order, we might as well do it together.

~o~O~o~

It took me a while to get used to the rhythm of the dory. Wulff sat hunched up at the bow, barking out orders to the boy—Elwyn, as he stutteringly introduced himself when Leliana asked—and muttering under his breath.

The little boat lurched and clipped and, though the lake was calm and the day virtually without wind, it seemed to me as if the water tugged at the dory’s shallow hull in a hundred different ways. Every moment brought fresh instability, and peering over the side at the murky deepness did little to soothe my nerves.

Alistair, in his usual helpful manner, recounted the stories he’d heard as a child, about the horrible things that dwelt in the lake’s darkest corners. Monsters as big as a man, with teeth like butcher’s knives, just waiting for the unwary to swim by….

“Huh.” Wulff grunted, unexpectedly favouring us with a direct acknowledgement of our presence. “It be they bleedin’ mages. Things they dump in our lake. Wuz a kiddie got her arm near snatched off las’ summer. ’Twas a pikehead grown to seven feet long. ’Orrible bugger. We ’ad ’im, though, din’t we, boy?”

“Aye,” Elwyn agreed, still rowing.

He didn’t speak much, I noticed; just kept pulling the oars back in stroke after stroke, his heavy muscles bunching and cording, and his solid, expressionless face staring out at the water, and the shore receding behind us. There was something faintly unnerving about the lad, really… though not as unnerving as looking out at the lake’s breadth, and thinking I could see things rippling beneath the surface.

We fell silent, at least until the dark, huddled shape of the castle loomed up on the ridge, far above us, and all three of us found ourselves glancing towards it. Watching… wondering. Hoping, perhaps. Leliana’s lips moved softly—framing some soundless prayer, I imagined—and then she turned away, gazing out at the water and the far shore instead. There was such a terrible melancholy in her face; as if she felt such sympathy with those we’d left up there that it caused her true, physical pain.

Alistair cleared his throat, cutting through the repetitive rhythms of oars splashing, and Wulff’s mumbling.

“So, have you had a chance to look at the treaties yet?”

I winced. “Not really. Well… uh, a bit, maybe.”

The truth was not especially palatable. Morrigan had caught me with the papers the last night we’d camped along the Highway, before we reached Redcliffe. She knew. I could still hear her brittle, tinkling laugh.

You can’t read a word of those, can you?

I’d blinked, blustered, and protested. Of course I can! I… I mean, they’re just a bit…. Well, they’re very old.

It hadn’t fooled her.

True, I could read well enough, but the letters and figures Mother had taught me to reckon were nothing like the ornate calligraphy and archaic, official language of the treaties. Their ancient vellum was loaded with flowery signatures and thick, waxy seals… and it made about as much sense to me as spilled ink mopped up with a dishrag.

“Do they really still hold true, though?” I peered at Alistair across the dory’s shallow keel. “I mean… they’re hundreds of years old. The mages, the dwarves… will they really keep to bargains signed that long ago?”

“I think so.” He nodded thoughtfully, a look of weary pride touching his face. “For the Grey Wardens, anyhow. We might not be as strong as we once were, but they still respect us.”

The hint of pride started to congeal, and Alistair frowned. I imagined he’d stumbled on the difference between the ‘us’ that was the order—in a heraldic, abstract sense, redolent of glory and victory—and the ‘us’ that was him and me, soon to be standing in front of the First Enchanter in scruffy armour and waving a wallet of mouldy documents.

I glanced at Leliana, thinking that at the very least her gracious manners and battle-maiden looks might weigh in our favour. She appeared to be dozing, head delicately bowed and eyes hooded. I couldn’t blame her. When this was over, I’d promised myself, I was going to sleep for a month.

“I hope you’re right,” I murmured, my gaze slipping back to Alistair. He was starting to look a bit better than he had earlier, though the strain of the past few days showed plainly. “How’s the shoulder?”

He flexed it experimentally and curled his lip. “Ow…. Yep, still there. How about you?”

I snorted. Yes, we’d make a fine impression: two battle-weary warriors and an elven wench with a fat lip.

“I’ll live,” I said. “My blisters are a lot better, anyway.”

He chuckled dryly and, for a moment, seemed to consider asking something more of me, but no questions came. The sun reflected back off the rippling water, warming me, and I touched my fingers absently to the chain at my neck, grounding myself with the feel of the smooth metal there. My ring, my pendant… everything that had been, and was yet to be.

I looked out at the wide expanse of the lake, every shift of the water changing that mutable landscape, breaking its translucent surface into innumerable new planes, new possibilities.

Whether Alistair was right about the treaties or not, I realised, we were all there was behind them now. With Arl Eamon lying sick—and likely to die, in all probability, even if we managed to save Connor—any vague, hopeful notion I’d had of allowing someone else to handle the politics had completely evaporated.

We were on our own, and the things we were facing had never seemed more insurmountable.

I rested my hand on the smooth-worn wood of the dory’s side, and watched the water slip darkly by as we continued our slow, relentless edge towards the Circle Tower.

We were making good time, as far as I could judge, though the pace felt so leisurely that at times I wondered whether walking wouldn’t have been quicker. It was far too easy to allow myself to be lulled by the boat’s gentle rocking and, like Leliana, to give into the numbing fatigue and just… rest. I think, eventually, we all grabbed a few minutes’ sleep—or the next best thing to it, at any rate.

As the village and the shoreline slipped away, and the edges of the world grew thin and flat, bounding us only with more water, and the walls of red rock that held the lake in check, I grew nervous. The boat felt extremely small and fragile, and Wulff rose up from his hunched position, perched like a bird in the bow and peering keenly ahead.

I didn’t realise it at first, but the emptiest stretches of the lake were the most dangerous. Knife-edged rocks, odd eddies of currents, and whatever else might lurk down there… none of it boded well. As if to emphasise that point, the sun shrouded itself in wisps of grey, and clouds boiled over the horizon. A slight but cold breeze whipped at the water, and Wulff began to bark orders at Elwyn, navigating a fresh path across whatever maps he held in his head.

The dory lurched and rocked, and the rhythm of the oars quickened, Elwyn grunting with the effort. Alistair’s offer to help was summarily rebuffed, and Wulff didn’t even have the grace to pretend it was on account of his wound.

“No good,” he growled. “You don’t know the rhythm of this water, boy, an’ it don’t know you. Best tha’ sits quiet, aye?”

I suppressed the urge to smile at Alistair’s indignant expression and looked away, ahead of us to where the Circle Tower could now plainly be seen: a great, single spire, jutting blackly against the dimming sky.

~o~O~o~

The Tower had not always been on an island. Once, it had been an important node on the Imperial Highway, and the broken white ribs of that familiar road still ran up towards it, though the lake had swallowed the edges of the land.

As we drew closer, I could see it was no fairytale tower, either—no sleek and solitary column, as it looked from the distance. The place was huge; an enormous, hulking building that owed much to the Tevinter architecture I’d seen at Ostagar. Briefly, the similarity to the Tower of Ishal roused unpleasant memories, and I forced them back into the shadows, where they belonged.

The main body of the tower rose skywards in a great bulk of stone. At its foot clustered several other, smaller buildings, and rings of walls that encircled the grounds. Later, I’d learn there were beautiful gardens, servants’ quarters… even a long, low hut where one of the old enchanters had kept breeding pairs of falcons. The place was an entire community, almost a village within itself. At the time, I was just awed into silence. The Tower looked so dark and quiet that it frightened me, and I couldn’t think for all the memories and associations of magic that still clung on from my childhood.

When I was little, a girl a year or so younger than me had been found to have magic. I could see her behind my eyes—a dark, sharp-faced child with few friends—and I reached out into the past for her name. Ari Surana. That was it. I’d been too young to pay much attention, but there had been murmurings over the girl’s head for weeks before they came to take her away. I never even knew what was happening until that day. We didn’t speak of it, as if it was something shameful… it was, really. Her mother wept in the street, and her father grew tight-lipped and silent after it was all over. No one spoke of her anymore, like she’d never even been born.

A while later, the old couple moved into the floor above us. We barely knew them to speak to, but they never had much to say. I thought of Lady Isolde’s words—her tainted blood, with its threat of power—and wondered if magic really was a curse that passed that way, slipping from generation to generation like thin hair or short legs, always waiting to rise unexpectedly in a child.

My ponderings were interrupted, as usual.

“Something’s not right,” Alistair announced, leaning out to the side, craning for a better view of the Tower.

The boat rocked gently under us, and I held on to the rough wooden bench beneath me. “What d’you mean?”

I squinted, following his gaze. There was a muggy, hazy feel to the afternoon air, as if the greying of the sky had fallen down to earth, dropping over everything like an oily mist. Elwyn’s steady oars were bringing us up on the eastern side of the island, and I could see across to the far shore of the lake. Here, at last, the seemingly endless walls of red rock broke and, as if hollowed out of the cliff, there was a small settlement. It wasn’t much; just a few buildings huddled together under the broad span of the Highway, fringing the shore like the lake’s mud-washed leavings. Still, there were people there. There was a small boat, hauled up by the jetty, and… templars, in armour. I frowned. Did they usually stand guard over the ferry? Or was something really wrong? Either way, they’d seen us, and they were waving us in to the dock.

“Eh.” Wulff bared his teeth in a mirthless, cynical grimace. “’Tis a welcome committee.”

His words dripped with scorn, and I wondered how much the people of Redcliffe usually had to do with the Tower and its guardians. Wulff’s voice seemed to hold a whiff of something more than just suspicion, but my mental images of disputed territorial rights over the lake (did apprentices ever try to escape that way? They must be tempted to, surely….) were brushed aside by nerves. I glanced at Alistair.

“This is your area, isn’t it? Templars?”

He grimaced. “Well, technically, I never— I mean, you’re not exactly supposed to leave. So, er… it might be one of things it’s best not to mention.”

Great. Now he told me.

I probably didn’t look terribly impressed, because he gave me a weak, sickly smile.

“Oh, come on… it could be worse. We could have brought Morrigan.”

I snorted at that, as the boat scythed gently towards the dock. Given the circumstances of our arrival here—and everything I’d left laid at the witch’s feet back at the castle—it was pitch-black humour, but I couldn’t help laughing. It wasn’t just the thought of rolling up into the middle of a garrison of templars with an obvious apostate in tow… but how outraged I could imagine her being if they’d even dared lay a finger on her.

The snigger died away, though, as I thought about it properly. It wasn’t something we’d really encountered so far, but we would at some point, wouldn’t we? Out of the Wilds, as Alistair had said the day Flemeth entrusted her to us, Morrigan was an apostate.

All right, so the people of Redcliffe had hardly been in any state to turn away help, whatever form it came in, but if we were truly on our own—if we truly needed to bring the Bannorn to our side against the coming Blight—then we would need to think very carefully about our allies, and how the world perceived them.

Dangerous friends, I reflected, might end up doing us more damage than the darkspawn ever could.

The dory bumped against the jetty, wrenching me back down through the disjointed clouds of thoughts that kept filling my head. I needed sleep. Proper sleep… as did we all.

I looked up, and found an old man leaning down to us, readying to help Wulff with the mooring rope. They were probably of a similar age, though beyond that the difference outweighed the sameness. This human was simply but neatly dressed, his hair was trimmed and brushed, and his face, though weathered, lacked Wulff’s sunburnt gruffness.

“Bad time you picked to come here,” he observed, helping to tie the boat. “Travellers, is it? We don’t usually get folks come right across the lake.”

Leliana clambered up on the wooden jetty, gracefully accepting the hand the old man extended to help her. Across the patchy grass slope that ran down to the shore, I could see two templars striding officiously towards us, though they didn’t seem to be in a hurry.

“We need to get to the Circle Tower,” Leliana said, as she brushed herself down.

I admired the subtle inflection in her voice. It was girlish and enquiring and, combined with the Orlesian lilt, enough to have the old man proffering information in a heartbeat.

“Oh, and good luck to you, missy! Not lettin’ anyone across, they ain’t. Even impounded my boat…  my Lissie. Named for my grandmum, she was,” he added regretfully. “I’m Kester, the ferryman—leastwise, I was. No one’s been allowed across for days now, though. Out of a job, I am. Poor old Kester….”

I wondered whether I’d been too hasty in attributing Leliana with the skill to get the old boy talking. It appeared he couldn’t actually stop.

Alistair frowned as he hauled himself up onto the jetty. “Is something wrong up at the tower, then?”

“Oh, I couldn’t say.” Kester shrugged and shook his head. “Anyhow, they don’t tell me nothing. But, if I know them mages, I’m better off keeping out of their business. If I had to guess, I’d guess it had to do with magic… but then the tower’s always got something to do with magic, hasn’t it?”

The way he said it made it sound like a dirty word; I could almost hear the temptation to spit. I was last out of the boat, made clumsy by its rocking and pitching. Alistair stretched down and lent me his hand and, as I pulled myself up by that broad, calloused palm, I could feel the strength of Kester’s gaze.

“Oh-ho-ho!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “Well, look at you! I’ve never seen one of you knife-ears dressed up like the king of Ferelden before. You made good for yourself, eh?”

I let go of Alistair’s hand, momentarily disorientated by the feel of solid ground under my feet again. There was a brief, dry, uncomfortable silence, then fatigue prodded me towards sarcasm, and I smiled thinly at the old man.

“Yes,” I said, glancing down at my stained, beaten leathers. “I made good.”

The armour might have been second-rate, but he was right; I was an unusual enough sight for an elf. The shem blinked, then licked his lips hurriedly.

“Oh, no, I don’t mean no offence. I know I shoot my mouth off….” He raised one hand and gesticulated vaguely towards me. “I’m just not used to your kind trussed up all fancy, that’s all.”

Alistair cleared his throat, and I wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or a warning. I didn’t meet his eye. Instead, I bit back on all the sharp-edged things I wanted to say, and nodded towards Wulff and Elwyn. The lad looked exhausted, and the rough, red welts of oarsman’s blisters marked his enormous hands.

“I see there’s a tavern here. D’you think you could help these gents to a pint and a warm place to sit? Beer’s on us,” I added, as Kester’s face split into a broad grin. “For yourself, too, of course.”

After a quick rummage in the scrip Bann Teagan had handed over, and a bit of clinking, Alistair drew out a couple of silvers and gave them to the ferryman.

“Well, much obliged,” Kester said, beaming. “Much obliged indeed, I must say. Your type don’t usually give my type the time of day,” he added, looking at me with a peculiar light in his eyes.

It was as good as a kick in the stomach. I opened my mouth, then shut it again, and wondered if the old bugger had actually meant to whittle me down to an inch in height.

Still, as Wulff and Elwyn were gratefully heading off towards the tavern—no doubt to have all the gossip regarding these strange travellers prised from them—the templars were bearing down on us. My back stiffened with the inbuilt reaction to large men in armour… particularly those who, like one of the humans coming towards us, had their faces obscured by blank steel helms.

“Hoi! You there!” The other templar—a young man with broad, rather doughy features—pointed imperiously at us. “What d’you lot think you’re up to?”

“We need to see—” Alistair began, barely getting the first few words out before they were trampled.

“You’re not looking to get across to the tower, are you? Because I have strict orders not to let anyone pass!”

“But it’s important that we see the First Enchanter, at once.”

The templar folded his arms across his breastplate, gauntlets clinking against the embossed image of the flaming sword of mercy. I doubted compassion was going to be this man’s strong suit.

“No,” he said, with altogether far too much satisfaction.

“You don’t understand,” Leliana put in. “There are lives at stake here! We’ve been travelling for hours to get here, to—”

“Then you’d better turn around and start travelling back, hadn’t you?” The human’s wide face spread into a fleshy smile, smug and tight. “Wouldn’t want to be out on the lake after sundown. There’s some nasty things in that water.”

This was going nowhere, and I was fed up with obstructions.

“We’re Grey Wardens,” I snapped. “We’ve come to seek the assistance of the mages against the darkspawn. If you don’t let us cross—”

It was a desperate gambit. For all I knew, they might have tossed us in chains then and sent word to Loghain to start bagging up the bounty money. The Circle might have been well-known for its impartiality in most things, but the same didn’t necessarily extend to the Chantry.

However, the templar just arched his brows, turned to his colleague and, arms still folded over his chest like a busty fishwife, pulled an incredulous face.

“Oh, a Grey Warden, is it? Are you?”

Anger started to twist in my gut. I’d known it would be like this… and why shouldn’t it? Some scrap of a knife-eared wench, claiming to be something even she didn’t fully believe she was.

The templar’s expression hardened as he turned back to face me.

“Prove it.”

I met his gaze, inch for inch. “Alistair, show him the treaties.”

I didn’t blink, didn’t look away. Neither did the human. I heard the rattle of the leather wallet, the crinkle of ancient vellum and parchment… smelled the smell of mouldy paper and ancient must.

The templar broke eye contact, glancing down at the documents Alistair thrust towards him. He scanned the page briefly and peered at the thick seal on the bottom of it, before pushing the parchment away unceremoniously.

“Yes? You know, I have some documents, too. They say I’m the Queen of Antiva. What do you think of that?”

Alistair—still grappling with shuffling the treaties back into their wallet—made a small noise of disbelieving irritation.

“I’d say your armourer hasn’t done justice to your figure,” I snapped. “I thought most queens were female.”

The second templar sniggered, the noise echoing from within his bucket-like helmet. I could barely even make out the suggestion of eyes behind the narrow slit in the visor, and it unnerved me.

The reaction evidently didn’t go down too well with his friend. I earned myself a squint-eyed glare, and the first templar jabbed a finger at me.

“Don’t question royalty. Now, go on. On your way. Right now. Go.”

Holding back on the urge to rant and swear, I poked my tongue into the empty socket in my jaw, and the sudden lance of pain made me focus. I was taking a deep breath and looking for some other angle to try when Leliana spoke up again, all sweetness and soft, musical words.

“Gentlemen… I’m sure we can reach a compromise here, no? Whatever is happening in the tower, your superior surely doesn’t need the extra inconvenience of you slighting such honoured guests. The Wardens and I have come directly from Redcliffe Castle, you know.” She tilted her head to the side, fixing both men with those uncommonly blue eyes, and pursed her lips just a little. “I am certain he would not like you to dismiss emissaries from the arl.”

Clever, I thought. They definitely wouldn’t know about Redcliffe’s troubles from up here… they might not even have heard about Eamon’s illness, and the association of nobility carried plenty of weight.

“Oh, really, eh?” The young templar shifted uneasily, but the bombast had begun to drop from his voice. “You think Greagoir would be upset with me for not letting you in, do you?”

The second man tapped him on the shoulder with one heavy gauntlet, his mumble muffled rather by his helm. “Er… Carroll?”

That pudgy face creased into an expression of crestfallen realisation, and the templar frowned.

“You know, you may have a point. He might.”

“Well, then,” Alistair said brightly, “we should try our best to avoid that, shouldn’t we? Wouldn’t want to get you into trouble.”

The templar bristled. “Huh… yes. Well. Greagoir’s the big guy around here. I bet he could deal with a couple of Grey Wardens. Alleged Grey Wardens,” he added, sneering. “All right. Come along. I suppose.”

 

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Volume 2: Chapter Thirteen
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