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I cursed my stupidity. I should have been paying attention, should have noticed the broken-down wagons and the debris strewn around the place… and I should have realised that there would be more to contend with on the road than just the darkspawn.
The shem tossed a broad, oily smile in our direction, and called over his shoulder:
“Wake up, gentlemen! More travellers to attend to.”
Behind him, I could see several more humans clambering lazily to their feet. Big, heavy-set humans… most of them armed with daggers and shortswords. One large, bald man with a scar on his cheek was picking his teeth with the point of a nasty-looking knife, and I didn’t need to look up to know that the rustle I heard in the trees above was going to be a man with a bow.
Their little gathering took up the whole breadth of the track; there would be no way past them. Maethor and I halted, and I was aware of Alistair and Morrigan drawing up behind us as quickly as nonchalance allowed.
The weaselly, sharp-faced bandit rubbed his hands together as he looked me up and down, and shook his head disbelievingly.
“Well, well,” he said, still grinning. “Led by an elf, of all things!”
At his shoulder, a large, bald shem with a head like a carved turnip was giving us a suspicious look.
“Er… they don’t look much like them others. Maybe we should just let these ones pass, and—”
“Nonsense!” The first man looked past me, directing his grin at Alistair. “Now, then… ah, yes. Greetings, travellers!”
“Highwaymen,” Alistair observed. “Preying on those fleeing the darkspawn, I suppose?”
Morrigan loosed an irritable sigh. “They are fools to get in our way. I say we teach them a lesson.”
I winced. Subtlety was not a strong point that either of my companions appeared to possess. The shem’s wide grin—verging on manic—was a look I had seen far too often before and, not even counting the several well-armed friends he had behind him, I knew it didn’t bode well.
“Well, really.” He tutted reproachfully. “Is that any way to greet someone? Dear me. All we ask is a simple ten silvers and you’re free to move on.”
“We don’t have that kind of coin,” I said, noting with grim and slightly perverse satisfaction that the shem looked surprised I had answered, and not Alistair. “And your friend’s right. We’re not refugees.”
“What did I tell you?” Turnip-head said smugly. “No wagons… and that’s a bloody big dog.”
Maethor took the opportunity to yawn widely, displaying his teeth, and sat down at my heel.
The first man’s bright-eyed grin did not waver. He folded his arms, allowing the well-polished hilt of his shortsword to catch the sunlight.
“The toll applies to everyone, Hanric,” he said cheerfully. “That’s why it’s a toll and not, say, a refugee tax.”
I could have sworn the irritation was rolling off Morrigan in tangible waves. These humans were either idiots, or confident enough in their superior numbers to be reckless. Either way, I didn’t fancy their chances if the witch lost her temper… and nor did I want to be standing in the way.
“Look,” I said briskly, “we have no coin. We’re not paying you anything. Now, please, just let us pass.”
The shem’s smile finally stiffened and began to pall.
“Well, I can’t say I’m pleased to hear that. We have rules, you know.”
Hanric the turnip-head nodded. “Yeah. If you don’t pay, we get to ransack your corpses. Those are the rules.”
I opened my mouth to suggest some sort of compromise—we had the few things we’d salvaged from the Chasind huts, and perhaps they’d have taken those—but Morrigan gave a contemptuous snort.
“You can certainly try,” she said darkly.
The bandit looked around at his companions… each of whom had been gradually inching closer, and laying a hand upon his own blade.
“Well, this is going nowhere. Gentlemen?”
It was never going to be a fair fight.
Still, after facing darkspawn, and the horrendous creature that had made its lair at the top of the Tower of Ishal, there was something almost refreshing about the lack of enormous teeth and rotting flesh.
The press of bodies and steel and sweat closed over me, and someone elbowed me in the face, sending a jolt of agony through my nose, and stars skittering across my vision. I heard Maethor snarling, and the scream of a man being borne to the ground by a hundred-odd pounds of mabari. Amid the clang of metal and the thumps of fists, Morrigan unleashed a violent wave of magical energy that I felt rather than saw—something horrible that raised goose bumps on my skin and made my stomach flip—and prompted some bright spark to yell:
“She’s a bloody witch!”
“Really?” Alistair said, smashing one of the bandits in the teeth with his sword hand. “You don’t say!”
I sidestepped as the man toppled backwards, pawing at his mouth and howling, and found myself face-to-face with the wiry, weaselly little bastard who’d refused to let us pass.
“All this unpleasantness could have been avoided, you know,” he said, as he tried to run his shortsword through my ribs.
I twisted away, bringing my foot down heavily on his as I did so, and jabbing an elbow into the centre of his chest—a neat little trick, guaranteed to wind the target, as Mother used to say. Followed smartly by a knee in the groin, it made it possible to disarm the human and twist his wrist up into the middle of his back, using his own weight to keep him off-balance as I let my dagger kiss his throat.
“You think I haven’t had shems like you shaking me down for coppers since I was barely off my mother’s tit?” I whispered into his ear, my blade pressing in just a little tighter. “You don’t scare me, human. Now call them off.”
He whimpered, and I was taken aback at the venom I heard in my own voice. That wasn’t me, was it?
I jerked the human’s arm again, mainly for effect, as if I pushed it too far he’d realise I hadn’t the strength to actually break the bone, and that—if he was quick—he could overpower me before I had the chance to kill him.
“All right, all right…. Enough!”
The skirmish stilled around us, the urgency of battle giving way to the uneasy tension of unwilling surrender.
I looked past my captive’s ear, glad he was short for a human, otherwise I’d have been on tiptoe to see beyond his shoulder, and would have lost most of the authority the situation lent me. I nodded.
“Good. Alistair, take their weapons. Everything visible, anyway. Morrigan… we don’t need to kill them. Unless they move,” I added, in deference to her look of disappointment.
There was a general shuffling and apparent holding of breath from the men as she surveyed their ranks, and I guessed they were unlikely to try anything. I certainly wouldn’t have done, with the witch and the mabari both glaring at me like that. Alistair relieved them of a quantity of daggers, shortswords, and knuckle dusters, and two crossbows. I had no doubt there were more esoteric weapons concealed here and there on the men, but they weren’t our concern.
I pressed the tip of my dagger into the soft flesh of the shem’s neck.
“Now, how about answering some questions?”
He winced. “I-I don’t know what I can tell you… we aren’t even from these parts!”
“Oh, I see. Here for the pumpkin festival, then? What’s going on in Lothering?”
The shem squirmed in my grip, but wasn’t stupid enough to put up too much of a fight. “It’s packed full. Refugees have been… ouch… flooding up from the south. Chasind Wilders and farmholders, mostly. They… they say there are darkspawn pouring out of the Korcari Wilds.”
“And what about Ostagar?” I demanded, being careful to avoid Alistair’s eye.
“What do you want me to say?” The shem squeaked, his throat bobbing nervously as he gulped down air. “The king’s army was massacred. Everyone knows that. Teyrn Loghain pulled his men out just in time, and now he’s gone back north to Denerim. The local bann here has followed, so… please don’t do that… there’s no one left to look out for the village except a few templars at the chantry. Lothering is finished.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. Such readiness to flee, to abandon everything in the face of the oncoming horde. Understandable, but—
“Have you heard about any survivors from the battle?”
Alistair couldn’t stop himself from asking. I saw the shem’s eyes swivel towards him, watched him wetting his lips with the quick swipe of an anxious tongue before he answered.
“Couple, maybe. A group of wounded ash warriors came by earlier… we got right out of their way. Other than that—”
“What about the Grey Wardens?”
There was such earnest, painful hope in Alistair’s voice, and it stung to see the look on his face. Despite the ache in my arms, I tightened my grip on the human, forcing an answer from him.
“E-Everyone says it was their fault, that’s all I know! The teyrn says they betrayed the king, and—”
“Alistair,” I warned. I don’t think he even knew he’d started to raise the sword in his hand.
“There’s a b-bounty on them,” the shem yelped, shutting his eyes. “Loghain’s first act as regent was to declare the Grey Wardens traitors.”
The news shocked me, but not enough to stop me thinking. It was possible the teyrn hadn’t known that the tower had fallen, that to his eyes our delay had been deliberate… but did his suspicion run deep enough for that? Or had Alistair and I, green as we were, been a distraction, a diversion in something more sophisticated?
Whether this was outright betrayal or a terrible mistake, I found myself wondering uncomfortably whether Loghain knew we were still alive.
“That treacherous, two-faced bastard,” Alistair spat. “When Eamon finds out what he’s done—”
“He’ll see justice,” I promised. “But, right now, we have other problems.”
“Please don’t kill me,” the human whined. “Look… all the money we took is in that chest over there. Well, nearly all of it. Most of it, in fact. Almost a hundred silvers, and some very valuable trinkets. Take it. Take all of it. There’s a key on my belt….”
I nodded at Alistair. He strode over, found and removed the key, and set to… unfettering the contents of the chest, hidden behind one of the busted wagons. I bit down hard on the temptation to make a comment about breaking and entering, and decided to save it for later.
Still, desperate times and all that.
I waited until he had the moneybags safely in his hands, then took my dagger from the shem’s throat and released his wrist.
The human stumbled away from me, glanced nervously at Morrigan, and tried ineffectually to smooth his hair and straighten his jerkin.
“T-Thank you,” he mumbled, with a much thinner version of that same greasy smile.
“Go on,” I said, jerking my head towards the road. “The lot of you. Start running, and don’t come back.”
“Really? Oh, bless you. Yes. Yes, the darkspawn can have this place!”
The human turned and ran full pelt off down towards the Highway, the rest of his band following close behind. They moved slowly at first, until Morrigan made a quick, cruel feint with her staff and—fearing their backsides were about to be turned to ice—the erstwhile bandits demonstrated a surprising turn of speed for such big lads.
“Was that truly wise?” Morrigan asked, as we watched the figures recede along the road.
“They probably will just start terrorising people somewhere else,” Alistair said thoughtfully, picking through the liberated weaponry.
“Maybe,” I admitted, “but there are always bandits. If we start cutting down every petty thief and criminal we come across, we’ll be knee-deep in bodies in no time, and too tired to face the darkspawn.”
He snorted, and passed me a pair of daggers with ornately tooled hilts and lightly etched engraving in the blood gutters.
“Here. Those do you?”
I weighed the blades experimentally, and smiled. “Nice. Anything with more of a reach?”
We had quite a haul spread out on the stones, and I wondered briefly how far afield the bandits’ victims had come from. There were dwarven-made weapons, Chasind flatblades… far more of a range than the quartermaster had offered back at Ostagar.
Alistair picked a stout, plain, steel shortsword to augment the blade he still carried, and slung one of the crossbows across his back. I shouldered the other crossbow, and chose something very much like the sword with the leather-braided hilt that I’d lost at Ishal. The blade wasn’t as well forged or keenly balanced, but it would have to do.
“And this from those who were so loath to take supplies from huts already abandoned?” Morrigan observed, arching one thin eyebrow.
Alistair got to his feet, clinking gently with the assortment of weaponry hung about him. “This is completely different! You can’t steal from thieves. This is just… redistributing. Right?”
He looked to me for confirmation. I shrugged. “Probably.”
“Oh, come on….”
“All right.” I grinned. “It’s redistributing ill-gotten gains, which is technically almost the absolute opposite of stealing.”
Morrigan sighed petulantly, and I had to admit that sharing in Alistair’s habit of baiting the easily annoyed was rather fun. As long as she didn’t lose patience and set fire to us both, or something.
However, the weapons were only part of the problem. We still needed to worry about new armour, supplies, food—and if what we’d heard was true, Lothering was unlikely to be the welcome haven we might have hoped for.
We gathered the… redistributed goods together, and Alistair nodded to me as we readied to make our way into the village.
“Go on, then,” he said with a small smile. “Lead on.”
I blinked, unsure whether he was making fun of me or not.
According to Morrigan, Lothering was a well-known trade hub, but it was hard to see that in the mess that greeted us.
The village was full to bursting with refugees. Shanty camps took up every available piece of ground, crowding up to the roadside and crammed with dirty, wide-eyed faces. Meagre little fires crackled wherever people had found enough fuel to burn, and children too young to understand what was happening chased each other among the tents and makeshift shelters.
For a moment, it almost felt like being back in the alienage, but there was a hopelessness here, a sense of fear and inescapable dread that was foreign to me. We had nothing because we’d always had nothing; these people had lost everything overnight.
Beyond the huddled masses, a small stone bridge led over a narrow brook, and I could make out the village square, with the roofline of the chantry rising proudly above it, and throngs of storefronts and houses. Somehow, I doubted the merchants were doing a brisk trade.
“Well, there it is,” Alistair said dryly. “Lothering. Pretty as a painting.”
It must have been, once.
“Let’s see what we can find,” I muttered, as we started to head towards the square.
I could feel the weight of people’s gazes on us as we walked, and I didn’t like it one bit. The bloody armour and bristling weapons aside, we were too obviously out of place, too easy to spot. The only way it could have been worse was if Alistair had been sporting a surcoat with a griffon on it.
If he had, I wondered how many of these people would have recognised the heraldry—and how quickly they would learn to identify it, with a bounty at stake. It was a smart move on Teyrn Loghain’s part, I supposed; lay all the blame for what he had done at the door of what most considered a small, unimportant order, whose influence was but a shadow of what it had been four centuries ago. He could claim the Grey Wardens, like Cailan, had been obsessed with legends and glory and—resting on his own reputation as a sound strategist—be the only sane man to have served at the war council.
Memories of the teyrn, and that striking, impenetrable stare of his came back to me… the way I’d been glanced over, assessed, and dismissed. Had he known then what he was planning to do?
My thoughts were starting to echo Alistair’s vituperative complaints, and I tried hard to tamp them down. Whatever had happened—whatever Loghain had done, or not done, or intended to do—all that mattered was that a united Ferelden could stand against the darkspawn. As long as that happened, I supposed the politics didn’t matter… at least for now.
In the village square, we found shop after shop closed up. With the place overwhelmed by refugees, demand had far outstripped supply, and there were enough broken windows and barred doors to suggest things had turned nasty more than once. A few templars patrolled here and there, and I shot a nervous glance at Morrigan, which Alistair noticed.
“Hmm. Good point,” he said.
“What?” she scowled at him. “Am I to take it that you two are talking behind my back now?”
“No,” I said hastily. “Just that… well….”
“They have a chantry here,” Alistair chimed in gleefully. “With templars. Who might possibly just notice, oh, I don’t know… that you’re a witch?”
She scoffed. “And you think that hasn’t happened before?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, forcing my words between the two of them while I had a chance. “This time, there’s no running back into the Wilds. I just thought it would be sensible to, er, try not to draw attention to ourselves? Maybe?”
They were both looking at me as if I’d suggested walking to Redcliffe on our hands. I shrugged. It was a foolish hope. None of us were inconspicuous, after all. I could be as good as invisible if I put on ordinary clothes, carried no obvious weapon, and took care to walk like a messenger or a servant, but dressed like this I may as well have been carrying a firework in my teeth and juggling tulips. Maethor was a mabari, which meant everyone who saw him was automatically looking for his wealthy owner, and Alistair… well. If we grubbied him up a bit and took away the armour and weaponry, he’d still clearly be a soldier of some kind. It would be there in the way he walked, the set of his shoulders… and trying to hide it would mean a level of subterfuge I wasn’t sure he could carry off.
It was ironic, I supposed, but Morrigan was the only one of us who was actually what she appeared to be, and nothing more. Or so I thought.
“I… could wait by the forge,” she said reluctantly. “If that will put an end to your gobbling.”
“Thank you.” I nodded, and glanced down at Maethor.
He cocked his head to the side, and whined curiously. Mabari hounds did really seem to understand every word, I mused.
“Yes. You go with her, but behave.”
He wagged his tail, and Morrigan gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh, really….”
“Try not to happen to anyone,” Alistair called, as she swept away, the hound loping cheerfully after her.
I shook my head and sighed. One of these days, he was going to wake up bright green and sitting on a lily pad.
We took the gear we had to sell into one of the few open shops left in the square. The sign outside the door showed it to be a weapon merchant’s, which made sense as it stood opposite the forge, but it was clear from the moment we entered that the owner had found the need to expand the wares he offered. Crates, sacks and barrels stood piled high in every corner and upon every inch of floorspace, and chains ran around some of the stacks, guarding against wandering hands.
“’Oo’s that?” demanded a voice. “Whatchoo want? Don’t think I can’t see yer!”
An old woman came out from the back of the store, clutching a blackjack in her thin, gnarled hand.
“Maker’s breath….” Alistair murmured, pressing his lips tight together.
“I ain’t got no food!” she snapped, leaning on the counter and glaring at us. The milky film of old age covered one eye, and she moved her head from side to side as she spoke, trying to keep us both in focus. “If anyone told you I got food, they lied.”
I nudged Alistair, and nodded at the woman. He raised his eyebrows, evidently having expected me to deal with her, and winced, then cleared his throat.
“Er… we’re not here for food. We have some—”
“Some goods!” He raised his voice. “Goods… for sale. For you to… buy?”
Dear Maker, he was hopeless. The old woman cocked her head to the side, listening intently, then her face split into a broad grin, showing the blunt, brown stubs of three teeth, in a row at the front of her mouth.
“Why didn’t yer say, lad?” She knuckled her way around the counter, cudgel still in hand, and slapped one skinny palm against the worn wood. “All right, then, let’s take a looksee. Get yer elf to pop ’em up here.”
Alistair winced again. “Um, she’s not my—”
The storekeeper waved her blackjack in my general direction. “Come on, knifey. We ain’t got all day.”
Alistair opened his mouth, but I got there first, took the sack of daggers, shortswords and assorted other curios from him, and hoisted it up onto the counter.
I could feel him staring, but I didn’t dare meet his eye. I just stood there, shoulders slightly hunched, looking at the floor while the old woman pawed through what we’d brought her.
“Hmm, not bad,” she said eventually, fixing Alistair with her one good eye. “Fifty silvers the bundle.”
“Fifty—? You’re kidding,” he protested. “That shortsword alone is worth—”
“Take it or leave it, son,” she said, grinning.
Alistair huffed irritably. “Seventy-five.”
“Ooh, out for a hard bargain, are we? How about I tell you to take ’em elsewhere, eh? We got no demand for blades in these parts, anyway. Got hungry bellies and cold bodies… need blankets and food, not blades.”
They’d need weapons if they weren’t gone by the time the horde came, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. The old woman beamed triumphantly at Alistair.
“All right,” he muttered, defeated.
“I said, all right,” he repeated, before lapsing back into an undertone. “Money-grubbing old trout….”
“I said, ‘weather’s nice out’.”
I swallowed a snigger. He must have been such a trial to the chantry brothers.
Eventually, Alistair struck a deal with the old bag, and we left her armoury-cum-general store with substantially less money than she’d originally offered, a selection of crossbow bolts with different sized heads (which I was fairly sure we didn’t need, but which Alistair had been intrigued by), and a stout ash-wood shield, now slung across his back.
“Maker!” he exclaimed as we crossed the square. “How did she do that?”
Privately, I suspected it had been a matter of pretending to be half-blind and partially senile, then waiting for a likely mark to stumble into the shop, but I didn’t say so.
“Years of experience, probably,” I said. “So, how much do we have left, all together?”
Alistair counted quickly under his breath. “Best part of two sovereigns. Not going to go very far, but it should get us the supplies we need… providing anyone’s actually trading.”
I nodded, trying to feign insouciance, and trying not to remember the day I’d thought fifteen silvers was more money than I had ever held in my hands at once.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “In there. When she—”
I shrugged, telling myself he wouldn’t understand even if I explained it.
“We wanted a good deal,” I said. “She wouldn’t have paid any more if I’d argued.”
His brow furrowed, but he didn’t say anything else.
There were other stops to make in the village, other traders to argue with. As there didn’t seem to be much point in trying to get our armour repaired, Alistair and I had to lock horns with a travelling merchant outside the forge, and barter for new kit, which almost resulted in bloodshed.
It was sad, really. The dog-eared history of Ferelden Mother had given me when I was a child—my copy lost now, along with most of my few treasures from home, somewhere on top of the Tower of Ishal—mentioned the route that Lothering sat upon as one of the great trade roads. There was a noble tradition of diversity and free commerce here, linking as the place did the great dwarven city of Orzammar, and the rest of the western highlands, with the Bannorn and all that lay to the south. It was depressing that it should so quickly have come to this: teeming with the hungry and destitute, free enterprise replaced by naked profiteering, and the desperate one more missed meal away from turning into a mob.
“State of this….” Alistair muttered, poking through the gear that had cost us almost every copper we had. “I don’t even think it’s going to fit you.”
“Nothing fits me,” I said glumly, thinking back to the tribulations of getting kitted out for the first time at Ostagar; standing there holding my breath while the quartermaster made running adjustments to my new armour with a sharp knife, and laced me in like a stuffed chicken.
Alistair chuckled. “I remember when I first clapped eyes on you at… at camp. All bruised and skinny, armour practically falling off you….”
“Huh. Well,” I teased, as we rounded the corner behind the forge, on our way to pick Morrigan up again, “you certainly know how to make a girl feel good about herself.”
He laughed. “Oh, come on…. You know what I mean.”
It was light-hearted, but there was a grain of truth in there. I did know what he meant: he’d never even believed I’d survive the Joining, much less still be here now. I tried not to take it too personally. After all, if I’d known any of the details about the ritual—not to mention what would end up following it—I wouldn’t have believed it either.
We found Maethor rolling around on his back in the dirt, playing the fool in the middle of a bunch of children. They were all scrawny little things, with scraped knees and grubby faces, and I was glad to see smiles poking through the grime.
The dog barked and scrambled to his feet as we approached, and the children scattered, giggling and shrieking.
“It is an appalling display. I thought he was supposed to be a wardog.”
I blinked, sure Morrigan hadn’t been standing there a second ago. She was leaning decorously against the warm stone of the forge’s back wall, a pile of goods at her feet. I made out rolls of canvas, blankets, and what looked like the suspicion—oh, holy of holies!—of clean undergarments.
Alistair raised an eyebrow. “Please tell me you paid for those.”
“I simply wearied of waiting like some useless china doll,” she said haughtily. “Now, do we have what we need or not? I do not see there is much point in wasting any more time here.”
Alistair and I exchanged glances. Uncomfortable as it was to admit, she was right. There was little we could do for the people of Lothering, and it wasn’t safe to linger.
“We still need food,” I said doubtfully. “And it might be sensible to hear what news there is on the road….”
“Apart from Loghain trying to pry the crown off the king’s corpse before it’s even cold?”
I didn’t reply. Alistair was still too raw to listen to reason… not that I didn’t share the sentiment. All the same, I wasn’t prepared to throw myself behind a campaign of vengeance against the teyrn just yet. Too much remained unknown.
“Maybe we should try the tavern?” I suggested. “Then, if that’s no good, we’ll head out. Got to be at least a good few hours of daylight left.”
Somehow, I’d expected Alistair to make some kind of tactical contribution, but he just shrugged and nodded.
“All right. If you think that’s best.”
Morrigan made a pretext of examining her fingernails, and let out one small, sharp: “Hm.”
“You have a problem with that, then?” he enquired, and I sighed inwardly.
Their bickering had barely let up for a moment since we’d left the Wilds and—though I suspected having some useful figure to vent his ire at was one of the few things keeping Alistair sane—I found it increasingly wearing.
“I merely find it… curious,” she said, flexing her fingers like a cat stretches its paw, and looking up at him with that eerie golden gaze.
“Well, of the two of you that remain, are you not the senior Grey Warden here? I find it curious that you allow another to lead, while you follow.”
A week or so ago, I would have taken her words as a dressing-down for attempting to assume more authority than my position allowed. I might have bowed my head and been embarrassed, skulked off somewhere to remind myself of what I was, and what it wasn’t my place to do. As it was, I was too tired, hungry, and dirty for mind games, and I bit down on the urge to slap the woman, mage or not.
Alistair folded his arms. “You find that curious, do you? Oh. Good.”
“In fact,” she went on, evidently enjoying herself, “you defer to a new recruit. Is this a policy of the Grey Wardens? Or simply a personal one?”
“Leave him alone, Morrigan,” I snapped, and almost regretted it in the moment that those golden eyes flickered to me, as round and burnished as coins.
“Oh, but how can I?” She gave an impish smile, as unthinkingly cruel as any predator. “He is right there, speaking, eyes wide like those of a brainless calf….”
“What do you want to hear?” Alistair said wearily. “That I prefer to follow? I do, as it happens.”
The flares of fire and the screams of the wounded flashed behind my eyes, and I blinked the memories away, annoyed by the witch’s derision of things she didn’t understand… and perhaps ever so slightly surprised at myself for this sudden surge of protectiveness towards a human.
“You sound so very defensive, Alistair!”
“At least I haven’t been going around stealing supplies from refugees. I always knew you’d—”
“And what has you so utterly convinced I stole them? Am I incapable of barter? Unable to trade my skills for profit?”
Maethor laid down at my feet and whined, chin on his paws. I looked down at the hound and nodded in silent agreement. Admittedly, if they actually came to blows, the fight would be worth watching, but it would not get us any closer to Redcliffe, or to stopping the Blight.
“Um….” I began.
“Skills?” Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Andraste’s blood, I don’t think I want to know.”
“Oh? So because I am a woman—”
“Well, female, arguably….”
“—then it follows I must be dependent upon my feminine wiles for survival?”
Alistair drew breath, and I gave up. I pointed beyond the square, to where the tavern lay; a long, low building with a shabby thatched roof and yet another conglomeration of tents and fires outside. From the smell tugging at the air, and the sight of people clutching clay bowls as they walked away, it looked as if some enterprising soul might even have set up some kind of field kitchen.
“Look, I’m going to…. I— I’ll catch you up in a bit,” I said, aware that neither of them were listening to me.
Maethor lumbered to his feet and followed me and, leaving the squabbling behind us, we picked our way through the thinning crowds. The people here had a certain look about them, I noticed. Something worn, and almost glassy, as if they were staring straight through the grubby streets and closed-up shops, back into whatever hectic, horrendous jumble they had stumbled from.
I thought of those first few days after leaving Denerim, on the long ride south with Duncan. Every time we’d stopped, every time I tried to sleep, all that had happened in those violent, bloody hours collapsed in on me from the dark… and it hadn’t stopped yet.
It had started to fade, perhaps, pushed back in my mind by other, fresher horrors, and that was just as bad, wasn’t it? I pictured a time when I would be nothing but a walking catalogue of bloodshed and battle. My memories would move no more, trapped in changeless bubbles, like flies in amber, and I wouldn’t think of Nelaros, or Nola, or Shianni—or the guards at the tower, the boy, Dawkins, or even Duncan—as real people at all. They would just be names with dates and events attached to them, one-line labels fastened to dry, dusty specimens.
I shook myself from those stupid thoughts. No. The weight of my pendant, and the ring that nestled beside it, knocked at my chest, and I reached up to touch it, as if reassuring myself that it was still there… that I was still me.
There was a small boy among the drifting crowds—a freckly little scrap of a thing with a shock of red hair—and he was calling for his mother. No one seemed to be listening. I could see the child being brushed aside and ignored and, once, almost knocked to the ground.
Maethor grumbled, whined, and trotted over to the boy. He seemed to have a real affinity for children; not something I’d expected to see in a dog with jaws like a trap, and teeth almost as long as my little finger. All the same, I followed the hound, and watched him nudge up to the child, who looked around in surprise and patted the mabari on the head with one sticky, grubby hand.
“’Ello, doggy!” He glanced up at me, wide-eyed, and I could see the faded traces of tear-tracks on his dirty face. “Cor, is this your dog, missus?”
“Yes, he is.” I smiled. But for the flat ears and the voice, the lad almost reminded me of Soris as a boy.
Maethor wagged his tail and licked the boy’s face. I thought incongruously of Father, and the abject horror with which he’d view such a scene. As children, we used to rough-and-tumble with the stray dogs in the alienage, and he’d cluck like a mother hen over how we might get bitten, or the fleas and disease and dirtiness… and we’d laugh, until someone did get nipped.
The boy sniffed damply, and scrubbed the back of his hand over his face.
“I’m looking for my mother. Have you seen her? She’s tall, and she’s got red hair, like me, and she wears a green cloak. She said she’d be right behind me, but I’ve been here since yesterday, and I ’aven’t seen her. I don’t know where she is….”
He knotted his skinny hand into the scruff of loose skin over Maethor’s shoulders, the dog’s short brindled coat sticking up through his fingers. The mabari groaned, low in his chest, and offered another lick of a salty, smudged cheek. My heart broke a little bit, and I hunkered down to the child’s level.
“Where’s your father?”
“He went with William to the neighbour’s, but he didn’t come back,” the boy said, his voice taking on the high monotone of a child trying not to cry. “And then the mean men with swords came, and mother told me to run to the village as fast as I could, so I did, and I thought she was behind me, but I’ve been waiting and waiting….”
I reached into the coin purse at my belt. It wasn’t really my money, but I doubted my companions would— well, Alistair wouldn’t mind, and what Morrigan didn’t know wouldn’t kill her, I supposed.
“Here. Take this, buy yourself something to eat, and then why not go to the chantry, hmm? If—when your mother comes, she’ll know to look for you there.”
I pushed one of our last coins into his hand, and he looked up at me with wet, grateful eyes, the look in them working its way from grief to self-justification.
“I s’pose….” He glanced down at the money I’d given him. “A whole silver? Wow! Thank you!”
I smiled. Money wouldn’t make it better, but it would make the process of suffering more comfortable. We knew about that where I came from.
“So….” The boy’s grubby face screwed up around the effort of framing a difficult question. “Um… are you really an elf?”
My smile widened. “Mm-hm. The ears are a give away, right?”
He nodded, beamed widely, and then looked thoughtful.
“Father says elves aren’t very nice. But you’re nicer than everybody here.”
The simple honesty of children can be devastating, and I was taken aback for a moment, lost for a reply.
He patted Maethor on the head and, clutching the coin tightly, scampered off in the direction of the impromptu soup kitchen pitched outside the tavern. It looked a bit like the two-bit ordinaries that opened in the late afternoons and evenings in the market district back home—just in time to catch workmen clocking off, and just in time to make use of all the bruised vegetables and slightly spoiled meat left over from the day’s trading.
Even the smell was the same: everything roughly chopped and boiled to a weak broth, then slapped into a cheap bowl, no extras. You paid two coppers for the meal, and got one back if you returned the bowl. Not a bad deal, all things considered, and pretty much no one got really bad food poisoning.
My stomach growled impatiently, and I supposed it wouldn’t do any harm to see what was on offer.
I headed over, as nonchalantly as I could… which didn’t make me terribly inconspicuous. Even with Maethor at my side, I felt vulnerable. In all that time in the Wilds and on the road, I might have missed the security of walls and buildings around me, but I’d forgotten that they came with eyes. Every shem in the place seemed to be staring at me, and I tried not let my nerves show. It was because of the armour, I knew. No one was used to seeing it on an elf anyway and, in its current battered, bloodstained state, it screamed ‘troublemaker’.
Well, I was, I supposed.
The thought would have been funny, had I been elsewhere. Instead, I watched human after human look at me carefully, then turn away, or nudge the man next to him and nod towards me… it probably wouldn’t be long before women started pulling their children out of my path, I thought with a grimace.
“Ah, there you are!”
Alistair’s voice rang out behind me, and I didn’t need to turn around to know he’d be bearing down cheerfully upon me, completely oblivious to the growing tension in the air.
“I was looking for you. You just… disappeared.”
A large, companionable hand slapped me on the back, and I wobbled slightly on my feet. He was grinning in a very suspicious manner.
“I was going to get—”
“You’ll never guess how she got those things. She didn’t want to tell me, but I got it out of her.”
“Oh?” I managed, glancing over my shoulder.
Morrigan was striding towards us, glowering horribly. We couldn’t get much less inconspicuous if we tried, I supposed.
“Making healing poultices for the village elder!” Alistair crowed. “Actually doing something nice for someone else. Hah!”
“It was an act of trade, and no more,” Morrigan grumbled, glaring at him. “I merely wanted to make our stay in this… pit as brief as possible. And if you cannot keep your peace about it, you can purchase your own bedroll.”
The stares were getting longer, and more obvious. I imagined we were the best street theatre Lothering had seen in months. I sighed. Well, if you can’t beat them….
“I’d have thought you two would have kissed and made up by now.”
The smile slipped from Alistair’s face as suddenly as bacon fat off a hot plate.
“Please. Don’t say things like that, unless you want to see me projectile vomit.”
Morrigan snorted, muttered something under her breath, and strode past us to the door of the tavern. I half-expected it to splinter into pieces at her touch, but it just slammed open on its hinges.
I shook my head. No two-copper hot dinner for me, then.
Volume 2: Chapter Three
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