Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

Alternative Origins Chapter Eleven

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*

Zevran seems to know what you’d expect of a prisoner, keeping ahead of us, but not too far ahead, keeping his hands clasped fake-nonchalantly behind his back like he’s out for a stroll, his weapons sheathed. The crows’ camp is well-hidden – we might’ve found it on our own, but he walks us straight to it and there’s no ambush to it. And he walks over to one of the packs where they’re piled, pulls out a pouch from a pocket, hands it over. “I imagine there is our operational reserve in there,” he says. “No point leaving it for scavengers.”

Leliana runs a practiced eye over the place. “No horses?”

“Not for this job. We made the man you’re after leave his behind, and all.” He taps his nose. “I hear things about the Wardens. Maybe they are the squeakings of rats. Or maybe you people can track by scent. And horses smell, and no wild horses in this part of the kingdom.”

“If we could track by scent,” says Alistair, “where would this man’s trail start?”

Zevran nods to what just looks like a patch of ground to me. I suppose that’s where his tent must have been last night. “I’d rather not be your tracker while you’re trying to verify my veracity. My back is surely looking very stabbable. Best to turn the job over. He’s the only one who camped here smelling of rust and oil.”

Morrigan looks to me and to Alistair a moment, and then sighs. “I know you both have decent senses of smell, because I’ve been into dreams of yours.” And she leans down like she’s touching her toes and then there’s a handsome little red fox where she was standing – Zevran takes an involuntary step backwards from her, so she takes a deliberate step towards him, staring at him in that way an animal won’t, and he flinches from her eyes, causing her to make a sound that’s a lot like her usual dark chuckle. Then she nods, again so very much not like an animal, and turns to cast about for the trail.

As she works, Zevran says quietly out of the side of his mouth, “Can she truly be whatever she wishes?”

“Her hearing’s better than yours, boy – I don’t know why you think you’re whispering.” Wynne smiles. “She’s not one it’s wise to make assumptions about, let’s leave it there.”

The trail – well. To be honest I could almost have followed it myself. Apparently he came straight here from a concealed position not far back from the ambush site, snatched up a pack and been off like a hart, except that no deer that I ever read of would have broken so many branches or made its way back to the royal highway.

And the fox turns her head and yips to us before picking up speed, and I agree with her. “Leliana,” I call, “follow as you can with Wynne. Zevran, you’re with us. Try and keep up, hear?”

So yeah. Turns out that Zevran can run in that armour. I think the two men are competing – or less charitably, I think Alistair’s trying to run him into the ground. Nice to stretch my own legs, as well. We catch sight of the man on the road – one advantage of the straight Tevinter roads – and he’s clearly walking with an eye over his shoulder because he sees us not too long after and sets off running. I suppose it’s more of an instinct than a real hope – although he’s had a decent headstart, he’s just a shem wearing thirty pounds of heavy Fereldan steel, and he might be fit, but there’s just only so far you can go with that against an elf and two people who just don’t tire in the same way. And it turns out that on a good road, in pretty fine running conditions? That disatnce is about a mile.

I see him glance over his shoulder a couple of times, and the first time he does so he puts on a burst of speed that has him going nearly as fast as we do. Second time he looks, he’s got to be horrified that we’ve actually closed distance – he turns, panting, to wait for us, and he draws steel and waits at bay.

Huh.

I’ve met this man before. At Bann Teagan’s court, no less.

I don’t draw on him as we close, I just pull up like I was out for an afternoon’s walk, and the others take my lead. Morrigan’s disappeared into the bushes at the edge of the road.

I give him the nod I’ve been using instead of a bow. “Ser Miles, was it not?”

He spits on the ground in the general direction of Zevran. “You knife-eared bastard, you sold us out. You’re dead, hear me? You’re crows’ food.”

I raise a finger and tut at him. “Distinctly clear I heard the sound of my own voice, there. Am I being ignored?”

He tries to call me a name in the old language. Or rather, I think it’s me he’s addressing – could be Zevran. He mangles the word enough that he didn’t actually say anything.

So I don’t let my smile waver. “Pardon, ser? I think your tongue may have been a little too forked for that one. D’you want to waste time trying it again in the common tongue, or do you want to go over why it wasn’t your master of Gwaren who went all the way to Antiva to buy a frankly disappointing flock of mercenaries?”

“I did this alone, you jumped-up flea-bitten gutter slut,” he snarls at me. “I didn’t like the way you tried to dirty my master’s name.”

“Aye, and I’m the dowager empress of Tevinter, and born yesterday to boot.” I put a hand to the hilt over my shoulder. “Am I going to have to call you a liar to your face, or can we maybe solve this with a bit of honour?”

“Oh, be my guest.” He raises his sword. It’s an arming sword, a one-handed sidearm, and he’s got nothing for his off-hand, but he’s in armour. Doubtless he thinks he’d have a chance, in a duel.

Of course, if I kill him, I can’t exactly get anything out of him either. But then again –

I swear, the heroes in the tales didn’t have to deal with this crap. Challenge the bad man’s minion to a duel of honour and beat him, and he should be falling on a knee before me and praising my honour and mercy before telling me for true everything he knows of his master’s plan. Whereas all I’m going to get here is a pointless battle to the death with a foul-mouthed shem, and if I kill him then we learn bugger-all, and if I don’t then not only have I broken more of their stupid rules but all I’ll get will be lies. And Alistair will absolutely do this if I won’t. Bloody humans.

I draw on him anyway. My blade’s the same length as his and a little heavier, and it’s a hand-and-a-half for me; I bring the hilt up before my face in the formal salute Alistair taught me and he mirrors it and drops into a guard. I suppose this training will be as ingrained for him as his own name. My own guard’s nothing fancy. You can do all kinds of things with a big sword if you’re some sort of master of it, but the first thing anyone will tell you is that it’s better to be straightforward if you ain’t that master.

Other thing is, he’s winded and I’m not. I mean, it’s not like he’s panting with every breath, but he can’t win a fight of endurance and he knows it. He flicks a cut for my face, see what I’ll do. I ward it easily, and the next three or so like it, give him a few of my own to chew on, and our blades clash, warily, probing. Why exactly did you challenge this man to a fair fight, again, Kallian? Why are you doing this his way? You got something to prove, or something? The men can handle long blades – Leliana can fight like this, even – bah.

Another flick, but this time he commits himself to a harder blow. Guess he figures that because I’m tiny, I’m weak. I engage his blade with mine, let them bind, see his eyes widen at my strength, push him back before he can give me a kick and follow up with a thrust that he just about voids. My tip rakes across his armour. He goes immediately on the attack, putting his free hand to his hilt for a big arcing cut, and sparks fly from our blades as I parry that one and he goes for another. Two, three, four – on the fifth he breaks his rhythm and goes for a thrust that’s supposed to be deceptive. And you know, if I hadn’t been this fast – I duck it, spin inside the thrust as he over-extends, take my right hand off the hilt and give him a little bit of a hand tripping over me and falling onto his back.

Right hand on his throat, right knee in under his armpit, left knee under his forearm and the pommel of my blade comes down hard on his wrist: he gives a, well, a bit of a strangled shout as bone splinters and he drops the blade. So it’s right easy, then, to bring my point across and lie it on top of his adam’s-apple and say in a conversational tone, “Now you’ll yield.”

And again. Have you ever noticed how a man with a point to make will jump so easy to insults on your body and your virtue? You’d think the threat would make him polite. I’m not in easy reach to give the proper retort, so I make do with pressing the crosspiece of my sword’s hilt down into his broken wrist and he goes completely white and shuts up. “So now,” I say. “There’s two ways this goes, Ser Miles. In the first, you yield to me like this is a duel of honour and I am a lady knight, like you hadn’t just called me three things that might have got you a challenge on their own if I had my dignity on. And we talk like sensible people and you give me some truth for a change, and I let my friend who doesn’t like to see people hurting set your bones.”

I turn the sword in my hand so the light runs down the edge and I let my voice drop to a menacing undertone. “Or there’s the second way, where you pretend this is still a fight, and you give me nothing but the prattling of another idiot shem who’s all mouth and naught below, and I can tell you now you’ll be pissing blood and eating your dinner through a straw till you crawl your bleeding arse back to Denerim and tell the teyrn I’ll meet him anywhere he likes to give him just the same.”

And he bloody goes for my neck with his free hand! So I bring down the hilt of the sword on his wrist a second time, and not sparing any strength this time, and something else breaks, and he goes white and passes out.

And I stand up and Alistair’s sort of looking at me, and so I ask him what.

“Uh.” He glances down at the unconscious shem. “So do you, uh, want any help kicking seven shades of shit out of your helpless prisoner?”

I snort and bend down to take off the knight’s belt, and Alistair’s eyebrows shoot up. “Or do you and he want some alone time, possibly? I’m sure I’m not one to judge the ways you’d want to…” He stops at Zevran’s sharp intake of breath, runs back over the threats I made in his mind and colours slightly; I ignore the clown.

I bind the broken wrist to the whole one. “There.” I look up at the two of them. “Humans inflict pain when they don’t need to. I’m not one. Shall we?”

“You say that.” Zevran gives a start as Morrigan appears from the bushes and looks down at the man. “You say that, but leaving him here, tied, in the road like this – it is hardly likely to lead him to softness and comfort.”

I shrug. “He’ll be in no condition to follow us, and he can’t ride hard with that wrist, but he’s not twenty mile from Redcliffe on a road that’s not badly travelled. I’m not hurting him because I like it.”

“As you say.” She walks daintily past him like a cat that’s lost interest. “And no more information out of him?”

Alistair shakes his head. “There’s no such thing as a truth spell, and he’s on the idiotic side of brave – we’ll get nothing out of him we can use, and his mere presence tells us all we need.”

“Were you planning to cut his purse?” Zevran’s tone of voice says he will if I won’t. “He lost a good half-mile’s headstart in running to camp for it.”

“It’s almost certainly beneath the dignity I’m supposed to-”

“But I’m a filthy barbarian, be I never so clean.” Morrigan kneels and unties the thing. “Ooh, new money.” She fishes out a sequin-sized coin and holds it up. “What’s this one worth?”

“A trained killer’s undimmed loyalty for a week,” replies Zevran quickly, and Morrigan looks at the thing with new respect.

“Does it work on any trained killer?” Her voice is thoughtful.

He smiles. “There are those who would kill for you for but a kind word and the occasional smile, lady; there are those on whom the coin would work for far more than a week; there are those who are as I say.”

She gives Alistair a sideways glance; he scowls at her. “And there are those who wouldn’t take your money if you paid us. So to speak.”

A chuckle. “Then I may attempt the plan involving smiling and fair speech. But not today.” She keeps the shiny gold piece, re-ties the pouch and tosses it to me. “Now we can hire mercenaries, or something.”

*

We reach Redcliffe in the mid-afternoon. Asking the guards, we find the bann’s gone to speak for the arl at the Landsmeet just as we reckoned: our faces are well enough known and liked that we’re pretty much just let in without a second glance. There’s a plan, we stick to it, we know our way around, and the men who’ve been ordered to allow nobody into the arl’s chambers without the arlessa’s permission are duly dispatched to fetch her while we go to his bedside.

And anyone who wonders who the nice old lady with the metal walking-stick is, clearly doesn’t need to know. Curse it, I still hate how much this makes it feel like we’re bobbing someone. Won’t we ever have the chance to do a thing that’s straightforward and honest?

Wynne sucks in a disaproving hiss of a breath as she looks the sleeping man up and down, places the back of a hand against his cheek, takes his pulse at his neck. “Right,” she says with a tradesman’s air. “No time like the present. Not a simple job, this, and this room’s hardly ideal, but we work with what we have. And cost’s no object, of course, makes this easier to explain. Morrigan, you’ll want to observe: I’ll brook no distractions. Kallian, I’d like this place secured – no footsteps within thirty feet, if you can, and if the boy and his templar show up they’re to be kept from the room by any means.”

And as we set about this, she rolls her sleeves up and pulls a little vial from a belt pouch and Morrigan’s eyes go big. “That’s lyrium.”

“Mm-hmm. Bringing life to a corpse isn’t exactly a stroll in the garden, dear, not if you want the same thing back that went away. You’ve likely never seen a spell pattern for healing before, and I’ll be working through one for safety anyway, so please do observe.”

The younger mage nods, sits herself down with her head on her hands in a fashion that isn’t quite human and puts up the little cat’s-eye spell that she uses to see things that are worth seeing and remembering.

Outside, the arlessa, her son, and the half-blind templar Wynne mentioned arrive all at once, of course, and really aren’t best pleased at the way we arrived unannounced and did this without permission and now they’re being barred from coming even within sight of Eamon – but the templar’s the only one who tries anything like bluster and appeal to authority, and old he may be but he’s got this air about him like he’s impossible to intimidate. Luckily, he’s amenable to a combination of reason and rank: he doesn’t know Wynne’s name, but he does recognise her rank and Alistair’s, and eventually, grudgingly mine.

Wynne’s working takes time. She’s laying the spell-pattern out in a cat’s-cradle of pins and string around the arl, and she goes about it much like you’d expect an old lady to – easy, unhurried, and with that effortless and practiced dexterity that you’ll see in someone who knitted your baby-clothes and your ma’s before you. And then when the spell is woven well and carefully she uncorks the little vial of lyrium decoction, raises it to her lips and knocks it back like so much rum, and raises her hands and flicks her fingers just so, and there’s a flash of light that’s so bright it’s leaving shadows around two corners.

And Wynne comes out on soft feet and looks at us standing there and she gives her best grandmatronly smile and says that the worst is over, just like that, and the arlessa bursts into tears and her son is just staring at Wynne with eyes the size of saucers, and mostly she just smiles at him a smile that’s far too young for her and says she knows something he doesn’t.

Noticeable that Leliana finds a way to hover in the arl’s room as the family make their happy reunion. He’s still weak, of course, but it’s the kind of weak you get after running hard all day, and to see the colour in his cheeks and the flesh on his bones you’d hardly recognise the man I saw on the bed not an hour ago.

And the arlessa doesn’t even try to strangle him – hell, maybe she did have no part of the plan to kill him – and he listens gravely to his son’s sober assessment of his new status, and tells him what a man he’s being (spit), and it’s all very emotional, and then of course he calls for the people who made this happen, and it’s our cue, and he sends his wife and her son away and won’t take no for an answer, and the smile falls from his honest face the moment the door closes on ’em and the introductions are made.

And so, yes, we give him the story. For the most part I let Alistair tell it, he so clearly wants to. His manner’s good and polite, and he looks at me when I talk to him, and any time he thinks we’re glossing something over he goes back for it with a firm and becoming politeness that I’d do well to learn my own self. And from that he gets our story from Ostagar, which ain’t a short thing itself, and we give him a rendering of the lies the teyrn’s man came with, and when we’re finished with that he closes his eyes and lies back a moment in his bed, long enough to make me look at Wynne to see if she’s worried for him, but she isn’t –

“So,” he says quietly. “I must put my own house in order before we can be of further use to one another, and I’ll do that – Alistair, you and I will talk. Then I’ll do what Isolde should have done about the time I fell ill, and call up the banners and levies, and make ready to harbour people fleeing the Blight.”

I nod. “I’ll not ask you to go on the offensive alone. We are going to need to bring the horde to battle, unless we can somehow find and assassinate its leader, but I-”

He raises a hand politely and I let him cut in. “It is worse than you think. Loghain knows that you spoke at this court; Teagan will convince him that he gulled you into thinking you had his support and fobbed you off with a pointless quest. Teagan will return here and find only justice, and at about the same time Loghain will discover that you are not dead, that I am alive, and that the same day I was healed I raised my banners. He will be watching like a hawk – and what will he hear, but that you went to the Circle Tower and are now off to speak with the dwarves, who by his lights are a sleeping giant on his southwestern border. And there are things he knows that will lead him to think that we are planning to fight a civil war in the very face of the Blight.”

“So, what, you’ve got to go and fight darkspawn to prove you’re not readying your army to fight him?”

He sighs. “We can’t afford to do that. For one, we simply do not have the manpower: for another, I’m not throwing lives away to make an impression. And if I send to him to discuss strategy or otherwise try and protest innocence of plans for civil war, it will quite rightly arouse suspicion. And yet – and yet.” He scratches his chin. “I have credible, serious accusations against him. Accusations I must take seriously. A man who is plotting civil war does not take his accusations before the Landsmeet – he plots in secret, with his friends. And although it is somewhat irregular to call it repeatedly in succession, it isn’t unknown by any means. Yes. that would work.”

“I’m sorry, what would?”

He smiles faintly. “Grey Wardens, I have heard your accusations against the honour of one I once called friend and they trouble me deeply. I shall call him to answer before the Landsmeet, the meeting of the peers of the realm, and have this out in the light of day and in open court. Witness my hand this day of whenever-it-actually-is, blah, blah, and so on and suchlike. It’s an odd world where accusations of treachery are less likely to lead to civil war than preparing for the defence of the realm, but there we have it.” The smile goes away. “And now I really do need to talk to Alistair, and completely alone. There are things he has to know that are for his ears alone.”

I meet his eyes long enough to nod. “Okay. Come on, people.” I look around at the rest of us. “I’m sure there’s use we can put our hands to in the castle. I hear where there’s a hospital here, and this time we brought a healer they won’t turn up their noses at.”

*

Healer mages. You’d think they’d be commoner, but the truth is that healing magic is pretty hard stuff in general, so Wynne says: because each patient’s different, you essentially need to re-invent the spell pattern for each healing, and it’s actually not that common to care enough about strangers that you can heal ’em without one. So a healer mage is either a good person or a good mage, as Wynne puts it, or ideally both.

And as I believe I’ve mentioned already, this means that it’s difficult for them to see somewhere that they could help and not actually do so, and Morrigan pretty much bites my hand off at the chance to do something for these people she couldn’t help properly before. And, well. I guess it’s not actually a bad thing to get ourselves a reputation as do-gooders.

Leliana plays nurse for them. I think she’s just doing it for her conscience’s sake, to remind her she’s in holy orders after all, but you never know. And Zevran and I end up at a bit of a loose end, and he sees the archery butts in the bailey and asks if I feel like getting a little practice in, and of course I tell him slightly red-faced that I never learned, and so nothing will do but I must learn. After all, I have a bow.

And I tell you, even when the bow’s laughably lightweight for your strength, archery is still harder than it looks. And to his credit, Zevran neither laughs nor talks down, and at least I can get the shafts on the target, and usually in the circle. He teaches me to hold the string with my thumb as I draw rather than with three fingers the way the humans do, and says that’s how his ma taught him.

We’ve got a few onlookers from the guard by the next time I look around, and both me and Zevran catch the man say to his neighbour that he’d heard elves could shoot, but never exactly what they could shoot, but it’s not one of those – And our eyes meet and Zevran holds his hand out wordlessly for the bow, as he slings the quiver he was holding on his shoulder, and without really bothering to aim he draws and fires four arrows, one into the eye of each target, pretty much continuous motion, smooth as fine silk, and he looks at the man and winks. Time to play another game, he says, and we collect the arrows and move to swords.

Again, he doesn’t sneer like you’d expect him to when I suggest using a bit of firewood instead of a sharp blade. He just says that I’m welcome to, if I can find one that’s the exact same length and shape and weight, with a hilt and a flat and an edge – so it is that when Alistair comes out of the keep looking like someone who’s seen a ghost, it’s to see me and Zevran crossing steel with an audience of off-duty men-at-arms.

And I see him and the look on his face and I hesitate, and you’d expect Zevran to punish me for that, even if it’s just a tap on the arm or a disarm, but he takes a quick step back the moment he sees my attention waver.

And suddenly there are like ten people’s eyes on Alistair and it’s absolutely the last thing he wanted, and he clears his throat and plasters on that opaque smile of his, and he says in a slightly shaky voice “Five silver on the Commander.” And he joins the group of ’em, and Zevran and I salute one another and turn it from a practice into a contest.

And, well, if he thought I was going to accept him showing off for his audience, he’s got another think coming when he tries an entirely decorative spin around between blows and I fetch him a stomping kick to the base of the spine that knocks him clean over. And he rolls to his feet with a laugh and from then on it’s serious, pure skill and speed and flashing blades.

But that ain’t what it comes down to. He’s got more tricks, and I’m quicker and stronger, and just as I’m wise to some of those tricks so he’s not surprised at my strength this time, and so we’re pretty even matched. Except that I’m barely breathing hard, and there’s sweat starting to bead on his chin, and the strength in his arms is starting to go. And if this weren’t a contest, like, then we’d have stopped – or he’d make a show of letting me win and I’d properly kick his arse for it. But there’s money on this, and pride, like. So he keeps going till he’s panting and shaking with the effort, puts a lot of himself into one last blow at me and I meet it with a parry that shivers the hilt out of his hands and give him quarter at my point. And Alistair wins his five silvers from a smiling guardsman who says it was money well spent for a show like that.

“Fun’s over,” I say as I trade a salute with Zevran – I suppose a human would shake hands – and sheathe my sword. “Alistair. I suppose you want a quiet word now?”

He looks from me to my sweating training partner. “D’you want a moment, first, or -”

“I’m good.” And I realise that yes, they’re looking at me a little funny as Zevran’s just kind of shown them the difference between a Warden and a master swordsman, and just then I don’t want to talk to any more humans. “C’mon. I’m sure there’s a balcony we can go and brood on or something.”

*

The battlements are as good a place as any. View’s not bad, and I like the cool breeze. I put my back against a crenellation and look at Alistair and wait for him to start talking.

“So, uh. What Arl Eamon and I discussed.” He leans on the wall and looks at the horizon. “Hells. How to- Right. So you know how there are things a man doesn’t talk about around ladies?”

Corner of a smile. “No?”

“Right.” He clears his throat. “So the arl and I got to talking about, uh, masculine deficiencies, of the kind that a nobleman won’t admit to on pain of, uh.”

“Of his brother putting a pair of horns on him.”

“Bloody hell, you’re good.” He turns and looks at me in rank surprise and I nearly flinch. “Yes. Kind of cut half of the punchline short for me, did that. You mind my pretending you couldn’t see straight through me?”

“Go right ahead.” Best not to mention that was a guess.

He nods and takes his eyes off of mine. “So it’s, um, physically impossible that I’m the son of Eamon Guerrin. Not content with being a complete bastard, it turns out I’m also a poor excuse.”

“…Right?”

“And, well, there’s somewhat more. A second reason I was sent off for a templar, beyond that I was a threat to the family’s other cuckoo chick.” He clasps his hands, looks down at them. “So I might also be the root of our inevitable downfall. Is that obscure enough for you?”

“In that I have no idea what that euphemism meant at all?”

“Right. Right.” He swallows. “So back in the bad old days – when nous etions tous Orlesien and so on – this was where the revolution wasn’t, but that didn’t mean they weren’t patriots. Loghain mac Tir and Maric Theirin made the noise, and Arl Eamon cooperated and made nice and ran a safe-house. And during the year of the revolution, twenty-one years ago, Maric Theirin and Loghain mac Tir spent a month in Redcliffe Castle. They smuggled them in disguised as serving-maids. And, well, apparently the nice lady who lent Maric those clothes didn’t put any on to replace them, if you get me, and a very pleasant few weeks he spent, and when they went back to their supporters, well.” He tosses his head dramatically and the light catches him just so. “Maric Theirin, first of his name, was a mighty broad-shouldered man with a gorgeous mane of golden hair. And so are his two sons.”

“Your ma?” I ask softly.

“I’m told she was also tall and fair, yes.”

“No, I meant-”

“I know.” And he winces. “Sorry, I, uh. What would you say if I asked about your mother?”

“That’s fair,” I say, and I make myself look back at him, and he nods.

“So I was somewhat upward of three birds with half a stone for Eamon. A favour for King Maric – a cover for his own defective manhood – a man he could adopt if no better came along – a malleable type to stick on the throne if Maric’s legitimate son turned out to be an incompetent lunatic.”

I nod. “So what went wrong?”

He turns to put his back against the wall. “Isolde went wrong. His marriage was supposed to be an alliance only – in his mind, she’d hate Ferelden and go back to Orlais to represent his interests with money he was happy to send, and in hers she’d leave a court she hated for a new country and a powerful man whose heart she could win. She would never believe him about my parentage, the truth was too easy a lie, and it came between them. His impotence was easy enough for her to verify, but whatever it was she thought the truth was, it made her put horns on him – enter Teagan, stage left.”

“And then she has a son.”

“A son that Eamon acknowledges as his, securing her loyalty at a stroke. Only now I’m a threat to her dreams, and my usefulness to him is going down, and his brother wants me gone. And as a templar – well. I’m out of the way, I’m well looked after, I’ll never lack for a trade, and I can always be retrieved later in an emergency.” He looks up, into the sun, eyes closed. “And I’ll grow out of hating it. A templar’s training will make a man of me.”

“And then Duncan rescued you.”

He nods. “He saw the resemblance at once, of course. He kept me out on the circuit, never deliberately brought me close enough to Cailean for anyone to notice. If he could have had me wear a full helm all day and night at Ostagar, he would have.” He gives me a sidelong look. “D’you think I look like him? The young king?”

“Not so much. He looked quite a lot like a horse, and you don’t.”

He makes a face that says does he really want to know, and asks, “So what do I look like, then?”

And I’m sure it’s in jest but I meet his eyes a moment and my voice completely goes and my mouth goes dry. I feel heat come to my cheeks. I look away fast, swallow. “You’re too thin for a pig and too tall for a dog. You shave, unlike a goat, and you don’t have enough nose for a horse. You hold yourself steady, and a cat don’t, and you’re too – what, solid? – for any sort of bird. And you’re too light on your feet for an ox and not vicious enough for a human, and don’t you dare laugh.” What is wrong with me? Feels like something silver just grabbed me by my insides and twisted. “W-warden. That’s what you are. Didn’t they say, like, when you joined?”

“I thought you didn’t believe that.” His voice is a little quieter than it should be, and he’s looking at me, like-

Right! This has got to stop. I stand up abruptly. “Enough,” I say with a little more force than necessary, and I’d like to say that broke the spell for me. “The others will need to know some of this.”

That might well have done for him, though. “I suppose. It’s just -”

“Yes?” Less breathless, Kallian. It’s a human. For Andraste’s sake.

“Look. You, I trust. But Wynne? Zevran? Do you know what Leliana’s type would pay for this type of thing, if she weren’t following us around being mysterious?”

“Zevran sold out the Crows for me. Leliana’s explained herself to me. If you can trust me, then you can trust them. Wynne and politics ain’t exactly friends, a-and Morrigan wouldn’t know the value of the information.”

He nods. “But I’m sure most of it, the arl’s secrets, isn’t necessary to speak.”

“Yes. Sure.” I don’t look straight at him. “Just the bit about the royal blood, really.”

He winces. “Maker, Kallian, not like that. Please. I’m a Warden, and that is it. Ferelden has no more Theirins in it now than before I knew my blood was supposed to run blue.”

“You realise that Eamon won’t care what you think about that one.”

“No. He cares. He always has.” He frowns. “He just wouldn’t let that matter. Look. I am never claiming that name. I will never even try to sit upon that throne. Not under orders, not if you paid me a shiny gold piece, not for love, not for any reason you care to-”

“You’d rather see Duncan’s murderer there?”

He actually flinches. His eyes say what his mouth won’t, that he’d do it, and I nod. “And no. It’s not fair. But like I’m so fond of saying, there’s only the one sort of evil.”

“Just promise me one thing.”

(A shiver. Stop it!) I nod. “Speak it.”

Shaky smile. “If I ever call myself Alistair Theirin, you’ll mock me mercilessly for the rest of my born days. I know it’s a lot to ask of straight-faced you. But promise me that if I start calling myself after my supposed blood, you’ll crack that ice and laugh at me, you’ll embarrass me so hard I’ll not know where to put my face.”

“That I can do.” I go for comic timing. “Your grace.” And I can’t but smile as the man looks like I hit him with a brick. “What? Can’t blame a body for practicing.”

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Ten

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*

You know when you’ve had maybe two hours’ sleep and your eyes want another eight? That is how this feels. I can hear Leliana swearing softly in Orlesian and I can smell hot metal – movement, behind me, is Alistair peeling himself off the floor. Morrigan and Wynne are there on the stair looking wrung-out, kneeling beside another mage who’s coming around.

Two mages and a templar should be waking, says Morrigan, and we find ’em – they’re not in a good way, and too busy feeling lucky to be alive to raise hackles at the unfamiliar mage. The others – they won’t wake. Wynne says not to try, they’ll have a specialist look at them, but she doesn’t look hopeful. We do what we can for ’em – Leliana busies herself looking after the three Morrigan saved and thinks we don’t see that she won’t even glance at the sleeping victims.

The templar’s only barely there, really, and one of the mages isn’t much better – we send them down to the Tranquil, who will doubtless look after them as well as they would any other. The other mage is pretty much good enough to give us his story of what’s going on here.
“It’s Uldred,” he says, sitting propped against the wall there on the wide decorated landing. “Uldred did it. Blood magic and maleficence and – Maker’s balls, the Templars, the Templars. They knew?”

“You aren’t making much sense, dear.” Wynne’s got the grandmotherly mask back on. “Why don’t you start with the beginning?”
Deep breath. “All right. So. Yesterday. You know how Enchanter Uldred has been after that council meeting? The one where none of the enchanters would-”

“Yes, dear.”

The words come out in a rush. “So there was a message come in for him this morning and he called a department meeting and I was late, because I was finishing off a preparation that just wouldn’t wait. So I was down the corridor when I just… I felt a surge of power, like when Adiana spilt that batch of lyrium decoction, and I – something told me something was wrong, so I set myself as ‘out’ and went and hid in the washroom. And, well, there’s a mirror in there and I’m not a fool, so when the bell rang, the emergency bell, I turned the mirror on Uldred’s office to see what was going on, and there he was and there was, there was blood on his sleeve, just on the end of it? And there was Ser Malon sitting at his desk calm as a little lamb and nodding and smiling, and like half of the Transmutation faculty standing there and looking all intense and I could just about see Topher lying on the ground with his head all funny.” He pauses for breath. “And I turned the mirror on Head Enchanter Irving’s office and he was sitting on the floor and Elaine from Metamagic had a staff trained on him! A-and I hid. And there were the most terrible noises, and I’ve had a horrible time, and then eventually my nerve broke and I ran and there was obviously a spell on the stair and like an ass I was caught.”

“You’ve been under for about thirty hours, dear. Don’t beat yourself up too hard for being trapped – it caught me, and I’m not exactly a newcomer.” Wynne gives a grandmotherly chuckle. “Now think carefully – is there anybody you are absolutely certain isn’t in on this?”

He frowns. “The Head Enchanter?”

“Alternatively, Elaine from Metamagic.” Wynne’s voice remains kindly. “More?”

“Um.” He counts on his fingers a moment. “Yes! Enchanter Leorah.” He nods firmly. “I couldn’t scry the library – she’d raised the wards – but she did it the moment the bell rang. And I overheard someone saying they couldn’t get into the library, and someone replying that that was all right, because the Transmutation and Evocation faculties had already taken out all the books ‘they’ needed, whoever they were.”

A gentle frown. “And did they say what ‘they’ needed grimoires for?”

“N-no. Just that they couldn’t get into the-”

“Library. Very well. Thank you, dear. Is there anything else you can tell us, before we go and sort all this out?”

“All the noise has been coming from the Harrowing Chamber, I, uh. I think they’ve genuinely torn the Veil up there.” The nervous mage looks to the limp form of the templar I’m carefully carrying down the stairs. “Are they going to, to Annul the tower, Enchanter?”

Wynne snorts. “Not with me inside, Will. Harrowing Chamber, you say. We’ll have this sorted by teatime, most likely, and don’t you worry.”

With the mage helped away to see the dubious ministrations of the Tranquil – well, at least they should feed him – we head on up, Wynne in the lead. The main stair will be watched, she says, so she takes us into the library – and, well. These people house their books better than they house their apprentices. The place is vast

Too vast. It’s a maze, says Leliana, a deliberate one, and Wynne nods. These shelves are nothing but illusion. The defence doesn’t bar the door – it just hides the contents. I look at the titles of the books – see, humans, every child can read where I come from – and they’re gibberish to me. Morrigan looks at Wynne as we follow the path through the shelf maze and says she hopes she knows the way, and the reply of ‘perhaps’ is appropriately vague –

Whether by luck, good judgement, or unseen assistance, we find ourselves what we were after – stairs, a hidden stairway up to the Head Enchanter’s offices, and Wynne leads us upward saying that they were originally built not to facilitate late-night reading, as you’d expect, but rather a clandestine affair with the librarian.

But our luck doesn’t last beyond the door at the top. A young fellow, reading papers on the desk of the ransacked office, is facing straight at us as we open it – his eyes widen – Wynne’s first reaction is one of shock as well, and he’s rabbited by the time we’re out of the narrow stair. We can hear his voice echoing in the corridor yelling that Enchanter Wynne’s here – Leliana and Morrigan and I take places beside the door and Alistair and Wynne set up to greet anyone coming in.

And, well, I suppose they come in thinking to see an old lady who wants a fair fight or possibly a polite little chat – they just about have time to notice Alistair standing there beside her when Leliana and I move at the same time. She grabs her man by his long ponytail, pulls him down backwards in a choke-hold; I take the two to the other side and bang their heads together with strength they were maybe not expecting from a girl whose head don’t quite come up to their shoulders. One of the two at the front turns to discover that he’s got a glass jaw; the other starts speaking words of magic only to stop at the second one with Leliana’s knife’s point behind his ear and Alistair’s sword’s point under his chin.

Wynne can do the talking. Some family lost a fine matriarch when the Maker decided to give his Gift to this woman. “Mage Jolyon. How kind of you to join us.”

He bares a rictus of a smile. “Ah… Enchanter. What a… surprise – we’re so very – it was – surprise, that’s all.”

She nods. “Absolutely, absolutely. I do quite understand these things – after all, we were all young once. Now, listen carefully, because I don’t want you to mistake me.” Her smile vanishes. “Explain in as much detail as you can, immediately I’ve finished speaking, everything you know of what is going on here, and I may be disposed to be lenient. Prevaricate, evade or dissemble and I’ll throw you to the templars, boy, I’m sure you don’t need a scrying credential to understand the general line of enquiry they’ll be using. Speak.”

“I know the punishment for maleficence as well as you do, Enchanter. There is no going back for any of us.”

All of you?” She blinks. “There surely can’t be that many secret blood mages in the Tower.”

“Oh, yes. He made sure of that, enchanter, he gave a crash course.” He gives a slightly hysterical little laugh. “Those who would not are dead, fuel to the fires. Name your co-conspirators, Mage Jolyon. Name those who drank the cup beside you. Enchanter Irving. Enchanter Leorah. Enchanter Veretha. Mage-”

Her voice mostly just sounds disappointed. “Did I not tell you what would happen if you lied?”

“Oh! But you cannot afford it. Your oldest friends, enchanter, your prize students! We all know their names, every name of those that wouldn’t bend. You think we won’t all know enough of them? You think that if we’re going down, we won’t take you down with us?”

He’s bitten his lip. Blood runs from it. Wynne narrows her eyes. “Cast on me, boy, and you’ll wish the templars had got you. Suppose I got where I was without knowing how to take down a blood mage, do you, especially one who was a little reluctant in the first place?” He spits at her and she flicks her fingers and the bloody spit flies back in his face. “Now, then. Let’s stop playing games. Either you’re useful to me, or you’re not. What’s it going to be?”

He shakes his head. “You can’t deliver on that, and I’ll not give you the satisfaction.”

Her eyes are sad, but the rest of her is quite unperturbed. “Have it your way.” She gestures with her staff and in the same moment he spits blood into the air again – the droplets seem to slow down, the feeling in the air one of a summer thunderstorm, of pressure – and then Morrigan says “Goodnight” sweetly and he folds up just like the abomination did, and Alistair has to get his blade out of the way pretty quick.

“Sleeping spell?” Wynne looks at the witch sidelong.

“Concentration duration.” She shrugs. “Blame my mother; it’s her staff. Did you want to do something more permanent?”

Wynne nods and repeats the gesture she made with her own staff. “Careful pressure on the jugular vein. Unconsciousness without the requirement of continuous concentration. But what he did wasn’t exactly silent – bind and gag them and we should move.”

Raised voices from down the corridor. Damn right we should move.
The place is panelled in wood, and there are costly hangings on the walls, the odd statue perched in an alcove, the whole place with the air of long-accumulated luxury, the kind of thing you’d cringe at the thought of bringing violence to. This is the way I’d imagined that the lords and ladies lived, though looking at how they actually live, I’m coming more to the conclusion that the kingdom houses its mages best out of anyone. And no, seeing as you ask, it don’t make the fingers itch. Just because I was brought up in muck don’t make me a thief.

Nothing here that’s light enough to carry, neither.

We set another ambush, taking cover behind statues and in doorways. I hear them coming down the hall – know we’re spotted, because the genius who spotted us says in what he considers a hushed voice, “Four of them, just around the corner.” Alistair’s grin is humorous, I can’t help but smile back.

“Fireball ’em.” … Okay, maybe not quite too daft to live.

I glance back at Wynne, who gestures approximately ‘stay where you are’, and nod an answer. She holds up a hand, her lips moving quietly, and I hear four loud harsh words from the mage down the hall, and a little red thing about the size and shape of a dry bean flies around the corner and straight into Wynne’s hand. She closes her fingers and smoke rises around them, and we all hear the loud surprised voices.

“What? Where’d the fireball go?”

“You can’t tell? It’s your bloody fireball.”

“Shit. The fire suppression must still be active. What now?”

“Lightning?”

“Oh, you want me to just throw undirected natural forces around in the hope that some of them will stick, do you? Look, are you sure there are four people there?”

“Yes.” The mage raises his voice. “Oi! You! Come out with your hands where we can see ’em. There’s no way out of there!” A pause. “We can stay here all day if we have to!”

A mouse goes past at ankle height. I, uh. It’s odd to say, but I think I recognise that mouse.

“Shit! What was that?”

“A mouse, you idiot.”

Pause, just long enough for them to look at one another. “Up here?” But that’s all it took. I hear an incoherent yell and a heavy crash and I’m around the corner just as quick as I can, but by the time I get there there’s Morrigan standing there calmly with a hand around the throat of a struggling young man just barely old enough to shave, the other one sprawled against a wall ten feet away as if flung by some inhuman force. Moment later the one she’s holding goes limp, and she lowers him gently to the floor before looking up at Wynne.

“Careful pressure on the jugular vein,” she says reflectively. “You’re absolutely right.”

Wynne pokes the unconscious man with her toe. “You can kill someone like that.”

“Mm-hmm.” Morrigan straightens. “I didn’t. Which way?”

So two more suspected maleficars are added to the growing pile. And we’re carefully not thinking about the fate we’re leaving them to. Wontering if it wouldn’t be kinder to kill ’em. Dammit. A girl could grow to hate magic.

Both of our mages flinch at once. It’s Leliana who asks, “What just ‘appened?”

Morrigan makes a face that says don’t ask her; Wynne shakes her head. “Release of power. From upstairs, which means the Harrowing Chamber. Blood or lyrium. Abjuration, by the flavour, deliberately unsubtle. My guess? Uldred, or whoever it is, just locked his door in a way you could hear through the whole tower.”

“Can you open ‘is lock?”

“He’s used the wrong spell. Always does.” Wynne smiles. “If he’d actually paid attention in Abjuration class back in the day – hell, if that was me in there and him out here – then we’d be royally buggered. But we shouldn’t complain about providence when it drops in our laps. C’mon.”

*

You know? I can see why a person could grow to hate living in this tower, for all the luxury I’ve seen. It’s the stairs. I mean, stairs built for shems are a pain anyway – when you’re taking a pace and a half for everyone else’s one, you do notice things like stairs with steep risers – but there aren’t half a lot of them here. It’s another flight up and round to get to the top, and they’re steep and functional for once, and it’s a right pain, is all I’m saying.

And these stairs are lit not just by a candle but by a glow from the landing at the top, a blue-white glow like nothing natural, and as we get to take a look it turns out that it’s in the shape of a man in armour, drawn blade, mouth wide open in a silent scream, encased in white light, and Morrigan takes one look at him and takes the three quick steps to look at him close before Wynne can cry “Don’t touch!”
She stops just in time, head on one side, staring. “What… the… The poor man. What am I seeing?”

“A distraction.” Wynne turns her attention to the door off the landing. “Here’s our locked door. We’re unlikely to-”

“It’s a templar.” Morrigan walks around the glowing shape. “There’s a templar in here. Alive.”

“Yes -” Wynne’s voice is a little testy – “it’s Ser Cullen, Maker alone knows how he got all this way on his own. And there are people coming. Do you really want to face both the mages in there and the mages out here simultaneously?” She doesn’t wait for a response. “Then leave him.”

Morrigan looks from the templar to the door and back a moment, then tears her eyes off him. “Just because you may happen to be right,” she growls, “does not make me an apprentice to come at your beck and call.”

“Fantastic,” says Wynne through gritted teeth. “When we’ve solved our blood mage problem, we can have another little cage-fight all of our own, and won’t that be amusing.”

“Do we need to separate the two of you, or something?” Alistair has his sword out, point down. “What’s in there?”

“Circular room, completely blank and bare. The focus is at the centre. Expect anything. Go for anybody casting anything who isn’t a friend.” Wynne puts the back of her free hand on the door; the other’s got her staff. “As I thought – this is a simple wizard-lock, with too much power into it. It’d fall apart in a strong wind. Morrigan, I’ll be exposed for an instant and there’s a trap on the far side of the door. I’ll defend thereafter, but you’ll need to counter that trap and anything else that happens before I can get going.”

The witch nods and cracks her knuckles. Leliana gets on Alistair’s other side from me. “Go in quick,” she says, “and split from the mages as fast as you can. I will go for physical threats – Kallian, you go for anybody who looks like a wizard, Alistair, find anything that looks… unnatural, and hit it in the face with your shield. They can’t cast on what they can’t see. Stop their mouths, get them on the back foot, make your kills quick and sure. A mage with nothing to lose – you saw how I dealt with Jowan.”

I take a deep breath, tight grip on my knives. “Mages, you ready?” They are. Sudden thought. “Blessed are they who stand before the wicked and the corrupt, and do not falter. Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.”

Leliana and Alistair and Wynne take up the words. There’s no magic to the prayer, but it don’t half help clear the mind. Heart pounding. Wynne holds up an open hand, starts counting down on her fingers. “Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow. In their blood the Maker’s will is written.” Two. One.

Wynne taps her staff to the door sharply and it explodes inwards – Morrigan makes a hand-gesture that seems to go through more directions than exist, and a bright sallow flash from just inside the door leaves us half-blind with after-image and the only sound is Morrigan’s high disbelieving cry of pain. We smell blood, move fast. Alistair goes right into the room, I go left.

The room is as they said, circular, bright marble, very plain. There’s a circle incised in the floor. It’s probably not supposed to be full of blood. There’s probably not supposed to be all this smoke in the air. A blackboard off to one side, a corkboard covered in pins and little scraps of parchment and pieces of string. Piles of books. A table, it and its glassware scrupulously clean, though the floor under it is smirched with blood. A hollow-eyed old man with a knife, blood to the elbows and holding a pewter bowl that stinks of the stuff. Ten people in total, nine of ’em with staves, each with a different colour of light gathering at the end. And bodies, I remember a pile of pale corpses just kind of stacked. And in the centre of that circle in the floor there’s something I can only really talk about in terms of a blind spot at the corner of the eye, ’cause I can’t bring myself to look at it straight.

So I go for the nearest one with a staff. I don’t think she even saw me ‘fore I hit her, knife up under her chin and the other one in the side of her neck as the staff falls from her hand. I hear the distinctive noise of Alistair hitting something hard with his shield. Light flashes in the corner of my eye and I whirl, sheer good luck bringing the dying mage I’m holding across in front of me, and the gout of flame that washes over her doesn’t hardly scorch my hair. It’s a moment before they can do that again, right? I throw a knife at the fire-thrower to keep him distracted – a thrown knife ain’t so good at hurting someone, but it’ll make ’em duck – and go for him low.

Over in the centre of the room, Wynne has her staff up in front of her vertically – one of the mages steps forward, speaking the last words of a spell, and she moves her hand imperiously and the two of them are connected for an instant by a bar of white light that casts harsh black shadows, and she rocks back on her heels and he collapses with his hands over his eyes. I see the spike of green light from Morrigan’s staff at the same instant as a blue flash from the other side of the room, and the air is riven by a clap of thunder as a thin finger of lightning links the two mages’ staves and they’re both driven back into opposite walls of the chamber with identical cries of pain. But it’s notable that she gets up, and he doesn’t.

And the one I went for, the one who threw fire, he knocks the knife spinning aside with his staff and brings it down like a shillelagh, but he’s got no inking of how to swing one. The stone floor splinters where the end of the staff hits it – behind me – but I’ve gone past under his blow already, and as I come up behind him I grab his hair in my hand and pull him over backwards to cut his throat. Blood sprays.
The man that Alistair punched staggers back, but pretty much bounced off that blow like rubber; he grins, opening his mouth wider than you’d think possible, and gestures; there’s a crunch that I can hear from where I am and Alistair goes white. The man laughs – or starts to – Alistair punches his sword out in a lunge that shows his point out the back of the mage’s neck. So that’s five down.

Two of them with staves just have light gathered to them and ain’t moving, so I leave them for the mages. The man with the bowl – yup, blood. I knock the bowl from his hand – is he distracted or unresisting? Never mind – and it splashes on the floor, I grab the wrist of his knife hand and spin him down to the floor and break his wrist. A mage can’t work much magic without a staff or a diagram or time to speak words, right?

And the eighth man with the staff sees what he thinks is his opening and hurls flame at Wynne, a spear of the stuff that she can’t avoid, and her robe goes up as if it’s soaked in pitch – she blithely ignores this, reaches her hand out towards him and closes her fingers and he crumples to the ground with a scream, and the fire on her dies down to a smoulder around her hem immediately.

And the ninth one drops his staff – and Leliana yells something like “Get him!” – and Alistair and I charge for him one from each side as Leliana throws a knife to try and distract him – and he smiles and clicks one finger then the other, and it’s like every muscle in my body convulses itself at once and I crumble to the floor like a babe who forgot how to walk. I can taste blood. I hear Alistair go down as well in a clatter of armour. Leliana gets out a scream as she doubles over; Wynne and Morrigan remain standing, but I can see the sweat rolling down Wynne’s forehead. And the other two mages with staves, the ones we ignored because they weren’t making a move? They go down too, silently, painfully.

The knife bounces off his forehead, hilt-first, and he smiles, and allows a deadly silence to settle before he speaks. “Enchanter Wynne. How good of you to grace us with your arrival.”

“Enchanter Uldred.” From Wynne’s voice, you wouldn’t know the strain she looks to be under. The air between her and him is pretty much fizzing. The shadows at the edge of the room are growing deeper. It’s like the only thing in the world that matters is the two of them. “Always a pleasure to come visit you. For – ugh.” She stops talking long enough to wipe her mouth with the back of her hand; blood comes away. The hem of her robe is still smouldering and smoking. “For the sake of the histories, dear boy – would you mind awfully letting us know which fools, and what you believe you will show them, show them all? It would be an awful bother to try and reconstruct that from your laboratory notes.”

By the way? Can I just enter for the histories to say that lying on your face with both arms and both legs cramping and your back arched like this, is not just painful but embarrassing. And I hate it. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to blink, for fuck’s sake.
Uldred is still talking to Wynne. He shakes his head, smiling. “Oh, my dear Wynne. Always so set in your ways.” He looks down for a moment, back up with a broader smile. “And I sense that my disciples are outside – waiting, as it were, to see which horse to back – and they won’t dare come in, but they can hear us very well indeed. So tell them. Tell them what happens if they back your horse. Tell them the fate that awaits them all – that awaits those that your lackeys have doubtless thought they spared by taking them bloodlessly – that awaits me, should I take the offer of mercy you’re surely about to give.”

Wynne takes a slow step forward, moving for once like the old lady she is. “Oh, grow up, Uldred. If I or Ser Cullen had wanted them dead or worse, I’d have pulled back to the lakeshore and Annulled the tower, as anyone with a shred of brain would know. And yes, I’ll offer you mercy.” She leans on her staff. “Release your spell and I’ll kill you instantly. Make me take you down and I’ll take you alive.”
His smile widens and he spreads his hands. The sense of tension between them intensifies. “Do your worst.”

“Murdering – bastard.” She winces, speaking through gritted teeth. “Eat shit – and die.” The wave of hate, of revulsion that spreads through the room is enough to make my gorge rise – because, you know, today continues to find entertaining ways to get worse. I hear Leliana whimper, and the one whose wrist I broke lets out a soft moan.
And he takes a good couple of steps forward, baring his teeth involuntarily, and he raises his voice. “Oh, I do hope you’ve got better for me than harsh language, you sanctimonious old bat. Or maybe I’ll have to bring this to a conclusion?” He raises a hand and twists it and it’s like the whole of everything twists a little along with it, and Wynne lets out an involuntary gasp of pain.

And a tiny little bit of motion catches the eye behind him. Morrigan isn’t standing leaning heavily against the wall where she was just now. If I was to guess where she was, I’d say she was that little brown scrap crossing quickly behind him. Wynne lifts her staff from the ground like it weighs a hundred pounds and taps it back down, and a symbol etches itself into the ground between them in white light – he looks at it and then at her and laughs. “Quite literally a symbol of defiance? How… quaint. I’d almost think you were mocking me.” And he spits on it, and there’s blood in that, and the symbol turns black and it’s nothing but ash on the ground and he takes another step forward.

And then the little brown field-mouse darts out from the shadows of the wall behind him, and as it comes it unfolds and expands like smoke and fills out and I get an instant’s view of a great dark fanged clawed beast before Morrigan knocks him down with one swipe of her massive right paw and falls on him with sheer animal brutality and complete silence.

The pressure goes. The cramping pain in my arms and legs and belly starts to fade. I breathe again, freely, and judging from the sounds I hear I’m not the only one. Nobody who’s struggling and clawing for every breath can swear as… creatively as Alistair is doing right now. Wynne helps Leliana to her feet. And I go for Uldred – he’s probably down, but ‘probably’ isn’t good enough.

Alistair pulls himself off the floor, one leg clearly not working properly. Morrigan changes herself back, and she’s kneeling by Uldred’s dismembered body breathing hard and the thing that’s really disturbing is the way the body’s in several pieces and she’s covered in blood from the nose down, and – yeah. He’s dead, all right. I offer her a wordless hand up and she takes it and leans on it. Coughs blood into her hand. Won’t look me in the eye.

Alistair and Leliana are coming over, same idea as me. Got to see for ourselves that the man is dead. We look at the body. Someone’s got to say something. Guess it’s Alistair. “Okay,” he says. “He’s dead now. Clearly he was the root of all the evil in this place and everyone who hasn’t taken up arms against us is an unwitting dupe, and let this be an end of it. Right?”
There’s a pause.

There are a variety of unamused stares.

*

The man whose wrist I broke was High Enchanter Irving, and to hear him tell it he and several of the others had been unwilling puppets in their own bodies since all of this began. Apparently the woman who was the first to die by my hand was one, too, and his eyes are sad as he says that nobody blames me, that Uldred had deliberately set that up to get the other Enchanters killed – Did anyone mention yet how magic just makes everything worse?

And with their help, Wynne and Morrigan shut off the insane working at the top of the tower. They give it a name, apparently it’s something out of a Tevinter book, a working specifically outlawed by the White Divine because it goes against the Maker’s writ, and they won’t tell me more than that and to be brutally honest I don’t want to know.

There’s a stand-up row over Cullen. Apparently Uldred bespelled him like that after he killed three of the man’s cronies, and Irving wants him left like that until it’s all sorted and templars can bring him out of it without mage help, and Morrigan refuses to just leave him there as a bloody light-fitting, and I have to step in and promise we’ll carry him back down ourselves before she’ll back down.
So then the question is, what then? Because to hear Irving tell it, every mage in the Tower was forced to come into the Harrowing Chamber, where they test the apprentices, and shed a drop of their own blood and show Uldred they were willing to break the Chantry’s prohibition. And to hear them tell it, every single damned one of them, no doubt, they were forced into it and the alternative was to be used to feed that insane working at the tower’s summit.

Of course, if we go and tell all of this to the Knight-Commander, there will be what I might as well call a witch hunt – the only people who can be held blameless are the librarians, who managed to lock themselves away, and Wynne’s lot. And we did rather come here looking for support, and what support would we get from a total of nine competent mages and twenty apprentices?

I make an excuse for the four of us to confer, over having Morrigan treat Alistair’s injury; she makes somewhat of a production of scolding him for running on what turns out to be a broken kneecap, and he complains that who ever heard of a break-your-kneecap spell? Anyway, I look at each of them and say what the hell do we do.

Morrigan says screw it, we carry Cullen down wordless, we make the mages and the templars sort it out and negotiate with whatever’s left once the arguing is done. Their problem, they should solve it. Alistair says he’s very tempted by that, but it looks bad – we’d like the mages’ and templars’ support as friends and allies, and surely there’s an opportunity here to make some peace, for all that that means (he shudders) getting further involved.

Leliana favours him with the only brilliant smile she’s shown since setting foot inside (at which he doesn’t know where to put his eyes), and says that he’s pretty much right. She blinks slowly, looks me straight in the eye in the way she knows makes me want to flinch, and says trust the Knight-Commander. He’s in charge for a reason. She had heard the man in command of the Tower was a man of compassion, and she took his measure when we spoke. What she’d do, is to lay it before the Knight-Commander in private and give him an opportunity to do some good. Challenging look at Morrigan.

And all Morrigan says to that is she’d better go and wash up. The mages will soon forget what got this blood on her, and the templars won’t understand.The mages unsurprisingly elect Wynne to go down and let them downstairs know that the threat’s gone, and she sticks with us all the way down the tower. With the focus at the top closed off, the whole place is a little less of an outright danger on our way down – the door at the bottom unlocks itself for her and we step through to a worried half-circle of templars and Greagoir’s expression as we ask to talk in private ain’t exactly a relieved one.

So in his quiet soundproofed office, with a guard posted, we lay it out for him simple and plain, and he pinches his brow when he hears we killed Uldred. “I don’t suppose,” he says, “that there’s anything so simple as, I don’t know, some kind of believable confession that Uldred was a lone if powerful lunatic, exonerating all the rest of the Tower? Possibly naming as his collaborators exactly and only those individuals you have already killed or arrested?”

“I already asked that,” Alistair says quietly. “No joy.”

Ser Greagoir sighs. “Quite.” He puts his elbows on his desk, steeples his fingers. “My – thanks, Wardens. Without you… this total and utter disaster wouldn’t just have been the worst such thing since the Orlesian conquest, it would have been – well, for starters, the death of us all. But while your part is over, I suppose mine’s just about to start. I’m going to have my own people at each other’s throats – d’you think we’ve no hearts, either? Today and yesterday my little community lost a third of its number in the worst way it damned well could. And the best of us aren’t these people’s jailors – we’re their confessors, their priests. Their friends, dammit. We share their lives.” He swallows. His face is pasty, his voice hollow. “It’s not just the mages this is going to break in half. And that’s exactly what Uldred bloody wanted, may demons feast on his roasted testicles in the darkest hell the Maker ever dreamed of. It’s like he spent his whole damned career waiting for this chance.”

“You could keep quiet,” Leliana says reflectively. “You could allow the mages to deal for themselves with their shared sin. You could-”

He shakes his head. “No. I won’t do that to them. They need to -” He bites his lip. Starts again. “Whatever else happens, the mages must not be forced to punish their own. Far better that I lose a few friends than that they begin to hate the only peers they have. They need someone to blame for this punishment, someone who isn’t one of their own. I can reassign templars who won’t toe the line. I can deal with a morale problem in our ranks, far easier than in theirs. And since when, exactly, has the Maker’s justice best been done by turning a blind eye? No. I won’t do it.”

She smiles slightly. “I told you that ‘e could be trusted. Knight-Commander, it is likely that Uldred genuinely did force people to do what is said, and for the goal you see – to give them in their minds no way they could go to the Chantry for ‘elp.”

“And such people are victims.” He’s not so much speaking to convince himself, as seeing if the argument will fly with us. She nods. “But for all their sakes and mine as well – to prevent this same damn thing happening in another couple of weeks’ time – we’d bloody well better make sure we got all of those who went willingly.”

“There’s more.” Wynne catches his glare, like, what else could possibly make his day worse, and she takes out a crumpled piece of parchment. “Irving gave me this to give to you. He said you’d understand. It’s what made him set off the contingencies. He intercepted it on the way to Uldred, but he didn’t think to detain the messenger, and the message got through by word of mouth.”

And Greagoir reads it, and passes it to Alistair (Bloody humans. I can likely read better than either of them) and he closes his eyes a good long moment and then he says to us, “Wardens. D’you mind if I take a wild stab at why you are here in the first place?”

“Go ahead,” I say. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that whatever Alistair just read, now he wants to kill someone. (Else.)

“So I think,” he says slowly, “that you might be here because a highly-placed courtier – a teyrn, say? Has committed some terrible act of treason.”

I nod. “Loghain betrayed our people and his king to death and is spinning lies aimed at putting himself on the throne.”

Alistair’s voice isn’t much more than a growl. “And sent Enchanter Uldred a letter promising to have the Templars of the Tower neglected and revive the position of court mage, in return for support in an unspecified strategic matter.”

“The working,” Wynne says. “Knowledge, is what it’s for – repeatable accurate scrying of locations and strengths of armies wouldn’t have been out of reach if the tower contingencies were disabled. It wouldn’t even have required blood – just the lyrium his people stole from the stockpiles, that and a healthy disregard for the writ of the Divine. Doubtless Uldred was trying for a quiet bloodless coup.”

Greagoir looks down at his desk. “And Irving was just quick enough to respond that he forced Uldred’s hand, and the whole thing snowballed, and feeling his back against the wall Uldred resorted to blood magic.”

“And once he started down that path…” Morrigan’s expression is sour. “When we finally reached him – his reason was completely unhinged. He was becoming more and more like a demon – his actions increasingly monomaniacal – perhaps there was even a demon of rage or hate riding him. His actions were certainly vindictive enough. Unlock too much power at once, especially with any sort of emotion behind it, and that door you unlock will never be entirely closed again.”

“Don’t expect me to empathise with him.” The templar grits his teeth. “Your story, it’s alluring, for the very reason that it means that the blood magic was a means, and not an end – it was his downfall, not his cause – and so we’re not looking for a conspiracy of the bastards. But it’ll be a bugger to prove, and worse still if it’s not true. And regardless, Uldred has still crafted us a bloody nightmare. I’m going to have to wake us from it.”

“And in the meantime the Circle is useless to anyone.” I bite my lip. “I don’t envy you your task, ser.”

“No.” He sighs. “But you can tell the mages they don’t need to worry for the moment, Enchanter. Irving and the surviving senior faculty will be summoned, and I’ll come and set the whole damn thing up, and any arse that needs to be kicked among people demanding all of your deaths will be kicked by me personally. And lastly?” He looks at me over his desk. “The Wardens came here after something. Least we can bloody do is give it to them.”

“The first and largest one? You’ll do by yourselves.” I nod at the letter. “I’m afraid I don’t have as much to offer as the teyrn does, but it looks like I’m going to be on the other side when he tears the kingdom in half. We’re not talking about asking for your help in some kind of civil war – but when it’s done, we’ll be taking the field against the Blight. And the darkspawn have mages, I’m told, and based on what I’ve seen happens when you try and fight a decent mage with a sword – we will need everybody you can spare.”

“I thought it might be something like that.” He looks at the letter like it’s poisonous. “As you say, it’s the Circle’s duty to supply mages against a Blight. And our best war-mages and half my templars are already with the army. The wrong army.” He frowns. “I’ll do my best. There’s something else, though?”

“Yes.” I clear my throat. “I’d, uh. We came here originally looking for a master healer to attend Arl Eamon of Redcliffe.”

He nods slowly. “Who’s likely not to be on the side of Teyrn Loghain?”
“In a word, ser.”

“As it happens, I might be able to do that.” He looks at Wynne. “You know that Irving won’t be able to keep his job.”

She nods. “And you’re thinking that the best person to take over afterward is someone who was not only definitely not to blame but not present for most of the shouting?”

“I am.” His expression is pained. “I know you’ll want to be here for your people -”

“I’ll live, Knight-Commander.” She pats his hand. “I will be there for them, my friend. After, when they need me, rather than right now, when they need somebody to yell at.”

*

We spend the night at the Tower, choosing to quarter in the templars’ barracks rather than the luxurious quarters set aside for visiting nobility – I do catch Morrigan giving that door a bit of a wistful look, and I tell her next time with a smile she returns wanly.
From her appearance the next morning, I don’t think Wynne slept. I figure what time wasn’t taken up with talking to people and sorting out what she can would’ve been taken up with stress. The atmosphere’s somewhere between sour and sad and sepulchral, and we just get ourselves out of there and onto the road south as soon as we possibly can.

I’d been worried that Wynne wouldn’t be able to keep up on the road, but she’s got a human’s long legs, and she confesses to using ‘just a touch’ of magic to help them along. Apparently being out of breath and footsore is something a spell of healing – she calls it ‘creation’, she’s got a special word for everything – can fix. Wynne’s from Highever originally, up near the sea, but she came to the Circle more than half a century ago and it’s been her whole life. Even when they’re not in the Tower, it’s there in the back of their heads, like the alienage is in mine, I’d guess. Certainly it’s in anyone’s heads when they trade words. And she meets my eye as she says that and she nods and says exactly.

She knew Duncan? A little, she says, and smiles as she does. Apparently he was ‘interestingly foreign’ when he was Alistair’s age. King Maric’s court, this would have been twenty years ago, was an interesting place: it often had a contingent from the Circle, and just as often it had a Warden or two there, and Duncan was popular with those who could get past that foreignness. I guess twenty years of working on that will get rid of Rivaini ways and accent.

And she asks Morrigan for a few more details on Arl Eamon’s condition, and the two of them are soon talking magic and trying to find themselves a common language for it – they spend much of the afternoon’s extent trying to work out if they have the same definitions for a series of words I never even heard before. At the end of which Wynne firmly advises Morrigan she could pass easier for a mabari hound than a Circle mage, and Morrigan asks for Wynne’s impression of a mabari hound, and that starts a discussion about illusions (which they both do – I think) and shape-shifting (which to the witch’s quiet amusement, Wynne had never seen done outside the Fade before).

Wynne does a funny thing when we make camp – after we’ve eaten and cleaned up she draws a circle with her staff round where she’s going to sleep, and it sparkles and fades. “Against bad dreams,” she says, and asks if Morrigan doesn’t do something similar – the witch just smiles and does her party trick of turning into an owl again, and Alistair has his by now good-natured growl about unnatural acts with animals, and warns her as he does every evening what happens to birds that crap on Grey Wardens.

And he and I pick up sticks and it still feels a little bit like a children’s game, trading blows with slowly increasing speed and dexterity until our movements are a blur in the twilight, as Wynne watches fascinated and Leliana pulls her blanket over her head and complains under her breath about how you never heard the heroes of legend clacking bloody sticks together from dusk till dawn.

Two days it is, from the Tower to Redcliffe, and as I think I said on the way up here, it’s pleasant enough country. Okay, fine, blame the pointed ears if you must, but I like being able to see the horizon, and it’s nice to think that the ancestors of the trees we’re passing were planted by my ancestors back when this place was ours. There’s a song that’s about this, one of the ones we understand most of the words to – and I hum the tune as we walk. Kind of funny to think I’m humming a tune that’s older than things like the Chant of Light and all but one of the human countries. And it’s like, just occasionally? Just occasionally maybe a body might smile for a reason other than to make a point or put someone at their-

A curious, high rushing sort of a thud, and Morrigan makes a quiet surprised noise and puts unbelieving hands down to the wooden shaft that’s this moment planted itself in her belly just above the belt of her tunic.

Of all of us, Leliana’s the first to react, yelling to take cover and half-dragging Morrigan off the path before her legs give way. Alistair swings his shield off his back – something comes winging down the path, and more out of reflex than anything else I catch it. An arrow? We’re being ambushed? I draw. Have to get off the path.

The bushes part, behind Wynne. An olive-skinned shem in grey and green surges up like he appeared out of nowhere and goes for her with a slim blade – she taps her staff on the ground and he’s picked up and thrown right back where he came from; there’s the sound of him hitting a tree. And someone steps out from behind a tree and goes for Alistair’s back, but he gets the edge of his shield to that and his counterstroke is turned by a little parrying dagger in the guy’s other hand.

Leliana calls for help as I’m standing there like a lemon – I hear blades clash over where she is. Another arrow, this one clearly for me, and I cut it out of the air as I rush to give her a hand –

Someone drops out of a tree and that should have been onto my back; I see his shadow, sidestep and fetch him a kick in the side that sends him sprawling. Leliana’s on one knee in front of Morrigan, a blade in either hand, just barely fending off two of them – I come up behind one and yes, he may turn to face me but that just gets him my thrust in his other armpit. I leave the dirk in him and I’m going for the other one, my long blade halfway out of its scabbard at my shoulder when the one that I kicked comes at me from behind – I just about catch his one-handed thrust with my dirk, sword still half-drawn as I spin around.

And facing him for that instant my eyes widen with shock, absolutely not what I should be doing, as I realise horrified that this is an elf, that I’m crossing blades with one of the People. He’s wearing light armour that looks like it was custom-made for him, overlapping plates of boiled leather and metal on a tight jerkin that’s going to allow a lot of movement. His eyes are a cat’s green, his chin pointed, his skin a pack of shades darker than my own light amber, but he’s blond-haired, and he’s got a long curving brown tattoo down one side of his handsome face, and he kicks me very hard in the kneecap.

Pain flares, but nothing breaks, and my sword’s drawn in my left hand, and let’s find out how good he is. He goes for me like a snake, but I’m not there – just like me, he’s used to being smaller than his enemy and faster, and neither’s true. Flat of the dirk in my right hand against his blade to control it, moving with him as he passes me, look right in his surprised eyes as we spin almost like a dance, but he’s got nothing to put any weight behind the thrust of his short blade and my armour turns it, as I bring my own blade across his side in a draw-cut that doesn’t do much beyond discover that his own protection is pretty good. My reprise is instant, a thrust that he catches in a textbook parry, taking the strength of my blow and turning it, and I find my arm flung wide; his own response is a flashing stab to the inside of my arm and he isn’t expecting me to catch that on the dirk in my other hand and try to bind his longer blade with my shorter one. He dances back and I flash forward after him and that’s very nearly an end of it – there’s suddenly the tip of his short blade at my face and even as I flinch aside faster than a cat I feel the burning tip score a line down my cheek.

Alistair makes short work of his man. Nobody’s expecting a fully armoured man-at-arms who can still move like that, and the plan of ‘keep him busy until the archers can feather him’ is struck a mortal blow when Wynne sees an archer, speaks quietly and the man falls to the ground immobile with skin a flat grey. The assassin’s eyes bulge – his back is open to that wizard – and his next parry isn’t angled quite right; the sheer force of Alistair’s blow strikes the blade from his hand, and he ends it with a clean thrust.

And I’m still fighting this elf. I’m faster than he is, and effortlessly stronger, and we’re evenly matched for height and reach, but if I weren’t this fast or this strong then I’d be quite dead. He flicks a cut at my head and I give him a perfect parry in quinte, and he goes to give me what looks like the same again with a cry – I go for pretty much the same parry, but what looks like a cut turns into a cunning downward thrust that slides right past my blade, and there’s all his weight on that and all I can do is clumsily void it, but my sword is under his, and it’s drop the blade or take his point in my gut, so I let him have my sword and spin away and he swaps his off-hand short blade for my sword and kisses the hilt to me with a rogue’s smile.

Leliana has fought her man up from the ground. He’s no slouch at this, but neither’s she, and she fights with a focused intensity that gives him a couple of long bleeding scratches and wears him down and backs him against a tree. Three chances at quarter she gives him, and he spits at her, so she swears in Orlesian and has his throat out. Alistair’s gone after the other archer. He turns her last desperate shot with his shield and leaps ten feet up the bank she’s on to knock her down with the edge of it and put the point of his blade to her throat – she twists, going for him with a long knife she produced from somewhere, but he stops her with a thrust, and then it’s me and the elf.
He holds the blades before him, crossed, low. I go for him like I’m trying to rush him, short springy steps, and as he whips a waist-high feint of a cut out to me I leap, see his eyes widen as I go over him entirely, twist in midair, come down behind him and snake an arm around his neck before he can turn, put a blade’s point to the soft skin beneath his right ear.

Mi’in da, lethallin,” I whisper to him, and I tighten my grip on him just enough that he’s off balance. Drop ’em, coz.

“Or what, you’ll kill me?” He struggles a little, but as I said I’m stronger than him. His accent fits his face: Antivan. “You got the courage to push on that hilt? Eh, lethallan?”
Better explain in case you aren’t following. By calling him cousin in the old tongue, I’m telling him I understand the ways of our kind, and by responding in the same words he’s telling me so does he. It’s like a code. We don’t bob or gull one another, we don’t lift one another’s purses – among our own, we don’t play for keeps. We might scrap a bit, but to actually deliberately permanently go to hurt – The People are family. It’d be like raising a hand to my own brother. If I had one.

But on the other hand, if I hadn’t got out of the way of his blade, I’d be dead a dozen ways by now. So I’m more than a little conflicted as I go to one knee behind him, pulling him irresistibly down to his knees, and say “Won’t we have fun, you and me, as I see if I can?”
Wynne’s kneeling next to Morrigan, and together the two of them are pulling the arrow out of her wound; it’s coming out without blood on it. Leliana’s wiping blood from her blade, keeping her eyes up for more trouble; Alistair’s walking back up the road to us, his blade still drawn. “Any more of them?” he asks.

“How many did you get?” calls the man I’m holding. Whatever else he is, he’s brave.

“Drop. Your. Weapons.” I hiss, and I just break the skin with the blade’s point, and I feel him shiver.

“And do what, hmm?” His voice is quite steady. “My employers, they have a dim view of failure. I drop my weapons, you question and eventually release me, I go, well, anywhere – the crows, they find me, I wish you’d just skipped a few steps and sunk that knife in me. Or you take me captive, bring me to shemlen justice, I am killed by them for brigandry or some other way to justify ‘he stepped out of line and we can’t have that’. So tell me again, lethallan. What is your plan for me?”

“Not my concern. Drop your weapons.”

“No. Kill me.” He takes a deep breath, steeling himself. I tighten my grip. Blood beads on the end of the blade –

I can’t do it. I can’t bloody do it. Sudden thought. “What if I told you there was a way for you to live? Are you resolved to die? Set on it, like?”

There’s a long pause. He’s trembling, just very slightly, fighting to keep his breathing even, but his pounding heart is giving him away. “If you had asked me how I’d have liked to pass beyond, I might well have said ‘in the arms of a beautiful woman after a battle I am not ashamed to have lost’. But now I stand on its precipice?” More silence. A slightly unsteady breath. “Tell me, lethallan. Tell me and I shall see if I can find it in me to believe.”

Leliana and Alistair are watching, like, because they’d rather not watch Morrigan being healed. I look in Alistair’s eyes a moment and they’re unreadable. No help there. Leliana is off to the side where the man can’t see her, but I can’t look to her for advice. My call, this is. “D’you know how we Wardens add to our number?”

“Let me guess for you.” He looks at Alistair. “You find people – skilled people – with their tail in a crack. And you give them the grey surcoat to cover all their past sins and you wield those ridiculous legal powers of yours to give them a way out, and you do it in exchange for their allegiance to your nebulous cause.”

“Not so nebulous. There’s a monster we will kill. What you do after that – well. Soon as I do, I’ll let you know.”

He takes a deep breath. “My alternative is death?”

“So you say. Far as I’m concerned I’d let you go.”

“For my part,” says Alistair, “you tried to kill us.”

The elf chuckles. “I did, rather. I won’t be doing that again, if that helps.”

Leliana glares at both of us like we’ve never interrogated a prisoner before or something. “Who sent you?”

“Ah, the traditional question. The Crows sent me. I am a crow, and you know that is not a name people in this profession claim lightly. There were eight of us, by the way, and a handler our client insisted on. Did you get him?”

Leliana does a quick count with her eyes. “You will lead us to him.”

“I will. I’d tell you who hired us, by the way, but you have no way at all of proving that, and I might have mistaken, so better to show than tell.”

“What,” she says, “no misplaced loyalty? No code of supposed honour?”

His eyes narrow. “Just before you get the wrong end of any stick – I’ve no particular emotional attachment to my employers or those who hired them. How much do you know of the Crows?”

“Enough to believe your line about being a dead man. You’ll ‘ave seen it, too. What they do to-”

Finally he snaps at her. “Yes! I have! Do you want me to make you kill me?”

Abrubtly she turns away. “‘E can be trusted.”

“Just like that?” Alistair hasn’t put away his sword.

“Yes. There are some things I would not say you could fake – and if their employer is disclosed, I would say that even a triumphant return with our ‘eads will not be sufficient to sate the Crows. We are genuinely this man’s last chance.”

I meet Alistair’s eyes. “You do have a say in this one. I’ll know your opinion even if I don’t take it.”

His mouth is a flat line. “Trust is earned. And we, uh. We’d need to go to Orlais to arrange a proper Joining – everyone in the kingdom who knew how to prepare the rite is dead.” He sighs. “But Fearghus was a highwayman. Daveth was a poacher. Duncan was a street thief. You were a murderer. I will watch him like a hawk – but, well. He’s more of a fit to this organisation than I am.”

“Don’t do yourself down, but the point is made.” I lower my blade slowly. I need to give the man a hand to his feet. “Your name? I can’t just go around calling you lethallin.”

His teeth are quite white. “Crows don’t have names. But I wasn’t born a crow, and I suppose I’m not really to be such a bird any more – my mother, bless her, my mother gave me the name Zevran Arainai.”

I raise my eyebrows. Not an alienage I’ve heard of, that last name. “When I’ve got my dignity on, Zevran, I’m Sera Kallian Dener, Warden-Commander of Ferelden, and that means I’m in as much charge as there is of us. The blond fellow the size of an ox is Ser Alistair Cliffe. The Orlesian woman is Sister Leliana; the younger mage is Morrigan and the elder one is Wynne. Can you cook?”

He blinks at that last one. “I, eh. It is a most terrible stereotype, but yes, I can -” He trails off, because Morrigan, arrow wound now quite healed, is sitting against the tree laughing helplessly. “I am sorry. Did I walk into some incomprehensible Fereldan joke?”

She shakes her head through the giggles. “Just comparing your reaction to – mine -” She keeps laughing till she has to put a hand over the little tear in her tunic, evidently pained – “The Grey Wardens have a little bit of a habit of finding the world’s greatest heroes and setting them to the arduous and storied task of providing such things as food and shelter. And then they eat like starving wolves, and they hardly seem to sleep.”

“They didn’t ask me to cook,” Wynne chips in.

“Can you?” A smile suits him, I decide.

“No, dear.” She chuckles. “I’m terrible!”

“Come on.” I scowl at the whole laughing pack of ’em. “We’ve got a man to catch.”

*

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