Alternative Origins Chapter Eleven

by artrald

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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.”

*

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