Alternative Origins Chapter Eighteen
That content warning from the index, let’s say it’s more true of this chapter and the next one than of many.
So there’s a council of war, and it does look like something from one of the stories. Dressed up in the clothes the dwarves gave me, with the odd jewel on me, it’s so very different how the humans treat me – at last I look the part, exotic rather than out-of-place, suddenly enough different from something they’re used to that they’ll treat me as the noble I act like. Zevran behind me is like my shadow; the two mages are light and darkness, and they must be doing that deliberately because they don’t half do it well. Leliana’s act as our scribe is believed by nobody who knows her, but that’s not a problem – nobody’s interested in calling her out on it. Oghren has quite deliberately played up to the dwarfish stereotype – it’s interesting, I’ve seen the man in silks and looking like he was born to them, but here he is, deliberately wearing his enchanted battle-plate to the table after the human fashion; I’ve seen him garrulous and flippant, but here he’s the deep dour counsel of reason. Guess he’s feeling the weight of speaking for his nation, which he’ll do until they decide which general is willing to come out to the war on the surface.
Which I suppose I’d better say something about, really.
The darkspawn don’t fight like an army. That I was told by Duncan, that I’ve been told by Alistair so often he doesn’t need to say it to me again – even Wynne said it to me once – but it’s really very true, and it’s my job to say that line in this meeting and I do it, although Alistair picks up the thread quick enough. Armies move in a direction, they have a goal in mind. Sure, the edges don’t look like that, but an army moves in a direction and if it don’t stick together it dies, and it’s there to do a thing. The path of an army on a map looks like an arrow, at best a wiggly line.
On the same map, the darkspawn would look like, I don’t know, an inkblot, or spilled blood, or maybe the very start of a flame, when you’ve held the paper over the candle and you’re seeing it start to burn from below. The archdemon’s will, we hear it every morning, it’s pretty much to get up, to get out there, to do your thing in the light rather than in darkness, and beyond that it’s your own lookout. There are the odd times when it’s a little bit more strident – when there’s a place that’s shown a lot of resistance, and the horde pulls together, pushes itself into a fist to smash something, like it did at Ostagar – but for the most part, it seems pretty content to let the spawn just, well, spread.
So that’s bad, because it means that the horde are destroying everything in their path – but in another way, as Arl Eamon explains to us, it’s good. Because it means that the horde doesn’t move so fast. It means that a lot of the time, there’s time to pull people out of the path of the horde – there’s plenty of room to move around, to fight where and when we think we have to, and to avoid it the rest of the time, to conserve our people and fight clever.
But then again, it means that there’s plenty of time for the people in the path of the horde to come to terms with flight, with the wretchedness that is life when you’re fleeing starving from the horde, with the inhumanity one human will do to another in their haste to be the last to die. And remember me saying that there’s only one sort of evil? I reckon that the archdemon knows full well what it’s doing. That by concentrating the losses that we take into places where our people have had to turn at bay and defend, by drawing everything out, by leaving no stone unturned, it’s trying to crush our spirit, trying to turn the kingdom into something not worth saving.
But it does give us time – and we’re going to need that time. The Landsmeet will be in two weeks in Denerim, and Alistair and Arl Eamon and I will be expected to be there – that’s going to be quite as dangerous as anything we could be doing against the darkspawn, because while Eamon will be perfectly safe, if Loghain or his people don’t try to take the opportunity to have something unfortunate happen to us Wardens then we’ll be luckier than we have any right to be.
And in the meantime, Eamon says with a significant look at me, there’s enough time to explore the possibility of making an embassy to the Dalish elves. After all, the Council of the Dales are signatories to the treaty as well, and we’ve the perfect ambassador –
Yeah. Exactly. If you’re thinking ‘What Dalish?’ you ain’t in bad company. I open my mouth to put the shems straight on this one, and Zevran puts a warning hand on my shoulder (and that is allowed to make me shiver, although if he don’t take it off me in a moment he’s going to be in trouble) and steps forward to speak.
He knows where they are likely to be, he says. It’s second-hand, he says, but it’s good – while there may be Dalish in other places, there’s one place that they will always be, and my mouth moves to whisper the word as he says it. Arlathan. Our place, that’s what the words mean. A city, it was, once, before most of the humans had figured out how to build in stone. I mean, the place ain’t much more than a hole in the ground and some old dead stones, it’s been like that halfway to forever. And there aren’t any Dalish, not proper ones, not really. But if there were? If I were to decide that I wanted to try and bring the old ways back, all of them? I’d start by going to Arlathan and quite literally raising my voice.
But by not raising my voice, by not speaking over Zevran, by not giving the lie to his words that yes, he thinks it’s worth looking them out – this is me trusting him. More than when I trusted him behind me in a fight, more than when I’ve trusted him to fill my glass for me or stood quiet and closed my eyes because I – uh – look. This is me trusting Zevran, making a sober and straightforward decision that just like any of the rest of us, he’s trusted to know when he speaks and speak when he knows. And Alistair looks at me, like, what’s this about? He heard me say that the Dalish were a tale that wasn’t true, he heard the vanished dreams of eight-year-old me in my voice when I told him. And I hope he doesn’t take from my very slight shake of the head that all that I said back then was a lie.
So I’m not sure whether we’re being sent as trustworthy envoys on a crucial mission or sidelined while the grown-ups go and do grown-up things. Arl Eamon is going to Denerim himself, with a retinue from his court and a delegation of dwarves; there’s a lot to do before the Landsmeet, and Eamon’s ten words into an attempt to explain the subtleties of politics to the bluff, honest, straightforward dwarves before Oghren sniggers and says his people will think the humans’ attempts to play the game are cute.
Wouldn’t make sense to take Oghren with us, not with the speed we’re going to want to go, so he’s going with them – besides, says Leliana, we want somebody in Denerim to judge the lie of the land well in advance of turning up there ourselves, and who better to send than an expert in avoiding assassinations? And Zevran asks if it would be an idea to send Leliana along as well, in that case, but she smiles and says that the Maker has ordered her to remain at my side until the Blight is ended, and although she gets a bit of a funny look for that, he does drop the subject.
While we’re on the subject of travel – the humans are planning to ride. I realise that nobody’s planning to check whether Morrigan or I has actually ever sat on top of a horse before: I kind of casually bring up the fact that, you know, they don’t have horses where I come from (well, they do, but the closest I ever came to one is a stew-pot, you know?)
And Morrigan says that she wasn’t planning to ride either, she has her own arrangements, and by the way Eamon looks at her I can see that he wouldn’t be surprised if she said that was, you know, a witch’s broomstick or something. But apparently Morrigan’s arrangements can carry me as well, and I’m dubious, but there’s being slightly put-off by the witch and then there’s a week’s worth of falling off a horse or having to see if I can keep up with horses on foot, so I nod and say something about being glad she’d thought of it. And we decide that we won’t go dressed as Wardens, because you never know how far Loghain sent his lies, and who listened.
Turns out that Morrigan’s ‘arrangements’ involve turning into a horse, a very handsome bay a little shorter than the others, but of course she couldn’t have done that where the humans are watching; I suppose that I should have seen that coming. She says she’s perfectly safe, and pretty much all I’m going to need to do is hold on and not complain; I swing lightly up astride and Zevran says the both of us are going to be sore if I’m going to ride her bareback for seven days straight. Morrigan says matter-of-factly that nobody riding on the back of a qualified healer has any business getting saddle-sore, and if any bugger wants to try and put a bridle on her she’d like to see ’em try. Meanwhile I catch Zevran’s meaning (honestly!) and he’s not quite so unnerved by the talking horse that he can’t duck when I throw something at him.
It’s odd to ride. We go faster when we’re going, but you’ve got to be more careful when you stop and take as much care of your mount as you would your own two feet. And it’s strange, to look down on people we pass, to see the top of people’s heads like this; I mean, I’m not used to being so high up and it’s not really welcome. Even with Morrigan entirely stable and able to tell me when I’m holding too tight, even where I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t fall if I tried, it still don’t exactly feel safe when she’s following the others at a loping ground-eating trot.
Didn’t realise how much there was to being a horse. She talks about it on and off as we go, about how you really appreciate good ground when you’re running on it on what apparently feels like tiptoes, about how the highway is a pain and she’s very tempted to spend some time studying horseshoes if she’s got to do this all week. And having four legs means she’s got to pay a lot of attention to how they work – currently she’s copying the horse in front, and does it feel any better if she changes her gait to run a bit like a wolf might (and that doesn’t work, and she apologises for nearly launching me into a hedge) and so on. Not sure this is teaching me to ride, mind, but if anyone ever turns me into a horse I’ll be absolutely set. I say as much and she laughs, and says that the thing she hasn’t said is that she’s bored, and this is mostly to occupy her mind and keep her from stopping to smell the roses or what-have-you.
We stop for that evening at a travelers’ inn; I dismount some distance short and Morrigan resumes her human shape, calls me a big lump and gets a smile that might almost have been a laugh. I’m a bit stiff and she’s walking like she’s footsore for a few moments, then she draws a green-glowing hand through the air and clasps my hand and it’s suddenly no more than if we’d been out for a day’s stroll.
We’ve still a way to go before we come near any lands where the Blight’s a clear and present threat. This place, they think themselves safe – after all, the army hasn’t come through here, the horde neither, and the rumour says the darkspawn are making for Denerim anyway, and that means they’re going in the other direction entirely. Sure, there’s been people coming past preaching doom and refusing even to stop the night, but we’re not the only travellers heading east: the innkeeper’s probably got his valuables all packed and ready to go, but for his customers there’s no worry to be seen in him.
And yeah, though it’s been maybe a week since I last saw ’em proper, it still stings a little to run slap and bang into human ways and customs. They bow and scrape for Alistair on the one hand, and there’s a clear moment on the other when – dressed simply for travelling as we are – they’re expecting Zevran to help with the horses and me to carry the bags, and to save on surliness we do that, with a brief smiling glance at one another about bloody humans. Leliana’s taken aside for a quiet word about what to do about Wynne, who’s treated as if she’s skittish, stupid and deaf, and Morrigan’s most amused to learn that they believe her a noble lady and therefore the one holding the purse-strings, and the next time anyone turns around she’s apparently dressed and made-up to suit the role; nevertheless Alistair does manage eventually to convince them just to treat us like normal travellers, even if he does have to ask twice to get Zevran and me seats at the board and our food arrives with a dirty look.
So our talk over dinner is just mundane; the other guests, once they see we’re not on our high horses really, pester us like nobody’s business for news of the west, and we’re happy to say that the dwarves are mustering to join Ferelden’s army against the Blight, and that they brought their merchants with them and Redcliffe’s like to be the place to find ’em.
And someone says that at least the little buggers turned out, and someone asks her if she’s ever seen a dwarf, because little is something they ain’t. General opinion in the room is that there’s trouble brewing, and more than just the Blight – there was all that about the arl being sick and then suddenly he’s up and his first thing he does is raise his banners? And now we find the dwarves are flocking to him and all? No, says one man a little over loudly, it’s not the Blight that Eamon’s looking to fight – and everything goes quiet and everyone looks at Alistair, and he gives his meaningless opaque smile and compliments the food, and the moment passes.
We spend the evening in the taproom. Zevran and I take our turns getting the drinks from the bar – I’m used to it and to be perfectly frank it ain’t hard to pick up, but there’s no way he and I would actually get drinks if we made the barmaid bring ’em; bad enough we had to eat at table with the humans.
Once again, Zevran’s flirting outrageously to cover his own discomfiture and, hell, this is a safe enough place it’s not impossible to pay at least a little attention. And once again, he’s ignoring the humans ‘less he has to, specially the ones who aren’t ours, and it’s mostly a wonder that I’m not all prickly on my guard like I should be in a room full of strange humans, even with people here’d take m’ side in an instant if someone did something.
Worth sayin’ that the Wardens’ curse thing gives a better head for drink as well as a better appetite for it. Sure, it goes to my head faster’n another’s, like, but if you’d given me this much to drink, like, a month or so ago I’ll have you know I’d be under the table right now.
We convince Leliana to get up and sing for the company, and a fine jongleur she is – she doesn’t try anythin’ foreign, ’cause while she knows we’d like it, the others likely wouldn’t, and no point makin’ a fuss. A few of us join in some of the better ones, ’cause y’know, an’ the shems don’t seem to mind that I’m singin’ and all. And Zevran shows that he c’n juggle, well, course he can, and he finishes by throwin’ me an apple and I throw it back of course and he takes it out of the air with a fork he made come out of nowhere.
And I laugh and the shems clap and Morrigan’s scowl is because a petty conjuring trick and a display of one sort of deadly skill is a reason to applaud, but all the tricks that she can do would amaze and astound her audience all the way into cries of witch and howls for her blood. (And I don’t see Alistair note the way that’s the first time I’ve laughed since he’s known me and tear his eyes off us to take another deep draught of strong ale.)
Zevran sits next to me and his knee is touchin’ mine and I don’t see any reason to move.
You know the thing with a knife’s point and the spaces between your spread fingers on the table? He says I’m not steady enough to do that, puts his hand down on top of mine so I’ll stab him instead of me. I start slowly, watching carefully, then speed up, the blade flashing, then faster still. Then look at him and dare him with my eyes to look down. He shows brilliant teeth in a smile that says I’d never hurt him and I laugh again and I stop with the blade’s point just shy of breaking his skin, and he takes the knife from my hand and kisses the hilt of it and puts it down on the table and I shiver and like it.
He’s still got my hand so I help him get the next round in.
It’s a bit later and, y’know, his arm’s around me and I’m fine with that. Only one person dared do this without asking before and he got his thumb broke, though there’s a couple others I’ve met that I’d not have minded, if you know what I mean.
Wynne’s actually gone t’ sleep down here, she’ll regret that in th’ morning.
Leliana’s face is actually red and she’s waving her hands as she laughs with someone we don’t know – place’s got t’be safe if she’s lettin’ her guard down enough to drink that much.
Morrigan’s talkin’ t’ Alistair, some human jabber, all serious like.
And Zevran’s warm and he’s got an arm round me and his hand’s on my hip and it ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Can’t remember th’ excuse he used but we’re standin’ up, it ain’t a very good excuse but we weren’t ever so obvious, like.
Shadow of a corner on the stairs and I’m facing him with his hand in the small of my back and the other hand tangled in my hair and my hands on his shoulders one of them knotted in his shirt and why am I talking about anything but how it feels to be kissed by someone who knows what they’re about?
He finds the hilts of knives over my kidneys and he chuckles and I smile and he draws one carefully, slowly, and puts it on the – yes, we’re in his room now, he puts it on the little table in here, and rather than put the other one there I’ve had one of the knives out of his sleeves and put that beside it and apparently that is war.
He’s got a throwing and a cutting blade at each wrist, four brothers, while I’ve got a mismatched pair of light flat things I liked the hilts of in Bhelen’s armoury. The blades crossed behind my back are the dirks I killed the ogre with; his are shorter, narrower, a cityman’s choice. His belt-knife I measure against my hand’s span, and he grins and gets a laugh that’s more of a giggle than maybe I wanted.
Mine’s a distraction, an eating-knife with a sharp blade, and he puts it in the table point-down with a flick. I’m a little faster than him even with so much drink in me, so it’s his boot knives – huh, this one’s decorative, the shape unfamiliar, the only bit of pretty he’s got and the only mismatched pair of weapons, and I raise my eyebrows at him and his only answer is to hook a gentle finger into the piece of string round my neck and lift what’s on it up from round my neck and raise his own eyebrows. And I press the hilt of the dagger against his belly and he drops the thing on the string into my hand and I close my fingers, and he nods with wide serious eyes and puts his knife on the table to the side of the others where it’ll be kept company by the brass ring I put beside it.
And there ain’t another weapon on his belt and he don’t wear a sheath under his shirt, and the muscles of his belly bunch and ripple as he laughs when I go looking for one. My own boot knives are – uh – My own boot knives are light things for a quick draw, but I’ve not used one since I got these. And like him, there’s no other blade on my belt, and while I don’t have the, well, the bodice to hide a weapon there, he laughs when I show him he’s not found the two little blades from between my shoulders that I hope I’d never be in a pass that I’d need to draw ’em for real. He kisses my hands and takes the weapons out of ’em first one then the other and I see he’s been making a symbol on the table out of knives on their points and there’s room at the centre and he’s got to draw that last knife of mine because its sheath is tight on my calf and –
He lifts his mouth from my bare skin and looks me in the eyes and reaches behind him with his right hand to draw the knife, the heavy double-edged dagger that was the one that Duncan gave me, the first thing I owned in my new life, and it whispers from the sheath and he runs it slowly over my bare belly, left to right, hilt first, flat down, point last, and I hear my mouth make a sound I don’t think I ever heard before –
He swaps the hilt from the fingers of his right hand to his left, and from looking down at me he looks into my eyes and the look of those eyes is suddenly so very wrong, and his fingers tighten on the hilt of the knife and on my shoulder and sudden panic makes me try and pull away, and the knife moves and it feels like it’s pushing against me and there’s something wrong about how it moves and there’s a moment when I don’t know what’s happening and then the world turns itself inside out in pain.
I can’t catch my breath to make noise. I know it can’t have, but it feels like the screaming hot-ice pain in my side and my belly has taken me completely in half. I was balanced pretty much on one leg, with my murderer doing all the standing for both of us, but he’s no longer interested in keeping me on my feet -‘m still trying to make sense of this, I can’t take this in–
I can feel my strength going –
– I –
I will not be finished here. Later I can break down. But it will not end like this. That will not happen. Damn you all, I am not going quietly, I will not die like this. And as I start to collapse I pull him down over with me, he tries to land on top but I’m not having that. I might be drunk, but he’s not sober either, and I’ve got both his wrists and I pull them wide as I spin us around as we fall and if I’d breath to scream or sob then the landing would have torn one from me. He tries to hit me with a knee and I slam my forehead into his face as hard as I can and while he’s stunned on the floor I grab a knife from the table and try to bring it down and he gets his free hand to it, just trying to sweep it away, but I’m still stronger than him, that knife’s still moving quicker, the whole side of me just screams and the world goes white and I can’t see or hear or think but the blade is sunk to the hilt just under where his ribs meet his breastbone and his mouth opens soundlessly and then closes and I sink over the hilt of the blade with both hands on it and put my cheek against his chest and all that comes out of me is silent tears.