Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

Alternative Origins Chapter One

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*

The tall, broad human in the grubby silver armour holds up his hand, and everything stops but me.

You see, two of the shems have me by the arms. Even at this point in my tale, right near the start, like, you’ve got to realise a thing – We don’t like being touched. None of us do. Natural thing. Bad reaction. Shallow quick breathing and pounding heart, like a rabbit who’s seen a fox – although to me, right, rabbits come in cages and foxes live in alleys –

Well, maybe not a rabbit, quite. They freeze. I don’t. These two big bully-boys in brown and yellow have me by the upper arms, which are bare on account of how this day began with something that was supposed to be a celebration and I’m still in a frock. Simple enough to twist so the two of them are in a knot, and I hit one man’s knee just at the back with the side of my light-shod foot and in a clatter of armour I’m a free woman again. Three quick steps away from the crowd of humans while they’re still figuring out that the little bloodstained chit ain’t in that pile of armour that just went down – at least a girl can run in a slitted skirt –

A clear ringing voice. “Da’len!”

Shit. I freeze. You’re wondering why, I guess, just like the men with the weapons. Kind of simple. While I might run from my da or an uncle, while I might pretend to ignore a mate on the street – that was the Keeper said that. In front of everyone and all. And he said it in our language, not theirs. Means he means it. I can’t go against him and still be me. It’s an elf thing. Don’t expect you to understand. No, I’m not translating for you. If you don’t understand, you aren’t meant to.

But the big guy, the one not in the bann’s shitstain uniform, he does. He moves fast, like, faster than I could’ve, and then he’s between the crossbows – did I mention those? – and me. His voice is deep and rich and sweet, like dark honey, and it’s what he says that freezes me in place just as sure and certain as the keeper did, and just the same way. “Mos yironnos, keeper. Dear girl -” ain’t nobody calls a body that and means well for them, not even a crazy human who speaks elvish – “where exactly are you running?”

Speak when spoken to. The lessons are ingrained. Every one’s hard to buck. I sound sulky, the teenager I am. “Away.”

He smiles. It’s odd, his face suits that, for all the warrior’s scars and seams. I couldn’t place the man’s age. “And then?”

“What d’you want.” The humans, they just hear a disobedient girl. My mates, they hear the undercurrent. I get cold and quiet just before I get violent, not loud and verbal like a human. It’s another way we’re not you.

But to my surprise he takes a step back, spreads open hands. I could run. I could run. I’d be over that gate and into the slums before anybody but him could follow – and I’m guessing I know back ways he couldn’t fit down in that armour, for all he’s shown he could outrun me. But then what? The human’s right, shem that he is. I could run, but if I started I’d never stop. I couldn’t show my face back here, not with the keeper spoken against me like that. I can see the tree of the Alienage behind them. We’re just at the entrance here. If I go over that gate I’m naught better than a human street rat. And this man fixes me with a stare for a sec, like he sees right through my head, and he nods quietly. “It’s not what I want. It’s what I don’t want.” He turns his head to the keeper. He’s ignoring the militiamen here, the ones who still have their crossbows levelled at me, waiting twitchy for orders from a sergeant who’s very clearly not moving till the big guy says. He doesn’t use the elvish word he clearly knows, the one that’d be an insult on his lips. “Valendrian, sir. You understand that this young woman stands accused of serious crimes?”

Yeah. That’s what they call it when you put down a mad dog around here. I grit my teeth. The keeper, the hahren, inclines his head. He’s far enough away from the big human that he doesn’t have to look up to him. And damn it all, that’s respect in his voice. “I do… so understand, yes.” He doesn’t mention the reasons I did it, all seven of them standing there with big eyes, a little foxed perhaps in May frocks just like mine, only without all the blood, but damn the humans to all the hells, there were nine of us when we got ourselves dressed and ready this morning –

The human’s still talking. “And you understand that without my intercession, this day will not end well for her?”

Valendrian nods. My da’s standing by him. Clearly was in his house when I got back, when I found the shems waiting for me. We meet eyes, just for an instant, I can’t stand more than that. His are bloodshot. Mine must be like a couple of holes punched right into hell.

And the human finally turns to his fellow, to the sergeant-at-arms, and he clears his throat.

And the militiaman says, “You can’t be serious, milord. Now, I didn’t see it with me own eyes, but they say it was eight men she-”

“Are you somehow implying, sergeant, that I’d have a moment’s trouble with this young lady?” Now, anybody but him saying that, there’d have been sniggers. But somehow, not him. The words, somehow he pulls them off.

“Uh, no, ser, I-”

“So you must be saying that the Banner of Denerim is unwilling or unable to live up to its… obligations?” His smile is still pleasant. “Or is it perhaps that you’d like me to speak the words, exactly?”

The sergeant nods a couple of times and his armour jingles. “Just so’s I can say it to the cap’n with truth, like.”

The mystery man inclines his head. “With your permission, elder?”

My da won’t look on. What the hells is going on here? The hahren nods.

And our man doesn’t raise his voice, just makes it a little sharper around the edges. “And thus in the presence of the local representatives of signatories to the Treaty of the Wardens – of the King and of the Council – I invoke the right of Conscription. In time of Blight, as this is, the commander of the Grey Wardens of Ferelden, as I am, has to him appointed the especial right to impress into the service of the Wardens any individual who he feels meets the specific criteria for such service, and so on, and so on at length. Release the prisoner into my custody, gentlemen.”

Cold water down my back. Whoever these ‘wardens’ are – this was politics. The usual kind. The kind where the People are ploughed under and the humans are driving the team and plough. And now I understand the look on my da’s face.

Damn them all. I’m bought and sold.

*

The human is building a fire. I’ve said not a word, nor he, not more than he needed to get out the city. I’m not chained, like, but I don’t need to be. Not when he showed he could move so fast I hardly even saw him. Not when the hilts of those blades he wears are worn and beaten with long use. We’re only a couple of hours out of Denerim, but the light won’t last so long. And where would I go? I’m an alley cat. Wouldn’t know how to catch a rabbit if it was sat on my nose. The books say that to the People the wilds are like market day and pantry all together, but about the only thing I know is what an elfroot plant looks like, and that only because it’s a vegetable patch weed.

“It’s my observation,” he says to the empty quiet air as he methodically lays out the kindling, “that a body will eventualy tire of such things as silence in company, and being unintroduced. And, more’s the point, of being covered head to toe in blood, and severely underdressed even for mild weather.”

That earns his broad back a scowl.

“By the by, I do believe I left a cache here, before I came into the city. A body might find something useful there – fork of a dead tree, eleven feet up, just over there – I fear much of it will not fit, but I suppose that’s not unusual.” He indicates with his head. “The river’s not a hundred yards.”

“And your eyes are as good as your sword-arm is.” My voice is a little bit like a snake’s would be, if a snake could talk. I don’t quite hiss at him.

“For half a crown in the docks, girl, I could have had all to ‘see’ that I required, tailored to any taste I should express and served however I wished.” His voice remains even and pleasant. “This journey will take us a little over two weeks, if the weather holds, and it will rapidly become tedious in the extreme if you continue in your assertions. I’ll have you desist.”

That was an order. Who the hell does he think he is. I curl my lip. He’s not even watching.

“You shall suit yourself, of course.” He finishes laying the kindling and begins to arrange larger pieces of wood. Every motion is exact and careful. “You’re free to go, incidentally. Denerim is two miles back the way we came; the Bannorn are west of here, and I’m sure that your fame hasn’t spread sufficiently that you’d find every man’s hand against you there. The Brecilian Forest, of course, is due south – but if you’re planning to run there, your best bet is the royal highway, at least until the second time it turns west, and such a journey would be very like travellling by my side – I’m headed for Ostagar.” He flips open his tinderbox. “There’s two weeks’ worth of trail rations in the pack, although it isn’t as if the hunting is poor this time of year. Although I suspect that you might have better luck with that if you didn’t smell of the spilled blood of eleven men and a dog.”

“Nine men, three foul rabid… creatures. I won’t insult the wild beasts by borrowing their names.” I close my eyes a moment. “The dog lived.”

“Do you know who they were?” He speaks gently, his back still to me.

“Shems. What’s one more or less?”

“You don’t believe that.” The flint strikes the steel.

“Don’t I?”

The flint strikes the steel. “Girl, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t monsters in this world. As it happens, I’m one of those best placed, absolutely best placed to tell a body about their ways and habits. But I’d ask you kindly not to give a mortal man more than he deserves by calling him by their name, either.” The spark catches. He blows on it for a moment, begins to feed the flame, just like a little hearth. “The one you so dislike was the son of the -”

“Bann of Denerim. I have eyes, shem.”

“Fair enough – my name, by the way, Duncan, not ‘shem’, which I’m given to understand is an ethnic slur.” He balances a larger piece of wood over the flame and sits back a little. “I asked you where you were going, my girl, and you didn’t know – let me bequeath you an answer that used to be my own.”

“Not ‘your’ anything.” Bare teeth. Mine are sharper than yours.

He turns briefly and meets my eyes. “It’s a politeness, and given that I’ve no name for you-”

“Kallian Dener.” It’s built in. I lower my gaze instinctively, Maker damn it. I force myself to look back into his soft brown eyes.

“There we go. Kallian – I’m offering you a place.”

“Got one, ser.” I narrow my eyes. “Thanks ever.”

“Truly?” He raises an eyebrow. The urge to look away is growing. Like a cat. I hate this in me. “I can’t give you that place back, Kallian. The moment you raised your hand, the moment you wouldn’t back down? They had to be rid of you. You can’t kill them all.”

“It’s not right.” I turn away to hide the fact that I can’t make myself keep looking at him. Kick a rock, and I’m reminded forcefully that I’m months past due a new pair of boots. “He wasn’t but a rabid animal. And he goes a-hunt, and for bloody once his game stand up and say they won’t stand it, and-”

“No, Kallian.” I scowl, but I shut my mouth. “It’s not right. But this is the best we can do.”

I stare at the rock I kicked. “What is.”

“You’re alive. The slayer of the bann’s son, of his two best friends and his household guard – and they don’t get to hang you, and the bastard will hurt no more women, and for you I can only offer that I have more monsters for you to end.”

“What?” I still don’t look at the human.

“Did you think I went to all this trouble for a new domestic, girl? For a cook, maybe, or a washerwoman?” He snorts. “I was at the Chantry. Interviewing templars with a view to offering them a chance to do good in the world rather than guarding dried-up relics and persecuting troubled teenagers. I heard someone shout that a killer elf was on the loose in the Bann’s house, that his guard were all dead, and while they yelled that the Bann’s son was dead and the big men in the expensive armour sat and wondered about having it let out around their fat arses I decided that I’d go to the obvious place. Spoke to your father and the keeper, heard about half of the story – and then who came in but a young lady in nothing but a party frock, drenched in the blood of eleven men and having a serious think about taking on another twelve all at once.” He shrugs, and I can just about see that out of the corner of my eye. “I decided I’d rather have one good candidate for the Wardens than ten poor ones.”

“And I don’t have a choice.”

He turns back to the fire and begins to build it up. “There’s a map in the pack, up there – I assume you can read. My word on it, you’re free to do whatever you wish.” A very slight pained note to the voice. “But whether you go or you do not, girl, please would you go and wash?”

*

The first thing I took from that pack was a knife. Both my hands are equal, so I fight with the one people don’t expect. But the important thing is that the first thing I took was a knife and I strapped the sheath to the calf of my left leg where I could reach it even on my knees.

I made sandals of the shoes in the pack, because they didn’t fit, but still I got blisters. Must be I looked ridiculous – the gear he’d stashed was for a male shem, six inches wider on the shoulders and twice that taller in height – but I could hack a foot off the bottom of the tunic and at least it was better than a party frock, and I had my own shift to wear under it once it dried, nobody cares about old bloodstains on your underwear. The belt went round me twice. No armour – I’d have dumped it, anyway. Hacked my hair short rather than try to get the blood and tangles out, and dared him to comment. It’s auburn anyway, colour of dried blood.

Two weeks’ travel, good roads in clear spring. Weather held, pretty much. I wasn’t great company, but it was like Duncan was fine with that. If he’s the head of a knightly order, why’s he travelling on his own?

Eh. I guess I’d never have stuck with a company of shem warriors, even with the old man. Better to take my chances in the wild.

Most days and all the evenings he’d take to talking. He didn’t like to bang on about one thing for two nights running, or even two stories running. He told the stories of the Wardens like stories – not true things, just campfire tales – of the Blights when the darkness came up from under the earth and the Wardens rode out to kill the archfiends at the army’s head. He told of the dwarves – not the fat well-groomed self-important merchant types familiar to me, but the real dwarves, the ones who say the world ends where the sunlight starts, the ones who delved the Deep Roads and whose cities put the humans to shame before the darkness came, the ones whose every day and night is a Blight. He told me all the stories you’d tell a kid, I’d guess, or rather, the ones you might tell a human kid, the ones you’d teach a bann’s son (spit) because they were all from life, because one day they’d need to know of this, and I got the feeling that it wasn’t unwelcome for him that I was there to tell. There was this powerful sense of loneliness about him, but not a weakness – lonely in the sense of a great mountain peak, or an eagle high in the cold sharp air – but it was true, at least for him, that he tired of silence. Might be as I listened some, and all.

And he taught me other little things. Not like I’d teach a kid, you know, not to repeat and repeat and explain, but he took his time and did everything proper, and I found myself copying. Showed me how you’d snare a rabbit, showed me how to string a bow, but it was him doing the shooting. He had me lighting the fire, for instance, because he’d found something I did as quick as he. Occurs, looking back, that he was trying to make me feel like I was doing this on my own purpose, and not because he said.

Was eleven days before he handed me a long straight stick wordlessly and showed me in about half an hour why there hadn’t been a sword in that pack, although he allowed that I was tolerably quick. For an answer I snapped the stick in half and went for him street-style, and got close enough to marking him in my first few moves that proper reflexes kicked in and I found myself disarmed and on my arse in a moment and half, and that drew a smile he didn’t think I saw.

He never did teach me to fight like him. Said I clearly knew enough to be dangerous, which would be enough for now, and he wasn’t teaching me anything that I would have to unlearn in a couple weeks’ time after I’d formally joined the Wardens, because apparently you can’t do that on the road. Mysterious. He liked mysterious.

And it might sound to you like I was forgetting home, and family, and what I’d done, and to that I’ll only say that you bloody try doing that in two weeks with nothing to talk to but yourself and a human. Just doesn’t make a good tale banging on about how I stared at the sky and wondered if it was raining on me and my da alike, until Duncan actually told me to get my idiot ears under cover before they froze. Okay?

The road meandered. Back then, I wasn’t over interested in where. Roads just go forwards. You get on at one end and off at the other and you’re in a different town, right? Pah. We walked in just over two weeks pretty much half the length of Ferelden – Denerim’s on a river in the north-east, and Ostagar’s the southernmost fort on the Highway, last outpost of civilisation before the Wilds. And the Blight came up in the Wilds.

*

Ostagar. The Tevinters built it – if you’re like me and grew up without a history book, they’re not the most recent empire to own us (that was Orlais, which was recent enough for my da to tell stories) but they’re the one before that. This fort was a big stone middle finger to the Chasind, the barbarians of the south, and to Elvhenan – my people – who had this place before the humans had figured out how babies were made. You walk around this place, you can feel the weight and pressure of the years. There’s a cliff here, pretty much, a fortification that could just about be natural if you squinted, and on it there’s a wall that looks scarcely younger and a pair of towers, the northern one missing its roof and half the wall.

The Fereldan – that’s us, long live the king – the Fereldan army has occupied the fort, repaired the south gate and put a flag on everything that can damn well carry one, and the ragged arse-end of the baggage train fills the bailey behind the slightly crumbling walls like a rat’s nest. The place has the smell I’m just realising has been absent for the past two weeks, a bit like the stench of unwashed human writ large, the familiar stink of the city, hanging over it like a pall. And the pickets out this side, well, even I can tell they’re a little bit greener than the grass they’re stinking up. They look us up and down, an old soldier in battered well-worn kit and an elf girl wearing what’s clearly his spares, and I’m all prepared to have to sneak round, like. But the guy in a quartered surcoat, rusted mail and supposed charge of things does his best to snap out an order to come to attention, and the soldiers do their best to obey, and Warden-Commander Duncan didn’t even have to give his name.

And I’m glad of Duncan’s tales, like, pretty much at once. Because this is straight out of one. He walks in, still dusty from the road and with his pack on, and the guard snap to attention, open gates and make way like he rode in in full regalia at the head of a company of knights. And I note the runner they send for the important men, and I note that he’s a knife-ear like me. Rats and muck aren’t all you get wherever you find humans playing dress-up.

Running feet, indecorously quick. Maker’s breath, that’s a strong man – he rounds the corner at a flat run in full armour, shining like burnished gold, his long golden hair not quite all restrained by the golden circlet he’s wearing, his handsome noble features – well, no, actually, he looks a little bit like a horse and a lot more like a human – split with an expression of sheer delight, and I’m out of the way like a breath of air as this young human who’s absolutely got to be nothing less than royal throws his arms around Duncan with a delighted laugh and spins him around like a long-lost brother, and like they both weigh nothing at all. “Duncan! I was beginning to fear you’d miss all the fun!”

Back on his feet, the Warden starts to go to one knee, but the young man stops him with a hand on the shoulder. (I’m confused. Is he expecting me to kneel? I settle for just being ignored.) “Warden-Commander Duncan, I told you last time. No Warden need show obeisance at my court.”

Duncan nods, perhaps a little too deeply; “As your Majesty wills. You’re well, I see?”

“I am!” It’s like a puppy. A dangerous puppy. Gamboling around in armour I’d struggle to lift a single plate of. “The darkspawn have been brought to battle twice in any number – they tell me our losses were small. But we had word from the scouts this morning.” He completely ignores Duncan’s raised eyebrows and meaningful look at the soldiers around, a less than subtle hint that there’s a reason you don’t trumpet everything you hear to the skies. “The main mass of them is on the move, now. We’ll bring them to battle before the walls – I’ve seen the plan, and it does look jolly. And you and I can stand side by side against the fiends. Like something from one of your tales.”

“Indeed, sire.” And even after two weeks in Duncan’s company I can sense the mild disapproval in his tone. He does everything mildly. “You still intend to take the field, then?” But take this sort of hand with a puppy and it’ll walk all over you, and that’s just what this king is doing. Suppose you get to do that if you’re king.

The more measured tread of the king’s retinue is approaching. It’s like a wall of steel, the banns and arls and knights or templars or whatever they are, all in full armour – and here and there the flushed and sweating faces of those unable to afford the magic to make that plate no more of a bother than a spring coat. If I’d been born a human, I guess I’d even know who any of these people are or who they’re supposed to be, more than ‘bow if you see armour’. Meanwhile the king’s assuring Duncan that no harm can possibly come to a man who takes the field alongside the supernatural power of the Grey Wardens.

Because that’s absolutely how the tales go.

One of the council steps forward and gives a bow that surely isn’t deep enough – doesn’t a king trump everything, so you need to bow as low as you can? And if the king looks like a horse, this man looks more than a little like a raven. “Sire. The privy council meeting?”

“Yes, yes, in a minute. Pray get started without me.” He flaps a hand and the raven steps back, perhaps affronted. Hard to tell on a man in sixty pounds of rune-carved steel. And then the king flicks his eyes in my direction. “And who’s this, Duncan? I was told you’d be returning with new recruits – did you come on ahead of them?”

Duncan winces, very slightly. “In matter of fact, sire, you are looking at my ‘recruits’. Your Majesty, King Cailen, first of that name, may I present Kallian of Denerim.”

So a lot depends on how I react, and I’ve clearly got the initiative. I choose a smile and a slight nod. After all, we were just told not to give obeisance, and king or not, he’s still a bloody shem. I do just about retain the brain in my head not to speak first.

The king’s smile is brilliant, and has clearly charmed the pants off women from here to Antiva and back again. “Any friend of the honourable Duncan is most welcome at my court – and a recruit of the Wardens, no less. I’d heard that he was searching Denerim for the perfect candidate – you must have performed some great feat of valour, that he found you alone worthy of all the people of that city.”

I catch a bit more of a wince from the Warden-Commander, and from here I can almost feel him willing me not to kick the royal puppy. So I put my head a little too far to one side as I look up at him, on purpose doing something that’d be uncomfortable for a human. “Guess you could say I did. Weren’t doing it to impress.”

He tosses his head in what he obviously thinks is a regal nod. “Please, I’d like to hear your tale.”

Damn it, I’ll meet his eyes if it kills me. “Killed eleven men to put down a monster. Human sort. Rich. Bann’s son. Law done nothing. He took up a taste for elf girls, like.” I blink. “So that stopped.”

His pale eyebrows go right up. “Bryant Vaughan of Denerim, you mean. I know the man – always thought there was something foul ab-”

“But you didn’t look, did you?” I take half a step forward without realising I’ve done it. “You didn’t lift a finger, and if that was his first little ‘hunt’ then I’m a bloody carthorse, difference is, unlike you bastards my people stick together and get off our upholstered bloody arses when we-”

Duncan says my name, softly, and I realise I just called the King of Ferelden a bastard to his face in front of his council and my new commander, and it’s easy, it’s so damned easy to shut my mouth and look down.

But the king holds up a hand, his expression troubled, and turns his head to the side. “Loghain. Did we know this.”

The raven-faced man demurs. “Sire-”

“It’s blackmail-quality material on the heir to the banner of Denerim, don’t tell me you’d need your book, did we know.”

If I cared, I’d realise I’ve made no friend here. “Of course we knew, sire.”

The king purses his lips. “And I’d wager this isn’t the only such thing we know, my teyrn.”

Loghain scowls, or rather, his naturally occurring frown darkens further. “I wouldn’t take that wager, sire, but need I remind you-”

Cailean snaps around in an instant and doesn’t raise his voice, and perhaps just for one moment he actually looks like a man – “Loghain mac Tir, my teyrn of Gwaren, I may be young, I may lack what an older man would call seasoning, but I will not be shamed in my own court. And by a woman, and by an elf. It’s in the oath of knighthood, for Andraste’s sake, the one we all took on bended knee, my blade is the Maker’s justice. When the fun is over here, my teyrn, you and I and your little book, we are going to sit down and have a conversation. Clear?”

Capitulation, or something like it. Maybe. He bows. “As daylight, sire.”

“And have a pardon drawn up for, who was it, Kallian here. I know she doesn’t need one, as a Warden, but it’s the principle of the thing.” The king turns back to me. “And we shall see what good can be made to come of your sisters’ misfortune. Is honour thus satisfied, my lady?”

Not your anything, I don’t say. “Depends if you come through on that, now, don’t it.”

He meets my eye levelly and nods. “It does.” To Duncan he says, “If this lady’s sword is half as good as her tongue, Commander, I almost feel sorry for the darkspawn.” And as he receives with grace the murmured as-your-majesty-pleases, he decides he will catch the increasingly broad hints from his council and return to the pathways of command. He reaches for my hand to kiss it, doesn’t falter as I don’t let him touch me, and simply bows politely. “Affairs of state, Duncan, lady. I must away.” And he is, like a force of nature or an overexcited hound puppy, and Duncan breathes again.

So, clearly I’m for it. Or maybe, not. I just follow Duncan till we’re out of sight, and eventually he breaks the silence.

“The king.”

“So you said.” I keep my voice neutral.

He nods slowly. “Your opinion?”

“He’s younger than I am.”

He looks me up and down. “I doubt it. He’s twenty.”

“Then he’s got three years on me in body, but spirit’s anyone’s guess. He really in charge?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“And the Blight, it’s as big and as bad as they say.”

He just nods.

“And we’re really going to have to take the field. Next to him.”

“You noticed that, I gather.”

“Lot of people going to die, I’d wager. Man’s an idiot.”

“He has a good heart. And he’s the spit and image of what a king should be.”

I shrug. “I’ll allow he’s pretty, and he speaks pretty, but my head ain’t so turned. Ignores his council, talks about stories, bounds about like a bloody ferret. Why I asked if he’s really in charge, like. A body should do something, no?”

He gives me a slightly sharp look. “I’d watch where you voice that last. They banned our order once, you know. Why there’s thirty-nine of us in the country, and not hundreds like there should be. Politics was why. We unseated a king, once, and the new king unseated us for gratitude.”

I look away. “Fine. So we’re, like, knights then? Noble rescuers of distressed damsels and pretty idiots in gold armour?”

“But without the politics.”

“At least we’ve got a castle or something?”

“Not for a century. We travel – the Circles, the Chantries, the castles and towns. Anywhere the Deep Roads come near the surface you get darkspawn, and anywhere you get them is where we should be. Bringing me neatly to today.” He gestures simply, pointing to one of the sets of grey tents in a circle a little apart from the main encampment. “The king has had me call every Warden in Ferelden here, all thirty-nine. And the regional commanders and I have each undertaken to bring a candidate for Joining.”

“So I’m not the only new recruit?”

He shakes his head. “Should be four of you. Denerim, Lothering, Amaranthine and Redcliffe – that’s east, south, north and west, and each can bring as many as they will, but it’s likely to be one each.” He looks up and squints against the sunlight. “Except that there’s no flag for the commander from Redcliffe, and Arl Eamon wasn’t with the privy council, so my guess is that we’re short one. Tradition says we do you all at once, but I suspect that in this instance tradition is going to have to go and hang – we’ll do the three we have, I’d think, and the man or woman from Redcliffe when they show up.”

“‘Do’?” I raise him an eyebrow. “Sounds like you’re planning on more than a little light hazing.”

His expression ices over. “You shall see.”

“More mystery.” I make a face. “Lovely.”

*

The camp of the Wardens smells different. Cleaner, less overpoweringly human. The man on guard is short and narrow for a shem, wrought all of sinew and rawhide, and against the fashion for a man who must be all of thirty, he’s got a full beard. His armour is of an unfamiliar make – hells, what do I know about armour. It looks nothing like the stuff the king’s cronies had, anyway. He salutes Duncan with a clenched fist to his segmented breastplate and Duncan replies with a bow, so I curtsey, it’s bloody automatic. Damn them. Smile sweetly.

But we carry on through. The camp’s a loose circle, and there are tents already prepared, and there’s one prepared for me and nobody else is supposed to share it. I guess I can’t hide my surprise; Duncan just remarks that a Warden is a Warden, not a man, woman, human, elf or whatever else it was they were born.

And I guess that if those fine words are truth, then all those people who aren’t human men have just… not applied, or something. I guess one of them might think the Wardens were a varied bunch – there are six regional accents round camp, all unfamiliar, and they all vary a bit in colour, height, apparel and outfitting – but basically I go right from being a shadow at Duncan’s left hand to being an alley cat on her own somewhere she doesn’t know.

I meet a succession of the Wardens, each I suppose distinctive, and Duncan goes through introductions I don’t hear because I’m busy sizing them up, noting distinguishing features like choice of weapon and preferred sword-hand, checking my exits, thinking almost loud enough to hear that my closest choice of weapon isn’t the knife strapped to my calf but the one in their boot –

And I suppose eventually it gets through to Duncan that his little shadow’s looking at each new Warden like they’re a mad wild dog who ain’t frothing just now but ain’t chained down neither, as it gets through to him that the Wardens are looking at him and me like someone brought a wolverine round camp on a string and he’s expecting them to pet it, and he takes me aside and sits me down on pretext of getting us a meal. The table’s apart from the others. The food’s surprisingly not bad. And well, maybe once I’m breathing a little slower he starts talking. “I suppose you’re going to say that of course I should have seen you’d be frightened.”

This food’s too good to wolf it, never mind that I’m hungry. Not even grit in the bread. Frightened? Is that what this is? I was planning as much escape as self-defence, I suppose. I don’t look up. “It’s not scared, human. It’s sensible. Like you said, I can’t go back, not now the wolves know I know what my teeth are for. They can see I’m a danger, and it’s not like I can’t see that right back.”

“You like comparing people to animals, don’t you,” he rumbles. “Seems to me that’s one of the problems. We’re not animals, Kallian, we’re h- we’re people, and we’re all in the same danger, all in it together, and we quite truly can’t afford to be divided. And whatever you might see out there -” he gestures out of the little Warden camp and towards the keep – “a Warden is a Warden is a Warden, and if everyone else has forgotten, well, we’re all in this together.”

Or something. He goes on for a bit more time in the same vein. In fact, you know, I don’t really notice when he gives up with the talking and goes to talk to someone, beyond knowing that he’s not twenty paces away and no human is closer to me than that. What? The food is really good. There are things in this stew that I’ve never tasted proper, and things I’ve only ever met on plates I was serving, and –

I notice when a woman sits down opposite me, though. She’s a couple of handfuls of years older than me, dressed in work clothes, cap and apron, attitude of no nonsense. Oh, I’d better add for my audience, she’s an elf, so to most of you she’d look eighteen and skinny and foreign, even if the cap hides her ears. She looks me up and down and gives half a grin. Her accent, Amaranthine. “Not quite like home cooking, is it. I’ll be sure and tell cook you liked it, shall I?”

“Do.” I swallow the mouthful of food, don’t quite return the grin. My eyes flick to the humans and she raises her eyebrows, like, what can you do. I guess it’d be impolite to keep silence. “Kallian Dener.”

“Peony Amaranth, Kallian; anther anat-isha.” The elvish words make me put down my fork, just like she intended. She’s talking like this is her home. “I’m steward to this bunch of bigjobs. The Commander said that you were maybe feeling a little like you needed to find your feet.”

Blink. “You. Steward? That’s, like, housekeeper?”

“Uh-huh – my boss is the Commander, by his hand and seal.” She nods proudly. “It’s a pretty good life with ’em – they aren’t bad as humans go. They know where big hands don’t belong and a Warden doesn’t get drunk. And I hear you’re to be joining?”

“So do I.” I make a face. “Not to be giving offence to your boss, Peony, but I think he’s loopy in the head. He said he wants me for one of him, not one of you, if you follow.”

Again a businesslike nod. “I heard. It’s happened before, you know. There are elf Wardens in all the fireside tales.”

“For true.” I raise an eyebrow.

“Cross me heart.”

“Bloody hells.” Another spoonful of the food. It’s still just as good. An obstacle looms toward my mind out of the imagined near future. “Uh, that means I’ll need, like, shoes and all, and it’s not like I’ve money to pay -”

She hides a smile. Reminds me of an auntie. “We’ll set you right. Can’t have you wandering around making the order look bad, after all.”

“Oh, so you’re getting me a big old hat and a mask and a pair of stilts and all?” Just a little sharp edge into my voice and she frowns.

“Now, now, miss, I’ve got instructions. The king’s not the only one as thinks we’re people walked straight out of the old tales, and I don’t know if you know about armies, but a bit of story’s worth more than all the gold of Orlais to a man who thinks he might die on the morrow. Stories say the Wardens are all the people of all Thedas, together against the darkness, and much as Duncan tries he’s still a silly old shem with a beard that went out of fashion before you was a nipper. Whereas you’re-”

“A pretty bit of tale?” Nearly done with this bowl of stew.

“People talk that way to anybody with our surcoat on, miss, and just you see what happens.” She’s got a list on a wax slate. “Which you get two of. Duncan didn’t send ahead that he was bringing someone so slight, so it’s doubtful any in the camp can fix you with a real set of armour, not in an evening, but I’ll take you to see me brother and he’ll find something to make shift, and arms and all. Can you shoot?”

I shake my head. “I can string a bow, but I never shot one. Used a crossbow before, but never to practice with, like.”

“Mm-hmm. You’ll have a bow anyway, of course, whoever heard of an elf without one in a tale, don’t let him let you go without picking one out, and remember the strings and arrows and so on. As for clothes, we’ll settle for something that fits for today, and see if we can’t have you looking a proper Warden by the time they make you one – and boots are easy, we’re well supplied. Can you ride?”

Blink. “What, like, horses?”

“No, girl, great flying griffons. Yes, horses. Can you – I’ll put that down as a no. Makes it easier at least, you won’t want a mount we wouldn’t have for you anyhow.” Seeing I’ve finished, she takes my bowl and spoon straight out my hand. “And another thing. No housework for you, no cleaning or cooking. For one thing, you don’t know your way around, for two- what?” Because that does casuse me to shake my head and smile a little.

“That’s not your worry. Been no work of that sort out of me for weeks now, like.” Deep breath. “I’m a murderess, Peony, Duncan conscripted me almost right off the gallows. The shems know I’m not an obedient little lamb no more, I’m a danger. I’m not looking out because I’m scared of ’em. I’m looking out because they’re on to me.”

She snorts. “Well, I weren’t, and if you’re telling me the bigjobs are better informed than the People where you come from, you’ve got another thing to learn about the army.” She gives me another appraising look up and down and abruptly changes the subject, her manner suddenly very much that of Duncan. Or is it that he copied her? “I think you’re a size two, but let’s be sure and get the measure.”

*

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Alternative Origins Chapter Two

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*

It’s a costume, is what it is. I suppose that’s all any uniform is. They had a jerkin and gambeson to fit me that Peony’s brother told me straight-faced fell off the back of a cart and was never a poacher’s at all, of which I’m to wear the gambeson to get used to it, and the surcoat’s just straight grey so it wasn’t the matter of two minutes to cut one down, for all I’m wearing servant’s garb under it all. And I’m not so very much smaller than a shem woman that they won’t have a belt and baldric to fit me, and the strangest thing is walking with the weight of two blades openly at my belt and a longer one on my back all legal-like, and nobody calling me on it, and by the time it’s all issued and looked at and fitted and sorted and tended and worn and unworn and I’ve reassured Duncan that I’m taken care of, the light is fading and everything is grey.

I don’t use my tent, not on my own in a strange camp, whatever Peony said about these shems. There’s an old room round the back of the fort, where you always find the rats and servants, and there’s a hearth and there we find ourselves, and like my da used to say, wherever you go among the People you’ll always find yourself at home. And my grandda on my mother’s side was from the Amaranthine alienage, and I shuck half the hard-won costume to spend the night talking with second cousins and avoiding the whole subject of murder and why I’m here, just like they avoid the subject of the weapons I’ve not taken off. Just another maidservant in a brown kirtle, her day’s duty done, talking round the fire with a mug of neveryoumind and maybe even lifting the corner of a smile I meant.

And curled under a new grey cloak in a corner I don’t remember finding, I’m woken by a maid stirring up the fire. Well before dawn it is – well, I guess, some things dosn’t change. I’m halfway to helping before I’m politely but firmly told that to my vast surprise I have a dignity – and there are things as are beneath it – and this is one – yes, milady.

Maker’s breath, she called me milady. Not ‘my lady’, the human words of a noble’s respect. ‘Milady’, punctuation, the little mark in the world to show who’s who and where and why. World’s divided into those who speak that word every day and those who hear it, and there’s not been a day of my seventeen years I wasn’t the former, except those days where I’d rather spit than speak, but apparently nobody told my second cousin here. The kettle is gently taken from my paralysed fingers and I’m informed that milady’s dignity slept the night in her official tent over there and she should go collect it before dawn.

Apparently milady’s dignity has a cot that’s harder than the rush-strewn floor in the servant’s quarters, and a blanket that’s thinner than my cloak. I suppose I should pretend I woke here, and so I do – muttered verse from the Chant of Light, wash my face and hands, lace on my stiff new leather brogues, sort out the attire just so – and with the dawn I hear what’s probably supposed to be the clarion call of silver trumpets, and maybe it’s just that where the king is. Down this end there’s a big ugly bugger with a bugle, but the call’s clear enough. The music seems to speak, and what it says is none too politely to get your arse out of bed and dressed. And this morning, and in this costume, perhaps I’m feeling a little bit less of the wild animal and a little bit more of the person.

I suppose I do draw a couple of eyes as I step out into the dawn’s light in my new costume. Seems everybody has a job to do but me – h’m. And him – and him. Not one but three of us looking about blinking in the light. Didn’t see these two last night, but their tents are twins to my own and the only other ones that aren’t shared, and there’s a fourth that’s empty, it’s not hard to guess that these are the recruits.

And well, they’re both human men. One’s short, with a mud-brown mop of hair and a wisp of moustache on a fox’s face, and the other one’s tall, tall as any bigjob I met before or since, and his head’s as clean-shaven as his chin is. Fox looks me up and down, the first glance saying he didn’t miss that I’m an elf, the second saying he didn’t miss that I’m a girl, and he saunters over and makes a funny hash of the kind of polite bow I suppose humans make to one another. His accent makes him the southerner. “‘Morning, miss, I’m Daveth of Mistridge. Suppose you’d be the third of four?”

I incline my head some. I don’t need to look up to him very far – he’s got maybe half a foot on my four-foot-ten. “Kallian Dener. Did they say what we were to do with ourselves today?”

“Beyond breakfast, in a half-hour?” He purses his lips. “More training, would be me guess.” He indicates the giant with his head. “They’ve ‘ad me teaching ‘im, and turn about as was fair. I’d welcome a chance to test me eye.”

“Your… eye?” I meet his gaze for a moment, enough to see his eyes are a startling blue.

“Aye.” He rolls his shoulders back. “Think I’ve a mind to, later, if you’d consent. Never shot against an elf.” He waggles his eyebrows. “We could wager. What say?”

I give Daveth a wry grin. “Sorry to burst your hopes, human, but I’m as much of an archer as you are a laundress.”

He laughs with me, not at me. Score one for the costume. “Maybe we should do it anyway. I’d love to say I’d outshot every elf archer I ever faced.” The giant appears to have decided that we’re more interesting than whatever it was that he was thinking about, and he’s lumbering over. “Maker’s bride, his tread does actually shake the earth.”

Appears he heard. “All the better to crush you with, you little poacher.” The big man looks straight at my eyes – dammit, Kallian, don’t you dare look away – and gives an elegant and practiced bow. “Well met, my lady, I’m Jory of Wright’s Heath.” And where Daveth and I are looking vaguely dressed-up in stiff new-issued costume, on him it’s a little richer, a little softer, and a lot better-worn. Difference between being dressed as a noble, and being one, I suppose.

So, of course, I need to bite off the word ‘milord’. If it crosses my lips once, then forever more to this shem I’ll be a jumped-up scullery maid. Practically have to force myself not to bob. The right way to do it, the elvhen way, would be a deep nod, keeping eye contact all the while. “Well met, mi- uh. Ser. As you might have heard, I’m Kallian of Denerim.”

He looks down at me from his vertiginous height. “You aren’t what I expected of a Warden candidate, mistress Dener.”

“Oh?” That stung. I mean, I’m not what I expected, either. But I’ll be damned if I’ll hear it from a shem nobleman, not after being told we was all one under this grey banner of ours. I don’t bother hiding my reaction.

He stands his ground, of course. The costume might have made him take notice that I existed, but it’s hardly going to get him to treat me as an equal, not when he’s quite literally twice my size. “Are you not a little… short to be a Warden?”

“Don’t know. Clearly someone don’t think so. Aren’t you a little tall?” I can see Daveth’s backed away, wanting no part. Just about notice that one of the other Wardens, sitting polishing armour in the morning sun, is just coincidentally within a distance to interfere if there’s some kind of problem here.

The giant’s smile is slight. “The victor’s wreath of Amaranthine, ahorse and afoot, with lance and steel, says I’m quite short enough, sera.”

“And I’m sure we’re all most impressed -” not milord – “ser.” Great, now it sounds like I’m begrudging his rank from my lips. “And where I come from, like, I’m actually considered a bit on the large side.”

“I… see.” His brow suddenly wrinkles – it’s amazing, you can about see the thoughts racing through his head like clouds. “D’you know? Because Ser Daveth here didn’t, and I don’t know if you have tried to get anything from a Warden but a tale and a hint, but if you can you wreak better than I. Is it that we’re rivals, here, or fellows?”

The concept of being this big shem’s rival in a contest of arms – I shake my head. “The Commander wouldn’t pit you against me in any kind of a trial.”

Now it’s his turn to be stung, I suppose, and he replies with the exact same “Oh?”

Somehow, with the costume, with the weight of the sword on my back and the dirk I have at each hip, he’s not a threat I can’t face just with what I’ve got on me. It’s like it puts steel in me I didn’t know was there. Or finds it. Isn’t a Warden supposed to be bold? I give him a smirk. “You’d face me fair, would you, in the dark with naught but one knife between us? Or I’d face you fair, armour weighing more than I do with a blade longer than both my arms together? We’d either of us be fools. It’d be like, which of us is taller, or quicker? Nah. For sure we’re fellows, ser, and well met indeed.”

“Fair spoken.” He holds out a hand. I suppose it’s to shake, as they do. “Peace?”

And I bite my tongue and bid myself shake his hand, but I don’t offer to the smaller man, like, and I don’t trust my voice just right then.

*

They break their fast on bacon gruel, and they eat like, well, humans. I’ve a biscuit to myself and consider myself well fed. Duncan finds us after the meal, the royal breakfast table explaining his absence, and he’d have it that we’ll be formally inducted at midnight tonight – provided the order is satisfied as to our potential. A test? I meet Daveth’s eyes and shrug as Jory attempts to complain, loudly, in front of the unmoved Commander – something about having already proven himself, ten times over at least. Duncan has us split up – Daveth to the quartermaster with a list, me to ‘recover our training master from the wizards’, and Jory for whatever noblemen get instead of a proper bollocking.

Recover. The training master. From wizards? What? I suppose I never met a wizard before. I wonder what they’re like.

Their camp is the other circle just outside the army camp proper, and it’s funny, it’s like a double ring. Like a circle inside a circle. And the first guard I’ve met here who bids me stand and deliver. Armoured, he is, just like the nobles of the king’s court, and there’s every bit as many runes round every plate of that armour, and inside them there’s words, like. MAGIC IS MEANT TO SERVE MAN they say, from the Chant of Light, and more besides that I can’t make out at a glance. Templar, a real live one. Back home, templars are like militiamen grown fatter and richer but somehow holier – this one, though, he’s broad in the shoulders and square of chin and I decide his animal is the ox.

I tell him I’m here for Warden Alistair and he lets me grudgingly by. This outer circle, it’s less of a camp and more of a stockade of tents, a fortification where it so happens that some people live. A fortification that, I can’t help noticing, doesn’t really know if it points inward or out. And inside it there’s another ring, and the picket at the one entrance here is a man who’s soft-clad and soft-shod and there’s a tattoo of a star covering an old scar on his forehead. He meets my eyes for just half an instant and I can’t do it, I look away.

Because there’s nothing behind ’em. That’s a dead man, he’s just walking for some reason. Opens his mouth and his voice is dull, tired, calm, unnatural. “Please, allow me to direct you.”

“Warden Alistair. I’ve a-”

“The sky-blue tent, thirty yards behind me and to my right, was made safe for him; he entered it and has not yet left. Pray you keep to the paths, sera, and enter nowhere else, at risk of moral hazard.” He bows.

Moral…? I don’t ask in case he tells. And the tent I want is clear in any case. It’s the one with the yelling.

“…and I resent your implication that simply because your toothless old fart of a Commander is a royal favourite, that you have our automatic and personalised loyalty! And gratuitously, no less!” The human lady’s voice is as sharp and thin as a stilletto.

The other voice is a young man’s light tenor, and it’s got the patiently frustrated tone of someone saying something perfectly simple for the fiftieth time. “I’m sorry that you draw such implications from my commander’s requirements, enchanter, truly I am, but I’m afraid they are going to have to stand regardless of your assaults on perfectly inoffensive logic and verbiage. The king’s orders are that we add to our number; the part of your people is by your admission trivial to you, and by my assertion vital to us, and by law and treaty neither the king nor the Wardens are to be gainsaid. All that we gain by your arguing is each other’s continued company, a thing that you yourself have in my hearing called tiresome-”

“Are you threatening me, Templar?” Maker, that woman’s voice isn’t half piercing.

I can hear the sigh from where I’m standing. “No, madam, and I’m not a Templar, although I can see where you might become confused, the principal difference between their order and mine from your point of view being the distance from your tower – an error I’ll hasten to correct just so soon as I’ve a good and solid aye that would take all of one breath to speak, although I suppose a little longer if you suddenly developed an accent -”

She practically snarls. “Get out of my tent.”

“No, you see, that ‘aye’ was preceded by the letter M, rendering it tainted by association – would madam care to try again?”

“You know damnably well what our answer is.”

“It had better be in the affirmative, or I’m getting a second opinion.”

“You’ll get your stinking lyrium,” she growls. “And the Revered Mother shall hear of your insouciance.”

“I await her response with trembling terror, sera, seeing as she is neither my temporal nor spiritual commander and frankly you’d probably be better served complaining about something that isn’t a malapropism; regardless, please have yourself a fine day.” And I’m out of the way as a hard-muscled straight-backed blond young human who I suppose is Alistair takes a step backwards out the flap of the blue tent and turns straight for the camp gate.

He’s got honest blue eyes like a clear sky, his sandy hair is cropped short, and his square jaw is clean-shaven. I can’t think of an animal for him, offhand. Stops, looks right at me, and then at my costume – his own outfit’s not dissimilar, apart from the whole skirt-or-breeches thing. And he raises his eyebrows, and motions for me to follow him as he strides from the camp.

I open my mouth to talk but he shakes his head. “Hst. Shh.” So there’s not a word till we’re out of the mages’ camp and some way away, and then he turns and clicks his heels, giving a fluid respectful bow that I echo with a bow of my head like is proper, and neither of us breaks eye contact.

After a moment I notice that he isn’t blinking, so neither do I.

Few more moments. His eyes are watering. Mine too. Urge to look away is growing. He’s given up trying to pretend he doesn’t find this funny.

Goes on until the whole world’s one big afterimage, and he’s biting his lip to keep from giggling because that’d make him blink, and I’ve clasped my hands behind my back because otherwise they’d be starting to tremble. Damned if I’m letting the human get the better of me.

It’s a moment or two longer, and it’s long been an effort of will rather than of body, and – did you really wonder? It’s him that blinks first, and he laughs as he does it. I’m not laughing, although I’m breathing a little shallow as I rest my eyes. Just means something different to him, is all, but it’s not like he’ll see that. His laughter dies off a little as he realises I didn’t join in so much, but his smile doesn’t, it’s plastered on like it grew there. “Anyone ever tell you you have lovely eyes?”

I look at him like he can keep his opinions to himself. “Warden Alistair?”

“Guilty?” His smile doesn’t waver when I don’t visibly react to his attempt at a joke. Clearly got nothing to do with what’s going on in his head. “Barrel of laughs, you.”

“I’m to recover you from the people you were just talking to. Duncan wants to see you.”

He shrugs mock-helplessly. “Your quest is over; I’ll come quietly. I guess I was gone rather a while… Kallian, wasn’t it?” He stretches out a hand.

I look at it for a moment, and I can’t make myself. You people think it’s fear, and it isn’t. It’s just instinct, a natural thing. Something in the back of the head tells the animal in us that humans are big enough to eat us, and if it’s reminded? Perhaps now you understand how if I unclasped my hands behind my back they’d be shaking too hard for him not to notice. “It’s not done to shake hands, ser.”

He takes in a deep breath. “You know what I love about the Blight, Kallian?”

“I’m sure I couldn’t guess.”

“It’s the way it brings people together.” He gestures that we should continue walking. “Noble and commoner alike setting aside their crippling petty squabbles and interests; templars gamboling in the grass like lambs and wizards coming down out of their ivory towers and forgetting their love of mammon; elf and human alike learning to shake hands and make up for centuries of misunderstanding and abuse. All because of the sharing of one little mortal peril.”

I give him a sidelong look. “Are you for true?”

The smile turns genuine for half an instant. “Never.”

*

So it turns out that someone believes in dropping people in the water and seeing if they’ll sink. ‘Prove our mettle,’ says Duncan, and ‘a nice morning’s stroll for the four of us,’ says Alistair, and judging by the numbers and the arms on the humans guarding the gate we’re using, we’re walking into something between a deathtrap and the mouth of hell.

The mud on the forest floor makes me glad of my new boots. Nothing like a path, but at least it’s open, what they call light woodland. Again, not much chatter till we’re out of sight of the walls. When part of the good we do is the costume and the look of the thing, apparently keeping up appearances is important. The two big shems are in bright metal armour, Jory in halfplate and Alistair in polished brigandine, Jory with a longsword over his back that’s longer than I am, Alistair with a plain grey shield and a broad short blade at his left hip. Daveth’s in leathers, old and dull and much-repaired, but I can’t help but notice they make not a sound, and he chose a hip quiver over a shoulder one, and that bow is as old and well-used as Duncan’s swords were. And for all that it’s a fine source of confidence to me in the shem camp, there’s no getting away from the fact that every bit of my costume is new or at least pretending to be new, even the blades I’ve got openly. I left the bow and quiver in my tent. They want me to shoot like an elvhen, they’re going to have to give me a chance to learn to.

Alistair breaks the silence and his smile’s all gone. “So, lady and gents, while it’s show and pomp in there, it’s nothing but work out here; I hope you brought your aprons.” He’s not looking at my scowl. That’s got to have been a dig. “We’re going southwest, and yes, for those of you who lost your maps these are the Korcari Wilds. It’s a nice five-mile trek out to where we’re going, a jolly little ruin in the next valley over, and we’ll be picking up the pace soon as we can; if you can’t keep the pace, don’t hide it, we’ll slow, and I mean that.” He loosens his blade in its scabbard. “Normal times, this’d be Chasind country; even this close to Ostagar, there’s a tribe that claims this land, and they never struck me as the welcoming sort. But this last month, it’s been something else.”

“The Blight, ser.” Jory sounds none too keen. “I have spoken to the scouts. The woods are crawling with darkspawn.”

“Exactly.” He looks at each of us in turn. “Darkspawn don’t crawl, or not often; they run, they leap, they climb, occasionally they have a go at a bit of a saunter or sashay. They look a lot like people, but you wouldn’t mistake them, not if you saw their smiling faces. You’ll have heard horrible tales of their teeth and claws; a lot of it’s horse-dirt, they use weapons just like anything else with two thumbs. And they die just like people do. Despite what you’ve heard, they’re no harder to kill.”

“Just more dangerous.” Daveth makes a face.

“You’re talking about the blood curse?” A nod. “Mm-hmm. We Wardens can deal with it, but most people, they get hot wet red darkspawn blood in their eyes, on their tongue, or worst of all into a cut, and whatever it hit must come off, and no, that’s not a joke. You leave it, the man goes down with a fever, two days he’s on his back hoping he’d die and on the third he’s up and trying his damndest to spread it around. It’s a curse, it’s magic, the magi can cure it about as easily as you can cure life itself, and I mention it to say that we, the Grey Wardens, we are immune. And none of you three need worry about poisoning.”

“Just about hordes of monsters, springing upon us at any moment.” Jory’s eyes are a little wide, his ham-like hand straying to the massive hilt over his right shoulder at the slightest sound of the wood. He does that the whole way, he’ll be tired out by the time were halfway.

Alistair gives him a genuine, grim smile. “Ser Jory, the darkspawn cannot take us unaware. If there is any horde of monsters to be fighting, you have my word as a Warden: you’ll be forewarned, you’ll be on your feet and you’ll have the three of us at your side.” The giant looks unconvinced; he carries on. “I can sense them, ser, all Wardens can, and when you join us, you’ll learn to as well. The nearest darkspawn is near an hour’s travel south of here, it’s with five of its fellows, and it’s hunting rabbits.”

“Rabbits.” Jory’s voice is flat.

“If the darkspawn only ate people, ser, they’d starve long before they got out of the wilds. We don’t like to tell it, but the truth to be told is that they aren’t all that different from us, only a little uglier, or in my case a lot uglier.” His pauldrons move as he shrugs. “You’ll see.”

Suppose I ought to be at home out here, really. Elves and woods, right? Born to it? Well, I’m not. I like cobbles, flagstones, roof slates, wood floors, straw. Not mud. I don’t even really like the street. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can handle the walking just fine, and the only reason I’m not quieter than Daveth is is that my new boots creak some. But this isn’t my kind of turf, like. It’s just, well, turf.

Not that it matters, not with the humans jingling in their armour and talking like that. After a good while of discussing trivialities and irrelevances and generally trying to pretend to be friends, they fall to discussing how the four of us would fight. Just in case it weren’t obvious. Alistair to go after any big ones, Jory to form a solid centre, Daveth to put an extra arrow in anything that looks like an archer, or worse, a wizard, and me to –

Abruptly Alistair halts in midsentence, turns his head sharply, like he heard something none of the rest of us could. His eyes widen and his voice settles into the snap of a man used to giving orders. “Kallian, with me. Daveth, Jory, a mile down the hill, you’ll hear, soon as you can, please.” And he turns to set off down the hill at a jog.

“What is it?” Jory might be slow on his feet, but his blade’s out as fast as you like.

Alistair looks back just one moment and there’s the smile again, the one that means nothing. “Heroism. Stick together!” And he’s moving.

So am I. He goes at a bit more than a jog, moving easily, and I’m pacing him without really getting out of breath. He glances at me sidelong for a moment. “Faster?”

I show my teeth. It’d look like a grin, I suppose, but it isn’t. “Call this running, shem?”

“Hah.” He opens his stride and I match it, if not pace for pace, at least for speed. And when there’s a three-foot boulder in his way and he pretty much hurdles it, I realise why it was he told the other humans to lag behind. Daveth would be running this pace half-blind at full tilt, not good down a hill or for a whole mile. And Jory would do about a hundred yards before falling on his heavy-armoured face.

Meanwhile, for me and seemingly for the Grey Warden it’s a fair warmup. The mossy ground’s fair to run on, springy, and I’m not overburdened – and Alistair’s just ignoring the jingling weight of his own kit. I concentrate on the fall of my feet. I am not allowing him to make me look bad by having to pick me up off the ground.

The sound of a horn echoing through the woods and he swears, loudly enough to make me wonder if he turned an ankle or something, but he’s still running. “We’re going to be too late,” he spits. “Six of them there. Don’t know how many they’re hunting, but rabbits don’t blow on horns. Watch my back, don’t close with them, and don’t try and fight fair.”

“Just like your kind, then.” More running. My breath’s coming faster, now. No way this man has a longer wind than me, not in that armour and all. I hear the horn go again, a little more desperately. “Do this much, do you?”

“Well, you know. We were passing.” Movement, through the trees, down the slope. Dark shapes among the green, a little shorter and wider than men, dirty patchwork armour and notched rusty weapons. Three of ’em, and after a moment there’s the horn again and I see the human scouts who sounded it, shoulder to shoulder in stained brown leather, blades out.

“Don’t fight fair, you said.” We go either side of a tree. The Warden’s clearly planning on just going straight into the fight when he gets there. “There are six of them.”

“Yeah. No point waiting for them to fetch another half-dozen for you.” A moment, and his shield is on his arm. Another and his sword is out of its scabbard. He doesn’t slow down. I hear a yell from up ahead, high and afraid, and a snarl that’s like but unlike a dog who wants you out of his yard.

We’re maybe a hundred yards away when the three that were sneaking up behind the scouts fall on them with a roar, and Alistair lets out a war-cry of his own and puts his head down and charges. Y’know, straight into a fast-moving fight, too fast to be caring how he’s going to come to a stop.

They ignore him, and as I watch the six darkspawn tearing strips off the humans I’m not sure what he thought he meant when he said that they looked like people. They’re too short for humans and too wide for elves, and the straggly black hair is receding from their liver-spotted scalps, and that and their bandy-legged crouch would make them look like wizened little old men if it weren’t for the power in those heavy shoulders. I remember what I heard about poison and keep my mouth shut. And I leave it till the last moment to draw the blade from my back, a simple straight blade almost exactly the size and weight of the one I killed eleven men with back in Denerim. Come to think of it, only nine of them with the sword.

Anyway, just as the darkspawn are standing up from their grisly work, Alistair goes into the knot of them with his shield first. He might dance around like he’s weightless, but the darkspawn felt that impact like a falling star – the one he hits, he bears straight back into an oak tree and leaves fall from the impact. There’s a moment’s surprise to them, and that’s enough for him to put his back to the tree, for his blade to punch out all unsophisticated and take the guts out of the nearest of them. I get to see him over a nice row of backs, and as they go to pile on him I step in almost beside one of them and pull the broadsword’s chisel-sharp edge easily across the joints at the backs of its legs.

Well, they’re smarter than some men I’ve fought. The one beside me that I didn’t just hamstring wastes no time in ducking back with a snarl rather than either going for me straight or letting me get a blow in, and it points its chopper at me like it wants to fence. So there’s clearly one going for my back, like, and I don’t need Alistair’s warning as I dance back in turn and I’m facing two of them in the clear – not really what he meant when he said don’t fight fair, no?

But the shem doesn’t stick with his back to the tree like you’d expect, he goes on the attack without a pause. Not that I can watch him, not with two of them trying to introduce me to the sharp end. I’ll give that they’re fast, and if I’d a mind to meet their blows with my blade I’d probably do nothing but lose it, but they’re waving those things more like clubs than swords. And I know he said not to close on ’em, but he also said to watch his back and promptly put it against a tree. With the sword in my right hand, I flick a cut at the face of the one on the right to make him blink as I move inside the reach of the other one, passing him close as a May dance, if your contrary ever took a snap at you as you swept on past. I spin, low, of a height with the crouching darkspawn, and wait for the one I’d chosen for a dance partner to realise that the blood on the dirk that’s just now point-up in my left hand is all from that hole in its gut – but if it even knows then it doesn’t seem to care, and they spread to try and take me from both sides at once, and I take a couple of steps back, no hurry to finish this, not with one of them running blood like that and ignoring it.

I see Alistair swing a good hard strike straight down onto the one he must have knocked to the ground and then he turns up to make this two-on-two – the darkspawn look at him and at me and reckon that I’m the easier option, but I don’t give them the time to try that out. I step into the one coming on from my right, the one I bloodied, and let its whistling overhand cut go straight past my shoulder as I put the point of the broadsword in just under the bit of ironmongery it’s using as a breastplate and push hard.

And no human with three feet of cold steel through his gut would grab your hand at the wrist and have a go for your face with his sharp wet unbelievably yellow corpse-teeth – sheer revulsion makes me scream, it’s got nothing to do with terror, and I put the dirk in my left hand up under its chin with all the force of my body and bear my enemy over backwards still pushing.

Dimly I hear behind me the sound of a blade parting flesh and bone, and the thump of the last of them hitting the ground, and then slightly less so I hear the Warden’s voice. “You all right, there?”

It’s a moment before I can stand, and I’ve got to reassure myself that it’s dead before I’ll take the dagger out of its brain. I realise I haven’t answered, and I’m just in time turning and stepping back that I avoid a big armoured hand on my shoulder. I nod, because it’s better than a squeak, and he turns immediately away.

Yes. Remember why we were here? The scouts? He did. I practically trod on ’em. Without him asking I go round the darkspawn on the floor and make sure they’re done. And so when the other two finally get here, puffing like they just ran a mile, Alistair is on his knees next to one of the human scouts and I’m just standing up from the last of the darkspawn, bloody to the elbows and with spots on my surcoat, face and hair. But it’s okay. I’m allowed.

The humans are mostly interested in the dead humans, I suppose that’s not unexpected. I just set about cleaning the ick off my hands; I’m almost done when Alistair finishes giving them a bit of dignity. Daveth gives me a bit of a funny look; I raise an eyebrow and he shakes his head like he wasn’t really expecting me to act like the kind of people he’s used to.

“Leave some for us, next time,” offers Jory in what’s clearly supposed to be the kind of thing a warrior would say. Looking at him closer, I can see that he’s not really as old as he looked at first – I mean, he’s older than I am, but he’s a little too fresh-faced and unscarred to have been at his profession long.

I give him a shrug, anyway – I should probably be polite to these people I’m likely going to have to live with. “Tell you what,” I offer, “next time we’ll blow them a raspberry and lead them back so you don’t have to stretch your legs any further.”

“You’ll get your turn, big man.” Alistair nods down the slope as we set off again. “That horn will have summoned a proper raiding party. Things going well, it’ll be the one that was between us and where we were going, so we can go around them by the cunning strategy of staying downwind and not charging at them like a herd of cattle. C’mon, it’s just the far side of that ridge.” He bites his lip. “Unless I’m turned around again. I could have got turned around.”

“You didn’t,” remarks Daveth. “And I’m surprised at you, making light of being lost out here.”

Alistair grins. “I’ve got supernatural senses. And you’re with me.”

“I thought,” I note sourly, “that they only told you where the monsters were.”

He nods. “Uh-huh. And our lives as Wardens are divided into two parts – in the one, we’re only interested in finding them, and in the other, we’re only interested in them not finding us. It’s all I need!” The smile abruptly goes. “Except at the moment, of course, I can use my sixth sense like a bloody compass. South? Is where the darkspawn are. And everything else follows. C’mon.”

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Three

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*

The ruins, they aren’t all that. Moss-covered grey old stones, three sides of an old tower, not a strong manor-house so much as a keep without a bailey or a chantry that shed its village like a shell and walked out into the middle of the Wilds. There’s a slightly incongruous brownish wildcat on one of the upper stones washing itself. Wisp of smoke rising from what must have been a cookfire this morning that nobody bothered to put to bed. We’re coming at it from downwind, and over the sharp tang of woodsmoke and the smell of the humans I’m with, there’s –

Great Maker. I bite my lip a moment and Alistair winces in sympathy. “You smell it, too, don’t you.”

Jory frowns. Clearly, you see, anything said in his vicinity is being said to him. “Woodsmoke, faint. Somebody camped in the ruins this last few nights.”

I open my mouth once I’m certain nothing will come up. “Wasn’t rabbits they was cooking, neither.”

A little green, he visibly steels himself. “Are the – blaggards still around, for us to teach a lesson?”

Alistair shakes his head. “We’re not here for a battle. Daveth, your guess as to how many there are?”

“Apart from ‘a proper raiding party’, like your own mouth gave me not half an hour since?” The woodsman raises an eyebrow. “There’s but the one fire, and not for caution’s sake or they’d’ve doused the one they made. I’d hazard four hands at most, but the five we met would’ve come from here and all. Fifteen? I’ll give you better when we see the camp proper.”

The young training master nods. “Your secret answer is thirty-two. Yes, I’m cheating, but the point is also that sometimes they’re not at all like people. Reason being, the ‘spawn don’t eat what they cook or vice versa. Their fires are religious, and that’s why it’s still burning. There’s a wizard with that party, what they call an emissary, and last night it made an offering to the archdemon, probably of thanksgiving. One fire means one emissary, and we’ve never seen an emissary with more than fifty in its band.” He gives a crooked smile. “Luckily, there are far, far fewer than one for every fifty of the goatbotherers. And it and its party are currently off looking for whatever blew that horn half an hour ago. Daveth, I want you on lookout while we’re inside the ruins; you two are with me. We’re looking for a stone chest, like a rich man’s strongbox, with a rune sealing it. And we need to be in and out as quick as we can.”

Daveth frowns. “But you can sense the monsters, can you not? Or do the ruins turn that all about?”

“I can sense darkspawn, yes.” Alistair gives the ruins a look, as if they offended him. “But there’s supposed to be something else that lives around these ruins – a witch, or something – and that is what counts for a holy site if you’re Chasind. The couple of patrols we sent out haven’t found aught but darkspawn, but if the barbarians are going to be watching anything it’s their treasures. Your eye’s likely better than mine where the savages are concerned.”

Daveth blinks, stops walking dead. “A witch. You mean the Witch? The buggering Witch? Of the Wilds? This is the castle Perilous, the one she burned in a fit of mad jealous rage and the Wardens abandoned?”

“I don’t know anything about that.” Alistair nods to the inoffensive mossy ruins. “All I know is, we’re recovering a chest from there, and it’s our property, and it’ll open only to a Warden. We’re not even stealing.” He softens slightly. “Come. Would a self-respecting witch have let thirty-eight darkspawn camp in her garden?”

“Guess not.” He takes his bow in hand and lays an arrow across it regardless. “Tell you what, Warden, I’ll keep watch, outside like. And if I see anyone turn you into a covey of partridge for the stew, I’ll be sure and put an arrow on the witch and not the game, how’s that.”

“Fantastic.” Alistair swallows. “Off we go, then.”

I’m sure I’m the only one who caught him muttering something uncomplimentary to himself about informative superiors and thrice-bedamned witches and bloody partridge.

*

Know that Alistair said we were here searching, but Jory won’t abide that pagan altar and I’m not sure as I think he’s wrong. Beside, it’s not the work of five minutes to knock it over and scatter the things they offered, take the skulls out and lay them on the Maker’s green earth. Guess it was another test and all, because just as soon as we’re started and there’s Alistair lending a hand. Don’t need to know the man well to see the – hatred, there’s no other real word, in the way he methodically takes every thing a darkspawn has set in any kind of order and breaks it with a short, violent motion.

And that wildcat’s sat on the wall watching us.

The men start to spread out, methodically combing what parts of the ruins remain. And you know? I’m watching the cat. There aren’t many rooms, and the search won’t take them so long, and there’s something about this-

It looks straight at me and winks, then drops off the back of the wall, but lands awful heavy for a thing its size – I start around to see what it was, hand on the hilt of a blade – And over a little piece of wall scarce taller than I, I see a human woman’s languid amused dark eyes and tousled head.

And, well. The men hear the scrape of the scabbard – I’ll have to oil that – and in a moment and a half there’s three of us armed facing a woman’s head over a wall. She smirks. “Do you people not know to knock on a door, before ye dance in and walk on the furniture?”

“Guard your tongues,” says Jory quietly. “A witch will take what you say and make it a curse-”

The smile grows wider. “Oh, now, that’s a one I’ve not met.” She folds bare arms onto the wall and rests her chin on them. “Tell me another.”

Alistair’s half a step forward, his tone’s a warning. “We’re here in peace, lady.”

She licks her lips. Her tone is nothing if not mockery. “With your long sharp straight naked steel and the ever-appealing tang of tightly laced fear – and one in the trees with an arrow nocked and all? I’m ever entranced by the breadth and the depth of friendship I find in that animal they call man.”

Jory narrows his eyes. “Why don’t you show yourself, and we can parley?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t be comfortable with my doing that.” A throaty chuckle. “Besides, who says there’s just one of me? It’s not like I’m the sort of monster you Wardens hear every time you rest your weary head. There could be fifty of us in the grass, in the branches, in the very stones, just awaiting my word to swoop down and carry you off, and you’d be as innocent of it as little fieldmice.”

“Uh-huh.” Alistair’s eyes don’t move from hers. “Swooping would be bad…”

She’s clearly enjoying herself. “And all because you walked all unaware onto some mossy ruins that haven’t been yours since well before your grandsire’s time? I do declare. You’re intimidated, little man, as much by your own uncertainty as by meeting the strange creature I’m wearing the face of. Why, you haven’t even got around to stating your business – how rude!”

“You clearly know it.” The tension in the Warden’s voice gives truth to her words. The men are scared. Jory’s knuckles are white on his blade’s long hilt, and Alistair’s got his point low, just where he’d need it if something suddenly surged forwards at him, and he’s hardly blinked at all. “We’re seeking a box, two by one by one and a half cubits. Stone, and sealed with a rune of lyrium, and don’t tell me you don’t know it.”

“Then I won’t.” She flutters long eyelashes. “Seek on, an’ you will. I’ll be here, saving an eye for you. You’d best be done by the time the darkspawn return, or I suppose I’ll have to be entertained as well as curious.”

“Except it’s long gone, isn’t it.” Alistair doesn’t move. “Never thought I’d be calling one of your people a thief as well as an apostate.”

Her voice turns a couple of shades colder. “Ohh, I’m trembling where I stand. I do believe you’ve raised goose-pimples.”

Idiots. All of them. Guess I have to open my mouth. “When you’ve quite finished with your flirting?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She turns her eyes on me. Her liquid hazel irises are slitted like a cat’s. “Did you want a go of your own, pretty?”

I give her a respectful bow of the head, keeping my eyes on hers. “Kallian Dener, to save you trading me words you don’t mean, and well met. I thought perhaps we might try being polite, you and I? Just for the novelty, mind.”

“Hmm, you know, we might at that?” She raises an eyebrow. “Just, as you say, for the novelty. A lot of people call me a lot of things, but the one I prefer is Morrigan. And what’s one of the Little People doing out here, dressed-up all like one of the cityfolk and stinking of the cursed blood?”

“The one thing and the other, they whelped of the same dam.” Gah. Her method of speech is contagious. I spin my dirk in my hand and seat it abruptly back in its sheath. “Come, now. If you’re anything like what you claim to be, we share a foe and all we’ll be doing by anything but peace is their own work for them.”

“And what, precisely, do I ‘claim to be’?”

“A woman.” My turn to give a little mocking smile. “Or if you aren’t, you should probably have conjured yourself some clothes a little better than a stone wall.”

She chuckles. “I can see why they keep you around. But you’re not as wrong as you might be – could you ask the one with the dandelion for a head what he’s after with that box he wants? For some reason he finds me a holy terror and won’t say.”

Of course I don’t actuallly turn to Alistair and ask. He lowers the point of his blade, but he doesn’t sheathe it – “There’s in it, among some irrelevant things, a document. Imperishable on something that’s like vellum but not, its value to anybody only the words on it.”

“What if there is?”

“We will have it from you.”

She frowns. “No, you won’t.”

He sighs slightly. The point of his sword twitches. “I’m not sure I was asking.”

“Neither am I, ser lackwit, I’m telling.”

“Do we really have to do this?”

Her voice ices over and she stands up a little from her casual pose. From the tall men’s reaction, I was quite correct about her state of dress. “I’m not sure. What exactly would we be doing, again?”

Honestly! I physically step between the Warden and the witch. Sometimes I wish I had another foot in height, so that they couldn’t see one another over my head. “I’m sorry, Morrigan, but Alistair here has a subtle and delicate way with mages, as you’ve seen. What’s the objection?”

“You’ll not have it from me, Wardens, because I have no such thing.” Fire in her eyes – no, not literally.

“But you’d know who did.”

“Psh.” Narrowed eyes. “Perhaps.”

“If it please you, Morrigan. We’re allies as I said. And idiots they may be, but is a Blight really the time to be choosy?”

“I suppose it made you work with them.”

“Suppose it did. Would you help us? It’ll get us gone from your territory.”

“Will it, indeed. And you not knowing how far that is?” She gives a little bit of a crooked smile. “Come, then. ‘Tis my mother you want, Kallian, but you’ll speak for the peacefulness of your companions and I’ll hold you to it.”

I look sidelong at them and nod shortly. “And you’ll speak for not turning them into partridge.”

Her laugh is a dark and husky thing. “I will. Don’t you be lallygagging, now. I’ve little patience for heavy feet.” And her eyes open very wide and her skin seems to shift and bloat darkly for a moment, and then there’s a great dark owl perched where she’d had her hands on the wall. It turns and glides silently to a tree a little way onward, and it hoots impatiently when there’s a moment where we don’t follow it.

*

It’s really not very far to the hut in the woods, but the tree cover thickens and the light gets dimmer pretty sharply as we follow the owl. The shems have at least put their weapons away, but they’re together in this sort of knot. I’ve got the feeling that the supposed training master would prefer to handle this sort of thing by hiding behind his betters; the knight is muttering under his breath, and I’m catching the continual repetition of phrases from the Chant of Light; and the woodsman jumps at every shadow. At least it stops them flapping their mouths. Meanwhile – yes, it’s not pleasant for me either, but I’m not exactly unused to the art of showing no weakness. Guess that puts me ahead.

We’re being brought in from upwind so as to give warning, I notice. The hut itself is round, with a door I’d be ducking to get my head through, and by the time we get there there’s an old woman standing out in front, just finishing with something or other about the herb garden. The owl flies in through the door without really stopping, prompting the old lady to let out a long-suffering snort as she turns to greet us. She’s tall, topping me by more than a foot, and her simple homespun kirtle hasn’t a spot of dirt on it for all she’s just been working her garden. Her hair’s black and long and limply straight, and despite the mind’s image of witches as ugly things, she’s the kind who’d have been hailed a beauty in her youth.

“Why, hello, my daughter,” she says as we approach, “and who are these travellers you’ve brought to my door? Oh, not just wandering travellers, mother dear, they’re Wardens, grey-men from the north with bright steel at their hip, come to pay you kindness as man ought.” A little glance at the door of the hut. “Well, then, Morrigan, that’s all right, no intrusion, and won’t you introduce them to me? Well, of course I will, mother dear.” She gestures to each of us in turn with a graceful hand. “This here is Alistair Cliffe, and here Kallian Dener, Daveth of Mistridge and the one with the biggest sword is called Ser Jory by those who want to be polite.” She makes a little bob of a curtsey. “And this is my mother, who will tell you her own name when she’s good and ready unless you’d like to name her first.”

If I let Alistair take the lead, there’s no telling what would happen – I bow my head to the old witch just as I’d done to the young one. “A name’s a funny thing, but I’ve always thought that the best name’s the one you give yourself, being in the best place to tell and all. But you’re correct as to mine, mistress.”

Her eyebrows shoot up. “You hear that, daughter? Politeness in the young! It isn’t impossible at all. Although I suppose it’s not so much of a surprise on those lips. Anderan’atishaan, Kallian, and don’t be so hasty to wear your birthplace about your neck when it isn’t your home. A name’s like a chain on your ankle, I’ve always said, and I’ve a choice of several; they call me witch, they call me Flemeth, they call me asha’bellenar, they call me an old woman who talks to herself and makes not a whit of sense.” She chuckles.

I’ve heard the name Flemeth. In children’s tales. She’s one of the things that will come and get you if you step on the cracks, or if you don’t eat the skin on your taters – show no fear – “Mos yironnos, Flemeth. We come seeking a thing from the ruins of a tower that was once ours, a thing we’re told that you have, preserved from the ages against our return?”

“You know perfectly well it’s nothing of the sort.” Her eyes twinkle. “Flemeth of the Wilds, keeping safe lost texts against the future needs of a desperate world? Perish the thought, my girl. Everybody knows that I do nothing that’s not in my self-interest.”

Not your anything – Alistair butts in. “And I suppose it’s not ‘in your self-interest’ to aid the only people with a prayer of stopping the Blight that’s reached your very doorstep?”

“Hah! I’m standing on my doorstep, my boy, and I see none of the spawn from here. Only a nice polite young lady and a gaggle of striplings without the wit to look where they’re treading.”

He takes a step forward to stand by my side. “I know exactly where I’m treading, my lady, and witch or no, we are not leaving without what we came for.”

“Lady, you dub me?” She shows discoloured teeth. “I’m common born, boy. With neither wealth like Jory’s, there, nor pretenses like you have. And I’ve got precisely all day to play this sort of a game, and the next and all, and I tell you quite cheerfully that the seas will run out of their salt and the stars themselves will blow out before Flemeth of the Wilds will yield to the posturing of a silly boy with a sword.”

I give Alistair a sharp look. What is it with him and mages? “Mistress, we’re not here to antagonise you. Your daughter told us you had what we’re after, and we’re here to know what you’d ask of us for it.”

“And what if I ask more than you’re willing to give?”

“You’ve already decided to help, and now you’re poking at me to see if you can make me dance.” I smile, pleasant-like. “I’ll not.”

The tall woman draws her brows together and looks down at me. “Is that so?”

Not a blink. “Yes.”

She snorts. Keeps eye contact for a moment longer. Knows it discomfits me. But whatever she’s looking for, she finds it, because she looks away. “Have you dressed yet, daughter mine?”

Morrigan’s voice comes from inside the hut. “Yes, mother.”

“And you know what it is that I want from inside; hurry, now.” Flemeth smiles to herself. “We mustn’t keep our important guests waiting.”

And Morrigan ducks out of the door of the hut. The face is the same as before, and the dark unkempt hair alike, but now she’s wearing a short coarse brown rope-belted tunic and nothing else, not even shoes. She’s carrying over her shoulder a leather satchel like the royal messengers would use, complete with coat-of-arms. “Yes, mother.” And while her tone of voice suggests that the old witch’s demands are tiresome and dull, yet she’s scrambling to obey quickly enough and she keeps her eyes down.

Flemeth takes the satchel and holds it up by the shoulder strap, meets my eyes and then turns to Alistair. “You were told to take these to your commander?” He nods. “Then he’s a fool; he should have left them with me, but he’ll learn that the hard way as always. Tell him you don’t know what you have in your hands. I had neither right nor duty to take ’em, did it anyway. And if I hadn’t, you’d be completely buggered, and so a little further down the line would we all be.”

He nods slowly, looking a little confused. “I’ll tell him. What do you want for them?”

“Ask the elf.” She chortles as she hands the satchel over and he takes it as if it is every bit as precious as she’s saying. “Now I’m sure your commander has further errands for you all that are quite so overpoweringly important. Morrigan, manners?”

The younger witch clears her throat. Her voice is sing-song. “Thank you, strangers, for your company, and the joy that it brought to our dreary little lives. What a pity and a shame that you must be going, so soon, and I’ll be very pleased to offer you the hospitality of our hearth if you should ever be walking by in the future and find yourself with a surfeit of politeness to give in trade. Fare ye well.”

I’m… actually not quite sure what to say to that, beyond a slightly awkward ‘farewell’; her mother snorts. “No, dear. You led them into our place, they are your guests; pray lead them back to a place they know.” She smiles. “After all, we don’t want them walking in circles and scaring away all the game.”

“Oh.” Morrigan actually blushes slightly. “Of course. Please, travellers, follow me; and do be sure not to walk in any circles by accident?”

*

It’s funny, but it’s seemingly a much longer way back from the witch’s cottage than it was on the way there; it’s approaching evening by the time we’re back through the gates of Ostagar.

And whatever else the trip’s done for us, it’s broken the ice. The humans are somehow a bit less threatening now I’ve seen them scared, and I’m a bit less of an unknown quantity to them now they’ve heard me say more than ten words in a row.

Jory talks about his home a little, and it’s clear he thinks himself not much of a nobleman; he’s the third son of the reeve of Amaranthine, a birthright that just about stretches to the right to bear arms, and if he hadn’t won the right to join the Wardens he’d be looking at life as a landless knight-errant, a glorified mercenary too proud to take employ and too poor to afford to live at court, wandering from banner to banner staying with distant relations and making a living off tournament ransoms.

And Daveth talks of Mistridge and living as a woodsman, not too bad when times are good, but the world don’t owe you and yours a living, and sometimes there’s a time that’s not other than thin and the deer of the bann’s chase are just a little too fat. And he’d the choice of the Wardens or the gallows, and he knew the Chantry would look after a Warden’s widow but not a poacher’s and that was mostly that.

Alistair doesn’t need to say he doesn’t have a father, not with a town’s name for a surname, but he talks instead about the life of a Warden – that in Ferelden it’s not far off a knight-errant, really, beyond that there’s a cause and a uniform and the Order looks after the material things, or is supposed to. That it doesn’t matter who you were, not a knight or a commoner or a priest, not anything, every Warden starts at the bottom and there’s no allowance for rank. The Commander stands his turn on watch just like the lowliest junior, and should a king or an emperor go to stay with the Wardens at the fortress of Weisshaupt in the Anderfels to the unimaginably far west past Orlais, he’d get the same cold cell and hard bed as any other. And he looks at me as he says it, and I wonder if he’s thinking what I’m thinking, that I’ll believe it when I see it. And he asks me what Flemeth meant, that I knew what the price was that we paid for the satchel of ancient documents – and I tell him I’m fairly sure that it was the chance for her to stand there and rant at us.

And I could talk about the fine words of the humans and how the difference between words and reality is the reason my kind stick together so hard, but I don’t. And I could talk about me and my da, my uncle and aunt and my three cousins in an alienage hovel barely the size of Flemeth’s hut, and how I was eight years old before I learned that bread was supposed to bend, but they wouldn’t understand that I’m not after sympathy. Instead I tell them of the vhenadahl, the tree of the Alienage, and of the hahren who tends it and the way we keep the stories of Arlathan living by speaking them, the way we sing songs older than the humans’ very language even if nobody knows what they mean any longer, and I tell them of the hidden little meanings and treasures that you’d never see to walk through an alienage, not if it wasn’t a – May dance – I clear my throat. A new subject – how was it that Alistair could keep up with me, running downhill like that and in armour and all? Duncan was that fast, and all – I’ve seen my share of humans moving like their lives depended on it, and sometimes they did, and those two were the only people I’ve ever seen could hold a candle to an elvhen.

And he only looks at each of us like there’s something that he’s not saying, a secret too big to get out his mouth, and he says we’ll see soon enough.

Back in camp, and the precious satchel goes straight into Duncan’s hands, and after the evening meal we’re each of us seen by Duncan and told we’re to stay around the common area where he can find us. I suppose all of the orders have something like this, something where you die symbolically and come back as one of them, and the Wardens just take it over seriously – the two men talk to the human quartermaster (Peony is fetched, wearing a smart grey cote-hardie, to do for me) about making sure that we know that our old life is done and anything we own will go to our heirs or the Order on our joining. And then to ceremonially bathe and attire in fresh uniform – again, I’m attended by my distant cousin, and they’ve found me a fine grey tunic and breeches like a man’s, but they fit – and there’s a revered mother to hear our confession and we’ve the use of the keep’s makeshift open-air chantry for prayer before the ceremony, while curious soldiers are kept well back. And there’s this terrible sadness on all their faces, like it’s not that they’re putting it on, but we’re actually going to die, and the relentless grimness gets to you, and I don’t mind admitting that at least a little of the prayer I’m offering for Andraste’s intercession is that I survive this night at all.

*

Alistair comes for us at five to midnight and for each of us he lays out our arms, and he’s supposed to help us buckle them on, but there’s this moment where he picks up my long blade by the baldric and I by the hilt, and he decides I can strap on my own damn weapons. I pull the belts tight. They feel better without the jerkin and gambeson. I don’t like armour.

And it’s out onto the heath we go, to an old stone table they found for it, and thirty-eight of them with us, grim in their uniforms and their grey cloaks, every second man bearing a torch, and my mouth is dry and I’m no worse than the other two. Duncan is already there, at the table, and with a little start I make out two unfamiliar blue-cloaked humans, a man and a woman, and each of them with a templar as their menacing armoured shadow. And they bow to Duncan, as deep as can be, and together with their templars the mages withdraw, and the other Wardens close their circle around us and Alistair steps forward beside us.

“Who are these?” This is the loudest sound I’ve ever heard Duncan utter, and it’s just barely enough to carry to the Wardens in the circle.

Alistair’s voice is loud and clear. “Reinforcements, Commander. From Denerim and Amaranthine and Lothering.”

“Do they understand? Do they understand what it is they do?” The Warden-Commander’s voice is harsh and bleak, quite unlike his usual kindly tones.

Alistair shakes his head. His voice is weaker, sadder. “No, sir. No, they don’t. But they come to our aid regardless.”

“Do they come of their own free will?”

“Ask them.” He steps away from us, goes to join Duncan at the table. I see there’s a rune-engraved pewter chalice upon it, with a little brass cover.

Duncan turns his gaze upon us. “Daveth of Mistridge.”

“Me, sir.” Daveth speaks evenly, but not loudly.

“You do not know what it is we do. But you truly wish to join us? You wish to stop the Blight, though it mean your life?”

“Aye. I do.”

“So be it. Jory of Wright’s Heath. You must know by now that the tales of glory are dust and ashes. But you truly wish to join us? You wish to stop the Blight, though it mean your life?”

The giant nods firmly. “I can think of no greater honour than to die to save Thedas.”

“So be it.” Something about that answer displeased Duncan greatly, but he continues. Meeting his dark implacable eyes is almost a physical shock, and I cannot help but shiver just the once, but I will not look away. “Kallian Dener. You are a conscript, a criminal taken from the gallows to meet your fate in our company. Yet though bound by the law of my people, yet I say it need not hold you: do you truly wish to join us? You wish to stop the Blight, though it mean your life?”

I make myself speak. It’s not quite a human sound I make, half of a hiss. But I realise that I mean it. “Yes.”

He holds my eyes for a good moment longer before he speaks. “So be it. As the eldest, I call the youngest among us to speak the words.”

And Alistair clears his throat and speaks, not loudly but clearly. “In the last year of the first Blight, in the Ancient Age, thirteen warriors gathered in the cold of the Anderfels. And as the strength of the foe waxed greater, so the strength of Thedas waned ever smaller, and in desperation it was to the very blood of the foe that they turned.” As he speaks, Duncan turns to the table and takes up the chalice, uncovering it with exaggerated care, and the smell from within it is enough to run ice in my bones. “And as one they drank, and with lyrium it was turned to their will, and as one they remade themselves in a new image. An image of strength. An image of vigilance. An image to strike down the ancient foe. And I speak to you now the words that they spoke, then. That have been spoken each time we have done this, an unbroken line since the first.” He looks over each of us, and then to the sky.

“Join us, sister, brothers.” The torchlight flickers on his honest features. “Join us in the shadows, where we stand vigilant.” He swallows. “Join us, as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn.” He looks at each of us, as if trying to impress each of our features into his memory. “Should you fall – know that your sacrifice will be remembered. And know that one day – we shall join you.”

“Daveth.” Duncan steps smoothly forward and offers the chalice with both hands around the base. The woodsman takes it, catches a noseful of the mist rising from it and winces. He clenches his jaw a moment. And then takes a draught from the chalice and hands it back.

The effect is immediate. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath in – and then gags, a wheeze of a breath out turning into a sudden desperate retch as his body tries to reject the foreign substance. His eyes come open, wide, staring – and there is neither iris nor pupil to his eye. Just flat, white, light. He tries to take another breath in, choking, a hand to his neck, falling to one knee –

But by the time Alistair is at his side, the little man has curled in about himself and his chest has ceased to rise and fall. A trickle of blood, from the corner of his mouth. And a whisper runs around the circle of cloaked Wardens, the verse of mourning from the Chant of Light, and I recognise the words for a soldier fallen in battle.

A moment’s silence, then Duncan turns to the big knight; his voice is gentle. “Jory.”

He isn’t even looking at Duncan. He can’t take his eyes off the dead man.

Duncan repeats his name and he looks around at him, and I can see white all the way around his eyes. “You can’t expect me… I mean… this is madness!”

“Your word is gone from you. You said, Jory, that to die in the defence of Thedas is the greatest honour.”

“This isn’t the defence of anything! This is madness!” He looks wildly to one side and the other. He looks pleadingly at me and I let myself look down. “…n-no. No!” He takes a couple of steps back, puts a hand to the hilt of his longsword. “You madmen will not have me!”

It all happens so very fast.

As Jory’s two-handed blade sweeps from its oiled scabbard in a blur, Duncan hands the chalice off to a surprised Alistair and moves forward. The big knight’s weapon moves so quick it’s a mere blur, but the unarmoured Duncan puts his left forearm against the flat of the blade and simply lets the two-handed thrust slide past him, grasps the weapon at the ricasso just below the hilt and uses the leverage to drive his right knee into Jory’s gut in a blow that would have downed almost any man. But Jory isn’t just any man. He clenches his jaw and the sound of their foreheads meeting is a flat solid crack, and as Duncan rebounds the knight brings his long blade across between them point down, sweeping his left hand out onto the blade, using the leverage to drive its point viciously at the Warden’s groin at the half-sword. And that would have been that, if Duncan had been a normal man.

But with the furrowed brow of regret and sorrow, Duncan leans forward and the muscles of his chest and arm stand out like iron bands, and the hilt of the longsword is torn from Jory’s hand and the crosspiece is driven into the man’s throat with such force that it emerges from the back of his neck. And he catches Jory as he crumples, and closes the man’s staring eyes as he lowers him to the floor with incongruous gentleness.

And there’s a moment’s silence, and his head’s bowed, eyes downcast, as he recovers the chalice from the shaken Alistair. “Kallian.”

I don’t look at the dead humans. I step forward, put my hands on the chalice. It’s like a bowl in my hands. I put it to my lips and lift it and before I can think better of it or my screaming instincts can stop me I tilt it back and drain the whole thing –

Maker! It goes to my head like brandy. It wants me to sink into it and let it carry me. But I remember what it is. It’s evil. It’s foul, it’s a curse. The Chant of Light says that the evil of man burst through to the Maker’s city and stained it jet black with foulness, and that foulness was vomited forth onto our world and became the darkspawn, to punish us for allowing that sin. And I just drew into me a link in the chain that binds the world, that same chain that bound the soul of that dead shem who started all of this for me, that same foul black rusted bloodied chain that drags down every single human everywhere into thinking there’s anything that’s right with the way things are. It’s all one, you see. It’s all – one –

It sees me. Sheer terror freezes my heart. It sees me and I can’t hide and it’s like the fear in a nightmare, a nightmare that I’ve taken inside me, and I’ll never sleep well again –

I suppose I must have breathed, in and out and in again, at some point. There’s the echo of a scream that must only have been mine. I’ve been fighting this evil long before tonight. I’ve been fighting this evil ever since I found a shem boy wanting my cousin’s purse off her aged nine, and had it back and his and all. There’s only the one darkness to this world, you bastards. And it’s not that it’s got me. My eyes are open but I can’t see. My mouth opens in a smile but it’s not pleasant; I laugh, but not for joy. You don’t have me.

I’ve got you.

The ends of my fingers hurt, and the side of my face, and my left arm’s twisted under me and my back is arched like a bowstave and my right hand is sunk into the ground like a claw and my face is twisted into an animal snarl or a silent scream and driven against the ground and my eyes are open wide and they’re afraid to touch me. I cough and I spit onto the ground that’s right there and it’s red, and that’s because I bit my tongue.

I hear a sound that’s someone’s voice and it’s supposed to mean something to me. After a moment I hear it again. Duncan. Duncan’s talking. He’s talking about me, or at least he’s making a sound that means me, he’s using my name, he’s – nnh.

I curl about myself, get a leg under me, get the world the right way up. Vision’s coming back, and I can breathe now, properly, and without anyone’s help I’m standing my feet, and it’s then that I realise that Duncan’s said my name a third time and he might be worried or something and I suppose I should open my mouth.

My voice is hoarse, bruised. “I’m all right.” I look at him, at Alistair standing next to him looking a little worried, at the Wardens – I mean, at the other Wardens – in a circle around us, and at an impulse I bow my head to him, low, properly. “Commander.”

He echoes the bow. “Welcome, Warden Kallian, sister in arms. You are one of us, now.”

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Four

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*

This month it’s the king’s pleasure to be awake and working before reveille, so that the nobles can be back to their regiments and giving orders as they assemble; this means it’s everyone else’s pleasure as well. About the only man who seems to be perfectly awake and sharp at this time is the Warden-Commander – unnatural for a fellow to be alert before the sun rises, but the teyrn of Gwaren supposes it’s just as unnatural as everything else about the funny little man.

Not that Loghain mac Tir could be said to be a follower of fashion. Giving the king what he wants to see is simple politics and good sense, and the fahion to wear one’s battle-plate everywhere is a handy protection against unfortunate mishap, but there’s just something about the way that Duncan does it that makes very clear that he just happens to be in the same place as the Privy Council, rather than a member.

Also, the infuriating man insists on arguing good sense, which right now is more inconvenience than usefulness.

“Your Majesty, I understand the thrust of your argument, but the premise is more at home in a tale than a council of war.” Duncan firmly removes the markers representing the Grey Wardens and the king’s household guard from their position in the middle of the field before the gates of Ostagar; he places himself atop the gates and hands Cailen’s marker to him. “An unexpected sally from the gates of a castle that is besieged can be good tactics in a war with a conventional foe, as we all know, but to open our front door half an hour into an enemy assault and put your own person in the middle of the battle would be little more than an elaborate and messy method of surrender.”

The king frowns. “But I am extremely distinctive, Duncan, and you and your men look just like my rank and file from a distance. Surely the archdemon would look upon our spearhead and see me exposed, and take the opportunity to swoop down upon us and try for a quick end to the war?”

The sheer depth of misunderstanding… Loghain winces inwardly. If the last few weeks have convinced him of anything about his son-in-law, it’s that the father’s patient instruction went in one ear, through the space in the middle occupied by honour and chivalry without actually intersecting with anything phsyical, and out of the other largely unscathed. But even so, perhaps this needs just the smallest little push – “Your strategy is brave, sire,” he rumbles, “and bold. And certainly the idea that the Grey Wardens should serve as a comparatively unobtrusive addition to your own household guard is well enough. But -”

“But,” seizes Cailen, “we can turn this about! Fine, let the Wardens hold the gate – the best place for the archdemon to send itself tactically would be there at the head of its force. But rather than having them guard me, it would be surely an even better lure if I were ‘guarding’ them?”

It’s easy enough to feign sudden comprehension and object on spurious grounds. The Warden-Commander, to his credit, seems to understand the art of the possible; he doesn’t bother fighting it, passes on from this just as quickly as he can, as the tactical irrelevance that it pretty much is. After all, gold armour or no, the darkspawn are hardly disciplined enough to be able to redeploy to cut out targets of opportunity, and that’s even assuming that the king matters one whit either to them or the war. And his shrewd eyes on Loghain are surely thinking only that perhaps the father-in-law would be a better catspaw than the king – too late, my foreign friend. Too late.

The plan itself is not vastly different from that originally suggested by Duncan, and relies on that very fact. The darkspawn army is large but ill-disciplined, the Warden scouts reporting a count of a little more than eleven thousand in this horde – far too large to bring to battle in open field, and especially given the royal army’s probable lack of superiority in magic. The spawn do not invest and besiege when they encounter fortifications, or so the histories say, but instead they assault with complete disregard for their losses. Combine these, and the walls of Ostagar become the perfect trap – a target that cannot be ignored, that will hold a vastly disproportionate number of them in place, and the foe’s lack of discipline and good command makes it nearly impossible to pull out of a bad situation. So quite simply, the walls are an anvil against which to crush the foe. With the Wardens saying that there is no other large darkspawn force within a week’s march, a relatively simple flanking operation will lure the ‘spawn in; a third of the Bannorn levies, the king’s household guard and the Wardens (who he insists on referring to as a separate unit, despite there being only forty of them) hold them in place, and the cream of the Fereldan army, the other four thousand including nearly a thousand horse under the teyrn of Gwaren and the arl of Amaranthine, will be the hammer.

It’s not clear whether or not Duncan relishes being stuck in the anvil until relieved – he seems to meet it with the same calm fatalism with which he meets everything else – but he does bang on rather about the correct procedure to be followed upon encountering the enemy general, this ‘archdemon’ thing. Apparently he’s convinced that only he can kill it. Makes them promise not to try. Well, he’s welcome to it.

The signal to drop the hammer will be the ancient beacon of the southern tower of Ostagar. The mages’ representative tries to make the case that her people would be best placed to make any kind of signal, given that they can do it with a gesture and a word – a potential threat, of course, for they would not even need to stand on the tower to give a signal so unambiguous that every man in the army would see it – but it is simple enough to plant the seed of doubt with a seemingly innocent question to her templar as to a mage’s likely stability of mind in the event of a battle.

Thus reminded and mistrustful, no commander alive would entrust the pivotal task of the entire strategy to magic. The king nods in an attempt at sagacity and says that the mages are best placed helping to bring the hammer down – well done, Cailen, you can take a hint. And then a viable alternative could be provided – what about the young Warden with whom the king was so taken? Surely such a pivotal task could be assigned to the army’s most trustworthy?

Unexpected for Duncan to agree so strongly, and say that such a responsible duty would be a perfect fit for his two youngest – but still incorruptible and somehow supremely competent – Wardens. Under… other circumstances, that sort of thing would bear further investigation.

As it is, it hardly seems worth the expense, really.

What is it that they say? The die is cast? Not yet, perhaps. But the die is most definitely loaded.

*

“No.” Alistair plants his feet solidly and the arrogant lift of his chin is something he must have learned from the noblemen among the – among us. “Commander, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I will not be-”

“Disobedient. No, you won’t.” Duncan’s voice doesn’t change in intonation. Doesn’t rightly need to. “The horde approaches; they will be here this afternoon, by nightfall at the latest. You will climb the southern tower and observe their progress, and if you should take the opportunity to enlighten your charge concerning the uses of the sixth sense, so much the better. The moment the darkspawn commit to their assault, you will light the beacon.”

“And then I’ll sit around with my thumb up my arse teaching my student the finer points of navel-gazing and the categorisation of bellybutton fluff, while my brothers and sisters-”

“Thank their stars that there’s someone in this benighted army who will do what they’re told without complicating matters.” Arguing with Duncan is a little like arguing with a thunderstorm or the tides. His will be done, and your choices are to bend with it or be borne along regardless.

“Aye, and you gave her a babysitter and all.” Alistair gives me the tiniest of glances. “And not one who was brought up to hear an order and give a nice quiet yes-milord rather than being specifically raised, trained and led to believe that when it comes to it what matters is that you do the right thing-”

I get there before the Commander, loud enough to cut over what he’s saying. “Oh,” I say, and he wasn’t expecting me to; he looks at me. “A cloud. It looks a little like a griffon. Isn’t that a thing. It must have distracted me.” And my voice suddenly grows sharp brittle edges. “Because I certainly didn’t hear that implication that somebody just made, not from the lips of some know-nothing shem who’d like to be preaching we’re all the same and none of us so proud.”

“See?” He looks from me to Duncan. “She doesn’t like it either. So you can-”

“She has a name,” I snap, “and a brain, which is more than some this morning. And ‘she’ is following orders. Not for reasons like someone might have been accused of while I weren’t paying attention. But because damn your eyes to the Fade but this is Commander Duncan as spoke, and if you say he’s ever done a thing to make you doubt him then I’ll call you a liar to your face, and don’t tell me you don’t owe him better than you’re giving.”

Alistair opens his mouth, and he shuts it again, and he looks at the commander and grits his teeth. “You’re living through this, sir. I can tell already.”

Duncan raises an eyebrow. “Nothing is sure. Except your pronouncement – because…?”

“Because next time, sir, my place is at your side. I’m not good. I’m amazing. You trained me yourself. You spoke highly of me, yourself. And I will not stand to be shielded and sidelined like this when the rest of us are in harm’s way, or what good was it my even surviving that Joining?”

A moment, and something passes between them that’s unspoken. History. And Duncan nods. “So be it. Now get the two of you armed, and get to the wall. Better to be bored waiting than the alternative.”

*

I’ve never had the opportunity to investigate it before, but apparently I don’t like heights. The tower is higher from the top than it is from the bottom, or rather, it certainly feels it when you get there. It’s a square thing, built by the Tevinters, but the floors inside are wooden, and every subsequent group to occupy the tower has ‘improved’ the insides until it’s a mishmash of ancient and petrified timbers. Three different entries at different levels, two of them once having been windows, no single staircase to go all the height, and no single purpose to the whole tower. It isn’t continuous with either the modern walls – Orlesian – or the keep; only the very upper levels are any use for a firing plarform, unless the fort is somehow being attacked down the royal highway: the lower levels descend into the rock of the fortress escarpment itself, and the whole thing is a bit inexplicable. Or so Alistair relates as we climb. About the best guess is that this is supposed to be a mages’ tower, or a last-ditch defensive point.

After quite a while he realises that he’s doing all the talking.

“You’re still mad at me.” He opens the door for me, mostly garnering me funny looks from the men – apparently this layer is a quartermaster’s today – clearly they’ve never seen such a strange creature as a heavily armed elf in a warrior’s attire. Like a sheep started walking on its hind legs and carrying a sword.

“It’s perfectly natural.” I reach the next door before him, and then stand there pointedly to make him open this one.

“I’m a Warden,” he growls, “and so are you. That’s supposed to-”

“Oh, not you as well.” More stairs.

“I’m sorry?”

I turn abruptly to face him on the landing, step inside his personal space, way too close, and he takes a step back and bashes against the wall with a clank. “Why’d you do that?”

“Now tell me with a straight face we’re the same.” I turn and start back up the stairs. “A thing doesn’t become so just because you say it.”

He colours. “You’re misrepresenting me.”

“But why’d I do it? Or why could I? Why d’you open doors for me and why are you watching my arse?”

“I’m not watching your arse!”

“Why not? Is there something wrong with it?”

He splutters. Point to me.

We come out of the stairwell and up into the top of the tower. Ten men in here checking arrows and crossbows. The view – I guess it’s something, if you can make yourself forget about the whole ‘down’ thing and the fact that nobody ever made an elf with wings. I round on Alistair. “But, now, you can’t complain. You can’t put it down to a flighty woman or the strange behaviour of an elf. We’re all Wardens, we’re all the same. So if we’re all the same, why does Duncan put us up here? And why don’t you look at him like you’re wondering whether he’d break in a strong wind?”

Misstep. He turns a superior gaze on me. “Two questions with the same answer, little one. Duncan is the Commander, and we? Are not.”

Oh, he’s just ingratiating himself like nobody’s business today. “Are you calling me short?”

“You are short.” He looks down on me. “But what I meant to say was far more tied-up with your lack of seniority, ‘little one’. Do you have no respect to show your teacher?”

“Earn it.” I kind of realise that the human men-at-arms are trying not to stare, though it’s none of mine if they do. “If we’re all the same.”

“I will, then. See if I don’t.” He pauses for a moment, sets his jaw. “I watched you fight, yesterday. In the forest.”

“And?”

“Your technique is terrible. You hold your sword like a mop, you watch the foeman’s point not his body and you move your feet like you’re dancing at a country fair. If you’d been fighting anything nearly as fast as you were, they’d have handed me your head on a plate.”

“And whose fault is that?” Yeah, the shems aren’t even bothering to pretend they’re not watching this, now.

“Doesn’t matter.” His tone of voice is that arbitrary arrogant bray I’m used to hearing from any shem who thinks he can get away with it. “What matters is that I’m on record as being your first teacher. And so your performance reflects on me. And if Duncan saw me holding a sword like that, I’d be climbing towers and lighting beacons rather than fighting battles for a whole week.” That meaningless smile of his again. “So we check the beacon’s ready to go, and then I saw a storeroom back that way that was mostly empty, and we’ve got hours, and I can feel the horde approaching, so it’s not like it can make us late. What say?”

And roughly speaking, that was the fateful decision – that was where it all started – but I’ll come to that.

*

Amazing thing, money. A silver penny’s the size of your thumbnail. Walk into a traveller’s inn anywhere on the old Tevinter highways and you’ll get a seat at the board for that penny, and anywhere in honest Ferelden it’d get you a roof over your head for the night and all. Talk to the king’s master of coin – well, talk to his wife, man’s an idiot – and you’ll hear a silver penny quoted as the value of a strong labourer’s broad shoulders for a day. Go to a sailors’ alehouse in Denerim and you’d barely get yourself a flagon of strong beer and a hunk of bread and dripping for that penny – then again, heh, the sailors aren’t exactly there for the provender.

But right here and now, fifty of those tiny scraps of metal buys a man’s eyes and ears, or more precisely the lack of them, and he didn’t ever see the man go past him and he didn’t ever hear him come back, and you know what? The best thing about these pennies is that you get them back again when the man’s safely sleeping the sleep of ages in what was once a coal-cellar. Thus laundered, a good little crow’s expenses go in his pocket, and what the teyrn of Amaranthine doesn’t know can’t hurt him.

There’s a draft here, now, blowing downwards through the postern gate, exactly as ordered. Another door, a little further in, is spiked a careful few inches open. If even a crow can catch the spoor of the fort’s inhabitants, surely the foe can do so. And now to climb.

The tower is badly designed. No quick way up or down, so you’d think it was built to be defended from assault, but the ground floor’s indefensible and the next one up’s pretty poor. What stairs there are, are wide and easy; the men of Ferelden are no bigger than men anywhere else, and you’d need two abreast to hold any of these doors, and not easily either. No surprise that the Fereldans haven’t even really made it ready.

But the employer, he had a real bee in his bonnet about one of the defenders in particular. ‘Tall man,’ the crow was told, ‘broad of shoulder, blond of hair, a little younger than the king, even. He’ll be at or near the top of the tower. Know him by his stone-grey surcoat. And don’t assume you can take him.’

Heh.

But he isn’t there, anyway, not at the top of the tower. Nobody looks twice at a crow, not one going up a ladder with something as innocuous as a bucket of water. And it’s quite hilariously simple, what the crow is there to do, and so it is trivially done.

And it’s on the way back down that the crow is drawn to an open door by the clash of steel.

And, well, would you credit it. Bright blades cross, turn and cross again, two of them, and while the swords could be brothers their wielders are a vastly mismatched pair. The man, well, the employer’s description didn’t give him the credit he was due: apparently somewhere in Ferelden breeds them handsome, strong jaw, noble brow, blond short hair, powerful build, a man to slay a room with a glance – or set it aflame. And he’s got more than a foot on his partner – a tiny slip of a thing, the grey surcoat seemingly miniature and endearing, the blade almost comically outsized in her hands. Too slight and small and surefooted for a boy, it must be a woman. But the way she moves! It’s poetry. A man could write forever and not be satisfied. To see her sparring, like this, you wouldn’t call her pretty or plain – you couldn’t see her to judge, for she is the storm while the big man stands at the eye.

Oh!

She isn’t just a short, slender human. She’s an elf. The first Fereldan elf the crow has ever spied acting anything like a real woman. And as she holds her head still a moment, as she spins like a dancer to bring the oversized blade around from one blurring clash to another, eyes serious and intent, she’s lovely.

The spell is broken as the man voids her blow with a blurring step back and catches her blade in the instant she’s off guard, a simple catch and twist in the direction she’s weak in and the sound of the blade clattering to the floor drowns out her frustrated swearword. A realisation – her technique, it’s actually not that good. The two of them are not sparring for true: they’re alternating high-low-left-right, from seconde to quarte and back, clearly working on her form. But the speed and grace – ah! –

The slight click as the door pushes to is masked by the clatter of blades. A little oil and the lock is a willing co-conspirator. The crow’s expression is for a moment just a little wistful: to be locked for even an hour in a room, alone, with either of those! But a crow’s labours, they are never at an end.

The guards do not pay the crow two looks. The horses are picketed over here, those that remain – for most have already gone, away with the flower of Fereldan nobility. It would be a child’s mistake to steal a horse – but a crow must travel somehow, and where better to hide one’s pony than among its cousins?

The trace is slipped; the saddle is light; it is not far to Lothering. Not as the crow flies.

*

The other problem with sparring with someone nearly as stubborn as I am is that neither of us knows the meaning of the word ‘stop’ – and I’ve learned something else important, which is that either everything I own got much lighter overnight or my endurance has improved as much as my strength. My tunic is sticking to my back with sweat by the time that Alistair finally calls a halt with a raised hand, but neither of us needs more than a moment to catch our breath.

“Do you hear that?” He tilts his head.

I do much the same. No – I hear nothing more than the sound of people, shems simultaneously both bored and worried. “Hear what?”

“I suppose it won’t have started yet, not if your appetite hasn’t improved. The horde. They’re in the trees out there. Thousands of them. And not even lunchtime.” His voice ripples very slightly with tension, more on the level of stage-fright than the fear of battle. “We should get up there. If we can’t help the fighting, at least we can give moral support.”

“I could learn to shoot. It’s not like we’ll have anything but time and arrows and targets.”

“We can’t exactly have the darkspawn run over and tell us how your shot fell, now, can we.” He snorts and walks over to the door.

Which won’t move. He pulls a little harder. Nothing. Puts his forehead against it for a moment and swears quietly. “Fearghus. Fearghus Cliffe, you irritating unreconstructed little sodomite.”

I frown. “Explain?”

“Warden Fearghus. I swear, the next time I see that little streak of diarrhoea I’m going to introduce him to the joys and possibilities of owning an extra orifice. Or maybe fit him out with a little something in black and blue. He was the youngest at my Joining, made sure I wouldn’t be wasting Warden Alejandro’s time after I survived, like I’m doing with you.” He grinds his teeth. “And he took up the long-lost-elder-brother thing long after it was funny – see, we’re both fatherless men from the same town, so clearly there’s a great warrior and lover out there with a girl in every port and two in Redcliffe, and he’d always back that with ‘and given my own endowment of talent, my lad, you’ve got it in you to be one hell of a swordsman’. And, well, it would be pretty much exactly his idea of the second most hilarious thing that ever there was to lock me in a storeroom with any technically eligible female he could convince.”

“Put me down as unconvinced, shall we.” I narrow my eyes. “Remind me again of the punishment for striking down a fellow Warden?”

He snorts. “There’s a grate in the floor, over there. Does it move?”

“What’s that, the mighty Grey Warden defeated by a mere storeroom door?” I give the little grate a disparaging glance. “Mortared in, and even if I could fit myself down it, I’d have to leave the armour and you wouldn’t have a prayer. Door opens inwards, right?”

“Right.” He kicks it with casual force and it shudders, but doesn’t give. “Iron-banded oak, and the hinges are proper. I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn my back.”

I blink. “What?”

“I’ll just turn my back and examine this wall over here while you display evidence of an unladylike upbringing.”

Shake my head. “Foul language and spitting in public isn’t likely to embarrass it open.”

He looks at me straight. “Warden Kallian Dener, are you telling me that you’re the only elvish kid who ever grew up unable to pick a lock?”

“Got any picks, have you, ser slanderer? Remember I came here in what I stood up in, and that out of Duncan’s pack. The only things truly mine in a mile’s circle of here are a blood-caked May frock and neveryoumind.”

“Unless you can pick a lock with your neveryoumind, I truly don’t mind -” he kicks the door again –

“Don’t do that, you bloody great animal, you’ll bend the lock bar. And then we’ll really be buggered.” I give the lock a look. “Well, I’ll tell you this for naught, you was wrong about who locked us in here.”

“Oh?” He has sense not to crowd.

“Unless your Fearghus is the type to oil a lock to stop it clicking.” I wrinkle my nose. “Linseed oil, too, none of your pig’s grease. Any idea -?” I stop talking, and I do that because the blood has drained from Alistair’s face entire. “What?”

He swallows convulsively. “W-what would you need to get that door open in a hurry?”

“One straight pin and one bent one, crochet hook’s good. I can use a bodkin for the straight pin.” And there’s one in my right hand.

He blinks. “How many knives do you have? Exactly?”

“More than you can see, but none with a hook point on them.” I poke the lock experimentally. “Three pins on this, and it’s oiled and all. Child could do it. Anything thin and long and even a bit curved would work.”

“Said the revered mother to the templar.” He casts about the room despondently. Inventory: three slightly sad and deflated sacks of oatmeal and a little cask of now-rancid butter. Not a fish-hook, not a pin or needle, not a piece of wire. “Shit.” The toecap of his boot strikes sparks from the wall and I flinch; he hears me move and turns, and his eyes kind of widen at the way I’m suddenly this coiled dangerous creature with a bright blade.

“Will you not?” I take a deep breath and turn back to the door. “I’m thinking, here -”

We both heard that. That was a scream. Not a scream of someone in terror. That was the high thin scream of someone who’s never going to make any other noise ever again.

“The bloody hellfire was that?”

Alistair grimaces. “The reason we need this door open? You know I said I could sense them?”

“And I noticed you’re keeping that to yourself as to where they are?”

“Because you’d work noticeably faster if I warned you that they were directly beneath us?”

“I’m not working at all without a -” Sudden idea. I turn and make for the cask of butter. “How many?”

“Uh. Approximately?” There are more noises from outside, more cries. Shouts. Someone ringing a bell. “Enough? Call it a round three dozen? And there’s something else with them.”

“Lovely.” I chop my dirk down sharply across the edge of the cask, like I’m whittling, but I’m going for something just thick enough to be stiff. The blade catches and I get something that’s thick enough, but maybe an inch long. “Bugger. Say – what d’you shave with?”

He blinks. “Sorry?”

“Shave, Alistair. I know you must do, either that or you’re even younger than you act. What do you use?”

“A straight razor?”

“Got it on you? Mind me hurting it?”

He shakes his head. “It’s in my tent. What do you need?”

I hold up the failed piece of wood I chipped off the edge of the cask. “This thick, three inch long, like.”

“Huh – stand back?”

I do as he asks. He takes aim with his sword. And now, if he was a true warrior from out of the tales, there would have been a shining arc of steel and he’d have cut me my splinter of wood. And, well, there’s a shining arc, and there’s splinters of wood, all right. Most of the tales aren’t quite so heavy on the foul rain of reeking rancid butter, though.

But I’ve got my splinter, and my bodkin, and I kneel down in front of the door. Eventually I get the damn thing aligned right. The splinter’s not really long or stiff enough for this and the dagger’s not just too thick but sharp as a chisel on the edge. One pin – two – thr- no. Again. One – two – no. I swear under my breath. The damn thing is covered in foul-smelling grease and now so are my fingers and it’s the wrong bloody shape. I wipe them.

“Hurry up, Kallian, you do not want to know how close those things are -”

“Would you like to come over here and do this?” One pin. Two – no. One. Two. Three – I engage the lock with my narrow-bladed bodkin dagger and twist – and the bloody splinter snaps. I spit a rude word at it in elvish and very nearly give the door a boot myself. Go back and get another splinter. At least there are some to choose from. Kneel down. One pin. Two. Three. Engage, lift, and begin very slowly and carefully to twist, the blade and the splinter of wood holding the tumbler in place – sudden feeling like somebody’s got their eye pressed to the far side of this keyhole –

Alistair yells a warning and I dive myself back from the door as something hits the door from the far side with sufficient punishing force to snap the lock and slam the door against the wall. I hardly see what it is – an impression of something human-sized and savage, bigger than the little ones I saw before – before Alistair has its throat out with a sweep of his blade. But you never get just one bloody thing, do you? A second starts trying to come into the room, and a third, and a fourth behind them, stuck in the door for a moment, and the moment is just long enough for me to get my long heavy blade into my left hand, and then they’re on us, or trying to be.

We’re forward side by side. Try to take me in close quarters, will ye? I’ve met humans worse than you, so-called monster. A dozen frantic heartbeats later and Alistair’s tale is three and mine’s two and we’re in the corridor. Shouting from the direction of upstairs – sanity and strategy be damned – we meet one another’s eyes and then we charge.

*

The gates of the fort of Ostagar are new, and to the experienced eye of Warden-Commander Duncan they don’t look right. The timber is barely seasoned, the craftsmanship – while not shoddy – at least somewhat hurried, and the massive bars that hold them shut don’t quite seem to sit easy in their grooves. The Tevinters didn’t believe in murder-holes and machicolations, meaning that it’s easier to attack the gate and harder to defend it, but the last couple of weeks the army’s engineers have been doing their best with wooden hoardings. Even so, the Fereldans’ best efforts are dwarfed by the vast scale of the walls of the ancient fortification.

A bit like the defenders, really. There’s less than a quarter of the army here, and while they’re well stocked for a defence of these walls, it’s very few of them have ever fought a battle like this. Conventional warfare just doesn’t include them, most people being far happier to invest a siege and rely on the comparatively cheap and dependable weapons of boredom and privation. In short, the whole plan relies upon a rapid and disciplined response from Loghain’s flanking force, because without them the fort will never stand.

While the king doesn’t have the sense to keep his mouth shut, at least he’s somewhere where this won’t matter. History will doubtless record that his speech atop the walls was an inspiring miracle of oratory; he certainly thinks it was. Feels a little hollow to cheer long-live-the-king as the horde break the trees.

Duncan looks to his brothers in arms and sees that all is as prepared as it can be – hmm. A breakaway from the darkspawn lines, doubtless seeking the fortress’ postern gate. He’d examined the thing himself, yesterday – the original stone door still in evidence, rune-hardened, tougher than the walls around it. They’ll be disappointed, but it won’t stop them trying.

He can feel the archdemon, out there, drawing the mind’s eye like a compass to a lodestone. He can’t see it – the texts say it should be physically distinctive, disagreeing as to how – but the largest thing in the horde that he can see in the trees is an ogre, a foe familiar to anyone who’s walked the Deep Roads.

Like a wave to the seashore they come, and the king’s raised arm brings down the first wave of missiles, of bolts from scorpions and ballistae, of arrows. Briefly and impiously Duncan wishes the revered mother hadn’t decreed that either all the mages went with the flank or none did – what he wouldn’t give for a few elementalists to wreak some havoc in the packed ranks, a couple of abjurers to stop them even getting to the gates.

Ah, well; if they look like they’d be useful now, just think what they’ll be like later. He’s not the best archer the Wardens have, but he’s far from the worst; the longbow sings. Thirty-eight archers isn’t a great deal, but when they know what they’re shooting for it isn’t bad; the archdemon’s will may direct them broadly, but it’s more like an excess of fighting spirit than a hive-mind. They rely on tactical commanders and relays like anyone else, and the Wardens are shooting for the nerves, the eyes and ears, the chains of communication of the horde. When the cavalry arrives, ideally the only darkspawn to know they are there will be the ones about to die.

The horde have roughly woven ropes and rusting chains with them, and uprooted trees for makeshift ladders, but it’s largely to give them something to do; the fortress escarpment makes the walls vastly tall from this direction, nearly higher than a spawn with a grapnel can throw. The main thrust of the offensive is a great ram, a thing they must have brought with them from the deep roads, a great hunk of solid metal borne by four massive horned ogres. The rain of arrows does barely a thing to their thick hide, but the scalding water and boiling oil they have over the gates are more than effective; maddened by pain they can’t shrug off or bat away, the ogres tear frenzied at their handlers and one another until they have to be put down by their own side –

It was a distraction.

Duncan sees it too late, leans out at an incautious angle to loose an arrow almost directly down at the little darkspawn in the black cloak concealing itself against a corner of the gate, but by the time the humming bowstring sends the arrow flashing to pierce the emissary’s black heart the magic is already worked.

And there’s a sudden overpowering smell of mushrooms and soil and a spiderweb of little black and brown cracks spreads from the corner of the door, not up over the wood, just over the great stone hinges, and a roar from the horde, and driven by the suddenly focused will of the archdemon the darkspawn surge forward to literally throw their weight against the doors.

“What are they doing?” The king has to shout for Duncan to hear him.

The Warden-Commander frowns. He gestures to his men and a squad of them step back from their archery. “They’ve weakened the hinges. They’ll push the gate open now. They’ll be crushed, but there are always more of them.”

He nods. “So what do we do?”

“The walls are still very nearly impregnable.” Duncan nods to the second gate, to the space between the two that would once have been covered by a gatehouse. “The inner gate isn’t so strong, but they’ve got to come at it through that alley. We kill them there. We fill the gate with their dead. We stuff their mouths with death.”

“And if they breach the inner gate?”

“I seem to recall a young man of my acquaintance talking about heroism, earlier?” Duncan’s teeth are very white. “The Wardens hold the alley with cold steel until the engineers can put the gate back.” He glances up at the tower. “And we won’t need to do it for long. The signal will be going out very soon now. The darkspawn have committed, I can feel it.”

*

This tower, I can see what Alistair meant. Not really set up right. At least it’s working in our favour, now. The spawn work out what’s going on and try to give themselves a rearguard, but there aren’t real choke points and even the staircases are wide. He’s taken a shield from one of the dead spawn, a little misshapen thing but still effective. We go through them quickly, but really, not quickly enough. I can hear cries and the clash of weapons ahead of us – the last staircase is held by four of the larger darkspawn in a parody of shieldwall, and though Alistair and I deal with them quick as you like and mount the stairs together, we’re still too late. It’s in the middle of the tower room at a half-crouch, taller than a tall man, wide across the shoulders as my arms outspread, horned and massive and apelike, a predator, a killer, atavistic, savagery unrestrained. I feel Alistair falter at my side.

To me – eh. It’s too big, too savage, there’s no room for it to be scarier. Barely worse than facing a big shem unarmed. It looks at us – it sees us in a way it didn’t really see the human guards – and it bares its tusks and roars fit to rattle the tower.

I go left. No sense waiting for it to move. I dance in to flick a cut out at its hamstring and it slams a heavy fist out at me that I dive under with only the barest inch to spare. Alistair yells defiance at it, I guess he’s trying suddenly to steady his nerves, and goes right – his blade opens a thin red line on its back, but it ignores him entirely.

Well, sunshine, your breath stinks. No way am I landing a decent blow on the thing without closing, so I try and feed it a dummy, weave to my right and then move in left, drawing on the full measure of the strength and blurring speed that the darkspawn blood has lent me. And okay – looks a little bit like the damn thing has a brain. I weave, I step in, and it doesn’t try and match my speed, it’s just there with the back of its hand like it’s flicking a fly, and I hit the ground and roll to my feet and the wall hits me high in the ribs and sweet Maker is it a long way down from this window –

I suppose that I hurt, too – just give me a moment, here –

Alistair’s blade flashes in the light and the thing howls and rounds on him. What I should be doing at this point is going for its ankles – don’t care what you are, if you’re built like a humanoid the backs of your legs are vulnerable – but I waste precious time getting my breath. He leaps over its first swing like a jumping jack, sways backward from the second, but it’s trained reflex that has him catch the next blow on his shield.

Idiot. He’s spun nearly half around and hits the floor harder than I did – the ragged shout he lets out when he hits the floor tells me he’s got broken bones for his troubles, and the ogre leans over and reaches down to flip him over with an ungentle hand. Finally I get myself moving, although my head’s still spinning, yell something wordless at it and try and put my blade up and through its lungs with a two-handed thrust. The sword goes in about a foot and sticks, and the massive thing snarls as it turns, going for me with the same backhand that knocked me over last time. I drop the weapon and stick with leaping over the blow to avoid it, hand on the thing’s massive shoulder to steady myself, and I try and put the point of my bodkin in under its jaw. It takes a snap at me – I’m quick enough to put a cut in the roof of its mouth – then it tries to strike me with a knee and I get my foot onto it and use the impulse to spin me up and over its head. No way I’m good enough to cling on its back, but I stab the bodkin into something as I go past, leave it in, roll and come up with two more blades.

You’ll be a bloody pincushion by the time I’m done with you, you bastard, see if you won’t. I don’t make the mistake of going low again, I let it come for me – it’s trying to grab me by the arm – and I spin with it, opening a couple of long slices on its forearm, bloody, but nothing vital. I dance backwards out of its reach and it suddenly comes for me again in a rush, cornering way too fast, and there’s a wall behind me. I kick off, try to go over it again, but it tosses its head and the jerkin saves my guts being torn out by its twisted horns but something explodes in my right side as I land. “Alistair?”

“I thought you weren’t after my approval?” He’s hardly moved, focused on pulling his injured hand out of the ruin of the gauntlet and borrowed shield. “You’re doing fine!”

The ogre comes for me again and this time I dodge the right way, back into the middle of the room. I am faster than it is. Just not by as much as I’m used to. “Little hand, here?”

“You know what you are?” In a sudden movement he has his sword back in his good hand and he’s on his feet. “You’re funny.” The movement in its peripheral vision got the ogre’s attention. It goes to rush me, abruptly turns and makes straight for Alistair. He doesn’t try and get in the way this time, instead moving aside in a tightly controlled spin that whips the edge of his blade out and draws a long red line on the beast’s flank. “Maybe you should consider a career as a court jester.”

Enraged, it follows up its attack, but he continues to move, staying a few inches ahead of its claws each swing and flicking out continual probing attacks at the thing’s face. Not sustainable, because there’s absolutely no room for error, but it gives me the opening I need. Come here, you bastard.

I time my lunge to coincide with one of Alistair’s flicks for the eyes. My blades aren’t long enough to go for the ankles easy, so I go for the kidneys instead – it sways sideways as I dance forward, trying to put both Alistair and me in front of it, but as it does so Alistair lashes out with a booted foot and catches it in the side of the knee, it tangles its feet in one another for an instant and it goes down.

I’m behind it before it knows which way is up – as it rebounds to its knees it’s my height – and I go for it immediately, one dirk aiming for the neck on either side. It twists – but this only means that while one of the two points glances off the fused bone across its shoulderblades, the other one goes in the hollow of its neck. It gives a strangling roaring cry and hits me at the bottom of the ribcage with one massive elbow – the world goes white and there’s a terrible splintering crunch from my right side and I can suddenly taste blood as I try and stay on my feet and get away from the thing.

Sweet Andraste, it’s standing up. It’s standing up again, taking Alistair’s raining blows on its forearm, laying it open to the bone, but it’s standing. It’s got a broadsword stuck a foot in its side, a bodkin to the hilt in its back, it’s streaming blood in half a dozen places and it’s got my dirk all the way through its neck and it’s still moving. What does it take to kill this thing?

Alistair spins all the way around and brings his blade down from shoulder to hip with a hoarse animal cry and opens up a massive cut in the ogre, and it still snakes out a sucker-punch that he can’t quite avoid and catches him in the gut – he folds around its hand, the breath driven out of him – it overbalances – it falls on its face and the tip of my dirk comes out the back of its neck.

A moment’s silence. It’s dead. We killed it. My back is against the wall. I’m warm and sticky down my right-hand side and I can’t seem to catch my breath and I’m just shivering. Alistair’s on his knees on the floor, puts his good hand down, coughs several times, eventually wobbles to his feet. He seems to have forgotten his hand as he walks over to me and his eyes are very wide as he sees the blood on my lips.

His voice is hoarse. “Don’t you dare die on me, girl -” he coughs – “My student. Looks bad. Even had to give you a. Hand.” He tries to give his meaningless smile. “No battles for you. Bread and water for a week.”

I meet his eyes. Make a noise and it’s unintelligible. Try again. “Beacon?”

He looks out at the walls for a moment, narrows his eyes. “Yes. Right.” He turns, walking a little more steadily as he goes. “Make this mean something.” The beacon’s operated by pulling a lever; there’s a chain attached, goes to a bowl full of oil that lives above a brazier that’s kept just above the middle of the fuel. Pull the lever and the hot oil drops onto the hot coals and catches. Foolproof if the brazier’s hot, and we checked that earlier. He reaches out and there’s a clank and a rushing sound.

Then nothing.

He blinks. Walks to one of the windows, leans out, looks up. “I say, I say.” His voice is not at all humorous. “What do you get when you pour a bowl full of hot oil onto a brazier that some spineless goatbuggering arsehole has gone and put out?”

“Bloody shem. Stop whining. Torch.” I can’t breathe properly; I have to cough to clear my lungs. The pain is like a rusty saw. Tears to my eyes. “Downstairs there’s got to be a torch.” Breathing in hurts. “Ladder, there. You can take it up. Light it by. Hand. Go on.”

He looks at me a moment. “I’m not leaving you alone.”

I narrow my eyes. Stand up. When did I sit down? No matter. I stand up. I don’t even need to lean on anything. “‘Kay.”

“Not what I-” and suddenly the world isn’t pointing in the right direction – “crap!” He’s caught me, lowering me gently to the floor like I weighed nothing. His hands come away bloody. “Dammit. Look. Stay there, all right?” He stands up.

Don’t worry. I’m not going –

any-

*

The scout canters forward, the sweat-streaked flanks of his palfrey heaving, and Loghain guides his own mount to meet him. The teyrn’s voice is clipped. “Report.”

“Milord.” He clears his throat. “It’s all gone wrong, ser. The darkspawn are everywhere. Far more of ’em than we heard. I saw with my own eyes the gates fallen, and no signal on the tower.” Concerned muttering around the circle of the army’s commanders. “And the king, ser, the king.”

“What about my son-in-law, yeoman?” Loghain’s expression is at once clouded with deep concern.

“I saw him, ser, I saw him surrounded by them. On the battlements.” He blinks and looks down, clearly overcome. “And then he was a dead man, ser.”

“You mean, you saw him struck with an arrow?”

“No-no, ser.” He shakes his head. “But he was down nonetheless.”

The teyrn’s eyes darken and his brow furls. “You have excellent eyes, my good man. I charge you tell me. Who is the blackguard that struck down our king?”

The yeoman meets his liege-lord’s eyes. “I don’t know his name, ser. But I could pick him out of a crowd of a thousand. Swarthy, he was, Rivaini perhaps, shorter than you, ser, with a neat little salt-and-pepper beard?”

“I should have known,” Loghain growls to himself. “Duncan, you traitorous bastard, I’ll have you for that myself.” He sits up straighter in his saddle. “Well, signal or no, I’ll not wait an instant longer. There’s no way they can hold for long if the gates are down.” He raises his voice to a battlefield bawl. “Make ready!”

And a second scout bursts from the woods. Dried blood decorates a long shallow cut down the flank of his lathered mount. He’s panting as he rides up, and there’s dried blood down the side of his face. “My lord! My lord!”

Loghain wheels to look down at him. “Speak.” The man hesitates. “Quickly.”

“Ser, news from the pickets, milord.” He pants. “We’re attacked. Darkspawn. Overwhelmed. Don’t know numbers, ser, but it’s not a few.”

“Darkspawn?” Bann Veane scoffs. “There were no more within a week’s ride, yesterday.”

“You mean, in the same way the Grey Wardens were our allies, yesterday?” Loghain curls his lip. “I’ll trust no words of that pack of Orlesian stooges.” He sets his jaw, turning to his second-in-command and their subordinates. “But this changes nothing. Howe, you’ll have the left wing as we go in; much will depend on the speed and power of our initial assault. The infantry will -”

“Ser, we can’t.” Arl Howe’s voice is quick and urgent. “With the scouts reporting a second force to the south, we’re effectively pinned. If we move to support the King, we’re surrounded-”

“I’m not an idiot, Amaranthine.” Loghain looks out to the west, towards the tall beacon tower that’s the highest point for miles. “But what would you have me do? Our king-”

“Is dead, ser.” Howe leans forward, softly insistent. “Our duty is to the living, the four thousand lives we can save.”

The teyrn of Gwaren doesn’t answer for a moment, a muscle working in his jaw as he stares at the tower of Ostagar, at the pinnacle from which no flame yet rises, the very picture of a hard decision.

Then he shakes his head. “They will pay for this day, Howe.” He spits the words. “The chance to crush the Blight, and all they see is an opportunity to seize material power. I won’t stand for it, hear?”

“I’m right, ser.” Howe’s voice barely carries to the assembled officers, a hushed audience.

Loghain bares his teeth. “I know.” His voice is half a snarl. “May the Bride of the Maker forgive us.” One last look back to Ostagar. “Do it, Howe. I’ll take us north. Take your flank and see what can be saved of the supplies. We’ll regroup at Veyence.”

Their eyes meet, grieving, resolved, and Howe nods once. “It will be done, ser.”

The orders are relayed as the troops begin to move; Loghain and the heavy cavalry take the rearguard, alert for harassing pursuers. It will be a long march north.

And as they move out, a little lonely light flickers at the top of the southern tower of the fortress of Ostagar.

Clearly it must be on fire inside, or something. It’s well known to history that the Wardens failed to light the beacon.

*

The gate is long gone.

Three times since the darkspawn have taken the gateway, three times the wave has broken over the barricade that the Fereldans threw up in its place, and three times sharp bright steel has shown the darkspawn the difference between the king’s finest and Duncan’s Grey Wardens. The Wardens’ equipment is piecemeal and individual, the encompassing grey uniform tabard crucial to allow recognition between allies, as each man wears a different style of armour and carries a different weapon, a different size and style of shield. And they fight like men possessed – a blow with a simple footman’s mace lifting a human-sized darkspawn off its feet and hurling it four feet, a broadsword flickering out like a serpent’s tongue and taking the throat from a jeering spawn with a spear, the Wardens’ shieldwall holding fast where the solid oak of the gate had warped and twisted. And with them and behind them the king’s guard, their hearts buoyed by the presence of these warriors of legend, with pikes and halberds and long weapons to punish the lapping waves of the bestial foe for every time they dare to impact the shieldwall.

It’s a holding action. They can’t keep this up forever – blades chip and break, arms tire, shields break, men are wounded, and even Grey Wardens eventually tire – but they don’t need to. The beacon is lit. The cavalry are on the way. They are on their way. This is not forever. But oh, for one mage, one single solitary wizard to put a symbol of fear on the outer gate and raise a wall of stone on the inner one –

A devastating piledriver of a shock in the press of warriors, like a battering ram against a gate, and the shieldwall wavers. The creature that tries to push through is an ogre, a massive horned thing nine feet in height, scarred, pincushioned, but the arrows and bolts have merely enraged it. Every Warden knows how you fight these things – you dance with them, you wear them out, you give them the death of a thousand cuts – but they don’t exactly have that luxury here. It takes their coordinated efforts no time at all to bring the beast down, kneecapped, hamstrung, its throat slit, but by the time it falls – the wall of grey shields is parted in the middle.

Duncan sees the danger and there’s nobody left to send but himself. Discarding his bow, he leaps from the wall directly into the press, blades already coming free in a deadly silver arc, and he doesn’t slow down for an instant as he works to slay the things faster than they can come at him. Without a shield he can’t hold them back by main force – but by the Maker, he can make them regret trying it on.

And a creditably short time later, there’s the shock of friendly warriors surging forward to take the strain before he’s overwhelmed – the man who steps up beside him is tall and broad, the runes on his armour burnished bright, the great lion-hilted two-handed blade light in his hands. King Cailean shows his teeth as he demonstrates that here, at least, is a field of endeavour for which he has a true genius. And what a knight he’d have made! Of course, the enchantment on his plate puts him head and shoulders above anyone who must carry the weight of their case on their shoulders rather than on their purse, but his swordsmanship and his strength are honestly won, and the experienced Duncan adapts immediately to fighting at the side of a warrior who knows what he’s doing with a blade that’s taller than some men.

And yes – all right. If you must. It is the stuff of which legends are made. The King of Ferelden and his Warden Commander, shoulder to shoulder against the darkness, holding the breach with sheer valour and strength of arms to take the burden of the battle onto their own broad backs.

But every tale has an end. And without the reinforcements, without the hammer to bring down upon the slavering horde still falling over each other to throw themselves against the Fereldans, there was only ever one way that this one was going to play out.

And there is no bard to see the fall of noble Cailean, and it is not recorded how mighty Duncan avenged him, or where he met the end of his strength, or where lies his corpse.

*

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Alternative Origins Chapter Five

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*

I come to, and I’m lying on something soft and –

I’m not wearing my armour –

The knife is not about my left calf –

I discover that moving hurts, that I’m in a dark smoky circular room on a litter of animal skins, that I smell food cooking, that my head swims when I sit upright and curl up small, that there’s a shem in here with me –

A woman, one I’ve seen before, tending a leather cauldron over the hearth in the middle. Her hair is short like mine, but hers looks like it’s meant to be. She’s wearing the same brown tunic I saw before, and she’s barefoot. I’d somehow imagined barbarians as being scrawny malnourished types wrought of rawhide and filthy brambles – this woman is well-fed, rosy-cheeked and not notably dirty. She huffs quietly in her throat like an animal as she notices I’m awake. This is the witch, the younger one who is sometimes a cat or a bird, what did she call herself-

“If you move yourself around too much and break your ribs again,” she says, “I am not sure of my mother’s continued forbearance.” White teeth in the gloom. “I am not sure myself why it remains. You’ve hardly been an easy guest.”

An instinct tells me to look for politeness rather than be seen as impolite by this strange creature. “Mos yironnos, Morrigan. The aid you clearly gave us, without it I’m not sure how we’d be alive.”

She blinks, taken slightly aback. “I suppose as you are… Do I say this right, that you are welcome?” Her eyes dart to either side. “You are, by the way. Welcome, that is. Here, I mean.”

“Thank you.” I pull my knees up in front of me. My ribs feel… bruised, but little more.

“You’re welcome. Again.” She frowns, confused. “I swear that we cannot possibly be doing this right. This is circular.”

“I find myself unarmed and without my equipment.” It’s warm in here, but I suppress a shiver. I hadn’t realised just how good those weapons had made me feel. I remind myself that I’m stronger, now, that a concealed weapon should be less of a necessity. I should investigate how strong. It would be nice to be stronger than a shem.

“Well, that was a nonsequitur.” She gives the little cauldron a stir. “It would have been difficult to put you back together without removing them.”

“Nothing wrong with my leg, human. I was using that knife.”

“Oh! But you have broken the rules.” She looks straight at me again and her eyes sparkle in the firelight and yes, eye contact with the bigger creature still makes my mouth go dry. “It isn’t polite to refer to someone as a descriptor, ‘woman’, ‘boy’, ‘elf’, ‘civilised’, ‘witch’. Are you doing that on purpose?”

“Depends.” I narrow my eyes. “Am I getting my knife back?”

“Depends.” She mirrors my expression exactly. “Are you giving your word you won’t cut anyone with it?”

“Depends.” I’m not looking away first. “Is anyone giving their word I won’t need to?”

She doesn’t blink. The pupils of her eyes are still vertical slits. “So it’s not just me.” A tiny shadow of a smile. “This is why we have a thing called ‘society’. You don’t need a whole forest of bilateral agreements, you just need a society. It’s like having everyone’s word of honour. And by obviously playing by a couple of these rules, right in front of you where you can see, I signal to you that I am a member of this society, and invite you to do the same, and then we can relax in one another’s presence even though we’re mutually very dangerous, because there’s a pre-existing and implicit framework of agreements that we both subscribe to.”

“I’m sorry, I think you need to translate that out of ‘wizard’ for me.”

“I was under the impression that I was speaking the tongue of civilised people – one you clearly grew up with, or at least near.” She snorts. Breaks eye contact, probably not even aware she’d been holding it. “Nevertheless. Acknowledge you’re my mother’s guest and you’ll act it, and I will fetch you the thing you want.”

“Fine.” I pull my knees a little tighter against me. “I’m no trouble to them who don’t trouble me.”

Superior expression on her face as she walks over from the hearth to an anonymous pile which turns out to be a fur rug thrown over a wooden trunk. “Those. Dative case. To those who; to them that.” Okay, so that’s one question answered – the shems aren’t taught to be patronising, it’s inborn, even the ones who grew up in the wilderness have it. She pulls the sheathed dagger out of the trunk and tosses it to me across the hut with the same casual accuracy with which I catch it.

A voice from outside. “Morrigan, dear, don’t throw things, it’s uncouth.”

“Yes, mother.” Her gesture to me as she speaks is an apology between young people that transcends boundaries of race and culture and creed in the shared and monumental irritation of having parents. Then she tilts her head as I strap the dagger on and makes a curious noise. “Why is it that you do that?”

“Do what?” I pull the second strap tight and buckle it. Maker, that feels better.

“That. The first weapon you went for when you woke, the thing you can’t breathe easy without, and it won’t even be in reach of your hand when you stand up.”

“Will, too.” I stand up to try and demonstrate, and I have to put a hand almost immediately on the wall to steady me. Nnh. Stupid headache.

She’s definitely making an effort to keep concern out of her eyes, but at least she doesn’t try and touch me. “You might not want to run around just yet – you looked the best part of dead when we brought you in here. As a hint for next time, I’d recommend beating a retreat before there are sounds from inside you as of snapping twigs and breaking ice.”

“I’ll be sure and tell the ogres.” The fog in my head is clearing and it was concealing a – battlefield – “Nnh. Hells. The battle! The beacon -”

Morrigan frowns. “Your well-being is my concern. Everything that can be done is being done, and you will surely harm yourself if you continue so agitated. There will be food for you, soon, and as our guest you can discuss such things over dinner as is customary.” Her smile looks a little like she saw a drawing of one once and practiced in a mirror until she got it right, and a lot like she’s regretting not being able to look something up in the index with me watching.

I ignore the craziness and focus on the real. “Why am I here?”

“Questions, questions.” She sniffs. “One for one. Why is the blade you wear about your lower leg the one in which you are most interested?”

Irritation. “Old habit. Easier to draw when kneeling or crouching down, harder to see. Why am I here?”

“It’s my mother’s to tell – roughly, because of what you are. What is that, exactly?”

“Kallian Dener. An elf. A woman?” I blink. “A Warden, is what you mean, I suppose.”

A solemn nod. “No mere elf, nor many women, could have taken a blow that would have split an oak-tree and lived – healing or no healing, Warden Kallian Dener, your endurance is… surprising.”

“So, uh. I was with a comrade when I went down -?”

“He lives; he is not far from here, I’d suppose. How old are you?”

“What kind of a question is that?”

“Answer me.”

Puzzlement at her insistence. “Seventeen winters.”

She arches her eyebrows. “A simple expression of curiosity to enable you to learn what you will; you’re the first of your kind I’ve met, and I must admit to being a little surprised that you’re a woman grown – in the stories I’d imagined you taller. What makes you wear a piece of brass on a string around your neck?”

Never you mind. “Idiocy, and if you touch it you aren’t getting your hand back. How goes the battle?”

“Well – if you happen to be a carrion crow. Your – hmm. Are you Fereldan?”

“Yes?” I am not scared, and I don’t know how I would sound if I were.

“Your countrymen made them pay in blood, full measure and running over, for every stone. But the darkspawn paid the butcher’s bill and tipped handsomely, and now they own some rocks.” She has the decency to look away. “I don’t know why they wanted them, or why the humans believed they stood so much of a chance against eleven times their number that they sent three-fourths of their warriors away.”

“No, that was part of the plan. They’re coming back. Alistair will have sent the signal – and -” I tail off. She’s shaking her head.

“That is not what that signal meant to those humans.” She pokes at the stew again. “They saw the signal, and marked it, and went north as if demons were on their tail. And the rest of them fell, and poorly – not that there is a good way to die.”

“But – the Wardens.” There’s something in my mind that won’t process it.

“If they live, Kallian, they are doing a very passable impression of noble corpses.” She gestures vaguely towards the chest she recovered my dagger from. “I retrieved their satchel for them.”

“You -” It’s all still failing to go in. It’s just kind of piling up against my ears. “You didn’t think of stopping to help?”

That makes her look around. “I could have sworn I did. Something about rescuing ungrateful elves from burning towers.”

“I did thank you.”

“And fulsome it was, for a thing to set against a life’s debt.” She nods.

“That your mother incurred.”

“Thank her, then.” She stirs the stew. “Without, ah, without running around or straining yourself, now -”

But I’m out of the door.

*

It’s sunset, or nearabouts. The hut is on the edge of a wide dark mere; I wonder that I didn’t notice that when I was last here. The old witch is standing with her back to me, tapping her foot as if in thought, and regarding the man sitting in a haphazard bundle of armour by the lakeshore and staring at nothing at all who I recognise as Alistair.

And ignoring her I go to him. It’s not much familiarity, but he and I have eaten together, trained together, fought together, if only for a day or two. And maybe I’m in need of any familiarity I can get right now. Head’s still spinning. I’m guessing I’m pale as a sheet. He’s got to have noticed my tread – I’ve got my boots on still, at least, and they still creak – but he doesn’t look up.

I crouch down, close enough to touch, make my voice soft. “Alistair?”

He turns, faster than I maybe expected. He’s been crying, his eyes red-rimmed, his cheeks wet. Looks like he doesn’t quite believe it. The crying, or the state of the world? Both. His voice… if I were the kind of person to go around having compassion for big men who can absolutely have their own damn compassion, it would hurt to hear that scared vulnerability in him. “You.” He takes a moment to get his tongue in order. “I saw you die. I saw the light go out in your eyes -”

“I couldn’t do that. Think of how it would look.” I try and make it sound like I’m making a joke. “You’d be on bread and water for the rest of eternity.”

“Yeah?” His eyes are flat, completely dull. “And who would enforce that, again? They’re dead, Kallian, they’re all dead. I saw, from the tower. The gate had fallen and the cavalry were nowhere to be fucking seen.” He swallows. “And I could see the rest of the order back to back in a courtyard full of hurlocks and dead men. There was a moment there I nearly flew myself down to join them.” And his voice breaks off in a squeak.

What the hell do I say to that? “You didn’t.”

He shakes his head. “I didn’t even get to the point of making a decision. They had come up the tower. I was looking out of the window when they came up. I – they’d have taken you away, Kallian, they – that wasn’t happening. Even if you were dead.”

“I wasn’t.”

“No.” He reaches out for me, moves towards me quickly. Sudden instinctive reaction, I don’t even think, I’m four feet away, on my feet, by the time he registers that I’m not there for him to grab.

But I guess I hadn’t expected him to burst into tears, either. Great going, Kallian, you made the big boy cry. Also there’s this whole thing where most of the blood in my head thinks I’m still sitting on my haunches next to Alistair, and so mostly what I’m seeing is big fuzzy dark patches full of stars fading in and out in my vision in time with a kneading headache. And I’m shaking, again, but like we’ve discussed my hands shake easy at the best of times.

And the old woman just stands there, looking – and she is old, even if she only looks old enough to be Alistair’s mother, there’s this timeless sense of it about her, just like there is about her round hut and the big old trees and the limpid quiet lake, like she’s been standing there forever and will be there forever more.

I suppose she’s wondering whether Alistair and I are going to start talking before or after she has to step in. And now that really would shame me. I move back towards him half a step, carefully staying far enough away to discourage physical contact, and I open my mouth when he doesn’t. “So.”

He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “So, what?”

“So we live on. What do we do now?”

“Just like that?” His voice cracks. “You really aren’t human, are you?”

“No, I’m a Warden.” I shrug. “Was you taught me that one.”

He shakes his head numbly. “There are no more Wardens. They’re all dead. The nearest Wardens are in Orlais, half a thousand miles away or more.”

“You can’t count, ser. Seems I can see more than that from here.” I’m trying for ‘gentle’ in my voice, I’m not sure it gets over. Our instincts for this sort of thing might be nearly the same. but while every elf learns to read human expressions and tones of voice easy, I’m not sure it’s so true the other way.

He shows his teeth and snorts. “What, you reckon we make one between us? The two who the others wouldn’t allow on a battlefield, enjoying ourselves so hard we didn’t notice when they locked the storeroom?” Out of the corner of my eye I notice the old witch’s eyes flick between him and me, more calculating than disapproving. Bloody humans and their bloody innuendoes.

“The ones who killed an ogre our own selves, and how many spawn and not a scratch from anything but the big bastard? Anyhow, this is just air. The sun will rise on a world tomorrow that’s got darkspawn to kill and names to avenge.”

“Not just darkspawn.” He picks up a stone and lobs it backhanded into the pool. “Archdemon. Any idiot can kill a hurlock. But there’s only one archdemon, and the Blight and the archdemon are one, and nobody but a Warden stands a chance.”

“That sounds like a plan. And Flemeth and her daughter have got my stuff still and you’re wearing yours and-”

“Two of us against a whole bloody horde?” He spits. “Kallian, speaking absolutely bluntly here? You’re well below the standard of skill we normally demand before we put anyone through the Joining, even, and you’re making up for it with a speed advantage that you just won’t have in a real fight. I’m a bastard of a lot better, but still below average. I’ve personally seen Duncan kill an ogre one-on-one without coming within a shadow of taking so much as a glancing blow. And they got him today. They dragged him down and buried him under corpses. Roughly speaking, girl, we have about as much chance now as we did when Flemeth rescued us from the top of that tower.”

I bare my teeth at the whole ‘girl’ thing – the old witch snorts and says nothing. Eventually I make myself answer. “The girl you’re talking to, Warden Alistair, killed eleven trained and well-equipped warriors two and three at a time, including humans raised from early childhood to wield the tools of a knight. She started with an eating knife, because that’s what was lying on the table at the f-festival they dragged her out of. She never did find armour, but they couldn’t tell by the end because she was blood from head to toe and not a drop hers. I’m not sure that this girl quite knows of the meaning of odds, and how it matters if they be against her.”

“You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve been saying, have you?”

My strength is returning with the spots of colour rising in my cheeks. It’s not fair. The world isn’t. It’s not right. Nothing ever has been. Doesn’t mean we’re going to sit there and take it. Maker’s sake, are we Wardens or are we not? What was the point of all those fine words if we give up now? I throw the words at him like a whip. “Do let me know when you stop talking ‘sit here and mourn’ as a battle plan, won’t you, so I can start.”

He turns to face me. “For my money, it beats ‘try and kill a bloody army our own selves’. What do you think? Should I ask a second opinion?”

The old woman has evidently decided that this has gone on long enough. “You could do.” Her voice is warm, but not exactly kind. “You could do just that. D’ye want me perhaps to suggest an even worse thing to do, so that you can join ranks against the menacing outsider? Or would you react better to an object lesson, some kind of bog-beast with thorns in its britches, to find brotherhood in battle? Or maybe someone taught either of you to read?”

I’ll take the bait. “Read, grandmother? I suppose you have something for us?”

“More than one thing. Morrigan, dear, the satchel if you please?”

The witch’s daughter ducks out of the hut like this had been choreographed and hands across the satchel we recovered yesterday; Flemeth opens it and begins to root through carefully.

Alistair’s eyes widen. “You – those are -”

And the look on Flemeth’s face is a little like the point of a knife. “Yours, Warden, if such you be.” She holds up a scroll; it looks brand-new. “The Accords of Ostagar, recovered from the ruins of the Grey Wardens’ camp at Ostagar by my daughter. The sixth copies: the ones to be preserved by the Wardens at Ostagar against loss. Nearly as valuable as your own neglected hides.”

“For the alley cat in the conversation?”

Flemeth waits for Alistair to speak, and when he doesn’t, she sighs slightly. “After the Fourth Blight, in the Exalted Age, some time around the thirtieth year, in the wake of the death of the Warden-Commander, it was decided that the failures of unity and organisation that had led to the ploughing under of an entire human nation in the Blight were insupportable and should be prevented from ever recurring. And all around the alliance of convenience that had seen the great empires of Thedas put aside their differences to fight the Blight, treaties were signed to keep the framework of the alliance in place against the rising of the Blight once more.” She nods to the scroll she’s holding. “In Ferelden – well, back then, of course, it wasn’t called Ferelden – the result was the Accords of Ostagar. And because of the difficulty of finding an authority to speak on behalf of the many scattered and divided human peoples in this area – and because the dwarves refused to trust to the future stability of the alliances between the human tribes of the Almarri – the Accords were divided upon grounds of ancestry rather than political tie. D’you want the text?”

I frown. “Short version?”

She nods solemnly without a discernible trace of mockery. “Short version. If the darkspawn show up again, we the undersigned solemnly swear to band together before rather than after they kick our stupid behinds. Signed, the dwarves, the elves, the humans, the other humans, some more humans, a long list of humans who aren’t any of those humans, and the Chantry, who are human if you squint.” She shakes her head. “The reason for all the different pieces of paper is that there were humans who didn’t want their signature getting on the same bit of paper as those other humans, and the dwarves refused to sign any fewer pieces of paper than the humans had signed. And the reason they are all imperishable in a slightly different fashion is that the Chantry refused to sign anything a mage or a heathen had wrought, and were eventually convinced that dwarf-work could be suitably cleansed of the idolatry by purchasing it, which offended the dwarves something rotten, and it all got very political. But the short version is?” She looks at Alistair with those piercing eyes, but she’s talking to me. “What do you mean, you don’t have an army?”

I show my teeth. “With the word of a human and a copper groat you can buy a crust of bread.”

Alistair doesn’t rise to it. Flemeth just shakes her head. “If nobody else, the Chantry do set great store by their pieces of paper, they don’t like politics, and you do remember that they run the Circle of Magi, yes? And this has the seal of King Ragnan Aeducan on it, and the dwarves hate the darkspawn more even than we – and I was under the impression that your own people are somewhat enamoured of cleaving to their history.”

“With that massive army we have.” I look down at Alistair. “But anything is better than nothing.”

He meets my eyes again. “So then we just get to the crippling issue of our own incompetence. The nearest people who can train us are a thousand miles away. The Wardens of Ferelden are dead, Kallian. What was it you proposed to do, with your encyclopaedic knowledge of war, with your heroic personal skills, with your vast resources?”

“I already said.” And I hold out my hand to him. “Avenge them.”

He just looks at it. He doesn’t get what a thing it is for me to offer him my hand.

“Did you have anything else you particularly had planned?”

He looks at me. Does nothing.

I don’t let frustration show in my expression. “I won’t do this alone.”

“No?”

I leave the hand where it is. “Believe me.”

“Why?” He looks down.

Okay, you bastard, that’s enough. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” I sharpen my voice, like the reflection of light down the edge of a blade. “You will stand the fuck up. You will accept Flemeth’s help. You will clean your damned kit and you will clean yourself and you will damn well get food and rest. Then you will come with me and turn those pieces of paper into an army, and when we run into your misbegotten kin you will do a thousand times better than your current sorry best to get us whatever passes for their support. And if you will not do this out of whatever passes for your own honour, then by Andraste you’ll do it with my boot-print in your armour-plated arse. Do I make myself clear, Warden-Commander.”

What colour there is goes entirely from his face, but he takes my hand and yes, it turns out I can haul fifteen stone of armoured knight to his feet, just about. His mouth moves, but nothing comes out. The two women just watch, Morrigan with catlike fascination, Flemeth with the slightest amount of satisfaction.

I look up at him. “So. What’s it to be?”

He blinks. Then he takes his sword from its sheath – I resist the urge to step back. “You got something wrong,” he says. And he offers me the hilt of his blade. “I think we both know who’s going to be in charge, sera.” He leans slightly on the human honorific.

Ever get the feeling you just did something significant? Something that’s going to give shape to everything that follows? I take the hilt of his heavy blade and offer it back to him over my arm. If you read this in the histories, this is where they put the glorious speech. But you’ve just seen the kind of thing that comes out of my mouth just at this point, and actually all I say to him is, “You’ll be needing that.”

*

Whatever else you say about Morrigan, the lady can cook. Admittedly, I was raised on stale bread and pease pottage, but my appetite is somewhere in the neighbourhood of bottomless and the food is very good. Alistair still isn’t talking much, but he eats nearly as well as I do.

So the conversation is pretty stilted. It’s the most bizarre eperience – we’re sitting gathered around a smoky fire inside a barbarian hovel, talking what you’d normally classify as ‘the affairs of state’ with a woman who’s casually decribing personal witness of events that are twice as old as the kingdom itself, and a daughter whose eyes reflect the light like an animal’s.

Maker’s breath, I’m hungry. I never eat this much. Was this the healing? Apparently not – magic doesn’t work like that, any more than you’d wake with blisters if you dream of running hard, Flemeth says. Alistair says that it’s normal, that every new Warden eats like a horse, and that if I think about it a moment I’ll know why. The gaping fangs and devouring hunger of the darkspawn come to mind for an instant and I very nearly drop my spoon – right. Right. Because like I keep saying, you don’t stop being a Warden. It was supposed to be that I’d have brothers (and in theory sisters) of the order right there to answer my questions and it was supposed to be that I’d have time to learn this shit, and –

I eat. Morrigan is insisting on sticking as close as possible to civilised manners for some reason I don’t understand, but I play along. They’re surprised I know what I’m doing as well as Alistair does – my da tried so hard to make me a nice well-brought-up young thing, shame about the way the world turns. The strangeness kind of gets deeper as we sit and discuss etiquette and manners while the fire crackles and the night echoes with the howling of foul things that I don’t want to ask about.

We’ll head north on the morrow. We can’t go straight, not only for fear of the darkspawn but because of the treacherous paths – Morrigan will guide us, and there’s something passes between her and her mother as Flemeth says that, a flash of her eyes that she doesn’t think I caught. Our first port of call is the town of Lothering. We need supplies, food and the like, if we’re going to travel very far – as I’ve mentioned, I’ve not the first idea how you live off the land if that land doesn’t have cobblestones. From there, west. Of our list of possible allies, the Chantry’s the only one I’ve got any idea how to contact – we will start with the templars who guard the Circle of Magi, because at least they should have some first-hand information of the battle of Ostagar.

But first they are planning to sleep. They’ve made Alistair a bed up in another corner; Morrigan bids me take hers and she will only smile when I tell her – still so civilised we are – that I can’t possibly do that; she quite happily takes the shape of the wildcat I’ve seen before and curls up before the fire. The bed is surprisingly soft, for all it stinks of human, and the fire burns low, and fatigue claims me some time around the time that I’m deciding that none of the three of them is merely pretending to fall asleep.

*

“Were you planning to say goodbye?”

Morrigan’s got her travelling kit laid out on a woven mat and is sitting cross-legged in front of it. She doesn’t say anything as she takes the folded square of leather that is her spare cauldron and places it carefully into the depths of her pack.

“Or shouldn’t I have bothered in rising early?” Flemeth is just standing there. There’s nothing to do until the sun rises, save this. So she’s doing nothing, save this.

Morrigan sniffs. She draws a knife to check the sharpness of the single-edged blade, and finding it acceptable she packs it.

“Daughter mine, this befits you ill. Truly.”

Morrigan takes her pouches of herbs and checks them for contents and weight before putting them one by one inside the pack. No knowing what it is she’ll find. As she places the last one inside, she cocks her head. “The peregrine cries out.”

“Not in my hearing, girl.”

“Oh, don’t be dense.” A spare water-skin. “The peregrine cries out shrilly and flaps its wings and makes itself big. The bear grumbles and nudges and gently reminds, long before it resorts to a cuff round the head.”

“Go on.”

“The wildcat hisses and becomes prickly and purrs no longer, then catches the thing that is no longer a kitten a swift dot about the nose.” Morrigan wipes an eye with the back of her hand and puts a longer tunic into the pack.

“And it falls over onto its rump and yowls the house down.” Flemeth’s tone is less than sympathetic.

She makes a soft whuff, doglike. “Crows push the fledgling out of the nest, and if it can’t fly that’s its affair.” A civilised woman’s kirtle, a little modified – it didn’t fit when she first got it, she had to let it out in the back. How you’re supposed to run far in this she’ll never know. “I suppose I should be gratified, that I know another one now.”

“If you know it, then you can follow it.”

Morrigan scowls. “I thought the point was that the young one knew nothing.”

“D’you really believe you know nothing?”

The young woman’s shoulders slump. “No.” A coil of rope. “A fugitive outlaw couldn’t ask for a better mistress, and a girl raised by wild things couldn’t ask for a better mother.”

“If the young creature had its way, it would hang onto its mother forever.”

“If the mother had its way, its young would – ugh.” She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. I am going, because you say I am. I am not coming back for quite some space of time.”

Flemeth’s voice is soft, almost inaudible. “Do you truly consider yourself hard done by?”

Morrigan swallows. “No.”

“And this is your dream.”

“I’ve never dreamed this.” She lifts her mage’s kit – itself already tightly packed and tied down – and places it into the top of the pack where she can get at it quickly.

“Now who is being obtuse?” Flemeth flicks her eyes to the horizon. “The sun is soon to rise, daughter, and you have yet to speak.”

The pack is closed and laced shut. Morrigan stands smoothly, turning around as she does so to look her mother in the eye. “So I have.”

“D’you truly want to regret our parting?”

Morrigan tilts her head a little. “I will regardless, you saw to that. Be sure and eat, mother. Most days at least. And don’t you run us out of firewood. And don’t boil the cauldron dry again: if I should return to a burning ruin of a hut, I can’t be held responsible.”

Flemeth frowns. “If you should return to anything else, girl, I’ll be astounded. Or did you close your eyes and ears for all of yesterday?”

“I did not.” Morrigan shuts her mouth and looks down and can’t stop a squeak escaping her. It’s a good couple of moments before she can take a deep breath and meet her mother’s eyes again. “I’ve my own power, mother. There’s no reason-”

“Save my will.” Flemeth’s voice is mild but it’s implacable.

Morrigan whispers, “Yes, mother.”

“Good.” The old woman takes a couple of steps towards her daughter and holds out the stick she’s been leaning on. “I’m not going to be needing one of these.”

Obedient, Morrigan takes it. It’s weighted funny, like a lead-cored shillelagh. She can feel the lyrium strands folded around and through the metal that cores it, the lucid depth of stability at its centre. Her mother’s staff. “Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of rite? Some words, perhaps?”

“Would they help?”

“They would give me something to decry, something to regret.”

Flemeth snorts. “You’re not so funny as you think you are, my daughter.”

“Nobody is.” Abruptly Morrigan looks away, turns and fastens the staff to her pack. “I had better wake the fire. And our guests.”

“The one is awake and listening, girl, and the other should be. Go. Cook. And, Morrigan?”

“Mother?”

“Do try to enjoy yourself, dear.”

The young witch looks up, and just for an instant she smiles.

*

The woods are quiet but for birdsong, and quite gloriously green, and the smell of the world is fresh turf and moist earth. It’s almost enough to make a body forget that this is a desperate flight ahead of a ravening horde – that said, the constriction of my armour and the weight of my blades is a reminder with every step.

We’ve been walking a couple of hours when I broach the subject I’ve been thinking about all morning to our guide. “Can I ask you something, Morrigan?”

“Aha! Conversation at last.” She has a funny dark smile. “I had worried for a moment that your frankly bizarre rules of polite discourse were truly the only way a body could speak to you.”

Strange human. “When were you planning on telling us that you wanted to go with us further than the edge of the Wilds?”

She’s silent for a moment. “When Alistair told you why he fears me.”

Pause. “I’m sorry?”

“For what?” She blinks. “Oh. Alistair fears me. He won’t talk, he’s got his weapon close, he’s paying more attention to me than the road, but his eyes are on my hands, not my rump. If he were your dog he’d be behind you close with his ears flat and his teeth bared. I do know what is wrong, you know, but I was being polite and letting him speak first.”

I look up at Alistair, surprised. I mean, I’m usually pretty good at spotting potential fights between bigjobs, anyone who’s ever worked in a tavern would be. I suppose he has kept me between her and him, and not in a straight line –

He snorts. “Gracious of you. Want me to start calling you names? That it?”

“Names? I have several.” Morrigan is either feigning, or she really doesn’t do idiom.

Alistair shakes his head. “You want to be the aggrieved party, here. I’ll not give you that. I wouldn’t call it fear I have of you. More like… Caution.”

“For why?” Morrigan is a parody of innocence. “Am I a bear? A wolf, perhaps? A precipice?”

“A witch?” Alistair nods to her staff. “One who brought magic as her only weapon in a dangerous forest. Or are you hiding a templar under that tunic?”

“I am not, as well you know.” She shrugs. “Witch I’m dubbed, then. Most of the people who wear armour call me ‘apostate’ instead.” The word is some sort of challenge I don’t understand. “I felt that if you were going to keep your bigotry secret, I’d keep my assistance likewise.”

Alistair nods. “I see. Obedience to the Chant is bigotry. Glad you cleared that up for me.”

Morrigan blinks. “You are… welcome?”

“Sarcasm, witch, your mother ever teach you that?” He snorts. “The Chant of Light teaches that magic – uncontrolled – is the most dangerous thing there is. Two important whys.” He holds up two fingers. “One? However bad someone is, add magic, it gets worse. A lunatic or a psychopath – hells, even a depressive – with the power to make their dreams solid and real? This isn’t just talk. Look at Tevinter. Look at everywhere magic ever ruled. Blood in the cursed streets.”

She raises her eyebrows. “You have been there?”

“Oh, don’t start on that. My second point? No, actually, I’d rather you explained. I’d only get it wrong. And likely Kallian’s only ever heard of this in tales. Can you explain to the two of us what happens when a mage falters in resolve? What happens when she breaks down?”

Morrigan meets his eyes for a moment; he looks away. “Fine,” she says. Her voice is sing-song. “The Chantry teaches that a Gifted One who – what was your lovely phrase – ‘falters in resolve’? – becomes a gateway and an open invitation to the things that live in the other-world, the world of dream, the Fade. They are creatures of will and of spirit, and they are typically speaking old, canny and clever; but yet only a Gifted One can make a dream reality, and for all their power, all they are is a bad dream. But what drives us, what motivates us, but our dreams? So if one of them gains control over one of us?” She makes an expressive, flowing gesture. “It is quite literally a nightmare scenario. Such things are called abominations – by me, mind, as well as by te Chantry. They are a little like mad dogs, and a little like thunderstorms, and a lot like a reason to go around the other side of the mountain.”

“Like darkspawn?” I look from one human to the other.

“No.” Morrigan makes a face. “Darkspawn are more like Alistair’s first case than his second: their malevolence is organic to them, and they have as little use for the spirits of the Fade as have the Chantry. ‘The Chantry teaches’ that the spawn are the evil of humanity made flesh.”

I give a humourless smile. “Explains their charming demeanour and welcoming temperament.”

She nods seriously. “The issue – and incidentally, Alistair, by society’s rules I think you owe me for this explanation – is that I am a witch, or what’s called by them an ‘apostate mage’. The Chantry claim a monopoly on wisdom, and as they extend membership freely to all people, anybody who does not do as they say is considered to have rebelled against their rule, or ‘apostasised’. They hunt us, because for one reason or another we have not submitted to them.”

Alistair scowls. “In that poor victimised ‘us’ is included some of the worst monsters of history.”

“Faith is a powerful force, and so are you.” Morrigan spreads her hands. “I’ll not pick a fight with either if I don’t have to. But neither will I simply remain around to be handed over to the first templar you meet. This discussion was needed.”

“I won’t pick a fight with you, either, but feel free to flap right back home.” Alistair’s tread is heavy.

Morrigan looks to me. “I was under the impression you were not about to be choosy with your allies. To be absolutely clear? In short words? I am an apostate mage, probably the strongest you’ll meet now we’ve left my mother’s hut. She has gifted me with her staff, and she has ordered me to aid you. I fear and respect her more than you, and you more than the templars, so you will be getting my assistance whatever you say. It would be best in accord with your rules if I were to travel with you, rather than merely near you.” She glances at Alistair. “Perhaps a miracle might happen, and the three of us become friends.”

Alistair answers for me. “And she didn’t tell us this because…?”

“She thought you were awake when she and I discussed this. Or at least, Kallian was, and it’s become abundantly clear who has the brains in this operation.”

“And it’s a test.” I cut in. “Isn’t it? She wants to know what we’re prepared to do. We’re her easiest but not her only option?”

Morrigan shrugs, birdlike. “Maybe. She would not tell me such a thing as that. I am supposed, after all, to be subtle and wise; such things do not grow if not fed.”

“What can you do? What use are you to us? I’ve never seen any magic at all, except for the way you change your shape.”

She raises the staff a little. “You are right that I am not always this shape. I can do bears, for example. And think of this thing that I am carrying as a weightless spear fourteen feet long.”

Alistair raises an eyebrow. “Can you abjure? Evoke?”

She raises hers in turn. I suppose I’ll remember that distaste in her voice in case I need it later. “Odd words for a layman to know. But no. I have no Circle training, for some reason I cannot just now place – nobody ever thought to teach me to turn my hopes and dreams into a glorified siege-engine.”

“Can you turn people into things?” Well, one of us was going to ask; it might as well be me.

“No.” She looks at me with that patronising look humans seem to be born knowing. “That art is… Beyond most, shall we say. Impossible is not a thing I’d easily allow.”

“And you can cook.” She turns the force of her disdain on him and Alistair shrugs. “Just saying.”

“Can you two not?”

“You don’t want me to try.” A twist of his mouth. “Charred rabbits on a stick often offend a delicate palate.”

She looks down at me. “Neither of you, truly?”

My turn to shrug. “Not nearly as well as you can. I’d be missing a pan, a hearth, and any ingredients I even recognised as food.”

She conceals her amusement poorly. “The mighty Witch of the Korcari Wilds sends her beloved daughter and only apprentice to aid on your noble quest, and her largest contribution to your expedition is as pathfinder and cook.”

“Yes.” Alistair picks up a rock from the ground, a little smaller than his fist. He holds it up for Morrigan to see, and when she looks, he closes his hand with a little grunt of effort and there’s a crunch; he drops the three pieces casually to the ground.

Morrigan narrows her eyes, then blinks a couple of times. “No magic. That’s…”

“My party piece.” He walks on for a few moments before saying anything more. “You imagine your way to that siege engine, witch, do let us know.”

She stands there, staring, for an instant or two. “Does that constitute an acceptance, Warden Alistair?”

He doesn’t look back to her. “Your point was made a while ago. I’m not selling you out to anyone.”

“Your generosity of spirit is well noted.”

“I will be watching you.”

“Lovely. Your meanness of spirit is equally noted.”

“Witch.”

“Incompetent.”

“Bumpkin.”

“Clodhopper.”

“Knock it off.” I pretty much step between them. Maker’s breath, Alistair, what is it with you and wizards? It’s not just on his end, either. It’s both of them. “We’re all three of us stuck with one another. If I can put up with you, you can put up with one another. Clear?”

Clear. Lovely. Bloody humans.

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Six

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*

Lothering, and they’ve got a barrier across the bloody road. Three dead carts lopsided and stationary make more of a symbolic choke point than a realistic one, given how we could just walk around it – it’s the group of armed men lounging around them that are the real impact. Twelve of them, most of them without livery, the man at their head wearing a quartered green and brown that Alistair identifies as Veyence, the banner whose lands stand just to the north.

“I don’t like this,” observes Alistair quietly as we approach. “Not one sword between them, and light armour and all. And that’s supposed to be the sergeant? No, I don’t like this at all.”

“Mmmm?” Morrigan eyes the group. “Is this not the town guard? They look… townish.”

“Townish I’ll give you.” He carefully loosens his blade in its scabbard, moves his shield to where he can get it easily under the guise of shifting a backpack he isn’t actually wearing. “I’m not sure I’d call them the guard.”

I nod slowly. “If it weren’t for the arms, I’d say they were a shakedown crew. Do the talking; I have your back.”

He shakes his head. “You do the talking! Didn’t we already establish this?”

Morrigan gives him an amused look. “I will, if you won’t. It seems that it could be amusing.”

Humans! I ask you. I give a snort and stride forward at the head of our little group. It’s hard to stride when you’re not quite five foot tall, but I suppose I’d better get some practice in at some point.

Well, to give credit where credit’s almost due, they don’t actually tell us to stand and deliver. “Halt!” A pollaxe and a halberd make a somewhat mismatched cross across their little choke point. The man in the Veyence livery swaggers forwards. Eyes that grew up in Denerim alleys note the difference between his fat coin-purse and his shabby armour. “There’s a toll for this road.”

“A toll?” I give a slightly exaggerated look around. “I suppose we shall go around, then.”

“There’s still a toll. By order of the Teyrn. Sorry, son, that’s just the way it is, ask your father. Give the toll, make your way, woe to them as cannot pay.”

I suppose it’s the armour. The leather cap does hide my ears, but only a drunkard or an idiot would mistake an elvish woman grown for a human boy. I give him one chance to back down. “Ser, we’re about a day in advance of all of hell. There’s an army of darkness on the way that makes this pathetic little roadblock look like a sandcastle. And you’re charging-”

“Half a crown.” His voice reverberates with something that’s trying to be menace, but somehow after having faced down darkspawn it’s just simply less worrying; he looks us up and down. “Or… equivalent. Give the toll, make your way.”

Morrigan looks at Alistair sidelong. “Did he just imply what I think he did?”

He rolls his shoulders back. “Hope you’re tougher than you look.”

“Believe it.”

Meanwhile I’m putting my head a little on one side and taking a step forward, towards the ‘sergeant’. “I’ve a better offer than that, shem.”

“That’s not my name, boy.” One of the men is trying to get his attention. My eyes are fixed on him. He doesn’t seem to realise what I am. And yes, I can smell the liquor about him. “And I prefer the ladies, thanks-”

I make a move like I’m about to go for his balls with my knee and he goes to stop me, but it’s a feint. He ducked his head by instinct when he moved and suddenly I have the crossguard of my dirk pressed against the front of his neck with my left hand, the edge of the blade to the side of his neck, my right laid gently on top of the hilt of his own belt knife. Alistair’s broadsword rings clear of the scabbard and he’s stepped in to where he can watch my back.

The bandit yells hoarsely for his men to hold and I show my teeth as they freeze, weapons pointed uncertainly at the two of us. Seems they’re ignoring Morrigan, leaning unconcerned on her walking-stick. “So. Shall we start again?”

“You’ll never get away with this, boy! My fellas will gut you like a-”

“Oh, dear.” I let him feel the edge of the knife. It’s not like it’ll cut him by accident – nobody keeps a fighting blade to a razor edge. I lower my voice. “You’ll be so very dead, I doubt you’ll care. Now. I’ve left your hands free – move your right, and move it slow. Lose your purse.”

“What? -” I twist the knife slightly against the vein of his throat and he whimpers – “okay! Bastard.” He hooks his thumb under the knot tying his purse to his belt and pulls it loose; his hand’s shaking that much, it falls to the ground. Without looking I roll it backwards with my foot and Morrigan picks it up.

“Are we happy?” I ask.

“No.” The witch bounces the purse in her hand. “Released, they will just find another territory. Kill them.”

The idea sends a thrill through my blood I didn’t know was there, a spider down the spine. I could. I could murder them. How many of the People have been hurt by the humans? By these ones right here, even? My mouth is dry. I hear the one I’m holding let out a noise of nameless fear.

One of the others has dropped his weapon. He’s trying to plead with us, to beg us to let him go. One by one they’re discarding their equipment, their purses – one of them tears open a flap of sacking they had over the side of one of the carts, showing a cache they’d made of the food they stole – one of them swears on his knees he’ll never take so much as a bent copper groat again, the others joining him in fervent agreement – I’m still frozen, holding the ringleader pressed back against his cart as the silvery humming desire to draw my blade back across his throat and bathe in his hot sweet blood sings in me bone-deep.

“Go on.” Alistair’s voice has an edge to it I haven’t heard before, is what I’d note if I were listening. “Before we change our minds.”

Running feet.

“A-and me?” The ringleader’s still trapped, not so much by force as fear; he’s a weeping, trembling wreck, can hardly keep himself still enough.

Alistair says my name. I don’t quite register it. He steps a little closer, says it again, softer. He’s still not within arm’s reach of me. Like he’s learning, or something. “Come on.”

I make myself take my hand from his weapon, lower the knife from his throat, step back to let him out from between me and the cart. He falls over in his weeping haste to flee. I realise I’m breathing hard, teeth bared, heart pounding, and I slowly fight it down. At some point during proceedings I put the dirk away.

Alistair looks from me to the witch, who’s gathering the assorted purses and valuables that the bandits abandoned with a businesslike air. “Morrigan?”

“Mmm?” She sounds perfectly unconcerned.

“The hell was that?”

“Oh.” She sits back on her haunches. “Ever had the nightmare with the nameless unspeakable fear you can’t put your finger on?”

I’m just about getting my breath back. Still feeling like I’m standing on a precipice half as tall as the world. “Say I have?”

She smiles her dark smile. “You have now.”

“Magic.” Alistair sounds like he’s accusing her of unnatural acts with animals.

“Just as ordered.” She tosses me the ringleader’s purse and I catch it by sheer reflex. “You were outnumbered six to one. No reason for you to fight them, not when they could be intimidated into leaving. Any creature will tell you that.” She blinks her doe-like human eyes. “I believe it saved twelve lives, avoided potential harm to us, and they won’t return to their ways, either.”

Alistair shivers. “How long does the spell last?”

“Oh, it’s instantaneous. No clear cause for the fear – or if you know it’s actually mine – and you’re good pretty fast, so it has little effect on your friends.” She unfolds her long limbs from her crouch. “We now have money. How many groats to the penny?”

“Two and a half.” I mull over making a point of this for a moment or three, then stalk over to Morrigan until I’m a little uncomfortably close. “Warn me, next time.” The tone of my voice makes her bring an involuntary hand up to her defence. “I nearly lost it completely.”

“Oh!” She looks down at me. “I judged that you must be exceptionally good at dealing with-”

“A thrill down my spine at the idea of opening his throat and bathing in his blood?” I see her set her jaw rather than flinch from me involuntarily. “Warn. Me.”

She ducks her head. “I’ll try. Makes the spell harder.”

“We could always just assume that any fear, worry or trepidation we feel concerning any enemy, action or plan is just due to an interfering mage, and plan accordingly.” Alistair starts down from the highway towards the gates of the little town and the rude camp outside it.

“Was that an attempt at humour?” Morrigan looks from him to me. “I believe I distinctly detected a note of joculation.”

“Yeah?” I catch the sudden flash of anger in Alistair’s tone and I’m between the two of them before he can do more than round on her. “Well, perhaps I don’t appreciate someone jogging my elbow when I’m winding up to kill a lot of people, either, maybe I’d rather laugh than cry, all right?”

The witch frowns, affronted. “Not only were my remarks not mockery, it was blatantly obvious that this was the case. I was trying to make a friendly overture. You are picking a fight.”

“You did that when you cast on me, apostate bitch-”

That gets the man my hand flat on the centre of his armoured chest. “Drop it.”

He looks down at me and dammit, I am not breaking eye contact, not even if he’s turning that anger on me. “She’s unhinged. Dangerous.”

“Yes. And you’re at least one of those, and you know what? I’m fairly dangerous myself.” I don’t move my hand. I don’t let my eyes leave his. “It’s the spell, Alistair, it’s the tail-end of her spell. Accept it, get past it, and move on, or you will fear her forever.”

“Kallian-”

“Don’t make this be the first order I ever give you.”

“You know what?” He turns away with a casual violence. “Fine. If we’re all murdered in our beds tonight, don’t come running to me.”

“D’you think me what he said?” Morrigan’s voice is reflective as we walk down after him.

Sigh. “Dangerous, yes.”

“Unhinged?”

“I never got a good idea of what that meant – don’t use me as your arbiter of sanity.” It’s supposed to be a joke. It doesn’t come out as one.

“Madness as an accusation is not kind to a Gifted One. Like accusing a man of sexual dysfunction.” She shrugs. “Perhaps I shall try that, and see how he likes it.”

“Morrigan -”

She smirks. “Or perhaps I shall not. Cities are far too new, interesting and dangerous to continue needling my fellows.”

“This isn’t a city.”

Her eyebrows go up. “No? We have humans, buildings, an offensive smell, a wall with a gate – there’s even a man wearing metal all over him, look. It sounds like every city I’ve heard of.”

“This is a small town, and hardly worthy of the name. If it weren’t for the size of the chantry in the middle I’d call it a farming village.” I give Lothering another appraising look. “The whole thing isn’t much larger than the alienage I grew up in, and has less than half the population. As human territory goes, Morrigan – I suppose this is as good a place to start as any.”

She nods seriously. “I have been in smaller and less dangerous lairs, I’ll admit. Please do the talking for me; I will stand and look unthreatening. I worry for our safety should the man be forced to open his mouth with anything meaningful at stake.”

I give Alistair’s back an appraising look. “Uh-huh. Look, and I’m being serious here – he’s the only one of the three of us has half a chance of speaking and being listened to. No offence, but you look like an innocent and clueless milkmaid; the best you’re likely to get is patronising attempts to protect you. And I’m worse – the best I can hope for is to be taken for a human child, because if it’s obvious I’m an elf-”

“It is, to those with eyes-”

“Thanks – they will want to know by whose authority I’m wearing equipment worth more money than somebody like me has ever seen in her life. Alistair can walk in and get things with a word and a smile. Either of us?” I shake my head. “If I have to do all the talking, I can’t guarantee that things won’t spiral out of control. If we have to run, focus on deterring pursuit and let me guard your back – the big lump can take care of himself. All right?”

Morrigan takes a deep breath and tries to avoid wrinkling her nose at the smell of the place. “All right.”

*

The gates of the town are open – it’s not clear when they were last closed – and the wall is low and wooden, more a boundary marker than a defensive affair. And we’ve caught it at what I’d best call a bad time.

Course it is, idiot, you think you were the first people coming north before the horde?

Anyway, the camp outside the walls is near a quarter the size of the town. Refugees look a lot like beggars – it’s the look in their eye, like they’ve no right to look at you, like they’re not people because they don’t have a home. Such people get dangerous – they’d never mug a human for her purse, but taking something from an elf is like taking it from a child, except it don’t make them feel dirty inside. I make sure I can get at my sword easy, and I don’t really process the fear I see in them.

The guards on the gate are Templars, I realise with surprise, and these are different again from any I’ve seen before. Lean, fit men and women who clearly know what those weapons are for, and the style of their arms is the same as the one I ran into at Ostagar, but where his plate was inlaid with lyrium runes like jewels on a lady’s frock, this just has the Chant of the Maker painted and repainted over honest steel in the crude handwriting of someone more used to a sword than a pen. And as Morrigan said, they’re head to toe in metal, and that can’t be comfortable on a warm spring day. Their – what are they called, tip of my tongue, sod it – the one in charge steps out to bar our path as we’re making our way inside. Doubtless it’s a bribe he wants.

“A moment, ser.” His deep bass voice is that of a trained singer, heavy but not what I’d call unpleasant, and exactly as I thought he’s ignored me and Morrigan in favour of Alistair. “Your names, please, and your business in Lothering?” He glances up the hill. “Beyond running off those bloody carrion crows.”

Alistair wavers slightly. “Of course, ser. I’m Alistair Cliffe, and this is Kallian Dener. We’re Wardens, and-”

The man stiffens. There are quiet intakes of breath from his fellows. Nobody’s drawn on us, but they’re suddenly looking a lot more likely to – “Wardens?”

He nods. “Grey ones. You know. Darkspawn hunters?”

The Templar looks from Alistair to me. “And you just walk in and – bold as brass -”

I give him the polite nod that’s elvhen to use instead of a bow. “Is there a problem, Templar?”

He makes a slight abortive noise. One of the others shuffles. I can see them thinking, three of them and five of us. “I’ll have your, uh, business in my town, Wardens.”

“Resupply.” I jerk my head south. Bloody Alistair doesn’t say anything. “Did you hear about what went on at Ostagar?”

He nods awkwardly, like a damaged puppet. “Yes, yes we – did. The army came through here, uh, yesterday evening.”

“Then you know we’re in need of supplies, that we’ve no plan to stay here, and if you’re sensible, neither have you.”

“Um, well. I’m not sure as I understand what’s going on here,” he says with a nervous glance between the two of us, “and I’m very sure as I don’t like to. But if we say we’re not making any trouble ‘less you start any, and you go and talk straight to the knights up at the chantry, is that a way to be?”

“We can do that.”

We get out of his face. Lothering inside the walls is a strange thing of partly organised chaos. It’s a market town with a big square, but all the carts are gone; not a minute goes by without another group of refugees setting off from the north gate. They are leaving the town in their droves.

“Kallian…” Alistair says quietly as we walk, his eyes alert.

“Mm-hmm?”

“Army. Past. Going north.” He clenches his jaw for a moment. “Good order, by the sound.”

I nod. “And you’ll notice he wouldn’t say if he had a problem with us. They swear to tell the truth, you know.”

“Makes a picture, doesn’t it.”

My eyes dart around. (Too many potential angles to cover them all. Rely on people’s fear. Nobody’s close enough to catch what we’re talking about, save Morrigan.) “You draw better than me.”

“Not incompetence.”

“No.”

“Malice.” He takes a deep breath. “The bastards. The… There aren’t words. They’re going to steal the bloody kingdom. They’ve fucking-” He stops talking.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Anora, the King’s widow, is Loghain’s daughter.”

“And she’s queen, now?”

He shakes his head. “She was princess-consort – the banns wouldn’t have stood for a twenty-one-year-old Queen whose grandparents are pig farmers. But her father was the old king’s right-hand man, already a ‘national bloody hero’ from the revolution, they know him personally, he’s got a lot of friends, and oh look! A national emergency.”

“Bloody humans.” I curl my lip. “No offence.”

“No, I think that’s fair. He’s an old soldier, lot of experience – but the spawn don’t work like an army. His plan’s got to be to retreat, leave castles in their way, let them blunt their teeth on those, then hit them when they’re tired and hungry. I heard him discussing it when Cailean forced the Privy Council to meet in the Warden camp on our first weekend in Ostagar. It’d work.” He closes his eyes for a moment. “If the bastards were Orlesians. The horde tire about as easy as we do, eat almost literally anything that lives, aren’t in a hurry, and will quite happily fight on through winter. Trying to fight a Blight like it’s a war, well – we’re all taught this one, in the extremely unlikely case we’re the only Warden around – It’s been tried five times in history and every time all it did was make it worse. And Loghain thought we were lying, of course, trying to weaken the kingdom, deliberately faking the existence of a Blight.”

“So what do we do?” Morrigan tilts her head. Funny seeing that body language on a human.

He shrugs helplessly. “Duncan’s plan was to shock the horde, sting it, make it want something and then deny it, make the archdemon come forth, then go after the big bastard. The archdemon is the Blight – darkspawn won’t enter sunlight voluntarily, see under ‘dark’. You’ll note how the plan basically doesn’t go in for things like ‘and we get to go home after’. Repeated pitched battles is no way to fight a war and that doesn’t change just because of the enemy you’re facing, but as every Warden learns, try and win the war and you’ll lose everything.”

“Hence the treaties, hence the stories about the Wardens being invincible and all-knowing. It’s to try and get them to accept a plan that their experience tells them them won’t work.”

He nods wearily. “Once we get the army – if – we’re going to have to talk them into following a plan that looks like it was written by a glory-struck idiot, a woman who’s never lifted a sword, and an elf playing soldier. On top, of course, of talking them out of spending the kingdom’s armies on a civil war.”

She raises her eyebrows. “This ‘Loghain’ creature is that unpopular?”

“He is to us,” I butt in. “We’re talking about the ratfaced shit-eating backstabbing motherless son of a shem who reached all the way down the jaws of victory to pull out a defeat to beat his king to death with so he could pirate his way off with the crown.”

“That.” Alistair nods. “It’s like this. If we can’t get our story believed, we can’t get the Fereldan army – I don’t know what the other side of the story is, but I’m betting it paints us as foreign agents trying to get our army killed so that Orlais can invade. But If we do get the truth out? Then anyone with half an ounce of honour will want to kick his arrogant arse off the throne and the other three quarters of the bloody kingdom will want to string them up for disloyalty, and there will be a war we don’t want or need.”

Morrigan considers. “So. Can we not just walk into his camp, up to his door and call him out? Cut off the problem at the root?”

“Sure. And his army and his bodyguards will listen to our story, nod sagely and let us in to sort this out like civilised people.”

“See?” She turns to me. “What about that for a plan? Then-”

Alistair sighs. “One of these days, soon, you and me are going to have a sit down with the definition of the word ‘sarcasm’ and I am going to teach you a lesson.”

“I look forward to it.” She smirks.

He makes a short noise of frustration. “You know? Sometimes I wonder. I wonder exactly why it is that I bother even opening my mouth…”

“The beginning of wisdom is to recognise your shortcomings.” The smile widens. “Perhaps there’s hope for you.”

Alistair looks to me. “Did you hear something? I’m sure I just heard something. Like someone was talking. Did you hear that?”

“Come on.” I glance around. “You’re making the guards nervous. We said we’d go to the chantry and introduce ourselves. There it is, now. And you’re going to have to do the talking.”

“Me? I’m allergic to strangers. Bring me out in a rash. Duncan had me delivering messages to improve my ability to talk to random hostile people, not out of any sort of aptitude I have.”

Sigh. “They will take one look at Morrigan and offer her a hot meal and a bed for the night, listening to her words in the morning if at all. They will take one look at me and call the templars, because here’s a rabid sheep on its hind legs. Revered mothers don’t mix well with things they think are unnatural, and we are after their help -”

“I hardly know a hundred words of the Chant of Light-”

“Alistair.”

The tone of my voice makes him look at me. “Kallian.”

“Can you really not do it?”

He looks for a moment, then blinks a couple of times. “Shamed by a girl. Yes, all right. Fine. I can do it.”

There’s a pause.

“Is it the armour?” I start walking again. “Should I perhaps take to wearing some sort of corset, or an impractical breastplate? A smaller sword, perhaps, something ladylike? Should I mince on my toes, or keep a flower in my hair, or something? I’m afraid that it’s out of the question to wear a gown.”

“Sorry, what?”

“That’s three times today I’ve been mistaken for a human child. It’s not endearing.”

“Sorry.” He clears his throat. “‘Shamed by a woman. Yes, all right. Fine. I can do it.'”

“Better. Tomorrow we shall work on the chauvinism.”

“Yes, sera.”

*

In the event, they don’t let us over the threshold of the chantry. I suppose I should have seen they’d do that, really. The revered mother and the senior templar meet us shoulder to shoulder outside the door and look like they wish we’d just crawl into a hole and disappear. To them it’s not just an annoyance that we are, it’s a trial, it’s one thing on top of another, it’s something that’s keeping them from their tasks and duties because everything has to be dropped in the face of the clear and present danger that we are. Behind the closed door of the chantry the off-duty templars are arming up, hauling heavy chainmail over tired limbs, making ready just in case, they must be. They don’t need this.

“Grey Wardens, yes?” It’s the man, the templar, who speaks. He’s talking to Alistair, of course. “What do you want?”

“Little enough,” Alistair says, “and no trouble. Trouble and me, we don’t get along so well, and I’m terribly bad at making it. It always comes out the wrong shape. So if it’s all the same to you, we won’t. We fled north with pretty much what we stand up in, just like anyone else, and we’re aiming to pick up supplies here for a trip west.”

“West.” The templar nods, as if this explains much. “And of course you aren’t looking to cause us any problems – why would you, after all, you’re but innocent travellers. I suppose you’ve even done some minor acts of kindness and generosity where my people could see them obviously, as well – just to underscore your innocence and generosity of heart – and perhaps your skill at arms at the same time?”

“We did, uh, run off a dozen or so bandits on the road. I wasn’t going to mention it.” Alistair tries for ‘self-deprecating’, and gets about as far as ‘shifty’. “Look, it’s not like we’re asking for anything that isn’t here and it isn’t like we’re not going to pay for whatever we buy -”

“No, clearly.” The templar straightens his back. “Such easy things, you ask. What if you don’t get them?”

Alistair blinks. “What?”

“Look, son.” His hand isn’t on his sword, but it’s closer than the Warden’s. “It’s simple enough. What would you do if I abandon rationality in favour of honour for a moment, and decide that the state of my soul is worth risking my body and all those under my command? What will you do if I put my hand on my hilt and ask you to stand down, send you to Veyence under guard to await justice?”

It won’t have escaped the templar’s notice that if he went for Alistair he’d have me to contend with before he’d gone half a step. Alistair just sighs. “I’d say something sarcastic that I won’t voice for fear of giving offence neither of us needs, and I really suspect that there would be unkindness and possibly even some pushing and shoving.”

He nods. “And what if I struck a compromise, and ordered you to leave town? Right now?”

Alistair’s eyes flick sideways to me. I frown, but I speak. “Ser, we’d rather buy honestly than be forced to lower measures, and I’ll not trust my duty and life to the uncertainty of living off the land. There will be people who are leaving what they can’t carry, and coin is light, and what they’ll sell us could save our lives, and the coin could save theirs.”

“Does that mean you wouldn’t leave?” He looks at me properly for the first time, and I notice the marginal widening of his eyes as he realises what exactly I am. I must really find a way to look less like a shem kid.

“I’ve no conception of why you’d ask us to. We’re no threat.”

He looks back to Alistair. “My question, it’s still unanswered.”

The big man swallows hard. “If you genuinely asked it, ser, we’d find another way. I’ll not raise a hand to such as you.”

“And your companions, they share this?”

“They do.” Morrigan shifts uncomfortably. We share a glance and a thought.

The two men look at one another for a moment, searching one another’s demeanour. Then the templar turns his head slightly towards his companion. “Revered Mother, I have a confession for you.”

“You do.” Her voice is rich and mellow. Every priestess is a trained singer.

“Subject to the stresses of command and in the heat of the moment, confronted with two duties, I chose what I saw as the greater. Distracted, I was unable to muster sufficient strength of character to have the kingdom’s enemies arrested when there were material concerns to deal with.”

She inclines her head. “Under the circumstances, Ser Bryant, I’m sure that I can understand that we are none of us perfect.” She meets my eyes with an implacable gaze and I very nearly flinch – “Provided this never happens again, I shall accept that it was merely a moment’s lapse.”

The templar nods. “I’d advise you to look as if you were never here, travellers. As soon as you can.” He puts his fist to his breastplate in lieu of a bow.

“We can do that.” Alistair returns the salute and makes to turn away – then I can see this bright idea dawn on his face and he turns back. “Um. Just before we, uh, go, and really without trying to make it look like a bribe, because it’s not?” He looks at me. “Chantries usually collect alms for those under their protection, and we accidentally came into some money that I think belongs to some of your townsfolk, and might I help put this right?”

Brief moment of surprise. I look at him like I’m asking him to explain this sudden strange behaviour – he narrows his eyes, rightly guessing that there’s no way I’m giving that purse of coin over to these two shems who never missed a meal in their lives, priest or no – and as the revered mother is recovering sufficient to say yes, of course they take alms, he pulls his own purse open and digs his hand in, handing over what must be three-fourths of it, silver as well as copper.

He doesn’t wait for her to speak her blessing and he doesn’t wait for me to object, he just walks away. We follow.

“I suppose you want me to explain that,” he says when we’re out of earshot.

“You might have given me some idea you’d do it.”

“You might have hidden some of your coin first,” says Morrigan, and that gets a cold stare from him.

He makes a sharp abbreviated gesture towards the refugee camp. “Those people. See them?”

My tone is the match of his. Confrontational. “Better than you.”

“Doesn’t bother you?”

“Didn’t say that.”

“Didn’t need to. Neither to left nor right you looked. And it is their coin you’re carrying.”

“And if I give it all away, how do we reach the Circle?”

“With our souls intact.”

“And I’m sure the darkspawn will be so very-”

“Dammit, Kallian.” It – it hurts more than it should, to see this flare of sudden violent anger in him and see that it’s pointed all at me. He’s just a human. Nevertheless I step back, because otherwise I’m in hitting range, and I look down. “I could do something; something needed doing; I did it. I didn’t even give them the purse you lifted. I gave them from my own damn pocket. If that means I sleep on the ground and half starve till Tower Isle, so be it. I didn’t join the Wardens to turn a blind eye.”

“You’re going to run into more before this is over, Alistair, and worse. You know that?” I make myself stare at him until I get a nod out of him. “If we stop for every shem who stubbed his toe on a stump, we’ll-”

“Look me in the eye and tell me I did wrong.”

“That’s not the point-”

“How many types of evil are there in this world, huh? How many? Because I think that even you can count to-”

“Stop it!” Morrigan clenches her fists and looks at the both of us. “The thing is done. We’re not materially harmed. And the two of you don’t even disagree! Leave it.”

A moment’s silence longer. Then I turn away. “You’re right. Let’s get moving. After all, someone just negotiated us leaving this town as quickly as we can.”

“Hey, you want a different outcome, you do the negotiation. You were the one who insisted I do it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Bloody humans. Men. Human men. Whatever. Idiot.

*

It’s surprising what’s still working in this town and what isn’t. A couple of places we roll up to find merchants packing all that they can, more than happy to take coin for goods they couldn’t carry – more than a few more we find wary men and women who won’t listen to our words for fear of what we might be. Morrigan is somewhere between fascinated and amused: she’s never observed these people’s world from the inside, as it were, and she’s watching Alistair and me negotiate what seems to be a labyrinth of unwritten rules and you can almost see her taking notes.

The inns are cold and empty, of course, but the tavern’s busy – it transpires that the idiot of a landlord declared that because his cart wouldn’t hold all his stock, he was going to, uh, liquidate it. And it’s our misfortune to be passing that tavern when a group of men boil out, nine of them, in livery that makes Alistair freeze. And as we’re starting to make like we weren’t there, the broad stocky shem who’s their sergeant fixes us with an unsteady eye and asks in an over-loud voice if he’s found a pack of deserters.

They’re clearly just spoiling for a fight. They’ll go on and find other game if we don’t perform for them. Alistair swears quietly and I slip my pack off my shoulders as he says no, we’re nothing of the kind.

What’s this surcoat, then that he has on? Grey? Grey like the bastard Wardens that killed good King Cailien?

And I fix the man with a cold stare and say that the traitor’s noose would look better on his teyrn’s neck than on mine.

He wastes time calling me a name from the gutter, and I get a weapon in my hand and ask if he really wants to do that, and so then there’s a perfectly natural fight. The kind that I’ve seen outside a tavern every week of my life, the kind you never get yourself on either end of, you just get yourself scarce, because there’s no reward worth crossing blades with a man too drunk to know he’s losing.

And bloody Alistair won’t draw a blade. The first two men that come for me, they’ve mostly got their bottles for weapons – I make ’em regret it, putting one on his knees with a hard kick and giving the second a long shallow painful cut that’s enough to break through the alcohol. Alistair punches the sergeant hard in the jaw and takes him down, but the predictable happens as two big lads jump on him and they go down in a flailing tangle, leaving Morrigan and me taking on five men who went for their swords.

And she steps behind me and asks if I’ve got this, in a tone that says that I’d better. See, I pretty much have. But they’re drunk, and a shem with that much wine in him isn’t much short of a darkspawn in terms of strength, insensibility to pain, and brutality. Come on, you sons of-

They move. One misstep from me and this will go badly, and the cobbles aren’t the best footing. Everything seems to slow down as I step inside one swing to knock that man down with a knee to the groin and a punch to the face, sway back from an elbow strike even as with the dirk in my left hand I turn a blade aimed at my back. This isn’t about technique. This is pure instinct. I might have strength that I never had before, but I’m not trusting to it – don’t meet force with force, don’t show off, and use them against one another. Someone’s point rakes across the back of my jerkin and I curse, step back towards him and spin to meet his jaw with the hilt of my blade and that’s where my new strength comes in, because a broken jaw will put you on your back.

No, I’m not striking to kill. Old reflex – blood gets everywhere when you try and kill a man, and it’s harder than you think, and the watch will track you like bloodhounds if you kill a shem. The weapons are to stop them grabbing me, because most people won’t go straight at a sharp blade, even though it’d be their best chance to take me down. And now I’m facing four of them, and again the one I attack is the one who’s trying for my back. His blade is coming down at me fast, but again I turn it just enough with my own, put a punch under his chin that could have been the point of a blade, and as he goes for me with his knee I take his wrist and pull and he overbalances. Maybe he’ll stay down. Three of them.

A pale arm sneaks around the neck of the one furthest from me, a pale hand over his mouth, and he goes down quickly and quietly and backwards. Morrigan’s still standing back from the fight, holding the staff low across her body like it’s a mop or something – who the hell – No time. I surge forward at one of the two remaining, put my blade against his to control it and get close, smell the cheap ale on his breath and hit him with a knee in the gut that his chainmail won’t stop, grab his hair with my free hand and drive his forehead into mine; I see stars; he goes limp.

The clatter of steel behind me. I whirl and there’s a robed woman standing there, one of the men’s blades held low, her stance easy without being loose, like she’s done this a thousand times, and the sword of the man that she disarmed is skittering off over the cobbles. She takes an easy, menacing step forward – he takes one away from her – and then there’s the smack of Alistair’s gauntleted fist into the back of his neck and he goes down on his face.

I give the strange lady a nod. Now I’m seeing a bit clearer, I realise that she’s in the faded red robe of a temple novice, quite at odds with the blade she’s casually holding. Collar-length red hair, five foot five of height or so, and the arms of that robe are tight over more muscle than you’d think for a woman who’d usually lift nothing bigger than a book or two. “Not many as would have done that.”

She puts a finger to her lips and beckons, and well, it’s not like we can stay out in a street covered in groaning casualties – we follow, cautious like.

Couple of corners later she leans against a wall and opens her mouth. Her accent – I’ve heard it a couple of times before in my life, and I’ve heard it parodied in every tavern I ever saw – Orlesian, husky and syrup-sweet. “Well met. Wardens you are, hmm?”

“And you’re a nun.” I look up at her. “What sort of nun uses a sword like that?”

“The kind who doesn’t ‘ave the choice of weapons, no?” She smiles. “The kind who was never very welcome ‘ere, and the kind whose destiny lies at your side?”

“If that’s a come-on, it’s hideously inappropriate.” Alistair’s got an eye out for trouble. “Well met – I’m Alistair of the Wardens, this is Kallian, this is Morrigan.”

“Not of the Wardens, merely an ally.” Morrigan looks at the nun, narrows her eyes. “This human is no more than she appears.”

That seems to amuse her greatly. “Oho! Then I appear to be more than I thought!” She comes away from the wall and bobs a formal curtsey. “I appear to be named Leliana, and I appear to be coming with you. Because you appear to be in danger.”

“All of us are in danger, Leliana.” I clasp my hands behind my back. “There is a horde on the way. The -”

“Yes, yes. The darkness is coming, the defenders of the light – those who are not slain – are lost to treachery, the one way or the other, and you are in danger especially because a blood-stained crow is coming to get you.” She nods. “You need swords, you need words, you need trust. And I am to come with you.”

I frown. “I know all those words, but not all of them made sense in the order you used them.”

“You think I am crazy.”

“Should I?”

“Shouldn’t you?”

“What?” I blink. “Morrigan, can you translate for me?”

The witch shakes her head slowly. “Not… easily. There’s nothing invisible here; she’s not mad that I can see.”

Leliana’s smile broadens. “I am flattered. Most people I ‘ave told, they think me insane.”

I raise my eyebrows. “And you aren’t?”

“I don’t know.” Still the smile. “But – if I am not – and I must assume I am not, no? – then I must come with you, because I am on a mission.”

“From?”

She shrugs. “The Maker.”

Alistair scoffs. “You know? You nearly had me going there.” He shakes his head. “Kallian, don’t taunt the mad woman. It’s like frothing at the mouth, only with less mouth.”

Morrigan, of course, takes the opposite point of view if only to antagonise the man. “Believe me when I say that I know madness. And it does not look like what I see here.”

“What, you genuinely think that the Maker – who, let’s think, has spoken to one person in the entire history of Thedas – has decided to take an interest?”

Morrigan copies Leliana’s shrug exactly. “It’s not my religion, ser knight. Don’t blame me for being open-minded.”

“Kallian, you surely don’t believe her.”

I look at Leliana. Then I take a couple of steps towards her and put my hand around her throat. She doesn’t move. I draw a dirk with my right hand and lie the blade’s edge against her lips, touching her nose with the point, and she doesn’t move. The only intake of breath is Alistair’s. “I could kill you, human, right now.”

She makes a slight affirmative noise. I can feel her pulse; it hasn’t sped.

“I could.” My voice becomes very soft. “What then of your mission from the Maker?”

She speaks with barely a motion of her lips, so as not to cut herself. “Clearly it would be complete.”

“It doesn’t scare you?”

“It scares me to death. But what he wills will be. I believe in him.” She swallows. “And in you. How can others trust you, if you cannot trust others? Maybe this, today, is what I was born for.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see that Alistair’s clenched a fist and set his jaw; his eyes are narrowed. I say his name.

His voice is tight. “Yes?”

“You’ll watch me do this?”

“She’s done nothing to you.”

“She’s crazy.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says through gritted teeth.

Not taking my eyes off the Orlesian, I make the knife go away. Slowly. I lift my hand from around her throat. “Leliana. We are Grey Wardens. We fight things whose very blood is poison, things more than men and less than beasts. This is not a holiday. Come with us and there is the very real chance that one day you will wish I drove that blade home.”

“I know,” she says. “I know that the Maker has put over my head a blade every bit as sure and sharp as your own. I-I know that I sound crazy. That two weeks ago I would have thought someone insane to say what I am saying. I do not ask that you believe me. But you would need to use that knife to stop me following you.”

“Then you come. But I want to make this very clear. If you betray me, if you hurt those I care about, if you’re playing me false? You’ll wish the darkspawn had found you.”

She takes a deep breath. “But of course.”

She thinks I don’t catch that her hands start shaking the moment I take my eyes off her. And now I’m getting dirty looks from both of my companions. What? Is it my fault that the woman looked so much like a set-up? Could still be one? That she scared so easy?

Damn it all.

*

We set off northwest from Lothering, following the imperial highway and the trudging path of the refugees. The road is – well. To call it grim would be to understate. When there are the desperate and dispossessed to overtake every half-mile or so, the mood is not exactly going to be the highest – and some of us are feeling little better than refugees ourselves.

We make our first camp just off the road, in a farmer’s abandoned barn. We don’t risk a fire – it’s not too cold a night. By the way Leliana just dumps her pack in a corner and barely drags out her bedroll, she’s got to be exhausted – damn the woman, she hasn’t complained, she hasn’t – I have little enough compassion to go around without feeling it for shems who just foist themselves upon me and call it fate. Alistair makes sure she eats something and she gives him a tentative smile, as if worried he’ll bite her.

Morrigan flashes a grin, leaps up to grab a beam and pulls herself up onto it; Alistair deliberately looks away as she shifts herself into a small fluffy complacent little brown owl and puts her head under her wing. I take myself the first watch without being asked. It’s sinking in that I’ll need to sleep without being in a safe place tonight, and waiting until moonrise will give me a decent chance of working out what I’m going to do about that.

From the way Alistair pretty much drops into his own bedroll the moment he’s out of armour, I realise that he’s got to be exhausted and all. I can’t feel it so much. Guess my legs are aching some.

The starlight isn’t so bad. The approaches to the old barn are clear – I’ll be able to see or hear anything coming long before it’s anywhere near – and I set to cleaning and caring for my blades and armour somewhere I won’t disturb the others. Nothing stirs. It’s dead out there. Not an owl, not a bat. Even the rats you’d think lived in every barn are gone. Eventually I get myself up on the roof of the barn. It’s thatch, solid enough for me, and the view’s best.

I hear her before I see her, coming out of the barn on soft feet and carefully not sneaking up. Don’t know how Leliana knows I’m up here, but she does – she comes up carefully and sits on the ridge of the roof, not looking at me, just looking out at the landscape. Her eyes aren’t as good at the dark as mine are.

She came up here. Her job to start talking, if she wants any. Eventually she does. “I’m right.”

“About.” I don’t look at her.

“Trust. I said to you, you need to trust. And you don’t.”

“We don’t know one another.” I sit back. “Maybe that should change before I allow you behind me with a drawn blade, but you can’t ask me to trust someone I only just met.”

“Yes, I can.” She looks up at the stars. “I did. But it’s more than that, no? None of the three of you really trust one another. You didn’t have one another’s back in that fight.”

“You ready to tell me what sort of nun you are, yet?”

A smile that I can barely see. “You ready to tell me what sort of elf you are, yet?”

“Hah.” A long pause. “Just the regular sort, really. I know that doesn’t sound right, from the lips of a lady with twice as many knives as hands, but it’s not far off true. I learned from my mother not to trust a bigjob. It hasn’t led me happy, but it has let me safe.”

“But you joined the Wardens.” She looks at me straight. “My guess is that your choice was that or death?”

“Aye.” I stretch out my neck and shoulders before I reply. “A kind man, closest I ever saw to a good human, he stuck a spike into human ‘justice’ and levered me out. I was to fight for him, that was the deal. Against things that make the shems I was used to thinking of as monsters look like flower fairies.”

“And?”

“And the humans turned around and showed that they weren’t to be so easily outdone. They betrayed their king and their friends, a fourth of their number, the man I still owed a life to, and more besides. And me.”

“Did I?” She raises her eyebrows. “I am sure I should have remembered such an act of calumny.”

“Don’t be dense.”

“La! I throw your words back at you.” She flicks her fingers at me. “If I were a fine lady it strikes me that I should be very put out at being painted with a colour you would use for such scum.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“No.” She shakes her head emphatically. “I try to make you see. You don’t truly believe that Alistair is like Loghain.”

“You seem very sure of things you don’t know.”

“If these things are not true? They need to be true. If you cannot trust others, others will not trust you.”

“You said.”

Her eyes glitter in the starlight. It occurs to me that she can probably hardly make me out at all. “I was right.”

“And as I said, I don’t know you from Andraste. Where I’m from, Leliana, trust is earned.”

“Go on, then.”

I give her a scowl. “Not what I meant. You’re playing word games.”

“You can’t refute my point, so you attack me instead.” She spreads her hands. “Go ahead! The revered mother keeps telling me that suffering builds character.”

“You are a very strange human.”

She nods. “Nearly as strange as you. But tell me, hm? Where is my argument not true? And if it is true, why do you not act on it?”

“What do you want me to say?” I turn to face her. “I am very well aware that we’ll find no allies unless we can come across as worthy of alliance. I am very well aware that we won’t do that if we’re fighting one another. But I don’t know you, and you expect me to put my life in your hands.”

“I put mine in yours,” she says, and looks down.

“Yes.” I turn away from her, look out over the fields again. “You want me to trust you. I don’t know you.”

She shakes her head. “It would be nice, no, to be friends with one’s allies? But it is not required. What I want is for you to trust him.”

“Alistair?” I blink.

“Mm. Because one day, if you don’t, he will die – or you will – or both. Or the people you are surely going to meet, whoever they are, they will not believe you and your cause will be lost. You need to work together, and that’s more than just walking in the same direction.”

“And you think you can wave your hand and make it so?”

“I think that it will be much harder if I don’t wave my hands. I’m Orlesian, we can ‘ardly talk without waving our hands.” She tries a smile.

“More word games.”

“It’s what I do. Will you believe me, or do I start making the demonstrations? Being underhanded?”

I sigh. “I understand what you’re trying to say.”

“And you think that it is impossible.”

“I think that trust is earned.”

“And you find him such a danger that he won’t earn it unless you let him put his knife to your throat, yes? Which you won’t do.”

I shake my head. “It’s not his danger to me. I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t hurt me if he could; he needs me. It’s that – dammit. Look. Before we met you. He made a call, a call I’d have -” I make a noise of frustration. “He gave me no bloody warning. He made me look stupid, and now he thinks I’m a heartless bitch.”

“And you’re not?” Her voice is mild.

“Maybe I am, at that. Maybe I shouldn’t be in charge.”

“Why shouldn’t a ‘heartless bitch’ be in charge?”

“Again with the word games!”

And the steel in her shows for just an instant and it brings me up short. “Answer me.”

“Because there’s only one sort of evil in this world. It just has different faces. And we’ve taken sides.”

“And your side is…?”

“The only damn thing that’s not in question.”

She nods, apparently satisfied. “Start there, then. I cannot lead because I have no idea of where or what. Morrigan cannot lead because she plainly does not want to. Alistair cannot lead because he is afraid to-”

“And I’m not?” I snap my traitorous jaw closed.

“You have been afraid all through your life, Kallian. It ‘as never stopped you before.”

“You don’t know me.”

“Look me in the eye and tell me I am wrong.”

I won’t. “Fine. Pretend it’s true. What of it?”

She bites her lip. “Offer peace. Surprise the man. ‘E will surprise you in turn, I think.”

“What the hell kind of nun are you?”

A smile. “One that is relieving you of your shift. The moon rises, my friend, and soon I will be able to see well. I will come down from the roof and you can sleep up ‘ere, where no one can sneak up on you.”

“One day-” I surprise myself by yawning – “one day soon. Like tomorrow. I’m going to ask you that question and you’re actually going to answer it.”

“But of course.” She shuffles herself to the edge of the roof, checks where she’s going to climb down. “But not tonight.”

Bloody humans.

*

“In Lothering, you say.” Loghain looks out over the battlements towards the little doomed town on the horizon. The land looks deceptively peaceful in the moon’s pale light. “Four men?”

Howe nods. “A chance encounter with a foraging patrol. Four of them, tall and broad, grey tabards over shabby kit, and bloody great shillelaghs. Just set on our men, no warning.”

“Survivors?”

“No deaths. They were clearly trying to send a message. Obviously some of them survived Ostagar.”

“Or they had covert reinforcements. Let’s not assume, shall we? Anyway, they’re hardly a threat.”

“Ever seen one fight, my lord?”

Loghain sniffs. “Enlighten me.”

“I was at your late son-in-law’s side in one of those silly little skirmishes, and he had a brace of Wardens as bodyguards. Funny little men, as I said, shabby equipment, barely worthy of a soldier. But I’ll swear I saw one of them leap ten feet from a standing start and snap an oaken spear with his bare hands. And fast, with it. Dress one as a servant and teach him to act like one and you’d have the finest assassin this side of Antiva.”

Loghain growls. “Make them your problem if they worry you. I’ll not be dictated to by the disgraced remnant of a foreign conspiracy. Our plans remain unchanged. Have the mages yet managed to contact Denerim?”

“They have, ser, and your daughter is already making preparations for you to address the Bannorn. It is unfortunate, but communications with neither Arl Guerrin nor Teyrn Cousland have been successful.”

“Have a care, Rendon.” Loghain leans on the windowsill. “There are rats in the walls, and they have ears, and the Bannorn are skittish enough without an imagined or misplaced sniff of irregularity. It is genuinely unfortunate that we cannot discuss things with our fellows in order to present a united front to the lesser nobility.”

“Of course, my lord.” The arl shifts uncomfortably. “What news of the darkspawn?”

He shakes his head. “They are moving more slowly than I’d been led to believe they would – their lines of command are inefficient and their chain of supply is clearly uncertain, and of course there’s the very real possibility this ‘Blight’ is nothing of the sort. Until we know their objective, I’ll not commit the bulk of our force. Redcliffe should have their full muster by now – they will hold the highway west, and we will hold it east, and the moment their army commits properly we can move.”

“Should I send for more of my own people, from Amaranthine? We’ve got three times what we need there.”

“No.” A slight hunch of the shoulders. “Any wavering of strength on our northwestern border and Orlais will be on us like a greyhound on a hare. They are expecting us to weaken, remember – if they see it, whether or not it is there, we will have worse problems than the darkspawn. And before you come up with another clever plan, do remember that the entire northwest is lousy with their spies. Reinforcements for the south will have to come from the Bannorn. I intend to wax lyrical about the valour of their yeomen and see if I can’t scare up some more of them.”

“Perhaps I should look into retaining the services of another bard, ser?”

The teyrn narrows his eyes. “Your levity is ill-placed. You are aware, I trust, that much of our strategic situation is, and has remained for at least the last five years, the careful art of appearing strong enough to defend ourselves without being strong enough to be a threat? That without something to change the game, we may have saved the kingdom from Duncan and his traitors only to lose it regardless? Highever, Redcliffe, the Circle, the Bannorn – we need these pieces in place, and soon.”

“Yes, yes. Have a little faith, my lord. Highever is in the bag; the Circle is as good as, or we could not have moved in the first place. The Bannorn are and always have been attracted to a good story, which we have – leaving Redcliffe. Should I speak to the birds once more?”

Loghain shakes his head. “Eamon Guerrin will only be an asset. His overdeveloped sense of chivalric self-importance can be fed handily by leaving him in charge down here, and compared to dear late Cailien he’s a tactical genius.”

“So is my horse, ser.”

“Hah. Regardless, the man is competent, and he was a dear friend of old King Maric’s, which is very much like a friend of mine.” He smiles. “He will see things my way, I am sure of it; it is certainly not a matter one would discuss with such a bird as you might know.” The smile freezes, the warmth draining away from it until all it is is a rictus of bared teeth. “Yet.”

*

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Alternative Origins Chapter Seven

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*

Duncan said that one tires of silence on the road, and it’s true – or at least, a Leliana who’s no longer wondering when I’ll put a knife in her and a Morrigan full of catlike interest can make enough conversation between them for at least four people. They break the ice by talking religion, of all things – Leliana shows an amount of interest in Morrigan’s take on the whole thing that’s quite odd in a Chantry sister, and she reciprocates with a spoken rendition of the opening of the Chant of Light that reveals the sort of command of scripture you’d expect in a revered mother or perhaps a temple chanter.

Alistair and I end up walking together, half-listening, and I decide that an olive branch is better late than never. “So, uh. We’ll be passing through Redcliffe on our way. That’s your town?”

He makes what might be an affirmative noise.

“Uh-huh. You could teach me something about it?”

“Mm.” He doesn’t look at me. “They call it a city, but it’s not so big – it’s farming and fishing country, so what Redcliffe is is a market. Mostly it’s a castle that got too big for its bailey and snacked on a fishing village.”

“Who’s the lord?”

He raises an eyebrow. Apparently humans are born knowing this sort of thing. “Only the fourth most powerful man in Ferelden. Eamon Guerrin is the arl – he was the arl under the Orlesians, he helped his people ride out the revolution, he helped King Maric put the kingdom back together after. Well thought of on the battlefield as much as the council chamber. When I was talking about the quarter of the kingdom with a scrap of honour, his face was on my mind.”

“You admire him.”

“Everyone does. You grow up around that castle, you’ve got a second father in this kindly old bloke who you grow up to realise is the lord of everything you can see from the battlements.” He nearly smiles. “Apart from the Circle Tower, which you can make out on a clear day if you squint.”

“You grew up in the castle?”

“Did I say that? No. I was a foundling. Raised by dogs.” He gets a look for that one, but he persists. “Big fluffy ones, never would come clean about the breed. Half mabari and half carthorse, is my guess.”

“Makes sense. But what about the dogs?”

He cracks a proper smile. “Did I really just hear a joke? Who are you and what did you do with our grumpy Warden-Commander?”

“I knifed her and took her face. Why d’you think I’d care where you grew up?”

“Where’d you grow up?”

“One room of a two-room house in Denerim alienage. My da moved to live with his brother after we lost my ma – if I ever had brothers and sisters, nobody ever told me, but I had cousins instead. And don’t get me wrong, there was the cousins-in-law in the other room. Close as family, close as rats, take your pick. Mostly I grew up on the street, ’cause six kids in two rooms the size of Flemeth’s hut ain’t easy. Your turn.”

“You ever find where I’m going to grow up, you tell me, all right? I’ll go there and give it a try.”

I bite back the first response. “Alistair, d’you actually want me to mind you, ever?”

“Uh. Bad at straight questions. I’ll try a yes?”

“Then you’ll damn well pay me in kind if you make me talk about me.”

“…yeah.” He looks down. “You’re not wrong. But it’ll make all of you dislike me.”

“Tell Leliana then. Not your fault if we overhear.”

“She’s still reciting-” he catches my expression and holds his hands up – “all right. Maker’s breath, some people. Okay.” He takes a deep breath. “I can be a right bastard sometimes. You get what I’m saying?”

“You’ve no father. Yes.”

He makes a face. “Everybody has a father. I – my mother was a serving-woman in Redcliffe Castle. I was raised a page of the arl’s court, and, uh, there weren’t exactly many pages, sometimes I was the only one. Do I need to translate that out of the human?”

“I don’t think you want me to misunderstand you.”

“Mmm.” He rubs his fingers over the stubble on his chin. Still won’t look at me straight. “Arl Eamon – he was always so very kind to me. My mother died when I wasn’t very old. Most orphans in a position like that, well. You don’t get to eat three hot meals, put it like that.”

Narrow my eyes. “I’m familiar.”

“Course. Course.” He colours slightly. “I’m, what I mean to say is. Eamon took an interest himself. He’s the closest thing I’ve got to, well. You know. Probably actually uh. And his wife, when he remarried – she couldn’t stand the sight of me, obviously. Sent me to the templars soon as they’d take me.” He straightens. “That’s probably enough about me to be a fair trade.”

“Probably.”

“See? You think less of me. Don’t you think less of me?”

“What’s it to me if you know your father’s name and it’s a famous one? I always figured you for a nobleman. You play the knight easier and smoother than most bigjobs I ever saw, you’re well-fed and well-favoured, you talk like you turned up with a silver spoon in your mouth and you’ve no scars to speak of. Way you use a sword, you got your lessons from training, training you can’t get if you’re going out to put food on the table, and I’d lay odds you learned to shoot and ride and hawk and dance-”

“And harass the serving wenches and spit on beggars in the street, and-”

“-And not tell me that you’re the son of a lord who controls a sixth of the realm, at the point that he’s exactly the thing that we need?”

“…Yes! Absolutely. There you go.” His voice is more bitter than anything else. “And if I hadn’t burned my bridges and thrown his kindness in his face, I’d be bloody invaluable.”

I frown. “He kicked you out? I thought going for a templar was an honour.”

“It is.” He kicks at a rock. “It was. Hated it. Took it out on anyone who wouldn’t kick my arse. Hells, I took it out on anyone who would kick my arse. Never bloody wrote to Eamon. And I know his wife must have given him grief for coming to visit me, surly bastard that I was. Three years later he stopped.”

“He’ll remember you. Least we can do is try.”

“I’m telling you, I walk into that house, you’ll see. They hate me there.”

“But do they think you’re a liar?”

He meets my eyes. “You’re getting your way on this whatever I say, aren’t you?”

I don’t look away. “I’m glad you see that.”

A sigh. “Fine. We’ll do it your way. And when that doesn’t work, you can browbeat them into it.”

“Good. I look forward to it.”

“Right.”

We walk on in silence for a while. Gah. Sod it. “Okay, look. Back in Lothering. That money.”

Mostly his voice just sounds weary. “Yes?”

“I was surprised, was what it was. It wasn’t about what I said it was about.”

Pause. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I heard that. Did you just… climb down?”

“I’m not some kind of heartless bitch. I – you surprised me, is all.”

“By doing the right thing?”

“…yeah.” I swallow. “If we don’t work together, it’ll kill both of us.”

“We see something that we can do, and aren’t, and I will be there. We can’t do this by betraying ourselves.”

I nod. “If I’ve got your back, you damned well better have mine. Deal?”

“I sort of thought I already said all this. Back when I gave you my sword.”

“Yeah, well. Sometimes it takes something a couple of tries to get through my head.”

“It doesn’t get through.” The corner of his mouth twitches. “It’s got to learn to go around, just like everything else.”

“Screw you, shem.”

He smiles, at that one, and stays wisely silent.

*

Redcliffe Castle sits on an outcropping of rock so steep and so convenient it must have been mage-built, crouched over the town like a mother hen brooding on a nest. The town itself – well, something’s wrong. You shouldn’t have the gates closed, not with the Blight so far away and no sniff of war otherwise, and if it’s a fishing port, where are the boats? Denerim docks are busy with every tide, and this being on the Great Lake, wouldn’t that make it busy all of the time? You don’t have tides on a lake, surely?

Alistair’s worried. Points out everything I just thought and some I didn’t – there should be traffic on this road, there should be flags on the castle, there should be – well – signs of life. (Morrigan butts in that there’s life all right, it’s just hidden.)

The walls of the town are low but functional, and the only gate’s well in bowshot of the castle – this place was built with defence properly in mind, although it’s not what you’d call well-manned right this minute. The guard atop the gate’s a boy of hardly sixteen – there, look, that’s what a scrawny human lad looks like, he’s a foot taller than me and already wider in the shoulders. His armour fits worse than mine does. He hails us for our names and business and there’s a break in his voice – what is going on here?

“Alistair Cliffe here to see the arl.” We agreed on the road to leave the grey surcoats and the name of Warden for best. Makes us look like bandits. Even mercenaries and knights-errant have coats of arms.

The kid squints down at us in the bright mid-afternoon sunlight. “You’ll not be doing that, ser. Town’s closed. Castle’s closeder.”

“What’s wrong?”

He shakes his ill-fitting helmet. “You don’t want to know, ser. But we can’t hardly welcome travellers, not now, and the castle’s all locked up. If you start now, you might make it far enough away before nightfall.”

Alistair turns to me a moment. “This is one of the times I should probably ask if you’ve got my back.”

I nod. “Thanks.”

“‘Kay.” He walks a little closer to the gate and raises his voice again. “Where are the others?”

The boy looks confused for a moment. “Others?”

“Uh-huh. If you think I’m a threat, I ought to be staring down the points of three or four crossbows about now. Where’s everyone else?”

“Uh, they’re mostly asleep, ser.” The boy’s clearly been brought up to respect his elders. “But I’ve got orders not t-to let anybody in.”

“Should I keep my voice down, maybe, so as not to wake them?” Nobody laughs. “Whose orders?”

“Milord Teagan, Bann of-”

“Westbrook. Why’s he giving orders? Is the arl…?”

The boy’s clearly out of his depth. “Look, ser, orders are orders-”

“What’s your name, son?” Son? The two of them could be elder and younger brother. (Well, they couldn’t – Alistair’s blond, the boy’s got hair like a carrot.)

“Linvel, ser-”

“Linvel. Listen to me. You’ve got the shit job. Graveyard shift.” (I don’t miss the way the boy shudders when Alistair says that. File that for later.) “Responsibility and decisions, and no backup, and you’re wondering if you’re in the right already, for all that you probably volunteered. If things were going well, there would be five of you here. I’m guessing the bann won’t thank you for turning away another sword, am I right?”

“My orders-”

“Clearly weren’t meant to apply to Teagan’s friends and allies. Let us in, and I’ll help you bar the door again myself.”

Well, that worked. And true enough to his word, Alistair helps the lad put the massive bar back across the gates properly. He’s absolutely showing off those muscles of his – I suppose it has the boy impressed. Honestly.

Anyway, it’s not far to the town chantry, but the feeling that something’s so very wrong just keeps getting worse and worse. The streets should be full of people. I make sure my blades are to hand; I see Leliana do the same with hers. She does look odd with a sword baldric on over a novice’s robe.

And what the chantry square reminds me most of is the camp at Ostagar. There should be a market here – what we’ve got is grim-faced men and women in no particular colours, no particular armour either, and it’s odd, it’s like they’ve just risen in the middle of the afternoon. There’s a couple of matrons doling out what looks to me very much like a breakfast; there’s a couple of stacks of spears and bills to hand, there’s a man over there ignoring the bowl of gruel sat next to him as he’s winding fletchings onto crossbow bolts, and I can hear a forge going like the demons themselves are running it. Alistair looks around in about as much disbelief as I do, and Leliana asks in disquieted tones where’s the siege. I just shake my head.

We’re spotted pretty quick, but they don’t challenge us – they’ve got no idea what to do with us, clearly. Alistair dithers for a moment, just like they do, so I call out for someone to take us to the bann, and, well. Turns out that worried sleepy humans take orders real easy. A woman with the look of town guard about her has us follow her into the chantry with a businesslike tone.

And where were the town guard? Here, is where. The woman who showed us in here keeps moving, as do Morrigan and I – Alistair and Leliana stop themselves dead in shock. The place is like a bloody hospital. Men and women laid out in row after bandaged row, the omnipresent muttered drone of the Chant of Light coming not from the chanters but from a tired-looking altarboy reading aloud, as the robed sisters and even the place’s chanters are tending the injured.

Our guide shows us up to one of the nurses, a rangy black-bearded middle-aged man a little poorer dressed than the others, in leather breeches and his under-tunic – he finishes changing a dressing on a long nasty ragged cut and turns on the third time the woman says “Milord?”

“What now-” he takes us in – “uh. Do I know you?”

“I believe so, my lord.” Alistair puts his fist to his breast. “I suppose I was little more than shoulder-high the last time we met?”

“Alistair?” The bann blinks. “Maker’s Bride, it is – how extraordinary. Quite the man you became – forgive me my attire, boy, I’m afraid we’re somewhat putting all hands to the pumps here. Tell me you’re here with a score of your brothers, and I’ll praise your name every day of my life. Tell me you’re here with a mage, and I’ll tell you you’re a bloody miracle.”

At least he has the sense not to look at Morrigan. “I, uh. You do know I’m a Warden, not a Templar, ser?”

The older shem shrugs. “Same bloody difference, when you get down to it, right? I’m guessing you’re here to help?”

“What’s going on? Surely the darkspawn haven’t reached this far already? And the walls are hardly-”

“You mean you don’t know? Maker’s breath.” He shakes his head. “Boy, I don’t know why you came here, but I beg of you. We need every sword.”

Alistair nods immediately. “You’ve ours, of course, for whatever good it’ll do – but that’s three of us, at a push. What’s going on?”

“Where to start – well, where to end’s more the question.” There are dark circles under the bann’s slightly bulging eyes. “The town is cursed. The castle is worse. The dead are walking.”

“The… dead. Actual walking corpses. Not slavering manlike beasts?”

“Slavering I’ll grant you, but they’re corpses for sure, dug themselves out the ground, and after the first night we recognised some of the faces.” He curls his lip. “They’ve come every day for the past week. Starts an hour after sundown, and keeps going till they’re bored of it. After the second night we sent everyone away that would go.” He snorts. “After the third we sent a rider to the Circle. Ser Barthol fell on the second night; Ser Priam lost his good eye, night before last; we only ever did have the two full Templars here. I thought you had to be our long-delayed saviours.” His voice drops to a hiss that won’t carry. “You don’t have to be a military genius to see we’re not going to hold much longer. I have three knights-errant and five men-at-arms who can still fight; the town guard’s down to twelve able-bodied; I’m putting gaff poles and bill-hooks in the hands of fishermen and burghers too stubborn to leave. Even hired the guards right out from under a dwarf merchant – the little bugger rabbited, but his bully-boys stayed bought. What do you have, in truth?”

Alistair looks at me and the other two. “What you see before you. Kallian’s a Warden like I am and Leliana knows her way around a weapon, though we should see if we can scare her up some armour. Morrigan wouldn’t know a spear if it bit her.”

“Huh. Better than naught.” An idea strikes him. “The templars seemed to know a lot about the walking dead, and the buggers seemed to fear them. They teach you much of that kind of thing in Warden school?”

Alistair shakes his head; Morrigan shifts uneasily, like she knows more but ain’t about to talk. “They’re coming just from the castle?”

“And the lake. Walking up out of it. We’ve got some barricades, but…” The bann shrugs his meaty shoulders. “That’s five armoured men on one and six on the other. Maybe another ten each side who can probably put the right end of a pointed stick in the foe best of three. But without a templar to push them back or a mage to turn them into toads, without something to give our people a breather, it’ll get… bad. Bad enough last night with twice that number of competent people, but it’s not just the idiots who get hurt when somebody buggers up. Another night of this and I’ll have nurses on the barricades.”

Alistair sets his jaw. “A Warden is tireless, my lord, and unlike a lot of these things it’s not so much of a metaphor as you might think. Worst comes to the worst, put Kallian and me on that path and you’ll get your breather.” Again, Morrigan’s like there’s something on the tip of her tongue, but won’t talk.

“Any of you ever led, in battle?” He looks at the three of us with weapons. “Bugger. All right. I’ll stick you on the landward side under Ser Paget; put ’em down and burn ’em. Morrigan, you said your name was?” She nods. “You can carry oil. We’re not low on supplies like that, not yet. Any lulls you see, just soak the dead and burn ’em.”

“Might I not rather stay here, ser, and nurse the wounded?” She puts a little catch of fear in her voice that something tells me is as false as anything.

He gives her a dark look. “Plenty of wounded up there, afore long.”

“Yes, milord.” The intonation’s pretty exactly right. Knowing her, I suspect she practiced this in a mirror.

“Right.” He straightens. “Now, if there’s naught further?”

I open my big mouth. “Ser, we came here to see the arl. In the morning -”

“If we’re still alive by then, my girl, we can see all the arls you like.” Not your anything, you – “Now be on with you. I’ve bandages to change.”

*

Morrigan doesn’t grab my wrist to take me aside as we walk out, but that’s because I move my hand faster than she does. She jerks her head away from the others and once we’re out of earshot she rounds on me. Her voice is very quiet. “This is not far short of unbearable.”

I frown. “Go on?”

“I could help them,” she hisses. “I could… damned well save lives, in there, right now. I-if they weren’t such ignorant swine.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Nothing.” She grinds her teeth a moment. “All right. Fine. Get them to accept help from an unholy source, from a mage who doesn’t fit their world-view, and I can help. As it is…” She tails off. I wait. Eventually she speaks again. “My mother trained me to heal. It is not my greatest talent, but it is a piece of my art of which I am proud, that I can take a thing which is broken and make it not so. And in there, right now, are five lives I could save if they were not so pig-headed.” She clenches a fist; her words slip by like the edge of a knife. “I am tempted to take on another shape and go where I need not watch them die avoidably.”

I meet her eyes. “I’ll talk to Teagan.”

She scowls. “Not on my account you won’t.”

“If you said -”

“If you so much as hint that you came with a mage, it’s obvious that it is I. No. If you fall, it’s a different story, and they can go and fuck themselves if they object. But otherwise, I shan’t aid where it clearly isn’t wanted.” She swallows. “It is just – harder than I had expected. To make a thing happen, one must want it to happen. You’ll never find a trained healer who is less than put out at – gah. I thank you for listening, Kallian. Let us catch up with the others.”

*

The town isn’t built to be defended this way around. The path up to the castle is uncomfortably steep and not straight; the Redcliffe militia have blocked it at the bottom with a barricade of wood and rubble, trying to site it where they can best put their numbers to use, but the attackers will have the momentum of high ground. There are about twice the numbers of people the bann gave, about thirty people all told, but looking at them I can see what he means; there’s a lot of determination mixed in with their fear, but most of ’em have even less idea of what to do with a spear than I. The men-at-arms look like they last slept a month or so ago, and the knights are trying to put a brave face on it, but this barricade, it does not smell of victory.

Alistair’s greeted like a brother. Not so much for his connection with the town, though one of the knights does turn out to know his name, as for the heavy brigandine he’s in and the stout grey shield he’s bearing. Leliana, hastily kitted out in the leather cuirass of a guard who won’t be needing it, is hardly looked twice at, and I swear that when this is over she and I will sit down and discuss how I’ll avoid being mistaken for a thirteen-year-old lad lying furiously, because there ain’t nobody calling her ‘boy’ for all she’s not six inches taller than me and hardly that much broader. The third time a shem looks down at me and says that my da will keep me right, I take my cap off and tell him in my thickest Denerim street cant that he’s half a kingdom away, thank’ee, and bloody glad thing ’cause the man don’t know a battleaxe from a besom, and I jam the cap back on my head and turn away. And after that I get some peace to go with the funny looks.

I hate this, the waiting. Morrigan’s using the time organising the stretcher bearers – a little surprised to find herself the oldest and least scared of the noncombatants, she’s got them marshalled into teams and is talking quickly and quietly to them about what’s going on and how to avoid getting eaten. Wish somebody would give the fighters that briefing. We’ve not quite got enough people in heavy armour to make a full front rank – Alistair and the two knights are holding the centre, the men-at-arms either side, with Leliana on the one end and me on the other. I’m on the right-hand, the inside of the curve of the path, where the press is like to be thickest. I’ve fought in crowds before, of course, but not generally where everyone was trying to kill me – I’ll be fine.

It’s harder to hate the shems when you see them like this, scared and tired and cold like regular people, out of their fine houses and lined up against the dark. Easier to be glad of their clumping size and brutish strength when they’re holding a line for you, yeah? There’s no alienage in Redcliffe. The vhenadahl tree won’t grow in this soil, and you could uncharitably say that the difference between a squalid ghetto and a proper alienage is the tree. But the only People here are a brother and sister of about fourteen, the smallest of the gaggle of serious-faced young people with Morrigan. It’s tempting to imagine that I’m fighting for them and them alone, that we’re all here just to defend these two of my kind here – it’s tempting, but it’s not right. I’ll not do those who’ve bled for this land a disservice by denying their cause.

They light the torches as it gets darker; they gutter and smoke. One of the knights has a lightstone for his helm. The light it sheds is illogical, sourceless, cold, literally something out of dream. Makes everything look a little unreal. And the mist doesn’t help, rolling off the lake and… down from the hill? Right. I draw my long blade from its oiled scabbard with hardly a whisper. The others with swords do the same. A sword’s like a nobleman, it’s no earthly use for anything sensible, only good for one thing. The grip’s sized for a shem man with big hands, but it does me fine as a two-hander. Dammit, but my heart’s beating quicker. I’ve met worse than this before. The darkspawn are ten times worse than any poxy walking corpse. Funny how that don’t make it better –

Here they come. You’d kind of expect the walking dead to, well, walk – these are coming at the run. Complete silence but the pounding tread of their feet. The spearpoints poking over the barricade beside me are wavering, the men and women on the other end of those poles shaking almost too bad to hold ’em. Alistair glances to his right, sees Ser Paget’s pale worried face under his helmet and decides to take matters into his own hands – he takes a deep breath and bellows, “REDCLIFFE!” at a volume I don’t think I’d ever heard a man make before. I raise my voice with the others, and not quietly either, and the cry goes up from the whole of the sorry unit, and then they hit us and it’s chaos.

A fight nearly always is. But this is worse. I’ve not got a great deal of space to work with, but the barricade ain’t hard for these things to climb, and apparently whatever’s animating them knows how to hurdle. The body of a shem lady, must be forty or so in her tattered dress, leaps onto the barricade and between the spearpoints; I take an ankle out from under her with a flicker of the blade and waste time putting a two-handed stab up under her ribcage as she falls. Waste, I say, because one of them behind me puts a spearpoint in under her chin. I’ve got my foot on the now motionless corpse pulling my sword out when another pair come up over in much the same way; one of them takes a nice braced fisherman’s gaff in the gut and the other one would pretty much land on me if I weren’t quick on my feet. It falls behind me with a slash opened in its belly from the dirk that just turned up in my right hand; I get my sword out of the one corpse and put it in the next without even turning around, and the terrified woman it was about to savage sees my point come out its chest and it sags.

Leliana’s got her stolen sword one-handed and a woodsman’s axe in the other; not a battle-axe, a proper wood-axe with a broad blade, and she’s using it for necks and elbows. I’d wager this weren’t the first time she’s seen the walking dead, neither – she’s not fighting like you’d fight men, she’s not going for killing blows, she’s aiming for strikes that cripple and mangle, and she’s working through them completely unruffled like she’s chopping wood. Her sheer businesslike calm is almost visibly putting fight into the men behind her – they know about clearing branches, they’re even holding the exact tool for this, and the dreamlike quality to the light makes the danger all a bit less scary and real.

Alistair meets a charging corpse with a punch from his shield that spins it right round and breaks its back on the barricade. That swing he just made with his sword – if most men did that, it’d take the thing down for sure but it’d leave the edge of the weapon stuck in its spine – it takes one of the undead cleanly in half in a shower of ick. Here is a foe that needs raw brute strength and sheer force, or that’s his thought, and he’s providing both of those just as fast as the foe will come to him. He sees the man-at-arms to his left slip in the mud and without a thought in his head he chops down the man’s opponent with a blow that opens it from crown to crotch. Sure, he needed to step up onto the barricade to do that. But just let them come.

Let them come indeed. I’ve discovered, just like Alistair has, that these old corpses ain’t as tough as regular bodies – just about possible it’s me that’s different, not them, I guess – and I go from swift flickering blows at vulnerable points to wider sweeping slashes like a child would imagine you’d use a sword. And as I start to settle into it the people behind me start to trust me at my work – it’s almost like fending off a boat with a pole, it’s just coming in a bit harder, and it won’t be a moment till I’ve cut it down.

It becomes mechanical. We’re just killing them until they run out of things to kill – ohcrap – to my left a man goes down under a pair of frenzied creatures that used to be dead bodies and I step across to hold twice the width I was, because in that moment I have to trust the people behind me to sort that out, because if I turn my back I’m dead. Another one gets through where I was standing and I’m just plain lucky that I get to it before it does any worse than hiss, and even luckier that there was the slightest lull that let me do it. This just got unsustainable – I only have so much in the way of luck – all right. There is a way. I sweep up the fallen man’s sword as I come back past.

And in a gap between attackers I leap the barricade with a yell. Surely I can hold a much wider area if I’m free to swing two long blades. Not like I’ve done this before, but it’s not like these things are master warriors. Constant motion and there’s no way they’ll get their hands on me; those that try are in for a shock when they find that I can shatter their mouldering bones with a knee or an elbow, that I can slice an arm clean off with a draw-cut even. A few corpses later and there’s Alistair’s battle-cry again and the onslaught lessens a bit. My breath’s coming quick; my muscles are burning; the world is a dark haze with things in it that have to die. They aren’t trying to get past us. They’re trying to get at us, just the two of us. And as I realise that I move towards Alistair, so there’s a side I don’t need to watch, and he does the same. They call it back to back, in the stories, but it ain’t – there’s just a place where if they go for him, I can hit them, and if they go for me, he can. No idea how long I – we – can do this. But it’ll get them time to get that formation sorted.

And from behind me I can smell burning. Horrible smell. Ugh. Revolting. Nauseating. Burned flesh. Morrigan’s clearly getting – on – with –

The press drops right off. Lessens, slackens, and they draw back. First couple of them that do, I follow them; I cut them down. Then I realise they’re actually retreating. (Ugh. That stench!)

I actually drop to one knee, I’m breathing that hard. Dripping sweat despite the chill. My vision greys. It’s moments before I can take Alistair’s offered hand and get to my feet.

“Maker’s breath, Kallian.” He gives me a lopsided grin. “You might have warned me you were going to show me up.”

“Sorry, sorry.” I wipe ick from one of my blades in a mechanical motion. I’m drenched. “You gave me the idea, you know.”

“Never thought I’d survive it -” he winces as another gust of foul smoke wafts past us – “ugh! That smell’s nearly as bad as the bloody undead!”

Nearly as – My eyes sweep the line. Looking for Morrigan. There’s Leliana, leaning on the barricade panting, blade sheathed, her axe fallen from nerveless fingers. There are the men-at-arms, not so different, trying to get their breath, looking for a second wind. There are the young men and women our witch was talking to, at least, dragging corpses to the smouldering pile there – aha. There she is. Leaning back against the building, doing a good impression of someone too uselessly sickened to help.

“Get them ready for a second dance.” I gesture to the barricade and Alistair nods.

“Where you going?”

Half a smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before the band starts up again.”

“Got it.” And the two of us vault the barricade, and the look in the eyes of the defenders – okay. If it was these people’s support we needed for our war? We’d have no problem.

I find what else I was looking for – blood on me that’s actually mine – and I walk quickly through our lines holding the injury and looking concerned. Morrigan stands up from the wall at my approach, visibly steeling herself and gritting her teeth. “You hurt?”

“Excuse to talk to you,” I say, although that is my blood and come to think of it, it does sting like a bitch. “The spell. Yours?”

Her eyebrows go up. “Yes. Hunger – nnh.” She bites her lip, draws blood. “Hunger spirits, your charming religion calls them least-demons. Nausea’s not a common thing to dream of. They can’t – uh.” She puts her back against the wall again. “Handle it. The smoke. A cover. The warriors suspect? They all right?”

“They don’t.” I make a business of bandaging my arm. I’ll need to take this off, wash every inch of me before I rest. Filth in a cut isn’t a thing to joke about. “And they’ll live. Not as if battle ain’t nauseating on its own. How long…?”

She takes a deep breath, looks straight forward at nothing. “Not so long. Ever stuck your fingers down your own throat? Eventually I will -” She hisses. “Not easy, this. If I make it look easy, please be aware that this is because I am… extremely… good. At this. Most people, a minute at most. How are. Casualties?”

“Light.”

She nods, eyes closed, breathing through her nose. After a moment she says, “Go on with you.”

And I go back to the barricade, and I’ve got an eye out for the woman standing there with her eyes narrowed to slits and her knuckles white on that stick of hers, and when she crumples back down to the floor after a couple minutes more, I yell that I can hear ’em coming, and who’s to say I didn’t, ’cause there they are right on cue.

Fighting is about the most tiring thing you can do, the hardest exercise there is. Much as Alistair keeps calling us Wardens tireless, we aren’t, but we’re better than the others, poor bastards. That’s what’s going to kill us. They’re just plain going to run out of breath. There are too many of them, and they’re so aggressive – we might only be outnumbered three or so to one, but more than half our number aren’t what I’d call fighters, and the guys in proper heavy armour can’t swap for fresher men, because there aren”t any other veterans -.

Hells, week before last I was a serving wench who moonlighted as a vigilante. Who am I fooling that I’m a veteran? I’m only keeping ahead here by dint of sheer strength and two blades that are quite rapidly starting to dull. And my own wind isn’t infinite –

An especially loud and urgent scream from somewhere to my left and our line is buckling in the middle, and as the formation goes I go into the enemy with a wordless battlecry, burning everything I’ve got left to try and give our troops a chance to form up again, knowing that Alistair’s going to be doing the same. I can hear him but I can’t see him. I hear him yell – Andraste protect him, that didn’t sound good –

And then the press slackens. I cut one down and there’s nothing behind it. I push forward soon as I can, back up to the barricade, see nothing on the path, and turn to surround and outnumber the demons for once, see how they bloody like it, and then they’re all down and I’m looking dazed and panting at Alistair, his helmet gone, his face and his fair hair crusted with blood and ick, and those who still have breath for it raise a cheer. And this time it’s me raising him to his feet, and it’s quite a haul he needs.

There’s a runner coming up the road. It’s the boy who was guarding the gate this morning, asking how we fare. And he’s looking at the carnage at our barricade, at the piles of mutilated corpses and the splintered spears and notched blades and the guttering fires, and he says without irony that we must’ve had it lighter. The bann’s fallen, he says, and a strong wind could blow what’s left right over, but they held.

Leliana has the men singing as they start to pile the corpses for burning, some kind of shanty that their dear mothers would turn in their graves to hear the words to, and frankly I’m no longer surprised that she knows verses that half the fishermen never heard; we leave her to it and compare notes with Morrigan. Funny how every single one of those stretchered down to the chantry by her kids will live to see the morning. The only people we lost were two of the men-at-arms, overrun when the line broke. She looks me over, tuts at the mud-soaked bandage on my arm, and says (and I chorus along with her) that I’m to wash top to toe before I sleep, and present to her after, because dignity’s nothing to a cut gone rotten.

And then she looks properly at Alistair, swaying slightly beside me, and what little colour she’s got drains from her cheeks and her glance at me might as well have been a slap in the face. She pretty much manhandles the unresisting fellow down to sit against a wall, clicks her fingers to get him to look at them, moves them to one side and another and nods, chewing on her lip. “Alistair?” He looks at her dumbly. “Your head’s all over blood. How did you lose your helmet?”

He puts his gauntleted hand to his head as if only now remembering. “Oh. Yeah. Lost my helmet. I was standing on the barricade and a big bastard jumped on me; I fell on my back, with it pounding away; it must’ve slammed my head against the floor a few times before someone speared it. Got my bell rung pretty hard.”

“And your helmet came off?”

“Must have.” His voice is very slightly slurred.

Morrigan blinks once, and her pupils are slitted like a cat’s. Blinks again, and they’re back to how they should be. He didn’t notice. “Damn you for a stubborn – so help me, I’m – ugh.” She looks to me. “Mistress Dener. May I please have permission to work my art on this man without his say-so.”

“What?” Alistair blinks. “Wait. That’s me. No, wait. Look, no magic. Please? I’m trying to cut down-”

She doesn’t look at him. “That would be why you’re not being asked. Stay still or I’ll make you.”

I bite my lip. “Without it?”

“It’s not a large chance that he’s already a dead man, but I’d rather not add to it by waiting.”

“Shows what you know.” He raises a finger. “‘M already a dead man. Takes some longer’n others.”

She narrows her eyes. “Or by turning him into a-”

“For crying out loud.” My voice doesn’t carry, but it does sharpen. “You’re doing it already. You’re just saying this to distract him.”

She looks at me in flat shock. “You really think that of me, don’t you?”

“Do it, then!” Bloody witches. I don’t care that she heard the worry in my voice. Bloody – she’s going to belabour the point – “I mean it. Argue later.”

I swear, I will never understand these bloody people. She nods, closes her eyes, opens them again to show the cat-pupils and looks back at Alistair. Takes a good look at him with those funny eyes, up and down like she’s checking him out, and he’s holding still because you know what’d be worse than having a spell cast on you? Right. So she takes the fingers of her left hand and she wipes his forehead clean of muck, gentle like, then whispers something in a language I don’t speak and puts her right index finger to touch him right between his eyes.

I’m sure someone saw the green light around her hand and in her eyes, just then. She tried to keep it subtle and easy, sure. But someone must have seen. I’d have seen, even if I weren’t crouched next to them. And the focus goes out of Alistair’s eyes and he sits there like an idiot for a moment, and then his head lolls sharply to one side like a thrown-away poppet and he takes a quick deep breath in like he only just remembered he was supposed to be breathing, and so does Morrigan.

She sits back. “H’m. There was bleeding on the inside of his skull about two inches around from the left ear. He’d have gone to sleep tonight and never woken – or if he had, odds are he would have been struck blind.”

“Okay.” And when Alistair looks back at her his honest blue eyes are clear and sharp. “That was… the third most unpleasant fucking thing to happen to me today. Or is it after midnight yet?”

A frown. “Or he could simply have awoken even stupider.”

“And here’s the fourth.” He swallows. His voice is slightly sing-song. “I was wrong, you were right. Whether or not you actually did save my life, that was a good turn.” A wince. “Thank you.”

She nods briskly. “The world will go a vastly large amount more smoothly if the two of you, at least, understood and acknowledged the impeccable degree of honesty and integrity I’ve shown the both of you since we met. That will do as a favour in exchange for the number of times I shall likely save that life of yours going forward.”

“Yeah.” He nods gingerly, as if surprised when it doesn’t hurt. “Whatever else I’ll say, Morrigan, you know your business. I’ve never met a more competent, honest, or downright honourable apostate.”

“So close! One day we shall have you finishing entire sentences without giving me insult.” She offers him a hand. “Come. We need to get every person who fought tonight to wash every cut and scrape, and to scrub their hands within an inch of their life before anybody eats or cooks.”

I look at the barricade. “No more tonight?” The thought of another wave is enough to produce a flood-tide of exhaustion in me.

She shakes her head. “There are three hundred and eighteen spirits. A hundred and seventy-five came down from the castle, although tomorrow – because we shall have thoroughly burned those corpses – they will have to recover the remains before they can fight properly. Don’t be misled; they can form themselves bodies from ash, even, provided it all came from one thing that once lived. A hundred and forty-three found that the town’s dead are scattered in the lake once they are burned, and that is where those came from. The ones that withdrew from the lakeside, likely did so to preserve the bodies they had painstakingly gathered.”

“How’d you know all that?”

“It may have escaped your notice, but I had a deal of time to divine, when I was not carrying complaining soldiers or working thankless humiliating exhausting magics in trembling fear of discovery.” She gestures to the castle. “The castle’s warded – not just its old wards, which are as strong as those walls look, but another set, newer and taller, if pointless. I believe there to be a mage inside, most probably ‘an apostate’, as if that gives him (definitely him) and me any kind of kinship – a mage so stultifyingly arrogant as to make Alistair seem humble and self-effacing.”

“He’s the cause of all this?”

“I don’t see him helping, do you?” She shrugs. “If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and it says it’s a duck, and it’s not my mother on a Thursday…”

“I’ll talk to the bann.”

“He fell. The runner said.”

“Then I’ll pick him up and talk to him. Come on.”

*

Reports of the bann’s death were overblown, but he’s not getting back to the front line any time soon. He’s refused a bed in the chantry’s makeshift hospital, but they’ve at least coaxed him out of his battered armour and into a chair. His right arm’s in a sling and his colour’s not good, but he’s still quite happily barking orders with a no-nonsense tone when we walk up.

“Alistair. Heard it was a little lighter down on your end.”

The younger man nods. “I wouldn’t have liked it to be any closer, ser. Two good men down right in front of me because we couldn’t push the zombies back ten bloody feet.”

“I’ll not disagree with that. If the buggers hadn’t made off when they did, I’d be in the queue for an audience with the Maker right now – me and half the men. Just spoke with the revered mother – we’ve three who might be recuperated enough to put back into armour for tomorrow night, but that won’t go halfway to getting the waterfront flank defended proper. If we don’t get those reinforcements today…”

“We need a change of plan.” I don’t duck my head as the bann turns his eyes on me. Why can I face the walking dead no trouble, but eye contact still makes my skin prickle? “Bann, ser, we’re not going to grind them down. There’s three hundred of them, nearabouts, just like there’s been every night. And they can make those bodies out of ashes and bones at need. Killing ’em and burning the bodies just slows ’em down.”

He scowls. “One battle against the things and suddenly you’re a scholar, boy?”

That does it – I haul my cap off and brush my hair back behind my pointed ear like it was natural. “Not sure what they taught you wherever you grew, ser, but if a Warden says something ’bout the evil things of this land, you might want to make a little shift to listen, yeah? There’s three hundred eighteen demons doing this, leashed by a mage – a mortal man – pent in that castle there. I know we ain’t a siege, ser, but does it happen you’ll know your way inside?”

“Hmph.” He scratches his bearded chin. “Let’s allow you’re right for now, at least. Happens I do know of a postern gate, yes – not that it’ll help. I’ve a key to the ward, at least, but the gate’s barred on the inside – we tried it on the second day – and the path up to that gate’s not something you could get a ram up.”

“Just you let us worry about that, ser.” I bow my head to him. “With luck, this time tomorrow you’ll be resting that arm of yours before the arl’s own hearth.”

“I don’t like it,” he snorts. “Like a bloody tavern tale. Black magic, the walking dead, curses and evils and Wardens and fell-handed elves swingin’ swords bigger than they are. Next you’ll be telling me you’re growing wings and flying in, or riding over on your pet bloody griffin.” He holds up a hand as Alistair opens his mouth to object. “Look. I can see the facts plain as you can. We can’t move the wounded, we won’t abandon them or our homes, but neither can we hold against such… unnatural things. And just because I don’t bloody like it don’t mean you won’t get my help. The ward key’s worked into my signet ring. Do you go tonight?”

I shake my head. “The morning. We’ll find us quarters and sleep.”

“Well, regardless.” One-handed, he slips the ring off his finger. “Alistair.”

“Ser.”

“I bloody hate this. More like a fairy-tale by the word. Take my ring tonight, because buggered if I’ll be up at the crack of dawn. I know you’ll do your best.”

“Yes, ser.”

“Always did say blood will tell.” He gives a rough smile. “Rest. Get up early. Make an end of this. And give me my sodding ring back when you’re done.”

As Alistair’s bowing and scraping, Morrigan draws me aside. Her voice is quiet. “Um.”

“Yes?”

“Is it that you’re thinking that I have some way of magicking open a barred door from the wrong side?”

“Do you?”

She frowns. “Do you remember when I told you that I am not a siege engine?”

“‘S what I thought. But then I thought – what’s the difference between an ogre and a battering ram?”

“I am not an ogre, either-”

I smile at her. “Alistair and a good stout crowbar are the next best thing. If you don’t want him and me to outdo you, you’ve got eight hours to work out how you open a barred door.”

She looks at me speechless for an instant, then shakes her head. “You and my mother both. Wherever you learned how to get the best out of people, do please let me know. So I can avoid the place as if there’s plague.”

*

The postern’s a stout tight-fitting wooden door, same colour as the stone, and it’s not exactly the easiest to find: you count your steps up and around the steep curving path up the tor, and you get Leliana to measure it ’cause the builder was a human and Alistair’s stride is too long. The bann’s ring touches to what looks like solid rock, and the door is suddenly there and dream-logic says it always was.

Can’t just stick a sword through and raise the bar, that’d be easy. But this gate’s not designed with us in mind, even so. Alistair looks it up and down, finding a gap he could fit a prybar into; Morrigan stops him with a gentle hand and a smile, and says that a poor shapeshifter she’d be if this gave her trouble, and then there’s a pretty little green gecko on his arm where her hand was and she’s lucky that his swearword doesn’t come with a reflex to throw it just as far as he can.

Leliana smiles and claps delighted hands and complements the lizard on her fine scales, and it drops its jaw in a parody of a grin before eeling through the gap and inside. Where there’s a squeal of surprise and a startled thump, followed by a clatter, followed by a variety of choice words from a grab-bag of foreign languages, although that one’s an elvish swearword that would land anyone a clip round the ears. Morrigan’s voice has fangs as she asks us to wait just a few moments, if we’d be so good, and I can hear… cloth rustling? Then the scrape of the bar.

It’s dark in there. Morrigan’s shoes, her staff and the sticks she uses to keep her hair in place are in a heap on the floor, and her face is a little red; she holds up a finger as I raise my eyebrows. “You remember,” she says, “how I made a particular point to tell you of a double layer of wardings on this place? How I specifically pointed it out?” I wouldn’t be so bold as to grin at that. Apparently the other two would, and Morrigan seems to decide on self-deprecating over dignified. “Well… yes. It appears that some people around here weren’t listening to me when I was trying to sound clever.”

Leliana’s voice is very quiet. “Does the ward’s master know you are ‘ere?”

“No, thank the gods.” Morrigan puts an experimental finger out to probe against empty air just inside the gate. “With three hundred little hunger-spirits popping up and down around here, I certainly wouldn’t want a warning every time they brush against the walls, and it seems he didn’t either.” A disapproving tone. “The man is far more interested in giant throbbing displays of power than he is in doing anything with it.”

Leliana titters, and I arch an eyebrow; Alistair just mutters something about needing to recruit a man or three into this outfit. The two of them light the torches they brought; I don’t need one, not with someone else carrying one, and Morrigan squints against the bright, her eyes flashing like a cat’s. Off we are.

Like any proper castle, or so I’m told, Redcliffe’s got a warren of tunnels under. You’d not call them all the dungeons – there’s not a lord in Ferelden who’d keep so many prisoner – but a castle set up for a siege is a castle set up with what might as well be a set of warehouses down here, and that’s before you think of the well and the furnace and the rooms for those as don’t live in the town or the keep. And in Redcliffe, the postern is past the tombs and just off from the dungeon.

It’s empty and quiet and dark down here. Without being asked I move ahead – no point in crowding around a light when all I need’s a glimmer – and look for other lights. Surely the gaoler needs one.

And, well, so. I find what’s got to be the dungeon door. You wouldn’t go to this sort of effort on something less. Big solid righteous door, the kind you’d want a battering ram for. Shame the key’s in it, really. On the other side, right, but – wait. Someone locked himself in? I hiss for the others even as I’m poking the key out the door and fishing it under (ugh – the stench of the place!) The lock wouldn’t be past me, not with tools, but lockpicks ain’t precisely for sale next to the apples, you know?

“Huh-hello?” A man’s voice from inside, the moment we open the door. (Dammit, I should have heard him breathing.) Cracked and thready, more with privation than age, I’d say. “Hello? For the love of the Maker’s Bride, is anybody there?”

“Hush,” I hiss, “or the answer ain’t a one you’d like.”

His voice cracks. “Oh, thank Andraste, thank you – My lady, water, please. The dipper’s over there, it’s been so long – please -”

Alistair makes to move; Leliana puts her hand on his arm. “Morrigan?”

The witch wrinkles her nose. “There is a magical door on that cage. Are you a wizard, prisoner?”

“Yes!” The hoarse voice has a funny flat little echo. “No! What d’you want me to say? Only give me some water, I’m begging you! I’ll be all the wizard you need!” There’s a pale haggard face at the iron grate of the door, dark-bearded, brown hair long and lank. There’s no noise from the other cells. Six in here.

Did I mention that the dungeon stinks? Just being inside it a little way makes me want to wash from tip to toe. I look at Morrigan. “Can we do that safely?”

She frowns. “On the one hand, be it never so ancient, I couldn’t see a dozen demons and an archmage past the rune that’s struck on that door. On the other – it is a cage. And of those I am not fond.” She traipses over to the barrel of water and draws some, passes her hand idly over it, then gives him to drink.

Don’t think I’ve ever seen colour come back into a man’s cheeks that fast before. Normally you say that because someone’s pale and shaking and they stop, and their lips stop being blue or whatever? This man gulps the water all down and breathes deep and when he exhales he’s looking like they threw him in here only yesterday. For true, the pallor goes from him from one blink to another and I swear his beard gets shorter. And Morrigan pulls back from the bars quick, like he was going to snap at her.

He opens his hands, palms up, in front of himself and he looks down. His voice is a lot stronger, although still not what I’d call a pleasant one – a nasal baritone. “My apologies for the shock, ladies, ser. I haven’t had much call for visitors since the t-torch went out, so I stopped making an effort.” He swallows. Visibly struggling for control. “Sweet Andraste’s sake, don’t leave me here.”

“Keep your damned voice down.” My tone is less than sympathetic.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says bitterly. “I yelled, you know, after everything went wrong. For days. For help. I could help them, I shouted. They wouldn’t believe, or they couldn’t do anything, or they didn’t care – they won’t care about you, either. So we can make all the noise we want.”

“Just so that everybody is aware,” Morrigan says carefully as she returns the water dipper to its barrel without really looking at it. “What I took for a patina of age, on the rune there, it’s not. It’s scarring. Damage. Something has been beating on that door, and on the walls around it. Something -” she puts the butt of her staff to the floor – “strong. Very strong.”

“Really. I wonder who that was?” The mage’s voice is like he’s skating on the edge of sanity.

“Is this the one we’re after?” Alistair’s hand is on his sword-hilt.

The mage in the cell snorts, but Morrigan answers – “Unlikely. The inner ring of wards are not anchored in anything – nobody could have raised a permanent enchantment of that size in a week. That means they’re being reinforced, probably daily at noon or sunset. And this man has been in here for – what – five days?”

“Try fifteen.” The mage folds his hands. “They left me alone when it all went wrong.”

Morrigan frowns. “Kallian, how did you get in here?”

“Pushed the key out the door, opened the lock, why?”

“That’s what I thought I saw.” She purses her lips, and all of an instant (or had it been there all along?) there’s the suggestion of a point of green light just at the top of her staff, and the mage in the cell can’t take his eye off it. “They ‘left you all alone’ with the key inside the door?”

And, well, a slim little knife appears point-down in Leliana’s fingers about as fast as something very similar does in mine, and the prisoner’s eyes go wide. “No! No, please! I-I can explain!”

“Do.” I use the voice I use to talk to people I’m holding by the neck. “Take your time.”

“Uh.” He remains utterly still, except to breathe. “I uh. The key, it’s the spare, I nicked it from the hook, the hook on the wall, behind you, look.”

“Alistair.”

He takes his eyes off the mage. “There’s a hook, bare of keys.”

A frantic nod. “Uh-huh. And mage-hand isn’t my strong suit, but I had nothing but time, and by the time I found that it didn’t open my cell I was, uh, I thought maybe if I opened the door then somebody might hear me if I made noise again -”

“So there is a hole in your door, then.” Morrigan’s eyes glitter in the dark.

“Yes, all right! I did that!” He’s breathing shallow. I can’t read him. “I pushed a hole in the bloody door eventually, like loosening a bar with a spoon-handle -”

“Like poking a hole in four feet of solid stone, you mean, we can both see the size of that ward. Kallian, we can’t trust this man.”

“Is his door openable?”

She nods slightly. “The physical lock is already undone – the key, as he said. From this side it’ll pull open with a finger’s pressure. From the other it’s logically impossible that it could ever open.”

The mage nods with pathetic eagerness. “She’s as wise as she is beautiful – any of you could -”

“Oh, get a hold of yourself,” I hiss. “Who are you, to be in here at all?”

“I’m Wizard Jowan of the Circle of Ferelden-”

“And me, I am the White Divine,” butts in Leliana. “You are no simple mage, or they would have simply given you to the Chantry, yes?” Her voice drops and for a moment the beautiful woman turns poisonous. “Please to cease with the bullshit, ser, or something will ‘appen that you do not like to see.”

He swallows. “All… right. My name is Jowan, and I uh. Trained. At the Circle.” I don’t think it would be possible for the man to look any less trustworthy. “But I, um. Long story short, I’m an… apostate. I came here looking to, I uh, um.” He trundles to a halt, bites his lip. “Right. I was hired. As a tutor. To the young master. I taught him literature, and rhetoric, poetry and art – and uh.”

The Art, you mean.” Morrigan’s becoming increasingly irritated with the way that he doesn’t finish his sentences. “He’d shown the Gift and his parents hired you to teach him to smother it.”

“Some Gift.” There’s bitterness in that tone. “Andraste witness, I tried. What I went through at the Circle – his poor mother – I couldn’t say no.” He looks away. “But, uh. His father, the arl, he fell sick. And the little lad just, all he could think of was to help – I tried to tell him not to, I -” He swallows hard. “I could stop him, when I was at liberty. I could – physically prevent him. I’m… not bad, at what I do. But the arl continued to sicken, and his wife, she took it into her head that I was to blame, and I was thrown in here and then a week later everything went wrong!”

“And were you?” Leliana ‘s voice is even, her eyes piercing. “To blame?”

He shakes his head. “Is a knife to blame for the blood it spills? Is the hound the killer of the hart, or the boar?”

The question like a dagger-thrust. “Who?”

He shakes his head.

Leliana shrugs equably. “Then I am done here.” She sheathes the knife she’s still holding and turns to go.

“No! Wait!” Jowan grabs onto the bars of his door and the little light at the top of Morrigan’s staff abruptly takes on an eye-stabbing brightness – he takes his hands off with a noise of fear, holds them up and open, and it subsides – “Please! I’m – please!”

Leliana walks close enough that she could touch him through the bars if she chose. “Something for you, maybe?”

“I don’t know!” he squeaks. “I don’t know and that’s the truth! A woman came to me, while the t-templars had me, and she offered me – inducements. A royal pardon, a place as a kept mage of a noble court, a place of safety – I swear, I have no idea who she was!”

She narrows her eyes. “Surely she gave you at least a word or two of proof? You are not the type to do all this for nothing, no?”

“Gold.” He says it hoarsely, like the word is sharp around the edges. (Alistair’s knuckles whiten on the hilt of his blade.) “And the templars accepted her like she was one of their own. There were no names. On my power I swear it.”

“The poison? I assume that it was the poison that you used, and not a spell that could be traced?”

“It is in the lady’s dressing-room!” He’s shaking. “Disguised as perfume. Where a servant might hide it. I don’t know what it is – it’s nothing I ever studied.”

Leliana nods slowly. “Thank you. Alistair?”

A growl. “Yes?”

“Please feel free to follow the dictates of your conscience. I shall ‘ave you place no particular constraint upon your behaviour on my account.”

“Noted.” He doesn’t take his eyes off Jowan. Barely blinks.

“Thank you. And Jowan – you ‘ave been so ‘elpful. If that is truly your wish, I shall open for you the door?”

The mage looks from her to the menacing bulk of Alistair, to the door that right at this moment is the only thing between the two of them. “No!” He backs off a pace. “No – I’ve – I’ve – Changed my mind. I’ve decided I need to face justice for what I’ve done. Leave me here.”

“You are sure?”

He nods fervently.

“Well, then. I shall leave you my torch, at least, that you will not be eaten by gruesome things in the darkness.” She walks over to the sconce and takes the dead one out, then turns to him and her voice goes cold. “But do not mistake me.” And she plunges the torch into the water barrel, then jams it into the sconce.

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Eight

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*

We choose the quietest way up rather than the fastest, and the dungeon stairs give way to the back stairs. The floor, from stone to wood. And Alistair’s on very familiar ground, and shows it. He asks Morrigan where she recommends we start, and she shakes her head tightly – can’t search for footprints without leaving her own. So we’ll –

A light tread on the stairs. Someone’s coming. Easy enough to go a landing ahead of the others and ambush what turns out to be a woman maybe ten years my senior, a little shorter than me, just nipping down to – I have a hand over her mouth and I keep it there as she goes very very still. Time for me to do the talking.

Onethara, lethallan,” I hiss in her ear. Just hope that they use the old words the same here as I’d use ’em at home, where that’s about the strongest ‘I’m on your side’ you get – “I’m Kallian, and we’re here to help, me and three humans. I’m going to let go now, and don’t you scream.” I take my hands off her – she’s starting to shake – and I get where she can see me.

Her eyes go big, to see my garb. Her voice a frightened whisper. “Onet’ara, Kallian, I’m Ivaine. Who are you people?”

“Grey Wardens, but we’re doing a templar’s job of work today.” I jerk my head upstairs. “Ain’t we?”

“Maker preserve us.” She’s still shaking. “Y-you can still get out. There’s a way out, I can show you, it’s not clean but it works. Nobody’s seen you but me, and I’ve seen no one -”

“Like hell.” I look back round the corner and whistle – the landing is suddenly crowded. Alistair’s the one she sees first and, okay, I guess I’d back a step away from him were I in her place. “I said we’re here to make things right. Where do we start?”

She looks from me to the humans to the well-used arms we clearly have, and makes a decision. “The court’s in the great hall. They’re, they’re playing make-believe today. That’s, um the men-at-arms and the serving staff and the Arlessa and the young master.”

“And the arl?” Concern in Alistair’s voice.

She looks down and bobs slightly when she speaks, which just makes me want to kick him. “If you please, ser, he’s been ill these past two weeks.” She looks at me rather than him. “You’ll want to be speaking to the young master. Like a templar might, if you take my meaning, and Andraste guide you.”

I nod once. “Anything else we need to know?”

“N-no.” She shivers, once, violently. Doesn’t look directly at Alistair, but bobs to him again. “By your lordship’s leave I’m going to go and lock myself in my room, if that please you. And just d-don’t let compassion stay your hand.” She looks at me once more, as if to fix in her mind the image, turns from us quickly and heads off into the servants’ quarters.

There’s a moment when Morrigan looks from the elf’s retreating figure to me and back again. “Are you and she truly of the same kind?”

“Oh, don’t you start.”

“No, I mean it. What a life must she have led, to have made her-”

“Morrigan?” I grit my teeth. “Not here, or now. Ask me later, and don’t be surprised if I raise my voice a little. Suffice to say that if you’d known what you said just now, you wouldn’t have. C’mon.”

*

The place is echoingly empty. A castle’s a busy place – you’d expect voices talking, you’d expect people cleaning the floor, you’d expect the odd person to hustle by, and from the courtyard you’d think you’d have the bustle of any sort of community, but not here. Even the middle of the night, you’d have the graveyard shift. But there’s nobody. Dust is starting to build up. Alistair already looks uncomfortable enough at coming through here all armed. This can’t be good for his mood. And we reach the door to the hall and he stops to draw out a picture of the place for us in the dust, and we can hear the sound of music through the door.

Leliana looks at each of us. “Okay. I am not supposed to be taking the lead, but. Do any of you have a conception of what we ‘ave in there?”

Alistair raises his eyebrows. “Don’t tell me you are a templar.”

She gives a slightly inappropriate smile. “Ah – my mystique, it is diminished: I must say I am not. But I ‘ave worked beside them before. Morrigan, the pieces, I ‘ave put them into a shape I think will fit. You as well?”

Morrigan nods. “Either there is a third mage – or the boy is a prodigy the like of which is rarely seen, and our caged bird sang false – or this is not a mage at all.”

“Would you give this thing a name, that is not a mage?”

“The ‘young master’. He’s been raised to think of his Gift as demonic, and the spirits of the Fade as likewise – he wishes to avail himself of the one, and – his tutor being locked up, and regardless an idiot – he turns to the other. Likely raised in the habit of prayer, he puts out a well-tailored and accurate call for a spirit of baser emotion.” She frowns. “I do not know the boy, so I do not know what he wants. He is, what, fifteen?”

“Ten.” Alistair doesn’t look up from the map he’s drawing. “And before you ask, he was a toddler when last I clapped an eye on him.”

“So from the baser emotions, we have rage, fear, hunger, envy, desire, pride, hate.” Morrigan raises her eyebrows. “From the one working of his I’ve seen, I’ll rule out rage, envy, hunger and hate. It could be fear – the servant was terrified; most desire spirits prefer…. older prey, but a child can want things with a strength and a purity an adult cannot, so I will not rule them out. It could be pride – the working looks most like pride, but that could just be childishness-”

Alistair interrupts her. “Look, can the two of you stop dancing around the topic? If you’ve worked out what’s going on here, can you stop dancing around one another and tell your audience?”

Morrigan looks down at him. “I did. But in smaller words for the poorer-educated. We are reasoning from the fact that the wards we have seen, and a medium-term control over the behaviour of a court of multiple tens of people, are far too much magic for a mere child alone. The boy has made what he believes is ‘a deal with a demon’. He may or may not have got what he wants, but it has got what it wants, which is him. It has raised itself what it sees as a fine castle – the wards – and is setting up to do whatever it is that abominations do; the hunger-spirits are a side effect, albeit one that it could probably at least herd in a specific direction if it so wished. We are currently reasoning as to the breed of spirit -”

“Does it matter?” I say. “We kick the door down, crash the party, kill the boy-”

That does make Alistair look up. “Looks like I’m going away, then.”

“What?”

He stands, quick, deliberately intimidating. “Were you listening, back when you forced me to bare my heart to you? Would you like me to raise my voice and yell why I’ll not be a part of harm to that child?” He takes his eyes off mine and my pulse-rate catches up with me all of a sudden. “Leliana. You’re good at this. Tell me there is another way.”

“I do not want to see ‘arm to a child, but…” She bites her lip. “You said you were trained as a templar -”

“You were singing when I said that -”

“I ‘ave long ears. When was your last sacrament?”

He shakes his head. “Too long ago.”

“H’m. The abilities of a templar are no fairy-tale, and would have been – never mind. Which leaves me asking – Morrigan? Could you counteract the demon, alone?”

The witch considers. “Not easily. Can a builder of walls counteract the hurricane? The creature that used to be the boy – if this is what is going on at all – its weakness is its mortal flesh. At which point my mother’s lesson ceases with the advice ‘kill it’, but a loss of consciousness could work.” She shrugs. “I am not an abomination, but my weaknesses are similar. I could not cast through a choke-hold after a moment or two, save to try to escape it or breathe, and while an abomination may be stronger than I am in many important ways, it is definitionally weaker of will. Attack its flesh.”

Leliana nods. “I plan to. Can you distract it long enough for me to ‘ave the chance?”

“That I can do, if I can figure what it is. Except that we have insufficient information to elucidate that. A demon of fear would be easiest, for fear is a simple spell. For a demon of pride I’d craft humiliation, again a common enough dream for all that I’m less familiar myself. For a demon of desire inside a boy too young for the obvious solution?” She makes a face. “Desire demons have poor impulse control. I would improvise.”

“Then we ‘ave a plan.”

I suppose that if it doesn’t work, I can always kill the boy myself – I nod. “Where do we come in?”

Morrigan smiles. “Keep the abomination amused until I can work out what it is – it should not take me long – and then get down.”

*

The arl’s hall is – no, there’s nothing else that really fits – it’s like something out of a dream. It’s done up as for a festival or something, wilting flowers in sad little bunches, two lines of people sitting facing one another and making desperate merriment in the court, and four people in the minstrels’ gallery playing musical instruments with a near-flawless skill that’s not what you’d normally look for in a scullion, a maidservant and a pair of sweating guardsmen.

And draped on the arl’s throne there’s a little human boy-child, what did Alistair say his name was, Connor, and sitting beside him in her customary chair there’s a perfectly turned out woman with a slightly haggard expression who must be his mother Isolde.

So Alistair and I stride into the centre of the hall and the child claps his hands for silence. His voice is shrill and insistent, exactly what you’d think you’d hear in a little boy of over-inflated importance, over loud and with a careless childish lisp, for all its fine words. “Excellent! Bravo! Bravo!” He giggles, to a chorus of sycophantic laughter. “And how excellent and quick a change!” He looks from one side of his court to the other. “I told you it was possible! And the costume is just darling – I declare, henceforth in my court nobody shall spend more of your simply ingenious ‘moment’ things on a change of shape, than Ivy did! I particularly like the way you split yourself in two… Perhaps it will start a fashion!”

I give the salute that I’ve seen Alistair give, fist to breastplate, and he mirrors my motion exactly. The boy claps. (Morrigan is listening, from outside the open door, eyes closed. Leliana ghosts inside the room and behind a column.)

“Now!” He smiles too broadly, a rictus that bares all his teeth. “Entertain me!”

I bob, thinking of Ivaine’s quick nervous motion, and Alistair sketches an equivalent little bow. “Milords, ladies and gentles…” She did say stall… “A song!”

Alistair gulps. (Morrigan bites her lip, thinking. Leliana’s taking stock. Not much cover in here.)

The boy looks pensive. “I know all the songs.”

I bob again. Alistair does the funny little bow again. “I don’t think you’ll know this one, milord.”

“I’m sure that I do.”

A slightly desperate, trapped expression. “Only try it, ser?”

He nods slowly. “Very well. But if you’re playing me false… You know what happens to dirty liars.”

I nod, and Alistair repeats my motion like a puppet. “Your permission, then?”

“Given.” He inclines his head lordly-like. “Sing.”

I settle myself – not precisely what I was thinking when I originally said ‘keep busy’, but I can see the helpless expressions of the ‘courtiers’ and ‘ushers’, and I’ve no wish to hurt such as those – I take a deep breath, and I launch into the easiest of the old tunes of Denerim alienage.

It’s a cradle song, now, a thing a young mother will croon to a tiny tot, and I’ve always thought the tune a little rough and simple for what’s supposed to be one of the ancient songs, but I know it well and it’s doubly foreign to Redcliffe.

And the second time I get into the refrain the bloody minstrels start up, and the unholy child-thing is just sitting there completely motionless with a rictus grin and it’s so easy to get caught up in the song, and all I can say is it’s a glad thing I catch myself before I start on the fifth verse, the verse the elders would have the ears off anyone who sang because it’s in the common tongue and mostly about a dockside strumpet.

And I come to a finish (and Leliana’s near across to the back wall) and the boy-thing nods a couple of times, his head moving too far forward and back, and then his eyes flick wide open and he says, “And will you?”

Will I…?

And I realise just suddenly that this thing is old, so old, and it must have been that it heard the tongue of Elvhenan, and despite the fact that nobody knows what these songs mean, this demon, it understood my words, and for one breathless instant I must know what it knows – Nnh. I bite my lip, hard, taste blood. I’m here for a purpose, and I can see it looking at me like a cat with a mouse, it knows exactly what I’m feeling and it wants me to show it, it wants to play, it –

It asked me a question. I look down and then up at it (at the boy, it’s a little boy) and I make myself say with a soft fake flirt of a smile and a wild stab at a Redcliffe accent, “Will I? You can’t expect me to tell you that.”

Silence falls. The abomination, it sits up straight and serious and it looks at me and I don’t wait to see if Kallian can meet its eyes, because Ivaine surely won’t. “I can, Ivy Cliffe. And I will. Tell me whether you will surrender yourself to the star-eyed young man of the tale you sang.”

“Never you mind!” It’s easy enough to get the exact tone of voice, the expression my cousin Shani would have used if you asked her about a boy she liked.

“I mind.” The abomination’s voice is getting less human by the moment. “And I do believe I have made my desire known.”

(Leliana is all the way to the back wall. I need to hold its gaze just a few moments more.)

I drop the act, it’s no longer required, and I’m not so perfectly sure I could keep it up anyway. “And I believe I told you. No.

“What?!” You’d expect a sound that loud to echo, and it doesn’t. It shoots to its feet. The more – functional – members of its court back away as it does so, overturning benches in their haste to get away from it and me, and the air begins to go cold as all the room’s light starts to coil itself inwards around the thing that’s clearly the most important thing in this room. “What did you say to me?”

I stand my ground, feeling my shoulders knotting in tension, no longer fighting the urge to have my hand on my weapon, and I let my voice take on that quiet deadly note. “I believe you heard me fine.”

Its high flat cry of anger is more like a squeal than a yell. “I will not be denied!” There’s light, from its eyes. Yellow-white. The abomination is focusing itself completely on me, and its anger is sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth and running ice in my veins. Alistair is starting to creep forwards, himself; not clear what he’s going to do, but he’s damn well going to try –

I laugh in the thing’s face to cover my own mounting fear. The words I cast at it are pretty much the foulest things you can say in elvish and there’s no reason to repeat them here. It responds in the same language, and the one word I recognise is the one that means ‘half-elf’, and if I get it into a slanging match maybe I’ll have time to –

Leliana steps out of the shadows, moving fast now the thing is truly distracted. The Arlessa screams and throws herself in the way; Leliana grabs an outstretched wrist, moves quickly and the noblewoman flies pretty much over her and lands in a heap, but it’s slowed her down and given her away. The abomination turns blurringly fast, and the light it has gathered around it flashes into its hands in a quick eye-watering spike of brilliance, and I hear Leliana let out a shriek – Alistair’s closer than me, taking quick steps to close the distance to the thing, no idea what he thinks he can do to help –

Goodnight,” says Morrigan softly, and the kid crumples instantly nervelessly at the knees, and Alistair is there in time to catch his unconscious form and lower him gently to the ground.

I get to Leliana’s side before Morrigan does, but only because I’m quicker on my feet – she’s on one knee, hands over her head, breathing quickly, no sign of injury, and slowly she lowers her shaking hands like she’s surprised to still have them. Moment later she says, quietly, “Oh.” Still shivering violently. “I’m – oh.” A deep breath to try and steady herself, but it’s not working. Morrigan offers her a hand up and either she doesn’t see it or she ignores it –

I see the arlessa move. She gets up from the floor as quiet as she can and goes straight for Leliana, nails first; I’m quicker, kicking her feet out from under her and twisting her arm up in a wrist lock that relies on leverage rather than pain. I’m not going to bet that a broken elbow will stop her; now she makes noise, squalling about how we’ve killed her baby, about how I’m breaking her arm, and then lapsing hysterically into some quite spectacularly foul Orlesian.

Leliana stands, wipes her eyes carefuly with the back of her hand, and turns quite deliberately away from the sleeping child-thing to look at his struggling mother. “Is she…?”

Morrigan hardly glances. “Unaffected. For all practical purposes, nothing unconscious works magic, and she has not a shadow of a Gift herself. Right or wrong, her actions are her own.”

Oui.” She walks over to the noble, who’s still swearing in Orlesian with her face jammed onto the floor, and hunkers down so that they can see one another. Then, still shaking, she takes out a knife from her sleeve and puts the tip of the thing against the floor in front of the woman’s eyes. Andraste thank her, that takes the arlessa down from swearing to sniffling. And Leliana speaks to her, softly, almost reflectively, in a voice that’s shaking with something that is quite legitimately described as fury, in Orlesian. I think she’s describing what happens to abominations in any right-thinking society, but I’m not sure; whatever it is, it shuts the noblewoman up. Belatedly she stops struggling and I release her arm; she curls up around her wrist in a quivering heap.

Meanwhile, Alistair’s pretty much cradling his half-brother on his lap, with a trembling audience of castle staff. He looks up at Morrigan as she walks over and his voice is soft, as if not to wake the child. “How long will he be out?”

She looks down at the sleeping boy. Her tone is conversational. “I’ve absolutely no idea. For one thing – I did not know that what I tried would work, or I would have suggested it from the beginning.”

His eyes widen. “You didn’t even know-”

“Do you know that a single punch will work, when you swing your fist in a brawl?” She smirks. “Our ‘abomination’ has a metaphorical glass jaw. And I was significantly constrained by not being able to hurt the body it’s wearing.”

He looks down at the boy as if he’s suddenly realised he’s holding a poisonous snake. “So… what next?”

“I am holding him in sleep.” She looks down at the lad. “To continue the brawling metaphor, I have the spirit in an arm-lock. How long can I hold it?” A smile. “I cannot meaningfully work magic unconscious, so the answer to that one is roughly ‘until next I myself must sleep’.” She looks around at the gaily decorated hall, at the haggard men and women who are keeping their distance from us but trying neither to run nor to draw attention to themselves. “Perhaps the blinded templar from the village has some method of, what would you call it, exorcism. I do not.”

I come over and take a look at the kid. He’s bleeding at the corners of his mouth where the demon opened it too wide. His colour is terrible, and he looks like this is the first sleep he’s had in days. “No way of getting it out of his head? Except the one with the hammer and chisel?” Alistair gives me a sharp look and I meet it evenly. “You weren’t the one it was about to turn into a toad.”

Morrigan snorts. “I keep telling you – magic cannot actually do that. It is likely that it was preparing to realise an evocation – not a field I know well, but more likely to be a streamer of colourless fire than something mind-affecting. Good thinking, by the way, deliberately balking and baiting it like that, although personally I would have gone for a second, longer song.”

I wince. “I honestly didn’t think that I would need to distract it for as long as I did. I thought your distraction would be much sooner -”

“That was my distraction.” She smiles. “The moment it showed curiosity, I struck – pride-spirits do not care for learning, and an emotion spell was extremely easy to conceal behind the one it was clearly trying to work on you. Or did you think its obsession with the answer to a question you plainly didn’t know the answer to was natural?”

“Would have been nice to know beforehand that you were planning to use me as bait.”

She shrugs. “It was distracted, no?”

“You have a funny idea of what ‘get down’ means – anyway, it doesn’t matter. It worked. To get back to my question-”

“The only solutions I know of are worse than death, or not sufficiently certain.” Morrigan’s eyes are big and sad, her voice appropriately soft. “Did you perhaps think I advised you to kill him because I enjoy watching people die?”

“No.” Alistair swallows. “No. I … I think I see.”

“It is not our choice.” Leliana joins us. She has the boy’s mother by the wrist, tear-streaked but at least she’s quiet and on her feet. “This boy entered into the deal of ‘is own free will and purpose. Why? Because ‘is father lay dying. Why? Because ‘e ‘ad been poisoned. Why?” She narrows her eyes. “Because somebody recruited the apostate mage Jowan as a tutor. Why?”

The Arlessa answers. “To hide his… curse.” She sniffles. “To stop them taking my child away.”

“So we ‘ave blasphemy, twice, we ‘ave the sheltering of fugitives, we ‘ave treason. And besides, the good people of Redcliffe are those wronged. I say that this is a matter for justice; it must be done, and it must be seen to be done. Morrigan, the demons, will they return this night?”

The witch considers. “They were manifesting only at night, and the difference between the strength of the Veil between day and night is not that great; most of their power must have been being expended to breach the Veil, and that would only have been made possible because of the abomination’s presence. I would say that so long as it sleeps, they will not be able to walk.”

“Then let us open the gates. Apprise the bann of the situation and ‘ave this resolved in the Maker’s justice.”

“Blame someone else for our decision to do what must be done, you mean.” Morrigan says it, but I’m thinking the same.

Alistair turns to her with all the anger a man can muster while trying not to wake a sleeping child. “Is this your child? Did he harm you? Then why-”

“He will, should I falter – for example, by becoming sufficiently distracted or emotional.” She folds her arms. “His blood is already on my hands, and Kallian’s, for all practical purposes. By all means, let us spread it; for sure, there’s not enough misery yet in this world.”

“Dammit, Morrigan, this is the arl’s son -”

“Because, of course, the nobility are quite immune to the perils of the Fade, let alone the purported justice of the silent and uncaring god they make their people worship -”

Alistair fumes and Leliana looks at me like if I don’t say something she will; I have a go. “Morrigan, this is a ‘society’ thing. Like you explained to me in your mother’s home? Noble or not, the creature has wronged so many people that they can’t all have vengeance, so the court does it in sight of everyone and they feel they had a hand.”

She frowns. “They want to be complicit in the death of this child?”

“They’re ignorant shems who have been hurt. They want to kill something.”

The frown deepens. “A poor reason to do anything.”

“You’d rather change the minds of hundreds of people than let them see us do what we were going to have to do anyway?”

Mild irritation. “Fine. Alistair, you will have to talk to them; do you want me to take him?”

The boy’s mother glares at Morrigan and she glares right back. Alistair breaks that one. “I’ll hang on to him – I can carry him, which either of the two of you would struggle to do without somehow turning into an actual bear.” He inflects it as a joke. “Come. Let’s get the gate open and some people in here. Apart from anything else -” he indicates the half-circle of the abomination’s ‘court’, slowly coming to their senses – “these people need looking after, and damned if we’re doing that alone.”

*

The bann suitably installed in the big chair, those of his people who are still capable of it dealing with the spell-shocked people the abomination was using as effectively living scenery, we go through with him everything that happened. It occurred to Morrigan about a breath and a half before Leliana said it that it was going to come out that she’s a mage – she braces herself, and I can almost see her rehearsing how she’d make a quick exit, but all that happens is that the bann gives her a searching look and says that we all should bless providence that she was here.

The thing we didn’t expect is that the moment we mention Jowan, the bann sends for him. Leliana insists on accompanying the people sent down to the dungeon to retrieve him, and by the way she takes up station just behind him and to his right, she’s got a knife on him the whole time.

And the tension in the room just winds up and up. If looks could kill, Isolde would be murdering Jowan every other moment, and Morrigan’s staff has that little point of green light dancing at the end that I only saw before the last time she was threatening Jowan, and half the people at the court keep flicking their eyes back to that, and to the hard-eyed woman carrying it. Leliana, as I’ve said, has a knife to the apostate’s back where the bann can’t see it. And of course, then the court has to hear Jowan’s testimony, and credit to him, he doesn’t try and justify it or dress it up, and he makes it in a nice clear voice.

Troubled, the bann lifts his good hand to us. “So if I understand the issue at hand. We have here my nephew Connor, standing accused of blasphemy and maleficence under the law of the Chantry, bound in sleep, for if he were to wake then great evil would be done. This sleep can continue for, what, two days, at increasing peril and pain to the Warden’ mage?”

Morrigan inclines her head to agree. “I would not wish to guarantee that I could hold him past noon tomorrow, ser. I’m not your subject, so don’t count the cost of my aid; it’s freely given.”

“As you say. So for practical purposes, a one-way trip to the Circle Tower by water would be possible – but little further. And the arl my brother won’t likely wake before then, if ever he does, so the decision’s mine. Our choices? Wardens, I believe you understand them better than I; please be so good as to speak them.”

I speak first. “If it please you, ser, he’s defenceless right now. I understand it’s unpleasant to you, but just so we’re all aware – the abomination can be ended with a sharp blade.” Arlessa Isolde puts her hand over her mouth to muffle a sob at my plain words, at the tone that clearly says I don’t mind the boy’s death.

Morrigan is next. “The Circle of Magi – I shudder to suggest this option, but honour demands. They have-”

“No!” Jowan’s eyes go wide. “Woman, you can’t be serious -”

He shuts up with a gasp. He shuts up because there’s the point of a knife pricking his back, right where he’d die in moments if she drove it in. Leliana nods to the bann. “Sorry, ser. It should not ‘appen again.”

The bann nods graciously and Morrigan continues, not taking her eyes off the apostate. “The Circle of Magi are capable of performing a procedure which removes the magical Gift. I find the concept personally abhorrent and if I were in little Connor’s place, there is no manner of death I can envision which I would not prefer to their so-called Rite of Tranquility. But he would not die, and the ‘demon’ would fall shrieking into the Fade and likely never recover.” She looks the Arlessa in the eyes. “I want you to understand that in almost any other situation, my reaction would likely be that of Jowan, there. I have never met one of the Tranquil, but I have read descriptions of the process that were written by people who have undergone it. And I believe that any sane individual would rather the blade.”

Bann Teagan frowns. “The demon. Can it be – exorcised? There is a Templar chapter-house at Varfell, which is a day’s ride.”

Leliana shakes her head. “Impossible. It is true that exorcism can liberate a person whose sleep is plagued by demons, but if it worked to purify the mind of a mage then the discipline of the Circle would not be necessary. What ‘aid’ that the Templars could give, the Wardens can give also, and quicker.”

“I’ll not have the life of my nephew decided by some foolish rivalry between your orders -”

“No Warden am I, my lord. Truly I say to you, from what I ‘ave witnessed with my eyes today, and from my own experience as agent of the Faith, the boy is too far gone for the ministrations of a revered mother to aid ‘im.”

The bann’s expression is dark. “The enchanted sleep he is in. Can it be made more permanent?”

Morrigan makes a face. “The answer is not ‘no’, but permanent magic is not my… strongest facet. I have read in books how it could be done – you would bring here a dwarfish crafter of runes, and have her strike me a rune in lyrium to hold the spell like a fly in amber. The cost of such an undertaking, in money or favours, would not be something I could support myself. And the boy would need daily care for the rest of his life, and likely die without ever waking from his nightmare.” (The arlessa sniffles again.)

“B-but the demon.” He’s clearly casting about for options that don’t involve the death of this boy. “You fought it once and defeated it handily. Can you not kick it while it is down, so to speak? Sink the blade into the thing that is actually to blame?”

She shakes her head. “It is not ‘down’ – it is… locked away, you might say. What you describe is the equivalent of opening that door, going in, handing it a sword and challenging it to a fair duel.”

“So you could do it.”

Her eyebrows shoot up. “Not… easily, and victory would not be certain. I would need to physically enter the Fade, which would require things I do not -”

“I can do it!” Jowan blurts. Leliana’s knife is still right there, but she stays her hand – “Ser, I can do it.”

The bann turns piercing eyes on the apostate. “Speak.”

“I have… I am…” He swallows. “I have access to sources of strength the Warden mage does not – I – think that on my own, if I had not been locked up, I could have averted this entire catastrophe. I would cheerfully array myself in a fair fight against an abomination of – it will be desire, won’t it – let alone with its host unconscious like this. And given that this is all my fault… I want to put it right.”

There’s a pause. “Morrigan,” says the bann, “how do you rate his claims?”

She gives Jowan a piercing look. “Name your sources of strength, apostate. And please don’t take me for the bumpkin I appear.”

He looks down. “I’m a… lyrium addict. The enchanters of the Circle take it, to feed their great workings. I made… one too many such workings, I couldn’t get enough of it, the power, the rush of it – I took to stealing the templars’ sacraments and I was caught. But I… I know how to use the stuff to power my magic. And this town has templars, and the Chantry will have their sacraments. I could use those.”

Morrigan curls her lip. “The prisoner is lying.”

“I swear! Give me lyrium dust and I can travel into the-”

“Yes, yes – but it is hardly a unique skill. It is how I might travel to the Fade myself, as a matter of fact. It is strange – I believe your claims of strength, and the Circle are widely held to use lyrium so, but yet I tell you you are lying. Desist.”

He gulps. “I… uh. Is it so hard to accept that I am stronger than you through native talent?”

Morrigan’s eyes are implacable, and something about her manner is infinitely confident. “Yes.”

“Bann, ser, these people hate me. They left me in the dark -”

“Quiet.” Teagan scowls. “You reek of a confidence trick, boy, and you are trying all of our patience. If you will not reveal the source of your power, then I shall have no further use for you, do you understand me – now. Speak!”

Jowan closes his eyes. “I have learned to draw power from the energy of life itself, as one might from refined lyrium.” Opens them, slowly. “I am… what you might call a ‘blood mage’.”

Well, Leliana’s already got a knife on him, but I get the feeling that she’s wishing she could have two. Alistair’s eyes widen. And Morrigan nods, slowly. “It is perhaps not the cleanest of options, but blood magic could do everything he claims and more.”

Arlessa Isolde sits forward. “It could beat the demon?”

“In the Fade? If it did not know what was coming for it? Most likely.” Morrigan frowns. “Not in a guaranteed fashion, but what is? It is the best chance for leaving the boy alive-”

“Have you ever seen the aftermath of a blood mage’s work?” Leliana’s grip on the knife tightens. “I ‘ave. I swore to myself never again. It is an act against the law of Maker and man.”

“But it saves my son.” Isolde blinks a couple of times. “And nothing else does. How… how much blood? Does noble blood go further?”

“No-no. No.” Alistair holds his probably-half-brother protectively. “It’s not an option. We’re not discussing it any more. Right? It’s not on the table. It’s not even near the table. Kallian, back me up here.”

Blink. “It, uh.” Talk about out of my depth. This is the court of a bann whose support we need – of the brother of a sick arl, and of the woman who will control both the title and the heir so long as her husband is sick – “Ser, my people advise against this approach-”

“But offer no alternative save death.” The thunder-clouds have not cleared from Teagan’s face. He grinds his teeth. “Jowan. Your word: Can you do this thing?”

He nods. “Upon my power, I can.”

“Wardens. Will you allow this? Or will there be a… further problem?”

Alistair and Leliana and I go to speak at the same time. The two of them give way to me. “My people do have a problem with this, ser, and I’m not sure I don’t myself. We’ve not had time to confer – uh.” Making an enemy of this man would be… no. “I think that the fault for this lies with Jowan, and that if he survives this, then we will see you bring him to justice. But this is your court.”

Alistair looks at me and sets his jaw, then says shortly, “Ser, I honestly cannot believe that you would contemplate this, but… As my commander wishes.”

Leliana bows her head. “Teagan bann of Westbrook, my words are spoken for me. You are making a mistake.”

*

The lord’s solar is to be cleared for the rite. Alistair hasn’t let go of the child. Leliana hasn’t let go of Jowan. And Morrigan won’t let either out of her sight. I try to get the bann alone for a moment while things are being put together – we are going to need his support, Redcliffe’s support, and I need to know what damage Alistair’s principles have done.

The bann was clearly expecting me to do this – he looks at me like he’s guilty as sin. Of what? He runs his good hand through his hair. Starts talking before I can. “Warden, I’m sorry, I – There is a thing that you need to know.” It’s like he’s telling me a story. His tone of voice isn’t right. Forced.

…Okay? I nod for him to speak.

“I… don’t know how you could tell, but -” He falters. Picks up his thread again. “You people and your sharp bloody ears. Tell more than we know, don’t you? Damn it all.” Deep breath, and he turns to face me, slightly closer than I’d like, broad and intimidating, and I remind myself firmly that injured and unarmed he’s no threat to me. Why does he sound like he is putting this on? “You’re right. All right? And if Jowan’s life is the price I pay for saving my son? So be it.”

His… son. Of course- I nod to cover my surprise. “After all – even before we consider the blood magic, poisoning your brother is -”

So… looks like I said a magic word by accident. It’s like a veil falling from him, the change in him. He practically snarls at me. “He talked. Didn’t he. The man bloody talked.”

Keep pulling. No sense denying Providence when it drops something like this in my lap. “You’ve seen how persuasive my people can be, ser.”

“To shut your mouth. Yours and that bloody Seeker’s, she clearly takes your orders, Maker knows why. How much?”

Seeker…? I suddenly find myself longing for my humans, for a translation. Tread water. “You understand we’re taking Jowan to face justice.”

“Like hells, girl, I’m sorry. You can have his sorry carcass if you like, by your own hand if you want, but you start making noises out there about taking him back alive to interrogate and I just might investigate how much good a blood mage can be to an ambitious man with a few secrets to hide.”

“No need to threaten me, Teagan. Dead will do fine. No, what I actually want is your support.”

“How the – He doesn’t even know -” The bann checks himself – not like he’s about to explain what he’s going on about, I suppose? No – and chuckles mirthlessly. “Don’t do anything by halves, do you? That’s treason you’re asking me for, right there.”

“Treason is the man that killed Cailien and abandoned a thousand men, sitting the throne while the darkspawn savage the country.” The sudden vitriol in my voice makes him flinch. “Treason is the man who swore he had our backs, turning tail and running from our one chance to end this quickly and painlessly while my friends, my family and my fellows perished in the flame of war. Damn your eyes, ser, this is about doing right.”

He looks down at me. “Yeah, well. It was trying to do some right that brought me and my men into town in the first place, moment I heard of the walking bloody dead instead of a nice big vacant chair. And look where that got me.”

I look him up and down. “Seems it got you that chair, from here. No?”

He narrows his eyes. “Seems it may have – Andraste save my dear brother.”

“Andraste save him.”

“Isolde found the poison already; she’ll likely give it to the Seeker. I’m sure you’ll investigate with diligence.”

I’m sure that meant something. That must have been code for something. Who does he want me to frame? Or is it just that he wants it buried? Shit. I answer noncommittally, mentally rehearsing what he said to me, because I’ll have to repeat it later.

Leliana will know what to do.

*

How much blood?

Eight pints, says Jowan, a life’s worth, and meaningful glances are exchanged at just how accurately he knows that. Does a noble’s blood go further? A maiden’s? No – but a woman’s does, or an elf’s, because they’ve got less to start with, like. If he thinks he’s getting any of ours – no, he’s drawing as much of his own as he dares, and the arlessa and, for true, the bann himself give their own blood to make up the gap. He uses a gilt bowl, the kind of thing they’d serve a soup in. It’s out of place. Morrigan bandages up the little cuts the blood mage made to take the blood, and the nobles settle grey-faced into chairs.

She speaks to me in quiet words as Jowan sets the rest of his rite out, about what such things mean if I ever see them again. Most every dream comes from a memory inside you, she says, from a thought or a dream or a hope or something you desperately want to be, and a spell is just a dream pinned down and caught like a butterfly. So the kind of magic that’s easiest, she says, is the kind you do with your hopes and fancies – you literally wish something into being – but it ain’t the only way. You can – it’s like hypnotising yourself, she says. You get a really good strong idea of what it is you want to do, and you make that idea into a pattern, or someone else does, and you use that pattern instead of a dream of your own, using your conscious mind rather than your unconscious. It’s harder, but it’s surer, and you can do things that are against your heart’s inclination or better judgement, things you don’t feel like doing, things you’re not in the mood for. The commonest is the wizard’s staff – she pats her own – but you’d hardly have a staff built for a spell to send you into the Fade. And all the times you’ll see a mage singing and chanting and drawing and dancing and painting on themselves, you’ve got to remember it’s not a spell they’d rather be doing. And if you ever see a mage who can do harm without using a spell-pattern to do it? Draw your own conclusion about their heart’s desires.

So you know, it’s reassuring in a way that Jowan is drawing a disturbingly angular diagram on the floor in blood, using a careful index finger as a brush. Aren’t I glad that I have a witch with me to explain these things? Otherwise I might have been somehow perturbed. Andraste – it- ugh. There’s so much of it, and it stinks, and much as Jowan tries to make it look relaxed and expert, the procedure is very much less than clean. The diagram is written on the floor in broad lines; a simpler version is written again on his bare pasty toast-rack chest, and he anoints his forehead, then his eyelids, to give a bizarre impression of an open staring eye on a closed one.

Leliana keeps herself direct behind him, where he can’t see her. Would probably say it’s to avoid distracting him. She’s looking at the whole thing and carefully not biting the inside of her cheek till it bleeds, breathing shallow, not even bothering to hide the drawn blade. She’s actually sweating, but her hands are steady as a statue’s.

Alistair stands over the child, and he has no weapon out but the ones on the ends of his arms, to to speak. His head’s bowed and he’s praying, but if I can see that his eyes are on the blood mage, then so should everyone else be able. To me it’s his closed fists that say that he’s ready to go for Jowan. He’s further from him than Leliana is, but he’d cross that space every bit as fast.

And Jowan’s breathing is quick and hard, not with exertion, but with sensation. Magic is addictive, a child knows that, and looking at him working it, you can see what they mean – It’s more than disgusting. I don’t want to watch this. But I suppose neither does anyone else in the room. The man’s hands pass over the bowl of blood, once, twice, three times, and then he lifts them, and it’s quite natural for the blood to follow them and make a pattern, a twistingly complicated mess of ordered lines and angles in the air around his hands, and it pulses, like a living thing, once, twice, three times, and then it’s like it turns inside out and Jowan’s body is suddenly not here and the blood splashes down and every drop lands on his diagram on the floor.

There’s a moment’s silence. The air is tense. It is like the blood-spattered area where the diagram was is downhill, like the rest of the room doesn’t really matter, isn’t important, isn’t properly there. The bann speaks first. “So, what does that mean?”

“It means he ‘as not yet played you false.” Leliana wipes a drop of sweat from her nose. “Morrigan, what could you do with that much blood?”

The witch’s eyes narrow. Her speech pattern is a little odd, like she’s not really paying attention. “Put it back where it… came from, of course. What manner of-”

The Orlesian holds up a hand in apology. “But I misspoke – what could you do with that much power?”

She shakes her head with slightly exaggerated care. “I know what you meant. Unfortunately, I have no answer… I honestly have no idea how much energy there is in what amounts to a – life’s worth – of blood, beyond that it would have been less trouble for him to kill one person for this than to drain… three… done with questions now, thank you.”

“Fine.” Leliana settles her fingers on the grip of her blade. “I ‘ave seen a blood mage incapacitate a room full of angry people using a few drops of blood. If the wound ‘ad not been a mortal one, I believe I would not be standing ‘ere to speak with you. It is illegal for a reason, and yet every year there are mages in good Maker-fearing lands who start along this path, and they do it because literally at their fingertips is-”

“Stop it!” Morrigan suddenly has her eyes tight closed. “I can do without the running commentary. I appreciate that you are fighting the influence of the ‘demon’ with your own heartfelt and deep-seated hatred. Please-” Her voice cracks. She starts again. “Please do not jog my metaphorical elbow. The thing has looked at Jowan and at me, and is after the weakest link-” She takes a sharp abrupt gasp of air and snaps her eyes wide open, unseeing, then says tightly and quickly, “Somebody please place a knife to the child’s neck with a steady hand. He will convulse if my spell fails and that could be the only chance we get.”

I draw; I kneel. Careful not to touch any of the blood. The knife’s point is a quarter-inch from his throat before Alistair’s is halfway out of its sheath. The arlessa’s knuckles go white on the arms of the chair. Sick feeling that even now, all of this might be for nothing – wait – I realise that I was almost sucked in by the context of the whole thing, the feeling that hangs like a pall in the air in here that the child must not die, and now that I know it’s there I know it’s the demon’s work, and I bare my teeth. If the child has to die, well, he was probably innocent of everything but stupidity, and so that’s a shame. But he’s also the cause of how much suffering?

The boy twitches and I nearly kill him. I didn’t realise how tight I was wound. Breathe, dammit. In time with his. He’s so peaceful, so fragile. A bird in a cage – stop it. Stop it.

I have one job. I do it. I keep the blade on him. Time stretches out. I realise that the arlessa’s looking straight at me, studying my face, my expression, my knife.

I realise that Morrigan’s breathing hard, her eyes staring at nothing,

her staff held low in front of her, knuckles tight on it.

When did she last blink?

How long has it been, anyway?

How long is

a dream?

My hold is

slipping

on what I’m doing here,

on why I have this blade drawn. I’m

here because I’m here. I know

I must not

move. It’s perfectly natural.

Dream logic. I’m dreaming –

I’m dreaming and I

cannot wake

Solid wakeful reality slams into me like a punch right between the eyes and I shout (but my hands don’t move). The room stinks of fresh blood. Alistair, standing over me, swears pungently and loudly; the bann lets out the same words on the same breath. Jowan’s kneeling panting in the middle of the diagram, curled around himself, right there next to me and the boy, and he’s always been there – was he ever gone? – Leliana’s close behind him suddenly. Morrigan makes a funny sound in the back of her throat and still doesn’t blink, but she’s suddenly breathing less hard.

“Jowan?” I don’t look at him. I’m focused on the boy, the boy whose life is in my hands. “Speak. Quickly.”

The mage’s voice scrapes like a rusty saw. “It’s. Done. Wait!” That last because he’s got Leliana’s knife to him. “Please. The boy. Have to. Know.”

“Morrigan?”

She closes her eyes and whimpers, takes a hand off her staff to put it over her mouth. Nods three times. Goes to put her back against the wall and nearly falls, because it’s further than she thought. A couple more breaths, and then her voice is stable and even. Enforcedly so. “I think it is gone. Do we still have a blade on him who can be relied upon?”

“Absolutely.” I haven’t taken my eyes off the sleeping human child.

“I’ll release him now. Be ready.”

And she clicks her fingers, and the boy’s eyes snap open and he flinches to see me, and it’s a good thing I’d pulled the knife back a little. I search his eyes for anything that isn’t what I’d expect. “Connor?”

I’m not really expecting him to burst into howling tears. I look quickly across at Morrigan and she nods tiredly. Is she sure? She is. And so Alistair and I back off and let the boy’s mother at him, and she does her best to make us feel like heartless brutes while getting her boy out of this stinking place and cleaned up, and we’ve got a blood mage to deal with.

The bann sits himself up in his chair and tries to look a bit less pale and nauseous and a bit more lordly. “Jowan,” he says, and his expression is appropriately grim. “You see where we find ourselves in a quandary.”

Leliana lets the shivering man up, slowly, without losing the touch of her blade against him. Not all the blood down the front of him was painted on. It’s running sluggishly from long slices down his arms, from the corners of his mouth, from his eyes, from raw bleeding wounds where the diagram was on his chest. He speaks quietly and carefully. “Do we, ser?” Blood drips.

“You saved the life of my nephew, mage. Had you done it another way, had you been anyone else -”

“You are, aren’t you.” He sighs. There’s far more energy to him than there looks like there should be. “It doesn’t matter what I’ve done, does it. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done for any of- ack!” He cuts off with a cry of pain – Leliana has grabbed his injured forearm with her off-hand and squeezed hard.

“Bann, ser. We ‘ave been more than reasonable.” Her voice, it abandoned reasonable a while ago. “I can blame nothing so far but the abomination, whose spell to protect itself served to make us all behave without reason. But I do not think you mistake me now. This man ‘as confessed before your ears to treason and worse, and I ‘ave borne witness to ‘is maleficence, to the use of magic in perversion of the proscriptions of the Chant of Light and defiance of the law of the Maker. It is out of a wish for the welfare of your own soul that I stay my blade right now. But this is for you the last chance. Have justice done. Or I will.

The bann takes a deep breath. “Sera, I do not take well to threats. But in deference to your company and to the good service you have rendered, I shall overlook this one. Mage – you have, as the lady said, in my court and presence confessed to treason and maleficence. The punishment for a petty traitor is to be burned at the stake. For the latter – what do the Templars do, with maleficars turned over to them?”

“Tranquility.” Jowan’s voice cracks. “No. No, ser, I beg you, have mercy, I saved the boy, didn’t I? I’ve done everything you asked of me -”

“There is no point in drawing this out, or in bringing this before a court.” The bann sits back into his chair. “I withdraw my claim on this prisoner. Do justice as you see-”

By the time the bann has finished speaking, Jowan has collapsed forward, with Leliana holding him as if he’s fainted; she lays him out on the floor face down, and it’s only then that the silver hilt of her blade is visible protruding from under his right ear. Almost immediately her hands begin to shake, but she has time to pull the blade out and wipe it with a handkerchief before the noble’s eyes widen.

“Done.” She makes the knife go away and gets up; from the way her face drains of colour, from the way she doesn’t stand so steadily, she’s regretting standing up so quick.

I step in, still before the speechless bann has time to gather his wits. “Ser. I know that you are weak from all of this, but may I suggest that sooner rather than later we bring this whole matter before your people. At the least, we must let them know that they can sleep this night in safety?”

He nods weakly. “Is it true?”

I look at Morrigan. She’s still sitting against the wall. Looks over at us. “It should be – I -” She puts her hand over her mouth, takes another deep breath for a moment before replying. “I am – a little over-extended. The abomination is probably unmade, its spells have likely unwoven, and… that should be good enough.”

“Probably? Likely?” Alistair looks down at her like he’s wondering whether to start yelling at her or to give her a hand to her feet. “Should? Is there no way of knowing for sure?”

She looks up at him with bloodshot cat-eyes and draws her knees up to her chest. “What you have right now is as always the best effort I can make. It may have escaped your notice, but I am just a little drained at the moment.”

The bann clears his throat. “Then we must prepare for the worst. The castle guard – their minds, will they recover?” All three of my humans nod, Alistair a little uncertainly. “Court will be held tomorrow midday. For tonight, I’ll have the chantry and the castle fortified best we can, and withdraw inside those. Wardens, I’m sure my brother’s wife would offer you the hospitality of her house if she were here; least we can do.”

*

In the event, the walking dead did not return. I gave up around two hours after dark; I believe Alistair stayed up most of the night, but I went back to check in with Leliana. The bann had provided us each with a room, but I found Morrigan’s room as empty and dark as mine. A knock on Leliana’s brings the scrape of the bolt and a red-eyed Leliana opening the door with one hand out of sight; she’s wearing but a shift; she lets me in and bolts the door again, sheathes the sword she’d had in the other hand and goes wordlessly to sit on the bed. Morrigan’s curled on the floor by the hearth, still in human shape, like she was a cat or something. All our packs are in here. And Leliana’s been crying.

“You… all right?” I keep my voice down so I don’t wake the mage. Slip my baldric off and hang it on the back of the door by Leliana’s, on the hook that’s meant for a dressing-gown.

She nods, picks up a handkerchief from the bed to wipe her eyes. Sniffs. “You must think me terribly weak.”

I unbuckle the belt that holds my two heavy dirks, and put it by my pack where I can get at it in a hurry. The knife that’s round my calf, it lives there. “I can’t look people in the eye.”

She blows her nose. “Pardon me?”

I turn to look at her, hold her gaze until it gets uncomfortable, which is like a heartbeat or so, then I let myself look away. “That. It’s hard. Like a wildcat won’t look you in the eye if it can get away without. Am I a coward for it? Then you aren’t.”

She sits back. “At the cloister – not the Lothering one – I would ‘ave a bottle of wine. It is what they expect. Nobody minds you getting to weep when you are in your cups, yes? I was always like this when I was a novice. If I was in danger, and then I am safe… But I thought it ‘ad left me.” She hugs herself. “I nearly died today, Kallian. It ‘ad been so long – I’d forgotten.”

“How long have you been a Seeker?” I start on the buckles of my armour.

She freezes. Slowly she relaxes herself, places a hand to her chest with a slightly theatric air. “Ah! My mystique! You ‘ave cut it to the quick!” Her smile is fake and waxy. “As long as my tongue ‘as, and a little longer than my teeth, yes? I suppose that today I was less than subtle.”

“Certainly the bann thought so.”

“Oh?” She raises her eyebrows. “And you ‘ave no idea what is a Seeker?”

I duck my head, working on a bracer.

A little life comes back into her smile. “I see. So – to avoid trying your patience much more – you were asking me what kind of sister I was? Well – the Seekers of Truth, they are that kind of sister.”

“The kind that knows more about magic and Templars than a man who trained as one. The kind who have the bann scared enough to threaten.” I unbuckle the second bracer and start on my greaves. “The kind who can kill a man quicker than blinking.”

She wipes her eyes quickly. “If the man ‘ad been allowed to talk for long… He was running with blood, he could ‘ave-”

“Didn’t say you was wrong.” Second greave.

“I was talking to myself, then.” Her voice is quiet. She’s staring at the wall. “You suppose it is easy or pleasant, to take these people who have for themselves the best of intentions, who never chose to be what they are, and to do these terrible things to them?”

“I suppose it’s better than the alternative.” I start to unbuckle the heavy constricting jerkin and spaulders.

“You ‘ave never seen ‘the alternative’.” She closes her eyes for a long slow moment, remembering something she’d rather forget. “But you are not wrong.”

“A Seeker is a hunter of mages, then? A quiet and subtle one, where the Templars are loud?”

“If it were my calling, my life, to do this? Every day to see… this?” She shakes her head emphatically. “The Maker does not give me more than I could bear. The Seekers of Truth – we do our best to live our name. We seek… truth.” She looks at me to make the point. “Sometimes when we go out into the world we find lies that must be moved out of the way, so that the truth it can be found.”

I slip myself out of the jerkin and stack it on the growing pile of armour. Always feels good to get that weight off my shoulders. Next is the padded gambeson. “Who gets to decide what is truth?”

“In the moment?” She sits back a little. “The Seeker does. Just as ‘ow you decide for yourself what is true. But you are asking for whom it is that we are working.”

“Pretty much.” I put the gambeson on the pile and start on my boots. “I know – your mystique, your image. If you’d rather I didn’t tell anyone, I won’t.”

“Is it not the case that I could genuinely be working for my Maker and no less?”

“No. Sorry.” I’m not looking at her, I’m unlacing my boot. “The Maker don’t talk. With all the shems trying to talk to him, you’d have thought somebody would have noticed by now if he did.”

“So why did I say this thing to you? It is to you patently an untruth. Why did I ask you to believe me?”

I frown. “Makes you sound crazy. I figure you didn’t know we’d have a mage with us.”

“And one most perceptive. Most cannot see what she sees.”

I give the mage a look, curled up all peaceful by the hearth as she is. Never seen her sleep human-shaped before. “So you’d sound crazy. You figured a man to be in charge, because it’s known that the Wardens are all human men for all their talk of taking anyone good enough.”

“Mm-hmm. And why is that an ‘elp?”

Other boot. “You do the damsel in distress better than any I ever saw. Turned both the humans against me without even a word to them.”

“Is everything I do a lie, then?” She’s staring at the fire.

“Today wasn’t.” The boots come off, and the stockings with them, and I turn to look at her. “Moment we needed it. No silly shem games, no messing about just because we’d know a thing about you we didn’t before. Moment we ran into a thing you believed in.”

“… and?” Her voice is very small. “Do I measure up for you?”

I come sit next to her on the bed. “Well, I’m bloody glad I don’t have to cross you. That what you meant?”

“… I suppose.” She shifts away from me a little, doesn’t look in my direction. “Whatever else you think – it is – not an act.” She blinks a couple more times. “It should not bother me, but – curse it. I am not ‘putting this on’, for all that if you were Alistair you would be wrapped around my hand like a twist of string by now.” She swallows. “The best lie to give is the true one, no? The best disguise is no disguise at all?”

“What d’you want me to say?” I look at the fire. “You did more than your share, and I’m not about to say it don’t sting me that you’re hurting for it. Far as I’m concerned, if you say you’re one of us, I’m happy for that to be truth.”

“Even though I am one of the infamous agents of the White Divine? Even though you know as well as I do that one cannot serve two masters?”

I shrug. “If the Divine and the Wardens aren’t on the same side, Leliana, then we have worse problems yet.”

She shakes her head. “So it is just like that, after all? I allow that I may ‘ave a goal in life beyond being a wandering madwoman, and you trust me without protestation or oath or condition?”

“You are what you do, not what you say. I’ve seen you when you think you’re in trouble; I’ve seen you do something that needed doing; I’ve seen you fight; I’ve seen nothing to make me think less of you. I think that makes us sisters in arms, or something.”

“How am I to take that?” She smiles, although there isn’t an awful lot to it. “‘Sister’ is about the worst insult I could give you, no?”

I match the expression. “Mm. Were you sent, to find us? Or is this truly providence?”

Her eyes are grey. I don’t look at them for long. “If I’d been sent,” she says evenly, “that would mean that the White Divine was taking a stand in Fereldan politics. If you are, as you plan to, looking for the justice of the Maker, by which we mean raising the country against the teyrn of Gwaren. It would mean – if we did not win – it would mean a second war for sure, another stupid war with good singers of the Chant on all of the sides. Or if we won, the king or queen you put on that throne would be to all intents and purposes a puppet of the Divine’s – that is, of Orlais.”

Blink. “Uh. You’re that important?”

You are.” She raises her eyebrows. “Just remmber that when you speak of a civil war, it is no tavern tale you spin. For your abused honour, Warden-Commander, brother will fight brother and blood will run in the gutters, and your people will ‘ave it the worst, for they ‘ave nothing to defend them. You ‘ave a father alive, yes? ‘E will ‘ave told you tales of the civil war, what you call the revolution? Did they leave you with the impression that such wars were a thing worthwhile?”

I shake my head wordlessly.

“And a war between the rags and tags of Ferelden and the Empire of Orlais, with the darkspawn at all of our heels, it would be worse yet. There are those in Orlais who would love little more than the chance to come back and take every stone from every other for the length of the kingdom – and like it or not, whether you care for the humans or no, your own people would know the very worst of misery-”

“So I do nothing?” I say, and the dangerous quiet in my voice makes her steel herself against shrinking away from me.

“No. Of course you do not. The civil war, the fault is with Loghain. Just as all that ‘appened ‘ere, the fault is with whoever paid Jowan. But it is nevertheless your hand on the blade.”

“And you’ll not put yours beside mine. It’s-”

“No!” Her eyes widen. “No, that is not what I mean to say. I am here. Everything I know of, all I can do for you, all I can teach, it is at the disposal of the Wardens. Everything but one thing.” She looks into my eyes – didn’t she hear me when she said I don’t like it? – and says, “The Maker appeared to me in a dream and asked me to come with you. I was not sent by Cassandra Pentaghast, the Hand of the the White Divine and the head of my order; I am certainly not under orders to prevent the ascent of Loghain mac Tir to the throne of Ferelden under any circumstances; I am not under standing orders to assist the Grey Wardens to the limit of my skills and expertise should I find any; I am a rogue agent. You understand me?”

I bite my lip. “The Maker sent you, then.”

She nods. “‘E did.”

I look away. I know she’ll see it as looking untrustworthy, but staring her in the eyes is unnatural and tiring. “So – given that the Maker sent you – there’s something you probably want to know, that the bann told me, and I need your help understanding. I hate to heap more on your head tonight, but we need to know what we’re going to say tomorrow.”

“Go on?”

I say it quickly. “Teagan hired Jowan to poison the arl. The boy is his son.”

“Oh!” She blinks. “Yes. That makes sense.” She rests a hand on her chin. “Ah – love. It is a good Orlesian reason to do anything. And she is in a marriage with an old man which was never a thing of joy, yes? And the younger brother is ambitious, given a banner as a sop when he would not take holy orders at sixteen, no doubt, then – alas! The child he is shown to ‘ave magic – the arlessa she panics and goes to her lover, and he must think that for him the skies have opened in majesty. In a stroke the family is incapacitated, with the younger brother ‘olding the reins – but the child sees only that the man who ‘e calls father ‘as taken ill, and goes to the magic that he is supposed to ‘ave well hidden, and from there to ‘ere is a straight line.”

“So what do we do?”

She shrugs. “If Alistair knew, there would be blood – and we would lose the arling’s support forever, whoever owned it. It is an injustice, but – no. The best thing that could ‘appen would be for the arl to recover, and for it to be as if this whole thing never were.”

“Keep this from Alistair?” I frown. “We owe him better than that.”

“Yes?” She smiles. “Good. Neither do I like the idea – but as a Warden Alistair ‘as the rank to call Teagan out, and can you imagine a duel between those two, even if Teagan were healed? No. We should go tomorrow to the arl’s bedside, and Morrigan should see what she can do, and I advise you strongly not to raise this matter with your fellow Warden.”

“I – uh. I may have accidentally given the bann the impression he had our full support?”

“And so ‘e does – as does ‘is brother, as is right and proper, for we are simple creatures who do not understand politics. And while we are not making especial effort to investigate this, it is surely not our affair if the problem turns out to be one easily solved?”

Bloody humans.

*

Morrigan holds the little perfume vial up to the light and frowns. “Interesting.” She looks to the rest of us, to the bann, to the nervously hovering arlessa, and then down at the arl himself. “This is enough to kill an ox, and there’s twice this in him at least.”

Alistair looks at the vial like it’s about to bite someone. His fists clench and unclench. “Can you cure it?”

She wrinkles her nose. “For that definition of ‘cure’, it’s cured already.” She puts the back of a hand on the arl’s forehead with the gentleness of a butterfly’s wing. “Connor’s ill-advised ‘deal’ – I don’t suppose he remembers the exact words?”

The arlessa shakes her head. “He doesn’t even remember calling the thing.”

“Mmm. Nevertheless – he asked for the wrong thing. Bear with my explanation, please. For a healing such as this, normally, I would begin by placing the target deeply asleep, much as I did with Connor: and indeed this was done. Then I would ward his life, to preserve it while I worked: this, too, was done. Then I would burn out the poison – a process that by itself is excruciatingly painful and even life-threatening, hence the other two spells. These three spells are in place, entwined as one after the fashion of a mage who must work quickly – or an apprentice, perhaps, cutting a corner to feel clever.” She clears her throat. “Once the healing is done, the patient is left simply asleep, and the spells can be-”

“So what are we waiting for?” The bann reaches forward to grab his brother’s shoulder –

No!” Morrigan snaps, more like a parent’s admonishment than a sound of panic, a little flicker of light runs along her staff, and the arl jerks his hand back like he’d touched a boiling hot kettle. “As I was about to relate-”

“What do you think you’re doing, mage?” The bann’s voice is loud. “Magic is meant to serve man -”

“And that particular magic just saved what remains of your brother’s life.” Morrigan’s tone remains even and controlled. “As it is, you are lucky that the spells keep him blinded and deafened. But please do not attempt to wake him.”

The arlessa looks from one of them to the other. “Why? What is the problem?”

Morrigan’s gesture takes in the arl’s pinched cheeks, his skeletal appearance, his shallow breathing. “The spells, as I said, were applied just fine.” She looks the bann in the eye. “But they were not removed. The poison is cured. The arl sleeps. But nobody has fed him or given him water for eight days – and by now, his body’s life is sustained only by the spell designed to shield him from the side-effects of the poison cure.”

“So, what – we need to give him water?”

Morrigan looks down at him with a professional air. “His body is too weak – by rights he should be dead of thirst. He cannot absorb anything you could give him, even if he could swallow it. I’ve art enough to save him from that fate alone, but with the abomination’s death the spells on him are gossamer and shadow. If I touch him with my power, they tear, he dies – even were my first spell to be a life-ward, the effect would take up too late.”

“How long?” It’s a good face of ashen concern the bann has on.

“New moon.” Morrigan takes her hand from the arl very gently. “Two weeks.”

The bann’s court just reminds me of the abomination’s. Better that than the great hall in Denerim, I guess. The wilting flowers are gone, and there’s not music, but there’s the two sets of people on either side and the bann and the arlessa and her son and the arl’s empty chair at the front, and as honoured guests we get a front rank.

Being stared at by this many shems makes me want my armour. Although I do look a little less boyish in my grey tunic and breeches, and only someone brought up street would count four knives on me, not one. The bann’s explanation of the last few days is a lot like the tavern tales he says he hates, all praise for the valour of his people and most especially those too dead to reward, much shorter on what you’d call matters of fact. Then he goes on to describe our assistance, and he calls one of the knights Alistair fought beside to give account of the man’s tireless strength and fearless valour, and he calls the arlessa to describe our defeat of the abomination in terms that not only completely omit her own nearly disastrous contribution but also gloss over what the abomination actually was and have literally nothing to say about blood mages. Jowan is cast as a deranged poisoner, who met his end quickly at our blades before he could see true justice – she hopes that the Maker has punishment ready for him when he passes beyond. Morrigan fidgets, as well you might if the work of your trade were so poorly explained, but says nothing – and I’m just wondering what they gain from being so fulsome about Alistair (and me by accident).

So he calls us forward and gives Alistair a purse of the arl’s gold for us, as if we were knights-errant, and he smiles in what looks a lot like great-hearted gratitude, and asks us if we’d like to describe the plight of good Arl Eamon to the court.

So Morrigan briefly says that he’s asleep in a sleep he’ll not wake from without some kind of – and Leliana cuts in – miracle. Brief pause. So, well, she didn’t tell us about this one – she’s trusting us to let her speak, and even Morrigan does so – if I know her, she does it to see what the Orlesian will say.

And Leliana tells us all a tale that you wouldn’t believe if not for the lift and the spin she puts on it, a tale of the lost holy ashes of the Prophet Andraste, the Bride of the Maker, which have long been held to aid and restore those in sickness. And bright-eyed before the court she pledges to journey through the land and to seek this relic, if it may be found, and to return before the new moon to cure the arl, and damn him but one of the knights of the court shoots to his feet and says that he will find these ashes too, and first –

And Bann Teagan’s expression is appropriately serious as he says that he shall at once send for all of those who hold banners for Arl Eamon, that they might be informed of this sacred quest. And Morrigan looks at the assembled humans like she’s waiting for them to start howling at the moon, and Alistair’s got his meaningless smile on, and well, I did tell Leliana she’d earned my trust and this is the point to show it, so I hold my tongue and try to look like this was my idea, and for an instant Teagan catches my eye and nods very slightly.

So they move on. The arl’s son, Connor, and there he is all dressed up as the young master, still a little pale and unsteady, and with a little urging from his mother he comes to stand before the arl’s throne. His little piping voice will send ice down the spine of about half the court as he gives a short little speech, and he starts with an admission that he has discovered that he has magic in him.

And, well, I’m not sure how they managed it. I suppose all the ‘important’ people of the court – the revered mother, the knights with their assorted injuries, the blind templar – didn’t see the abomination’s court. But as the only people who did are at the back – or guarding the hall, or cleaning the castle, or on duty on the walls – there is nobody to demand punishment for him. He swears before them all that he shall guard his mind and his power well; that a rider has been sent to the Circle Tower to summon a mage to help him control it; that he surrenders himself here and now to the custody of… one blind aged templar.

Lovely. Alistair meets Leliana’s eyes and there’s a challenge in his expression that she passes off with a shrug. Clearly she has a plan.

We come to the last order of business, and it’s a human standing up who I’d taken for one of the knights, though he’s not clearly injured and I didn’t see him on the barricades or in the court. He’s perhaps a little paler and more nervous than he should be, and he makes his salute to the bann before speaking in a – in a Denerim accent nearly as broad as my own.

And his story is of the Blight, and the Battle of Ostagar – the account from Loghain’s side, and he says that he was there when the noble Loghain swore vengeance upon the people who had slain good King Cailien, upon the Grey Wardens who were supposed to be saving the kingdom from the Blight, and he dwells on how the teyrn personally led the rearguard that allowed the vast majority of the army to escape the treachery of their supposed allies, and he politely requests that the arl’s representative come to the Landsmeet to discuss the future of the kingdom and the proper response to the Blight.

There is absolutely no way the bann didn’t know about this. The man must have arrived at first light. Leliana has my wrist and I bite my lip and taste blood – more that she’s grabbed hold of me than that I was actually going to fly at the messenger in open court, mind – and she’s got Alistair’s on the other side, although it’s a little less effective on him because fashion would have it that he goes armoured.

The bann, complete with his troubled expression, turns to us and says that these are quite some accusations to set against his personal experience of our self-sacrificing valour, and would we care to respond?

Alistair looks at me, anger warring in his face with the fact that he really doesn’t want to get up and talk in front of all these people – I shake off Leliana’s hand on my arm, letting everyone see that I do it, and step forward.

I don’t look at the teyrn’s messenger. Raise my voice so that there’s no doubt everyone will hear me. “My lord bann, my lady arlessa. Where I’m from, you are what you do, not what you say. If the coward Loghain wants to prove his lies on me, I’ll meet him anywhere he wishes – I’ll not dignify them with another kind of answer.”

I bow my head to the nobles, like proper, and I’m about to return to my place – the messenger steps quickly forward and looks me in the eye. He’s unarmed, of course, except for his knife, but there’s no mistaking a swordsman’s stance, with the wrist slightly cocked like he’s ready to draw a blade that ain’t there. “Out of deference to this court and my duty, traitor, I will forget your words concerning my lord and master.”

“Funny.” I show him some teeth. “I could have sworn I just heard a cur yapping. Not sure as to what he was trying to convey.”

He narrows his eyes. “We will find you, girl.”

“And won’t that be amusing.” I walk back to my place. “My apologies, my lord bann.”

Teagan nods sagely. “I am disquieted by these allegations, and would discuss them more with Ser Miles in private. Wardens, courtesy dictates I offer you the chance to speak in your defence?”

I shake my head. If he’s cloistering himself away with the teyrn’s man, he’s giving us time to be gone from the town. “My lord, if our swords have not already spoken for our character, our words haven’t a hope.”

“As you wish.” He stands, and the court bow or curtsey or salute, depending, and we get ourselves out of there and out of the castle as quick as we may.

*

Mindful of what Leliana said, I get Alistair’s word not to turn around and go straight back before I’ll fill him in. She probably wouldn’t have told him at all, but – well – in his place I’d be pretty turned around by the way we were acting, and the bits I would’ve understood I wouldn’t like. In his place I’d want to know it, even if I couldn’t do anything. So that’s why I tell him all of it.

He listens. He clenches his jaw. Looks flatly ahead of him, at the road. There’s silence for a moment. Then he says, “There’s a thing you usually say about this point, about how my race are all a bunch of bastards.”

“That’s not fair, now.” I try a smile. “I’ve seen nothing out of you that’s half that bad.”

“The night is young.” He snorts. “I suppose it’s not my fault that the boy I’ve abandoned isn’t my brother, and we’ve nearly two weeks until I’m due to be complicit in my own father’s murder.”

Leliana touches his arm. “About the boy we can do nothing-”

“Not true.” He shakes her off. “There’s always an option. We could’ve-”

“Taken arms against our own? Betrayed the Maker’s law instead of an innocent boy?”

He shakes his head angrily. “Not even I can say he was innocent. He’s still – well -” He makes a frustrated noise. “His only chance at escaping Tranquility or outlawry is a web of lies to beggar an Orlesian bard.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Say rather, a truth you wished was real. The boy will be innocent by the time he goes to the mages.”

“And what then? Dishonesty piles on lies piles on deception, and the best outcome is when he’s taken away from his parents for being born a mage. Why is there anything right about this whole bloody situation?”

Morrigan cocks her head. “I would have thought you’d rejoice that another young Gifted One is confined to the cage your religion says they must be placed inside of.”

“No.” He pulls a twig off a passing branch and snaps it in his hand. “Six years with the Chantry and they never did convince me there’s anything right about being a mage. Nobody asked for it, nobody wanted it. You’re called to keep it in check and the moment you lose that control, the best you can hope for is that you just die. If you fail your apprenticeship or commit a crime they burn your mind out and call it justice. I have no idea why the Maker even put them here, on Thedas I mean. It’s not even funny enough to be a colossal joke. Everything that the whole idea touches just turns to pain and horror.”

“Everything?” Funny note to Morrigan’s voice.

He looks at her then, and then away, quick-like. “Some of it just turns to irritating Chasind witches instead.”

“Better.” She smiles sweetly. “So, Leliana. About the arl.”

The Orlesian nods. “I assume from your description of ‘is case you needed a better healer than yourself.”

“I am sorry to break it to you, but it is highly unlikely that either your silent deity or his long-dead prophet will be-”

She hides a smile with her hand. “But no – the Maker provides. For example, if we were to visit the Circle Tower upon unrelated business, the Maker might provide a team of expensive but very competent healers?”

Alistair looks at her, mouth open for an instant, then shuts it. “… You lied.”

Leliana turns to him, mock-affronted. “Certainly not! I swore to journey through the land – which we are doing. To seek the relic – as any good nun would, if she caught word of it upon the wind – and to return before new moon to cure the arl. Which, assuming it takes us less than a week and an ‘alf to secure assistance from the Circle Tower, I shall. It is not my fault if Bann Teagan should assume that because I mention an impossible quest in the same breath as ‘is poor brother, the one and the other are at all related.”

“So you’re stacking duplicity on top of dishonesty?”

“Mm-hmm. If you come to a knife-fight without a knife, you are going to be unsurprised to lose, no?” For a moment her eyes are fierce. “Teagan Guerrin is unfit to run a dockside bawdy-house, let alone a quarter of the kingdom, and one day ‘e will find that that the ground ‘is feet are planted so solidly upon is no more than quicksand.”

“All. A bunch. Of bastards.” He kicks a rock. “Kallian, do your people take applicants? I think I want to get off the human race.”

“You’d still have to deal with ’em, you know. Think it’s bad what you do to one another?”

“Don’t bloody remind me.” He’s quiet as we walk on for a while. “You reckon we really could get him healed by people from the Circle?”

Morrigan purses her lips. “My mother would be capable of it, which means it can be done. I’ve actually no real way of knowing how good she is, compared to a master from the Circle – let us say ‘yes’, because ‘no’ is unpalatable and of equal likelihood.”

“And what’s to stop the bann just knocking Eamon on the head?”

Leliana answers that – “Teagan will be in Denerim for the Landsmeet, and that is no mean trip even by post horses – ‘e will want to be there and enjoying a first taste of what ‘e thinks of as ‘is rightful authority. I would say a week to arrive, a week for the Meet itself, a week back – and what will ‘e find on ‘is return but quicksand?”

Alistair nods appreciatively. “You know – that’s almost a real plan.”

She chuckles. “Don’t celebrate until it is reality, and not an idea that we would love to be true. And there is still an army to muster – and a civil war to somehow magically win without losing an army – and a Blight, to fight against as if it were a fairy-tale – and an archdemon to lure out and kill. Do you even know what it looks like?”

“It looks like tomorrow’s damn problem.” I make my voice firm, try and sound like the leader that they want me to be. “Done solving problems for today. Right?” I try and lighten my tone, see if that works. “We’re just out for a hike. We got on the road at Redcliffe – we’re getting off again at the Circle Tower – any questions?”

The big man looks at me and can’t stop a smirk. “Can you swim?”

“Excuse me?”

“The Circle Tower is on an island.” He gestures at the lake. “Can’t we please get off at the dock, instead?”

“You know what you are, Alistair?”

“Handsome? Noble? Talented?” I wish my nerves would learn that the man’s not a threat to me. “A complete and utter bastard?”

I stick my tongue out at him. Wish that meeting those brilliant blue eyes didn’t send an irrational shiver down my spine. “Funny. You’re really damned funny.”

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Nine

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*
The murder are balked. They don’t like this. It’s not natural. It’s not right. (It’s what they were paid for.)

The trail was hot – the trail was hot as steel in the forge – the quarry was even in sight, physically in actual sight – but their orders were well-worded, and well-written, and very very specific.

So when a group of four travellers left the town with the castle on the hill by the lake and headed north, they were allowed quietly to pass. Because the orders were very specific. Only with their falconer were they allowed to strike – as if they were some kind of Fereldan hawk – it shouldn’t be allowed.

But it had been allowed.

And so the crows watched their targets walk straight past their noses, and were balked. A crow who does a thing which the crows were forbidden? That is not a crow. It is carrion, and is treated as such.

So the murder, they are balked, and they are not pleased.

And yes – a very good description was given. A woman in her late twenties, flame-haired and grey-eyed and average of stature, an Orlesian who dresses for preference as a Chantry sister but wields a blade like a veteran. A second woman of indeterminable age, mouse-haired and green-eyed, tall as some men, striking of feature – if you like humans – a mage of subtle power, who goes without a Templar, and the Wardens have had no opportunity to recruit mages. An apostate witch, then, and a first target. A man, twenty years old, blond-haired and blue-eyed, six feet two inches and built like a destrier, already known to the crows as the youngest full member of the Grey Wardens from Ostagar. And an elf, somewhere between sixteen and thirty, female, pretty, auburn and hazel-eyed, a creditable four foot ten, again, known to them as a rank amateur.

They repeat his description back to him, in their camp, word for word. And then they begin to change things. Correct him. Give details of clothing and armour he had omitted. Give the detail that they walk rather than ride, and list their favoured weapons, and count the knives they carry hidden. Detail where they hide their money, and the likely weight of each person’s pack; detail that the witch walks the wilds as if born to them while the elf is unquestionably an alienage girl; detail that the cooking is shared between the nun and the witch.

Why yes, they have seen them. Funny he should ask, really. Yes. They’re headed north.

What d’you mean, wait for them right here. A crow is not a hawk. What does this man think he is, hmm?

The man with the purse-strings. Good point, well-made.

They settle. You might wonder why they settle. But this is why they are crows, and this is why they cost what they do. They understand the meanings of the word reputation, all of them, and – and this is important – unlike other birds, if the crow does wrong, the murder will know, and they will be displeased.

The falconer’s tent fails, that night, and his blanket is eaten by vermin, and much of his food is found to have been just very slightly rancid.

Nobody said that the murder were not allowed to be pissy.

*

A scream, a proper full-throated scream, and the knife is in my hand and I’m awake, and that’s the order. I take a breath in and I can see shapes, two shapes in the firelight, and I hear a noise behind me and the knife tears out in a waist-high arc as I spin to face it with an incoherent noise of –

Nothing there –

I turn the rest of the way around and coil like a snake and there’s got to be a reason for this paralysing feeling of personal intimate terror –

The shapes are Leliana – similarly with a drawn blade – and Alistair, who was on watch, just crouched there quiet and still and watching me get my breath back. Morrigan will be on a tree-branch. I see no other threat.

“It’s all right.” Alistair’s voice is quiet. “Nightmare, wasn’t it?”

I puzzle out what the sounds must mean, my eyes darting here and there. Eventually I nod, slowly. “Must be,” I whisper, as Leliana sheathes her knife slowly and lies down again, pulling a fold of blanket firmly over her head. (That flutter of movement over there must be Morrigan in owl’s shape, moving to a branch less susceptible to mysterious screaming in the middle of the night.)

A bit of wood pops on the fire and sends sparks up into the night. Now I’m breathing a little easier, I realise I’m shivering just a bit. I move a little closer to the fire, sit on a log. Look into the embers. “I’m guessing that was one of these charming things that comes with the whole Warden thing?”

“You’re hearing the archdemon talking to its minions.” Alistair considers. “Or the minions talking back. Or to each other. Definitely talking going on, though.”

“It just felt so…” I sound weak. I hate sounding weak. I don’t feel weak. “So personal.”

“Archdemon, then.” He nods. “It hates you. Hates us both, really.”

“Bloody mutual.” I scowl, and he snorts with laughter.

“You can say that again.” He sits himself down, around the fire from me. “Can you still hear it?”

Blink. I listen. “I can hear the fire, and Leliana’s breathing, and you. I can hear a creature, thirty yards to my right, probably a rat.”

He nods. “Well, it’ll come – you’re no mage, so it’ll take its sweet time, for all Duncan always claimed it came to him all in one go the morning after his Joining. I can hear ’em now. The archdemon is south-east of us, most of a kingdom’s length away. The nearest darkspawn is a mile and a half below ground and twenty or so yards to my left.”

“You’re showing off.”

He smiles. “I could be sympathetic and chivalrous, instead. Would my lady like a warm blanket and soft words of comfort?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t met your lady. By now you know I’m not anybody’s anything.”

“Heh. More seriously – the new sense needs training, or all it’ll ever be is creepy whispering.”

“Makes sense that it would. I mean, I need training in general, but when am I to get it?”

He looks at the fire. “I travelled with Warden Alejandro for six months, I mean, there were others in our group, but I was his shadow. Every night when we camped, no matter the day’s exertions, we kitted up and drilled in full harness until he tired of it. Duncan -” he pauses – “May he rest in peace atop a massive bloody pile of his enemies, Duncan was different. He’d tell me stories, for the most part. Loved ’em. And we’d cross sticks – he’d never spar with live steel, always said he’d seen one too many accidents, and if I was swinging hard enough to break my stick I wasn’t doing it right – we’d cross sticks as long as the tale went. A warrior has to have a soul, he always said, or we’re not fighting for something worth winning.” He blinks. “Sorry. That went to a dark place pretty quick.”

“It’s all right. I only knew him a week and a half, and he was the first human I ever might’ve looked up to.” I breathe deep. “How are you going to teach your student, then?”

“My-” He blinks. “Some teacher I. What could you learn that would help? You tore darkspawn apart pretty easy; you killed the ogre -”

You killed the ogre -”

“The ogre was killed, and I made a damned poor showing. And out there yesterday you were showing me up, for all I’d absolutely have you in a duel.”

I pick up a stick and poke at the fire idly. “I don’t keep my point up, I move my blade too slow and let it get off-line, I watch the point, not the person -”

“See – you even know what you’re doing wrong. What did you want from me, again?”

I look at him sidelong. “Is that just more self-pity I ought to ignore, or do you actually want me to bite on that?”

“Now there’s an offer you don’t get every day.” The innuendo is out of his mouth before he can stop it, and for a moment he looks like he wants it back. I ignore it.

“So, rank.”

“Rank?” He sniffs.

“Yeah. Leliana said – as a Warden you had the rank to challenge the bann to a duel, and – well – you act it. You carry yourself like a knight, you know? And I think I might need to know how you do that.”

He makes a face. “I’m not sure why you’d want to be one. It’s all rules and oblique politeness and not spitting in public. At least because we’re part of an order I can turn down a duel or something in favour of a bollocking from D- from you.”

“But I am a knight. Aren’t I? With a shield and a surcoat and a horse and a dignity.”

A smile. “Surcoats, we have – and I’ve got a shield, and we should look at getting you one. The Joining is a legal investiture. Given that the Wardens of Ferelden are, like, you and me, and you’re in charge, you’re actually the Warden-Commander, and the treaties I’ve been reading are supposed to make that the legal peer of a Knight-Commander of the Templars. So, uh, yes. You’re a… a knight, and not a minor one.”

Frustration. “And what does that mean?”

He takes a deep breath.”Well, that’s a topic and a half. Legally speaking you’re above common law. You can only be judged by – well, strictly by law you can only be judged by other Wardens, but honour would dictate that you’d submit to the king, or the arl or teyrn whose land you were on, and you’d have to be judged as a noble, not a commoner. You’ve the right to trial by combat, and you can appoint a champion if you’d rather not dirty your hands. Any knight of anybody’s order or realm calls you a name you don’t like – and most people will take your side for anything as simple as not calling you ‘Sera’ – and you’ve the right to call them out, and the closest they can come to refusing is to have someone else fight you. If you show disrespect to another noble, then you can expect a challenge in turn – from their subordinates if they don’t think you important enough to call out personally – and if a noble actually strikes you then they are expecting a duel of honour. D’you want me to go on?”

I shake my head, mostly in disbelief. “So if I’ve got the surcoat on, I’m above the law for true?”

“I think even Loghain will tread carefully around brooking common disrespect to someone who even looks like a knight. The rules benefit him and his, so he’ll likely stick to them like a terrier. I wouldn’t recommend dragging a commoner before a bann’s court for spitting at you, right, but if anyone tries to drag you anywhere then the whole do-you-know-who-I-am thing will go further than you’d think. Hence the dignity, so they don’t need to ask.”

“I think I left mine at Ostagar.”

He looks at me quite seriously. “Nah, it’s in your pack. For true – the nobles all play by this, and if we don’t play their game then it’s like you said, sheep on hind legs time. We did well enough in Redcliffe, I sort of thought you knew -”

“Nuh-uh. It felt like trying to balance a knife on its point, you know? I was mostly taking Leliana’s lead and yours.”

“Yeah.” The fire crackles. “I suppose we can go over all this sort of thing if you like. I learnt all of this as a page, and then again because I was going to be a Templar. I hated it, but it must have stuck.” He yawns. “The only thing I was ever really good at was arms.”

I shiver. “I need to know that, and all, you know. Like you said, you’d have me easy in a duel, and if I’m suddenly going to be the kind of person people duel then – well.”

“I suppose. Just – You couldn’t teach me to shoot, in return, could you?” He shifts on his log. “I’ve never been able to shoot straight.”

“And just where would I have learned to shoot?” I don’t quite snap at him. “I hate to shatter your illusions of the wonders we get up to behind the alienage gate, Alistair, but mostly I’m a dockside tavern wench. I can carry four shem-sized jacks of ale at once, I can dodge a slap on the bum faster than a cat might, and I can spot a brewing fight at twenty paces ‘cross a crowded tap-room. For arms, apart from the knives, I’m a pretty fine hand at darts. I shot a crossbow once, if that counts.”

“You can sing, too – and well. That’s not nothing.”

“Tell you what, I’ll serenade the darkspawn to death.” It’s surprisingly cold.

“Not what I – look. What Duncan always said. You need to understand that we’re fighting for something as well as against something. Or you go mad. The spawn, they’re driven by rage and hate and fear – if that’s all we have, we’re not different enough from them.” He tries to catch my eye. “Does that make sense?”

“More than it doesn’t.” I throw the stick I’ve been using as a poker into the fire. “I still can’t shoot.”

“Fine. I suppose you’d go a funny colour if I asked you to sing for my amusement.”

I snort. “You want Leliana for that.”

“You’ve the better voice.” He kind of says it without thinking. “But more seriously, if you mean it about the arms, we’ll start tomorrow. Sticks, not live steel, but full armour – and the sooner we can get you wearing mail, the better.”

“You serious?”

“Deadly.” He taps a fist on the coat-of-plates he’s wearing. “I don’t wear this stuff just because I’m a dedicated follower of fashion. A day’s foot-march in armour is some of the best endurance training you’ll get – the rich man bespells his arms, but if he’s wise with it he’ll wear a cheaper set to train with, or his fitness goes. We’ve an advantage, of course, but we still gain from hard work.”

I smirk. “Works for humans. Who exactly makes proper warrior’s mail to fit an elf?”

“Dwarves would – although they’d charge the earth. Or the Dalish must, I suppose?”

The smile goes from my face. “We’ve chased enough myths.”

He frowns. “Duncan never spoke of them as if they were myth.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are people who use the name. But come on.” I shake my head. “Noble bands of proper elves wandering the dales of Elvhenan, keeping it all alive in the woods of golden plenty, beholden to no human? Not since the Chantry took offence to their ways and brought half of Orlais in to burn it all down. Arlathan is a hole in the ground and there’s nothing there but ghosts. You know where the oldest trees of Elvhenan are?”

“Tell me.”

“They’re the vhenadahl, Alistair. They are the heart-trees of the alienages. It’s sad, but it’s so. Whatever you tell the kiddies, the fact of the matter is that the elves of the Dales and the elves of the back-streets are one and the same. The last true free people of Elvhenan are us. ‘Dalish’ isn’t even a word out of a tavern tale.” I stare at the stick I put on the fire, watching the bark curl and crisp in the flames. “It’s a name from make-believe, from a children’s game.”

There’s a silence that’s either about half too long or about half too short. His voice is very quiet. “It must have been heart-breaking. To find that out.”

I look up from the fire straight into his eyes and why does my blood still freeze when that happens? I turn away. “Worse if I’d grown up still believing else.”

So I guess we get the other half of that silence.

“You spoke about the dwarves.” I flick him a glance. Enough moping. “I guess it’s too much to hope for that the tales about them are true?”

He shrugs. “They made Duncan’s weapons and armour. I once saw him cut right through someone else’s sword.”

“And Flemeth said they were likely to respond to our call?”

“Yeah. We’d need to be sort of careful – I’m not so sure they’d be terribly happy fighting in a human civil war – but I’ve never met a Warden who’d hear a word against them.”

“And you actually know where they live?”

He nods. “The royal highway goes right to the gate of Orzammar.”

“Well, then. We’ve got ourselves an itinerary.”

“Absolutely. Circle Tower tomorrow, set Redcliffe to rights by magic two days after. Does Orzammar open on week-ends, do you suppose?”

I actually smile without meaning to. “They’re dwarves, right? The only thing they love more than money is the chance to make more money. I’m not sure that gate you mentioned will even be able to close.”

*

The tower of the Circle can be seen from a very long way off. It doesn’t look like it ought to be able to stand. It’s – well. It’s as tall at the top as Redcliffe Castle, and it’s not on a hill, that’s how tall it is. And it’s in the middle of Lake Calenhad.

We decided on surcoats, this time around. Didn’t do us much good, not wearing ’em – let’s try unsubtle. Morrigan’s done something to her staff so it looks a lot more plain than it did, and she’s put on a pair of shoes and a tunic with a longer hem and she looks like her own city-born cousin. And Leliana’s weapons are all in her pack – even her sleeves and her boot-tops are bare.

There’s a templar where you’d expect a ferryman, all runed armour and stern vigilance, and the little boat doesn’t look very used – surely the templar doesn’t row the boat himself? We swing up, and I suppose this is where I try my dignity on.

Of course, he don’t even look at me – he talks to Alistair. “Turn around.”

Of course, the big idiot has to restrain himself from obeying that literally and pissing him off – “I’m sorry, ser?”

The templar looks down his nose, for all that he lacks a couple of inches on Alistair. “Closed. Nobody in or out. The tower is locked down.”

“We don’t need to go into the tower.” He nods to me. “The Warden-Commander is here to see Knight-Commander Greagoir.”

I am? Fair enough. The templar looks at me now. “Warden-Commander.” His tone shows his disbelief. “You’re lost, or so it seems to me. No Blight here.”

Sweet fake smile. “Yes, ser templar. And if you’d like that state of the world to continue, you’ll maybe let us by.”

“I’ll maybe do no such thing.” His voice is mostly a mastiff’s deep growl. “My orders don’t say ‘nobody except funny-dressed elves’ -”

Alistair growls in his throat, takes half a step forward and I put a restraining hand on his arm like we planned that. Not that I could stop him, but he halts. I keep up the smile. “Sounds like it’s bad in there.”

“Maybe. For your own safety, elf, you’ll keep out.”

“Then send for the Knight-Commander.”

He frowns. “What?”

“I think you were gentler raised than that.” I raise an eyebrow. “I’ve no wish to break the Commander’s writ on his own ground, but he and I will speak. Don’t make an issue of it.”

“Or?” Not a mastiff. A lesser breed, a guard dog, a mongrel snarling at the end of its chain.

“Or the Commander will hear of your insolence, and not only will I speak to him but you will fetch yourself a damn good bollocking.” I keep the fake smile and the even civilised tone.

“You little bitch, I’ll-”

I take my hand off Alistair’s arm and the next thing anyone knows is the sound of his gauntleted fist meeting the other man’s jaw. The templar falls with a crash of armour; he pulls himself to a knee and finds that I’ve stepped forward inside his reach. “Warden Alistair, you are out of line.” I fix the templar’s eyes with mine and my voice is cold. “If the honour of the order needs defending, it’d fall to me to do it, thank you ever.”

“Sera.” Alistair puts his hands behind his back.

No way I’m backing down, and the templar would have to scoot away from me on his arse to stand up without leaving himself open. Not like I’ve drawn on him, but he freezes anyway. “It occurs to me,” I say, “that some might be insulted to be spoken to the way I just was. I’m sure that wasn’t what you meant, ser, was it. I’m sure that before you were interrupted, you were calling for the ferryman.”

He bares his teeth. He’s twice my size. I show no fear. “My brothers will only turn you back at the shore, bitch.”

“Oh, dear. I do hope that speech defect of yours doesn’t cause you too many problems in life.” Pure frosted ice. “Get me my boat, boy. I’d like to conclude my business before nightfall, if it’s all the same to you.”

He blinks first, of course, and I take a step back to let him stand.

*

The ferryman looks none too pleased, but he’s quickly enough found; he bends his back to the oars of the little boat and has us across a half-mile of lake without trouble. Morrigan’s trying to hide her childish delight at what’s obviously her first time in any sort of boat, but I catch her staring over the side after fish every chance she gets.

And after the templar’s posturing, there’s nobody at the shore at all. Leliana tips the ferryman, which I wouldn’t have thought to, but of course she should, and we knock on the tower’s big wide ornate door to have the slot in it scrape open immediately. The voice behind the slot is a shem woman, a young one. “Who is it?”

Good thing Alistair’s so tall – that’d see the top of my head if I stood tiptoe. “We’re here to see Ser Greagoir.”

The slot slips shut and just as I’m wondering about banging on it again, I hear the sound of a massive bar being moved and the door swings ponderously and silently inward. Opening it we’ve got three very mismatched shems – a young woman in full plate harness with Templar inscriptions, an older man in a black and white gambeson like you’d wear under such, and a scarred middle-aged lady in soft robes and an incongruous beatific smile.

Moment the door opens, Morrigan’s eyes widen; she bites her lip and remembers herself, but I’d do well to ask her what’s wrong. I step forward to talk to the humans. “We were told the place was closed, but -”

I’m interrupted by the younger woman, wide-eyed. “You don’t know?”

“That’s what the last lot said,” drawls Alistair. “Is anything in this kingdom working right?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Don’t mind Ser Alistair.” I don’t even cast him a glance. “Report, templar.”

It looks like I got the tone of voice just right. She straightens. “Tower’s locked down, sera, since dawn yesterday. We’re currently investigating whether this is a mishap or an insurrection. Won’t you come in and we’ll lock the door? It’s not supposed to be open.”

So as Alistair helps the two older humans push the thing closed and slide the bar, I ask the girl, “You don’t know what’s awry?”

“Best if you see for yourself, sera. I’d point you to the Knight-Commander but he’s asleep – he wouldn’t and he wouldn’t, but there’s only so far a man can push. We’re lucky he fell asleep in the daytime when everything’s a little less bad.”

Keep the momentum. “Understood. Show me.”

She nods quickly. “Fabian. Rose. The door? Don’t open it. If something bangs on it? Shout for me. Okay?”

The man – Fabian? – mutters her orders back to her in an imbecile’s voice. The woman nods and smiles blankly, and now I can see her more clearly I can see the diamond tattoo on her forehead. Tranquil. Ugh. We follow the young templar.

The ground floor of this place is pretty on a scale I hadn’t expected. The carvings are ornate and beautiful, the floors are faced with marble, and even the doors are inlaid with brass as well as bound with steel. The whole place gleams and our footsteps click on the floor, and I can smell blood and sick from the way that she leads us. The wide arched corridors are abandoned. Behind the templar’s back I trade glances with Morrigan; her shrug tells me she’s got no idea what’s going on, but she’s got an eye out.

And this great hall is supposed to be the most impressive. I suppose this is where the noble parents must say good-bye to their sons and daughters, and where the others get their first taste of the gilding on the bars of their cage. There’s an elegant decorated door and a brief little stair up to it which is there purely for ostentation, and the floor is black and white marble and every tile has a verse of the Chant inscribed in perfect handwriting in – surely that’s brass and not gold. And the statues in the alcoves and the murals on the walls are things of gobsmacking beauty and the whole thing’s far, far too rich – but right now, right now there’s a makeshift camp down here with bedrolls and things in one corner of the hall, with a gaggle of people around it in bright robes, and there’s eight armed guards on that stair, and four other robed mages there besides. And the room should be lit from those high arched windows there – but right now, it’s mostly being lit from the other direction, from the door. There’s a symbol on the floor just in front of it, a symbol with seven edges, or it might be eight, weirdly symmetrical and not quite – right – and of course it’s the source of the light, why wouldn’t it be – I take my eyes off it in case it bites me.

“Enchanter!” Our guide calls out, and a woman in a brown woollen robe comes over from the far corner. She’s straight-backed and not overly short, and her hair’s a tarnished silver-grey and the creases on her face say that she likes to smile, but she’s not smiling right now. And the thing she’s using as a walking-stick is steel shot through with bluish veins and topped with a blue crystal. The templar’s voice is a little peremptory, given she’s clearly addressing a woman twice her age and more – “Show these people around.”

The enchanter’s voice is the proud matriarch of sixteen grandchildren. “Well, and good afternoon to -” She meets Morrigan’s eyes. “To you all. Thank you, Leila, you did exactly right in bringing them to me.” And she curtseys to the templar and the templar inclines her head, and just like that is off.

The smile on her face freezes the moment the young templar is out of sight. “Who are you?”

I give her a respectful nod. “Kallian Dener, Warden-Commander of Ferelden. This is Ser Alistair. We’re here to-”

Smile doesn’t budge. “Forgive me, sera. The other two?”

I frown. “Sister Leliana, late of the Lothering convent, and Morrigan of the Chasind.”

“Chasind, eh? Not a well-known Circle, that.” She narrows her eyes; they’re green, and as sharp as I keep my knives. “I’ll say this for you, coming here, you’re not cowards.”

Morrigan raises eyebrows. “No?”

“No.” She flicks a look either way and takes a step closer. “Just before we start telling stories, dear – are you here to, or for, help?”

The witch looks at the glowing sign in front of the door, then back to the enchanter. “Originally the latter – is there truly any help we could be?”

“Never say never, dear. I’m Enchanter Wynne, and I’m a staff member here.” She taps her, well, staff on the marble. “And you’re from a little-known Circle from the Anderfels, aren’t you, Morrigan, and you’re calling yourself Chasind by way of fitting in.”

Sigh. “Among the many things that bugs me about you people -” I regard the enchanter levelly – “is the way you don’t seem to be able to say ‘good morning’ without lying twice. Yes, Enchanter Wynne, if that’s the fiction you need to talk to us, that’s the fiction we’ll have.”

Her smile creaks a little. “I’ll take a fiction over a fight any day of the week you’ll name, sera. Won’t you all come in? I’d offer you chairs, but we’re a little straitened just now-” A scrape against the closed door and her head snaps round immediately; the glow on the symbol in front of the door redoubles and the air in the room seems to set to humming. “Tell you what, dears, I swear on the Blessed Lady’s sainted shinbone that I will tell you anything you ask if you will only do so-” The door creaks, and she turns away from us and raises the staff in her right hand – “Tomorrow -”

The door slams open and a man in a really quite horrible blue-and-yellow robe stumbles through. The symbol on the floor flashes and he’s caught in midair like a moth in a spiderweb, twitches a couple of times and then goes still. One of the four mages among the guards at the door cries “Hold!” and two of the guards step carefully forwards to grab him by the shoulders, pull him out of the trap and to his knees on the floor. Wynne hurries over in a flurry of robe; we follow.

The man’s grey-faced and shivering; the ends of his fingers are covered in dried blood and there’s white visible all around his eyes as he looks this way and that; the templars have him on his knees at swordpoint and are asking him to identify himself. Wynne takes over – and they let her, which tells me more about her than anything else I’ve yet seen. “Who are you?”

The voice is raw and ragged. “Y-you know me, Wynne, I’m, my name is Adrin, I’m in your class for Creation twice a week-”

“What do you want.” There’s no warmth in Wynne’s voice at all.

“W-what do I – I want to, um, I want to get out – you don’t know what it’s like in there-”

“Are you tired?” Strange question, but she says it like it’s deadly serious.

“Am I… Yes! Yes, I’m tired. I bloody – I haven’t slept for -”

“You must be hungry, dear.”

“What? No – I – look, I just want to-”

Scared?” Wynne leans on the word and I feel something grab me by the gut and try and turn me to water and Alistair bares his teeth and Morrigan hisses, and the man lets out a piercing and prolonged and distinctly inhuman scream –

A scream that’s cut abruptly off as Wynne says four quiet sing-song words and clicks her fingers and he falls over sideways, head lolling, and suddenly it’s plainly obvious that the body’s been dead for a day and a half. Alistair looks away quickly and Morrigan looks ill; the enchanter leans on her staff for a moment. “A least demon of fear – where there’s one of those, there’s probably more. Just thank Andraste the wards on the tower held, or they’d be coming in the windows – Kaye, set the wizard-lock back up. Alvin, I’d like that symbol renewed, please. And Rhona?” She looks at the mage who called to hold. “Deal properly with the body, please. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The mage Rhona casts her face down. “Yes, Enchanter.”

And Wynne turns to us again, and for just a moment she looks so very old, and then the smile goes back on and it’s like a decade of cares fall away from her. “I’m so sorry that I can’t offer you somewhere more congenial, but if I leave this room I swear they’ll have the screaming conniptions. But I’m afraid that if you’ve come asking for the Circle’s aid, well-” She indicates the room. “Until we’ve solved our ‘little problem’ here, we’re not exactly qualified to be aiding anybody with anything.”

“All right,” I say, “your point, it’s made. So what’s actually going on in there, and where do we come in to assist?”

She raises an eyebrow. “What makes you think you can help at all? I’d allow your Morrigan might spell Rhona, say, at the door, but a Warden isn’t a templar.”

“You wouldn’t be talking to us at all if you didn’t want our help.”

She nods. “Not untrue. D’you have more than that for me?”

“Ever seen one of us in action, enchanter?”

“Once.” She sighs. “Handsome devil, he was. Don’t suppose he’s still around now – a Rivaini gentleman, second-in-command under Polara, what was his name – anyway. I saw him fight, just the once – a duel it was. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better. Made the other man look quite the fool, for all it was a stupid matter over a woman in the first place and they were both of them fools. The other man wouldn’t give up, not with four little half-inch slices on him and the Warden untouched entirely, so he – that’s right. He disarmed him, turned him around and gave him his boot to the backside.” Her smile is for the briefest moment genuine. “It was the way he rolled a good ten feet – the King couldn’t stop laughing, which I suppose was the point. I wish I could remember the name -”

“Duncan.” Alistair says, quietly. “You’d never think it of him, but Fearghus managed to get him drunk this one time. Got the story out of him and dined out on it – in the Commander’s absence, of course – for the rest of his life. But yes. Duncan was the best of us, but with him gone, Kallian and I are likely the two swiftest blades in all of Ferelden.”

She looks at me. “Well, well. And you’re Garahel’s distant granddaughter, I suppose?”

I blink. “Um, perhaps? Not a name I’m familiar with, my lady.”

“I’m not a lady, girl – was the staff not a hint?” She taps it on the floor again. “And Garahel is supposed to be the one who ended the last Blight, a very long time ago, and he was one of your lot. Still, this is very nice, but it’s not getting us the tower back.” She coughs. “Thing is, we don’t have much to go on. Beyond that the chained contingencies have all gone off as planned – right now, if you cut the tower off at the base, it’d still stand up up just on sheer magic, like a pair of hose nobody’s washed for a fortnight. We’ve been getting least-demons unlocking the door every hour or so, and some of them have been wearing ancient mouldered bodies, so we guess that the crypts are breached, but a few of them, like that one we just had, they’ve been wearing fresh corpses. So something in there’s killing my students.”

“And not the least-demons?” Alistair eyes the corpse the ashen-faced Rhona is carting away on a floating disc of force.

She snorts. “Heavens, no. We use worse than that to train the apprentices – admittedly with scarecrows for bodies. But hauntings like this are a pretty strong sign that we’re looking at a shallowing of the Veil – that is, the Fade, the dream-world, is a little closer to ours than it should be. I’ve two options for the cause, and neither of them attractive. Either we’ve got an actual breach – that is, somebody’s torn a deliberate hole and it’s fraying round the edges, like you’d see with an unauthorised experiment that’s got out of hand – or we’ve got an abomination on our hands. That is, either a serious experimental misadventure, to the point that I’d half expect to have heard about such a working even if they’d not actually run it by the senior staff – or the unpleasant possibility that we’ve got another insurrection, and this time there’s somebody important involved.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Another insurrection?”

She nods. “There will always be the odd malcontent, the odd person whose wings are too wide for the tower. And despite the constant prohibitions – or perhaps because of them, but I didn’t say that – there’s barely a year goes by without someone ‘unlocking the secret destiny that the rest of us are too weak to face’ and ‘showing them all’ – by which I mean going crazy and committing elaborate suicide.”

“But the place is crawling with templars.” Alistair frowns. “They’re immune to magic, right? Isn’t that the point of templars?”

Wynne chuckles. “Not really, dear, despite what you and they believe. A communicant templar – that is, one who has had their fix lately – has approximately the innate aptitude for countermagic of someone with a credential in metamagic, and if they sing their Chant and mean it then they propagate an aura that’s incomprehensible to demons, which will push most back in fear of dissolution. The demons see them much like we’d see a tall waterfall or a deep chasm with sharp rocks at the bottom. But you can bespell a templar just fine if you catch them unaware, and it is literally the case that their power against demons depends on their resolve and depth of faith. So yes – a mage who knows what they’re doing can face down a templar head-on and come out very much ahead, and a templar who’s only paying lip-service to their vocation is pretty much useless against the demons.”

“So, if it’s an insurrection-”

“Then there are senior staff involved, yes.” The smile wilts a little. “In unrelated news, Irving set the contingencies off manually and got an incoherent warning out to Ser Greagoir, so I don’t think it’s him. Could be any of the rest – I don’t want to rule anybody out, because I’d normally say I’d trust them all not to pull this sort of thing.”

“And – where are all the templars? Most of them are quartered outside the tower, if I remember correctly, because of the whole moral hazard thing. Surely this room should be swarming – that is the only door up, right?”

“It is, yes.” The wilted smile doesn’t show any signs of budging. “At dawn this morning, Ser Cullen took three-fourths of the people and went in, their objective to find the focus of the shallowing in the Veil and make things right. He argued the Knight-Commander out of going personally, and insisted on doing it without our assistance. He hasn’t been heard from since. Nothing living has come out of that door – although I haven’t seen any templar corpses walking, either.”

“So what’s your tale?” I nod to the makeshift camp in the corner of the hall. “How did you avoid being locked in with the rest?”

“Providence, dear. I was teaching a fieldcraft class on the lawn when we heard the bells, and you wouldn’t believe the trouble I had convincing them to let us in the door.” She nods to the mages on the door. “And those are the maintenance crew, who were out here fixing the plumbing – I did have a total of four technically qualified warmages with me, green as grass in May, but anyone with any abjuration training has been doing a turn at that door – and nothing living has come out. Of course, you’d expect that. The least-demons are going to crowd anything that looks like it might be a way out, and it takes quite some balls to go through a horde of the walking dead if you don’t know for sure there would be a welcome on the other end.”

“Wait – you have a crypt up there?”

Didactic. “No, dear, we have a stair from the second floor down to the sub-basement. There are things best done below ground, but we do bury our own down there as well. There’s supposed to be a ward on the crypt, but it isn’t to the quality of the – oops.” The smile plasters itself back on her face as a set of crisp measured footsteps click along the hall behind us – she raises her voice a little and it loses a couple of layers of superiority. “Knight-Commander, your guests are here?”

Commander Greagoir is a middle-aged shem who’s neither remarkably large nor remarkably powerful-looking, but even with two days’ growth of salt-and-pepper stubble and dark circles under his eyes he’s got that same sense of deep collected confidence about him that Duncan had. His eyes flick over us in an instant and this is the first shem I’ve met who’s pointed his greeting at me and not Alistair (meet his eyes!). I match his nod, not breaking eye contact, and he speaks first. His voice is pleasantly deep, if a little rough-edged. “Reinforcements, I’m told, ones of a kind my squire didn’t recognise save from tavern tales.” Half of a smile. “Well, I’ll allow her the latter, certainly. I’m Greagoir, and it appears I’ve already invited you to survey the defences and introduced you to what remains of the senior staff.”

I raise an eyebrow. “I was told you were asleep, ser, and not to be disturbed. I’m Kallian Dener, commander of what’s left of the Wardens of Ferelden.”

Now, that draws a frown. “What’s left? Maker’s breath, what happened at Ostagar?”

“Your people are safe.” Or that’s what I’d want to know first, if I were him. “Mine, not so much, and the King with them -” I see him open his mouth – “but the story’s long, and can wait. The problem in the moment is what happened here, and the truth is that you know little more of that than I do.”

“Aye.” He looks from me to the others. “Fine. But I’ll have that story when we’ve made an end of this, Warden. Wynne – I assume there’s no news?”

She shakes her head sadly. “None, ser. Beyond that a man pushed past his endurance has decided to ignore the advice of his friends and subordinates again.”

“And if he dies of sleep-deprivation, enchanter, he’ll thank his bloody stars. That’s what, twelve hours now, since Cullen opened that door?”

“Around that, yes -”

“Don’t say it. I should have sent you with him, and damn the rules. I’ll give him until morning.”

Wynne’s smile goes entirely, and with it any pretense she may have had of being a day under seventy. “You… still mean to follow through, then.”

Resolve on his face. “I do. Have you looked at our situation, Wynne? You, me, twelve Templars and the same again of second-stringer mages barely out of apprenticeship, bracing a door that swallowed thirty of our best and hoping that nothing comes out that you or I can’t deal with? I know you haven’t sealed the tower to the utmost of your art, as the law dictates, because Cullen could get in – supposing you were to do what any halfway competent mage could do. Supposing I were to open the stockpiles and give you three ounces of lyrium, say, to do it properly. We could withdraw, evacuate everyone we can and Annul the place.”

“Condemning over a hundred people to death, people that you and I-”

“Like as not they’re already dead, enchanter-”

“Faith, ser. In humanity.” She looks at the floor. “We teach it. You can be a far more effective healer if you believe in people, if you care about them.” She allows a note of testiness to creep into her voice. “And one of the side-effects of caring about people when they’re in pain, is, well, I believe I have explained this to you more than once. I’ll not abandon-”

I raise a hand and she closes her mouth. “Enchanter. Knight-Commander. Till dawn, you said? And Cullen’s objective was to find the ‘focus of the shallowing’?”

Greagoir nods, slowly. “You aren’t templars, sera -”

Wynne cuts in. “But in Antiva and Orlais, one of the duties of the Grey Wardens is to assist the Templars in situations where what’s needed is martial prowess with a fearless mind behind it. And may I remind you that you are looking at the only living students of the greatest swordsman Ferelden has seen for a century.”

“All I ask,” I say evenly, “is that you let us try. At dawn, well. I won’t be in a position to interfere with your writ if it still needs enforcing.”

“And you’ve dealt with many of this sort of thing before?” He looks down at me. No, appears he’s genuinely uncertain. For all that he correctly recognised me as a person, he’s no idea what I am. “You know what you’re looking for?”

I do, you know.” Wynne nods firmly. “I could go with them.”

Greagoir blinks. “You’ve someone you’d trust to lock the door without you?”

“Mage Alvin. He’ll do anything you say, and not falter once. If he falls, Rhona – she’s a plumber by trade, really, but she’s got more in her than she knows. Tell her ‘shame on me’ and she’ll do it.”

“You are aware that I know very well you’d do anything to get my permission to go in there and try and solve this, enchanter.”

“Absolutely.” Wynne looks him straight in the eye. “But you’ll let me do it, anyway. Because I know very well that you’d do anything to believe I can.”

*

It’s dead quiet the far side of that door. This is supposed to be a wealthy visitor’s first and only sight of the domain of the mages – they’d come in this far to make a purchase, Wynne explains, this floor’s basically set aside for interaction with the outside world – and it’s certainly trying to look impressive. The sheer cost of everything, – I know gold when I see it, and I can see it veined through the very walls. And the hangings on those walls and the sparse, expensive furniture are strangely untouched.

“So, uh. Which way to the demons?” Alistair glances to each side of the hall. We’d been expecting tight confines, which these are most definitely not.

“Oh, they’re here.” Morrigan is walking almost completely noiselessly on her toes. “Kallian, Leliana, may I recommend not thinking too hard?”

“Not I? You mean to say, they’re repelled by my charismatic masculinity?”

“Or possibly you seem already to be obeying my advice?” She smirks at him. (Is she actually flirting with him? Like we have nothing better to do. Idiot.) “More seriously, the Veil is paper-thin here. Even something as simple as strong emotion might get us unexpected company, so guard your thoughts.”

Wynne nods. “We need to push on quickly. The door at the end of the hall. Please note that if we do meet resistance, it will be templar’s work – I am sorry, I mean warrior’s work – until I say otherwise.”

“I’m used to that.” He settles the shield on his arm. “Kallian, you’ve got my back; Leliana, I’d like you with the mages.”

“On it.”

Three more ornamented doorways, three more echoing expensive empty corridors, before we find the reason the level’s so quiet. The door that Wynne identifies as the stairs up is missing its hinges, half the iron banding on it twisted and torn, the costly veneer blackened and curled back away and the whole thing looking like it’s just sort of propped up in the doorway. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t – You know, given that this is a magic tower full of mages, I really shouldn’t be surprised as to the reason that thing hasn’t just fallen out of its frame.

Wynne says a word that endearing old grannies aren’t supposed to know and potters over to have a closer look. “Hmm,” she says. “Well, that’s something at least.”

“For the rest of us?” drawls Alistair.

“This is the work of Enchanter Veretha, our mistress of apprentices, and it’s pretty recent. Morrigan, your opinion?”

The witch blinks hard – or rather, she closes her eyes and then quickly puts her hand over her mouth with them still closed. “So,” she says, “you know our little unofficial game of ‘let’s use the least magic we can?'” Very carefully she opens her eyes again. “Someone may have nearly just forgotten why we were playing that game and changed her eyes rather than use her head. Regardless, no harm done.” She looks at the door. “It’s a spell-working, wrought for strength rather than duration, designed to do exactly what you see, but more than that, it’s taking the edges of an ancient weaving in the walls here and trying to pinch them together. The original person who created the pattern for the spell must have suffered recurring nightmares about large immovable objects – it won’t last past sundown, though. If it were anywhere else…”

Wynne nods. “…I’d advise to wait an hour or so and watch it crumble by itself. Could you unpick it without coincidentally dropping fifty demons on us?”

Morrigan cocks her head. “Yes. Yes, I think I could. Are you sure of what’s on the other side?”

The enchanter raises her eyebrows. “If that was truth rather than bravado, I’d very much like to see this. The far side should be a short stairwell going upwards to a landing with one door – the first three levels of the tower are mirrors of one another, with the only stairs up at opposite ends, before a more sensible design is used for the tower proper.”

Morrigan nods. “Very well, then – behold my incantation, and pay close attention.” She wiggles her fingers. “‘Alistair?'”

He grins. “Any weak spots?”

Wynne matches his smile. “It’s hard, but it’s brittle. Like lake ice in January, the kind you can barely walk on and shouldn’t try.”

“Right.”

And, frankly, score one for brute strength. Everyone else stands back from the door and Alistair takes five long fast paces up to it and slams his steel boot into the corner with a loud splintering crash – here’s something your templars can’t do – and as the spell lets go the door sort-of shatters. The analogy to ice isn’t a bad one as the fragments go flying inwards in a manner that says that they were only really playing at being a door in the first place. And all’s fine and good – for about a heartbeat’s space of time, when we hear a high thin girlish scream from the stairwell beyond and an earsplitting clap of actual thunder.

Alistair’s dodge, not back but to the side, moment he hears the scream, probably saves his life. The tongue of burning light – I won’t call it lightning, not indoors – licks out three feet from the doorway not a breath later and fades to an afterimage instantly. Morrigan wastes time gaping in shock – truth be told, so do I – but the next thing we hear is Wynne yelling “INSIDE!” in a voice that shows none of her age.

And from behind us it’s a whispering like of a good-size crowd talking to one another just too quiet, and something like a human without eyes or hands comes from absolutely nowhere and goes for the door.

I go across under it, opening up what would be its belly with a knife, but the slice doesn’t bleed or anything – just kind of hangs open like I was slicing cheese – an instant later it’s cut in half by Leliana, who by luck or judgement went for a bigger weapon.

There are more of them. They’re just appearing with dreamlike inevitability – they’re just, well, there, and it’d make no sense to question why. Weren’t they there just now, when I looked? Alistair forms our centre with his shield, me on his left hand, Leliana on his right, and we back into the doorway, trusting to the two mages to make right whatever it is upstairs. The cover of the big guy’s shield lets me swap for my long blade, and we set to – each of the things coming at us is different, longer or shorter of body or limb, some with six limbs or five or three, all with a mouth although no two in the same place, all grey wrinkled skin and ivory gaping teeth. You know? I’d love a mail coat at a time like this, just to make me a little bit less wary of those claws. And a pair of heavy gauntlets, to let me punch ’em and have it mean more than a slight stumble.

And Morrigan says calmly that we might want to take another step backward into the stairwell, and Alistair counts down three-two-one and we move pretty much together. The doorway’s only really built to take two people – Leliana ducks back – and we’re occupied with the demon-things as there start to be enough of them to form a press, to start to push inwards as a solid mass.

“Any help, much obliged!” Alistair throws his weight behind his shield and he’s got his sword moving on the one side, I’m there on the other, nothing complicated, just cutting at anything that looks like it ought to be cut. But he’s going to be pushed backwards, and it won’t be long either –

And I hear the sharp tap of Wynne’s staff on the stone and right in front of us a shape etches itself onto the floor in a kind of lurid green light, and it flexes weirdly and the demons are pushed back like so much gossamer by some kind of invisible effortless pressure.

“Right, then.” Wynne sounds satisfied, at least. “That’ll hold ’em for a minute or two. Up the stairs, please; nice and orderly, now.”

There’s a plump redheaded human girl making herself small against the wall just the far side of the door at the top; loose brown belted flaxen robe, might as well have ‘apprentice’ tattooed on her forehead, and mostly she looks ashamed of herself. She’s looking big-eyed at Morrigan, who’s got light gathered at the top of her staff again.

Alistair hauls the door closed behind us and Wynne speaks quietly to the lock and it clicks. “And the door will stop them?” I ask.

“Until it’s kicked open by the people Greagoir sends in to find out what happened to us,” she says, and smiles with it. “The demons won’t break it themselves. Can’t tell it apart from the walls.”

I give the door a dubious look. “So what happened to the one downstairs? That looked pretty kicked-in.”

“I rather see Cullen’s hand in that.” Wynne sniffs. “I won’t impugn him by implying he had the key on his belt at the moment he called for the ram.” She turns to the apprentice, her voice a little kinder. “So, dear. While that was quite a precocious display, and if we’d been demons I’m sure we’d now be toast – I’ll wager that wasn’t the only reason you’re here?”

The shem girl looks from her to us and shakes her head. “I was to let the Enchanter know when the noise started?” She frowns. “Sera, forgive me – who are these people?”

Wynne smiles. “We’re reinforcements for the templars, dear. This is Morrigan of Weishaupt Circle and three of the Grey Wardens. Where is Enchanter Veretha?”

“Um.” She points down the hall. “We’re all locked in the common room, Enchanter.”

“All right. Stay here and keep doing what you’re doing.” And the apprentice nods and picks up the chair she’d been sitting on and the book she’d been reading, and gets back to her vigil with only the odd sidelong glance at our backs.

*

So the flagstones here are plainer and everything’s a little cheaper, the walls bare of hangings and the furniture more workmanlike. We pass a wood-panelled room that’s pretty certainly an actual library – their library is bigger than the home I grew up in, and their apprentices are housed better than most people I ever met. The whole place is lit by what looks like candles, but as I look at them I realise that there’s no smoke – the flame’s likely just an illusion there to explain the slightly unearthly light. The sheer casual wealth – I mean, you hear that magic is expensive, but it’s only when you see how they live that you realise – anyway.

The mistress of apprentices, a thin, fluttering wisp of a woman, has her charges safely corraled in one of their heavily warded dormitories – wards meant to keep apprentice minds from being distracted by great workings elsewhere in the tower must presumably work just as well to keep them safe from whatever might be outside. We trade words quickly, but she’s pretty much no help – I suspect we’d have had better luck talking to the young people, but with two enchanters right there they were keeping their mouths shut. Up a level, and the apprentices’ workrooms and gymnasium – again, all this expensive wood and brass, and this is how they treat their apprentices? – are eerie in their quiet emptines, but our mages pass them without a word and thus so do we.

These doors unlock for Enchanter Wynne as she walks up to each of them, and there’s no sign that this is anything other than just a quiet day – must be odd for her to see them so empty, but to me this whole place is starting to look a little like one of those strange dreams where everyday things take on a great distant sense of unease.

The door to the third level is opened just as we get to it, and it’s lucky that I’m not in the lead or the man that opened it would’ve got a knife in him. As it is, he looks calmly at the point of Alistair’s sword and says that it is against the rules to do corporal harm to tower staff, and he’s sorry but this floor is being cleaned right now and must we truly cross it right now? His eyes are flat and blank and the tattoo of the Tranquil on his forehead can’t hide the diamond-shaped scar. Ugh.

Wynne orders him to let us through and he nods equably and leads the way – this floor smells of smoke and hot metal and spices, and the corridors are dotted here and there with bright-robed men and women of all ages padding about with tools, with bits of paper, with pieces of wood or little burlap sacks, all of them moving with a kind of blissful carefulness like it’s some kind of meditation.

The place that’s being ‘cleaned’ is soon enough seen – this room has half its door and much of the wall missing, and it’s got to be the source of the smell of smoke, and the soot and rubble on the floor is being carefully swept up and tidied away by what I suppose you’d call a swarm of these people. The room was some kind of lockup, with a strong door – I ask Wynne and she says that that was a stockpile of lyrium, and points grim-faced to what looks like a footprint on the floor. A man stood there, a man in metal-clad boots that left their shadow on the stone, a templar most like. No accident, then, all this.

And in each of the lyrium stores, each place where the precious stuff is locked carefully and securely away, there’s a similar tale – although that one was the cleanest. No body at any of them, when they all should have been under guard – were they just gone? No, says our guide, the dead were taken away to be dealt with respectfully, and would we like to see, like Ser Cullen did?

No, I say, that’s fine, not unless – no. Morrigan would rather flee this whole level than go look for men slain by magic, and Wynne shakes her head and asks rather who did it?

The man is sorry, but he may not say – and Wynne’s eyes narrow. That makes it one of ten people, and four of them are her and Greagoir and Veretha and Head Enchanter Irving, and a shape is forming for her and it’s not a pretty one.

But the Tranquil cannot be talked around and threats would be no use at all, and so none the wiser we’re led to the door upwards – bizarrely it looks new-made. He apologises to us with a beatific smile for the lack of enchantment on the door – the previous one was damaged, and no mage has answered their requests for a strengthening of the enchantment.

But the lock is solid enough, and he gives the second key to Wynne as he pulls the door open to reveal a wide, lazily open spiral of a staircase in what must be the spine of the tower-

There is an armoured form collapsed right the other side of the door. I step over it and keep my eyes out as Wynne kneels next to the man – unconscious, she says, and can’t be waked. She gives his name – one of the templars who came in this morning. Why would they have left him behind?

But there’s another, just up the stair, sat against the wall as in extreme fatigue. Another one just on from that, all of them the same. A mage, too, just like the templars in unbreakable sleep. A trap, maybe? Surely not a magical battle – the templars’ blades are in their scabbards, look. What it looks most like is they all just fell asleep where they stood.

Leliana yawns, and draws just a set of sharp looks – what, she says, people yawn, it’s what they do.

More templars on the stair. No kind of – There’s a door here, up to a level Wynne identifies as, uh, something? It’s not important. I cover a yawn with my hand. Huh – a light tread, on the stair. I draw, and we move to each side to set an – ambush, yes.

Wynne shakes her head like she’s trying to fight something off. Leliana leans against the wall in the alcove she’s found. Alistair is behind me – he’s sat down on the floor – Alistair, get up, this is no time to be –

And there’s a bear instead of Morrigan, brown thing, tall as a shem. Fair enough.

Where is the bear going?

I’ll just sit back here and wait for the bear to come back-

*

I open my eyes. The air’s bitterly cold, but it’s a good feeling, a cold one, a fresh one. The muttering, the whispering in the back of my head, the sound I can’t usually hear when I’m awake? It’s a good sign that it’s loud right now. It’s the twittering of the darkspawn wondering where their master has gone. I show my teeth in a smile. Gone to the point of my blade he has.

The battlements are big and wide and they’d normally be grey, but they’re all over dark red right now, just the same as my surcoat, as I’m sure I’ll find my gambeson beneath the bright mail I’m clad in. I take off the helmet and shake out my lovely hair and it streams back in the breeze as I raise my sword to the sky and it catches the light just so – and the soldiers’ voices are upraised in a wall of cheering that’s almost a physical blow to the ears.

And Alistair’s beside me and I meet his eyes and he throws his head back and laughs. I got it, he says, I did it. He knew I could do it. And it’s so easy to share his smile and say yeah, we did. We did it. We. Us. The Wardens, the Grey. My people. And Duncan smiles and shakes my hand and I tell him wasn’t he glad that he stopped those shems from having me for murder, and he laughs – I never saw him laugh before – and he says I’m the best he ever trained.

The best –

he ever –

He never. This ain’t real. This ain’t – right. Magic. Like dreams, they say. How d’you wake yourself from a nightmare?

I scream. I scream and Duncan screams and the world screams and oh, Maker – I’m in a room, I’m on the floor, some shem bastard just backhanded me in the face and those screams are my friends and the floor is slick with blood that’s come from my aunt’s cousin who I can see on the floor right in front of me with her throat cut right across because she stood up to them. I spit blood out – he split my lip, I remember. It was all the blood I ever gave him. He reaches down to grab me by the hair and I get his wrist, spin up and around like a spring uncoiling. He keeps a knife at his belt, an eating-knife, and I take it, shove the point in under his arm and there’s so much blood.

Second man is already raising his blade, a proper blade, and I gave him my heel hard in his cod as I turned around, that’s right, and he yelled at me a word he’d no right using. Keep the momentum going, put the foot down to step forward right at him as the first shem falls, go for his throat with the knife and he gets his hand in the way – fine, I’ll cut that, he tries to back away and there’s a wall he runs into, and I hit him in his gut (no armour on, y’see) and he’s doubled over so I’ve got no trouble now punching the knife in the side of his neck. Blood. It covers me. I sweep up a sword for my right hand and turn.

Man’s in the doorway. They run in packs of three, do the bann’s guards. This one’s bigger than the others, taller and wider, and he’s fair-haired and blue-eyed and not ill-favoured, and I put a sword in his gut and leap for his face, hit him around the shoulders and bear him down backwards, and he lets out a hoarse cry in a familiar voice and I realise it’s Alistair I’ve gone for blindly and he’s got my sword in his gut and he’s breathing fast and his face is very pale and what have I done

This is not real. Alistair’s armoured, that thrust wouldn’t have done much but blunt my blade and my pride, and he don’t go around wearing the colours of the bann of Denerim neither, and most importantly he and I hadn’t met by this day, and there’s no way he’d be against me and not at my back – what’s happening here? I take a deep breath and yell and he screams and my friends and family in the room behind me, they scream, and-

I open my eyes. The air’s bitterly cold, but it’s a good feeling, a cold one, a fresh one. The muttering, the whispering in the back of my head, the sound I can’t usually hear when I’m awake? It’s a good sign that it’s loud right now. It’s the twittering of the darkspawn wondering where their master has gone. I show my teeth in a smile. Gone to the point of my blade he has.

*

Alistair’s got to be dreaming.

It’s not a bad dream, really. Sure, it’s not real, but it’s not like real life’s been a bed of roses lately. Or ever. He deserves some –

he was doing something, he was doing something –

deserves some rest.

Yeah.

He stretches out and yawns and decides he won’t open the curtains on the bed for at least another hour. Besides that, the arm draped loosely but possessively across his waist is very clear on the fact that he ain’t moving anywhere just yet.

*

Idiot.

Useless brainless blind stupid foolish childish – should have seen this coming a mile off, what did she think she was, this is an apprentice’s mistake – nnh.

Morrigan deliberately recalls the memory of that time she fell and broke an ankle, administers herself a metaphorical slap in the face. Yes, it’s not exactly her finest hour that she stepped slap-bang into what one might uncharitably call a rat-trap, but she’s here now. None of that self-loathing rubbish. It’s not true – and even if it is true, it’s not true-true – and besides, it’s not helping, so there.

This is the Fade. It’s all illusion unless there’s something around whose will she cares about, and there isn’t. Let there be safety, hmm? Let there be a little peace – it’s not exactly draining to impose serenity on her environment, and it’s better than the pale spectre that was trying to be her mother welcoming her home. Continuity of experience tells her that that’s extremely unlikely, and if her mother minds being disbelieved, she’ll make it known.

Right. So cocooned, let’s explore. This place is a painted picture, painted in colours of nostalgia on the inside of a trap made of self-loathing coated in lassitude. Peel away the paint and feel the teeth of the trap. Idiot. Failure. Your mother sent you away because you were slow and stupid. Not to grow, but to wither. Have the beautiful brainless man and the maniac and the hate-filled elf done aught but drain you, mistrust you, eat your meat and drink your wine and give you nothing for all your –

No – that’s a load of horse dung. Morrigan remembers kind words and politeness and smiles and above all respect, and she makes of those things a lever and her iron self-control gives her where to stand, and she puts the lever in the rusty jaws of the trap and leans

*

The cell is white on the walls and white on the ceiling and the bed is white and her robe is not, it has the colours of a flame, a red hem and a yellow-white top. Leliana opens her eyes and sees the ceiling and a crease appears between her perfect eyebrows.

This is a novice’s cell. She is not a novice. Nobody but that particular novice may enter a novice’s cell, upon pain of inventive punishment. A novice leaves the cell when they leave, and they never come back. Many of the supposedly formative years of her youth were spent in a cell such as –

She studies the pattern of cracks in the whitewash on the ceiling –

Many of the supposedly formative years of her youth were spent in this cell. And she has not been here – save in her dreams – for nearly as many years as she was ever here.

She swears. Louder than that. Still not enough. She stops, takes a deep breath, and then does it properly, the echoes of her voice rebounding off the walls as if they had physical force. She heaps every obscenity she knows upon the head of the idiot who managed to walk herself and her four companions into a trap that a novice could have predicted – she beats a fist against the bed until it wakes up to the fact that it’s supposed to hurt to do that, she pulls the covers aside and screws them up and throws them at the door (everything else in here, it is bolted down, even that chair), she goes up to the door and shouts at it and bangs on it and kicks it and puts her shoulder to it but it’s really part of the wall.

She’s stuck. At the mercy of another. No idea who or what. Her body completely helpless, unoccupied – memories of half a dozen raids swarm to her like horseflies, memories of breaking open an abandoned cottage and finding things that used to be people stacked up in lines in the stinking basement, still breathing, eyes still open. Memories of leading the templars to – no! She is not at the mercy of such as those – there was no sign, there was no – The castle of Sachefard had no sign either, not until they broke down the wall in the comte’s private apartments. She remembers clear as day the report that the mage gave to Seeker Cassandra of the fate from which those people had been delivered into death – she remembers looking at the people driven to nausea or fainting just from the testimony – she remembers locking herself and Cassandra and Marjolaine in a prayer cell with enough alcohol to fell an ox, afterward –

No! Eventually she calms herself, breathing deep, digging her nails into her palm, biting her tongue, eyes screwed shut. It’s going to be all right. There were mages with her. Sure, they were caught as well, but they’re not likely to stay caught. They will find her, and she must still be sane and recognisable when they come for her or they may take her for a demon and pass straight on by.

It’s going to be all right.

She takes the things that she has thrown and places them back in their order. She kneels at the devotional and she opens the book that she knows will be there, the book of the Chant of Light, the words of the Prophet Andraste, the Bride of the Maker.

And because she does not know how long she will be here, she opens the Chant to the first page, to the words that are sung at the great high festivals, to the tunes that she knew even before she came to the Chantry. And she takes a deep breath and relaxes her belly muscles (as you do, when you sing, if you know what you’re about) and her voice doesn’t shake too much as she begins at the beginning.

*

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep a moment.

She’s sitting in her favourite chair. The dog comes up, puts his big fluffy head on her knee and looks up at her with loving soulful eyes. Through the open shutters can be heard the sound of the children at play in the garden.

Oh, look. Unnatural surroundings, deliberately nurtured neuroses given form – while she rather likes tulips, she doesn’t have the raving obsession with them that this room would suggest – she’s dreaming, and she shouldn’t be.

Demons can read your mind, the Chant teaches, but that’s a simplification. The truth is that demons could read your mind, if they could read. They see, but they don’t understand. So a Circle mage is trained to have traps, pitfalls, markers in their head, things that a demon would take for obsession and familiarity and deep-seated desire. It’s not perfect, but it’s worked here. This little bucolic tulip-infested widow’s cottage with the two children and the dog is one of hers – it is in fact a painting that lives on the wall in her study. This dream is a fake.

She raises a hand and speaks the four words of a spell-pattern of evocation she’d shudder to use outside of the Fade, and the world around her erupts in a boiling cylinder of flame. Four more words and another evocation pushes the disintegrating wreckage away from her with shattering force, and she’s standing in the middle of a globe spun of her own power and – there! She clenches a fist and twists her other hand through the gesture of one of the old standbys, and a white-hot lance strikes out through her pointing finger and the whole bubble bursts –

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep a moment.

She’s sitting in her favourite chair. The dog comes up, puts his big fluffy head on her knee and looks up at her with loving soulful eyes. Through the open shutters can be heard the sound of the children at play in the garden.

Oh, look. Unnatural surroundings, deliberately nurtured neuroses given form –

Something is holding her in sleep. She sets her jaw. No point imposing will upon the painted picture that is this illusory dream, not if somebody’s building it as fast as she’s tearing it down. Better to strike at the captor directly. She gathers herself, deep mental breath, and forms carefully the pattern of the spell that she’s going for in the air in front of her. This is one of Irving’s creations originally – strictly it’s an abjuration – gently she lets her power flow along the lines of the pattern, crystallise in front of her, taking the form of the glowing symbol of an idea, and then she pushes it forward with a puff of breath, sees it disappear, and feels it impact onto the demon’s secret hidden self with the force of a good old –

The dream shatters like glass.

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep a moment –

Like that is it, huh? She frowns and lashes out, good and hard. Entropy, this time, rot and corruption, again a horrible spell that she’d never dream of using in the waking world. The peaceful bucolic lovely scene rots itself apart from the inside.

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep –

*

The rusty jaws of Morrigan’s trap are weakening. She keeps up the firm steady pressure. Serenity is the key, lack of emotion, lack of thought. Something is distracting the spirit that laid this trap. Don’t push harder because you’re winning, just keep pushing –

There. The trap snaps shut. The dream-Flemeth has a dream-Morrigan to welcome home. Now, then, what have we…

It’s a pattern, a many-pointed star. The pattern itself is too fine, too ordered to be a spirit’s work – think of a gardener’s trellis or plant table, or perhaps a bird-box. But it’s been colonised. A spirit lives in this thing, and not a small one – who knows what the bait was, but the thing that lives here has spun itself a nice little web to catch anything that passes.

Then as the things dangle in its web, caught and carefully wrapped, it inserts a little tendril of itself into the dream and it just siphons, just drinks until there’s nothing but one slightly used body and the complete lack of a soul.

Right now, though, one of those siphons is spinning around and around in fury as its occupant clearly tries to struggle, to make that cocoon more trouble for the spirit than it’s worth. The perfect distraction. But hit the spirit, right now, and not only do you attract its attention but the risk would be that it would just hurt its prisoners even further. Free them first. Ena, mena, mona, mite – She dives.

A dream. A man kneels alone in a garden of roses, humming the Chant to himself. The core of him is a manifold whirling pattern of uncertainty centred not on his words but on the thought I am alone. He has power to him, but he isn’t using it – he can’t hear the loud clear tone of the bells that Morrigan rings for him, he can’t hear it and he can’t see her face or feel the slap she deals him – he’s too far gone, too caught up in his meaningless prayer, in his frozen instant. Morrigan kills her frustrated irritation and her compassion for the poor man in the same instant and moves on. She can free her friends at least – so long as whoever’s making that noise retains their will and their strength. They aren’t here. Move, girl, move on and stay quiet.

Don’t be a mouse. Mice make sound. Be an owl, silent on white wings. Fly on.

*

It’s a four-poster bed in a room that she recognises from Redcliffe castle. The curtains of the bed are drawn against the light that filters in through the room’s shutters. This is the arl’s bedroom. And if there had been any doubt before which of the vices the spider at the centre of this web embodied, it’s vanishing like mist in summer.

Three guesses who this is. Lazy bastard. Morrigan lands on the dressing-table and makes at the top of her voice the noise of the screech-owl whose shape she’s wearing.

Nope; nothing. Vexing. She’s actually going to have to take another shape, isn’t she. And he’ll take her for a desire-spirit, most likely, if she uses her own – pah. Cat’s paws it is. She drops noiselessly off the table and slips up into the bed between the curtains –

Cats can’t blush. Well, what was she expecting? The only problem now is that she doesn’t know which of them it is. There’s only one soul in here, but all souls look much the same from a distance, and from closer in you can’t tell which is which –

She yowls. Perhaps there’s just a little vindictiveness in the volume she puts on it.

There’s a scream and somebody throws a pillow at her, which she dodges – still nothing conclusive. Both individuals’ actions are perfectly in-character for a genuine person. Fine. Claws will bring down that curtain behind her, if she tears with sufficient force.

Alistair goes after the bloody cat and she leaps lightly to the windowsill – he follows her, while the woman wraps herself in a sheet – both reactions are believable, but it’d be unusual for something conjured by a sloth-spirit to be so proactive, or so… detailed

Focus, girl. Not just because it would be embarrassing to have seven shades of shit beaten out of you by a naked man with a pillow. “Alistair.” Dodge. “Alistair!”

The pillow drops from his hand. He frowns. “I’m pretty sure I don’t have a long-repressed and deep-seated longing for sarcastic talking cats.”

“Then you don’t know what you are missing – You are in a trap, my friend.”

He looks around. “You mean to say I’m not the fabulously wealthy, dramatically successful and uncontested master of both my arguable birthright and the heart of the woman of my dreams?”

Is she.” Morrigan gives said female a jaundiced look.

“Hush, you.” He puts his hands on his hips. “Yeah. This is a dream. What of it? I’ll wake when I’m good and ready, and go right back to traipsing around in the mud on a doomed quest with every man’s hand turned against me-”

“Ohh, you love it really-”

“Get ye behind me, demon.” The man really does look ridiculous striking that pose without a stitch of clothing on him. (Nice self-image he’s got.)

Morrigan gives a very un-catlike snort. “You’ve got it wrong, Alistair. The demon – or its excrescence, which is much the same thing – is behind you. Who did you think I was?”

Well, that pulls him up short. All it takes is for her piercing green eyes to flick down and up again appreciatively and he flushes bright pink. “…Oh.” And he actually pulls the other curtain from the bed to wrap it about his nether regions – “If you tell her -”

She doesn’t know what a dirty chuckle sounds like, but she gives it her best shot. “It’s me you need to worry about offending. Do you want to stay in here until the ‘demon’ eats away your mind entire?”

Alistair looks down. “No, Morrigan. Sorry, Morrigan. Thank you, Morrigan. Guess I need to wake now?”

“From your perspective, yes. There are things I need to do here to make that happen, but I doubt you’d be much, well, much help. I’ve found another victim, someone I cannot wake-”

He nods. “You’re right – pretty much no way I can be of service given that I apparently can’t resist a simple bit of temptation.” He gives the beautiful creature in bed and her come-hither gaze a last look. “How much of this will I remember?”

“Little, I’d suspect.”

He gives a boy’s grin. “Shame.”

“Firstly? I have nearly no idea who you think that is, but in the light she looks like none of the women I know.” A cat can’t grin. “Secondly? I will remember, and I am perfectly capable of creating a perfect rendition of the scene for you from my perspective – but I would probably feel the need to notify everyone who might possibly be depicted in such a scene?”

“Let’s go with the plan where I don’t get my balls ripped off.”

She winks at him. “Quite. Now hold still -”

*

Canticle of Benedictions, verse ten.

Blessed are they who stand before

The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.

Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.

Verse eleven.

Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.

In their blood the Maker’s will is written.

Verse twelve.

Blessed are-

A bell sounds. Leliana’s sweet voice falters and she turns to see the source of that sound. Draws a knife she didn’t even know she had on her.

There’s an owl perched on the end of the bed. Its eyes are a brilliant green. At least this time around, there’s little doubt who’s in this particular cage. “Can you see me?” it asks. “Can you hear me?”

She clears her throat. “Threnodies eight, verse thirteen. Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting. You have brought Sin to Heaven / And doom upon all the world?”

The owl cocks its head. “I swear. For all the good that you swear that your religion does you, you must admit that it can also be really quite depressing.”

Blink. She reaches out a hand like she doesn’t quite believe it, touches the barn-owl gently on the head and feels the plumage soft under her fingertips. “…Morrigan?”

“In person. How much do you know about what is going on?”

Her voice is steady and sweet. “I am… terrified.” The image of her wavers a little from the flawless perfection of holy innocence – for a moment she’s streaked with dirt and tears and blood and the room is a ruin and then she’s back to normal – “I have no idea how long I can stand this. I have felt no assaults on my sanity save for being locked in a room with my fears, but…” Her voice is still level, still beautiful. “There are, there are a lot of fears. You have to get me out of here.”

It’s not a usual motion for an owl to nod. “I can and will.” As a gasp of pure released tension escapes Leliana’s mouth, Morrigan continues – “You are the second of our group that I have found. So far I’ve found five templars as well – they are-”

“Morrigan.” Here, close to the core of Leliana’s being, her will is enough to interrupt Morrigan when she speaks. “I’ve no art to help you, and I can feel my self-control unravelling moment by moment – please.”

The owl’s voice is a wellspring of calm compassion. “Very well. Peace, Leliana.” It hops across onto the white bed, carefully walking a spiral pattern, and dragging behind it a curiously fascinating green light which unfolds and expands quickly to fill the whole room – “Sleep tight. Wake safe.”

*

The shem doubles over and I stick the knife in the side of his neck and spin to face the third of them. The bann’s guard run in threes, and –

And this one is dead on his back, with a lithe dark beast crouched over him, like a cat but bigger, and nothing I ever met before. It meets my eyes a moment and then it looks down, shrinks back a little. And it talks – “Kallian.”

“‘S my name. Yours?”

The voice is a woman’s, husky and warm. I recognise it, or I did once. “You know it, or rather, you should.”

“Morrigan.”

“That.” The cat-thing sits down on the dead shem’s chest. “It’s curious. You are half-in and half-out of the trap.”

“Morrigan?”

“Yes, Kallian?”

“What in the holy and blessed name of fuck is going on?”

“A sloth-spirit and its trap.” The cat-thing is washing its face with a paw. The voice is somewhat disembodied. “Think of it like a spider caught us in a web. I’m a bit spidery myself, so I am in the business of examining all the cocoons on the web.”

“You know, that made a surprising amount of sense. What have you found?”

“Leliana, praying. Alistair, getting a long morning’s rest. You, apparently, murdering people. My own prison was supposed to be a happy homecoming.”

“The other mage?”

“She’s keeping the spirit busy. But I found something else, too.” She hesitates, fidgeting a little.

“Go on.”

She looks at me straight. “Kallian, there’s two dozen templars and three other mages in here unconscious and still alive.”

“You’ve been able to reach them?”

She sighs and there’s a moment’s uncertainty and then she’s human-shaped and sat on the floor, looking more fed up than anything else. “I can reach them, but I can’t touch them. I mean – I could hurt them, very easily. I can make them see or hear things, feel things even, but – but they don’t care. They won’t listen.”

“So-”

She sighs. “So, if I just break this, they’re hurt. They’re all joined up with the spirit. If it breaks? They might, too. It’s why I came to get you out, rather than just facing the spirit down.”

“But you can’t get them out.”

She shakes her head. “Not without them wanting it. Or rather – no. Strictly their wishes don’t matter.” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “That’s the worst part. If it were one, say, if it were two, I could save them. I could burn this out of them like poison, rather than lending their will a smidgen of power to float them out of it themselves. But not two dozen. Not and retain the power to save my own skin.”

“And Wynne can’t help?”

She shakes her head. “Wynne is exhausting the spirit’s power holding her down. As far as I can tell, the trap it’s holding her in is a veritable battlefield – I will go there last, for that act will give me away.”

I nod. “So why tell me?”

“Are you cracked?” She looks straight at me and lets me see her bloodshot eyes. “Twenty-seven lives I’ve never touched, and I can save – at a stretch – three of them, and you want to know why I want a friendly ear?”

“I’m sorry.” I glance around at our surroundings, the bann’s stinking dungeon, not exactly a place to sit and be kind. “Morrigan, you’ve saved Alistair and Leliana and me already, and you’ll have saved you and Wynne by the time this ends, so that’s not nothing. And you reckon you can save a couple others?”

“But I can’t choose. Clearly doing nothing is the worst thing I could do – but -” She sniffs. “They’re all one to me. The templars would kill me if they knew me, but so likely would these mages. But I’m not like you, I can’t look at an enemy and see someone who’s not also a person. Everyone’s someone’s son or daughter or brother or wife or – Do I gauge by age, save those who likely have the most people grieved by their loss? Do I pick the ones I’d rather see alive? Who am I to choose who lives and who dies?”

I try and look sympathetic. Terrible at this. “You’re the one with the blade, Morrigan. You’re the one on the spot. You can make them live, so you get to choose which ones you can’t save.”

“It’s not fair.”

“Tell the Maker and hear him care. His world don’t.”

“How can you stand there and say something like that?” She hunches her shoulders. “I suppose they aren’t your people.”

“They ain’t yours either. They’d sing glories to know you were dead.”

She shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not theirs, for sure, but anybody who draws breath is worthwhile by my lights, that’s the whole point.” She bites her lip. “Look. People have lines they won’t cross.” She looks at me, perhaps a little defiant. “You found one of mine. All right?”

“What d’you want from me?”

“I don’t know.” She turns away. “I should just send you back to dreamless sleep like Alistair and Leliana. I’ll find a way-”

“Really? Don’t sound like it.” I come sit down beside her. “All right, look. You say you can save two, right?”

“Three, if I push my limits.”

“You’ll need those limits.”

Her eyes flash at me. “Worth someone’s life, is that? No. Three.”

“Okay.” I meet her eyes, let her see I’m not just saying it to shut her up. “So you can’t choose, you don’t know ’em from Andraste, and neither do I. So one’s as bad as another.”

“I suppose.”

“And each one’s as easy as the next.”

She nods wordlessly.

“So just pick the first three you find. Just go in a straight line and -”

“And what about the others?” It’s the closest thing I’ve seen her show to real distress.

“Ain’t your fault. You did your best.”

“But if I leave them, if I do nothing, if I don’t break us free, they won’t die, it won’t be my fault -”

“No?” I look at her steadily. “Who’ll save them, then?”

“I don’t know!” Her eyes are brimming, poor girl.

Sudden thought. “Sloth demon, you said it was? Makes you really want to do nothing and blame the world for it?”

“That’s different.” She sniffs.

“Truly?”

“I, uh, thought I -” Her green eyes narrow. “This demon was cultivated here. Somebody laid this trap deliberately.” She shows teeth. Not a smile. Her voice goes very cold. “When I find that individual? The fate to which they condemned twenty-five people will seem like the gentlest of kindness.” She swallows. “Thank you, Kallian. When one tangles with a spirit, one nearly always gets a little caught-up in its paradigm – I shall pretend that this was inevitable, and not the kind of mistake for which I shall be beating myself up for weeks.” Deep breath. “I suppose you want my assistance in breaking free, now?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

She stands and pulls me to my feet. “Good. So. Hold… still…”

*

Three to choose. Not ever so much time. Two mages, a man and a woman – that one and that one – and a templar. Mages are commoner than templars in this world, and he wouldn’t save her, but she doesn’t dare start thinking of her enemies as not being people (well, the ones that aren’t actual monsters).

In each case they won’t remember what happened. Won’t remember her stepping out into their prison and with an imagined drop-spindle twisting their little world so tight it snaps, and pulling hard –

The third one burns her, as she casts, and she feels her body’s exertion – she’s out of breath, in the waking world. The guess of three – could there be a fourth?

No. Not and wake alive herself.

*

Wynne’s eyes open, wide –

“Enchanter-”

Morrigan’s voice is drowned out by Wynne’s spell and the world is all of an instant covered in flame. She’s nearly burned, herself. Shield firmly in place –

Wynne’s eyes open, wide –

“Enchanter!”

Flame. The dream breaks. It’s costing the spirit much of its strength to do this, but Wynne surely can’t go on for ever. Right?

Wynne’s eyes open, wide –

“Wynne, I -”

Lightning.

“Look, you’re-”

Flood.

“Will you-”

Rot.

“Please just-”

Spiders. Really?

“Let me-”

Fire. Again.

“Get a word in-”

Pure arcane power. One can do that? Fascinating.

“Please-”

Acid, a great stinking tide. Morrigan’s shield is going to need rebuilding at this rate.

“Look, I’m-”

Fire-

Morrigan reaches for the staff she knows is on her body somewhere and doesn’t find it. Of course – she’s bloody shapeshifted in the waking world –

Ice, then crushing kinetic force.

The next one will be lightning. The spell will be four words. Morrigan knows a counterspell of three – ugly but effective – she uses it, imagining the crossing of two bright blades of steel, and there’s a confused mess that ends up being a rain of silver threads.

The two mages stand facing one another, hanging in what’s clearly just a coccoon, the spirit long ago having given up the strain of making any kind of illusion to go with its trap. Wynne draws back her hand, gathering bright light to it – then freezes. “Morrigan?

Exhausted nod. “In person. How are you?”

Wynne scowls. “Trapped. The others?”

“I’ve freed the Wardens and the nun, and two of your mages and a templar. Much more and my head will implode.”

“You all right?”

“This trap has my tail. I cannot wake without breaking the trap or shedding my tail, and I’m relatively fond of those memories. And I don’t know if I can wake you, not now we’ve the spirit’s attention.”

“Mm. You will want to call them ‘demons’ in the waking world, dear, you sound like a Tevinter textbook.” Wynne actually winks. “The kind you tell the apprentices was burned in the last Exalted March. So. We have its attention – but given where we are, if I hit it again it will just push me under again.”

Morrigan nods. “Your idea, then?”

“Can you evoke?”

Embarrassment. “Um. That’s where you make things burn or fall apart?”

“Hmph.” The impulse to stand and discuss magic theory is rapidly wrestled down and abandoned. “Can you?”

“Not so much. I was planning to shield you while you cast?”

Wynne chuckles unexpectedly. “That’s the exact reverse of my plan. Your shields are good, girl – you’d pass for an abjurer, no issue – but I sincerely doubt they’d match my own. There’s no time to teach you a spell. D’you have anything that will hurt a demon?”

“Emotions, I can do. For sloth, what? Desire? Hate?”

A sharp look. “You’d use the demons’ tools against them?”

Morrigan’s eyes flash angrily – “Better than making one’s dearest hopes into a weapon. I could have left you here.”

“Peace.” Wynne raises a hand. “This is not the place to discuss that. Although… Why not use both? A kaleidoscope of conflicting urges? When one approach sticks, use another?”

Morrigan considers. “It’ll just entrench itself. Close itself off to stimulus -”

“Blind itself, you mean? Why, then I can blow it straight to its hell of choice.” Wynne shows her teeth. “What are you waiting for?”

“Your shield, enchanter.” Morrigan gives a little bow.

“Then with your permission -”

Next

Incoming blizzard of posts

As discussed last week, today I’m going to start pulling first AO and then I/A/FME over from CURSWiki to my own webspace.

The next AO story update is targeted for Monday evening. Everything until then can safely be marked as read.