Alternative Origins Chapter Three

by artrald

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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.”

*

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