Alternative Origins Chapter Five

by artrald

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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.

*

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