Alternative Origins Chapter Six

by artrald

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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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