Alternative Origins Chapter Seven

by artrald

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*

Duncan said that one tires of silence on the road, and it’s true – or at least, a Leliana who’s no longer wondering when I’ll put a knife in her and a Morrigan full of catlike interest can make enough conversation between them for at least four people. They break the ice by talking religion, of all things – Leliana shows an amount of interest in Morrigan’s take on the whole thing that’s quite odd in a Chantry sister, and she reciprocates with a spoken rendition of the opening of the Chant of Light that reveals the sort of command of scripture you’d expect in a revered mother or perhaps a temple chanter.

Alistair and I end up walking together, half-listening, and I decide that an olive branch is better late than never. “So, uh. We’ll be passing through Redcliffe on our way. That’s your town?”

He makes what might be an affirmative noise.

“Uh-huh. You could teach me something about it?”

“Mm.” He doesn’t look at me. “They call it a city, but it’s not so big – it’s farming and fishing country, so what Redcliffe is is a market. Mostly it’s a castle that got too big for its bailey and snacked on a fishing village.”

“Who’s the lord?”

He raises an eyebrow. Apparently humans are born knowing this sort of thing. “Only the fourth most powerful man in Ferelden. Eamon Guerrin is the arl – he was the arl under the Orlesians, he helped his people ride out the revolution, he helped King Maric put the kingdom back together after. Well thought of on the battlefield as much as the council chamber. When I was talking about the quarter of the kingdom with a scrap of honour, his face was on my mind.”

“You admire him.”

“Everyone does. You grow up around that castle, you’ve got a second father in this kindly old bloke who you grow up to realise is the lord of everything you can see from the battlements.” He nearly smiles. “Apart from the Circle Tower, which you can make out on a clear day if you squint.”

“You grew up in the castle?”

“Did I say that? No. I was a foundling. Raised by dogs.” He gets a look for that one, but he persists. “Big fluffy ones, never would come clean about the breed. Half mabari and half carthorse, is my guess.”

“Makes sense. But what about the dogs?”

He cracks a proper smile. “Did I really just hear a joke? Who are you and what did you do with our grumpy Warden-Commander?”

“I knifed her and took her face. Why d’you think I’d care where you grew up?”

“Where’d you grow up?”

“One room of a two-room house in Denerim alienage. My da moved to live with his brother after we lost my ma – if I ever had brothers and sisters, nobody ever told me, but I had cousins instead. And don’t get me wrong, there was the cousins-in-law in the other room. Close as family, close as rats, take your pick. Mostly I grew up on the street, ’cause six kids in two rooms the size of Flemeth’s hut ain’t easy. Your turn.”

“You ever find where I’m going to grow up, you tell me, all right? I’ll go there and give it a try.”

I bite back the first response. “Alistair, d’you actually want me to mind you, ever?”

“Uh. Bad at straight questions. I’ll try a yes?”

“Then you’ll damn well pay me in kind if you make me talk about me.”

“…yeah.” He looks down. “You’re not wrong. But it’ll make all of you dislike me.”

“Tell Leliana then. Not your fault if we overhear.”

“She’s still reciting-” he catches my expression and holds his hands up – “all right. Maker’s breath, some people. Okay.” He takes a deep breath. “I can be a right bastard sometimes. You get what I’m saying?”

“You’ve no father. Yes.”

He makes a face. “Everybody has a father. I – my mother was a serving-woman in Redcliffe Castle. I was raised a page of the arl’s court, and, uh, there weren’t exactly many pages, sometimes I was the only one. Do I need to translate that out of the human?”

“I don’t think you want me to misunderstand you.”

“Mmm.” He rubs his fingers over the stubble on his chin. Still won’t look at me straight. “Arl Eamon – he was always so very kind to me. My mother died when I wasn’t very old. Most orphans in a position like that, well. You don’t get to eat three hot meals, put it like that.”

Narrow my eyes. “I’m familiar.”

“Course. Course.” He colours slightly. “I’m, what I mean to say is. Eamon took an interest himself. He’s the closest thing I’ve got to, well. You know. Probably actually uh. And his wife, when he remarried – she couldn’t stand the sight of me, obviously. Sent me to the templars soon as they’d take me.” He straightens. “That’s probably enough about me to be a fair trade.”

“Probably.”

“See? You think less of me. Don’t you think less of me?”

“What’s it to me if you know your father’s name and it’s a famous one? I always figured you for a nobleman. You play the knight easier and smoother than most bigjobs I ever saw, you’re well-fed and well-favoured, you talk like you turned up with a silver spoon in your mouth and you’ve no scars to speak of. Way you use a sword, you got your lessons from training, training you can’t get if you’re going out to put food on the table, and I’d lay odds you learned to shoot and ride and hawk and dance-”

“And harass the serving wenches and spit on beggars in the street, and-”

“-And not tell me that you’re the son of a lord who controls a sixth of the realm, at the point that he’s exactly the thing that we need?”

“…Yes! Absolutely. There you go.” His voice is more bitter than anything else. “And if I hadn’t burned my bridges and thrown his kindness in his face, I’d be bloody invaluable.”

I frown. “He kicked you out? I thought going for a templar was an honour.”

“It is.” He kicks at a rock. “It was. Hated it. Took it out on anyone who wouldn’t kick my arse. Hells, I took it out on anyone who would kick my arse. Never bloody wrote to Eamon. And I know his wife must have given him grief for coming to visit me, surly bastard that I was. Three years later he stopped.”

“He’ll remember you. Least we can do is try.”

“I’m telling you, I walk into that house, you’ll see. They hate me there.”

“But do they think you’re a liar?”

He meets my eyes. “You’re getting your way on this whatever I say, aren’t you?”

I don’t look away. “I’m glad you see that.”

A sigh. “Fine. We’ll do it your way. And when that doesn’t work, you can browbeat them into it.”

“Good. I look forward to it.”

“Right.”

We walk on in silence for a while. Gah. Sod it. “Okay, look. Back in Lothering. That money.”

Mostly his voice just sounds weary. “Yes?”

“I was surprised, was what it was. It wasn’t about what I said it was about.”

Pause. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I heard that. Did you just… climb down?”

“I’m not some kind of heartless bitch. I – you surprised me, is all.”

“By doing the right thing?”

“…yeah.” I swallow. “If we don’t work together, it’ll kill both of us.”

“We see something that we can do, and aren’t, and I will be there. We can’t do this by betraying ourselves.”

I nod. “If I’ve got your back, you damned well better have mine. Deal?”

“I sort of thought I already said all this. Back when I gave you my sword.”

“Yeah, well. Sometimes it takes something a couple of tries to get through my head.”

“It doesn’t get through.” The corner of his mouth twitches. “It’s got to learn to go around, just like everything else.”

“Screw you, shem.”

He smiles, at that one, and stays wisely silent.

*

Redcliffe Castle sits on an outcropping of rock so steep and so convenient it must have been mage-built, crouched over the town like a mother hen brooding on a nest. The town itself – well, something’s wrong. You shouldn’t have the gates closed, not with the Blight so far away and no sniff of war otherwise, and if it’s a fishing port, where are the boats? Denerim docks are busy with every tide, and this being on the Great Lake, wouldn’t that make it busy all of the time? You don’t have tides on a lake, surely?

Alistair’s worried. Points out everything I just thought and some I didn’t – there should be traffic on this road, there should be flags on the castle, there should be – well – signs of life. (Morrigan butts in that there’s life all right, it’s just hidden.)

The walls of the town are low but functional, and the only gate’s well in bowshot of the castle – this place was built with defence properly in mind, although it’s not what you’d call well-manned right this minute. The guard atop the gate’s a boy of hardly sixteen – there, look, that’s what a scrawny human lad looks like, he’s a foot taller than me and already wider in the shoulders. His armour fits worse than mine does. He hails us for our names and business and there’s a break in his voice – what is going on here?

“Alistair Cliffe here to see the arl.” We agreed on the road to leave the grey surcoats and the name of Warden for best. Makes us look like bandits. Even mercenaries and knights-errant have coats of arms.

The kid squints down at us in the bright mid-afternoon sunlight. “You’ll not be doing that, ser. Town’s closed. Castle’s closeder.”

“What’s wrong?”

He shakes his ill-fitting helmet. “You don’t want to know, ser. But we can’t hardly welcome travellers, not now, and the castle’s all locked up. If you start now, you might make it far enough away before nightfall.”

Alistair turns to me a moment. “This is one of the times I should probably ask if you’ve got my back.”

I nod. “Thanks.”

“‘Kay.” He walks a little closer to the gate and raises his voice again. “Where are the others?”

The boy looks confused for a moment. “Others?”

“Uh-huh. If you think I’m a threat, I ought to be staring down the points of three or four crossbows about now. Where’s everyone else?”

“Uh, they’re mostly asleep, ser.” The boy’s clearly been brought up to respect his elders. “But I’ve got orders not t-to let anybody in.”

“Should I keep my voice down, maybe, so as not to wake them?” Nobody laughs. “Whose orders?”

“Milord Teagan, Bann of-”

“Westbrook. Why’s he giving orders? Is the arl…?”

The boy’s clearly out of his depth. “Look, ser, orders are orders-”

“What’s your name, son?” Son? The two of them could be elder and younger brother. (Well, they couldn’t – Alistair’s blond, the boy’s got hair like a carrot.)

“Linvel, ser-”

“Linvel. Listen to me. You’ve got the shit job. Graveyard shift.” (I don’t miss the way the boy shudders when Alistair says that. File that for later.) “Responsibility and decisions, and no backup, and you’re wondering if you’re in the right already, for all that you probably volunteered. If things were going well, there would be five of you here. I’m guessing the bann won’t thank you for turning away another sword, am I right?”

“My orders-”

“Clearly weren’t meant to apply to Teagan’s friends and allies. Let us in, and I’ll help you bar the door again myself.”

Well, that worked. And true enough to his word, Alistair helps the lad put the massive bar back across the gates properly. He’s absolutely showing off those muscles of his – I suppose it has the boy impressed. Honestly.

Anyway, it’s not far to the town chantry, but the feeling that something’s so very wrong just keeps getting worse and worse. The streets should be full of people. I make sure my blades are to hand; I see Leliana do the same with hers. She does look odd with a sword baldric on over a novice’s robe.

And what the chantry square reminds me most of is the camp at Ostagar. There should be a market here – what we’ve got is grim-faced men and women in no particular colours, no particular armour either, and it’s odd, it’s like they’ve just risen in the middle of the afternoon. There’s a couple of matrons doling out what looks to me very much like a breakfast; there’s a couple of stacks of spears and bills to hand, there’s a man over there ignoring the bowl of gruel sat next to him as he’s winding fletchings onto crossbow bolts, and I can hear a forge going like the demons themselves are running it. Alistair looks around in about as much disbelief as I do, and Leliana asks in disquieted tones where’s the siege. I just shake my head.

We’re spotted pretty quick, but they don’t challenge us – they’ve got no idea what to do with us, clearly. Alistair dithers for a moment, just like they do, so I call out for someone to take us to the bann, and, well. Turns out that worried sleepy humans take orders real easy. A woman with the look of town guard about her has us follow her into the chantry with a businesslike tone.

And where were the town guard? Here, is where. The woman who showed us in here keeps moving, as do Morrigan and I – Alistair and Leliana stop themselves dead in shock. The place is like a bloody hospital. Men and women laid out in row after bandaged row, the omnipresent muttered drone of the Chant of Light coming not from the chanters but from a tired-looking altarboy reading aloud, as the robed sisters and even the place’s chanters are tending the injured.

Our guide shows us up to one of the nurses, a rangy black-bearded middle-aged man a little poorer dressed than the others, in leather breeches and his under-tunic – he finishes changing a dressing on a long nasty ragged cut and turns on the third time the woman says “Milord?”

“What now-” he takes us in – “uh. Do I know you?”

“I believe so, my lord.” Alistair puts his fist to his breast. “I suppose I was little more than shoulder-high the last time we met?”

“Alistair?” The bann blinks. “Maker’s Bride, it is – how extraordinary. Quite the man you became – forgive me my attire, boy, I’m afraid we’re somewhat putting all hands to the pumps here. Tell me you’re here with a score of your brothers, and I’ll praise your name every day of my life. Tell me you’re here with a mage, and I’ll tell you you’re a bloody miracle.”

At least he has the sense not to look at Morrigan. “I, uh. You do know I’m a Warden, not a Templar, ser?”

The older shem shrugs. “Same bloody difference, when you get down to it, right? I’m guessing you’re here to help?”

“What’s going on? Surely the darkspawn haven’t reached this far already? And the walls are hardly-”

“You mean you don’t know? Maker’s breath.” He shakes his head. “Boy, I don’t know why you came here, but I beg of you. We need every sword.”

Alistair nods immediately. “You’ve ours, of course, for whatever good it’ll do – but that’s three of us, at a push. What’s going on?”

“Where to start – well, where to end’s more the question.” There are dark circles under the bann’s slightly bulging eyes. “The town is cursed. The castle is worse. The dead are walking.”

“The… dead. Actual walking corpses. Not slavering manlike beasts?”

“Slavering I’ll grant you, but they’re corpses for sure, dug themselves out the ground, and after the first night we recognised some of the faces.” He curls his lip. “They’ve come every day for the past week. Starts an hour after sundown, and keeps going till they’re bored of it. After the second night we sent everyone away that would go.” He snorts. “After the third we sent a rider to the Circle. Ser Barthol fell on the second night; Ser Priam lost his good eye, night before last; we only ever did have the two full Templars here. I thought you had to be our long-delayed saviours.” His voice drops to a hiss that won’t carry. “You don’t have to be a military genius to see we’re not going to hold much longer. I have three knights-errant and five men-at-arms who can still fight; the town guard’s down to twelve able-bodied; I’m putting gaff poles and bill-hooks in the hands of fishermen and burghers too stubborn to leave. Even hired the guards right out from under a dwarf merchant – the little bugger rabbited, but his bully-boys stayed bought. What do you have, in truth?”

Alistair looks at me and the other two. “What you see before you. Kallian’s a Warden like I am and Leliana knows her way around a weapon, though we should see if we can scare her up some armour. Morrigan wouldn’t know a spear if it bit her.”

“Huh. Better than naught.” An idea strikes him. “The templars seemed to know a lot about the walking dead, and the buggers seemed to fear them. They teach you much of that kind of thing in Warden school?”

Alistair shakes his head; Morrigan shifts uneasily, like she knows more but ain’t about to talk. “They’re coming just from the castle?”

“And the lake. Walking up out of it. We’ve got some barricades, but…” The bann shrugs his meaty shoulders. “That’s five armoured men on one and six on the other. Maybe another ten each side who can probably put the right end of a pointed stick in the foe best of three. But without a templar to push them back or a mage to turn them into toads, without something to give our people a breather, it’ll get… bad. Bad enough last night with twice that number of competent people, but it’s not just the idiots who get hurt when somebody buggers up. Another night of this and I’ll have nurses on the barricades.”

Alistair sets his jaw. “A Warden is tireless, my lord, and unlike a lot of these things it’s not so much of a metaphor as you might think. Worst comes to the worst, put Kallian and me on that path and you’ll get your breather.” Again, Morrigan’s like there’s something on the tip of her tongue, but won’t talk.

“Any of you ever led, in battle?” He looks at the three of us with weapons. “Bugger. All right. I’ll stick you on the landward side under Ser Paget; put ’em down and burn ’em. Morrigan, you said your name was?” She nods. “You can carry oil. We’re not low on supplies like that, not yet. Any lulls you see, just soak the dead and burn ’em.”

“Might I not rather stay here, ser, and nurse the wounded?” She puts a little catch of fear in her voice that something tells me is as false as anything.

He gives her a dark look. “Plenty of wounded up there, afore long.”

“Yes, milord.” The intonation’s pretty exactly right. Knowing her, I suspect she practiced this in a mirror.

“Right.” He straightens. “Now, if there’s naught further?”

I open my big mouth. “Ser, we came here to see the arl. In the morning -”

“If we’re still alive by then, my girl, we can see all the arls you like.” Not your anything, you – “Now be on with you. I’ve bandages to change.”

*

Morrigan doesn’t grab my wrist to take me aside as we walk out, but that’s because I move my hand faster than she does. She jerks her head away from the others and once we’re out of earshot she rounds on me. Her voice is very quiet. “This is not far short of unbearable.”

I frown. “Go on?”

“I could help them,” she hisses. “I could… damned well save lives, in there, right now. I-if they weren’t such ignorant swine.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Nothing.” She grinds her teeth a moment. “All right. Fine. Get them to accept help from an unholy source, from a mage who doesn’t fit their world-view, and I can help. As it is…” She tails off. I wait. Eventually she speaks again. “My mother trained me to heal. It is not my greatest talent, but it is a piece of my art of which I am proud, that I can take a thing which is broken and make it not so. And in there, right now, are five lives I could save if they were not so pig-headed.” She clenches a fist; her words slip by like the edge of a knife. “I am tempted to take on another shape and go where I need not watch them die avoidably.”

I meet her eyes. “I’ll talk to Teagan.”

She scowls. “Not on my account you won’t.”

“If you said -”

“If you so much as hint that you came with a mage, it’s obvious that it is I. No. If you fall, it’s a different story, and they can go and fuck themselves if they object. But otherwise, I shan’t aid where it clearly isn’t wanted.” She swallows. “It is just – harder than I had expected. To make a thing happen, one must want it to happen. You’ll never find a trained healer who is less than put out at – gah. I thank you for listening, Kallian. Let us catch up with the others.”

*

The town isn’t built to be defended this way around. The path up to the castle is uncomfortably steep and not straight; the Redcliffe militia have blocked it at the bottom with a barricade of wood and rubble, trying to site it where they can best put their numbers to use, but the attackers will have the momentum of high ground. There are about twice the numbers of people the bann gave, about thirty people all told, but looking at them I can see what he means; there’s a lot of determination mixed in with their fear, but most of ’em have even less idea of what to do with a spear than I. The men-at-arms look like they last slept a month or so ago, and the knights are trying to put a brave face on it, but this barricade, it does not smell of victory.

Alistair’s greeted like a brother. Not so much for his connection with the town, though one of the knights does turn out to know his name, as for the heavy brigandine he’s in and the stout grey shield he’s bearing. Leliana, hastily kitted out in the leather cuirass of a guard who won’t be needing it, is hardly looked twice at, and I swear that when this is over she and I will sit down and discuss how I’ll avoid being mistaken for a thirteen-year-old lad lying furiously, because there ain’t nobody calling her ‘boy’ for all she’s not six inches taller than me and hardly that much broader. The third time a shem looks down at me and says that my da will keep me right, I take my cap off and tell him in my thickest Denerim street cant that he’s half a kingdom away, thank’ee, and bloody glad thing ’cause the man don’t know a battleaxe from a besom, and I jam the cap back on my head and turn away. And after that I get some peace to go with the funny looks.

I hate this, the waiting. Morrigan’s using the time organising the stretcher bearers – a little surprised to find herself the oldest and least scared of the noncombatants, she’s got them marshalled into teams and is talking quickly and quietly to them about what’s going on and how to avoid getting eaten. Wish somebody would give the fighters that briefing. We’ve not quite got enough people in heavy armour to make a full front rank – Alistair and the two knights are holding the centre, the men-at-arms either side, with Leliana on the one end and me on the other. I’m on the right-hand, the inside of the curve of the path, where the press is like to be thickest. I’ve fought in crowds before, of course, but not generally where everyone was trying to kill me – I’ll be fine.

It’s harder to hate the shems when you see them like this, scared and tired and cold like regular people, out of their fine houses and lined up against the dark. Easier to be glad of their clumping size and brutish strength when they’re holding a line for you, yeah? There’s no alienage in Redcliffe. The vhenadahl tree won’t grow in this soil, and you could uncharitably say that the difference between a squalid ghetto and a proper alienage is the tree. But the only People here are a brother and sister of about fourteen, the smallest of the gaggle of serious-faced young people with Morrigan. It’s tempting to imagine that I’m fighting for them and them alone, that we’re all here just to defend these two of my kind here – it’s tempting, but it’s not right. I’ll not do those who’ve bled for this land a disservice by denying their cause.

They light the torches as it gets darker; they gutter and smoke. One of the knights has a lightstone for his helm. The light it sheds is illogical, sourceless, cold, literally something out of dream. Makes everything look a little unreal. And the mist doesn’t help, rolling off the lake and… down from the hill? Right. I draw my long blade from its oiled scabbard with hardly a whisper. The others with swords do the same. A sword’s like a nobleman, it’s no earthly use for anything sensible, only good for one thing. The grip’s sized for a shem man with big hands, but it does me fine as a two-hander. Dammit, but my heart’s beating quicker. I’ve met worse than this before. The darkspawn are ten times worse than any poxy walking corpse. Funny how that don’t make it better –

Here they come. You’d kind of expect the walking dead to, well, walk – these are coming at the run. Complete silence but the pounding tread of their feet. The spearpoints poking over the barricade beside me are wavering, the men and women on the other end of those poles shaking almost too bad to hold ’em. Alistair glances to his right, sees Ser Paget’s pale worried face under his helmet and decides to take matters into his own hands – he takes a deep breath and bellows, “REDCLIFFE!” at a volume I don’t think I’d ever heard a man make before. I raise my voice with the others, and not quietly either, and the cry goes up from the whole of the sorry unit, and then they hit us and it’s chaos.

A fight nearly always is. But this is worse. I’ve not got a great deal of space to work with, but the barricade ain’t hard for these things to climb, and apparently whatever’s animating them knows how to hurdle. The body of a shem lady, must be forty or so in her tattered dress, leaps onto the barricade and between the spearpoints; I take an ankle out from under her with a flicker of the blade and waste time putting a two-handed stab up under her ribcage as she falls. Waste, I say, because one of them behind me puts a spearpoint in under her chin. I’ve got my foot on the now motionless corpse pulling my sword out when another pair come up over in much the same way; one of them takes a nice braced fisherman’s gaff in the gut and the other one would pretty much land on me if I weren’t quick on my feet. It falls behind me with a slash opened in its belly from the dirk that just turned up in my right hand; I get my sword out of the one corpse and put it in the next without even turning around, and the terrified woman it was about to savage sees my point come out its chest and it sags.

Leliana’s got her stolen sword one-handed and a woodsman’s axe in the other; not a battle-axe, a proper wood-axe with a broad blade, and she’s using it for necks and elbows. I’d wager this weren’t the first time she’s seen the walking dead, neither – she’s not fighting like you’d fight men, she’s not going for killing blows, she’s aiming for strikes that cripple and mangle, and she’s working through them completely unruffled like she’s chopping wood. Her sheer businesslike calm is almost visibly putting fight into the men behind her – they know about clearing branches, they’re even holding the exact tool for this, and the dreamlike quality to the light makes the danger all a bit less scary and real.

Alistair meets a charging corpse with a punch from his shield that spins it right round and breaks its back on the barricade. That swing he just made with his sword – if most men did that, it’d take the thing down for sure but it’d leave the edge of the weapon stuck in its spine – it takes one of the undead cleanly in half in a shower of ick. Here is a foe that needs raw brute strength and sheer force, or that’s his thought, and he’s providing both of those just as fast as the foe will come to him. He sees the man-at-arms to his left slip in the mud and without a thought in his head he chops down the man’s opponent with a blow that opens it from crown to crotch. Sure, he needed to step up onto the barricade to do that. But just let them come.

Let them come indeed. I’ve discovered, just like Alistair has, that these old corpses ain’t as tough as regular bodies – just about possible it’s me that’s different, not them, I guess – and I go from swift flickering blows at vulnerable points to wider sweeping slashes like a child would imagine you’d use a sword. And as I start to settle into it the people behind me start to trust me at my work – it’s almost like fending off a boat with a pole, it’s just coming in a bit harder, and it won’t be a moment till I’ve cut it down.

It becomes mechanical. We’re just killing them until they run out of things to kill – ohcrap – to my left a man goes down under a pair of frenzied creatures that used to be dead bodies and I step across to hold twice the width I was, because in that moment I have to trust the people behind me to sort that out, because if I turn my back I’m dead. Another one gets through where I was standing and I’m just plain lucky that I get to it before it does any worse than hiss, and even luckier that there was the slightest lull that let me do it. This just got unsustainable – I only have so much in the way of luck – all right. There is a way. I sweep up the fallen man’s sword as I come back past.

And in a gap between attackers I leap the barricade with a yell. Surely I can hold a much wider area if I’m free to swing two long blades. Not like I’ve done this before, but it’s not like these things are master warriors. Constant motion and there’s no way they’ll get their hands on me; those that try are in for a shock when they find that I can shatter their mouldering bones with a knee or an elbow, that I can slice an arm clean off with a draw-cut even. A few corpses later and there’s Alistair’s battle-cry again and the onslaught lessens a bit. My breath’s coming quick; my muscles are burning; the world is a dark haze with things in it that have to die. They aren’t trying to get past us. They’re trying to get at us, just the two of us. And as I realise that I move towards Alistair, so there’s a side I don’t need to watch, and he does the same. They call it back to back, in the stories, but it ain’t – there’s just a place where if they go for him, I can hit them, and if they go for me, he can. No idea how long I – we – can do this. But it’ll get them time to get that formation sorted.

And from behind me I can smell burning. Horrible smell. Ugh. Revolting. Nauseating. Burned flesh. Morrigan’s clearly getting – on – with –

The press drops right off. Lessens, slackens, and they draw back. First couple of them that do, I follow them; I cut them down. Then I realise they’re actually retreating. (Ugh. That stench!)

I actually drop to one knee, I’m breathing that hard. Dripping sweat despite the chill. My vision greys. It’s moments before I can take Alistair’s offered hand and get to my feet.

“Maker’s breath, Kallian.” He gives me a lopsided grin. “You might have warned me you were going to show me up.”

“Sorry, sorry.” I wipe ick from one of my blades in a mechanical motion. I’m drenched. “You gave me the idea, you know.”

“Never thought I’d survive it -” he winces as another gust of foul smoke wafts past us – “ugh! That smell’s nearly as bad as the bloody undead!”

Nearly as – My eyes sweep the line. Looking for Morrigan. There’s Leliana, leaning on the barricade panting, blade sheathed, her axe fallen from nerveless fingers. There are the men-at-arms, not so different, trying to get their breath, looking for a second wind. There are the young men and women our witch was talking to, at least, dragging corpses to the smouldering pile there – aha. There she is. Leaning back against the building, doing a good impression of someone too uselessly sickened to help.

“Get them ready for a second dance.” I gesture to the barricade and Alistair nods.

“Where you going?”

Half a smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before the band starts up again.”

“Got it.” And the two of us vault the barricade, and the look in the eyes of the defenders – okay. If it was these people’s support we needed for our war? We’d have no problem.

I find what else I was looking for – blood on me that’s actually mine – and I walk quickly through our lines holding the injury and looking concerned. Morrigan stands up from the wall at my approach, visibly steeling herself and gritting her teeth. “You hurt?”

“Excuse to talk to you,” I say, although that is my blood and come to think of it, it does sting like a bitch. “The spell. Yours?”

Her eyebrows go up. “Yes. Hunger – nnh.” She bites her lip, draws blood. “Hunger spirits, your charming religion calls them least-demons. Nausea’s not a common thing to dream of. They can’t – uh.” She puts her back against the wall again. “Handle it. The smoke. A cover. The warriors suspect? They all right?”

“They don’t.” I make a business of bandaging my arm. I’ll need to take this off, wash every inch of me before I rest. Filth in a cut isn’t a thing to joke about. “And they’ll live. Not as if battle ain’t nauseating on its own. How long…?”

She takes a deep breath, looks straight forward at nothing. “Not so long. Ever stuck your fingers down your own throat? Eventually I will -” She hisses. “Not easy, this. If I make it look easy, please be aware that this is because I am… extremely… good. At this. Most people, a minute at most. How are. Casualties?”

“Light.”

She nods, eyes closed, breathing through her nose. After a moment she says, “Go on with you.”

And I go back to the barricade, and I’ve got an eye out for the woman standing there with her eyes narrowed to slits and her knuckles white on that stick of hers, and when she crumples back down to the floor after a couple minutes more, I yell that I can hear ’em coming, and who’s to say I didn’t, ’cause there they are right on cue.

Fighting is about the most tiring thing you can do, the hardest exercise there is. Much as Alistair keeps calling us Wardens tireless, we aren’t, but we’re better than the others, poor bastards. That’s what’s going to kill us. They’re just plain going to run out of breath. There are too many of them, and they’re so aggressive – we might only be outnumbered three or so to one, but more than half our number aren’t what I’d call fighters, and the guys in proper heavy armour can’t swap for fresher men, because there aren”t any other veterans -.

Hells, week before last I was a serving wench who moonlighted as a vigilante. Who am I fooling that I’m a veteran? I’m only keeping ahead here by dint of sheer strength and two blades that are quite rapidly starting to dull. And my own wind isn’t infinite –

An especially loud and urgent scream from somewhere to my left and our line is buckling in the middle, and as the formation goes I go into the enemy with a wordless battlecry, burning everything I’ve got left to try and give our troops a chance to form up again, knowing that Alistair’s going to be doing the same. I can hear him but I can’t see him. I hear him yell – Andraste protect him, that didn’t sound good –

And then the press slackens. I cut one down and there’s nothing behind it. I push forward soon as I can, back up to the barricade, see nothing on the path, and turn to surround and outnumber the demons for once, see how they bloody like it, and then they’re all down and I’m looking dazed and panting at Alistair, his helmet gone, his face and his fair hair crusted with blood and ick, and those who still have breath for it raise a cheer. And this time it’s me raising him to his feet, and it’s quite a haul he needs.

There’s a runner coming up the road. It’s the boy who was guarding the gate this morning, asking how we fare. And he’s looking at the carnage at our barricade, at the piles of mutilated corpses and the splintered spears and notched blades and the guttering fires, and he says without irony that we must’ve had it lighter. The bann’s fallen, he says, and a strong wind could blow what’s left right over, but they held.

Leliana has the men singing as they start to pile the corpses for burning, some kind of shanty that their dear mothers would turn in their graves to hear the words to, and frankly I’m no longer surprised that she knows verses that half the fishermen never heard; we leave her to it and compare notes with Morrigan. Funny how every single one of those stretchered down to the chantry by her kids will live to see the morning. The only people we lost were two of the men-at-arms, overrun when the line broke. She looks me over, tuts at the mud-soaked bandage on my arm, and says (and I chorus along with her) that I’m to wash top to toe before I sleep, and present to her after, because dignity’s nothing to a cut gone rotten.

And then she looks properly at Alistair, swaying slightly beside me, and what little colour she’s got drains from her cheeks and her glance at me might as well have been a slap in the face. She pretty much manhandles the unresisting fellow down to sit against a wall, clicks her fingers to get him to look at them, moves them to one side and another and nods, chewing on her lip. “Alistair?” He looks at her dumbly. “Your head’s all over blood. How did you lose your helmet?”

He puts his gauntleted hand to his head as if only now remembering. “Oh. Yeah. Lost my helmet. I was standing on the barricade and a big bastard jumped on me; I fell on my back, with it pounding away; it must’ve slammed my head against the floor a few times before someone speared it. Got my bell rung pretty hard.”

“And your helmet came off?”

“Must have.” His voice is very slightly slurred.

Morrigan blinks once, and her pupils are slitted like a cat’s. Blinks again, and they’re back to how they should be. He didn’t notice. “Damn you for a stubborn – so help me, I’m – ugh.” She looks to me. “Mistress Dener. May I please have permission to work my art on this man without his say-so.”

“What?” Alistair blinks. “Wait. That’s me. No, wait. Look, no magic. Please? I’m trying to cut down-”

She doesn’t look at him. “That would be why you’re not being asked. Stay still or I’ll make you.”

I bite my lip. “Without it?”

“It’s not a large chance that he’s already a dead man, but I’d rather not add to it by waiting.”

“Shows what you know.” He raises a finger. “‘M already a dead man. Takes some longer’n others.”

She narrows her eyes. “Or by turning him into a-”

“For crying out loud.” My voice doesn’t carry, but it does sharpen. “You’re doing it already. You’re just saying this to distract him.”

She looks at me in flat shock. “You really think that of me, don’t you?”

“Do it, then!” Bloody witches. I don’t care that she heard the worry in my voice. Bloody – she’s going to belabour the point – “I mean it. Argue later.”

I swear, I will never understand these bloody people. She nods, closes her eyes, opens them again to show the cat-pupils and looks back at Alistair. Takes a good look at him with those funny eyes, up and down like she’s checking him out, and he’s holding still because you know what’d be worse than having a spell cast on you? Right. So she takes the fingers of her left hand and she wipes his forehead clean of muck, gentle like, then whispers something in a language I don’t speak and puts her right index finger to touch him right between his eyes.

I’m sure someone saw the green light around her hand and in her eyes, just then. She tried to keep it subtle and easy, sure. But someone must have seen. I’d have seen, even if I weren’t crouched next to them. And the focus goes out of Alistair’s eyes and he sits there like an idiot for a moment, and then his head lolls sharply to one side like a thrown-away poppet and he takes a quick deep breath in like he only just remembered he was supposed to be breathing, and so does Morrigan.

She sits back. “H’m. There was bleeding on the inside of his skull about two inches around from the left ear. He’d have gone to sleep tonight and never woken – or if he had, odds are he would have been struck blind.”

“Okay.” And when Alistair looks back at her his honest blue eyes are clear and sharp. “That was… the third most unpleasant fucking thing to happen to me today. Or is it after midnight yet?”

A frown. “Or he could simply have awoken even stupider.”

“And here’s the fourth.” He swallows. His voice is slightly sing-song. “I was wrong, you were right. Whether or not you actually did save my life, that was a good turn.” A wince. “Thank you.”

She nods briskly. “The world will go a vastly large amount more smoothly if the two of you, at least, understood and acknowledged the impeccable degree of honesty and integrity I’ve shown the both of you since we met. That will do as a favour in exchange for the number of times I shall likely save that life of yours going forward.”

“Yeah.” He nods gingerly, as if surprised when it doesn’t hurt. “Whatever else I’ll say, Morrigan, you know your business. I’ve never met a more competent, honest, or downright honourable apostate.”

“So close! One day we shall have you finishing entire sentences without giving me insult.” She offers him a hand. “Come. We need to get every person who fought tonight to wash every cut and scrape, and to scrub their hands within an inch of their life before anybody eats or cooks.”

I look at the barricade. “No more tonight?” The thought of another wave is enough to produce a flood-tide of exhaustion in me.

She shakes her head. “There are three hundred and eighteen spirits. A hundred and seventy-five came down from the castle, although tomorrow – because we shall have thoroughly burned those corpses – they will have to recover the remains before they can fight properly. Don’t be misled; they can form themselves bodies from ash, even, provided it all came from one thing that once lived. A hundred and forty-three found that the town’s dead are scattered in the lake once they are burned, and that is where those came from. The ones that withdrew from the lakeside, likely did so to preserve the bodies they had painstakingly gathered.”

“How’d you know all that?”

“It may have escaped your notice, but I had a deal of time to divine, when I was not carrying complaining soldiers or working thankless humiliating exhausting magics in trembling fear of discovery.” She gestures to the castle. “The castle’s warded – not just its old wards, which are as strong as those walls look, but another set, newer and taller, if pointless. I believe there to be a mage inside, most probably ‘an apostate’, as if that gives him (definitely him) and me any kind of kinship – a mage so stultifyingly arrogant as to make Alistair seem humble and self-effacing.”

“He’s the cause of all this?”

“I don’t see him helping, do you?” She shrugs. “If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and it says it’s a duck, and it’s not my mother on a Thursday…”

“I’ll talk to the bann.”

“He fell. The runner said.”

“Then I’ll pick him up and talk to him. Come on.”

*

Reports of the bann’s death were overblown, but he’s not getting back to the front line any time soon. He’s refused a bed in the chantry’s makeshift hospital, but they’ve at least coaxed him out of his battered armour and into a chair. His right arm’s in a sling and his colour’s not good, but he’s still quite happily barking orders with a no-nonsense tone when we walk up.

“Alistair. Heard it was a little lighter down on your end.”

The younger man nods. “I wouldn’t have liked it to be any closer, ser. Two good men down right in front of me because we couldn’t push the zombies back ten bloody feet.”

“I’ll not disagree with that. If the buggers hadn’t made off when they did, I’d be in the queue for an audience with the Maker right now – me and half the men. Just spoke with the revered mother – we’ve three who might be recuperated enough to put back into armour for tomorrow night, but that won’t go halfway to getting the waterfront flank defended proper. If we don’t get those reinforcements today…”

“We need a change of plan.” I don’t duck my head as the bann turns his eyes on me. Why can I face the walking dead no trouble, but eye contact still makes my skin prickle? “Bann, ser, we’re not going to grind them down. There’s three hundred of them, nearabouts, just like there’s been every night. And they can make those bodies out of ashes and bones at need. Killing ’em and burning the bodies just slows ’em down.”

He scowls. “One battle against the things and suddenly you’re a scholar, boy?”

That does it – I haul my cap off and brush my hair back behind my pointed ear like it was natural. “Not sure what they taught you wherever you grew, ser, but if a Warden says something ’bout the evil things of this land, you might want to make a little shift to listen, yeah? There’s three hundred eighteen demons doing this, leashed by a mage – a mortal man – pent in that castle there. I know we ain’t a siege, ser, but does it happen you’ll know your way inside?”

“Hmph.” He scratches his bearded chin. “Let’s allow you’re right for now, at least. Happens I do know of a postern gate, yes – not that it’ll help. I’ve a key to the ward, at least, but the gate’s barred on the inside – we tried it on the second day – and the path up to that gate’s not something you could get a ram up.”

“Just you let us worry about that, ser.” I bow my head to him. “With luck, this time tomorrow you’ll be resting that arm of yours before the arl’s own hearth.”

“I don’t like it,” he snorts. “Like a bloody tavern tale. Black magic, the walking dead, curses and evils and Wardens and fell-handed elves swingin’ swords bigger than they are. Next you’ll be telling me you’re growing wings and flying in, or riding over on your pet bloody griffin.” He holds up a hand as Alistair opens his mouth to object. “Look. I can see the facts plain as you can. We can’t move the wounded, we won’t abandon them or our homes, but neither can we hold against such… unnatural things. And just because I don’t bloody like it don’t mean you won’t get my help. The ward key’s worked into my signet ring. Do you go tonight?”

I shake my head. “The morning. We’ll find us quarters and sleep.”

“Well, regardless.” One-handed, he slips the ring off his finger. “Alistair.”

“Ser.”

“I bloody hate this. More like a fairy-tale by the word. Take my ring tonight, because buggered if I’ll be up at the crack of dawn. I know you’ll do your best.”

“Yes, ser.”

“Always did say blood will tell.” He gives a rough smile. “Rest. Get up early. Make an end of this. And give me my sodding ring back when you’re done.”

As Alistair’s bowing and scraping, Morrigan draws me aside. Her voice is quiet. “Um.”

“Yes?”

“Is it that you’re thinking that I have some way of magicking open a barred door from the wrong side?”

“Do you?”

She frowns. “Do you remember when I told you that I am not a siege engine?”

“‘S what I thought. But then I thought – what’s the difference between an ogre and a battering ram?”

“I am not an ogre, either-”

I smile at her. “Alistair and a good stout crowbar are the next best thing. If you don’t want him and me to outdo you, you’ve got eight hours to work out how you open a barred door.”

She looks at me speechless for an instant, then shakes her head. “You and my mother both. Wherever you learned how to get the best out of people, do please let me know. So I can avoid the place as if there’s plague.”

*

The postern’s a stout tight-fitting wooden door, same colour as the stone, and it’s not exactly the easiest to find: you count your steps up and around the steep curving path up the tor, and you get Leliana to measure it ’cause the builder was a human and Alistair’s stride is too long. The bann’s ring touches to what looks like solid rock, and the door is suddenly there and dream-logic says it always was.

Can’t just stick a sword through and raise the bar, that’d be easy. But this gate’s not designed with us in mind, even so. Alistair looks it up and down, finding a gap he could fit a prybar into; Morrigan stops him with a gentle hand and a smile, and says that a poor shapeshifter she’d be if this gave her trouble, and then there’s a pretty little green gecko on his arm where her hand was and she’s lucky that his swearword doesn’t come with a reflex to throw it just as far as he can.

Leliana smiles and claps delighted hands and complements the lizard on her fine scales, and it drops its jaw in a parody of a grin before eeling through the gap and inside. Where there’s a squeal of surprise and a startled thump, followed by a clatter, followed by a variety of choice words from a grab-bag of foreign languages, although that one’s an elvish swearword that would land anyone a clip round the ears. Morrigan’s voice has fangs as she asks us to wait just a few moments, if we’d be so good, and I can hear… cloth rustling? Then the scrape of the bar.

It’s dark in there. Morrigan’s shoes, her staff and the sticks she uses to keep her hair in place are in a heap on the floor, and her face is a little red; she holds up a finger as I raise my eyebrows. “You remember,” she says, “how I made a particular point to tell you of a double layer of wardings on this place? How I specifically pointed it out?” I wouldn’t be so bold as to grin at that. Apparently the other two would, and Morrigan seems to decide on self-deprecating over dignified. “Well… yes. It appears that some people around here weren’t listening to me when I was trying to sound clever.”

Leliana’s voice is very quiet. “Does the ward’s master know you are ‘ere?”

“No, thank the gods.” Morrigan puts an experimental finger out to probe against empty air just inside the gate. “With three hundred little hunger-spirits popping up and down around here, I certainly wouldn’t want a warning every time they brush against the walls, and it seems he didn’t either.” A disapproving tone. “The man is far more interested in giant throbbing displays of power than he is in doing anything with it.”

Leliana titters, and I arch an eyebrow; Alistair just mutters something about needing to recruit a man or three into this outfit. The two of them light the torches they brought; I don’t need one, not with someone else carrying one, and Morrigan squints against the bright, her eyes flashing like a cat’s. Off we are.

Like any proper castle, or so I’m told, Redcliffe’s got a warren of tunnels under. You’d not call them all the dungeons – there’s not a lord in Ferelden who’d keep so many prisoner – but a castle set up for a siege is a castle set up with what might as well be a set of warehouses down here, and that’s before you think of the well and the furnace and the rooms for those as don’t live in the town or the keep. And in Redcliffe, the postern is past the tombs and just off from the dungeon.

It’s empty and quiet and dark down here. Without being asked I move ahead – no point in crowding around a light when all I need’s a glimmer – and look for other lights. Surely the gaoler needs one.

And, well, so. I find what’s got to be the dungeon door. You wouldn’t go to this sort of effort on something less. Big solid righteous door, the kind you’d want a battering ram for. Shame the key’s in it, really. On the other side, right, but – wait. Someone locked himself in? I hiss for the others even as I’m poking the key out the door and fishing it under (ugh – the stench of the place!) The lock wouldn’t be past me, not with tools, but lockpicks ain’t precisely for sale next to the apples, you know?

“Huh-hello?” A man’s voice from inside, the moment we open the door. (Dammit, I should have heard him breathing.) Cracked and thready, more with privation than age, I’d say. “Hello? For the love of the Maker’s Bride, is anybody there?”

“Hush,” I hiss, “or the answer ain’t a one you’d like.”

His voice cracks. “Oh, thank Andraste, thank you – My lady, water, please. The dipper’s over there, it’s been so long – please -”

Alistair makes to move; Leliana puts her hand on his arm. “Morrigan?”

The witch wrinkles her nose. “There is a magical door on that cage. Are you a wizard, prisoner?”

“Yes!” The hoarse voice has a funny flat little echo. “No! What d’you want me to say? Only give me some water, I’m begging you! I’ll be all the wizard you need!” There’s a pale haggard face at the iron grate of the door, dark-bearded, brown hair long and lank. There’s no noise from the other cells. Six in here.

Did I mention that the dungeon stinks? Just being inside it a little way makes me want to wash from tip to toe. I look at Morrigan. “Can we do that safely?”

She frowns. “On the one hand, be it never so ancient, I couldn’t see a dozen demons and an archmage past the rune that’s struck on that door. On the other – it is a cage. And of those I am not fond.” She traipses over to the barrel of water and draws some, passes her hand idly over it, then gives him to drink.

Don’t think I’ve ever seen colour come back into a man’s cheeks that fast before. Normally you say that because someone’s pale and shaking and they stop, and their lips stop being blue or whatever? This man gulps the water all down and breathes deep and when he exhales he’s looking like they threw him in here only yesterday. For true, the pallor goes from him from one blink to another and I swear his beard gets shorter. And Morrigan pulls back from the bars quick, like he was going to snap at her.

He opens his hands, palms up, in front of himself and he looks down. His voice is a lot stronger, although still not what I’d call a pleasant one – a nasal baritone. “My apologies for the shock, ladies, ser. I haven’t had much call for visitors since the t-torch went out, so I stopped making an effort.” He swallows. Visibly struggling for control. “Sweet Andraste’s sake, don’t leave me here.”

“Keep your damned voice down.” My tone is less than sympathetic.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says bitterly. “I yelled, you know, after everything went wrong. For days. For help. I could help them, I shouted. They wouldn’t believe, or they couldn’t do anything, or they didn’t care – they won’t care about you, either. So we can make all the noise we want.”

“Just so that everybody is aware,” Morrigan says carefully as she returns the water dipper to its barrel without really looking at it. “What I took for a patina of age, on the rune there, it’s not. It’s scarring. Damage. Something has been beating on that door, and on the walls around it. Something -” she puts the butt of her staff to the floor – “strong. Very strong.”

“Really. I wonder who that was?” The mage’s voice is like he’s skating on the edge of sanity.

“Is this the one we’re after?” Alistair’s hand is on his sword-hilt.

The mage in the cell snorts, but Morrigan answers – “Unlikely. The inner ring of wards are not anchored in anything – nobody could have raised a permanent enchantment of that size in a week. That means they’re being reinforced, probably daily at noon or sunset. And this man has been in here for – what – five days?”

“Try fifteen.” The mage folds his hands. “They left me alone when it all went wrong.”

Morrigan frowns. “Kallian, how did you get in here?”

“Pushed the key out the door, opened the lock, why?”

“That’s what I thought I saw.” She purses her lips, and all of an instant (or had it been there all along?) there’s the suggestion of a point of green light just at the top of her staff, and the mage in the cell can’t take his eye off it. “They ‘left you all alone’ with the key inside the door?”

And, well, a slim little knife appears point-down in Leliana’s fingers about as fast as something very similar does in mine, and the prisoner’s eyes go wide. “No! No, please! I-I can explain!”

“Do.” I use the voice I use to talk to people I’m holding by the neck. “Take your time.”

“Uh.” He remains utterly still, except to breathe. “I uh. The key, it’s the spare, I nicked it from the hook, the hook on the wall, behind you, look.”

“Alistair.”

He takes his eyes off the mage. “There’s a hook, bare of keys.”

A frantic nod. “Uh-huh. And mage-hand isn’t my strong suit, but I had nothing but time, and by the time I found that it didn’t open my cell I was, uh, I thought maybe if I opened the door then somebody might hear me if I made noise again -”

“So there is a hole in your door, then.” Morrigan’s eyes glitter in the dark.

“Yes, all right! I did that!” He’s breathing shallow. I can’t read him. “I pushed a hole in the bloody door eventually, like loosening a bar with a spoon-handle -”

“Like poking a hole in four feet of solid stone, you mean, we can both see the size of that ward. Kallian, we can’t trust this man.”

“Is his door openable?”

She nods slightly. “The physical lock is already undone – the key, as he said. From this side it’ll pull open with a finger’s pressure. From the other it’s logically impossible that it could ever open.”

The mage nods with pathetic eagerness. “She’s as wise as she is beautiful – any of you could -”

“Oh, get a hold of yourself,” I hiss. “Who are you, to be in here at all?”

“I’m Wizard Jowan of the Circle of Ferelden-”

“And me, I am the White Divine,” butts in Leliana. “You are no simple mage, or they would have simply given you to the Chantry, yes?” Her voice drops and for a moment the beautiful woman turns poisonous. “Please to cease with the bullshit, ser, or something will ‘appen that you do not like to see.”

He swallows. “All… right. My name is Jowan, and I uh. Trained. At the Circle.” I don’t think it would be possible for the man to look any less trustworthy. “But I, um. Long story short, I’m an… apostate. I came here looking to, I uh, um.” He trundles to a halt, bites his lip. “Right. I was hired. As a tutor. To the young master. I taught him literature, and rhetoric, poetry and art – and uh.”

The Art, you mean.” Morrigan’s becoming increasingly irritated with the way that he doesn’t finish his sentences. “He’d shown the Gift and his parents hired you to teach him to smother it.”

“Some Gift.” There’s bitterness in that tone. “Andraste witness, I tried. What I went through at the Circle – his poor mother – I couldn’t say no.” He looks away. “But, uh. His father, the arl, he fell sick. And the little lad just, all he could think of was to help – I tried to tell him not to, I -” He swallows hard. “I could stop him, when I was at liberty. I could – physically prevent him. I’m… not bad, at what I do. But the arl continued to sicken, and his wife, she took it into her head that I was to blame, and I was thrown in here and then a week later everything went wrong!”

“And were you?” Leliana ‘s voice is even, her eyes piercing. “To blame?”

He shakes his head. “Is a knife to blame for the blood it spills? Is the hound the killer of the hart, or the boar?”

The question like a dagger-thrust. “Who?”

He shakes his head.

Leliana shrugs equably. “Then I am done here.” She sheathes the knife she’s still holding and turns to go.

“No! Wait!” Jowan grabs onto the bars of his door and the little light at the top of Morrigan’s staff abruptly takes on an eye-stabbing brightness – he takes his hands off with a noise of fear, holds them up and open, and it subsides – “Please! I’m – please!”

Leliana walks close enough that she could touch him through the bars if she chose. “Something for you, maybe?”

“I don’t know!” he squeaks. “I don’t know and that’s the truth! A woman came to me, while the t-templars had me, and she offered me – inducements. A royal pardon, a place as a kept mage of a noble court, a place of safety – I swear, I have no idea who she was!”

She narrows her eyes. “Surely she gave you at least a word or two of proof? You are not the type to do all this for nothing, no?”

“Gold.” He says it hoarsely, like the word is sharp around the edges. (Alistair’s knuckles whiten on the hilt of his blade.) “And the templars accepted her like she was one of their own. There were no names. On my power I swear it.”

“The poison? I assume that it was the poison that you used, and not a spell that could be traced?”

“It is in the lady’s dressing-room!” He’s shaking. “Disguised as perfume. Where a servant might hide it. I don’t know what it is – it’s nothing I ever studied.”

Leliana nods slowly. “Thank you. Alistair?”

A growl. “Yes?”

“Please feel free to follow the dictates of your conscience. I shall ‘ave you place no particular constraint upon your behaviour on my account.”

“Noted.” He doesn’t take his eyes off Jowan. Barely blinks.

“Thank you. And Jowan – you ‘ave been so ‘elpful. If that is truly your wish, I shall open for you the door?”

The mage looks from her to the menacing bulk of Alistair, to the door that right at this moment is the only thing between the two of them. “No!” He backs off a pace. “No – I’ve – I’ve – Changed my mind. I’ve decided I need to face justice for what I’ve done. Leave me here.”

“You are sure?”

He nods fervently.

“Well, then. I shall leave you my torch, at least, that you will not be eaten by gruesome things in the darkness.” She walks over to the sconce and takes the dead one out, then turns to him and her voice goes cold. “But do not mistake me.” And she plunges the torch into the water barrel, then jams it into the sconce.

*

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