Alternative Origins Chapter Eight

by artrald

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*

We choose the quietest way up rather than the fastest, and the dungeon stairs give way to the back stairs. The floor, from stone to wood. And Alistair’s on very familiar ground, and shows it. He asks Morrigan where she recommends we start, and she shakes her head tightly – can’t search for footprints without leaving her own. So we’ll –

A light tread on the stairs. Someone’s coming. Easy enough to go a landing ahead of the others and ambush what turns out to be a woman maybe ten years my senior, a little shorter than me, just nipping down to – I have a hand over her mouth and I keep it there as she goes very very still. Time for me to do the talking.

Onethara, lethallan,” I hiss in her ear. Just hope that they use the old words the same here as I’d use ’em at home, where that’s about the strongest ‘I’m on your side’ you get – “I’m Kallian, and we’re here to help, me and three humans. I’m going to let go now, and don’t you scream.” I take my hands off her – she’s starting to shake – and I get where she can see me.

Her eyes go big, to see my garb. Her voice a frightened whisper. “Onet’ara, Kallian, I’m Ivaine. Who are you people?”

“Grey Wardens, but we’re doing a templar’s job of work today.” I jerk my head upstairs. “Ain’t we?”

“Maker preserve us.” She’s still shaking. “Y-you can still get out. There’s a way out, I can show you, it’s not clean but it works. Nobody’s seen you but me, and I’ve seen no one -”

“Like hell.” I look back round the corner and whistle – the landing is suddenly crowded. Alistair’s the one she sees first and, okay, I guess I’d back a step away from him were I in her place. “I said we’re here to make things right. Where do we start?”

She looks from me to the humans to the well-used arms we clearly have, and makes a decision. “The court’s in the great hall. They’re, they’re playing make-believe today. That’s, um the men-at-arms and the serving staff and the Arlessa and the young master.”

“And the arl?” Concern in Alistair’s voice.

She looks down and bobs slightly when she speaks, which just makes me want to kick him. “If you please, ser, he’s been ill these past two weeks.” She looks at me rather than him. “You’ll want to be speaking to the young master. Like a templar might, if you take my meaning, and Andraste guide you.”

I nod once. “Anything else we need to know?”

“N-no.” She shivers, once, violently. Doesn’t look directly at Alistair, but bobs to him again. “By your lordship’s leave I’m going to go and lock myself in my room, if that please you. And just d-don’t let compassion stay your hand.” She looks at me once more, as if to fix in her mind the image, turns from us quickly and heads off into the servants’ quarters.

There’s a moment when Morrigan looks from the elf’s retreating figure to me and back again. “Are you and she truly of the same kind?”

“Oh, don’t you start.”

“No, I mean it. What a life must she have led, to have made her-”

“Morrigan?” I grit my teeth. “Not here, or now. Ask me later, and don’t be surprised if I raise my voice a little. Suffice to say that if you’d known what you said just now, you wouldn’t have. C’mon.”

*

The place is echoingly empty. A castle’s a busy place – you’d expect voices talking, you’d expect people cleaning the floor, you’d expect the odd person to hustle by, and from the courtyard you’d think you’d have the bustle of any sort of community, but not here. Even the middle of the night, you’d have the graveyard shift. But there’s nobody. Dust is starting to build up. Alistair already looks uncomfortable enough at coming through here all armed. This can’t be good for his mood. And we reach the door to the hall and he stops to draw out a picture of the place for us in the dust, and we can hear the sound of music through the door.

Leliana looks at each of us. “Okay. I am not supposed to be taking the lead, but. Do any of you have a conception of what we ‘ave in there?”

Alistair raises his eyebrows. “Don’t tell me you are a templar.”

She gives a slightly inappropriate smile. “Ah – my mystique, it is diminished: I must say I am not. But I ‘ave worked beside them before. Morrigan, the pieces, I ‘ave put them into a shape I think will fit. You as well?”

Morrigan nods. “Either there is a third mage – or the boy is a prodigy the like of which is rarely seen, and our caged bird sang false – or this is not a mage at all.”

“Would you give this thing a name, that is not a mage?”

“The ‘young master’. He’s been raised to think of his Gift as demonic, and the spirits of the Fade as likewise – he wishes to avail himself of the one, and – his tutor being locked up, and regardless an idiot – he turns to the other. Likely raised in the habit of prayer, he puts out a well-tailored and accurate call for a spirit of baser emotion.” She frowns. “I do not know the boy, so I do not know what he wants. He is, what, fifteen?”

“Ten.” Alistair doesn’t look up from the map he’s drawing. “And before you ask, he was a toddler when last I clapped an eye on him.”

“So from the baser emotions, we have rage, fear, hunger, envy, desire, pride, hate.” Morrigan raises her eyebrows. “From the one working of his I’ve seen, I’ll rule out rage, envy, hunger and hate. It could be fear – the servant was terrified; most desire spirits prefer…. older prey, but a child can want things with a strength and a purity an adult cannot, so I will not rule them out. It could be pride – the working looks most like pride, but that could just be childishness-”

Alistair interrupts her. “Look, can the two of you stop dancing around the topic? If you’ve worked out what’s going on here, can you stop dancing around one another and tell your audience?”

Morrigan looks down at him. “I did. But in smaller words for the poorer-educated. We are reasoning from the fact that the wards we have seen, and a medium-term control over the behaviour of a court of multiple tens of people, are far too much magic for a mere child alone. The boy has made what he believes is ‘a deal with a demon’. He may or may not have got what he wants, but it has got what it wants, which is him. It has raised itself what it sees as a fine castle – the wards – and is setting up to do whatever it is that abominations do; the hunger-spirits are a side effect, albeit one that it could probably at least herd in a specific direction if it so wished. We are currently reasoning as to the breed of spirit -”

“Does it matter?” I say. “We kick the door down, crash the party, kill the boy-”

That does make Alistair look up. “Looks like I’m going away, then.”

“What?”

He stands, quick, deliberately intimidating. “Were you listening, back when you forced me to bare my heart to you? Would you like me to raise my voice and yell why I’ll not be a part of harm to that child?” He takes his eyes off mine and my pulse-rate catches up with me all of a sudden. “Leliana. You’re good at this. Tell me there is another way.”

“I do not want to see ‘arm to a child, but…” She bites her lip. “You said you were trained as a templar -”

“You were singing when I said that -”

“I ‘ave long ears. When was your last sacrament?”

He shakes his head. “Too long ago.”

“H’m. The abilities of a templar are no fairy-tale, and would have been – never mind. Which leaves me asking – Morrigan? Could you counteract the demon, alone?”

The witch considers. “Not easily. Can a builder of walls counteract the hurricane? The creature that used to be the boy – if this is what is going on at all – its weakness is its mortal flesh. At which point my mother’s lesson ceases with the advice ‘kill it’, but a loss of consciousness could work.” She shrugs. “I am not an abomination, but my weaknesses are similar. I could not cast through a choke-hold after a moment or two, save to try to escape it or breathe, and while an abomination may be stronger than I am in many important ways, it is definitionally weaker of will. Attack its flesh.”

Leliana nods. “I plan to. Can you distract it long enough for me to ‘ave the chance?”

“That I can do, if I can figure what it is. Except that we have insufficient information to elucidate that. A demon of fear would be easiest, for fear is a simple spell. For a demon of pride I’d craft humiliation, again a common enough dream for all that I’m less familiar myself. For a demon of desire inside a boy too young for the obvious solution?” She makes a face. “Desire demons have poor impulse control. I would improvise.”

“Then we ‘ave a plan.”

I suppose that if it doesn’t work, I can always kill the boy myself – I nod. “Where do we come in?”

Morrigan smiles. “Keep the abomination amused until I can work out what it is – it should not take me long – and then get down.”

*

The arl’s hall is – no, there’s nothing else that really fits – it’s like something out of a dream. It’s done up as for a festival or something, wilting flowers in sad little bunches, two lines of people sitting facing one another and making desperate merriment in the court, and four people in the minstrels’ gallery playing musical instruments with a near-flawless skill that’s not what you’d normally look for in a scullion, a maidservant and a pair of sweating guardsmen.

And draped on the arl’s throne there’s a little human boy-child, what did Alistair say his name was, Connor, and sitting beside him in her customary chair there’s a perfectly turned out woman with a slightly haggard expression who must be his mother Isolde.

So Alistair and I stride into the centre of the hall and the child claps his hands for silence. His voice is shrill and insistent, exactly what you’d think you’d hear in a little boy of over-inflated importance, over loud and with a careless childish lisp, for all its fine words. “Excellent! Bravo! Bravo!” He giggles, to a chorus of sycophantic laughter. “And how excellent and quick a change!” He looks from one side of his court to the other. “I told you it was possible! And the costume is just darling – I declare, henceforth in my court nobody shall spend more of your simply ingenious ‘moment’ things on a change of shape, than Ivy did! I particularly like the way you split yourself in two… Perhaps it will start a fashion!”

I give the salute that I’ve seen Alistair give, fist to breastplate, and he mirrors my motion exactly. The boy claps. (Morrigan is listening, from outside the open door, eyes closed. Leliana ghosts inside the room and behind a column.)

“Now!” He smiles too broadly, a rictus that bares all his teeth. “Entertain me!”

I bob, thinking of Ivaine’s quick nervous motion, and Alistair sketches an equivalent little bow. “Milords, ladies and gentles…” She did say stall… “A song!”

Alistair gulps. (Morrigan bites her lip, thinking. Leliana’s taking stock. Not much cover in here.)

The boy looks pensive. “I know all the songs.”

I bob again. Alistair does the funny little bow again. “I don’t think you’ll know this one, milord.”

“I’m sure that I do.”

A slightly desperate, trapped expression. “Only try it, ser?”

He nods slowly. “Very well. But if you’re playing me false… You know what happens to dirty liars.”

I nod, and Alistair repeats my motion like a puppet. “Your permission, then?”

“Given.” He inclines his head lordly-like. “Sing.”

I settle myself – not precisely what I was thinking when I originally said ‘keep busy’, but I can see the helpless expressions of the ‘courtiers’ and ‘ushers’, and I’ve no wish to hurt such as those – I take a deep breath, and I launch into the easiest of the old tunes of Denerim alienage.

It’s a cradle song, now, a thing a young mother will croon to a tiny tot, and I’ve always thought the tune a little rough and simple for what’s supposed to be one of the ancient songs, but I know it well and it’s doubly foreign to Redcliffe.

And the second time I get into the refrain the bloody minstrels start up, and the unholy child-thing is just sitting there completely motionless with a rictus grin and it’s so easy to get caught up in the song, and all I can say is it’s a glad thing I catch myself before I start on the fifth verse, the verse the elders would have the ears off anyone who sang because it’s in the common tongue and mostly about a dockside strumpet.

And I come to a finish (and Leliana’s near across to the back wall) and the boy-thing nods a couple of times, his head moving too far forward and back, and then his eyes flick wide open and he says, “And will you?”

Will I…?

And I realise just suddenly that this thing is old, so old, and it must have been that it heard the tongue of Elvhenan, and despite the fact that nobody knows what these songs mean, this demon, it understood my words, and for one breathless instant I must know what it knows – Nnh. I bite my lip, hard, taste blood. I’m here for a purpose, and I can see it looking at me like a cat with a mouse, it knows exactly what I’m feeling and it wants me to show it, it wants to play, it –

It asked me a question. I look down and then up at it (at the boy, it’s a little boy) and I make myself say with a soft fake flirt of a smile and a wild stab at a Redcliffe accent, “Will I? You can’t expect me to tell you that.”

Silence falls. The abomination, it sits up straight and serious and it looks at me and I don’t wait to see if Kallian can meet its eyes, because Ivaine surely won’t. “I can, Ivy Cliffe. And I will. Tell me whether you will surrender yourself to the star-eyed young man of the tale you sang.”

“Never you mind!” It’s easy enough to get the exact tone of voice, the expression my cousin Shani would have used if you asked her about a boy she liked.

“I mind.” The abomination’s voice is getting less human by the moment. “And I do believe I have made my desire known.”

(Leliana is all the way to the back wall. I need to hold its gaze just a few moments more.)

I drop the act, it’s no longer required, and I’m not so perfectly sure I could keep it up anyway. “And I believe I told you. No.

“What?!” You’d expect a sound that loud to echo, and it doesn’t. It shoots to its feet. The more – functional – members of its court back away as it does so, overturning benches in their haste to get away from it and me, and the air begins to go cold as all the room’s light starts to coil itself inwards around the thing that’s clearly the most important thing in this room. “What did you say to me?”

I stand my ground, feeling my shoulders knotting in tension, no longer fighting the urge to have my hand on my weapon, and I let my voice take on that quiet deadly note. “I believe you heard me fine.”

Its high flat cry of anger is more like a squeal than a yell. “I will not be denied!” There’s light, from its eyes. Yellow-white. The abomination is focusing itself completely on me, and its anger is sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth and running ice in my veins. Alistair is starting to creep forwards, himself; not clear what he’s going to do, but he’s damn well going to try –

I laugh in the thing’s face to cover my own mounting fear. The words I cast at it are pretty much the foulest things you can say in elvish and there’s no reason to repeat them here. It responds in the same language, and the one word I recognise is the one that means ‘half-elf’, and if I get it into a slanging match maybe I’ll have time to –

Leliana steps out of the shadows, moving fast now the thing is truly distracted. The Arlessa screams and throws herself in the way; Leliana grabs an outstretched wrist, moves quickly and the noblewoman flies pretty much over her and lands in a heap, but it’s slowed her down and given her away. The abomination turns blurringly fast, and the light it has gathered around it flashes into its hands in a quick eye-watering spike of brilliance, and I hear Leliana let out a shriek – Alistair’s closer than me, taking quick steps to close the distance to the thing, no idea what he thinks he can do to help –

Goodnight,” says Morrigan softly, and the kid crumples instantly nervelessly at the knees, and Alistair is there in time to catch his unconscious form and lower him gently to the ground.

I get to Leliana’s side before Morrigan does, but only because I’m quicker on my feet – she’s on one knee, hands over her head, breathing quickly, no sign of injury, and slowly she lowers her shaking hands like she’s surprised to still have them. Moment later she says, quietly, “Oh.” Still shivering violently. “I’m – oh.” A deep breath to try and steady herself, but it’s not working. Morrigan offers her a hand up and either she doesn’t see it or she ignores it –

I see the arlessa move. She gets up from the floor as quiet as she can and goes straight for Leliana, nails first; I’m quicker, kicking her feet out from under her and twisting her arm up in a wrist lock that relies on leverage rather than pain. I’m not going to bet that a broken elbow will stop her; now she makes noise, squalling about how we’ve killed her baby, about how I’m breaking her arm, and then lapsing hysterically into some quite spectacularly foul Orlesian.

Leliana stands, wipes her eyes carefuly with the back of her hand, and turns quite deliberately away from the sleeping child-thing to look at his struggling mother. “Is she…?”

Morrigan hardly glances. “Unaffected. For all practical purposes, nothing unconscious works magic, and she has not a shadow of a Gift herself. Right or wrong, her actions are her own.”

Oui.” She walks over to the noble, who’s still swearing in Orlesian with her face jammed onto the floor, and hunkers down so that they can see one another. Then, still shaking, she takes out a knife from her sleeve and puts the tip of the thing against the floor in front of the woman’s eyes. Andraste thank her, that takes the arlessa down from swearing to sniffling. And Leliana speaks to her, softly, almost reflectively, in a voice that’s shaking with something that is quite legitimately described as fury, in Orlesian. I think she’s describing what happens to abominations in any right-thinking society, but I’m not sure; whatever it is, it shuts the noblewoman up. Belatedly she stops struggling and I release her arm; she curls up around her wrist in a quivering heap.

Meanwhile, Alistair’s pretty much cradling his half-brother on his lap, with a trembling audience of castle staff. He looks up at Morrigan as she walks over and his voice is soft, as if not to wake the child. “How long will he be out?”

She looks down at the sleeping boy. Her tone is conversational. “I’ve absolutely no idea. For one thing – I did not know that what I tried would work, or I would have suggested it from the beginning.”

His eyes widen. “You didn’t even know-”

“Do you know that a single punch will work, when you swing your fist in a brawl?” She smirks. “Our ‘abomination’ has a metaphorical glass jaw. And I was significantly constrained by not being able to hurt the body it’s wearing.”

He looks down at the boy as if he’s suddenly realised he’s holding a poisonous snake. “So… what next?”

“I am holding him in sleep.” She looks down at the lad. “To continue the brawling metaphor, I have the spirit in an arm-lock. How long can I hold it?” A smile. “I cannot meaningfully work magic unconscious, so the answer to that one is roughly ‘until next I myself must sleep’.” She looks around at the gaily decorated hall, at the haggard men and women who are keeping their distance from us but trying neither to run nor to draw attention to themselves. “Perhaps the blinded templar from the village has some method of, what would you call it, exorcism. I do not.”

I come over and take a look at the kid. He’s bleeding at the corners of his mouth where the demon opened it too wide. His colour is terrible, and he looks like this is the first sleep he’s had in days. “No way of getting it out of his head? Except the one with the hammer and chisel?” Alistair gives me a sharp look and I meet it evenly. “You weren’t the one it was about to turn into a toad.”

Morrigan snorts. “I keep telling you – magic cannot actually do that. It is likely that it was preparing to realise an evocation – not a field I know well, but more likely to be a streamer of colourless fire than something mind-affecting. Good thinking, by the way, deliberately balking and baiting it like that, although personally I would have gone for a second, longer song.”

I wince. “I honestly didn’t think that I would need to distract it for as long as I did. I thought your distraction would be much sooner -”

“That was my distraction.” She smiles. “The moment it showed curiosity, I struck – pride-spirits do not care for learning, and an emotion spell was extremely easy to conceal behind the one it was clearly trying to work on you. Or did you think its obsession with the answer to a question you plainly didn’t know the answer to was natural?”

“Would have been nice to know beforehand that you were planning to use me as bait.”

She shrugs. “It was distracted, no?”

“You have a funny idea of what ‘get down’ means – anyway, it doesn’t matter. It worked. To get back to my question-”

“The only solutions I know of are worse than death, or not sufficiently certain.” Morrigan’s eyes are big and sad, her voice appropriately soft. “Did you perhaps think I advised you to kill him because I enjoy watching people die?”

“No.” Alistair swallows. “No. I … I think I see.”

“It is not our choice.” Leliana joins us. She has the boy’s mother by the wrist, tear-streaked but at least she’s quiet and on her feet. “This boy entered into the deal of ‘is own free will and purpose. Why? Because ‘is father lay dying. Why? Because ‘e ‘ad been poisoned. Why?” She narrows her eyes. “Because somebody recruited the apostate mage Jowan as a tutor. Why?”

The Arlessa answers. “To hide his… curse.” She sniffles. “To stop them taking my child away.”

“So we ‘ave blasphemy, twice, we ‘ave the sheltering of fugitives, we ‘ave treason. And besides, the good people of Redcliffe are those wronged. I say that this is a matter for justice; it must be done, and it must be seen to be done. Morrigan, the demons, will they return this night?”

The witch considers. “They were manifesting only at night, and the difference between the strength of the Veil between day and night is not that great; most of their power must have been being expended to breach the Veil, and that would only have been made possible because of the abomination’s presence. I would say that so long as it sleeps, they will not be able to walk.”

“Then let us open the gates. Apprise the bann of the situation and ‘ave this resolved in the Maker’s justice.”

“Blame someone else for our decision to do what must be done, you mean.” Morrigan says it, but I’m thinking the same.

Alistair turns to her with all the anger a man can muster while trying not to wake a sleeping child. “Is this your child? Did he harm you? Then why-”

“He will, should I falter – for example, by becoming sufficiently distracted or emotional.” She folds her arms. “His blood is already on my hands, and Kallian’s, for all practical purposes. By all means, let us spread it; for sure, there’s not enough misery yet in this world.”

“Dammit, Morrigan, this is the arl’s son -”

“Because, of course, the nobility are quite immune to the perils of the Fade, let alone the purported justice of the silent and uncaring god they make their people worship -”

Alistair fumes and Leliana looks at me like if I don’t say something she will; I have a go. “Morrigan, this is a ‘society’ thing. Like you explained to me in your mother’s home? Noble or not, the creature has wronged so many people that they can’t all have vengeance, so the court does it in sight of everyone and they feel they had a hand.”

She frowns. “They want to be complicit in the death of this child?”

“They’re ignorant shems who have been hurt. They want to kill something.”

The frown deepens. “A poor reason to do anything.”

“You’d rather change the minds of hundreds of people than let them see us do what we were going to have to do anyway?”

Mild irritation. “Fine. Alistair, you will have to talk to them; do you want me to take him?”

The boy’s mother glares at Morrigan and she glares right back. Alistair breaks that one. “I’ll hang on to him – I can carry him, which either of the two of you would struggle to do without somehow turning into an actual bear.” He inflects it as a joke. “Come. Let’s get the gate open and some people in here. Apart from anything else -” he indicates the half-circle of the abomination’s ‘court’, slowly coming to their senses – “these people need looking after, and damned if we’re doing that alone.”

*

The bann suitably installed in the big chair, those of his people who are still capable of it dealing with the spell-shocked people the abomination was using as effectively living scenery, we go through with him everything that happened. It occurred to Morrigan about a breath and a half before Leliana said it that it was going to come out that she’s a mage – she braces herself, and I can almost see her rehearsing how she’d make a quick exit, but all that happens is that the bann gives her a searching look and says that we all should bless providence that she was here.

The thing we didn’t expect is that the moment we mention Jowan, the bann sends for him. Leliana insists on accompanying the people sent down to the dungeon to retrieve him, and by the way she takes up station just behind him and to his right, she’s got a knife on him the whole time.

And the tension in the room just winds up and up. If looks could kill, Isolde would be murdering Jowan every other moment, and Morrigan’s staff has that little point of green light dancing at the end that I only saw before the last time she was threatening Jowan, and half the people at the court keep flicking their eyes back to that, and to the hard-eyed woman carrying it. Leliana, as I’ve said, has a knife to the apostate’s back where the bann can’t see it. And of course, then the court has to hear Jowan’s testimony, and credit to him, he doesn’t try and justify it or dress it up, and he makes it in a nice clear voice.

Troubled, the bann lifts his good hand to us. “So if I understand the issue at hand. We have here my nephew Connor, standing accused of blasphemy and maleficence under the law of the Chantry, bound in sleep, for if he were to wake then great evil would be done. This sleep can continue for, what, two days, at increasing peril and pain to the Warden’ mage?”

Morrigan inclines her head to agree. “I would not wish to guarantee that I could hold him past noon tomorrow, ser. I’m not your subject, so don’t count the cost of my aid; it’s freely given.”

“As you say. So for practical purposes, a one-way trip to the Circle Tower by water would be possible – but little further. And the arl my brother won’t likely wake before then, if ever he does, so the decision’s mine. Our choices? Wardens, I believe you understand them better than I; please be so good as to speak them.”

I speak first. “If it please you, ser, he’s defenceless right now. I understand it’s unpleasant to you, but just so we’re all aware – the abomination can be ended with a sharp blade.” Arlessa Isolde puts her hand over her mouth to muffle a sob at my plain words, at the tone that clearly says I don’t mind the boy’s death.

Morrigan is next. “The Circle of Magi – I shudder to suggest this option, but honour demands. They have-”

“No!” Jowan’s eyes go wide. “Woman, you can’t be serious -”

He shuts up with a gasp. He shuts up because there’s the point of a knife pricking his back, right where he’d die in moments if she drove it in. Leliana nods to the bann. “Sorry, ser. It should not ‘appen again.”

The bann nods graciously and Morrigan continues, not taking her eyes off the apostate. “The Circle of Magi are capable of performing a procedure which removes the magical Gift. I find the concept personally abhorrent and if I were in little Connor’s place, there is no manner of death I can envision which I would not prefer to their so-called Rite of Tranquility. But he would not die, and the ‘demon’ would fall shrieking into the Fade and likely never recover.” She looks the Arlessa in the eyes. “I want you to understand that in almost any other situation, my reaction would likely be that of Jowan, there. I have never met one of the Tranquil, but I have read descriptions of the process that were written by people who have undergone it. And I believe that any sane individual would rather the blade.”

Bann Teagan frowns. “The demon. Can it be – exorcised? There is a Templar chapter-house at Varfell, which is a day’s ride.”

Leliana shakes her head. “Impossible. It is true that exorcism can liberate a person whose sleep is plagued by demons, but if it worked to purify the mind of a mage then the discipline of the Circle would not be necessary. What ‘aid’ that the Templars could give, the Wardens can give also, and quicker.”

“I’ll not have the life of my nephew decided by some foolish rivalry between your orders -”

“No Warden am I, my lord. Truly I say to you, from what I ‘ave witnessed with my eyes today, and from my own experience as agent of the Faith, the boy is too far gone for the ministrations of a revered mother to aid ‘im.”

The bann’s expression is dark. “The enchanted sleep he is in. Can it be made more permanent?”

Morrigan makes a face. “The answer is not ‘no’, but permanent magic is not my… strongest facet. I have read in books how it could be done – you would bring here a dwarfish crafter of runes, and have her strike me a rune in lyrium to hold the spell like a fly in amber. The cost of such an undertaking, in money or favours, would not be something I could support myself. And the boy would need daily care for the rest of his life, and likely die without ever waking from his nightmare.” (The arlessa sniffles again.)

“B-but the demon.” He’s clearly casting about for options that don’t involve the death of this boy. “You fought it once and defeated it handily. Can you not kick it while it is down, so to speak? Sink the blade into the thing that is actually to blame?”

She shakes her head. “It is not ‘down’ – it is… locked away, you might say. What you describe is the equivalent of opening that door, going in, handing it a sword and challenging it to a fair duel.”

“So you could do it.”

Her eyebrows shoot up. “Not… easily, and victory would not be certain. I would need to physically enter the Fade, which would require things I do not -”

“I can do it!” Jowan blurts. Leliana’s knife is still right there, but she stays her hand – “Ser, I can do it.”

The bann turns piercing eyes on the apostate. “Speak.”

“I have… I am…” He swallows. “I have access to sources of strength the Warden mage does not – I – think that on my own, if I had not been locked up, I could have averted this entire catastrophe. I would cheerfully array myself in a fair fight against an abomination of – it will be desire, won’t it – let alone with its host unconscious like this. And given that this is all my fault… I want to put it right.”

There’s a pause. “Morrigan,” says the bann, “how do you rate his claims?”

She gives Jowan a piercing look. “Name your sources of strength, apostate. And please don’t take me for the bumpkin I appear.”

He looks down. “I’m a… lyrium addict. The enchanters of the Circle take it, to feed their great workings. I made… one too many such workings, I couldn’t get enough of it, the power, the rush of it – I took to stealing the templars’ sacraments and I was caught. But I… I know how to use the stuff to power my magic. And this town has templars, and the Chantry will have their sacraments. I could use those.”

Morrigan curls her lip. “The prisoner is lying.”

“I swear! Give me lyrium dust and I can travel into the-”

“Yes, yes – but it is hardly a unique skill. It is how I might travel to the Fade myself, as a matter of fact. It is strange – I believe your claims of strength, and the Circle are widely held to use lyrium so, but yet I tell you you are lying. Desist.”

He gulps. “I… uh. Is it so hard to accept that I am stronger than you through native talent?”

Morrigan’s eyes are implacable, and something about her manner is infinitely confident. “Yes.”

“Bann, ser, these people hate me. They left me in the dark -”

“Quiet.” Teagan scowls. “You reek of a confidence trick, boy, and you are trying all of our patience. If you will not reveal the source of your power, then I shall have no further use for you, do you understand me – now. Speak!”

Jowan closes his eyes. “I have learned to draw power from the energy of life itself, as one might from refined lyrium.” Opens them, slowly. “I am… what you might call a ‘blood mage’.”

Well, Leliana’s already got a knife on him, but I get the feeling that she’s wishing she could have two. Alistair’s eyes widen. And Morrigan nods, slowly. “It is perhaps not the cleanest of options, but blood magic could do everything he claims and more.”

Arlessa Isolde sits forward. “It could beat the demon?”

“In the Fade? If it did not know what was coming for it? Most likely.” Morrigan frowns. “Not in a guaranteed fashion, but what is? It is the best chance for leaving the boy alive-”

“Have you ever seen the aftermath of a blood mage’s work?” Leliana’s grip on the knife tightens. “I ‘ave. I swore to myself never again. It is an act against the law of Maker and man.”

“But it saves my son.” Isolde blinks a couple of times. “And nothing else does. How… how much blood? Does noble blood go further?”

“No-no. No.” Alistair holds his probably-half-brother protectively. “It’s not an option. We’re not discussing it any more. Right? It’s not on the table. It’s not even near the table. Kallian, back me up here.”

Blink. “It, uh.” Talk about out of my depth. This is the court of a bann whose support we need – of the brother of a sick arl, and of the woman who will control both the title and the heir so long as her husband is sick – “Ser, my people advise against this approach-”

“But offer no alternative save death.” The thunder-clouds have not cleared from Teagan’s face. He grinds his teeth. “Jowan. Your word: Can you do this thing?”

He nods. “Upon my power, I can.”

“Wardens. Will you allow this? Or will there be a… further problem?”

Alistair and Leliana and I go to speak at the same time. The two of them give way to me. “My people do have a problem with this, ser, and I’m not sure I don’t myself. We’ve not had time to confer – uh.” Making an enemy of this man would be… no. “I think that the fault for this lies with Jowan, and that if he survives this, then we will see you bring him to justice. But this is your court.”

Alistair looks at me and sets his jaw, then says shortly, “Ser, I honestly cannot believe that you would contemplate this, but… As my commander wishes.”

Leliana bows her head. “Teagan bann of Westbrook, my words are spoken for me. You are making a mistake.”

*

The lord’s solar is to be cleared for the rite. Alistair hasn’t let go of the child. Leliana hasn’t let go of Jowan. And Morrigan won’t let either out of her sight. I try to get the bann alone for a moment while things are being put together – we are going to need his support, Redcliffe’s support, and I need to know what damage Alistair’s principles have done.

The bann was clearly expecting me to do this – he looks at me like he’s guilty as sin. Of what? He runs his good hand through his hair. Starts talking before I can. “Warden, I’m sorry, I – There is a thing that you need to know.” It’s like he’s telling me a story. His tone of voice isn’t right. Forced.

…Okay? I nod for him to speak.

“I… don’t know how you could tell, but -” He falters. Picks up his thread again. “You people and your sharp bloody ears. Tell more than we know, don’t you? Damn it all.” Deep breath, and he turns to face me, slightly closer than I’d like, broad and intimidating, and I remind myself firmly that injured and unarmed he’s no threat to me. Why does he sound like he is putting this on? “You’re right. All right? And if Jowan’s life is the price I pay for saving my son? So be it.”

His… son. Of course- I nod to cover my surprise. “After all – even before we consider the blood magic, poisoning your brother is -”

So… looks like I said a magic word by accident. It’s like a veil falling from him, the change in him. He practically snarls at me. “He talked. Didn’t he. The man bloody talked.”

Keep pulling. No sense denying Providence when it drops something like this in my lap. “You’ve seen how persuasive my people can be, ser.”

“To shut your mouth. Yours and that bloody Seeker’s, she clearly takes your orders, Maker knows why. How much?”

Seeker…? I suddenly find myself longing for my humans, for a translation. Tread water. “You understand we’re taking Jowan to face justice.”

“Like hells, girl, I’m sorry. You can have his sorry carcass if you like, by your own hand if you want, but you start making noises out there about taking him back alive to interrogate and I just might investigate how much good a blood mage can be to an ambitious man with a few secrets to hide.”

“No need to threaten me, Teagan. Dead will do fine. No, what I actually want is your support.”

“How the – He doesn’t even know -” The bann checks himself – not like he’s about to explain what he’s going on about, I suppose? No – and chuckles mirthlessly. “Don’t do anything by halves, do you? That’s treason you’re asking me for, right there.”

“Treason is the man that killed Cailien and abandoned a thousand men, sitting the throne while the darkspawn savage the country.” The sudden vitriol in my voice makes him flinch. “Treason is the man who swore he had our backs, turning tail and running from our one chance to end this quickly and painlessly while my friends, my family and my fellows perished in the flame of war. Damn your eyes, ser, this is about doing right.”

He looks down at me. “Yeah, well. It was trying to do some right that brought me and my men into town in the first place, moment I heard of the walking bloody dead instead of a nice big vacant chair. And look where that got me.”

I look him up and down. “Seems it got you that chair, from here. No?”

He narrows his eyes. “Seems it may have – Andraste save my dear brother.”

“Andraste save him.”

“Isolde found the poison already; she’ll likely give it to the Seeker. I’m sure you’ll investigate with diligence.”

I’m sure that meant something. That must have been code for something. Who does he want me to frame? Or is it just that he wants it buried? Shit. I answer noncommittally, mentally rehearsing what he said to me, because I’ll have to repeat it later.

Leliana will know what to do.

*

How much blood?

Eight pints, says Jowan, a life’s worth, and meaningful glances are exchanged at just how accurately he knows that. Does a noble’s blood go further? A maiden’s? No – but a woman’s does, or an elf’s, because they’ve got less to start with, like. If he thinks he’s getting any of ours – no, he’s drawing as much of his own as he dares, and the arlessa and, for true, the bann himself give their own blood to make up the gap. He uses a gilt bowl, the kind of thing they’d serve a soup in. It’s out of place. Morrigan bandages up the little cuts the blood mage made to take the blood, and the nobles settle grey-faced into chairs.

She speaks to me in quiet words as Jowan sets the rest of his rite out, about what such things mean if I ever see them again. Most every dream comes from a memory inside you, she says, from a thought or a dream or a hope or something you desperately want to be, and a spell is just a dream pinned down and caught like a butterfly. So the kind of magic that’s easiest, she says, is the kind you do with your hopes and fancies – you literally wish something into being – but it ain’t the only way. You can – it’s like hypnotising yourself, she says. You get a really good strong idea of what it is you want to do, and you make that idea into a pattern, or someone else does, and you use that pattern instead of a dream of your own, using your conscious mind rather than your unconscious. It’s harder, but it’s surer, and you can do things that are against your heart’s inclination or better judgement, things you don’t feel like doing, things you’re not in the mood for. The commonest is the wizard’s staff – she pats her own – but you’d hardly have a staff built for a spell to send you into the Fade. And all the times you’ll see a mage singing and chanting and drawing and dancing and painting on themselves, you’ve got to remember it’s not a spell they’d rather be doing. And if you ever see a mage who can do harm without using a spell-pattern to do it? Draw your own conclusion about their heart’s desires.

So you know, it’s reassuring in a way that Jowan is drawing a disturbingly angular diagram on the floor in blood, using a careful index finger as a brush. Aren’t I glad that I have a witch with me to explain these things? Otherwise I might have been somehow perturbed. Andraste – it- ugh. There’s so much of it, and it stinks, and much as Jowan tries to make it look relaxed and expert, the procedure is very much less than clean. The diagram is written on the floor in broad lines; a simpler version is written again on his bare pasty toast-rack chest, and he anoints his forehead, then his eyelids, to give a bizarre impression of an open staring eye on a closed one.

Leliana keeps herself direct behind him, where he can’t see her. Would probably say it’s to avoid distracting him. She’s looking at the whole thing and carefully not biting the inside of her cheek till it bleeds, breathing shallow, not even bothering to hide the drawn blade. She’s actually sweating, but her hands are steady as a statue’s.

Alistair stands over the child, and he has no weapon out but the ones on the ends of his arms, to to speak. His head’s bowed and he’s praying, but if I can see that his eyes are on the blood mage, then so should everyone else be able. To me it’s his closed fists that say that he’s ready to go for Jowan. He’s further from him than Leliana is, but he’d cross that space every bit as fast.

And Jowan’s breathing is quick and hard, not with exertion, but with sensation. Magic is addictive, a child knows that, and looking at him working it, you can see what they mean – It’s more than disgusting. I don’t want to watch this. But I suppose neither does anyone else in the room. The man’s hands pass over the bowl of blood, once, twice, three times, and then he lifts them, and it’s quite natural for the blood to follow them and make a pattern, a twistingly complicated mess of ordered lines and angles in the air around his hands, and it pulses, like a living thing, once, twice, three times, and then it’s like it turns inside out and Jowan’s body is suddenly not here and the blood splashes down and every drop lands on his diagram on the floor.

There’s a moment’s silence. The air is tense. It is like the blood-spattered area where the diagram was is downhill, like the rest of the room doesn’t really matter, isn’t important, isn’t properly there. The bann speaks first. “So, what does that mean?”

“It means he ‘as not yet played you false.” Leliana wipes a drop of sweat from her nose. “Morrigan, what could you do with that much blood?”

The witch’s eyes narrow. Her speech pattern is a little odd, like she’s not really paying attention. “Put it back where it… came from, of course. What manner of-”

The Orlesian holds up a hand in apology. “But I misspoke – what could you do with that much power?”

She shakes her head with slightly exaggerated care. “I know what you meant. Unfortunately, I have no answer… I honestly have no idea how much energy there is in what amounts to a – life’s worth – of blood, beyond that it would have been less trouble for him to kill one person for this than to drain… three… done with questions now, thank you.”

“Fine.” Leliana settles her fingers on the grip of her blade. “I ‘ave seen a blood mage incapacitate a room full of angry people using a few drops of blood. If the wound ‘ad not been a mortal one, I believe I would not be standing ‘ere to speak with you. It is illegal for a reason, and yet every year there are mages in good Maker-fearing lands who start along this path, and they do it because literally at their fingertips is-”

“Stop it!” Morrigan suddenly has her eyes tight closed. “I can do without the running commentary. I appreciate that you are fighting the influence of the ‘demon’ with your own heartfelt and deep-seated hatred. Please-” Her voice cracks. She starts again. “Please do not jog my metaphorical elbow. The thing has looked at Jowan and at me, and is after the weakest link-” She takes a sharp abrupt gasp of air and snaps her eyes wide open, unseeing, then says tightly and quickly, “Somebody please place a knife to the child’s neck with a steady hand. He will convulse if my spell fails and that could be the only chance we get.”

I draw; I kneel. Careful not to touch any of the blood. The knife’s point is a quarter-inch from his throat before Alistair’s is halfway out of its sheath. The arlessa’s knuckles go white on the arms of the chair. Sick feeling that even now, all of this might be for nothing – wait – I realise that I was almost sucked in by the context of the whole thing, the feeling that hangs like a pall in the air in here that the child must not die, and now that I know it’s there I know it’s the demon’s work, and I bare my teeth. If the child has to die, well, he was probably innocent of everything but stupidity, and so that’s a shame. But he’s also the cause of how much suffering?

The boy twitches and I nearly kill him. I didn’t realise how tight I was wound. Breathe, dammit. In time with his. He’s so peaceful, so fragile. A bird in a cage – stop it. Stop it.

I have one job. I do it. I keep the blade on him. Time stretches out. I realise that the arlessa’s looking straight at me, studying my face, my expression, my knife.

I realise that Morrigan’s breathing hard, her eyes staring at nothing,

her staff held low in front of her, knuckles tight on it.

When did she last blink?

How long has it been, anyway?

How long is

a dream?

My hold is

slipping

on what I’m doing here,

on why I have this blade drawn. I’m

here because I’m here. I know

I must not

move. It’s perfectly natural.

Dream logic. I’m dreaming –

I’m dreaming and I

cannot wake

Solid wakeful reality slams into me like a punch right between the eyes and I shout (but my hands don’t move). The room stinks of fresh blood. Alistair, standing over me, swears pungently and loudly; the bann lets out the same words on the same breath. Jowan’s kneeling panting in the middle of the diagram, curled around himself, right there next to me and the boy, and he’s always been there – was he ever gone? – Leliana’s close behind him suddenly. Morrigan makes a funny sound in the back of her throat and still doesn’t blink, but she’s suddenly breathing less hard.

“Jowan?” I don’t look at him. I’m focused on the boy, the boy whose life is in my hands. “Speak. Quickly.”

The mage’s voice scrapes like a rusty saw. “It’s. Done. Wait!” That last because he’s got Leliana’s knife to him. “Please. The boy. Have to. Know.”

“Morrigan?”

She closes her eyes and whimpers, takes a hand off her staff to put it over her mouth. Nods three times. Goes to put her back against the wall and nearly falls, because it’s further than she thought. A couple more breaths, and then her voice is stable and even. Enforcedly so. “I think it is gone. Do we still have a blade on him who can be relied upon?”

“Absolutely.” I haven’t taken my eyes off the sleeping human child.

“I’ll release him now. Be ready.”

And she clicks her fingers, and the boy’s eyes snap open and he flinches to see me, and it’s a good thing I’d pulled the knife back a little. I search his eyes for anything that isn’t what I’d expect. “Connor?”

I’m not really expecting him to burst into howling tears. I look quickly across at Morrigan and she nods tiredly. Is she sure? She is. And so Alistair and I back off and let the boy’s mother at him, and she does her best to make us feel like heartless brutes while getting her boy out of this stinking place and cleaned up, and we’ve got a blood mage to deal with.

The bann sits himself up in his chair and tries to look a bit less pale and nauseous and a bit more lordly. “Jowan,” he says, and his expression is appropriately grim. “You see where we find ourselves in a quandary.”

Leliana lets the shivering man up, slowly, without losing the touch of her blade against him. Not all the blood down the front of him was painted on. It’s running sluggishly from long slices down his arms, from the corners of his mouth, from his eyes, from raw bleeding wounds where the diagram was on his chest. He speaks quietly and carefully. “Do we, ser?” Blood drips.

“You saved the life of my nephew, mage. Had you done it another way, had you been anyone else -”

“You are, aren’t you.” He sighs. There’s far more energy to him than there looks like there should be. “It doesn’t matter what I’ve done, does it. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done for any of- ack!” He cuts off with a cry of pain – Leliana has grabbed his injured forearm with her off-hand and squeezed hard.

“Bann, ser. We ‘ave been more than reasonable.” Her voice, it abandoned reasonable a while ago. “I can blame nothing so far but the abomination, whose spell to protect itself served to make us all behave without reason. But I do not think you mistake me now. This man ‘as confessed before your ears to treason and worse, and I ‘ave borne witness to ‘is maleficence, to the use of magic in perversion of the proscriptions of the Chant of Light and defiance of the law of the Maker. It is out of a wish for the welfare of your own soul that I stay my blade right now. But this is for you the last chance. Have justice done. Or I will.

The bann takes a deep breath. “Sera, I do not take well to threats. But in deference to your company and to the good service you have rendered, I shall overlook this one. Mage – you have, as the lady said, in my court and presence confessed to treason and maleficence. The punishment for a petty traitor is to be burned at the stake. For the latter – what do the Templars do, with maleficars turned over to them?”

“Tranquility.” Jowan’s voice cracks. “No. No, ser, I beg you, have mercy, I saved the boy, didn’t I? I’ve done everything you asked of me -”

“There is no point in drawing this out, or in bringing this before a court.” The bann sits back into his chair. “I withdraw my claim on this prisoner. Do justice as you see-”

By the time the bann has finished speaking, Jowan has collapsed forward, with Leliana holding him as if he’s fainted; she lays him out on the floor face down, and it’s only then that the silver hilt of her blade is visible protruding from under his right ear. Almost immediately her hands begin to shake, but she has time to pull the blade out and wipe it with a handkerchief before the noble’s eyes widen.

“Done.” She makes the knife go away and gets up; from the way her face drains of colour, from the way she doesn’t stand so steadily, she’s regretting standing up so quick.

I step in, still before the speechless bann has time to gather his wits. “Ser. I know that you are weak from all of this, but may I suggest that sooner rather than later we bring this whole matter before your people. At the least, we must let them know that they can sleep this night in safety?”

He nods weakly. “Is it true?”

I look at Morrigan. She’s still sitting against the wall. Looks over at us. “It should be – I -” She puts her hand over her mouth, takes another deep breath for a moment before replying. “I am – a little over-extended. The abomination is probably unmade, its spells have likely unwoven, and… that should be good enough.”

“Probably? Likely?” Alistair looks down at her like he’s wondering whether to start yelling at her or to give her a hand to her feet. “Should? Is there no way of knowing for sure?”

She looks up at him with bloodshot cat-eyes and draws her knees up to her chest. “What you have right now is as always the best effort I can make. It may have escaped your notice, but I am just a little drained at the moment.”

The bann clears his throat. “Then we must prepare for the worst. The castle guard – their minds, will they recover?” All three of my humans nod, Alistair a little uncertainly. “Court will be held tomorrow midday. For tonight, I’ll have the chantry and the castle fortified best we can, and withdraw inside those. Wardens, I’m sure my brother’s wife would offer you the hospitality of her house if she were here; least we can do.”

*

In the event, the walking dead did not return. I gave up around two hours after dark; I believe Alistair stayed up most of the night, but I went back to check in with Leliana. The bann had provided us each with a room, but I found Morrigan’s room as empty and dark as mine. A knock on Leliana’s brings the scrape of the bolt and a red-eyed Leliana opening the door with one hand out of sight; she’s wearing but a shift; she lets me in and bolts the door again, sheathes the sword she’d had in the other hand and goes wordlessly to sit on the bed. Morrigan’s curled on the floor by the hearth, still in human shape, like she was a cat or something. All our packs are in here. And Leliana’s been crying.

“You… all right?” I keep my voice down so I don’t wake the mage. Slip my baldric off and hang it on the back of the door by Leliana’s, on the hook that’s meant for a dressing-gown.

She nods, picks up a handkerchief from the bed to wipe her eyes. Sniffs. “You must think me terribly weak.”

I unbuckle the belt that holds my two heavy dirks, and put it by my pack where I can get at it in a hurry. The knife that’s round my calf, it lives there. “I can’t look people in the eye.”

She blows her nose. “Pardon me?”

I turn to look at her, hold her gaze until it gets uncomfortable, which is like a heartbeat or so, then I let myself look away. “That. It’s hard. Like a wildcat won’t look you in the eye if it can get away without. Am I a coward for it? Then you aren’t.”

She sits back. “At the cloister – not the Lothering one – I would ‘ave a bottle of wine. It is what they expect. Nobody minds you getting to weep when you are in your cups, yes? I was always like this when I was a novice. If I was in danger, and then I am safe… But I thought it ‘ad left me.” She hugs herself. “I nearly died today, Kallian. It ‘ad been so long – I’d forgotten.”

“How long have you been a Seeker?” I start on the buckles of my armour.

She freezes. Slowly she relaxes herself, places a hand to her chest with a slightly theatric air. “Ah! My mystique! You ‘ave cut it to the quick!” Her smile is fake and waxy. “As long as my tongue ‘as, and a little longer than my teeth, yes? I suppose that today I was less than subtle.”

“Certainly the bann thought so.”

“Oh?” She raises her eyebrows. “And you ‘ave no idea what is a Seeker?”

I duck my head, working on a bracer.

A little life comes back into her smile. “I see. So – to avoid trying your patience much more – you were asking me what kind of sister I was? Well – the Seekers of Truth, they are that kind of sister.”

“The kind that knows more about magic and Templars than a man who trained as one. The kind who have the bann scared enough to threaten.” I unbuckle the second bracer and start on my greaves. “The kind who can kill a man quicker than blinking.”

She wipes her eyes quickly. “If the man ‘ad been allowed to talk for long… He was running with blood, he could ‘ave-”

“Didn’t say you was wrong.” Second greave.

“I was talking to myself, then.” Her voice is quiet. She’s staring at the wall. “You suppose it is easy or pleasant, to take these people who have for themselves the best of intentions, who never chose to be what they are, and to do these terrible things to them?”

“I suppose it’s better than the alternative.” I start to unbuckle the heavy constricting jerkin and spaulders.

“You ‘ave never seen ‘the alternative’.” She closes her eyes for a long slow moment, remembering something she’d rather forget. “But you are not wrong.”

“A Seeker is a hunter of mages, then? A quiet and subtle one, where the Templars are loud?”

“If it were my calling, my life, to do this? Every day to see… this?” She shakes her head emphatically. “The Maker does not give me more than I could bear. The Seekers of Truth – we do our best to live our name. We seek… truth.” She looks at me to make the point. “Sometimes when we go out into the world we find lies that must be moved out of the way, so that the truth it can be found.”

I slip myself out of the jerkin and stack it on the growing pile of armour. Always feels good to get that weight off my shoulders. Next is the padded gambeson. “Who gets to decide what is truth?”

“In the moment?” She sits back a little. “The Seeker does. Just as ‘ow you decide for yourself what is true. But you are asking for whom it is that we are working.”

“Pretty much.” I put the gambeson on the pile and start on my boots. “I know – your mystique, your image. If you’d rather I didn’t tell anyone, I won’t.”

“Is it not the case that I could genuinely be working for my Maker and no less?”

“No. Sorry.” I’m not looking at her, I’m unlacing my boot. “The Maker don’t talk. With all the shems trying to talk to him, you’d have thought somebody would have noticed by now if he did.”

“So why did I say this thing to you? It is to you patently an untruth. Why did I ask you to believe me?”

I frown. “Makes you sound crazy. I figure you didn’t know we’d have a mage with us.”

“And one most perceptive. Most cannot see what she sees.”

I give the mage a look, curled up all peaceful by the hearth as she is. Never seen her sleep human-shaped before. “So you’d sound crazy. You figured a man to be in charge, because it’s known that the Wardens are all human men for all their talk of taking anyone good enough.”

“Mm-hmm. And why is that an ‘elp?”

Other boot. “You do the damsel in distress better than any I ever saw. Turned both the humans against me without even a word to them.”

“Is everything I do a lie, then?” She’s staring at the fire.

“Today wasn’t.” The boots come off, and the stockings with them, and I turn to look at her. “Moment we needed it. No silly shem games, no messing about just because we’d know a thing about you we didn’t before. Moment we ran into a thing you believed in.”

“… and?” Her voice is very small. “Do I measure up for you?”

I come sit next to her on the bed. “Well, I’m bloody glad I don’t have to cross you. That what you meant?”

“… I suppose.” She shifts away from me a little, doesn’t look in my direction. “Whatever else you think – it is – not an act.” She blinks a couple more times. “It should not bother me, but – curse it. I am not ‘putting this on’, for all that if you were Alistair you would be wrapped around my hand like a twist of string by now.” She swallows. “The best lie to give is the true one, no? The best disguise is no disguise at all?”

“What d’you want me to say?” I look at the fire. “You did more than your share, and I’m not about to say it don’t sting me that you’re hurting for it. Far as I’m concerned, if you say you’re one of us, I’m happy for that to be truth.”

“Even though I am one of the infamous agents of the White Divine? Even though you know as well as I do that one cannot serve two masters?”

I shrug. “If the Divine and the Wardens aren’t on the same side, Leliana, then we have worse problems yet.”

She shakes her head. “So it is just like that, after all? I allow that I may ‘ave a goal in life beyond being a wandering madwoman, and you trust me without protestation or oath or condition?”

“You are what you do, not what you say. I’ve seen you when you think you’re in trouble; I’ve seen you do something that needed doing; I’ve seen you fight; I’ve seen nothing to make me think less of you. I think that makes us sisters in arms, or something.”

“How am I to take that?” She smiles, although there isn’t an awful lot to it. “‘Sister’ is about the worst insult I could give you, no?”

I match the expression. “Mm. Were you sent, to find us? Or is this truly providence?”

Her eyes are grey. I don’t look at them for long. “If I’d been sent,” she says evenly, “that would mean that the White Divine was taking a stand in Fereldan politics. If you are, as you plan to, looking for the justice of the Maker, by which we mean raising the country against the teyrn of Gwaren. It would mean – if we did not win – it would mean a second war for sure, another stupid war with good singers of the Chant on all of the sides. Or if we won, the king or queen you put on that throne would be to all intents and purposes a puppet of the Divine’s – that is, of Orlais.”

Blink. “Uh. You’re that important?”

You are.” She raises her eyebrows. “Just remmber that when you speak of a civil war, it is no tavern tale you spin. For your abused honour, Warden-Commander, brother will fight brother and blood will run in the gutters, and your people will ‘ave it the worst, for they ‘ave nothing to defend them. You ‘ave a father alive, yes? ‘E will ‘ave told you tales of the civil war, what you call the revolution? Did they leave you with the impression that such wars were a thing worthwhile?”

I shake my head wordlessly.

“And a war between the rags and tags of Ferelden and the Empire of Orlais, with the darkspawn at all of our heels, it would be worse yet. There are those in Orlais who would love little more than the chance to come back and take every stone from every other for the length of the kingdom – and like it or not, whether you care for the humans or no, your own people would know the very worst of misery-”

“So I do nothing?” I say, and the dangerous quiet in my voice makes her steel herself against shrinking away from me.

“No. Of course you do not. The civil war, the fault is with Loghain. Just as all that ‘appened ‘ere, the fault is with whoever paid Jowan. But it is nevertheless your hand on the blade.”

“And you’ll not put yours beside mine. It’s-”

“No!” Her eyes widen. “No, that is not what I mean to say. I am here. Everything I know of, all I can do for you, all I can teach, it is at the disposal of the Wardens. Everything but one thing.” She looks into my eyes – didn’t she hear me when she said I don’t like it? – and says, “The Maker appeared to me in a dream and asked me to come with you. I was not sent by Cassandra Pentaghast, the Hand of the the White Divine and the head of my order; I am certainly not under orders to prevent the ascent of Loghain mac Tir to the throne of Ferelden under any circumstances; I am not under standing orders to assist the Grey Wardens to the limit of my skills and expertise should I find any; I am a rogue agent. You understand me?”

I bite my lip. “The Maker sent you, then.”

She nods. “‘E did.”

I look away. I know she’ll see it as looking untrustworthy, but staring her in the eyes is unnatural and tiring. “So – given that the Maker sent you – there’s something you probably want to know, that the bann told me, and I need your help understanding. I hate to heap more on your head tonight, but we need to know what we’re going to say tomorrow.”

“Go on?”

I say it quickly. “Teagan hired Jowan to poison the arl. The boy is his son.”

“Oh!” She blinks. “Yes. That makes sense.” She rests a hand on her chin. “Ah – love. It is a good Orlesian reason to do anything. And she is in a marriage with an old man which was never a thing of joy, yes? And the younger brother is ambitious, given a banner as a sop when he would not take holy orders at sixteen, no doubt, then – alas! The child he is shown to ‘ave magic – the arlessa she panics and goes to her lover, and he must think that for him the skies have opened in majesty. In a stroke the family is incapacitated, with the younger brother ‘olding the reins – but the child sees only that the man who ‘e calls father ‘as taken ill, and goes to the magic that he is supposed to ‘ave well hidden, and from there to ‘ere is a straight line.”

“So what do we do?”

She shrugs. “If Alistair knew, there would be blood – and we would lose the arling’s support forever, whoever owned it. It is an injustice, but – no. The best thing that could ‘appen would be for the arl to recover, and for it to be as if this whole thing never were.”

“Keep this from Alistair?” I frown. “We owe him better than that.”

“Yes?” She smiles. “Good. Neither do I like the idea – but as a Warden Alistair ‘as the rank to call Teagan out, and can you imagine a duel between those two, even if Teagan were healed? No. We should go tomorrow to the arl’s bedside, and Morrigan should see what she can do, and I advise you strongly not to raise this matter with your fellow Warden.”

“I – uh. I may have accidentally given the bann the impression he had our full support?”

“And so ‘e does – as does ‘is brother, as is right and proper, for we are simple creatures who do not understand politics. And while we are not making especial effort to investigate this, it is surely not our affair if the problem turns out to be one easily solved?”

Bloody humans.

*

Morrigan holds the little perfume vial up to the light and frowns. “Interesting.” She looks to the rest of us, to the bann, to the nervously hovering arlessa, and then down at the arl himself. “This is enough to kill an ox, and there’s twice this in him at least.”

Alistair looks at the vial like it’s about to bite someone. His fists clench and unclench. “Can you cure it?”

She wrinkles her nose. “For that definition of ‘cure’, it’s cured already.” She puts the back of a hand on the arl’s forehead with the gentleness of a butterfly’s wing. “Connor’s ill-advised ‘deal’ – I don’t suppose he remembers the exact words?”

The arlessa shakes her head. “He doesn’t even remember calling the thing.”

“Mmm. Nevertheless – he asked for the wrong thing. Bear with my explanation, please. For a healing such as this, normally, I would begin by placing the target deeply asleep, much as I did with Connor: and indeed this was done. Then I would ward his life, to preserve it while I worked: this, too, was done. Then I would burn out the poison – a process that by itself is excruciatingly painful and even life-threatening, hence the other two spells. These three spells are in place, entwined as one after the fashion of a mage who must work quickly – or an apprentice, perhaps, cutting a corner to feel clever.” She clears her throat. “Once the healing is done, the patient is left simply asleep, and the spells can be-”

“So what are we waiting for?” The bann reaches forward to grab his brother’s shoulder –

No!” Morrigan snaps, more like a parent’s admonishment than a sound of panic, a little flicker of light runs along her staff, and the arl jerks his hand back like he’d touched a boiling hot kettle. “As I was about to relate-”

“What do you think you’re doing, mage?” The bann’s voice is loud. “Magic is meant to serve man -”

“And that particular magic just saved what remains of your brother’s life.” Morrigan’s tone remains even and controlled. “As it is, you are lucky that the spells keep him blinded and deafened. But please do not attempt to wake him.”

The arlessa looks from one of them to the other. “Why? What is the problem?”

Morrigan’s gesture takes in the arl’s pinched cheeks, his skeletal appearance, his shallow breathing. “The spells, as I said, were applied just fine.” She looks the bann in the eye. “But they were not removed. The poison is cured. The arl sleeps. But nobody has fed him or given him water for eight days – and by now, his body’s life is sustained only by the spell designed to shield him from the side-effects of the poison cure.”

“So, what – we need to give him water?”

Morrigan looks down at him with a professional air. “His body is too weak – by rights he should be dead of thirst. He cannot absorb anything you could give him, even if he could swallow it. I’ve art enough to save him from that fate alone, but with the abomination’s death the spells on him are gossamer and shadow. If I touch him with my power, they tear, he dies – even were my first spell to be a life-ward, the effect would take up too late.”

“How long?” It’s a good face of ashen concern the bann has on.

“New moon.” Morrigan takes her hand from the arl very gently. “Two weeks.”

The bann’s court just reminds me of the abomination’s. Better that than the great hall in Denerim, I guess. The wilting flowers are gone, and there’s not music, but there’s the two sets of people on either side and the bann and the arlessa and her son and the arl’s empty chair at the front, and as honoured guests we get a front rank.

Being stared at by this many shems makes me want my armour. Although I do look a little less boyish in my grey tunic and breeches, and only someone brought up street would count four knives on me, not one. The bann’s explanation of the last few days is a lot like the tavern tales he says he hates, all praise for the valour of his people and most especially those too dead to reward, much shorter on what you’d call matters of fact. Then he goes on to describe our assistance, and he calls one of the knights Alistair fought beside to give account of the man’s tireless strength and fearless valour, and he calls the arlessa to describe our defeat of the abomination in terms that not only completely omit her own nearly disastrous contribution but also gloss over what the abomination actually was and have literally nothing to say about blood mages. Jowan is cast as a deranged poisoner, who met his end quickly at our blades before he could see true justice – she hopes that the Maker has punishment ready for him when he passes beyond. Morrigan fidgets, as well you might if the work of your trade were so poorly explained, but says nothing – and I’m just wondering what they gain from being so fulsome about Alistair (and me by accident).

So he calls us forward and gives Alistair a purse of the arl’s gold for us, as if we were knights-errant, and he smiles in what looks a lot like great-hearted gratitude, and asks us if we’d like to describe the plight of good Arl Eamon to the court.

So Morrigan briefly says that he’s asleep in a sleep he’ll not wake from without some kind of – and Leliana cuts in – miracle. Brief pause. So, well, she didn’t tell us about this one – she’s trusting us to let her speak, and even Morrigan does so – if I know her, she does it to see what the Orlesian will say.

And Leliana tells us all a tale that you wouldn’t believe if not for the lift and the spin she puts on it, a tale of the lost holy ashes of the Prophet Andraste, the Bride of the Maker, which have long been held to aid and restore those in sickness. And bright-eyed before the court she pledges to journey through the land and to seek this relic, if it may be found, and to return before the new moon to cure the arl, and damn him but one of the knights of the court shoots to his feet and says that he will find these ashes too, and first –

And Bann Teagan’s expression is appropriately serious as he says that he shall at once send for all of those who hold banners for Arl Eamon, that they might be informed of this sacred quest. And Morrigan looks at the assembled humans like she’s waiting for them to start howling at the moon, and Alistair’s got his meaningless smile on, and well, I did tell Leliana she’d earned my trust and this is the point to show it, so I hold my tongue and try to look like this was my idea, and for an instant Teagan catches my eye and nods very slightly.

So they move on. The arl’s son, Connor, and there he is all dressed up as the young master, still a little pale and unsteady, and with a little urging from his mother he comes to stand before the arl’s throne. His little piping voice will send ice down the spine of about half the court as he gives a short little speech, and he starts with an admission that he has discovered that he has magic in him.

And, well, I’m not sure how they managed it. I suppose all the ‘important’ people of the court – the revered mother, the knights with their assorted injuries, the blind templar – didn’t see the abomination’s court. But as the only people who did are at the back – or guarding the hall, or cleaning the castle, or on duty on the walls – there is nobody to demand punishment for him. He swears before them all that he shall guard his mind and his power well; that a rider has been sent to the Circle Tower to summon a mage to help him control it; that he surrenders himself here and now to the custody of… one blind aged templar.

Lovely. Alistair meets Leliana’s eyes and there’s a challenge in his expression that she passes off with a shrug. Clearly she has a plan.

We come to the last order of business, and it’s a human standing up who I’d taken for one of the knights, though he’s not clearly injured and I didn’t see him on the barricades or in the court. He’s perhaps a little paler and more nervous than he should be, and he makes his salute to the bann before speaking in a – in a Denerim accent nearly as broad as my own.

And his story is of the Blight, and the Battle of Ostagar – the account from Loghain’s side, and he says that he was there when the noble Loghain swore vengeance upon the people who had slain good King Cailien, upon the Grey Wardens who were supposed to be saving the kingdom from the Blight, and he dwells on how the teyrn personally led the rearguard that allowed the vast majority of the army to escape the treachery of their supposed allies, and he politely requests that the arl’s representative come to the Landsmeet to discuss the future of the kingdom and the proper response to the Blight.

There is absolutely no way the bann didn’t know about this. The man must have arrived at first light. Leliana has my wrist and I bite my lip and taste blood – more that she’s grabbed hold of me than that I was actually going to fly at the messenger in open court, mind – and she’s got Alistair’s on the other side, although it’s a little less effective on him because fashion would have it that he goes armoured.

The bann, complete with his troubled expression, turns to us and says that these are quite some accusations to set against his personal experience of our self-sacrificing valour, and would we care to respond?

Alistair looks at me, anger warring in his face with the fact that he really doesn’t want to get up and talk in front of all these people – I shake off Leliana’s hand on my arm, letting everyone see that I do it, and step forward.

I don’t look at the teyrn’s messenger. Raise my voice so that there’s no doubt everyone will hear me. “My lord bann, my lady arlessa. Where I’m from, you are what you do, not what you say. If the coward Loghain wants to prove his lies on me, I’ll meet him anywhere he wishes – I’ll not dignify them with another kind of answer.”

I bow my head to the nobles, like proper, and I’m about to return to my place – the messenger steps quickly forward and looks me in the eye. He’s unarmed, of course, except for his knife, but there’s no mistaking a swordsman’s stance, with the wrist slightly cocked like he’s ready to draw a blade that ain’t there. “Out of deference to this court and my duty, traitor, I will forget your words concerning my lord and master.”

“Funny.” I show him some teeth. “I could have sworn I just heard a cur yapping. Not sure as to what he was trying to convey.”

He narrows his eyes. “We will find you, girl.”

“And won’t that be amusing.” I walk back to my place. “My apologies, my lord bann.”

Teagan nods sagely. “I am disquieted by these allegations, and would discuss them more with Ser Miles in private. Wardens, courtesy dictates I offer you the chance to speak in your defence?”

I shake my head. If he’s cloistering himself away with the teyrn’s man, he’s giving us time to be gone from the town. “My lord, if our swords have not already spoken for our character, our words haven’t a hope.”

“As you wish.” He stands, and the court bow or curtsey or salute, depending, and we get ourselves out of there and out of the castle as quick as we may.

*

Mindful of what Leliana said, I get Alistair’s word not to turn around and go straight back before I’ll fill him in. She probably wouldn’t have told him at all, but – well – in his place I’d be pretty turned around by the way we were acting, and the bits I would’ve understood I wouldn’t like. In his place I’d want to know it, even if I couldn’t do anything. So that’s why I tell him all of it.

He listens. He clenches his jaw. Looks flatly ahead of him, at the road. There’s silence for a moment. Then he says, “There’s a thing you usually say about this point, about how my race are all a bunch of bastards.”

“That’s not fair, now.” I try a smile. “I’ve seen nothing out of you that’s half that bad.”

“The night is young.” He snorts. “I suppose it’s not my fault that the boy I’ve abandoned isn’t my brother, and we’ve nearly two weeks until I’m due to be complicit in my own father’s murder.”

Leliana touches his arm. “About the boy we can do nothing-”

“Not true.” He shakes her off. “There’s always an option. We could’ve-”

“Taken arms against our own? Betrayed the Maker’s law instead of an innocent boy?”

He shakes his head angrily. “Not even I can say he was innocent. He’s still – well -” He makes a frustrated noise. “His only chance at escaping Tranquility or outlawry is a web of lies to beggar an Orlesian bard.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Say rather, a truth you wished was real. The boy will be innocent by the time he goes to the mages.”

“And what then? Dishonesty piles on lies piles on deception, and the best outcome is when he’s taken away from his parents for being born a mage. Why is there anything right about this whole bloody situation?”

Morrigan cocks her head. “I would have thought you’d rejoice that another young Gifted One is confined to the cage your religion says they must be placed inside of.”

“No.” He pulls a twig off a passing branch and snaps it in his hand. “Six years with the Chantry and they never did convince me there’s anything right about being a mage. Nobody asked for it, nobody wanted it. You’re called to keep it in check and the moment you lose that control, the best you can hope for is that you just die. If you fail your apprenticeship or commit a crime they burn your mind out and call it justice. I have no idea why the Maker even put them here, on Thedas I mean. It’s not even funny enough to be a colossal joke. Everything that the whole idea touches just turns to pain and horror.”

“Everything?” Funny note to Morrigan’s voice.

He looks at her then, and then away, quick-like. “Some of it just turns to irritating Chasind witches instead.”

“Better.” She smiles sweetly. “So, Leliana. About the arl.”

The Orlesian nods. “I assume from your description of ‘is case you needed a better healer than yourself.”

“I am sorry to break it to you, but it is highly unlikely that either your silent deity or his long-dead prophet will be-”

She hides a smile with her hand. “But no – the Maker provides. For example, if we were to visit the Circle Tower upon unrelated business, the Maker might provide a team of expensive but very competent healers?”

Alistair looks at her, mouth open for an instant, then shuts it. “… You lied.”

Leliana turns to him, mock-affronted. “Certainly not! I swore to journey through the land – which we are doing. To seek the relic – as any good nun would, if she caught word of it upon the wind – and to return before new moon to cure the arl. Which, assuming it takes us less than a week and an ‘alf to secure assistance from the Circle Tower, I shall. It is not my fault if Bann Teagan should assume that because I mention an impossible quest in the same breath as ‘is poor brother, the one and the other are at all related.”

“So you’re stacking duplicity on top of dishonesty?”

“Mm-hmm. If you come to a knife-fight without a knife, you are going to be unsurprised to lose, no?” For a moment her eyes are fierce. “Teagan Guerrin is unfit to run a dockside bawdy-house, let alone a quarter of the kingdom, and one day ‘e will find that that the ground ‘is feet are planted so solidly upon is no more than quicksand.”

“All. A bunch. Of bastards.” He kicks a rock. “Kallian, do your people take applicants? I think I want to get off the human race.”

“You’d still have to deal with ’em, you know. Think it’s bad what you do to one another?”

“Don’t bloody remind me.” He’s quiet as we walk on for a while. “You reckon we really could get him healed by people from the Circle?”

Morrigan purses her lips. “My mother would be capable of it, which means it can be done. I’ve actually no real way of knowing how good she is, compared to a master from the Circle – let us say ‘yes’, because ‘no’ is unpalatable and of equal likelihood.”

“And what’s to stop the bann just knocking Eamon on the head?”

Leliana answers that – “Teagan will be in Denerim for the Landsmeet, and that is no mean trip even by post horses – ‘e will want to be there and enjoying a first taste of what ‘e thinks of as ‘is rightful authority. I would say a week to arrive, a week for the Meet itself, a week back – and what will ‘e find on ‘is return but quicksand?”

Alistair nods appreciatively. “You know – that’s almost a real plan.”

She chuckles. “Don’t celebrate until it is reality, and not an idea that we would love to be true. And there is still an army to muster – and a civil war to somehow magically win without losing an army – and a Blight, to fight against as if it were a fairy-tale – and an archdemon to lure out and kill. Do you even know what it looks like?”

“It looks like tomorrow’s damn problem.” I make my voice firm, try and sound like the leader that they want me to be. “Done solving problems for today. Right?” I try and lighten my tone, see if that works. “We’re just out for a hike. We got on the road at Redcliffe – we’re getting off again at the Circle Tower – any questions?”

The big man looks at me and can’t stop a smirk. “Can you swim?”

“Excuse me?”

“The Circle Tower is on an island.” He gestures at the lake. “Can’t we please get off at the dock, instead?”

“You know what you are, Alistair?”

“Handsome? Noble? Talented?” I wish my nerves would learn that the man’s not a threat to me. “A complete and utter bastard?”

I stick my tongue out at him. Wish that meeting those brilliant blue eyes didn’t send an irrational shiver down my spine. “Funny. You’re really damned funny.”

*

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