Alternative Origins Chapter Nineteen
(Reader: if you haven’t read chapter 18, please start there.)
It’s the first thing I’ve said. My voice sounds rusty, thick, like the words are clotting in my throat. Not thinking straight. The world is all wrong –
He makes a noise. The wound I’ve dealt him is as mortal as the one in my side, and likely quicker; there’s blood on my hands tight round the hilt of the pretty dagger that was the one I grabbed blind off the table. His mouth twists like I said something funny.
“Scorpion,” he says, a rasp of a whisper. “The halla and the scorpion. Middle of the river. Halla says to scorpion, why’d you sting me, for now we’ll both-”
“-no.” I shake my head pointlessly, illogically. “Not you. They w’re gonna kill you. You threw them over-”
“Ah.” He takes a laboured breath. “You did all that talking yourselves, a little push all you needed, a bit of perfectly genuine fear in my eyes, for all it was the humans I was scared of – a far-fetched tale the murder tells of itself, that the crows have a habit of. Killing messengers for ill news.” He puts a hand weakly on the back of my head, runs his fingers over my hair. I’m shivering. “The only lie I’ve ever told you, ma vhenan-”
His voice cuts off in a hiss of pain because I twisted the knife in his wound. “Don’t call me that. D-don’t you dirty those words – bastard -” My voice trails off.
“And worse, I am.” He strokes my hair with his dirty hand. “Gutter trash. My mother made her living on her back. Then, that one winter, there was no money. And she was ill. She lived another six months, on what she got for me.” A pause. “Like to think she died regretting it. Raised by crows. You want to know who taught me the tongue of your kind?”
“Our kind,” I whisper. It’s cold in here.
“‘m a crow.” He runs a finger down to the point of my ear and I can’t take it a second longer and I grab his wrist and pull his hand off me with a sob that coats the world in hard-edged agony from the torn muscles in my right side, look into his eyes and they’re nothing but sad. “Ma vhenan-”
He is not allowed to use those words. (It’s what you’d call your betrothed, all right? If you were lucky and got to marry someone you liked?) My right hand is still on the knife in him and it draws an agonised intake of breath from him when I give it a sharp twist. There’s water dripping from the end of my nose. “But I got you instead,” I hear myself say. “Two Wardens there were. Still one of ’em. Still me, and all. They’ll have heard that. They’ll come.”
“They’ll blush and stop their ears, more likely.” He shakes his head. “If they come at all. The stuff comes as a powder. The effects look like drunkenness. Serve in wine or beer. They – they drink, and their world spins itself around, and they laugh, and they joke, and their faces flush bright, and then they sleep, and then they do not wake. Who fetched the drinks, for the company, my dearest? Who fed you from his own hand?”
Yeah, the world’s spinning. “Not your anything.” I try and take a proper breath and a rusty spike of pain steals most of it away. “But – but, why? If you’d poisoned me. Or you could have been sure and cut my throat while I slept -” And you know what? Don’t ever try sobbing like that with a knife still stuck in your side. I don’t black out but it’s a near thing.
He’s silent a moment. “The scorpion said. It’s my nature. Good for you, avenging your – own -”
Morrigan props her chin on her hand and ponders relaxing her charm against intoxication. The ale, frankly, she’s had better – although it is quite amazingly potent stuff; she can feel it through the spell, which hasn’t happened before. But even so, being the soberest person in the room by a hop and a skip and a jump, well, it’s entertaining until it isn’t, if you follow.
She’d been watching the elves for a while and taking what you might call notes, but the strategy of their behaviour seemed to be somewhat tailored to society’s expectations: the female one, best described as ‘transparently feigned reluctance’, mostly seems to work only if one is being actively courted by a man clearly after only one thing and prepared to engage in any kind of demeaning spectacle to get it.
Then the two of them went off together in predictable fashion and after a while her choices were to continue to ignore Alistair in the hope that he would remember what his role is supposed to be when presented with an example right there, or to watch Leliana trivially (or even accidentally) attracting and fending off all the other males in the room in depressing fashion, or to conclude that she has misunderstood her mother’s lessons about the underlying purposes of socialisation and try and strike up a reasoned conversation.
Except that Wynne has gone to sleep, and Alistair seems to be engaged in the classic drinking contest with himself, from which there can emerge only one loser, and Leliana is busy or possibly as drunk as a skunk, and the locals are, to be polite, irrepressibly dull and awful. And the ale is… Mostly the ale is strong. Maybe if she were drunker, then the simple act of drinking would be sufficient entertainment. Seems to be working for Alistair, although he doesn’t exactly look entertained –
Bah. The sun is down, and they’ll start early tomorrow and be asking her for the cure for a hangover, because the woman who’d normally do it is likely to be in no state. She might as well turn in, to be honest.
But the elves have famously good hearing, and society’s rules say they are not to be disturbed, no? Morrigan knows that she finds noises in another room quite distracting. So clearly, the solution is to be noiseless, or – given that she doesn’t have a practical shape that can travel truly silently – nearly so. Also, to human eyes it’s dark on the stairs, so improved senses are only sensible. Right?
Well, it’s like a cat. Four legs, tail that actually bends, fur, ears, nose, whiskers, eyes. See? The situation where she’d need anything else is the situation she’s probably best-off dropping the spell anyway.
Soft paws on the stairs, even following a roughly straight line. She’s absolutely not earwigging – that would be against the rules – but there might be a certain level where she’s listening, you know, carefully. Curiosity killed the vaguely cat-shaped creature, she thinks, and apparently she is still perfectly capable of laughing at her own lame jokes.
The elves are in Zevran’s room. She can hear someone talking in not much more than a whisper, but not what they’re saying. The words are interrupted by a sharp intake of breath and Morrigan finds out that she doesn’t need to be human shaped to blush –
Wait. That didn’t sound right.
And is that…? It is, it must be. Nothing else smells like blood does. And surely what the two of them are doing is protected by societal rules, but still – so much blood can surely have no good purpose, what are they doing, bathing in it? She stalks unsteadily over to Zevran’s door and puts her nose to the gap underneath –
Heavy breathing, she can hear, two people, something wrong with at least the man’s lungs. And she can smell the blood, her nose just a few inches from it. The two of them must be – lying in the pool of –
Screw the rules. Morrigan noses at the door. Harder. Nothing, it’s latched. She stares stupidly at the handle for a swimming moment – little vaguely cat-shaped creature can’t reach handle – aha!
Lizard. (Kind of.) She wriggles through the gap under the door and the whole world is spinning – wait, she, like an idiot apprentice she dropped the charm to keep her sober, what a bloody time to suddenly be blind drunk. Smell of blood. Pool of blood. Blood on her feet and her belly. Someone’s discarded tunic all over blood. This is bad, this is so very bad – world spinning around her – she drops the shape-change and her staff clunks on the floor as she manages to keep the presence of mind to turn up with her clothes on, even if they are backwards.
Wave of nausea won’t help matters, not like it’s the first time she’s fought her own body’s feelings brutally down. Deep breath stinks of blood, open cat’s eyes to see in the half-light.
My name, I hear, over the distant hateful whispering that lives in the back of my head.
Cold. Shivering. Hurts. Don’t want to wake, Andraste forgive me, I don’t want to wake up.
I hear my name again. Not Zevran’s voice, and that makes me open an eye. I c’n see Morrigan, bendin’ down so’s I c’n see her face, and she looks pale and green like she’s been all made up as a witch.
There was – somethin’ importn’t –
It hurts. I make a sound and Morrigan clearly don’t und’rstand. She frowns. “Ssh,” she says. “You’re injured, let me see to that.” Her voice, it’s thick and slow and over careful, it’s like she’s all – drunk –
“Pois’n,” I try and say, but she puts her finger to her lips an’ she looks down at the dagger in me an’ gulps an’ she says in a little voice that this is g’na hurt me –
Idiot, how’d she think I’m feelin’ right now? I make m’self nod, though, ‘n clamp my jaw tight –
I’m still lying on top of Zevran on my face and just so you know, I feel like shit and I’m currently wearing, like, my breeches and that’s about it. And I’m all over blood and for once half of it’s probably mine.
Morrigan’s like right there looking at me all worried and she meets my eyes and I flinch like a bloody rabbit. Breathe, Kallian. Feels like the air I’m sucking in is the foulest horriblest thing I ever met, but for Maker’s sake breathe. No wound in me. I’m alive. Breathe. Alive.
And the witch looks like death.
“Poison, Morrigan,” I say distinctly, and the witch’s eyes widen and she looks at the knife in her hand, the one with the blood on it. “No,” I say. “In the drinks. All of us.”
She goes white. (Whiter.) “…oh. No.” Looks at her hands with my blood on them, at me, at the whole scene, shaking her head. Her voice sounds thick, blunted by drink – “No, no, no, no, no. I, uh.” Frown, deep breath. “Spell, I need to draw something, I need to use ink or something or even water, and it can’t be mine and it mustn’t be, b-be blood.” She swallows hard, wipes her left hand carefully on her tunic to get my blood off it, pulls her right sleeve carefully up. “Right. Hold very still?”
So I stay dead flat still there like a corpse or a scared rabbit as she leans over and touches my face – she’s after the wet on my face, and that still don’t stop me wanting to shrink away when she touches me – wets her finger and draws herself a little shape on the inside of her right arm, something with five corners and a circle, and says in that thick drunken voice eight careful words in a lanugage I don’t know. And colour rolls back into her cheeks like someone painted it on and she takes a sharp breath in and rocks back on her heels and then she bites her lip and closes her eyes a moment.
“Can you move?” Her voice is suddenly very steady and level, artificially so. “You may move, now. I’ve healed you.”
I put my left hand on Zevran’s chest and push myself up. He’s not woken. Blood still welling up around the knife. Dead pale. Corpse pale. I feel sick and tell myself that’s from sitting up too fast. “The poison. He poisoned everyone’s drink but his. Are you still…?”
She shakes her head tightly. “It’s strong, though. I can do two people more.” Chews on her lip. “I think. Never met this poison before.”
“Right.” And, of course, she doesn’t want to choose who to treat even if the answer’s obvious. “Get Wynne out of it first, and the two of you together fix everyone else. And I’m all right?” (Physically?)
“Yes.” She swallows hard. “Mostly you’re lucky you’ve got a strong constitution, a human your weight would be dead already. C’mon.”
“Wynne is downstairs.” She nods to the door.
“You expect me to face them? Now?” I wipe my eyes with the back of my arm ’cause my hands are dirty. “Like this?”
Morrigan deliberately mirrors me. “You expect me to do magic? Overtly? In front of how many people who will run screaming all the way to the flaming torches?”
We stare at one another for a moment frozen. Then I, uh, realise I’m mostly naked in front of this human and grab what turns out to be Zevran’s discarded tunic from the bed. Better something than nothing. (It’s still warm from his body heat. Warmer than he is. Don’t, Kallian.) Deep shaking breath as I pull the thing on.
She stands up and offers me a hand, and yes, I know that the humans think that’s a gesture of friendship and peace but there’s still about no way in hell I’d think of touching her. I get up to my feet and my head spins but I stay there.
And I remember coming down the stairs to a room full of obscenely laughing humans, Alistair looking up glumly from his drink and then his eyes going wide, overturning the bench he was on as he goes fast to his feet and only just then realises they were trying to betray him. Leliana sliding off someone’s lap and landing neatly on her toes, stopping halfway through asking what’s wrong and her tankard falling from a nerveless frozen hand and just splashing on the floor.
Morrigan trying to wake Wynne and not being able to, a big well-meaning shem stepping to try and help and getting within my personal space and suddenly he’s on his arse on the ground and I’m there looking at them with my fists balled and I see the look in their eyes I’ve met before on humans who suddenly realised what I am.
The innkeeper asking what the bloody hell’s going on and Alistair bidding him sit down and shut up in a voice that makes me flinch and all. The big man and Leliana and me making a half-circle as Morrigan speaks spell after spell and I can hear the dread mounting in her voice. The whole thing taking on a feeling of unreality that just won’t go away, going to blame that on the magic, same magic that’s got me still on my feet.
And Wynne’s voice thready and bewildered as she asks what’s happening, then very quickly she’s gathered above her head a light that leaves hard shadows and she’s taking charge with curt sureness and she’s not looking me in the eye. Leliana’s eyes rolling back in her head as she convulses in her chair when Wynne completes the spell; it’s harder on you the more alcohol you’ve had, she says, and she looks meaningfully at Alistair and asks how much that was exactly and he can’t tell her.
Wynne and Morrigan looking at me because I’m the only one strong enough to get an unconscious Alistair up the stairs. Hauling his arm over my shoulder and the feel of the stairs in stockinged feet and just wanting it all to be over and done so I can go make myself small somewhere a human can’t get to and hating that I stink of my own blood and I can’t go get clean. Dumping him in his bed on his side still with his boots on and not being able to bring myself to pull them off him, just getting out of there the moment I could –
carrying a dead body down the stairs over my shoulder and outside to lay it on the earth, because damned if I’m making a shem do this for him, and going and getting a bundle of sticks from the woodpile, just moving mechanically, Wynne standing there with her light still over her and asking me quiet-like if I’d let her help with the fire –
feeling terribly guilty that I’d got blood all over her robe, that there I was sat watching the pyre crying on someone’s shoulder like an idiot child, and worse that I physically couldn’t make myself stop –
Bidding her good-night well after moon-set and going into my room and not locking the door, just pulling the blanket down with me under the bed and getting somewhere that nothing as big as a human could reach me without making enough noise to wake me and at least the bastard voices in the back of my head didn’t take the opportunity to stop me falling asleep.
Alistair rides beside me the next morning rather than up front. Doesn’t say anything, just kind of keeps pace beside me and Morrigan in silence. I spend about the first hour or so wondering if he’s working up to say something, and you know, he isn’t, he’s just there. Because maybe he thought I’d be tired of silence after a while.
“Sorry,” I say, quiet. It’s the first thing I’ve said since last night.
He looks back very serious. “There’s nothing for you to apologise for, Kallian.”
“Oh?” I look at him sideways. “Sleep in your boots often, do you?”
It’s lame. He still smiles. “You’d be surprised.”
“Would be, yeah.” I swallow. “Still.”
He sighs. “I think a lot of us feel we’ve a lot of the blame for, you-know.” An expressive shrug. “The condition of my poor feet and the crick in my neck.”
“But I physically, you know. Put you there.”
“No, uh-uh. Absolutely not. Not sure you’d have been the person I know if you hadn’t-”
“If I hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“If you hadn’t been there, Kallian, I’d still be -” He shakes his head. “Let’s not do this whole accounting thing, okay? And say we did? Book-keeping and score-keeping bore the pants off me.”
“In a moment.” I turn my shoulders to look at him straight and I feel Morrigan move under me to stop me falling on my face. “Because this one’s for twice at least, and damn me if there’ll be another. I’ve ignored you and made myself an idiot in doing it. Word of honour, Warden. I’m not doing it again.”
“None so foolish as the fool who follows a fool.” He looks me in the eye then, and it still makes me catch my breath. “Heard and witnessed, sera. You won’t ignore me and I won’t be an idiot.”
“Excellent.” I nod as an excuse to look away.
We ride on for a moment. He clears his throat. “So, uh. With that whole ‘license not to be a fool’ thing. I was, that is, we were, somewhat wondering.”
“Where are we going?” He says it like a joke.
I look at him unamused.
“No, really.” He returns the look and I don’t feel like meeting his eyes again. “Because I remember a lady of my acquaintance referring to some people who were a storybook tale, not even a bad joke, and I remember the look in her eye when she said it. But I also remember, well.” He pauses, hoping I’ll butt in. “Someone saying that wasn’t so, and us believing him.”
“Nothing wrong with your memory.” I sigh. “And you know how much I hate lying. But there’s always the chance that I’m wrong. And the man you had trouble finding a word to describe, to his very last breath he was saying he only ever told me one untruth. And he’d never have claimed to know of ’em if he didn’t, ’cause for all he knew I could’ve given him the lie.” Shrug. “We never talked about ’em, what’s to talk about? But I knew he believed in ’em before he told us where he’d find ’em, and it’s the place I’d have named if you’d asked me when I was seven.”
“So, it’s more of an off-chance thing. Something we’d love to be true.”
“Yeah.” I squeeze my hands a little tight in Morrigan’s mane and she makes a quiet horse noise to remind me to knock it off. “Maybe I could really do with something worthwhile in this world sometime soon.”
There’s a long pause and I can almost feel his eyes on me. “Just, you know. Don’t set yourself up for another-”
“I hear you.” I hunch my shoulders slightly. “Till I see an aravel and hear the songs of my ancestors, it’s a myth we’re chasing and a fool’s errand we’re on, and you specifically allowed foolishness if you were in on it. That about do you?”
He nods. “For what it’s worth? I’m sorry, too.”
“Nothing for you to apologise for.”
“Carry a lot of dead-drunk fifteen-stone bastards up human-made stairs, do you?”
It’s lame. I smile anyway. “You’d be surprised.”