Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty

by artrald

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*

That evening we camp in a clearing in the woods. Alistair and Leliana know what they’re about with the horses; Leliana shows me what she’s doing for ’em and Alistair shows Morrigan. Fantastic, I say – now I can impersonate a proper servant – and Leliana says in a quiet serious voice that everyone who’s ever going to ride a horse learns how to care for one. But the horse is a little uncertain, not quite happy, prefers my touch to hers: not sure what that’s about till I catch a –

Leliana smells of blood, dried, not a little. Like she’s been wounded, but I can’t see a cut, and where would she have picked one up? Casual-like, as we finish, I go to draw her aside, and smooth as a dancer she steps back and looks down at me.

“You all right?” I say, and surprise snaps her mouth shut on the words she’d obviously got lined up.

“Uh. No,” she says after just too long a pause, as if that should be an end to it. “You?”

No way, sorry. I don’t blink. “Tell me.”

She bites her lip and she’s quiet for a moment. “And if I tell you that you know very well, why, you will ask me for more words, and more, until I am quite dry of them.”

“I’m glad you see that.”

She bites her lip, quiet, for long enough that I’m about to say something – then, “Do you remember,” she says, “why I said it was that I must follow you?”

“You’re claiming you weren’t ordered to, that you’re a rogue agent and a madwoman.”

She shakes her head firmly. “Not mad. I said that my orders they come from the very ‘ighest source. That the very Maker told me that I was to follow you, that you were in danger from-” and the support and richness leaks right away from her voice – “a bloodstained crow?”

“And a good image it was.”

She shakes her head again. “It did not come from nowhere.” She takes a deep breath. “The day, the evening before the battle must have been at Ostagar, I had – a – dream. I dreamed of a, a crow. Its feathers all streaked and crusted with blood.” She presses her lips together for a moment. “It pecked at the eyes of a woman and somehow I knew she was alive and it was the most terrible thing in the world. And when I met you, I, I thought that it made a good -” She snaps her mouth closed and closes her eyes to match. “I saw it again last night.”

“One nightmare, Leliana-”

“A nightmare that I told as a vision of prophecy. And can you maybe think of a thing to which it might ‘ave referred?” The sudden venom in her makes me want to back off, damned if I will. “A spy and a catcher of spies, a killer who puts a stop to those who kill, and I did not only fail to see the snake in our midst, I opened for ‘im the front door.” She snatches a breath. “A Seeker of Truth, and in my ear is whispered a tiny little bit of the genuine truth, and what do I do with it? I tell another bloody lie.” She hasn’t raised her voice, for all it’s a little ragged around the edge. Her expression’s barely changed. It’s all on the inside. “So thank you, Kallian, but I am not all right.” She blinks three times. “Was there anything else?”

“What I meant to say. You’re wounded.”

She shakes her head.

“Leliana, there are things you can hide from me, okay? But that much blood? It ain’t one.”

“It is not a wound.” She swallows. “And it is not your concern.”

“Should I ask you to show me, like you was a kid, is that what you want?”

“You would not understand.”

My snap reaction has a sharp edge on it, I don’t take well to being talked down to. “D’you want to maybe try those words again?”

She sighs. “Not like that. But you are not in the holy orders, yes? You ‘ave never lived in a chantry? Then you would not understand. You would look at the atonement of sin and you would see things that are not there.”

“Then perhaps you can tell me what is there.”

“Penance.” She looks at me straight and cold for a moment, in the eye, like I don’t like, but she blinks before I do. “Twelve strokes when I wake and another dozen before I sleep. Two weeks. Are you ‘appy now?”

… oh, Leliana – I take that edge right back off my voice. “You mean to say you did it to yourself?”

She says nothing but I see the truth of my words in her eyes. Dammit.

“And you ain’t going to take my bidding you to stop it.”

“I am glad that you see this.”

Bite my lip. “See Morrigan. Or Wynne, either of ’em. Use whatever words you want. You’re wounded, soldier. Get yourself patched up.”

“Is that an order?” Her voice is a whisper.

“And what exactly would you do if it was me cutting on my own self after last night?”

She makes herself look me in the eye. “It is not the same. My superior in the Order, if she were ‘ere then she would be the one to swing the lash. She is not.”

“Bullshit.” I hold her gaze steadily. “There’s no order I can imagine that has a sister assign her own penance, that lets her judge her own soul. D’you want to talk some reason? D’you want me to give you some orders? I can do you either, but I won’t talk to a brick wall.”

Little shake of her head. “It is not the same. You think that I am an idiot child, yes, who cannot deal with the world without-”

“Quite aware you’re older than I am, thank you. But I look at what you say and I look at what you do and you’ve got to be aware that your words don’t ring true to me.”

“Oh? So now I am to you a liar? You look at me and see-”

“A friend. Hurting.” Still not looking away. “Because of me. And I won’t have it.”

“Not you.” Angry flash to her eyes. “Zevran. The crow. None of this was your fault. You trusted a good-looking man, and ‘e betrayed you, and I should have stopped ‘im, and, and my penance, it is just penance. I ‘ave failed in my duties – I have put a lie in the place of the truth, and because of it I did not see what was before my own eyes – and the rules I live by are clear. It will not-”

“Leliana, stop it.” Haven’t blinked. ” So there are two ways this can go. Either this stops, now: the words you said about trying to do penance are the truth, and anything you owe the Maker is laid between you and a priestess as is good and proper, next time we meet one? Or the only truth I see here is that you’re lying to yourself. And if that’s what’s happening then I treat this just like I’d do if you weren’t using the Chantry as an excuse. You and I go to Wynne right now and get her help. We heal your body and between her and me we never let you even one instant alone, for our good as much as yours, and between the three of us we work this out.” I’m staring her down. Afterimages dance in my eyes. “You will not destroy yourself for this, Leliana. I won’t have it.”

She nods, just a little tremor of the head. Slow breath in, sharply out like some sort of meditation. “You do not need to involve the mage,” she says, quiet.

That night I have the last watch, and she comes to find me before dawn and I help her clean and dress the long shallow weals and cuts on her back and none of them are fresh. And she brought something to show me, a hair shirt,  short sleeves, rough and scratchy, and she looks at me as if daring me to say something as she pulls it on before her faded red habit, and all I say is I’ll see her tomorrow, and she nods with a little fierce motion and goes to wake up the fire.

*

And yeah. What happened at that inn, I don’t want you to get the idea I just forgot about it, just skipped merrily on with my life, you know? I’ve got my share of demons – most people do – but the Maker knows, this is one, eh? And between the darkspawn in the back of my head, and sleeping in trees and other uncomfortable places where nothing but me can get, so at least I don’t wake sweating at every tiny noise I hear, well, I’m bloody lucky that I’ve got Morrigan to help me stay mounted. Although she does draw the line at casting spells to cure a bad night’s sleep, saying that that way madness lies, that we need me sane and lucid more than we need me free of headaches and without dark circles under my eyes.

Just, well. Nothing to see here, you know?

And that’s the last you’ll hear from me on the matter.

*

So yes. The ruins of Arlathan ain’t hard to find. They’re on maps and things. And while you wouldn’t really recognise the long straight ridge we’re following as a road – there are full grown oaks in the middle, thick old trees that might make you think they’ve been here since the Maker first had the idea for a world – truth is, the elvish road had been long abandoned when they were acorns.

We must be getting close, now. I dismount to let Morrigan take a shape with a better nose than a horse’s, give us some warning of any people; she snorts at me and drops way down into the shape of a merlin, a little hawk, because the wind’s blowing the wrong way and one of us isn’t a fool.

Not a trade road, this, not somewhere a lot of peoople go. Nobody would take a short-cut through haunted ruins. Anyone here is a trespasser, or they’re meant to be here, or that’s what the stories would say. The humans can all feel it. Wynne’s got her staff actually in hand; Leliana’s got her blades loose in their scabbards; Alistair’s riding like he always keeps his shield within easy reach. For me it’s, it’s more like a pilgrimage. This is the old country, you know, this is where they wrote the songs, when the world was new and the humans didn’t think they owned it. Elvhenan, I say quietly to myself, el’vhenan. Place of the People, place of our hearts. I don’t expect you to understand. My great-so-many-greats grandmother would have walked this road a century of centuries ago, and wouldn’t it grieve her heart to see what we’ve done with the place, and wouldn’t it gladden it to see me here –

Movement. I hiss a warning at the same instant that we hear the merlin’s yipping cry, the humans rein in and I don’t mind telling you that I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. I hear a high whistle, a loud sweet tone that descends and then ascends again, an arrow with a whistle on it it is, and the thing comes whistling down out of the sky and lands in the earth in front of us and as it lands a second arrow comes from nowhere and pierces right through the shaft.

And, well, the horses don’t like that and Alistair’s about as spooked as his horse is – and I’d be lying if I said my mouth weren’t dry. I step out ahead of the group and, well, if these are bandits I reckon it’s odds to evens I can catch an arrow in flight anyway. I spread open palms for them. Think I can see one of the archers, twenty yards distant, a dark shape up in a tree, and he could be one of my kind. I raise my voice. “Atisha, lethallen! Atisha! ‘Ma Kallian Dener, emma ai ‘ma falonnen virvel hallam.”

Silence.

Out of the corner of his mouth Alistair asks, “What?”

“I named them my kin and you my friends,” I hiss. “And I hope I said that we’d come a long way to meet ’em.” Raise my voice a little. “Uh, m’atisha dith da?” Silence. “Vireva?” My voice echoes in the wood.

And after a few moments more of silence she steps from behind a tree, maybe as far away as that archer I can still see. She’s dressed as a warrior, leathers and dark brown cloth, her left hand behind her, most like on the hilt of a knife she’ll be wearing just the same way I do. Short, she is, four foot six or so and delicate with it, a year or two older than I am, pale enough to be nearly translucent, a long curving brown tattoo down the side of her face, coal-black hair plaited tight and the plait bound up with cord. She spreads her right hand. Her accent is a lilting thing like dappled shade under trees, and she’s speaking Fereldan. “Your word of peace, you say.” She inclines her head in that way a human won’t. “And for your ‘guides’?” The corner of her mouth tells me she don’t think much of my choice of company. “Ghi’diten sulevi’harel: speak for them you must.”

The words of an animal something something a lie – and where I called them friend, she took that as ‘guide’ – “My word is gone from me. Anything they do here I’ll stand for.”

She looks directly at Alistair as I say that, looks him in the eye, and he knows what I’d mean by that and nods, keeping his eyes on hers, then looks down. She looks back to me. “What’s your business in Arlathan, stranger?”

“I uh.” My nerves are still trying to steal my voice. “I represent the Grey Wardens. In this time of Blight I’d have, have words with the hahren.”

“Our keeper has nothing to say to a pack of quicklings who’ve strongarmed a dockside wench into using old words to get near us.” Her dark eyes meet mine for an instant and her expression and voice soften a little. “Safe now, cousin. One word, and the bum’s rush it is for them.”

I shake my head, keep my eyes on her as I walk closer. “You mistake me. They’re mine, lethallan, not I theirs; I’m a Warden myself. I outrank the bigjob in the armour there.”

An eyebrow she raises. “They’ll keep their weapons peacebonded while they’re with us and anything they learn here will stay here: sulevi’an?”

I have no idea what that word meant. “Hear that?” I cast over my shoulder.

“Aye, sera.” Leliana makes a show of securing her weapons and Alistair hastens to do the same.

“Two mages there are with us as well. Morrigan, show yourself?” That last I say to the woods at large, having absolutely no idea where she is.

And, well, she steps from behind a tree much as my country cousin did, and Wynne bows her head, hand over her heart. But the elf seems much less concerned about the mages than a human would’ve been. “Makes four quicklings, three horses and one of the People; I’ll send ahead.” She raises her voice. “Junar! Take word.” And I see the archer swing out of sight and it’s only as he’s moving that I realise he must have had his bow drawn the whole time. “I’m sure the keeper will see you,” she says. “Though what he’ll say is anybody’s guess. You’ll dismount, by the way, or the trees will do it for you.”

*

“Just like that?” Leliana says quietly. We’re two abreast on the path; the woods are thick either side, the branches low overhead. “They do not know us, and clearly they do not recognise your surcoat. We could be anyone. For the good of my nerves, Kallian, why is this not the obvious trap I see?”

“The People are family,” I say like it’s obvious, though clearly not to her. “You heard them offer to drive you off because they thought you’d coerced me here, and they’d have done it.”

“Do I need to say the words? Would you rather I wrote them down for you? You do not know these people. You just have a story for ‘ow you would love them to act.”

I shake my head. “They invited us in. Look, easiest way to say it: if these people think they are who I think they are, then every custom, every way of thinking and life that I’ve hinted at as being the heritage of the People, it’s their – their, well, the word’s wrong but it’s their religion, their faith. Like, it would bite me deep to have to even mislead another elf. But if these people are the Dalish? It’d have to be life and death for them to do it at all.”

“They’ve also got perfectly good ears,” says Morrigan from behind us, and there’s a snort of laughter from our guide. I think the others are in the trees keeping pace; we’re not hurrying here. “While we’re on the subject. What’s a ‘quickling’?”

“Why, that’s you lot.” The elf lady speaks from in front before I can give my guess. “Those who discovered your kind dubbed you ‘quickling’, because it’s like you all have to do everything in the moment and at the run, and they blamed the shortness of your lives. It wasn’t till much later that we discovered there were other kinds of mortal, and by then the name had stuck.”

Alistair blinks. “Mortal? Aren’t we all?”

“Now, maybe.” She gives a supple shrug. “The way I was told it, the secret of death was found by a quickling when Arlathan was young, and he brought it home to a place called Tevinter and they used it to build a nation. But it spread like a plague, and by the time we knew that the mortals were the cause, why, most of us were infected. But back then, of course, this place was a, how’d you say. A garden. So not last week, see?”

The woods around us open out somewhat after a while, like we’re coming through the far side of a hedge, and she stops in a little clearing and waits for us all. “And for your reference,” she says, “this is no trap you’re in – if we wanted your blood, why give you a warning? But I’ll say this before you go any further, and I’ll thank you not to call me a liar ever again.” And she clenches her fist and looks at Alistair straight in the eye. “Your kin and mine, they are not friends. There is no peace where peace cannot be, see? But what you are is our guests. And I’ll not have it said that the People did not know how to treat a guest.”

He salutes rather than bowing, a fist over his heart. “My commander speaks for me, but in case that’s not enough, my lady, you’ve my word that I won’t make you regret that.”

She narrows her eyes and takes a sharp breath; he winces as he realises that he’s said something that would have me tell him off. Her voice comes out soft, dangerously soft, cold and pure as falling snow. “Once I’ll say this, human. Words, they mean things around here. Nobody you didn’t bring with you is your lady, your dear, or your friend, and you don’t say things you don’t mean. Hear that?”

“Yes.” No adornment, no cheeky mismatched metaphor, no attempt to be funny: well done, Alistair. He clears his throat. “Sorry.”

She shrugs again. The thunderclouds clear from her face as quick as they came. “Well, now you all know. So come on. The ara’vels aren’t far.”

They are camped in a big old glade, with the odd marble paving slab in the ground underfoot. This must once have been a plaza or a square or, I don’t know, someone’s back garden, maybe a marketplace? And there they are, the ara’vels (that’s how she pronounced it, it’s got to be the right way). Eight, ten of them that I can see, great wooden things, carved and painted and – I suppose you’d just see big ornate caravans with decorative sails, making a half-circle for one side of what’s more of a village than a camp, and just dozens of my people turning their faces to look at us and the soft mellow flow of their voices and while I can’t hear them from here, it’s like to be the old tongue they’re using.

And yes, all right. The humans are probably just seeing a village of the little folk, proud and straight-backed but little more than peasants of the woods, and they’re looking at them and wondering how these people could possibly be of help to us. But I’m seeing the Dalish straight out of the tales, the ones I knew every one of by heart when I was a little lass, the ones the grown-ups know haven’t been true for generations. It’s like I’ve walked straight into a dream and I didn’t notice – I tell you straight, if a demon ever wanted to trap me, this is where they’d send me. And I can name near everything I see carved on the side of an ara’vel or painted on a banner, the brown vallas’lin tattoo on the face of every grown-up, and everywhere I look, everything is right, it’s, it’s exactly the way it should be. If the ways of the alienage are like a never-ending song of mourning – then this is the life we’d been brought up to believe was lost. I’m hardly aware that my mouth is open, that my eyes are so very wide.

And I tear my gaze away for a second to look at Alistair and back at the scene as if to check it’s still there, and my voice isn’t much more than an undertone. “Am I allowed to believe, yet?”

*

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