Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-One

by artrald

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*

Their eyes look at us and see outsiders, it’s only to be expected. I mean, remember the trouble I had with Alistair before I got to know him? I can see ’em drawing together, even as we’re walking in with open hands and our weapons clearly secured, even as both the mages left their staves with the horses. This is what it must be like to be a shem walking into the alienage back home and seeing twenty pairs of wary eyes everywhere you look. I smile – hells, what I mean is I don’t fight to keep the smile off my face – but I don’t show my teeth, that’s something a shem does. I don’t really look like them – I’m the tallest elf here, and the only one over fourteen without the vallas’lin tattoo on my face, and my garb is cobbled-together human and dwarven scraps where theirs is made to patterns they must have handed down halfway to forever – but at least I’m not Alistair, see?

While you might think we’ve got just the one guide with us and no armed guard, I can see the four other People who’ve followed us all the way, strong well-muscled men and women, experienced look to their eye, their armour and weapons with the shabby look of long use in the field that I last really saw with the Wardens at Ostagar. And they’ve all got us in sight the whole time as we’re cordially led into camp, and they don’t blink more than they have to, and if one of my humans put a foot wrong we’d see a wall of blades I’m sure.

A pretty lady in green meets us and I catch Wynne murmuring that she’s a mage and Alistair and Leliana both tensing up a little at that. She bows her head to me and I to her, flick of eye contact, and she isn’t smiling. “Andaran atish’an, Kallian Dener, ta’dirth em’an lethallan, ai falen,” she says, and all I catch other than the traditional greeting is that she isn’t calling me cousin. Her speech is very careful, exact like a teacher’s. “Ena’ma se dit’harel da?”

That’s addressed to me. So, harel, a lie, she’s… asking me if I lied to them? I shake my head, not looking her in the eye. “Uh, deen, hahren. ‘Ma ai falonnen virvel, um, Arlathan hallam da, ai-“

“Enough,” she says in Fereldan, sounding very slightly amused. “Enough. Before we pass like a pair of hunting owls in the dark, each with neither sound nor sight of the other’s meaning. Your word is given; you are here in peace, and in peace you are welcomed, and that is what is important.”

Grateful bow of my head. “Aye, hahren. And I’m, well, I’m not here for myself, so to speak.” I indicate the humans. “On behalf of the Grey Wardens I’d like to formally request to -” it’s easier if I look down, just as is proper, means I might get through a sentence without stumbling to another open-mouthed halt – “To speak with this tribe’s representative of the Council of the Dales. Some time ago now the People gave their word. I come to say that the hour is now coming when that word will be kept.”

She presses her lips together. “I am not the keeper of this clan, that would be Zathrian: I am his First, his apprentice, and my name is Lanaya. He is busy, and likely to be so until very late tonight. You have said that you have come a long way, and you must be tired – what poor hospitality we can offer you this evening is yours. The Kaiduin family are those who have shadowed your footsteps so far, and they shall be your hosts this evening, and you and our elders shall talk after the rites of sunrise. I trust this is acceptable.”

“More than acceptable, uh…” I realise that I have no idea what one calls someone of her rank, I settle for using her name, “Lanaya. We’re honoured to be so received.”

“If you lay it on any thicker, da’len, it will quite go to their heads.” She gives the corner of a smile. “Or mine. Please make sure your quicklings and your horses don’t wander around unescorted; I’m not fond of the idea of an accident – or of meeting one all of a sudden in the dark.” Lanaya glances at the woman who guided us in here and she steps forward. “Melora, please take them in charge.”

‘Ma nuven’in, mah’el.” She bows her head to the First and crooks her finger for me to follow and I do, and I completely miss Leliana trading a grin and a roll of her eyes with Morrigan.

*

If I’d been asked to say what I thought my first evening in a Dalish camp would be like – I don’t think I’d have pictured it like this. (I guess part of that is that the last time I really thought about this, I was seven.) The fire we’re sharing is out toward the edge of camp, and it’s noticeable that there are neither old folk nor children at this fire, just grown-ups, and I’m the youngest elf here by a couple of years at least. To the humans I guess they’re coming across as carefully polite and slightly over proud: to me their body language, their tone of voice, the way they keep making eye contact, what I’m seeing is show-no-weakness defiance just under the surface. Nowhere near as bad as I was around humans in Ostagar, but there’s this definite feel that they’re not the type to back down to the humans, and here they are not backing down.

Leliana can feel it, either that or she can read me well enough to see that there’s a lot of ice here to break; she calls forth the full extent of her powers as an Orlesian to make a skin of good wine appear from nowhere, and if there’s anybody who can talk amiably without saying anything at all it’s her; she heard earlier the ease with which our guide could be drawn to tell a tale out of elvish myth, and so she starts there.

And she gets them to tell the tale of Mythal, who put the moon in the sky as a protector when the sun was banished for scorching the earth, and she tells them the tale of the Fourth Blight, of a man called Garahel who was denied the aid he needed by first Tevinter and then Orlais, who led the Grey Wardens and the dregs of the Anderfel hillmen against ten times their number of darkspawn and killed the archdemon himself, and that Garahel was a Dalish man by birth. And one of the men smiles and tells back a story of Garahel’s young life, of how the greatest elvish hero of the last five centuries was also the greatest lover, the only man ever to be chased out of three successive tribes within a single year for his philandering.

Wynne tells them of Par Vollen, of the godless slate-skinned horned giants who call that great island their home and of how she met one once at the court of a king, and Melora gives us the story of how the first quicklings who were not of Tevinter came to Thedas from that place, and how the claims of the empire of Orlais to be the motherland of its people are amusing to those who levelled its hills and shaped its rivers to make their farms. But Leliana throws her head back and laughs, and I see more than one man’s guilty eye follow her as she does; she says only that in that case, she will admit to every word that they say of the quality of elvish craftsmanship, and she has an ode for us to the beauties of Orlais. I find myself wanting to counter with one about Arlathan, and one of the young men says he’d be glad to show me the place I speak of tomorrow morning, and he gets a glare from his aunt that near curls his hair, and quite right too.

And Alistair takes a deep breath as if he’s trying to forget that he’s in public and expected to say things, and he tells a story of his days at the monastery, tells it like he’s talking to me alone and nobody else is here. And it looks like it’s rambling off on a hiding to nowhere until he pulls out a succession of punchlines like knots on a string, each better than the last, and for the surprise of it and his dead-straight delivery it pulls out of me a little silver laugh that I didn’t know was there, and that makes him look away quick as the others join in laughter.

And Morrigan kind of asks, all shyly, what they think of mages and the Gift here, for she doesn’t exactly see a Tower and a Circle, and they say that magic is celebrated and valued among the People rather than feared, which I suppose is true after a fashion. The witch beams and says well, in that case – and promptly turns herself into a very handsome little fox, and after a second’s flat surprise there’s a round of applause, and she turns her head to me and says in perfectly understandable Fereldan that she likes these people a lot better than the humans and she gets a laugh out of them for that.

Wynne clears her throat with a meaningful look at Morrigan and she changes back, with a stuck-out tongue in place of the chastened expression we’d all been expecting, and invites the enchanter to work some nice safe magic for the nice people. And Wynne shakes her head indulgently and just when we thought she wasn’t going to do any she bids us look at the fire, and there amid the flames is a lovely little house all of fire, with a little family of fire-people and a fire-grandmother rocking in her chair with a little fire-dog at her knee, and it turns its head to us and barks as the whole thing goes up in sparks. And the two mages share a glance like that meant something to them, and I recall that magic done without words means it’s something you really, really want, and right then I decide I’d rather look at anything that isn’t Wynne.

Or Alistair! (He was looking at me.)

And yes, I do end up singing – and no, I’m not the first to sing something or anything stupid like that. But Morrigan tells them how we defeated the abomination in Redcliffe castle and she mentions that I sang it a song in elvish, and nothing will do but they must hear it, despite my protestations that where I come from it’s a cradle song. And I’m only out to give them one verse of it, but one of the women picks the tune on her lyre, and of course the Dalish would know it – and wonder of wonders, my version has a verse more than theirs (and not the one about a dockside wench!)

*

The fire burns low. We’re camped in the lee of the ara’vel; you know, it’s not bad. Quiet. Doesn’t stink of human. Lovely clear night it is. I put myself up against the ara’vel itself – don’t think they’d understand my sleeping in a tree, they’d jump to all the wrong conclusions, I know they’re already watching me for signs that I’m lying about these humans being my friends. So I make a nest of blankets with my back to something and I tell myself firmly that nobody here is my enemy and that I can rely on Leliana to sleep as light as a –

I wake with a start and an indrawn breath, a short sharp blade already in my hand under the blanket. Nothing. I listen for the archdemon, for the darkspawn, but it’s not their voices that woke me. There’s two people out there in the wood, arguing in quiet sharp tones, a man and a woman. It’s not my business.

Moon’s just a sliver, but that’s enough for me to see by. The woman is Lanaya, the keeper’s apprentice; from the way she’s standing I’m guessing that the man is her master. He’s a tall pinched man, long black hooded cloak, the hood pushed back in the starlight and I can see his hairless tattooed scalp. I keep my eyes to slits. The People’s eyes and ears are sharp, and a lot of mages are known for the same, so there’s no telling what a mage of the People would be like, better to be safe than sorry.

Whatever it is that had the two of them arguing, the keeper got the better of it and that’s for sure. He puts his hood up and heads back into the circle of ara’vels with short sure strides. Lanaya stands there for a while staring out into the darkness then slams her fist into a tree and that’s got to have hurt.

It’s not my business what the keeper and his mah’el argue about. Every town, every village and tribe has its problems. If they want our help, they’ll tell us. But I’d be bloody surprised if they – huh.

Leliana’s not in her bedroll, it just looks like she is. Well, if someone finds her sneaking about it’ll be my problem then and no earlier.

I just hope they’ll listen to me in the morning. I know I’m not what they’d look for in their kin. I know I’d barely count as kin by their lights, even. But surely it isn’t that the one place I wouldn’t find family among the People is the place we call home? I yawn. Don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow, Kallian. Just sleep, yeah?

*

As we’re getting up, Leliana asks me all casually if I’ve heard the word ghi’vhenaen before, and what it’d mean if I had, and I frown.

“Monsters. Not as in strange creatures that hunt people, that’d be draechen. But, uh, figurative monsters. Something that has the heart of some kind of animal in place of a person’s, you know?”

She purses her lips. “Would you say this of my kind? In number?”

I shake my head. “Shemlen is a bad word already. I mean, maybe you’d use it of those things Wynne told stories about, the giants, if they were really bad news – or if we met humans or darkspawn for the first time today we might call them ghivhenaen. Where’d you hear this?”

I’ve known her long enough to know when she’s being evasive – “Around.”

“Last night?”

“Mm-hmm.”

I narrow my eyes. “You were eavesdropping on-”

“I went a little way away from the camp to pray and meditate, for I could not sleep; I ‘ave perfectly good ears. Of course, I was very still and quiet. And I cannot ‘elp what it is I overheard. And now I am worried.”

“Tell me.”

“The master and the apprentice, they argued, traded angry words and not all of it in the old language. While we were talking with the First, the master ‘e spent all evening playing healer. They ‘ave ten people injured and three who died.” She looks me in the eye. “It was for less than this that you yourself took up the sword and killed a dozen men – and by these people’s tales, by their language and their dress they are warriors, there is no way they should take a thing like this with even temper. Something is not right ‘ere, Kallian, something that is being concealed.”

“Okay, well.” I swallow. “We’ll see what the hahren has to say to us this morning. If these people don’t need our help, Leliana, a thing we mustn’t do is to offer it anyway. To a lot of people here, ‘help’ ain’t a nice word.”

“So we stand by and do nothing while they bleed, while they fight what is possibly an enemy of ours as well? What kind of allies would that make us?”

My voice is quiet. “Leliana, if a horde of howling Chasind raiders rode into camp right this second and we raised a hand to them, you’d expect the keeper to tell us afterward that we should have kept our big old noses out of it. Maybe they’d take help from me. But it’s – huh. It’s called the vir bor’assan, the way of the bow. The only good way for an elvhen to give ground is the way a bow bends.”

She shakes her head. “Well, from what I ‘ear they ‘ave already given ground. And for myself I cannot see the arrow that is set to their string. I suppose we shall see.”

*

The Keeper, like I said, he’s tall, an inch taller than I am, the whorled vallas’lin on his face extending up and over his scalp, like scrollwork carvings. His ears are long and sharply pointed (I resist the nervous urge to sweep my hair forward over mine) and his eyebrows are bushy and dark against skin the colour of polished ash. Not a wrinkle is there on his face, but he’s not young, looking more like a carven statue than a flesh-and-blood man, and there’s this air about him that he’s old, older than I see, same thing that hangs about Wynne when she’s using her art to unbend her back and ease her old bones. And his eyes flick up and down the scroll I gave him and then he breathes upon it softly and there’s a gentle aroma of flowers I should be able to name.

Durghen’len wrought this in their smoky caves, in or around the thirty-second century.” And he frowns very slightly. “It bears the seal of a teyrn of the Almarri shemlen, it has been stamped with bees’ wax by one knight-commander of the Chantry’s dogs and one of the grey-men, and marked with oak-apples and vinegar and rusted iron by the King of Orzammar; these things were fixed with the dreams of the earth. And here is the name of Keeper Richildis of the Nineteenth Council, in her own blood, and fixed by her Art – I recognise the tail she puts on her letter schau.” He hands it back to me, looks me in the eye a moment and I look down as is proper. “It is what you say it is. And?”

His boots are tooled so very fine, with the same symbol he wears upon his face. “Hahren, I bring ill news from Ostagar. The darkspawn have risen, and in numbers not seen since the Exalted Age. The humans brought them to battle at the ancient fort, but fell to treachery among their own.” I clear my throat. “I witnessed this personally and barely escaped with my life. Upon my word as Commander of the Wardens of Ferelden, hahren, this is a Blight indeed. As the free peoples of the world it falls to us to raise our banners, to unite them, and to beat back the darkness once more. This Blight started in, in Elvhenan. With your help, and that of the leaders of the durghen and the shems, we can end it before it sets the world alight.” I’m quite pleased with that last bit, I’d rehearsed it in my head, but I got the right sort of spin on it, just the right amount of fire in my eye, a balance between the strength I need to show and my evident youth.

He inclines his head. “There’s no blight here, da’len.”

“Not yet, hahren, thank-” not Andraste – “providence. But on my word as a Warden, it’s coming.”

His lips are thin. You couldn’t imagine good humour from this man. “You are barely a woman, child, let alone a Warden. That curse you wear like it was a badge of honour, you’ve had it less than a moon, and you call yourself Commander?”

I get my word in before he speaks again – “I am the Commander. Our order is reduced, hahren, by the shems’ treachery.”

“To the point of recruiting -” he’s going to say something else, but changes his mind – “overawed half-trained children; yes, I see. To the point of going to a myth for allies, on the strength of a treaty half a thousand years old. D’you know war, mistress Dener, d’you know the pain and the sacrifice you ask unthinkingly of those who in the next breath you call your people?”

And I speak without thought. “Aye, ser, and I’ve seen it. And I know it falls upon the People worse than the rest, and I know that it’ll be worse and worse again if we don’t stop it, and the sooner the better. You think they’ll ignore Arlathan when they come east? You think they’ll burn the shem towns and leave the alienages and the vhenadahl?” I pause for breath and he doesn’t cut in. “The Nineteenth Council didn’t give the word of the People on this on a whim, o-or because the shems asked ’em, yeah?  It made sense then and it makes just as good sense today. We live in this world together, and the darkspawn are the foe of all of us. They knew it then, we know it now, and that’s what I’m here to say.”

“Are you finished?” He speaks quietly and colour spots my cheeks as I realise my voice was rising; I nod. “Good sense or not, da’len, it’s clear your education never covered history. Yes, the Council of the Dales of Elvhenan sent an embassy to Ostagar after the Fourth Blight, five centuries ago. As it happens, my great-grandfather was there.”

How old is this man? I mean, the elvhen of old were immortal, but – “I do not propose to tell the tale; suffice to say that we signed under the understanding that the shemlen should withdraw from those parts of our land we held dearest, and that save in time of Blight our two kinds should live in that special kind of harmony you can only have with a neighbour you never meet.” His face darkens. “How well they have kept their bargain; how true their words. How they have left us alone, and kept their footsteps from our lands and their hands from our treasures.” The anger in this man is like the roll of thunder from a distant storm. “The Council of the Dales shall cleave to these accords just as well as the quicklings have kept their promises. We have no interest in aiding them in solving a problem their people created.”

“Ser, I’ve been to the Circle and I’ve their support. And to Redcliffe, and even now they raise their banners. I’ve passed the gates of Orzammar and come back with the full measure of the legions of the dwarves, a-and I spoke before the council of war and I told them, may it never be said that the People will not keep their word.” You’ve stared down Alistair in a rage, Kallian, you can make yourself look a Keeper of the Dalish in the eye. “Will you make me forsworn, hahren?”

He looks at me straight for a long, cold second. “Dirth ghi’lin sulevi’era iloe da,” he says quietly, and turns away, and “Mah’el, please see to the humans’ safe departure,” he’s saying, but I don’t hear a damn thing because I’m standing there feeling like something just punched me in the gut.

The word of a – uh. That. Is nothing but a tale on the wind. I know that word he just used of me. Fighting talk, that is, where I grew up. You wouldn’t use it of a cousin, you wouldn’t use it of anyone, it’s not, uh – I take a breath and steady myself.

The First takes a little step forward to take us in charge, and I think that if that’s pity I see in her eyes I might just – I – don’t know. I blink and the corners of my eyes are wet and damned if anyone’s going to see that. “I’ll see you before you leave, Wardens,” she says, her voice very neutral. Comes to me that she’s not actually looking at me. She’s looking at Alistair behind me, at the way he’s set his jaw like here’s yet another thing about the world that he hates and he can’t change, and you can almost hear her thinking, is there going to be a problem.

And no. No, there damned well isn’t. I say something to my people, I think it’s something pointless about let’s get our camp packed up, and I turn away.

*

“What did he say to her?” Alistair’s whisper will have been audible to every pointed ear in the place. We’re the bloody floor show.

“The one of those words that I know, it is a way to start a fight.” Leliana throws my back a worried look that I can’t see.

“What does he possibly gain from that sort of behaviour?” If I were listening properly, I’d hear the heat in Alistair’s tone. “Beyond  indulging some twisted-”

I stop dead and by the time I’ve turned around Alistair has shut his big mouth and Leliana’s expression says she’s staying out of this. “I’ll say this once, yeah?” I glare at him and he’s searching my face, what for is anyone’s guess. “I am what he called me.” The admission, in words, it costs me more than I’d thought it would. Ice down my spine, numb coldness all through me. “All right? Now we pack ourselves up and we leave in peace, just like we came.” I blink twice and I hate it, that he sees my eyes are wet. “You get me?”

A muscle works in his jaw and he’s quiet a moment before saying anything, and when he does speak his voice is a growl that will have sent absolutely everyone’s hackles up. “Let’s get out of here.”

*

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