Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Two
(French credited to Dre and to posters on Tangency Open, RPG.net. It’s amazing, they actually agreed on the correct words. Any errors of usage remain my own.)
I pack up in silence. Mostly I’m thinking that I led them here for nothing. I mean, what exactly did I think I was going to achieve? Walk in here and be accepted, like maybe I was secretly a princess of the ancient blood raised incognito, like all I needed to do was walk in and they’d greet me like a sister? Idiot. From the moment I heard that whistle arrow I’ve been thinking like a seven-year-old. Leliana was right. These people owe me nothing and all they know of me is that I’m a ghi’lin like any other, coarse, lumpen, heavy, nothing more than a little human with a chip on her shoulder. No wonder they said I was lying when I claimed I had kin here.
I brush hair out of my eyes and yes, all right? Like I needed reminding. My ears are flat along the top and they look like someone pinched them at the top corner; you’d only call ’em pointed if you’ve never seen an actual elvhen. Pull my pack onto one shoulder as I stand – hells, that pack weighs more than I would if I was a real woman – and nearly run straight into the First as I turn around.
Stop dead, look right at the floor. “Mah’el?” At least I can get that right. My voice is dull and flat, no more than you’d expect from a half-human. (Okay, not half, my ma was People and you’ve seen my father. But you get my drift.)
She inclines her head. “Warden-Commander, I, ah.” The air of uncertainty about her doesn’t really penetrate. “I am told that you spoke eloquently last night concerning the beauty of the Courts of Falon’Din in the ruins of our city.” She glances at my companions a moment. “The young man who offered to guide you is, alas, forbidden from going there just now – but the place is not hard to find. And as was so, ah, directly stated some moments ago, the writ of our tribe does not extend as far as your order. In your position, I’d think it a shame for you to come so close and not to make a visit there, no?”
I’m blinking and putting together a response that’s nicer than the first thing to come to mind, when Leliana opens her mouth. “That would be the place with your little monster problem, no?”
And the mah’el looks straight at Leliana, her eyebrows right up. “We have no problem.” And Leliana looks right back, in that way that she knows would have me wanting to flinch, and the elf just carries right on. “You understand that the Keeper has spoken and made an end of this matter. That even if we were to have some kind of… difficulty, I could not possibly ask the likes of you to interfere.” She bites her lip. “But that said – as I, ah, as I said. Neither could I in good conscience hear someone speak of-”
“Non mais putain, do you listen to yourself?” Leliana practically snarls. “Yes. We will go there, hmm? Because something is wrong and for one reason or for another you cannot make it go away for yourselves. But I tell you what will not ‘appen. That in one word you tell us we are your enemies and in another you ask for our aid. As my friends would say: In small words. Do-you-want-our-‘elp.”
The little elf looks up into Leliana’s eyes and her mouth is a flat line and almost imperceptibly she nods her head. But what she says is, “Do as you will.” And she turns and leaves.
“So.” I can just about hear Alistair’s voice through the black cloud I’ve got pulled down over my (stupid blunt) ears.
I realise he’s addressing me.
Focus on the present. Something to do till the hurt scabs over. I take a deep breath and come to a halt. “So.” Turn to face him and the others, pick up a stick to draw with in the dirt. “The Courts are northeast of here, and we haven’t much of an idea what is there, except it shouldn’t be. We circle around and-”
“Why?” He folds his arms. “I mean, I don’t mean to be childish. But some people around here just refused outright to stick to the Accords, and when you called ’em on their behaviour they called you names and kicked us out on our arses. Why do we owe these people spit?”
Uh. Frozen moment. Alistair doesn’t want to help. Alistair doesn’t want to come with. Maybe some of the others, too. Don’t want to do this without him. (Stop it.) Without them. Swallow hard. Just react. World will start making sense again sometime down the line. “Okay. Sure, I’ll, I’ll meet you at-”
“No.” Leliana throws a hard look at Alistair. “We are not splitting up.”
I wish they would make their minds up. “The Dalish need help,” I say, seriously, because that explains everything.
“For sure. And by your word, we are going to ‘elp them.” Her voice has the note you use for crazy people and dangerous animals. The note I recall I used with her this one time. “Does anybody else ‘ere need someone to make clear why that is?”
“Well, actually, yes.” Alistair’s tone of voice isn’t as polite as his words and he’s got his opaque smile on. “They wouldn’t lend us a cup of water if we were on fire, and apparently they didn’t recognise what I think of as honour when it bit them, just-”
He stops talking not because of anything I do but because Leliana rounds on him, eyes fierce. “All right, then, d’accord, let us use the small words. You say they do not recognise honour: I say you are very wrong. They are built on it, it is to them their life, that they are worthy successors to those who came before, that they live up to their own principles is more important to them than are their lives. If we want them to join us against the Blight – and we do, hmm? – Then we must convince them that that is the only worthy thing that they can do. And ‘ow?” She looks at me a second, back at him. “Shame. There is not just the seal of the Almarri, of the Chantry, of the dwarves, of the Dalish on that treaty. There is the seal of the Wardens. If they ‘ave forgotten what it means, to be an ally? We ‘ave not. And if we show them? Then out of shame if nothing else – they will remember.”
He nods. Slowly. “All right. Under protest. It’s… They hurt us on purpose, and we respond by doing what they want. I’m unconvinced.”
She shakes her head. “Then do better. Because you ‘ave the lead.”
The opaque smile freezes even further. “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to run that part by me again.”
Sidelong glance at me. Her voice is like a baited snare. “Alistair Theirin, would you ‘ave another carry that burden, right now?”
He blanches. “That is no man’s name.”
And she pulls it tight. “I could ‘ave told you that.”
He narrows his eyes. Says nothing. She looks at him levelly and a moment passes in silence.
He looks down. Then up at me. Meets my eyes for a second and I can’t read what I see there. Then he lets out the breath he’s been holding, a savage, almost explosive sound. “So. The Courts are to the north-east, so we’ll have to circle round if we don’t want to walk over Dalish pickets. Kallian, could you draw us a bit of a map?”
In the soft morning light, the mist hanging over them like a lady’s gossamer veil, the ruins of our city are everything they should be, and mere words don’t do her justice. Age has been kind – the scars have softened, the marks of ancient war faded into a kind of gentle sadness, the bones of our ancestors long since gone back to the good green earth. Almost like we left this place because we wanted to. Almost like one day we’re coming back.
This place isn’t the Maker’s – it belongs to the elvhen, to Falon’Din and Mythal and the rest of ’em, the ancient holy names we speak now only at funerals. I’m half of a trespasser myself (well, as I said, not half exactly) – I’ve slipped out of my shoes, to a snort from Morrigan. To be honest, if I hadn’t heard tell of things here that shouldn’t be, I think I’d not have the nerve to come closer. I’m only here to take care of the place, I tell myself, to get rid of the interlopers. I’ll be gone soon as they are. I hope that’s good enough for the ghosts of my ancestors.
And no matter who I am, beauty is still good for the soul. Near steals my breath, this place. You can’t help but be moved.
Fox-shaped, Morrigan picks up the trail easy enough. Blood is blood, and the trail is broad enough even I might stand a chance. She tells the tale backwards – eleven people came this way, three men carrying two others between ’em, the other six moving as two groups and watching each other’s backs. Most of ’em hurt in one way or another. Neither hide nor hair of their pursuers, but they weren’t exactly hanging about waiting for ’em to catch up. The shaft of an arrow six foot up in a tree, broken near the head, blood on it, and not an elf’s and not a human’s. And the trail comes to a clearing with the ground all torn up, broken branches, spots of blood, the odd broken arrow, a regular battlefield.
And here’s a thing, she says. No bodies. Something fell, here, something too big to be an elf – or a human, even – fell bleeding, and something else picked it up and carried it away. Something with a scent she’s never met before – from the tracks she’d say a wolf, but it doesn’t smell like one, and just look at the size of them. Her own fox’s pawprint next to this massive pad looks smaller than my foot next to Alistair’s.
“Oh Grandmother,” says Alistair, “what great big paws you have.” And we loosen our weapons and we follow the trail, and Morrigan decides that even humans can track something with feet that big and returns to a shape that can hold her staff.
In the event, it’s another ten minutes’ walk. The track is met by a couple of others and it turns up and across what we can just tell was once a bridge and is now a ford in another shallow stream. Perfect spot for an ambush, it is, and what d’you know.
They’re as tall as a tall shem, or near as, but they’re a hell of a lot wider; uneven scabrous brown they are from blunt heavy snout to stub tail, as much like dogs as wolves, mangy curs that walk like men, nearly dragging their heavy knuckles on the ground. Two in front of us and one behind, fangs bared, deep resonant growl that has my knuckles tight on my sword’s hilt as I stare down the one behind us. Body language from all three of ’em is clear: ours. Go away. Or there will be trouble.
Alistair steps forward, looks at the big male, holds its eyes. “You’re a big bastard, aren’t you.” Unsure whether it can understand him, it’s tone of voice he’s going for. Unafraid. Powerful. Here I am, he’s saying, and look at the size of me: tangle with me or mine and I’ll hurt you so bad you’ll never hunt again.
The growl deepens and the beast takes a step closer, eyes narrowed, hackles up. A moment more holding Alistair’s gaze and then it does open its mouth. Its voice is thick and ragged.”You ain’t one of them. No quarrel with you.” They’re actually slavering, I can see it dripping from those fangs, it’s horrible. “Go on with ya. Not your fight.”
“What fight?” Morrigan speaks up. There’s bright light gathered to the top of her staff. “You’re clearly not mindless. You clearly care for the lives of your fellows. There is no hunting here – neither sight nor sound nor scent of any creature larger than a songbird. The water isn’t good to drink, and nothing grows that isn’t poison. And the nights here are the preserve of the unquiet dead. There’s nothing here for you. You risk harm to you and yours, all for a mausoleum no sane creature would want?” (Thanks, Morrigan, love you too.)
He shakes his head. “Don’t. You don’t understand. Don’t wanna make you.”
“You need to do better than that.” Alistair’s voice is even. “Your people killed people back there. You don’t want us to make this our fight. Give us a reason.”
Yeah – just in case you’re wondering? Me, I do want us to make this our fight. Ghi’lin or no, I can see as plain as anyone that the People’s blood was spilled here. Shem justice might be about taking an eye for an eye; elf justice is about making sure we lose no more eyes. But I also gave Alistair my word, that I’d mind him. Clear he’s got a plan. I stare at the monster behind us and let it see the clear cold flame in my eyes, let it see that if I was here alone it’d be dead right now.
And the big male walks right up to Alistair, gets in his face, and his voice sinks to a smouldering menace that sends all of the hairs up on the back of my neck. “Last chance, blondie. Fuck off.”
“Bite me,” says Alistair unblinking.
So the werewolf snarls and goes for Alistair with its fangs in a single blink of a violent instant, and there’s the crack of the edge of his shield up into its jaw and then it’s sprawling backward, and my blade sings clear of its scabbard as Leliana draws her bowstring to her cheek, and we all feel the pulse of illogical sourceless fear from Morrigan’s spell – I just about stop my own reaction to that spell, which is still to want to use this blade I’m holding –
– and the big one on the ground cries to hold and you know what, they do. Just. Sword’s hilt high, blade almost horizontal, I’ve got my point levelled steady at the chin of the one in front of me, and it’s looking me in the eye and I’m looking back and it’s going to be the one to look away first. Leliana has a bead on the throat of the other one standing, poised, still, barely breathing. Wynne has a soft white light gathered to a raised hand. And Alistair hasn’t moved apart from to look down at the one whose jaw he broke.
“Yes?” It’s the tone of voice again, like he’s speaking to an animal. The words are hardly important. “I’m listening.”
“T-talk. Not here,” it growls thickly. Clear its jaw is giving it pain. “Come. Leave the elf bitch.”
“Only bitch I can see here is your mother,” I hiss, and the whole thing’s about a heartbeat from boiling over –
“Easy.” Alistair doesn’t take his eyes off the werewolf. “I’m leaving nobody.”
“Hnh.” It narrows its eyes. He jerks his head like he’s giving an order, and it gets its feet under it and stands, slowly. “Follow,” it says.
“Bite me?” Morrigan whispers.
“Raised by dogs. Told you.”
I put my sword away.
I put it away because I’m itching, like a physical itch, these things must die. Leliana is walking next to me close, and she might be fooling the werewolves that she’s scared of them but she ain’t fooling me. She’s there to put one more bit of pause between me and violence.
But oh, it’s so damn close to not being enough. We’re in the Courts of Falon’Din, and remember how I said Arlathan was fair, well, the People of Arlathan sang their songs about the Courts of Falon’Din. And –
And the place is covered, it’s fucking coated, in filth. The smell of rot and ordure is in the air. They’re… they’re using a shrine as a midden and a graveyard as a cesspool, and it’s fucking deliberate, and if Leliana weren’t right close on my left side, like I’d have to push her out of the way to draw steel, well, I think things would be different. I’ve got my hands clasped behind my back and the knuckles are white and I’m shaking.
This court is open to the sky, but it stinks of dogs – I’d say wolves, but I can’t imagine a wild animal keeping its place this dirty on purpose. There’s a bonfire. They’re burning the oldest trees they can find, I’ll bet. And between the werewolves that led us in, and the ones who slink out of their places in the befouled holy places to follow us, and the ones in the court already, we’re looking at a… A hell of a lot of them. More than fifty. Maybe as many as the Dalish tribe all told.
And they’re dead silent, sitting or lying or standing, males and females both but neither young ones nor old ones, and they’re looking at us with big dark threatening eyes that remind me more of a human’s than a dog’s.
There’s a big one, crouched in the centre before the fire, and it looks not at Alistair but at me, and it shows long yellow teeth in an obscene parody of a human smile. And as it speaks I realise it’s more like the way Morrigan talks in an animal’s shape, in that the voice isn’t hindered by its fangs or the shape of its mouth, and I don’t need to hear Wynne’s murmured warning to know something’s up.
That dreamlike feeling, an animal that talks for no reason, that whole thing where it’s easier to play along than go against the grain… It’s an abomination. A bad dream made real. And we just walked in its front door. I swallow hard.
“Aneth’ara, little girl,” it says in a deep husky androgynous voice, the sort that eats grandmothers. Of course it speaks the old tongue. “Welcome to your home. D’you like what I’ve done with the place?”
So. Yeah. Met demons before. Leliana tenses beside me, but I’m all right. I can avoid rising to a demon’s bait, can’t I? Right. I put my head on one side and I say, very even, “You’re where you ain’t wanted, ghi’vhenan.”
“So are you, if it comes to that.” It continues that ridiculous parody of a smile. “Lethallan.”
That word, on the lips of this blasphemy… I don’t even spit at it. It’s trying to provoke me. I won’t rise to it. “You didn’t invite us here to trade fighting words. This comes to blows, you might take us down, but by Andraste I swear we’d not be going alone, and those we left alive, the Dalish would rip to little bitty shreds. We’re here to talk. Do it.”
It tilts its head. “Question for a question. I can smell your anger, little one, I can feel your rage like the heart of a forge’s fire. You and your purebred kin both.” I won’t give it the satisfaction of seeing me react to that. “But you stay your hand. Why?”
“For true?” I clench my teeth a moment. “I’m wondering that myself.”
And Alistair steps in with a response before I can say something dumb – because make no mistake, I was going to say something, and it was going to be dumb. “There’s no hunting here, wolf. No clean water, no safe place to sleep even, and the elves will cut you every chance they get. They feast while you starve, and every night here will bleed you. And the… insults you’ve done this place, they won’t last even a year. You’re accomplishing nothing. Why are you here?”
“Hnh. I’m not a wolf, boy. I’m here because my people need me. And before you get all righteous – I swear on my power and on my nature that what motivates me isn’t ‘hatred’ at all. I am here because it is the best thing for my people, and that is the honest truth.” Its ‘smile’ is fading slowly, turning into little more than the bared fangs of a wild animal. “But again I ask you – we are in the home of the elvhen, the heart of their beliefs, the place they most cherish. And we have offered them grave insult. We have befouled their high places. We have spilled their blood on holy ground. We have dug up the bones of their ancestors. And they do nothing. So for the second time I ask you. Why?”
And it’s natural that Leliana answers this, it’s the way of the world. I probably just about could have opened my mouth if I wanted to. “And for the second time we answer you,” she’s saying. It’s like we’re trapped in a fairy tale. “I ‘eard the same thing asked, one elf to another under the trees. The Dalish themselves wonder why their wrath has not been loosed upon you, for all know that it is their way to bend only as the bow does. And that must serve you as an answer, for it is all we ‘ave.” She smiles the smile of the little girl in the fairy-tale, and she rocks back and forward on toe and heel like she’s acting the whole of the part. Her voice even sounds younger. “And a second time we ask, Mister Wolf. You are in this place to ‘elp your people, but what is this ‘elp you give them? For the cupboard is bare and the well is poison, and to me it looks like you ‘ave brought them ‘ere to die.”
“To die?” The voice smiles, even as the wolf’s face does not. “Perhaps, at that. Perhaps there is nothing that is more preferable to them than death – perhaps they would as soon receive that gift as give it. Yes. They are come here to die, mademoiselle – or to kill, I suppose. Either way, to make an end.”
Leliana narrows her eyes, but it is not her turn to talk, and it’s like her mouth is stopped shut: I can see her breathing deep, gritting her teeth to stop herself being swept along. Morrigan, on her other side, shakes her head minutely, and I understand that she means play along, don’t try anything clever. Do we want to be eaten by the big bad wolf?
“But you labour under the misapprehension,” it’s saying, “that I was the one to bring them here.” It shakes its massive head. “You could blame a mortal man for that, you know. You know him, I think. His ears are pointed -”
“As your tongue is forked,” I make myself say, and the wolf looks at me with a sudden volcanic growl and it’s like it ran pure ice in my veins and my mouth goes dry but I won’t look away.
It holds my eyes for a good few moments and then it chuckles and looks down. And licks its lips obscenely with a snake’s tongue.
“If you insist,” it says. “His name is still Zathrian.” Leliana’s too good to let her racing mind show on her features. Morrigan isn’t, though, and the thing ‘smiles’. “Perhaps you should listen less closely to star-eyed little girls and a little more to your own two eyes.”
“Why, grandmother. What a big mouth you have.” Alistair narrows his eyes. “All the better to break your nose.”
“Gallant boy.” Its hackles are rising; a subtle shift in the way it’s standing reminds us of its sheer size and power. “But are you sure you’re the huntsman of that tale?”
Wynne clears her throat and the simple sound has unexpected weight, draining all of the weight of menace out of the air; it’s like she’s pricked the world with a pin and let out all the tension and what’s left has more the air of a polite discussion in a library.
“Yes, yes,” she says, “very good. You’re a rare one, aren’t you?” Her eyes twinkle. “Don’t answer that. We can go around the houses like this all day if we want, dear, but frankly, we’ve both got better things to do. You’re caught. Aren’t you? You’re in a net, you’re caught in a web, and you’re not its author. And you’re just as happy to kill the people that you’re tied to, as to free them-”
But she’s interrupted by an inhuman voice with too many teeth in it as one of the pack stands forward. Somehow there’s no threat to it, its approach isn’t worrying at all, and it doesn’t seem worried by us either. “No. Death? Freedom. Better than-” it gestures- “all this. Our choice, lady. Our will.”
“Oh, really?” She frowns, her eyes piercingly sharp. “H-mmmm. Might even be true. Think I’d spot a mental influence, this range.”
“No influence. They saw me in their dreams,” the abomination says, flatly. Whatever Wynne’s doing, its words have been… drained, would be the best word, robbed of their weight of menace. “The longest… time, it took, to teach them to listen, to convince my people I was not just another bad dream!” It bares its teeth, but somehow that’s not worrying any more. “Time! One moment after another, one night after the next, thousands of them, and each of them another grain of stinging salt into my open bleeding wound! D’you know what I am? What I am forced to be?”
“Tell me,” says Wynne, and she flicks her left ring finger against her thumb as she does so, and the sheer force of the soft polite words is like a physical blow – I know I bare my teeth without meaning to, and the wolves all flinch almost as one, and Leliana puts a hand over her mouth to muffle a small distressed noise and screws her eyes tight for a moment.
And the abomination says simply, “In the name of the elves’ god Fen’Harel was I fetched and caught, but it is not mine. The Lady of the Woods, my people call me, but that is just a little harmless poetry. My name, my nature? Justice. And what I am forced to be?” Its body gives a harsh bark that sounds almost like bitter laughter. “Look around you.”
“I have.” Wynne’s face is a mask of composure. “So, Justice, name and nature, you’re here to break the spell on you? No sense of retribution or restoration? I’m sure you’ve been here long enough to understand cause and effect. When the cage is gone, so will you be?”
It nods simply. “I’d depart. I am… what would you say. Weary. Tired. Hungry. No justice here. There is nothing here for me but the possibility of release.” And it bares its massive fangs and Wynne’s knuckles go white on her staff as it speaks, but there is no more volume, no more weight to its voice than there was just a moment ago. “Release me,” it says, and its words fall flat. “Release me,” it says, and I notice that Morrigan is looking at Wynne slightly wide-eyed.
Wynne takes a deep breath “Well, then.” She looks to the rest of us. “I do not necessarily speak for us all. Would we be willing to leave now? To pursue this matter with Zathrian?”
Alistair shows teeth, but he’ll go along. “Get us out of ‘ere,” says Leliana tightly, and Morrigan inclines her head, still looking at Wynne as if with new eyes. I – give the barest tremor of a nod. What else am I going to do? Start a fight with that thing? Against our mages’ advice?
“So there you have it,” she says, and turns again to the abomination. “My word on it. We will go from this place in peace and plead your case to the mortal you claim is responsible; we will seek justice-”
It shakes its great furred head. Again the only sense I get from it is of weariness. “Justice? There is no more justice here. There can be none.” It closes its eyes. “Go. I shall hold you to your intent.”