Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Three

by artrald

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*

By the time we get half a mile, pretty much making a single-minded beeline away from the Courts, Wynne is breathing heavily and leaning on first her staff and then pretty quickly Morrigan’s arm – and when she calls a halt, the air of unconcerned serenity around us tears like a gossamer veil and Morrigan quickly steers the older mage to sit down on a rock before she falls over.

“Okay,” says the witch after a moment. “So we should discuss all of that, now. You remember those times when we meet up after an audience and unpick the web we were weaving?” She runs a hand over her forehead and I realise she was sweating, and unless I miss my guess, it’s not with effort but more like fear. “This is like that, yes?”

“So that was an abomination,” Leliana says. “And we treated with it-”

“And it’s well that we did,” replies Morrigan a little hotly. “Just because you saw me sucker-punch a newly minted one from surprise doesn’t mean I’m suddenly the bane and slayer of all things abominable, I, I’m mostly impressed we walked out of there.” She swallows. “I… think I owe you an apology, Enchanter.”

Wynne looks at her mildly. “I don’t recall such a thing.”

“No, for true.” She shrugs artlessly, like she’s trying to make light of it. “The number of mages I know of who could have done what I just saw you do, who could stand up to that creature uncloaked in rage and make it sound like a quiet polite conversation? You can count them on the fingers of one foot. My own mother couldn’t have done -” she hastily corrects herself – “Couldn’t have done better. I’d considered myself your equal, in power if not knowledge.” She ducks her head. “I was wrong. I apologise.”

The enchanter smiles gently. “You do have a good sixty years to prove yourself right in that consideration, dear; don’t speak so soon.” Looks up to the rest of us, who are watching this exchange a little bemused. “So. An explanation. To be a little bit vulgar, we just met something that is slightly rarer than rocking-horse shit. Abominations aren’t exactly common in the first place, thank Andraste – and that one is artificial, and I’ve only ever met that in books, before – and the spirit that it’s holding, well. Looking for that kind of creature in the near Fade would be like searching for the Dalish in Orzammar.”

Morrigan butts in. “And it was big, too – I don’t think I have ever seen a larger, in this world or the other. It is to the thing that caught us in the Circle Tower, as that thing was to those we fought outside Redcliffe. What’s your word? Greater demon?”

Wynne nods. “Except that your usual demon is a creature of base passions: hatred, fear, pride and so on. But it claims – and believably, I’d say – it claims to be interested in justice. Such creatures, well. Rare doesn’t begin to cover it. I met a demon that fed on compassion, once, in a dream – and the one I just saw makes that one look like a stickleback – and it claims that Keeper Zathrian bound it. To what as far as I can see looks like one of those unto-the-seventh-generation curses you’ll hear about in stories.”

“No wonder Zathrian will not ‘ave ‘is people fight it.” Leliana frowns. “It is a thing of ‘is own making.”

“And no wonder he didn’t want us around,” says Alistair. “The moment we go poking about, we’ll find evidence, and he’s ashamed, doesn’t want this getting out, because there’s no conceivable happy ending to be found here. What a bloody idiotic situation. This is all his own fault.”

“Alistair?” He shuts his mouth at my tone of voice and stares, and I stare back. “Curse, Wynne said. Fate worse than death, for, what, two hundred people? In the name of Fen’Harel, the Dread Wolf, the old elvish god of misfortune. Laid by the keeper of a Dalish clan. Using a creature named Justice?” I don’t blink. “And you’ll remember it said nothing of why, and said the lifting of the curse wouldn’t be just? I’ll not stand by and let you say this was the People’s fault, not when we don’t know the story.”

He shakes his head. “I’m not sure they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt here, is all I’m saying.”

“Not sure I’d rather give that to a demon.”

“How about we talk to some people and get the story before giving anybody any benefit at all? Because, y’know, there’s a point at which family is family and there’s a point at which-”

“You don’t understand-”

“Says the lady who once put an actual knife to the throat of my actual brother?”

… Well, that stung. I bite my tongue until I can say something that isn’t lame. “I – hear your words.” Look away. Moment’s pause. “Leliana. It’s not the politics you’re used to-”

She smiles. “Not so far from the politics of the Chantry, for true. The Keeper is much like a revered mother: there is a stance that ‘e ‘as taken, and ‘e can stand still and move the whole world until ‘e is again the one who is seen to be in the right. Such a one must be given evidence that what is ‘appening is not what must be, and then we work with that power and not against it. So we must first talk to the apprentice, and not the master. We must learn what it is that is seemly – forgive me, Kallian, but we must know what they do and not what you think they are supposed to do, and I will be as pleased as you if these two things are the same.”

*

One of the picket guards clearly recognises us from the campfire circle last night; we’re met with cold politeness rather than drawn bows, at the same time more polite to the humans than last time while practically slapping me in the face, but I expected that.

I ask to see the First. Half expecting trouble, but there’s none of it – I suppose it’s quite obvious where we must have come from, and we don’t look defeated, so hope for the best, eh?

Right. Her expression as we walk up is of the kind where you never dared hope, and I see her plaster the talking-to-outsiders face on as we walk up. Businesslike right away she is. “You have made your… pilgrimage, I gather.”

My nod’s a little deeper than it needed to be. “We think we can solve the problem. But my companions have some questions for you, if that’s all right.”

She looks a little to left and right and then she whispers to the wind, a little poem in the old tongue where I don’t know even one word in five, and the air goes very still. I suppose she’s given us the only privacy you’ll find in a camp full of – pardon me – sharp ears. “You will appreciate that such… conspiracy, it is not who we are. That by rights your questions are for the Keeper to answer?”

“Aye.” Slightly rueful smile. “You might say it’s more familiar to the humans.” (Quicklings. Damn.) “Wynne?”

The enchanter nods to the spell that surrounds us. “Nice bit of abjuration, this. Your master’s specialty?”

There’s somewhat of a meaningful pause. The First nods quietly. “It… is, yes. You’ve met them, then, the wolves? And seen what they are.”

“I have.” Nothing kindly about Wynne’s demeanour now. “Have you?”

She frowns. “We’re not here to play games. Yes, I know what they are, the shadow of the spirit bound to them, the fact that the magic on them is… familiar to me, is a hand that I might say I know.”

“And?”

“And what? In naming them as monsters, the magic has made them so in truth: is that what you want me to say? That these – things which have stolen the lives of my brothers and sisters, which try to provoke us to unthinking rage with their behaviour, they are our creations?”

“But no – we know all of that,” Leliana cuts in. “You are speaking to one similar in knowledge to your own master, hmm? But what I and she would like to know, is why. Your city cousin, she ‘as been most eloquent in your defence. She will not believe this is a needless thing. And the mages, they see only that your Keeper ‘as very clearly made this thing. Me, I ‘ave the open mind. There is a story ‘ere, and not a good one, and to dissemble does not come easy to you. Will you not lay this thing before us?”

She frowns. “That they are murderous, blasphemous monsters is insufficient for you to act?”

Leliana holds her gaze. “It is for you.”

And the First actually looks away. Deep breath. Clear she’s already made the decision to work with the humans, be they never so foul. It makes me want to hit someone, that she’s forced to, to talk up to them like this.

“So. You have to understand, the ghi’vhenaen of the deep woods are an… old problem. A generation or more. To most of our people they’re just another of the dangers of the parts of the woods where we do not go. They are nearly impossible to kill, they are quick as a wolf and strong as a shemlen and they look like the Dread Wolf come for you.” She grimaces. “And they’re one of the few intelligent creatures that will not be driven off by a show of strength – any hunter knows that a werewolf will track you till either you’re dead or it is. And any mage can see they were shemlen once, and no quickling ever cast a spell in the name of one of our gods.”

“But as First,you know more.”

Slight twist to the corner of her mouth. “We do not discuss it between ourselves. There isn’t one tale for the tale-keepers and one for the People.  But – then we came here.” She swallows. “Out of the blue one day the Keeper spoke to the Council, volunteered the tribe for the duty of defending the Courts of Falon’din. It’s supposed to be an honour; it’s supposed to pass between the tribes. It’s a privilege because we can make pilgrimage there, hold our rites in the old temples and so on.”

“Except you cannot.”

“Except we can’t. Our scouts found the wolves after two weeks, and Zathrian forbade us to exterminate them, said that their very existence in that state was punishment enough. Forbade us to enter the Courts: we may drive off their game, which we do, and we prevent people running afoul of them, mostly, but the patrol whose footsteps you must have seen, they were hunting wolves on purpose.” Her eyes are sad. “Nine seasons they’ve bled us and lived where anything living should starve. Nine seasons we’ve hogged what should be a privilege and an honour, and the Keeper has refused to move on and he’s refused to say why. And we all know, for all that the warriors think that it’s only cowardice that’s our shame – it’s only I who have an inkling that it’s worse than that.” She folds her arms, the mannerism making her look oddly young – I guess that in truth she’s not all that much older than I. “Their fate is his doing. Is it not?”

“For sure,” says Morrigan, and the elf bites her lip and looks at me. She’ll say it, she’ll absolutely say it if I don’t, like, and she mustn’t. So I do.

“So,” I say. “We can solve the problem where you can’t, because we’re outside the  clan, we’re not bound to respect the keeper’s word over all?” She nods slightly. “And I’ve spoken to the mages, and though it’s not a matter of cowardice exactly-”

“Bringing violence to your temple would be – problematic.” Morrigan spreads her hands. “The leader of the pack is the source of the problem, but – to speak with frankness here – if Wynne and I were to do battle with that creature, even if we managed somehow to destroy it, the area would be useless to your pilgrimages for many years to come. It was such battles that made the place how it is today.”

The First nods slowly. “Your proposal?”

“Lift the curse. Relent. Is there any vengeance that is worth what we see here?”

“Vengeance – to repay evil with evil – you might say it is against our religion. But your sense is good: I cannot imagine the future evils that would be prevented by creating such as the ghi’vhenaen.” She shudders. “Ordinarily, I would seek Zathrian’s wisdom in such a-”

“Then let us do just that,” says Leliana with the vaguest hint of triumph about her. “For sure, I do not understand all of this problem. Let us seek the wisdom of your elder, hmm?”

*

When Zathrian meets us, he is bearing his staff. It looks much like Morrigan’s. The First goes immediately to his side like an obedient daughter; of course she does. I’d do the same if we were talking to the keeper of the alienage in Denerim. His face is bare of all expression; his manner is even and his voice is cool. “I see you have returned to us, Wardens. I trust your… business… is urgent?”

“You could say that, hahren.” I give him a deep nod. “We are in need of your wisdom, concerning a problem that we have.”

He narrows his eyes. “I am not your keeper, flat-ear.” Still hurts, that. Doubly that he won’t even use our language to tell me. Are the words somehow less rude if he uses the tongue of the humans? He carries on, like he didn’t see me wince. “But neither are you truly here for my advice. So do me the favour of cutting to the chase.”

“All right; I’ll take you up on that.” Alistair’s tone is easy, but he’s pitched it just right – the mere fact he’s opened his mouth will be enough. “Your werewolves are becoming as much of a problem to you as to themselves, and they won’t tell us their whole story. Your own apprentice doesn’t know. The commander has argued your side up and down the street, and I can’t tell whether our mages think you’re a genius or a madman, and personally I’ve got no clue. And I know enough about your people to know that you don’t like this whole ‘lying’ thing that everyone else I keep meeting is so fond of.” He spreads his hands. “So how about some truth? What, the hells, is going on here?”

The keeper’s expression only becomes more severe. “And what will you do with your story, hmm? To what gain am I indulging your curiosity?”

The big man clenches his mailed fists. “When we see our allies in danger, Keeper, we’re not the kind of people to sit on our arses. It’s not an oath we took. We’re not just a group of wandering meddlers. But a Warden who sees the darkness straight-on and lets it slide, or backs down, or does anything but stand up and be counted, would never have made Warden in the first place. Why are you talking to us? Because you’ve got a problem. What would we do? We would make it right.”

Zathrian’s eyebrow goes up. “I suspect that I should like to live in your world, Warden. Only one sort of evil, and everything you don’t approve of lines up exactly with this universal standard, as if by magic? Harshest sunlight or deepest shadow, and while you cannot see in the dark, you do not need to, for you are the light. The light cannot fail, it can only be failed, and one who does so, why, they’re evil; I could introduce you to a spirit you might get along well with, except that by your implications, you’ve already met.” He curls his lip. “But for those of us who live in the waking world, paladin, I’ll tell you this: I find you wanting. To live a life by those words you’ve spoken is to be either a liar or a coward.”

From Alistair’s expression it’s as if the keeper had never spoken. “For a learned man and a teacher, ser, you’re awfully keen to avoid an honest question.”

A moment’s silence; the keeper shakes his head. A shadow across his face. “They are… criminals. You have seen their punishment, their curse. I gave them to Fen’Harel, long ago – I will not use your calendar, but suffice to say I am likely the only one alive to have seen that day and this one both.”

Alistair raises his eyebrows. “They’ve been like that for a while, then.” He looks Zathrian in the eye. “Has it, you know. Helped?”

“They have lived out their pitiful lives as far from me as they dared,” he growls. “They have found that lack of food or shelter will only bring them suffering and not death; they have found that they cannot make new life of their own. Like beasts they were, and like beasts they have become; all surcease is denied them, and they may find no escape. Their time in the waking world is cruel and their dreams are worse: I should imagine they are quite mad, by now.”

“Maker’s breath,” says Leliana quietly. “You are proud of this.”

“Proud?” The shadow over Zathrian only deepens. “That in return for unspeakable crimes I have dealt a fate worse than death? Whatever you may think of me, she-wolf, you may believe that at least I am free of that particular sin.”

“But justice, it is thus?”

His fingers tighten around his staff and he does not speak.

“And yet you allow these things to persist. To commit every atrocity-”

“Not true.” He raises a hand. “They are become beasts, but they are the beasts of fable. They might take a lone wanderer, an unwary hunter – but they will never threaten a hearth, never enter a camp, never cross a threshold, never keep a prisoner or a slave. Compared to the creatures that they used to be, the depths to which they now sink are trivial.”

Leliana folds her arms and looks at him flat, and at his apprentice by his side. She lets the silence go on a little longer than is comfortable and then she speaks, her voice still gentle. “So we come then to the problem about which we ask. These things, you allow them to persist. You ‘ave brought your whole tribe ‘ere, you ‘ave brought them to conceal these things and their secret, and they know only that your orders are to take the coward’s path, and it grieves them, it makes duty and honour their burden rather than their strength. You do harm to your tribe, to your sacred charge, to yourself – and for why? Where is it, this great cause  that justifies what you do?”

He presses his thin lips together and closes his eyes for a moment. “There can be no justice for the crimes of these people. That they commit others, suddenly makes them deserving of leniency?”

She doesn’t change her tone of voice, she doesn’t meet strength with strength. “Tell me,” she says, and that’s all.

Zathrianlooks to his apprentice. “Da’len, it is not needful that you hear this.”

She meets his eyes. “Then have me leave,” she says simply.

“Do as you will,” he says, and turns back to Leliana. “This is my second clan. I was invited to become Keeper upon the death of the great-grandmother of Lanaya here; I was invited because I was the only loremaster in the Dales who did not travel with a clan. I was not a young man, even then. But as for the clan of my birth, its name is dead. The ara’vels, burned, the herds murdered when they would not go meekly, the people -”

He shakes his head, silent for so long I’d thought he’d left off the story. “Carried away. The shemlen left me for dead, arrow-feathered. I – survived. And in the night I came for my people.” He takes a slow level breath, in and out. “Eight. Eight of the People I brought away alive from that village, eight of ninety-four. Ten more, in body they came with me that night; they – died, either then or in the few days and nights that followed, of injuries, of hardship, of shame. My own children among them.” His expression is a statue’s. “I left my people with another tribe and I returned to the humans. It was not in hot blood that I worked what you have seen, and nothing that happened was a mistake. I called the spirit with my pain and I bound it with my blood, and as long as I live, as long as I suffer – so shall they.”

“Aye,” I say, “they will. And Lanaya, and Junar, and Melora and the other Kaiduins we shared a fire with, and their uncles and aunts and cousins and their brothers and sisters and their kids-”

“Congratulations, girl, you can name three of my clan. One can hardly expect-”

“And if you think that you can say aught about the wrong done by shems that a gutter-bred jillie don’t know, you got a second thought coming. Honoured elder.” Maybe my voice rose just a bit. “Aye, your kin was lost. I know a bit of what you speak, with your fancy boots and your fine ways and your blood that’s blue all the way through. I remember a day when I’d’ve done everything you’ve done if I’d been born Gifted, I remember more than one. It was your children, was it? Your brothers and sisters?” Maybe I’m shaking. “Well, it was my ma, and I barely remember her face. It was my cousin, who stood up to the shems, and it was my man. When, when I went after them and he followed. And no. It’s not the same. But I remember a tale my keeper told me, the keeper of the alienage, the first time my uncles caught me with a knife that weren’t for eating. You want to hear it?”

“By all means, let the noises continue.”

I scowl, but I speak. “He asked me what I meant by wearing a weapon, and I said to put things right when they went wrong, like, and he clipped me round the ears and said in that case I wasn’t to carry one. He said that nobody ever put things right with a blade, nobody ever made today a better place by spilling some blood. Everybody’s somebody’s son or auntie or cousin. If they ain’t right to cut us, we ain’t doing right to cut ’em back. But we can’t do nothing, I said, and he looked me in the eye and said it was sad but I was right. But you keep your eye on yesterday and the future will trip you right up. He gave the idea a name in the old language and I know you’ll probably turn your nose up, but he said it was the foundation of the vira tisha, the way of peace. That we shed blood today so we don’t hurt tomorrow, and not because we were hurting yesterday.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed with your command of the ancient lore, with your authority figures, with the depth and impact of our supposed shared experience?”

“You could explain to me where I’m wrong.” I look into his eyes. “That would do it.”

He pretty much sneers at me, but Lanaya his apprentice speaks. “I think I’d take it as a kindness if you did that, hahren. I think that might be why I’m still standing here.”

Zathrian compresses his lips to a thin hard line for a moment and doesn’t look at his apprentice. “You take their side, da’len? Truly? Have you seen something that I have missed, perhaps? A thing that means that your patience with this charade multiplies rather than dwindles?”

And there’s a pause, a pause that he’s not in a rush to fill, that stretches out for enough time that I shift uncomfortable on my feet. And she takes a deep breath and says “…Yes, my master. I’m awfully afraid I have.”

“Do go on,” he says, and there’s thin ice there under his words.

Her expression says that she’s started, so she’ll finish, and look neither to left nor right. “You, hahren. Your first reaction to each thing said by these people, to everything you have been asked, has been not to attack the point of view but the one holding it. When, not meaning to give offence, it was you who taught me the fallacy in that. You’re not refuting their arguments, you’re fighting them. And it’s true, master. Nobody understands the ghi’vhenaen but you, not really. And you are the only one of the People who even remembers their crime. And all I can see is the threat to my people today, and do you wonder I speak as I do?”

Your people?” Both the ancient elf’s eyebrows go up.

But she turns her head then and looks him in the eye. “We’ve established, hahren. All of your people are dead.”

And the mask cracks, I see it go, and suddenly it’s not the archmage I see but the old man, wearied and weathered beyond imagining, and he closes his eyes and he leans on his staff. “You are – not wrong,” he says, and he bows his head. “Lanaya, you are barely an adult, let alone an elder – I still think of you as the quiet serious child, seen and not heard – but that thing you have said, it has implications. Consequences. And you think yourself capable of shouldering those?”

“Absolutely not, master.” She’s still looking him in the eyes. “Is anyone, ever?” And something passes between them, then, and he nods, slowly. “You have a week, hahren,” she says to him. “No journey should be undertaken without notice, and I’m well enough known to the young hunters that there won’t be trouble before then. And doubtless you will wish to tell my grandparents to keep an eye on their layabout do-nothing granddaughter and remind my father one last time about the dangers of pride and where that leads, and I dare say there are three dozen other oddments. But this threat to our tribe and our people, this dereliction of our responsibility has continued long enough.” She swallows hard. “And it is your responsibility, z-Zathrian. And you must deal with that. Before seven days have-”

“Tonight,” he says. “No notice. No preparation. Has any of the others I have killed had such?”

“I did not mean-”

He shakes his head. “You meant it. You meant it, because it is true. Yes, doubtless I could ease the transition greatly by taking a week over it.  But for the next twenty years you’d be in place by my say-so rather than yours, keeper, and I’ll not have that. Although if I may offer one piece of advice – I would suggest that my disappearance and that of our enemies remain in shadow. The clan’s pride -”

“May go and hang,” she says, and she blinks quickly so her eyes are clear, and her voice stays level. “I will do no such thing. There has been enough shadow.”

*

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