Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Four

by artrald

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*

They don’t take it well.

I mean, we hardly expected them to nod and smile, but neither was I really expecting the grown man who burst into tears when they said that the old keeper was gone forever, or the hunter who stood up and walked across the circle to stare the new keeper in the face and call her a dirty sellout and a human-lover, or the old woman who looked disparagingly at me and asked quietly what she promised us if we’d kill Zathrian. And Lanaya just stands there and lets them, she lets everyone have their say, she doesn’t smile and she doesn’t scowl and she just watches, placidly, and eventually their fury is spent and there is silence, and she allows it to drag on and out before she opens her mouth at all.

She speaks very simply, very plainly, amid the circle of the clan, quiet enough that the humans with me are straining their ears to make it out, and she says that much as they all want it otherwise, the keeper is gone from the world and nothing will bring him back. She says that she understands, that Zathrian has indeed been the identity and the heart of the clan for so long, and she doesn’t say and look where that has led us, but her silence on that matter is so loud that she really doesn’t need to. She says that many of the problems people have with her are real, and she asks with what looks a lot like humility for the assistance of the elders and the experts of the clan in making these problems go away. And she looks at the ones who’d used their turn to speak to give nothing but insult, and quietly she asks them if what they said was true enough to speak in front of everyone, or if it is their pain speaking, a pain that for sure she shares.

And if it’s the former, well, she knows the keepers of a number of other clans, she knows a number of other places they could go where they’d perhaps feel more welcome. And she says those words with the exact same unbending clarity that Zathrian would use, and while they sound kindly and they sound polite, nobody mistakes that quiet certainty of hers for weakness. And it turns out that nobody would rather leave than listen.

She speaks to us before everyone, in sight of the whole clan, the way all the business of the keeper will be done from today and onward: she says that it’s quite simple. Zathrian told us that the Dalish would keep their word as well as the Wardens did, and she will not take back what he has said. She has seen what we mean by honour – she has seen that we’re more interested in doing right than in making friends, and that we don’t forget our friends even if they’ve forgotten us. She’s seen us give our word and she’s seen us keep it, and she won’t have the first thing she does as Keeper be to turn us away. No promises, of course, but our words will travel to the Council of the Dales by her hand, and it’s up to each keeper whether their clan will send help – but the story of Warden Garahel will be told, and she’s still just as cold and certain as she says how the world will remember that it was only by the hand of an elvhen that the Wardens prevailed over the last Blight.

It’s not going to be easy, for her or her people, and there’s very much the feeling that our presence is an intrusion they could do without, like the outsider at a family meal where there’s an argument in the air. We have something that passes for a promise of aid – I suppose we’ll see how much that means – but we aren’t going to get anything more. And after they’ve made one last patrol – a patrol who return with widened eyes saying that every work of those foul creatures’ hands has been undone, as if by magic – it’s time for us to get ourselves gone.

Alistair looks a bit askance at me as I say that and asks whether I don’t want to make that pilgrimage for real now, given we’ve got the time. And I sort of regret swearing back at him, his expression and all, but you can’t exactly go and take words back. No, Alistair, just because we helped these people out, just because they’re not actually kicking us out with hard words, doesn’t mean I’m – uh – doesn’t mean we’re suddenly something we ain’t. We’ve got no right to be here. Never had. Past time we were gone.

*

We camp in a clearing, just off the road north. I can hear the war from here; I can hear the darkspawn, feel them, like being just the other side of a wall from a great big crowd, and over them all I can hear the archdemon cold and insistent, and I wish we could tell what it was that it was saying, but it’s not looking at us today. I take the third watch; Alistair has the second. I get myself as comfortable as I can in one of the trees at the edge of the little clearing, up in the thinner branches where nobody could get near without me telling. Not great for sleeping, but at least it’s safe, don’t ask me from what. I’d get no sleep somewhere something could creep up on me.

I dream. I’m in the taproom of the Pearl, where I used to work, and there’s a party, and I’m serving. Except the people at the party are my da, like, and my cousins and Alistair and Leliana, and I come over to make introductions and they look at me and ask what the hell I think I’m doing – I need to go wash my hands before I can sit down, I’m all over mud and filth, and I go to wash my hands but it won’t come off, and it won’t come off, and I realise that what I’m trying to wash off is nothing but my own skin

I wake with a start. Alistair’s poking the branch I’m sleeping on with a finger and making it shake. Not over dark, it is – the stars are out, and there’s a sliver of a moon to see by, and the embers of the campfire.

His voice is quiet so as not to wake the others. “Your watch,” he says, and goes to sit back down by the fire.

It’s only a moment before I’m down, and I wince as I land. Shouldn’t have made any noise at all there. Stupid heavy lump of a creature. My tone of voice doesn’t have much to do with my mood. No point sharing it. “Anything?”

A shake of his head. “Not so much as an owl. And you can hear the spawn as well as I can.”

“Miles away and doing something else.”

“Mm.” He stretches. Catches my eye quite by accident. Not sure who he thinks he’s trying to impress. “Still can’t work out what the old bugger’s telling them. He gave quite a speech while you were away with the fairies, but I couldn’t even get the gist. You?”

I give a shrug. “Don’t remember dreaming of it.”

“Nads.” His teeth gleam in the half-light. “You’d have thought that the curse might have come with a lexicon. But I asked, once, and Duncan said that as far as he could reckon it, no two Wardens hear quite the same thing. He used to compare notes with his teacher and the two of them couldn’t make head nor tail. Apparently there’s libraries of the stuff in Weisshaupt, just people’s scrawlings of what they reckoned they heard, in case anybody ever worked out a use for it.”

“Tell you what.” I settle myself the other side of the fire. “Let’s go have a look.”

“Sounds good. Make a change from all this running around forests.” He nods seriously. Don’t know whether he just didn’t get the sarcasm or if he’s deliberately trying to lift my mood. “We could make a week-end of it. Pile everyone on the griffons and off we fly. Set off north, hang a left at Denerim, then it’s second on the right past Orlais. You can’t miss it.”

Moment’s silence. Look him in the eye, see him just-not-smiling like that and butterflies dance in the pit of my stomach, of course. Like I care. I make a bitter little noise and look down at the glowing embers.

“You’re not alone,” he says after a moment more, his voice very soft.

“Of all the sentimental bullshit.” I hunch my shoulders.

Pause. Again. “You want to talk?” I can tell he’s got his eyes on me. I don’t know what he thinks he’s looking for.

“No?” The embers are leaving big purple after-images. “But you’ve something you want to say, and I’ll have no peace till you do, will I.” It’s not cold. I’m not wearing a cloak to draw around me and put my face in shadow. “Out with it.”

“You know, if -” He gives a sigh. “Fine. What Zathrian said to you. In elvish. I don’t know what it was, but you looked like he’d hit you in the face with that stick of his, and you haven’t so much as cracked a smile since. It’s like there’s a brick wall just behind your eyes.” He holds up a hand as I scowl down at the fire. “I know it’s none of my business. But uh.” He’s still looking at me, I’m still not returning that. “You’ve been there for me, a couple of times, you know? I owe you. And if you don’t talk to someone, whatever he did to you, it, well. I don’t think it’s going to heal right.”

“So now I’m worrying you. I’m a problem. Because we talk to the magic elf, and suddenly that happy smiling fun-time girl you knew so well, she ain’t laughing any more.” I poke the fire with a stick. “That about the shape of it?”

“Kallian-”

“Fine.” I snap the stick in half with one hand, not really thinking about it. ” You truly want to hear? Fine. Guess I have enough of your secrets. Not like you’ll understand, though.”

His expression is quite serious. “Try me.”

“Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.” I put the shorter half of the stick onto the fire, poke it into place with the other half. “They’re cousins, Jack and Jill. Jack’s mother’s a shem, his father’s an elf. He looks just like a human, bit lightly built, high cheekbones. Lot of shems are that small. Guess he gets some stick for being a weakling.” The dry wood starts to catch, butter-yellow flames licking around the thing. “Jill’s mother’s an elf, her father’s a shem. Ghi’lin in the proper language, ‘jillie’ where I grew up. Words to break your jaw if you say them to the wrong person, those are.” I brush my hair back behind my left ear, almost unconsciously running my finger over the top of it. “Jill can’t pass for human unless she grows her hair, ’cause her ears are flat on the top. She’s tall as a man and broad-shouldered with it.” I spit the words. “Makes a better servant than a proper elf.”

He frowns. “You’re telling me your father-”

“No.” I poke the burning half of the stick with the other half, watch the flames catch it a bit more. “Grandfather, we always reckoned. Ma’s side. She was an orphan, never knew her parents at all. You’ve got to go further back on da’s side, or so  I was always told. So, yeah. I’m likely somewhere between an eighth and a third part human.” I put the other bit of wood on the fire. “I don’t look it to you lot, though, do I. Enough to fool Leliana, even, and she’s been around our kind more than many. But to the actual elves? Dith jillen sule’vira iloi da.” I look up, look him in the eye. My eyes are watering a bit, must be the smoke. “Turns out I’m a human. Who knew?”

“… Damn.” His turn to look away. “And I thought I had the bad end of the stick.”

“Always someone worse off.” I look back at the fire before I can get distracted. “There ain’t a true-blood elf in Denerim, not really. What d’you expect, living cheek by jowl with the bigjobs for twenty generations, and slaves before that for more than the same again? It’s, well, I’d be lying if I said nobody cared. They care when they arrange the, the betrothals and so on. You care who you, uh. Let into your bed. But the.” I clear my throat. “To our keeper, in Denerim, the line of who was People and who wasn’t wasn’t drawn so fine. I guess I didn’t think the Dalish would be so very different.” I stare into the flames. “Guess I didn’t think at all.”

“At the monastery.” Alistair’s voice is quiet. “Wasn’t just being away from home that I minded. It was like, everyone else was someone’s son or someone’s brother or the like. The noble lads looked down on the lowborn lads and the lowborn lads looked down right back. And I sound like, well, I couldn’t pass for a crofter boy if my life hung on it. And so the question would always be ‘who’s your father’. It was how you got to know the other boys, how you knew who your friends were supposed to be. You know?” He looks at me, meets my eyes. “And they asked me every time we met. Same polite question. And everyone knows you can’t trust a man who won’t tell you who his father is.”

“Till you joined the Wardens.”

He nods. “Duncan never asked me. None of the others ever even tried. Everyone’s coat of arms was grey, we were all the same. First damn time in my whole life I was the same as anyone else. Why I made such a point of it when first we met. Whatever you were or weren’t before. We’re in this together, we’re on the same side, we’re – you know. There. For one another.”

There’s one of those silences, and I’m sure his cheeks just went pinker than mine, and he clears his throat. “So yeah. While we’re on the subject of, well, clearing the air, or whatever you want to call it. Can I ask another impertinent question?”

“No.” I give him a sidelong look. “But you’re going to, anyway.”

“Damn straight. Might as well get digging while I’m already in a hole.” He takes a deep breath. “Back in Denerim. You were married?”

I draw in a sharp breath and just about remember I’m supposed to be keeping my voice down. “Maker’s arse, Alistair – what is this, elf season?”

He colours. “Sorry. I just. You wear that ring, round your neck, and you said-”

“Shut up.” I fold my arms. Look away, out into the dark. Silence. Can see him out of the corner of my eye trying to work out how to get his foot out of his mouth without opening it. “No,” I say, eventually. “Not quite. Arranged, of course. Nelaros Amaranth, his name. Good-looking. First boy I ever kissed and meant it. We’d known one another less than a week.”

“What happened?”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut your mouth?” I fish the ring out on its bit of string, hang it over my finger so it swings back and forth. “You know that thing where you tell the lady fair you’d die for them? Romantic gesture and all? Right. Well, here’s a tip for you, something to remember.” I give the ring an accusing look. “Your lady fair, about the last thing she actually wants you to do, right, is actually go and fucking do it.” Close my eyes. “He never told me he didn’t know one end of a sword from the other. Idiot.” I spit the word at the ring, as if it were its fault.

“Shit,” he says, quietly, and I don’t snap at him.

“Yeah.” I drop the ring back inside my top, then give him a sharp look across the fire. “You owe me for that one. Hear?”

“I hear, sera. I owe you a drink.”

“You owe me more than a drink, shem.” He winces. I give him a look. “What?”

“I can tell when you’re genuinely offended. I go back from having a name to being just another shem.”

Scowl. “Better than calling you what I call the rest of your kind.”

He shrugs. “I’ve kind of got used to that name. Everyone else calls me that. I’m pretty sure that if you just barked out ‘bastard’ on parade, I’d stand to attention and say ‘present’.”

“Bloody shouldn’t.”

Silence again.

“Alistair?”

“Mm?”

“Two things, right.” I don’t look at him. “First? My secrets to share further. Not yours. Get me?” He nods. “Second?” I swallow hard. “Maybe – maybe sentimental bullshit was exactly what I needed. So thank you. All right?”

He blinks. “Uh.”

“Shut up.” I catch his eyes with mine and all the hair stands up on the back of my neck – “And you still owe me. Go to bed. Or I’ll burn your breakfast.”

“You’ll do that anyway.” But he gets up from his seat. “I’ll see you at reveille.”

*

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