Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Five
Not much, is it. Only the kingdom’s first city. They sing songs and everything, but they don’t do it justice; this place is… indescribable. Big, ugly, walled and gated, sprawled astride a dirty great river the colour of fresh mud. Castle down one end. Stinks of unwashed shem. And – well. Of home, I guess. Coming here feels like walking downhill.
We come in the south gate as the sun is setting, all done up like a Redcliffe party escorting Enchanter Wynne. The city – I’ve known the city in many moods, in weal and woe, and right now, it’s like it’s just holding its breath. Not only the Blight, I’m guessing, not if everyone who’s got an excuse is going armed – armed? Bless me, ser, this is a walkin’ stick – not if people are looking suspicious at any kind of crowd and the bann’s men are everywhere you look. This is about the Landsmeet. This is about the Bannorn, the two arls, the two teyrns and the King – well, the regent, I guess – coming together to work out who’s looking funny at who and if they’re starting anything. And the people are scared.
And not an elf on the street. That’s what does it, for me. I remember the bread riots when I was nine. The keeper shut the whole alienage – the gates will keep you out as easy as keeping us in – if that’s what’s happened here, if he’s got the People off the street, then he thinks this is going to be as bad as anything you could name.
Morrigan asks me quietly which of the threats we can see is the real one, and I realise with a bit of a start that she’s seen the usual suspects on the street, noticed I’m disquieted and jumped to conclusions – I give her a tiny wilted smile and say nothing right here, but I can tell she’s not so convinced. Anyone watching is going to think her the mage’s apprentice for sure – what other shem would be so unused to a crowd?
We’re met at the arl’s estate by Oghren, full armour, all smiles and ambassadorial cheer, and if I didn’t catch the cues he’s giving I’d catch Leliana’s, we’re being watched. The servants. So he plies us with drinks and talks to Wynne like she’s the leader, and –
And Leliana says quietly, “Take the other.” And in the moment of slight confusion she turns perfectly naturally and seizes one of the two cupbearers by the wrist, and I catch her drift and am all the way across the room to push the other one against the wall before he has time to do more than drop his wine-jug. Which I catch, one-handed, without looking.
“Spies, huh?” she says to Oghren in a pretty accurate copy of Alistair’s Redcliffe accent. “Sorry to interrupt, Ambassador, but the Knight-Commander doesn’t like his secrets growing little wings, and I’m a little short on patience and time today. There any more in the place?”
His smile turns genuine. “Just the two. Unless any of the elves are, I can’t read ’em.”
She looks at Wynne, then at me, and her voice rings with an absolute authority I’ve never heard in her before. “Mage. How long will that spell hold?”
Well, Wynne seems to catch on. “Till midnight, Templar. You know how hard it is to magic one of you-”
Leliana gestures to me impatiently. “Could she fool an actual elf? Up close?”
Wynne nods. “Yes, sera. Just don’t shake hands.”
“Leila,” she says, and it’s clear she’s talking to me. I suppose there’s an outside chance someone knows my name. “Go.”
So taking the terrified servant by the wrist in a strong grip that I hope is more like a shem’s than an elf’s, I pass him over to the bemused Alistair with a sweet smile, and toast Leliana ironically with the wine-jug as I head out of the room with my best attempt at inept clumping footsteps.
I follow the sound of sweeping and find an elf – works pretty much anywhere. Not trying to keep my footsteps quiet, so he hears me pretty quick, turns as I approach, leans on the broom. I know his face, he’s an alienage lad, but I don’t know the name.
“Hey,” I say, casual. He doesn’t see my face, he sees the livery I’m still wearing, and he shows his teeth just long enough for me to see ’em. “Few moments to chat?”
He frowns slightly. “Idleness don’t become anybody, coz.”
“Aye. Just need to know a thing and I’ll be out your hair.”
“Sooner the better. Go on.”
I take half a step forward, a bit uncertain. “Don’t you recognise me, lethallin?”
“I know your type, right enough. Fat as butter, lazy as a cat in summer. You’ve got yours, and your people be damned.” His tone ices over. “What did the shems pay you for your pride, huh? Living at their table, begging for scraps?” And he looks me up and down. “Or is it something else you sold ’em?”
“Stop right there.” Apparently I can do quiet menace better than him; he snaps his mouth shut. Quick glance tells me we’re alone in this corridor. “You’re wondering why you know my face, lethallin. Or you should be. Last you saw it, it was all streaked and spattered in-”
“Maker’s breath, you’re her.” The words come out in a tumble. “Cyrion’s daughter, the one the shems took away.”
I meet his eyes. “Look, there’s something I need to know, I’ll be home later this evening. You want to talk like regular people, or you feel like calling me a harlot again?”
He shakes his head. “I like my ears where they are, thanks. Go on.”
“‘Kay. We’re in Arl Eamon’s house and he ain’t in good odour with the other bigjobs just now-”
Looks away. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Right. So someone’s paying to know what goes on here. Any of our lot caught up in that?”
He goes very still. “If there are?”
“They don’t want to be.” I make a silver penny appear in my hand. “An elf you didn’t recognise warned you that it was about to get very dangerous to work for Eamon Guerrin. Something funny about her, though.” I match it with a second. “She walked heavy, sort of clumsy. She was dressed like a shem servant, not an elvhen.” I make a third penny appear in my other hand with a crooked smile. “She had far too much coin on her.”
He nods slowly, his eyes on the money. “True things, those. Did I learn anything after that?”
“There’s a mage in the house. No amount of money worth eavesdropping on a mage’s secrets, am I right?”
He blanches. “Bloody are.”
“Right.” I put the coins down on a convenient table, as if I’d forgotten them absently. Way he was talking, he’ll see them put to good use. And I make sure to put my heels down when I walk off, make some noise, like a shem would.
“Look,” he says, as I’m going. “Uh. You planning on, well, going home?”
I look back. “Soon as I can get away.”
“Right.” Nervous nod. “Right. Tonight, like. If you can?”
“I saw there was nobody on the streets. There a problem?”
He fidgets. “Sort of. Uh. You’ll see.”
Cold, down my neck. “I will. Soon. Tonight.” I look at him but he won’t meet my eyes. “Thanks.”
Fat as butter, huh?
I can take a moment to catch myself in a mirror, give an appraising look. Not the first time I’ve seen me since I joined the Wardens, but possibly the first time I wasn’t thinking about something else at the time – I look – I don’t know. Dangerous. Sharp edges, tight muscle. And not an ounce of fat. I mean, I have put on weight, but not like that – my face still looks a lot like the business end of a hatchet. (My hair is still horrible, uneven, neither short nor long. Looks like I cut it with a knife, which of course I did, and about half an inch’s growth just makes everything worse.) Mostly it’s my shoulders and arms. I mean, I was never properly thin, but you’d never mistake me for a pure-bred elf now, not with all this muscle on me. I wonder how much of this is the Wardens’ curse and how much is just the training.
Bet my old clothes wouldn’t even fit, now.
“So.” Oghren greets me smiling as I slip back into the reception room. The two servants are nowhere to be seen. “Spies, check; false trail, check. Leliana’s got me caught up on your end. And let me tell you, this place’s been better than a holiday.”
“Glad you enjoyed yourself,” I say a little sharply, and he snorts. “You were planning our next move.”
“Uh-huh. You know how they’re all squaring up for a bit of a punch-up?”
“We do.” Leliana frowns. Her Orlesian accent is back like it never left. “Do we ‘ave a chance of changing that?”
“Change it? We set it up,” Oghren rumbles. “The arl’s out there right now putting a couple more pieces on the board. Your throne stands on five pillars, right? The two arlings, the two teyrnirs, and the Bannorn, who have no overlord but the crown? Right. So. The teyrn of Gwaren is the regent and he’s got Amaranthine behind him, and their banns are pretty much lined up behind them; Redcliffe is against him, of course, and between the one thing and the other, and provided we don’t fuck up at the Landsmeet, most of the Bannorn are seeing Gwaren as tainted and it’s an enemy’s-enemy sitation. So Highever would have the casting vote, and Highever’s a great friend of Redcliffe.” He waggles his eyebrows. “But on the other hand, Highever’s dead. Bandits, apparently; his younger son and his wife died with him, and his elder son was one of the king’s bodyguards, so Highever’s a gift of the Crown, just as somebody planned. But, the Regent daren’t put anyone there till after the Landsmeet; right now the banns of Highever are staying out of it, because being on the losing side of this one would be one of those bad things. You following?”
I blink. “Alistair?”
“Uh.” He grins. “Leliana?”
She’s looking at Oghren with what looks like actual respect. “There is a balance of power. The Regent can’t do anything with ‘is power without turning this into two proper sides and provoking a war nobody wants – and nobody is any more talking about the man as a possible king.”
“Yup.” He looks up at her with a conjurer’s air. “But you’re missing some pieces.”
Leliana looks at Alistair and raises an eyebrow; he blanches. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he says.
“One, Cailen’s brother.” Oghren points at the big fellow. “Who may have to lump it, swallow his pride and become a king, so cry me a river. Two?” He grins. “Cailen’s wife.”
“Anora mac Tir, Loghain’s daughter.” Leliana nods. “If Alistair is revealed, Loghain’s natural move is to set her up against him. The parties will become the Queen’s and the King’s factions and there will be a war for sure.”
Oghren shrugs. “Unless somebody might’ve found out that Anora had a mind of her own, a decent set of eyes to see with, and wasn’t too fond of the man who killed her husband?” His grin widens.
Leliana matches his smile. “Remind me never to gamble with you, my friend. So what do we do?”
“We meet the dowager princess.” Businesslike nod. “Tomorrow, if tonight went well.” He gives Alistair an appraising look. “And we get our case ready for the Landsmeet, and we’ve got two days to make someone into a prince.”
Alistair raises his hands. “Um. Look. If it’s me or Loghain taking that throne, that’s different, I swore I’d take him down and I meant it. But if it’s me or Anora – I mean, there’s nothing wrong with -”
“That’s what we’re deciding tomorrow, young man.” Oghren’s expression softens slightly. “Believe me, I get what you’re saying. But aren’t you forgetting an oath that’s a little older?” His eyes bore into the human’s. “Or is it only the Legions who swear to do anything it takes to stop the darkspawn, be it spilling their blood, laying down their very lives or condemning themselves to a lifetime of luxury and power?”
… That was a bit of a bloody low blow. I’m not going to forget that one. Alistair actually flinches. “Fuck,” he says. Moment’s silence. “Look, I, uh. Yes. Yes, all right? I agree. This is what I look like when I’m agreeing with you.” Deep breath. Plasters the smile on. “Hello, good people; I am Alistair Theirin.” He clasps his hands behind his back and I can see the knuckles are white. “So pleased to meet you.”
But of course, nothing ever goes according to plan. The arl sweeps back in about half an hour later, just as I’m nearly on my way out; we see him pretty much the instant he’s in the door.
“Oghren? We have a problem.” He seems to notice the rest of us. “Ah. Also, perhaps – hmph. You’re all au fait?”
“Course they are.” Oghren’s voice is impatient. “Problem?”
“Mm. No princess.” He runs a hand through his thinning hair. “An hour spent pressing the flesh and showing the flag and wondering if it’s a set-up, then this woman comes up to me like a messenger, one of Anora’s maids. Apparently the regent has decided that in the current crisis and so on, the good lady’s current circumstances are too dangerous for her safety.”
The dwarf looks like he swallowed something sour. “He’s not taken her away.”
“Not out of the city, at least.” He purses his lips. “She’s currently a guest of Arl Howe.”
“Sensible.” Oghren nods. “More secure than Loghain’s own estate, and unlike the palace we don’t have anyone on the inside.”
“Yes. Well, the good lady doesn’t take well to confinement and wondered if there was anything that could be done about this.” He nods to me. “And I seem to recall that we know a few good people. The elves should have little difficulty in-”
“Elf, singular,” I say quietly, and he shuts his mouth at least. “And I’d have the same trouble getting in as anyone else. We may all look the same to you, but if Howe brought in only people he trusted then it’s very unlikely he’s got elves working for him.”
“Hmph. Regardless. My sergeant-at-arms tells me that you and Alistair are the match of any ten men you care to name. Ambassador, I regret to say-”
“That there’s only one dwarf in Denerim, and I don’t want to lead ’em straight to your door.” A grin behind his beard. “So I get the evening off; I’ll cope. Likewise the mages – a little light kidnapping, and Howe’s more likely to cover it up and say the princess is ill than he is to scream bloody murder in public; solid rocks turning to quicksand and plagues of giant spidery things and it’d be a different story.”
Morrigan snorts. “One giant spidery thing. There was only ever the one; no plagues or anything. Subtle magic is what I do, dwarf. I’m going.”
Damn it all. The alienage will keep. “All right. We’ve got a story that says that Wynne is here on Circle business together with a group of disguised Templars; Oghren, Wynne, I’m sure you can come up with something to further that while we’re gone. Leliana, you’ll go ahead and get us a way in; Morrigan goes in, finds the lady, then Alistair and I break her out, ideally without blood or good witnesses. I lead us back here and Leliana loses us any pursuit.” I look to the arl. “With your permission, ser.”
He gives it. We move.
Finally, something that feels anywhere near familiar. Not, of course, that I break into noble estates every day of the week, but it just feels good to be on the streets and doing some good, you know? The estate takes deliveries through a cellar hatch that’s practically unlocked and practically unguarded; Morrigan drops silently inside in rat’s shape and we hide. Me, I’m in a shadow you wouldn’t think you could fit a cat in, and I’m not seething quietly at all; it’s very clever of Leliana to note that they’re not well hidden when the nightwatchman passes, laugh loudly and make Alistair and herself unremarkable rather than inconspicuous in a time-honoured fashion –
You know? Morrigan’s taking her sweet bloody time –
There. The quiet mew of a cat from the hatch. Leliana lets Alistair go and he crosses first, I’m second, dropping down with all the noise of a shadow and closing the thing after me. A tiny sourceless red glimmer lights the store-room we’re in, and the witch’s voice is the tiniest whisper. “I have found the lady, unharmed, on the third floor. But, um, there might be a problem.”
“Go on,” I breathe.
“There is a sub-basement, below this one. Cells, and, well, worse. There are – people in there.” Her voice carries as much distress as a tiny whisper can. “I wasn’t aware people were allowed to keep such things in their houses.”
I see Alistair shift uncomfortably, clench a fist, open it slowly. “They aren’t. But we’re here for the lady.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought you would say.” Morrigan lashes her tail. “That saving one princess from temporary discomfort does more good than saving half a dozen people from -” she shivers, nose to tail – “the unspeakable. But one of them, one of them is different.” She sits up and stares at me. “One of them carries an active magical effect about him: you’d call it a blood curse, I think.” Her eyes glitter in the dim red light. “Either he is a Warden, or they have a darkspawn down there.”
Alistair lets out a breath like something hit him. “Kallian, we can’t leave a Warden.”
“Shouldn’t leave the others, and all,” I mutter.
“Think I like it?” He grimaces. “We can’t carry half a dozen people. We can carry two.”
I bare my teeth. “You’re right. Anora first. You’ve the rear. Morrigan. Lead on.”
And we move. Basement’s pretty much deserted, but the house is well enough occupied and guarded. Between Morrigan’s keen ears and my own, though – and the servants’ stairs, deserted at this hour – we can make it most of the way without violence at all. The cramped little back stair stops at the second floor; the way up to the third floor has a guard who Alistair deals with with a single blow of his fist, while Anora’s suite itself has a pair of bored-looking guards who are still fussing over the cat when their heads are knocked together. The lock on the door is good, but so’s the key on the guard’s belt; too easy.
Too easy, indeed. Morrigan didn’t tell us the lady had fallen asleep, sitting waiting in a comfortable chair facing the door; nor did she know that she was that much of a light sleeper. And so my first introduction to the princess dowager is when her eyes flutter open as I open her door, and seeing a dark shape against the glimmer of the lightstone from the passageway and not being quite awake, the bloody woman lets out a startled and all too audible squeal.
The humans all freeze, even the one shaped like a cat. Lucky I don’t.
“Come if you’re coming, Highness.” I give her a little bow of my head as she puts her hand over her mouth, suddenly awake enough to know what she’s done, and she gives a little scared nod. “Alistair, get her out of here. Morrigan, distraction.” They look at me dumbly for an instant. “Go.”
“And you?” Alistair’s already stepping into the room behind me.
You always wonder what princesses wear. This one is in what she clearly thinks are sensible shoes and a badly fitting gown she must have swapped with her maid; her flaxen hair is caught up in a black net. She’s got to have a full foot of height on me as she stands, not exactly steady on her feet, and she grabs a pretty little cloth bag as Alistair half leads, half drags her out of the room; I spend a few moments closing and locking the door quietly, a plan forming in my head.
Morrigan goes down the stairs in cat’s shape, going so fast she nearly overbalances. Loud voices from the guard-room right there, distraction, distraction – no time – think –
Alistair has the princess’s hand in one of his and a drawn blade in the other; she’s moving more quickly as she’s waking up, but still not as fast as he’d like. Down the stairs as quiet as feasible, hang a right –
A woman screams from the other end of the second floor, a scream to make your hair stand on end, goes right on till her lungs are empty and ends in a strangled sob. Was that – Morrigan? She’d bloody better be feigning that.
No time to worry as another door bursts open on the top floor where I am and I’ve seen the man coming out, once before. He was in Cailean’s court at Ostagar, standing by Loghain’s side. Let’s guess he’s the master of the house, shall we? Not showing his best, he ain’t, five foot nine and scrawny in his smallclothes and little else, a sword in his hand; I draw a blade with my left hand and point it at him to hold his attention as I kick the key under the princess’ door.
Not the hero type, him; he roars for his guards. Good, that’s good. Two directions for them to run that ain’t Alistair and the princess. Let’s see if I can’t gull him and all. I show him my teeth and take a slow silent step forward as my other blade comes out. “Rendon Howe, I assume? Arl of Amaranthine? Regent’s lapdog?”
“Kallian Dener, yes? The Wardens sent me their own harlot?” His voice is poisonous. “I should write, and thank them.”
Running feet on the stairs. I keep my tone cold. “By the rules I’m told you live by, ser, I’ll have satisfaction for that. Any time, anywhere you like.”
He laughs in my face. Knew he would. “It thinks it’s a knight. How precious.” This is just about keeping him busy, him and as many of his men as I can. “Maybe I’ll keep it for myself, once my men are done with it.”
I spit on his floor. Here’s the gull. Cross fingers in the back of my head. “You have taken one of my brothers. Did you think we would not know? Did you think we would not come?” I smile, unpleasantly. “I’ll have him from you. And this is the last time I shall ask with words.”
“Take her alive,” he says, matching me smile for smile. And they rush me.
Alistair hits the bottom of the servants’ stairs. No pursuit. Still empty down here. Noises upstairs. He doesn’t push his luck. Down the dim close little corridor. The princess stumbles in the near-darkness and he catches her before she can fall, pulls the two of them into the storeroom and before she can complain he’s got the hatch, standing on tiptoe. Leliana’s face pale in the dark. “Up,” he hisses to Anora, and cups his hands; she puts her foot in them, her hands on his shoulders and he lifts her up like she weighed nothing at all. “Go.”
Leliana looks down at him a moment, up at the house. Another scream, from upstairs. If that’s fake, it’s a good one – they lock eyes. She nods sharply, and takes the princess by the hand, and they are gone into the night, and he’s already drawing his blade as he goes back into the house.
I put one of them between me and the others when he grabs for me rather than leading with a weapon. He’s not so fazed, slams us both backwards hard into the wall next to the princess’s door, and that’s a mail shirt he’s got on under his surcoat, so the knifepoint that found his kidneys by reflex doesn’t do much. Kick to the back of his knee puts him off balance, and they’re all taken aback by my sheer strength as I throw him sprawling into the pack of them. Not trying to hurt ’em, now, just trying to tie ’em up. Another one comes for me, grabbing for my hair; my knife flashes and you know what? A cheap mail shirt is weak just under the arms. He collapses backward bleeding and swearing, and I push myself off him and roll to my feet going toward the stairs.
And I’m about to be off and away when the arl’s voice brings me up short. “I’ll be sure and thank your father for your politeness. Cyrion’s daughter.”
I’ve gone completely white and still and I’m facing him dead-on. One of his guards takes the chance to rush me; a blurring side-kick to the ankle and he trips headlong down the stairs. I can hear the fury of the darkspawn in the back of my head as I take a step towards the arl. “Harm one hair on him. On any of mine, you motherless bastard shem. And I will take your whole fucking head.”
“Oops,” he says. And he brings his blade up before him, one-handed hanging guard. “Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to take you to see him.”
I’m shaking and I’m not sure if it’s rage or hopeless fear that’s stolen my breath – his thrust comes out of nowhere. I twist aside faster than the flicker of a candle’s flame, but I started late – if he’d been a hair less arrogant and aimed for my heart and not my eye, that would have spitted me rather than drawing a burning hot line down my cheek. He’s right-handed, so I go for the inside of his arm with the dirk in my left hand, but somehow he’s there to counter it, a downward punch and flick of his crossguard that takes the weapon clean out of my hand and sticks the point in the floorboards. I go for him with the other blade, but he turns with me, light on his bare feet like a dancer, and again I blur back from a lunge that should have ended me but for my sheer speed, and my back slams into the bloody wall.
Fuck. Last time I was this badly outmatched I was facing Commander bloody Duncan. I can’t wait for him to come to me, not with my back to a wall, not facing a broadsword with a dirk. Deep breath and I flash forward at him, engage his blade with mine, moving fast enough that –
That if he’d had a dagger in his off-hand, I’d be on the floor holding my guts in right now. I see stars; he takes a careful step to the side and with a flick of the tip of his blade he matches the cut on my cheek with one on the other. Kisses the sword’s hilt to me like it’s a duel and steps elegantly back, using a low guard this time, and I use the time to draw the knife from my right boot. “Put down those toys of yours, and I’ll be minded to be merciful,” he says, and he’s still smiling. “I’ll put you in the cell next to your cousin’s. You know, the one you murdered all those innocent men for-”
Yes. I know he’s baiting me. It’s working. All right? I go for him with a wordless shout, pretty much same as I did last time, but this time there’s a blade waiting to answer his fist; instead he just melts away from my charge and spins, graceful, and thank the Maker I’m wearing my leather jerkin because it just turned a cut that should have opened my back down to the bone. I let the impact spin me round, kick off the wall and go straight at him again, and this time he’s trying to put a knee in my face; I twist quicker than he thought anything could and he manages to spin away from my blade but I still end up putting a little shallow cut in the muscle of his thigh.
No apparent sign of pain in him. Yeah, he’s bleeding, but so am I, and worse. Still losing this. The roaring in my ears ain’t just the darkspawn, not any more. Another thrust he makes, and I just about turn this one with the dirk in my left hand, try and bind the blades but he flicks his point away and reprises almost faster than I can duck –
“That said,” he says as we circle again, “I do see what that Vaughan boy was on about, with the girl Shianni. I honestly didn’t believe him, but once I’d-”
There is no more thought.
I open my mouth, I give tongue in chorus with the darkspawn. The arl’s eyes widen –
I move. Pain, sudden, icy-hot, in my side. It don’t matter, I’ve had worse. I bear him into the wall and his head cracks back against it as I drive my right knee up into his cod, he goes to strike me with his free hand and I grab it with a hand that seems to have dropped its knife and I spin him around and slam him into the floor and hear something splinter. Left hand still has the blade and that goes in somewhere in his back and when it won’t really go in properly I leave it there. Grab him by the hair and lift him up and slam his face back into the floor and when he’s still trying to move I do it again and again and again and again and again.
I look up from my kill and one of the arl’s guards is still on his feet and you can see white all the way around his eyes as he’s pressed into the corner as small as he can get. And when he sees my eyes on him he just freezes, starts to whimper like a child, and that brings me out of it, back to myself, the wet stinging pain in both cheeks and the stitch in my side and the spreading crimson to go with it. That’s not my enemy. It’s just another shem.
I’ve got to get out of here.