Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Six

by artrald

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*

Alister dithers.

He’s good at that one. Three times Redcliffe champion at hesitance, represented the arling at national tournaments of buggering about, probably among the world’s top ten at not making decisions. The sword is cold in his hand. Noise and chaos upstairs and she’s up there and she’s alone, but there’s a Warden in the dungeon – Stairs up? Stairs down. Stairs up? Stairs down.

He’s saved by the appearance of something in the gloom – small, quick – cat – Morrigan. Her voice sounds distinctly hoarse. “Waiting for me?”

Dithering? Him? Perish the thought. “What am I going to do, barge in and ask which of them I’m supposed to be saving?”

“Hmm. Go on. The door is locked.” She bares her teeth in a sort of smile. “You can’t identify him yourself?”

He gives her a disparaging glance. “You remember that I said I saw everyone die? At Ostagar? If I’d meant to say ‘everyone except for Davy, good old Davy’, you think I might have said something. My guess is that he’s an Orlesian sent to ask why the archdemon wasn’t dead yet. And Wardens can’t sense one another. I won’t know him from Andraste, except that he’s probably, you know, not a woman.”

“Fine.” She pads down the stairs to the door and noses at it exactly like a cat asking for a door to be opened.

He gives a snort of what could from some angles look like laughter, steals down the stairs with a minimum of noise and puts his foot to the door.

She could have mentioned the guard – luck holds, though, and the man comes straight at him rather than screaming and running. Doesn’t know how to use a blade; not quite sure how to take a wall to the face, but settles for folding up nervelessly.

This room – a chair, a table, a couple of locked cabinets, another chair bolted to the floor, a couple of nameless stains. A second door. Can already smell the place. Smells like… Smells like a darkspawn lair, is what it bloody smells like.

The keys, they are right there, but somehow the door is best opened less politely than that. One long dark corridor below, a door at the end. Line of – not cells. Cages. On fucking display. The people within – A Warden’s keen senses let him see in the gloom outlined by the one guttering torch, let him hear the quiet sounds of the place; a Warden’s keen senses make him turn with a violent disgusted motion and put a vicious boot into the piece of human filth that was complicit in this. Something breaks, and it’s not the boot.

Sound from upstairs. Someone’s coming down the stairs to the basement. He doesn’t have much time. “Morrigan, which cell?”

She trots past and flows upward out of cat’s shape to put a hand on one of the cage doors. “I can’t get in. Can’t wake him. The whole cage is enchanted, and his chains for good measure. The bars are-”

“Yeah?” He sheathes his blade, grabs a bar with his left hand, thumb pointing downward. “Move.” She steps aside and he takes the one next to it with his right. Deep breath. No idea if the Chant actually helps with magic, but still, it can’t hurt – “Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him,” he intones, and tries not to hear Morrigan’s quiet disgusted noise.

He bares his teeth and muscles bunch in his massive shoulders and there’s the sound of protesting iron. The tendons stand out on his neck and the bars begin to bend. He lets out a wordless snarl of effort and pulls his hands apart and there’s a sudden loud snapping noise that echoes on the bare stone, and the bars come loose violently from their mountings and the pain in his hands is irrelevant.

“-The bars are only welded, and their joints should be weak, are you all right?”

“Are you?” No attempt to moderate his volume, and his voice fills the space, and Morrigan flinches back from him (away from safety, he’s between her and the exit, and animal instincts really aren’t helping) and in the darkness where they aren’t watching someone bursts into tears.

He turns back to the cage with a soldier’s oath. No way he’s getting through without taking out another bar or two –

Morrigan makes herself put a hand on Alistair and push him gently out of the way, and she insinuates herself through between the bars and their disintegrating spell of confinement and crouches next to the unconscious filthy chained naked man. “He’ll fit through easily enough-”

Raised voice, up stairs, in the basement. That ragged hiss of a response can only be the Commander. Alistair’s head snaps around –

*

The shem has a glass jaw. I close the door to the stairs and haul his unconscious form over to block it.

Sweet Andraste, I can smell that dungeon from here now they’ve got the door open. Down the stairs two at a time. Alistair’s at the bottom and he says my name, he’s looking at me concerned and you know what? My side, it hurts. It really bloody hurts. Only one thing in my head, though.

“Sure,” he says as I push wordlessly and quickly past him and through into the noisome gloom. “Guess I’ll… take rearguard, then.”

Morrigan is bent over the limp form of a man in one of the cages in here – actual cages, like animals – ugh – I raise my voice and I don’t care if they can hear the fear in me. “Da?” My voice echoes wretchedly in the little dungeon. “Father?” My eyes are scanning over each prisoner just looking for anyone too small and thin to be here – there’s one – I cling on to the door of the hateful cage and look closer – it’s a woman, they chained her by her wrists with chains too short to let ler lie down. Maker, please. “Shianni?” Please, no.  “Lethallan?”

She raises her head. It’s – it’s not. It’s not an elf at all. It’s a human, a little gaunt human woman. Relief makes my eyes well up, sheer bloody blessed relief, the bastard was lying to me. And the human looks at me and it comes to me that there are tears making tracks on her face, that she didn’t understand a word of that, she thinks I’m here – for –

There’s a splintering popping sound from the cell Morrigan’s kneeling in. “Okay, that’s the chain,” she says, quiet as a mouse like I wasn’t just yelling my head off. “Your turn.”

Guilt. I – Maker hear me, I can’t, I can’t. I fish out Zevran’s roll of lockpicks, won’t take me a breath – I’m out of practice, but this lock ain’t built to keep people out –

“Kallian, I can’t both lift him and fit through this hole.” Morrigan looks over and sees me fiddling with another door. “We’ve already had the argument you’re reprising. Now come.”

Click. I haul the cage open; it creaks like the gates of hell, and the wound in my side takes that moment to give me a bright star of pain. “Swap you.”

“Why?” She looks at me seriously as I get myself inside the Warden’s cage. She hasn’t moved.  “What is she?”

“Lucky.” My side hurts. “Bring her.”

She looks at me hard for that, for all that she does as I tell her. “Just so you know, Kallian?” She slams the heel of a hand against the prisoner’s chains and they crack right across with a splintering noise; she gathers the woman up carefully into her arms. “I am reaching my limits here.”

I don’t waste breath on that. The Warden’s skin is cold to the touch and he’s terrifyingly light and he stinks and I have to turn him sideways to get his shoulders through the hole in the cage. He’s trying to move; I guess it ain’t too dignified being carried by a girl a foot shorter than you. Well, he can lump it and all.

“Uh, don’t want to worry you.” Alistair’s voice carries down the stairs. “But I’m doing a doorstop impression up here.”

I don’t have the air in my lungs to spare him a reply. He’s got a shoulder against the door to the rest of the house as I carry the Warden out.

And Morrigan turns in the doorway out of the dungeon and looks back into the darkness, her burden slung over one shoulder. “Um,” she says. “You. All of you.” Takes an unsteady breath.

“In your own time, Morrigan.” Alistair braces his shoulder as something hits the door again and it doesn’t move.

“I am coming back,” she says in a voice with a quiver in it. “I cannot carry you all. But I am coming back.” She closes her eyes for a moment, opens them again. “I am coming back.” Turns on her heel and leaves without another look.

*

Just about getting one foot in front of the other, here. The Warden is a massive dead dragging weight in my arms. Pain in my side my ever-present companion. Alistair’s carrying the woman we saved and he’s walking as if she weighs nothing at all. Morrigan is a dog, now, a sleek dark intimidating presence that’s absolutely a dog because you don’t get wolves in cities.

Alistair says something about not far now. One foot. In front. Of the other. I can go forever if I take it one step at a time.

Running feet, ahead of us.  Coming closer. Dark shape – Morrigan will have to deal with it – “Where ‘ave you been?” It’s Leliana. “I thought you were right behind us!”

“Nice to see you, too.” Alistair’s voice is weary, though his tread is light. “The lady?”

“Inside. Come.”

Corner. A gate, closing behind us. Steps, just a couple, but they nearly have me on my face. A door. We’re in a scullery or something. Big table. Stools. A fire in the hearth. Blessed warmth. I shiver convulsively.

Someone – Leliana – is trying to put arms around the man I’m carrying, trying to lift him. Moment before I realise she’s trying to help and let him go. “Morrigan,” she says, a little urgency in her voice, laying him gently on the sturdy table. “This man is bleeding, I need you.”

The witch’s body mists and flows back up from wolf’s shape and she’s leaning on the table with both hands, flushed. She looks him over with cat’s eyes, frowning. “Um, no. That blood, it’s – not – his -”

A moment later and Morrigan has lifted me up to sit me on the table beside the man. “Kallian, look into my eyes, Leliana, get Wynne.”

Leliana’s expression is that of a woman who just saw someone pick up a live asp by the tail. Morrigan’s head snaps around after a moment. “Now, if you please.”

Meanwhile, maybe I’m a little bit blurred with tiredness, but I can see Morrigan fine. Alistair has put the woman that he was carrying down on the table next to me, and she’s sitting up like I am while the man next to us is lying down, three of us on here now in a line, ain’t that funny?

“Brimstone and bloody perdition,” the witch mutters. “Look at me, look into my eyes.”

I nod, the gesture feeling a bit exaggerated. The world keeps moving a moment after I stop moving my head.

“That’s good, keep looking at me.” I don’t catch the next few words she says, I don’t think they’re Fereldan. Her eyes, it’s not like they are glowing, but they’re leaving little trails of purple afterimage in my vision. Everything’s getting a little bit… detached. Hurts less.  Blanket. Someone just draped a blanket or a cloak around me. I’ve started to shiver, now. It’s – no, it’s warm in here. I just said that. But I’m shivering.

Alistair’s standing there looking concerned and helpless. “Can I…?”

“Silence or absence. Pick one.” Morrigan puts a hand on the shoulder of the woman next to me and draws a sign before her eyes in the air; the woman goes suddenly limp and she lies her carefully back on the table. Looks at the three of us, chewing on her lip, leaning on her staff. She’s still flushed, breathing quickly.

Door opens. Light, bright. Doesn’t hurt my eyes, it’s just just that there is no longer shadow of any kind in the room. Sound of Wynne’s staff on the flagstones. The enchanter’s voice, gentle as ever. “Give me the tale.”

Morrigan’s voice. “Gut wound. About twenty minutes old.” Yeah, she’s definitely out of breath. “Someone ran her through with a broadsword.”

“And you got me out of bed for that?” There’s a gentle smile in Wynne’s voice as she leaves her staff to stand up on its own and starts to roll up her sleeves.

Fuck you!” Morrigan snarls as she rounds on the little enchanter. “I am well past any kind of safe limits here. I’ve changed my shape so many times today that I can’t remember how many feet I’m supposed to have and I’m just lucky it’s an even number, and I’m sustaining a life-ward and a sleeping spell and a cantrip to suppress an injury of my own.” She takes a ragged breath and the hurt in my side slams back into full prominence and I bite my tongue rather than make noise. “Which I haven’t properly healed or even investigated because I have used every last drop of my power to get these three people back here in a condition where you can save them.” Her eyes are wet. “And I have condemned eight, real, live, breathing, suffering people to a fate I didn’t think existed outside of the depths of the Fade, because I didn’t have the moral fortitude to stand up to my friends. So I would take it as a courtesy-“

“It’s all right.” Wynne raises a placatory hand.

“No.” Morrigan takes a shivering breath. “It is not-”

Wynne’s voice hardens to steel in an instant. “Stand down. She’s all right.”

And Morrigan follows Wynne’s eyes and sees Leliana standing about eight inches behind her left shoulder and goes pale as she turns around quickly to face her. Leliana doesn’t blink and doesn’t try to hide the little silver knife in her right hand and the two of them stare at one another for a good long moment, Leliana focused and balanced and wound as tight as a harp-string, Morrigan shocked into wide-eyed frozen silence.

And it’s Alistair who breaks the tension between the two of them. Physically steps between them, pushing Leliana backwards, looks down at her, doesn’t say a thing, just silent, and she turns abruptly and leaves the room without another word.

*

Feeling a lot better, I am – Wynne has moved me onto a stool and is working patiently on my face by the time the arl storms into the scullery, Oghren and the princess in tow, Leliana shadowing behind ’em.

“Let me see her,” he says in a voice that brooks no interference, and Wynne takes a second to finish with my left cheek before stepping politely back.

“‘Scuse my undress, ser,” I say. After all, I’m not in much more than underthings right now. “Mind if I stay sat?”

“Stand on your head for all I care.” He frowns down at me. “You were in a fight. A serious one. After Anora was rescued.”

“Aye,” I say. I know that it makes me look shifty as all the hells not to look at him, but right now I’m too tired to play the little shem.

Businesslike he is. “And you killed how many?”

Bite my lip. “One.”

“Witnesses?”

“Aye.”

“Know who you were?”

“He named me on sight, ser.” I try for Alistair’s brand of humour. “I suppose we can hope they heard the other names he called me and forgot my right one.”

“I’m going to regret asking this, aren’t I-”

“You killed the arl,” Anora interrupts, more intrigued than disgusted. “Didn’t you?”

That makes me look at her. She hasn’t found time to change, but she’s wearing a couple of jewels she wasn’t before, and she’s washed and painted her face, I suppose a human would call her pretty. Same time as she’s looking at me and realising that the elf who rescued her was a girl. “If you’ve vengeances to take on him, lady, I’m sorry.” I let my expression and my voice go flat. “He attacked me. I defended myself. He threatened my family. I killed him.”

The arl frowns. “In front of witnesses.”

I nod. “I think I left my knife in his back. And I was leaving a trail of blood the rest of the-”

He pinches the bridge of his nose with a pained expression. “Did he also happen, perchance, to write your name in blood on the wall as he died?”

“Ser?”

“Don’t worry,” he sighs. “Is there anything else I need to know? Potentially related to why there are two people sleeping on my scullery table?”

Alistair butts in. “All right, my lord, yes. There is.” He glances at the rescued prisoners, sleeping soundly now under Wynne’s spell. “Howe had what I’ll call a dungeon, under his house-”

“That place is real?” Anora puts her hand to her mouth. “My father has stories of the arl of Amaranthine. He used to threaten me with an alliance with the Howes, you know, back before I knew how stupid that would be.  These people – they were in one of his – I was in the same house as -” She looks faintly ill.

“We didn’t exactly investigate in depth. But that dungeon – my lord, I know a lord has his rights. But that place was no-” he bites off a word you probably shouldn’t say to an arl – “no mere prison. And I’m sure he doesn’t have the right to lock a Warden in a place like that, and I’m sure that the man asleep on your table is a Warden.”

The arl nods slowly. “And the woman?”

Alistair looks at me; I can feel the heat rise in my cheeks. “I uh.” Swallow. “Howe lied to me, he said he had my cousin in his bloody cages, and I mistook this woman for my kin in the dark and broke her out.”

“So, what, we’ve liberated one of Howe’s enemies completely at random and by chance?”

“What was I supposed to do, put her back?”

And the way he looks at me in that moment, it’s the look my uncle gave me the first time I made myself sick from drinking, the look that counts every bit of the thirty years difference in our ages, and I realise that up until right this moment he’d thought me Alistair’s elder –

“Excuse me, my lord.” Leliana’s voice from the doorway is steady, for all that she’s keeping her eyes well away from Morrigan. “If Loghain is allowed to control this, there will be soldiers at our door, the Wardens will be on trial for murder, and there will be blood in the streets by dawn. So we must take control before the Regent does.”

He directs his frown her way. “Clearly. D’you mean by that that you’ve come up with a plan?”

“Per’aps. A peer of the realm may keep a prison, and prisons are unpleasant places – given the Regent’s views, the presence of a Warden there is not by itself a surprise. But if I may – if Howe will keep a Warden in his private dungeon, what are the chances that everybody in there is lawful prisoner?”

None.” Anora nods. “Howe is – I apologise – Was my father’s right hand. He was untouchable and knew it. No man would dare even to ask.”

“And yet – All people are the Work of our Maker’s Hands, from the lowest slaves to the highest kings. Those who bring harm without provocation to the least of His children, they are hated and they are accursed.” Leliana spreads her hands. “If the Chantry in this city is given account of that place – given an excuse to investigate such a man, don’t tell me they do not already suspect – and ‘does not dare’?” Her expression hardens. “Then the Maker will grant me the authority to act in their place.”

Anora raises her eyebrows. “And you are…?”

“Unless the revered mother takes no action tonight, my lady, I am nobody at all.” Leliana inclines her head. “We must move quickly. My lord, this was your idea, and may I suggest a contingent of your own guard; Wynne, you will make these people stable and come with us, for I fear you shall be needed.”

“I’ll come.” Alistair stands.

“Your place is by Anora’s side, at least until we-”

“Well, then.” The princess’s tone is challenging. “I’ll come.”

A moment’s consideration, then Leliana nods shortly. “As you wish, milady.”

Morrigan takes a deep slow breath, and on the exhale she flows down like mist into a cat’s shape and pads softly over to stand by Wynne and the slightly horrified nobles. Now I know what to look for, I can see she’s favouring her left foreleg.

Oghren says he’s perfectly happy to hold the fort. I make a noncommittal noise: I have somewhere else to be, tonight, but if they want to assume I’m going to stay here that’s all the better.

They go, all noise and clatter and authority. Maker walk with ’em. I suppose that’s the idea.

And the moment Oghren’s gaze is elsewhere and I’ve stopped feeling like I’m about to fall on my face, I slip myself out the servants’ door.

*

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