Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Eight

by artrald

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*

There are questions that are not asked; there are things that are not said. What is being done here, it is not fair, it is not impartial, it is not polite. The staff of the building seem consumingly distracted by the issue of their master’s recent passing away; it isn’t until the leader of the templars turns, lifts Howe’s steward nearly off the ground with one hand around his throat and says in a quiet deadly tone that whoever killed the man has done the Maker’s justice that the tone of the discussion is properly understood by all sides. This is not an investigation; this is a witch hunt.

And if there’s one thing that the templars are good at, it’s hunting witches. Alistair just about manages not to say that one out loud.

Remarkably few questions are asked of Leliana. The issue of how she knows what she knows, why she knows exactly where to go and what to look for – who she is, even – is curiously un-addressed. Similarly, nobody notices that the first thing down the stairs once the door is opened is a sleek black cat that’s favouring its left foreleg.

Anora refuses to look away, refuses to be corralled away from the squalid dungeon in the basement of the house. What she sees, she knows she will see again, in the middle of bad nights, but she rolls up her borrowed sleeves and will not be gainsaid as she lends what strength she has. Alistair’s right there beside her, and by their example the whole house is turned to the purpose of bringing Howe’s victims from their durance and doing for them what can be done.

The main hall becomes a kind of hospital; a templar is posted at every door and all people save Wynne and her patients are none-too-gently asked to remain outside until the enchanter has worked her magic. Mages are strange, everyone knows this; one whose only evidence of deviant behaviour is to seemingly be discussing her actions and patients with her cat – it’s not even worthy of comment.

The templar who broke the door of the house’s strongroom down takes one look at the things inside and sends immediately for the commander. The commander casts an eye over what his people have found, raises an eyebrow that someone would keep books in a strongroom and passes the word for the revered mother. The quiet, simply robed woman at the revered mother’s elbow frowns, looks over the titles of the books and sends at once for the enchanter. And Wynne looks over the books, exclaims to her cat over a couple of them and suggests they be confiscated immediately for transport to the Circle. Upon the revered mother’s slightly scandalised reaction, Wynne suggests a compromise; she indicates two of the five volumes and says that those books are bound for the restricted section of the Tower’s library, and likely contain nothing a sane person could use; those could as well be burned as confiscated.

And two of the remaining three books, being in their entirety composed of Howe’s spy reports and blackmail material, make their way quietly into Leliana’s keeping. And as for the third book, well, who can say?

It’s amazing how quickly and how far the mighty can fall. When the sun set today, Howe was the Regent’s right hand, the kingdom’s second man. By nightfall tomorrow, his name will be mud. The Maker’s justice is swift and it is sure, or at least, that is how it shall be seen by the common man. No authority under the sun may stand without His blessing and that of his Bride, or at least, that is how it shall be told, alongside the evidence of this man’s crimes.

And to be sure, this is going to back Anora’s father into a corner. Already paranoid about foreign influences, already convinced that the Wardens and the Chantry were too strong under the last king, already seeing foreign spies everywhere, and now his right-hand man is eliminated in a single stroke? And they cannot make the assumption that Loghain’s people have not seen and noted the Orlesian nun whose quiet words in the ear of the revered mother were the beginning of all of this. The Regent will be seeing foreigners in every shadow. He will rightly feel that his grip is slipping. He will try to tighten his hold. Yesterday, unseating him was a matter of honour, of justice. Tomorrow, it will be a matter of sheer pragmatism. Tomorrow, Loghain will be well set upon a path of ruin. The die is cast.

It’s late, when they return to Eamon’s estate. Alistair bids Anora good-night with a courtly bow and she’s suddenly and overpoweringly struck by this knight’s resemblance to her husband. Wynne heads almost immediately to her bed with dire warnings of dark fates to befall any who wake her early tomorrow. Leliana meets Alistair’s eyes and asks him to join her and Oghren in an expedition: she’s been told that the meaning in the world is to be found somewhere in a butt of sack that the dwarf has provided, and they’d appreciate someone to come with them and find out the truth of that.

And there is an elf standing outside Morrigan’s room, a juvenile if she’s any judge. Still in cat’s shape, she’s about to walk right by him when he looks straight at her and clears his throat. “Uh. Excuse me, uh. Sera?” When she freezes still and fixes him with a most un-catlike stare, he pales, she can hear his pulse quicken, and he goes on quickly. “I have been given some very precise instructions. C-can I have a moment of your time?”

*

The cages had no keys, no locks save the mage’s spells; the bars were wood; I tore them open with my bare fucking hands. I’m bleeding, now, but that doesn’t matter. None of us, none of us is spending one single instant more in a cage.

Shianni keeps insisting she’s fine, but I’ve caught her leaning heavily on things when she thinks I can’t see. Each breath I’m taking feels like it’s a tiny, tiny little bit shorter than the last one, and the pain inside me is getting worse rather than better. Keeper Valendrian insists on trying to help us personally on the basis that he’s no worse than me, and his granddaughter Taitha is a great help right up until she outright faints – and I hear a voice I didn’t expect to, look round and realise that the twins Malla and Xaren had followed us here from the alienage and are lending what strength they have.

But we’ve got everyone up and moving or being carried. Taitha’s pale as a sheet but she downright refuses to lean on anyone. Xaren doesn’t want to follow my instructions and leave us – I make it clear that I ran out of patience for bullshit some two hours ago, and if he really wants to push it I’m perfectly happy to hand him his arse in a sack. And everyone looks at me like they’re a little scared of me but I’m not paying attention. There are people to get moving.

We can’t stay in that warehouse, of course. Shianni picks up one of the foreigners’ long thin swords and hands me the other; none of the grown-ups have the energy to protest as Taitha and Shianni and I prepare to play guard; the fourteen-year-old Malla’s eyes are wide as I hand her the bright dwarven warrior’s knives from my boots and tell her I’ll want them back clean. The trek through the darkened city, four of us shepherding fourteen people stumbling half-blind and exhausted and leaning on one another through streets that are not exactly what you’d call friendly – I’m not sure I remember it all. It seems to take halfway to forever. The kid ends up leading the way, because she’s the most awake of all of us. And halfway there I cough to clear my throat and I taste blood and I just start coughing by reflex and by the time I can make an effort of will to stop the coughing fit I’m doubled up on one knee on the ground. I see the others looking at me concerned but there’s nothing any of us can do.

The one who gives me a hand up, it’s my father. I look into his eyes a moment and something inside me threatens to melt entirely, and I cling onto his hand a moment longer before we get moving again. You know what? We did it. We did it. Fifteen elves taken in there, fifteen came out. I spit blood into the gutter.

Think we’re coming back into the alienage the same way we left it. Light, noise, voices, relieved smiles turning quickly into concern. The keeper’s voice thin and reedy, Shianni relaying what he says in a loud clear voice. I can put my weapons away, now. She has hold of my shoulder to steady me; we’re walking somewhere. Home. Pretty comical, this, the two of us leaning on one another, the blind leading the near-sighted.

The front door. Vairi seeing me and Shianni covered in blood and muck, drawing breath to scold and my da stepping into the light and taking the wind right out of her. I can remember Shianni protesting weakly at being lifted off her feet and laid down in the back room, while I just hold my father’s hand and lean on him because he knows I hate anybody doing something for me if I can do it myself.

I can remember Xaren’s voice at the door and a series of loud surprised voices like they weren’t expecting a cat to shoot past them like an arrow from a bow; I can remember Morrigan’s amber cat-eyes looking into mine from about an inch’s distance, and then there isn’t anything to remember at all.

*

I wake. What d’you want me to say? It’s emotional. I wake before dawn, wearing my own clothes, in my own bed under a blanket my mother made and the first thing I see is my family. My injuries are gone just as thoroughly as if I’d dreamed them, from the pain in my chest to the scrapes on my hands to bruises I didn’t know I had. And Shianni sits up and smiles; touches a hand gingerly to the side of her face and it’s clear she’s feeling just the same, and she gives a look to the cat curled up on my pillow and I nod.

I help with breakfast because damn it, I am not a guest here, and despite his insistence that he’s feeling all right I am not letting my father serve me rather than the other way around. There aren’t a lot of words until breakfast is done and then I sit there with Da and Shianni and the others and I tell them – well – I tell them most of it.

I mean, I’m not exactly going to tell my aunt and my little cousins exactly whose room I was in and what I wasn’t wearing when I got this scar here, now, am I?

And I – well – I sort of gloss completely over what was actually wrong when we went to see the Dalish. They don’t need to know all that. Not like they’ll ever go, not like they’ll ever meet them personally. And the light in Shianni’s eyes when I tell her about what I saw and heard, about the evening we spent by the circle of the ara’vels – I wouldn’t mar that for the world.

And I talk to them about being a knight, and the way that half the time everyone treats me like this great noble and half the time everyone treats me like a sheep on its hind legs. And they realise that I mean it, that I am, and Da puts an arm round my shoulders and I cling on to him and for that one moment I’m eight again and he’s the strong one.

And I tell ’em what I told Shianni, that I can’t stay, that I shouldn’t have even stayed the night, that every moment I’m here is a risk, and Vairi says gruffly that it’s all nonsense and – yeah.

Eventually the words are done with and people are off to work and I start to pull myself back together and dress up once again as what I have become, not what I was. Morrigan, still cat’s shape, is sprawled asleep in our bed; Shianni comes stand beside me and says that we owe that cat our lives, don’t we, and I nod quietly. Morrigan flicks an ear in my direction and opens half an eye, and then I see her realise startled that she slept in and missed breakfast, and I smirk at her unimpressed stare.

Shianni kneels quietly beside the bed and pets the cat, and there’s a noise which she ignores which is Morrigan’s sharp intake of breath, and she thanks the creature in elvish, and when she’s finished Morrigan looks her in the eyes and whispers you’re-welcome, and I don’t know whether it’s on purpose or genuine but Shianni gives her delighted childish smile rather than recoiling as most people would, and I can see that that smile hit home.

Morrigan insists on saying hello cat-fashion to my da, who calls her a beautiful creature, though she doesn’t speak to him, and then she looks at me meaningfully and is out the door. My good-bye to him, to my family, I pretty much spent most of the last hour saying it properly; I tell them I’ll be seeing them and Da says Maker bless; I hug my cousins goodbye and turn away and don’t look back even a little bit.

Dawn has properly broken as Morrigan and I walk ourselves back to the arl’s estate. She goes in an open shutter on the first floor; I smile sweetly at the guard and the man touches his forelock and looks down when my eyes fall on him and opens the door.

This house is just getting up, it’s a little unbelievable. On the road we’d have been riding since first light. Suppose that you get to rise late if your blood’s as blue as Eamon’s – I insinuate myself into the hall where the early-risers are breaking their fast, and you know what? It might even be that they haven’t noticed I was gone. Not like anybody would actually have expected to be able to find me after I’d gone to bed, anyway. Alistair looks up with a quip about bloody layabout superior officers; surprised and blindsided, I give him an honest chuckle and he smiles and I feel the heat rise in my cheeks and everyone saw that.

*

The woman I brought back from Howe’s, she was taken back to the Chantry to be cared for under their gaze. She will likely never know that I did anything for her. Wynne tells me this carefully, as if expecting a hostile reaction; all I do is quote the Chant to her like a knight would and she nods serenely. The Warden we rescued, though, he’s still here, he’s asleep but he can be wakened without danger. So while the nobles get on with the horse-trading, Alistair and Wynne and I have a man to talk to.

He’s in one of the guest-rooms, cleaned up and clothed and asleep; Wynne asks if we’re ready and then wakes him with a sketch of two fingers through the air in front of his nose; he comes to with a gasp. “You’re safe-” Wynne begins; the man sits up so fast he nearly collides with her hand and looks about him with quick wary eyes.

“We’re none of us safe, madame.” He fixes Alistair with that slightly wild gaze. “Riordan de Gris at your service. If you sing the Chant, ser, you will get a message to the royal army forthwith.” He has the very slightest Orlesian accent.

“Uh-huh. Kallian Dener, Commander of the Grey in Ferelden.” I draw myself up, put my best dignity on. “Warden, report.”

“Commander?” He frowns. “Name for me your predecessor and his death.”

I arch an eyebrow. “Commander Duncan was slain by the treachery of this kingdom’s lord regent, for all that the Enemy wielded the blade. Would you have me prove my nature? Listen to some darkspawn for you, perhaps? Eat my own weight in beef? Leap ten feet in the air?”

He snorts. “You’re a Fereldan Warden, all right. And these? They can be trusted?”

I indicate them. “Warden Alistair Cliffe; Enchanter Wynne. You’re among friends.”

“Good.” He swings his scrawny legs down off the bed and stands a little unsteadily; he’s a head shorter than Alistair and maybe twice his age, wrought of whipcord and rawhide. “Your country may as well have come out for the darkspawn as far as Orlais is concerned, and that will be my report to my Commander the moment I can find a mage to send it. We were turned away at the border, you know; to force the issue would have been to dance on the edge of-”

“Turned away?” Alistair’s eyebrows shoot up. “How many?”

Riordan shrugs. “A short company, only. The Commander did not wish to embarrass her good friend Duncan by outnumbering his people. And, well – politics.” He might have been saying ‘cockroaches’ from his tone of voice. “The Emperor believes Ferelden incapable of bringing the darkspawn to battle in any meaningful fashion and has openly proclaimed the kingdom already to be lost; the polite excuse is that my company was an expedition to the Deep Roads.”

Alistair shakes his head . “Fifty Wardens. I don’t suppose you pitched your tents at the border and waited?”

“Hardly. I ordered my people back to Lydes, evaded the Fereldan patrols and came on to Denerim alone.” He draws his bushy brows together. “Not knowing local politics, I made the mistake of meeting covertly with the Regent. He nodded and smiled and spoke Orlesian to me, and when I stepped outside the room I was arrested. That was three weeks ago.”

I clench a fist. “If I’d but known-”

He grimaces. “It is done with. I spent my time in meditation, extending my Warden’s senses; give me a map and we’ll see if I can’t be of use to you yet.”

“You have mapped out the whole Blight?”

“No.” He looks down at me. “Nobody could hold all of that in their head at once. But the archdemon – ah. That is a different story. It is on the move. Do you yet have good intelligence on it?”

I look at Alistair. He shakes his head. “Beyond that it isn’t going west?”

“Mm.” Riordan draws his bushy brows together. “It believes that the little distraction that it’s put together in the minds of its minions is enough to keep us from tracking it. You know? The fanfare that helped me keep track of the days and nights in there?” He shivers despite himself. “It has taken a smallish force, heading north and east, not following the road, travelling only by night. I can give you a distance and direction and its past movements – if I’m right, it is moving to out-flank your armies entirely.”

“Going for the capital, you mean?” Alistair frowns. “Odd move for it, surely. If our reasoning is correct as to how it thinks – if it’s mostly out to spread chaos and terror – then there are many easier and closer targets.”

The older Warden shakes his head. “We  can’t assume it doesn’t know what we are and we can’t assume it doesn’t know its history. This thing is smarter than we are, remember.”

Blink. Uh. Yes. Sure. That’s a thing, that I should know. If I’m Commander. Which I am. I nod. “So it is likely to assume we’re trying to give it battle? Avoid the big obvious army and assume the obvious targets are a trap?”

“Perhaps.” He holds up a hand. “I could be wrong, of course. Even assuming I have not misread its intent, it could be outflanking our forces in order to encircle them, destroy them. A normal man or woman – even a mage – cannot slay the archdemon. It could be seeking to break the morale of the kingdom not by sacking the capital but by breaking the army.” A slight smile. “But we have a solution to this problem.”

“Go on.”

“Traditional wisdom, as you know, is to have the Wardens spearhead as small a force as is credible. One single stroke is required, one strike to end the war, and Wardens can break any line that anyone has ever seen. But I have a different idea. I recommend you split your people, commander. Half here, and half with the royal army. It is not ideal, but it will serve. Give a speech to the knights and ask for a dozen of the flower of Fereldan chivalry to draw steel beside each of your men; substitute the stubbornness of Fereldans for the strength of Wardens. You only need one Warden to deal the killing blow. One Warden is enough.”

Alistair and I look at one another. “…Uh. Two problems with that approach,” I say a little nervously.

“Go on,” says the Orlesian.

“So we’ll leave aside the problem of whether or not we control the army, because if we don’t, it’s all moot. But two problems remain, right? First – it, uh, wasn’t just Duncan who the Regent killed. None of the Wardens who remain had completed their training, I, uh. I don’t know how to kill an archdemon. ” See his eyes widen; carry on. “And second?” I swallow hard. “Counting you, ser, there are three Wardens in the kingdom.”

*

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