Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Nine

by artrald

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Morrigan slips into her room in cat’s shape and shoulders the door to; the moment it closes, she pictures her true body firmly in her mind and it feels like standing up from the floor and looks like ink in water.

She turns to look herself over in the mirror – who’s the fairest of them all? – and freezes.

Because Leliana is sitting on the bed. Bloodshot eyes, dark circles under them, smells of stale wine – her hair is a mess – she hasn’t changed, her habit still bearing the mud and grime of the streets and the odd spot of blood. She doesn’t blink.

And Morrigan is outwardly immaculate, not a stain or spot, no sign of yesterday’s exhaustion and scathe. She’s also dead still, still and cold as ice, hardly breathing. Can’t take her eyes off the woman sitting on her bed.

“Last night.” Leliana’s voice is, if anything, rougher than the rest of her.

Morrigan doesn’t move. She recognises the feeling that has stolen her voice and is trying to steal the rest of her. The tool is familiar. She recognises the physiological responses. She acknowledges that in most situations she’s ever likely to be in, they do not help. That doesn’t stop the small and growing part of her that wants to run, to cry out, to get out and away and never come back.

“I couldn’t sleep.” Leliana still hasn’t blinked. “I ‘ad been drinking. Considerably. I could not sleep, partially because of you, and so I – sought you out. And you were not there.”

The sharpness of that last word makes Morrigan flinch involuntarily. She’s started actually shivering. Her self-control is eroding like mist in springtime.

“Must I tell you again about the seriousness of our situation?” Leliana’s bloodshot eyes are burning into Morrigan’s in the mirror. “Must I inform you that there is not time for this kind of thing to ‘appen?” She comes to her feet. “Must I remind you that we do not ‘ave time or energy to waste by investigating your… behaviour-”

And Morrigan cracks: she lets out an involuntary whimper of fear and collapses almost nervelessly forward, twisting around as she falls, by instinct bringing what she’s holding – her staff – around between the two of them and making herself as small as she can. And Leliana sees the deadly weapon come around to point at her and puts useless hands up to cover her face with a cry –

A moment later and neither of them is dead.

Leliana breathes. Lowers shaking hands. Another breath, convulsive, quick, shallow. Staring into the witch’s eyes.

Morrigan breathes. The staff tumbles from nerveless fingers. Cold. Silent. Frozen. Trying to focus her mind, to get enough of a grip that she could safely cast if she had to, but it won’t come.

Leliana moves, quickly. Turns away and pulls the door open and leaves the room, just gets out of there as fast as she can.

And it takes Morrigan maybe five or ten attempts after that before she can breathe in deeply and out slowly without making noise involuntarily. It’s an old exercise, one of the oldest she remembers her mother teaching. Come on. She concentrates and the tears stop. Breathe. She focuses and the trembling ceases.

She breathes in jumbled chaos and transmutes it into cold order and breathes it out. Three. Four. Five even steady breaths. She calls to mind her deep-seated desire for physical perfection, runs the spell of restoration over herself, with the mental image of a stiff brush. Her eyes cease to sting and her hair returns to its place, and she leans on her (mother’s) staff as she stands and glares at herself in the mirror, and the only sign of what’s going on inside her is in her eyes.

Leliana doesn’t make it all the way to her room. She walks into a table, stumbles, pretty much collides with a wall, slides down till her arse hits the floor, draws her knees up, puts the left side of her head and her right hand against the wall and makes herself small. If anyone finds her, calculates a small part of her, she’s just disgracefully drunk: that’s fine, everyone knows those dirty foreigners drink too much. Everyone knows she drinks too much. And everyone knows she gets weepy when she’s had one or two too many.

Eventually the rest of her is paying attention, again.

She is being investigated by a cat, purring quietly. Cats that haven’t been spoiled by humans don’t just make that noise when they are contented. They purr when they are dirty, cold, in need of attention, in need of help. This cat is purring. It is big and sleek and pretty and well fed. In fact, if it weren’t the exact mousy brown of Morrigan’s hair, it would be a very believable cat indeed.

The cat noses at her hand, the one on the wall. She looks at the cat levelly. The cat looks back with the exact same amber eyes Morrigan uses for all her vision spells. Then it noses at her hand again.

“What is it that you are trying to achieve?” Leliana doesn’t move.

The cat puts its nose insistently under Leliana’s wrist. Its fur is very soft.

“I know precisely who you are, you know.”

The cat purrs.

She sniffs and takes her hand off the wall. “What do you want me to say?”

“I’m sorry.” The cat’s mouth moves disturbingly as it forms sounds an animal can’t make.

Leliana makes a fist of that hand. “Yes. All right.” She shakes her head slowly. “I scared you. I compounded my mistake of yesterday by shouting at you and I did not realise that you were afraid of me, and we are both very lucky that your self-control is so good. And I am sorry.”

“No.” The cat draws its head back to look Leliana in the eye. “I am sorry. Today and, and yesterday. This whole thing is as much my fault as yours.”

“And so your only logical response is to transform into a cat and track me down?”

The cat inclines its head. Watching it talk is… unsettling. “Your beliefs say that actions matter, where thoughts do not. A cat cannot meaningfully injure you; a cat cannot use my staff; I cannot perform harmful magic sufficiently quickly without it; a cat is a fragile creature. I offer apology. I offer peace.”

“You know that I cannot offer you my word of honour never to hurt you.”

“I do not ask it.” Morrigan lies down, leonine, her paws folded. “You did what you did, yesterday and today, out of an honest concern. That it was wrong does not change your motives.”

“I nearly killed you yesterday. You nearly killed me just now. And now you-”

“Just now?” Morrigan blinks. “No. I – have learned that lesson. I was surprised – frankly, I was terrified – and my focus went all to pieces. I could not have cast just then and been sure of controlling it. In that moment, Leliana, I thought I was staring my own death in the face. And rather that than-” She shudders and looks down. It looks strange on a cat.

Leliana shoulders herself off the wall and looks at Morrigan straight. “You know that I cannot – should not – trust that you will always make the decision the same way. You know that we will always be a threat to one another. And you ask for peace. You could never turn your back on me again.”

Morrigan shakes her head. “The most amazing thing in the world is the ability of the mind to normalise the abnormal. The mages of the Circle live under constant threat in what is explicitly a prison, and yet Wynne has spent a fulfilling lifetime there. The elves live in conditions a rat would object to, and yet I’ve seen for myself that they are not continuously miserable – quite the reverse. For all of my life I have lived with the knowledge that one false move would be enough to make everything I’d done, everything I am, completely irrelevant. To be remembered only in infamy. What’s another knife to my back?” She’s looking straight into Leliana’s eyes in the way a cat won’t. “I’ll live, Leliana. And d’you know the second most amazing thing in the world?”

“Go on.”

“Someone who you can trust to stab you in the back only when you deserve it.” The cat’s face turns Morrigan’s attempt at a smile into something slightly demonic. Leliana bites back a snort of laughter which would be the start of a potentially very dangerous attack of giggles; Morrigan continues. “I suppose that it is as good a definition of friendship as we can have. I am bad at friends; I have very few. You are – you were – one of them; I have no desire to stop being your friend, and thus upon reflection I’ve decided that your actions are both understandable and justified. You scared the everliving perdition out of me, yes – but I did do a very good impression of a clear and present danger. And if we were not friends, you would not be so unsettled by having clashed with me so.” She sits up and stretches out a paw. “Peace?”

Leliana touches the paw with a finger. “Peace.”

*

You know? I’m getting the feeling that we are not making a good impression on this Orlesian Warden. I mean, it’s not like he’s out and said anything, but he’s definitely started talking down to us. First off I took it for the usual bullshit you’d expect from a shem who hadn’t really spoken to elves beyond crying for more ale, but he’s doing it to Eamon just as much – in fact, he’s mostly giving the briefing to Oghren, who’s somehow managed to come across as the only competent one at the table. I suppose that the only dwarves Riordan’s ever met before were elite warriors on long patrols.

At least he has the decency to conceal that Alistair and I don’t know what he is telling the others. Around the table we have him, me and Alistair, Oghren, Leliana, Wynne, Morrigan, Eamon. He leans over the map table and has their word of honour for silence concerning this before speaking a word, and he flicks an eye to me for the slight nod that says that nothing is awry. And he speaks a few of the Grey Wardens’ secrets to us, in order that we can –

You know what? Fine. This is how it is. Grey Wardens die young, and not because of their tendency to go charging off after good causes. It’s why the Wardens have the right to conscript out of the prisons or off the gallows: the Joining is a death sentence. A Grey Warden is not just a darkspawn whose mind remains intact, whose body remains un-ravaged. The ceremony – he doesn’t describe it in detail – creates a curse, one that cannot be removed without killing the Warden. For some, ‘those who are weak of will or lacking in character’ he says, the curse takes effect immediately and they die. For the others, it is only delayed, a deadly blade hanging over the Warden’s head by a slender thread. The power, the speed, the senses, even the sixth sense – they are side-effects, they are all side-effects. A Grey Warden exists for the sole and singular purpose of delivering the spell that is bound inside them to the archdemon of the Blight, and allowing it to take effect.

Alistair and I share a bit of a look, at that one. It’s all in the words, I suppose: do you wish to turn back the Blight, though it mean your life? But I can see it in his eyes. In the Joining, in that moment when the curse took hold, if he hadn’t meant what he said then he’d be dead now. I’ve no idea what he sees in my face. Anyway, Riordan’s still talking.

The archdemon can’t be killed any other way, he says, and that’s not because it’s too big or too strong. Some of the stories of templars or even mortal knights slaying dragons and things are perfectly true, and there’s absolutely nothing that a well-trained mage can’t destroy – Wynne nods at that. The archdemon can’t be killed because it’s an archdemon: it is spirit, not flesh. It doesn’t have a body: it borrows one. Think of it as an abomination that does not need a mage to provide a host. It won’t do this on a whim – it pains it, to change bodies – but not nearly as much as it hurts the army that just spent most of its might killing a thing which just reappears instantly somewhere else. To slay the archdemon by sheer force of arms, you would have to slay every single darkspawn that existed.

But a Warden – or so he was taught – is to the demon a sucking whirlpool. Stand them close enough when the archdemon dies – in all of the tales of the five Blights that there have been before, theirs was the killing blow – and it has no choice as to where to go. And the curse takes effect, and burns the Warden as fuel to consume the archdemon.

Wynne puts her hand over her mouth and looks at the three of us; Morrigan is looking increasingly queasy; Leliana swears under her breath in Orlesian. Yes, Riordan says. If this curse were pointed at anything other than the most unholy of demons, if it were anything but a volunteer that it consumed, it would be the foulest of acts. But it isn’t, and it isn’t, and it isn’t. And Morrigan turns to me and says that she supposes that I am a volunteer?

I catch her eyes and keep ’em and say nothing till she looks right at her toes and says quietly that she withdraws the question.

And thus a Warden must be delivered to the heart of the horde, to the archdemon, and they must fight it – abomination, remember, or that’s what the tales say, nobody knows what it actually looks like, but isn’t it lucky that not only can we tell it on sight but we might actually stand a chance of taking something like that in a fight. And they must kill it, and then they will die.

So, says Alistair, soonest begun is soonest ended, when do we get started?

The answer is, we already have. The battlemages of the Circle may nearly all still be with Loghain’s army near Denerim, but the subtler talents, applied with a will, have found a great deal of use. The entire of the western and north-western fronts are being coordinated by messages and omens in dreams, with each separate company being accompanied by a well-protected apprentice mage and the whole thing being coordinated by a team of experts at the Tower; for sure, it isn’t the hive-mind of the darkspawn, but as Eamon says, if either side had had this kind of power during the revolution, it wouldn’t have even been a war.

And they’ve started to get messages from another group entirely; a puzzled request to Wynne last night was met with the response that yes, there probably are quite a few mages out there – elves, yes, that sounds right – who might well have useful information to provide. And yes indeed, what the templars don’t know about these mysterious apostate scouts can’t hurt them, although clearly she didn’t say that in words.

To an observer who didn’t know what was going on – one in Loghain’s army, for example – it would rather look as if Eamon was paying the Blight about the same amount of attention that Loghain is. The main bulk of the army – almost all of the fighting core of it, in matter of actual fact – has not engaged at all; in fact, it looks an awful lot like they are marching on Denerim.

And so Loghain’s army, it has mostly not moved. And the two of these armies – one openly calling itself the King’s, the other one beginning pretty much to call itself the Queen’s – there is little to separate them but a slice of the plain of the Bannorn that’s getting thinner every day.

And if suddenly you think that the archdemon’s doing all this on purpose – if it’s cleverer than we had possibly thought, if it’s got an idea of what the two armies are doing and has decided to let them fight it out? Then suddenly the pattern of the horde’s movements makes sense. The archdemon, too, is holding back the bulk of its force. It’s making life worse for everyone, spreading chaos and misery as it can and letting man’s inhumanity to man do its dirty work for it, and then the moment the dust starts to settle we’ll find we’re up to our noses in darkspawn.

A united Ferelden still won’t be able to put together an army that can reliably defeat the darkspawn horde and come away alive, but they might be able to put one together that could give their lives to put Riordan and Alistair and me in the archdemon’s face. A Ferelden at war with itself – our best option would literally be to abandon Duncan’s memory and surrender, because at least then the kingdom would still be able to field an army of any kind. Which leads us pretty directly to our plans for the Landsmeet.

The official business, of course, is my accusation of Loghain – Eamon recognising my position means that I get treated like a peer of the realm whatever Loghain wants, so I’m expected to be there and talking. The aim is to put enough evidence before the Bannorn, before the Landsmeet in general, that they will turn on the Regent and kick him out on his ear – but this plan relies on them possessing a chivalric bone in their bodies, and while Eamon would like to say that this is a given, he won’t swear to it.

So the fallback position is that one of us calls him out. Anora fidgets and asks if we’re seriously discussing the deliberate murder of the one remaining member of her family, to her face, and Alistair’s reply is to quietly say that the Regent killed his brother with less honour than this: the princess doesn’t look overly convinced, and I just want to slap some sense into her because I know what it cost him to put it like that. And beside, as he says: a duel ‘to the death’ need not involve any actual death. Loghain would never accept quarter at my hands, but he might just do so at Alistair’s. Of course, he might call me out, in which case having the heir to the throne fight in my place would be a terrible plan; we could bring Riordan along to champion me, but he’s not exactly in shape to take down a man once considered one of the deadliest blades in the kingdom.

And I am? I don’t say that. They all know that I killed Howe, they all saw what I’d made of his corpse in return for a mere stab wound, a couple of cuts nearly faded and forgotten not a day later. They believe in me. Maybe they’re right.

But all said and done, that’s the sideshow for most of the banns who are going to be there. For them, this is about seeing the king and the queen and making sure their side is chosen, and Oghren mentions this and Alistair goes a funny shade. The king’s faction need to see their prospective king, and what they need to see is a man just like Cailien; meanwhile, while Loghain’s plan to put a queen up in direct opposition isn’t going to look good for him any more, it’s pretty much a done thing. The hall is pretty much going to line up on opposite sides like a chessboard, and Anora and Alistair will talk and the whole of the kingdom will hear, and then the opposite sides will go off to their armies and everything will start.

Only, of course, the talk will be of peace, what’s the word Anora uses, of alliance rather than of war. And we have roughly speaking two potential courses for the archdemon and two armies. A Warden and a mage with each leader will be able to turn the right force into the hammer and the right force into the anvil and – most importantly – the two armies will not have to try and fight alongside the people they were winding up to make war on. They will just have to fight darkspawn long enough for me to get to the big bastard and gut it.

Andraste have mercy on them. On all of us. Because from here on after? I ain’t seeing anyone else who will.

*

Anora follows me quickly out of the hall, goes to touch my elbow and is only mildly surprised when I’m suddenly facing her with a hand half-raised to ward off I don’t even know what. “A word, sera, before I go? Woman to woman, as it were? Privately?”

I raise my eyebrows. “…Sure?

Thing about this giant place, there’s always an empty room. We step in; she pushes the door closed and puts her back against it and widens her eyes when this makes me put a hand instantly to a blade. “Commander, I assure you-” she begins.

I take my hand off the weapon as fast as I went for it and raise open palms. “Reflex.”

She nods. “Must take some getting used to. Being a Warden, I mean.”

“It does.” I smile a little. “But that said, princess, I can show you the scars from the last time I let my guard down around someone new. Can I help you?”

She returns the smile with a little more warmth. “Maybe. Look, I’ve spent all morning being a princess; I reckon you wouldn’t mind if I took my dignity off for five minutes?”

Mystifying human. “Be my guest.”

“Great.” She smiles. “So. Just wanted to check in with you before all of this actually happened, to make sure you’re all right. Because I don’t underestimate your own role in the little alliance we’re going to be forming, and I think everyone else sort of has.”

I shrug. “Alistair has the hard part.”

What did I say that was so funny? “You… could say that.” She looks me in the eye. “It’s not exactly easy on you and me, though, either. I mean, you’re being asked to make sacrifice after sacrifice – I wanted to, you-know. Clear the air between us.”

“Nothing to clear.” Nothing to prove either; I look away. “Wardens don’t keep score. What would be the point?”

“Uh-huh.” She gives me an appraising look that I’m not sure I like. “I might be a teyrn’s daughter, Warden, but I do have something more than in my head than dandelion fluff and hayseed. A blind woman could see the way the two of you, you-know…”

Confusion. “I do?”

She makes a frustrated noise. “Andraste spare me – look. I am perfectly aware that, you-know-” she gestures vaguely- “All for show. Believe me, I am quite clear that I had better be good at needlework.”

Blink. “Needlework?”

She’s becoming increasingly frustrated- “Due to having nothing else to do of an evening.”

I frown. “Anora, you’ve honestly lost me entirely. Perhaps you could try using more words?”

She shakes her head in disbelief. “If he’s anything like his brother, I can see what he- Okay. In small words, and please don’t take offence?”

“Right?”

“Right. I am trying to tell you that not only am I aware that Alistair and you are going to continue your activities after my alliance with him, but that I would rather have that than have you as an enemy. Do you understand that?”

My frown deepens. “Of course he’s not going to give up killing darkspawn-”

And her voice rises – “But you might well have thought that I’d expect you not to fuck my husband!”

My mouth drops open. I close it. Feels like someone just dumped a bucket of water over me.

Uh.

What the fuck?

“So, let me get this straight. You think he and I are lovers.”

She looks at me levelly. “Yes.”

“When you said ‘alliance’, you meant ‘marriage’.”

Sigh. “Yes.

“And you expect him, pledged to you, to betray you? With me?”

Her eyebrows go all the way up, like she’s talking to the terminally stupid – “Yes?”

So that’s why I slapped her in the face.

*

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