Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

Category: Alternative Origins

Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-Five

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*

The archdemon flails. I’ve laid its throat open in a ragged gash a good three feet long, fountaining blood. The wound is mortal, we can both of us feel that, but it’s taking the dragon a hell of a long time to die. It’s fighting the air, fighting the holes in it, fighting itself, fighting its own death, trying to lash out at us – Alistair dives away from the thing by instinct, I duck instead, because like hell am I letting him closer to it than I am.

It lashes blindly out and its claw catches the top of the wall; stone shatters. Still terribly powerful, it is – dying it might be, but it’s still quite capable of killing. Or it might just throw itself off the tower; if it does, I’ve got to go with it.

It lashes out again at where it thinks I might be and I step quickly aside – the blow has overbalanced it and it falls forward. Again Alistair dodges back, and again I keep just a little closer to the dying dragon than he is. The dragon’s head slams down onto the floor hard enough to splinter stone – the wings give a last desperate little flutter, the tail lashes fruitlessly one last time – and both of us can feel the archdemon’s mind clawing desperately at consciousness as it slips backward, as it falls into nothingness, and I step forward and stretch out my hand towards it and open my mind to it. Come here. Let’s make of this an end.

Nothing. I feel – nothing. My heart’s hammering fit to burst and I feel a little bit like I’m floating but nothing is happening.

The dragon’s chest fell and hasn’t risen. It’s still bleeding, sluggishly. Its wild staring glazed eye isn’t moving. It’s dead. It’s dead. Right?

After another moment I turn to look at Alistair and he’s staring at me hardly daring to blink, one shaking hand half-raised toward me.

“Uh.” I break the silence. Everyone’s holding their breath. “Aren’t I supposed to – be -?”

“I don’t understand. We’d have felt it. We’d have felt it if it came back.” Alistair’s eyes are on mine. “Don’t tell me there’s a darkspawn closer to it than we are. Didn’t – stop me if I’m sounding crazy. Didn’t we just feel it die?”

“That’s what I thought,” I breathe. “I – I should be dead.”

Sudden dreadful thought – I glance at Morrigan and I can see white all the way around her eyes and she shakes her head at me terrified. Then her eyebrows shoot all the way up. She blinks hard and opens cat-eyes, piercing stare at the thing. Back up at me. Her mouth forms words but she doesn’t dare make a sound.

It lives.

It’s pretending. The bastard is playing dead. All it needs to do is hang on long enough for us to go away –

I nod. Grasp my sword’s hilt tight and make to turn back to the dragon. And Alistair steps forward in that moment, takes my shoulder in his left hand and turns me toward him and his eyes catch me and hold me. “Goodbye,” he whispers, and his voice is rough

as I reach up and put my nails on the back of his neck, pull his head down and put my lips against his and kiss him hard enough to hurt

as he kisses me back and I press my whole body against him standing on the tiptoe of my right foot and putting my left heel against the back of his knee as

the world moves

It’s like someone swung the whole world right around and hit me with it as I fall to the floor, it takes a moment to process, he’s hurt me, he’s thrown me to the ground, he’s –

I’m not fast enough back onto my feet. His sword is a blur. It pierces the dragon’s skull top to bottom.

Light explodes behind my eyes. It’s like a veil over the whole world has torn and for an instant I can see something that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to describe. And the dragon’s body convulses, madly, desperately, once, and goes still, and the sound that I will take to my grave is the single loud raw cry torn from Alistair’s throat and it curdles and chokes and the world is swallowed by silence.

*

He’s dead.

Even by the time I’ve got to him the curse has spread to consume him entire and there isn’t even a body just fine grey ash and Alistair is dead.

He’s dead and dimly I hear the humans realising this, hear someone cheering our names and saying the Blight is over and don’t they understand, he’s dead.

He’s dead and Morrigan says she’ll find Wynne and Oghren says he’ll tell the queen and he orders the soldiers back and I’m kneeling there on the roof alone next to the dead dragon with the twisted remains of a black sword through its head and nobody will come near me because he’s dead.

He’s dead and the body of the dragon is coming apart in my hands, scale and bone and horn and sinew into fine grey ash just like the ash that is all that is left of the body of the idiot who died for me when I told him, I specifically fucking told him not to and the rain is making the ash into fine grey mud and he’s dead and I cry out wordless and violent and throw away my sword and it clatters across the cracked bloodsoaked ash-smeared stones of the roof of the keep and the sky is weeping for him so you can’t tell if I am.

And after a lot of rain has fallen, eventually I come to realise there’s someone else out here. Leaning on a stick. Matted red hair. Still caked in mud under the heavy cloak someone must have thrown on her against the rain. Shivering every now and then. Waiting for me to notice her.

And there’s a moment when I’m kneeling and a moment when I see her face and she was supposed to be dead and all. And I go to her and put my head on her shoulder and she puts the cloak round me and Leliana will understand that this is rain making tracks on my face, it’s rain, and I’m shivering not crying. I feel her sag slightly under my weight as I lean on her and I tell her she’s an idiot, don’t she have the sense to come in out the rain, and I slip my arm round her so she can lean on me instead, and I help her inside.

*

This is where they say that the rest is history, and it really is. I keep talking about tales, and that’s because if you live south of the Sea you’ve heard half this story before. And most of ’em get everything wrong, and all of of ’em who mention it at all make a towering romance out of one single kiss, and I’ve never heard a one say that the last thing my love did in this world was deck me.

The kingdom will be all right under Anora. Because the story you’ll have heard is that Alistair died for her somehow, and not for me. Princess, meet dragon; dragon, meet prince. The shems lap it up, or seem to, what with Eamon standing at the queen’s side looking meaningful – no trouble out of them, or not more than the usual.

Leliana’s made herself scarce almost the moment her injuries are healed. The expression on her face when Anora threatens on her sick-bed to create her a bann is priceless – then they both of ’em laugh and most likely she’s off to bring the queen’s good wishes to the White Divine. Our leavetaking is not without emotion, but it’s short enough.

Enchanter Wynne, too, has a place to go back to. The alliance of my Wardens and the Circle, it’s something to be proud of, and I’m not about to apologise for making it as strong as I can. One mage Warden at Ostagar and the whole bloody thing would have been different. And it don’t take a genius to look out of an elf’s eyes at a mage’s and see that a cage is a cage no matter what your bars are made of. And it ain’t just because I grew up in one that I don’t like seeing another, but there you have it. The mages will have Enchanter Wynne to lead ’em for the rest of her life – and it’s the Maker’s mercy she doesn’t live to see what the rest of us have, but that’s not my story to tell.

Oghren stays on, of course. Ambassador’s a fine job for a noble without a house. Gives him power and money he’d never have had at home. Never forgets what he owes us. There’s never been anything said, nothing as crass as an accounting, but the Wardens of Ferelden from that day to this have been armed and accoutred every bit as well as the dwarves, and to us the gates of Orzammar have never been closed, and somehow I’ve always paid the price of cheap human-made crap for stuff that I know damn well was made to my measure by one of Oghren’s clients.

The queen, well, there’s the usual ask-whatever-boon speech, and what I ask is for the People. If the kingdom wants to remember what it owes to me, well, I don’t want or need anything that I don’t have already. But this whole thing started because the humans couldn’t be trusted to defend my people. I ask that she find a way that that won’t happen again. And she nods very serious and she says something will be done – and her court don’t know what she means when she rubs her jaw and says that she hasn’t forgotten that she was once taught a lesson in honour by an elf, but they don’t need to. And that’s where the law came from, that the hahren of the alienage runs the place like it’s our own town. The humans laugh at the idea when they first hear it. They ain’t laughing so hard when my people start openly taking thieves, your kind as much as ours. A weasel’s half the size of a rat, but it’ll still have it for breakfast.

And me?

First I went south. With Morrigan. There was a little matter of my word gone from me. And that really isn’t my story to tell. Let’s say that I am one of the few people in the world who can joke that slaying body-snatching fiends is habit-forming. Let’s leave it at that. I came back. Morrigan travelled a different road. Let’s just leave it there.

What do you want me to say? That I came back, put on the tabard, caught responsibility, moved on? Perhaps. That my story ends here? Rubbish. Still alive. That Anora made me an arlessa, that the shems laughed behind their hands, that in a decade in that chair I’ve shut their idiot mouths? Perhaps. That I once caught a drunken shem in a tavern loudly proclaiming that the Warden of Ferelden was the best knight on life, and that if the giants had come here rather than Tevinter that she’d have shown those bastards what for? Yes, I’m afraid I did.

That I never touched another man? Pah. Never you mind. That I got over that day, on Denerim castle? No. No, I can’t really say that I ever did. That I forgave Alistair?

No. That’s… not true either.

I never forgave him. I can’t, see. I’ll do it to his face, when I see him again. Right after I give him back that sucker-punch he gave me, and make him give me back that kiss he traded it for.

And that’s it. We’re done. The rest is lies.

Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-Four

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*

The bastard isn’t dead. It fell out of the sky hard enough to crack stone and send masonry tumbling and it isn’t dead. Its wing is broken. It’s not flying down from there, but it lives. It sits back on its haunches and lets loose a brassy screaming roar and the horde redouble their assault on the walls.

Course, it’s in a bit of a bind. If the fall had only killed it, it would find itself a new body and then either throw itself into the fight again or show us a clean pair of heels.  If it hadn’t broken its wing, same thing again. As it is, though, it’s cut off from anything that might have the power to heal it, and it can’t fly out of there.

And you’d have thought that getting in would be a problem. Denerim’s a walled city: the horde have been considerate enough to come at the city from the end with the castle in it, rather than coming at the town end the way men might, but that’s the side we’re coming from –

But Maker’s breath, the gate is down. Or at least the outer one. The barbican is swarmed. A mage could stop it up, but the mages are fighting for their lives outside the wall in the wreckage of their tower, no good to anyone – I can feel the will of the archdemon, just drawing the spawn toward the gate like the tide coming in. There’s still a lot of the bastards between us and the walls, but they’re crowding for the gate – I reckon we could get up the wreckage of that tower, and Alistair agrees.

Morrigan has me dismount so that she can cast, get us in shape to try, and may I just say again that riding hard hurts, and don’t make me go into detail – I’m about to complain when I see the state that she’s in, complete disarray, wild hair falling unevenly around her shoulders, just about turned up with her tunic on, soaked like we all are from rain and sweat, mostly covered in mud. And she looks at us and just dares us to comment as she speaks her spell, a seven-pointed star drawn in the air with one finger and the last three words as a hoarse ragged shout, hammering her fist against thin air in the centre of the star with each word and it’s a starburst between my eyes like she hit me with that fist, and suddenly nothing hurts except my head.

Okay. We’ve got a place to go, we’ve got a thing to do, nothing in the way but a few hundred darkspawn. Leliana says we’ll never get through all of that; Alistair smiles like a shark and says don’t be so sure. And Morrigan glances at the horde, back at me. “Mad,” she says with the corner of a smile. “All mad. Barking and raving. Danger to yourselves and those around you.” And her form shifts like ink in water and flows back up into her horse’s shape. “Worst thing is,” she says, and shakes herself head to tail, “I think you are becoming infectious. So: shall we?”

And, well, it’s like this. A horse is a pretty damned big animal, and heavy. To stop one, when it’s moving, it takes a lot. To break a charge, you’re looking at a practical forest of sharp things and a wall of shields and a lot of bodies, or the horses just keep on going. And while the other end of the horde might have that sort of thing – this end really doesn’t. Even if they were looking our way, which they aren’t. Alistair’s had actual training for this. Maybe he’s even fought on horseback for real. Leliana hasn’t, but her horse knows what it’s about and she’s at least a decent horsewoman. Meanwhile, Morrigan’s only really an indifferent horse, but she’s got the advantage of being really quite a lot smarter than one.

The key is just to keep going – we get up as much speed as we dare, Morrigan not complaining of the tightness of my grip as I just concentrate on staying mounted, and it might be that the spawn can hear our hoofbeats over the battle’s din, but they surely don’t hear us in time. And into them and through them and outright over them we go, and the witch was right. Madness, this is. Suicide. I just hold on and hope I’ll live to tell Alistair this was the worst idea he ever bloody had.

Alistair has his short-sword drawn, laying down the odd cut to left or right, not slowing, just trying to keep going – after all, the spawn he’s riding at don’t know there’s all of one knight in this charge. If we stop, we’re dead. At least we can see where we’re going. At least we can see the light that one of the mages is using to dazzle their attackers. Leliana and I aren’t trying to fight, we’re just concentrating on staying on, keeping moving, not giving them time to realise what’s going on before we’re gone.

And it’s the damnedest bloody thing. It’s not a darkspawn, it’s not a failure of skill or of power. We’re a hundred yards from safety and it’s a bloody hole in the bloody ground. First I know of it is a shriek from behind me, Leliana’s voice, and Morrigan flicks her head to the side and then a moment later I come so very close to coming off past Morrigan’s ears as she digs in her hooves and tries to turn around.

No. No, you idiot, don’t stop, this is suicide. I guess I must have yelled that, because Morrigan stumbles, moves for just a moment like a horse couldn’t possibly do without breaking something and then she’s surging forward, half-blind, just trying to get out of here. The only way onward is forward. I can’t look round to see what happened to Leliana. I’m barely staying on Morrigan’s back as it is. No thought. Just hold on. Hold on. I hear her shout something that I can’t hear.

And then abruptly my support is gone. My hands clutch at empty air. Falling, no time to think, I try and roll rather than land on my feet. Come up covered in mud, my sword already drawn. Not surrounded by darkspawn. The light is to my left. Wynne‘s here. Morrigan’s back to her own shape, so much cleaner than she should be, the mud falling off her as she turns to look breathless back out at – We’re through. We’re through the lines. Congratulations, Wardens, you’ve got past the army and into the last stand. Wynne holding up the light on the end of her staff, five mages, four templars, the three of us and Alistair’s horse.

And Leliana isn’t there. She isn’t with us. What I heard must have been – please, Maker, no. Not like this.

“Go!” Morrigan yells. She’s planted her staff in the ground and the end of it is taking on a green brightness to match Wynne’s pearly white. When Alistair and I look at one another and hesitate, look out in the direction Leliana has to be, she shakes her head. “Our problem. Dragon to slay. Catch you up. Go!”

And I meet Alistair’s eyes helpless and he nods grimly and we do as she says.

*

To lose sight of the goal, it’d be easy. This city, last month, it was my entire world. I was born here, I was going to marry here, raise my family, live out a whole domestic little life within sight of the heart-tree and die surrounded by grandchildren in the house I was born in. And the horde isn’t just at the door, it’s opened it and it’s making a damn fine job at coming in. I daren’t glance in the direction of the alienage, of my home. I daren’t look to see if the gates are locked, if the walls are holding, if the place is all right. I can smell fire and I tell myself it’s torches and cookfires and battle-magic and not people’s whole lives. Maker protect ’em, because I can’t. Or, you know. I can. I could. I could turn round. I could get down off this wall and I could go hold the alienage gate. Ain’t a spawn alive that could hold a candle to me one-on-one in one of those alleys. I could kill ’em all day till they got bored of dying, and Maker help me, that’s what I want. But I do that and sooner or later we’re all up the spout, so, well, I don’t do that.

The army, the defenders, they’re scattered. The archdemon hit every leader it could find. Some of them are outside the walls, even. Much of the walls themselves are held. But the barbican is swarmed and there are darkspawn inside the city – some streets are being held by bloody great shieldwalls and hardly attacked while just nearby you’ve got little knots of warriors hopeless and surrounded on all sides and the whole thing, the whole damn thing is a mess. The darkspawn are trying to get through and into the keep, that’s where the archdemon wants ’em, but they’re only getting through in dribs and drabs. You know, this might just work.

Alistair slips, behind me, nearly falls, and I catch him. It’s wet, here, slick.  Rain. Come on. Not losing you as well. Can’t do this alone. There’s the keep, look. Door’s open, even. And he snorts and says that’s supposed to be a bad thing, isn’t it?

Down from the wall is easy. There are spawn in the courtyard before the keep, archers on the walls, on the upper floors still working their hardest to feather them. They don’t seem to know what their shields are for. I can hear the dragon roaring, still, up on top of the keep, I can feel its mind, it’s directing its troops, it’s got a damned good view from up there and they can hear it just fine. Down we come, leaping down from the wall like it wasn’t twenty foot tall. Alistair in shining steel, me in black and grey, and our blades are thirsty. I tell him to watch my back, and he nods all businesslike, and we make a start.

Yeah. If I just keep a lid on it, keep thinking, don’t feel, it’s easier. Not so hard to stop myself dropping everything and just killing and killing until there’s nothing left and bathe myself in their blood. The darkspawn here are mostly the bigger types, big as shems and just as clumsy on their feet. I recognise the colours on some of these shields, I recognise ’em from some of the banns I saw at the Landsmeet. Looted, they are, and as I said the spawn really don’t know what they’re doing with ’em. I guess they were expecting someone slower. Well, now they’re dead.

Through we go. Not trying to kill every one of ’em. Dead and dying shems we’re passing as well as darkspawn, but not as many as you’d think: they’re pulling back in good order, says Alistair. I can feel another wave of spawn has broken away from the fighting in the streets and they’re coming in after us. I can feel the ogre in front of us that broke this heavy door open, but the shems had already pulled back, used the time to prepare the next position. I hear the hammer of its giant fist and under it the splinter of wood. I hear the jeers of darkspawn and the yells of men. There’s a barricade across an archway, decorative little windows doing double-duty as fortifications, men behind it with spears and shields and crossbows, maybe two dozen of the darkspawn.

And, well, we killed an ogre before, right? I meet Alistair’s eyes looking for a little reassurance and he’s sort-of looking at me the same way, and I show some teeth and he gives that boyish smile of his that isn’t a lie and it’s not a joke, it’s just that sometimes you’ve just got to laugh. And we step out like it’s a tournament exhibition and the ogre turns around and its challenge is a thundering roar.

I lead. The thing comes straight at us, deceptively quick, and I dance to my right around it, feel rather than see the backhanded swat it sends at me and go around it in a blurring spin that rakes the tip of my blade across the back of its knee, but doesn’t bite deep enough to hurt it properly. As it starts to turn Alistair goes for it with a double-handed thrust, trying to put his point in under its arm where it can’t be so well armoured, but it sweeps its arm back across and makes him duck, and that lets me get in a plain simple chop that parts flesh and splinters bone and sheds blood, but the thing pretty much ignores it.

I hear a darkspawn’s excited thoughts right behind me and I twist aside without thinking, the smaller creature’s blade whistling down an inch from my back; I carry on the spin to cut down my attacker, take out another one squealing with a thrust, flash away from the one that tries to leap on me. They’re trying to isolate me, to get me away from the ogre.

Meanwhile Alistair’s giving ground, letting it swing for him and stepping easily outside its reach, taking easy shots at anything it leaves exposed. It’s bleeding from its arms in half a dozen places. But of course, it doesn’t care. Doesn’t even particularly care about living. More spawn on the way. All it needs to do is drag out the fight till we’re drowned in ’em. I flash forward and into the circle of smaller spawn around me, hitting the one in front of me in the chest with my pommel and spinning around it as it reels; kick it back into the others and turn once more to bring the edge of my crimson blade across the back of the ogre’s knee in a draw-cut.

And as it staggers it sprouts a crossbow-quarrel in the side of its neck from the direction of the barricade, and Alistair takes advantage of its distraction to land a wide cut across the thing’s belly; it screams and I sink my point in where the kidney would be in a human, and it comes out of the other side of the chest and the ogre topples forward.

With my sword still bloody stuck in it.

The spawn are on me in a moment, but I’m not exactly defenseless. I catch an axe-haft with crossed daggers, but the force of it carries me and the spawn over backwards; the bastard thing makes a good enough shield against the others for the moment it takes me to kick it off me, and suddenly this all feels very familiar, a lot of them, one of me, close quarters and my blades are shorter than theirs.

Course, a human’s a bit less likely to bite you, and a bit less likely to hurt when it does. Let’s say I’m glad of the armour I’ve got on. And a human will pull back from getting a cut that’ll kill him if he don’t get it bound up, will at least curse and limp from a stomp that I felt break toes, will care about more than just the impact if I put my knee in his cod hard enough to take him off his feet.

Then one of ’em just goes down in a spray of blood. Another loses its head. Okay, fine, Alistair’s working faster than I am. Blame the sword. Third one turns to see what’s going on, and I put both blades in the small of its back and practically take it in half. Alistair finishes that one off and takes down a fourth as I’m winding up to go for it; I weave around him calling him a thief, take the one going for his back and he claims that one counted as his. Ten swift heartbeats later and we’re standing in the middle of twenty dead spawn and an ogre.

Someone calls long-live-the-king and the shems give a ragged cheer and I give him a little joke of a curtsey and he smiles for me. That will go in the bards’ tales. But we mustn’t tarry. They let us over the barricade and I tell ’em of the spawn following us and their leader curses, and it’s upward, then, as quick as we can.

*

Whole place shakes. I guess there is rather a dragon on the roof. Another flight. Whole bastard thing started on a tower. Did I mention how I hate human stairs?

“How do we want to do this, then?” Alistair’s a couple of steps behind me, but his head’s about level with mine.

“Well, I thought we could start with killing the dragon, if that sounds right?”

He doesn’t even smile. “Stick together and cover one another, or spread out? Call for support, or do it just the two of us?”

“You’ve seen that thing. Archers might help. Spare swords will just die. You go right, I’ll go left, try and keep it between us. Any idea what kills a dragon?”

“Us, allegedly.” He shakes his head. “We know it’s agile. We know it’ll use its own pain against us. We know it doesn’t breathe fire. Put holes in it. Don’t overextend. Don’t think we can tire it out. Look out for the sharp bits.”

“And Maker forbid we get other darkspawn up here, but if we do, they’re yours.” My voice brooks no argument. “You’re quicker at killing them.”

Top of the stairs. I stop, just one moment, turn, and he and I are far too close. “I, uh.” He looks into my eyes and his face says everything his mouth can’t. “Don’t suppose I could talk you into trading places, could I.”

“Sure,” I breathe. “You go left.” And I put a hand on his breastplate and he covers it with his. “Come on. Let’s kill ourselves a dragon.”

*

The humans came up here as if they were hunting or something, with great long heavy boar-spears and with archers. You’d think it’d be a slaughter, and to be honest it was that. There have got to be half a hundred dead shems here at least, and the dragon’s still alive and kicking. It’s feathered with a dozen arrows and it’s even got a hole in its breast where a spear struck it, but it’s been killing ’em as fast as they’ll come, and the ground is uneven with the dead and slick with blood and rainwater.

But at least someone sensible got here before they ran out of huntsmen. Oghren is here, full armour and shield, and he’s got them to pull their idiot arses right back and stop putting arrows in it, because all they’re doing is pissing it off. It’s got its back to us right now, hunched over some broken masonry, looking down and out over the fight: he’s managed to persuade it they’re not a threat. He’d come here to tell ’em not to kill it; he stuck around to get ’em to stop dying. And by everything he believes in, he’s glad to see us.

I swallow hard. Alistair’s smile has gone. We’ll go for the dragon. Arrows? Arrows are good. Spears are less good. Dying is right out.

And a little mousy brown bird flutters in out of the gloom and mists into Morrigan’s shape, leans on her staff and asks where lightning comes in?

Alistair’s got enough of his sense of humour left to say that correctly directed lightning is good, and Morrigan draws breath to reply hotly when she sees the twinkle in his eye and makes herself smile. And she calls light to her staff and that makes the dragon look round –

I can feel the instant when it sees me and Alistair and it knows us for who we are. On an impulse I bring my blade up before me in a duelist’s salute. It dips its head a moment, acknowledgement.

And Morrigan hits it on the nose with a bolt of lightning.

We move in the same instant, half blinded by the flash, deafened by the thunder, but I can feel the bastard. It’s stunned an instant, the lightning and thunder doing more to hurt the creature’s sensitive eyes and ears than its scaled hide. It’s off its guard and it’s off its balance.

And that’s pretty much why we survive that first instant. Ignoring the mage for the distraction she seems to be, the dragon strikes forward like a snake might, and it’s hardly slower than a viper for all that it’s the size of a house. Goes for me. Its head is nearly as big as I am. I twist aside like I did from that ogre, going to land a long sweeping cut on its neck, but it flicks its nose and its muzzle smacks me in the gut and knocks me rolling. Alistair swings for it from the other side, going for the uninjured wing, and it just folds it back out of the way, then punches out for his face with the claw on the wing-joint as he recovers his balance and it’s all he can do to duck ungainly.

I fetch up hard against a dead shem, carry on the roll and come to my feet, already ducking the strike that I can see coming –

That was a dummy. Tricked by a bastard thing the size of a house. Alistair’s ducking another blow from that massive wing – doesn’t see the dragon whip its head around under itself until it’s nearly too late, by instinct he brings his boot up, lands a stamping kick on its nose and he’s flicked up into the air.

Meanwhile I’ve got to its broken wing. I know this hurt you before, you bastard – I bring down my blade right on the break on its wing. Scales part. Bone splinters. Black blood sprays. And the dragon screams.

It had been going for Alistair – can’t get out of the way if you’re tumbling through the air- but it settles for punching him with its good wing as it swings its head back around and he flies flat through the air and slams into a wall with the sound of cracking stone. Morrigan steps across between it and him – shields, she can do – as the dragon tries to get me the way it got Alistair.

And I’m ready for it, and I lunge at the same moment it does, flash past its head as I did before, weave to the side as it tries to flick me away and it looks like we’re dancing, then abruptly it rears up, arching its neck up out of reach of my blade as I pass under it and only the very tip of my swing bites. And Oghren yells and a half-dozen bowstrings sing at once and some of those arrows even sink in – and Morrigan shouts loud and incoherent and the whole world goes white as lightning strikes not five feet over my head.

The dragon, it recovers its senses faster than any of us. It strikes out at Morrigan in the moment before she can have those defences of hers back up – she puts her free right hand up childlike, get away from me – and it snaps its massive jaws shut neatly around her arm.

Alistair moves. Past the witch, hilt low by his right hip, point up, and the black blade scores along the bony armour of the dragon’s face and catches on a crack between scales and bites. All his strength in that lunge, and the blade goes in a good six inches and the dragon flinches back hard and fast and Morrigan is pulled over forward and all before she’s drawn the breath to scream.

And as the dragon pulls its head back I change my own target, stop trying to get under it again, turn to try and put my own point in at the corner of the massive jawbone. But the head is moving too fast – the point catches just under the dragon’s chin and the massive shock of the impact drives me to a knee even as I can feel the blade parting dragonhide, and in all of the edge of an instant an irresistible force tears the hilt out of my hands and the dragon rears upward and away from us with my sword stuck all the way up through its jaw and out through its nose.

I’m sure that bards everywhere will be cursing the way I don’t yell at the dragon, ask it for my weapon back, make a joke of this. It’s the way my friend is lying in a quickly growing pool of her own shockingly bright blood curled around what used to be her arm letting out these terrible choking sobs as she tries to summon the power to save her own life. Takes the humour right out of it, I hope you’ll fucking agree. I put my toe under the haft of a discarded human spear, flick the heavy thing up into my hand, comically oversized in my hands but it’s a weapon.

I’m sure you’re supposed to use these things in both hands, or brace them or something. But maybe I’m not listening right now. I take a couple steps forward as Alistair circles warily, waits for the thing to strike – he thinks the dragon’s in a lot less distress than it looks. I’m not really thinking at all. I’ve got the spear at its balance point, overhand. There’s a whole dragon there for me to put it in. I gather momentum – I put my whole strength behind it and all the weight I have –

Well, Alistair was at least half right. The dragon’s front right claw comes down open over me, pretty much the gesture Morrigan used, its palm hitting me in the chest, the spear glancing useless off its scales and falling from my hand, and it slams me down on the ground on my back and then it tries to throw me to the side like so much trash. But even winded, I manage still to catch onto its clawed finger as it lets me go, nearly jerks my arm out of its socket but I hang on. Dirk in my other hand – more dwarven steel for you, you bastard – and I put the point in between its rope-like tendon an its ankle bone and I twist.

Alistair’s yelling something at it about letting me go, comes in with a flicking cut up where its arm meets its body, ducks the wild swing of its claw and reprises with a stab in between two great scales that would’ve been much deeper if it hadn’t snaked its head down to try and sideswipe him. And he dances back and some instinct makes him clash his sword against the blade sticking up out of its mouth and we both can feel that hit home as the dragon tries to scream through the mouth I nailed shut.

I leave the dagger in the dragon, drop off and roll to my feet as it goes to put all its attention on Alistair. It swipes for him with a claw – he darts back, trying to keep toward the side with the broken wing – it goes for him again and I see my chance and go for its back.

Nice handhold, here. And I can see the bloody great hole Riordan was digging trying to get at something vital. Longest blade I’ve got to hand is the one Duncan gave me. I hammer it down into the wound and the dragon doesn’t even twitch.

I can’t see what’s going on in front of the dragon, it’s reared up to keep its head out of Alistair’s reach. Oghren calls out again and there are more arrows, some of them sticking in or tearing holes in the unbroken wing, some shattering against scales or glancing harmlessly away.

The tip of my dagger scores and scrapes along a bone that might as well be solid steel plate. Sticking this in again, it’s not going to work. Riordan was bigger than me and stronger, and he couldn’t manage it. But when Riordan was on the dragon’s back, it wasn’t covered in arrows for handholds – maybe if I went for its neck? I hang on for a moment, looking for a route.

And Alistair thinks he knows the dragon’s reach now: he dances back from another blow from the dragon’s talons, just outside its swing, and abruptly it blurs forward just another ten inches and what he would have narrowly avoided instead catches him full-on. His armour saves his life, but the impact still takes him off his feet; he lets out a single harsh cry as he falls and the dragon is after him in the same instant. I move as it does, letting go Riordan’s dagger and kicking off an arrow-shaft to go up the thing’s neck as Alistair goes to roll to his feet –

Pain. My left arm, my right hand, my jaw, my face, my tongue – like it’s punching me in the face with its own agony – and I make myself cling blindly to its neck as I bite off a scream and Alistair roars like a bull and the sound is cut off by the terrible sound of the dragon’s claws striking metal. It wasn’t even after me. It just wanted him blinded for one single moment.

It draws back its talon to strike again, Alistair there sprawled on his back stunned and helpless. And a sharp voice rings out across the battlement, more of an animal trainer’s snap of command than a cry of despair, “No!”

And a flicker of green light swirls down the length of Morrigan’s staff. She’s still there in a heap, her arm still a ruin – Maker, I can see white bone there – but she’s got her staff raised defiant and the light of battle in her eyes, and the dragon jerks its claw back as if stung and snakes its head to look back at her as if in surprise.

Which was all I needed. I can see the brass-bound hilt of my blade. I put my toes against one of the spikes on the thing’s neck and there’s a moment when I’m holding onto nothing at all and this ain’t exactly graceful or elegant, but my hands close around the hilt under the dragon’s chin and by reflex it tosses its head and all I need to do is hang on.

As my weight tears the red dwarven blade free of the dragon’s head in a shower and a spray of accursed blood.

*

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Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-Three

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The computer game has a timeskip here. Much of the running around is because it’s awkward in the game as well. As with Further Mass Effects, I concluded that moving the last level of the game to somewhere that would make sense to put it would be too much artistic license.

*

The arl sees me before we leave. Something about keeping Alistair out of harm’s way. And in much the same tones I’d tell a man to fuck off and die, I let him know exactly what I think of any idea that takes Alistair from my side when I go to face the archdemon. I’m expecting an argument. What I get is a calculating glance and him saying that he doesn’t need to worry after all, does he.

Bloody humans.

So, regardless, the plan. I’d better get down what the plan was, or most of what happens next won’t make a lot of sense. The archdemon, he’s coming north just off the imperial highway, and very much not alone. Two ways he can turn, really.

Riordan says it makes most sense for the ugly bugger to turn east, hit Denerim. He’s had no sniff or whisper of the Queen’s army, has no reason to think there’s anything between him and the city, and in the histories of the Blights they always say that the horde makes for the capital. And Maker’s arse, is he in for a surprise. That army is the one that met the horde at Ostagar, plus all the banners who’d turn out for a civil war but not a tale out of the history books, and it’s got all of the Circle’s best talent in battle magic and a proper detachment of templars. If the archdemon heads east, Wynne brings down the hammer with fire from the sky and Riordan leads a charge right to the archdemon before the horde can do aught but reel.

To the west, the ‘spawn know about the King’s army, but what they don’t know is they haven’t faced it in number. The scouting from the Dalish and the co-ordination from the apprentices of the Circle has meant we’ve been able to do less with more, hiding our true numbers and indeed feigning a bit of weakness. Now Alistair got a bit worried about the numbers he was hearing and asked the Dalish to take a look: they say there’s all sorts of little tunnels opening up, the Blight coming up out the ground, thousands strong, most like. Clearly reinforcements, but they haven’t attacked – and we can’t tell if they’re ready to back up an attack on us or if they’re there to stop us coming to help Denerim. Just possible the archdemon thinks we haven’t seen its whole force. Either way we’re going to meet battle, and soon. Certainly we’ll be ready. Alistair and Morrigan and me with the knights, Leliana with the mages. Call ’em plumbers and builders, will they? See how the bastards like a two-foot stone wall in the way of their charge. See how our archers like their targets up to their arses in mire. See how the dwarves like proper hard ground under their own feet. And if the archdemon comes our way, we’ll have the bastard for breakfast.

Eve of battle and I want to say all the words I won’t get to say again. Leliana’s not so much more than my height that she can’t have a hug. I go with her and Alistair to prayer, and she offers me a cup of wine after and I say I’ll save her one where I’m going, and she laughs and says I have no spirit of adventure, and I say that no, I’ll stick to water before a fight. Morrigan looks at me and at Alistair and says that all her words are spent, and I bow my head to her, keeping her eyes, and she echoes me. And diplomatically they leave the two of us alone.

And I give the man my hand and he kisses it, and my legs turn to water and I tell him he’s not to do that tomorrow. And he keeps hold of my hand and he says thank you, and I ask what for, and he says for letting him fight for me, and I say a couple of things that I really, really shouldn’t mean and mostly I get the hell out of there before my clothes fall off of their own selves.

Morrigan drinks with Leliana, that night, and she leaves off the charm for sobriety.

*

And with the dawn’s rising we can feel the archdemon get rid of its cloak of misdirection. That feeling, the one I first saw at the Joining, the chain that binds the world – it’s there, and Alistair’s knuckles go white and I bare my teeth and hiss and the knights look at me like they’re just sort-of realising I’m not some sort of little funny-dressed human.

And it’s nowhere near where we think it is. I mean, it’s supposed to be right there. You can’t quite see the darkspawn from here, not with eyes, but we can feel them like a stain on the world that won’t wash off, hundreds upon thousands of them, and either the archdemon’s coming this way or it’s going that way, right, so where –

I look confused to Alistair and he’s shading his eyes with a hand, looking into the dawn sky –

I see it before he does. Black spot high as a cloud. Not a bird, the shape’s wrong. Bigger, farther off. Exaggeratedly casual – “Alistair? How, uh, how big would you say an archdemon would be?”

“Oh,” he says, matching my tone. “Pretty big, I’d say. You know. Pretty damned large.”

“Big as – just to take an example -”

Crooked smile from him. “A dragon?”

“Now that you mention it, that sounds about… Morrigan?” I turn to the witch, who’s staring straight into the dawn just as we are, not caring about the glare.

“Yes, my friend?” She blinks a couple times, looks at me with piercing amber eyes that remind me of nothing so much as an eagle’s.

“You’re the closest thing we’ve got to an expert on flying things. What would it take to clip the wings of – just to take an example -”

“A dragon?” She chews on her lip. Looks back at the spot off in the distance a moment. “I’ve seen drakes before, a-wing. From afar, mind; they’ll perfectly happily eat the kinds of shapes I usually use to fly. The biggest I’ve ever seen had less than half of that span in its wings. What would you use to clip the sails of a windmill?”

“Magic?” I say, hopefully, and she snorts.

“The mages we have with us are effectively craftspeople using their tools as weapons, and effective as a rainstorm and a quagmire might be on the horde, they will do little to hinder a thing that can fly.” She shakes her head. “True battlemages like the ones with the Queen’s army might have a chance of hurting it – Wynne could probably bind its wings and drop it out of the air like a rock. But as I said, my hopes and dreams aren’t a siege engine.” She curls one hand tight round her staff. “This thing has an evocation of lightning that I can use, but I doubt it’d do more than sting the creature.”

One of the knights clears his throat. “We do have crossbows,” he says a little dubiously. “A good sharp bolt or two in the wrong place-”

“Might serve to annoy it enough to land?” I shake my head. “Ser, if the archdemon’s reflexes are slower than mine I’d be astounded, and I once realised I was being ambushed because I caught this strange thing hissing past me in the air and realised it was an arrow. I don’t like relying on being too lucky to die.”

“Physically jump on it?” Alistair gives the thing a calculating look. “It’s got to land, or near as, to be any use, right?”

I shrug. “Sure, if the thing comes past us then you or I could probably pile on and make it sorry it did that, but there’s no reason for it to come down from there at all.”

“No… reason…” Alistair frowns suddenly. “Uh. Why can we see it at all? Why is it there?”

“We discussed this. To try and break us by breaking our army.”

“Right, so why isn’t it over there?” He nods to the west, towards the horde, the first of ’em just coming into sight now. “It’s going to be late for the battle unless it gets a move on. It’s more like it’s watching. Keeping an eye?”

“For us, you mean.” I eye the thing. Now I know what I’m looking for, I can just about make out its long snakelike tail, must be as long as the thing’s whole body. “The tactic always is, keep the Wardens together to have the best chance. Or maybe it thinks there’s only the one of us. You think it doesn’t know where we are, and you think it reckons it’s all one place?”

“Maybe.” He narrows his eyes. “Or maybe it’s simpler than that. I mean, think about it. It’s a dragon. Bloody great flappy thing, covered in sharp things, great big teeth, probably breathes fire or something ridiculous like that. And we know from the stories that it can’t be permanently killed, not without one of us. But what’s it been doing? It’s been skulking on its belly. It’s been hiding. It’s been pretending it isn’t where it is. It’s worried. It knows that there are things out here that can kill it. And until it knows where they are, it isn’t going to be anywhere where it thinks we might be able to reach it.”

“And if it finds us?”

He shows some teeth. “Well, one of two things will happen, right?”

I mirror his expression. “Then I’ve got an idea.” Catch Morrigan’s eye. “So. Stop me if I’m wrong. You’ve found a thing or two about the whole curse thing, the link between the Wardens and the archdemon, right?”

She casts a sidelong glance at Alistair and colours slightly. “I… have,  yes.”

“So. Given that I’ve got one already. Could you, I don’t know. Shine a bit of a light on it? Get its attention?”

Her eyebrows go up. “Po-ten-ti-ally… Yes. Yes. I could do this thing.”

“And we know it’s worried, and we’ve seen how demons and feelings go together like flint and tinder?”

“You want me to help you try to intimidate a dragon.”

“Well.” I give Alistair what might be a grin. “I hear where at the Landsmeet, the lord king duelled the lord regent.” The smile on my face, I guess the humans might find it a little unpleasant. “I can’t exactly let myself be outdone. If you’ll help me, Morrigan? I’d like to call the damn thing out. I’d like to ask it to come and have a go if it thinks it’s hard enough. And then I’d like it to stop being able to see where I am, if you can do that, because there’s the off-chance it doesn’t think it’s that hard, and I’ll have a bugger of a time chasing it if it knows exactly where I am.”

She nods, all seriousness. “Your grace, I’ll require of your templars a sixteenth of an ounce of lyrium; if they press us as for its purpose, tell them it is for helping the Wardens combat the use of blood magic, which is strictly true.” Alistair gestures to one of the knights, who sets off at a good pace – I catch his slightly humorous glance at his hand, like he didn’t know it could do that. “From you, Warden-Commander, I’ll need a drop of your blood, preferably drawn with your own sword.” She looks towards the dragon again, forgetting to pretend she needs to shade her eyes from the sun. “Here’s as good a place as any, and if we wait much longer I might be interrupted by a horde of horrors.” Turns back to me, catches my eye. “There will likely be side-effects, Kallian. I’m not sure-”

She tails off because she can see the points of my teeth. Bring it. Bring it all.

*

It’s quick and it’s simple and the templar who brought the lyrium insists on staying to watch, and Morrigan puts her back firmly toward him: out of sight, out of mind. She’s drawn a circle in the earth and had me stand in it and take my sword in my hands, a drop of my blood on the point of the blade, and she stands before me and says that the spell will start when I put the point of the sword in the ground and stop when I take it out. She takes the little vial and without ceremony she drinks it down, starts to whisper words I can’t make out. Her hands over mine on the sword, take it and turn it point down, she meets my eyes and together we thrust the blade down into the ground

You hear me, you bastard? I’m coming for you. Scared? You should be. I’m coming for you. I will not stop. I will not falter. I will not lay this sword down until I have sheathed it in your heart. I don’t realise I haven’t moved, that I haven’t blinked.

I can’t see Alistair tear his gaze from me and look out towards the archdemon.

I can’t hear the horde.

I can’t hear the bastards in the back of my head.

My vision is going grey.

That’s all right. I don’t need to be able to see.

I can’t see the witch looking at me concerned I can’t read her lips as she says that she doesn’t think I’m breathing I can’t see

the archdemon wheel in the air turn and fly east like a bird that’s been spooked I can’t see

the horde as they break cover and rank and any vestige of control or thought to hurl themselves in our direction to break into a dead run over miles of open ground to try and get at the source of

that bright clarion challenge that is suddenly all they can hear

as I can’t feel Morrigan trying to pull the sword out of the ground and finding I’m stronger than she is

Firm strong hands over mine pull irresistably upward. Alistair’s and the templar’s. The spell tears like cobweb. I take a gasping choking breath and another one and end up leaning on Alistair and my eyes hurt and the moment I’ve got my head screwed on right I can feel the change, feel in the back of my head the archdemon’s will. And what’s its will? Hah. Kill the Warden. But I don’t see it queuing up for a try.

“Well,” he says as he looks down at me. “That worked.”

I nod, still clawing for breath. “Let’s just say. Got its attention.” Clear my throat. “So,” I croak. “What now?”

“First?” He looks up and I follow his gaze. For a second it looks like nothing so much as ink spilling closer, blackness across the fields. Then the eye makes out shapes, makes out the glint of the dawn light off of weapons and banners and crude armour. Any order they had is discarded. Any plan they had is gone. But there’s still a hell of a lot of them. “First on today’s menu, Warden-Commander, we have a light spot of war.”

*

I’m sure the histories will tell that this was a glorious battle, the Warden king’s inspirational leadership and brilliant tactical insight and personal valor bringing the horde to its knees, and it’s all bollocks. The battle is dirty, tedious, tiring and shows every sign of going on until they run out of darkspawn. And it’s not Alistair in charge of this: it’s the dwarf general, fighting a battle just like the ones he’s familiar with, and the Fereldan knights forget the tales of glory and leave their horses behind and anchor the ends of that shield-wall, and our arrows fall like rain, and the mages roll up their sleeves and drown the horde in mud.

Did I mention the glorious Wardens didn’t stick around to see the end? Alistair gets three words into asking and the dwarf general butts in and tells him to get his lordly arse moving. The templar still with us drops his mouth open as Morrigan mists up into horse’s shape, and Leliana pats his shoulder and says she’s got this one as she swings effortlessly into her saddle and I mount with only the least bit of ungainliness. And we move. Once we’re far enough that she can’t be heard, Morrigan says we can’t make that distance in time to be any help; Alistair sets his jaw and says that we’re damned well going to try. And it takes Morrigan only three tries to work out how to go as fast as the other horses, and may I just say that riding bareback this quick is a literal pain in the arse.

The archdemon looks down. Sees the little people looking up. Sees them atop their pathetic walls, just stones piled on top of one another and glued together. Sees their houses of sticks and stones. Sees their fear. To deal death is not the aim. These people, warrior and townsfolk alike, are more use alive than dead. But right now they have hope, and that is wrong. Hmm. The discipline spreads out through the army like a spider’s web. Where are you, little spider?

And we ride. I’m getting the archdemon’s feelings in odd quick brief flashes, it’s sickening. We get onto a road as soon as we can and start moving a bit quicker. Our mounts are lathered, streaming sweat, flying along, the road disappearing under us. We’re making the best time we can. The others who followed us, we’ve left ’em well behind – the witch has done something to herself and the other two mounts, already running harder and longer than any mortal mount could. But we are too late. The battle will still be raging when we get there. But the dragon

A flash, a clap of thunder, a little sting. There, the little gifted-ones, the mages, taking the tools of creation and using them for petty ends. More hope. A flash of irritation. A pass, low, quick as an arrow in flight, the outstretched claw striking against a spell of shielding: a series of quick turns and passes, drawing more and more of the mages’ attention, not sustainable forever, because eventually they will find a spell that will work – but once again the tactic of Ostagar works perfectly. An emissary mage weaving a spell of entropy, something that any of these mages would spot in a second if they weren’t distracted, and the corner of the tower is vulnerable; a quick jink and dip in the archdemon’s path, a hammer-blow to the weak spot, and the frailty of their human bodies is all-too-easily demonstrated as the tower comes down in ruin. Nothing could have survived.

The rubble stirs. A careful moment of calculation. The archdemon slows, turns, spreads its wings in the air clearly unopposed by magic. Ignores with contempt the arrows and bolts that come its way. Drops down to take what it thinks might be another commander, like an eagle taking a rabbit. Wheels in midair, gloating –

A massive stone, a chunk of rubble, arcs out of nowhere and the thing twists aside like an eel. Another. A third. The rubble of the collapsed tower picks itself up and launches at the dragon piece by piece by piece, slowly exposing a circle of completely bare ground, a knot of robed mages, a couple of templars, a straight-backed old woman holding a staff surmounted by a clear pearly light. The dragon roars, dives at her straight, her templars holding steady their shields before her as she holds until the very last instant, and the impact of her spell on the dragon’s hide is a concussive sound that throws men from their feet and brings further masonry down from the tower walls and pushes Wynne herself to one knee, a sound that echoes and rolls like thunder, a flash of light to be seen for twenty miles.

And the archdemon’s wings reach for the air and cannot bite, and it ploughs ungainly into the ground in the midst of its own troops and I can feel its anger and I laugh.

I’m sure that that is a sight for the bards’ tales, a tale to sing for a hundred years if any make it away from here alive. Wynne and the templars and battle-mages who survived the fall from the tower, standing there to cast their despite in the teeth of the dragon and its horde, light against the darkness. All I catch is flashes. The echoes of the pain of hundreds of spawn struck by deflected or mis-aimed spells, dazzled by brightness, assaulted by thunder, driven back by symbols of fear etched in the very air. Some of the battle we can see and hear from where we are, like we’re riding toward a furious thunderstorm. It will be done by the time we get there.

Another flash. The mage who was dealing with the defensive shield collapses, bleeding from his nose. The archdemon simply ignores the lance of flame Wynne casts at it, bats a templar aside with the back of its claw and strikes like a serpent – she reaches into her staff, strikes it quickly to the ground for a defensive spell, cries aloud as the spell turns the archdemon’s blow but is spent in the process, draws all the light around her into her cupped hand for one last strike –

It happens all of an instant. A blur against the grey sky as someone leaps from the top of the wall and lands atop the dragon’s back, arresting his fall with a knife hammered between its scales with inhuman strength. The archdemon sees him coming, reacts with immediate speed: its wings crack once and it’s airborne, twisting and spiraling as it goes, labouring to get itself out of the mage’s sight as fast as it can. One glimpse of his face it got as he flew past its head, one sight of the man, and it knows him for what he is in the same instant that I recognise him. Riordan.

We don’t let up. We should be at his side. We aren’t going to be. We’ll be too late. From somewhere Morrigan finds some more strength and shares it between herself and Alistair’s mount and Leliana’s. I hope she’s keeping something back to restore us when we get there. I’ve stopped keeping track of where it is that I hurt. I don’t know if I could even walk, if I got off right this moment. We might be more than halfway there. I don’t know. There is only the road, and the beat of hooves.

The archdemon is amused. We misdirected it. We gave it two bad choices, so it didn’t matter which one it made. But it remains a dragon, and the man on its back remains a man. It turns itself a figure-eight in the air at the instant that Riordan draws his sword, and the weapon goes flying; he curses and drives another dagger into its back and it bucks. Nothing this big should be this limber and agile, but where he is between its wings it can’t reach quick enough that he can’t duck it. With his little blade he pries a scale from its back, drives the weapon up to its hilt into the thick hide beneath, tries with grim determination to make himself a hole big enough to do some harm, finds only more plates of overlapping bone.

The archdemon changes its tack, ties itself practically in knots as it fights to remove this dangerous little insect from its back; Riordan hangs on immovably, sticking a dagger between the archdemon’s next layer of bony armour and levering with all his considerable strength, and so the dragon tries something else again, folds its wings and drops like a stone, twists and opens its wings upside-down a mere hundred feet from the rooftops of Denerim and it feels his weight shift as one hand comes loose from its hold. Instantly it rolls in the air, turns him away from that handhold; he draws another knife and as it bucks violently he strikes out with all his strength for what might be a vulnerable spot.

And the blade strikes home. The archdemon concentrates hard on the flare of pain; Alistair swears at the top of his voice and I scream, but we keep our mounts and our speed; a vast wordless thundering shout goes up from the darkspawn horde; Riordan’s anchoring dagger slips between nerveless fingers and he finds himself dangling from the hilt of the blade he’s got stuck through the joint of the archdemon’s wing.

Once again, the damn thing wastes no time. It snakes its head around as Riordan puts a second hand onto its wing; its teeth close around his right ankle as he grabs hold of the solid part of the wing just above the joint and the whipcord muscles of his back tense and bunch; with a solid grasp on his leg, the archdemon uncoils and just tears him away from it and throws him out into the air; and the same motion drives the Warden’s blade all the way through the joint and the wing gives way with a splinter like a tree being felled.

They fall. It is not seen, where Riordan lands, but it must have been two hundred feet he fell. And the archdemon comes down atop the keep of Denerim castle and it doesn’t land well.

*

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Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-Two

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Note. This scene was very nearly cut, and gives one of the supporting cast disproportionate screentime; nevertheless, this plot is on the dependency list for DA: Inquisition. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if it was worth their time.

*

Wynne and Anora and Leliana are dealing with Loghain and with the templars. If I’m any guess, it’s holy orders for the man: the kingdom is his life’s work, and I’d give odds that there is absolutely no way that Anora will stand for sending him into exile.

And Alistair, of course, is busy with affairs of state. I’m not avoiding him because I don’t want to see him. I’m avoiding him because what we really don’t need is rumours. I don’t even need Leliana to translate this one. I need to stay as far away from him as I possibly can till we’re safely in the field – there can’t be even the shadow of the sniff of a hint that either she or I have any influence on him at all. Once the banns have dispersed to their people, once they’ve taken away the news of the new king and queen, the show’s over. But until that point, it’s got to be very clear that all that being a Warden is to him, is a stepping stone to the throne. Not to mention that there can’t be anything putting him him too, uh, close to any woman – any person, for that matter – apart from Anora. Five minutes with me and him in the same room, in the sight of anyone with eyes to see, and the Queen’s faction decide that their lady’s honour is more important than everyone’s lives and all our good work starts to come apart.

So as I come back to Arl Eamon’s estate it’s perfectly understandable that I’m under a bit of a black cloud. Hardly even notice that Morrigan’s following until we get inside and she clears her throat like she wants something, and I look at her as if to say, what, and she asks if I have a little time for her right now.

And okay. The black cloud will wait. Morrigan’s self-control is pretty good, but she can’t fool me that she’s troubled. We find a room that nobody’s using and she takes a chair so I don’t have to look up at her, and she looks at me like she doesn’t know where to start, so I’m about to, and then she speaks.

“I have… discovered a few things.” Still looking really uncomfortable. Like she’s itching somewhere behind her eyes where she can’t scratch it. “You know that I drew a little of your blood, to study the curse on it?”

“I remember. You’re done?”

Her hands are clasped in her lap.”As ‘done’ as I am like to get. I have – you know the story of the man who wished to know it all, and the moral that there is such a thing as too much knowledge?” She bites her lip. “I have learned… things that are not kind to the memory, Kallian. Secrets. I need to share some of them, for the good of my heart. I need to share others, for duty’s sake.”

“Duty?” I spread my hands. “You sure you don’t want Wynne, for this?”

She nods, a quick nervous motion. “I need to tell someone who is not habituated to magic. I need to know what they will make you think. And if I were to confide in Leliana, she would be judgemental; I suspect I would not survive the experience. Please?”

I nod. “Say it.”

Deep breath, then the words all come out at once. “I’m not human, I’m not a person at all, my mother is probably an abomination, I have an idea for some magic that means a Warden doesn’t have to die but it’s extremely morally dubious and you are probably going to hit me.”

Blink. “Not much, then.”

She catches her breath with a noise that isn’t actually a laugh, it just sounds a little like it. “No. Hardly anything at all, see?”

And screw it. I owe her. I take her hand in mine and I come sit next to her and I look her in the eye a moment. “You won’t find me treating you worse ’cause you aren’t one of them. Now you start wherever you want and say whatever you want and take your time. Right?”

Morrigan nods slowly, breaks eye contact. “Um, so. I was looking at your blood, and I was using mine for comparison. And it wasn’t working, so I brought in Wynne to have a second opinion, and, well. If you are cursed – and you are – then I am cursed.”

“You’d know, if you’d become a Warden.” I look away at nothing. “It’s not a thing you forget doing, shall I say.”

“No, quite. And my memory is quite reliable. Extremely so, in fact, up to an age that I believe must be about six years: before that, nothing, not even jumbled images. It is as if  my memory simply came into existence, one day, and before that there is nothing at all. So it must have been before that day that I was, ah, ‘cursed’. And yet your blood and mine, they both have magic in them and to roughly the same extent and even a vaguely similar aim. You are connected to the archdemon, to the darkspawn. If you are too close when the archdemon loses its body, it will end up trying to take yours. And then the curse will activate, as you have been told. Death and glory. Riordan’s testimony is likely quite accurate.”

“And you?”

“And I?” She shivers. “I am connected to a creature similar in nature, a powerful and ancient spirit bound loosely to a Gifted body – and not its first, I’d wager. A creature that remains free of death in the way a bird remains free of the ground, let us say: with a little work. When its body becomes useless to it, it merely moves to a pre-prepared receptacle.”

I squeeze her hand and she squeezes back.

“It is worse than you are thinking. You see – shapeshifting, in a mage, it is a very bad sign. In the Fade it is one thing – to dream that one is a bird, a horse, a marmot, that is one thing. But to wake and discover that one is such a thing?” She shakes her head. “It is one thing to wish that one’s back were straighter, one’s buttocks firmer, one’s skin clearer. It is quite another to wish that one were a fox, and then to wish again that one were a human, and get both correct. You notice that I shift my shape without a spell. And yet in fifty years of working with every talented young person who comes through the door of the only Circle Tower in the kingdom, Wynne has seen not a single individual with what I grew up believing was a native talent, not an acquired one.”

“So you’re special?”

She frowns. “I had Wynne observe my shapeshifting very, very closely. And while my taking of another shape is a spell like any other – resuming my own is not. All I do, apparently, is remove my spell – it feels like I am changing my shape, but all that is happening is that another working, temporarily suspended, is asserting itself.” And she closes her eyes. “The spell in question is the one that says that I have a body at all. Yes. There is blood in me, bone and sinew, breath, life-energy, the stuff of blood-magic. And after twelve to eighteen years of consisting, it is used to my shape, it behaves very nearly like a human body. But it isn’t one. I’m not a human, Kallian. I have most in common with the dwarven golems that we saw – except, of course, that I am flesh and blood where they are stone and lyrium. I have a mind, yes, but not a soul; the only thing that keeps me human is a… curse. If there is a Maker, if he has a plan, I’m not part of it, because I was not made by him any more than the darkspawn were.” She spits the words out as if eager to be rid of the bitter taste of them.

“But Flemeth sent you with us. Isn’t that dangerous for her?”

“Safe and useless are very similar words.” She bites her lip again, and this time her teeth break the skin. “I have a number of deep-seated, unexamined desires, things I’d always considered to be part of me, which were most likely instilled rather than inherent. The first, physical perfection. I eat well, I avoid idleness, I remain immaculate, using magic to do this if I must; I keep myself in the peak of health and fitness. The second, sheer power – I accumulate it wherever I can, I suspect that this is the root of my fascination with wealth and luxury. The third, self-preservation. Have you ever seen me take a risk? In other words, I want to make myself the perfect host.” The corners of her eyes are shining a little in the light. “And one day, Flemeth’s body will die through accident or misadventure. And I will cease. Unless I do something about it.”

I put an arm about her like I’d do with Shani, even if she is nigh twice my cousin’s size, and I suddenly find that she has buried her face in my shoulder. I don’t know how long the two of us sit like that. It’s probably only a few minutes. She isn’t crying, not really. But she’s shaking, and her breathing is uneven, and she’s holding on tight like I might go away.

Eventually her shoulders stop shaking and she recovers herself and lets go of me and I take my arm back. And she’s not blotchy at all, or red-eyed, no sign of her distress, no sign at all. Not even in her voice. “So. That… is a matter for another day. My self-preservation instinct has been… eroded, shall we say, by travelling with you; my mother is unlikely to die before you bring the archdemon to battle, and that is what I really wish to discuss.”

“You said something about Wardens.”

“I did.” She takes a deep breath. “Given, given what I accidentally witnessed the other day, I think you will find my words offensive at first sight. Please don’t become violent? I don’t mean to offend.”

“Given… ?” I frown, confused. “You’ve my word, Morrigan. I won’t read anything into what you say that ain’t there.”

She raises her eyebrows. “I didn’t ask for an oath, but I thank you all the same. I… A Warden doesn’t have to die. I think that Leliana would say that the Maker put this in my path to find. Or kill me. She might kill me. That is why I am confiding in you, because the worst you’d do would be to cause me transient suffering, and now you have given your word not to.” Deep breath. “I can neutralise the archdemon.”

I look at her blankly for an instant. “Without fighting.”

“Without the death of a Warden.” Her eyes are intent. “In magic, knowledge truly is power. Having discovered what I am, how I was… probably created, I can replicate the process. A life-essence linked to the archdemon, a spell-pattern I can create, some of my own essence in place of an amount of lyrium the kingdom doesn’t have, and I would have made a thing which could trap such a soul.”

Trap it?” Dubious expression.

She nods. “Like a Warden does, right before their curse eventuates.”

I frown. “Go on. What sort of thing would this trap be? How permanent?”

“Well, until it had sprung, it would be inside me. I’d just need line of sight – the curse is designed to work without a Gifted One throwing all their will behind it. And once I had the thing? Without further work, that alone would be insufficient. The archdemon would be trapped inside my body. Not in the sense of a spirit possession; more in the sense of a… bodily organ with no function.” She shrugs. “It would be trapped powerless in my body until I died and it rotted along with the rest of me, at which point it would be released. Not terribly useful, beyond that I could arrange for Grey Wardens to be there. But I can do better.”

“This is the bit I’m not going to like?”

“Among others.” She swallows hard. “The thing would be alive, anyway; I could… create a living creature, much like myself, and given that it would be at my mercy magically speaking, I’d have a deal of control. It would be roughly human in the way that I am; it would remember as much of being an archdemon as I remember of being a… spell.” She shows her teeth. “And having no reason to maintain its link to the darkspawn, of course, it would not. The link would wither and die without use. And in the fullness of time, my daughter would grow old and die and pass beyond never knowing what she had been.”

“And if it didn’t work? If it retained its mind? If the link did not break?”

“It can’t retain its mind. It could retain the link. Grow up with the kind of terrifying nightmares you have, the whispers in the back of the head. But there would be a solution, of course, albeit one that would require us to cause a death: the Joining of the Grey Wardens would be instantly fatal to it.”

I blink. “And this would work.”

“If you can start it all by killing the archdemon’s body.”

“And if I can’t, no plan will work.”

“Exactly. I have studied the Commandments of the Maker; this is blood magic, but technically speaking blood magic is not maleficent unless a human is affected, and one would not be. The only physical suffering would be to me – and I am not a person – and to the archdemon.”

“You’re more of a person than some of the bluest blooded nobles I’ve met, Morrigan.”

She makes a quiet huffing noise in the back of her throat. “Thank you, but let’s not argue that. If you prefer, I’m quite prepared – just as you are – not to count the personal cost of all of this.”

“Fine.” I narrow my eyes. “So where’s the bit you thought would drive me into a rage?”

She says it quickly. “The bit I said in mage-babble such that you wouldn’t be enraged before I’d finished. The bit where I need cursed life-essence.”

“You want more blood? How much are we talking?”

Her eyes widen. “Um. I… suppose I… it must be…no. To cobble together a self-sustaining source of life-energy requires enough energy to, well, live on its own. For your suggestion to work, we would need approximately six pints of blood, specifically the blood of elven women, more than half of it yours. And the process would be… More akin to the dark rituals of Leliana’s imagination than I am comfortable with, quite apart from the fact that it would be the most unpleasant thing that you or I have ever experienced.” She blinks at me. “Or I could simply not attempt to transfer such a great amount of life-force but rather just… create some. To order, so to speak. With the right properties.”

“…yes? How?”

She goes quite scarlet. “Kallian Dener, are you telling me that I need to explain to you where new life usually comes from?”

There’s this moment where I don’t know what she’s talking about. Then there’s this moment where I do know what she’s – you know what, she can’t be – did she seriously just say what I thought she said?

“I am to infer from your expression that I was right to ask you not to beome violent.”

“Don’t change the subject.” I deliberately unclench my fists, slowly, fold my hands over one another. “Your plan. Is to lie with a man and by blood magic conceive a thing which is not a child. To be present for the death of the archdemon and to somehow draw it away from the Warden who would kill it and be killed by it, and to trap it inside yourself. As a child. Who you will bear and raise knowing that that child’s death is the most important thing you will ever do.”

“Succinct. Yes. Um. But not just… any man?”

I blink. “No.” My voice just about manages not to squeak.

She nods. “Riordan, quite apart from being more than twice my age, would be unconvinceable. But Alistair…”

“Would also be unconvinceable.”

“Ah. But if only there were a thing that he desperately -”

“Don’t you dare finish that sentence.” The words escape me in an arrowflight and I close my eyes and tighten one hand on the other till I hear the joints click. “Yes. Yes, you were right to ask me not to be violent. Morrigan, you were about to suggest taking my shape and going to him, like it was a fairy-tale.” Open my eyes. Stare at her. She doesn’t respond. “Weren’t you?”

My tone of voice makes her physically flinch. Lips still sealed, she nods slowly.

“You’re aware of what that would do. To him. To me. You’re aware that there’s a word for someone who does that sort of thing.”

“Yes. Yes, I am. I am quite aware that what I am talking about is a breach of a great number of moral boundaries. It damages me, and you, and him.” Her mouth is a flat line. “But all of the suffering in it is transitory. Nothing permanent is done to anybody but me, and I am reconciled to it; regardless, I am told that motherhood is supposed to be a good thing. We do not destroy the archdemon by violence. We destroy it by creating life, by redeeming it. And nobody has their soul burned to ash on a bloody funeral pyre.” She shows her teeth. “How much transitory suffering would balance that?”

“You know that you said that Leliana would judge you for telling her this?”

“Now who’s changing the subject – Yes?”

“You were right. And Wynne would caution you to tell nobody else and probably not to dream of it either. A-and I?” I shake my head. “I can see what you are trying to do. You see that there’s two chances in three that this kills a friend of yours. And you are my friend, Morrigan, shem or not. And I’ve got barely more friends in this world than you have. And if we live through this, then it’s my turn to help you. Against your mother. You understand what I’m saying?”

“I think I do.”

“Right. So understand this.” Quiet voice, measured tone. “If the archdemon dies and I feel it go away, and Riordan and Alistair and I are all still alive, then I give you my word as a Warden that I will kill you myself.”

She puts her hand over her mouth. “You, you would…?”

“There’s so much wrong in this that I don’t have words. You’re talking about lying to every person of good morals we have because you already know they wouldn’t go for it. Maker’s sake, you’re talking about lying to Alistair because you know he won’t go for it-”

“Yes. The end result is good, but the means are not. I know that as well as you do. I came to you because you are the only person I can trust for good advice who I can trust not to think less of me for asking it.”

I hold my tongue until I think that I can say something civil. She’s searching my face for some kind of answer, for reassurance that I’m not mortally offended. I’m the only one in the whole world she could come to – I fly off the handle at her and anything might happen. Finally I open my mouth. “Morrigan, I understand. Or I think I do. And I know damn well that you could’ve done this without my knowledge and the first I’d have known is when it all went wrong, but you came to me about it because it’s the decent thing to do even if you’re planning to ignore my advice. That said?” I hold her eyes. “You were looking for a price we’re happy paying. This ain’t one. There’s my advice.”

And abruptly she puts her head on one side. “Let me put it another way. I know you are prepared to give your life, Kallian. But are you prepared to give his?”

I take a moment and bite off the retort about her changing the subject. Deep breath. “You dare say that.”

“Does it make you uncomfortable?”

“Aye, it does, and you know why. If you’re trying to get me angry-”

She’s leaning towards me a little, invading my personal space. “It is just that when he joined the Wardens, there was no Blight.”

“But we’ve made our peace with that, he and I-”

Her eyes are fixed on mine. “Asked him, have you?”

“Morrigan, stop it.”

“Attack the questioner rather than the question, will you? Most unsporting. Arem’t you scared of standing there helpless, watching him -”

Unthinking I hit back at her. “Who am I talking to right now? Still even you in there?”

And her eyes go so wide that I can see white all around them and she goes dead pale, and then my ears pop and all the shutters on the windows rattle and the floor creaks – she half-stands out of the chair, spreads her hands ungainly like she’s finding her balance, turns a full circle of the room still staring, muttering to herself, doesn’t hear me say her name –

Meets my eyes again. I’ve stood, but that’s all. She’s breathing quick and shallow and her hands are shaking as she lowers them and her eyes are leaving the slightest green afterimage behind them. “…Oh, gods,” she says, her voice hollow. “No, Kallian, it’s me.” She takes a deep breath, half talking to herself. “It’s me. You once gave me advice in a trap in the Fade, and I looked like a big cat at the time – name something I said to you?”

“You said I was half in and half out.” I don’t offer her a hand because in her position I surely wouldn’t want one. “You all right?”

She nods carefully. “The puppet just caught a really good sight of a string.”

Blink. “You want to say that again in a way that doesn’t make me wonder if the answer’s no?”

She giggles, very slightest trace of hysteria, covers her mouth. “No, Kallian, I am not ‘all right’. I am apparently making earth-shaking decisions under the influence of spells I didn’t know existed until I started poking myself with needles. I am apparently planning to behave like your stereotypical wicked witch of the stories. The plan would give me control over how much power? And I can be trusted how far?” Her hands are still shaking.

“You came to me,” I say. Not a trace of the pity she don’t want. “You stopped yourself. It’s not about trust.”

She looks me in the eye. “It’s simply that it is a bad plan.”

“Just a bad idea. Everyone has ’em.”

She makes a noise that was probably an attempt at a snort of laughter. “Most people aren’t physically capable of having ideas this bad. Thank you, Kallian. I don’t know exactly what I’d have done if you hadn’t been here. But I don’t think we would have liked the result.”

“Any time, my friend.”  I give her just the corner of a smile and I see those words, my friend, hit home like I’d intended. She is. She has been. Maybe she needs a little support. “Just, well. As little as possible? You scared me bad tonight.”

“I scared myself, as well.” She bows her head to me. And she bids me good-night and she leaves, and I really seriously have a think about the part of that plan that involved someone who looks like me finding out where my knight is sleeping tonight, because she’s absolutely right about what would happen next.

And then I close my door and damn well lock it.

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-One

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*

The royal court reminds me of nothing so much as a chantry, although that said, I’ve never been in a chantry so grand. The nobles are sat down the sides where the choir should be; the throne takes the place of the lectern of the Chant front and centre and the regent takes the place of the chanter. And this is my first sight of the bastard since Ostagar. Memory has built him up into a sort of ogre: in the flesh he’s just another shem noble, big nose, hooded eyes, dark hair, black armour, red surcoat, gold trim. He’s not over tall; I’d forgotten that, if I ever knew it.

At the other side of the throne from him is sat the princess – I am not jealous of her, I’m not. I suppose you’d call her more than simply pretty: her dress is black taffeta and velvet, a red flower her only nod to her family’s colours, the diadem she wears almost lost among the white gold of her hair. There’s a templar sat beside her where you’d look for a lady-in-waiting, and there must be somewhere in Ferelden that chisels women out of granite rather than growing them the normal way: she has this look about her like she’s not just there for show.

Leliana’s in a habit all the colours of a flame, accompanying Wynne with the Chantry delegation; Oghren is here in his own right as the only foreign ambassador at court. Morrigan is playing servant: with all the different nobles and their retinues here, nobody’s noticing a cupbearer more or less. And I step into the room and this is probably the most shems I’ve ever had looking at me all together at once.

I suppose they’re not looking so much at me as at the costume. I don’t look human. The only colour about me is the red of my short hair and the green of my eyes. Flat black boots that finish high on my calf, grey tunic and hose, the grey armour, all my blades, and with the cloak I look more some kind of apparition of woe than a real person. I haven’t painted my face: I’m a knight, not a harlot, and Leliana was busy elsewhere.

Suppose they’re also sparing a glance or two for the man at my shoulder, the man I daren’t rest my eye on more than a moment. Cream and gold he’s in, the Theirin colours, his armour pointedly plain steel, his cloak stormcloud grey. The dark gold of his hair kept in place by a braided cord that stops just short of being a coronet. Maker’s breath, I’m not doing the man justice. Don’t think words could. If all you needed to rule was to look the part, then my Alistair would be king of the world, and yes, I am aware how I sound. He looks good, is what I mean to say.

And we show our respect to the throne, and a blind man could see that our salute is to Anora and not to her father, and we take our seats, and the show, the show begins.

*

To call it a show is very much right. Everyone has a voice, everyone has a say, and by Andraste they’re going to make everyone hear it – you hear of the counsels of the high and the mighty and you imagine politeness and reason or at least a little order, and by and large that’s a pretty dream you had there. You see, the Landsmeet doesn’t have many rules. When good King Maric gave the Orlesians the boot, he also gave their rules the boot: he was a man of simple tastes whose friends called him robust and boisterous and whose enemies – those who weren’t dead of duelling him or his friends – called him loud and bullying. So the rule as to who speaks is simply that anyone may speak at any time, save that a mere knight may only speak if spoken to, a bann must give way to an arl or teyrn, and everyone must give way to the Chantry or the Crown, but the Chantry never speaks and today nobody’s really sure who the Crown is – so the upshot is that unless someone other than a bann wants to speak, it’s a little like sheer bloody chaos. If you’re nobody, you get shouted down or talked over. If you’re boring, you get booed. If you’re contentious, mostly, you start a shouting match. But the more powerful your friends, the more likely everyone is to let you have all your say, and as far as I can tell, the more real power it is that you have, the later you speak.

Think of the place as having five teams – Loghain’s, Eamon’s, Howe’s, Highever’s, and the rest – and yes, I know that Howe and Highever are dead; their teams seem mostly to be milling around trying to make sure they aren’t forgotten. The discussion’s officially about welcoming Eamon and inviting him to deliver his concerns to the Landsmeet, but Loghain’s people are first to speak, by weight at least, and they’re trying to get across that this isn’t about what anyone says it’s about, this is about Orlais wanting their rebellious province back by the back door. One man is incautious enough to actually put into words that the Chantry murdered Howe on the insistence of an Orlesian spy – Oghren meets my eyes and shakes his head as I’m thinking of standing – as the princess stands, quietly, and simply waits, and the room goes silent. And she recounts the name and family of each of the prisoners in Howe’s dungeon, and the state they were found in, her voice starting level and toneless and seeming to become stained and dirtied and outraged by every word she has to speak, and her eyes never move from that man, and when she’s done telling those dozen sad tales she sits without any further elaboration, and that’s the end of that discussion.

It’s my duty here to raise that the Blight is the threat, not human foreigners, but again it’s done for me. A minor bann of Eamon’s faction speaks the words, and when one of Howe’s people tries to shout him down, Eamon stands, waits politely for that bann’s silence, then turns to his own supporter and says simply “Pray continue”. And it’s so that I begin to see what is actually happening here. There might be petty matters being discussed and ground being made or lost on the side, there might be lesser powers here like me and Anora and the revered mother, but what is going on is that Eamon and Loghain are gauging the mood of the kingdom’s nobles, like a pair of duelists circling, exchanging the odd ringing blow but really just testing each other’s position and trying to do so without expending any of their own limited strength. And eventually the noise begins to subside and it’s Loghain who stands to invite Eamon to speak his concerns honestly and in the sight of all, and Eamon invites me to stand that I might tell the story better than he.

And so I do. Speak plain, Oghren said, but between my dignity and my costume I feel like I’m talking like someone out of somebody’s myth. I don’t try and dress it up, and I don’t tell what I don’t know. Ostagar fell to treachery. To the failure of the army’s commanders to close the trap. To an opened postern gate giving no room for retreat. A man from Loghain’s faction shoots to his feet to cry that it is all more foreign lies, and I turn to face him in a flicker and a swirl of the grey cape and with a hand on the hilt of my sword I ask him in my broadest Denerim accent to repeat himself, because I didn’t quite catch that the first time. And he colours and sits down.

An idea occurs. I turn to Ser Cauthrien, sat with Loghain’s faction, and I hope I’m right. And I incline my head to her, and I say that as I was not with the bulk of the royal army, I do not know what they were told, I do not know the reasons they were given for the retreat. Some are here who were: I call her to speak. And so she stands, unprepared to speak, but I’m betting she’s as honest as she claims: she gives the story as she saw it, with the scouts coming back injured reporting a second horde to the south, with a man reporting that he’d seen Cailien fall at the hands of the Warden-Commander – Alistair stands, at that, and I shake my head at him, and I hope that the expression on his face as he sits back down is feigned, because I don’t quite know what I’d do if that was ever pointed at me.

I ask Cauthrien if she saw the signal, the fire from the top of the tower, the beacon that I know Alistair lit. And she looks to Loghain before answering, and the whole of the Landsmeet sees that. She swallows. Yes, she saw it.

So I ask what she did about that, and she says she followed her orders.

Whose orders? The king’s?

No.

I thank her, and beg leave of Eamon to call my own knight to speak, for he witnessed the last moments of the battle, while I had been injured. And so Alistair takes the floor, and his eyes don’t leave Loghain’s as he describes the last stand of the Wardens, and of the man he calls his brother. The Wardens did not murder their king, he says, and the anger in his voice is a bright hard thing. They died, nearly to a man, shoulder to shoulder with him, abandoned, awaiting reinforcements that did not come.

He sits, and Eamon speaks. He tells of how his own life was nearly taken by a poisoner, an apostate offered a position as court mage by a mysterious woman in return for the death of the arl of Redcliffe.He tells of how his arling was nearly usurped by his treacherous brother, and he asks all those present if they might call to mind the circumstances of his brother’s last visit to the Landsmeet; did he have any conspicuous allies, perhaps, especially someone not known as an ally of Eamon’s, anyone whose position might be stronger by the arl’s death, someone who could offer a position as court mage? And I’m watching Cauthrien, because I don’t know most of the people here, and I’d have had to be blind to miss the way her shocked eyes dart to her lord before she regains her composure.

He tells of how his life was saved by the Wardens and a mage from the Circle, and he calls not Wynne but a templar to speak concerning certain letters recovered from insurgents in the Circle Tower itself, letters offering relaxations in the restrictions upon proscribed magics within Ferelden in return for magical assistance in some unspecified war. Letters from whom? He shrugs; anyone can put anyone’s name to a letter. Only he invites the banns to think, concerning whether there was a person who would have been in a position to make laws across the kingdom, perhaps a person who has been recently agitating for the Chantry to be reined in?

Finally he sums up once more the charges that I have repeated in the hearing of the Landsmeet, that the defeat at Ostagar was engineered, and regardless of any accusations I might have made in this regard, he asks the banns of the Landsmeet if perhaps a name came to mind, a faction that has perhaps benefited greatly from the tragic loss of so many good men and women – most especially those with real or perceived foreign contacts, who seemed to have volunteered with particular courage to hold the fort. And he sits.

And Loghain speaks, and I notice that he chooses to remain upon the dais of the throne as he does so. His words are short and clipped and dismissive. Whose testimony does the arl bring, here? Those of high and noble birth, perhaps? Those of impeccable character and breeding? The defenders of the realm, perhaps? He shakes his head. The arl, he says, has been lied to. Again, and again, and again, until what is he to do but begin to believe. Mud sticks, he says, even to the brightest of shields. What is a man to do, under the relentless assault of foreign lies, but to tell the truth, and to cleave to it, and to stand firm, and to outlast them? He has no intention of answering charges brought upon the testimony of a guttersnipe half-elf, a fatherless hedge-knight, a blood mage, a Chantry stooge, a pack of liars and traitors and murderers and foreigners.

The plan says that we are to remain above the insults, not to rise to them, to hear them and remain unmoved. The plan lasts about as long as it takes for Alistair to meet my eyes and see the cold white fury. The brass rail that I’m holding, it has the prints in it of my fingers as if it was made of little more than bread dough. He stands, and he takes the floor, and he walks towards Loghain with slow measured tread, not breaking eye contact with him. I can see Oghren across the room shaking his head. This didn’t need to happen, he’s thinking nearly loud enough to speak. The banns were already seeing Loghain as tainted. The very next thing Eamon would have said would have unseated the Regent. And the arl himself is unreadable.

And Alistair walks right up to the regent, and he looks him in the eye. “Sorry for the interruption, my lord,” he says in a cold deadly voice that sounds a great deal like he learned it from me. “I believe I did not quite hear some things that you said just now. A real man, if he was saying such things about me, he would say them to my face. Well, here is my face. And for what it’s worth, I agree with much of what you said. Someone here is a liar, a traitor and a murderer.” His voice drops menacingly quiet. “Is he a coward?”

The whole room hears the blow, but Loghain might as well have backhanded a statue; all Alistair does is nod his head. “I accept,” he says.

*

The tiles of the court are black and white. There is enough room between the two banks of seats that they don’t have to take this outside – what it reminds me of most is a dog-fight, with the audience high around the pit in which the two of them will fight. All it needs is someone taking bets. I’m sure that some of the shems here are thinking the same, only they’ll be entertained where I’m disgusted, now, won’t they. Anora has taken out a handkerchief and she’s twisting it and knotting it in her lap, barely daring to blink in case something happens while her eyes are closed. Surely she’s seen her father fight duels before, although admittedly she’s also seen what Alistair can do.

Swords, of course, for both of ’em, long ones, two-handed. Alistair is the larger man, a good four inches taller, a little broader in the shoulders and deeper in the chest, and his blade is just a little longer, but it’s just plain steel where Loghain’s blade is lightened and sharpened with runes very like those on his black armour. Both of them bare-headed, both of them have shed their cloaks. Through the whole time they are making ready they don’t take their eyes off one another for one moment. No words, they speak. Not one.

Loghain’s old enough to be Alistair’s father, and he’s been a knight for longer than the younger man has been alive, and he hasn’t been idle. Their blades clash the first time, each of them trying to get the other’s measure of speed and strength. Loghain is trying to see if Alistair’s the overconfident idiot he might be. Alistair’s trying to see if Loghain is as good as the stories say. The blades clash again, Alistair making a flick of a cut that’s got enough power behind it to test the man’s strength, and Loghain swaps a hand onto the pommel of his blade for a little more leverage. Again they meet, Loghain probing with a deceptively quick and accurate thrust and Alistair warding it just enough to try and get him to over-extend, and he doesn’t. They circle.

Alistair begins the fight in earnest and the two of them exchange five blows in as many heartbeats; sparks fly; Alistair tries to close and Loghain gives ground, reprises suddenly and Alistair sways aside from a thrust that was nearly close enough to shave with. Again they circle, eyes locked, and again their blades come together, a blurring exchange of ringing blows; one of them locks their blades and they come together in a bind that ends abruptly with Loghain literally thrown backwards through the air, rolling and coming to his feet in his weightless armour, Alistair following up with a lunge that exploits every inch of his reach.

And Loghain sees the lunge coming and sidesteps nimbly, unwinding into a cut at Alistair’s ribs with all his strength – he’s in full armour, surely all that’s going to do is nick the blade – sparks fly and Alistair makes no noise, but as Loghain follows through there’s a long scratch visible in the steel of Alistair’s breastplate and there’s a drop of bright blood on the Regent’s blade.

Not that that slows Alistair down for a second. He barely even seems to feel the impact of the blow that clove right through a steel plate and spent most of the older man’s strength to deal, and in the instant that Loghan’s blade is out of position he flows forward at a speed most of the audience won’t have even been able to follow and lunges for the gap between plates under Loghain’s left arm. No time to parry that with the sword, but the teyrn gets his front elbow-plate in the way, deflects the point just enough to set the deadly thrust skittering harmlessly off his pauldron, but Alistair never even meant for that thrust to strike home. The moment his point clashes against Loghain’s armour he takes his back hand off the hilt, lets the weapon come up to the half-sword as he grabs the blade with a gauntleted hand for leverage, punches Loghain in the gut with the crossguard and brings their foreheads together as hard as he physically can.

Bloody hellfire, I can almost feel that one from here. Certainly Loghain felt it: Alistair takes a slightly unsteady step backwards, but the blow hammered the Regent down into the ground like it was the Maker’s fist. And Alistair levels his blade one-handed at Loghain’s face and says “Yield.”

The older man chuckles. “This isn’t a training exhibition, boy, something you win because you scored a point-” And on that word he surges up from the ground, knocks the blade aside with one armoured fist, carries the motion on into a spin that hits Alistair in the chest with all of his weight, and follows up with a flurry of quick savage blows that Alistair barely gets his blade to. And the next time Alistair tries to close, Loghain’s ready for it, ducks and twists and throws the big guy over his shoulder; there’s an intake of breath from the whole room as Alistair twists in mid-air with a cat’s grace and lands on his feet, responds with a blow that’s little more than a shove and the two of them circle once more. I make myself let go of the rail I’m holding, because I’ll only snap it.

Alistair’s bleeding. There’s a little runnel of blood down from the scratch in his armour. But – I don’t know if Alistair can see it, but I can – Loghain is moving a little slower, a little less steady than he was. Another exchange of blows and what Alistair  took for a feint is a thrust and he’s not going to –

He missed. Loghain committed to that, all his weight behind it, his opponent’s blade was out of line and he simply missed. And Alistair doesn’t waste time in shock as the blade flashes a good three inches from the side of his head – he hits Loghain in the chest with his pommel to unbalance him and then brings his blade up in a shining back-handed arc and connects under Loghain’s arm and the Regent staggers backward. You can’t see blood easy against the black of his armour, but there’s red on Alistair’s blade, and once again he takes a couple of steps away. “Ser, you fight well. You’re the best I’ve ever seen outside my order. You’re also beaten. In the name of peace -”

Loghain snarls and goes for Alistair again, a blind charge, caution to the wind, and sadly Alistair steps to one side, brings his blade down for a simple trip.

And Loghain steps neatly around it, slams his elbow into Alistair’s chest and as he reels backwards delivers an arcing two-handed blow that dents the younger man’s breastplate and takes him completely off his feet. Follows up straight, dropping a knee into Alistair’s gut, all his weight behind it, brings his weapon down at the half-sword and Alistair has to drop his own blade to catch it with both hands or lose his head.

Loghain has his whole weight on his hands, and that of his armour, weightless for him but very real for Alistair. And they look into one another’s eyes, and the Regent bares his teeth as the sword bears inexorably downward. “Fight, don’t talk,” he hisses. Anora looks away –

“Okay,” Alistair says. And he snaps his arms out straight, throwing the teyrn physically off him to one side with a crash, and there’s not even a question that it’s he who retains hold of the sword. He takes a look at the weapon, whirls it once in the air, raises an impressed eyebrow as he walks towards Loghain; the man’s struggling to push himself up off his back. What I hadn’t seen before and Alistair clearly has, there’s blood running out of Loghain’s right ear. And my knight closes the distance between them, puts his foot on the Regent’s chest, and presses him firmly back down to the ground. Lies the black blade’s point under Loghain’s chin. “For the third time, mac Tir. Yield.”

“In hell,” he spits.

Alistair shakes his head. “Look. You’re losing blood, you’re getting weaker every moment, I’ve got my foot on your breastplate and this is your sword I’m holding. For Andraste’s sake, man, honour is satisfied. You think I like taking life?” His eyes flick up to Anora, who’s got her hand over her mouth, doesn’t want to see, can’t look away –

The instant Alistair’s eyes leave his, Loghain twists violently to one side. Whether he hoped that was going to trip Alistair over or not, it doesn’t – but he has a knife, a thin sharp needle-like bodkin, drew it as fast as I might, going for the vulnerable knee joint – reflexes kick in, Alistair brings the black blade across in an arc –

I will remember the noise that that made for the rest of my life. It’s a little like the sound of a forge hammer without the ring of the anvil, a little like an axe chopping a tree without the splintering of the wood, a little like the sound of a cleaver through meat, if the cleaver raised sparks. The enchanted blade, driven by the full force of Alistair’s arms, meets the black steel of Loghain’s armour. And the edges of the armour are red with heat where it’s parted, and Loghain gives a hoarse ragged shout and Anora crams her fist into her mouth to stop herself screaming as Alistair takes her father’s right arm off a little bit below the elbow.

Blood. So much of it. The stinking blood of the man who killed Duncan. It’s right there, Loghain’s face going grey, his expression glassy, and his blood – The girl I used to be, she’d wash her hands in it and laugh. I just look at it and all I can see is Anora, and how I felt when it was my father weak and hurting and his life in the hands of someone who didn’t mean him well. The rest of the Landsmeet, they’re pretty much on the edge of their seats like the crowd at a dogfight, it’s disgusting –

Glad one of us still has his head on his shoulders, really. Alistair  looks up towards the Chantry seats. “Wynne!” he cries.

The enchanter surges to her feet and reaches out like she’s casting a net, and as Loghain falls limp on his side the flow of bright blood from the stump of his arm ceases as if it had never been.

And every single templar in the room comes to their feet at once.

“Hold.” Their commander raises his hand coldly and looks down his nose at Alistair. “Warden. I do not recall giving permission for this.”

Alistair turns to face him.  “Unless and until the Landsmeet says otherwise, ser, this man is the Lord Regent.”

He narrows his eyes. “His rank didn’t bother you a moment ago.”

“Philosophical differences. A matter of honour.” A few smiles from knights around the hall as if Alistair’s told a joke – according to Leliana, those words are the time-honoured excuse for a duel you don’t want to explain. “You’re saying I should leave him bleeding on the floor? When it’s in my gift to save his life?”

“It is not.” The templar takes a long deep breath. “The Chantry has shown great forbearance, Warden, in our tolerance of the… liberties… you have taken with the service of its people. The Accords of Ostagar state that the Circles of Magi must provide you with support against the Blight, Warden. Where are the darkspawn in this room? Is that the archdemon at your feet, perhaps? Then why-”

“No! Exactly!” Alistair’s voice suddenly fills the hall entire. “Exactly.” He turns to the rest of the hall. Realises he’s still holding Loghain’s sword; puts it away in his own scabbard. “Look at you.” He spreads his hands to both sides of the hall. “The Queen’s faction. The King’s faction. Sat like the audience at a Tevinter pit-fight to watch your champion fight their champion, to watch the first blood spilled between you, so you can go and tell your friends it’s on.” He bends down, dips the fingertips of his right hand in Loghain’s blood, wets the fingertips of his left hand with his own, almost but not quite making a hand-puppet on either side. “There, you see? Blood. Between us. My blood, his blood. He had first blood, and if Wynne hadn’t acted when I asked, I’d have had last blood. My lords and ladies, has there not been enough blood?”

Alistair shakes his head. Drops his hands and turns back to the templar. “Knight-commander, I don’t want this man dead. I don’t want to gloat, or crow, I don’t want people calling me Alistair the Merciful or whatever. There’s just precisely one thing I want. I want this man to stop hurting my people.” He looks down at Loghain’s hopefully unconscious body under the gossamer net of Wynne’s spell. “Looks like he’s stopped, from here.”

“You leave the decision in our hands, then?” The knight-commander frowns like a thundercloud. “Force us to take a side? You know we are sworn to favour none of the Maker’s children over another.”

“No.” Anora stands, shakes off the hand her templar puts on her elbow, comes forward to stand beside Alistair. Straight back, regal bearing. Definitely as much of the queen in her as the princess. “Wherever his zeal has led him, ser, my father is a hero. Without him, there would not be a kingdom. And you, all of you, owe him better than -” she gestures around – “This. Is this truly to be his legacy? An ignominious death on the floor of his own exchequer, a war that rips the kingdom in half when the wolf is at the very door? I will not have it.”

“You won’t have it.” One of the banns stands up, one of the King’s faction. “And who are you, to speak like that and see us dance to your tune?”

Predictably, one of the other bastards stands up, and by Oghren’s smug look, it’s not an accident – “Silence for the Crown, you arrogant-”

“ENOUGH!” I’m probably the only one in the room who’s not surprised that Alistair can make a noise that loud. “I have had it with you bloody people and your stupid bloody squabbling over a crown that will mean nothing unless we all pull together right now.” He turns to Anora, moderates his voice some. Still audible at the back of the room. “My lady, let me just get this straight. I’m a simple man at heart, I want to make sure that I’m not missing something. The Crown. It’s either yours, by right of marriage, or it’s mine, by right of birth. And about a third of this room say you’re not fit to be queen, and about a third of this room say I’m not fit to be king, and about a third are with you and me and just want to bloody get on with it.”

She nods. “And those who say that you’re not fit, they point to your mother; and those who say that I’m not fit, they point to my father.”

“For crying out loud. Am I the only one who sees the obvious solution?” He glances at the rest of the room, aware of all the eyes on him. “Anora, I will never be able to replace my brother. I know that. And I don’t expect I have your father’s consent. But he isn’t the queen. You are. Will you consent to our alliance?”

The shrewd expression that crosses her face is missed by none of her supporters, exactly as planned. “I’ll not give up the throne,” she says with a warning tone that’s absolutely feigned. This was her idea.

Alistair smiles. “Then neither will I. We shall schedule the marriage for after the Blight?”

“Not too long.” She looks him up and down appreciatively and that’s got to have been done for her audience. “I’m not sure I believe in long engagements.” She offers him her hand with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Done.” He takes her hand, goes to his knee to kiss it.

And he stands, and faces the room. “All right. You heard the lady. And you can all tell your friends who couldn’t make it. Those of you who wanted a queen? You have one. Those of you who wanted a king? You have one. Those of you who don’t want a king? Those of you who don’t want a queen? Those of you who still want to fight anybody who isn’t a darkspawn?” He draws Loghain’s blade with a ring of steel, flourishes it in the air like he’s testing the balance. “I’ll hear your complaints right here and now. Form an orderly queue; I’ve got a kingdom to save.”

Ser Cauthrien shoots to her feet and her sword is in her hand in the same moment, and there’s this instant where Alistair looks her in the eye as if to say, really? And she raises her voice. “Two queues, my lords and ladies, if you please. We wouldn’t want the king to be delayed.”

And I stand, and I draw. “Three,” I say.

And Eamon comes to his feet. And then the rest. And I’m sure that half of them are going to go back and tell their friends how Alistair seduced the queen and stole the kingdom. But honestly? I don’t think we give a damn.

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty

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*

“Kallian?” Alistair sees my expression and frowns.

“Fuck shems.” I pretty much carry right on past him. This corridor is wide enough for two. “Fuck ’em.”

“Uh, if you insist. Any particular ones? Should I make a list?”

I stop dead, turn to face him. Damn them, they’ve got him in the Theirin colours, cream and gold. Is he not still my knight? (Even those noble clothes can’t hide the power in his shoulders, his chest.) “Alistair, this is one of those times where I ask you if you really have no idea what’s going on.”

“The ones where I can’t answer either yes, because you’d shout at me – or no, because you’d actually hit me – or I-don’t-know, because that doesn’t make any damned sense?” Disarming smile.

I try and cling to what I was thinking. “Let me give you a hint. D’you know what the word ‘alliance’ means where I grew up?”

“…That it’s time to stop fighting the wrong people and start fighting the right ones?”

“Right.” I show him some teeth. “So did you not maybe think that you might have given me just a little warning before just sort-of dumping on me that perhaps that wasn’t what Anora meant -”

“Dumping on you?” His eyebrows shoot up. “How much warning d’you think I got? They hammered it out while we were off talking to Riordan. I pretty much heard it at the same time you did.”

“No, Alistair.” His eyes are so blue. “No you didn’t. Y’see, she said ‘alliance’ and I saw a shake of hands and an agreement to let the blades lie till we weren’t all about to die of something else – but – but you saw -”

The smile is getting faker and faker. “Yeah. Save the kingdom. Take my allegedly rightful place in the big shiny chair. Get the girl.” He opens his mouth to say something else but not a thing comes out.

I nod. “Anora told me, in the end. May you have many fat children.” I didn’t mean for that to sound quite so bitter, but the words are gone now. I turn my back on him –

“Kallian, please.” He closes the distance between us and puts his left hand on my left shoulder and I freeze.

I do grab his wrist with my right hand, but I don’t take it off me despite my mouth going dry and my heart suddenly catching up with me and I’m sure he must’ve felt me shiver. I don’t turn to face him, just turn my head down and to the side. I open my mouth – make it as far as “Alistair.” Something stole all the weight out of my voice.

“You know how much I hate this.”

“Aye.” I have hold of his wrist. It might be – it could be that it’s there so I can tighten my fingers and twist and get rid of his hand on me. “You know that I hate it, too?” All right, fine. I’m holding on. I’m holding on to him in case he goes away.

“I -” He swallows. “You mean that. What am I saying, course you mean it, that is, you-”

“Shouldn’t.” I tighten my hand on his wrist. My pulse is loud enough he ought to be able to hear it. “I don’t have a right to talk. I mean, I’m part of all this, aren’t I. I’ve done you my fair bloody share.”

“It’s not like I’ve exactly been a model of rationality. When you yelled at me back in Orzammar, you were right and I was wrong and that’s how it was.”

“But if the world worked the way it ought to

His voice is a little rough. “Maybe you just said a few words that went a way toward changing that.”

“The way it really ought to?” I shake my head a little. “I’m the commander, Alistair. I’m not supposed to give two shits how you feel. And if I weren’t the commander, I’d still be a tavern jill and you’d still be-”

And he puts a hand on my waist. That single little tentative touch is a spark onto dry tinder – I’m honestly not sure how I’m still on my feet – I draw a sharp breath and he takes his hand away again. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“All right, look,” I say. The fire inside me doesn’t go away just because he took the spark away. “All else aside. You touch me again? I can’t be held responsible.”

There’s a pause. He takes a long breath in and out. “And if I could find it in myself to live with that?”

“You know what she said to me?” I close my eyes. “Anora. She took me off to one side to quietly give us permission to – to – betray her. And you know what I did?”

“Tell me.”

“I hit her?” Thinking of that instant, it seems to make me calm down. To give me a way out that doesn’t involve doing what I so desperately want to. “Because you’d never do that. Because you’re better than that.”

“Yeah?” His voice is still less than even. “Maybe. Maybe I am that much of a man.” He squeezes my shoulder very gently and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was actual smoke coming up around his hand. “If there were nothing else in the world, just you and me and no expectations or duties or anything? If the world worked as it should? If none of it mattered? I want you to know that I would-” don’t you say it, don’t you dare – “Uh. I would have taken most of forever getting around to admitting it and I would have done every single possible thing wrong but one, but, but that one thing would be to love you. First, and, and last, and dearest, from the moment you met my eyes and wouldn’t look away.”

Oh, hell.

I twist around with those words, end up with his hand between us held in both of mine, meet his eyes and let them steal my breath entirely away. “I think that you’d not have come away empty-handed, I, I think that if we play our cards wrong right here, we’ll end up doing something we’ll both regret.”

He moistens his dry lips and I want to have that tunic off him right here. “I think you’re right.”

“So this is, uh, this is sort of the point at which I drop your hand and then we both back away slowly?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” He nods jerkily. And I’m sure he’s opening his mouth to say something else, and he’s looking into my eyes and I’m just kind of stuck there –

“Ah! Kallian. Alistair.” Morrigan’s voice and I drop his hand like it was on fire and he takes a half step back out of my personal space, maybe she didn’t see – “Just the people I – was -” She stops herself dead a moment and looks us over and goes about the same colour I just went. “Oh.”

“We were just-” I recover first by a hairsbreadth, look round at her –

“That is to say, I was-” Alistair talks over me and it’s like our words get tangled and come to a crashing halt.

“I can come back later, much later.” She’s already taking a step backward. “It isn’t urgent.”

“No, it’s all right.” I force myself to turn my back on Alistair. “What did you need us for?”

“A – a tiny favour. Very small. Literally a moment.” She’s still looking at the two of us with something between embarrassment and fascination. Wipes that expression off her face. “Can I have some blood?”

Alistair and I look at one another. I can almost hear the words he’s not saying. His face is too straight. I avoid his eyes quickly or I’ll start giggling.

Morrigan frowns abruptly. “I’m sure there is no call for you to laugh at me. All I need is a drop of blood from one of you, for a divination. It could be important.”

I look back at her. “You’ll have that from me, then. Alistair’s is a bit blue. And he was just leaving.”

*

The rest of the day passes in little more than preparation. We’re all of us on guard in case Loghain decides to do something unwise, but nothing comes of it – returning his daughter to the protection of the Chantry the moment we politely could has headed off his most likely case for action, but a man like that isn’t the type to sit back and let us come to him. Nevertheless, nothing much happens.

Suppose that it could be that he’s trying to hold his people together. Affairs of state or whatever you’d call it. Talking to people and reassuring them that he is still in charge. Dealing with everything that’s still so-to-speak on fire after Howe’s death. We can’t be that lucky. As I said, nothing seems to come of it. We’ll see.

They’re making a prince out of Alistair and he hates every minute of it – I only hope that maybe it’s not so bad now he knows I – what am I saying – I bite the inside of my cheek and move on. But following the man’s trail around like a shadow, it’d be, what’s the word. Unhealthy. I spend some time talking strategy with Riordan – he’s still arguing that we split up, and I say that in that case I go with Alistair, who’s got to be with the army, and so that’s done.

With Leliana I go over the protocol for duels at court. I’ve stopped being surprised when she knows things. Words are one thing, but a physical blow may not go unanswered: if Alistair or I call him out in words he might well sneer and refuse. A challenge given with words, the terms of it are agreed in words; a challenge given with a blow is always to surrender or death, and you can arm and armour yourself however you want. In short, Alistair should be prepared to hit him, and I should be prepared for Loghain to slap me and I mustn’t respond instantly with a knife.

Morrigan and Wynne are cloistered in a room with a footman posted outside; he explains worriedly that the enchanter said nobody was to go in on pain of seeing something they shouldn’t. I can hear muffled voices inside discussing something, but knowing Wynne, those will be illusions. Bah. Doubtless we’ll hear soon enough if it’s something we need to know.

Oghren and Eamon spend much of the day putting the final touches on everything, but the dwarf takes me aside after dinner; he says gruffly that he’d heard elves were all about the same size but he remembered I was only an inch or two shorter than he is, and he had something for me, should’ve given it me yesterday but there was a bit of a last-minute problem, and he takes me to the armoury.

First sight it’s a coat of armour they’ve got me, and I nearly turn to him and tell him I’ve never worn mail in my life and is this really the time to learn, but then I see it a little closer. What it is is a padded jack in Warden grey, a little heavier than the gambeson I’ve been wearing, and a proper set of chains for it in blackened steel: shoulder and elbow plates and vambraces all connected with these strips of metal, like all the important bits of a set of armour, the kind of thing you’d see a guardsman wearing, but it’s all sized for me. He apologises that it’s not enchanted, to lighten it, and I shrug; the weight is unaccustomed, but it’s not uncomfortable. I can wear this to court and the only thing I’ll be is a little over warm. And the other thing –

You’re not telling me I’ll seriously have to – fine. Okay.

Wouldn’t have thought it, but I must say that I do look good in this cloak. Not that I’d ever want to fight in it, but in this and all the rest I’m going to look like something that walked straight out of a tavern tale. Say what you like, but this man knows his stuff. A symbol, they want? Then that is what I will-

Haircut?

*

They eventually call a halt to their discussion well after moonrise. They’d had their food sent up, rather than leave this; it sits there cold and uneaten. Gratifying, Morrigan thinks, that the issue that she thought she’d recognised wasn’t dismissed immediately by the enchanter; worrying, though, that between the two of them in six hours’ hard work they haven’t come up with an outcome that doesn’t make her feel sick inside.

Wynne recommends not raising any of this until after the Landsmeet. Tomorrow the Wardens are going to be playing at being great nobles, successfully selling to the realm’s assembled court the concept that killing one another while standing right in front of an existential threat might possibly be a bad plan; tomorrow they are walking into the lair of the one who had their master killed and effectively inviting him to throw down with them. They aren’t going to have time to hear their ideas or answer their questions, not until after.

You wonder why no mage ever did this sort of thing before. But, of course, that’s the thing: it’d have been a Warden mage. And the Wardens – because they know, every last one of them has seen, that to join their order is a death sentence, they don’t recruit the best and the brightest. They recruit the broken and the dispossessed, the ones with nowhere to go but up, the criminals, the desperate. And a mage in such a situation, who hasn’t already taken another, worse offerlet’s just say they are unlikely to be a talent of the first water. It’s entirely possible that Wynne is the first genuinely talented academic mage ever to have seen what they’ve seen. And of course, it’s really exceptionally likely that no other mage trained by Flemeth of the Long Years has ever been trusted by the Grey Wardens.

And so the young witch sits and stares at the triangle of needles hanging on their black cotton threads at right-angles to what people usually think of as ‘down’, pointing towards the centre of a careful many-angled diagram of ink on the surface of the mirror in her room, and she rubs her eyes and she tries to fit the whole thing into her head at once and come out with a price that someone will be prepared to pay.

*

Enemy territory. That’s what this is.

I just really cannot shake the way this feels so much like we’re going forth to battle. The stakes are similar. Only the body-count will be lower. What was it Eamon said, war is diplomacy by other means? This feels like war by other means. We’re even dressed and armed for war, or near enough.

We arrive separately from Eamon. I’m not his vassal and I don’t need to look like I am – the nobles have been talked into letting Alistair and me make a statement of our own by having him arrive at my side in the way you’d normally expect from a subordinate. My dignity is very firmly on. The cloak, the armour, they make it easier.

So, predictably enough, the problems start before we even enter the hall proper. We’re met by a very tall shem woman, nearly as tall as Alistair she is, in Gwalen colours and the full armour that marks her as a wealthy knight; she gives us a salute as is proper. “Cauthrien nic Mhael, bann of Haivren. We’ve not met.”

“Kallian Dener of the Wardens.” I return her salute; Alistair does likewise; Oghren, on the other side of me, bows. “In case you were the one person in this place who hasn’t heard of me yet. Something for you, sera?”

“Yes. There is.” She nods stiffly. “You have spoken concerning a man who you do not know. You have spoken untruths and unkindnesses; I’d have expected better from an elf, from a knight, from any Chant-singing woman. You accuse the saviour of the kingdom of treason; you accuse the flower of Fereldan chivalry of treachery and complicity in treachery; you accuse the bravest man I have ever seen of cowardice. I was at Ostagar. And you are mistaken.” Her expression is as hard as steel. “You’ll take your words back, and with them the challenge to him that you spoke in Bann Teagan’s court.”

I meet her gaze unflinchingly. “I’ll discuss my words before the Landsmeet, sera, and my challenge. I was also at Ostagar; I looked for you there, and for your warriors, to come to our aid as you’d agreed, and I did not see them.” I see her grit her teeth: that one struck home. “And as for my challenge to your liege and lord. Though he did not wield the blade, his were the words that killed many of my brothers and sisters of the Wardens, and half a thousand men whose only crime was to stand beside their king. He very nearly killed any chance that this kingdom has of-”

She goes very pale and puts her hand to her sword. “By Andraste, woman, you’ll shut your lying mouth or I’ll meet you here and now.” And she said that loud enough that all other talk here in the antechamber has stopped. People are backing away. I’m suddenly struck with the comparison to a drunkard loudly proclaiming in the middle of the taproom that another shem has spilled his drink.

“Sera.” My voice is as cold and as unyielding as clear ice. “I shall speak before the Landsmeet and allow the great and the good of the kingdom to decide such things for themselves. And as for what’s between you and me: I’m no liar. Don’t make a quarrel where there’s none. Before this is over, sera, we’ll need every knight.”

“You have challenged my lord. My teacher. My friend.” Her expression is the picture of Fereldan stubbornness. “While that stands, you and I, we need no further quarrel. While that stands, you shall not pass while I yet draw breath.”

Sigh. “Sera, the man who bore that challenge to the Regent’s ears. Did he mention the circumstances of our last meeting, on the road near Redcliffe?”

Narrows her eyes. “He spoke of how you mistreated him, yes.”

“He may have neglected to mention one or two things. Like the duel we fought and the quarter he refused when I trounced him; I was within my rights to have his head for the insult he did me, but all I did was break his wrist and splint it with the materials to hand. Like the question he never did answer for me, which is where a travelling knight-errant of Teyrn Loghain’s court got the money to hire the Antivan Crows to kill me and mine?”

She frowns. “Assassins. Foreign assassins.”

“Aye. I – bear the scars still. When I sent your teyrn my words, sera, I did so in the belief that he or one of his people had hired men to kill me.” Still looking her in the eyes. Hairs going up on the back of my neck, dammit. “The only reason that I think I could’ve been mistaken is that there have been no more of them.”

A muscle works in her jaw. “My lord may have been Maric’s keeper of secrets, but he does not stoop to hiring… foreigners. Sera, his concern with your order begins and ends with your undue influence upon the crown.” She inclines her head to Alistair. “It was Rendon Howe who saw Wardens in every shadow: if rumour is correct, he died vindicated.”

Thin smile. “If rumour is correct? That is because he built his own shadow and kept a Warden in it. And one day that shadow ate him. I assume that your loyalty does not extend to defending his memory.”

“Considering what was found in his house?” She shakes her head. “It had better not. Will you consider honour to be satisfied in that man’s death, and withdraw your challenge to my lord?”

I bite my lip. Everyone is listening. “Cauthrien, your loyalty is a credit to you and to the regent. I’ll not fight you. I’ll not walk into that room after Loghain’s blood. But I’ll not take back the words I’ve spoken to the Arl of Redcliffe, because they are true. And if any man or woman offers me insult within the chamber of the Landsmeet, I shall not choose dishonour for simple fear of you. These are my terms.”

There’s a moment when she just looks at me. Taking measure. Then she nods shortly. “May the Maker’s truth prevail.”

“Just so.” I bow my head to her. And in it is we go to take our seats.

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Nine

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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.

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Eight

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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.”

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Seven

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*

No guards on the alienage gate, so my hunch is right that it’s the keeper that closed it. And yes, there are back ways, but they might be bolted and all – it’s not quite the middle of the night, but it’s a good few hours after nightfall, and most of the back ways are someone’s cellar or someone’s roof or something impolite like that. And there’s still a spike missing on the top of the gate and the great iron studs on the thing make decent enough handholds. I drop down the other side easy and land noiseless like a cat.

My – no. What was my home is toward the outside of this mazy little place, my feet taking me around, left, left, right, without me really thinking. Not many on the streets this time of night. There’s light in the keeper’s window, but I’ll face him once I know for sure, besides, there will be a lot of people there and best not to burst in, yeah?

I should have slept first. I should’ve come here less stressed, less tired. Then I wouldn’t need to wipe my eyes and stand here a moment in front of my own front door till I wasn’t shaking so.

I knock.

The door opens a crack, all you can see is a sliver of face, one bright suspicious eye. Her hands are out of sight behind the door. They’re doing this at home? I guess I did just knock unexpected after dark.

“Onethara?” I say, quiet. Perhaps more uncertain than you’d imagine on your own front doorstep –

“Kallian! Onethara!” Shianni throws the door open as her face breaks into that ready smile and there’s a moment when she gets a first look at me in the firelight and there’s a moment when I interrupt her intake of breath by crossing the space between us and throwing my arms round her.

“Ow!” she says laughing. “Lethallan, you’re all spiky!” But she kisses me on the cheek and squeezes me tight anyway and I lift her off the ground a little bit like I used to do when we were kids and my cousin weighs nothing.

I make myself let go after a moment more, half a step inside as she closes the door. It’s Vairi and Chala – my aunt and aunt-in-law – in here right now doing the mending by the fire, and I’m greeted with slightly wide-eyed smiles and with the old words.

“And just look at you!” Shianni steps a little back to look at me properly. “Andraste save you, Kallian, y’look like -”

I try and smile right. “Ain’t on the run, save you asking. Tell you, tell you everything. Soon. Promise. Just, uh.” I look her in the eye. “My father-”

“Aye?” Half a step toward me she takes, I can see in her eyes, this is not going to be what I want to hear, and it steals my breath.

“A – a shem. Threatened him, trying to get under my skin. Uh. Is he-?”

Her eyes go wide, very wide, what-have-you-done wide. She shakes her head very slowly, not taking her eyes off mine for a second. “When?”

I will not crack. “After dark this evening.”

She frowns. “No, lethallan, he – I mean, we -” She stops, looks to her mother, who comes to stand beside her.

My little aunt looks up at me with sad eyes. “You’ve been out of the city for a few weeks, have you?”

Just get on and say it, Vairi, I’m a big girl. “Left the day I was arrested. Came back at dusk today.”

“There’s a sickness in the alienage, da’len. Started up a couple of weeks back. Doesn’t kill people, not that we’ve met, but it’s pretty miserable, they just sort of get weaker and colder and sleep a lot and they cough all the time. And if the humans found out?” She frowns. “All they ever need is a reason. It’s why the keeper called a curfew. Only – people have kept getting sick. We’ve tried-”

“And my da?” My voice is a little sharper than I guess you’d usually use to your aunt. “He’s sick? You s-said it didn’t-”

Shakes her head. “He didn’t catch it. But the day before yesterday?” Her voice is a little less steady. “He went out. He didn’t come back.”

I look at Shianni. “And when you followed him?”

Vairi’s about to respond with the whole no-daughter-of-mine thing, but Shianni touches her arm quietly. “Sorry, ma,” she says quietly. “Course we did. Him, the keeper, a few others, they’d been running a sort of hospice in one of the houses where the whole family was ill. Quiet, like. Caring for those who couldn’t or their families couldn’t, keeping it off the streets, keeping it quiet. Didn’t tell us, you know what he’s like. He went straight there, walking quick the whole way. Carrying money, he was. You know he took money with him, ma. And he didn’t come out.” She bites her lip. “Xaren had a peek after he’d been an hour. The lamp was lit, the fire was lit, the kettle was on the hearth. But nobody there.”

“Two days, you say? And just gone, and not like they meant to.” Think, don’t feel. “Many people been inside that house, since?”

She bites her lip. “Um, a few. Uncle Cyrion wasn’t the only one gone -”

My hand goes over my mouth. “Don’t tell me.”

“Uh-huh.” Quiet, her voice, businesslike. “The keeper, his granddaughter, all the people in the hospice, disappeared. The humans don’t know yet. We’ve had people out looking. Malla and Xaren were outside the whole time and they saw nothing.”

Deep breath. “People don’t just disappear.”

“Yeah?” She crosses her arms. “It’s three rooms, lethallan, and not that big, and it was full of people last week, and I’m telling you they ain’t there now, no sign of a struggle, no nothing.”

“‘Kay. I’ll see the place tonight, if you’ll help me, see what I can do. If it was any other night -” I make a frustrated noise. “If we’re still looking in the morning I can get us some -”

“No.” That’s Vairi, and she’s got her motherly voice on, the one that means you do what she says. “Kallian, it’s the middle of the night. You’ve been in the door one minute and you’re talking about going out again? Your eyes are bloodshot and you’re shaking like a rabbit and frankly, dear, you look terrible. When’d you last sleep in a good bed? Eat a proper meal? And you’re talking about going out into the darkness after Andraste only knows what.” Her eyes flash. “And you’ll find something. I know you: you’ll find something you think is what happened and maybe it’ll be right and maybe it won’t. But there’s something I see in your eyes, da’len, something I saw the last time I saw you. Murder. If you go out tonight then it will end in blood. Won’t it.”

I scowl. “If some son-of-a-shem has taken my father-”

“For crying out loud!” She gets in my face. “Wasn’t last time bad enough? You think it all stopped when some high-and-mighty lord took a shine to you, bought you out? You think the bigjobs cared that the People they hurt weren’t the ones that gutted their bann’s kid? You go out there with your -” she plucks at a strap of the armour I’m still wearing – “poacher’s garb and your pigstickers, and you gut yourself a few more humans in vengeance for my brother? And next time maybe the watch turn a blind eye to what happens next. Or maybe there’s too many of them. Maybe it’s a riot proper rather than just a bit of violence.” She pokes me in the chest with her finger. “We’re living on a knife’s edge, here, my girl. And in case it had escaped you, we have to live with whatever you choose to-”

Shianni’s voice, quiet, from behind her mother. “I’m right here, ma.”

My aunt narrows her eyes, takes a step to the side, turns round and she’s about to open her mouth.

“Don’t,” says Shianni. Goes past me looking neither left nor right, out the door, and I follow in her wake.

*

She doesn’t go far, just out of sight of the door, into the shadow of an alley, puts her back against the wall, rests her head against it. I fetch up beside her. Her eyes are dry, she’s not looking at me, just staring at nothing.

Silence, just stretching out.

“You all right?” I say, eventually, when it’s clear she ain’t going to talk.

“Bruises fade.” She looks sidelong at me. “She doesn’t mean to hurt, Kallian. We know people who suffered because you came for me.”

Hunch my shoulders. “You know I’d do it again.”

“You saved my life. Never got to tell you-”

“I knew what you meant to say-”

“I could see it in his eyes.” She shivers. “I wasn’t getting out of the bann’s house alive. None of us would’ve. I’ll not see you apologise for doing right and I’ll not stand by and see others do it for you. It’s like the Keeper said, if there’s shame in what happened, it’s not with us.”

I put an arm around her and she puts her head on my shoulder. “Missed you,” I say, and it’s true. Never been this long apart.

“Yeah.” Pause. “You coming back? For real?”

The archdemon takes that moment to remind me it exists and she feels me tense up, and she’ll have taken that the wrong way. “… No.” I hold her tight. “I’ve made enemies, lethallan, powerful men. And some of ’em wouldn’t think twice about coming here and taking it out on people who couldn’t defend themselves.” Close my eyes. “And it ain’t enough to know you’re under my protection. I tangled with a human this evening. He was using your name to get me angry, on purpose. He convinced me he had you in a cage. A-and it’s quite possible that everyone who was taken from that hospice, was taken because Da was there. If I come home, Shianni, if I come live here again? One day I’ll come back and it won’t be there. I’m taking a risk even being here.”

“But somone said Cyrion’s name and you came to make sure he was all right.”

“Aye, and he ain’t.” My turn to stare at the wall.

“Uh. Before we go find the others, before we, you-know. Go find trouble. Mind if I ask you a bit of a personal question?” Funny note to her voice.

“Never stopped you yet. Go on.”

“You’re wearing armour.” She ducks out from under my arm and pokes me in the side. “Armour made for an elf, or a shem kid. Armour that looks like someone died in it, and not that long ago either. You’re carrying two weapons in places a blind countryman would spot, you’ve got another empty sheath, and you’ve got four more blades that I can guess at.”

“Like you ain’t armed.”

She shakes her head in a little disbelief. “I’m armed. You’re – I don’t know what. And your hair. You cut your lovely hair. You look like a thorn-bush.”

I avoid her eyes. “It was beyond saving.”

“You’ve got a new trade.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“You going to tell me what it is, then?”

“Short version?” I shrug. “They made me a knight.” I push myself off the wall. “C’mon. My da ain’t going to save himself.”

Few moments she stares blankly at me before hurrying after me. “You’re telling me the long version.”

“Uh-huh. Later. Which way?”

*

The hospice is just another one of the houses leant up against the big old wall that marks the difference between our place and the humans’. They’ve put a posy of fresh flowers over the lintel – it’s just a little thing, something a human would miss, but it stops me dead in the street for a moment. It’s what you do for a house where someone died. Shake my head. C’mon.

Look up and down the street. We’re not near the alienage gate here, or any of the quieter ways out. Anyone leaving here must’ve been on the street. More than one good hiding place nearby – anyone with eyes would’ve seen if anyone had come or gone from here, and neither of the kids that Shianni says was watching would’ve missed anything bigger than a mouse.

The door’s just latched; I get us inside and pull it almost to. Cold breeze down the chimney, there is. And Shianni was right – the place looks completely abandoned. Kettle still on the stone of the hearth. Ashes of a fire a couple of days dead. Windows shuttered.

“Uh, Kallian?” Shianni squints. “There a reason you want to do this in the pitch black?”

I look sidelong at her – I can see fine – guess I’d not really taken in how much the curse had sharpened my eyes. Pull a shutter open a crack, let in a shaft of moonlight. “Just wanted to keep the air still as I can, is all.”

“The air?”

I sniff. “Who did you say looked this place over? The watch been in here?”

She shakes her head shortly. “Like we’d call in the humans. More questions than answers and no good would come of it.”

“Uh-huh, well. The whole city stinks of shem as it is, but, yeah. I once heard a little fox tell me I had a good nose.” I sniff again, take a couple of steps into the middle of this room, eyes tight shut, brow furrowed in concentration. The city, I can smell. Shianni. Mice – I turn and point out a mouse-hole in the corner of the room and Shianni’s looking at me a little wide-eyed. An old rug on the floor, a decade’s worth of stains. Elves, of course, maybe a dozen people, and yeah – not healthy. I think maybe my father could’ve been one of ’em, it’s hard to tell. It must have been pretty close in here. Herbs like you’d use to sweeten the air. I concentrate. Other things – older, fainter – yes. Linseed oil and saddle soap. Reminds me of Redcliffe castle or the guards at Eamon’s estate. Expensive: you wouldn’t catch an elf using ’em if pig’s grease and tallow would do. Soap, lavender soap, so very faint, another luxury you’d never look for in the alienage. Another – yes. There. “Okay. Two humans at least, in here, a man and a woman. One or more of ’em in armour, I think.”

“Kidnappers? You sure?”

“No.” I look around at her. “I know someone who could probably get you their names and addresses from what I can smell, right, but me? I can just about tell you they were here, and thank the Maker they’ve got more money than good sense. Mostly I can smell good armour oil and expensive soap.”

“But nobody walked in. I spoke to both Malla and Xaren myself – I spent the evening with ’em, poor kids, they thought it was their fault everyone was angry. But they were absolutely clear. Nobody had been up this street or down it who they didn’t know by face and name, and only Cyrion and the keeper and his granddaughter had gone in this door, and nobody had come out.” She gestures around at the abandoned room. “And you’re not telling me your da would’ve gone quietly, not with the keeper here, not when all he’d have needed to raise a crowd would’ve been to open the door and shout. They’re just… gone. As if by magic.”

“As if.. by…” I stop dead. “It could have been. It could have been. I’ve seen a creature that could’ve just walked in here and told ’em to leave and they’d have come meek as mice. Course, the kids would’ve seen it. Magic can’t make you invisible, that I know of, and you’d have been able to tell if they’d fallen asleep even a minute, they’d have died of shame.”

She blinks. “When’d you learn about magic?”

“I’m here in Denerim with two mages. Any other night, I’d have brought one of ’em with.”

“I see? Well, no. I don’t. But anyway. Magic.” She looks about as if expecting pixie dust and streams of sparkles. “What does that get us? They, I don’t know, changed them all into mice and flew away?”

I shake my head. “I’ve seen a mage turn herself into a mouse, but it’s rare. Like I said, can’t turn invisible; can’t fly without wings, and anyway they’d have been seen. Magic could’ve stopped people raising the alarm, but it wouldn’t stop them remembering what actually happened. So if they say nobody went out the door, that’s what happened.”

“Which leaves, what? The floor? The walls?”

She meant nothing by it, but I look at her a moment more and then I nod slowly. “What if this place was prepared? What if they didn’t pick it by accident? I’ve seen magic make people make bad decisions. Check the back wall, I’ll do the floor. Maybe there’s a passage or a tunnel.”

She nods, hastens to do it, tapping on the wall with the hilt of her knife. I’m going over the floor, looking under things, lifting the rug –

That’s funny. Couple of dark spots on this heavily stained rug that suddenly look quite familiar – Bad feeling about this. I scratch at them with a fingernail – touch it to my tongue –

“Lethallan, you’re disgusting.”

“Blood.” I look up at her. “Human. Not that old.”

“You worry me sometimes, you know that?” She keeps tapping. “Blood, but no fighting? A very small fight, over the rug?”

“Some magic uses blood.” Now I’ve seen that spot, I start looking for others. “The bad kind.”

“There’s a good kind, now?” The next tap of her dagger and the hollow sound it makes makes us both freeze. “Maker’s breath, Kallian, look at this.”

I’m there. The hollow bit, it’s maybe four feet wide, but the wall feels exactly like stone, just… thin, like I’m tapping on an empty eggshell. “Stand back.”

She complies. “What are you-”

I put a bit of strength into it. The wall breaks, exactly like an eggshell, and my cousin swears loudly and covers her head. It’s a hole in the wall. It’s a hole in the stone bloody wall, and they must’ve stopped it with a thin little shell of stone as they left. Darkened room the far side, like a storehouse or something. “Shianni?” I say, staring.

“Kallian?”

“Get out of here, lock the door, go find the others, quick as you can.” I kind of don’t hear the ring of command in my tone. “I want this place guarded till I can get someone here to seal it properly, which will be the morning, most like.”

“While you go after our people?”

Someone owns this place.” I loosen my belt knife in its scabbard. “I’ll start there-”

“Just a mo.” She walks quickly over to one of the shutters and pulls it open with a sharp movement, and what d’you know, there’s someone behind it – thing you’ve got to remember about the alienage, if you look interesting, you’re being watched. “Hi, Xaren,” she says to the kid, his face like a ghost’s in the darkness, as if she hasn’t just caught him earwigging. “You got all that?”

Wide-eyed nod. He’s not looking at her, he’s looking at me. I guess from his perspective I did just punch down a stone wall.

“‘Kay.” She turns back to me. “So I’m coming with you, then.”

“Lethallan-”

Shake of her head. “I’m not Nelaros, Kallian. You forgotten all those times I handed you your backside? And I owe you. And if that scratch down your armour is any indication? You need your back watched. C’mon.”

*

The human had barely opened his mouth to yell when I had him by his belt-buckle, my fingertips up under his chin pushing his head back, the heel of my hand against the apple of his throat. The people we’re after are foreigners, three of ’em, a man and two women from Tevinter, and they’d hired porters, and remarkably few threats are needed to get the address. By the docks it is. There’s no time to think that that means we’re likely about forty hours too bloody late.

Shianni remarks on my restraint when I leave him alive (if a little high-pitched) – she doesn’t remark on the way I was pretty much lifting him off the ground by his belt. She doesn’t remark, either, on the way I walk these streets; if she’s a wildcat, I’m a lioness. She’s wary with honest caution; I’m something people are wary of.

“Plan?” Her tone is light, like we’re out for a stroll. Last time we went for a stroll like this together, there were four of us, and it was a thief we were taking.

“Stay behind me. Watch my back.”

“Just like that.” A little nervous laughter in her voice. “The mage?”

“Mine. But just in case?” I remember the Circle Tower, Leliana’s face grim in the unnatural blue light. “A mage can’t cast on what they can’t see. Stop his mouth, get him on the back foot, take him down quick and sure.”

She shoots me a look. “That’s murder, that is.”

“Told you the mage was mine.”

“Still murder if you do it.”

“I’ve seen a mage taken alive, Shianni. I’ve done it myself, from surprise, to a clueless apprentice. And I’m telling you, if it’s got bad enough that you have to take a mage on? Kill him. Or run.”

Swallows hard. “Guess you play for keeps these days.”

“No shame in turning back, lethallan.”

“Like hell.” She shows some teeth.

I mirror the expression. “Glad to have you.”

*

Tawdry little warehouse. One of many. The big door’s closed tight. One guard outside the office door. Good sign. Shianni and I are in the alley by the side. Moonlight’s good enough for us, but a human would be at quite the disadvantage. Street’s quiet, this time of night. Nobody lives around here, not even the beggars. Raised voice inside, a woman’s. Foreign accent, could be Antivan, could be Tevinter.

Shianni meets my eyes, then steps out from the alley. She starts humming an old drinking song, walking with a bit of a sway to her, in that unconcerned way you’ll get if you’re either fresh in from the country or completely rat-arsed, absent-mindedly keeping a hand on a pouch at her belt and occasionally beating time with a clink that I know for a fact is half a pouch of stones and a bunch of washers on a string. About as subtle as writing ‘easy mark here’ on a board and waving it around yelling, but it’s surprising how well it’s served before.

And it serves us again. Whatever his reason is, he follows her with his eyes, turns his head; the moment he ain’t looking is the one moment he should’ve been. I don’t kill him.

The woman’s voice inside has fallen silent and there’s another voice, a man’s, definitely Antivan, talking softly. Something about money – “this is what it costs, messere. and how long it takes. Had you but informed me from the start that your ‘livestock’ could not eat hay -”

“That is your problem -”

“If you wish to arrive with anything, how’d you say, saleable? It is our problem. You are aware that there is a war coming, yes, and an infestation of darkspawn in the south? You are aware of the price of grain?”

The man is to the left, the woman to the right. The woman is one of the kidnappers, and either a mage or someone who wears armour – I signal Shianni to go left as we go in, picking up the guard’s cudgel for my left hand as I draw a knife with my right. Deep breath –

The latch must’ve come off the door as I kicked it, it slams open with a bang you can hear up and down the street. Light in this little office from a symbol drawn on the wall, like in Orzammar. Chairs, tables, a camp bed. The man to the left is dressed in a tunic that’s a little too long and a little too bright – a merchant or something – and the woman to the right is in some kind of long coat with panels of mail, over a long shapeless gown that’s a uniform shade of red. For a moment I take her for a templar, but she ain’t, not that that matters as we move.

It’s really creditable that the thin-bladed sword she’s wearing clears its sheath before I’m on her. I bring the cudgel sharply down on the forte of her blade, striking towards her body, just like Howe did to me, and the sword clatters out of her hand as I try and put my dagger up under her chin. She wards me off, trying to hit me in the chest with a knee, but faster than she can see I step around that, vicious little sideways kick to the back of her other shin and she goes down with a yell that makes me wince. I keep behind her as she tries to whirl to her feet; one good thwack to the back of her bare head and she collapses limp.

Blades clash behind me. I spin around to see Shianni catch the man’s desperate dagger-thrust and slip under it, put her boot in hard and painful, and as I watch she just pulls him forward as he doubles over, lets him trip over her, bangs the back of his head into the floor and he stops moving.

The door from the warehouse bangs open. Another woman, same as the first one in that funny foreign armour, long thin sword in her right hand and a dagger in her left. I go for her right away, jab the cudgel at her midriff like it was a sword; she turns it with her dagger as I catch her blade on mine, and she disengages with a dart backwards and yells something in a foreign language that I guess must be Tevene. I hear a man’s voice from somewhere inside the warehouse, sounding confused and sleepy; I go for her again and again she dances back, through the doorway, flickering a thrust at my face to get me to duck, and she cries something else, sounding understandably urgent.

And yeah, this could go downhill really fast. Their mage was capable of opening a hole right through a solid stone wall faster than the people on the other side could raise the alarm.

The human meets my eyes, and I’m surprised to see a warrior’s respect there. None of the arrogance I’ve seen in other humans I’ve fought. And her stance is low and wide, her dagger poised to ward off a charge, her sword low in what Alistair calls the fool’s guard  – if I were taller, I could punish her for that – as it is, that guard is pretty damn good. And I can’t take my time and bait her out of it. Her position here in the doorway is defensive, buying time for the mage to pull his finger out –

So I rush her. Feint low with the heavy ill-balanced cudgel like it was a sword, she sees it for what it is and flicks her tip up to ward me off and not my weapon. I flow sideways around her blade, change front feet and lead suddenly with my dagger, a move no human could match, and she gets the flat of her off-hand blade to mine – I bind the two weapons, trying to get close – and I’m really not expecting the looping handguard of her blade in my face.

Ow? She’s clearly trained to fight people stronger and faster than they should be. I try and pull her back with me, give Shianni a target, but she’s having none of it, just lets me break away. I’m not going to be able to rush her, not through that doorway – and if I try and take advantage of the fact that she won’t give ground, she’ll give just enough to put that sword in me.

Sudden idea. I nod to the foreigner, like I return her respect, keep her eyes, not looking away. “I’ve got this end,” I say – please, Shianni, get the hint –

“On my way,” my cousin says, and she ghosts out the door.

So this is my cue to smile like I know something my opponent doesn’t. I pull the cudgel up before me in a parody of a salute and she mirrors it, flicks her point back down into fool’s guard and I fall into a high guard like we were sparring.

She calls something else, loudly, in the same language she used just now, and gets a response from inside that is absolutely “keep your hair on, I’m on my way”. I raise my eyebrow and she half-smiles, and in that instant I lunge for her with the end of the cudgel.

She turns it, reprises with a little probing flick that I turn, and we fence for a few moments, taking one another’s measure. I’m holding back on my strength: I’m fairly certain that so’s she. She knows she only has to hold me until her mage can bring something to bear – if she abandons her position I’ve got her –

A crash, from inside the warehouse. Something has hit the riverside door, hard – I know my cousin can’t break it down, but they don’t – the mage doesn’t know what it is at all, and the warrior thinks that Shianni and I are two of a kind. A couple of clear loud words in the mage’s voice, undercurrent of his fear, and the whole place is flooded with colourless light; my opponent takes her attention off me for a heartbeat; I flash forward and bring the cudgel up under the point of her chin and she goes down. Bless you, Shianni.

The warehouse isn’t that big inside. Two long low wooden cages, maybe five foot tall, added to the usual rows of crates and barrels; there’s a well-dressed man standing up next to a pair of camp beds in one corner, and he’s the source of the bright colourless light. Warm in here, too warm, like a cattle-shed. I can see dark unmoving forms in the cages, huddled as close to one another as they can get. My people. No, it’s not relief that I’m feeling. It’s anger. More than anger, it’s rage, it’s fucking wrath, it’s –

uh –

“Excuse me,” I say. “The door was locked.”

The fellow steps forward with an avuncular smile. “That’s quite all right, dear; we don’t get many visitors at that time of night.” Huh – a foreigner, he is. Pleasant voice. The accent – Tevinter, maybe? Poor man, he’s cut his finger – I can see a little drop of blood running down his right thumb. Funny what you notice.

Nnh. “Can I help you?”

“As it happens, you might be able to.” He walks towards me, smiling – I realise, a trifle embarrassed, that I’m still armed, so I put that away. “Who sent you, who gave you my address?”

“No-no, I’m here of my own accord,” I smile. “Your hired help told me where to find you. Sorry to say I roughed them up a bit.”

“I see, I see.” A banging sound. The nice man raises an eyebrow. “Are you here by yourself?”

“No, I’m here with my cousin Shianni – that’s her outside. She wouldn’t stay behind like I asked her, you see.”

“Mm-hmm. You can tell her she can come in, now.” He puts a friendly arm around my shoulders. “It’s all right.”

I raise my voice. “Shianni?”

“We good?” Her voice from outside. She says something else but I don’t really catch it. Doesn’t matter.

“Yes. You can come in, now.” I find myself echoing the man’s tone of voice. “It’s all right.”

“That’s good. Very good.” He tousles my hair and I beam. Uh. Bit of a headache coming. It’s the long day I’ve had. “I’m sorry, who did you say you were?”

“M’name’s Kallian Dener.” I nod. “I’m Commander of the Grey Wardens of Ferelden.”

A violent tremor runs through me and I catch my breath. Flash of – I don’t know. Anger? Just for a second. The man redoubles his effort on the spell, puts a hand to my forehead. “You’re burning up, dear. Don’t you know there’s something going around? Let me get you a chair.”

He leads me by the hand towards a dark cool quiet calming place.

Huh. There’s a noise that I don’t quite catch. I frown, try to hear it.

You know in a dream, when you try and concentrate on something and everything starts to fall apart and you’re struggling to wake up?

Anyway, the noise isn’t important. The mage looks at me, orders me to stay where I am, so I do, and he turns towards the door to the outside and spreads his hands and there’s light gathered around them, around him. “Leave now, little rat,” he says quietly to someone I can’t quite see. “Scurry back to your nest and be thankful that we did not take you all.”

Someone spat at his feet. Who would do that? He’s a very nice man. He gestures kindly with his left hand and lightning strikes. Serves them right-

uh-

He raises his right hand and a star of pain explodes in my chest and my gut; completely unprepared, I fall to my knees in the doorway of the cage, trying not to retch. Shianni rolls to her feet well away from the scorch-mark on the floor, blades drawn, eyes narrowed, breathing hard, and hisses through her teeth, “That all you got, shem?”

For answer he thrusts the palm of his tattooed left hand towards her, and as she throws herself to one side she finds that she sticks irresistably to the floor. His right hand still raised, blood welling up from the little cut next to his thumbnail, he begins slowly to close his fingers – that’s aimed just at her – she arches her back and can’t quite stop a hiss escaping her.

I make myself breathe. I feel – I – ugh – later. Later I can let it go. Right now? It’s only pain. Like when Zevran stabbed me. Remember? I drag myself to my feet and the mage has walked to stand beside Shianni – he’s watching me as I stand painfully up and as I draw my dirk with my right hand he says, “I wouldn’t do that.” And he straightens the fingers of his right hand a little and Shianni whimpers.

“Let. Her. Go.” I hope he thinks I’m shaking because I hurt.

“I don’t think so.” It’s the same voice as it was just now, when it was the only thing in the world that mattered – bastard – focus.

I narrow my eyes. “Kill her and you’ll never stop me in time to matter.”

“Perhaps,” he says. “But go for me and she dies anyway – quite the impasse we have.”

“Yeah?” I hiss. “Second-stringer, you are. Second-rate. Or why are you so far from home? You couldn’t even hold me under while you took down Shianni. How long can you hold that up, huh? How long can you hold me off?”

He shakes his head. “Misapprehension, dear girl. That’s not an ongoing effect I laid on you; all I did was pop a vein. Your lungs are filling up. All I need to do is wait.”

Dammit. Wave of sheer helpless rage, not helping. I move, my cousin dies. I can see her staring hate at him. She ain’t even blinking. Okay. Think. Okay – “Why?” Hurts to breathe. “All this – the plague, the danger – for half a shipful of slaves. They not have elves in Tevinter?”

Unpleasant smile. “Would’ve thought a half-elf would know more about inbreeding.”

“You… sick… bastard.” I just let the words come out. I’m not feigning the shake in my voice, I’m not feigning the tears. “Stealing our people – our children, for Andraste’s sake – breeding people like animals -” my voice is rising – “you filthy cowardly heartless dickless motherless-”

He starts to laugh at me.

And Shianni grabs hold of the man’s ankle and gives it a good hard yank, and it makes him stagger and turn to her with a snarl and a raised hand –

And I cross the space between us in the time it takes her to spit in his face and the point of my blade goes up into his throat and the bright blood runs down my arm.

*

Next

Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Six

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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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