Zevran was really running away this time, maybe back to Antiva but definitely, definitely away from the Dalish. He adjusted the strap across his chest carefully, his pack jouncing against his hip as he walked. Mamma kept saying that it was going to get better, that he just needed to get used to life with the whole clan instead of life on the road with only her and Papá and Taliesin, but it wasn't getting better and Zevran was sick of it.
He would miss Mamma and Papá. He frowned, cutting through a knot of brambles with a knife Papá had given him. And Taliesin, insolent and sarcastic, wasn't fitting in with Mamma's clan any better than Zevran was, so maybe Zevran should have brought him along. Only baby Rinna really had a chance, and that was only because she'd been born here in Ferelden at the camp, but the Keeper still hated their whole family, all because Mamma had dared to run away in the first place.
The whole clan, tots to elders, took their tone from the Keeper. And if Zevran had to listen to one more backhanded comment about his accent, about how this or that little habit from home wasn't how the Dalish did it, about how the poor babes didn't know any better because their mother hadn't taught them or because their father, well —
And then a segue into another condescending lecture about flat-ear good-as-shems from the city who had forgotten all the mighty lore of mighty old Arlathan. Fat lot of good all that ancient wisdom had done them, Zevran thought angrily, when the elves had lost not one, but two homelands. Zevran didn't know how Mamma endured it; Zevran wasn't like Mamma, though, and if he didn't leave, he was going to throw Papá's knife through someone's eye and then they'd all have to run.
He sliced emphatically through the last of the branches, sheathed the knife at his belt and continued along the muddy path.
It was a mystery to Zevran why Mamma had gone through so much trouble to return to what she'd escaped, why she stayed when the Keeper wouldn't even let Papá live in the camp, and why she put up with all the arrogance and snobbery with little more than silence and smiles. And Papá, well, he had to really, really love Mamma, because he'd come with her all the way from Antiva City, and he followed the clan on their travels and made a good living with his woodwork wherever they went.
Mamma made sure that Zevran, Taliesin, and Rinna saw Papá regularly and often, so why couldn't they go one more step and just be a clan of their own?
Snatches of distant voices interrupted Zevran's rueful ruminations, bringing him abruptly out of his own thoughts. Humans, maybe, up to no good this deep in the forest? Zevran took his knife out of its sheath and crept closer silently, listening.
“If there's really a Dalish camp in the Brecilian Forest, shouldn't we have run into them by now?” This was a man's voice, skeptical and tired. “I mean, how long must we trek around?”
“Until they find us, or we find them,” came another voice, that of a young woman. It was clear from the flat, stubborn tone that the owner of this voice would brook no disagreement.
“But you're certain they are here?” Another woman, with the musical Orlesian accent Zevran had found so soothing when his family traveled through that country.
The stubborn voice vented a sigh. “Admittedly, in the ten years since my mother left her clan, they may have moved from the Brecilian Forest. I don't rightly know. I know there aren't really a whole lot of human settlements in the area, but I also know my people don't like to sit still longer than they have to. We'll see.”
“You know they might attack first and ask questions later.” The male again, sounding rather less than enamored of the idea.
“Not one who recognizes the mark on my face, they won't.”
A pause. “What's it mean?” the male essayed.
“My mother had the same one,” answered the stubborn one (the one whose mother had been a Dalish, and run away, Zevran reminded himself — just like his own mother, and he crept a little closer). “There's a whole ritual that's supposed to go with it, but we didn't have time, and she wanted me to have one in case — well, in case what happened to her happened. It's called valla... valle... Maker, I've forgotten the word for the markings, but this one is for Dirthamen, keeper of secrets.”
“Kind of a creepy niche, for a god,” the male remarked.
The answering shrug was almost audible. “I've forgotten too much,” came the Dalish daughter's mutter, quiet and fretful. “Who knows — maybe they'll shoot on sight after all.”
“I hope not,” the Orlesian said wistfully. “I would very much like to trade stories with the Dalish. A Bard has not exchanged stories with a clan member in many years, at least not so far as I have heard.”
Zevran took a deep breath, and for the runaway Dalish woman's daughter, made a snap decision. “If you are looking for the Dalish, then you've found them,” he announced, and pushed shrubbery out of his way to come grandly before the travelers.
Whereupon he blinked, because two of the voices' owners were armed humans – and one was Templar-armed – and only one was an elf, and the elf, yes, had the vallaslin of Dirthamen, strands of Fear and Deceit twined on the right cheek, but she wore the tattered robes of a Circle mage, and that was not right. Zevran tore his second knife out of its sheath and crossed both before him, baring his teeth. “What do you want?”
The elf woman blinked, and then her gaze abruptly refocused on something behind Zevran. Zevran was almost offended, until the Templar blurted, “Well, shit,” and the redheaded woman had her bow out in a trice, nocking an arrow as swiftly as a scout.
Zevran whirled around, and his breath lodged in his throat at a creature that had appeared – out of nowhere, damnit, or he would have seen it, would have seen its tracks, would have remembered that smell, sickly and unhealthy and curdled. It lowered its head, and it must have been a bear once, but now only the contorted suggestion of one remained, the howling memory in its wretched, bloody eyes. Spikes jutted from matted fur, its muscles huge and lumpen.
The gleaming Templar rushed forward, shield up and out, sword drawn, knocking the beast back. It swiped at him with massive, too-long claws, but the Templar bore it further back with a shout, throwing it off-balance as his flashing blade tore that spiked flesh. A fetid odor filled the air as the creature's blood pooled beneath it, droplets hissing on the leafy forest floor, and it bellowed, its jaw too long, its teeth too long, how could a beast like that eat, how could it provide for itself, it was made only for rending, it was not natural—
The elf woman drew up her staff and a shimmering circle was inscribed on the forest floor from which the bear-beast-thing shied violently away. Grimly, she jabbed her staff in its direction, shooting sparking bolts which arced between the thing's spikes as it convulsed.
“Child, please, away!” cried the Orlesian woman with a frantic glance towards Zevran as she fired, arrows bouncing off the thicket of thorns comprising the beast's tortured hide, and it was that word, child, which tore Zevran out of his shock. As the Templar circled the groaning beast warily, he darted round to the beast's flank and sank one dagger in. With a terrible sound, the monster staggered into one of the elf woman's glyphs – and froze there. The Templar cut its throat.
Zevran retrieved his dagger. The glade was silent.
“What,” said the Templar, and he swallowed, looking ill. “What in Andraste's name was that wretched thing?”
By unspoken but complete accord, they traveled from the creature's jagged corpse and the wretched stink it emitted. The elf boy led them to the side of a clear brook nearby, saying, “The water here is clean – you can drink, or clean with it, but don't pollute the stream.”
Alistair, after a moment's hesitation, used his helm as a makeshift bucket and poured water over his sword on a patch of grass nearby, scrubbing furiously at the blood congealing on the blade. The boy knelt a short distance away and wiped his dagger off on the grass. Jacinta regarded the boy curiously, and he watched her in turn with clear unafraid eyes, a color-shifting hazel in the warm sunlight.
Poised gracefully on the precipice between childhood and manhood, the boy was clearly going to be a heartbreaker in a few years, but for now he retained some of the softness of youth, round cheeks and small hands and lanky legs he was going to have to grow into. He rose to his feet once his blade was clean, wiping it off on his sleeve before sheathing it. His golden hair was tied neatly back, and he had a pack strung across his torso which he hadn't removed when he waded into battle.
“That was quite an entrance,” Jacinta said wryly.
The boy flushed. “I didn't know about that – thing. I didn't even see it! I should have seen it. I don't know where it could have come from.”
“Anything in your crazy stories about gigantic spike-bears?” Alistair called out to Leliana.
The Bard considered the question ruefully before shaking her head. “No credible ones, no. That was a beast out of legend, if anything.”
Jacinta saw little point in dwelling over the provenance of the thing. “It's a dead beast out of legend now, anyway.”
“Maybe the Keeper would...” the Dalish boy began, but then his jaw set, and he looked down.
Ah, thought Jacinta. How often had she seen that look of mulish resentment on the face of some rebellious apprentice after being scolded by a Templar or chided by their mentor? His small pack was overstuffed, as though he'd jammed everything at hand into it, and for all his youthful bravado, he was strikingly alone. “You were running away when you came across us,” she said.
The boy's head jerked up, his sun-flecked gaze wide, but after a moment, reluctantly, he nodded. “I heard you say that your mother left her clan. Mine did too.”
“What's your name?”
“Arainai? That's not Dalish.”
“It isn't. Papá is from Antiva City,” the boy said proudly. Well, that explained the kid's robust accent. “As am I. My brother was born on the road, though. And my sister was born here.”
“You're lucky to have your family,” she said, the old ache twisting her heart strings again, the old loss. “Anyway, your assistance back there was pretty timely. Would you be willing to help us out once more, and lead us back to your clan? I'd like to speak to your Keeper, and I bet they'd be happy to have you back.”
Zevran hesitated at that, his glance darting towards Alistair, who was hunched, scowling, over some invisible spot on his sword, then to Leliana, who offered him a smile that could have charmed yellow off butter. “I don't know if I...”
“Zevran,” came another voice, and this one made everyone look up. Longbow cocked, a Dalish hunter in elaborately whorled armor stood across the small brook – this one full-grown, no child to be shocked into inaction. Graceful finials swirled across his features, curled at the corners of his full lips. His blue eyes were cold, fringed by lashes pale as ice.
“Tamlen!” Zevran cried, brightening inexplicably beneath that unfriendly gaze.
The scout's freezing eyes thawed only slightly, and Tamlen spared the boy a nod of acknowledgment. “Who are your new friends, and why on earth would you even think of leading them back to the clan? Your mother is beside herself. The Keeper has diverted half our hunters and scouts to finding you.”
“The Keeper hates me,” said Zevran, clearly taken aback by that choice bit of news. His smile faded, and his jaw set again. “The Keeper hates my entire family. Except maybe for Rinna, because she can't talk yet, so she can't tell the Keeper exactly where to stick it.”
The scout's mouth twitched. He didn't lower his long-bow. “The Keeper's old. Give her some credit.”
“No. I won't,” Zevran snarled. The momentary brightness seeing Tamlen occasioned had been replaced by an incandescent rage the boy had clearly been sitting on for some time. “And I don't have to come back. Mamma will get over it just like the whole clan got over it when she left. I'm sick and tired of the way everybody treats me and Tal and especially Papá, who is better than all of them put together! I'm tired of hearing about the flat-ears who don't know anything. And Mamma and Papá just keep quiet, they don't say anything — well, I'm saying something!”
“You're saying it to me,” Tamlen said mildly. “Perhaps your words would be more usefully directed towards the Keeper. Now then.” He dipped his bow in the direction of Jacinta, indicating by proxy the rest of her party. “Your friends?”
“It's a fortunate chance we met Zevran in the woods here,” Jacinta said, stepping forward, her hand around her staff oh-so-casually. “We were looking for the Dalish.”
“That always ends so well,” Tamlen remarked coolly.
Jacinta raised her eyebrow. “My mother was Dalish.”
“What a coincidence. So was mine.”
Jacinta reminded herself forcefully of all she had felt in her dreams, of the ferocious and powerful emotions that rent her soul when she dreamed as Tamlen, in order to prevent herself from knocking him upside the head with the business end of her staff. That cold and ironic demeanor was a facade the man wore to frighten off the non-Dalish, nothing more. She had to get through to him somehow, or why else had she dreamed all of his secrets?
“My mother was the First of her clan,” she explained through only slightly gritted teeth. “When the Templars caught up with her, they killed her and took me off to the Tower. As you can see, I'm no longer in the Tower, so I thought I'd at least see what became of her people before I decided what to do next.”
“Curious company you keep, then.” Tamlen's gaze fell upon Alistair, who had taken up near Jacinta with his shield up and out. Jacinta was distantly reassured by that silent promise of support.
“I'm not a Templar, and I'm certainly not on the Chantry's business, or it'd be rather odd for me to be palling around with an apostate, wouldn't you say?” Alistair smiled, bitingly. “I do like the armor, though. Stylish and functional.”
Tamlen didn't deign to engage Alistair's notion of wit. “And you?” he asked, turning his blue gaze onto Leliana.
Leliana had not drawn her bow, though she didn't have to with her knives at her belt. “I am a Bard, and interested only in meeting your storyteller and trading tales,” she said demurely.
“They helped me kill a monster,” Zevran piped up.
That news brought the first flicker of surprise in Tamlen's demeanor. The hunter regarded Zevran seriously. “What sort of monster?”
“It was big, and it had spikes, and it looked like a very sick bear, if bears had spikes,” Zevran said with a nonchalant shrug that did not quite disguise his shudder.
Bereskarn claws, the jagged gashes scoring through armor, through flesh, through muscle, through bone. He lay exsanguinated on the cold and ancient stones, his shredded body bare to the dust of ages. Tamlen knelt there for a long time with the body of his best friend, breathing the fetid stink of foul and corrupted blood, until he rose, bearing his better half in his arms. Then Tamlen felt him shudder, felt a weak, scraping breath, and he had never known such speed before as he fled that dreadful sarcophagus of a ruin holding all his hope heavy on his back.
Tamlen was pale beneath his graceful vallaslin, scarcely breathing and still, and Jacinta knew she had him. She pinned him with her gaze, spring to his enduring winter.
“We killed the thing that killed Idris.”
Tamlen's breath drew in, and something wild and frightened fluttered in his eyes. “I'm taking all of you to the Keeper,” he said abruptly. “Follow me.”