Chapter 1: Setting Boundaries
"Go, Meillianye – go with the Grey Wardens and prosper. You will have a place in the human world, and status, with which to leave your mark upon it."
But what they meant was, go with the Grey Wardens and don't lure any more templar dogs into our forests. I was welcome enough when I was uncovering the old lore and sharing it with them, but now… I am a liability.
They'd be happy just to see the back of me and not have to think about me again, but I listened to what the Keeper said.
Ferelden's backward-gazing infrastructure is rotting out from under itself. Change is coming, one way or another, and I?
I have nothing left to lose.
Wood smoke and the tang of fresh-worked steel wafted in the warm breeze, the unwelcome scents of impending war. Despite Mei Surana's distaste, she found the two far preferable to the underlying miasma of mildewed leather, human sweat, and wet mabari that fought for dominance in the chaotic bouquet. Trying valiantly not to let her disgust show on her sharp, expressive features as she picked her way through the camp, she reflected that if she was indeed to be a Grey Warden, she had better get used to this at some point.
Duncan had sent her to find some other new recruit by the name of Alistair, supposedly after she had explored and accustomed herself to the rest of the camp… but as she had less than zero desire to make small talk with any of its inhabitants, it seemed best just to find this Alistair and be done with it. The weight of the humans' scornful stares was already abrading her scant patience – apparently few of them had ever seen an elf in clothing other than a servant's threadbare garb or a set of mages' robes, by the number of gawkers she had already noted. As far as Mei was concerned, her supple leggings, tunic, and undershirt were the only sensible things for a spellcaster to be wearing in a war camp, but she had already caught a glimpse of the Tower mages, and they were as impractically turned-out in their embellished scholar robes as ever.
Self-important fools and hypocrites, the lot of them.
She had seen the Senior Enchanter, Wynne, standing with her usual ramrod composure over near one of the camp suppliers, but assiduously avoided all paths that would have taken her near the elder mage. Mei had held the past at bay by sheer force of will since agreeing to join the Wardens, and she would not risk losing that control again. While the older woman was the one living member of the Circle that she did not despise, the steely-eyed sympathy she was sure to show toward Mei would be unbearable.
So strong was her preoccupation with evading Wynne's notice, Mei did not see the quartermaster until he had already grabbed her arm.
"You lazy, knife-eared wench, where is that chainmail?"
The human's hand was large and rough, but not especially strong. Infuriated, Mei did not afford him the communicative courtesy that he had denied to her – she had wrenched out of his grasp and sunk a quick knee in his groin likely before the man even had time to realize that he had apprehended the wrong "knife-eared wench."
Staggering to the ground, he started to raise his voice to call out, but all he could manage was a very high-pitched moan as he clutched himself in pain.
"Keep your dirty, clumsy paws to yourself, human fool," the elf spat. "I hope the servant you were apparently looking for scratches your eyes out if you ever try such a thing with her."
"Woah, lady, I know his prices are high, but isn't that a bit excessive?" drawled a voice from the sidelines.
"He's lucky he still has both his hand and his balls, grabbing me like he did," she retorted, looking up to see a swarthy man in a hunter's leathers regarding her askance.
"Quite the fighter… you Duncan's newest recruit, then?" he asked.
"I am… You're not Alistair, are you? I'm supposed to be looking for him."
"Nah, name's Daveth – I'm another one of the newest batch of recruits, with you. Alistair was down at the far end of camp, last I saw him. Blonde fellow in splint mail." Daveth helped the still-whimpering quartermaster up from the ground as Mei looked on. The quartermaster spared her a death-glare as he returned to his post, but seemed unwilling to make further trouble with a Grey Warden recruit. "Can't say as you're what I'd expected, to be right honest about it, lady."
Mei snorted. "And what did you expect, then? A dwarf, perhaps?"
"Uh, well, I'd heard you were a mage, but you don't look like one of the Circle types…"
"You mean, I look like I actually belong in a war camp?" She quirked a dark eyebrow at him.
Daveth glanced over at the mages' camp slyly, and chortled, "Aye, that must be it! Always did think those dresses they wear were a mite unwieldy."
"Oh, they're quite comfortable… if you're in a library. I think they may have missed being told about the mud and decided lack of books here, though," she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially.
The man laughed again, shaking his head. "Well, have you met Ser Jory yet? There's three of us newcomers, altogether."
"He's a big bloke from Redcliffe. Bit of a jittery sort, for a knight – I'm not really sure why he's here if he's so concerned about that family he left behind. Me, I've not got a family, so it's all just as well." He eyed her curiously. "You here by choice, then, or because Duncan saved your hide from the gibbet like he did mine?"
"I had a choice," she answered obliquely. "Wasn't much of one, but I suppose I could have gone elsewhere. Now if you'll excuse me, I really must find Alistair."
Humans are so infernally nosy. She knew the sentiment wasn't strictly fair; by many standards the Dalish elves far surpassed any idle curiosity she had recently been subjected to, but dodging the standard questions really started to get old when it was necessary on a near-constant basis.
"Right, right. I'm sure I'll see you around later – hey, I didn't get your name!" he called as she was already striding off.
"Call me Mei," she tossed over her shoulder as she continued to walk. "No one can pronounce the rest of it anyway…" the woman muttered under her breath, scanning her surroundings for Alistair or other potentially unpleasant surprises. The quartermaster's intrusive mistake had not eased her nerves one bit.
She found the described human among the ruins near the edge of camp, and she could hear him arguing with someone even before she could see the person he was talking to. Too late to avoid notice, she saw that his conversational opponent was a Tower mage, and sighed audibly. The mage, for his part, recognized Mei just as he was turning to stalk off, and stopped short for a full five seconds before pushing past her with a sneer.
"And I suppose the Reverend Mother sent you to run errands for her as well, witch…"
She didn't even know the man personally. Word must have really gotten around.
"Not sodding likely, idiot," she swore after him, shaking her head bemusedly.
"Ahh, darkspawn. Cramming people who can't stand each other into confined quarters since the first Blight. Lovely, isn't it?" The man who must be Alistair was regarding her amiably, a slightly sheepish expression on his guileless features.
Mei stared at him before letting out a short bark of laughter. "Oh, you've no idea. You're Alistair, then?"
"I am – have we met?" He paused, then raked his gloved hand through short, spiky hair as a look of understanding came over his face. "Oh, right. Of course not – you must be the new recruit."
"Yes, I am Mei," she said. "Duncan told me to find you, so here I am. What… was with the mage, might I ask?"
"Oh, him?" Alistair snorted. "The Reverend Mother here with the priests saddled me with a summons for him – meant it as an insult to send me, I'm sure, and the mage knew it. I used to be a templar, you see, before I joined the Wardens a few months ago."
"Templar. Lovely." Her blue-violet eyes had shifted from almost warm to frosty in the space of a heartbeat. "Duncan could have warned me."
Plainly sensing the change in her demeanor, the man gave her a confused look. "I… look, I know you were from the Circle at some point – he told me that much ahead of time – but being shut up in the Chantry and used as a watchdog wasn't exactly something I enjoyed, all right? Getting out of there with Duncan was the best thing that ever happened to me."
The tension in Mei's stance eased fractionally, and Alistair seemed to take it as an invitation to question. "Is this your first time out of the Tower, then? I'll admit you don't look like the other mages, but I thought they only let the oldsters out into the world in most cases."
Well, if this doesn't shock the pants off him…
"I'm an apostate," she answered baldly. "So no – my first time out was… some time ago. I was living near a Dalish clan, and met Duncan when he visited them."
His eyes had gone gratifyingly large at her revelation. "Ahhhh… well. That's certainly unusual. No wonder you reminded me so much of a pissed-off alley cat; every one of your hackles must be up in this place."
This was a very strange former templar, indeed. At least she wasn't overtaken with an urge to tear him limb from limb, yet – that was probably a good thing.
"To put it mildly. Now, I think we were expected somewhere? Shall we go?" she asked, briskly.
"Right. Sure thing, let's go find Duncan."
A damp spring breeze wound its way through the dark canopy overhead, and in isolated moments, it was almost possible to believe the forest a peaceful, untouched wilderness.
Then the wind would shift, and the foul smell of their trail of darkspawn corpses would return to remind them that this was no pleasure-jaunt, and the trees and the very earth beneath them had beady, porcine eyes, slavering teeth, and bloodstained swords.
Mei had lost count of the ambushes; they had long since filled the required vials with darkspawn blood. Still the small party trudged onward, uninspired by Alistair's vague assurances that it couldn't be too much farther, yet bowing to the necessity of retrieving the treaties nonetheless. Daveth and Jory babbled to each other nervously, a bit more on-edge with every fresh encounter, with Alistair attempting to lighten the mood with the occasional pithy joke, but Mei was grim and silent, preferring to save her breath for the darkspawn.
The others had been almost comically appalled the first time she had drawn her blades and engaged an ambusher head-on.
"You're a mage, aren't you? Whatever are you doing with a sword?" ser Jory had gasped as she calmly wiped gore from her weapons after the skirmish.
"I was defending myself, or would you have helplessly trying to complete a spell whilst I give the darkspawn right in front of me a clear shot at my head?" she'd asked, voice mild, suppressing a laugh at his goggle-eyed expression.
A small, quiet part of her brain supposed that she shouldn't laugh at their ignorance, since skill with blades was assuredly not the normal purview of mages even beyond the Circle, but the rest could not help but be amused at their incredulity. Her capabilities as an arcane warrior, however obscure, surely shouldn't need much explanation beyond the dead darkspawn in front of her. The Chantry made humans think they knew and controlled every power under the sky – show them something that wasn't "supposed" to exist, no matter how reasonable, and you'd think down had suddenly become up and cats had taken up sleeping with mabari, the way they reacted!
Finally, after a particularly messy sortie on a hillside, the bruised and battered party reached the crumbling ruins of a tower, and Alistair announced that they'd found their destination. Mei rather strongly doubted that any documents stored in such a place would have been preserved from the elements as well as scavengers, but she sifted through the broken crates and chests nonetheless.
The treaties were nowhere to be found, but the soft scrape of a booted footfall echoing down from the decrepit remains of the far wall of the tower alerted Mei to another presence. She straightened in alarm just in time to see a wild-looking human woman in a tattered leather skirt, bone jewelry, and not terribly much else stepping down from the wall.
"What's this? The intruders have made their way through knots of stinking darkspawn and blighted animals only to attempt to scavenge within a nigh-forgotten tower that has been picked clean for years?" The dark head cocked curiously. "What is it that brings three men-at-arms and an elf stumbling into these wilds of mine?"
Daveth stumbled back from the crate he had been inspecting, nearly quivering. "She's a… a…"
Alistair jumped on the bandwagon. "Witch of the wilds!"
It was all Mei could do not to roll her eyes.
The strange human woman waited calmly, even arrogantly, as Mei's three burly, armed companions discussed the likelihood that she would turn them into toads. Mei ignored the men's fear, instead meeting the newcomer's vivid yellow stare with her own direct and curious complacence.
The corner of the woman's wine-dark lips crept ever so faintly upward in the suggestion of a smirk, and an acute flash of understanding passed between them. You know what I am, better than they, and are not afraid.
That the woman was a mage, Mei was certain. That she was an apostate was just as clear, but the jittery talk of these "witches of the wilds" that Alistair was spewing sounded mostly like the sort of stories exhausted mothers tell their children to encourage good behavior by threat. Mei snorted softly, and shook her head.
"Would you three calm down, and stop behaving like infants?"
"She's an apostate, and probably a maleficar!" Alistair screeched, apparently rather concerned that Mei did not share his alarm.
Mei's attitude toward him promptly shifted from mildly exasperated amusement to hotly flaring fury. "Oh, I'm sure you must be right!" Her voice dripped acid sarcasm as she turned to face the ex-templar. "Because we all know that mages simply cannot avoid throwing open the doors of their minds to any demon that happens to come along and stop for tea unless there's a battalion of watchdogs standing over them at all times with a sword!"
He had the grace to look ashamed, at least. "I didn't mean –"
"Oh? Didn't you? What did you mean, then, Chantry-boy? Enlighten me." Her violet gaze seared into him as she waited to see how deep he would dig this hole.
"I just… there are dangerous things out here. And people. And we don't know her, so I'm inclined to be… cautious."
Mei sighed. His definition of 'caution' needed some work if it meant accusing someone whose help they might need – and who just might be able to verify a few of his fears about being turned into an amphibian – of being an abomination, but she knew how thoroughly that knee-jerk fear was drummed into the templar trainees. "I'm sure she's quite dangerous. I'm also sure that is why she is alive, given the rather impressive infestation of darkspawn in these parts. And finally, I'm sure that if we want those treaties, we would be best off discussing them like civilized adults, and not frightened children hiding under the bed waving sticks at imaginary monsters."
Alistair clearly had no intention of conceding the point aloud, but he nodded tersely and turned his attention back toward the object of their argument.
"A refreshingly practical point of view," the stranger approved. "I like you."
Amused, Mei felt her lips stretch into a tight smile, but she still wasn't about to let her guard down, as intriguing as the human mage was.
"May I ask your name?"
"You may ask, but I shall not answer unless I know your own," the human countered.
"I am Mei, of the Grey Wardens," she answered warily.
"And you may call me Morrigan. The chest your precious treaties were in rusted away to dust long ago; it seems passing strange that your order would suddenly want to find them now."
"What have you done with them? Hand them over," Alistair finally grated out, his glower still firmly in place.
"No, I –" the witch began, but Alistair cut her off indignantly.
"What? See, she's some sort of sneaky… witch-thief, just like I –"
"- for 'twas not I who removed them," she hissed over his protest. "My mother has kept them – out of the elements, which they certainly would not have been so in this forsaken tower – against the Grey Wardens' return." She crossed leather-wrapped arms over her chest, the image of exasperated impatience.
"Will you take us to her, then, please?" Mei asked, suppressing another sigh.
"Yes, if you'll just follow me – I'm glad at least one of you has some sense!"
" 'Tis not often my mother finds such amusement in conversing with anyone." The curious words held a sharpness to them, yet they were clearly pitched only for Mei's ears as the party followed Morrigan out of the deep wilds.
"I can't imagine she converses often, at all, living where you do," Mei replied neutrally, rather surprised that their taciturn guide had seen fit to speak beyond the strictly necessary.
"Not frequently, no, but she is very old," Morrigan allowed. "You are one of us, are you not?"
Mei snorted a chuckle. "I've been called 'witch,' but the Dalish never had quite the sense of melodrama that humans seem to, nor their fear of magic, so 'witch of the wilds' is certainly not anything I'd heard before." She considered briefly before deciding to continue. It wasn't as if the piece of information Morrigan seemed to be driving at was especially difficult to find out. "But if you mean, do I exist outside the oversight of the Chantry, then yes, I do."
"Yet you live within the Chantry flock's society. How – "
"Not easily," she replied shortly. Fellow apostate or no, she owed this woman no painful answers.
EVERYONE is infernally nosy! If she had been less irritated, she might have laughed aloud at the thought.
For a moment, she thought the human would continue to pry – her scornful lips had parted again – but to Mei's relief, she only offered a slight nod and a word of assent. "I see. I do not doubt that."
Another quarter hour saw them back into familiar territory, and Morrigan simply nodded again and faded into the leafy shadows without another word.
Alistair, who had been several paces behind them for the duration of the hike, turned a narrow-eyed glare to the thicket where the witch had disappeared and shook his head. "What did the likes of her have to talk about?" he asked grumpily.
"Oh, we were just swapping spells for turning babies into newts, making men's cocks shrivel up and fall off, that sort of thing."
"…Right, very funny." He didn't sound amused.
"She wanted to know how I get away with existing," Mei said wearily, suddenly feeling every mile of wilderness they'd traveled that day, and every bruise and scrape from their skirmishes. "I told her it wasn't easy, and left it at that. Let's get these treaties and the blood vials into camp, eh?"
Chapter 2: Chance Encounters
She had known, when Flemeth had returned with the two bloodied bodies in her great talons, that her mother's plan would proceed. She had known that she would be cast away, sent off with these two wet-behind-the-ears Grey Wardens to a fate that, if she was perfectly honest with herself, was nothing short of daunting. She had seen it all in the satisfied gleam in Flemeth's eye when the crone had announced that both the man and the elf would survive their injuries…
…yet for all that foresight, the taste on her tongue was no less bitter when the moment finally came, and she had to leave the Wilds with them as a companion.
It was not that Morrigan would miss the old hag who raised her – far from it – but subjecting herself to the company of the Grey Wardens was a constant rasp against senses far more attuned to solitude. She found the elf mage interesting, which made the situation slightly more tolerable than it might have otherwise been, but for the most part any appreciation of Mei was far outweighed by the unalloyed irritation posed by the ex-templar. And hewas the one she eventually had to…
Better not to think of that. She would worry about it when and if the inexperienced pair had amassed enough support to even begin to stand a chance against the Archdemon. Of course, the fact that their chances seemed low was little comfort either, since if they failed she would trade being a pawn for likely being dead.
The Blighted world was a chipper, happy place, to be sure.
Such thoughts were unsettling company as the trio cleared away brush from the forest floor to dig a firepit for the night.
"I don't like this, Mei. I can feel the horde skittering against the edges of my senses everywhere in these wilds – I'd almost rather press on; surely we must be close to the edge by now?" The templar's petulant voice shattered the leaf-muffled quiet.
Morrigan sighed inwardly. Fortunately, though, it seemed the elf was inclined toward practicality.
"I understand, and I don't like it either," she began blandly, "but no, if I understand our direction aright, we are not close at all. We won't be anywhere near Lothering for at least another half day's travel, and all things considered if we're going to run into darkspawn, I'd rather do it rested."
Alistair ran a hand through his short-cropped hair and muttered something unintelligible, then saying aloud, "I know that makes sense. I just… I don't know if I could rest if I tried. I feel like I've got to be doing something, anything, or it's… dishonoring Duncan, somehow."
Morrigan watched curiously as Mei looked up and considered the templar for a long moment. She'd expected the woman to shrug it away and tell him to stop being silly, but something curiously hollow had crept into her eyes, and instead, she addressed him sharply. "I know that feeling, and it's a trap. You'll run yourself into the ground, and then you'll get picked off. Some little mistake because your mind is too hazy to focus, and then it's all over and you haven't done anyone any good – least of all his memory." A distant note of wry humor entered her voice and the bitter twist of her lips. "And it seems we have a world to save, so martyrdom isn't a luxury we can afford at the moment."
"If you are in need of a task, there are vegetables in the bags you could prepare so we can eat tonight," Morrigan suggested. Alistair glared at her, and she fought down a wave of irritation – so much for being helpful.
Morrigan arose well before dawn, as was her habit. The boy-warrior was keeping second watch, but he barely spared her a glance when she slipped off into the trees, and that was perfectly agreeable to her. She wanted to gauge the area before the noise and commotion of breaking camp disrupted the rhythm of the forest.
And to just get some much-needed quiet before she had to spend another entire day in the company of the two fledgling Wardens.
Just beyond the edge of the camp, she shrugged into the body of a wolf as easily as breathing. The small creatures would scurry away from her, but not before she smelled their presence, and in this form she could cover ample ground without wearing herself down before the day's journey. It was a good form.
The shift to wolf had been the first shape she had mastered, and it was her favorite of all the ground-dwelling forms she could take. The sky had always called more strongly, but the morning was grey and damp, and she was leery of flying over any darkspawn encampments – as a crow, she had had to dodge arrows more than once when they had seen her, before the recent battle. For all their dull wits, the creatures were too clever by half around animals that may or may not be human witches.
Small game was scarce and the undergrowth thin – they were near human lands again, though still leagues from the town. Morrigan huffed a wolfish sigh through her sensitive nose, resigning herself to being in the lice-ridden, Chantry-besotted cesspool that called itself 'civilization' before the day was out.
The warm scent of rabbit tickled her nostrils, and minutes later she had a lean hare in her jaws, its head lolling on a broken neck. They would eat well this morning, at least.
Briefly, she considered returning to camp as a human, but bared her bloodied teeth in a grin to herself and decided that the shock of seeing her like this might do Alistair some good. Her paws were quiet on the soft ground, and so her approach went unnoticed.
"The dreams threw me for a loop at first," the templar was saying. "I don't think I got a full night's sleep for nearly the first month after my Joining."
"I'm used to nightmares." Morrigan could hear the dull shrug in the elven Warden's voice. "These… were startling, but not so bad."
"The dragon? I wish I could say that was 'not so bad.'"
Had she been a human, the witch would have laughed at his incredulity. She supposed it was a mercy that he had been unconscious when Flemeth had lifted him off the signal tower at Ostagar.
"At any rate – " Alistair's words were choked off in a yelp as Morrigan padded into the clearing. "Oh, wonderful! A wolf wants to cook its kill at our fire. The whole world has gone mad."
Mei turned distant eyes to hers slowly, as if she had to return from some far-off place to speak again. "I think that might be our absent companion, actually; don't wet your smalls yet."
"A normal wolf would be less disturbing," he muttered. "You don't look surprised; do they teach skinwalking in that Tower of yours?"
Mei's near-reverie snapped all at once, and she actually hissed at him. "The Tower is not 'mine,' and you were a templar – you should know they'd never allow a kept mage to practice something so disturbing."
Morrigan watched with interest as Alistair pinched the bridge of his nose. "Oh Maker. First, I was a recruit who never took final vows, not a full knight. Second, I've never been near the Tower, so will you quit assuming I mean any harm by asking questions?"
The elf's glare did not soften, but some of the acid had leeched out of her voice as she answered. "There are a few among the Dalish who know how to take on animal forms. I knew one such Keeper."
Morrigan deposited the hare onto the ground – she had made the mistake of shifting to human with a catch still in her jaws more than once in the past – and reared up, bipedal once more by the time her torso was vertical. "If the two of you are quite finished discussing the origins of my dire and terrifying abilities – " she favored Alistair with a disdainful glance " – I have brought food, for I do not fancy eating only oat mash for breakfast if we don't have to. We are nearing the edge of the forest, and if I judge correctly, we will make Lothering by midday."
The elf nodded and collected the rabbit carcass. "I'll get this going, if you two want to start breaking camp. When it's done, we can eat it on the road."
Morrigan watched, moderately surprised, as Mei skinned and dressed the rabbit quickly and without seeming to give it a second thought. She had not expected either Warden to have any experience with such matters. Mei was an elf, and she lacked the servile timidity of the few city elves Morrigan had seen, but the witch had also met enough Dalish to know that this slight mage was not one of them – the delicately inked tattoo that framed one eye was not a clan design, and she had never heard the word shemlen cross her lips. Even still, she had alluded to spending time with them – perhaps she had learned woodscraft then.
The witch shrugged and set to rolling up her tent. Perhaps she would not need to babysit as much as she had feared.
The remainder of the journey to Lothering was uneventful, save for the exuberant appearance of a very large, very odorous mabari hound that had apparently managed to imprint on Mei while still in the Ostagar war camp. Morrigan was amused to note that Mei was less than entirely enthusiastic about the creature's soggy-tongued greeting, but once he had calmed, the elf had fed him a leftover shred of rabbit and scratched his ears… and they had a dog.
Wonderful. Morrigan sighed. The wild creatures knew and rightly respected her, and she them – they were glorious and free, their feathers, talons, claws and teeth all singing the keen refrain of survival. That kinship did not, however, extend to domesticated animals. Much like domesticated mages, they offended the very fibre of her being by their lack of self-preservation and respect.
The cage willingly accepted was all the more repulsive for it. The mabari wisely kept its distance from her as they traveled.
Lothering, when they reached it, was a dismal sight. Little more than, as Alistair had so blithely put it a few hours before, 'a hamlet putting on airs,' the town had nowhere near the size or wealth to even begin to absorb the refugees who had already fled there. The common land and the once-grassy outskirts were churned to dank mud and speckled with ramshackle tents, or simply families resting on horse blankets, and the cries of children rang out in a steady cacophony of hunger and loss. To Mei's eyes, it could almost compete with the Circle tower for its sheer aura of hopelessness.
She suppressed a violent shiver at the unbidden memory that arose, of smooth stone walls and glinting armor that bore the flame-and-sword emblem she hated more than any other symbol in existence. Lothering was a place of desperation, yes, but they would collect supplies and any readily-available information, and then they would be gone from it quickly.
Seeking distraction from her own morbid thoughts, she watched her companions, only just catching the shifts in their bearings as they entered the town. Alistair, who had been hunched in upon himself since they had awoken in Flemeth's hut in the Wilds, stood up straighter and lengthened his stride, casting his eyes about rapidly to take in the faces of the people who milled about. Morrigan, by contrast, dropped her unnerving yellow gaze to the ground, and her presence, though Mei rather doubted it could ever be called 'meek,' lost some of the blazing, forceful self-assurance that had marked the witch's mien in her home. The latter was something of a relief to see, given that Morrigan's very movements seemed to challenge all who watched her, at times – she was a shouted declaration in a world where a mage who got noticed often ended up shackled. Or dead.
NO. This is NOT the time. Mei savagely wrenched her mind away from that thread – the anger it brought could only serve to harm them in this place.
The town square boasted a small but well-appointed Chantry, and she noted sourly that the building was in an entirely different league from the shabby houses that lined the muddy streets. It commanded the square, and it seemed to Mei that the building cast a watchful eye around it, as a templar who wades among recently-collected mage children. Clustered around the Chantry were the stalls and carts of a half-hearted attempt at a marketplace where, from the looks of it, more people were trying to sell items to the hawkers than the other way around.
"Looks like another three villages' worth of people here," Alistair noted. "There's a few hamlets and freeholds even closer to the fighting that must have already fled. But I don't understand why the refugees are stopping here, of all places – this mud pit's going to be crawling with darkspawn in a few days."
"At least some are probably just trying to resupply, much as we are. But you're right; some of the tents and shacks look like they've been here a while," Mei murmured, pausing near, but not yet inside the circle of pitiful booths. "Alistair, I'm more than a bit leery of drawing attention here. You… are definitely more respectable than Morrigan and I. See what you can find out about the state of things, and maybe look into collecting a bounty on those brigands we disposed of on the highway, hmm?"
Alistair gave a nervous chuckle. "…Respectable. Erm, sure. This'll be new! You ladies… take care of yourselves, then – I'll rejoin you in the market."
"As if we would not be doing that anyway," Morrigan muttered with a glare to his retreating back. Mei's mouth twitched into a half-remembered dream of a smile at the other woman's expression, but her humor quickly faded as they entered the market proper. There was almost no food in evidence, and the ragged blankets and tents at a few of the stalls were clearly exorbitantly expensive, by the dismayed looks of the refugees who crowded around.
"We might have to see if Alistair can squeeze some coin out of the Chantry for our work with the bandits," Mei murmured. "What little we took off them won't go far, I'd wager. Might be best spent on whetstones and oil and the like, now, and we can pick up food and blankets further north."
Morrigan nodded her assent – Mei suspected the witch could manage perfectly well in cold weather as a wolf, so her lack of concern was not surprising. They were able to pick up supplies to maintain their weapons and armor quite easily, but it did not go unnoticed that they did not bother approaching the meager food stands. Hollow eyes narrowed as they passed. No one spoke to them other than the shopkeepers they did business with, but Mei's hackles were up all the same, and her back ached where her shoulder blades drew together in tension. Attention was a danger they could ill afford, but she knew a certain amount wasn't going to be helped.
They had begun to retreat outside the circle of stalls to wait for Alistair when a ragged-looking man who had been muttering to a small knot of listeners peeled off and accosted them, dirty, coarse hands crossed over scarred forearms. "The darkspawn come from the south to tear us all limb from limb, and you walk with one of their heralds, elf!"
Mei blinked. "She looks perfectly human to me," she returned mildly.
"A witch!" he exclaimed, nearly shouting, now. "Though she dresses as a woman of my people, she walks without a chaperone. Her kind will see every settlement leveled, every man slaughtered under the claws of the darkspawn! Beware!"
The townspeople in the marketplace were giving them sidelong glances, and Mei shifted uncomfortably. Morrigan's glare at the barbarian was nothing short of murderous, and Mei felt she needed to get them separated as quickly as possible, despite her own quashed desire to lay him out with a fireball. "We're here to take shelter and buy supplies, same as most," she said flatly. "I suggest you take your dire predictions to anyone who doesn't already know about the darkspawn. Far away from here. It might be more useful."
"You're no refugees, that's for sure," someone opined gruffly as Mei turned to get away from the Chasind man. The speaker was a fruit-seller. "Only people in the damn market who didn't come askin' at my cart. You just watch yourselves."
"Doran, I know you're sore that they're not interested in your prize apples, but these ladies have enough trouble with yon doomsayer harassing them without you piling on, don't you think?" A human woman stepped in between the mages and the Chasind man, her striking blue eyes fixed in a glare upon the shopkeeper.
"Maker, Catrin, can we stay out of this?" a stocky man with similar coloring addressed her with the long-suffering air of one who does not actually expect to be heard.
Doran, meanwhile, had the grace to look at least mildly abashed. "Yer right, Mistress Hawke. Everybody's on edge with all these strangers passin' through; you know how it is," he said by way of apology.
"She's a witch, I tell you!" The Chasind rabble-rouser was not pleased to have been forgotten. Mei sighed, but she needn't have worried.
The woman Hawke shook black hair out of her eyes as she wheeled to the barbarian. "Watch your accusations, fool. She's no more witch than I; she's traded fairly with my family in the past. Begone." Her companion stared down the man, and that was what finally seemed to convince him that he'd best take himself elsewhere.
"Catrin – " the young man began.
"Thanks for backing me up, little brother. If you want to finish your shopping, I'll just be a moment."
"…Right. Fine. Mother would flay you for getting into the middle of things, you know."
"I know!" she returned cheerfully before turning back to Mei and Morrigan. Her eyes flicked between the two of them coolly, but with a hint of good-natured amusement. "It's been a while, my friend. I'd be quick about your business here, were I you – as you've seen, things are getting a touch unpleasant."
Mei glanced to Morrigan in surprise. The witch was giving their benefactor a profoundly complex look of irritation and… fondness? Well, she did say she'd traded here before.
"So I see," Morrigan replied at length. "I would suggest leaving with all haste, yourself. We have come from the south, and the horde is close at hand. Lothering will fall squarely in its path."
Hawke's expression soured. "Mother is… reluctant. I'll have to redouble my efforts to convince her, since I hear the darkspawn have positively ghastly manners when they take up residence."
Mei was incredulous. Was the woman trying to win some kind of medal for egregious understatement?
"Her sentiment will get you all killed," Morrigan spat.
"I've no intention of letting it come to that. I'll make Carver carry her out if I have to. But I thank you."
"We're grateful for your help in the market," Mei added, still nonplussed that the woman could joke about the darkspawn invasion, but focusing on what made sense in the situation. "I'd known we'd need to walk softly, but…"
Hawke shook her head. "It's nothing. Use the respite well; get out of here. The last thing you need is that idiot going and whining to the templars; they're on a hair trigger."
Mei's eyes widened. "How did you –? "
"Oh, you too? I'd just meant for Morrigan." Hawke grinned. "I didn't think those were Dalish markings you had; I guess it makes sense. Double the reason for the both of you to hurry, then. Be well, my friends. I'd best go before someone else decides to get nosy." She gave a brisk nod and turned to leave.
"…Be well," Morrigan echoed quietly after her.
"Friend of yours, apparently?" Mei asked.
Morrigan glared at her. "Why is it that people toss that word around so much, so casually? I merely have… encountered her a handful of times while passing through the village."
"Not a friend, but she knows what you are, eh?" Mei prodded, faintly amused.
"She is one of us. She would not expose me, even if she wanted to, for 'twould be a simple matter for me to cast suspicion on her as well,' Morrigan sniffed.
"I don't doubt it. I hope she makes it, then. It is… good to see that someone can live in the open like she does." Someone who never was chained to a phylactery, to a Tower… I wonder if she knows how lucky she is.
Chapter 3: Band of Misfits
Since the DA2 qunari design is much more distinctive than Sten's relatively human appearance in DAO, I'm retconning him to a DA2 body.
They were on their way out of the village, supplies in hand, when they saw the cage.
Its listless occupant was slow to react to their horrified curiosity, but when they did not move on, he turned a silently arresting glare upon them.
"Maker…" Alistair swore under his breath. "Is that one of the qunari?"
Mei nodded. The towering stature and backswept horns were distinctive; she'd only ever read of qunari in books, but it was hard to mistake them for anything else in Thedas. This one was glaring at them fiercely, but silently from within the cage as they discussed him, as if to maintain some last shred of dignity despite his circumstances. Somehow, that only whetted the jagged edge of outrage the sight provoked – she had seen enough of cages to last three lifetimes.
" 'Tis a disgrace, to confine one such as he," Morrigan said darkly, echoing Mei's thoughts.
Mei had been biting at her lip, wanting to yell, wanting to turn straight back into Lothering and blast the guards to smithereens, but Morrigan's words gave her a leash to her fury. "What is your name?" she addressed the caged qunari, voice tight.
"It does not matter. The darkspawn are coming," he said in a voice like bedrock.
"Even so. If you'll not tell me that, who put you in this… thing?"
This, he answered, dispassionate and tired-sounding. "It was ordered by the elder Chantry woman."
"The Reverend Mother," Alistair said, as if to himself, frowning. "Why would she order such a thing? There must have been a reason."
"A reason?" Mei snarled, incensed. The Chantry was all too fond of chains. "A reason to put him in a cage and leave him out as an offering for the darkspawn? May the moon light her corpse."
"It'd have certainly been kinder to kill him, whatever he did." the warrior murmured.
"The qunari killed an entire crofter family," a lilting voice sounded from the shadows of the nearby barn. None of the three had noted the woman's approach, and Mei turned to face her, tensed for conflict. She did not like being sneaked up on.
The stranger wore roughspun Chantry robes, her bright copper hair glinting in the late afternoon sunlight as she stepped forward to greet them.
Mei scowled at the woman. "And? If a human had done such a thing, he would have been kept under guard until a trial could be convened, or in times like these, perhaps simply executed. But he would not be standing in a cage on the village outskirts, defenseless and waiting for the darkspawn to come!"
The human bowed her head slightly. "Fear drives people to brutality when they might otherwise be merciful. I do not condone it."
Pretty words, when no responsibility is taken. Mei crossed her arms and cut to the chase. "Then why are you here?"
"I know who you – "
"Stop." Alistair held a sudden hand up, staring hard beyond the Chantry sister, and she paused. "This looks like it could get unpleasant very quickly… not that it was particularly pleasant before, of course. We've got company."
A cadre of hardbitten men were approaching, two with bows on their backs peeling off from the main group to go wide and circle them. Morrigan turned to track their progress warily, bearing no small resemblance to her wolf form in that moment.
The leader of the band stopped several paces away from them and addressed Alistair with his hand on his sword pommel. "You lot put down your weapons slowly. We've got you covered; don't try anything funny."
"Gentlemen," the Chantry woman chided. "These travelers have already had enough difficulties. They are just passing through. Whoever it is you're – "
"Can it, sister," he interrupted. "It's hard to miss a knight and an elf, I know what I'm about. Teyrn Loghain wants their heads… attached, or not – it doesn't much matter."
Alistair's eyes flicked to Mei's. She blinked at him slowly in acknowledgment – this wasn't an ideal place to fight, but Morrigan would handle the archers and Mei could slam a shield up before too much got through. Alistair shifted his weight forward subtly to place himself more fully between her and the bowmen, a movement she noted with reserved respect. His splint mail would afford some protection from arrows, whereas any one that found Mei would likely drop her. She hoped fervently that Morrigan hadn't registered as a mage to them, yet, for she would be exposed until –
"Well, on that account I'm afraid we'll have to disappoint him," Alistair muttered, as the shield sprang up.
The expected arrows came almost immediately, but lost their momentum as they passed through the shimmering barrier of energy, and Mei whirled into action. She had a freezing spell off against the mercenary captain before he could even fully draw his sword, and she and Alistair fell back to be better able to guard Morrigan, who had soundly removed any ambiguity about her status as a mage with a lightning bolt sent arcing toward the archers moments before.
The mabari, whom Mei had called Llorc, dodged amidst their feet, diving for unprotected hamstrings as the rest of the company closed in. Mei spent half a moment's wondering on what the Chantry sister was doing, but dismissed the thought of trying to shield the human woman as well – she was as likely an enemy as not, and Mei owed her nothing.
Fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Alistair was awkward – he was all ponderous power and defense, she a bladed whirlwind who relied on speed and mobility to protect her – an unfortunate necessity thanks to the close quarters, and one she could manage. The mercenaries were poorly-equipped, but possessed enough cohesion to make things difficult. Keeping them away from Morrigan as she picked off their ranks was no small task, tactically disadvantaged as they were.
With the archers at their flank down, Mei let the shield fall to focus instead on assisting with offense, running one man through on her main-hand sword and catching a second with a well-timed blast of frost to the eyes. When her eyes swept across the scene for another opening, she glimpsed movement in the shadows of the buildings…
…and the shape fell, suddenly, into the light, revealing another archer that had managed take up position on their right flank without being noticed. His bow fell from slack hands; his throat had been slashed swiftly from behind, and the strange Chantry sister in her bright robes was left standing in his place. Mei twisted and dodged as another opponent engaged, her attention necessarily yanked back to the melee.
At least two more of the men were distracted or felled by fiendishly-accurate, thrown knives as the skirmish went on. When the last mercenary gurgled his lifeblood out on the ground, Mei hunched over her knees for a long moment to allow the flow of adrenaline and her ragged breathing to slow. She was fit in her own right, but the magic she used to augment her strength and speed never failed to make her feel like her bones had turned to jelly when it stopped.
The elf looked up, and the copper-haired stranger was calmly cleaning a knife. "You," Mei panted, "are no priest."
"Not a dedicated sister, no – I am a lay sister, and we take no vows. My name is Leliana, and I have heard of the recent events in Ostagar," she offered. Her accent, now that Mei had time to think about it, reminded her of a mage from Orlais who had visited the Circle long ago.
"Which version?" Alistair asked, suspicion competing with wryness in his tone.
Leliana was serene as she answered. "The one from an injured soldier who escaped the rout of Cailan's forces after the teyrn's betrayal. She died of wound fever shortly after she and what was left of her company stumbled into the town, a few days ago. I know who you are, and what's at stake, which is why I'm coming with you on your journey."
"A Chantry milksop is the last thing we need in this little band," Morrigan opined. "Alistair already fills that role amply."
The ex-templar ignored her, instead giving the sister an incredulous stare. He broke it off to glance toward Mei, but she only watched the human woman in silence. "Look… " he began. "We, erm… appreciate your support, but I really don't think we can afford to watch out for you…"
Leliana tossed the now-shining dagger in a tight twirl and caught it deftly by the handle without ever taking her sharp eyes from Alistair's. "I have been many places, and learned many skills before coming here. I can handle myself, as I think you surely must have seen only minutes ago."
"We're the last Grey Wardens in Ferelden, facing down a Blight. Any skills aside, why in the Maker's name do you want to come with us?" he returned, exasperated.
"I had a dream, a… vision. From the Maker, of the Blight, and the last hope against it. I can do very little here, in this place, to make things better, but if I come with you… I can help you. Aside from fighting, I know the ways of courts and nobles, the things that are whispered beneath the constant thread of pleasant pageantry. You will need that knowledge if you are to gain support and rally a fractured nation against such a threat." Her clear blue eyes were intent, her voice earnest. The talk of visions made Mei's skin crawl, but in pragmatism…
"You know that Alistair and I are Grey Wardens. You fought with us, so you must surely know what Morrigan and I are, as well," Mei said, abruptly. She asked the necessary question point-blank. "You are a Chantry sister. Can you stomach the company of apostates?" She forced her voice to neutrality, keeping the edge of the underlying implications out of her inflection. Better to hear the answer without the question having been perceived as the threat it was.
She heard Morrigan shift behind her, and she knew that the witch had heard what she hadn't said, and was readying herself to act should the answer be the wrong one.
Leliana turned to meet Mei's gaze without surprise or guile. "Your goal is my own. My sisters and brothers in the Chantry often forget that Andraste herself was a mage, and that it is mortal fear rather than her teachings that mandates their confinement to the Circles. You need fear nothing from me for being what you are."
It was a rare enough attitude among Chantry devotees to make it slightly suspect, but on the other hand, the dogmatic ones weren't apt to even think of making such apologies in the first place, even in subterfuge. And she might go a long way toward preventing run-ins with overzealous templars in the future , even if her claims are overstated, Mei thought, watched her for a long moment. At length, she gave a single, decisive nod.
"We are rather woefully short on allies, at the moment. Your aid would be welcome."
Their camp, when they stopped for the night well-away from Lothering, felt positively crowded.
Mei hadn't been willing to just leave the qunari, who they eventually learned was called Sten, in the cage to wait for the darkspawn horde to arrive, so Leliana and Alistair had returned to the town to treat with the Reverend Mother for his release. Sten had agreed to accompany the party and lend his (rather impressively powerful) sword arm to their cause, though he did not seem glad or grateful that he might live at least a bit longer. He merely stepped out of the cage and followed them in silence, collecting a battleaxe from one of the dead mercenaries and carrying it like it weighed nothing at all. His taciturn dourness outmatched even Morrigan's, for at least the Wildswoman was apt to provide the occasional amusing – if edged – piece of commentary.
Alistair's impulsive charge to aid a beleaguered pair of dwarves who had been set upon by bandits had added a merchant and his son to their rag-tag retinue – Bodahn Feddic had driven his wagon into their camp as they were setting up tents and simply announced that he would be following them along as their travels permitted. Mei wasn't minded to protest much, since the merchant had assured her that he and Sandal would see to their own supplies as well as provide their wares to the party at a discount.
Setting to the task of preparing food, Mei was shortly joined by Leliana, who offered her help beside the fire. The human woman was now clad in worn but well-fit leather armor that she had collected from her quarters in the Chantry, and moved like one far more at-home in the practical garment than in her clerical robes. Mei accepted the aid with a nod and a small, tired smile.
Leliana was silent for several minutes as they worked, perhaps picking up on Mei's lack of interest in conversation, but it was clear in the glances she kept casting the mage's way that there were words on the tip of her tongue.
"You have questions, I suppose?" Mei asked, finally.
She smiled. "I have a lot of questions, actually, but I'll try not to pour them all on you at once. I'm dreadfully curious, but you look like you're about to fall over where you stand."
"That's… fairly accurate, but I'll do what I can," Mei murmured, poking at the coals with a long branch.
"How did you and Alistair escape the rout? I heard that all the Grey Wardens were right in the thick of things, on the front lines." She cocked her coppery head like a bird as she regarded Mei.
"Most were," Mei allowed. "The king requested a pair of Wardens be sent to make sure a signal fire was lit on the top of a tower to call in Loghain's flanking assault, and that was Alistair and me, since we were the newest."
"But I heard that all of Ostagar was overrun by the darkspawn. Did you fight your way out?"
Mei smiled wryly. "No, the darkspawn were there, in force, and… well, I was unconscious for it, as was Alistair, but what we were told about our rescue is a little… odd."
Leliana's eyes lit with interest. "Oh? This, I must hear."
"We came to at Morrigan's mother's hut in the Wilds. Morrigan told us that her mother had 'turned into a giant bird and plucked us from the tower.' I'm… not quite sure what to make of it. She's a shapeshifter, herself, so I assume her mother may well be, but still…" She trailed off, dubious.
"You must admit, it makes a good story," Leliana said, sounding pleased by this.
"I suppose it does, at that. What else do you want to know?"
"Well, aside from a whole set of questions which, I'm afraid, would be tremendously nosy of me seeing as I've only just met you… I'll settle for 'where are we headed?'" she asked brightly.
Mei sighed. She suspected she could get to like Leliana, but the woman's… irrepressibility… was already getting exhausting. And she hated herself a little, for that thought, because once she had found that same peculiar sort of vivacity energizing, exciting, delightful. Would it ever stop hurting to remember?
"Redcliffe. Alistair knows the Arl there, and we're going to need some sort of political support in this, and sooner rather than later."
"Hmm. That seems reasonable to me. I do not know anything of the Arl of Redcliff, probably because he wasn't heavily involved in trade with…" Leliana trailed off, as if speaking to herself.
"Orlais?" Mei finished for her.
The human looked up in surprise from the herbs she was chopping. "Yes. How did you know? I've not met many Fereldans who can place my accent, at least not this deep in the country."
"There was a visiting mage in the Circle, once, who had a thicker version. And my – " her voice hitched "- another apprentice with Orlesian family mimicked it for months afterward."
"Ahh, I see. Well, then." Leliana gave her a shrewd look, but continued. "My mother was Fereldan, but she worked for an Orlesian noblewoman, and followed her to Orlais after the occupation ended. I grew up there."
"And is that where you learned your skill with weapons?" Mei asked.
Leliana trilled a soft laugh. "It is where I learned most things, yes. Music, how to look after a lady's needs at court…"
"Oh yes. I have always loved to play and sing… and I know a fair handful of instruments."
At that point, Alistair flopped down on a log near the fire with his sword and a whetstone. "Maybe we should sing to the darkspawn… put them to sleep! Or in a better mood. Or something." He ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. "Well, you ladies should, perhaps. I'd make a mess of that, I'm sure."
"I doubt I'd be much better," Mei demurred, faintly irritated. "I could play my flute at them, I suppose, but unless I figure out how to do that without using my hands…"
"You play?" Leliana asked with interest. "That's wonderful! You shall have to show us later, no?"
"…Perhaps," Mei said with a suppressed sigh. All she wanted in the world, at that moment, was to curl into her tent and sleep. The darkness was cool and impersonal, fundamentally undemanding… and even the Blight dreams weren't so bad. The Archdemon wasn't much of one for polite conversation, and that was just fine with Mei.
Chapter 4: Scattered Leaves
The road to Redcliffe
The next night, Leliana offered to cook, conscripting Alistair to help, and Mei gratefully slipped into the forest alone to look for herbs, glad for the excuse to be away for a while.
Growing up in the Circle, she'd never had much real privacy, but the more reclusive of the young mages tended to form tacit pacts of quiet in the spaces they were forced to share, for lack of other options. Her months living in the Brecilian Forest had given rein to her more solitary preferences, even though, for a short, wondrous time…
Mei bit her lip as she knelt to dig at an elfroot plant, eyes blurring. It couldn't have lasted. They'd known it wouldn't, known they would have to run eventually. And still, they hadn't been ready.
With now long-accustomed practice, she gathered up the memories like leaves, stacking their fragile colors upon one another in her mind to make them blur into cohesion. To chase them when they scattered was to lose focus, and to lose focus was to die – or worse, as she'd warned Alistair only days before. The hoard of thoughts was bright enough to burn, and sharp enough to cut.
Alone, the memories could break her. Annealed, they became the keen edge of her anger, more dangerous than either sword she carried.
The astringent scent of bruised elfroot brought her back to the present as she crumpled the leaves in her hand and began to walk again.
It was well past dusk when she returned, feeling marginally better, with fragrant herbs filling a makeshift sling of rough linen that she had tied over her shoulder. Leliana was speaking to Alistair by the cookfire with Sten a healthy distance away, though the qunari seemed to be listening intently, if a bit perplexedly, to whatever yarn she was spinning. Morrigan had pitched her own tent at the edge of the clearing and built a second, smaller fire away from the others, and it was there that Mei turned after silently collecting a bowl of stew from the bubbling pot.
The other apostate was grinding some sort of paste in a pestle, and Mei could smell enough of it to recognize it as medicinal. Well and good – they would probably need poultices on hand in the near future, as the darkspawn encroachment grew.
"Can you use any of these?" Mei offered, showing the contents of her sling.
"I'm nearly out of betony, as it happens," Morrigan replied reservedly.
Mei nodded and silently sifted through her stash for the violet blossoms. The human woman accepted them just as silently. Then her golden eyes flicked to the larger campfire, and back to Mei, apparently making some sort of decision.
"You may… join me here, if you do not wish to take part in the… chatter." Her thoughts on the relevance of the others' conversation were quite clear.
The offer was unexpected, but much to her own surprise, Mei did not find it unwelcome. Sleep was not likely to come easily that night, and it would be better to at least somewhat prepare the herbs she had gathered. Placing the sling on the hard ground by the fire, she gave what felt like an approximation of a smile. "I'll just go get my satchel so I can work on these, too, then."
They worked for a while in silence, Mei stripping stalks and folding some leaves into linen sheets for drying, setting others aside to make into simples that night. At length, Morrigan looked up and spoke again, curiosity tempering her usual severity. "I've a question, if I may."
Mei wiped her stone herbalist's knife on a scrap of cloth and met the other woman's unnerving eyes. "You may."
"Why do this?" she asked, bluntly.
" 'This?' "
"The templar is the dutiful sort; I've seen enough of his kind from a distance 'tis no surprise. But you… are not. This… civilization – " on her lips, the word sounded like an epithet " – does not care for your kind, certainly."
Later, Mei would be privately astonished at the impulse, and even more so that she'd followed it. "The Maker's children are threatened, and even the least of them must stand to push this evil back," she deadpanned.
Morrigan blinked and her for a long moment, eyes wide in astonishment before they narrowed. "You… jest."
The elf's answering smile had teeth. "Of course. You'll forgive me practicing my piety for the trumped-up nobles we have to woo; it might be useful."
She was rewarded with a short, sharp laugh, Morrigan's head tilting back in mirth. "Oh, I do like you."
Morrigan didn't press her for a real answer, which made her strangely grateful, though at length, she gave it anyway. The other mage was the closest thing she had to an ally of temperament as well as convenience, after all. "When we were back in the Wilds… Flemeth had this… secretive, almost smug way about her as she spoke of coming change."
"She has that way about her most of the time, I assure you," Morrigan corrected dryly.
Mei inclined her head and continued. "The Keeper of the clan w- … I camped near said… much the same thing. She didn't seem half so pleased about it, but she said… how did she put it? It was something vague and poetic. 'The patterns are converging.' I think that was it. It was when Duncan came looking for Warden recruits. I… " Her mouth went dry, as if the words were trying to crawl back into her throat and taking all the moisture with them. Morrigan only listened, head cocked in birdlike attentiveness.
Finish what you start.
"I was angry… aimless and drowning in it. She made me believe I could do something with it, that I could be a part of that change. I half-hated her for it at the time because it seemed more like an excuse to get me away from her clan than anything, and it probably was. But now… what do I stand to lose?" Mei had forced the truth into bland, blunted generalities, but the words had come. That was something.
"Your life, presumably."
Glancing down at a mangled elfroot stalk that had fallen from her inattentive fingers, she picked it back up with a sigh. "Perhaps. But I knew I couldn't live like… like I was. Wasn't much of a choice, when it came down to it."
"You lived in that gilded cage the Chantry calls the Circle once." It wasn't a question, but Mei nodded. "You left it for the same reason, I gather?"
Mei's lips twitched, just slightly, though the brief flare of humor was as black as the night sky. "Very much the same." She began pounding a new set of herbs into a paste with a vengeance. "Why come, yourself?"
The question had been half out of genuine interest and half simply to steer the focus away from topics she did not want to delve into tonight – or ever, perhaps. (Could one go a lifetime without talking about such things? Mayhap she would try; it wasn't like a lifetime was apt to be very long, in her case.) Morrigan's eyes sharpened to bright knives, surprising Mei before the woman's expression eased a moment later.
Hiding something, then… but aren't we all?
" 'Tis as you say," Morrigan answered. "The tides are shifting, and as much as I do not care for being thrust into it on another's sense of timing, I would have a part in their shaping."
Mei nodded, accepting the evasion as the surface of truth. There was something in the witch's vehemence that she recognized, a note that set her own mind to ringing in harmony. For all Morrigan claimed a cool, dispassionate devotion to power, she was angry, too.
Chuffing inquisitively, Llorc trotted over from the main campfire to the two women. Morrigan waved him away impatiently, and he rounded the fire to butt his head against Mei's shoulder before settling down at her side.
Mei scratched his ears, absently glad for the short break in the conversation. She would move into safer waters, now. "What of Lothering? Was that the main place you traded, living in the Wilds?"
"Lothering and the Chasind." Morrigan made a flicking gesture as if to discount the second. "But the Chasind are a suspicious folk, and have foolish notions of how women should live; dealing with them was something always undertaken with caution and as seldom as possible."
Mei recalled the woman, Hawke, with the laughing eyes that had never seen the inside of the Tower. "How did you and Hawke find out about each other?" she asked, wondering how such things could happen under the close eyes of the templars. Since she'd made her own escape, she had been resigned to keeping her abilities well under wraps when dealing with Fereldans other than the scattered Dalish clans.
Morrigan made an irritated noise through her teeth. " 'Tis… embarrassing. When I was very young and very foolish, and had just learned to give myself wings, I took to spying on the town from within. But a crow who is not easily startled away attracts notice, and I had not yet learned to feign the behavior. I was… very fortunate that Catrin was the first to act on that notice."
It was faintly amusing to think of Morrigan as being that brazenly careless, for the notion seemed quite incompatible with what Mei had seen of her at present. The witch was still brazen, perhaps, but never careless. Mei found herself smiling slightly, remembering the prickly familiarity Morrigan had shown the other mage with a touch of wistful envy. "She seemed like a good sort to know… and probably quite a bit of fun, besides."
The human quirked a brief, answering half-smile that was almost, but not quite lost in the shadows of the dancing flames. "Insufferably cheerful, but yes… she is... effective." It was a strange enough compliment, but coming from Morrigan, a lavish one. "She was one of my primary sources of information about the world beyond the Wilds. My mother had many such lines of information, of course, but she was not free with them, and so I acquired my own resources."
Mei nodded; she understood this well. "In the Tower, we had to rely on visiting mages for news, and what little made its way down to the lower ranks was rarely useful. I've a story not so unlike yours, actually," she said wryly. "Just out of my Harrowing, I tailed one such visitor in hopes of eavesdropping for bits of gossip or news to feed back to my friends. The woman had caused enough stir among the Seniors when she arrived that I knew anything about her was bound to be interesting. Long story short, she had just begun a meeting with a handful of other mages, and one of them saw me. Instead of throwing me out, she laughed and told me I could come in and actually listen from a chair, if I wanted. I admit I almost wanted to bolt, at that point, but I stayed, and that… well, that changed just about everything."
Morrigan cocked her head and added another small limb to the fire, having set aside her herbals for the night. "How do you mean?"
"The visiting mage was Adrian, from the Orlesian Circle. I'd only just begun to hear about the different mage fraternities – political factions, really – and the bland, useless Aequitarians were the dominant group there, so I hadn't paid much attention. Adrian was already fairly important within the Libertarians at that point, and she's since become the Speaker." At Morrigan's blank look – it was no surprise that internal Circle politics weren't among her areas of expertise – Mei hastened to elaborate. "The Libertarians are the Circle mages you'd actually get along with, after a fashion. They seek to separate us from the Chantry."
"It seems some of them do have some sense, then," Morrigan approved. "Although if that is their wish, why have they not done so?"
A gauntleted hand around her throat, and the harsh shock as the mana is ripped from her pattern.
Mei shuddered, forcing her hitched breathing to smooth out once more. Here she was, again. The memories seemed intent on taunting her tonight. Beside her, Llorc whined in almost uncannily perceptive concern.
She knew Morrigan had noticed the reaction, even though it had been slight, but for a mercy, she didn't prod further. Mei drew breath to speak, halted, and tried again. "It's… very difficult to explain, since you haven't been there. But… I'll try. You… you've known freedom. Andraste's staff, you've ridden the skies. From the sounds of it, you were raised with that in your blood, in everything you did."
"Power," Morrigan corrected her, quietly. " 'Tis not the same thing as freedom. But the one can grant the other, betimes."
"As you say." The finer points were certainly interesting, but not terribly important at the moment. It was almost a relief to let her mind worry at the problem of explaining, rather than dwelling on the experiences themselves. "What I'm getting at, though, is that you can't imagine wanting or expecting anything else. It's obvious that is the way the world works. Am I right about that?" she asked.
"Alright. Well, instead of – " Mei waved her hands around her, her tension lending the movement more violence than she intended. " – all that, most of us spend our entire lives, from the time we are taken away from our parents until the day we die, being told that we are dangerous. We are a problem. The best the world can do is make the most of this 'curse' of magic… but of course it's too sodding scared to do much of even that. The templars are always there, and always watching. Always. Unless you're a Senior, you won't even be granted a door that locks. You could be naked and in the arms of a lover, and if a templar decides he wants to come in and drag you off to be questioned for some imagined offense, he can do it."
"Surely two mages can overpower one templar!" Morrigan said, her tone derisive and disbelieving.
Mei closed her eyes. Oh, yes. They can, can't they?
"And what then?" she asked bitterly. "When he goes down, and the two of you are still four levels up in a heavily-guarded tower on an island in the middle of a lake, and haven't been outside the Tower grounds since you were five? Do you fight all the others who come? No. They tear your mana out of you, drag you before a farce of a tribunal, and then they kill you or make you Tranquil, and then what of all your supposed power?" She paused, shuddering and slowly dragging her anger back into line. She had to continue this; it was suddenly terribly, direly important that she be able to make this point and have the other woman understand.
"Most mages buy into the system because if they are good, they'll be given a pittance of autonomy, and be grateful for it. Yes, it is pathetic. But when that's all you know, the only way to make your life a little better? It's what you do. Most never see a real chance at anything different. That's what the constant pressure from the templars is for. And that's why even the most quiet, careful voice saying that this isn't right aloud is such an act of rebellion. The Libertarians are that voice, and they've managed to become it in spite of everything I just said. Learning that they existed was… was like the first time you sneak up to the Observatory – it's restricted to the upper ranks, officially – and see the stars that you almost forgot even existed, since you haven't seen them since you were taken."
"And this Adrian taught you to seek freedom?" Morrigan asked.
"She taught me, and many others, to… see. She gave us a glimpse of an idea of what could be. The movement's much older than she is, but few others have articulated its goals so well."
The witch gave her a shrewd look. "And yet, you are different from even that faction, are you not?"
"I wasn't, for a long time. But yes, I suppose I am."
Morrigan watched the flames for a long moment, considering something. "It does please me to know that not all of those in the Circles are sheep. I've always been safe enough in the Wilds, but to hear Catrin speak of it, the world is quite mad."
Mei let out a short, humorless laugh. "It is. But given the choice between docilely going along with it, dying fighting, or just dying…"
"I see what Flemeth meant, now, about you," the witch mused.
"She said that you were a peculiarly dangerous sort... she seemed to find it funny… the sort who decides to do something, and then dedicates every resource available to that task without heed to cost."
Mei shrugged. "Sometimes the options really are that simple. Stay or go, die or live. If I live, I can count the costs when I'm done." And there are always plenty to count.
"And which choice was joining the Grey Wardens?" Morrigan asked, arching a dark eyebrow.
Isn't that the interesting question? You thought you knew, but what is this quest, if not a fool's errand with a quick, bloody end?
"I guess we'll both find that one out eventually, won't we?" This time, her laugh held humor, though it was the color of the spark-laden soot that curled toward the open sky.
Chapter 5: Hollow Triumphs
Alistair ran his fingers through his short-cropped hair for the fifth time in the past half hour, tense and pensive. He’d dreaded having to let the cat out of the bag about his royal parentage, and then he’d done so… and for all the volatile temper he’d seen Mei display since they met, the expected outrage about his omission had not come. At his look of surprised relief, she’d only noted dryly that she very much understood information on a need-to-know basis. And now they knew, and that was that.
Leliana had laughed and said that she had thought they were living in a fireside tale, and now she was certain of it. Morrigan had not said anything, but her customary glare had taken on a speculative edge that set him ill at ease. He brushed off the latter in favor of fretting about what Eamon would have to say.
And then they’d actually gotten to Redcliffe.
He had not been looking forward to the upcoming reunion – it would be awkward at best – but hearing that Eamon was deathly ill and corpses terrorized the night was jarring and awful enough that he was fairly certain not even his dreams could have concocted such a situation. Even though his wool gambeson was hot in the morning sun, he shivered at the memory of the previous night. Everything had been flames and cries and endless hacking at the undead… they’d come from the castle, but he could scarcely believe that they’d all been created there.
The initial wave of horror as they’d met the first assault was tempered into numbness as the night wore on. For all his reservations about Mei, he had quickly found himself grateful for the fact that she immediately took control of the battlefield, darting in and out of the melee to shore up weak points in their line as she coordinated the defenders. She was aggressive almost to the point of recklessness, but it had served them well enough – several undead who managed to break through the line of knights died on her blades well before they could reach Morrigan or Leliana, who were both trying to take out as many as possible before they reached the knights.
The first time there had been a break in the fighting, she had glanced at him and simply nodded. He had nodded back, for just a moment feeling comradeship as if they were a simple pair of warriors, rather than the tension of an apostate mage and an ex-templar.
And then another wave had come, and another, and…
He could scarcely believe he was still standing by dawn, when the last straggling corpses had been cut and bludgeoned and frozen and shot until they lay still once more. A grateful villager had offered them space in her loft to rest, and all of them – even the implacable Sten – collapsed almost immediately into an exhausted sleep for far too few hours before joining Bann Teagan in the square as he addressed the town.
Teagan had spoken optimistically enough, but as soon as the crowd dispersed, he pinched the bridge of his nose, his own exhaustion showing.
“Alistair, I tell you truly, everything has gone mad, all at once,” he said, shaking his head. “We received word of the debacle at Ostagar right on the heels of the news about Highever, and now this… I am glad that you and your companion – “ he nodded to Mei, who had turned to listen – “were able to escape.”
Alistair blinked through the fuzz that seemed to be filling the space between his ears and covering his eyes, focusing with effort on the new detail in what Teagan had said. “Wait… Highever? What happened at Highever?”
“Ahh, Maker’s balls, you wouldn’t have heard, of course,” Teagan swore. “The Couslands, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, were completely wiped out by Rendon Howe’s forces. The official line is that they were executed for treason, but… they were simply there, and then gone, in the space of a night. No trials on record, and no one even knows if the teyrn’s young grandson survived.”
Alistair felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. He knew of the venomous smiles and backroom maneuvering that went on in the dance of the powerful, but the boldness of such an overt offensive meant things were even more volatile than they’d guessed. “There’s no way Bryce and Eleanor were traitors. None. I might not exactly be intimate with the politics, but…”
Teagan nodded grimly. “Oh, there is no question. And it doesn’t help matters that Howe is now at the right hand of our new regent, who has his own rotten-smelling story of why he had ‘no choice’ but to retreat and leave our people – and our King – to die on the battlefield.”
Tasting bitter bile at the memory of Duncan’s futile death, Alistair muttered, “Right… about that…”
“We’re not traitors to the Crown either, in case you were wondering,” Mei added blandly.
Alistair truly did not know if she’d meant the statement to be funny – the elf was strange like that; some of her jokes seemed not quite like jokes at all – but whatever the intent, Teagan gave a weak laugh. “At this point, I do not think I’d much care if you were,” the bann said. “Everything gets put into a bit sharper perspective when the undead are breaking down your door at night.”
“So Loghain’s consolidating power,” she mused. “And fast. No good for us, since we’re witnesses, and even less for our chances of ending the Blight.”
“You can say that again,” Alistair snarled. “This is ridiculous. Get nearly all the Grey Wardens in Ferelden killed and… what? Sit on his arse in Denerim and wait for the darkspawn to swarm the place?”
The other man sighed tiredly. “He believes the primary threat is Orlais.”
Alistair blinked. “You’re not serious.”
“I wish I wasn’t.”
“The Orlesians were in the process of sending support for the battle against the darkspawn when Loghain goaded Cailan into pushing in early!” He’d known Loghain was prejudiced, but of all the ridiculous, paranoid…
“Which the teyrn found easy to interpret as a gloved move of aggression,” Mei pointed out.
The warrior growled through his teeth. Here they were, contemplating the total destruction of Ferelden and how they – a rag-tag band of wet-behind-the-ears Grey Wardens, apostates, and Chantry castoffs –had to stop it. Meanwhile, Loghain ignored the headsman’s axe at the country’s throat to guard against a tableknife that may or may not have been pointed at its back. “That’s so…”
“I know, my friend,” Teagan muttered.
“Well,” Mei said, toying with the wrapped handle of her belt knife absently, “this just makes it all the more important to get Redcliffe set to rights. Whatever that ends up taking.” The exhaustion in her eyes had been pushed aside for a flat determination that put Alistair’s teeth on edge. While he harbored no doubts that the elf’s ability to stow away inconvenient feelings was extremely useful, the way she did it was disturbingly deliberate and complete – he could mark the moment when the cabinet door was closed and the key turned in the lock.
“I cannot say how grateful I am for your aid. If you’ve still got some fight left in you, gather your companions and your gear, and meet me at the windmill up the path, by the stream as soon as you can. We’ll plan our next step there.” Teagan saluted Alistair, then Mei, fist over breast, and turned to leave the square.
“I think I may have misplaced my ‘fight;’ have you seen it?” Alistair quipped with a sigh. He didn’t really expect an answer, but –
“Check your extra pair of pants. That’s where mine likes to hide, anyway.”
That had definitely been a joke. The warrior quirked a small, bemused smile. “I’ll… do that.”
“Oh, Connor, please -!” The aristocratic Orlesian voice was desperate and utterly ineffectual as the incredibly creepy child forced his uncle to caper about like a dog.
For the second time that day, Alistair caught himself lamenting that the Lady Isolde had not been among the castle’s many casualties, and also for the second time, scolded himself for the unworthy thought. When she’d come running out of the castle to demand Teagan follow her back, he had known she was somehow in the middle of this mess, and he’d been right. He turned a sour gaze instead on the scruffy, sniveling blood mage Mei had released from the dungeons – the man was watching the boy a look of horror on his face that might have been comical in less dire circumstances. Apparently chatting with demons hadn’t been part of the lesson plan. Fancy that.
Alistair gritted his teeth and faced Isolde again. “The boy is possessed, Arlessa. Even if he can hear you, it won’t do any good.”
Tears streamed down the fair woman’s face, streaking the kohl from around her eyes across her cheeks in dark rivulets. “Ahh, my son… I was trying to protect him…”
“I hear you talking about me, Mother! You know I don’t like that!” interrupted the strange, too-deep voice as a contingent of guardsmen entered the room with glazed eyes.
Leliana already had her daggers in-hand and called out a warning. “They’re thralled!” Connor’s laughter as he scurried from the room was almost completely drowned-out by the guards’ charge.
The skirmish was much longer than it should have been due to their attempts not to kill even more of Arl Eamon’s men, and left two guards bleeding out on the floor. In the end, they’d saved six, and Teagan, though the latter was not in good shape.
“Morrigan, help me?” Mei asked tersely as she moved to tend to any of the fallen men and women who might be in danger, digging out poultices and bandages from her pack. The witch surprised Alistair by only sniffing slightly at the other mage before lending her magic in care of the worst cases, Teagan included.
When the bann was on his feet again, looking dazed and shaken but no longer a blank-eyed thrall, Alistair let out a breath he felt like he’d been holding since they’d reached the room. “Good to have you back,” he said as he clasped the other man’s shoulder.
“That… “ Teagan gasped. “That’s not something I care to do again. Ever.”
“Teagan!” Isolde had reappeared from wherever she had hidden during the fighting and wrapped her brother-in-law in a clutching embrace, which he endured for a handful of seconds before gently extricating himself. Alistair held back a groan. Here it came… “You must… help Connor. Please. There must be something we can do – “ …and there it was.
“Isolde. What in the Black City do you think I can do? Or did you not see what that… thing… in him did to me, on a whim?” Teagan asked, exasperated.
Alistair closed his eyes briefly, preparing to say what he knew was necessary. This was not going to be pleasant. “He’s right, there’s… not much of anything we can do, short of… ending it quickly.”
The woman turned to him in horror. “No! Not my son! You can’t kill him – he’s still there, I know it!“
“How many more people are you willing to let die for your attempts to protect him?” Alistair bit out, his exhaustion and the dregs of sympathy finally giving way to sparking anger. “A dozen? A hundred? This can’t go on, Isolde.”
There was a tentative noise from the back of the room, a hoarse clearing of a throat. Then the blood mage spoke. “One. It only has to be one.”
Alistair stared at him with narrowed eyes, not liking the sound of that one bit. “What do you mean, maleficar?”
The wretched man wrung at his hands nervously as he answered. “If… another mage enters the Fade and kills Connor’s demon there, he… should… be freed.” He chewed at his lower lip for a moment, and Mei picked up his dropped train of thought in the pause.
“Sending someone into the Fade in a specific place, with conscious control… takes a lot of power, Jowan. And pure lyrium, neither of which we have. I don’t think…”
He shook his head. “I can do it, with blood magic. It’s a large enough undertaking, though… it would take a whole life’s sacrifice to fuel it.”
No, no, no, and NO. Not on my watch.
“Absolutely not,” Alistair growled. “Your filthy magic isn’t going to – “
“Take me,” Isolde cut in.
The arlessa addressed Jowan, looking calmer than she had since they first had seen her. “As Alistair reminds me, I have… made this mess, by trying to hide him from the templars. Let me pay the price for it, instead of my boy.” Damnit, that shouldn’t have hurt, but Maker, it did. He’d only said what was true, hadn’t he?
“ ‘Tis a sensible solution,” Morrigan approved. “With no guarantee of the lord’s recovery, saving his heir is the better course.”
You can take your ‘sensible’ and shove it down some pit fouler even than the one you probably crawled out of, witch.
“I can’t believe we’re even discussing this!” Alistair said, half-shouting. “Blood magic is vile, unclean, and an offense against the Maker. And it wouldn’t even be sure of working!”
“Oh, using it to send someone into the Fade will work, I’m quite sure of that. It’s not a difficult spell, just a costly one, as Jowan said,” Mei murmured.
Alistair wheeled around to face her, appalled. He’d thought she had at least some respect for the laws of magic, even if had gone apostate. “Not you, too. What of the demon? Is that such a trivial matter?”
“From the boy’s behavior pattern, it’s likely a desire demon,” Jowan offered. “They’re… well, they’re not the worst, at least.”
Alistair caught the moment when Mei’s brows knitted in a slight frown, and had brief hope. Then she turned to share a complicated look with Morrigan, and the hope was shattered as the human witch spoke again.
“If the woman wishes to die for this, I shall walk the Fade and fight it. I fear no demon.”
The tide was against him – ridiculously; he’d have expected at least the Chantry sister to speak up and agree with him that this abomination could not be allowed! – and he found himself grasping at the only straw he saw. “The Circle – if we could get their help, we could do it without blood magic.”
Three incredulous, feminine pairs of eyes turned to regard him.
Mei’s violet-blue ones flashed angrily. “You’re insa –“
“Alistair…” Leliana began carefully, laying a hand on Mei’s shoulder to halt her. The elf flinched violently at the touch, but fell silent. “I do not like this, either, but were you not saying but a moment ago how this could not go on? It is a fortnight’s travel to the north end of Lake Calenhad in fair weather – even if we went there, and they agreed to send help, it would be far too long before it could be done. Too many innocents are already dead.”
Defeat was bitter in his chest, rising to choke him. This was actually going to happen, in the arl’s own home, and he was about to allow it. He bore no lost love for Isolde, but to see her die under a blood mage’s knife was almost unthinkable.
Mei stepped forward, that flat absence of feeling again in her eyes, and at that moment, he truly hated her, that she could set aside decency to call for this and feel no remorse. Their fleeting camaraderie in battle seemed like a cruel joke, in hindsight.
“I’d condemn the boy to save lives, but not anyone’s scruples. Let’s get this over with. Jowan, how long do you need to prepare?” She asked, clipped, efficient. So businesslike, as she discussed preparations with a maleficar to kill a noblewoman.
The other mage’s look of shock that his suggestion was being taken did nothing to inspire confidence. “A – an hour. No more.”
“Morrigan?” Mei prompted.
“An hour is sufficient. I will need a room, alone.”
Isolde spoke up shakily. “Come. I’ll show you to one without any corpses, and then I will be in the family chambers.” He watched her go, jaw rigid and fists clenched inside his gauntlets, hard enough to hurt.
“We need a guard on those rooms; the boy’s still dangerous,” Mei pointed out. “Sten, Alistair, would you –“
Right, Alistair, let’s get ready to defile your foster-father’s home by murdering his wife to fuel blood magic. What are you waiting for? Go along now, and do your part. Was he more disgusted with her for asking, or himself for obeying?
Alistair turned without a word to stalk toward the family wing, where once, in another life, it seemed, he’d had his own small chamber. Sten followed, a bulwark at his back. The qunari wouldn’t comment on the situation, of course; his sort was said to hold life cheaply, and his lack of reaction to these proceedings seemed to confirm it.
Behind him, Alistair could hear Mei speaking again, softly. “Bann Teagan, may I have a word with you?”
The room already smelled of blood and sour flesh, like most of the castle, making Alistair’s gorge rise. Somehow the smell seemed stronger, now, and the pure white lines of chalk across the flagstone floor had his eyes trying to cross and his teeth grinding together at the wrongness of it all.
Isolde was pale as snow, but composed as she waited for the end. Teagan stood by her, too haggard from the trials of the past few days to be truly comforting.
The blood mage shuffled his feet, plainly nervous. Had Alistair not known what he was, he might even have pitied the mousy, frightened man. As things stood, however, it was all he could do not to draw his sword and strike the mage down before he could complete the blasphemous spell.
“My lady…” Jowan addressed the arlessa hesitantly. “You will need to stand in the center of the pattern. When you’re ready, I mean.”
“I am ready,” she whispered tensely, picking her way across the pattern as if the lines would burn her. She sent an imploring look at Morrigan and seemed about to speak, but hesitated at the witch’s bland indifference and turned to Mei, instead. The elf’s eyes were no gentler than Morrigan’s, but Isolde must have seen something in them nonetheless, for it was she the noblewoman stayed focused upon.
As Jowan unsheathed the knife, Mei’s face twitched slightly, and she spoke, quietly, almost gently. “Isolde... whatever else came of this… I’ve been there, lived in the Circle. You did right by your son.”
All this death, and yet it’s still just about templars and mages to her, isn’t it?
The dark, limpid eyes widened gratefully, fear fleeing for only a heartbeat, and it was at that instant that Mei spoke a strange word in a voice that was almost a shout – and Isolde crumpled to the ground, as yet unharmed, but senseless.
He was speaking before he realized his mouth was open. “This is what one mage’s freedom is worth to you?” he challenged, voice hoarse with the strain of not screaming at her. “All this?”
The look the elf gave him then could have brought frost to an Antivan summer. “Freedom? You don’t even know what that word means, Alistair. And you cannot fathom what it is worth to me,” she said, low and fierce. She closed her eyes briefly, and opened them again, passion and venom once more under lock and key. It only made him angrier. “Do it,” she finished, turning to the other mages, voice emotionless and authoritative as she retreated to a safe distance beyond the spell circle.
At her order, Morrigan nodded briskly and sank to a cross-legged position on the floor just beyond the chalked runes, and Jowan began to cut.
Alistair knew he should be grateful that the arlessa did not seem to feel it when first her wrists, then her throat were opened, spraying ruby blood to hiss and steam unnaturally across the pattern. He knew, but it was almost worse, somehow, to see her sprawled there like a broken doll, not fighting or even noticing as her last moments of life slipped away. Something bitter and vindictive twisted about in his breast, and for once, he could not find a good reason not to listen to it.
The apostates he traveled with were always so interested in pragmatism, after all.
And so as Morrigan’s consciousness winged out of her body and into the Fade, he drew his still-bloodstained sword and crossed the room to stand in bowstring-taut readiness at her shoulder. He had never actually stood guard at a Harrowing, but all initiates knew the ritual. It was only fitting that he do a templar’s duty here, was it not?
He almost welcomed the sudden, scorching antipathy that radiated from the little elf as she realized what he was doing – that her rage was silent, at least, felt like some sort of victory.
Chapter 6: Orlesian Dancing
The acrid smell of soot and charred, rotting flesh seemed to follow them as they fared east out of Redcliffe. It was strange to Mei that after two nights of being surrounded by the corpses and the flames, only now did it make her gorge rise in horror.
Only now, when it came a whiff at a time on the otherwise fresh breeze, cutting over the green scent of forest and farmland, much as the smell of smoke had never quite seemed to leave her small clearing even a week after Giselle’s ashes had been scattered.
Perhaps it was not so strange, after all.
It didn’t help that they kept nearer to the city than they might have otherwise, circling around it at a half-league’s distance to take the north road instead. It wasn’t much to throw off pursuit, but it might buy them at least a little time if any pursuers tracked them to Redcliffe and started asking questions. When they stopped to eat, Mei took one look at the food in her pack, fought off a wave of nausea, and pulled out a map instead.
She bent over it, but barely even focused on the paper – she knew what it would show, and no amount of wishing would have the map reconfigure itself to put the Tower somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
As if on cue, Alistair spoke up, having glanced over her shoulder at the map while he ate. “With the direction we’re headed, we can get to the Circle most easily, then perhaps continue north to Denerim to visit that scholar the knights had mentioned.”
Mei bit her lip. She could argue – she wanted to argue – but she would lose, because it did make the most sense to go to the Circle first, and losing would undermine her authority as the de facto leader of their little band. Giving up what little control over her life she had into the hands of others was unthinkable. So she nodded, every muscle tense and screaming for her to run, run in precisely the opposite direction, away from the templars and their docile flock of sheep. “That’s what I was planning on. I’m sure dear Irving will be so happy to see me.”
Alistair was frowning. “We could have – should have – taken Connor with us. I still think sending him to Tevinter was daft.”
Anger flared hot in her chest and rose, and if she could have spit fire at him, she would have. Hadn’t she just reined herself in to avoid an argument? She was facing down the necessity to revisit a past she’d never wanted anything to do with, and now – salt in the wound – she had to listen to this ignorant shem talk about how they should have forced another mage-child into it.
The Dalish slur had been one she’d never adopted out of respect for her human lover, but now it seemed too fitting not to apply.
“Which shows precisely how little you know about the Circle,” she shot back acidly. “And I’ll note that Teagan didn’t think it so. The boy won’t grow up in a cage, and may make important political connections for his family, in time, besides.” It had, in fact, been Teagan’s idea to assemble a small retainer of knights and servants, along with a closely-watched Jowan, to take Connor to Tevinter. Eamon had only a scant handful of trade contacts in Minrathous, but a few were close enough that they could be trusted to assist in setting up a household. Mei knew enough about the place from her research to know that she didn’t like it – mages were free, but elves were usually very explicitly not – but for a young human noble seeking to avoid the Circle, it was perfect. She had supported the plan wholeheartedly, despite her bitterness that such a haven had never truly been available to her. The boy was not any more at fault for his humanity than for his facility with magic.
What he did with that luck of station, on the other hand, might be, but if she survived the next few months, she would have influence to work with.
Meanwhile, she still had an irate, royal bastard to deal with. “That’s all you ever talk about, is cages! It’s as if you think mages are all harmless little bunny rabbits that want nothing more than to frolic free in the wild, and if we’d just let them go, everyone would be happy.”
This was not the time to try to make him understand. She was in no shape, no mindset to say this well; she was so angry and it wouldn’t help anything – “Alistair, I think they – we – are people, like any others, and we carry what can be a weapon, like any others. The hiding, the lack of control over your own life as you were growing up – did you not resent it? Did you not resent being punished for something you’d never done, a threat you’d never been, simply because you might?” she hissed.
His brow was furrowed. “Yes, but – “
Mei did not let him finish. “Now imagine that every guard, every servant in Redcliffe castle was there solely to keep you in your place. To remind you that you are a bastard, and a threat to a brother you’ve never met, and your very existence is shameful. They keep you from your privacy and threaten any you have the misfortune to hold dear, to keep you in that place. ‘For your own good,’ they say. And if you so much as put a toe out of the arbitrary lines that have been drawn around you, they’re there with a sword over your neck, ready to strike. That is how I grew up, and more, and what I would never wish on anyone else. So yes, I have a problem with cages.” She could feel her eyes burning with tears she would not, could not let fall, because if she did, they might not stop. Would she have to fight this battle every day of whatever life she had left as a Grey Warden?
“It’s… not the same. I was – “
“ – just a child?” she finished, with bitter irony, shaking her head and shivering despite the warm air.
Alistair at least had the grace to look ashamed, and stayed quiet for a long moment, tension and agitation evident in every line of his body. “Is that why you said what you did? To Isolde?”
Mei laughed, high and disbelieving, and sagged, suddenly feeling her exhaustion even more keenly than she had on the road. Why had she said that? Connor was a classic case of a wild, dangerous talent, and for all her sympathy toward him, if she could undo the results of his possession… No. That was just it, wasn’t it? She wouldn’t have sent him to the Circle, even knowing what could happen, because she did not want to live in a world where preemptive incarceration was acceptable, where even parents would betray and cast aside their own children for their talent.
Her voice was raw when she finally answered. “Alistair, my mother died trying to protect me, too. The difference is, she failed, and she knew she’d failed; she was bleeding out on the ground as they took me away. I said what I did to Isolde because it was what she needed to hear, as she faced her death to save him. It didn’t matter what I believe, or even what was true – it changed nothing but her fear.”
This earned her another studious, stormy frown, but he subsided. He opened his mouth, raising a hand as if to gesture, or to reach out, but he must have read her expression correctly for once – Don’t. – for he closed it again for a long moment before replying, “You have… a strange idea of compassion.”
“I have an idea of compassion that makes sense. Why no one else seems to is a mystery to me.” She turned away from him to stow the map back in her bag, her eyes burning and her skin crawling with unease. “Let’s get ready to set out again; I don’t fancy sitting still too long this close to Redcliffe.”
Mei stood impatiently while the others gathered their gear, having left even her baldric buckled during the supposed break. The tainted breeze seemed to rasp against her very skin, goading every nerve into pin-drop awareness. Why were they taking so long?
The templar was, surprisingly, the first to join her at the road, fully kitted and ready to move. Alistair had previously established a tendency to linger over meals with mild reluctance to move on – understandable thanks to his gear being far heavier than the others’ – but now he seemed nearly as anxious to be moving as she was. Another wave of unease swept through her, leaving adrenaline in its wake.
“Mei…” Alistair began, his gaze careening frenetically around them –
“Do you feel - ?” she’d said at the same time.
Swords drawn, they edged back toward the others, scanning the trees for signs of movement. Leliana was the first to notice something was wrong, having just shouldered her bow and moved to join the two Wardens. She did not call out, instead knocking an arrow and hissing quietly to Morrigan and Sten.
Suddenly and smoothly, the woman swung her bow up and fired into the thicket, the arrow passing less than two armspans past Mei. Its faint zing was followed almost immediately by a guttural bellow of rage, and everyone started moving at once. Mei had only a heartbeat to register the fleeting thought, Not again, before answering arrows began whizzing out of the trees.
Alistair brought his shield to bear while Mei dodged for cover, Leliana and Morrigan already attacking the other archers from their more protected position. Knowing she lacked the focus necessary to maintain her own projectile shield, Mei ducked behind a hummock to help with the archers as best she could. She should wait for an open skirmish to begin before engaging with her blades, which she hastily sheathed. Instead, she brought her scant reserves to bear casting a weak disorientation field that she hoped would at least throw off the darkspawn’s aim.
It was only luck that allowed her to hear the pair of skulking darkspawn rogues in the underbrush behind them, one creeping toward her and the other heading for Leliana. “Leliana, behind us!” she shouted.
Leliana whipped around, assessing the distance in an instant and dropping her bow in favor of the small, agile daggers she kept at her belt. Mei saw her leap for the nearest spawn before her own was upon her. There was something unusually satisfying about the sound her swords made as she pulled them from their scabbards to engage – they sounded like action, like purpose, as she met a foe she could face without complications.
She was a Grey Warden, and there was a darkspawn before her. Everything narrowed to the magic that limned her blades with frost, the movement of the creature she feinted and sliced at, and the caustic spray of its tainted blood as one blade found an artery.
Mei could not have said how long the rest of the skirmish lasted – the fact that she did not quite collapse at the end suggested it had been short, but the memory was nothing but a swift-moving blur. The ground was still trying to move around her when she stopped at last, the clamor of darkspawn presence receding to a whisper in her mind.
“Is everyone okay? All in one piece?” Alistair’s voice reached her ears.
“Your mouth is clearly intact, more’s the pity,” came Morrigan’s automatic rejoinder, as if from a long way away.
Mei dropped her head, suddenly dizzy as even the witch’s sharp words came blurred and indistinct. “Morrigan, she’s bleeding.” The lilting, accented voice was nearby, and a slim hand took hold of her shoulder as if to steady her.
Was she bleeding? She supposed she was. That would explain the dull pain at her shoulder… but why was it tingling?
“Poison. I don’t think it’s bad,” Mei managed to grind out. Another pair of hands appeared and pressed her down onto a log, provoking a startled, unpleasant shiver at the touch. But neither was gauntleted, nor sang with the lyrium the templars were all addicted to, and she subsided and allowed it.
Morrigan confirmed Mei’s own hazy assessment a moment later. “ ‘Tis causing the wound to continue bleeding, but little else, it seems.” Mei smelled the sharp bite of elfroot as the other mage uncorked a bottle of what must have been a strong tincture, and gritted her teeth through the cleansing and subsequent mending. Healing magic had never been her strong point, and having it used on her never failed to feel strange.
So now she knew what darkspawn presence felt like. She hadn’t been able to sense them at Ostagar, as apparently the taint was too new to her, then. Detachedly, she wondered whether that strange, hyper-focused attention she’d had while fighting was another Grey Warden thing… or was she simply that tired? It reminded her of the way she felt when she’d been in the library all night without any sleep, and the whole world contracted to a few lines of text at a time – as if she only had a finite amount of attention, and her field of vision shrank to conserve it. Would it always be like this? That could be inconvenient, what with –
“Mei, did you hear me? Are you well?” Leliana sounded urgent and concerned, and Mei surfaced from the mire of her thoughts slowly. She had not heard anything said since Morrigan had spoken.
“Ahh… yes. I’m fine. Just tired. Let’s get away from here, shall we?”
They made camp at sunset, shortly after Bodahn and Sandal rejoined their party from the road. Mei set up her tent and then prowled their clearing while Morrigan cooked, unable to settle. The smell of stew made her stomach roil, though by all rights she should have been ravenous, and the close darkness of her tent was anything but welcoming. Fatigue buzzed just behind her eyes, and she was vaguely aware that she needed rest and food and to relax, but none of those things seemed even remotely possible.
That diamond-bright clarity that had carried her through one crisis after another was like a distant dream – she could see it, remember it, and reach out to it, but it always danced just away from her sluggish grasp. Somehow, she found the presence of mind to volunteer for first watch, at once certain she would not be able to sleep if she tried and afraid that she might. If she slept, it felt as if she could wander the Fade forever, aimless and unable to return.
She was afraid, also, that she wouldn’t want to return.
“Mei.” Her watch partner’s voice came from behind her, radiating warmth like the banked embers of the cookfire that Mei kept her back toward to save her night vision.
The mage sighed quietly. “Yes?”
Leliana alighted on a flat rock next to her like a bird settles on a branch. “I noticed you did not even get near the stew, earlier. I’ve, well… I bought some dried fruit and nuts in the village, before we left. Would you care to share them with me?”
Mei looked up, surprised and uncertain whether to be grateful or disturbed that the woman was looking out for her in that way. She blinked blankly at Leliana for a long moment, trying to summon an expressible reaction, a polite refusal… However, now that the smell of meat had mostly dissipated, she was hungry, and starving herself accomplished nothing but making her an easier target, much as she had once admonished Alistair about his refusal to rest. That settled things.
“Ahh… yes. Thank you. That is kind of you,” she managed.
Leliana offered the pouch with a friendly smile, and the pair munched in silence for several minutes. It was good – roasted walnuts, and berries, and peaches – and the gnawing hunger eased fractionally. Mei was relieved to realize she could probably handle some journey bread or cheese, later, now that her stomach’s threat of total rebellion had quieted.
At length, Leliana spoke again. “It was fascinating to watch you fight, this afternoon.”
Was that a compliment? Did it matter? What was she supposed to say (because clearly some response was expected)? What sort of conversation was the human –
Stop. Mei took a breath like a swimmer surfacing and answered with as little extra thought as possible. “What does that mean?” A light chuckle, not entirely forced. There. She sounded almost alive.
Leliana laughed at that, and the sound was bells to Mei’s falling stones. “It means I had never seen, nor thought to see a mage who had any skill with blades, before I joined your party, and I got a better view than usual today. May I ask how you learned?”
It was an easy enough topic, and might let her ask questions of her own – and quite besides that, the thread of spoken words was something to focus on and cling to, to keep her mind from trying to run away from her. “Piecemeal, really,” she answered. “A few of the older mages in the Circle had picked up a motley bunch of combat skills – don’t ask me where they got them, for I do not know – and they taught a handful of us what they knew, in secret. It never went very far, just the most basic and universal concepts – how to guard, how to move, how to look for openings.”
“I can’t imagine the templars liked that much,” Leliana interjected, and Mei stiffened. But the human was smiling with wicked amusement, and she consciously made herself relax and continue.
“They didn’t know, and never found out. We were good at hiding. Then when I lived among the Dalish, I stumbled upon a record of how to use magic to augment one’s strength and agility, and trained intensively with some of their warriors after that. It has been… useful,” she finished.
Leliana nodded, still smiling. “So I’ve seen.”
“So… what of yourself?” Mei asked. “You said you learned to fight when you lived in Orlais – what did you do, there, that warranted such training? You don’t have the look of a soldier or a guard any more than you do a cloistered sister.” And precious few soldiers prefer knives to swords.
“I did a lot of things,” came the amused reply. “Danced, sang, made pretty small-talk at parties, went shopping…” She paused at Mei’s raised eyebrow. “Ah, but of course you mean professionally, don’t you? I was a lady’s maid for Lady Cecile, the woman my mother had worked for, and later a minstrel.”
It was very apparently closer to the truth than she’d skirted before, but Mei had read far too much about Orlais after meeting Adrian to miss the nuances. “Minstrel? Je pense que ce n’est pas le mot juste. Vous était une barde, non?”
Leliana stared at her in shock, though whether her expression had more to do with Mei’s use of Orlesian, or the guess it had included, the mage was not sure. “Quelle surprise… Oui. J’étais une barde.” She paused, a far-away look in her eyes, and then seemed to re-orient herself before speaking again in Ferelden. “But I left that life behind me, some time ago.”
From courts and intrigue to a scruffy little backwater, masquerading as a Chantry sister. That’s not a casual decision, by any means. “Why did you leave it?”
Something hardened in her expression, ever so briefly. “Because I was forced to. You are familiar with that sort of problem, yes?”
Mei elected not to prod further, for the present. She would not demand answers she was not yet prepared to give, herself.
The bard had already moved on to a safer question. “Did you learn my language in your Circle tower as well? Your accent is barbaric, but I am impressed. So few Fereldans will have even that much to do with Orlais, in these times.”
Mei smiled at last, feeling the barest hint of pleasure at having surprised her, if only slightly. “Yes. I had… a little tutelage from a visiting mage, as well, but it wasn’t enough to iron out the accent.” She made a face. “Books only go so far, as I’m sure you know.”
“Oh yes.” Again, that trilling, bell-like laugh. “I know that quite well. I could learn history from them, but everything else… not so much. Books are patient; they do not require subtlety or impeccable timing, and are not apt to snub you when you make an ungraceful mistake. They are also not much good at dancing, I’m afraid.”
Stretching her legs out in front of her and lifting her eyes to the shadowed stars above, Mei surprised herself with a giggle. She might actually like Leliana, misplaced religious devotion nonwithstanding. “You… are quite right on that account. Do you know what’s funny? I told you I learned the rudiments of combat from other mages in the Tower, but not a one of them could dance. I didn’t have anyone who could help me with that until I left it.”
“Ahh, that’s terrible!” Leliana exclaimed with dismay. “Everyone should learn how to dance. It is good for the spirit, I think.”
“I tried to teach myself,” Mei said, nostalgic amusement crinkling her eyes and loosening something in her chest. “There weren’t many real storybooks in the Circle library, but there was one that I found not long after I learned how to read, which was my favorite. I hid it behind other books in its section so no one else would find it and move it or take it away, and I’d go back to it again and again. My favorite part was the celebration at the end, and there was a lovely painted illustration of all the characters dancing in a circle. Not much help, of course, but I understood that the idea was to move, and there was supposed to be music and it would look pretty.”
“And did it look pretty?” Leliana grinned.
Mei snorted. “How should I know? I never saw it. You’d have to ask – well, you’d have to ask someone else,” she amended, biting her lip.
“Well, you shall just have to show me sometime, then, since I have no one else to ask.”
“Maybe I will. Though I’m sure compared to your court dancing, it’s nothing special,” Mei mused.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” the bard said, conspiratorially. “Orlesian court dancing is, more often than not, dreadfully dull. Too many impossible shoes and stiff skirts, you see. It’s the common folk who really know how to have fun with it.”
Mei heaved a sigh, her dark mood once more lapping at her ankles as if vexed to have been ignored. “I’ll have to go see what kind of fun you mean, then, someday… assuming we manage to save the world and I don’t get myself burned as a heretic or a maleficar in the process.”
Leliana was silent for a long stretch of time, clearly wanting to express sympathy, but uncertain what form of it might actually be accepted. At length, she said very quietly, “We do what we can with the hands we’re dealt, and it will be enough. It has to be enough.” It almost sounded like she was trying to reassure herself as well as the mage. “I… didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I overheard what you said to Alistair, earlier, about Isolde. For what it’s worth, I – I think it was a good thing that you did.”
Masquerading as a Chantry sister, indeed.
“It was the only thing I could do.” With a wry twist of her lips, Mei echoed the other woman’s own words from moments earlier. “It had to be enough.”
Chapter 7: Interesting Choices
Enter a very particular ambush by a very particular rogue...
The morning had dawned bright and cool, without even a whiff of Redcliffe on the breeze. Mei had not slept much, but what little she had gotten had been blessedly empty of nightmares, and she was feeling… present. It was an improvement. Now if she could just get through the whole day without getting furious with Alistair…
“Help!” The sudden noise drew her attention sharply outward. A disheveled human woman was racing toward them down the road. She stopped in front of Mei and bent double, her hands on her knees as she caught her breath. “Please, sers, you’ve got to help us! Bandits – our wagon – it’s just around the bend, and I was so frightened…”
Alistair pulled his shield down off his back and frowned, murmuring, “So many opportunists preying on the unfortunate; we should conscript them all to fight the darkspawn, and maybe then we’d have a fighting chance.”
“And of course, you will charge directly in, the gallant knight sworn to rescue any fair damsel who will have him,” Morrigan observed, sounding almost bored.
“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a gully. Charging in is about our only option, unless you’d care to scale the sides with all our gear and spend who-knows-how-long going around,” he countered huffily.
“My Da didn’t have anything more than a hunting knife,” the woman bleated, looking over her shoulder with wide eyes. “They shouldn’t be trouble for the likes of you, but oh, please hurry!”
There was something… off… about her; the fear, while expressive, rang just slightly false, and her clothes were shabby in a manner that was almost artful. Mei shared a flinty glance with Leliana, who nodded slightly, her own eyes narrowed.
The “bandit victim” was a terrible actress.
“We’ll help you, human; calm down. Show us to your… wagon,” Mei ordered, keeping her voice as neutral as she could. It wouldn’t do to tip the bait off that they suspected she was lying.
The woman trotted off in front of them – rather strange for someone who ostensibly feared what lay up ahead – and the party followed. Even more sure of her initial judgment, Mei turned quietly back to her companions and mouthed one word.
Alistair gave her an incredulous glance, apparently taken in by the woman’s act, but he loosened his sword in its sheath when she nodded in confirmation.
“Lyrium,” Morrigan hissed to him under her breath. “Did you not smell it?” Mei had not either, come to think of it, but that probably meant she should get ready to deal with a mage.
Leliana and Morrigan fell back several paces from the group and fanned out in either direction, prepared to outflank any attackers who might try to close in on the group from behind, and Sten matched step with Mei. His towering presence at the front of their group would give any sane creature pause, and she gave him a tight smile as she walked between the giant and Alistair. They would be ready for whatever they found up ahead.
Their guide pretended to be surprised for the party’s benefit when they came around the bend to find only two figures waiting quietly at an overturned wagon, and surged forward to meet the shorter of the pair. The man was a tattooed elf clad in well-worn leather armor, and he wore his cocky grin like a mask as the Warden’s party approached.
Wait for it…
Mei paused, allowing Alistair and Sten to close ranks in front of her. She would support them at medium range unless an attacker managed to get past both warriors and Llorc to get too close… and then he or she would be in for a nasty surprise when met with both magic and a pair of wicked swords.
A trilling whistle from the scrub on their far right flank confirmed that Leliana was in position, and not a moment too soon, for there was a crash as a large, dead tree was tipped over behind them, and a line of archers stepped as one out of cover on the ridge behind the wagon and opened fire.
Mei immediately wove a minor projectile shield around herself and Sten to stave off the hail of arrows, then tallied the ambushers at a glance.
Five archers, all with the advantage of higher ground. Their isolation made them a perfect target for Morrigan; Mei would just have to hold onto her shield until the witch could deal with them.
Three men armed with swords and dirks had appeared from behind the wagon itself, bringing the melee tally up to five as they joined the original two. To her surprise, the elf seemed to be the one giving the orders, but she didn’t have time to dwell on that.
The woman was chanting something…
Definitely a mage.
As quickly as thought, snowflakes flickered around Mei’s fingers, and the human’s spell froze in her throat. The hapless woman’s eyes were wide in frosted-over shock as the Warden’s next working deftly wrenched her command of mana away from her, and she would have toppled to the ground had her rigid muscles allowed it. Instead, she crumpled moments later as a bolt of lightning cracked out of the clear air above her, accompanied by Morrigan’s shout of triumph.
Mei allowed herself a glance up toward the ridge, and saw that a self-contained electrical storm already harried the enemy archers. With Leliana’s steady stream of arrows adding to the vicious bite of magic, the poor fools would not last long. It all felt too organized for a simple group of bandits, but whoever their attackers were, they clearly were not prepared for the strength of the whole party.
Sten and Alistair, meanwhile, had their gauntleted hands full nearby. All five of the sword-and-dagger-wielding attackers were still up and swinging, and Llorc had leapt gleefully into the fray, aiming to distract and hamstring the men as they harried the giant and the templar. Mei began to frame a subtle casting that would speed her allies’ reaction times, but the chant died on her lips as she saw the lithe form of the elf disengage from the melee.
Apparently, this one was to be hers.
This could be fun.
The bastard was fast, and already too close for her to be comfortable relying on her spells. Drawing her lips back into something that might have been a grin or a snarl, she yanked her slender blades from their scabbards and met the elf’s opening play.
Steel sang against flashing steel, and in the moment of the bind, Mei stole the chance to focus for the brief instant it took to swathe both blades in bone-chilling frost. The extra layer of threat on her weapons would be irrelevant if she were to actually land a strike, since her opponent was merely flesh and blood and likely did not even outweigh her by a great deal… but she well knew how startling such a thing could be.
Her would-be killer did not so much as blink.
He merely executed a graceful disengage – how did he move so sodding quickly? – and nearly had the tip of his offhand dagger between her ribs before she jerked her crossguard down to block him. Foiled, he leapt backwards on nimble feet before her other weapon could catch him, taking up the keen-edged dance of feint and parry once more. She thought she caught the white-toothed flash of a grin on his face, but was too preoccupied with avoiding his attacks to do more than simply register it.
Sten let out a roar to Mei’s left, and from the corner of her eye, she saw one of the human fighters sidestep out of the melee and angle for her back.
There was no time for caution with this one. Mei deflected another attack from the elf and launched herself toward the human who was attempting to flank her, drawing breath as she did so for a single, crude spell. He caught the attack of her swords well enough, but her shouted power word hit him like a physical force, and he fell to the ground, stunned. If she ever saw him again, she’d have to thank Rian for teaching her that one.
Without even glancing down at the fallen ambusher, Mei swept her blade across his exposed throat as she whirled aside, anticipating the opportunistic attack from her elven opponent. Indeed, he was there, locking blades with her once more, and her eyes locked with his in the fraught moment of struggle. The assassin’s amber eyes showed no malice, nor even determination, but merely an odd serenity that reminded her of a dying soldier at Ostagar, as if he was already halfway into the Fade.
Gritting her teeth, she squashed the sudden curiosity the glance engendered and drew breath to give the short-range stunning spell another try, thinking that she might manage it again if only she could completely disengage for a split second – but the attempt became suddenly and completely moot as Alistair barreled into the elf, shield first.
The blow was a sound one; her strange opponent lay sprawled on the ground and out cold. Sten raised his greatsword to finish him off, but Mei held up her hand.
“Wait,” she ordered hastily, a quick visual sweep of the area confirming that the skirmish was, in fact, quite over. “This one was the leader, and he gave me a hell of a fight. Tie him up – I’d bet my own ears I know who sent him, but I want to see if we can get any other useful information.”
“As you wish,” Sten grunted.
“He has the look of the north about him,” Leliana murmured as she rummaged through her pack for rope. “If I do not misplace my guess, he is Antivan… which could mean some rather interesting things.”
Mei nodded curtly, finally allowing the enchantment on her swords to dissipate as she slid them back into their scabbards. “We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Search the area for useful items and any correspondence, and I’ll keep an eye on our prisoner. I doubt he’ll be out terribly long.”
Sure enough, no more than ten minutes had passed before the elf began to stir, groaning softly at the realization of what was likely a rather exquisite headache. His eyes cracked open as he tried to move his limbs and found he could not, then blinked several times as his fine-boned fingers examined the ropes around his wrists. More alert, the amber eyes swept upward, finally widening for an instant as they settled on Mei. He lifted his head from the ground slightly, then sagged back to the dirt as the length of rope the stretched between his ankles and wrists snapped taut.
“Well, this is considerably less enjoyable than the last time I found myself hog-tied… if a touch more dignified,” he muttered dryly. “I suppose I owe the dubious honor of my continued survival to a desire for information, yes?”
Ridiculously, Mei caught herself about to chuckle, and huffed out the breath sharply through her nose instead. The man was surely addled. She stared down at him, considering, as her companions gathered behind her.
“What, no snarling defiance or fruitless threats? No quivering requests for mercy? You are an odd one,” she said, her tone light as a scalpel.
“Defiance would be rather ill-advised, I should think, given the circumstances,” he observed neutrally. “But again, I think you did not go through the trouble of sparing me for the sake of a round of banter, skilled at it though I am.” Mei snorted, and he continued. “So allow me to save you some trouble. My name is Zevran, and I come to you courtesy of the Antivan Crows, who recently accepted a contract on the heads of the surviving Grey Wardens.”
To Mei’s right, Leliana swore softly. “I knew it.” When Mei gave her a questioning glance, she elaborated. “The Crows are a guild of elite assassins, all trained from a young age and extremely deadly. This man’s services would have been very expensive, indeed.”
As best he could from his hampered position, the assassin nodded, sparing an almost insouciant smile for the bard. “Right you are, lovely lady, although the exorbitant sum would never cross my eyes – nevermind my palm – even had I been successful.”
“I expect we already know who initiated the contract, but for thoroughness’ sake let’s hear it anyway,” Mei said with a sigh.
“It would not normally be given to me to know the name of my employer, since I am but a tool to be rented out,” Zevran said, his words surprisingly blithe, “but in this case, it would have been rather difficult not to recognize him. Your Fereldan… regent, as it were, Loghain, funded the contract, although it pained him to so sully his hands by dealing with one such as I. My primary contact was his lieutenant, one Rendon Howe.”
Alistair hissed at this revelation, slamming the bottom edge of his shield against the unyielding ground. “That treacherous scum just won’t stop. First the Couslands, now this.”
Uninterested in dwelling on the despicable nature of their enemies, Mei crouched, the better to see the elf’s face as she continued to question him.
“You passed through Denerim, then, did you?”
“What of Loghain’s daughter, the queen? Did you see or hear aught of her while you were there?” Might as well milk him for whatever he’s worth.
Zevran shook his head slightly, stopping when he remembered half his face was against the ground. “Not a peep. I got the impression that Howe was… what is that Fereldan idiom you use?... ‘skating on thin ice’ in presuming to arrange a contract with the Crows in the first place. He made sure I was isolated, hurried through, and sent on my way as expediently as possible. I cannot say I objected, at the time.”
Mei chuckled, amused despite herself. “Now there’s a sentiment I can agree with.”
“He yet lives? Let us finish him off and have done with this nonsense; it seems we are unlikely to gain anything truly useful from this assassin.” Morrigan’s customarily disdainful voice came from the base of ridge as she rejoined the group from her round of scavenging.
The recommendation made sense, of course, but Mei found herself too curious to assent to it, just yet. The elf’s mouth twisted sardonically, and his eyes fluttered closed for a long moment – was he waiting for the blow to fall? Perhaps not; his eyes opened once more, and his gaze fell more sharply upon her as if some decision had just been made.
“I’ve a… proposal, if I may presume to retain your attention for a few moments longer,” he offered.
Mei let the question hang in the air, struck by the intuition that if she heard this man out, she would at the very least find herself unwilling to kill him, and wondered fleetingly if it might not be better just to silence him now. But as such decisions often happened for her, she realized that she’d known what she would do as soon as he had asked. “Speak,” she commanded softly.
“Well, you see, as an assassin who has most spectacularly failed in completing my contract, as far as the Crows are concerned, my life is forfeit. I should have died in the attempt, and the fact that I yet breathe is purely contingent on your forbearance. In the unlikely event that you were to release me, I would be dead by the blades of my erstwhile comrades soon enough… probably after an extended torture session besides.” He shuddered expressively. “To my continued amazement, I find that I would prefer to live, and that you handily defeated my attempt on your lives would… give the Crows significant pause in the future. Allow me, instead, to serve you, as from what little I have heard of the situation in Ferelden you could likely use all the help you can get.”
His words, so familiar in their sentiment, snagged at her attention like briars on cloth.
“And what’s to stop you from completing this contract of yours when our guard is down and returning to Antiva?” Mei was intrigued by the offer – of course – but as yet unwilling to let anyone else see that. She had the irritating and mildly disturbing feeling she already knew her answer to his proposal, too.
“Aside from the fact that you are damnably difficult to kill?” A slight, self-deprecating smile twisted Zevran’s lips. “Even if the Crows did not kill me upon my return for taking so long – a much more common occurrence than you might think – I would still be on their leash again. It would please me to for once have another option.”
She closed her eyes and slowly opened them again. Accepting an assassin on the team would likely be the most reckless thing she’d done to date… but only barely. His explanation of the situation with the Crows had struck a deeper nerve than anyone present, save perhaps Morrigan, could know. She had reached for her freedom from the templars, from the Circle, because the alternatives had finally become too dire for the risk of escape to matter. Would she be able to forgive herself if she scorned Zevran’s own attempt at freedom, despite the fact that killing him was the safer choice?
“ ‘Tis an interesting offer,” Morrigan suggested. “Though I know not whether it would be practical or merely foolhardy to accept.”
“I don’t like it, not at all.” Alistair was not pleased. “We already have to watch our backs too much as it is.”
“Foes do not become allies over a few words. He should die, and then let us move on,” Sten objected.
Leliana was rather more optimistic. “His skills would be useful, and from what I know of the Crows, what he has said is accurate. Besides that, I do not think he would have been so willing to share information if he expected to return to them.”
“It is a heartening thing to have such beauty speak in one’s defense,” Zevran offered, his half-smile returning.
“... As long as he does not get too cocky,” she added, an eyebrow raised in reproof.
Mei was nodding slowly as she listened to her companions. Their opinions were approximately what she had expected, and not especially helpful, as they simply personified curiosity and opportunism’s age-old war with caution.
But if that’s all it comes down to, I really do know the answer, don’t I? She had only ever taken one side in that battle, and she wasn’t about to go turncoat, now.
“I will have whatever oath you hold most dire that you will not harm myself or any member of the group, and that you will follow my orders in battle, then. I should warn you, though – we challenge the Blight that threatens to overtake Ferelden, and your survival is no more sure with us than it would be elsewhere. Is that acceptable?” she offered evenly.
The elf shrugged, unconcerned. “From what I hear of darkspawn, they might eat my corpse, but they will not bother to torture me before I die. It is acceptable.”
Mei drew her belt knife and deftly removed the ropes that bound him, and Zevran nodded his thanks, though his face was subtly wary at her touch. When he could roll to his knees, he wasted no time in laying a fist over his breast and speaking up to her.
“From this point on, I, Zevran Arainai, am your man, body and blades, without reservation. This I swear, until such time as you choose to release me, or death overtakes me.” The formality of the oath sounded strange upon his lips, for all she had not yet heard him speak more than a handful of minutes. It was a pretty enough thing, but she strongly suspected the real balance of his loyalty would remain pragmatically mercenary – which should be simple enough to predict, at least. She would only have to make sure she knew in advance if the advantageous path might shift in favor of turning on them.
Or he could turn out to be as infuriatingly idiosyncratic as Alistair, of course, but one could always hope.
He had paused, regarding the faces before him in turn before he spoke again. “May I know the names of those I will be fighting with?”
Grabbing his gloved hand and pulling him up from the dust, the Warden nodded and indicated her companions in the semicircle around them. “I am Mei. The others are Leliana – “ the bard inclined her head – “Alistair, Morrigan, and Sten. And the mabari is Llorc.”
“My thanks. A most interesting assembly, to be sure,” he said.
“Are we to be taking on another who cannot keep rein on his tongue?” Sten groused.
“Oh, Sten, but if I have someone else to talk to, I’ll bother you less, I’m sure!” Leliana teased.
The qunari snorted. “I find that unlikely.”
Mei shouldered her pack, ignoring the bickering. “Let’s head out. It’s nearly sunset, so we’ll find a place to camp as soon as we’ve put some distance between ourselves and this part of the road.”
Chapter 8: Interesting Choices II
Road to North Calenhad
Of all the situations Zevran had expected to be in since leaving Antiva… well, this certainly hadn’t been one of them. It was clear that the group would be wary of him for some time – he would expect no less – but after the elven Warden had accepted his oath and unbound him, she had had the witch see to his injuries immediately. The concern left him bemused – he could walk and was not bleeding out, and was unaccustomed to any resources being expended by others for matters of his comfort.
Still, the knock with the human warrior’s shield that had laid him out had promised a persistent headache, and once that was gone he could not be other than grateful. The witch herself had not displayed any patience for his gratitude, her bird-of-prey eyes sharp and forbidding at his grin of thanks. Probably best not to provoke that one more than rarely.
And now, a day later, he walked among them, even his daggers returned to him. They watched him, of course, but his benefactor had dismissed the templar’s concerns about him bearing arms, pointing out that if he planned to turn on them, it would be just as easy for him to wait the short time before they’d be fighting again – better to have him prepared to fight now than to have to worry about arming him during another ambush. Setting aside the fact that the odds were abysmal, her unwillingness to seek a false sense of security spoke well of their chances of surviving the Blight. Zevran approved.
The party as a whole was as disparate a motley as anyone might hope to find in Thedas, and he looked forward to having the opportunity to ask questions about its genesis – the Orlesian woman seemed like a good bet to ask, though he rather doubted she would reveal much truth about herself in the process. He had little idea what a bard would be doing traipsing around with a pair of Grey Wardens, and uncovering that information would most likely take time and a delicate touch. Alistair was the most openly hostile toward him, but that hostility was not a concern despite the man’s apparent status in the group. The human complained and protested as one who is unused to being heeded – no threat to Zevran, and the petulance of that distrust could actually work in his favor, if the harassment brought him sympathy from the others. The assassin assumed that the qunari traveled with them to acquit himself of some sort of debt, as there wasn’t much other reason Zevran could think of that would place such a warrior into a position to be taking orders from a mage – or a woman, or an elf, for that matter! Morrigan’s purposes were the most opaque, as she lacked any apparent ties of loyalty, duty or even intrigue that would account for her involvement; she certainly wasn’t the type to do this sort of thing for heroism alone. She would bear watching as well as some caution, for Mei displayed more comfort and respect for her than for any other member of the group.
The Warden herself… ahh, how Fate must laugh at him.
When she had first rounded the bend and come into view, his heartbeat had hung suspended for a single moment that hit him like a kick to the diaphragm. Elf mage, female, dark hair, was all his employer had said. What the odious human lord had not mentioned was the confidence of one used to being deadly, or the weapon-trained grace with which she moved. For that one heartbeat, he was almost certain She had come back to take her revenge. When he had engaged her, the resemblance had dimmed – while this woman was skilled with the blades she wielded, she had clearly not been raised with them in her hands, instead making up for whatever experience she lacked with an edge of savage fury that leant extra strength to her blows.
Toe-to-toe and with weapons alone, Zevran could have bested her, but the knowledge of her magic had made him cautious. Which made little sense in itself, of course, considering why he’d taken the contract in the first place, but apparently his self-preservation instincts hadn’t quite given up yet. He supposed he was grateful for that, as his life had certainly taken an interesting turn… and while interesting did not necessarily coincide with pleasant, the two were the same for him more often than not.
Presently, however, he could quite do without the templar’s regard boring a hole in the back of his head as they walked, for that was neither pleasant nor interesting.
“It is said, ser templar, that if one maintains such a fearsome glare long enough, one’s eyes will stick that way,” he suggested mildly over his shoulder.
“I’ll take the risk, I think, and how do you know I’m glaring, anyway? I could be looking at the flowers,” the human shot back.
Zevran grinned to himself, the expression coloring his voice with playful lasciviousness. “Ahh, but even setting aside the lack of flowers to look at, the heat of your gaze is like a brand upon my skin. How could I not know? I can hardly blame you for being so fascinated with my backside, of course, but – “
“What? Oh Maker, I’m not – I wasn’t – “ Alistair stuttered, and the assassin was rewarded with the sound of a stifled giggle from Leliana to his right. “This is ridiculous. It’s bad enough that we’ve got an assassin along for the ride; you have to be a smartass, too?”
“I think you’re just sore because he’s better at it than you are, Alistair,” Mei’s dry words came unexpectedly from the front of the group, and Zevran barely suppressed a pleased chortle. If neither the Warden nor the bard were taken aback by his banter, well. Things might even manage to be fun once in a while.
Alistair let out a disgusted snort. “The three of you are awful. I’d almost rather talk to Morrigan.”
“I would prefer you did not,” the witch in question said sharply, her yellow eyes flicking disdainfully skyward.
“Yes, well, I did say ‘almost,’” he muttered. “No need to get excited.”
Zevran held his tongue for a time before venturing another question. He had gotten a sketched explanation of their task and the probable route they would take shortly after the party had set off from the site of his ill-fated ambush. The night had passed quietly, with no one having much spare energy for chatter, and he’d thought it prudent to hold the large part of his curiosity in check. It would not do to be spared as an assassin only to fall under suspicion of being some sort of spy. When he did finally ask, he pitched his voice for Mei as she walked in front of him, but kept his focus broad enough that any could answer.
“So we go to call upon this treaty with the Circle of Magi. This particular part of the journey is simple, yes? Or is trouble to be anticipated?” he ventured.
The set of the Warden’s shoulders stiffened almost immediately. “I doubt very much that it will be ‘simple,’” she replied, her voice suddenly chilled and brittle. “The welcome is unlikely to be enthusiastic.”
“You hail from there, then?”
“I grew up there,” she affirmed shortly.
“I still doubt the usefulness of mages who have never seen battle, or even the outside world,” Morrigan interjected. “I see little to gain by dealing with them, or their templar keepers.”
The slight elf let out a hissing breath, and she spoke as tensely as she walked. “I’ve no desire to go back – less than none – but some of them can help us. I studied battle magic with Senior Enchanter Uldred, and he has trained many others. There will be a few who can hold their own in a real fight.” She finished in a whisper, “If we can get past the templars.”
“What the devil has you so jumpy about the Circle?” Alistair put in, sounding exasperated. Zevran could almost smell the danger in the air as it crackled around Mei, but the warrior kept talking. “I mean, yes, I know you’re an apostate and they don’t like those very much, but you’re a Grey Warden now and we’ve all got bigger problems. Smelly, foul-tempered, marauding problems. Oh, and a dragon! Don’t forget the dragon.”
The tension drew almost to a breaking point before suddenly easing, as Mei responded with weary sarcasm rather than the fury her posture suggested. “Just like Loghain has ‘bigger problems’ than Orlais, then?” she asked. Zevran did not fail to notice the misdirection, though Alistair accepted it readily enough.
“…Right. I seem to keep forgetting that everyone is stark, raving mad except for us, and I’m not really that sure about us either, come to think of it.”
It was plain that the lady Warden did, in fact, expect trouble, and likely beyond the automatic hostility her apostasy would garner. While Zevran had never spent much time dealing with either mages or their templar watchdogs, it did not take an expert to note that if Mei had been a member of this Circle and had left it prior to her induction into the Grey Wardens, her exit was likely a violent one. Escaped mages seldom held their freedom for long.
Whatever happened, it would provide chances to win at least a measure of trust and favor; of that much he was certain. There was a good chance that the conflict simmering between the mage and the templar would come boiling to the surface, and at that point, the necessity – and opportunity – to commit himself to the alliance of one or the other could easily arise. Alistair was the less competent of the two, but if Zevran wished to sow conflict amongst the group, there would be no better way than to support him – right now, his dissent seemed largely ignored, but leant some backing, he would push his own preferences much harder. The distraction of internal conflict would give him leeway to complete his contract or simply disappear. On the other hand, if he expected to stay with the party in the longer term, it would be far better to align himself with Mei, as she was both competent and thoroughly in charge at present. Her unhindered leadership would be a safer environment to exist in… and his gut told him that she would be a far more dangerous enemy to make than the templar.
She was much more fun, anyway, half-suppressed anger aside.
The evening saw them camped in a clearing well off the road. The arrangement of tents was nearly identical to the previous night’s, the very image of compromise between defensibility and two of the party members’ preference for isolation. Morrigan even went so far as to build her own fire, though in short order she had banked it to a tiny pile of embers more suitable for drying herbs – which she was indeed doing – than any sort of warmth or comfort.
The Warden spent perhaps a half hour after the stew was served in some kind of consultation with the dwarven merchant who had pulled his wagon alongside their camp, then promptly retired to her tent, which precluded Zevran’s thoughts of trying to talk to her that evening. The bard, however, had the first watch, and had settled comfortably near the fire while her qunari partner wore grooves into the dirt on the other end of camp. She produced a small, sturdy knife and an elongated chunk of pale wood that was partially rounded at the edges, and set to whittling at it contentedly. He would take this opportunity to engage her – if it went well, he stood to gain information, and Leliana seemed his most likely ally among the non-Wardens by far, so it would pay to give her the sense that she was getting to know him. Her eyes flicked upward to him as he approached, and he took her slight nod for an invitation and sat down nearby.
“Such a quiet camp,” he observed lazily. “Is this typical? I did not get the impression that I was joining a company of hermits... not least because the very idea is a contradiction in terms.” He had a fair guess that the evident tension over the visit to the Circle was putting a dampener on things, but it was as good a way to start a conversation as any.
Leliana chuckled and blew fine shavings off her piece of wood before answering. A few of them flew upward to catch in her flame-colored hair and she grimaced as she combed them out with her fingers. “Sometimes Mei and Alistair argue. Give it another few weeks, and it will have become a proper spectator sport, I think.”
Zevran laughed. “Somehow, that is not surprising.”
“It can be livelier, but there has been little peace or chance to rest since we arrived in Redcliffe. I do not fault the others for preferring solitude. Morrigan is always that way, and Sten just doesn’t talk much, but the other two – well, you saw a little on the road.”
Yes, he had. The Warden – why he thought of her as ‘the’ Warden and Alistair simply as Alistair, he didn’t know – was heavily preoccupied, but every so-often she seemed to surface and look around before sinking back into her thoughts once more. Alistair was exceptionally prickly; perhaps when he got over whatever had happened before Zevran joined the party, he would at least be more pleasant company.
“That I did! It leaves me to wonder what commander thought it wise to pair the two of them. In the Crows, there is a saying, ‘Do not invite in trouble that you did not bring with you.’ Their master Grey Warden surely has not heard it.”
The woman snorted, her hands still patiently busy. “No, I should think not. But as Alistair told it, they were thrown together by virtue of being the newest recruits, nothing more. It was fortunate that the King insisted on sending them to do the task they did – they were to light a signal tower, and the location spared them the worst of the rout. Had they died with the rest...”
“The situation in Ferelden would be only slightly more dire, the impressive prowess of our leader aside,” he finished dryly.
“In numbers, perhaps.” Leliana shook her head and looked up for a moment, blue eyes intent and serious. “But surely you know that not every hand that wields power is equal. Could any mage have been Andraste, or any elf, Shartan?”
Ah, so this one was the romantic sort. Interesting. It could be an act easily enough, but if it was, why let as much of her training show as she did? It was possible that all the others bought into her story that she was only a simple minstrel, but Zevran did not think that was likely, either.
“Of course not. Am I to take it that you think them so exceptional?” he asked, curious.
Leliana pursed full lips, and he wondered idly how many courtiers had been beguiled by them, when she had had courtiers to charm. “I think I would prefer to think that than not to have Grey Wardens in Ferelden at all. The Maker led me to their aid, and if they succeed, I will witness the birth of a legend. It does me no good to doubt, when my path is set.”
She paused, and Zevran had to fight to restrain his surprise to only an arched eyebrow. She was not just a romantic; she was a religious romantic. That was a first for a bard, in his experience. “But more directly, yes… I think they could be,” she finished softly.
“Then I shall take heart in the confidence of a beautiful woman and prepare for our ascension as heroes of legend, hmm?” he said with a grin. “…That’s probably the last thing I’d have expected to do with my life just behind being crowned Queen of Antiva, but I will adapt, I am certain.”
The bard favored him with a masterpiece of a half-exaggerated glare. “You’re mocking me.”
“Ah, no, never, my dear,” he protested, softening the grin to a winning smile. “I merely envy your conviction. As you say, it is a useful way of looking at things when one’s lot is already cast.” His wasn’t, of course; there were options aplenty, but it could do him nothing but good to give the impression that he had truly forsaken them.
Somewhat mollified, she muttered, “I don’t see what being beautiful has to do with anything, either.”
The statement was probably not meant to elicit a response, but he gave one anyway, voice as bright as his hair in the firelight. “A very strange sentiment, coming from a teller of tales! It has everything to do with a great many things. In this case, it means you have many ways to acquire a far easier life than this one. Yet you choose to follow the Wardens, which speaks more strongly of your confidence in their cause than the same choice would from someone who could not do otherwise.”
She cocked her head. “I… It’s rather more complicated than that, as I’m sure you know. Do your own looks give you your choice of what you do?”
Zevran barked a laugh. “No, they do not. But they often give me my choice of who I do, and alas, I must content myself with that.”
“I can only imagine,” Leliana mused.
“Not true! You could do much more than imagine, if you but wished it.” The lascivious grin he gave was more habit than offer – not that he would renege if she accepted! But a tendency toward starry-eyed romanticism did not usually mix well with Zevran’s pragmatic hedonism, and so he was not surprised at her response.
“Fortunately for my watch duty and the ears of our comrades, I do not, thank you kindly.”
“Tch. Ah well.” He let the talk lapse for some minutes as he fished out a whetstone and rag to make sure of the edge on his daggers, and was pleased to see that Leliana did not immediately look at him when he drew one of them out. She was comfortable enough with his presence, then. Good. Her strange piety nonwithstanding, there was no chance at all that any trust she displayed for him was fully unstudied. It made a pleasant contrast to the templar’s constant suspicion, which was already becoming tiresome. He would not have faulted Alistair for the attitude if it had actually produced some kind of effective deterrent to treachery, of course, but thus far it had produced only irritation and some small bit of amusement.
At length, he asked, “What is it that you carve? I admit I would not have taken you for a woodworker.”
She smiled. “Oh, I’m not, not really, but I amused myself as a girl by making odd little instruments when I tired of practicing the lute or harp, and since I have neither of those things right now, I am improvising un petit instrument à vent.* It will be small and crude, but hopefully have a sweet voice.”*
“Ahh. With your lips upon it, my dear, I’m sure it will sing quite sweetly indeed.”
“Oh, very much so. I am not experienced enough to make a truly fine instrument, so it’s as much to entertain myself as any others, of course.” She flashed a quick grin that held a spark of mischief. “Our lady Warden let slip that she knows the flute, though, so I am also hoping I can convince her to play with me.”
“Sweet music loves company, it is true,” Zevran observed sagely. “I think I would like to see the Warden at such a task. It would certainly be more pleasant for all involved than an argument with Alistair, no?”
When Zevran put away his whetstone and bade Leliana good night a short time later, he went to his tent well-pleased. It had been a productive evening.
*A small pipe
Chapter 9: Pretty Words
Slight trigger warning: Oblique references to past sexual assault
Road to North Calenhad
The past several days had passed in a rhythm that would have almost been peaceful save for the ever-louder hum of tension Mei felt as they neared the Tower. Alistair had finally stopped needling her about her past in the Circle, a boon for which she felt she could thank – or offer apologies to, more appropriately – the assassin, for providing a new target for Alistair’s distrust. Zevran had borne it surprisingly well, deflecting the templar’s pointed treatment with humor as a matter of course and with wicked flirtation just rarely enough that Alistair had yet to get used to it. Mei was dimly aware that she would have once found their dynamic irresistibly hilarious, but only faint shreds of amusement seemed to answer, dry and fragile like bits of leaf tossed about in the breeze.
It did not help that the road was slowly becoming more familiar in feel, in smell – she and Giselle had fled this way at first, before they left the main thoroughfares. And now she was retracing those steps in the wrong direction, toward Irving, toward Greagoir, toward Cullen and Thom. A sharp ache in her palms as her own nails dug in reminded her to unclench her hands, revealing deep crescents in the flesh.
What did she actually expect to happen there? In the worst case, Greagoir could try to order her arrest. Her Grey Warden status should mean something in that event, but it wasn’t exactly enforceable with Loghain’s declaration that they were traitors, so she should ready herself and at least some of her companions to react quickly.
What did she want to happen?
She wanted the chance to cut pieces off Thom very, very slowly, perhaps while Morrigan made sure he stayed conscious for all of it – torture him like Giselle had been tortured, like Mei hadn’t done to Giselle’s murderers before she killed them, make him feel what it was to be helpless and rue the day he and Alec had decided to have their fun with a “pretty little elf.”
But Alec, at least, was ashes, and thinking about exacting retribution for her shattered life would only make her angrier. She could not afford it.
She would go to the Tower as a Grey Warden, and she would demand aid as a Grey Warden. And she would make damned sure that she was ready to defend that status.
“Morrigan,” she said quietly as the party stopped for a midday meal. The other woman raised an eyebrow in answer. “Sit and speak with me a while?”
A nod, and Morrigan loosed her staff from its shoulder sling to lean it against a tree and settled silently on a mossy patch of ground, her watchful stillness putting Mei oddly in mind of the forbidding carvings of dark birds that watched over the high places of the Tower library. Mei herself sank crosslegged to the ground nearby.
“What would you speak of?” Morrigan asked.
Mei took a long breath and let it out quietly. “We’re getting close to the Tower.”
“Indeed, I am most aware,” came the reply, tinged with impatience.
“You are also aware that I am not expecting a pleasant reception there, yes?” Mei asked.
Morrigan gave a disdainful sniff. “Yes, I’m sure the little boys were quite put-out with you when you left. What of it?”
Mei frowned, picking absently at her baldric. Of all her companions, Morrigan should be the easiest to explain this to; it annoyed her that she was having trouble even talking about it. “That’s one way of putting it, yes. My concern is that some of them may attack us – me – outright, and if that happens, I want us to be ready.”
That brought a small, dangerous smile to the other woman’s lips. “You really did do something spectacular, didn’t you? Let them try.”
Morrigan’s enthusiasm for the idea perhaps should have been more disturbing than comforting, but Mei would take all the comfort she could get, she supposed. “Killed the two they sent after… us, when we escaped, but I don’t actually know if they think I did that. Where we were, it could as easily have been the Dalish. What’s more likely at issue is that I escaped with another mage who was about to be executed for killing one who was… attacking me.” Coward. How can you think of avenging her if you can’t even name what she saved you from? She let out a short, humorless laugh. “I don’t even think she meant to kill him. But there you go.”
The witch was mercifully silent while Mei collected her thoughts as they tried to flutter away from her and found the thread of her purpose once more. “The point is,” she continued at length, “have you fought a templar before, yourself?”
Morrigan shook her head. “Betimes a few would come into our Wilds, chasing tales of powerful apostates, but while my mother would often use me as bait to draw them to places of her choosing, I never confronted them directly.”
“Right. Well, you know they’re trained to subdue us, and the ones at the Tower proper are some of the best at what they do. Not your average Chantry entourage. If it comes to a fight, they need to be incapacitated as quickly as possible. I want you and me on opposite sides of the group so we won’t go for the same target.” Mei paused, chewing at her lip. “Normally the fact that I carry swords gives me the advantage of the enemy not pegging me as a mage immediately, but since they know me, that doesn’t do me any good beyond supplementing my magic in case they manage to drain me. You… I worry about.”
“Oh? And why is that?” There was an indignant note in Morrigan’s voice.
Mei waved a hand impatiently. “Not because I don’t think you can handle yourself – far from it – but no matter how well you can avoid notice in backwater towns, when you walk in there with a staff on your back and probably reeking of magic from all the fighting we’ve been doing, you’re an instant target.”
The witch’s arms were crossed, but she nodded stiffly after a long moment of consideration. “ ‘Tis a fair point, I suppose. I’ve a thought.”
“What is it?”
“How noteworthy would it be if you walked in with a bird on your shoulder?”
Quirking a slight smile, Mei shook her head. “I’d look like some caricature out of a storybook, minus the swords, but they wouldn’t immediately think you were a shapeshifted mage and that’s better that it would be otherwise. I like it.”
Morrigan nodded again with satisfaction. “Very well. I shall wear my crow’s skin and have the qunari carry my staff. ‘Twill cause him no difficulty.”
As Leliana’s laughter carried across the clearing in response to some undoubtedly outrageous thing Zevran had said, Mei snorted and muttered, “I’ll start bracing myself in advance for the inevitable joke about Crows riding mages.”
A cool wind ruffled her loose hair and made her shiver where she stood. The apprentice dormitories were always drafty, but this air smelled of woodsmoke and leaves. Strange.
She did not have time to ponder the source of the scent, so alien and yet so familiar, for she was about to be late. Giselle would be expecting her. Hurriedly, she stepped into the hallway, absently reaching down to make sure her robes did not catch on the rough edges of the doorframe, and frowned slightly when her fingers touched only a tunic over loose-hung pants. Giselle would comment on her odd apparel, certainly, but she did not have time to go back to change. She’d have to go as she was.
The corridor was dark, despite the early hour, and while she was grateful not to see any templars along the way, it set her teeth on edge not to encounter anyone. Though the Tower was large, it was always a struggle to get away from other people, whether mage or templar. Privacy was much-sought and little found. To have it feel so empty… she should be rejoicing, but she could not. Still. Giselle would be at their alcove in the library. She never missed a meeting time, so much more punctual than Mei was.
The library looked just as empty as the dormitory and halls, but felt less-so. Its drafty air carried whispered voices, and Mei half-expected to come across any number of other couples, stealing a few minutes’ time together under the guise of study. She saw no one, however, despite the time it seemed to take to traverse the labyrinthine passages between the shelves. By the time she reached the low archway to their special alcove, she had started to worry that Giselle would also be absent – there was surely something amiss, for her to have come all this way without encountering even one other person. But something loosened in her chest and she breathed a soft sigh of relief when she saw tightly-bound auburn curls and the sweep of emerald robes over the generous curve of her lover’s hips.
“You’re here.” The voice held its usual fluidity, but with an oddly toneless quality, even in the hush of the small, text-lined clearing in the forest of shelves.
“Of course,” Mei answered, and she smiled as the human woman turned from the shelf she had apparently been studying. It had been too long since they had been able to meet in private.
Giselle spun slowly, her characteristic grace rendering each tiny movement a line of visual poetry in the way Mei had always envied. She could communicate so much just in how she chose to carry herself, the set of her shoulder or cant of her head as eloquent as any ten of Mei’s intent scribblings.
The welcome in her posture made the empty sockets where her warm brown eyes had been all the more jarring.
Jarring, yes – but in the macabre logic of the Fade, not surprising. The anger was a dull red pulsing sensation as she remembered it, like a heartbeat through her own living eyes. “Why did you come back here?” Mei whispered.
The full lips drew upward in that wry smile she knew like the last line of the Ballad of Shartan. “Because I don’t think I ever really left.” The smile was joined by an understated shrug. “I died here, you know. We just didn’t realize it then.”
The dull red flared bright, and Mei half-shouted her denial. “No! We had something – we had a life!” She bit her lip after, reflexively fearing that a templar would come, even now.
Giselle shook her head, gentle but firm in her denial. “We had stolen time, nothing more. But you… you have wrenched your time from their grasp. It is your own.”
“I want to give it to you.” Mei’s cheeks felt wet. “Leave this place, don’t stay here. Come with me.”
“You gave me what you could already, love.”
“It wasn’t enough!” Mei protested.
“It has to be enough,” Giselle corrected with a note of finality. “Now, come here.”
Mei took a slow step forward. Her ears remarked absently on the fact that all the whispers in the library had fallen quiet, but all that really mattered to every one of her senses was that Giselle was now standing just in front of her, bending her face down to Mei’s as her soft hands came up to nestle in dark hair. Her tongue tasted faintly of salt, and heavy drops of her blood fell warmly against Mei’s own eyelids, but oh – to be kissing her again -!
The silence was no longer silence, nor even whispers, but the clatter of plate armor and the swish of heavy skirts over a warrior’s stride, and Mei found herself praying to a Maker she didn’t even believe in that the templar would pass their alcove by.
The gritty voice broke even the pretense of isolation. “You two are in for it – everyone’s already in the chapel waiting to see you burn. Come along. You’re late.”
Steel gauntlets closed roughly over her shoulders and yanked backward, and a scream welled up in her chest but refused to escape –
Moonlight on glossy black feathers. A bird?
No, a witch. She’d drawn the tent flap aside. Morrigan.
Dashing the back of her arm across her soaked face and trying to pass it off as a reaction to the light, she grated, “I’m awake.”
The dark head dipped in a nod. “Good. ‘Tis nearly time for second watch – I’d have woken you later, but you sounded… disturbed.”
Ugh. The last thing she needed was for the whole camp to be hearing her nightmares. It would be all well and good if they were of the archdemon, but those dreams scarcely made her stir, much less cry out. “Did I wake anyone, do you think?” she asked reluctantly.
“No, I do not believe so. I was simply passing nearby and happened to hear.”
Well that’s a small blessing, at least.
“Okay. Thanks – for waking me.” She sat up blearily, and Morrigan nodded and let the flap fall again.
“You are welcome. Alistair will wake the assassin soon, and I am going to retire,” she said, voice slightly muffled by the leather walls. The barely-there tread of her boots indicated that she was walking away a moment later.
Mei scrubbed at her face again and sighed. She had assigned Zevran as her watch partner for a chance to further take his measure, but now she fervently wished it had been for first watch rather than second. She wasn’t exactly at her most alert, and she wanted her wits fully intact to deal with him, but taking the few minutes left of first watch to wake up would have to suffice.
The night was on the cool edge of comfortable, scattering gooseflesh across her legs as she slithered out of her bedroll and dug through her pack for a mostly-clean pair of trousers. Having slept in her shirt, she’d only to pull tunic, belt, and boots once the pants were taken care of. She hesitated over her baldric – her staff would suffice for a middle-night watch shift, and her skin had chafed from spending so much more time in full fighting kit than she had previously been accustomed to – but finally picked it up and buckled it on anyway. A first evening alone with the Antivan was not the time to appear overly relaxed.
Exiting the tent, she acknowledged Alistair with a silent nod and took off at a light-footed trot around the camp to try to clear her head. It felt good to move unencumbered by the treacle-thick haze of her nightmares, though her legs protested that they had had quite enough abuse during the daylight hours, please and thank you. The rest of her told her legs to shove it, and picked up her pace. She had a long few hours ahead of her, and the exercise now would make it easier to remain awake later.
When at last she slowed and moved back toward the fire, Alistair had gone to bed, and Zevran lounged indolently against a log. She gathered her energy to speak, but he broke the silence first.
“Good evening to you, my Grey Warden.” He dipped his head to her, eyes glinting in the firelight.
“You do not look like one who spent the first watch sleeping,” he observed.
She mustered a dry laugh and shook her head, pulling the kettle from the dying coals to see if there was any tea left inside. “It would be better if I had not, I think.” There was some tea. Perhaps the night was salvageable, after all.
“Ahh, I must agree – there are far better things to do in a tent than sleep. Particularly when one wishes to avoid unpleasant dreams.”
She waved one hand dismissively as the other fished for a cup. “I am accustomed to it. It’s nothing.”
The Antivan gave her a look that was too shrewd by half. “You are uneasy as we draw closer to our destination, this much is obvious.”
“And does that surprise you? Would entering the heart of Crow territory now not set your teeth on edge?” The tea was astringently bitter from having steeped too long, but the ritual of sipping it was as much a part of waking up as the stimulant properties of the leaves, and she did so as quickly as she dared.
Chuckling, he replied, “I admit, you have me there. Though I have more pleasant memories of my home than you seem to of yours.”
Her response was as bitter as the tea. “The Circle is not, nor ever was my home.”
“My apologies for the assumption.” Zevran held his hands palms-up, the image of contrition.
He isn’t poking fun at me yet – he must really want on my good side, she thought sardonically. Still, goodwill between them would be best if it went both ways, and she knew she was being prickly. Mei sighed. “None needed; I know what you meant. I am… perhaps too accustomed to having to explain… and re-explain… that concept to certain people.”
That brought an amused smirk. “Certain templars, perhaps?”
“Perhaps.” She managed a slight smile in return, settling down on the log nearby with her tea. “But what of these pleasant memories? I assume you’re from one of the cities?”
“Oh yes. I hail from the glorious Antiva City, Jewel of the North. Nowhere in my travels have I found a city with such bright spaces that cast such long, deadly shadows.” He tilted his head back, almost wistful. “It is very warm and colorful there. None of this mud and chill, even in the summertime… no offense intended.”
“None taken. I claim Ferelden only a little more than I claim the Tower, though both would try to claim me,” she said wryly. “You sound like you miss it.”
He shrugged, a movement almost studied in its casualness. “I do, but there is little use in dwelling on it, yes? Perhaps one day I will return… if I live through the Blight, of course… and set about making it a place I can live in again.”
The statement had been almost a footnote to describe something which – if she guessed rightly – would encompass an enormous amount of planning and no small bit of mortal danger. Once, his flippancy would have horrified rather than amused her, a point that she noted in passing; the last several months had been an express education in the joys of understatement and gallows humor. Perhaps the shift in herself should have been disturbing, but she was hard-pressed to reject anything that pushed the hopelessness and constant strain just a little farther away, now. “That sounds like a task with a large body count,” she observed just as neutrally.
“Most tasks are so, in our respective lines of work, are they not?”
Mei tossed back the dregs of her tea, coughing slightly as she caught a mouthful of soggy leaf bits. “They are, indeed. How does one become a Crow, anyway? I mean, aside from all the obvious years of training you must surely undergo.”
That brought a chuckle. “If you are looking for a career change, my friend, I would advise against it – the severance package is garbage, as you have seen.”
“Something else we have in common,” she murmured.
He cocked his head curiously. “As a mage, or as a Warden?”
Mei really wasn’t sure which was worse, come to think of it. “Both. As a mage, you’re hunted down by templars until they find you and drag you back at best, or torture you to death if they’re feeling peevish, or make you Tranquil at worst – “ He raised an eyebrow. “ – and as a Warden, you make sure you die fighting darkspawn before you turn into a ghoul.” The eyebrow went higher. She suspected she wasn’t supposed to go around talking about that, but she had little loyalty regarding keeping secrets that were kept from her until it was too late to refuse them. Alistair could take his Warden rules and shove them someplace anatomically unlikely. “I escaped the first, much as you have the Crows. The second isn’t something you can just smash a phylactery and kill a few templars to get away from, unfortunately, though according to Alistair it takes a few decades before it comes calling.”
“How charming,” he said, looking almost taken-aback. It was a surprising expression to see on him. “To answer your question, one is purchased, most often. I was a boy of seven when they bought me from the whores who had raised me from a babe. Fewer survive the training than not, but make it that far, and it is a life that has its privileges… and a tight leash, of course.”
“Of course.” There always is a leash, isn’t there? “What sort of privileges?”
“There is wealth to be had, though that is mostly for the Masters and their favorites, and prestige for all aplenty. There is a certain glamour that we assassins have in Antiva, for it is a land with… sharp tastes,” Zevran continued with a sly grin. “I cannot deny that that part was enjoyable.”
She caught her mind batting at the idea of what he meant by ‘sharp tastes’ like a cat with a ball of yarn, and irritably shoved it back into the conversation. The way his eyes had flashed as he spoke was far more distracting than it had any right to be. “It does sound a damned sight better than the Circle in that respect – with all the templars, you can probably guess at the environment.”
“Mmm… Ferelden repression at its finest!” He laughed. “In truth, I believe it is not so different in the Chantry spaces in Antiva, but I have seldom cared to get close enough to observe in detail.”
Mei shook her head. “Can’t say I blame you.” She had been looking for a good way to ask about his motivation, and this was as good a segue as any. “With all those good points – and the rather unfavorable comparison Ferelden seems to make beside Antiva – why leave? Besides the obvious.”
Zevran’s eyes danced with what looked to Mei like a whole array of quips, but he surprised her by holding them in apparent reserve. “You mean to ask if and why I would want to leave, our particular circumstances aside, yes?” She dipped her head in a nod. “Yes… I believe I would. It is not something I have given a great deal of thought to in recent years, but I also prefer not to dwell on opportunities I do not have. As to why – you are familiar with the allure of choice, I am sure. I had never had such a thing before – unless you count the choice to fight or die, which I do not.”
Stay or go, die or live. Her words to Morrigan echoed back in Zevran’s voice. “I am very familiar with that allure,” she agreed quietly.
He tossed a lock of hair that had escaped from one of his braids out of his face and gave her a level look. “Then I’ve a question of my own, if I may.”
“Why did you choose to spare me over the very noisy objections of your fellow Warden? Other than my obvious charms and the opportunity to drag me into your bed, of course.” He waggled his brows suggestively, belying the seriousness with which the question was delivered.
Of course. The offhand overture should probably have set her on-edge – she would have expected it to, until very recently – but Zevran’s blatant sexuality was somehow completely different in character than anything she had ever seen from other men, mage and templar alike. It was oddly… straightforward, impossible to ignore, but lacking any element of coercion or entitlement. And so she laughed instead of bristling, and answered. “Other than that… exactly what you just said, about choice.”
He regarded her lazily. “And our dear Alistair’s worries that I might yet turn on you? What of that?”
The breath she drew to answer came out in a half-exasperated gust. “Zevran, in case you haven’t noticed, I am a Fereldan apostate elf traveling with an ex-templar of bastard nobility, an Orlesian bard-like-hell-she’s-a-minstrel, a qunari warrior we scooped out from under a death sentence, and the daughter of a legend the Chasind use to frighten their children into good behavior. Your overt motivations are more honest than any of theirs, and your hidden ones are no more likely to do me harm than any other. I’d rather make the choice I think has at least a reasonable chance of being the right one and then stop worrying, rather than spend all my time looking over my shoulder for a knife when you could have poisoned me ten times over already.” Mei stared him down, crossing her arms and feeling faintly reckless, but it was so good just to be blunt without having to endure someone’s scandalized squawking that she didn’t much care. “…So I won’t burden you with ineffectual suspicion, and all I ask in return for that is if I’m wrong, you don’t let me see it coming… because I really hate being wrong.”
The man blinked at her for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed. “You make your point quite clearly, my lady Warden! And I would so hate to demonstrate that you were wrong.”
“Because that would be sloppy?” she suggested dryly.
“Just so.” He flashed her a saucy grin. “Are you certain you have not spent time with any Crows before? You think quite a lot like one.”
“Just too many people who use pretty words in all the wrong places and none of the right ones,” Mei answered, stretching and noting the moon’s path across the sky. They’d a while yet in the watch, but at least she wasn’t getting sleepy again. “That gets tiresome.”
“Then for you, my Warden, I will be sure to use my pretty words most carefully.” There was that half-playful, suggestive undercurrent to his voice again. She wasn’t even quite sure what he was aiming at, this time, but thankfully, the correct answer was obvious.
“See that you do.”
Chapter 10: Dangerous Company
The Circle Tower
As the large rowboat made its ungainly, wallowing way across the glass-still waters of Lake Calenhad, Zevran took a mental inventory of his poison supplies one final time. He was never underprepared for a fight, of course, but his once-obsessive habit of reviewing the ever-changing contents of his oilcloth-lined pouch had gained the familiarity of ritual over the years, the list falling into a cadence like a prayer to some forgotten death god. Soldiersbane on daggers, Deathroot on the throwing knives. The Warden expected trouble to come from templars; he would need to incapacitate them as quickly as possible.
Adder's Kiss, two vials, left side. The boat was silent save for the light splashing of the paddles as they cut into the water. Mei stood in the prow with the wildskin witch an inky blot upon her shoulder, looking for all the world as if she rode instead on a cart to the gallows. Would she be chanting some litany of her own against the anxiety of waiting? Did she wonder, despite those strange words of calculated trust two nights before, whether she would have his support at the critical time?
Soldiersbane, one extra in the center. What of the others? Did she count on their loyalty if her enemies sought to reclaim her? He would seek her favor over the templar's; that choice left far more – and far more interesting – opportunities open to him. What demons awaited her in that inelegant Tower, beyond the name "apostate," and all the perils that went with it?
Magebane, two vials, right side. It always paid to have the one you didn't think you'd need, and Zevran was inclined to extra caution for lack of the opportunity for stealth. He almost envied Morrigan her shapechanging – she at least would have something of the element of surprise should they need it. Instead, he would have to settle for fading to visual insignificance within the tableau, passing relatively ignored beside Sten's size, Alistair's clanking splint mail, and Mei's searing antipathy for her surroundings. It would suffice.
Deathroot extract, three vials, secondary pouch, packaged for easy reapplication.
The boat's edge jostled gently against the weathered wooden pier. They had arrived.
Alistair debarked immediately, with a smile of thanks to the young recruit who had ferried them that quickly faded to determination as he reached the broad stairs to the Tower door. He carried himself tall, confident in his safety and welcome by the guardians of this place, which attitude made Zevran smile to himself in amusement. There was a situation in the Tower, the recruit had said, and the words had straightened Alistair's spine even as they had put Mei still more on-edge, if such a thing was even possible. Leliana had been interesting to watch then, too – she had looked back and forth at the two Wardens, then set her jaw and contrived to stand between them on the boat, carefully breaking Alistair's line of sight on the mage. Her eyes had found Zevran's in a silent request for him to enlist in her efforts at insulating firesteel from tinder; she clearly knew he watched as closely, if not moreso than she. Clever woman. He had assented for lack of a reason not to, though with the pensive wall the other elf had erected around herself for the short voyage, it would have been a source of no small wonder for her to even hear the antagonism should Alistair give it.
Now that wall gave way before the great oak door, and he heard her shaky intake of breath just before it began to creak on its hinges as she pulled.
Inside the atrium, a greying templar with marks of rank and the air of one accustomed to deference was conferring with a pair of underlings, a harried cast to his blunt features as he paced across the floor.
Then he looked up, and his eyes turned to flint.
The Warden's voice was quiet as she answered, admirably betraying very little of her unease, at least as of yet.
"Yes, me, Greagoir."
The lesser knights stepped into guard positions to either side of their commander, and others in the room – perhaps ten, at a glance – all seemed to stand up straighter at once. Zevran loosened his stance ever so slightly to give himself a malleable lightness that would allow him to spring into action in any direction. The knight Greagoir merely crossed gauntleted forearms in front of him, sweeping a disdainfully appraising eye over their motley party. "I must say, in all my years of service, this is the first time I've ever seen a wanted apostate come slinking back to the Circle. Arrest her."
And here it begins. That was quick.
Both of Greagoir's flanking guards drew swords and stepped forward immediately at his command, but Zevran slid his daggers free of their scabbards and smoothly swept down into a ready crouch a half-step in front of the Warden. There was movement to his right; Leliana had done the same, eschewing her preferred bow for blades in the relatively close quarters of the atrium.
"Not yet, Morrigan," came Mei's barely-there whisper as feathers rustled irritably. Good. If the witch revealed herself now, there would be no avoiding a fight. Already jumpy, the templars would all be upon them at once if a bird suddenly manifested as another apostate with rare shapeshifting powers, and the resulting skirmish would not have odds he cared to have to bet on. It was a minor relief, as well, that their leader seemed to share this preference, at least for now – Zevran had not been certain she would not jump at the chance to strike back at her former captors, foolhardy though it may have been.
When the templars hesitated in their advance, Sten drew his own massive two-hander, shrugging to resettle Morrigan's gnarled staff more stably across his shoulders. Alistair, frozen in place, had been rapidly darting his gaze between the Knight-Commander and the coalescing party, looked more hesitant with every heartbeat. His eyes fastened eventually somewhere beyond Zevran's shoulder, likely on Mei, and whatever it was he saw in her face finally pushed him to speak.
"Knight-Commander..." Alistair coughed to clear his throat. Zevran suppressed a sigh. The man had missed 'authoritative' by several degrees and sounded merely apologetic instead, but at least he would not turn on his fellow Warden now. That would be messy. "I was a templar, and am now a Grey Warden, as is my company – "
Clearly unimpressed, Greagoir cut him off with a whipcrack rejoinder. "Boy, this Circle is in bedlam, a half-dozen of my people are dead, and there are demons and abominations running amok throughout the Tower! I am not about to allow an apostate who may well have had something to do with it run loose, and I command you to stand down."
Interesting. Did he have reason to believe she was some sort of maleficar, or did he simply accuse because she was present? The idea that she might have had something to do with the Circle's current crisis was ludicrous, but he could not help wondering what score the good Knight Commander thought he had to settle with the Warden.
"He doesn't answer to you, Greagoir. He answers to the Grey Wardens, of whom we are the last two in Ferelden in the middle of a Blight. Stand down." Mei's voice was almost the caricature of exasperation, as if she forced that tone to cover something more threatening… which was probably exactly what she was doing, come to think of it.
Her adversary was having none of it, however. "You come sauntering back in here like you own the place and you expect me to – "
"My audacity is neither here nor there at the moment. We come peaceably and at dire need, and if your men attack us, a lot of people are going to die who do not need to – and from the sounds of it, that you can ill afford." Her voice had begun to crack; she was losing her hold on composure, and in his peripheral vision, Leliana turned with a worried frown to look at her.
No, dear bard, you should know this. Any other time, he might have shaken his head, but now he had no wish to present unnecessary movement. No more assessing eyes; they are like stones being held up by wet parchment...
"Knight-Commander." Alistair broke in, blessedly with much more firmness than he had previously managed. "I have been with this woman since the battle of Ostagar, where she fought in service to King Cailan and in defense of all of Ferelden. Whatever problems you have with her, the Blight is a bigger one, I promise you. Please, can we talk about that instead of killing each other?"
A tense silence stretched across the room, Zevran holding himself statue-still and watching for the first sign of an aggressive move by any party. Nearly every pair of eyes was on Alistair and the older templar.
A gesture from the Knight-Commander set the silence thrumming like a lightly-plucked bowstring, but it did not snap – he'd signaled his guards to ease. Behind and beside him, Zevran heard quiet exhalations of relief from the two women, and stepped back to the Warden's flank both to allow her a clearer view and to allow him to watch her. No sense in denying himself information, was there?
"You realize claiming to be Grey Wardens is scarcely better than being an apostate? There's a price on your heads if what you say is true," Greagoir said, tone all studied skepticism and foreboding.
Zevran could have laughed. And I hear that the man who has claimed guardianship of the throne has even gone so far as to hire assassins, so much does he fear them! As well he should, apparently. Of course he wouldn't say such things out loud – it wouldn't do to announce his presence in the Wardens' party any more blatantly than was strictly required. Particularly if he still found reason to leave their company… prematurely.
Alistair took his hand off his sword hilt as he replied. "Yes, funny thing, that – The regicide doesn't want us telling on him. Can't say I blame him about that, really." The other human's eyebrows shot up. "Setting that bit of unpleasantness aside for the moment, we have a treaty with the Circle of Magi promising aid against darkspawn incursions, and we've come to call on that aid now."
Greagoir let out a disbelieving chuckle, a sound that did not seem familiar to the stern man. "Do you see a Circle here?" He gestured expansively, eyes resting on the barricaded door at the far end of the chamber. "Our situation is critical; I have sent for the Right of Annulment and a contingent of reinforcements so that this corruption may be cleansed."
There was a sharp gasp from the Warden, and Leliana's eyes had widened like saucers. Zevran himself had never heard of this Right of Annulment, but it was not difficult to make a guess at what that might mean, especially considering the reactions from those who must know.
Even Alistair looked aghast. A very bad sign. "Erm, that's a bit… extre – "
Mei was having none of Alistair's lukewarm protestation, however, cutting him off and confirming Zevran's morbid guess in a jagged half-yell, her face bloodless and eyes wild. "Andraste wept! There is no way there aren't untainted survivors in there! And you would slaughter them all?"
The flint eyes swung back toward the Warden. "Sacrifices must be made for the greater security, apostate, something you did not understand before, and apparently have failed to remedy since you left here."
Her retort came in a snarl. "Oh no, I understand very well. 'Sacrifice' means 'kill mages,' and 'the greater security' is whatever you sodding well find most convenient at the time… which barbarism you have apparently failed to remedy since I left here."
So there had been an abuse of power by the templars, beyond the normal oppressive environment mages faced in their pens. He'd suspected as much, both by her behavior and because it was the sort of thing the assassin had seen many, many times, especially among the younger Masters with their cells and apprentices. Cruelty came easily when escape was impossible – or near enough to it – and resistance could be punished however the Master saw fit.
"Not helping…" Alistair muttered under his breath at Mei.
For a moment, Zevran thought she might turn to attack him instead, but she visibly yanked her anger to heel. It still screamed from her clenched fists and the aggressive set of her posture, but when she spoke again, she was performing. The earnestness was quite false to his trained ear – she was trying too hard and overshooting – but the desperation had enough truth in it to be believable. Though she needed to learn to lie better under pressure, he suspected she would be quite proficient at it in less extreme circumstances, and that observation was summarily filed away for future use.
"Let us past the barricade. You don't want to risk your people further without aid – I understand. Let us be that aid. We'll handle the demons. At best we succeed without any more of your people put in harm's way… and at worst, you still haven't lost anything."
Except us, whom you would be quite happy to be rid of. Well played, Warden… if we survive, of course.
The heavy stone door grated closed behind them like the lid of a coffin, and the party was greeted by a draft of cold air that carried the scent of fire and some cloying sweetness reminiscent of rotting fruit. Zevran disliked the place immediately.
Alongside him, Mei caught his eyes with her own bloodshot ones and nodded. Was this supposed to be a thank-you for his defense in the antechamber? He inclined his head and tossed her a cheeky grin, regardless, and she met it with a valiant attempt at a smile. She made a point of briefly capturing the bard's attention, as well – definitely gratitude, then. Perfect. (Except for the whole bit about being trapped in a prison full of demons, but there wasn't much he could do about that except kill lots of them, which he certainly held no objections to.)
Flickering light and the muffled sound of shouting around a bend ahead drew the whole party's attention, and Mei held up her arm for a halt.
"Morrigan," she said quietly to the sleek creature on her shoulder, "probably as good a time as any to prepare to fight, since it shouldn't be templars."
There was a croak and a flutter and a rush of air larger than any crow should be able to produce, and the witch stood again in her own form, black hair wisping across her brow like the feathers she had just banished. "More is the pity," she agreed, earning a searing glare from Alistair and a frown from Leliana as she reclaimed her staff from Sten.
"Try to stay quiet until we know what's happening up there," Mei cautioned, drawing her swords and moving forward warily. Alistair stepped to the front of the group with her, though he was pointedly avoiding her eyes; she moved to his unshielded flank, and Zevran fell into step behind her. If he needed to, he could tumble past her or Alistair and catch an opponent by surprise; he simply had to be prepared for the charge Sten would likely want to make at the same time. No matter, though – Zevran was quite sure he was quicker. Now that fighting demons was a guarantee rather than a mere possibility, his lips turned upward into his habitual combat grin. Anyone could say what they liked about traveling with the Wardens; at least their company was far from boring.
A gust of warmer air brought the renewed scent of brimstone and an inhuman shriek of rage, but a human voice followed in its wake, and Mei stopped cold just in front of him. Someone she recognized?
"Petra, the shield! Be ready!" The voice was female, with the soft modulation common in the well-educated, and laced with the faintest quaver of old age. There was another awful screeching and a child's cry of fear, and Mei had begun moving again. Within moments, they were rounding the corner just in time to see the white-haired human force the burning demon to abandon its physical manifestation and flee to the Fade. A shimmering wall of magic began to form in the doorway on the far side of the room, and the elder added her power to the younger woman's to lend it a near-solid quality.
"That… should hold. For now," she said, half-breathless. "Could you – "
But Petra had turned with widened eyes to see the group standing in the doorway. "Senior, we have newcomers!"
The old woman turned, heeding the exclamation, then stopped, thunderstruck.
"Hello, Wynne," Mei said in a voice like a sigh of resignation.
"Child…? What are you doing here?" The mage Wynne asked, uncertainty evident in every aspect of her manner.
The Warden tensed, but did not raise her weapons. "Saving the Circle, ostensibly. We came seeking help against the Blight and found… this." She stepped forward into the room, apparently expecting her companions to follow her into clear view. Wynne's expression deepened from surprise into astonishment.
"And who is 'we,' then?"
Gesturing toward Alistair, she explained, "Grey Wardens. Or Alistair and I are. The others are… …."
Does it matter?
"Friends," Leliana supplied from nearby, inclining her head respectfully.
"Speak for yourself, girl," Morrigan muttered, albeit not loudly. Zevran wished she had held her tongue altogether, for the Circle elder was now sternly fixated on the barbarian apostate, looking more skeptical by the moment.
"Friends and allies," Mei summed up hastily, drawing Wynne's eyes back to her.
"I… see." The human was scanning their faces with such a schoolmistress's exactitude that Zevran found himself comparing her to one of the older whores who had been among his surrogate mothers, so long ago. Her sparse brows drew together in a frown and her eyes flicked back over the group from where they had lingered for a long few seconds on Sten, and then to Mei once more. "What of Giselle? Did she take the Grey with you?"
The question seemed to catch the Warden like a blow; her violent shudder was dramatically visible by the quivering of the empty scabbards on her back. Interesting. A friend, or a lover?
"Dead. Templar hunters." The words were short, ugly, and acrid as coffee left forgotten on a cookfire overnight.
"Oh, child, I am so – "
"Don't. Please don't," Mei gritted, cutting her off. "You did what you could at the hearing. We have work to do here," she said with a desperate finality. Definitely a lover.
Zevran loosed an inaudible sigh. This explained much – the sleepwalker's stare she wore when no one demanded her attention, the fraying edge to her anger that was too raw to be anything but fresh. Fate was still laughing, it seemed, but its sense of humor had grown black as a stormcloud, and for once he didn't care for the joke. Had the Warden seen that same ripped edge to him when she spared his life, then, or could he dare to hope that his own past would continue to enjoy a privacy that hers clearly did not?
The old woman gave a solemnly approving nod – Stoicism. The perfect elder. She is sympathetic, but probably unhelpful – and resettled her grip on her staff. "So we do. How did you get in? Petra tried the door to the atrium and found it heavily barred and artifact-warded."
He could almost see Mei wrapping the tattered remains of her equanimity around herself like a cloak as she answered. "Greagoir let us in, I think mostly because he hopes it will save him the trouble of trying to kill me himself. We don't have much time – the shit-eating prig has sent for the Right of Annulment. We need to find Irving before he can get the reinforcements to carry that out."
Wynne blanched, holding her silence for several long seconds before replying, "Oh, Maker…. The Knight-Commander seeks to acquit himself well of his duties, Mei… he is wrong, but do not speak of him so." Zevran curled his lip in disgust. He'd stake his own ears on the bet that this woman had never tasted the full measure of hardship at the hands of their keepers.
Mei seemed to share his sentiment, and explosively so. "I'll call the man who signed her death warrant – and all ours, as well! – whatever I sodding well please," she spat. "Save the breath you'd spend defending him for the demons. Have you any idea what happened to start all this?"
Petra spoke up from where she had been comforting a small knot of apprentices, the eldest of whom was an elven child who couldn't have been more than ten. "None whatsoever – I was helping Senior Wynne with the little ones when we first heard the screaming… we tried to get them out, but were trapped down here when they sealed the doors."
"And we've been holding here ever since," Wynne finished.
"Alright." Mei took a long, audible breath and glanced around. "We need to get through your barrier, then; it looks like we've got our work cut out for us."
Wynne shared a steely glance with Petra, then gave a decisive nod and turned back to their party. "Very well. I am coming with you."
Truly, old woman? This should be good.
There was a derisive snort from nearby; the witch was more vocal in her opinions. "What use have we for a templar pet of a Circle mage?" Morrigan scoffed.
The Senior Enchanter paused, already half-turned to dispel the shimmering wall, and blinked at the apostate again before looking askance at Mei. "You keep dangerous company, child."
That statement, cast as a reprimand, was simply hilarious, given the circumstances. The petite mage in front of him even made a strangled, hiccupping noise that sounded as if it wanted to be a laugh.
Zevran allowed himself a silky chuckle. "It is good that this one thinks so highly of us already."
Chapter 11: Soldiersbane
The Circle Tower
Zevran's first direct encounter with a demon was certainly… enlightening… though he dearly hoped that the rage demon's fiery exterior was not to be the norm. Daggers were by far his favorite instruments of death – highly concealable, highly precise, and highly versatile – but ever so rarely, he found himself with a desire for range, and this was one of those times. It was not advisable to set one's gloves aflame as one struck. (And throwing knives were all well and good when your enemy had a fragile neck with tender arteries to slice, but the single one he had tried to use against the demon had all the effect of a blade thrown into a campfire – it just spat sparks everywhere.)
It was going to take an evening's work just to get the soot off his armor.
He didn't have much time to contemplate the unpleasantness, however; just beyond the smoldering embers of the dead rage demon lay the staircase to the second level of the Tower. Had Zevran been alone, he would have catfooted up the stairs through the shadows, holding a mirror ahead of him to warn if anything awaited him around the turn of a spiral. However, this being a sizeable party, and Alistair being Alistair, stealth was out of the question.
Zevran shook his head. Soldiersbane on daggers. At least the clanking oaf was durable – if anyone was suited to handle running into unexpected and probably magical trouble in the middle of a flight of stairs, he was. Suitably, the templar went first, and Zevran amused himself by falling back near the rear with Wynne and Sten to observe his companions. The pretty ones, at any rate.
Mei was the second in the column, padding up the steps with both swords drawn. She was wary, to her credit, but near-vibrated with a leashed aggression that demanded they keep moving. Morrigan, Zevran chuckled to himself to note, resembled Alistair more than she did her fellow apostate in some key ways – she had none of the templar's earnest heroism, to be sure, but she moved with that singularly brazen complacency of one who has never truly felt hunted, straight up the center of the stairs with staff at ready. Leliana was, but for her flame-colored hair, a blink and a whisper behind Morrigan, ready with watchful eyes and a set of wicked throwing knives close at hand, amply betraying her familiarity with such clandestine activities. The Chantry must surely have been very, very boring for one such as she.
Deathroot on throwing knives; Adder's Kiss, two vials, left side.
The clanking up ahead stopped suddenly, as did their movement, and he gritted his teeth in frustration. "Keep moving, Alistair; that's Owain," he heard Mei say, and then he could finally step onto the landing and get his bearings to smooth the ruffled feathers of his sense of tactics.
"Ahh, but my lady Warden, if he keeps moving, how will he protect us all from anything that might happen to be lurking at the top of the stairs? He is such a noble one, our Alistair." That earned him a baleful glare from the warrior in question who would hopefully not block the path in the future, but – yes, there it was – a strangled snort of laughter from Mei. Let it never be said that Zevran Arainai did not possess a generous breadth of talents.
"Mage Surana." The queer monotone of the human man's voice gave Zevran an involuntary shudder. The voice alone would have marked him as Tranquil, even if the Chantry brand had not. Zevran had not had occasion to meet very many of his kind, and was happier for it.
'Mage Surana' was certainly distressed, though she clearly knew the man. "Owain, what are you doing here? You know the tower is beset by demons?"
"Yes. I am aware that the Tower is under attack. But as there were no demons in the Stockroom, it was advisable for me to stay and tend it," Owain answered, as if he had all the time in the world to do so.
"We're here to help," Mei said. "Can you tell us anything about what happened?"
The man nodded placidly. "Yes. Demons were summoned by practitioners of blood magic, and some of the mages likely became possessed."
"How did this start?"
"I do not know," he answered simply.
The Warden made a small sound of frustration, and Zevran peeled away to quarter the room. The hallway beyond was wide open; their ranged fighters would need cover if anything arrived. Soldiersbane in the center.
Wynne, meanwhile, spoke up with a smooth patience that seemed to make the younger woman even more tense. "Have you seen or heard from any other survivors, Owain? Please, this is very important."
The Tranquil nodded. "Mage Niall requested the Litany of Adralla from the Stockroom approximately one hour ago. He then left through the archway." A lift of a hand indicated the door leading to the rest of the second level beyond. Zevran had, by that point, circled behind Owain, still assessing the environment, but – well, with the Circle in such disarray, they could hardly begrudge a few small supplies for their proposed rescuers, no? Wynne was still preoccupied with the discussion, fortunately, for he was certain she would be watching him suspiciously otherwise. Leliana, amusingly enough, did see him scoop up a brace of small lyrium vials… and did not react at all, which answered a few more of his questions about her scruples or lack thereof.
"I… I think I've heard of that," Mei was saying, brow furrowed.
"It defends against compulsion wrought by blood magic," Wynne supplied. "He may have been hoping to mount a resistance. Were there others, Owain?"
"No. Mage Niall was alone, and I have seen no others since," came the monotone.
"He may know more, and we may well need the Litany. We've got to try to find him, at least on our way up," Mei said decisively. "Let's go." Zevran was already at her shoulder, fingering the pommels of his daggers and fervently hoping their next targets would be made of mortal flesh and blood.
He got his wish not five minutes later, as the sound of hushed, but harsh voices reached them from around the bend and inside a small study. Mei frowned and held up a hand for silence, but too late – the voices fell quiet with someone's hissed order.
"Come out where we can see you," the Warden called, and Zevran winced. His preferred form of caution would be attacking as suddenly and quietly from the doorway as possible, but she was taking her charge of saving the Circle mages seriously. "We're friends of the Circle."
There was silence for a moment before a female voice answered, "Does the moon hide her eyes?"
A few of the others looked puzzled, but the assassin knew a demand for a passphrase when he heard one. He flicked a glance toward Mei, to find her frown deepening, but no confusion on her face. "She does," she called back.
Another silence fell, but this one barely had time to settle before Wynne and Mei called out a warning almost as one. "Back!" "Cover!" Zevran wasted no time in obeying, tumbling backward and even still catching a lick of flame against his boot.
More scorch marks. Brasca.
"I don't think they liked your answer very much!" Alistair yelled, dropping his shield hastily after having covered himself from the worst of the flashpan conflagration.
Fortunately for all of them, the single fireball was the most impressive thing the three rogue mages could muster, though their smaller magic was potent and tinged with blood. The fight to subdue them was short and furious, ending with two of their foes dead and the human woman with one of Zevran's daggers at her throat.
Her breath was coming in short, heavy sobs and he didn't think she had much more fight left in her, but nonetheless, he was cautious. If she turned into an abomination suddenly, he'd need the leverage. "On the floor, if you please," he ordered silkily. "Slowly."
The blood mage complied, shaking all over. For all she had thrown some rather nasty spells his way during the fight, she was young, and utterly unused to having her life threatened so directly.
"Do you wish this one dead as well, Warden?" Zevran asked.
Mei wiped her swords on one of the fallen ones' robes with a scowl of distaste and shook her head. "No. Not yet, anyway." She turned toward Zevran and his captive. "Jarvia, you idiot, what the sodding hell is going on here?"
"You're back here and you don't even know?" the woman spat, finding courage in indignation. "You should have been with us!"
"Who is 'us,'?" Alistair interjected.
"The Libertarian fraternity, I'm afraid, although not a form of it I recognize," Mei answered shortly, before turning back to the woman. "If being with you involves summoning demons – and it clearly does – then no, I should not have," she continued, voice low and dangerous. "What. Is going. On?"
Factions, obscure schisms, passphrases, backstabbing… Pleasant little mess of politics they have here, Zevran mused to himself. It almost reminded him of Antiva.
The blood mage was glaring mutely up at her interrogator, and Mei's anger crashed like a breaking wave into a hiss and a jerkily-paced few steps. "Listen," the Warden began again. "The templars are outside waiting for reinforcements for the Right of Annulment. The tower is sealed. I'm here to fix things before that happens. Do you really want to die for whatever new banner you've taken up? Are you that much of a fanatic?"
Zevran felt his captive slump, just slightly, and he knew that she would talk. He eased the pressure of his blade to give her more room to breathe, but kept his solid grip on her hair.
"I…" she began, voice catching. "I'm not. No, I don't want to die. We thought – Uldred told us – "
Mei cut her off, fury and horror at war in her expression. "Uldred is behind this?"
"Oh Maker," Wynne was murmuring from behind them, but it was barely audible over Mei's string of profanities in what sounded like at least five tongues. Impressive.
When she had reined herself in, the Warden prompted the human woman to continue, knuckles white on her sword hilts. "Uldred told you what?"
The captive drew another gulping, frightened breath. "He told us that the time had come to take our freedom by force. That we should use all the powers at our disposal, and show no mercy, because it was worth any cost. He… he spoke of… using demons, as well, but some of us were too… cautious…" Utterly terrified. "… to do that."
"Then he's probably an abomination, himself," Wynne concluded. "This is very bad; Uldred is a master of the most destructive parts of the Primal school. He will be… difficult to subdue."
"Sodding fool," Mei was still muttering. "Did more to hurt the movement in what? A week? A few days? Than any fucking templar… Jarvia." Her eyes sharpened and head snapped up to the captive, all of a sudden. "Irving. Is Irving still alive? What can you tell us about the rest of the situation?"
"He… the First Enchanter should still live. Uldred wanted to… turn him. The first strike was to be at a Senior Council meeting," the blood mage whispered.
Zevran looked to Wynne, recalling that her younger assistant had addressed her as a 'senior.' "How did our lovely Senior Enchanter miss out on this party?"
"I'd been called away to deal with a problem among the apprentices, and have never been so belatedly grateful for an interruption in my life," Wynne answered tiredly.
"What else?" Mei demanded of Jarvia.
"I don't know much more. We were to scout and secure the lower levels of the Tower… Some of the demons the others summoned have gotten out-of-hand, so they may well be scattered across your path. That's all." The woman gulped audibly. "Please… let me go, Mei?" she pleaded. "You… know how it was. All we wanted was what you have."
The Warden barked a harsh laugh. "You have no idea what you're saying, with that, and pray you never find out."
"Mei…" Alistair ventured warily. "You can't possibly be thinking of letting her go?"
"She has strayed from her path. Kill her and be done with it," Sten growled.
Zevran expected anger from the mage, then, but all that passed was a moment where she looked to the ceiling with profoundly weary eyes, sweeping transiently across his own gaze as they fell back to the bloody floor. She addressed Alistair, ignoring Sten entirely. "While I can 'possibly' be thinking of a lot of things, I'll not have you forget… no. Without knowing more about the balance of power here, I can't guess whether or not she'll betray us."
"I wouldn't –!" the prisoner began to protest.
Mei cut her off briskly, shaking her head. "Save it. You've lost whatever personal claim to trust you may have had with me. With that in mind, I give you three choices: you can go with us and help reclaim the Tower, or we can leave you bound here… which might result in you surviving to be freed later… or give you a mercy stroke that the demons wouldn't. Think quickly."
Zevran pressed his dagger close against her throat once more. He had a feeling that a bit of added urgency would not go amiss. She whimpered very quietly, once, frozen for a moment by the question, but when she did answer, it was the correct one – by his lights, anyway.
"I'll help you."
Mei nodded, her eyes on his rather than the captive's, and he smoothly released the human and stepped back. That had gone well enough, all things considered.
Her face full of black irony, Mei then turned to Alistair. "Keep her where you can see her, hmm?"
The templar in question was taken aback at this sudden implicit request to put his Chantry training to use, but it was all Zevran could do to keep from laughing, the humor of the situation amplified to hilarity by Alistair's nonplussed expression. Alistair was clearly an idealist, and sometimes his sister Warden spoke like one as well, but she displayed a streak of ruthless pragmatism in her actions that Zevran understood well. Whatever one wanted – be it security from enemies, influence among allies, the freedom to choose one's own course, or any other possible desire – one had to be prepared to get his hands dirty to obtain it. Those who held an extensive set of principles in higher esteem than desires and goals seldom got what they wanted in life.
Oh, they might wrap their failure in the pretty trappings of self-righteousness and claim to be happy… but in his experience, every one of them was lying.
"Through here," Mei murmured. "I doubt he'd be hiding for long if he was trying to make sure someone could use the Litany, but he may have bolted here if forced. There are a lot of places to hide in the chapel."
The party had split in half to sweep the tower's expansive second floor, Wynne gone with Alistair, Leliana, and the blood mage to the northern half of the level, while Mei led the others through the south. It was a division that made sense – each group had a mage guide, a warrior, and someone who possessed skill at the arts of stealth – and that conveniently separated Mei from those most likely to disapprove of her methods and attitudes, Zevran did not fail to note.
The tower's chapel was a grandiose affair, as such things went; what it lacked in jewels and stained glass it made up for in statuary and inscriptions. Everywhere, the inscriptions… some of them were old enough to be somewhat difficult to read, but the overarching theme was apparent – the mages were to be reminded at every turn of the need for restraint, piety, and submission to the Chantry's laws.
Magic exist to serve man, and never to rule over him.
Foul and corrupt are they
Who have taken His gift
And turned it against His children.
They shall be named Maleficar, accursed ones.
They shall find no rest in this world
Zevran had always found local chantries somewhat distasteful, but this was downright oppressive. Small wonder that some of the mages rebelled; at least within the Crows, there was the eventual hope of a nearly free rein on power to keep apprentices and mid-tier assassins in line. Here, the whole house of cards relied on mere piety and shame. Perhaps the templars were successful in preventing a mass alliance of their inmates that would bring the whole thing crashing down, but individual malcontents were surely inevitable.
Here lies the abyss, the well of all souls.
From these emerald waters doth life begin anew.
Come to me, child, and I shall embrace you.
In my arms lies Eternity.
That one wasn't so bad, Zevran supposed, peering into the shadowed prayer alcove. It might have been a reasonable hiding spot for a desperate mage, but there was no sign of a recent visitation; a very thin layer of dust had been allowed to collect on the tiny bench and the stone representation of Andraste. In addition to the traditional sword, the statue had wings, crude and ambiguous in origin, and outstretched in what was apparently a reference to the verse of the Chant.
The whole effect was really quite forbidding, and the dust seemed to agree with him.
"I do not believe our friend is here," he said, having finished quartering his section of the chapel. "Shall we press on?"
The Warden nodded. "Not much more to this part of the Tower, but we should check the offices beyond. Shouldn't take long." Her eyes had sharpened for just a fraction of a second, then returned to bland neutrality as she finished her statement. Did she have some other reason for wanting to search here?
The door to the main room in the adjoining hall was locked, and beyond his skill to open. He really needed to remedy that deficiency in his skills, and as soon as possible. The door was laughing at him, and for once, he was not amused.
Lock or no lock, however, the door was no match for Sten's shoulder-charge, and they gained entry in short order. Neither errant demons nor cowering mages waited within, but Zevran's suspicions regarding ulterior motives were confirmed when Mei gathered up a healthy stack of papers and books from the office, which was very obviously the domain of someone important. She did not seem to be looking for anything specific; instead the collection was probably opportunistic. He certainly approved – more information was always good, and all the better if it was easy to come by.
The other offices on the hall were less impressive, containing little of interest, let alone their quarry. He was not especially looking forward to continuing their climb to the tower's higher levels.
Two floors and as many instances of the party reconvening and re-dividing later, the search was acquiring a rapidly-sharpening edge of foreboding.
When they had first passed the templar barricade, adrenaline had kept them moving quickly, ready for a large confrontation at any point. Since then, they had fought several skirmishes with stray demons, abominations, and the odd bewitched templar, but the slow meticulousness of the search wore at the nerves in a way a pitched battle would not.
Soldiersbane on daggers.
Zevran himself was trained for this sort of thing, of course, but his companions by and large were not, and the two apostates in particular became more tightly-wound with each useless room. Morrigan attempted to hide it, but the Warden did not bother, hissing curses under her breath as they disposed of the minor impediments they came across… he had briefly considered offering to teach her a few in Antivan, but she was just pent-up enough that he doubted the offer would be well-received, humorous delivery or no.
Yes, he was used to the waiting, but a pair of jumpy mages as part of his team made keeping his own frustration in check… somewhat difficult.
They had just checked in with Alistair's group and decided to meet again in the level's central chamber after a sweep of the periphery when they finally came across something a little more interesting. The first hint of trouble was the cooing, feminine voice from beyond a doorway – there was something… off about it, an echoing quality like several voices speaking just out of synch… and when they approached the door and caught their first glimpse of the near-naked, violet-skinned demon and her templar plaything, the Warden stopped short, her face blanching white.
The demon had noticed them and turned to saunter forward, but Mei's eyes were focused beyond the creature on the bearded, vacant-faced templar, and their fury surpassed even what she had showed when confronting the Knight-Commander.
"Ssso uncouth, to disturb ssuch an intimate moment…" the demon began to say, but the Warden had already begun to rattle off orders, flat-voiced.
"Sten, Morrigan, take her. Zevran, with me. The templar will try to aid her."
"Thiss poor man only wissshes – "
"Save your breath, demon," Mei muttered, drawing both her swords in one motion. Zevran was already halfway across the room, taking advantage of the templar's fixation on his mistress to flank him.
The demon shrieked her indignation as Sten charged, and Zevran methodically relegated his awareness of her presence to the simple question of whether she was paying attention to him. Since at present, she was not, he could focus on his own target.
Mei had flashed briefly with magic as she'd moved to engage, no doubt trying to get some protection in place before – there it was. The templar's hand pulsed with a near-blinding light that had the mage dodging instinctively, but the close quarters left her unable to avoid the draining smite. She shouted in pain and slowed for a moment, but then met him head-on and blade-to-blade, her magic completely abandoned in exchange for a furious flurry of steel that he hastened to defend against. Perfect.
Templar armor was always annoyingly well-crafted, and this one seemed to have some officer rank, for his was of higher quality and more ornate decoration than that of the ones they had fought earlier. However, the joints were still fashioned the same way, and that was all Zevran really needed to know. A floor below, he had perfected the stab and twist that would efficiently enter the joint and sever tendons – a technique he now put to brutal use.
The human barely had time to take two swings at the Warden before his sword arm dropped uselessly to his side, bleeding from a wound to the shoulder. He attempted a bashing charge with his shield, but she leapt nimbly to the side, letting him barrel past an extended blade. The blow was surely glancing, but he staggered all the same, and Zevran took the opportunity to slip a dagger under his cuirass at the back. The cut was mostly turned, this time, by the leather the man wore beneath, but the fight was as good as won.
He moved to finish the man, but Mei had stepped back in front and grabbed him by his chestnut hair already… Zevran would let her have her kill.
But she did not end it, not yet, instead dragging the templar's head back to look him full in the eyes. He jerked and made the first noise other than a grunt Zevran had heard from him, a low, terrified moan. Mei was smiling down at him, the expression cold as the Waking Sea in the dead of winter, and all the more deadly-looking for the fact that she normally flared hot, even in anger.
Zevran could barely hear her over the sounds of Sten and Morrigan finishing off the desire demon as she hissed down at him. "Yes, Thom, it's me. Never thought you'd have to see my face again, did you? Thought your friends would kill us both... wish I had time to make you suffer like she did…. Alas."
A sword was not the best weapon for a grappling-range kill, but a bared throat was a bared throat and a blade was a blade. The templar died with barely a gurgle.
Chapter 12: In Uthenera
She awoke to the gentle creak of wood and an awareness of motion.
Warm sunlight and a fragrant breeze streamed in through an open window, and for a moment she simply reveled in the gentle simplicity of its touch. Then the breeze lulled, and she caught a whiff of something else – someone else – a mixture of spilled ink and chamomile and peppermint that she would know anywhere. Mei smiled and propped herself up on an elbow.
The sight of Giselle in the chair nearby sent a strange, wrenching shock through her core that she could not place – they were together, and the human woman was smiling, so all must be well… though she could not recall how she had come here. They were in an aravel, she was sure of it, but before the Dalish had not allowed them to do more than camp on the outskirts of the temporary village…
"Giselle?" she asked softly.
Eyes the red-brown color of tea turned to her and crinkled gently at the corners. "Oh good, you're awake. You slept such a long time after the healers were finished with you, I'd started to worry, but they said just to let you rest. How do you feel?" Giselle reached over with ink-stained fingers (had she been writing? There weren't any books in sight…) to stroke her cheek. Mei leaned into the touch with a sigh.
"Tired… so tired. But… good. It's… good – " (unbelievable) "– to have you here with me," she murmured. "How did I get here? What of…" What had she been doing? It hadn't been pleasant; she was certain. Darkspawn. "… the Blight?"
"It's over, love," Giselle said soothingly. "You were injured in the last battle – took a nasty blow to the head – and Marethari heard and sent hunters to fetch you."
"But… I thought…" Mei blinked, confused. There was something she could not quite remember, something about the Blight. Surely it was important? What if she had forgotten to do something?
"You're a hero, and the Archdemon is gone. They didn't need you anymore, so they released you in gratitude for your service. And now… you're home." An escaped coppery curl tickled against Mei's cheek as Giselle leaned over and kissed her, ever so gently. Mei leaned up, pressing into the kiss, suddenly desperate. She had thought she would never – but why? Giselle was right here. They were alright.
They were alright.
When the kiss broke, she caught her lover's cheek and whispered against her lips, "I missed you so much. Don't ever leave me again…" But didn't I leave her? She said… Mei brushed the thought away. It didn't matter.
"Never, my darling," Giselle reassured her. "I'm here. You're safe, and you're with me, and you never have to leave."
Good. That was good. She didn't want to leave.
"Go back to sleep… I'll stay with you."
That sounded wonderful. She was still very tired, and felt a faint ache behind her eyes that must be the remnants of the injury Giselle had spoken of. "Alright…" Mei agreed. "I love you."
That brilliant smile again… she'd never get enough. "Et je t'aime."
The softly-spoken phrase in Orlesian reminded her of something, and she fought to stay awake enough to put it to words. "Oh, I meant to tell you… found someone from Orlais who could help us with the pronunciation. She's a bard and I think you'd like her…"
"Go to sleep, love," came the gentle admonition.
"Her name is…." But Mei couldn't remember just then, and sleep sounded like such a good idea.
When she woke again, it was the deep sort of purple twilight only to be found in Brecilian summers, and the aravel had stopped. The scent of woodsmoke through the still-open window told her that the evening fires had been lit, and dinner was likely soon to follow. Giselle was not in evidence, but there was a soft buckskin tunic with leggings laid out on the chair she had been sitting in earlier, and Mei dressed hurriedly, trying not to wonder at the number of fresh scars on her body as she did so. Thinking about where they had come from made the dull pulse of the lingering headache stronger, and it couldn't be that important, anyway. Giselle had said she'd been injured; well and so. At least she was in one piece.
Climbing unsteadily down the ladder from the aravel felt like surfacing from a deep pool – suddenly there was not only the light and scent of fire, but the sound of lyrically-accented Dalish voices preparing for the evening, the rustle of leaves in the warm evening wind, and the soft, half-mournful notes of someone's pipe. She had not been aware of any of these things while within the aravel – surely the bustle had been there, but the aravel had seemed a world unto itself when she had first awoken – and she was glad for the signs of life.
The tallest of the figures swept away from the others and resolved into the familiar form of Giselle, who smiled and took Mei's hand as she reached the ground. "Good timing; the hunters just finished dressing the day's catch. Are you hungry?"
"Yes," Mei said automatically. She certainly should be, anyway, having slept for so long. When she stopped to think about it, she wasn't really…
"Come, then." Giselle tugged her toward the flickering lights. "There will be venison, soon."
The clansmen turned as the women approached the fires, smiling in greeting – even those who had treated them with suspicion before were grinning along with the others and clapping her on the shoulder like an old friend. Cynically, Mei suspected that this welcome had everything to do with her newfound status as a war hero, but the aloofness with which the Dalish had treated them before had been unpleasant; she'd take their kindness in whatever context it was offered.
"Mei!" The light voice chirped from just behind them, and she turned to find the Keeper's First running toward her. Mei grinned.
"Merrill! It's good to see you," she exclaimed as the slight woman caught her in an embrace. Marethari's reservations aside, Merrill had welcomed Mei and Giselle from the start, and was one of the few out of the clan Mei had considered a true friend even before all this hero business.
"I'm so happy you're finally awake! I wanted to try to wake you when they first brought you back, but the Keeper didn't think that was a very good idea. I suppose she was right. But I did miss you, and you weren't that badly hurt, so – " Laughing, Mei leaned in to kiss Merrill's cheek, which brought a pause to the willowy mage's rambling. "Oh. Forgive me, I'm chattering again, aren't I?
"It's alright. I'm just glad to be here."
She was, wasn't she? It was a bit of a shame that she'd never gotten to say goodbye to some of her companions… Leliana and Alistair might be easy enough to find again if she ever wanted to, but what of Morrigan? Had she said anything about what she would do after the Blight?
Mei frowned to herself. Morrigan had had some sort of task beyond merely defeating the Blight; she remembered being certain of it. But had she ever found out –
"Here, love, have some supper. You must be famished." Giselle was offering her a bowl of venison and stewed vegetables, and it smelled wonderful.
"That was… really fast," Mei mumbled through her first bite of the food.
Giselle smiled gently and shook her head, pulling her to some mats by the fires. "You were quiet for a long time; you looked like you were woolgathering, so I let you be until the venison was done."
Mei allowed herself to be led, concentrating on dinner. She had been very hungry, and the meat was perfect. It had been far too long since she'd had what she considered to be real food; they'd seldom had time to hunt on the road. Even if the darkspawn had not been such a constant threat, they had always been wary of running into Loghain's soldiers, as well, because…
"Giselle, what happened with the Regent, and the throne? Loghain wanted Alistair and me dead, and I can't imagine he'd change his mind so quickly because he knew we'd expose him for a regicide. Did I miss everything?" She was starting to get annoyed at the gap in her memory, despite knowing she probably shouldn't be. This was perfect, better than perfect – and here she was worrying about the crusty old regent.
"The Queen pardoned the Grey Wardens for their valor," the other woman replied. "That is all I heard, but you needn't worry – you're safe from Teyrn Loghain."
"…Right…" Mei shook her head, frowning fiercely. "But what about Alistair? He's King Maric's bastard; surely he'd be a threat to even Anora's rule."
"I don't know, Mei. Honestly, you're worrying too much about things that don't matter anymore. You're here, with me." A faint edge had entered Giselle's voice, and Mei was immediately contrite. If Giselle was showing irritation at all, it meant she was very annoyed, and Mei had only just gotten her back.
(Gotten her back? )
"You're finished with dinner? Come and dance with me!" The smile was back in her eyes, and Mei rose quickly, glad to feel the tension retreating.
Much of the clan was already moving, by that point, weaving their complicated patters, with partners or alone, and of those not dancing, more than half were adding to the music on pipe and harp. Mei had a brief moment of terror when she realized she didn't know the steps – if there were steps to know – but then Giselle was whirling her around and it didn't seem to matter. Sometimes there were brief partner switches in a pattern that Mei couldn't quite pick up on, but she ended up dancing opposite Merrill at one point, and a few of the hunters that she knew and some that she didn't. Always, she would end up with Giselle again, who would greet her with a luminous smile that made her feel like she was coming home.
They'd been dancing for what felt like hours (even if it couldn't have been by the sheer fact that Mei could still move her legs), and everything was starting to blend together. Mei thought she'd almost gotten the hang of the pattern, finally, so it wasn't a surprise when Giselle moved away to be replaced by a nearby reveler once more. He smiled a greeting and met her eyes, and she caught her breath with a start, for his were a familiar and very particular shade of amber.
It was a wonder he could hear her over the music, as she'd barely whispered, but he answered, his Antivan accent amply confirming his identity. "Welcome home, my Grey Warden."
Mei's feet kept moving, but she didn't feel like she was quite controlling them anymore. He doesn't belong here. What in the name of the Black Divine is going on?
Giselle had taken hold of her hands again, but she could scarcely feel it. Why was she so confused? The memory of what had shaken her was slipping away so quickly, but it was important, very important…
"What… what is an Antivan doing here?" Giselle squeezed her fingers comfortingly, and Mei wondered why she had asked such a question. It almost felt like…
"What are you talking about, love? Are you feeling alright?" The brown eyes were full of concern.
…Like a dream.
"I'm… not sure," Mei answered, half-breathless. "Could we step out for a bit and get some water?"
In short order they had found a perch on a low-slung bench, and Mei stared down into her water glass, unsure how to express what she needed to ask, but determined to do it nonetheless. "I… Giselle, I can't remember anything about the battle where I was hurt, or what happened to my allies…"
"You know how head injuries can be. Yours was bad. Your memory may come back in time, or it may not, but it's alright now, I promise," her lover assured her.
Mei squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the words starting to slip away from her, losing their meanings even though the shape remained. It would be so easy to heed Giselle and just set it aside, to be happy… But this, this feeling would drag at her. Giselle should know more details than she was sharing, and there was something Mei had to say – something dangerous, something she feared the implications of.
Before she could lose her will to threaten her own happiness, she blurted, "It feels important. I know I was hurt, but please, I need to know. What, exactly, happened?"
Giselle took up her hands, and there was a slight pressure and a sense of warmth – Mei wasn't so numb anymore, and it was a relief – Giselle was just thinking of how to explain…
"It's not important… You're worrying me. Please don't tax yourself like this anymore – "
Whatever else she said, Mei didn't hear it. Her chest felt as if it had turned to lead. Frozen lead.
Giselle never brushed her worries aside, no matter how odd they might be, when Mei communicated that it mattered to her. Never.
"This isn't real," she whispered. She could not access the memories, still, but it felt like they were just beyond her reach. The crushing pain that came with the realization, though, that was familiar… far too familiar.
Out of nowhere, the realization: This was her looming fear of the Fade, manifest in all its terrible glory. She had let Morrigan save the arl's son rather than go in herself, because with a demon involved, she had known this was what she would have to confront… and it had found her, somehow, after all.
"Of course it's real! You just haven't recovered fully yet – Marethari said – "
"You're not Giselle."
Leaves bobbing gently in the morning breeze. The pregnant silence prepared to birth horror. The smell of blood, the taste of bile and mounting dread, and then the staring, empty eye sockets…
You're dead, my love.
"How can you say that?" The look of shocked hurt in Giselle's – the demon's – face hit Mei like a physical blow, but it also brought nausea and anger, to know that something else was using her likeness like a puppet. "I'm here, I'm right here! You know me!"
This breath felt like nothing, like the twilight between waking and the Fade. "I do know what you are, but you're not Giselle, and you profane my memories of her by stealing her face, demon."
The creature with the soft hair and heartbreakingly familiar eyes hissed, and it had that faint, deep echo that removed any shred of doubt. "You cannot leave this place."
But Mei was stranger to neither demons nor nightmares, and now that her fear had come to greet her, she felt an odd calm fall like a blanket over the renewed pain of loss. She had been offered her fondest wish, and it was still not enough to hold her in its thrall.
No matter that some tiny, traitorous part of her still wanted it to.
She closed her eyes against the demon's glare, ignored its angry words. She had to silence that last shred of desire to stay in the dream, or she would remain tethered here despite her knowledge. Taking a deep breath, she at last allowed herself to picture Giselle's pyre, a memory she had previously fled every time it tried to surface.
The flames crackle angrily, as if they protest their task, to consume this woman far too soon, and the wind scatters sparks like malevolent stars against the night. The wind smells of burnt hair and, obscenely, cooking meat. It will be months before she will even consider eating animal flesh again.
There are words; she knows there are words one says here, but they freeze inside her throat. She can't say them, because if she says them, this will be real.
It can't be real.
Please don't let it be real.
There is a fresh shower of cinders as the pyre logs begin to collapse upon themselves, and one lands against her cheek, the sharp pain a strangely welcome counterpoint to the agony she can't express.
Please don't let it be real.
The words are there, waiting, but she won't say them.
Please don't let it be real. I can't say goodbye, not now.
'Emma lath, na melana sahlin.
Emma ir abelas
Souver'inan isala hamin
Vhenan him dor'felas –
In uthenera na revas.
Vir samahl la numin,
Vir lath sa'vunin.
In uthenera na revas.'
"...In uthenera, na revas."
Chapter 13: To Walk Away
Slowly, other voices filtered into her awareness.
"I was trying to get the Litany up to the top of the Tower, but… I was trapped here, like you."
" 'Tis clear this is a demon's creation – why do you not seek it out to defeat it?" Morrigan. The thought came unhindered by the fog that had shrouded her memories with the demon-Giselle around; it seemed she had won free… of one prison, at least.
"I couldn't get to the center! I know this is maintained by a demon of Sloth, but it has other servants that guard the way, and I'm… getting weaker." This voice was male, human, and familiar… and he'd mentioned the Litany, so it had to be Niall.
"Have you seen any others like us?" Morrigan prodded, impatient.
"No, you're the first, and you must not have been here long. You look more real than anything else I've seen."
Mei blinked her eyes open, sending gathered tears to course down her cheeks. Everything hurt, but at least she knew what was going on; that subliminal unease that had dogged her in the fantasy-nightmare had been banished along with the false trappings of happiness. It was strangely comforting to know she had work to do.
Focus on getting out of here.
Coughing slightly at the taste of unharnessed magic in the 'air,' she called out, "Morrigan?"
There was no crunch of footsteps on the strange, amorphous ground, but she could feel the other mage approaching from the ripples her power made in the stuff of the Fade. "Oh, wonderful – I am glad someone else had the sense to get out. I suppose you were caught in some sort of impossible dream as well?"
Mei pushed herself up slowly, turning to face her companion. "Yes." She shuddered slightly. "You were alone in yours?"
The witch nodded her affirmative, arms crossed over her chest and eyes darting about in what Mei understood to be a mixture of trepidation and annoyance. " 'Tis reasonable to assume the others are in similar predicaments, then. I – "
"…Mei?" Niall had finally moved to follow Morrigan, and his already-large eyes were like saucers in his amazement.
Mei sighed. "Yes, yes, it's me. Before you ask, it's a long story, but I'm here to save the Circle. The details aren't important. We were looking for you when we ran into that… thing. How long have you been stuck here?"
He still looked slightly dazed as he answered. "I… I'm really not sure. Too long, I'm afraid; I can feel myself, well… fading." He laughed weakly. "You'll need to defeat the demon and get out as quickly as possible."
"Why ever would you say that?" Morrigan asked, voice dripping sarcasm. "I was thinking 'twould be a lovely place to rest for a few days, a few weeks…"
"Charming friend you've got here," Niall said to Mei with the ghost of a wry smile.
Ignoring both of them, Mei took stock of her surroundings, not that there was much to see. They were on the same sort of shrouded path with crumbling imprints of places and objects that made no coherent sense that she recalled from her Harrowing; this was the malleable, raw Fade, the underpinnings of whatever else the demon had constructed to keep – and feed on, mustn't forget that – its prisoners. Niall's statement had been overly-obvious, but his urgency had merit. Mei suspected that her old colleague wouldn't have enough of his life force left to wake up even if they were to escape this very moment. It was a shame – he had always been a good sort, if a bit bland – but there was no time for preemptive lamentation.
"Right then," Mei began, drawing Morrigan's attention back to her. "Morrigan, I'm betting that if the others are stuck in anything like I was, they haven't realized it's a dream. We should be able to snap them out of it, if we can find their prisons."
"You propose we split up to do so?"
"Yes… yes, I think so. Obvious or not, Niall's got a point – we need to get moving, and we've got five people to find. Niall, if you don't think you can do the same, could you wait here and send anyone else who might break free on their own to help?"
"Of – of course," the timid man answered.
"Let us be off, then," said Morrigan, turning on her heel to leave the 'island' without ceremony.
Not all that long ago, Mei had treasured her affinity for the Fade. Whereas other apprentices had spoken of it with a frightened hush and studied Chantry texts on meditation to corral the dreaming mind, she had wandered its mercurial twists with brazen curiosity – in the Tower, it was the only place she knew freedom. After Giselle had been killed, those vivid dreams had become a curse, taunting her with her love and then replaying Giselle's death in ever more awful permutations.
Now, Mei felt an odd sort of settling in her mind as she moved through the disjointed dreamscape, dodging ghostly soldiers and shifting her form at will to move past barriers. It was as if the trap she had just escaped had been placed in a drawer on top of every other horrific dream-memory about Giselle, and the drawer closed, at long last. She knew what was inside it – she suspected she could never forget, even were she to try – but for the first time since everything had fallen to pieces, the images were not climbing out to chase her.
Relief was an odd emotion to be feeling while still quite trapped in a demon's Fade realm and her body languished in a tower held under a two-pronged siege, but there it was, nonetheless.
At length, the character of the Fade around her changed – or more precisely (as it had been changing constantly), it changed to something with a hint of familiarity. There was a sweet smell that was not quite apple, and it took Mei several long moments to place it. Eglantine. The rose had grown abundantly in the modest gardens at the base of the Tower. With the scent came a feeling, or perhaps an image: the sense of a wild-growing briar carefully pruned and coaxed and herded into following the orderly lines of a trellis.
The Tower had had such a thing, yes, though the groundskeepers had always cursed its unruly nature… and yet, the association was not quite right. The scent recalled those gardens, but that was not where it belonged.
Just what – who – it belonged to became readily apparent when the path Mei followed spiraled at last into a dead end.
"Blessed art thou, who exist in the sight of the Maker. Blessed art thou, who seek his forgiveness." Leliana knelt at the feet of what appeared to be a Revered Mother, her head bowed as she murmured words of the Chant. She spoke in Fereldan, which seemed slightly odd, but it made some sense considering they had found her in the Lothering Chantry. Mei could see and feel the suggestion of a Chantry building around them – a flicker of a candle here, a whiff of incense there – but she suspected that the bard perceived that they were truly in one, much as Mei had thought herself in a Dalish camp.
Though uncertain whether she would be heard through the trappings of the dream, Mei called out to her. "Leliana! Can you hear me?"
Leliana looked up, disoriented, but her eyes did focus on Mei. "Of course I can. What… what are you doing here? I thought you had rejoined the Dalish."
"Young woman, you are being very rude, to interrupt Sister Leliana's meditations!" came the querulous voice of the 'Revered Mother.' Mei ignored her, thinking furiously. Should she go the direct route and tell Leliana that she was trapped in a demon's construct? Or would it be better to let her see the inconsistency herself?
"I… I came because we still need your help," she answered, making a snap decision. It was true enough, at any rate.
Leliana frowned. "Surely there are others… I do the work of the Maker here… I have peace. It is all I've wanted since… since as long as I can remember."
The simulacrum of a priestess smiled approvingly, but it rang just slightly false to Mei's ear; she knew Leliana was devout, but the errant lay sister had always shown a propensity for a more active (and less objectionable) sort of faith. Mei cast her voice to reproach. "That doesn't sound like the woman I knew, the woman who had a mission and believed in deeds rather than words."
"My work… that work is done," Leliana protested, though obviously disconcerted.
"Yes, child, you have the right of it," her demon crooned. "The Maker needs you here now, to use your beautiful voice in His service. Tell your uncouth friend to show herself out."
Mei snorted in derision. "When a child is starving, can you feed him with the Chant?"
"I – "
"When a woman lies dying, do you wail to the Maker, or do you go find a mage who can heal her? Is it more important that the Maker hear his pretty words over and over, or that something gets done?" She demanded.
"Child, come with me. Let us leave this disturbance… I told you that you would have peace here, and I mean to honor that," the demon said, glaring daggers at Mei.
Leliana was blinking, though, and rising to her feet. "No…. No, Revered Mother, there is no need. My friend speaks wisely. I don't know why I thought to stay here instead of using my skills in the world."
The demon continued to play its role to try to persuade her, but Mei was starting to hear the echo in its voice that said it was close to breaking character. "Sister Leliana, you have taken vows to serve me, and I command – "
But the bard's eyes sharpened, completely rejecting this new tactic. "I have not, and were I to take any vows, they would not be to you. Let's go, Mei."
The demon-priestess shrieked her rage and sprang for her retreating captive, but Mei was ready with a bolt of frost, and she and Leliana retreated together. There was no great difficulty in escaping the physical boundaries of the nightmare, which surprised Mei at first, but made sense when she considered that she was a mage and had known the Chantry was a fiction from the outset.
It really was a fascinating phenomenon, and entirely unfair that she did not have time to reflect on it further.
Leliana had been jumpy as they had found their way out of her prison, but adapted quickly to the shifting unreality of the Fade and had willingly gone off alone to help speed the search for the others. Niall reported that he had seen Morrigan leading a 'strapping young warrior' by his post, which news despite the situation nearly had Mei in giggles. Better her than me.
Mei eventually found herself on another half-sensed trail toward what she assumed was another trapped companion, this one shifting and elusive in nature, but with a common thread all the same. There was steel and blood and leather, all harsh angles and unyielding surfaces with eyes watching from the shadows, and a fluid feeling like silk running beneath it – sometimes strong, sometimes barely there, sometimes completely obscured.
As she formed her guess of whose trail she followed, Mei wondered what hers would have been like to an outsider. Would a non-mage feel the subtle ways the Fade changed to show the imprint of the mind it encased? It might be worthwhile to ask Leliana about her favorite flowers later, if we all make it out. When we all make it out.
It was not much longer before her guess was confirmed. The light dimmed and warmed, as if to suggest torches in a small room, and she could hear voices in a foreign tongue that took her a moment to place. Antivan.
Shit. If she had to deal with one of her friends' native tongues, she would have far preferred that it had been Orlesian – she was not comfortable in it, by any means, but at least she could have gotten by.
Zevran was bound to a rack, spread-eagled and sweating as two tanned men – a human and an elf – taunted him. He was silent save for the occasional ragged breath, his eyes half-closed in concentration. Mei bit her lip, uncertain how to approach, but fighting a wave of anger that demanded she broke him out immediately.
His tormenters paid her no heed as she cautiously approached. "Zevran?"
The golden eyes blinked open, then stared. "…Rinna?" he gasped. "¿Por qué estás aquí?"
Who is Rinna? Mei frowned. She couldn't very well play the role, whoever he thought she was, since she could not reply in Antivan.
"You! Woman!" The 'human' tormenter had turned to yell at her, his voice thickly accented, but apparently the demon was perfectly happy to speak Fereldan for her benefit. "This is a private initiation! Remove yourself immediately."
Zevran was muttering under his breath, shaking his head weakly. "No sé… pero ella está muerta…"
"Zevran!" Mei called. "Do you know me? I'm Mei, the Grey Warden."
"Cease your caterwauling, wench," spat the other elf. "He must pass his initiation or he will never become a Crow."
Mei elected to go the direct route. "Zevran, you already passed your initiation. You were a Crow, one of the best – " she did not know why she added that embellishment, but he was a vain enough creature that it surely could not hurt – "but you left them to join my party against the Blight."
One of the men backhanded Zevran across the face. "She's going to get you killed, pretty little Zevran."
The assassin was glaring at her, now. " Yo seré un Cuervo!"
She was pretty sure she recognized 'Crow' in that, at least. "You were! But now you're with me. You don't have to live through this again; you've already won the fight. You took a contract on Alistair's and my lives in Ferelden. Do you not remember?"
Though glazed, his eyes seemed to focus on her, truly, for the first time, with none of the shock present from before. "Sí… yes. Yes, my Grey Warden, I remember," he said, sounding suddenly very weary. "Do I dream, then?"
That got his captors' attention. "You have failed, Zevran. You and the woman will both die, with your heads presented to the Masters!" Both of them drew daggers and turned toward Mei, but she leapt out of the way and caught them with a blast of ice. One took the full brunt of it and died in the snap-freeze, but the other was not so easily deterred – he continued coming toward her, but her swords were already in her hands, taking advantage of his sluggish state to dart in and open his throat. It was almost ludicrous how easily they were defeated, but much like Leliana's demon, they were probably weakened by their prisoner's lucidity. Phantasmal teeth could bite – Mei knew that well – but only as hard as they could convince you they could.
Zevran was quiet as she cut off his ropes, only speaking again once he was on the ground and chafing the circulation back into his limbs. "Well, that is a memory I had not thought to revisit," he said, voice forced to lightness.
"So I should think," Mei answered cautiously. She wanted to ask about it, but knew she probably shouldn't.
He looked at her shrewdly, all the same, sensing the questions she held back. "As a Crow one is required to withstand great pain and privation. They… make sure of it, in their recruits. Now, the question is, who did I offend so much that I should have to relive that ever-so-vivid time of my life?"
Mei gave a dry chuckle, relieved that he could push it aside so apparently easily. "A sloth demon, or so the theory goes. It trapped each of us in a dream it thought we would want to believe. Morrigan and I were able to break out of our own, and we split up to find the rest of you."
"Ahh. That makes a certain degree of sense, then. I was convinced that I had to prove myself, and any attempt to think otherwise felt dangerous. They kill the ones who do not pass the trials, you see."
"Sounds familiar," she muttered.
Running his hands over his armor to check sheaths and pouches almost absently, he jerked his head toward the direction Mei had entered from. "Shall we be rid of this place, then? I do not know much of the Fade, but it seemed as if you simply walked in…"
"Yes, now that you know what it was, we can leave," she said, nodding and leading the way out of the patch of Fade that made up the torture chamber. When whole minutes passed without so much as an offhand quip from the assassin, Mei glanced over at him, where he walked a half-pace behind her shoulder. He had been staring intently ahead as if to look through the Fade itself, though he quickly turned to focus on her when her movement betrayed her attention.
"It's hard to just walk away from, isn't it?" she asked quietly.
He raised an eyebrow. "Difficult, to walk away from something unpleasant? This is a strange idea you have." There was a pause before he spoke again, false levity dropped. "And strange though it may be… yes. It is difficult. From what I have seen of you, you have experienced this as well, yes?"
"Oh yes…" Mei wanted to ask more pointed questions to find out who it was he had mistaken her for, but the deeply personal nature of her own nightmare cage made her hold her tongue. Zevran did not deserve prying any more than she would welcome such, had another member of their party fished her out of the memory of Giselle.
They continued in silence through the labyrinthine paths of the raw Fade to rejoin the others, and Mei fervently hoped that Morrigan had succeeded in freeing the rest of them so they could face the true demon at last.