In her dreams, Aislinn found herself stumbling through the forest, a baby bundled into her arms. Somehow she understood that the child lingered near death, she its only hope. Unlike the forest she knew so well, this version existed to torment her. Branches whipped at her face, and the thick undergrowth deceived her feet, causing her to trip and turn her ankles every few steps. She had to keep upright if she wanted to save the baby, and she fought to pick her way through the obstacles in her path.
She could feel the heartbeat through the thin swaddling, thready and irregular.
The sounds of a Dalish camp filled her with hope. Surely their Keeper could intervene, could snatch the infant back from the jaws of Falon'din.
But when she found her way to the aravels, no one would speak to her no matter how piteously she begged. Won't anyone help the child? It's an innocent! There is life in it still. Why won't you help? Even the halla turned their heads.
Finally, one of the elves turned and pointed. She looked down. The child was no child at all, but a giant wasp that stared at her with its beady, incomprehensible eyes.
It struggled free of its wrappings, and the stinger sunk in to her arm. She shot bolt upright in bed, chest heaving.
The urge to puke silenced anything she might have said to her bedmate, and she emptied her stomach in to a nearby basin one, twice, then dry heaved for an eternity. Normally she wasn't so tender about her belly. She'd cut deeply in to her own flesh too often to have so little mastery of her reactions; nausea often came along with the pain. But this...!
Solas' deft fingers, gently combing through her hair, drawing it back as she retched.
"Thank you," she muttered once her episode had finally ended. She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, and trembled through the aftershocks.
"You must see the healer, vhenan," he said, his voice a pool of pure, undisturbed water that she longed to sink into. "Again," he added, his tone a tease. She had been risking herself lately, more than usual. But Creators, what else could she do? She had to stand against Decadence, keep the demon from using whatever weakness sat deep within her, whatever trap the foul beast had constructed. She couldn't even think of when and how it might have happened, and that thought caused her such frustration sometimes her skin broke out in angry hives that tormented her no matter what she did to try and relieve them.
She stood on unsteady legs and realized that the chill had seeped in through her thin nightdress. As if Solas could sense her needs he padded over to the bed and retrieved her fur cloak, settling it around her shoulders. A grand thing, heavy black velvet trimmed with the fur of a silver alpha wolf, a king's ransom. At the moment she felt so weak it taxed her to even bear the weight of the garment, beloved though it was. Her wounds had healed over, certainly, but she still felt the ache, and it taxed her more than she liked to admit.
"I...would prefer to commune with the Creators first," she said. The moonlight coming in through the window of her tower room told her she and Solas had awoken at the witching hour, a perfect time to speak to her gods.
"Aislinn..." Solas said, tone conveying a protest before he'd even spoken the words. She turned to look at him and, for one horrifying moment, she saw the wasp's eyes where his should have been.
"I swear to you, I will go to the healer afterward," she managed. It was as though she had reached the bank of an ocean and, diving deep, had encountered some eldritch horror at the bottom. "But...my soul is tilting on its axis. I need Falon'din's guidance."
Solas gave a little bow. "I will respect your wishes. However, if you become ill again..."
"There are always people in the gardens," she pointed out, wrapping her cloak a little tighter. Of a sudden, she didn't want him to look at her body, so vulnerable in just a flimsy nightgown. "They would not hesitate to call for help, if it became necessary."
Solas sighed, but to his credit she could see him try to stifle it, to avoid burdening her with his concerns.
"Ar lath ma. Be safe."
She nodded, then turned and let herself out into the crisp nighttime.
The leaves and flowers on display in the herb garden shone with the pallid glow afforded by the moon. Aislinn slipped off her shoes and let her toes curl in the plush grass, so sensitive she could distinguish individual blades, the crunch of a dandelion folded over and buried. She reached down and plucked some mint to chew; the sour taste in her mouth unbearable. She found a seat on the stone bench, the one under the oak tree near the center of the garden. She might as well have been alone, so few souls had found their way here as she had, but she felt her center again and her worry ebbed. The dream became something done in watercolors, hazy and indistinct.
"Ah. So another finds their way to the oak tree, when there is much on their mind."
Morrigan's voice didn't make her jump. Somehow it seemed appropriate, fitting in neatly with this lush nighttime paradise.
"You have the right of it, witch," Aislinn said, the word tendered kindly enough. Morrigan took a seat beside her. Morrigan smelled of the herbs here, and under it a scent like the fur of a wandering cat. Her magic felt the way ozone did, after a lightning storm. "And what thoughts bring you here, this night?"
"Shall I demand you speak first?" She said, and Aislinn could readily picture her arch expression without having to look. Something unwound in Aislinn's chest, and the words came as readily as a spring rain.
"I had an...unsettling dream. And then I was sick. I spent much to chase Decadence away."
"And you are worried you are the key, are you not?"
"Oh come, tis apparent. Surely you jest that it is otherwise."
Aislinn fisted her hands tight in the fluttering fabric of her skirt, her cloak whispering open like a set of curtains drawn in a quiet reading room. She let the night embrace her, caring not about shielding herself now.
"It...is so," she said, bowing her head.
"And why would Decadence be drawn to you, I wonder?"
"Spare me your games," Aislinn gritted. "You know perfectly well that I am a blood mage."
She could hide it readily from those who had no mana within them, and even from lesser mages. Morrigan, however, was neither of those things.
"Aye, tis true. But I care not for the prejudices of templars and nobles," Morrigan said, firm. Support? From the Witch of the Wilds? Aislinn accepted it with little protest; despite having Solas nearby, she felt alone.
"I fear I may have given too much of myself, trying to keep her back. Perhaps...perhaps my spells, all the blood I've spilled...what if it gave her a weakness to exploit, and me all unknowing?" She curled her toes in the grass again, hoping it would anchor her to the earth, to sanity.
"You cannot know the true machinations of demons," Morrigan pointed out. She hadn't shifted her weight at all; perhaps she truly didn't feel even the slightest discomfort around a maleficar. "You are clever, and a talented sorceress, so you have avoided the consequences visited on so many of our kind. But you cannot divine everything. That is the price you pay when you draw on blood."
"You are correct," she allowed, not voicing the bitter of course that she would have liked to append to her statement.
"Mayhap we could come up with a plan, instead of sitting around waiting for this hellish bitch to attack us," Morrigan said, her words as bold as a war banner. "Seek out her nest, and destroy her where she least expects it."
"When my brother returns, we should speak to him about it. Decadence is haunting him even when she's not present, haunting all of them."
"They are not the only ones. You carry the weight of all this on your shoulders. Wings may allow you to fly, but feathers sit heavy."
Images of her mother welled up in her mind's eye, her pale face, her black braid and black eyes. Riona the Crow Woman, a shapeshifter. Like Morrigan. She wished she had more than just fragments, feelings, spare images. The hole in her heart pulsed with want, yawning open.
Something sunk leaden into her belly as she fidgeted with the embroidered edges of her sleeve.
"I..." She had not the words, to describe the unease she'd felt as of late. She knew Amjad had never fully trusted Solas, but until recently she had always fully believed whatever he'd told her. She'd believed in him. Could this confusion be Decadence's work? An attempt to muddle her thoughts, weaken her, so the demon could creep in and possess her? The wasp from her dream appeared unbidden, sinking its stinger into her arm all over again. Solas, standing there with its eyes like holes bored into the abyss. Where had the Solas from even a scant few days ago gone, the one who could undo her utterly, the one who was her stability, her calm center?
She must have given away her feelings in some way, because she felt Morrigan put a steady hand on her shoulder.
"Breathe," Morrigan whispered. Aislinn obeyed, drawing in long, deep lungfuls of honeysuckle and prophet's laurel.
"Is it something to do with your love, Aislinn?" She looked at Morrigan as if Morrigan were the one stinging her.
Morrigan snorted, her yellow beast's eyes shimmering.
"It is easily deduced," she said, lifting her head as haughty as a queen. If Aislinn were in a less vulnerable state, she might have stood up and walked away without another word. As it was, she saw the behavior for what it was, a defense. Not so unlike the pride her brother cultivated and wore like a garland, forced to be as unyielding as the oak she and Morrigan sat under; a Dalish could never be truly free, if they chose to be polite. Shems, the kind that called for Exalted Marches and Alienage purges, only understood violence. The Inquisitor must in every way conduct himself as rightful king, ready to wield the executioner's sword. Perhaps Morrigan felt the same, in her own peculiar way.
"He...I am not sure if he is my beloved," she said in a rush. She clapped a hand to her mouth as if she could stop the words from coming out, as horrified as if hissing serpents had dropped from her lips instead. The memory of Decadence stealing that orgasm from her when she'd lain with Solas, what felt like an Age ago...was that the source of all this anxious idiocy that had so overtaken her?
"Ah. The Brangwen curse." Morrigan said, unruffled. "The Inquisitor has mentioned it, in my hearing." Whether or not Morrigan had eavesdropped, she conveniently failed to mention.
"Aye." Creators, was it true? Did she doubt so? Again she wondered about Decadence and the influence the demon could wield from afar.
"Is it truly a geas? I know of such things." Morrigan told her. Aislinn looked over at the witch again, noting that even though Morrigan had chosen to dress in rather skimpy clothing, she did not shiver despite the chill in the air. She had her raven's feather-hair twisted up in a bun, pinned with a long, sharp pin that glittered when she turned her head. She looked nigh on too thin, her shoulders and wrists delicate; was she not eating? What kept Morrigan up at night?
"It is. Many clans believe that when they are formed, certain traits are imparted. Usually, we are named after our progenitor, and the story of that progenitor shapes us. It can guide us, or drive us mad. The Brangwen curse...does both."
"A curse, and yet you are concerned that you are not under its thumb?" Morrigan scoffed. Aislinn studied Morrigan's face and saw a depth of emotion that surprised her. The conversation must have touched on something personal; it wasn't just shem prejudice that made Morrigan push back against the notion.
Still, how could she explain such a thing to an outsider? Shemlen thought in such black and white ways, even witches. The geas was the Brangwens to bear. And, it imparted more than just insanity and sorrow. Look at how Amjad felt about Dorian, the way Amjad would do nigh anything to protect his beloved. How happy they could be, in the rare moments when they had no pressing concerns. The certainty that someone out there in the world was meant for you, that even the slim possibility of finding your beloved could impart such strength, such faith.
"It...there is more to it than that," she said, lamely enough.
"I think you should revel in your freedom," Morrigan told her in no uncertain terms.
"If Solas is not your beloved, then you are free. You may do as you like with him, and the universe may mind its own business."
"It is not so simple. If he is not, it means I don't love him."
"Not all love is a grand ball. Some loves are hearth fires that you may rest beside for a time, or humble parties held at the village green."
"And you would know this because...?" She couldn't keep all the venom from her voice, but Morrigan appeared unmoved.
"At one time I cared little for others and even less for their feelings. But...having traveled the world, I...think differently. I have seen many loves and lovers, those that end in tragedy. In joy. And perhaps worst of all, in mediocrity. Cherish your freedom, while you have it." The silence stretched between them for a moment, a lady unfurling a silken sail. Morrigan gestured at the ground before them, and for the first time Aislinn noticed the wild violets there. "Do you see those flowers?" She asked, her breath filling that sail with a robust tailwind. They grew as they preferred, without tending. Yet they are as beautiful as some carefully manicured patch of earth. Perhaps moerso, when viewed with the proper eyes."
Aislinn knew a little about Morrigan. Like all of them, Sister Nightengale had screened her as much as possible and was Morrigan's old traveling companion, besides. She knew that Morrigan was fleeing some power greater than herself, and for the first time she wondered at what Morrigan must have felt, being stalked in such a manner, over the surface of the earth and even through the ephemera of the Fade.
"Thank you," she said as she stood. "I should return to my bed."
"As you will," Morrigan said, with a wave of her hand.
Aislinn retreated, and only afterwards did she realize she'd left her shoes behind.
Freedom. Yet it feels empty. What I would give, to be shackled.