Alistair was always the last one to know when it came to monastery gossip, but even he heard about it when Cullen volunteered to go to the Tower of Magi, for it was the subject of piercing whispers wherever Cullen wasn't. It wasn't like he and Cullen were close, of course, since Alistair had never managed to fit in among the faithful and Cullen was famously devout, but Cullen just wasn't the sort of guy whose name one heard bandied about in the halls. Since the news had spread, though, Alistair could hardly turn a corner without running into someone's opinion.
Keane's expression of perpetual bewilderment only deepened when considering the Cullen dilemma. Alistair had always sort of liked Keane for his constant confusion, because sitting next to the man in class made anybody look like an utter brainiac. "I just don't see why the Revered Mother would let him go," Keane said plaintively near a storage closet to his equally clueless buddy, holding his square hands out palm-up. "He's only going to be a danger to himself there, right? With all the temptations and mages and stuff?"
Leland was typically brusque about it on the breakfast line. "He's where he wants to be, doing the Chantry's work. Don't see what's the fuss. None of this lot would want to go there anyhow. So much the better if he's keeping those sodding arrogant mage-types in line," he declared to everyone in earshot, and set his mash and eggs on the table with clattering finality.
Cullen himself was little-seen. Privately, Alistair thought Cullen was a fool for his fascination with the mages, too, and he was aware of the hypocrisy of it, the little mud idol strung round his neck a spot of uncanny warmth beneath his shirt day in and day out. At least Alistair kept his dangerous runic fascinations to himself, though. Cullen was almost flashy about it in his absent-minded disregard of watching eyes, nose buried intently in some history of magic and templars, squinting at old scrolls in the library, and asking why, why, always asking why. There was no damned why, Alistair wanted to snap sometimes. It was the way of the Chantry, and no one was ever going to give him a better answer than that.
But now Cullen, fresh out of his initiation rite and all new-minted as a Templar, was heading off to the Tower, an assignment any normal man would dread, an assignment for which Cullen had volunteered as soon as he was able. Everyone was giving Cullen a wide berth. It seemed wrong, somehow; unsportsmanlike. Cullen had been given to the Chantry at birth, had been here longer than almost anyone, and yet on the eve on his departure, he sat in a little island of isolation by the corner window.
Cullen didn't dislike him anymore than anyone else did, anyway, so far as Alistair knew. So the man might tolerate a word from Alistair on his last night in the abbey. "Mind if I sit?" Alistair asked, holding his tray.
Cullen looked up at him, startled. "Er, right. Sure," he said, and then stared down at his meal.
They were a few moments in silence as Alistair prodded his gruel without interest and Cullen sawed at a slab of dry meat on his plate, until Alistair finally said, "It's got to be weird, leaving."
Cullen shrugged. "I think it's about time," he said. Alistair had to lean in to hear him. "I think it's pretty clear" --Cullen's soft voice fell even further-- "that this is no home for me anymore."
It'd never been a home for Alistair, but Cullen might as well have set up a cot in front of the statue of Andraste in the chapel. That's why it was doubly weird that he'd request to be sent off to the Magi and earn the doubt and mistrust of his brothers thereby. Straight to the point, then.
"Why'd you volunteer, man?" Alistair asked, and watched Cullen's jaw tighten. "You know they all think you're mad for it."
"I don't care what they say," Cullen said flatly. "I put my duty first. That's what matters."
"Well," Alistair said skeptically, "yeah, sure, but -- hey, it's not about lyrium, is it?" Cullen drew back, visibly horrified, and Alistair waved his hands soothingly. "Sorry. Didn't really figure it was." That had been Mabry's pet theory, but Mabry had all the brains of a sparrow and half the imaginative capacity. "I mean, Chantry controls whatever the Circle gets, and it's not like you're running to Orzammar or something."
"They really say that?" Cullen looked disgusted, a quick flash of feeling that wrenched his broad features. "I serve the Maker and the Chantry, for Andraste's sake."
“Yeah, and the serving girl serves us stew, technically speaking. If you can even call it stew when it’s all that sort of weird gray—anyway." Alistair cleared his throat. "I'm certainly not saying that you don't." He abandoned the pretense of paying any attention to the gruel on his plate and turned to face Cullen more fully, one hand clenching up on the pitted wooden table. “But everyone knows how you are about mages. Asking about them all the time, eyes like saucers every time another Templar comes back with a story, and now volunteering to up and go... you see how it looks odd, right?"
“What is it to you? What is it to anyone what I decide to do?” Cullen said, raising his chin, dark brown eyes meeting Alistair's own with unwonted forthrightness. “The Chantry needs Templars there anyway. If the Revered Mother assented to it, it’s not up to us to question.“
“Hell it’s not,” Alistair said. “There’s a lot I question about the Revered Mother.”
"Well, you shouldn't."
"Cullen, I'm not trying to attack you!" Alistair said in exasperation. "But if you're going to the Tower, you ought to be prepared. The Magi are -- the Magi are highly -- highly, um. Questionable." He frowned, shot a look past Cullen to the gardens visible through the window. The Revered Mother liked to say that the mages were a lot of abominations-in-waiting, and their Tower a den of snakes. Alistair thought that was a sorry way to talk about people, but... well.
“You sound like the Revered Mother,” Cullen muttered. Alistair raised an eyebrow at him, and Cullen said, “Well, you do.”
“Honored as I am to be compared to the finest old bird to spread her wings since the last High Dragon,” Alistair said dryly, “you don't think she might have a point sometimes, Cullen? A little bit? The last archdemon was slain two hundred years ago, but new mages are born every day. Just think about it.”
Cullen shrugged noncommittally. The next morning, he was gone.
And Alistair had envied him a little, then, for the certainty with which he went. There were days he wasn’t certain if his boot laced up or down, let alone whether or not the Chantry had the right of it about mages. Perhaps Cullen had the right of it, after his own besotted fashion.
Cullen didn't go alone, of course -- Orval was being sent to the Tower as well, though he'd not volunteered for it, and his brother Paley was headed for Ostagar, to support the team of Templars who had been sent out there to root in the ruins for a rumored family of maleficarum. At any rate, Alistair left Cullen to his glorified babysitting, for he was in the second group of novices due to take their final vows that year.
The night before becoming a Templar was to be spent in solitary religious contemplation in various nooks and crannies of the abbey. No one was assigned spots, though, and it wasn't a very big abbey, so Alistair wound up sharing the vegetable garden with two ripe and somber souls who seemed intent on misting the herbs all night, judging by their heavy mouth-breathing. Alistair thought he would go mad with distraction, kneeling there in the northeast corner near the turnips as Bromley sniffled every two minutes by the cabbage patch and Edric mumbled hilariously lisped snatches of prayer and the Chant.
He shifted uneasily in his heavy armor, the red steel making little noises like keys being rubbed together. His knees soon began to ache. Then his neck, from attempting to keep it inclined at an angle of suitable piety. A few ants marched by him, manfully hoisting up some crumbs with their fellows, more martial by far in their discipline and coordination than he himself could ever hope to be. A mosquito attempted to make a meal of his right cheek, dissuaded only by a rather forceful flick that left his dimple area stinging. (He didn't actually have a dimple, a fabrication error the mosquito had apparently been trying to correct.)
He rolled his shoulders, feeling like a golem, and regarded the gritty dirt. He tried to remember Transfigurations 1:1-5, and only remembered that one bit about magic and man that everybody already knew -- oh, and that bit about "they shall be called maleficars, accursed ones." He'd tried that line on Garrick once after the fellow cheated blatantly at fox-and-hounds, but the brothers hadn't found it quite as funny as he had, though Alistair had practiced his throaty unctuous delivery of the line for weeks, awaiting just the right time to unleash it. One had to inject interest into the Chant somehow.
Not less than an hour into the vigil, Alistair couldn't even pretend that his thoughts were devotional in nature. He snuck a peek around. Edric was rocking a little bit as he intoned his prayers, the bliss on his round face frankly off-putting. Bromley sneezed wetly onto his breastplate, droplets glittering on the metal like a necklace of plague. The moon poured light into the garden like a maiden with a water jug, illuminating the simple graven face of the Maker's Prophet swimming above them all.
Alistair breathed in deep of the cold night air and yet his thoughts remained below. Cold wind knifed through the sliver-like gaps between the plates of his armor, raising goosebumps where he wasn't sweating, and he thought of the places he could be that weren't here. He thought of Redcliffe Castle and its high ceilings, the stolid stone and firm square architecture, and of the arl, whom he'd never known not gray-haired and grave. He thought of the arl's pretty Orlesian wife and the twist of her pretty lips as she regarded him.
The weight of all the thinking bowed his head the way the demands of obedient piety had not, and the shadows in the garden crept on like mildew and slime. This was why Alistair hated the damn quiet, why he'd fill it with any idiotic or ill-considered word whenever it stretched its arms all unwelcome, because the silence always turned him maudlin and moping like he was ten years old and homesick for hay. Really, he’d take the damned Korcari Wilds if he had to, and all the cunning Chasind folk those woods cared to throw at him. He’d cobble an Orlesian’s pretty boots, smuggle for the dwarves, go flower-picking for the Dalish, whatever. Just not here, not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not a Templar.
What was he to do, though? In his dreams, he was a Grey Warden, a hero who cut down demons to save Ferelden from annihilation. But that order had been finished off centuries ago, and no one was going to show up to save him at the last moment with a Rite of Conscription, no matter how dramatically satisfying a denouement that might have been. Over time, Alistair had more or less accepted his fate as a Chantry drone, he’d thought – come to be quite mature and reasonable about the whole thing, really. But now on the eve of the event, all he wanted to do was dig in his heels and shout no.
Which was impossible, stupid, and irresponsible.
He found himself praying for it anyway in the silverite darkness, the articulated joints of his gloves creaking as his hands tightened around one another. He prayed wordlessly for rescue, setting his teeth against the cry that threatened to tear out of his throat. Maybe rescue would come as a forgotten Grey Warden from some dusty corner of the Anderfels, rekindling that dormant order with a few judiciously plucked young talents -- Alistair wasn't the best, but he was better than most, right? He was good enough.
Or maybe someone could tell his father he existed, and King Maric himself could march into the abbey (what a thought, the Revered Mother would be thrown into a worse tizzy than a pot on the boil). The idea made Alistair chuckle without mirth, and he could feel the sharp glance Edric threw at him. Yes, he could just picture it, the glorious King Maric (greater than life, a good seven feet tall at least) striding in to announce in a big booming voice, “You cannot have him, Chantry! He is my blood and I shall raise him up.” Son of a serving girl, fostered in a bleeding barn. Right.
Or he could just say "no," when those presiding over the ceremony asked if it was truly his will to do this thing, but Alistair knew himself well enough to know that was the least likely outcome of all. His shoulders hunched, his spine aching, and he opened his sticky, sleepy eyes to see faint light streaking the pearly mist with rose.
Bleakly, he raised his gaze to the horizon. He fancied he could see the Maker's turned back in the shadows of the dawn, taste His sorrow in the sodden damp. Sore and miserable, Alistair clanked to his feet. Bromley, poor dog, was shivering where he stood, had probably taken an ague in the cold and wet, while Edric had yet to unfold himself from before the statue of Andraste. The ass could probably spend another week fasting and praying his way to worthiness.
After the ordeal in the gardens, the ceremony itself was short and simple. The Knight-Commander of the town Chantry asked if it was his will to be given to this band of brothers; Alistair gave a wooden "yes" along with all the other novices. The Revered Mother herself placed her withered claw atop Alistair's head as she called down the Maker's blessings, her fingers tightening a little in his hair as if to warn her wayward charge not to disrupt the ritual with any improvised improvements. Alistair, nearly asleep on his feet, could have told her not to worry if that "yes" hadn't filled his mouth with the taste of ashes.
The Mother raised her thin voice high, reciting the Commandments of the Maker. When she paused, the Knight-Commander spoke, though in truth, his words ran together in Alistair's hearing. It was something about magic and sin -- when wasn't it one or the other with the Chantry? -- and as the Knight-Commander went on about their duties to the Maker and the Chantry as if the two were one, the sisters went round to each of the novices in turn. It was pretty sister Euthalia who came before Alistair, a pinch of lyrium dust twinkling like crushed stars between her fingers, and she placed it on his tongue, and slit his world.
The lyrium lit him right up like a tower's beacon. The essence of power and dreaming sluiced through him, and in its grip he saw a great man in massive armor with haunted eyes, and his heart ached for the grief and fear writ 'cross that stranger's beloved face. He felt himself raise a sword again and again until his arms trembled, an endless whistling song as the blade cleaved the air, endless blood as it rose and fell. Before his eyes there stood a single, golden prince, destiny his mantle and glory his crown -- betrayed, felled before his time. Before his eyes there stood the dread beauty of a corrupted god baring its teeth, its flared, taut wings shivering in challenge -- screaming, its blood-lustrous eyes insensible and mad.
The eyes boiled, red ruby to topaz, golden and cunning. Scales softened to skin, mere human flesh, the glitter of madness retreating, and yet there remained that beauty, that same dread beauty, and a sharp, sharp smile that doubled in his vision, curved like dragons' fangs --
It was well into afternoon before Alistair came back to himself, gasping. Someone, perhaps Sister Euthalia, must have led him back to his quarters, though he didn't remember anything between now and the lyrium. Seated on the edge of the bed, elbows on his knees, he caught his breath and stared at his boots. He was a Templar now.
After Alistair meets with the Revered Mother, he is sent on his way to his first mission as a Templar: seeking a renegade mage.
A scarce hour after his first lyrium sickness passed, Alistair received a summons for an audience with the Revered Mother.
When Alistair was first sent to the Chantry, he'd acted up a great deal. He'd been furious at being sent to this oubliette of a monastery, horrified that he was being given over to a vocation he'd never felt and a calling he'd never wanted, and heartbroken at being forced to leave Redcliffe, the only home he'd ever known. He would refuse to eat, sass the poor monks set to teach him the Chant, and wedge himself into disused pantries to escape religious instruction.
And inevitably, the Revered Mother would have him hauled out and summoned to be disciplined under her stern eye, a discipline which consisted of ten to twenty stern whacks across the backside with a sturdy switch he was made to fetch from the courtyard. The whacks themselves were administered by Sister Bernadette, whose strong arm might have felled many a maleficar had she been a Brother Bern instead, and with every downswing of the switch, the Mother would chant. "He shall judge their lies." "They shall find no rest."
He'd used to cry, afterward, more from the indignity of it than the pain, although Sister Bernadette was an undoubtedly doughty disciplinarian. Even when he grew too old to spank, a summons from the Mother sent a quiver of dread through his gut. He took a deep breath, and opened the door.
"Revered Mother," said Alistair humbly, took two steps forward, and knelt before her, bowing his head. She sat in a padded chair like a vulture on a throne, her robes of office wilting about her bony shoulders. In this small receiving chamber, the scent of the old woman was strong, like the medicinal whiff one got opening a pack of homemade poultices. It made his nose itch horribly.
For all the years that creased the skin of her thin face, her grey eyes were as sharp and cool as the side of a blade. "Boy," she said. She sniffed, and Alistair's nose twitched in sympathy. "It's about time you took the lyrium and vowed yourself to the Maker. It's off to hunt apostates and maleficarum for you."
He remained silent, kneeling. The Chantry had this blasted passion for kneeling, no wonder all the elder brothers and sisters had joint problems, Alistair thought.
"I expect," stated the Revered Mother, "that you will be diligent. Now you are ours, and it is needful that you be diligent -- and obedient." The tone of her voice changed, quavering and thoughtful. "Maric's boy..."
Startled, Alistair glanced up at her. Of course the Revered Mother would have known who he was, he thought, of course that made sense, but she'd never once commented on it before, and the old woman laughed at his surprise, a wheezing susurration. "You are willful and insolent, but you've a strong arm and you're of the blood. You'll do."
Unaccountably, her words stung.
"You know, Mother," Alistair said with a lightness he did not feel, and took a breath, "Brother Mucian said the difference between an apostate and a maleficar didn't really matter. Is that so?"
"Brother Mucian was right," said the old woman in her chair, turning her head to look outside the window. A bird fluttered by through shards of sunlight, and they both fell silent, Alistair staring hard at the floor until she spoke again. "A mage that does not live in the Tower has forfeited the forbearance of the Maker, boy, and brought His anger and sorrow down upon themselves. They have refused the serenity of the Maker to chase pale shadows of His glorious world in the Fade. They are impious and unforgiven. Do not forget, boy: magic exists to serve man and never to rule over him."
"I know," Alistair muttered.
"And we have one such for you."
She rustled about in her sleeve, and her trembling hand held out to him a rolled up piece of vellum, black ribbon tied round it. "Here is the codex," she said. She pursed her lips, regarding him. "Now go."
The land of Ferelden was not much different from what Alistair remembered of his childhood in Redcliffe. The earth was not that singular reddish clay -- rather, the whole country was the same sort of mud-splattered grey as Sister Aelia's best efforts at lunchtime -- but it was lumpy and dusty, and sometimes great swathes of grass poked through like the bristles of a beard. The bandits knew better than to attack a Templar on the go, and it was good to be out of the monastery, to be free of all that sober stone and the vegetable gardens and the sanctimony by turns dreary and infuriating.
His last meeting with the Revered Mother bothered him, and it was a few days on the road before Alistair figured out why. It wasn't just her utterly typical Andrastian self-righteousness. It wasn't that she'd handed him his first mission personally, a task usually reserved for the Knight-Commander, and it wasn't simply that he went alone, when no other fresh initiate would have been sent solo on this task. It was her final words to him, and the narrow sentiment she had found so crucial to impart to him before he left, and the way she had swept his question aside the way Brother Mucian had.
For the difference between apostate and maleficar had always seemed to Alistair rather damned critical. It was the difference between practicing forbidden witchy arts that really hurt people, and simply disliking having to be shut up in the Circle Tower all the time. One was evil, and one was, what, mistaken? Fed up with the Chantry? Even Alistair couldn't stand being surrounded by Templars, and he was one.
Perhaps Cullen had hit upon that stubborn theological distinction, the one people like the Revered Mother and Brother Mucian preferred to leave for the clerics to nibble over like curs over a dirty old bone. And if that was why Cullen had left, so that the mages would have at least one eye that looked upon them with Andraste's mercy, then they had all underestimated the fellow.
He wrapped in cloth the codex he'd been given and stowed it in his bag, taking it out only occasionally to refresh his memory as he traveled. The quarry he sought was a talented neophyte just past the Harrowing who had run off against all expectations, quite disappointing the First Enchanter’s high hopes and last spotted near Lothering. By name of Jacinta Surana, she was young and fair, about shoulder-height to a grown man with a tattoo down her face. Distinctive enough in appearance, surely, that even a single untried Templar could locate her, Alistair tried to think with confidence -- even though the clever thing had shattered her own phylactery, rather complicating the chase.
The people he encountered were clueless no matter what way Alistair tried to ask them, "So, seen this elf?" Even taverns yielded no useful gossip, though Alistair nursed his way through many a glass of cranberry juice trying. But once the fields bowed before the encroaching forest, Alistair began to pay attention, for he saw the signs of recent habitation: smoldering ashes beneath kicked-over clods of dirt, the indentations in moss patches where a body might have lain, even, once, strands of what looked like white-gold hair blown all about a thicket like dandelion seeds.
They might have circled around each other for a few days more, he in no great hurry, she rather surprisingly poor at woodcraft for an elf, had the girl lit her fire by mundane means. But she did not.
It woke him from his sleep, his senses still lyrium-seared and stinging from the rite of initiation. Somewhere, he was aware of a warm and steady burst of magical energy, and somehow, blinking awake into the primeval darkness, he knew which way he had to go. After buckling on his armor, he rose, sword in hand, and made his way through the trees in the direction his strange new instinct was inexorably drawing him.
Not fifty paces from his own bedroll, he sighted a flickering glow, bobbing like a spell wisp, and he drew close.
By the uncanny fire knelt the small figure of the renegade mage, nearly facing him, though she stared moodily at the fire and did not note his approach. In the slices of illumination the campfire threw, he could see glimpses of her face: a strong jaw, stubborn lips, painfully young eyes. From this angle, he could see the notable tattoo that slanted and curved from the straight line of her brow to her high cheekbone; this close, he could see the shadow of her lashes twitching on her cheek. As he watched, she shut her eyes and bowed her head, uneven wisps of hair falling forward. Even the staff strapped to her back seemed to humbly bob.
Was she praying?
Abominations-in-waiting were not supposed to pray. Then again, they were not supposed to be that young and small, either, and they were not supposed to wear the face of a girl in pain, and certainly nothing about them should summon this dreadful sympathy. He felt a pompous fool, interrupting her in her sorrow or grief or whatever it was that so huddled her there before the fire, but he was sworn to this duty, so he stepped out of the trees.
The mage's head jerked up, her eyes an uncertain pale hue in the flame-washed night, face drained of color as she met his gaze. Alistair felt the ridiculous need to apologize, but he had to read her the script. "Jacinta Surana," he began, his voice too loud in the ancient night, faltering slightly at her bloodless terror. "Uh, you are in violation of the laws of Ferelden and the rules of the Circle, so, I have been sent to remand you unto the custody of the Circle and Chantry. If you don't voluntarily," what was the word, "accede, your lack of cooperation will be noted and you'll be returned by force."
Maker, but he felt cruel. He felt monstrous. The girl stumbled to her feet, yanking her staff from its sheath. "Oh, please don't make it force," he advised earnestly, but it was too late.
It’d been an easier world when the Magi were all abominations-in-waiting. Alistair supposed he should have learned by now that the Chantry simplified the world for its faithful the way a mother bird dropped mushed-up bits into its chick’s mouth, but it still shocked him when the little details were all wrong: when speaking to a pretty woman did not result in either party being fried by a bolt of disapproving lightning, when unmarried women introduced their adorable kids, and when the thought of doing his duty made him want to throw up.
The shards of ice she flung at him were at least a fair distraction from his queasiness. She did her best to hold him at a distance, but he learned, in the minutes of that fight, to side-step the searing blue-white glyph on the ground; that those shards of ice would not stab him but encase him, dulling his quick human blood, slowing his steps, but that he could still fight that cold, and lurch onwards; that mages wore no armor worth a damn, that when cut they did in fact bleed, and quite a lot, at that.
His limbs aching with cold, he forced his sword up high and knocked her staff out of his way as he brought it down. The keen edge bit through her travel-worn robes into her thigh, flesh offering only token resistance, and she cried out, staggering back. His blow had struck true; all of his blows had. He felt the lyrium-bought certainty that her mana was running lower, now, that she would be weaker, she would summon only snow and rain now and not ice and frost, her glyphs would warp even as she tried to lay them down, and he was sorry, all right? She was limping, and he shut his eyes and drew in his breath to focus, to lay his mental defenses over one another like plates of armor. The higher-level Templar talents would have been easier on her, but he was new at this, okay? Sorry sorry sorry, he was a sorry sort, all right. Those bolts of arcana still hurt, sod it—
A sharp pain erupted in his gut, and his eyes flew open as he felt the hot stickiness of blood spread beneath his armor. She was right there, staring up at him, her eyes glittering huge in her colorless face, and after another sharp twist of the dagger, she stepped back. He dropped his sword with a thud that sounded very far away, his hands coming up to cover the locus of agony in his gut.
“But you’re a mage,” he said, inanely, his teeth beginning to chatter as his legs gave out, and with a clatter of useless armor he fell to his knees. “That’s n-not, that’s not fair…”
He saw that she had flung her staff aside, that the dagger in her hands was a small and wicked thing, and light, light enough for a slender mage girl to carry hidden in her wide belt, to put aside as a weapon of last resort. Blood shone on it, slick and dark. “You don't understand. I can’t go back,” she said, her voice choked. In his vision, she was beginning to blur. “I won’t. I can’t – oh, Maker, are you dying?”
“Maybe?” Alistair said, wavering on his knees, his hands clapped over the chink in his armor she had exploited. Cold sweat was running down the back of his neck. The pain kept pulsing, sharp and stabbing, the world throbbing in concordance with it. The mage girl’s robes were as dark with blood as the dagger had been. “I’ve never, ah, never died before, so I c-can’t really tell…”
Dizzily he saw her press her face into her hands, and either she was trembling or his vision was fluttering like an addled bird. “Okay, then,” he heard her mumble from very far away. “All right.”
“No,” Alistair protested faintly. “I don’t… want to…” But as he tried to get the words out, the girl was limping over to his side, and then she knelt by him, or rather, fell abruptly to one knee as though dropped there. He felt her cold hand on his forehead, and then at last his eyes closed their curtains on the world and all was black.
Alistair and Jacinta: not exactly what you picture when you imagine "the morning after."
Alistair woke up with several sources for alarm.
For one, he no longer wore a breastplate or indeed a shirt at all. His abdomen was crisscrossed with knotted, uneven strips of blue and purple cloth, colors Alistair did not wear, since the Chantry didn't really care what color brought out a Templar's eyes and so whatever it provided that wasn't armor was slate gray. For another, he was lying on the patchy grass near the smoldering remains of a campfire, and while Templars did not precisely travel in luxury, he certainly had a perfectly acceptable bedroll which he could not espy anywhere near him. For a third, as Alistair realized when he attempted to sit up, there was an ache in his gut that grew sharp whenever he tried to engage his abdominal muscles, even in so simple an exercise as achieving upright posture.
But he forced himself upright anyway, a sort of heightened panic sweeping away the last cobwebs of sleep, and his fourth source for alarm lay crumpled in a small, unmoving pile of travel-worn robes nearby, tangled blond hair strewn across her black-stamped cheek. He stared at her warily for a moment, but she made no movement affirming life, let alone consciousness.
She was close enough, so awkwardly bracing himself with one hand, Alistair reached out with the other and shook her shoulder. "Hellooo?" he ventured, wondering if he ought to hoist her up over his shoulder and march manfully over to the Lothering Chantry, mission accomplished. His throbbing stomach twinged emphatic protest at the idea. He shook her shoulder again, gently. "Good morning?"
The puddled mage groaned, but the pile of robes began to ripple, to Alistair's tremendous relief; he'd half begun to fear he'd crippled or slain the girl outright. Haltingly, she sat up, blinking slowly, and raked her hair out of her face, looking around. When her gaze caught Alistair's, her eyes went wide. With a small muffled sound, she scuttled backward in the dirt, her hand grasping behind her for her staff.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Alistair exclaimed as the mage swung the point of her staff to the tip of his nose, where it stayed, wavering only slightly. The girl's face was set and grim, youth belied by determination. "Okay. Let's talk, because you really, really don't want to go doing that again."
"I'm relieved you're not dead, I really am," the girl said, raising her chin. "I didn't want the Chantry after me for killing a Templar, so I did what I could, and I bound you up like normal people do, too, just in case. But you have to understand. I'm not coming with you to the Chantry, and I won't go back to the Circle, and I'll stab you again if you try to make me, and I won't heal you and you'll just have to try your luck if you try to make me." Her green eyes were as bleak as withered leaves.
"Wait. You healed me?" Alistair said, blinking.
"Well, yes," she admitted. The tip of the staff dipped a little bit. "I'm not the best at it, but I panicked, and -- if you died I'd be in so much trouble, and it wouldn't be... I didn't -- I'm not --" She exhaled in frustration, her fingers tightening around the staff. "I am not a blood mage. I don't want anyone to suffer. I just want to be on my way."
"Uh..." Discretion being the better part of diplomacy, Alistair didn't explain how that wasn't a possibility. "Let's just go one thing at a time. For example, if you don't mind?" Tentatively, Alistair reached up and nudged the staff away from his nostrils. "That thing's driving me cross-eyed."
She didn't release her staff, but she did lower it for the moment. Alistair was silent, thinking. It was clear enough from her tattered robes that she'd torn them up to her knee to bandage him -- either that, or the Circle had revised its idea of appropriate Maker-fearing garb, in which case no wonder Cullen had booked it for the Tower. What could he even say to her? Alistair hadn't expected to have to talk the mage girl into coming with him. Apostates were supposed to be brought back by any means necessary, including death.
Of course, Alistair thought ruefully, it might help if he could sit up without pain first. The wound had closed without being stitched, but it still hurt with his every movement. Jacinta Surana, no older than he was and with zero years of weapons training to his ten, had surprised and bested him; he should have been better prepared.
"My name's Alistair," he finally said.
"I'm Jacinta," said the girl, and looked away. The tip of one long elven ear poked through her hair, the wheat-blonde ends as ragged as her robes. "But you already knew that. You're a Templar."
"Well-spotted," Alistair said.
She gave him a baleful look. "And they sent you to find me. Right?"
"Yes," Alistair allowed, "that's true, but--"
"And they told you I was a maleficar." Jacinta glanced at him, her mouth holding a stern line. "Right? They told you I was a blood mage. Well, I'm not. I healed you, and see?" She yanked a voluminous sleeve up and thrust her arm out at him, underside up. The pale flesh was indeed clean and unmarked. "No cuts. No blood. No blood magic."
"You could have cut somewhere else," Alistair couldn't help but point out, pricked by Maker knew what brand of pointless argumentativeness. "You could have cut someone else. You could have healed the evidence. How were you even able to spellcast after all of that?"
"I had a spare potion." Her brow furrowed, and she gave her sleeve a hard pull down, smoothing it into place. "Anyway, I didn't. And I wouldn't. Just because Jowan is a blood mage doesn't mean I'm one."
Jacinta threw him an odd look as she grabbed a small pack by the strap and pulled it over to herself, slinging it across her torso. "Didn't they tell you? I thought the Templars they sent after me would know."
"Well, the one they sent doesn't." Alistair shifted uncomfortably, wincing, and rubbed sleep gunk out of one eye. By the height of the sun, it was nearly midmorning, and here he was, trying to apply the techniques that had coaxed Blythe's cat out of the supply closet to one understandably reluctant mage. And he still didn't have so much as a tunic on, though between the two of them, he didn't know who came off more sartorially distressed.
She appeared to realize this just when he did, and leaned over nearly past the remains of the campfire to grab his shirt and toss it at him. It was torn where the dagger had gone through it, but it was certainly better than nothing, and he pulled it gratefully over his head. "Thanks," he said.
She merely nodded, and planted her staff in the dirt, using it to drag herself to her feet. The effort involved seemed tremendous, judging from the way her whole body shook. With alacrity, Alistair also rose, levering himself to his feet with the stalwart assistance of a nearby tree. He pressed his arm against his midsection just in case, though the wound did not reopen. "Do you need help?"
Jacinta shook her head, wavering on her feet, clearly favoring her right leg. "No. I'm fine. And I'm leaving."
He took a step forward. Jacinta took one back, and then the leg she was favoring buckled beneath her, and she half-fell to one knee, her face gone bloodless again with the pain. She pressed her forehead against the staff, her breath hissing between her teeth. Her robes stuck to her right leg, a dark stain spreading, glistening.
"Maker," Alistair breathed, "didn't you heal yourself?"
She looked up at him miserably. "You're very good at mana draining, did you know? My mana's still not back up. I used my last lyrium potion to heal that gut wound of yours, and I bled right through my last health poultice, and I've not got so much as a flask left. So, there goes my career as quartermaster, I guess."
"I'm sorry," Alistair said, not knowing what else to say, and it was kind of awkward that her tiny joke made him snicker a little, and the strain of guilt in his belly curdled. "Look, how about we head back to Lothering?" She got that stormy look on her face again, but he bulled on anyway, taking her by the elbow and helping her back to her feet. She leaned heavily on her staff, her right boot barely touching the ground. "You're not going to get anywhere in this state, and we can get you potions, poultices, flasks, whatever it is you need. Come on."
"No! You're just going to take me to the Chantry. I would rather sit here and rot."
"The Templars are not bad people!" Alistair said with an aggrieved sigh, pulling off a jointed glove so he could push his hand through his wild hair. "We aren't going to execute you if you aren't actually a blood mage or an abomination. We don't just go running people through willy-nilly because it's so fun." He fanned out a hand and shook it as though he were playing the tambourine. Jingling, jangling fun! Gutting apprentices shoved through the Harrowing too soon because some senior enchanter had something to prove! Right. "But the Circle and the Chantry do have to account for you," he explained, soberly, but gently, he thought. "That's all it is."
"I wish," she said quietly, her small hands tightening around her staff, and for the second time in as many days, she took him by surprise.
In Lothering, Alistair meets a redheaded Bard with news that quite abruptly reorganizes his priorities.
The knot on Alistair’s head throbbed. He had never actually been warned of the wallop those mage staffs could pack when used as makeshift cudgels, probably because a mage wasn't supposed to utilize their expensive and delicate instrument of spellcraft like an angry dwarf in a bar fight. He had to admire the girl’s resolve, though. He certainly hadn’t thought that soft voice and look of lambent sorrow betokened a stern and resounding swing aside his cranium.
She’d limped off as fast as her gimp leg could carry her while he staggered back, dazed, and he had elected to gather close his dignity and his supplies and take his time heading back to Lothering rather than pelt off after her all helter-skelter and risk reopening that gut wound. He was still rather suspicious of the magical heal, and he knew she would return to Lothering. Where else was she going to stock up on supplies? She had to at least stop by the general store before limping bravely off into the apostate sun.
And in his professional opinion, she was precisely that. Only apostate. Not maleficar. An important distinction to him and Cullen only, perhaps.
Lothering squatted on the horizon, an ungainly bundle of brown and gray against the soaring blue sky. During the last Blight, the darkspawn had taken it apart stick by stick, and it had never really recovered. A backwater then, it was now little more than a token Chantry around a mess of reclaimed swampland and rickety houses. If his boots didn't go up to the knee, he'd have lost at least one in the sucking churned mud of the town's paths.
The streets were curiously bereft of people, though here and there a curtain flicked quickly open and then closed. More curious than that, there were no Templars about, not even in front of the Chantry.
Alistair frowned at that as he passed by, troubled by the implications of such a lack. Very few things would occupy the attention of an entire garrison of Templars. An abomination nearby might, but Alistair was certain he would have been warned of such a thing before he left the abbey. Jacinta, while certainly a matter of concern, would not clear a Chantry of its complement of men, not without a history of the direst maleficarish deeds behind her. And the town was so damned quiet, like someone huddled and hopeless by the side of a road.
Only the tavern was open, and even that was all but empty, save for a dedicated career drunk slumping at his bar stool, a few gossips near the fireplace, and a young lutenist perched atop one of the tables. She glanced up from her instrument at Alistair's approach with a smile of welcome. Even from a distance, her eyes were a distinct and piercing blue.
"Hello, Templar," she said pleasantly. "Are you not out with the rest of the men? Or have you all returned?"
"I wish I could tell you," Alistair replied with a clanking shrug. "I'm not actually from the local Chantry. I'm afraid I haven't a clue what's happening in this town. I was hoping someone could fill me in, but Lothering seems half-abandoned. What's befallen this place?"
"Well, of course I am new in town as well,” said the young woman. A gentle Orlesian accent, just now apparent, gave her words a lilting cadence. “I am only passing through, but I understand there was some commotion on a farmhold nearby. Some monstrous creature slayed a family, from gray-haired elder to suckling babe, and the villagers were advised to keep indoors until further notice."
"An abomination?" Alistair asked, startled.
The woman shrugged, an elegant motion. "I cannot say. Your Templars are a close-mouthed lot. Either way, they have been gone much of the day, and should be back soon, considering the news out of the capital."
"Well, King Maric is dead," she said, and paused in her strumming to fine-tune her instrument while Alistair's stomach fell to his feet and flopped there. "They say it was his own son who killed him, Prince Cailan; killed him, and ran. While I am sorry for the royal family to be so torn, it is a good time for a Bard to be in Ferelden, so I shall stay a while till this tale comes to its end. Teyrn Loghain moves to be regent in his daughter's name, and they say that Cailan's absence convicts him as surely as a bloodied knife, for why would he run, were he not guilty?"
One of the drunks slobbering on his own arm nearby jumped, and gave Alistair a bleary, suspicious glare. Alistair ignored it as he pulled out a chair backwards and sat down in it with all the grace of a deactivated golem. He had met Cailan once, when they were both children, he still at Castle Redcliffe, Cailan blissfully unaware of anything besides the presence of an armory on the premises. He remembered Cailan as a goofy and excitable boy without an ounce of malice in him. Patricide? Cailan?
"No. It's not possible," he said firmly, sitting up straight and lifting his head to meet the Bard's keen eyes.
"Is it not?" she inquired, her brows tilting up. "In my country it certainly would be.”
"This isn't Orlais!" Alistair exploded. “King Maric has been an excellent king to our people, and there is no reason at all why Prince Cailan would have done such a thing. Is there any proof?"
"Who is to say? I have not examined any of it myself, of course," the young Bard said. "But they say Princess Anora, who is passing fond of her husband, has declared against him publicly, and so there must be something to it indeed."
"Yeah, sure, something vile. It's wretched and it's a lie. I don't believe it, not for a second."
The Bard looked impressed with his fervor. "Did you know them, to be so certain?"
"I — no. No, I didn't," said Alistair, and glanced down at the scarring on the table.
"I'm sorry," said the Bard gently, with such sincere regret that Alistair raised his head to scrutinize her face for some trace of mockery. "And in all this talk, I have not asked your name. Please forgive my lack of manners. I am called Leliana. And yourself?"
Leliana's eyes went wide, and she set aside her instrument on the bench along with any pretense of fussing with it further, leaning forward intently. "If you are Alistair, then you must come with me now."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Now. Please," she added urgently.
Before he quite knew what was happening, he found that she had led him briskly to a small guest room on the second floor, where she shut the door and locked it, then waited a moment with her ear to the door before straightening to face him. Candles flickered in their sconces, lit in early anticipation of the night by some conscientious servant. He stared at Leliana, feeling hulking and stupid in his tons of useless armor. "What is this about?"
The Bard drew herself up straight. "There is another piece of news from the capital," she said.
"And? You had to draw me into this spiderwebbed little room to discuss it?"
She crossed her arms, tilting her head at a challenging angle. "You are the bastard son of the King, are you not?"
For the second time that day he was left gaping. "I — what — I —"
Her eyes held no triumph, only a cool certainty. "The word is out. Teyrn Loghain is searching for the Templar Alistair, who has been exiled from the Order of the Templars due to abrogation of his sacred duties, under suspicion of assisting in the disappearance of his half-brother the Prince."
"I can't even spell abrogation, let alone commit it," Alistair sputtered.
"Your own Revered Mother has signed the order of expulsion." Leliana's voice was not so soft now, the accented flow of her words relentless. "There is a bounty on your head. Your life is as forfeit as that of a maleficar should a good Templar come across you."
"As that of a — I met Cailan once in my life! Precisely when and how was I supposed to have spirited him out of Denerim?" Alistair protested.
Leliana shrugged, not unkindly. "You were set up. That much is clear. What will you do now?"
"Does it matter?" Alistair glanced at the dirty window, so crusted over with grime and the elements that one could scarcely make out the setting sun. "No wonder the Revered Mother sent me alone. I'd wager the Knight-Commander didn't know I was gone until I was halfway to Lothering. Crafty old bird," and the laugh he'd intended came out choked.
"Forgive me if I overstep my bounds," Leliana said softly, "but in Orlais, the situation you find yourself in is not new. The advice I would offer you is simple, based on my own experience." There was a heavy pause, as though she waited for him to say yea or nay. He said nothing, the world throbbing around him. "You are a Templar, and your Order is not taught to wield lies, but the truth. You must seek this truth, and bring it to the capital, and confront this Teyrn Loghain with it.”
"Oh! Jolly good then, that ought to be simple enough. Give me a quick minute, I'll have it all sorted by breakfast tomorrow." Alistair's mouth tightened.
"I did not say it was simple. I said it was what you must do.”
"And what is it to you exactly? Why should I trust you?"
"Well," she murmured, "I suppose there is no reason." The uneven light of the dying sun seemed to touch her with halting reverence even through the filmy window. "But where there are great deeds or great mysteries afoot, it is only appropriate that a Bard be there as well, no? To record them, of course.”
"Or run about killing the protagonists and otherwise interfering with the plot. I've heard of Bards, you know." He meant to fix the young woman with a thunderous glare, but her smile curved up sweetly at him.
"I am honored you have heard of my colleagues, and if you have heard the least of the rumors about us, I do understand your mistrust." She brushed her dark red hair out of her eyes, her long sleeve falling back a little bit to reveal a delicate white wrist. "But I promise you, I am in Ferelden on my own, and not on anyone's behalf. And I do not think it is fair, what they have done to you, and I would like to help you, if you would have me. I would like the adventure. And I would like to help set something right."
"You're bloody mad," Alistair muttered.
Leliana laughed. "There are worse things, no?"
"You want to come along with a Chantry fugitive on the run from a murderous plot that's already killed the king and possibly his only heir, on a mission to figure out what the bleeding hell is going on in the capital so it can be set to rights before I get my throat unceremoniously slit in a dungeon somewhere, all the while dodging Templars and bounty hunters and whoever else likes the sound of coin in their purse?"
"When you put it that way, it does sound a little mad," the Bard allowed. "But that is why it is exciting, too, I think!"
"Riiiight," drawled Alistair, "exciting. Well — I assume you can fight?"
"It is the very first thing we learn in Bard school," Leliana promised him.
Alistair eyed her narrowly. "There is no such thing as Bard school, is there?" The mind boggled. Alistair imagined neat little rows of fashionable Orlesian assassins taking studious notes in some cavernous classroom. What classes would they have, even? Confusion to the Enemy: Turnabout is Fair Play? Sin and Skullduggery For the Good of the Empire? How to Seductively Remove Thirty Layers of Haute Couture?
Leliana merely beamed at him. "I shall go get my instrument, and we can turn our backs on this quaint little mudhole, yes?"
"Yeah. You... you do that," Alistair said, wishing for the umpteenth time that he could sound firm and commanding, like a king's son, instead of befuddled and disoriented, like an octogenarian. "You should fetch your things. Well, not all of them, I know how you Orlesians are. Leave all the frilled petticoats and designer shoes and whatnot. I'll wait here for you, but don't take long."
"All right!" the young woman chirped, and she bounded decisively off, the wooden door creaking shut behind her.
Once he was alone in the room, Alistair took off a glove and plunged a hand into his pack, rummaging through the contents for a little phial he knew had to be there. He had not taken it since leaving the monastery, deliberately holding off until the urge to take it again grew to an almost irresistible mental clamor. The Templars' rations were absolute and without exception; those who used their lyrium up early in any given period were simply left to deal with the pain and disjointedness of withdrawal until they were next due a new phial.
Right now, shaking with revelation, he thought he could use the extra edge. So he tapped a modest amount of the powder out into his palm, clapped a hand to his mouth and swallowed the bitter stuff. It lacked the drama of Sister Euthalia's careful little pinch (not to mention her manicured little fingers holding the twinkling matter between them), but no matter...
The tiny room with its dusty candles was yanked abruptly from his sight like someone tearing back a curtain.
Two small figures chased each other in a glade, tiny graceful silhouettes shot through with sunset and shadow, verdure and darkness. Their laughter rang through the air, children's laughter, snorting little giggles and hoots of joy. He could not see their faces, the setting sun brought no light upon their features in that thick wood, and somewhere, in that lyrium-infused sixth sense, he felt a power move. It was a mortal power, of that he was sure, a dark and brooding power — a human mage of certain strength.
The shadow children came to a stop just as he sensed the mage, and their hands reached out for one another and clasped tight, but neither of them moved to flee, their little legs planted solidly amidst the fauna. A third figure emerged from the underbrush and stood before them, and this voice he did hear, clearly, the voice of that dark power, tired and a little confused. "What the — are you two Dalish?" he asked, sounding almost plaintive, as if this was all his day wanted now. "You know, you're awfully far from the camp. Oh, hells, if they think I've abducted you, their scouts alone will—"
One of the children ventured a short reply. Alistair heard only the sounds of the woods, a bear's heavy sigh as it nosed through rubble and leaves, the low screams and chuckles and trills of birds and beasts. "Me?" the young mage said, and sighed. "My name is Jowan."
The entire world seemed to wrench itself away, and Alistair found himself on the floor where he'd slumped beneath the window, his head spinning. He pressed a hand to his forehead and found it slick with sweat. His legs when he managed to get them to move were shaky beneath him, and he stood half-reeling by the window, gripping the windowsill in case his knees buckled.
Lyrium was not supposed to do whatever it was doing to him, damnit. It was supposed to hone the Templar talents, not feed him completely wacko visions every time he took the stuff. How was he supposed to do his work—
Ah. Right. He planted his feet farther apart and pushed the window up and open. The chilly night wind made his eyes water.
It was curious, how the Chantry and the Revered Mother thought they could break a vow for him, simply state that it no longer mattered as if by stating so, so mote it be. As if Alistair had not meant what he vowed at the time he vowed it. As if he had not taken the things he'd sworn seriously, though it was clear now that he had never been taken seriously in turn.
Yes, he'd hated the monastery. Ill-suited to a life of religious contemplation and devotion, Alistair had hated the discipline, the rule and rote, the rigid structures, the strictures, the scriptures. He'd hated every crease in the Revered Mother's face, every fold in her prayer shawl. But he had made a vow. However reluctantly, he had sworn himself to their service, and it was all gone, now, just like that, with the Revered Mother's crabby signature across some piece of paper Alistair hadn't even seen.
If it was true, they'd only kept him long enough to get him on lyrium before they made him go.
If it was true.
He swallowed hard against the bitterness that threatened to overtake him, and thought instead, looking out on the silent town, how night was kinder to Lothering than day, cloaking some of its poverty and ugliness in sympathetic shadow, lending it a black and sombre dignity. When the darkspawn had razed the village to its rickety foundations, had anyone tried to help? Or had the villagers huddled indoors, waiting for Templars who never came? Grey Wardens should have been there — but Lothering yet remained, and the Grey Wardens were no longer.
As some of the shock of that changeling vision faded, Alistair became aware that the same lyrium-infused sense which had alerted him to the mage in those woods was alerting him of something — someone — now. Unlike that mage in the wood, this power pulsed quick and hot and familiar, as familiar as his breath in his lungs, his sword in his hands, and he thought for a moment how absurd it was, how this was not a Templar ability, how if Templars could sense mages there would surely be no need for those grotesque phylacteries —
But then he thought, Jacinta Surana was here, and if that sense of his was correct, she was coming up the stairs right now, and he didn't know if he should just stay in here until Leliana came back, or if he should say something to her, or if he should pursue her regardless of the Chantry's decree, although there was no point in keeping faith with the faithless and he'd gone and abrogated her, anyway — nor did he love them so well for what they'd done to him, either. His awareness that she was near had him on edge, certain he would see her if he but stepped from the room and turned his head.
Then came the knock on the door, and Leliana sailed in, a pack tossed over her shoulder with the neck of her lute poking out of it and a set of bow and arrows strapped to her back. For a brief and confusing moment, Alistair didn't recognize her — until he realized that she had changed from her beautiful embroidered robes to a practical set of light leather traveling armor, with sheaths at the waist for a set of small daggers. “Shall we get going?” Leliana queried. “I am eager to be off, and if we can go under cover of night, so much the better. Oh, and we shall have another companion who is fleeing the Chantry, if it is not too much trouble.”
She gestured encouragingly towards the door as if for someone to take heart, and Jacinta reluctantly stepped inside the doorway. She looked much better, clean and well-rested, her robes mended and a hooded cape thrown over them. Though she'd pulled the hood up, disguising her elven ears and shadowing her tattooed face, her green eyes caught the candlelight, glinting like leaves in a haunted wood.
Her mouth dropped open when she saw Alistair, and she turned to Leliana immediately, color flushing her pale cheeks. “This is who you were talking about? Fleeing the Chantry? Leliana, he is the Chantry!”
“Not anymore,” Alistair cut in shortly. “They expelled me. For abrogating my duties. I'm not turning you in anywhere, even if you are an apostate.”
“You chose not to capture me?” Jacinta looked at Alistair in disbelief.
“It's a little more complicated than that.” What a tremendous understatement. “Like it was with you.”
“It's true,” Leliana said entreatingly, looking between them both. “Alistair has no reason to love the Chantry after what they have done, Jacinta, and from what you have told me, you've never had one. Let's go — the Templars will return shortly, and we will want to be well rid of this place by then.”
“Leliana, I need to hear it from them,” Alistair said lowly. “If I'm well and truly exiled — I want to hear it from my brother Templars.”
Surprise flickered on Leliana's open features, along with doubt. It was not that Alistair mistrusted the Bard — for all that her colleagues were infamous, she had done nothing more than pass the town gossip forward, and it all had the inevitable ring of truth. But Alistair would not be the first to break faith, not before he verified that faith had been broken with him.
Alistair had expected the mage girl to erupt in acrimonious protest, but to his surprise, Jacinta said somberly, “And if it's true?”
“Then I'll come find you and help you get where you want to go, and that's that,” Alistair answered. He tried to sound factual and to-the-point. “Hopefully it's on my way. And if it's not true, then I'll — say I need more help, or some more Templars. Something. It'll buy you time.”
“You would do that for a mage?” she asked, studying his face as though his soul were written across his nose.
“You said — you just wanted to be left in peace.” The intensity of Jacinta's regard was unnerving, and Alistair fumbled in his pack for his helmet rather than confront her gaze directly. “I understand a little where you're coming from.” He rarely wore the helmet, because he felt like a rat wearing a glamorous bucket when he did, but to ensure instant anonymity, there was nothing better. “If I wear this, they won't see my face. I have to ask. I have to be sure.”
“I understand that.” It was strange, this careful diplomatic dance he and the mage girl were doing, the measured allowances they gave one another. Not more than a day ago she'd stabbed him. “If you don't act with full knowledge — you'll regret it. I know I did.” Jacinta glanced over to Leliana, who waited by the side of the door. “Well, Leliana, let's go on and get a head start. You're sure you can find us, Templar?”
“Please — just Alistair. And yes. I'm quite sure.” Why that lyrium sense seemed to hone in on Jacinta like an imprinted mabari, Alistair didn't know, but he'd be able to find her, all right.
Jacinta nodded, once, with all the decisiveness Alistair'd ever wished he could muster. “Good luck,” she said, and shouldered her pack. As the two women left, Alistair couldn't help but think what a neat little sidestep that parting phrase was — good luck either way, good luck being a Templar, good luck finding us, good luck with your life and best wishes with the truth.
He settled his glorified tin bucket over his head, rendering the world little more than a neat rectangle in the dark. What a lie the view from inside that thing was.
Alistair verifies his man-on-the-run status with a pair of Lothering templars. But he's not the only regular lyrium user in Ferelden who can't sleep at night.
“The word came down pretty fast, yeah. One thing after the other. We hardly knew what to make of it.”
“What, man, are you daft? We had other things to worry about, yeah? Like a giant bleedin' murderous qunari about to go on and homicide the countryside, y'know?”
“Er, I don't think homicide's a verb,” Alistair felt obliged to point out.
Benson scoffed, quaffing the last of his beer. His hand still trembled when he set down the mug, belying his air of belligerent non-caring. “Well, we took care of him, anyway. Might be stuck in this damned backwater hole guarding this sodding outhouse of a Chantry building, but when push comes to shove, Lothering can take care of its own self. No need to bother the high and mighty Arl's men, y'know.”
“Benson,” Gentian said warningly, casting a dark glance his fellow Templar's way.
The curly-haired Templar shrugged without repentance. “Am I right? We hocked the qunari's head clean off, dragged ourselves back, Ser Bryant's probably stuck writing the report right now, and we're getting completely pissed in this tavern like we do every night. Town saved, and the Arl didn't have to interrupt his busy schedule of buggering elf maids and embezzling road improvement funds for so much as a moment.”
Gentian stared at Benson, appalled. Alistair stared at Benson, impressed. Benson stared at his drink, annoyed. “Girl!” he shouted, waving the empty mug in the air. “Another!” Dutifully, the bar girl trotted by and filled his cup. Benson raised it high in sardonic salute to his table companions and tipped it back.
“I mean, as far as I know, it's not exactly like hunting a mage. They haven't got a phylactery for this Alistair fellow,” Gentian said, steering the conversation back onto its original topic with another sharp look at Benson. “But we were told to look lively and report if we happened to meet the man. They say he looks a lot like the Prince, which would be useful if any of us knew what Prince Cailan actually looked like.”
“Maybe when he snuck Prince Cailan out of Denerim, they just switched places,” Benson offered loudly. “So you've got this serving-girl's bastard, probably half-elf—”
“Would you lay off the bloody elf thing? It's embarrassing,” Gentian muttered.
“—well, come on, though, I'll bet you sovereigns to sand that half the Denerim elves have got the highest blood in Ferelden running through their foresty little veins. Running and jumping and skipping. Like deer.” Benson raised his brows knowingly at the party. “Eh? Eh? Everyone knows nobles sodding love getting by-blows on their hot chambermaids.”
Gentian slumped in his seat, putting his face in his hands. “You are an embarrassment,” he informed his palms.
“You weren't saying that when I stopped that qunari from splitting you over his knee with his bare hands,” Benson snorted. “Look, Cullen, you sure you don't want a drink? I can pour it through your visor. If you open your mouth and close your eyes—“
“Then I will get a big surprise? No thanks,” Alistair assured the other man. “Really. I've got to keep the helm on. It's part of my penance.”
“What'd you do that was so bad?”
“Oh, uh... it was pretty bad,” Alistair promised. “It involved three acolytes, a lay sister and a few spare flasks. The dog was upset for weeks, but I'm sure the soil in the vegetable garden wasn't permanently damaged or anything. Anyway, every four hours, I've got to state that one part of the Chant of Light — you know the part?”
Benson, with feeling, sighed. “I know the part. With the — ”
Gentian grimaced. “And the — ”
“Yeah, exactly.” Alistair heaved a breath.
“That's tough,” Gentian commiserated.
“Innit? So,” said Alistair, “that's that. Can't take the bucket off. Sorry.” Mentally, he apologized to Cullen for dragging his poor name through the dirt like this.
“I really doubt this Alistair bloke's going to come by Lothering.” Benson gazed morosely into the gold-chipped surface of his beer. “Because that would be interesting. And nothing interesting ever happens in Lothering.”
“We had a qunari,” Gentian protested.
“We don't have one right now!”
“But we did have one, though.” Gentian eyed his mash broodingly.
There was a long moment, enceinte, before Gentian allowed, “Yeah, still.”
It was strangely comfortable to sit at the table with the two Templars. Rank and file soldiers, these two, exiled to a backwater beyond to serve the smallest and humblest of Ferelden's needy, and yet for all their complaining, they had served with the swift unquestioning expertise any Ser would have demanded. Gentian had had the order, straight from Mother Hannah; Benson had been the one to put his sword through the Sten's meaty neck, though the entire garrison had had to put the creature down first. For all that Gentian played at distant and disinterested nonchalance, weariness ringed his gray eyes, and Benson was plainly tired, slumping, half his body weight supported on one elbow. Alistair, who had spent half his life trapped in that one same, wretched, unchanging abbey, could imagine Benson's exhaustion, and how little of it had to do with the day's admittedly taxing events.
“It's about time for me to head out,” said Alistair, rising from the table reluctantly. He had his information. It was clear that he ought to leave Lothering before he was found out, and he was grateful, awkwardly, for the two Templars' clear addiction to drink. “Y'know,” Benson's vocal quirk was strangely addictive, “to do the Chant and all. Thanks for entertaining me, fellows.”
“If we see this Jowan maleficar, we'll let you know!” Benson promised, raising a quick grin Alistair's way.
“...How, exactly, will you let him know, Benson.” Gentian's lips thinned, though he was fighting back a puff of laughter.
Benson considered this for a moment. “...Never mind,” he said, and buried his face in his arms to Gentian's gentle laughter.
“Farewell, Brother,” said Gentian, and Benson emitted something polysyllabic which Alistair assumed to be a similar dismissal. Smiling inside his helm despite himself, Alistair raised a gloved hand, rose, and left.
A long time ago, elves had lived close to the land, in harmony with the cycles of sun and moon, clouds and rain. Every breeze was the breath of their gods, sweet and fresh and life-giving, and the stars twinkled with the Creators' joy at what they had wrought, and the elves gave thanks for the earth and all its wonders.
Presumably, these wonders didn't include bugs. Well, Jacinta figured they might, provisionally, have included the really tremendous bugs whose wingspan and menacing little insect faces commanded respect as well as discomfort and wailing, but certainly the wonders oughtn't include the dozen or so tiny gnats that hovered about one's head in late summer, just waiting to be accidentally inhaled. Or the myriad variations of grit that always found a way to embed themselves beneath one's scapulae. Or the mud — surely no one ever worshiped the mud.
Across from her, Leliana was curled up in her bedroll, eyes closed, breathing evenly. Jacinta couldn't tell whether or not she had fallen asleep, or if she had simply given up on getting much conversation out of Jacinta despite her clear curiosity. Jacinta had been quiet around her all evening, uncomfortably aware of how much she owed the Bard for her kindness.
She pulled the hooded cape close around her (Leliana had said it was a spare, that she'd had such things before and would have them again, but it looked to Jacinta like it must have been expensive, with all that delicate hand-stitching). Charity or not, it was warm and soft. Near her mud-splattered boot, there was a dry twig. She poked at the fire with it, then dropped it in, rewarded by the eager crackling of the flames as they tossed out a spark or two and briefly burst higher.
She could have heightened the campfire with a thought and the merest extension of her will, but there was no point in draining her mana unnecessarily, not now that she was keenly aware how finite supplies were. There was no stockroom at her disposal anymore, no endless stores of magical accoutrements for her to plunder at need, and she would simply have to get used to it. She was no longer in the Tower. She would never go back to the Tower again.
As if anyone would have tolerated this much muck back home, anyway.
Gold — with gold, the world would be an endless stockroom, but Jacinta didn't have it. She'd had to barter and sell everything halfway useful in her pack for the lyrium potions that sneering, condescending little man in the general store had deigned to sell her. Meeting Leliana in that tavern had been the greatest stroke of good luck Jacinta could have imagined, just short of the fact that the Templar assigned to hunt her down had been stripped of his duties. She wasn't glad at his misfortune, exactly, but....
It wasn't as though she'd left the Tower with a plan. No, she hadn't thought the Chantry heifer was worth all the bother and she'd told Jowan so, but yes, she'd helped him — what else were best friends for? Lily, alternating between pleading and panic, had been very little help once they were inside the storage rooms. Jacinta had shattered her phylactery on impulse, startled that it was even still there instead of halfway to Denerim, but Jowan had flung his against the walls with a giddy, disquieting laugh. She remembered how odd she'd thought that strained exultation.
Even in his despair and her horror, they'd been a good team. She'd thrown up a shield automatically (blood had seemed to hover in mid-air, as though it did not dare touch her terror), and when Lily repudiated Jowan — ungrateful minx, Jacinta thought bitterly, after all he had gone through for her — and Jowan fled, Jacinta ran too, darting between the groaning armored bodies of the Templars, down the endless steps until her legs burned, out into the burning sunlight. Clinging to a conjured ice floe, she'd made it to shore, and then she'd run some more, hoping that somehow the mysterious woodcraft of her ancestors had a blood component that would activate in the forests.
Of course, it hadn't, and the only real wonder here was that she hadn't yet taken a chill or been eaten by a wolf. Or caught by a Templar. She hadn't seen Jowan as she fled, only the traces of him, the fat blood spatters here and there along the ground, blurry red streaks in her vision.
Presumably when First Enchanter Uldred woke from unconsciousness, he had been quite put out.
But to hell with him. To hell with the whole Circle. They'd quarantined her friend and mentor Wynne for the grave, grave sin of loving someone enough to wish to bring his child into the world — they had dishonored the man she loved, stripped Irving of his position and his teaching responsibilities, forced a capable and gifted man to do pious and menial labor any idiot acolyte could have done — and in their cruelty, in their suspicion and judgment, they had driven Jowan to the very extreme they would least have wished. To hell with Jowan, too, because he knew better, damnit, because she had been his friend and she would have helped him, had she only known.
To hell with it all. Her life was her own now, not the Circle's or the Chantry's.
She curled up a small distance from the fire in her cape, grateful for the tiny shadow of privacy the hood afforded. Independence was a good thing, after all. She and Jowan had used to gas on about how much better their lives could be if they could just do what they wanted whenever they wanted without a Templar standing over them all silverite disapproval every time they went to use the privy, but they hadn't ever expected to pay such a price.
Unlike a lot of apprentices at the Tower, Jacinta could still remember her mother, the swirling bark-brown patterns tattooed across her high cheekbones, and her smile, wide and free-wheeling as the bluest skies. To her mother, independence had been everything — for all that she had been born free among the Dalish, freer than most elves could imagine. She'd wanted to roam the world with her baby on her hip, to know everything and teach it to her daughter (and look how well that went for her) and now here Jacinta was, and this was freedom, wasn't it (the fine fabric of Leliana's charity, blood leaking from between steel plates, the storekeeper's dismissive disdain).
For tomorrow, she thought firmly, shutting her eyes and willing herself to see nothing behind her eyes, only the blackness, not Jowan's blood or the Templar's blood or her own phylactery blood, she and Leliana would have to coordinate their funds. Lyrium was absolutely a necessity, not to be scrimped on, though perhaps Jacinta could learn to make her own potions. As for food, Jacinta had foraged and stolen, used her magic quite unfairly, but perhaps Leliana could cook, or could tell fauna apart — the real plants were so different from the illustrations in the Tower, and Jacinta had yet to get used to it...
She stumbled as she ran, and she never stumbled, she never tripped over roots and rocks like this, but of course now that time was of the essence and the burden on her back seemed scarcely to breathe, she would be falling all the hell over herself, that made sense. Her bow thumped against her leg, clumsily tied there so that she would never, ever have to return to that damnable cave again. Her lungs ached for air, her legs for rest, and all she could think was that she had to get him home.
Her arrival at camp was greeted by cries, and wearily she dropped to her knees, shifting the heavy body into her arms. His head lolled back, and she had to support it in the crook of her arm, his dark hair falling across his vallaslin as he drew in a great, scraping breath. He'd been so proud of the vallaslin he'd chosen for how bold and painful it was, trees and branches inscribed through the absence, not presence, of color — trickster writing for the trickster god.
She'd had to own, it was a mighty feat to withstand the vallaslin so long. And now without his sharp bright smile to enliven his features, that writing said nothing at all.
She gave him up to the strong and capable arms of her clan, painfully aware how little she could do for him now, and when they dragged her to a cot, she fell over onto it and passed immediately into dragging black hours. Words flickered in her hearing, broken by her own thudding and uneven heartbeat.
“Where came they by this sickness?” “Ask Tamlen, when he wakes.”
She struggled to consciousness to tell them to ask Idris instead, not her, but she woke to wailing, and she knew they had lost him.
Jacinta woke to dawn, and, shivering in the hazy fog, she touched the tear tracks on her face.
Alistair, newly a Templar and newly exiled from them, finds his way back to apostate Jacinta Surana and convinces her that it's a good idea for them to travel together. Leliana approves +10.
He came upon them in the evening, two figures setting up a rough camp, one hooded, the other's red hair like a burning brand through the trees. Before he could even say anything, the smaller of the two figures whirled and pointed her staff, and Alistair felt cold flung over him as abruptly as a blanket over his head. He was barely able to dodge one of the Bard's arrows before managing to lift benumbed fingers to his helm and toss the visor up. “It's me!” he croaked, with a mental push dispelling the frost that rimed his plate armor.
The mage lowered her staff and blinked. “The Templar — oh, I'm sorry,” Jacinta said, planting her staff in the dirt as Alistair removed his helm and ruefully pushed his hair back. How refreshingly cool the night breeze felt after a day and a half's walk, during which he hadn't dared take his tin bucket off. “It's true, then? They've expelled you?”
“Yes.” Alistair thrust his helm into his overstuffed knapsack by main force as Leliana came forward, bright-eyed with apology. “Maker, you two don't mess around, do you?”
“We've already had a close call today,” Leliana explained, giving him a pat on the shoulder plate as she passed by to retrieve her arrow from a nearby tree. She frowned at it with almost comical dismay. “I should not have missed. That close? With you on cold? Honestly. All that time on the lute has made me rusty.”
“Well, I'm grateful that you did,” Alistair assured her, and brushed ice shards off his arm, dropping his pack at his feet.
“So, then,” Jacinta said loudly, refocusing Alistair's attention. There was absolutely no reason why the slight mage's searching look should have made him quail, but he nonetheless stood up straighter, clearing his throat. “If we're all to be traveling together, we should make clear what our purposes are and where we're going. If you think about it, we present twice as big a target for those who would hunt us, now — two fugitives for the price of one, if they catch us.”
“That's a big 'if,'” Leliana sang from by the fire, where she had returned to watch over a pot of stew emitting some delicious juicy scent that made Alistair's nose twitch plaintively.
“The Templars are going to have a hell of a time finding you.” Alistair inhaled, surreptitiously, he hoped. “What you did — destroying the phylactery like that? I mean, it rather cements you in their head as a perilous sort of apostate — you know, the kind who thinks — ”
Jacinta snorted at that as if at some private joke. Alistair hoped the joke wasn't him, and continued, “But it does help you. Without it, they've got to find you the old-fashioned way. And I can... well, Templars know when mages are near because the lyrium we take sensitizes us to your mana, right? So if we're in danger of being caught, I can neutralize yours. Put my helm on, throw you over my shoulder, tell the boys I've got the apostate well in hand, carry on. No harm done.”
Jacinta contemplated the prospect, a vague queasiness settling over her features that rather took the sting out of that earlier sternness. “If... you must,” she allowed. “But truly — I don't understand... and I have to understand. I can't just trust you, even if I would like to.” Her hands twisted around each other, around the staff, worrying a ring on one of her fingers. “I understand the Templars have expelled you, but that doesn't mean you are obliged to help me. How can I be sure this isn't all a ruse?”
“Aside from the fact that such a ruse would put me at levels of sneaky I'm wholly incapable of?” Alistair shook his head. “I sympathize with your position, for all that you stabbed me—”
“You sliced my leg open! I had to limp on that all the way to Lothering!”
“I'm just saying.” Alistair held out his hands, warily, to pacify Jacinta's indignant glare. If they'd been told once at the Chantry, they'd been told a thousand times: don't agitate the mages. “We both have reasons to distrust each other. I'm still not completely confident you won't decide I'm easier to deal with as a frog and throw me into that absurdly aromatic stew.”
“Thank you!” called Leliana.
“I couldn't even if I wanted to.” The subtle twitch of Jacinta's brows upwards made it clear the mage had by no means decided whether or not she wanted to. “I'm not that kind of mage.”
“Yes, and that's another thing. You're, I'm sorry, a distraction. That friend of yours you mentioned? Jowan?”
“That's who they'll be after.” On that point, Alistair had little doubt. “Confirmed blood mage, no phylactery? You're dangerous by association, sure, but they'll empty the local garrisons to go after him.”
There was a rather heavy pause.
“That was supposed to cheer you up, a little bit,” said Alistair, chagrined. Jacinta nodded, looking down to fumble with the clasp at her neck, shadows like spider-legs down her cheeks.
“The stew is ready! That will cheer us all up, I think.” Leliana waved them over. “Come sit by the fire, you two.”
A few bowls of the stuff were passed round. It was by far a better concoction than any of Alistair's efforts (nothing charred floated to the top and nothing that still had a face poked out from between the bubbles). After a hearty slurp, Alistair glanced over at the Orlesian. “And what's your part in all this, Bard?”
Leliana shrugged. “I saw Jacinta at the general store on my way to the tavern, trying to bargain with that horrible little storekeep. I stepped in and,” she smiled, “encouraged him to give her a fairer price.”
“I thought I'd really bargained him down,” Jacinta admitted. “Leliana told me later he was still fleecing me. There's no lyrium potion in Thedas that ought to cost three gold, but I didn't know that. We don't really have economics classes in the Circle Tower. Why would mages need to know all that, right? It's not like we're ever going to leave.”
“I had been in Lothering for about a week at that point.” Leliana lifted the bowl to her lips and tilted it delicately back, then wiped her mouth neatly with a clean little cloth she might as well have magicked out of her breastplate. “It is charming in its own quaint, provincial way, but let us be honest, there is not much there, no? I knew that a mage in Lothering, let alone an elf mage in Circle robes, would have a story worth hearing.”
“I hadn't healed up yet, at that point. I covered the top of my staff with my hands,” Jacinta passed a hand over the obviously magical orb nestled between the twining tips of her staff, “and pretended I was just some elf who'd run into trouble with bandits on the road.”
“But I can tell when someone is hobbling on their last leg! So to speak.” Leliana grinned, and Jacinta cracked a tiny smile as she stirred her stew. “I took her aside and helped her to my room above the tavern to bandage her up. Imagine my surprise when she stopped me with a hand, drank one of the phials we'd just pried from that little man, and closed that wound up herself with scarce more than a thought.”
“It takes a little more than a thought, Leliana.” Jacinta tugged her hood down, as though doing so might hide her growing smile.
“And then she explained what had happened, and I gave her my cloak and told her I would at least help her as far as the next town, if she wished it.”
“My blubbering must have been fairly pitiful.”
“Fairly.” Leliana smiled at the elf across from her, who raised her bowl to the Bard with both hands in a toast. “It was the least I could do in exchange for such trust, and such a tale.”
“What,” interrupted Alistair, “you didn't get the interrogation? No fair.”
Leliana tilted her head to the side, in consideration. “Well, no...”
“It's different,” Jacinta said. She scraped her spoon around her bowl without looking at anyone. “Alistair — you're a Templar. You and all your order are charged to hunt me and all my kind down. That's why you exist. Leliana is... um, Orlesian.”
“They did invade us, not all too long ago,” Alistair pointed out.
“We left,” Leliana offered.
“What does any of that matter to me?” Jacinta put her empty bowl down on the earth in front of her and gave Alistair one of her piercing looks, like a pale green gimlet aimed true, right through him. “My mother was Dalish. I was seven years old when the Templars killed her, pried me from her corpse, and brought me to the Tower. Honestly, say what you will about Jowan — and I have a lot to say about him myself, and I wish he was in front of me so I could tell him, every single word of it — but he was my only friend for a very long time, until they made Wynne my mentor, and even then...”
She swallowed hard, and fixed her gaze to the earth, and the next few words came flat and staccato, like so many stones thrown against the dirt. “I was unprepared to leave, especially the way I did. I cried my hour, and then I was done, but I'm not looking back anymore. I want to go home.”
“To the Dalish?”
“Yes. That was the other reason I wanted to know where you were going,” Jacinta said, her glance at Alistair catching him mid-slurp. She blinked, and he blinked, and the smile winked over her face again, there and gone. “I... if you're willing to help me, I'm willing to help you, so long as our paths align. I'm going to the Brecilian Forest. Where are you headed?”
“I don't really know.” Alistair rotated the simple earthen bowl between his gloves. “I mean, Leliana had a pretty good idea, but...”
Jacinta stared quizzically between the two of them. “When did you two talk?”
“In Lothering. A Bard is always well apprised of the news, wheresoever she may wander.” Leliana shrugged. “As it happens, Alistair is as much a news item as you are, my dear.”
“It sounds really stupid,” Alistair muttered, “when you say it like that.”
“Can't be more stupid than 'my best friend was a blood mage and I never figured it out till he opened a vein and knocked down a room full of Templars.” Jacinta regarded Alistair with glimmering wryness.
“How about, the Revered Mother set me up like I was the punchline to her sodding joke?” Alistair shook his head. “I can't even talk about it without feeling like a dupe, or... I mean, I just – wonder what the hell I ever did to her, aside from... aren't all kids brats? Was I that bad?”
“She has been suborned,” Leliana said softly. “I would not believe it was you personally, Alistair. I think she would have done it to anyone in your position.”
“That's not exactly a comfort either, you know. The Chantry has its hand in everything. If it's a part of what's going on in the capital, I don't know how the hell I'm supposed to figure that mess all out.”
“What's going on in the capital?” Jacinta asked, her brow furrowed.
“King's dead, the Prince has disappeared, the Hero of the River Dane just declared himself Regent for Queen Anora, and I apparently abrogated my duty to hunt mages because I didn't find you fast enough, never mind that I was sent to do so by myself and I've never exactly done this before and oh, by the way, I didn't have a bloody phylactery so I had to rely on my own stunning sense of woodcraft.” Alistair took a breath and scuffed his boot in the dirt, watching as bits of grass and rock flew into the fire and sent it spinning high for just a moment, like a baby dragon's hiccup. “But as Leliana points out, it's probably all part and parcel. I'm, ah...”
The silence stretched on. Night creatures chirruped and chattered. Leliana's bright blue gaze rested on Alistair, profound with compassion. Though Jacinta watched the fire, her huddled posture was attentive, and as the quiet lengthened, she turned her head curiously, those unsettling eyes on Alistair again. With the movement, her hair slipped out of her hood's confines like a pale golden snake uncoiling down her shoulder.
“You know how you're afraid I'm lying, and I'm going to betray you to the Chantry the first second I get?” Alistair finally said.
Jacinta didn't even try to deny it. She nodded, tucking her ragged hair neatly back inside her hood.
“I'm King Maric's son,” said Alistair, and Maker, how he hated the sound of it, how he hated his own voice and the abashed little laugh it added onto the end of that sentence, as if the sentence on its own weren't joke enough. “So if Teyrn Loghain or whoever is going after the Theirin bloodline, they've got to get me out of the way, too.”
Quite abruptly, he was no longer in the mood to talk about who he was or where he wanted to go, not least because he had no clue anymore. Templars were Chantry sons, so what did that make him? Disowned? Unwanted? Again? He yanked his pack over by its strings and shook off one glove so that he could dig around for his standard-issue bedroll.
There was a long, reeling pause before the mage spoke. “But,” said Jacinta, as though she were only now stating aloud some pack train of thought already far down the road, “but if you're the king's son, why are you a Templar?”
“Because he got me on a serving girl,” Alistair replied shortly. “He probably never knew I existed. I suppose they kept me around as a spare, figured to raise me up righteous, just in case. Must be why they fed me to the Chantry, since it sure wasn't because I wanted to go.” He tugged his bedroll free from the knapsack, tumbling half a dozen myriad personal accessories out along with it. Restraining himself from sighing hard enough to put the campfire out, he knelt to arrange his meager belongings. “Anyway, now you've got something on me, too. If you want me out of the way, get word to a Templar who I am and it's all done.”
“I wouldn't tell a Templar the way to the privy if they were about to explode.” Contrary to every expectation Alistair had of the mage girl, she was smiling again, that small crooked thing she hid away in shadow. “Jowan and I used to corner the new ones and give them all kinds of wrong directions, just so we could watch them try not to do the pee dance while standing guard over some dim-witted apprentice who couldn't direct a line between two points.”
That surprised a laugh out of Alistair, though it was odd thinking of a maleficar and an apostate sharing giggles over some childish prank. He supposed they were people, just children, before they were either of those, even if they were mages the whole time. Then he realized the division in thought he'd just made between people and mages, and ducked his head, grateful he hadn't spoken it aloud.
“I told him what happened in the capital, and then, when he told me his name, that the Chantry was searching for him,” Leliana said softly over Alistair's bowed head. “I was sorry to be the bearer of such bad news. But a Templar named Alistair? They always said of Maric that he was a golden king, so once I saw him, I felt certain.”
“I protest!” Alistair flushed, sweeping tiny statuettes back into his knapsack. He removed his other glove and stowed it away, then made a show of smoothing his bedroll. “There's other blonds in Ferelden.”
“Ah, but I doubt there's another blond Alistair in the whole Fereldan Order. It's not exactly a common name. Anyway,” said Leliana lightly, “your face when I asked you if you were the king's son was as clear and loud a 'yes' as I've ever seen.”
“It's been very hush-hush all my life. It's not really something I expect strangers to waltz up and ask me,” Alistair muttered.
Jacinta eyed him with cautious interest. “So it's Denerim for you, then?”
“I don't know.” Alistair began the lengthy process of unbuckling his cuirass, grateful for the mail shirt and smallclothes beneath. “Maybe. It's as good a place to go as any. I don't know what I'd even do there, other than walk into a Templar and blow the whole thing.”
“Maybe... maybe the Dalish would let you stay with them, for a little while, to give you time to think. You'd be safe there,” Jacinta said.
Alistair shrugged, the gesture serving both to get the bulk of the heavy Templar armor off him and to indicate his response. “I'll go with you as far as that if you like. At least if the Dalish shoot me on sight, I won't have to worry about that whole mess in the capital, right?”
“Let us hope we can pursue a more diplomatic course,” Leliana yawned. Her voice seemed to come from someplace different. When Alistair looked up, she had already ensconced herself in her bedroll, nothing but a thatch of scarlet hair spilling free.
Jacinta still sat by the fire, her face abstracted. Alistair shed the remainder of his armor and slid into his bedroll, not far from her. The lyrium sense within him glowed warm like the mud idol strung round his neck, a secret within his skin and without.
She felt so absurdly familiar. He hadn't had a spot of trouble locating her. Was it like this with all Templars, all mages? “When you're ready to sleep,” he told her softly, “wake me up and I'll take next watch.”
“Oh,” she murmured. “Yes. I hadn't even thought of that.”
He raised his gaze to hers, and it wandered to the tattoo on her face, black beneath her eye, a bold and sinuous line above, echoing the curve of her brow. The Circle did not stamp its mages so. “Fugitives on the run now, remember?”
“How could I forget?” she said bleakly. Alistair's answering smile was crimped with sympathy, and after a moment, she nodded and turned her face away again, the orb of her staff refracting firelight across the clearing's floor.
Jowan runs across two strangers in a distant wood whom he makes an arrangement with against his better moral judgment, which make this chapter just like all the other chapters in his life. Also, Jacinta dreams of a pair of Dalish elves, while Alistair always volunteers first watch because he cannot stand his dreams anymore, and we learn what's different about Leliana in this borked world.
When two children burst through the copse, Jowan nearly died.
He'd grown certain, over the past few days, that he was being followed. And who would be following him but the Chantry's sinister sons? And if the Templars had finally caught up with him, phylactery or no phylactery, then Jowan's lifespan was measured out on some celestial abacus in days now instead of years. With every leap over some muddy little creek, with every small beast of prey that he guiltily yanked by its blood to his feet so he could eat, he expected a legion of intent, prepared, and relentless silverite goons to jump him.
Instead of sleeping, Jowan had taken to cat naps with his back up against a tree and his dagger resting lightly against his wrist, hands loose in his lap. Just in case. And now—
“You two?” he shouted once he finally recovered some shaking semblance of composure, his hands out-flung in a sort of furious supplication. “You're the kids from the forest! A week ago!”
He recognized them, of course, as he'd never expected to come across unleashed children out in this benighted blue yonder. He'd asked if they were Dalish; they'd asked his name, and then the girl had giggled once, abruptly, and pulled the boy away, neither of them answering his damn question. Jowan had almost chalked it down to some bizarre trauma-induced hallucination at this point. “Come on, what are you?” he said plaintively. “If your clan comes after you — why would you...”
He ran down, because the kids were nearly vibrating with pleasure at having induced this level of panic in a grown-up. The girl of the pair grinned at the boy of the pair — clearly her brother, for all that her long plaited hair shone reddish gold and his, cut shorter at the shoulders, was a glossy blue-black. They had the same expressive eyes, a rich hazel hue flecked with amber, and the same high cheekbones, though their faces still retained the soft roundness of youth. The girl's features were delicate and sharp, the boy's bold and broad. They were astonishingly beautiful children, even if Jowan did want to strangle them.
They must have been at least eight years old, no more than ten. The Tower was crawling with apprentices their age, little magelets who still hadn't had the raw magic stamped out of them by years of circumscribed Circle learning. Jowan had been pretty good with the Circle kids, a lot better than his best friend, anyway, who'd avoided them religiously (about the only religious trait she'd ever demonstrated).
He took a deep breath, but the boy spoke before Jowan could, chin lifted with bravado that rang only slightly false. “We are not Dalish.” The child pulled back a hank of long crow-black hair to show Jowan his small, quite human ears. “See? We are perfectly human. Stop carrying on about elves.”
“So you two are the ones who've been following me this whole time?”
“Not the whole time,” said the girl, precociously disdainful. “No one is that interesting.”
“But some of the time,” the boy put in. “Much of the time.”
“You needn't tell him,” the girl muttered.
“Ah.” Jowan took a deep breath, collecting his composure as one might collect the scattered pieces of a game board after the losing party upended it. “You haven't noticed any Templars about, right?”
“No.” The boy wandered over to a nearby tree with roots like a gnarled hand clawing the earth and perched himself atop a bark knuckle, regarding Jowan with open interest. “Where are you going?”
“Why do you ask?”
The boy raised an eyebrow quizzically, kicking his feet a moment before hopping off the root. “Because I wish to know.” The 'duh' was unspoken, but evident.
“Well, no offense, but I'm not telling a pair of random children my affairs.” Not least because Jowan had no real idea where he was going, except in the opposite direction of Lake Calenhad as rapidly as possible. “Look, where are your parents? Have you lost them somehow?”
“We are not random!” the girl huffed, narrowing her eyes. She jabbed at her chest. “I am Cerridwen.” She pointed towards her brother, wrinkling her nose as though she'd caught some faint unpleasant whiff. “'Tis Mordred.”
“Hello,” Mordred called, oblivious to his sister's disgust as he investigated beneath one raised root-knuckle nearly as tall as he was.
“We are not in the least bit lost, either. We know what we're doing.” Cerridwen stared up at Jowan. “I bet you've no idea where you are. Do you?”
Jowan scowled, refusing to be baited. “We're not far from Lake Calenhad.”
Cerridwen eyed him. “And I bet you want to get more far. You ran away, did you not?”
The girl was too sharp for her own good. Jowan hesitated.
“We saw you using blood magic!” Mordred said, straightening from his inspection of some species of scuttle-beetle by the tree. A smile broke across his face like starlight across water. “When you got the rabbit yesterday! 'Twas truly something. If we come with you, will you show us?”
Jowan self-consciously pulled his sleeves down, the fabric rough against last night's tender scar. “I absolutely will not.” He glanced around cautiously at the trees around him as though a Templar lurked behind one, listening for catchphrases like blood magic and Circle Tower and Andraste's frilly knickers. “It's not a toy.”
“We shall help you if you do,” Mordred wheedled. Cerridwen shot her brother a look; he returned it, instead of quailing beneath it as was the girl's clear wish. “We know a great deal of magic. We can help. Please?”
“You're mage children?” Jowan blinked. “How did you escape being taken away?”
Cerridwen snorted. “Mother would never let that happen, and neither would we.”
“Mum said, she said if anyone ever tried to grab us and take us away, we had permission to do anything we wanted.” Mordred bounced on his heels in excited recitation, taking on clearly parental cadences. “Because if anyone is stupid enough to try to take her children away, they bloody deserve what they get.”
The children of an apostate, then – one powerful enough to ensure that she could bear and raise her children in safety, hidden from the Chantry's vigilant eyes, and fearless enough to teach them her magic, ensuring they could defend themselves. Mordred and Cerridwen were clearly cherished children, their native confidence nurtured and their curiosity encouraged. Their clothing, now that Jowan looked at it more closely, was handmade by someone with an eye for such things. Mordred had not cut his own hair to fall loose just so, nor Cerridwen braided hers. “And, ah,” Jowan said carefully, “where is your mother now?”
“Probably looking for us,” Cerridwen said, the first flash of something hesitant crossing her fine features. “But we are looking for our father, so she must needs wait.” She took her long plait in her hands and began to play with the end of it. “She said one time that he was in Denerim, so we want to go there.”
So the girl had decided to trust him, then. Or, more likely, she'd decided Jowan, jumping at shadows and shadow-Templars, posed no sort of threat. In all his unshaven, hungry shabbiness, Jowan supposed he presented all the threat of a starveling gopher – sure, there was a risk it might bite off your fingers in a snit, but fling it hard enough across the room and presto, threat eliminated. “But you don't know where your mother is? I mean, I'm sure she's very worried about you and wants you both home safe.”
“We want to find our father,” Mordred said, his easy, open expression shuttering abruptly. “All Mother ever says about him is that he works in Denerim and he wishes never to see us. But we want to see him, so too bad.” Cerridwen nodded, silent confirmation that Mordred spoke for them both.
“I'll tell you what, then.” Cerridwen reached for her brother's hand as Jowan spoke; Mordred took it, and the twins stood watching Jowan hopefully. “I'll do my best to see you both to Denerim — by the route I determine most fit,” Jowan began.
“But the,” Mordred began in protest, just as Cerridwen exclaimed, “You said—”
“And I'll show you some of what I know.” Teaching children blood magic, oh Maker above, he was a bad man, Jowan thought bleakly, although the children's eyes lit with excitement. Maybe he could get by with simply demonstrating the principle. “In return – will you take me to your mother?”
Mordred and Cerridwen glanced at one another. Mordred frowned a little, thoughtfully, a small furrow between his dark brows; Cerridwen laughed, out of nowhere, and squeezed his hand. “Yes,” she said, turning her gaze up to Jowan. “We shall.”
In her dreams, her name was Tamlen and she was Dalish born, bred, and raised. Her hands when she looked down at them were a man's hands, strong and well-shaped with clean square fingernails, flexible enough to be very, very good at firing a bow and arrow very, very fast. The heft of the long-range bow in her hands was as familiar in her dreams as that of her staff when she was waking.
And there was Idris, Tamlen's compatriot, his partner in crime, his clanmate, his best friend, his brother.
Before they could even walk, they were tossed together as age-appropriate playmates, and before they could even speak, they were inseparable. Idris's jokes left Tamlen howling with laughter, and Idris never once turned down one of Tamlen's dares. When it came time to take the vallaslin, Idris gave over half his face to Fen'harel unflinching, and after it was done, his dark eyes gleamed through the intricate ink like the eyes of a wolf through a web of brambles.
Idris had carried daggers as a teenager, but switched to longswords on a bet from Tamlen and liked the style enough to stay with it. One time Tamlen and Idris had gone hunting one of Maren's mother's lost halla and been gone for three days, and upon their return Ashalle had been torn between the desire to ground them to camp for life or fall upon them weeping with relief. When Tamlen's father died, Idris kept fast with Tamlen by the river the whole day and night, and neither of them ever said a word. Idris broke his arm climbing a tree when they were thirteen, and Tamlen set it for him, and the tears of pain standing in Idris's eyes never fell. Though Idris's irreverence drove Paivel to distraction, Idris never interrupted when it was Tamlen sitting at the storyteller's feet, soaking up the story of another ancient elven marvel the shems had taken in their greedy hands and shattered.
Tamlen loved him, and in her dreams she could not look at Idris, could not think of him without that love and pride unfurling in her breast like a great warm rose. And always, at the end of the dream, that great warm rose dissolved in a flurry of rending bereskarn claws, because always, at the end of the dream, she knew Idris was dead. Tamlen didn't weep, because where love had bloomed once there was now a hard and painful knot of feeling she could not untangle and dared not touch, but she huddled in her bedroll in the hushed gray mornings, her heart contorted with the trembling of a grief and guilt not her own and yet absolutely hers.
They were a week and more on the road to the Brecilian Forest, avoiding the towns and any people as the terrain grew wilder and the roads ever more vestigial. Having Leliana's trained Bardic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of Fereldan geography around was as good as carrying a map. And one night, when Jacinta shuddered awake from a terrible dream of Idris's body limp and unbreathing in her arms, she saw that Alistair also sat awake, rubbing his face vigorously with his bare hands as if nightmares could be somehow exfoliated.
“Are you all right?” she asked quietly, mindful that Leliana lay sleeping not too far from them.
Alistair's head shot up. He blinked at her, his face pale in the shadowed moonlight. “I, uh, yeah. What are you doing awake?”
She shrugged. “Bad dream.” She could still feel that wild, foreign sorrow, like an electric storm.
“I guess you've enough reason for it.” Alistair hesitated, digging a thumb into his other palm as as though working out a muscle cramp. “I, uh. I have them too. It's why I always ask for first watch. Figure if I get tired enough, I won't dream.” He chuckled a little, shaking his head. “How melodramatic does that sound?”
There was a shocked pause. “You weren't supposed to agree, you know,” Alistair said, his arid tone not quite disguising his hurt.
She blinked. “I was joking. I'm sorry.” Jowan had always said Jacinta's humor was vile, though he'd also always dissolved into frilly snuffles whenever she delivered some scathing aside in class, so what did that make him? She pushed her hair up off her face, the strands fine and slippery against her fingers, to center herself in this night, this campsite, this conversation, this cold wind. “Honestly, it's a sound enough idea that I'd steal it from you if you weren't already using it.”
“Now there's something I don't hear a lot.”
“What, that you've a sound idea?”
“Yeah.” A small, self-deprecating laugh slipped from Alistair's lips. “Got to say, that's reeeeeally not something I was known for back in the Chantry.”
“So what were you known for?”
Alistair considered the question a moment. “A surprising affinity for fitting into the Chantry's pantries, actually.”
Jacinta laughed despite herself, and Alistair lifted his head in companionable inquiry. “Sounds like me and Jowan,” Jacinta explained, the memory warm and painful, though this pain was all her own. “We used to ditch class to play hide-and-seek. It's a pretty serious pastime in the Tower. ”
“Huh,” said Alistair reflectively. “One time, the other boys locked me in a cabinet, and I was stuck there for hours, and when Brother Milo finally let me out, I swore revenge on the leader, this one brat named Shelton. I put ants in his stew and he refused to touch another bowl of the stuff ever again. My first of many pathetic victories, I assure you.”
“My congratulations, General.”
“At your service, Arlessa.” He cocked the brim of an imaginary hat her way, looking gratified by the smile she didn't realize she wore until he answered it with another of his own.
Jacinta considered the former Templar before her, and how, despite her expectations, he had contained any hidden anti-mage sentiment, controlled the comments he made before her, and done his part at camp uncomplainingly. Alistair talked a lot, but said little of substance, and when no one was looking his face fell into distant, sad lines. King Maric's son. And now he confessed to bad dreams. “Do you mind, Alistair... may I ask what you dreamed?”
Just like that, his smile fell away, and Jacinta was sorry she had asked, for without it, there was something so sad on his face; a face, Jacinta thought, for laughing and merriment, though how she felt this with such certainty she could not say. His broad shoulders sagged a little. “I...” He glanced up at the high ripe moon, his eyes catching the silver light. “It just always sounds so stupid, y'know?” His glance at her was apologetic. “When you say it out loud.”
“I don't think so.” But then, Jacinta allowed, mages were naturally minded to take dreams seriously. “Try me.”
“I...” Alistair's head drooped as he stared at his hands, digging a thumb along the palm line again. “They're ugly dreams,” he said lowly. “Sometimes I dream about my brother... about Prince Cailan, but he's strung up on this battlefield that's all – burnt, and covered, I mean covered in corpses. Like, if you could make a bedsheet out of horrifically mutilated bodies and tuck a whole blighted meadow in...” He laughed, but the laugh cut off. “It's absurd, there are no darkspawn anymore, and I'm sure nothing can be that ugly. Aside from Brother Bedivere, that is.
“But I have nightmares where I see him hanging there, and there's always this other man with these two huge swords – and he's a Grey Warden, right? Tall as the Maker, eyes like a prophecy, and he turns and looks at me and I feel like, like there's something he's telling me to do, but I'm too – too blasted thick to pick up on it, even though it's bloody important.”
Alistair's words sent a slow, liquid chill down Jacinta's spine, like too much lyrium potion in too short a time. “And sometimes I dream of that Jowan of yours,” Alistair added, his brow wrinkled in bewilderment. “Those aren't so bad.”
“You dream of Jowan?”
Nearby Leliana stirred with a murmur of soft Orlesian. Jacinta and Alistair exchanged abashed glances, and Alistair lowered his voice. “Yeah,” he said. “Nothing horrible, pretty boring dreams, actually. Just a tall bloke with an awkward beard and a purple shoulder muff figuring out what's for dinner.”
“Dark hair, and stubble so stupid you just want to shake it off him?”
Alistair snorted. “Yeah, nothing at all like this manly beast I've got lurking on my chin.”
“That's him,” Jacinta said blankly, and Alistair looked at her with 'well yes, I know, I just said it was' written all over his face. She shook her head, leaning forward. “Alistair, you don't understand. You've never met him, have you? But that's him to a T.”
“What, like, he actually looks like that?”
“Maker's breath.” Alistair looked like he got it now, and it made him sick. “And he's a blood mage — he can't be in my head if he's never met me, right?”
“Right, it's not possible,” Jacinta said at once, though she didn't rightly know, and it didn't seem to ease the panic on Alistair's face. The former Templar muttered a curse and put his face in his hands, and across from them, Leliana sleepily sat up, raking a hand through her mussed auburn locks.
“Leliana! I'm so sorry we woke you,” Jacinta whispered, chagrined.
“No, it is all right,” the Bard said, and yawned luxuriously, stretching as though she'd embrace the world. “What are we talking about?”
“Dreams,” Alistair muttered into his palms. “Horrible, bizarre, wholly creepy dreams with blood mages who control your minds and mounds of bodies.”
Leliana smiled drowsily. “Oh, I am not troubled by dreams. I do not have any. Or if I do, I never remember them.”
At this, Alistair looked up, half-envious, half in disbelief. “Don't tell me you don't know any weird stories about people with, say, absurdly accurate dream-visions.”
“Oh, I do.” The Bard shrugged. “But they are only stories, fables. I do not believe in such things, and I do not believe anyone should trouble themselves with such superstitious nonsense. This is an enlightened age, and we are civilized peoples, not Chasind dream-catchers.”
“I'm dreaming about her best bloody friend, Leliana,” Alistair argued. “I've never met the fellow and Jacinta said I described him perfectly. Didn't you? Didn't I?”
“Down to the awkward beard,” Jacinta confirmed.
“What, that he has dark hair and unfortunate facial hair and a purple component to his Circle robes?” Leliana's tone was gently skeptical. Next to her, Jacinta could hear Alistair mutter, “You were awake for that?” as Leliana asked, “Truly, how many apprentices currently at the Tower fit that description?”
“There are a few,” Jacinta admitted. “The Circle robes are pretty standard – they've all got that stupid-looking purple thing on the shoulders for the men.”
“And men past adolescence do grow hair on their chin, provided they aren't eunuchs, and I assume the Templars don't go that far in ensuring mages don't produce children, right?”
Alistair blanched. “Egad. No. Or at least, I became a full Templar without ever encountering tantric sterility rituals... The mind boggles. In fact, I think the mind just threw up some.”
“So then,” Leliana said soothingly, though her brows twitched in amusement. “The man you saw in your dream was an anonymous creation of your tremendous imagination, Alistair, who happened to fit a vague description of Jacinta's wayward friend. There is no cause for alarm and no reason for panic.”
Jacinta thought of Tamlen, of how his grief rang down her bones, and said nothing. Alistair said in a small voice, “You really think it's nothing, then?”
“I am certain,” Leliana promised, smothering another yawn behind her milky hand. “Why don't you go back to sleep? I'll take the next watch.”
Alistair just shook his head, and Leliana didn't pursue the question, snuggling back into her bedroll. Jacinta pulled hers up, stared at the stars as they winked and glittered through the clouds, then shifted onto her side.
Alistair's face fell quickly into those distant, melancholy lines when he thought no one was looking. He was like an apprentice who would rather be made Tranquil, Jacinta thought, and the thought wrung at her exhausted heart.
Alistair didn't want to dream anymore.
Young Zevran Arainai is having difficulty adjusting to his new life with his mother's clan, but his flight from home is interrupted by strangers and strange beasts before a Dalish scout arrives to fetch their little runaway.
Zevran was really running away this time, maybe back to Antiva but definitely, definitely away from the Dalish. He adjusted the strap across his chest carefully, his pack jouncing against his hip as he walked. Mamma kept saying that it was going to get better, that he just needed to get used to life with the whole clan instead of life on the road with only her and Papá and Taliesin, but it wasn't getting better and Zevran was sick of it.
He would miss Mamma and Papá. He frowned, cutting through a knot of brambles with a knife Papá had given him. And Taliesin, insolent and sarcastic, wasn't fitting in with Mamma's clan any better than Zevran was, so maybe Zevran should have brought him along. Only baby Rinna really had a chance, and that was only because she'd been born here in Ferelden at the camp, but the Keeper still hated their whole family, all because Mamma had dared to run away in the first place.
The whole clan, tots to elders, took their tone from the Keeper. And if Zevran had to listen to one more backhanded comment about his accent, about how this or that little habit from home wasn't how the Dalish did it, about how the poor babes didn't know any better because their mother hadn't taught them or because their father, well —
And then a segue into another condescending lecture about flat-ear good-as-shems from the city who had forgotten all the mighty lore of mighty old Arlathan. Fat lot of good all that ancient wisdom had done them, Zevran thought angrily, when the elves had lost not one, but two homelands. Zevran didn't know how Mamma endured it; Zevran wasn't like Mamma, though, and if he didn't leave, he was going to throw Papá's knife through someone's eye and then they'd all have to run.
He sliced emphatically through the last of the branches, sheathed the knife at his belt and continued along the muddy path.
It was a mystery to Zevran why Mamma had gone through so much trouble to return to what she'd escaped, why she stayed when the Keeper wouldn't even let Papá live in the camp, and why she put up with all the arrogance and snobbery with little more than silence and smiles. And Papá, well, he had to really, really love Mamma, because he'd come with her all the way from Antiva City, and he followed the clan on their travels and made a good living with his woodwork wherever they went.
Mamma made sure that Zevran, Taliesin, and Rinna saw Papá regularly and often, so why couldn't they go one more step and just be a clan of their own?
Snatches of distant voices interrupted Zevran's rueful ruminations, bringing him abruptly out of his own thoughts. Humans, maybe, up to no good this deep in the forest? Zevran took his knife out of its sheath and crept closer silently, listening.
“If there's really a Dalish camp in the Brecilian Forest, shouldn't we have run into them by now?” This was a man's voice, skeptical and tired. “I mean, how long must we trek around?”
“Until they find us, or we find them,” came another voice, that of a young woman. It was clear from the flat, stubborn tone that the owner of this voice would brook no disagreement.
“But you're certain they are here?” Another woman, with the musical Orlesian accent Zevran had found so soothing when his family traveled through that country.
The stubborn voice vented a sigh. “Admittedly, in the ten years since my mother left her clan, they may have moved from the Brecilian Forest. I don't rightly know. I know there aren't really a whole lot of human settlements in the area, but I also know my people don't like to sit still longer than they have to. We'll see.”
“You know they might attack first and ask questions later.” The male again, sounding rather less than enamored of the idea.
“Not one who recognizes the mark on my face, they won't.”
A pause. “What's it mean?” the male essayed.
“My mother had the same one,” answered the stubborn one (the one whose mother had been a Dalish, and run away, Zevran reminded himself — just like his own mother, and he crept a little closer). “There's a whole ritual that's supposed to go with it, but we didn't have time, and she wanted me to have one in case — well, in case what happened to her happened. It's called valla... valle... Maker, I've forgotten the word for the markings, but this one is for Dirthamen, keeper of secrets.”
“Kind of a creepy niche, for a god,” the male remarked.
The answering shrug was almost audible. “I've forgotten too much,” came the Dalish daughter's mutter, quiet and fretful. “Who knows — maybe they'll shoot on sight after all.”
“I hope not,” the Orlesian said wistfully. “I would very much like to trade stories with the Dalish. A Bard has not exchanged stories with a clan member in many years, at least not so far as I have heard.”
Zevran took a deep breath, and for the runaway Dalish woman's daughter, made a snap decision. “If you are looking for the Dalish, then you've found them,” he announced, and pushed shrubbery out of his way to come grandly before the travelers.
Whereupon he blinked, because two of the voices' owners were armed humans – and one was Templar-armed – and only one was an elf, and the elf, yes, had the vallaslin of Dirthamen, strands of Fear and Deceit twined on the right cheek, but she wore the tattered robes of a Circle mage, and that was not right. Zevran tore his second knife out of its sheath and crossed both before him, baring his teeth. “What do you want?”
The elf woman blinked, and then her gaze abruptly refocused on something behind Zevran. Zevran was almost offended, until the Templar blurted, “Well, shit,” and the redheaded woman had her bow out in a trice, nocking an arrow as swiftly as a scout.
Zevran whirled around, and his breath lodged in his throat at a creature that had appeared – out of nowhere, damnit, or he would have seen it, would have seen its tracks, would have remembered that smell, sickly and unhealthy and curdled. It lowered its head, and it must have been a bear once, but now only the contorted suggestion of one remained, the howling memory in its wretched, bloody eyes. Spikes jutted from matted fur, its muscles huge and lumpen.
The gleaming Templar rushed forward, shield up and out, sword drawn, knocking the beast back. It swiped at him with massive, too-long claws, but the Templar bore it further back with a shout, throwing it off-balance as his flashing blade tore that spiked flesh. A fetid odor filled the air as the creature's blood pooled beneath it, droplets hissing on the leafy forest floor, and it bellowed, its jaw too long, its teeth too long, how could a beast like that eat, how could it provide for itself, it was made only for rending, it was not natural—
The elf woman drew up her staff and a shimmering circle was inscribed on the forest floor from which the bear-beast-thing shied violently away. Grimly, she jabbed her staff in its direction, shooting sparking bolts which arced between the thing's spikes as it convulsed.
“Child, please, away!” cried the Orlesian woman with a frantic glance towards Zevran as she fired, arrows bouncing off the thicket of thorns comprising the beast's tortured hide, and it was that word, child, which tore Zevran out of his shock. As the Templar circled the groaning beast warily, he darted round to the beast's flank and sank one dagger in. With a terrible sound, the monster staggered into one of the elf woman's glyphs – and froze there. The Templar cut its throat.
Zevran retrieved his dagger. The glade was silent.
“What,” said the Templar, and he swallowed, looking ill. “What in Andraste's name was that wretched thing?”
By unspoken but complete accord, they traveled from the creature's jagged corpse and the wretched stink it emitted. The elf boy led them to the side of a clear brook nearby, saying, “The water here is clean – you can drink, or clean with it, but don't pollute the stream.”
Alistair, after a moment's hesitation, used his helm as a makeshift bucket and poured water over his sword on a patch of grass nearby, scrubbing furiously at the blood congealing on the blade. The boy knelt a short distance away and wiped his dagger off on the grass. Jacinta regarded the boy curiously, and he watched her in turn with clear unafraid eyes, a color-shifting hazel in the warm sunlight.
Poised gracefully on the precipice between childhood and manhood, the boy was clearly going to be a heartbreaker in a few years, but for now he retained some of the softness of youth, round cheeks and small hands and lanky legs he was going to have to grow into. He rose to his feet once his blade was clean, wiping it off on his sleeve before sheathing it. His golden hair was tied neatly back, and he had a pack strung across his torso which he hadn't removed when he waded into battle.
“That was quite an entrance,” Jacinta said wryly.
The boy flushed. “I didn't know about that – thing. I didn't even see it! I should have seen it. I don't know where it could have come from.”
“Anything in your crazy stories about gigantic spike-bears?” Alistair called out to Leliana.
The Bard considered the question ruefully before shaking her head. “No credible ones, no. That was a beast out of legend, if anything.”
Jacinta saw little point in dwelling over the provenance of the thing. “It's a dead beast out of legend now, anyway.”
“Maybe the Keeper would...” the Dalish boy began, but then his jaw set, and he looked down.
Ah, thought Jacinta. How often had she seen that look of mulish resentment on the face of some rebellious apprentice after being scolded by a Templar or chided by their mentor? His small pack was overstuffed, as though he'd jammed everything at hand into it, and for all his youthful bravado, he was strikingly alone. “You were running away when you came across us,” she said.
The boy's head jerked up, his sun-flecked gaze wide, but after a moment, reluctantly, he nodded. “I heard you say that your mother left her clan. Mine did too.”
“What's your name?”
“Arainai? That's not Dalish.”
“It isn't. Papá is from Antiva City,” the boy said proudly. Well, that explained the kid's robust accent. “As am I. My brother was born on the road, though. And my sister was born here.”
“You're lucky to have your family,” she said, the old ache twisting her heart strings again, the old loss. “Anyway, your assistance back there was pretty timely. Would you be willing to help us out once more, and lead us back to your clan? I'd like to speak to your Keeper, and I bet they'd be happy to have you back.”
Zevran hesitated at that, his glance darting towards Alistair, who was hunched, scowling, over some invisible spot on his sword, then to Leliana, who offered him a smile that could have charmed yellow off butter. “I don't know if I...”
“Zevran,” came another voice, and this one made everyone look up. Longbow cocked, a Dalish hunter in elaborately whorled armor stood across the small brook – this one full-grown, no child to be shocked into inaction. Graceful finials swirled across his features, curled at the corners of his full lips. His blue eyes were cold, fringed by lashes pale as ice.
“Tamlen!” Zevran cried, brightening inexplicably beneath that unfriendly gaze.
The scout's freezing eyes thawed only slightly, and Tamlen spared the boy a nod of acknowledgment. “Who are your new friends, and why on earth would you even think of leading them back to the clan? Your mother is beside herself. The Keeper has diverted half our hunters and scouts to finding you.”
“The Keeper hates me,” said Zevran, clearly taken aback by that choice bit of news. His smile faded, and his jaw set again. “The Keeper hates my entire family. Except maybe for Rinna, because she can't talk yet, so she can't tell the Keeper exactly where to stick it.”
The scout's mouth twitched. He didn't lower his long-bow. “The Keeper's old. Give her some credit.”
“No. I won't,” Zevran snarled. The momentary brightness seeing Tamlen occasioned had been replaced by an incandescent rage the boy had clearly been sitting on for some time. “And I don't have to come back. Mamma will get over it just like the whole clan got over it when she left. I'm sick and tired of the way everybody treats me and Tal and especially Papá, who is better than all of them put together! I'm tired of hearing about the flat-ears who don't know anything. And Mamma and Papá just keep quiet, they don't say anything — well, I'm saying something!”
“You're saying it to me,” Tamlen said mildly. “Perhaps your words would be more usefully directed towards the Keeper. Now then.” He dipped his bow in the direction of Jacinta, indicating by proxy the rest of her party. “Your friends?”
“It's a fortunate chance we met Zevran in the woods here,” Jacinta said, stepping forward, her hand around her staff oh-so-casually. “We were looking for the Dalish.”
“That always ends so well,” Tamlen remarked coolly.
Jacinta raised her eyebrow. “My mother was Dalish.”
“What a coincidence. So was mine.”
Jacinta reminded herself forcefully of all she had felt in her dreams, of the ferocious and powerful emotions that rent her soul when she dreamed as Tamlen, in order to prevent herself from knocking him upside the head with the business end of her staff. That cold and ironic demeanor was a facade the man wore to frighten off the non-Dalish, nothing more. She had to get through to him somehow, or why else had she dreamed all of his secrets?
“My mother was the First of her clan,” she explained through only slightly gritted teeth. “When the Templars caught up with her, they killed her and took me off to the Tower. As you can see, I'm no longer in the Tower, so I thought I'd at least see what became of her people before I decided what to do next.”
“Curious company you keep, then.” Tamlen's gaze fell upon Alistair, who had taken up near Jacinta with his shield up and out. Jacinta was distantly reassured by that silent promise of support.
“I'm not a Templar, and I'm certainly not on the Chantry's business, or it'd be rather odd for me to be palling around with an apostate, wouldn't you say?” Alistair smiled, bitingly. “I do like the armor, though. Stylish and functional.”
Tamlen didn't deign to engage Alistair's notion of wit. “And you?” he asked, turning his blue gaze onto Leliana.
Leliana had not drawn her bow, though she didn't have to with her knives at her belt. “I am a Bard, and interested only in meeting your storyteller and trading tales,” she said demurely.
“They helped me kill a monster,” Zevran piped up.
That news brought the first flicker of surprise in Tamlen's demeanor. The hunter regarded Zevran seriously. “What sort of monster?”
“It was big, and it had spikes, and it looked like a very sick bear, if bears had spikes,” Zevran said with a nonchalant shrug that did not quite disguise his shudder.
Bereskarn claws, the jagged gashes scoring through armor, through flesh, through muscle, through bone. He lay exsanguinated on the cold and ancient stones, his shredded body bare to the dust of ages. Tamlen knelt there for a long time with the body of his best friend, breathing the fetid stink of foul and corrupted blood, until he rose, bearing his better half in his arms. Then Tamlen felt him shudder, felt a weak, scraping breath, and he had never known such speed before as he fled that dreadful sarcophagus of a ruin holding all his hope heavy on his back.
Tamlen was pale beneath his graceful vallaslin, scarcely breathing and still, and Jacinta knew she had him. She pinned him with her gaze, spring to his enduring winter.
“We killed the thing that killed Idris.”
Tamlen's breath drew in, and something wild and frightened fluttered in his eyes. “I'm taking all of you to the Keeper,” he said abruptly. “Follow me.”
Jacinta finally gets to explain to the Keeper what brought her here, and Tamlen demands a few explanations as well. She does her best, but some things are beyond anyone's ability to explain away.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Tamlen whistled once, a loud and piercing trill, then gestured roughly for Alistair, Jacinta and Leliana to fall in line behind him. Answering trills whipped through the trees as the outflung Dalish responded to his message and passed it along. Zevran, subdued, walked by Tamlen's side. The hunter briefly rested a hand on the young boy's shoulder, though his own broad shoulders were tense beneath the light, flexible armor he wore.
“You'll be fine,” Tamlen said softly to the boy. Jacinta perked her ears up. “Hold your head high and speak truth. We don't want to lose anyone else.”
“I'm glad I got to kill the beast, anyway,” Zevran said fiercely. He peeked back over his shoulder at Jacinta with unabashed curiosity. Jacinta gave him a quick smile, and he grinned back before tilting his head back up at Tamlen. His voice was quiet, but Jacinta could still hear him. “But how did the lady know about Idris?”
“I don't know, monster. Just do me a favor and time your next escape attempt a little better, all right?”
Zevran snorted. Shortly, twining lanterns began to line a sort of path through the wood, and then they were at the entrance to the camp. The two guards there greeted Zevran warmly, which made the young elf twitch. But Tamlen and the guards quickly fell into a fast-paced conversation, Tamlen making a few aggravated gestures in response to the cragglement and skepticism with which he was met. Zevran crossed his arms, looking about to run again.
Jacinta watched the interplay worriedly, unwilling to interfere and blow their chances, desperately afraid that Tamlen would change his mind, kick them out and wash his hands of them. She didn't know where else to find a Dalish clan. At this point, she was beginning to reconsider the wisdom of seeking this encampment at all. But her dreams had been so clear, so sharp – Tamlen's pain had pulled hard at her heart – she'd been so sure they were headed in the right direction.
“Friendly lot, aren't they?” Alistair commented sotto voce.
“We have our reasons,” Jacinta began, half-heartedly. But she fell silent, not wishing to make the typical Dalish excuses. The group at the entrance was clearly arguing over whether or not to admit her group at all. To come so far, to come through so much, only to be deemed unworthy, somehow not Dalish enough – she wanted to scream. “I wonder if they're aware that the tattoo on my cheek doesn't wash off,” she muttered.
Leliana said softly, “It must be strange, no? To return after so long.”
Jacinta nodded, her throat tight. “Surpassingly,” she said. Though the Dalish elves shared a common culture, each tribe expressed it differently. The aravels of this clan, visible from here, were carved and painted differently; their faces were tattooed in a style unfamiliar to her. But the most salient difference of all was that she knew no one, and no one was happy to see her. She had returned indeed — to a home that wasn't hers.
“You look like you want to blast them out of the way and push on through,” Alistair remarked. Jacinta blinked at him, and he nodded towards her staff with raised eyebrows.
She hadn't even realized how hard she was clenching the delicate instrument, but snorted at his spot-on observation, relaxing her grip. “I almost do,” she admitted. “But I don't want to start off on that foot.”
“Do you really think they'll let us in?” he asked her seriously.
“I think Tamlen's fighting for it.”
“And if they don't?” he pressed.
“Then we'll leave.” She wondered if she looked as miserable as she felt, saying that. “Like I said, we have our reasons to mistrust outsiders. Maker, it's just...”
The increasing tension broke, as everyone turned at that cry. The young runaway himself, who had hunched by Tamlen's side as though the hunter was the only thing keeping him from bolting, jumped. “Mamma?”
An elf woman who looked more like Zevran's sister than his mother fell to her knees in front of the boy and gathered him in her arms, heedless of the dirt or their audience. Thick waves of sun-gold hair shone down her back as she buried her face in her son's shoulder. One of the guards, standing by, rolled his eyes in brief editorial. Zevran flushed, patting his mother's back awkwardly.
“Mamma, please, I am fine...”
“Don't you ever,” said the woman fiercely, pulling away to grasp her boy by the shoulders and stare him in the eyes. “Don't you ever do that to me again! Do you know what I went through? What we went through?”
“You did the same thing!” Zevran protested. “You ran away too!”
The woman blanched beneath her sun-browned skin. Her eyes were canted upwards, as golden as her son's, and her face-markings curled down the sharp bones of her face like new-furled leaves. Jacinta couldn't help but notice that Zevran's mother was radiant with beauty even by elven standards; little wonder the father of her children had followed her all the way from Antiva.
“I made a mistake,” she said, her rich voice shaking, “and it is through the grace of the gods and your father that we are all still together today. Mythal guard and ward you, my beloved son. May you never know my path.” Zevran looked confused, and angry still, shaking off his mother's grasp.
Reluctantly, the woman rose to her feet. The guard who'd rolled his eyes said dryly, “We're all happy the lad's back, Helahui, but we're in the middle of a situation here, if you don't mind.”
“There is no situation. I am vouching for the outsiders; the outsiders will see the Keeper,” Tamlen said through gritted teeth, “and I don't owe you a damned explanation.”
“Indeed,” came another voice. A slight, elderly elven woman approached the little reunion. Though her back was slightly hunched, her eyes were a sharp, dark blue that belied the frailty of her dignified age. She wore the distinctive garb of a Keeper. Everyone straightened up, from Alistair to the guards.
“Keeper Marethari,” Tamlen said respectfully, and for the first time since Jacinta had invoked Idris's name, Tamlen's gaze crossed hers. Almost immediately he looked away, back towards the Keeper.
“Tamlen,” the Keeper said. Her voice was mild. “Report.”
“Yes. As you can see, I found Zevran,” Tamlen reported crisply. “He told me he'd seen the bereskarn.” His face was expressionless beneath the vallaslin, though his throat worked. It took him a moment to recover; the creases in the Keeper's lined face seemed to deepen as she watched him. “These people helped him slay the beast. The woman said she is Dalish, swears her companions intend no harm. I had a compelling reason to bring her here past that.” He shot a look at the eye-rolling guard that would have flensed meat off bones. “And it is not for the public ear.”
“I weary of being spoken for,” Jacinta said, suddenly and loudly, stepping forward. “My mother was the Keeper of her clan. She ran away; she took me with her. It is not my fault that she was captured by Templars. It is not my fault I was taken to the Tower. I am no less a Dalish for these things!” Her voice wavered, almost breaking, but recovered to full stridency as she raised her chin. “My word is not on trial here. I've come to ask for help and shelter. It was the way of my mother's clan to give solace to any of our people who came seeking it, and I myself vouch for the trustworthiness and good intentions of my companions. We will offer no violence, we intend no harm, we wish only... I only want to...”
The Keeper by the look of her had not missed a single emotion of the many that warred for control of Jacinta's features. “We will hear you,” she stated. “Be your companions welcome, for now. Helahui, please see to their comfort. Zevran, we are most glad and grateful at your safe return, and you and I shall have speech later. You, child, will come with me.” She nodded at Jacinta, and her gaze swept aside to include Tamlen as well. “Tamlen.”
Helahui turned a smile on Leliana and Alistair that could have melted the gold off a coin, her relief at the return of her child illuminating her features, though Zevran still hovered a short, suspicious distance away from his mother. “Please,” she said warmly, and even Alistair ventured a hesitant smile in response. He looked over his shoulder at Jacinta as Helahui led them away, his hazel eyes dark with concern. Jacinta shook her head, unable to summon any smile, let alone one of like radiance.
The Keeper led Tamlen and Jacinta to her aravel amidst the curious glances of her people and shut the door behind them. The familiar trappings, the geometric tapestries, the carved statuettes on a small shelf behind the Keeper when she took her seat with a fluidity that defied age, all of it made Jacinta's heart ache, her eyes stinging in a most unpleasant and unwelcome manner. She took a deep breath and sat before the Keeper, and tried not to see the ghost of her mother in the Keeper's dignified, unbent carriage.
“Yes?” Jacinta asked, barely permitting the silence to stretch before breaking it.
The Keeper's smile deepened, and Jacinta's hands tightened on her lap at the wise old warmth of it, at her automatic yearning to sit and be silent and listen. “First of all,” Keeper Marethari said, “I would know of you, child, and what you sought by finding us.”
Jacinta's fingers picked at her patched robes. “I had to leave the Tower. There was a misunderstanding...” She took a bitter breath, and glanced aside at a figure of a tall, stern hound, hip-high to a grown elf. Next to her before the Keeper, Tamlen sat quiet, his spine straight, his chin raised, every inch a proud Dalish. He could have sat for a sculptor. “Well, I suppose you can scarcely call it that. Not really. My best friend – I mean, he'd been my best friend since I was a child, since I was first brought to the Tower...”
In muddled, ungraceful sentences, Jacinta told the story.
Not days before they were ambushed, her mother had hurriedly administered the vallaslin with what little ceremony she could offer. Jacinta could still remember her soft, urgent voice. “In case of the worst, darling, I want you to have this. You are Dalish. You are the last of the elvenhan, my beloved daughter, and you will never submit.” Jacinta had thought, in childish solipsism, that no one had ever suffered such pain. Her markings were still tight and swollen when the Templars surprised them.
There were four of them against an exhausted mage and her seven-year-old daughter, and even then her mother had fought them nearly to a draw before one got inside her guard, slammed her with wards and, as she reeled with the draining of her mana, killed her. Jacinta had, idiotically, tears streaming from her eyes, charged them. “The bitch brought her whelp?” one asked incredulously before they bound Jacinta and dragged her with them, leaving her mother's body unburied. Jacinta tried to use her magic against them, but after the incident of the exploding tree, they encased her in their workings night and day the whole trip long, an imprisonment more real and dire to a Keeper's daughter than any bindings of rope or steel. Her raw untutored magic boiled within her, stabbing at their foreign protections, testing their skill at every turn.
Quite gladly, they handed her off to the mages, a scrap of elf with more eyes than face. But she dreamed of her mother's death – the shock of the ambush, the horror of the humans' casual brutality, the red meat of her mother's neck when a broadsword clove her head clean off, the cervical spine a gristly white. And her mother's quick hands, so easy with magecraft, so quick to caress an unhappy child or soothe some small hurt, stilled forever against her blood-drenched robes. Her face didn't even look like her face. Her empty eyes screamed nothing to deaf elven gods.
When Jacinta dreamed in those first months, she shouted and struggled in her sleep, and the beds shook and the walls vibrated and the other mageborn children groaned and put their pillows over their heads and cursed the stupid elf. The only person who seemed to care at all was Jowan.
She didn't speak again until she was ten years old, but Jowan still sat with her. He showed her the way to class and to the privy, told her who to speak to and who to avoid, who was afraid of the dark, who was allergic to what, which little magelet showed talent at what bit of magic, which enchanters could be counted on for a spot of kindness in this forbidding gray place, which Templars were good and kind and which could not be trusted. He told her how he had bad dreams sometimes too, how everyone who groaned and moaned like they'd never heard of nightmares had had them as well, how some of them had even wet the bed, so she was scarcely alone in being afraid, and that he didn't mind if she was an elf, because it wasn't like being human had done much for him either.
The whole Tower grew accustomed to them. Sunlight and Shadow, light hair and dark, silence and ebullience, palling around the commons and the mess hall, sitting together in class. The instructors always paired them together, because it was unfair to pair the uncommunicative Jacinta with anyone else. When she finally did speak, her voice hoarse and shy, it was only to say, “Could you pass that?” at the table, but Jacinta would never forget the astonished look of joy on Jowan's face.
So when Jowan asked her help with Lilith, of course she agreed, even though she didn't think the Chantry heifer was worthy of him. And of course she took Jowan's word that he wasn't a blood mage, because he had never broken his word to her before. And of course she helped him destroy his phylactery, and of course she shattered hers while she had the chance, too, because sod the Templars and the plodding little circle of thin, tired magic that was all the Chantry permitted its pet mages to tread. And when it all fell to shit—
“I just wanted something like home,” Jacinta said at last, and wiped at the damp corners of her eyes. “I heard there was a clan in the Brecilian Forest, perhaps mine, likely not, but still my people. I could think of nowhere else to go.”
“So many losses,” the Keeper murmured. “And the humans with you?”
“Leliana is a Bard out of Orlais. Her kindness keeps a cloak on my back. Alistair is a former Templar. He has earned my trust, and after hearing my story I believe you understand what a tremendous feat that was.” The Keeper, Jacinta decided immediately, did not need to hear the epic tale of their first battle right now.
“I didn't think Templars were allowed to quit."
Tamlen hadn't spoken at all during Jacinta's story, but his calm, precise voice was almost startling, newly empty of hostility and tension. She caught the pale flash of his eyes, but shook her head. “Alistair's business is his own. You are free to ask him of it, of course. But I vouch for his character, and I assure you he is no longer with the Templars. I mean, think about it,” she said, her voice tightening, “he would hardly run with an apostate into the middle of a Dalish camp if he were!”
“So now we know why you are here,” the Keeper said. Jacinta raised her gaze to the elderly elf's face, yearning to be understood, shriven of blame and accepted, hoping for it so hard it bubbled up in her chest and she could scarcely breathe. But instead of saying what Jacinta so longed to hear, the Keeper glanced at Tamlen. “But Tamlen, what convinced you to bring her and her company here?”
“Aside from the not inconsiderable fact that they saved Zevran from a bereksarn,” Tamlen began, and then stopped. He closed his eyes, his hands tightening on his knees, before opening them again. His face was devoid of expression once more. “Keeper, she knows about Idris,” he said, and even with all that, his voice still buckled, nearly broke. “She knew she had slain the bereskarn that killed him. Her words rang of truth.”
The Keeper's brows drew down, the soft skin of her round face drawing into wrinkles like a bit of paper clenched in a fist. “How is this possible?"
“I don't know,” Jacinta said helplessly, spreading her hands. “But for the past few weeks, as I traveled here, I dreamed as Tamlen. Before I'd ever met him. I mean, I didn't know it was Tamlen, but now that we've met,” she nodded uncertainly at Tamlen, whose face was stark, his eyes like dry ravines, “it's very clear to me.”
“What exactly did you dream?” Tamlen asked.
“Everything,” she answered. “Memories. As though I had lived them. As though I were you. Always I dreamed of Idris, but through your eyes. With your heart.”
“With my heart?”
“I can't imagine that anyone in this camp loved him better than you,” she said softly. Emotion flooded the wintry blue of Tamlen's eyes, and he wrenched his gaze away.
“How is that possible?” Tamlen demanded of the Keeper. “How could she know?”
“I assumed it meant that I was on the right course,” Jacinta put in hastily, “that I was supposed to come here. The dreams came whether I willed them or not, but they were so – ”
Beautiful, Jacinta did not say. Even through eyes that ached with grief that wasn't hers, the dreams were beautiful, as vibrant as the dark-haired elf with his charming smile and his dual swords around which every vision centered. “They didn't seem harmful. I did no magic to cause this. I don't know of any that could.”
“How wasn't I aware,” Tamlen snapped, “that I had someone magically – shuffling through my head, riding point through my memories?”
Keeper Marethari shook her head, as bewildered as the two of them, and that more than anything struck Jacinta with fear. Keepers knew. It was a rule of Dalish life that Keepers always knew. “I shall have to give this great thought,” she said. “Jacinta, you and your companions may stay for three days. At the end of that time we will speak again. You may both go.”
The setting sun looked like a blood orange, throwing its dying light about the camp. Tamlen looked beyond shaken, raking a hand through his pale hair as though reminding himself where his head was located. Jacinta glanced at him, and he gestured her over to a nearby tree.
“What was it, exactly, that you saw? When you went through my memories?” he asked, his tone half-pleading, half-demanding.
“Tamlen, I didn't do this on purpose. I couldn't control the process. I have enough going on in my own head,” Jacinta assured him, “I wouldn't—”
He shook his head impatiently. “I just want to know what you saw of him,” he said, and even Tamlen in all his strained self-control couldn't keep the pain out of his voice. As crisp and sudden as a snap of lightning in her fist, Jacinta understood what Tamlen was really asking.
“Well,” she began, leaning back against the tree, and Tamlen hung on her every word, his eyes not leaving her face, “I saw when you were ten years old and went after those halla...”
payroo created amazing, exquisite cover art for the series here (http://community.livejournal.com/swooping_is_bad/903646.html#cutid1), pop a gander if you haven't already! My deepest, darkest apologies for the delay. My computer went tits-up, my life followed shortly, I had a birthday, and the beat goes on, da-da-dum-da-dum. I hope to wrest myself onto the same heady schedule I had before. Thank you for sticking with me- I always appreciate your thoughtful comments.
I'm such a dummy. Tamlen is a hunter, not a scout. I've got to go to the past chapters of Ferro and fix this post-haste. I'm really starting to think I could use a punctilious, detail-oriented editor- any volunteers? :x Anyway, sorry about that, and for any other inconsistencies- I will fix them as I find them, and feel free to point them out if you think you've spotted one :) Oh, also: the story Paivel tells is adapted from the Dream of Akinosuke.
The fire burned bright and tall, flinging its orangey light all round in defiance of the early evening. Alistair shifted on the low bench and swatted at some of the gnats hovering round his head. He'd never felt so tall and leggy before, and the Dalish weren't exactly friendly, though Helahui in her gratitude was perfectly kind. Only the children seemed open, like the little guy next to him who kept eying his armor with undisguised awe.
It reminded Alistair, painfully, of Cailan at that age. He smiled at the boy.
"Tal's not bothering you, is he?" asked Zevran in a low voice, poking his head out to speak across his brother, blond hair swinging with the motion. "Sometimes he doesn't know about boundaries when it comes to other people's shiny stuff."
"I do too," the younger boy responded with an impressive pout.
"Hush when Paivel's talking," Zevran scolded, placing a hand on his younger brother's head and pressing down as if to physically quash any future outbursts. Taliesin crossed his arms, looking used to it. At their feet, little Rinna sat paying no attention to her elder siblings. Her eyes were huge with wonder, chubby fists gathered in her skirt as she leaned forward and listened.
Alistair could hardly blame her. When a seasoned Orlesian Bard and an experienced Dalish storyteller began a duel of tales, surely even the Maker perked His ears up to have a listen. Drawn by the spectacle of a genuine Bard from distant Orlais come to ply her trade here in the heart of the clan, even some of the adults had gathered round the fire in anticipation. Helahui's eyes shone just like her daughter's, her fingers linked with her husband's on a nearby bench.
After the Keeper had led Jacinta and Tamlen away, the rest of Zevran's family came pouring from Maker-knew-what corner of this impossible forest to greet the young elf and his mother. Leliana had tactfully stepped back to give them space, and Alistair awkwardly followed suit as young Taliesin, a robust lad of nine, slammed Zevran with an embrace forceful enough to send them both staggering back a few steps. Helahui's husband, Durante, followed with a slight limp, bearing their squirming daughter in his arms. Little Rinna shrieked and wriggled until Zevran obliged her by giving her a good fierce cuddle and a kiss on each cheek.
Leliana's bright blue eyes were suspiciously shiny as she watched the family's reunion, and for all his Templar training in standing around looking as expressionless as a brick in a bucket, Alistair had to admit he'd gotten a little teary-eyed himself. He'd found it hard enough to leave bloody Redcliffe, and certainly no one there had loved him even half so well. As a child Alistair had starved for affection, gulped down even the crumbs of fondness shown him by serving women or laundry ladies, and here, Zevran had turned his back on a banquet — out of offense and outrage on his family's behalf, but still. Kids these days.
The old ache burned in Alistair's chest, the same way his left ankle had always been a little weak after a childhood tumble. Idiotic and low, he thought to himself, ashamed.
Zevran grinned with pride, hoisting Rinna on his hip as he turned to Leliana (who'd hurriedly wiped away her tears) and Alistair to introduce everyone. Zevran and his father shared a boisterous Antivan accent and a wry grin. Taliesin took most after his father with that thick dark hair and those great dark eyes, and two-year-old Rinna had a head of brassy curls and a mouth of pearly teeth which she bared to indicate glee or aggression in equal measure. Helahui in her musical voice had suggested that they retire to the family home for a nice dinner while their friend and Tamlen were occupied with the Keeper, but Alistair had moved to demur, uncomfortable leaving without Jacinta.
Then a tremendous voice had sounded, loud enough to shake ladybugs from their leaves: "Gather, children of the Dales, and hear a story of your people! A story of the Dalish! Hear the story of Fen'harel, the Dread Wolf and Lord of Tricksters. Hear how he betrayed the gods..."
As though compelled, Leliana had veered off, her eyes a-lit with bardic fire. Perforce the whole party followed, and Alistair tried to take an unobtrusive seat in the back of the storytelling circle, shaded beneath an old tree's broad canopy. But Taliesin insisted on sitting next to Alistair, so of course it would not do but that Zevran crammed himself onto the bench next to Tal, and then Rinna clamored to sit with her brothers, and Helahui and Durante sat by their children and held hands even though more than one passing Dalish cast them a disapproving glance. But those that passed slowed, then stopped, then took a seat as Paivel went through the Tale of Fen'harel's Triumph.
He was a gifted storyteller, his voice strong and measured, rising and falling as he evoked the depth of Fen'harel's treacherous wit. Alistair's imagination ignited with the storyteller's words till he could almost feel the sorrow of the gods of good as they were locked away and severed from their chosen people. In thunderous tones Paivel summoned the dreadful rage of the gods of evil, calling curses upon the name of Fen'harel and the race of the elves. Though his hair was snowy white, nothing in the elder's carriage or bearing indicated anything but a man at the apex of his maturity, wisdom, and power.
As Paivel echoed their empty cries, he fixed Alistair with a challenging look. Now, Alistair scarcely considered himself a religious man, despite – well, honestly, because of – everything the Chantry had tried to shove down his throat. And he was aware that Paivel was technically a heretic, like all the rest of the Dalish, and that this tale was, by Templar standards, direst blasphemy. But he wasn't a Templar anymore, damnit, and he bridled beneath that look. He half wanted to get to his feet and proclaim, with a sweeping gesture encompassing his Templar armor, "What, this? This is just my Friday night drag. You should see me on Saturdays!"
Their party's welcome was tenuous enough as it was without Alistair causing a diplomatic incident over a dirty look, though, so he merely looked away. Paivel brought his story to an end with the collapse of Arlathan and the rape and ruin of the elven people, and there were murmurs and nods all round as Paivel spoke the Dalish credo: "And never again will we submit."
Charming. Really. Alistair got the point. But he had to own, Paivel had related Fen'harel's legend with skill and style. Alistair found himself wondering how Leliana would match Paivel's story as Paivel ceded center stage with an impeccable bow in the bard's direction. He could feel the interest of the audience sharpen as Leliana rose, beaming, and clasped her hands together, thanking Paivel prettily. She'd likely choose a story of Andraste and the Maker, maybe the one of her betrayal and execution at her husband's hands, Alistair thought, preparing himself to hear a story he'd heard umpteenth-plus-one times before.
Instead, Leliana began, "There once lived in Orlais a very wealthy merchant, with six daughters and six sons." Alistair had never heard this story before, and from the healthy tension in the air, neither had any of the Dalish. Even Paivel, despite himself, looked a wary sort of intrigued. "And the youngest, who was the most beautiful, was called Beauty..."
Halfway through the story, Alistair caught sight of Jacinta drawing near the storytelling circle like a hooded, bedraggled shadow, still accompanied by Tamlen. Her meeting with the Keeper and that intimidating hunter must have taken forever, he thought, sympathizing as he remembered how long even the most cursory meeting with the Revered Mother could take. The memory was bitter in hindsight, as he also remembered that it was her fault he was driven to seek shelter among people who hated him without even knowing him. Not like they'd hate him less if they knew him better, anyway. At least their hatred was honest and understandable. If mighty uncomfortable.
Quietly-he-hoped, he got to his feet to meet her. His young benchmates didn't stir, enraptured by Leliana's descriptions of the many magical rooms in the Beast's palace. "I want a monkey pet," he heard Tal whisper to Zevran as he left.
The kids were cute. He was smiling again as he approached her, and he felt a sudden great relief when he met her eyes and saw that she was smiling as well. Jacinta had looked miserable at even the concept of being turned away from the Dalish camp, and Alistair readily admitted that he was out of ideas should they have been rejected at the gates. "Welcome back," he said.
"Thanks." Jacinta glanced over curiously at the storytelling circle. "Is Leliana really doing what I think she's doing?"
"Telling a roaring good story? You bet. By the time she's done, the storyteller will be eating out of her dainty Orlesian hand."
"Paivel? I doubt it," Tamlen put in, crossing his arms. The hunter seemed lanky next to Jacinta, though Alistair knew he was himself a full head taller than Tamlen. That Dalish confidence rendered the difference trivial, though. "He knows a bit too much of our history to fall for a pretty face and a nice story."
"Oh, I don't know," Alistair drawled, stung by the hunter's apparent need to jump in and contradict him right off the bat. "It is a very pretty face. And a really nice story."
"Our own stories are sufficient," Tamlen said coldly.
Before Alistair could summon a suitably scathing response, Jacinta interrupted with a sharp, "Please." Tamlen shrugged. Alistair blinked. This wasn't Jacinta's clan, and the hunter scarcely seemed the most charitably disposed elf in the camp, so why did Tamlen in his own stuffy way look... abashed?
"Dare I ask what happened in the meeting with the Keeper?" Alistair said after an awkward silence.
"We have three days of asylum here," Jacinta replied, waving a hand in front of her face to scatter the gnats. "Then I have to meet the Keeper again to hear her final decision." She expelled an impatient breath and added fretfully, "If I weren't a Circle mage, there wouldn't even be a question."
"What if she decides to let you stay?"
Was it a part of his destiny, Alistair wondered, to cause grimaces in fair young ladies? But if the Keeper offered Jacinta a place among this clan after all, and she accepted, Alistair would understand. A home was a powerful concept. "I don't know." She crossed her arms, regarding him in a way that made him stand up straighter. "I promised to help with your situation. You've been more than patient the whole trip here, and you didn't have to be." Alistair tilted his head; was the firelight making her cheeks rosy, or was she actually blushing? "You were better than I'd have ever expected. I told the Keeper as much, too."
Alistair laughed, rubbing the back of his neck, which felt a bit hot. Tamlen was looking far too interested in this discussion for Alistair's comfort. "I tried to pull my own weight, that's all. I mean, it made sense that you wouldn't exactly have been thrilled, um... Listen. Please. You don't have to think about me when you make your decision. I'll figure something out. I mean, hell, they've got no phylactery for me, either. If apostates can spend years on the run —"
"Well, there's also Leliana — " Jacinta began to argue, but Alistair shook his head.
"She's a big girl. She's got more figured out than either of us do, that's for sure. Either way, Leliana has a home in Orlais to go back to if it doesn't work out for her here, so she'll be fine." He gestured towards the bard. The whole circle was leaning forward in their seats as she spoke. Some of the children looked about to fall off their benches, mouths gaping with wonder. "Look at her, the crowd's completely captivated. She could support herself simply telling stories for pay."
"Humans do that?" Tamlen asked, with an expression on his face as though he'd gotten a faint whiff of something unpleasant and was too polite to mention it directly. "Charge to hear their own history?"
"You pay coin for what you value," Alistair snapped. "That's hardly a revelation."
"Everyone should have access to their own past. That's basic," Tamlen protested. Great, was the exchange of sovereigns for services rendered an offensive concept to the bloody Dalish too? "There is nothing more priceless. Something so valuable should be shared equally among members of a clan."
"Not all humans have clans," Jacinta pointed out.
"That is a travesty. What of children who are orphaned, or whose parents cannot support them? Are they simply left to fend for themselves?" Tamlen demanded.
"Well, they're given to the Chantry. We're human, not inhuman," Alistair sighed. "The Chantry provides for them, educates them. Most become Templars or initiates and remain within the system."
"I wouldn't know much about that," Jacinta admitted. "The Templars in the Tower preferred to keep themselves apart from the mages whenever possible, and they certainly never spoke much about their training or history, though I'm sure some of them were foundlings or orphans."
"The Tower," Tamlen muttered, as though the very concept merited no further comment than that.
She shrugged, not exactly disagreeing with Tamlen's disgust, not exactly agreeing, and continued. "All I know is that mages of any sort, orphaned or not, are given to the Chantry to be passed on to the Tower. And the children of Circle mages," Jacinta added, her generous lips narrowing with a flare of fury, "are given to the Chantry at birth, will or no, as we are neither permitted to breed, nor considered fit to raise our own children."
Alistair stared. "I didn't know that."
"Some of the Templars are probably the children of Senior Enchanters. Old scandals. Who'd be able to tell, after all?" she continued, her tone falsely airy, girded with disconcerting rage. "They take the child from their mother while she's still reeling with shock and pain, before she can so much as beg for her own baby..."
"Please stop." Alistair felt sick. "Look, I know the Chantry isn't perfect – how could I not know! – but it does good work." His voice sounded pleading even to him. "It's not just an instrument of torture from the Maker to mages!"
Tamlen gave him a contemptuous look, but Jacinta looked him level in the eyes, raising her chin. "Tell that to my mentor," she said, her voice quiet and clear. "The father of her babe is disgraced, and she is forbidden from practicing any magic, confined in one room under Templar guard until the babe is born. Her only crime was to love someone and wish to bear his child! She's a Healer, she could have prevented..." She breathed out, raking a hand through her ragged locks. "For whatever reason, she did not. Wynne pays a heavy price for her defiance."
"I don't..." His words came out choked, each stumbling over the last. "That is wrong. That is unequivocally wrong," Alistair finally said. "I can't – I won't – defend that. Maker..."
Silence fell again, grim and heavy. Surprisingly, it was Tamlen who changed the topic. "The Bard has finished her tale. It looks like Hahren Paivel's getting up again," he said. "Let us join the circle and listen."
Alistair turned away and took his seat next to the Arainai children once more. Tal immediately began to fill Alistair in on the parts he'd missed, though Alistair scarcely caught a word in ten, they came so fast, until Zevran hushed the boy as Paivel stood. The storyteller spread his arms grandly. "To thank our visitor for sharing a story of her people," he announced, "I share with our guests this humble tale, one told me by my grandfather when I was yet a da'len in arms. It begins with the dream of the elf Garahel as he lay sleeping in his garden..."
Alistair closed his eyes and tried not to see heartbroken mage mothers in the blackness there, nor squalling babes in the arms of a faceless knight wearing his armor, nor a young mage woman (pregnant, Maker, why, how could his own brothers keep guard over such a case) kept imprisoned for nothing, for no crime. He tried not to see the fury in Jacinta's eyes when she'd started out the conversation smiling, nor the disdain of the elven hunter. Alistair let Paivel ignite his imagination once more, and the storyteller threw him into the mind of Garahel, a good-natured laborer in the time of Arlathan who was taking his leisure in his garden with two of his friends, and, sleepy with wine, fell into a daze and had a dream.
Dangerous thing, dreams.
Garahel dreamed that he was summoned by a mighty king of the Elvhenan. The king sent a procession to his very garden to collect him, a procession peopled by the noblest of youths with the purest of bloodlines, scions of legends, children of destiny. They bundled him into a litter reserved for the royal family and bore him upon their own noble shoulders to the king's palace, which Garahel had never before seen. It was a vast and lovely structure, a wonder whose spires shimmered against the clouds, built with secret, long-lost methods the elves of today could never hope to replicate. Paivel sighed.
The highest-ranked courtiers escorted Garahel in his modest laborer's clothes before the king, whose great eyes were so depthless that Garahel caught his breath, whose hair shone white, gracing his pate and chin like flowing water. The king himself said it was his will that Garahel marry his beautiful maiden daughter, his only child the August Princess Merenua, that selfsame day. Garahel, stumbling and stunned, was ushered to an alcove where the courtiers brought out gilded chests. Treating him with every honor, they took fine raiment and regal headdress from the chests and attired him, and when they were done humble Garahel was transformed.
Then the courtiers brought him once more before the king, who declared that he was satisfied, and that the wedding would now begin; and the king having said so, music began, a music of such joy as to uplift the lowest heart. Elves, Paivel commented sadly, had long lost the merry-making songs of the Elvhenan, and for centuries they had had little reason to sing at all. Tamlen, sitting near the storyteller on a bench next to Jacinta, looked wistful.
Ladies of the court, each more radiant than the last, came to bring Garahel before his bride, and the Princess Merenua was the loveliest of all, with eyes like lashed stars and a smile that curved like the moon, dignified and wise. The marriage was performed, and the whole court rejoiced, the elven nobility crowding around the new couple even afterward, pressing them with congratulations and rich gifts.
Seven days later the king proclaimed that he was giving unto the happy couple a large island as their dominion to rule in trust for the kingdom. This island was a new addition to the kingdom, but the people were a calm and docile race separated from the mainland only by a tumultuous sea, and only recently rediscovered. The king urged Garahel and Merenua to rule the islanders kindly and well, and to bring their customs and laws gently into line with those of the mainland. Obedient to their king's hopes and wishes, the newlyweds sailed out in state. They arrived safely, and the good island folk welcomed them in warmth and friendship.
Even the work of governorship was not hard, for Garahel had knowledgeable, honest advisers to guide him at every turn, and the Princess Merenua was skilled at statecraft. The island folk were happy to be reunited with their mainland brothers and sisters, whom they had thought lost after so many years, and the land was so fertile and the people so good that there was neither sickness nor want.
Garahel and his wise princess ruled the land together for thirty years, which passed like a sigh in the long lifetime of an elf of those days. Merenua gave Garahel seven children over those thirty years: four boys and three girls, all of them fierce and brave and wise past their years. The pride of their parents, all the children bore their mother's radiance and their father's good heart, and they were beloved by all they came across.
Then came a frightful day when Merenua grew ill, and though all the kingdom prayed to the Creators for her swift recovery, their prayers were for nothing. The beloved Princess died, her sobbing husband squeezing her hand, surrounded by her children. Garahel saw to it that she was buried with great ceremony and a monument erected over her grave, and he passed the mourning period like a shade, drifting with grief. The storyteller glanced at Tamlen, as did half the clan, everyone trying very hard to look like they weren't looking, but the hunter only looked to his feet. Even Jacinta's grim look thawed somewhat.
When the mourning period was ended, a messenger arrived from the king, delivering condolences and somewhat else beside. The king stated through his messenger that he would be returning Garahel to his own people, and promised him that his children, the granddaughters and grandsons of the king himself, would be well cared for. Garahel prepared for his departure thoroughly, and bid farewell to his small court and his family. With great honor, he was escorted to the ship that would return him to the mainland. The blue ocean swelled and shook with waves, and the island at his back grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared. Then the ocean turned gray, and the ship seemed to fall through the sea – and Garahel awoke in his garden, bewildered.
Alistair felt for the elf, having some experience of late with utterly baffling dreams. Leliana was grinning like a child at an ageday party. Garahel's two friends laughed at the stunned laborer, and Garahel stammered out the story of his dream. But, his friends said, he'd not dozed off for more than a few minutes. One friend did point out that they had seen a small yellow butterfly rest on Garahel's face as he snored, fluttering prettily for a few moments until it alighted on the ground beside him. Out of a hole there at the base of the tree, an enormous ant had snatched it, until a few minutes later when the butterfly had flown back out to flutter on Garahel's forehead again. When the friends looked again, the butterfly was gone, and Garahel had awakened.
Garahel at once fetched a spade and went to excavate the ant colony at the base of the tree. The ants had constructed quite a sprawling underground network of tunnels and caves, by ant standards a tremendous endeavor. In the middle of the ant colony, a tremendous ant was surrounded by a swarm of smaller ones."It is the King," whispered Garahel, and his eyes eagerly roved around. "And here, here is the island, and here would certainly be the mountain where I buried my..." His friends watched curiously as he pointed out a particular mound, with a small round pebble lying atop it. With a finger he excavated the mound, whereupon he found the body of a female ant, embedded in clay.
Alistair brought his hands together to applaud, but froze at the last moment as he looked around. It seemed the Dalish didn't show appreciation for tales that way. Instead, they whispered and murmured among themselves, acknowledging the tale and discussing it thoughtfully, with respectful nods towards the storyteller.
Unexpectedly, Zevran chuckled. Alistair glanced over at the boy to see that Zevran was picking up his little sister, who'd fallen asleep. The little one's head lolled, and Zevran pressed a hand gently to her hair as he glanced about for his parents.
It appeared the duel of tales was over. Leliana was speaking with the storyteller, whose ferocity of expression had thawed somewhat. The tale was... certainly something, Alistair thought. It left him with a feeling of unease he wasn't sure what to do with. He thought of his own dreams, of the children he saw there, of the dark-eyed, urgent man who spoke to him as though his very survival depended on Alistair's comprehension. Alistair had begun to take more of his lyrium, because his dreams only bore meaning when he took it. He kept that to himself, guilty and unsure whether he was right in doing so.
Last night, and every night since they had crossed into the Brecilian Forest, Alistair had dreamed of werewolves, though Leliana had promised Alistair that none were to be found in Ferelden. Most scholars had dismissed the tales as exaggerations, the result of uneducated minds trying to make sense of abominations breaking through the thin Veil in this place, she'd said. But the dreams felt as real as Garahel's thirty years on the island. Alistair had dreamed of creatures that howled like animals but bore themselves with as much pride as any Dalish, dreams that burned all round their edges, searing, crisp, real.
Abruptly, Alistair recalled the name with which Jacinta had commanded Tamlen's immediate assistance: Idris. Damnit, he wasn't the only person who wasn't sharing, he thought. Then: Perhaps if I started first... but no, he protested mentally, swatting away the pernicious gnats that gathered round the sweat on his forehead. They had discussed dreams once before; she'd been kind enough to listen, but hadn't volunteered anything of her own because Leliana'd had to calm him down from a nervous fit over what might or might not have been the appearance of the mysterious Jowan. Maybe if he spoke to the storyteller, learned somewhat of the Dalish tradition of dreams – maybe something in their mystic elven knowledge would shed some light on the matter, maybe...
Alistair twitched and spun around. It was Helahui who'd spoken his name, standing with her Antivan husband. Firelight burnished her skin and caught in her golden eyes, shone in her sun-spun hair. Zevran had a look of his mother, all right. "I thought you and your friends might want to retire for the evening," she said. "Durante and I live a little ways from the main camp, so we should get going now."
"Oh! Yes. Of course," Alistair said, thrown off-balance by even the gentle interruption, and feeling rather sheepish for it. "I'll get the ladies, then." Yeah, the day he could 'get the ladies' would be the day he became Grand Cleric of Ferelden. Alistair truly despaired of himself sometimes. "Thanks very much," he added, ducking his head, and went to round up his party for the evening.