The pace of their travels slowed a little when Wynne joined them, at first, because no matter how strong and spry she claimed to be, she was still easily twice the age of anyone else in the company. Their way back south around the lake, to Redcliffe, went by shorter stages than usual, and Alistair could tell that Zin was keeping a close eye on Wynne to see how all the walking affected her.
Morrigan noticed it, too. "That old woman is as tough as a soldier's boot-sole," she said dismissively. "There is no call to coddle her."
"We're just being kind to her," Alistair said. "I realize that's probably an alien concept to you."
"We?" Morrigan raised a brow. "I believe that is our warden being, as you say, kind to her. You are hardly doing anything, Alistair, except following him, as you do so love to do."
"Don't we all?" Zevran said philosophically. "You must admit, my dear Morrigan, that is quite an inspiring rear view." He cocked his head at Alistair. "Don't you agree, my warrior friend?"
Alistair sputtered. "That's not... that's not what I... This really isn't what we were discussing," he said, trying to recapture his dignity. "Morrigan doesn't think anyone should be nice to Wynne."
"But whyever not?" Zevran said, accepting this change in topic with his usual aplomb. "Such a pleasant older lady, and remarkably well-preserved, particularly in certain areas." He made a suggestive gesture at chest-level that drew a very cold look from Morrigan. Zevran met it with a smile. "Of course she cannot compete with you in youth and beauty," he went on blithely, "but you are a woman of quite extraordinary appearance."
Morrigan huffed something about empty flattery, but Alistair thought she wasn't entirely displeased. And it was true: he could admit in the privacy of his own head that Morrigan really was as lovely as she was ill-tempered. He thought he would have found Leliana's cheerful prettiness much more appealing, though, if he'd... well, if he'd been looking.
But he wasn't looking. At them. Alistair could also admit, if only to himself, that there was only one person in the company that he had eyes for, that way.
It wasn't until he saw the sails of Redcliffe's windmill in the distance that Alistair realized he should really say something to Zin about his parentage, before anyone else did. It was bound to slip out sooner or later, somehow. "There's something I should probably tell you," he said, but his confession was interrupted at "my father was King Maric" by a man running up from the village below.
"Have you come to help us?"
Zin sighed, and looked at Alistair in a way that made it clear they'd talk more about this royal revelation later. Then he turned to the villager. "Probably."
The villager was a nervous, high-strung man who talked non-stop as he led them down a steep path towards the village chantry. As it turned out, Redcliffe was under nightly attack by undead who swarmed from the castle, and no one knew if the arl was alive or dead. Bann Teagan had come to visit his brother, and instead ended up trying to organize the villagers to stand against these attacks. Though to judge by the bleak look on their guide's face, things weren't going all that well.
Everyone started to squabble about the best thing to do. "Of course we must help these poor people," Wynne said.
"Because they are too weak to help themselves?" Morrigan said scornfully. "'Tis not our fight."
"This will not help us defeat the Blight," Sten rumbled.
"But we are here, and we can help," Leliana said.
"This arl will no doubt be grateful for our help, if we assist his villagers and his brother," Zevran put in. "And the gratitude of a powerful man will be a useful thing to have on our side. We do need his help in return, no?"
Alistair was tempted to jump into the conversation, but instead he kept his eyes on Zin, who was walking briskly along, head held high and with something tense about his mouth. When they were almost at the chantry, Zin looked back over his shoulder. "Shut up. All of you."
"Of course, you're Bryce Cousland's younger son!" Bann Teagan said. "I saw a lot of the teyrn and teyrna the summer they were staying with Bryland, though they hadn't brought their children with them that time."
"No, we were left behind with Nan," Zin said lightly, "who promised to be very stern with us, and gave us cookies for a snack every day."
Bann Teagan laughed. "That's very stern, indeed! Now, I've put two men in charge of the defenses..."
Well, that settled the matter once and for all. Not that there hadn't been plenty of clues: the good equipment, the crisp accent, the references to a huntsmaster and a library, having guards to pester. And a mabari of his own. Zin was a noble, even with that tattoo. Alistair bit his lip. He wondered how different it was to grow up in a castle when your view was from the top down and you had no doubts about your place there.
Alistair had always liked Redcliffe, despite the pervasive smell of fish. It wasn't exactly pretty, but it was comfortable and cheerful, and you could sit on the docks and have a good view of the lake and watch for the really big fish. Which didn't sound very exciting, but that was the thing about Redcliffe, it was nice, not exciting. He liked the way so many of the houses were built on poles driven into the lake bottom, and connected by narrow pier-like walkways rather than ordinary streets and alleys. When the water was high, after the spring rains and the mountain thaw, the whole village seemed to float on the surface of Lake Calenhad.
Things were very different now. Everyone was pale and grim, the chantry was full of frightened children and their grandparents, the smith was drunk off his head, the mayor thought they were all going to die, the innkeeper only thought about his profits at a time like this...
Zin didn't look too happy about suddenly being revealed as a teyrn's son and thrust into a position of responsibility for Redcliffe's fate, but he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, and then it seemed to Alistair he was everywhere at once: putting some heart back into the mayor, persuading the smith to repair the militia's armor, finding a lost child, bullying the innkeeper into joining the militia, discovering a spy and talking him into defending the village as well... Sten looked on approvingly. Alistair's head was spinning as Zin stormed into the abandoned village store and decided the barrels of lamp oil would be perfect for setting the undead on fire. He hoped Zin was right.
"Or we will just have flaming undead," Zevran said, "and it will be like fighting giant torches."
"Don't be so negative," Zin said and went to thump the locked door of a dwarven trader the mayor had mentioned. When no one answered, Zin simply picked the lock and went inside.
Alistair had a feeling this was not the best way to enter a private home, but it was Zin, so he followed just in time to hear Zin offer Dwyn the dwarf some intimate favors if Dwyn would join in the fighting tonight.
"Tempting," Dwyn said, and Alistair considered just knocking him into a wall, because -- well, because that was no way to speak to a Grey Warden, "but not tempting enough."
"And I could put in a good word for you with Bann Teagan," Zin added. "He's going to be very pleased with everyone who helps out tonight, and so will the mayor."
That was apparently just the right kind of incentive for a trade-minded dwarf. Dwyn agreed to fight, and they were off again, Zin looking rather manic by now as he somehow found the time and inner resources to be halfway nice to the sour-faced revered mother in the chantry, persuading her that no, giving the knights of Redcliffe chantry amulets wasn't misleading and deceitful, it was a way to help them fight better. Leliana wasn't best pleased with that idea, but Alistair clapped Zin's shoulder as they trudged up the hill to where the knights were waiting.
"Good work," he said. "Those men need a bit of encouragement." And at least Zin hadn't been rude to the woman to her face, the way he'd been to the revered mother in Lothering.
"And you," Zevran pointed out, "need something to eat and drink. May I suggest that when you have spoken with Ser Perth, we go and find out what the aptly-named Bella can serve us, besides ale?"
"Some food and rest would be welcome, before we face what is to come tonight," Wynne said. "This village is rather... steep, isn't it?"
"Yes, and I believe we have run up every hill at least three times. I would be happy to offer the support of my arm, dearest Wynne."
Wynne looked at Zevran. "Where would you place this arm, exactly? ...No, don't answer that."
It wasn't until much later in the night, when the fighting was finally over and the village lay quiet, that Alistair had time to really think about what he'd heard in the chantry when they'd first come to Redcliffe. He went in search of Zin, and found him at last down on the lake shore, perched on a rock.
"So you're a Cousland," Alistair said.
"So? You're a Theirin." Zin didn't look at him, just kept staring out at the lake. On the other side of the narrow inlet, Redcliffe Castle loomed at them, waiting.
"No, I'm not," Alistair protested. "The king seduced a maid, or maybe the other way around, I don't know. What I do know is that I was an accident. I'm just a bastard that nobody should care about."
"You look a lot like Cailan." Zin sounded eerily detached. "I can't believe I didn't notice before. I can't believe everyone at Ostagar wasn't talking about it. Put the two of you side by side and it's so obvious you were brothers."
"Half-brothers," Alistair muttered. "And it's not as if we knew each other."
"He knew who you were," Zin said. "He asked for you by name, that you'd be sent to the tower of Ishal. You and me."
Alistair felt as if he'd taken a hit to the stomach. He sat down on the same rock, with his back to Zin. "No. Duncan picked us out, when the king decided he needed wardens to light the beacon."
"I was there at the meeting," Zin said. "I heard it myself."
Alistair shook his head silently. He'd thought Duncan was the one who'd decided to keep him out of harm's way, decided to protect him somehow, and it had made him both angry and happy, pleased and frustrated. To have it be Cailan... that changed everything. Duncan hadn't been trying to give him any kind of special treatment because of who he was, then. But Cailan had. Cailan had known. Cailan must have known.
Cailan had never acknowledged him with so much as a glance.
"You're trying to sidetrack me," he said. "That's not what I came out here to talk about."
Zin shrugged. Alistair could feel the motion against his own back. "I don't know how Teagan could tell. I look a lot less like my father than you look like your brother."
Alistair hunted for a memory. "Wasn't Fergus Cousland with the army at Ostagar?" Then he nearly bit his own tongue off. "Of course he was. You mentioned once that you were looking for your brother. I remember now, he was--"
"Yes. Out scouting." Zin could have been talking about the weather. At least, if there had been a sudden cold snap. Alistair remembered Zin looking towards the gates every time someone returned, remembered Zin questioning the injured man they'd found out in the wilds. "At least that's what Cailan told me. He never came back before the battle, that I could discover."
"He could still be out there," Alistair said.
"At the bottom of a swamp, as Morrigan would no doubt point out."
"But how did you come to join the wardens?" Alistair couldn't make sense of it, and he wanted to get away from the topic of Fergus Cousland, who probably was at the bottom of a swamp. Which... was marginally better than being gnawed on by darkspawn on the battlefield, Alistair supposed. Morrigan had finally taken the time to tell him just what had happened to the king's army after the darkspawn had won; Zin had told her to leave Alistair alone, but it was his own fault, really, for having asked again after she'd deflected him the first time. She hadn't said that much, but enough to give his mind many vivid images to play with. In case he ever ran out of nightmare material. "If your family already had one son with the army..."
"Rendon Howe was a friend of our family," Zin said, still in the same calm, cold voice. "You know, the Arl of Amaranthine? He came to our home and was made welcome and he betrayed us. Fergus left just hours before Howe's men slaughtered everyone in the castle. Duncan got me away." After a moment he added, "My nephew was six years old."
"Maker, Zin. I'm sorry." That had been the completely wrong thing to ask. No wonder Zin had been so desperate for information about his brother. Alistair reached back and fumbled until he gripped Zin's wrist, slid his hand down until he could clench their fingers together. Zin's hand was cold.
"I'm going to kill him," Zin went on, as if saying that the sun would rise tomorrow.
"Yes," Alistair said. That, he understood. Zin was going to kill Rendon Howe, just as he himself was going to kill Loghain Mac Tir. And they'd gather an army, and save Ferelden from the Blight. All in a day's work. No difficulties here. The sun really was going to rise tomorrow.
They sat for a long time on that rock by the shore of Lake Calenhad, back to back, leaning against each other. Alistair kept his grip on Zin's hand until Zin's fingers didn't feel so cold any more.
Alistair had never liked the arl's wife, Lady Isolde. Well, she'd never liked him, either. When she came running from the castle in the morning, he was glad to see she was alive, of course, and gladder still to hear her say that the arl himself lived, ill though he was. But she was nervous and evasive, feigning outrage when Zin tried to get her to explain exactly what was going on, as if the idea of people asking her questions was more than she could bear. And Bann Teagan, who was usually more level-headed, agreed to her bizarre request that he come with her into the castle. Alone.
When the bann and Lady Isolde had left, accompanied by a rather nervous-looking guard, Zin turned to face Alistair. "Were they always like this?"
Alistair shrugged. He didn't really know what to say. "I haven't really seen much of them since I was a child," he said. He didn't remember Teagan being such a pushover for Lady Isolde, but then again he might not have noticed, back then.
Zin bounced Bann Teagan's signet ring in the palm of his hand. "So there's a secret passageway into the castle. Which Teagan didn't use to sneak in, and which no one else has used to sneak out. And Isolde was lying to us about something."
"She was afraid," Leliana said, and next to her Zevran nodded vigorously. "Very much afraid."
"And she will throw this Teagan to the wolves," Zevran added, "whatever the wolves may be in this case. But he went willingly, my warden, so please do not blame yourself."
Zin grimaced. "Who else is there to blame? I suppose we'd better go in and try to rescue him from his own gallant folly. And Sten, don't think I didn't hear you there."
"I was not trying to be quiet," Sten said. "This is a foolish plan."
"More foolish than plan," Zin agreed, "but it's all we've got, so let's go."
The secret passage took them to a dungeon, and they split up to search the cells. Alistair hadn't ever been down here before. He had no idea Redcliffe Castle had such a lot of room for prisoners. It was a relief to him that nearly all the cells were empty, but near the end of one row, he and Zin found some foul and blackened creatures, more of the undead they'd fought the previous night, trying to get into one of the cells. They cut the undead down, and inside the cell they discovered a man, a mage in tattered and stained robes, cowering against the back wall, though he came forward readily enough when he saw that they were living people.
The mage, as he was absurdly ready to tell them, had come to the castle to poison Arl Eamon at Teyrn Loghain's behest, but Lady Isolde thought he was there to teach Connor, because as it turned out, the arl and arlessa's son was a mage, and Isolde wanted to hide that. So she'd wanted an apostate, and Teyrn Loghain had given her this mage, this blood mage, on the run from the tower and quite desperately willing to do anything to survive.
"You poisoned the arl?" Alistair said, dumbfounded. All these revelations were fairly stunning, but he thought a confession of attempted murder of an arl of Ferelden wasn't something to be taken lightly.
"Teyrn Loghain told me to!" The mage blinked uncertainly at them both. "I didn't know anything about the arl before I came here, and -- well, he seemed like a nice man, once I did meet him, but Teyrn Loghain is a war hero, and he's, well, he's Teyrn Loghain. I thought he had a good reason. And," the man's voice faltered, "I was in trouble and he said he could get me out." He sighed. "And instead I ended up in worse trouble than I even thought possible."
"If Lady Isolde found out that you'd poisoned her husband, I'm betting she wasn't pleased," Alistair said. Lady Isolde had always been very possessive of Arl Eamon; he couldn't imagine that had changed.
"No." The mage rubbed at his forehead with the back of one grubby, bruised-looking wrist. "No, she wasn't. And she thinks this is all my fault, the undead, the demon -- she thinks I summoned the demon, and I didn't."
"Demon?" Zin asked sharply. "What demon?"
"Connor is possessed by a demon," the mage said. "I don't know how he managed that. The demon is responsible for all the rest of it. I just poisoned the arl." He didn't seem to have a problem with admitting that particular crime over and over. Maybe it seemed like a minor thing to him now, compared to everything else that was going on in the castle. "I think the demon is keeping him alive somehow. I don't know how, though. Lady Isolde tortured me so I would confess my guilt, but I d-don't know anything, any more than this. I wish I could do something," he waved a hand, "anything, to make up for what I've done."
Zin's eyes narrowed. "You could come with us," he said. "Try to protect whoever's still alive in the castle."
The mage's eyes went even wider. "I think Lady Isolde would have me killed on sight if she found me out of my cell," he said. "And, and, I'm not really up to fighting demons. I mean, I want to help, I want to do something good, but."
"But not if it's dangerous?" Alistair said. Then he looked at the mage again: smallish, dirty and ragged, and those bloodstains weren't on the outside of the robe, they'd soaked through from the inside. He supposed if he'd been tortured, he wouldn't feel like taking on a demon, either.
The mage slumped a bit where he stood. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
"Run, then," Zin said. "If you won't come with us, then run away somewhere you can make things better on a smaller scale." He rubbed at the back of his neck. "I don't think you can fix this, anyway. Go do something useful with yourself."
Zin unlocked the door, and the mage stumbled out, a hollow-eyed, filthy wretch. Alistair put a hand on Zin's arm. The mage looked utterly pathetic, but still. "You're just... you're going to let him go. Zin, he poisoned the arl, and he's a blood mage."
Zin looked at him. "Yes, but look at him. He's covered in blood, and he's not doing anything. Hasn't done anything." He looked at the mage, who was pale and shaking, but looked back. "Or have you? Were you lying to us just now? You didn't seem to be doing anything to protect yourself against those undead, but then I don't suppose they could get at you through the bars."
"No," the mage whispered. "They couldn't reach. And the arlessa's guards p-put magebane in my food." He cocked his head, listening; the others were still going through the other cells, talking as they went. "Oh, Maker. Is that -- is that Senior Enchanter Wynne?"
"Yes," Alistair said. "That's right, you must have lived at the Circle tower before. Say, did you know an enchanter named Uldred by any chance?"
That question made the mage back up against the bars of the cell door. "I know who he is," he said. "Is -- is he here?" His eyes showed white all around, like those of a spooked horse.
"No," Zin said. "He's dead."
The mage, Jowan, that was his name, slumped against the cell door and closed his eyes. "Thank the Maker." He looked up again, fresh worry in his eyes. "I realize that must sound odd to you! But he was, ah, he was not a nice person. At all."
"Yes, we kind of noticed that when he turned into a giant demon thing and tried to kill us," Alistair said. "That's really not the best way to make new friends." Then again, Uldred had made abominations, not friends.
Jowan passed the back of one hand across his mouth. "I... it seems a lot has happened while I was down here." He looked at Zin. "You'll really let me go?"
Zin looked back. "You'll really do something good with your life? Something to make up for what you've done here?"
"Yes," Jowan said fervently. "Oh, yes." He took two steps, then looked back over his shoulder. "Connor's a nice kid," he said. "I mean, when he's himself. Try to..." He never finished the sentence; instead, he ran.
Alistair watched him go. He turned to Zin when Jowan's tattered robe fluttered out of sight. "Are you sure that was a wise idea?"
"Magebane doesn't work on blood magic," Zin said. Alistair blinked, because he was the templar out of the two of them, after all. As if reading his mind, Zin said, "I know poisons. Magebane drains a mage's mana. But blood magic doesn't use mana, it uses, well, blood. So a blood mage can still cast blood magic even if he's stuffed to the gills with magebane."
"Oh," Alistair said. He looked down the hallway, where Jowan had already vanished, and Wynne and Leliana were coming out of the last cell on the left, shaking their heads. "But... he was all over blood."
"Yes," Zin said, "he was."
"You let him go?" Wynne frowned. "I don't think that was the wisest choice you could have made. Jowan's a blood mage, Zin. He used blood magic to escape the tower."
"Did he kill anyone?" Zin asked.
"No, he did not," Wynne said. "But he stunned several templars, including the Knight-Commander, as well as the First Enchanter, another young mage who was helping him, and a chantry initiate he had suborned."
"Suborned," Zin said, poking at a heap of refuse in a cellar vault. "What does that mean, suborned--" The heap of bones in the far corner of the vault rose up into a disturbingly well-armed skeleton, swinging a rusty sword.
"Look out," Alistair said and blocked that swing with his shield. Wynne took a step back and called up a glyph for protection; Zin sidled along the wall and stabbed the skeleton in the back. Well, in the spine.
"Disgusting," Shale said from the next vault over, and there was a loud crunch. "At least they aren't squishy."
"That one still has bits sticking to its ribs," Leliana said, sounding revolted.
"He had persuaded her to betray her vows," Wynne said, little bolts of magic leaping from her staff. "She believed herself to be in love with him, but when she saw him using blood magic, fortunately, she came to her senses. Seeing your beloved with his hand dripping blood has rather a sobering effect, I believe."
"I thought blood mages could control people's minds," Zin said. He ducked under another swing. Alistair had hacked off one of the skeleton's arms, but not the one with the sword, unfortunately. "Wasn't that why we used that litany thingy back at the tower, when Uldred was trying to turn everyone's heads inside out?"
"Yes," Wynne said grimly, "they can."
Alistair was so appalled, he nearly missed his cut at the skeleton's other arm. "You mean he made her be in love with him? That's horrible." He turned to look at Zin. "Maybe he made us let him go just now, did you think about that?"
The look he got back from Zin was equal parts exasperated and annoyed. "If I were a blood mage," he said, "and thought it was fine to use blood magic to mess with people's minds, I'd've done it before they tortured me. Well, actually," he ducked again and came up in a cross-weapon lunge, cutting the skeleton's head off, "I'd've sent someone else to do the poisoning and never gone into this castle to start with, but that Jowan fellow didn't look all that bright."
"Maybe Loghain's guards delivered him here," Alistair said. "He might not have had a choice about that." A loud clang echoed through the dungeon, followed by what had to be qunari curses. "I knew that sword was too big to swing around down in these vaults."
"Point." Zin spun on his heel to meet the next attacking undead head on. Sometimes Alistair suspected that Zin had been trained by a warrior who wielded dual weapons, rather than another rogue. "Anyway, if he controlled that initiate's mind, she wouldn't have cared if he did blood magic or wore bright orange underwear or whatever. Would she, Wynne?"
"I don't know," Wynne said with a frown. "I suppose an exceptionally strong-willed individual, seeing something that went counter to her most fundamental beliefs, might have..." She shook her head. "No, I've never heard of such a case, it's true. Irving said the girl seemed genuinely shocked. He was rather upset himself."
Wynne tapped the butt of her staff against the floor, and a tingle of magic ran through Alistair; his muscles felt less tired, and he attacked the next skeleton with renewed vigor. This one carried a huge broadsword, and suffered from the same problem as Sten: there simply wasn't a lot of room, and most of the swings were half-hearted at best. Alistair took it down easily enough, and then looked around to see how the others were doing. All of the undead seemed to have re-died, or whatever you called it. Shale was stomping the remains of one into bone flour. Sten fussed over his sword.
"I'm tired of cellars," Zin said decidedly. "Let's go up."