Chapter 1: Queen (Elissa)
portrait of Alistair and Elissa (scene from chapter five) painted by ouroridae
Part One : The Mirror Cracking
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
- Emily Dickinson
The woman pulled the wide hood of her cloak up over the crest of her head, and felt the thick black wool drape around her ears. The wool was warm, but not as warm as the soft sealskin she kept in her trunk. Wynda's cloak stank of death; it was unseemly among civilized company. Elissa found she preferred it. The autumn wind picked up, and carried with it the smell of burning refuse in the dry brown fields, black smoke from chimney fires, and wet rot. Her horse, a gray filly, crunched through the thick leaves on the road. She rode side-saddle, with the folds of her dress hanging over the edge of her fine Orlesian boots.
Naturally, it was all a farce.
Moira Theirin had once known how to wear all the faces of a rebel queen— knight in gleaming armor, sage, orator, general, delicate woman— and how to switch between them imperceptibly. Perhaps the roles had not been quite so contradictory in her time. In Orlais, Lissa thought ruefully, they did this much more sensibly. A mask for every role. The Warden would wear a mask of burnished silver, etched with the lines of fine feathers. It would cover her lips, smooth over every hint of deception, make every word ring true. The Warden never doubted herself, never second-guessed, never worried if others would see how she shook in her boots.
The mask of Lady Cousland would be made of crystal, delicate and cracked up the middle. Distorting her features but concealing nothing. Every day the crack split a little wider.
The wind passed through the folds of Lissa's fancy clothes, rending her into a paper doll.
Elissa had been about nine years old when she first stood in the royal palace before the painting of the Queen. It was a massive undertaking; the canvas was six feet high and nine feet long, and covered most of a wall in the gallery. The woman in the painting had a severe countenance, beautiful but terrifying, which reminded young Lissa of no one more than her own mother. With good cause— all likenesses of the real Moira had been destroyed by the Usurper Meghren. Another sat for King Maric's commission. Fenella Mac Eanraig, née Theirin, had more than a cursory resemblance to her sovereign cousin. The two as girls had passed for twins— the same waves of blonde curls, the same piercing blue eyes, the same strong Theirin jaw.
The artist had taken several liberties with his work. For one thing, Lissa found it highly unlikely that Moira had ever used a Tevinter chariot in battle. For another, Moira had been given fiery red hair. Lissa had not known Moira, or even her own grandmother Fenella, but she did know that detail was wrong.
History always forgot the details. But it remembered the victors.
At nine, the inaccuracies had annoyed her practical girlhood sensibilities. At eleven, she had sat before it with her sketchbook and tried to copy the lines of her armor. At thirteen, she began to see herself in Moira's face, a mirror in the paint.
Her father was a member of the king's private council. More often than not, Elissa came to Moira's gallery to hide.
"Hello," said a voice— familiar but not familiar— from behind her. "No, I didn't mean to startle you. Don't get up, child."
Lissa warred with herself internally, unable to decide between her obligation to stand in the king's presence and his command to stay seated. She tried to speak, but found herself terribly tongue-tied. "Your Majesty," she abruptly burbled, lowering her head as a flush of scarlet shame shot across her cheeks.
Maric smiled behind his neatly trimmed beard. "Whom are you hiding from today, Lady Elissa?"
"How did you know?!" she asked, mouth falling open. She wondered how it could be that the King of Ferelden would know her secret. Was it possible that he really knew everything?
He threw up his hands in a charmingly disarming fashion. "I must confess. Ser Elric told everything." Ser Elric Maraigne was the knight stationed outside the gallery on that day, with his nose deep in a book. Evidently, she had not had passed him by unnoticed.
Conscious that the king had asked her a direct question, Lissa spoke. "Anora wants to dress me up. But I'm not a baby any more. I'm too old for that game." Self consciously, she tucked her ratty strands of red hair behind her shoulder. She'd lost her ribbons. Again.
Maric laughed. "I've heard you'd rather play swords."
"I'm not playing, exactly. I'm very good," Lissa explained earnestly, "In Highever, all the boys want to spar with me. But here, Fergus and Cailan tell me I have to stay with Anora, and do what she wants." Oh Andraste, hearing it out loud did make her sound like a bitty bairn. Here she was, a grown girl only months away from her debut ball. Her white satin ballgown was nearly complete, her engagement to Nate Howe assured, her dancing shoes on order from Antiva City, and still she was sitting here in the dusty corridor, sniffling to her King about an older girl picking on her. Mother would wallop her for sure. "Please don't tell my parents I said that."
Maric heard her hiccup in distress. "A king's promise, my lady." He held his easy smile, ever gallant, and turned to the larger-than-life portrait of his mother before them. "You come here often," he noted.
"She looks like my mother."
The king started, and let out a bark of surprised laughter. "I suppose it does look something like Eleanor. Or Nell," he added, referring to her mother's twin. "You know, I never noticed." He stepped closer, and touched the canvas with two fingers, right along the shadow of Moira's jaw.
"It's wrong." Lissa frowned. "The artist did it wrong. She's meant to be blonde."
Maric hummed, with his back to her. His pale blond hair was worn long. Usually when she saw him in court it fell around his shoulders, but this time it was tied back in a tail. 'Must need a wash,' she thought, and silently tittered over the image of His Royal Majesty, naked in a bathtub, with the foam layered up to his neck.
People said he was handsome. In her limited experience, people said plenty of things. But they did hang pictures of him in their houses, from when he was younger. Before he'd grown out that silly, pointed beard. Lissa didn't much see the point of it. Maric was still lean and muscular, and did not need to cover up a softening jawline or double chin. The yellow beard, a shade darker than his hair, just made him look old. Perhaps it was supposed to make him look dignified. But if that was the case, he shouldn't stomp around the palace wearing threadbare velvet tunics with stains all down the front.
Twelve years he'd been like that, almost her whole life. Since the terribly sad death of Queen Rowan, her Nan said. Once he had even gone down into the Deep Roads with the Grey Wardens, which everyone knew was a death sentence, but had come back alive.
"I can't tell anymore," Maric admitted softly, mostly to himself. "I don't remember what she looked like. I've spent half my life without her now." He swallowed, and lifted his hand from the glossy canvas. "At the very least we can say it's a very expensive portrait of your grandmother, little pup."
Lissa bit her lip, sorry that she had made the king sad. "Do you want to know why I come here, every visit to Denerim?"
Maric turned to look over his shoulder. "Yes, I think I do."
"I think… I think someday that will be me. Not the queen, that's Anora's job. But… I'm meant to be an arlessa. In Amarantine City." She flushed. "You know that. I mean, your majesty."
"I follow," he nodded.
"People will depend on me. I come here and I wonder, how did she do it? H-How do you do it?"
"A thoughtful question," Maric replied, looking contemplative. "Believe it or not, the fact that you worry is a good sign."
"Da says that."
"I'm sure he does. The first thing you must know is that a ruler in Ferelden is a servant of the people. Remember this and you'll be better loved than any Orlesian noble." His bright blue eyes lit up from some joke she did not quite follow. "The Valmonts think think they tax in the Maker's name. But we Theirins know better." She opened her mouth to protest, but he gently continued, "Yes, you can be a Theirin and a Cousland both. They are not so different, pup. That is the second thing you must know. A ruler surrounds themself with people who are much wiser than they."
"But you are ever so wise!"
He laughed. "Maybe. Loghain would tell you that I wasn't, in the beginning. How old are you now?"
"Thirteen, going on fourteen." She caught herself picking at an ink-stained cuticle. "But, um, I'm meant to marry Nate when I turn sixteen."
"You like this boy?"
"I thought to ask," he sighed, waving her concern away. "I hope Master Nathaniel is quite... different from his lord father?"
She shrugged, but a smile broke across her lips. "Yes."
"Fine, fine." His expression became distracted, as he gazed across the hills in the painting to a dark castle crowded close to the sky. "Do not let Anora bully you so."
"You'd do better telling Cailan that."
"Elissa," someone said.
"Your Majesty?" she repeated absentmindedly, lulled by the rhythm of her horse.
"I'll have none of that now," Alistair snorted. He adjusted the reins in his left fist to match pace with her. "You look like you're about to drop off the side. Should we stop and set camp?"
She coughed into the back of her glove. "No, I'm fine. I was daydreaming."
They had set a grueling pace from Ostagar back to Redcliffe. Once there they had bathed and changed and mounted fresh horses. He'd stepped away to shave before the glass and returned to find her sleeping in the cooling bathwater. More than anything, she needed rest, but she had learned to live without it. Nearly. Almost.
"What about? Let me guess. A warm bedroll? Lissie, another half mile and you'll be cracking your head on the ground like an egg. And Uncle Teagan will blame me for certain."
"No. It was… your father, actually."
Alistair grimaced. "That's it. We're stopping."
"But we still have the light!"
"Then we'll hunt. Show me how you can hunt in a dress," he said teasingly, and turned his horse off the road. With a long-suffering sigh, she followed him into the woods. Beyond the first copse of trees was a suitable clearing with a decent windbreak of thicket on all sides, and a narrow trench of fresh water for the horses. Really, one could not ask for a better campsite. There was evidence that others had been there two days past— trampled grass, cold ashes— but no clear sign of whom they might have been. Alistair tied up the horses for the night, while she picked around in the remnants.
Lissa's dress was too valuable a prop to be damaged tramping around in the brush after small game, grouse or pheasant or rabbit or nug, whatever it was that lived here. It was inky black, the color of mourning, the color of the stains on her fingers no matter how hard she scrubbed. Damn thing. Might as well have been white, the way it showed the mud. The skirt was gathered and stiff, and the waist was quite fitted from her hips to her bust, as was the Fereldan fashion. At least there was no corset; she'd never been able to ride for long with boning crushing her ribs. The high collar made her feel like she was slowly strangling.
There were a good deal fewer buttons down the back than there should have been. Morrigan apparently disliked finishing buttonholes, and so had placed only five large fastenings down the back, rather than the standard line of miniscule buttons which required the assistance of a second pair of hands. Thank the Maker for Morrigan's sensibilities overriding Leliana's vision. Lissa slipped her hands under her cloak and with a little squirming managed the fastenings one by one. It drooped, but mostly held its shape, even as she tugged it from the wrists. The cloth was thoroughly darted and starched. Another moment and she stepped out of it, clothed only in her smalls, her wool cloak, and her boots.
Alistair's eyes went as wide as the moons. "What are you doing?" he asked, with a fixed stare upon her breasts. She coughed pointedly. He flushed, realizing he'd been caught looking, and tried his best to keep his eyes on hers. Bless him. His neck was even red. "Why are you—" He bit off the word, "—naked?" Still waiting for lightning to strike him, apparently.
"I cannot hunt in this dress. I only have the one; Leli took the other one ahead. If I tear it, she and Morrigan might murder me."
"Well, you'll— you'll freeze!" He rushed forward and slipped his arms around her, using his own cloak to shield her. He was wearing one of Teagan's cast off shirts, which was too tight around Alistair's broad chest and shoulders, and so she could vaguely see the outline of his muscles. He was warm, just his… proximity. Like an aura of heat.
He never could hide his embarrassed arousal. She could read the signs on him like an open book. The flame of his skin, the way his thighs clenched when he tried to disguise an erection. Shy, naive, polite, terribly eager to please. It was one of the things she loved about him.
It was a shame she would have to teach him how to to lie with his body language, not just his tongue. His face was too emotive. But there would be time for that later. She craned her neck upward to kiss him with apology. No good to make him suffer. "What did you bring to wear?" he asked, only pulling his mouth half-away from hers, so that it came out mumbled. She can feel his hardness graze her belly.
"Nothing. Well, socks," she admitted. "One of your shirts. And those horrendous plaidweave leggings Sten bought for Morrigan. She tried to feed them to the dog."
"Mmph. Fashionable." His mouth kissed down her jaw and alit upon her ear like a hot little butterfly. Her stomach began to turn in funny flips.
"I was in a hurry, and Leliana packed all my good things. I should have asked Marla, come to think," she said, referring to the elven apothecary-in-training. "She's the only one who's really my size." Lissa's hands snaked their way under his shirt.
"Fuck," Alistair hissed, more in annoyance than arousal. "Your hands are like ice."
She laughed. "Warm them for me?" She playfully slipped one hand under the waist of his breeches.
"No!" he huffed, as a shiver shook through his shoulders. "Don't touch me there. You'll freeze it off." Still, his hips rolled forward against her hand.
"No?" she queried, amused.
Alistair looked conflicted. His hand wandered up her ribs, coming dangerously close to brushing the peak of her breast. "I'll probably regret this. Daft woman. Wearing nothing but a damn cloak in autumn." His cock seemed to burn under her cool touch, and when she grasped the shaft, he groaned in equal parts pleasure and agony. "You should let me set up the tent," he hedged, giving an experimental thrust into her hand. "I'm not doing it out here in the leaves. People might see. The horses might see."
"I thought you'd always wanted your lampost licked in winter," she smirked, waggling her eyebrows.
"That was a metaphor. I was being metaphorical," he protested, reaching down to unlace his breeches. His nostrils flared with every breath, and his lip curled up just a little. There it was. That tiny feral edge behind his charming good-boy templar manners which took her breath away.
They never made it to the tent.
"You've got leaves in your hair," he noticed lazily, with a pleased, sated look on his face. He reached out and plucked something from the tangled mass she called hair.
Her hair was not styled in any sense of the word, but it was washed and combed and tied into a sloppy lump behind her ears, so it was better than it usually was. She envied Leliana's stick-straight ginger hair, always braided perfectly; Solona's waterfall of raven hair, coiled into beautiful shapes; even Morrigan's brown-black tresses, which fell as perfumed waves when she unpinned them at the end of the day.
Oriana— in this moment it only hurt a little to think of her dear sister-in-law— Oriana had this special cream, and once a week she would sit Elissa down and soak her hair in a basin of hot water, apply the stuff with a comb, and rinse it with iced water. It stank, almost eye-wateringly, of roses, to cover the smell of lye. Some sort of Rivaini invention, popular with Antivan women, to make hair soft and glossy. Lissa did not even know the name to find it again.
A week after Oriana died, Elissa cut her hair off. Two feet of curly hair spattered into the dust. Duncan had watched her with a strange expression, almost amused, but made no commentary. Somewhere near the Maker's bosom, her mother wailed in horror. They had powdered and perfumed her, soaked her skin in lemon and her hair in lye, varnished her bitten off fingernails and shaped her boyish frame with padded corsets to make her a lady perfect for Lord Nathaniel Howe and yet—
She was shorn-haired and freckled and Alistair loved her in spite of it. (And Nate had never cared.) So what was it all for? What was the point in being a woman?
"You're a million miles away again," Alistair observed, crushing the dried-up leaf in his fist. "Not still thinking about Maric, I hope." He teased, but there was an edge of worry in his eyes.
"No. I was thinking that you love me."
"I do." He smiled. It was nice. His pupils were large in the waning light. "Feeling sentimental, my dear?"
"I suppose I am. It's been a long while since we did this." She blinked. "How long, do you think?"
"Three, maybe four weeks."
She sat up. "Ah, shit."
Alistair's eyebrows shot up. "What?"
"I forgot… I haven't taken. Leliana's potion, I mean. I haven't taken it since the last time we had sex."
"Oh." He swallowed. "Maybe it doesn't matter?"
"Doesn't matter? Of course it matters! I can't have a baby during a Blight! I'm the fucking Warden!" She lept to her feet, dragging her cloak behind her. It was all wet up the backside from the damp earth. Her smalls were still wrapped around one ankle, stripping her of the last of her dignity. 'Shit. SHIT,' she thought. Something wet drooled down her thigh, cooling in the air.
Alistair followed her up, tucking himself back inside his breeches as he went. Maker's breath. "Lis. Lissie. Don't panic." He reached out to comfort her, but apparently thought better of it when she whipped around to look at him. His hands hung stupidly in the air.
"Of course I'm going to bloody well panic, Alistair. Of all the stupid…"
"Wardens can't have children," he blurted.
"What? No. Why?"
"It's just something… they told me. I should have told you. I meant to tell you. Um, one Warden yes, two Wardens no."
"Why?" she repeats, trying to cut through his nervous chatter.
"I… You see, they only told me to make fun. Because I was a templar, and a… a virgin." He managed to say the word without turning totally pink. "I was too… I couldn't… I didn't ask the specifics."
"There weren't any female Wardens in Ferelden, anyway. There was an elf, um, Tamarel, before me. She was the only one. At the time I thought—" his eyes widened as he remembered. "Nevermind what I thought, I was being a prick. Obviously, there are female Wardens."
There was a buzzing sound, growing to a soft roar. Her ears were ringing, she recognized belatedly. For an astounding second, she thought she could hear the voice of a child on the road. She spun in that direction— nothing. Bleed-through from the soulbind. Alistair's garden. He was still talking. Lissa couldn't really hear him. He was apologizing, tripping over his own tongue.
"Stop," she said, raising her fist to cut him off. Maker, she wanted to hit him. It would not help things, but she might feel better. "I need to tell you something."
Chapter 2: Thorns (Elissa)
this chapter contains a mention of underage sex
“I was sixteen,” Elissa began, wrapping the edges of her cloak around her like a shield. “Or, fifteen. You would think I would remember better, but really I’ve done my best to forget.” Her mouth felt clumsy, and her bare skin felt clammy under the grating texture of coarse-spun wool. She sat with her legs folded under her, in the cold ashes of someone else’s camp. She opened her mouth again— paused for a long time. Finally, she muttered, “I wasn’t going to tell you about this. No one is left to know.” She could picture so clearly Castle Cousland burning; the stirred up ash evoked the memory.
Alistair, mercifully, had fallen quiet. He sat beside her, and put his hand on her knee. “Whatever it is... “ he tried, but because he did not know where she was headed, he did not know how to finish that sentence.
“That’s not quite right,” she continued, ignoring his interruption. “I think one person might. So I have to tell you. My mother has— had— has—” she could not quite decide on the tense. “Mother was a twin. They run in the family line. The Theirin line, that is. Did you know that?”
“No,” he said.
“King Brandel had a twin, Princess Blair. They each had a daughter who kept the Theirin name. Moira and Fenella.”
“Our grandmothers,” Alistair nodded. “I remember the lesson.” In the rare off moments, she drilled him on royal history and noble allegiances. Her drawing journal had become a compendium of Ferelden, putting faces to the long list of names he was expected to already know as a prince.
“Fenella and Fearchar had four children.” Elissa touched the bridge of her nose, leaving a sooty fingerprint behind. “Three are dead now. The boys died young, boarding an Orlesian warship during the Battle of Denerim Harbor. The remnant— as distasteful as that phrase may be— is Nell Mac Eanraig. It was her daughter who perished from the taint after Ostagar. With Wynda gone, Nell is the last of the lesser Theirin line.”
“Besides you, Lis,” Alistair reminded.
“Besides me,” Lissa agreed, studying her dirty fingertips.
“Then she has a claim on Ferelden’s throne,” he noted carefully. There was something in his voice. Relief. Caution. “She will be at Caer Oswin?”
“Yes. As the Bann of the Storm Coast.”
“And she knows… something about you? Something that happened when you were fifteen or sixteen?” His fingers drummed anxiously across her knee, studying her face with somber eyes. There was a spot that he had missed when shaving, a bristled amber patch on the side of his throat. She fixed her vision upon it, resisting the urge to claw at it with her fingernails. The children of Alistair’s garden were impossible ghosts, whispering in her ears. She fought to drown them out.
“I—” She shook her head. “I cannot be certain she will not use it against me. No, I cannot see a scenario in which she would not. She is very much my mother’s sister.”
“Would telling me help?” he asked.
Her lips pursed. “No, but I do not see another way. There is no love between Nell and I. So you must know.”
Alistair shifted, coming to wrap his arms around her from behind. Elissa had not noticed before, but she was trembling like a dying leaf caught in the autumn wind. It was fitting, somehow, that she be so literally exposed when she told him the full truth. “Whatever it is…” he whispered against the back of her neck. His breath was warm and set her nerves alight. “It won’t change how I feel.”
“It will,” she replied simply, and closed her eyes against the fading sunset. She had not forgiven him, but the anger was somewhat tempered by fear. Mottled orange light bathed her skin through the trees, casting gray shadows in the hollows of her cheeks and throat. Her voice was quite calm, detached as she spoke. She felt like she was floating above the scene, like some other woman was kneeling in the dirt with her lover’s firm arms around her. “I told you there was a scandal, when I was sixteen.”
“When you broke your engagement to Lord Howe.”
“I, Elissa Elethea Cousland, was betrothed to Nathaniel Byron Howe on the day of my dedication to the Chantry.”
Alistair blinked. “That’s quite a mouthful.”
“It is,” she agreed with a wan smile. “I was three months old; he was seven years old. I grew up with the explicit knowledge of my future— husband, home, duty. Some balk against these sorts of arrangements. Maker knows Cailan and Anora had their troubles. But for me it was… I hesitate to use the word easy , but it was not impossible.”
Her first childhood crush. Her first girlhood fantasy. Her first… The memory was blurry, but she could still remember the lines of his face. She’d filled pages of her sketchbook with his angles. Nate was a whip-thin young man, with wiry muscles and the self-satisfied air of the heir to a great estate. Long black hair, strong nose, skin windburned and chapped from days spent climbing the battlements with a bow strapped to his back. He was not conventionally handsome like the prince, even in youth, but he was strong and graceful. He cut the figure of the dashing rogue. When he waltzed, the ladies of the court fluttered their fans with delight, and each fought for a place on his dance card.
On the night of her debut ball in Denerim, fourteen and blemished, in her white satin gown with the bosom padded up to give her a womanly figure, he had finally danced with her. Nate was twenty and change by then, a grown man shackled to a child, dressed in sapphire blue. Amaranthine blue. He never made a mistake, leading her in the reel flawlessly. As if she was not visibly struggling with counting the steps in her head. He was serious and quiet and only kissed her on the cheek when their engagement was formally announced at the height of the ball.
She sighed, feeling Alistair frown against her neck when she lapsed into silence. “Sorry.”
“I’m just a little jealous,” he admitted. He laughed weakly. “Hearing you talk about loving someone else isn’t exactly easy.”
“I can stop,” she offered.
“No. I just… do you still feel like that?”
“Do I still love him?”
He said, “Yeah.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she scoffed, bunching up her fingers into defensive fists. She hated to think about love. It was a power unfathomable, beyond the control of a clever word or a fast knife.
(But she loved to be loved. Still a spoiled child underneath it all.)
He rested a broad hand on top of her own, cupping it and smoothing out her fingers, whispering her name as a gentle admonishment. “Lissie.”
She leaned her head against his chest. There was a hint of sweat and horses about him, and the raw pungency of his seed mixed with her own fluids. Strangely, she found it comforting. “I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s better… more moral, more correct, to say I loved him or that I never did. I’m not sure I know what love is meant to be, Alistair. I can say… I’ve tried not to think on this for a long time. I know what I did. I ruined him.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as all that.”
Nate tried to be a gentleman. She was just Fergus’s kid sister, even if she was supposed to be his fiancee. Then the summer of fifteen came in, and so did her breasts. Accidentally kissing him, and then purposefully kissing him. The bitter, heady scent of oak moss cologne and pine needles on his skin. Ducking their chaperone in the corridors, finding quiet rooms in Vigil’s Keep where the sound of the sea muffled them. Nathaniel teaching her how to move silently, to be invisible, to make make love with danger just around the corner. The thrill of catching him off guard, the surprise on his face when she outpaced him in a foot race. The pride in his smirk when she picked her first lock.
“I got pregnant, Alistair.” Her voice was a hammer striking an anvil.
“Oh,” was all Alistair could manage.
The wind was gone, and the dusk brought a blanket of oppressive stillness. She railed against it. “I was fifteen. Our wedding was to be in the following spring. I… I cared about him. But I could not be sure he loved me. I only found out later, from his sister Delilah, that he felt the same. He could not be sure I loved him, even after I gave myself to him. I’m told I can be difficult to read.” She swallowed harshly. “I panicked. Like a little girl, I ran to my mother to make it all better. She wanted me to stay and tell him, to face my mess with the tattered shreds of my honor. But my father offered me an out.”
“Val Royeaux,” Alistair recognized, in a thick voice.
“Yes. I took the out. I fled to Orlais. I did not understand why Nathaniel’s father banished him to the Marches, why Thomas became the new heir to the arling. It must have been three years before I discovered that Da had made an… allegation of impropriety.”
Alistair stiffened. “Did he? Was—”
“No,” she said quickly. “I tried to fix things, when I learned of it. But it was too late. Nate’s reputation was tarnished. Mine only survived by the grace of the Maker. The rift between our two families could not be bridged.”
“And… and the child?”
“He was born in the rented house in Val Royeaux.” Her voice turned soft and dull. “Born and died without drawing breath.”
Alistair made a soft sound in the back of his throat. “Maker.” The word slid from his lips in prayer.
She shook her head. “He was too early. So very small. I remember thinking he was l-like…” She paused. “Like he was the runt in a mabari litter. Small, but… perfect.”
Alistair’s arms tightened around her. “Oh, Lissie.”
“One moment I was a girl, trying to keep a pup alive, and the next I was supposed to be a mother, burying her child. Only I never felt like one. I was just… numb.” She closed her eyes. “Da’s grief was cloying. I went into the walled garden, barefoot for some reason. It was muddy. It had rained. The earthworms writhed on the paving stones, slowly drowning. Geraldine came to bring me a shawl. I asked her for some paper, and I wrote Nathaniel. I told him a Revered Mother had come to take away our child, and that I could never see him again. I said I was staying in Val Royeaux for good.”
“What changed your mind?”
“King Maric went down in the Waking Sea.”
For a moment, they were bound together in crystalline, breathless grief. Alistair huffed raggedy into the side of her neck while she searched for some semblance of composure. Her throat and chest ached with tears she refused to shed. She did not deserve them, but she could not manage to swallow them away. The lump caught at her sternum, burning a hole through her insides.
“We were obligated to return to Denerim for Maric’s funeral. It wasn’t… immediate. Loghain tried to delay Cailan’s coronation. I think he refused to believe that Maric was gone. Da came back to fix things in the Council. I remember I was sitting in the cathedral, looking down over the balcony, and I saw Oren. A little tot with dark hair, on the lap of Oriana Salazar. Fergus was supposed to be in Antiva. I would have never…” Elissa turned her head, finally brave enough to search Alistair’s gaze for the revulsion she expected to see. It was not there. “Somehow, I loved that child because I could not love my own.”
Alistair kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry.”
She pushed away his sympathy. Her stomach felt hollow. “I killed them.”
“Lissie, you can’t possibly believe that. An evil man did an unspeakable thing to your family. You are not to blame.”
“Aren’t I?” she whispered miserably. “If I had stayed and done my duty then they would be alive.”
“You can’t know that for certain.”
“The funny thing is, I can’t picture Howe as… He was not a just father. He was not a good husband. But he was always kind to me. I play the events of that night back over and over. Terrorizing Nan. Teasing Gilly about the Wardens. Saying goodbye to Fergus. Vespers in the chapel with Mother Mallol. Tucking Oren into bed. Playing cards with Landra, Oriana, and Mother. Dairen, Da, Duncan, and Rendon discussing Cailan’s campaign…” she recited. She knew every movement by rote.
The scent of pipe smoke lingering in her hair. The distraction of the elven maid, Iona, with the sweet eyes and blonde hair. Just her type, although on principle she would never bed a servant. Sneaking back to her bedchamber to steal a few moments talking with a pretty girl. Falling asleep listening to a story of the alienage, with slim fingers combing through her hair. Waking to fire.
“I sent a letter to Starkhaven after I joined the Wardens. But there was no reply. There is unrest in that city. Some sort of coup against the Vaels. No telling if Nate got it. He used to write me fortnightly, before.”
She stood abruptly. Darkness had rolled over them completely, in that sudden way of the waning months nearest to winter. She marched to her pack, chilled to the bone, and fumbled with the latches, searching for clothes and her flint. “You see, I’m not meant to be a mother. It’s good—” she hiccuped noisily, as water streamed down either side of her nose. She refused to acknowledge the tears. “It’s good that you and I can’t— it’s better this way. The Maker must want this. My father blamed me. The last thing he said to me was, ‘Our family always does their duty first.’ ”
She jerked the trousers up over her hips, felt the smooth, unmarked flesh which should have been mottled with silver stripes. The Orlesian ointments had been efficient. One would never know from her skin that she had once borne a child.
“You hate that word. Duty. You always say it like it’s a curse. Now I see why.” Alistair’s voice was hard when he caught her. “But don’t hide from me now. Don’t you shut me out, Lissa. Because I can feel you trying in the bind.” He turned her with firm hands, surprisingly gentle. Reluctantly, she faced him again. His nose and cheeks were blotchy like he had been crying. Had he? She had not noticed. “I don’t know how you do it, how you go on with all of these things strapped to you— Thedas weighing down your back. How do you bear it?” His eyes darted past her. “I— wait here.”
Alistair darted to his pack, and pulled a bundle of rags from the bottom. He unwrapped the bundle and unscrewed the lid on a glass jar. She took a hesitant step closer, confused when he stood clutching a flower. “Alistair?”
“Here, look at this. Do you know what this is?”
“Your rose. I’ve caught you thumbing it from time to time.” She clutched it tightly in her fist, feeling the bite of the thorns tear into her palm. The head of the flower was unblemished, perfect as the day it was plucked, with silky petals the color of blood.
“I picked it in Lothering. I remember thinking, ‘How could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness.' I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn’t. The darkspawn would come and their taint would just destroy it. So I’ve had it ever since.”
“I thought… I’ve been working up the nerve to give it to you, actually. Don’t tell Morrigan it took me so long, she’ll laugh.”
“In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you. I thought maybe I could say something. Tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this… darkness.”
“Thank you,” she said softly, taken aback.
“You know I love you, right? Maybe it was a stupid impulse, or I did it at the wrong time. I… Oh! You’re bleeding!” he gasped, grabbing her fingers and forcing her hand open. A second drop of crimson followed the first in a trail which curved gracefully down her wrist. “Damn it. I’m sorry. I should have cut them smooth.”
“No, it’s perfect.” She cracked a pale smile. “Do you think I’m thorny?”
“No, but now I’m a little worried about your self preservation instincts. Didn’t it hurt?” Alistair chuckled grimly. “No, don’t answer that, my dear.” He bound her bleeding palm with his handkerchief. “Listen. I know it was a terrible thing. I can’t begin to imagine how you must feel. But I cannot believe that the Maker never wants you to love another child. You care too deeply and too honestly, and I’ve seen the way you care for the refugee children we meet in our travels. How you grieve for them.”
“But we can never. You said so yourself. We’re tainted.”
“We’ll find a way. If it’s what you want. There must be a cure… Some magic we can try. We seem to have an excess of mages.” He pressed his forehead against hers and closed his eyes. “And I hesitate to mention it, but we’re both technically descendants of Calenhad. Either one of us, by ourselves, could produce a royal heir. Not that I'm suggesting we...”
She shuddered. “No. Together, or not at all.”
Chapter 3: Honesty (Solona)
The staff shot upwards, and with a tremendous CRACK the genlock’s leering face turned to pulp and bone. Solona grunted with exertion, flashed her barrier to shield herself from the spray of noxious black blood, and pivoted on her heel to launch a magical strike at the next darkspawn coming. The little fireballs channeled through her staff wobbled along their path, leaving streaks of glimmering hot air in their wake. “Shit!” she mumbled to herself, sparing a second to watch them miss and snuff out in the scorched grass. “I think I just fucked up the attuning focus.”
Well, she would have to correct for the damage. She steadied her footing on the smooth stone beneath her boots and channeled her will into a burst of flashfire, pushing the spawn back against the sheer face of the cliff. Above her on the ledge, Cullen was closing the distance on an emissary, summoning splashes of blue-white light to counter its magic. Cullen and Solona kept their distance from each other, lest he hit her with an errant bolt and smite the daylights out of her. Even still, she was over-sensitive to the prickle of his nullifying aura. It kept eating away at her barrier.
The root of the problem was that templars and mages were not trained in cooperative combat. Battlemages usually worked alone and always at great distance, controlling the flow of battle from a high vantage over the field. Foot soldiers tended to get nervous in the proximity of mages. And templar abilities ran wild when the lyrium burned too brightly in their blood. Unpredictable as chain lightning, they worked side by side with other templars, who would not be affected by the runoff. Alistair, at least, had seemingly adapted his tactics to work in close quarters with Morrigan, but in light of his recent confession she could not be certain that other templars could replicate his precision.
Her teeth ached. She ground her molars together to combat the funny numbness in her cheeks, which marked the onset of a migraine. Her mana struggled to compensate for the exertion of the fight and the persistent drain of Cullen’s presence. She reached for her belt, grasping for the vials of lyrium tucked into leather bands, and came up empty.
“Look out!” Cullen bellowed from the edge of the cliff. He cast about for the fastest path down the steep trek to her. They were poised on the edge of a rocky outcropping on the face of a great verdant hillside. Dozens of small caves dotted the region, usually the home of local smugglers who worked for the dwarven Carta, but currently occupied by the darkspawn equivalent to ‘forward scouts’. Cullen’s ledge was about fifteen feet above Solona’s. Below her was the wide valley, a sheer drop into the orange treeline.
“I’m looking!” she said curtly, finding herself short of breath. She pulled her hand away from her belt to get a better grip on her weapon. Darkspawn were coming fast and thick from the incursion she had come to seal, pressing their advantage as her spells began to sputter. The Carta had excavated right into the Deep Roads to construct themselves a profitable den away from the patrols on the King’s highway. The highway ran parallel to the river below them. Best not to think of the drop.
Solona rotated her staff so that the bladed end faced outward, and wielded it as a polearm. As she swung out in a crescent of superheated air, the hurlocks closest to her burst into flames, which briefly drove the mob back. She could not step backwards. The ledge was composed of frangible rock, and might give way under her weight. Briefly, she wished she could be like Morrigan, and metamorphose into a thing with wings.
“Hold on! I’m coming!” Cullen shouted. He retraced his steps backward toward the path on the hillside, heedless to the pair of shrieks on his tail.
Solona hissed in alarm and threw him a barrier. Before it could shield him, it withered in a flash of smoke, with a sound like shattering glass. “Drop your aura!”
“Why? I have a shield.” He lifted it to demonstrate its efficacy. “I do not need your help. If anything, you need mine!”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“I— Yes! Of course I do!”
“Then listen to me!”
She swore she could read his reluctance, even through his helmet, but there was no time. Her diaphragm relaxed as the ability faded, and with it went the impression that someone was standing on her chest. One cool, calm breath— that was all she needed. She grasped for the last of her mana, knowing that it was going to hurt, but that she had no other options. She was cornered, and the only ways out were through the darkspawn or off the side of a cliff.
First, the barriers. A dull, reverberating WHOMP , a sustained bass note, vibrated the air. The mage and the templar were bathed in green light. “Come on,” she told herself, digging past her reserves. “Just once more.”
Solona drove her staff into the stone and the air… split. A score of darkspawn were lifted off their feet; with them came plumes of dirt, small stones, and torn grass. They hung there briefly, the smiles shocked right off their disgusting faces, and then they smashed into the earth with tremendous force. Bones and armor shattered. Flesh ripped like paper. A fountain of bile and ichor rained down upon them, in thick globules, rolling down the shimmering slick of magic barrier.
Not fire, then. She’d thought it would be fire.
The mage blinked. The sound was audible in her pounding head. The horizon tilted on its axis, and she slumped, still clutching her staff for dear life when her knees hit the ground. She saw Cullen peel away his helmet and throw it aside. It clattered against the rocks. His cheeks were mottled red and his curly hair was soaked with sweat. She scanned him quickly for evidence of the tainted blood, and was satisfied that at least she had protected him. Before her, where the Veilstrike had landed, the ledge began to crack.
Her vision blackened at the edges; the center was strange and too bright. Cullen’s face, creased with concern, swam out of view. “Are you hurt? Where were you hit?”
“I’m fine,” she said, or she tried to say, at least. Her tongue was filled with a burst of hot coppery flavor. Blood poured in a gush from her nose.
A strange sound beneath her. The stone moaned like a living creature. Small pieces began to crumble at the lip of the bluff. The first clinks of falling rock brushing the foliage were musical, sweet as rain. Cullen dashed forward, always nimble even in his heavy plate armor, and grabbed her by the armpits, lifting her back onto her feet. “Maker’s breath,” he said sharply, with an edge of something in his commanding voice, “can you even walk?”
Solona staggered one unconvincing step forward and knocked into his breastplate. “Yes.”
“There’s no time for this.” He frowned. “Let me carry you.”
She batted him away. “No.” It took all her concentration not to vomit on his polished templar boots.
“We cannot stay here,” he said, narrowing his eyes. A flicker of annoyance registered on his face, and as she was trying to work out what she had done wrong, he scooped her up into his arms, staff and all. It was not a graceful maneuver, as while she did not have the strength to fight him, she also did not have the strength to assist him.
“You do not look fine,” he commented dryly, as he hefted her away the cliffs like an unwieldy baby.
She flashed him bloody teeth in response. “No one likes a glib templar.”
“Alistair seems to do fine.” He smiled but it did not reach his eyes.
“Alistair’s naturally charming. You’re just a pain in the ass.” He snorted at that. Her head bounced off his pauldron, and the sky lurched out of focus. She gagged, and swallowed a mouthful of foulness. “I’m going to pass out.”
“Do not faint or I may drop you,” he cautioned.
“Then put me down!” She had intended to be acerbic but it was more pathetic. She tried to lift her hand to pinch off her nose and the motion proved to be too much. “Shit,” she moaned by way of feeble warning.
“Sola, don’t you—”
When she came to again, Solona was flat on her back with her arms by her sides. A yelp rose in the back of her throat but she clamped her lips together. Not a spongy, rotten mattress under her head. Her surroundings were cool and dark. Her fingers scrambled, digging into the loose soil beneath her, gripping for bearing as the world whirled around her at high velocity. If she moved, she would vomit, she just knew it. Again, by the rancid taste in her mouth.
She took a shallow breath from her one useable nostril— beyond the stench of blood was fresh earth and… oak barrels? Something sharp, and astringent. Alcohol. She remembered there had been mosswine in the barrels in one of the Carta caves. Not potable for humans, but good for cleansing. The taint clung to everything it touched, a poisonous mold, unless exposed to strong alcohol or hot fire.
“Cullen?” she whispered carefully, not trusting herself to open her eyes more than a crack.
“There you are,” he said. The humor had gone right out of his voice, leaving him with only naked worry. “You have been out for a while. I thought I might have to find Wynne.”
“I told you I was going to faint,” she answered matter-of-factly, which was her way. She licked her lips, and found a trace of dried blood. She searched for a tactful way of saying ‘Did I puke on you?’ Nothing sprang to mind, so she tried a vague,“I didn’t… get it on you, did I?”
Cullen caught her meaning, ruefully smiling. “I dodged it. Mostly.”
Solona clutched a fistful of dirt into a tight ball. “Cullen, I’m mortified.”
“Don’t be. You warned me, but I am afraid I was too busy saving your life. The whole shelf of rock gave way.” He settled something cold and wet on her forehead. “It was not my finest moment either.”
“Thank you.” The cloth on her head provided a little relief, though it seemed so heavy that it anchored her to the ground.
“I’ve seen the symptoms before, from— Well, I suppose you know what a smite looks like.” He had the decency to look pained. His hand rubbed the back of his neck, and he scowled. “You drained your mana with that spell.”
“I overtaxed myself.”
“It was much more than that. Feeling you go limp in my arms was… I am not prepared to relive that experience.”
“Not so much scraping the bottom of the barrel as punching straight through it, huh?” She smiled, with her tongue between her teeth. “Feels like I was the barrel. Punched.”
“I’ve never seen you use force magic before.”
“I was picturing a whirlwind of fire. It came out wrong.”
“It was accidental?”
“Do not get prickly, templar. I’m tired. Just because I teach primal spells does not mean I cannot branch into other schools.”
“It’s been my understanding that most mages cannot.”
“Since when am I ‘most mages’, hm? Irving gave me the teaching post because I can demonstrate all the offensive elements without lighting a student on fire. Well, that and the spot was open. It’s not even my favorite.”
“Far be it for me to besmirch your many talents,” he demurred. Cullen rested a hand on the side of her cheek and ran his thumb around the shell of her ear. Solona shivered weakly. Maker, he hadn’t touched her like that in how long? She let him linger, afraid of scaring him off.
“I took a chance. I knew it would have to be big. And look, it paid off.”
“It nearly killed you, Sol.”
“An unintended side effect, I will admit. I was actually trying to save our lives.”
He laughed. The warm sound settled in her bones. “How do you feel?”
Solona took stock. Her shoulders ached, the base of her skull was throbbing, and her mouth needed a good scrubbing. She brought her hand to rest on the soft swell of her belly. A fluttery sensation, like the brush of a moth’s wings in the lamp light, followed her touch. “Alive,” she answered.
A crease appeared between his eyes. “I suppose that’s… good?”
Solona wondered if he remembered the warmth of the first harried, wild kiss between them. She was a junior enchanter, and he a strange new templar assigned to her library. The man turned flame-red every time she passed him by, and all her friends teased her about his unsubtle crush. She’d finally worked up the nerve to tell him off when next she caught him alone, but it was he who made the next move.
Rutherford brought her a cup of hot chocolate— Maker only knew how he had acquired it— and an apology, promising that on the next rotation he would get himself assigned someplace else.
Her stomach dropped in dismay at his pronouncement. She could not work out why. Amell had never been closer to Knight-Lieutenant Rutherford than this— she found he smelled pleasantly, of fresh soap and chocolate foam. Although she was a tall, broad shouldered woman, he was larger in every facet, which took her by surprise. He was so gentle, so earnestly apologetic, so disarmingly good looking that she caught herself patting his armored elbow and telling him it was quite all right, she had never noticed any hint of impropriety between them. He sighed with relief, and left her wondering about the kind of man who could work out her favorite drink before he had the nerve to talk to her.
Two weeks of his stone-faced blank expressions when she walked by, and she was no closer to solving that puzzle. It was worse than the blushing. Now he made her skin itch. So she did the only thing she could think to do— she pushed Rutherford into the stacks. A quick snog would suss him out, like it almost always did, and she could go back to life as usual in the tower.
At first he flailed, caught off guard by her sudden advance. She’d almost let him go when his hands suddenly came to grip her behind the elbows. He kissed her back, and he was good. He wasn’t supposed to be good. The press of his lips shocked her, like the electric jolt of pure lyrium. Her feet stuck to floor, paralyzing her with unexpected bliss. Amell had kissed her share of mages— and none of them had felt like that. She was still frozen, her full breasts squashed against his chestplate, when he broke away.
“You said—” he said.
“Did I?” she said. “It was an accident.”
“That did not feel like an accident,” he said with that clumsy templar frankness which she usually could not stand, but found endearing on him.
“I fell into this bookshelf. You caught me.”
“With my mouth?”
“If you like,” she agreed. “It could be other places.”
Color flooded his face. “Yeah,” he agreed. His throat bobbed in a swallow. His brown eyes fixed on her mouth, then on her bare collarbones.
A year together. One nearly perfect year. The more serious it became, the more careful they were not to get caught. Unlike her previous dalliances, there could be no middlemen to pass notes or stand guard. Time between them was nearly impossible, even for a lieutenant and an enchanter. Perhaps, especially for a lieutenant and an enchanter. As a mage, she knew all the best hiding places, but that ran the risk of other mages finding them.
Eventually they’d discovered a disused storage cupboard behind the statue of Eleni Zinovia. They used it precisely once before Jowan discovered she wore the key to the basement on a chain around her neck. Solona closed her eyes at the memory, and when she opened them again, Cullen was returning to her with a dusty bottle in his hands.
“You look like warmed-over death.” He sounded apologetic.
“Thanks.” It came out in a huff of air; her voice was rough to her ears. She squeezed the lump of earth in her left hand.
“I found this hidden behind the barrels,” he offered, as she pulled herself into a semblance of a sitting position.
“I told you, humans can’t drink mosswine. And I wouldn’t want to even if I could.”
Cullen uncorked it with a knife. “I think this might be different.”
Solona palmed the neck of the dusty brown bottle and gave it a careful sniff. The paper label had rotted away in the damp. “Antivan Sip-Sip,” she pronounced, and eagerly took a swallow. It burned her tongue and throat going down, and her eyes watered. Nasty stuff. Fermented hot peppers and fruit. But it washed the taste of bile from her mouth.
“How can you tell?” Cullen asked, mildly impressed. She handed it back to him.
“It’s my party trick. Great-Aunt Lucille thought an interesting lady had to know more than just dancing, drawing, and singing. We learned all the fashionable card games, too, but Max was always better than me. Ah— careful. You might not like it.”
Her warning came too late. Cullen cringed around his mouthful. “Maker’s breath,” he complained. “Nobles drink this?”
“Marchers who play at being pirates. And actual pirates, one assumes. I’m surprised to see it squirreled away in Ferelden. Doesn’t seem like your kind of drink.”
“Give me a proper ale any day,” Cullen agreed, licking spice from the backs of his teeth.
She opened her mouth and an entirely different question fell out. “Cullen, do you think… don’t you think we should talk about Kinloch?”
His face hardened. He folded his arms across his chest. “No.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if we just…”
“I said NO, Solona. I thought you of all people knew better than to ask!”
“You know me, always poking my nose where it doesn’t belong,” she said, trying and failing to keep the hurt out of her tone. “Can you even look at me and see just me?”
Cullen made a sharp noise, and when he spoke, his voice was like a lash. “Fine, if you want to talk so bad, we’ll talk. Right after you tell me what happened in the cells.” A nerve twitched on one of his eyelids.
“No!” An impulse, as powerful as his own. She drew her knees up and hugged them. “Damn it,” she said after a long moment.
On the far side of the cave there was a wall composed of wooden slats. Painted on this wall was the black sun insignia of the Carta, above a shorter-than-average doorway, with a locked door. The scaffolding held a number of wine casks. Again, the black sun was branded on the lids, along with some numbers that she might have made sense of if she had access to Carta records. The structure was nearly full, but for a single empty place. The liberated barrel was propped up on the table with a tap in it. A wide, dark puddle in the dirt below it suggested that Cullen had been using it to clean. That accounted for the smell.
The silence between them stretched. It was a tense, vile thing.. Solona found that she could bear it for just a little longer, but she was not sure Cullen could. The fall of the Tower, his week of torture at the hands of demons and blood mages, the death of his parents to the Blight… if she did not give him something back, there would be nothing left of the sweet-tempered young man who wooed her with hot chocolate.
Solona had a problem.
She had done her damnedest to ignore it. When her course had failed to come on its appointed day, she had barely noticed, distracted by Jowan’s plot to access the apprentice phylacteries. Then she had been arrested. And it was just the smallest, twisted mercy to not have to beg the templar standing guard for rags.
She had enough humiliation. Her pride could suffer no more. She had used her privacy spells, until Knight-Templar Edgar thought to bind her with a pair of magebane cuffs usually reserved for prisoner transport. She wised quickly to his game. Edgar liked to watch . He was not on duty all the time, of course, and the others would free her hands with soft chiding noises, like they were a sympathetic parent and she a naughty child left in the corner.
As though she deserved it.
In the first days of imprisonment, she had been fairly calm. It was all a mistake. Plenty of time to craft the potion which would bring on a delayed menses. She understood that the Knight-Commander would be busy for a day or two, cleaning up, and making new phylacteries to replace the broken ones. Then there would be a hearing, and her part in the mess would be absolved. Her uncle would vouch for her. Certainly he would. There was no way for her to know, then, that Greagoir was punishing Irving for taking tower justice into his own hands. That she was to be an example — even the First Enchanter’s beloved niece was not above templar law.
After a week, when no one came for her, and neither did the blood, she began to tell herself a little story, pacing the confines of her cage. Three strides by four. Cullen would switch shifts with Maithe and come to see her. Cullen’s usual rota was in the enchanter’s library. Maithe could be bribed with a lazy afternoon in the sunny library. With a hushed word, Solona could direct Cullen to Leorah, the sympathetic older elf who ran the potions laboratory. Surely Cullen would come eventually.
For a month she waited, burning tally marks into the edge of her thin, dirty mattress. Scores of similar marks chronicled the days of those who came before her— on the bedpost, on the wall, even gouged into the floor. She whispered to Lily across the aisle, promising her with gentle lies that everything would be just fine. As long as she had Lily, she would not be completely alone. Eventually, someone in authority would have to come for a Chantry acolyte. (Even if they would not come for a mage.)
Days became meaningless in her cage. No windows to hint at day or night. The world of the tower condensed into one narrow hallway. From beyond the bars she could see the guard desk with its solitary lantern illuminating the stack of books the templars used to amuse themselves. Time existed in six hour shifts— Roxie, Edgar, Maithe, Bren, RoxieEdgarMaitheBren… Sleep during Edgar’s shifts. Don’t let him catch you awake.
One day Edgar put the cuffs on just a little too tight. She said nothing, knowing that by the time Maithe came her wrists would be swollen and sore, but refusing to give him the pleasure of her reaction. His eyes glinted with bright excitement as he told her that Uldred’s battlemages had returned from the King’s service. The king was dead. War was coming. Even as he spoke, the enchanters were convening to plan for the Blight.
“A curious thing happened after three weeks in a cell,” Solona said, lifting her stare from the dirt floor to meet Cullen's gaze. “The guards stopped coming. We ran out of water. Lily could not bear the thirst. I remember listening to the flies buzz over her body. I could not see, because the light had gone out. The noise was so loud, I could barely hear the demon offering me freedom if I gave up my body. I do not remember Kinnon finding me on the third day. I understand I was quite delirious from dehydration.”
“Why didn’t you give in?” Cullen asked. He looked… haggard. Older than his years. His knuckles were white around the neck of the bottle.
She did not have an answer for that. “When the Warden found you… When I found you, you needed water desperately. I wanted to help you. You said—”
“—’I don't want anything from you’,” she finished. “Does that still hold true?”
Cullen grimaced. “I was in a sorry state when you found me. The things I said were… unkind. Untoward. I regret them now. You know that. I should not have goaded you into this— talking of the tower. When I think of it, I am not myself. I wish only to forget.”
“Can you tell me how they used me against you?”
“No. I cannot. It is… unspeakable,” he admitted, bowing his head. “Please, do not ask that of me.” A fragile plea.
Solona outstretched her open palm, setting it against his shin. “Cullen, I really do not know a better way to say this, but I’m pregnant.”
He flinched, from head to toe, like she had extended her hand to burn him. The corners of his eyes creased into tiny lines. His lips worked silently, in nonsense syllables, in silent blasphemies. “Does the father know?” he asked at length.
Solona did her best to disguise the fact he had just stomped up and down on her heart. All that was left in the aftermath was a cold, hollow place in her chest. “He does now.”
Cullen… laughed. A quick burst of incredulous disbelief. “That’s not possible.”
Her stomach twisted. “Are you accusing me of something?”
“But the last time we— did that — was months ago!” he exclaimed. “That was four months ago. Before you were arrested. Before… before…” All the fight slowly drained from his expression, leaving only a trembling mouth and eyes bigger than she’d ever seen on him. “You sat down there, in a cell— with my child. That is not possible. You can’t have—” his voice broke. “The Maker would never be so cruel. You didn’t tell me.” He scanned her face, read her like an open book. “You didn’t tell anyone?”
“I had to hide it.”
“How would you hide a mageborn infant, Cullen?” She wanted to be cutting. It came out hollow. “Will you smuggle it behind your templar shield back into the tower, like one of Anders’s kittens?”
“No child of mine will live in that place,” he exclaimed, surprising both of them with his vehemence.
“You know the Chantry won’t let me keep it.”
“Stay with the Grey Wardens.”
“The Wardens will have no use for a pet mage who cannot perform her duties. Cousland sees people only by the measure of their usefulness. When I get too big, my usefulness will run out. And you have my phylactery, so I can’t run far.”
“You want to run from me?” he said softly, wounded. “Have I been that terrible?”
“No.” A beat. “But it would be easier for you if I left. It’s one thing to bed a mage. But to put a child on her— There will be consequences.”
“Damn the consequences, Sola. Do you really think so little of me? Were you ever going to tell me?”
“You really don’t want me to answer that!”
She bit her lip. “I didn’t mean it like that.” Tentatively, she touched his cheek, letting her fingers rasp against his stubble. “I’m sorry. I’ve always had the damndest luck.”
Cullen leaned forward, looking for all the world like he wanted to kiss her, but he paused. “It is my fault. I was the one who fell in love.”
“Really?” she said lightly, caught off guard.
“From the first minute I laid eyes on you.”
“Your ‘ill-advised infatuation’?”
“Please. It was much worse than that.”
“I was the one who kissed you.”
“I know. I was working up to it. You rather ruined my plans.”
“But you stopped looking at me.”
“Only because I thought I would burst! And you never gave me any clue.”
“So what was your plan, then?”
“I could…” he folded his hands in his lap, “bring you things. Gifts. Food from outside the tower. I saw that you liked my apology chocolate, so I asked Carroll to find more. And then, maybe, I might read a book, and give it to you to read, too. Then we would have something in common.”
“You wanted to court me?” she said with disbelief.
“I wanted to marry you,” he blurted. “Maker. Hopefully I would not have said it like that.” He rubbed the back of his neck.
Solona went still. She had played this conversation out in her head a dozen times. In none of them had he proposed. “Do you still feel that way?”
“We broke up,” he said simply, the awkward half-smile diminishing on his lips.
She winced. “I…” But what could she say?
“I followed you. I knew you did not want me, but I asked the Knight-Commander for leave to protect you anyway. But when I caught up, you had already decided. What could I do, beg?”
Wait. What? “Cullen, you broke up with me . Beneath the Harrowing Chamber.”
“I never meant any of that. I was not in my right mind. The Warden told me— she called me your ex lover. I thought it had all been settled in my absence.” Cullen shook his head in dawning disbelief. “Do you mean to tell me you still…?”
“I have been such a fool,” he breathed, and finally, he kissed her.
Chapter 4: Bile (Solona)
But it was not as simple as that.
Greedy for just one more moment, and hating her own weakness, Solona let Cullen kiss her. His mouth moved slowly, with cautious hesitance, against her full lips. His were cool, and soft, but out of practice, and he pricked her with the bristle of his moustache before correcting himself. She sighed heavily, listening to the erratic drips of mosswine spat into the mud. A second sound of water, similarly soft— the stalactites crying limestone tears into the yearning fingers of their stalagmite sisters. So intently did she listen that she forgot to move her mouth.
Cullen stilled, but he did not pull back.
Solona opened her eyes. His face loomed large in her senses. The whisper of his breath on her cheek, the smell of sword oil, the dark eyelashes on his closed lids. How hard would it be to lean forward and fall back into him? Once he had nearly consumed. The passion of her desire had quickened her heart, dulled her thoughts, let her take risks with incalculable consequences. Solona had denied herself everything before Cullen. He was meant to be like a like a dream lover, ephemeral and fleeting in the face of the dawn, something lovely she could replay in her memories. He was meant to be a lazy day in the warm sun, not— this. Bittersweet kisses in a dying country.
Life in the Tower was a world of frozen un-reality. Like living in the Fade. No one changed or grew. No one married. No one left. No one was allowed. It was understood. The birth of babies was not a great joy, but a tragedy to be quietly swept away. The Circle never changed. People moulded themselves to it, embraced it, or they died.
Solona still had one foot stood in that world. She was cold, chilled to the marrow. She was Eleni Zinovia, encapsulated in stone. Stone-hearted.
"What?" she heard him ask. What's wrong? What do you need?
"We cannot do this again."
Cullen sucked in a breath, and he exhaled noisily. It took him a moment to speak, but when he did, it was with unnatural calm. "I see," he said. "I presumed— I should not. Apologies." By degrees, he moved away, leaving a bloodless hole carved between them.
"Yes." The scent of lyrium on his breath suddenly made her stomach churn. Her palms began to sweat, and she rubbed them anxiously on the rough underside of her leather surcoat. "I mean— No." She stood up, needing to be away from him before she said something foolish.
A bark of involuntary laughter slipped from his mouth. "Which is it?" he spoke with a keener edge. "Dare I ask— yes or no?"
She searched herself for an answer to that and came up empty.
His head swivelled to track her as she limped to her staff, which rested against the cave wall. When she wrapped one clammy fist around the wooden length, the wound in her mana pulsed angrily. The pain nearly knocked her back to her knees.
"Solona?" He was asking her… something. She could feel his eyes on her.
'Don't follow me,' she thought loudly, but did not speak the words out loud. The stone threatened to swallow her up.
She went outside.
After so long in the dark, the afternoon sun was blinding. White light filled her vision, and throbbed red behind her eyelids when she blinked. Crisp fall air blew over her claustrophobic skin and filled her lungs with cold breaths.
It hurt to walk. Though she was injured in a metaphysical sense, the pain endured. And so did she. Solona trekked up the slope and away from the cave, until she had an unimpeded view of the stunning expanse of mountainous green countryside. She huffed for breath in the thin air. It would not do to have the darkspawn ambush her now, not when she could not call upon her magic.
Her hand shot up to her throat, and after a moment of panicked fumbling she pulled free a plain silver amulet on a sturdy leather cord. Her thumb traced the etching of a griffin. They called it a "Warden's Oath."
"Wait a moment," Alistair called after her, jerking something free from around his neck. The second amulet he wore, that of Andraste, flashed in the light. "You'll need this more than I do."
He pressed a round trinket into the palm of her hand. It was still warm from his skin, nearly hot to the touch. Wardens burned.
"What is it?" she asked, studying his face. She did not look down at where their fingers met.
"We're still friends, aren't we?"
"Of course we are. It doesn't matter to me if you're a Seeker or the King of Antiva."
"How about the King of Ferelden?"
"That, too." Solona cracked a flimsy smile. "You'll do fine, Alistair." Her fingers closed around his gift.
"Thank you." Suddenly, Alistair covered her hands with his own. The calluses on his broad hands raked against her soft brown skin. She did not pull away. "Duncan called it a Warden's Oath. It has a little of the Joining potion sealed inside. It sort of hums when darkspawn are near."
"Won't you need it?"
He grinned at the thought. "No. I'm already one big walking darkspawn detector. I thought… you could show this to anybody and they would know you are one of us."
"You mean templars."
"Sure." He squeezed her hands. "Or, you know, you could use it to go home. Back to Ostwick. Wardens can go anywhere without papers."
"Not everywhere, not yet. I want you to know that you have options. Bann Alfstanna still holds Waking Sea. We're sending Evelina. Some of the orphans are… gifted."
"It wouldn't do to have it said the Prince was sheltering mages," Solona acknowledged.
Alistair shook his head emphatically but kept his voice quiet. "We send them to Jainen and they become a part of the system. But if we send them where nobody knows…"
"You're smuggling them. Where?"
"Ansburg, via Kirkwall. Teagan thinks the Margravine will help us."
"You know Thalia Aurum?"
Solona shrugged. "I'm a Trevelyan. I know everyone."
The Trevelyans were a self-important family, too interested in gossip and infighting to form a dynasty to rival the Penderghasts. Spread thinly across the Free Marches, Nevarra, and the Tevinter Imperium, it was easy enough for the Trevelyans to overlook Bann Ricard's absurd brood.
If it wasn't for their matriarch, Lucille, Solona would have given up on the family entirely. Her Great-Aunt Lucille was the widow of previous teyrn of Ostwick and mother of the current one. Lucille— elegant, ageless, dangerously efficient. She threw the only Marcher balls which had both Antivans and Orlesians vying for invitations. Celene Valmont had once been a regular guest. It was rumored that even King Maric and Queen Rowan attended the summer ball, before the queen took ill.
Lucille, darling Lucille, cared not a whit that her nephew's children were all mages. She had the fortune to be above such petty things. Wealthier than the Maker Himself, it was said, and so pious with her tithes. She'd helped in elevating Irving to the chair of First Enchanter, and she fully intended to sponsor the others in a similar fashion. Where coin could not reach, the fingers of her influential friends might stretch. Solona's twin, Maxwell, was a clerk to the Grand Enchanter. Katarina was the mistress of a Vael princeling. Elspeth was the senior healer in the quiet little Hasmal Circle. Only Daylen, sequestered in Kirkwall's silent Gallows, was untouchable. Knight-Commander Stannard answered no one, it seemed, but herself. Not to the Viscount, and not to the Grand Cleric.
And this was precisely Solona's concern. "Don't send them to Kirkwall. The templars there are not like the templars we know."
"It's the only Marcher port still taking Fereldan ships. That is, unless someone knows the Teryn of Ostwick."
"Funny, Alistair. Your lips moved, but I swear Elissa's voice came out."
He released her hands. "I'm a pale imitation." He chuckled faintly. "Just… don't think you are backed into a corner yet."
Solona looked down, and unclasped her fingers to examine the Warden amulet. True to his word, it softly resonated in Alistair's proximity. What was it like, she wondered, to have that tainted magic in the whole of your being? Did it start slowly? If he was carved in twain, would his heart be already spiderwebbed with black? "As your friend, I think I have to warn you about Lady Cousland. She's using you, you know."
He stiffened, defensive. "Because you are my friend, I'll let that comment pass. It might... seem like that to you. But you don't know what she has given up."
"If you go to Oswin they will make you their king. There's your corner. There's your Circle. You won't get out again." She exhaled. "I know you don't want this."
The muscle in his jaw worked for a moment as he chewed on the inside of his cheek. "You don't know what I want."
"Freedom, Alistair, the most precious gift of all. Somehow, despite the condition of your birth and your magical talents, you're still free. No one else can say that. And you're throwing it away with both hands!"
"The thing is… I love her. If she were a commoner, I'd build her a cottage in her home village. If she were a mage, I'd join the templars again to live in her Circle. If she were Orlesian I'd—" A short laugh. "Well, let's not drag this out too much. If I walk away, she is still the next in line. And Elissa will never walk away. She's just not built like that. She doesn't run. It would be a— a privilege, to be a King to her Queen. Yes, I'm still scared to death, but not for my sake."
"Would you untangle the soulbind, if you could?"
"No." His face turned haunted. Pale lips confessed: "I think it would kill her."
"What is the oath?" she had asked Wynne.
In Peace, Vigilance.
In War, Victory.
In Death, Sacrifice.
It was not her oath. But the Blight was everyone's fight.
Solona took her time examining her broken staff. The mounting for the crystal focus was warped badly. The aurium teeth were mangled, barely holding their shape. This was a repair for an arcanist, not a blacksmith. It was little wonder her spell had gone so awry!
In the valley below her she could see the kingsroad, and the wide river beside it which stretched between Lake Calenhad and the Waking Sea. Solona and Cullen were the vanguard to a caravan of refugees— mostly women, children, and the elderly— traveling north from Redcliffe before the southern snows came. Wynne, Shale, and Evelina travelled with the caravan. Their destination was a northern village about two miles north from her feet, as the crow flies. They called it Crestwood.
It was a mill town, powered by a tremendous dam, the likes of which Solona had never seen before. Dwarven engineering, one assumed. She could see it clearly from this height. The town was built in the dried-up lakebed, and had expanded piecemeal up into the hills. It had its own keep, a small caer built during the Orlesian invasion, but since its lord lived in Jainen, it was ruled by a mayor. Gregory Dedrick was used to being rather independent, and had only reluctantly agreed to harbor refugees in exchange for a significant quantity of raw grain from Redcliffe's silos.
The hills beyond Crestwood were full of darkspawn, bandits, and smugglers. Solona and Cullen had kept busy.
There was a buzzing sensation against her collarbone, like an insect trapped under her clothes. The amulet. Darkspawn! Her first instinct was to warn Cullen, and it was so intense that she was forced to clamp her fist against her mouth to stifle the scream. Without her magic, silence was their best chance at survival.
What direction were they coming from? She spun around, looking for sunken faces and black swords. The shadows were lengthening in the late sun. Quickly she determined she would run downhill, and cast herself into the fickle mercies of the river. Her gloved hands slid along her staff. Under the gloves, her palms were blistered, but she ignored the sting. Even without mana it was a hefty weapon, and it might buy her a few seconds.
But instead of a loping band of darkspawn, two small figures pushed free of the bushes. One leaned heavily upon the other, and had a strange gait; her free arm hung loosely upon a severely stooped shoulder.
As they approached, Solona got a better look at the pair. The strange dwarf had sandy blonde hair, shorn close to the scalp, and milky eyes. Tell-tale lines crept up the veins in her translucent skin. On death's doorstep— or worse, a ghoul. Sick enough to shiver the amulet, it seemed. Her companion, a woman with a dark complexion and upturned nose, had no obvious sign of the Taint upon her.
The healthy dwarf fixed the mage with an accusatory glare. "Your keeper is camped in my cave. He needs to leave."
Solona bristled at the implication that she needed a templar to mind her. "Are you Carta?" she drawled coldly.
The stranger was dry. "What gave it away, the tattoo?"
"The tattoo," Solona affirmed. She tipped her head. "And the black sun in your hideout."
"You're not from the village. They're not stupid enough to come south. Too many darkspawn." That was not a threat, but nor was it a mere observation. A warning, then.
"Is that what happened to your friend?"
If the blighted dwarf was listening, she gave no indication. Her pale eyes, once blue, stared unnervingly into the middle-distance.
"Her? No. Found her in the Deep Roads. Felt wrong, leaving a princess to die. Hoped we might find a Grey Warden. Then they all went and died."
"Princess?" Solona repeated, with a note of disbelief.
The Carta dwarf smiled, catlike. Her incisors were inset with ruby chips, matching her red leathers. "Don't know dwarven royalty when you see it, cloudhead? She's Lady Sereda Aeducan. The fratricide. You could ask her yourself but she don't talk much."
It seemed likely that the sharp eyed woman was lying. Fratricide or not, what would a Princess of Orzammar be doing in the hills outside Crestwood? Solona wracked her brain for what she knew of the Aeducans. It was very little. The old king was dead, and before him his oldest children, leaving only his youngest. Bodahn spoke of young Prince Bhelen in less than complimentary tones. Regardless, 'Sereda', or whoever she was really, was beyond the help of healers or Wardens. Her blackened jugular pulsed in her throat. Her hair had probably been shaved off by her friend when it began to fall out by the fistful. There was a smell about her, sickly sweet, like deep mushroom.
But it never hurt to have good manners. Solona gripped the hem of her surcoat and dipped into a curtsey. It was tricky on the sloped terrain. "Your Highness," she said gravely.
The ghoul nodded. Her companion, watching the interaction closely, seemed pleased by this reaction. "They call me Malika Cadash," she offered.
"What's a Circle mage doing in Crestwood? Not running— you've got a leash."
"He's not a leash. He's… my ex."
"Ah. He do that?" Cadash gestured to Solona's face. "He hit you?"
Solona reflexively touched her nose, where blood was crusted around her nostrils. For a moment she considered how she must look— hair falling out of its chignon, bloodied face, muddy coat. She conjured up the image of a crazed blood mage, and it wore her own face. Somehow Cadash, even burdened, was not afraid of her. Did the Carta sell lyrium to apostates? That sounded right— where else would they get it? "No," she answered warily, "that was the darkspawn."
Cadash grinned that feral smile. "So you made the big boom! Heard that a mile off. Fuckers have been harassing us for days. They can smell Sereda, I think. But I told her, I said— I wouldn't let them have her. Promised I'd take her to Warden Duncan, but she got tired, walking in the Deep Roads. Hard to find out things since the darkspawn came up on the surface. Detrick won't let us in the village. Cocksucker's afraid of a little Blight-sickness." She rolled her eyes and made a rude gesture.
"Duncan's dead," Solona offered.
"I know. They says he betrayed the Fereldan king. Like they says this one murdered Prince Trian."
"Duncan didn't betray Maric," she said, out of loyalty to Alistair, who loved both men.
Cadash squinted. "Yeah. 'They says'," she repeated. "Be smarter, mage. Never know who might be working for the Regent. Dangerous times. 'Specially in Eremon lands."
Feeling rightfully scolded, Solona muttered, "Sorry."
"You a Grey Warden? I ask 'cause there's not many these days fighting the spawn. Lots of soldiers fighting soldiers."
"Yes," Solona declared with more confidence than she felt. "I'm a— I travel with them, sometimes."
"Your templar? Is he Prince Alistair? Only I heard he were a templar."
"No, he's—" Solona paused. Something wasn't right. "How do know about Alistair?"
Cadash chuckled, and with the softest snick she replaced her dagger back into its hip holster. Solona had never seen her draw it. Now all the goosebumps on her neck erupted in belated warning. "No fretting. Had to know you was who I thought you was. Met the prince at a card game months ago. Got to know your friends. When you see Lady V, let her know I found the package too late. It will have to be Bhelen or Pyral for Orzammar."
Solona turned the word 'package' over in her head. It stuck there, hard to shake away. With a dry mouth, she clarified, "Leliana sent you?"
"She paid me. King of Orzammar isn't usually a problem for a surfacer. No deshyrs up here. But the Warden wants dwarves marching topside." Cadash sucked her tongue, as if she was amazed by the concept. "Meant to meet you in Crestwood, but that cocksucker wouldn't let me in. Fortunately, I'm a finder, see— I found you. Are you the healer?"
"No, that's Wynne. She'll be here tomorrow. I… I do not think she can help your friend. She looks pretty far gone."
"Probably. But a Warden healer, yeah? Got to be good for something." For the first time, Malika Cadash looked troubled. "Even if it's just a painless death. Princess deserves to return to the Stone. Never did nothing to warrant being one of them."
"How did you even find her?" Solona found herself asking as they walked slowly down the hill toward the Carta bolthole.
"Long story. Lady Aeducan had a lover, her First." She snorted. "Gorim Saelac knew too much. Got himself exiled to the surface; I spoke to him in Denerim. The dying king had a change of heart and begged Sereda's knight to find her. Saelac mangled his leg in the Deep Roads and had to give up the search. But he gave me a starting point. Lucky for me, the spawn had left the tunnels. Unlucky for her, she survived her wounds. She was just a little sick at first. Thought it was hunger. Then she started complaining of music."
Solona clasped her fingers over her abdomen, feeling the hard swell of flesh under her loose-fitting shirt. Another week or two and she would no longer be able to disguise her condition. And all it took, she thought, was one cut by a befouled sword, one drop of black blood, one tainted stranger. Her fear of it was a tangible thing— ice in the marrow of her bones. How could she dare to bring life to a dying world? What if the babe in her belly was born with milky eyes? How could she love it— how could she think of it?
Cullen was standing at the mouth of the cave, drawn by the sound of voices— a gray shadow of a man. He was watching her, she realized, with inscrutable eyes. She met them and he gave a polite nod before his gaze slid over her skin and beyond her. Solona swallowed back the pang in her heart and tried to convince herself it was the only way.
The pair of riders from the south approached the castle at midday, and were met in the courtyard by a cadre of uniformed servants who bustled them away into the guest tower. Caer Oswin was an isolated place, without a village of its own, nestled into a winding pine forest. Nature encroached on every side. Even in the courtyard, unsolicited pine seedlings burst from the ground, as if the trees themselves were collaborating to take the land back into their fold. Thedas had many enchanted woods, from the great Brecilian Forest of Ferelden to the Emerald Graves of Orlais, and that ticklish feeling upon the back of Alistair's neck suggested that they had entered just such a place.
Oswin was a charming place, with stately towers, and stone buttresses lining every major corridor. The usual pennants and heraldry had been replaced with banners of black linen. Those which flew in direct sun had faded to an orange-brown, the color of a black cat in dusty daylight.
The guest suites were small but nicely appointed— clean sheets on feather beds, private stone baths filled by water runes and warmed by heating runes, beeswax candles in brass candlesticks… Small details, but when taken all together it gave the impression that Loren had spent a small fortune on his visitors.
Alistair found himself trying to remember if Redcliffe Castle had been the same. But even thinking ten years back, to his memories before the undead befouled its halls, he saw obvious differences. Redcliffe was an ancient fortress first and foremost, and no amount of gilded wallpaper and Orlesian decor could keep out the draught in those solemn stones.
Even the air here tasted cleaner, he realized with a start. Death and Blight had become so familiar to him that in their absence the world felt amiss. Where were the black plumes of funeral fire? The hollow-eyed children torn from their homes?
Melancholy tugged at him. Oswin was almost a time capsule— Ferelden in the years of Cailan's reign.
Lady Landra had delighted in hosting salons. These rooms had once been filled with visiting gentlewomen, who roamed the flower gardens with books in hand. The gardens lay dormant now, in the cold air. But during that long summer of mourning, the native wild roses had thrived. Without the hand of their late mistress, they had choked out the cultivated plants from Orlais.
Oswin had once been a holiday villa— built by a grandson of the famous Bann Camenae Eremon as an inland retreat for his wife and children during the hurricane season. After the Occupation, Loren Eremon, born in obscurity and claimant to the lesser line only after his more illustrious relatives died in battle, reclaimed this family property from the Orlesians. Looking to legitimize himself as a lord, Loren set his sights on the eighteen year old war widow of Oscar Mac Eanraig. Lord Oscar had perished alongside his brother in Denerim's harbor, the very same sea battle which made their sister Eleanor famous.
With a lot of coaxing, Landra of the Storm Coast became Loren's wife. She was a flower of the sea. While some were certainly more beautiful, none in Ferelden could be said to be as educated, as witty, or as charming. Some of the spark went out of her, it was said, on the day Oscar died. And after burying five Eremon sons, no one could blame her for enjoying her cups in the evening.
Perhaps, because of these factors, Dairren was not quite the lad he ought to have been. He was the only child in the line— Alfstanna unwed and her brother a templar— and as such the presumptive heir to the Waking Sea. Soft-cheeked and coddled, Dairren Eremon had preferred books to swordplay, a detail which tomboyish Elissa Cousland could not overlook. Likewise, her inattention to her studies annoyed the lad. Still, they had been friends, bound together by an "unfortunate penchant for romanticism", as Lissa put it.
Dairren had been the latest in a long line of suitors thrown at Elissa's feet and subsequently ground under her heels. She might have found it comical, had the visit not ended in his murder. Grief was a funny thing— squire, she called him, and squire he was, after a fashion. The boy did not know how to take up a sword when his life depended upon it, and had bled out beside his mother.
The Eremons had reason enough to hate Rendon Howe. But was this enough to make an enemy of Loghain Mac Tir?
"King of the ashes," Alistair said to himself, looking down from the arrow-slit window of his room into the fading gardens below. A black flag billowed and snapped in the wind. The evergreens bent their knees.
"What was that?"
"Nothing." He cleared his throat. "This is ridiculous," he complained, examining the laces of his shirt in the looking glass. The tarnished silver crept behind the old mirror like a disease, hazing his reflection.
"Now what's the matter?" came the amused reply. Elissa sat primly on an overstuffed tuffet, with her full black skirts arranged artfully in a fan shape before her. The crisp white of her shirtwaist peeked out at the collar and the splits in her black sleeves. She looked like a magpie, with puffed up clothes covering her slight frame. In both hands she cradled a crystal glass, which held the remains of her brandy. On one spot, the rim was marked with the imprint of painted lips.
"Look!" He turned to face her. "One side is much shorter than the other!"
"Then obviously you've done it wrong." She huffed and rose to her feet, teetering with each step in her bone-white drakeskin heels. They gave her two inches in height, making her nearly as tall as Alistair in his stocking feet. The muffling charm upon her boots let her move soundlessly. "Look at you. You can assemble and tear down plate armor, but you can't fasten a shirt?"
"It's not as easy as it looks." He returned to the mirror. "I don't think it fits." The starch was so stiff that he could barely move his arms. "Feels wrong."
"You've never had something brand new, have you?"
"Well… no," he admitted lightly. A life full of hand-me-downs, cast-offs, and charity bins meant most of his clothes arrived to him a soft, dingy gray— characteristic of many washings. But he had never needed to stuff his boots with paper to make them last an extra season, or chew his belt to fight the pain of hunger, and that put him better off than most.
"Let me see." She stood behind him. Long, slender fingers skated up the black suede of his open vest, examining the eyelets and the tiny criss-crosses of leather thong to see if any were amiss. This close, Alistair could smell the myrrh in her hair, just a trace of spice in curls carefully arranged by Leliana. The scent evoked many memories. When her hands reached the top, she smiled to herself, and began to work her way back downward, loosening the laces.
As Elissa corrected his mistake, he watched her in the glass. Although her practiced hands could have brusquely sorted the problem, she took her time. Was it just his fancy to say she lingered, enjoying his proximity as much as he enjoyed hers?
Elissa hummed tunelessly as she tied up his shirt and cinched the gold buttons on his vest. Her varnished nails straightened his shoulders, then slid down his chest, smoothing out invisible wrinkles.
The man peering back at him through the haze was a stranger— aristocratic and sober. His shoulders were broader, his waist slimmer… Alistair had never owned clothes tailored just for him.
"Perfect," Lissa whispered reverently, and was embarrassed she had declared the word aloud. "I mean— it fits perfectly."
Alistair caught her hand before Elissa could retreat backwards, and pressed her wrist against his heart. She rested her temple against his cheekbone. Her eyes in the glass were red and dry and her cheeks were pale. Exhaustion had thinned her face to hollowness, but she'd painted her cracked lips with rouge the color of roses.
Together, they were a tableau of black, white, and gold. "You think I'm perfect?" he questioned, hoping to coax another smile out of her.
She wrinkled her nose. A grin appeared, along with an unexpected reply: "Of course you are, and you know it. You're ravishing, resourceful, and all those other things you'd probably hurt me for not saying." It was a throaty imitation, but the cadence was of his own voice.
"Of course I remembered— I wrote it down. It was the first time I… nevermind."
"No, go on. Tell me."
"Well, I'd just gotten this, hadn't I?" Lis indicated to the scar on her face. A cloud of unhappiness passed over her, leaving just as quickly as it came. "I was feeling rotten, and I was half-drunk, and you came in and were nice to me."
"I meant it."
"I know you did. It's strange, but I think that was the first guileless compliment I ever received in my life."
He chafed against her earnest answer, twisting uncomfortably. "That cannot be true."
"They'll lie. All of them." A beat. "Even me. Especially me. Take nothing of what they say at face value, trust no one, never go anywhere alone. Take Zevran with you if must go out— he's posing as your manservant. Don't eat or drink anything before he gives the go-ahead."
"Don't take this the wrong way— because believe me, I am not keen to be poisoned again—"
"Maker, I'd hope not."
"What am I supposed to do?" He tapped his stomach. "No thank you, sorry, I'm on a diet."
"Just…" she sighed, "try to catch his eye and he'll give you a sign. Please do be subtle, if that's within your power."
"Yes, I'm well aware of the irony of using Zevran for this."
"Caught that, did you? Nothing eludes you, Lissie."
She resisted rolling her eyes. "You needed a manservant."
"No I didn't."
"Yes, you do. That's how these people live."
She frowned at that. "Zevran volunteered. We have friends among the kitchen staff who will keep him apprised."
"Friends?" he repeated dubiously.
"Landra hired some of her servants from Highever Towne. All came with letters of personal recommendation from Mother. Leliana reached out to them for me."
"Your mother kept agents in Eremon's castle?"
"I don't know what you're implying, ser." Her eyes turned wide and innocent, like a porcelain doll. They were out of place above her smile.
"Don't be coy with me," Alistair murmured. He turned; one hand spanned her corseted waist, and the other cupped her cheek.
"Not on the mouth," she warned when he leaned in, "you'll spoil the rouge."
"Will I have another chance?"
Her eyelashes flickered as she considered. "No."
"Then damn the rouge." To his delight, Lissa met him a soft kiss. "My dear." Another gentle press. Then another, lingering longer.
"Damn you," she mumbled, as her hand snaked up behind his head. The kiss deepened; her mouth slanted against his, driven by the knowledge that they would be separated by their charade. Lissa tasted of spirits and sweetened wax; the black taffeta of her skirt rustled like bird's wings when he pulled her close. She sighed, resting herself in his embrace. He could feel the ribbing of her corset under his hand, bone upon bone. "You're incorrigible," she said with her eyes closed.
"Why did your mother keep agents here?" Alistair repeated. The thought was sticking out, like a loose thread he could not resist pulling.
"I've asked myself the same question. Protection?"
A knock— a rap in triplicate— came upon the door just that moment, and before they could react, Leliana lifted the latch and pushed inside. "Just me," Leliana announced by way of greeting, ducking through the doorway and pulling the door closed behind her. Alistair and Elissa sprang apart. Leliana lifted her eyes from her shoes; her mouth set into a displeased frown. "Really?"
Alistair flashed her a guilty smile with his red-stained mouth. "Oops."
Leliana wore a handsome gray wool dress, with a very stiff petticoat beneath it, and a white apron above. The quality and formality of her clothing implied her rank— as the personal maid of a wealthy lady. That she was pretty, young, and Orlesian only added to her charm.
It was amusing to to see an Orlesian in service to a Fereldan mistress, when for decades only the reverse had been possible. And Leliana so needed to be charming and amusing— disarming— so that no one uncovered her real intentions.
"The dinner bell chimes in ten minutes." She pulled out a ruffled handkerchief and a silver pot of makeup from the pockets of her apron. "Clean yourself up." With that, she pulled Elissa away to fix the damage.
"This is my room. You have no business bossing me around in here, Leli."
Leliana ignored him. "Did you at least remember to tell him about the food, Elissa? It is a miracle you ever get anything done around each other."
He covered up his face-splitting grin with a damp cloth. "She told me to watch Zevran."
"Hm. Not good enough. Here, take this," she said, drawing something from another pocket, and forcefully pressing it into his palm. It was an egg. "Eat."
"I don't suppose you smuggled in salt, too? No?" Not one to pass up such a prize, he cracked it against the wall and set to peeling it. Eggs were hard to come by. "I hope this isn't all I'm eating tonight."
"Zevran will be busy."
"What's happening?" Elissa pursed her lips as Leliana painted a sleek bow of red.
"A late arrival."
"A solitary rider in plain clothes. A human man. Clean. Not especially well armed."
"Not our messenger?"
"No. He is late. There may be trouble on that front."
"You'll tell me everything later."
"Of course. Alistair?" said Leliana, whip-sharp.
"Yus?" he said around a mouthful of boiled egg.
"Bread cut at the table should be safe. Choose wheat, not rye. Don't ever drink from a glass prepared out of sight. Only accept what is poured from the master's pitcher. Avoid creams and sauces, they can conceal strange flavors."
"Lissie, I'm really supposed to live the rest of my life like this? Wondering if my cheese plans to do me in?" Alistair asked with a rising note of disbelief.
She flashed a grim smile. "No, no. Don't worry. You'll have royal tasters for that."
"Great." He blinked. "Hey, Leliana, did you bring anything else for me to eat?"
This scene is now the cover art. You can view saa-pandaleon's work at the beginning of the first chapter. Thank you!
Chapter 6: Table (Alistair)
His first— rather dismayed— observation was that every dish had a cream sauce. Plates of chipped bone china were carried in by elven women, who swayed silently under the weight of the silver platters. A pair of whole roasted fish, glazed eyes staring in bulbous accusation, swam in a greasy nut sauce. Stewed root vegetables rested under the front-half of a boar with brown and crackly skin. A tureen of bread and eel soup the color of milk was laid before each place setting.There were a dozen others Alistair could not immediately put a name to.
Far too much food for the number seated around the long banquet table. He thought of the ration lines in Redcliffe, of gruel and apples fed to the people while their nobles dined in comfort and peace.
Ten chairs, nine seated. All were dressed in degrees of black. At the head of the table was the master of Caer Oswin, a man who excelled only at appearing average— neither fat nor thin, clean shaven, with brown hair turning gray. When he opened his mouth, Loren Eremon spoke with an affected accent— through his nose, practically dripping with oily simper.
No one sat in the mistress’s place. A stripe of cloth had been draped over Landra’s chair. Serving reluctantly as hostess was a short-haired woman in tight-fitting velvet trousers. Alfstanna, Loren’s cousin, was in her mid-thirties, lanky, with a hard set to her mouth. Seated beside her was a black haired woman Alistair did not recognize; she was introduced as Clauda Du Paraquette of Val Royeaux. Clauda wore a dozen tiny gold rings on both of her hands. They glinted in the candlelight. Her fingers touched Alfstanna’s, lingering across the silver setting of a half dozen forks.
Across from the Orlesian woman was the Bann of the Storm Coast. Alistair knew Nell Mac Eanraig at once by her eyes. Familiar eyes, the green color of the summer sea, but hard eyes too, lacking any kind of warmth. He surreptitiously skimmed her face. Time had taken the vigor out of her cheeks, and had wrinkled her neck. She did not appear to take any particular pains toward vanity. She did not wear any paint on her eyes or mouth. Her curly hair had turned a rusted gray, and was pinned back into ropey braids in a common style. Nell reminded him most of a Tevinter statue, with the marble left for three ages in the rain. The essence of beauty was still there, but it had blurred through wear and time.
The next pair seated across from each other were Teagan Guerrin and Leonas Bryland. The latter was squeezed into a very outdated tunic which had been dyed for the occasion, as his own fine clothes were with his family in Denerim. The dye was not fast. The skin around his collar was stained a deep rusty brown.
Alistair himself was seated beside Teagan, and across from a man whose tremendous stature made Leonas look almost ordinary. They called him Arl Gallagher Wulff, the Giant of the West Hills, an unexpected addition to their party. Wulff had a pair of wild eyebrows, and a brand-new injury scabbing across his nose. He had lost a lot of weight in recent months, by the looseness of his clothes and sallow pinch of his cheeks. The arl could not outrun the rumor that he was actually dead. The sources were quite credible. Even Leliana had been surprised when he’d turned up, caked in filth, at Caer Oswin.
Elissa held a place of honor at the foot of the long table. They were spaced just far enough apart that Alistair could not touch her without drawing unwanted attention. Elissa looked at no one— conscious that every eye was upon her. With a sort of lazy bravado, she tried every dish, in every course, taking dainty bites. ‘If there is poison,’ he forbade himself to think. ‘They wouldn’t dare,’ he decided.
Alistair found himself with little appetite. He chewed through some dense, sandy bread, and chased it with red wine until he could feel the numbing flush creep into his veins. And he watched the servants come and go. It was a large, open hall, but the darkness of the space seemed to consume the light of the candelabras. He was unarmed, but there were knives on the table. He tested one on the crust of bread. Damn. Not terribly sharp. But a platter could be a shield, in a pinch. A plate could be a shattering projectile. Leliana was… somewhere. Zevran was… elsewhere, investigating the latecomer.
“I’ve heard they call you the Warden,” Gallagher harrumphed, pulling his whiskers out of a broth bowl.
“Is that you?” Nell asked, signaling a servant who brought her her pipe. “That’s not a real title of the Grey Wardens. Something Teagan’s people coined, I heard.”
“Not my people,” Teagan protested gently.
Alfstanna smiled with pity. “Of course they are still your brother’s.”
“No. I mean, it was the Reachers, was it not? Someone from Lothering surely?”
“Though you’ve made quite the gift of Redcliffe to the Couslands. Is it a dowry?” said Nell.
Teagan flushed and opened his mouth, but Gallagher cut him off. “You’ve got it backwards, Nell. The Warden is protecting Redcliffe. Eamon’s body is a strategic resource. The rest of us could only dream of being so useful.”
“Maker’s breath!” Teagan exclaimed. “If I sent men under Rainesfere colors into the West Hills, would you be happy? Or would you take it as an act of war? Would not be the first time, your lordship, if you will pardon my saying.”
The Arl of West Hills bristled. “Offer them under her colors.”
“Would that be Warden blue or Cousland blue?” Nell asked aside, through a cloud of smoke.
“I want more than a token,” Gallagher continued, “of one mage and one templar.”
“Did they help?” Elissa asked. Her eyes were inscrutable. The murmurs around the table fell silent.
The whiskered man paused. “Yes.”
“Did the Crown send you aid?”
“There we are, then.” She idly examined her reflection in the back of a soup spoon, doing her best to look bored and above it all while she scanned the space behind her. Alistair could see the pulse thumping in her drawn throat.
“You have the templars?” asked Alfstanna.
Elissa’s eyes flicked away from Arl Gallagher, passing to the back of the hall. A mural dominated the wall behind the throne— Camenae in the garb of the old Order. Eremons could always be counted upon to be devout. “Some,” she answered, intentionally being vague about the small number. “Those who could be spared from the crisis on the lake. Ser Alistair, of course you know was once a templar, before the Maker called him elsewhere.”
“I heard you saved many templars when the Lake Calenhad Circle fell to demons,” Alfstanna said approvingly, allowing Alistair a warm look. “Fortunately we’ve had no such troubles in Jainen. The Denerim garrison reinforced us, naturally. Grand Cleric Elemena agreed that it was necessary. We cannot have the mages causing more trouble in these difficult days.”
Alistair gripped the stem of his glass.
Her cousin smiled grimly. “You know the apostates lurk among innocent refugees. Most of them blood mages. After what happened to Arl Eamon…” He shrugged. “Cannot take the risk. You would all do well to close your borders, as I have.”
Teagan shifted in his chair, surely thinking of all the young mage children they were smuggling through Alfstanna’s lands at that very moment. “Teyrn Loghain was responsible for Eamon’s illness.”
“Was he?” said Loren blandly.
Before Teagan could bluster out another red-faced reply, Elissa softly interjected. “I am sure you are well informed, my lord, that the teyrn placed spies in places which might challenge his consolidation of power. Two were discovered in Redcliffe, and another turned to blood magic in an otherwise good and noble circle.”
“Is that what you would call it?”
“The Grand Cleric saw no reason to use the Rite of Annulment upon Kinloch Hold. It was within her power. Indeed, the loyal mages and their templars banded together to end Loghain’s faction and restore the peace under their Knight-Commander.”
“But I heard…” Loren frowned, wadding up a serviette. Much of her statement contradicted his knowledge, but he was not prepared to call her out. “At your word, Your Grace.”
“The Grey Wardens have conscripted some of the mages. That is within our power. A mage and a templar working in partnership holds the strength of ten ordinary men.”
“Preposterous,” Loren mumbled.
Nell blew smoke. It smelled floral, a medley of hemp seeds and clove. “Don’t be a poor sport, Loren.”
Alfstanna turned. “Ser Alistair, we must defer to your expertise. Is such an…” she searched for a word, “ arrangement between mages and templars even possible?”
Alistair gripped the edge of the table. “Yes. Yes, I think you’ll find every mage within the Wardens knows precisely what they’re fighting for. You will also find, your ladyship, that the Blight does not discriminate between mage or templar, between the wealthy and the poor.” Elissa gave him a sharp-edged smile. “It is not merely fire, or pestilence, or war. It is worse than anything your darkest nightmares could conjure.” Alistair shook his head. His voice rang out steady. “No matter what Loghain might believe, we’re not a second coming of the chevaliers. Redcliffe welcomed the Wardens. We want to help. Loghain denies the existence of the Blight. He criminalized the Wardens, thereby eliminating our best chance to fight the darkspawn.”
“Is there an archdemon?”
“Then why hasn’t it been seen? That is what makes a true Blight.”
Leonas thumped the table. “Go to Lothering if you want your damn proof. Admire her smoldering corpse.”
Elissa cleared her throat. “A point well made, my lord Bryland. But to answer the bann, I should inform that the dragon has been spotted within the Deep Roads.”
“But surely it is a problem then for the dwarves,” said Clauda.
Leonas scowled. “Aye. I suppose I should wait for the dwarves to brave the surface? My people flee for their lives. I petitioned the Queen, but she did nothing. Just as her father turned his backs on us at Ostagar Fortress. But Teyrna Cousland did not wait on dwarves. She saved my lads and she did it with a handful of soldiers… Even sorted out the sylvans and the werewolves and that bloody Forest. Got the Dalish to stop shooting at us and start shooting at the darkspawn.”
“So you’re a folk hero now Lissie,” said Nell, opening her herb pouch. “Eleanor would be tickled.”
Elissa did not look at her dead mother’s twin. In fact, she seemed to be doing her best to pretend Nell was not there. “Leonas is being generous.”
“Do not be modest. Everyone knows, if there’s one person who can fix Ferelden, it’s the Warden. I would not question your motives any more than I would have Maric in the old days.”
The table fell silent at Leonas’s somber pronouncement. There was a… burning aura about Lissa Cousland. She leaned forward, on the edge of her seat, with eyes unnaturally bright. As if being called by that other name had summoned something to her side. She was no longer entirely herself, Alistair thought. Perhaps no one else could see it. Perhaps it was something that could only be felt , resonating through the bond they shared. The presence set his teeth on edge.
Alfstanna smiled. The lines around her mouth deepened. “We wanted— no, needed— to see you for ourselves. There have been so many rumors about you…”
“Your fondness for Orlais is well known,” said Leonas, apologetically, for his own mother was Orlesian.
“And let us not forget the terrible business with Howe’s eldest son,” reminded Loren.
“What they are trying to say,” interjected Bann Nell dryly, through a ring of blue smoke, “is that they do not want to sit on their hands and let the Guerrins continue to be the only kingmakers in Ferelden. They want a piece of Eamon’s pie.”
“I see,” said Lissa. “Is that what you came for, auntie?”
“I’d rather see a Mac Eanraig on the throne than Loghain’s common-blooded brat. But both of us know it should have been Fergus. He was your better, girl.”
Elissa’s mouth turned rigid. “On that, we can agree.” She sat very straight in her chair. “But Fergus could not bring your daughter back.”
“The Grey Wardens can—”
“Grey Wardens cannot!” Elissa said vehemently. “No matter what you may have heard. We have no cure. Wynda’s death was a tragedy but it was more merciful than the alternative.” A manservant behind her, listening intently, fumbled with a dish. Regretting her tone already, she added in a gentler voice, “I am sorry.”
Leonas spoke up. “I was there. Your daughter went peacefully, beside the one she loved.”
Nell sighed. She looked to have aged ten more years in the span of a moment. “Idiot boy. You kept him safe, for her?”
“We did, auntie.”
“Send him to me. Spare a single soul from your tedious deathmarch.”
Elissa had no answer to that.
“It’s true then?” asked Clauda. Her accent was quite thick when she got upset. “The things they say about the sickness?”
Alistair cleared his throat. “Things are probably worse than they say.” All eyes in the room turned to him. This sent a sensation akin to ice water shooting down his spine. “The way I see it, unless we have Gwaren, we have enough men left for one more stand against the horde.”
“Thank you, Warden Alistair, for that succinct summary,” said Alfstanna, squeezing Clauda’s hand. “This is exactly why we convene here at Caer Oswin. To discuss a rightful heir to Cailan.”
“I’ve no interest,” Nell said. “The Storm Coast is and has always been my home. Eleanor would have jumped at the opportunity. That was her style. Never minded stepping over dead family on the way up.” She swallowed. “No comfort in thinking that’s what got her murdered, though.”
The manservant stepped forward to clear Alistair’s plate away. Alistair began to hand him the dish, but suddenly remembered he was not meant to acknowledge the movement of the servants, and froze awkwardly with the dish hovering halfway in the air. The other smiled. He looked vaguely… familiar was not the word. They had never met before. The servant had very large white teeth and a beak of a nose. He could not be more than… seventeen? Sixteen? He had not yet grown into his limbs.
“I’m sorry,” Alistair mumbled. The servant inclined his head in amused forgiveness and gathered the used plate away.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Elissa, “what is discussed here tonight is not to leave this room until we are decided.” Her brow creased as she watched the manservant make his round.
Loren was quick to assure them. “My waitstaff are completely trustworthy, for you see, none of them are literate.”
“Is that usual in Ferelden?” asked the Orlesian.
“I fancy myself a revolutionary,” Loren replied, a touch droll. “Better to run a tight ship, I always say.”
“Do you sail?”
“Oh, not at all, my dear.”
In this way was the table cleared, and the food was spirited back into the kitchens. Finally the nine conspirators were left completely alone in Eremon’s great hall. The candles drooped in their holders, swayed by the weight of melted wax.
“Well,” Teagan began to say, but found himself at a loss.
Nell laughed. “Let us just say it. We’re all now traitors to the throne.”
Loren coughed nervously.
“Not if there is a rightful heir to Calenhad,” Leonas disagreed. “It’s like the old days, standing up to a usurper.”
“We were traitors then, too. Only we won, so we can couch it as just revolution to our children. Plenty lost that bet, if you’ll recall. Howe’s father. Cost him Highever and his life, and no matter what Byron and Rendon did, they could never get the tarnish off the family name. Half the good names in Ferelden will still remember what it means to go against Maric’s Champion and lose. They will be afraid.”
Alfstanna added, “The Queen is well-loved. But she is her father’s puppet. We’ll have to do better to take the Landsmeet.”
“We have a solution to that,” said Teagan. “One that my brother did everything in his power to prevent.”
“And it’s not me, auntie.” Lissa grinned. “You may keep your conscious clear.”
“Well, if Eamon hates it, how can I resist?” Nell said dryly. “You obviously came prepared with a name.”
“Another heir? Who? How?” Loren demanded. “Every known heir has been accounted for!”
‘Oh Maker,’ Alistair thought, ‘In dread I looked up once more and saw the darkness warp and crumble, for it was thin as samite, a fragile shroud over the Light which turned it to ash.’ Alistair stood. His chair clattered and moaned against the stone floor as it pushed back. For a half second he considered the distance to the door, but he found his resolve.
“I’ll do you one better than a name.” Elissa rose on her feet. He caught a glimpse of the knife concealed among her skirts.
Now or never. “Hello,” he said. His voice came out sheepish. “My name is Alistair Theirin. I’m Maric’s bastard.”
“Impossible!” cried Loren.
“Outrageous!” roared Gallagher, pounding the table with his meaty fist.
“Fantastic!” laughed Nell. She leaned back in her chair, toying with the pipe in her hands. “Was this Eamon’s doing?” She answered herself immediately. “Of course it was. What better way to keep a hand on the throne after Rowan’s death than to hoard the spare for himself? Just like a Guerrin does.” She cocked her head. “No offense meant, Bann Teagan,” she tacked on in dry afterthought.
“None taken, Bann Nell,” Teagan replied, flashing his teeth. “It is a point on which my brother and I disagreed. In fact, it was a point on which Maric and Eamon differed.”
Teagan laid his palms flat. “Eamon felt a duty of care to Cailan. He promised Rowan— on her deathbed— that he would watch over her son. He carried that burden to the best of his ability.” It was hardly the most compelling of excuses.
The thin veneer of a smile slipped from Alistair’s face, but he gamely pasted it back in place. “They did not wish undue competition upon my brother.” A cutting remark, from another pair of lips, but from Alistair it sounded like kindness.
Nell snorted. “Not to speak ill of the dead, but… it would have done Cailan good.” A murmur of uneasy agreement followed her point. “Moira and Maric spent summers in my father’s castle on the Coast when I was a girl. I knew my cousin well enough. I would say you have his look. If you’re a fraud, Ser Alistair, they have done very well.” She gave a sharp, decisive nod. “Teagan, how in the Maker’s name did you hide him? Some backwater corner of Redcliffe?”
Gallagher furrowed his impressive brows. “I remember… something. A boy in Guerrin’s household. A ward. Everyone knew the child was sired by Arl Eamon. He died young, I thought, during the outbreak of Par Vollen flu.”
Alistair grimaced and held his tongue, undoubtedly thinking of his unceremonious dismissal from the castle by Isolde. Teagan sighed. “It’s no secret that King Maric grew to despise the politics of his position. Maric wanted Alistair brought up in comfort, far away from the machinations of the Court. My brother promised him he would look after the boy as if he were his own son.”
Nell observed, “A point on which Eamon failed tremendously, I must say. He shunted him off on the Order.”
“Becoming a templar is the Maker’s highest calling,” Alfstanna interrupted, shocked. “Irminric gave up his position to become one!”
Nell drew a lazy circle in the air with her pointer. “Irminric gave up his position because he was an incompetent bore and you were moderately capable. Do not confuse duty with desperation, my dear.”
Alfstanna’s mouth fell open with silent, frothing indignation. Before she could find her voice, Alistair laughed. “I admire your frank speech, Lady Nell. Tell me, does that make me— what— incompetent and a boor, too?”
Nell smiled. “I do not know— are you?”
Elissa coughed. The stitch in her side— from a stay overstepping its boundaries— was driving her to distraction. She was out of practice in wearing lady’s fashions, especially this season when everyone was expected to wear such ridiculous shapes, and if she had to sit for another hour with half lung capacity listening to her aunt mock the table, she was going to scream from the sheer irritation. A horde of darkspawn was preferable to a room of nobles. How had she ever missed this, even for a millisecond?
Three things happened in quick succession:
First there was a whisper. Nothing Elissa could pin down. Almost a mosquito buzzing near her ear. “Hi Lissie,” said a soft breath which tickled her ear.
Nerves as taut as a bowstring, Elissa brought the dagger in her hand straight up. The erstwhile invisible presence reeled back as she sheared away the buttons on his shirt. The familiar acrid smell of a decloaking rogue burned her nostrils. A shout of alarm! Alistair— a blur of dark clothes— threw himself head-first at the intruder.
Elissa’s breath froze in her throat and her ribs groaned against the stiff bone caging her sides. But there was no time to dwell on it; she pushed aside the shock to deal with later— always later— and turned in time to see the would-be king lay a square, bare-knuckled punch on a manservant. A youth, black haired and human, probably the same one who had served them all evening, but she had never really noticed him. She berated herself. Her corset had addled her head. The wine had made her too stupid to be borne. Too much to think of, too many pieces in motion, and suddenly she found herself not a chess-master of a great stratagem, but an overwrought female. She sank down into her chair. Damn this corset.
As the lords and ladies clamored to their feet around the table, with Gallagher Wulff hooting delighted encouragement at the brawling men, Zevran burst into the room, with Leliana trailing only a step behind. Both were sweaty and pink, wearing weapons strapped to their backs. “Lissa, we have got it!” Zevran announced.
Alistair answered him colorfully, letting loose a second punch. “You’re a bit late, don’t you think?” Alistair was older and stronger than his enemy, and without the element of surprise, the other was easily overtaken. His head bounced off the stone floor with a fleshy thud. This was not a Crow. Not even a proper assassin. Barely a rogue. Still, Elissa knew him.
“Please! Enough!" she cried.
The boy smiled widely around bloodied teeth. “Did you know, Lissie, that they brought you here to make you queen?” he asked, letting pink spit ooze from the swollen corner of his mouth.
The last time she’d seen that face, it had belonged to a child, moon-round and sticky with sugar crumbs. Now he was an almost perverse imitation of his brother— the same features, but arranged wrongly. “Thomas,” she said. Her voice cracked around the name. “What…” A breath for composure. “What a pleasure it is to see you again. It’s been so long I hardly knew you.” Her stomach churned. “You’ve grown up.”
“Thomas Howe,” Alistair growled in recognition, lifting the scrawny youth up by the lapels. “You weren’t invited.”
“But I thought you would be impressed.” Thomas laughed. There was a touch of something nasty in his voice which reminded her strongly of his father, but at sixteen he had little of the bite. “I remembered— you liked a bit of showmanship.”
“Showmanship!” Teagan sputtered. “You— You're a spy! How much have you heard?” In his agitation, Teagan had tipped his wine goblet. A red trail bled across the dark wood of the table and washed over Leonas’s boots.
Elissa tried to sound glib and unbothered though she very much wanted to vomit. “Why don’t you take up a chair, Thomas, and you can listen more clearly.”
“Yes,” Nell insisted, “there’s room for the young Howe boy beside me.” In a quick motion, she swept the mourning ribbon off Landra’s chair. Loren, who had risen at table with righteous indignation, turned pale, and whatever he had been about to say died upon his lips.
“Well, it would be rude to turn down such a kind invitation.” He squirmed under Alistair’s rough grip. With a touch of the dramatic he tacked on, “If it would please your Highness, of course.”
Alistair growled in disgust, but let Loren’s guards help him back on his feet. A real servant rushed forward with a wet cloth for his bruised hands. "Did he touch you. Are you hurt?" Alistair murmured as he brushed close to her chair.
"Only my dignity," Lissa answered, sotto voce. "He intended to surprise me."
"He's been here all evening."
"I should have..." she trailed off.
“You’re not a thing like King Cailan, are you? Good for you!” Thomas loped good-naturedly around the room, oblivious to or uncaring about the significance of that chair, or to the armed guard accompanying him. He slouched in his stolen livery. His eye was rapidly swelling. “Hello, uncle."
"Thomas," said Leonas.
“But do not let me further interrupt this auspicious moment, Lissie. I mean— Your Grace.” He smiled again. “My lady sister, Delilah sends her regrets, but father needs her at home.”
Elissa sank her teeth into her bottom lip. “Loren.” Her voice trembled with fury. None of the words which came to mind were fit for a lady.
“My lady?” the lord whimpered.
“Oh, don’t be too hard on him, Lissie. When he discovered the blunder, he did try and keep you away. Sent you halfway across the kingdom. I nearly believed you’d called the party off.”
Alfstanna frowned. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Delilah has been very naughty. Spying on her mistress the Queen and relaying messages back to an agent of the Grey Wardens, a traitorous organization which plans on returning Ferelden to Orlesian rule,” he recited in a sing-songy voice. “Or at least, that’s what Father says. He asked me to identify the agent and neutralize them if I had the opportunity. But I had no real leads until Lord Eremon invited my sister to his little party.”
“Lord Loren sent you back to Ostagar to keep you away from Howe’s men,” Leliana explained, resting the lower limb of her longbow on her boot-tip.
“But we also have proof he was… involved ... in the murder of Ser Elric,” Zevran added. “He thought he could curry favor with Loghain.”
Loren sat down hard, the wind knocked from his metaphorical sails. “I never,” he protested softly.
Alfstanna hissed out, "Loren, you utter cock. What have you done?"
Lissa swallowed around the bile rising in her throat. "Nothing we did not expect. He was looking for the best offer." The fingernails on her left hand bit white half-moons into her palm. “I had wondered. How is Lachlan, Thomas? Still in Fort Drakon?”
“Father is going to make him the Teyrn of Highever. Wouldn’t Mother have been pleased?” Thomas dabbed at his swollen mouth with the back of his sleeve. His eyes were bright, like he was satisfied with himself. “The thing of it is, Lissie, no one in Denerim knows you’re alive. The Warden is some abomination of Andraste reborn and a pride demon, pardon the blasphemy, but no one calls you by your real name. Of course, the Lady Cousland and Prince Alistair were meant to be killed in an ambush during that battle in the spring. I’ve heard Loghain arranged it himself.”
“Then you really are… you really are Maric’s son?” Alfstanna murmured, eyes flashing as she stepped gracefully around the word bastard .
“Who was your mother?” Nell asked, looking exceedingly amused with the evening’s excitements. “You were a templar and a Warden, so not someone of birth.” She turned thoughtful. “One of Rowan’s handmaidens, I’d wager.”
Thomas cut in. “Oh! Yes. Sorry. I came upon your messenger on the road.”
Lissa flinched. “The papers?”
“They are quite safe. I took the liberty of leaving them in your quarters.”
“What papers?” Alistair asked.
“The ones that make you a—”
“Resist making that pun, Thomas,” Elissa snapped, “for the sake of my nerves. Alistair, I occurred to me that King Maric had you formally dedicated to the Chantry, as is tradition. I asked Delilah to look into the matter.”
Thomas mouthed, “—royal bastard.” Alistair stifled a laugh.
“Sorry, could not help myself. Ahem," Thomas vocalized, and made a show of clearing his throat. "In the year of the Maker 9:10, King Maric the Savior brought a child before Mother Ailis, priestess in service of the royal family, and named him as his son. The name recorded in her personal register— as recovered from the palace library, but not copied into Chantry records in the cathedral in Denerim— is Alistair Fionn Theirin.”
“Good enough for me,” declared Arl Gallagher, crossing his arms. “Good enough for Ferelden.”
"I'll second that," Bann Alfstanna, with a hard look at her shrinking cousin.
There came the particular matter of What To Do With Thomas Howe. He was a liability. He was a menace. He was a child.
For all of these reasons, Elissa all but dragged him out of the great hall by the ear. Her stiff skirts crackled and billowed in the open air, dragging behind her like a black sail as she walked at a clip too fast to be ladylike. Ladies floated. Lissa stormed. Though the lad’s coltish limbs gave him a foot on height over her, he struggled a little to keep pace. The perpetual smirk— the birthright of a noble son— slowly faded from his mouth. When at last they were truly alone, in a dusty corner of the brown garden, she unleashed her fury. “Just what were you thinking?”
“You blocked me easy,” Thomas answered, and was rewarded with a slap which rattled his teeth. There was too much of his father in him, too little of Nate. “Hey! It was a joke!”
“Grow up!” she snapped. “You nearly died tonight in front of your uncle. That would have been messy."
“The Lissie I knew would have laughed!”
“That was seven years ago. Before—”
“Before Nathaniel, and all that shit. I know.” He looked glum. “You were supposed to become my sister.”
Elissa exhaled. “I still am. As long as we have Lachlan, we’re family.”
“Some fucked up family.” He kicked a patch of weeds. “Delilah’s in trouble.”
“I know. I knew from the moment I saw you. What’s happened?”
Thomas quickly laid out the tale. Queen Anora and all her ladies-in-waiting were under close watch, kept confined to the Royal Palace or to the Kendells Estate, which now belonged to Rendon. Like a maelstrom, Rendon Howe was swallowing Denerim. Their post was intercepted and read. Their servants had been largely replaced by Howe staff. All under the guise of protecting them from the nefarious agents of the Grey Wardens.
“Loghain allows this?”
“He doesn’t care. He’s up to his neck in this civil war you’ve started.”
“That wasn’t me. That was Loghain— the regicide.”
Thomas shook his head, clearly not believing her. “They’ll have a new son of Maric to champion, and then what? What happens to the Howes when Denerim falls to your armies?”
“What do you want me to do, Thomas?”
He stood a little straighter. “I’ve come to negotiate terms. For Sister and myself.”
“We’ll forswear Highever and Denerim. Leave us Amaranthine. Leave us what Queen Moira did for my Great-Uncle Byron, after my grandfather sided with Orlais.”
“It’s not mine to give. That power belongs to Alistair.”
He scoffed. “They will make you queen long before they’ll crown your bodyguard. Shield-bearer. Bed-warmer."
"Don't be crude."
"Whatever he is to you. You’ve got blood rights. Legitimate. But we need our home, too.”
She frowned at that. Then she closed her eyes. She thought of Amaranthine City, the blue diamond glittering on the turbulent sea. She thought of Nathaniel, though that pain was too much to dwell upon. And for a moment she felt merciful. “Two terms, Thomas. One, you swear fealty to Prince Alistair. Two, you get Lachlan Gilmore out of Fort Drakon alive. Then I will spare you, and your siblings, from what is coming to your father.”
“Nathaniel, too?” Thomas said, with surprise.
“Especially him,” Elissa agreed. "Let him know his exile is over. He can come home."
Sorry this took so long. I've been struggling with a chronic illness. Thanks for reading and for everyone who comments. Next chapter, we get away from here and on with the game!
Chapter 8: Pages (Elissa)
It took hours to hammer out the details of their grand plot. Some would call it Ferelden’s liberation. Others would call it high treason. Gold would be filtered through certain hands and used to arm and supply the Warden’s army. None of it could pass directly to the Grey Wardens. First Enchanter Irving and Knight-Commander Greagoir of Kinloch would be funded by Bann Teagan, and First Enchanter Jendrik of Jainen could call upon his patroness Bann Alfstanna should the moment arise. Leonas Bryland agreed to return to Keeper Lanaya and do his damndest to hold together the uneasy coalition between Cailan’s army and the Dalish. Nell Mac Eanraig was more than ready to mobilize her flotilla, and gleefully planned to lay siege upon Highever Towne and Amaranthine City. Half of the Fereldan fleet belonged to Nell alone, which really said less about her and more about the pitiful state of the kingdom’s navy. But that was a problem for another day.
Lord Loren Eremon begged for his life. When Elissa was inclined to be merciful, if only in appearance, he spilled everything he knew with a look of gratitude in his eyes. His story was roughly this:
Knight-Lieutenant Irminric Eremon, Alfstanna’s older brother and Loren’s cousin, was a mage hunter of the Templar Order. He had been given a particularly dangerous assignment-- to retrieve a blood mage called Jowan. One night near Redcliffe, travelling alone, Irminric inquired about Jowan to the wrong person. This man worked for Loghain. At first it appeared as if the Lieutenant had simply vanished. A dozen or so other knights in the region had met similar fates, to bandits and ill fortune. No one would have been the wiser.
Then, a strange letter came to Oswin. Enclosed in a package was a heavy family ring, engraved with the wheel of a ship. The accompanying message demanded an old man in Loren’s custody in trade for the owner of that ring. The old man was a king’s confidant, a fact which was only discovered as Ser Elric lay dying. Desperate for a second chance, Loren wrote again to Irminric’s kidnappers. The order returned that he should murder his fellow conspirators. Though he had been sorely frightened by this command, he was not a fool. He had learned two things. One, Rendon Howe held Irminric. Two, Rendon was running scared.
Daybreak had long come before Elissa Cousland shuffled back to the guest quarters of Caer Oswin, lead by a young elven woman wearing a pretty apron. The pale yellow cloth was embroidered with a pattern of wildflowers-- the orange and white petals of Andraste’s Grace, the gold and crimson trumpets of the Lilies of Sylaise, the blue bells of Crystal Grace. Peeking from the pocket of her apron was a starched white handkerchief, stiff as a sail, with a flash of blue stitched into the corner. It took Elissa several glances before she recognized the mark as a delicate teardrop. Her eyes rose, questioning.
“For you, my lady,” the servant answered, only when they were behind a closed door. Her voice was unexpectedly resolute. “We wear them for Highever’s grief. ”
Elissa clasped her hands together and nodded. “Were you friends with Iona?”
The woman let surprise register on her face. “I did not expect you to know her name, my lady. But yes, she was my cousin.”
“I knew her only a little, I’m afraid.”
Lissa thought of small hands, painted fingernails, eyes bluer than Crystal Grace. Iona was dead. She’d taken the first arrow through Lissa’s open bedchamber door. The archer had taken his time with a second shot, drawing an arrow from his quiver, preparing almost languidly to pin her to the floor. All the time in the world, and she a helpless doe. But Lissa would not die like that. With a wordless scream, she threw herself at him before he could raise his bow. Lissa, clad only in a flowing white shift, had strangled that man with her bare hands.
It took powerful hands to crush a larynx, but assassin’s hands knew to press upon the artery. When he staggered, she’d found the dagger at his belt and gutted him. She’d watched the life bleed from his wide eyes. Her first kill. Iona’s death was that first spark of fury which had twisted her into the person she was now. A stranger she hardly recognized. The Warden. By the time Duncan found her, her dress was stained so red it was nearly black.
Lissa staggered out of the memory. Iona’s cousin was waiting. She looked like she wanted something. “I am sorry for your loss,” Lissa said, feeling impotent and tired. “What is your name?”
“Roshia.” The elf bent down deep into the stone tub and tapped a series of runes in succession, to draw up the bath. Lissa watched with interest as hot water sprang from nothingness; such magic was still an unusual luxury, even for the nobility. A single rune crafted by the Tranquil might cost as much as a fine sword or a year of wages. Roshia opened a bottle of perfumed oil and added it to the water with a deft swirl. It smelled of violets. “If you do not mind me saying, Your Grace, in my experience your sort does not remember our names.”
“Shems,” the elf clarified, wrinkling her nose.
“If you do not mind me saying,” Roshia repeated, significantly. “Or if you prefer, I can find your maid for you. That Orlesian.”
Elissa rubbed her cheek. “Stay. Of course you can speak freely.” Roshia slipped behind her to help her undress.
“Thank you, my lady. Only our Iona had a daughter.”
“I think I remember. Iona said she lived in an alienage? I’m afraid her name is lost to me.”
“Amethyne. She lives in the capital.”
“Yes, that was it,” Lissa agreed, breathing deeply as Roshia loosened her stays. The rush of blood under her skin made her body tingle. It was a painful sort of relief. “She wanted Amethyne to be raised among her own kind.”
Roshia sucked in breath. Her accent was northern, with just a trace of that lilting speech common in elven communities. But of course, Iona’s family had been in service to the Mac Eanraigs for generations. Landra had brought them into her second marriage; Loren had nothing. Roshia sounded quite like the kitchen staff at Castle Cousland, to Lissa’s ear. The longer she spoke, the broader her accent became.
“That was what she told people,” she said. “Truth be told, Iona could not afford to keep her. No husband to speak of, and no one with the time here to mind a babe underfoot. Iona was so proud of her elevated position, being a real lady’s maid to the Mistress and all. Learned to read, even joined in the salons. She thought some day Amethyne might be something, too. So she wrote to a child-keeper in Denerim and sent the babe away. Paid half her wages every month. Came to find out they sold the girl to some human woman.”
“Never!” Elissa gasped, clutching the front of her undone dress to her bosom. “What did she do?”
Roshia delicately shrugged. “Nothing, my lady. Couldn’t prove the child was hers. Just kept saying she would come back someday. But the girl must be ten years by now.”
“Maker’s breath. What can I do for you? I can write for you. Or…” She exhaled. “I’m sure Landra already tried everything I can think of.”
“Arl Kendells never answered the Mistress’s petition.”
“No, I rather imagine he did not. Urien never cared a whit about elves or the alienage, from what I remember.” She barely resisted the urge to babble out another apology. That would not be helpful. “Do you know who the human woman might be?”
“The Mistress discovered it. Lady Taraline. Sickness took her last year, but before we could collect her, the child bolted. Was even set to inherit a big house and the money with it. I’m not sure she understood. Raised by a shem-- begging yer pardon-- who knows what lies they filled her head with? She did not go back to the alienage. An elven girl on the streets is bound for trouble. Especially lately, things are bad in Denerim. I--” She hesitated. “I asked some friends to find her. But they need payment.” With this she produced a small painted box from her pocket and set it on the table. “It’s not something I can do. But you are a highborn human. I think you might go to Denerim. And you will give them this?”
“What sort of friends are these?”
“The helpful sort. They call themselves the Friends of Red Jenny.”
“Red Jenny?” Lissa repeated dubiously. What a strange name. “Who’s that?”
“No idea. Nobody knows.”
“Because you want to help,” Roshia said, as though it was obvious. “You’re the Warden.”
It was an ordinary sort of box, painted white with gold leaf filigree on the lid in an Orlesian style. When it was new, it was probably expensive, but the paint had worn away with time and use. Big enough to hold snuff or coins or-- as she suspected-- papers of value. There was a scratched up lock on the front.
After Roshia left, and Elissa had her bath and breakfast in silence, she sat on the edge of the bed with the box in her lap. Unfurled on the bedspread beside her was her lockpicking kit. If she was going to be a courier, she wanted to know just what it was that she was carrying. She spent a few minutes playing with the lock, for she had grown rusty with Leliana on hand to handle these kinds of tasks, but was eventually rewarded with a soft click.
The lid came open at her touch. Inside were ten sovereigns, and a slip of paper with a list of names on it. Two columns, at least eighty or so people recorded. She puzzled it over, wondering who they might be. Traitors? Allies? Confederates of Roshia’s ‘friends’? Or something else altogether? What would the consequences of naming these people be? Where had the box come from? Resigned to pick Leliana’s brain, she began to replace the paper, when a particular block of names leapt out at her--
--and she knew at once what this must be. She’d heard the Solona’s story on the night she’d shared it with Alistair. ‘Magi from noble families,’ Lissa thought. ‘Shit.’ That meant that the scrawled I.R.T. which signed the page must be First Enchanter Irving. Elissa closed the box with a furious snap, rose from the bed, and fetched writing supplies from her pack.
S & C--
How secret are m families kept? Interested parties inquire. Red Jenny?
To the rookery, then. She flung open her trunk in search of her dressing gown, and discovered something she’d forgotten. It was a piece of vellum, jagged on one edge. It had been torn carefully from a book and then folded over twice. She unfurled it, humming to herself when she realized it was not a copy, as she had expected. Rather, this was the original page from Mother Ailis’s record book, in the dead priestess’s own hand.
Elissa read it. And read it again. It did not make sense. Her brain felt like it was full of swarming insects.
The Records of the Palace Chapel Certify, in the Year of the Maker 9:10 Dragon, that a Son was Dedicated before Andraste’s Holy Fire and Named Alistair Fionn Theirin, of King Maric the Savior and Warden Fiona.
Said Record is signed by Rev. Mother Ailis and witnessed by Warden Duncan.
This could not be right. And yet, there it was, in elegant scrawl, so tiny and precise her tired eyes strained to read it. The Guerrins had lied.
Almost by instinct, she returned to the table, selected a fresh sheet of paper, and dipped her quill in the ink. She began, and hesitated when she realized what she was doing. She could not come right out and ask about the woman who might be Alistair’s mother. Carefully, she composed what she hoped was a convincing lie.
We have come across some old Warden records from the year King Maric allowed our order back into Ferelden. We think these may be useful in persuading the Queen to supersede the Regent’s standing order regarding Grey Wardens in this kingdom.
We wondered if any of Warden-Commander Duncan’s company from those days might still be alive? Perhaps Warden Fiona? Any information you have is, as always, invaluable in our fight against the Blight.
Acting Warden-Commander Cousland
Before she could second guess herself, Lissa sealed up both missives, addressed them with a scratch of the nub, and shoved them in the pocket of her dressing gown. The blue wax was still warm against her thigh. She tried to convince herself to venture out into the castle, to find the tall, winding staircase which lead up to the rookery, but she found herself sitting back down on the soft edge of the straw mattress. She just needed to close her eyes. Ten minutes, she promised herself, and then she would get up.
Her eyes slipped closed. The pale light through the thin window turned her vision pink behind her eyelids. The air smelled sweetly of pine trees.
And then there was a voice. She felt the bed shift but could barely open her eyes. The lids were so heavy, and she was terribly thirsty. She blinked, and blinked again slower. It was dark, but for a solitary candle far off on the table. Beams of light shot out of a single point, in the shape of a golden compass rose. “You don’t have to wake up,” said the pleasant voice. Fingers brushed her fringe off of her forehead.
“Alistair,” she sighed in recognition, letting her eyes fall shut again. She was sweating. Her nightgown clung to her skin, and her dressing gown felt as heavy as a fur pelt.
“That’s me,” he confirmed, and he kissed her forehead. His lips felt cold against her skin.
“How long have I been asleep?”
“The day, and part of the night. The dawn will come ‘round again soon.”
Lissa groaned, and tried to sit up, but immediately she was struck by wooziness, and she sank hopelessly back into the thin pillow. “Why did no one wake me?”
“You were fevered. We thought you should rest while you have the chance. Things are... I’ve been here most of the time. Leliana made me duck out whenever the servants got near, but I don’t think we fooled anyone.”
She moved closer to him, so that he could wrap his arms around her. “I think I dreamed about the archdemon.”
“I know. I was lucky enough to experience it through you. Awake. That was brilliant,” he chuckled sarcastically. “There I was, minding my own business, reading a book, and then everything was suddenly all loud and nasty. I’m not sure that the bind and the Joining are compatible magicks.”
“Is it one sided?” she asked, frowning.
“No, they can feel us, too, if we get close enough.”
“Not the darkspawn. I mean-- the soulbind. We know I’m not as sensitive to it as you are.”
“That’s not true. You block me out.”
It was hardly fair, she thought, that it came so easily to him. Opening herself to him felt… well. It was dangerous. It was unnatural. What if she let her guard down too far and a demon slipped in? What if she became genuinely vulnerable to his feelings for her and she could not put the walls back up again? “Not on purpose. It just happens,” Lissa said stubbornly. That was only half-true.
Alistair went quiet. He brushed his fingers along the bony ridges of her spine, sending pleasurable frisson across the whole of her back.
“Do you want me to try?” she asked. He did not answer in words. Just a gentle touch.
She squeezed her eyes shut, and tried to reach out to him with only her mind. She tried to picture-- feeling ridiculous at her own lack of imagination-- ghostly fingers stretching out and touching his chest in the dark. At first, there was nothing. Then a cold pit of dread balled up in her stomach. He was frightened. Or was that her? She could hear the drums of two hearts beating separate tattoos-- pleasepleasepleaseplease. She pressed a little deeper and felt something like warm bath water closing over her head.
Lissa opened her eyes. The water was deep and green. Alistair floated in front of her. Little bubbles spilled from his mouth, drifting up into a bright patch above them. She clapped her hand to her mouth, thinking that she was going to drown, but he shook his head at her panic. Fractals of sunlight bounced off his face. “You’re safe,” she heard him say, clearly, from inside her own head. His lips did not move.
“How are you doing that?”
“I am trying not to think about it, actually. Could be like a flying dream. If you think too hard you will fall.”
“Are we in the Fade?”
He shrugged, and pointed down. She saw a strand of light. No. It was a rope? Or a cord. Golden, drifting between their bodies, connected at the center of their chests. There was no mark where it penetrated. No scar. No pain. No way of telling it was not just a trick of the light. She thought if she tried to touch it, her hand would pass straight through.
“Is that the soulbind?”
“It’s sort of beautiful,” she admitted, admiring the glow. “Not at all like ghostly fingers.”
“Never mind. Is this magic?”
“But you’re not afraid?”
“I’m not alone,” he answered cryptically.
Below was dark and fathomless. He smiled at her. Maker, he really trusted her. Nobody…
She did not deserve…
Inky tendrils of black water swirled around her, pulling at her legs. “What is that? That loathing ?” he asked, reaching out and pulling her closer. “I feel it from you all the time.”
“Don’t!” she cried, struggling to push him clear of the dark. It wasn’t rising. She was sinking. “I don’t want to drag you down!” She kicked her legs. Why was she so heavy? She looked down again and saw her dressing gown had transformed into white dress. Layers of tulle and satin floated like a froth of sea foam around her. It was her debutante gown. She gasped. A large bubble of air slipped free of her mouth.
“Lissie!” He was somewhere above her.
“Stop it! I don’t want this! Alistair!” Where had he gone? She could not see anything. Her ears popped under the tremendous pressure. A sound louder than thunder. Something wrenched her arm from above. And then she was heaving for breath, choking and sputtering, struggling under the weight of his arms. Bed.
“You’re safe. You’re safe. I pulled us out,” Alistair said frantically, half to reassure himself. “I’m sorry.”
Blood was leaking from her left ear. She croaked, “What the fuck was that?”
“Magic. I pushed too hard. I should have never-- I thought I could control it.”
He stopped rocking her. “Since I was nine.”
“Nine,” she repeated. “Huh.”
He winced. “I…”
“Will you do that again?”
“No,” he hastily assured her. “Never again.”
“Then it’s fine. I don’t care.”
Alistair shivered miserably.
“No, I mean, I do care. Obviously.” She could just kick herself. “You’re a mage?”
“Yes and no. They think I’m something called a Seeker. Not a mage, not a templar, but something in between.”
“Oh. Forgive me. That’s a lot to take in.”
“I know. I know and that’s why I try to keep it under wraps. It’s too much, I think. Half the time I’m scared to death of myself so I would not really be surprised if you were, too. Scared, I mean.”
"Who else knows?"
"Cullen. Solona. Morrigan. They all found out at once. Adelaide, from when I was a kid. Possibly Arl Eamon. I can't be sure. Can't ask him. But it doesn't change anything. I'm still me. Right?" He did not sound convinced himself.
No. It was too much to think of. Magic. Damn the templars and the mages and the Maker for making them and the Chantry for making stupid laws about them. "No one else can know, Alistair," she said gravely. "I mean it. You were right not to tell people. It would ruin everything we're trying to build. And I… I do not know. I'm not angry, but I need a little time to think. Please allow me that."
He retreated. She saw the fragile, hopeful light in his eyes snuff out. "Of course," he said without emotion. "Take all the time you need."
They lingered like that in the darkness for a while. The candle burned down, and then burned out. She rested lightly in his tentative embrace, and listened to the erratic sound of his breathing. Every time she moved, he flinched. His breath stuttered in his chest. Still waiting for her to make up her mind. It had taken him tremendous strength to tell her. She could see why he thought she would reject him. She could not be sure she would not. It was a lot to take in.
Maybe, she thought, it would be better to break it off with him now, rather than later. 'Do it swift,' she told herself. 'A sharp blade hurts less than a dull one.'
Maybe they were not so different after all. Two screwed up souls linked in the dying light.
"What are you thinking?" she asked, when it became obvious that neither would sleep again.
"Er. I have a middle name. Fionn. I never heard it before yesterday. It… It never ever occurred to me that Maric might have named me. My mother died in the birthing bed." She heard him fumble for his mother's amulet. He never took it off. "I thought Uncle Eamon… or someone… I was never supposed to... " His breath hitched. "They really just might make me king."
All this time, she had been so determined to drag him kicking and screaming into his destiny. How was she any better than them? "I discovered something today. Or yesterday, now? Either way."
"Uh oh. That's your 'I've got a nasty surprise' voice." He grinned weakly.
"They lied to you about your mother."
"Her name was not Rhona. It was Fiona."
He swallowed. "So I misremembered. The names sound alike. Rhona. Fiona. It's not like we ever talked about her. I asked a few times. It was... discouraged."
"It's more than just that. You might not have even been born in Redcliffe."
"Of course I was. What are you talking about?"
"You were dedicated in Denerim, in the palace."
"All that proves is they took me there when I was a baby." He sounded increasingly defensive. "Maybe Maric wanted to see me. Why wouldn't he? He went to the trouble of naming me as his son. All he ever did for me, but still. Isn't it the thought that counts?"
"Why are you doing this? Do you want to hurt me? Because it's working, Elissa."
"She was a Grey Warden!"
"No she wasn't! She was some poor girl who was dazzled into bed with a king and died for the trouble of it. I know she was. I have a sister who lost her, too, and she never answers my letters because I killed her mum!" He let out a hysterical laugh. "Leave it be. Leave my poor dead mum out of this."
She wished she had never brought it up. But it was hard to drop it now. "She was a Warden called Fiona. We both know Maric travelled with the Wardens the year before you were born. It fits. Duncan knew her. He had to've. He was the witness at your dedication."
"Duncan would have told me. Tell me why he wouldn't have told me?"
"I don't know." Lissa pressed a kiss to one of his balled up fists. "I wish I knew."
Chapter 9: Fruit (Solona)
Solona and Malika walked slowly behind the druffalo-pulled cart, staring at their boots as they picked their way over the refuse-flooded streets of Crestwood. The latter kept her hood pulled up over her head, covering the prominent Carta tattoo on her cheekbone. The air stank of garbage and rot; it was places like these which reminded Solona why Elissa Cousland always carried a nosegay. Ferelden was a foul place. Although she had spent her adult years in one of its Circles, Solona Amell still felt like a visitor in a foreign land. Disgusted, confused. Why did they throw their waste into the streets? In the Free Marches there were sewers beneath the cities to carry it away. Women did not have to go about their lives with their hems— not to mention their children— caked in excrement.
The houses in Crestwood were elevated like in Redcliffe, but on stone foundations rather than on wooden piers. The roads, if you could call them that, snaked around each stone island, with tall braziers dotted about for evening illumination. The largest of these was the home of the village mayor, Gregory Dedrick, but all these constructions seemed small in the shadow of the great dam.
The mage pressed a handkerchief against her nose and lips. A wave of nausea passed over her in a noxious tide. When she felt more herself again, Solona pointed upward to the dam. “Why build it?” she asked, a little in awe of the scale of such a project.
“Dwarves with plans,” Malika Cadash scoffed. “There are Deep Roads right below the surface all over these lands. Half the caves in Crestwood poke down into the dark. The Carta makes use of them where we can. That bolthole you found was one in a dozen. Some king tried to connect Thaig Aeducan with the lost kingdom of Gundaar. It wasn’t lost back then, if you know what I mean. Anyway, this king tried to build a great hall right under this here lake and flooded the shit out of his glorious pet project. So what does a king do?”
“Build a dam to hold back the waters?”
“Exactly! Crazy fucker. Those builders would have been clutching onto their boots, afraid they were going to fall up into the sky. But a king said so.”
“And the village? Is it dwarven, too?”
“Nah. Lot of ores were exposed when the water were redirected. The Rusted Horn used to be miners’ barracks before it was an inn. And there were farmers, to feed the miners. But no village— at least in name— until Caer Bronach was built.”
“You know quite a bit.”
“I’m not a local, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m a Marcher like yourself.” She inclined her head. “But I ask around. People were more chatty before the caer was abandoned.”
“The soldiers are gone?”
“The Bann of the Waking Sea got spooked by the business on Lake Calenhad. Pulled her soldiers, templars, knights, what-have-you, back to Jainen. People with common sense went with them. Only the stubborn ones are left in Crestwood. Maybe they’ll get lucky and Howe will pass them by.”
“You think Howe will come here?”
“No doubt in my mind that his army are on the way.” The dwarf sniffed, and lowered her voice so that Solona had to strain to hear it. “Everyone knows by now that Bann Alfstanna and her cousin hosted the Warden and the Rebel Prince.”
Solona thought quickly to the terse missive she had received from Caer Oswin.
How secret are m families kept? Interested parties inquire. Red Jenny?
Solona had no answer to Elissa’s strange questions. But they were bound for Jainen, too. If the gossip was true and the bann had a fresh fear of mages, great enough to pull her men from every garrison, how much danger were they heading for? Alistair had been so certain that Alfstanna Eremon could get the mage children to Kirkwall. But what if this was no longer the case?
Was Elissa asking if they had maintained their cover? Or did Alfstanna need their names to let them pass into her city? Who were the interested parties she referenced? And who in the Maker’s name was Red Jenny?
The cart came to a halt outside the ramshackle flour mill. The druffalo driver shouted a greeting and the door opened. Out came Cullen, flanked by two other young men— Patrick, the miller’s son, and Robert the wheelwright. All three were strapping in their work clothes, and Solona found herself staring as they descended the staircase and set to retrieving the wagonload of Redcliffe grain.
Cullen pulled a heavy sack, which was easily half her size, from the top of the stack. With a heave he slung it over his left shoulder, muscles rippling. Solona softly hissed in a breath. He made it look far easier than it should have been. She waited for him to say something to her. He only offered a bland, disinterested gaze in her direction.
The words came bubbling out unbidden. “I came to help.”
“No.” There was a flicker in the muscle in his cheek.
She ground her heel into the cobblestone. “If you are afraid it will taint the grain—”
“No.” It was said just as calmly. As hard as he slipped his mask back on, she was sure there was something there. Her stomach rose in her chest. Anger was better than disinterest. She could never bear to be invisible to him.
Cullen turned away from her, and began to climb back up the stairs to the mill. A sweaty feeling prickled on her palms, and queasiness churned in her throat that had nothing to do with the stink of Crestwood. Why was she doing this? She had a very present need to keep him at arm‘s length. But she desired…
Impulsively she lifted her fist, and a sack of grain levitated out of the cart, startling the miller’s son. To the void with them. She could be like Morrigan! But despite all her bluster, force magic was new to her. She had never used it but on accident, and that was just the once. The control it took to send the sack flying up the staircase without a staff in her hands felt like straining an already injured muscle. It knocked the wind right out of her. Solona grimaced as the sack splattered into the ground just beyond the threshold of the mill. It burst down the seam like an overripe gourd, sending raw kernels spilling across the floor.
Cullen whipped around at the top of the stairs. “That is what you call helping ?” he said in disbelief.
Solona gripped the edge of the cart, steadying her trembling hands. “Yes.”
His eyes were as big as two saucers. “Did you mean to aim it at my head?”
Solona wanted to laugh. “Yes,” she choked out. “I missed."
I had never heard of a ‘Red Jenny.’ They are neither a mage fraternity nor templar brotherhood. Alistair could have told you that. But I believe I have found you an answer nevertheless. Have you been poking around in closets? Under beds? Red Jenny is a boogeyman— a entity which exists to scare misbehaving nobles. Spoils the wine, or ruins your party. A trickster demon and a thief.
At least, that is what they tell me. Could not say what that might have to do with mages, but I find the notion unsettling.
We met a Carta dwarf who calls herself Cadash. The name stirred up a most unsettling response from Wynne’s golem friend. Normally it is rather broody, is it not? But upon hearing ‘Cadash', Shale began to bellow and to stomp about, which frightened the children. Malika Cadash then proceeded to laugh, evidently finding the exchange delightful. I wondered aloud if all the golems are so erratic. She could not tell me. Shale is her first encounter with such a construct.
I’m digressing. The families are kept very secret, but they are scrutinized by their local templars until all the children reach the age of maturity. Magic runs in the blood. Sometimes it seems to pop up spontaneously, but it is presumed there was an apostate secreted away in the family tree. The Tevinter have studied that topic ad nauseum, but they would not let us read that sort of literature.
Message from Cadash?
“Bhelen or Pyral for Orzammar.”
The princess was ‘returned to the stone’, as they say, this morning.
After a time, the soft childish patters of footfalls upon the dirt road became not unlike the sound of slippered feet on stone floors. If Solona closed her eyes when the wind grew still, she could swear that the tower walls had sprung up around her once more. That the low, moss-covered walls of rough rock, or the tall hedges which divided the farmers’ brown and trampled fields from the king’s highway could metamorphose into Kinloch at any moment.
She hardly trusted her freedom. It was a bitter taste upon her tongue.
Solona studied the women who shepherded the mage children northward. Some had an air of false confidence. Those were the hedge mages. They had learned to act in a certain manner, in their earliest days, to escape detection by the Chantry. Others kept their cloaks drawn close around their bodies, and never slept more than one night in the same place. They were the runaways. And the last category were the mothers. They had pinched, sallow cheeks, hungry bellies, frightened mouths. Always with a pocket full of bread and wild greens, though they rarely ate. They took one look at Solona’s burgeoning belly and embraced her as one of their own, which left her feeling left-footed and embarrassed. How was she meant to behave around these women?
She could only read pity in their gentle smiles. An ordinary woman who had lived an ordinary sort of life might have been comforted. But such was not to be a mage’s life.
If she strained, she could remember a brief flash of her own mother. Something of her perfume, left behind on an abandoned pillow— oranges and smoke. Black hairs left in a hairbrush. Solona knew what Revka looked like from the painting looming in the hall in their Kirkwall estate. Fair skin, almond shaped eyes, a heavy gown of blue taffeta. A faint look of disapproval beneath winged eyebrows. Katarina had taken her handsome looks. Solona took after her Papa. She tried to imagine Revka in the flesh, wearing the pinched look of one of these women. But when she pressed herself she could remember only the feel of brown paper under her fingertips, on the day the servants packed Mama’s portrait away.
The children were always hungry. They had learned that Malika still had coin in her purse and they swarmed about her at mealtimes, trading crowns of fern fronds and pine cones for pennies. Two coppers bought a sausage with not too much green on it; three bought a nicer one and a crust of bread. Crestwood’s tavern reeked of damp. The hand painted sign hanging on the wall boasted of the days when food was cheap and plentiful— cold ale, mutton pie, Antivan brandy, wyvern steak, chicken.
Only a few farmers had come to sell their harvest this year. Cullen muttered something dark about ergot poisoning and only let the children eat bread baked from their own supply. The village ovens roared with hot coals once more, and in the midweek the women baked round, squat loaves of dark bread with only a little burn on the bottom of the crust. Solona learned to knead dough, and when her fingers were swollen stiff with the effort, she practiced doing it with magic.
The mothers of mages were strangely grateful to see her use magic in the mundane. When Wynne and Shale left to rejoin the Warden, Solona and Evelina took over teaching the children simple spells— warming, drying, purifying water. None of the young ones had any formal training. That is to say, Circle training, for she had come to understand that the apostates knew more practical magic than she did. She knew nothing of poisonous plants, precious little of brewing potions, nothing that could help her soothe a rabid animal or halt a giant spider. She knew how to destroy. She knew how to kill. Fire was as natural as drawing breath. She knew clearly, for the first time in her life, that she was nothing but the Chantry’s weapon. No wonder the templars were afraid.
After the incident with the grain, Solona and Cullen were on wobbly footing. Nearly friends, she thought. The ache in her midsection when he was near her had lessened to a soft twinge. One morning, six weeks into their stay in Crestwood, Cullen came back to the tavern with a sharp crease in the corners of his mouth and a stormcloud in his eyes.
“We need to leave,” he announced, swinging one leg over to straddle the bench she sat upon. “What’s that you’re eating?”
Solona gave a reluctant half-glance downward into the bowl of lumpy gray… stuff. “Sausage gravy, I think. Salty. Better not to look at it.”
“Better not to eat it.”
“I never pass up a hot breakfast.”
“You never keep down a hot breakfast. What happened to the wild peaches I found you?”
“They were tart. I gave them away to the children.”
“I climbed to the top of a tree for that fruit.”
“You shouldn’t have.”
“I fell on my— ahem— for you.”
“You really shouldn’t have. Cullen, is it Mayor Dedrick?”
“Damn.” She placed her head in her hands. “All of us?”
“Yes. He threatened to turn you in to the Regent’s men or to the Chantry, whoever would come first.”
“But we paid! That grain should have bought us safe harbor until the spring.”
“I argued that very point. Best as I can tell, he’s changed his mind.”
She snapped to her feet, nostrils flaring: “I could kill him!” Her back twinged violently, and she hissed, cupping her hips with her hands.
Cullen’s hand slipped to the small of her back. His eyes were hooded. “If I thought it would help, I would have done it myself.”
She pushed him away, but reluctantly. “The children cannot walk in the deep snow!”
“All the more reason to strike for the coast before it gets much colder. We may have to borrow some shoes from the mayor.”
“Promise me we’ll never return them?”
The corner of his mouth turned up into a feral smile. “I promise.” His hand settled on her shoulder. This time she leaned into the touch. "I cannot see why we would ever give a damn about Crestwood ever again."
Chapter 10: Nothing (Solona)
There was nothing that could have been done for the blighted princess. 'Nothing,' Solona Amell thought, wrapping that nihilistic promise around herself like a cloak. 'It was out of our hands from the start.' And yet, the icy sense of failure leached into her bones. Maker, she could not abide feeling helpless!
Solona carried with her a placard, hammered out of a thin sheet of bronze— Lady Sereda Aeducan, Princess of Orzammar. She could read the words with her fingertips through the cloth wrapping. The smith in Crestwood had been heavy handed with his lettering. Common seemed crude when compared to the precise runes which usually decorated dwarven monuments, but she supposed it was better than most people got these days.
Malika Cadash had mirthlessly suggested a second line— Fratricide. Died in the Fifth Blight. It would complete the story of the late princess, at least as would be recorded in the Memories. Especially, it stood to reason, if Sereda's brother Bhelen won his claim on the throne of the lower realm. Despite the intrinsic distrust surfacers carried for the ways of Orzammar, Cadash paid for the burial out of her own purse. A half dozen men fought amongst themselves for the chance at a week's wages. Hekkat Hall, the once-forgotten dwarven outpost beneath Crestwood's mines, saw one more Aeducan returned to its stone.
The entrance to the mines was an old cave, perched in the outskirts of the village. The mouth yawned large and black; it glistened wetly with flecks of ore. Refined stormheart was a pale aqua, the color of a frothy sea, living up to its name. Try as she might, Solona could not compel her feet to cross the threshold of the cave. In the torchlight she could see far enough inside to discern what appeared to be a hungry maw— the dark spiral of wooden platforms descended into the void. Over and over, she twisted it around in her mind.
"Will you go down?" Cullen asked suddenly, as if he had blinked out of the damp air. Her hand leapt to her heart in shock. "Oh! I thought you would hear me."
She offered him an embarrassed laugh, and looked down at her boots, where the toes dug holes into the wet gravel. "I was thinking too loudly."
"I see. My apologies for disturbing you."
"No, Cullen, I should be grateful to you. I've been rooted here trying to decide what to do. So much so, I think that petrification is setting in." She gave her foot an experimental shake, wincing when it twinged. The pain spread up her leg from her ankle and settled in the nerves behind her hips. She resisted pressing a hand against her lower back, but worried that soon the weight of her pregnancy would leave her hobbled. "Do you need something?"
"The smith told me you collected Lady Aeducan's burial marker. I thought I might accompany you down to her tomb, if that is where you are going."
"Actually, I had hoped to run into Cadash along the way," Solona admitted. "I don't care much for dark places these days."
"Ah." He gave her an understanding nod, and did not press further.
Thoughtfully, she unwrapped the bundle in her hands. The linen cloth came away and fluttered to the ground. The bronze flashed in the light. The expense of the material alone was enormous. She wondered how the Carta would feel knowing their cache had paid to memorialize a banished noble. Perhaps they would be pleased at the irony. "Have you been inside?"
He nodded. "Once."
The back of her neck felt prickly and flushed in the chill air. This was the longest conversation Solona had managed with Cullen in days. "Is it true that there aren't any darkspawn in the Deep Roads right now? Have they really all come to the surface?" The Grey Warden amulet resting over her breastbone was cool and still, but she still felt jittery. Something was off with the Fade here, or else her senses deceived her. When she closed her eyes, she swore she could see flashes of green.
"There are collapses on either end of the hall, and debris seals it from the road. They saw nothing down there but a large colony of nugs, fortunately, or else the village would have been overrun in the spring."
"As it is, they crawl about the wooded hills. We've killed enough darkspawn to be honorary Grey Wardens. It's a small relief to know one source is sealed." She swallowed. "How did it turn out?"
"Well, they are just miners, not master masons." He gestured out a rectangular shape, that of a grave. The leather on his gloves was dull in the cloudy light, but she knew that in full sun they could gleam a burnished red. "They cut out a place where there were some other tombs. Other Aeducans, Cadash said, from long ago. It is rather marvellous, actually. Quarried stone was carted in from the northern coast. Volcanic aurum inlays the floor tiles in patterns of gold and black, and there are stained glass windows in the walls."
"Stained glass?" she repeated. "Whatever for?"
"I suppose for the same reasons we use it. Beauty with function."
"What does a templar know of beauty?" she challenged. Her nose crinkled when she grinned.
Cullen laughed at her tease. "Too much, actually. If you stand eight hours a day in full plate, everything begins to look beautiful." He ticked off with his fingers, "A chair. A cold drink. A smile…" Their eyes met, and it was natural, like it had once been. Cullen was the most attractive man she had ever met. That he was oblivious to his own charms only enhanced the effect. His blond curls were unfailingly unkempt, and he rarely managed to remember his shaving kit. People noticed him when they travelled. People had noticed him in the Circle.
She remembered how his stubble felt on her neck, and how his breath flashed hot against the shell of her ear, and how she lived on nothing but fond memories of his touch for stretches of days. It was hard enough to find time when they both might reasonably be alone, much less alone together.
Now she had the time but she could not—
"Tell me more about the Deep Roads," she said, tearing her gaze away. She stared down at her ragged fingernails. These weren't the soft, polished hands of a mage. Whose hands were these?
Cullen obliged, coloring slightly at her tactful rejection. "There were once glowing runes behind the glass, but they have all gone out. It must have looked like— like sunlight in a Chantry." He stepped back to lean against one of the wooden pillars propping the entrance to the cave system, and rubbed his elbow. "The Deep Roads are not what I once pictured. I thought there would be wilderness beyond Orzammar." He turned his hands upward and flat, weighing Orzammar in one palm and wilderness in the other. "Like mineshafts or perhaps burrows? But it is nothing like that. It feels like the nave of a cathedral stretched out a thousand miles."
"Stolen by darkspawn."
He hummed in agreement.
"Isn't it bizarre?"
"What do you mean?"
"We go to all this trouble because Sereda was a princess. As if the death of one princess was a particular tragedy, or as if... being a princess should have spared her."
"What are you getting at, Sola?"
"I don't know. A ghoul is not so different from an abomination, I think."
The old pillar wobbled when Cullen pushed against it. His sword jounced against his thigh, making a jingling noise she found unexpectedly comforting. "What does that matter now?"
She lifted her chin stubbornly in the air. "What matters is you agree."
"On the surface, I can see the similarities," Cullen rubbed a hand over his face.
"Either both deserve the rites of burial, or neither do."
"The Chantry says—" He stopped. "You must know— it is easier for me to fall back on the Chantry line, to think nothing but words drilled into my head. And when it gets too much, I am guilty of shutting it all out and falling back on the rote familiar. That is how I... cope. I am not a philosopher, Sola, just a soldier." He grimaced. "If that's not what you want, I can understand. But let it be a peaceful parting. Do not bully me to pieces." He stared glassily at her face, but with unseeing eyes. His pupils were a swallowing black in his amber eyes.
Gently, Solona laid her hand on Cullen's arm. "Walk with me?" she asked. "Knight-Lieutenant?"
Cullen nodded, quickly swiping at his eyes. She pretended for both their sakes not to notice. "Enchanter Amell." He slotted her hand into the crook of his arm. Only then did she notice how cold she was becoming, and how welcome his warmth.
"From now on, I think I'd prefer to be Enchanter Trevelyan."
"Of course." He seemed faintly bemused. "If you like, Enchanter Trevelyan."
"You knew?" Her mouth became a thin line. "All this time?"
"All the officers were briefed on your relation to the First Enchanter. 'There are no secrets in the Circle,' Knight-Commander Greagoir always said. Someone might have tried to leverage that information against Irving, if we did not know to watch for it."
"Maker's breath. First the Circle takes my name, then it acts as though it has done me some great favor."
Cullen's face fell. "I never said I agreed with any of it."
"But you were complicit! You could have told me at any time in the year we were together." Angrily, she picked up the pace of her step, practically dragging him along behind her as she gripped tightly to his arm.
"I was waiting for you to tell me! You told the others easily enough. Alistair knew practically from the start."
Solona did not care for what he was implying. "Because he's easy to talk to."
"It's impossible to talk to you!" She squeezed her eyes shut and immediately tripped on a protruding root. Cullen's right arm shot out to save her from the impending fall. He looked at her silently, wounded by her brash remark. "But that's neither here nor there," Solona sighed, trying to take it back without conceding her point. "As a Knight-Lieutenant of the Templar Order and an Enchanter of the Circle of Magi, we should have been on equal footing. But we never were."
His hand slid down her shoulder and lingered on her elbow. "So… the problem between us was in the balance of power? In the infrastructure of the Circle."
"Yes." She felt shockingly naked before his piercing gaze, but she was not afraid. She bit her lip. "It will always be so."
"What if it did not have to be?" he asked, again with that curiously disquieting stare.
"Only if we left the Circle." It dawned on her slowly, what his strange expression meant. "Maker, you mean to leave the Circle. You cannot be serious." Her head whipped around to see if anyone would overhear them. But they were completely alone, standing amidst the naked gray trees in the wooded hills.
"Why not?" he replied, so soft she had to read his lips to catch it. "We have a friend in the Carta now. The biggest impediment as I see it is finding a steady supply of lyrium."
Solona made a choking sound. "That's the impediment? Not the templar-fucking-hunters? I run and I'm an apostate all my days. Maybe they bring me back to a Circle. Maybe they'd send me to the Aenor."
"Our child is the reason the risk is worthwhile. Our child," Cullen repeated. His expression was resolute as he cupped her face. "Before I knew it existed, I stole your phylactery from the Grand Cleric's knights. I'd never let them catch you if you wanted to run."
"They'll hang you, Cullen." She exhaled shakily, and gave in to his touch.
"Even…" He swallowed unsteadily. "So I will hang. Do not look so surprised! I have always known the mage children are not going to Jainen for the Circle, but for the ships across the Waking Sea. I agreed to come fully knowing I was aiding apostates."
Something broke inside her. "Damn it, Cullen. You should have told me."
"I see that now. I thought I was protecting you."
"I don't need—"
"Let me try," he interrupted. "I know you can handle more darkspawn than I in a fight. I know how capable you are, and how brave. If you wish it, I will give you your phylactery and walk away. Let the choice be yours."
Her soul railed against the notion that there was nothing she could do. And here, Cullen offered her something. Solona did not believe she was as brave as he said. One hand wished to push him away, and the other needed to pull him to her like a shield. She wondered if he meant it— would he stop protecting her if she asked? He was still so entrenched in the thought patterns of a templar. How might she learn to trust him again?
Her rational mind said she could not have a family. She'd lost the right be a part of the world in the moment her magic erupted. She could not keep his child. If they survived the Blight, they would both go back to the Circle.
Her heart dared to want more.
The Frostbacks are a stupid place to be in winter. Gherlen's Pass closed up tighter than a templar's arsehole in the last storm, so we are stuck here until the local dwarves dig us out, barring some kind of intervention from the Maker. Lissie, me, Leliana, Zevran, Wynne, Shale, Sten, Barky, and Morrigan. You think you know cold until you have to share a tent with Morrigan in a snowstorm. Not exactly my idea of cozy. You get the picture. Frosty frost mage.
So get this— Sten has been looking all over the kingdom for his special soul-sword, Asala. He lost it up near the lake and losing it made him go crazy and murder a bunch of Reacher farmers. If you believe his story. I did not, at first, but Lis always takes this kind of thing v. seriously. She likes people to owe her favors. (Don't tell her I said that.) Anyway, Sten and Morrigan went off on their own to look for it while we were in Oswin. A battlefield scavenger sold it to a human merchant named Faryn, who trades almost exclusively with Orzammar.
Yadda yadda. We talked to Faryn today. Talk might not be the right word. Sten threatened to rip his arms off and Lis laughed. But it worked. Poor blighter spilled his guts. He sold it to a dwarf named Dwyn. Our same Dwyn from Redcliffe. Of course, I cannot remember him ever using anything but an axe. Sten wanted to turn around right away and go back, but we're stuck. That made him angry. Lis offered him a shovel and told him he could try and dig his way through the pass, or he could come with us to talk to the dwarves.
Soooo if my letters stop coming, I'm probably not dead yet, just lost. Duncan once told me the Deep Roads are "indescribable." At the time I was excited. Silly me.
Keep safe and mind the snow sneaking up on you,
The walls in the Dusty Gale Inn were plastered with curling sheets of yellow parchment. Solona studied them as she walked the perimeter of the common room. These were the names of the missing and the dead. The desperate pleas of families torn to pieces in the growing storm of war and Blight.
Has anyone seen…
Mother, we have passage for Kirkwall. There is a ticket saved in your name…
My brother Gershwin was in King Cailan's army last spring…
Please, help me find my sister and her children…
What had begun as a few frantic messages tacked onto the back of the Chanter's board had spread across every signpost, wall, and public space in Jainen. As the displaced Fereldans of the south flooded into Waking Sea, they carried with them the hope that they might find their lost loved ones already waiting for them.
Mia, Branson, Rosalie—
I am safe.
It was a message as taciturn as the man who left it. Solona smiled, quietly glad to have discovered it, though she had not known until that moment that she had been searching for it. In the mornings, Cullen went out by himself to walk the docks, as the winter sunlight broke up the heavy fog. He never said why, but she did not need to ask him.
The last anyone knew, the newly-orphaned Rutherford siblings had fled on horseback for the South Reach, just ahead of the horde of darkspawn which now split the southern half of the kingdom in twain. There was no telling if Mia or Branson or Rosalie had survived beyond their meeting with Matthias in Honnleath, especially the badly injured Bran. Likewise, there was no way to let them know Cullen had survived the culling at Lake Calenhad.
I am safe.
Cullen had not signed his name, she noticed. Perhaps this was done in fear that someday the Warden's companions would come down on the wrong side of history. If any lesson she had learned from the failure at Crestwood, it was thus: better to be anonymous. Days in Eremon lands had become twice perilous. Anyone, with the right persuasion, might become a Howe spy. The bann of the Storm Coast and her naval fleet were all that stood between Jainen and the civil war.
"Can I help you, missus?" inquired the mustachioed innkeeper when she reached the front of the line.
"Yes. How much to send a letter to Qarinus?"
He blinked. "Where?"
"Qarinus," Solona repeated clearly. "In the Imperium."
He considered this. "Two sovereigns."
"Two sovereigns?" she repeated in alarm. "It can't be that much!"
"There are no ships out of the city with Tevinter on their register, on account of all the magefolk trying to get out of Ferelden. Knight-Enchanter's orders, you see." He grimaced sympathetically. "Best that can be done is to get your letter on a ship bound for Jader or Cumberland and hope it gets past the pirates."
"I see. You were giving me a discount." She fished out the small fortune from her purse.
"Is it family?" he asked, appraising the weight of her purse at a glance.
"The person in Tevinter? Is it family?" He lowered his voice. "Because if you were someone who knew a mage, I know a smuggler who can get you settled in Lowtown for a reasonable price. He does good papers, too, good enough to fool Stannard. Just saying. You'll never make it to the Vints 'fore that babe comes."
Maker, was the word MAGE branded on her flesh? Solona gave him her best blank look, and slid an envelope labeled with the name and address of Halward Pavus across the wooden countertop. "Messere Pavus is my grandmother's cousin."
"Very good, missus. Anything else I can help you with?"
"You seem quite well informed. What have you heard?"
"Ah yes, you're the third who's asked this morning," the innkeeper chuckled, as he wrapped his hand with a towel and reached for the kettle hanging above the fire. He poured out heady smelling coffee into a mug; it set Solona's mouth watering. "Everyone's thirsty for a bit o' news. Drink?"
"Yes, please." She accepted the offering. She gripped the clay mug with both hands, letting the warmth seep into her hands. Blood rushed to her fingernails. It was not so cold in this part of the inn, but it was drafty, and even with a wool shawl it was all she could do to keep her growing belly warm. She longed, just a little, for the days of enchanted warmth, but could not risk using the spells herself.
Jainen City was lousy with templars.
"More nobles have pledged themselves to Prince Alistair. He holds most of the west, by my figuring. All but Edgehall and West Hill. The former 'cos Arl Lendon is dead and the latter 'cos Bann Franderel is right scared of Loghain. Our own Bann Alfstanna was one of the first to bend her knee to him, with Bann Nell soon after."
Solona listened intently, feigning ignorance where it suited her. "But where did this new prince come from?"
"I've heard all sorts of stories. Rumor was once that Cailan weren't Maric's rightful heir, and that the real son was simple or a mage, kept locked away in the palace. There was also a rumor that Maric and Rowan prefered the company of anyone but each other, if you know what I mean, missus." He winked. "Could be plenty of blond bastards running about with King Maric's face. The difference is this one is a true heir, recognized by the Chantry and all that. Queen Rowan's family raised him and the Chantry educated him in one of those templar schools, would you believe?"
"A prince raised a templar?" she scoffed. "The knights are telling tales."
"That's wot I said." He leaned forward. "Course, he's a Grey Warden. Folks say Loghain wanted to kill off all the Grey Wardens so there would be no competition for his daughter the Queen. That makes more sense to me than this templar stuff."
"Mmm," she agreed, chewing through a mouthful of coffee. The texture was not unlike wet sand; the dregs had boiled down. Real Antivan coffee, a luxury these days to be sure. In Redcliffe they served chicory and passed it off as something better. This was not better, per say, but it was something.
"Other folks says it's an Orlesian plot. How could a prince be kept secret until months after the death of his brother? The only heir a Warden, right when we need 'em most? Love to know that myself. Could the Empress start a Blight, even if she wanted to?"
"I doubt it," Solona shrugged. "I heard yesterday someone talking about the Warden. That he's rounding up recruits to fight what Loghain won't."
"She!" corrected the innkeeper gleefully. "You've really been under a rock if you don't know the Warden is a woman."
"How can a Grey Warden be a woman?"
"First one I've heard of. Figure that makes her a particular sort of mad, like all women in war. No one knows who she is. She comes and she kills what needs killing and then vanishes. Has to. Bounty on her head is sky high."
"Terrible nothing, missus! The Warden can handle herself! No one knows if they should beg her to save us, or turn her in for the reward money, but she's got mercenaries and assassins knocking down the doors of bounty hunters, so I'm content to keep to myself."
From the corner of her eye, she caught the door to the tavern blowing open. Solona set the mug back down on the counter, offered him some silver for his time, and wandered to the farthest table in the next room, cleanly out of the line of sight of the chatty innkeeper.
She gripped the edge of the table when she sat down, facing the wall. It was getting difficult to move freely, which gave this particular venture an added danger. She folded her hands, resting them on the globe of her stomach. She listened intently for footsteps, counting in her head to pass the time. After precisely two minutes, a traveller in a long cloak slipped around her to sit with his back to the wall.
He tugged down his hood, revealing a pale face with finely boned features, and a long ponytail of strawberry blond hair. "Andraste, you're as big as a whale!" Anders exclaimed, grinning and reaching across the table to grip her hands. "Is it Cullen's, you beast? You've broken my heart forever, you know. I saw him first."
"As if you had eyes for anyone but Karl," Solona replied, flashing him a genuine smile. "It's so good to see you, Anders."
"And you, Solona. When I got your message I thought, 'What is Solly doing in Jainen City, of all places, and not in her Circle like a good girl?' Actually, my first thought was to wonder how in the Void you found me. I had a good thing going before the whole city started crawling with templars and displaced mages."
"You heard about Kinloch?"
He sobered. "I did. Can't say I'm sorry to have missed that party. Do you know who survived?"
"Wynne, Petra, Kinnon, Finn, Godwin, Cera, Evelina, Sweeney, Torrin, Irving… and a few of the children. Keili… survived in body but not in mind. Of the tranquil, only Owain."
"So few?" he said, aghast. "I heard it was bad… but that is a massacre!"
"Not everyone was back from the Battle at Ostagar. I hold hope that they ran when they had the opportunity."
"Seventh time was the charm for me. Poor bastards. I see you took your own advice. But you did not mention the names of any templars. Please don't tell me Cullen…" Ander's face creased with concern, and he squeezed her hands.
She squeezed back. "He was tortured horribly by a desire demon for the better part of a week. But he survived."
Anders swore expressively.
"He spotted you two days ago in the lower market. It was his idea that we meet."
"He came with you? Good for the boy. How can I help?"
"We figure no one knows more about hunters than you, Anders. We got most of our friends on a boat to Kirkwall, but now they're checking for papers and I have none."
He frowned. "You are too obvious a target in your condition. Is it just you two? Do either of you have any family in Ferelden?"
"Just us," Solona nodded. "My cousins went to Kirkwall, Maker willing. They were in Lothering. Cullen's village was wiped out. But I have family and means beyond Ferelden. I've sent letters to the Trevelyans in Nevarra and Ostwick, the Amells in Kirkwall. Just now, the Pavuses in Qarinus."
"How do you know they won't be intercepted by the you-know-whats?"
"Oh. I thought this was clever." She shifted restlessly in her chair. "They all inquire about my health of my dead grandmother, and direct replies to my Aunt Lucille. She'll know what I mean. Name a city in the North and I have a family member living there."
"Cumberland," Anders said gamely.
"My twin brother, Max." Her face twisted. "I know. It might as well be Luna or Satina for the good it does me if I can't get on a ship."
Anders rapped his knuckles on the table. His fingers were oddly long, and chapped red from the winter air. He wore gloves with the fingers cut off, a dead giveaway to any other mage who saw him. "What you need is a horse."
Chapter 11: Sand (Alistair)
The hot drips of blood seemed to sizzle as they struck the sand. Alistair watched them fall, in a daze, forming red blossoms. The shoreline was white, the sand as bright as fresh snow. On his knees, he lifted one hand to catch the steady splash falling from his nose. ‘What?’ he thought. ‘How did I…’
With difficulty he scrambled to his feet. To his left, the sea churned, but it was conspicuously silent. His ears rang in the deafening quiet. As he climbed up the dune, his hands gripped at the beachgrass for leverage, for his bare toes sank deep into the shifting sand.
Beyond the dune stood a woman, apprising the blue-black waves as they crested the shore. She wore a long nightgown, sodden with blood. Her red hair fell in tangled curls to her waist, and she leaned on an old sword.
“You!” he called out, and was surprised that his voice carried loudly in this soundless void.
A pair of blue eyes, burning with cold fire, looked back at him. “Us,” the creature acknowledged, the thing-wearing-Elissa’s-skin. It was her voice but layered upon with something deep, which made the hair stand up all over his body. Sinister— so close that it seemed it was whispering as a lover, intimate against his ear. “We have been waiting for you, King Alistair.”
“Demon,” he acknowledged. Alistair carefully spat out a mouthful of blood. With every step in his approach, his head throbbed more painfully, like it was pressed on both sides by a vice. “I have no use for your games tonight. I came to see the other one.”
The demon smiled. There were far too many sharp, white teeth in her pretty mouth. The lips stretched unnaturally to accommodate the grin. Her voice reverberated in his skull. “Surely you do not dream to summon Death on these spectral shores. Have you come to die, my liege? No, no, no, I think it wants something far more pathetic.”
Alistair flinched back at the recrimination. It took him a moment to gather the facade of courage again. It was deathly important that he appear unflappable and calm before her. He knew this demon. In waking moments, he was unable to hang on to the threads, but in sleep the memories returned. Justice, corrupted. They had done this dance before. How many times, he could not say. “Would you tell me, Vengeance, if the woman… Does the spirit behind the mask look like my mother?”
“Grey Wardens, Grey Wardens!” cooed Vengeance, pivoting around the old Cousland sword in a blur. The blue flames licked at her bare feet, turning the sand to glass where she danced. “Delightful monsters. Justice are so entranced when we find them. So much purpose! Then, we become what we ought to be. You are our tutors, Grey Wardens. Teach us the purity of revenge!”
He sighed. “That does not answer my question.”
“Does it not? Answer ours first!” she hissed, tilting her head nearly a full ninety degrees. “Do you see us whispering behind the skin of your lady? Would you let us have her? She is not a mage— yet— but your essence, your lifeblood animates her. Your permission!”
“Never,” he croaked. But he needed to know. Was it too late?
“We would give her what she wants. We can give you more. A trade! The face of your true mother.” She stretched out her hand. “Her life, perhaps? We know it all.”
Alistair felt a smile form on his lips. “You must have very little to beg for such a lopsided bargain. I wondered if you had possessed Elissa, but I see you have not.”
The demon shreaked, a scream of pure frustration. “We are the Warden! We are her Vengeance.”
The dunes collapsed and Alistair lost his footing beneath the sound. He fell to one knee, clutching at his ears as they threatened to burst. “Not yet!”
“The desperation will come, King Alistair. In the Deep Roads, you will beg for us.”
Her sword was pulled free from its place in the sand, lifted two-handed above her blazing eyes. Desperation commanded him to move and he rolled, clumsily, dodging the first chop and ending up on his back. “Is that all? You are weak without the others.”
The demon gave pause, pulling her lank hair away from her face in a gesture that was startlingly humon. The tip of her sword dragged in the sand. She bared her teeth. “This is our place. They are not here to save you.” She hefted her weapon once more, struggling under the weight, perhaps unused to the form of the body she wore. Alistair struck out with his right fist; a lance of blue light pierced her abdomen.
Vengeance retreated, keening, slipping from the frame as a snake sheds its skin. “How will you know where one ends and the other begins?” it jeered.
Elissa gurgled, blood bubbling thickly from her mouth. Green eyes met him with a baffled expression. Her fingers mindlessly tried to piece together the hole rent in her stomach.
He woke up gasping, heart pounding from a formless nightmare. He chased it in his mind, but the memory was like fingers through smoke, formless and fading. ‘What?’ Alistair thought, flaking away the dried blood stiffening in his moustache with his fingers. As he sat up, he saw a small brown smear staining the bedroll. ‘Another nosebleed. Damn this cold air.’ He reached out beside him, searching for a warm body but coming up empty. He was alone.
The snow in Gherlen’s Pass came up to Alistair’s knees. It was a climb just to exit his tent. “Unusual weather,” the surface dwarves who lived at the gates of Orzammar muttered to each other in lieu of greeting, tramping past the Warden encampment in their wicker snowshoes. Goods and wares still trickled into the large, sheltered clearing which served as the above-ground market, but were now pulled by horse-and-sleigh instead of ox-and-wagon. Strange horses, too. Alistair had heard tales of the Avvar mounts from Master Dennet, but he had never seen one in person before. They were painted from tip to tail in patterns of crimson, white, or blue, and were tall enough that Sten might find a mount among them. The men of the mountains were rumored to be giants. The dwarves were— well— dwarfed by their horses.
After months of rationing and hunger, Alistair found he could while away the early morning by wandering from stall to stall, with a pocket full of roasted chestnuts dipped in spiced sugar. The flavor was bright and sweet, tasting of Alistair’s memories of Firstfall in the monastery. The acolytes would lift wire baskets full of nuts over the braziers in the chantry; for once the Sisters turned a blind eye to their games. The services were long and dark at this time of year, punctuated only by bored children passing stinging-hot sweets down the aisles to one another.
The dwarven market was a wonder. Yet, this was rumored to only be a taste of what lay beneath. There were bolts of silk from Orlais, rolls of wide lace and jeweled skulls from Nevarra, fur and leather goods produced by Avvar craftsmen… Flour, sugar, spices, nuts, brightly colored fruits from Seheron and Rivain…
But perhaps the most intriguing sight was the caravan of food which was unloading at the stone gates to the city. Orzammar produced no food of her own, and relied primarily on trade with the Orlesian Empire to sustain its populace. Diplomatic ties with Ferelden were paltry at best. Bryce and Maric had made some headway over the years, but the fact of the matter was that Orlais had the most demand for lyrium. King Endrin had been uninterested in upsetting relations with the Divine. The Divine was technically neutral, but only technically. Many in Ferelden still remembered that the Chantry had preached that the Orlesian occupation was the Maker’s will.
Leliana’s footfalls in the snow were gentled by her snowshoes, painted a pale Avvar blue. “Hello” she exhaled breathlessly. Her nose and cheeks were red in the mountain air. “What do you think?”
Alistair offered her a chestnut, still warm in his bare palm. “I think we’ll be making the same deal next year. Orlesian grain at exorbitant prices. I wonder with what we will pay them?”
“That is a dark thought.” Leliana frowned, plucking the gift from his fingers and popping it in her mouth. He watched her chew, enjoying the moment when delight slowly spread across her face. “I meant, what do you think of my clothes?”
“Why are you wearing Elissa’s armor? Are you dressing up for Satinalia? I didn’t think we were doing that.” He smiled. “I saw some masks of the Divine in one of the stalls.”
“How scandalous,” Leliana laughed. “Evidently I am the Warden today. I tried to curl my hair, but it did not take. What do you think? Will I pass?”
Alistair inspected her as she turned in a wide, shuffling circle, showing off the movement of her cape. To anyone in their inner circle, the difference between Lissa and Leliana was night and day. Lissa’s hair was a deeper shade of red, and she was several inches taller. Leliana had more of a golden complexion and strikingly blue eyes. In an effort to mimic her friend, Leliana had painted her mouth with rouge, and gone heavy-handed with the kohl pencil to darken her ginger eyelashes.
“From a distance,” Alistair agreed, “but nobody who has met her will be fooled.”
“You’d be surprised,” Leliana countered. A subtle shift came over her face. She narrowed her eyes and widened her mouth, and when she spoke again, it was with Lissa’s Highever brogue. “People see what they want to see— the blue armor, darling Alistair.”
“It is close,” he allowed.
“We’ve been practicing,” Leliana continued in her affected accent. “You never know when she might need a body double. In Orlais, where the nobility wear masks— and not just for the holiday— people are known by their gesture and posture, as well as their voices. Some bards are hired simply for their uncanny knack with impersonation. It was not one of my tricks, unfortunately.”
Alistair rubbed his elbow. “You still say ‘Orlais’ like an Orlesian. And the cadence is… strange.”
Her nose crinkled. “Noted.”
“How long can you keep it up?”
“As long as I have to. A dozen more surfacers want the Warden to carry petitions to the deshyrs, and each one feels he is worthy of her personal attention. So tedious, but if even one of them is important, the exercise will be worth it.” Leliana’s eyes lit up. “A war like this is won by a thousand tiny cuts. We hold Redcliffe not because we won a battle, but because we rescued Owen’s daughter, we listened to the needs of Mayor Murdoch, and we fortified Ser Perth’s faith.”
“The battle helped,” Alistair remarked, raising a sceptical eyebrow. “But I see what you mean. Every person who walks away feeling like they were personally assisted by the Warden will tell ten more.”
“More importantly, it separates her from Howe’s smear campaign against Bryce Cousland. It’s much harder to stamp out a nameless hero. Why, any woman might be the Warden!”
He had a flash of a thought, inexplicably, of standing on shifting sand. He frowned. “Nobody is like her, Leliana.”
“You know that. I know that.” She patted him on the arm. “Howe is very good at what he does. We must be better. There will come a day, soon I fear, when he will try to drag your names through the mud.”
“What can I do?” he asked.
“You might kill him first.” Leliana grinned darkly. “Just a thought.”
Elissa, wrapped heavily in furs, sat on a blackened stump on a ledge above the camp. It was not an insignificant climb, especially in deep powdery snow, though her path was obvious enough to follow. She faced to the west, with the morning sun high at her back and a book clutched between her rabbit fur mittens. Barky rested at her heels, half-burrowed into the snowbank. It was a clear, cloudless day, the first they had seen in a week. From this place on the mountain, in this weather, one could see far into the Orlesian side of the Frostbacks, and down into the pass, until it all faded into white mist. Even where they stood was contested territory between the kingdoms.
“I was thinking,” Lissa said overly-loud, acknowledging Alistair’s approach without turning around. “Look at it. It’s beautiful here.”
“Planning on running to Orlais, my dear?”
“That is always a temptation.” She smiled mirthlessly. “Come, share in my morning’s headache. Tell me, do you know where to find Edgehall?”
“Due south from here, I’d say. We would not make it in just one day, even without the snows. Why? Have you changed your mind about Orzammar?”
“Hm, no. Merely planning. There are troubles in that arling.”
“I know that Arl Fergus died last winter. There was some talk that the local banns were considering defecting to the Orlesians. But I thought his brother’s return from exile settled the matter of inheritance.”
“King Cailan died before Gell Lendon could be formally installed as the arl. It’s a symbolic gesture, but every lord must bend their knee in the Court. To complicate things, the brother is the worst kind of man— cruel and probably an Orlesian puppet— disliked by his banns and his people.” She sighed. “But somehow he has been holding off the darkspawn.”
“So we need him, if he is not overthrown in the meantime.”
“Exactly. I sent an agent down to assess things. Or rather, I borrowed an agent of the Crown in your name.”
It was jarring to reconcile the entity of the Crown with himself. Alistair tried his best to match her disinterested tone. “I cannot imagine Anora would be pleased.”
Elissa waved her hand. “I’ll bear the brunt of Anora’s rage if it ever gets back to her, but I imagine house arrest keeps her more than occupied. The agent— Engar— has a particular mission. The one you requested of me.”
“The Urn of Sacred Ashes?” he said in surprise, helping her to her feet.
“A mage was impersonating Brother Genitivi’s assistant back in Denerim, sending Isolde’s knights dutifully to every blind corner of the kingdom. The man put up a fight when he was discovered. Engar barely got out with his life.” She winced.
“An escapee from the Circle?”
“Their records are in shambles. No way of knowing. At first, I thought it was another dead end. It was actually Cullen’s stories of Honnleath that gave me an idea. Apostates are not uncommon in the remote villages. Genitivi’s notes specifically mention his search for just such a village…”
“In the arling of Edgehall,” Alistair finished for her. “Yes, I see where this is going.”
They walked along the flat trail at the cliff’s edge, arm in arm. The mabari trotted several paces ahead of them, oblivious to the cold and sure in his footing. Elissa was smaller, somehow, without her Warden armor.
“Edgehall,” she said. “I’ve started calling it ‘Loghain’s Nightmare’ in my head. The place where all his darkest fears hold true. Maker! Gell Lendon is using Orlesian mercenaries to hold it. I despise the idea that Loghain might be right, by any definition.”
“What is on your mind?”
She stopped short at the trailhead, looking troubled. “Constable Blackwall’s men came with chevaliers. Cailan was courting the Empress.” She squeezed her eyes together in a heavy blink against the glaring snow. “Alistair, what if Loghain is right?”
“He’s not,” Alistair replied simply, rubbing her chapped fingers to warm them in his own larger hands.
“I wish I had your confidence.”
“Knowing why he did it does not excuse what he has done, and what he continues to do.”
“But suppose we measure ourselves by our intentions and our enemies by their deeds? Suppose both sides have sunk to justifying necessary evils? I find… I find that being a Grey Warden and being a vassal to Ferelden are at odds. Moreso than usual.”
“What did you do?”
“I sought to find out whether Blackwall’s men might move through Edgehall.”
“Maker’s breath! If Loghain ever found out—”
“Then he would have what he wants. So be it. Do you know what Blightlands become? Deserts. Everything turns to...”
“Do you dream of it, too?”
Lissa lifted her head. “What?”
She nodded somberly. “Do you think it means something?”
Alistair squeezed her hand tighter. “No. I’m sure it is nothing.” He searched her, hunting for the thing-behind-her-eyes, the flash of blue he'd seen at Oswin and felt hunting in the deep waters of their soul bind. And although he saw nothing, he could not shake his sense of terror.
He would have to speak to Morrigan.
Chapter 12: Shape (Alistair)
Alistair waited two hours in an antechamber in the dwarven Shaperate. Someone would come for him soon, the servant assured him, perpetually buzzing about, offering hot tea and little cakes which looked sweet but tasted savory. They were delicious. He ate eleven of them before the guilt got the better of him. Surely there was not an infinite supply, but the dwarven servant kept offering.
It was a room designed for waiting, Alistair surmised, rifling through a stack of leaflets left on top of Darktown’s Deal by Varric Tethras. He could feel the hard stone of the bench straight through the cushion. The inn had stone beds. Maker! Why bother with beds? Why not just sleep on the floor? Perhaps their backsides were immune to soreness! He restlessly turned the pages of a catalogue of weaponry, the latest on offer from a merchant on the promenade. The prices were double what he thought was reasonable. He could not determine whether it was inflation, greed, or quality which caused the discrepancy, but he admired the pictures nevertheless. It was a marvelous expense to print etchings. Outside of Eamon’s library, he had only ever seen one book with pictures, in the Illustrated Manuscript of Thedas , which was so prized by Mother Dreya that he got three months of scrubbing duty just for touching it.
This smith, he thought, must be doing quite well for himself. There was a dragonbone dagger on offer that caught his eye, called the Rose’s Thorn, meant to be an exact replica of a famous kingslaying blade from Antiva. The price was one hundred and forty-eight sovereigns. Might as well ask for the moons! Nobody he knew had that kind of coin in their purse. Still, he wondered if Garin might be able to make a matched pair. Never hurt to ask. Dwarven blacksmiths were the best in the world. The name felt like… fate. He ran his fingers over the illustration of the pommel, admiring the shape of the blooming rose.
She cracked a pale smile. “Do you think I’m thorny?”
“No, but now I’m a little worried about your self preservation instincts. Didn’t it hurt?”
The door opened, and Alistair stumbled out of the daydream. In shuffled a wizened old dwarf, with a walking stick and a ruffled head of yellow-white hair. “When I last walked this hall,” he said, “Endrin was king and Orzammar was at peace. The Memories often speak of the swiftness with which change takes us, but it is different to see it firsthand. I apologize, Warden Alistair. I should not burden a stranger with such thoughts. I am Czibor, the Shaper of Memories.” His voice was soothing and deep.
“You know my name?”
“The Grey Warden’s visit has been recorded in the memories, along with all who accompany her.” The old dwarf’s face crinkled into a wry smile. “There is only one human man in our city.”
Alistair flushed. “Er, yes, I suppose it was an easy guess.”
“You made an appointment to view the Memories.” He gestured for Alistair to follow him, and he did, half-bewildered.
“I did. Forgive me, but I thought I would be speaking with one of the assistants. Not the Lord Shaper himself.”
“It is not know to be uncommon for Grey Wardens to come seeking the histories of their comrades. Especially those who come for their final journeys,” replied Czibor thoughtfully. “However, the Memory you seek, Lieutenant, drew my personal attention.”
“Why is that?”
“Come. I will explain.”
The main body of the Shaperate was an enormous library. Bigger than the public library in Redcliffe, bigger than the library in Bournshire Monastery, probably bigger than any in Denerim. They passed through aisle after aisle of shelves, each brimming with books. The ends of the aisles were labeled with the runic alphabet, which Alistair could not read, so he felt a little blind.
The deeper into the Shaperate library they travelled, the fewer volumes he saw with Common on their spines. Common was a trade tongue, an amalgam of Old Tevene and dwarfspeech and other dying languages. Fereldans used it as their first language, as the Clayne tongue had fallen out of use before even the days of Calenhad, but almost everyone in Southern Thedas knew enough to get by. As far as he could tell, it was also the first tongue of the Orzammar dwarves, though their accents were strangely flat to his ears.
These books were old. Very old. Written on vellum and bound in hide. They smelled of earth and time. He could feel the soft hum of the runes built into the stone shelves, whistling with preservation charms. The Memories of Orzammar went back two thousand years. Everything else had been lost when the thaigs fell to the darkspawn. The oldest were not books at all, he noticed, but stone tablets preserved with wax.
They veered away from the deep stacks and paused before a door. Czibor removed a ring of keys from his pocket, so thickly crowded that he could hardly slide them about, and hunted for the one he needed. Alistair tried to tamp down his sudden impatience. “What is this place?” he asked. The silence made the humming of the runes almost unbearable.
“The Memories of the Grey Wardens, of course.” Czibor raised an ruffled white eyebrow. He looked like a bearded owl, Alistair thought, trying not to laugh at his own joke. Maker, he was terribly anxious. This was a bad idea.
“You keep them locked up?”
“Only the dangerous ones.”
“Dangerous in particular, or are all the histories of the Wardens considered dangerous?”
Czibor found the key he was looking for on the fourth try. “Ah,” he sighed, satisfied as the lock gave way, not with a click, but with the rumble of large tumblers. “Knowledge is open to all dwarves, but this is not the knowledge of just our people. Weisshaupt requests that we keep these thoughts… quiet. These, you see, are the stories of Grey Warden Callings.”
“Oh.” Alistair sucked in air. The room was claustrophobic and musty, like a narrow pocket in a cave, and was stacked high with books. These Memories had overrun their shelves. Too many deaths. He regarded the room solemnly. In many ways, these were the only grave markers a Warden would have. One last tale, on the knife’s edge of madness, told to the shapers before the song of the Calling pulled them away to the Deep Roads. The story of their lives.
He had heard that song once. In the snow at Ostagar fortress. Kill, rend, tear… It was sweet. It was maddeningly sweet. Come , it said, you are mine.
Just a taste of it. He was deathly afraid to hear it again. For only after Elissa Cousland had pulled him away from the maw in the earth did he realize that it was not coming from inside his own head. Not his calling. It was hers .
‘Why?’ He wondered, but had no one to ask. Damn Duncan and all the other senior Wardens for dying on him, and leaving him with only the broken pieces to the puzzle that was their Order. Damn Alisse Fontaine for proving untrustworthy. ‘ If the Archdemon was so strong in that place, why were we not both compelled? Why only her song? Where was mine?’
“Lord Shaper, I did not ask about Warden Callings,” Alistair said aloud. He was too afraid to ask about Callings. Later. Give him twenty-eight more years of life and he would find out then.
“You asked for the record of your King Maric, and the time he journeyed with Warden-Commander Genevieve’s command to Ortan Thaig.”
Alistair’s mouth went dry. “And this has been stored with the Callings because… Because Wardens died on the quest?” His mind worked frantically. “Or because Weisshaupt does not want people to read it?”
“Yes,” agreed Czibor.
‘Was that a yes to the first or a yes to the second. Or both?’ He grimaced, trying to form an argument more persuasive than the agreement between the Shaperate and the First Warden. He came up empty. “I…”
“The second part of your request is why you come before me, Warden-Lieutenant Alistair.”
“Warden Fiona?” His heart sank into his stomach. She was here. Of course she was. He’d always known his mother was dead.
Alistair and Elissa sat in silence, on opposite sides of the bed. Elissa stood up, moved to the small table, and poured herself a cup of water. “What do you want to talk about first?” she asked, studying her own reflection in the wall mirror as she swallowed. Like she could not even look at him. “Your magic or your mother?”
He shook his head. “That may be the same topic.”
“Warden Fiona, I mean, I’ve heard of her. You were right when you said Duncan knew her. He talked about her sometimes.”
“To you?” She set down the cup. “Do you think he was trying to tell you about her?”
He spooled his fingers together. “No. Actually, come to think of it he would change subjects if he caught me listening. At the time I thought-- and this was obviously foolish-- but at the time I thought he was sort of easing me in to things.”
‘Because I was a templar. And Fiona was a mage,’ he did not say out loud.
“I see,” she lied.
“I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember some story, any story, about this woman who was apparently my mother. You see, I never had much information about Rhona. Eamon didn’t like talking about her. I knew she had a daughter, Goldanna, who was ten years of age when Rhona died. I knew Rhona was a scullery maid. When I was a kid I would sneak into the servants’ hall and just sit there, trying to be closer to her. And it was not much, but it was mine. Like her amulet.” He pulled the chain, lifting the medal from under his shirt. “Was this hers? Or did it belong to Warden Fiona?”
Elissa sat down on the foot of the bed, silently willing him to continue.
“I did wonder where she got it. It is not like any amulet of Andraste I have ever seen. Maybe because it is not Fereldan.”
“Fiona was one of the Orlesian Grey Wardens?”
“They all were, I think. Even Duncan was recruited in Val Royeaux, though I believe he was originally from Highever. Later on, under Warden-Commander Polara they began recruiting here, when Maric gave his permission.” He knew all of that. Of course he did. He knew plenty of Grey Warden history.
Just not the important parts.
“An Orlesian. That would have been a lot for the Landsmeet to accept, even from a king as popular as Maric. Especially just after the war.” Her brow crinkled. “And particularly with a best friend like Loghain.”
“I just don’t see why… If Eamon was going to lie to me anyway, if I was always going to be this shameful secret, why not lie about both my parents? Why not make my father some nameless mercenary?” He hung his head in his hands, leaning forward.
Elissa laid a hand on his knee. “Maric wanted you.”
"More likely his pride kept him from completely freeing me. He could have spared me the constant, crushing shame.” Alistair grit his teeth, immediately regretting the words as he spoke them. His cheeks burned.
Lord Shaper Czibor reached out and tapped a rune. The lights in the Memories of the Calling brightened to that particular yellow glow which Alistair associated with Orzammar. Artificial and strained.
It was all organized by runic script. It would take him days to find the right book, even if he knew what he was looking for. He fantasized briefly of breaking into the Shaperate, stealing the key, and… he was not a rogue. Maybe Leliana would do it, if he asked. Not Lissie. He did not want her touching this.
“Please,” he found himself saying, sweeping his eyes across the chaotic stacks. “Warden Fiona and King Maric were my parents. I need to know.”
Czibor nodded, smiling, as if he had been waiting for those exact words. “The right of ancestry is absolute. By law and custom, any descendant can access their ancestors’ Memories. I will help you, Lieutenant. Pardon. Is it more correct to call you Your Highness? I am unsure of your standing in surface custom.”
Alistair’s eyes narrowed as he studied the ancient dwarf. Had he known all along? But he dismissed that thought. How could he? “Just Alistair is fine.” On second thought, he hastily amended, “But perhaps don’t record that in your Memories. My friend, the Warden, would be very angry if I wind up a king and your deshyrs start calling me ‘Just Alistair’.” He snorted.
“As you wish,” Czibor chuckled. The dwarf took two steps forward and removed a book from the very top of the stack. It was utterly unremarkable, bound in brown leather like all the others, embossed with the seal of the griffon.
The top of the stack. Alistair felt his mouth fall open, and forced it shut. He nearly bit his tongue in the process.
“This is the Memory of King Maric in the Deep Roads, as told to the shapers by Warden Duncan. It took me some time to locate.” Gzibor suddenly frowned, looking distracted as he handed it over. “If you want the first, one of my apprentices will help you look in the section on Ortan Thaig.”
“There is another?” In the same breath he hissed, “Twice! Of course, Maric came to the Deep Roads twice! That is how he got past the Orlesians at Gwaren.”
“The Memories credit your father with the rediscovery of lost Ortan Thaig. Maric recounted the story himself to me.” Czibor spread his gnarled hands. “Over twenty years ago, I was newly the Lord Shaper. The honor fell to my ears and my hands.”
“Have you read it?” Alistair furrowed his brow. “Which should I read first?”
The dignified old man simply shrugged. It seemed an uncharacteristic gesture. “The knowledge is necessary. Partake in both. But know that it must not leave this room. There will be guards to help you remember.”
Alistair sat down on the floor of that crowded little tomb, and opened the book. Not printed, he realized, noting his mistake. Handwritten. The shaper had beautiful writing. Of course-- there would only be one copy. “One more question, please. Who told you this knowledge was dangerous?”
Czibor sketched a little bow as he left. “Warden Duncan himself, Your Highness.”
‘Shit,’ he thought, blinking thickly. As a rush it came to him; calling these books Memories had seemed a silly dwarven custom until he held one in his hands. The weight of it dragged on him, and a cold sweat broke out on the palms of his hands.
Maric and… Fiona. It felt supremely disloyal to think of Fiona as his mother. He was betraying Rhona’s memory, and all the guilt and love that was mixed up in the knowledge that she had died to give him life. ‘Rhona was real,’ he told himself, touching the amulet of Andraste. ‘She was real and she died trying to birth a baby.’ Maybe that baby was not him. Maker, maybe it had died with her. Hadn’t Goldanna said that to him once? Alistair had been so young when she went away to Denerim, he could hardly trust himself to know.
Could he love two mothers?
He opened Duncan’s book.
Chapter 13: Brittle (Elissa)
“Maric wanted you.”
Elissa heard Alistair’s teeth work in his jaw. He said, “More likely his pride kept him from completely freeing me. He could have spared me the constant, crushing shame.”
She startled at his vehemence, reading anger in the flush on his face. Did he really think it would be better not to know his parents? Had she made a mistake in sharing Fiona’s name with im?
“I won’t defend what he did. Or what Eamon did.” She attempted to gentle her voice as she searched out his hand. It did not come natural, but he gave no hint that he noticed. She slipped her fingers against his, entwining them. His hand was warm, and rough, polished with calluses in the imprint of the grip of his sword. A warrior’s palm, she thought, feeling for the tremors which sometimes flared up with his injury, but there was nothing to find. He was steady as a rock. She worried the inside of her cheek, feeling less than certain of herself and disliking the sensation. “Or what I did.”
“You had your reasons.” Always coming to her defense.
“I did,” she agreed. Stupid fucking reasons, and yet they had seemed so important. Like Ferelden had been a tower to climb, with each stair labeled ‘find a new king’, ‘defeat the archdemon’, ‘oust Loghain from the throne’. Simple.
She considered quietly, in the silence that followed, if she had met Alistair under other circumstances, would she still be here, fighting against the burning ache in her chest? After all, she had a history of running when people got too close.
She had disliked him from the start, for being loud and brash. Too proud of the reputation of his precious Grey Wardens, too willing to hand over command to a virtual stranger, too… much. Full of muchness ! He was life and hope when everything around her was clouded by death. The stench had seeped under her skin, tainting her long before the Joining chalice hit her lips. The Joining did not merely change a person; it amplified them. Strength, stamina, hunger…
A dozen Grey Wardens on good ground could hold against a king’s army. Or so the stories said.
How dare Alistair be so alive when everyone else she cared about was gone in one night? How dare he die so easily?
She loved him. They were bound in undeath, commanded by the Witch and her necromancy to finish the task. The Howe siblings had Fiona’s name. That made them a liability. But she had promised Thomas his life. What was the value of her pledge? She wondered at herself, at the creature she was becoming, the sort who hunted monsters in the dark. The changes were creeping upon her slowly.
Alistair hissed between his teeth. Elissa caught herself mindlessly squeezing his wrist between her thumb and forefinger. The flesh was white where she released him. She mumbled an apology, lifting his hand to soothe it with a kiss.
“What is on your mind?”
“I’m just plotting a murder.” She smiled— charming, bright— to disarm her honesty.
She grasped for a better topic. “Isolde must have had salons.”
“I do not think so. The Fereldan ladies did not like her. I credit their judgment.”
“Not even the banns’ wives?”
“I cannot remember them coming around more than they had to. But she used to make the circuits in Denerim and Asburg.”
“Hm. I was too young to hear half the things that were said in Mother’s salon when King Maric refused to remarry. They rarely remembered I was there.” She offered him the memory, because it was all she had to give. The bored gossip of nobles puzzled out by a young child, sitting at her mother’s feet. “A year is the usual prescribed period of deep mourning for the death of a monarch, and then a second year of light mourning, during which the palace household might attend the most important social events but beg out of the lesser ones. The queen passed some months after mine own birthing. Yet in the years I can remember, Maric kept his black. Even to his death.
“You were born in ten, yes? Three-ish years after me. There was a good deal of scrambling between the eligible houses to find the king a suitable match. Lady Kendells— whatever her name was, you know, Urien’s sister— practically flung herself at him. If nothing else, to get the poor court out of the black. I never did pack a dress for Denerim that had color until my debut. Mmm. I don’t mean to say he was totally alone.” Her eyes flicked across his cheeks, reluctantly adding, “Every king has his mistresses.”
“Do I get to pick, or are they assigned?”
She grinned wryly. “You’re not the king yet. Mother used to jest that Maric ‘had a type’.”
He groaned. “Dare I ask?”
“She never said. The implication was enough for the adults. Used to make me so cross! Andraste’s eyes, I can hardly remember. I think that he liked ‘unsuitable’ women.”
“Unsuitable,” Alistair murmured. “That is me— His Royal Highness, Prince Unsuitable. But what does that mean?”
“Orlesians,” Elissa explained, tapping his nose with a half-grin. “Geraldine told me once that Emperor Florian tried a dozen times to slip a spy into Maric’s bed, but it never worked again after the first time. Loghain was too vigilant.”
Alistair stood up, pacing away toward the door. “You think Warden Fiona was the Emperor’s spy. And that is why they told me Rhona was my mother?”
“Keep your voice down.” She folded her arms. “The College of Bards aren’t omnipotent, although they would be glad for you to think they are. This Fiona— whoever she was— slipped someone’s leash. What did Duncan say about her?”
“Only that she was a mage.”
“I presumed that, when you said ‘’one and the same’.”
“It bothers you.”
“It bothers me that you think it bothers me!” She rolled her eyes. “When have I ever—?”
“It should bother you. Reasonable people would say so.”
At that she laughed. “Don’t start accusing me of being reasonable!”
“Do you think mage outweighs spy?” he asked in a self-deprecating voice. He sat lightly on his knees before her, and laid his head in her lap. She carded her fingers through his blonde hair. It was getting long around the ears.
“Does it matter?” she asked.
“Not really.” His eyes fluttered shut. A lazy warmth came over him, and his muscles slowly turned to pools of liquid at her touch, as though she were the one with magic in her hands.
“You might have told me during that business with Jowan.”
“Wasn’t it better not to know?”
Her mouth pressed into a tight line, feeling a wave of sadness wash over her. “Most people are reasonable, after all.”
It was like drowning.
Ferelden was not a tower. It was a web. Anyone would tell you that the spider never sits in the center. She was beginning to have serious doubts that it was the Regent tugging on the threads. But if Loghain Mac Tir was not the spider, who was? Rendon Howe? The Empress and her spymaster? A Grandmaster of the Crows? Someone who had not yet tipped their hand.
When Elissa touched the web, she could feel the vibrations leading somewhere through and past the throne. A king was just a piece on the board, after all. Cailan had not been the most powerful man in his kingdom. No, that fell to the King’s Council— Teyrn Bryce Cousland of Highever, Arl Urien Kendells of Denerim, Arl Eamon Guerrin of Redcliffe, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir of Gwaren. The fifth chair traditionally belonged to a woman. The avatar of Andraste’s will. Usually that meant a Mother of the Chantry, but Queen Rowan herself had fielded the spot at the head of the council before her illness. Currently it belonged to Grand Cleric Elemena, who was as deaf as a post and as dangerous as a snake. She’d gracefully survived whatever move Loghain had made against her. Did Elemena know her enemy?
The templars were closing ranks. That was a different sort of problem.
It irritated Elissa that she could see so little of the game, that every plan she set in motion was always ten steps behind. She distracted herself with stomping out little fires. Bhelen— the grasping, conniving prince of Orzammar— she thought would be a good candidate for her spider, if dwarves were the sort to look topside. She admired him, actually. Not for the fratricide— that made him a short-sighted shithead— but for his bald faced tenacity. What she would do with him, she did not know. To amuse herself, for every favor she did the prince, she paid one back to Lord Harrowmont. Let them brood in their beautiful halls. She would take whomever was most grateful in the end. Kingmaking was a sorry business.
But the templars. The templars were her problem.
The lonely Warden crouched at the edge of roof in Dust Town, watching three Carta enforcers loiter on a street corner. She kept her cloak wrapped around her tightly for the camouflage. It was warm enough in the under city that she was sweating under all that wool. ‘Ridiculous blue uniform,’ she thought, not for the first time that day.
The lightest whisper of sound behind her had her turning her head, certain she caught footstep on loose gravel. But there was no one her straining eyes could see. She knew only one person who could move like that. “Zev,” Elissa sighed. “You’re late.”
“Eight hours in a library,” the elf complained, uncloaking from stealth as he crept up beside. The assassin smelled of tallow and black powder. “A lesser man would have lost his mind, my dear Warden.”
She scrunched up her nose. “What was he doing?”
“Reading.” His laugh was under his breath. “He had a meeting with the man in charge.” From under his shirt, Zevran produced a yellow leaflet. “Do you have a name day coming? Shall I find you a present, too?”
It was some sort of catalogue, from a merchant in the Diamond Quarter. “It passed.”
“Uncelebrated? Tsk,” he tutted.
“And here I thought I could find some of that lovely perfume you wear.”
“What is it with men and perfume?” Before he could answer her, Elissa leapt off the rooftop and landed on the head of the closest Carta dwarf. Her knife went quick through the back of his neck, and she kicked out the knees of the second while Zevran silenced the third. He’d followed without question.
“A man loves a mystery,” Zevran concluded, wiping his blade on his bracer. “Like, for example, who are these?”
“Jarvia’s personal enforcers,” Elissa explained, watching a dozen eyes in the shadows of the street retreat from her gaze.
“Head of the Carta, Jarvia?” He pursed his lips together like he might whistle, but stopped when she raised her hand. “How close?”
“Close.” She nudged the corpses over with the toe of her boot, avoiding stepping into the spreading puddles. “We need a token to get inside. Should look like a key fashioned out of finger bones. Help me look before someone comes.”
Zevran’s smile dimmed. “You were going to do this by yourself?” He reached down and unclipped an object matching her description from a belt.
“I waited for you, didn’t I?”
“That is alright, then.” He sounded cheerful, but his large eyes were glowing in the strange dim light of Dust Town, and she saw them narrow rather plainly. “With me you have more than enough talent to handle such an easy target. But humor me. Why not ask along Sten, or Leliana, or any of the others sniffling the bottom of a black ale in Tapster’s ? I know a suicidal impulse when I see one, my dear Warden.”
When it was just them two, that was all he ever called her. ‘My dear Warden’, said like a caress, but also holding her at a distance. She never knew what to make of that. Sometimes she thought they were a little too alike, Zevran and her.
“I’m not— Are you coming or what?”
“Lead the way.” He held out the token. The little bones were threaded together with wire. There were a line of runes scrimshawed black into the yellowed metacarpal. It seemed an oddly evil thing to carry, and she reluctantly shuffled that bad omen into her hip pouch, nestling it into her invisibility powders.
There were no guards in Dust Town, but still she felt uneasy lingering over bodies she’d laid down. She spared one last glance at the tattoos on their faces, wondering which meant Carta and which simply meant the ill fortune of a casteless birth. The beggars had cleared out of the street, creeping back into their allies so they could claim they’d seen nothing when the gangs rolled through. Elissa had spread enough coin around to buy a few hours of silence. Long enough, she hoped, to get to Jarvia. It had to be now. The door would change tomorrow.
“Did he survive?” The elf— Zevran— was stripped to his underclothes and bound with rope to a chair. She thought he could easily slip the knots, but had chosen to wait her out. That thought did not please her.
“You’re still breathing,” she answered.
"Let me say that you Grey Wardens are the epitome of charm and hospitality. I enjoy breathing your air. Fie on anyone who says it smells of wet dog.” He smiled grimly. “Do you have a rack? My neck is in need of a good stretch.”
With her one good arm, she slowly unbuckled her belt. It clattered to the floor with her knife still in its holster. The arm in a sling twinged with every jostle, but she refused to show pain. Her face was a blank mask. If Alistair died, what the fuck did any of it even matter? The screaming woman inside her had coiled up into a place near her heart, walled in where her tears could not reach the surface. “I’m not going to torture you, Zevran.”
“Oh. Good.” He scanned her face and came away disconcerted. Murder, he understood. Torture, he understood. What was this?
She wanted to say that if Alistair died, Zevran would follow. If Alistair was paralyzed, Zevran would share his pain. But those were the desires of Elissa Cousland. One woman, useless and weak, unable to stop death from coming. She needed help. And as much as it pained her, she needed someone like Zevran Arainai. “The Warden is merciful,” she offered.
A confused smile played on his lips. “And beautiful. No one says that. Yet. Give them time.”
“You owe me a blood debt, Zevran of the Crows. I know Antivans value their honor.”
“You were very close to an Antivan, to know of such a thing.”
“Salazar. I see. The Merchant-Prince of Seleny?”
“His daughter. My brother’s wife.”
Zevran’s eyebrows rose. “Princes of Antiva, Kings of Ferelden… You travel in high circles, my dear Warden. Who are you, and what can I do for you?”
Chapter 14: Bare (Elissa)
The door was like any other door in Dust Town; that is to say, it was made of solid stone, with its iron hinges rusting away from a lack of attention. On most days it led to an abandoned home last rented by a man called Faren Brosca. Most days— but not today.
Only because Elissa know to look for it did she see a shimmer where none belonged, like a patch of hot air rising from the magma flows. She touched the space behind the shimmer and discovered a fold in the stone. Her finger slipped easily inside. She immediately retracted her hand, heart racing as she heard the sudden ping of a tiny blade striking stone. 'Rule one: check for traps!' she scolded herself. She protectively clutched her pointer in her opposite fist, and regarded the stone with a cautious respect.
They said that this door changed places every day, and that it was impossible for anyone outside of the gang to find. How much of that rumor held true, she did not know, but so far it had successfully kept the deshyrs' men at bay. The pay for the job was good. Very good, actually, almost too good. House Harrowmont and House Aeducan had practically begged her in turn.
Mistress Jarvia was new to her position, and she had overstepped some traditional boundary between the Diamond Quarter and Dust Town in the absence of a king. Jarvia's late husband, Beraht, had left her his business in the Commons. Allegedly, he was also the previous head of the gang. This was a problem for a man like Pyral Harrowmont, who was a traditionalist by nature. Harrowmont wanted Jarvia gone lest someone learn the Merchant Caste had been running the Carta all along.
Prince Bhelen had a slightly more intimate problem. His favorite mistress, Brosca's sister, had fucked her way into his good graces on the back of Beraht's coin. The so-called "noble hunter" had given Bhelen a son, which according to the unusual traditions of Orzammar elevated all Brosca kin to noble status.
Even after it had been explained to her, Elissa had a hard time wrapping her head around their system. It made a certain sense to elevate the mother of a royal child. But the reverse also held true! A lowborn brat could ruin a whole house, unless it was cast out, abandoned by kind and memory. It meant, as she understood it, the most valuable commodity in Orzammar was between a woman's legs. Did the prosperous families mourn the births of their daughters?
That thought made her angry, with a fury that left her shaking. When she'd heard the story of Zerlinda and seen her infant, wrapped in rags, her heart broke for them. For want of a casted father, mother and babe were thrown from their family home and into the streets. The healthy birth of a wanted child should have been the happiest day in the young woman's life. But that it was born the wrong sex— a son as castless as his father. It had become a millstone around Zerlinda's neck. That, Elissa could understand. She remembered clearly the dread of a future with no prospects, the label of a ruined woman stamped upon her skin as surely as a dwarven tattoo. It was two days past the seventh anniversary of the death of her own son. The day had passed unnoticed in her distractions with the problems of Orzammar, and only by chance had she seen the date at all. Only a handful of people knew he'd ever been. His death at birth had freed her, and that was a guilt she would bear for the rest of her life. Some part of her dreaded the moment he was completely forgotten. Lissa hated herself for missing it. She could not find the breath to speak of it. Alistair would only hurt for her, and she was so sick of hurting him.
So Lissa would hurt someone else.
The Carta was evidently a necessary beast. The implication behind her orders was clear enough— cut down the head and a more amenable leader would rise in Jarvia's place. But Jarvia was not an idiot. At the first whiff of danger, she had gone to ground (such as it were), digging her fingers into the gangs like a spreading of tree roots which cracks cobblestone.
As she unlatched one of her hip pouches, Elissa briefly wondered what knowledge a mage would gather from the enchantment on the door. Dwarves did not have magic, but at the same time they possessed it. She had seen more marks inscribed with lyrium in a few short days in the city than she had in her entire life. Runes for clean running water, for smokeless cooking ovens, for light, for decoration, for holding back the darkspawn at the gates… How had the dwarves lived before lyrium? Orzammar was built on magical bones, carved into the heart of a quiet volcano.
"How good is your information?" Zevran asked her in his native tongue, facing outward on the alley as he kept a lookout.
Elissa felt a little pang at the sudden realization that her Antivan was growing rusty. She brushed away the grief of Oriana's absence and croaked back: "Come again?"
"How good is your information?" Zevran repeated, verbatim, tapping his fingernails against the sandy mortar in the masonry. He looked like he was waiting for her to catch on, grinning as he was.
"I suppose you think you are clever."
"Your words, not mine. I count no less than five pairs of ears listening."
"Seven," she retorted.
Zevran smothered a chuckle into the back of his wrist. "On the roof?"
"One of mine, for the day. He generously lightened my purse. He is waiting to see if we survive."
"And…" he scanned quickly. "On the roof opposite?"
"That is a servant of the crier. Also waiting to see if we survive."
"The mage's contact told me what he could." She avoided naming the man, as the prying ears would parse that much. Godwin of the Circle Tower, last seen quivering in a cupboard, had been eager to direct her to Rogek, a lyrium smuggler of the undercity known to deal with outsiders. Elissa needed templars. More particularly she needed to woo the templars out of Jainen City. Bann Alfstanna— anxious about mages— was hoarding them like a high dragon hoards gold.
"Is he not one of her lieutenants?"
"He is more… how you might say, an independent party. The Carta is a sea serpent with many heads. This one is bad for business."
Zevran nodded appreciatively. It was a motivation he could understand. Assassination was not strictly in the purview of the Grey Wardens, but today they were not strictly Wardens. "Princessa Salazar taught you well."
"How could you tell?"
He winked. "Your accent would never pass in the slums of Antiva City."
"Damn. Am I highborn in every tongue?"
"Impeccably. You remind me of my friend, Rinnala. She enjoyed being the sharpest person in the room, and kept her nose in the air, but she never minded getting her hands dirty."
"Is it meant to be a compliment, Zevran, when you compare me to an old lover?"
His eyes flicked downward and he answered in Common. "You tell me."
The finger bone totem barely had to touch the slot in the door before it opened for them. Lissa took it back and appraised the darkness beyond. "What can you see?" she asked, knowing his vision in low light was much better than hers.
"I see a long tunnel which curves off to the left. Does that match what the man told you?"
She nodded, and stepped across the threshold into the dark. The strange door closed behind them, as though it had a mind of its own. She got the sense that it was impatient. Or maybe that was the nervous thrill in her stomach. The anticipation of a good fight made her blood sing. She blinked hard, willing her eyes to acclimate to the dark.
"So, my dear Warden, we have a plan?"
"Light as a shadow, quick as breath, more than a rogue I became."
"Mm. Rinna loved that book."
"Thomas Howe gave me a copy. You might borrow it." Not just any copy. Her copy. Not that that was anyone's business. She had torn out the dedication the moment it fell back in her hands. Crumpled it, smoothed it, re-read it, and finally commanded herself to burn it.
To my Lady, on the eve of her seventeenth nameday:
A most instructional gift, I believe.
Yours always. A relic of a past to which she could no longer lay claim.
"Thank you." Zevran sounded slightly strange, small and turned inward, although it might have been the echo of the tunnel. "Was it a gift? Or a warning?"
"Both, I should think, if he is his father's son."
"If there is time," he decided, "I should like to see it."
"Do you read?"
"One of the whores in Rialto taught me out of a novel. I learned sums in the brothel ledger." He laughed. "Does that satisfy your morbid curiosity? Warden, I was only seven years of age when the Crows bought my life to balance my parents' debts. I was an investment. They paid for a classical education to equal any bard."
"It is to be expected. Your family trained you to be an arlessa. A certain amount of snobbish naivete comes with the territory."
"Sten says I'm callous. Is he right?"
"He is not wrong. Not that I would ever say so to your face. I want to keep my tongue!"
Elissa unhooked two grenades from her belt and pressed them into his outstretched hands, leaving four for herself. They were glass bulbs, filled with swirling purple liquid which turned to gas when exposed to the air. They could be thrown and smashed, or unstoppered and rolled, depending on how quiet you needed to be. Quiet was always better.
"Confusion grenades," Zevran recognized, and fastened the pair to his belt. "In the open air these dissipate in moments. But this is a confined place. We will be exposed."
"Then I suppose it will be the perfect time for you to carry out your master plan. Morrigan would delight in finally being right about you."
"She will never stop checking my cooking for poison." He squeezed her shoulder. "It is beginning to sting."
As her eyes adapted to the darkness, Elissa saw a flicker of light at the bend in the wall. This proved to be cast by pair of braziers. Their basins were filled with dying coals, glowing a feeble red and filling the narrow space with black smoke. She pulled her scarf up over her mouth and nose; likewise, the elf clasped a handkerchief in his off hand. 'Don't cough,' she told herself. Deeper into the tunnel, her eyes and throat began to burn, even after she dampened the cloth with her water flask.
The rock face in the shaft was warm to the touch. This part was natural, a gap between smooth igneous rock, emphasizing that the previous part had been carved out by tools. Was that warmth residual heat from the braziers, or did it mean there was magma on the other side of the shaft? It would be useful to have some of that… what did the dwarves call it? Stone sense.
At the end of the passage was a low door, marked with the sign of the black sun. The paint was fresh, no more than a few months old. There was a sigil on the handle. She was sure that she had seen the marking before, on the shops in the Commons. Strange clues when taken separately, but together they confirmed a story Lissa already knew.
What was that sound? That thrumming noise in her ears, like a melody she just could not remember? She scratched her earlobe. Was it her own heartbeat?
Zevran stood close beside her. She could not see him but she could feel his hand on her wrist. His breath came quick on her cheek when he tapped four times on her pulsepoint. Four people in the room. Maybe she was not going mad after all. The crack at the edge of the door was blindingly bright. She unscrewed the metal cap on a grenade and palmed it, slipping her thumb over the threaded mouth to prevent it from leaking. Bottled insanity.
Lissa crouched down low and pressed the corner of the door experimentally, searching for trap threads as she glided her fingernails along. The well-balanced door pushed in easily. She created a gap of about four inches. As the voices became more distinct, she rolled the confusion grenade as hard as she could across the tiled stone floor. It was not a large room, but the glass bulb was not a perfect sphere, and it rolled in a skittering parabola toward the left corner.
She let the door fall closed, and braced herself against the floor as she drew a dagger from the sheaths fixed to her back. For a long, breathless moment, there was quiet. And then:
"Who goes there?"
The sounds of clanking as armored bodies rose from chairs and lifted their weapons off the table, breathing in the purple smoke. And then came a frenzied sort of roar as the Carta within turned on each other in blind rage, no longer able to discern friend from foe. The fight behind the door raged fierce and brief. Zevran counted, tapping her wrist, as three bodies dropped. They waited, listening, to the gargled panting of the survivor. The Crow drew the shape of a question between the leather straps of her bracer, lingering on the tendons and blue veins under her translucent skin.
"Kill him," she answered with barest breath. The hairs on her arms stood on end.
The five remaining confusion grenades were spent when the alarm went up. Five dwarves in plate and leather, ten dwarves, what was that to a Grey Warden? But Elissa Cousland thought of none of these things as she and Zevran slew the inhabitants of Beraht's estate. She only heard the sweet pulse in her mind, almost a song. Kill. Rend. And Jarvia herself, hardly anything, just a woman of flesh, not nearly what the stories made her out to be.
"So why would the Crows send you, Zevran?"
"You are speaking to me now?"
"You can be very contrarian, Alistair. Is there some reason why they should not?"
"Plenty of reasons. Starting with the fact that you weren't exactly the best they had, were you? Lissie beat you with only one good arm."
"Slander and lies. For shame, Alistair."
"I'm not an idiot. Well, not most of the time. You're no raw recruit, but I've seen you fight. You're no master of combat, by any means."
"Assuming that I intended a fair fight, that would indeed be a problem."
"But the Crows must have master assassins, the way you describe them. Men with years and years of experience. Why not send them?"
"Why not, indeed? It is a mystery for the ages."
"If you aren't telling me, there must be a reason."
"If you must know, the masters do not often take contracts outside Antiva. And I made the best bid."
"We agree to pay the guild a portion of whatever the contract offers. The one who agrees to pay the most gets the contract, so long as the guild deems them worthy."
"And they thought you were worthy?"
"Against a pair of Grey Warden recruits? Apparently so."
"Were there many who wanted the contract?"
"None. You are still Grey Wardens, after all, and even in Antiva, killing members of your order is considered... impolitic. It made the guild's decision considerably easier, I imagine."
"Well that's comforting, somehow. But they didn't tell you?"
"Who you were? No. An unfortunate surprise, I assure you. I do not believe Arl Howe told them, or else the price would have been much higher."
"So you're a discount assassin. Howe bought you on the cheap."
"You are bleeding," Zevran whispered, reverting to Antivan.
Lissa looked down. Her gambeson was saturated with red liquid. "I don't think so." She felt sluggish. The crime lord was in pieces under the toes of her drakeskin boots. There was a pinky finger floating in a pool of blood, colorless, shockingly naked. Like an earthworm drowning in a soggy garden.
It was no longer raining, but wetness persisted on Elissa's cheeks. The tears came almost independent of her emotion, like she was wearing someone else's face. Silent, gulping, wracking sobs bubbled up between her firmly clenched teeth. She had to stop crying. She was so sick of crying.
She blotted at her nose with the end of her shawl, again, and grimaced at the feeling of the wet wool against raw skin. Her head was pounding. The parchment on the table was irreparably ruined, already curling where the blooms of ink feathered into black roses. Was it raindrops or teardrops which stained the page? The table in the garden was wet. The whole stack of paper was ruined. Why had she insisted in writing outside?
Oh yes, the wailing.
My Nathaniel, she had written, before violently blotting out the "my".
I pray the winter you find in Starkhaven is a mild one and that Ser Varley is a kind master, although I may never understand why you have been sent to squire at your age. I heard it said that Thomas is the new heir in Amaranthine. She scratched away "Is that my fault?" and left: I suppose that means you will stay in the Vael Court indefinitely.
Forgive me but I cannot find the strength to prattle through the pretenses of a proper letter. I know I have been remiss. I received your letters. All of them, I think, but they have been screening my post, so I cannot be sure. Doubtless you find my silence in these months a mark of disinterest. Regardless, you are bound to your new master.
Yesterday, I bore a son. He did not live to naming, but I planned to call a boychild Byron, after your namesake uncle. My father disagrees. The priestess came and took him away this morning. I think it will be recorded as another William Cousland, if it has a name at all.
The smell of earth lingered in her blocked-up nose. The earthworms fled the sodden ground only to trap themselves on the paving stones, writhing in a slow agony.
Elissa counted her fingers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Good. She needed them for… "That's your blood, Zev. On me."
"Potion," he prompted.
"Yes." She grabbed at her belt but found only splinters of glass. "Damn. When I fell they all broke."
"Lis, they hit you with a warhammer!"
"Did they?" Strange that nothing hurt. Zevran called her Lis, that was wrong. That was emotion boiling in her throat. "No, you moved. You moved between us."
Zevran laughed. This time it came out like a sob. "I think Alistair is going to kill me. Come, I have enough for us both, yes? Only I cannot reach."
Falling to her knees, she worked the clasp of his belt loose until the leather strap fell free. "Sorry," she exhaled. He groaned as she shifted him to reach his potions. "Is it your finger?"
She lifted the potion to his mouth. He swallowed, and after a minute the flush of life rushed back into his brown cheeks. "It was Jarvia's," Zevran explained. His voice was hoarse. "You disarmed her— quite literally, might I say. Good work."
Elissa thought she must have sucked in a lung of confusion. She remembered almost nothing; the room was a stranger to her. Another comfortable merchant caste front room, with cushioned chairs and a table dressed with silver. And blood splattered on the ceiling lamps.
"More might be coming," Zevran suggested. But even as he spoke this, he was stripping out of his armor.
"No. My watchman on the door would let us know."
Bare, the elf's torso was a mass of bruises, turning rapidly from blue to green as the healing potion knit his ribs back together. They would never be quite the same. Potions only accelerated the natural process, which meant scars, lumps, and pain when the weather changed. It was hardly spirit healing, but it would keep you alive.
There were other scars littered upon his lithe, muscled frame. One particularly large and toothy one she matched to his tale of jumping through a glass window. On his chest were precise marks from a knife. On his flank were old burns. And on his back...
"Like what you see?"
"Those are lash marks," she observed, almost quizzically.
Zevran smiled. It was not a kind expression, but it was amused. "Yes."
"Someone tortured you?"
"A welcoming gift from the Grandmaster of House Arainai. The Crows test their candidates to see if they can hold a secret, should they be captured by a rival House. Most break upon the rack, literally or figuratively."
"And I was stubborn." He stood up.
"You were seven."
"I was even more stubborn then. You know this about me. I do not flatter myself when I say I know what it is to wish to live above all else. Or to feel the keen desire to die."
Jarvia's corpse stared up from the floor with a look of open-mouthed surprise. Her body looked like it had been ravaged by a beast— limbs sliced away from their torso and organs eviscerated, spilling onto the tiled floor. Lissa bent down and quieted that expression, closing the eyes with her fingers and pushing the mouth shut. 'I did this,' she thought, repulsed. 'How did I do this?'
"Are you accusing me of something?"
"Quite the contrary."
She sensed Zevran wanted to say something. "Was it that friend you mentioned? When did she die?"
The assassin sighed. "Two years ago, or close to it. I took the first contract out of Antiva City."
Elissa frowned. "When Howe sent you after us."
"My original contract was for two Grey Wardens." Zevran began to buckle his armor back in place. "A commander and his junior. But my ship ran afoul of poor weather on the open sea, and by the time I was in sight of Highever, the city was already in flames."
"You're lying! You can't have been sent to kill Duncan and me in Highever, because I was never meant to be a Grey Warden. Duncan came to recruit Gilly— Oh. Of course. You were meant to kill Alistair. Duncan and Alistair, I mean. Before Rendon sacked Castle Cousland."
"Presumably to prevent the famous Warden Duncan from saving your parents."
"—he still failed—" she interjected absently.
"Lord Howe revised my contract when we met in person in Denerim, but in such a way that it could continue under the original terms, without approval from a Master. It was rather clever. I was still to find one Warden-Commander and one junior officer. The last in Ferelden."
"But Alistair never came to Highever. He was on some sort of errand for the Chantry."
"Leliana asked him about that. The task was for Grand Cleric Elemena, who personally asked for him by name. He could hardly refuse."
"Shit. Why tell me this now?" She ran a gloved hand through her sticky curls.
"I wanted to give you the chance to be properly and truly alone if you needed to order the death of a Grand Cleric." Zevran clasped her hand forcefully between his own. "If you say the word, I would do this for you. Your irreproachable prince need never know, Lissa. I am as religious as any Antivan, but we both know he has ties to the Chantry which run deep."
When he used her name it made her chest feel strange. "Why would you even want that, Zev?"
"A queen who plans on keeping her throne needs an assassin or two on the payroll. I might stay close by."
"And what would that mean?"
"You did not trust him enough to bring him today."
"He's too good for this kind of thing."
"Alistair's vaunted morals preclude him from killing gangsters." Zevran lifted her hand and stripped her glove away, finger by finger. When her hand was bare and trembling, he raised it to his mouth. It was a unearthly sight, like something plucked from a dream. It was the wrong mouth, but her skin did not seem to mind. Her cheeks burned; her stomach was cold. "You ask me to watch him because you do not trust him, and then you try to pretend that I cannot see what is happening."
"Zev, don't do this." Her feet were frozen to the ground.
"Just ask Alistair why he visited the Shaperate. Or ask him what he and Morrigan are planning."
"Zev, please." Her voice broke. "I can't do this with you."
"I see. I would never stand between you."
Zevran had this look in his eyes, like he wanted to kiss her, just to see if she would let him. Elissa did not know whether she wanted him to try or not. But that was grief talking. Gently, she pulled away from him. "No one is stupid enough to kill a Grand Cleric."
Chapter 15: Bells (Solona)
When the great bells in the high square rang out eleven, the mage dismissed her pupils with a wave of her hands and sent them scurrying out into the halls of the tenement building. Back to their mothers and their luncheons— whatever they might be. It was not Solona’s responsibility to feed them, and anyway, if she started to think too hard about empty bellies her eyes pricked up with tears. She blamed her pregnancy for that, and tried not to remember the plentiful tables at every Circle meal. How the little’uns had second bowls of mash and picked the green off their plate. The luxury of turning away food was lost.
None of her new students would ever be so careless, even though none of the six of them was over eight summers. Their older siblings worked as bootblacks and sweeps, or they might mend traps at the fishery. The very lucky had apprenticeships out of the cold. Very soon the youth would have to replace their fathers, and even the littles would have no more time for their games. Come the spring, people said, the bann would send her army out from the safety of the walled city. No one believed the fathers would come back.
Not that Solona intended to stay in Jainen and watch this unfold. She refused to give birth here, where the Waking Sea thrashed like a nightmare on obsidian shores. It was not the sea of her remembered childhoods in Kirkwall and Ostwick. She was not a witch, but she could feel the omens in the waves even though she could not read them.
The whole building smelled suspiciously like old eggs, the termites had chewed holes in the floors, and the walls were so thin she could hear the neighbors breathe and rut in the night. It belonged to Anders, who grimly assured her the flat was one of the nicer portside accommodations, even if it was only one room with a boarded up hole where the window should be. The landlord did not check papers and he did not ask questions.
Anders had been posing as a university physician ever since his latest escape, complete with the mask and bag he had bought off a less-than-scrupulous dwarf. He kept to the camps these days, up to his neck with cases of scurvy and dysentery, paid in bread and wares where there was no coin. Swords from fatherless children, monogrammed handkerchiefs, wooden spoons, empty leather pouches which smelled faintly of tobacco or spice.
He was the strongest mage Solona knew, although he had been Wynne’s worst apprentice. For while he loved to study, he never handed in any of his coursework. It was one of the ways he protested his position within the Circle, holding that Kinloch’s role of school was a thin veneer over imprisonment. A different sort of man might have climbed his way through the hierarchy to become the personal healer of a lord of the realm, but Anders was not the kind who would accept half measures or gilded cages. Karl Thekla ran a rota of sorts for which of their friends would write his work, trading favors along the way. Solona herself had contributed to the pool a very poorly researched essay on salves, writing with her right hand to imitate Anders’s sloppy script.
Everything fell apart when Karl was sent away. There had been no warning. Although Karl was older they had been Harrowed together. Anders departed the Harrowing Chamber triumphant— alone.
“Sollie, you have to find out where they’ve sent him. You’re the clerk, you are the only one who can get into Irving’s office.” His voice tinged with mad desperation.
“I can’t! They’ll know it was me who told you when you run.”
“I won’t run. I’ll—” His eyes darted across her face, scouring her for sympathy.
She cracked. “Tell me you’ll put in for a transfer. Properly.”
“I will. Of course I will.”
“It’s no good, Anders, you’re an awful liar.”
He offered her a watery smile. “You could come with me.”
“Next time,” she promised, meaning never. Maker, she pitied that look in his eyes. Didn’t he know mages must never fall in love?
An insect scuttled up the wall beside the door, catching the corner of her eye. She gave an alarmed flick of her fingers. It burst into a tiny flame and dropped, smouldering, with its legs in the air. Immediately, her head began to throb, and she pressed her palm into her blurring eyes. The headaches were getting more frequent. Anders’s home was smaller than a closet in the grand homes she had once known. When she was alone, it felt like the walls would close in on her, like the light would go out, and she would hear Lily’s panicked death throes beneath a noose made of her own orange robes...
No, she could not stay in Jainen. They said Kirkwall was worse, but how could it be?
She rose from the single chair at table, which were the only proper piece of furniture in the place. In the corner, the straw pallets they used for bedding were rolled into lumps, reminiscent of the hay bales she had seen in the autumn fields. She wobbled slightly as she sought out her balance, and went to the window to lay her face against the boards.
The cold air was soothing. She could look down into the alleyway to see that it had stopped snowing. A veneer of powder shimmered brightly over the street, crisp and undisturbed. She sucked in breath. When she turned away, she felt a little better, and thought that if she went outside she would be able to think more clearly.
Solona could hear the children clamouring on the staircases, sitting down together to arrange marbles in the dust as they ate the crusts of their lunch. It was a shame she had not thought to grab a story book or a beginner’s primer in her flight from Kinloch. But she had never imagined herself here, teaching mundane children to read from Ines Arancia's Botanical Compendium .
R O Y A L
E L F
R O O T
P U R P L E
L E A V E S
And so on. It sat at table, splendid with its full color illustrations on every page. The essay on royal elfroot had an engraving of a petrified dragon’s egg, with the violet shoots coyly encircling it. The children spent more time admiring the pictures than they did learning the words, which was considered a good time by all.
Solona closed the massive volume rather gingerly, half because it was her only book, and half because Senior Enchanter Arancia would personally kill her should it come to any harm. Ines was the foremost herbalist in Southern Thedas; for her services to Queen Rowan, the herbalist had the King’s special dispensation to travel where she pleased. And she did, often, for she could not stand the company of her fellow enchanters.
In the center of the table was a glazed pot filled with dried lavender. ‘Grandmother Evelyn would be proud of me,’ she thought. ‘The hours of lessons were worth it after all.’ She picked it up, and carefully moved it to rest on the chair. With the table space cleared, she pulled a bit of twig from her skirt pocket and rested it in the center. The wood grew, stretching lazily into being as it took on the form of a mage’s staff. At the head was a crystal, the focus, sitting crooked in its metal setting.
Solona sighed. She felt as though she was staring at her own limb, torn from her shoulder. Like she was bereft of a piece of herself. The staff was broken, warped, wrong. The crystal, so carefully tuned for pyromancy, had been unable to withstand an unexpected burst of force magic. And she could not fix it. She was no arcanist; that was a speciality which belonged to the Tranquil.
She could still cast. Her mana pool appeared greater than it had ever been, as if her pregnancy was somehow feeding it. But without a staff, it was like trying to drink a lake with a straw. It was exhausting, not to mention painful. ’I should sell it,’ she told herself, trying to be convincing. ‘Someone in the Circle here can probably fix it and we could really use the coin…’
She waved her arm violently, forcing the staff to shrink back. She’d learned the trick from Morrigan; it was not something they would ever teach in the Circle.
In the cold ashes of the burned-out hearth, a half-gone letter mocked her. She had been staring at it all through the morning’s lesson. Solona wanted so badly to reach in and pull it free, but then he would know she had touched it, would he not? It wasn’t her business— but she knew that handwriting anywhere. There could only be one reason Greagoir would write to Cullen. There was only one way he could have found them.
Struck by the need to do something, she pulled her cloak from the peg and fumbled it fastened around her neck. The miniaturised staff was pushed deep into her pocket, and then she lifted the latch.
A fine carriage, pulled by two matched pairs of steel-gray horses, rumbled at breakneck speed up the winding hill. Sparks erupted from the strike of horseshoes on stone. Street vendors threw their wares out of the path of the pounding hooves, shouting curses and shaking their fists in disbelief. On the white door of the box flashed a gilded sun.
“How about it?” Anders posed cheerfully, admiring the horses as he helped a nearby fishmonger right his cart. The day’s catch was splattered across the road. Fish with split bellies and filmy eyes gazed reproachfully up at them from the winter muck.
“No.” Solona grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away, linking them together before he could get himself into trouble.
“Why not? They have got four; would they really miss one?” He pocketed one sorry-looking fish.
“I believe we have had this conversation before, and I gave you my answer then.” She scowled. “Besides, don’t you know who that was?”
“Some high muckety-muck from the Chantry,” the other mage replied, in his own particular brand of flippant, daring her to rise to the challenge. “I saw the sigil when they flew by, the same as you.”
They passed from the outskirts of the square and into the market proper, trying to give off the air of people with coin to spend, but the tight pinch of hunger soured her step. “You saw but you did not see . That was the Grand Cleric’s personal carriage.”
“What is Elemena doing in the Waking Sea?”
“It can’t be her, not really. Elemena’d never let herself be seen meeting with Bann Alfstanna, not since she pitched in with the rebellion.”
They passed by the appointed place. Cullen stepped from a side alley and fell in before them, wearing his full regalia under a heavy cloak. He clinked with every step, looking like every other templar in Jainen City. “It’s not the Grand Cleric,” he confirmed from the side of his mouth, not making eye contact. Their old game from the tower. He added softly, “Sola, you’ve spoiled your dress.”
Solona wrinkled her nose. Even though they had stood well clear of the carriage, the front of her skirt was splashed up with mud and snow. It was the only thing she owned that still fit. One morning, she had woken and found that her trousers had betrayed her. Forget closing around her stomach! She could no longer wiggle them up past her thighs. Most women at this time of life fashioned their own garments to accommodate their changing shape, but she had never learned anything as useful as pattern making. If you needed to lift a boulder, or destroy a cursed object, or recite ten causes of the fall of the Imperium in the South, well— she was your woman. Not much use for her among the goodfolk.
She slid her fingers under her cloak, stroking the stiff brown broadcloth of her dress where it hugged her waist. The calluses on her palms caught on the textured wefts. In the Circle, she had worn silk robes and velvet slippers; her fingers had been soft. Absentmindedly, she stretched out her fingers as wide as her cold-stiffened joints would allow. The cleaning spell raced down the threads, banishing the wet with a shimmer of purple sparks.
Cullen’s head snapped momentarily in her direction. “Don’t,” he said. He did not sound angry, but his eyebrows furrowed.
She blushed, and clutched her fist against her stomach. “No one saw.”
“You cannot afford to be careless.”
“I’m not careless, you’re just too cautious. Live a little, Cullen, you can be so stifling!”
“Andraste forfend that I wish to protect the woman carrying my child,” he glowered.
The odd trio walked two blocks in pained silence. She chewed the inside of her cheek. “Who was it?” she said abruptly, realizing that the templars might know of any visiting dignitaries. “Did the Knight-Captain tell you? Who is important enough to use that carriage?”
Cullen hesitated, looking down at his boots in the gray snow. Then he pulled a handkerchief from somewhere on his person, covering his mouth with the cloth so no one could read his lips. A somewhat clumsy attempt at spycraft. Once, she would have giggled at the gesture. “The Revered Mother from Valence,” he whispered.
“Oh.” Her eyes widened.
“Yes,” Cullen affirmed.
“Sorry,” Anders butted in cheerfully, “bit lost. Is this very important gossip, because I have a fish in my pocket mere breaths away from turning on me.”
Cullen cleared his throat, and tilted his head so that his voice was somewhat awkwardly aimed at his right pauldron. “Mother Dorothea is one of Her Holiness’s sacred council. Cuther told me she was visiting at the capital when war broke out.”
“Ahhh. Bad place for a high profile Orlesian to be, what with the Regent’s allergies, even if you are a big muckety-muck from the Chantry. The passages to Orlais are frozen until spring. But no one comes to Jainen City for their health. Someone as important as that’ll have a ship waiting for her.”
“Blasphemous observations aside, he is right.” Cullen took a sharp right turn down a side street, and Anders and Solona followed, all pretense of anonymity pushed aside for the growing excitement of conspiracy.
“A ship flying Chantry colors won’t need papers. Even if we only got as far as Jader…”
The bells in the upper square blared out to mark the beginning of the next hour. Cullen cupped her hand, pulling it to his cheek as she announced her plan between the chimes.
Chapter 16: Waves (Solona)
The next morning, ignoring his protests, Solona made Cullen take her to the Circle.
It was called “Waking Sea” for a reason. Jainen was a port town; its proximity to Kirkwall and Jader kept its citizens stumbling back after every hurricane blasted against the sea walls and tore apart the docks. If the people knew anything, it was how to rebuild. Most of the structures in the city were crude wooden buildings, cheap and drafty. The bann herself lived in a crumbling old fort, cut into the side of the mountain. On the western side of the harbor, on a thumb of an island connected to the shore by a narrow stone bridge, stood a strange building. Defiant. Daring the water to wash the mages off the map.
The Circle Tower was older than the city, older than the port, older than the fort. Although the storms had eroded the elegance of its face, Solona knew an elven ruin when she saw one. Some old magic still clung to it; rain fell softer there, the wind lost its strength.
Naturally, the people despised the place.
In the alcove market just past the bridge, it was cold enough that breath hung in the air. The Tranquil swept away the snow with brooms. Despite their best efforts, white lingered in the seams of the brick pavers. It was very early morning; dawn was just now yawning into the pink sky above the black sea. Although she could hear the steady roar of the water, as they passed into the ancient courtyard, the walls rose up around them and blocked her view.
Lanterns and large braziers illuminated the gray courtyard. Solona spared a glance back, instinctively keeping her eyes low, and saw the place where the tracks of templar bootprints were methodically erased. ‘Don’t act strange. Don’t be skiddish.’ The glittering eyes of a thousand hobnail marks encircled her own distinctive footprints. ‘First shift is starting,’ she observed, noting groggy templars cluster under an awning to share a smoke. A table was furnished with breakfast, untouched and still steaming on its tray. Thick slices of ham, roasted potatoes, stacks of fried eggs, honey-sweetened porridge, all the wealth and bounty of the Chantry. Her mouth watered at the sight. It was familiar, but strange... like peering into a window from the dark, expecting to see friends, only to find you’d stumbled upon the entirely wrong house.
She could smell the doses of lyrium doled out by the quartermaster at the head of the queue. The scent was bittersweet, masked by the stench of tobacco and the sharpness of the snow. The blue liquid glowed in the pale light from the bottom of glass vials, which were consumed and then disposed of in a basket. She fancied she could see how long someone had been a templar by how they took their first dose. Did they lick the bottom clean? Or did they choke down half a mouthful before passing the rest off to their friends? A few stood beside the line rubbing their elbows, pinched-faced, watching the greenhorns with a nearly feral look in their eyes, begging wordlessly for a extra few drops. As the potion hit their bloodstream, their muscles visibly relaxed and their eyes brightened.
Cullen made to settle his hand on Solona’s elbow, but hesitated, like he was waiting for her permission. Then he lowered it, choosing to pinch his fingers around the cuff of her sleeve. “How are you?” he asked between his teeth. He moved to put himself between her and them, as if his scarlet cloak would render her invisible. For a skittish second she pictured curling her pinky upward to brush his hand, but she pushed against the thought. She was fine. She didn’t need— She knew how to do this.
“Fine.” Her voice cracked.
“What?” He sounded surprised. Hadn’t he asked?
Half a dose.
Cullen was down to half a dose a day. The corners of his mouth were worn to deep grooves; the lines added years to his face. She could hear his molars grinding together in his jaw. She knew that he was rationing, stockpiling for the lean days. Knight-Captain Cutter paid for irregular shifts in chit; the paper went to the quartermaster and two vials came out. Two was generous. Nineteen years old and he might be pushing thirty.
Solona was twenty-five, not that anyone marked name days in the Circle. She’d had one letter from her father at her maturity reminding her that she was not eligible for her inheritance, but that her dowry would be saved for her hypothetical heirs. Father had tried to arrange a marriage for Elspeth with the scion of House Pavus, but he had been unable to get Elsa transferred out of Hasmal. Even a marriage to a Tevinter was better than no heirs at all.
The arrangement might have fallen to Solona, but Solona had the impression that their cousin had died or... something. There had never been any real hope for Kat; the Vaels were too careful to put a child on a mage. Which meant that her unborn child was an heir to the Proud and Pious House Trevelyan, second in line to the bann of Ostwick, after its grandfather. Wouldn’t twittery cousin Osher be disappointed?
Unless it came out a mage, Solona quickly corrected herself, which was More Than Likely. Amell blood would out.
“I said I’m fine,” she pressed. “It is all very… normal,” she suggested, and smiled earnestly at the absurdity. “The Circle carries on like it always has.”
“Some would find that comforting.” He scratched his ear.
“Yes. Yes, I suppose I can believe that.” They turned down the aisle away from the gate and she scanned each stall, trying to force her eyes to study each display. “Have you been?” She stopped herself from asking ‘is it nice?’
“Only as far as the garrison,” Cullen said in a pinched voice. “Cutter posts the roster outside his office. I fill in where I can. If there is something, if he needs someone outside.”
“How…” she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She tried for neutral. “How is that working out?”
“He usually finds something for me.”
“Does he know?”
“I do not know. I suppose he must.” Cullen looked down at his boots. They were damp, but otherwise immaculate. Every piece of him was polished to gleaming. His sash and vestments were pressed. Each night after supper he brought out his kit, disassembled every piece, studied them for wear and rust, even blackened the engraved Sword of Mercy with fine paintbrush. Every detail had to be perfect.
“But the Knight-Commander does not object?”
A flicker in his jawline: “The captain sets the roster. That much is the same everywhere, I should think.”
“He likes you.” Her hand curled into a fist. The tips of her fingernails scraped his hand before they buried themselves in her palm.
Cullen did not reply.
Behind the stall with the staves, a Tranquil waited with his hands folded together across his robes. There was a stool beside him, unused. Solona tried to avoid looking at the brand on his forehead— the same sunburst which marked every piece of Chantry property. Like a Tranquil mage was a piece of furniture or a carriage. But even a second’s glance left it seared into her mind’s eye. The pink scar was shiny, and the skin around it was unnaturally smooth, practically unlined. They were all young when they were branded, weren’t they? Frozen before time could etch their faces.
Cullen made up his mind, and slid his hand down off her cuff until he covered her hand. She allowed their fingers to twine together stiffly, with his palm cupping the back of her hand. She tried to squeeze Cullen’s hand, but only succeeded in crushing her knuckles between his broader fingers. It hurt, but in a good way? She understood this pain, appreciated the warm sparks shooting up her arm.
“Good morning, Knight-Lieutenant Rutherford.”
Cullen nodded in greeting. “Good morning, Jonas. This is my friend. She is a Grey Warden, and she may need your help.” Cullen’s voice was warm, kind, but Solona’s mouth tasted sour. They did that, treated the Tranquil like children, but even children knew to flee from danger. She thought of Jowan. She tried to stand up straighter, carry herself like Cousland did, all military precision and haughty boredom, but the instinct was so strong. The desire to be invisible in the shadow of the Tower.
“Good morning, Warden. I do not know you. You were not from our Circle.” His eyes passed no judgement as they dispassionately probed her face.
It was not posed a question, but Solona felt compelled to respond. “No, I’m afraid I’m from Kinloch. Was from Kinloch, I mean, before. Before I was recruited by Warden Duncan.” Her right hand flew to her throat, and with a jerk she pulled the Warden’s Oath from under her clothes. The fastening came apart in her hand. Cullen’s fingers spasmed once against his thigh, and he shifted his weight to the closer foot. “My staff was damaged fighting darkspawn in Crestwood.”
“The Kinloch Circle is broken.” Jonas tilted his head, perhaps considering the object she laid across his wooden counter. Perhaps it had no meaning to him. The silver griffon on the front plate encircled— but did not entirely obscure— the blood talisman beneath it.
“I heard about that. Terrible.”
“I am permitted to sell to visitors at the discretion of the Order.”
“How fortunate.” Solona exhaled.
“Will you need something in writing from the Knight-Captain?” Already Cullen was turning away, looking toward the garrison, looking for an out from their stilted conversation.
If a Tranquil could express amusement, Jonas would have been amused. “Your word is bond, Knight-Lieutenant Rutherford.” For lack of inflection, the delivery came across as sarcastic. His flat gaze shifted back to Solona. “Do you wish to trade now?”
“Yes.” She released him, and his eyes flickered once across her burning cheeks, before Cullen walked away from them both. He situated himself in the center of the pathway, looking back toward the courtyard. It was hard to tell if he was attempting to offer her privacy or stand lookout, but either way she was grateful for the space. She regretted dragging him into any of this. Her heart was thrumming in her ears.
With her dominant hand free, she tucked away the Warden’s Oath and withdrew her staff. The weapon grew to fill her hand with the gentlest bump of mana. Like a young tree it spread a bloom of carved spirals over her head, burnished oak cradling an opalescent orb. Resting at her toes was a sickle-like staff blade, sharply curved. It was a training weapon for an advanced class, taken from a rack in a classroom, the first Solona had come across in the tower. “I would like to sell this,” Solona said, resting it on Jonas’s counter. “You should be able to fix it.”
She expected him to bring out an arcanist’s toolset, but the man leaned down, resting his ear upon the wood. His hands roved up and down the length, caressing it like a lover. After just a moment of ‘listening’, he snapped upright and stuck his fingers into the mounting. The metal frame was twisted, knocking the orb off center. “No,” he announced.
Her heart sank. Her face felt so hot she could barely see. She had counted on this money, how much she hadn’t realized until just now.. She thought, ‘I didn’t walk bald-faced into a Circle to walk out empty handed. I didn’t fight werewolves and darkspawn to be bested by a merchant!’ Her shoulders stiffened. “The blade alone sells for sixty silver. Even if the focus is irrevocably broken, you can cannibalize it for the parts.”
Jonas seemed not to be listening. He lunged forward and snatched her hands, flipping them over before she could flinch to scrutinize the flesh of each palm. “This staff was not your own.”
She pulled her hands free. “I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean.”
“I did not intend to offend, Warden. Just the opposite. You do not seem feebleminded. Why would a Circle-trained mage use force through a pyro-attuned focusing crystal? Do they not teach affinities in your Circle?”
His scolding made her smile. Later she would wonder why. “I used to use something a bit more flexible. This one was improvisation. You see, I was under attack at the time.”
“The Grey Wardens need equipment. The First Enchanter speaks of providing aid.” He turned away from her to dig in the depths of a long weapons chest. “A Warden must not be without a proper weapon. You must trade,” the Tranquil insisted quietly.
The staff he offered was a much finer thing than the training instrument. “I couldn’t.”
“The Staff of the Dragon. It is correct.” It was comprised of an ash pole, crowned with a silverite dragon, and footed with a straight staff blade longer than her shin bone. Only First Enchanters were known to carry weapons so ostentatious. Every element of its design said that it was meant to display wealth and status.
“Surely you have something else. Anything.”
“It is correct,” the man repeated. Clearly he was determined.
The Staff of the Dragon. One of a set commissioned by some pompous noble to celebrate the Hero of Orlais. Not unique, per se, but she had never heard of one ending up in Ferelden. The irony of such a weapon was not lost on her. No sensible member of the Circle would even touch a staff which commemorated the deaths of mages. Even if those mages had been a bloodmage cabal bent on murdering the Divine. Solona wondered if Jonas had simply wished to be rid of the thing.
“I really couldn’t,” she protested, as he pushed the pole into her grip. The wood felt strangely warm, and that warmth spread from her hands up her arms and across her shoulders until she was ringing with a sensation she had forgotten.
As Solona and Cullen crossed over the bridge which separated the Circle from the city, she twisted the miniaturized length of her new staff over her index and ring fingers and under her middle finger, mindful not to cut herself on the sharp edge.
“You were going to sell. What made you change your mind?” Cullen asked.
“A Warden needs a weapon,” she replied, almost dreamy. The baby was awake inside her, rolling about like a big fish in a little net. Its demanding presence made it somewhat hard to think about anything else. “Breakfast?”
He nodded a little helplessly. “Certainly. What did you mean?”
“I’m not a real Grey Warden,” she snorted, “but Jonas made such a compelling pitch for it. I honestly tried to say no. He’s very convincing.”
“I suppose that is why he keeps a shop, no? Only what will you do now? You needed the coin for…” color flushed across the bridge of his nose as Cullen vaguely waved his hands “...clothes. What will we do?”
“Breakfast,” Solona repeated cheerfully, dragging his hand to rest on her belly. “We are hungry.”
Pink spread over Cullen’s cheeks. “Cannot have that.” His voice pitched gravelly with affection.
They walked south up the long hill until they came to the upper market, where they purchased two glossy buns stuffed with cod and mugs of hot milk. They sat at a bench beside a railed staircase, in a space which was for outdoor seating in warmer seasons. The tables were pushed into a corner beside the building and the chairs were stacked on top, smothered with snow.
“Karl was scared to death of it,” Solona found herself musing as she licked her thumb clean. “Tranquility. Not for himself so much, but for Anders. He nearly cut a groove in the dormitory floor with all his pacing. I never considered that I… I mean I always thought I would be safe from the Rite. And I was.”
Cullen turned to face the sea, suddenly looking very peaked, like he was going to be sick. At length, he managed, “I do not think I met Karl.”
“You wouldn’t have. They sent him to Kirkwall the year before you graduated.” Solona stood up to follow him, laid both hands on the snowed-over railing, pushing her fingers down into the snow, until they found a rough layer of ice covering the stone. She let herself feel the cold— the way it bit into her skin, the way it enveloped her joints— past numbness until the sensation became paradoxically warm. “What did Greagoir say?”
He looked everywhere but back at her. A poor omen. “You would know the handwriting. Did you read it?”
“I would not be asking if I had.” Solona swallowed hard. The baby’s feet were kicking upward, not satisfied to let her keep her breakfast. The heartburn this caused was a daily annoyance, but not one she was able to ignore.
“Cutter went behind my back.”
She did not admit that she had wondered. “Of course. He wants to keep you.”
“He has only taken pity.”
“The signs are all there. Choice positions, vacant shifts left for you to fill… It’s not hard to guess why.”
“I am not like you, on loan to the Grey Wardens.”
“Such as that is.”
“Sola, it’s Kirkwall.”
"I stole your phylactery from the Grand Cleric's knights. I'd never let them catch you if you wanted to run."
"They'll hang you, Cullen."
Solona took a step backwards and her foot found slickness. For a split moment she felt weightless, disconnected from the ground. She cried out but Cullen already had his hands under her arms. Wrenching pain shot through her left side and spread across her back.
“Are you hurt?” he demanded, white as a sheet as he forcibly seated her on the bench. “Sola, answer me!”
Solona tasted blood in her mouth. She realized she had bit down on her tongue. “I’m fine.” Her back was on fire. Discreetly as she could, she slipped a fist behind her to massage the muscles of her lower back. “I just slipped on the ice. Did you say Kirkwall ? What happened to Greenfell? The nice little village posting you were promised?”
“Officially, I am still on their roster. But everyone knows I am absent without leave. Sooner or later it was going to catch up. Cutter thought he was helping. He thought he could get me transferred here. That would mean regular shifts and real pay. I did not ask, but I cannot say I entirely hate the idea. So sick of failing you.”
“But you’re not.”
“I had this thought that I would join one of the armies, become a soldier to support you and our child, but I cannot do without the lyrium.” His fists balled up in his lap. “If the Wardens only had a source… But there are rumors swirling now.”
“Worse. That I ran away because I murdered three apprentices.”
“Maker’s breath!” she gasped, both a prayer and a profanity. She touched her mouth with three fingers. “When?”
“I have had various versions of the tale relayed to me,” he said grimly. “One said it was during the fall of the Circle. Another said it was after the Grand Cleric’s men arrived, because Elemena would not deploy the Rite of Annulment.” The color had completely drained from his lips. “You do not—”
“—No! I could never believe it.”
'Even if— Even if—’ her brain stuttered.
His voice came from deep within his chest. He said simply, “I could.”
She could not answer that. “What does this have to do with Kirkwall?”
“Meredith Stannard has recently lost her second-in-command. She asked for me by name.”
“In spite of the lie, or because of it? Cullen, I’ve heard things about Stannard. We all have.”
“A Knight-Captain’s pay could easily support a family. You do not— You do not have to come. But I would—”
Solona leaned forward and silenced him with a kiss. His hands fluttered, uncertain, before coming to rest on her shoulders. ‘Stupid,’ she thought, ‘he’s going to be the death of me.’ His mouth came alive against hers, keenly desperate, cold and chapped from the winter air, but so insistent. Quickly, the places where they met began to heat. “No,” she told him against his lips, made him swallow her refusal, needed him to understand. Kirkwall had taken her mother. It had taken one of her brothers. It would not have any more from her.
Cullen broke away, breathless. “I thought you would be angry.”
“Can’t you tell? I’m furious.” She could feel his breath against her mouth. “How dare you think I cannot take care of myself? I will find the coin.” Solona nodded, not sure what she was assenting to, half praying he would kiss her again. She thought of Ostwick. Ricard Trevelyan would want his only grandchild. She began to formulate a long-overdue letter in her head to her father.
Cullen leaned against her where their foreheads met. “I am afraid that the letter you saw was not the first of my correspondence with Knight-Commander Greagoir.”
“Tell me you refused Stannard.”
“I did,” he affirmed. “And then it was made clear to me that I have no choice in the matter. By the end of spring next I will report to Knight-Commander Meredith or they will hang me for desertion."
"So it is… the gallows either way.” She tried to laugh at her morbid little joke. Honestly. But her ears were so loud, roaring with the sound of the sea, and the waves were pounding against her skull. Her back throbbed once, and a cold sweat sprang on the skin under her clothes. Cullen was saying something about her color, but his voice faded to a soft nothingness. She tried to read his lips.
"Wait," he might have said, "what is happening? Is it the—"
'Is it the what?' she wondered as the lights went out.
Chapter 17: Ice (Solona)
“Come on, come on,” Cullen urged, voice gruff, white-knuckling her shoulders. He shook Solona again, and she struggled to lift her chin from where it was tucked against her chest. When had that happened?
She opened her eyes and immediately regretted it. Her vision was plagued by shadows at the edges, and only pinpricks of washed-out double vision penetrated the darkness. She gagged.
The bench was racing like a galloping horse beneath her. It felt like she would be hurled off into thin air. “‘M fine,” she said. “Promise.” She tacked on, “Hello.”
“Try saying that again, without slurring your speech, and I might just believe you,” he replied, wry and frightened. “Easy, easy, I have you, do not try to stand yet.”
“I believe you lost consciousness.”
“Ridiculous. What sort of shrinking violet do you take me for, Cullen?” She jerked her head to the left. He held her as she doubled over, retching up her breakfast, reliving the taste of sweetened milk, now mixed with bile. It splashed with a sickening beige sizzle in the snow. Where was nothing left to give, she found she could not stop the convulsions; she gagged, and spat, and shook, and cried, and with each new heave the pain in her back grew a little more insistent, demanding a piece of her attention.
Cullen kept the loose hairs which had fallen from her braid away from her mouth, and stroked his hand up and down her spine. He was no longer phased by the sight. Nearly every meal ended in this fashion, especially if it was anything nicer than a bit of dry bread. There had been a few weeks in the middle of her time where they had thought the spells had finally passed, but they had returned with a vengeance. “Feel any better?”
Solona spat, twice, trying to drive the taste from her mouth. “No.” The cramp in her lower back throbbed again, and she pressed her lips together, trying to stifle the groan rising in the back of her throat.
He palmed the side of her face, tucking her hair behind her ear. What he saw made him frown. “I think Anders should have a look at you.”
“I’m sure that’s not necessary.”
“I am sorry, did that come out like a suggestion?”
“Bastard.” She blotted her nose and eyes with her sleeve. “Fine. Since you insist.”
“I do insist.” His eyebrows knitted together. “It is too far a walk back. Let me take you to the inn at the corner.” He pressed a kiss on her forehead.
“Charmer.” A wave of dizzy lightness lifted her up, sweeping the sensation of her body out from under her. Her head lolled, slowly, and then all at once, like a ship without a rudder. Solona heard Cullen swear and felt the jarring stop as he caught her against his armored body.
There was one moment of stillness. “Still with me?” Cullen asked, aiming to be light, but the worry crept into his voice.
“Something’s wrong.” Suddenly, she could feel spreading warmth between her legs, a slippery wetness that made her heart skip a beat. “It can’t be, it’s too soon. It’s—”
She was cut off by ripping flesh, terrible pain, like nothing she had ever felt before in her life. Like someone had plunged a fist into her abdomen and pulled her spine out through her navel. She tried to scream but she was sucking in air like a dying fish, quick little gasps in spurts, the hiccuping convulsions after a sobbing fit. She could not catch her breath. She heard, vaguely, Cullen cry out for her in alarm, and he lifted her clumsily, slamming her against his ice-cold templar armor. He shouted for help into the deserted street.
A spattering sound as he rose with her cradled in his arms, and she saw now the puddle left behind on the seat. Deep red on the bench. Bright red in the snow. Cullen moaned. She expected him to falter, but he did not, walking as fast as he could with her life soaking into his vestments.
“Forgive me,” she tried to tell him. It wasn’t fair. It was only a little ice. But the words would not come out.
“Shhh, I have you, I’m here,” he said. “Save your strength.” Indeed, it took every ounce of stamina she could muster just to look up at him. Cullen’s face was white, drawn up and shuttered, and grim as a soldier marching to his death. With every step her bones rattled against his unyielding form.
“I want to tell you,” she said, but recognized it was only nonsense when the noises she was making hit her ears. Garbled groans. Solona waited for the jolt of unconsciousness to carry her off, but it seemed that now she was actively turning to liquid her brain hung on with every shred.
She felt the weight of the door as Cullen levered it open with a few fingers, bracing her body against it when he pulled. The white-blue snow light flicked out in the dim yellowness of the tavern. Cullen was barking instructions and then he—
Cullen was praying. She recognized it as the first verse of Trials, a favorite of the templars, the prayer of the despairing. “ I am not alone. Even as I stumble on the path with my eyes closed, yet I see the Light is here. ”
Solona could not muster the energy to open her eyes. She felt only cold, shivering even with the enormous weight of blankets over her body. There were pockets of heat from the hot compresses tucked under her feet, but they offered little relief. On her tongue she could taste lyrium, and elfroot, and the copper-coin flavor of restorative. Someone’s hands were under the blankets, pressing down on her belly, the pain a dull fire which made her want to curl in on herself.
“That’s very distracting,” Anders said. He sounded a little worse for wear. She heard the creak of the wooden floor as he shifted his weight, swaying from foot to foot. “I always liked verse fifteen better, much more optimistic.”
“Apologies.” After a beat Cullen said, “I never took you for a religious man.”
“Well, there is a lot you do not know about me,” Anders answered, sounding mock-hurt. “My favorite color, my birthday…”
“Your real name.”
“That too. I’d bet more than half the mages you’ve met go by some monniker. One way or another, the Circle takes our names.”
“She… said something like that, once.” Cullen’s voice cracked in the middle.
In the silence, she could hear the continual high-pitched drone of spirit healing, and her own shallow, labored breathing. She almost felt detached from herself, a distant observer rather than an embodied being. Surely that was a poor sign. She remembered the shouting, the calamity of entering the tavern, the frantic barmaids and the rush for linens and towels to soak up the spilled blood. She wondered if this was what dying was like. Would she slowly untangle from her body, or would it come quickly, and would she even notice? She tried to muster up fear, but she was long beyond care. She drifted, listening.
Anders spoke again. It might have been five minutes later, or five hours. Solona had no frame of reference. “Sollie’s not going to die. Neither of them will, not if I can help it.”
“But she’s so gray, and cold, like a— Barely breathing, and there was so much blood. Maker, I’ve seen fatal wounds that—” Still cracking. It was better when Cullen had something to do. He needed to be useful, to have purpose.
“The placenta detached, but I believe only partially.”
“I do not know what that means.”
“It means an organ tore. That accounts for the blood loss.”
“You said…” Cullen gripped for the word. “...partially?”
“Totally, and she would be— As it was I only got here—” Anders gave a full body shiver. “Sorry. The regenerative stasis is holding her together for now. The hard part is knitting these delicate pieces back together without forming scar tissue. It must be done very slowly, and deliberately. A general healing spell— or a strong potion— will probably kill her. Fatal clots, you know, tricky business. I won’t lie to you, Cullen. There is nothing I can do if her heart gives out.”
“I said I would do it. I believe I can. But I am far away from being an expert. I could really use Wynne’s help on this, or barring that, some other practitioner of magical midwifery.”
“I could bring someone from the Circle.”
Solona could just imagine the face Anders would be making. “She’ll need more than the day. It’ll be weeks before this child is strong enough to live on the outside, and someone needs to monitor the repair closely. Besides, I rather thought the reason you were here to begin with was to avoid handing your daughter over to the Circle.”
“Daughter?” Cullen inhaled.
“She didn’t tell you? Fuck, I’ve spoiled the surprise.”
“I do not know if she knew. She never talks about it— her— our daughter— at all. And who could blame her? I know what she thinks. She has written a dozen letters hoping someone in her family will take the child before the Chantry takes it from her.”
“Maybe, and this is just a guess, she can’t talk about it because you’re one of them.”
“As damned as I am by it now, I still believe the templars to be a force of good. But if you should ask me if I believe that children should be stripped from their parents and placed in orphanages merely for the sake of being mageborn… No. I cannot believe in that. Some mages— Wynne, yourself, Sol— can live responsibly outside of a tower but within a Circle’s guidance.”
“How kind of you to lump me in with the responsible mages.”
“Others obviously cannot. Think of Uldred and his ilk. What if those abominations had not been contained, but left to roam in a populated area?”
“Is that hypothetical, or do you want me to answer?”
“All I’m hearing is that the mages you like or— Maker help me— the mages you love are people worthy of their freedom, but the rest are dangerous and need kept in a box with the lid on. Like all mages aren’t people.”
“I don’t know,” Cullen sighed, growing frustrated. “Perhaps we could make the Harrowing more difficult.”
Anders laughed darkly. “Yes, more Tranquil, that’s somebody’s idea of a solution.”
“And I suppose you wish to dissolve the Circles entirely.”
“I never said that. I do concede your point about blood magic. It would be up to the College of Magi to say. Did you know that there are—”
“Well, don’t go running to your friend the Knight-Captain with this, but there is an organization in Ferelden which… Hm.”
“You are trying my patience, Anders.”
“There is a guild of interested parties which police the maleficars outside of the Circle.”
“An apostate guild? You are organized?”
“Well, not me, organizations make me itchy, but yes. They call themselves the Collective. Apostates, Circle mages, the occasional templar who sees the inherent corruption of the system…”
“Anyone I would know?”
“I wouldn’t tell you names even if I knew them! Andraste’s ass, Cullen, I wasn’t born yesterday.” Anders began to cough. “Damn it, my hands are cramping.”
“How can I help?”
“Push that chair over here. Do we have more lyrium?”
She heard the sound of a chair scraping across the floor, and the rustling of a bag. “One more vial. I will go out and find more.” Cullen considered his options. “I may have to steal it.”
“The quartermaster won’t just give you more? You’re a Knight-Lieutenant!”
“Knight-Captain, actually— I’ve been promoted— but no, not even then. I’m not part of Jainen’s Circle. If a templar could have as much as he wanted from any Circle, he might go mad. Or worse, slip his leash.”
“Fascinating. You would think more templars would rebel, but that’s besides the point. There’s an alley in Baker’s Row where a man in a ridiculous hat pretends to sell black market goods. He’s a contact for the Collective. Give him my name and he’ll arrange something for us.”
“He will just… give it to me?”
“No, there’s always a middleman to make the delivery. Like you said, the templars are desperate for the stuff…”
Round and round again. Solona swam toward the sound of voices, searching for a way to open her eyes. But she was so, so, so tired. The Fade in her dreams was quiet and gray and hissed portents of her passing. "Mouse!" she called out in the mists, looking for her companion. "Mouse, I need your help!" Her screams of frustration attracted rage demons, but she was fire and fire could never harm her. The ice had been her weakness. She swatted the demons away like they were nothing more than gnats. "Mouse!"
The spirit of Wisdom finally showed his face after what felt like days of searching. "You are very far from your Tower, Small Friend," Mouse admonished, sitting cross legged in a manifestation of the Harrowing Chamber. It was not as she last remembered it— Uldred's blood blackening the floor— but rather set for a Harrowing ceremony. A font of lyrium glistened in the center of the room, with pillows beneath it to catch the young dreamer. "How can I aid you this time?"
"I need to get a message to someone in the mortal world."
"A simple problem," Mouse said, pleased. "Wake up. I see nothing which binds you here. No magicks or demon."
"But I can't. I'm so tired."
"Sloth again?" The spirit flickered into the form of its namesake, and gave her a puzzled sniff. "Your essence is weakened, Small Friend. The Little Thing you carry is broken. I have done all I can to protect you from this side, as you asked of me the last time we spoke. The Littlest Dreamer is safe from the shades and the nightmares. But I cannot fix the mortal flesh. It would corrupt me to try."
"I would not ask if it was not a matter of her death. Please, Mouse. Can you push me closer to waking?"
"I will try."
“She looks worse.”
“I agree. The lyrium, Cullen, please.” Anders’ voice was soft and hollow, tinged with exhaustion.
Rustling, and the sound of glass against glass. “You look like you need sleep.”
“She’s dying, Cull. I’ll sleep when she isn’t.”
“Let me go to the Circle.”
“You know what they’ll do to us.”
“The Aenor for you. But I’ll swing for it. Greagoir at least tried to warn me.”
“You must love her after all.”
“I know I made a bad showing of it.”
Solona cracked open her eyes, saw the naked anguish on Cullen's expression. He sat rumpled, unshaven, pale, with his head in his hands. There was blood staining his nailbeds.
“I…” Anders swallowed. “Give me one more hour. Let us see if the lyrium helps her.”
A mouth. Maker, give her a mouth, with lips, and teeth, and tongue. "Lanaya," she breathed. An almost-nothing, half a sound. "Lanaya."
"Sollie, is that you? Can you hear me, sweetheart? Hey, squeeze Cullen's hand if you can hear me."
"I'm here. I'm right here!"
But she could not find her hands. This close to consciousness, there was nothing but pain. Only one chance to get out her message, and though she desperately wanted to reassure Anders, to tell Cullen that she loved him, she had just a few breaths. "Lanaya. Dalish Keeper. P-Please."
Chapter 18: Spirit (Solona)
She should have been…
Should she have been afraid?
The soporific effect of the potion on her tongue lulled the panic away, and with it went the pain. On her tongue, between her teeth and her lips, coating the back of her throat. Warm, stale, numbness. Her senses fought for her attention, but she could only account for one at a time. There was a vibration in her chest; Solona could feel her diaphragm strain and catch with each breath. Hinged, cracking, her throat was a lump she felt her body swallow around, but mechanical— like it was someone else’s death rattle. Tendrils of blue-white magic massaged her throat, bringing with them the taste of relief like water in the desert. The muscles in her shoulders collapsed flat.
She was posed between sleep and waking, stuck in the moment of stirring. Her arms were heavy, and any sensation below her waist was gone. She had the impression she had awakened before. Like the wisps of a good dream, any memory she chased danced out of reach. The humming in her ears gradually gave way to a familiar pair of voices.
Anders was curled up on the right side of her bed, twisted with his knees to his chest. Cullen rested on her left, on his back, gently holding her hand between both of his hands like he was cupping a little bird. The color of her fingers was wrong, sort of an ashy blue, and the nail beds were purple. “I do not know how,” Cullen muttered, staring fixedly at the patterns in the plaster ceiling, because looking anywhere else was too much. A thick, dark beard of weeks was creeping up around his lips, as relentless in its curling as his hair, and he worried it with his teeth. “Tell me again.”
It was hard to tell if this was the waking world or the dream. Anders was thin and gray. When he shifted a few more hairs fell from the thin patch at the edge of his crown. This was the stress of living on borrowed mana. Mages were not susceptible to lyrium addiction— at least, not in the same way templars were— but even a dwarf could get lyrium-sick if he took in too much too quickly. “There is nothing more I can do,” Anders said.
“I cannot do it.”
“She would want it to be you.”
“I… I’m not so sure.” Cullen traced her ring finger with his index, studying the creases and bends and scars. “I thought we would have time. That if I could just tell her…”
“Believe me. I know exactly what you mean.”
Solona dumped her armload of books and parchment across the table in the enchanter’s library. “You’re not supposed to be in here, Karl.” The older man stuck out his tongue. She threw up her hands and returned with a rude gesture. “I’m just saying, if Hadley catches you, there’s nought I can do.”
“You’re an enchanter now.”
“Junior,” she wrinkled her nose.
“Still a sight better than me.” He rubbed a line into the thick beard around his mouth. His beard, along with his hair, was streaked with premature gray, lending him a rather charming salt-and-pepper appearance.
“But you didn’t join the Circle until you were twenty-four.”
“Twenty-six. And I know most people join when they are young, so by that count I’m just a wee slip of a mage.”
“Baby boy,” she smiled, borrowing Anders’ nickname for him.
“I had no training before they brought me here, so they tell me I ought to be grateful the Knight-Commander did not dump me into the Harrowing on my first day.” Karl paused, grimacing at the memory, and helped her collect her scattered papers back into an orderly stack. “Just tell the Knight-Captain we’re your assistants or something.”
“We? Should have figured on Anders. Where is he?”
“Raiding the larder for snacks. He has his paper due tomorrow, so naturally we’re up all night to finish.”
“Naturally. What’s wrong with the apprentice’s library?”
“The books are so much nicer in here. Cleaner. Fewer scribbles on the text.”
“But Anders did most of those,” she pointed out.
“I know.” Karl smiled fondly.
“Is he actually writing any of this?”
“Not a word. Do you have time to help?”
Solona gestured at her own work. “I’ve got three weeks of lesson plans due. Besides, I’m practically hopeless at healing.”
“There’s a hot chocolate in it for you,” Karl coaxed.
“Fine, twist my arm. I’m sure I can crib something off of Torrin’s old lessons. No one’s giving me points for originality.”
“Mostly trying to keep the littles from burning their eyebrows off,” Anders remarked, holding three mugs precariously in one fist, and a tray of biscuits in the other. “‘Lo, Sollie. Maybe don’t save them all. Then I’ll get to practice sticking them back on! What do you know about—
“—rat poison and elfroot. The potion thins the blood. But there is a significant chance she’ll begin to bleed again.” Anders was pacing, a habit which reminded her so much of Karl. Having one without the other felt wrong, especially now, when the cloak of magic was thick in the air. It even smelled like the Circle. An alembic arranged on a table whistled over a magicked blue flame; its vapours hinted at various herbs and reagents.
Cullen breathed noisily, like all the air had been sucked out of the room. He was sitting at the edge of the bed, with his foot tucked under his leg. Disheveled, unkempt, grave. His other foot was swinging in a quick, jerking motion, practically vibrating with nervous energy. “And if we wait? Can she get better on her own, like this?”
“Then we hold out for that Dalish woman.” There was a keen edge in his voice; he was looking for some scrap of hope to cling to. Solona willed herself to squeeze his hand. “A week by the North Road under all this damned snow. Less if those harts are really as good as they say they are.” Cullen’s head jerked in her direction. His cheek under his eye was ticcing like mad. Maker, was he not sleeping? “Jendrik told me… None of the healers in his Circle would even try.”
“First Enchanters are pricks.”
“Is he wrong?”
“You waste your time with that lot. I could have told you what he would say.” The mage twisted his fingers, casting a spell which amplified sound. “Hear that rattling in her lungs? It’s a clot. One of—”
"—the five things Spirit Healing cannot cure?”
“Er,” Solona stalled.
“Questions of sanity, loss of the senses, infectious contaminants, demonic possession,” Anders rattled off, not even making the show of counting on his fingers.
“Oh! And conditions of the blood,” she interrupted him. “I swear I knew them.”
Anders snorted. “Sure you did.”
“Don’t be such an arsehole! You didn’t spend your afternoon with your nose in the dust drawing chalk glyphs.”
“I kept my nose buried somewhere far more—”
“Sorry Karl! I notice you still have some just there,” he said helpfully, indicating to her left eyebrow. “If the templars would let you paint your glyphs you wouldn’t have to re-draw every time some bored kid scuffs his feet on the floor.”
Solona rubbed at her eyebrow. “I brought that point up in the staff meeting. Only let me squeak it out at the very end because I’m the junior and Sweeney had Very Important Reminiscing to do, but that’s neither here nor there. Know what Greagoir said?” Her voice rose to an impassioned pitch. From the other side of the room, Alim Surana loudly cleared his throat and shot her a stern glare. His large, yellow-green eyes— which reminded her ever so much of a bird— returned to his book before she could make a face back. “Too dangerous! Permanent protective wards could be misused!”
Anders scratched his nose. “Huh. I wonder how he figures that.”
“You know most of them cannot tell a malicious mark from a benevolent one. What if somebody barred themselves in a classroom? How could a mighty templar hope to detain them without the power of a cup of water?” she whispered peevishly.
“Good thing they don’t know about old Magus Gorvish. Or that spot on the shelf behind Spiritorum Etherialis. Or that one weird chest in the dorms. Or—”
“More importantly,” Karl said, trying to push them back on track, “five pages calling out to you.”
“Write big,” Solona suggested, yanking a biscuit from Anders’ hands. “Or don’t.”
Anders perched on the arm of Karl’s chair, pouting. “A real friend would help me finish.”
“But you haven’t started!”
“They want to Harrow us tomorrow, you know.”
Her smile faded. “Is that reliable information?”
“Straight from the templar’s mouth. Karl, too, back to back. And won’t you feel bad if I come back boggle-eyed.”
Karl hissed. “Don’t even joke about that, Anders.”
Anders folded his arms across his chest. “How bad can it be?” He tilted his head pointedly in her direction. “She did it.”
“For the hundredth time, I cannot tell you what happens.” She sighed. “I want to, I really, really do, but I’m not allowed to help. If they even suspected I was talking about it...”
Karl reached out and took Anders’s hand. His face had turned ashen and his forehead had a sheen of sweat. “I heard they make you fight a demon.”
Anders laughed thinly, through his nose. “Where’s a templar going to get a demon?”
“But that is not what happened,” Surana interjected. In a blink of an eye he had moved from the corner of the room to a seat at the head of the table. “Why are you changing it now?”
“Mouse—” Solona hissed, giving him only a sideways glance before turning her gaze back to the frozen tableau. Karl and Anders, hand in hand. “You never do get the eyes right. Surana’s were blue.”
“Who notices little things like that?”
“People do.” She ran her fingers through her fringe. “Listen to me, giving tips to a demon on how to fool mortals better.”
Surana’s form shifted into an amorphous yellow-green humanoid, floating primly above the wooden chair. Mouse had no distinguishable face, but she got the impression he was turning up his nose. “I am only a demon when they want me to me.”
“I know.” The Harrowing took many forms. A mage might be sent into the Fade and forced to confront their temptations. Or sometimes, a demon was pushed inside of them and they had to tear its fetid claws from their mind. In the end the mage would slay the demon, or the templars would slay them both. Everyone— weak, strong, brave, scared— had to face one. At random, unprepared, alone, in front of the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter. Or else take the sunburst brand and lose yourself to Tranquility.
Solona had chosen the third path. When confronted with Wisdom-who-would-be-Pride, she’d laughed and reverse-engineered the binding circles. Untethered, the little Mouse was free to show her the way back out of the Fade. Nothing in her Demonology courses had suggested that spirits were so mutable, that they could go back to being harmless. Once corrupted, they should remain so. But even though he had introduced himself as Pride, he had hardly looked like a hulking behemoth of lightning and chains.
Perhaps Mouse was always dual-natured. Or perhaps the Chantry did not know every secret of the Fade. Regardless, that she could speak to him now was troubling. Mouse never left the Fade of the Circle. She’d honestly thought him dead after Sloth imploded the landscape of the dream space. How far did her mind wander from her body?
“Changing the memory to absolve yourself never works. Others have tried. The guilt will bring demons to circle like carrion birds.”
“I drew the binding circles that day. I could have warned them. I should have warned them.”
“Would that have changed a line of what came after? Your friends slayed their demons. Thekla’s fate was decided long before he stepped into the Harrowing Chamber.”
“But they never said goodbye!” She buried her head in her fists. “I wasn’t there. Alim kicked Karl out of the library, Hadley sent Anders to his room, I… could have given them that much.”
“And then?” Mouse asked.
Maker, she could still hear Anders. “Sollie, you have to find out where they’ve sent him. You’re the clerk, you are the only one who can get into Irving’s office.”
The echo of her own voice, filling the Fade like a cold, dry wind: “I can’t! They’ll know it was me who told you when you run.”
“I won’t run. I’ll—”
“Tell me you’ll put in for a transfer. Properly.”
“I will. Of course I will.”
“It’s no good, Anders, you’re an awful liar.”
“You could come with me.”
Bare, pale Fade. Twists of green mist and blooms of blue lyrium. “How would that be different?” Mouse floated past her, soft as breath.
“He would still go after Karl. I would still… try to save Jowan. And I’d still wind up alone in a prison cell.”
Curious: “Is that where you think you are?”
Cold, probing hands. The magic tasted strange.
Only the Keepers used that kind of magic, and the voice who spoke was certainly not Lanaya. “This is a waste of my time,” said the mage. Her voice was piercing, distinctive, as sharp as the calluses on her palms, and she sounded borderline disgusted. “I should be with the clans. A dozen good people die every day I am away.” What was that accent? Northern, very northern, like the rural edges of the Free Marches, and yet... Biting. Precise. Polished. She would have fit in with the upper-crustiest of Aunt Lucille’s parties, if she hadn’t been an elf.
“There you are, making friends again,” sighed a second female voice, Orlesian, oozingly, unnaturally accented. Someone had taught her to speak like that. “This poor man, he does not care that you are hating humans and are too feral to keep your mouth closed. He wants to know if you can fix his woman. Or at least save the bebe.”
“Honestly, the whole way like this! Shemlen, flat-ear, this and that! Just because I am an elf they think I can understand the clans. A dozen of them, all impossible. I came to Denerim to help my friend, not to coddle these painted children who think they are the only real elves left in the world.”
The first said something waspish in elvhen.
The second fired back in the same tongue— low, throaty, and capricious. Then, she switched back to common. “Sic the Dread Wolf on me all you please, First of Lavellen. I am sure He and I would have much to chat about. But before you do, consider what a hero to your people you will be when you personally broker a treaty between your People and Ferelden. This is an intimate friend of the Bastard Prince. Would he be grateful enough to give you the Old Forest? Or Gwaren?”
“You are betting with cards you do not hold,” Lavellen rebutted, but softly. She sounded intrigued. Any sensible person would be, offered that much land.
“You came all this way. Certainly it does no harm to see to the Keepers’ desire.”
“Fine. But the templar stays outside. I do not care for the look of him. He stinks of lyrium.” Already, she was sinking that earthy magic deep into Solona’s bones. “Mage of the Circle, come. Walk me through the pieces of the wound.”
Cullen said, “Then you will—”
“Outside I said!”
“Hello? Hello! Say something, anything, please.” Anders voice was a rusted nail, discarded, unused. His long fingers curled around the iron bars in the tiny window of his cell door. The cuticles were picked and bleeding. “Hello? I know someone is there. Sounded like slippers, too light to be a templar. Please.” He’d turned from manic delight to desperation within the same breath. “No one says anything.”
But what was she to say? “Hi,” Solona whispered, placing her hand flat against the bars, so that her palm met his nails. “I’m sorry.”
Anders’ face drew up, the sharp lines of his cheekbones and nose like cut glass. “You can’t be here.”
“I only just heard that they caught you on the West Hill docks.” She swallowed. “Ten months ago. I really thought you got away this— Have you really been alone all this time?”
“Oh, you know, I’ve had my jailers. Nice boys, very flirty the way they slide the trays under the door. And Mr. Wiggums, until…” His face scrunched up. “There was this very petulant demon of rage, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, finally took my poor cat!”
“I heard about that.” She shoved her hand against her mouth, stopping the silent gasp of a sob from passing her lips. “Killed three templars. We had a whole week of lockdown.”
“Don’t cry, sweetheart,” Anders murmured, running his hand against her wet cheeks. “But you can’t be here. You have to go.”
“I made a friend in the templars. If I asked him—”
“Don’t you dare.” He bared his teeth, snarling. “You leave those bastards out of this.”
“Cullen,” she whispered.
The room in which Solona awoke was quiet, and windowless, and for the first few moments she gripped the bedclothes, calculating how likely it was that she was back in the Circle. Her eyes darted around the space. The walls were made of dark stone, and the floor was a light-colored wood, probably pine. The fireplace was recently tended, crackling with orange flame behind an ironwrought grate. Wood-fed, not a magical flame, which meant she was not as alone as she felt, for the log was fresh and the ashes had been swept from the hearth.
She swept her eyes slowly around the room from right to left. It was a nicely arranged interior room with a sitting area, a stone tub, a writing desk, and a storage trunk. Hanging from the painted screen was someone else’s clothes— a modest gown of deep green, probably velvet from the way it glowed in the light of the candles. She puzzled over this strange addition for a minute, before turning her attention to the bed in which she found herself. The bed was an old Fereldan four-poster, with the curtains drawn on the door side, perhaps to shield her from the people who came and went. The feather mattress smelled like an old goose, and was decidedly lumpy, but the linens were soft enough against her skin.
Slowly, cautiously, she lifted back the blanket, biting her lip. She remembered blood, screaming, expected— perhaps it was more truthful to say she feared. She flushed, realizing that she was wearing only a flimsy shift, and no smalls. She was grateful, then, for the curtains. There was a layer of dry rag-linens under her legs, stained a pale brown where the blood would not completely wash clean. Solona winced. Those memories were too close, too ugly to deal with yet.
She pulled herself upright into a sitting position, and swung her legs off the side of the bed. Maker! She was as weak as a newborn kitten! The effort left her panting. Her swollen abdomen still filled her lap, and then some, spilling halfway down her thighs. In her memory the skin ought to have been lightning-streaked with angry, rippled marks, but they were conspicuously absent. In their place was the afterimage of two broad hands, the burn shadow of a spell gone awry. She twisted her right hand to slot it over the impression of Anders’ fingers, considering just how much magic he had poured into her to leave such a mark. She frowned. Magical scars never faded properly. She had enough burn scars on her palms to attest to that.
The last thing she could remember clearly, her life had been in danger. After that, only fractured snips— someone wiping her skin with a cloth… Was this the Circle? Her stomach felt hollow. Cullen had wanted to—
“You know what they’ll do to us.”
Solona inched her way forward off the edge of the bed until her toes made contact with the cold floor. Damn it all, she needed to know. Something had its claws wrapped around her throat; she could not swallow properly around the tightness and her tongue felt swollen in her mouth.
The door to the room came open as Solona committed to standing. “Oh!” gasped the elven maid, who carried two steaming buckets of water, one in each hand. “I would not try that if I were you.” She dropped her load and kicked the door closed with the heel of her shoe, and jerked the curtains open. All of this was done in one fluid motion, a sort of careless strength one would never guess by her small frame.
Solona, startled, slapped an arm across herself to cover her breasts. “I—” she started, but words ran dry.
The elf’s eyes were like the blue glass of Serault. She pushed a strand of ringleted hair, pale blonde like the color of wheat, back into the long mass. Even tied, it cascaded down her back. “Still yourself,” she said, slipping one arm under Solona’s legs and the other below her shoulder. With a twist of her slight frame, the Orlesian elf had the mage back in bed. She pulled the covers up with sharp efficiency, smiling. “The healers would have my guts for garters if I let you walk around before they had the chance to examine you.”
“Where am I?” Solona asked. Her head felt like a brick— heavy, dried up, more than her neck could support. The pillow was hot against her cheek.
“The Briony Bull. An inn off the upper market, in eyeline of the Chantry. You were, I believe, considered too fragile to move to hospice. Ah, forgive my manners. A few months in Ferelden and all the niceties have flown from my brain. My name is Geraldine Andras. Late of Val Royeaux, humble servant of House Cousland, and general busybody.”
“You knew the Warden, then?” Her throat was very hoarse.
“I knew Lissa—” this Geraldine pronounced LEE-Sah “—very well, better than most I should think. Of course this was years ago, in Orlais. I was invited to manage certain delicate operations in Denerim.” Her hands fluttered expressively. “But that was before Arl Howe took his own daughter hostage. Excuse me, my dear.” And then the strange, animated woman was gone.
The room was very quiet. Solona shifted fitfully, straining for the sounds of footsteps or the general hubbub of tavern life. The fireplace crackled, spitting a shower of sparks against the grate. Cautiously, she turned her senses inward. Her mana pool seemed to be intact, so she curled her fists against her stomach. The smallest dribble of warmth passed from her pinkies into her skin, the most basic healing spell an apprentice could learn. With her eyes closed, she could see the impression of shadowed eye sockets in a large head, which dwarfed its little curled body. The transparent skin, with its pulsing vessels and organs, the fine fingernails… She pulled back with a gasp, blotting at her eyes. “I’m sorry.” So many times she had wished it gone, ignored it, driven it from her mind—
The sound of pounding feet on the floorboards broke the silence, and before she could gather herself the door burst open. Cullen skidded to a halt, his face a naked burst of joy, like staring into the sun.
“Hi,” she croaked.
“I heard you were awake. I was... looking for this.” Cullen clutched a thick book with an artful swordsman pasted on the red leather.
She recognized the cover. “Massache?”
“I know flowers are usually the given thing, but it is Wintermarch. You like... There was nothing in the market, not even dried. I thought you might like something to read. Massache has very useful thoughts on the shortcomings of mage combat in close quarters...” He rubbed his cheek. He’d grown a full beard. “I… do not know why I just said that.”
“I missed First Day.”
“You were unconscious about three weeks. It was all…” He took a deep breath. “Terrifying.” Cullen sat on the edge of the bed beside her. His tongue slipped between his teeth as he chose every word with slow deliberation. “I missed you.”
END PART ONE
Chapter 19: Painting (Alistair)
This chapter is nsfw. TW: disordered eating
Part Two : Broken Idols
The upstairs rooms at Tapsters were a labyrinth of stone, narrow and low-ceilinged to the point that Alistair's hair brushed against the doorways, and he could easily run the palms of both hands along the ceiling tiles while he walked. (Not that he was still doing that after getting chewed out by a maid for leaving fingerprints.) Whomever had built the place had certainly not done it with the comfort of humans in mind. Grey Wardens in Orzammar usually enjoyed the hospitality of the palace. The tavern beds were low and short (and made of stone!), and the rest of the furniture was just the right height to bark your shins on.
Of the many rooms, only one had been retrofitted for humans, and that one had been assigned to Sten. The Qunari still could not fit in the bed, but at least he could stretch out on the floor without putting his heels in the fireplace. It was on this door that Alistair knocked, looking for the Witch of the Wilds.
"Come in if you must," she answered to the knock.
"Maker's breath, my eyes!"
"I said, if you must. Have a care where your eyes linger, Alistair."
"Cover your— cover up! I've gone blind!" Alistair slapped a hand over his eyes, trying to banish what he'd just seen, but the outline was carved into the back of his eyelids. Morrigan lounged in repose across the bed. He'd caught a flash of her smalls. ('Black lace,' his brain unhelpfully reminded him.) Her firm, high tits sat proudly on display, decorated with several gold necklaces. The figurine of a demon perched above one brown nipple.
"Vashedan," Sten grumbled, dropping his paintbrush into a cup of turpentine.
"Do not stop on his account," Morrigan sniffed, evidently offended. "The large infant acts as though he has never seen a pair of breasts."
"Big baby," Alistair corrected, still blocking her side of the room with his hand.
"This is not your first time. She does let you see them? Touch them? We have all heard the sickening noises you make."
"Oh, fuck off."
The room was littered with sheets of parchment— studies, Alistair recognized— all made in charcoal. One of Morrigan's perfectly arched black eyebrows, hovering over her strange eyes, was closest to his feet. Others were just vague shapes, indicating structure and form. Sten rose at a stoop, trying not to bounce his head off of the ceiling, and pushed his way out of the room with all the dignity he could muster. A few choice words in Qunlat escaped his lips, but none that Alistair could readily translate.
Alistair stepped behind the easel, pursed his lips together, and offered an appreciative whistle. This was intended to be a nude portrait, obviously. The shapes of Morrigan's curvaceous torso had been roughed in with blocks of color, but the face was nearly complete, with enough detail to be distinctly striking. Sten had not tried to soften his model. The expression was sharp, with upturned nose, parted red lips, and piercing yellow eyes. Like a bird of prey. Or a dragon.
"Well?" Morrigan demanded.
"I was looking at your nose."
"And what is it about my nose that captivates you so?"
"I was just thinking that it looks exactly like your mother's."
She hissed. "I hate you so much."
He snickered. 'So easy.' "What?"
"Never mind. Why are you here?" she barked, flushing all the way down to her collarbones and reaching for her tunic.
"I was hoping you'd made some progress on your mother's grimoire." Alistair reached down and gave the brush an experimental swirl in the cup, and admired the way the pungent liquid turned muddy brown. "Are you sleeping together?"
Morrigan sputtered. "Is this your idea of a punishment?"
"Just an honest question."
"And if we were? 'Tis no business of yours."
"So that's a 'no'. How would that even work? He doesn't actually need a muzzle and a pry bar, that was just a joke, right?"
"Get out, Alistair."
"Nooo," he grinned, "you've spent months mucking about in my love life, fair's fair."
"Only because I thought you would both pine yourselves to death if I did not intervene!" Morrigan folded her legs under herself, crosswise, and pulled the sheet up across her lap. "And yet love grows rotten on the vine so quickly. A sour fruit that offers only a memory of sweetness, what is it worth, truly?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I would be the last person to suggest honesty, but… If you are correct, would she not be better armed? Prepare her to repel the demon. How will you forgive yourself when it takes her over?"
"Is that your advice? Or Flemeth's?"
"I translated what I am able. Tis… not what I expected. I had hoped for a collection of spells, a map of the power that she commands. But this is not it."
"No rituals at all?"
"None that would be useful to you, Alistair. But there are other, disturbing suggestions. Here, in great detail, Flemeth explains the means by which she has survived for centuries. She has raised many daughters over her long lifetime. There are stories of these many Witches of the Wild throughout Chasind legend, yet I have never seen a one and always wondered why not."
"Adelaide mentioned one in Antiva."
Morrigan's eyes lit. "I suspect I am not the only daughter who has attempted to get away. That another has succeeded is… encouraging. But the others… now I know. They are all Flemeth. When her body becomes old and wizened, she raises a daughter. And when the time is right, she takes her daughter's body for her own."
"For once, we can agree. There is a record of the ritual which binds you to the Warden. I have seen it with my own eyes. But it is not here. It seems likely that the information you seek is still within Flemeth's hut. You do intend on breaking the bind, yes?"
'If it can be done without killing Lissie,' he thought, resigned. "Then we go to Flemeth. Somehow I don't think she'll give it away for free, though."
"I have knowledge of that which she would keep from me. I do not think she would let me loose upon the world once more."
"I'm not sure I understand. Why send you with us at all?"
"I am uncertain. So that I might gain in power? So that I might monitor her spell? Or perhaps things are indeed as dire as she foretold, and she thought to send my body away from the Blighted Wilds." Morrigan wrapped her arms around herself. Alistair could see she was trembling, but her voice barely betrayed her emotion. "According to her writings, certain hosts are better than others. The more a host is prepared, the quicker… the transition will be." She pressed the palm of her hand against her lips. "I am… sorry. This simply takes me by surprise. I thought I would have had some inkling, some notion..."
Alistair found himself doing the impossible. He sat down on the bed, and slung an arm around Morrigan's shoulder. He said, "No one chooses their mother."
She gave him a look like he had grown a second head. "What are you doing?"
"Er, comforting you?"
She shivered with revulsion. "Tis… unpleasant."
Alistair sighed. "Yeah, I thought so too."
But he made no move to pull his arm away, and she made no move to retreat. The witch and the warden stayed like that for a good minute, both discomfited by their mutual understanding. They were not friends. Morrigan was not the kind of person who allowed herself friends, and Alistair could never shake the lingering fear that she knew something she was not telling. That one day he would wake up on a blood altar and she would snort and say, 'what were you expecting?'
Her skin was very warm under his hand, and the line of her arm was soft to his fingertips, with sparse, dark hair. He could smell the faintly waxy scent of her cosmetics, and other, incongruous whiffs— cat fur, bird feathers, pine tar, rosemary. Morrigan muttered, half to herself, "You... do not truly think I look as my mother does, do you?"
"Have you really been thinking about that all this time?"
"I am simply curious."
"And not insecure in the slightest, I'm sure." With something teetering madly close to affection, Alistair knocked his head against Morrigan's.
"I think I look nothing like her," she grumbled.
"I don't know. Give it a few hundred years and it'll be a spot-on match." His eyes brightened.
"I said that I look nothing like her!" Morrigan stood up, looking truly vexed. It was not like her to let him get the upper hand. But standing there, bristling, in her tunic and smalls, she was hardly the full measure of the scary witch he knew she could be. Actually, she was rather small and pretty. Sten called her Kasaanda, which meant 'carnivorous flower'. A double-edged pet name if he'd ever heard one.
Alistair smirked. "All right. Got it. Totally different. I see that now."
Morrigan walked over to the trunk and collected her skirt and boots. "This demon— what is it?"
"She calls herself Vengeance. A… corruption of Justice. Or so it claims."
"Unusual. Does it keep to one face, or has it tried many?"
He shook his head. "Always Lissie. But not the Lissie I know."
"Her hair is long. She wears bloody clothes, a nightgown usually. I think it's drawing from the night Castle Cousland burned."
"A demon does not need to pull from memory. Such a violent event would have left a mark on the Fade, such that it might have been drawn to Elissa on that night."
"And followed ever since?"
"If the desire was strong enough." Morrigan pulled her second stocking up over her thigh. "We know Arl Howe to be her singular focus. It was inevitable that something would be attracted to the potency of that emotion. But usually it would be difficult— near impossible— for a demon to reach a mundane. They lack the strong connection to the Fade."
"Unless she was magically tethered to someone who had a connection." His breath came out heavy. "It's like I'm infecting her with magic."
"Do not think so highly of yourself, Alistair. If it could do it, t'would be done. The question is why it has not."
Alistair was about to tell her about the creature in the mask, Death, demon or spirit, but an inexplicable loyalty stilled his tongue. Whatever its purpose or intention, it held the others in check. "I don't know."
Duncan's recounting to the Shaperate was fantastical. If Alistair had not known and trusted the man implicitly, he would have had a hard time believing the tale of an alliance between Orlesian mages and a sentient darkspawn emissary. No wonder the First Warden kept the Grey Warden records under lock and key. If every book in that vault were even half as damning, no one would ever willingly join their order again.
But that was not what drew Alistair to its pages. He searched for crumbs about the Warden called Fiona. There was very little about her, almost deliberately so, and certainly nothing that hinted at a relationship between the elf and the King of Ferelden. Disappointed, Alistair was left with only a hazy sketch of the woman who may have been his birth mother. That she was a mage, he already knew. Recruited willingly from the Circle in Montsimmard a few months before Duncan took the Joining, and a handful of years older than the rogue. That she had been born in an alienage somewhere in Orlais, Alistair could guess.
Of her magical prowess, Duncan was more explicative. She could heal. She had stood toe to toe with a high dragon. She had survived possession by a demon of sloth. Alistair had read, and re-read, the passages about Sloth with wide eyes, feeling a sympathetic kinship to Maric like he'd never felt before. A spirit had rescued them, Duncan said, or possibly a ghost. The being had attached itself to Maric, wearing the face of "a love lost", and guided the Wardens out of the Fade.
The Lord Shaper was less interested in the Fade, as a dwarf was wont to be, and more interested in maps of the lost thaigs, in loving details about palaces and crossroads and statues of paragons. And of a place beneath the Deep Roads, which Duncan carelessly suggested to be the 'Deeper Roads'. Certainly, some of it was useful to their coming journey.
Alistair wondered if the Lord Shaper had allowed Branka access to the tale when she was planning her grand expedition to Ortan Thaig. Surely nothing was beyond a paragon's reach, if she knew to look for it.
How many steps was Alistair re-treading? How many spaces had they shared, years apart, but somehow the same? The Maker did have a sense of irony. Had Cailan heard some version of this story, and dreamed of living it for himself? Cailan would have been a boy of five, old enough to demand some kind of recounting for his father's absence. What had he heard then, and later? Was Father's iteration much different than Duncan's?
No answers, only more questions. He made a mental plan to return to the Shaperate with writing supplies. If he could not have the books then he would have to make notes. Several times Genevieve's Wardens had been pinned in coming and going by darkspawn. Many of the darkspawn were on the surface now, but what about Branka? Had her House made it through the narrow, infested places intact? Alistair thought not. Civilians and supply chains would have slowed them to a crawl.
Which begged the question: why take the whole of House Branka into the Deep Roads to find the Anvil when a expedition team would move faster, and with fewer casualties? What promises or pressures could convince mothers to drag their children to the mouth of the Void? The only person in Orzammar who might know the answer to these questions was facedown in a puddle of his own sick. The only way to get anything out of Oghren was to ply him with drink, which in itself became a problem to overcome, for the odd dwarf had not yet developed a tolerance for surfacer wine which matched his appetite for it, and the smell of dwarven ale was so putrid that no one but Wynne could stand to be near him while Oghren took to his cups.
On Zevran's dare they had all in turns tried a mouthful of the black stuff— well, all but Lissa, who had turned positively green at the thought. As it turned out, it tasted twice as bad as it smelled.
Alistair skipped down the tavern steps and flagged down Corra as she turned the corner from the kitchen. He liked the red-headed serving girl. She was as cheerful as she was unflappable. You'd have to be with a regulars like these. "What's for supper?" he inquired, lifting the lid from her tray before she could stop him. Balanced in the center of her tray was a bowl filled with what, at first glance, appeared to be fresh blood. "Maker's breath," Alistair hiccuped, stepping back. The bell of the silver lid struck him in the thigh.
"It's borsht. Beet and hogweed soup. Don't tell me you've never had it. Everyone loves it."
"It's… very red. On the surface food is usually… less red." He returned the lid to her tray.
Corra chuffed. "But that's the point, Warden. You lot are about to spend weeks on dry rations. You need fortifying. Fresh meat, vegetables, roots, even got in cream from the mountains. You've got to feed up before the Deep Roads. Your Commander especially," she said disapprovingly.
"No offense. I'm sure it's very good, I'll take a second bowl off your hands even, but—"
"No use fretting. Kitchen's already made up your lady's meal special to your particulars."
"You're a dream, Cor," he grinned. And as it turned out, Alistair had three bowls full, some funny smelling cheese with a thick rind like a melon, and enough bread to sop it all up. Their little band of misfits ate together, in a corner where the smell of unwashed bodies and vomit and ale was not quite so strong. But Elissa did not come down to eat. And neither, he could not help but notice, did Zevran.
He took a tray marked special with a ragged blue ribbon up to Elissa's room. On it was bread made from the soft, expensive Orlesian flour earmarked for Aeducan's table and sold on the black market for three times the price. With it came butter, jellied preserves, pickled vegetables, a lean slice of roasted nug, and a mug of Fereldan small beer.
The room was dark, so it took him a moment to see that it was not empty when he opened the door. Elissa was sitting. Just sitting. Her head rested in her hands, with her fingers carded and twined through her damp hair. Her clothes on the floor were bloody. Her blue cloak especially was nearly black with it. The water in the undrained bath was a thin pink.
Alistair sat down on the bed beside her, worrying his cheek. "How long have you been sitting here like this?"
"I needed time to think." This came so slowly he wasn't certain she had heard him.
'That's not really an answer,' he thought. She was shutting him out. From his side of the bond he could only make out something that felt like the rock, cold and impenetrable. But he could tell from the furrow between her eyebrows that she was holding back something bad. "Are you up to eating something? I brought up your… Well, you know."
Alistair buried the flinch. "Bread is safe, yeah? Just a piece. We'll do it together and then we can talk, or— or not talk, if you prefer." It felt like he was treading on thin ice. When she did not answer, he gingerly made his way to the table and selected two of the prettiest looking pieces of bread. He buttered them, squinting in the dark. He considered lighting the candle, but could not weigh whether that would be a tipping point. 'Fuck,' he thought with great feeling, picking up the lighter and igniting the stubby end of a yellow tallow candle in the holder.
Gently, Alistair pulled Lissie's hands from her hair, and pressed some bread into her right hand. Still, she did not look at him, with her eyes fixed on the middle distance, barely blinking, but she lifted the offering to her mouth. She ate it quickly, in four large bites, and chewed it all at once. Pressing his luck, he gave her the second piece. Then, a spoonful of preserves, and another, and a gulp of beer, and so forth, until in this particular fashion they'd cleared her plate together.
The color started to come back to her cheeks, but that might have been the blush of alcohol. "Zev and I went after Jarvia this afternoon."
"When you say 'went after'..."
"I mean she's dead, and half the Carta with her. I'd forgotten that he's not you."
"He took a hit meant for me. He's not hurt, not after Wynne laid hands on him. He was poorly for a few moments, gave us both a fright. You would have blocked it."
That should have been a compliment, but it left Alistair with a bad taste in his mouth. All bile and a flood of adrenaline and saliva. "Your flank again?"
"I want to do it all by myself but I… can't." A big, wobby sigh slipped her lips, like a child who had cried itself out. "Sometimes I feel I can't do anything."
"No one expects you to do this by yourself. That's what we're here for. And me. To light the candle when you have let it burn down. To remember all those stupid little things like eating and sleeping and minding your flank. It is a very pretty flank, after all."
"Alistair…" she scolded, and buried her face in his neck before he could catch her smiling. "How do you think it will be when all this is over? Make it up. Tell me a story. I'd like nothing better than just listening to your voice for a while."
"How could I ever refuse such a request? Better get comfy." On top of the stone bed and thin mattress she had piled up their bedrolls to pad it out. When they laid down together, they had to bend their knees, and their toes pushed against the foot. Elissa tucked her head against his chest, with her ear close to his throat, and Alistair let himself be smothered by the wild tendrils of her unbound hair. His heart was seized by a swell of relief, and sticky desire from the way her thigh was pushed between his legs. "So there will be a grand parade."
"Oh, at least six of them, with every citizen in their Chantry best wearing blue ribbons and children carrying painted griffons. The bells in Denerim will ring out in the market square." He kissed her temple, soft and lingering, breathing her in. "But you and I will not be there. We'll have found the biggest, softest bed in the city and stuffed it in the cabin of a ship."
"Oh?" She shifted, pushing herself against him in a way he thought was deliberate. Or at least his cock thought so, because it was stubbornly thickening under the warmth of her thigh.
"We'll—" he paused to breathe as her lips nuzzled his throat. "Sail out into the harbor until the sounds are drowned by the quiet of the horizon." His blood flashed hot, and blushing profusely, he added, "We'll make love until we're sick of it."
"Sick of you, dear heart? Never. But if you'd ever sailed you'd know it's not terribly romantic." Lissie lifted her head. He caught her crinkling her nose. "Not a lot of bathing at sea." Her hand skidded down his clothes until she came close enough to stroke his manhood. His thighs tensed in anticipation. Then she skated away, fixing her hand on the dip of his hipbone, only letting the heel of her hand graze his sensitive places. "But plenty of sweat, and rocking, and— mmphf—" she moaned when he finally lifted his head up to kiss her.
She sat half on his lap, straddling one of his legs. His hands roved clumsy up and down her back, feeling the fabric of her shirt pulling and stretching against her muscled shoulders, the musical notes of her spine, the sharp edges of the ribs under her skin. He kissed her greedy, drinking in her mouth. Alistair was not sure this was how other people made love. He'd heard talked-up tales of rolls in the hay with eager freehold girls. He'd blushed his way through a dozen romance novels where the heroine demurred until the pirate or rogue or knight-captain talked his way into her bedchamber. He'd had to read all the really good bits in the dark when no one was looking. But none of them had mentioned feeling like his heart was going to burst out of his chest if he didn't keep kissing her. That her lips became air and the dragging breaths stolen by mashed-together noses were as useless as his lungs when a more pressing ache throbbed between his legs.
This was better. They were better, together, or not at all. His nightmares said one of them was going to wake up dead. Soon. He knew she had the thrumming threat of the Calling sandwiched wicked in her brain. Loud, louder so close to the Deep Roads. The Archdemon in her dreams. That's why she kept him out. He'd tried her method of closing his side of the link, to hold the demon at bay, but it didn't seem to work. He'd wake up and find himself reaching for something he hadn't known was lost until it was gone.
"Do you want to?" Lissie asked, kiss mussed, ever poised even when she looked just as desperate for a fuck as he did. Her thumb hooked in her cambric smalls. Alistair rolled his hips in response, let her ride his thigh, enjoyed how her eyes rolled back in her head.
He touched her ear. "I want you to let me in."
"But you shouldn't have to feel it."
"I can bear it. It'll be worth it."
She tensed. Alistair stroked her face, soothing away the frown lines, ran his fingers down her neck. He was struck by the urge to bury his face between her breasts. "You have to tell me if it gets too much."
"I promise." And the bond opened.
It came rushing to him, wordless thoughts, a river of desires, mirrored and reflected. The dark undercurrent came too— nausea, panic, twisted music, a strange impulse to wrap his hands around her throat and choke her while he fucked her. He could not be sure if that was his idea or hers, let himself imagine it, brushed it aside. "You want me to take over," Alistair said, in a voice that was not quite his own, speaking words which were not a question.
Lissa nodded, pupils blown. He flipped them, rough, but not so careless as to let her head fall anywhere but on the pillows. Pushed her legs up over his shoulders in a wide V. She was impatient. He was not. He had to prove that he could take over the burden of control without fracturing, without— Alistair slipped his middle finger inside her and covered her clit with his thumb. She was wet, shuddering, but he wanted her wetter still.
He kissed her stomach, pushed her legs back farther to kiss her breasts through her shirt, took his sweet time listening for the sounds she made when he found a sensitive place. Her hand snuck down between them, urgent, and he caught her by the wrist. He brought her hand to his mouth, kissed her palm, each fingertip, laved his tongue against the tendons of her wrist. For a second, a flash: fingers tapping out an urgent message in a smokey hallway. Then another: a different mouth on her hand.
Alistair paused. Angry? Unsure. Jealous? Very much so. "Zevran tried to kiss you." He still had his fingers inside her, on her, but they stilled over her clit.
"Which time?" Lissa asked, very wet now, bucking against his hand. Maker's breath. She'd shown it to him on purpose.
"Do you want him?" A lump formed in his throat. Why the fuck had he asked that? But his cock very much wanted to know. It ached, weeping, trapped in his breeches.
Elissa stared at him, green eyes glittering, considering. Alistair's vision turned cloudy, just the briefest flash of fantasy offered— Zevran, naked but for the tattoos running down his body, kissing Elissa with wanton desire. Pulling off her clothes, pushing her back, back, until she landed in the arms of an equally naked Alistair. Alistair's hands on her breasts, Alistair's cock inside her, Zevran down on his knees between their legs with his mouth on her clit—
"Andraste's flaming knickers!" Alistair gasped. "Is that really what you think about?"
She laughed. "Like you've never pictured me and Leliana."
"Never," he swore.
Lissie quirked her head. "Me and Morrigan?"
Alistair swallowed heavily. "Not until just now, thank you very much for putting that thought in my head." And he was… black lace smalls and white cambric smalls shimmying down pale hips, soft breasts rubbing against each other… Was that allowed? Ever since they'd began, Alistair had been careful to think only of Lissie when he touched himself. Not that that was hard. Her pink nipples and soft puss had dominated whatever paltry imaginations he'd had before. But— A strangled groan escaped his lips, and his hands were already untying his breaches. If Morrigan ever found out, she would very certainly kill him.
"Should I take them off for you?"
"Saw that, did you?" he asked huskily. She wriggled her smallclothes down— or up rather— for with her legs splayed in the air they got only so far before she became trapped by them. Alistair lowered his head and began to lap at her center, with one hand on his cock and the other balancing himself against her legs. He let her feel it and let her feel it, the waves of his need, the pulse hammering under his tongue. She came in less than a minute— stomach tight, thighs flickering, molton hot against his lips. It hit him like thunder. "Agh." Alistair moaned in surprise, as spurts of his own come shot all over his fist. "Shit," he panted, "I swear I didn't mean for that to happen." He fell face-first against her stomach, vision plagued by black spots. "I—" There was not enough blood in his head for him to be terribly eloquent. "Does it always feel like that for you?"
"No." Lissie was biting her finger to hold back her laughter, yet her voice was tender. "But when it does, it's always you."
Chapter 20: Alternate (Alistair)
"What would you wish for, if you had a wish?" the demon asked, sitting cross legged on the chest of drawers.
Alistair considered its question for a long time, staring into the single pinpoint of candle light. At last he decided on something impossible. "I'd ask for her burden to be lifted. I'd wish that Lissie was not a Grey Warden."
"Such a small thing?"
"And never had been."
"Your lack of imagination troubles me. You think there was only one way; there was a hundred. Six others could have had the title. Once or twice she even survives. Once you do."
He started, drawing blood in his mouth. "What does that mean?"
Alistair leaned heavily upon his staff, watching the others as they began the chores of camp. It was a pleasant enough evening, with the air mellow and the breeze carrying the smell of the cook fire. His tent was just outside the perimeter, and every time the wind picked up the tall flames bent in his direction, bringing with them a flash of heat which washed across his face.
Lady Cousland sat well apart from the rest, never more than a few steps away from her companion. The elf seemed to be asking her to choose between two bottles of wine, chatting animatedly as he compared the labels. Alistair did not mean to stare. But she was so— he did not have the words for it. The Lady had not spoken so much as a greeting to him in the three days since she had joined their company. When they were travelling it was easier to keep his eyes on the road, to mind his feet. But when things were still he found his eyes darting in her direction, attracted like lodestone.
Of course, he knew her story. Half of Ferelden did. One would be hard-pressed to go into a tavern and not hear the gruesome tales about the sacking of Castle Cousland. Or worse, the fucking ballad. Twenty verses, each more morbid than the next, and Leliana had memorized them all. She would not stop humming that flat, repetitive tune, under her breath, as if nobody could hear her.
"Pine much?" Solona asked cheerfully from behind, setting her hand on his shoulder.
"I am not!" he hissed, blushing furiously. "I was just… looking."
"I know the signs."
"Yeah? It takes one to know one."
"Ouch." She laughed, but it was a touch bitter. "That's a low blow, even for you."
Alistair covered her hand with his own and gave it a squeeze. "Sorry." His throat suddenly felt like he had swallowed a knife. "Am I really so obvious?"
"Only to someone who has known you as long as I have." Solona and Alistair had joined the Circle practically together, arriving within days of each other, and had been thick as thieves ever since. She'd had a twin brother, once, and the lonely orphan boy five years her junior had happily stepped in to fill those shoes. In the Circle he'd had a warm bed, more books than he could read in one lifetime, and quiet acceptance. His mentor, Wynne, did not care about where he came from or who his parents were. Rather she marked him by the quality of his character and his eagerness to study.
Solona smoothed down the front of her quilted Warden robes. When Duncan came to recruit Alistair, she had insisted on joining with him. "Someone has to protect the healer," she'd said, and with her skill at barrier and offensive spells, the Warden-Commander was hardly going to turn her down. And now people called her the Warden, capital-W. It suited her. People admired how sympathetic she was, how kind. But she did not smile like she used to. Not after what had happened to her lover when the Circle fell.
Lady Cousland suddenly looked up from her whetstone and shot them a quizzical expression. Or at least he thought it was quizzical. It was hard to tell at this distance, because of the scars on her face. Alistair's stomach flipped painfully. "So I'm wondering something... what exactly does a woman see in a man like Zevran? It's just... doesn't he seem to be a bit too much? The hair, the clothing..."
"The charm, the accent, the tattoos…"
"Is that it? The tattoos? I could get a tattoo. Maybe not on the face. Too brand-y, you know? But a little one, on the arm or something. I asked him. He said they use needles to do it. Surely there's a spell for it."
"I doubt the Chantry is keen on magic that alters the flesh. But you don't need a tattoo to talk to a girl."
"Couldn't hurt," he sighed. He'd always been hopeless with girls.
"Chin up, she's coming this way."
He fumbled his staff closer to his chest, adrenaline flooding his veins like the heat of battle. "Don't tell me you're leaving."
Solona chuckled. "You'll survive."
"How do you know?" he shot back, but she was already walking away.
The Lady wore silverite mail which gleamed in the sunset, and a talberd with a wreath of sage leaves on it— her family crest. The armor gave little indication of the form of her body underneath, but she was tall, and slim, with a heart-shaped face and eyes which reminded him of a cat— green, cool, unknowable. She walked with easy, self-assured confidence. Almost a prowl, he thought, gulping.
"That's twice I've caught you staring in the same hour," she said, not really accusing or absolving him. "I thought I'd better get this over. It's my face, isn't it?"
"No, I wasn't—"
The good side of her mouth pulled up into a wry smile. "Most people do a better job hiding it, but everyone looks. Go ahead," she said, bemused. "Get it out of your system." The other side of her face remained frozen, twisted into a sneer by a gouging scar which ran from her lip to her temple. That was the work of a blade, one that had nearly taken her eye. There were burns, too, pocked pink on her neck, and fused flesh where an ear should have been. She kept her long hair piled up on the top of her head, taking no pains to conceal the damage. But he had the notion she slept in her armor.
She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
"I didn't mean it… like that. I would never." Alistair exhaled, mentally kicking himself. "Does it hurt?"
For a fraction of a moment her brows knitted together. "What? Oh, of course, you're the healer. I've seen healers. It—" She hesitated, and then tried to smile again. "This—" and she drew the line up her face "—feels like nothing. Numb. Sometimes it pulls. The rest is… what it is." She grimaced. "I had a salve. It stopped working."
Wrong answer. She bristled. "I've seen a mage. Not helpful."
"A spirit healer?"
"What's the difference?"
"There just is." He shifted his weight. "I can't—" fix your appearance "I wouldn't want to—" no not that either "If it hurts I could try to help. Only if it hurts. Only if you want me to."
"Right here, if you like."
"No." Her eyes narrowed. "Not out in the open. Your tent."
"Okay, sure," he agreed. His mouth went dry. "Do you want Zevran?"
"Chaperone?" Maker, he was grateful his voice didn't squeak around the word like a pubescent.
She rolled her eyes. "I promise not to bite, Oliver."
"It's actually— you know what, nevermind," he said, trying to make frantic eye contact with Solona, who appeared to be deliberately ignoring him.
"What?" Lady Cousland paused, one foot inside his tent.
"My name is Alistair."
Her tongue slipped between her teeth. Fuck, he was smitten. Like a thunderbolt. "I'm fifty percent sure I won't bite, Alistair." The way she said his name, like a caress, rooted his feet to the ground. "Coming?"
"Probably," he cracked.
She smothered her giggle with her fist.
His tent was not much to write home about. Standard army issue, and inexplicably smelling like wet dog, like most things in Ferelden. He had yet to untie his bedroll, so it was lumped in the middle where he had tossed it. Lady Cousland sat down on it, primly, like it was a very sorry chair. Then she pulled her talberd over her head.
"You can leave it on," Alistair told her, trying to ignore the hot feeling in his face.
"Oh." She stilled, the fingers of her right glove half-tugged in her opposite hand. "I— I mean—" The glove came off. The skin underneath was mottled with pink, and some of the nails were missing. She made an incomplete fist; the ring and pinky fingers would not close.
'Torture,' he thought. Howe’s men had had her for days before the Antivan Crow in their company had a change of heart. Alistair shook his head, driving the picture from his mind. "What I do, I can do it without looking. I thought it would be easier for… both of us. If you're comfortable."
"What do you need?"
"Skin contact works best. Someplace where it won't hurt you."
Vigorously, she pulled the other glove free, revealing intact skin. The nails looked freshly varnished. "I can hear you doing that thing in your head. You want to call me 'my lady'. It's bulging out of your eyes, and your tongue is just itching to say it. Don't give in to the temptation."
Alistair got down on his knees, and was immediately aware of the implications of the position. "So what do I call the future Queen of Ferelden?"
"Elissa," she said, studying him as she extended her hand. "Lissie, if you plan on being familiar. Your Grace, if you're horrible."
Reverently, carefully, he took her hand. "Lissa," he agreed, tasting her name. "Stop me if this hurts." Alistair closed his eyes, and let his magic sink into her.
Alistair opened his eyes and lifted his mouth from her hand, rising from his half-bow to full height. No matter how many times he did it, he felt as clumsy and foolish as he did at fifteen, when he had formally entered courtly life and could no longer hide in the library during parties. "My lady," he droned in his usual bored tone, and the fluttery blonde twirled her hair and cooed:
Her escort carted her away down the receiving line and the next pair approached. And then next. And the next. The names announced all blurred together into one muddled swirl in his head and he began to slightly regret the second glass of whiskey he'd drank before the line began. Not enough regret to stop himself from planning a third and a fourth, but hey, the night was young and it was his stupid ball so he couldn't exactly duck out and pretend nobody would miss him.
To amuse himself he began tracing a crack in the floor with the toe of his boot. It ran perpendicular to the seam of the marble tiles the Usurper had installed in the room. Before the Occupation, Ferelden hadn't bothered so much with elaborate balls and courtly intrigue. But some customs from Orlais had bled into life in Denerim and could not be as easily removed as the gilded wallpaper. It gave the nobles something to do besides complain about taxes in the Landsmeet.
Debut balls were the responsibility of a prince, Father said. Cailan had done them as soon as he could reliably clutch a hand in his chubby little fist, but now that he was married it was Alistair's problem. Maker, not enough whiskey in the world. The last of the young women making their entrance into society finally floated by, and with his lips half numb he resigned himself to his fate as the doors opened to let the rest of the attendants in from the foyer.
His heart stuttered. That woman he would have recognized anywhere, though he had not seen her since he was a child. The gown was scandalously foreign, bare shouldered and blooming pink with the wide bell-shaped skirt favored by the Empress and therefore her court. After a sea of modest white dresses, Lady Elissa stood out like a rose in a field of weeds.
"Cousin," she said tartly, and performed an elaborate, exaggerated curtsy in the style of a debutante. Her fluffy skirt flounced merrily.
He took her hand, grinning from ear to ear. "You're back! Nobody told me you were back!"
"My lady," she prompted.
"Your Highness," he prompted back.
"Very good. Now that's out of the way, see you later."
He clung on to her hand. "Dance with me?"
"Once. You have a lot of ladies on your card tonight. Poor chickens. At least I got Cailan."
"The opening, and the closing, and at least one reel," Alistair cajoled.
"Not in your life. People will talk."
And on it went. When the line was through, Alistair stumbled through the opening dance with some pigeontoed beauty, and was snatched up for the second by Habren Bryland, and then the fluttery blonde, and then Habren again. (The girl was determined.) As the fifth number began, he made a dash for the drinks cart, shrugging off the fingers of excited young ladies.
"You're sweating," Elissa commented, appearing as if by magic.
"It's hard work being a prince."
"Try doing it in stays."
"The breaches are nearly as bad, I assure you."
A nearby matron made a horrified noise. But Elissa grinned darkly. "I think I'll have that dance after all." She turned on a slippered heel and walked out into the garden.
In the moonlight he could see that the back of her neck was glistening with sweat, and the beautifully arranged locks of her styled hair were curling into frizzy pieces. "Did you get my last letter?" Alistair offered her an arm. She ignored the gesture, preferring to run her fingers against the old stone of the palace.
"Why do you think I'm here? Not for the food." Elissa bit her lip. When she spoke again, her voice was soft as a whisper. "He won't really make you marry Celene. Will he?"
"Father likes the idea of an alliance. Of course, Loghain is having a stroke. He's got this half-cooked hope I'll elope with a good Fereldan girl before the Landsmeet can vote."
Her mouth turned down. "So it was Loghain's idea."
"No! I mean, you're just as bad because you've been living there for five years."
"Just as bad?" Her lips curled with offense.
"To him! Not to me. You showing up in an Orlesian gown more or less proves that point, though."
Her mouth wobbled. "No."
"No, I won't marry you, Alistair Theirin."
The bottom of his stomach dropped out. "But you're wearing my ring."
"In my hair. Doesn't hardly count," she retorted, cross and miserable. Only this close could one see the Theirin ring— a thumbnail sized ruby surrounded by diamonds— tied into the ringlets on her crown. She reached up to pull it loose. "Here, you can have it—"
His hand snapped over hers, enveloping her fingers and twining into her hair. "Don't you dare." Elissa froze, surprised, color flushing her cheeks. She looked up into his eyes, and then her hooded gaze flickered down to his mouth. He wanted to kiss her. He'd never kissed anyone. Maker, what if he was bad at it, like he was at dancing and writing and, frankly, everything that wasn't swordplay? He lost his nerve, and released her hand, feeling his heart beating so fast he thought he might throw up.
She looked at him, uncertain, and the anger melted into something soft. Her painted lashes glittered. "You smell like drink."
"I thoroughly planned on hating this party, before you appeared and made everything so much better."
"I won't be your escape route."
Alistair planted his arm on the wall beside her head. He leaned down, painfully aware that they were not alone out in the cool air. "I've been honest with you, haven't I? About Celene, about everything? There's nothing for me here. I'm the younger brother, I won't ever be king, and some would say being a Prince-Consort in Orlais is a sight better than languishing in the Pearl every night."
Elissa frowned. "You don't really go to the Pearl, do you?"
"No, they don't let me do anything that fun." He coughed. "Not that I would go, I mean— But I imagine having the option would be nice."
"You imagine," she said, mouth quirking. "Maker preserve you, Alistair."
"You know I love you. Ever since we were children. Even when you told me you were going to marry stuffy old Howe, I thought, 'She won't be happy with him. Not like she would be with me.'"
"How highly you think of yourself. What a pretty picture you paint. What's in it for me?"
He laughed loudly, turned, and took off down the path at a brisk clip. "So now she wants terms," he said, hearing her feet patter right behind him. "Most girls would be satisfied with my eternal love and devotion."
"Don't be dull," Elissa breathlessly replied, "I'm not Anora. I've had eternal love and devotion. That's a fancy way of saying strings on everything, and bells on the collar. You promised me adventure!"
Alistair whipped around to face her but kept walking, backward, hands in his pockets. He enjoyed how flustered she looked. She lifted up her satin skirt, flashing the gauzy tulle beneath and the whalebone hoop. "How about the wife of a general? The Grey Wardens have been, complaining about a darkspawn incursion out in the Wilds. Father said I could ride out with them."
"Is it a Blight?" she asked, terrified and yet somehow delighted.
"Just a skirmish, but it's supposed to be really dangerous," he replied, grinning broadly when her eyes grew large. "After that, who knows? I have it on good authority they're considering you for the ambassadorship."
"Teagan didn't attend an Orlesian finishing school. Teagan doesn't know his salad fork from his finger bowl. Besides, he'd rather be in Markham."
She stopped. "You wouldn't mind?"
"Mind getting out of sodding Denerim? Mind getting out from under Mac Tir's thumb? Sign me up, Lady Ambassador. It's not just the arranged marriages that disagree with me, it's the— If you don't believe me, ask Cailan. I'm the lucky one. Maybe, just maybe, I'll get to marry the woman I love." Feeling inspired, Alistair dropped to one knee.
Elissa slapped her hands over her mouth, aghast, hissing, "Get up, get up before someone notices."
"Not on your life."
"Say it. You never answered my letter. Say you'll marry me, properly, or I'll run away and join the Grey Wardens."
"Not funny!" She stamped her foot. "Fine. I promise I won't let the darkspawn have you."
"Was that a 'yes'?"
She crossed her arms, and walked around him. "It wasn't a 'no'." When she was a step past him, her face turned wistful. "You should have asked me dancing."
He caught her hand. "I'm a terrible dancer."
"I know." Elissa let Alistair kiss the palm of her hand. "This is going to hurt."
The king's camp at Ostagar Fortress milled with people. Messengers carried their goods up and down the line, the revered mother blessed nervous officers in batches, Maraigne hastled the pages about turning army rations into decent supper. A cacophony of clanking armor and baying hounds and badly-tempered war horses spilled into a mindless noise which filled his ears.
'Father knew this would happen. He always said—'
"Your Majesty," said the woman wearing the bear on her talberd, for the second or third time, finally catching his attention. "King Alistair."
Alistair looked up from the battleplans scattered across the camp table. "Lady Howe," acknowledged, a weary smile breaking across his face. "I'm grateful that you and your brother agreed to join us. Will your husband be with us as well?"
She shook her head. "I could not bear to risk him."
"A shame. I remember him being a fine shot."
"He's superb, Your Majesty. But we agreed that one of us would have to remain behind in the Vigil, for the sake of our family."
"That's right. You have children." Alistair's hands clenched unconsciously into fists.
"Two sons. Byron and Andrew. The little one is not yet two summers. He dotes on them."
Her face was drawn, lined and windburned by life on the sea. Alistair searched his memory and found a picture of a shy, sensitive girl whose eyes sparkled best when she danced. The sharp woman before him with the swords on her back was nothing like the cousin he remembered. His seneschal had shared a quiet rumor that Elissa Howe had murdered her own father-in-law in winter past, but no one could prove it. Technically it was the king's responsibility to order an investigation during times of disputed succession, but if Duncan was right, this incursion was the beginning of a new Blight. Alistair pretended he had more important things to worry about, but truth be told when he thought of her he felt paralyzed.
Was she capable of it? The young king looked at her and wondered, 'What did the Howes do to you, Lissie?' He cleared his throat. "If that is all, I'm sure Loghain needs me to negotiate with the Chantry. Again. Maker help me, they want even more restrictions on the mages. Why allow them to come at all if they're going to complain so much?"
"Actually, I have a problem I was hoping you could solve."
"Of course, my dear, that's what I do best." His tongue tripped out the familiarity before he could stop himself, but fortunately she did not seem to notice.
"It's my brother, Fergus. He went out scouting with some of his men and they haven't come back. I was hoping you could ask your Grey Warden friends if they would look for him."
"You mean to say my heir has gone missing on the eve of battle? Wonderful. I'll ask Duncan." He ran a gauntlet through his hair. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes." She stabbed her finger at his map. "Are you sure it's wise to put yourself at the fore with the Wardens? You are the king, ser."
"Now you sound like Loghain. He wants me to sit back on a horse behind the mage line, like an old stuffed shirt. But the Grey Wardens are the best warriors in Thedas. We pull them in, Loghain flanks, safe as houses. He's done this a million times."
Elissa leaned forward, pressing her bare hands on top of his own. "What if something happens to you? Alistair…" The way she said his name felt like a stab in the heart.
They were no longer— They had been, once, but then she'd gone to Amaranthine and never come back. Even though she was practically a stranger, he could sense what she was asking. Her hair was sweet, a heady perfume of spice and smoke, and it fell lovely down her back in a long tail. Alistair resisted the desire to brush his lips across her forehead. "Come with me, then. We'll do it together."
She sighed, and he could feel her breath on his cheek. "Nate made me promise not to get myself killed."
"You still love him?" he asked gently, feeling his heart break all over again.
She closed her eyes. "My lord and husband." Barely an answer, but that would have to suffice.
"Then I'll send you back to him."
"No." He felt her press harder on his gauntlets. "I need to do this."
"Don't worry, my lady. I'd never do anything that would get you hurt."
Chapter 21: Real (Alistair)
Alistair was unsure if he was awake or asleep. He glanced quickly down to the place beside him where Lissie lay, breathing soft and deep. His palm skittered nervously across the sheet, and he wrapped his hand around her bony wrist. Real. She felt real to him. Solid, warm, corporeal. But if she was real, then what was the woman across the room?
'Get out,' he thought, tongue stuck, voice trapped dry and scratchy in his throat. This had to be another nightmare. He reached out for the drink on the bedside table and brought it to his lips, never taking his eyes off the figure. She was petite, even for an elf, with her dark hair running in two neat plaits on opposite sides of her silver mask. She should have been shadowed, but she was bright and clear as if she was sitting in full moonlight. He swallowed a sip of warm, flat beer, bitter on his tongue, and coughed. "Get out." He coughed again.
"I hear you have been looking for me. I wonder what sort of need a man like you has." She cocked her head, listening to a whisper in the darkness that only she could understand. Alistair flinched at the sound, grabbing for the sheet. For a moment he was gripped by the logic of a child; if he could only pull the bedclothes over his head, he would be safe from the things in the shadows. "I hear you want to know my face."
"You're meant to be my mother, aren't you?" he sounded less sure than he wanted to be, in the room with this thing. His thumb traced Lissie's wrist bone for courage. 'Real.' "To get under my skin."
"If I resemble your mother it is only because you want me to be. I resemble myself. What does your mother look like?" The demon pulled off her mask. There was nothing underneath; a black maw of darkness, a swirling emptiness remained. The room dimmed, like the maw consumed the thin light.
A surprised bark of laughter slipped from Alistair's lips. "Of course." He waved his hand. "There you have it."
Death seemed amused by this response. He thought the space where its mouth should have been seemed to curl into a smile. "What would you wish for, if you had a wish?" the demon asked, sitting cross legged on the chest of drawers. It replaced its mask.
Alistair considered its question for a long time, staring into the single pinpoint of candle light. A dozen possibilities flittered through his mind like grey phantoms. Moths encircling a light, searching unknowingly for their deaths. Not so long ago, he would have demanded it leave him alone. But he was just the tiniest, frighteningly bit curious. He decided on something impossible: "I'd ask for her burden to be lifted. I'd wish that Lissie was not a Grey Warden."
"Such a small thing?"
"And never had been."
"Your lack of imagination troubles me. You think there was only one way; there was a hundred. Six others could have had the title. Once or twice she even survives. Once you do."
He started. His teeth rasped against his cheek, drawing blood in his mouth. "What does that mean?"
Stop me if this hurts.
This is going to hurt.
I'd never do anything that would get you hurt.
Phantom hands touching him, embracing him, begging him...
Alistair found himself coiled up, arms hugging the knees he had pulled to his chest. The candle had burned down; it wavered a thready light, nearly gone. His eyes were wet. His tongue worried the coppery split in his bottom lip. Death looked smug.
"Where are the other ninety-seven?" His voice came hoarse.
It laughed. The sound resonated from inside, ringing out of the marrow of his bones. "Not enough?"
Alistair shrugged. "I believe you promised me a hundred." The black eyes behind the mask narrowed and his head erupted in pain.
"Just leave me alone. I've had enough of people like you. You're all the same." The smell of cheap ale and iron lingered in his nostrils. This whole city smelled of rust, from the low underports to the lofty chantry. He'd always liked taverns before. The life, the music, the people, and the anonymity. But now he couldn't help screaming to anyone who'd listen that she'd made him believe he could be a prince, and then she'd thrown him away like garbage. As if he hadn't always known that's where he belonged.
Insult to injury, she'd gone and died. There was nothing for him, just the shattered cold eyes of dead Wardens who would not leave him to drink in peace.
"Buy you a drink?" asked the woman with the swagger and the hair cropped around her ears. Twin blades on her back. Too familiar. Sympathetic. Blue eyes, blue blue blue not green. "What are you having?" She swung her legs over the bench before he could say 'no'. Her smile, alike. Like something he was missing.
"Whiskey," he said suspiciously, barely realizing he was agreeing to her company. His breath was stale with beer. It coated the back of his tongue, the edges of his molars, but did not dull the pain. He could not afford liquor, but if she was buying...
"A double for my new friend!" She wrinkled up her nose. "Make that two doubles. I have a sense about thirsty men." Her hair was lank from the rain, black and wavy. The armor she wore was Fereldan, and good make, too, but old. Alistair knew the colors, the orange and black. What was a merc doing with armor that had been forged for Maric's rebels? Had it once belonged to her mother?
Or was this where all the scattered pieces of rebellion came to die? Nothing but a dreary coincidence. Sullenly, Alistair mumbled, "I used to be a prince."
"Another ex-prince? I already have one of those. Can you do anything else? Juggle, perhaps?"
'Kill an archdemon,' he thought. He rubbed his nose. "No."
"Really? Because my friend swears you used to be a Grey Warden. She says she saw you hanging around with the famous one, whatsherface, the H—"
"Does that make a difference?" he interrupted. "Is that a— a condition of you paying for my drinks?"
"Not at all." The merc took glasses out of the hands of the swaying barmaid, in the practiced fashion of a person who had done it a hundred times before. That woman was drunker than he was. "Only wonder because I have a sister in the Wardens, and I'm wondering if it's the sort of thing that rots out your brain, like the old templars dockside."
"My brain's'not rotten." He swallowed a burning mouthful, and grinned a bitter smirk. "Don't worry, your sis probably won't be as lucky as me."
Alistair's heart thrilled in panic, sweat dripping down his armpits and ribs. The soft murmur of voices loosed him from the sticky trap of sleep. The room was stuffy and dark. From the light spilling in from the hallway he saw the silhouette of a dwarven woman taking a bundle from Elissa.
"The laundress," Lissie explained in a soft voice, perhaps seeing the glint of the light reflecting in his squinting eyes. She closed the door and blackness swept back in like wings.
Alistair rolled from his stomach to his side, pulling the sheet up over his nude body and crumpling a pillow between his arms for support. 'Where am I?' he thought, pushing against the feeling of a fist clenching his lungs. The last thing he remembered was—
Wait. That couldn't be right.
He brushed his hand up his face, catching on a few days' worth of scruff. His fingers came away wet with fresh blood. A rush of nausea passed over him. "What time is it?" he asked between his teeth, as he pinched off the sudden nosebleed. He felt like his skin was too tight around his bones.
He heard the crinkle of paper as Lissa fumbled with package in her hands. Alistair lifted his hand from his nose, and with a lazy flick of two fingers, lit the bedside candle.
'Didn't mean to didn't want to—' Hand still hovering in the air, half of his brain tried helpfully to speculate that he was still dreaming. Blood dripped from his palm and onto the floor. He followed the drops with his eyes, saw them make tiny red circles in the dust.
"Who knows?" Elissa said, oblivious to the silent pantomime playing out at her back. "It is all water-clocks and candle ticks down here. What I wouldn't give for a reliable bell-ringer or a sundial." She sighed. "It cannot be healthy to spend a life underground, no matter how much they vaunt their precious Stone. Do you feel as if you might go mad, not knowing if its meant to be night or day? I do."
Alistair curled his hand into a fist, slowly, not trusting his fingers not to spontaneously burst into flames. He watched the smoke of the candle drift slowly upwards in the draughtless room, joining the blackened smudge on the ceiling. When nothing happened, he released the breath he had been holding. The orange flame wobbled on the wick.
What would you wish for, if you had a wish?
Elissa turned, unfurling a silk shirt of pale blue. It was decorated with embroidery done in metallic thread, and accented with square-cut gems in shades of blue and gold. With it came a fine woolen skirt. A dwarven design to be certain; he'd seen Lady Dace wearing something similar. Someone had gone to the trouble of altering the pattern to fit a human woman. Elissa laid the clothes over the back of a chair and got down on her hands and knees, searching for something on the floor. "Your nightmares were particularly bad. Damn near pushed me off the bed. Was it the Archdemon?"
"I'm not sure."
She nodded. Her hands fished under the blankets which had fallen discarded on the floor, and she came up with her breastband. Alistair bit his tongue when her fingers skirted the bloodied floor. "Want to talk about it?"
"No," he said, hoping that did not come out too quickly. "I never understand what he's saying. What's the use?"
"You told me that's supposed to be a good thing. The real trouble comes when we know." Elissa smiled ruefully, kneeling at the side of the bed. "Still there might have been a landmark in the background, or a hint of something useful." The edge was low to the floor, and she easily cleared it when she reached out with one hand to pull his fist to her lips. "Mine are usually mindless noise but last night I…" He saw her smile dim. "That's blood. You're hurt."
This is going to—
"Another nosebleed. It's just the cold."
"It's not cold in here."
"What's that, like a bum knee?" Lissie lifted a corner of a blanket and blotted his upper lip. "You don't look well."
"It's just as you said. Nightmares."
"Your lip is split."
"Maybe you punched me in your sleep." Alistair smiled gingerly.
"It wasn't that kind of dream." Lissie squeezed his hand and the afterimages of her waking burst in flashes behind his eyes. Persistent in her nose was the scent of a rose garden. Wet earth, damp granite at her fingertips, the pungent perfume of flowers in bloom, the feel of sand under the dancing slippers she'd thrown away years ago. Strange. She touched her crown, remembering the weight of- what was it? Why would she put a ring there? A stone so large it nearly weighed down her left hand, a ruby the blood color of her hair, with sharp-toothed diamonds that nicked the knuckles on the surrounding fingers. The color of— She pulled back.
"Stop," he begged, shivering. 'The color of the Theirins,' he thought.
"Show me yours," she countered.
"You know why not."
A flush of color shot across her throat and collarbones. Deceptively mildly she said, "Whom don't you trust? Me?"
"Where did the clothes come from?"
"They are a present from Prince Bhelen. Don't change the subject."
"You're not going to wear them."
Her head cocked, studying him like a cat at a mousehole. "Are you jealous?"
"You know very well I'm not."
"I know what you meant." She shimmied off her shirt, and slipped the cambric band around her chest. It fit tightly when fastened, flattening her figure so that her armor would sit flush. "What's important is that our irascible prince does not. He thinks I can be bought, like his favorite concubine. If he discovers he cannot, he may attempt to treat me like Jarvia. Hoping there is someone more malleable waiting to take my place." She stood up, grimacing when her joints clicked and popped. "I know how to smile and make nice."
His mouth formed a thin line. "Until he sticks a knife in your back."
"There is that," she agreed. "But if he had anyone half good enough, he wouldn't have sent me after the Carta." She sniffed, jerking her trousers up over her hips, and for a second the cheerful facade slipped. "Alistair, you say that like Harrowmont is not capable of it, too. He wanted Jarvia dead just as badly." She pulled the silk shirt over her head. Tourmaline. The gemstones might have been tourmaline. Her bared shoulders were mottled with fresh bruises, blue like the eyes in his dream. "And he also sent a bribe."
Alistair worried his split lip with his tongue. "More clothes?" The candle kept burning. Lissie kept talking. As if there was still air in the room to breathe.
"Five hundred dwarven crowns."
"Maker, that's a heck of a gamble."
"Not to a man like Harrowmont."
"Well it's nobody's pocket change."
"True enough." Lissie flounced down on the edge of the bed beside him. She tucked her head under his chin, and he held her against him so tightly that he could hear their bones rubbing together.
Then he noticed was how quiet it was. The humming in the back of his head had silenced; briefly, his ears ached, straining to catch that sweet melody. That persistant song. Even gone there was a part of him that scrambled to remember it. Is it worse, he wanted to ask her, without me to share the burden? Or is it worse when two Wardens hear it?
"I don't like it. You feel all… twisted up in lumps." She sighed. "What do I feel like to you?"
'Broken bits of glass,' he did not say. "You're hungry," he lied, and wondered why he did it. He felt angry. 'Bring back the song,' he thought, and then told himself he had not thought it.
She frowned. "I'm never hungry."
"You should be."
"But I'm not. Are you?"
"Starving," he admitted, feeling the grinding in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly he wondered if he was taking that from her as well. "This is a stupid game, Lissie."
"No one's making you play," she retorted. There was a touch of hurt in her voice. For a second he thought he saw —a frizzy haired little girl kneeling on the back of a little boy, twisting his arm behind his back and grinding his face in the dirt. "Say it!" she crowed. "Say I beat you fair and square."
"But I have you let you win," wailed the other child, "miss, you're the lady!"—
The bond snapped shut so abruptly that they both winced.
"I did not mean that," Lissie said, astonished. "I did not even remember. It just slipped out." She stood up, walking quick circles in the room. "Tell me your nightmare."
He stretched his legs out, felt the floor against his heels. It was almost warm to the touch, like a living breathing thing. He wanted it to be cold. "Why?" His guts were churning so badly Alistair thought he would certainly vomit.
"Because… I don't know!" she clutched a fistful of hair at the nape of her neck. "Because that wasn't my memory. That never happened. Could never have. We never met as children."
"We never did," he agreed.