"What would be the point?"
"Because Morrigan, it's a bit of fun. A way to make the long nights at camp a little less intense, a little less boring. And, it gets our minds off the darkspawn at hand. Do you need more reasons?"
Alistair and Zevran both nod, and Leliana's mouth has curved into a smile. I knew they would agree. They might each have their own reasons waiting on their tongues, reasons not to go to bed just yet, to sleep alone, to lie in the dark. Morrigan constantly lives with her own darkness, is comfortable in it and actively seeks it. The rest of us are not the same as ehr. We may seek out Darkspawn and the Archdemon, but those are the external, outward darknesses. I know I far prefer the lightness of stories and companionship, but it is no surprise to see Morrigan's nose wrinkled with disgust at the idea of a few happy tales.
She doesn't sit with us by the fire, but she also doesn't wander back to her tent right away. I figure that's about as close to acceptance we're going to get from her. For now at least.
"Leliana should start, yes?" Zevran smiles at our redheaded bard, but she shakes her head.
"Zevran, the idea is that we share stories, not that you listen to me over and over and over again."
"I could listen to you forever," he says with a playful wink in her direction.
Leliana shakes her head at him, but quietly says, "If it's what everyone wishes, I can begin."
"No, I'll start." Sten's deep voice startles us all and we each must struggle to make out his large form in the shadows. Even the look on Morrigan's face is worth the momentary terror I feel that Sten's wandered over from his own tent. He has never associated with the group, at least not outside of the times he needs to fight. To see him striding towards the fire is odd, to say the very least. When he reaches the group his eyes are transfixed on the fire but quietly, I hear him ask, "Is that alright?"
"Yes, Sten." I swallow, and find my voice. "Please share a story with us."
"Thank you." It's a long moment before he continues, "In my hometown, there's a story about a man haunted by a bear."
He's silent for a moment, and I lean forward slightly eager to hear Sten's story. He's the tall, tough and silent type. I don't think anyone has been able to get more than a few sentences from him at one time, though we have all tried from time to time. I know a little of his own story, but it's limited knowledge from the few exchanges we've had. When I look around at our companions, it's obvious everyone, even Morrigan, seems eager for Sten to continue. He does continue. A hush falls over the camp; even the wind feels stationary, as if to make it easier to hear him.
"The bear isn't real, it was of the Fade, but the man when he first saw it, he was unaware of its origin. The man was a young, unmarried farmer and one afternoon he was on his way home though a small patch of woodland, when he was greeted by another man. The new man was accompanied by a large and dark bear. The young farmer was immediately frightened by the bear, because there had been many stories of bear attacks in the woods near his home."
As he speaks, Sten closes in on the campfire and lowers himself onto a large rock between Alistair and Morrigan. She's moved in closer to the fire, but continues to stand, watching Sten with an intense expression.
"The man makes an offer to the young farmer. He will take the bear with him when he goes home. The bear must stay with the man for a year, after which time, the man will return and give the young man great riches."
Zevran leans forward, "And this bear, was it friendly? Even I do not think that riches are worth the possibility of being eaten by a bear."
"We could test your resolve, thief." Morrigan raises her arms as if to being her spell to transform into her own bear shape. We've seen her fight in bear form and it can be rather intimidating to have a bear fighting nearby. Even when you know (or you at least hope) that the bear is on your side.
Zevran opens his mouth as if to retort, but Sten interrupts. "The bear was not friendly, exactly. However it was a well trained companion to the man, and he told the young farmer that he would not need to worry that the bear might attack."
"Well, that's something." Zevran whispers.
"Though the man also told him that he would owe the man his life if anything happened and the young farmer was not able to live up to the agreement, the young man quickly agreed to the man's offer. He was very poor and had no family, but desperately loved a woman in town and needed the money to make a home for her. And he thought a year would not be so much longer to wait for a wife."
"Once the agreement was made, the man disappeared into the shadows of the forest, leaving the bear behind. It made no move, and though the young farmer tried to talk to it, it seemed never to be listening. Unsure exactly what to do, the young man continued home. The bear followed him into his small home when they arrived, and then promptly found the darkest corner of the man's small home and sat down. In the morning, the bear was still in the corner, but did not move until the man left his home to go into town; at which point the bear followed him out of the house and into town."
"In town, people did not seem to notice the bear at his side, but the young man soon realized that people were less willing to stand and talk with him, or they would give him a wide berth when passing him. He tried several times to talk to people about the bear, but no one seemed to be able to see it except for him, and people began to assume he had gone mad. Eventually, he stopped talking about the bear, though it was never far from his side."
"Sten," Leliana interrupted in little more than a whisper, "did he have to care for it? I mean, did he feed or groom the bear?"
"The story goes that he did nothing to care for it, that the bear was continually at his side, except for at night, when the bear sat in a corner of the house while the young man slept."
"And he did not think it odd?" This from Morrigan.
"He did, very much so. But the man only thought it made his job easier. If the bear did not need to be cared for, then there would be less opportunity for him to fail in his task."
Morrigan nods. Sten gives a look around at each of us, and though there are several questions waiting in my own mouth eager to be asked, I say nothing. After another moment of silence, he continues.
"Eventually, the man stopped going in to town. No matter how much he cleansed himself, he started to smell like the woods, like dirt and meat, like bear. Though he never noticed such a stench coming from the animal. His hair grew shaggy and it would not stay clean or short. As his appearance worsened, so did his mind, for he had the most horrible of nightmares. At times, he woke up in mornings and wept with joy to realize the night before had been only a dream. He kept to himself, only leaving the house to work in the fields and gather necessary supplies."
"One day, when the young man realized that half of his year had gone by, he also knew that he had enough money collected to ask the young woman's hand in marriage. Not wanting to waste any time, he cleaned himself as best he could and walked to the young woman's house."
"He met with her father, who invited him in to have dinner with the family. The man explained his plight to the father after their meal, and though he did not believe the young man's story completely, he promised his daughter's hand to the young man. Their family was also poor, and the promise of extra money upon his daughter's marriage would help more than he wanted to admit. And the old man knew that there were worse arrangements he could make for his daughter, arrangements to men that would not love her the way the young farmer did. So an agreement was made, provided the wedding would not be take place until after the young man had fulfilled his year with the bear."
"The young woman's sisters who had previously been eager to marry the young man themselves were upset. They called the young man names, and pleaded with their father not to allow the marriage. They no longer found the young man an appealing match. They commented on his stench, his ill-fitting clothes and his unkempt hair. Their father sent them to their room, apologized to the young man, but asked him to leave. Before he set off for home, the young man gave his young bride-to-be half a small ring and asked that she keep it and think of him often."
"The young woman, was she not frightened of him? That he was mad?" Alistair asks.
"She was," Sten nods and continues. "The young woman wanted nothing more to be with the young man, but was frightened by how much he had changed. She did worry that he was going mad, that he would not be a steady husband. But she trusted him, as she trusted her father and she stored her half of the ring in her dress pocket where she could look at it often."
"For the other half of the year, the young man found life increasingly difficult. He could not even find comfort in his own home, and thus set out into the woods where he might sleep under cool night air. He had only been able to harvest about half of his field, and at times felt like he might lose his mind completely. His fields grew over when he did not return home and his closest neighbors began to spread rumors that he had left town, and on some occasions, that he had died."
"How awful," Leliana whispers. I look across the fire to see that she and Zevran have at some point moved closer together. He reaches over and pats her hand.
Sten nods. "The young man was certain, that though there was little time left, that he would never be rid of the bear. Or that if he was, it would only mean that he had died."
"The bear was so close to him all the time, and was indeed driving him mad. No one but him could see it, and even at night now that he slept in the woods, the bear was so close to him all the time, he could reach down and feel its matted fur. Eventually, the days and nights grew so cold, that the young man had need of some shelter in which to keep warm and dry. He had wandered far enough he knew he could not make it home and so, he found a large empty cave to make a small camp for himself."
"He slept. One day he curled up inside the cave next to the bear in order to stay warm, and he fell into a deep sleep. When he woke up, the sky was clear, the land was dry and the bear was gone. When he stepped out of the cave the strange man from the woods was there to greet him."
"The man applauded him on his successful year. And while the young farmer was still a bit addled by the few months of sleep he had just woken from, he happily accepted a large bag filled with jewels and coins. The bear was nowhere to be seen, and the strange man left as soon as the young man had taken the bag from his hands. Happily, the young farmer returned home."
"His field was a mess, and his home was covered in a thick layer of dust, but he was happy to see it all once more. Happier still when he looked into the corners of his small home and found not a single bear. He stored his riches away in the house, except for a few coins that he took to town so he could buy new clothes. He cleaned himself up, put on his new clothes and set out in search of his bride. The young woman's father was excited to see the young man returned, clean and seemingly once more in his right mind. He dined with their family again, and this time, during dinner he placed the other half of the ring on his young bride-to-be's plate as she finished eating."
"Upon seeing the ring, the young woman cried tears of happiness, brought her half from her dress pocket where she had kept it over the months, and held the two halves together. Her sisters however left the table in fits of rage and jealousy. The older of her sisters went upstairs to her bedroom, and flung herself from the window. The younger of the two waited until nightfall, after the young man had returned home and her family was asleep, and hung herself out the same window."
Leliana gasps, but says nothing.
"When the young man returned home, he was happier than he'd ever been in his life. The woman he loved was going to be his bride, and he had riches enough to keep them for a very long time. When he got to his house, he opened the front door, only to find the strange man waiting for him at his own kitchen table. The large frightening bear was laying down on the floor within reach of the man."
"The strange man congratulated him. The man then pulled another, this time smaller, bag from somewhere in shadows and placed it on the table. When the young man asked what he had done, the man said, 'I had hoped to gather one soul for the Fade, and instead you have given me two.' Then both he and bear disappeared."
Sten makes a motion that looks like a shrug and then stands abruptly. "That is the end of my story".
I exchange a look with Alistair and think, that was abrupt. But really, it's Sten and not all that surprising. Sten doesn't wait for any of us to ask more questions about his story, quickly turning and walking back to his own part of camp. Zevran and Leliana both let out laughs that are deep and breathy and sound like they've been holding them in for a long while. Morrigan sighs, and unsurprisingly also heads back to her own tent.
She'll be back later, when she thinks no one is watching. I've seen her a few times, late at night, reading that grimoire of her mother's by the campfire. I know she's invested a bit of time into the research of what her mother recorded in that book, but I also feel that Morrigan likes to be closer to the center of camp than she'll admit. To have set her tent so far away from us all, only to spend late nights by the fire near the rest of our tents is telling. And I doubt very much that it has anything to do with a lack of candles.
Wynne has stepped up behind Zevran and gives us all one of her stern den mother glares. "It was nice of Sten to share his story."
We nod obediently, and I make a note to tell Sten that I appreciate how he shared with us. My guess is that he won't want me to mention it, and will quickly change the subject, but that doesn't mean I can't try I suppose. Zevran and Leliana quiet and whisper something between them. It'll only be minutes before one or the other excuses themselves for the evening I think.
"Warden, do you mind if I ask you a question?" Wynne asks.
"Of course Wynne."
The older woman has been fairly quiet since we left the tower, and it is obvious that she's still struggling with the events that transpired there. I cannot blame her either. It was a soul-wrenching experience to see the tower brought so low, crawling with Templar and nearly destroyed by one rotten mage. I try not to think of Cullen's face, but it comes to my mind unbidden and I have to blink several times before it will clear.
She steps around the campfire and I offer her a section of the log next to me. She sits, and for a moment she says nothing, only stares out into the fire. I see her spare a glance each for Alistair, Zevran and Leliana. Eventually, she turns to me and I can see bits of the fire reflected in her eyes. There is a sadness there, but it is distant. Instead, I can see that almost motherly expression on her face that was present when I first met her at the Warden's camp after arriving there with Duncan.
I have of course, known her much longer, and have had the chance to study with her some time back, before I ever knew of the Darkspawn troubles, or Duncan, or the Grey Wardens for that matter. But, when we'd met again at the camp, she had taken me under her wing for a short time, made sure that I was comfortable in the camp, a large camp with so few men; it was nice to have a sort of mother figure to connect with when I needed it. It had all come to an end so abruptly. And yet, here we were again; different camp, different people.
"I wanted to ask you Warden, about Alistair." She says his name in a whisper. He's already moving towards his own tent, and I notice that both Zevran and Leliana are also preparing to turn in for the evening. Well, their version of 'turning in' anyhow.
"What about him, Wynne?" I know what she wants to know. It has been on my own mind too often the past few weeks. But I feel that I need her to say the words, to make it a real question - one that might need a real answer.
"Well, it's just that the two of you seem to have grown very close recently." She sighs and she struggles for her next words. "You two, as far as we know, are the only remaining Grey Wardens in Ferelden. And, Alistair, he was studying to be a Templar..." I hear her sigh and can't help but wonder if it might be Greagoir that she is thinking of now.
I've been wrestling with my feelings for Alistair for some time now, and Wynne's question doesn't catch me off-guard. Still, I'm not sure what answer to give her. Or myself.
"There are sacrifices that might need to be made, Warden," she pauses and then adds, "Selene".
I nod, and am a little touched at her addition of my name. It's so rare for me to hear it these days. I don't mind that everyone refers to me as the Warden, but it's still nice to hear.
"I understand, Wynne."
"I hope you do, Selene. These are difficult times indeed, and I only worry for your safety. And for Alistair's." She inclines her head towards his tent and I follow the motion and find that he is just stepping inside as I glance over.
"I promise that I don't mean him any harm, Wynne..." I start, my eyes watching the tent flap closed behind him.
"I know you don't. But you cannot always control these things. Especially with the tensions we're all facing, the decisions that will be need to be made as we continue forward..."
"I am doing the best I can."
"You have done a fine job so far Selene, I don't mean to impugn your abilities, but..."
"But my best may not always be good enough," I finish for her.
She nods, and we both sigh. She reaches over and pats my hand, "Selene, thanks for indulging me. I know that you're intentions are good. And if it is serious between you...I wish you all the luck I can give."
"Thank you Wynne. I do appreciate your concern, and your kind words."
She stands slowly, stretching her back and legs as she rises. "I believe it is far past my bed time. Good night Warden."
"Good night Wynne," I say with a smile.
I watch her walk to the other side of the campfire, past Zevran and Leliana's tents where she has set up her own area. The night has gone chilly and I can feel the cold through my armor, a sure sign that it is indeed, bed time. I am not quite ready to get up yet though, and my eyes are drawn back to the hypnotic fire, steadily burning and crackling.
I'm not sure how much time passes, but some time later I feel the warm coarse fur of the dog under my hands. He lays around my feet and makes a small whimpering noise. The difference between my hands and his warm body is noticeable and it gives me a start -- enough to tear my gaze away to look down at him. He pushes at my legs with his muzzle. When I don't move, he lifts my hand with his nose and nips at my fingertips.
I can't help but chuckle. "I take it this is your way of telling me to go to bed?"
His tongue lolls to one side in his own sort of happy grin, and his tail thumps against the hard ground, sending up a small billow of dust. He reaches for my hand with his nose again, and I pull it away just in time to avoid being nipped at again.
"Alright, you're right. I should be in bed."
His tail thumps again and then he stands and waits. I find my legs are stiff from sitting for so long, and I stretch them out before standing. I reach out my hands and warm them near the fire, and the dog noses my legs, urging me onward and away from the fire.
"I'm going, I'm going."
He sees me safely to my tent, and when he's satisfied that I'm actually preparing for bed, I hear his heavy paws thumping away. I strip off all but my small clothes, piling everything in the corner within easy reach. My staff is already laid beside my bedroll, and I run a hand along the carvings as I pull the blankets up around me.
I close my eyes and try to not to think of my conversation with Wynne, or of the path we have to travel tomorrow. Sten's story comes back to me, and I shiver with the thought of being consistently haunted by a bear from the Fade; what was most likely a demon, or what was left of one. I can't shake the thought, and after several long minutes in the dark, I have to stand up.
I wrap myself in my blanket, holding it together with one hand and grab my staff with the other. Quietly, I push the tent entrance, and step out into the chilly night air. It's only a few steps to Alistair's tent, though I give a brief tap on it with my staff before stepping inside. He's already laying down, wrapped in his own blankets, eyes heavy with sleep. But he stirs.
"It's only me. It's cold and I couldn't sleep."
He mumbles something and lifts his blanket in an invitation. I lay my staff on the floor next to his weapons and armor and then crawl beside him. Once I'm settled, he lays an arm around me and pulls me in close to him. He's warm and I can already hear the heavy breaths that signify that he's gone back to sleep. I'm not far behind.
It had been a long day of nothing. We travelled what had felt like the same flat and boring path that we have been staring at for the last week. We were making our way, slowly from Lothering to the Brecilian Forest. We knew we were closing in on the outskirts of the forest, but it was hard to gauge how many days we had left. Our camp had grown exponentially since Alistair, Morrigan and I had set off from her Flemeth's and it was taking us longer and longer to cross any distance.
Everyone in camp is on edge as we set up for the evening. The mind-numbing tedium that has been the path to the woods has put everyone in a bad mood. If I didn't think it in such phenomenology bad taste, I'd almost welcome the Darkspawn, just to give us all something to do. But, I do know better and keep my thoughts to myself.
The evening air has a brisk chill, and Alistair is already lugging wood over to the center of camp to build the fire. Zevran has already prepared the area, and is putting up stones to ring the area. Somewhere, I can hear clanging and the occasional exclamation of "Enchantment!" from one far side of our camp ground. It sounds like our dwarven travelling companions Bodhan and his adopted son Sandal are organizing some of their wares. They don't have much for sale, but they do their own fair bit of trading every time we stop somewhere, it it's a fair bet that Bodhan is gathering what he can to prepare it.
It wouldn't be my first choice, but it's nice to have Bodhan and Sandal in camp. Not only is Bodhan often ready to buy found items off us as we travel, but Sandal's uncanny ability to work Lyrium into our weapons has already come in handy. At the least, they seem content enough to stick with us on the road, and travel far enough back to stay out of our way when we hit rough patches.
I'm already gathering the few things I want to take out to the campfire with me. I have a plan to go through my pack tonight and do some cleaning. Whatever we find in the Brecilian Forest, I want to be prepared for it. Or as prepared as I can be for having never been there before.
I toss a few things last things into my tent, and head for a clear patch of grass near what is soon to be the fire. Zevran smiles at me as I approach and I find myself returning it easily. It's disarming how pleasant he can be when the mood strikes him, and when he's not trying to find a way into my armor.
"Warden," he nods.
"Zevran," I answer warily.
He inclines his head again with a look behind me. I turn to see Wynne only a few steps back and give her a nod. She's carrying a small book in her hands, one that looks well worn and only loosely held together in its stitching. She holds it up as she closes the few steps between us.
"I thought I might share a story tonight Warden," she says and she waves the book. "If that's okay with you?"
"The would be nice Wynne. It will at the very least give us all another night to think on the stories we might each share some other time."
"And help us all avoid any pesky arguing over who else might go instead," Zevran adds. I turn back in time to catch a wink before his attention goes back to the fire.
None of us in camp are exceptionally good at cooking, and when it comes to meals on the road most of us rarely want to stop for more than a few minutes to eat. Dinner has become a small ritual for us though, when we're on the road, it's nice to sit and eat and pretend that we're anywhere else. Since none of us are really talented with it, we each have started to take turns preparing something, even if it's simple. Tonight is Leliana's night, which means we're likely to have rabbit or pheasant, depending on what she can roust from the trees. She's the best with the bow, and the most likely of any of us to come up with any real meat that hasn't been completely dried to a leathery consistency.
Sure enough, by the time Alistair, Zevran and I have finished getting the fire built, the dog fed and the rest of the tents secured, Leliana is proudly carrying dinner into camp by their ears. And by the time dinner is ready an hour or so later, we're all gathered around the fire sitting on makeshift seats of rock, grass or wood. I dip the last little bite of bread in the remains of my dinner push it around to soak up the remaining moisture. While I wait for it to be soft enough to eat, I clear my throat loud enough to catch everyone's attention.
"Wynne has volunteered to bring us a story this evening."
There's a few whispered exchanges around the fire before people look expectantly at Wynne. She's finished her dinner already and has her book in her lap, ready. She nods, gathers the book in a hand and holds it up for everyone to see.
"I do. Although I must admit that I've never been good at storytelling." She gives a short laugh, one that sounds further away than it is and sets the book back in her lap. "So, I brought a little help. A story that I remember reading when I was younger, one I thought several of you might enjoy."
She's silent for several minutes while everyone finishes what remains of their dinners, myself included. Bodhan gives us an apologetic smile as Sandal finishes his dinner with an exclamation of "Enchantment". He ushers the young dwarf back to their wagon, giving us all a wave goodnight. As everyone else sets aside their things as they finish, Wynne balances the book on her knees and opens it, smoothing down the pages. She gives us all an expectant look and I nod to indicate that we're ready for her to begin.
She takes a deep breath and begins, "This is an old story, and I've been told that all the races have some version of it."
"Once a long, long time ago there was a beautiful woman. A woman so beautiful that people feared she was too beautiful to be safe among mortal men. Indeed, she was beautiful enough the draw the attention of a jealous goddess. This goddess sent her son, a young and willing godling to the young woman while she slept."
It's weird to hear the words god used within it immediately conjuring thoughts of the Old Gods in my mind. I spare a glance away from Wynne and catch similarly confused expressions on all but Sten and Morrigan's faces. Not surprising really, and because it is coming from Wynne, I reserve judgement about her tale, trusting she has her reasons.
"You see, the goddess and her son were spirits of love and beauty, though not without their troubles and faults. The goddess thought herself the most beautiful, and reveled in the attentions from mortals and the romanticization of her grace and radiance. Her son, the young god was an archer, and could make someone fall in love just by pricking them with one of his arrows. In fact, he loved nothing more than to grant someone the desire of their heart," Wynne pauses and then adds, "and without his arrows, nothing could fall in love."
"The young god wanted to please his mother, and was happy to find this young woman, even if it meant creating a repulsive or unsuited match for her. So he came to our world, to the home of the young woman's family and waited until nighttime in order to sneak inside. And then, to make doubly certain that no one would see him, he cast a spell to make himself invisible. He prepared his arrows so that he might have them ready as soon as they were needed, and made his way to the young woman's bed chambers."
"She was deep in sleep when he found her and as he approached her bed, he felt something like pity in his heart for the woman. She was indeed extremely beautiful, and he knew that no matter where she lived, she might never be safe from men...or indeed jealous goddesses like his mother. He drew close to her bed and began to pull an arrow from his quiver so he might just scratch her with the tip on an exposed shoulder. But even as he started to lean over the young woman, she woke up, eyelids flying open as if she had been startled awake."
"Astonishingly, though he knew he had made himself invisible, she seemed to stare right at him. In that moment, he was so caught off-guard that he accidentally scratched himself in the side with his own arrow. Even as he stood there, he began to fall in love with the young woman who could not even see him."
"Did she really know he was there?" Leliana asks.
Wynne looks up from her book, "No, I do not think so. Though she may have felt his presence -- have you never felt as though some one was watching you even when you could not see anyone?" Several of us nod. Wynne looks thoughtful then adds, "I think it must have been something like that."
"The young god, found himself falling deeply in love with the woman the longer he stood over her and knew he could not complete the task his mother had given him. It pained him to leave her, but he returned to his mother to tell her what had transpired. Jealous as she was, when she heard her son's story, she was furious and placed a curse on the beautiful young woman that she might never find a husband at all. Her son is outraged and tells his mother than as long as the curse remains on the woman he loves, he will no longer shoot his arrows, meaning that people will no longer fall in love and inhabit his mother's temples."
"Without followers, the goddess was miserable. Time went by and no animal or man fell in love, mated, reproduced...and the world began to suffer for it."
Zevran makes a tsk-tsk sound, and when Wynne pauses he says, "That would be miserable". He draws out miserable, so that it's accented and trailing, but gives Wynne a wink.
She smiles. "Indeed."
"Thankfully, the goddess could not stand the 'miserable' state of the world," Wynne says still looking at Zevran.
He nods with another smile, and Wynne returns her gaze to the book on her lap. "It did not take much longer before the goddess relented to her son's demands. She agreed to lift the curse on the young woman if he would set about his work immediately. So he did."
"The young god travelled the world shooting his arrows and restoring what work he should have done in the previous months. As things return to normal, and the world begins to look young once more, the young beautiful woman's parents begin to fret over their daughter. For though many find her beautiful and desirable, no one offers to take her as a wife."
"A shame," Zevran says. He's obviously enjoying the story about the beautiful young woman. I think he likes the idea of gods falling in love with beautiful mortals, regardless of whether the love is truth or fabrication.
"Her parents decided to consult a spirit, the story refers to it as an oracle; someone who could tell see pieces of the future. The spirit tells the woman's parents that she should be abandoned on a nearby mountain. Her parents were so frightened by their daughter and the spirit's words, and they obey."
"How horrible!" Leliana looks outraged. Zevran reaches out to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but she shrugs it off.
"Her parents were doing what they thought best."
"But, to abandon her because she was too beautiful? It is ridiculous!" There's frustration and anger in her voice, and it cracks slightly as she speaks. I think she might be close to tears over the plight of the beautiful young woman in Wynne's story.
"Leliana, please let me finish my story. I promise you it will be worth the heartache."
"'Tis really not surprising is it? Parents cannot be trusted." This from Morrigan sitting on the far side of the campfire, arms crossed in front of her chest.
"Morrigan, please. That does not help, let's let Wynne finish." I give her a look I hope is stern and commanding.
She shrugs. "I am only stating what is obvious. They had a problem they could not handle. They consulted a spirit of the Fade and trusted that it would lead them rightly."
Wynne clears her throat, and we all turn our attention to her. "Ladies, please let me finish. I will even speed it up so you might find out what happens to the beautiful young woman."
I nod, and I see Leliana doing the same. Morrigan doesn't move, but she also doesn't speak again, and I take it as a sign that she is willing to indulge Wynne the end of the story. But, even in the twilight, I can see the frustration on her face, and the spark of anger in her eyes.
"Alright," Wynne begins again. "Her parents did take her to the mountain and leave her there. However the woman is carried off by the wind to a beautiful house somewhere in the mountains. The young god joins her in the house each night, after it is dark and she is unable to see his face. Each night they consummate their love, and he is gone again before she wakes."
"One night, the young woman works to discover her lover's identity and when she does, he leaves in a flush of rage. She seeks him out, searching for him everywhere, and eventually she leaves the house and stumbles across a temple to his mother. The young woman pleads forgiveness for her deeds, but the goddess is so angry that she makes three demands on the young woman."
"With the help of people and animals she meets along the way, the young woman is able to complete the three tasks. The goddess so frustrated at the woman's success, demands one last task of the woman. She claims that her beauty has faded because she has had to care for her son who has become sick with grief that the woman did not have enough faith in him. She convinces the young woman to travel into the Fade in order to retrieve a bit of beauty that has been stored in a box there."
"It is a trick set by the goddess in hopes that the young woman might kill herself in order to enter the Fade. However, as she's about to go through with it, the very place she stands upon, speaks to her. It tells her how best to enter the Fade."
Wynne looks up for a moment. "The records are always a bit fuzzy here." She looks at me as though she's slightly frightened by the lack of information. I nod hoping to urge her to continue anyway. She looks back to her book.
"The stories say that she was able to enter the Fade, though she was alive and none of the stories mention that she had any sort of magical ability." She shrugs, "But get there she did, and she found the box that she had been told contained enough beauty to restore the goddess."
"She opened the box only to find that there was no beauty inside. The box released a sleep spell that caused the young woman to fall into a dangerously deep sleep. The goddess' son learned about this, and went to her immediately and wiped the sleep from her and took her home. They were married soon after and with the approval of the gods, the young woman became herself immortal, so she could be always with the god she loved."
Wynne softly closes the book and folds her hands over it. She reaches down to grab the mug of ale she had been drinking with dinner, and takes several swigs.
"Did she ever go back to her parents? Or confront them at all?" Leliana asks in a whisper.
Wynne shrugs and gives a small, sad smile. "Nothing in the story says that she did. However, I imagine that her parents did learn of how well things worked out for her." Leliana nods slowly still obviously thinking the story through.
Wynne turns to face me, as best she can from her place anyhow, and asks, "Did you enjoy the story Warden?"
I nod. "I did Wynne. I did have a question though."
She smiles, as if she might have suspected as much from me already. "Go on."
"The woman became immortal -- but not a goddess herself?"
"Well, the ideas vary on this from version to version. In some, she becomes the goddess of spirit, and that she guarded the souls of men. However, in some versions, none of them were gods. Only men and women with what may have been a sort of magic. Indeed, that is how I first heard the story told."
"But you prefer the version with them as gods?" Morrigan asks.
Wynne smiles. "It does feel more romantic that way: the love of a god and a mortal woman can transcend trials and the separation of their different stations?"
Morrigan shrugs. "Dramatic perhaps." She frowns slightly and then turns to leave. "Goodnight Wynne. Warden."
Wynne's comment about the romantic nature of the story is slightly confusing to me. I cannot tell now if she's putting us on, or if she has already changed her mind about Alistair and I since last night. Or, maybe that's the point, Wynne's motivations are not always as straightforward as one would think. She never ceases at playing the line between sweet motherly type and playful troublemaker, to the continuing consternation of Alistair.
When Morrigan is out of range of the campfire, Wynne remarks, "And she would know dramatic."
"Wynne!" I play at being shocked.
She grins, "Goodnight Warden".
I make my way over to Alistair, who has already moved away from the campfire where Zevran looks to still be calming Leliana down. I'm concerned, but do not want to interrupt, so I make plans to visit her later to check in on her.
"Warden," When he smiles at me I can feel the weariness from today's travels fade, just slightly from my body. I know I return his smile easily and I am eager to be close to him.
"I was just going to go through my pack and organize things a bit before turning into my tent tonight." I wave a hand half-heartedly back towards the ground where my bag is waiting for me. "I was hoping you might like to sit with me a while?"
"I would like that."
We all took our dinners in our own tents. The rain beat down on them in a battle-like rhythm and every so often the tents brightened as a flash of lightening streaked through the clouds. The thunder sounds farther away than it had earlier in the evening when we had cut today's travels short in order to find a safe place to camp. Really, there were no real safe places, not in a storm like this, not so close to the forest. But, we were doing the best we could, and each of us had hunkered down in the place we wanted to be while we waited out the worst of it.
I had tried to be strong, to sit out the worst of it in my own tent. We all needed our rest, and I, just like the rest of the group was soaked head to toe, my boots and breeches covered in mud. I cleaned things as best I could and set them aside, but without some time in the sun, of which we had no chance, they were not going to be quite ready for travel tomorrow. I realized that everyone was going to be in similar straits and that it would most likely set us back a day of travel. Even if some of us had multiple sets of clothing and armor, I doubted there would be enough to go around for everyone.
About the same time I was thinking through what to do with myself in the remaining candle light I had, I had thought about Alistair -- his tent mere steps from my own. In this weather, the best and more comfortable place to be that I could think of, besides a soft downy bed, was in his arms.
I blew out the candle, and threw off the blankets I had wrapped around me. It was too dark to see much when I stuck my head outside of the tent. I could make out a few shadows around several of the nearby tents: Wynne's, Alistair's and Leliana's. They each had a candle or two going, and though it didn't light much outside, it was enough when the next crack of lightening crashed through the clouds, I could at least make out that there wasn't anyone outside.
Rain pelted down on my skin as I stepped out from my tent in my small clothes. It was cold, both the rain and the air, and it created goose bumps along my body. I waited for a moment by Alistair's tent, then rapped my hand against the entrance, and then peeked my head inside.
"Can I come in?"
"Are you insane?" He looked absolutely frightened to see me. Not only was he also already stripped down to his underthings, but I it was clear he had not been expecting anyone -- his tent was a mess.
He recovered quickly enough, pushed some of his things aside with an arm and a foot, and waved me inside. He grabbed his blanket and wrapped it around me and then rubbing his hands along my arms and legs to warm me up.
"You are insane, I'm certain of it," he said when my teeth starting chattering of their own accord. "If you've gotten yourself sick when we're this close to the forest..."
He lets the half-threat hang in the air for a moment, before shaking his head and pulling me towards him into an embrace. I relax against him, he smells of sweat and leather and rain. I breathe deep leaning my head in the place between his shoulder and neck. He makes a sort of contented 'hmmm' noise, and we both sort of collapse into a comfortable pile on the floor.
I tilt my head so I can look up at him -- he's looking away and pushing clutter away from his bedroll with his legs and free hand. After a moment, I think he must feel me looking at him for he pauses and looks down at me with a smile.
"I was going to go mad on my own tonight, clearly."
I laugh and raise myself into a more suitable sitting position to get a better look around. "What happened in here anyhow?"
"I was...well, I was looking for something in my pack, and could not find it at all, so I ended up dumping all of it out. And well..."
"Didn't find it, eh?"
"Not exactly." He leans away for a moment and I feel the stretch in his arms and back while he tries to keep his hold on me and reach for something. After a moment or two of clutter wrangling, he comes up with a squished and sickly flower.
"Ah," is all I can muster as he holds it out to me for inspection.
"I...well, I wanted to get you something. And, you see, I had told Zevran about the rose I'd given you..." his face flushes with embarrasment.
"Well, it feels silly now," he says and flings the crushed flower into a pile of clutter in the corner near his pack. "But, he said something to me about not being able to match it."
He nods. "Get you a gift as good...as romantic."
"Why would I need another gift?"
"I just...I thought...Zevran said, well he said that since I gave you that rose, you might be expecting more. For me to keep giving you things."
I smile and shake my head. "Alistair. I don't need more gifts. I have what I need." I lean in and kiss his cheek and add, "What I want."
I nod. "Now, if you're quite done with all that, maybe you should come over here with me," I pat the edge of his bedroll.
We climb as best we can around the clutter onto the bedroll, and arrange the blankets around us. I've finally started to warm up from my brief venture in the rain, but it's nice to have his blanket to pull over us and keep the warmth in. Once we're situated, he leans over and blows out the few candles he has lit and lays down, pulling me close.
"Tell me a story?"
He doesn't hedge or stutter, or even ask me why. He just starts, like the story has been sitting on the tip of his tongue for days, waiting for the chance to get out.
"I have this dream sometimes. And, I think I remember that Eamon told a story like it to me when I was younger. When he was younger..."
I settle in against him and though I'm close, his voice sounds far away, like he's talking at me through the tent. When he pauses, I try not to make a noise, I don't want to bring him away from whatever memory he's having, but it hurts to hear him remember his uncle with such sadness. I know that the fact that Eamon is even now recovering from what might have been a fatal illness is weighing on Alistair's mind. It cannot help to be so far away from someone that he was once so close to.
"In my dream, I have lost my shadow. One evening, it's there, it follows me like a shadow should do and nothing seems amiss. But then, the next evening it is missing. I look everywhere for it, but cannot find it anywhere." I feel him turn to look at me despite the darkness. "Can you imagine? To realize that your shadow is missing?"
I'm not sure how to respond, so I don't. And after a moment, he turns away again and continues as though he had not needed a response anyhow.
"I go on for days in my dream without my shadow, and it seems that everyone I come across notices...and people stop talking to me. Instead, they point and whisper about me from a distance, and I know that they're all looking to the place where my shadow should be. I don't know why, but it's frightening, we don't give much thought to our shadows, but in my dream I'm disturbed to find myself without one. Because such an integral part of me is missing, mysteriously."
"But one night, there's a knock at my door. I don't know where I am, though I think it might be the room I lived in at the Chantry. I open the door, and there I am on the other side. It isn't really me though...there's something slightly off about the version of me on the other side of the door, something slightly see-through, if that's possible. I realize that this is my shadow -- but it's grown stronger, more real, in it's time detached from me."
"I'm surprised to see it, but sort of relieved to, you know?"
I nod, but out of habit, because I'm not sure he's paying attention to me anymore. His words are a deluge of dream memories. I think this must have been on his mind for quite some time, and I wonder when he first started having this dream. He mentioned his room at the Chantry, and I can't help but think that being separated from Eamon...from his family, might have triggered it.
"I invite it in, my shadow. We sit by the fire, and I find that my shadow can speak -- which considering that he's obviously done something in his time away to become stronger -- doesn't surprise me like I think it should. We sit there for a long time and he tells me a story. I can't quite remember it, I think it's different every time. But, the idea is that it's -- he's -- learned to become more of a man. He is strong, and dexterous and has spent time out in the word, more time than I ever would."
"In the dream, that's when I start to get frightened again. This shadow version of myself, he's better than me isn't he? He's learned more about the world in his short time away than I ever will. After that, I never seem to remember much of what I do, but I know what happens to the shadow. He takes my place! I don't know how it happens really, one minute I'm in the Chantry working to become a Templar, and the next, he's accepting responsibilities and taking meetings with the Revered Mother. Like I don't even exist anymore."
He sighs. I can't tell if he's done, so I wait. He's worked up just relating the dream to me, and I want him to get it out of his system. Maybe telling me will help, I hope it will. A few minutes go by and he remains silent, so I roll onto my side and place my hand on his chest. He is trying to breathe deeply, to calm himself down.
I exaggerate my own breathing hoping that it will help if he can follow the sound of my deep breaths. It takes another minute, but finally I can tell that he's matched the pace of his breathing to mine.
"It sounds horrible, Alistair."
I hear the rustle of the blanket as he nods. "It is one of those things that sticks with you, even hours after you wake up. Like the dreams about the darkspawn, and the Archdemon."
"Do you mind if I ask you how long you've had that dream?"
"Off and on since I was taken to the Chantry, I think. It's hard to remember really, I've had that dream -- with some variation -- for such a long time."
"Maybe next time we're in Redcliffe you should as your Uncle about it. It might do you some good to hear the original story?"
He nods again and I pull my hand away from his chest, and reach up to run my fingers through his hair. It's a little damp from the rain, but that means it feels cleaner and softer than it has in days. A nice change from its usual 'straight off the road' coarse and dusty feel. He runs his free hand up and down my arm and then pulls me in so I'm leaning against his chest.
"Are you still cold?"
"A little," I smile, "but I'm sure it's nothing you can't handle."
There must be some unease among us still, from so many long and frustrating days; both in the forest and out. I can only hear the voices of my companions as low whispers, registering barely above the crackling of our fire. If I look around at their faces for too long, eyes are diverted and heads are downcast, though they may remain in hushed conversation with someone. Morrigan, never one to join us for long has already retreated to the small fire she's built near her tent. She won't tell me what she does there the few times I've asked, but from the consistancy with which she reads her mother's grimoire and buys or trades items with Bodhan, I assume she's working her own sort of herbalism. A little something she'd most likely say you must be a "Witch of the Wilds" to understand. She's not reading tonight, well not really. From her continued glances in our direction, I'd say she looks like she's waiting for something.
It's true, with the commotion of the Brecilian Forest, the weather and the darkspawn, we haven't sat around as a group for a long while. Which has meant that aside from what we might have shared amongst ourselves, we've been too long without our shared stories around the fire. I have been thinking of what stories I might share when the time comes, but if I stop now to think of it, I know I'm not ready.
"Zevran!" Leliana jumps from her seat. Her exclamation is half-giggle and half-scream, she gives him a playful backhand to the shoulder.
He reaches up and tries to pull her back down to her seat by tugging on her whole arm. After a few moments of a playful back and forth between them, Leliana rejoins him on the ground. They laugh together and as I watch, Zevran looks up and catches my gaze.
"Warden, would you like to hear a story?" His laugh is throaty and somehow comforting, inviting. I cannot help but smile back at him. Leliana gives him another slap on the shoulder.
"Is it something for the whole camp?" The look on his face tells me that it isn't and in that moment, I feel off-balance. I do want to hear his story, I'm in the mood for something a little risque and non-quite-fit for the whole of camp.
His gaze slides to my side where Alistair sits. There's a pause and then he takes a deep breath and looks back to me. "It can be." The playful twinkle in his eyes has faded slightly, and I expect that now, his story may be different; more appropriate for the young and somewhat inexperienced Chantry boy at my side. For all my hard work these past few months, it's obvious that there are just some things about Alistair that he may never outgrow. Sometimes, that's okay.
"Alright," I take a deep breath and sweep my arm around to encompass the camp. "The stage is yours Zevran."
He smiles and then turns to give Leliana a small wink. "When I was younger, there was a story I heard a lot. I might not remember all of it just as I heard it, but most of it has stuck with me for many, many years."
"There's a boy, not really a boy, but not yet a man either. And that's his whole problem with life in general. See, he's heard stories from the men in town, stories about the war amongst men and how every one -- every man -- must fight in it. The boy, though he doesn't want to be, is frightened of the war, frightened by the fighting and he decides to run away."
"Late one night he leaves his home, carrying with him only a small bag of clothes and some food smuggled from the kitchen. He doesn't have a plan, but he wants to be as far away from the city, from the fighting, as possible. Through the night he puts as much road between him and the city has he possibly can, stumbling over branches and his own feet in the dark. When morning comes he finds a tree he can climb, and gets as high as he comfortably can, and falls asleep tucked between two large branches. "
"When night came, he did it all again, running and stumbling through the dark to he-didn't-know-where."
"Did no one chase him?" Leliana looks concerned for the boy in the story, and places a questioning hand on Zevran when she speaks.
"It took a few days before anyone noticed him missing. See, the boy didn't live at home with a mother and father. He lived in a group home, where there were many boys, many responsibilities, and since there were many people in charge of the home, it wasn't uncommon to lose track of one of the children. They each assumed that another knew where he was and so, it was many days before anyone asked questions about the boy. And a boy, when his mind is set, can put a lot of distance between him and the thing he fears."
"And was he not in danger, running as he was?" This again from Leliana.
"Not immediately. He ran near enough populated places that the biggest danger was from bears and wolves in the forests. But at night, he kept to the roads, and in the day, he kept to the trees and was able to stay out of trouble. However, as we all know, there does come a point in all travels where you are too far from towns and cities to be safe from all dangers. Eventually, there were bandits and strange creatures and water he could not cross on his own."
My seat tilts as Alistair leans forward to look at Zevran. "What did he do?"
"He reached a point where he could not go any further and rather than risk his life on the open sea, he choose to build a home on it's shore. In the forest, he found a tree that was so large that he was able to climb inside of it, instead of having to climb up into it at night to sleep. He burrowed there, and spent each day making it a home."
"Over time, he was able to put quite some effort into his home, digging deep under the tree to create his very own underground cave dwelling. He learned his surroundings, figured out to gather fish from the nearby water, or he gathered food from the forest he inhabited. It was said that he was there months before any other human ventured into his area. And when they did, he learned to hide from them. When food was lean, he would even venture close enough to lighten their packs. Sometimes he was lucky, and a ship took to shore nearby and he could sneak aboard to smuggle useful goods home with him."
"He was there nearly a year when he was found by another boy about his age. This boy had fled another town, one not so far away as his own, but for the same reasons. Sometimes, the story says that the young boy had been on his own, he had started talking to himself, or to small objects he needed to use. But," Zevran leans forward conspiratorially and whispers, "I have also heard some say that there were creatures in the forest that spoke with him. Small spirits, perhaps ghosts, that the boy had made friends with. Whatever had happened, the boy was still happy to have a new companion."
"Living alone in the forest drove him mad?" Morrigan's voice surprises many of us, and I jerk backwards instinctively. I'm not sure when she joined the party, but she has poised herself only a short distance away, and she's standing with arms folded waiting for Zevran's response.
Though perhaps he had been less surprised since she was nearer his sight range, Zevran had still jumped at her question. It takes him a moment to recollect himself, in which time, Morrigan repeats her question. She's seemingly oblivious to the impact of her sudden interruption.
Zevran is quick to recover however, and answers, "So some versions of the story say".
"How many of these versions?" The seriousness in her voice isn't icy as we've come to expect. Instead she just sounds slightly...worried.
Zevran shrugs, a move that is unbecoming on him. "Each version is different really, just as the one I'm telling you is probably different from the one I've heard. No one remembers each one exactly, or tells it exactly. I assume the same goes for all our stories."
Morrigan harrumphs, but stops with the probing questions. When it doesn't seem like she's likely to continue any time soon, Zevran continues.
"As I was saying," he begins as he turns his gaze back to those of us around the fire, "the boy was happy to have a new friend. They spent the better part of all their waking hours running around in the forest, playing in the sea and gathering food. It was like one giant game for the two boys, they never needed to go to bed before they wanted, or wait to eat, or wait to play. The boys became a sort of brothers, but it wasn't long before they were joined by others. Some of them had run away for different reasons, but it seemed they all needed what the first boy could offer: a new home and a promise to never--ever have to go back if they didn't want to."
"He couldn't promise that," Alistair adds, though I think his voice sounds a little shaky.
"No, but he did. And that was enough for the boys that joined him in the forest. In time, they actually gathered a reputation for themselves among men that spent time in nearby ports. To anyone that might need to stop in the area, warnings spread to keep boat stores well-guarded or the lads of the forest would be sure to take whatever they could lay hands on. Sailors mostly disbelieved the tales, but even as years passed, stories would resurface often about wares gone missing from a shored boat."
"The strangest thing, was that despite years in the forest, the young boy seemed to stay young. He was content with his life and preferred to stay as far away from the nearby towns as possible so he could believe they no longer existed. It was his own private world in the forest, a place where he ruled benevolently a small tribe of like-minded boys."
"However, he noticed that over time, many of his boys continued to grow old, to become men. These were the boys that wanted to go into town more and more often, who would sometimes speak of home, of parents or siblings, and would eventually go missing from the camp altogether. The stories usually say that once or twice they would learn of the outside world, they would learn about boys that had returned to their homes to grow up, to fight, to raise families, to live."
"None of the stories say how long he or the other boys stayed in the forest, but it is usually implied that he sometimes saw the sons of previous boys come to join his tribe, though he still remained a young boy himself. I heard a theory once that the boy was Dalish, or at least in part and that's why he seemed not to age at the same speed as the other boys. But, after many many years, society imposed on the boy's small community, and a town sprung up too close for comfort. The boys in the forest rallied with him to fight the newcomers - the interlopers - and they set fire to buildings and chased away animals and wreaked havoc on the new town."
"After, the boy started to grow and change and age. It was as though he had reached some agreement with time, that if he could keep from fighting, he could stay young and when he broke his side of the bargain, time replied in kind. The boys disbanded from the forest, some of them to return back to their own homes, or what might have been left of them. But the one boy, he couldn't return home because too many years had passed. So, he ventured to the seashore and stowed away on the first ship headed back out to sea. When they cast anchor, he ventured into the new city and learned to live a new life there. An adult life."
Zevran smiles and then adds, "The end".
Each of us spends a moment exchanging glances, trying perhaps to make some further sense of the end of Zevran's story. Having nothing come immediately to mind, I am the first to stand. I think I do so a little too exuberantly when Alistair reels a little off-balance and uses my arm to catch himself. When I look over at him, I think for a moment that I see a little of that boy's attitude in him.
I have to take a moment to clear the thought from my mind before turning and thanking to Zevran for his story. He's already started answering questions for Leliana, so he only smiles and waves in response. I let the story resolve in my mind while I watch the two of them wander back towards their tents. Wynne stops them to ask Zevran a question, but at that point they're too far away for me to overhear what she asks. The three of them share a chuckle before Zevran and Leliana continue past, so it must have been light-hearted enough.
"What did you think of his story?" Alistair has moved to stand next to me and he lightly bumps his shoulder into mine to get my attention.
I shrug. "It was...interesting. I'm not sure yet really, I never really know what I think about them until I've had some time to think about them."
He nods. "Is it weird that I think he told that story for my benefit?"
"Weird? No. I think everyone is picking stories to tell that they think are relevant to us as a group. Was that one for you?" I shrug. "You would have to ask Zevran to know for sure."
"If he told me the truth when I asked, you mean."
"There is that."
Alistair and I are curled up in a nice, fluffy bed at The Gnawed Noble. It's a small tavern in Denerim with a few rooms that we have actually splurged to rent out for a night (or two).
We've been in town for a few days, and we haven't been able to find a way into meet with Arl Howe, so we have had to work some things out for ourselves in the mean time. I've taken a few jobs with the Captain of the Guard which has helped slightly, but since even the Chantry seems closed to us right now, it's all baby steps. So, a night or two in town, in a nice bed, where the rest of the group can have some free time seems like just what we need right now. In the morning, we're heading further into town to investigate some of the city's less fine areas. If we can't find anything, we're going to have to forgo trying to see the Arl until after we meet with the Dwarves.
Alistair and I split off from the group this afternoon so he could meet his sister, Goldana. She was awful, and obviously, the years have not been kind to her. She spoke of her children, but we saw none when we were at her home. She was rude and while I understand what the shock must have been like for her to meet Alistair, she was in no state to receive family graciously. It's better he learned this about her now, then building up some sort of idealized version of her in his head and learning it later. I wouldn't wish that on him, ever.
Afterwards we had dinner in our room, but it wasn't long before we made it to the bed. I think we both appreciate the luxury of a proper mattress with decent sheets, having had both in what I think of as our previous lives. The mages at the tower may not have shared the best and most luxious of decor with we students, I would still take it over night after night on the hard ground, tough bedrolls and thin tents.
"Hmmm?" I roll over to get a look at Alistair in the lamp light, though my eyes are having a hard time staying open.
"Why haven't you shared a story?"
I try to shrug, but since that is difficult to do while laying down, I instead wave my hand in nonchalance. "Hasn't seemed the right time."
"Will there be a right time?"
"I assume so. Why do you ask?"
"Something you said a while ago. Remember the night Zevran told his story about the boy in the forest?" He waits for me to nod before continuing. "Afterward, I told you I thought he had told the story for me."
"And I said that people were sharing stories they thought were relevant to the group." It's his turn to nod. "So you want to know if I'm trying to think of the right story for the group?"
"Or if you are trying to avoid having to tell one at all."
He's partially right, I think. I haven't wanted to put myself out there because I think that whatever story comes from me needs to be the right one. As the leader, even if I'm only in charge because no one else wanted to be, I know that any story I share is going to be examined more carefully. I want it to be the right one. Maybe even one that will be somewhat inspiring, something to keep them motivated and in good spirits. I know it's a lot to ask from one story, or even from my own ability, but he's right in assuming that I have not merely passive in my missed timing.
He gives me a solemn look and rather than meet his gaze, I move to rest my head against his arm. He pulls me in close, and breathe him in deep. It's nice to be so close and smell something other than dirt, sweat and blood. I close my eyes and yawn, feeling myself already drifting off to sleep. I think I can make out the change in his breathing after a minute or two, the rhythm of it has slowed, evened out, and I can tell that my own is responding, matching his.
He mumbles, and after a few seconds I recognize the words, "Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there was a beautiful Warden and her six travelling companions..."
Despite my best efforts to keep listening to him, I drift off to sleep. In the morning, I barely remember our conversation, as if I had dreamed it. Alistair is awake before I am, a goofy grin on his face as he packs up our room.
"Leliana was looking for you this morning," he says as soon as I'm up and dressed.
"She didn't say why she wanted to see you, but she seemed a little worried."
"Hmm. Alright, I'll head out to talk to her. Do you have all this?" I cast a glance around the room, to see what's left to be picked up. We're efficient packers normally, but a relaxed night of fun meant a bit more of a mess than we're used to.
He nods. "Won't take me but a few more minutes. Go on ahead."
"Thanks." I give him a quick kiss on the cheek before exiting the room and heading down the hall in search of Leliana.
I have had a few conversations with our friendly bard during our adventures. She's usually sweet and calm and that she was worried, has me anxious. There's few things I can think of that would worry her now, with the top of the list being Zevran. I have no doubt that her relationship with our half-Dalish companion is every bit as serious as the one between Alistair and I. It's not surprising really, they both come from somewhat delicate backgrounds, though for different reasons. They have similar talents, and their personal interests are also somewhat similarly aligned.
For a time, after she first joined us, Leilana made no secret of her interest in me, one that hinted she would like to be more than just travelling companions or friends. I, for a time, thought to return her interests. That was until Alistair started to...well, grow on me. By that time, we had acquired Zevran, and it was clear that he and Leilana were getting on very well.
She somewhat breathlessly exclaims, "Warden!" as soon as I round the corner into the main room of the tavern. I join her on the bench she's already occupied and give her a questioning look.
"Well, I don't know that anything has happened. Not for certain. But, yesterday he learned that an old friend was in town -- down at docks. He went down to meet her..."
She nods. "He said her name was Isabela. He wouldn't say how they met, but the way he talked about her. ...I think she may be a pirate. Then, he didn't come back last night."
I know that Leilana hasn't had a lot of relationship experience, her previous mentor and I've assumed lover, Marjolaine did quite a number on her. But, I can't imagine that she would be so naive to not think that there might be more than one reason that Zevran wouldn't have returned. He does seemed to have curbed his lascivious conversation in the time they've spent together, but reformed? I don't think so.
She must sense my thoughts because she adds, "He's free to see her if that is what has kept him. But, for him not to leave a message when we are in the middle of things here?"
"I understand. Perhaps it's nothing -- old friends catching up and lost track of time. But, if she is as you say, less reputable, it wouldn't hurt to check into it. Plus, we do have work to do, and we wouldn't want to leave without him."
"Warden...Selene...I have to warn you that I am very good at this game." Isabela's sultry voice reverberates in my head while I stare down at the cards in my hand.
I'm trying desperately to beat her at cards, but it hasn't been working for me so far. Leilana and I found Isabela and Zevran after a long morning of covering the distance between the docks, the alleys and finally, The Pearl. It's well-known establishment here in Denerim, a house of questionable repute, and we arrived just in time to watch Isabela fight off some manner of scum stirring up trouble. Zevran was at her side, though it was not immediately obvious if he really wanted to be or not.
Since it was just Leliana and I and we weren't necessarily in the position to fight Isabela and her crew in order to have Zevran returned to us, she gave us a few 'other' options.
I lose another hand. She's not only good at this game but good at winning quickly. I can only assume that she's cheating, that the deck is stacked, or she's kept cards hidden. Whatever game she's running, I can't catch it.
"Are you done Warden? Willing to give up so easily?"
"No. But this is not really my game Isabela." I sigh, and slide back in my chair, leaving the cards in a pile on the table.
"Perhaps I could suggest another way for you to win Zevran back from me." She leans over and trails a finger against his jawline. When she looks back at Leilana and I, the look in her eyes is predatory.
I have to swallow before words will form in my mouth. "What did you have in mind?"
"I have a room here..." she looks me over, her gaze lingering in all the places that make my skin flush. "We could retire to my room and get to know each other better."
I look over my shoulder to see Leilana staring at me curiously, but I can see the pleading in her gaze. She would do this for Zevran in a heartbeat. She wants me to do the same. I give her a small nod, and turn back to Isabela. Her attention has turned back to Zevran and while he looks pleased enough to be the subject of her attention, I can see there's a part of him that realizes the situation has gone beyond our control. Whatever she has over him, must be significant.
I stand and hold out a hand, "Isabela, I would be most pleased if we could go some where quiet and get...better acquainted."
She gives me another once-over and then stands, placing her hand in mine. "It would be wrong of me to decline such a polite, and delicious offer dear Warden."
With a wave of her other hand, her two guards disperse and I see one of them go to open a room down the hall. The other speaks with Sanga, the proprietor of The Pearl. She nods, and they exchange coins. He comes back to stand guard over Zevran as we walk away. Isabela guides me towards the hall, letting go of my hand and placing it against the small of my back.
"Wait!" Leilana rushes to meet us before we reach the hallway. "Perhaps you ladies would welcome one more?"
"Ah, such a loyal companion you have in this one, Warden!" Isabela chuckles and nods. "I wonder what they must have taught such beautiful girls like you in the Chantry!"
When the three of reach the door, Isabela turns back towards the main hall. "Casavir, will you bring Zevran please? I wouldn't want him to miss such an exciting afternoon!" She laughs and pushes Leliana and I into the room ahead of her. "After you ladies!"
Inside her room we're all tangled limbs, sweat-dampened skin, whispered voices and pleasure. The latter is almost its own physical presence in the room; waves of it bear down on my skin, get tangled in my hair, rustle the curtains and bedsheets around the four of us. Eventually we each cry for mercy under Isabela's skilled and steady hands, though given half a moment to relax she encourages us to partake again...and again. And Isabela is nothing, if not willing to share.
She dismisses the three of us shortly after, and on our way back through Denerim to reach the market square, we are each silent. It had been fun, hadn't it? Zevran and Leilana's hands are clasped tightly and occasionally one leans in to whisper in the other's ear. We four had definitely enjoyed each other's company -- and it was not an altogether bad experience -- but there is a distance now between us, at least between me and them. I think we are each in silent agreement that this experience could remain between us, but when I close my eyes to think, I see Isabela's face where Alistair's should be. I can not imagine what I shall tell him.
We've been on the path towards the Frostback Moutains for a few weeks now, and when we're not fighting darkspawn or bandits, I'm usually alone on the trail. I told Alistair about the afternoon at The Gnawed Noble that evening when we returned. I didn't want to lie, or postpone telling him what he was sure to learn eventually. He was a wreck at first, and it cost us another night or two in Denerim. Since we've been on the road, he's done his best to avoid me -- though that's hard when you're only travelling with a small group of people. He's taken up walking with Wynne, and occasionally I catch sharp glances from her when we're at camp. It's getting darker outside and we'll need a place to camp for the night soon.
I look over to see Morrigan a few steps behind me, and slow my pace so she can catch up. She doesn't smile, but there is a sort of lightness in her expression. I try very hard not to imagine it as pity.
"I don't presume to do you any favors Warden," she glances back at the group behind us and then over at the staff in her hand. She sighs and continues, "I have a story."
I raise an eyebrow and look over at her again. "A story you're willing to share with the group?"
She nods. "It has been some time..."
It has been, and the idea has merit. Things have been strained in camp, and I know that the distance between Alistair and I has been the biggest impact on our group. A story around the fire might be just what we need.
"That'd be wonderful Morrigan. I look forward to it."
She nods again and for a moment we walk side-by-side in silence. Laughter from Zevran comes floating on the breeze and I turn to see him playfully swatting at my loyal Mabari hound. It's endearing to watch. Morrigan takes the opportunity to fall out of line with me and after a few moments, she's lagging behind the group again. I cannot help but wonder what kind of story she might tell.
Two hours later when we've camped and had dinner and even knowing what's to come, I find myself drifting back towards my tent out of habit. Morrigan circles the camp and catches my eye to let me know she's ready. I nod and head back towards the fire.
"Everyone..." I clear my throat and try again a bit louder, "Everyone!"
When I have their attention or most everyone's attention, I avoid looking for Alistair, I continue. "Morrigan has kindly offered to share a story with us tonight. I hope you'll listen."
I find a clear spot on the ground a small distance away and have a seat. My Mabari wags his way to my side, and circles a few times before curling up at my side. He's as attentive as the rest of the group, waiting for Morrigan to proceed. I can tell that the idea of Morrigan telling a story is at least intriguing enough an idea that most of the camp looks for places to sit around the fire. She waits for everyone to get situated before finding her own place. When she's ready, she doesn't sit or look for notes, she merely sweeps her hands around in a circle in front of her and takes a deep breath. To me, it almost looks like a spell, but I feel no magic in it.
"Thank you Warden," she nods in my direction before glancing around the lop-sided circle we've formed around the campfire.
"There were once two siblings who quarreled often over how their mother treated them. The younger of the siblings was very beautiful and clever, where the elder of the two was only passable to look at and not very clever at all. Their mother spoiled the younger of her daughters, and often yelled and punished the elder for being jealous."
"One day the they were walking near the forest when the elder grabbed and tied her younger sister to a tree, and then headed for home alone. Before their mother could come back to the woods and rescue her younger daughter, a old shepherd happened along and asked why the girl was tied to the tree."
"Morrigan?" It's not surprising to hear Leliana's voice, but I think from the look on her face, she might have surprised herself. Morrigan looks at her, not sharply as we've come to expect, but patiently much as a teacher might. Leliana continues, "Is there a version where these siblings are brothers...not sisters?"
"I believe the original story says they were brothers, though in my version, they are sisters." Her eyes darken as if she's daring Leliana to ask why she's changed them. Not even Leliana ventures to question the change.
"The younger sister tells the shepherd that her elder sister tied her to a tree in order to fix a horrible problem she had with her back. The shepherd, who is old and hunched, complains of a back problem and asks if the girl might tie him to a nearby tree so he too can improve his back. She says that if only he would untie her, she would be happy to return the favor by tying him to her tree. Of course, she was so beautiful that the man never thought she might play a trick on her, which is exactly what she did. She tied him to the tree as soon as she was free and decided instead of going home, she would go out to see the world."
"She was of the mind that she enjoyed being clever enough to play tricks on people other than her sister. As she traveled she continued to trouble those who crossed her path. Eventually her tricks had become so renowned, even the king heard of her pranks and sent his guards out to capture her and bring her before him."
"Though she tried to elude them, the guards were able to capture the young woman and bring her before the king. The king declared that she had forfeited her life by making a laughingstock of her country. However, he said that there was one condition with which she might save her life. When she asked what it was, the king asked her to retrieve a horse that had recently been stolen by a dragon living in the forest. The girl thought highly of her abilities and with the possibility of death facing her, she agreed to his task."
"The king knew the dragon had captured the horse, and not just eaten it?" Zevran asks.
"Yes," Morrigan nods emphatically but does not elaborate further.
"The beautiful young woman set out to the dragon's lair to find the horse it had stolen. When she found it, it was dark and the dragon was asleep. She snuck up to the stable where the horse was kept but as she advanced, the horse spooked and she heard the sound of bells. The dragon had tied a bracelet of bells around one of the horse's hooves, so that it couldn't escape without being heard. When the bells jingled, the dragon stirred in its sleep and then yelled, demanding silence. When the dragon settled back to sleep, the women tried again to sneak up near the horse. Again, the horse saw her approach and it drew back enough for the bells to sound."
"This time, the dragon came to the stable to check on the horse. The young woman hid quickly enough that when the dragon appeared, it could not see any trouble and went back to bed. This time, the woman waited even longer before approaching. But as soon as she put her hands on the horse, it neighed and bucked and made a terrible racket. She ran and hid knowing the dragon would visit the stable again. However, this time, the dragon quite tired and having had enough of interruptions, swiped at the horse and hit it across the muzzle. The horse whinnied in pain and shrank back from the dragon."
"A long time after the dragon had retired once more, the woman approached the horse again. This time, it was silent as she approached, though it watched her warily. When it made no move, she deftly undid the bells from its hoof and let it out from the stable. She rode the horse all the way back to the castle where she was then escorted to see the king right away. The king was impressed by her ability but said that it was not enough. She would need to do another task for him, before her life was safe, for sure."
"Isn't that always the way..." Zevran said wistfully.
Morrigan raised an eyebrow at him in question but she continued without waiting for another remark. "Indeed, this happened to the young woman two more times. However, the fourth time he sent her out, he sent her after the dragon itself. She was not a remarkably strong woman but hoping that if she could somehow capture the dragon, the king would finally relent to let her live. After all, she had already succeeded three times."
"Why did she not just run away?" Alistair asked. "Couldn't she have left the country or lived in disguise if she was so clever?"
"I suppose it would have been possible. But why do any of us do foolhardy things? Also, the woman was clever indeed but not so humble to not think that she would truly fail in her task. It was partly, I think, a matter of pride for her."
I try to avoid looking over at him when he interrupts and am mostly successful. That is, I can only keep my attention away from him until after Morrigan finishes her answer at which point I feel compelled to view his reaction. His face is thoughtful for a moment, until he catches my gaze, at which point he turns away to focus on Morrigan. I shift in the grass uncomfortably and the dog at my feet grunts in annoyance.
"Knowing that the dragon had seen her several times already, she made a few stops on her way to find a disguise for herself. She dressed in men's clothes, put her hair under a hat a then made her way towards the dragon's home. The path was well-known to her having made it so many times already and it was a quick journey, without any troubles. She arrived at the dragon's home, she found him building something."
"She approached carefully and when the dragon realized she was there, it did not recognize her. The young woman asked the dragon what it was doing. It explained to her that it was building a box with which it might be able to capture the hideous woman that had stolen so many things from its home. She asked what he hoped to accomplish by capturing the woman, and it explained that it wanted to have the woman in the box in order to enjoy the knowledge that she had been captured. For it thought the woman was truly horrible and hideous and wanted her locked away for good."
"The woman explained that she did not think the box was going to be large enough for the woman the dragon described. When the dragon disagreed with her, she tried to convince it that surely the woman it talked of was as tall as the dragon was in order to have done all the things it said. She explained that the dragon would not be able to know for sure that the box was large enough for the woman until it had tested the box itself. Kindly, she offered to help the dragon in the box so that it might know for sure that the box would hold the woman."
"Of course, dragons are not always clever, nearly not as clever as very clever humans anyhow and it climbed inside the box in order to test the woman's theory. She quickly grabbed the lid of the box and explained that the dragon should try to make sure that the lid would close on the box. How better for it to know with absolute certainty the woman would not be able to escape? Once the box was closed, the woman snatched a hammer and nails from the pile of tools and began to close the box for good. The dragon knocked on the box and tried reasoning with the young woman to let it out. She would have none of it, and once the box was complete, she left to find someone in the nearby village that could help her transport the dragon to the king's castle."
"It was that easy?" This from Alistair again.
Wynne answers for Morrigan, "It usually is in stories like these. Remember, Alistair it is not always about the story...but what lesson the story might have."
He doesn't respond and since I am trying again to keep my gaze from traveling to him, I don't get to see his face. But, I can almost feel his nod of understanding as if remembering some lesson that Wynne had taught him. I find myself a bit surprised that they have talked about the stories during our travels, though with his interest in them, I shouldn't be.
Morrigan does nod but in Wynne's direction as if thanking her for the explanation. She adds, "Stories like these are rarely complete, since 'tis not about all of the details." She lets the idea sink in and while waiting for her to continue, I reach down to stroke the back of the dog snoring in his sleep.
"When the woman presented the dragon, or at least the box containing the dragon, to the king -- he was unimpressed, having expected the woman to arrive with a visible dragon. He was hesitant enough though, to make sure to remove the lid carefully but was so close to the opening when the lid was lifted, the dragon reached out with its jaws and gulped the king down. The king's people were so shocked, they did not know how to proceed, and offered the kingdom to the woman in exchange for taking care of the dragon properly."
"The story does not actually say what the woman did with the dragon after that. However, it does say that she took over the kingdom, married the young prince of a nearby kingdom and her territory and riches expanded greatly."
Morrigan gives a sharp nod when she finishes and quickly steps away from the campfire. It takes me a moment to register that she's done with her story after she's gone, but once I do, I slow extricate my legs from under the dog's head so I can stand.
"Thank you Morrigan," I say, though she's almost out of earshot already.
A quiet, "Do not mention it" returns to me on the night air.
I think the Deep Roads might drive us all insane. We are traveling with a new recruit to our party, Oghren, who I think might be half-crazed already. We need to find the Paragon Branka to further our cause, and Oghren attached himself to us to help the search for her -- Branka also being his wife. We've cleared several sections of the roads of darkspawn but they are in seemingly never-ended supply and I'm positive we have started going in circles.
Oghren has already ingratiated himself with Wynne, having offered her a few drinks of a speciality brew he brought with him. Fortunately, she holds her alcohol much better than the dwarf, as he seems to defy all rumors about dwarven constitution. When not chatting with Wynne or drinking either with Wynne or alone, he is wandering the camp chatting about his beloved Branka. I have asked him about her and why she took everyone except for him with her, but while he's told us the basics, I think he doesn't want to admit that she might have done it for his benefit and that maybe, he should have stayed at home.
He's a warrior through and through and will not be cowed by thoughts of wandering the Deep Roads with a bunch of sky-loving humans and elves. So, when we have moments together -- some of them sober moments -- I try to learn more about the dwarves, the Paragons like Branka and the Deep Roads. It might be years down the road, provided I survive this blight, but I know I might end up here again one day. The Gray Wardens take the Deep Roads when their time comes, letting the darkspawn take them down in battle, rather than suffering slowly at home. It is a dark thought but I want to be prepared.
"We have a story about you sky-loving elves you know," Oghren says to me one night.
"Oh?" My lips twitch in a smile at 'sky-loving', it's a popular phrase the dwarves use thinking we, both elves and humans, might be offended by it. Although to them, the sky is a deep and frightening thing that could suck you away from the ground at any moment. Still, I find it amusing.
"Oh, yes. You see, there was a boy once who wanted to see the sky. Actually go up into it, looking for... You don't have Paragons do you?"
"Hmmm. Well, the boy was searching for something, a god or whatever it is 'that one','" he jerks a thumb in Leliana's direction, "calls The Maker."
"Anyway. This boy, his Da was real good with tools and crafting stuff. Like Bodhan's boy...Sandal?" I nod. "Yeah. But, you know, an elf."
"Of course," I say with a chuckle.
"So his Da did some crafting work for a king, but the king was greedy and turned on him. He imprisoned the elf and his son. Over time, the father managed to collect enough tools and supplies to create something that might take him and his son out of the prison. He constructed wings that the two of them could wear and manipulate like a bird's wings. They would be able to fly over the prison walls and away from the king."
"Flying? That's amazing."
Oghren shrugs, "You would think so. I think it's insane -- flying into a sky that's likely to swallow you whole without notice. Seems stupid."
"Oghren, the sky doesn't work that way. We don't have to fight to stay on the ground."
I shake my head. "No Oghren, we can walk around as easily up there, as we do down here. It's just brighter."
"Huh. Well, if you say so." He harrumphs, and it's clear he won't really believe me unless he sees it for himself. Not that he'll get the chance, few dwarfs ever go to the surface, it makes them outcasts.
"Please continue your story Oghren," I say.
"Huh? Oh, right. So, this boy and his father they strap on their newly created wings and fly up in to the sky. The father warns his son about flying to close to the sun it burns too brightly and will melt some of the components of the wings, the boy will fall and perhaps even die if that happens."
"The boy, I said already, was too interested in the sky. He wanted to know what was above the clouds, he wanted to see it all for himself, and was still young; he had faith in his father's creations. He didn't think anything would happen. So he flew higher and higher and higher into the sky and closer and closer to the sun. All the while, his father, keeping low to the ground was yelling at him to get lower, not to fly too high for fear of the wings melting."
"But melt, they did. They weren't meant for such a long flight so close to the sun, and they began to melt away from the boy. He got scared and flapped his arms more and more, trying to get away from the heat, but soon realized he wasn't flapping anything except his own arms. The prison they had escaped from was surrounded by ocean and when the wings were stripped from him, he fell into that ocean."
"That's awful, he died?"
He nods. "Yeah."
"Does the story say if the boy found what he was looking for...in the sky?"
Oghren shrugs. "Don't think so. It's a lesson to us about how dangerous the sky can be. And how strange you elves are."
"Of course it is," I chuckle. "We're all a little strange when it comes down to it, Oghren. I can't imagine living down here where everything is cold and dark and stone. It's impressive and imposing and more than a little frightening."
"Ha! An elven mage scared by a little darkness?"
"It's what hides in the dark that makes me nervous, Oghren. The Deep Roads especially, they are ancient and knowing how long your people have been down here, trying to hold the roads...they never stop coming. Even when the blight is over..." I sigh. "Dwarves will still be down here, fighting against these creatures. A sobering thought."
He nods and then a smile lights on his face and he reaches around to fumble at his pack. "Speaking of sobering, Warden can I interest you in a drink?"
"Oh, well...I don't know Oghren, I'm not really a drinker."
"Not a drinker! Everyone is a drinker, we just gotta find the right one for you." There's clinking as he rustles through his pack and I can't even imagine how many bottles of wine and brew he's keeping in there. I imagine he has little room in there for much else. "Aha! Here it is..."
He opens the bottle and I get a good look at the dwarvish label on it as he takes a big swig straight from the bottle. Then he holds it up to me, offering a drink of my own. "I think you're really going to like this one Warden."
I shrug. "Alright, if you insist."
He winks. "Oh, I do. Very much."
It's semi-sweet and burns as soon as it hits my throat. I have to shake my head a bit so that I can get my breath back. But he is right, I do like it. Though, it's a bit strong for my tastes. I hand the bottle back to him, "Not bad, Oghren, not bad."
We pass the bottle back and forth several times and it's quickly obvious how much I do not drink, I feel the quiet buzz of the alcohol on my skin and in my head. I have to sit down when I'm no longer able to stand on my feet without swaying, which makes me slightly naseous.
"What's this?" I hear from behind me. Wynne has found us and without a word, Oghren hands the bottle over to her. She takes a long drink and doesn't even flinch as she swallows it down.
She down at me as she hands the bottle back to Oghren, "Didn't you tell her what you were drinking?"
He chuckles, "Uh...well, you know, I didn't really think about it. I was...uh, just trying to find something she might like." He lets out another uncomfortable chuckle. "She said she didn't drink."
"And you knew just the right thing...eh?"
"Something like that."
Wynne steps over and puts a hand on my shoulder. "Warden, it might be best if you headed back to your tent now. That stuff is going to work on your mind and the sooner you can sleep it off, the better."
I nod, which sends the whole world spinning and Wynne has to help me to my feet. At first, I don't understand where she's telling me to go but she gently pushes me in the direction where most of the bedrolls have been set up near a small fire. I hear Oghren and Wynne laughing and joking somewhere behind me. I wonder about what Wynne meant about the drink, but I can't seem to keep the thought in my head long enough to really think about it.
I put one wobbly leg in front of the other and try advancing towards bed. I see Alistair working on a piece of his armor and am overwhelmed by sadness. It's been nearly nearly two months since the afternoon I spent at The Pearl with Zevran and Leliana. We have only talked during battle and in travel planning sessions since then; I miss him terribly. I stumble to my bedroll and Alistair gives me a strange look as I pass him by. I smile automatically but quickly look away, tears spring up in my eyes and I want to get to my bed as fast as I can.
"Sure you don't want a sip, Warden?" Oghren arm is outstretched with the bottle he's offering.
I remember what my head felt like that night after my last drink. I remember what it felt like the next morning and I have no wish to feel that again anytime soon. I really don't. But, since I'm preparing to tell a story, the first story in months, I feel that one drink will probably do me more good than harm right now.
I take the bottle. "Only one drink this time, Oghren."
"If you say so, Warden," he says with a chuckle.
I'm still feeling the reverberations from the sip as I hand the bottle back to home. "That's it for me, really."
Our first night on the surface after leaving the Ozrammar, Oghren spent completely drunk, though I couldn't much blame him. We spent his first day on the surface convincing him that the ground was solid enough to walk on and that the sky would not lift him up and take him away. He seems to have gotten the hang of it but, it's obvious that he's still not completely comfortable on the surface. He eyes the trees constantly as if waiting for them to all collapse in on us.
It's a cool evening and though we've all been finished with dinner for some time, no one has retired to their tent for the night just yet. The crisp, cool night air tingles at my skin, bringing up gooseflesh as it goes and it's an exhilarating feeling. The last few weeks have been especially trying and I think we're all relishing what might be one of our last night's with the group as it is. We're on the outskirts of Denerim again and will probably reach Arl Eamon's place late tomorrow afternoon. We're here for the Landsmeet that the Arl, Alistair's uncle, has called to gather all of the people we've gotten to agree to battle with us.
Everyone is on edge, and I think Alistair must be anxious to see his uncle again, to meet with Anora and Loghain who both threaten the throne that could be his...if he wanted it. Despite the fact that our group has been at some odds for several months, I don't think any of us is ready to let it all go. We're not ready to face what is coming.
But I think, tonight might be the right time.
I stand and look around to see who is still standing close by. I clear my throat, trying to get Zevran's attention. He looks over and when he sees me looking, he crosses the few steps between us.
"Warden? Is everything okay? You look...anxious."
I nod, "It's fine. But, I'd like to share a story tonight. Could you help me spread the word?" My eyes immediately stray to Alistair's tent as I ask and Zevran follows my gaze. He nods and without a word he makes his way in that direction. He stops on the way to say something to Wynne on his way and then continues on as Wynne starts towards Oghren and me.
I give her a nod and then turn to let Sten and Morrigan know. They're further away from the center of camp, so I feel like I can take my time in making it to them, and by the time I'm back perhaps I'll have my nerve up to actually go through with telling the story that has been in my head for weeks.
When I return, most of the camp has gathered, although I notice that Zevran and Leliana are sitting apart tonight. The feeling throughout the group is tense, and I don't know that I'll be able to help that, but I want to try. I decide to start without preamble, when I approach, everyone is already watching me anyway -- Alistair included. A shiver runs down my spine, but I begin.
"There once was a couple who could not have children. They tried many things, but nothing seemed to work for them. They spent lots of money and time on their efforts, including seeing medicine women and begging mages to help them. One day, the women found that she was finally pregnant, she was older and they both thought that this would be their last opportunity to have what they had always wanted."
"The pregnancy was very difficult for them both. The man was a carpenter and had to set work aside often in order to help his wife. His wife was often sick and had odd cravings that required money they did not have or for him to travel in order to retrieve what she needed. But, despite their difficulties, it seemed at least the baby was in good health, for which they were both thankful."
"Unfortunately, one day near the end of the nine months, the woman had a serious craving for a certain herb. The herb was dreadfully hard to come by, but the man knew that there was a woman in a small house nearby with that herb in her garden. He had gone to the woman several times for other items, or for help watching his wife when he had to travel, so he told his wife that he would go talk to the woman and ask for some of the herb."
"He got to the woman's house, but she was not home. It was near evening and since he didn't know when the woman would return and was very anxious to return home to his extremely pregnant wife, he snuck into the woman's garden. He gathered a small bit of the herb for his wife and told himself that he would come back the following day to tell the woman what he had done. But the next day, his wife was sick. And she was sick for several days following that one, so that by the time she was well again, the man had forgotten all about what he'd done."
As I tell my story, I notice that the group is calm and attentive. I am still nervous, but I can hear my own voice level and become less shaky as I keep talking. My hands wring on their own and I have to focus on them for a moment to get them to put them back at my sides. And, I don't know when he joined us but I notice my Mabari curled up off to one side of me and the sight of him makes me smile.
"When that happened, it was time for the baby to come into the world. As soon as his wife cried out, he ran down the way to get the neighbor woman and bring her back to help his wife. With her assistance, his beautiful young daughter was brought into the world. She's got light blue eyes and a fuzzy head of pale blonde hair and he falls in love with her instantly. But, as soon as the woman places the newborn into her mother's arms, the mother hands her off to him."
"He takes his daughter happily but asks his wife what the problem is and she says that she cannot hold her. She doesn't want to see her daughter at all. She tells the husband to send her away, that she cannot see her at all and that she feels ill just looking at her. He loves his wife so much and though he loves his new daughter, he cannot bear to make his wife unhappy. He leaves the room with the neighbor woman so his wife can sleep and he asks the woman if she knows of anyone who might take the child."
"He's convinced that if he can send the baby away for just a day or two, his wife will recover, that she'll realize what she's done and ask to have the baby brought home. The woman says that she has everything needed to care for a newborn at her house and though it's not what he intended, he's happy to know that the baby is going to someone nearby. He tells the woman that he's certain his wife will change her mind and that he'll be by the woman's house the next day to check on his new daughter."
"He really sent her away?" Leliana asks. "How sad."
I nod. "What's sadder is that his wife never once asked about their daughter. She was sick for many days after giving birth and anytime her husband tried to tell her about their beautiful baby girl, she didn't want to hear it. She begged him to stop telling her about the baby and eventually he did. For the first several months, he would go every day to the woman's house to visit his daughter. He constantly told the woman that it would only be a matter of time before he could take her home again. He was sure of it."
"Eventually, the man slowed his visits to the woman's house, and then stopped visiting altogether. He spoke to the woman on his last visit, when it was obvious that the older his daughter got, the less she recognized him, since his visits were so far apart. The woman told him that she would be moving away, that it would be best for the girl to be somewhere new, somewhere they could both start a different sort of life. The father was broken-hearted, but agreed. He wanted the best for his daughter and knew that his continued visits might do more harm than good as his daughter grew up. He never wanted to have to explain to his beautiful little girl that her mother did not want her."
"So the woman moved, taking the young girl with her to a far away land. The woman loved the girl very much and they lived there happily for many years. But unfortunately, when the girl was about 14, a war broke out in the kingdom. She wanted to protect her daughter and asked a mage to help her build a tower to keep her daughter safe from invaders. With the mage's help, a tower was constructed with only one room on the very top level with no doors or stairs or entrance to the room - except through one window in the girl's room."
Oghren laughs and I think I hear him mumble something about dwarven construction.
"The woman promised that she would check in on the girl as often as possible and gave her a basket that she might lower down from the window for food and other supplies. She told the girl not to let the basket down for just anyone and to always be careful who she came to the window for. The girl was sad to see her surrogate mother leave but understood that it was for her safety so she agreed to her mother's stipulations."
"For the first year of the war, her mother came by as often as possible to bring food to the girl. Each time, she would call to her daughter for the basket to be let down so that she might fill it with supplies. After a time, the girl was able to build a small garden and a stockpile of supplies so that her mother didn't need to come as often. She learned to cook and was able to take care of herself for the most part. She even found that she had a small amount of magical ability herself and spent her days honing her abilities, creating garments, preparing food and reading the few books her mother had left with her in the tower. She passed several years this way."
"On one visit, her mother loaded the basket too full, it broke and the rope they used to hold the basket fell to the ground. The girl and her mother were heartbroken. The girl promised to work on something else that might able to transport the supplies for the next time her mother returned. But, by this time, the war was travelling closer and closer to the tower's location and her mother was not able to return. In fact it was another few years before the war was over and her mother was able to make it back to the tower."
"A few soldiers still lingered around the tower and her mother had to sneak up early one morning to yell up at her daughter. In the passing years, the girl's hair had grown so long that she was able to toss it down to her mother to climb up. It was slightly painful for the girl, but it was worth it to have her mother her again. The visit was short and her mother promised that she would return soon, that they would be able to leave the tower for good very soon. For days, the mother returned like this, waiting until the soldiers were away or asleep to call up to her daughter. Each time she asked the girl to 'let her hair down from the window that she might climb up'. "
"What neither of them knew, was that a soldier had seen the mother one morning. He had heard her calling to her daughter to let her hair down. He had watched as the older woman climbed up a vine of beautiful and pale, braided hair. One afternoon, as the woman was leaving the tower, he snuck close enough to the tower to get a glimpse of the girl's face from the tower's window. He was so struck with her beauty, he was determined that he must meet the girl."
"He searched for a way into the tower but found none, save the window her mother entered each time she visited. He told his fellow soldiers about the girl with the pale blonde hair, the girl he knew that he was in love with, though they had never met. Much as they chided him though, he never revealed the secret of how the mother was able to climb into the tower. One morning some of the soldiers, without telling him, went to the tower to see the mother arrive. But, the old woman saw them before she reached the tower and the soldiers, out of sport joked with the woman about her beautiful daughter, the one locked away in a tower that no man might reach her. In an outrage and worried for the girl, she attacked one of the soldiers. In minutes, the soldiers had killed her."
"Tragic." I hear Leliana whisper. I give her a nod in agreement and continue.
"That afternoon, the soldier comes across the body of the old woman and fears the worst. In the evening, when all of his fellow soldiers are at camp, he leaves and heads for the tower. He calls up to the girl and asks her to let her hair down, just like he had heard her mother do so many times. The girl, thinking that only her mother knows how to get into the tower must be out there and though it's not her mother's voice, is certain it will be okay. She goes to the window and looks down at the handsome soldier waiting below. She hoists her braid and tosses it the window."
"Just like that?" Morrigan asks, her voice laced with derision.
"She had never known anyone other than the woman she called mother. Though it wasn't her below the window, she trusted that it would be okay."
"Blind faith that the man under her window wouldn't kill or abuse her?"
"If you've never known heartbreak, never learned to distrust, why would you start with the second person you have ever known?"
She doesn't respond but I'm sure it's a fight I'm never likely to win with Morrigan, so I turn my attention back to the rest of the group.
"The soldier climbs up and when he gets to the top he finds the young woman at the top even more beautiful than he had imagined. He tells her the sad news about her mother and spends hours comforting her. In the morning, he convinces her that he must cut her hair. They fashion a ladder and wind it around a hook in the stone near the window. With that, they are both able to climb down the tower. He leaves the army and they flee to a nearby kingdom and get married -- the same kingdom where the girl was born, though they do so unknowingly. The soldier has to take a job in town and manages to secure one with the girl's father, though it takes him several months of work before he ever learns of it."
"The girl's father had never forgotten the beautiful baby he had given up for his wife's benefit. The girl's mother had died several years before and the man had not remarried, but had dedicated all his spare time to searching for his daughter. Eventually, the soldier puts all of the pieces together and reunites his new wife with her father."
"Your story," Alistair says tentatively, "it was for me, wasn't it?" He lifts his eyebrows in adorable curiosity at which I can't help but grin. There's a look in his eyes that tells me he's searching for something more than what he's asking and I don't want to hold out hope that things between are on the mend...but I do.
"Partly," I answer. Partly because it was for him but partly...because I don't want to tell him the whole of the story. It is not mine to tell and I wouldn't get it all right anyhow.
He gives me a smile, though it's short-lived, as if he remembered he is supposed to be mad at me. Then he nods, "Thanks."
We're walking the hall between the dining room and the private rooms in Eamon's home in Redcliffe. At some time this evening Alistair and I need to meet with the other Gray Warden, Riordan. We're not sure what news he has to share with us but it'll be the first time in months that Alistair and I have had to spend amount of time together alone. I wonder if that's sparked his conversation and I'm not eager to let the moment pass us by.
"Wait, Alistair..." I take a few steps after him and he pivots to face me. "Can-can we talk?"
"Sure," he shrugs and gestures towards his room down the hall and continues on. I follow him. He waits and then pushes the door mostly closed behind me.
I'm not sure what I want to say, I think there is too much to say, too much time has passed since our first trip to Denerim and my afternoon at The Pearl. I cannot apologize more than I already have or at least I cannot make it mean more than it did the first time, for I'm still as sorry now as I was then. But, I think it might be the best place to start, better there than anywhere else.
He takes a deep breath and opens his mouth as if to say something but closes it again almost immediately. The last thing I want is for us to fight, we've done enough of that in the past year to last the rest of both of our lives. What I want is for us to at least make the final trip to Denerim as friends, to face the Archdemon as friends, the better to see us both through the fight. He doesn't say anything and makes no more moves as if to speak. Instead, he walks over and takes a seat on the edge of his giant four-poster bed.
I take a few steps towards him, "I miss you."
He hangs his head but I hear him whisper, "I miss you too".
I cross the room to him and place a tentative hand on his shoulder. "I can't imagine that there's anything I can say to make what happened right but I never meant to hurt you."
"I know that," he reaches up and takes my hand in his. "I've talked to Leliana...and Zevran. Although, I'm pretty sure he didn't want to be talking to me about it. But, they told me...tried to explain what happened."
I nod even if I don't understand completely. I think it does explain that rift between Zevran and Leliana of late, I can only imagine that it was Leliana's influence on him that had him talking to Alistair about what happened that day at The Pearl. And for all Zevran's bravado, I can't imagine that he would really want to engage Alistair in a conversation about his past.
"I imagine I might owe another apology to you for having to listen to Zevran talk about it?" I laugh. "I am truly sorry."
I am relieved to hear him laugh with me. "Well, you should be." He looks up at me and smiles and I can see it move to lighten his eyes. He loosens his grip on my hand and uses it to tug me closer to him. "You'll have to work on making that up to me."
"Among other things," I manage to say though my throat is suddenly dry.
"Would you like to start that now?" He pulls me down into his lap and when I tip off balance, his other arm is there to hold me steady. With a tilt of my head I'm able to place a kiss on his cheek and when I pull back again, his lips are there to meet mine before I can get too far away.
"I'm sorry," I mumble as our lips part for a momentary breath. "Truly sorry, Alistair."
"I know. I forgive you."
- knock knock -
The door to Alistair's room swings open creaking as it does and accompanied by another round of knocking is Leliana's voice, "Alistair?"
We both stand quickly, Alistair dumping me unceremoniously on my feet in his rush to stand and I'm off balance again, if only for a second. He steps passed me, "Leliana?"
"Oh, I am sorry. I did not mean to interrupt." But the grin she's not quite able to hide tells me that she's pleases with her discovery. For a moment she doesn't say anything and there's an awkward silence where Alistair and I exchange a shared curious glance waiting for her to speak up. She shakes her head as if to rid a thought from it and then finally continues, "I came to let you know that Arl Eamon has asked me to share a story. I thought you both might want to attend."
"Tonight?" I take a step forward so that I can see her around Alistair's broad shoulders.
She nods, "Downstairs in the Hall...as soon as I am able to let Morrigan and Riordan know. I should invite them, yes?"
Alistair and I both nod. "We will be down in a moment, thanks Leliana," I say.
She pulls the door closed behind her, leaving a slightly larger gap than the one Alistair had left previously. I look down at my clothes and find that they're in good order, though the thought makes me slightly sad, if only we had time to more damage to them. I don't know if this is a moment we'll lose forever or if we'll be able to get it back later...but I hope we can.
There's a moment with the door pulled closed where I think we both have the same thought: to forget the group and the story and continue what we started. It's Alistair who breaks out first, stepping back and shaking his head but the smile is still attached to his face.
"We should go downstairs." I agree and a few minutes later -- a minute or two to make sure we're quite done for the moment and another few to actually make it down the several flights of steps to the hall where the fire has been built.
Leliana, was able to get downstairs before us and there's a few smiles and exchanged glances when Alistair and I enter together. No one, thankfully, remarks on it. Leliana is already standing, her back to the fire. There are several of Eamon's guards in the room, a few dwarves from Ozrammar, Alistair's other uncle, the Bann Teagan, as well as our normal traveling party. Though I notice Oghren has made nice with the dwarves in attendance and is standing with them at the back of the hall. Alistair and I are seated and Leliana takes a look around the hall, stopping to examine each group for a moment before her gaze passes on. Finally, it looks like she's ready to begin.
"There's a story we share amongst the bards about the daughter of a man who worked as an advisor to a king. The king her father worked for was very cruel and every day this king would marry a new woman from his country and though he enjoyed his new bride every evening, in the morning, without fail, he would kill the woman. Since her father was such a learned man, the girl studied books and stories and always talked with her father about the matters of the king's court."
"When the girl was nearing the age where all girls were brought before the king to choose from, her father was frightened and wanted to send his daughter away. However, the girl convinced her father that she should sit with the king for a night. She volunteered to do it, not as his wife, but so that she might understand what would drive the king to continue to do such a terrible thing. Reluctantly, but convinced his daughter had a solid plan in place, the man agreed to let his daughter proceed with her plan."
"She told her younger sister, who loved wild and outrageous stories, that she would invite her to her rooms when the king arrived. She wanted her younger sister to ask for a story in the king's presence so that he might compel her to tell one for them both. The king saw beauty in his advisor's daughter as soon as she was brought before him and without a word, to the girl or his advisor, demanded that they be married that evening as was his ritual."
"The father was distraught and tried to plead for his daughter's life. The king only laughed and said that they would see in the morning if his advisor's daughter would get to keep her life. The young woman tried to tell her father not to worry about her, but even she had her doubts about what might happen in the night that her new husband might still want to kill her come the morning."
"So, the king and the advisor's daughter were married and the woman was sent off to her new rooms to be prepared for the king's arrival. The woman asked that her sister might be able to attend her, since they were so close and the king agreed. When the king arrived in the woman's room her sister dutifully asked for a story, a story so wild and outrageous that she might never forget it. After all, she told the king, if it was to be her last with her sister, it should be the best story her sister could tell."
"The king, to their surprise was much intrigued by stories of mystery and agreed that the woman's sister could stay and listen to the story if the woman would share one. The woman told the king that she had just the story for him. Indeed, in all her years of studying all the books and stories she could get her hands on, she had learned a great many stories and had no trouble in thinking about a story that would interest the king. It just so happened that the king's father had disappeared mysteriously many years before his son took over, and the previous king had never been found, though there were many interesting theories as to what might have happened."
"The woman began her story, about the mysterious disappearance of a young boy's father. The king's interest was piqued from the beginning, and the woman became so engrossed in the telling of the tale, that when she saw the light of dawn streaming through her windows, she was not even half done with it. When she stopped, the king demanded she finish, but she pointed out that it was morning, and that it was surely time for her execution."
"The king was so invested in her story, that he told her she would not die that day. That she must live to finish her story that evening instead. Then, the following morning he told her, would be the day of her death. When the king went out to address his court that morning, there was much murmuring about the delay of his new bride's death. But, he assured them she would certainly perish the following morning and that they should all return at that time. Of course, the woman's father was overjoyed and she and her sister spent the morning with her father where they recounted some of the night's details."
"She spent the afternoon resting so that she could be ready for the following evening and when the night came, she was called to the king's chambers. His rooms were more extravagant than should could have ever imagined and he had food and wine brought so that she might start her story over dinner. That night, as part of the story the woman worked in a second story -- a story told to the father in her main story -- and as the night progressed, the king became engrossed in that story as well. Before the king realized what had happened, another entire evening had passed and the woman had not finished the first story."
"Again, he delayed her death and turned away many curious onlookers from the village that morning. This time, the king shared breakfast with the woman and her father and the king needled the woman for more details about the story, but she insisted they wait for the evening after she had gotten her rest. The king, though anxious to hear the rest of the story, wanted her to be well-rested so she could finish the tale, and allowed her to have the rest of her breakfast and then rest the afternoon away in peace."
Leliana pauses to drink from the flagon set aside for her on a nearby table. The fire crackles in the silence while we wait for her, and I look around to my travelling companions. And, I cannot stop myself from noting our similarities, the woman and I. While she may have been telling stories to a king to postpone her own death...I have been asking for stories so that we might prolong our lives. Mine and those of my companions; we each want a little story to get us through the night, something to look forward to throughout the day, to give us comfort.
I think about what I told Alistair the day he asked about Zevran's story. It was true I thought at the time, that we were telling these stories as a way to share ideas we wanted the rest of the group to know about. That though they might be lore and legend from cultures that weren't our own, they had lessons that we could each take with us and learn from. But, I think it must have been more than that, we picked stories that resonated within us personally -- much like this one, Leliana's tale about the storyteller.
When she places her drink back on the table, she looks out over us all again. "You might see where my story is headed," she says. I see some nods around and I nod also. "The woman told story after story after story to the king. In fact, even though she finished many of her stories in the course of her nights with the king, by the time dawn broke each morning, she was halfway to another. She continued thus, the story says for almost three years."
"After the first six months of stories, the king's attitude towards the woman began to change. He found himself enamored not only with the stories, but also with the woman who told them to him. He remembered that he had chosen her because of her beauty and began, even during the day to woo her with gifts to show his affection. And there were many nights, that while she told a story, the story often came after hours they shared together a couple."
"So that in those nights that passed, the king came to love his wife, and after 1000 nights, promised that he would never put her to death. On the following night, the woman finished her story and though she had doubts, in the morning the king was true to his promise. The king and queen had many children and remained happily married for many years. Though the king and their children often asked the queen to tell them stories."
We clap for Leliana and she gives a quick curtsy to Arl Eamon and Bann Teagan before sitting down. The Arl stands and says a few words of thanks to both Leliana for her story and to all of us in attendance for the battles we've been fighting to destroy this blight. He doesn't speak for long, but his words are powerful for a man that was not so long ago on his own deathbed.
I think, that the Arl, must like several of us must have been, was affected by Leliana's story. The idea that we have all postponed death in some way is intriguing, as we prepare to march once more tomorrow morning. This time, there will be more in our way than ever before and only those of us in my small group have really seen everything that we might face when we get to Denerim again.
Riordan catches Alistair and I on our way back upstairs to his room. Instead of picking up where we left off, we are detoured to Riordan's own room. With no real preamble, he starts in on how we must kill the Archdemon. And then, drops the worst of all possible news in our laps: that in order for the Archdemon to die, truly be gone from this world, one of us will die. Even if we succeed, which isn't necessarily going to happen, one of us still must die.
I don't think either of us know how to properly process the news but when we leave Riordan's room, we're both in a state of shock. I tell Alistair that I'm going to stop by my room and that I will meet him in his own room shortly. Unfortunately, when I enter my room, Morrigan is already there waiting for me. She's staring into the fireplace with one hand wrapped around her waist and the other across her chest, as if she's trying to hold something in, or comfort herself from something. I can't see her face but even from behind, she looks sad.
"Morrigan?" She turns and I expect to see some emotion, but as usual her expression is distant and cold. "Are you alright?"
"I am well. Would I be right in assuming by the look on your face that you've just learned of the danger you face -- the Archdemon?" I nod, but she doesn't give me a moment to ask her how she knows. "I have a plan, a way out. Neither you or Alistair has to die..."
"What do you mean? A Gray Warden must be sacrificed..."
"Yes, but that is not the only way. There need not be a sacrifice at all."
"How is that possible?"
"Old magic I learned from Flemeth's grimoire. It's from before the Circle of Magi was created. There is a ritual, one to be performed in the dark of night, prior to the battle. Some, in the past might have called it Blood Magic and in truth, it is similar, but I think what we have seen in recent days has taught you that it is not always something of which to be afraid."
I sigh. Blood Magic haunts us everywhere we go it seems. I cannot see how this might help, but I'm willing to listen to her proposal. I just have Alistair back and though we go soon into battle against the Archdemon, if there's a way for me to not lose him, Maker help me, but I'll listen to her.
"I am sorry that I did not tell you before but I doubt that you would have believed me had I told you. You needed to hear it from another Warden to believe it for certain."
"Alright Morrigan, you have my attention. Tell me more."
"What I propose is this: convince Alistair to lay with me. Here, tonight. And from this ritual a child will be conceived within me. This child will bear the same taint that all Gray Wardens bear and when one of you has slain the Archdemon the essence will seek out the child. At such an early stage, the child will not die and the Archdemon will still be destroyed. Thus, no Gray Wardens need to perish."
"This child, would it not just become another Archdemon?"
"No, this would be something different altogether. This child would be born with the soul of an Old God. And when it's done, you would allow me to walk away. I'll take the child and neither of you ever follow me, or ever come looking for me or the child."
"Why can't you just go to Riordan with this? He too is a Gray Warden."
"Yes, but he has been one for far too long. You and Alistair have only been Gray Wardens for a short time and while you are still tainted, it is not so much that it would make it impossible for the ritual to work. It must be him and we must do it tonight."
"As much as I might want to do this, what makes you think that Alistair will agree to this? You could have just gone to him first. Which tells me you think I have a better chance."
"Selene," she tilts her head to the side and sighs. "We all know that things have been strained between you as of late. But, you care for him and I think you will be able to convince him. Otherwise, what options do you have left?"
She has a point and I hate her for it. I look down and stare at the stones in the floor at my feet. For a moment, neither of us says anything.
"Warden, I believe Alistair loves you as you love him. If that is the case, do you think that he will let you take the killing blow on the Archdemon, that he would let you perish instead of him?
He would not and we both know it. "Alright Morrigan, you have convinced me. Now, let me see if I can be as convincing with Alistair."
She smiles, "I'll wait here while you speak with him."
On the way to his room, only a few shorts steps down the hallway, I think of all the things I might say to him when I get there. Nothing I can think of seems remotely accurate.
"I wouldn't ask this of you if I didn't think it was the right thing to do."
No, he won't buy that. I don't think it's the right thing to do, do I? It's certainly the selfish thing to do. I take the steps slowly, deliberately, giving myself time to properly decide how I'm going to sell Morrigan's idea to him. I don't think I feel bad asking him to do this even if means even the remotest chance that we can outlive the Archdemon. Provided of course, the Archdemon doesn't kill us, or the hordes of blighted darkspawn between us and the Archdemon.
"It's a chance we wouldn't have otherwise."
"Do it for me." Like he hasn't said dozens of times that he'd do anything for me. This isn't just anything.
I hover near the doorway, watching through the barely open door as he peels off most of his clothes to prepare for bed. He turns to the bed, preparing to strip off the rest of his clothes and it is then he notices the door still open. I raise my hand to knock just as he reaches the door to push it closed.
"I wouldn't ask this of you if I though there was another way." No, he'll tell me he's ready to die. He'll do it just to spite me.
He smiles when he sees me but it's not as bright as it should be. What Riordan told us is weighing heavily on his mind, I can see it clearly as if it was written on him. I try to return the smile but know that it does not even match his. Of course he notices. His brows furrow slightly, working out how best to drag my worries out of me. I love that about him. If it weren't for Riordan and Morrigan, I could be in there with him, already recovering from a first round of a magnificent reunion.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you that it is rude to stare?" He chuckles and grabs my raised hand, pulling me into the room. He shuts the door behind me once I'm safely inside, and I don't even have a moment to breathe before he's pulling me in to him, his needy lips on mine. I so badly want to just sink into him, warm and secure. To forget Morrigan and Riordan and the whole damned lot, blight and all. And though it pains me to do it, I squirm in his embrace, pushing away from him.
"What is it Selene?" He looks as worried as I feel, and I takes a deep breath to steady myself. To say 'I love you' now, would only worry him more.
"I'd ask you to sit but I know you won't." He shakes his head, and sets his hands on his hips; oh, how I rather wish those were my hands there instead.
"Out with it Selene, what's happened since we spoke with Riordan?"
Breathe in. Breathe out. Steady on, eventually, he'll understand.
"Morrigan," she begins.
"What has that witch done now?" His concern pulls him closer, his hands move from his hips to mine.
"She has an idea Alistair, a good one." Good of a relatively fluid definition that is. "One that I think we should listen to."
"Oh, she has, has she?" He quirks and eyebrow at me in disbelief. When it's clear there's no joke involved, he clears his throat and says, "Alright, continue."
"Alistair..." I begin, but my throat closes up. I want to choke the words down. I shouldn't have to ask this. Maybe, I should've listened to Wynne when I still had the chance. I should've given up on any idea of a real relationship with Alistair. It would have saved us both months of heartbreak and the idea of this ridiculous conversation.
"I need you..." His eyebrows raise as I struggle to get the words out of my mouth. They are slow in coming, and I pause. His eyes soften, and I feel the gentle tug of his hands on my hips pulling me ever closer.
Oh Maker, who am I kidding. I could've tried a thousand times to say no to him. I never would've succeeded.
"...to sleep with Morrigan." His hands fall to his sides. One step, then two, away from me.
"You must be joking." Everything about him, says he doesn't even believe the words as he says them. He knows I'm serious, but I see the prayers in his eyes, begging me to be joking.
"I only wish I were." He glares, waiting for me to elaborate. Nearly a year of fighting and this is most likely the most difficult thing I have had to do. "She says there's a way that we could both -- all -- come out of this alive. You and me, and Riordan."
"And, it involves me sleeping with her?"
I nod, keeping my eyes cast down. Maybe if I start counting stones in the floor, he'll just go to her. One. Two. Three. I can feel his gaze on me, burning down to my very core and I shiver that one man -- one person could ever have such a hold on me. I do finally look back up at him. He's very calm and I see just for a moment, that he's with me: willing to do what it takes.
"She can perform a ritual that will make the demon attracted elsewhere when it dies." I cannot tell him there will be a child. I can barely stomach the thought myself. "Alistair, please don't ask why. Just do this for me." He'll ask. He'll always ask. I hate him for it.
"And you believe this?"
"I do." I believe I'll try anything to make sure we see this thing through, and live to see the other side. And so will he.
"You really want me to do this? I mean, it's Morrigan of all people. Can we trust her?"
"No but we need to try this. Please, Alistair."
"And what of you? Do you not care that I would lay with her?"
"Of course I care." Enough to ask you to do this. "It's a few moments, and truly I wouldn't ask this of you..."
"I think I understand." He bristles. "This will be my revenge on you."
"If you want to think of it that way."
"I don't. I told you, I miss you, Selene. But this..." He hates the idea but he must see the logic in Morrigan's offer, however much he'd like to damn the apostate for even suggesting such a thing. He shudders, and I berate myself for how it pleases me, just a little. It's a sad, jealous part of me that I don't want to admit to but his repulsion for Morrigan does make this easier. Just not for him.
"You really want this?"
"Alistair," I sigh. "I do."
"Okay. But, please remember that you asked me to to do this." There's a slight twinkle in his eyes and he steps forward taking my hands in his. "I can't be held responsible if I fall head over heels for Morrigan."
"I think I'll take my chances." Maker help us all if that happens. "Let's go talk to Morrigan."
Though our footfalls are soft against the stone, Morrigan is quick to notice us once we're past my doorway. She turns, that self-satisfied smug smile on her face as she does so, and it almost is enough to make me grab Alistair's arm and drag him back out of the room. I don't, but the thought is close at hand while Morrigan asks if we've come to a decision.
"We have." With those two words, I can see it. The need in Morrigan's eyes, the longing, the determination. It's unexpected. It's not like we have spent a terrible amount of time together. Flemeth's demise had been something we'd done for her and for a time, she'd felt part of the group, like when she shared her story with us. But I think it was always obvious that Morrigan would always regard herself an outsider. It's there too, the jealousy, when she glances down to see my hand clasped tightly with Alistair's.
"Alistair has agreed to your suggestion."
He turns and gives me a sharp look. "You can't lay this all on me, it is not like I was just standing around in my room, thinking 'Oh, please I wonder if my girlfriend will ever ask..."
I cut him off with a look and amend my statement, "At my request".
"Splendid." There's ice in Morrigan's voice, but she doesn't drag it out or needle Alistair with quips as I expected.
"However, I have one small request of my own."
"Then ask away. You do like questions."
"I'd like to be present for the ritual." The words rush out of me, as if they'll disappear completely if I can't say them all at once.
Next to me, Alistair sputters incoherently for a second before he catches himself and clears his throat several times. His hand tightens around mine, whether in support or question I cannot tell. Morrigan is eerily silent. The fire crackles louder than ever behind them and I watch it burn while we wait for a response. Briefly, I have a thought I'm ashamed to admit to: We could end this now, witch in the fire, Wardens escape in the night. Riordan can fight the damned Archdemon on his own."
Eventually I catch a movement from Morrigan out of the corner of my eye about the same time, she starts to laugh. She's leans forward clutching her waist with both hands and belting out a hearty laugh loud enough to make Alistair start backwards.
I think, "Alistair, please have sex with the crazy apostate. Please give the crazy woman a baby. Please, do it for me Alistair!" I know, I'll watch. I'll get my heart wrenched out while the only man I've ever truly loved shares a bed with the Witch of the Wilds. For all I know, he will fall for her.
Her laugh stops as suddenly as it began, she shakes her head but say, "If it pleases you Warden. You'll need to stay a few paces back, but your presence will not harm the ritual. If you're coming then, we should go. My room is prepared." I don't think I have any room left to think about what it means that Morrigan's room is already prepared. The idea that she'd expected a positive response is unnerving, but compared to the rest of the evening, it gains no purchase in my mind for long. Morrigan steps past them and doesn't look back as she makes her way into the hall.
I take a step to turn and follow, but Alistair catches my arm. "You're serious about this? About being there?"
"If you have to suffer, so should I."
"Oh, I would kiss you if I wasn't already so mad at you." He lowers his head to mine, "Maybe just one. Something to remember while I'm..."
I muffles his words with my own lips, having to stand on my toes to close the distance between us. I try to close my eyes but Morrigan's face waits behind them. Lips pressed tightly to his, I search his face and find him doing the same to me. After a moment we break for a breath, and he smiles at me: that sweet innocent smile that melts my heart everytime.
"I'll remember that," he says firelight dancing in the smile as it reaches his eyes.
The Warden and the 7 Travelling Companions
"Mother, would you tell me a story?"
She wonders if she should be worried about how many stories the child wanted to hear. Was it a good sign of the child's progress? Or an indication of how much it still needed to learn about its own past?
She considered sending the girl to bed without a story at all but one look at those blonde curls and the endearing look in the child's eyes and she couldn't help herself. Perhaps it was inherent in all children to persuade their mothers into storytelling, but her own little one was very...very good at it.
"Which story would you like?"
"The one about the Warden!"
"Of course." She patted the bed, then flipped the covers back, "Come on, hop up and get comfortable. Then I can begin."
They settle in, her own feet hanging over the edge of the child's bed, with the covers pulled up high in order keep out the chill of the night air. When they're both cozy enough, she begins.
"Once upon a time in a land not so far away, there was a beautiful young mage that became a Grey Warden. The Warden did not want to travel alone, so she invited seven companions to come and have adventures with her..."
The child at her side giggles, but quickly quiets with one glance from her mother.
"There was the very beautiful young witch whose evil mother cast her out, the dopey, yet charming young Templar, a sweet and shy bard who joined by way of the Chantry, a grumpy Qunari that knew his way around a battlefield, the intolerably friendly and half-Dalish thief and assassin, an extremely drunken and smelly dwarf, and a lovely older woman from the Circle of Magi with a talent for healing magic."
"You forgot the hound, mother."
"I did not forget the mangy and faithful Mabari shadow constantly at the Warden's side. I only meant to include him in a moment."
"'Tis of no concern dear. May I continue?"
"Alright, as I was about the say: the young Gray Warden, her seven companions and loyal Mabari wandered Ferelden in search of an evil Dragon..."