Chapter 1: The Beginning (Neria)
Neria tasted blood in her mouth. Head still ringing from the force of the Templar's blow, she lay still on the dusty stone floor. They weren't done with her yet, though; she grunted in pain as a mailed boot drove into her side.
"Enough!" she dimly heard Irving cry out. "The child is half your size - you'll kill her."
"These were not the actions of a child, Irving." Cold and contemptuous, the gravelly voice could only belong to Knight-Commander Greagoir. "This child, as you say, just aided in the destruction of a phylactery and the escape of a maleficar."
Escape? So they hadn't caught Jowan yet. She was relieved, then immediately furious. He'd lied, he'd manipulated her and now she was left to face the consequences of his crimes. She'd trusted him, and all along he'd been guilty of exactly what they suspected of him.
A gauntleted fist tangled in her hair. She cried out in pain and protest as her head was wrenched back. It could have been any Templar behind the steel helm; all she saw was a pair of blue eyes, narrow with rage. Not Cullen, at least, she thought as he drew back his fist. Not Cullen.
"Stop this!" A deep, rich voice this time. Neria strained her eyes to the left, hoping to identify her new defender. Could it be one of the Wardens? Duncan, the senior one? Would Greagoir allow her to be beaten to death in front of an outsider?
Evidently not. At his command she was dropped like a sack of potatoes.
"This is no concern of yours, Warden."
Duncan acted as if Greagoir had not spoken. "Alistair, check on her." There was an implied threat in his words against anyone who dared interfere: would he really be prepared to fight them over a lowly mage?
Someone knelt heavily on the floor next to her. She bit back a whimper as he touched her shoulder. "Are you alright?" the younger Warden asked quietly. Neria could only shake her head.
The young man gathered her into his arms, awkwardly but gently lifting her battered body so she was cradled against his splintmailed chest. The indignity stung, but less than it would having her cheek split open by another blow.
"She's conscious." Alistair's voice held the barest tremble. "Just," he muttered angrily.
No longer braced for attack, Neria allowed her eyes to drift closed. Voices were raised but it had nothing to do with her; she was merely a bundle, a pile of bloodied rags in the Warden's arms. If she didn't speak then they would forget she was here.
"Out of the question!" Greagoir thundered. "This is no ordinary criminal, to be conscripted and pardoned. This is a powerful mage -"
"All the more reason why we need her."
"And one who has rebelled against the rules of the Circle. Perhaps even a maleficar herself! You want to take such a thing to the centre of the King's army?" Neria shrank closer into the stranger's chest. "And you expect us to release her until the custody of two Grey Wardens. Tell me, Duncan, what do you propose to do if the girl becomes an abomination and the nearest Templar is a hundred miles distant?"
"Alistair is a Templar."
Her eyes flew open in shock. The junior Warden looked back at her with a pained expression. "Duncan…"
Greagoir sneered. "This boy? A Templar?"
"You have younger in your ranks," Duncan pointed out reasonably.
"But he's a Warden! How long were you a Templar, boy?"
Alistair cleared his throat. "It's Alistair, ser. And not long. I had just taken my vows, when…" He flushed pink.
"I see they meant a great deal to you." The Knight-Commander turned his back, effectively dismissing him. "Impossible, Duncan. The girl must choose the Rite of Tranquillity, or face the justice of the Aeonar."
"Death, then? A waste." Duncan's dark eyes flashed. "The need has never been greater -"
"Then choose another."
"I have seen none with this mage's potential."
"Her potential is precisely why she must be contained!"
"If I may…" The hesitant interruption came from Grand Enchanter Irving. "I hesitate to suggest it, but there is another way." The old man glanced in her direction, sorrow adding even more years to his appearance. "Although my soul revolts against the very idea."
Comprehension slowly dawned on Greagoir's face. "You mean…?" An unpleasant gleam awoke in his eyes, flitting between Neria and Alistair. "Yes," he said slowly. "A solution, and a fitting punishment."
"Fitting?" Irving shook his head. "You do yourself no credit, Greagoir. This is in no way fitting."
Neria stared groggily at the men. Should this conversation make sense? What could bring Irving so much sorrow, yet be somehow preferable to death or Tranquillity?
Duncan raised an eyebrow. "Does anyone care to explain what it is that you speak of?"
"Not here," Greagoir said brusquely. "Come to my office." He looked Alistair up and down with a curl of his lip. "Bring the girl."
"Greagoir -" Irving placed a gnarled hand on his arm. "She must be allowed to choose."
"Never fear, old man." He looked at her properly then, and the fog cleared. In its place, ice grew sharp crystals in her veins. "The choice will be all hers."
The journey upstairs was interminable and jarring, as grateful as she was not to have to walk. "She needs a healer," she heard Alistair say to Duncan, and, "Have you any idea what this is about?"
"None," was the only reply.
A Templar Warden? She had never heard of such a thing. People didn't leave the Order. What about lyrium? It was rumoured the Templars would die without it.
Outside Greagoir's office two Templars waited. "Watch her," the Knight-Commander ordered them with no further explanation. Alistair set her gently on her feet, steadying her when she wobbled.
"It's going to be alright," he said with a tense smile, and she could only stare back in numb silence.
Her Templar guards flanked her as Greagoir, Irving, Duncan and Alistair disappeared behind a heavy oaken door. On the left her arm was held in a vise-like grip; the Templar on the right grasped her more gently. He stood stiffly at attention, his visor lowered and gaze fixed firmly on the door. Neria could feel him practically humming with tension.
"Cullen?" she whispered.
The hand on her arm tightened.
"I didn't know," she said urgently, "I swear I didn't -"
"Shut up." The Templar on her left gave her a shake that sent a sharp pain through her bruised side, and Cullen was silent.
From behind the door came muffled voices, then a voice - Alistair's? - came through high and sharp in protest.
"What? No! I'm not going to -"
A low voice cut him off for a moment.
"Duncan, you can't seriously -"
"What's going on?" Neria asked Cullen, earning a squeeze of rebuke from the other Templar.
"I don't know," he replied in a whisper. "Shh."
The meeting went on interminably. Alistair's pitch changed from outrage to mere anger to a sullen resignation, and she couldn't catch any further words in the low murmur of voices. At some point her head began to swim again, and she wondered if it was only the Templars' grip that kept her standing.
What had happened to Lily? She had lost track of Jowan's lover in the chaos. They wouldn't beat her, would they? What happened to non-mages in the Aeonar? What happened to anyone? It was rumoured that the Veil there was so thin, possession was all but inevitable. Death, Duncan had said. But not for Lily. Surely not for Lily.
If she ever saw Jowan again, she'd wring his stupid -
The door creaked open under Greagoir's hand, its occupants staring at her with expressions she could not begin to read. All except Greagoir, who looked through her and spoke only to the Templars.
"Bring her in."
Chapter 2: The Beginning (Alistair)
This had started out as such a normal day.
"Duncan," Alistair pleaded in an undertone, "surely you can't mean to go through with this."
"The Blight approaches, Alistair." Regretful as he sounded, the Warden-Commander would not be swayed from his path. "The Grey Wardens do what they must."
"There has to be another way."
"Do you suggest we fight our way out?"
"No, but -"
Duncan raised a hand for silence as two Templars entered the room, their plated bulk dwarfing the prisoner held between them. Night-black hair hung across her face, not quite concealing the gash marring one delicate cheekbone.
"Can't you get her a healer?" he blurted out. Her eyes flickered to his face and back to the floor. Eyes of a startling blue, framed by sooty lashes. Stop it, he chided himself. You don't get to find her beautiful.
"There will be time enough for that." Greagoir's plated boots tapped a path to his desk. He sat, regarding the mage with a sneer. "Neria Surana. You are charged with trespass, destruction of Chantry property, and abetting the escape of a Circle apprentice. Namely Jowan, the maleficar." He spat the name as if the taste of it offended him. "Your crimes are not in question. What remains to be determined is the consequence."
When she remained silent, he gestured to Irving. The First Enchanter stepped forward.
"As a Harrowed mage, you cannot be forced to become Tranquil," he began, "but you will be allowed the option of the Rite of Tranquility if that is your wish." Aged voice cracking with sorrow, he continued. "Then there is the Aeonar. I must advise you that a mage of your strength, however strong-willed, would fare poorly inside its walls."
The girl trembled; Alistair saw her pale throat constrict as she swallowed convulsively and for a moment he was afraid she would lose the contents of her stomach. With a visible effort she composed herself. When she looked up her gaze, if not her voice, was steady.
"If there is another option, First Enchanter, I would like to hear it."
Years ago in Redcliffe Alistair had woken in the stables, roused by a commotion. He remembered the sound of barking and whining rising in pitch and urgency, the sudden sense that something terrible would happen if he didn't act quickly. Scrambling down from the hayloft on bare feet he had run to investigate.
The Arl's hunting Mabari had been milling about the courtyard, jostling each other, whining and snapping at something just above their heads. "Hey," he'd called sternly and at once they'd run to him, tails wagging and tongues lolling.
But not before he'd seen their quarry: a kitten, perched awkwardly on a sconce in the wall. No bigger than his fist yet it hissed and bristled with rage, all eyes and tail and sharp white teeth, and the promise of a pointy vengeance on any who dared near.
Though the mage's tone stayed measured and respectful there was something of that kitten's defiance in the set of her shoulders, the level stare that landed on each of them in turn. Alistair shivered as he came under her scrutiny.
The irony, of course, was that even as a young boy he'd been able to call off the hunt with a single word. And now, a man grown…
"The Rite of Claiming," Irving intoned. She frowned, understandably puzzled. "Perhaps she should be allowed to sit, Knight-Commander, while we explain the details."
"I would prefer to stand," Neria said quietly. "Thank you."
Alistair had heard enough this night about the Templars' dark bargain; he supposed he should pay attention but he found himself instead staring at the floor, eyes tracing out patterns in the ancient flagstones.
"...shall be bound to the Templar…"
There, that one looked a bit like the Revered Mother.
"...subject to his will…"
And there was a nug. A nug with one ear. If he shifted his boot a bit to the left it looked more whole.
"...a drop of blood into the Claiming draught…"
"Wait." Alistair snapped to attention, sensing an escape. "Isn't that…blood magic?"
Greagoir scowled. "No more than the creation of a phylactery is blood magic. Carry on, Irving."
He had picked an unfortunate moment to interrupt. Now the mage was looking at him as Irving detailed the next step in the Rite; he felt his ears burn with shame as he watched her mouth fall open, her already large eyes growing wide with incredulity.
"You can't be serious." Her eyes flickered between them, waiting for the joke to be revealed. "You're talking about turning me into some…some indentured whore? To him?" Her wrath fell on Alistair. "You agreed to this?"
"Wait, I -" he began before Greagoir struck his mailed fist on the desk.
"Silence, girl!" he barked. "This offer can still be retracted, you know. We only consider it at all as a favour to the Wardens."
"You will not be forced, child." Irving made as if to lay a hand on her shoulder, the gesture aborted when he saw her flinch away.
The mage had more to say, Alistair could tell. Although she wisely bit her tongue, her thin-lipped glare made her feelings more than clear. Wretched, he dropped his gaze back to the floor.
"These are the conditions which will bind you until death," Irving finally concluded, "and the only circumstances under which you may leave this Circle with the Wardens."
Neria was silent. She seemed to search Alistair's face for a long while, and when she spoke it was to a point behind Greagoir's shoulder: the high and tiny window, through which only a sliver of moonless sky could be seen.
"How long do I have to choose?"
The Knight-Commander, Alistair decided, had a most unpleasant smile. "Now."
It was said so quietly he thought it may have been his imagination, if not for the glint of satisfaction in Greagoir's eyes. "It seems the Order still has a use for you, boy."
Duncan shot Alistair a warning look, but he was too wrapped up in his own misery to rise to the bait. "You must consent too, Alistair," the Rivaini said.
I'm not sure you grasp the concept of consent, Duncan. Before he could open his mouth and win the disapproval of everyone present, one of the Templar guards spoke.
"Ser Greagoir," came the muffled voice. "Permission to speak, if I may?"
"Cullen." The Knight-Commander leaned back in his chair with a laboured sigh. "If you must. Remove your helmet, Templar."
A head covered in damp sandy curls emerged from the suit of armour, complete with a young man's face that carried an expression of pure dislike. For him, Alistair realised with a hint of indignation as the amber eyes glared in his direction.
"Ser," the Templar began, then seemed to flounder. Alistair noticed that he steadfastly avoided looking at the woman by his side. "Ser, if this is really necessary..." Greagoir raised one steely eyebrow and Cullen blanched. "Which of course it is, Ser, given the nature of the... um," he stammered, "but if it must happen, I would be willing to make the, ah, the sacrifice necessary. To take responsibility for the mage, Ser."
Two spots of colour appeared on Neria's cheeks. "Oh, Cullen," she murmured. "What are you doing?"
"You would, would you?" Greagoir's tone was perfectly neutral. Somehow, Alistair felt, that made the sarcasm of his next words more biting than if he had delivered them with a sneer. "So once you have so selflessly Claimed this mage, will you then accompany her to Ostagar? Do you intend, as well…" His cold eyes flickered to Alistair. "...To leave the Order? Abandon your brethren, your vows…your lyrium rations?"
With each word Alistair watched the Templar deflate; at the last, only his suit of armour seemed to hold him upright.
"Are you certain, Cullen? The Grey Wardens did come here, after all, in search of recruits."
Finally he locked eyes with the mage. Hers brimmed with forgiveness; his held nothing but shame. "No Ser," he repeated, breaking contact. "I misspoke."
"Indeed." Greagoir dismissed him with a flick of his fingers. "You two can go. You don't need to be here for this. And I'm sure I don't need to tell you to keep your mouths shut."
"Put your bloody helmet back on. You'll scare the mages."
Cullen looked like a man invited to his own funeral. He really cares for her, Alistair realised. But not enough to leave it all behind. Not enough for the slow death of lyrium withdrawal.
"Wait," Neria said as the door closed behind them. "The Rite. We don't have to…here?"
Her shock and disgust mirrored Alistair's own. "Absolutely not," he said. "Duncan?"
"Please." Greagoir snorted. "Give me a little credit. We'll begin the Rite here, then you may have privacy." Striding to a chest by the wall, he returned with two objects which he placed on the desk: a stoppered bottle and a steel collar, unadorned save for a dull white stone.
"How many times have you done this?" Alistair asked.
Irving and Greagoir exchanged a glance. "Ahem," Irving said. "In fact, this is the first time."
"The technique is new," Greagoir added defensively.
"Are you certain it works?" Duncan asked. "Can you vouch for its safety?"
"It's been used elsewhere with great success. Once it becomes sanctioned by the Chantry…" his cold eyes gleamed when he looked at the collar, no doubt thinking of the possibilities.
"It's illegal," Alistair said flatly.
"Not in the least," the Templar snapped. "Presently it is…ahead of the law. And soon enough we anticipate it will be the law."
Neria's hand flew to her neck, instinctively covering her throat. Her eyes flickered nervously to Alistair as he reluctantly took the collar from Greagoir's grasp.
"It looks uncomfortable."
"Comfort is not the object." Once more the Knight-Commander smiled; Alistair wished he wouldn't. "Control is the object."
"You'd know about that," he muttered.
"Here." Irving's shaky hand held a scrap of rolled parchment. "It's very simple: fasten the collar, anoint the stone, and speak these words."
Alistair scanned the small, crabbed writing. "I can't say this," he said slowly. He passed it to Duncan, who examined it with a knit brow.
"What now?" Greagoir demanded.
"Forbidden from using magic? I assume we're not conscripting her for her swordsmanship." In an aside to the mage, he added, "No offence."
"Alistair is right," Duncan said slowly. "This will not work at all."
Greagoir made no attempt to hide his annoyance, all but snatching the parchment from Duncan's hand. The three senior men moved away to confer, leaving Alistair and Neria standing awkwardly by the desk.
"So…" Alistair cleared his throat. "This was unexpected."
"Andraste give me strength," she muttered.
He still held the collar in his hands; he busied himself examining the pin mechanism it used to lock. "How do you think it unlocks?" he wondered aloud.
She shot him a look he was all too familiar with; it was the look he used to catch from Isolde if he was too visible during a public event. A look that said go away, or possibly die. "I don't think it's supposed to," she said crisply.
"Look," he said, ploughing on against the voice of common sense that told him to shut up, "none of this is my idea. I don't want -"
"We can proceed now." Irving held a fresh document, the black ink still drying on the vellum.
"That's alright," he grumbled, "I'm sure you didn't need my input."
Neria snorted, and Duncan gave him a raised brow the equivalent of a thousand lesser men rolling their eyes. Swearing inwardly, Alistair turned to the mage.
Stretching apart the ends of the collar wide to encircle a neck required a considerable effort; once released, it sprang back into its circular shape with the finality of a claw trap.
"I'll be careful," he promised her. "Neria..." He owed it to her to look her in the eyes, whatever hatred lurked there. But when she raised her pale elfin face all he saw was fear. "Is this your choice?" he asked in an undertone. One last chance to stop the madness.
For the space of a few heartbeats she hesitated. Then she turned, raising trembling fingers to gather her hair away from the nape of her neck. A single black lock fell from her grasp and without thinking Alistair moved to brush it clear.
It was silken, and the skin of her neck where his fingers brushed it felt soft and warm; he heard the hitch of her breath, felt her fingers twitch as he clumsily poked the stray curl away with the rest of the wavy tresses.
"Sorry," he murmured. Sorry for startling her, sorry for this and what soon must come, sorry for the sharp stab of desire and the shameful thrill of anticipation that ran through him.
She was silent as he stretched the collar around her neck; there was no way to do it without standing too close, close enough that he could see her hair flutter each time he breathed out. The next lungful of air he held, willing his clumsy fingers not to slip while he eased the ends of the band back together.
Closing the collar gently proved to take a much greater effort than opening it, but when at last it seemed nearly done he exhaled in relief. Neria jumped as if shocked, raising her head sharply; Alistair fumbled and the collar snapped shut, the mage yelping in surprise.
"Sorry!" he said again, with a sinking feeling it wouldn't be the last time.
"It's fine," she said quietly, fingertips exploring the smooth band. "You tickled my ear, that's all." He couldn't help but glance at the pointed tips of her ears, and they and her face turned a warm pink. "I'm not hurt."
His fingers felt like fat sausages as he worked the locking pin into its final resting place. There was not even a click as it slid home, and at once he couldn't even see where the collar joined.
"Knife," Greagoir prompted.
"I have one." Fumbling, he worked the dagger free of its sheath and pressed the tip to his thumb. "Ow." With a little squeeze a fat bead of blood gathered.
He glanced up to see Neria letting her hair down; its dark waves settled around her shoulders and she combed her fingers quickly through the ends. Fingertips settled for a moment on the collar then quickly away; she smoothed her hands down her sides, where they finally came to rest lightly on her waist.
And for a second it was as if he could feel the smooth locks running over his own hands; as if he traced the contours of her hips and felt the warmth of her skin through the thin robe.
"Alistair." The smooth glass pressing into his palm dragged him back to reality. In a daze he slid the pad of his thumb over the bottle's lip and watched the drop slide down, down…pink swirled through the milky white potion then at once it turned red, redder than should be possible from a single drop of blood.
Neria's head turned. Her eyes, half-lidded, rested on the potion and a shudder ran through her small frame.
"She must drink."
"She can hear you," he snapped at Irving. To Neria he said nothing, dumbly clutching the potion in his fist.
She moved to face him. "Here." Gently she unwrapped his fingers from the bottle, taking it in her own small hand. "All of it?" she asked doubtfully. At Irving's nod she raised the bottle to her mouth, her eyes locked on Alistair's, and drank.
Nothing happened. There was no discernible change about the mage save the merest drop of crimson liquid smeared across her bottom lip. Perhaps the change was in him, then; something to do with the way he couldn't tear his eyes away from her mouth, the small white teeth that worried at that glistening pink lip.
His injured thumb throbbed and he had the sudden, obscene urge to press it into her mouth, to feel those lips close around him and the slippery warmth of her tongue against his skin…
"The words, Warden."
He wrenched his gaze free of her lips, shied away from her wide-eyed stare to focus on the proffered vellum.
"You are forbidden to use magic," he began, "unless to preserve your life or the life of another, or in service to the Grey Wardens. You shall not attempt to escape the company of he who has Claimed you, or to defy his Order. You…" Alistair stumbled at the last passage - in his haste he had objected to the first part, failing to properly read the rest. His throat constricted, the last words coming out a croak. "You shall not be released from this binding save by death. When I die, you shall die also."
It had been less than the space of a bell since the Claiming had been initiated. Alistair paced the corridor outside his guest room; inside, Tranquil servants put fresh sheets on the bed and banked the fire high.
"I had a bath this morning," he said to Duncan. "Is that enough? Should I have another?"
Duncan stilled him with a firm hand. "It is not your wedding night, Alistair."
"No," he said. "I suppose it's not." Nor hers. "Is this the right thing, Duncan?"
If there was regret in the older man's dark eyes, he hid it well. "It is the necessary thing."
"If I'd said no…"
A young woman emerged from his room, her arms bundled high with linens. Her expression was perfectly neutral and when she spoke her words were delivered in a near monotone. "The room is prepared."
"Thank you," he said, and she turned her blank face in his direction.
"Thanks are unnecessary."
"Still." He forced a smile, although those flat, dead eyes made his skin crawl. "Thank you."
"You are welcome."
Duncan had the grace to wait until the Tranquil disappeared around the curve of the corridor. "Does that answer your question?"
"I hate this."
"Being a Grey Warden requires sacrifice, Alistair. When you are lucky, the sacrifice is yours alone." Duncan squeezed his shoulder; the Warden-Commander was pragmatic, but not without sympathy. "But not always."
"What if she doesn't survive the Joining? The words I spoke..."
"If she dies, she alone dies."
"And if I fall in battle, she dies. If I die in the coming Blight. If I survive long enough to hear the Calling, she dies with me. Does that make any sense, Duncan?"
"The only sense I know is this: if we do not stop the coming Blight, everything dies." Duncan dismissed him with a nod of his head. "Go now, and do what must be done."
Finally alone in his chamber, Alistair divested himself of his splintmail armour. Each piece, once removed, was placed on a dummy provided for the purpose. Like many of the furnishings it was ancient; the leather body was cracked and split, sawdust leaking from the seams. Once the suit was assembled Alistair looked it up and down with a scowl.
"I don't know how this is your fault, Alistair." He pointed an accusing finger at the headless dummy. "But I'm sure it is somehow."
Next he sniffed at his padded gambeson. Was it overdue for a wash? The undertunic and leggings, at least, were clean. Perhaps better not to risk it. He unlaced the jacket and stuffed it into an armoire.
Wait…now he was practically walking around in his underwear. Was that too presumptuous? With a muttered curse he retrieved his gambeson and shrugged it back on.
It was half-laced when the stupidity of his thinking occurred to him. Presumptuous? They both knew what must happen. He may as well parade around naked, it would hardly change the outcome. Back into the armoire it went.
Now? He should shave. Was there time to shave? As he pondered, scrubbing his hands over his lightly stubbled cheeks, there finally came a knock at the door.
Alistair panicked. He mustn't seem too eager. But would it be insulting if he was overly reluctant? How did he even feel?
"Hello? Are you there?"
"Shit. Maker. Fuck." He rushed to open the door, only to stare slack-jawed at the girl standing before him.
"What?" She wore a different robe, cleaner but no less plain. Her black hair was still unbound, freshly brushed and gleaming.
"What's wrong with it?" The mage ducked neatly under his arm and inside, casting a sharp eye over the room. "Nice fire," she observed. "It's always too cold in the dormitory." Seeing him still staring, she touched a hand to her cheek. "Oh, that." Slender fingers traced her cheekbone; the skin there was pale and flawless. "They had it healed. Lucky you, right? You don't want to have to look at that. Blood, swelling, bruises. Have to be pretty, for..."
She had moved to the bed now, a four-poster monstrosity with heavy embroidered drapes. The curtain of her hair hid her expression as she ran a hand along the covers.
Alistair swung the heavy door closed, and at the click of the latch she turned to face him.
"It's cold out there," he said by way of explanation. "I mean I'm not trying to shut you in, or…"
Neria sat down on the end of the bed. She tilted her head to the side as if she were studying some novel object, her glacier-blue eyes narrowed. "It's fine." Her slippered feet didn't quite reach the floor, he noticed, and she swung them idly. "It's not like I want it open. Do you?"
"No." If Alistair had felt out of his depth before, now he was perilously close to drowning. Maker's breath, but you're beautiful, he thought. And small she might be but the figure beneath her robe was unmistakably womanly. A horrible thought occurred to him.
"How old are you?"
"Oh, thank the Maker."
Unexpectedly, she laughed. A sweet, musical laugh, throwing her head back to expose the collar at her throat. "And how old are you?" she countered with a grin.
He was almost certain Neria mocked him when she quietly murmured, "Thank the Maker." Then as quickly as it had appeared, the laughter in her eyes vanished. "So," she said. She leaned back on her hands and again he saw that spark of defiance, the kitten ready to scratch.
She spoke each syllable of his name slowly and carefully, like she was getting used to the taste of it on her tongue. And the Void take him, he wanted to hear her whisper it in his ear, he wanted to hear her gasp and cry it, hear her scream it.
The corner of her pink lips twitched upward.
"What do we do now, Alistair?"
Chapter 3: The Rite (Neria)
He must think her mad, Neria thought. Perhaps she was - this feeling of giddiness didn't belong in the situation they found themselves in. A sense of unreality clung to her, so much so that she half doubted if she had really woken from her Harrowing.
But the illusions spun by demons were never this sophisticated. The brocade of the bed covers formed soft ridges beneath the palms of her hands. The fire cast heat on one side of her body and the tingling, shivery feeling on her skin reminded her that her body was all too corporeal.
"What do we do now?" she asked him. Inwardly she was shocked at her forwardness. This man all but owned her now. Correction: did own her. He'd been given complete dominion over her body. Worse, he could Order her to do anything he wanted and she'd be compelled to obey. Absurdly, the thought made her want to laugh again.
Alistair hadn't moved from his place by the door. Neria was used two two types of men: those in robes, and those in plate. If she had thought he'd be less imposing once out of his armour she was terribly mistaken: without the added bulk of padding and splintmail he seemed even taller somehow, his chest and shoulders even broader. His simple linen tunic hinted at a V-shaped torso tapering to a compact waist; narrow leggings clung to strong thighs and calves.
"I…" He seemed all too aware of her attentions, and where some men might have preened and flexed, he appeared to be trying to shrink. "I suppose we undress."
"Straight to the point, then." She kicked off her slippers. When she hiked up her robe to begin rolling her stocking down, he turned abruptly away.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not trying to rush…anything. I just don't know if there's a time limit on this whole arrangement."
"You know as much as I do. Probably more." With her stockings rolled neatly away in her slippers, Neria reached to work at the neck of her robe.
Alistair glanced over in surprise. "Is everything alright?"
"Fine," she lied. Then, "No. Actually, I might need your help. I can't…" She half lifted her arm, wincing as it fell back to her side.
"I thought you'd seen a healer." Alistair showed an unexpectedly practical side, crossing the room without delay to help with her buttons.
"I said they healed my face." The healer had been a mage, of course, brusque and thin-lipped.
Don't think I'm sorry for you, she'd said as she dabbed a stinging lotion on the cut. You've bought trouble for all of us. Every time something like this happens… With the wound disinfected, she'd placed a hand on Neria's face, a soft glow building beneath her palm. It just confirms what they think of us. Maleficars. Troublemakers.
When the skin had knit she had asked Neria if there were injuries anywhere else, and Neria had taken a perverse satisfaction in saying, Ask me tomorrow.
Now Alistair gingerly helped the robe down over her shoulders. He drew in a sharp breath when he saw the livid purple bruising on her side.
"Why would they leave that there?"
"I didn't tell them about it."
His silence was louder than a question. She sighed.
"I didn't want to forget what they did to me." I didn't want you to forget what they did to me.
"You can't walk around with that." His voice was tight with anger; he left her side to rummage in a pack by the door. "You could have cracked ribs. Who did this?"
She shrugged. "Some Templar."
"How can you…" Jaw clenched, he returned with a roll of leather. "Injury kit," he explained. "I won't take no for an answer."
"You don't have to take no for an answer," she couldn't help reminding him.
It may as well have been a slap to the face. His eyes clouded with hurt and he busied himself rifling through small jars and pouches. "Just sit," he said tersely.
Neria rejected the feeling of shame that came over her. She'd only spoken the truth - if he wanted an apology, he'd have to Order one out of her. But Alistair showed no inclination to rebuke her. He knelt on the rug before her, dipping his fingers into a tin of unguent.
"This may hurt," he said, "but it's good stuff. It works fast." She shivered as the cool salve touched her skin. "We use it all the time."
The salve began to warm her skin, but the shiver remained; it chased each sweep of Alistair's calloused fingertips. Close to her breastband his touch was somewhat tentative and she fought the urge to squirm. "What was in that draught?" she asked. "Apart from the blood?"
"I don't actually know."
Whatever it was, it had to be the reason why she suddenly hungered for his hand to brush the underside of her breast, to slip beneath the strip of linen and stroke, pinch, claim …
The touch of cool fingers on her ticklish side made her jump. "Sorry," Alistair muttered. He stole a glance at her face, blushing furiously at what he found there. "This is the first time I've used this on a…er…"
"A mage?" she supplied helpfully, looking away to hide her own burning cheeks.
"A woman." With palpable relief he finished the application, wiping his fingers on his tunic as he stood. "Excuse me," he said, catching himself. "Raised in a stable, you know."
The ache in her ribs was already beginning to fade but the tingling, restless feeling remained. "It doesn't matter," she told him, "you're supposed to be taking that off anyway."
"Right." He laughed nervously, turning his back to work at the laces. "Neria…"
"Yes?" She pushed the robe down over her hips and stepped out one foot at a time.
"Have you ever done this before?"
"You'll have to be more specific, I'm afraid." With a speed born of habit, she folded the robe into a tidy bundle. "This has been a long day of firsts for me."
"I think you know what I mean," he said quietly. He had finished with the laces; now he stared into the fire, making no attempt to remove his tunic.
Her first time. This wasn't how she'd pictured it, if she'd allowed herself to picture it at all. "No." Her fingertips traced the metal collar for perhaps the thousandth time, and bitterness beyond reckoning rose in her throat. How dare they? How dare they barter her like this, as if she were a sack of provisions? And how could the Wardens go along with it?
She lashed out at the only target available. "How about you?" she asked, venom creeping into her voice. "Is this your first rape?"
Alistair stiffened. Slowly his shoulders slumped, and his hand reached up to clutch blindly at the mantelpiece. "Please," he said hoarsely. "Please don't call it that." He shook his head. "I asked you," he continued with an edge to his voice. "I made sure it was your choice."
"Choice?" she scoffed, anger making her reckless. "With a knife held to my throat and the brand to my forehead? Three different ways to surrender my soul and my body - what would you call it?"
His other hand curled to a fist by his side, and she knew a moment of terror. What rage had she provoked? This man was a stranger and a Templar, and if he chose to beat her it was unlikely anyone would care. But his next action scared her far more.
"Right," he said. Straightening, he began to retie the laces of his tunic. "I don't expect you to feel pity for my part in this, but I promise you I didn't choose it. I can't say what might happen if we don't follow through with this, having gone this far, but we'll just have to face it. I will not force you." Without further ado, he strode for the door.
Neria's heart began to race. Her chest tightened and her head swam; white hot panic threatened to choke her.
"Wait!" she cried. "Please. Alistair, please." Fear burned away any desire for dignity: her final word sounded as a near sob. His steps slowed until at last he paused. Only then did he turn to face her, the look on his handsome face a tumult of hurt and confusion.
"Well," he said, his words a flat echo of the challenge she'd thrown him earlier. "What do we do now?"
Chapter 4: The Rite (Alistair)
There was a silence broken only by the crackle of the fire.
"I don't know," Neria finally whispered. She stood, trembling in only her smalls and breastband, arms wrapped awkwardly around her middle. "I didn't expect this. I'm used to giving up a lot of things and not having much say in the matter, but this…?" Her smile was bitter. She blinked, but not before he saw the sheen of unshed tears in her wide eyes. "I want you to stay. Please. I won't fight, I won't make you force me. Just…let me be angry. A little bit."
Alistair sighed. This was it then: there was no way he could end this night without feeling like a monster. With a heavy heart he traced his steps back to the bed and sat, his hands dangling between his knees.
"It's quite a mess we're in, isn't it?"
"I'd call that an understatement." She perched beside him, near but not touching. "I know you fell into this. Even more than I did."
"It's cruel." He buried his face in his hands with a groan. "Nobody should have to make this choice."
"But you're still here." He felt that curious gaze again, a prickle on the back of his neck. "Why agree? I understand the appeal to some people but you…you don't seem like that sort of man."
"That may be the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me," he said with a weak smile. "Seriously though? Duncan says there's a Blight coming. Darkspawn, an archdemon, the whole thing. The Grey Wardens need recruits." He shrugged. "In the scheme of things, this barely counts as a sacrifice."
Neria folded her legs up beneath her; with a movement of his little finger he could touch her bare knee. "You were a Templar," she said cautiously. "Is it true what they say about the Aeonar?"
"What have you heard?"
"So much blood was spilled there once that the Veil is stretched thin." Neria's voice took on the quality of a story oft-repeated; drummed into apprentices along with their first letters and discussed in whispers in darkened dormitories. "So thin that demons crowd on the other side, constantly looking for a way in. And mages are shut away without fresh air or sunlight, their bodies and minds wasting away until they're too weak to resist possession."
"They didn't put it to us exactly like that - something about resistance to demons separating the innocent from the guilty - but essentially, yes."
"Like a Harrowing that never ends." She shuddered. "So the innocent…?"
"I never could get a satisfactory answer." Not for lack of trying, a great many rolled eyes and one memorable caning from the Revered Mother herself; Alistair's early years in training had been a trial for all involved. "But reading between the lines, I think 'innocent ' might be code for 'too weak in magic to warrant possession.' And possibly also 'survived long enough to die of something else first.'" The salient message to trainee Templars was something like this: innocent mages did not end up in the Aeonar.
He stole a glance at the girl beside him. The hour was late and the mage lights had begun to dim. In the firelight she looked almost otherworldly: strands of her hair reflected flickering red and orange, and the deepening shadows accentuated the delicate lines of her jaw and cheekbones. The tip of her nose turned up endearingly; tear-dampened lashes framed her wide elven eyes. She didn't belong in a grim cell, or deserve to be warped by possession and killed like a rabid dog.
"How are you alive?"
"Sorry?" The question startled Alistair out of his contemplation.
When Neria was thoughtful, he was beginning to notice, her mouth took on a little pout of concentration. She wore it now as she gave him a sideways glance. "How are you alive?" she repeated. "They said you were a Templar. Do the Wardens give you lyrium?"
"Oh. That. I didn't think mages knew much about it."
"There's a library," she said matter-of-factly. "I read."
"Well," he reluctantly explained, "I had only been given a few draughts before I was conscripted. The timing wasn't a coincidence: the Revered Mother thought she could put Duncan off if they had me take my vows. When he still conscripted me she was furious." That memory, at least, made him smile. "But we left with no lyrium. It was…"
Wretched. The cramps, the chills, the piercing headaches and the aching cold in his hands. By the third day he'd been nearly delirious; Duncan had taken rooms at an inn and Alistair had huddled in his blankets all day, his teeth chattering madly, at times wishing he were dead. "The hardest thing I've ever done. Once the Order has its claws in you, they don't come out easily."
She was silent, twisting her hands together, and a thought came to him.
"Oh. That Templar…Cullen, wasn't it?"
"Don't speak of him to me."
"He wouldn't survive," he felt compelled to say in the man's defence. "If he's been a Templar for any amount of time the withdrawal would kill him, if it didn't drive him to suicide first. I don't know what you were to each other -"
"Don't speak of him." She leapt to her feet, jaw set tight with anger. "We were nothing to each other and we're even less now."
"I understand if it's a difficult topic…"
"It's not a topic at all."
In the distant depths of the tower the ninth bell of the evening chimed. Neria took a slow breath, her fists unclenching.
"I suppose we should get on with it." She reached up to fidget with the white stone at her throat. "I might turn into a toad or something if we leave it too long."
"Don't ever try to tell me romance is dead," Alistair quipped weakly.
"Ha." She turned, beginning to unfasten the knot of her breastband.
"Don't feel like you have to take that off. You know, if you don't want to. It's not like…" Alistair couldn't think of a good place for that sentence to go, so he busied himself with removing his own shirt.
"I don't know," she mused. "I feel like if I leave the top half covered up I'll feel more naked than if I was just naked. Does that make sense?"
"As much as anything does today."
For a second they shared a real smile. Then Neria's gaze fell below the waistband of his leggings. Her fingers at the knot stilled and her eyes went perfectly round.
"Well," she said after a moment's pause, "it seems at least one of us is willing."
"What?" Alistair followed the direction of her stare. "Oh. Oh." Mortified, he stood and turned his back, staring in dismay at the obvious tent in his pants. "I can't help that! It just…well, it just happens."
"I don't know if you're trying to reassure me by letting me know that it apparently operates beyond your control," she said tartly, "but it's really not working."
"I'm almost entirely in control, I promise." But for Alistair her worries hit a little too close to home. Brave or not, she was so small and then here he was, a big clumsy human brute, a boy in a man's body. Which brought him to…
"The question you asked earlier," he ventured carefully. "Well, not that exact question, but you know."
"I think I know the question, yes."
"I haven't, in fact. Done - well, anything."
"So. Here we are."
"Perfect." Neria said. "Just wonderful."
There didn't seem to be much left to say. He eased out of his leggings and folded them neatly atop his tunic.
"Alistair?" Her voice sounded from the bed behind him. A little more hoarse, a bit less self-assured than a few moments earlier. Turning his head he could see her breastband unfurled on the floor, her smallclothes lying near.
"What is it?"
"Could you…" Silence, a cleared throat. Then, "When we…" He could hear what it cost her pride to continue. "You won't… Order me to do anything?"
A thousand glib responses came to mind.
"I promise," he said without hesitation. "I won't do that."
At last he turned, his hands carefully kept at his sides.
"You can look at me."
"Are you going to?"
"Well then." There was the hint of a smile in her voice. He heard the swish of movement on the coverlet as she shifted up towards the head of the bed.
Alistair raised his eyes, and his mouth went dry.
Chapter 5: Claimed (Neria)
In case you've been waiting for smut, here 'tis.
His expression was unreadable, she thought, and then no… there was something she could identify there in his half-lidded, darkened eyes, there in the set of his jaw, and it filled her with a rush of apprehension. That's what it must be: a writhing, hot feeling beneath her skin, waves of anticipation running through her with such intensity that he was sure he must be able to see her muscles bunch and shiver.
She tried to imagine herself through his eyes. Propped up on her elbows, her small, lithe body on full display. The residual chill in the air had kissed the tips of her breasts into tight peaks, and she felt his gaze settle there as surely as if his hand had brushed her. Then down, down over the slender softness of her belly to her legs, one knee drawn across to provide a semblance of modesty where her thighs met. And clenched. Neria was uncomfortably aware that he could prise her legs open with just a word, and the feelings awoken by that knowledge made her head spin.
"I'm not kissing you," she blurted out.
Alistair shook his head and the spell was broken; there was no stalking predator by the side of the bed, just a young man wearing nothing but a puzzled expression.
"That's fine," he said. He sat down, his body angled away from her. She wished she hadn't made him self-conscious about his manhood. Only it had startled her, the sight of it so improbably large and urgent. And now, having seen him unclothed, it was hardly less intimidating.
"Grey Wardens can't have children," he said in a rush.
It was her turn to be puzzled. "Pardon?"
"Children. We can't, uh, father children. Or mother, as it were."
"That's a rule?"
"Not a rule. More like an impossibility."
"I can't say it was high on my to-do list," she said, and he flushed scarlet to the tips of his ears.
"I only bring it up now because of the Rite," he said hesitantly. "I'll have to finish, you know, inside…"
"Oh." That made sense. "Well, thanks. That's a load off my mind."
He glanced at her with a curve to his lips; she noticed his eyes stayed firmly at the level of her face. "Hadn't occurred to you at all, had it?"
"Not in the least." She wished she could return his smile, but the creeping anticipation in her belly seemed to have spread to her face: when she tried, all she could manage was a tremble at the corners of her lips.
The mattress shifted as he climbed onto the bed. He knelt at her feet for what seemed like an eternity, apparently transfixed by a point somewhere around her knee.
"Can I touch you?" he asked.
Unexpected heat flared in her belly. "I don't see how we'll manage it otherwise." She was aiming for a light tone, but somehow the words twisted in her throat, coming out with a sharp edge. Alistair winced.
"I mean…" He raised a hand. It hovered near her thigh; moved; finally came to a tentative rest on her hip. When he faced no protest some of the tension left him. "I want to make this easy for you." His eyes darted over her face as if searching for some sign of fear or hesitation. "If anything I do makes you uncomfortable, or hurts you, I want you to tell me." Ever so cautiously his sword-roughened fingers began to move over her skin; jerky at first, then finding a rhythm, a gradual slide from her hip to just shy of her ribcage, and slowly back. "Can you do that?"
Have I kept quiet about anything so far? she wanted to say. But there appeared to be a lump in her throat; all she managed was the tiniest of nods.
It was enough. He settled down beside her, careful that no part of their bodies touched save where hand met hip. She marvelled at how his touch at once soothed and agitated her. Her fear ebbed away but the restless heat grew and grew, spreading with each increasingly confident sweep of his fingers.
Neria strove to hold on to her anger - it was no use. Her own body worked against her: her eyes drifted shut, her lips parted and it was a struggle to hold herself still when her skin cried out for his hands upon her. The halls were utterly silent after curfew; wish as she might, there was no sound from outside to mask the unnatural rhythm of her breath. Her every thought had become clouded with need.
Then Alistair's thumb slipped lower, the swiftest of touches.
She cried out, arching and twisting her hips away. "Neria," he said urgently. "Neria, are you alright? Look at me."
Neria hesitated: her eyelids didn't spring open of their own accord. No pain, no tightening of the collar to hint that he'd given her a Command. Slowly she turned to find his brow furrowed with concern.
"It's fine," she said. "I wasn't expecting…"
"It was an accident."
I wasn't expecting it to feel so good. "It's really fine, Alistair." She twisted back around and this time, her legs weren't closed so tightly. "You can do it again." Fuck. "I mean, if you want to."
"Yes." She was surprised to find that she meant it.
Perhaps there was something in the Claiming draught that had clouded her judgement, but she found she didn't care as his broad hand reached down to cup her sex. All she could think of was the jolt of pleasure that had shot through her when she felt him brush up against - she didn't even know what, but the faint pressure of the heel of his hand was there now, and his fingers dragged through the curls between her legs, and her knees parted, and oh -
Alistair's eyes widened in surprise as his finger slipped between her folds. "Oh," he said as if echoing her thoughts. He looked up, a silent question in his eyes.
Neria let her head fall back as he explored the unknown contours of her sex. A single fingertip breached her; he pressed, and it slipped inside her with startling ease. She gasped, fighting the urge to grab his wrist and force him deeper, have him fill her until she couldn't take any more, until this feeling inside her grew and burst -
"Do it," she heard herself gasp. "Now."
Alistair needed no further encouragement, and she soon understood why. When he positioned himself between her thighs she glimpsed his manhood leaking at the tip, flushed and straining against his belly. Shame filled his eyes.
"At least it should be over quickly," he said with a note of self-deprecation.
"Thank the Maker for small mercies," Neria replied through gritted teeth. Surely it was doomed to fail. Surely they couldn't fit together. She braced herself for pain, for the searing discomfort of penetration.
What took her by surprise was the care with which he lined himself up, the gentle probing of his fingers easing the passage of his intrusion and flooding her nerves with warmth as he filled her. The little time it took before the sharp pain faded to a dull ache, then desire planting its sharp roots and taking earth, spreading, spreading…
Alistair groaned, at last hilted deep inside her. Through her lashes she stole a glance up at him. Every line of his body was alive with tension: his hands were planted on either side of her head, and his biceps strained with the effort of holding back. She saw him catalogue each shift of her body, each hitch of breath; he began, slowly, to move inside her and she felt his restraint, felt him focus with single-minded intent on her.
"Is this - oh Maker have mercy - alright?"
She locked eyes with him, stunned by her own boldness and by the rough, sultry timbre of her voice.
"I'm sure." Her pulse was beginning to drum loudly in her ears; she could no longer still the restless movement of her hips. "I won't break, I promise."
He dared a shy, boyish smile. Then he began to move in earnest. Still with impeccable restraint, he drew back and surged - she could think of no other word for it - forward, and her need flared brighter each time his hips came flush with hers, each time his girth dragged against her singing skin and he sank into her depths.
Those soft, reedy gasps - could they be hers? Her hands ached from clutching at the sheets and her throat was parched and raw but oh Andraste, the feel of him and the sight of his eyes closed, his lips parted in ecstasy, the sound of his breathing even more ragged than hers...
"Neria," he moaned, and fell to his elbows, his thrusts growing more erratic as he chased his end. His breath was moist and hot on her neck and she felt a wave of panic - even as he drove harder, deeper, better - that it would come to an end and the tension coiling deep in her body might be left unresolved.
She must be drugged, or otherwise influenced by the Claiming. Else why would she rise eagerly to meet each jerk of his hips, why would she cry out so, how could she be so brazen, so wanton as to wrap her arms around his neck and desperately writhe against him until -
Bliss overtook her. Shudders wracked her body and dimly she felt his hips stutter to a halt, felt warmth pulse from him deep into her core. Everything felt somehow hazy and slow, from the small, twitching aftershocks to the harsh rhythm of her breath. She opened her eyes at last to near-darkness, her heart jumping slower and slower against her ribcage.
Alistair lay on top of her, half-collapsed. As the fog of lust began to clear other details swam into focus: their mingled sweat pooling between her breasts, the way his body stretched her legs uncomfortably wide, the slow trickle of his seed down her thigh. Worse, that she still clung to him, her face buried in his neck as if they were lovers, not strangers completing an unholy transaction.
"Alistair." She pushed at his chest and began to wriggle out from beneath his bulk.
"Sorry." He rolled away and lay on his back, his chest still heaving. "How do you feel?" he ventured after a long silence.
"Sticky." There was a floaty quality to her limbs and a strangely pleasant ache between her thighs, but somehow these made her feel more, not less, soiled. She eased out from beneath the covers and felt on the floor for her robe. A curious white light pulsed from the stone at her throat; had it been doing that all along?
"Where are you going?" he asked groggily.
"To clean up."
"Wait a moment." Alistair swung his feet to the floor and padded, naked, across the darkened room. She slipped the robe over her head as she heard him fumble in his pack, then his sharp intake of breath.
"It's the last thing we have to do," he explained, crossing back to her. "Hold still for just a second."
Neria flinched as he reached for her throat; then, his calloused fingers resting lightly on her neck, he pressed his bloodied thumb to the stone.
"It's done," Alistair said quietly.
She turned away without a word.
Through an open doorway lay a bath chamber; she made her way there on unsteady feet, feeling on the wall for the light rune she knew she would find there. The room was simple but opulent compared to the common baths she was used to: a stone tub, a privy and a small washbasin with a hand-operated pump.
She found a clean cloth on a shelf and held it under the pump, waiting until the sluggish heat rune made the water run warm. When she had wrung it out hard enough to make her knuckles blanch she grasped the hem of her robe in shaking fingers.
I won't break. It was a lie; she broke now, dragging the robe up and over her head, frantically scrubbing at every inch of exposed skin. Face, neck, breasts, belly, legs, anywhere their bodies had touched…only then did she dampen the cloth a second time and dab at the mess trickling down her thighs.
It's done. Finally she glanced up at the mirror, a tousle-haired, wild-eyed elf staring back at her. At her throat the Claiming stone pulsed a smooth crimson. She ran her fingers around the collar; no catch or lock could be detected, not so much as a join to break the smooth ring of steel. She tugged, yanked, scratched, dug her fingers beneath the band so it was too tight to breathe: it did not yield.
"It's done," she whispered to her reflection, tears spilling freely down her cheeks. "It's done, it's done, it's done."
Chapter 6: Claimed (Alistair)
I'm sorry, Alistair
Alistair woke to a sense of wrongness. First, the suspicious softness of his bed. Second, the air in his nostrils, lacking the stuffy closeness of a tent. Third…
Naked. He cracked an eye open and was assaulted by the garish brocade of the bed canopy. Yes, he was definitely naked, and this was the Circle, and that meant…
It's real. It's all real. There she was, as far from him as the bed would allow. She lay on her stomach, black locks tumbling over her bare shoulders - wait, hadn't she put her robe back on last night?
Last night. He allowed himself a quiet groan. How had they left things? She'd been angry, then conciliatory, then sarcastic, then defensive, then…he squeezed his eyes shut, remembering the feeling of her small arms snaking around his neck. Her legs wrapping around him and drawing him in deeper than ever, her breasts pressing eagerly against his chest.
And then she'd gone cold again. That was right, she had put her robe on and disappeared into the bath chamber; he must have fallen asleep because he couldn't recall her coming back to bed.
On the subject of the bath chamber, he really should clean himself up. An obscene urge came over him, to lift his fingers to his nose and smell the scent of her on them. Alistair had been privy to enough campfire talk to hear the word wet bandied about, but he'd never understood the appeal. Wet made him think of spilled drinks, and trudging through mires, and rain dripping down the back of one's surcoat. Nothing about that unappealing syllable had prepared him for the feel of her, hot and slick around his finger, and later…how was it possible that something so wrong could feel so, so good?
"Darkspawn," he muttered to himself as he slid out of bed. "The Revered Mother. Dwarven ale. Latrine duty." All things unappealing and unarousing, and then there in the bath chamber he came across her robe crumpled on the floor, and all at once he was hard as a rock again.
"Pull yourself together," he grumbled at the bleary-eyed man in the mirror. For he was a man now, he supposed, if that's how these things were measured.
This was perhaps the first time ever that he wished his bathing water could be less warm. Neria slumbered on when he came back into the room, his modesty barely preserved by a towel. She had shifted in her sleep: the covers were bunched down around her waist and Alistair weighed the risk of drawing them back up to her shoulders.
Maker, he just wanted to touch her. To lie with her as an equal, kiss her and stroke that hidden passion into her body without being weighed down by this guilt, this creeping feeling of a power imbalance that could never be overcome. To reach out now and lift the skin from her neck - her bare neck - and rain kisses from the top of her spine to the small of her back -
Alistair's eyes narrowed. How did I miss that? A silvery web of old scars criss-crossed her back. It wasn't the worst healing job he'd seen after a whipping, but it was unmistakable. This wasn't her first experience of Circle discipline, and it wasn't the first that fell outside the bounds of Chantry law.
Shame twisted his gut. Here he was lusting after her, all the while forgetting that he was her punishment. His was a mark she would bear for the rest of her life, less easily concealed than these scars. A mark of ownership.
It was a long march to Ostagar, he thought. Let her sleep.
Duncan was nowhere to be seen in the mess hall. Food hall? What did they call it, anyway? Alistair helped himself to a generous scoop of gruel. Grey, thin, with just enough floating oat husks to give it a bit of bite - at least the mages were being given good Fereldan food.
Now, where to sit? The older mages eyed him with suspicion; the younger, particularly the girls, with something else entirely.
"Do you think all the Wardens look like that?" he heard one ask in a stage whisper.
"The other one's older," her companion answered, "but I still wouldn't kick him out of bed."
Blushing, as it turned out, was not a trait exclusive to virgins. Sit with the Templars then. Yet when he turned to that side of the room he caught Cullen's baleful eye. With an apologetic shrug, he took a seat at a table of senior enchanters.
"So," he said by way of breaking the ice. "Gruel! Mmm." He shovelled in a hearty spoonful and smiled; they shuffled farther down the table.
"Knight-Commander Greagoir." Where were you, Alistair thought, when I needed a cold bath?
"Where, may I ask, is your charge?" The older man's lips were so thinned with disapproval as to disappear entirely.
"Sleeping, as it happens." He spooned more gruel into his mouth and made a great show of chewing and swallowing. "She had a difficult day."
"Indeed?" said Greagoir. "So did the Templars who were sprayed with tainted blood when her accomplice made his escape."
"Without a doubt," Alistair said. "It was quite a day."
Greagoir shot a look at the mages on his table and they fled, leaving their breakfast in varying states of incompletion. He sat down across from Alistair and his gauntleted fist came down hard, resting less than a finger's span from the Warden's bowl.
"I'm sorry," Alistair said, "did you need my attention?"
"Listen to me, boy," the Knight-Commander hissed. "Some of us take our Templar vows seriously. Neria Surana was caught aiding in the destruction of a phylactery and the escape of a blood mage. She wilfully deceived her betters - yes, even fellow mages - to achieve this. This not her first attempt to flaunt the Chantry's authority."
"I'm aware," he said coldly.
"And it won't be the last."
"What do you suggest, Knight-Commander?"
Greagoir fixed him with a look of utter contempt. "Drop that flippant bloody attitude, for a start. Surana can be a credit to the Grey Wardens or a liability, and that depends largely on how you manage her. She doesn't need coddling, and sleeping in, and to be left unsupervised ever. She needs a firm hand. She needs, in short, to be broken."
Sick with loathing, Alistair nonetheless managed a smile. "Please don't fear, Knight-Commander. I'll make a very special effort to break her."
For some reason, this made Greagoir look entirely too pleased. "See that you do." He rose and gave Alistair a terse nod. "I shall take my leave, Warden. Or should I say, Wardens?"
Duncan? Alistair followed the Templar's cold gaze to a point behind his shoulder. Neria stood there, her face schooled in a perfectly neutral expression. Greagoir's glance took in the red gleam of the Claiming rune at her throat, and his thin-lipped smile grew.
"It seems you have made a start, at least."
Alistair found himself torn between two strong urges. The first, to beat the Knight-Commander bloody, seemed unwise in a hall full of Templars. The second, to sink into the floor and vanish, was similarly unlikely to succeed. He busied himself in studying the scarred wooden tabletop.
"Hello," he said once Greagoir was gone. "Uh…what you heard, it wasn't -"
"Permission to sit?" she said flatly.
"You don't need my permission. Neria, honestly -"
"You don't have to explain yourself to me." She sat gingerly, eyes fixed on the bread roll in her hand.
"How is your side?"
"It's fine." She picked listlessly at the crusty roll and popped a pinch of bread between her lips, making no effort to chew. Alistair felt his stomach rumble.
"Do they have any more of those?" he asked hopefully.
"Have this one, I'm not hungry."
"Are you sure?" he asked, already tearing the bread in half. It was fresh from the oven, still steaming faintly. He recalled his manners enough to gulp before he spoke again. "I was hungry all the time when I first joined. Couldn't stop eating."
She looked at him coolly, as if to say What's changed?
"You'll miss this soon. Food on the road can be…well, let's just say we don't have fresh-baked bread too often."
"To think," she observed drily, "I might never have known what a privileged life I led here if not for you." She winced at the proffered half roll. "I said I'm not hungry. Are you going to Command me to eat? Because I can't promise I'd keep it down. But if you really mean to make a special effort…"
Alistair conceded defeat, stuffing the remaining bread into his mouth. "Do you have much to pack?" he asked after swallowing.
"The clothes I'm wearing," she said. "The clothes I was wearing yesterday. A staff."
"I don't need you to list everything you own, you know."
"I just did."
An uncomfortable silence fell between them, while around them flowed the sound of hushed voices and the scrape of spoons on crockery.
"Neria, if you'd just let me explain -"
"There's really nothing you could say."
"Listen." From the corner of his eye he saw heads turn, felt curious eyes upon them. His voice fell to a fierce whisper. "Is this how it's going to be? Are you going to punish me forever for something I had no control over?"
"It didn't seem just now," she said in a tightly furious voice, "that you were as reluctant as you'd like me to believe." Avoiding his eyes, she pushed her chair back and stood. "I should pack."
Wisely or not, he had little choice but to follow her. "Are those your only shoes?"
"Yes." Her slippered feet made no sound on the stone.
"They won't do."
"I'll just pop down the market and buy another pair, shall I?"
"Duncan will sort something out with the quartermaster. No cloak either, I suppose?"
"Oh, did I forget to mention my cloak? The one I wear on my many travels?" She came to an abrupt halt in a stairwell; he narrowly avoided running into her back. "Are you planning to follow me all morning? Because I assume we're leaving today and I don't know when I'll get another chance to be rid of you."
Alistair couldn't take it any longer. "Look, there's no need for you to be like this. You didn't seem so unwilling yourself, last night -"
"Don't you dare." Neria spun on her heel, such violence in her eyes that he braced himself against being pushed down the stairs. "I don't know what you made me drink to act that way, but it wasn't me. When I look at you, all I see is Greagoir holding up this fucking collar with that smirk on his face. The one he was wearing just now while the two of you chatted about what fun you'd been having breaking me."
"I promise," he said desperately, "that wasn't what it sounded like."
"I can't stop you from touching me." She took a step backwards and up the stairs, as if she was afraid to turn her back on him. "I can't even stop you from forcing me to enjoy it, if you're sick enough to do that. But don't ever forget what it is, and don't go thinking I've forgotten either."
"Please, Neria -"
"I need to pack my things." There was a catch in her voice as she retreated one, two more steps. "Will you please let me do that much alone?"
"Go," Alistair said. His outrage had burned away; nothing was left but sick guilt. "I'll meet you outside Duncan's room when you're ready."
"I'll be there," Neria said. "It's not like I have a choice." She turned in a swirl of robes, fleeing soundlessly up the stairs, and Alistair sank down against the wall.
He'd woken yesterday mostly comfortable in the knowledge that he was a good man. Not the bravest or cleverest of men, but certainly falling on the side of good. Even this morning he'd believed it. Now? Every memory of their night together had been twisted into something sordid and wrong.
"What have I done?" he said aloud. "Maker, what have I done?"
Chapter 7: The Journey (Duncan)
Duncan cursed silently as the first fat drop of rain hit his face. He and Alistair were no strangers to the elements, but the girl did not need this added hardship today. One drop turned quickly to many and within moments they were trapped in a steady deluge.
He turned back. Several yards behind him trudged Alistair, the corners of his mouth downturned and his eyes fixed on the forest floor. He had been uncharacteristically silent since leaving the tower, lost in private despondence.
Even farther back, the source of his unhappiness followed in stoic silence. He had procured Neria a pair of boots that were only a size too big, and thick socks to make up the difference. Her left foot had begun to scuff the leaf litter as she walked: if he wasn't mistaken she had a blister or some other injury. He saw her gaze flicker up to where raindrops shook the sparse leaves, then down to catch him watching; her blue eyes hardened and she looked away, tugging the hood of her cloak up.
"Not much farther today," he called as they caught up. "In the next valley is a ruin where we can make camp."
Neria's head snapped up.
"Camp already?" Alistair queried. "It won't be dark for hours."
"Then we shall have time to set up," Duncan said mildly. "Our recruit is new to all this walking; we should give her a chance to rest."
"I'm fine," she muttered. Alistair, apparently unhappy to be reminded of her existence, just shrugged.
It was the right decision, Duncan reminded himself. We did what had to be done. There would be time enough for introspection later. "A little farther," he told them.
"What sort of ruin?" Neria asked. Duncan wondered at the hint of a tremor in her voice.
"I believe Tevinter," he answered, holding aside a branch to let her past. "The roof is gone, but the ground is well-drained and the remaining walls will give us some shelter. There's an old tree -"
Neria had stopped dead. "I'd rather keep walking," she said quietly.
"You have a limp," he pointed out. "This track will turn to mud soon and the next few leagues are thick forest. It will be hours before we come across another suitable camp."
"I don't mind. Truly."
"It would be folly," he insisted.
"We camped there on the way," Alistair said. "It's a good spot. There's a stream close by -" Neria shook her head violently. "I promise it's not haunted." He looked to Duncan with evident confusion.
"Neria," he said gently. He reached for her shoulder, then thought better of it; instead he walked around until he could the face inside her hood. She had gone chalk-white. Her eyes darted from side to side and her throat bobbed as she swallowed convulsively. "Can you tell me why you don't want to camp there?"
She shook her head.
"We'll camp here," Duncan declared.
"Here?" said Alistair doubtfully. "The ground's uneven, there are tree roots everywhere…where will we even pitch the tent?" A thought occurred to him and his voice rose to a squeak. "Do we have more than one tent?"
Duncan sighed: he had overestimated the stores held by the Circle quartermaster, and had been pessimistic enough about their odds of success that he hadn't brought what might turn out to be unnecessary baggage. Besides, some part of him had assumed the recruit would be male and their tent could fit three, if personal space were no consideration.
He looked to where the mage stood, hunched in on herself beneath the too-large cloak. She had suffered enough indignity lately: he would not compound it.
"I will take one of the sleeping rolls," he announced. "Neria will use the other, and the two of you will share the tent."
"Why don't I sleep outside and the two of you -" Alistair began, but Duncan swiftly interrupted him.
"Neria, do you mind waiting here while Alistair and I raise the tent?" He indicated a fallen tree and she sat dumbly. Duncan had spotted a natural clearing a way off, and he indicated for Alistair to follow him.
"She doesn't trust either of us yet," he said in a low voice as they pushed their way through the undergrowth. "But I think she would find it more uncomfortable to share a tent with me."
"I wouldn't be so sure," the young Warden grumbled. "She's not exactly my most vocal fan, if you hadn't noticed."
"Which brings me to my second point," Duncan added. "The two of you will be spending a great deal of time together. The circumstances are not ideal -" He ignored Alistair's snort "- but you owe yourselves the chance to work some things out in private."
Alistair was thoughtful as they unfurled the tent and set about driving pegs into the unwelcoming ground. Finally he glanced back at Neria, still huddled in her cloak. "What's wrong with her?" he asked quietly.
Duncan took some time in answering, making sure that the tent was securely raised. Then he wiped his damp hands on his tunic and sat back on his heels, fixing Alistair with a sharp stare. "Have you ever seen battle shock?"
"Battle…?" Alistair frowned in the girl's direction. "She hasn't even seen battle yet!"
"Perhaps not," Duncan agreed, "but I'd be willing to wager something affected her so severely that the mere memory of it is enough to make her feel that her life is in danger." He'd seen the same wild look come over combat-hardened veterans: a sight or a sound would send their mind careening back into some distant trauma, their body at once primed to flee or fight. "The Circle may seem comfortable enough to an outsider, but the circumstances under which mages arrive there are rarely pleasant."
He saw something flicker over the younger man's face.
"You know of something?"
"Scars," Alistair admitted. "I can't be certain, but I think…" His jaw worked silently. "I think a whip."
Duncan winced. "Corporal punishment in the Circle is rarely so harsh."
Alistair gave a humourless huff of laughter. "Yes, they seem to prefer more creative torments."
The deluge began to slow. Duncan got to his feet, careful that Alistair did not notice the effort it cost him. "Fetch her," he said, "and I'll gather kindling. With a mage in the party we may even manage a cooked supper."
Duncan lay awake well into the night; it seemed that with each year the taint advanced, sleep retreated. Neria had taken to her bedroll early; Alistair had reluctantly followed a few hours later, leaving the Warden-Commander alone with his thoughts.
Rain fell intermittently, and Duncan arranged his oilcloth cloak to keep it from trickling into his bedroll. Was I right? he asked silently. I promised you that I would watch over him. Would you want this? An elven girl, collared and all but enslaved to the Grey Wardens - he feared he knew the answer. And Alistair? The boy looked up to him. Had he abused that trust by talking him into the Claiming?
The girl would have been destroyed, he continued his one-sided argument. This way she at least has a chance. He had searched Ferelden high and low, and somehow recruits were nowhere to be found. Jory was a competent enough warrior but lacked the nerve he looked for in a Warden; Daveth was more promising, but…
It was said that nobody could predict who would survive the Joining, and Duncan had no evidence to refute that claim. But this girl had an aura of destiny about her; Alistair had been the same, and it had helped him overcome his reservations about bringing him into the ranks of the Wardens. To let her go would have been more than a waste: it would have been, he felt in his bones, a grave mistake.
She had shown courage, loyalty - however misguided - and a not inconsiderable talent. More importantly she had flown in the face of authority, had braved a system designed to crush her.
Duncan's instincts hadn't often failed him over the years. And something told him that in the coming fight, the last part would be the most important of all.
Chapter 8: The Journey (Neria)
The two of them took shelter beneath a huge tree, its ancient roots pushing up the stone and squeezing through wide cracks in the wall. He scooted close and hugged her to his side, and soon she felt warmth begin to radiate through her chilled body.
"You'll use up all your mana!" she protested.
"Hey, I didn't drag you out all this way to let you freeze to death." He screwed up his nose at the rain. "I don't suppose you can hunt?"
"I can hunt for a book in the library?"
"Not quite what I had in mind."
"Where are we going?" she asked, and he shrugged.
"Anywhere but here? I don't know. I thought home, maybe. The Anderfels."
"Do you know how to get there?"
"How hard can it be, right?" She heard the forced cheer in his voice.
"Won't they come and find you again?"
"I don't care. I'll hide. I'll fight them. I'll keep running away, and running away, until they get sick of catching me."
They left the truth unspoken: what would happen if they got sick of catching him.
"Where will I go?" she wondered aloud, and he laughed as if she'd made a joke.
"You'll stick with me, of course."
They fell silent for a while, and she laid her head on his bony shoulder. "You're skinnier than I am," she teased. "You should come and live in the Alienage."
"My ears would give me away. What about Tevinter? We could be magisters." He squinted up at the broken columns. "Is this a Tevinter ruin, do you think?"
Rain fell. Don't go to sleep. But she wasn't; she was waking up, half escaped from her bedroll with a blanket twisted around her middle, a tree root digging uncomfortably into her hip.
You're new. What's your name?
Neria. What's yours?
They call me Anders.
So is that your name?
A feral grin, brown eyes that crinkled when he smiled, which was often. The last she'd heard he'd been back in solitary - apparently they weren't sick of catching him yet.
"It looks like you got into a fight with your bedroll," Alistair observed. "Who won?"
She did not deign to reply. "Still raining?"
"It stopped for a while." He lay on his back, watching the tent canvas shiver under the onslaught. "I hope Duncan hasn't been washed away."
I hope he has. She disentangled herself with some effort and inspected the blister on her foot; yesterday's trek had rubbed the back of her heel raw. In the periphery of her vision she saw Alistair glance over, and just as quickly look away.
"It's just an ankle, Alistair," she said. "You've seen more."
"I didn't -" he sputtered. "I mean, I wasn't -" With an almighty huff, he turned his back to her. "Why don't you just heal that?"
"Not all mages are healers." It reminded her of something she'd been curious about. "How many mages are there in the Wardens?"
Alistair was silent long enough that she began to doubt he'd heard the question. "That depends," he said finally. "Including you?"
"If you like."
"Well then…one." He turned back, and her disbelief must have shown plainly on her face because he rushed to reassure her. "That's only in Ferelden! The Orlesian Wardens should join us soon and I'm sure they have at least one of their own."
Neria recalled something he'd said when he'd been applying salve to her bruised ribs. "What about women?"
"I'm sure they have those too," he said evasively.
"In Ferelden," she prompted.
"Well, that depends…"
"That I've come across?"
"Elves?" she had to ask, and when his brows knit she held up a silencing hand. "Forget I asked."
"No, there are definitely…" He propped himself up on an elbow, appearing to count on his fingers. "More than one, at any rate. Look, it doesn't matter: the Wardens welcome anyone. Thieves, murderers, dwarves…"
"Thieves, murderers, dwarves?"
"That didn't come out right, did it?"
"That depends on how offensive you were trying to be." She reached for her socks.
"Wait," Alistair said. "You can't walk around like that. I have bandages." He dragged his pack over.
"I don't know a thing about putting bandages on," she told him.
"Well if you can bear for me to touch you -" A bite crept into his voice and he cut himself short. After a tense silence he ventured, "Does this mean you're talking to me again?"
"Do you see anyone else here?" Her defences flared again, seemingly never far beneath the surface. "Don't read too much into it."
Alistair's mouth twisted unhappily. "Would you like me to dress your foot?" he asked, pulling a small roll of linen from his injury kit.
An apology formed on her lips; she bit it back. "Yes please."
"Hand it over then."
Oh, not again, she thought as his warm fingers wrapped around her ankle. Her mind flashed vividly back to the last time his hands had touched her skin, and she nearly jerked her foot away in shock at the flood of warmth the memory brought with it.
Alistair looked up quizzically. "Am I hurting you?"
"No," she stammered. "Your hand is cold."
They let the obvious lie hang between them.
"I'm going to put a lotion on the broken skin," he said finally. "It will hurt…might be a bit cold, even."
"That's fine." She repressed a wince as the liquid stung her skin, then his touch returned, brisk and clinical and maddeningly light. "Alistair…"
"What is it?"
She'd had time to think, yesterday, to play certain events over in her mind. And it had brought her to an uncomfortable conclusion.
"Yesterday when I overheard you talking to Greagoir," she began.
"Yes?" A defensive note was in his voice, and she supposed she couldn't blame him.
"I've been thinking about what I heard, and about your words, and your tone, and I began to think that perhaps - " Maker, this was hard to admit. "It's possible that I misunderstood, and you were actually, perhaps, not saying what it seemed like you were saying. Is that…?" She glanced up hopefully, blushing at the cautious hope she saw in his eyes.
"I tried to explain."
"I know," she said. "I think perhaps I owe you -" An apology, she nearly said. "The benefit of the doubt."
A slow smile crept across his face, and her traitorous heart skipped in her chest. She hid it with a scowl, but Alistair was unfazed. He tucked the end of the bandage gently away and looked searchingly at her face, until she felt pink creeping into her cheeks.
"When you said that you thought there was something in the Claiming draught that, you know…" He cleared his throat, suddenly developing a keen interest in inspecting the finished dressing. "Do you still think that?"
All Neria knew was that if there had been some enchantment that had made her want him, it was still very much in her system. It rankled beyond belief that he had the right to do whatever he wanted with her; and yet, some part of her persisted in wishing that he would.
"I don't have any other explanation." When he looked away, she added, "I don't mean to hurt your pride by saying so. But to be coerced into lying with someone I just met, and seeming to want…" She couldn't keep from shuddering. "What would that make me?"
Alistair's expression had become carefully shuttered. "Oh, I don't know," he said with forced lightness. "Someone trying to make the best of a bad situation? Anyway, it's past dawn. We'll be off soon."
"I'll be out in a second." She began to put on her socks.
On the verge of crawling from the tent, he turned. "We'll have to go past the place Duncan mentioned," he said cautiously. "Will you manage?"
Bile rose in her throat, but she nodded.
Alistair still crouched at the tent flap, studying her as she pulled on her boots. "Any chance you might tell me why it scares you?"
"Right now? None."
She waited until she heard his footsteps retreat before she tried to fasten her cloak. Her hands shook too badly to make the knot. "It's just a place," she told herself in a stern whisper. "Don't be foolish." Her hands wouldn't listen: still they shook.
The weather seemed to have settled partway between mist and drizzle as they descended into the valley. Water no longer fell but hung in the atmosphere, disguised as air until it clung to one's eyelashes in round droplets and coalesced into tiny, cold rivulets.
Individual trees could only be seen at a few paces distant. So it was for the ancient stone buildings: Neria, with her eyes on the ground, might have passed them by entirely. But the damp ground gave way to cracked flagstones, and when she looked up there they were. Truncated columns, broken arches looming overhead like the skeleton of some huge beast. Worn statues looking down in faceless judgement. And a tree, its trunk as wide around as a dozen men, growing fat branches through the walls.
"Well. Isn't this heartwarming?"
Neria stirred, lifting her head from Anders' lap. The glow of a lantern shone in her eyes, turning the figures standing over them to little more than shadows. She knew a sinking moment of horror; then a wave of vertigo and nausea as the smite hit.
"Anders," she croaked, and he jolted awake, eyes bugging in terror to find his mana drained.
One of the shadowy figures chuckled. There was the tinkle of chains and two phylacteries dangled from his fist, the blood within glowing brightly. "Got you," he said.
His companion hauled them both up, one thin shoulder clutched in each steel-plated hand. "You've put us to some trouble." His voice was tinny, his features entirely obscured by a Templar helmet.
The first Templar lowered his lantern. "I should say," he agreed. The phylacteries clinked as he stashed them back inside his hauberk. "Out and about on a night like this? And now we'll have to camp here."
Anders wriggled in the Templar's grasp. "Sorry for making you earn your wages," he said, his tone making it clear he was anything but.
"You're not in the Circle now, boy." The one she had come to realise was in charge placed his lantern on the ground. "Watch your mouth."
It was strange how casually the Templar struck him, considering the spray of blood that erupted from his mouth. Anders' head hung for a second, then he laughed, his bloody mouth grinning.
"Is that all you've got?"
The Templar hit him again, again.
"You can't!" Neria dared to gasp. "It's not allowed."
"When we found these apostates," the senior Templar said, "would you say that they were practising blood magic?"
"That depends," his subordinate said. "How much trouble do they want to be?"
"Fuck you," spat Anders.
"Quite a lot of trouble, it seems." The senior drove a fist into Anders' stomach. He doubled over, coughing and retching.
"What about you, knife ear?" the second in command asked Neria. "How much more trouble do you want to cause?"
"Please," she could only sob, "take me back, I won't say anything."
"Is that the best you've got?" Anders struggled to his feet, staggering a little.
"Oh dear," the senior Templar said. "I see we're going to have to teach this one a lesson."
Neria saw her friend steel himself, ready for whatever indignity they had planned. When the Templar pulled a whip from his belt Anders gulped, but he didn't break his defiant stare.
"Think you're brave?" the man sneered. "We'll see."
"Don't," Neria cried. "Please don't hurt him any more."
"I don't intend to." His eyes never left Anders as he lifted the hand holding the whip and pointed it at the tree. "String up the knife ear."
The voice was low and rough with concern. A pair of worried brown eyes peered into hers. Anders? No, Anders was locked away and besides, he hadn't spoken to her so warmly in years.
She felt a warm hand slip into hers and a brief squeeze of her fingers. "It's Alistair, Neria. Can you hear me?"
Alistair. So this was now, the rest of it wasn't real…but when her eyes left his face the scene hadn't changed - still the jagged columns like a leering mouth of broken teeth, the twisted, monstrous tree. A sob erupted from her throat.
"Look at me," he said. "Neria, look at me." The Command settled over her like a blanket and her eyes snapped to his face. "We're going to leave this place," he said. "Can you come with me?"
"I don't know." Her arms and legs were stone; even the effort to breathe felt too much.
"I don't want to give her another Command," she heard Alistair say. "I don't know what they do to her."
"It may cause more harm than good," agreed a deeper voice. Duncan, her scattered mind supplied. "This state can be unpredictable. Perhaps even more so for a mage."
"I'm going to carry you," Alistair told her gently. "I hope you'll forgive the indignity."
Their words were nonsense to Neria, but looking into his eyes she found herself no longer bracing for the sting of the lash; her pulsed still raced madly, but the tightness in her chest had eased somewhat. Alistair scooped her up in his arms. Suddenly his face was much closer: she saw his eyes darken, saw the nervous flicker of his tongue between his lips.
"You…can stop looking at me now. If you like." When she didn't break her gaze, he frowned. "How do I cancel a Command? I can't tell if it worked or not."
"You can worry about that later," Duncan said. "We need to keep moving."
"Fair enough." Alistair cradled Neria to his chest and strode through the ruins at Duncan's heels. She focused on the solid presence of his arms and the cold breastplate against her cheek. Soon the ground began to slope upwards. The trees crowded closer, pushing their branches into the Wardens' path.
"You don't weigh much," Alistair grumbled, "but carrying you doesn't make this easier."
"We can rest once we leave the valley," said Duncan. "There's a flat rocky area at the top of this hill, if I remember correctly."
"Lunch?" Alistair asked hopefully.
"If you can make your provisions last until we reach the Bannorn, you may eat whenever you choose."
"You might regret giving me that sort of responsibility."
"The regret will be yours, when your food runs out."
"Ah yes, but you'll have to hear me complain."
Neria found the wild beating of her heart had given way to a creeping fatigue, as if she had fought for her life, or run a long distance in a short time. I can walk, she wanted to say, but the effort even of moving her lips suddenly seemed too much.
"How is she?" she heard Duncan ask, as if from a long way off.
"I think she's asleep."
I'm not, she protested silently, and then she was.
She hung suspended by her wrists, awash with pain and dizziness. She had dimly felt the last smite, probably aimed at Anders but it had still drained what little reserves she had. The whip had finally stopped falling but the pain, the pain - how could anyone feel so much pain and live? Perhaps she would bleed away into nothingness and it would stop. She hoped so.
"That should do," the Templar said. "Cut her down."
Anders' shouts of protest had long given way to a hoarse, hopeless sobbing. He sat slumped against the column where they'd tied him; she caught a glimpse of his pale, tear-stained face before they dumped her face-down in his lap.
"Are you up to cleaning and bandaging her, lad? Seems the least you can do after making her take your whipping." The Templar crouched to cut his bonds.
"I didn't," Anders hiccupped. "You did this."
"That's where you're wrong." He walked away, returning to drop a rolled bandage and a jar at his feet. "Remember this if you want to run your mouth. Next time we might find some other way to make her scream." Even to Neria, half-delirious with pain, his meaning was clear.
"Bastards," Anders spat, flinching away when the Templar raised his hand.
"That's your last warning, boy. Do you hear me?" He waited. "Tell me you hear me."
"I hear you," she heard Anders say, his voice thick with grief and anger.
"Good. Now, I'd suggest getting her nice and bandaged before you pull those robes back up. You don't want to see what happens when fabric gets stuck to a mess like that."
"How do you feel?"
"It wasn't your fault," she mumbled through dry lips. "I know it wasn't."
"That's good to know." A hand swept damp strands of hair away from her face. "Anything else?"
Her eyes cracked open. Alistair was looking down at her, his expression a mixture of concern and bemusement. She felt smooth, uneven rock beneath her, rolled fabric cushioning her head. Sitting up slowly she looked back in the direction from which they'd come. Down in the valley, forest obscured the ruins; beyond that the land dipped and rose all the way to Lake Calenhad. A shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and fell across the tower before kissing the lake's surface, making the water dance and glitter. It was beautiful.
She turned her head and retched violently, not stopping until her eyes were watering and her throat burned.
"Soooo…" Alistair said when she finally wiped an unsteady hand across her mouth. "Lunch?"
It was a relief not to be walking in the rain. But when night fell without the steady patter of water surrounding them, silence in the tent was stark.
"I ran away," Neria said into the darkness. "When I was…I don't know. Fourteen?"
Alistair was quiet, and she wondered for a moment if he was asleep. Then she heard him shift. "Go on."
"It was stupid. I had nowhere to go…but my friend had this way of drawing you in, making any stupid thing sound like a good idea. Since we were kids we'd been in trouble over one thing or another, and Irving had taken me aside more than once…" She cleared her throat. "He said I had a future in the Circle, and there was no point being led astray by someone who wasn't likely to be around long. He implied - heavily - that my friend wouldn't make it through his Harrowing, that if he wasn't made Tranquil first he'd fall prey to pride, or rage…"
"And that didn't have the effect he'd hoped." She fancied she could hear the hint of a smile in his voice.
"We made it out…there was hiding, and a boat, and running…we made it as far as the ruins. I don't know why we thought it was safe to stop, we were probably just tired. Maybe we didn't understand how phylacteries worked. Anyway, they found us."
Alistair breathed out hard through his nose. "Templars, you mean."
"Who else? And he wouldn't stop goading them even when they hit him -"
"They're not allowed to do that."
"They can do what the fuck they want, Alistair," she said sharply. "And they did."
"Just whipping." She laughed without humour. "Just. My friend couldn't heal me because they'd blocked his mana, and then they dosed us with magebane. When we got back they threw him in solitary confinement, but I didn't dare see a healer in case they told Greagoir and he asked the mage hunters, because they said they'd accuse us of blood magic if we said anything…"
"I'm sorry." Alistair's voice was tight with anger. "None of this should have happened."
"It happened." She shrugged. "I survived."
"And this friend…he wasn't the same one with the blood magic…?"
"I wasn't the best at making friends," she said shortly. "Or at keeping them. It's fine. I think I'm done."
In the dark she felt for the stone at her throat. "With friends."
It had been a month. Anders looked thinner, a little stooped. Some of the apprentices steered clear but the rest flocked around him; he had the same charisma, the same easy charm as before.
"You're back!" It was painful how relieved she was to see him.
"Neria." With a smile to his well-wishers, he steered her away by the elbow to a corner of the library. "I'm glad you're here. There's something I wanted to say."
"What is it?"
"I can't be friends with you any more." He had the grace to look ashamed. "I can't give them that power. When I run away again, I can't be afraid they'll hurt you to punish me."
She wasn't a child any more, ripped from her home. She wouldn't cry. "Can't you just not run? It's not the worst place. If you just…"
She trailed off at the fathomless disappointment in his eyes. "I can't stay here," he said. "I can't. I thought you understood."
"I understand," she said to the darkness. "I do."
Chapter 9: The Journey (Alistair)
Defying all expectations, Alistair stretched his rations out as far as the Bannorn. It helped that Neria had an eagle eye for edible herbs, and was able to bring down small prey with a casual twitch of her fingers.
"What?" she'd asked, the first time he saw her cleanly fell a rabbit. "You said I could use magic in the service of the Wardens."
"It's not that," he protested, trying to wipe the astonishment from his face. "It was just…so...casual. I didn't take you for a hunter."
She shrugged, bending to pick up the limp animal by its hind legs. "It seemed a useful skill to learn."
"You've done it before?"
This, he thought with a shiver. This is why people are scared of mages. For once he was wise enough not to say anything.
"Are all women like this?" he asked Duncan privately.
"You have met other women, Alistair." The Warden-Commander was skinning the rabbit with practiced ease.
"Well, strictly speaking I have, but…most of the ones I've known just straight-out disliked me. I'm not used to this."
"This?" Duncan enquired.
"Sometimes I almost think we're friends," he complained, "then I say something, or don't say something, and…" He shrugged. "I can't seem to get it right."
"Neria has had to make a large change in her life," the older Warden said. "Give her time to adjust." His shrewd brown eyes crinkled. "And yourself."
Alistair held the waterskin while Duncan rinsed his hands. "I'm not sure how to adjust to this."
"There is no right way, I'm afraid." He stood, clapping a weathered hand on Alistair's shoulder. "It never hurts to be kind."
"I am kind," Alistair said. "Aren't I?"
"Then you'll be fine."
If she was sullen and sharp all the time, it would almost be easier. But often a different Neria shone through: one that was quick to tease and joke, with bright eyes and a mercurial smile. Her laugh was as he remembered it the first night, and each time he heard it he found himself enchanted.
Then as quickly as she appeared, the other Neria would vanish behind a dark cloud. It was as if she felt she'd been tricked out of her anger and it would come back with a renewed intensity, lasting hours or sometimes days and leaving Alistair struggling to keep up.
In between these two extremes she could be silent in thought. He would sometimes catch her eyes on him, speculative and guarded; if she realised he had seen her then her glance would dart away, her fingers playing over the collar.
I'd take it off, he thought now as he watched her sleeping, if I knew how. It was early morning, and typically she had spent most of the night restless. Her dark hair was a riot around her head, and one arm was thrown out to the side. As he watched her eyelids fluttered and her foot kicked periodically, her mood changeable even in sleep. Alistair found himself smiling.
Abruptly she rolled over, and came up against the wall of packs he had placed down the tent's centre. Her eyes flickered open, at once alert and suspicious.
"Good morning," Alistair said. "I was going to wake you. It's a long day today."
Neria prodded at the packs with her elbow. "Afraid you won't be able to resist me?" she teased.
"Those are for my safety," said Alistair. "You sleep like a rabbit caught in a snare - I'm afraid I'll lose an eye if you're not contained."
He was surprised to hear her laugh. "They thought I might be falling prey to possession last year. I had a Templar assigned to watch me every night for a month, just to make sure I didn't turn into an abomination." She plucked at a loose thread on her blanket, her smile twisting with some dredged-up memory.
"Cullen?" he guessed, and the smile vanished. Neria turned her back to him and pulled the blankets up to her chin with a sharp yank.
"I told you," she said coldly. "I don't want to hear his name."
It seemed the tone for the day had been set.
Duncan's plan had been to ford the narrow strait between the primary basin of Lake Calenhad and the smaller body of water to the east. The night, however, had seen yet another sudden downpour: the crossing point had vanished beneath an influx of water, and the swirling brown surface gave no indication of depth.
"I'll scout east for an easier crossing," Duncan said over a scant breakfast. "It will be faster if I go alone."
"Couldn't we just go via Lothering?" asked Alistair. "We could stop at that inn with the pies." Golden, crusty pastry and chunks of grey meat swimming in brown gravy…his stomach gurgled loudly at the thought.
"There is no time." Duncan stood and stretched, his sharp gaze turning south. "We are later already than I would like. I planned to rejoin the Imperial Highway by tomorrow, but at this rate…" He smiled at Alistair, not unkindly. "Pies must wait for another day, I'm afraid."
A frosty silence settled over the camp in his absence. Alistair oiled his sword. Neria threw sticks into the flood water, watching the eddies and currents drag them this way and that. An hour, perhaps more, passed in this fashion until he finally ran out of things to focus on that weren't Neria.
Alistair watched her covertly, somehow unable to keep his eyes from returning to where she stood. A handful of times he thought of saying something to break the quiet, and each time he looked at the hunch of her shoulders and the tense line of her jaw, and thought better of it.
Her hand drifted to the back of her neck, feeling beneath her hair. Where the clasp had been, he knew. Where there was now only seamless steel. Inescapable. She reached up, scratching briefly at her hairline as if his gaze made her skin itch.
Finally she glanced over and caught him looking, and her mouth twisted in disapproval.
"I'm sorry," he rushed to say, "I didn't mean to stare."
"It's fine," she said tightly. She had already turned back to the water, her spine rigid with annoyance. "I mean, a man is allowed to look at his property, right?"
"It's not as if a person has to apologise for looking at his horse, or his dog."
"Or his boots…"
"Fine!" The unfairness became too much, and Alistair spoke more brusquely than he meant to. "Just go back to not talking."
Neria shot him a glare of pure ice but he was past caring. He stood and stalked away to watch for Duncan's return. After a while she went back to breaking sticks, throwing them in the water with increased vigour.
When Duncan finally emerged from the undergrowth he took in the scene with a frown. "The waters are receding," he told them, "but the nearest safe crossing is a league and a half distant. We should hurry."
"Fine with me," Alistair muttered. Neria picked up her staff and stalked past in stony silence.
"What happened here?" Duncan asked.
He grimaced. "I wish I knew."
They passed an hour without a word being uttered. If anything Neria became more agitated as they went, stabbing the ground with her staff and throwing increasingly venomous looks in Alistair's direction.
This was beyond ridiculous. He hadn't done anything. He hadn't said anything. He couldn't go the rest of his life apologising for a situation he'd had no part in creating. He was nice, Maker damn it.
They crossed the water without much incident, save some soggy boots. Neria sat away from them as they ate a quick lunch. "Talk to her," Duncan urged.
"No way." He didn't dare even look at the mage. "The mood she's in I can only make things worse. She'd probably have set me on fire if she was allowed."
When dark began falling they made camp. Duncan scattered dried roots into a stew pot; Neria brought down a water fowl with more force than was necessary.
"That should cut down on the cooking time," Alistair said when she dropped the charred bird at his feet. She crossed her arms, staring daggers at him.
"Enough," Duncan said with a sigh. "I had hoped the two of you might be able to resolve this…whatever it is. But it cannot continue. What, exactly, did Alistair do?"
"I don't know why you'd think I did anything," he protested. "I already told you."
Neria stood in silence, tapping her foot.
"Neria?" Duncan prompted. "Is there something you need to say?"
She glared pointedly at Alistair.
"What?" he said.
Duncan looked between the two of them, his eyes narrowing in comprehension. "Alistair," he said slowly, "what was the last thing you said to Neria?"
"I made a joke about the bird, but she was already not talking to me…" His stomach sank. "Oh."
"Go on," said Duncan.
"Look, I'm sorry," he said hurriedly. "It was an accident."
He scratched his head, grimacing in embarrassment. "You can talk," he mumbled.
Neria took a deep breath.
"Firstly," she began, "you stupid fucking -"
Alistair's ears burned. He had been raised among stable hands and men-at-arms, had fought beside some of Ferelden's most unsavoury criminals in the Wardens. Still, over the next few minutes he learned some new and colourful insults. He hunched down, bearing the tirade as best he could along with the uncomfortable knowledge that he had earned it.
" - inconsiderate, careless bastard."
He finally looked up. Her cheeks were flushed pink with anger and her eyes shot blue fire, and he reflected on how strange it was that of everything she'd just called him, such an innocuous word could sting the most.
He stood up. "You don't know how right you are."
"Alistair…" Duncan put a hand on his arm, but he shrugged him off.
"I think I'll go to bed," he said flatly. "I've done enough for one day, wouldn't you say?"
He felt Neria's curious eyes on him as he walked away.
It might have been hours later when she joined him in the tent, or no time at all; he'd fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the makeshift pillow. She sat down heavily on her bedroll. For a person so small and delicate-seeming, she could move with all the grace of a charging bronto at times.
"Are you awake?" she asked. "Alistair?"
"I am now," he complained.
"Good. I need to talk to you."
"I feel like you already made up for lost time."
"Don't push your luck."
"I didn't know I had any."
She shifted to a cross-legged pose, wrapping herself in her blanket. "I'm not saying it wasn't your fault. It was absolutely your fault."
"This talk is off to a wonderful start."
Her eyes glittered in the near dark. "I was unfair, alright? I needed to lash out at something and you were there. You didn't do anything to deserve it - or at least, you hadn't yet."
"Did Duncan say something to you?"
"Oh, no." He heard the hint of a smile in her voice. "He did that thing he does where he avoids the subject completely, and is unfailingly polite and respectful, and you find yourself doubting every one of the choices that led you to this moment."
"You've noticed that, huh?"
"I've given him a few opportunities to use it." Neria shifted uncomfortably. "Anyway. I had to tell you that…sometimes everything seems dark. And I can't stop thinking about what my life is and how little control I have over anything, and everything that comes out of my mouth is bitter and cruel." She scrubbed her hands over her face. "They used to lecture me about giving in to rage, but in truth…it feels more like despair. Have you ever felt that?"
"Maybe not that exactly," he admitted. "In the monastery when it got too quiet, I would scream."
"It's true. Just start screaming, until one of the brothers came running."
She let out a soft huff of laughter. "Well I never tried that. Can you imagine if a mage started screaming in a tower full of Templars?"
He could imagine, clearly. It didn't need saying out loud.
"You're out now. Doesn't that count for something?"
"In a way. But I've just been moved into a bigger cage." Alistair didn't need to see her to know that she had begun fiddling with the collar. "Or a smaller one."
How little control… and now she was a virtual slave. With just a few words she could be stripped of even her free will. Alistair felt the pit of his stomach sink.
"I took your voice."
"You didn't mean to."
"Does that make it any better?"
"Do you know what? It does. Just don't fucking do it again." With that she wrapped her blanket tighter and wriggled into her bedroll.
"I won't. I mean, I'll try very hard not to. And if I do, you can call me all the names you called me today."
In the darkness, she lay facing him. "All of them?"
"Every single one. It's only fair."
"I'll try not to take things out on you."
"Unless I deserve it?"
"Unless you deserve it." Neria propped her chin on her hand. "Alistair?"
"I can see you grinning. Stop it."
"Fine. I just thought you'd given up on friends."
"Don't get ahead of yourself."
The Imperial Highway had fallen into a state of disrepair nearing its most southern point, the ancient city of Ostagar. The giant slabs of stone that made up the raised walkway were increasingly cracked, or in many places missing entirely. Nearly as many arches were broken as were whole.
"It is believed magic was used to build the road itself," Duncan caught Neria shiver as she brushed the high wall with her fingers. "The stone itself was quarried in the Free Marches, but slabs this size would be impossible to transport across the Waking Sea in the quantities needed using slave labour alone, even at the height of the Imperium's power. It ends in Minrathous - or begins, more accurately."
"That's a lot of stone," she murmured, fingering her collar.
"And a lot of slaves," Alistair added, earning an exasperated glance from the mage. Oblivious, he rambled on. "Once we get onto the road itself the going should be easier. A couple of bits we'll need to go single file - it's mostly collapsed in a few places - but it's still straighter and flatter than the path we've been on. We should come across the steps soon."
"How far to Ostagar now?" Neria pointedly addressed her question to Duncan. The truce between the two of them seemed to be in place, but she could still be prickly with both men. It surprised Duncan that she directed most of her conversation his way. If anything, he was more to blame for her current situation than the boy was.
He looked at the shadows cast on the ground by the ancient columns. "If we make good time, we will be there by nightfall tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" The girl seemed more apprehensive than relieved. "What happens then?"
"The rest of the Grey Wardens are already encamped in Ostagar, along with the king's forces."
"You told me that." She glanced at Alistair. "But where do I go? What do I do?"
"You and the other recruits will be under Alistair's supervision until your Joining."
"Which is what?"
"I cannot tell you at this time."
Neria sniffed, clearly unimpressed by his evasiveness. "Why not? It's not as if I'm going anywhere."
"I have sent ahead for a uniform to be made," he continued, ignoring the resulting pout. "We have nothing suitable in your size. In the meantime, you should be able to find some odds and ends from the Quartermaster."
"Boots that fit?"
She scratched at her neck as if it bothered her; quite possibly, it did. "Is this the Hinterlands?"
"I've read there are a lot of bears in the Hinterlands." She hesitated. "I'm not sure what a bear is, but they sound…tricky."
"I wouldn't worry too much," Alistair said helpfully. "You don't often run across more than one at a time."
She looked at the younger Warden and then away, as if the sight of him hurt her. "Good to know," she muttered.
Duncan wished he were better equipped to mediate between young…what could he call them? Over the years he had dealt with many clashes between Wardens - their ranks were made up of different classes, races, backgrounds, ideologies. He had even, on the odd unlucky occasion, been the peacekeeper in a lovers' spat. This dynamic, however, was outside of his experience.
"When will the darkspawn attack?" she asked him.
"They have already -"
"I know. The main horde, or whatever you call it. When is that?"
"We have no way of knowing." He hoped not too soon. "We have not yet seen the archdemon, but it cannot be far from revealing itself."
Neria stopped dead. "You're expecting an archdemon," she said carefully, "any day. I don't even have boots that fit. Everything I know of darkspawn, and Grey Wardens, and bloody bears, I read in books. Is there anything I need to know before the horde turns up, that you can tell me at this time?"
Alistair looked at Duncan in mute appeal.
"Typically, the Grey Wardens have one mage in their ranks from each Circle. Our last mage…" This was not the time to bring up the Calling. "...Departed our ranks some months ago."
It was inevitably true. "Yes," Duncan conceded. "It was more sudden than we expected - we had hoped to find his replacement while he was available to train you. As it is, you will have to learn more of combat spells from the Circle mages prior to your Joining."
"I'm sure they'll be delighted."
"A Grey Warden mage commands great respect within the Order," he explained. "They should be honoured to assist you."
"They're not within the Order though, are they?" She worried her bottom lip. "Will people know about…" Cheeks flushing pink, she indicated her collar.
"They will not hear it from me," Duncan assured her. "And Warden robes have high enough collars that you may avoid too many awkward questions."
"Can't you just tell people it's jewelry?" Alistair offered.
"Circle mages don't have possessions," she said as if explaining something to a slow-learning child. "Am I supposed to pretend I found it in a crate somewhere?"
He shrugged uncomfortably. "It could work. I've found stranger things in crates."
Mercifully, they had come across a large thicket growing by the side of the highway and the three of them fell silent as they were forced to navigate it. Alistair emerged first on the other side.
"Stairs!" he called out. His grin was infectious; even Neria had to smile, although Duncan noticed she ducked her head away when she did so. "We're back onto the highway. Ostagar, here we come!"
As promised, the journey was smoother on the road. They made camp that night atop an old watchtower: Neria had spotted her first bear, closely followed by her second, and she was reluctant to sleep on the ground.
Duncan observed how far she seated herself from Alistair. When she had finished eating dinner - a surprise bounty of ram - she occupied herself in playing with her hair. No, not playing, he realised with a pang. She was arranging and rearranging the ends around her neck, trying to place them to best hide the collar.
He wished he could reassure her. The Wardens were accepting, and her place amongst them should afford her no small measure of respect amongst the rest of the camp's occupants.
But the girl had shown herself to have a prickly temper, and she had no reason to trust him. She would see for herself soon enough. The Wardens had welcomed recruits with worse baggage than an unexplained necklace.
The morning brought clear blue skies, a promise of the coming summer in the breeze. Their vantage point afforded them an impressive view; to the east could be seen the frost-capped peaks of the Southron Hills, mountains in all but name. The highway ran in a near-straight line to a distant smudge on the horizon. The Korcari Wilds and, before them, the ruins of Ostagar.
Neria leaned against the ramparts, tight-lipped. Alistair was busy packing their gear away. Duncan went to stand by her side, squinting into the low sun.
"Scouts," he said. He'd seen her notice movement at the top of a far tower; he raised his arm in salute. "The king will be expecting us."
"Why are there no scouts on this tower?"
"It is too far north." He pointed to the mountains. "Most of the skirmishes have occurred in the foothills, or south in the Korcari Wilds. The main assaults have come from the east."
Neria half-raised a hand to her throat, and dropped it. "Let's get on with it, then."
The remainder of the journey was easy going. At one point it was necessary to jump a gap in the masonry, and Neria reluctantly accepted Alistair's hand in crossing; Duncan noticed that she snatched it back as soon as she was on solid ground, flexing her fingers as if they pained her.
At long last the arches became taller, the road broadened and the hinterlands gave way to remarkably preserved stone buildings, towering high above their small party. Neria's grip on her staff tightened.
"Is this it?" she asked. "Where is everyone?"
As they neared the Tower of Ishal, her question was answered. Three armoured figures, two silver and one gold, ascended the steps from the bridge.
"Ho there, Duncan!" The young king raised a hand in salute, his features - painfully familiar to Duncan - assuming an artless grin.
"King Cailan," he greeted his monarch. "I didn't expect -"
"A royal welcome? I was beginning to worry you'd miss all the fun."
Fun. At five-and-twenty, Maric's son still lacked an adult appreciation for the seriousness of warfare. "Not if I could help it, Your Majesty."
"Then I'll have the mighty Duncan by my side in battle after all. Glorious!" Cailan's glance flittered over Alistair and away, settling uncomfortably on Neria. "The other Wardens told me you'd found a promising new recruit. I take it this is she?"
Duncan inclined his head. "May I introduce Neria Surana of the Ferelden Circle, Your Majesty."
Cailan's usual easy charm seemed to have deserted him; he could not seem to keep from staring between the mage and the junior Warden, his smile appearing painfully fixed. "I must tell you, Duncan, we've had some correspondence from the Circle about this…Claiming."
Duncan's heart sank, even as he saw Neria turn pale.
"Oh?" he said. "Greagoir led me to believe that an element of discretion was required."
"Well I am king," Cailan pointed out, his joking tone masking a hint of annoyance. "If this sort of thing is going on in my camp, I have a right to know."
"There's very little to tell," Duncan explained. "A ritual was performed, but otherwise the arrangement is largely the same as a regular conscription."
"I don't know how I feel about this, Duncan." The king gave Neria an apologetic glance. "Slavery is illegal in Ferelden, and isn't this a lot like slavery?"
"No," said Alistair, at the same time Neria said, "Yes." The two of them frowned at each other, then looked away.
"May I speak with you?" The king beckoned Duncan aside. "Look, Greagoir let us know some of the details, and it's enough to leave me concerned. I don't believe that…" He stopped short of naming Alistair. "I have no reason to think your protege would mistreat the girl, but it is highly irregular."
Duncan could understand his misgivings. "Your Majesty, would it help you to talk to the mage directly?"
"I suppose it would," Cailan agreed reluctantly. "But you've put me in a very awkward position."
"If Knight-Commander Greagoir had respected the Right of Conscription…" Duncan had entertained the uncharitable notion that the Knight-Commander had exploited the urgency of the Wardens' need; perhaps he might have been persuaded to give the mage up, had he not been eager to try out the Claiming ritual.
"He did mention her association with a - blood mage." The king's voice dropped to a whisper. "I trust there's no danger that she's going to become an abomination? That would be unpleasant."
"She recently passed her Harrowing, Your Majesty. And the Claiming binds her to obedience: she can use no magic except in service to the Grey Wardens."
Cailan seemed somewhat mollified. "Very well, Duncan. I trust your judgement on this matter." He strode back to the waiting junior Wardens. "So…Neria? You have been treated well so far, I trust?"
She took a deep breath. Oh no, thought Duncan. "Well, Your Majesty? You'll have to be more specific. Do you mean since leaving the Circle? Or before that, when I was offered the choice of death or slavery? I assume you're not referring to when I was snatched from the alienage and locked away, because that doesn't seem to be particularly controversial - "
"Neria!" Alistair interrupted. "Please."
"He asked," she insisted.
"It's fine." Cailan held up a hand in appeasement. "Please, speak freely."
"You'll regret saying that," the Warden muttered.
"You say slavery is illegal. But you have mages fighting in your army, who aren't allowed property or title. What's that, if not slavery? What are the Tranquil, if not slaves? And now the Templars allow this -"
"That is enough." Duncan stepped in. "I am sorry, Your Majesty. This is neither the time, nor the place."
"He said -" Neria began.
"You represent the Wardens now. I know you are unused to protocol, but that does not excuse rudeness." He bowed his head to the bemused Cailan. "You must forgive our recruit. She has lived a sheltered life -"
"Sheltered," Neria snorted.
"Enough, Neria." Shamefully, his first impulse was to have Alistair Command her to cease. He fought it back; he had managed recruits for years without such coercive tools at his disposal. A piercing glare had served him well enough in the past. "You will show Cailan the respect he is due as your king."
She flushed and looked away, muttering something under her breath. It sounded suspiciously like, "I didn't vote for him."
"Please, Duncan," the king said. "There is nothing to forgive. Greagoir did mention some…recalcitrance." Again, he glanced awkwardly at Alistair before speaking. "I must know," he said to Neria, not unkindly, "if you feel at all pressured, or coerced, into doing anything you might not wish to."
She fixed him with a level stare. "If you're asking me whether I'm being forced to serve the Wardens in other ways, then no." Clearly discomfited despite her bravado, she broke eye contact. "But I believe the bargain does allow for that."
It wasn't often that Duncan glimpsed awkwardness in Cailan, but when he did the family resemblance was unmistakable. "And are you afraid that such a thing might come to pass? Because as your king, I would forbid it."
Neria's resentful glance settled first on Duncan, then on Alistair. "No," she admitted. "I don't think it's going to be a problem." With evident difficulty she looked back at her monarch. "Thank you for your concern, Your Majesty."
With that topic at an end Cailan's embarrassment evaporated, replaced by his signature easy charm. "I'm sorry to cut this short, but I should return to my tent." He rolled his eyes. "Loghain waits eagerly to bore me with his strategies."
Through the resulting exchange, Duncan kept an eye on his recruit. The colour was still missing from her face, save two spots of pink anger high on her cheeks. The hand on her staff was white-knuckled; her other hand was at her throat.
After a few more pleasantries the king took his leave. "Sit down, Neria," Duncan ordered.
"What?" she said faintly.
"Sit," he repeated. "You look as though you're going to be sick."
She perched on a low wall, leaning her forehead on her upright staff. "He knows," she said, her voice cracking. "Who else did Greagoir tell? He said we. We've had correspondence."
"You can trust Cailan's discretion on the matter."
His reassurance served only to annoy her. "But who else?"
"It's not important," he began, meaning to turn her attention to the coming battle, but she turned on him in furious disbelief.
"Not important?" she spat. "That everyone will think I'm some kind of…slave concubine? Greagoir's throwing me to the wolves, and you don't even see it. I may as well have a target on my back."
There was nothing Duncan could say that would set her mind at rest, and right now he had several pressing matters to attend to. "Rest for now," he suggested, "and we will deal with any trouble if and when it arises. Alistair, I need you to gather the other recruits. We shall meet back at the fire."
"I'll find you when I've rounded up the others," Alistair told Neria. "You can explore. Just watch the edges. It's a long way down."
She looked down at the crumbling bridge, delicately wrinkling her nose. "Don't give me ideas."
Unhampered by the mage, the two men strode towards Ostagar. "At least she can still joke," Alistair said. "She was joking, wasn't she?"
"She will need to learn to curb her temper. Not all those in power are as forgiving as Cailan."
"She's been through a lot."
"Her trials are just beginning." Duncan looked to the east; somewhere beneath those mountains, the darkspawn gathered for their next assault. "If she can better choose when to speak and when to hold her tongue, she may yet survive them."
"It won't help her through the Joining."
"You are uncharacteristically glum," Duncan noted.
Alistair shrugged. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing. She's supposed to be under my control, but I don't want to control anyone. And I know I have the power to make her cooperate, but…" He sighed. "It doesn't seem respectful."
An interesting choice of words. Duncan glanced at his protege. "You like the girl."
"What?" he squeaked. "No! I mean…fine. Yes." He took the stairs in three quick strides. "It's impossible."
"Really, Duncan?" Alistair stopped dead. "How can I make any sort of advance, without abusing my power? I already kept her from talking for an entire day by accident."
"Be yourself." Duncan clapped him on the arm.
"That's what I'm afraid of," he muttered.
Oh, Eamon, Duncan thought with regret. You were only meant to keep him from being a threat to Cailan's succession, and somehow instead you destroyed his confidence. No matter: he had been working on rebuilding the boy's self-worth over the past year, and until his Calling came he would continue to do so.
"Make no advances, then," he suggested. "If she feels the same, I somehow doubt she will keep it to herself for long. Withholding an opinion does not seem to be in her nature."
He seemed unconvinced. "That doesn't change the situation."
"They are unique circumstances," Duncan agreed. "But I trust in your judgement."
"More than Greagoir does, apparently."
"Yes." That was a puzzle for later. "Now, I have other business and so do you. In fact, I believe the Revered Mother is trying to get your attention."
"I would not say that in front of her." Duncan made sure the cleric saw his farewell nod to the junior Warden, a sign of respect. "I will see you soon. Oh, and Alistair…if you wish to teach the girl to keep a civil tongue, try to lead by example."
"Hmph," said Alistair. "Oh hello, Revered Mother. You're looking especially revered today."
"Farewell, Duncan," he said with a repentant eye roll. "And thank you."
"I need you to carry a message to the mages," he heard the woman say; apparently she was under the impression he was still a lackey of the Chantry, Warden or no. "Tell them…"
Duncan moved off in the direction of the campaign tent, his mind already returning to battle.
Apologies to Monty Python
Chapter 11: Ostagar (Neria)
It began well enough.
The Grey Wardens already encamped at Ostagar accepted her presence without question.
"An elf, eh?" One of the other new recruits looked her up and down with an appreciative eye. "I knew an elf girl back in Denerim -"
"Fair enough," he said good-naturedly, and winked. "Daveth. I'm here if you change your mind."
"Good to have a mage at our back again," a scar-faced swordsman told her as he passed her a bowl of stew.
"It'll be nice to have a woman around as well." The speaker, a dwarf with a braided yellow beard, bristled at his colleagues' raised eyebrows. "What? I'm just saying, some of you sodding bastards might hold your wind if there's a lady in the tent."
"I thought you was a lady," another man quipped. "Hard to tell under that beard!"
The men guffawed, room was made by the fire, and that was the last mention made of her newness.
The mages in camp treated her as one of their own. Hours of her first day were spent learning skills she couldn't practice in the Circle: primal spells, directing the elements to strengthen armour or weapons, the casting of larger and stronger barriers. The pace of learning was dizzying, and by the time dusk fell she was every bit as exhausted as she had been while journeying from Lake Calenhad.
"So you don't have to go back to the Circle ever?" a young mage asked. "Imagine being out from under Greagoir's thumb!"
She didn't want to tell him how far Greagoir's influence really spread; hope was in short enough supply in the Circle.
"You might change your tune once you've actually faced the darkspawn," a woman said.
The mage shrugged. "Could they be any creepier than Uldred?"
Senior Enchanter Uldred watched his junior mages with a disinterested smirk, as though he contemplated some private joke. When Neria accidentally caught his eye his lip curled, and once more she wondered at how much of a secret the Claiming really was.
Fatigue notwithstanding, in her spare time she couldn't help but wish to explore the camp. Conscious of the restrictions the Claiming placed on her, she was initially wary of wandering too far from Alistair. It was both frustrating and terrifying to never be sure when the consequence of disobedience might fall, or even what shape it would take.
Neria's stubborn nature helped solve the problem. So, she could only perform magic in service of the Wardens. What were the limitations? Did some magical construct exist to rule on whether she acted within the bounds set by the ritual, or was it perhaps just determined by her own motivations?
She resolved to test it. It had to be something frivolous: a spell she knew well enough that it couldn't be construed as practice, and useless enough to provide no material benefit to any Warden, including herself.
At last she settled on a water trough near the Mabari kennels. She would freeze it. Not the whole thing, or even enough to inconvenience the dogs; it was the intent that mattered most, not the power of the spell. She waited for a time when few people were around, her only company the gentle snuffle of a hound behind the wooden pickets, and prepared to cast.
She couldn't do it.
It wasn't a question of ability. Her mana was within reach, and she knew if she pushed herself hard enough she could force herself to cast. But she could no more perform the spell than she could have deliberately put her hand into a fire; her entire being shied away from the possibility.
Fury faded to a sort of relief. She still didn't know what would happen if she truly defied an order - and, thinking it through, this had been a foolish place to test it - but at least it seemed difficult to do by accident. She sank onto her ankles, defeated.
More snuffling came from behind the fence, along with a scratch and a whine.
"Hello?" she whispered, warily moving closer. Vaguely she remembered dogs from the alienage as rangy, scrawny, scrappy things. The Mabari were more like…boulders on legs. "Are you talking to me?"
There was a scrabble of paws and a blunt brindle snout appeared under the gate. The creature inside settled on the ground with a thud, huffing softly.
"He won't hurt you."
Neria froze with her hand halfway to the ground. The kennel master leaned against the fence, his eyes twinkling in amusement. "But he can smell you from there, if you don't want to get any closer. Fact he could probably smell you from the Wardens' camp."
She frowned, sniffing surreptitiously at her shoulder.
"Not you," the man said with a laugh. "He's got a good nose, is all."
"I didn't mean to bother him," she said defensively, straightening as she backed away. "He seemed curious."
"Only natural if you were too. I don't reckon you see too many Mabari in that tower of yours."
"We don't see much of anything," she snipped, "and it's not my tower any more."
The kennel master grinned. "Well, good for you." He nodded toward the pen. "Want to say hello? The dog seems keen to meet you."
She hesitated for only a moment, and a series of plaintive whines erupted behind the gate. "Am I allowed?"
"I'm the kennel master, and I'm allowing you. I doubt anyone else much cares." He beckoned her over. "Scratch him just above the tail and you've got a friend for life."
"What's his name?" Two enormous paws appeared at the top of the gate, followed by a blocky head with a lolling tongue. Gingerly she reached past the giant grinning maw to scratch at the wrinkled forehead, and the dog wriggled happily.
"I don't know. Why don't you ask him?"
Her first problem, through no fault of his own, was Alistair.
The nature of the camp was such that they could spend most of the day without seeing each other except in passing. In the evening the most junior Warden and the new recruits were thrown together by default. Alistair was in charge of the newest members regardless of Claiming status; they shared not only meals and space by the fire, but also a tent with Daveth and the second recruit, Jory.
He was the picture of charm and kindness: nothing short of a gentleman in all his interactions with her. Therein lay the problem.
Neria couldn't look in his eyes without seeing his dark, predatory stare when he'd seen her unclothed. Couldn't see his jaw, his neck, without imagining the feel of his skin against her lips, his shoulders without picturing the way his body had moved over her. His hands, without feeling his fingers on her skin, inside her. And his mouth - Maker, to look at his mouth encouraged her mind to wander in a thousand frustrating directions, had her fingers clenching and unclenching on the skirts of her robes in restless discomfort.
Distance was what she'd demanded of him. Distance drove her to distraction. He didn't even give her cause for anger, where at least she could have spent some of her pent-up energy. At night she found herself awake in the darkness glaring at his sleeping form; once or twice he stirred unexpectedly and she had to pretend to sleep, convinced he must be able to hear her heart pounding.
"In your heart shall burn
An unquenchable flame
All-consuming, and never satisfied."
Two days post-arrival she lingered at a distance from the Chantry sermon. Today, of all days, it had to be Threnodies! And there had to appear Alistair, walking towards her with a tentative smile, and an unquenchable flame burned all the way through her.
Its focus was not her heart.
"Do you need something?" she asked coolly.
"It's nice to see you too." Alistair fell into place beside her. "Duncan wanted me to gather all you goslings together for a talk."
"Oh, that's just my name for you three."
Reluctantly, she smiled. "So that makes you…"
"Mother goose, yes." He cleared his throat. "So you can fall into line behind me, if you like, but it might look less strange if we just walk together."
"What's it about?" she asked as they wove through the bustle of camp.
"About your Joining, I think."
"Oh, the famous Joining! It's actually happening then…" She trailed off, her hand going to her throat.
"What's the matter?"
"Something's wrong." As they passed, groups of people were falling silent. Some murmured to each other and laughed; a mage who had trained alongside her yesterday pointedly avoided her eyes. A hard knot formed in her stomach. "They know," she said quietly. "Everyone knows."
A group of soldiers stared at the two of them, openly leering at Neria. "Whore," one of them muttered.
"What did you say -"
"Alistair." She grabbed his arm. "It's fine. Keep walking." Stares from all directions, cold or curious or worse. She could see the gossip spreading as she watched, ripples expanding on the surface of a pond. Even Wardens look at them in puzzlement.
"Cailan wouldn't do this," said Alistair.
"It doesn't matter. It's done." What surprised her most was the shame. It hadn't been her decision, not really, but she felt as if she'd been forced to walk through camp naked. She didn't know what they were saying about her - could any exaggeration be worse than the truth? - but every stare, every whisper was a knife in her belly. She made her way blindly to their tent, Alistair following in her wake.
"Neria." He crouched down beside her as she stumbled to her cot. Acid burned her throat; the collar was choking her, every breath seeming shallower than the last, and she dug her fingers in desperately trying to pull it clear of her windpipe. "Neria, Duncan's waiting."
"Duncan can go to the Void," she gasped.
"Stop that." He grabbed her hands and held onto them tightly.
"I can't breathe."
"You can." He had begun to rub small circles near the base of her thumbs. Gradually, as his eyes flickered over her face, she found that her breathing started to match their slow rhythm. "See? You're breathing."
Neria shook her head, horrified to find tears spilling down her face. "I can't stay here."
"We won't stay here," he reassured her. "We'll stop the Blight before it starts, and then we'll be back to the usual business of running around Ferelden killing darkspawn." Tentatively he released one of her hands and cupped her cheek, and she took a shuddering breath.
"You can't just do that." The words left her lips, but she sank into his touch all the same, her eyes drifting shut. "You don't know what it does. How it makes me feel. It's not fair."
"What's not fair?" he asked, and the gentle timbre of his voice alone was enough to send a tremor through her body. She could breathe again, but every second her panic ebbed something else rose to replace it, something warm and sharp and tingling. A thousand tiny strings seemed to tug at her skin, pulling her ever closer to him.
"Stop," she insisted, jerking free and rising to her feet. "It's not fair I have to feel drawn to you all the time, and you can just walk around like - "
"Like what?" He followed and grabbed her wrist, a rough edge evident in his voice. "If you think you're the only one - "
"Alistair?" Duncan's voice from outside seemed to drag him back to his senses and he dropped her arm as if it burned him.
"I'm sorry," he said, stricken. "For all of this."
"Let's just go." Perhaps her skin did burn; she could still feel it like a brand where he'd touched her. She scrubbed at her tear-stained face.
"We need to work this out, Neria."
"Not now." She strode to the tent entrance and pulled the flap aside, just as Duncan was preparing to enter. "We were on the way," she muttered as she passed him. The Warden-Commander did not seem at all surprised by her dishevelled state.
"Neria, a moment -"
"I know it's not a secret any more," she snapped. "And I don't want to talk about it."
Daveth wore a subdued smirk throughout the meeting, and Jory kept a distance between them as if he feared contamination. It seemed they would be heading into the Wilds tomorrow in search of darkspawn blood, and for Neria it couldn't come soon enough.
She slipped away after that, donning her cloak before heading to the practice yard. It was empty but for a single mage.
"My dear." Neria had recognised her from the Circle on the first day: her name was Wynne, an older enchanter with a matronly air.
"Am I in the right place?" she asked, confused. "Did I miss training?"
Wynne smiled somewhat awkwardly. "The other mages decided to train…elsewhere…today."
"Oh." For a second time in a day she fought back tears, at least more successfully on this occasion.
"But I am happy to help you continue where you left off."
"Are you sure?" she asked sharply. "You're not afraid you might be tainted somehow if you spend time around me?"
"Scandal is the only taint here," the mage said gently, "and I've known my share of that already. I find it's best not to dwell on the workings of narrow minds."
"That's easy for you to say."
"It is now," Wynne agreed, "but it wasn't always so." She watched as Neria scuffed the dirt with her toes. "Would it help to talk?"
"It would help to set things on fire."
"Let's start by talking about setting things on fire," she suggested, "and we'll work our way up from there."
"I suppose that could work." Faced with her kindness, Neria could almost feel hopeful that the worst of the situation might be behind her.
They fell easily into the roles of teacher and student, even when some of Neria's questions had Wynne shaking her head. At times she would question the older woman's technique on one spell or another and the stern instructor would come to the surface, but it was easier to be lectured to than ostracised.
"You do remind me of someone," Wynne said at the end of their session. "I can see why Greagoir found you a handful."
At the mention of the Knight-Commander reality came flooding back. She was a pariah even amongst mages now.
"Won't the others resent that you didn't join them?"
"Do you care?"
"Not very much." Wynne made a gesture, and the glyph she'd been describing vanished in a swirl of dirt. "They act this way because they're afraid. Some of them judge you by your association with a blood mage, or your alliance with a Templar. Most look at you and fear what could happen to them. If this practice should become widespread…" She shook her head. "Mages have been through some dark times in the past, but this is new. And, frankly, disturbing."
"You don't need to tell me that."
Wynne glanced over at the ever-watchful Templars. "It seems most likely to me that these rumours have been spread to damage your standing in the camp, perhaps even in the Wardens. But they send a message to the mages, as well. Some might dream of trying to run away now they are outside the Circle walls."
"I'm a cautionary tale, then."
The older mage put a sympathetic hand on her arm. "From one cautionary tale to another, let me assure you it will all blow over."
"The Blight should give us something new to talk about, anyway." Neria smiled, though the effort hurt her face. "Thank you, Wynne."
"It has been my pleasure. You are a fast learner and an unconventional thinker." Her brows knit. "That will serve you better in the Wardens than in the Circle, I think."
Neria now found herself at a loose end. She wasn’t ready to face the Wardens, least of all Alistair after her confession of that morning. She was hungry, but shied away from the thought of walking into the mess tent at its most crowded. The mabari pen was empty, the dogs having accompanied the Ash Warriors on a scouting trip across the valley.
Wandering aimlessly, she found herself in an isolated area on the far side of the bridge. Here the grass grew up to her knees and slender trees outnumbered stone columns. She sank to the ground beneath a tall poplar and let her hood fall back.
The sun was making its descent, casting a golden light on the Southron Hills and casting the valley into shadow. No icy breeze blew from the east, and wrapped in her cloak Neria grew warm and drowsy.
She awoke with a jolt in the gathering dusk. Four unfamiliar soldiers stood over her; she scrambled to her feet, looking around for her dropped staff.
"That's the one, ain't it?"
She backed into the tree hard as one of the men reached out to touch her collar. "That's her."
She batted his hand away. "What do you want?" Simply walking away wasn't an option. They formed a loose circle around her and made no attempt to give way when she stepped forward.
It was as if she hadn't spoken. "What's she doing here then? Shouldn't that Warden keep a better eye on her?"
"I'd keep an eye on her if I was him." The tallest of the four looked down at her. "I'd keep my hands on her and all."
"I hear he's sick of her already. Hasn't had her once since they got here."
"That true, little mage?" The tall soldier advanced farther into her space. "Has he left you all alone?"
"Let me pass." She struggled to keep the edge of panic from her voice. "I don't answer to you."
"That's where you're wrong, poppet. Right now you do answer to us."
Neria's eyes flitted desperately over their faces. Who should she be most afraid of? The tall one who seemed to be the ringleader or his dark-eyed sidekick? The helmed one at the left who stared in silence? The last was a young man, barely past his majority and looking distinctly uncomfortable with the situation he found himself in.
She addressed him. "Just let me leave and that'll be the end of it, I promise."
The boy bit his lip, and she dared to hope until he spoke, his nervous voice breaking.
"We should get her out of the open, at least."
All of them. She should be afraid of all of them.
Abandoning any thought of retrieving her staff, she tried to duck her way through to freedom. The helmed one moved then, his arms locking tightly around her waist. She felt his hot breath on the back of her neck.
"Where are you in such a hurry to get to?" There was a scrape of steel as the tall soldier bared the first few inches of his blade. "We just want to get to know you better."
"How's it work, then?" the dark-eyed soldier asked. "Do all the Wardens get a go, or does he just share you with the senior ones?" Neria looked at him with contempt and he smiled, showing the gaps in his yellowed teeth. "You came here with Duncan, right? I bet he likes to watch. Did they take turns, or both have you at once?"
"Fuck off," she spat.
"She's got a mouth on her." The tall one grabbed her chin, his thumb pressing into her lower lip. "I'll bet we can put it to better use." He jerked his head at a nearby low ruin. "Get her in there."
She was ready to scream, sword or no, when a harsh, commanding voice rang out from the direction of the tower.
"What's the meaning of this?"
The soldiers leapt back, scrambling to salute the newcomer.
"Teyrn Loghain, ser. We were just -"
"I think I see what you were just doing." He caught up with them, sparing the barest glance for Neria. A tall man of middle age, he wore a full suit of immaculate plate and an unmistakable air of authority. He had long dark hair and a gaunt, severe face. "Go," he said to his men. "I'll deal with you later."
Without so much as a backwards glance, the men hastened towards the bridge. Neria was left alone with the teyrn. What had Duncan told her about him? Some kind of leader - general? - of the king's forces, and also his father-in-law.
She finally found her voice, shaky though it was. "Thank you, ser."
He fixed his cold grey eyes on her. "Duncan's new recruit."
"Yes ser. Neria Sura-"
"I know your name." He had begun to loosen the straps on one of his silverite gauntlets. "So, you find yourself in my debt."
"Debt?" she echoed, her scattered mind struggling to keep pace. Hadn't those been his men? "I thank you for arriving when you did, but I don't see how…"
"You don't?" His thin-lipped smile made her blood freeze. He tugged his gauntlet free and tossed it on the ground with a thud. "Greagoir mentioned that you didn't know your place. And he doubted the boy Alistair would have what it takes to teach you."
Her throat tightened. "It was you who told everyone."
"A select few." Loghain advanced slowly. "It doesn't take long for a rumour to spread, even in a camp this size."
She recovered her wits enough to run, but he anticipated her. With a speed belying his armoured bulk he grabbed her arm, walking her back against the same tree.
"No gratitude whatsoever," he growled. "I could have left it up to my men to teach you a lesson." His armoured hand grabbed her jaw, digging in uncomfortably. "Maric always enjoyed the company of elves," he mused. "It stands to reason…"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"No, I don't imagine you do." He let her cloak fall to the ground. "I can see the attraction, I suppose. You're wasted on that brat." The bared hand stroked her face, running down her jaw to rest on the collar. "It will do you good to know a real man."
Irving had always said she spoke without thinking; if he had only known the things she left unspoken! "I hope you'll let me know if you see one."
She wished back the words as soon as they left her mouth. Loghain laughed a bitter, unpleasant laugh.
"Oh, Greagoir was right about you. When he told me a Grey Warden needed to be taught a lesson, I must admit I was intrigued." His hand found her breast and squeezed it through the thick fabric of her robe. "You're all far too arrogant. Far too sure of your importance."
"I'm not even a Warden," she protested, struggling unsuccessfully to break away from his touch.
"Ah, but you will be." He spoke low and rough in her ear. "And you will always carry the knowledge that once I was inside you, and there was nothing you could do to stop me."
He was larger than she was, stronger, armoured. There was no physical struggle that would stop him as he bunched the skirts of her robes in his hand.
"Stop," she wheezed. Wheezed , because she couldn't help but reach for her mana, couldn't stop reaching for the only defence she knew, and the collar reacted. It seemed to burn and freeze and tighten all at once, until she could only take in the shallowest of breaths and tears sprang to her eyes.
Loghain laughed. "Fascinating." His rough fingers trailed up her thigh. "I can just imagine the possibilities."
No, she screamed inwardly. The collar kept punishing her but there was nothing she could do to stop it, no way she could keep from trying to defend herself. It burned, froze, tightened…
Loghain's hand stilled under her robes. "Keep quiet," he growled, as if she had a choice.
"Neria? Are you there?"
Alistair. She couldn't scream but he must hear her, the laboured movement of air in and out of her throat. Alistair...
Loghain sighed as the footsteps neared them, reluctantly letting his hands fall to his sides. "Another time then, Warden."
Alistair appeared from around the tree. "Neria? Are you -" He spotted Loghain and hesitated. "Teyrn Loghain."
"Warden Alistair," the teyrn replied in a dryly mocking tone. "I believe this is yours."
Now the threat had passed she found that she could breathe again; she took in giant, hoarse gulps of air. Alistair looked between the two of them in suspicion.
"What's going on?" he asked finally.
"Your…ward," Loghain answered, "got herself into some trouble. It would be wise to keep her on a tighter leash."
Alistair frowned at the older man a second before he reached out a hand to Neria. "Come on," he said. "Let's get back."
She wanted to scream, wanted to vomit, wanted to turn the general's body inside out and string him up for the darkspawn. Instead she numbly took Alistair's hand.
"Is everything alright?" he asked.
"Yes." There were her staff and cloak in the long grass. She snatched her hand free and bent to grab them, shuddering at the sight of Loghain's gauntlet on the ground nearby. Adrenaline still coursed through her veins, making her hands shake as she tied the laces at her throat.
As tightly as she wrapped her cloak around herself she could still feel hands on her, flinching at every brush of fabric against her legs. She could sense Loghain watching her as she hurried back to the bridge.
Nothing you could do to stop me.
"Neria!" To her dismay Alistair easily kept pace. "Are you going to tell me what happened back there?"
"Oh really? It didn't look like nothing."
"What the fuck did it look like, then?"
"I don't know, Neria. Are you hurt? What did Loghain mean by trouble?"
"I don't want to talk about it." The more she had to speak, the closer she came to tears, and nobody here would see her cry again.
"If this is going to cause problems for the Wardens, I need to know."
The directionless anger that had been growing in her chest finally found a target. "Fuck the Wardens!" she spat. "And fuck you." She stopped beneath a broken statue, glaring up furiously at Alistair's shocked face. "This is your fault. Do you know what this collar means to people? They don't see a Grey Warden when they look at me. They don't even see an elf, or a mage. All they see is someone who can't fight back. Who isn't allowed to say no."
Horror dawned in his eyes and he looked back in the direction they'd come from. "Are you saying -"
"Shut up and let me speak. Everyone in this camp knows you own me. And everyone knows you don't want me. So what did you think would happen? If you leave your property lying around you can't go acting shocked when other people try to take it."
Alistair looked pained, and on some level she knew she was being unfair. He'd had less than a day to adjust to their changed circumstances and she'd spent most of that apart from him by her own choice. But she wasn't done.
"I want armour."
"Armour?" He frowned, puzzled. "You'll have it after the Joining."
"I'm not traipsing into the Wilds in a robe. I don't care what, as long as it doesn't have skirts. There must be something?"
"I can try the quartermaster."
"And a dagger."
"Seriously? I've just avoided two sexual assaults through pure chance. How much further do you want me to push my luck?"
"But why would you need a dagger? You have magic."
"Magic is no help if I can't use it!"
"You can use it in self-defence, can't you?"
"I can use it in defence of my life," she told him impatiently. "Apparently anything else is fair game."
"Oh." He winced. "I'm sorry. I tried to fix the terms, but…I suppose I'm not that bright."
"So will you help or not?"
Alistair set his jaw. "You'll have to tell Duncan."
"I'm not going to do that."
"I'm not!" she snapped. "Are you going to make me?"
"You know I wouldn't."
"You can't tell him either. Promise me."
"If you'd just tell me why…"
"I can't." Already the tears threatened to return. "Not now. Just promise."
He hesitated long enough to earn a vicious glare. "I promise! But I can't watch you all the time. It was sheer luck I found you when I did. If Cailan knew…"
He sighed, defeated. "Fine."
"Walk me to camp." Without waiting she took off, taking a pretty satisfaction in making him catch up. "We need our own tent," she told him.
"But won't people think…?"
"Pay attention, Alistair, that's the point."
They completed the journey in silence, awkward on his part and stony on hers. Just short of the Warden camp she came to a reluctant halt.
"You have to touch me," she said through gritted teeth, immediately regretting her choice of words. "I mean…act more possessive. Pretend you want people to know I'm spoken for." It seemed there was no end to the humiliations today could pile onto her, but a show was necessary.
"Er…that is what we want, isn't it?"
"I suppose it is."
They stood for a moment, avoiding eye contact.
"Well?" she said.
Alistair tentatively took hold of her arm.
"That looks like you're marching me off to a cell. Here." She grabbed his hand and placed it on the small of her back. After a second of stiffness he let himself relax, settling his palm firmly at the base of her spine.
It was…not unpleasant.
"Fine," she muttered. "Let's do this."
Chapter 12: Ostagar (Alistair)
Touching her was addictive.
It began with his hand on her back, low enough to feel the enticing promise of curves beneath his fingers. The press of his thigh against hers as they took their meal with the other Wardens, and he found that the raised eyebrows didn't bother him as much as he had feared they would. Not when they were so close he could remember the feel of her bare skin beneath his hands, and more...
Given permission to show interest, suddenly he couldn't stop looking at her. The flush of her cheeks from the fire's warmth, the dark hair tucked behind the delicate shell of her ear. The sulky curve of her lip, glistening with a hint of grease left from dinner. Emboldened, he reached up and wiped it away with the pad of his thumb.
She looked at him in surprise and he froze, his thumb lingering near the corner of her mouth.
"Sorry," he murmured.
"It's fine." She blinked, once. How had he not noticed before that the azure of her irises was ringed by a deeper blue, the colour of the Amaranthine Ocean on a clear day?
A burst of raucous laughter came from nearby; some bawdy tale of Daveth's had evidently hit its mark. Neria looked down, biting her lip, and Alistair's hand hovered for a moment before finding its way to her hip.
"Tell me if it gets too much," he said quietly. He would need to rely on her judgement; his own seemed to be telling him to run his hand up her spine, to curl her long hair around his fingers. He brushed the collar at the back of her neck, and she shuddered.
"Sorry," he said again, and this time he meant it. "I'm repulsive, I know."
"You're not." She touched the collar with a grimace. "This is."
"There must be some way to get it off." He leaned in closer, searching for some join or irregularity.
"We could try cutting my head off, I suppose."
"But it's such a nice head." Smiling, he brushed the edge of her ear with his knuckles, and Neria leapt to her feet with a tiny noise of dismay.
"Are you alright?" He followed, aware of curious eyes upon them.
"Yes," she said curtly, cupping a hand over her ear. "It's been a fuck awful day, that's all. I'm a bit on edge."
"I need to be alone for a while."
"Alone? Are you sure?"
"I'll be somewhere safe," she promised.
"I trust you," he said, surprised to find it was true. She had a talent for finding trouble - or it for finding her - but she could recognise danger well enough. "I have some things to do anyway."
With a final, inscrutable look, she turned away. Past the glow of the fire her dark hair and cloak blended into the shadows, and she was gone. Alistair stared at his hand for a moment; broad, lined and weathered, there was nothing visible to account for the tingling of his skin.
Hours later, following a trip to the quartermaster and an excruciatingly awkward talk with Duncan, Neria still hadn't returned. Despite her assurances Alistair began to feel worried. She did, after all, have some powerful enemies.
"Looking for your woman?" a soldier asked him.
"She's not - I mean, yes."
She jerked her head towards the kennels. The kennel master watched him approach with a wary eye.
"Warden's here," he said over the fence.
"Alistair?" came a muffled voice.
"You Alistair?" the man asked.
"He doesn't seem too sure," he informed his unseen companion.
"That's him. Can he come in?"
"If he doesn’t bother the dog."
"I definitely don't intend to bother the dog," Alistair told the gruff man with a smile that wasn't returned.
"You'd better not."
Neria sat in the straw, a giant Mabari head resting in her lap. Her eyes were red, her face puffy. "He's sick," she said miserably. "He swallowed darkspawn blood."
"Poor boy." The Taint was a nasty way to die. He gestured to the muzzle strapped to the creature's face. "Is he dangerous?"
"I don't think so, but he's hurting." She looked up, her expression raw and open. "You know how it is."
He thought of the frequent times she'd lashed out at him; thought of his mother's amulet cracking as it hit the wall. "Yes," he said quietly, "I think I do." Gingerly he sat down, his knees forced nearly up to his chin to accommodate the Mabari's bulk.
"The kennel master says there's a flower that grows in the Wilds that might cure him. Can we look for it?"
"I don't see why not." He handed her a bundle. "This is for you. It's not exactly armour…"
She unfurled the roll of cloth, careful not to disturb the dog. A pair of soft hide breeches and padded gambeson were wrapped inside an overlarge tunic. "Thank you," she whispered.
"And this." It was nothing fancy: a small, utilitarian dagger of red steel in a plain leather sheath. She accepted it with the wide-eyed joy of a child on Satinalia.
"Will you teach me how to use it?" she said breathlessly.
"It's not hard. You just…stick them with the pointy end."
"Very funny." She inspected the blade, wickedly sharp, and he could swear he saw visions of murder dancing in her eyes. "I love it."
"I got us a tent. It's one of the ones we use on the road, so it's only small. But private. And no room for cots, just a pallet." He scratched his neck, reddening a bit. "Just one pallet."
"If that's what it takes to keep up appearances, I'll suffer through it." She smiled at him, and his mind went… places . Sharing a bed with her; what everyone would assume they were doing in there, and what they had done, that fateful night in the Circle Tower…
I want you formed behind his lips; he swallowed it down. And averted his gaze, afraid that she might see the hungry animal lurking behind his eyes.
"It's going to be an early morning," he said brusquely, "and probably a long day. Maybe even two. I think Duncan has another mission for us in the Wilds."
Neria stroked the dog's short, velvety ears. "Can he wait that long?"
"The Taint usually only kills in two ways: over hours, or over weeks. If he's lasted long enough to make it back here, chances are good he'll be with us for a while." A thought occurred to him. "Who's his master?"
The dog whined faintly.
"Does he have a name?"
"The kennel master says it's easiest for them to change names when they change masters, and he hasn't got one yet." The dog shifted his head with a loud huff and she smiled indulgently. "Did you ever have a dog?"
"I was raised by dogs," he told her. "It's a long story."
Neria's expression grew grim. "Speaking of stories…I owe you an explanation."
"You don't owe me anything."
"But I need to tell you. Why I can't tell Duncan, or anyone, about what happened out there."
He had been readying to leave; now he sank back onto the straw. "I'm listening."
She worried her lip; plucked strands of straw from her robe and twisted them between her fingers. "There was a girl in the Circle," she began. "She came from a village near the Frostbacks, and her magic came in late. Seventeen, or eighteen maybe? The Templars brought her in. And they…well, it was a long journey."
Neria glanced up, willing him to connect the dots, and as he did his hands balled into fists.
"We told her it was best to keep quiet. Move on, pretend it never happened. But she was so ashamed. She used to pray, and pray, and one day she confessed everything to the Chantry sister. And she told Greagoir, and the Templars were summoned back to the Tower."
Her voice cracked.
"We never found out the whole story. Whatever they said, it all happened behind closed doors. They only told us later…I'm sorry." She sniffed. "They told us she was in thrall to a desire demon, that she'd seduced them. The Templars had their pay docked, and she was made Tranquil."
"That's…monstrous," he said, when he was able to say anything at all. "But you can't think -"
"I can't?" Her eyes lit up with anger. "Loghain is one of the most powerful men in Thedas. I'm a mage who already has a reputation as a troublemaker. Duncan was barely allowed to conscript me, do you really think he can help if they want me destroyed? Would he even want to?"
"He can," Alistair insisted. "He would. Give him a chance."
"I'm sorry if I'm not quite ready to test the limits of my rights," she snapped. "In my experience, it's best to keep your head down."
"Do you think you won't get in trouble if you stab the king's general with a dagger?" he pointed out.
"No." He couldn't be sure if she smiled then, or just bared her teeth. "But at least I've got a chance of taking the fucker down with me."
Alistair scratched his jaw. "You are…" Infuriating. Bewildering. Insanely attractive right now. "Terrifying."
This time it was definitely a grin, unexpected and disarmingly sweet. "Thanks."
Alistair woke with a stiff arm. The cause became apparent as he tried to move: a sleeping Neria, her arm flung across his chest and her face buried in his shoulder. Her breast pressed warmly against him, and suddenly an arm was the least of his stiffness troubles.
Maker, he cursed silently. The only thing for it was a fast extraction. He shifted abruptly to the side and her head hit the pallet with a soft thud.
"What?" she murmured sleepily.
"It's dawn." He sat up, hastily dragging the blankets over his crotch. "Time to get ready for the Korcari Wilds."
"Bugger the Korcari Wilds."
He adopted a singsong tone. "You can find a flower for your Mabari… "
He suppressed the bizarre urge to kiss the top of her head; after all, he hadn't seen where she left her dagger last night. "I'll meet you out there."
He donned his armour in the morning chill; at least it helped cool his blood. That was effective until Neria emerged.
The breeches fit surprisingly well. Alarmingly well. He suspected the quartermaster may have poached them from some elven servant. She had tied her hair back in a loose knot. The gambeson was a little oversized, but somehow that drew his attention even more to the way the breeches hugged her curves, the calves and thighs and hips that were still burned in his memory.
You are disgusting, he told himself. "Are they… ahem... comfortable?"
"They'll do." She stretched , and he felt years fall away from his life.
"Yes, well," he squeaked. "Breakfast?"
The Wilds were as damp and unpleasant as he remembered. The marshy ground squelched underfoot, and the air felt like a wet, cold blanket.
"We're collecting blood," Neria said for what must be the third time. "Blood."
"Yes," he confirmed. "That is, in fact, what we are collecting."
"But you can't tell us what for."
She sighed dramatically, scanning the landscape with a world-weary air.
"I quite like it out here," she announced.
"It's very green." Her eyes narrowed, and she unslung her staff. "What's that?"
"More bloody wolves, probably," Daveth grumbled.
"No, it's a crawling…person. Do darkspawn crawl?"
"Not as a rule, no." Alistair drew his sword, following the direction of her gaze. "There!" The figure was, indeed, crawling, or more accurately dragging itself along the ground.
They reached the wounded soldier - for such it turned out to be - and Neria healed what she could before they sent him back to Ostagar.
"I thought you weren't a healer," Alistair said suspiciously, and she shrugged.
Terrifying. He grinned to himself.
At last he felt the creeping sense of wrongness, the tickle in the back of his skull that heralded darkspawn. "Ready," he told his recruits. "They're here."
Jory's eyes bugged with alarm; Daveth swallowed hard. Neria's lip curled.
An arrow twanged into the ground. The next glanced off Jory's pauldron, and yet another sank into Daveth's hardened leather bracer. A barrier sprang up, just in time to keep an arrow from plummeting towards Alistair's eye.
In response to his wide-eyed look, she shrugged. "You die, I die."
"That would have been useful earlier!" Jory shouted.
"I thought Ser I Can Sense the Darkspawn would give us more notice!" A hurlock erupted into a screeching ball of flame. "I can sit this one out, if you'd prefer!"
"Neria!" Alistair's cry alerted her to the genlock behind her; still, without Daveth's quick dagger to its throat she may have had to practice her healing skills on herself.
"Just watching your back," Daveth replied with a wink that made Alistair feel a surprising flare of jealousy.
The skirmish was short and bloody; most above-ground attacks were, unlike the drawn-out battles in the Deep Roads where wave after wave of darkspawn seemed to erupt from the darkness itself. In the aftermath they began the disgusting process of harvesting the blood; it managed to fill one vial.
"Well," Alistair said, "it's a start."
Dusk fell before any of them were quite ready. By then they had gathered a second vial of the putrid stuff, and Neria had harvested a flower she hoped very much was the right one.
"So," Daveth said with a grin as they set up camp. Neria had gone to collect kindling. "You and her, eh?"
"It's not right," Jory muttered. "I'm a married man."
"What d'you think's going to happen?" he asked. "Scared she's going to throw herself at you? Better take a look in the bloody mirror, mate."
Jory sniffed. "If my poor wife knew I was forced into close quarters with such a…creature."
Alistair was spared having to respond.
"Creature?" Daveth sneered. "Who the fuck are you calling a creature, you potato-faced arsehole? Stick with your knights if you're that particular with the company you keep. Once we're Wardens, we're Wardens. And if they only let in virgins we'd all be fucked. So to speak."
Jory gaped like a fish. Looking to Alistair for support and finding none, he stalked off across camp.
"That shut him up." Daveth waggled his brows at Alistair. "Spill it, then…is it true you have to do the you know what, to finish the you know what?"
Alistair ignored him, resolutely hammering tent pegs into the ground.
"Sex, I mean," he continued. "That's what I heard. But do you have to, like, keep doing it? What happens if you don't? Have you tried it? Like, what's the longest you've gone without doing it?"
"I am not having this conversation."
Daveth leaned in confidentially. "I knew this elf girl in Denerim -"
"Hands up who wants to hear about the elf girl Daveth knew in Denerim," Alistair said as he hammered in the last peg. "What's that? Nobody?"
"She'd let you do anything," Daveth continued, "long as you played with her ears. Mad for it, she was."
Alistair smashed his thumb with the mallet. "Shit."
"Yeah, with the elves most people think it's the pointy bit cos it's different, but the…" He frowned, tugging on the bottom of his ear.
"Lobe," he supplied reluctantly, and Daveth grinned.
"Yeah, the lobe! That's what you need to go for. Have you tried that?"
"Piss off," Alistair muttered.
"Well that could be a yes or a no. I could show you how it's done, if -"
"Enough," he growled. "You can stop talking about her like that. She's -"
"Yours," Daveth said with an eye roll. "We know."
"No," he said vehemently. "She's nobody's. She's her own person, and a Warden - or near enough - and she deserves your respect."
A branch cracked, and all three men looked up guiltily.
"Kindling," Neria said flatly. "It's damper than Andraste's armpit, but I should be able to get it going."
Between them she and Daveth brought down a pair of fowl, leaving himself and Jory to dress them. True to her word Neria soon had a small but strong fire burning, the birds were roasting on a greenwood spit and even Jory slowly warmed to her prickly charm. They ate with their fingers, laughing as they pulled scalding meat from the crispy carcasses.
And every now and then Alistair felt her eyes on him, watchfully assessing.
They staggered back from the Wilds the next evening, three vials of darkspawn blood and the ancient Grey Warden treaties in their possession.
"We should tell Duncan about Morrigan and her mother," Neria said.
"I suppose we should," he agreed, although he'd much rather have forgotten the whole episode.
"I need to get this to the kennels, but I'll join you in a minute."
"Do," he said. "I think Duncan might want to go ahead with the Joining tonight."
"Oh." She twirled the flower in her hand. "So soon?"
"I thought you were impatient to discover the Wardens' secrets?"
"A bit," she admitted. "That was before I met darkspawn."
He felt absurdly guilty. "They do have a way of taking the glow off things."
"Still, I suppose I'd be worse off without them." Her smile was a crooked, uncertain thing and it made his heart skip. "Alistair?"
"Are you…staring at my ear?"
"What? No! Why would I - nooo."
Was that…was that a wink? Surely not.
"Pull yourself together, Alistair," he muttered as she walked away.
"Stop looking at her arse, mate," Daveth said with a smirk. "She deserves your respect."
"Maker's breath, I wasn't…I didn't…"
"Gotcha." The pickpocket gave him a friendly elbow. "Good woman, that. Rather have her on my side than not."
Alistair couldn't hide his foolish smile as he watched her solemnly offer the flower to the kennel master. "I know what you mean."
The other man grinned. "You, me, her and Ser Potato. What a team, eh?"
"Yes," he said quietly. "What a team."
Two souls to the Maker, and one to the Wardens.
It had been a grim and bloody evening. Neria had said little since coming round after her Joining: she shivered, she stared blankly, and every now and then she would scratch at her arms as if she could feel the Taint crawling beneath her skin.
Even being made to attend the war council with Loghain didn't shake her from her stupor. Alistair had watched him like a hawk; only once had he come close enough to her to say something. She had looked straight through him.
"What did he say?" Alistair asked her later, and she shrugged.
"I wasn't listening."
The bulk of the horde was on the move, and they had their instructions. While it rankled Alistair to think he would be far from his brothers on the battlefield, he was selfishly glad that Neria would be safe.
He watched her finally sleeping. It seemed, if possible, even less peaceful than usual. He could recall the nightmares that had plagued him after his Joining. They had been more bearable than the lyrium withdrawal, but still brutal.
Exhaustion had him follow her into sleep before long. He dreamed of white, staring eyes, of drawn steel and the spray of blood, of a chalice clattering on the flagstones.
It was impossible to know how long he spent dreaming, or what jolted him awake. Neria had worked her way free of the blankets and was lying at the far edge of the pallet, her body outlined in the soft glow of an outside brazier.
He sighed. Nothing protected her from the cold, save the long woollen stockings she had worn under her robes and her tunic, which had ridden up to the tops of her thighs. He shuffled closer, bringing the blankets with him, and hesitantly reached to tug her hem down.
"Alistair?" Her voice, thick with sleep - or tears? - startled him; in the near-dark he hadn't seen her eyes open.
They glinted now, faintly. She caught his hand as he drew back. Placed it, with deliberate care, onto her bare thigh.
Perhaps it was still a dream, because he wasn't entirely sure how she came to be pressed against him, her face buried in his neck and his fingers dragging up beneath the tunic, skimming over the bare skin of her back. They came together in a haze of grief and lust, a confusion of limbs and hands and ragged, laboured breath.
More, his body cried as his thigh slipped between her legs, more as he rolled to pin her beneath him, grinding mindlessly against her hips. His hands caught her wrists, his open mouth sought her neck, finding soft skin and cold, tangy steel.
He froze. Beneath him she strained and moaned still, but everything seemed turned on its head. Was she seeking contact, or escape? What would he see in her eyes, if it weren't so dark?
Alistair wracked his memory. Was there something he'd said, tonight or at any time since the Claiming, to force her to want him? He'd been so careful, but a slip of the tongue had found him in trouble before.
He released her and, cursing the ache in his cock that begged him otherwise, put distance between them.
"It's not right," he said. "I can't…I can't."
Neria was perfectly still and silent. Then with a muffled curse, she made for the tent door.
"Where are you going?"
His only answer was a cold breeze that flapped the canvas.
"You'll freeze," he called after her, adding as an afterthought, "It's not safe!" Grabbing the blanket, he sprung out after her.
He finally found her by a low wall overlooking the valley. With her dark stockings and dark hair she was little more than a smudge on the edge of the torchlight, resolving as he came closer. The thin shoulders, the arms wrapped tightly around herself, every line of her body speaking of a silent pain.
Neria died on his lips. He had meant to wrap the blanket around her shoulders but instead he felt it dropping from his fingers and then he was wrapped around her, pressing his own warmth into her skin.
"I'm sorry," he murmured into her hair. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"If you don't want me -" she began.
Alistair turned her around and dragged her hips against him; there could be no confusion about want. "I don't know what I'm doing," he confessed. "When I'm around you I feel like my head's going to explode."
His hands had taken on a mind of their own again; they followed the curve of her arse and lifted her onto her toes with a squeak, making her clutch onto his arms for purchase.
"It seems like you know exactly what you're doing," she gasped as he backed them up to the wall. Her nipples pressed hard as pebbles against his chest and he drew back to stare, his tongue running across his teeth as he imagined bending down and putting his mouth over one of those stiff little peaks. Only a bit of fabric kept him from cupping her breasts in his hands the way he'd wanted to the first time; that, and a lingering shame.
"I'm afraid of making you do something you don't want," he whispered. "If I say the wrong thing…"
She followed the direction of his gaze. "Then don't say anything." Her hand guided his to her breast.
"That's hard for me, if you hadn't noticed -"
"Shh." Her finger touched his lips; she made a low sound of surprise as he drew it into his mouth and ran his tongue around the tip. "See? You know what you're doing."
In that moment, he did. He circled her nipple with his thumb then, unsatisfied, slipped his hand beneath her tunic and up until her warm flesh lay nestled in his palm, the scrape of his thumbnail against the peak of her breast making her breath catch.
Warm... "Are you using magic?"
"It's cold. I can cast in service of the Wardens, and since I'm out here servicing a Warden…"
"Don't do that." The moment had soured, but not enough to keep him from stroking her taut nipple with a near-obsessive fervour. "Don't make it sound like…"
"It is what it is, Alistair." When her hips rolled against his, he had trouble remembering why he had protested in the first place. When she guided his other hand between her legs and he felt the damp warmth radiating from her core, he had trouble remembering anything at all. "We watched two men die today and I don't even know why. Let's take what we can get, when we can get it."
Alistair buried his face in her neck. "This bloody collar." A couple of strong tugs brought her smallclothes down to her thighs; she did the rest. "I just want…"
"You have to tell me." He could hardly tell if it was deliberate, but his voice took on the rough pitch of a Command. "If there's anything you don't want, truly don’t want, tell me."
Wordlessly, Neria reached down and freed his erection; she guided his member between her legs, gasping when the tip nudged against her entrance.
Unable to wait any longer, he eased inside her. It hadn't been his imagination then, the feeling he'd had the first time they joined; of completion, two halves of a whole coming together. If he could have climbed inside her skin in that moment, he would have.
Instead he took her hard and slow. Dimly he registered how she clutched at his neck with each thrust, how her inner walls tightened hungrily each time he withdrew.
The glow of dawn appeared behind the mountains - had it been so long since nightfall? Her breath mingled with his, her mouth so close, so close -
I will kiss you, he promised. Not here, not now, but I will.
"Turn around." It wasn't a Command but she obeyed without question, bracing her hands on the low wall while he wrapped an arm around her waist.
He took her again in a single, smooth stroke. Each snap of his hips drove her onto her toes and dragged a reedy gasp from her throat, the muffled slap of their skin seeming obscenely loud on the still air.
His end was building. He felt it in the trembling of his legs and the sharp, delicious ache that made him chase his pleasure deeper, harder…
Clumsy fingers sought the apex of her sex; rough lips dragged down the shell of her ear and closed over the lobe and she buckled, clenching around him. He followed without thought, shaking with the force of his orgasm as he spilled deep inside her. He buried his face in the hollow of her neck, trying to ignore the cool steel of the Claiming collar.
"Oh fuck," he thought he heard her whisper as she gathered her senses, her head bowed. Then, "Fuck. Alistair!"
"I know," he groaned.
"No." She tugged urgently at his shoulder. "Look!"
Across the valley the orange glow had intensified: now it flickered with the light of a thousand, ten thousand torches. Not dawn.
The horde approached.
Chapter 13: Interlude
Morrigan carried an awareness of Flemeth in much the same way a wolf might track the movements of a giant spider: not driven to seek a fight, but ready to strike back should the need arise. An ancient, primitive part of her brain told her to ready herself for that day.
Such it was that when the old woman sat up in bed - her daughter was unconvinced that she ever truly slept - Morrigan was awake as well, killing magic coiled behind the skin of her fingers.
"Up, girl," Flemeth rasped, her gnarled feet already upon the floor. "We will need poultices and bandages. Ready yourself to be useful, if you can."
So, the horde approached Ostagar. "Are we to be a field hospital, then? Shall I ready beds for the entire army?"
"No." The witch paused in the doorway, her mouth set in a thin line and her eyes focused on something far away. "Only two."
Where are we to sleep, then? was on the tip of Morrigan's tongue. But the door slammed, there was a ripple in the Veil and the slow beat of leathery wings, and Flemeth was gone.
In Antiva City, an elf staggered from a dockside tavern. His clothes reeked of rum and fish stew, of blood and bile and regret.
"This isn't a good look," his companion said as he let gravity do its work, ending in a heap against the piss-reeking wall. "Drinking won't undo the past."
"Perhaps," he slurred, "I am content to undo the present."
The other man was unimpressed. "Keep picking fights in this state and you'll undo the future." He hauled the elf up by his collar. "Sleep it off and we'll check in for jobs in the morning. There're better ways to kill yourself."
In Lothering a young woman awoke, sweat already beginning to chill beneath her thin blankets and a too-vivid dream seared on her memory.
All around her sounded the slow breath of slumbering Chantry sisters; the only light came from a fire slowly dying in the grate. She lay still, breathing in the familiar scent of incense and sweet-smelling rushes, and knew that the sanctuary she had found for herself would no longer be her home.
A warrior looked down at the bodies he had broken with his own hands, and for the first time in memory, he wept.
Far beneath the earth, a dwarf drank himself senseless. This night was unremarkable.
Stony eyes watched flocks of birds rise and flee in panic to the west. Good.
Wynne stood resolute against the growing horde, spirit energy hurtling from her staff. Maker be merciful, the Circle hadn't prepared her for this. Nothing had prepared her for this.
Duncan clawed towards his dagger. He could feel his pelvis shattered; retreat was not an option now, if ever it had been. King Cailan's body lay not far away, a broken doll with limbs splayed in all the wrong directions.
The signal fire went up. He clung to that knowledge, when all else was lost. Whatever had delayed them, Alistair and Neria had lived long enough to light the beacon. Hope remained.
Be good to him, he pleaded silently as a hurlock approached. Trust him, and you will not let each other down. The creature grinned an awful grin; lifted its weapon to swing.
I am sorry, he offered to friends too long unseen. I tried.
All was silent.
The dog pawed desperately at his face; the air smelled wrong, of iron and fear and the frightful decay that had killed his person, had left him sick and weak.
"Here." Care-man, the one who had brought him the bitter-plant that healed. He had brought it, but the dog had caught the scent of Sorrow-elf on its bruised petals. "Quick, come here."
The dog complied, surprised at the renewed energy in his stocky limbs. Care-man knelt to undo his muzzle. "Get out of here, boy," he rasped. "It's done."
The dog whined. Where was Sorrow-elf? He could not scent her nearby.
"Go!" the man shouted. He stank of fear, eyes more white than not. "It's lost here. Go find her."
He whined; gave the man's hand a grateful lick. There, on the wind - was it Dragon-blood-man? He didn't like him quite as well but where he went, she went, and he was easier to track.
Nose to the ground, the dog went to find his new person.
In the Tower of Ishal, Neria winced as she rolled over. She met the blank, staring eyes of the soldier - they hadn't even caught his name - his breastplate caved in by the ogre's punch. Somewhere the mage lay. She had known him by sight, if not by name; one of those that had been her comrade until not. Now he was little more than a pile of broken twigs.
Alistair. He had been alive when she lit the beacon, alive as far as she knew when she had blacked out, despite being shaken like a rag doll. He must be alive - she was in too much pain to be dead. On hands and knees she shuffled across the flagstones.
"Neria?" He didn't look well. Blue around the mouth, a wet rattle to his breathing. She collapsed across his chest and poured what little healing magic she had into him. "Stop," he croaked. "Save something for yourself."
"You die, I die." It was the most she could manage.
"I'm sorry." Each breath brought him pain; she did her best to ease it. "It's not fair to you to end like this. I'd have let you go if I knew how."
"I know." The edges of her vision had begun to blur. "You're a good man," she breathed. "Pray we don't survive, I'll deny ever having said it."
"I'll pray to hear you deny it." His arm went around her; she didn't mind.
Everything she had, she poured into him. It might be enough. Maker knew, she had nothing to lose. She kept going until everything swam black, until she imagined the walls crumbling and the hot wash of sulphur on the air. Then everything went blank.