Chapter Twelve: The Hearts of Those Just Passing Through
The dreams came with icy fingers, wrapping around his throat and his heart.
Darkness so deep that the sullen light from the molten rock was the blazing heart of a star, fierce heat, the smell of organic rot and of the fumes rising from the melted stone. Moving. All of them moving—to the surface, to where the wind blew cold, to where life choked every surface. Hunger, constant hunger.
And the call.
So thin, so sweet, it called and they moved toward it, digging digging digging, it loves us it needs us we will free it it will not fall we must have it we must we must—
The flesh-things screamed. Feed them. Feed them our blood, our bones, use them use them, choose one to become, as they all must become, to become the Great and the Sacred and the Beautiful, down here in the heated tunneled darkness of the stone. Mother is a sweet madness, Mother is all around, Mother is the word for the Sacred and they must worship, all must worship, all—
Wrenching himself out of the dream, Jowan sat straight up in his bed, drenched with sweat that had nothing to do with the sultry late summer air. It took a long few minutes for his heartbeat to stop racing, to shake off the madness that seemed to cling to him. Just a dream.
But even when he had first begun to study forbidden magic in the Tower, the dreams of blood had not left him feeling this—filthy. His skin crawled.
He forced himself to get up and pull on some clothing. He scratched at his beard after he pulled on his shirt, then sighed and opened the door of his room, moving quietly. He didn't know what he was going to do, but all he knew was that he needed to be out. He could take a walk; there were brothels where he could spend a pair of silver for a bath, even if he didn't intend to partake of the company.
But rather than the quiet darkness he expected in the main room of the rickety apartment, there was a soft light next to the window. Kathil sat in a chair, a silent, violet-tinged light dancing over her knuckles. Her eyes were intent on the image that the light was creating: a dragon, steel scales shining, changing shape to a woman whose long hair wrapped around her like a cloak, obscuring all but a few curves, her face hidden in her hands. "Bad dreams?" she asked, not taking her gaze off of the little illusion she held in her hands.
"You warned me about them, but...I feel so—"
"Like all you are has been stained irrevocably?" She raised one hand a little, made an adjustment to her image. "Like there's dirt ground into your soul?"
He nodded in recognition and went to claim the other chair, sitting down gingerly. "You did warn me."
"It gets better," she said. "I only have the dreams a few times a season now." Kathil still wasn't looking at him, and the peace between them felt as fragile as the hour before dawn. "Before the Archdemon died, I was dreaming every night." She frowned critically at her little image. "It's still not quite right."
"What is it for?" he asked before he could stop himself. "The image, I mean."
She finally lifted her gaze to meet his eyes. "It's not for anything. Sometimes, I like to think there are things in the world that exist just because they're pretty, or they make people laugh." She returned her attention to the image. "I was dreaming, too. Cullen doesn't have as much trouble with the dreams as most. I think it's got something to do with his lyrium habit. I didn't want to wake him, so I got up." She glanced at him sidelong. "If both of us are dreaming, it probably means there's a darkspawn cell approaching Denerim. We should be prepared for trouble on the road."
He nodded, and the two of them fell into silence for a few minutes. Jowan's sense of being covered in filth was beginning to subside, though his stomach was twisting with hunger and that strange dismay he always felt when he got too close to his old friend. He watched the little dragon in her hands shake out its wings, opening its mouth in a silent roar. Then it was a woman once more, her long hair spreading over her crouched body , every line etched in suffering. Dragon, woman, dragon; he thought there might be a message there but damned if he could understand it.
So many questions. Too many questions. What happened to you, Kathil?
Her head jerked up, and he realized with a twist of his heart that he'd just spoken aloud.
Just for an instant, she was vulnerable, a look in her eyes that stripped his soul bare. Then pain crashed in, and she turned her face away from him. "You are not the only one who has—transgressed." Her voice was cold. "We survive, you and I." She closed her hands around the illusion, extinguishing its light.
She was a pale shape in the darkness as she rose and crossed the room. Without another word, she vanished into Cullen's room, leaving Jowan alone.
For a moment, he simply sat in the silence she left behind. Then he gestured at the lamp and a spark flew from his fingertips, lighting the wick. Tomorrow, they would leave for the Tower. Maybe after whatever might be done about that mess had been accomplished and Irving and Greagoir had finished having entire litters of kittens about outside interference in their affairs, he'd be able to convince Kathil to let him go ahead to Amaranthine instead of whatever else she had planned for the winter. There were a few places in Ferelden that it was unwise for him to spend much time near, and he'd overheard her mention Redcliffe when she'd been discussing travel plans. If she were planning on spending the winter there, it would be prudent for him to be elsewhere.
Blood sang its song in his ears, and he gathered his will, steeling himself and forcing his attention away from it. Tomorrow would come, and perhaps in the Tower he would find a piece of what he sought. Maybe this was some strange penance he was serving, forced to watch how unpleasant and twisted his fellow mage, the woman he had thought of as a hero, had become.
Maybe this was one of the laws of power, how it changed everything it touched.
He would witness, and remember.
Some day, she would live somewhere where she could own more possessions than she could fit into a pack.
That day was not today, though. She rolled up the set of formal mage robes she'd been getting a lot of wear out of this summer, and fitted it into the side of her pack atop the books and notes she was taking with her to the Tower and then to Amaranthine. Packing like this was second nature at this point; not counting the months she had spent in the Tower, she had been on the road for four years now. Everything in her packs had a place and a purpose.
"Are you almost done, little bird?" she heard Zevran ask from across the room, where he was buckling shut his own pack. "Or will you need to unpack and repack a few more times?"
Kathil grabbed the last few things from the cupboard—the box that held her writing implements and her very few sentimental possessions—and stashed it at the top of the pack. "Done, done," she said. "I could probably pack everything a little bit better, but it'll do for now."
"One would almost think you did not wish to leave. " He smiled at her, and his voice was gently teasing. "Not looking forward to what you're going to find in the Tower?"
She grimaced. "Not especially. But it'll do us all good to get out of Denerim." It had been a tense few weeks, harboring Jowan as a secret among them. Kathil could scarcely believe that they had managed to get this far without his presence being uncovered. There were only a few more hours left before they could leave Denerim behind.
"Let's go up to the palace," she said. "We have to come back to get Jowan anyway, and Cullen's already up there." She was startled to hear her voice trembling.
It was just so strange that the summer was over and it was time to leave. Despite everything, they had achieved a fragile sort of peace in the last few weeks. She and Jowan ignored each other as much as they could. Her arrangement with Zevran and Cullen continued to grow and change; the three of them ended up in bed together every few days, and she continued to see them both separately as well. Kathil tried to stay out of politics as much as she could, and the nobles had largely turned their attention toward preparing to finish out the season and mostly elected to leave her alone. Even Rima was being—well, not pleasant, but at least civil. There had been no more ambushes.
Zevran was behind her, putting his arms around her and pulling her to his chest. "Will you miss this place?" he asked.
She closed her eyes and let herself take comfort in his presence. "A little," she said. "But it's time for us to be gone." She wriggled in his arms, and turned so she could kiss him, letting her lips linger on his. "Let's go before I get distracted, Zev."
He chuckled and let her go, and together they left, heading for the palace. They guards waved the two of them past the gates, and through to the Hall of the Landsmeet, where Alistair and Rima were currently holding one of the last full courts of the summer.
Kathil felt a bit underdressed as they slipped through the crowd; in their functional but drab traveling clothes, the nobles in their bright colors outshone them easily. She nodded to many people as they worked their way to the front in search of Leliana; Eamon and Isolde were standing on one of the two high platforms that ran down either side of the hall.
They found Leliana near the front of that platform, watching the King and Princess Consort speak to each noble in turn. Kathil slipped her body under the bard's arm, rubbing her cheek against Leliana's shoulder like a cat. "I am going to miss you," she said. "Lei, are you sure you won't come with us?"
"I must be elsewhere, dearest, and Felelden is bad enough without snow all over everything," Leliana said fondly. "Zevran, you must take care of her, yes?"
"All that is within my power," Zevran said, and smiled. There was humor glinting in his eyes; he seemed to be glad that the day of departure had finally arrived. "Little bird, I believe you wanted a private word with Leliana? Or she wanted one with you."
"After you say goodbye to Alistair," Leliana said. "Go, Kathil. Meet me by the bailey when you're done." She squeezed Kathil gently and let her go.
"After you," Zevran said, gesturing.
Kathil quirked her mouth. "We go together, I think." She took his hand, entangling their fingers together. After a few months of these courts, she knew exactly how it worked—you caught the eye of the seneschal and he subtly directed you to a place in what might be called a line. Then, when your turn was up, he nodded to you and you proceeded.
But, really, had she ever gotten anything done by playing by the rules?
She waved at Alistair and came forward; she could tell that he was almost done speaking with the bann who had held his ear for the last quarter hour. "I apologize for interrupting, Bann Diarmid, but I have a matter of some urgency I need to discuss with their Majesties," she said, smiling at the man.
Diarmid, to his credit, agreed with a minimum of spluttering. "I actually just wanted to say goodbye," Kathil said to Alistair and Rima, pitching her voice low. "We're going to be leaving as soon as we can collect everyone together. I'll write when we get to Amaranthine."
Both monarchs nodded. Rima, Kathil noticed, had dark circles under her eyes, as if she hadn't been sleeping. "You'd better," Alistair said. "I expect the news from Amaranthine will be fascinating." He sat back a little and surveyed both of them. "Take care of yourselves, both of you, and that goes for Warden Cullen as well. And Lorn, and—Fiann? That is Cullen's Mabari, yes? Where are Cullen and the dogs, anyway?"
"Lorn is saying goodbye to Yvrenne," Kathil said. "Cullen is getting some last things from the kennel. The Tranquil who is going to the Tower with us is getting his dogs ready to travel. You may wish to increase the guard on Denerim's gates, Alistair. I believe there may be a darkspawn cell getting close."
"You always have the best news for me," Alistair said, the smile on his face belying his grousing tone. "Are you sure you don't want to take some men with you?"
"We'll be fine." She smiled at him, and at Rima, who was watching the two of them with a carefully neutral expression. "Thank you for your hospitality, both of you." She tightened her hand on Zevran's, and he moved just a little closer to her.
"Just don't go disappearing on us again, Kathil." Alistair fixed her with a look that might have been stern on any other face, but on him came off as mildly annoyed. "I mean it."
She fought the urge to roll her eyes. "I won't. I don't think Zevran or Cullen would let me, and I have...responsibilities that won't allow me to go running off."
Now Rima's gaze sharpened, and her stern look was much more effective than Alistair's. "Speaking of that responsibility, you will keep a very close watch on it, won't you?"
"With both eyes, you Majesty." I am not a complete incompetent, Princess Consort. But she did not say those words aloud; referring to Jowan in this mixed company at all was dangerous, and Kathil was very aware of Eamon and Isolde standing in the room. "All of us will."
They exchanged a few more awkward words, and finally she and Zevran bowed and took their leave. As they passed the high platform that the Guerrins were standing on, Kathil looked up at them. Isolde was gripping her husband's arm tightly. Eamon looked down on her and Zevran, and there was something cold in the way he held his mouth and how straight his back was. The old wolf stood ready for battle.
She nodded to the pair on the platform and quickened her stride, her mouth gone abruptly dry. "We'd better get out of Denerim before Eamon comes looking for us," she said to Zevran, keeping her voice low. "I can't imagine a chat between us will go very well right now."
Zevran chuckled. "Likely. Though I am sure it would be interesting to see whether or not he would actually try to kill you."
"Let's avoid the question altogether, shall we?" They reached the doors of the Hall of the Landsmeet, and passed through. "Maker's Balls. I had really hoped to make it out without Eamon finding out." She heard a familiar bark from down the hallway. "Sounds like Lorn is ready to go, at least. Do you have any idea what Leliana wanted to talk to me about?"
"Not a clue, my Grey Warden." But there was trouble lurking under Zevran's cheerful mien, and Kathil had the strange feeling that there was a storm about to break. He shook his head slightly, and she closed her mouth on any further questions. There were too many ears around, and not all of them friendly; and even those that were friendly could be dangerous.
When they reached the outer courtyard, it was full of what seemed like a thundering herd of Mabari. At least, it smelled like a thundering herd of Mabari. It was actually five adult dogs and Fiann, who capered among them, leaping at stubby tails and play-bowing to all and sundry. Lorn came up to Kathil, head held high. They were going? Going now?
"In a moment," she told him. "Where is Leliana? I thought she was going to meet us here."
Lorn cocked his head. The singer had gone. She had promised to bring back biscuits. Lots of biscuits.
"Don't ask me," Cullen said. "She said there was something—Fiann! No! Put that down!" He took off after the puppy, who had grabbed a bow someone had left leaning against the wall and was running away with it. The Tranquil who would be traveling with him, a man by the name of Shaw, watched from the center of the courtyard with emotionless eyes. Kathil fought not to shudder. She had never been easy with the Tranquil. The Templars were fierce and forbidding and deadly, but they were human. The Tranquil were the stuff of nightmares.
Lorn leaned against her legs, and she scratched him behind the ears. Zevran slung an arm around her shoulders, and she turned her face into his neck, breathing in his comforting, familiar scent. "I believe I'll take the liberty of convincing the kitchens to provide us with a meal before we leave," he said. "Our Chantry mouse should be back from her errand soon."
"You," she said, suspicion coloring her voice, "know more than you are telling."
His hand came up and slid along her jaw, lifting her chin so he could kiss her. "And when do I not, my Grey Warden?" he asked. "I will be only a moment. Try not to let the puppy tear down the palace while I am gone, yes?"
He kissed her again and then departed, heading toward the kitchen. Kathil sighed, the feeling of time slipping away nagging at her. Spend too much longer here and she would have Eamon in the courtyard with her, asking questions that she really did not want to have to answer.
She stepped into the center of the seething mass of Mabari, Lorn at her side. The other warhounds gave way to her and Lorn; evidently, the pack order had already been worked out. They would be able to leave soon.
And if she were lucky, she would not have to explain to a man she still thought of as a friend why she was harboring the person who had nearly destroyed him.
It was so easy to slip into the rundown building that her friends had called home for a few weeks without being either seen or heard.
So easy to slip up behind one shaggy-haired blood mage with his back turned toward the door.
So very easy to place a blade against his throat.
"I would like you to remember this moment," she said to Jowan as he stiffened, his breath hissing in. "Remember that there is always someone quieter than you, faster than you, and more willing to do violence to you than you are to them. Today, Jowan, that someone is me. If you move, or start to cast a spell, you will die. Understand?"
He nodded shallowly. "What—what do you want, Leliana?"
"I want you to listen to me, yes?" she said. She did not bother to blunt the sharp edge of her voice. "I know you. I have seen your kind before."
"Blood mages? We aren't all alike—"
She chuckled. "No. Selfish young men who think that there is a woman out there who will redeem them. Who will do so very many terrible things while they are waiting for her to come along and repair them and what they have broken." She felt him take a breath. "Do not argue with the woman who has a blade to your throat, Jowan. That is not what I wanted to talk to you about. I know you and Kathil have not been getting along. I wanted to make very clear the consequences of hurting her. Do any more damage than has already been done, and there is nowhere you can hide from me. Phylactery or no, I will hunt you down, and I will end your miserable life. Understand?"
"I think," he said in a voice that sounded more than a little strangled, "that Kathil can take care of herself."
"Of course she can," Leliana said. "But you did not travel with her for a year. You did not witness the decisions she had to make. And you have no idea what she has become. I do not believe anyone knows—least of all her. Do not finish the job of breaking her, Jowan. Chance may have shown you mercy, but I will not."
She did believe in mercy, but that mercy ended with darkspawn and those like them, who took without giving, who did not bother to fight the devouring hunger that was the end of all life. She remembered Teagan, made a foolish puppet by the whim of a desire demon. Remembered an offer made by the mad cultists in an ice-choked, ruined temple.
Remembered Kathil slipping away from them in those months after the Archdemon died until finally she had just disappeared. Remembered fear for her friend—and fear of her.
Jowan sagged. "Every time I talk to her, it goes…badly. It's best that I just keep my mouth shut."
"He does learn." She took the blade from his throat. "You will remember our little talk when you are tempted to pick at her, yes? Ah, and I brought you something." She reached into the bag she had slung over her shoulder and brought out a shallow box about a handspan long. "Shave the beard, Jowan," she said. "You do not yet have the dignity of spirit required to wear it."
He blinked but took the box from her, and Leliana smiled briefly and sheathed her blade. Without another word she turned and headed out; she needed to be back at the palace as soon as possible. She broke into a trot once she reached the street, her shoes scuffing in the packed dirt of the market district roads. She was grateful she was going to be gone from Ferelden before the rains came and turned that dirt into mud; one winter spent in this country was quite enough.
And, with the Maker's blessing, perhaps she had intimidated Jowan into behaving himself while she was off in Orlais and Tevinter.
She reached the palace gates and was waved through. Within the bailey, she stopped and inquired as to the whereabouts of the Grey Wardens. She was directed to one of the rooms just off the outer courtyard. "Leliana, my dove!" Zevran called as she stuck her head through the doorway. "You very nearly missed us."
There was a meal being brought, and Leliana grinned. Clever, Zevran. Very clever. "I would never," she said. "May I borrow Kathil for a bit?"
There was just the slightest suspicion on Zevran's face. "Only if you return her in one piece."
Kathil looked up from where she had been fussing over Lorn. "Zev, this is Leliana. She likes me in one piece." She scratched Lorn's ears and rose. "I'm all yours, at least until we have to leave. Which is soon. Eamon knows about the newest Grey Warden, it seems." She came over to Leliana, stepping over a Mabari who had fallen asleep between the tables and the door.
Leliana took her hand. "That is…unfortunate." She wondered who had told Eamon; she had planned to tell him, but only after Kathil was gone. Which means I need to do this quickly.
She pulled Kathil out into the courtyard and toward the wellhouse, the small stone building that protected the palace's well. It would be deserted this time of day, secure from prying eyes and ears, and Leliana had "borrowed" the key. Temporarily. She'd need to replace it before sunset.
The inside of the wellhouse was cool and dark, spiders occupying themselves in the shadowy corners with dusty silk. Leliana locked the door after them. Kathil was starting to look concerned, and she crossed her arms.
Those traveling clothes she was wearing had seen better days, trousers patched and one side of the shirt's hem ragged, everything vaguely stained and shabby-looking. It brought back memories of days both brighter and darker, how the mage would always pull out her needle and thread whenever there was something she really didn't want to talk to anyone about. "I have some questions," she said, and almost faltered.
You must do this. There is no one else who can.
Well. Two other people who could. One would not, and the other would make a bleeding mess of it if he tried. She steeled her resolve. "Kathil. What were you doing for the time you were gone?"
"I told you," the mage said, her dark eyes narrowing. "Traveling. Researching the old roads, and getting myself in trouble on them. Sleeping with other people's wives. You know, the usual."
"Not good enough, dearest." She cocked her head at her friend, firming her mouth. "We both know that is not the entire story."
"Isn't it?" Kathil's voice sharpened, and her face twisted, her scar pulling her mouth open slightly on that side of her face. "And why do you think that?"
"Because I know you." She stepped toward the mage until the space between them might have been crossed with barely a step, but came no closer. She reached for words with the bard's art, searching for the blade she needed to open the secret she could feel between them, ripe and round as a full moon. "I was there, after the Archdemon. I saw you slowly fading away from this world. I was there when you disappeared. I thought you had perhaps done something very foolish." She read the mage's sharp intake of breath, how she turned her face slightly to the side. "And you did, did you not? Though not the sort of foolish I initially thought. Tell me, Kathil. Tell me what you have done that you feel you must gather weapons to you once more."
Kathil's gaze met Leliana's, and the bard could see what Cullen meant when he said he could sometime see the Fade in the eyes of Mages. Something strange moved in those pupils, and the air in the wellhouse chilled. "Do you really want to know?"
The mage took a shuddering breath and turned away, stepping back, her head bowing toward her chest. "Do you know what I mean when I speak of old roads?" she asked, her voice quiet.
Leliana shook her head. "Only what you have told me."
"They were a specialty of certain Tevinter mages, who learned of their existence from an order of mages that are not even a memory of a rumor, now." Kathil was not looking at her, instead fixing her gaze on the stones of the wall. "We know them now as places where the Fade and this world overlap, where the Veil is very thin. They are created in places where many souls have crossed from life to death, especially when there is both pain and magic involved. Battlefields. Torture chambers. Hospices. Remember the Brecilian Forest, how haunted it felt? The entire place is an old road. Anyway, the study of old roads is a forbidden one, and for good reason."
"Because things linger on the old roads," Leliana said.
"That and more." Kathil took a shuddering breath. "Lei…do you know what it was I killed, when I put a sword through the Archdemon's neck? Urthemiel was a god of beauty, worshipped by musicians and poets. It passed through me. Everything it used to be. Everything it became. There is a reason that we are usually obliterated when we kill an Archdemon. Mortals are not built to withstand what pours into and through us, when the soul of an Old God is liberated from its body." She took a shallow breath. "So I went in search of the old roads, telling myself I was looking for Morrigan. I walked in the footsteps of the Tevinter magisters. I sought to understand what they understood, to see what they saw, to feel what they felt. "
"You sought the Black City." Leliana felt a sort of numb horror stealing fingers around her heart. "Maker's Breath."
"I thought that perhaps I could make it all make sense. If I laid my hands on the stones of the Black City, maybe I could understand this…thing I had inside of me." Kathil shook her head. "Instead, I found the presences on the old roads, the wild things that linger on the paths. I bargained with some of them. They asked so little in return for their power, for spells that haven't been cast by mortals in centuries or millennia. Drops of blood. Strands of hair. Tears. Sweat."
The air was so cold in here now that Leliana's breath was visible as she spoke. She tried not to shiver. Oh, dearest, what have you done? "Why would they want those things?"
The mage pressed her lips together so firmly that they went pale. "A connection to the mortal world. A connection to me. I am a mage, and a Grey Warden. I am of this world, of the Fade, of the darkspawn, and I have been touched by the soul of an Old God. I am a bridge, Leliana. And some day, one or more of the presences are likely going to decide to cross over. If I am very lucky, they will lose track of time and forget that I am mortal. I believe the power of what I have given them will fade with my death. It's a small hope, at least."
Leliana stared at her friend, her mind whirling. Suddenly, Kathil's claiming of Cullen as her personal Templar made so much sense. As did the fact that she felt the need to seal the Templar to her in every way she could think of. "So you gird yourself for war."
"Again. Always. I know I have never been a very good friend, Lei. I wish—" She broke off, and shook her head. "I wish I could be something other than I am. After the Joining I stood at where all of the Warden candidates died, after Alistair married Rima, after Wynne passed…it was too much. So I ran, and found something worse than death." She touched her shoulder, the scarred one. "Wynne is still there in the Fade, I think, or something like her. I've seen her a few times. The last time...she said that the nightmares are attracted to those who are like them." The hand on her shoulder clenched, digging into fabric and flesh beneath. "I don't know exactly what she meant, but I can guess."
All of this was a bit much to absorb. "Wynne is still in the Fade?" Lelianna asked, dismayed.
"I—I just don't know, Lei." The mage's jaw clenched. "It might be her. It might be just the spirit that saved her. Whatever it is, it is powerful. She saved me, twice. First when I was Fade-struck in the Tower, and then on the battlefield, in Waking Sea." She shook her head. "Why choose now to press me on this? When I am about to leave—oh. I see, I think."
"I needed to know." She gentled her voice. Asking for any more details now would be counterproductive, and she had what she needed. "And I needed you to be free to leave Denerim if pressing you on the topic led to unforeseen consequences, yes?"
"You mean Cullen and Zevran needed to be free to chase me if I ran," Kathil said, and turned her face towards Leliana. "Lei, I've mentioned that you play very wicked games, haven't I?"
"Occasionally." The air was warming again, though there was still that strange movement in the mage's eyes. "Come here, dearest," she said, and opened her arms.
Kathil hesitated, and then stepped into Leliana's embrace. She was as cold as moonlight in her arms. "I'm going to miss you," the mage said, her voice soft. "Stay safe out there."
Leliana rested her forehead against her friend's. "I will," she said, and one of her hands gently stroked Kathil's back. She almost heard what was between them come back into harmony, a chord played on a harp without strings. "You, too. We will see each other again, Kathil. I promise."
The mage sighed, and her body relaxed against Leliana's. "We'd better."
And if this were any other life, and if this mage were any other woman, Leliana would have kissed her then. She was tempted, still. Tempted to forget for a moment everything that had come before, tempted to forget the promise she had made herself years before.
No more broken women. Not after Marjolaine and what she had done.
Instead, she let Kathil go. "Time for you to go, dearest," she said. "I will see you to the gate, yes? And head off Eamon, should we see him." She turned to unlock the door, pretending not to see the mage swipe the back of her hand across her eyes.
A few minutes later, the palace gates were closing between Leliana and her friends. Zevran had looked relieved to see them return none the worse for wear; she had rather strong-armed him into cooperating with her in today's venture. It had needed to be done—both parts—and Zevran by his nature would never push Kathil like Leliana would. Alistair would, but he was in no position to do so. And Cullen and Kathil were still far too new to each other.
Jowan would, but with any luck Leliana's interference would make sure that he did not—at least for a time.
She shivered, thinking of what Kathil had told her. The combination of those two mages might be much worse than she had originally thought. She almost wished she could stay. It might be worth suffering through a Fereldan winter, to keep those two as far apart as she could manage.
Not worth possibly losing the trail of the one she was after, however. Kathil and Jowan destroying the south in a misguided attempt to redeem themselves was only a possibility. Tevinter meddling in things it ought to have learned long ago to leave alone was a reality that must be taken care of.
So she turned away from the gates and went into the palace, letting her friends leave, wishing them well.
And hoping that whatever they got up to, it would not end so very badly.
Their departure from Denerim was far quieter than their arrival.
All things considered, not a bad thing at all. He watched his Grey Warden carefully as they walked from the palace to the rooms they were about to vacate. She seemed subdued; not about to explode anything or perhaps to tear the fabric of reality into shreds. It was far better than he had feared. Leliana liked to take those calculated risks, which he usually approved of; however, playing dice with the souls of Grey Wardens was a bit rich for his blood.
But the bard wielded guilt and reason like the finest blades; guilt had worked on Cullen and reason had worked on Zevran, and both of them had agreed to let Leliana push Kathil a bit. That there had not been any explosions yet did not mean there would be none at all.
When they reached the rooms to pick up their bags and Jowan, a surprise was waiting for them. Jowan, while they had been gone, had availed himself of a razor. Gone was the unruly beard, and in its place was a hard, pale jaw. He looked at once much more like the young man that Zevran had first met in the basement of Redcliffe Castle, and far less. There were scars on his cheek and jaw that the beard had hidden. Zevran remembered cuts on the blood mage's face, a black eye and split lip. The Redcliffe guards had not treated him with kindness.
"Now there's a face I remember," Cullen muttered when he saw Jowan. "Unfortunately."
Kathil was settling her swordbelt on her waist, twisting the hilt of her sword just so. "Let's get moving," she said. "I want to be well away from Denerim by nightfall. I'm afraid we're walking, gentlemen."
"That is nothing new," Zevran replied, and handed her the pack. "I believe my boots have been on every road Ferelden owns."
"And I'm betting we'll run into darkspawn between here and the Tower. I won't take horses with us if all we're doing is feeding them good horseflesh." She shrugged her pack on. "Let's get out of this damned city."
He could not have agreed more.
So they walked, a pack of warhounds pacing around them, the Tranquil mage Shaw at their back, Cullen falling into his usual place at Kathil's shoulder, Zevran on her other side. Even the most daring inhabitants of the market district kept their distance. Jowan kept his distance from all of them, pulling his shapeless hat down low over his eyes.
There go the Grey Wardens, voices whispered, the wind bringing the words to his ear. The Hero of Ferelden, in the flesh. Funny, I thought she would be taller.
If they only knew.
They passed through the gates and out into the farmland beyond without incident. Fiann ran ahead of them, darting back and forth with the inexhaustible energy of puppyhood. She picked up rocks and tossed them into the air, took off barking after rabbits, carried sticks around like trophies. The adult Mabari with them viewed the pup's antics with amused tolerance.
On the road once more, with the sky above them and so many fewer watchers to be aware of. He stretched out his legs, and Kathil lengthened her stride to match. "What do you think? A week if we dawdle and kill some darkspawn along the way?" she asked.
"At least," he said, then smiled. "And perhaps that woman of Oghren's is still working at the Spoiled Princess, yes? Perhaps she will help us talk the innkeep into letting us purchase some of the liquor he keeps in the locked cabinets in the basement."
She poked his shoulder with a thin finger. "I've had some of that stuff. It's awful."
"But it is a different sort of awful than the usual, no? Just like being on the road again."
"Rocks under our bedrolls, having to suffer your cooking—"
"It is better than yours," he pointed out. "Or Cullen's."
His Grey Warden grimaced. "So very true. Cold nights, waking up with soaked blankets because fog's rolled in overnight, wet socks, Mabari slobber on everything. Oh, and don't forget blisters. But—" and here she looked sidelong at him, and there was a light in her dark eyes— "there are compensations."
There were, there always were, and he found that he did not have a regret in the world in that moment.
Now this is a proper pack.
They are traveling again, towards his territory (though not his territory for long, his human has told him; instead there will be a new territory, another place made of stone, this one probably not quite so tall but he is sure it will be just as fine) and this time they have more Mabari than humans with them. Beside him, Jeseth hulks along; he is the largest of them, an enforcer sharp of eye and long of tooth. It is his yielding which gave Lorn his place in this pack, alpha as his human is alpha, as his human has always been alpha.
There are darkspawn ahead, as well, and that too is a fine thing. He will show Fiann what it is to be a warhound, to properly rend and tear. She is small yet and her teeth are stubby, but her heart is already fierce. He smells warm metal, cured leather, those with them—mouse-mage, his human's elf, her dust-knight, the human who smells of still water and scorched skin. Crow feathers on the wind, a small slow-running brook choked with weeds, somewhere a dead rat swelling in the sun.
And his human and her smells of lightning and hunger and ice, and something new under all of that, something small. A smell of change.
A smell something like Yvrenne, when he first met her.
His human is carrying pups. Well, one pup; such he has determined is the way of the two-legged, in his opinion highly inefficient. It is a new smell, a very small smell; if he did not know his human so very well he would never have noticed it.
Another pup to teach the proper way of the world! He lifts his head with pride and lets his tongue loll. He will teach it all about kitchens, and darkspawn, and all of the other important things in the world.
He picks up the pace as another scent reaches his nose. They are downwind of darkspawn. He gives a bark of warning and lopes forward.
He hears his human's voice and feels her magic gather, and together they are running towards what waits for them, fierce and fearless and always, always together.
Fear not the wind of wasting
its howling is not for you
It's only an echo now within
the hearts of those just passing through
(Beauty is lost in translation
no savoring what is devoured
All of us burned down to hunger
our glory gone)
—SJ Tucker, "City of Marrow"
Here ends Unstrung Harmonies, Part Three of Old Roads.
And this installment finishes "Unstrung Harmonies"! Next up will be "Quiet Foxes"; look for the first few chapters of that in a couple of weeks. (I'm working on another writing project, one with an Actual Deadline, so this story is taking a back seat to that while I work on it.)
This series now has a title—it's called "Old Roads". I'll be changing the other installment titles to reflect this. (I swear I started out writing a one-shot...)
While I was writing this chapter, the Awakenings expansion was announced, which means I have a dilemma on my hands—I meant to write this series without approaching Bioware's official continuity, but they appear to have gotten ahead of me. (Evil people!) Fortunately, it is likely to take me a while to write "Quiet Foxes", the next installment; there is a distinct possibility that by the time I get to "Pitiless Games", the Amaranthine installment, either Awakenings will be out or I'll have been able to glean enough information about the plot to be able to write around it.
Thank you all for reading, and for being patient!
Just in case anyone is curious about the music I've written this series to, below I've written down the playlist for "Old Roads".
Old Roads: a playlist for a mage's path
Within Without - Over the Rhine (Zevran's theme)
White Light - Vienna Teng
Disarm - Smashing Pumpkins
Enter the Korcari Wilds - DA:O Soundtrack
The World Can Wait - Over the Rhine
Augustine - Vienna Teng (Cullen's theme)
Winterborn - The Cruxshadows (Kathil's theme)
Blood Makes Noise - Suzanne Vega (Jowan's theme)
Twa Corbies - Steeleye Span
Stray Italian Greyhound - Vienna Teng
Dirty Little Secret - Gaia Consort
Recessional - Vienna Teng (Lelianna's theme)
Capitan Wedderburn - Great Big Sea
This Is War - 30 Seconds to Mars
Maps - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Antebellum - Vienna Teng (Alistair's theme)
Lelianna's Song - DA:O Soundtrack
City of Marrow - S.J. Tucker (Black City theme)