Sixteen: A Thing That Wolves Fear
"I think it is difficult, to be made to be a thing that wolves fear."
Their daughter was born at the end of a fierce spring storm, arriving just as the winds calmed and all was still.
He'd been with Kathil through so many battles, spent so much time waiting for Wynne to reassemble her into something resembling a mage. This was a different kind of battle, and he didn't know precisely what to do.
Fortunately, Ilse had things well in hand. "Jowan, heat some water. Blood temperature, no hotter. You two, hold her hands. It's not going to be long." The midwife's face was drawn with fatigue; they had all been awake for over a day. Kathil was narrow-hipped, and her labor had been difficult.
Ilse and Ser Rylock had arrived about a month ago, and had settled in more or less to stay. The Templar was decidedly unhappy about being here. She'd made herself scarce once Kathil's labor had gotten genuinely underway, Zevran noted absently.
Lorn sat next to the bed; Fiann paced worriedly in the hall. Zevran stepped around the Mabari, receiving only a flick of an ear in acknowledgement of his presence. The dog's full attention was on his mistress. Zevran pulled up a stool to one side of the bed, and Cullen did the same on the other side. They were in one of the larger rooms near the kitchen, close enough that they could hear the howling of the wind in the tree hall. Kathil was soaked with sweat, and she darted her eyes over to Zevran. "I hear—this is almost over—" She swallowed, and licked her lips. Dark circles beneath her eyes stood out against her reddened skin.
"A little more, mi alma. Do you need anything?"
She closed her eyes and put her head back against the pillow briefly. "Someone else to be doing this for me? Maker's Breath—"
He took one of her hands in both of his, and felt her hand clench on his. "Good," Ilse said. "Kathil, you must push, now."
Kathil nodded, and he felt more than heard her breath catch in her throat. Zevran exchanged a glance with Cullen as a sound emanated from Kathil, a low groan that seemed to come from deep within her. Lorn whined.
"I can see the head," Ilse called. "Good, my girl, good. One or two more, just like that."
Kathil caught her breath and her jaw clenched. Zevran could barely breathe. The walls were so close, the edges of his vision darkening—
"Breathe, Zevran," Cullen hissed. Startled, he straightened and gulped air. And would it not be ironic that it would be the assassin who faints?
Kathil's eyes flew open, and her back arched.
Lightning played across her body, and Ilse gave a wordless cry. Kathil's pupils—he couldn't see them for the movement within them, the waters of the Fade shifting. A shadow fell over the room, the lamps dimming. He looked at Cullen, mouthing, do something.
Without taking his eyes off of Kathil's face, the Templar shook his head. Wait.
The lighting playing over Kathil's skin sent sparkling pain up Zevran's bare arms. Heedless of the danger, he leaned over and put his lips close to her ear. "A little more, my Grey Warden. My love. My Kathil. Mi alma. Remember. Remember. Remember—"
She closed her eyes, and the lightning snuffed as if it had never been. Her grip on his hand redoubled, and he heard a stifled sound from Cullen. Her lips moved as if in prayer, though it might as easily been a string of silent obscenities.
She writhed, and there was a sharp sound from the end of the bed. "There!" And then, a sound—
A thin wail that quickly grew into a lusty cry, a child protesting at this large and cold world that it suddenly found itself in. "A girl," Ilse said. "Hale and hearty, if that crying is anything to go by. Jowan, where is that water?"
And then there was a great fussing, the cutting of the cord and a quick cleanup of one damp and bloody infant. "You two take this little one, I've some more work to do with Kathil," Ilse said.
"More?" Kathil groaned. "Haven't I done enough?"
"A little bit more," the midwife said, full of cheer. "A few more things and then I can leave you alone for a bit." She turned to Zevran and Cullen and Jowan, who were clustered near the door. Zevran was holding the wrigglesome, blanket-wrapped baby. "Out, you three. I'll call you in when it's time." They hesitated, and Ilse gave them a pointed look. "Now."
They got out.
Jowan turned the lamps up in the kitchen. The baby's wailing had died down to a discontented fussing, and for the first time Zevran got a good look at his—their—daughter. She had wide, dark eyes in a face that was much like all of the other newborns he could remember seeing, all red and a bit squashy. But she had all of her fingers and toes, all the expected bits in the right places, and Zevran breathed a quiet sigh of relief. (How much time had Kathil spent worrying, how many nights had been sleepless, wondering if Jowan's spell would be enough to keep the poison in her blood from affecting their child?) She looked up at Zevran, her gaze unfocused.
There were memories that would always stay with him. The moment that he fell in love with his daughter was one of them.
Cullen was at his shoulder. Silently, Zevran handed the baby to him, and Cullen took her exactly as if he had been handling babies all of his life. He could see a look on the Templar's face that he assumed was reflected on his own, a kind of fragile wonder. "She's beautiful," he said. (And it was true, but it was always true, was it not? She was beautiful because she was theirs.)
Lorn had followed them, and Cullen bent a bit to let the Mabari see. Lorn sniffed at the baby, gave one approving wag of his stumpy tail, and before Cullen could straighten gave the baby a lick with his very long and very wet tongue. Laughing, Cullen got the baby out of the dog's reach, and Zevran had an abrupt vision of a little girl spending her entire childhood covered in dog drool.
There was a sharp cry from the hall beyond the kitchen, and they all turned toward the door. Lorn trotted purposefully out of the kitchen, towards Kathil. "You boyos can come back now," Ilse called. When they entered the room, Ilse was bundling something up in a scrap of blanket. Kathil had rearranged herself, propped up in a seated position, a blanket over her lap. She spied Cullen with the baby, and held her arms out silently.
Cullen crossed the room to put the child into her arms. The babe fussed, waving the arm it had managed to wriggle free of the blanket. "Hey, you," she said, her voice hoarse and tired. "Welcome to the world."
A few minutes later, the child had nursed briefly for the first time and was lying naked on Kathil's chest, a blanket tucked around them both. Ilse, seeing that all was well, left the room, and Jowan followed.
"The bed's narrow, but maybe you both can wedge in?" Kathil said, glancing between him and Cullen. Her relationship with Cullen, such as it was, was a tenuous thing, the two of them doing a dance around some very large questions that neither of them was willing to ask right at the moment. But right now, all of that seemed to be put to rest by mutual accord.
"We could move to another room," Zevran suggested. He and Kathil might fit in this bed, but Cullen was going to be half hanging out, and he was not willing to suggest that their Templar be sent away right now.
Kathil closed her eyes, stroking the baby's back with two fingers. "I don't think walking's a very good idea."
"I said nothing about walking, no?" And Cullen had lit up with understanding, and in a moment Zevran was holding an armful of baby while Cullen scooped up a protesting mage.
Kathil kicked one leg out. "I didn't—Cullen, put me down—"
"In a bit." Cullen grinned at Kathil, and she rolled her eyes and relaxed. Zevran raised an eyebrow; that was more humor than he'd seen from the Templar in regards to their Warden lately. They moved mother and daughter into the bedroom that Zevran usually shared with Kathil, which had a bigger bed. Slightly. It was still a tight fit for three adults and an infant, but they managed.
Lorn settled down on a pile of blankets with a heavy sigh. Fiann padded in and flopped down beside him. The pup was no longer so much of a pup. Her back was nearly as long as Lorn's, and her head nearly overtopped his. She only weighed about half of what the mature wardog did; she would gain muscle and bone over the next two years. Right now, she looked about half-finished, still gangly.
Zevran was curled carefully on Kathil's left side, his forehead against her hair. "Have you come to a decision about a name?" he asked. He was watching the baby, asleep once more on Kathil's chest. He could see a curve of bald head, a small fist curled around an errant lock of her mother's hair.
Kathil's hand stilled. "I think Cerys suits her, don't you? Of all the names we discussed..."
"Cerys." Cullen reached out and touched the infant's clenched fist. "I like it."
"And you know my opinion," Zevran added. It had been one of his favorites of the names they had talked about late into the night in the last few months. An old Ferelden name, Kathil had said. There was a book I found in the library with a heroine named Cerys. I read the book until the binding fell apart, and then I kept the pages under my bed.
They had spoken of other names—Dane or Carwyn for a boy, Mair for a girl—but Cerys had been the best of them. Verdad had been under serious consideration for a time, but Kathil had wanted a Fereldan name for the baby.
"Cerys it is." Kathil took a deep breath, and her eyes fluttered closed. She was asleep before she took another breath. Cullen, ever quick to follow others into sleep, was asleep soon after.
Zevran remained wakeful. He tested the thought I am a father gingerly, as a tongue might probe a sore tooth. He'd had second thoughts, and third and fourth thoughts, for months. Now the child was here, and it was all abruptly quite real.
As were certain...regrettable facts.
It was a good thing that he and the Dalish had never had much in common, despite his abortive attempt to live with them as a boy. But even the city elves would see him and this family, such as it was, and see betrayal.
Never the easy path, Aranai.
Still. Sometimes it was the difficult path that held the most riches. And if he were to be honest with himself, they had so many other problems looming that this one was going to seem quite small next to them.
If the day came that the worst of their problems was the anger of some elves over what he'd chosen to do with his personal life, they would all be most pleased.
Zevran closed his eyes. He could hear, very faintly, the rumbling roar of an adult dragon, communicating itself through the stone of the temple. The drakes were leaving to hunt, as they did every few nights. They would always go out just after a storm, to hunt down anything that might have been weakened by the weather.
He listened to the breathing of the others in the bed, Templar, mage, and infant daughter, and his dreams when they came were filled with dragon wings.
No matter how early he rose, Rylock always managed to beat him to the kitchen.
"I don't know how you do it," he told her, slumping down in one of the chairs with a cup of tea in his hands. Their supply of their tisane was running low—their supply of everything except dragonlings and mud was running low—and over the last few weeks the tea had gone from the rich brown he favored to a light tan, far too close to water for his liking. "I thought I was a morning person."
"Habit," the Templar told him. Not only was she awake, but she was fully dressed, her hair braided nearly back and with a gimlet look in her eye. "They used to roust us out of bed a couple of hours before dawn and make us run with packs on our backs until the sun came up."
"And you volunteered for that?"
Rylock lifted an eyebrow. "They didn't mention it when they recruited me. Drink your tea, mage. It'll wake you up."
"Not like there's a lot to be awake for." Jowan blew on his cup, then carefully sipped. "Kathil and the rest won't be up for a bit—"
From the rooms beyond the kitchen there came the sound of a baby's wail rising.
"Unless the baby turns out to be a morning person too," Jowan finished. He ran a hand through his sleep-disheveled hair. "I should probably heat up some more water."
The Templar watched him as he shambled over to the large jar they kept the day's supply of water in. She and Ilse had been here for a month or so, long enough for the two of them to get somewhat used to each others' presence, though evidently not nearly long enough for Rylock's tolerance of casual use of magic to increase at all. She had stopped making comments, though, after the fire had gone out one cold night; he'd come into the kitchen in the morning to find her swearing and fumbling with flint and steel, her fingers stiff and uncooperative.
Rylock had looked relieved to have him light the fire, though she wouldn't have admitted it, not then and not now. Still, she'd ceased at least most of the snide recitations of verses from the Chant of Light. It was a truce, sort of. He'd take it.
"When do you think you'll be off, then?" Rylock asked now, as he filled the kettle from the jar.
"As soon as Kathil feels well enough to travel, I assume." He muttered a word under his breath, and felt the water in the kettle warm to his power. "She wants to make Amaranthine by the beginning of summer, and I think we have a stop or two to make on the way."
"And you'll leave the demon here for the rest of us to deal with."
Jowan set the kettle on the hearth with exaggerated care. He turned to see Rylock leaning back. Any time that the Templar did anything that was even remotely like lounging, he was wary. She was terrible at looking casual. "Didn't Kathil explain that to you?"
Rylock's lips twitched. "Loudly. At some length."
He snorted. "You're lucky you got off with just the yelling."
"Yes, well." She picked up her tea and sipped meditatively. "Do you really believe it'll stay in the forest?"
"It doesn't have much choice, really. The Veil beyond the edge of the forest is strong." He came back over to sit at the table. The wailing had ceased. "There have been things living here for a long time. If it wasn't this demon, it would have been another one."
"It still doesn't make it right."
"Doesn't make what right?" Kathil was framed by the doorway, dressed only in a shirt far too big for her—Cullen's, it looked like—and a pair of socks. "And have either of you seen Ilse?"
"What are you doing up, Warden?" Rylock asked, going from attempting to look relaxed to on her feet and stiffly upright in a heartbeat. "We haven't seen Ilse yet, I think she's asleep." Jowan scrambled for the hearth, hastening to make more tea.
"I'm thirsty, hungry, and I have some questions for Ilse." She caught herself in a yawn, and shook her head. "Maker's Breath, Jowan, thank you." She accepted the cup from him with hands that shook only a little.
"Back to bed," Rylock said in a voice that spoke of long experience ordering people around. "You look about half-dead."
"I've been worse. Still. I don't suppose there's any chance of breakfast?" She looked hopeful. "I've healed myself a bit, but there's things that aren't quite in the right place—"
"We don't need to know!" Jowan waved one hand in an attempt to interrupt. "Breakfast, we can do. Go, Kathil. We'll bring in some food for you and Cullen and Zevran. And send in Ilse when she wakes up."
Kathil retreated, thankfully without insisting that they explain to her what they had been discussing. The combination of being hugely pregnant, having a Templar around who didn't particularly approve of her (despite the fact that she had brought the midwife), and Ilse's incessant mothering had made her increasingly snappish—and the topic of the demon in the forest was not one she enjoyed discussing.
Jowan and Rylock put together a meal for them all, talking as little as possible. The dogs came trotting into the kitchen, hopeful for scraps, and Jowan gave them some of the meat from the day before yesterday's hunt. "We'll have to go out again this afternoon," he said to Rylock.
"Likely." She never did ask why it was always Jowan, Lorn, and Fiann who went out hunting. Jowan suspected that she didn't want to know. "Here, stir this. If I know Ilse, she's hidden away some dried apples somewhere around here."
Jowan stirred the portion while Rylock poked around in some of the shadowy corners of the kitchen. Lorn and Fiann lay by him, each working on cleaning off a bone from the deer they had brought down the other day. Lorn paused, raising his head, ears pricking. He cocked his head, looking towards the door that led to room that Jowan called the tree hall. His soft whine deepened and became a low, noncommittal growl.
The Mabari got to his feet and walked purposefully toward the door. "Rylock," Jowan said, keeping his voice low. "Something's wrong." He pulled the porridge away from the fire, keeping it close enough that it would stay warm.
The Templar was already picking up her sword and shield from the weapons rack at the far side of the kitchen. "I noticed," she said dryly. "Let's go." Ahead of them, Lorn nosed open the door, and his growl went from not quite sure what's going on to I most sincerely do not approve.
Beyond the kitchen, there was the sound of leathery wings unfolding, and Jowan swore.
At least this time, he had shoes on.
Fiann slipped past Lorn into the large room beyond, snarling and barking and raising a fuss. Jowan broke into a run—if he let Fiann get hurt Cullen would never forgive him. Lorn evidently had the same idea, shoving the pup with his shoulder, ordering her almost audibly to shut up.
The drake had been poking around in the roots of the tree. The beast was a good twenty feet from nose to lashing tail-tip. Another, smaller drake clung to the craggy bark of the tree trunk, making rough coughing noise that Jowan knew from experience was a signal to any other dragonkin in the vicinity: Trouble.
They'd had minor invasions of the draconic variety before; the drakes would smell their food and come investigate if they were hungry enough, down through the broken dome of the temple ceiling. They had usually come one at a time, though, and generally they would flee when confronted. The large drake was fanning its wings, something like defiance in its flat stare. Fleeing was evidently not in its game plan for the day.
Rylock stepped to the side, intent on flanking the larger drake. "Hold a moment—" Jowan called, and in the next breath cast one of his favorite fire spells on the drake. The dragon screamed and focused its attention on Jowan.
He scampered to the side, and the drake lunged. He dodged its jaws and sent another stream of fire into its face. It backwinged, and then writhed furiously as two Mabari and a Templar brought their weaponry to bear on each flank. He tossed a stunning spell on it and was gratified when the creature froze in place.
Now, where had that other drake gone?
A hard blast of air from above answered that question. He stumbled backward as the drake backwinged and set down—followed by two more, both nearly as big as the one that Rylock and the Mabari were fighting. The odds had gone from largely in their favor to we may not survive this in breathtakingly short order.
Kathil was likely in no condition to fight, not that it would stop her—and she and Cullen and Zevran were in the back part of the Temple, out of earshot and too far away to get her in time to make a difference anyway. One of the three new drakes circled, scaled head low, focusing on Rylock. She was busily carving on the large drake, and not paying attention behind her.
It took so little time to come to a decision. He snatched the little knife from his belt and opened a long cut on his forearm, murmuring the words of a prayer and a spell, calling blood to blood. Dragons were among the most difficult of creatures to bring under control. As the Veil ripped wide and the blood leash whipped out to touch the drake's head, he sent a wordless prayer—just a bit of luck, please—
The blood leash snapped taut, and held.
The drake thrashed, screeching, and he directed it into the air, bending its will to his purpose. He saw the large drake collapse and saw Rylock turn, and perhaps that narrowing of her eyes presaged disaster. He couldn't consider it; wrestling with the soul of the drake took all of his concentration. The enthralled drake turned on its fellows, leaping onto the back of one of its smaller compatriots and fastening its claws in the other's shoulders, fouling both of its wings. Both drakes were screaming, the Mabari were howling, and a blur barreled past Jowan—a shirtless Zevran, two blades out and ready. Cullen followed close behind.
The next few minutes were a blur. Rylock took the head of one of the drakes, Cullen took another. The Mabari shredded the wings of the one that Jowan controlled, preventing it from flying upward, and Zevran finished it off as Jowan let go of the control spell. A rustle from above made them all look up. There was a shadow, and then the sound of beating wings, fading away. Evidently drakes were intelligent enough to realize when they were outclassed.
Something hit Jowan from the side, slammed him into an enormous tree root. The world went briefly dark as his head hit wood, his mouth filling with the taste of blood. There was something cold and sharp at his throat, and Rylock's face was close to his own. "Maleficar," she said, the word poison on her tongue.
He swallowed blood, and grimaced. "Blood mage. True. The Wardens don't care. Most of them," he amended, as he remembered the story Kathil had told him about the erstwhile Warden-General.
There was a long, silent moment where the Templar's gaze bored into his own, pinning him to the wood as much as the knife at his throat. "Did the demon in the forest teach you?"
He couldn't move without possibly slitting his own throat on her blade. "No. My knowledge comes from books, mostly. I don't deal with demons."
One breath, then two; Rylock pulled her steel from Jowan's throat, gave him another shove for good measure, and stalked away. "Never thought I'd see the day when I missed Anders," he heard her mutter.
"Tch. It seems you have, as they say, blown your chances with the pretty Templar," Zevran said. He and Cullen were standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, next to one of the dead drakes. "Too bad. I think you were making headway."
He rubbed his throat, and his hand came away bloody. She'd cut the skin of his neck slightly. "I wasn't trying to bed her, Zevran. I was just trying to have us not kill each other." He grimaced. "Seems I almost didn't manage that one."
"So you say." The elf gave him a lopsided smile. "I think we should be off sooner rather than later, no? The high dragon may decide to investigate where her drakes have gone."
"I don't think she could fit through the hole in the roof," Cullen said. "Why did they come down now? I'd have thought they would have tried that before."
"Beginning of the hungry season," Jowan said. "Game's getting scarce, everything that was going to get winter-killed has died. I think we ought to pack up, if Kathil's up to the walk. We can at least get out of the forest, maybe to Little Oakford."
"I'm up to it," Kathil said from the doorway. She was fully dressed now, holding the baby. "I don't think we can afford for me not to be. What's got Rylock in a snit? She charged past me without so much as a nice dragon weather we're having."
"We were outnumbered," Jowan said. "I, ah, used one of those spells I'm not supposed to know. Saved her life, probably, but..." He shrugged one shoulder.
She gave him a long look, and quirked the scarred side of her mouth. "You seem to have a soft spot for Templars, lately."
"I'm going soft in the head, is all." He shifted, aware of the scrutiny of several pairs of eyes.
"Clearly." She took a breath, and glanced down at her daughter. "Well. Let's get packed up, gentlemen. I'm not looking forward to this, but this place has served its purpose."
They all nodded. The Mabari were tearing into the belly of the large drake with wet rending noises. Evidently dragon liver was extremely tasty, if you were a warhound. They left them; better that they had something to do that didn't involve getting underfoot.
They had surprisingly little to pack. They were near to the end of their supplies, and the camping gear didn't take up much room. Ilse had shown Kathil how to fashion a sort of sling out of cloth that could be adjusted, so all of them could take turns carrying the baby. It was the sort of thing a freeholder would wear out into the fields, to carry an infant without hampering movement.
Jowan was finished packing first, and Kathil appeared in the kitchen to hand him the baby—Cerys, she said they'd named her—and vanish back into the bedroom she shared with Zevran. The babe seemed content to sleep, fortunately. Jowan hadn't ever had much to do with babies, other than talking over the possibility of them with Lily, several lifetimes ago. He wasn't sure what he'd do if she woke up and started crying. I suppose I'd think of something.
He thought of the life he and Lily had planned in whispers, the little farmhold in the middle of nowhere, a cottage built with their own hands, children underfoot. Cerys stirred and stretched in her sleep, and he shifted her a bit on his lap so he could see her face a bit better.
My niece. He tried the term on for size. She had a nose that turned up a bit, and a brow that reminded him a bit of Zevran's. It was hard to see much of either Kathil or Cullen in her, though he supposed that might change as she grew. She was still a bit squashed-looking from being born.
Rylock and Ilse moved purposefully in and out of the kitchen; Lorn and Fiann trotted in, the front halves of each of the dogs covered in dragon blood and bits of gore. They plunked themselves down before the dying fire, looking pleased with themselves.
Ilse came into the kitchen, carrying her worn pack. "May I?" she asked. "I haven't gotten to hold this little one yet." Jowan handed her the baby, who woke briefly but was soothed quickly back to sleep.
"I should go see if anyone needs help." He didn't move from his chair. There were questions he wanted to ask, but he had no idea how. "Is Rylock...is she all right? I didn't see if she was hurt during the dragon fight."
"Gwen is fine. Well, physically, at least. She had a few cuts, nothing serious." The midwife gave him a narrow-eyed glance. "That wasn't what you meant to ask, young man."
He rubbed one temple; the headache from having his head slammed into a tree hadn't yet abated, and his ears were still ringing. "I don't even know...she knew what I was. Didn't she? I mean, everyone's heard the stories about what happened in Redcliffe." And why do I even care?
He feared the answer to that question. That, and so many others.
Ilse turned her attention to the baby she held. "I think," she said, apparently speaking to Cerys, "that spitting suspected maleficars on Templar steel is a very different prospect from actually getting to know one. You put your braes on one leg at a time, boyo. I don't think that knowledge makes Gwen very happy."
No, he didn't suppose it would. Just like it didn't make him very happy to discover that the same Templar who had demanded that the Circle hang poor Anders for attempting to have a life outside of the Tower was a woman who liked to read adventure stories about the qunari and had a wicked snowball throwing arm on her. And who had a pretty smile, when she was pleased.
"I understand that," he said. "Well. We'll part at Little Oakford, and she can forget all about it."
The midwife snorted gently. "Two sovereigns says she ends up at Vigil's Keep by next winter."
"You're on." He grinned. "And if she shows up wanting to join the Wardens, I'll throw something extra on top."
"A good mule," Ilse said. There was a mischievous look on her lined face. "With two mules, I could hire them out as a team to the farmers who can't afford to keep a mule of their own. Would make the winters a sight more comfortable, to have a bit of extra socked away in the larder."
He felt just a touch of dismay. "You're going to encourage her, aren't you?"
Cerys woke, yawned, and then started making small, discontented noises. Ilse rocked her a bit. "I love Gwen dearly, but she's never really fit anywhere. The Templars have given her a good home, and most of them seem to respect her, but I know she's capable of so much more." She stood as the baby's grousing threatened to turn into full-scale crying. "I'm going to get this one to her mother, she's hungry." Ilse smiled at Jowan and carried Cerys towards the back of the temple, vanishing into the hallway beyond the kitchen.
Jowan sat in silence. The Mabari were enthusiastically licking each other's faces. "I think I just got gulled," he told them. Fiann looked over at him, tail wagging, but Lorn pinned her down and started cleaning out one of her ears. Fiann pulled a long-suffering face, but let him.
Maybe I can get Kathil to assign me elsewhere. Ostagar? Maybe the Anderfels...
He put his head in his hands, praying that Ser Rylock would be entirely unwilling to uproot her life and join the Wardens.
Unfortunately, neither the Maker nor his Bride were in the habit of listening to Jowan's entreaties.
The hair prickled on the back of his neck. They were not alone.
Then again, they were never alone, walking through the Brecilian Forest.
He was wearing the sling with Cerys in it, as well as his pack. It wasn't ideal—he wouldn't be able to quickly draw his sword in case of trouble—but they did have Ser Rylock with them for the moment. Besides, he was quickly becoming accustomed to the warm weight of the infant against him, beneath his cloak.
Just because it was spring enough for the snow to have turned to mud and for some of the braver flowers to poke their blossoms above ground didn't mean that the air was anything like warm. Cold mud had found its way through several holes in his boots. Kathil was wincing as she walked, but she stayed silent.
And now the already-unnatural hush of the forest had deepened into a silence that was broken only by the sounds of their feet squelching on the path. In the sling, Cerys stirred, and he willed her to go back to sleep.
There was a flash of movement at the low ridgeline above their heads. Another, and another—small enough to be people, too many to be the demon, he hoped. Not darkspawn, since at this range even Jowan would have felt it. He relaxed a bit, just for a moment.
Then an arrow flashed over their heads and buried itself with a wet thump in a stump next to the path.
Kathil stopped dead in the path, glaring hard at the ridgeline. Her blade was naked in her hand. "Whoever's up there, you'd best come out." Her voice held more than a little irritation. "Trust me. I'd hate to endanger the friendship between the Dalish and the Grey, but if I have to, I will."
Belatedly, he realized that the arrow that had been fired was fletched in alternating bands of brown and soft cream, a Dalish pattern. There was a pause, and then three elves picked their way down the steep slope towards them. Cullen recognized the tallest as Fenarel, the leader of one the hunters of the clan they had contacted at the beginning of winter. The other two, both women, moved with a wary grace. He'd seen them in the camp, but hadn't learned their names.
He drew even with Kathil, saw Fenarel's gaze flick over her evaluatively. The rest of them had drawn into close ranks around the mage. "You are leaving," Fenarel said. He might have said you survived in that same flat, vaguely disappointed tone.
She sheathed Spellweaver. At a pointed glare, the rest of them followed suit. "We are, at that. Leaving this place to the spirits and the dragonkin. Who are hungry, by the bye. You may wish to avoid this part of the forest for a while."
"We've seen them in the sky." He looked uncomfortable, still giving Kathil that evaluating look. "Keeper Merrill gave the hunters a message for you, if we met you. If you wish the hospitality of the clan, our camp is always open to the Grey."
The Keeper had more or less thrown them out after she'd discovered that Kathil and Zevran were involved. Kathil's eyes narrowed. "Truly? I was under the impression that she had little use for me."
Fenarel held her gaze with his. "It's not my business to wonder what the Keeper means. I merely pass along her message, shemlen."
"Is your camp still where it was at the beginning of winter?" she asked.
"A mile out of the setheneran to the southwest. You can make your own way there, I take it?"
"We can. If you see the Keeper before we do, convey our thanks." Under Cullen's cloak, Cerys stirred, and that was all the warning he got before the baby broke into an aggrieved wail. "Oh, honestly—Cullen—"
He was already freeing the sling from where it crossed his body, handing the baby to Kathil and helping her slip the sling over her head. "I apologize, Fenarel," she said. "Cerys is only a day old, we haven't yet learned her habits. She's probably hungry."
Cullen was astonished to see the hunter relax. "Ah," he muttered, as if a mystery had been solved. "You travel with such a young child?"
"The temple became a bit more dangerous than we liked. If you'll excuse me..." She turned away, presumably to find a little bit of privacy to feed Cerys. She didn't go far, since the demon was still about, but Zevran still went with her.
"What did you think we did with her?" Cullen asked the elf.
"One never knows what you shemlen might do with children." Fenarel shook his head, giving Cullen a sharp look. "Especially ones that might be...unwelcome. We have heard stories."
He could only stare in disbelief. What the elf had thought had happened, when he saw Kathil not obviously pregnant but no child in evidence...it was something like monstrous. But—it happened, sometimes. "Cerys is very much wanted," he said.
"Good." Behind Fenarel, the two women were eyeing all of them. One of them retrieved the arrow from the stump, carefully brushing rotted wood off the head and smoothing down the fletching. Without so much as a farewell, the hunters walked away down the path, vanishing into the trees beyond.
Once Cerys was fed, cleaned up, and happy once more, they set off again. They made the edge of the forest and went south, coming to the camp hidden in a copse of trees. The Dalish were as good as their word; though their welcome was not precisely warm, it was present, and soon enough they were settled down around a low fire, curious children coming by to stare at the strangers. Most of their attention was reserved for the dogs, who seemed to be a source of both fear and fascination.
With some discomfort, Cullen remembered the statue of the wolf at the edge of the camp, placed with its back to the aravels, stone eyes always looking outward.
Kathil went to speak to the Keeper, leaving the baby with Zevran. Lorn followed her, sitting down next to the Keeper's aravel in an attitude of watchful waiting. They settled in and pitched their tents within the protective circle of aravels. Rylock tried to offer to go hunting with a group that was heading out and was rebuffed. She returned to their fire, visibly annoyed.
A pair of halla strolled by, pausing to glance at them, then move on. They were accompanied by a heavily cloaked woman, shoulders rounded against the cold. "I've never seen one before," Ilse said to Cullen, keeping her voice low. "They're beautiful."
One of the halla switched its short, white-furred tail, as if it had heard and understood the comment. Fiann was staring at the deer-like creature, her tail thrashing, obviously wondering if it might be a friend, or perhaps good to eat. He smoothed down the fur on her neck. "Don't," he murmured to the Mabari. "They're not food, and they'd probably kick you if you tried to play with them. And with good reason."
She turned her liquid eyes on Cullen. But they look like they're fast, said the tilt of her head and a sidelong glance at the halla. They would be fun. Please?
The halla stomped one back foot, and moved on. Fiann heaved a sigh and went back to attempting to dismantle the log Cullen was sitting on. Her strong jaws splintered the wood with a cracking noise that was evidently satisfying, if the flailing of the hound's tail was anything to go by. Cullen glanced over at Zevran. "She's been in there an awfully long time, hasn't she?"
"I imagine the Keeper had a number of things to speak to her about." Zevran had Cerys cradled in one arm and was cleaning a dagger with the other, bracing the blade against a branch stump and using a cloth to dig into the crevices. Across from them, Jowan was working on carving a plain wooden box he'd gotten from the clan's craftmaster, studiously ignoring them all—especially Rylock, who was somewhat ostentatiously steeling and oiling her blades. "I am not ready to go in there and demand to know what she has done with our Warden. Yet."
"At least there haven't been any explosions yet." A movement at the edge of his vision made him straighten. "Ah, there she is."
Kathil climbed down the steps of the aravel. She was moving stiffly, and Cullen rose to go help her. Normally, she would have bristled at him for presuming that she needed help; it was a mark of how exhausted she was that she simply took his arm and leaned on him. After he settled her on the log where he'd been sitting, Lorn came to lie at her feet, between her and the fire. "That was...interesting. She offered to have the clan foster Cerys."
The word was out of Cullen's mouth before he could stop it. "What?" He sat down hard. "You're joking."
"I said no." She grimaced. "Not that it wasn't something I'd considered, but...I never thought that the clan would go for it. Considering that she is human."
Zevran had stopped cleaning his blade, instead shifting Cerys in his arms protectively. Cullen wondered if he'd even realized he'd done it. "Do you know what prompted the offer?"
The mage's voice went flat. "Evidently, the Keeper's predecessor spoke to several of the hunters in the forest. More meddling, I assume. The keeper isn't quite convinced that Cerys belongs with them, but she really wants to believe that it was Marethari. Maker's Balls, I will be glad when we're away from here."
"You considered fostering her out?" Ilse asked.
The rest of them stilled, holding their breaths as the look on Kathil's face darkened. "I did." Then she looked at Cerys, asleep in Zevran's arms. "Perhaps it isn't fair to drag her through this life with me. But she will be in danger no matter what, and I prefer to have her where I can protect her." She smiled thinly. "Besides. Andraste help the person who tries to take her from me."
There was something dark in her voice, something heavy and sharp. Watching her, Cullen could very well believe that this mage would set the world aflame—or bring down the Chantry itself—in order to protect their daughter. He didn't know if he was glad, or a bit afraid.
"Good," Ilse said, and there was no mistaking the approval in her tone. "Now, Warden, I think you should try to get some rest." She looked meaningfully at the tent where she'd thrown her pack earlier.
"Probably not a bad idea. My back feels like Sten's been using it for hammer practice." She got up, stretched briefly, and held out her arms. Zevran got up and handed her the baby, who woke and started making little ah ah ah noises. "We'll head out in the morning."
She retreated to her tent, and they all sat listening to the sounds of the Dalish camp settling in for the night. They prepared a scanty meal; the hunters brought them a brace of rabbits, but they gave those to the Mabari. One by one they retired to their tents; Ilse to the tent she shared with Ser Rylock, Jowan to his own. That left Zevran and Cullen by the fire, along with the dogs.
From an aravel across the clearing came music, a pair of pipes playing counterpoint to each other, a voice winding around the two of them. It reminded Cullen of evenings spent in the Chantry orphanage. Several of the Sisters sang, and a few more played the pipes or the rebec. On nights when the work of the day was done, sometimes they could cajole the Sisters into playing for them.
Zevran nudged him with an elbow. "The look on your face, Templar, it tells me that you have missed music."
"There wasn't very much in the Tower," he said. (Though, why? Certainly there was leisure to study music, and the long nights in the Templar hall might have been good times to practice. There was just something about the cold stone, and the dark water of Lake Calenhad, that drowned out even the sweetest voice.)
The assassin had a pensive look on his face. "Some of the women in the whorehouse would sing, in the afternoons before the customers began to arrive. There was very little music after the Crows bought me. Just what I could steal as a hungry ear in the street. I would stand sometimes by the walls of noble gardens, straining my ears for the sound of the young ladies at their lyres. They were all terrible, you must understand. But it was music, of a sort."
"You traveled with Leliana for, what, a year?" he asked. "I can't imagine she didn't play for you."
He shook his head. "She mostly told stories, and hideously romantic ones at that.. Music carries, you see, and we were trying not to invite the darkspawn to our fire. She did sing for us, once. Well, for our Warden mostly, but the rest of us listened, no? She had picked up an elven song somewhere, something Dalish. Very sad, of course. Most of their songs are." Zevran looked tired, and there was a trace of tension at the corners of his eyes.
They fell silent, listening to the music. It had been a long winter spent in hiding, and he and Kathil hadn't yet quite managed to fix things between them. But they were more comfortable with each other than they had been, and the last of the shadows in Cullen's mind had been swept away with the lengthening of the days. He did not dwell on just how natural it felt to have a child around, how he sometimes wondered if she would look like the dream-daughter that the desire demon had ensnared him with.
That had been another life entirely.
When they slept that night, it was with Zevran between him and Kathil. He woke in the morning with Cerys in his arms, the assassin and the mage curled together beside him. He vaguely remembered being handed the baby after a middle-of-the-night feeding.
The infant yawned and opened her eyes, looking around her with a quiet though unfocused gaze. And it was just as it should be, her small warmth against his chest, the two people he loved more than life beside him.
All was well.
She stopped and gingerly stretched out one leg behind her, wincing as she felt the bones in her hips click and settle into place. I most sincerely do not recommend a twenty-mile walk just after giving birth. She was healed, true, but her magic could only knit together torn and bleeding flesh, hasten some of the process of her body becoming accustomed to no longer being pregnant. It could not tighten the cords between her bones or make her back hurt any less.
At least they would be stopping in Little Oakford for a few days. They were only a mile or two from the village now, and Ilse had promised there would be tea and a comfortable chair and possibly even a bath. Probably they'd sleep in someone's empty hayloft, and get used to having more people around than just them.
And maybe she would have a chance to get used to having her daughter out in the world. My daughter. Such a strange thought, still. It seemed impossible that this person had only a few days ago been resting in the cramped quarters below Kathil's heart. Even more impossible that she was healthy and had taken to eating with a vengeance—as Kathil's sore breasts were constantly reporting. You two will be all right, Ilse had said. You both need time to adjust, but you're doing well.
Her moods were prone to change with the winds, but she was happy, she thought. Also a touch sad, and a bit overwhelmed, but she was a Grey Warden, and she had ended a Blight.
Surely, motherhood couldn't be any harder than that?
They passed a stone carved with swooping lines—a Dalish waymarker. They were almost to the ford that gave Little Oakford its name. A branch of the Drakon River meandered through this countryside, and became wide and shallow just ahead.
"You all right?" Cullen asked, stopping next to her. Jowan had Cerys at the moment, but they all had been trading off baby-carrying duty. "You look a bit peaky."
"I will be with a bit of a rest. Let's get across the ford and into town." She probably should sit down, but that cup of tea was calling her name. The Dalish didn't go in for non-medicinal tisanes, and they had used the last of theirs yesterday morning.
He nodded, and stepped away. She straightened and took a step—and stumbled, going off-balance. Cullen caught her arm as she tried to recover, and she ended up clinging to his arm, feeling decidedly ungainly. "Hey now," Cullen said, taking both of her shoulders and setting her upright once more. "Are you sure you're all right?"
She sagged against his hands, her head dropping forward briefly. "Just tired, and my balance isn't what it should be." She sternly told her knees that they had a job to do and by Andraste they would do them, and glanced at Cullen, ready to tell him that she was fine and she didn't need him to hold her up.
She'd been so overwhelmed with becoming a mother that until this moment she hadn't noticed that they had slipped once again into that sphere of comfort with each other that she reserved only for people she loved. And from the look on his face, Cullen hadn't quite realized it either.
Oh sweet Andraste. I thought we'd settled this—
But they hadn't, had they?
Cullen let go of her shoulders, and stepped back. "Let's get to the ford," was all he said. He took the lead, and she dropped back to walk next to Jowan. They crossed the river barefoot, the icy water soaking them to the knees and leaving Kathil feeling as though thin needles made of cold were lancing through her feet. She took Cerys from Jowan, letting him pull his socks and boots on. "I think those socks are more hole than thread," she told him.
"There's only so many times you can darn socks before they start falling apart." He shoved his foot into a boot and began to lace it up. Cerys was beginning to fret, and Kathil bounced on the balls of her feet, trying to calm her. "I may have to see if I can pick up a few more pairs. Didn't you say that we could probably beg hospitality from the banns on the way?"
"That's my hope, or this is going to be a long, hungry walk north," she said. In truth, she was not looking forward to being dependent on the generosity of the nobility whose lands they were going to pass through. Perhaps we can pick up some odd jobs here and there. There's usually postings on the Chanter's Board for folk like us.
Folk like them. A crew of innocents and fools, indeed.
"Well, it might be stables and scraps, but it's better than many see," Jowan said. Then he reached for his other boot, and scowled. "Where—hey, mutt! Bring that back!" Fiann had stolen Jowan's other boot, and she bounded away with it, bouncing lamblike into the trees at the side of the road. Cullen, laughing, ran after her, and they had a grand game of keepaway before the Templar finally convinced Fiann to give Jowan back his boot. The boot was only a little the worse for wear. "At least the drool spots make sort of a nice pattern with the mud," Jowan grumbled.
Lorn snorted at the pup, amused. Then he came to Kathil and nudged her hip. When she bent down, he snuffled Cerys, evidently wanting to make sure she was all right. Then they were walking again, and it was but a bit of a skip to the village proper.
Little Oakford looked like so many other villages scattered through Ferelden—a collection of stone and thatch houses, fences made of whatever materials were handy, a little chantry down at one end to see to the spiritual needs of the residents. Ilse directed them towards one of the larger houses on the green, striding ahead and calling "Margarey! We're back! Put the kettle on, we have guests!"
There was an excited squeak from inside the house, and then a blur emerged as the door slammed open. A woman—Kathil guessed that this was Margarey—wrapped herself around Ilse. She was dressed in a much-patched dress and apron, her light hair braided nearly back. And she looked familiar, somehow.
"I'm so glad to see you, Ilse!" Margarey hadn't let go of the midwife. "Everyone's lambs are all going to drop all at once I think, and the cow on the Vercel farmhold is looking to come early, and Jalena has been having false labor and she's in here twice a day and oh Maker I didn't know how I was going to manage by myself!"
Ilse hugged the girl. "Glad to see you too, Margarey. You'd have managed, you're a smart girl. Go on, then, put the kettle on and let me find somewhere to stash these Grey Wardens."
"Wardens—!" Margarey seemed to see them for the first time. "Oh, no. Ilse, there's been news from the north..." She trailed off, pressing her lips together. "The Grey Wardens have burned Amaranthine. The rider didn't give us any more details, just said that it was an Orlesian who was in command. Hilbert and Gloa's oldest lived there. They don't think he made it out."
They all traded uneasy glances. Zevran stepped a bit closer to Kathil, his expression darkening. Ilse folded her arms. "Well. I suppose you all had best come inside, then."
They followed the midwife into the house. Kathil felt a bit ill, and not only from the effects of walking so far so soon after giving birth.
The Grey Wardens have burned Amaranthine.
Was it still Laurens in command, or was it one of the others? And why would they have decided to burn a city?
She was settled into a chair, blankets tucked around her, voices coming and going. She held onto Cerys and tried to be a still point in the world, holding on to her clarity of mind with an effort of will, Tower-trained discipline a bulwark against exhaustion and horror.
They had thought to make a leisurely spring trip of their travel to Vigil's Keep. Now, though—
They would have to hurry.
Kathil held her infant daughter and tried not to wonder about what sort of world she had brought her into.
He lies next to Fiann beside a warm fire. The human pup is beside him, cradled in the dust-knight's breastplate and wrapped in blankets to keep her warm. His human is arguing with her packmates, her sharp voice rising, but it is not a serious snarling; it is only that she is tired, and still sore from having her pup. He is not concerned.
A human comes and sits near to him, craning her neck to see the pup next to Lorn. This is her territory they are on, hers and the human who came to help his human with her pup, the human who smells of sweetgrass and gruff kindness. This human offers her hand to Lorn, who sniffs her fingers gravely. She is bird feathers and rabbit fur and woodsmoke, with just the slightest tinge of lightning at the very back. "I hope they stop shouting soon," the feather-human says quietly to him. "You don't look bothered."
He sets his head down on his paws and gives her a single tail-wag. Next to him, Fiann breathes in deeply, then snores. The pack would snarl and then subside, decide nothing, and tomorrow it would be well again and they would travel. Because traveling is a fine thing.
"So I hear," the feather-human says. At the table, his human sighs and declares that she needs some sleep. The sweetgrass-human made the others in this territory give them some soft things to sleep on, and there is a bustling about as they all prepare to sleep.
Lorn likes this territory. He did not like the territory of the elves, where everyone stared and nobody stopped to pet him and tell him what a magnificent dog he is.
Their loss, he supposes. But so sad, that they lost the opportunity!
His human's elf comes and drops down beside the feather-human. He smells wary, and because of that Lorn lifts his head. Sometimes very interesting things happen when his human's elf smells like that.
But he is only speaking to the feather-human. "You have people, yes?" he asks. "In the area?"
The feather-human shakes her head. "My people are from the south," she says. "We fled the darkspawn when the blight came. Mama and Papa died in one of the attacks, and my sister Evvy and I got separated in Lothering. I don't know what happened to her, if she ever made it home. If there's a home to make it back to." The feather-human reaches out to scratch Lorn behind the ears. "Funny. Mama always bragged that one of her sisters had married one of the northern banns, that it made us almost nobility. Evvy always wanted to go see if it was true. Some day, I might go north. She's probably up there, somewhere."
The elf's scent has shifted, tinged with a confusion of sorrow and anger. "Your...aunt, yes? The one who married the noble? Did anyone ever tell you her name?"
"Amell, Mama always said. It's not an uncommon name. Still." The feather-human's fingers curl in the fur of Lorn's neck. Her voice is very quiet. "The woman Warden, she looks like my sister."
"Mages are made to forget their lives before the Tower. She would not remember a thing, even if there were a blood connection." His voice is light, but his scent speaks of deep trouble. Lorn is confused; where is the danger? He shifts to look at his human's elf, at his long hair and the dark marks on the side of his face. The elf's countenance tells him nothing.
But whatever the message is, the feather-human has understood it. "I know," she says in a small voice, small as a mouse or a speck of dust. "But, still. If the baby ever needs a place to go..."
"She could do worse than here, no? I will tell her, if it comes to that." The elf's voice warms. "But somehow, I do not think it will come to that. She is a woman of great will and greater determination, is our Warden." He gets to his feet, unfolding himself upward. Lorn once thought all elves stood like that, with their weight perfectly centered and something Lorn might call grace, but after seeing many elves he has determined that it is peculiar to his human's elf. "And now, I believe our bed calls to me. Good night, sweet Margarey."
The feather-human nods, and pets Lorn's head once more before getting to her feet. She climbs a ladder into a shadowed space beneath the rafters and vanishes. Lorn, after determining that nothing interesting is going to happen after all, puts his head down on his paws.
Lorn dozes, guarding his human's pup. He will keep her safe; he will keep all of them safe.
Here ends Quiet Foxes, Part Four of Old Roads.
I sort of can't believe I am finally done with Quiet Foxes! Believe it or not, I originally planned for this installment to only be eight chapters long. Instead, it decided to be novel-length, and Pitiless Games, the next installment, is definitely going to be novel-length and then some.
I'm taking a break before I plunge into Pitiless Games; I have some deadlines I have to beat into submission, and I have some background material I need to compose for the next section. Look for Old Roads to continue sometime around the end of August or the beginning of September. This would be a good time to put me on alert if you'd like to know when the next installment is coming out. If we're all really lucky, I might actually finish this series before DA2 comes out. :)
Thank you, everyone, for all of your kind words about this work, all the reviews and alerts and favorites. This is a crazy thing I'm doing, my love letter to the world that Bioware built and is generous enough to let us play in.
Pitiless Games will take place mostly in and around Vigil's Keep and Amaranthine, and yes, we'll get to see Nathaniel and Sigrun and Velanna and Oghren. Anders will show up again, and we'll get to find out exactly how the Chantry reacts to the Hero of Ferelden becoming a public figure again—this time, with an infant in tow. (In one word: badly.)
Anyway, thank you all again, and see you in a few weeks!
Edited to add: Er. I appear to be writing the entire Canticle of Demons. I'll get back to you all on how that's going in a bit. :)