I don't know what I was thinking. There are so many people around who need help, so many darkspawn-ravaged homes and travellers coming into towns covered in blood, vagabonds with hollow eyes... Maker, Lothering. So when this woman comes to me and says that something has happened, I don't hesitate.
I've become far too trusting.
I realize the trap just a moment before I'm nearly crushed by a falling tree. I flail, with a total lack of grace, falling heavily in the dirt, and have to scramble just to get free of the tangle of limbs that is both me and the tree branches. Alistair is already engaged with some warriors, screaming defiance and hacking at them rather efficiently. From the sounds of the cursing, Morrigan and Leliana are stuck in the branches of the tree on the other side, and Sten is growling at them as he tries to free them. Alistair begins to glow as a crackle of magic comes from Wynne, and Skanda bounds forward, tearing up the cliffside to attack the archers.
That just leaves that serpent-tongued dirt-eater and the man who somehow knows we're Wardens.
There are traps everywhere. I want to circle, but I'm caught in the open, right in front of everything. I can't get around the side of them, no matter what I do, so I just charge forward. Turns out the bitch is a mage. A burst of fire explodes at my feet, sending me sprawling to the ground. I roll around, putting out the flames, glad that I had thought to tuck my hair up into my helm this morning. That whore. I'm going to gut her.
My throat burns, and the smell of my own burnt flesh assails my nose, but I stand, even though I can feel every burn rubbing against the plates and buckles, even though I can hardly breathe for the scorching of my suddenly parched mouth. She is surprised to see me rise, and I give her my nastiest grin as I start forward again. The man who leads this group draws his sword and heads for me, about to meet me half-way, when the bitch gets me again, with lightning this time. I shriek as the shock courses through me, stiffening my every muscle, ripping through my joints, making all my hair stand on end as my back bows painfully. The hot sparks sear my already tender skin, going straight through the armour like it's nothing, and my jaw clenches so tightly I'm afraid it's going to crack my teeth.
The blond man shoves his shoulder against my chest, sharp and hard, just as the lightning lets go of me, and knocks me flat on my back. I raise my daggers just in time to not take a blade right to the underside of my chin, and roll sideways away from him. We circle each other warily, and the bitch is watching us, looking for an opening. "Skanda!" I shout, though I'm unsure he'll be able to hear me over the sounds of everyone else screaming and the ring of metal on metal. Someone has got to distract that mage, or we're finished.
I put the man between me and her, keeping him there, even though he tries to circle me, and grin when I see that Wynne has frozen her in place. This is the opening I need to go on the offensive. I dart forward, blades raised, and as he positions himself to parry, I push his blades back, stepping in close, and snap my knee up. I'm not above a low blow, especially when the people I'm attacking are more focused on sharp things than they are on where I'm putting my feet. He grunts, sharp and loud, baring his teeth at me, and hisses as he stumbles backwards. I don't give him any time to recover, and lunge for him again.
It's clear that he's disoriented, and I use that to my advantage as I press forward, batting his blades out of the way, and then I catch his cheekbone in a right cross, the full weight of my blade and gauntlet lending extra impact. I snarl at him as he brings his blades around again, and he slashes at me, scoring a deep cut on my left arm. I scream again, mostly in defiance, because my battle rush doesn't let me feel the sting of that, not quite yet, but the blood on my armour gives the lie to my bravado. My arm goes dead, and I nearly drop my blade, but a warm rush comes over me, and I am suddenly strong again. Wynne; thank the Maker for the mages on my side.
His eyes widen, and I give him my nasty smile again as I press him back once more. There is a flurry of blades as we each try to gain the upper hand, and I realize that he's a lot better than I thought. I'm still faster than him, though, and he barely makes it out of the way in time when I go for his throat. The tip of my blade catches him high on the forehead as he leans back, almost frantic now. He's lost the confidence he had at first, and I'm pretty sure he sees his death in my eyes.
He gets my blades stuck in a high parry and I just swing my leg forward and kick him in the knee. His leg gives out to the side, and I press my advantage. Remembering my sparring with Alistair, I duck under the blond's arm and stab him in the side, three times in rapid succession. My first blow glances off his armour, the second one just cuts a strap, but the third sinks home, and as I yank my blade back, blood pours down his side. He clamps his arm down over it, turning and dancing away from me, trying to get his sword up, but then he sways and collapses.
I turn to find that I am right behind that bitch who lured us here, as she is trading fire with Wynne. My healer looks determined, and this mage looks cruel and... well, bitchy. So I grab her head from behind, yanking it back to my shoulder, and shove my blade straight up into the soft spot under her jaw, pinning her tongue to the top of her mouth. She drops like a sack of stones, and I run up the hill to help Skanda take down the archers.
My poor hound, he's taken several arrows and is favouring his left hind leg. He lays down once I've relieved the last archer of his head, and I look out over the battle field. Alistair is trying to pry his boot out of a bear trap and Morrigan is sitting on the wreckage of the tree, laughing at him. Sten stands in the middle of a ring of slaughtered meat, and Wynne is inspecting Leliana's broken leg. As I look down, I see that the blond man I dropped a few moments ago is still breathing, so I head back down the cliff to see if maybe I can get some answers out of him.
Kneeling in the dirt, I push his hair out of his face. The cut on his forehead is dripping blood down into his eye. Blood pools by my knee, seeping steadily from him. I drink one of Wynne's nasty bottles of healing, staring down at the pointed ear. I slap his face, hard, and he groans, then blinks. I keep my dagger well in sight for him.
He shakes his head as though to clear to it. "I rather thought I'd wake up dead," he says, and I snort.
I laugh at him, and it's not very nice. "The day is young," I tell him, spinning my dagger in my hand for emphasis.
The man shifts, and rolls onto his back, wincing. "What a fine sense of humour you have." He looks at me out of the corner of his eye and waves a careless hand. "Ah, I'll save you the effort of torturing me. What do you want of me?" He closes his eyes again, unconcerned.
I look at him, cocking my head. He's not afraid of me. I could kill him, right now, and he's not afraid of it. "Why aren't you more worried?"
He cracks an eye to look at me. "Eh. At this point I've got nothing to lose. I'm dead no matter which way you look at it, yes?"
I snort. "Pf. Fine. Who sent you?" I look around again, checking on everyone. Alistair is peeling off his boot to check the damage to his leg, Wynne is healing Leliana, Morrigan is eating a piece of bread, Skanda is slinking down off the hillside, slowly and painfully, and Sten is wiping his blade off on the tunic of one of the archers, methodically checking it for spots.
He sighs. "Ah... Very ugly, sour looking fellow. Loghain, I believe." This gets my attention, and my gaze swings back to the blond man on the ground.
I feel my mouth twist, and another coil is added to the cold knot of hatred I harbour for shem nobles. "So he hires an elf to kill an elf. Fitting," I spit.
He laughs and shakes his head, waving his hand again. "No, no, that was not planned. I hail from Antiva; I am a Crow." He swallows, looking a little sick.
I sit back, startled. I just bested a Crow. At night, the children of the alienage sit and whisper in the dark about the Crows. The Crows will come to take you away if you are a naughty child. They put you to work and whip you with a thousand lashes, then they suck out your soul and turn you into a cold-hearted murderer, made of nothing but smoke, shadows, and sharp blades. They never give up, they never surrender, and if they are sent for you, it doesn't matter how far you run, or where you try to hide. I just bested a Crow? In what world does that happen? I stare at him a moment, trying to gather my suddenly scattered wits. "So now what? I have to kill you so you won't follow me and try again?"
He shakes his head, shifting again and wincing. He's starting to look a little pale, even under his bronzed skin, and I wonder if he's going to make it through the rest of the questions I have for him. "I failed when you weren't already looking for it; do you really think I would believe myself to be successful now that I've tipped my hand?" This Crow is just a man; he is flesh and rapidly spreading blood, surrendering, giving up.
I sigh. I want to hurry this up. "What's your reward for success?"
"Hm... Success... Perhaps... some goods, a little coin... Another day, perhaps another week of life... but ultimately, it is the respect, and the fear. The people fear the Crows, so they don't bother me... but, as you can see, that is neither here nor there."
I rub my forehead, likely smearing blood all over my face. "So you're loyal to the Crows?"
The Crow shakes his head, looking weary. "Loyalty is an interesting concept. I'm as loyal as can be, for someone purchased at the age of seven for three sovereigns, which is a good price, especially since I was nothing but a bag of bones who didn't know the pommel of a dagger from the pointy end."
"So you're loyal to yourself."
The blood under him is growing at an alarming rate, and I am beginning to think maybe I need to do something about it, if I want him to keep answering questions, but... I can't trust him. "Well, aren't we all? I am as loyal as I can be, but I do not like the idea of being killed for simple failure, because... how will I fix it, or succeed next time, or learn from the mistake? It seems like such a waste."
I shake my head. I can't argue with that. "What would you do if I just stood up and walked away?"
"My dear, in case you have not noticed, I am wounded. I would die. And if I did not die now, I would be killed later for having failed – and quite gruesomely, I assure you. I would be better off dying right here. Exsanguination is much like falling asleep." The man rubs at his face, looking like he might be inclined for a nap right now.
Time to get to the heart of it. "And if I healed you, and took you with me?"
He laughs incredulously, shaking his head and closing his eyes. "And... what would you want, for that?"
"I can see that tactics is not your skill. What is?"
"Ooh, you words are as sharp as your blades. Is that a way to treat a dying man? With mockery?"
The assassin starts to turn grey, and I sigh, relenting, and pull out a poultice. "Here. I'm not done with you yet, and you're coming with me. If you try to kill me, I'll have Skanda eat you."
"Oh, we can't have that – bestiality is not my thing." I stare at him a moment, and he leers. I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head. Gallows humour.
Skanda raises his hackles and looks incredibly menacing. I watch the Crow struggle, obviously weakened, and sigh again. "Take that off, and I'll put the bandage on," I say, gesturing impatiently to his armour.
He curls, trying to sit up and I pull on him to get him upright. He looks at me for a moment, blinking, then a slow, drunken smile spreads across his face. I suspect he's lost too much blood now, and rush to help him, unbuckling the side of his armour, peeling it off, then pushing him back down. He lands on his back on the ground with a thump and stares up at the sky, eyes glazing.
"I have many skills. I can fight... I'm... very st... stealthy..." His voice takes on a slightly dreamlike quality and I hurry, pressing the bandage to his side. "Picking... locks..." he mumbles, and the poultice begins to glow. "Bedwarming," he slurs, chuckling, and my eyes narrow. I'll let it go; he is delirious. He blinks, long and slow, and then his eyes clear. He looks up at me and studies my face intently. At last, he says, "But... Honestly – given the choice? I'd rather take my chances with you."
Alistair comes up at exactly the wrong moment. "What? We're taking the assassin with us? Do you really think that's wise?"
I ignore him and look down at the Crow, serious as I've ever been. "I could have let you die just now. Do you understand why I didn't?"
He looks from me to Alistair and back, then glances around the clearing at all the carnage and wreckage. "I think I know why, but I don't think I understand, and it makes me curious."
I stand up, dusting off my pants. "Follow me, protect me, and keep me from people like yourself, and one day, after this is all over, I'll tell you why. If I die, you'll never know."
Alistair gasps. "You can't be serious!"
The blond man takes my hand and lets me help him up. "That is a fine bargain. I am Zevran. Zev, to my friends."
"Withiel," I say, and he nods.
"I here-by pledge my oath of loyalty to you, until such a time as you choose to release me from it. I am your man, without reservation. This, I swear." He crosses his wrists over his chest and bows his head.
"What?" Alistair says again. "Don't I get a say in this? What's to stop him from just killing us in our sleep?"
I am truly irritated now and turn around quickly to look at him, feeling nothing but contempt, in this moment, for my brother Warden. "Well, that's what you're for, then!" I snap. "And no: no, you don't get a say in this. You said you can't lead, that you'll get yourself lost in the woods with no pants, Alistair, and then you push me forward so far that I'm stuck making all the hard decisions. If you want to act like an executioner, then fine, you look him in the eye and kill him. I do not have the stomach to simply kill a man who just offered me his life, so don't try and dress it up pretty; you didn't have much of a protest when we decided to bring Sten."
"Sten didn't try to kill us!" Alistair protests.
"Oh, yes... I'm sure the residents of that farmhold will totally appreciate the distinction," I say, narrowing my eyes, and he suddenly deflates.
"Right. I guess we need all the help we can get. Just another sign of how desperate we really are."
Everyone is silent for a moment as they see me back Alistair down, and I feel the way the group looks at me changing a little. I turn around and Leliana is picking up Zevran's things for him. I can't afford to have her next to him; if he really is going to try for us again, Leliana would be too perfect as a hostage. It would be way to easy to use her against us. She's just so... sweet. She's too trusting by half; he'd feed her a poison and that would be it.
I come up next to her and take the cuirass from her hand. "Look, I'll take over here, Lel. You guys get these idiots stripped, stacked, and ashed. And Wynne, please heal Alistair before he falls over." I turn around and look at the assassin again. "Zevran," I begin, but he shakes his head.
"Zev," I amend, feeling a little strange about it. "Uh. You come with me." I've got a million things I want to ask him. He is somehow a person, not smoke and shadows; he is my childhood nightmare made flesh, yet I spilled his blood. I lead him up the hill a little way, where we are clearly visible to everyone in the party. Skanda prowls along beside us. "How important is your honour to you?"
He smirks. "Honour is a luxury, and one I have never had much of. However, I am smart enough to know which hand feeds me, and I have no intention of biting it."
I blink, not understanding. "How is honour a luxury? When they take everything else from you, your strength as a person is all that is left."
"Ah, but I am not a person; I am property, and as such, am not afforded the luxury of having my own personal code. I am beholden to the rules of the oaths I take and the contracts I am given. Is it so different here?"
"No... It's not different here, I just refuse to accept it. I am not an object, I am not a toy; I am a person, and I have a right to dignity. So... Honour, personal integrity. In a world like ours, it's the only thing they can't strip from us unless we let them."
He looks around sardonically, and his eyes are so... empty. "Then you are a stronger person than I, and, as you can see, I don't have much of a survival instinct, either. What does it matter? I'm just a tool; I attack where I am directed. In your hands and under your direction, I can still be a weapon, but you are right, I am nobody's plaything... just a blade in the dark."
I cover my mouth with my hand and shake my head. They suck out your soul... I begin to understand, but it's not like in the stories; this is a man, a person, and they have broken him, the same way that I am broken, only worse: they've turned him into a killer.
I can't just leave him to die at the hands of the shems, just another slave's blood to be spilt, just another elf on the pile. Stack them up and burn them, we'll get more when we go and rape the Dales again. I clench my fists and look away. Silently, I vow: if I can do nothing else for him, I am at least going to give him back his life. We are not slaves. We are free.
We make our own destinies.