THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES
The barefoot girl in the red robe with the long blonde hair walked round the bed once again. She heard the young man say, "I'm new to this, I've never done this before, I'm a bit nervous..." he was on his knees, completely naked and fully aroused. She smiled in his direction, a smile he was wholly incapable of perceiving through the fogs and veils of the realities that separated them, before his equally naked female partner launched into her facile reassuring response. Time to go, she thought, she had already observed the remainder of the scene play itself out four times.
She woke up on the floor at the side of the bed holding the young man's hand, quite a different bed, smaller and shabbier with poorer, coarser linens, in a far smaller room, and pulled herself up. The empty lyrium flask on the floor rolled at her feet. She felt hungry and tired but thought that first she needed to talk to Nolan "Some assistance, please," she said making no effort to conceal her annoyance and the fully armed Templar came reluctantly forward and offered her his arm. He was obviously one of those that believed that so much as the lightest physical contact with a mage would somehow contaminate him. She looked down at the young man lying prone and unconscious hoping silently that he did not share that attitude, before turning to her unwilling escort and saying, "Take me to the Commander..."
Commander Nolan had first summoned her the previous day. "They say you're good... Despite your youth and the eccentricity..." He had remarked gesturing in the direction of her bare feet and the silverite chain around her right ankle.
She had looked down at him seated behind his desk, he had white, unkept hair and a grizzled beard and moustache, there was the pale vertical line of a scar dissecting his left cheek. The haphazard facial hair had probably been grown to conceal others. He was wearing a curious scale armour, some black material with silver studs, must be his personal preference, she thought.
They said that he assiduously avoided all but minimal contact with mages because he was frightened by what they could discern about him. As usual, it was all in vain, it was not necessary to be a mage to guess almost at once what he wished to conceal so zealously, it was enough just have some knowledge of people and life... He was also unaware that the mages supposedly in his charge would be the last people to judge him on what he thought was his terrible weakness, but there you go, that was Templars for you, thoroughly paranoid to a man.
"I suppose you've heard..." He said.
"About the injured Templar..." She had replied, "of course, we're mages, all we do is gossip and fornicate... Occasionally we cast and read the odd book..."
He smiled grimly, "They warned me about you..."
"You know what my price is," she said looking down at her bare feet. She had sworn when she had passed her Harrowing the previous year, becoming a fully qualified mage in the process, that she would not wear shoes again until she was allowed out of the Tower permanently. One of her friends to celebrate her survival had given her the slight silverite chain she now always wore around her right ankle.
"No can do." He said.
"So what do you have to offer me, gold? Really what's the point? I've got nothing to spend it on, anyway, except perhaps bribing your men... Now there's a thought..."
"A good word," He had said, "A good word in the right ears... Who knows? One day you might get out of here, even with that demeanour..."
Their conversation was in Fereldan, good old Fereldan, so much franker than the bloody affected Orlesian that she had had to spend most of her life speaking and writing up until now in the Tower. She was ready to cut Nolan some slack for that, the first Fereldan Templar Commander of Kinloch Hold in about a century, appointed personally by King Maric following the Ramille debacle.
But not too much slack, "No." She had said, "That's not enough."
He sighed, "You people, you are all too wound up in yourselves, you have no compassion..."
"What do you expect? Most of us are confined here, through no fault of our own, like animals for life… You're the ones with the swords..." She said.
"Indeed we are." He remarked, getting up and walking towards the door and opening it where he said to the Templar on guard, "Take her to see the young man..."
So it was she ended up in the little cell for the first time looking down at the youth in the bed. He could not have been more than seventeen and he was in a bad way, his face was pinched pale and drawn covered in a week's worth of dark stubble, his arms lying on the covers were stick thin. Strangely, for a Templar, his black hair was long and lay across the pillow in a thick braid. His breath rasped and smelled foetid, he clearly did not have much time left. Then he began to mumble and moan.
"Touch him," said the Commander suddenly standing at her elbow, "Touch him."
"No," she said, "No..."
Nolan grabbed her wrist and forced her hand against the young man's cheek. She breathed in at the shock of the contact and for a few seconds saw what he was seeing.
The Commander released her hand. "Can you help him?" he asked still holding her wrist.
She wrenched her hand free. "Templars!" she said with scorn, "... it is always the same problem. No wonder the healing isn't working... And this one, he is young and doesn't know any better. He's being drained faster than he's being healed... What were you thinking sending him out to the Kocari Wilds so unprepared?"
"And you are how old?" Nolan asked smirking. He had a point she conceded, she did not know her exact age but was probably not much older than the unconscious Templar herself.
"A good word..." she said.
"Yes." The Commander nodded, "in the right ears..."
"I'll do it then, for that and for the boy..." she said, "but only if I can do it my way... He might actually survive then..."
"You need to tell me what you do..."
"Trust me you don't want to know..."
"Yes, I do," he said, turning her around to face him, "If you can save the boy and don't harm yourself, I want to know how you do it..."
She left skittish Templar at the door and went in to see Nolan alone.
"I have..." she did not have the words for what she had done to describe it to a lay person, but then she recalled he was a soldier, "surveyed the situation..."
The Commander seemed to understand this perfectly. "And?" he asked.
"Well it is as I thought, the usual thing," she could not understand why she was suddenly being so coy.
Nolan was not going to let her get away with that, "And what is, pray, 'the usual thing'?"
"Sex," she said, "Sex, he is a virgin and the demon is offering and giving him sex. It is a desire demon..."
The Commander sighed, "I have no idea what my predecessors in this post were like," He said gruffly, "but, me, I've been a soldier many years, not least through this recent war... And I think I know how these things work, you don't need to protect me. Mages aren't the only ones with a knowledge or experience of... Sex." he paused, "And this demon?"
"I get the impression it is... I don't know whether demons have an age or a power level, some of the older mages love to spend their last years discussing speculative demonology, me? I think it's a waste of time and don't really care. It's a bit like counting dust motes… But if we were using age as a descriptor I'd call it young, if power, weak..."
"And on what are you basing that assessment?" He asked his bushy white eyebrows puckering as they came together. She got the distinct impression that it was a question he had been asking of subordinates most of his life.
"Do you know a mage called Ger or Gerry?" she asked him, the Commander shook his head, "Well, no reason why you should, really… He passed his Harrowing a few months ago. His nickname is 'plunger' or 'plonker', for obvious reasons, overall he is pretty well built, especially for a mage... There is this joke going round that he is so dim no demon would wish to degrade itself by possessing him and that's the reason he passed. Not all mages are clever, despite what most of us would like others to believe..."
"I fail to..."
"Well, this demon's amorous discourse is not much more sophisticated than Ger's though it's a little less upfront... Its mise-en-scene is meagre, just a bed and not much else, what a sad place to loose your virtue… Especially since it's a Fade construct…"
Nolan who had lost his 'virtue' many years ago as youth in a Denerim port tavern, covered in goose-bumps and looking at the cracks in the ceiling above him under the enthusiastic ministrations of a middle-aged lady of the night, sighed inwardly, mages seemed to have all the fun and they didn't even realise it. "And there is no variety, no add ons, not very much foreplay. It's as if the demon knows the lad's poor expectations and is simply giving him the minimum…" Miss know-it-all continued.
"But wouldn't that make sense?" The Commander interrupted her, "If the boy suddenly woke up in a palatial bedchamber on silken sheets… Wouldn't he realise something was up and perhaps even be able to wrest himself free from the fiend's illusion…" Nolan could still remember those cracks in that ceiling, every last one of the darned things, and he knew he would always instinctively distrust silk sheets… If he ever happened to meet some.
"Huh… You're probably right, Commander." She said grudgingly, however she could not help adding somewhat grandiloquently, "But I would do it differently…"
"I'm sure you would, Mage, but that is hardly the point… I would advise you to go well-armed, whatever that may involve for you… This might just be a foe who knows how to balance its resources... Usually the most difficult kind to overcome."
Those last words of his echoed in her head as she walked to her chamber to recover. It was good to have a chamber of one's own, but she would so much rather be free and cold, she thought, than snug and warm, a prisoner like this in a golden cage.
No doubt Nolan had given her good advice, very good advice, he was experienced in the ways of war, after all. Although she never liked to show deference, especially to a Templar, she hoped she was intelligent enough to recognise prudent and valuable counsel when she received it.
Nolan had also gained some kudos when he promised to send one of his men to her chamber with some food since it was passed supper. He had said:
"Don't hesitate to ask me for what you need… Battles have never been fought successfully on empty stomachs."
Way to a girl's heart…
When she got to her chamber she opened the door only to find Flip, thankfully fully dressed, spread out on her bed on his back.
"Please make yourself at home, why don't you?" she said.
His real name was Philippe but since the war of independence Orlesian first names had fallen terribly out of fashion, even in the tower, so he had quickly renamed himself, 'Flip'. 'Flip' actually quite suited him.
"I know it might not look like it," he said, "but I was really worrying about you…"
"You're right," she said, "It didn't look like you were worrying about me one little bit, APPRENTICE…"
"Bugger, do you have to rub that in?" He added, "What did our most glorious Templar Commander want from the prettiest mage in the tower? A BJ? Does that Templar scum not realise that she is mine, mine, all MINE? MUAHAAA HAA HAA…"
"I'm sure just that laugh will paralyse Nolan with fear…" But she turned and kissed him in any event. Flip was actually one of the most competent of the up and coming destruction mage apprentices but he didn't let that go to his head. Most days, anyway.
"Ehem…" From the door of the chamber came the sound of someone clearing his throat… It was the same skittish Templar from before with her supper.
So, just for him, she rolled her eyes and said, "Please put that tray over there… I'm busy…" She then pushed Flip back on the bed and, groped at his groin, and started crawling on top of him… Flip gave a theatrical groan… "Close the door behind you when you leave…" she finished.
When the Templar did just that with a curse, something about mages, apostates and taint-ridden dogs, she rolled off Flip and started giggling uncontrollably, "They are so easy… So easy… What was his face like…"
"Oh, Maker, I don't know… as if he'd caught his Sweetheart with someone else? If he's ever had a Sweetheart…"
She and Flip had met several years ago, the year, in fact during which fistfights among mages were all the craze. Yes, fist-fights and not only involving the boys. The fistfight in question was between Gerry and Phillip as he was then known, and took place in the H to L section of the young apprentice mages library.
How the much smaller Phillip ever thought he had a chance against self-dubbed "Bronto Ger" in a physical fight she never knew (the children of her age had been shown an illustration of a bronto by one of their mage tutors when in a dwarven culture class and had all become obsessed with the animal). Ger had just made Phillip's nose bleed for him when the Templars turned up. Whether their trusty lookout betrayed them or simply got distracted, Maker knows, but anyway the Templars waded through the crowd of infant mages and grabbed Ger and then Phillip by the backs of their robes.
"You are not children you are animals, just bloody animals, savages…" Said the one called Voght shaking the unfortunate Ger until his teeth rattled.
"And what do you expect?" She'd asked in her very loud voice, "when you have us all shut up here like cows or sheep? 'Course we behave like animals…"
"Right, you're coming along too, then…" and the third Templar grabbed her robe and began to drag her away even as she struggled in his grip.
The were give a very stern talking to by the head tutor and then told that they would be in the little cells for three days on bread and milk, which didn't actually sound so bad since they would be missing several tests including practical demonology that she hadn't been looking forward to. Unlike brontos and dwarves, demons were boring.
The skin of her neck still chafed. "How were you ever going to beat Ger?" she ask Phillip in the cell next to her.
"I had a trick up my sleeve…" he said, unflappable.
"Right." She said, "Somehow I don't think so…"
"You're alright for a girl, you have guts, although you also have a very loud voice…" Even then she could recognise an attempt at changing the subject.
"This trick…" She persisted.
"Not telling." He replied.
"I need to talk to Ger, he's upset…" In fact Ger had been wailing noisily ever since they had been put in the cells.
"You need to talk to him, but he made your nose bleed…" She objected.
"You're a girl," said Phillip haughtily, "you wouldn't understand…"
"I don't understand…" Flip was saying, "Why does Nolan want you to do this?"
"The other Templars died…" she said.
"And? It happens, happens to us, happens to them, what's that got to do with my sweetums?"
"I am not your sweetums…"
"Well, I think you are and sometimes I get very possessive about you and I don't enjoy the idea of sending you off tramping after demons, you're just a healer, after all…"
The slap really stung. She went over to the tray left by the Templar and began to gnaw at a chicken leg, between bites she said, "Heal that, bozo…"
"The hand that hurts also heals…" Moaned Flip.
"Not this time. Deal with it, apprentice and listen to your senior." She said between inelegant gulps.
"The other two Templars died even though it appears they were rid of the demons…" she waved the already denuded chicken bone in the air.
"So what killed them?"
"I have a theory about that and I think Nolan does too…"
The young man was on his knees on the bed, completely naked and fully aroused, before his equally naked female partner… whom she hit with a sleep spell. She had decided it would be best to start with a medium level spell to see if she could pull it off without expending too much juice…
She had been practicing casting the sleep variant spells of the entropy class for the last day. Healers were not very competent at casting the more directly damaging elementary spells so she had had to go with what she could develop. Flip had overseen her practice in the apprentices' library but was not very happy with her level.
"This is just not you, is it? Covert malice is required and, really, you have none of that… Attitude, yes, sass, in abundance, but malice? Sweetums…" The last word was barely a whisper.
The female rocked somewhat when hit, and her eyes rolled in their sockets. She allowed herself to be hopeful for a brief moment but then the female's torso turned impossibly independently from her pelvis and she found herself looking into a pair of purple glittering ovoid eyes.
Fine, time for disorient… Now that may have hit the mark the ovoid eyes thoroughly incongruent in the human face, blinked and a confused look flooded them…
Good. Now sleep again… The entity moaned gently and its head sunk to the mattress, the youth looked at his erstwhile partner stunned. Now horror, horror… The being began to thrash, groan and salivate, its legs and arms trembling and contracting.
She reached into her robe and pulled out a small flask of lyrium, downing it in one swallow ignoring the sickly sweet taste. She cast a massive amount of heal on the youngster almost exhausting the mana reserves she had just replenished. Out of the blue she felt woozy, too much too fast, she thought, too…
The thing on the bed jerked.
She was laying under Flip and he was deep inside her. For some reason he seemed inordinately fixated by her neck she could feel his hot breath on her tender skin and the coarse stubble of his beard chafe roughly against it, at the same time as the smooth wetness of his tongue…
"Flip," she said putting a hand up to his hair, "Flip… I thought we had agreed…"
"We didn't…" he growled, "Well, I didn't anyway…" He added peevishly.
He was not the largest of her lovers but he had his ways, he withdrew from her somewhat, circled his pelvis and thrust back into her at an angle, a very pleasurable angle… Her back arched and she heard herself gasp, her heels and hands thrashing against the silken sheets.
Silken sheets… Silken sheets… Silken…
The thing had her by her long blonde hair and its face was right up against hers almost touching. Its breath was warm and delicately scented with a hint of violets. It opened its tiny dainty maw in a bored, languorous yawn and she saw, though its overall form was humanoid, its tongue was long and forked and its mouth was full of sharp teeth, like a cat's, as if to confirm that impression, the deep rumble of a purr rolled up from its chest…
She put her hand over its hand in her hair and attempted to tug herself free. "Let me, let me… Fuck… Owww!" She managed to wrench her head free but more than a few fair strands floated in its clenched purplish fist.
She was in that bedroom on that bed and the young man was now on all fours, but still stupefied, his sex still painfully erect. She dodged the thing and moved to his side. She swore under her breath at the dimness of average mortals and especially wretched Templars.
"You are in the Fade," she shouted at him, "You are a Templar, you have a sword for the love of Andraste, a big bloody sword…" punching his shoulder, but he looked exactly the same, impassive. That thing about the sword, It wasn't currently true, of course, but, she thought desperately, if she could somehow anchor that image within his mind…
The creature put a long nailed hand on her shoulder and wrenched her backwards. Suddenly she felt all the strength draining out of her and she fell on her back on the bed. It straddled her, passing one shapely leg over her and then it lay on top of her. She felt its sex pressing against her sex, its breasts against hers… Its impossibly perfumed breath wafting over her face… "Maker!" she gasped as its wet lips hovered eagerly over her neck and then latched onto it.
There was dew-drenched grass under her feet and sun on her skin. She was standing on the top of a hill next to a windmill looking down on a forest, it was a beautiful day and she was free. Free. Happiness flooded through her body starting at her groin and then fluttering lightly into her stomach on butterfly wings. She put her arms up and stretched out on tip-toe. A breeze riffled through her hair. Above her the windmill creaked and its sails moved slightly…
She was stretched out on the bed and the thing's thick, repellent glutinous tongue was moving against her neck the thorns at the end of its forks rasping against her skin, she tried to move her arms but it had anchored them securely above her head.
She squeezed her eyes tight, took in a long breath through her nose and jabbed her right knee upwards with all her strength into the creature's lower stomach as she screamed. The thing seemed to falter at the impact and, for one precious moment, let go of her wrists. She rolled to one side attempting to get away from it but felt it grasp her shoulder and drag her back. Then suddenly it released her and began to make strange cooing noises from its throat, its tongue lolling loosely.
She turned round and looked up. The young man was standing over it and had gripped it by its hair. He glanced down at her gravely and raised his right arm above his head, there was a glimmer and suddenly he was holding a sword. A big bloody sword. He bought it down in a most elegant and precise arc and severed the creature's head with a single, forceful blow.
She put up her arm to shield her eyes and mouth but still she felt the blood, ichor, whatever… splatter over her in a warm shower.
The boy looked down at her: "I am a Templar. I have a sword… I slay demons." He said.
"Right" she replied momentarily stunned, "right." Then she patted the bed next to her. "You should sit down here…"
He so did very obediently, the blood or ichor started to melt away… The sword itself that he still gripped was now only half-real. His eyes were still wide and mesmerised. She thanked him anyway. "Do you want to go back?" She asked.
"Back?" He echoed.
"Yes, back to where you were, a Templar or a trainee Templar rather in Kinloch Hold… I'm a mage by the way…"
He looked away from her. She wondered whether those were tears in his eyes. She put her finger on his chin and turned his face towards her again.
"It's not so bad…" She told him, "It just feels bad at the moment but that will pass…" she noticed for the first time that his lips were beautifully shaped and tender. She kissed them lightly. "See, not so bad, and, mage or not, I'm a real woman not a demon…"
She picked up his long braid and wrapped it around her hand, "What's your name?" She asked.
He hesitated, "Gre… Gregoir…"
"Gregoir. Nice name." She was beginning to feel like this mother. He probably didn't have one. She didn't either, she guessed that could be part of the problem.
"You know this place isn't real, don't you?" He nodded mutely. "What do you need to come back, Gregoir?"
He hesitated again then put his arms around her shoulders and pulled her to him. "I can't love you, Gregoir…" She said feeling smothered, "I can't give you the feelings you need because I don't know you… And this is not the right place to get to know someone. I can give you physical affection but the demon was already doing that…"
He let her go and in the first really independent movement she had seen him make, he looked down and his chest heaved. "Just tell me—" He said slowly, "What's your name?"
"Just tell me you could love me, Winifred…"
"I could love you Gregoir, very easily, I assume…"
"Then kiss me." He said, "A real kiss…"
She wound his braid around her hand a little tighter and pulled his face close to hers. He closed his eyes and smiled, trusting her. She noticed his lashes were long and dark. She put her lips against his and lingered there for a long time, he waited patiently. Then very slowly she dipped her tongue into his mouth…
Real life Gregoir was in much of a worse state than Fade Gregoir of course. Fade projections always tended to be the ideal self rather than the apparent one, however tenuous the individual's magic abilities. This time when she returned she was holding his braid, suddenly it felt very intimate and she let it go. She felt completely washed out and pulled herself up using the bed and looked at him. He was stirring, after weeks of stillness, he was stirring.
The same skittish Templar let forth an exclamation and rushed towards the bed.
"Great isn't it?" She said cynically, "C'mon bloody help the miracle maker to her room…"
He looked round at her with momentary fury and then his expression changed somewhat and he offered her his arm. Again.
Nolan summoned her two days' later. "I expected you to be around here crowing about how well you had done…" He said.
"I was recovering." She replied. "I don't crow."
He frowned. "I have a conscious young Templar who is asking to see you…"
"No need for an escort" She said quickly, "I know where to find him. I'll go by myself this time…"
"But why…" Stuttered Nolan. She ignored him.
She walked quickly to his room, he was standing with his back to her and then he turned, he was wearing a very threadbare jerkin and breeches that hung loosely on him. He was blushing. Compared to his clothing her mage's robe was a thing of luxury and beauty.
"You didn't come to see me…"
"Winifred." He said, she noticed he licked his lips nervously.
"Gregoir, what happens in the Fade stays in the Fade…" She said.
He tilted his head thinking about that. "So technically I am still a virgin…"
An interesting observation, she thought. "'Technically'" she said slowly, "You are still a virgin Templar."
"That name's too long, you know…" He said, "for a girl that kisses so well, I mean…"
"Your name should be shorter so a boy can get to the kissing part quicker…"
"The thought had never occurred to me."
He did not appear to be put off. "Wynne," He said, "That sounds better, Wynne and strawberry kisses…"
"Gregoir, I have to go. Here I am the enemy. A mage, you are a Templar, I know my place…"
He looked sad and shook his head. "I won't forget what you did for me, Wynne, and I won't forget that kiss…"
"As you say." She replied. Templars… She thought. Nothing would ever come of it.