I just re-edited every previously-posted chapter of this fic, and my titles seem to have some formatting issues for which the idea of going back through and re-editing for every chapter seems daunting. So apologies for any inconsistencies in the header.
The Names We're Given
Chapter 1: Setting Boundaries
by Dreamer In Silico
"Go, Meillianye – go with the Grey Wardens and prosper. You will have a place in the human world, and status, with which to leave your mark upon it."
But what they meant was, go with the Grey Wardens and don't lure any more templar dogs into our forests. I was welcome enough when I was uncovering the old lore and sharing it with them, but now… I am a liability.
They'd be happy just to see the back of me and not have to think about me again, but I listened to what the Keeper said.
Ferelden's backward-gazing infrastructure is rotting out from under itself. Change is coming, one way or another, and I?
I have nothing left to lose.
Wood smoke and the tang of fresh-worked steel wafted in the warm breeze, the unwelcome scents of impending war. Despite Mei Surana's distaste, she found the two far preferable to the underlying miasma of mildewed leather, human sweat, and wet mabari that fought for dominance in the humid air. Trying valiantly not to let her disgust show on her sharp, expressive features as she picked her way through the camp, she reflected that if she was indeed to be a Grey Warden, she had better get used to this at some point.
Duncan had sent her to find some other new recruit by the name of Alistair, supposedly after she had explored and accustomed herself to the rest of the camp… but as she had less than zero desire to make small talk with any of its inhabitants, it seemed best just to find this Alistair and be done with it. The weight of the humans' scornful stares was already abrading her scant patience – apparently few of them had ever seen an elf in clothing other than a servant's threadbare garb or a set of mages' robes, by the number of gawkers she had already noted. As far as Mei was concerned, her supple leggings, tunic, and undershirt were the only sensible things for a spellcaster to be wearing in a war camp, but she had already caught a glimpse of the Tower mages, and they were as impractically turned-out in their embellished scholar robes as ever.
Self-important fools and hypocrites, the lot of them.
She had seen the Senior Enchanter, Wynne, standing with her usual ramrod composure over near one of the camp suppliers, but assiduously avoided all paths that would have taken her near the elder mage. Mei had held the past at bay by sheer force of will since agreeing to join the Wardens, and she would not risk losing that control again. While the older woman was the one living member of the Circle that she did not despise, the steely-eyed sympathy she was sure to show toward Mei would be unbearable.
So strong was her preoccupation with evading Wynne's notice, Mei did not see the quartermaster until he had already grabbed her arm.
"You lazy, knife-eared wench, where is that chainmail?!"
The human's hand was large and rough, but not especially strong. Infuriated, Mei did not afford him the communicative courtesy that he had denied to her – she had wrenched out of his grasp and sunk a quick knee in his groin likely before the man even had time to realize that he had apprehended the wrong "knife-eared wench."
Staggering to the ground, he started to raise his voice to call out, but all he could manage was a very high-pitched moan as he clutched himself in pain.
"Keep your dirty, clumsy paws to yourself, human fool," the elf spat. "I hope the servant you were apparently looking for scratches your eyes out if you ever try such a thing with her."
"Woah, lady, I know his prices are high, but isn't that a bit excessive?" drawled a voice from the sidelines.
"He's lucky he still has both his hand and his balls, grabbing me like he did," she retorted, looking up to see a swarthy man in a hunter's leathers regarding her askance.
"Quite the fighter… you Duncan's newest recruit, then?" he asked.
"I am… You're not Alistair, are you? I'm supposed to be looking for him."
"Nah, name's Daveth – I'm another one of the newest batch of recruits, with you. Alistair was down at the far end of camp, last I saw him. Blonde fellow in splint mail." Daveth helped the still-whimpering quartermaster up from the ground as Mei looked on. The quartermaster spared her a death-glare as he returned to his post, but seemed unwilling to make further trouble with a Grey Warden recruit. "Can't say as you're what I'd expected, to be right honest about it, lady."
Mei snorted. "And what did you expect, then? A dwarf, perhaps?"
"Uh, well, I'd heard you were a mage, but you don't look like one of the Circle types…"
"You mean, I look like I actually belong in a war camp?" She quirked a dark eyebrow at him.
Daveth glanced over at the mages' camp slyly, and chortled, "Aye, that must be it! Always did think those dresses they wear were a mite unwieldy."
"Oh, they're quite comfortable… if you're in a library. I think they may have missed being told about the mud and decided lack of books here, though," she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially.
The man laughed again, shaking his head. "Well, have you met Ser Jory yet? There's three of us newcomers, altogether."
"He's a big bloke from Redcliffe. Bit of a jittery sort, for a knight – I'm not really sure why he's here if he's so concerned about that family he left behind. Me, I've not got a family, so it's all just as well." He eyed her curiously. "You here by choice, then, or because Duncan saved your hide from the gibbet like he did mine?"
"I had a choice," she answered obliquely. "Wasn't much of one, but I suppose I could have gone elsewhere. Now if you'll excuse me, I really must find Alistair."
Humans are so infernally nosy. She knew the sentiment wasn't strictly fair; by many standards the Dalish elves far surpassed any idle curiosity she had recently been subjected to, but dodging the standard questions really started to get old when it was necessary on a near-constant basis.
"Right, right. I'm sure I'll see you around later – hey, I didn't get your name!" he called as she was already striding off.
"Call me Mei," she tossed over her shoulder as she continued to walk. "No one can pronounce the rest of it anyway…" the woman muttered under her breath, scanning her surroundings for Alistair or other potentially unpleasant surprises. The quartermaster's intrusive mistake had not eased her nerves one bit.
She found the described human among the ruins near the edge of camp, and she could hear him arguing with someone even before she could see the person he was talking to. Too late to avoid notice, she saw that his conversational opponent was a Tower mage, and sighed audibly. The mage, for his part, recognized Mei just as he was turning to stalk off, and stopped short for a full five seconds before pushing past her with a sneer.
"And I suppose the Reverend Mother sent you to run errands for her as well, witch…"
She didn't even know the man personally. Word must have really gotten around.
"Not sodding likely, idiot," she swore after him, shaking her head bemusedly.
"Ahh, darkspawn. Cramming people who can't stand each other into confined quarters since the first Blight. Lovely, isn't it?" The man who must be Alistair was regarding her amiably, a slightly sheepish expression on his guileless features.
Mei stared at him before letting out a short bark of laughter. "Oh, you've no idea. You're Alistair, then?"
"I am – have we met?" He paused, then raked his gloved hand through short, spiky hair as a look of understanding came over his face. "Oh, right. Of course not – you must be the new recruit."
"Yes, I am Mei," she said. "Duncan told me to find you, so here I am. What… was with the mage, might I ask?"
"Oh, him?" Alistair snorted. "The Reverend Mother here with the priests saddled me with a summons for him – meant it as an insult to send me, I'm sure, and the mage knew it. I used to be a templar, you see, before I joined the Wardens a few months ago."
"Templar. Lovely." Her blue-violet eyes had shifted from almost warm to frosty in the space of a heartbeat. "Duncan could have warned me."
Plainly sensing the change in her demeanor, the man gave her a confused look. "I… look, I know you were from the Circle at some point – he told me that much ahead of time – but being shut up in the Chantry and used as a watchdog wasn't exactly something I enjoyed, all right? Getting out of there with Duncan was the best thing that ever happened to me."
The tension in Mei's stance eased fractionally, and Alistair seemed to take it as an invitation to question. "Is this your first time out of the Tower, then? I'll admit you don't look like the other mages, but I thought they only let the oldsters out into the world in most cases."
Well, if this doesn't shock the pants off him…
"I'm an apostate," she answered baldly. "So no – my first time out was… some time ago. I was living near a Dalish clan, and met Duncan when he visited them."
His eyes had gone gratifyingly large at her revelation. "Ahhhh… well. That's certainly unusual. No wonder you reminded me so much of a pissed-off alley cat; every one of your hackles must be up in this place."
This was a very strange former templar, indeed. At least she wasn't overtaken with an urge to tear him limb from limb, yet – that was probably a good thing.
"To put it mildly. Now, I think we were expected somewhere? Shall we go?" she asked, briskly.
"Right. Sure thing, let's go find Duncan."
A damp spring breeze wound its way through the dark canopy overhead, and in isolated moments, it was almost possible to believe the forest a peaceful, untouched wilderness.
Then the wind would shift, and the foul smell of their trail of darkspawn corpses would return to remind them that this was no pleasure-jaunt, and the trees and the very earth beneath them had beady, porcine eyes, slavering teeth, and bloodstained swords.
Mei had lost count of the ambushes; they had long since filled the required vials with darkspawn blood. Still the small party trudged onward, uninspired by Alistair's vague assurances that it couldn't be too much farther, yet bowing to the necessity of retrieving the treaties nonetheless. Daveth and Jory babbled to each other nervously, a bit more on-edge with every fresh encounter, with Alistair attempting to lighten the mood with the occasional pithy joke, but Mei was grim and silent, preferring to save her breath for the darkspawn.
The others had been almost comically appalled the first time she had drawn her blades and engaged an ambusher head-on.
"You're a mage, aren't you? Whatever are you doing with a sword?" ser Jory had gasped as she calmly wiped gore from her weapons after the skirmish.
"I was defending myself, or would you have helplessly trying to complete a spell whilst I give the darkspawn right in front of me a clear shot at my head?" she'd asked, voice mild, suppressing a laugh at his goggle-eyed expression.
A small, quiet part of her brain supposed that she shouldn't laugh at their ignorance, since skill with blades was assuredly not the normal purview of mages even beyond the Circle, but the rest could not help but be amused at their incredulity. Her capabilities as an arcane warrior, however obscure, surely shouldn't need much explanation beyond the dead darkspawn in front of her. The Chantry made humans think they knew and controlled every power under the sky – show them something that wasn't "supposed" to exist, no matter how reasonable, and you'd think down had suddenly become up and cats had taken up sleeping with mabari, the way they reacted!
Finally, after a particularly messy sortie on a hillside, the bruised and battered party reached the crumbling ruins of a tower, and Alistair announced that they'd found their destination. Mei rather strongly doubted that any documents stored in such a place would have been preserved from the elements as well as scavengers, but she sifted through the broken crates and chests nonetheless.
The treaties were nowhere to be found, but the soft scrape of a booted footfall echoing down from the decrepit remains of the far wall of the tower alerted Mei to another presence. She straightened in alarm just in time to see a wild-looking human woman in a tattered leather skirt, bone jewelry, and not terribly much else stepping down from the wall.
"What is this? The intruders have made their way through knots of stinking darkspawn and blighted animals only to attempt to scavenge within a nigh-forgotten tower that has been picked clean for years?" The dark head cocked curiously. "What is it that brings three men-at-arms and an elf stumbling into these wilds of mine?"
Daveth stumbled back from the crate he had been inspecting, nearly quivering. "She's a… a…"
Alistair jumped on the bandwagon. "Witch of the wilds!"
It was all Mei could do not to roll her eyes.
The strange human woman waited calmly, even arrogantly, as Mei's three burly, armed companions discussed the likelihood that she would turn them into toads. Mei ignored the men's fear, instead meeting the newcomer's vivid yellow stare with her own direct and curious complacence.
The corner of the woman's wine-dark lips crept ever so faintly upward in the suggestion of a smirk, and an acute flash of understanding passed between them. You know what I am, better than they, and are not afraid.
That the woman was a mage, Mei was certain. That she was an apostate was just as clear, but the jittery talk of these "witches of the wilds" that Alistair was spewing sounded mostly like the sort of stories exhausted mothers tell their children to encourage good behavior by threat. Mei snorted softly, and shook her head.
"Would you three calm down, and stop behaving like infants?"
"She's an apostate, and probably a maleficar!" Alistair screeched, apparently rather concerned that Mei did not share his alarm.
Mei's attitude toward him promptly shifted from mildly exasperated amusement to hotly flaring fury. "Oh, I'm sure you must be right!" Her voice dripped acid sarcasm as she turned to face the ex-templar. "Because we all know that mages simply cannot avoid throwing open the doors of their minds to any demon that happens to come along and stop for tea unless there's a battalion of watchdogs standing over them at all times with a sword!"
He had the grace to look ashamed, at least. "I didn't mean –"
"Oh? Didn't you? What did you mean, then, Chantry-boy? Enlighten me." Her violet gaze seared into him as she waited to see how deep he would dig this hole.
"I just… there are dangerous things out here. And people. And we don't know her, so I'd rather be cautious than... anything else."
Mei sighed. His definition of 'caution' needed some work if it meant accusing someone whose help they might need – and who just might be able to verify a few of his fears about being turned into an amphibian – of being an abomination, but she knew how thoroughly that knee-jerk fear was drummed into the templar trainees. "I'm sure she's quite dangerous. I'm also sure that is why she is alive, given the rather impressive infestation of darkspawn in these parts. And finally, I'm sure that if we want those treaties, we would be best off discussing them like civilized adults, and not frightened children hiding under the bed waving sticks at imaginary monsters."
Alistair clearly had no intention of conceding the point aloud, but he nodded tersely and turned his attention back toward the object of their argument.
"A refreshingly practical point of view," the stranger approved. "I like you."
Amused, Mei felt her lips stretch into a tight smile, but she still wasn't about to let her guard down, for all she was far more inclined to appreciate the human mage than she was her companions.
"May I ask your name?"
"You may ask, but I shall not answer unless I know your own," the human countered.
"I am Mei, of the Grey Wardens," she answered warily.
"And you may call me Morrigan. The chest your precious treaties were in rusted away to dust long ago; it seems passing strange that your order would suddenly want to find them now."
"What have you done with them? Hand them over," Alistair finally grated out, his glower still firmly in place.
"No, I –" the witch began, but Alistair cut her off indignantly.
"What?! See, she's some sort of sneaky… witch-thief, just like I –"
"- for 'twas not I who removed them," she hissed over his protest. "My mother has kept them – out of the elements, which they certainly would not have been so in this forsaken tower – against the Grey Wardens' return." She crossed leather-wrapped arms over her chest, the image of exasperated impatience.
"Will you take us to her, then, please?" Mei asked, suppressing another sigh.
"Yes, if you will follow me – I suppose I am glad that at least one of you has some sense!"
" 'Tis not often my mother finds such amusement in conversing with anyone." The curious words held a sharpness to them, yet they were clearly pitched only for Mei's ears as the party followed Morrigan out of the deep wilds.
"I can't imagine she converses often, at all, living where you do," Mei replied neutrally, rather surprised that their taciturn guide had seen fit to speak beyond the strictly necessary.
"Not frequently, no, but she is very old," Morrigan allowed. "You are one of us, are you not?"
Mei snorted a chuckle. "I've been called 'witch,' but the Dalish never had quite the sense of melodrama that humans seem to, nor their fear of magic, so 'witch of the wilds' is certainly not anything I'd heard before." She considered briefly before deciding to continue. It wasn't as if the piece of information Morrigan seemed to be driving at was especially difficult to find out. "But if you mean, do I exist outside the oversight of the Chantry, then yes, I do."
"Yet you live within the Chantry flock's society. How – "
"Not easily," she replied shortly. Fellow apostate or no, she owed this woman no painful answers.
EVERYONE is infernally nosy! If she had been less irritated, she might have laughed aloud at the thought.
For a moment, she thought the human would continue to pry – her scornful lips had parted again – but to Mei's relief, she only offered a slight nod and a word of assent. "I see. I do not doubt that."
Another quarter hour saw them back into familiar territory, and Morrigan simply nodded again and faded into the leafy shadows without another word.
Alistair, who had been several paces behind them for the duration of the hike, turned a narrow-eyed glare to the thicket where the witch had disappeared and shook his head. "What did the likes of her have to talk about?" he asked grumpily.
"Oh, we were just swapping spells for turning babies into newts, making men's cocks shrivel up and fall off, that sort of thing."
"…Right, very funny." He didn't sound amused.
"She wanted to know how I get away with existing," Mei said wearily, suddenly feeling every mile of wilderness they'd traveled that day, and every bruise and scrape from their skirmishes. "I told her it wasn't easy, and left it at that. Let's get these treaties and the blood vials into camp, eh?"
A/N: If you find yourself interested in this 'verse and wanting more, I write quite a few short pieces that cover parts of this continuity on Tumblr - dreamerinsilico dot tumblr dot com. Check the story index linked in the sidebar for a list of links. :)