Author's Note: Feasting on Dreams is a loooong project. Unapologetically so. For those interested in the first two volumes, please check my profile. Each one does, pretty much, stand alone, but they're all there if you want them. For those who've stuck with Meri so far - you rock. For those new to the series - welcome! As ever, all reviews, crit, and comments appreciated.
The story so far: Merien Tabris never thought much about life outside Denerim's alienage, until she found herself thrust into it. Conscripted into the Grey Wardens and flung into the path of the Fifth Blight, she struggles to adjust, and to leave behind the guilty spectres of her past. Now, with Redcliffe safe and Connor freed from demonic posession, Meri and her companions have been railroaded into heading to Denerim to track down Brother Genitivi, in the hopes of locating the Urn of Sacred Ashes. For Merien, this means an uncomfortable confrontation with all she left behind, and everything she is becoming...
Feasting on Dreams: The Book of Merien Tabris
VOL. 3: THE WHITE GRIFFON
I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope.
~ Aeschylus, Agamemnon
The rain started the day after we left Redcliffe. Initially, we covered a reasonable amount of ground, striking for the Imperial Highway and making good time. Everyone seemed in good spirits—although I noticed Morrigan was suspiciously quiet—and it was, circumstances notwithstanding, actually rather pleasant to be walking on flat, solid ground, with the sun on our backs and no clouds in the sky.
Of course, I wasn't relishing heading to Denerim at all. The thoughts that had been plaguing me since the decision—if it could be called that—had been made returned with a vengeance, thudding through my head to the rhythm of our foot-beats. I kept them to myself, and tried to think instead of the other impossibilities; finding the Dalish, petitioning the dwarves… all those things that still somehow seemed like myths and euphemisms, and couldn't possibly be real.
The group dynamic had changed a bit since the last time we'd been on the road. I wondered, briefly, whether it was the addition of Wynne, or the fighting we'd seen that had changed us… and Redcliffe had changed things. The Tower had, too. We were, all of us, more keenly aware of each other—a team, I supposed. Each of the people with me I had entrusted with my life, and each of them I had stood beside with a blade in my hand, ready to defend them.
There were bonds there, even if we didn't talk about them… even if we still didn't really know each other. It was a strange, alien feeling.
All the same, we rubbed along well enough. Leliana sang a few verses of an Orlesian ballad about a mighty warrior who fell in love with an enchanted princess and had to battle a sea monster for her hand. I didn't understand all the words, but it was very pretty… even if Sten professed to think the song was about vegetables. He was talking more, I noticed, though only in relation to how silent he'd been before.
Wynne chipped in gamely with the banter, and within the first few hours she was already slotting into the role of mother hen, alternately chiding, encouraging and teasing her charges, the same way it was easy to imagine her dealing with apprentices. Certainly, she seemed to have no trouble keeping up, though it didn't take too keen an eye to spot that she wasn't carrying all her own gear. Alistair seemed able to manage, though, so I didn't say anything.
It was nice, in a way, to be back on the Highway. The cracked, white ribs of the pointed Tevinter arches that framed the road rose up against the bright sky, and with Redcliffe's gritty, bare cliffs behind us, by mid-afternoon we were seeing more greens and browns in the land, with stretches of fields and strips of woodland. Everything seemed peaceful enough: no noticeable signs of strife or disaster… yet. It was quiet, though, and there were very few travellers on the road. We saw only three baggage carts, and a merchant's caravan about a half a mile ahead. I wondered whether refugees were still flooding north from the Wilds, and whether Lothering still held firm, but it didn't seem right to stain the day with such dark thoughts, and I kept them to myself.
That night saw us camping near to the road, in the shelter of a clutch of trees. The mood was buoyant, though perhaps flimsily so, held together with the glue of jokes and repetitions that we'd come to depend upon. Alistair's terrible cooking, Maethor's habit of bringing half of something back from his latest forage in a hedgerow, Sten's taciturn impassiveness… we needed those little hooks to hang our sense of normalcy on, I supposed. And there was genuine warmth there now, putting down roots in the narrowest of cracks.
Darkness fell, and we rested. There was a campfire, and a bowl of something hot and basically edible, and it felt practically luxurious to have proper tents and bedding and… and I almost managed to forget the weight hanging above me, pressing down with an inexorable threat.
We slept, and I dreamed. There were walls of red rock, teeming with the black bodies of darkspawn—more than could ever be counted, let alone defeated—and there were flames and thick, choking fumes and the taste of blood, like dark, bitter metal, and the roaring in ears that were both mine and not mine. Always, the shrieking keening of another mind, another thing, clawing at me and trying to pull me into it, away from thoughts and feelings, until there was nothing left but the rage and the violence and the blood….
I woke with a start, fingers scrabbling for the sword that lay, sheathed, beside my bedroll. I'd slept in my shirt and breeches, blanket wound around me against the incipient chill, but now everything felt too tight, too confining, too hot… and I forgot that I was in a tent. I started to panic, then recollected myself, left the sword where it was, and blundered out from the canvas and into the cool embrace of the night.
The fire had been banked down, slumbering to embers as we rested. Maethor lay in his customary position before it, and he looked up sleepily at me, before giving a half-hearted wag of his tail and settling back down. I breathed slowly, deeply, and watched the sulky flames swell beneath the mantle of ash that crazed the wood. The air was clammy on my skin, the sky full with moon and stars and clouds, and the promise of a good few hours to go before dawn.
"You feel it more now, right?"
I jumped, startled. I hadn't noticed Alistair standing at the edge of the trees, a little way from the tents. Like me, he was sleep-rumpled, in breeches and shirt, hollow-eyed and trying to look nonchalant.
For a moment, outlined like that by the fire's dim glow, he made me think of Duncan, the way I'd seen him when I woke in the night on the ride down from Denerim. I'd thought he was guarding me, standing watch over us… not realising that the voices of demons kept him from his sleep.
I nodded weakly. "Mm. The… thing. It's, um…. Yeah."
Dreams. They clawed at everything, didn't they? Ate away a person, until even the things you thought you were holding safe, your most precious memories and hopes, turned against you and made you their hostage.
I blinked, rubbing the heel of my palm across my forehead. Alistair loosed a short, terse sigh.
"Yes. I know what you mean."
Was it the same for all of us? I wondered whether every Grey Warden experienced the same sights, the same sounds and smells, or if the dreams had different forms. I didn't really want to know, I supposed… didn't really want to dwell on it, or reach for the right words to frame the questions.
Instead, I ambled over to where he stood, and exchanged the ashy, smoky smell of the fire for that of tree bark and sap. I still wasn't used to all this open countryside; I missed the security of walls and buildings, cobbles under my feet and washing lines criss-crossing above my head, running from tenement to tenement.
"It is supposed to be worse for those who Join in a Blight," Alistair said, which wasn't really very comforting.
He leaned back against a tree trunk, crossed his arms, and looked at me with lop-sided geniality.
"After my Joining, when the dreams first started, I used to yell out in my sleep." He grinned sheepishly. "Well, I say yell… I screamed like a little girl."
He was trying to cheer me up, I gathered, and it worked, to an extent. Alistair shook his head as he stared into some distant memory.
"Next morning, Duncan said he'd thought I had someone in my room. Not embarrassing at all. Obviously."
I laughed, all the more at the faint blush rising on his cheekbones. His grin widened, and he looked at me, sharing the mirth. Loss still stained his eyes at the mention of his mentor's name, but he was able to talk about him—and that was good, I supposed.
"Well," I said lightly, "can't say I've heard that… but I'll be listening out now. It'll give everyone something to gossip over, at least."
Alistair rolled his eyes, and I sniggered, though the giggles faded after a moment.
"Um. I don't… do I?" I asked. "Yell in my sleep? I mean, I haven't—"
"You don't, no." He smirked. "Not that I've heard, anyway."
"Ah. Right. Good."
My turn to blush a little. He grinned again, and I shook my head incredulously. So hard to believe that this was where my life was now—these small, grubby, makeshift camps, one step away from disaster and oblivion, and all in the company of humans and war.
The morning came, we pulled up camp, and by the time the sun had risen fully, we were back on the Highway. The sky was not as blue, and the clouds were decidedly greyer. The rain started at about mid-morning, and it drummed methodically against the stones, as repetitious as it was determined. It rained all day, and it got everywhere. Every nook, cranny, fold, crease or hollow ended up wet, from the gap between the neck of my jerkin and the straps of my pack, to the water that made its way into the tops of my boots, and seeped down to soak my feet.
Raindrops gathered on my eyelashes and the end of my nose, and a thin film of moisture slicked my face. I got fed up with wiping it away, and settled for the mild stinging of it in my eyes every few times I blinked.
Even Maethor was subdued by the weather. He padded along at the head of the group, as ever, ears flat to his skull and brindled coat sodden, and didn't dignify the few birds we saw huddled in the trees with a bark, or even the slightest growl.
Around mid-afternoon, the view to the left of the Highway flattened out a bit, and it was possible to make out the very tip of the Circle Tower's spire in the distance, past the endless fields and rocky outcrops. I noticed Wynne glance towards it more than once… as did Morrigan.
There was a strange look on her face, and I wondered about it, though I said nothing. Was she curious about the Tower? Did it unnerve her? I knew the templars and magi we'd brought back to Redcliffe had not ill-treated her, despite the tension that had lingered, even after the ritual to free Connor was completed. It hadn't been the time or place to start the accusations of apostasy—too much exhaustion and chaos, plus my rather rash statement of the Grey Wardens' protection—but I had seen her spend quite a lot of time with Enchanter Salter. Deep in conversation, or so it had seemed. I'd wondered then what she hoped to gain from the man, but I wasn't sure whether it was wise to even contemplate asking.
The rain kept on teeming down, and I wiped the back of my hand across my face, adjusting the weight of my pack on tired, sore shoulders. Alistair whistled tunelessly between his teeth, a counterpoint to the damp, sloshy rhythm of feet on the stone, each bar ticked off by the metallic tap of Morrigan's staff. After a little while, the Tower's spire dipped away behind the rolling lines of trees, and didn't come out again for half an hour or so, by which time it was slightly more distant.
Wynne sighed, and I glanced at her in silent question. It wasn't that I thought her age would be a problem; back home, our elders were oak-tough, hammered on the anvil of years and bound up with sinew and determination. My father was such a man and, up until the day I left the alienage, I'd believed he could do anything, meet any challenge head-on and unflinching.
All the same, the mage was an unknown quantity. She'd been kind to me at Ostagar—and kind to Alistair, I gathered, although I caught myself wondering whether they had indeed met there, or had known each other already—and she'd shown her mettle at the Tower, but a certain wariness lingered. I was, I suppose, uneasy at how much I wanted to trust her, and how much I still wanted to shy from the responsibilities Fate had left me with… unlikelier than ever though it now was that we would find any simple answers to anything.
We'd exhaust ourselves on this paper-chase, and the horde would still be moving—Maker only knew where, or how fast—and Arl Eamon would probably be dead anyway by the time we returned. As for the other treaties… well, I doubted we would be fortunate enough to find ourselves taken seriously. The damage wrought by Uldred's coup at the Tower had left the Circle weak and disadvantaged—and that in itself was yet another worry. Sure, we'd been lucky to secure the First Enchanter's support (and, nominally, that of Knight-Commander Greagoir), but would those ravaged remnants of the Magi really help? I wasn't even sure how many mages we'd be able to count on. Wynne's little group of survivors had numbered a couple of dozen, at most, and there were precious few others who'd escaped the carnage.
It occurred to me then, as I trudged on in the relentless rain, listening to Leliana sneeze in a delicate, ladylike manner, that I hadn't the faintest idea of what assembling an army meant. Securing a promise from a man in robes was one thing, but how did the mages Irving had pledged actually go from being frightened people, cowering in a barricaded dormitory, to an organised force, ready to face the horde? Would it even come to that? I didn't know. Maybe everything would end up being politics, and the very fact that the Grey Wardens had allies to call on at all would force Loghain to recognise the Blight's threat, and… then what? We'd join forces and everything would be fine? Ferelden's army had fallen before the darkspawn once before.
I frowned into the midst of my fuzzy, muddle-headed thoughts, and every footstep grew a little heavier.
We broke for camp reasonably early, before the dusk was properly settled in. It was still raining. Alistair tried to lighten the mood by cheerfully proclaiming that we'd shaved a day off the journey through good pacing and a clear route, but was met with a soggy lack of enthusiasm.
Still, the novelty hadn't worn off the good tents for me, even if they were a bit damp… although the value of having proper tinderboxes was a bit diminished when there was no dry wood to be found. We ended up with a small squib of a campfire that Morrigan kick-started into life, shortly before gathering up her things and—muttering under her breath—stalking off to her own patch of the waterlogged little clearing that was home for the night.
The general feeling of downhearted fatigue wasn't improved by the fact that it was Alistair's turn to cook and, despite the useful little pouches of herbs and seasonings we'd been given, he still managed to make something that tasted like ditchwater… albeit flavoured ditchwater.
However, as dusk started to roll in over the farmlands and copses, and the Imperial Highway glimmered white like the great broken ribcage of some stranded beast, the rain finally stopped. It left the land to grow chilled and boggy, and I thought of the Korcari Wilds, and all the terrible, cold, barbarian strangeness of the south.
Huddled in front of the fire, leather cloak wrapped around me, I counted off the days until we reached Denerim, and wished that I could stop thinking about it. Unfortunately, camp afforded little to distract me. Sten, like Morrigan, preferred his own company, and had already retired to his tent. On the other side of the fire, Leliana had buttonholed Alistair, and it sounded as if she was trying to pry a discussion about religion out of him. From the dribs and drabs I overheard—not that I was eavesdropping, naturally—it seemed his words at the Tower had stayed with her… the whole issue of forgiveness versus the sword of mercy.
"But the Chantry accepts all who are genuinely contrite," she protested, "whatever their crimes. Just as the Maker's love embraces us, so we are given the chance to redeem ourselves, if we truly wish it."
"Er…." Alistair managed, apparently floundering horribly as he reached for a middle ground between offending her and simply disagreeing. "Not the one I'm familiar with. Not… um… not really."
"But don't you think—"
I smiled to myself, quietly amused. Maethor lay at my feet, and he groaned softly as I reached down to tickle his ears. A shadow fell across my shoulder, and I glanced up as Wynne came to settle herself before the fire's paltry warmth. She winced as she lowered herself onto the dead log we'd hauled up from the copse for seating—half-rotten, damp, and full of woodlice, but still better than sitting in the mud—and gave me a nod.
"Oh, it's been a long day. Rest… rest is definitely welcome."
"Are you all right?" I asked, stopping just short of adding the word 'elder' on the end of the question, more from habit than respect.
My thoughts had been elsewhere and, for a moment, Wynne's face had the look of someone else's in the dimness.
She smiled indulgently at me. "Yes, of course. I am just a little… weary. As you may have noticed, I'm no spring chicken."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," I said diplomatically, and she chuckled.
"Thank you, dear. You're very kind."
I grinned, aware of the harder note in her voice, perhaps even reminded a little of that teak-boned humour we had back home.
Some days, it was definitely harder to be so far away than it was on others. There had barely been time to breathe during the whole Redcliffe escapade and, now that I found myself back in the crushingly mundane, repetitive routine of the road, I felt a little lost… as if there was too much time. Silly, really. It wasn't even as if I was thinking properly. Still too numb, too shell-shocked for that. All I could do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, and pray I didn't fall on my arse.
"I was wondering something," I said, faintly surprised at myself for asking the question—even though she'd invited it by coming to sit near me, striking up those first few words of friendly politeness.
"Which would be…?"
"Why didn't you want to stay at the Tower?"
That sharp, clear gaze darted from me as I looked at her, and I watched the way her eyes seemed to follow the sluggish, sullen movements of our paltry little fire. Wynne folded her hands in her lap, fingers tightly interlinked, the deep red of her robes a warm flash beneath the heavy, oiled leather cloak. Tiny flickers of gold embroidery at her wrists caught the light.
"The Circle is in good hands," she said evenly, staring into the fire. "Irving knows what to do and he doesn't need me underfoot. You, on the other hand, need all the help you can get."
I snorted. "You're not wrong there."
"Indeed. If, when this is all over, I am still standing… then, perhaps, I will return. But, for now, I will support those that battle the darkspawn. I do feel I left things unfinished in Ostagar. There is so much left to do, and I would be part of it."
The hard angles of her face, planed by time and toughened by both sorrow and an undeniable resolve, comforted me in a slightly odd way. It seemed reassuring, I supposed, to know that I had an ally so staunch and unshakeable… although she was still a mage. That didn't unnerve me as much as it once had, probably because I now owed my life to magic more times over than I'd wish to count, but it did leave a peculiar barrier between us.
Later, when time, experience, and the kinds of books I'd never even known existed back home gave me a firmer understanding of magic as a natural force in the world, I wouldn't feel so isolated by it. I would, eventually, come to compare the condition of mages to that of my people—set apart by birth and nature, not intent—and I would learn not to fear it.
At the time, however, although Wynne was far less ornery than Morrigan, I still regarded her with a similar wariness… just in case flames started to shoot from her fingertips without warning.
I nodded slowly. "Well, your help is certainly appreciated. I… suppose I just wanted to make sure it was what you really wanted."
Wynne gave a short, dry laugh, and shot me an acerbic look.
"No, of course I don't. I'm old and unsure of what I'm doing. Actually, I'd rather be in a warm chair in the sun, being served pudding, or some other easily digestible food."
I blinked. "Er… I'm sorry. I-I didn't mean it like—"
Her thin lips curled into a gentle, restrained smile that, despite its smallness, softened her face beyond all measure, and creased the corners of those sharp blue eyes.
"I know, dear. I was just teasing. The ability to laugh at myself is something I developed too late in life. But, to allay your fears, yes, I am sure this is what I want."
"Oh." I returned the smile, mine one of relief and wry amusement as, once more, Wynne surprised me. "Well… good. I'm glad."
"Can I ask you a question now?"
I shrugged. "Fair's fair."
The fire grumbled gently to itself, and Maethor rolled over, the weight of him pressing down on my foot. Leliana was still beating Alistair about the head with questions of theology and, overhead, dark ruffles of cloud played against the dim sky. It would an unsettled night, with the chance of a storm come tomorrow.
"Before the Circle Tower," Wynne said slowly, as if she was weighing the words out carefully, "had you encountered abominations?"
I shook my head, my mind skipping nimbly away from the memories, though not quickly enough to miss recollecting the mess of boiling flesh, the corruption… the demon-possessed Uldred-creature, with its shiny black spider-eyes and vile, putrescent form.
"No. No, I hadn't."
"Hmm. Were you afraid?"
I glanced incredulously at Wynne, and her mouth twitched.
"Well," she said, as if it was perfectly plausible, "you are younger than I, and your nerves yet have some steel in them."
I choked down a disbelieving snort.
"Don't know about that. Of course I was scared. Maker, first time I saw darkspawn, I was so frightened I pi— practically fainted," I corrected hurriedly, clearing my throat. "The abominations were…. Well, yes. I was afraid. But we couldn't just walk away, could we?"
Wynne nodded. "True. The first time I saw an abomination, my blood turned to ice. It was months before the nightmares stopped. It… was the knowledge that I could easily become one of them that frightened me the most."
A small silence pooled around the words, and I got the feeling I'd been given a glimpse at a truth, if not exactly hidden, then subtly guarded. Beyond the fire, Alistair appeared to be explaining to Leliana how little of monastery life, in his experience, had actually been about religion. Kitchens, pot-washing, and the legend of the fearsome termagant known as Cook seemed to be involved.
"But," I said, after a moment's consideration, "it's that knowledge that drives you to be cautious, isn't it?"
"Yes," Wynne agreed. "One slip… all it takes is one slip, and everything you are is simply gone… replaced by madness. And there is no turning back. Or at least that's what they say."
"Well, that's not necessarily true." I frowned. "Is it? I mean, Connor was cured… freed. Whatever the right term is. I know his possession was voluntary, but—"
"True, although I fear that is the exception to the rule."
My frown deepened. "Then… who decided the only way to cure an abomination is death? Is that really what mages believe, or what the Chantry says? Because the Circle is under the Chantry's control, right?"
Wynne gave me an odd, cagey look. "I prefer to think of it a mutual partnership, but yes, you could say that. Many do," she added ruefully. "To answer your question, it is… generally accepted wisdom. You know that, with power, comes responsibility, and it is the responsibility of mages to ensure our gifts are safeguarded. Sometimes even from ourselves."
She was beginning to sound cryptic, and I didn't fully understand. I could feel the loose threads of a wider debate floating just beyond my grasp, and I was a little afraid of tugging on them.
I didn't trust magic—or mages, come to that, although I felt more comfortable around Wynne than I did Morrigan—yet I had begun to realise not just how much we needed the kind of help they could offer, but how much my own reluctance stemmed from ignorance. It is an uncomfortable thing, to confront how blinkered you have been, how sheltered and proud of your own narrow-mindedness.
"I think," I said slowly, propping my chin on my folded hands and leaning forwards, nearer the warmth of the fire. "I think… that some mages must want to be free. I mean, all shut up like that in the tower? It's a prison, however comfortable it is."
"Sometimes," Wynne said, after a moment, "the prison is only in your own mind. What happened at the Circle… do you think it would have been better if all those mages were living free, left to their own devices?"
I started to shake my head, then wondered if I was responding too quickly. True, without supervision and community, those whom demons preyed upon might turn and wreak havoc before anyone even realised something was wrong. Even if it was imperfect, the Circle's existence was a vital safety measure. Yet, if there was no Circle, there would have been nothing for Uldred to seek power over… except other people, and the desire to do that was not confined simply to crazed mages.
Did the dangers of housing all that potential and power in one place outweigh the importance of keeping it guarded? I wasn't sure now. Maybe, I thought, walling those who had magic up together and hiding them away from the world wasn't the right answer. Just like an alienage, it birthed isolation and hot-housed resentment, along with plenty of other things both good and bad besides. But, on the other hand, it instituted rules and restrictions that benefited everyone… didn't it?
Or… given what we had seen at Kinloch Hold, perhaps measures like the Harrowing provided a false sense of security, and served to leave standing only the mages strong enough to want more power.
I didn't know. It all seemed horribly complicated, and my head was starting to hurt.
"However," Wynne said, ostensibly almost to herself, as she stared thoughtfully into the fire, "of late I have begun to wonder if… if there is any way an abomination can be… cured. Or if a mage could be so possessed and still retain their sanity. Their humanity."
I watched her gaze into the flames, and wondered what she was really thinking about… what this truly connected to, or whether it was some kind of test.
"But… if a mage retains their humanity," I said, grasping tentatively at the words as I struggled to tether them to concepts that were still a little nebulous for me, "then they're not really an abomination, are they? Not truly."
Wynne seemed to perk up at that. Her eyes narrowed, as if she was seizing onto an important thought, and she nodded.
"Yes… it is madness and cruelty that define abominations. If those are lacking, if the mage remembers the person they truly are, then… then they are not an abomination." She nodded again, and looked at me, blue eyes glittering with some new realisation. "Yes. That is certainly another way of looking at it."
"Right." I smiled uneasily, fairly sure that I'd just been the sounding board for some rarefied theory I wouldn't have understood even if she'd explained it to me with diagrams drawn in the dirt. "Well, you've certainly given me a lot to think about. That's very… interesting."
We didn't discuss it further, though, and instead settled back to watch Leliana trying to get Alistair to admit that he did, after all, miss the peace and serenity of the cloister. Eventually, he broke into an anecdote about pillow fights and the traditional abbey sport of trying to hang the smallest initiate from the bell tower ropes (the trick—aside from making sure you were not the smallest initiate to start with—was apparently in catching the blighter), and she gave up, proclaiming disbelief and irritation.
The following two days repeated much the same as the first. The storm never did break, though the rain rumbled on. We left all traces of Redcliffe and Lake Calenhad behind us, following the Highway's unceasing, unchanging line as it ploughed a stone furrow through the fertile ground. We saw more traffic, too: the occasional merchant's ox- or mule-cart, maybe a family of smallholders with furniture and children piled up on a flat wagon. It wasn't the desperate flooding of refugees we'd seen around Lothering, which I supposed was encouraging. It meant the people here hadn't had cause to flee… or, perhaps, that there'd be no one left to do so. I tried to ignore those thoughts, and we just plodded on, doing our best to ignore the odd looks we got.
"We'll need to branch off tomorrow," Alistair said when we broke for camp, hunched down in front of the fire with the map Bann Teagan had given us spread out carefully across his knees.
It was a more businesslike affair than the huge, beautifully drawn one in the arl's privy chamber; thick, tough parchment and plain, dark ink… and I still didn't really understand how to read it. I sat nearby and watched his finger trace along the routes, and I nodded and made small noises of agreement when he talked about skirting the forest on our way north, and searching for the elusive wild elves.
"The West Road's the quickest route," he said thoughtfully, tapping the map. "But if we cross the Drakon here, and skirt the north edge of the Southrons, we can see how the forest lies, maybe start getting word to some of the elven clans… and still make good time to Denerim."
"Mm," I said, hoping a non-committal grunt would hide the fact I hadn't really got a clue what he was talking about.
"Not that I know how we're supposed to go about actually finding the Dalish." Alistair sighed, dropped his palm flat to the map, and gave me a weary look. "Any ideas?"
I blinked. "Er, no. I mean, I've heard of people running off to find them, but most just showed up again a few days later, cold, hungry, and embarrassed. The rest… I don't know. Maybe the Dalish don't even accept outsiders. I'm not sure I ever even believed they really existed, though there are… stories."
He nodded ruefully. "The ones about them attacking travellers on the road and killing everyone? Mm."
I frowned, recalling something Soris' friend Taeodor had mentioned the day of my wedding, about how Alarith, our storekeeper, had been rescued by Dalish on his way to Denerim. He'd never spoken of it in my hearing, but then Alarith rarely spoke of the story at all, unless someone got a few jars of ale down him first. He was an escaped slave, people said: the sole survivor of a chaotic, desperate flight. I wasn't sure I believed it, when he'd always seemed such a cheerful, generous soul. There was no mark of dark suffering on him, I'd thought. I hadn't understood, then, the lengths people would go to in order to bury their pasts.
When we were children, we used to hang around Alarith's shop in the hopes of being given some treat or scrap of attention, and we'd gossip shamelessly about it. My cousin Andar would boast that he'd seen whip scars on Alarith's back… we'd even compete to try and sneak glimpses of the brand on his wrist, the mark of an owner our childish stories cast as some pantomime villain of a magister, a blood mage of horrific legend.
If Alarith caught us, he'd laugh and give us pieces of sweetroot to chew, call us hooligans, and then he'd chase us out with the threat of a broom. We would run, laughing, back into the street, the stories forgotten… if they'd ever seemed real to begin with.
I shook myself, coming abruptly back to this damp, muddy camp, and the fire, and Alistair, looking at me expectantly.
So, I was supposed to be the font of knowledge on all things elven, was I? Lovely.
I shrugged. "The hahren always said they were… dangerous. Our elder," I added, in deference to Alistair's confused expression. "He keeps the alienage running, deals with the guard… tells our stories. I remember, whenever we asked about the Dalish, Valendrian wouldn't want to tell us anything. He'd tell the story of Red Crossing, talk about how pride and anger destroyed the Dales… and he'd always end by saying no one even knew if there were any wild elves left anyway. Maybe he believed that. Maybe he just wanted to discourage anyone from running."
Alistair nodded slowly, and I could see the unasked questions ticking over in his mind. He was curious about life in the alienage, but didn't seem to know whether it was all right to ask me. I'd seen it back at Redcliffe Castle, in those long, dusty hours while we waited for the Circle mages to be done with Connor, and there was nothing to fill the empty, draughty corridors except talking. He'd asked me about the ring I wore on the chain at my neck; the one I'd so stupidly tried to give to Dwyn, the dwarven veteran, in payment for his standing with the militia, and which he'd tossed back at me as almost worthless. You can keep your wedding ring, girlie. Hah… and humiliation had pricked me then, hadn't it? To realise how insignificant my greatest treasures were, outside of home. But Alistair had tried hard not to offend, to ask as delicately as he knew how what it meant and… who I'd left behind.
I still felt a bit guilty for not really telling him, for brushing the question away with the briefest explanation of traditions and customs that, as I'd made it quite clear, I did not expect him to understand.
The truth would have to come out before we reached Denerim, I supposed.
Alistair cleared his throat and glanced back at the map, brow furrowed. "Well… I guess the easiest thing to do is just look. They must leave some sign of themselves over the forest, and perhaps we can leave word on our way through. I think it's important we press on to Denerim as fast as we can, if we're to stand any chance of finding this Brother… Whatsit."
"Genitivi," I supplemented absently, thinking partly about the sheer size of the Brecilian Forest, and partly about the spectre of the capital, lurching up in the future before me.
"What do you think?"
"Hm?" I blinked again, still surprised at being asked for an opinion. "I… well, you're probably right. Though I think we need to be careful where we linger, and how many people know where we're headed. The road might not even be safe, if this bounty thing is true…."
Alistair snorted. "Oh, yes. I forgot. Criminals now, aren't we?"
I felt silly for suggesting it, and wrinkled my nose. We smirked about it then, the ridiculous thought that Teyrn Loghain would spare much in the way of time or coin to hunt us down. The edict outlawing the Wardens was, it seemed, a political move, meant to stop the Orlesian reinforcements setting one single foreign foot on Fereldan soil.
Naturally, that was one little bit of naivety I was soon to have knocked out of me.