9:30 Dragon, 10 Cloudreach: A camp in the wilderness, somewhere in the Free Marches
The Hangover was inevitable, I suppose. We needed one last evening together before the expedition left, all of us. At least I was able to complete my errands before insanity struck.
We found Varric's brother, Bartrand, at his usual spot in the Dwarven Merchant's Guild. Varric must not have warned him that he was recruiting a third partner. He was completely blindsided. I might have felt sorry about putting him on the spot, were he not so scornful about it. But Varric had been right. Bartrand was not too proud to take our money, nor was he too self-reliant to accept Anders's maps. While we were there, we met a pair of truly lovely dwarves, Bodahn and his son, Sandal. Bodahn has had a long history as a sutler, he told me, and even knew my cousin, but that is not why I will remember them. He was possibly the most affable person I have ever met, and his pride in his son's accomplishments was inspiring. The boy seems to have some idiosyncrasies, but Bodahn seemed more focused on his expertise than on his limitations. It's unworthy of me, but I can't help but wish that Mother could meet him.
After that, we bought provisions. The expedition would be well supplied, Varric said, but Anders advised that each of us should carry a few days' food and water on us at all times. He said that one never knew when a cave-in or misdirection might separate us from the group. In light of that bit of wisdom, even Varric invested in some emergency rations. Evidently, loyalty does not necessarily include faith in my sense of direction. I cannot blame him. I bought more than he did.
After we stocked up on consumables, the day was ours. I couldn't face a journey with an uncertain end without saying my goodbyes, so I made my rounds, calling on Fenris and Aveline in Hightown, and Merrill in Low, our party growing larger as we went. Carver made a bit of a spectacle of himself in the last stop, actually taking off his tunic to show Merrill his mabari tattoo. He was rewarded with her undivided attention, and a lot of poking and stroking of said tattoo, but also of the bulky musculature that elves apparently lack. He was sweating profusely by the time Merrill withdrew enough to let him get his shirt back on. I can understand his discomfort, but he had only himself to blame. And I think he was flattered, despite the jests Aveline and Fenris made at his expense throughout the remainder of the evening. Or what I remember of it.
I drank freely, goaded by Isabela, but confident in the knowledge that I could crawl home if I had to. It almost came to that.
There may have been dancing at one point. I vaguely remember stepping on Aveline's feet and getting my nose wedged in Isabela's bosom, possibly with Varric's help, but if I did anything regrettable, no one mentioned it at the bon voyage breakfast this morning.
I wondered if it was really necessary to celebrate my departure with such enthusiasm, but perhaps it was. Isabela will land on her feet no matter which way the wind tosses her, but I worry about Fenris and Merrill. Seeing them with high spirits before I left did not lessen my cares about their financial future, but it did reassure me that they would not be pining away in my absence.
My goodbyes with Mother were less satisfying.
She showed her usual cunning about it, too. I expected tearful farewells at home, but she astonished me with her composure. She patted my cheek and wished me off with the Maker's guidance and Andraste's protection, but that was not the last I saw of her. She arrived at the Dwarven Merchant's Guild just as the last crates were secured in the wagons.
"Excuse me, ser dwarf," she called to Bartrand from across the square, "but I must speak with my children."
"What's this, Varric?" he huffed. "Is this some other partner you didn't tell me about?"
A hurried conference followed. Mother wanted Carver to remain behind. She claimed that she was concerned about his safety, but I cannot help wondering if she was simply afraid of being alone. She timed her appeal perfectly so that every stranger in the expedition could witness it, and she utilized every weapon in her arsenal of manipulation from guilt to obligation, but I remained resolute. Carver is as much a part of this as I am, and he deserves as much of an opportunity to make a name for himself as I do. On a purely selfish level, I could not face the prospect of a journey into the unknown without him, in any case. Even if he were not one of the most skilled warriors I know, I could not do without his loyalty… or his contrariness.
Carver, of course, seemed torn between outrage that I would even consider such a thing and resentment that it was my decision to make. At least my answer pleased him, even if it did not please Mother.
Bartrand was unimpressed by her display. Every moment spent in hand-wringing was a moment we did not have to reach our destination, and wagons move slowly.
It was dark when we reached the spot marked on Anders's map though we had crossed no more than fifteen miles. Bartrand was all for off-loading the wagons and beginning the portage into the caverns right away, but the rest of us wanted one more night under the open sky.
"We're finally doing it, brother," Carver said as we lay back in the grass and watched the stars dance overhead.
"Was there ever any doubt?" I replied. One of the porters had brought a fiddle and some of the men had struck up an impromptu reel. The music relaxed me and made me think of the fairs in Lothering. I had hovered on the edges of those, too, once the produce and livestock were sold, listening, but never participating in the merry-making.
"You don't want to know," he said. We stared at the stars some more, until he said at last, "It will be Bloomingtide soon. We always had a fair then, back in Lothering. Were you going to ask anyone to partner you, that last Summerday?"
"Who would I ask?" I said, but without bitterness. "No one in Lothering even knew I existed."
"I don't know about that," he said. He lay still for a moment, then got up to rummage around in the pack he used for a pillow.
"Maybe you'd better read this," he said, thrusting a much-creased letter at me.
I sat up and conjured a glow sphere. Now that we were truly outside Kirkwall, there was no real need to pretend I wasn't a mage.
The letter he handed me was intriguing and appalling at the same time. In it, a girl named Peaches begged Carver to intercede with me for her, saying how she saw me smile at her at a fair once and was eager to befriend me. Peaches. No wonder he laughed when I named my mabari.
"I never knew," I said.
"Why would you?" he shrugged. "I never told you. You were busy with Father, and then with one thing and another, I forgot."
"Alright, no secrets. I didn't want you to know. Your head was big enough already."
"You were so proud of yourself, getting top prize for that sow you raised, and getting the barn roofed -"
"Which I couldn't have done without your help, and I thanked you for it at the time."
"I know," he said bitterly. "I just wanted one thing that was mine. One thing for me. You had the farm to take credit for, and your magic, and everybody said you were such a good son, keeping up the place after Father died. I couldn't beat you at that, but at least I could be better with the ladies."
"You would have been even if you had shown me the letter," I said. "I've never been smooth enough to be popular. Or is there more correspondence in that pack of yours?"
"No, just that. I guess I just didn't want you to get to know any of them."
"But it's alright now?"
"We're a long way from Lothering," he said.
I returned the letter and sat still for a few moments, processing what he had just told me. I wanted to be angry with him, but I was not.
"We're a long way from Lothering," I agreed.
"No hard feelings?" he asked.
"No hard feelings," I said. "What was she like, Peaches?"
"The letter pretty much sums it up. I was doing you a favor. You'd never fall for a girl like that."
"But you did?"
"Not really," Carver said, leaning back on one elbow. "She was alright. You… uh… probably don't want the details."
"Probably not, no," I said, smiling inwardly at Carver's darkening cheeks.
"You didn't really sleep with Madam Lusine, did you?" Carver asked.
"No, I didn't."
"So you've never…"
"I don't know," I said. "At this point, I probably have to say that I have, but it's complicated."
"You aren't still on about that tart across the yard, are you?" he snorted.
"Macha? No, not her. I met an artist in the Gallows -"
"The Gallows! Are you mad?"
"Evidently. As I said, it's complicated. We… did some things that probably count. And he did some things."
"What?" Carver rolled onto his side to look at my profile.
"Things. You don't want to hear about it."
He sat up again.
"Iain, did he hurt you?"
"I… don't know. I mean, no. I'm fine." And for a few moments, I believed it. My brother may not have had any idea what I was talking about, but to me, it felt like a confession. For the first time since I arrived in the Gallows that terrible day, I felt clean, almost weightless.
"Are you sure?" he asked, nudging closer until his arm touched my shoulder. "Because if you aren't, I'm going to find him and then I'm going to kill him."
"I'm sure," I said. How strange it was that Carver should be the one person I could talk to. Not sensitive, empathetic Anders or steadfast, unflinching Aveline. Carver, who has considered me his rival since he was old enough to care what people thought of him. Maybe there's peace in the knowledge that a brother will support you regardless of whether he likes you or not.
"Hope you brought a lot of those books," Varric said just now. He has a point. I did bring several empty journals, in fact, but I do not want to fill them all before we find whatever it is Bartrand's looking for. Perhaps it is time to put out the lamp and enjoy the last few moments of starlight before we descend into the darkness.