A/N: And here it is - Volume Four! Welcome back to those who've been with this series from the beginning (or are just catching up), and hello to any new readers. For anyone just joining, Feasting on Dreams is a multi-volume Origins playthrough epic (*grin*), but with a great deal of sprawling detail and City Elf baggage. It shouldn't be necessary to read Vols 1-3 to know what's going on here but, in any case, quick recap:
Merien Tabris and her companions are journeying to the Brecilian Forest to seek out the Dalish, having just reclaimed Soldier's Peak in the nearby Southron Hills [yes, I messed with geography]. Time is of the essence as, although Redcliffe has been saved, and both Connor and the Circle of Magi have been liberated of their demons, Arl Eamon still lies deathly ill, and the Sacred Ashes appear to be his only hope.
Still raw from their recent - and extremely ill-fated - trip to Denerim, Merien believes her family to have perished in the alienage purge, and is struggling to come to terms with her role as a Grey Warden... and a few other, more personal confusions.
~ Any reviews, concrit, feedback etc. are, as ever, most appreciated. ;)
Feasting on Dreams: The Book of Merien Tabris
VOL. 4: WAKING IN SHADOWS
I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope.
~ Aeschylus, Agamemnon
It began to rain not half a day after we put the foothills of the Southrons behind us. We were heading north, to the small pass through the hill country that led to the Brecilian Forest, and though we were a fair way off the road, sticking to side-trails and thin paths through the rough ground, I could still make out the dark ghost of Dragon's Peak from time to time. It flitted in and out of sight on the horizon, whenever the trees parted enough to allow it.
There definitely were more trees. I kept looking at them nervously, uncomfortable for two reasons. Firstly, I still wasn't used to the damn things. All those weeks ago, when I'd made that long ride to Ostagar with Duncan, being surrounded by vegetation instead of the comforting solidity of walls and roofs had left me feeling unsettled and exposed. It wasn't as bad now as it had been; I was used to it, more or less, but that didn't mean I never felt like the trees were watching.
Then, of course, there was the fact that—as Zevran, Morrigan, Sten, and Wynne had already discovered while the rest of us had been making our ill-fated little sortie to Denerim—some of them probably were. Or, at least, they were sentient enough to sense movement, and to attack.
Possessed trees…. I winced at the very thought. That was what Wynne said they were, anyway. Spirits that found their way through a weakened portion of the Veil, and inhabited the nearest source of life, only to become imprisoned by bodies that could not see, hear, speak or feel. Unable to find their way out again, the demons were driven mad, trapped and howling in their wooden prisons. It was a horrible idea, and it shouldn't have seemed possible, yet I believed it. I wished I didn't, but after everything we'd seen at Redcliffe, the Circle Tower, and most recently Soldier's Peak, it had started to seem as if demons were everywhere, in every stone, branch and leaf. The darkspawn would almost have been a welcome change.
Zevran no longer wore his sling, though his left arm was noticeably still a little weaker than the other. Wynne's healing—and the hedgemage bonesetter they'd been forced to take recourse to—had done wonders, but I remembered how pale and ill he'd looked when we'd met up at the rendezvous point. Trees that attacked the unwary, and could split an arm open like a baked potato… no matter how he'd tried to make light of the wound, I knew how much worse it could have been, and I was at least a little convinced that, if I hadn't split the group up the way I had, it wouldn't have happened.
In any case, the closer we got to the forest, and the pass, the more I glared at every single pine tree.
I told myself there was no use dwelling on it. Denerim had hardly been a bed of roses anyway. The alienage lay purged, everyone I knew or cared for probably dead, and Loghain's bounty on the Wardens was common enough knowledge to make things dangerous. Then there had been the lack of leads on Brother Genitivi, and that whole mess with Alistair's half-sister… and, frankly, as I just about felt able to admit in the privacy of my own head, the mess I'd managed to get into with Alistair himself.
It was stupid. I knew that, so what in the Maker's name had I been thinking?
We hadn't spoken much since breaking camp; in fact, we didn't speak much at all that first day. Every time I looked at him, I remembered that kiss, and as much nervous terror as warm and fuzzy pleasure assailed me. It was a ridiculous thing to have done… a ridiculous thing to want, and yet I did. I wanted it to happen again, and I wanted to have his arms around me, and see that uncertain, beautiful smile of his, and believe that there was more to life than the threat that currently faced us.
I shouldn't want to. It was all wrong. To start with, he was human, and I wasn't a whore. I'd been brought up with morals, values… all those things that should have made me revolt from the very idea of letting a shem touch me. Only Alistair wasn't a shem. He was just him—I'd told him that much, hadn't I?—and, anyway, we were both Grey Wardens. That was what I was now; not elven, not a woman, not even a product of the alienage I missed so dearly, and yet for the first time in my life truly saw for the squalid pit it was.
I was a Warden, and nothing more.
One life, one duty. Sten had told me that. As we tramped damply along the rutted little side road, with his heavy footfalls beating time at the back of the group, and Maethor scouring the path ahead and occasionally giving half-hearted woofs at passing birds or squirrels, I wished I had the qunari's unshakeable sense of purpose.
"You seem very deep in thought," Wynne said gently, drawing a little nearer to me as she walked.
A chill marked the air, and the rain had already begun settling on her hair, twisting a few grey strands into a halo of frizz that sprung out to frame that clean, angular face. She had her hands folded into the sleeves of her robes for warmth, flashes of the deep red fabric peeking out from under the dull brown of her cloak in moments of contrast that came with every step.
I blinked. "Hm? Oh. Maybe a little. I… I don't know."
"The Peak certainly gave us all a lot to think about," Wynne observed, her voice quiet as her gaze flicked towards Alistair.
For a moment, I wondered if she knew about the kiss, but I dismissed it as unlikely. He was walking at the head of our peculiar troupe, near enough, just behind Morrigan's long-legged striding (she always seemed so much more at home with the open country around her), and Maethor's constant figure-of-eight paths over the road. The rain had taken the gold from his hair and darkened it to brown and, even as I reminded myself not to stare, I noticed the way the wet was settling in under the straps of his pack, allowing twin blooms of dampness to form on the shoulders of his cloak. Before long, he'd probably start that tuneless whistling he was given to; irritating as a squeaky floorboard, but somehow by now an indelible part of all those long hours of walking.
"Yes," I said softly. "I suppose it did. I… I've been thinking a lot about the Grey Wardens. Everything they were… everything they should be."
The words slipped from me when I didn't really mean them to, and they betrayed me. Wynne just nodded, like she already knew what I meant. Maybe she did. I recalled the story she'd told around the campfire, of that allegorical battle filled with griffons and majestic, noble sacrifices, and bit my lip thoughtfully.
Up ahead, Alistair started whistling through his teeth. The rain pattered a little harder, and I saw Leliana smile to herself. I wasn't sure why until, after a few moments, she started to hum, evidently able to distinguish a melody from Alistair's tuneless efforts.
He glanced at her, grinned, and then together they were producing an almost entirely recognisable version of My Heart Belongs to Another. They made a good pair, I supposed.
"You have quite a burden on your shoulders," Wynne agreed. "But you have not given up. That gives me hope… and you should be proud of all you have accomplished so far."
I wrinkled my nose. "We've had a lot of help."
"Still," she maintained, "it has not been easy."
The wordless curls of the song filled the silence, incongruously jaunty and cheerful. It was a tune I remembered being played in the alienage, scratched out on an old fiddle and clapped along to on the cold, bright nights of Wintersend, when we squandered our pennies on ale and candles, and danced until our feet ached.
Oh, if I should dance
And if I should sing,
Or tarry wi' you, dear,
It shan't mean a thing,
For my heart belongs to another!
It was one of those songs that was meant for raucous crowds, and for the gale of laughter that always accompanied the last line of every verse, as the spoilt, childish lover of the story philandered his way through a phalanx of girls, always protesting that his real loyalty lay elsewhere.
Oh, and now we've kissed
And I've paid my court,
I'll tell you, dear,
It was only sport,
For my heart belongs to another!
It was a warning, I'd always thought, about pretty words and easy routes, and part of me yearned to be back in that little shell of my past—a past now burned to ash, thanks to that bastard Loghain—when all I thought I had to worry about was getting landed with an inconstant, selfish fool of a husband.
For a brief moment, I thought of Nelaros, and the weight of the ring I wore at my neck—together with the silver pendant from my Joining—seemed heavier, the thin edge of the metal pressing into my skin beneath my undershirt. I had no idea what he'd have been like as a husband, yet his dying the way he had meant I really had no choice but to assume the best of him.
Anything else felt like a betrayal.
Leliana's smooth, sweet voice carried beautifully; it almost seemed as if it should stop the rain from falling. I blinked again, shaking the dust of old memories from behind my eyes, and trying to shy away from the bitter taste that lay on my tongue.
"And you wonder sometimes, don't you?" Wynne said, her voice a soft but insistent murmur at my shoulder. "How things would have been if it had all happened to someone else?"
My shoulders hunched in a small, reflexive shrug. She was right—of course she was—but I didn't really want to admit it.
"Maybe," I offered grudgingly.
It was true that I'd have given anything to change what had happened on the day of the wedding; anything to have spared Shianni, and Nelaros, and Nola. The purge wouldn't have happened then, and everyone would have been better off, and Duncan would probably have got to Ostagar sooner, and… well, maybe everything would have been different. I didn't know and, in all honesty, I hadn't really thought about that, because there was no point thinking on things that couldn't be changed. Regretting the pain that others had suffered was one thing, but I'd never been brought up to bemoan my own fate; just to get on with it and make the best of things.
I hadn't been doing too well at that, had I? Father would, I reflected, probably have told me to pull myself together and not to allow myself this indulgent melancholy. I'd tried, as well as I could… but it was hard to leave it behind, especially when I was afraid of letting all the things I remembered slip away. What else is grief, but the effort of holding onto the last vestiges of something one is terrified of losing forever?
Wynne didn't say anything. It was a knack she had; a way of making you talk just with her silence. Certainly, she wormed the words out of me.
"I mean, it's just… I'll never have a normal life, will I?" I peered tentatively at the mage, my hair growing ever damper in the misty rain, and plastering itself down over my eyebrows. "Even if we survive this, even if—"
"No," she said calmly. "You won't."
I stopped, mouth still half-open. Somehow, I'd expected some sort of platitude. She just smiled sadly at me, those clear blue eyes hard as pebbles, but the lines around her mouth were soft, her thin lips gently curled.
"That was… blunt," I said carefully.
Ahead of us, Maethor pranced and barked at a bird in the branches of a tree. It cackled and took off, a flash of black and white plumage proving it to be a large magpie. I noticed Zevran wince and, very briefly, the fingers of his right hand flicked in a brushing motion. I stifled a smile, never having expected him to be the superstitious type.
"Perhaps it was." Wynne shrugged. "But were you expecting an 'Oh, I'm sure you will! You'll have dozens of babies and die happy and old in your bed'?"
I looked at her in surprise, a little taken aback by the steely undercurrent in her voice. There was more venom there than I was used to hearing from her, though it was buried deep, and it didn't seem to be directed particularly at me.
She shook her head. "Well, you won't. And if I had said that, it would have been a lie, and I would have been doing you an injustice."
I winced. Her words stung more than I could have expected. Oh, it was one thing to know about the taint and the bleak future that awaited me, even if we didn't all die in some sudden, horrible way long before I ever started to develop the corruption, but quite another to be so irrevocably presented with the fact that other people knew too.
I liked Wynne, and I trusted her, but to know even she looked at me and saw a creature marked by this fate—barren, and bound irrevocably to a destiny that couldn't end well—only served to underline how rootless and afraid I felt.
Not for the first time, a small part of me wondered how much she'd known about the Grey Wardens' rituals, even before the aftermath of Ostagar. She was a senior enchanter of the Circle, after all, and it was my suspicion they knew a great deal more of the magics that went into the Joining than mages who were entirely innocent of the dark arts ought.
Of course, it felt ungrateful to think that way, given everything I owed to her. I recovered myself, and nodded slowly.
"Yes. I suppose I should thank you for that."
"I appreciate it must feel… unfair." Wynne smiled tightly. "You know, as a young girl, when I first came to the realisation that the Circle would be my life, and I would know no other, I did not take it well."
Although I had little wish to hear someone else's pale comparison, I knew she meant well… or I assumed so.
She shook her head. "No. It was knowing all those things that others took for granted—a simple life, love… even a family—were beyond my reach. It made me very moody."
Well, that was something I definitely had trouble picturing, and I tried to suppress an incredulous smirk, despite the way her words plucked at me. Wynne gave me a narrow-eyed look that fell just shy of reproach, and smiled.
"I suppose that is hard to imagine, isn't it? Well, I was young once, you know."
She tutted, and didn't let me finish.
"Believe it or not, my dear, I was. And all I could think of was being trapped in that tower, with no way out and no end in sight. I started hating my life, and myself, and one night I found myself in the tower's chapel."
I nodded politely, fervently hoping this wouldn't be a story with a religious theme. It wasn't that I didn't believe in the Maker, at least to an extent… after all, I'd been brought up in that nominal kind of Andrasteanism we had in the alienage, where faith was a value of respect, like cleanliness, and we saw no reason to argue with the Maker's abandonment, because we expected to be discarded, and we were so very good at latching onto things that allowed our people to see themselves as victims.
Still, my practical experiences of religion had not found it all that useful as a salve—and even less so recently than in previous years. After Mother died, I'd been able to glean a very little comfort from the Chantry; after Redcliffe, and Ostagar, and the new realities in my life that had so little to do with the sisters' teachings, it was harder to find consolation there.
"Well, anyway, I must have looked tearful," Wynne went on, with a disparaging twist of her lips, "or made some noise or something, because the revered mother decided to speak to me. I had no one else to talk to, so I talked to her. I said many silly things, I'm sure… but she told me something that stuck with me. She said that the Maker puts us all on our paths for a reason, and fighting our intended course is what causes so much anguish."
I bit down on the urge to grimace. So much for Wynne's bluntness… the preachy schoolmarm epithet Morrigan had awarded her suddenly seemed that little bit more apt. I stared at the path ahead, watching the rain-dampened ruts turning to mud, and our various sets of footprints squelching into the ground.
"Hmm. And, uh, that made you feel better, did it?"
Wynne scoffed and shook her head vehemently. "Hah, no! I thought the old biddy was full of rubbish. I was fifteen, maybe sixteen, and I knew everything. I stormed off in a huff, of course."
I looked up at her, unable to hide my grin. She smiled, and I got the feeling she'd been playing my reactions, and my second-guessing her, the whole time. I should have known better than to let her do it, I supposed, and I sniggered, a little chagrined by my gullibility.
Her smile faded, and I understood that the story had a serious core… even if I wasn't sure I wanted to hear it.
"Nevertheless," Wynne said quietly, "I always found my way back to that chapel and, as the years passed, I began to see the truth of her words. We were supposed to be polar opposites—mage and priest—but we weren't. There was much about us that was the same."
I frowned, unsure whether this was some indirect comment about universal brotherhood—or sisterhood, as the case may be—or whether Wynne was trying to cast herself in the role of spiritual advisor.
Maethor had bounded on ahead a short way, putting up another bird. He seemed to consider the fact they could fly away from him a personal insult. The smell of sap and wet earth hung heavily on the air and, between the dank shapes of the trees, I could see the swell on the horizon changing. We were bearing east by northeast, according to Alistair and the map that I still didn't understand how to read. I just hoped we'd find somewhere relatively comfortable to make camp before dark, or before the rain got too much worse.
I wet my lower lip with a hesitant tongue. "It's not the same, though, is it? I mean, priests have to choose to be priests. Mages don't."
Wynne arched one thin, grey brow, but her expression didn't betray outright disapproval. "Not all priests choose their path," she said, making me feel rather ignorant. "Some children are given to the Chantry when they are very young, and raised there."
My gaze moved at once to Alistair's broad back, and I blinked hurriedly before snatching my attention away. He obviously hadn't heard; the humming and whistling had stopped, and he was talking to Leliana about something. I didn't know what, but she was gesticulating and smiling prettily.
I shot a glance at Wynne. "Yes. I… I suppose they are, aren't they?"
"Indeed." The look on her face softened, growing contemplative. "Many of those children may become initiates, and feel there is no other place for them. The revered mother had lived in the Chantry all her life, as I had been in the tower for all of mine. It would have been easy for her to be bitter, but she taught me that you can find fulfilment in duty… in living for others, loving your work and putting it, and the people around you, before yourself."
I took a long, slow breath in, raising my chin as my boots thudded dully against the mud. The rain was falling more heavily, and my fringe kept poking into my eyes, my lashes matting as I blinked the water away.
"Ah. The joy of self-sacrifice?"
There was a trace of haughty disdain in my voice. I heard it, and wished I'd done better at concealing it but, in all honesty, what could the woman have expected? I'd lived my whole life for other people, as much by the accident of my birth itself as the choice to adhere to the rules and values we had back home. All right, perhaps I'd not been as chained as Wynne had—though we'd still had our walls, oh, yes—but the anger rose in me all the same. I'd been my father's daughter, taken the woman's role in our house; I'd cooked and cleaned and scrubbed, fetched water and washed clothes, and made myself busy when the men were talking… all those things. I'd acquiesced to his wishes at every turn, whether it was in restricting myself to gate trade instead of looking for work in the market, or a place in service, or so carefully guarding my honour and my reputation the way he'd wanted. And yes, maybe I'd believed in it, maybe I'd been so hard inured to Father's view of the world that I thought that did make us better… that it made me better than the girls who worked for the human stallholders, trading in smiles and favours, or the girls who went to the bad, as the older folk called it, and ended up with round-eared babies on their hips and no honour to their names, but that didn't matter.
What mattered was that I'd been due my life; due that day when I would marry, and have as much independence as any elven woman ever did… until even that was taken away.
I huffed out the breath I'd barely realised I was holding, and watched it mist on the air in front of me.
Did I believe that? It was hard to tell anymore. Maybe the anger I felt, the pain of loss and betrayal, blinded me even to my own memories. Wynne was right, as she so often was, of course. I remembered the sense of peace and safety, and even pride, that came with setting dinner down in front of Father in a clean house, and knowing I'd done right for the day. I remembered, too, the love and affection in his face when he'd so awkwardly tried to broach the subject of the matchmaker with me for the first time—not long after my fourteenth birthday—and asked if there was anyone I had my eye on. I'd laughed, blushed, furiously denied it… and said I'd take any match at all, if it meant being able to stay in Denerim, and to stay with him.
The hints of worn old leather and soap seemed to pull on the air, and the weight of tears pressed suddenly behind the bridge of my nose. I forced it down, forced it away, determined not to let myself imagine the burned husk of our house, or the bodies of my family, wrapped up in rough shrouds and dumped at the paupers' fields to be burned with countless strangers, the way Mother had been.
"I… think you understand what I mean," Wynne said carefully, her quiet, assured tones pulling me back with rough abruptness to the damp, rutted path, and the smell of trees and dank earth. "There can be joy in knowing that you are part of a greater purpose, despite all you give up for it. And you don't need to be alone. Sometimes, we can find a family in the people around us, and a kind of security in duty, and a higher goal."
I nodded curtly, but said nothing, and she let the matter drop. I was grateful for that, though her words continued to clatter around my head, and the rain continued to fall.
We broke to make camp late that afternoon. It was wet, and cold, and we were losing the daylight quickly. It would have been possible to keep going through the dusk, and even long into the night itself—such were the benefits of travelling with mages who could provide better light than a few crude torches—but we seemed to have an unspoken accord that we should measure our strength before entering the forest.
The clearing we picked was comfortable enough, as muddy patches of nowhere went, and we divided into those routine tasks with silent efficiency, much as we were used to doing, although Morrigan declared she was going to find some fresh meat for the pot, and disappeared into the trees. No one appeared eager to ask what she meant to hunt, or how. We'd been on the road long enough not to want to know, I think.
Still, I'd have liked to have found somewhere with a brook or something, or at least a few brackish puddles. Though Bodahn had furnished us with plenty of supplies before we left him and Levi at the Peak—including quite a few things I was sure we hadn't actually needed to buy, such as the travellers' lute now hidden away in Leliana's pack—water was precious, and as there was no way of knowing how long we might be in the forest, rations were tight. There was nothing to spare for washing or cleaning, and there probably wouldn't be until we were into the forest itself. It wouldn't be long now. I wasn't sure whether I was looking forward to it with more anticipation or fear.
I'd said we would spend no more than a day or so looking for the Dalish. If they were there, we'd find them. If not, we would about turn and head for Lake Calenhad and the ever-elusive Genitivi. I'd promised that; been adamant about it, in fact… but somehow I knew I wouldn't give up on the idea of the wild elves so easily.
Morrigan returned just as the tents were going up, and Sten had got the fire crackling, despite the damp. The rain had settled to a light drizzle instead of the heavy fall that had threatened earlier, but it was no less insidious. That fine, delicate mist of it got into everything, and chilled a body to the bone, until it was hard to remember a time when you'd been warm and dry.
The witch had four rabbits with her; all kills so clean I wondered how she'd done it, and then decided I didn't need to know. Somehow, I felt better about eating meat Maethor had caught, despite having to wipe the dog drool off before it went in the pot.
Leliana was cooking, and the mabari had spread himself out in front of the fire, belly baking next to the flames, while Alistair and Wynne were talking quietly by her tent. I wondered if he was getting the same 'joy in duty and self-sacrifice' speech that I'd had. Maybe she didn't think he needed it. Maybe he really didn't. Despite everything we'd seen at Soldier's Peak, and the revulsion we'd both felt at the things that had been allowed to corrupt the order under Warden-Commander Dryden, Alistair's core of belief in the Grey Wardens seemed undimmed. He needed it to be that way, I suspected, though I wasn't sure how truly distinct the Grey Wardens and Duncan were in his mind. I told myself it wasn't my place to speculate. We all kept ourselves moving forwards in whatever ways we could.
With the smell of broiling rabbit on the air, along with that of dried vegetables and barley bubbling in about three-quarters of an inch of water, I headed across the camp to Zevran's tent. He was sitting on a blanket at the mouth of it, cross-legged, his feet bare as he industriously polished his freshly cleaned boots.
He looked up as I drew nearer, and raised one golden brow. "Ah, and to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, o my bedazzling mistress?"
"I'm not your mistress," I said briskly, though without any real snappishness.
He smirked. "Mmm. I can think of a number of other, more pleasing titles. Perhaps—"
"Don't you dare," I muttered, in case he came out with anything as bad as, or even worse than, 'deadly sex goddess'. I hadn't quite forgiven him for that.
I stopped by the guy rope of his tent and crossed my arms, biting my lip thoughtfully as I watched him work. "Matter of fact, I wanted to ask you something before supper."
He didn't look up. I chewed on my lip some more, and frowned as I peered at his bare feet. They were in a much better state than mine. Notwithstanding a few calluses, blisters, and pads of hard, thickened skin, they were elegant… delicate, almost. I could see the dark lines of a tattoo, not unlike the one on his cheekbone, curling around the back of his right ankle, reaching from the arch of the foot itself up towards his calf—and then I blinked and looked away pointedly, because I was damned if he was going to see me studying his flesh.
"Yes." I cleared my throat. "Um. I, er, just wondered… what's your opinion of the Dalish?"
"My opinion?" Zevran glanced up at me warily, but didn't stop buffing the boot. "Should I have one?"
I sighed and rubbed a weary hand over my forehead. "All right, what you know of them, then."
"Ah, I see."
His mouth curled softly, but his eyes grew hard, and his cloth worked industriously at the leather. I couldn't help but think of what he'd told me about the smell of fresh leather reminding him of home. It had been a very touching story, in its way, although I wasn't sure whether I thought him truthful enough to accept it at face value. To me, Zevran seemed more than capable of constructing his own mythology… although, having grown up with the smells of tanneries, butchers, and dung heaps all around me, I was prepared to admit it had the ring of truth.
He shrugged, and glanced up at me as he continued to rhythmically polish the boot. The fine leather glimmered dully, the intricate tooling on it looking like some kind of glistening serpent. "I know little enough of the Dalish other than the fact that my mother was one. Or so I was told."
I blinked, surprised. "Really?"
Maybe I'd expected Dalish ancestry to leave a more tangible print on a person; some mark of wildness or feral pride, perhaps. Zevran didn't seem that way to me, with his overt worldliness, his fancy clothes, the prettified hair, the tattoos, and that thin loop of gold through his ear. He was a foreigner, in every possible sense of the word, and though I was under no illusions that the cultured, well-polished charm he exuded hid anything other than a dangerous, vicious creature, it wasn't anything like the way I imagined the Dalish to be.
Evidently, my surprise was both obvious and amusing to him. He smirked, and patted the ground beside him, inviting me to sit and hear the tale. I did, though I hunched my knees up and clasped my arms protectively around them, like some old maid nervous of flirtation. Truth be told, that was rather how I felt, especially next to Zevran's graceful, bare-thighed, feline sprawl.
"Indeed." He smiled thinly, the smell of leather polish sharp and greasy on the air between us, and the cloth working in those supple, smooth movements. "She fell in love with a woodcutter and accompanied him back to Antiva City, leaving her clan behind for good… or so the story went. There, of course, the woodcutter died of some filthy disease and my mother was forced into prostitution to pay off his debts. Oldest tale in the book."
I winced. It wasn't so much the story—I knew too much of elven poverty to be terribly surprised by it—but the way the words left him that shocked me. There was a very slight trace of regret in his voice, yet it was all but drowned in a glib, almost flippantly cynical tone. I couldn't tell whether he was lying, or whether he'd just told the story so often it had ceased to have meaning… or if he even cared at all.
"I didn't know my mother, either, of course," he said with a slight shrug, those amber eyes apparently considering the job of work he'd done on his left boot. "She died giving birth to me. My first victim, as it were."
He smiled mirthlessly at that, and glanced up in time to see the grimace of horror I hadn't been quick enough to wipe from my face.
"Zevran, that's horrible! I mean, I—"
I intended to say I was sorry about his mother, but I didn't get a chance. One golden brow flicked dispassionately, and he spat on the toe of his boot, working the saliva into the leather in one last layer of patina.
"Is it? Hmm. It seemed normal enough a tale growing up, no different than the other elven boys in the whorehouse."
He seemed almost to relish saying that word; I supposed he wanted to shock me. What Zevran had insisted on calling my 'aura of innocence' appeared to amuse him, and apparently gave him an urge to bait me that I was not yet sure was entirely without cruelty.
I understood a little more in that moment, however. The woodcutter, the love story… if it sounded like he didn't care, it was probably because he didn't believe it was true.
"Your father's family couldn't do anything, then?" I asked cautiously.
The rhythm of his polishing cloth faltered, ever so briefly.
"I have no idea. I never knew the man. As to whether he even had family…."
"I see," I said, nodding slowly.
And, yes, perhaps I was just a little smug. In the alienage, we took care of our own, even if the tenuousness of their bonds stretched 'extended family' right out into 'grossly attenuated family'. Blood was blood, however watered down, and I was very slightly gratified by that, given how disparaging Zevran had been about alienages before.
Of course, as I was well aware, another possibility lingered behind the words. Better to tell a small child his mother and father loved each other, than to say he is the product of a perfunctory rut where money provided the only consent.
I frowned as I thought of the night Alistair had told me the truth of his parentage, and my anger had evaporated as I saw the worries that plagued him. He was afraid not just of the legends that touched his father's blood, but of the precise circumstances of his conception, and his half-sister's words would have done absolutely nothing to assuage that.
I felt grateful, somehow, knowing that—even though they'd married as virtual strangers, the way our traditions tended to dictate—Father had grown to love Mother very deeply, as she had him, and that I'd had years to see the strength of the affection between them before we lost her.
"So," Zevran went on, jerking me from my thoughts, "we were all raised communally by the whores. That is all. It was a happy enough existence, ignoring the occasional beating, until eventually I was sold to the Crows. I brought a good price, so I hear."
Another sharp, brittle smile, and those lazily hooded eyes regarded me coolly, as if waiting for my po-faced look of shock. I determined not to pander to his expectations, and wrinkled my nose.
"You seem fairly cheerful about it all," I said dryly. "I suppose that's something."
Zevran's smile widened like the unsheathing of a knife. "If could have been much worse, my dear. Shall I tell you about what happened to the other whorehouse boys who did not fetch a decent price with the Crows?"
A darker, nastier edge clung to those last words, turning the soft lilts of his accent to something full of menace. I suspected, whatever the stories Zev had, they were far worse than what I was imagining.
"Besides," he said, pointing the toe of his freshly polished boot at me, "your life has not been so idyllic. This I know."
A smear of polish marked the heel of his hand, and that sharp, waxen scent had got right into the back of my throat. I looked away, still smarting a little from the things that had happened in Denerim, and the cavalier way Zevran had told Wynne and the others of what I'd done, when I hadn't even been there to defend my crimes. I still managed, somehow, to blame him for the purge, too, simply because, when he'd told me of the state of things in the city, he'd made me believe it hadn't yet gone that far. Only when I'd stood in front of the alienage gates had I realised quite how bad things had become… and it wasn't Zev's fault, yet I resented him for it.
For that, and for never having been one of us in the first place.
"I think," he said softly, that burred voice coaxing me to look at him again, only to find a hard, deep set to his features, wreathed with complexities and hidden things, "that people like you and I are not the product of happy lives of contentment."
I scoffed. "'People like you and I'?"
The momentary stiffening of Zevran's expression was not lost on me, and I regretted the words at once. He flexed his shoulders into something too subtle to be a shrug; it was a simple gesture of unconcern, as if he didn't give a damn what I thought, or how much of an idiot I was.
I cleared my throat, and stumbled awkwardly over an amelioration. "I meant, um, you know… we're from very different places, you and I. You've trained your whole life to, er, to do what you do—"
Killing people. For money.
"—and I've just, I don't know, ended up here."
Zevran smiled tightly. There seemed to be some complex set of thoughts playing out behind those amber eyes but, whatever they were, he gave me no indication. I had yet to learn, then, just how closely guarded he kept himself.
"So?" he said, lowering his voice a little more, until it was nothing but a soft curl among the shadows. "Are we so different? Buffeted by the winds of fate, brought to this point by both circumstances and excellence?"
His lips curled again on the last word, and I was left unsure of whether he was playing with me again, or venturing into self-deprecation. Either way, I decided to join in for once, instead of just letting myself be his foil.
"You may have a point…." I smirked. "About the circumstances part, anyway."
"Oh?" Zevran snorted. "You are too kind."
I grinned, and he set down the boot he had finished polishing, and picked up its twin, scooping his cloth through the small pot of polish that sat, open, by his foot. A glance over at the rest of the camp determined Leliana was still cooking, though I could see the others beginning to gather by the fire. Alistair had shucked off his armour, and was warming his hands over the flames. He met my eye, started to smile, and then looked away. I blinked, a little distracted, and turned my attention back to Zevran, only to find him waiting politely, a small half-smile on his face.
Not much of the firelight reached over as far as his tent—just enough to soften and colour the edges of the shadows—but it glimmered on the golden hoop in his ear, and set those amber eyes dancing. The cuts and bruises he'd picked up at the Peak seemed incongruous next to that carefully cultured appearance, and I found myself staring at the tattoo on his cheek. The Dalish were rumoured to have a practice of tattooing, weren't they?
I shifted awkwardly, caught against the sensation of having my preconceptions painfully rearranged. Zevran's smile widened, and there was something faintly predatory about it.
"My original point," he said smokily, beginning to work a glob of leather polish into his second boot, "is that my mother's Dalish nature always fascinated me. Through all the years of my Crow training, the one thing of my mother's that I possessed was a pair of gloves. They were of Dalish make, I knew that much, and beautiful. Have you ever seen Dalish leather work?"
"No." I shook my head. Of course I hadn't, and he probably knew that.
My stomach started to growl quietly to itself, the smell of supper growing stronger, even over the smell of the polish and the damp earth.
"Ah, well! It is exquisite. Very fine. The softest leather, yet strong as you like, and worked with the most delicate designs. This," Zevran added, plucking at the chest of the leathers he wore—supple as a second skin, and impractically ornate, tooled with curling lines and snippets of silver gilding—and pursing his lips, "this is Antivan, and of excellent quality, but it would look like a butcher's apron next to Dalish work. The gloves were such, and soft as butter. I had to keep them hidden, of course, as we were not allowed such things. Eventually, they were discovered, and I never saw them again."
He sniffed philosophically, shrugged, and focused on polishing the boot. It seemed to me the story of the gloves carried more meaning than that of his mother's alleged fall… which I supposed made sense. It is easier to believe in the things you can touch than it is to accept the things that require hope, especially in the kinds of circumstances that choke the promise from everything.
I felt bad for mentally comparing my upbringing to Zev's. Whatever the truth that lay behind the things he chose to tell me, it had probably been much worse than I thought. I'd been lucky, had two loving parents, a roof over my head and food on our table, most of the time. For all the deprivations, we hadn't been the worst off in the alienage—and so what if that meant some people had thought Father put on airs? He'd worked himself raw for everything we had. Besides, for all the cramped, complicated squabbles and struggles of community back home, there were those who had suffered more than even our poorest unfortunates. There were always the ones who were outside the walls.
I hadn't thought of it that way before, and my brow furrowed on the shapes of the thoughts as I grew a little ashamed.
Zevran didn't halt in his polishing, but he looked enquiringly at me. "Mmm?"
"Um, I mean… you didn't know your mother's people. So, you've never actually—?"
"No, I am no expert in the ways of the Dalish," he said, those heavy-lidded eyes narrowing a little. "I do not think of myself as Dalish… I never have. I am Antivan, and proudly so—although that did not stop me from running off to join a clan, once, when it drew near Antiva City."
He smirked. The surprise was clearly evident on my face, perhaps combined with a brief flash of exasperation. He couldn't simply have told me this, instead of spinning his tales of whorehouses and wonderful gloves?
No, I supposed he couldn't. Especially when there was a captive audience to bait and tease, and he could attempt to make me squirm with references to tarts and beatings.
"What were they like?" I asked earnestly, though I doubted Zevran could have given a plain and simple answer even if I'd asked what day it was. "If there's anything you can tell me, I'll hear it gladly. Anything that could help us find them, or know how to… I don't know, approach them?"
He spat onto the supple leather of his boot, and buffed it vigorously with the cloth again, all the while eyeing me with quiet amusement. I didn't think I'd ever met someone who was so much of an enigma. From moment to moment, Zevran unseated me; I never knew whether I should feel sorry for his trials, be wary of his skills, or even believe a word that passed his lips.
Eventually, I would learn there was a balance to be struck between all three things, but the mystery had manifold layers.
He tilted his head, as if considering the shine he'd raised on the boots. "Eh, you are right to be cautious. They are often distrustful of outsiders, and unwilling to come into contact with them. If they are to be found in this forest, make no mistake, it will be the Dalish who allow you to find them."
I nodded slowly. I'd suspected as much. "We know they're there, though. You saw that arrowhead Wynne found?"
"Mmm." Evidently satisfied with the boots, Zevran wiped his hands and folded up his polishing cloth, and began to pull on his socks. They were, as I could have predicted, smoother and finer than mine, and didn't have half as many dubious stains on them. "But I would not—how shall I say this?—entertain too many hopes of a warm and enveloping reception."
The voice of experience was in those words. I frowned. "The clan you tried to join, then… they weren't welcoming?"
He laughed softly—for once, not a scoff or a disparaging snort. "Hah… to a skinny little whoreson brat? No, it is safe to say the reality did not live up at all to the fantasies I had constructed as a boy, staring at those gloves."
I watched him pull the socks on over elegantly pointed toes, dark, soft wool rolling up over smooth, tanned skin. All I knew of the Dalish, discounting fourth-hand rumours and the stories I'd heard as I child, came from Brother Genitivi's writings which, as I had already learned, were not the reliable and unbiased account of the world I'd once believed them to be. I had so many questions but, as I opened my mouth, Zevran sighed and began to slide his boots on.
"Still, such is life, yes? Come… enough talk of the Dalish. I wish to get some supper in my belly before Alistair eats everything."
Zevran rose unceremoniously, and left me sitting there with words half-bundled on my tongue, frowning into the shadows. I puffed out my lips and, supposing I'd hit a nerve that lay close to the surface of that suave, sophisticated veneer, I scrambled to my feet and followed him.
He had a point: we didn't even know if we would find the Dalish, much less make enough of an impression to convince them to honour the Grey Wardens' treaty. For all the faith we were placing in those mouldy old documents, I wasn't entirely sure the wild elves would see them the same way.
Still, we had to try.
Dinner was a surprisingly convivial affair. I put it down to having Soldier's Peak behind us, because pretty much anything would seem a lightened load after centuries-old decay and the stink of demons. Possibly, it was as much due to the night clearing, and the warmth of our fire against the cold, dry, crisp sky, pierced by a thousand tiny, brilliant stars.
We talked a little of the Dalish, though I didn't mention what Zevran had said about his mother, and neither did he. Mostly, all the knowledge we had pooled together at the end of it was those second-hand scraps of stories and rumours, and we were no further along than we had been before. Still, I supposed it was comforting to know we were all sharing in our ignorance.
Wynne bade us all goodnight almost immediately after she'd finished eating, and I hadn't realised until then how tired she looked. She brushed off Alistair's frown of concern, simply smiling and saying, with all this walking, she was aware she wasn't as young as she used to be. Sten retreated to his own tent not long after, and Morrigan went to hers with her customary arch rejection of our company. Maethor lifted his head from his paws and whined a bit when she went, which drew an eye roll and a sneer from her. The hound wagged his stumpy tail as she padded out of the circle of firelight, and I gazed down at him fondly, rather suspecting the show of affection was to do with the witch having given him an entire rabbit to eat. Naturally, that hadn't stopped him woofing down half a bowl of Leliana's cooking as well, though I had to admit it was good.
For all those jokes of Alistair's about Grey Wardens' bottomless stomachs—and the running joke among the group about his ability to pack away food—life on the road certainly did make for a healthy appetite, and that made rationing what we had painful. No one complained all that much, though I imagined it was worse for those of the others who'd never been used to going without.
Somewhere in the undergrowth, something rustled. Maethor, slumped over my feet like a warm, short-coated but rather smelly hearthrug, raised his head and scented the air, ears pricked. Alistair glanced over his shoulder as the hound's wrinkled snout quivered, and the fleeting similarity of their actions made me want to smile.
"Fox," he announced, relaxing again.
As if in answer, the rustling intensified as the animal scurried away, and the high-pitched yelp of its call echoed through the tree line. Maethor grumbled low in his chest, but apparently couldn't be bothered to move. I reached down and scratched his thick, bullish neck.
"As long as it's not wolves," I said, glancing at the dark shapes of the trees, and trying not to think of how easy it would be to imagine branches as arms, or claws. "There'll be wolves in the forest, won't there?"
Alistair shrugged. "Maybe, but they'd be very unlikely to come anywhere near us. They usually go for lone travellers, if they attack hu—people at all."
The fire was burning low now, and it ruddied his face, splashing the gold back into his hair, and catching at the light in his eyes. I smiled, quietly grateful for that small correction. He held my gaze for a moment, then looked away, and I wished fervently that we could have had some opportunity to be alone. Camp wasn't exactly conducive to privacy… not that I knew what I wanted to say to him, in any case.
Leliana stretched her arms above her head, making a luxuriant little noise partway between a sigh and a yawn. "Mmm… it is definitely getting colder. We'll have to see about finding some thicker blankets next time we run across a merchant. Maybe a few furs?"
"That shouldn't be a problem," Zevran said consideringly. "You know these Fereldans, yes? Turn your back for a moment, and they'll stick a pelt and a carving of a war hound on practically anything."
He smiled lazily, and she giggled.
"Hey!" Alistair frowned, affecting wounded national pride. "Leave my country alone, you… foreigners, you."
I grinned. "Anyway, there's nothing wrong with carvings of dogs, is there, boy?"
Maethor rolled over, wagged his tail sleepily, and let that great, thick tongue loll out of the side of his mouth. A waft of doggy breath, like stale, stagnant duckweed, panted up to meet me, and I patted the hairy expanse of his belly.
"Charming," Zevran said dryly.
Leliana rubbed the back of her neck thoughtfully. "Maybe the Dalish will be willing to trade… if we find them."
Overhead, a cloud passed across the sky, a dark, ruffled blot against the star-pricked blackness. The moon was waning again. I wasn't sure how many cycles I'd watched it go through since this all began, but tonight it was the shape of a shaved penny, and bright against the darkness, like a silver piece.
"Perhaps," Zevran agreed, and I almost thought I imagined the tone of melancholy in his voice. He fixed Leliana with one of his best smirks, though, and all of a sudden that hint of dejection was gone. "Of course, in the meantime, my dear, if it is the warming of your bedroll that you require—"
She groaned. "Oh, for pity's sake…."
"What? I am merely being a gentleman, no? Offering my services to a beautiful woman in need?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. And no. Thank you."
"Are you certain? You could beguile me with your fascinating melodies, no? And, should you wish, I could… tune your lute? Perhaps pluck a few notes from your quivering—"
"Ah!" Leliana grimaced. "Can't someone make him stop?"
Zevran just laughed throatily and, with a look of self-satisfied smugness, rose from his seat by the smouldering fire.
"At your slightest command, principessa. I shall bid you all goodnight. We start early in the morning, I fear, yes?"
I nodded. "Seems like a plan. Goodnight, Zevran."
"Sogni d'oro, coraggiosa." He inclined his head to Alistair. "And you, my friend."
"Goodnight," Alistair said, and the three of us sat in silence as Zev padded off to his tent.
No one spoke for a moment. I knew I really ought to get to bed myself… not that sleep was much of a friend of mine. The dreams didn't come every night, but they were happening more often, and I didn't relish the prospect of the things they brought with them.
All the same, I didn't move. I just sat there, feeling rather awkward, and yet very stubborn, and staring into the yellow-orange dance of the flames.
"Well," Leliana said eventually, "I must have my rest too. I won't be at all sorry to get some sleep tonight."
"No, it's… er, it's getting late," Alistair agreed, clearing his throat and looking mildly embarrassed. "Um. Goodnight."
"'Night, Leliana," I echoed as she rose, smiling.
"Goodnight, then," she said, and she retired, humming quietly to herself as she went.
Alistair and I looked at each other over the fire for a moment, a nearly palpable sense of clumsy expectation washing up around us, and then we both grinned. At my feet, Maethor rolled over, all four legs spread-eagled and sprawled at the air, and his ears flopping inside out as he tried to warm his belly even further.
"So, uh… you and Zevran seemed to have a lot to talk about earlier," Alistair said quietly, fixing me with an expectant look.
I shook my head. "He knows more about the Dalish than me. Apparently, he has Dalish blood… although I don't know if that'll help us."
I was still reaching down, fingers absently scritching Maethor's coat. Most of the day's mud had dried and flaked off him, but the hound could still have done with a bath. He stank like a shem's armpits when he got warm… not that I supposed I should let myself think that phrase anymore.
Alistair nodded slowly, and I glanced inquisitively at him, not sure whether he was curious, jealous, or just as confused as I was when it came to how the boundaries might or might not have shifted between us.
We should talk, I supposed. I wanted to, but the silence was so heavy it seemed to buzz, and it burned at my ears. Anyway, what was there I could say? We could hardly exchange starry-eyed sentiments of tender longing without acknowledging the whole 'alone against the Blight, death awaiting us at every turn' thing and, next to that, this felt incongruous and uncomfortable.
Alistair was fiddling with the worry token he wore on his left forefinger, his thumb rubbing repetitively at the ring's golden surface. It glimmered in the dying firelight, and he frowned as he looked down at it.
"Well, um… I, er, guess I should…." He trailed off, glanced towards his tent and, with a short, awkward cough, started to get to his feet.
Maethor readied to sit up, liquid brown eyes watching him intently, but then gave a little canine groan and flopped back to the scrape he'd made himself.
I scratched at the back of my right wrist with my other hand, not really sure what to say, except that I had to say something. Alistair stilled and looked down at me, his eyes dark in the flame-licked gloom. Everything was shadows and coldness, except where the firelight touched him. I didn't quite manage to meet his gaze as I rose to my feet and—my movements quick, agile and decisive in a way I certainly didn't feel—took hold of his wrist and drew him aside, away from the blind eyes of the other tents, and into the quiet embrace of the trees.
"What? What— oh?" Confusion flickered briefly across his face, and the cold air smelled like rain-fresh earth and pine sap. "Oh-hh! I see…."
His eyes shone with smug delight as I raised myself up on my toes to kiss him; far more forward than I'd ever been before, or than I could ever have imagined I'd be. I crossed my wrists behind his head, pulled myself close… and felt his arms folding around me. It was easy to press closer still—easier than it had any right to be—and so very easy to feel the warmth and solidity of his body against mine.
He was grinning when we parted, looking flushed and a little surprised. I doubted I looked much different.
I bit my lip ruefully. "Sorry."
Alistair shook his head emphatically. "Don't be. Really, actually… really, don't."
"I, uh, wanted you to know I meant what I said," I murmured, my arms still wrapped around his neck, his breath still warming the air between us.
"Mm." He smiled. "Me too. I'm glad you didn't, um… reconsider. I didn't think you would, but I know this isn't exactly ideal."
"Nothing ever is," I said softly. "But it's close enough."
Alistair's smile widened, those hazel eyes filling with an even deeper warmth as he held me closer. He was lovely, even if he did smell of human sweat, and mud and grease, and worn leather and metal. My fingers trailed through the back of his hair, following a tentative path around the side of his head, and finally grazing the outer rim of his ear. It felt very peculiar. Thick, and soft, and… well, round. It was like something stunted, or deformed—some kind of afterthought slapped onto a lazy sculptor's efforts. I could feel the weight of his hand on the back of my waist, even through my leathers, and it felt strange to wish I could feel his touch on my skin. It should have shamed me… but it didn't. At least, not much.
"Thing is, I don't know what we do about this," I confessed, the words barely a whisper scraping the dark.
Alistair flexed one shoulder uncertainly, and shook his head again. "Neither do I. It's not how I thought— I mean, I didn't think…." He sighed shortly, and brushed the hair out of my eyes with gentle fingers. "I guess, right now, we just take the days as they come, right?"
We could hardly do much else, though I didn't like to say so. Instead, I nodded, highly aware of those callused fingertips trailing down my cheek, and coming to rest at the point of my jaw.
"Mm-hm," I murmured, not really trusting myself with whole words.
Next to the Blight, and the realities of life as it stood at that moment, everything else seemed a pale shadow. It was, I tried to tell myself, ridiculous to feel this way, insane to want this. And yet, if we could all be dead on the end of darkspawn spears, or shot through with Dalish arrows, or hacked to death by Loghain's soldiers before we even had a chance to be roasted alive by the archdemon… well, at least we'd each known that someone had cared.
At least, for a little time, we'd both been more than just a vessel of duty.
Alistair smiled softly, and tilted my chin. I closed my eyes and let him kiss me again, my fingers curling away from the unfamiliar roundness of his ear and resting, half-clenched, on the side of his neck.
He held me tightly and, when he pulled away, pressed one last, chaste kiss to my forehead and wished me goodnight, the sound of my name on his lips made me smile. He went to his tent, and I went to mine and, though it felt cold and empty in my bedroll, the dark spaces that waited to be filled with dreams were not as menacing as they usually seemed.