In which Wynne is wise and broken things are mended.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 17: The Best Policy)
Tuesday, 5 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
Alistair had no idea how long he’d been sitting in that tree wrestling with his thoughts, but when Wynne quietly appeared beside him, night had fully fallen. Moonlight illuminated her smooth gray hair in its careful, serviceable knot. It seemed an apt metaphor for the woman herself; mature, controlled, and ready for any task. They were all traits the uneasy Warden feared he was failing to emulate.
“Would you like to talk about it?” she asked gently. He didn’t even know where to begin untangling his feelings, so he just shrugged and looked away.
“I see.” Wynne leaned back against the tree he sat in, brushing a bit of twig off her ornate robe, its deep sapphire hue leached to black by the silvery light. After a while, she spoke in a conversational tone, over the quiet night symphony of the forest.
“I knew a young mage once, who fell in love with a templar.” She chuckled at his sharp glance. “Oh yes, I know, it’s all so very forbidden… but if the Chantry truly believes they can corral healthy young people in one place and not get that result now and then, they must have a great deal more confidence in miracles than I do. At any rate, the two were models of propriety, so no one suspected their romance.”
Alistair nearly interrupted to ask what this had to do with anything. But, after traveling with Wynne for over a month, he knew she had a reason for everything she did. And it was a lot easier to listen to her soothing voice than to confront his snarled emotions, anyway.
“The couple was happy for a time, but then the mage became with child. Mages are not permitted to raise children; she knew the Chantry would take her baby at birth. She needed to tell her templar… but how would he react? Would he blame her? Refuse to speak to her again? Or, perhaps worse, would he resolve to throw away his vows and training to help her escape? To make her an apostate, forever hiding in fear? Faced with such dire outcomes, she was frozen in indecision.”
“But if she really cared for the templar, she should have trusted him,” Alistair frowned. “Didn’t she think he’d want her to be happy?”
Wynne’s smile was sad. “That’s the funny thing about fear; it keeps you from thinking clearly, and only shows you the darkest ends. Thus, wrapped in her fear of losing her beloved, the mage came up with a plan. She’d been raised in the Circle, taught to confide in her First Enchanter. So she explained the situation to him, and asked what could be done to keep her child safe. She refused to name the child’s father, believing that would be enough to protect him.”
“She was wrong?”
“She was wrong.” The old mage’s blue eyes caught a ray of moonlight, turning them into pools of clear, glowing water… with one small river tracing down her cheek. “The next day the templar was sent to Denerim. She was kept in isolation. Even if she’d been foolish enough to write her beloved a letter that would surely be read, she was never given the chance. And so, when her time came, her son was taken. She never saw him again, and his father never saw him at all.”
Alistair laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. Despite Morrigan’s jibes, he wasn’t that dense; it was obvious who the mage in Wynne’s story was. But though he didn’t want to be cruel, he had to ask, “Did the templar ever find out?”
She sighed. “He was so angry he wouldn’t speak to her for a time. Finally, he passed her a note accusing her of caring more about her status in the Circle than their son. They had to see each other often over the years, as they rose in the ranks of their orders. But their love had turned to ash, and they never spoke of it again.”
The young Warden picked at a loose bit of stitching on his sleeve. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “Thank you for telling me. And I get it; everyone makes mistakes, so I should try not to judge Raven so harshly.”
“No,” she looked up sharply, “that’s not the point at all, though it’s certainly true. The point is this: the templar thought the mage hid the truth because she cared for herself more than for him, but he was wrong. She did it because she loved him too much. She was so afraid of losing him that she hesitated until the choice was taken from her. He doubted her love just as she’d doubted his understanding, and they both suffered.”
For a long moment, only the crickets and night birds spoke. Finally, Alistair broke the silence. “Raven… she said she’d enjoyed being with me – er, the… other-realm version of me, I suppose, if that makes sense – and that she,” he swallowed. “That she’d fallen in love with him. Me. Whatever.” He looked at the mage with a lost expression. “Even if I could wrap my mind around the weirder parts of that, I… I don’t…” He flung himself from his seat in the tree, and paced restlessly.
“You don’t feel the same?” Wynne asked, her voice heavy with skepticism.
“No. Yes? I don’t know! That’s just it!” He stopped and turned to her, his face twisted in frustration. “How would I know? She’s the only person who’s ever said… that… to me! I don’t know how to feel!”
A wave of pity and understanding flowed over the old mage’s face in the dim moonlight. “Ah, I see. Well, as it happens, I may have some insight there, after puzzling it out myself and being a confidant for more than a few apprentices. So, let’s start with this: it’s plain you have feelings for her. Anyone with eyes can see that.”
“I’m not that obvious!” He paused. “…am I? That obvious?”
She chuckled. “A bit, yes. But at this point, you’re probably still feeling infatuation, where everything is breathless and exciting. That generally goes one of three ways. Infatuation can, of course, grow into real love. But if you find you only like being in her bed, not by her side, that’s only lust, and it will fade.”
“Maker’s breath.” He flushed with embarrassment. “We’re not really having this conversation, are we?”
“The third possibility is the tricky one,” she said, calmly ignoring him. “And that’s falling in love with the idea of love. You avoid that by truly getting to know her. If you think she’s perfect, you’re infatuated. When you can list her flaws in order of how much they annoy you – but you’d stand with her through sun and shadow in spite of them – then you’re in love. And every day you fight to keep that love alive, and you never let it fade.”
“That… makes a lot of sense, actually. It’s somewhere to start, at least.” He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. “I suppose I’d better go talk to her. She’s back in camp?”
“No. She threw Aedan a few icy words of… prophecy, I assume… about the werewolves, and left.”
“Left? She’s… she’s out by herself in a wood full of monsters? And Aedan just… let her go?! Why didn’t you tell me?” He flipped from steady to frantic with a speed he didn’t care to think about.
“You needed some time to think, and she probably did too. As for Aedan,” her lips pursed in disapproval. “It can be very easy to forget how young that boy is and how much he’s been through, but it seems to have caught up to him. He said since she supposedly knows everything, she’ll be perfectly safe. He’s clearly aware he’s in the wrong, but is too stubborn to admit it.”
“We’ll have to have a word about that later, he and I,” Alistair said with a scowl, privately surprised to hear himself speak so decisively. “But first,” he fretted, “I need to figure out how I’m going to find Raven.”
Wynne laughed. “My dear, you spent half your life learning to hunt mages. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that you can find one woman in the woods.”
A sheepish expression flashed over the Warden’s chiseled features. “Good point.” He took a few steps toward the clearing before pausing and turning back. “And Wynne…thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome,” she smiled. “Oh, and one more bit of advice, dear. There’s a fine line between gallantry and condescension. Judging by what I’ve seen of that young lady, implying she’s helpless and needs you to save her will put you on the wrong side of it.”
With a brisk nod, he strode off.
The silent game trail was peaceful enough, but Alistair was fuming. Though he kept his eyes sharp for the many signs of Raven’s passing – a thread here, a boot print there, all barely requiring his attention to find – his mind was caught in a loop that only made him more livid with each repetition.
“I can’t believe you just sat here and watched her leave,” Alistair said heatedly, as he flung a few supplies into his pack. “The whole reason we’re here is that this forest is dangerous!”
“She’s an adult,” the young noble replied, anger and guilt warring on his face. “If she wants to be an idiot, she can deal with the consequences.”
“There wouldn’t have been any consequences, if you’d let her explain things in her own way, instead of blindsiding her – even after all her help!”
“She didn’t go tearing out of here because she was upset with me,” Aedan spat. “If you want someone to blame, I’ll get you a mirror.”
They hadn’t spoken again before he left camp, but he knew very well the subject wasn’t closed. For the first time, he wondered if passing the burden of command to Aedan had been the right choice. Admittedly, things didn’t usually go well when Alistair led – one attempt had given rise to that embarrassing story Rutherford delighted in telling literally everyone – but in the grand scheme of things, the risk of him ending up trouserless from silly pranks was preferable to the risk of someone ending up dead from stubborn cruelty.
But… “If you want someone to blame, I’ll get you a mirror.” The Warden sighed, plucking a strand of Raven’s long hair from a bramble bush, finally admitting he’d behaved like an ass. Not without reason, of course; the longer he’d listened to her fantastic tale, the more he’d begun to fear she’d only been affectionate to him as some sort of experiment. But if Wynne was right…
If Wynne was right… “I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help loving you!” his mind replayed, complete with the image of Raven’s beautiful, furious, tearstained face.
He was so focused on his thoughts and watching the trail that he jumped when her quiet voice called from across a small meadow.
She held her crossbow ready, aimed in his direction. He was taken aback. “Look, I know I was an arse, but don’t you think-“
“Shut up, Alistair,” she hissed. “Just stop!”
She pulled her trigger, and a crossbow bolt whistled through the air… and went wide of him, impacting with a squishy thud. He looked. Just at the edge of the tree line, a wolf lay dead with a bolt through its eye.
“There were more,” she said as she stood and stretched, indicating two more corpses with a vague nod. “But I think that’s the last of them.”
“…oh. How did you…?”
“I followed some halla,” she said. “I’m no woods expert, but they are. I figured if they were relaxed, it was safe. They ran when the wolves showed up, so I killed the wolves. The halla probably aren’t far; I should be able to find them again.”
She turned an emotionless face to him as he drew near. “So I’m fine. No rescue required. You can go back.” Her calm gave a barely perceptible flicker as she added, “I wouldn’t want to manipulate you into being anywhere you didn’t want to be.”
He winced. “Ouch. Okay, I deserved that.”
They stood watching each other, and after a moment, the scholar’s frozen mask thawed slightly. “No, you really didn’t,” she sighed, slumping down against a massive tree. “I should have told you sooner. I just… didn’t know how to even start.”
Alistair approached and stood awkwardly fidgeting with the straps of his pack. “I can understand that. It’s not an easy story to tell without sounding like a raving lunatic, for one thing.” He cringed inwardly. ‘Oh yes, well done, Alistair. Make a joke at a serious moment, and suggest she’s crazy; you’re a suave one.’
She just gave him the barest hint of a wry smile. “You’re not wrong. I wouldn’t believe it either, if I didn’t know better. Still not sure I do, to be honest.” Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I should’ve just done what Rob did when we met the Hawkes.” Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small flat thing, and he jumped as it blazed into life.
On the front was what he took to be a painting of sorts… of him. He’d had a shave, and his armor had less wear and more polish, but it certainly looked like his own face staring up at him from the weirdly bright object in Raven’s hand.
“Is that… him? Er, me? Other-realm me?”
She nodded. “Technically, it’s not your actual image from the game. It’s fan art – some artist liked the game and decided to make artwork based on it.”
“Someone I’ve never met painted my picture. That’s so strange…but I suppose it’s only a few drawings—“
Raven’s laughter interrupted him. “Um. No. When I said you’d inspired more people than you knew, I wasn’t kidding. Here, sit down; I’ll show you.” She flicked her fingers over the glowing object, and after he sat beside her, handed it to him. “Touch the screen like this to flip through the pictures.”
The images were each more befuddling than the last. Him in Grey Warden armor, against a stylized backdrop. Him in some sort of fur-collared coat, wearing a crown. Him dancing with some blonde girl he’d never seen in his life. Him playing with a Mabari. Him…without…a shirt…
“Um, you get the idea,” Raven interjected, grabbing the glowing thing and avoiding his eyes with a blush. “The point is, where I come from, women joke about how your wonderful fictional self has ruined them for other men.” She turned away so only her profile was visible. “So maybe now you can see why I had a hard time believing you’d want someone like me.” Her attempt to make light fell flat when he could hear the hurt in her voice.
“Hey, none of that. Look at me.” She swallowed, biting her lip, so he repeated himself. “Raven. Look at me.”
When she finally met his gaze, her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. Alistair took her hands and sent a quick prayer to the Maker that he wouldn’t screw things up. “I don’t know how to feel about all of this yet. It’s… overwhelming. But I believe you, and… and I understand why it was hard for you to tell me. And none of this changes what I said the other day. I could argue it makes you even more amazing, because you could easily have said this wasn’t your world, or that it wasn’t even real, and walked away. You didn’t.”
His hands around hers were unpleasantly damp from his nerves, but he took a deep breath and soldiered on. “I never had a family. The closest I’ve ever been was being friends with Cullen and traveling with Duncan, but they never… they didn’t say… w-what you said.”
Being himself, he couldn’t resist interjecting a joke. “Which is a good thing, since you know how emotional Rutherford is; he’d only have tied me down.” She snickered; she’d been around Cullen enough to know he treated emotion like an inconvenient rash.
“My point is, I don’t know much about… about, you know, love.” Alistair studied the silvered blue of her eyes in the moonlight. “But I’m willing to learn.”
The next moment went by in a blur, and he found himself holding her in his lap, with his lips pressed to hers. He couldn’t say what was more intoxicating – the kiss, or his relief that he hadn’t ruined everything. In short order, though, as he embraced her dizzying softness, and her clever tongue flicked playfully over his lips, the kiss easily won out.
Finally, they broke apart smiling, and she rested her head on his chest. He inhaled the subtle lilacs-and-rain scent of her hair. “I, um… I didn’t know how far you’d have gone, or if you’d want to go back to camp and deal with Aedan,” he said, aiming for nonchalance and failing miserably. “So I brought my bedroll.”
Raven looked up at him with humor, one eyebrow raised, and he blushed. “Not like that; I mean, I just thought if I found you, we could sleep together.” His eyes widened in horror. “I mean, we could both sleep. At the same time. In the same place. Just with the, you know, sleeping.” He looked up to the heavens, praying the earth would leap up and swallow him, as she giggled helplessly at his discomfiture. “Maker’s breath, that sounded better in my head.”
The scholar’s cool fingertips on his cheek brought his gaze back down, and her sweet smile melted his embarrassment. “I’d like that,” she said simply, then sighed. “But… I suppose we’ll have to take turns standing watch…”
As if on cue, Aedan’s Mabari trotted into the clearing… and given how intelligent the dog was, Alistair wouldn’t put it past the hound to bide his time waiting for a proper dramatic entrance. “Hohaku!” Raven greeted him. “Did you come to check on us?”
The dog gave an affirmative bark and, to their great amusement, looked back in the direction of camp and kicked dirt at it. “I take it you’re not pleased with your master either,” Alistair laughed.
Hohaku snuffed in disdain and laid his head in Raven’s lap, nudging his snout under her hand. “So, since you’re here,” she said, after scratching his ears for a while, “I don’t suppose you’d mind keeping watch, so we could get some sleep?”
The huge wardog butted the scholar’s shoulder with his head, and pointedly turned around to guard the entrance to their little glade. “You beautiful creature,” she said, “you’re the absolute best, you know that?” His woof of agreement made them both chuckle.
In short order, Alistair cleared away the dead wolves while Raven spread his bedroll at the foot of the tree and, with her own blanket, made them a cozy little nest. They blushingly avoided each other’s gaze as they stripped off their armor, and when they were both down to linen undertunics and breeches, Raven was the first to settle in.
He stood, looking down at her with a racing heart. They were just sleeping. Sleeping was nothing to be nervous about, he told himself; he’d managed to sleep on a regular basis for a number of years. But he didn’t find the courage to move until she looked up at him with that beautiful smile of hers, and wordlessly reached out her hand.
“Your arm’s going to fall asleep, you know,” she said a bit later. Her head lay on his shoulder and her hand over his heart, as he faced up at the stars.
He thought about the softness of her body curled against his side. “I don’t mind.”
The soothing night sounds of the quiet forest surrounded them. And then…
“Hmm?” came the drowsy reply.
“Why do you have a painting of me without a shirt on? Is that… is that a thing people do where you’re from?”
There was a pause. Her face burrowed into his shirt, warm against his chest, and it muffled her large and patently fake yawn “Ugh, so tired! Sleep now, talk later. Goodnight, Alistair.”
He grinned, feeling just a tiny bit smug beneath his embarrassment. “Goodnight, Raven.”
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 19: The Forest for the Trees)