In which Rob thinks about relationships and gets drunk, not necessarily in that order.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 19: The Forest for the Trees)
Sunday, Solace 17th, 930
Raven and I were happy to get your letter. We just visited the Dalish elves. They were interesting, but not very friendly. They did take us back to South Reach in a wagon pulled by halla, though. The halla are—
“That’s not right,” the scholar interrupted, reading over his shoulder from atop the nearest bale of hay.
They’d camped in a cozy barn on the road from South Reach to Denerim; the farmholders had initially been wary, but relaxed when Leliana said they had their own provisions and offered to pray a blessing over their lands. Given the hint of late summer chill seeping into the air, everyone was pleased to be inside.
“What do you mean, it’s not right?” Rob frowned. “It’s not ‘Raven and me’ – that sounds weird.”
“No,” she laughed. “Your sentence is fine. I meant the date is wrong. Well, it’s written wrong, anyway.”
After confirming their companions were out of earshot, she explained. “It should be day, date, month, year, and age. So, Sunday, 17 Solace, 9:30 Dragon.”
Rob eyed his sister with scorn. “Really? I’m learning a whole new calendar, and you’re critiquing my formatting? Should I stab myself with this stupid quill when I’m done, so you can make corrections in red?”
“Yes, thanks; that would be helpful,” she quipped, then grinned. “Sorry, I’m not trying to be a pain. It’s just better to blend in with everyone else.” He sighed, nodding. “If it helps, be glad you’re figuring this out now. Next month is called August, which is roughly like our September, but starts with All Soul’s Day – basically Halloween. How’s that for confusing?”
He blinked. She laughed. He glared. She giggled harder. The cycle was interrupted when Alistair’s shadow fell across them. “Oh, sorry, I’m not interrupting, am I?”
Raven smiled dreamily and reached up to take the Warden’s hand, tugging him down to sit beside her on the hay. “Never.” Clearly forgetting whatever he’d come to say, he melted into an Alistair-shaped puddle, cupping her cheek in his palm and gazing at her like she was north and his eyes were magnets.
‘Ugh,’ thought Rob. ‘Dear Shanna, Rae’s finally dating that Warden you thought was her boyfriend, and they are so cute it’s nauseating. Please send help.’ But it was a half-hearted grumble at best. The broken shadow was gone from behind Raven’s eyes; Alistair was a good guy and seemed just as smitten. As much as Rob teased them, he genuinely loved seeing them happy. So, he focused on his letter and pretended not to notice some dude making out with his sister.
For a while, anyway. “All right, all right. Break it up, you two, before I lose my lunch over here.”
The pair separated abruptly, Alistair flushing crimson and Raven demonstrating the official big sister glare of death. He smiled and gave her a jaunty wave, unfazed.
“Ahem … um, yes, right. Sorry. I came to see if you wanted to join everyone for cards, but I got, ah … distracted.” The Warden coughed, relaxing slightly when Rob merely chuckled and shook his head.
“Distracted, huh? You don’t say.”
“They’re playing cards?” Rae pointedly ignored him.
“Aedan bought a deck of cards in South Reach. When we got permission to camp here, he said since we’re safely indoors, we could all use a night to relax. He’s trying to talk everyone into a game of Wicked Grace.”
An unexpected smirk crossed his sister’s face. “Wicked Grace, huh? Too bad I don’t know how to play; I could’ve taught Cullen when I was at Kinloch.”
“Oh, he already knows,” Alistair said. “We learned when we were recruits. Being Cullen, he found a book about it and learned the rules backwards and forwards. All a waste though; he’s terrible at it.”
Rae snickered. “Some things never change, then.” At their inquisitive looks, she clarified. “Many years from now Cullen gets drawn into a game of Wicked Grace. He’s so confident he bets his clothing … and ends up having to run back to his quarters naked.”
Alistair burst out laughing. “Oh, Maker. That sounds about right. He saw it as a strategy exercise like chess, when half the game is bluffing your opponents. Any time someone would be caught cheating – which is a given in Wicked Grace – he’d be appalled and grumble about upholding the honor of the templars. I was never good at it, but Rutherford was awful.” His smile faded. “We’ve been so busy, I forgot to ask … how do you think he’s doing? I wanted to see him before we left Kinloch, but he was still too ill for visitors.”
Raven’s nervous glance to her brother and back didn’t go unnoticed, and Alistair’s brow furrowed. “What? What aren’t you telling me?”
She sighed. “I meant to explain this sooner, but … Cullen wasn’t too sick for visitors. He just wasn’t ready to see you.”
Hurt and confusion warred in the Warden’s golden eyes. “But … why – what do you mean?”
“Okay, so … Rob, can you tell Alistair about what you saw when you were trapped by the sloth demon?”
With a shrug, he related the story, managing not to look around for Morrigan when he described his cozy morning with Hawke. “So,” he finished, “my mom was making breakfast, talking about how you and Rae were coming over later, when Aedan showed up.”
“Okay, but what does that have to do with Cullen?”
Rae’s eyes were serious and sad. “When Rob was in the Fade, the demon searched his mind for people he cared about, to use their images against him. When Cullen was fighting off the desire demons, they did something similar, using a mage named Solona Amell, and … and you.”
Alistair’s eyes grew wide in horror as the blood drained from his face. “You … you’re telling me … one of the few true friends I have in this world … spent nearly a month seeing my face while he was … t-tortured?”
Misery pooled in his sister’s eyes as she nodded. “He knows it wasn’t real, that you would never do anything to hurt him. He does know that, Alistair,” she hurried to add. “He knows it’s not your fault, and he doesn’t hold it against you at all. He’s just … he wasn’t quite ready to see you yet.”
The tall Warden slid off the hay and landed on the wooden floor with a soft thump. The shaking hand that flew to his mouth failed to conceal his shock and dismay. “That’s why he flinched away when I tried to help him that day … he saw me and –“
Distressed by Alistair’s reaction, Rae looked to Rob for help, so he made an attempt. “Alistair, you didn’t know. Your friend understood that, because he let us both help him down the tower, remember? He obviously doesn’t blame you.”
The other man glanced at him blankly, before turning back to his sister. “What did I do to him?”
“You didn’t do anything; he knows that. He—“
“Raven.” He was more serious than Rob had ever seen him. “What did I do?”
She swallowed, unheeded tears trickling unchecked down her cheeks. “I don’t know.” At his frown, she protested, “I really don’t! I didn’t ask for details, and he wouldn’t have been willing or able to give them if I had. But … you saw some of his physical injuries; Wynne could tell you more. And …” She bit her lip; her reluctance to continue was palpable. “And the desire demons also did their best to break him in … other ways. I don’t know exactly how … but from the few things he said, and his fear of being touched, I can make some educated guesses.”
The Warden’s usually tanned complexion had faded to a greenish pallor. “You mean he – that they made him believe I was –” Abruptly, he rose and lurched out into the deepening twilight. Sharing a helpless glance with her brother, Raven followed.
‘Well, shit,’ he thought. He looked back at the letter he’d started, but the happy anecdotes he’d meant to relate all fled from his thoughts. With a sigh, he stood and headed for the warm circle of flickering lantern light where their other companions sat. His interest perked when Aedan took a swig from an unfamiliar bottle before passing it to Leliana. Right now, he could use a drink. “So … I hear we’re playing cards.”
Leliana smiled as he sat down beside her, and passed him the bottle. The clear liquid had a slightly bluish tint, almost a glow … and smelled like it could strip paint. “What is this?”
“Legacy White Shear,” Aedan said with relish. “It’s famously rare, but a man in South Reach was raising money to evacuate, so he parted with it. And who better to consume such fine drink than a company of heroes fighting to save the world? Bottoms up!”
Rob tipped the bottle back … and fought the urge to choke. With watering eyes, he croaked, “Smooth.”
The bard laughed merrily. “They say it gets that glow from aging in a barrel bound with lyrium. I don’t know if that’s true, but it would explain the potency, no?”
Shaking his head, Rob passed the bottle to his right, but Wynne declined. “Thank you, dear, but I’ve had far too many lyrium potions in my life to find that taste pleasant.” Then she surprised him by pulling out a flask. “Besides, for getting good and drunk, I prefer Mackay’s; it’s smoother, easier to come by, and leaves one with less of a hangover.”
Zevran reached across Wynne for the bottle. “I enjoyed a great many varieties of drink in my time as a Crow – people have a charming habit of lavishing you with gifts when they fear you may kill them – but I cannot say I’ve had the pleasure of this one. Cheers.” And he swallowed a gulp of the stuff without so much as flinching. ‘Show-off,’ thought Rob.
Sten also waved away the bottle. “I will not consume alcohol while on a mission from the Arishok.” He paused, then added, “Besides, no weak southern spirit would be comparable to our Maraas-Lok.” Aedan just rolled his eyes and held out his hand for the bottle.
Morrigan was, as usual, nowhere to be seen. ‘Guess she’s not much of a joiner,’ he thought.
After taking another satisfied sip of whiskey, Aedan grinned. “So … who’s ready for Wicked Grace?”
When Raven and Alistair returned an hour or two later, he was starting to get the hang of the game. (Or possibly he was drunk enough not to care; it was hard to say.) They seemed to have regained most of their calm and their pervasive cotton-candy aura. “Shall I deal you both in?” Aedan asked.
“Maybe just Alistair for now,” Rae said, as they found room to sit. “I can watch him play to learn the rules.”
Leliana’s impish grin promised even more trouble tipsy than when she was sober. “That is a good idea,” she said. “Though it will work best if you sit where you can see his cards clearly. In his lap, for instance.”
Rob burst out laughing along with Aedan and Zevran, and even Wynne chuckled when the pair froze, blushing. But Alistair surprised everyone by clearing his throat to say, “Well yes, I suppose that makes sense.”
His sister turned pinker. “Breathe, Rae,” he snickered. “It’ll kill the mood if you pass out from lack of air.”
She glared, and Zevran smirked. “You are fortunate, my friend, that your sister’s eyes cannot kill, or I fear you would be the one to cease breathing.”
Raven looked up into the rafters and took a deep breath, before surveying them in turn. “I want you to know I hate you all,” she said in a conversational tone, setting them off again. But when Alistair sat and extended a hand to her, she settled between his knees without further comment.
As their mirth subsided, Rob watched his sister and her new boyfriend try (and fail) to hide how pleased they were for the excuse to snuggle. Leliana grinned as she passed along the half-empty bottle, before leaning back against Aedan in a boneless sprawl.
And suddenly, Rob thought of Marian Hawke.
Later, after the card game broke up and everyone was settling down to sleep, Morrigan finally returned from wherever she’d gone. She paused by his bedroll.
“In my survey of this drab little farmstead, I discovered a pleasantly secluded outbuilding. I could show you, if you like.” The purr in her tone made her intent clear.
Rob heard himself reply, “I’m not feeling so great right now. I think I’m just going to go to sleep.”
The mage nodded coolly and walked away.
Friday, 21 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
I’m glad you liked the halla picture. I never thought a big gray dude with a sword would draw like that, but it turns out Sten has a secret thing for art.
We made it to your home town today. Denerim is a lot bigger than I expected, almost like cities back home (except it smells bad in new ways). We found what we came for, first thing. You can tell your friend we’ll have his dad feeling better in no time.
“’Better in no time?’ ‘Tis so very optimistic of you … when we have yet to prove the ashes of the Chantry’s so-called prophet even exist.” Morrigan perched on the table near his elbow.
Rob shrugged, stretching. “Rae seems to think this Brother Jenny-whatsit … Genetivi, right? She thinks this Genetivi knows his stuff, and if he says he’s on the trail of Andraste’s ashes, he probably is.”
“Yes, well, your dear sister also thinks Alistair has more wit than a turnip, which is plainly not the case. You’ll forgive me if I don’t leap with joy at her assessment.”
“Too bad they aren’t around to hear that. I always enjoy the friendly chats you three have,” he smirked.
For the moment, the Chantry scholar’s home was empty save the two of them. When they’d arrived in Denerim, they’d found Genetivi’s house, only to learn he was gone and a thug had killed his assistant. Once they dispatched the intruder, Aedan decided they might as well bunk there to avoid undue attention so near to Loghain’s bailiwick.
“Yes, where have all our delightful comrades gone, dare I ask?”
He hid a grin at the witch’s feigned indifference, rising to stand between her knees. “Zev and Sten are ditching corpses – our little friend from earlier, and Genetivi’s actual assistant, dead long before we got here, the poor bastard. Leliana went to follow up on those assassins her ex-girlfriend sent after her, with Aedan, Wynne, and the dog for backup. And Alistair took Rae to meet some chick who might be his sister.”
“How quaint. Both sets of lovebirds are paired off on various adventures. At this rate, I begin to wonder if even the Qunari and the elf are fonder of one another than they would have us believe.”
Rob chuckled as his hands slid up her thighs. “Aw, what’s wrong, pookie? Are you jealous they’re all out on the town with their sweethearts?”
Did he imagine the split-second pause before her customary scorn settled into place?
No … no, that wasn’t possible. Morrigan was crystal clear about her disdain for sentiment and attachment. Most of their … encounters … were purely physical. When they spoke at all, he tried to aggravate her (by calling her pookie, for example), and she ridiculed his attempts. To imagine something more – he didn’t know what to even do with that. Especially since Rae insisted Morrigan, Zevran, and Sten were not to learn of their true origin. “Zevran has to prove he won’t go back to the Crows; after that, maybe. But Sten will eventually have a position of power among his people, and I don’t want to cause some surprise Qunari invasion of southern Thedas,” she’d said. “And Morrigan … Morrigan keeps enough secrets as it is. She doesn’t need ours.”
Unable to process the idea of the aloof witch showing emotion, he changed the subject. “I’m surprised you’re still here. I figured you’d be off exploring.”
“I … have never visited a city of this size before,” she dissembled. So many people crowd upon one another, like rats swarming over carrion. Come to think of it, ‘tis also an apt comparison for the stench. I have seen my fill for today, at any rate.”
He regarded her curiously. “Do you miss the wilderness? It must be overwhelming, spending most of your life in the woods nearly alone, and then suddenly you’re with a bunch of strangers in the middle of a giant city.”
“I – yes, I suppose,” she replied, unbalanced by his sudden empathy. Moved by an impulse he couldn’t name, he leaned forward to kiss her … but instead of their usual aggressive passion, his lips on hers were gentle, even comforting … to match the way his arms enclosed her, as if to guard her from the dizzying press of the Denerim crowds.
When at last he pulled away to see her face, her wolf-yellow eyes were a tumult of warring emotions. The carnality she wore like a mask was pierced with confusion and anger at being exposed to the tender sentimentality she scorned – but through the cracks, perhaps, was a woman who showed only cold because she’d never known warmth.
They were spared from deciding how to proceed when their companions returned. Alistair, Raven, and Leliana all looked as though their errands had left them as troubled as Morrigan and Rob were. But the real surprise was finding they hadn’t come back alone.
The grubby elf child couldn’t have been more than eight or nine, and all she had in common with Shanna was her accent. Ragged clothes hung off her thin frame, and her straw yellow hair looked as if it had been cut with a particularly dull knife. She stood with her back to the wall, arms folded and glaring sullenly. The fear and loathing she displayed toward either of the mages was disturbing on so young a visage.
“We’d stopped to do a bit of shopping, and our guest had the poor judgment to try picking my pocket,” Leliana said. The mild disapproval in her voice earned an answering scowl from the child. “She would not say where she lived or who her parents were, so I was deciding what to do with her when Raven and Alistair happened by. The child agreed to join us once Raven observed we meant no harm, but the same might not be said of the city guard.” The bard’s head tilted inquisitively. “I admit I am eager to find out what makes our little urchin so worthy of note …?”
A secretive smile played across Rae’s lips. “I have a hunch she might know a friend of ours.”
“Oh?” Rob’s eyebrow rose skeptically. “Who?”
In answer, Rae turned to the girl. “What’s your name?”
After a stubborn silence, she reluctantly mumbled, “It’s Sera, not that it’s any business of yours.”
Raven’s grin widened. “Thought so.”
Rob’s jaw dropped. “Wait, you don’t mean this is –“ At his sister’s nod, he addressed the child. “We know someone at Kinloch, might be a friend of yours. Dark-haired elven girl, little older than you, named Shanna.”
Sera’s blatant shock was chased across her face by relief and wariness in rapid succession. “She’s all right, then? Figured after the fire she was done for. ‘Specially with those bloody mage powers. Creepy.”
“She’s doing a lot better now, and she’ll be glad to know we saw you.”
“If you know Shanna, I certainly cannot turn you in to the guard,” Leliana announced. “And you must join us for dinner. It is the least we can do for the friend of our ally.” Given the mouth-watering aromas emanating from the kitchen, the child was quick to agree.
In short order, the rest of the group returned and gathered around Brother Genetivi’s long dining table. With great patience and effort, Wynne had even convinced the grubby child to bathe for the occasion. Sera’s restless gaze took in everything, and while the huge, exotic Qunari garnered his share of attention, her eyes most often landed on Leliana’s fine longbow.
Once they’d finished eating, Leliana frowned. “It is growing late, but … Sera, do you have a place to go?”
The scholar spoke up. “I heard she stays with some … Friends. One named Jenny, right?” Rob hid a smirk at the bard’s confusion and the child’s astonishment. Sera was fated to join a Robin Hood-esque organization called the Friends of Red Jenny, and it appeared her association with them had already begun.
“I … uh – yeah, I got a place. Not far.”
The redhead relaxed. “Good. Though I hope this Jenny will help you find a better cause than picking pockets.”
“Oh, I think that’s a safe bet,” Rae said with a mischievous smirk. “Sera, you keep looking at Leliana’s bow. Have you had the chance to use one before?”
Sera shrugged, examining her fingernails. “Elves ain’t s’posed to ‘ave weapons …” she evaded.
Leliana’s nose twitched with humor, and she heaved a fake sigh. “Hmm, true; that is a shame. I was planning to set up targets in the cellar to practice tomorrow, and I thought I might offer to teach you some tricks. But if you are not interested …”
“Really? You mean it?” She nearly vibrated with excitement.
Leliana smiled. “I mean it.”
Raven just grinned.