In which Morrigan’s curiosity leads to unpleasant revelations.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 20: A Bird in the Hand)
Sunday, 24 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
A large black cat strolled through a shadowed alley in Denerim, pausing outside Brother Genetivi’s cellar window. It stared unblinkingly through the thick, wavy glass, wetting a dainty paw and smoothing the silken fur atop its graceful head. The room beyond was swathed in darkness that would’ve been impenetrable—to human eyes; the feline could see clearly, and was satisfied with the view. With a strong nudge, it shoved the window open and slid inside.
Nimbly, it leapt to the earthen floor, its yellow eyes scanning the area. Shelves lined the walls. Some held books of every imaginable language and description, while others were crammed with the sort of non-perishable foodstuffs solicitous female parishioners might press upon a bachelor Chantry brother … provided he was also a famous scholar with a reputation for travel and adventure who’d written a number of bestselling books.
Desks and tables had been shoved to one side, their angles barely visible in the dim light. At the far end of the room, several messy bales of straw had been festooned with bits of scrap paper bearing target circles or sloppily drawn faces. The holes dotting this dubious artwork indicated its earlier use for archery practice, but at this late hour, all was quiet.
This suited the cat. Striding further into the room the sleek-furred creature turned in a circle, planted its feet and … shimmered, like a haze above a desert road, kissed with flashes of heat lightning. When it subsided, the cat had vanished, and in its spot was the pale, lithe figure of a yellow-eyed woman, not a single black hair out of place.
From the darkest corner of the room, a purring Antivan lilt emerged, rich with amusement. “Ah,” said Zevran. “The witch returns. I wondered how you managed to disappear from our midst so easily, until I found that window unlatched. I am pleased to see my suspicions were correct.”
“My my, isn’t someone full of himself? I took no pains to hide my departure, so ‘tis rather presumptuous to praise yourself so vigorously, is it not?” Morrigan’s half-smile was coated with venom. “Although I suppose you must handle your own … praise … now that your little bespectacled plaything has turned her fickle fancy to that fool, Alistair—and after you made her sing for you so prettily, too! Tsk tsk, the ingratitude. How very sad for you.”
To her annoyance, the assassin merely chuckled. “On the contrary, I find myself quite charmed by their budding romance. But if you are so concerned about my well-being, you are more than welcome to examine me as closely as you desire. For a beauty such as yours, my lovely sorceress, I am ever at your disposal.”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “I think not; I know as much of you as I need to. I know when you are indulging in pointless flattery, for instance.”
“Ah, but it is flattery only if I exaggerate the truth to please you. I am but stating a simple fact.” He sauntered closer, displaying a shocking disregard for life and limb by wielding his gaze like a caress … though to be fair, the man rarely wore an expression that did not radiate sex. He dispensed his leering brand of sensuality on all and sundry, even the foolish old Circle mage and the dour Qunari.
“Your heavy-handed flirtations are tiresome, as always. What, pray tell, do you hope to accomplish with these pointless exercises?” She examined her fingernails before glancing back up, the picture of boredom.
“I find myself curious, o magical temptress. Your dislike of our sweet scholar is well-known … but what of your feelings for her beloved brother, hmm?”
Morrigan stilled, with a glare so icy it stole the warmth from the room. “Have a care, elf. How he and I entertain ourselves is none of your concern.”
“To be sure. But that is not what I asked.”
“You talk in riddles. What is it you want? Speak plainly or leave me be,” she spat.
“Oh, I think you know. You and I are not so dissimilar after all. I know what you are doing, lovely woman.”
“And what is it you think I am doing?”
“Hiding.” The blond assassin’s voice was smug. “The question is, are you hiding your secrets from others? Or hiding your feelings from yourself?” Without waiting for a response, he turned and climbed the ladder to the main floor, leaving the aggravated witch alone in the dark.
Wednesday, 27 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
The night sky mourned the imminent demise of summer with a cold, penetrating drizzle. Rain splashed the outside of Morrigan’s small tent, while the eerie green glow of witchlight splashed the inside. It was bright enough to read by, though she kept it dim to avoid disturbing her slumbering companion. She glanced over her shoulder at the warm, muscled body against her back. She had considered sending him out after they finished coupling, but he had looked as if he needed the rest.
The witch scowled. Her concern was purely for the sake of efficiency, no matter what that ridiculous elf insinuated. Exhausted companions traveled more slowly, which benefited no one. Yes, having him curled around her was … pleasant … with his strong arm draped over her waist, and his breath upon her neck. And with the damp chill in the air, it was convenient, as well; the man was a furnace.
But that was all.
‘Insufferable elf.’ She wrenched her wayward thoughts back to the tome before her.
Years ago, one of the Chantry’s jackboots came within a hair’s breadth of catching her mother unawares. Flemeth had escaped, but the templar purloined her spellbook, and the theft never ceased to rankle. Before Aedan had stormed the pathetic mage prison at Kinloch, Morrigan had asked him to keep an eye out for the grimoire … though with no great expectation of success. Thus she was pleasantly surprised when he returned and produced a leather-bound book adorned with the symbol of a leafless tree.
She had been studying it every chance she got.
Flemeth was old and powerful, and possibly not even human. The complexity of her grimoire reflected that, and wading through the dense handwriting packed with complex theory and archaic or foreign words was arduous. Thus far, when Morrigan succeeded in unraveling a given section, she had exulted in the fierce joy of accomplishment.
Not this time.
“No. It cannot be,” she breathed, frantically checking and re-checking her translations and coming up with the same appalling conclusion.
She had forgotten Rob was there until he stirred, whether alerted by her words or the hammering of her heart, she knew not. His hand splayed over her midriff, in a gesture no doubt meant to be soothing. “Hey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“No, I am not ‘okay!’” she snapped. “I knew she was cold, but … but this! I cannot …” She was so numb with shock, she allowed Rob to turn her onto her back and gather her close. Surprisingly, he did not pry; he simply held her and waited for her to speak.
“I have been studying my mother’s grimoire. The passage I just finished explains, in great detail, the means by which she has survived for centuries.” A space behind her eyes throbbed, echoed back unpleasantly by a lump in her chest. “Flemeth has raised many daughters over her long lifetime. There are stories of these many ‘Witches of the Wilds’ throughout legend. Yet I have never seen a one, and always wondered why not. And now I know. They are all Flemeth.”
Rob’s brow wrinkled. “What do you mean?”
Morrigan heard her voice respond, bizarrely calm. “When her body becomes old and wizened, she raises a daughter. And when the time is right, she takes her daughter’s body for her own. I am to be her next host.”
The warrior’s jaw dropped in horror. “She’s planning to … to destroy you somehow and take over your body? Your own mother??”
“So it would seem,” she replied hollowly.
The strength of his anger surprised her out of her numbness. “That’s bullshit! She had you, and kept you all by yourself out in the woods for your entire life … for that?!” His arms tightened. “No. No way. Fuck that shit.” His blue eyes blazed with determination as he reached up to cup her cheek. “I’m not gonna let that cold bitch get her claws in you. None of us will. We’ll stop her, whatever it takes.”
She was too shaken to dwell upon his unexpected concern. “There is only one possible response to this. Flemeth needs to die. I will not sit about like an empty sack waiting to be filled.” Her throat constricted, dueling emotions vying to overwhelm her.
He nodded, accepting. “Then we’ll kill her.” After a pause, he added. “I—I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how you must feel. That’s the total opposite of what a mother is supposed to be, treating you like a … a retirement plan instead of a daughter, and it’s just—you deserve better, Morrigan. I’m so sorry you went through that. You should’ve grown up being loved. I hope you know that. You deserve to be loved.”
His strange sympathy for her feelings was her undoing. She curled into his chest, shaking, and for the first time in her life, someone held Morrigan while she cried.
Saturday, 30 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
“I still fail to see the point of this endeavor,” she grumbled, as they picked their way through yet another low-ceilinged tunnel strewn with cobwebs.
“Yes, I know,” Aedan replied, an edge in his tone. “You’ve said. Repeatedly. All morning. And I told you, we don’t know what will happen with this war.” His eyes flicked to Raven, but he shook his head and continued. “Soldier’s Peak is a Warden stronghold. If we reclaim it, we’ll have a better rallying point than ‘near Denerim, third farm on the right.’”
His glance suggested the irritating scholar must have figured in to this decision somehow. She might have known. The woman strolled blithely along on Alistair’s arm, as if tons of rock did not hang precariously over their heads, and it only increased her annoyance. “Yes, whatever was I thinking? ‘Tis only the middle of a Blight; it makes perfect sense for the only Wardens in Ferelden to risk falling to their deaths in dilapidated mining tunnels at the behest of a whining merchant.”
“Hmm, you make a good point,” Alistair piped up, sharing a look with Raven. “We’re far too valuable to put in danger; you should probably go first.”
She was spared further discourse with the fool when they turned a corner and saw a hint of light. Levi Dryden, the merchant who had begged their aid to restore his noble family’s honor, raced ahead, laughing with excitement. “You see, Warden? I told ya the maps would get us through, and here we are.”
“Soldier’s Peak. Looks like it’s seen better days. Better centuries, more like.” For a wonder, Alistair was not wrong. The old Warden fortress was impressive in size but not much else, given its abandonment and disuse after the Grey Wardens were expelled from Ferelden in the Storm Age over two hundred years before.
Still, she owed him for his previous slight. “Yes, once the Wardens flourished, their ranks full, their caliber certain. Now they even accept people like you, Alistair.” His pouting exclamation amused her, and helped her shake off the discomfort of traveling so far beneath the earth.
Once their eyes adjusted to the afternoon sun, Dryden’s cousins set about rebuilding the bridge across the chasm under which they had just travelled. “Never felt we had the right to do it before,” Levi explained, “what with it being Warden property and all … not to mention the rumors of it being haunted. But now you’re here, we’ll get the road fixed up right quick!”
So they would not be forced to burrow beneath the ground like rats on the way out, at least. Pleased, she agreed to send a brief but showy burst of fire out over the canyon to alert the workmen’s counterparts toiling away on the other side of the gap. In short order, a pair of arrows trailing rope sailed over, and construction was underway.
But the concerns of hauntings were not so easily remedied. When they reached the courtyard, the whole party was treated to a ghostly vision of an ancient siege.
“What was that?” Levi asked. “I felt a bit woozy there.” With an anxious glance at Aedan, he added, “I’m not mad, am I? You saw it, too?”
Leliana piped up with her usual romanticized drivel. “I’ve heard an Orlesian ballad about something like this. A beauty trapped in a dream. In the song, Bellissa never wakes up.”
“Your pretty friend here is making me nervous, Warden,” Levi said. “How is this even possible? The place must truly be haunted!”
Before Aedan could answer, they heard the telltale sound of bones slotting together as skeletons assembled themselves from the dirt, and a green miasma stirred the corpses of long-dead warriors to rise and fight once more. “Ugh,” Rob snorted. “Zombies again? Can’t we at least get variety?”
“What, it doesn’t put you in the Halloween spirit?” his sister called back, and then they were too busy to chat.
A detached corner of Morrigan’s mind observed the fighting with an odd sense of enjoyment. Even before the foes were fully formed, Wynne’s haste spell dropped over her, sharpening her senses, and Leliana sang the first strains of a melody that roused the party’s battle instincts. Alistair shouted a challenge at the undead, drawing their attention, while Sten waded into a group of skeletons with a bloodcurdling laugh. Zevran danced in and out of the fray, maddening the creatures so they failed to notice he had lined them up for her cold spell; a blow from Rob’s shield shattered them into sparkling shards. The skeletal archers atop the keep’s stairs never had the chance to use their bows; Raven incapacitated them as they formed, and Aedan appeared seemingly out of thin air to finish them off. Even the mangy dog contributed, intercepting a corpse that menaced the old mage, bearing it to the ground, and snapping its neck in one fluid motion. Whatever their differences, in battle they merged into a singular mechanism of savage grace.
They made impressively short work of the undead, while the merchant huddled against the outer wall, eyes wide. She laughed when the last enemy fell, exchanging grins of triumph with her comrades. The strange sense of … belonging … was as exhilarating as it was unsettling. But they had work to do, and she was far too busy to focus on such trifles.
After a brief discussion, Aedan opted to divide the group into two parties, to adjust for indoor close-quarters fighting. She was to assault the keep with Aedan, Rob, Zevran, and Hohaku. Alistair would head up the second party in case the workmen required a Warden’s permission to act, with Wynne there to handle any injury to the laborers. Sten’s huge broadsword would be a hazard in small rooms and hallways, and short sight-lines limited the usefulness of the two archers, so they were to stay behind as well, clearing debris once the lower floors were safe.
“If we run into trouble, it’s easy enough to come out for backup,” Aedan noted. “We may as well get started.” Raven motioned him aside for a brief word, and then Aedan’s group entered the keep.
“Well, Master Dryden, say what you wish about your ancestor, but she knew how to give a speech,” Zevran quipped, after the next ghostly vision showed the leader of the Wardens rallying her troops. “Inspiring the will to fight in a company of men trapped on the losing end of a siege is no small feat.”
“So brave, even when starving,” Levi agreed.
They fought through the building room by room, defeating skeletons and demons by the score, and still the merchant claimed to have more questions than answers. His willful blindness was astonishing. He was so certain of the purity of the Grey Wardens, he missed the obvious truth: his great-great-grandmother had used the Wardens as resources in her attempt to become queen, but ultimately failed and died in ignominy. It was laughable, really, how the foolish man insisted there must have been good reasons for her actions because “the Wardens are heroes!”
Morrigan watched Aedan chafe under that characterization, and smirked to herself. If he felt that way already, knowing as little of the Wardens as he did, she could scarcely imagine how he would react to learning more of their secrets when the time was right. As it was, he paled enough at the vision where Sophia Dryden ordered her mages to summon demons. His voice shook when he told the merchant the Wardens commit to doing anything it takes to get the job done.
“I believed my family was better than that,” Levi said.
What interested her far more was the large mirror near the demon summoning circles. Could it truly be an eluvian? If so, and if it still worked, the Wardens clearly hadn’t known what they had—they could have used the ancient elven portal to leave this fortress and slip their enemy’s noose. Her fingers itched to examine it, but promised herself she would return later, alone.
A few steps further and Levi Dryden got to meet his dear ancestor in the flesh, so to speak. Somehow, Morrigan suspected encountering a demon possessing her mottled corpse was not what the man had in mind. Aedan’s mongrel displayed its breeding when it immediately set to growling; the dog was a drooling nuisance, certainly, but a clever one.
The demon claimed it had been trapped inside the Keep since it fell, and tried to bargain with Aedan for its freedom. It would help them repair the Veil, putting an end to the demon infestation—if they would kill an unnamed entity preventing its escape, in the tower above. After a circuitous but brief conversation, Aedan refused and they made short work of the thing.
“How do you know whatever the former Warden Commander wanted us to kill isn’t a worse menace than she was?” Zevran asked.
Aedan shared a look with Rob. “Call it a hunch.”
The tower, it turned out, held the mage who had first summoned the demons at Sophia Dryden’s behest—and he yet lived. Avernus had extended his lifespan through magical experimentation; though his methods had been gruesome, the man himself was proof of their success. He agreed to help repair the Veil, asking only to be allowed to continue his studies on the special properties of Grey Wardens’ tainted blood. Showing unexpected good sense, Aedan agreed … though he did insist upon a more ethical approach. The old mage destroyed the demon summoning circles that had destabilized the Veil, and the nattering merchant decided since he had found no way to restore his family name, he’d stick to what he was good at.
By the time they made their way back to the courtyard, night had fallen. The workmen had a temporary rope-and-plank bridge in place, in preparation for a more permanent construction. The others had been busy clearing the debris from the first floor, and she was not displeased to sleep inside out of the cold.
Sunday, 1 August, 9:30 Dragon
All Soul’s Day—the Chantry’s dried-out husk of the old god Dumat’s Feast of Souls—dawned bright and clear. Leliana showed a surprising level of practicality about her religious nonsense. “In Val Royeaux, bonfires are lit all over the city in memory of Andraste’s death. We may not be able to match the pageantry and passion plays of Orlais, but,” she eyed the piles of debris and bones hauled from the fortress, “bonfires? Oh yes, this we can do. And I suppose the fact they are actually remains of the honored dead heightens the symbolism, no?”
“Whatever works,” Raven laughed.
Leliana tilted her head. “I have been meaning to ask you, what was it you said when we were attacked yesterday? Something about … hollow spirits?”
The dumpy scholar looked perplexed until light finally dawned. “Oh! No, I was teasing Rob about getting into the spirit of Halloween. It’s … a local tradition related to All Soul’s Day, where we grew up. Children dress up as ghosts, monsters, whatever catches their fancy, and then visit friends and neighbors, who give them candy.”
“Why?” asked Sten.
Zevran raised a brow. “Yes, why? In parts of Antiva, people dress as spirits for midnight processions for the dead, but children do not attend. Or receive sweets.”
“It was probably started to appease the children who whined about missing all the excitement. We never questioned it, to be honest; we were just glad for the excuse to dress up, eat too many sweets, and fall asleep on the floor with sticky hands and faces.”
“I think it sounds charming,” Alistair said, with his usual unthinking acceptance of whatever he was told.
Holiday or no, they made great progress in clearing out the fortress, and were all heartened by a discovery around mid-day. A door they’d overlooked led to the sleeping quarters. Since the Wardens died fighting in the courtyard and main areas, no corpses littered the bedchambers. Wildlife and insects had shunned the demons, so the feather beds were yet sound, ready to be stripped, shaken, and turned. Even the furniture was intact beneath the dust.
A bathing chamber at the end of the hall held several large brass tubs, a small well to draw water from, and a fireplace to heat it (for those unfortunates who lacked the magic to do it themselves). “Oh, baths!” old Wynne clapped her wrinkled hands. “I know it’s only been a week since Denerim, but still!”
As they worked out a bathing rotation, Alistair and the scholar were conspicuously absent. She glanced into the hallway in time to see them disappear into one of the senior Warden bedchambers. ‘Hm, the fool shows more boldness than I expected,’ she thought. ‘For the woman’s sake, I hope his performance aligns more with his battle prowess than his mental acuity.’
It brought her mind back to a miserable farmhold near South Reach. She had taken a brisk flight in bird form to escape the dusty barn’s heat and stench. On her return, she spotted Alistair and Raven in the throes of an argument, so she had settled into a nearby tree to observe. They spoke of some Chantry thug at Kinloch…
And then it got interesting.
The scholar told Alistair he should not fear for his friend because of fated events in the man’s future. Morrigan flew off when the pair reverted to their usual inane sentiment, but careful observation confirmed her conclusion.
Raven was some sort of seer.
Odd comments and sidelong glances proved Aedan, Alistair, and Rob were aware, but she was uncertain of the others. The true question was how much the inconvenient woman knew, and whether it would impede Morrigan’s plans. She would only have one chance to achieve her aim, and any unexpected obstacles would be unacceptable.
“Hey, hello, anybody in there?” Rob waved his hand before her face, drawing her from her reverie. His smile was open and cheerful, and it was unsettling how easily her lips curved up in return.
Perhaps he would confide in her if she asked the right questions? She gambled, and made a guess. “It is fortunate your sister counseled Aedan to kill the Warden Commander. I doubt we would find this place so hospitable if the demon had gone free.”
Rob gave a guilty start. He strove to control his expression, mumbling a noncommittal response and changing the subject, but it was too late. She knew.
He did not trust her. If it became necessary to be rid of Raven’s inconvenient knowledge, her brother would die defending her.
The thought disturbed her far more than it should.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – 22: Those Who Wait)