Chapter Six – Understanding
“Right! We break camp in half-an-hour. Everyone get ready to go!” Alistair's voice barked orders at them. Neria had just emerged from the tent to find Jory and Daveth eating some dry bread by the remains of the fire. Alistair looked ready to fight already, attired in his splint-mail armour with his sword ready by his side.
Neria staggered over to them, still a little groggy. She had slept only fitfully in Alistair’s tent, but after the encounter with Jory, she had felt strangely satisfied – enough, at least, to grab three uninterrupted hours of sleep.
“'Morning, all,” she said cheerfully.
“Half-an-hour, elf,” Alistair had said curtly. She laughed and bent to give Daveth a kiss. That done, she moved to Jory, who ducked to avoid her touch. She laughed, a full-throated laugh, as the man looked away, refusing to look at her eyes, or those of any of the others. She was still laughing as she went traipsing off towards the stream. After washing her face and legs with the icy water, she returned and helped herself to a little of the dry bread. It looked like being a long day's march.
“There, up ahead!”
Neria stopped short. The last couple of days had trained her to pay heed whenever Alistair said those words. Behind her, Daveth and Jory had done the same. They moved slowly now until they were behind a crumbling wall.
She could see no less than five darkspawn, keeping a vigil atop a hillock.
“There may be more,” Alistair whispered, “waiting just out of sight.”
“Give me cover,” whispered Neria, “they're in just the right range for a fireball.”
The three men closed ranks and stepped forward, Daveth in the middle, bow drawn, Alistair was to his left, shield close to his chest and Jory to his right, the huge broadsword firmly in his grip. Neria stuck close behind them, invoking the spell, her hands tracing a circle in the air. Then Daveth's bow sang, an arrow catching a Genlock in the neck. With a furious roar the darkspawn released their arrows at the group. Alistair stepped forward quickly and took two of the arrows meant for Daveth on his shield.
Daveth let loose another shaft, injuring a second Genlock who had drawn his dagger.
“Move!” she screamed, and the men scattered immediately, Alistair and Jory running forward while Daveth ducked. A circle of flame burst from her hands and landed in the middle of the darkspawn group, lighting them up and knocking them backwards. Alistair and Jory were almost up the hill now, where a merry fire blazed where the creatures had been.
“They're all dead,” explaimed Alistair, his voice sounding surprised, even awestruck. “All of 'em! Charred like toast!”
Neria laughed and curtseyed exaggeratedly, lifting an already high hemline even higher. As expected, Daveth gave an appreciative whistle, Alistair rolled his eyes and Jory tore his away. She put her staff back into its strap with a flourish, and was about to step ahead to join them when she saw Alistair’s mouth open, his hand point behind her, and turned around. A Hurlock descended upon her from behind the wall, axe raised and aimed straight at her chest.
She pointed her staff but knew the effort was futile – the axe would cleave her in two before she could form a spell. She closed her eyes, falling backward, waiting for the blow to fall. Then a clanging sound told her someone had taken the blow for her. She had barely a moment to wonder who it was before a Genlock appeared, a dagger in its raised hand, rushing at her from the right. Reacting without thinking, power emerging from a primal fear, Neria's hands flashed a bolt of electricity at its face, blinding it, at least for a few seconds. She rolled, jumped to her feet and bashed her staff at its head, pushing it to the ground. Too drained of magical energy to fire a spell, she wrenched the creature's dagger from its hand and plunged it through the neck. There was a gasp as the life left its body, and Neria stood panting over the creature.
She almost did not dare to turn around. That the Hurlock's blow would have killed whoever it was that had intervened between her and it, she had no doubt. But she had not heard a scream, had she?
When she did turn, her first reaction was a sigh of relief. Daveth stood unscathed and Jory's sword was stained with the blood of the Hurlock whose head lay severed several feet from its body. Then she realised that Alistair lay motionless on the ground, a massive dent in the side of his armour a testimony to the fact that it was he who had placed himself between the Hurlock's axe and her body.
In an instant she was at his side while Daveth and Jory still looked on, dumbfounded. Her nimble fingers found the clasps and undid them until the splint-mail suit was off him. She placed her hand in his chest and felt the feeble but definite sign of life.
“He's alive, thank the Maker! In my pack, Daveth – one of Wynne’s healing potions! Quickly!”
The blow had hit Alistair in the ribs and though his armour had taken the initial brunt, there was clearly considerable injury to the body. Neria felt his side tentatively, admiring almost involuntarily the perfection of his body as she felt his muscles under her fingers. Daveth dashed the flask of healing potion to Alistair’s lips and she was glad to see him swallow it in gulps. He was all right. Alistair was all right.
Suddenly and involuntarily, she began to cry.
It was the better part of an hour before Alistair came to his senses, though he did not know that yet. Propping himself up on one arm, he looked at the two men who were a part of their party. For a moment, he wondered where the damned elf was, but before he could ask, Daveth spoke.
“You're all right, hey?”
“I think so. Leastways I can still breathe.”
“You saved her life!” said Ser Jory, “That blow would have dismembered her if you hadn't…”
Alistair did not reply for a moment as he felt Neria's fingers run through his hair and her blue eyes locked into his. Something about her touch made him start, almost as though she had used one of her spells on him. That was why he had not seen her, she was behind him, on her knees.
“Why?” she asked, though the words barely left her mouth.
“Grey Wardens look out for each other,” he said brusquely, struggling to his feet and staggering to a seat on a nearby tree-root, “Just keep an eye out for the darkspawn. Give me a moment...there should be a salve in my pack to treat the injury and bandages too. Daveth, if you would…?”
Neria got there first, and brought the tiny paste to him. He took it from her hand before she could offer to apply it for him.
“You're – the mage,” he grunted. “You need to stay out of combat.”
“I did not see the Hurlock, Alistair,” she said meekly.
“At least you saw that Genlock rogue in time. Or he'd have surely done you in,” said Daveth.
“Which reminds me,” Alistair said, gently pressing his ribs, “where were the two of you? Daveth, your arrow should have struck down the Genlock before she even knew he was there. Jory, your blow should have struck well before it did. A little longer and I'd have been dead.”
“They were shocked, Alistair,” Neria said softly as the two men hung their heads.
“Shock is not an excuse for a Grey Warden,” Alistair replied. “The darkspawn are not going to write a politely-worded letter asking for permission to attack. Let's get a move on, shall we?”
He could see in her face that she wanted to protest, that she was looking at him with concern, genuine concern for his welfare, but he was not quite ready to forget that she was the girl who had mocked him so cruelly the night before.
They continued through the forest for the rest of the day, encountering a few stray darkspawn, but never in larger groups than three. A large pack of wolves was dispatched with almost embarrassing ease by virtue of Neria casting a spell that froze two of them solid, making the rest bump into those two, and in the end, taken down easily in a bloody slaughter that made Neria feel rather sorry for them. But Alistair pointed out that these were not only dangerous wolves, but most likely infected by the Blight as well, and putting them out of their pain was a mercy. She tried to convince herself that was true.
At last, as darkness fell, Alistair announced that they would set up camp.
“We're deep into darkspawn territory now,” he said, as Daveth tossed some meat into the pot. “I'll stay on guard through the night. Each of you can join me by turns, Daveth you first, then the mage and then Ser Jory.”
“Is it because you can sense darkspawn?” asked Jory.
“Yes, in fact we are not too far from one of their camps – and camps normally mean Emissaries.”
“What's an - ?” Daveth began, but Alistair replied before he could finish.
“It's a darkspawn mage. They're also the more 'intelligent' among them, as it were. I've even heard of Emissaries who could talk, though that is more likely someone’s fanciful imagination. But they do have some sort of group-link with the others, and you can expect a somewhat more organised attack than from the average band of darkspawn which just comes running at you, weapon raised, arrows firing.”
“That should be interesting,” said Neria, warming her hands before the fire. “Does that means it’s likely to be our last night alive?”
“It’s always possible,” shrugged Alistair.
“In that case…Ser Jory…”
He did not look, so she laughed, a trilling, scornful laugh.
“I’ll be in the tent. Wake me up when you come in.”
“I won’t!” he shrieked, clenching his fist.
But he did. Not five minutes later, she reckoned, he came in, and began to kiss her. Wet, slobbering kisses they were, and his head looked comically big against her relatively small frame as he moved in to kiss her breasts, grunting now like some sort of farm animal, and then coming back up, trying to push his cock inside her, but she held him by the hand instead, and ignored his protests, his groans, the way his eyes widened and blinked eyes made him grimace with pain and gasp with pleasure as she stroked. Hard were her eyes and cruel her lips as she gazed upon him, every expression of her face speaking of her contempt, twisting, she knew, the knife of self-loathing and guilt deeper into his breast. She gave him a wink when he came, though, a wink for his trouble as he spurted his seed onto her smooth, dark stomach, before thrusting him aside and wiping it off with a rag as though she were disposing of something particularly distasteful.
“Down, dog,” she taunted. “Slink off to your corner.”
“Surely you don't need to be awake all night,” Neria said to Alistair as he stared sullenly into the fire.
They had been sitting in silence for almost an hour, in such a way that they did not have to look at each other if they could avoid it. It was a sharp contrast from her previous night's rather more interactive session with Daveth, without a doubt.
“I appreciate your concern,” he said drily, “but I can go for one day without sleep if I have to. One of the things we pick up while training to be Templars.”
“You mean they make you keep Vigil all night before an idol of Andraste and you end up learning how to turn off your brain while keeping your eyes open,” she smiled.
“I mean we learn to discipline our minds and bodies,” he replied curtly.
She subsided into silence again.
A few minutes later, it was Alistair who spoke.
“Do you regret being here?”
She stared at him for a few moments, unsure what he meant by the question.
“Hardly,” she said, finally, “If Duncan had not recruited me; I'd be dead by now – or an emotionless shell of a person, like the Tranquil near the mages encampment at Ostagar. But if you mean do I regret being here by the campfire with you – well, I'd rather be warm in a bed.”
“Yes, seducing a poor man who only wants to do his duty,” said Alistair.
“That ‘poor man’ could have gone to sleep in your tent if he wanted,” pointed out Neria.
“Yes, you offer a beggar, who has never seen anything but copper, a bag full of pure gold and then call him a thief. You held the power over him, Neria, and you exploited it.”
“He looked at me as though I were a thing, he spoke to me as though I were unworthy to stand alongside him, and instead of punishing him for it, I’ve let him have me. Bah, I don’t understand where I’ve done wrong,” said Neria, smirking.
“You humiliated him sexually, I don’t doubt…I’m not stupid, you know. You’ve humiliated him and left him torn apart by guilt and want me to believe you have not punished him?”
Neria didn't reply, holding back the angry retort that had sprung to her tongue.
“What's the matter? You only like mirrors when they show you your outer beauty, not the ugliness within that drives you?”
“Is there a problem, Alistair,” she said angrily, tightening her grip on her staff, almost instinctively.
“Me? Problem? Perish the thought. I was just pointing out that while you know, and revel in the fact that Ser Jory will regret what he did, so might you, in the days to come.”
“I know,” she said, sighing deeply. “I have allowed my desire and anger to get the better of my good sense before. And I have manipulated other people's lust for me to get what I wanted. So I'm not exactly what you call a 'lady'. Yes, I might regret it, might feel sorry for his wife, even. What concern is it of yours?”
“So your body is no more than a bargaining chip to you?”
She turned her eyes away from him to look towards the darkness of the Wilds. Suddenly, she felt weak.
“They made me miserable in the tower, Alistair,” she said in a voice she couldn't prevent from betraying a sense of hurt. Somehow she couldn't stop herself from speaking. It was like a dam had burst and she felt the need to talk about it, even if it was to Alistair. “I was an elf, I was several years behind them in studies, I spoke with a foreign accent, I was dark, looked different – I can scarce remember a day that I would go to bed without a bruise on my body or my heart. I took to my books, my studies and made myself better than them. I was the best apprentice mage within two years of going there. I thought they'd respect me. It only fuelled their hatred. They never used magic to attack me – it was always words, fists, kicks – they knew I wasn't strong enough to hit back, and wouldn't dare to attack them with magic for fear of being caught and chastised.”
“You were bullied,” he said, his expression unfathomable.
“Yes, by all of them – including the male elf apprentices, ironic as that sounds. The only exception was a boy – human boy – named Jowan. He was all I had.”
“You were in love with this Jowan?”
“Oh I don't know. I felt I was. It didn't matter. Jowan did not feel the same way, though I always thought he would eventually. When he would not have me, I looked elsewhere. Do you blame me? My body made demands of me I could not ignore. And when I found I was beautiful – that men were weak in my presence, that even the mighty Templars, our tormentors, could not resist the prospect of a half-hour alone with me, that the women were driven mad with jealousy at the thought that I was not only more beautiful than them, but could seduce their men if I wished – that their relationships depended on my forbearance, that the only reason they had men was that I allowed it - oh, I'd have been a fool to NOT use that against them?”
“Revenge should not be the reason to share something so – intimate – with another person,” he said, his voice surprisingly gentle.
“What's intimate about it? Sex is pleasure, Alistair, no more.”
“Have you heard about the Pearl?” he asked abruptly.
“The Pearl? It's a whorehouse in Denerim,” she said, her tone betraying her surprise at the sudden change of subject.
“I've never been there myself, but some of the other Wardens – used to. They said the elf girls there cost more silver than the others.”
“So? Why do you tell me this?” she shrugged.
“They said it was because they were better.”
“That would be – I suppose that makes sense, no?”
“They said it was better because they enjoyed it more. Is that true?”
“I…” Neria thought about the exquisite pleasure she could derive out of the most casual of encounters, about the way something inside her seemed to explode with pure ecstasy whenever a man entered her, the delight she felt when her lips were wrapped around his throbbing shaft…but it was hardly a point she was willing to concede. “I would have to
experience it as one of your race to know, would I not? How does it matter?”
“It matters because you cannot be a slave to your body,” he said, his voice still gentle, “A Grey Warden must be responsible, disciplined, dignified…”
“Don't give me that. What I choose to do for pleasure is my business.”
“And what is Ser Jory in all this, then? A tool to be tossed aside when someone better comes along?” his voice was harsher now, harder.
“He’s a fool who deserves what he gets.”
“And what if the King wanted you? Is he a fool as well? How do you treat him – with contempt or with admiration? Do you play with his mind as you do with Ser Jory’s?”
She coloured. She had been flattered by the way the King had looked at her when she had arrived at Ostagar, certainly. She did not know if he had brought any of his mistresses here – unlikely, given that Teyrn Loghain was right there – but she had, indeed, been wondering if she would get a chance to let him act on the admiration he had shown, and which she too felt. He was easily the most handsome man she had ever seen and something about the strength and vigour of his body under the massive golden plate he wore spoke to her innermost desires. No, she would not play with his mind, she would show him, if he only gave her the chance, what the heights of pleasure could be. But that was no business of Alistair’s. Not at all.
“I could hardly refuse a King,” she replied, in a flat tone.
“And what if he asks you to choose between him and the Wardens? When you are covered in silks and he has you set up in a little mansion in Denerim, conveniently close to the Palace, will it make you happy or relieved to be there while the rest of us are out fighting the Blight?”
“This is nonsense,” she hissed.
“What if the Banns of the realm find out about you, and something else leads to Cailan having to choose between you and what is best for Ferelden?”
“This is absolute nonsense. You're just playing with my head – you're no better than them – you only seek to torture me.”
“No, really?” he said in a mocking tone, “Torture you? When you use a man for your own purposes, what do you call that? Let's see – you've seduced a man for no better reason than that you disliked the woman he was with, yes? Of course you have. So when you were finished with him, you'd had your revenge on the woman – but what about the man? Where did that leave him?”
“I don't want to hear this!”
“Inconvenient, is it?”
“You don't know -”
“I wouldn't want to.”
“What is it you want from me?”
He did not answer for a while, staring instead into the fire.
“I want you to at least respect yourself,” he replied eventually. “I suspect you admire yourself very much, but respect – that’s another thing altogether.”
“Does it matter? Really, Alistair – does it? Why should I respect myself? No one else does.”
She chucked a moody twig into the fire. A noisy raven that had settled on top of the tent she had slept in earlier now descended and foraged among the grass for food.
“Happiness?” she gave a short, bitter laugh. “What does the happiness of an elf matter? Not much more than that bird over there, I guess. I'm not good enough to be anything other than a whore – you said so yourself. Not even a King's whore, at that.”
“I did not mean you were only good enough to be a whore, Neria,” he said, softly.
“I know,” she said in a low voice, “It's true enough though. Whoring is the only thing a female elf is ever good at. I suppose we should take comfort in knowing our men are good for even less.”
“You speak too bitterly. You are one of the finest mages in Ferelden – don't protest, I've had ample proof, and Duncan would never have recruited you otherwise anyway. I respect your prowess, you know. I would not be here, trying to reason with you if I had as low an opinion of you as you have of yourself.”
“And yet I needed you to save my life today, didn't I?”
“These things happen.”
“I never thanked you for it.”
“You don't thank a comrade. It's a part of battle. I knew I could take that blow – you could not – you had not cast your Rock Armour spell.”
“You're remarkably good at taking damage aren't you? The way you rush into a fight – most would have died many times over taking on as much as you do.”
“The trick is in knowing where you can get hit,” said Alistair modestly, “and having a good shield, of course. A well-trained warrior makes sure to never let himself be exposed to a mortal blow. Healing spells or poultices make up the difference. Do you know any healing spells?”
“Not very well, but I will try to learn the basic spells once I get back to Ostagar. Wynne promised to teach me - I do have extracts from the spell-books; some practice should help me get up to scratch.”
“That would be good. I know I will need them.”
“So we will be fighting together in future also, then?”
He smiled and again Neria felt herself irresistibly drawn to like this boyish man.
“Hey, anyone who can burn a Genlock dead at fifty paces is welcome to fight with me.”
She laughed and reached out to squeeze his arm affectionately. A look of surprise crossed his face but then he too relaxed into a light chuckle.
“Me – laughing and talking with a mage like we were lifelong friends. What would the Revered Mother say?”
“Let's meet her when we get back and find out,” she grinned.
“That would be a sight, I'm sure.”
Neria got to her feet with a yawn.
“I think it’s Jory’s turn now. I’ll go send him out.”
He could look intently at the fire, but his ears were another matter. The sounds of sex – Jory’s grunting and panting, Neria’s very occasional moans, the sound of skin on skin – he could hear it all.
It did not, mercifully, last long and when Ser Jory came out of the tent, still looking a bit dazed, he did not allude to it either.
“Well, Ser Knight. If you'll settle down, we still have a long night ahead of us. Do you hear that cawing? Noisy little bird, isn't it?”
The inscrutable eyes of the orange-eyed raven gazed down upon them from its perch on a tree. It was fortunate, perhaps, that birds did not talk. This one didn't have a very high opinion of Alistair.
[Anything you might recognise from playing Dragon Age: Origins is (c) BioWare. This work is not intended to earn any profit or make any money.]