Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book Review: Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens




A Dickensian childhood

Charles Dickens was among the first authors I can remember reading. As a child I had an illustrated Jaico edition of Oliver Twist and a MacMillan edition of A Tale of Two Cities (both abridged). I also have some very vague memories of seeing a few episodes from the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations which was being broadcast on Doordarshan at nights on, I think, Wednesdays.

One of the first unabridged classics I read was also by Dickens - Great Expectations. Over a period of time, the rest would follow. I could not say, now, what it was that I liked so much about his work, or for that matter, of Brontë, Scott, Stevenson and Co. They wrote of a different time and place, indeed, of an environment so far removed from my middle-class life in Bombay that I might as well have been reading fantasy.

Maybe I just liked the classics back then because they were:
      a)   What I was exposed to.  
     b)   My father and grandfathers, who I looked up to, said the classics were awesome, and so I convinced myself they must be.

Whatever the reasons, I did read a lot of Dickens over the years, aided by long school vacations, a general lack of ability at sport and what was then a decent attention span. I did read in isolation though; it was not until I was in my twenties that I encountered others of my age who did enjoy reading books of that length or from that time period. For most, the problem was easy enough to state – apart from the length and ‘seriousness’ of the subject matter, the language and scenes were too remote, too different from the world around, and the characters un-relatable.

I also began to expand my own reading to cover more modern authors across genres and more particularly, those that try to deal with the world as it is. Good literature is always fascinating, of course, and I like to think I enjoy it regardless of when or by whom it was written.

But since I’ve tried not to let outside opinions influence me too much when it comes to reading, I continued to keep a healthy dose of reading the classics alongside more recent works, and what never changes is the realisation that there is so much more to understand with subsequent readings than my younger self could process. Moreover, far from being fantasy, there is much in those two-hundred-year-old books that could be happening today.



Parents and Children

Barnaby Rudge, for instance, may have been published in 1841 and relate to events taking place some sixty years before that, but it might as well have been about what happened in India a hundred-and-fifty years later.

The cast of characters in Barnaby Rudge is much smaller than what is usual for a Dickens novel and this does mean that the writer’s control over them and the plot is tighter than is usual. The book itself can be divided into two phases, the first half dealing with themes of abandonment, parental neglect and loss, while the second half deals with religious bigotry, sectarian violence and the mayhem of mobs.

The events kick off in the Maypole, a popular tavern not far from London, where John Willett and his cronies discuss the murder of Reuben Haredale, who once lived at the ‘Warren’, the nearby stately house, and his steward, Barnaby Rudge.

Barnaby and Grip

The discussion then shifts to the unfortunate son of the steward, also named Barnaby, who is a ‘simpleton’, or ‘not quite right in the head’. Young Barnaby was born on the day of the double-murder, and now lives with his mother Mary, on a pension from the Haredale estate in London. We discover that Geoffrey Haredale, brother of the deceased Reuben, and Emma, his orphaned daughter, now occupy the Warren, and that the latter is on her way to London at that moment to attend a dance. One of the guests in the tavern perks up at this news and goes off after her, we discover that he is Edward Chester, the beloved of Emma. Shortly after, another of the guests makes off after Edward, and encounters along the way Gabriel Varden, master locksmith, with whom he has a brief altercation before hunting down Edward and nearly knifing him to death for his money.

Barnaby and Mary Rudge with the fallen Edward Chester
 Edward is saved when the halfwit Barnaby and his raven Grip find and scare off the miscreant, and the incident is passed off as trivial. Gradually more relationships are revealed as more characters come to the fore.

Edward Chester’s father, John, is a portrait of genteel villainy, penniless but fashionable and determined his son should marry a richer woman than Emma Haredale, a calculating prejudice he hangs upon the shoulders of another – the fact that the Haredales are a Catholic family, while he is Protestant. This is a distaste shared by Geoffrey Haredale, who is an old and bitter rival of John Chester’s, and cannot countenance the thought of his son marrying his beloved niece, religious differences aside.

At the Maypole, we find that the stodgy inn-keeper is a tyrant to his son Joseph, and treats him so poorly that the lad seems to have less autonomy than the stable-boy, Hugh, who is known to be the son of a woman who was hanged shortly after his birth.

Gabriel Varden (center) at home with his apprentice Simon and daughter Dolly.

Back in London, the locksmith Varden is by contrast a doting parent to his daughter, the beautiful Dolly, and holds to his moderate views even under assault from his deeply devout wife and her even more devout maidservant, Miggs. But Varden’s apprentice, Simon Tappertit, is another matter altogether, a figure whose physical ridiculousness is contrasted sharply by his dark and violent thoughts, especially with respect to Joseph Willet, who is Dolly’s favourite among a score of suitors. (Incidentally, the character of Dolly Varden was quite iconic back in the day, having fashions named for her and even a particularly scrumptious sub-species of trout!)

Events play out over a relatively short period, and denouements happen. Joseph and Edward rebel against their respective fathers, and go off to make their own fortunes, but while Edward goes knowing Emma loves him truly, Joseph leaves with his proposal to Dolly rejected, a broken-hearted man. Barnaby Rudge and his mother too leave the protection of Geoffrey Haredale, as the man who attacked Edward becomes a menacing, evil presence in their lives, and thus ends the First Act.

Dolly rejects Joseph Willet's proposal

Mobs and mayhem

The Second Act finds us back at the Maypole, to find that not much has changed. Both the prodigal sons have not returned, and Emma and Dolly remain single, finding friendship in each other, while the Rudges have not been seen for five years. In the midst of this, Lord George Gordon, an eccentric man but brilliant orator, has begun to foment discontent in the country with his anti-Catholic rhetoric. He spends a night at the Maypole, where we find his secretary, Mister Gashford is the evil genius behind Gordon’s actions, a ruthless, conniving man who has his own agenda to pursue. Indeed, Dickens portrays Gordon as a well-meaning but deluded, easily-led fool, whose position and personal charisma is turned to evil purpose by Gashford.

Lord Gordon rouses the mob.

Gordon and Gashford rally many to their cause, preying on the popular superstitions and suspicions of England’s majority-Protestant population. With lies and insinuations, they convince the people that the Government is appeasing Catholics by withdrawing the most draconian provisions of the Popery Act of 1698. Spreading hate and bigotry across the country and especially among the unemployed and less-educated classes, Gordon brings forth a crowd of over forty thousand men and women to besiege Parliament.

The characters from the First Act return to the scene as well. Gashford has tapped into Simon Tappertit’s resentment against his master and his unrequited love for Dolly Varden to bring him and his fellow-apprentice-revolutionaries into the fold. John Chester, realising Hugh resents the Haredales, has pushed him towards Gordon’s mob as well. Along with them is Dennis the hangman. Just as the mob is marching on Parliament, Barnaby Rudge and his mother return to London and get caught up on the crowd, with simple-minded Barnaby quite taken with the idea of the riot and coming under Hugh’s wing. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Haredale stands tall and proud against the mob, defiant of their anti-Catholic spouting.

The mob takes over London

Some of Dickens’ finest writing can be found in his recreation of the scenes to follow. The destruction of Catholic Churches, the bringing down of businesses belonging to them, the burning of their houses and even of Protestants who dare to defy the rioters, the weakness of the authorities, their reluctance to bring out the army to control the mob, are not only depicted in all their chilling, frightening glory, but should bring back bitter memories for those who have lived through similar incidents themselves.

The climactic scenes rush in upon one another as Barnaby is arrested, the Maypole is looted and the Warren burned down. Emma and Dolly are captured by the rioters and imprisoned with a view to handing them over to the men who desire them – Mister Gashford and Simon.

The abduction of Emma and Dolly.
(L-R) Emma Haredale, Dennis the hangman, Dolly (fighting), Hugh the bastard and Simon Tappertit

In the end, the riots abate, and some form of justice is done. The worst of the perpetrators are caught or shot dead in the streets. The sagas of the named characters too draw to their inevitable conclusions – happiness for some, misery for others.

Burning down Newgate prison
After it was over, though, there were still scenes that stayed with me, and will for some time. The carnage after a vintner’s shop is set afire, when liquor flows in the streets and the people in the mob prefer to drink than run to safety and die drowned in the spirit as it flames up is horrific in its vividness. Barnaby Rudge’s distracted rants have their own beauty too, and in the midst of the darkness, and before the worst of the troubles, Miggs and Simon Tappertit afford a fair number of laughs.


Reflecting on a classic

For all that is good about it, though, Barnaby Rudge was not a commercial success by Dickens’ high standards. The reasons are not too hard to find, I suppose – there is no one single central character, and the first third of the book feels like a lot of events happen without any specific end point in sight. Moreover, the romance between Edward Chester and Emma Haredale is a mere prop, with the latter’s character barely explored at all. But more than that, I think the book held up too clear a mirror to society. It showed how easy it is for the unscrupulous to manipulate religious and social dogma to bring about violence, and the savagery that simmers under the surface of every man, ready to be ignited when the right spark is lit. That is not something a lot of people like to read about themselves, and it is no wonder that most of the rest of Dickens books sentimentalise or poke fun at society as a whole rather than hold it up to such stark scrutiny.

1992


But the passage of time shows that little has changed. Demagogues still spew hatred, the rabble is still too-easily roused with stories of appeasement and discrimination, while the innocent often end up burning in the fires of rage, or being washed away in the deluge of blood that follows. In our country, it has happened too often, too recently and too easily for the message of Barnaby Rudge not to resonate strongly with this reader.

2002

In an article I wrote for Readomania about the relevance of the classics I had spoken about how it was not just age or even narrative excellence that anointed a book or an author with that title – ‘Classic’. It was the universality and applicability of their themes beyond the time and setting of the books themselves. This is particularly true in case of Barnaby Rudge, and much as I may wish it were not so, the fact remains that we only live to repeat the mistakes we should know better than to make again.

Which ends up begging the question – is Barnaby Rudge truly the half-witted simpleton, or are we, close on two hundred years later, but fools in motely, ignoring the truth we should be able to see?

 
Barnaby and Grip


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Exploring the Slacker's Bookshelf - I

If you're a casual reader, Wilkie Collins might be the best writer you've never heard of. Collins was a contemporary and great friend of Charles Dickens, and his output was at least as prolific. Of his works, though, only two remain widely-read.
One of them is 'The Moonstone', one of the earliest 'detective novels', involving the theft and investigation into the said theft, of the eponymous jewel, and the quite shocking reveal at the end.
The other is this one - 'The Women in White', a sort of psychological thriller, with twists and turns, told from multiple points of view.
In their genres, both these novels were path-breaking, and Collins' popularity during his lifetime rivalled Dickens'.
In fact the darker and more mysterious themes of Dickens' later works probably has a lot to do with his association with Collins.
'The Woman in White', first came to my knowledge during early childhood, when a TV series called 'Shvetambara' used to play on Doordarshan. It was the story of this novel, adapted to 1980's India, and while I think it deviated from the main plot lines, it was intriguing enough that when I saw this book, I didn't think twice about picking it up.
I would also read 'The Moonstone' later, though I didn't have to buy it, inheriting it when my grandfather passed away.
The forerunner of many modern novels, these may seem quaint and dated now in their measured approach to mystery-solving.
Nonetheless, to me, they were thoroughly enjoyable reads, and The Woman in White, with its deeply sympathetic characters and the portrayal of the female protagonist as an independent woman with a high degree of agency, is deserving of its reputation.
The bleak illustration on the cover is a bonus.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Chapter Sixteen: Pride and Shame, A Dragon Age Fanfic






Chapter Sixteen – Keeping the Faith

“Did you hear screaming? I thought I heard screaming.”

Alistair was on the last nightly watch, staring into the fire, when Leliana burst from her tent and accosted him. They had been on the road for five days since Lothering. A large band of darkspawn had attacked them as they were getting onto the Imperial Highway outside Lothering, but other than that they had not encountered the creatures. Bandits, yes – not a day had passed without a group of bandits trying to loot them, and ending up dead or injured for their trouble. Alistair suspected that at least some of the bandit groups were, in reality, assassins hired by Loghain or one of his cronies, but had no way of proving it.

The group was pushing in the general direction of Redcliffe, but Alistair had no idea whether that was actually their destination. Neria had been nervously restrained, talking little except to the dog. Morrigan only spoke in jibes, and Sten was as silently inscrutable as ever. That had left Alistair to mostly spend his time with Leliana.

The more he knew her, the more he liked her. She was charming and musical and for the most part, light-hearted – and an archer of fearsome ability. But when she felt no one was looking, he thought he saw her face settle into an expression of sorrow or regret, he could not tell which.

Right now the only expression on her face was of concern for Neria, though. Who had been screaming in her sleep.

“That would be our dear leader,” said Alistair. “She's dreaming.”

“She's screaming as if she saw the Archdemon!” said Leliana. Indeed, even Sten and Morrigan had emerged from their tents now. The Qunari's tend was to the right of Alistair's, while Leliana’s was on the opposite side of the campfire, but Morrigan had her own little camp, about forty yards away, with her own fire. If Morrigan had been woken up by the screaming, it was surely very loud. Mercifully the dog was away hunting. Alistair had a pretty good idea that if Biscuit thought his mistress was dying in her sleep, he would tear anyone within a hundred-yard radius to pieces.

“Technically, she just did,” said Alistair. “Anyway, it's Warden business. Let us alone for a bit, would you?”

The screaming had stopped, and Neria was emerging from her tent. She wore a flimsy white shift, but since it covered more than her fighting robe, it was a step towards modesty rather than away from it. Leliana stepped away, and Sten and Morrigan also returned to their tents as Alistair waved dismissively at them.

“Dreams, eh?” Alistair asked, trying to sound calm and steady.

“I saw…was that…,” her eyes were wide with horror.

“Big chap, rather like a overgrown lizard? Yes, that was the Archdemon. We all have the Darkspawn dreams, after the joining. They are worse during a Blight, for we can see the Archdemon as well. Some of the older wardens told me it is us, being able to, sort of, get into the Archdemon's mind.”

“So what I saw – the darkspawn assembling, that monstrous dragon - that was the horde preparing the leave the Deep Roads and march on Thedas?”

“Yes. On Ferelden first, of course, and the rest of Thedas later. That’s why this is a Blight, you know. In normal times, we see the ‘spawn, but that dragon – the Archdemon – well, it’s serious when it pops up.”

“Oh.”

She sat down next to him. She had been sweating, which made the robe clung to her body rather fetchingly.

“Any other surprises I should know about?” she asked.

“A few. They aren't pleasant. Maybe we should let them be surprises?”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“Right, um, well, yes, there's also the part about how most Wardens don't live to be very old. Thirty years after your joining, give or take five years, the dreams get worse and worse. Wardens then take off for the Deep Roads, a last suicide mission if you will, taking out as many of the 'spawn as they can before dying or becoming ghouls.”

“Nightmares, early death…wonderful. Any advantages as well, or is it all bad?”

“We can sense darkspawn. I suppose you had guessed that already though.”

“Yes.”

“Your appetite. That will increase too. A lot.”

“For food?”

“For, ahem, everything, as far as I can tell.”

He watched as Neria processed the information. He had expected a much more vehement reaction, and somehow found himself feeling a little disappointed. She seemed to have read his thoughts though, for she responded,

“My appetite for sex has little space to increase anyway. As for a shortened life, an Elf in an alienage in Denerim is lucky to live to forty at best, Alistair. I daresay at the Circle I would have lived longer had I remained shut up in there with the rest of the scholars, but…if thirty years with the Wardens is what I have, I'll take it. Always assuming we aren't killed in our sleep by darkspawn or Loghain MacTir before that.”

“Speaking of which…,” Alistair started to his feet.

Even if she hadn't heard the sound of Biscuit barking frantically in the distance, the wheels of a caravan and the panicked cries, she would have known it was darkspawn. Somehow, she knew it; it was like a sharp prod in her temples, not painful, but insistent.

Biscuit emerged from the shadows, caught sight of Neria and Alistair, and stopped running and stood his ground, turning and barking some more. Morrigan and Leliana came running out in their nightclothes. Sten emerged moments later, wearing his armour.
#
The caravan rolled up first, and veered off the track, toppling over. Two dwarves leaped from it. Leliana's bow sang almost before Neria saw it – the first Genlock to emerge into the light of their fires fell to the ground clutching the arrow in its chest.
Morrigan had gathered her staff by now. She shot a hastening spell at Sten, who raced towards the Darkspawn, sword lifted. Alistair followed the Qunari, blade glowing red in the fire. Neria noted there were five darkspawn, a towering Hurlock leading them. She contemplated going for her staff but concluded she hadn't the luxury of time. At a snap of her fingers the blades of both Sten and Alistair lit up in flames.

Biscuit dashed off to the left and leaped onto a Genlock who was trying to nock an arrow to his bow, bringing him to the ground. Morrigan finished him off with an arcane bolt. A second Genlock's arrow hit Leliana on her unarmoured breast. Neria gasped and directed a healing spell at her, but she fell to ground, clutching the arrow in her hand. Alistair and Sten were surrounded, and fought with their back to each other. Biscuit evened the odds a little by tearing a large chunk out of the Hurlock's left calf. Alistair's sword plunged through its chest as it stumbled. Then Sten fell to the ground, a dagger plunged into his back. Morrigan's freezing spell prevented the Genlock who had wielded it from finishing the job. Biscuit mauled the Genlock archer who had injured Leliana, and Alistair decapitated it. Two Genlocks remained, one frozen solid. Neria focussed her energy through her hands at the one who was running towards her, ugly axe in his paw. She was feeling weak already, weak and overwhelmed. The dreams had been disturbing, but also draining in a way she had not realised until now.

The flames responded, as they always did, though. Beautiful, orange flames, burning in the 'spawn's face, making it scream. As it deserved. Just as it deserved.

Neria ran towards where Leliana was still moaning, the arrow sticking into the space below her left breast.

“Poisoned,” she gasped. “The arrow – poisoned.”

Alistair and Sten had finished off the last remaining darkspawn by then, but as Neria fell to her knees, that hardly seemed to matter. Leliana’s eyes had closed, and her breathing was already ragged.

Morrigan joined Neria, and together they dragged her to her tent.

“Is there anything you can do?” asked Neria.

“I’m no healer,” confessed Morrigan. “Mother could do save her, I’m sure, but…we’re at least eight days out from the Wilds, even assuming the way is clear of darkspawn.”

“The Tower,” said Neria. “We have to get her to the Circle Tower. Wynne can save her, Wynne is the finest Healer in Ferelden…”

Morrigan raised one eyebrow.

“If one leaves out your mother,” Neria added hastily.

“Did she make it back from Ostagar?” asked Alistair.

Neria’s heart stopped for a moment as she realised that this was a valid doubt – Wynne had been among the mages in the King’s army, and there was no way of knowing whether she had survived the slaughter in the valley. It was just that Neria had never even contemplated the possibility that the stern but kind old woman would not always be there, healing spells a-ready.

“I’m sure she did,” replied Neria. “Wynne is a tough old bird. Besides, there would be someone else. Anders, or Jeanne-Marie or someone. It’s our best bet. Let’s head there first…if nothing else, we have a treaty to enforce.”

“I won’t be setting foot inside the place,” said Morrigan. “But it does seem a practical course of action.”

“We will move with first light,” said Neria, as they stepped out of the tent. “Alistair, you and Biscuit head out a little and scout for any straggler darkspawn. Morrigan and I will remain here. How is Sten?”

“I am able to walk and fight,” came the Qunari’s disinterested voice.

“Good,” said Morrigan. “I hope you can do other things too.”

Neria sighed.

“Morrigan,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s not how you say it.”

“What?”

“It’s all in the cadence of the voice. Pause after ‘do’ and say ‘other’ as if you got just a little breathless thinking about it.”

“I don’t need lessons on how to…” began Morrigan, but found herself at rather a loss for words as to explain what exactly it was she had been trying to do.

Neria chuckled a little in her mind. Seduction was all very fine, but brazenness was still something she was better at than anyone else, and she was proud of that.

#

“So who did you say you are?”

“Bodahn Feddic at your service, ma'am,” the older dwarf bowed low. “And this is my boy, Sandal. Say hello to the nice elf, Sandal. She saved our lives.”

“Hello,” the boy said vacantly.

Neria winced. The cut she had received was a glancing one, and while she had lost some blood, she was otherwise unharmed. It still smarted though, despite – or maybe because of - the ointment that Morrigan had applied. She would have applied a bandage to it, but there were matters that were even more urgent.

“And why did you lead the darkspawn to us?” she tried to sound stern, though the dwarf looked absolutely ridiculous in his grovelling.

“We swear by the ancestors we did no such thing!” said Bodahn, alarmed. “We were trying to get to Redcliffe when we saw the darkspawn gang running towards us. We tried to speed up, to get away with our caravan, but they were catching up. Finally, we…we saw the lights of your camp and headed for it, we thought, hoped, that there would be fighters here who could fight the creatures.”

Sandal winked at her and slobbered from the right side of his mouth.

“So effectively, you DID lead the horde to us!” said Morrigan testily, looking up. She had been tending Sten's wound. It was not as bad as it had looked initially, thanks to the fact that the Qunari had been wearing his armour.

“Not the horde, oh no, madam, oh no!” protested Bodahn. “Just a small band, and we were only escaping from them, my boy and me…”

Sandal now slobbered from the left side of his mouth and grinned.


“Her blood's on your head, then,” said Alistair gloomily.

It did not look good for Leliana, it was true. The arrow was lodged between her ribs and the blood loss had been considerable. She was still alive, but only just, as far as Neria could reckon.

“I don't think the Feddic's were deliberately trying to get us killed,” she said, sighing. She wanted someone to blame for what had happened, she really did. But she knew it was futile to find villains in the merchant and his clearly mentally deficient son. After all, if she had been Bodahn's position, making for the closest visible campfire would have been what she would have done too.

“There may be more of them out there,” said Morrigan. “Darkspawn. Now that this fool of a dwarf has made us into a beacon for passing Genlocks and Hurlocks….”

“Alistair and Biscuit are out there looking for exactly that,” pointed out Neria.

“Listen, I'm sorry,” the dwarf was saying, ignoring this little exchange between the two mages. “My boy, Sandal, he's a genius with enchantment, he can weave magic into your weapons and armour, he can. I can have him do it for you, no charge, none at all, is the least I owe you…”

“You mean like the Tranquil…?” Neria asked. The science of enchanting was rare in human society. Only mages who had been made Tranquil – had their connection to the fade and magic completely cut off – could actually work runes into weapons, armour and robes in such a way that the effect become permanent. She had heard that Dwarves, who naturally lacked a connection to the fade, also had the ability, but had never met a dwarf enchanter before. The Tranquil enchanters in the Tower were…creepy, as all Tranquil were, but also clearly possessed of extreme intelligence. That Sandal, who clearly had the brain of a four-year old child, could carry out enchantments was difficult to digest.

“He's better than any Tranquil enchanter, ma'am. His work is as good as any in Orzammar. Part of the reason me'n'him had to leave for the surface. The established merchants didn't much like that an upstart like me with a simple boy was producing such good work.”

“We have some runes,” said Neria excitedly. “Do you think you could…?”

“Of course, c'mere, Sandal.”

“Enchantment!” the boy exclaimed happily.

Neria dived inside her tent and came back holding the miniscule pieces of cloth that constituted the Holy Sisters. Sandal took it without a remark and disappeared towards the wagon. Morrigan, seeming rather disappointed that Neria had not burned both dwarfs alive, headed off towards her own tent.

She sank down onto the grass when they were out of eyeshot. Sten appeared to be sleeping peacefully, while Leliana's breathing was uneven. She had a fever. Neria did not need to place a hand on her forehead to know that. In a few hours, the wound would fester and in a day or two the infection would spread to her heart or liver and kill her.

Leliana, who had joined them because the Maker told her to. Who was so happy and fun, whose voice was like a nightingale’s, whose stories made eating even dinners cooked by Alistair tolerable. Was she going to be another casualty of the Warden's Quest, just like Daveth and Jory, and Cailan and Duncan and Maker-knew-how-many-others? Her head sank into her knees, and she sobbed.

“You should kill her and move on.”

Neria had not realised she had fallen asleep. It was dawn, and Sten's towering frame cast a shadow on her face. She raised her face to look into the Qunari's beady eyes.

“What?”

“She is going to die anyway. Carrying her with us will only slow us down. Knife her. Or I will.”

“Do not – don't be ridiculous,” said Neria, angrily getting to her feet. “What if it was you who was badly injured?”

“Then I would be very disappointed if you did not leave me behind,” Sten said, face expressionless. “The injured have no place in the Beresaad, or on a scouting mission. Or whatever this is.”

“That might be how the Qunari go about their lives, but not the Grey Wardens!” said Neria angrily.

Sten shrugged and walked away. Neria continued to stare angrily at his back, for all the good that did her. The Qunari had proved a tough nut to crack, as stoic and unfathomable as ever. Neria was unsure how to feel about him. That he was an asset in battle was indisputable. But she never knew what he was thinking, and that disturbed her. He was, after all, a male, and she expected to have been able to figure him out by now. At the very least, he should have tried to get her in his bed. She had a serious doubt whether it would be physically possible for her to actually have intercourse with Sten, given that Qunari were supposed to be as proportionately well-endowed in their loins as elsewhere, though. Morrigan, on the other hand, had been literally throwing herself at Sten and yet he seemed unmoved. They were probably well-suited for each other anyway. Both seemed pretty heartless.

That was not something you could say about Leliana, though. Neria had seen little of the world, but she knew that overt piety was not always the same as being truly good. Leliana was ‘good’. She never passed a refugee wagon without sharing some meat or singing a song for the children. She never passed an animal in the woods without stopping to see if it would let her play with it. Oddly enough, the animals almost always allowed Leliana to come close to them, even the wilder creatures and especially the birds.

She returned to the tent where Leliana lay, shivering in her sleep. A pretty face, surely. Morrigan had more classical features probably, and Neria had no false modesty when it came to her own attractions, but Leliana – Leliana was pretty. She had lips ready to smile, bright eyes and a button-like nose that twitched when she was excited. So yes, Neria realised she liked Leliana, liked her a lot and wanted her to live so they could be friends, and braid each other's hair and talk about cats and learn how to sing and all those other things that she had never known because she did not have a female friend. All she had had growing up was Jowan, and in Leliana she had seen a glimpse of what a sister must be like. But Leliana needed magical healing, and fast…

#

“You need to dress the wound if you're going to keep her alive.”

Neria nodded stupidly. They had been going for a while, with Leliana lying on a litter in the back of the Feddic’s wagon. Morrigan had cleaned the wound and applied a bandage to it, but the blood was soaking through again. Neria had managed to determine the poison used to infect Leliana and soaked a poultice in what she hoped would be the correct antidote before applying it to the wound. It had eased the shivering and seemed to have regularised her breathing somewhat too, but the fever was still there and the wound would bleed through every so often. They had stopped to allow a train of refugee wagons to pass, and Neria and Morrigan had clambered onto the wagon to take a look at their comrade.

“It's a good thing Alistair is not here,” Neria muttered to herself as she unfastened Leliana’s robes. “He'd have cried to see the wound across such perfection.”

Leliana's breasts were, certainly, well-deserving of the compliment. Neria subdued the pang of jealousy that had begun to take shape in her mind and concentrated on the healing spell to stem further bleeding.

“I did wonder if they were real,” said Morrigan, sounded as disinterested as if he had been discussing a horse's teeth or a cat's fur.

“Well they are real, and they are spectacular,” said Neria, “And let us hope they will consider to bring the world…uhh…joy.”

“You, dwarf! You have clean sheets?” called out Morrigan.

“Yes, yes, Miss. At once, Bodahn Feddic at your service.”

The dwarf went over his fallen wagon and came back a while later with the sheets. Neria used one to cover Leliana and then wrapped the rest around her to keep her warm.

“Just so you know, dwarf?” said Morrigan, stepping down from the wagon. “I still think we should be skinning you alive first and then roasting you over a fire!”

“Your mother seems to have inculcated some delightful culinary habits in you, Morrigan,” said Alistair pleasantly, drawing near them. “But personally I find roast dwarf to be rather grisly for my taste.”

The Woods Witch continued to glower at the Dwarf, but added nothing,

“No sign of the Darkspawn. I can only guess they were following the merchant's caravan for a while, breaking away from the main horde. Hopefully we will have an uninterrupted ride the rest of the way to Lake Calenhad. How are our ailing?”

“Sten and I are fine,” said Neria. “Leliana is in bad shape though, worse than I can heal. I've bought her a few days, my spell should hold the wound from festering.”

A worried expression crossed Alistair's face. He got up and went over to look towards where the injured redhead lay. Neria looked hard at him. She had seen Alistair's gaze linger on Leliana more than once since they had started traveling together. She had a sense that it should not bother her, but perhaps it did. Just a little. Not much.

“Is there no other way but going to the Tower itself?” asked Alistair.

Neria felt the other two had their eyes on her. Even the dwarf merchant was looking at her funny.

“I thought we agreed on this.”

“Didn't the Templars declare you apostate?” pointed out Alistair.

“We have a treaty, don't we? The Grey Warden treaty?” Neria sighed, taking a sip of the ale Bodahn had poured out. “If it's the only way to save Leliana, I'll risk being declared apostate. We are only going for healing, not to demand their allegiance. At least, not yet.”

Biscuit barked approval.

“I suppose we don’t have a lot of choices anyway,” said Morrigan. “And until we find another archer we do need the pious little hypocrite.”

“Wynne is our best chance at saving Leliana. Or Anders,” said Neria, not reacting to Morrigan. That was the best way to deal with her, anyway. “And neither of them will care if I'm apostate or not. And much as Gregoir dislikes me, First Enchanter Irving won't let him clap me into prison.”

“So we persist in this folly, then?” said Sten, looming over them.

“Yes, we persist in our attempts to save a woman whose arrows have saved all our lives more than once, Sten,” said Neria, bristling.

“All right, calm down,” said Alistair. “What about the dwarves?”

“Oh, we're coming with you. Can't think of a safer place to be than around you chaps,” Bodahn showed his teeth in what he probably thought was in ingratiating smile. “And my boy still has to finish work on your robes.”

“Great. More dead weight!” muttered Morrigan.

“Not those robes, Miss. They’re lighter than a feather,” said Bodahn.

“I didn’t mean robes, you dim-witted block of wood,” growled Morrigan.

The last refugee caravan had passed them. With a deep sigh, Neria scampered to the front of the wagon. She had had quite enough of Morrigan for the present.

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