Like all dwarves, Kara doesn’t dream. She crawls into her bed, pulls the covers up to her chin, and closes her eyes.
Sleep never comes immediately, but when it does, it’s like a skip through time. One moment she’s tired and the day is over, then darkness, then she’s waking up to a new day. She’d never woken up refreshed—nobles would know what that’s like. She would wake with dust on her skin and a crick in her back from the old mattress she shares with Rica.
She used to wake with only a few bruises and scrapes, typical of dusters. Then she started working for Beraht, and those wounds multiplied.
Unlike her sister, Kara could fight. It would have been... unwise to force a fighting girl into a noble hunter lifestyle. Instead, Beraht invested in Rica’s appearance and turned Kara into another Carta thug. No doubt he’d seen the opportunity in this arrangement. Neither sister wanted to step out of line for fear the other would pay the price.
Under Beraht’s control, Kara hurt people. She and Leske would loom, look every part the muscled thugs they were, and sometimes that’s all that was necessary to acquire whatever trinkets or gold pieces Beraht demanded. Other days, they were rougher, beating and kicking until their victim was spitting out his own teeth and ready to sell his own children for mercy.
Other other days, they were ordered to get rid of someone, and that’s exactly what Kara and Leske did.
There were few moments she and Leske got to themselves, sitting in the dust with whatever scrap of food they could afford in their line of work. Other dusters, even fellow Carta members, gave them a wide berth. Kara’s reputation with daggers was well known among Dust Town, and for all Beraht’s faults (and there were many), he at least let them have this, sometimes. Likely, he’d just never noticed their short absences.
In these moments, Kara would ask Leske how he slept, and he’d ask her the same. This topic always led to their joking about work and the assumptions they’d have to make just to sleep at night.
The woman they intimidated into handing over heirloom swords for Beraht to sell topside? Pretty sure she eats bronto shit like it’s a delicacy, couldn’t have been trusted to handle such finely crafted weapons, right? Didn’t even hurt her, anyway.
What about that guy they had beaten to near a bloody pulp while his children were listening outside? Oh, he probably beats his own kids, or at least never feeds them. Those children had tears of joy, for sure. They’d wanted him to give a percentage of his income to the Carta.
The man who’s head Leske had forced so close to the lava falls he had suffered third-degree burns on his face, tears drying up on his skin before they could roll down his cheek? Well, he confessed to stealing from Beraht, didn’t he? Thieves deserve as much. It’s not like he died, anyway.
The couple who screamed and cried and held hands as Kara sliced and stabbed them with her daggers, Leske holding their heads back by the hair while Kara slit their throats? She and Leske had been quiet afterward, breathing hard, just staring at their corpses, their lifeless hands still clasped together. What of them?
Those two probably murdered somebody else. Murderers deserve death, don’t they? And besides, they’d crossed Beraht, and that was all that mattered.
Leske and Kara would laugh darkly, and move on. To dwell any longer was pointless. They knew they’d be forced to do it all again later.
Some nights, Kara would come home and feel nothing but tired. She’d collapse on the bed and pass out, and Rica would almost believe her sister had gone to the Stone for how still and heavy Kara slept.
But more commonly, Kara would come home, a buzzing lightness in her hands, feet, and head. She’d climb into bed, eyes wide open and expression blank, and sleep felt like it would never come. If she closed her eyes she would see blood and faces contorted in agony, cries of stop! please stop! I’ll do anything! would ring in her ears, and she’d hide her hands under the covers for fear of looking down and seeing blood she’d already rinsed off. So she kept her eyes open and stared at nothing, instead.
Those nights were the worst. Sometimes they lasted for a few days.
Eventually, the deep blackness of sleep would finally come, and she’d skip to next morning, pushing those thoughts away as easily as she wiped the ever-present dust that sticks to her skin.
Then all the Provings and Grey Warden nonsense happened. Leske and Rica told her she was out of her mind to even think of staying in Orzammar, and Kara agreed with them. She followed Duncan out the gates, keeping her eyes on her sister and friend until she couldn’t see them anymore.
The Joining was… something else. Kara swallowed what was probably the worst drink of her short life and felt pain rush through her head and behind her eyes. Next thing she knew, she was staring at some giant creature roaring in her face. She immediately went to reach for her blades, but found she couldn’t move her arms at all, and before she could even begin to feel truly scared, it ended.
Kara looked up into the twin gazes of Duncan and Alistair, the former welcoming her to their order. Alistair, however, had asked her if she’d had any dreams, and Kara cocked her head at him. She’d opened her mouth but before she could ask him just what a dream was, Duncan had moved on and she needed to meet with the human king.
She and Alistair joked their way through the Tower of Ishal, Kara feeling oddly comfortable—he was a lot like Leske in this way, her best friend deflecting the bad with humor and chuckles as often as possible. They lit the beacon and were swarmed by darkspawn and Kara was knocked out, and she felt only blackness and a skip through time. Everything was normal, even waking with the ache in her muscles, up until she’d realized just where she’d awoken.
She had discussions with the two witches, and then she, Morrigan and Alistair headed to Lothering, picking up Barkspawn along the way. They didn’t stay in Lothering very long (there wasn’t room for them, anyway), and after acquiring a couple more volunteers for the enormous task laid out in front of them, their group set up camp a couple miles outside the overcrowded village.
That’s when it happened again. She’d gone to sleep, ready for the dark behind her eyelids and the skip, but instead she’d heard whispers in her head, something in strange, foreign language, and the giant creature stared through her, into her, before roaring as fire rolled out of its mouth. A legion of darkspawn surrounded her, raising their weapons in triumph, and Kara could only stand still.
Kara felt herself thrash her arms wildly before sitting up with a gasp. She was sweating profusely, and the stickiness would’ve reminded her of Dust Town if it weren’t for the cold of Fereldan. She shivered, reaching for her cloak before she noticed Alistair watching her from across the camp fire.
“Hey, you alright?” he asked. The plate of his Warden armor was removed, and he was warming his ungloved hands by the fire, but he was otherwise dressed.
Kara tried to slow her breathing and moved closer to the fire. “I don’t know. I… saw some things.”
“Bad dreams, huh?” There was that word again, dream. Kara felt confused, and it must have showed because Alistair furrowed his own brow. “You know, the thing you saw while you were asleep?”
“With the giant creature thing screeching so loud I prayed I’d go deaf?”
“Yeah. The thing that looks like a dragon, that’s the archdemon.”
“Stone, that’s what a dragon looks like? That’s what the archdemon looks like?” Alistair nodded, and Kara sighed. “I guess I should have expected that. Big bad leader of all darkspawn wasn’t going to look like a regular hurlock or anything easy like that.”
Alistair chuckled at that, thought it sounded hollow. “I guess not.” He exhaled. “You see, part of being a Grey Warden is being able to hear the darkspawn. The archdemon… it ‘talks’ to the horde, and we feel it just as they do. That’s why we know this is really a Blight.”
Kara pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders. The sweat on her skin had dried off, leaving her chilled. “So, what was that then? Me hearing the darkspawn? It felt so real…”
“Yes. That’s what your dream was. It takes a bit, but eventually you can block them out. Some of the older Grey wardens say they can understand the archdemon, but I sure can’t.”
Kara couldn’t help it any longer. “What’s a ‘dream?’ The way you talk about it, it doesn’t sound like just a Grey Warden thing.”
Alistair blinked and sputtered a bit, clearly unable to comprehend the question. “You don’t know what dreams are?”
Kara shook her head. “Nope. Never heard of them until recently.” Alistair blew out a puff of air.
“Wow. Um, okay.” He was about to settle into some kind of explanation, Kara could tell, before shaking his head. “Wait, so what happens when you go to sleep?”
“Well… I guess I lay down, close my eyes, and eventually I guess I, uh, slip into the darkness.” She felt awkward trying to explain something as normal as sleeping. “Next thing I know, it’s a new day and I’m rested. Isn’t that how it is for everyone?”
Alistair looked at her, wide-eyed and with a small upturn to his lips. “No, not at all. Well, maybe when I’m knocked out really bad, like at the tower.” He paused, and Kara knew he was trying not to think about the events at Ostagar. “But most of the time I have dreams.”
“You gonna explain what those are?” she said, with more amusement than annoyance.
“Right. Maker, how do I explain something like this?” His hand came to his chin, stroking the hairs there thoughtfully. “Okay, when I go to sleep, I have these sorts of… not visions, really, but I see things. Hear things, feel things. It feels a lot like the real world, like right now, but sometimes really weird stuff happens, or it’s like I’m reliving a memory. It all stops when I wake up.”
“Pffft, what?” Kara laughed. “No way.”
“It’s true!” Alistair was grinning. “I’ve had a couple dreams about my templar training—boring. But one time I had a dream where I could fly. So I flew to Antiva of all places and used cheese as some kind of godlike currency, because in my dream, the Antivans had never seen cheese before. Really, I dreamed that!”
Kara smiled, unbelieving. “Dreams sound so weird. And inconvenient.”
He raised an eyebrow at here. “Are you sure you’ve never heard of this before? Everyone I’ve met dreams.”
Kara shrugged. “If anyone has, they never told me about it.”
“Well, everyone who dreams talks about it. That’d be your clue right there.”
“Then maybe dwarva just don’t dream.”
“Oh.” Alistair looked like he remembered something. “The Chantry says dreams are a result of our souls going into the Fade, where spirits create them for us. I don’t know for sure, but maybe your kind don’t go there?”
Kara thought about it. She knew very little of the Fade, save what she heard when dealing with lyrium smuggling. She knew it had something to do with magic, mostly. “Well, we don’t have mages like everyone else does. So maybe we don’t have a connection to this Fade like humans and elves do.”
“Huh,” Alistair said, shrugging. “Interesting,” he said, drawing out the vowels the way he tended to when something was, in fact, interesting. “Anyhow, when I heard you thrashing around, I thought I should tell you—you know, about the dreams. It was scary at first for me, too.” He looked at her almost apologetically. “I guess it’s worse for you. You’ve never even seen anything like this before.”
“Yeah, well. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve never seen before.” Kara pointedly glanced up at the sky, stars glittering in the distance. Alistair hummed in understanding. “Thanks for telling me about it.”
“That’s what I’m here for. To deliver unpleasant news and witty one-liners.”
All her dreams involved darkspawn, or the archdemon. Just as Alistair had said, they always felt real, right up until she awoke. For the next few weeks, Kara slowly got used to going to sleep and seeing some other world through her eyes. She didn’t know if her soul was entering the Fade or if her dreams were true visions of the underground horde, but at least she was no longer waking up in a cold sweat.
Still, she wished she could have strange dreams like trading cheese in Antiva, or even flying (though the open sky still made her uneasy). These constant dreams of standing amidst a darkspawn horde with an archdemon glaring into her soul were starting to frustrate her with how boring and similar they were. Maybe Grey Warden dreams were all she could have. If so, she hoped they’d get a little more creative.
Restoring the Circle was the second of a long line of pain-in-the-ass trials she just knew they’d have to deal with. The first had been defending Redcliffe, but they couldn’t very well talk to Arl Eamon about treaties with him unresponsive and a demon holed up in his child, so Kara considered that ordeal unfinished. She was hoping the issues with the Circle could be resolved a little quicker.
At first, the Fade dream felt real, just as her previous dreams did. She accepted Duncan’s presence as if he’d always been there. This dream was strange, however, as there were no darkspawn. It was this as well as Duncan’s odd demeanor that broke her out of her stupor and allowed her to escape and see the Fade for the eerie, twisted landscape it was.
She thought maybe she should have been more fascinated or excited or maybe even terrified about being here, but the looming threat of death and the time-sensitive nature of their stint in the Circle Tower kept Kara hyper-focused on collecting her companions and getting the sod out of this place. She could ask all the questions about the Fade and dreams later.
Breaking her companions out of their dreams was difficult. Sten was the only one aware of being in a dream, which surprised Kara. Was that possible under normal circumstances, or was it only because they’d been forced here by the Sloth demon? Or was it because Sten was a qunari? There were too many questions.
Alistair’s dream was an interesting case. He was so bright-eyed and puppyish, more so than normal, that Kara wondered if dreams could make the dreamer act in odd ways, too. Still, she helped him realize his sister was a fake. She was curious whether Goldanna had a real-world counterpart, or if she was completely made up.
Were these the kinds of dreams her companions often had? No darkspawn, no standing motionless underneath an archdemon’s gaze. They were surrounded by family and friends who felt just as real as everything else in the Fade. Kara thought of Rica and Leske. She’d have to go back to Orzammar eventually, but would they even want to see her? If she could see them right now, hug them and let time rust just talking and laughing… that would’ve been a dream she’d never want to escape from. This Sloth demon had made a mistake with its choice of dream for her.
Once the entire ordeal in the Circle Tower was over, her party made for Redcliffe, intent upon saving Connor. They made camp, and Kara prepared for another night of darkspawn. She closed her eyes and slipped off.
“Kara!” Leske calls, sauntering over. Kara smiles broadly at him.
“Leske!” She hugs him close, patting his back like always. “What’s shaping?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Beraht’s got a job for us, someone’s probably gonna bleed, that whole thing.”
Kara frowns, taken aback. “What? But we—he’s dead.”
“Shh!” Leske puts his hand over mouth, silencing her. “We’re not allowed to talk about that, remember? He’s still pissed. We’re lucky he took us back.”
Kara licks Leske’s hand, and he pulls it away in disgust. “Took us back?” she asks, wiping saliva from her lips. What the heck was he talking about? Kara knows Beraht is supposed to be dead, but her mind can’t figure out why that is. What did they do to him? “I have to see him.”
“Wha—no, Kara, don’t—” Leske tries to grab her arm and hold her back, but she shakes him off and runs for the shop, closer than she remembers, and kicks the door open.
In front of her, Beraht stands, Jarvia tucked at his side, but Kara can’t avert her eyes from his face. He is grey, with white, sunken eyes and sharp protruding teeth. His hair is patchy and falling out. At his neck, where she remembers decapitating him (did she do that?), is a wide gash oozing thick, black blood.
“By the Stone, you’re a…” Kara can barely breathe, the air is stifling, and her arms are frozen at her sides. She can’t quite get out the last word.
“Damn it, what have I told you about bringing that up?” Beraht says, blood dripping from his mouth as he opens it. “I’m done with you.”
Suddenly Kara is on her knees, feels a hand in her hair pulling her face back, and she sees Leske above her, crying.
“Why’d you have to go and do this?” he asks, and she can’t get a breath out just to say sorry.
Beraht closes in on her, looking less and less like himself with each step. Once he is right in front of her face, clawed hand clenching around her throat, he looks pure genlock. She can’t say anything, can’t even shout, as he squeezes.
“Kara!” Leske shouts, muffled, from somewhere above her.
“Kara! Kara, wake up! Please!”
Kara did wake up then, eyes shot open and gasping for air. She felt a wiry, buzzing energy in her legs and arms and realized she must have been flailing like a madman in her sleep. The blankets were tossed around her, and Alistair was above her, pinning her arms above her head. She looked at him, then snapped her gaze to Leliana and Wynne, who were nearby, watching with concerned looks on their faces.
“Kara.” She snapped back to Alistair when he spoke her name. “You’re alright, it’s okay. It was just a dream.” His eyes bored into hers, and somehow his unbroken stare made her feel better, almost as if he were a boulder, or maybe the Stone, unfaltering and constant.
She stared back until her breathing calmed and her limbs went slack. Finally, Alistair let her go and sat back on his haunches, and she could feel the relief settle on her companions. She sat up and rubbed at the spots on her arms where Alistair had gripped her. She never forgot he was strong, but he’d also never used his strength on her.
“Sorry,” he said, reaching up to scratch at the back of his head. “You were thrashing a lot worse than that first time, and I, er… I thought you might hurt yourself.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” she said, quick to reassure him. “I probably would have. Or worse, I’d have smashed the cheese wheel,” she added, trying to lighten the mood. Alistair humored her with a gasp.
“Couldn’t have you murdering my one true love, could we?” he said, his tone light.
“If I ever do, I give you full permission to enact your revenge.”
They both chuckled, ready to set aside the whole thing, but Leliana put her hand on Kara’s shoulder. “Do you want to talk about it? Sometimes that helps.”
Kara’s eyes widened. “No.” she snapped, maybe a little harshly, since Leliana and Alistair both flinched. “No, sorry,” she said, softer.
She didn’t tell anyone many details about her past, least of all who she worked for and the awful things she did. Even this dream, simple and frankly ridiculous (Beraht as a darkspawn, really), would require an explanation she wasn’t ready to give. And really, why did she have a dream like this anyway? All her previous dreams just involved her standing amidst a darkspawn horde, a dragon screaming gibberish at her. They hadn’t frightened her in a while.
Leliana didn’t ask anything else and retreated to her shared tent with Wynne, and Alistair moved to his bedroll, though not before tentatively resting a hand on her shoulder for comfort.
Perhaps her unnatural trip through the Fade changed something in her, or maybe the taint has a will of its own and wants to keep her restless. Maybe she just wanted something new so hard it came into being. She didn’t know, and right then, she didn’t care. Kara took up watch duty for the rest of the night, and she could feel Alistair’s eyes on her as she sat by the fire.
Something changed after that night. Kara dreamed less of darkspawn hordes and archdemons and more of her past. Sometimes it was Beraht threatening her or Leske or both of them. Often, Leske was forced to hurt her, with darkspawn lingering in the background, watching intently as Kara would scream in pain. Sometimes it was her mother, towering and screaming at her, her face contorting until it resembled something eerie, gray and bloated. Rica would be there, holding her, but whether she was protecting Kara or holding her back, Kara could never tell. It was a far cry from what Kara had wished for, nights ago in the Fade.
Sometimes, she had dreams of hurting people, beating them to a bloody pulp, and she’d look to Leske and he’d be a genlock, smiling eternally at her, and she’d stare down at her own hands and see them blighted and disfigured.
She managed to grow used to these dreams too, though they always unsettled her. Somehow, she kept herself from waking in a panic from these dreams, if only to not worry the others. The nights when she got simple archdemon lectures now seemed like a blessing.
Kara hated these nightly reminders of her past, of who she was. Who she still is. She was a monster before the taint ever touched her tongue.
Her blade presses against their throat, slicing away in a quick motion and splattering her with blood. The body falls to the ground.
“Good job,” Leske says, patting her shoulder. “That’ll teach them to mess with the Carta.”
Kara wipes the blood off her cheek with a bracer. She knows all it really does is smear it across her brand. That’s all she is, a brand and a blade, a tool for others. She hears whispering in her ear, but no one is there.
Leske walks over to the next person kneeling at their feet. He pulls on their hair. It’s Rica, disheveled and bruised.
“Please, Kara,” she begs, but devolves into a coughing fit before she can finish her plea.
“This one tried to stop us from taking over the Carta, something about ‘being better than this,’” Leske says, laughing darkly. “Your sister sure is pretty, but she’s a threat.”
Kara holds her dagger across Rica’s throat. She feels something hot and wet run down her cheeks—(I’m crying)—but she can’t move her hand away no matter how she tries.
“Sorry, sis,” she finds herself saying, with the dark humor she approached all her victims. “Guess Mam was right. You should’ve left me in the Deep Roads.” Her voice is smooth, no cracks, yet tears keep spilling down her face.
“No!” Rica screams, but Kara slices anyway, and her sister falls dead to the floor. The whispers crowd her mind, blackened fingers scraping at the edges of her vision.
(oh Stone please tell me this isn’t real this can’t be real)
“Shows them,” Leske says, standing by her side. They look at the ground below them, the dirt of Dust Town extends forever. Corpses littered everywhere, sliding towards the lava flows as they pile up. Rica. Her mother. Beraht. Jarvia. Oskias. Carta thugs. The dwarven couple, holding hands eternally.
Duncan. Connor. Teagan.
(why are they here how can they be here)
Leliana. Wynne. Zevran. Sten.
Kara looks over at Leske, blood pouring from his mouth. Her blade sticks out from his stomach, her hand twisting it. He falls to his knees, pulling at her. His eyes are pitch black.
“Leske?” she says, and now her voice is uncertain, scared. She’s still crying.
“It’s okay, salroka,” he says, clutching at her arms as she stabs him. “This is all we’re good for, anyway, right? It’s all we know.”
She loosens her fingers, letting go of the dagger stuck in her friend. She’s well and truly crying now, guttural noises erupting from her throat. Her teeth are clenched. She shuts her eyes tightly.
(why did anyone ever trust me, I can’t even trust myself)
When she opens her eyes, it’s not Leske clutching her arms and bleeding out, staring at her as the life drains from his eyes.
Kara awoke to her own screaming and Alistair’s grip on her arms, pleading with her to wake up. Her legs were being pinned down as well—Sten, from the weight of it. She tried to throw them off her, but strong as she was, she had the disadvantage.
“Let go of me! Get away from me! Run away!”
Alistair’s firm voice broke through her screaming.
“Calm down, and we’ll let go. Please, Kara.”
Kara quieted her voice and stilled herself, though she continued trembling and whimpering. She could feel everyone looking at her. Even Morrigan had come over to see what all the fuss was about.
Alistair stared into her eyes, as he did last time, but the comfort of it was deadened by the context of her dream. She shut her eyes tight to avoid his gaze, then snapped them open again out of fear that she’d somehow return to Dust Town and see him dying in front of her again. She stared back, frightened.
I could hurt you, don’t get too close, please. He couldn’t possibly hear her thoughts, but Alistair’s gaze faltered. He must have seen something in the way she looked.
Eventually, after what felt like forever, Alistair backed off of her. Sten still held her legs, though there wasn’t much strength behind the action. Leliana leaned in, and if Kara had thought she’d been concerned last time, there was something much stronger in her features now.
I’d killed them all.
Kara flinched when Leliana placed a hand on her shoulder. “No,” she said, before Leliana could ask that dreaded question again. “I don’t want to sodding talk about it.”
She got to her feet, and Sten let her go. She tried to glare them all away, intimidate them the way she so easily could back in Orzammar, but she knew there was too much fear in her own eyes, could feel the hot wetness on her cheeks, same as in her dream. She started towards the wooded outskirts of their camp.
She heard scuffling and footsteps trying to follow her. Without turning around to see who it was, she snapped, “Leave me alone. Stone, just leave me alone.” Her voice was too watery for her liking, but the footsteps ceased.
Leaned against a tree in the dark, Kara sat awake. It’d been a little while since the last time she’d had a dream so bad her friends had to calm her. Nightmares, they were called (she asked why they were named for female horses and no one could quite answer her). Technically, all her dreams counted as nightmares, since she’d never had one that made her happy or content or even just curious, like the others seemed to.
Ever since the Circle Tower, her dreams got more unique, more upsetting, but they’d all featured darkspawn in some way. Somehow, the fact that this dream had none made it all the worse. It could have been true. She could have done all of that. Why have darkspawn in a nightmare when none were as terrible as she was? It made a sick kind of sense that way.
It’s all we know. Leske’s words echoed in her mind. Maybe he was right. She was playing at being good, but where she came from didn’t breed good people. Casteless are degenerates and criminals, and she only proved it to be true.
If she really cared about her friends now, she’d have to be even more careful.
This isn’t so bad, she thought, sitting up late for yet another night. They were getting closer to Denerim, where they had a few different orders of business (turns out Goldanna was real), and Kara kept watch on their camp each night. Her friends were giving each other looks behind her back, she could tell, but ultimately, they let her do her thing.
Kara hadn’t slept in days. It was pathetic and Leske would have probably laughed at her for it, but he had no idea. Any dwarf in her position would take extreme measures like this, she was sure of it. She'd brought it up to Bodahn once—no details, just the initial darkspawn dreams—and he agreed he'd be nervous about sleeping at night. Truly, she had the right of it, to keep herself awake.
She also kept herself perched at the edge of camp and refused to initiate conversation with the others unless it was important. Sometimes they would come over to talk to her, and she’d scoot away until they were a decent distance from each other. They noticed, of course they did, but said nothing, and she thanked the Stone for that much.
The last of the darkspawn fell over, dead, and the party stored their weapons with a communal sigh. “Never enough of these ones, eh?” Kara said, wiping sweat from her forehead. Alistair nodded, panting, as he returned his shield to his back.
Kara made to move onward, but found her legs wobbly, and her vision blurring. Next thing she knew, she was flat on her face, Alistair shouting her name and reaching for her.
Immediately she scrambled to her feet. “I’m fine, I’m fine!” she said, raising her hands in reassurance before brushing dirt off her cheeks. She could feel herself sway with the action.
Alistair folded his arms, his eyes narrowed. Kara looked around. The rest of them had much the same look on their face. Somehow even Barkspawn had a condescending look to his mabari features. She guessed she wasn’t convincing anyone.
“What? Guys, I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not,” Alistair said, and there was no trace of humor in his tone.
“I’m just a little tired from the fight, that’s all.”
“Oh, from the fight?” he asked, thought it didn’t feel like an actual question. “How about, ‘I’m tired because I haven’t slept in a week.’”
Kara sputtered. “I—wha—no, I don’t know what—”
Alistair rolled his eyes. “You thought we wouldn’t notice? There’s six of us, and you and I sleep outside. We’ve all seen you keeping yourself awake.”
Now Kara crossed her arms. “Yeah so? It’s none of your business.”
“So, I’m your friend,” he really stressed that word, “and that makes it my business.”
He wouldn’t back down on this, Kara could see that much. “I’ll be okay. I just…”
“Just what?” Leliana spoke up this time, though her words were soft. “Please tell us. We’re all worried about you. Even Morrigan,” she added, looking towards the witch in question. Morrigan made a soft tsk but denied nothing. Leliana continued. “You won’t let any of us come close to you, either, not even to patch up your wounds.”
Kara clenched her teeth, pointedly ignoring the latter line of questioning. “I just don’t feel like sleeping.”
“Is it because you’re a dwarf?” Wynne piped up, trying to be helpful. “I know it’s been a couple months since it started, but it’s okay if you’re still having trouble with dreaming.”
“Especially considering the kind of dreams Wardens have,” Alistair muttered under his breath.
“It’s not just that—” Kara said, but stopped herself, choosing to glare at the ground. “Can’t you guys just let me be? Haven’t any of you avoided sleep because of stupid nightmares?”
Zevran walked up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder, causing Kara to flinch. “Of course, but to do it this long… what you are doing is cruel to yourself.”
Kara shrugged his hand away and took two steps back. His eyes pierced hers, discerning. “It’s like an avoidance and a punishment in one,” he added.
Sod it all, but he was always the perceptive one. When he wanted to, Zevran could read people better than anyone else she’s ever known. Damn assassin types.
“Maybe it is,” she conceded, “but maybe I deserve it, okay?”
“Why?” Alistair asked. Sincerity was written across his features as he took a step forward. “Why would you deserve hurting yourself?”
“I don’t want to talk—” Kara growled around her teeth, but she came up short when she heard rustling. Peering around Alistair, she saw Sten untying their packs. “What are you doing?”
“Unpacking,” he said simply. “We’re camping here for the night.”
“What?” Kara raised an eyebrow. “It’s barely past noon.”
“I have eyes, I can see as much.”
This was uncharacteristic for him, always rushing them forward and disapproving with every stop he deemed unnecessary. Leliana was the only one unsurprised by this turn of events, smiling at Sten. Kara vaguely remembers her calling Sten a softie a while back. Currently, Sten was refusing to meet Leliana’s eyes.
If even Sten was concerned to the point of setting up camp early, there was no way she was going to talk her way out of this. She was outnumbered. Kara sighed. “Fine. We camp here.”
“And you’re going to get some sleep,” Wynne said, in that stern, grandmotherly way—at least, Kara assumed it was grandmotherly. She’d never known her own grandmother. “I can heal many injuries, but I can’t fix something like this with magic.”
Kara was holed up inside her borrowed tent—the others thought it would help if she wasn’t stuck outside, for once—and she absolutely refused to sleep.
Earlier, she’d been trying to hold it together for the sake of arguing, but in truth, she could feel herself losing it. Dark spots flew past in the corners of her vision, catching her attention. She could swear she heard rustling and whispers everywhere—maybe sleep deprivation makes the taint worse? Her limbs felt like they might fall off, and her eyes were dry, with a weird buzzy sensation behind them.
She hadn’t looked in a mirror in a while, but she was sure she looked like shit. Probably why her friends were worried.
But she just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t take another nightmare. They felt too real. How did humans and elves and qunari put up with this? Screw the Joining or the lifespan or whatever other secrets the Grey Wardens had—this dream stuff was the deal-breaker. If she’d known it’d be like this, she’d have gladly thrown herself into the lava falls of Orzammar. Saved everyone the bother of dealing with her.
Maybe she was being a little dramatic. Still, when she felt her forehead slump to her knees, she righted herself.
She heard some rustling outside her tent (her imagination?) before a voice spoke.
“Kara?” Alistair asked, softly.
“I’m awake,” she replied, and she heard him sigh.
“Of course you are.” A pause. “Can I come in there?”
Kara hugged her arms around herself. “Yeah.”
He pulled the flaps aside, ducking his head and scooting himself forward until he was sitting by her side, closer than she’d let anybody since the nightmare. He was wearing only his breeches and a loose linen shirt, much like herself. Even after two months with him, it was a little weird to see Alistair out of his traditional blue and silver Warden armor.
He looked… softer, this way. Kara shook her head a little. “Sorry to dash your hopes,” she said, because she really was.
“No, it’s okay. Honestly, I didn’t expect you’d be asleep yet.” He adjusted himself until he had one knee raised, his arm draped across it.
“So,” he started.
“So,” she said back. He took a deep breath.
“Back when I was a boy, in the Chantry, I had this terrible nightmare. I don’t remember much of it now, but what I do remember is that I was running down some unending hallway—or maybe I just wasn’t moving—and there was a voice behind me that only got louder the more I ran.” He laughed a little, sheepish. “In hindsight, that dream was more silly than it was scary.”
Kara didn’t know where he was going with this, but she was intrigued nonetheless, and her sleep-deprived mind enjoyed his soft voice. “Go on.”
“Right, well. I woke up scared out of my mind, and I remember telling one of the Sisters that I’d had a nightmare. She asked me to talk about it, and I said I didn’t want to, so I was sent back to bed. And you know what happened?”
“What?” she asked, curious.
“I had the same nightmare again, right there. I woke up again and the Sister asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I said no, because it was just too scary.” He wiggled his fingers for emphasis, and Kara giggled at that. “So I was sent back to bed, because really, it was past midnight and what else was I supposed to do? And I had the same nightmare again, for the third time in a row.”
Kara felt anxious. That was just the thing she was afraid of, and this story wasn’t helping her feel better about it. He must have noticed her apprehension, though, because he quickly continued his story.
“This time, when the Sister asked if I wanted to talk about it, I told her everything. Can you believe she thought my nightmare was ridiculous?” He pouted, and Kara shook her head, smiling all the while. “But that time, when I was sent to bed, I slept fine.” He grinned. “Haven’t had that particular dream ever again.”
Kara cocked her head. “Does it really work that way?”
His smile dimmed a bit. “I don’t know. I’ve had worse nightmares since then. But it never hurts to open up to… someone who cares for you.” Kara saw his cheeks flush a little at that admission, but she was too addled to respond as she normally would. Instead, she pressed her forehead into her knees.
“Alistair… okay.” She looked back up at him. “I’ll tell you my dream. But there’s some context you need to know first.”
She saw his shoulders relax, and she hadn’t even noticed they were tense before. He must have been worried she’d kick him out, cranky as she’d been. “You can tell me anything.”
Kara took a deep breath, heart hammering in her chest. I’m really going to tell someone about this. This is actually happening. She exhaled. “I don’t know how much you know about the dwarven caste system.”
“Admittedly, very little.”
“Well, what you really need to know is that there are multiple castes, of varying levels of importance, and… and I’m none of them. I’m casteless.” She could feel her voice shake but couldn’t force it to smooth out.
“Right, your mark.” Alistair reached out a thumb and hesitantly brushed it against her cheek, tracing the brand, and her breath hitched. He pulled his hand away, flush on his cheeks and clearing his throat. “Um, your hair was… Anyway, go on?”
She allowed him his excuse about her hair (and tamped down the fuzzy feeling in her stomach) and continued. “Yeah… well. We’re treated worse than dirt and have to do whatever we can to survive. I was… forced into working for the Carta, the big bad dwarven crime syndicate, to protect my sister. Not that she did much better than me,” she added, “but that’s beside the point. I had to do awful things, to a lot of people, just to put food on the table and keep my family in the Carta’s good graces.”
Alistair was frowning, but he stayed silent while she explained. “Obviously I’ve escaped from them, since I’m here now. But that nightmare I had, a week ago? I…” She trailed off, the words difficult to form on her lips.
She closed her eyes, and her voice lowered to a whisper. “I dreamt I’d killed everyone, the way I used to. My family, my boss. People who might have been innocent. They all laid dead in front of me, because of me. All my friends here, too. I’d killed them, and I wanted to stop myself, but I couldn’t.”
She looked back up at Alistair then, his expression unreadable. “I watched myself kill you, too. That’s when I woke up.” She breathed, slowly, though her heart was beating out a staccato rhythm. “That’s why I was screaming, I think.”
She waited for him to make an excuse to leave the tent, or get mad at her, or kick her out of camp. When that didn’t happen, she waited for him to make a joke and deflect, end the conversation in some way that made it easier to look at her tomorrow. But he was just quiet, searching her face, and Kara had a strange feeling of not knowing what to do with her hands.
He was silent for a little while longer, before exhaling a short puff of air. “Yeah, if I’d had that dream, I might not want to sleep again for a while, either.” His expression grew soft as he looked at her. “Is that why you’re avoiding us all, too? Why you think you deserve this?”
Kara opened her mouth a couple times, but nothing came out.
“You don’t trust yourself,” Alistair said for her. She nodded, feeling her eyes grow wet. “Kara, I don’t know how bad it was, down there in Orzammar, but you’ve done nothing like that since you joined us. If anything, I think you try extra hard to prevent people from getting hurt.”
“I never wanted to hurt anyone down there, but I had to.” She wiped at her eyes, trying to will the tears away. Embarrassing. “You’ve seen how I fight darkspawn. My methods were brutal, Alistair. And now I can’t even go to sleep without being reminded of how sodding terrible I really am.” Her voice was cracked, low and whispery so as not to draw attention from their camp mates. “At least before, I might be kept awake by my guilt, but sleeping was something neutral that didn’t hurt me or make me think about why I never deserved any of this, why I don’t deserve this second chance—”
“Whoa, whoa,” he interrupted, waving his hands in front of his face. “Let me stop you there. You don’t deserve a second chance, because of a past you regret?” Alistair looked at her, incredulous. “Wow. Am I talking to Kara Brosca here, or a complete stranger?”
Kara could only stare up at him, confused. “What?”
“This is the same person who recruited an Orlesian bard and a qunari who murdered children into our party, right? Or how about the assassin who was literally sent to kill both of us?” Alistair’s voice grew stronger, more passionate, and he leaned towards her. “What about that blood mage in the Circle Tower that you let free? What about Jowan? You let him help Connor, and then lied to Teagan about executing him to help him escape. And when I asked you what in Andraste’s name you thought you were doing, you said…?”
She couldn’t remember, but Alistair answered for her. “You said ‘he wants to redeem himself, and everyone deserves that chance.’” He sat back, looking thoughtful. “Now that I think about it, you did look awfully wistful when you said that. Really should’ve seen this coming.”
Kara was stunned. “I… yeah, I did say that.”
“Right, but for some reason, you don’t deserve a chance to redeem yourself. Yep. Makes all the sense in the world.” He shook his head, a fond smile on his lips.
Maybe it was how tired she was, how she had no real fight left in her, or maybe it was because Alistair had explained it so well, but Kara could find no fault in his logic. She'd been extra trusting and thoughtful with everyone else, yet she was unfair to herself. “You’re right. You make perfect sense.”
“Really? Huh,” he mostly said to himself. “Guess Leliana was right about sending me to talk to you.”
Kara snorted and lightly punched him in the shoulder. “Duh! You’re not stupid, Alistair.”
“Try telling that to Morrigan,” he deadpanned, though he was still smiling.
“I have,” she said, with a smirk and a raised brow, “and she disagreed completely. But that’s not the point.”
Kara sat up on her knees and tugged Alistair into a hug. She held on tight around his neck, and his arms hovered for a moment before settling around her back. He was firm, muscles hidden under his shirt, and if it weren't for his height, it almost felt like she was hugging a fellow dwarf.
“I’m glad it was you,” she said into his shirt. He just nodded, patting her back gently, before pulling apart. Kara was pleased to see his cheeks and ears tinted a light pink shade. Cute.
“So!” he said, his voice a little high. “Right. Time for sleep.”
Kara settled back to the ground. “I’m nervous. All I’ve had are nightmares, I don’t want another one again.”
He inclined his head towards the tent’s entrance. “I’ll be right outside, you know, like normal.”
“Um… can you sleep here instead?” she asked, her voice tinier than she’d expected it to be. His eyes widened.
“Uh, well—I mean, I don’t know, I—” He grew flustered, and that pink shade grew darker.
“Not like that!” Kara rolled her eyes. “I just don’t want to feel alone, okay?”
“I knew that!” he said, and she believed him, awkward as he was. There’s no way he thought she’d proposition him for real like this. “I just… haven’t exactly slept in close quarters with anyone, before.”
“What, afraid of a little snuggling?” she teased, and he barked a laugh, looking a little panicked with his furious blush and wide eyes, before she reassured him. “Look, I’m pretty small, and there’s plenty of space in here for both of us. Just for tonight. No touching required.”
He was quiet for a little bit, before nodding. “Okay.”
Kara felt immensely relieved. She’d spent her entire life sharing a bed with her sister, and she and Leske would sometimes nap on each other back in Dust Town. There was something reassuring about having someone nearby while sleeping. Now that she really thought about it, sleeping on her own, outside and under the endless sky, had been uncomfortable.
Alistair stepped out for a moment to gather his blankets, and Kara was already tucked under her own when he reappeared, tying the flaps of the tent closed. “Zevran shot me a look,” he said, arranging his bed at her side. “Just thought you should know before the scandals arise.”
“Pfft, whatever. Zevran would find it more scandalous that nothing happened.”
Once they were both tucked in, laid on their sides and facing each other from a comfortable distance, Kara could feel the weight of just how tired she really was. She yawned, and Alistair smiled softly.
“I hope you have good dreams, Kara.”
“That’d be a nice change,” she said, and closed her eyes. “Good night, salroka.”
“’Salroka?’” he asked her, trying out the word.
“It means, ‘one at my side,’” she explained, her voice slurring, before she felt herself slip away.
There is a whole lot of blue, and a whole lot of green. Kara blinks.
The sky is huge, blue and endless, and so bright it should hurt her eyes, but it doesn’t. The grass beneath her feet is green, and she imagines it’d be soft were it not for her leather boots. She’s never seen any place like this before.
Her armor is blue and silver, fitted perfectly to her. She’s sitting comfortably on the hillside, trees in the far distance. For once, she thinks being topside is beautiful and calm.
At her side, sitting with her, is Alistair. He’s leaned back on his hands, staring at the scenery with a soft smile. The silver of his armor shines polished and clean, the griffon emblazoned on the chest proudly.
He looks at her then. “Blue and green, huh? Just like your eyes.”
She laughs, and shoves at him lightheartedly. “Yeah, real smooth.”
“I thought it was,” he says, before handing her some bread and cheese. She takes it, and he pulls out some for himself.
She can feel it, inside her, can sense there are darkspawn out there. He can feel it too. They’ll always have that pulling sensation in their chest, always know their work as Wardens will only end with one or both of them in the Deep Roads.
But right now it is calm, and they’re eating, and somewhere, Kara swears she can hear Leliana’s singing.
Kara wakes up, a little sooner than she’d liked, but her eyes flutter open, and she sees Alistair, still asleep nearby. He’s shifted to sleeping on his back, his arms flopped above his head and over his stomach. His breathing is soft.
Outside, Leliana is indeed singing, and she can hear Barkspawn attempting to perform a duet with her. Kara smiles. Early morning light filters through the flaps of the tent, but she’s sure no one is going to disturb her until she’s had enough sleep. She turns over and closes her eyes.
Later, when she tells Alistair of her first good dream, she leaves out the part where they were holding hands.