Straining at the Leash: Part Ten

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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The corridors all seemed to blend into one another as they headed back to the staircase, and the service passages through the ground floor that would, Lily said, lead them out to the jetty, the boat… and freedom. Ripples of unease shivered through Corda’s body, and she tried not to keep glancing into every shadow, fearing that every open door they’d left in their wake was another danger of discovery; as if demons, or templars, or some other more terrible possibility—Maker only knew what—might linger there.

They were all breathless, all quivering with the elation of having actually done it—done the impossible, broken into the most heavily fortified part of the Tower, destroyed the most secret, most potent weapon the Chantry wielded—and nothing seemed fully real. She found herself reaching to her belt pouch again, fingers moulding to the shape of the pendant within.

We’ll have to be careful on the way out,” Jowan said, peering up towards the basement doors, and the steps beyond. “Dinner’s probably over by now.”

Unless the old farts are still toasting each other and making speeches,” Corda said darkly, glancing back at them. Lily was clutching Jowan’s hand again, looking pale and nervous. “But you’re right… the quicker we are, the better. We’ll split up as soon as we get to land.”

Lily nodded, but Jowan winced and flapped his mouth a bit. “Are—? Well… yes, I suppose… but…. Oh, let’s just get this over with.”

Corda nodded. As she moved towards the staircase, his leather-shod feet scuffled on the stones, and she was aware of his scurrying to catch up with her. He’d disengaged his hand from Lily’s, and now he touched her on the shoulder. Corda tensed slightly, as aware as ever of the scars beneath her robes, and the curiously uncomfortably, vulnerable feeling that came from the warmth of that brief contact.

Corda,” Jowan murmured, as the reek of lavender, kingsblossom and sweat rolled over her, “listen…. I-I just wanted to say thank you. I mean it. Without you, we could never have—”

She didn’t really want to look at him, but she did anyway. His dark blue eyes shifted nervously, his gaze never steady, and his narrow face full of flittering excitement and unsettled tension. She twitched her lips: not quite a smile, and not quite a gesture of dismissal.

You’d have done the same for me,” she muttered. “Wouldn’t you?”

He blanched. “O-Of course I would!”

Well, then. Anyway, you should probably wait to thank me until we’re the other side of the lake.”

~o~O~o~

Corda knew something was wrong the moment they set foot in the chamber.

The torches were still burning on the walls, and ostensibly nothing had changed, but… but the room felt different. It was like the stones themselves were holding their breath. She turned to Jowan, only to find he was gripping Lily’s hand again, beaming at her, and halfway through saying something about how wonderful it would all be when they got across the lake, and how tomorrow morning was going to be the first sunrise they saw in freedom.

It was then that she noticed what was different. The chamber that led to the basement entrance they’d used had two sets of double doors, one at either end. When Corda had come down here to meet Jowan and Lily, they had been open. Now, they were closed.

Trapped.

The crisp, sharp noise of metal on stone caught at her ears. Footsteps. Corda looked up, her mouth dry, and saw figures emerging from behind the shadows that encased the stairwell. The blank, faceless metal of templar armour glimmered menacingly in the torchlight.

Behind her, Jowan swore under his breath, probably as he realised the same thing as her: this was no chance patrol that had happened to find the basement doors unchained. They were lying in wait—and they were not alone.

Panic rooted Corda to the ground, the breath buzzing in her throat as she tried to count how many templars there were. Six, seven eight, plus, as she saw with a chill of utter horror, the Knight-Commander and First Enchanter.

It seemed an excessive show of force.

The three of them stopped dead, bunched into a terrified knot at the top of the narrow staircase as Greagoir strode forwards. His heavy armour was polished to a high sheen, the heraldic symbols on the shoulders and surcoat catching the light like jewels, in a sharp contrast to the darkly scoured lines of the sword of mercy on his chest. His broad, lined face was set into an outraged glare, his eyes like chips of flint beneath heavy, greying brows.

So, you see, Irving? I told you our information was correct,” he growled, glaring at them. “An initiate, conspiring with a blood mage. I’m disappointed in you, Lily.”

Corda didn’t dare look back, but she heard the girl whimper. Greagoir came closer and closer, bearing down on them like a bull, the sheer weight of his presence enough to make Corda stand aside before she even knew she’d done it. She felt weak, and she hated it… hated him, and the self-righteous anger with which he seized Lily by the arm, and thrust his face into hers, staring into her eyes as she flinched away from him, her chin puckering and her lips quivering as she tried hard not to cry.

Hmph.” The Knight-Commander grunted disdainfully. “She seems shocked, but fully in control of her own mind. Not a thrall of the blood mage, then.” He turned abruptly to address the assembled templars. “The initiate has betrayed us. The Chantry will not let this go unpunished!”

Another round of pompous striding followed, the clink of armour fitments and the clip of sabatons on stone breaking the strained, terrible quiet of the chamber. The templars had begun to gather, closing in on them in a rough half-circle. There was nowhere to run except back into the basements, and what would that have achieved?

Blood mage… why does he keep saying that?

Corda looked hopelessly at the First Enchanter, but Irving was merely standing quietly, his hands folded into the sleeves of his robes, and his face set into a mask of disdainful regret.

Please! This isn’t what it looks like,” she protested, beginning to raise her hands until she saw how the templars tensed. She lowered them at once to her sides, trying to keep her posture loose and non-threatening, even as her voice rose in pitch. “I swear! Knight-Commander, your information is wrong. Jowan is no blood mage: he told me so himself! It’s just a rumour, a—”

Greagoir ignored her words, merely thumbing a gesture in her direction as he glared accusingly at Irving.

And this one… newly a mage, and already flouting the rules of the Circle! It’s beyond belief! You will take her in hand, Irving. An example must be made!”

Indeed.” The First Enchanter looked wearily at Corda, and she felt her stomach tighten. “This saddens me greatly, child. You could have come to me, told me what you knew of this plan… and you didn’t.”

Corda clenched her teeth, willing herself not to say anything that would make things worse—as if such a thing was possible—but it filled her with indignation that, even now, he could say that… that he could chastise her for showing just one ounce of integrity.

And stupidity… I knew I should have grassed this up, didn’t I? Oh, and just thinking about it felt so wrong, like a betrayal, and Maker knows if I’m going to betray anyone, I’d hope I’d have the courage for it not to be a friend….

She started to open her mouth, and a thousand words it would have been useless to say fought to get between her lips. She wanted to shout, to scream, to yell that—even here, even like this—mages deserved the chance to stick together, and that all Jowan wanted was freedom from the brutal, spiteful rules the Circle made for them… setting them up to fail, then putting them to death or Tranquillity for that failure.

I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it. I don’t—

I—” she began, faltering with uncharacteristic reticence.

We do not have rules for the sake of rules,” Irving said gravely. “It is the Circle’s duty to protect all mages, and, in turn—”

That’s rubbish!” Jowan shouted, pushing forwards, pushing himself in front of Lily. “You don’t care for the mages! You don’t care about any of us! You just bow to the Chantry’s every whim!”

Corda winced, but it was too late. The damage was done, and they were all going to be punished. Her pulse thrummed as, light-headed, she began to realise just how much trouble they were in.

Enough!” Greagoir thundered, raising a gauntleted hand. “You and your accomplice will be taken to cells to await your punishments… I think you know what that will be, blood mage.”

She blinked rapidly. Her forehead stung and she was dizzy with disbelief. Why did the Knight-Commander keep calling Jowan that? This was so wrong. If they truly believed he was a maleficar, he would face death… and so would she, most likely. Her knees began to feel shaky, and the room started to turn pale. Greagoir was still pontificating. He levelled a curt gesture at Lily, his face a stormy mask of anger.

“…and you…. You have betrayed the Chantry, betrayed your sisters and your brothers… betrayed me, and poured scorn upon your vows. You will be punished, initiate, but your involvement with the maleficar makes things even worse. How are we to know your mind is your own? You will be sent to Aeonar until we can determine the degree of your guilt.”

The mages’ prison? For a mundane? Then they must truly believe Jowan’s corrupted her. Maker’s balls, those stupid sodding rumours…!

Oh! No….” Lily shrank back, horrified. “No, please… it isn’t true! I would never— Please! Not there!”

Her voice was a frightened yelp, like the cries of a child, and it seemed to break something in Jowan. Ignoring the bare blades of templar swords aimed at him, he pushed in front of Lily, shielding her with his body.

No!” He was scowling now, all the indecision and fear in his face condensed into hard, sharp planes of determination and fury. He drew a knife from his belt—the small, blunt kind most apprentices carried for mealtimes or unjamming stuck desk drawers—and he held it up, as if he really believed he could take on a dozen templars with it. “No… I won’t let you touch her!”

Corda’s chest tightened. This was going to end badly for all of them, but she couldn’t stand to see him hacked to pieces in front of her. She started to reach out to him, to convince him he had to stand down—

Jowan, don’t. It’s over….”

and never in a thousand ages could she ever have expected to see him drive the knife into his own palm.

Corda felt it as it went in, she could have sworn. The shock of the act reverberated around the chamber like an explosion and then… then came the blood, and the power.

It was thick, like treacle, and it made the air taste bitter and salty, and then the fog of it rose up in a dark cloud, swallowing everything. She saw Jowan at the centre of it, his face grim and determined, and the power crackled from his skin in a terrible storm of primal energy, fuelled by and mixed with his own blood. The gash in his hand flowed like a river: blood… everywhere. Dark red billowed from him in gouts and spurts, staining his pale skin, staining his robes, until Corda closed her eyes, unable to watch. She could see it still, taste it, feel it, hear it deep inside her own head. It was a chorus of murmuring voices, a roar of sallow wind… it was everything, all at the same time, and then, as he reached the pinnacle of the power he was drawing, Jowan unleashed it.

Corda had always known he had more strength in him than he believed he did. She thought bitterly of how she’d tried to convince him of it, as the force of his magic tore the air in front of him, ripping through the chamber in a colossal burst of dark energy, like tainted ice. The templars went flying before the first of them had even got off a negating spell, and Corda saw one knight hit the stone wall with thundering force. Greagoir was knocked down, scudding across the flagstones on his back, a cut opening up along his left cheek, and Irving went down too, folding like the frail old man he so infrequently resembled.

The metallic echoes of the magic—not quite a spell, more a raw unleashing of power—reverberated throughout the chamber as, bodies scattered all around him, Jowan turned to Lily. His hand was still bleeding heavily, the blood dripping from his fingers, and his face had taken on a waxy, unhealthy pallor, his eyes unfocused as he reached out to her with his other hand.

Lily… Lily, come on! We have to go. The boat—”

He took a step towards her, but she backed away, shaking her head. “By the Maker…! Blood magic? How could you, Jowan? You said you never—”

You lied to me, you bastard!” Corda exploded, finally finding her voice through the ringing in her ears. “Back in there, you said there was a rumour… how could you be so stupid? People knew, and still you went ahead with this!”

He spun around to face her, wild-eyed and spattered with blood. “What else could I do? They were going to make me Tranquil, Corda!”

And now they’re going to make you dead!”

One of the templars was beginning to stir, trying to haul himself up with evident difficulty. It didn’t seem as if Jowan had killed any of them—though Corda wasn’t too sure about Irving—but he’d dealt far more damage than she’d ever thought one apprentice mage was capable of.

Seems like everything they say about blood magic is true….

Jowan winced at her words as if she’d slapped him. “And what choice is that?” he demanded, turning from her to look again at Lily, who’d moved so far from him she was now pressed up against the far wall, tears scoring her round, soft cheeks. “Lily! Please! Come on!”

You said you n-never…,” she managed, the words dissolving to sobs.

All right! I-I dabbled,” he admitted, his voice growing high and tight as he looked imploringly from her to Corda. “I thought it might make me a better mage, so I could pass the Harrowing, so I could— Maker’s breath, I did it for you, Lily! For us. All I ever wanted was to be with you! Come on… please.”

The hand he was holding out to her began to droop, his fingers trembling as she shook her head violently.

Blood magic is evil, Jowan! It corrupts people… changes them…. I didn’t want this!”

I’ll give it up!” he said, sounding desperate now, his bloody hand clutched across his chest, the wound spilling into the cup of his palm like a seething tide. “All magic. Like we talked about… I’ll never do anything. I just… I just wanted—”

No!” Lily was crushed against the wall, her body hunched and her arms wrapped around herself, her tears flowing just as freely as his blood. “I trusted you… I was ready to sacrifice everything for you! I don’t know who you are now. You get away from me, blood mage! I don’t know you. I don’t….”

She turned her face away, given over to her sobs, and Jowan stared for a moment, slack-jawed and white as a corpse. Corda had barely realised she was holding her breath, and her chest ached with it. She touched Jowan’s back. He flinched, turning quickly to her with a look on his face like a frightened dog, ready to snarl and leap. His eyes were wide pools of terror and incomprehension, and there was a great deal that she wanted to say, but the wounded templars were struggling to stand, and—after this—Greagoir wasn’t likely to wait long for a summary execution.

Run,” she whispered. “Now. Fast.”

He nodded weakly, and pelted for the doors. He was almost there, dragging them open enough to slip through, when one of the templars made it to his feet and drew back his arms, preparing some form of smite. Corda didn’t think. She lifted her hands, allowing her palms to bloom with flames, and she turned the air in the chamber red. It was enough of a distraction. She saw Jowan get clear of the room, a distant blur of legs and robes disappearing down the corridor, and then the breathless, dry, violent sensation of a templar’s cleanse hit her, knocking out her magic and knocking the air from her lungs. It made the room spin, and hurt almost as much as the heavy blow that then landed across the back of her head.

Bloody robes,” a metallic-sounding voice muttered, as Corda stumbled and fell to the floor.

She tried to push herself up, but a templar boot connected squarely with her stomach, and it seemed better to curl in on herself and stay down.

Gauntleted hands laid hold of her arms, pulling them roughly behind her. She felt cuffs fasten over her wrists, then she was dragged upright, her blurred vision clearing enough to make out the figure of the Knight-Commander helping Irving to his feet… and Lily, sunk down to the ground by the far wall, her head in her hands.

Are you all right, Irving?”

The First Enchanter nodded, waving away further assistance, though he stood awkwardly, one hand clamped to his side. Greagoir was glowering, the gash on his cheek still yielding a thin trickle of blood.

Blood magic… filth. But to overcome so many—I never thought that boy capable of such power!”

None of us expected this,” Irving said, with a dour glance in Corda’s direction. He returned his attention to the Knight-Commander. “And you? Are you all right, Greagoir?”

As good as can be expected, given the circumstances. If we had acted sooner, this would not have happened! Huh… where is the girl?”

Lily stepped forwards, evidently having dragged herself from the corner in which she had been cowering. She stood with her shoulders stooped and her hands hanging uselessly at her sides, her face tear-streaked and puffy.

I… I am here, ser.”

Greagoir scowled at her. “You aided a blood mage, child! Look at all he’s hurt.”

She did it for love,” Corda interjected, amazed at her own apparent inability to keep her mouth shut. “And she didn’t know. They just wanted to be together… that was all.”

Lily shook her head sadly. “You’ve been a true friend, but you needn’t defend me any longer.”

I wasn’t defending you, you fat trollop.

The initiate raised her chin, meeting the Knight-Commander’s angry glare bravely, and yet Corda couldn’t find it in herself to feel inspired by Lily’s valour. She was too busy wondering whether Jowan had made it to the boat in time, and how far across the lake he could get before the templars scrambled a pursuit.

Knight-Commander, I was wrong. I-I was accomplice to a… a blood mage. I will accept whatever punishment you see fit. Even… even Aeonar.”

Corda shivered involuntarily.

Hmph. Get her out of my sight,” Greagoir growled, waving a couple of the templars who were able to stand forwards.

They took hold of Lily and began to escort her away… and Corda turned her head, unwilling to watch her go. Her cowardice didn’t help her escape the Knight-Commander’s attention, however. He glared furiously at her.

And you! What were you thinking? Your antics have made a mockery of this Circle! You know our rules are in place for good reason. Your foolishness has been beyond measure and— Ah! What are we to do with you?”

Corda took a deep breath, and the world seemed to crystallise around her. Despite the very real threat of death—or of her own one-way trip to the mages’ prison in the north, to be shackled and tormented with demons—she couldn’t dredge up any more fear. In that moment, all of Greagoir’s bluster and ire suddenly seemed like nothing more than an old man’s posturing.

They would do with her what they pleased… for such was the Circle, and the Chantry’s hold over it. The truth of what had happened—that she had believed her friend to be honest, and believed that he just wanted a normal life, away from all of this—wouldn’t matter. If she was tried at all, it would be by templars, and they would not choose to believe in an iota of her innocence.

There seemed very little point in protesting, and so Corda drew herself up, and stared icily at Greagoir.

Do what you please, ser,” she said coldly. “I stand by my decision to help Jowan. He was my friend.”

For a moment, it seemed entirely plausible that the Knight-Commander was going to explode.

You helped a blood mage escape!” Greagoir roared. “All our prevention measures have been for naught—because of you! I can’t even begin to—ah! Take her to a cell,” he barked, turning away.

Corda flinched as two templars—heavy, broad men with blank steel instead of faces—flanked her and took hold of her bound arms. They began to lead her away, and she searched desperately for some argument, some protest… and found nothing.

As she was removed from the chamber, all she saw was First Enchanter Irving, standing alone on the bloodied flagstones and watching her go.

~o~O~o~

The cells beneath the Tower were things of legend among the apprentices. Everyone knew there were dungeons, stretching away into the bedrock, but they were supposed to be mostly disused. Acts of wanton misbehaviour that merited being locked up were few and far between. Generally, the enchanters preferred to revoke privileges, remanding apprentices to dormitories, or to allot creative punishments such as cooking, cleaning, or menial duties in addition to studies, or extra assignments of an especially boring nature. Only serious things, like escape attempts, major insubordination, or subversion of the Tower’s more stringent rules resulted in a student taking a trip to what was generally called ‘the box’.

Anyone who did land such a punishment tended to brag about it, and claim that the cells were filthy and rife with rats and bits of skeletons still in manacles… which no one really believed. There was a rumour that one mage had been confined in the cells for an entire year, but no one believed that, either. It was as ridiculous as the stories that said the templars shut people away down there and forgot about them, until they died of neglect and faded to spirits, never knowing whether they were alive or dead.

Corda didn’t much care for the gossip, especially after the cell door shut behind her. She sat miserably in the small, dank stone room, staring at the back of the iron door. She was below the level of the lake down here, she reckoned, and she couldn’t help thinking about Jowan, and whether he’d made it across.

She wanted him to have done, despite his lies and his betrayal. She was angry about it, of course, and yet filled with so much sadness. He should never have felt he had to augment his power like that. No one should be so afraid of failing something as cruel as the Harrowing that they turned to the very craft the ritual was meant to protect people from.

Oh, if only he hadn’t been so stupid! Stupid with the dabbling, stupid with Lily, with his plan for the phylactery… all of it!

And if only he hadn’t involved me. I will never forgive the weaselly little shit for that.

Not without telling me the truth.

It stung with the pain of betrayal, and, in the darkness, after the templars had left her alone, maybe she did even weep.

She cried for her lost, broken thread of a life, and her friend, and even—Maker damn it for all the bloody stupidity—even for Lily, who didn’t deserve to be sent somewhere as horrible as Aeonar.

She turned the past few days over and over in her mind, looking for some chink in the armour of circumstance, some point at which she might have done things differently… there were probably a dozen, but Corda wasn’t sure any of them would have helped.

She lay down on the hard, narrow cot that smelled of damp, but didn’t bother trying to get any rest. There didn’t seem to be much point. She was merely waiting until someone came to get her, and then… well… execution, probably. She supposed it hadn’t sunk in yet. That must be why she felt so calm, so oddly dispassionate.

It was dark in the cells. One torch burned in the hallway beyond the iron door, and its light filtered through the small grille in the cell wall, but that was all. Corda tried to pull a light from the air, but the door apparently had some form of ward on it—sensible, she supposed, if these rooms were for imprisoning mages—and all she managed was a weak sputter that died on her fingers.

She let her fingers drift to her belt pouch, and slip inside it. There, the pendant she had taken from the repository met her touch, its surface slickly smooth and surprisingly warm.

Given everything she’d seen today, she doubted it was a totally wholesome artefact. There was power in it, certainly… perhaps magic of a darker hue than the Circle approved of, too. She wasn’t sure if she was still afraid of that thought.

Corda lay in the semi-darkness, and traced the shapes of the pendant, learning it by touch. No breath of demons whispered in her ears, no forbidden rites tugged at her mind. She drew it out of her pouch, holding it tucked in her palm, and brought it to her eye level. The onyx disc glimmered dully in the dimness, and clouds seemed to swirl within it.

I would have to be a complete fool to put you on, wouldn’t I? And yet… what have I got to lose?

Corda spread the pendant’s chain in her fingers, readying to slip it over her head, but stopped at the sounds of footfalls in the hallway past her door. Hurriedly, she shoved the pendant back into her belt pouch and swung herself up, her slippers scuffing gently against the grubby stone floor.

The clank and grind of a key in a lock sounded, along with some low, muttering voices, and she tensed. The door swung open, and the blaze of a candle punctured the darkness. Corda screwed up her face, momentarily afraid. A figure entered the cell, hidden in the darkness behind the candle flame.

She lifted her hand, shielding herself both from the intruder and the light, but the figure stopped, pushing the door closed after itself, and just stood there, waiting until she grew accustomed to its presence.

Corda frowned as recognition pushed past her fear.

You?

Duncan lowered the candle, holding it away from her, out to his left side.

Indeed,” he said quietly, his face serious.

The candlelight glimmered on his dark skin and silvery armour, his neatly clipped beard helping disguise any hint of expression around his mouth. Corda’s frown deepened, and she smoothed a hand over the front of her robes.

Forgive me, ser, but I’m hardly in a position to accept visitors. Why why are you here?”

I heard about what happened,” Duncan said, without any obvious trace of judgement.

She snorted. “Yes I’m sure the entire Tower has. Not quite the hitchless ceremonial dinner the First Enchanter was intending for his honoured guest, I’ll bet.”

The Grey Warden said nothing, and, hearing the bitter brittleness in her own voice, Corda shut her mouth abruptly. She didn’t understand how Duncan could even be here. Why would Greagoir have allowed it? She squinted suspiciously at the man, the candle making shadows dance in front of her eyes, and an awkward silence pooled between them.

Did… uh,” she began tentatively, looking down at her hands. “Did you… hear anything about—?”

Your friend escaped,” Duncan said. “The templars took a boat across the lake, but they found no trace of him. I’m afraid, however, that the girl remains under lock and key.”

Corda nodded slowly, trying to keep her relief contained. Jowan had got away… maybe that meant it hadn’t all been for nothing. And yet….

He lied to me. He was a blood mage. He was lying the whole time.

and I helped him.

Even after she knew, even after she’d seen what he’d done, Corda had helped him. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She wasn’t sure what Duncan thought about it, either; he remained so impassive that it was hard to tell.

Ah,” she said, dropping her gaze to the floor. It was difficult to keep looking at the Grey Warden, and she didn’t know why. Corda cleared her throat. “Um… have… have you ever seen someone use blood magic?”

She didn’t know why she asked. Duncan didn’t look surprised.

He inclined his head. “Yes. Once, in my youth, just after I had joined the Grey Wardens. I was travelling with my mentor, when we encountered a group of templars hunting a blood mage. They were quite far away, so I cannot be sure of what I saw.”

But?” Corda prompted.

Behind the candlelight, she almost thought she saw him frown.

He forced some of the templars to turn on their fellows,” Duncan said quietly. “It was… quite dreadful to behold.”

Corda caught her breath, her mind full of the moment Jowan’s knife had sunk into his palm, and the blood had begun to flow, and everything had turned to darkness and that terrible, raw, violent power.

He would have escaped,” Duncan went on, “had he not overlooked one templar, who snuck up behind him and cleaved his head in two.”

She winced, the images of Jowan’s bloody coils of magic swiftly replaced with another, much more vivid picture, and she glared at the Grey Warden, full of hatred for the thoughts he’d planted in her head.

Maybe he was just trying to survive. Had you thought of that?”

Hm.” Duncan shrugged, his silvery armour gilded in the candlelight, and he met her gaze with dark, shrouded eyes. “It is something to consider, certainly. But… this is not what I came down here to speak to you about.”

Corda scowled. “No. I imagine not. Frankly, I’m surprised Greagoir permitted it. So you wanted to see the face of the criminal?” She jutted out her chin, glaring at the man as the candle flame wavered between them.

Duncan simply continued to watch her quietly, his face still unreadable.

Maybe you wanted to ask how we did it? How we got through all their precautions? Because, actually, you know, it was surprisingly easy. It was only because of LilyI mean, I hate to admit it, but it was. Poor cow. Cooperation,” Corda added thoughtfully, her scowl slipping into a frown as realisation settled around her. “That’s all it takes. Someone from the Chantry, and someone from the Circle, working together. Maybe that’s why they put so much effort into making us fear them.”

The Grey Warden made a small noise in the back of his throat. She wasn’t sure whether it was reproach or appreciation.

Be that as it may,” he said, “you are still facing a severe punishment. I have come to offer an alternative.”

Corda grimaced. “Oh? An alternative to being hanged at dawn? Or are they planning to ship me to Denerim for a public execution?” She frowned again, as her weary, addled mind finally caught up to his words. “Wait, what? What alternative?” Something in between fear and confusion laid a cold hand around her throat, turning her voice hushed. “You don’t mean…?”

I came here to seek recruits both for the king’s army, and for the Grey Wardens.” Duncan’s eyes glimmering like dark stones. “The First Enchanter had already spoken highly of you, but, seeing what you have done today… well,” he said, permitting himself the smallest of smiles, which Corda found both unsettling and astounding. “It seems to me that it is a rare person indeed who will risk everything for a friend.”

Corda’s lips thinned. “Hm. A friend who turned out to be a maleficar. That doesn’t bother you? I mean, I’m surprised I can’t hear Greagoir shouting from down here.”

Duncan inclined his head, almost as if he was hiding his amusement. “You have great power at your disposal, and you are not afraid to use it. Tell me… would you truly prefer to remain here, your gifts wasted, or would you take a chance at something more, and join the Warden ranks?”

Corda didn’t know what to say. This seemed like a cruel joke, in the dank darkness of the cells: something to be dangled before her and then snatched away.

You mean that?” she asked hoarsely. “But… the Circle won’t let me go, surely. The templars—”

If the Grey Wardens choose to conscript someone, neither king nor priest may deny them,” Duncan said, as if intoning some ancient piece of law. “I offer you a way out. I have already spoken to the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter.”

She let out a short cough of laughter. “Oh! I bet they were thrilled. Maker’s ba— I mean… well, I mean yes. Of course. I— Thank you,” she added, looking up at Duncan with new respect. “But… how…?”

He shook his head. “There will be time to discuss everything in more detail once we are underway. For now, we must leave. We shall make out way south, to Ostagar, where the king’s army is camped. You will be initiated there. Are you ready to leave?”

Corda glanced around the cell. “Never readier,” she said darkly. She frowned. “I… don’t suppose you can do anything for Lily? Another conscription, or—?”

Duncan shook his head. “I’m afraid not. The rite of conscription may not be invoked lightly.”

And you’re already pushing your luck. Hmm, I see….

I… understand,” Corda said carefully, rising to her feet.

Good.” Duncan gave her a small, tucked sort of smile, sad and yet oddly sympathetic. “You know, not many would have done what you did today. Believe it or not, we need more people like you.”

She snorted. “Huh… I thought the world already had plenty of fools.”

Duncan said nothing, his expression settling back into that inscrutable quietness. “Come. We will leave immediately.”

Before the Knight-Commander takes a hatchet to someone, I presume?

Corda shuddered a little at the thought of Greagoir’s undoubted fury, and stood, far readier than she’d ever imagined she could be to leave the Tower behind her.

~o~O~o~

It was raining when they left the Tower.

Corda had not been given an opportunity to collect any belongings from her quarters, not that she’d had much to start with. Instead, as she followed Duncan up from the cells, she was met with an incandescent Greagoir, whose bellowing could be heard from several chambers away. The Knight-Commander was, as she had expected, furious at the fact Corda was escaping punishment, and that his control was being undermined.

I refuse to allow it!” he had barked more than once, hollering, she thought, like a child whose favourite toy had been taken away.

To her surprise, the First Enchanter merely stood quietly at the end of the chamber, overseeing the unfolding events with something not unlike mild satisfaction. As he observed, neither the Circle nor the Chantry could stand in the Warden-Commander’s way, and Corda was confused by his lack of ire.

He had seemed so disappointed in her—something she tried so hard to convince herself she didn’t care about—and yet this development appeared to please him. Corda decided it was less to do with her, and more to do with Greagoir’s loud pouting about ‘losing all authority over the mages’ and ‘every rule being flouted’. She supposed, in Irving’s position, she’d enjoy that too.

All the same, as she accompanied Duncan out through the public chambers, she couldn’t extinguish the sense of loss.

People came to look at her, crowding the staircases to stare down at her in silence. Corda tried to ignore it. They’d been staring at her ever since she came to the Tower. Always staring. Well, now they had something to look at, didn’t they?

She squared her shoulders, letting her hair fall back from her face, and lifted her chin.

Irving barely had a word to spare her when it came to the leaving itself.

First Enchanter,” she’d said, giving him a shallow bow.

The words swam under her skin. Everything she’d wanted to say to him before—about Uldred, and Gwynlian and Cullen, and everything in that blasted letter—and everything she should have said….

I should have. Even when we were right there in the chamber, the first minute that stupid rumour came up. I should have known.

She hadn’t been able to say it. He’d just… looked at her, and the words had failed to come. They parted with cursory, brittle politeness and, as the dual echo of her and Duncan’s footsteps spooled around the chamber, Corda let the frustration she felt curdle into determined spite.

Sod Irving. Sod the Circle… sod everything they did to the mages, and every little way they’d failed to stand up for people like Jowan—the Jowan she remembered, who’d been weak and frightened and so damn stupid—and every tactic they’d ever used to make her docile and keep her tame.

If Uldred and his pets were planning anything, let it come. Let it happen, after Ostagar, and let Greagoir see if all the new measures he was bound to bring in helped him… and Corda didn’t doubt he’d do something. He was still grousing about a ‘necessity for more effective measures’ when his voice faded from her ears, and she would have felt a deeper pity for those left behind if there hadn’t been so many hard, accusing faces glaring down at her from the stairwells.

The doors shut after them with resounding finality. She didn’t look at Duncan. The sky was grey, rolling endlessly over the murky lake; even the jetty seemed drab and dull, its timbers darkened by the thin fall of rain. The ferryman’s boat was moored close by, bobbing and creaking gently with the swell of the water.

Corda tried to breathe slowly and calmly. Everything seemed so… open. It left her feeling vulnerable, and her mind railed at the sheer madness, the strangeness of it all. This was it, now: the rest of her life. She was adrift, and she had never felt smaller than she did when she climbed into the ferryman’s boat.

She didn’t know what would await her at Ostagar—what becoming a Grey Warden would mean—but at least it was a future. Duncan had been right about that. If the alternative was death, then Corda had no choice but to embrace this new destiny… and she would, she supposed, as the rain pattered against the shoulders of her robe.

She had slipped the leash that bound her, and that meant that this was… what? Freedom? If that was true, it felt odd. Empty, Corda thought, the way she’d felt when she’d realised how wrong she had been about Jowan… about everything.

Maybe life would have been easier if she hadn’t fought against the templars’ rules. Maybe she would have been better off accepting their restraints, or trying to believe that, just for once, she didn’t know best—that, perhaps, they might have had some wisdom. She supposed she’d never know now. All those possibilities were gone.

All that was left was the future—the future that Duncan had bought for her—and she had to face it, no matter her mistakes and the stains they had left upon her.

She would carve her own place in the world, make her own destiny, and ensure that she never misplaced her trust again.

And she would do it alone.

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Straining at the Leash: Part Five

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The man was dark-skinned, with a short, neatly trimmed black beard, and a braid of black hair. He wore a long, pale surcoat emblazoned with a silverwork design that Corda couldn’t make out properly; it looked like a bird, perhaps, or some kind of heraldic device with too many claws. In any case, she found herself distracted by his armour… and the gilt-hilted daggers he wore, displayed as prominently as the crossbow on his back. A pattern like scrolled, repeating waves marked the metal of his pauldrons and, though it seemed thin, it was finely crafted. Each scale of his cuirass was so tightly sealed to the next that it might have been a second skin, and the way they glimmered…! It was silverite, she was certain. Corda had read about the metal in a book on the subject of enchantment and armoury—perhaps one of the most lucrative employments a mage might secure, and a highly advanced area of research—but she had never actually seen the metal close up.

She realised she was staring, and blinked quickly. Whoever he was, the man was most certainly no stuffy, toothless visiting dignitary, and it probably wouldn’t do to gawp.

She bowed graciously, and the stranger inclined his head. Everything in his appearance and posture indicated a grave, almost solemn kind of presence, yet the gaze that swept appraisingly over her was lively and sharp.

Corda wasn’t sure she liked being so swiftly assessed. She hated anyone staring, but he didn’t look at her the way most people looked at her for the first time. It was, she thought, as if he had expected to see her scars. She kept her face impassive, and clasped her hands together within the sleeves of her robes: the model of the quiet, obedient apprentice, at least until she knew what was going on.

The stranger glanced enquiringly at Irving. “This is…?”

“Yes.” The First Enchanter nodded, his voice warming as he closed the chamber door behind her. “This is she.”

Corda intensely disliked people talking about her behind her back. She glanced between the three men, hating the sense of imbalance that came with being the only one in the room who didn’t know what was happening, and fought the urge to scowl.

Greagoir squared his shoulders and huffed irritably. “Well, Irving, you are evidently busy. We will discuss this later.”

“As you wish, I’m sure.”

The First Enchanter smiled and waved him away amicably, and Corda didn’t miss the Knight-Commander’s glare of fury at being so summarily dismissed. The man stalked from the room in a fugue, and she got the distinct impression that Irving was trying to suppress a snigger.

“Now, where was I…? Ah. Yes. My dear Mistress Amell, allow me to present Duncan, of the Grey Wardens.”

The stranger bowed to her, and Corda blinked. Grey Warden? He was most definitely not what she had imagined. Even so… were they really here already? She’d been expecting much more pomp and circumstance.

She recovered herself, and returned the gesture of respect as gracefully as she could.

“Ser.”

“You’ve heard about the war brewing to the south, I imagine,” Irving said, watching her carefully. “Duncan is here looking for recruits to join the king’s army at Ostagar.”

Corda tried hard to keep her face a blank mask of polite interest, and resumed the neat stance with clasped hands that so many an apprentice hid behind.

“I see.”

She looked questioningly at the First Enchanter, but he was giving nothing away. Irving simply smiled at her, his eyes twinkling with some inner amusement that—at that particular moment—Corda found incredibly suspicious.

She inclined her head to Duncan, addressing him with cautious respect.

“The enemy must be causing a great deal of concern, ser.”

He looked levelly at her, his expression inscrutable. When he spoke, his voice was rich and carefully modulated, the words burred with the slight hint of an accent. Northern, Corda thought… perhaps a touch of Highever on the vowels. Curious, because from looks, she’d have pegged him as a Rivaini. Evidently, the Grey Wardens were a far-flung bunch… either that, or the Tower was more parochial than even she had imagined.

“Every enemy merits due concern,” he said. “It is through vigilance that we reach victory… if we are to reach it at all.”

Corda’s careful blankness faltered, and her eyes widened. “You think King Cailan’s forces will not best the Wilders, then, my lord? I understood our enchanters had travelled south to lend His Majesty their support. Are we… insufficient?”

It was a bold suggestion, and a degree far beyond what was proper for an apprentice. Of course, Corda thought, she wasn’t an apprentice any longer, was she? No more threats of the birch cane or confinement to dormitory. The worst they could do to her for rudeness now was probably a stiff talking to and banishment to the library, and that knowledge gave her a wonderful sense of freedom.

Duncan smiled. He looked almost amused by her cheek, and that roused Corda’s curiosity. However, then the smile diminished, and left him looking hauntingly solemn.

“If it was merely the Chasind with which we had to contend,” Duncan said, locking those dark, bright eyes to hers, “then I am sure the Circle’s contingent would be ample. However, there is a greater threat brewing.”

Corda drew a short, soft breath across her teeth, and the gleam of triumph jumped in her blood.

I was right!

“Darkspawn,” she said quietly. “Short of the tribes uniting behind a common banner, that’s the only thing that would pull an entire army down to the Wilds, isn’t it? And, of course, your lot,” she added, half to herself, before wincing and catching at the casual rudeness of the words. “I-I mean—”

The First Enchanter chuckled dryly, and the sound echoed against the chamber’s high walls. Corda glanced at the man, waiting to see if she’d be disciplined, but Irving didn’t even interrupt. He just shook his head, and exchanged a look with Duncan that she found puzzling.

“Indeed.” The Grey Warden nodded crisply, returning his attention to Corda. “There are darkspawn in the Wilds, and they are moving north.”

She bit her lip thoughtfully. Well… that should work out well for King Cailan, shouldn’t it? The vibrant young warrior king, justified in his munificence and his desire to be part of something glorious. All the gossip the Tower had gleaned from Denerim and West Hill over the past five years had said he’d been champing at the bit for some war or skirmish in which he could prove himself his father’s equal.

Something like this would be the perfect opportunity… and yet, somehow, Duncan didn’t look like a man who was seeking recruits for the sake of numbers. The more she looked at him, the more Corda saw that, just like his armour, all the man’s gravitas and quiet dignity was a well-crafted shell.

Beneath it all, he looked worried.

She glanced with brief trepidation at Irving, trying to work out why she was being allowed such an untrammelled part in this conversation. Was this the benefit of her new magedom? Or was she a curiosity, a creature to be trotted out for the interest of guests?

Either way, she drew breath and dove in while she could, eager to hear more.

“I’ve read of such things happening,” she said, eyeing Duncan curiously. “But I thought the dwarves kept them in check?”

He shook his head. “No longer, I fear. The darkspawn have formed a horde, and threaten to invade north into the valley. If we do not drive them back, we may see another Blight.”

“Bl—?” Corda began, her eyes widening a little.

Surely that wasn’t possible. It was a thing of legends, of stories…. And yet, Corda’s mind told her—suddenly rattling at a frenetic pace, and throwing up images of long-ago skimmed books and scrolls—the whole point of the stories was that there were seven Old Gods. The Chantry was quite specific on that point; seven sins, seven pillars of wickedness that ancient Tevinter had wrought and, by the accounts of some so-called holy scholars, seven ways in which mages were the scourge of Thedas.

Faith and belief aside, Corda was exceptionally well-versed in the things the Chantry had to say about the magic of Tevinter… as far as the Circle’s library allowed her to be, at any rate.

Seven Old Gods; four Blights. Why should it be so impossible? Unlikely, yes, but… not impossible. Not impossible, however much we might wish it so.

Oh, Maker’s breath…! 

“Duncan,” Irving chided genially, “you worry the poor girl with talk of Blights and darkspawn.”

Corda looked up sharply, realising that she’d fallen silent, and annoyed at the old man for taking the opportunity to cut across her questioning.

“Oh, but, First Enchanter, I—”

Irving waved a hand, hushing her. “No, my child. This is supposed to be a happy day, is it not?”

Corda wanted to hop from foot to foot in frustration, but willed herself to remain still, and managed a graceful smile as she bowed her head.

She caught Duncan watching her as she looked up, and the suggestion of a smile seemed to touch his lips before he turned to Irving.

“We live in troubled times, my friend.”

The First Enchanter nodded sagely. “Ah, but then we should seize moments of levity, should we not? Now most especially.” He treated Corda to a wide smile; something she wasn’t all that used to seeing on the man. “The Harrowing is behind you, my dear. Your phylactery was sent to Denerim, and you are officially a mage within the Circle of Magi.”

Corda inclined her head. “Thank you, First Enchanter.”

She would much rather have gone back to discussing the darkspawn, but she doubted there would be another chance now. Irving would probably summarily dismiss her, and she wouldn’t see Duncan again, except as some distant figure on the dais during one of the interminable after-dinner speeches.

Then, he would leave and head back down to Ostagar and, if there was a Blight, Corda would be doomed to watching it from the window of the tower, while the same boring routine lapped around her feet, day in and day out.

She wondered, in a brief and facetious moment, whether a wave of darkspawn engulfing the country would even affect what time the refectory served meals.

Irving moved to a trunk near his desk, and as he bent to lift the lid, Duncan cleared his throat.

Corda looked up, and he caught her eye enquiringly.

“Forgive me… phylactery? That is the… vial…?” He gestured loosely with one hand, as if trying to locate the proper word.

She nodded, though she doubted he truly didn’t know it. Any man who addressed the First Enchanter as “friend” would surely be aware of such an intrinsic aspect of the Circle’s function—especially one that was a source of so much contention among the mages. The Libertarian fraternity, in particular, had often made a great deal of noise over the phylacteries, and what they called the double standard of the templars’ using something amounting to blood magic to control them. Oh, the Loyalists always claimed it wasn’t blood magic, just magic worked upon the blood—the way templars’ abilities were fuelled by lyrium, but did not draw on mana in the conventional sense—but few mages truly believed that.

Corda certainly didn’t.

Of course, she realised, if the Grey Warden knew what a phylactery was, that meant the question wasn’t a question. And, if it wasn’t a question, then it was words being lined up just to see what she did with them. Would she take the opportunity to complain about the templars’ strictures, or demonstrate her loyalty to the regime?

She shot a sidelong glance at Irving, busy removing a bundle of items from the trunk, and then smiled at Duncan.

“Quite so, ser. When we come to the Tower as apprentices, small amounts of our blood is taken and preserved in special vials. It is stored by the Chantry, in the event it is… required.”

He met her gaze steadily, his face impassive but his eyes alive with a dozen hidden things.

“So you can be hunted if you turn apostate,” Duncan said quietly.

It was a statement, not a question; a bland observation, not an opinion. His tone was guarded, suggesting whatever personal feelings he might have had on the practice were not open for discussion… and yet, equally, hinting at something far more than the usual acceptance of authority that Corda was accustomed to encountering in the men who wielded the Circle’s power.

Well, well….

“Even the most docile dog may need a leash, my lord,” she said, with a slight incline of her head.

The lid of the trunk Irving had been ferreting about in thudded shut, and the sound echoed off the stone walls. Corda flinched, and inwardly cursed herself. It made her look weak, and she didn’t want that… now less than ever.

Duncan looked thoughtfully at her, but he said nothing.

“Indeed. We have few choices, of course,” Irving put in, as he crossed back to them, his leather-shod feet murmuring against the floor. “The gift of magic is looked upon with suspicion and fear. We must prove we are strong enough to handle our power responsibly… as this young lady has so recently done.”

He held out the items he carried—the embroidered russet silk of a mage’s robe, with a small golden band resting atop it, and a smooth birch staff—and smiled proudly at Corda.

“My dear, I present you with your robes, your staff, and this ring, bearing the insignia of the Circle. Wear them proudly, for you have earned them.”

She stared, caught out a little by the oddness of the moment. Somehow, she’d always thought there would be more ceremony to it than this. She’d risked her life in the Harrowing, hadn’t she? They had dragged her from her bed, thrown her to the demons, and now all she got was an armful of stuff and a “well done, carry on”? It hardly seemed fair, but then “fair” was not a concept Corda had been used to associating with life in the Circle.

It was enough. And, she told herself, it was what these symbols meant that mattered.

“I… uh, thank you, First Enchanter,” she said, inclining her head, and slipping a brief glance at Duncan.

He smiled. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you, ser.”

Corda hugged the ring and robes to her chest, and closed her fingers around the staff. It seemed to hum gently against her palm, and she almost caught her breath. She’d used them before a few times in lessons, but never very often, and it felt odd to know that this simple piece of wood, infused with energy, was hers and hers alone. The runes etched into the top of the neck, just below the slightly hooked head of the staff, were as delicate as spider webs, barely noticeable on the polished surface of the wood. Corda looked forward to the opportunity to sit and study them at leisure… and that led to another thought. She would have new quarters, wouldn’t she? Even now, a couple of bedders were probably lugging her things up the stairs, and she hadn’t the faintest idea where they’d end up.

Somehow, she hadn’t imagined that finally earning her magehood would be such a strange, dislocating experience.

“Um. I’m sorry, but… er… what happens now?”

Irving chuckled. “Patience, child. You have been through an ordeal, and there is no need to rush. Your belongings will be transferred from your dormitory to your new quarters. You will need to speak with whomever is to be administering your induction… I believe it is Enchanter Sweeney. You will learn a lot from him, I’m sure. In the meantime, the rest of today is yours. Rest, or study in the library. As you please.”

Corda nodded slowly. Right, then. This was her dismissal; the First Enchanter evidently wanted to get back to discussing recruits and warfare with his esteemed visitor.

She glanced at Duncan, and bit her lip as, unbidden, another set of words sprang from her mouth.

“And I’ll be able to leave the tower, won’t I? I mean, how—”

Irving smiled indulgently, but shook his head. “Yes, but not yet. Not for several months, at least, and then pending approval of a request submitted officially in writing, and the assurance of an appropriate placement.” He held up a hand, silencing the protest he evidently assumed Corda was about to begin. “I know we have spoken of your desire to study in Cumberland, but any such possibility will require a long wait. In the meantime, child, you would do well to remember that these walls protect us as much as they protect others from us.”

He met her gaze and held it firmly as the echo of those last words whispered around the chamber. The candlelight glinted off the shelves full of esoteric curios—skyballs, jewelled paperweights, gilt-bound books, artfully painted maps and Maker alone knew what else—and Corda just knew he meant the war. He meant her to go quietly to her new chamber and be a good little mage and not ask questions… and that roused her curiosity more than anything else possibly could.

She bowed her head. “Of course, First Enchanter. I should go and familiarise myself with my quarters. Thank you.”

Irving dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “My pleasure, my dear.”

“Grey Warden.” Corda dropped a bow to Duncan, finding it more difficult than usual with the staff in one hand—something she’d have to get used to, she supposed—and began to turn for the door.

“Ah!” Irving raised a hand, and that small, clipped exclamation skipped across the air, just the way his voice did when he wanted order from an assembly of students.

Corda turned again, clutching her hard-won bundle of robes to her chest, and regarded the old man’s oddly smug expression. There was something she could only describe as a twinkle in his pouchy eyes, and that unsettled her. She was far more used to seeing Irving up on a lectern somewhere, pontificating in those low, gravelly tones of his, and droning on about the dry, piffling inconsequentialities of the fraternities or the latest templar edicts from Denerim.

Right now, he looked far too cheerful for her liking.

“First Enchanter?”

Irving smiled, and waved dismissively at her. “You will be so kind as to escort Duncan to his chamber, Miss Amell. The guest quarters on the east side of the tower, close to the library. Your things will be awaiting you there,” he added, inclining his head graciously to the Grey Warden. “I fear I must discuss the matters we addressed further with Greagoir… I shall speak with you again this evening, if that is…?”

“Quite amenable,” Duncan assured him, bowing his head with equally stiff grandeur.

Corda fumed silently, feeling like she was choking on all these paper-thin pretences of etiquette. Surely this was what the Tranquil were for, anyway? Only, no… the Circle never liked to show them off to visitors. They were kept firmly in the background; cooking, cleaning, ordering and tidying, when they weren’t doing usefully lucrative things like enchantments. It was like not wanting polite company to see your ugly kitchen maid—not that she was much better, she supposed. Her very face was a blatant statement on the destructive power of magic.

She said nothing, and just bowed again, holding the door open for the silver-armoured Warden with his neatly clipped beard and—yes, she could see as he drew closer—his braid oiled in the manner some of the apprentices she’d known of Rivaini extraction had done.

The Grey Wardens evidently recruited from all over, though it still puzzled her as to what he was doing here, and now of all times.

His presence was an irritation, anyway, for all the glamorous talk of monsters and kings and battles. Despite the sudden interruption of her Harrowing, Corda was still itching to find out what Gwynlian had been up to, and what Enchanter Uldred had been disseminating to his students. It wasn’t as if she’d had enough evidence to go to the First Enchanter, but if she’d just been able to talk to him in private, then maybe…. Oh, but it was no use, was it? Not without something concrete to base the accusations on—if there were even accusations to make.

Still, Corda thought, as the gentle tick of her new staff beat time on the steps that led down to the next floor, in between the slip-slop of her leather-shod feet, and Duncan’s hardier, sturdier army boots, the very fact of Uldred being away at Ostagar might be of benefit. And that she was a Harrowed mage now meant she would be on the same floor as Gwynlian or at least somewhere on the same staircase. If she could find out where it was, she could get access to the idiot bitch’s chamber, probably, and have a good look around; maybe even sneak as far as Uldred’s study, which was much farther up into the Tower’s privy rooms than an apprentice would have been allowed to roam.

Corda was contemplating the details of the plan when the Grey Warden spoke, and his low, smooth voice pulled her abruptly from her thoughts.

“Thank you for walking with me,” Duncan ventured, peering speculatively at her, as if he wanted to gauge her reaction. “I am glad of the company.”

Oh?

Corda kept her face impassive. “I have always done what First Enchanter Irving asks of me.”

It was a staid, mechanical response—a safe thing to hide behind—but it appeared to amuse Duncan. He smiled.

“I’m sure he is very proud to have you as a pupil.”

There was the very slightest hint of dry mirth in his tone. At first, Corda almost missed it… but it was there. She got the distinct feeling he was playing with her, and she was torn between being pleased by the attention—it was certainly rare enough to have someone to engage with, much less such a rarefied visitor as this—and perplexed as to why so distinguished a guest was bothering to make small talk with her in the first place. Not to mention, where was the rest of his delegation? She felt sure that there should have been someone. Jowan’s gossip from the dorms had suggested a whole deputation, with accompanying pomp and ceremonial feast… and, just for a moment, Corda felt a little chagrined at how brusquely dismissive she’d been of her friend, and everything he’d said about the Grey Wardens.

True, apparently the Anderfels had been driven to bankruptcy by the order, and there was plenty of ill-feeling in the Bannorn about allowing them back into Ferelden—or so went the fourth-hand court gossip the Tower had from the few mages who’d been in Denerim in the past year or so—because what good were their constant calls for men and gold without a Blight? Only, if there was a Blight….

Corda breathed deeply, her head swimming with possibilities. It was unlikely, she decided. Very unlikely. Not impossible, but… well, was that the kind of excitement anyone wanted in their future?

She blinked, aware of the slightly expectant quality the silence around her had developed, and she glanced at Duncan, only to be assailed by a sudden flare of tired irritation at the fact he’d clearly been sneaking a surreptitious look at her scars. It didn’t surprise her; people usually did that. Frequently, they asked banal questions as well, which he so far had not. She cleared her throat as they passed one of the templar statues set back into a niche in the curved stone wall—some old Knight-Captain who’d single-handedly quelled an abomination, so the story went, and was immortalised in graven stone to glare down at all mages who passed him ever after. Corda was always tempted to pull a face at the thing every time she passed it.

“Forgive me, my lord,” she began, peering enquiringly at Duncan, “but I am curious. Is there not a full deputation of Grey Wardens arriving at the Tower?”

He chuckled dryly. “No. No, it is just me.”

“Ah.”

Well, that was odd. It didn’t have all the weight of a political pressure, then; a move by King Cailan to secure more support for his pets. Perhaps, Corda thought, it was a more subtle recruitment drive… or simply a plea in earnest, if the situation in the south was worse than anyone thought, and the order actually genuinely, urgently needed men.

“We never hear much of the Grey,” she said diplomatically, trying to inject some optimistic curiosity into her voice. “Only stories. Legends, if you will. They are quite… impressive. The order seems most dedicated.”

She sneaked a sidelong look at Duncan, and was mildly annoyed to find the man watching her with that same air of faint amusement. He inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the compliment.

“We have but one purpose. Our duty is to battle darkspawn wherever they appear… and that is what we do.”

“Then what you said in the First Enchanter’s chambers, about a Blight…?”

Duncan’s expression grew sombre. “Yes. We believe there is an archdemon leading the horde. If this is so—”

Corda blinked. “One of the Old Gods?”

A look of faint disapproval flickered across his dark eyes, and she cursed herself inwardly for sounding so enthusiastic. One was not, after all, meant to sound so interested in the prospect of devastation and peril.

“Darkspawn do attack the surface in ragtag bands,” Duncan said slowly. “But archdemons are the one thing capable of rallying them, turning them into an unstoppable force… a veritable army. I fear that this is what we will have to face.”

They were following the curve of the tower’s wall, nearing the library. The light that filtered through the high, small windows was bright and clean, and the sound of the chapel’s midday service bell reverberated through the stonework.

Every day the same. Every chime, every beat, every bloody repetition….

“So, King Cailan’s army is set to beat back this threat? Will it, uh….” Corda swallowed heavily, aware that there were things one was not meant to voice. “Will it be enough?”

If he thought she was seditious, Duncan didn’t say so. He just kept looking straight ahead as they walked, apparently taking in an interest in some of the ornamentation on the lintels of the great doors that bisected this part of the corridor.

“Perhaps,” he said carefully. “If we play our cards right.”

They were nearing the library. There were a few apprentices wandering about, clutching armfuls of books and talking quietly together. A single templar stood by the westerly door to the chamber and, at this hour, all the doors were wide open. The smell of books and the years of pressed paper greeted Corda like an old friend, but she was too preoccupied to truly appreciate it, and gestured to Duncan that they take the left-hand part of the hallway, cutting past the Tranquil’s inventory office rather than skirting the entirety of the library to reach his guest quarters.

“How many mages have joined the king’s army?” she asked, her voice low in deference to that shiny-suited templar. “I know several of our senior enchanters left, but as to how many others—”

“The Circle of Ferelden sent seven mages to Ostagar,” Duncan said shortly, a surprisingly blunt degree of frustration and disdain colouring the words. “Seven… in response to the king’s call. I asked King Cailan’s permission to come and seek a greater commitment from the Circle.”

Ooh, that is one tantrum I’d like to have seen….

“Seven is quite a few,” Corda said doubtfully, forgetting for a moment that she probably shouldn’t disagree with the man.

Duncan shook his head. “I had hoped to place a mage or two within every contingent. I cannot do this just seven.”

“Well, perhaps mages don’t need to—”

“Mages will make all the difference in this war,” he said shortly, giving her a sharp look. “The darkspawn have their own magic, and our resources must exceed theirs.”

Corda’s brow furrowed. Darkspawn had magic?

Hm. You should tell the people about it. I’m sure every good Fereldan citizen would be queuing up to shiv them with a pitchfork. Get the lynch mobs out, and you wouldn’t even need an army….

“Perhaps,” she said carefully, “if the Chantry allowed us more freedom of movement, more of us would be able to attend your call, ser.”

He smiled. “Indeed? I sometimes wonder if the Chantry’s many laws regarding magic are entirely necessary.”

Corda blinked, a little surprised at hearing such a statement from a man like him. Surprised… but encouraged.

“Quite so,” she said, treading lightly with her words, just in case this particular Grey Warden was trying to bait her into heresy, just for the pleasure of decrying her to the Grand Cleric. “There are worse things in the world, after all.”

Duncan nodded vehemently. “Darkspawn are a greater threat than blood mages—than abominations, even. It takes decades for the world to recover from a Blight. I wish the Chantry could see that. We must stop at nothing to defeat the horde. Nothing. But— ah, listen to me!” He gave her a small, grim smile. “An old man’s rantings can’t be very interesting, I am sure.”

Corda snorted. “I’ve been an apprentice in this tower for years, ser. Old men talking have defined my life.”

He laughed at that; truly laughed, in a warm, rich bubble of mirth. His eyes glittered with it, his lips peeling back to show white teeth against dark skin, framed so precisely by that neatly trimmed beard.

“I’m sure they have!”

A few apprentices on their way to the library scattered the wide corridor, and they all but shrank back against the walls, staring with saucer-blown eyes at Corda and her unusual guest. Duncan’s laughter danced against the stones, and Corda allowed herself a small smile, relishing the looks of surprise and awe she drew.

“We don’t really hear much from outside the tower,” she said, as the Warden’s mirth subsided. “I mean, they permit us to walk in the grounds, but short of smoke signals to the docks….”

Duncan smiled afresh and nodded in what seemed to be a sympathetic manner, Corda noted with quiet glee.

“Indeed. A good view of the other side of the lake, perhaps, but a rather… isolated… existence?”

“You could say that,” Corda said tightly.

Duncan inclined his head again. She felt more secure in speaking to the man, content to believe he wasn’t baiting her for the sole purpose of tripping her up, but it did leave one unanswered question: why was he so interested in talking to her at all?

As they moved past the swell of the library’s outer wall, where the enchanted lanterns that hung high above the arches and doorways cast pale ovals of light against the stones—like silent, sombre eyes peering down from the carved lintels and austere panelling—Duncan seemed to note their surroundings with interest. Corda wondered how much he knew of the Tower’s inner workings. Most visitors, for example, thought these great sets of doors and high, pointed archways were simply to impress, little knowing that the Circle’s grand architecture was backed up by several inches of solid, steel-bound oak, as ancient and unyielding as stone. Should there be sufficient cause, every mage in the Tower knew the templars would not hesitate in closing these mighty portals, and isolating whatever spot in which trouble broke out from the rest of the building, leaving those within to either starve… or be hacked down if they did try to break through.

For all the little touches of opulence—the tapestries and hangings, or the thick, Avvar-inspired rugs that were more numerous in this part of the tower, where outsiders were accommodated—Corda couldn’t help but feel her prison had been constructed by the same kind of mind responsible for abattoirs.

Cattle. That’s all we are. Herded through day after day, hoping we won’t be pushed out onto the killing floor….

She ventured a curious look at Duncan, aware that they would reach the guest chambers at any moment, and she would probably not have another opportunity to speak with him. Corda cleared her throat.

“Um…. About your recruitment drive?” she asked, as casually as she dared.

Duncan looked levelly at her, his face betraying no sign he found her impertinent. In fact, he seemed quite interested in what she wanted to say. That in itself set alarm bells ringing in Corda’s head, but she’d gone too far to stop now.

“I assume there’s no sense in trying to draw mages from outside Ferelden? No one would get here fast enough, if this horde is pressing the valley like you say.”

He nodded. “Indeed. I had sent letters to Starkhaven, Kirkwall… the White Spire. Even Cumberland. Very little was forthcoming.”

“But the Grey Wardens are supposed to be the darkspawn’s scourge, aren’t they? Surely, if there were enough of you—”

“If only,” Duncan interrupted wearily, shaking his head. “We are few in number, though I suppose it is fortunate there are some of us in Ferelden at all. Were it not for King Maric, that might not be the case.”

“Hmm.” Corda chewed the inside of her lip thoughtfully, wondering how far it was safe to voice her thoughts. “And Cailan too, I imagine. He’s somewhat… enamoured of the order, according to gossip.”

It probably wasn’t polite to discuss, she supposed, but politeness could go hang. Besides, she found she rather liked Duncan, and she doubted he was the kind of man to go off huffing about a bit of tattle. He wore his formality the same way he wore that skin of shimmering armour, she decided: a part of him, but a part that could easily be removed when it had done its service.

“He has been most supportive,” Duncan said, though his tone hardened a little, assuring her that there would be no further probing of His Majesty’s motivations.

Pity, that.

“You’d be looking for recruits for the order, then, too?” Corda suggested. “Not just for the king. I mean, if there’s an army of darkspawn, you need an army of Grey Wardens. Stands to reason.”

Duncan smiled sadly, and she wondered what she’d said wrong.

“Would it were that simple. But, yes, I am hoping we will find some suitable candidates. We have already acquired a few in the past six months—fine young men, all of them—but our ranks are somewhat bare.”

The doors to the guest quarters lay at the end of the corridor: tall, wide doors set into a broad stone arch, their oaken panels studded with heavy rivets.

Now or never….

“I heard the Grey Wardens only ever have one mage amongst them,” she blurted. “Yet you don’t seem to distrust mages, ser. Is it your commanders who do, then? Because, if there were to be recruitments from the Tower, I—”

Duncan was smiling at her again, with that oddly guarded twist of mirth in his eyes. Corda frowned, feeling exposed and confused, and just a little irritated.

“I am sure we will have an opportunity to speak of this further,” he said gently, and she only just resisted the urge to huff in annoyance.

Corda sniffed and nodded towards the nearest of the guest chambers, its door already standing open, with a Tranquil bedder carrying a leather pack inside. She supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised that Duncan didn’t seem to have much luggage. Nothing about the bloody man seemed predictable, after all.

“Well,” she said, dusting her free hand against the skirts of her robes, “here it is. Not much, but I’m sure you’ll be comfortable. If you need anything, you can ask one of the Tranquil. There’s usually one droning about somewhere.”

“I am sure I shall manage,” Duncan said dryly.

“Right. And, er, thank you for telling me all those things,” Corda added, as he began to move to the door. “About the darkspawn and everything. It was… enlightening.”

He inclined his head, but said nothing. She cleared her throat uneasily, unable to shake the feeling that she’d embarrassed herself.

“I suppose, if war does come this far north, we’ll all have to be ready.”

“Indeed we will,” Duncan replied, and his dark gaze stayed trained on her until she bowed, and left him to settle in the room, retreating like she’d been scalded.

Even as she walked briskly back down the hallway, making for the stairs that led to her own new quarters, Corda couldn’t have said why she was so eager to get away.

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Ten

 
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When I came to, it was pitch dark. I soon realised this was because my eyes were still closed, but trying to lever them open only resulted in a vivid rush of nausea and the distinct feeling that my head had been stuffed full of wet rags.

“Nrrrgh,” I managed, through teeth I didn’t dare unclench.

That rotten, sickly foulness furred my tongue, and I could still taste… everything.

Proof, I supposed, that it hadn’t all been a dream.

A large, solid hand gripped my arm, urging me to sit up. The mere notion seemed absurd, so I tried opening my eyes again, curious as to whose stupid idea it was.

Painful flashes of purple and cyan streaked my vision but, amid the spinning blur, two patches of dizziness stopped whirling long enough to become recognisable faces.

Duncan and Alistair were both staring down at me, one with a look of awkward, cautious expectation, and the other with sombre concern.

“It is finished,” Duncan said, his voice tinged with the warmth of relief. “Welcome.”

I blinked up at him, groggy and disorientated. Snatches of things too unreal to be called memories snarled at me from the dark, but I couldn’t get them all slotted into the right places.

My fingers flexed against the rough stone beneath me, encountering moss and worn carvings. The old temple, then. How long had I been out for? It was still dark, and I hadn’t been moved, so it couldn’t have been all that long, could it?

Duncan’s hand tightened on my arm, and he both helped me sit up, and ensured I didn’t move too fast. I imagined it was probably an even mix of sympathy and the fact he didn’t want vomit splattered all over his armour.

Experimentally, I unclenched my teeth. My stomach heaved and roiled, but all that left me was a quiet groan. Duncan patted my shoulder in a surprisingly companionable manner, and I squinted blearily at him, wondering what was supposed to happen next.

Was this it? Was I a Grey Warden now?

I didn’t feel different. Terrible, yes, but not intrinsically different.

I groaned again and clutched my head. Every bone in my body seemed to have been broken and lashed back together with barbed wire. Another wave of dizziness assaulted me, but I didn’t want to seem unsteady… or ungrateful.

After all, I was still alive.

A quick, shaky glance around the old temple confirmed everything was as it had been—the torch still guttering on the wall, the strange silence that set us so far apart from the rest of the camp—but the bodies of Daveth and Jory were no longer there, and no traces of blood marked the stones.

Had I dreamed them? Or had I been unconscious for longer than I thought?

I pictured careful clean-ups happening around my insentient body; some elven servant on her hands and knees with a pail and a scrub brush…. Would those poor men even have funerals? Daveth might have had no family to speak of, but would someone send a message of condolence to Highever, so Jory’s beloved Helena might know the fate of her husband, or the child have some token of its father?

Maybe they just burned the corpses quickly, same as the darkspawn. I didn’t know, and I suspected I did not want to ask.

“Two more deaths,” Alistair said darkly, rising to his feet as Duncan helped me stand. “In my Joining, only one of us died, but it was… horrible. I’m glad at least one of you made it through.”

“’nk you,” I muttered, wobbling a bit as Duncan let go of my arm.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

I peered at him, and saw more than just the concern of a commander in his face. He knew—they both did, I supposed—what it had been like, but the way Duncan looked at me held something beyond sympathetic understanding. I found myself reminded of Father, the day I left Denerim, and all the things that we hadn’t said to each other.

I understood some of it now. His pain at what I’d had to suffer, and humiliation at his own powerlessness; the agony of a parent unable to do anything but watch his child fall, injured, against injustice he could not battle.

For the greater good, Duncan had said. That was why we did this, took on this so-called ‘duty that could not be forsworn’. Well, the words were all very grand, but they didn’t hold my heart yet… not the way they would come to do in time.

At that moment, my anger still lingered, though I felt too ill for proper fury. And, as I looked at Duncan, I caught a glimpse of the burdens he carried. I wondered, of all his recruits—however many of them there had been over the years, and however many had survived the Joining—how many had been scrawny, battered chits like me.

I doubted he’d expected me to survive. Did that make it harder to watch?

The thoughts started to send me down harder, uglier roads. Why should I have come through the ritual, and not them? Surely Ser Jory or Daveth—men of experience, and talent—would have been more use to the Wardens than me. I shrank from those ponderings, and forced myself back to what was real, and immediate.

“I… I’m all right,” I lied. “It was….”

Duncan nodded as I let the words trail into self-conscious silence.

“Such is what it takes to be a Grey Warden.”

“Did you have dreams?” Alistair asked. “I had terrible dreams after my Joining.”

I could guess from the look on his face exactly how bad it had been, and that was strangely comforting. At least I hadn’t gone mad, although I still worried that I might, should I let myself linger too much on the things that had burned inside my head. I opened my mouth to answer, thinking of the dragon and the hundred-and-one unexplained things that remained twisted together, no line between real and false, symbol and truth.

There were no words for it, though, no way of explaining what I’d seen—or thought I’d seen, or felt, or…. I just nodded glumly, and fought down my lingering nausea.

“Yes, I… I did.”

“Such dreams come,” Duncan said benignly, “when you begin to sense the darkspawn, as we all do. That and many other things can be explained in the months to come.”

The hint of a small, encouraging smile rustled beneath his beard, and it meant that there was a future, I supposed. I hadn’t thought of it like that but, for the first time since I’d left home, I felt the sweet bloom of belonging, as if I really had a place here. Not one I had settled to yet, perhaps, or one that I was truly ready for, but at least it was a start.

“Oh, and before I forget….” Alistair rummaged in a pouch at his belt. “There is one last part to your Joining.”

I winced, the small comforts I’d just begun looking forward to immediately cooling. Maker’s breath, what else could they have planned?

“We take some of that blood and put it in a pendant. Something to remind us… of those who didn’t make it this far.”

He smiled sadly and held out a thin silver chain with an ornate metal cylinder suspended from it.

I recoiled at the idea of having darkspawn blood anywhere near me… and then realised quite how silly that was. The taint was part of me now, even if I didn’t fully understand how that had happened, or what it meant.

I took the pendant and nodded my thanks. It was surprisingly light and delicate, the chain a whisper of fine links, beautifully crafted, and it seemed strange that something so pretty could house so horrible a reminder. The container itself was no more than half an inch in length, strung onto the chain by means of a ring that was cast as part of the stopper, whose lower portion had been wrought into the shape of a clawed foot.

It gripped the silver vial in three finely executed talons, fitted precisely to the shape of the smooth, rounded cylinder. The pendant’s surface had been polished to a subtle sheen, and it was warm to the touch as I turned it in my fingers, marvelling at the artistry. I’d never imagined I’d own something so finely made… though I was still a little ambivalent about its contents.

I began to reach for the leather thong at my neck, and the thin, unassuming ring it held—another reminder of the fallen, I supposed—but had no wish to take it out in front of the men. Instead, I fastened the chain around my neck, and let it hang outside my armour.

I smiled weakly at… well, not just my new comrades, but my brethren. That felt bizarre, to say the least. Humans, looking at me with respect and kindness. A circle that I was now part of, for good or ill.

It was beyond anything I’d ever dreamed would happen to me—beyond anything I’d ever wanted—and I was humbled, apprehensive, and a dozen other things, all swarming beneath the tooth-jarring tiredness, pain, and nausea.

“When you are ready,” Duncan said gently, though not so gently as to suggest I had all night, “I’d like you to accompany me to a meeting with the king.”

“The king?” I baulked, still woozy and not at all prepared for that. “Wh—”

“He has requested your presence. I do not know why.” For a moment, Duncan’s face held the slightest suggestion of mirth. “I suspect he wishes to congratulate you.”

It didn’t really surprise me, recalling Cailan’s apparent fascination with the Grey Wardens. All the same, I thought of Daveth and Jory, and wondered whether I really wanted to be applauded for survival by sheer dumb luck. Unfortunately, I was not in a position to refuse.

“Very well,” I mumbled.

“They will be discussing strategy for the battle. The war council is meeting to the west, down the stairs.” Duncan gestured past the crumbled arch. “You will attend as soon as you are able.”

I nodded, then wished I hadn’t, as it still felt as if my head might fall off. Duncan gave me a shallow bow—a gesture of respect and acceptance that I hadn’t expected—and smiled when I returned it.

I stayed slightly hunched as took his leave, turned and headed off back towards camp. It wasn’t from any sense of subordination, just that the ground was pitching violently in front of me, and I wasn’t sure I could move without throwing up.

“Sure you’re all right?”

I blinked, aware that Alistair was still lingering, watching me carefully.

“Fine,” I said, through gritted teeth. “I’m fine.”

“Oh. Right. Well… better not keep the king waiting.”

He seemed torn between staying to keep an eye on me and following Duncan, but the call of his mentor won out, and Alistair loped after him, probably with some pressing errand to attend to.

I was glad he’d gone. I lurched to the crumbled balustrade, leaned over it, and was sicker than I’d thought it physically possible to be without actually vomiting up my internal organs.

Once it was over, I slumped to the stones, as wrung-out and useless as an old rag. My body was still rebelling; head pounding, eyes dry and hot, and stomach clenching in pointless, barren heaves. Cold sweat slicked the small of my back, and my muscles throbbed. I tried to take deep, slow breaths, and thought of home.

There was no turning back, though. Never any turning back. It was probably all gone anyway. Lost to me and, who knew, maybe even burned to the ground by now.

By dawn, the city will run red with elven blood.

I spat onto the stones, wanting to rid myself as much of the taste of rotten blood and vomit as I did that horrible, unexpected voice, snaking out from the shadows of my memory.

No use thinking about it now. My damp, shaking fingers went to my neck, and I took off both the silver pendant and the leather thong, removing Nelaros’ ring from the worn cord. I squeezed in my palm for a moment, tight, feeling its smooth edges press into my skin, and then threaded it onto the chain. The ring settled against the pendant with the soft clink of metal on metal and, satisfied, I fastened it around my neck once more, tucking it safely from sight.

I would wear them both together; my past, and my future, hanging together by the same silver thread.

Right, then.

With that forceful, salient thought, I tried to make myself stand… and managed it on the second attempt. As I waited for my knees to stop wobbling, I counted through a few simple truths. One, I’d not lost more than Jory, or Daveth. I was still alive. Two, I was a Grey Warden now. I had a purpose, a definition. A place, and a duty. Three… well, that was more difficult. My new identity might just be enough to get me killed.

The battle that had been hanging over the camp was coming. It would mean facing darkspawn again, fighting alongside men and women who had trained for this life… maybe dying alongside them, too.

My pack sat in the corner, beside one of the ruined columns. I grabbed it—wondering for a brief moment what had happened to Daveth’s and Jory’s effects—and rooted around until I found the tin of tooth powder I’d been hoarding. I dabbed some on my forefinger and rubbed it around my mouth. Its bitter, salty taste wasn’t pleasant, but it was an improvement.

I spat again, wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and, shouldering my pack, started down towards the meeting. Why I should be there—why the king had asked it—I did not completely understand but, for Duncan, I would not only oblige, but present the best image I could.

Whatever being a Grey Warden would mean for me, I wanted to be worthy of what I was.

~o~O~o~

When I got there, the meeting was already well underway. I don’t know what I’d expected, or what I thought a war council actually was. My understanding of the mechanics of command and governance were limited to the ‘do what I say or I’ll hit you’ attitude of the city guard, and a working knowledge of the bribes and bureaucracy upon which most other negotiations between elves and shems depended.

This was decidedly different.

Ranks of torches lit the massive stone carcass of what must once have been a great chamber, now broken open to the sky, the arches rising like ribs on either side of the cracked, ruined floor.

A long wooden table stood at the centre of everything, flamelight pooling on the enormous collection of maps and scrolls spread across its surface. Clustered around it were several figures; knights, commanders, mages, clerics… the great and the good, responsible for all that would happen here.

Most of the faces I didn’t know—nor would I have recognised their names, then—but the torches glinted on one familiar, gilded figure.

“Loghain, my decision is final,” the king was saying. “I will stand by the Grey Wardens in this assault.”

He was a great deal sterner than when I’d seen him before, all that boyish enthusiasm replaced by an equally fierce determination. His hair glinted in the flickering light, tongues of flame catching on the ornate swirls and chasings of his armour.

A burst of loyal pride squeezed my chest, surprising and slightly embarrassing. I stopped as I realised the man he stood opposite—older, clad in heavy plate armour, his face lined and pouched with years, though his hair had not yet greyed—was Teyrn Loghain, the hero of River Dane himself.

I wished I’d come in from the other side of the ruin, and been able to sneak in at the back, discomforted by all the glinting armour and masculine posturing… not that anyone appeared to have noticed me. Everyone was far too focused on the king and his general.

“You risk too much, Cailan!” the teyrn retorted, as if disciplining an unruly pup. “The darkspawn horde is too dangerous for you to be playing hero on the front line.”

The king narrowed his eyes and, for a moment, I thought the row would descend into a full-blown shouting match. Instead, he arched one golden brow and curled the corner of his mouth into a sardonic smile.

“Well, if that’s the case, perhaps we should wait for the Orlesian forces to join us, after all.”

The teyrn’s mouth tightened, and he looked fit to erupt. It was clear to me that this was more than a disagreement of strategy. Far more complex patterns of power were at play here; like watching two cats eyeing each other up at opposite ends of the street, all silent staring and stretching until the fur started flying.

I spotted Duncan standing at the edge of the group, the other side of the table. He nodded to me, and I skulked to his side, ready to watch the fireworks in relative safety… and wondering whether these Orlesian forces were the foreign detachment of Wardens he’d spoken of.

Teyrn Loghain had curbed his apparent urge to spit at their mere mention, though his response wasn’t exactly subtle.

“I must repeat my protest to your fool notion that we need the Orlesians to defend ourselves!”

A mild murmur ran through some of the assembled gathering—but only the ones who were behind the teyrn, and out of the line of that piercing blue gaze.

We didn’t get to see a lot of portraits in the alienage, but we did get woodcuts, pamphlets… the occasional engraved print. I’d seen his likeness before, and it had in no way prepared me for the strength of his presence.

He was no longer a young man, the dashing hero of Fereldan independence, but he was an imposing figure. I found myself rather impressed at the way Cailan stood up to him.

“It is not a ‘fool notion’!” he protested. “In any case, our arguments with Orlais are a thing of the past… and you will remember who is king.”

Ouch.

There was a brief, sharp flare of silence, in which I could have sworn the only sound was a collective intake of breath, followed by the crackle of the torches.

It made sense, I supposed. Teyrn Loghain must have been a constant presence in the young king’s life since childhood, and every child seeks to throw off the shackles of his elders. I could also see the jostling of male pride; father and son-in-law, like old stag and young buck. We had a lot of that where I came from. As new generations moved in, family ties shifted and alliances were made and broken… the way Father would have had to cope with Nelaros becoming the man of our house.

This point in the argument was usually where someone brought up how the proposed course of action—letting someone’s daughter go to work in the market, or allowing a boy to choose his own bride, or whatever else it might be—reflected badly on the honour of the family, or would break someone’s mother’s heart, or possibly raise a long-deceased and well-loved aunt from the grave through sheer shock and outrage.

Of course, I corrected myself; it was thoroughly ridiculous to make such comparisons. I used them simply because I knew no better, which was testament to my ignorance and nothing more. After all, these men were the pinnacle of power and influence in Ferelden, not a couple of elven dockworkers arguing the toss under the vhenadahl.

Teyrn Loghain pushed abruptly away from the table, turning his back to the king and gazing up at the velvet sky.

“How fortunate,” he exclaimed, touching a hand to his brow in a gesture of weary resignation, “that Maric did not live to see his son ready to hand Ferelden over to those who enslaved us for a century!”

I blinked.

King Cailan, however, did not appear to be as easily cowed by references to dead relatives as the average adolescent elf, and just looked smug.

“Then our current forces will have to suffice, won’t they?” He turned smartly, facing Duncan, and catching both of us up in one of those bright, charismatic smiles. “And are your men ready for battle, Grey Warden?”

Duncan nodded. “They are, your Majesty.”

“And this is the recruit I met earlier on the road?” Cailan looked me up and down, beaming indulgently. “I understand congratulations are in order.”

Wondering faintly if he had any idea whatsoever the Joining actually entailed, I forced my lips into a smile, and bowed, thankful that this time the ground stayed where it ought to be, and so did my stomach.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” I said, meeting his eye as I rose.

Was that a hint of envy? Whatever it was, it passed quickly, and Cailan’s face turned serious.

“Every Grey Warden is needed now,” he said earnestly. “You should be honoured to join their ranks.”

I inclined my head, but the assurance that I was indeed honoured seemed unaccountably to stick to my tongue.

“Your fascination with glory and legends will be your undoing, Cailan,” Loghain rumbled irritably. “We must attend to reality.”

The king sighed. “Fine. Speak your strategy. The Grey Wardens and I draw the darkspawn into charging our lines and then…?”

The teyrn leaned on the table, his heavy gauntlets clinking as one hand described lines and arcs over the thick parchment of the map.

“You will alert the tower to light the beacon, signalling my men to charge from cover.”

“To flank the darkspawn, I remember.” Cailan nodded. “This is the Tower of Ishal in the ruins, yes?”

I peered surreptitiously at the upside-down map. It didn’t make much sense, but then I’d never seen one outside of the fanciful kind in books, marked with sea monsters and the names of far-off, fantastical places.

“Then who shall light this beacon?”

Teyrn Loghain tapped the parchment. “I have a few men stationed there. It’s not a dangerous task, but it is vital.”

“Then we should send our best,” Cailan declared. “Send Alistair and the new Grey Warden to make sure it’s done.”

I caught my breath. He didn’t mean—oh. I glanced at Duncan, but he didn’t look at me. Nobody did… except the teyrn.

Loghain peered at me, disbelief in his rough-hewn face. I could feel my shoulders rising and my spine curling as my body defaulted to the natural position for an elf being glared at by a human. I fought it, but I couldn’t win, and neither could I hold the look he gave me. His steely, disparaging gaze made his opinions brutally known, but it wasn’t a cruel stare. It was as if I had simply been clearly and cleanly assessed, every flaw and failing I had—of which I was aware there were plenty—noted, catalogued, and marked as ammunition.

I looked down at the table, feigning intense interest in the grain of the wood.

“You rely on these Grey Wardens too much,” the teyrn said archly. “Is that truly wise?”

The king scoffed. “Enough of your conspiracy theories, Loghain. Grey Wardens battle the Blight, no matter where they’re from.”

I wondered what that meant. An elven dig, perhaps. Or maybe the teyrn’s distaste for us boiled down to the fact the Wardens were not a Fereldan order. I looked up, curious, but my thoughts were derailed when Duncan spoke.

“Your Majesty, you should consider the possibility of the archdemon appearing.”

Loghain snorted. “There have been no signs of any dragons in the Wilds.”

I blinked, dragged back to the dreams and horrors of my Joining. Dragons? Did that mean—?

Cailan smiled impishly. “Isn’t that what your men are here for, Duncan?”

“I… Yes, your Majesty.”

I looked up at him, but the Warden-Commander was doing his best impassive stare again, only the brief clench of his jaw yielding any hint of disagreement. Questions burned on the tip of my tongue, but it wasn’t the time or place, so I bit the inside of my lip, and stayed quiet.

“Enough!” the teyrn barked. “This plan will suffice. The Grey Wardens will light the beacon.”

“Thank you, Loghain.” Cailan’s smile widened into something that, for a moment, looked like a child’s breathless satisfaction. “I cannot wait for that glorious moment! The Grey Wardens battle beside the king of Ferelden to stem the tide of evil!”

“Yes, Cailan,” Loghain said dryly. “A glorious moment for us all.”

The meeting began to break up soon after that. Representatives of the Magi, the Ash Warriors, and various other groups with whom I was not familiar all seemed keen to demand the king’s attention. There was talk of divisions and tactical assaults, siege weapons and dual offensives, and the majority of it went over my head—though I noticed it was the teyrn, not Cailan, who dealt with most of the knights and commanders. He was the one who talked of details, and whose face was grimly resolute as he spoke of what unit would be placed where.

He didn’t see them as mere numbers, I suspected.

~o~O~o~

The sense of expectation crackled on the air and, all over camp, people were moving out. There was a strange quietness to it; the sounds of boots thudding, harness jingling, and weapons being hefted, but very little chatter.

Up by the infirmary I saw nurses rolling piles of bandages, and their faces were curiously blank. Not having been here for the preceding battles, I didn’t know if this was how things had been before. Had it been different at the start? Perhaps the sense of optimism waned, the longer the campaign continued… or perhaps the gossip I’d heard was filtering through the ranks.

We’ve won every battle, but there’s more of them each time.

Maybe the teyrn’s assessment was right, and it wasn’t a true Blight. It was possible, I told myself… even if it meant Duncan being wrong.

I trudged despondently in his wake as we returned to his fire, ready to tell Alistair the plan. Somehow, I found it hard to believe Teyrn Loghain over Duncan, however much I wanted to. Added to that was the small, quiet shame sniping at me; I was far too relieved to have been told I wouldn’t be fighting on the front line.

Needless to say, Alistair didn’t share my reluctance.

“What? I won’t be in the battle?”

We stood by Duncan’s fire, flames chewing insistently at the logs. Sparks danced in the cold air and, above, stars pierced the blackness with clear, terrible integrity. It would be one of the longest nights of my life.

“This is by the king’s personal request, Alistair,” Duncan reminded him sharply. “If this beacon is not lit, Teyrn Loghain’s men won’t know when to charge.”

Alistair curled his lip. The firelight ruddied his blond hair and threw shadows along his cheeks.

“So he needs two Grey Wardens standing up there holding the torch. Just in case, right?”

Guilt prodded me. I should be keener to argue too, shouldn’t I? Eager, if not for glory, then at least for the chance to fight alongside my new brothers and sisters… whoever they were. Duncan had said I would have a chance to meet the other Wardens after the battle. He’d smiled when he said it, fleeting and incongruous warmth touching his face.

Appalling, then, that I was only too pleased to stay out of the way. Some noble warrior I’d end up being.

“But, if it’s not dangerous,” I blurted, glancing between the two men, “I can do it myself. I mean, surely Alistair would be better employed—”

“That is not your choice,” Duncan said briskly. “If the king wishes Grey Wardens to ensure the beacon is lit, then Grey Wardens will be there.”

He had not seemed to me a man easily annoyed, but a hint of irritation coloured his voice, and I shut up. Alistair shook his head.

“I get it, I get it.” He glanced at me, and I could see gratitude for the effort I’d made in his face. He smirked. “Just so you know, if the king ever asks me to put on a dress and dance the Remigold, I’m drawing the line, darkspawn or no.”

A burst of laughter broke from me: explosive, unexpected, and absurd. Well, it was a heck of an image.

“I don’t know,” I said, grappling for control of my giggles. “That could be a great distraction.”

Alistair snorted. “Me shimmying down the darkspawn line?” He grinned. “Sure, we could kill them while they roll around laughing.”

I spluttered again, and he chuckled. Duncan loosed a resigned sigh.

“The tower is on the other side of the gorge,” he said pointedly, causing us both to pull ourselves together, laughter lost in the face of our impending task.

“The way we came when we arrived?” I asked, still trying to exorcise the vision of Alistair in a frock from behind my eyes.

Amazing how the mind works in times of stress.

Duncan nodded. “You’ll need to cross the gorge and head through the gate and up to the tower entrance. From the top, you’ll overlook the entire valley. Stay with the teyrn’s men and guard the tower. When the signal goes up, light the beacon. Alistair will know what to watch for and, if you are needed, we will send word. You understand?”

“Yes,” I said, inclining my head.

“Good.” Duncan’s voice softened. “Now, I must join the others. From here, you two are on your own. You will need to move quickly. And remember: you are both Grey Wardens. I expect you to be worthy of that title.”

A gruff affection underscored his words. He believed we were, I realised, and that knowledge calmed the quickening of my pulse. I bowed my head, a knot of gratitude and growing fondness for this strange, mysterious human tugging at my throat.

Later, I would wish I’d told Duncan how thankful I was for everything he had done for me. I have often wondered if he truly knew.

“Duncan….” Alistair, too, had turned serious, his voice taut against the low crackle of the flames. “May the Maker watch over you.”

Duncan smiled, his dark eyes hardening, and shadows weaving melancholy shapes across his face.

“May He watch over us all,” he said quietly.

He nodded to us once more, then turned and left, heading west to meet up with the king’s men and, I assumed, the other Wardens who would be moving across the field and pressing on towards the line.

As I understood it, the very nature of the darkspawn horde made it hard to tell exactly where the front line lay. They came and went, bursting out of the ground and pouring from the shadows—or so survivors said, anyway—then disappearing when they’d made their kills. Either they put little store in territory, or saw nothing worth claiming in the Wilds, I supposed, trying to shake away those horrible dream-visions of rocks swarming with black bodies, and the hideous roar of a horrific army.

The bright glint of Duncan’s armour receded into the forest of stones, and the darkness beyond.

“Well, let’s get going,” Alistair said, clamping a studded leather helmet onto his head.

I blinked, glanced at him, and nodded. “Right.”

We headed east, towards the bridge. Men were already stationed along its length; detachments of archers pressed in behind the worn, broken statues, their faces as grey and motionless as the stone. Below the fortress, great trebuchets and ballistae had been heaved into position, and the creaks of rope and wood drifted up on the air, along with the shouts of soldiers.

I looked out into the darkness, to the shadowy juncture where the Wilds pressed in on the ruins, but the tree line was alive. Flames leapt against the night, the echoes of torches—theirs, not ours—outlining the slowly advancing ranks of darkspawn. The baying of hounds cut across the valley and, far below, I could make out the shape of the king’s forces massing. Any moment now, and the word would come, the chaos break loose.

Straining my eyes against the dark, I looked for Duncan and the Grey Wardens, seeking out that bright flare of silver in the blackness. I didn’t see him.

Somehow—perhaps because I was so busy trying to take in every detail—I missed how it started. There was a roar, a great cry that went up, ragged and ripped from a hundred throats. A volley of arrows rent the night, some pitch-dipped and ablaze, and then the horde was rushing, screaming….

I winced, my gut clenching on the horrible, unreal familiarity of that sound. I glanced at Alistair, seeking some kind of reassurance, but I found him white-faced beneath the brow of his helmet, staring out at the first surge of the battle.

He’d been a Grey Warden for barely six months at that time and, as I would learn later, before Ostagar, he could count the number of times he’d faced darkspawn on one hand. Even so, his Joining was distant enough for the changes it had wrought in him to have settled. He could feel the horde and hear the sordid buzz of its every thought, its every bloody, vile impulse.

I didn’t know that then. I followed him blindly, without even knowing how terrified he was.

We started across the bridge as the longbowmen began to fire, ducking and darting our way through the mass of bodies and people running. From the field, the snarls and howls of the mabari hounds met the rallying cries of darkspawn—every bit as blood-curdling—and I heard screams, yells, and the sounds of metal and violence.

The trebuchets were set, flinging their massive weights into the charging line, and further downfield, fire and lightning raged at the horde, giving away the position of the mages.

We were almost across the gorge when it became clear that the king’s forces were not alone in their use of heavy artillery.

There was a flash, a sound like wood splintering, and then the sky was full of flaming rock, plummeting towards the bridge. Alistair yelled something I didn’t hear, then cannoned into me and sent me sprawling to the ground ahead of him. There was a deafening bang, and the whole world seemed to shake. The stones beneath me juddered and I flung my arms over my head, aware of debris raining down around me, and screams coming through the woolly echoes in my ears.

When I looked up from my prone position, a full section of the bridge was missing behind us, and parts of the rest of it were littered with flaming wreckage. At least three of the archers lay dead, mangled and bloody, one man missing his legs. Bile burned in the back of my throat. Another soldier lurched past, blood streaming from his head. Alistair held his hand out to me, and I grabbed it.

“Ogres,” he yelled breathlessly as he pulled me to my feet, obviously as temporarily deaf as I was. “Like… walking siege weapons. Only they smell much worse.”

I nodded, too winded to talk, and prepared to take his word for it. We pushed on, lurching to the far side of the gorge just before another flaming boulder crashed through one of the bridge’s supports. Thinking ruefully of Teyrn Loghain’s statement about this not being a dangerous task, I was ignobly grateful that I wasn’t on my own.

I followed Alistair up past the old gatehouse and towards the tower, but it was clear something wasn’t right before we rounded the approach. A soldier bearing the teyrn’s badge—one of the company guarding the tower, I supposed—came running down the slope from behind the ruined curtain wall. He had a crossbow in one hand and the other clamped to his forehead, stemming the bleeding from a nasty gash.

“You! Y-You’re the Grey Warden, aren’t you?” He stumbled to a halt in front of Alistair, swaying gently. “The… the tower… it’s been taken!”

“What are you talking about, man?” Alistair demanded. “Taken? How?”

“The darkspawn came up through the lower chambers. They’re everywhere!” Terror lent his voice a querulous edge, and he stared at us with wide, desperate eyes. “Most of our men are dead. Please… I-I don’t know what—”

Alistair shot me a bleak but determined look as he unsheathed his sword and hefted his shield. I understood. The teyrn’s men would still need their signal; probably now more than ever, if this setback was an omen of the way the battle might run. I nodded.

“Then we must get to the beacon,” he said, adopting an authoritative tone that seemed to strike straight at the part of the guard’s brain designed for taking orders. “We’ll have to light it ourselves. How many men are still standing?”

“Ser!” The man pulled himself up, looking for a moment dangerously close to saluting with the hand still holding his crossbow. “N’more than eight, ser. There was a couple of mages from the Circle with us—one’s still alive, I think.”

“Right. Come on!”

I didn’t know how much of it was templar training, or how much Grey Warden, but Alistair fell seamlessly into command. He led us to the foot of the tower and, barking orders and demanding information, rounded up the handful of men who had escaped. They’d evidently had to fight hard. Corpses littered the ground—human and darkspawn—though not as many as I’d expected. From what the guards said, it appeared the bastards had kept their assault clean and efficient, attacking where no one was expecting it, and making use of the advantage of surprise.

It was a terrifying prospect. I tried not to dwell on it, let my body take over, and had no thoughts but the awareness of the ice-sharp pain of breathing, and the clenching of every muscle, as I gripped my sword and watched for movement in the shadows.

Above us, thunder rolled, and lightning split the sky. A curtain of rain fell, as if the clouds had been slashed with a knife. It pelted us, and the ground, throwing mud and grit back up my breech-clad legs. Alistair was addressing the scattering of men—the few of the teyrn’s guards, and a single mage in a blood-stained robe, all of them ashen-faced and hollow-eyed—and outlining the importance of getting to the beacon as quickly as we could.

He had to shout to make himself heard; even the sounds of battle that had been drifting up from the field were lost in the roar. The men listened to him, though, apparently prepared to throw their lives behind the Grey Warden. I remember thinking that, perhaps, King Cailan’s glowing enthralment with the order’s legend—and the way it rubbed off on the men—wasn’t all bad.

We would move fast, Alistair said, lighting on what one of the guards said about a rear staircase. There was a chance we could get through to light the beacon before it was too late. Despite its age, most of the tower was structurally sound and—since Cailan’s troops had been here—a great deal of rebuilding had been done with timber and temporary measures. There were also months’ worth of supplies stored in the lower chambers; so, small wonder the place had been a target for the horde.

Orders given, we started to move out. I was already falling in behind the men when Alistair grabbed my arm.

“Merien.”

I squinted at him through the downpour. “What?”

“For the Maker’s sake, put a bloody helmet on!”

I wasn’t about to argue. I had my thickened leather archery cap stuffed into my belt, and I pulled it on obediently, cold, wet fingers sliding on the chinstrap. It pinched my ears horribly, and I wasn’t used to the way it made sound seem slightly muffled, but Alistair had a point. Discomfort was probably worth the chance of deflecting an arrow, or… whatever else came towards us.

He nodded, and held my gaze for a short moment, unsmiling. We both knew, I think, that if the teyrn’s men were right about Ishal being overrun, there was a very good chance we wouldn’t come down from the tower alive.

Another fork of lightning streaked the sky, painting the swollen bellies of the clouds a sullen, metallic yellow.

“Let’s move,” I yelled.

We did.

We encountered little resistance at the base of the tower itself; just a handful of genlocks armed with bows, and a couple of hurlocks. They fell easily enough, and the guardsmen were enthusiastic fighters, spurred on by rage, terror, and the drive to avenge their recent losses.

I could understand that.

The doors had been barred from within, but they didn’t hold. Had the ancient Tevinter wood still been in place, we might not have been so lucky, but the recently installed green oak split under concentrated force—namely, three hefty guardsmen armed with maces.

Inside, the lower levels of the tower were dark, deserted… eerie. Our small platoon moved fast, skirting away from the main chambers and holding instead to the edges, seeking out the quickest, stealthiest way to the top.

Back in Ostagar’s days of glory, Ishal must have been mighty. The tower was huge, its walls many feet thick, and the interior a labyrinth of interconnected rooms. I supposed it must have represented great power and wealth for the magister who’d built it, and tried to put the uncomfortable reminders of the Arl of Denerim’s estate from my mind.

I’d hardly thought of it in days, but something about the damp stonework, the darkness, and the skulking around, breathlessly waiting for the moment of discovery… it unnerved me, took me right back to those endless corridors and hallways.

When we ran into a band of genlocks, pawing through a nest of broken supply crates, I plunged into the fray without thought or feeling. I wanted my blade buried deep in something and—once it was there, the hideous little creature lunging at me with those dagger-like teeth, trying to rip my skin off even as its guts were flopping out onto the floor—the sweat and the stink of the fight blurred the screams I could still hear.

“Maker’s breath!” Alistair sagged against the wall, trying to catch his breath, as we hit the stairway that led to the second floor. “I thought there wasn’t supposed to be any resistance here?”

I wiped the back of my hand across my face. Sweat stung my eyes and blurred my vision, and my ears had gone numb under the damn helmet, but I managed a mirthless, wheezy chuckle.

“Weren’t you complaining you wouldn’t get to fight?”

He snorted. “Hmm. I suppose there is a silver lining here, if you think about it.”

I shook my head disbelievingly.

“This way, ser!” called one of the men, leading us on up to the next level.

Much of the stone stairways had crumbled over the centuries, and large parts of the floors were cracked or rotted through. It meant we had to be careful—the humans even more so than me—and it made the knowledge the guards had of the tower valuable.

The lad leading us appeared to be the youngest of the survivors: thin, acne-speckled, and seemingly strung together out of knees and elbows. I recognised the way his grip kept shifting on his sword—my palms were wet, too.

“We can cut through the storeroom, ser,” he called from the top of the stone steps, his hand already on the door. “It’ll bring us out halfway across to the next landing, and—”

“Dawkins,” one of the other men growled, “keep yer damn voice down!”

We pounded up the stairway, me somewhere in the midst of the thudding boots and the heavy, claustrophobic smell of leather polish and human sweat. It should have felt too easy, perhaps, or we should have guessed that… I don’t know.

The storeroom wasn’t empty. It had been completely looted, boxes and crates torn from the shelves and left in pieces on the floor, supplies and provisions carried away, but the darkspawn remained. Four hurlocks, one still clasping bags of flour in its arms—what in Thedas they would do with those, I had no idea—and for the briefest of seconds, no one did anything but stare.

They lunged, drawing their weapons, teeth bared. The flour bags hit the floor, splitting open and throwing up a fog of white, misting the air. The biggest of the creatures roared, its mouth a lipless, black maw, foul and dreadful, its eyes wide and staring. It brought its axe around in a sweep that looked effortless, and there was no time, no space of seconds or breaths that could have spared the boy.

The blow caught him under the breastplate, just to the side, at the weakest point of his armour. A low, shapeless growl that sounded almost like a sinister laugh left the hurlock, and Dawkins gave a short, surprised gasp. His blood spurted onto the stones and, as he began to fall, the creature reached out one huge hand and—with a movement that was almost lazy—pressed its palm to his face, thick fingers digging into his cheeks. It jerked its arm savagely, and I swear I heard the lad’s neck snap.

Alistair yelled. Rushing forward, shield raised, he knocked the thing to the floor, blade scything the air. It was vengeance, pure and simple. All that discipline, that well-trained control lapsed, and the black vileness of darkspawn blood sprayed as his sword cored through the creature’s chest.

My world spun into a muddle of metal and flesh. The things still stank—that sticky, cloying stench of rancid meat and old blood—but I no longer felt the bone-crushing terror I had in the Wilds. I was still afraid, more afraid than I’d ever been, but anger had begun to outweigh the fear. I cut, stabbed, kicked, clawed… lost somewhere in the press of men and fetid bodies.

Weapons swung, steel biting steel, the clangs and dull thuds of wood echoing against the grunts of effort and cries of pain. Eventually, the last of the hurlocks was down, and we were still standing. Almost all of us, anyway.

I had to step over the boy, Dawkins, on my way out of the room. Blood pooled at his middle, his face slack and staring. I looked away.

Beyond the ransacked store, we found carnage. Much of the second floor was aflame, corpses and hacked-up bits of flesh strewn all about the place… I couldn’t help but think of crumbs, the remnants of feasts the darkspawn were too glutted to complete.

I thought of all the things I’d heard in camp; how the horde spread like a plague, sprung from nowhere and infested everything until it was tainted, blackened… and then moved on.

It was a hope soon dashed.

The darkspawn were more than capable of using the tower’s architecture against us; lying in wait, as if they knew we were coming, drawing us out from one end of a chamber to the other, and giving themselves the advantage of turf they’d already claimed. They set fires, and hid behind them, pitching volley after volley of arrows—tipped with their own filth, of all the execrable things—through the flames.

Mind you, they burned just as easily.

We fought hard for the central chamber, two more men hacked down and the Circle mage yelling with the effort of the spells he unleashed, trying to hold the bastards off. I’d never seen magic like that before, not close up, and it terrified me. Pure, white blazes of energy, crackling through the air. They had a smell vaguely redolent of hot metal and fresh bread… I hadn’t expected that.

Neither had I expected it to hurt so much when, knocked back from the melee and reeling from a blow I’d barely dodged, I managed to get in the way and take one of the mage’s arcane bolts in my shoulder. It was like having my flesh opened up from the inside, a creeping flame that swelled and blistered, and I could feel blood welling beneath my undershirt.

I couldn’t stop, though. I watched one of the teyrn’s guards fall in front of me, one of those foul arrows sticking out of his throat. The genlock who’d fired it fixed me with a coldly malevolent yellow stare and snarled, displaying ranks of bloody teeth.

They drag the survivors underground, and eat them….

It raised its bow, closed one beady eye… and a wash of outrage and anger flooded me. I could have ducked, rolled, dodged—all those things Mother had been so careful to teach me—but I didn’t. I lowered my head, yelled, and charged at the thing, sword gripped tight in my clammy, aching hands.

Armour is good, but it doesn’t deflect everything. It has its weak points and, once you find them, your enemy can’t do much to stop you.

I got the bastard impaled on my blade, but it wasn’t dead. It was screaming and thrashing at me, still trying to claw and bite, and I couldn’t get the damn sword out again. I wheeled around, dragging the genlock with me, every sore muscle protesting, and backed the creature into the flames that its kin had set. The fires were built from the looted crates and boxes, and what few sparse furnishings the teyrn’s men had brought when they moved in. I doubted that the charred banners—King Cailan’s colours, and Loghain’s badge—had been added simply for fuel.

The genlock’s screams redoubled, its putrid skin blistering and runnels of that vile, black blood trickling from its mouth. The stench was appalling. It seemed to take an age for the threshing to stop, and it was still hard to pull my sword out. I stumbled back, falling over my own feet and thudding to the floor. My blade skittered across the stones, and I was reaching for it when I felt someone grab me by the scruff of the neck.

“Maker’s blood! I didn’t think they could smell any worse!”

Alistair hauled me to my feet, but I had no time to thank him. Bloody and battle-weary, he pushed away, slamming into the fetid body of another hurlock before cleaving its head open with his sword. I winced, my stomach convulsing. There was too much blood; the copper-salt taste of it, and the stink of the darkspawn, all stuck to the back of my tongue.

I’d spent the best part of a week in a maelstrom of impossibilities, with far too many blows to the head and far too little to eat. I’d seen too much, felt too much, and now everything just seemed like a dream… and I remembered what had happened last time I’d dreamed. Falling into nothingness, feeling myself slip away until there was only the void, and the screaming, starving minds of the horde.

I ducked, grabbed my blade, and swung blindly at the first darkspawn I saw.

~o~O~o~

By the time we neared the top of the tower, there were only four of us left: Alistair and me, plus the mage, and one of the guards. Every other poor bastard was lying somewhere on the stones below us, and the fires that had been laid as traps were raging through every bit of the building that would burn.

Surely, some acerbic part of me thought, that was enough of a damn signal for anyone on the battlefield.

It didn’t feel real anymore. None of it did. Even if we got to the beacon, and by some miracle actually managed to light it, we probably wouldn’t get down alive… but I didn’t really think about any of those things. They didn’t seem to exist. Nothing did; we were just driving forwards, pushing through the red mist of agony and fatigue, moving like disjointed puppets.

I doubt any of us expected to find what we did.

It was an ogre: a tremendous beast of a thing, horned and hideous, and big enough to snatch up a man in one hand. We caught it gorging, stuffing corpse-meat into its great, gaping, fanged mouth. It evidently didn’t take kindly to being disturbed.

The four of us scudded to a halt in the doorway, staring as the creature turned to face us, bloody chunks of flesh dropping from its jaws. It pulled the lips of its ape-like muzzle back and, still hunched protectively over its meal, roared. The sound seemed to shake the stone, and scraped right over every nerve, bubbling with violent rage.

“Hold it,” Alistair yelled at the mage, as the ogre started to lumber to its feet. “Keep it back! Stay at range, and watch its hands!”

The mage flung a paralysis spell at the creature, and bars of warm, pulsing light wrapped its mottled, purple frame. Alistair ran forwards, sword raised, going for the creature’s knee.

“Bring it down!” he shouted, and I heard the rising panic in his voice.

He’d taken charge so easily at the foot of the tower, full of bravery and sound training, and now all but two of the men who’d followed him into Ishal were dead, cut down or hacked open by the darkspawn. Part of me almost hoped it would all end here, with no repercussions, no time to dwell on what had happened. The rest of me—the unthinking, living part that was nothing but flesh and desperation—wanted to survive, and it screamed in disbelief as I ran after him and swung wildly at the monster.

The ogre was glutted and sluggish which, together with the mage’s efforts, gave us an advantage… but not one that lasted for long. The tower guard fired his crossbow, aiming at the creature’s dull yellow eyes. A bolt sank into its cheek, just below the left eye, black blood streamed and, as the mage’s spell broke, the ogre howled and clutched its face.

Pain made it clumsy, but dangerous. We’d hacked bloody, gristle-chewed wounds into its leg, effectively crippling the beast, but it was far from defeated. One massive fist swept past me and—while I ducked, scampering behind the beast—Alistair went skidding across the stones, winded and bleeding.

I drew one of the daggers from my belt and jabbed it into the tendon in the creature’s heel in an effort to distract it from going after him… which was noble in theory, but not terribly well thought through.

The short, sharp blade tore into tough, leathery skin and, from the ogre’s roar, I knew I was in the right place. I twisted the dagger, wrenching and ripping, the stink of that foul blood clogging my nose and mouth as it spurted, splattering my breastplate. It sprayed my face and lips, bringing back the moment I’d drunk from the silver chalice, and all the horrors that had followed.

I spat and retched… and failed to avoid the huge, clawed hand that reached around, grabbing at me. I found myself snatched into the air, lifted in a vice-like grasp and—despite being skinny, and struggling as hard as I could—I couldn’t slip from it. The ogre brought me level with its snarling, bloodied face, and I fought to free my arm from the great, trunk-like fingers, stabbing my dagger in between its knuckles in the hope of making the bastard let go. All it did was roar at me, engulfing me in a stale, damp wind of breath-taking, stomach-clenching foulness. The stink of blood and decay had me choking again, and wet globs of the creature’s slobber slid down my cheeks.

It squeezed tighter, until I could hardly breathe, and blackness started to crowd my vision. My ribs creaked and heaved, as if the bones were burning within my body, and I could no longer kick, my legs turned to a numb, dead weight beneath me.

The air crackled, and I became aware of the Circle mage sending bolt after bolt of flame at the creature, the searing stings of sound mingling with the roar in my ears… and Alistair, thumping the ogre in the leg with his shield and demanding to know why the bastard wouldn’t just hurry up and die.

I smiled weakly, and brought my sword down on the beast’s thumb. Alistair slammed into its leg with such force that the injured ogre wobbled, dropping me. I fell awkwardly, dropped to the stone floor like a limp rag, and barely managed to roll out from underneath the massive foot that crashed down on where I would have been. The creature snarled in frustration, and swung at Alistair with a clenched fist.

He dodged it, but the blow caught the tower guard, sending him cannoning into the far wall. I was still scrambling to my feet, but I heard the colossal thump of the man hitting the stonework, and saw the unnatural way he slumped to the ground, like a broken doll. He wouldn’t get up again.

Alistair let out a yell and charged, landing another forceful blow on the ogre’s arm. It jerked back, bleeding heavily, but wasn’t stopped. Lowering its head, it rammed into him, knocking him back, and sent his shield scudding across the floor. The mage loosed a sheet of violent, crackling energy that burned the flagstones before it struck the creature, and charred the flesh on the left side of its torso. It roared, turned, and lumbered towards us.

The beacon we had been sent here for was housed at the top of a narrow wooden ladder; kindling piled high on a stone ledge, facing out to the open night, the lee of the cracked walls protecting the wood from the worst of the weather. The storm was still raging outside, rain lashing down and wind groaning, a constant thrum of noise beneath the roars of battle. I smelled a tang of paraffin.

Alistair was staggering to his feet, and I yelled at him to get to the damn thing, to light the beacon while he had the chance. He blinked at me, looked confused, then stumbled to the ladder.

The mage was screaming arcane chants and invocations, his hands weaving complex shapes in the air that swirled around him, violet-hued and shifting like sand, as he tried to cast another paralysis spell. I did my best to distract the creature, ducking through its legs and swiping with my blades, but the thing had endured enough from us. It was tired, angry, and hurting, and it wanted an end to this game.

I caught a dim glimpse of Alistair fumbling hopelessly with flint and tinder, trying to coax the beacon into life, and dived out of the way as the mage’s hex took hold of the beast.

“Help him,” I shouted. “Do… something!”

The man stared at me for a moment, then nodded. He was pale and sweating, worn thin by the effort of his spells, but he summoned everything he had for one last endeavour. A bolt of fire arced from his hands and caught at the kindling, flames soon rising to lick the wood.

The mage sagged, clearly exhausted, and I caught his arm, trying to support him. His hex wouldn’t hold the ogre forever; I could already see it starting to move, its huge body flexing against those strange, ethereal bonds.

Alistair called a warning, but we were clumsy, slow… the creature charged us, furious, and there wasn’t enough time to get out of the way. I wasn’t even aware of the moment the ogre’s fist slammed into my body; the pain shot through me, blinding and disorientating. All I saw was a smeared whirl of stone, walls and ceiling slurred together, and for a moment I thought it was me screaming.

I pulled myself up, dizzy and shaking, and saw the mage, limp in that great mottled grasp. The ogre shook him, like a petulant child with a toy, and I swear I heard his spine crack in two. When the creature tossed him down, the man was a bloody mess of a thing, his fine robes ruined and his body broken.

The braided leather hilt of my sword, and the slim, worn little dagger, were both wet against my palms, and I could barely clench my fingers around the weapons anymore. The thing was coming for me, its steps unsteady and sluggish now. Flames leapt, the beacon burning harder and higher, backlighting the beast’s wine-dark form.

It didn’t really seem important now. We’d done what we had to do, we’d set the signal and—with the Maker’s grace—it would be enough for the men on the battlefield below. Yet it didn’t feel like a victory.

I reached up and, with the hand holding my dagger, ripped the leather helm from my head. If I was going to die, I reasoned, it might at least be without the discomfort of having my ears pinched to the point of numbness.

I threw the thing down and, some shapeless, frantic battle cry torn from my throat, ran at the ogre, ducking through its legs and striking once more at the bloodied flesh of its knees. It had to go down at some point, surely. As the beast turned, roaring and swinging at me, I was dimly aware of Alistair flinging himself at it from the ladder, sword in both hands.

He hit the thing’s body with incredible force, blade driving into its chest. The ogre howled and teetered backwards, and the gleam of triumph lit my blood. I hacked at anything I could reach, desperation pushing me past the blurred vision and screaming lungs.

The ogre fell, crashing to the stone floor. Flamelight licked the room, breaking everything into scattered, devilish shadows. The thing was still struggling, great, clawed hands and feet flexing against the stones. It moaned—a horrible cry of pain and frustration—its lips pulled back into a bloody grimace.

I heard Alistair curse and saw him stagger to his feet, his left arm hugged awkwardly to his body. I looked away as, with a grunt of effort, he limped to the creature’s head, and drove his sword through its eye. There was a gut-wrenching noise, wet and visceral, and the ogre’s low, violent growls ebbed into silence, leaving the air empty, but for the crackle of the beacon’s flames, and our ragged, panting breaths.

There was so much blood. I was covered with it; we both were. Just… acres of sticky, gory flesh, stinking and vile. Had I nursed any notions about the glorious nature of war, they would have been drummed out of me then.

“Is it dead?” I asked, hearing how pale and thin my voice sounded, the words running together as if I was drunk.

Alistair shook his head. “Don’t know. Hope so. They can… thingy,” he said breathlessly, groping for the right word. “Lie dormant. We should burn it.”

I nodded. That seemed a good idea. It was all too easy to picture the creature rising up again, like the monster from a children’s horror story… which was just what it was, I supposed. Muzzy-headed thoughts of dragons and impossible, nightmarish fiends prodded at me, but I was too far gone for them to be clear.

We’d barely begun to work out how to go about the task when the snarling of the wind and rain that still lashed the tower’s cracked spire began to yield to other sounds. I looked at Alistair across the ogre’s prone, blotched and bloodied body, and found him staring at me, his face white and taut with dread.

The scuffling of footfalls reverberated through the corridor that led up to this grisly eyrie, and we could hear the clank of metal and the unmistakeable, snuffling, animal growls.

I remember the darkspawn pouring through the door. It was a strange, unreal moment, stretched like threads of burnt sugar, crumbling away into nothing. There was nowhere for us to go, nothing to do but make a last, hopeless stand.

They burst in, numberless and unstoppable, in a hail of arrows and snarling. Alistair could barely hold his shield, but he tried to raise it. He was yelling at me to get behind him—as if that would have done any good—and then there was a mixed clamour of confusion.

I saw an arrow thud into his chest, and another enter his shoulder. The bastards were coming for us, and I wanted to be on my feet to face them, but then there was an incredible, indescribable pain. I looked down, somehow absurdly surprised to see an arrow sticking out of my ribcage. Something pierced my arm, and I dropped my sword, but the pain kept coming, biting through me until my body spasmed with cold shivers that seemed to come from within me, my pulse humming and my breath weak.

I felt the thump as I hit the floor, and looked up at the beacon raging above me, its flames crazing shadows on the vaulted, ruined ceiling.

The darkspawn’s screams of bloodlust closed over me, and I knew nothing more.

 ———————————-
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Nine

 
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After the cold and the wet and the general weirdness of the Wilds, I was so glad to be back at Ostagar that, at first, I didn’t notice how the camp’s atmosphere had changed.

I felt it as we headed in, though: a new focus, a dour kind of determination that might have seemed bleak, had it not been for the sheer amount that was still going on. No rest tonight, I surmised. Not for us, and not for the regular army.

Perhaps keeping the men’s minds busy steeled their courage. I didn’t know, but I rather wished there was something around to my bolster my nerves. As a rule, I didn’t drink much—as with so many things, Father didn’t approve—but I’d have taken a stiffener then, if it had been offered.

At Alistair’s suggestion, we took five minutes before meeting back at Duncan’s fire. He seemed purposefully vague, and avoided meeting my eye, which meant I couldn’t help but think of what little he’d told me about the impending ritual… and how very ‘unpleasant’ it was. I suppose he wanted to give us a last gasp of freedom, of a kind, or perhaps he just wanted a chance to gather his own courage.

In any case, I left Daveth and Jory bickering near the quartermaster’s store, slipped away to visit the ungodly horror of the latrines, and made myself as presentable as the amount of mud, dead leaves and bits of twig stuck in my hair would allow. An experimental flex of my jaw confirmed the bruising I still carried—although beginning to heal—was far from gone, and I had plenty of new bumps and scrapes to add to my collection.

Such was the life I had to look forward to, I supposed, wondering hazily whether Grey Wardens got any proper martial training after their initiation.

I paid the kennel master a visit, and gave him the flower the—no, I wouldn’t think of her as a witch, I told myself. That the old woman had given to me. Yes, that was safer. Time to dwell on the improbabilities later, when everything might seem just a little more sane.

He was delighted, and I didn’t tell him how I’d come by the thing. He wrinkled up his big, scarred snout of a face, beaming widely, and suggested I come back after the battle, with a view to imprinting the mabari on me.

I must have looked surprised, because the shem laughed.

“We-ell,” he said, “it’s likely he understands you’ve helped him. Mabari are at least as smart as your average tax collector.”

I smiled wearily, amused both by the joke and the fact that, to this man, the coming battle appeared to be nothing more than an inconvenience, getting in the way of the important business of looking after his hounds. Not to mention, he barely even seemed to notice what I was.

Leaning on the wooden gate, my aching body glad of the rest, I looked down at the sick mabari. He was still muzzled, great strings of drool sliding from his heavy jaws, but he gazed dolefully at me, and wagged his stumpy tail.

It was unheard of for someone like me to own such a beast. Mabari hounds were a mark of nobility and worth; their masters were great men… or at least wanted to seem so.

Elves weren’t the masters of anything.

The hound cocked his head to the side and gave a curious little groan, deep in his barrel-like chest. I reached forward and scratched his ears.

“Thanks,” I said, nodding at the kennel master. “Maybe I will.”

“Good.” He smiled, apparently satisfied, before a small frown settled between his bushy brows. “Oh, and… y’know. Good luck.”

I smiled back, my mouth tight and the familiar dull weight of tension tugging at my gut. Nebulous fears and imaginings—of both the ritual and the battle ahead—swirled in me, but I couldn’t put it off any longer.

Once I caught up with Daveth, Jory, and Alistair, we headed through the camp to Duncan’s fire, and I tried not to see the pinched, white faces of soldiers awaiting the call to arms. The priests were leading prayers again, and the only stillness in the camp’s whirl of activity was centred on those who gathered to listen, in a grimly determined hush.

“So you return,” Duncan observed. The firelight burnished his dark skin, and seemed to lend a slightly apprehensive cast to his face. “Have you been successful?”

Alistair nodded. “We have.”

“Good. I’ve had the Circle mages preparing. We can begin immediately.”

Again, I could see the ripples of unspoken communication between them; shared knowledge and silent questions that the rest of us couldn’t fathom. The fire crackled, as if pushing restlessly against the tension in the air. The flames warmed my cold, numb cheeks, but the heat tasted dry and sour.

“Um, there was a woman at the tower,” Alistair said uncertainly. “Her mother had the scrolls. They were both very… odd. I think they may have been apostates.”

He glanced briefly at me, then the other two recruits, and I wondered whether—in some small, daft way—he was playing for time. Maybe he just wanted back-up.

I said nothing, in any case, thinking it wasn’t my place to offer opinions… perhaps not even knowing what I thought, anyway.

“Be that as it may,” Duncan said, casting a look at all of us, “Chantry business is not ours. We have the scrolls; let us focus on the Joining.”

Alistair nodded, but he didn’t look comfortable.

Ser Jory cleared his throat, drawing himself up in that stiff, affected way of his, which had convinced me humans didn’t know how to read each other half as well as elves did. Strange, when there was so much more to interpret. Back in the alienage, we used to joke about their gross, blatant physicality—the way they sweated, how hairy they were, and plenty of less delicate comments besides—but I’d started to appreciate that maybe it was more complex than that.

It would have been only a small exaggeration to say I could smell the fear dripping off the man.

“Now will you tell us what this ritual is about?” Jory demanded.

The firelight glinted on his armour, and Duncan’s face remained impassive. After a beat of silence, he inclined his head very slightly.

“I will not lie. We Grey Wardens pay a heavy price to become what we are. Fate may decree that you pay your price now rather than later.”

“You’re saying this ritual can kill us?” Daveth blurted.

Duncan nodded solemnly, confirming what we must have all suspected.

“As could any darkspawn you might face in battle. You would not have been chosen, however, if I did not think you had a chance to survive.”

I didn’t look at my comrades. I didn’t look anywhere except the fire, watching the logs at its heart crack and glow, flame licking along their length and splitting the surface of the wood with a soft pop.

Duncan made an extremely practical point. And, besides, a chance was a chance. It was more than I would have been granted, had I been left to the city guard.

I wondered about my companions, though. Daveth, like me, had been given no option, but Jory… my throat tightened at the thought of the choice he must have faced. Had he had any idea what he risked when he made it?

Falling in battle was one thing, but to die without even making it to the front line…. Sure, he’d be just as dead either way, but if it offended my sense of fairness, I could only imagine how the knight felt.

Daveth sniffed philosophically.

“Well, in for a silver, in for a crown, as my dear old mum used to say. Let’s go. I’m anxious to see what all the fuss is about.”

I looked at him through the skittering blocks of firelight. I’d already suspected he was brave, so it shouldn’t have surprised me. He caught my eye, and winked.

Tired, incongruous laughter left my lips; that dry, hoarse chuckle didn’t even sound like me.

“Yes.” I nodded. “We’ve come this far, so—”

“I agree.” Ser Jory cut across me, pulling his shoulders back. “Let’s have it done.”

Duncan inclined his head, a small movement that carried a great deal of meaning.

“Then let us begin. Alistair, take them to the old temple.”

~o~O~o~

‘Temple’ seemed a generous description for the quiet, bleak part of the ruins to which we were led. It lay towards the north end of camp, jutting out from the massive foundations of the cracked, jagged walls—almost overhanging the gorge, like the prow of some white stone ship—roofed by the remnants of a huge dome, and barred with the bones of broken columns.

A great stone block dominated the circular space, and at first I took it to be another fallen pillar, like the ones scattered all over camp. The more I looked at it, though, the more it seemed to have been differently carved. Beneath the moss, sweeping channels and curving lines chased its surface, strange patterns worn into the stone.

Not a column, then, but… an altar?

It seemed a sinister thought, and I suppressed a shudder, not quite knowing why.

A grey stone parapet bounded the space, beyond which, on the far side of the chasm, the Wilds stretched out in the darkness, prowling around us. The sky was pricked with the frail gleam of early stars, and the thin sliver of a watery moon had begun to rise, staining the horizon. A torch had been wedged into one of the cracks in the walls, and it cast a rough, guttering light against the stones.

Patterns were carved into the slabs underfoot, as well. They were barely visible through the wear of ages, and the creeping encroachment of the straggly, tiny-leaved plants that seemed determined to grow here, clinging bitterly to even the most inhospitable places.

I tried to follow the shapes of the carvings, make out what they had once been, but it was impossible. I knew next to nothing about what a Tevinter temple might have been used for, anyway. The satirical songs and pamphlets that regularly did the rounds in Denerim caricatured the Imperial Chantry as a corrupt, power-grubbing institution, dominated by the magisters of Minrathous and in thrall to magic… not that I’d ever paid much attention.

I rather wished I had, now. Not that thinking about it was doing much of a job of distracting me from what lay ahead.

“I just don’t see why we must endure all these damned tests,” Ser Jory complained.

I blinked, dragging my attention from the floor to the drawn, anxious faces of my fellow recruits.

Alistair stood by the entrance to the temple. Once probably a grand doorway, it was now a crumbled arch, leading to a ruined colonnade, below which the rest of the camp sprawled. He wasn’t looking at us; waiting for Duncan, I supposed, as we all were.

I wondered if the mages that had been mentioned before would be present for the ritual. It left me uneasy. I was unused to magic… and afraid of it, if I was honest.

Ser Jory took a couple of irritable paces across the flagstones, his boots echoing in the quiet. We could hear almost nothing of the camp’s bustle up here, and I wasn’t sure why that should be necessary.

“Have I not earned my place?” he demanded. “And why this secrecy? It seems so—”

He was doing it again, I observed; trying to cover fear with bluster, like a vain woman trying to hide rotten teeth by refusing to smile.

Daveth scoffed. “Are you blubbering again?”

The knight blanched. “I only know that my wife is in Highever with a child on the way. If they had warned me—”

“What?” Daveth snapped. “You wouldn’t have come, brave ser knight? Maybe that’s why they don’t.”

Jory drew breath, some argument probably already marshalled on his tongue, but Alistair shifted slightly and cleared his throat. We looked towards the archway, and saw Duncan approaching. As one, we pulled to attention, squabbles tamped down and misgivings temporarily swallowed.

His steps were slow and measured, that bright armour that had so captivated me the first time I met him glimmering under the torchlight, though his face was sombre. He carried a large, ornate, silver chalice in his gloved hands, and my gaze was drawn to it, a horrible sense of realisation stealing over me as things began to slip into place.

Black as sin and poisonous… but not always fatal.

Those who survive grow immune to its effects.

It made sense, didn’t it? If darkspawn were the twisted reflections of men, then they had to be confronted to be defeated. No mirror could be broken without being faced, and no corruption cleansed without acknowledgement of its true extent.

Yet, other whispers followed those early thoughts, my mind teeming with terrors and uncertainties too unsteady to put names to.

The Wardens say the tainted blood drives even the survivors mad eventually….

Duncan crossed to the stone altar and placed the chalice down upon it, if not with reverence, then with a solemn respect.

“At last,” he said, turning to face us, “we come to the Joining.”

Those dark eyes rested on each of us in turn as he spoke, his clipped accent lending an exotic gravity to the words.

“The Grey Wardens were founded during the first Blight, when humanity stood on the verge of annihilation. So it was that the first Grey Wardens drank of darkspawn blood and mastered their taint.”

Duncan paused for a moment, allowing us to digest the statement. Jory was the only one who spoke.

“We’re… going to drink the blood of those… those creatures?”

He stared at the chalice, aghast.

“As the first Grey Wardens did before us.” Duncan nodded, and glanced at Alistair. “And as we did before you. This is the source of our power and our victory. Those who survive the Joining become immune to the taint. We can sense it in the darkspawn, and use it to slay the archdemon.”

The atmosphere had grown taut and thick, the prospect of what we faced now irrevocable, and painfully real. I felt a strange, numbing clarity, such as I hadn’t known since… well, since that day at the arl’s estate, I supposed.

It was the cool, lucid awareness that, whatever happened, everything I had known before was gone. Whether I lived or died, I was fate’s creature now, bound to chance, or—maybe, like Father had said on the day I left—some strange, ineffable plan.

Perhaps, if I believed that, I could cope.

I heard Daveth’s voice, tight and slightly distant.

“Those who survive?” he queried. “It’s true, then? That stuff’s poison?”

Duncan didn’t give an outright confirmation.

“Not all who drink the blood will survive,” he said, “and those who do are forever changed. This is why the Joining is a secret. It is the price we pay.”

It silenced Daveth; it silenced us all. Earlier that night, we might have exchanged nervous glances, but that felt strange and deceitful now. I didn’t want to look at the men I had assumed would become my comrades, afraid that somehow my assumptions had already cursed them.

Would it have been better, had we known?

Thoughts of home tugged at my mind like riptides. Incongruous, splintered flashes of memories: Father, smiling at me with joy and pride in his eyes when we danced together one Summerday, years ago—the way we should have danced at my wedding—images of Shianni, Soris, Andar, and all the other cousins and relatives who’d been my life up until that day. Mother, the last morning I’d seen her alive. Nelaros, Valora, poor Nola… all that blood, and the blood that had run onto the cold stone floor as Vaughan begged me not to kill him.

The way he screamed when I cut him.

Blood… it ran through everything, sure enough. I blinked, trying to stop the memories that surged beneath the surface from curdling, but it didn’t work. The taste of happiness gave way to a bitterer tang, and I could see nothing but the hideous faces of darkspawn, the stink of death and decay lodged in the back of my throat. My stomach clenched at the thought of what I would have to do, and bile burned my gullet.

I swallowed hard.

“We speak only a few words prior to the Joining,” Duncan said, his voice low and calm, “but these words have been said since the first. Alistair, if you would?”

Alistair stepped forward. He bent his head, hands clasped, and began to recite the words.

“Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand, vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten, and that one day we shall join you.”

It had the feel of prayer about it—so earnest and unwieldy and impassioned—and it seemed to pull the air in close around us, as if shards of the past were pressing into the present, and drawing us on to a future that was uncertain, and darkly forbidding.

Duncan lifted his head, and took the silver chalice up once more.

“Daveth,” he said softly, “step forward.”

Fear squeezed my lungs, turning my breath to ice.

Daveth didn’t hesitate, though all traces of his customary swagger and bravado were gone. I’d found it hard to guess his age before—he hid too much beneath the slick, shiny shell he’d so carefully constructed for himself—but he seemed younger now, all sinew and tight-wound strength.

I realised I was clenching my fists so tightly that my nails had bitten red half-moons into my palms.

Duncan held the chalice out, the torch’s flickering orange flame dancing on its engraved surface. Daveth nodded at him, and raised his hands to take hold of the wide, deep swell of the cup. They only shook a little.

I barely breathed, afraid of what to expect, and ashamed of the small worm of guilt within me that knew, deep down, I would rather watch his death than face my own.

I choked the thought, pushed it back into the darkest parts of my head, willing it to wither away, willing Daveth to be all right. I bit down hard on my tongue as he brought the chalice to his lips, and I tasted blood.

His eyes screwed up tight, Daveth drank full and deep. A grunt of disgust left him as he tore the chalice away from his mouth. Duncan leaned forward and took it from him, his face a mask of taut control. Only his eyes betrayed his concern; the fractured light caught at a dozen different things within them, too brief and complex for one who’d seen as little as I to unpick.

A flash of anger at the man streaked through me. How many recruits had he shown kindness to over the years? How many had he carried and coaxed, rescued and saved, only to give them death?

Even then, I knew that was unfair. It was a childish flare of rage and injustice, and it battled with the sting of tears behind my eyes as Daveth began to change.

He coughed, the vile gloss of that blackened, corrupted blood bubbling between his lips. At first I thought he just couldn’t keep it down—and I couldn’t blame him, with the stench of darkspawn bodies still fresh in my mind—but it was more than that. His skin was pale, his breath coming tight and fast, and his eyes seemed unfocused. A sheen of sweat broke out across his brow, his mouth working around a series of slack, empty shapes, as if he wanted to speak, but couldn’t.

The sergeant’s warnings rang in my head. Don’t touch the corpses, don’t let the blood get on your skin…. It killed the dogs, didn’t it? And yet we were to believe it was possible to overcome that foul taint, to… what? To take it into ourselves, and subsume it? Conquer it? Allow it to become part of us?

The idea horrified me.

Daveth staggered backwards, doubled over in pain, clawing at his throat. Half-choked noises, somewhere between coughs and ragged, heaving gasps, seemed dragged from him like rotten teeth.

We were silent; so silent that the stones seemed to echo with our breaths.

He cried out, clutched at his head and then at his stomach, hunching over as if some invisible fist had sunk itself into his gut. I stiffened, torn between the desire to flee and to try and help him. Neither Duncan nor Alistair had moved, so I guessed there was nothing that could be done to make this easier. Hard though it was, all we could do was watch.

Duncan’s face was still stiff, solemn… keeping whatever he felt at that moment locked deep within him.

Alistair was not as skilful; his horror and pain were plain to see. I understood now why he’d seemed so conflicted when I’d asked him about the Joining, and how difficult it must have been to spend time with us, knowing what we would face, yet being allowed to give nothing away.

Had it gone on any longer, the anger I felt might have slipped into hatred. I might have thought Duncan purposely cruel—both to us, and to his protégé—but the thoughts were knocked from me.

Daveth screamed, his head thrown back in a violent spasm, his body clenched and bent into a twisted, awful shape, as if his very flesh was trying to crawl away from the pain. An unnatural film covered his eyes, turning them milky white, blind to everything but the agony that consumed him.

The sound that left him was horrific: a bestial, shapeless howl, racked not just with physical pain, but such terror, such primal fear…. I didn’t want to know what it was that tormented him behind those sightless eyes.

His entire face twisted around the cry, and his mouth was like a ripped hole, blood leaking from its corners. I couldn’t be sure whether it was darkspawn or his own but, as we watched, his scream became a death rattle.

Daveth dropped to his knees, moaning and choking like a wounded, rage-blind animal and, as the last grunt of pain left him, he fell forward onto the stones, dead.

The very best I could think was that at least his suffering was over.

The terrible noises we’d heard from him had ceased so abruptly that the silence seemed thicker, and more oppressive. When Duncan spoke, the words barely touched the stones, lost in the billowing, terrible quiet.

“I am sorry, Daveth.”

I dragged my gaze from the recruit’s corpse and saw that it was true. After his careful blankness, I wasn’t expecting the clear pain and regret that etched Duncan’s face. Even on the long ride from Denerim, I hadn’t seen him look so tired.

And yet, when he raised his head, he was the Warden-Commander once more, his eyes hard as coals… and the tainted chalice held tightly in his hands.

This was not yet over.

“Jory.”

Duncan’s voice was firm, but low. Not a command, just a statement of fact. There was no choice being given here, no opportunity to question or refuse.

I looked at the knight, took in his white, sweaty pallor and his eyes, no more than twin pools of blackness, wide in his broad, open face. His lips trembled as he tried to force words between them.

“But… I have a wife. A child! Had I known—”

“There is no turning back,” Duncan said, in that same quiet, even tone.

I glanced at Alistair and found him tight-lipped and motionless, staring at the far wall, as if he could pretend that none of this was happening; that Daveth wasn’t dead, Jory wasn’t being a fool, and— well, none of it was true. I recognised the look. I’d had it once before.

“No! You ask too much,” Ser Jory said, his voice breaking as he began to back away. “There is no glory in this!”

Alistair closed his eyes.

I watched Duncan set the chalice down, and draw a slim, curved dirk from his belt. The sound it made was soft as a lover’s whisper.

Jory drew his own weapon, and I could scarcely believe it, though I knew how powerful a master fear could be, and how anybody who still had something to live for—someone to live for—would chance impossible risks for them.

I could still see us all trudging through the cold dampness of the Wilds, with him talking about his pretty wife, and Daveth teasing him for being so bloody soft.

The sweat stood out on his cheeks and forehead, though his stance was that of a well-trained warrior. He backed away until he could get no further, trapped by the cold stone wall. I held my breath. I had seen the look on his face far too often—desperation tempered to insanity in the flames of panic.

Duncan’s blade winked in the darkness, torchlight glimmering on the metal. I had never seen him wield a weapon, but I was not surprised at his skill. It carved an easy and graceful arc that parried Jory’s reckless, impulsive strike and, with one pivot, Duncan was close enough to deliver the fatal blow.

It was quick and clean, up under the ribs and through the core of him, leaving Jory with barely more than a breathless gurgle and a faint look of surprise.

He sagged in Duncan’s arms, and the Grey Warden held him as his final breath rasped against the stones.

“I am sorry, Jory,” he said gently, easing the knight’s body to the ground.

I stared at the corpses of the two men I had thought would be my comrades. It hadn’t seemed as if my life could change more radically than it already had. Bride to murderer, condemned to conscript… no sooner had I begun to think that I might carve a new existence here at Ostagar, than this….

Duncan sheathed his weapon. Jory’s blood spattered his surcoat and armour, and he wiped the back of his gloved hand across his mouth. When he took the chalice from the altar once more and turned to me, his dark eyes held the affirmation I now fully understood.

There was no turning back.

“The Joining is not yet complete,” Duncan said, holding out the chalice. “You are called upon to submit yourself to the taint for the greater good.”

The scattered shadows and jagged teeth of torchlight melded before me and, when I stepped forward, it felt like a dream. He held my gaze, and the twin glimpses of reflected flames burned in his eyes.

I stretched out my hands. The chalice was cool against my palms, its engraved surface traced with strange, swirling patterns. It seemed to shiver beneath my skin, and the stench of the foulness within rose to embrace me, even before I looked down into its blackened, vile depths.

The blood was thick and dark, sticky and flecked with congealing lumps that clung to the rim of the chalice. It stained the dull silver interior, greasy and fetid, and held the stink of death and decay… a sickly, ghastly sweetness that nauseated me, and took me back to those hours in the Wilds, facing death on the edge of a blunt iron axe.

I took a shallow, quavering breath, and wished I hadn’t. The rank smell filled my nose and mouth, and bile rose in my throat. Some numb, vague, half-thought filtered across my brain: that, whether this act brought immediate death or merely deferred my sacrifice, I had nothing left to lose.

Once, I had found that liberating.

I closed my eyes against the contents of the chalice and, bringing it to my lips, drank as deeply as I could manage. The blood flooded my mouth, and I gagged, choking on the stink, the taste, the texture…. It burned, searing my tongue and gullet as I struggled to swallow.

Beyond that, I remember nothing but the pain.

It began in that first tainted gulp, burning through me like a rotten flame, but soon it took hold of my whole body. The chalice fell from my hands, a bright flash of silver that smeared itself across my vision as the world swam out of focus. I could neither see nor breathe… barely even aware I existed at all, except as one flayed, tortured nerve. I’m sure I screamed.

After that, everything was darkness.

There was nothing but the pain, and the void. I plummeted, in agony, and fell into flames. My screams melded with other cries—the raging of unseen warriors, and the unholy roars of great, awful beasts.

I didn’t understand where the sounds came from, or what they were, but they terrified me. My vision began to clear, swathes of thick, sulphuric fog lifting, and revealing horrible, twisted shapes that rioted before me, grotesque and bloody. The smell of charred flesh was all around me, and I was convinced I was being burned alive. There was no ground, no sky… just walls of blood-red rock, teeming with darkspawn. Everything was blood and death and horror, yet part of me felt elated—the horrific glee of the kill, bloodlust and flesh-craving ravening in a mind that was not my own.

In amongst the vice-like spasms of pain that still gripped me, I could feel something else. Something more terrible. I looked up, but not with my own eyes.

What I saw, through the fractured glances of hundreds of hungry, raw, shapeless minds, was the form of a great, black dragon. It was enormous, dominating the choking earthen tomb that held whatever this strange us-me-them… thing was, this sense of an alien presence inside my head.

Its massive bulk seemed constrained by the canyon, as if its talons had cut furrows into the rock over the passage of years, the way a prisoner’s chains carve scars into his wrists. The greasy light of torches caught at its hide, picking out vicious spikes and spurs, and the swells of muscles whose power I couldn’t even imagine.

The creature rolled back its head, spread its wings and roared, and its putrid breath seemed to make the rocks quake. The sound was more than a noise; it was something tangible, like a jagged saw blade, or the sharp, irresistible pain of a wire cutting into skin. It buzzed through every nerve and swallowed every thought until nothing existed but the simple fact of existence itself, the moment of blood and triumph and living, bound up with a hunger and a raw, violent yearning that I did not understand, despite the fact it pounded in my body—that it was my body, until the point where I began to feel myself falling away.

I screamed again, frightened of falling, and frightened of losing myself, but there was no end. It went on, as nightmares do, in that horrific, inevitable looseness of time, inescapable and agonising.

I was sure that I would go mad, or that I already had done. Perhaps I was dead, my body lying prone on the cool stone, beside the crumpled corpses of the two other would-be Wardens.

Was this what Daveth had endured before he died? His screams, his white, blind eyes as the taint took him… I seemed to live it over again, believing I could hear him in the roar of the corrupted throng.

We were to master it, Duncan said. Shame no one had suggested precisely how.

Yet it was Duncan’s face that I thought of then. Dark, inscrutable, knowing…. He held secret so much, guiding where he could, forced to risk placing his trust in those he believed could uphold it.

All his talk of sacrifice and victory echoed hollowly in the blood-churned, stinking mire. Part of me wanted to awake just to slap him in the face, though another part of me knew I’d never have dared.

But… I was me, I realised. Still me, even in the smoke and the roar, and even thick with the stench of death and rotting flesh. I clung to that, weathering the pain and the confusion, and the never-ending screams.

I was not dead. Not yet. And, while there was breath in me, I would not break.

Not yet, at least.

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Eight

 
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As we approached his fire, Duncan looked up and nodded to me.

“You found Alistair, did you? Good. Then we are ready to begin preparations. Assuming, of course, that you’re quite finished riling up mages, Alistair?”

I bit back a smile as Alistair affected a gesture of innocence.

“What can I say? The revered mother ambushed me. The way she wields guilt, they should stick her in the army.”

It was a nice image, but I doubted the darkspawn would yield as easily to emotional blackmail.

“She forced you to sass the mage, did she?” Duncan lofted an eyebrow, and the smile dropped from the younger man’s face. “We cannot afford to antagonise anyone, Alistair. We don’t need to give anyone more ammunition against us.”

“You’re right, Duncan. I… apologise.”

It was a masterful display, I realised: all the grace and authority of a true leader. A man like Duncan did not need to command, but simply inspired obedience. All it took was a look or a single word, and backs straightened, chins tilted… even my spine uncurled, like I’d never once stooped in the presence of humans.

Impressive.

“Now then,” he said, turning to his assembled recruits. “Since you are all here, we can begin. You four will be heading into the Korcari Wilds to perform two tasks.”

I glanced at Daveth, and saw him nod. He’d expected it, of course, but he didn’t look satisfied. The firelight left dark planes of shadow on his cheeks, and I was convinced I could see fear in his eyes. Ser Jory looked pale and sweaty… but I supposed we were all afraid. Witches, cannibals, demons, darkspawn and who knew what else? We would certainly have to prove our worth tonight.

“The first task,” Duncan said, “is to obtain three vials of darkspawn blood.”

There was silence, broken only by the crackle of the fire. I don’t think any of us had expected that.

“B-blood?” Daveth stammered. “Darkspawn blood? But why—”

“All will be explained when you return.” The finality in Duncan’s voice suggested there was little point either in questioning or resisting. “You must obtain three vials, remember. One for each recruit.”

Those words lingered, and a cold fist of dread knotted in the pit of my gut. Blood, poisonous and black as sin… what were we to do with that? Did each of us have to collect the blood as some kind of trophy, some badge of honour? And what happened afterwards? I blinked, trying to shake visions of having the stuff dripped onto my skin, vicious as acid. Perhaps that was it; some test of endurance, some horrific pain to be suffered as initiation.

I looked at each of the other two recruits beside me. Neither appeared to be about to ask questions, though I suspected we were all thinking the same thing. The Joining was probably secret for a damn good reason. I risked a sidelong look at Alistair, but he was staring straight ahead, tight-lipped.

I wish I could forget it… but I can’t.

Not the most comforting thing I could have heard. Still, there was no turning back, I supposed. Not now, having come this far—and having no other choice.

“As for the second task,” Duncan said, “there was once a Grey Warden archive in the Wilds. It was abandoned long ago when we could no longer afford to maintain such remote outposts. However, it has recently come to our attention that some scrolls have been left behind. Alistair, I want you to retrieve these scrolls if you can.”

Alistair nodded, but he didn’t look happy. Ser Jory cleared his throat.

“Uh…. Is this part of our Joining too?”

“No.” Duncan shook his head. “But it is important. The scrolls are ancient treaties, promises of support made to the Grey Wardens long ago. They were once considered only formalities but, with so many having forgotten their commitments to us, I suspect it may be a good idea to have something to remind them with.”

Daveth and Jory exchanged glances. I wondered what was meant by ‘commitments’, and foolishly started to tangle my brain around the political position of the order. If the Grey Wardens could conscript whomsoever they chose, regardless of the laws of the land, it was small wonder there were those who resented their demands. Not to mention, the true power of the order surely rested on being able to prove the reality of a darkspawn threat. Without that—or, at least, the acceptance of the threat as a possibility—what were they, or we, I corrected myself, but an annoyance to the lords and generals who were focused on maintaining their own armies?

Or… was it more than that? Duncan had told me the Wardens were impartial, but was that really so? Was there truly no political dimension to our role? I might have been naïve, but growing up in the alienage had taught me that every word and action were seen and heard somewhere—and everybody always had an opinion.

It might not have been politics on the grand international scale, but it was every bit as vituperative.

I blinked, aware that these were things I did not understand, and also that I should have listening to Duncan.

“The tower will be an overgrown ruin by now,” he was saying, “but the sealed chest should remain intact. Alistair will guide you to the area you need to search.”

It sounded suspiciously like a pretext to get us out of the way to me, but I wasn’t about to say so.

Alistair frowned. “I don’t understand… why leave such things in a ruin if they’re so valuable?”

I watched Duncan’s face in the moment before he answered; no trace of annoyance or impatience at being questioned. He simply tilted his head, and it seemed like an acknowledgement that the past was imperfect.

“It was assumed we would someday return,” he said. “Of course, a great many things were assumed that have not held true.”

His words sounded terribly solemn, and I was aware from the way Alistair’s expression tightened that they held some hidden communication we new recruits missed out on. I wondered if all would become clear after the Joining, and suppressed a shudder at the thought of what tonight might hold.

“It is possible the treaties may have been destroyed, or even stolen,” Duncan said thoughtfully, “though they were left in a magically sealed chest. Only a Grey Warden can break such a seal; it should have protected them.”

That caught my ear. Secret rituals and magic seals… I’d had no idea that the Wardens relied so heavily on elements of the arcane. I sneaked a glance at Daveth and Jory, comforted to see they both looked as nervous as I felt.

“Watch over your charges, Alistair,” Duncan said, with a look at the three of us that I thought of as rather paternal. “Return quickly, and safely.”

Alistair nodded. “We will.”

“Then may the Maker watch over your path. I will see you all when you return.”

And, with that, we took our leave.

Up near the top of the camp, the scouting party had already left. I hoped, in some vague, dislocated way, that it hadn’t been too long ago; if we had to venture out into the wilderness, I’d rather do so knowing there was a bunch of Ash Warriors not too far ahead.

The guard on the gate wished us luck as he let us through, and made some grim joke about watching out for barbarians.

Nobody laughed.

~o~O~o~

I suppose I expected the Korcari Wilds to be a terrifying place, but my first impressions were of the chill, and the damp. It seemed to seep up from the ground, enveloping and permeating everything… like rain falling in reverse. That, and the terrible desolateness of the place, made the wetlands seem incredibly foreign to me. Everything was a muddy tangle of greens and browns, the trees straggly and attenuated, like skeletons, and the ground choked with tough, fibrous grasses, weeds, and roots. It was so lonely, too—as if nothing existed out here, nothing bloomed or ripened. I shivered, already missing the security of walls and stones.

For all the immense bulk of the fortress, it wasn’t long before Ostagar receded into the mist behind us. We seemed to have been walking forever. Daveth caught me glancing back to where the twisted path—or what passed for it—disappeared between the trees, and grinned.

“Turns you around, don’t it? Wicked place to be lost, this.”

Alistair was heading up our little group, gaze fixed firmly on the way before us.

“We’re not going to get lost,” he said, with a trace of impatience.

“Best hope not.” Daveth leaned closer to me, his dark eyes glinting with mischief. “’Ere, you want to watch the mist, though.”

Despite myself, I glanced down at the dew-heavy coils that slunk across the ground, clinging to the tree roots and the stagnant pools of water that seemed to gather everywhere on this heavy, boggy ground.

“Ah, well… I don’t expect you lot know the story.”

Daveth stuck his thumbs in his belt and strolled nonchalantly on for a few paces, until he was sure he had our attention. He peered over his shoulder at Jory and me, and raised his eyebrows.

“It was a long time ago, of course.”

Jory was the first to fall prey to the game.

“W-What was?” he asked.

I saw Alistair shake his head and smile to himself, and we pressed on through the damp, boggy undergrowth. It stank of mud and decay. Somewhere, a bird took off, the sound of wings beating and a branch rattling loud against the thick, heavy air.

“Back in the Black Age,” Daveth said, “when the whole of Ferelden was crawling with werewolves, there was this powerful Alamarri arl whose land marched alongside the Wilds. He was sure the curse came out of the forest, so he vowed to lead an army in and destroy whatever it was that had rained such terror and death on his people.”

He was definitely enjoying himself, and I had to suppress a laugh when I noticed Ser Jory glancing up at the black, gnarled boughs above us.

“For twenty long years,” Daveth went on, “this arl led hunt after hunt against the werewolves, slaying not just every were and beast his men came across, but countless of the Chasind wilders, too. Now, of course, they’ve lived out here more’n a thousand years, and they have powerful magic, some of ’em. You’d think this arl would know better, yes? But he doesn’t. He kills them by the hundred.”

Well, humans always seemed to enjoy a good bloodbath. I didn’t say so, though.

“Go on,” I said. “And then what happened?”

Daveth turned to his audience, pacing backwards along the marshy ground, hands raised to his face, palms out and fingers spread wide.

“This one old woman, right? She finds all five of her sons dead, killed by the arl’s men. And, with a terrible cry, she wrenches the dagger from her eldest boy’s heart and plunges it into her own breast—ungh!” Ever the consummate performer, he mimed the fatal act. “And she curses the arl’s name, from the depths of her rage and despair. Goes up like a dread howl, it does, something fearful like you can still hear on dark, stormy nights…. And that’s not all. Where her blood touched the ground, a thick mist began to rise. It spread and spread, running through the whole forest, and it got so heavy the arl’s army were lost in it. They never returned, and some say they’re wandering still, doomed to be lost forever in the Wilds.”

It was a good story, I had to admit, and I was already well on the way to being cold, tired, and wet enough to believe it. Ser Jory’s pale, puddingish face spoke of a tendency to superstition, even when he muttered ‘Preposterous!’ and stomped onwards, his mail clinking gently.

“Well,” Daveth said, with a wink at me, “it never hurts to be careful, does it, darlin’?”

Those words took on a dark significance when, not two hundred yards further on, we encountered signs of struggle and bloodshed in the grass. Alistair stopped and held up his hand.

“Wait. There’s something…. Oh.”

Just a few feet on through the brush, away from what little path there was, we found bodies… or what was left of them. Broken branches and broken limbs alike littered the ground, corpses wrenched into horrible contortions. Glimpses of discarded weapons and bloody armour amid the chaos confirmed the dead as soldiers of the king’s camp.

We stood in silence, surveying the mess. No one seemed prepared to voice what we must all have been thinking; the fact that this could only be the result of one thing.

A groan filtered across the damp air, and my stomach lurched. One of the corpses appeared to be moving. It seemed impossible that anyone could be left alive, but there he was, nonetheless. The man was making his way to us, crawling across the grass, his armour bloody and his voice strained.

“Help… me…!”

“Well,” Alistair said dryly. “He’s not half as dead as he looks, is he?”

He curled his lip, and I recognised the look on his face; the smell of blood and infection was sticking itself to the back of my throat, too.

We went to the soldier’s side, and helped him as best we could. Most of the blood on him didn’t seem to be his, but he had a nasty wound to the belly that—with all the mud and grime around—was already beginning to suppurate. He couldn’t have been out there more than twenty-four, thirty-six hours at most, I supposed, and at least his innards were still on the inside.

“Please….” He spoke in halting, gasping breaths, and it was hard to tell if they came more from fear or pain. “M-My scouting band was attacked by darkspawn. They came out of the ground…. Please, help me! I… I’ve got to get back to camp.”

Jory looked nervously around us, as if the monsters that had done all this might still be lurking in the undergrowth. I knelt beside the soldier and gingerly tried to examine his wound.

“Let’s try to bandage him up, at least,” I said, as he flinched from my touch.

Alistair nodded. “I have bandages in my pack.”

It didn’t take long. The soldier had been amazingly lucky, when such a blow could easily have split him wide open, though he had lost a great deal of blood. He refused our offer to escort him back and, weak but able to make his own way, limped off towards the path, and the gates of Ostagar.

The four of us watched him go in uneasy silence. Ser Jory spoke first.

“Did you hear?” His pallid cheeks shook, dark eyes wide. “An entire patrol of seasoned men—killed by darkspawn!”

“Calm down, Ser Jory,” Alistair said. “We’ll be fine if we’re careful.”

The knight was not so easily appeased.

“Those soldiers were careful, and they were still overwhelmed!” he protested. “How many darkspawn can the four of us slay? A dozen? A hundred? There’s an entire army in these forests!”

“There are darkspawn about,” Alistair conceded, “but we’re in no danger of walking into the bulk of the horde.”

He sounded sure of himself, but it was growing dark, and the rest of us didn’t look convinced.

“How do you know?” Jory demanded. “I’m not a coward, but this is foolish and reckless. We should go back.”

Alistair clenched his jaw. If I were him, I doubted I would have had much patience with the man’s complaining. We’d been sent out here for a good reason, hadn’t we? And, whatever form this mysterious ritual—with all its secrets and preparation—eventually took, we were not the first recruits to go through it.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” I said, aiming for conciliation. “We’re not exactly helpless, after all.”

Jory looked doubtful, and I supposed he was wondering just what good I’d be against the creatures that could cut down a patrol of well-armed soldiers. To tell the truth, the thought had crossed my mind, too.

“I still do not relish the thought of encountering an army,” he muttered.

“Know this,” Alistair said. “All Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn. Whatever their cunning, I guarantee they won’t take us by surprise. That’s why I’m here.”

From Ser Jory’s expression, I imagined he thought only a little more of Alistair’s potential use in battle than he did of mine—obviously, no one else here had the distinction of knighthood—but he seemed to think better of voicing it.

Daveth broke the tension brewing in our little group.

“You see, ser knight?” he said cheerfully. “We might die, but we’ll be warned about it first.”

“Hmph.” Jory snorted. “That is hardly reassuring.”

“Yes. Well,” Alistair cut in, “let’s get a move on.”

We headed on, pressing ever deeper into the Wilds. There was no sign of whatever roving pack had dispatched the soldiers, and I began to wonder how far we would have to go to find the darkspawn.

I did not have to wonder for long.

The Wilds were strange, unforgiving terrain. For every flat, matted piece of ground, there was a brackish, leaching pool of water and—just as the land had settled into that mire of boggy uncertainties—it threw out unexpected inclines, rocky overhangs or sharp, jutting hillocks, carved amid the tangled growth of murky greenery.

There were ruins, too. We saw a handful of them; ancient traces of the old Tevinter holdings… or perhaps the arling of Daveth’s story. Maybe both. Either way, the Wilds had reclaimed whatever had been here, and the fractured bits of columns or broken ends of statues seemed incongruous and alien.

We came across the body of a missionary, face-down and bloated in a pool of stagnant water. Darkspawn again, I guessed. Blood drifted in the water like skeins of thread. Duckweed and mud smeared his Chantry robes, and his scrip had been abandoned on the bank. A letter within revealed a sad little tale: this man, Jogby, had followed his father, Rigby, into the Wilds to spread the Chant of Light to the Chasind, only for both men to find the horde had already driven the wilders out.

The letter read like a farewell. It mentioned the dangers of the darkspawn, Rigby’s fears for his life, and the hopelessness of the plan he’d had. I wondered if Jogby had been heading out of the Wilds when the darkspawn caught up with him, but there was nothing else on the body to provide any further answers.

We moved on, anxious to make our stay here brief, and mindful of the dangers that lay ahead. Beyond the next lee, we saw corpses, strung up from a dead tree that lay across two overhangs, like a bridge. They were human. Soldiers… perhaps from one of the army scouting parties that had never returned. It was hard to tell, so bloody and decayed were they.

“Poor slobs,” Alistair said, wrinkling his nose. “That just seems so… excessive.”

It wasn’t the first word I’d have chosen. The echoes of camp gossip rang in my ears. Nonsense talk, the sergeant had said. Eating the flesh of their victims, living or dead… dragging them underground and feasting on them. Was that what this was? A darkspawn game larder? Or was what we were seeing some kind of warning, or trophy?

The soft, silken sound of a sword being drawn sliced through my thoughts, and Alistair motioned silently to the left-hand side of the overhang. Jory and Daveth were already moving forward. I felt clumsy and useless as I followed in their wake, my palms sweaty and my breathing shallow.

I don’t know if they were the same band of stragglers who took out the soldiers. There were six of them; three genlocks, like the thing I’d seen before, and three that were much bigger, their bodies daubed with crude tattoos and ugly ornaments, hanging from their rough armour. Their camp wasn’t much—little more than a loose conglomeration of sacks, crates and other supplies they’d probably looted from their victims, and a small fire. I did not want to speculate what they cooked on it, if anything.

The thing I found so strange was that it all seemed to happen incredibly quickly. One moment, silence. The next, discovery, and chaos broke loose. The darkspawn pelted down the incline towards us, armed with broad, jagged swords and, in two of the genlocks’ case, short bows. I was aware of the arrows flying, and of the thundering of feet and the horrendous, bestial growls the things made as they bore down on us.

Ser Jory charged forward, wielding his greatsword like the champions I’d only ever seen in picture books. Alistair flanked the beasts from the right, a flash of bright metal and the raw, harsh sounds of blade and shield on… well, flesh, I supposed. Or whatever the things were. I couldn’t see Daveth, but it didn’t matter, because an arrow whistled close to my head, and then I was on the ground, rolling. My mouth was full of mud and the stench of rotten meat and sulphur, but I had a dagger in my hand and I knew what I’d been told: if the bastards bled enough, they went down.

I came up on my knees behind the melee, and opened one of the big ones up from thigh to calf, slicing through tendon and mottled, dead-looking flesh anywhere I could get my blade. I remember being glad I’d drawn the daggers instead of my new sword, somehow more comfortable with the shorter weapons at close quarters.

Blood, darker than any I’d ever seen—black, almost, indeed—poured from the wound. The creature bellowed, screamed, and twisted around. A hand the size of my head, clutching a rough iron axe, swung close to my face, and then the thing was thrown to the ground, knocked back by a blow from Alistair’s shield. I got out of the way, missing the killing blow he landed, and suddenly found myself occupied with the ugly little genlock that flung itself in front of me, shrieking and snarling like a rabid dog. All my suspicions proved right; they were much worse when they were alive. A damp warmth that I would have considered shameful, had there been time to think about it, made itself known in my breeches.

Somehow, I hadn’t expected the little bastards to be so quick or nimble. They were fast, though, and nasty. The creature fought with blade, feet… and those vile, needle-like teeth. I ducked, dodged, feinted, and a dozen other things I hadn’t even known I knew how to do. Sweat poured from me.

Its eyes were the worst thing. Small, piggy, but sharp and alert and so very full of hatred. Like a madness, I thought, but mad things make mistakes, and the genlock seemed far too focused on what it was doing, far too aware to be mad.

I fought hard, fought for my life. It lashed out over and over, snarling and slashing at me and, at last, I got lucky. The creature overextended itself, and one of my blades ripped through its cheek. It screeched and lunged forwards. I dodged, and the genlock kept falling, crumpling to the ground with that vile black blood pouring from its face—and from the gaping wound in the back of its neck.

Daveth, blade still raised and smeared with darkspawn blood, smiled grimly at me. I nodded my thanks, but we weren’t done yet. It was hard, bitter work and, when the last of them lay dead, we stood there panting and clutching our bloody weapons, dizzy and exhausted… or I did, anyway. The two trained warriors amongst us were not so easily rattled, though I was mildly comforted to see that Daveth, at least, seemed a little shaken.

“Well,” he said, prodding one of the corpses with his foot. “That was interesting, wasn’t it? More than three vials there, I’ll wager.”

Jory muttered something under his breath, and seemed to be scanning the tree line for the hint of further danger. I looked down at the bodies. It was strange feeling. I’d expected to be vividly reminded of the last fighting I’d been involved in—all the blood and the sweat and the strain of that day—but I was not. This was different, completely different. I felt both detached, yet also bound up in a strange mixture of elation, fear, and triumph.

They were horrific things, though. The bigger ones had scared me most, not just for their size, but their cunning, and the looks in their eyes. They were the most like things the Chantry said: the twisted reflections of men. I could believe that was true. Their flesh seemed to be decaying even on their bodies, the smell of it sickly with rot and vile putrescence, yet they were strong, and able to move fast and deftly. Faces like laughing skulls, painted with bold, crude shapes…. I wondered if those, and the tattoos and ornaments they wore, had any significance among their kind. Maybe they were to do with rank, or trophies of some kind? It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Somehow, I’d assumed the horde was disorganised—a sickness, a plague, the way people talked of it—but to think of the darkspawn as a race in their own right, with a coherent hierarchy and the ability to plan, to… to act as any other army….

Alistair knelt and drew three small glass vials from his pack. We watched in silence as he carefully filled and stoppered them, his face that of a man trying hard not to breathe in.

“We call the larger ones hurlocks,” he said, stowing the noxious vials away once he’d done, and rising to his feet. “You saw how they fight. They’re still common in the horde, but we’ve seen them taking command of small groups, leading tactical assaults…. The darkspawn are quite capable of planning ahead, take my word for it.”

We exchanged glances, and Ser Jory’s tight mouth and pale cheeks spoke for us all.

“Well,” Alistair said, “we’d best press on. We need to find those treaties, then head back as soon as we can. Good idea not to linger, I think.”

That definitely sounded sensible. We shouldered our various packs and weapons, and our little group headed on into the damp and darkening Wilds.

~o~O~o~

For a desolate and uncharted place, we found a surprising amount in our travels. More darkspawn corpses suggested the Ash Warrior scouting party had been in the area recently, but they evidently hadn’t arrived quick enough to save the inhabitants of the small campsite that had been overrun.

The body of a missionary had been left to rot where it fell—Missionary Rigby, it emerged—and though he seemed to have been stripped of his portable valuables, the man’s field trunk remained intact. We paused to give what was left of him a decent burial—which was more than we’d been able to do for the bloated, disintegrating corpse of his poor son—and Daveth jemmied the trunk, in the interests of properly identifying the deceased, or so he said. It held a few coins and scraps of mouldy food, and a leather-bound journal, which I flipped through. It was a sad remnant of a life, written by a man of obvious faith… and not too much common sense.

The final entry took the form of a last will and testament, bequeathing all he had to his wife, somewhere in Redcliffe. It was a hopeless little cry from the depths of despair, facing as he must have been the shadow of his own death, and I wondered if he’d known, or perhaps suspected, that Jogby had already perished the same way.

The lockbox the document mentioned, I found stashed in the cold ashes beneath the firepit, and I quietly slipped it into my pack, not wanting Daveth to have the opportunity of suggesting we crack it open.

From the tattered ruins of the camp, we headed east. Alistair said the old Warden outpost had been a great tower in its day, though how much of it would remain we couldn’t guess. Daveth didn’t seem convinced.

“I never heard of any tower standing more than ten years in this forest,” he grumbled. “Chances are whatever’s there is long gone.”

We couldn’t leave without at least trying, however, and so we pushed on through the dampening evening mist. It was growing colder, and we were probably all eyeing the shadows with concern, wondering what might shelter in the coming darkness.

Daveth, at least, took refuge in conversation.

“So,” he said, drawing level with me and shooting me a companionable grin, “how’d you end up in all this, then?”

It was an inevitable question, I supposed. We were all going to be a part of the same unit, living and fighting together. People in this sort of situation got to know each other. They trusted each other, as comrades.

And they told the truth.

“Hm?” I murmured, staring straight ahead.

He wasn’t put off.

“It’s just,” he said conversationally, pacing beside me with even, unhurried strides, “I haven’t seen many women fight like you. Unorthodox, style of thing. Not afraid to go for the trousers. And you’re not like most elves I’ve met, either. You didn’t learn them skills rolling drunks for change, or doing bump ’n’ grabs, that’s for certain.”

“Bump ‘n’…?”

I blinked, nonplussed, though I shouldn’t have been. In my world, it was extremely easy to make that slip. With so few opportunities for honest labour, many of my people preferred to wet their feet in less salubrious work and—if it paid well, put food on the table and shoes on the children’s feet—no one was about to denounce them to the guard. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a stigma attached to it, of course. All those notions of respectability, and our ridiculous pride.

Not to mention, Father would have skinned me alive.

“Didn’t think so.” Daveth grinned. “So, how did Duncan find you?”

Momentary flashes of memory danced behind my eyes, and brought with them the overwhelming sting of guilt, regret… and the ache for home that seemed all the more potent, the further I travelled.

The fatigue helped, though. With more recent memories pressed into my mind—the stink of decomposing corpses, the genlock screaming in my face, and the mouthfuls of mud as I dodged a rain of axe blows—the exact path I’d taken to get here was pushed back a little, its events paler and less vivid than they had been before.

Daveth was waiting for an answer, all the same.

“Um. I, er…. He knew my mother,” I said, which was technically true.

“Oh? Yes? Well, you’ve friends in high places, then, ain’t you?”

His grin slid into a broad, knowing smirk, and I willed myself to contain the blush of embarrassment I could feel prickling at the base of my neck.

“And what about you?” I asked, turning the question around on him in the hope of detracting attention from myself. “How did Duncan find you?”

Daveth chuckled. “Oh, I found him. Cut his purse while he was standing in a crowd. He grabs my wrist, but I squirm out and bolt. The old bugger can run, I’ll give him that, but the garrison caught me first. I’m a wanted man in Denerim, you see,” he added, with more than a touch of pride. “They were going to string me up right there and then.”

The words sent an uncomfortable twinge through me, despite Daveth’s animated story-telling. He made it sound as if he didn’t believe it would have happened, with or without Duncan’s intervention, but I could spot false bravado when I saw it.

Funny, though. It seemed the Grey Wardens made a habit of collecting the hopeless and the condemned… which made me wonder just what it was they had in wait for us, and whether it really was preferable to the gallows.

“What happened then?”

“Well, Duncan stopped them, didn’t he?” Daveth said. “Invoked the Right of Conscription. I gave the garrison the finger while I was walking away. Ha… should’ve seen their faces.”

I could imagine it all too well, and I smiled weakly. He shook his head.

“Don’t know why Duncan wants someone like me. But he says finesse is important, and that I’m fast with a blade. You bet your boots I am. Besides, it beats getting strung up, right?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “So far, it does.”

He gave me an odd look, and I could almost smell the curiosity on him.

“You said you were from around here,” I observed, mainly to stop him asking me anything else.

“Yeah… I grew up in a village ’bout a day’s trip to the east. Little blot you wouldn’t even find on a map. Haven’t been back in years. I struck out for the city as soon as I could outrun my pa. Been in Denerim for, what… six years now? Never liked it much, but there’s more purses there than anywhere else.”

“I didn’t realise you were a… cutpurse,” Ser Jory commented, in a decidedly icy tone.

“Oh, yes, ser knight,” Daveth said cheerily, evidently taking ignoble pleasure in riling the man. “And a pickpocket, thank you very much. Bloody good at it, an’ all. Until Duncan, obviously. Fast for an old bugger, he is….”

I stifled a laugh as Jory harrumphed and looked offended. Still, it seemed politic for someone to stand buffer between the two of them, and I noticed that Alistair was being careful to keep himself at a distance. Not fraternising with the recruits, I supposed.

“And what of you, Ser Jory?” I asked. “You said you were from Redcliffe?”

He nodded, jaw proudly set and head raised.

“Indeed, although Duncan recruited me in Highever, a city off the northern coast. Have you ever travelled there?”

Nelaros’ face flitted behind my eyes, and I blinked.

“Um. No, never.”

“Oh. Well, I was in Arl Eamon’s retinue when he attended King Maric’s funeral. It was in Highever that I met my Helena. I was smitten.” Jory’s expression softened, and he smiled shyly. “She has the most beautiful eyes, my Helena. For years, I found any excuse to return there. We married a year ago.”

“Congratulations,” I said, and he inclined his head.

“Arl Eamon gave me leave to serve in Highever, but I was attempting to persuade Helena to come to Redcliffe with me. At least, until I was recruited.”

“So, you’re not another conscript, then?” Daveth chimed in.

“No,” Jory said, a trifle archly. “Last month, Duncan visited Highever, and the bann held a tournament in his honour. I fought hard to impress him, and I won the grand melee. It was hard to leave my wife—she is heavy with child now—but I would have done anything for the opportunity to join the Grey Wardens. And, if Ferelden needs my blade, I shall not falter.”

He squared his shoulders and looked ahead, the yearning for approval in him almost palpable. Humans, I thought, really seemed to need all those little ways they had of making themselves feel important.

Daveth shot me a conspiratorial look, then glanced at Jory’s broad back as the knight strode on ahead of us, and waggled his eyebrows. He made a rude gesture with his right hand, and I collapsed into choked laughter, palm clamped to my mouth.

~o~O~o~

We bore east, the night drawing in ever closer.

There were more scraps of ruined Tevinter buildings here; domes sunken beneath pools of green, brackish water, and broken arches, the walls that had once supported them long gone. The Wilds had reclaimed its own, and the smell of decay was everywhere.

To make things even less comfortable, we were being watched.

“Did anyone else hear that?” Ser Jory swung round, staring at the silhouetted tree line. “There’s something— I mean, I thought….”

It would have been all too easy to write his concern off as more of the same nervous complaining, but I think we all felt it. Nothing quite as simple or convenient as cracking twigs or rustling leaves; just the sensation of some foreign, unwelcome gaze on the backs of our necks as we traipsed through the dingy marshes.

The air grew ever colder and ever wetter as the shadows folded around us, and my first suspicion was more darkspawn, but Alistair snorted when I suggested it.

“Trust me, we’d know about it. They don’t track their prey just for fun. We’d have been attacked by now.”

“That’s not exactly comforting, you know,” Daveth said, glancing at the undergrowth, but Alistair was already peering towards the next ridge.

“Come on. Let’s just keep moving.”

We headed on again at his word, though I’d started to wonder whether Daveth was right, and this mythical tower hadn’t long since crumbled away. We could be out here for an eternity, wandering aimlessly and endlessly through the thickening mist.

I was proved wrong when the jagged rises and rocky overhangs yielded up the outline of a large, ruined building, and we headed up the slope, tired legs quickened with the promise of reaching our goal.

All that remained of the outpost was a crumbled shell, broken open to the sky and choked with green growth, the very stones ripped through by the thick, knotted roots of trees and vines. As we neared what would once have been the gates, I could smell the acrid sap of deathroot plants and, sure enough, a thick crop of them flourished to one side of the cracked foundations. I’d always heard it said you only found them growing where innocent blood had been spilled and, though it was one of those things that no one really believed, right now every tiny superstition seemed a little more rational.

We ventured in. Though the ruin was deserted, it felt perversely full of life. Things scuttled in the dark corners, and the smell of rotting vegetation perfumed every crevice. This was the Wilds’ true nature, I supposed: complex and organic, wrapping its tendrils around the heart of its prey… and squeezing.

“Over here. I think this is it.”

Alistair had crossed to the far corner of the ruin, at the foot of what must have once been an impressive stairway. The walls were crumbled and half-sunken now, fallen away to reveal the sheer drop beyond them, and the encroaching grasp of the forest.

He was rooting around in the rubble, and appeared to have unearthed a carved wooden chest. It was covered with mortar, dust and lichen, but certainly looked old enough to hold what we here for. Daveth, Jory and I crossed the overgrown remnants of the outpost’s courtyard, each of us glancing nervously up at the cracked, ruined walls.

“Damn,” Alistair announced, upon discovering the ornate wood had rotted right through, leaving the chest split… and empty.

He started to rise to his feet, but all four of us stopped dead at the sound of movement behind us.

“Well, well, what have we here?”

It was a woman’s voice, clean and hard, like black slate. She stood at the top of the ruined stairway, framed by the broken stones and creeping vines, and she did indeed make a striking picture.

She was unlike any human woman I’d ever seen… at least, I assumed she was human. Tall and pale-skinned, she wore her black hair swept up into a knot on top of her head, her sharp features scored with broad sweeps of dark kohl and shadow around her eyes, more like warpaint than the makeup I was used to seeing women use.

Her robes were of dark cloth and leather, hung with black feathers and brightly coloured beads. The loose folds of a wide cowl left her shoulders, neck, and cleavage exposed, and her arms were bare except for ragged, fingerless gloves that reached her elbows.

She was alone, yet faced the four of us without an ounce of apprehension, the look on her face and the tone of her voice holding mild amusement rather than genuine enquiry.

“Are you vultures, I wonder?” she asked archly, descending towards us, every step weighted to hold our attention, her movements slow and deliberate as a wolf. “Scavengers poking amidst a corpse whose bones were long since cleaned? Or merely intruders in search of easy prey?”

Her skin seemed unnaturally pale against the shadows, and she appeared to use them to her advantage, halting in the safety of the gloom to fix us with her strange, golden eyes. I’d never seen a stare like that on anything that walked upright, and it unnerved me.

“What say you, hmm?” The woman’s thin, dark-painted lips curled into a mirthless smile. “Scavengers or intruders?”

“Don’t answer her,” Alistair warned us. “She looks Chasind, and that means other may be nearby.”

She laughed; a noise like the bright tinkle of glass breaking—pretty, but brittle.

“Oh? You fear barbarians will swoop down upon you?”

“Yes,” he said hesitantly, gaze skirting the boundaries of the ruined outpost. “Swooping… is bad.”

I followed where he looked, wishing I could see better in the dark. Were there others out there? Or was there something worse, waiting for the opportunity to strike?

“Sod barbarians,” Daveth yelped. “She’s a Witch of the Wilds, she is! She’ll turn us all into toads!”

The woman gave another of those strange, feral smiles. “Witch of the Wilds? Such idle fancies, those legends. Have you no minds of your own? You, there.”

She turned to me, and my stomach dropped. The men behind me all appeared to have inexplicably moved back by at least two paces.

“Women do not frighten like little boys,” she said haughtily. “Tell me your name and I shall tell you mine.”

Every fairytale had a moment like this, didn’t this? I knew how the rules of stories worked. Names yielded power, and there was no end to what a witch could do with them, the way a single lock of hair could be used to bring about a person’s death. Old wives’ tales and superstitious nonsense, of course… probably.

I would have wagered that she knew that. She was playing with us, like a cat batting a mouse around. The trick, I supposed, was making sure she didn’t get bored and bite our heads off. I swallowed heavily, aware of the distinct lack of comrades at my back.

“You can call me Merien.”

No sense in dissembling, I supposed. The woman inclined her head gracefully.

“And you may call me Morrigan, if you wish.” That eerie golden gaze trailed over all four of us, and she narrowed her eyes. “Shall I guess your purpose? You sought something in that chest, something that is here no longer?”

“‘Here no longer’?” Alistair mimicked. “You stole them, didn’t you? You’re some kind of… sneaky… witch-thief!”

There was a brief silence, during which I fought the urge to slap a palm to my forehead. His loyalty to the Wardens might be commendable, but his diplomacy could really use some work.

Morrigan’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly. “How very eloquent. How does one steal from dead men?”

“Quite easily, it seems,” he retorted. “Those documents are Grey Warden property, and I suggest you return them.”

She folded her arms, and glared at him. “I will not, for ’twas not I who removed them. Invoke a name that means nothing here any longer if you wish; I am not threatened.”

I glanced at Daveth and Jory, the pair of them conspicuous by their silence, as if they actually hoped it might make them invisible.

Bloody shems….

“Then who removed them?” I asked, trying to slip myself between the wilder woman and Alistair—peacemaker again, it seemed.

Morrigan turned that tawny gaze on me. “’Twas my mother, in fact.”

“Your mother?” Alistair began, drawing breath.

If I’d been any nearer, I’d have trodden on his foot.

“Can you take us to her?” I asked instead.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have presumed to make such a decision on my own. But, with Alistair apparently determined to make an adversary of the woman, and the other two recruits cowering in the background, someone had to say something.

Besides, it didn’t seem as if we had any choice. If the treaties were as important as Duncan had said, we needed to make every effort to retrieve them—or at least find out what manner of people had a hold of them.

“Now, there is a sensible request.” Morrigan gave me another of those thin, knowing smiles. “I like you.”

Somehow, that didn’t reassure me, reminded again as I was of a cat with something small and squeaky under its paw.

Alistair shot me a warning glance. “I’d be careful. First it’s ‘I like you…’ but then ‘zap!’. Frog time.”

Sarcasm aside, he had a point, and I realised what he must have already gathered—spiced as it was with his ill-concealed hostility towards mages. The woman was most likely an apostate, and potentially extremely dangerous. After all, it seemed inconceivable that anyone who didn’t have the strongest faith in their ability to defend themselves would be wandering out here alone… if she was alone.

I wished I’d never said anything.

“What would you have us do, then?” I snapped.

Alistair grimaced. “We don’t have much of a choice. We need those treaties.” He glanced over his shoulder at Jory and Daveth. “But let’s keep our eyes open, all right?”

“Very well.” Morrigan nodded. “Follow me, then, if it pleases you.”

With that, she turned and headed out of the ruins, striding into the shadows as if they held nothing she could possibly fear—and leaving the four of us loitering like nervous children.

I caught sight of Daveth making a warding sign with the fingers of his left hand.

“She’ll put us all in the pot, she will,” he mumbled miserably. “Just you watch.”

Ser Jory snorted and, shouldering his sword, began to stomp after the witch.

“If the pot’s warmer than this forest,” he called back to us, “it’d be a nice change.”

Reluctantly, I followed on.

~o~O~o~

We walked in silence, not because none of us had anything to say, but because no one wanted Morrigan overhearing it. She took us down the slope, beyond a pool of fetid, stagnant water, and past countless trees whose black, gnarled trunks I was sure we’d seen a dozen times already.

Daveth muttered an occasional few words under his breath; snatches of charms and folk magics of the kind I’d heard old people in the alienage use sometimes. Funny how those who were so suspicious of mages would put their trust in a couple of lines of the Chant of Light, and believe it could ward off evil or cure nosebleeds.

I didn’t say anything. We kept walking and, eventually, the changeless, murky greenery started to thin out. I smelled the familiar odour of lamp oil, and caught sight of flames flickering beyond the trees.

Morrigan led us into a patch of open ground that looked less as if it had been cleared than as if the forest had simply receded around it… like the Wilds were just holding their breath, waiting for the torches and higgledy-piggledy little hut to disappear, so they might swallow this place up again.

A ridiculous thought, I told myself. The forest wasn’t alive. Not… in that sense, at least. And however strange the hut that confronted us looked—a mess of lichen-marked boards and planks, its crooked roof thatched with rushes, and the stilts it was built upon sagging into the mud—it almost certainly couldn’t really get up and lurch away. That was impossible.

A fire burned outside the hut, reminding me for one wistful moment of Duncan’s fire back at the camp, and the homely security of Ostagar’s walls. That I was thinking of the ruined fortress in such tender terms was testament to just how inhospitable the Wilds were, I supposed.

“Come.”

Morrigan nodded to the hut, the fire… and the figure that, just a moment ago, I could have sworn I hadn’t seen standing there.

She led us briskly down into the clearing. I followed, with a glance at Alistair, aware of the distrustful glower on his face.

As we drew nearer, I could see the figure beside the fire was that of an old woman, clad in a clean but well-worn green dress, with a woollen cloak pulled around her shoulders. Her face was thin and lined, and her dark grey hair hung in two messy, uncombed falls, framing her sallow cheeks.

“Greetings, Mother,” Morrigan said brightly. “I bring before you four Grey Wardens, who—”

“I see them, girl.”

It had been difficult to see any resemblance between the two women—one tall, proud, and dressed so carefully, the other a shabby old crone, warming her hands at the flames—until the elder raised her head and looked at us. Oh, the eyes were different, dark instead of that eerie, pale golden amber, but the expression was exactly the same.

“Mmm. Much as I expected,” the old woman said, and the thin, knowing smile that they both shared curved her lips.

She raised her head, eyeing the four of us with quick, sharp glances, her lips moving soundlessly and her skinny hands craned over the fire. The tongues of orange light split the shadows around her, and sparks floated like dust motes on the damp air.

I wasn’t sure if she was conjuring something or measuring us up to some inner vision, but my spine seemed to be trying to crawl away from under my skin. My toes tapped nervously at the inside of my boots, marking the urge to turn around and run from this place.

I glanced at Daveth, and found him white-faced and tight-lipped, totally still but for his eyes, that dark gaze flitting over every edge, nook and corner.

Alistair broke the silence with an incredulous scoff.

“Are we supposed to believe you were expecting us?”

The old woman straightened up, pulling her cloak tighter around herself with those red-knuckled hands, and surveyed the four of us coolly.

“You are required to do nothing,” she said, her voice the same hard, arch tone as Morrigan’s, but laced through with the cracks of age… and something that sounded almost like mischief. “Least of all believe. Shut one’s eyes tight or open one’s arms wide: either way, one’s a fool!”

Daveth’s composure cracked.

“She’s a witch, I tell you!” he hissed. “We shouldn’t be talking to her!”

“Quiet, Daveth!” Jory snapped. “If she’s really a witch, do you want to make her angry?”

The old woman chuckled dryly.

“There’s a smart lad. Sadly irrelevant to the larger scheme of things, but it is not I who decides. Believe what you will.”

I looked at Jory, wondering what she’d meant, and found him just as pale and nervous as Daveth. This had, I decided, not been a good idea. We should just have gone back to Duncan and told him we couldn’t find the treaties. After all, we weren’t invincible. We weren’t even fully Grey Wardens yet, and—

“And what of you? Does your elven mind give you a different viewpoint?”

I flinched. As I turned to meet the old woman’s gaze, the whisper of a cold, clammy breeze lifted my hair from my shoulders, and the sharp scent of pine trees and wet grass filled my nose.

She smiled at me, but it wasn’t a reassuring gesture; more like curious expectation, as if she was waiting to see whether I’d prove her right. Quite what she expected, however, was beyond me.

It certainly felt strange here, but what did that mean? For all Daveth’s stories and superstitious mutterings, I wasn’t sure I believed in witches. More likely a lonely old woman and her daughter, trying to stay warm and dry.

And yet… if they were wilders, where was the rest of their clan? Outcasts, as I knew well, usually had a reason for being disowned. Fair enough, in my experience, that hadn’t extended much beyond elven girls who got themselves into trouble with shems, or men who turned their backs on honest work and gloried in a life of shadows, but the principle was there.

So: apostate, lunatic, or legend? Reflected firelight glittered in the old woman’s eyes, and I wondered whether she and her peculiar daughter might not be all three.

“I’m… not sure what to believe,” I said warily, glancing around the clearing.

She laughed softly, a surprisingly gentle sound.

“A statement that possesses more wisdom than it implies. Be always aware… or is it oblivious? I can never remember.”

She shook her head and stared at the flames, suddenly looking like nothing more than a slightly batty old woman.

To my right, Alistair let out a terse, derisive chuckle.

“So this is a dreaded Witch of the Wilds?”

I glanced at him, ready to suggest avoiding that whole topic might be prudent, but I saw that even Daveth had seemed to relax, no longer staring wildly at every possible escape route like a cornered rat.

Nevertheless, whoever these people were, we’d come here on the promise of retrieving our documents, not establishing the grain of truth behind every local myth.

“Witch of the Wilds, eh?” The old woman chuckled. “Morrigan must have told you that. She fancies such tales, though she would never admit it. Oh, how she dances under the moon!”

She raised her thin hands, her knotted fingers curved into delicate shapes, throwing the shadows of a sinuous ballet back against the fire. I fought to keep the images of midnight rituals from behind my eyes, of moonlit skin and strange, feral howls.

“They did not come to listen to your wild tales, Mother….” Morrigan said shortly, folding her arms across the chest of that artfully tattered robe.

I blinked. Too easy to let the wraiths of dreams and phantasms weave their way into the mind in this place; there were too many stories, too many legends. I ached for the feel of stone back under my feet, and the crowded pulse of Ostagar that, at first, I had found so intimidating.

“True. They came for their treaties, yes?”

The old woman reached into the folds of her cloak and drew out a large, thick leather wallet, its surface cracked and crazed with age. She thrust it at Alistair.

“Here. And before you begin barking, your precious seal wore off long ago. I have protected these.”

“You—oh.” He took the wallet, and looked rather crestfallen. “You protected them?”

“And why not?” She wrapped her cloak back around her skinny body and sniffed, as if we were now far less interesting to her. “Go on. Take them to your Grey Wardens and tell them this Blight’s threat is greater than they realise.”

Alistair frowned. “Greater than…? Wait. What?”

The old woman shrugged, obviously not so bored as to resist playing with us one last time.

“Either the threat is more, or they realise less. Or perhaps the threat is nothing! Or perhaps they realise nothing!”

She laughed, showing a rank of brown teeth, and I could see him drawing breath to demand a proper explanation, so I leapt in.

“Thank you for returning them.”

Those dark eyes widened, the thin-lipped mouth curling into an amused little moue.

“Such manners! Always in the last place you look. Like stockings.”

The words were mischievous teasing, but her gaze was unwavering, and sharp as a flint.

“We should go,” I said carefully, looking at Alistair, “shouldn’t we? Duncan’s waiting.”

He blinked. “Right. Yes. We should—”

“Indeed,” Morrigan said, with no small hint of relief. “Time you left.”

The old woman tutted and shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, girl. These are your guests.”

She looked meaningfully at her daughter, then at us, and at last Morrigan gave an irritable sigh.

“Oh, very well.” She narrowed her eyes and curled her lip, in close approximation of something might have been a sarcastic smile. “I will show you out of the woods. Follow me.”

Without waiting for us, she strode off, leaving us to bob like fishing floats in her wake. I turned, ready to scamper to keep up as usual, when my wrist was caught in a hard, tight grip.

“Wh—?”

The old woman—who must have moved both swiftly and soundlessly to reach me from the other side of the fire—had a rather surprising strength in those twig-like fingers.

“Don’t forget this, dear,” she said sweetly.

Raising her other hand, she held out a flower to me: dead white, with a blood-red centre. Its wide, velvety petals swept back from a throat heavy with pollen, and the sweet, sickly scent of decay seemed to emanate from it.

I stared. The herb the kennel master had wanted… and which I had completely forgotten about, in the mess of other things we’d found out here. But how could she have known? How—

“Go on, then.” She nodded after my comrades, already heading out into the trees. “Best run if you want to catch up.”

“Thank you,” I murmured.

I took the flower and, as soon as she released me, I did run. Only too damn glad to leave that place behind me.

I glanced back once as we followed Morrigan through the never-ending twists and turns of endless vegetation, but I couldn’t see the wink of torches or the glimmer of flames.

Somehow, it didn’t surprise me.

She left us within sight of the gates of Ostagar, a brusque and wordless nod in parting before she disappeared back into the trees.

We stood there for a few moments, a lingering sense of unease—or perhaps mild embarrassment—in the air, until Daveth broke the silence.

“Well, that was interesting. Can you imagine if missy there hadn’t shown us the way back out? We might still be in there now, chasing trails all over the bloody forest.”

Alistair winced. “Yes. Well, we ought to get back to Duncan. Come on.”

We traipsed obediently after him. I followed on behind, my fingers going to the pouch at my belt, and the flower I’d stowed within it.

Still, there wasn’t much time to wonder at impossibilities now.

The Joining was almost upon us.

 ———————————-
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Six

 
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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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I will never forget my first full sight of Ostagar.

Though it had stood as a ruin for four hundred years, it was still impressive—and to me, at least—glorious. The style of the architecture, with all its Imperial domes, massive columns and great, carved blocks, seemed very foreign, but there was something reassuring about being back amongst stones and mortar, after all the strange, comfortless, open spaces I’d faced.

We rode up on the eastern side of the camp, and I could see the enormous gorge yawning between the two halves of the ruins, with a high tower rising at the southeast point. It was dark, grim, and curtained by massive arches and walls, as if the stones themselves were guarding against our arrival. There were few signs of life until we drew nearer, and a small band of soldiers jogged out to meet us.

Duncan reined his horse to a standstill. I struggled with Iron Neck, who had grown increasingly irritable over the course of the journey and now—despite hours of apparently not wanting to go any further—did not appear to want to stop.

“Warden Commander!” One of the soldiers bowed. “It’s good to see you, ser. His Majesty’s been hoping you’d arrive soon. He’s just beyond the Walk… no doubt he’ll want to speak with you.”

Duncan slipped easily from the horse’s back and passed the reins to the soldier. “Thank you. We will attend him directly. Would you arrange someone to deal with the horses? Have the rest of the things taken to the Grey Warden tent.”

“Of course,” the soldier said.

I felt him look at me, the unspoken question lingering in the air for just a moment, but then one of the other men came forward and took my horse’s reins. Dragging my pack with me, I dismounted clumsily, as sore and numb as ever.

To be elven in the company of humans is to be used to being the shortest one in the room—unless there happens to be a dwarf at the table—but I still felt unsettled at being in the centre of this group of men. I kept my eyes fixed on the ground, and almost flinched when Duncan touched my shoulder.

“Come.”

I shouldered my pack and glanced up at him, curious. We had made it with a few hours to spare before nightfall and, though the light was already thinning, it seemed the day was far from over. Any fond thoughts I might have entertained regarding hot food and rest began to dissipate, and I gave Iron Neck a farewell pat as the soldiers led the horses away.

I wondered how they’d fare among the mighty steeds knights probably had, and Duncan seemed to read my mind, for he answered without my having even asked the question.

“They’ll be packed off with the next messengers sent out in the morning. We don’t have much use for horses here; they scent the darkspawn, and it drives them into a panic. Just one of the things that has had to be considered against what is not, after all, a normal enemy.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I followed Duncan towards the first of the great arches that, once, must have formed an impressive gateway. All that remained now was stone, with a few hardy strips of plantlife clinging on between the cracks.

“Ah, I see His Majesty is keen to greet us,” Duncan observed, causing me to almost fall over my own feet.

I was to meet a king? The king? My knees threatened to buckle, but there was no time to go to pieces. From the old gatehouse, King Cailan was already striding towards us like a sunrise, resplendent in glorious gilted mail and armed with charm.

“Ho there, Duncan!”

He was not what I expected, inasmuch as I’d ever given any thought to the matter. Younger than I’d imagined a king would be, I supposed; all fine, white teeth and golden hair, tall and… magnificent, I had to admit. My body betrayed me. All at once, my shoulders hunched, my knees bent, and I shrunk in on myself, as small and invisible as an elf can be.

“Your Majesty.” Duncan bowed his head. “I was not expecting—”

“A royal welcome?” The king chuckled. “I was beginning to worry you’d miss all the fun!”

“Not if I could help it, your Majesty,” Duncan said dryly.

“Then I’ll have the mighty Duncan at my side in battle after all! Glorious!”

I ventured a look, curiosity ousting my apprehension. Cailan was a one-man whirlwind of confidence and enthusiasm, and its intensity worried me. I had thought kings were serious, arrogant types, who spent their time in deep matters of state and did not spare their smiles for common folk.

I appeared to be wrong, however, because the king was now smiling at me.

“The other Wardens told me you’ve found a promising recruit. I take it this is she?”

I swallowed heavily, unable to help but be reminded of my childhood books, and the legend of King Calenhad, the Silver Knight, and his magical white armour, which neither bow nor blade could penetrate, so long as he stood on Fereldan soil. As far as I knew, the man standing before me had that fabled blood in his veins and—to my tired and gritty eyes—was something a little more than simply human.

Silly thoughts, I told myself. Shems were shems, regardless of their ancestors, and stories were stories. And yet….

Duncan stepped forward. “Allow me to introduce you, your Majesty—”

“No need to be so formal, Duncan,” Cailan chided. “We’ll be shedding blood together, after all. Ho there, friend! Might I know your name?”

You could have blown me away with a breath. All those years of upbringing kicked savagely at me, but I dragged my gaze from the dirt, and looked full into that bright, shining face.

“I-I am Merien, your Majesty,” I managed.

“Pleased to meet you!” Cailan beamed. “The Grey Wardens are desperate to bolster their numbers, and I, for one, am glad to help them. I see you’re an elf, friend. From where do you hail?”

He seemed genuinely curious, no trace of brusqueness or mocking in his dazzling, expansive manner. I wasn’t sure how to respond and—with no wish to mention the matter of alienages—decided that broad brushstrokes were probably preferable.

“The, er, city of Denerim, sire.”

“As do I! Though I’ve not been in the palace for some time.” King Cailan’s expression grew sombre for a moment, and he leaned forwards, looking keenly at me. “Do you come from the Alienage? Tell me, how is it there? My guards all but forbid me going.”

I blinked, my lips numb and my tongue unwilling to move. Words floated before me, but I couldn’t grab hold of them.

In any case, what was I supposed to say?

Well, it stinks in the summer and freezes in the winter, we live like pigs in filth and, oh, yes… just before I left, I cut down a dozen men, including the arl’s son, for murdering the man who was supposed to be my husband, killing my bridesmaid, and raping my cousin….

No. Perhaps not. I chose diplomacy, as best as I was able.

“I would… rather not speak of it, your Majesty,” I said, bowing my head.

“Hm.” Cailan nodded thoughtfully. “One day I’ll see those walls taken down. Your people have suffered enough.”

I stared afresh. The words didn’t sound like empty promises, but how could I believe one who said them so lightly? On top of the bone-aching tiredness of the journey, and all that had preceded it, conflicting waves of gratitude and anger coursed through me. Yet the king was the very model of grace and good cheer.

“Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Ostagar. The Wardens will benefit greatly with you in their ranks.”

He actually bowed to me.

Cailan Theirin, King of Ferelden, son of Maric, and descendent of the Silver Knight, bowed to me.

For a moment, I forgot to breathe.

“Er. You’re too kind, your Majesty.”

He smiled again, and left me eddying in the full force of his charisma.

“I’m sorry to cut this short, but I should return to my tent. Loghain waits eagerly to bore me with his strategies.”

Another effusive, boyish grin. I only hoped his military tactics were as good as his people skills. Duncan cleared his throat.

“Your uncle sends his greetings and reminds you that Redcliffe forces could be here in less than a week.”

Cailan was already turning back to the camp. The dimming light framed him against the great span of the grey stone arches, and painted faint lines of dusky flame on the gilt tracery of his armour.

“Ha! Eamon just wants in on the glory. We’ve won three battles against these monsters and tomorrow should be no different.”

I glanced at Duncan. “I… didn’t realise things were going so well.”

The Warden’s face remained a study in careful blankness.

“I’m not even sure this is a true Blight,” Cailan said cheerfully. “There are plenty of darkspawn on the field but, alas, we’ve seen no sign of an archdemon.”

Duncan raised an eyebrow. “Disappointed, your Majesty?”

The king turned, backlit between the ruined imperial arches, his face bright with some inner fire I didn’t understand… and wasn’t sure I wanted to.

“I’d hoped for a war like in the tales. A king riding with the fabled Grey Wardens against a tainted god! But, I suppose this will have to do.” He gave us one last smile, still so brash and playful. “I must go before Loghain sends out a search party. Farewell, Grey Wardens!”

He nodded to us. Duncan and I made our bows, and watched Cailan sweep away. Once he’d left, I looked curiously at Duncan. The Warden shook his head, and gestured to me to follow him into the camp.

“What the king said is true,” Duncan said as we walked, our footsteps echoing on an avenue of cracked paving stones. “They’ve won several battles against the darkspawn here.”

I glanced up at the towering columns and ruined arches all around us, so still and silent. It seemed to me that I was learning the essence of politics: listening to the shapes between the words, instead of what was actually being said.

“Yet you don’t sound very reassured,” I said carefully.

“No.” Duncan’s mouth tightened. “I know there is an archdemon behind this. But I cannot ask the king to act solely on my feeling.”

“Why not? He seems to regard the Grey Wardens highly.”

We were nearing the huge stone bridge that separated the main body of the camp from the gorge. I could smell fires… and food, which made my painfully empty stomach gripe in anticipation.

“Yet not enough to wait for reinforcements from the Grey Wardens of Orlais,” Duncan said bitterly. “Cailan believes our legend alone makes him invulnerable, but our numbers in Ferelden are too few. We must do what we can and look to Teyrn Loghain to make up the difference. To that end, we should proceed with the Joining ritual without delay.”

It almost slipped past me, tired as I was. I frowned.

“What do you mean? What ritual?”

Duncan fixed me with those dark eyes of his, his face sombre and guarded.

“Every recruit must go through a secret ritual we call the Joining in order to become a Grey Warden. The ritual is brief, but some preparation is required. We must begin soon.”

No hot food, then. And no rest. I tried to block out the protests of my sore muscles and aching bones… and wondered if this was something else through which I had to make my way alone.

“I see. Am I the only recruit you have, or…?”

“No, there are two other recruits here already. They have been waiting for us to arrive.”

Guilt stabbed at me, stupidly and unnecessarily. It wasn’t as if I could have flown here from Denerim, after all. I pulled myself upright, determined not to let Duncan down.

“What do you need me to do?”

He smiled, a flash of the kindness I had seen in him on our journey.

“You have a little while yet. Feel free to explore the camp here as you wish, but please do not leave it for the time being. There is another Grey Warden here, by the name of Alistair. When you find him, tell him that we will be ready to begin preparing for the Joining. He will know what to do. Until then, I have business I must attend to. You may find me at the Grey Warden tent on the other side of this bridge, should you need to. And here… take this.” He passed me a folded paper bearing a hastily pressed seal. “Ask the quartermaster to fit you out. Show him that note, and he’ll give you everything you’ll need.”

I looked down at the small disc on the paper. It bore the symbol of some kind of winged, double-headed creature imprinted into the greasy red wax; a symbol very like the one that patterned Duncan’s surcoat.

The Grey Wardens’ griffon.

“Thank you.”

I bowed, and the corner of Duncan’s mouth curled.

“There is one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“You are allowed to look at people when they speak to you, you know.”

My cheeks prickled with heat, but I nodded, and made a point of meeting his gaze. He chuckled.

“Thank you, Duncan.”

“My pleasure.”

He set off across the bridge, his stride purposeful and long, and I stood for a few moments to get my bearings. Ostagar was clearly a very large place, and though the ruins were pitted with cracks and deteriorated chunks of masonry, it was still overwhelming.

From the bridge I could see the whole gorge, and understood the clear sense of the ruins rising from the mighty rocks, as if the fortress had been carved instead of built. The sky, roiling with dimming clouds and the ghost of a pale dusk moon, was wide and unmarked by the silhouettes of buildings that I was used to seeing above me. Beyond the perimeters of the camp, I could make out the tree line, the forest that fringed the Wilds, and the endless miles of flat, treacherous land that ringed Ostagar. I felt so incredibly small.

I began to cross the bridge, nervous of the parts of it long since lost to decay, and unable to stop myself peering through the gaping holes in the stone to the ground so very far beneath.

On the western side of the gorge stood a soldier in the king’s livery, leaning on a stout wooden pike. He nodded at me as I drew nearer.

“Hail! You must be the Grey Warden recruit that Duncan brought.”

I was surprised, but I rallied.

“Y-yes. Well met.”

He smiled genially at me, and glanced around us.

“This place hasn’t seen such bustle in centuries, I’ll wager. Need a hand getting anywhere?”

I looked at the man, taking in the pale, pudgy face beneath his leather helmet. Was he polite because I had come in with Duncan, or simply bored by his long, desolate watch? I didn’t know, but I was grateful to him.

“Possibly,” I said. “Ostagar seems a… large place.”

“Oh, it is.” He nodded. “Used to be a fortress, long time ago, so I understand. Back in the days when the Wilders used to invade the lowlands. You were just on the eastern side of the ruin. The Tower of Ishal is there, but Teryn Loghain’s closed it off until the battle. This side is the king’s camp. We got the Grey Wardens here, the Circle of Magi, the Chantry… you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody important.”

The soldier slipped me a sly grin, and I smiled back, though some of what he’d said had unnerved me.

“The Circle of Magi is here?”

“Oh, yeah.” He nodded. “Well, a few mages. They even brought some of those creepy Tranquil fellows with ’em. Give me the shivers, they do, way they talk… and their eyes. They’re just to the north, all bunched up with a herd of templars glaring at them. Can’t miss it.”

“I see.” The sound of baying drifted on the cooling air, and I glanced in the direction it had come from, suddenly curious.  “Do I hear dogs barking?”

“This is Ferelden, isn’t it?” He chuckled. “Yeah… the king has his kennels on the west side of camp. Stinks from all the hounds. These aren’t cute puppies, though—some of those dogs bite the darkspawn and get too much of that blood in them… It’s like poison. Slow, painful death. Terrible.”

I blanched, but my new acquaintance didn’t give me time to question him.

“Still, you’ll need to know the important stuff. Latrines are by the right here, just past the Magi tents. Mess is to the north… follow your nose, really, but if you’ll take my advice, stay away from the stew. The infirmary’s up the steps, near the quartermaster’s store; that’s just a little northwest of here.”

“Thank you. And, um, I’m looking for a Grey Warden by the name of Alistair? I don’t suppose…?”

“Try heading north. I think he was sent with a message for the mages.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “And good luck to you, miss.”

I smiled nervously. Miss? Perhaps, despite everything, there were some perks to being one of Duncan’s new recruits. I passed by the soldier and headed under the tall, covered arch, the remnants of one of Ostagar’s Tevinter domes, and into the body of the camp.

It was a maelstrom of activity, but very different to the kind of liveliness I’d been used to in the alienage. Here, everyone moved with purpose. Soldiers walked briskly, or stood in groups, and I saw with a mix of relief and discomfort the familiar figures of elven servants and messengers darting between the tents and encampments.

My mind drifted again to Nessa, and how worried she’d been by thoughts of coming here. It seemed her fears could have been unfounded; I saw several women among the soldiers’ ranks, which I hadn’t expected.

The ruined arches, domes and columns dominated everything, mottled with age and lichen, their sheer scale dizzying, but the many brightly coloured tents of the different encampments were a pleasing—if rather strange—contrast to all the grey stone.

It felt very odd to be wandering here, as if I’d stepped into the pages of a book of tales, like the ones Mother had given me. This place, these people… they were the bones of Fereldan politics and government. Arls, banns, knights, commanders, the king himself, and Teyrn Loghain! Liberators, defenders of our independence… heroes. Names I knew, in the way I knew the second-hand traces of history and lore that filtered down into our culture.

Story-telling in the alienage never had much good to say about the Orlesian occupation. To my father’s generation, they were slavers and oppressors, not to be spoken of, the same way some of the older people would spit at the mere mention of magic. To mine, born and raised after the Battle of River Dane, the horror stories were only stories… but the rumours lingered, both about the occupation, and Orlais itself.

I’d heard it said that, in Val Royeaux, there was an alienage no bigger than Denerim’s market square, and it held ten thousand elves who lived in filth and squalor much worse than ours. I didn’t know whether it was true or not.

Perhaps those stories—like the mean little opinions we nursed of humans—were our way of justifying ourselves, and the existence we had.

In any case, Loghain’s was a heroic name. The farmboy who had risen to become a teyrn, the star of the Rebel Queen’s Resistance, the brilliant strategist who’d freed the country from tyranny, and whose daughter was now Queen of Ferelden…. Surely, I thought, if there was a war to be fought against even as great an evil as the darkspawn, King Cailan had the right general for the job.

I decided I should head first for the quartermaster. If I was to be here, fighting alongside the army—and the thought filled me with gut-churning terror, because what did I truly know about warfare or combat?—I should at least have the right equipment. Clutching Duncan’s note in my hand, I headed in the direction the soldier on the bridge had shown me.

There was so much going in, it was hard to keep my bearings. Beyond one of the great Tevinter domes lay the Circle of Magi’s camp and, through the stone columns, came glimpses of the flashes of magical fire and energy that signalled the mages sparring, or practising their aim… or whatever it was they were doing. I had precious little experience of magic in any form, and must confess that it terrified me. Fear so often finds its way into the gaps ignorance leaves. I associated the Circle mostly with the Tranquils who could occasionally be seen in the market back home—their low, even voices, blank faces and eerie, dull eyes—and, beyond that, I was rather suspicious of all practitioners. They were something apart, something different, and what I perceived as their arrogance frightened me. To have that kind of power…. I saw it as dangerous, and let myself think no further than that.

I passed by the Magi encampment, my pace quickening. There were a number of Chantry priests and clerics here too, and I was much more comfortable with their presence. There was something familiar about the flashes of red and gold, glimpsed among the grey walls and columns, and the dark browns and dull metallic glimmers of leather and splintmail armour.

As I headed to the quartermaster’s store, I passed a rough wooden gantry from which a cleric was leading prayers. Several soldiers were gathered, listening, some kneeling… many white-faced and coldly serious.

“Soldiers of Ferelden, my sisters and gentle folk,” the cleric intoned, “we stand here on the eve of battle. Let us consider the evil before us. In their pride, the mages of the Tevinter Imperium sought to open a portal into the heavenly Golden City itself. They tainted it with their sin, and they were cast back into our world as darkspawn. They are man’s sins made flesh, an evil that spreads like an illness across our land….”

I hadn’t meant to stop and listen, but I found I had, all the same. The tale was familiar, yet today it echoed with so many new truths. It was no longer a myth, no longer just a story, a warning against greed and pride. I glanced at the faces around me, and wondered how many of them had already met with the kind of horrors I had yet to imagine. The cleric spread her arms wide and raised her voice, earnest and clear.

“To face them, we must first face the evil within ourselves. Let us bow our heads and beg the Maker’s forgiveness. Let us not be proud, so we may take courage against the darkness.”

I bowed my head for a moment amid the murmurs of assent and prayer, and felt so out of place. I tried to brush the sense of dislocation away; there was no use in fixing on how much I missed home now. I had no way of getting word back there, either letting Father and everyone else know how I was, or making sure they were all right—and they would be all right, I told myself, they would.

No, this was where I belonged, at least for now. And I had better get used to that fact.

The quartermaster’s store was nestled in the crook of one of the more solid parts of the ruin. What it once been—keep, barracks, or some more public chamber, I wasn’t sure—but it was now a hub of commotion. Wooden crates were piled high, and I was almost lost in the comings and goings of soldiers after supplies and equipment. Snatches of conversation stood out from the buzz like chance reflections on glass.

“What d’you mean he ain’t got no greaves?” one man’s rough, broad voice cried. “I need ’em! Look at this… falling off. Well, when’s the new armour expected, then?”

“And what good’s it gonna do against darkspawn, anyway?” chimed a second. “Have you seen one of ’em, close up?”

A third overlapped, apparently nothing to do with the first.

“How many, then? And none of that second-rate rubbish, mind….”

Close by me, two soldiers with their helms doffed pushed past, their words hushed.

“Psst… have you heard? Arl Howe’s forces are overdue, they’re sayin’.”

“Oi, don’t you go talking like that, Mikal. Sarge’ll have your guts.”

“I’m just saying. Word is the big push comes tomorrow. If they’re not here by then, where are we left? Eh?”

I was curious, and wanted to hear more—one of the few advantages of being largely ignored when standing in a group of shems—but I had been spotted.

“You there! Elf!”

The quartermaster was a large, burly man, red-faced and short-tempered. Standing in the middle of his wares like a ringmaster, he raised one meaty hand and pointed accusingly at me, bushy black brows drawn into a scowl.

“Where’s my armour?”

I automatically tensed, shoulders hunched and neck held tight, catching my breath and annoyed at myself for doing so.

“I-I’m sorry,” I stammered, holding Duncan’s note in front of me like a shield. “I’m not—”

The shem seized the note from me, squinted at it, and his entire face shifted.

“Oh.”

It was like watching a waterfall. All the supercilious crassness melted into confusion, and in turn that became a hasty mishmash of concern and guarded respect.

“You’re the one who arrived with the Grey Warden.” He blinked and looked apologetically at me, the excuses tripping over each other on their way out of his mouth. “Please forgive my rudeness. There are so many elves running about, and I’ve been waiting for— It’s simply been so hectic! I never thought…. P-please pardon my terrible manners. I-I am just the quartermaster, a simple man, no one special….”

It was a heady kind of pleasure, and thrilled me in a very ignoble way.

I had never had a human grovel like that to me before, and I added it to my fast-growing mental list of impossible things. I’d been bowed to by a king, had I not? For the briefest of moments, I felt invincible.

I met the quartermaster’s gaze coolly.

“Perhaps you should treat your servants more kindly.”

“Y-yes, of course. You’re very right.” He flourished Duncan’s note. “I’ll get your kit seen to right away, and perhaps you’d care to browse my… other supplies?”

The man lowered his voice, ushering me to the quieter end of the store, behind the wooden table that served as his counter.

“What kind of supplies do you have?” I asked.

“Arms and armour, for the most part, though I also have some… goods on the side I can provide. Strictly off the record, of course. To keep morale up, you understand.”

I suppressed a smile. “Thank you. I’ll take a look.”

The quartermaster seemed relieved. He tapped the side of his nose with one thick finger and nodded.

“So long as you keep it quiet.”

He drew a heavy, iron-hinged box out from under one of the tables, and set it down in front of me while he busied himself looking through crates and chests.

I opened the box, and bit down on a small gasp. It was a treasure trove like I’d never seen; packets of sweetmeats and dried fruit, wrapped in wax paper, sugarloaf and pound cake, herbs and spices… all kinds of things that, from what I’d heard, were eminently preferable to standard army rations. My mouth watered, my empty stomach clenching like a fist. I had the best part of five silvers to call my own—Valora’s gift to me before I left, tucked in beneath the clothes she’d packed for me—and I wasn’t sure I should spend it. I was still vacillating when the quartermaster came back, his arms full of armour in different sizes, and a leather pack dangling from his hand.

He set the lot down on the table, and smiled nervously at me.

“I, er, I’m afraid we might have to do a little trial and error here,” the quartermaster said ruefully, giving me a greasy smile. “I don’t have a lot of stock in your, um, size.”

~o~O~o~

It took the best part of an hour to get me completely outfitted. I’d never realised there was so much to it, but I soon learned otherwise. There were toughened leather boots that almost reached my knees (though they probably weren’t so high on most humans), their soles studded with nails, laces for said boots, and undersocks—two pairs, in my case, as the smallest available size was still too big. The leather-padded breeches I rather liked, and could have wished I’d had on the ride from Denerim. They went under what the quartermaster called a standard issue leather armour; a sort of tunic with a toughened breastplate and ornate tooling across the yoke. It didn’t fit properly but, once I was in and a few cunning adjustments had been made with a sharp knife and a few extra laces, it was surprisingly comfortable and lightweight.

A wide leather belt cinched around my waist, with plenty of room for anything I might need to carry, and the skirt of the armour—a fringe of mail rings and leather plackets—afforded mid-thigh modesty as well as a little extra protection. Shoulder and elbow guards completed the picture, and the quartermaster asked if I’d be shooting a bow.

“Um….”

I looked blankly at the man.

“Or crossbow? I don’t know rightly what your specialisation is, miss. Most of the Wardens I’ve seen round here go equipped for any eventuality. Got a lovely selection of blades, I have, and a right couple of beauties for bows. Genuine dwarven-made mechanisms, or best quality wood, long and short. Elm, ash… whatever your preference.”

How did I say I had no real idea what he was talking about? I swallowed, my tongue rough against the roof of my mouth.

“Er… could I see the blades?”

Definitely firmer ground. The quartermaster brought out a crate of weaponry, and I thought of the two worn kitchen knives I’d stashed in my pack before I left home, not quite knowing what I intended to use them for.

“Help yourself, miss.”

The man stood back, and I was certain he could not only tell my inexperience, but was laughing at it. I was determined not to look a fool, and I lifted out a sword with a leather-braided hilt and plain, dark scabbard.

Unsheathing the blade, I was struck by its quality, the lightness of the folded steel, and the balance of it. Like the sword Duncan had sent into the dark cells of the arl’s estate, this felt at once as if it was an extension of me, not some metal weight to be toted arduously on the end of my arm. The memories—still so fresh, though they were hundreds of miles away—filled my mind and, unthinking, I brought the sword around in a sweet, solid arc, testing the feel of it through the swing.

No dull smack of flesh this time, no grunt of pain. No screams. I could almost hear Mother pacing me through count after count, showing me how to see and feel the way an opponent was going to move, even before he knew it himself. I smiled.

“Y-yes….”  The quartermaster’s voice wobbled a little. “Very nice.”

I blinked and turned to look at him, unsure whether the man’s nervous expression was to do with seeing an elf armed and armoured, or— Well, I hadn’t even grazed him with the sword. What was there to be frightened of there?

I picked out a very nice pair of grey iron daggers and slid them into my belt, then took a look at the bows on offer. My inexperience aside, the longbow was out of the question, as the thing was almost bigger than I was, and there was no way I’d have been able to draw it. The shortbow looked more manageable, but I decided on the crossbow. The quartermaster explained at length about the superiority of dwarven-made firing mechanisms, and suggested I pay a visit to the butts at the western end of the camp, where the archery captain could tell me how supplies were running for knockback bolts.

“Knockback…?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, yes. Tipped with a little, ahem, somethin’ special,” he said, leaning furtively down to me. “Know what I mean? I don’t know if you’re versed in such things, mind, but… well, every little helps, doesn’t it?”

He ferreted in another of his crates for a few moments, and came out with another small box.

“Just a few, er, curiosities I happen to have acquired,” the quartermaster said nonchalantly, lifting the lid and showing me a selection of tiny vials and bottles, all in dark glass. “Got corrosives, venoms, magebane… all manner of things. Interested?”

I bit my lip. “Maybe later.”

“As you please. Now, you’ll want bracers, and gloves. Fingerless? Makes reloading that much easier, mark you. And, um, I’m not sure what you’ll want to do about a helmet….”

That was a good point.

Human ears are, to elven eyes, strange things, like the afterthought of a sculptor not given to concerning himself with details. For us, ears are important—at least as much as any other feature of a person. Even the homeliest girl, with dainty ears that are well set and nicely angled, can be considered pretty.

Mine, of course, had always been a little on the large side, and about as dainty and delicate as the rest of me, which was probably why I so keenly noticed good ears in others.

However, my insecurities were irrelevant. The inescapable truth was that helmets weren’t designed to accommodate elven ears… especially ones as wide as mine. I ended up taking a leather archer’s cap with me, cut high to leave room for a bowman to sight his arrow, with a leather chinstrap and flap at the back of the neck. I stuffed the thing in my new pack, and somehow hoped I wouldn’t need it.

Finally, I left the quartermaster, completely decked out in gear I knew must have cost more than a year’s earnings back home. My belt and back bore weapons, and my presence here as a Warden—albeit still a recruit—seemed to generate respect, which was new enough to me to feel like a dream.

And, of course, I had a few small packets of sugared pound cake stowed at the bottom of my pack. Few things can lift the heart higher.

I was heading out from the store and towards the west end of camp when I spotted a slim, dark-haired man trying to flirt with one of the soldiers: a blonde woman in heavy splintmail armour, whom he’d corned by the steps that led up to the infirmary.

“So… any last wishes I can help fulfil before you head into battle?” the man asked cheerfully. “Life is fleeting, you know. That pretty face could be decorating some darkspawn spear this time tomorrow.”

The soldier fingered the hilt of her sword in a meaningful manner, but it did little to dispel the man’s bright, chirpy tone.

“Shall I take that quiet glare as a no? Ah, well. Too bad.”

She strode past, muttering under her breath, and he turned to face me, still grinning optimistically. My heart sank, years’ worth of memories from the alienage reminding me of the letching we endured from grubby-pawed guards… but this man’s demeanour was not the same. He was sharp-eyed, tan-skinned, and quick on his feet, rather like the stray dogs we used to get on the midden piles back home.

And, oddly, even though he was eyeing me up, I didn’t feel threatened.

I was trying to decide whether that was due to his playful smile, or the large sword I now carried, when he spoke.

“Well, you’re not what I thought you’d be.”

“No?” I quirked an eyebrow. “And what did you think I’d be?”

“Well, not an elf. Yet here you are. Duncan’s third recruit, right?”

I nodded. “Merien. And you are…?”

“The name’s Daveth.” His grin widened. “It’s about bloody time you came along. I was beginning to think they’d cooked this ritual up just for our benefit.”

Perhaps, a little while ago, I would have apologised, or looked at the ground. Instead, I just shrugged.

“It was a long journey from Denerim.”

“Denerim? Really? You too?” Daveth chuckled. “Well, well. Small world.”

“What do you know about this Joining ritual?” I asked, not particularly wanting to dwell on my home city.

He edged closer, leaned in, and fixed me with a conspiratorial stare.

“We-ell… I happened to be sneaking around camp last night, see, and I heard a couple of Grey Wardens talking. So I listen in for a bit, and I’m thinking they plan to send us into the Wilds.”

I was nonplussed. “The Wilds?”

“Yeah.” Daveth looked at me as if I was an idiot. “We’re right on the northern edge of the Korcari Wilds here. Miles and miles of savage country. My home village isn’t far, and I grew up on tales about the Wilds. Even been in there a few times… scary place.”

I determinedly pushed away the thoughts I’d had on the journey, of bandits and monsters behind every tree. No. I was going to be brave, and worthy of whatever it was I was expected to do here. I owed Duncan that much in payment for my life.

Besides, I wasn’t totally convinced that Daveth wasn’t winding me up. I looked carefully at his narrow, poorly shaven face, and decided I wouldn’t be able to tell whether he was or not. Whatever else the man was, he was a trickster, and a clever one at that… and, human or not, I found I rather liked him.

“All right,” I said, playing along. “Why are the Wilds so frightening?”

“You don’t know?” Daveth widened his dark eyes. “There’s all sorts out there. Cannibals, beasts, witches, and now darkspawn. What isn’t to be scared of?”

He pulled a face, as if terrified, and I couldn’t help smiling. I suspected this man was a great deal braver than he pretended—or that he at least had the sense to identify and run from danger long before it caught him. He wore leather armour much like mine, though his seemed slightly different to the quartermaster’s goods, and was spotted with more grease stains. The carved pommel of the dagger at his hip definitely spoke of a more personal weapon than standard issue, and he wore a shortsword across his back.

Daveth shook his head. “Nah, it’s all too secretive for me. Makes my nose twitch. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Like we have a choice.”

Another conscript, I wondered? It seemed too soon to ask. I might only have been in the camp a short while, but already I realised that the army was very like the alienage; you didn’t ask questions of anyone to whom you’d mind giving your own answers, and you didn’t presume the right to pry before it was granted. I smiled at my fellow recruit.

“I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”

“Oh, I’ll watch your back.” Daveth chuckled, his gaze dropping to skim my figure.

I expected to be annoyed, or at least to blush, but it didn’t quite happen.

“Just don’t get too distracted back there,” I warned.

He laughed. “I’ll try to keep my wits about me. Anyway, I’ll be seeing you later, and then I guess we’ll all see what this ritual’s all about.”

I bade him farewell, and watched him go. That cocky stride was familiar to me, though I’d not seen it on a human before. He reminded me of some of the boys I’d grown up with in the alienage—that odd mix of pride and knowing, of cunning and sheer, blind guts. Dirty knees but perfectly combed hair.

I smiled to myself, and supposed that maybe I could get used to this new life.

Still, all this talk of the Joining ritual had me worried. As if the coming battle wasn’t enough to face. What would we be required to do? Prove our bravery, recite some strange, archaic oath?

I headed on towards the westerly end of camp, passing by the kennels on my route. The solider I’d spoken to earlier had been quite right; it stank of dog. More than that, though… there was the unmistakeable, sickly hint of illness. The baying of hounds grew louder, and I wanted to hurry on, but a voice called out to me.

“’Scuse me! Miss?”

I turned, and found a man in heavy leather gauntlets and a foul apron waving hopefully at me. His pouchy, haggard face split into a smile as I approached.

“Hello. Are you the new Warden? I could use some help.”

It still surprised me to be addressed that way—to be asked, not commanded.

I crossed to where the man stood, by one of the many wooden gates that led to the dog pens. Thick layers of bedding straw covered the cold, hard ground and, in the pen behind the human, I could make out the hunched body of an enormous dog.

“What’s the problem?”

The kennel master rubbed his chin with one gloved hand. “See here?”

He pointed into the pen, and the dog’s head immediately snapped up, a low growl of warning bubbling in its throat. I’d never seen such a strong, fearsome animal. Its massive shoulders supported a bull-like neck, leading to a wide skull and short, powerful muzzle with jaws like a vice. The legs were hard and compact, and the coat short, a brownish brindle through which the outline of every muscle showed.

“This here’s a mabari. Smart breed, and very strong. His owner died in the last battle, and the poor hound swallowed darkspawn blood. I have medicine that might help, but I need him muzzled first.”

“I don’t really know anything about dogs….”

The kennel master smiled awkwardly. “Well, it’s not what you know so much as what you are, really.”

I eyed the human suspiciously. “Sorry?”

An elf, I assumed. Quick and nimble… and no one would mind if I got bitten.

“You’re a Grey Warden,” the man said,  “or soon will be. They say the Wardens are immune to the darkspawn taint, so the most you’d have to worry about is a few toothmarks.”

This was news to me, not that it was all that encouraging. I looked at the hound, and the string of drool escaping from its immense jaws.

“And, er, just how smart is this dog?”

“They say, centuries ago, a mage bred them to be smart enough to understand what they’re told. They can remember and carry out complex orders. Most valuable dogs in the world,” he added proudly. “Trouble is, they generally imprint onto one master; re-imprinting them can be difficult. Of course, if I can’t treat this fellow, re-imprinting him won’t be an issue.”

The dog looked up at me from within the wooden bars of his pen, and let out a piteous whine.

“I’ll give it a shot,” I said.

The kennel master sighed, relived. “Oh, thank you, Warden. Go in the pen and let him smell you. We’ll know right away if he’ll respond. Let’s hope this works… I would really hate to have to put him down.”

He unlocked the gate for me, and I slipped through into the hound’s pen. The animal stank of pain and fear, and he looked at me dourly, head lowered and lips pulled back into a tooth-filled grimace. The growl was deep and unwavering, but the hound didn’t try to bite me. I held out my hands, palms first, and let him scent me. His wide, black nose wrinkled, but other than that he did not move.

The kennel master passed the leather muzzle over the gate. I edged gently forwards and, as quickly as I could, fastened the thing over the hound’s head. The dog let out a small whine, but did not struggle or threaten. I gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder, and slipped from the pen.

“Well done!” The kennel master beamed at me, looking more than ever like one of his wrinkle-snouted wardogs. “Now I can treat the dog properly—poor fellow. Come to think of it, Warden, are you heading into the Wilds any time soon?”

I brushed the lingering bits of straw and dog hair from my hands, and tried not to think of Daveth’s words about witches and cannibals. Would they really subject us to something like that? Some test of bravery, like schoolboys measuring their yards behind the boghouse? I hadn’t thought Duncan the type to put much store in whether we quivered at superstitions or not… which probably meant something else was in store. I pushed the thoughts away.

“I might be. Why?”

“There’s a particular herb I could use to improve the dog’s chances. It’s a flower that grows in the swamps here, if I remember. If you happen across it, I could use it. It’s very distinctive; all white with a blood-red centre.”

The kennel master smiled encouragingly at me, and I knew I wouldn’t refuse. It would have been like… well, kicking a puppy.

“All right,” I said. “Where in the Wilds would I find this flower?”

“It usually grows in dead wood that collects at the edge of ground pools. There should be plenty this time of year. I’d go meself, but there’s no one to watch the pens, and—”

“It’s fine,” I assured him. “I’ll see if I can find one.”

“Much obliged to you, Warden. In the meantime, I’ll start treating our poor friend here.”

As if on cue, the muzzled mabari looked up at me and wagged his stumpy tail pathetically. I smiled at the hound, and took my leave of the kennel master, promising I’d return as soon as I could.

It might have been the armour, or the unfamiliar sensation of being accorded a little respect, but I was starting to feel like a totally different person. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror in more than two days, but I knew the way I looked had changed. The bruises on my face—the late Lord Braden’s knuckle prints, plus the other various cuts and scrapes I’d acquired that horrible day—were still very tender, and must have risen to glorious shades of purple and blue by now, obscuring the uneven blotching of freckles that usually marked my cheeks. I probably resembled some kind of bar-room scrapper, I thought, almost laughing at the image. Either that, or the cheapest kind of petty mercenary.

Nevertheless, I felt… stronger. I’d survived this far, hadn’t I? Even if it didn’t feel real, I was still here, and that was something.

~o~O~o~

Up another set of steps, to the far end of camp, a large group of soldiers had gathered. The ruins of the fortress lay open to the elements here; the great arches and buttresses like the bare-picked bones of some huge beast. Below, the forest waited… and held who knew what horrors.

The soldiers seemed to waiting for some kind of address, so I thought it would probably be a good idea to slip in at the back and see what I could learn, painfully aware as I was of my lack of experience and training.

I overheard snatches of conversation as I slipped through the ranks, and for the first time I sensed how frightened some of these men and women were. King Cailan’s enthusiasm did much to bolster morale—as did his time spent drinking and dicing with the men, instead of hiding himself away in his tent, or so I’d heard—but it didn’t quell all of the whispers that flitted around the edges of the camp.

“You can never get the stink off, I swear,” one man muttered, as I edged past. “It’s poison, that’s what it is. We’re all going to get sick.”

“Psst.” Another soldier nudged the man next to her in the ribs. “I heard this is supposed to be the battle to send the darkspawn back underground. Do you believe that?”

Her comrade—a thin, tallish man with a ragged brown beard—gave her a blank look and then shook his head violently. His eyes were pale blue, and had something of the texture of undercooked eggs about them.

“I don’t know what to believe,” he said, his voice strangulated, as if he didn’t want to speak his thoughts. “We’ve won every battle, but there’s more of them each time.”

“Makes you wonder if them Grey Wardens are right. If—”

“I don’t wanna think about it.”

The first soldier snorted and folded her arms. “Sounds like the perfect time to get drunk, if you ask me. Hey, did you hear? The last scouting party made it back last night. Barely.”

The egg-eyed man had turned to face straight ahead again, and I wondered why she didn’t just leave him alone. Did humans really need the reassurance of knowing they were all as scared as each other?

“What d’you mean?” he whispered hoarsely, not looking at her.

“Only two of them made it,” the soldier said, her face grim, “and one of ’em was minus a leg. Said they encountered some darkspawn that was ten feet tall, with horns as long as your arm. The injured one died last night. They said his blood was already turning black.”

“Maker’s breath!” The man winced. “Where are they all coming from?”

She just shook her head, and said nothing more.

I stayed where I was, unnoticed and unacknowledged in the press of bodies. Behind us, archers were clustered at the practice butts, and the repetitive thwack of arrows thronged the uneasy quiet as the soldiers waited. I could make out a bundle on the flagstones at the front of the group, and I didn’t know what it was, except for the fact it smelled foul… like rotting meat and old blood.

It reminded me of the cheap butcher’s shop by the south market gate of the alienage, which always used to throw its slops into the gutters at closing time. Rivers of offal and thick, foul-smelling blood would seep down under the gate, mixing with the mud and filth, and on summer evenings the stench grew so bad it turned even strong men’s stomachs.

Movement in front of the assembled troops pulled me from my thoughts. A man in heavy mail and studded leather, his armour almost as worn and battle-beaten as his face, stepped up before us. I didn’t know who he was, but the way he held himself—and the way every face in the crowd turned at once to him, and every back straightened—told me he was a man of rank.

“All right, men, listen up.”

Silence fell across the group, and there were a few heel-clicks and cries of ‘Yes, sarge!’, followed by awkward chortles of laughter. The sergeant smiled grimly, and I caught a glimpse of the warmth and camaraderie that must, in less dire times, be a heartening component of army life. But, at that moment, nothing could distract us from the bundle on the stones.

The sergeant reached down and pulled back the foul, stained blanket that I now saw covered it, revealing a bloody corpse. It was smaller than elf-height, though stocky and clad in thick-splinted leather armour. I could make out a head, two arms, two legs… and there the similarity to anything familiar seemed to end.

The creature had clawed, gnarled hands, and skin of a putrid, greenish colour. Its head was bald, the ears less like an elf’s than a bat’s, ragged and thin. The face was damaged, and from what I could see contorted in a gruesome death spasm, but the mouth was open, showing ranks of wicked, fang-like teeth. That horrific, lipless maw gaped, wide as a trap and twice as deadly, pulled back tight over black gums. Beneath tiny, squinting eyes, nearly buried in folds of skin, the lower part of the face was more like a muzzle than anything else. The blood that marked the corpse—crusted around numerous wounds, and staining the creature’s armour—was thick and black, not from exposure to the air, but as if it had never been any other colour.

I was both terrified and sickened. Was this repulsive specimen a taste of what we would face in battle? I stared at the creature, trying to imagine how it must have moved in life, what it sounded like… how quick it was, and how dangerous. This new existence of mine—warrior, Warden, whatever I was to become—felt more than ever like a death sentence, and I struggled to believe it wasn’t all some sick dream.

“Now, listen,” the sergeant said, raising his voice as he pointed down to the corpse. “This wretched thing is a darkspawn. They’re strong and cunning and smart, but don’t listen to those old wives’ tales. They can be killed. Stick them with your sword enough, and they go down.”

A general shuffling of feet and bodies descended as the group craned for a better look. Murmured oaths and whispers of disbelief rustled through the crowd.

“Their blood is black as sin, and poisonous,” the sergeant said. “You hear? Don’t even touch it. You get tainted with that blood, and you may as well slit your throat. We’ve lost many dogs already. Had to muzzle ’em to keep ’em from biting. It’s a long and painful way to die.”

I thought of the kennel master’s mabari, and understood what the man had meant. I’d assumed it was just the pain that made the hounds vicious but, looking at this… thing, it seemed no small leap to imagine it could be so lethally corrupted.

“There are lots of darkspawn,” the sergeant went on. “Different kinds. Now, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but… it is true we’re getting reports of things we’ve never even heard of out there.”

That met with increased muttering from the soldiers. I heard one man’s voice, barely lowered and strained with panic:

“See? I told you—long as yer arm! They’ll kill us all…. Kill us, and eat us!”

The sergeant straightened up and scowled into the press of men.

“Oi! I want this nonsense talk stopped. Now. You understand? What are you, a bunch of fishwives, spreading gossip until you brown your smallclothes out of terror?” He shook his head wearily. “I will say this once more. We’ve seen nothing—I repeat, nothing—to suggest that the darkspawn drag our people underground to eat them. And I want this talk about enslaving survivors to stop immediately. All right?”

Assorted mumbles of ‘yes, sarge’ filtered through the soldiers, but a distinct sense of unease remained.

“Right, then. Back to our short friend.” The sergeant kicked the corpse savagely with the side of his boot. “This here is something called a genlock. They’re pretty common in the horde, but we have seen others much larger. We don’t know where these new darkspawn are coming from, or what they can do. All I can say is to use caution, and remember: there aren’t any we’ve seen that won’t die, once they bleed enough.”

I wish I could say it was a comforting thought. The sergeant went on to demonstrate the weak points in the creature’s armour, their vulnerabilities and the most significant dangers they posed. I stayed, watched and listened, and learned a great deal, though precious little of it even felt real.

“All right, that’s it. Now, we’ll be burning this carcass so it doesn’t infect anything. And as for you lot,” the sergeant added, “you take what you’ve learned here, and use it. Keep your minds focused on the battle. You fight for Ferelden, and for your king. Remember that.”

Slowly, the gathering began to disperse. A couple of soldiers started to heap wood together, and by the time I had explored the archery butts—and learned by sight the basic theory of how to fire a crossbow without flaying my fingers or shooting myself in the knee—the smell of wood smoke was already heavy on the air. The light was thinning, and the coming dusk brought with it a sharp chill, and a sense of foreboding.

As I walked back towards the centre of the camp, the Chantry clerics were still leading prayers from their rough wooden gantry. It unsettled me to realise that I heard them now with an altogether different, and rather bitterer ear. I had seen my first glimpse of the darkspawn—those things of legends and allegory, the sins of the magisters made flesh—and it had opened up a new world for me, full of darker things and colder realities than I had dreamt of before.

“Maker above,” the cleric intoned, “hear the prayers of your sons and daughters. We who betrayed your prophet Andraste now beg your forgiveness. Do not abandon us in our darkest hour. Watch over valiant King Cailan and guide him as he faces this terrible evil.”

Several of the soldiers, and many knights, were gathered at the foot of the gantry, some kneeling in prayer and others standing silently, their faces strangely drawn, blank in the way I have since learned tells of horrible memories that run close to the surface. I stopped, listened… and longed for a little of the warmth and comfort I used to get from the sisters’ words when I was a child.

“Watch over Teyrn Loghain and give him the wisdom to bring us victory against the scourge of shadows. Watch over Ferelden, the homeland of holy Andraste. Keep her people safe from the darkspawn. Let us bow our heads and offer prayers to the Maker, that He might find us worthy.”

Yes, I prayed. I don’t even really know what for; looking back, I know I didn’t understand what would come. I knew nothing of how battle worked, how messy and chaotic it all was, or what role I was supposed to play. I was frightened. If I beseeched the Maker for anything, it was probably to wake up in my own bed and be told I’d had a terrible dream.

The words were all there, of course. The Chantry has always given us endless words. There were words for contrition, words for humility… even words to pad out the promise of death with the hope of heroism. The cleric’s voice, clear and well-spoken, rang out around us all, like a bell tolling ships into the docks through the mist. I wonder how many of those men and women truly took comfort from what she said.

“We stand here in this hour, good folk of Ferelden, and we contemplate the death that may await. Death is no failure, my friends. Should it find you, you will not have failed your king. You will have served your Maker.”

All that new-found strength and courage of mine—buoyed up as I’d been, foolish child, by a few smiles and a little eye contact—began to ebb. I hadn’t really faced the possibility of my death, at that time. Not as such an immediate option. My head was full of the bloody genlock corpse and its serried ranks of jagged teeth.

The cleric’s words did not calm me.

“Die in this battle and when you stand before the Maker in the land beyond the Fade, He shall not find you wanting. Go not into death gladly, but with the knowledge that evil has been held at bay by your spilled blood.”

Did sacrifice truly work like that? Could the Blight be ended here? And did that prospect really help those who would be asked to lay down their lives for it?

“And, if you go to stand beside the Maker, go with our blessing. For you shall not be forgotten. My friends, let us bow our heads and remember those who have fallen and those who have yet to fall.”

I felt it, then. The grief and the terror of all those gathered around me. The soldiers and the knights in their mighty armour, great swords and bright shields slung across their backs. They seemed to me invulnerable, like the tall statues that were hewn from Ostagar’s ancient stones and lined so many of the fortress’ bridges and walkways. Impassive… impenetrable. But they weren’t. I could smell their fear, and their loss.

Three battles here already, Duncan had said. Each one a victory, but at what cost? And with what more to come?

I turned to leave, wanting to sneak quietly away from the gathering, but one of the priests shuttling between this informal open-air chantry, and the infirmary that lay up the next stairway, caught my eye. She smiled at me, a figure of calm and tranquillity in her red-and-gold robe, her auburn hair coiled neatly at the back of her neck. I was reminded of Revered Mother Boann, back in Denerim, who had tried so hard to stand between us and Vaughan.

“Ah! I suspect you are one of the new Grey Wardens.”

Was I really so recognisable? I supposed it was something to do with being the only elf in armour in the entire camp… or, at least, the only one I’d seen so far.

The priest inclined her head. “Will you accept the Maker’s blessing?”

I nodded. It would have been churlish to refuse and, in any case, I didn’t feel I was in much of a position to refuse help or benediction, whatever form it came in.

“I will. Thank you.”

She stretched out her palm, lowered her gaze, and uttered words I tried so hard to draw strength from.

“Then I bless you, Grey Warden, in the name of Andraste and the Maker above. May the Chant of Light carry your name to the ears of our Lord.”

I thanked the woman and, as I turned to leave, my path crossed that of a broad, stocky human in heavy mail. He wore a huge greatsword across his back, and his bare head bore large, doughy features that he stretched into an uncertain smile as he approached me.

“Greetings. You must be the third recruit we’ve heard about?”

His voice marked him out; certainly as different to Daveth, and about as far removed from the humans I was used to as it was possible to be. Well-spoken, educated… a knight, I guessed, though his armour was unlike that of most of the king’s men. I bowed my head.

“I am, ser. Merien Tabris. And you…?”

“Ser Jory is my name. I hail from Redcliffe, where I served as knight under the command of Arl Eamon.”

His introduction was like a salute, crisp and confident. It would have meant more if I knew of the place, or its lord. I didn’t say as much, of course, but nodded and fought all my body’s urges to bow and stare at the flagstones. Ser Jory’s next words, however, cured me of that compulsion.

“I wasn’t aware elves could join the Grey Wardens,” he said, in a rather arch tone. “Those camped in the valley are all human.”

It was not a direct challenge, but I rose to it as if it might have been. Duncan had brought me here, had he not? That surely meant I had just as much chance, or right, or opportunity as this man and—for the first time in my life—I wasn’t about to let anyone tell me otherwise.

“As far as I am aware,” I said, meeting Ser Jory’s gaze, “it is so.”

There was the smallest breath of a silence, the barest trace of defiance in the air between us. The only other humans I’d spoken to in such a manner had been Lord Vaughan’s cronies, and both of those bastards had ended up dead. A part of me blanched to think that this was what I might become; one of those dark, bitter elves who lashes out at their own kind as readily as at the shems.

“No.” The knight drew himself up to his full, and not inconsiderable, height. “Clearly, the Grey Wardens pick their recruits on their merits. I hope we’re both lucky enough to eventually join the Wardens. Is it not thrilling to be given that chance?”

His change of tack was graceful, and I felt a little foolish for my brusqueness. I nodded.

“Indeed, although I’m curious about the Joining ritual.”

“As am I.” Jory leaned closer, lowering his voice. “Has anyone told you about it?”

“Not to speak of, though Daveth said we might be going into the Wilds.”

His dark eyes widened, and his round, pudgy face creased into a look of mildly indignant concern.

“Truly? Well! I never heard of such a ritual. In fact, I had no idea there were more tests after getting recruited. I… well, I suppose I should go and prepare. I shall see you later, no doubt.”

“No doubt, ser.”

Jory straightened his shoulders—that trace of the salute, the military heel-click, still obviously present—and bade me farewell, until we met again to learn what was expected of us for this strange ceremony.

I watched him go, and supposed I should seek out the mysterious Alistair.

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Five

 
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As we put the market behind us, I trailed in Duncan’s wake and clung to the passing moments like a spider drifting on a breeze, desperately seeking somewhere safe to land.

I’d rarely ever been far outside the alienage gates; whole parts of the city were as uncharted ocean to me, never mind the world beyond it. Of that, the only knowledge I had came from books or stories. Duncan was not the sort of human I was used to, either… although, given the events of that day, that was perhaps no bad thing.

Still, I struggled. I had been brought up, when having to deal with shems, to hide behind stiff politeness and non-committal responses, yet I had so many questions I wanted to ask him. And, as I wavered between tradition and bravery, Duncan confused me further.

He was, I came to learn even in that short time, a kind and generous man, and the respect he showed me meant more than I could possibly express. After a lifetime of being almost invisible to his people, it felt very strange to be the centre of one human’s attention. Yet he didn’t push me. He didn’t ask questions about what had happened at the arl’s estate, or coddle me on our journey.

Later, I would wish that I had been able to open up more to him, but at the time I was nervous.

Perhaps part of me wanted to believe that, somehow, it had all been a trick, that I could blame what had happened on him. After all, Duncan had strolled into our day of festivities, Duncan had been the one to provide Nelaros and Soris with weapons, and Duncan had… saved my life.

It was an uncomfortable chain of thoughts.

The heavens opened as we passed the last of Denerim’s main gates, heading through the bustling throng of carts, trade wagons and travellers, and making for the thoroughfare that led down to the great West Road. It seemed to me that we were the only two people in the world trying to get out of the city instead of in.

To the south, and plainly visible through the needling curtain of rain, Dragon’s Peak rose clearer than I’d ever seen it before, the view unmarked by the city’s towers and parapets. It was a terrible, intimidating sight, accustomed as I was to a man-made landscape, a world of walls and wood, carved stone and plaster, not majestic natural features like this.

I stood and stared, buffeted by the press of people, and then had to scurry to catch up with Duncan. I’d never realised how much habitation there was outside the city walls, either. I’d always thought Denerim was the be-all and end-all of everything, a finite place encircled completely by its fortifications… like the alienage, only larger, I suppose.

Funny, the way you can let yourself think when you know no better.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. The bulk of the capital’s heaving throng of life and industry lay within the city proper but, beyond the walls, there were farmsteads, camps of itinerant traders, hustlers, bards and all other manner of people whom issues of space or dubious legality pushed beyond the reach of the city—and its guards.

I followed Duncan through this strange mishmash of bodies—humans of all kinds, dwarves, and elves, not to mention the ox carts, horses, and covered wagons—and, as we made our way down towards one brightly coloured wagon, he turned to me.

“I don’t suppose you know how to ride?”

“Ride?” Rain dripped off the end of my nose. “Er… horses?”

“Yes,” Duncan said patiently. “The journey to Ostagar would take many days on foot, and I do not think we have that long.”

It couldn’t be all that hard, I reasoned. I’d seen humans on horseback. Riding… horses. Great big, steaming, snorting beasts, standing several heads higher than me, usually. I swallowed hard.

“I, uh… suppose I could probably learn.”

Duncan smiled. “That’s the spirit.”

He led me off the thoroughfare, down towards the wagon, where a fat human in a greasy leather jerkin greeted him with a yellow, toothy smile.

“Ho, ser knight! Seeking a noble steed, are we?”

The shem didn’t even acknowledge me, not that I expected it. I stuck close to Duncan, and behind the wagon I could see a roped-off pen of sorts, housing several tethered horses of all sizes and colours. I knew very little about the animals, but I knew enough to notice the burly and discreetly armed men loitering about the pen’s perimeter. Even with my naïve eye, I doubted the horse trader was the most honest man in his profession, but Duncan had clearly had reason to come to him, rather than any of the ostlers within the city.

“I need two fast horses, Jonquin,” he said, “and quickly.”

“Two?” The shem frowned and then, as he looked at me, his face melted into a buttery sneer. “You’re gonna put an elf on an ’orse? I’ve never ’eard the like. Why, it’s like buying a pony for a donkey!”

Duncan said nothing, but the clear change in his stance—something in the way he drew himself up, straightened his back just a little more, and let his hand rest casually at his belt, just beside the pommel of his dagger—seemed to alter the very atmosphere around us. The trader’s face paled slightly, and that mocking smile shrivelled up like spit on a skillet.

“Of course, it’s your money. Your choice, naturally. I’m sure I can… uh….”

“Two horses,” Duncan repeated. “Fast ones.”

“Right you are, ser.”

It was an impressive display. In less than ten minutes, Jonquin had a pair of beasts picked out for us, and I watched Duncan inspect the animals. One was a huge, shaggy, black-and-white creature with feathered feet the size of dinner plates, the other a lean, rangy thing with a black mane and tail and a dull brown coat. It was the smaller of the two and, despite my nerves, I felt something of an affinity with it… perhaps on account of its plain, rounded nose.

Duncan seemed satisfied with the trader’s choices, and once money had changed hands—a fat purse of sovereigns, from what I could see—and the horses were tacked up and loaded with our packs, I was faced with the seemingly insurmountable problem of how to get up there.

My dress was only the first of my troubles. Duncan swung himself up onto the black-and-white horse with apparent ease and, having watched how he did it, I put my foot into the other’s stirrup and tried to do the same. The animal sensed my discomfort, backed up a few steps, and left me clinging pathetically to the side of the saddle like a limpet, eyes shut in terror as the world whirled around me. Still, my failure made me determined and, after another couple of tries, I managed to seat myself—albeit awkwardly and with very little modesty. I was just thankful that I had cold-weather smallclothes on beneath my dress, so my legs were at least partially covered.

Nevertheless, skirts bundled around my knees and the reins bunched clumsily in my hands, I managed to stay on as my horse followed Duncan’s down the thoroughfare and towards the crossroads. It was no drier, but certainly a faster mode of transport, even at the leisurely pace Duncan set. We quickly reached the fork that led to the West Road, with the sprawling hub of the docks and the expanse of the sea to our backs, and Dragon’s Peak rising dark against the sky.

I turned to glance back up the hill at the great, jagged bulk of the city, its ancient walls bulging out like the ill-fitting corsets of a fat old maid.

“Are you ready?” Duncan asked, drawing his horse level with mine.

The worries that teemed in my mind finally broke through the years of ingrained politeness and acceptance.

“Will they really be safe?” I wanted to know. “My family. I mean, not that I’m not grateful, but… I feel like I’m abandoning them. What if—”

“There is no turning back,” Duncan said, in that low, assured voice of his. “They will be safe enough, and you do much more to help your people by leaving than you could if you stayed. What would your execution have accomplished, hmm? Except a waste of talent.”

I wrenched my gaze from the rumpled silhouette of Denerim, and looked curiously at him. The trace of a smile seemed to linger behind that neatly clipped beard, but I didn’t feel all that heartened. Duncan clicked his tongue, urging his horse on towards the crossroads.

“Ask your questions, dear girl,” he said, as my mount followed his, and I struggled to stay upright in the saddle against that curious lilting motion. “And I will answer what I can.”

It was probably the best I could hope for. The rain was still falling steadily, but the traffic had thinned out and, as we turned onto the West Road itself, our horses walking companionably beside each other, I understood that Duncan was trying to make this easy for me.

Despite everything, I was able to feel grateful for that.

“I… I don’t even know what Grey Wardens do, what they are,” I said, which was true.

Improbable though it seems, given all I would face in the months and years to come, I had barely heard the word ‘darkspawn’ before. To me, they were myths, part of the fire-and-brimstone canticles the Chantry sisters rarely regaled us with in the alienage, and not a tale that overly concerned us.

Growing up, I’d always favoured stories of elven history, poring over snippets of legends about Halamshiral and Arlathan, the Long Walk and the Emerald Knights. Even the books Mother had given me—the colourful, populist histories of Chantry scholars like Genitivi and Petrine—had only mentioned the Wardens lightly, and then as little more than a relic of a mythical past.

“We dedicate our lives,” Duncan said, “to fighting darkspawn wherever they appear, doing whatever it takes to stop them. It is our only charge.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“Um… darkspawn?”

The horse’s swaying gait kept me perpetually off-balance, even as I tried to dredge through my memories of the sisters’ lessons. I recalled snatches of Threnodies—the destruction of the Tevinter mage-lords, the sins of pride and greed, and the Blights that had ravaged the world—but the last such peril had been hundred of years ago. Were those stories really true? And could something that terrible, that horrific, really be happening now?

It didn’t seem possible, but I wasn’t about to call Duncan a liar.

“Since the Imperium fell, the darkspawn have threatened to destroy the world four times over. Each time, the Grey Wardens have prevented that from happening. We watch, always vigilant, always ready to stand against them.”

Vague recollections tickled my thoughts; the magnificent Weisshaupt Fortress, carved into the living rock of the Anderfels. Old stories of griffons, and soldiers who—in the teeth of the First Blight—renounced the Imperium and stood against the darkspawn, uniting Thedas against the threat until the old god Dumat finally fell.

But… they were just stories, weren’t they? Or, at least, history so long since passed that it was as good as myth. The world had seen nothing of that kind for four centuries. As far as I was aware, all Fereldans had needed to worry about recently was the aftermath of the Orlesian occupation, and the struggle to rebuild a muddied, damaged nation.

I just didn’t see how these Grey Wardens fitted into that plan.

“You’re knights, then?” I asked. “Heroes?”

Duncan made a small noise somewhere between a scoff and a chuckle.

“Not precisely. We are an ancient order, that is true, but we come from all walks of life, all places. We are impartial, standing apart from politics and power. There are Grey Wardens all over the world, united by our common charge: to protect against the darkspawn.”

I nodded thoughtfully. Impartial… yet fighting alongside the king. I can’t deny my scepticism, though I didn’t voice it then.

“And what’s happening now? There are really darkspawn at Ostagar?”

“Yes.”

I hadn’t expected that. I’d thought Duncan would edge around an answer, not sound so definite. The smell of wet horse drifted up to my nose. For a moment, there was quiet between us, and nothing but the sound of hooves on the road, and the distant moan of the wind.

“You know what a Blight is?” Duncan asked. “An invasion of darkspawn, rising to the surface. It is happening now, and it must be stopped.”

I blinked at him through the rain. “But… why me? What can I—”

The words sounded petulant, and I broke off. It was a fair question, though: what could I do? When I’d woken that morning, I’d been a child, unprepared even for my own wedding. Now, despite everything that had changed, I was still a child… albeit with blood on my hands.

“It is my duty to seek out new recruits,” Duncan said. “And that is more important now than ever. There are only a few of us left in Ferelden, and we must not fail.”

It should have sounded melodramatic. It should have sounded like madness… but there was no doubting the solemnity of Duncan’s words, or the urgency in his voice. I believed him completely, and that terrified me. How on earth could I become a soldier? Stand against the kind of horrors I’d only ever heard about in stories?

I stared down at the rumpled, damp clumps of my horse’s mane.

“But I know nothing about warfare. I—”

“We do not pick our recruits for what they have learned,” Duncan said enigmatically. “We judge on potential.”

“Potential?” I echoed, confused.

“Yes.” He smiled. “Believe it or not, I had heard a great deal about you before we met. I had business that brought me back to Denerim, and I could not leave without seeing for myself what…. Well, without meeting you.”

Anyone else, and I would have assumed mockery. A frown crowded my forehead, nevertheless.

“How did—” I stopped mid-breath, realising what he must mean. “The hahren? Did he…?”

“Valendrian and I have known each other for almost twenty years,” Duncan said nonchalantly. “Since the time I tried to recruit your mother, in fact.”

The rain folded around me, and I wished I could have convinced myself that I’d misheard. The horse’s pitching stride made me feel unsafe enough; now it seemed that the whole world was tilting under me.

“You tried recruiting my mother?”

“I did indeed. Adaia was a fiery woman,” Duncan added, and his voice held the same traces of pride and affection I’d heard in Dilwyn and Gethon. “She would have made an excellent Grey Warden.”

Yet another thing I could hardly believe. Mother had certainly never mentioned it. What further mysteries had her life held, that she’d never wanted me to be a part of?

“I never made the offer, however,” Duncan said. “Valendrian convinced me it was better for her to remain with her family. As there was no Blight and thus no immediate need for recruits, I deferred to his wishes. But it seems she passed her training on to you.”

“The hahren told you that?”

Another one of those small, almost-smiles, and Duncan inclined his head.

“Even if Valendrian hadn’t informed me of the promise you showed, certain… events would have convinced me.”

I said nothing, vividly reminded of things I would have much preferred to forget. Again, twisted skeins of suspicion threaded their way through my mind. I knew, logically, it was ridiculous to imagine Duncan was in any way responsible for what had happened, but so much remained unanswered.

The questions prodded at me, wheedling and hard to ignore. Why had Vaughan chosen today to enter the alienage? Had he just been drawn to the hubbub of celebration, unable to resist the temptation to tear our rare happiness to shreds? Or had someone given him the idea, sent some word or message?

It was a stupid, desperate thought, born of doubt and distrust, but I wanted to believe it. If everything was Duncan’s fault, perhaps it would lessen the guilt I bore.

Still, there was something I had not yet said, trust or no.

“I haven’t thanked you, Duncan. For the… help you gave us today. Without you—”

“It was nothing, I assure you. Though I am truly sorry for what happened. If I could have intervened….”

“I appreciate what you did,” I said, not wishing to dwell further on the memories, in case they stuck themselves to the inside of my skull again and refused to leave me alone.

Even now, in the quiet moments between new revelations, I was convinced I could hear Shianni screaming.

“Was that why you were at the alienage?” I asked, desperate to fill my mind with something else, latch onto some other question while I remained able. “You were recruiting?”

“Indeed. I had not intended the circumstances to be so dramatic, but… I needed a Grey Warden, and I found one. That conscripting you saved your life was only coincidence, albeit a happy one.”

“So… elves can be Wardens, then?”

Duncan smiled, and I knew how silly I must sound. It was obvious, for why else would I be here? Yet, all the same, I couldn’t quite believe it. So many places didn’t even let us join the military or civic guard.

“In fact,” Duncan said, “some of our greatest heroes have been elven. The Warden Garahel, he who slew the last archdemon, was such a one. We need people like you.”

The confidence in his tone—the implication of faith in my untested abilities—surprised me, and I found it rather more unsettling than comforting, but I supposed that didn’t matter anymore. I was not a volunteer, after all. Duncan’s words reminded me of that.

I was a conscript and, in any case, I owed this man my life. If he decreed I must give it to the Grey Wardens, that was what I’d do, I supposed, though I wondered exactly what that would mean. Would I have to learn to fight, or would my role be the usual elven one, dedicated to fetching, carrying, and brewing tea? I thought of Nessa, and her family’s plan to labour at Ostagar… among all the human soldiers.

The rain slicked my cheeks, dripping from my nose, eyelashes and ears, and sliding down the back of my neck in cold runnels.

“Now,” Duncan said, his voice cutting through my thoughts. “We must make a little more haste. We will be travelling south through the hinterlands to the ruin of Ostagar, on the edge of the Korcari Wilds. You know of the place?”

I shook my head. Only stories; that the Wilds were a vast, uncharted bog, treacherous and terrible. I didn’t relish the prospect of heading there.

“The Tevinter Imperium built Ostagar long ago to prevent the Wilders from invading the northern lowlands,” Duncan said, urging his horse forwards. “It is an excellent defensive position, although it has been a ruin for centuries. The king’s armies are there, along with the few Grey Wardens we currently have in Ferelden. It’s fitting we make our stand there, even if we face a different foe within that forest… but the Blight must be stopped here and now. If it spreads to the north, Ferelden will fall.”

Duncan looked at me through the fine mist of rain. The droplets had settled on his beard and—not for the first time—I wondered how humans managed to grow face hair, and quite what its purpose was.

“Sit down firmly in the saddle,” he said kindly. “And don’t be afraid to hold on tight.”

My heart plummeted, but I nodded. So much for our gentle walking pace.

Duncan’s horse responded to whatever it was he did to it and, with a snort, broke into a fast, shambling gait that quickly became a canter. My mount skittered, keyed up by the excitement, and followed suit. I clung blindly on with every muscle I possessed, and prayed that the animal knew what it was doing, because I certainly didn’t.

~o~O~o~

We pushed the horses hard; Duncan obviously wanted to cover as much ground as possible before we had to make camp for the night. I couldn’t tell you much of the journey, having had my eyes closed for a lot of the time.

When, eventually, we broke pace again and gave the beasts a breather, my whole body felt shaken to pieces. The bruises, bumps, scrapes and whatever else I’d been nursing since the arl’s estate were giving me hell, and now I had a whole new set of painful reminders to add to my collection. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rests never seemed to last long before we were pushing on again.

Duncan promised we’d make camp for the night, but we were still riding when it grew dark. It was a wonder the horses could see where they were going—and a miracle I still hadn’t managed to fall off and break myself—though at least we seemed to have outrun the rain.

At last, we stopped for the night, and hauled in off the side of the highway.

Had I not been so saddle-sore, chafed, winded, shaken about and otherwise in more pain than I recalled ever being before, I would have found the energy to be frightened. Duncan built and lit a fire, and its flickering light cast dancing shadows on the ground.

The road stretched endlessly before us. I glanced around me, taking in, through the stagnant dark, the muted greens and browns, the soggy grass and mud, and the thick, dark stands of trees.

Even the air smelled strange.

I am told one of the key differences between elves and humans is in our senses. We can tell more by scent than they, I think, and we see differently… at least as far as recognising patterns or quick-moving shapes. We can hear at slightly higher pitches, and we’re definitely more sensitive to the cold. Back in the alienage, I grew up hearing those differences described as inequalities, and always angled in our favour. We were dextrous, agile, made for the finer details of life, where they were heavy, clumsy, slow and unobservant.

I learned quickly that this wasn’t true. While humans are physiologically different, their size gives them strength and durability, and their slowness I prefer to see as patience. Not to say that I haven’t met humans with reflexes as good, or better, than my own—they certainly can be fast if they wish! They also see better in the dark, somehow innately better able than us to pick shapes and textures out of the shadows.

That first night, I was almost blind.

Still saddle-shaped, I could barely move without my legs burning in agony, and I’d never felt so vulnerable. It was as if I had been pulled up by my roots and thrown to the ground to wilt and wither, and would never stand firmly again.

Duncan and I shared a simple meal of bread, cheese and dried meat before the fire. Well… simple for him, I imagine. I was ravenous, and it was more protein than I usually saw in a day.

“We must get you fitted out with proper kit when we arrive,” Duncan observed.

I tugged at the wrinkled fabric of my dress and said nothing, worried by the things looming large in my future. Armour, and battles, and things I couldn’t possibly fathom. It was not comforting.

Still, he was kind to me. We talked more, and I asked questions that, looking back, I am amazed Duncan had the patience to answer. I learned a great deal that night; the horrific history of the darkspawn, from the fall of the dwarves and the loss of the Deep Roads, right up to the Battle of Ayesleigh. It was century upon century of bloodshed and evil, and it was hard to hear.

Duncan also told me the story of the Grey Wardens, from Weisshaupt Fortress to their banishment by King Arland, and the eventual restoration of the order in Ferelden under King Maric, less than twenty years ago. He told me of the Wardens in other lands, and the ceaseless commitment to an enemy that festered beneath the earth, just waiting to erupt and taint the world. As I would later realise, Duncan shared far from everything, but he did at least address many of my curiosities, and with remarkable forbearance.

“So, if the Grey Wardens defeated the darkspawn during the last Blight,” I asked, “why couldn’t they be killed off completely? Once they’d been driven back underground?”

Duncan shook his head. “The darkspawn have controlled the Deep Roads ever since they defeated the dwarven kingdoms. Even if we invaded, we can only chase them so far.”

“Then how can the Blight be stopped?”

He stared wearily into the flames for a moment.

“We fight,” he said, his voice hollow. “The darkspawn are commanded by an archdemon… a powerful, terrible creature. Without it, they will flee back beneath the earth. And so, the archdemon must be destroyed—as the Grey Warden, Garahel, slew the archdemon Andorhal, and brought victory in the Battle of Ayesleigh. That’s how the last Blight was ended.”

I nodded slowly. I’d heard a little of the ballad that told that tale, and as I recalled it was pretty grim and mournful stuff.

the wind that stirs
their shallow graves
carries their song
across the sands

heed our words
hear our cry
the grey are sworn
in peace we lie

heed our words
hear our cry
our names recalled
we cannot die

when darkness comes
and swallows light
heed our words
and we shall rise…

I had never known the words were about Grey Wardens, much less ever envisaged that I would join their ranks.

The fire sputtered and I fed it more dry wood, gradually starting to warm up from the coldness of the rain earlier. I was even starting to get the feeling back in my legs, though my head still hurt.

“You should get some sleep,” Duncan said. “We still have a long journey ahead of us, and we cannot afford to break pace. It is important we reach Ostagar as quickly as possible.”

Sleep? On top of all that? And with more riding to look forward to?

I grimaced. Nevertheless, I had no strength to argue. I settled myself upon my blanket, head on my bindle and my cloak covering me, uncomfortable and unused to sleeping in these unfamiliar clothes—not to mention in such close proximity to a man to whom I was not related by blood or even race.

Duncan seemed to slumber almost at once, while I lay huddled there for what felt like hours. It was so quiet. The only sounds came from the trees, and the gentle shifting of the horses, tethered nearby. At home, there was never silence like this. Whatever was happening, something louder was always going on somewhere else. And there wasn’t all this space, all these strange sights and smells….

When at last my resistance weakened and I began to relax, everything from the past two days seemed to collapse in on me at once. My eyes smarted with the sight of Shianni’s pale, terrified face, Nelaros’ bloody corpse, and Vaughan’s mad, sadistic glare. The copper-salt tang of blood seemed to fill my nose and mouth all over again and I woke with a start, barely having even fallen asleep at all.

My clammy fingers fumbled beneath the neck of my smock, and closed on smooth, warm metal. Nelaros’ ring. I still had it, threaded onto a thin leather thong and hidden next to my skin. A small reminder of home, and a man who’d died trying to be brave.

I’d thought about putting it on my finger, but that didn’t seem right. We’d never actually said our vows, and I had no idea what Nelaros had really been like, anyway. For all I knew, he might have made a terrible husband. I bit my lip, and tried to blink away such horrible thoughts. It was wrong to think so ill, not just of the dead, but of one who’d given his life trying to help me. My head ached, and I had never felt more isolated, as if I would never now be anything but alone and frightened. I wanted to cry, but I was either too numb or too proud and, in the gloom, I looked across to where Duncan slept.

He wasn’t there.

I sat up, the fire’s banked embers giving off a dull, eerie glow that shimmered on Duncan’s armour, neatly stacked beside his bedroll. A little way off, I could make out his silhouette, and at first thought he was answering the call of nature, then realized he was simply standing, staring at the trees. He seemed smaller without all that plate on, and I caught myself wondering who he was—or who he had been, before pledging his life to this strange order; an order I would soon also give myself to. I hadn’t yet adjusted to that idea.

There were still so many questions, so many unanswered puzzles. Fears dogged me determinedly. Was I just giving everything up to be a servant? Everyone knew what happened to those who left the alienage. Not elf, not human, not nothing, as the boys used to say. Could I face a lifetime of that?

And what of this Blight? This unspeakable peril that—for some reason—neither I, nor anyone I knew, had any inkling of? I would like to say that, at that moment, I could not believe the world was in danger, but it was very dark, and I was camping by the side of the highway with a human I wasn’t sure I wanted to trust. Monsters lurked in every shadow.

I missed Father. I missed everything. Yet, as I watched Duncan slowly pace the perimeter of our camp, I felt a little less afraid. I thought he was guarding me. Later, I would learn that the voices of demons kept him from his sleep. I am thankful I did not know that then.

I must have slept at some point, because Duncan woke me before dawn. I covered with two blankets, not one, and I could see the tiredness in his face, though he sounded as sure and strong as ever.

“Come. We need to leave soon. There is much to do. Quickly as you can.”

I managed to nod and garble some sort of affirmation. It was still dark, and I remember wondering why the Blight could not have struck in midsummer. Still, I rushed through the undignified business of visiting the little girls’ bush, then gathered up my things, and was ready to leave by the time Duncan had finished lacing his vambraces.

As the first fingers of sunlight climbed over the treetops, we were already on the road. The horses were fresh, and they had an early morning frost under their feet. My tired, aching muscles protested painfully, but there wasn’t a lot I could do. We rode hard, and I saw little to nothing of whatever towns we passed by, clinging on as desperately as I was, as if sheer force of concentration could keep me from falling.

Several days passed that way, in a grinding agony of routine. I’d like to say my horsemanship improved, but sadly it did not.

I grew more comfortable around the animals, learned how to tack them up, groom them, pick their feet and clean their harness—not to mention the language of bunched hindquarters and irritable snorting that presaged a kick or nip—but my riding remained of the clinging-on-for-dear-life-and-praying kind.

As we went on, Duncan spoke less, and the journey developed an urgency I hadn’t really expected. While the light lasted, we rode, and when it failed we took a reluctant, perfunctory kind of rest.

The days fell into a hard rhythm of pushing the horses and slowly pace to let them rest, hours cleaved into blocks of blurred speed—all thundering hooves and cold air slicing at my face—and breathless, gasping pauses. During the moments of shallow comfort afforded by the nights, and the fires Duncan built, I tried to convince myself that my body hadn’t completely shaken apart.

On the fourth day, we seemed to be nearing the end of our journey, and it amazed me to see how much the country had changed around us.

The lush, wooded landscapes that flanked the West Road had given way to flatter, marshier land, and I supposed we must be nearly at these fabled Wilds.

The horses were growing weary and recalcitrant, our short breaks and night-time rests no longer enough to keep them fresh and fit. My mount, whom I had privately named Iron Neck—among several other choice epithets—for his tendency to put his head down and blatantly ignore any command I tried to give him, had become even bolshier than usual.

I consoled myself with the thought that we would be at Ostagar soon, but it turned out to be fond thinking.

Come first light, we were back in the saddle again, and riding hard for the south. Hour heaped on bone-juddering, tooth-shaking hour, filled with the pounding of hooves, until the light began to thin, and I guessed we had another night under the stars to look forward to.

It was then that, above the swelling horizon, I began to make out the dim shapes of a great rocky outline standing tall and proud against the sky.

“Ostagar,” Duncan said, and I thought I imagined the relief in his tone. “Come. There is much to do when we arrive.”

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Four

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Neither of us knew what to expect when we entered that room. How could we?

Soris kicked open the door and we burst in, very melodramatically, with our weapons raised. We couldn’t have prepared, couldn’t have imagined… not that preparation would have made it easier.

Vaughan’s grotesque little party had already started.

I didn’t see Arith or Valora, but then in all honesty I didn’t see much. My eyes were full of Shianni, held down on the rumpled bed by the two men Vaughan had brought with him before. Her face was screwed up into a ball of tears and pain, her skirts pushed up to her waist and her bodice ripped, baring her breasts. Blood streaked her thighs. I think she’d given up struggling.

They were laughing at her. Every scream, every sob… like it proved they were real men. The air reeked of sweat and violence, the three of them unbreeched and stripped to their shirtsleeves, tearing at her like dogs.

Vaughan’s face was still red and creased with that monstrous glee when he turned to us… so damn nonchalant, as if he’d expected to see us there, the very arrogance of which curdled my stomach. He reached down casually to tuck himself away—why should he care what we saw? We weren’t important, were we?—and the traces of sadistic laughter trailed across his words.

“Well, my, my… What have we here?”

I cannot pretend I did not want him dead. Hatred welled in me, black and thick as oil. The hilt of my sword seemed to pulse in my sweat-slicked palm.

Long, red scratches weltered on his cheek, neck, and chest. Shianni had fought hard at some point, I could see. Until he beat it out of her. Beside me, Soris was breathing tight and hard, and I was amazed he didn’t rush them there and then. I didn’t dare look at him, didn’t dare move or speak.

The moment stretched out like molten glass, burning a trail before us, the only sound in the room that of Shianni’s sobbing. The two lordlings let her go, rising to flank their master, and she just balled up where she was, shivering and crying. She didn’t even try to run. I could feel Soris tense beside me, ready to go to her, but I put out my hand, stilling him.

“Don’t worry,” said the second lord. “We’ll make short work of these two.”

“Quiet, Jonaley, you idiot!” Vaughan snapped. “They’re covered with enough blood to fill a tub. What do you think that means?”

Jonaley and Braden rested uneasily behind him, both lost without an order, I supposed. None of the three wore their sword belts, having been… otherwise occupied, yet I saw they had been left within easy reach. Definitely not worth chancing a strike before they had the opportunity to arm themselves. And—whatever else happened—I was not about to spill noble blood lightly.

“Why don’t you tell me, my lord?” I said, my voice cold.

“All right, all right….” Vaughan held up his hands in an absurd and ugly pretence at innocence. “Let’s not be too hasty here. Surely we can talk this over….”

“You really think you can talk your way out of this?” I demanded, unable to see anything else but my cousin, a sobbing wreck, scrabbling to cover herself with her torn and filthy dress.

Shianni raised her head and looked hopelessly at me from swollen eyes that would soon be black with bruises.

“Please,” she begged. “Please… just get me out of here! I want to go home….”

I think my heart broke in that moment, because I felt such pain for her that it roared over me like a wave—pain, love, tenderness, together with guilt and shame—all tempered with a raging anger… and then nothing. I felt nothing else, as if there was nothing else to feel, or perhaps as if I just had no ability left, like a cup that can hold no more water.

I wrenched my gaze from Shianni, and stared at Vaughan.

And the bastard smiled at me.

“Think for a minute,” he said, and I couldn’t believe how calm he sounded. “Kill me, and you ruin more lives than just your own. By dawn, the city will run red with elven blood. Think about it. You know how this ends. Or we could talk this through… now that you have my undivided attention.”

“You want to talk?” Soris blurted. “We’ll talk! We’ll tell the whole city what you’ve done!”

Vaughan actually looked surprised at that. He loosed a short, spiteful laugh.

“Oh, please. You think people care about elven whores? You think my father would ignore my death simply because I… used some animals as they were meant to be used?”

Well. It seemed the cup could hold a little more anger.

“We are not animals!” I snarled, stepping forward.

The sword seemed to sing to me, begging for the chance to cut him.

“A poor word choice, perhaps, but you understand,” Vaughan oozed, as if it had been a perfectly reasonable statement. “You’d risk everything you know on petty revenge?”

I glanced at Shianni, hugged in on herself and shaking. The bastard had a point. Just like when he’d crashed the wedding, he still believed we couldn’t touch him, that whatever he did, the threat of his father’s retribution was so much greater than our desire for justice. After all, what were we?

Nothing. Not in his world.

“Talk, then,” I said, through gritted teeth. “If you have something to say.”

That horrible, knife-like smile was back. It made my flesh creep. As he spoke, Vaughan’s gaze roved me, and I knew he was doing it on purpose; as near as he would ever get to touching me. He wanted to see me squirm, and I refused to give him the pleasure.

“Here’s our situation,” he said, as smoothly as if he was offering us Antivan brandy and sweetmeats. “You are skilled, obviously. We fight here… who knows, you might even manage to kill us. My father won’t let that go. Your pigsty of an alienage will be burned to the ground. Or… you turn and walk away. With forty sovereigns added to your purses.”

I heard Soris’ intake of breath. I couldn’t believe it either. Did he truly believe we were that stupid? My hands itched. Before today, I had never killed, but now I experienced bloodlust for the first time.

Vaughan fixed me with that icy glare of his, and I imagined he meant to intimidate me. It didn’t work. I felt nothing.

“You take that money,” he said levelly, “and leave Denerim tonight. No repercussions, and you can go wherever you like.”

“What about the women?” Soris demanded. “Will you let them go?”

I almost wanted to smile. My dear, dear daydreamer of a cousin.

Vaughan did smile, and it was not pleasant.

“The women stay,” he said, smug and suave. “They’ll go home tomorrow… perhaps slightly the worse for wear, but you’ll be long gone.”

I snorted. “No deal.”

The ugly, vicious smile dropped and became a scowl.

“Bah!” Vaughan spat. “I always regret talking to knife-ears! Now I’ll just gut your ignorant carcasses, instead.”

Jonaley and Braden had not been entirely useless while he spoke. They had fetched the swords, and now we had three armed humans to deal with. Vaughan drew his blade, and lunged.

Soris lurched blindly into the fray, fuelled by rage and rank with terror. He was the truly brave one that day, I believe, for courage is borne out of fear, and he was afraid, yet he gave everything.

As for myself, I remember the visceral, bone-shaking blows. We pitched in, the five of us, and there were flurries of metal and leather and there was so much blood….

I think it was Soris who killed Lord Jonaley, though it was hard to be sure. I took down Braden, the bastard who’d knocked me out before, and discovered that it was indeed possible for a woman my size to strike halfway through a man’s neck with a blade. I had a little trouble getting it out again, and that was how Vaughan managed to land the blow that almost knocked me unconscious for the second time that day.

Soris charged him. I rolled away, and brought myself up behind Vaughan, taking advantage of his being distracted to bring my sword around in a wide, hard arc. He was quick, though, and I overextended, leaving myself vulnerable to the elbow he landed in my stomach.

My blade glanced off his arm, barely nicking the flesh through his shirt, while he sent me spinning and choking. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that he didn’t fight fair.

It was too easy for him to deflect Soris; a strike here, a punch there… my cousin fell to the floor, and Vaughan rounded on me with a cold, ugly sneer, his sword glinting like a sliver of bloody moonlight.

“You don’t really expect to walk out of here alive, do you?” he asked dryly.

I said nothing. Perhaps I didn’t expect to. Maybe I couldn’t beat him… but neither could I back down.

With a wordless, curdled yell of rage, I rushed him. Stupid. He dodged, and his fist crashed into my cheek. I sprawled to the ground again, the sword almost knocked from my grip. Vaughan raised his weapon and—my eyes stinging and blurred with blood and sweat—I braced myself for a blow I didn’t believe I could escape.

Soris was labouring to his feet. Bleeding and woozy, he struck Vaughan from behind, bearing him to the floor in a tangle of arms, legs and steel. The human swore and fought back… it was not a dignified fight, nor he a dignified opponent.

I’m not sure, even now, how it happened. Soris went flying again, spitting blood and crying out, and I had my borrowed sword in my hand, but my legs were like water, the whole room spinning around me. Vaughan was yelling, his shirt torn and bloody, the reek of cruelty on him like cheap perfume. He was due a mistake, and it came.

He took his eyes from me and turned away, ready to deliver Soris a killing blow, and I ran my blade into his back.

The choked grunt of breath he gave echoed against the sound of his sword dropping to the floor. He sagged, swore… my foot connected with his most intimate parts, and then I had him sprawled out before me, bleeding and whimpering on the ground.

If he hadn’t begged for his life, I might have spared him.

I am not proud of what I did. Vaughan’s blood spurted, and I twisted my blade. He died in pain, and I watched every flicker of it.

Few deaths since have been anything like as personal, of which I am glad. Killing in the way I killed Vaughan Kendells destroys a part of one’s soul that can never be redeemed, or fully washed clean.

More than that, it is dangerous.

To put it another way: there is a fine line between justice and vengeance, and both come at a heavy price.

But, at last, it was over. Three noblemen lay dead at our feet, among them the arl of Denerim’s son, who—whatever his personal sins—was probably considered a hundred-fold worthier than our entire alienage, much less ourselves. We were treasonous, seditious murderers. And yet I still felt numb.

Soris spoke first.

“He… he’s dead. Oh, Maker! Tell me we did the right thing, cousin.”

I blinked owlishly at him. “It’s a little late for regrets, isn’t it?”

“I-I’m not regretting it.” Soris glanced over at his sister, still hunched up on the bed. “It’s just… oh, never mind. I… I’ll check the back room for the others. Shianni needs you.”

He moved abruptly away, and set to finding Valora and Arith. I dropped my borrowed sword and went as gently as I could to Shianni. She had her arms wrapped around her head, her body racked with convulsive sobs.

“Shianni?”

I knelt beside her, not knowing what I should do, how much she’d seen or… experienced. I touched her arm and she flinched, the tears coming thicker and faster.

“Shianni, it’s me….”

She raised her head a little, and I stroked her hair. Eventually, recognition seemed to spark in her face.

“D-don’t leave me alone,” she whispered.

“I won’t. I promise.”

She fell into my arms then, and held on as if she were drowning. I hugged her, tentatively at first, then tighter, rocking her like a child, murmuring over and over that it was all right… though I honestly wasn’t sure she was ever going to be all right again. She kept asking me to take her home, but she wouldn’t move, and I couldn’t carry her.

Eventually, I prised her arms from around my neck and tried to wipe her eyes.

“Shianni, listen to me. Listen. Can you walk?”

“I think so.” She sniffed, peering over my shoulder. “You killed them, didn’t you?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. There was something terrible in her face, and in her voice. Like she wanted blood.

“Didn’t you?” she said again, an urgent, hopeful whisper. “You killed them all?”

The enormity of it hadn’t yet sunk in for me, although it was beginning to. I’d done what had to be done, I thought, but that wasn’t what she wanted to hear. I brushed the hair from Shianni’s forehead and tried to smile.

“Like dogs,” I said. “All the ones who hurt you.”

She smiled, an expression of dreamy relief so incongruous against the blood, snot and bruises.

“Good. Good….”

Shianni closed her eyes, and I knew we couldn’t let her drift off. Not here, and not now. She needed a healer, and… well, perhaps just a healer, to start with. I looked up, and saw Soris emerging from one of the antechambers, with Arith and Valora in tow. They looked terrified, and Arith sported a cut lip, but they seemed otherwise unharmed.

Valora put her hand to her mouth as she looked at Shianni.

“Oh, Maker…. Is she going to be all right?”

“She’ll live,” I said, a little more brusquely than I meant to. “How are you?”

“Rattled. They said they were… saving us for later. I-I can’t believe you came for us,” she breathed, looking from me to Soris. “Thank you.”

“Thank Soris,” I said, noticing that he was holding onto her hand tightly. “He’s the reason we got in here.”

Valora turned her damp, red-rimmed gaze to her betrothed, and Soris cleared his throat.

“Er… we should go. Soon. As in now.”

“Good thought,” I agreed.

“I’ll take the rear guard,” he said, glancing at the door. “I can’t wait to leave this place.”

Arith helped me get Shianni to her feet and, with her slung between us, we left the bloody chamber, shutting the door on the mess. No chance to hide in plain sight this time, passing for servants. We couldn’t go back the way we’d come, and every moment yielded a greater threat of discovery.

From Vaughan’s rooms, the corridor led on past other suites, down a narrow staircase that was probably for servants’ use, and out to a small, neatly manicured courtyard. Full of roses, honeysuckle, and jasmine, it was… pretty, which at that moment sickened me beyond all measure.

The scented air tasted strange, like pudding on an empty stomach. Shianni wobbled a bit, and I tightened my grip on her waist. If we could just find our way out, then—

Our bloodied little band came to a sudden halt at the sight of an elven servant crossing the yard, carrying a pail and a mop. I didn’t recognise her: a thin, wiry woman, grey-haired and sallow-cheeked. She stopped mid-stride and stared at us. I held my breath… I think we all did. All it would take was one scream.

The servant set down her pail, not taking her eyes off us. She lifted her hand and pointed to a small gate set into the far wall.

“Through the jardin,” she said. “Quickly.”

Her accent was thick, and unmistakeably Orlesian. I nodded, no time to speculate or question. She stood there and watched us, but didn’t speak or move again. Soris wrenched the gate open and rushed us through, out into what seemed to be the rear end of the estate’s vegetable gardens. I was still staring back at the woman when the gate swung closed behind me, and my last glimpse was of her bending to pick up her pail, and walking on across the courtyard.

We followed the line of the estate’s exterior wall, all high grey stone and knapped flint, skirting the shadows and sticking to the paths meant for wheelbarrows and nightsoilmen. We didn’t talk. There weren’t words for what had happened.

At any moment, I expected Vaughan’s body to be discovered, and packs of guards to come streaming from unseen doors to hack us all to pieces, but it didn’t happen.

I kept thinking of Nelaros, and Nola. Both of them, left behind in that place…. Neither would get the proper burial they deserved.

Not far from the well-tended beds of pumpkins, marrows and squashes, Soris found a side gate we could sneak through, minimising our chances of being spotted. Obviously a shortcut used by the servants, it led into a dirty alley where they dumped slops—judging by the stench—and, from there, we could make it along to the river and, crossing beneath the White Bridge, back towards the alienage. It was a difficult journey to make without being seen. I didn’t even know if we should be heading back… I couldn’t begin to imagine the trouble that was going to unfold once Vaughan’s body was found. Was it wise to bring all that down on our home?

I doubted it, and I tried so hard to think of another way, but we had nowhere else to go. There was only one place we’d ever been safe and, like rats scurrying back to their holes, we were fleeing there now.

In any case, I knew we had to get Shianni home. It was all she kept saying, and she sounded so lost, so frightened. She wouldn’t let go of me, and I couldn’t have refused.

We didn’t make straight for the market-side gate, aiming instead for a weak spot in the wall. Everyone knew about those—they were how the boys got out for late-night tavern binges, which were almost as much a rite of passage as marriage—but the elders discouraged us from using them. All the same, better that now than try to walk past the guard on the gate.

Soris heaved up the planks that shielded the hole, well hidden behind a cluster of elfroot plants. Arith and Valora squeezed through first, then helped me guide Shianni. She started to panic halfway, but Valora calmed her, and kept talking in that soft voice of hers which, I had to admit, sounded a lot less like a dying mouse than it had that morning.

I followed, and Soris brought up the rear. People stared from the moment we set foot back on the cobbles, but that wasn’t the worst thing. The air had changed in the alienage. I could feel it.

The wedding decorations were still up, the streets strewn with empty bottles and jugs. People milled about, dressed in their good clothes and, somewhere, somebody was still playing that stupid fiddle. But it had changed.

Earlier today, I’d sensed the place get greasy and charged with static, like a storm was brewing. Now it just felt… empty. The ground wasn’t familiar beneath my feet, and the houses all seemed to be watching me. I shivered, and Soris nodded towards the main square.

“The hahren.”

I looked where he gestured. Valendrian was coming towards us, his stride as long and even as that of a much younger man, but his face tightly drawn. Shame burned inside me. The human, Duncan, was with him, and so was my father, along with a group of the older men and women.

“You have returned,” the hahren observed.

I bowed my head. I didn’t know what to say, how to even begin confessing what I had done. He glanced at us and, I am sure, learned everything he needed to know, though he still asked the questions.

“Has Shianni been hurt?”

I looked imploringly at the hahren, silently begging him not to make us voice it. Not in front of everyone. I still had my arm around my cousin, and I hugged her protectively to me.

“She needs rest, elder. And a healer. A… a woman.”

There was barely a flicker of change in Valendrian’s face, but I understood the hardness I saw in his eyes. A few hours ago, I would not have done, but now….

“I see.” He inclined his head, his mouth a tight line.  “And where is Tormey’s daughter, Nola?”

I opened my mouth, but it was Valora who answered.

“Nola didn’t make it,” she said. “She resisted, and—”

“They killed her,” Arith finished bitterly.

Valendrian loosed a short, terse sigh. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at my father, though he stood but a few feet away from me. Everything seemed woolly, as if my head was stuffed with clouds, and hahren’s voice sounded as if it was coming through a tunnel.

“And Nelaros?” he asked.

“Him too,” Soris said. “The guards killed him.”

He squealed like a stuck pig when he died.

I caught my breath, suddenly sure I was back in that room, the guards lunging at me, and the borrowed sword held tight in my hand. My hand…. I looked down, and realised I did, indeed, still have the sword. Duncan’s sword, wasn’t it? Soris had said so.

I should give it back, I supposed, but there was one problem. If I still had the sword, it meant that everything had been real. Would it still be real if I gave it up? Would anything?

Maybe I’d drop dead on the spot.

A strange thought, perhaps. Looking back, I suspect it was mainly the concussion.

“I see,” the hahren said gravely. He turned to the women accompanying him, and raised his voice a little. “Would you ladies please take care of Shianni? And… you girls, too,” he added, looking at Valora and Arith. “Go on.”

It took me a few moments to let go of my cousin, and it felt strange without her, like I was dislocated somehow from the rest of the world. Valora hesitated as well, but Soris touched her arm.

“It’s all right. Take care of her.”

She nodded, and I was aware of a general bustling and stirring, with Shianni and the others being drawn into the centre of the group of women and whisked away. It was almost like a conjuring trick and, while that intricate ballet was underway, the hahren took hold of my arm and drew me aside.

I was still looking to see where Shianni was going, and I caught sight of my father, following close behind the women. He glanced back at me, and bowed his head. I wanted to go to him, but Valendrian held onto me.

“Child….”

I faced him, expecting to see anger in his eyes, perhaps disappointment, but there was only a terrible sadness.

“Now tell me,” he said, his voice firm but calm. “What happened?”

“I….” I shook my head. “I’m sorry, elder. I—”

“What of the arl’s son?”

I shut my eyes, but the darkness inside my head was no consolation. I could see nothing but blood, and hear nothing but Shianni screaming.

“Vaughan’s dead,” I whispered.

“Maker preserve us all!”

The hahren still held my arm, but his grip was not unkind. The gentle clink of plate mail heralded Duncan’s approach, and he came to stand beside Valendrian, his presence somehow soothing. I couldn’t understand why that should be—had I not had enough of humans today to last me a lifetime?

Yet, this man was the hahren’s guest—his friend, I’d been told—and I owed him my freedom. I looked at the sword I still held, its blade smeared with blood, and then at Duncan.

“Um….”

“The garrison could already be on their way,” Duncan said. I wasn’t sure if he was addressing me, or the hahren. “You have little time.”

Valendrian sighed and shook his head. “Very well. I suppose there is no other way.”

“Elder?” I was confused. “I…I don’t know what….”

The hahren patted my arm. “It’s all right, child.”

He turned back to the wider street, where knots of people were still gathered, craning to see what was going on. I saw Soris coming back towards us, Duncan’s crossbow in his hand. He’d washed the blood off himself, his wounded arm bound up better than I had managed to do, but he still looked ashy and terrified.

I wanted to ask him about Shianni, but there was no time. Thandon came running around the corner from the gate, cheeks flushed and hair flying.

“Elder! Elder, the guards are here!”

I didn’t know what he’d heard, but he stared at me as if I was a demon. I was still covered in blood, I supposed… mine and other people’s. My head hurt. Thandon stood there, panting, waiting for a response from the hahren.

Valendrian looked at Duncan, then at Soris, and lastly at me.

“Don’t panic,” he said. “Let us see what comes of this.”

I stood meekly beside the hahren and waited. Soris came to stand by me, and we exchanged nervous glances. Duncan was still there, which I found odd; somehow, I expected him to have made himself scarce, but he had not left us.

We heard the footsteps of the guards, thudding against the cobbles in quick-fire unison. So much of me just wanted to lie down and sleep, and it seemed strange that I wasn’t afraid, though at that point I felt so little that I almost mistook it for calmness.

Valendrian stood ready to meet the guards, unflinching as ever. They were led by their captain; a stocky man with a grey beard. I’d seen him around before—not a bad peacekeeper, as the shemlens went, and not above reprimanding his men if he caught them starting fights with the local lads, or shaking people down for coppers.

The squad halted before us, and the captain stepped forward.

“I seek Valendrian, elder and administrator of the Alienage.”

“Here, Captain,” the hahren said, and I marvelled at how solid and unshakeable he seemed. “I, uh, take it you have come in response to today’s disruption?”

It was hardly what I would have called it, and I wasn’t surprised to hear frustration and anger in the captain’s voice.

“Don’t play ignorant with me, elder. You will not prevent justice from being done. The arl’s son lies dead in a river of blood that runs through the entire palace. I need names, and I need them now!”

Vaughan’s words echoed back at me. Your pigsty of an alienage will be burned to the ground. They’d do it, wouldn’t they? A purge. It hadn’t happened in more than a generation, but it would come now… and it would all be my fault.

The whole city would be against us, once the news got out. There would have to be retribution. Now, or when Arl Urien returned from the fighting; it didn’t matter. Someone would have to pay. Blood for blood, and a good old-fashioned public hanging.

I stepped forward, forcing myself into the captain’s view.

“It was my doing,” I said.

Every pair of eyes in the street seemed to fix upon me. I heard Soris catch his breath, and I prayed he wouldn’t do anything stupid. The guards shifted restlessly, and their captain stared, incredulous.

“You expect me to believe one woman did all of that?”

I looked down at myself; my bloody clothes, the sword in my hand…. If this wasn’t good enough proof, what more did he want? I raised my head and met the captain’s gaze.

“Yes, ser,” I said, quietly and without much emphasis.

“Perhaps we are not all so helpless, Captain,” the hahren said, with a trace of something almost resembling a challenge.

I glanced at the elder, but his face remained impassive.

“All right.” The guard captain shook his head as he looked at me. “You save many by coming forward. I don’t envy your fate, but I applaud your courage.”

He genuinely seemed to mean it, and that surprised me, unused as I was to respect from humans. I remember wondering—in that hazy, clouded way—if it mattered. They would hang me all the same, unless my crime merited a more creative death. Did we still disembowel traitors? And was Vaughan’s death technically treason?

The captain nodded and held out his hand to me; a very cordial invitation for a gaoler to afford his new prisoner. I stepped towards him, and he took careful hold of my arm before turning to address the gathered mass of pale, worried faces.

“Hear this, all of you! This elf will wait in the dungeons until the arl returns. The rest of you, go back to your houses. Now!”

I could feel them watching me. The stares, the disbelief… the accusations. I didn’t dare lift my head. I didn’t want to look at anyone. I just wanted to lie down and sleep.

“Captain? A word, if you please.”

I blinked. It was Duncan who had spoken, and I had not expected that. The captain looked irritable, but he maintained his patience.

“What is it, Grey Warden? The situation is well under control, as you can see.”

“Be that as it may, I hereby invoke the Grey Warden’s Right of Conscription. I remove this woman into my custody.”

Confused, I frowned, and opened my mouth to ask what was going on, but the hot, difficult silence that had fallen hushed me. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I could see the struggle for dominance between the two men. It was a silent battle, fought only with stares and a slight jaw-clenching on the captain’s part, and it seemed to last an age.

Eventually, the captain relented.

“Son of a tied-down— Very well, Grey Warden. I cannot challenge your rights, but I will ask one thing. Get this elf out of the city. Today.”

“Agreed,” Duncan said simply.

The captain glanced down at me and, shaking his head, released my arm.

“Go on,” he said, not altogether unkindly. “And I suppose you should count yourself lucky. Now, I need to get my men on the streets before this news hits. Move out!”

The guards marched out, but the tension in the air remained. For a while, no one spoke. I still wasn’t sure what had just happened, and I looked to Valendrian for explanation. The sadness in the hahren’s face filled me with apprehension, and I was afraid to ask the questions I wanted to.

Duncan touched my shoulder gently. I flinched, and then felt foolish for having done so, shamed by his kindness.

“You’re with me now,” he said. “Say your goodbyes. We must leave immediately. Do you understand?”

“I….” I began weakly.

So many questions filled my mouth I nearly choked, and couldn’t ask any of them. I didn’t even know where to begin. I understood that this human had saved my life, and that I now owed it to him and whatever service he saw fit to place me in, but what that was—and what these Grey Wardens were—I did not know.

So much, like Duncan’s very presence there that day, remained unclear to me. And so I just nodded. Whatever else, I knew we had to leave. There would be time enough to sort through whatever pieces were left of my life once Denerim was behind us.

I bowed my head respectfully.

“I understand, but… what’s going to happen here?”

“For the moment, they are fine,” Duncan said. “You can’t help them by staying, and you must learn that there are far more important matters arising that endanger more than just your people. I shall explain when we leave. I imagine you have questions.”

That was an understatement. Still, I knew when it was not my place to argue.

“I… I’ll get my things.”

The hahren stood a little way from us. He must have overheard. I went to him first, weighed down with my shame and sorrow, and it was hard to look him in the face. Valendrian reached out and touched my arm gently. I raised my head, and saw so much in his eyes… and a great deal of it, then, I did not understand.

“Well, I suppose Duncan got his recruit after all,” the hahren said. “That was what he came here for, you know.”

I hadn’t known. I shook my head. “Not by my choice, elder. I….”

I don’t want to leave.

I couldn’t say it. I was afraid to say anything.

“No?” The hahren smiled sadly. “Either way, child, it’s out of my hands now. I am sorry. Goodbye, young one, and may the Maker keep you.”

He bowed his head to me. The bridge of my nose stung, weighted with tears, but I returned the gesture, and stood there, watching him walk away. When I looked up again, I saw Soris coming cautiously towards me, his face full of awe and fear and a dozen other things.

“You’re leaving,” he said, and I didn’t know whether he too had overheard, or whether the gossip was already searing through the alienage like flames.

The streets had emptied considerably since the guards had gone, though there were still people drifting about, either too curious, too riled up, or too drunk to go back to their houses. I couldn’t see any of their faces; they blurred together for me, unknown and no longer familiar.

“You… you really saved my hide back there,” Soris said. “Thank you.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t have let him admit his part in what had happened. He needed to be there for Valora—and for his sister. Now more than ever. I took Soris’ hand and turned it over in mine, idly examining the lines. They said you could read a person’s fate that way. I didn’t know how to do it, but it was easier than looking at his face.

“What will you do now?” I asked.

Soris squeezed my fingers. “No more daydreaming. I’m settling down. Valora’s a good woman, and she has ideas on making life better here for everyone.”

“Good.” I glanced up at him, surprised by the determination in his voice.

“And you?” he asked, his gaze slipping for a second to Duncan, who was waiting for me near the gate. “What…?”

“I don’t know,” I said, which was the truth. “I-I suppose… I’ll come back, if I can. Sometime.”

Soris didn’t believe me, I could tell. I wasn’t sure if I believed it, either. He cleared his throat.

“Uh, your father had the women take Shianni back to your place. Will you see her before you go?”

I nodded. “Of course. I— You’ll look after Father, won’t you?”

“We all will,” Soris said quietly, and those words nearly broke me. He hugged me then, a brief explosion of affection that I hadn’t expected, and wasn’t sure I could deal with. “Good luck, cousin. You’ve been my hero since we were kids, you know? It’s just official now.”

I hugged him back, tight, my face buried in his neck and, when we broke, we were both wiping tears from our cheeks. I turned and walked back to my father’s house, willing the air to dry those traitorous salt-tracks. I can’t explain how strange the place felt. The whole alienage, balanced on a knife-edge… and it was all my doing.

The door was open. I crept in and found Valora standing by the fire. I could see she’d been burning something and—from the look on her face and the scrap of chintz that fell from the hearth—I realised it was the remains of Shianni’s bridesmaid’s dress.

She glanced up at me and smiled. A rush of warmth towards the mouse engulfed me then, and I saw how much I could have grown to like her. All that strength and practicality she kept locked within her, tempered with such sweetness.

“There you are,” she said, crossing the floor to take my hands. “Thank you. For me, for Soris… for everything.”

She kissed my cheek. I sniffed.

“Be good to Soris, won’t you?”

“I will.” Valora nodded fervently. “I swear it. And if there’s anything I can ever do to repay you, I…. Well.” She cleared her throat. “There’s some hot water, and I found you clean clothes. You should… y’know. Before you leave. And, um….”

She reached into a pail that stood by the fire, and drew out a washcloth, which she handed to me, gesturing loosely to her face. I realised what she meant, and wiped the cloth across my brow, my cheeks… and my neck, arms, hands….

Until I began to wash, I hadn’t known there was so much blood. I stared at the reddened cloth, sickened. Valora took it from my hands and passed me a clean one for drying. Had I been properly aware of what she was doing, I would have admired her then.

“Shianni’s resting, but she seems to have regained herself. I’ll, uh, leave you to….” She nodded at the corner of the room, behind the wooden screen where our pallets for sleeping usually lay. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” I said, giving her a small smile. “Cousin.”

Well, she was family now, vows or not.

She bowed her head and, with a great deal of grace, managed to make herself almost invisible as I went to speak with Shianni. I could see, in a very short time, that girl becoming completely indispensable around here.

Shianni was sitting up in bed, wearing one of my old shifts, pillows and blankets banked up around her. The swelling was starting to come out on her face, and I could see great mottled, finger-shaped bruises appearing on the upper part of her chest, arms and shoulders. Maker knew what else. She wasn’t shivering anymore, though, and she smiled a little when she saw me.

“You! Meri, I heard…. You took all the responsibility for what happened, didn’t you?” She reached for my hand. I let her take it—lucky handshakes on a bride’s special day—and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. “You’re amazing, you know that?”

I brushed the compliment aside. I didn’t feel amazing, especially when I looked at her injuries.

“How are you holding up?”

“I’m… all right,” she said carefully. “But I don’t want anyone to tell. You, Soris, Arith and Valora know, and the hahren, but… as far as the others are concerned, Vaughan just roughed me up a bit. That’s— Well, that’s all, all right?”

I pressed my lips tight together and frowned. “Shianni….”

“No.” She sighed, and squeezed my hand. “I just… I don’t want them treating me like some fragile doll.”

My throat tightened, and I could barely breathe past the lump in it. Her eyes started to close, and I wondered if she’d been given something to help her sleep, maybe even put the nightmare to rest for a little while. I hoped so. I cleared my throat, searching for words to put to the impossible.

“I, um… Shianni, I’m going away for a while.”

“I know,” she murmured, looking sleepily at me. “With the human, right?”

“That’s right. I have to leave soon.”

“Wait.” Shianni struggled to pull herself up against the pillows. “There’s something I need to say first.”

I opened my mouth to tell her it was all right, but she shook her head.

“Listen. You’ve always been there for me, but what happened today… it was beyond what anyone could ever expect from another person.”

She reached out and touched my cheek, her eyes wet and bloodshot, and I could feel the tremble in her fingers.

“When the world was at its worst,” she whispered, “there you came—fire in your eyes, like something out of a storybook. I will never forget that.”

I took hold of Shianni’s hand and kissed it, finding no words that would come to me. Her gratitude was almost more than I could bear, when I’d still been too late to stop that bastard doing what he had.

“I love you, cousin,” Shianni said. “Make us proud of you out there.”

“I love you too, Shianni,” I whispered.

Fat, hot tears dripped onto my cheeks. Shianni smiled sadly and squeezed my hand one last time.

“Maker watch over you.”

“And you,” I managed.

I kissed her forehead and told her to rest and, as I rose and turned away, I wiped the back of my hand across my eyes. My face hurt, but it was nothing next to the ache in my chest.

Valora had laid out clean clothes for me—a good white smock, a hard-wearing brown broadcloth dress, a dark woollen cloak, and a pair of good leather boots, all of which I knew for certain weren’t mine. I didn’t know what to say. She’d ransacked her own trousseau for me. A bundle sat on the table, tied up in oiled leather, and she waved a hand in its direction.

“I wasn’t sure what you’d need. Some food, some water… a little money. I don’t know if there’s anything special you want to take with you, but…. Well, at least you’ll be clean and dry.”

My hand went unthinkingly to my pocket, and closed on the ring I’d taken from Nelaros’ body. I looked around the room, trying to see it clearly, without the sad little wedding decorations hung at the windows, and without the layers of memories that clung to every tiny thing.

I swallowed heavily. Perhaps Valora’s influence was good to have at that moment. Biting back a sniff, I made a quick circuit of the room, rummaging through the few personal belongings Father and I had acquired over the years. A book or two, extra pouches and scrips, a tinderbox and a writing set for when, or if, I could actually get hold of some paper… two small, old knives, their blades worn and curved with years of sharpening. Spare smallclothes, rags, a comb, some wax polish for leather, tooth powder and a half-bar of soap….

Once my flurry of activity was over, it still didn’t amount to much. One fat bindle for an entire life.

I changed my clothes, overwhelmed with guilt and sadness at the wholesale destruction of my poor wedding dress. It had been so beautiful—the product of so much hard work—and now the clothes were nothing but shredded, bloody bits of cloth.

Valora hugged me farewell, and I left the house, thinking briefly how strange it was that, despite everything, I was still a child. We should have been feasting and drinking by now, welcoming Nelaros as my husband, and welcoming my adulthood. Instead, I stepped out onto the cobbles an exile, robbed of everything by my own hand.

My father was waiting for me. I guessed that, with Shianni in the state she’d been in, the house had to become a female domain for a while, and he’d been effectively banished from his own home.

He looked at me, and I cannot describe how awful it was. Sadness, betrayal, pain, anger… all of those things, and such a deep, terrible sense of loss. I wanted to drop to the ground at his feet and beg his forgiveness, try to make him see I hadn’t planned this, hadn’t wanted it… but what use would that have been?

“Father,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.

“I know.” He nodded slowly. “I… understand. And, I suppose, if this is what the Maker has planned for you, then it is for the best.”

That stung. My father was not, habitually, a particularly religious man. He took comfort in it only when he had no other way of dealing with the injustices around him, and I could not bear to cause him that pain. He raised a hand and, so very gently, touched the bruises that were beginning to rise on my face.

“You were brave, weren’t you?”

Tears filled my eyes. “I….”

“Shh. Your mother would have been pleased.”

I blinked and sniffed, surprised by his words. Even so, they could not hide his sorrow.

“You’re not pleased?” I asked.

Afraid and childlike, I wanted his blessing. I wanted to hear I was doing the right thing, and that it was all going to be fine. My father’s brow creased as he tried to hold back his tears.

“I…. Oh, I just wish there was another way. I dreamed of grandchildren, family gatherings, and—” He broke off with a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry. This isn’t helping. Take care, my girl. Be safe, and wise. And… you know. We’ll all miss you.”

I threw myself into his arms, and hugged him so hard I thought I’d never breathe again. Maybe I didn’t want to. His arms encircled me the way they’d done so many times before, curing every hurt, every heartache… everything but this.

Father pushed me gently from him, and stroked my hair.

“Get going,” he said, the tears on his cheeks belying the gruffness of his voice. “Go on, before I embarrass us both.”

I nodded, but I couldn’t speak. I paced backwards a few steps, not wanting to turn from him, but the moment had to come. I turned, and let the cold air take my tears.

Duncan was still waiting by the south gate. He had a striking presence, I remember thinking. Just this strange, shining human, standing there like a statue, so still and calm. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. He turned to me as I approached, and asked if I was ready.

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Then we must go.”

I didn’t look back as we left the alienage. Nobody came to wave me goodbye. If they looked out from their houses, I cannot say. We didn’t do things that way. Besides, I was leaving. That meant I didn’t belong anymore. I was less than human, and now I was no longer elven, not really. Stuck somewhere between the two, and unwanted by either side. Or so tradition had it.

Of course, a great many traditions had already been broken today.

I followed Duncan out of the alienage gates, and the full force of the mood in the city struck me. It was boiling out there, a cauldron of gossip, rumour, anger and fear. The market district was never exactly genteel, but it was unbelievable that day, crackling with an unpleasant, violent energy. The sight of the heavily armed guard patrols made my back tense and my stomach tight, and despite their presence, there were still fights breaking out among the stalls.

It was horrible, and the man I trailed after was hardly inconspicuous. I did what seemed the most sensible thing; hunched myself up and scurried after Duncan, hoping for the Maker’s sake I could pass for his servant.

At the time, I was amazed we got out of the gates without incident. Now, I realise how Duncan’s reputation preceded him, and I am aware of how truly lucky I was. I still have regrets—for who doesn’t?—and I still struggle with the question of whether, if I could, I would have altered what happened that day.

To be honest, I don’t know.

I doubt it, though it pains me to say so. Whatever changes the years have wrought, and whatever lessons I have learned, I know this: it was meant to be, that day, and it was the day that I began, at last, to live.

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Two

 
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Soris and I stopped where we were, watching the three human nobles stride into the midst of what should have been a happy gathering.

“Here we are, boys,” said the first. “Time for a little fun.”

He was a big man, even by human standards, broad and red-cheeked, with tawny hair and a narrow moustache and beard. The girls, unaware of their approach, had not moved out of the way, and he reached out, grabbing hold of Nola by the shoulders.

She shrieked, which seemed to make the human laugh. He held her by the scruff of the neck, like a kitten, and slid his large, meaty hand down over her buttocks.

“Let go of me! Stop, please!”

I stiffened. All of a sudden, even the air felt wrong, the way it gets thick and greasy before a storm. I heard Soris’ intake of breath, and then the big human smiled. It was a thoroughly unpleasant, cruel expression, slicing across his face like a knife. Nola had started to cry.

“It’s a party, isn’t it?” he said, raising his voice to his companions, although the hubbub of celebration was already dying down, silence spreading out around this ghastly tableau like water. “Grab a whore and have a good time!”

The three of them laughed, and the man pushed Nola towards one of his cronies, a black-haired human in a blood-red doublet, his features thick and ugly. Her hands up in front of her face, she whimpered even before he grabbed hold of her, his hands all over her hips and waist like she was a tuppenny tavern harlot.

“Savour the hunt, boys,” the first man said, bearing down upon Shianni. “Take this little elven wench here. So young and vulnerable….”

He reached out, ready to grab her the same way he’d abused Nola, but Shianni ducked away.

“Touch me and I’ll gut you, you pig!” she spat.

Perhaps it was not the most sensible thing to say.

Thandon, one of the men whom the hahren had put in charge of helping to organise the festivities—and who I think had harboured a soft spot for Shianni for some time—stepped forward, trying to distract the men.

“My lord,” he began, hands outstretched. “Please, my lord. We’re celebrating weddings here….”

“Silence, worm!”

The human didn’t even break stride. He just reached out and struck Thandon full in the face, dropping him to the ground as if he was nothing more than an insect, a fly to be flicked away.

Shianni let out a curse as the man took hold of her wrist, twisting it sadistically. I began to step forward before I really knew what I was doing, but Soris grabbed my arm.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he whispered urgently. “But maybe we shouldn’t get involved with—”

“Shianni will get herself killed!”

He sighed. “Fine. But let’s try to be diplomatic, shall we?”

“My lord!” I called out, crossing to the centre of the gathering.

I intended to sound firm, unyielding… though I suspect I squeaked like a frightened child. Still, it distracted the human enough for Shianni to break free. He levelled his gaze at me, and it turned my stomach. I had never seen such a spiteful, malicious face.

He was not exactly an ugly creature, but he looked at me as if I was less than nothing, and the expression in his hard, pale green eyes frightened me. Such naked cruelty—and worse. A thin smile curled his lips.

“What’s this? Another lovely one come to keep me company?”

He moved towards me, and every nerve and instinct I possessed urged me to run, but I held my ground. The human drew close—too close, his presence an oppressive, unwanted invasion—and I smelled his scent, all crushed velvet, sweat, and the sticky, unpleasant aroma of foreign oils and perfumes.

I swallowed, fighting the bile rising in my throat.

“L-Let’s just talk this over, shall we?”

That smile became an even less pleasant sneer of contempt. Behind the man, his companions both laughed, and one called out:

“Maybe you should invite it over for dinner!”

I glanced at the one that had spoken and, beyond him, saw Shianni. I’d thought she’d have had the sense to run, to take the girls with her and let this stupid business burn itself out, the way we always did when humans came in here, looking for trouble.

All right, I didn’t recall ever seeing nobles in the alienage before, but there was a first time for everything. They were probably younger sons, I reasoned; the useless whelps of lower gentry, turned out to run loose while their fathers were away, fighting at Ostagar. We’d heard rumours of some kind of conflict down there, though we’d paid them little mind. There were always skirmishes somewhere, after all. Humans didn’t seem designed to live in peace.

No, right there and then, our problems were far more immediate.

The human curled his lip, but my eyes were fixed on Shianni, snatching up a discarded clay bottle… no, surely she wouldn’t be so stupid! I wanted to shout, to tell her not to do it, but everything seemed to happen both so quickly, and in long threads of drawn-out seconds, all at once.

The shem leaned over me, his breath thick with scent and grease.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” he demanded arrogantly.

I opened my mouth, but it was Shianni’s voice that cut through the air.

“Pig!” she yelled.

The human turned, his sneer melting into surprise as she brought the bottle through a wide, graceful arc… and smacked it into the side of his head. It shattered, the noise bright and clean in the abrupt, ominous silence.

For an instant, the human looked startled. He swayed slightly and then, as if he was a puppet whose strings had been cut, he pitched backwards and folded to the ground. Blood welled on his temple, and the sunlight glinted on the shards of glazed pottery.

I’d never heard the alienage so quiet. We all stood there, staring down at the unconscious human, and my heart seemed to pound so hard I was afraid my ribs would break.

This was it. We’d killed one of them—and a nobleman, at that.

We would all hang. We would all… well, I didn’t know what would happen. Someone coughed, and it broke whatever spell had been on us. The dark-haired shem pushed roughly forward.

“Are you insane?” He glared at me. “This is Vaughan Kendells, the arl of Denerim’s son!”

“W-what?” Shianni clasped her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide with terror. “Oh, Maker….”

The other man knelt by his lord’s side. He glanced up and shook his head.

“He’s out cold, Braden.”

I looked from my cousin to the prone body of the arl’s son, and his two furious companions. My mind worked fast, buzzing on the tension and the panic of the moment.

The arl’s son…. This was not good. This was, in fact, so far removed from good that there possibly wasn’t a word for how bad it was.

Still, I reasoned, these two humans hadn’t drawn their blades against us—at least not yet. Like childish bullies, they were afraid and useless without their leader, and Arl Urien himself was out of the city…. Perhaps there was a chance for us here.

I squared my jaw, lifted my head, and met Lord Braden’s cold, dark eyes.

“Take him home,” I said firmly. “If you don’t mention this, we won’t.”

I heard a few intakes of breath from the onlookers, and felt the surge of tension in the air around us. They were outnumbered, the humans knew that, but we were unarmed and afraid. There was no question of our rushing them, no possibility of anything else happening here except them leaving, with whatever attempts at dignity—or perhaps retaliation—that they could muster.

Braden raised his hand, and I flinched, expecting to be hit. He just pointed at me, vague yet still threatening.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, knife-ears! This’ll go badly for you.”

I said nothing, but I didn’t move. I just stood and watched as the two nobles shouldered the unconscious lordling between them and carried him away, his head and one leg dangling in a way that—in any other setting, any other time—would have been comical.

It took a good few moments before anyone started to breathe again. The crowd seeped back around the departed humans like a wave and, somewhere, somebody started playing that damn fiddle again.

Cold sweat prickled along the length of my spine, and I blinked, trying to make myself believe what had just happened. Shianni let out a long breath.

“Oh, I really messed up this time,” she moaned.

“It’ll be all right,” Soris said, though he didn’t sound at all convinced. “He won’t tell anyone an elven woman took him down.”

“I hope so.” Shianni looked down at herself. Dregs of ale and bits of jug speckled the front of her dress, and she wiped ineffectually at them, apparently not realising she’d cut her hand. “I-I should get cleaned up,” she muttered, and lurched off in the direction of the privies.

I supposed it had been a bit of a shock for all of us.

“Is everybody else all right?” Soris asked, glancing around at the pale, worried faces.

“I think we’re just shaken,” said a girl I hadn’t seen before. “What was that about?”

She wore a long, green dress, demure and well-cut, and she had the prettiest ears I’d ever seen, although the pale brown hair and narrow, pointed face left me in no doubt at all: this had to be Soris’ dying mouse!

Soris laughed nervously. “Oh, it… uh… looks like the arl’s son started drinking too early. Um, well, let’s not let this ruin the day.” He cleared his throat and held out his hand, presenting me to the girl, who smiled delicately. “Uh, Merien, this is Valora, my betrothed.”

I inclined my head, determined not to give in to the sudden urge to laugh. I could see why he was worried. She seemed sweet enough, but that voice…! It was like a little girl’s, all soft and breathless, as if she’d faint at the first winter frost.

“A pleasure to meet you,” I said dutifully. “And welcome to your new home. I wish you happiness here.”

Valora smiled. “Thank you. And, um….”

My gaze slid to the elf who’d stepped forward to join her. He was tall, clad in dark pants and a green blouson, the ivory sleeves criss-crossed with intricate and beautiful embroidery—all far less garish than poor Soris’ clashing ensemble—and he was, indeed, very handsome. Blue eyes, blond hair worn daringly short…. I was embarrassed to find the heat of a blush beginning somewhere in the region of my neck.

“Er. This must be Nelaros,” I said, wishing I didn’t feel quite so awkward.

“A pleasure.” He smiled. “Soris has said much of you. Some of it was even positive.”

At least he didn’t have a dying mouse voice. I glared at my cousin.

“Well, you know….” Soris shrugged. “I just wanted to give him a sporting chance to run. Anyway, I, uh—” He cleared his throat, being extremely careful not to meet my eye. “—I’m sure the two of you have much to discuss. Valora, shall we…?”

The mouse blinked, giggled, and wafted off at his side, leaving Nelaros and I as alone as we were likely to be until this was all over. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing, and I suppose he felt the same, because we shared a smile that bubbled into uncomfortable, tongue-tied laughter.

“So, um… how was the trip from Highever?” I asked.

“Uneventful, thankfully. The trade caravan we accompanied had little of value; I think that kept the bandits away.”

“Ah.”

I racked my brain for something useful to say, but I knew virtually nothing of this man; just that he was the youngest son of a respectable family, and had worked as a smith in Highever, where his father leased a small forge. Desperately, I seized on that.

“Um. I hear you’re a talented smith. Do you, uh, think you’ll want to look for work at one of the forges in the city?”

Nelaros smiled, and I wondered if he was susceptible to flattery, or just pleased that I seemed interested.

“I don’t know. Perhaps. I’m… well, I’m happy to do whatever I need to make a good life here. With you.”

He reached into the pocket of his tunic and took out a small scrap of cloth. Unfolding it carefully, Nelaros revealed a narrow gold band, polished to a low sheen.

“I made this for you,” he said shyly. “I hope it fits.”

I smiled uneasily. It was a pretty shackle, I had to admit, but it brought into focus just how big today was.

“It’s… beautiful,” I said, trying to ignore the somersaults my stomach kept performing.

He pocketed the ring again, and that awful, unwieldy silence threatened to descend once more. I groped for some other gambit, hoping he wouldn’t think me too inquisitive. Nobody wanted a wife who didn’t know when to hold her tongue, after all.

“It, er, must be difficult… starting over in a new place. How have you found Denerim so far?”

Sadness tinged Nelaros’ face. He nearly succeeded in hiding it.

“It was hard to leave Highever, although Denerim itself seems friendlier. Perhaps because it’s so large that humans take less notice of us. I don’t know.”

I wondered just how much he’d seen of the little interlude with Lord Vaughan, but said nothing. Nelaros had made me curious about his home city, though. I wanted to ask more questions, but I was conscious of not wanting to start our marriage with an interrogation. There would be time to talk after the ceremony.

Time for that—and everything else. Oh, Maker’s mercy… I didn’t want to think about it.

“Nervous?” I blurted.

Nelaros looked at me with a curious expression in his eyes. They really were awfully blue.

“I thought I’d stay calm,” he said. “But finally seeing you has made me…. Well, let’s just say I’m not calm.”

He smiled tightly, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I worse than a dying mouse? A clunky, big-nosed plough horse who antagonised the local nobility and hung around with bottle-wielding drunkards? I glanced away, fiddling with the embroidery on my wristlet. A small end of thread had started to come loose, and I knew I had to resist the temptation to pull it.

“How about you?” Nelaros asked. “Nervous?”

I looked up at him, into those intensely blue eyes, and tried to imagine that face—those high cheekbones, that strong, straight nose—being the first thing I saw every morning for the rest of my life. It could work, couldn’t it? We could be a good match. I trusted Father enough to think so… I was almost sure of it.

“I….” I should be honest with him, I supposed. Better that than to begin building a life on flattery and sycophancy. But what if who I was wasn’t good enough for him? I didn’t know what to do, so I swallowed my nerves and smiled. “I was until I saw you.”

Nelaros’ face softened. I didn’t know if I’d laid it on too thick, or if he even believed me, but he smiled back, and I supposed that augured well.

“I’ll spend every waking moment learning to make you happy,” he murmured.

No one had ever said anything quite like that to me before. Heat washed through my cheeks, and I looked down at my feet. Behind me, I heard Soris cough gently—perhaps in what he thought might be a subtle kind of way—and the awkwardness returned ten-fold.

Nelaros and I moved a little further apart, and Soris took my arm firmly.

“Come on, cousin,” he muttered. “We should let them get… ready.”

I glanced at him, and saw Valora standing close by his side. She smiled.

“We’ll see you two in a bit,” she said sweetly. “Don’t disappear on us!”

“Or we’ll come find you,” Nelaros added, a weak attempt at a joke.

We chuckled uncomfortably, each one of us probably feeling uneasier than the last, and I was only too glad to let Soris lead me away.

Once we were out of earshot, he exhaled sharply.

“Phew!” He slipped me a sly look. “So, is he everything you hoped for?”

“Soris,” I warned. “I don’t know. He seems nice enough, I guess. It’s just….”

“Well, there’s no turning back now, is there?” Soris smiled ruefully. His expression fell as he looked towards the northern gates of the alienage. “Oh, no. Don’t look now, but we have another problem.”

I followed his gaze, immediately concerned. “What is it?”

“Another human just walked in. Could be one of Vaughan’s, or just a random troublemaker.”

I saw the man my cousin meant, standing out like a flame among the cheerful revellers and shabby buildings. What was it about today, I wondered? Did the Maker have some particular grudge against our just having a simple, trouble-free ceremony?

The human didn’t dress like Vaughan’s cronies, but neither was there anything random about him. He was dark-skinned, his face solemn but not marked by the same arrogance we’d seen on the noblemen. His hair and neatly clipped beard were black, a contrast against his bright armour and surcoat, which shone almost white, and bore symbols I’d never seen before. The pommel of a longsword glinted on his back, and though he didn’t seem in a hurry to cause any trouble, the ill feeling towards his kind hung heavy in the air.

“We should go and talk to him,” I said.

“Really?” Soris looked uncertainly at me. “You don’t think we should…. Oh, forget it. Let’s just do this quickly.”

We crossed the cobbles towards the stranger.

He hadn’t glanced at us once, yet he turned to greet us as we reached him, without any sign of surprise at our approach.

“Good day,” he said, his voice low and clear, and his manners quite unlike those I was used to seeing in a human. He actually inclined his head to me, and looked me full in the face, not through me or to one side, like I was half-invisible. “I understand congratulations are in order for your impending wedding. Both of you, in fact?”

“I… well, yes.” He’d wrong-footed me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Before I knew it, I was making my own respectful bow, like a well-trained hound. “Thank you, stranger. But, please… you should go. We would rather avoid any unpleasantness.”

The human did not appear surprised, but he raised his brows.

“What manner of unpleasantness might you be referring to?”

His accent wasn’t local, but I couldn’t place it. I couldn’t identify anything about him enough for my liking. Even his armour didn’t remotely resemble the scuffed, serviceable leather and mail the city guard wore. Delicate patterns, like waves or clouds, chased the bright metal, and it had clearly been made to fit him. Unique, just like the small, burnished hoop he wore in his ear.

He carried more than just the one sword, too. Under his cloak, he was clearly well-armed, and that unsettled me even more than his manners.

“Look.” I tried again. “It’s just that the Alienage really isn’t a good place for humans to be right now. Please….”

“I’m sorry, but I have no intention of leaving,” he said firmly.

Beside me, I could feel Soris starting to get panicky, shifting from foot to foot like a child. The last thing any of us wanted was a repeat of what had happened with Vaughan. Word of Shianni’s antics with the bottle were already spreading in whispers, and it wouldn’t take much for somebody else to do something stupid, especially with all the drink flowing today.

I caught myself wishing the damn wedding could have waited, or that it had at least all happened the way it was supposed to. It wasn’t meant to be like this, was it? Rushed and chaotic, and torn through with mistakes and injustice… just like everything else here.

It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t we even have one day where they left us alone?

I looked up at the human, sharply reminding myself that this was not his fault. Sure, he was a stranger here, but what else was he? A soldier? No. Not dressed like that. No simple guardsman or infantry, and no casual traveller. A knight, then? But why would he be here, now… and why would he refuse to leave?

“Fine,” I said. “Maybe we can compromise.”

The man looked past my shoulder, his seriousness giving way to an expression somewhere between satisfaction and amusement.

“She keeps her composure even when facing down an unknown and armed human. A true gift, wouldn’t you say, Valendrian?”

I turned, and saw our hahren bearing down upon us. His grey hair was braided and a broad smile wreathed his face. He passed between Soris and me and, going at once to the human, shook him warmly by the hand.

“I would say the world has far more use for those who know how to stay their blades. It is good to see you again, my old friend. It has been far too long.”

Confusion left me shy and unsure as to whether I had offended. I bowed to the hahren, and to this human he called friend.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I had no idea….”

“I was hardly forthcoming,” the man said. “And for that I apologise.”

I straightened up and stared. Apologise? To me? He had…?

Perhaps I was dreaming. I risked a glance at Soris, who’d turned pale as moonlight and just stood there, looking between the human and Valendrian as if both were ghosts.

The hahren placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, a gesture of such equality and affection as I’d never seen between elf and human.

“Children,” he said calmly. “May I present Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden.”

I had no wish to let myself be a slack-jawed fool, but I knew I was still staring. I didn’t know what a Grey Warden was, but a leader who commanded anything that stretched over the entire country… this was more than I had ever encountered. I inclined my head.

“Well met, Duncan.”

“And you, dear girl.”

I watched him, fascinated. Soris made a clumsy, perfunctory bow, and the human gave him the same graceful respect. I had never seen anything like it.

We both stood, awkward and uncertain, not sure what to do next. We had not been dismissed—and I, for one, wanted to know more of this stranger—but Valendrian’s next words were not addressed to us.

“But my question remains unanswered. Why are you here, Duncan?”

“The worst has happened.” The human’s expression darkened, and he lowered his voice a little. “A Blight has begun. King Cailan summons the Grey Wardens to Ostagar to fight the darkspawn horde alongside his armies.”

“Yes.” The hahren nodded. “I had heard the news. Still, this is an awkward time—there is to be a wedding. Two, in fact.”

He glanced at us, and I saw from the look in his eye that we were meant to have heard what the human had to say. I didn’t know why. I knew of the fighting at Ostagar, but everything else they spoke of…. It might as well have been Orlesian.

“So I see,” Duncan said. “By all means, attend to your ceremonies. My concerns can wait for now.”

“Very well.” Valendrian nodded, and turned to Soris and me. “Children, treat Duncan as my guest. And, for the Maker’s sake, take your places!”

I looked over towards the platform beneath the vhenadahl. Nelaros and Valora were already up there, along with my father, Shianni, and the other bridesmaids.

No turning back, indeed.

“But….” I began, looking curiously at Duncan. I had so many questions.

He smiled. “Please, do not let me interrupt further. We shall speak more later.”

“Come on, Meri!” Soris tugged at my arm. “We can’t keep them waiting.”

“All right.” I relented, but not without one last look at Duncan.

He inclined his head, and I followed Soris up to the platform. There was a ripple of applause as we ascended the steps—and not a little bit of drunken cheering.

“Ooh, Soris!” Valora simpered. “There you are. I was afraid you’d run off.”

My cousin and I exchanged brief glances.

“No,” Soris assured his mouse. “I’m here, and with Nelaros’ blushing bride in tow.”

I shot him a dirty look, but took my place beside my betrothed. Nelaros smiled awkwardly at me.

“You look… radiant,” he murmured, and I gave him an uncertain smile.

“It looks like everyone’s ready,” Soris observed.

“Good luck,” I said.

He gave me a sickly grin. “You too, cousin.”

Valendrian had mounted the platform, and now he stepped forward, his hands raised as he called for quiet from the gathered sea of onlookers. I glanced across at my father, calmed and heartened by the look of quiet affection and approval on his face. I felt a light pressure on the fingertips of my right hand and, as I looked down, I realised it was Nelaros. The corner of his mouth curled a little as I squeezed back.

Maybe it would be all right after all.

“Friends and family,” the hahren began, “today we celebrate not only this joining, but also our bonds of kin and kind. We are a free people, but that was not always so. Andraste, the Maker’s prophet, freed us from the bonds of slavery. As our community grows, remember that our strength lies in commitment to tradition and to each other.”

There was a general rumble of approval from the crowd, and Mother Boann came forward to join the hahren. He bowed to her, and we understood that the vows were to begin. Shianni caught my eye, and grinned.

“Thank you, Valendrian,” the priest said. “Now, let us begin. In the name of the Maker, who brought us this world, and in whose name we say the Chant of Light, I—”

She stopped abruptly, her gaze fixed on some disruption in the crowd, and my gut tightened. This wasn’t the time for someone to pass out drunk, throw up, or start a fight… but that didn’t seem to be the kind of commotion the revered mother was facing.

“My lord?” Mother Boann’s voice was clear, but she couldn’t hide the concern in her tone. “This is… an unexpected surprise.”

I didn’t want to look, too afraid of what I knew I would see.

The arl’s son was back, and very much conscious.

He’d brought friends with him, too—a whole pack of guards, the city badge on their shields. Vaughan and his two compatriots strode through the gathered press of people, bodies parting in front of them like stalks of grass bowing before a wheel, and they barged their way up onto the platform.

“Sorry to interrupt, Mother,” Vaughan said, his words dripping with scorn, “but I’m having a party… and we’re dreadfully short of female guests.”

The priest stood between him and the four of us, her outrage palpable. The two other lordlings moved behind him, crossing to take up positions, one at the back of our little group, and the other beside Valendrian and my father… two old, vulnerable men.

“My lord,” Mother Boann protested. “This is a wedding!”

I watched her stand there, facing down the supercilious noble, the shoulders of her red-and-gold Chantry robe shaking ever so slightly. From where I stood, I had a horribly clear view of Vaughan’s face as he looked coldly at the woman. There was no mistaking the determination in his expression—or the butterfly stitches patching the cut on his brow.

He was here to settle a score.

“Ha!” He loosed a burst of obnoxious laughter. “If you want to dress up your pets and play tea parties, that’s your business. But don’t pretend this is a proper wedding.”

The silence that spilled out around those words was taut and sharp, stretched thin enough to shatter with the slightest blow. I could barely breathe. I was so furious, my whole body clenching with hatred of this human and—what was worse—hatred for the fear I felt.

That was the crux of it. No matter how contemptible his behaviour now, Vaughan was untouchable.

We all knew that, and the awareness of it permeated the air like a foul stench. He was a lord, a nobleman… the arl’s son. He strutted across our scruffy little platform like a peacock, and he knew we could do nothing.

“Now,” he said, his rich, lazy drawl oozing around us, echoing off the stonework and making my skin crawl, “we’re here for a good time, aren’t we, boys?”

The one I knew as Lord Braden, standing behind Nola and Arith, peeled his fat lips back into a rubbery smile.

“That’s right,” he said. “Just a good time with the ladies, that’s all.”

Their nasty, greasy laughter pooled in the unnatural silence. Beside me, Nelaros’ breathing was shallow and rapid, and his fingers folded more firmly around my hand, though his face stayed blank. I recognised the signs; he was not unused to abuse from humans, and it touched me that he shifted his weight a little, angling his body in front of mine. It was a gesture of protection I had not expected from him.

I glanced at Soris. His face was drained of all colour, and beads of sweat stood out on his brow. He didn’t meet my eye. None of them would… but that was what we did when the shems picked a fight.

Fair enough, it wasn’t usually like this. Not nobles, and not on our own turf. It normally happened in the market, or down by the docks late on a Friday night. It always started in some casual, off-the-cuff kind of way: just an insult thrown, a shove here or there…. It was to be expected, and our reactions were well-trained, filtering down through the generations.

If you couldn’t run, you stopped, stood still, and you took it in silence. Anything else just made it worse.

But Vaughan didn’t seem content with just throwing his weight around. He paraded in front of us, his eyes everywhere, that cold green gaze running over our bodies as if he was assessing horseflesh. I felt sick.

“Let’s take those two.” He nodded at Nola and Arith, and waved one hand nonchalantly in Valora’s direction. “The one in the tight dress… and where’s the bitch that bottled me?”

I held my breath. Take us? Take us where? This would not end well. A little roughing up and groping in the street was one thing, but…. The other human moved from standing guard over the hahren, and grabbed Shianni by the arm.

“Over here, Lord Vaughan!”

I prayed she’d have the sense to keep her mouth shut, but my cousin’s nature was as fiery as her hair. She squirmed, kicking out at the man’s legs.

“Let me go, you stuffed-shirt son-of-a—”

All she earned for her trouble was a slap, and Vaughan chuckled.

“Oh, I’ll enjoy taming her….”

Instinctively, I started to move towards Shianni, which was stupid. At once, Vaughan turned and fixed me with that reptilian gaze. He raised his sandy brows.

“And see the pretty bride…!”

He began to head for me, and I could see how much the bastard was enjoying ratcheting up the tension on what should have been a day of celebration… just waiting for someone to throw the first stone, hurl the first catcall of abuse. It would be all the excuse he needed, and then it would be our blood on the cobbles.

Nelaros’ grip on my hand tightened, and he moved closer to me.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I won’t let them take you.”

I looked at my betrothed, not sure whether he was brave or an idiot. Shianni was still writhing in the other shem’s grip.

I couldn’t let this happen. Not today.

“No.” I pulled my hand away, unwilling to let Nelaros make this any more dangerous. “Just get out of here. Run!”

He shook his head and, for a moment, our gazes locked. Brave, I decided. Not a fool.

There was no time for anyone to run, though. Vaughan drew closer, pulling the same trick on me that he had before—using his height and bulk to try and intimidate, the unwelcome closeness of his presence a threatening weapon. Gritting my teeth, I stood my ground. I met his gaze, and did not falter, hoping against futile hope that he believed I was not afraid of him.

“Ah, yes,” Vaughan sneered, reaching out a hand as if—in some horrible parody of affection—to touch my hair. “Such a well-formed little thing….”

“You villains!” Nelaros snapped.

Vaughan laughed softly. There was no mirth in it.

“Oh, that’s quite enough. I’m sure we all want to avoid any further, um, unpleasantness?”

His breath grazed my face, full of rich man’s wine, oils and spices. It still seemed so horribly quiet. The alienage was never this quiet. I could hear the bustle of the market square seeping in from beyond the walls, birds flapping in the high branches of the vhenadahl… and Nola, weeping again.

Anger blistered within me. Years of rage, bottled up and held back, because everyone knew we shouldn’t make trouble, shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves.

Memories of Mother filtered through my head, and I found my voice, when I should have stayed quiet.

“You have no right! Let them go, you bastard!”

The arl’s son gave a shallow, contemptuous laugh.

“Ha! Look, this one has spirit! Oh, but we’re going to have some fun….”

He rocked back on his heels, still smirking at me. The dark-haired human, Lord Braden, stepped forward and, before I saw it coming, struck me across the face with the back of his hand.

White-hot pain shot through my jaw, I fell, and the world turned black.

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