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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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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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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