Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter One

 
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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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It was going to be a long walk to Lothering, and the Korcari Wilds were every bit as inhospitable as I remembered. The damp and the cold permeated everything, a thin film of wet clinging to each branch and vine, and the smell of dank earth rising to greet me with every soggy footfall.

We trudged on into the night, no one saying much. Alistair was still silent, his face closed in and his eyes barely seeming to focus on the path ahead of him. I wanted to talk to him, to try and… well, offer some kind of comfort, I suppose, though I didn’t know how. Was it enough to say that I’d lost people too? Probably not. The thing about grief is how it convinces you that your own experience is completely unique, no matter what anyone else has lived through. Selfish, in its way, perhaps.

Still, he worried me. The horrors of Ostagar were fresh and raw for both of us, but I remembered how he’d taken charge at the Tower of Ishal, and the look on his face when the men who’d so willingly followed him started dying.

Then, of course, there were the other losses. Finding out about Duncan, the king, and the rest of the Grey Wardens the way he had must have been difficult. He would bear guilt, and shame, and all other manner of scars that weren’t entirely rational, but were no less painful for it. Wondering if he could have run faster, or been cleverer, or stopped it happening in the first place… and so forth, I imagined, and tried to blink the thoughts away.

Maybe it was part of the reason for his obvious antipathy towards Morrigan. Easier to blame the messenger—or the messenger’s daughter, in this case—than chew on the bitter fruit of the message itself… not to mention the whole templar thing.

Back in the safe, stone walls of the army camp, he’d told me joining the Chantry hadn’t been his idea. I’d given it little thought at the time; just assumed it was something the lower gentry did with spare sons they either couldn’t be bothered, or couldn’t afford, to marry off or equip as knights. Alistair certainly didn’t seem the pious type, though he clearly harboured a deep-rooted suspicion of magic. I couldn’t say I blamed him for that, though I reminded myself how little I really knew about my comrade.

Strange, when I thought of how many times he’d saved my life at the tower. Though large parts of the battle were lost to me, choked off in smoke-filled smears of memory, I remembered that. Him, hauling me up off a blood-slicked floor, and shoving me behind him when the arrows flew, and the darkspawn poured through the doors, intent on ripping us to pieces.

I’d never seen anyone fight like that. Whether Alistair had gained his training through the Chantry or the Grey Wardens, it was impressive—although, looking at him now, it was hard to believe he could actually swing a sword.

He’d barely spoken since we left Flemeth’s hut, and almost everything he’d said before that had been bile and fury about Loghain’s treachery and how we had to bring him to account for what he’d done. That… or sniping at Morrigan.

I hadn’t expected that. They were like a couple of children, flinging mud at each other across the cobbles.

He didn’t trust her—and, I had to admit, neither did I—but was it really sensible to make it so obvious?

I watched her as we plodded through rut after muddy rut, the trees dripping and creaking all around us. Just as when she’d led us out of the Wilds before, the night of the Joining, she took turns and twists through the trees that were hard to even see if you didn’t know they were there. She never looked back to check we were still following, or to warn us about low-hanging boughs or brambles, or the inevitable horrible scuttling things that seemed to keep running over my feet.

I’d never liked bugs. Back home, we had far too many infestations of things, from fleas, lice and bedbugs, right up to woodworm, cockroaches, and those beetles that used to eat the ends out of timbers. Landlords would never pay to have them treated, even when the ceiling beams fell in, as had happened to a cousin of Father’s once. That had been a memorable winter; nine of us, crammed in under our roof, with Aunt Elina’s new baby screaming all night on an empty belly. Two months, they boarded with us, until they could find a new place.

Funny, how memories like that poke out at you from unexpected corners of the past. Here I was, slogging along in this forsaken wilderness—in armour that didn’t fit and was riddled with arrow-holes and tears, and stained with the blood of horrific creatures that, until recently, I hadn’t even believed were really real—and I should have been completely consumed with thoughts of what lay ahead of us. Alistair and I were the only surviving Grey Wardens left in Ferelden. We were facing the cold reality of a new Blight which, thanks to Teyrn Loghain, was coming at the worst possible moment… and all I could think about was the winter there was a plague of rot beetle in the tenements.

The ridiculous thing was that, now I was thinking about it, I found that I missed the alienage more than ever. I ached for the comfortable familiarity of worn wood, crumbling mortar, and the shadows of Denerim’s skyline, with its patchwork of parapets and towers.

But we kept walking and, every time the breeze caught at Morrigan’s robes, I thought of the sound of wet washing flapping on lines strung between cracked wooden window frames.

It made sense to follow her until we got out of the Wilds, though Alistair hadn’t seemed able to let the matter pass without a muttered comment about lion’s dens and, as he put it, waking up dead in time for breakfast.

I said nothing, not prepared to stand buffer between the two of them. Besides, part of me doubted his bluster was all to do with ambivalence towards mages. I supposed it was only to be expected. Her manner might have been more than a touch abrasive but, for all her unknown and potentially dangerous qualities, Morrigan was still a woman. That, at least, was undeniable.

It was in every detail of her appearance: the luxuriant dark hair, twisted into a wild knot on the crown of her head, the livid bands of shadow that graced her pale, proud face… the thick, tactile fabrics of her robes—feathers, furs, and leather set against soft, white skin—and the generous curves beneath them. If I’d noticed the plunging neckline and the barely contained, swelling bosom, augmented with glittering jewellery, it was a pretty safe bet that her assets hadn’t escaped Alistair’s attention either. And, as far as I knew, all the bickering could have been some peculiar human courtship ritual.

I smiled to myself at that thought, as yet more muddy water seeped into my boots.

“What?”

“Hm?” I blinked, realising that he was looking at me quizzically. “Oh… er, nothing. Just thinking.”

Something wet and stagnant dripped off the trees that arched above us. Alistair wrinkled his nose.

“Right. Fond thoughts about decent food and dry socks, yes?”

I smiled, glad to catch a glimpse of the man I’d met at the army camp, still there somewhere behind those tired, dull eyes.

“Mm. Clean clothes,” I added wistfully.

“Sausages,” Alistair volunteered, gazing into the distance. “And cheese. I miss cheese.”

I chuckled. “Anyone would think you hadn’t eaten in a week.”

“Well?” He quirked an eyebrow. “Would you call army rations ‘eating’?”

He had a point. Back home, we were used to the realities of hunger, but there was a difference between having too little to start with, and doing whatever it was that the mess hall servers had done to perfectly good provisions.

I opened my mouth to reply, but Morrigan’s voice cut across the damp air before I had a chance.

“You two may wish to save your salivations for later. There are still plenty of darkspawn we shall have to get you past before we can rest tonight.”

“But… the horde will have moved on, won’t it?” I furrowed my brow. “I mean, I know we’re not in much shape to fight, but there shouldn’t be—”

“Hah!”

She gave a crisp laugh, then turned and looked back at us, her expression shifting slowly from enquiry to something rather more self-satisfied.

“Truly? You haven’t told her, then?”

“Er, told me what?”

“My, my….” Morrigan shook her head. “How lax! Do the Grey Wardens teach their raw recruits nothing? How do they expect you to survive?”

“What does she mean?” I looked sharply at Alistair. “What—”

“All right, all right.” He sighed wearily. “Look… do you remember me saying that Grey Wardens can… sense the darkspawn?”

“Ye-es,” I said slowly, not sure I liked where this was going.

“Right. Well, it means that, in return, they can sense us.”

“Ah.”

“Yes.” A weak, humourless smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Just one of the things you, er, should have been told. Would have been told. It’s… normally not so much a case of just throwing you in at the deep end and… well, you know. After the battle, Duncan would’ve—”

Alistair’s voice tightened, and he broke off, blinking hard. I nodded as sympathetically as I could.

“I understand. There’s… time, anyway,” I added hesitantly.

There wasn’t, frankly. We were pushing ourselves hard, meaning to leave the Wilds behind us by dawn and make for Lothering, then Redcliffe, as quickly as possible. I still had it in my head that the Grey Warden reinforcements would be coming from Orlais and—if Alistair was right about this Arl Eamon, and we could expect his support—our job was to pass on the information we had, and the treaties, and let the experts take over.

If I’d known then even a half of what we would end up confronting, I would probably have fainted, face down in the mud.

~o~O~o~

Some way on, towards the edge of the Wilds, we came across the deserted husk of a Chasind village, the abandoned huts perched on their strange wooden stilts like despondent jesters. There was no sign of the inhabitants but, comfortingly, no sign of any bodies or bloodshed, either.

“They’ve fled the darkspawn, probably,” Alistair said, casting a wary glance at the tree line. “Who knows how far north the horde’s moved already.”

Morrigan turned in a slow circle, almost as if she was sniffing the air.

“The place seems empty enough for now,” she observed. “’Twould be sensible to see if there’s anything left here we can use.”

“What?” Alistair scoffed incredulously. “You’re suggesting we do a quick spot of breaking and entering while we’ve got the chance?”

She looked coolly at the pair of us—standing there in our wrecked armour and bloodstained clothes—and shrugged dismissively.

“I care not what you do. Wait until we reach Lothering, if you desire, and purchase whatever supplies you require there.”

I sighed, and dropped my pack to the ground, where it landed with a damp thud. “She has a point, Alistair. We haven’t any money, anyway.”

He gave me a disconsolate look, and I wasn’t sure whether it came more from offended morals, or the fact that Morrigan had made a valid argument.

“Great,” he said bleakly. “‘Join the Grey Wardens. See the world. Loot the homes of the destitute.’”

I shot him a reproachful look. “Whoever lived here, it looks like they left by choice. They probably didn’t leave much of value behind and, anyway, you don’t think we’re just a tiny bit destitute ourselves?”

He looked me up and down, and there must have been something amusing about it—the mud, the bits of twig, the ill-fitting armour falling off my skinny frame—because a small smile curled his mouth.

“You could say that, I suppose.”

“If it eases your pricked consciences,” Morrigan called, raising her voice as she stepped into the first hut, “we could always leave Alistair behind as payment. Who knows, someone might find a use for him. If they ever return, that is.”

He snorted and, looking at me, narrowed his eyes mischievously. “Maybe we could make a break for it while she’s occupied….”

“Only if she gets distracted by something shiny,” I muttered, and we were both trying to disguise sniggers when she ducked out of the hut, carrying an armful of grubby hides.

I’d noticed that about Morrigan; for a woman who’d allegedly been raised in the fierce isolation of the Wilds, she was very particular over her looks. Her heavy necklaces and thick, silver bangles might at first glance have seemed to be tokens of arcane significance—there were certainly more than a few odd runes and sigils on show—but I smelled more than that.

Back home, girls used to fight like dogs over a good piece of dress fabric or a simple bit of jewellery and, though I might not have had much myself, I knew a gewgaw when I saw one.

We set to work, anyway, and the Chasind huts did eventually yield a few useful items, but not much more than blankets and a couple of cooking pots. I’d been hoping for something waterproof and maybe a pair of boots that might fit, but it seemed the Wilders had taken almost everything with them.

Still, it made for somewhere reasonably comfortable to stop for a couple of hours’ rest. A little eerie, perhaps, but no worse than trying to bivouac under the trees. Nights in the Wilds were close, black, and very cold, and we couldn’t risk lighting much of a fire. The wood was all too damn damp to get going properly, for a start.

Nevertheless, it was pleasant enough. The anaemic little fire’s guttering was comforting in its way, and Alistair and I sat beside it, watching Morrigan prowl about by the trees.

“I think she’s a shapeshifter,” he said. “Watch. Any minute, she’ll turn into a wolf or something, and bite someone’s arm off.”

I stifled a yawn. The first few moments of waking in Flemeth’s hut and, for once, actually not feeling bruised, battered and exhausted seemed a long way off.

“People can do that? Mages?”

He was rubbing absently at the gold ring he wore on the forefinger of his left hand. At first I’d taken it for a signet or something but, now, with the firelight picking out the runes engraved into its bevelled surface, I could see it was no family crest.

“Mm,” he said. “I’ve heard stories. It’s not that uncommon among the Wilders. Their mages aren’t like the Circle. It’s a… different way of thinking, I suppose.”

I shivered lightly. All I really knew of the Circle was what people said in the alienage; that elves and humans were raised the same there, no distinction made between them, and if that sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

To our suspicious eyes, the promise of equality—which probably wasn’t real anyway, when you got down to it—wasn’t worth the terrible act of taking a child from its home and family. The parallels with my current situation were not lost on me, and I grasped for something to take my mind off it.

“What is that?” I asked, nodding at Alistair’s ring.

“Hm? This? Oh.” He flexed his hand. “It’s a worry token. I found it after one of the first skirmishes we had with the darkspawn in the foothills. See? They cast them in Orzammar. You’re supposed to… think of your troubles, and the runes take them away. Return them to the Stone, or something. I don’t know.”

He obviously did; he was just embarrassed talking about it… or talking about it to me, at least. Still, the idea appealed to me, and I smiled.

“Does it work?”

“Right now? With the Blight and everything?” He smirked. “I could do with a couple extra.”

The fire crackled softly, consuming one of the last bits of dry wood we had to feed it.

“I, er, noticed you wear a… a ring,” Alistair said, gaze slipping back to the flames.

Unthinkingly, I touched my fingertips to the thin gold band that hung from the same chain as the pendant I’d received after the Joining. My thumb rubbed at the edge of it, the smooth surface warmed by my skin. Thoughts of blue eyes and tentative smiles returned to needle me, the familiar, slimy weight of guilt tugging at my chest.

“Just a… reminder,” I said. “Of, uh, someone who didn’t make it this far.”

Alistair looked curiously at me, and I supposed batting his own words back at him like that was a bit trite, but I didn’t have any of my own with which to explain.

Telling would have meant having to say what I’d done—what I’d seen done—that day at the arl’s estate, and I didn’t want that. If my old life was over, let it lie undisturbed. Better that than thinking about it… and thinking about all the things that might have happened to the people I loved since I’d left Denerim.

For a moment, I almost wanted to pull the ring off and throw it into the fire.

Yes, it was a reminder, and one I very nearly hated. I was tired of being gnawed at by blame, sick of resenting my survival.

“I’m… sorry,” Alistair said softly.

I glanced at him, some non-committal response already halfway to my lips, but the look on his face knocked the words from me. He genuinely was, it seemed—though probably more from his own grief than on my behalf. All the same, I was slightly unnerved. Aside from Duncan, I’d never sat and talked with a human like this before, and it made me feel like the judgemental one.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, and frowned uneasily at the dirt.

~o~O~o~

When dawn came—delicate fingers of rose streaking through the bruised, cloudy sky—we gathered anything we could use, or possibly sell, and headed on. By the time the sun had fully risen, we were almost out of the Wilds.

The air seemed to smell sweeter, and the mossy dankness of the forest gave way to wider, open spaces, unfolding into broad swathes of farmland. The rocky rises flattened away, and were replaced by softly undulating fields. The trees changed, too; no more thick, dense ranks of pine, but wide, airy oaks and beeches, all green- and gold-topped leaves, rippling in the breeze.

There were very few buildings, just farmsteads and barns nestled in the curves of the land. It was pretty, I supposed, but unsettling. The sky seemed too big and too open, and I felt vulnerable with all that space around me. I was also fairly convinced my feet were nothing but two giant blisters, wallowing in the boggy interior of my leaky, ill-fitting boots.

We followed a dirt track, pitted with wagon ruts, that curved alongside the boundary of a farm. The green stalks of some kind of crop waved lazily in the sunlight, and I was wondering idly what the grain was when Alistair halted, frowning.

“Did you hear something?”

I listened, but made out nothing beyond the soft rustle of the wind in the fields, and shook my head.

Morrigan tapped her foot impatiently. “When you have quite finished….”

Alistair shrugged. “I just thought—”

“Ah! Then perhaps that is what the noise was. The creak of rusted machinery, barely used, as it groans into life.”

“Oh, shut up.”

I dropped to a crouch, listening harder. He was right: there was something, and it was growing louder. A rhythmic, scratchy sound, like… something running.

A blur flashed through the undergrowth ahead of us and rounded the bend in the path. Definitely something running. Something brindled, and barking and—

“Wait!” I called, as Morrigan raised her staff.

The dog screeched to a halt a few feet away from me. It was a mabari, its short coat spattered with mud and what looked like blood, and its massive jaws open in a low-grade, grumbling growl. The hound bayed, his powerful forelegs lifting off the ground as he rose up with each deep-throated bark.

He turned and, ragged little ears clamped to his flat skull, pointed at the deserted strip of farmland ahead, hackles rising all the way along his spine.

“Oh, good,” Alistair said, drawing his sword. “Darkspawn.”

I swore.

It was no more than a few moments before they came crashing through the field towards us. No stragglers, these; more like an organised scouting party… or a hunting band.

They were all well-armed hurlocks, hung with gruesome mementoes of past kills, their foul bodies daubed with warpaint and crude tattoos, but their leader was something new. He wore plate armour, and a helmet with great iron horns curling from it… and he carried a double-headed battle-axe.

The pack stopped ahead of us, as if waiting for their leader’s command. A horrible dread silence fell, broken only by the creature lifting one huge hand and drawing it across his throat, then pointing at us with something that sounded like the sinister gurgle of a laugh.

Alistair seemed to take it rather personally. He yelled, and the moment broke, shattering into confusion as we charged, they charged, and everything met in a brutal tangle in the middle of the track. The mabari hound was with us, snarling and slamming into the enemy, those great jaws biting and rending at every limb that came within his reach.

I ducked and wove with my cracked dagger, kicking the bastards’ legs out from behind and going for the throats and eyes as they fell. It wasn’t foolproof, but I took two out that way, before something blunt and heavy smacked down across my shoulders and knocked me to the ground. It turned out to be a hurlock that Alistair had just decapitated, and I found myself with a rather intimate view of his feet as he tackled the band’s leader.

Metal scraped against metal, and the air turned rank with the stench of darkspawn blood and the griding, vile growls the thing made. I was just pulling myself out from under the headless corpse, eyes streaming and full of dust, retching with the proximity of torn and bloody flesh, when blinding white light burst overhead, and a wave of cold ripped through the air.

I flung myself down again, and rolled out of the way. I heard one of the hurlocks howl in agony, and Morrigan laughed delightedly. Mages controlling the elements was a new one as far as I was concerned; the way she made ice appear out of nowhere, trapping bodies and leaving them frostbitten and ragged, terrified me.

A pitted, rough blade hit the dirt just beside my head, and a hurlock’s screaming face roared down at me, spittle and foul breath flying from its skull-like jaws as it stood over me. I clasped my dagger in both hands and stabbed upwards. Its wild, red eyes swivelled, looking down at the blade I’d stuck in its thigh, and I wrenched the weapon, opening up a gash from which that thick, stinking blood spurted readily. The creature grabbed me by the hair, raising its axe—and then pitched sideways in a flurry of blood and dog.

The mabari hound snarled and, with a wet, fleshy noise, ripped out a sizeable portion of the hurlock’s throat.

“Good dog,” I murmured breathlessly, hand clamped to my head as I struggled to get up.

I was seeing double and it felt like half my hair had been ripped out at the root, but I was alive. We all were… which was faintly surprising. Morrigan stood off to one side, looking impossibly unruffled, and Alistair was wiping his sword clean. The alpha hurlock lay dead amid its fellows, ice still riming its armour. My feet scudded out from under me, and I sat heavily in the churned, bloody dirt, panting.

“Small scouting party, by the look of it,” Alistair said, though he sounded a little doubtful. “Everyone all right?”

“Clearly,” Morrigan said archly. “I am not the one the darkspawn can smell as surely as week-old fish. You may thank me for saving your life later.”

“Saving my— Wait, did you just say I smell of fish?”

She shrugged. “Merely as an example. However, if the shoe fits….”

Well, at least they were both fine.

The mabari came to stand in front of me, wagging his stumpy tail, and barked cheerfully. A tongue like a slab of bacon lolled from those heavy jaws, and the dog fixed me with the most intelligent expression I’d ever seen on an animal. Recognition dawned as I looked into those soulful brown eyes, and I grinned.

At least as smart as your average tax collector.

“This is the dog I helped cure at Ostagar!”

Alistair nodded. “He was probably out here looking for you. He’s… chosen you. Mabari are like that. S’called imprinting.”

The dog barked again, and looked pleased with himself. Morrigan groaned.

“Oh, no. Does this mean we’re going to have this mangy beast following us about now? Wonderful.”

“He’s not mangy!” Alistair cooed, making a kissy face at the hound.

The dog cocked his head to the side and whined.

I reached out tentatively and ruffled his ears, rewarded with a tail wag and some happy panting and—before I could protest—a face full of slobber.

Morrigan tutted, and Alistair just laughed at me as I tried to get out from underneath my new friend.

“All right,” I told the mabari. “You can come with us. Happy?”

He barked, and I couldn’t help grinning, despite the mounds of dead flesh all over the track.

~o~O~o~

We dragged the bodies into a pile before moving on, and set light to them. Morrigan had suggested liberating some of the armour and weapons, but Alistair spoke for both of us when he refused, point-blank, to even think about using a darkspawn blade.

Once the flames were consuming the corpses, we struck out again, the peaceful serenity of the farmland ruined rather by the stinking curls of smoke.

Morrigan said we should reach Lothering by the mid-afternoon, barring any further incidents, and I clung to that thought. My feet were killing me. I wanted to talk to her about the darkspawn, though. I was curious to ask whether she’d faced them before, in the Wilds, and to see whether there was any tremor in that golden gaze when she answered me. She was far too unflappable for my liking.

However, I didn’t get a chance. Now we were out of her domain, our mighty Witch of the Wilds was sloping along at the rear instead of striding ahead, stabbing at the ground with her staff.

The mabari hound padded purposefully along in front, occasionally criss-crossing the trail to snuff out interesting things in the hedges and undergrowth. I watched him as I walked, and grew aware of Alistair pacing companionably at my side.

“I wonder what his name is,” I said, partially to myself and partially just to break the silence.

“What? The dog?”

“Mm.”

Alistair shrugged. “No idea. It’s usually something fearsome and imposing. Apparently, one of the old Alamarri clans once went to war over the name of their chief’s favourite hound.”

“Really?” I looked consideringly at the dog’s muscular form, as he bounded off into the undergrowth in pursuit of a fly. “Hmm. How about Maethor?”

The hound backed of the bushes, shaking leaves and bits of twig from his head, and looked round at us. He gave a short bark and wagged his tail.

“See? He likes it,” I said, as Alistair shook his head incredulously. “What? It’s a good elven name. Means ‘warrior’.”

Maethor shook himself again, and snapped at a bit of leaf that dropped from his ear. Alistair snorted.

“Yes… well, if you’re sure.”

“If you think you can do better,” I began, but he shook his head.

“Oh, no. I’m staying out of it. He chose you. Besides, I don’t need the responsibility of a dog. I can barely look after myself.”

I chuckled, pleased to see that self-deprecating humour of his returning.

“So many comments to choose from,” Morrigan observed, from a short distance behind us. “I hardly know where to begin….”

A muscle twitched in Alistair’s jaw. “Oh, I get it,” he said, glancing back at her. “We’re supposed to be shocked to discover you’ve never had a friend your entire life, right?”

“I can be friendly when I desire to,” she retorted, catching us up apparently purely for the pleasure of glaring at him. “Alas, desiring to be more intelligent does not make it so.”

I sighed inwardly. Were a few moments of peace too much to ask?

“She’s calling me stupid again,” Alistair complained.

“Oh, well done!”

“I’m not stupid. I was educated by the Chantry, you know. I studied history. They don’t make stupid templars.”

Morrigan scoffed. “No?”

I tried to tune the pair of them out, and looked up at the beautiful blue-and-white jumble of the sky, just watching the clouds scud below the thinly shimmering sun. It was warm, for the time of year. For a few moments, I could almost believe that this would all be over by the time winter came, but a light breeze was bowling along the track, tossing grit and the occasional leaf before it, and the thoughts didn’t feel real enough to hold onto.

Squinting at the horizon, I made out what looked like the suggestion of buildings blurring it, black shapes against the hazy band of sky, and the possibility of the roadway extending alongside it, great stone arches craning up like steepled fingers. The Imperial Highway ran down the centre of the country like a backbone, a feat of engineering and masonry never quite equalled since the fall of the Imperium. It should speed our journey considerably… provided we didn’t keep running into obstacles.

I clicked my tongue, and Maethor looked up at me expectantly, with a wag of his stubby tail. I still couldn’t believe that: my own mabari hound. People would probably think I’d stolen him from somewhere, though I wasn’t certain that was technically possible. A dog his size—and with teeth like that—didn’t go anywhere he didn’t wish to. Still, he’d certainly proven he could make himself useful.

Hefting my pack, I walked on, and it wasn’t until the dim silhouettes of Lothering grew clearer ahead of us that I realised I was leading the two humans behind me.

A strange feeling, that, and one I wasn’t sure I was at ease with. I was so absorbed in thinking about it that—until Maethor began to growl quietly beside me—I barely even noticed the wagons with the broken axles, left abandoned beside the track, and the scattered packing crates that lay smashed open on the ground.

We were less than a quarter of a mile from the village. The Highway’s stone skeleton arced away to the left, curling around Lothering like some protective serpent. The plain above us held a peaceful view of farmland and a small mill, and there were trees, standing tall and proud, casting dappled shadows onto the grass.

And, into that stippled sunlight, from behind the cover of the busted wagons, a short, wiry man in studded leather armour strode, grinning cheerfully as he fingered the hilt of the shortsword at his belt.

My stomach dropped. Great. Bandits.

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Volume 2: Chapter Two
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Eleven

 
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There was a light. That seemed strange, after the endless, shifting darkness in which it seemed I’d been suspended forever, but I couldn’t ignore it.

It was small; a pale, wavering ellipse that flickered from yellow to orange, its edges soft and smooth, pushing ever upwards, straight and true.

A candle, I realised slowly. A candle flame.

It cast a shadow behind it, and that began to unnerve me. Shadows held… things. The darkness couldn’t be trusted. And yet, I wasn’t afraid. This particular shadow fell back onto a wall; a completely intact, whitewashed wall. No grey stone, no ruins, no haggard, worn remnants of an ancient, foreign power.

There was something comforting about whitewash. We used it at home: too poor to paint, but too proud to leave the walls bare. Father slapped a new coat on every spring and, by midsummer, it was already faded and patchy.

Only… I wasn’t at home.

I blinked, adrift and dislocated as my memory failed to register not just how I’d got here, but where here actually was. A brief mental checklist and some tentative flexing of fingers and toes assured me I still had all my extremities. Further examination revealed that I was lying, naked except for a few strips of linen bandage, on a sackcloth mattress, beneath a woollen blanket and a heavy fur that smelled of damp and, strangely, bastard marshbane.

It was a bitter, unpleasant little herb, which used to grow in the alienage, down on the moist ground beside the sewer outlet. Another odd fragment of home, I thought, frowning at the whitewashed wall.

Slowly, things were beginning to come back. Ishal… the battle. The growls of soulless, furious creatures, and the screams of the men as they fell; the sound of arrows ripping the air, and thudding into wood and flesh. The ogre…. A great fire, bursting into the sky, and the blackness that had closed over me—over us.

Alistair, dying in front of me. I drew in a sudden, harsh breath, hit by a tangible wave of regret and grief, and surprised to find that, when I tried to sit up, it happened without my body protesting.

That didn’t seem right. I could barely remember a time when every muscle hadn’t been thudding in agony, yet here I was, slow, sleepy, and a little achy, but feeling better than I had in a long time.

Something had to be horribly wrong.

“Ah, your eyes finally open.”

The voice was familiar. I frowned. Black slate, all proud arches and sharp vowels….

“Mother shall be pleased.”

Of course, I realised. The woman from the Wilds; that golden-eyed, raven-haired creature of the wilderness. And why not? It didn’t make any less sense than anything else.

She was standing in the corner of what I now saw was a small, cluttered room, most of it taken up by the bed in which I lay, and a large bookshelf that ran along one wall, overflowing with tomes and scrolls that spilled into haphazard piles on the floor. A fire burned in the stone hearth, yet it was still dim, barely light enough for me to see the woman’s face.

“Er….”

I blinked again, failing to marshal any useful words. My tongue seemed to be flabby and too big for my mouth, and I clutched the blanket to my chest, feeling vulnerable and unsettled. My fingers instinctively brushed the hollow of my throat, and I was reassured to find there the comforting weight of the silver chain that bore Nelaros’ ring, and my pendant. Both were warm to the touch, as was my skin… like I’d woken from a long and satisfying sleep.

“W-Where…? Wh—” I stopped, swallowed heavily, licked my dry lips and tried again. “Where am I?”

That thin-lipped smile curled against the firelight.

“Back in the Wilds, of course. I am Morrigan, lest you have forgotten, and I have just bandaged your wounds. You are welcome, by the way. How does your memory fare? Do you remember Mother’s rescue?”

She might as well have been speaking in a foreign tongue. Rescue? I couldn’t even remember— I frowned again, the great swatches of blackness that marred my memory pricked through with the uneven suggestions of things that might or might not have been real.

I glanced up, and found Morrigan watching me intently, which didn’t make it any easier to recall details. I shook my head. There was nothing but blood, death, and pain… and the nagging sense that, if I was here, then I was not back at camp. That felt wrong. It felt… dangerous, somehow.

“I-I remember being overwhelmed by darkspawn,” I said slowly.

“Mother managed to save you and your friend, though ’twas a close call.”

My frowned deepened. Friend? Wh— I foundered on the words as something not unlike compassion seemed to soften the corners of her mouth.

“What is important is that you both live.”

“Wait….” I struggled into a more stable sitting position, still trying to protect my modesty, and fighting against the woolly clouds in my head. “You mean Alistair? He’s alive?”

My chest tightened. It couldn’t be possible. I’d seen him fall. We’d both—

Morrigan gave a small, terse sigh. “Hmm. The suspicious, dim-witted one who was with you before, yes. He lives.”

I let out a breath of delighted disbelief, though it was soon tempered with the rush of other, less miraculous realisations.

“But… the battle,” I managed, chasing words ahead of me like butterflies. “We lit the beacon. The… the king. What about the king, and the Grey Wardens? The—”

“All dead.” She flexed one bare, pale shoulder in a small, indifferent shrug, those eerie eyes cool and aloof. “The man who was to respond to your signal quit the field. Those he abandoned were massacred, and the darkspawn won your battle.”

The firelight seemed to gutter for a moment, and shadows folded in on me, the breath shrivelling in my throat. No…. Not after everything we’d done. The beacon had been lit; we must have been in time. The teyrn would never have pulled out, unless we’d been so late that— I blinked the thoughts away, too many faces crowding behind my eyes, each one daubed with the ignominy of a gruesome, bloody death. Slaughter that, perhaps, was my fault.

It didn’t seem possible. I could see the endless rote of pale, worried faces: the ranks of knights and soldiers all preparing to move out. Duncan, in that last moment before he’d left us, the firelight dancing on his dark skin.

Duncan….

He must have survived. The king must have— He’d been with the Grey Wardens, for the Maker’s sake, his vanguard an elite group of warriors with no equal, whose sole purpose was to fight the darkspawn… and whose numbers, Duncan had told me over and over again, were too few to face the horde.

The unwelcome weight of tears nudged the bridge of my nose, and I fought them back. No grief yet. Not until I knew what had happened. I could make sense of nothing while I was blubbering. I sniffed heavily, making myself meet the woman’s unsettling gaze.

“Are there any other survivors?”

Morrigan shook her head. “Only stragglers, and they will be long gone. You would not want to see what is happening in that valley now.”

She was probably right, but I’d already opened my mouth. I wanted to hear it said, to put words to the visions that crowded my mind, and perhaps try to believe that things weren’t as bad as I pictured.

“Tell me. Please.”

She gave me a peculiar look. “If you are sure. ’Tis a grisly scene. I had a good view of the battlefield. There are bodies everywhere, and darkspawn swarm them… feeding, I think. They also look for survivors, and drag them back down beneath the ground. I cannot say why.”

I closed my eyes. There was truth in the gossip, then. I felt faintly sick, but a griping emptiness in my stomach told me there wasn’t much point dwelling on it. I must have been unconscious for a while—a nasty habit I was falling into, it seemed.

“Your… friend,” Morrigan said, with a hint of something that sounded like mild disdain, “is not taking the news well. He has veered between denial and grief since Mother told him. I suppose it would be unkind to say he is being childish.”

A weary pang of loyalty prompted me to stick up for my comrade, and I opened my eyes, my gaze dropping to the fur in front of me, tracing every worn clump of brownish hair.

“Yes, it— It might,” I conceded. “But they were his friends. His… brothers.” I blinked, unpleasantly reminded of how eager I had been not to fight beside the other Wardens. I cleared my throat. “Was he badly hurt?”

A stupid question, probably. Morrigan certainly looked at me as if it was, but then that appeared to be her default attitude to other people. I assumed it wasn’t just because I was elven.

“The darkspawn did nothing to either of you that Mother could not heal. And he… well, he is as you are,” she said, in a manner I thought of as purposefully uninformative.

Was there something to be hidden here? I plucked uneasily at the blanket clasped to my chest. There was more I wanted to ask, but I could see the woman growing impatient.

“Mother asked to see you when you woke,” she added pointedly. “And your friend is outside, by the fire.”

I wanted to believe everything would make more sense if I got up; as if I’d open the hut’s door and find myself standing back on the mossy stones of the army camp, with the smell of stew on the air and the sound of dogs barking.

It was a fond, and foolish, hope.

I looked down at myself, unused to the awkward vulnerability of being naked in a strange bed. The thought of having been out cold while Morrigan ministered to my wounds was hardly comforting.

She saw my anxiety, and took up what looked like a pile of rags from the footlocker at the end of the bed. With a flick of her arched brows, she dumped them unceremoniously on my lap, dusted those long-fingered hands together, and crossed her arms over the plunging neckline of her robe.

“Your clothes, such as they are.”

“Thank you,” I said doubtfully, looking at the remains of my gear.

The state my things were in was a sobering indication of how bad my injuries must have been. Everything from smallclothes to breastplate was riddled with rips, holes and tears, and dark, oily stains streaked the leather of my armour. Blood, I realised, both darkspawn, and mine. I shuddered as I poked through the ragged fabric. The staining on the undersmock and smallclothes was worse, with large splotches of reddish-brown marring the pale weave.

All the same, I didn’t have much choice.

I started to dress, though the pantomime of modesty I went through—turning my back, and keeping as much of myself as possible beneath the blanket while I did so—seemed faintly ridiculous. I spoke to try and mask it, and to address my lingering curiosity.

“So, how did your mother manage to rescue us, exactly?”

Morrigan gave one of those brittle, glittering little laughs.

“She turned into a giant bird and plucked the two of you from atop the tower, one in each talon.”

I stopped halfway through lacing my ruined jack and peered over my shoulder, unsure whether she was mocking me or not, and was rewarded with another of those ostensibly disinterested shrugs.

“Well,” she said dryly, with a twitch of her painted lips, “if you do not believe that tale, then I suggest you ask Mother yourself. She may even tell you.”

I cinched my belt tight, aware of discomfort beginning to prickle in the various parts of me still wrapped in bandages. I hadn’t looked at the damage, though I could feel the skin pulling, tight and sore in patches on my arms, ribs, and one thigh. Magical healing… on an elf. Who’d have thought it? I wasn’t sure I liked the idea, but I supposed I owed my life to whatever it was that Morrigan and her mother had done, apostates or not.

Carefully, I stood, waiting for the floor to wobble or my legs to buckle. Nothing untoward happened, so I took a deep breath, turned to Morrigan, and bowed my head.

“I shall. And… thank you for helping me.”

She looked genuinely surprised; a flicker of confusion ruckling that sharp, proud face.

“I—  Well, you are welcome, though Mother did most of the work. I am no healer.” She brushed down the front of her robe, raven feather rustling at her shoulders. “Off you go, then. I will prepare something to eat.”

My stomach clenched at the thought of food and, picking the sad remnants of my pack and one remaining dagger—its sheath missing and hilt badly cracked—from the floor beside the bed, I crossed to the hut’s low wooden door.

~o~O~o~

Outside, it was hard to work out the time of day. Late afternoon, perhaps? I wondered how much time had passed since the battle. The sun was low, threading veins of rich, liquid gold through the twisted boughs and creepers. The Wilds were the same muddle of sludgy greens and browns that I remembered, smearing ground and sky together, and everything was damp, the pervasive smell one of sap and new life springing from the earthy tang of decay.

A fire burned, just as it had when Jory, Daveth, Alistair and I had come here before, seeking the Grey Warden treaties. Yet—I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination—this clearing looked different somehow. I glanced back at the hut and its curious stilts, recalling the ridiculous notion I’d had before that it might somehow rise up and lurch away into the forest.

I shivered, looking for comfort in the flames, and finding none.

A little way off, down beside a shallow pool of stagnant water, fringed by the low-slung, moss-swathed boughs of trees, a familiar figure stood. Alistair still had his sword, though there was no sign of his shield, and his armour was in just as poor a state as mine. His shoulders were slumped, his whole bearing defeated and crumpled.

He evidently heard me coming, for he raised his head. Sluggish shards of sunlight touched his hair and, when he turned, a warm gold corona outlined him, leaving his face in desolate planes of shadow.

I wished the shadows had been darker, so I might not have seen his expression.

“You….” The word left him in a dry, hoarse breath, his voice nothing more than a husky croak. “You’re alive.”

He looked dreadful; eyes swollen and red, salt-tracks scarring his cheeks, and too much numbness in him to even show the disbelief he clearly felt. He shook his head.

“Huh. I thought you were dead for sure.”

I didn’t know what to say. He seemed so lost, so utterly broken.

“Likewise,” I said. “I’m glad you’re, um… not.”

Alistair blinked, his face tight, and I took it to mean he didn’t necessarily share the sentiment. I saw it in his eyes: the grief, the ache of loss, and the guilt of one who has survived it. A small frown pinched his brow.

“And the, er….” He raised a hand, waving vaguely in the area of his jaw and chin.

I mirrored him, my fingers touching the place that should have born the angry, multi-coloured bruising the late Lord Braden had left me with. It wasn’t there. No pain now, no swelling, and no lasting damage. I smiled weakly.

“Mm. Seems we’ve both been patched up pretty thoroughly.”

“This doesn’t seem real.” Alistair shook his head, gaze slipping to the damp, eerie, verdant ground that surrounded us. “If it weren’t for Morrigan’s mother, we’d be dead on top of that tower.”

“Do not talk about me as if I am not present, lad.”

The old woman’s voice seemed to come out of the air beside me but, when I turned, she was standing by the fire, just as she had been that night, a grubby brown shawl wrapped around her shoulders.

We both flinched, too rattled and raw for more surprises, I supposed.

“I’m sorry.” Alistair inclined his head. “I didn’t mean… but what do we call you? You never told us your name.”

She shrugged, moving away from the fire and coming towards us, her steps small and careful, as if she really was an infirm old lady, fragile and nervous.

I didn’t believe it for a moment.

“Names are pretty, but useless,” she said, those quick, clever eyes working over both of us. Her thin lips quirked, ever-moving. “The Chasind folk call me Flemeth. I suppose that will do.”

A cold shiver traced my flesh, and I glanced at Alistair. I saw from his face that we’d both heard the same rumours in camp.

The Flemeth?” he said incredulously. “From the legends?”

I shifted uneasily. A powerful sorceress, the stories said, responsible for uniting the warring tribes of the Chasind into a terrible army. She was finally killed by the hero, Cormac. They said he struck off her head with a single blow and—where each drop of her blood fell—up sprang a daughter of Flemeth; another witch to plague the land, spoiling milk and stealing babies.

“Daveth was right,” Alistair murmured. “You’re the Witch of the Wilds, aren’t you?”

I shot him a warning look, but he wasn’t paying me any attention. Flemeth shrugged, her unkempt grey hair ruffled by that curious, torpid breeze that seemed to rise from nowhere. A log cracked sharply on the fire, and I had a sudden surge of memory, reminded of how Mother used to say that was a sign of arguments to come.

“Witch of the Wilds….” Her smile held the slightest suggestion of pride, though her tone was scornful. “And what does that mean? I know a bit of magic, and it has served you both well, has it not?”

“You—” Alistair’s voice thickened, and he stopped to draw breath. “You could have saved Duncan. He was our leader. Why didn’t….”

“Grief must come later,” Flemeth said, looking from me to him, her gaze leaving a burr of discomfort in its wake. She smiled grimly. “In the dark shadows before you take vengeance, as my mother once said.”

The hair on my nape rose, and goose bumps flecked my skin. I glanced at Alistair, worried by the dark, closed-in set of his face. True, it was too easy to think of the fate those on the battlefield had met, but we didn’t yet know what had happened, or why Loghain’s forces had deserted the king.

“We should thank you,” I said, cutting across the echoes of those rather sinister words. “We owe you our lives.”

Flemeth fixed me with a strange look, part challenge and part prophesy, as if she saw not me, but some pale thread of the future that ran past me; something that might be, and was yet unclear.

But it is not I who decides….

I recalled her words to Ser Jory—so horribly accurate with the benefit of hindsight—and suppressed a shudder.

“All you owe,” she said evenly, “is to do what you are meant to do. It has always been the Grey Wardens’ duty to unite the lands against the Blight. Or did that change when I wasn’t looking?”

I stared, but her gaze was unflinching. Somewhere, a bird called, its harsh caw echoing across the water, and through the dense, cold green of the trees. Us? No… if this was true, then the Grey Wardens were all dead. We were— The thought broke away, unfinished, and I looked at Alistair.

We were all that was left.

He was frowning into the middle distance, and swaying ever so gently. I bit my lip. I was all too well aware of what it was like to lose every connection to the life you knew, to be swept away from everything familiar and comfortable, and find yourself adrift and alone.

“The Grey Wardens are… gone,” I said, my voice hollow as I turned back to Flemeth. “And we don’t even know what happened at Ostagar, or why—”

“Loghain betrayed us!” Alistair said hotly. “He betrayed the king. He… he has to account for that. He will account for it.”

His words came out raw and seething; he was reacting, not thinking, but I wasn’t about to disagree. Still, it didn’t make sense.

“But why would he do that?” I mused.

Flemeth nodded. “Now that is a good question. Men’s hearts hold shadows darker than any tainted creature. Perhaps he believes the Blight is an army he can outmanoeuvre. Or perhaps he does not see that the evil behind it is the true threat.”

“The archdemon,” Alistair said bleakly.

Well, the teyrn never had believed a Blight was coming, I supposed. I frowned.

“But what would he hope to gain from…?”

Their deaths. I didn’t want to say it, didn’t want to make it feel real.

Alistair looked at me as if I was a complete idiot, anger beginning to edge out the desolation in his face.

“The throne? He is the queen’s father. Still, I can’t see how he’ll get away with murder.”

Flemeth scoffed. “You speak as if would be the first king to gain his crown that way. Grow up, boy!”

He blanched, but came back fighting.

“He still needs to be brought to judgement! Although… whatever Loghain’s insanity, he obviously thinks the darkspawn are a minor threat.” Alistair frowned. “We must warn everyone this isn’t the case.”

“And who will believe you?” Flemeth’s mouth twisted into a wry sneer. “Unless you think to convince this… Loghain of his mistake?”

I watched the way she looked at him, as if she was leading him towards the thoughts she wanted him to have. Alistair scowled, but then his face lit up, bright with sudden realisation.

“He just betrayed his own king! If Arl Eamon knew what he did at Ostagar, he would be the first to call for his execution! He would never stand for it. The Landsmeet would never stand for it! There would be civil w— Of course!”

I looked blankly at him. “Er…?”

“Don’t you see?” He fixed me with a look of sudden, fierce determination, the oddly dappled, greenish-gold light striping his face. “Arl Eamon wasn’t at Ostagar; he still has all his men. And he was Cailan’s uncle. He’s a good man, respected in the Landsmeet… we could go to Redcliffe, and appeal to him for help!”

I wasn’t sure about any of it; I felt as if I was grappling hopelessly at things too big, too unwieldy to hold. Out there, in the forest, beyond the jagged rises and mossy hillocks, hidden in the dank wilderness, the horde waited. Whatever else happened—whatever else had been done—we needed to warn people about that threat.

Duncan’s stark warning beat in my memory. If the darkspawn were not stopped here, he’d said, Ferelden would fall. I ran my tongue over my dry, cracked lips, my mind a blur of conflicting, aching thoughts.

“But… who’s to say the arl would believe us over Teyrn Loghain?”

Alistair shook his head. “No, I know him. Eamon wouldn’t dismiss us out of hand. He’d listen. He’d—” He broke off, brows knitting in another frown. “Still, I don’t know if his help would be enough. He can’t defeat the darkspawn horde by himself.”

“What about the Orlesian Wardens?” I asked. “The reinforcements that were supposed to be coming. Can’t we wait for them?”

“Huh.” Alistair curled his lip. “You saw how fond of the Orlesians Loghain is. They were summoned weeks ago—I’d bet he’s the reason they still haven’t arrived.”

He was starting to sound paranoid, but I didn’t want to say so.

“There must be other allies,” he said, apparently half to himself, one booted foot scudding at the ground. “Someone we could call on….”

Flemeth cleared her throat, and those thin lips twisted into an impatient moue.

“The treaties!” Alistair looked expectantly at me. “Of course! Do we still have—?”

I didn’t know why he’d think I had them. The last I’d seen of the things was when we returned to Duncan after our last trip into the Wilds, the night of the Joining.

“They are safe,” Flemeth said, with a slight smile. “You should consider cleaning your pack out once in a while, young man.”

She let the worn fabric of her shawl slip aside and—just as she had done that first night—passed him the ancient leather wallet, its surface scarred with years, that she had been keeping pressed to her chest.

Alistair let out a long, low breath.

“Duncan,” he murmured. “He… told me to keep them safe. I didn’t think—”

He swallowed, hard, and I saw his eyes grow damp. I’d never seen a human cry before.

“So,” Flemeth said, her voice cutting sharply through the thickening, dimming air, “you are set, then? Ready to be Grey Wardens?”

There was an edge to her words, something hard and challenging, and it wasn’t just the weight of expectation. Perhaps it was that which made me nervous, shying like a skittish colt from all she placed before me.

“I…. Alistair is the real Grey Warden here,” I said doubtfully, glancing at the man beside me, clutching the treaties to his chest and trying to hold back his sniffles.

His head jerked up and he looked at me, eyes red and blurry, his mouth bowed. “For the love of the Maker… I’ve lost everyone! I can’t do this on my own. Don’t back on me now. Please.”

I winced. “I’m not. I-I won’t, but—”

“Then it seems settled,” Flemeth said, sounding rather self-satisfied. “Duty calls, and all that. Now, before you go, there is yet one more thing I can offer you.”

I looked at her in disbelief. So, we were to be manipulated and then thrown out into the Wilds? Only gratitude for the fact of our rescue—and a healthy sense of self-preservation—stopped me from speaking, though I suspect my feelings were writ clear on my face. She smiled, and glanced towards the little hut.

The door opened, and Morrigan emerged, bringing with her the faint scent of something cooking over a fire. My stomach gritted itself, grasping at the suggestion of seasoned vegetables… and possibly even meat.

“The stew is bubbling, Mother dear,” she said, as she came to join us. “Shall we have two guests for the eve or none?”

Flemeth shook her head. “The Grey Wardens are leaving shortly, girl. And you will be joining them.”

Morrigan gave us a brittle, insincere smile, but it cracked as her mother’s words caught up with her. “Such a shame— What?”

“You heard me, girl.” Flemeth laughed throatily. “The last time I looked, you had ears!”

Alistair and I exchanged glances. He scrubbed the back of his hand across his face, but I could read exactly what he was thinking. Were we seriously expected to take her with us? I cleared my throat, trying to carve my way through the tense, icy silence that had descended between the two women.

“Um… thank you, but if Morrigan doesn’t wish to join us, then—”

“Her magic will be useful,” Flemeth said bluntly. “Better still, she knows the Wilds and how to get past the horde.”

“Have I no say in this?” Morrigan demanded, those golden eyes flashing angrily.

The old woman gave her a small, hard smile. “You have been itching to get out of the Wilds for years. Here is your chance.” She looked at us, and the smile widened slightly. “As for you, Wardens, consider this repayment for your lives.”

“Er….” Alistair shifted uneasily. “Not to… look a gift horse in the mouth, but won’t this add to our problems? Out of the Wilds, she’s an apostate.”

“Hmph.” Flemeth arched her ragged, grey brows. “If you do not wish help from us illegal mages, young man, perhaps I should have left you on that tower.”

“Point taken,” he admitted, with a look at me.

I shrugged. She wasn’t exactly going to pass unnoticed on the road, but then neither would we, in our bloodstained, battle-tattered armour.

“Mother….” Morrigan protested. “This is not how I wanted this. I am not even ready—”

“You must be ready,” Flemeth snapped. She waved one thin, knotted hand in our direction. “Alone, these two must unite Ferelden against the darkspawn. They need you, Morrigan. Without you, they will surely fail, and all will perish under the Blight. Even I.”

It wasn’t the most reassuring assessment of our chances that I could have heard. I shot Alistair a sidelong glance, and found him looking distinctly wary. He lofted an eyebrow, and I nodded surreptitiously, confirming I was just as worried about this as he was.

Morrigan bowed her head. “I… understand.”

“And you, Wardens?” Flemeth looked keenly at us, the encroaching dusk lending a wolfish sharpness to her face. “Do you understand? I give you that which I value above all in this world. I do this because you must succeed.”

The weight of her words—and the enormity of the task before us—had barely begun to sink in. Somewhere in the numinous canopy of the forest, branches rattled as a bird took flight, the sound of wings rustling through the leaves.

“We understand,” Alistair said. “Thank you.”

“Fine.” Morrigan gave a terse sigh. “Allow me to get my things, if you please.”

~o~O~o~

For all Flemeth’s dark warnings of urgency, she did at least allow us a bowl of stew before we left. The hot food—the first in several days—hit my stomach like a knife, and I ate only a little, my body struggling to accept it.

Dusk was drawing in when we readied our gear and prepared to leave, but neither Alistair or I seemed keen to linger at the hut. Morrigan had little to bring with her, just a bundle wrapped in oilcloth, and a roll of canvas that I assumed comprised tent and blankets.

It reminded me of just how much Alistair and I had lost, in physical terms. All the little treasures of home I’d brought from the alienage, almost all gone, not to mention the shiny new arms and armour I’d been so proud to wear. Practicalities poked at me through the pain and grief, and I found myself wondering what in Thedas we were going to do for supplies and equipment… not to mention the money to buy them with.

We needed to restock as soon as possible. Morrigan suggested we head for Lothering, a village on the outskirts of the Wilds, and apparently a well-known trading post.

“Seems sensible,” Alistair said grudgingly, hefting his battered pack onto his shoulders. “The Imperial Highway runs through it. We can find what we need, head… north-west, then we should be at Redcliffe in no more than a couple of days.”

“Ah!” Morrigan’s dark lips twisted into a cruel smirk. “He has decided to rejoin us. Falling on your blade in grief seemed like too much trouble, I take it?”

Alistair scowled at her. “Is my being upset so hard to understand?”

“I fear there is a great deal about you that I find hard to understand,” she sniped.

I sighed. It was going to be a long trip.

For a woman leaving behind the only home she’d ever known, and the only family she had, Morrigan seemed surprisingly unperturbed. Her goodbye to Flemeth was barely more than a polite nod, and she didn’t seem to look back once as we left the clearing.

The sky was growing thick and smudged, bands of purplish blue run through with red, and tousled by the grey, ruffled shapes of clouds. The thin day-shadow of the moon, almost full, promised light to travel by when darkness finally came, but it was an assurance I wasn’t convinced I trusted.

We made a strange little group, I suspect, as we began our journey. Morrigan strode out ahead, counting every crisp, sure-footed step with a black iron staff, stabbing it at the ground as if the grass had annoyed her. Her robes flowed out behind her, yet never seemed to snag on the roots or twigs that littered the forest floor. I followed on behind, stumbling over every tussock and vine, and Alistair brought up the rear, uncharacteristically silent and staid.

Above, the birds were flying in to roost, elegant silhouettes beating against the muted firmament. Wings rustled in the branches overhead, the occasional dislodged leaf floating down into our paths.

Once, I reflected, I’d known nothing but skies criss-crossed by buildings, and a life caged by walls. Back home, we had worked so hard to make ourselves believe that the worst dangers lay outside the alienage gates—that, as long as we stayed among our own kind, in our own place, we were safe—but, of course, that had not proved true.

In such a short space of time, I had seen my life alter irreparably; everything that I had been, and all that I might have hoped for ripped from me, my future and my very identity eroded.

Now, it seemed the only stability was uncertainty. Ostagar had changed everything. I’d watched the new life I thought I’d have disappear, new faces added to the rolls of old grief, and a burden greater than any I could have imagined weighing down upon me.

The Fifth Blight. The words seemed strange, impossible… and I had actually been there to see the horrors of the darkspawn first-hand. There was, I supposed, no guarantee that this Arl Eamon would accept what we said, whatever Alistair seemed to think.

Still, we trudged on, following the apostate sorceress with the golden eyes, and trying to believe the trees weren’t really watching us.

I was no longer a caged bird, I told myself. That insular, blinkered little life I’d known held nothing for me any more. I would never be able to return to the way things had been—the way I had been. The emptiness of the Wilds, for all its oppressive dankness, did not frighten me any longer. Not in the way it had.

I knew what lay out there now… or thought I did. My fears were a mass of anxieties and forebodings, bound together in one quivering, blinding shape: that we would fail, and that I—I, who was nothing, no one special—did not have the strength to face what would come.

It was panic talking, I told myself. Shock, and nothing more. We would go to Redcliffe, see this Arl Eamon and, just as Alistair said, he would take over, straighten things out with the Bannorn and ensure that the darkspawn were dealt with. The Grey Wardens of Orlais would probably be here by then, and… it would be fine.

Everything would be fine, as soon as reached Redcliffe.

And, as for me… well, I’d make a life, if I survived. Somehow, somewhere. I was a Grey Warden now, whatever that would come to mean. We’d see when the Orlesians arrived, I supposed.

I tried telling myself that it wasn’t so bad, that the ache of loss and longing for home would lessen with time.

Still, whatever lay before me, I knew one thing: there was no turning back, and no shrinking from the task ahead.

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re right, Duncan. I… apologise.”

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

Impressive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair nodded. “We will.”

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

And, with that, we took our leave.

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

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

Nobody laughed.

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was a long time ago, of course.”

Jory was the first to fall prey to the game.

“W-What was?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daveth turned to his audience, pacing backwards along the marshy ground, hands raised to his face, palms out and fingers spread wide.

“This one old woman, right? She finds all five of her sons dead, killed by the arl’s men. And, with a terrible cry, she wrenches the dagger from her eldest boy’s heart and plunges it into her own breast—ungh!” Ever the consummate performer, he mimed the fatal act. “And she curses the arl’s name, from the depths of her rage and despair. Goes up like a dread howl, it does, something fearful like you can still hear on dark, stormy nights…. And that’s not all. Where her blood touched the ground, a thick mist began to rise. It spread and spread, running through the whole forest, and it got so heavy the arl’s army were lost in it. They never returned, and some say they’re wandering still, doomed to be lost forever in the Wilds.”

It was a good story, I had to admit, and I was already well on the way to being cold, tired, and wet enough to believe it. Ser Jory’s pale, puddingish face spoke of a tendency to superstition, even when he muttered ‘Preposterous!’ and stomped onwards, his mail clinking gently.

“Well,” Daveth said, with a wink at me, “it never hurts to be careful, does it, darlin’?”

Those words took on a dark significance when, not two hundred yards further on, we encountered signs of struggle and bloodshed in the grass. Alistair stopped and held up his hand.

“Wait. There’s something…. Oh.”

Just a few feet on through the brush, away from what little path there was, we found bodies… or what was left of them. Broken branches and broken limbs alike littered the ground, corpses wrenched into horrible contortions. Glimpses of discarded weapons and bloody armour amid the chaos confirmed the dead as soldiers of the king’s camp.

We stood in silence, surveying the mess. No one seemed prepared to voice what we must all have been thinking; the fact that this could only be the result of one thing.

A groan filtered across the damp air, and my stomach lurched. One of the corpses appeared to be moving. It seemed impossible that anyone could be left alive, but there he was, nonetheless. The man was making his way to us, crawling across the grass, his armour bloody and his voice strained.

“Help… me…!”

“Well,” Alistair said dryly. “He’s not half as dead as he looks, is he?”

He curled his lip, and I recognised the look on his face; the smell of blood and infection was sticking itself to the back of my throat, too.

We went to the soldier’s side, and helped him as best we could. Most of the blood on him didn’t seem to be his, but he had a nasty wound to the belly that—with all the mud and grime around—was already beginning to suppurate. He couldn’t have been out there more than twenty-four, thirty-six hours at most, I supposed, and at least his innards were still on the inside.

“Please….” He spoke in halting, gasping breaths, and it was hard to tell if they came more from fear or pain. “M-My scouting band was attacked by darkspawn. They came out of the ground…. Please, help me! I… I’ve got to get back to camp.”

Jory looked nervously around us, as if the monsters that had done all this might still be lurking in the undergrowth. I knelt beside the soldier and gingerly tried to examine his wound.

“Let’s try to bandage him up, at least,” I said, as he flinched from my touch.

Alistair nodded. “I have bandages in my pack.”

It didn’t take long. The soldier had been amazingly lucky, when such a blow could easily have split him wide open, though he had lost a great deal of blood. He refused our offer to escort him back and, weak but able to make his own way, limped off towards the path, and the gates of Ostagar.

The four of us watched him go in uneasy silence. Ser Jory spoke first.

“Did you hear?” His pallid cheeks shook, dark eyes wide. “An entire patrol of seasoned men—killed by darkspawn!”

“Calm down, Ser Jory,” Alistair said. “We’ll be fine if we’re careful.”

The knight was not so easily appeased.

“Those soldiers were careful, and they were still overwhelmed!” he protested. “How many darkspawn can the four of us slay? A dozen? A hundred? There’s an entire army in these forests!”

“There are darkspawn about,” Alistair conceded, “but we’re in no danger of walking into the bulk of the horde.”

He sounded sure of himself, but it was growing dark, and the rest of us didn’t look convinced.

“How do you know?” Jory demanded. “I’m not a coward, but this is foolish and reckless. We should go back.”

Alistair clenched his jaw. If I were him, I doubted I would have had much patience with the man’s complaining. We’d been sent out here for a good reason, hadn’t we? And, whatever form this mysterious ritual—with all its secrets and preparation—eventually took, we were not the first recruits to go through it.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” I said, aiming for conciliation. “We’re not exactly helpless, after all.”

Jory looked doubtful, and I supposed he was wondering just what good I’d be against the creatures that could cut down a patrol of well-armed soldiers. To tell the truth, the thought had crossed my mind, too.

“I still do not relish the thought of encountering an army,” he muttered.

“Know this,” Alistair said. “All Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn. Whatever their cunning, I guarantee they won’t take us by surprise. That’s why I’m here.”

From Ser Jory’s expression, I imagined he thought only a little more of Alistair’s potential use in battle than he did of mine—obviously, no one else here had the distinction of knighthood—but he seemed to think better of voicing it.

Daveth broke the tension brewing in our little group.

“You see, ser knight?” he said cheerfully. “We might die, but we’ll be warned about it first.”

“Hmph.” Jory snorted. “That is hardly reassuring.”

“Yes. Well,” Alistair cut in, “let’s get a move on.”

We headed on, pressing ever deeper into the Wilds. There was no sign of whatever roving pack had dispatched the soldiers, and I began to wonder how far we would have to go to find the darkspawn.

I did not have to wonder for long.

The Wilds were strange, unforgiving terrain. For every flat, matted piece of ground, there was a brackish, leaching pool of water and—just as the land had settled into that mire of boggy uncertainties—it threw out unexpected inclines, rocky overhangs or sharp, jutting hillocks, carved amid the tangled growth of murky greenery.

There were ruins, too. We saw a handful of them; ancient traces of the old Tevinter holdings… or perhaps the arling of Daveth’s story. Maybe both. Either way, the Wilds had reclaimed whatever had been here, and the fractured bits of columns or broken ends of statues seemed incongruous and alien.

We came across the body of a missionary, face-down and bloated in a pool of stagnant water. Darkspawn again, I guessed. Blood drifted in the water like skeins of thread. Duckweed and mud smeared his Chantry robes, and his scrip had been abandoned on the bank. A letter within revealed a sad little tale: this man, Jogby, had followed his father, Rigby, into the Wilds to spread the Chant of Light to the Chasind, only for both men to find the horde had already driven the wilders out.

The letter read like a farewell. It mentioned the dangers of the darkspawn, Rigby’s fears for his life, and the hopelessness of the plan he’d had. I wondered if Jogby had been heading out of the Wilds when the darkspawn caught up with him, but there was nothing else on the body to provide any further answers.

We moved on, anxious to make our stay here brief, and mindful of the dangers that lay ahead. Beyond the next lee, we saw corpses, strung up from a dead tree that lay across two overhangs, like a bridge. They were human. Soldiers… perhaps from one of the army scouting parties that had never returned. It was hard to tell, so bloody and decayed were they.

“Poor slobs,” Alistair said, wrinkling his nose. “That just seems so… excessive.”

It wasn’t the first word I’d have chosen. The echoes of camp gossip rang in my ears. Nonsense talk, the sergeant had said. Eating the flesh of their victims, living or dead… dragging them underground and feasting on them. Was that what this was? A darkspawn game larder? Or was what we were seeing some kind of warning, or trophy?

The soft, silken sound of a sword being drawn sliced through my thoughts, and Alistair motioned silently to the left-hand side of the overhang. Jory and Daveth were already moving forward. I felt clumsy and useless as I followed in their wake, my palms sweaty and my breathing shallow.

I don’t know if they were the same band of stragglers who took out the soldiers. There were six of them; three genlocks, like the thing I’d seen before, and three that were much bigger, their bodies daubed with crude tattoos and ugly ornaments, hanging from their rough armour. Their camp wasn’t much—little more than a loose conglomeration of sacks, crates and other supplies they’d probably looted from their victims, and a small fire. I did not want to speculate what they cooked on it, if anything.

The thing I found so strange was that it all seemed to happen incredibly quickly. One moment, silence. The next, discovery, and chaos broke loose. The darkspawn pelted down the incline towards us, armed with broad, jagged swords and, in two of the genlocks’ case, short bows. I was aware of the arrows flying, and of the thundering of feet and the horrendous, bestial growls the things made as they bore down on us.

Ser Jory charged forward, wielding his greatsword like the champions I’d only ever seen in picture books. Alistair flanked the beasts from the right, a flash of bright metal and the raw, harsh sounds of blade and shield on… well, flesh, I supposed. Or whatever the things were. I couldn’t see Daveth, but it didn’t matter, because an arrow whistled close to my head, and then I was on the ground, rolling. My mouth was full of mud and the stench of rotten meat and sulphur, but I had a dagger in my hand and I knew what I’d been told: if the bastards bled enough, they went down.

I came up on my knees behind the melee, and opened one of the big ones up from thigh to calf, slicing through tendon and mottled, dead-looking flesh anywhere I could get my blade. I remember being glad I’d drawn the daggers instead of my new sword, somehow more comfortable with the shorter weapons at close quarters.

Blood, darker than any I’d ever seen—black, almost, indeed—poured from the wound. The creature bellowed, screamed, and twisted around. A hand the size of my head, clutching a rough iron axe, swung close to my face, and then the thing was thrown to the ground, knocked back by a blow from Alistair’s shield. I got out of the way, missing the killing blow he landed, and suddenly found myself occupied with the ugly little genlock that flung itself in front of me, shrieking and snarling like a rabid dog. All my suspicions proved right; they were much worse when they were alive. A damp warmth that I would have considered shameful, had there been time to think about it, made itself known in my breeches.

Somehow, I hadn’t expected the little bastards to be so quick or nimble. They were fast, though, and nasty. The creature fought with blade, feet… and those vile, needle-like teeth. I ducked, dodged, feinted, and a dozen other things I hadn’t even known I knew how to do. Sweat poured from me.

Its eyes were the worst thing. Small, piggy, but sharp and alert and so very full of hatred. Like a madness, I thought, but mad things make mistakes, and the genlock seemed far too focused on what it was doing, far too aware to be mad.

I fought hard, fought for my life. It lashed out over and over, snarling and slashing at me and, at last, I got lucky. The creature overextended itself, and one of my blades ripped through its cheek. It screeched and lunged forwards. I dodged, and the genlock kept falling, crumpling to the ground with that vile black blood pouring from its face—and from the gaping wound in the back of its neck.

Daveth, blade still raised and smeared with darkspawn blood, smiled grimly at me. I nodded my thanks, but we weren’t done yet. It was hard, bitter work and, when the last of them lay dead, we stood there panting and clutching our bloody weapons, dizzy and exhausted… or I did, anyway. The two trained warriors amongst us were not so easily rattled, though I was mildly comforted to see that Daveth, at least, seemed a little shaken.

“Well,” he said, prodding one of the corpses with his foot. “That was interesting, wasn’t it? More than three vials there, I’ll wager.”

Jory muttered something under his breath, and seemed to be scanning the tree line for the hint of further danger. I looked down at the bodies. It was strange feeling. I’d expected to be vividly reminded of the last fighting I’d been involved in—all the blood and the sweat and the strain of that day—but I was not. This was different, completely different. I felt both detached, yet also bound up in a strange mixture of elation, fear, and triumph.

They were horrific things, though. The bigger ones had scared me most, not just for their size, but their cunning, and the looks in their eyes. They were the most like things the Chantry said: the twisted reflections of men. I could believe that was true. Their flesh seemed to be decaying even on their bodies, the smell of it sickly with rot and vile putrescence, yet they were strong, and able to move fast and deftly. Faces like laughing skulls, painted with bold, crude shapes…. I wondered if those, and the tattoos and ornaments they wore, had any significance among their kind. Maybe they were to do with rank, or trophies of some kind? It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Somehow, I’d assumed the horde was disorganised—a sickness, a plague, the way people talked of it—but to think of the darkspawn as a race in their own right, with a coherent hierarchy and the ability to plan, to… to act as any other army….

Alistair knelt and drew three small glass vials from his pack. We watched in silence as he carefully filled and stoppered them, his face that of a man trying hard not to breathe in.

“We call the larger ones hurlocks,” he said, stowing the noxious vials away once he’d done, and rising to his feet. “You saw how they fight. They’re still common in the horde, but we’ve seen them taking command of small groups, leading tactical assaults…. The darkspawn are quite capable of planning ahead, take my word for it.”

We exchanged glances, and Ser Jory’s tight mouth and pale cheeks spoke for us all.

“Well,” Alistair said, “we’d best press on. We need to find those treaties, then head back as soon as we can. Good idea not to linger, I think.”

That definitely sounded sensible. We shouldered our various packs and weapons, and our little group headed on into the damp and darkening Wilds.

~o~O~o~

For a desolate and uncharted place, we found a surprising amount in our travels. More darkspawn corpses suggested the Ash Warrior scouting party had been in the area recently, but they evidently hadn’t arrived quick enough to save the inhabitants of the small campsite that had been overrun.

The body of a missionary had been left to rot where it fell—Missionary Rigby, it emerged—and though he seemed to have been stripped of his portable valuables, the man’s field trunk remained intact. We paused to give what was left of him a decent burial—which was more than we’d been able to do for the bloated, disintegrating corpse of his poor son—and Daveth jemmied the trunk, in the interests of properly identifying the deceased, or so he said. It held a few coins and scraps of mouldy food, and a leather-bound journal, which I flipped through. It was a sad remnant of a life, written by a man of obvious faith… and not too much common sense.

The final entry took the form of a last will and testament, bequeathing all he had to his wife, somewhere in Redcliffe. It was a hopeless little cry from the depths of despair, facing as he must have been the shadow of his own death, and I wondered if he’d known, or perhaps suspected, that Jogby had already perished the same way.

The lockbox the document mentioned, I found stashed in the cold ashes beneath the firepit, and I quietly slipped it into my pack, not wanting Daveth to have the opportunity of suggesting we crack it open.

From the tattered ruins of the camp, we headed east. Alistair said the old Warden outpost had been a great tower in its day, though how much of it would remain we couldn’t guess. Daveth didn’t seem convinced.

“I never heard of any tower standing more than ten years in this forest,” he grumbled. “Chances are whatever’s there is long gone.”

We couldn’t leave without at least trying, however, and so we pushed on through the dampening evening mist. It was growing colder, and we were probably all eyeing the shadows with concern, wondering what might shelter in the coming darkness.

Daveth, at least, took refuge in conversation.

“So,” he said, drawing level with me and shooting me a companionable grin, “how’d you end up in all this, then?”

It was an inevitable question, I supposed. We were all going to be a part of the same unit, living and fighting together. People in this sort of situation got to know each other. They trusted each other, as comrades.

And they told the truth.

“Hm?” I murmured, staring straight ahead.

He wasn’t put off.

“It’s just,” he said conversationally, pacing beside me with even, unhurried strides, “I haven’t seen many women fight like you. Unorthodox, style of thing. Not afraid to go for the trousers. And you’re not like most elves I’ve met, either. You didn’t learn them skills rolling drunks for change, or doing bump ’n’ grabs, that’s for certain.”

“Bump ‘n’…?”

I blinked, nonplussed, though I shouldn’t have been. In my world, it was extremely easy to make that slip. With so few opportunities for honest labour, many of my people preferred to wet their feet in less salubrious work and—if it paid well, put food on the table and shoes on the children’s feet—no one was about to denounce them to the guard. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a stigma attached to it, of course. All those notions of respectability, and our ridiculous pride.

Not to mention, Father would have skinned me alive.

“Didn’t think so.” Daveth grinned. “So, how did Duncan find you?”

Momentary flashes of memory danced behind my eyes, and brought with them the overwhelming sting of guilt, regret… and the ache for home that seemed all the more potent, the further I travelled.

The fatigue helped, though. With more recent memories pressed into my mind—the stink of decomposing corpses, the genlock screaming in my face, and the mouthfuls of mud as I dodged a rain of axe blows—the exact path I’d taken to get here was pushed back a little, its events paler and less vivid than they had been before.

Daveth was waiting for an answer, all the same.

“Um. I, er…. He knew my mother,” I said, which was technically true.

“Oh? Yes? Well, you’ve friends in high places, then, ain’t you?”

His grin slid into a broad, knowing smirk, and I willed myself to contain the blush of embarrassment I could feel prickling at the base of my neck.

“And what about you?” I asked, turning the question around on him in the hope of detracting attention from myself. “How did Duncan find you?”

Daveth chuckled. “Oh, I found him. Cut his purse while he was standing in a crowd. He grabs my wrist, but I squirm out and bolt. The old bugger can run, I’ll give him that, but the garrison caught me first. I’m a wanted man in Denerim, you see,” he added, with more than a touch of pride. “They were going to string me up right there and then.”

The words sent an uncomfortable twinge through me, despite Daveth’s animated story-telling. He made it sound as if he didn’t believe it would have happened, with or without Duncan’s intervention, but I could spot false bravado when I saw it.

Funny, though. It seemed the Grey Wardens made a habit of collecting the hopeless and the condemned… which made me wonder just what it was they had in wait for us, and whether it really was preferable to the gallows.

“What happened then?”

“Well, Duncan stopped them, didn’t he?” Daveth said. “Invoked the Right of Conscription. I gave the garrison the finger while I was walking away. Ha… should’ve seen their faces.”

I could imagine it all too well, and I smiled weakly. He shook his head.

“Don’t know why Duncan wants someone like me. But he says finesse is important, and that I’m fast with a blade. You bet your boots I am. Besides, it beats getting strung up, right?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “So far, it does.”

He gave me an odd look, and I could almost smell the curiosity on him.

“You said you were from around here,” I observed, mainly to stop him asking me anything else.

“Yeah… I grew up in a village ’bout a day’s trip to the east. Little blot you wouldn’t even find on a map. Haven’t been back in years. I struck out for the city as soon as I could outrun my pa. Been in Denerim for, what… six years now? Never liked it much, but there’s more purses there than anywhere else.”

“I didn’t realise you were a… cutpurse,” Ser Jory commented, in a decidedly icy tone.

“Oh, yes, ser knight,” Daveth said cheerily, evidently taking ignoble pleasure in riling the man. “And a pickpocket, thank you very much. Bloody good at it, an’ all. Until Duncan, obviously. Fast for an old bugger, he is….”

I stifled a laugh as Jory harrumphed and looked offended. Still, it seemed politic for someone to stand buffer between the two of them, and I noticed that Alistair was being careful to keep himself at a distance. Not fraternising with the recruits, I supposed.

“And what of you, Ser Jory?” I asked. “You said you were from Redcliffe?”

He nodded, jaw proudly set and head raised.

“Indeed, although Duncan recruited me in Highever, a city off the northern coast. Have you ever travelled there?”

Nelaros’ face flitted behind my eyes, and I blinked.

“Um. No, never.”

“Oh. Well, I was in Arl Eamon’s retinue when he attended King Maric’s funeral. It was in Highever that I met my Helena. I was smitten.” Jory’s expression softened, and he smiled shyly. “She has the most beautiful eyes, my Helena. For years, I found any excuse to return there. We married a year ago.”

“Congratulations,” I said, and he inclined his head.

“Arl Eamon gave me leave to serve in Highever, but I was attempting to persuade Helena to come to Redcliffe with me. At least, until I was recruited.”

“So, you’re not another conscript, then?” Daveth chimed in.

“No,” Jory said, a trifle archly. “Last month, Duncan visited Highever, and the bann held a tournament in his honour. I fought hard to impress him, and I won the grand melee. It was hard to leave my wife—she is heavy with child now—but I would have done anything for the opportunity to join the Grey Wardens. And, if Ferelden needs my blade, I shall not falter.”

He squared his shoulders and looked ahead, the yearning for approval in him almost palpable. Humans, I thought, really seemed to need all those little ways they had of making themselves feel important.

Daveth shot me a conspiratorial look, then glanced at Jory’s broad back as the knight strode on ahead of us, and waggled his eyebrows. He made a rude gesture with his right hand, and I collapsed into choked laughter, palm clamped to my mouth.

~o~O~o~

We bore east, the night drawing in ever closer.

There were more scraps of ruined Tevinter buildings here; domes sunken beneath pools of green, brackish water, and broken arches, the walls that had once supported them long gone. The Wilds had reclaimed its own, and the smell of decay was everywhere.

To make things even less comfortable, we were being watched.

“Did anyone else hear that?” Ser Jory swung round, staring at the silhouetted tree line. “There’s something— I mean, I thought….”

It would have been all too easy to write his concern off as more of the same nervous complaining, but I think we all felt it. Nothing quite as simple or convenient as cracking twigs or rustling leaves; just the sensation of some foreign, unwelcome gaze on the backs of our necks as we traipsed through the dingy marshes.

The air grew ever colder and ever wetter as the shadows folded around us, and my first suspicion was more darkspawn, but Alistair snorted when I suggested it.

“Trust me, we’d know about it. They don’t track their prey just for fun. We’d have been attacked by now.”

“That’s not exactly comforting, you know,” Daveth said, glancing at the undergrowth, but Alistair was already peering towards the next ridge.

“Come on. Let’s just keep moving.”

We headed on again at his word, though I’d started to wonder whether Daveth was right, and this mythical tower hadn’t long since crumbled away. We could be out here for an eternity, wandering aimlessly and endlessly through the thickening mist.

I was proved wrong when the jagged rises and rocky overhangs yielded up the outline of a large, ruined building, and we headed up the slope, tired legs quickened with the promise of reaching our goal.

All that remained of the outpost was a crumbled shell, broken open to the sky and choked with green growth, the very stones ripped through by the thick, knotted roots of trees and vines. As we neared what would once have been the gates, I could smell the acrid sap of deathroot plants and, sure enough, a thick crop of them flourished to one side of the cracked foundations. I’d always heard it said you only found them growing where innocent blood had been spilled and, though it was one of those things that no one really believed, right now every tiny superstition seemed a little more rational.

We ventured in. Though the ruin was deserted, it felt perversely full of life. Things scuttled in the dark corners, and the smell of rotting vegetation perfumed every crevice. This was the Wilds’ true nature, I supposed: complex and organic, wrapping its tendrils around the heart of its prey… and squeezing.

“Over here. I think this is it.”

Alistair had crossed to the far corner of the ruin, at the foot of what must have once been an impressive stairway. The walls were crumbled and half-sunken now, fallen away to reveal the sheer drop beyond them, and the encroaching grasp of the forest.

He was rooting around in the rubble, and appeared to have unearthed a carved wooden chest. It was covered with mortar, dust and lichen, but certainly looked old enough to hold what we here for. Daveth, Jory and I crossed the overgrown remnants of the outpost’s courtyard, each of us glancing nervously up at the cracked, ruined walls.

“Damn,” Alistair announced, upon discovering the ornate wood had rotted right through, leaving the chest split… and empty.

He started to rise to his feet, but all four of us stopped dead at the sound of movement behind us.

“Well, well, what have we here?”

It was a woman’s voice, clean and hard, like black slate. She stood at the top of the ruined stairway, framed by the broken stones and creeping vines, and she did indeed make a striking picture.

She was unlike any human woman I’d ever seen… at least, I assumed she was human. Tall and pale-skinned, she wore her black hair swept up into a knot on top of her head, her sharp features scored with broad sweeps of dark kohl and shadow around her eyes, more like warpaint than the makeup I was used to seeing women use.

Her robes were of dark cloth and leather, hung with black feathers and brightly coloured beads. The loose folds of a wide cowl left her shoulders, neck, and cleavage exposed, and her arms were bare except for ragged, fingerless gloves that reached her elbows.

She was alone, yet faced the four of us without an ounce of apprehension, the look on her face and the tone of her voice holding mild amusement rather than genuine enquiry.

“Are you vultures, I wonder?” she asked archly, descending towards us, every step weighted to hold our attention, her movements slow and deliberate as a wolf. “Scavengers poking amidst a corpse whose bones were long since cleaned? Or merely intruders in search of easy prey?”

Her skin seemed unnaturally pale against the shadows, and she appeared to use them to her advantage, halting in the safety of the gloom to fix us with her strange, golden eyes. I’d never seen a stare like that on anything that walked upright, and it unnerved me.

“What say you, hmm?” The woman’s thin, dark-painted lips curled into a mirthless smile. “Scavengers or intruders?”

“Don’t answer her,” Alistair warned us. “She looks Chasind, and that means other may be nearby.”

She laughed; a noise like the bright tinkle of glass breaking—pretty, but brittle.

“Oh? You fear barbarians will swoop down upon you?”

“Yes,” he said hesitantly, gaze skirting the boundaries of the ruined outpost. “Swooping… is bad.”

I followed where he looked, wishing I could see better in the dark. Were there others out there? Or was there something worse, waiting for the opportunity to strike?

“Sod barbarians,” Daveth yelped. “She’s a Witch of the Wilds, she is! She’ll turn us all into toads!”

The woman gave another of those strange, feral smiles. “Witch of the Wilds? Such idle fancies, those legends. Have you no minds of your own? You, there.”

She turned to me, and my stomach dropped. The men behind me all appeared to have inexplicably moved back by at least two paces.

“Women do not frighten like little boys,” she said haughtily. “Tell me your name and I shall tell you mine.”

Every fairytale had a moment like this, didn’t this? I knew how the rules of stories worked. Names yielded power, and there was no end to what a witch could do with them, the way a single lock of hair could be used to bring about a person’s death. Old wives’ tales and superstitious nonsense, of course… probably.

I would have wagered that she knew that. She was playing with us, like a cat batting a mouse around. The trick, I supposed, was making sure she didn’t get bored and bite our heads off. I swallowed heavily, aware of the distinct lack of comrades at my back.

“You can call me Merien.”

No sense in dissembling, I supposed. The woman inclined her head gracefully.

“And you may call me Morrigan, if you wish.” That eerie golden gaze trailed over all four of us, and she narrowed her eyes. “Shall I guess your purpose? You sought something in that chest, something that is here no longer?”

“‘Here no longer’?” Alistair mimicked. “You stole them, didn’t you? You’re some kind of… sneaky… witch-thief!”

There was a brief silence, during which I fought the urge to slap a palm to my forehead. His loyalty to the Wardens might be commendable, but his diplomacy could really use some work.

Morrigan’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly. “How very eloquent. How does one steal from dead men?”

“Quite easily, it seems,” he retorted. “Those documents are Grey Warden property, and I suggest you return them.”

She folded her arms, and glared at him. “I will not, for ’twas not I who removed them. Invoke a name that means nothing here any longer if you wish; I am not threatened.”

I glanced at Daveth and Jory, the pair of them conspicuous by their silence, as if they actually hoped it might make them invisible.

Bloody shems….

“Then who removed them?” I asked, trying to slip myself between the wilder woman and Alistair—peacemaker again, it seemed.

Morrigan turned that tawny gaze on me. “’Twas my mother, in fact.”

“Your mother?” Alistair began, drawing breath.

If I’d been any nearer, I’d have trodden on his foot.

“Can you take us to her?” I asked instead.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have presumed to make such a decision on my own. But, with Alistair apparently determined to make an adversary of the woman, and the other two recruits cowering in the background, someone had to say something.

Besides, it didn’t seem as if we had any choice. If the treaties were as important as Duncan had said, we needed to make every effort to retrieve them—or at least find out what manner of people had a hold of them.

“Now, there is a sensible request.” Morrigan gave me another of those thin, knowing smiles. “I like you.”

Somehow, that didn’t reassure me, reminded again as I was of a cat with something small and squeaky under its paw.

Alistair shot me a warning glance. “I’d be careful. First it’s ‘I like you…’ but then ‘zap!’. Frog time.”

Sarcasm aside, he had a point, and I realised what he must have already gathered—spiced as it was with his ill-concealed hostility towards mages. The woman was most likely an apostate, and potentially extremely dangerous. After all, it seemed inconceivable that anyone who didn’t have the strongest faith in their ability to defend themselves would be wandering out here alone… if she was alone.

I wished I’d never said anything.

“What would you have us do, then?” I snapped.

Alistair grimaced. “We don’t have much of a choice. We need those treaties.” He glanced over his shoulder at Jory and Daveth. “But let’s keep our eyes open, all right?”

“Very well.” Morrigan nodded. “Follow me, then, if it pleases you.”

With that, she turned and headed out of the ruins, striding into the shadows as if they held nothing she could possibly fear—and leaving the four of us loitering like nervous children.

I caught sight of Daveth making a warding sign with the fingers of his left hand.

“She’ll put us all in the pot, she will,” he mumbled miserably. “Just you watch.”

Ser Jory snorted and, shouldering his sword, began to stomp after the witch.

“If the pot’s warmer than this forest,” he called back to us, “it’d be a nice change.”

Reluctantly, I followed on.

~o~O~o~

We walked in silence, not because none of us had anything to say, but because no one wanted Morrigan overhearing it. She took us down the slope, beyond a pool of fetid, stagnant water, and past countless trees whose black, gnarled trunks I was sure we’d seen a dozen times already.

Daveth muttered an occasional few words under his breath; snatches of charms and folk magics of the kind I’d heard old people in the alienage use sometimes. Funny how those who were so suspicious of mages would put their trust in a couple of lines of the Chant of Light, and believe it could ward off evil or cure nosebleeds.

I didn’t say anything. We kept walking and, eventually, the changeless, murky greenery started to thin out. I smelled the familiar odour of lamp oil, and caught sight of flames flickering beyond the trees.

Morrigan led us into a patch of open ground that looked less as if it had been cleared than as if the forest had simply receded around it… like the Wilds were just holding their breath, waiting for the torches and higgledy-piggledy little hut to disappear, so they might swallow this place up again.

A ridiculous thought, I told myself. The forest wasn’t alive. Not… in that sense, at least. And however strange the hut that confronted us looked—a mess of lichen-marked boards and planks, its crooked roof thatched with rushes, and the stilts it was built upon sagging into the mud—it almost certainly couldn’t really get up and lurch away. That was impossible.

A fire burned outside the hut, reminding me for one wistful moment of Duncan’s fire back at the camp, and the homely security of Ostagar’s walls. That I was thinking of the ruined fortress in such tender terms was testament to just how inhospitable the Wilds were, I supposed.

“Come.”

Morrigan nodded to the hut, the fire… and the figure that, just a moment ago, I could have sworn I hadn’t seen standing there.

She led us briskly down into the clearing. I followed, with a glance at Alistair, aware of the distrustful glower on his face.

As we drew nearer, I could see the figure beside the fire was that of an old woman, clad in a clean but well-worn green dress, with a woollen cloak pulled around her shoulders. Her face was thin and lined, and her dark grey hair hung in two messy, uncombed falls, framing her sallow cheeks.

“Greetings, Mother,” Morrigan said brightly. “I bring before you four Grey Wardens, who—”

“I see them, girl.”

It had been difficult to see any resemblance between the two women—one tall, proud, and dressed so carefully, the other a shabby old crone, warming her hands at the flames—until the elder raised her head and looked at us. Oh, the eyes were different, dark instead of that eerie, pale golden amber, but the expression was exactly the same.

“Mmm. Much as I expected,” the old woman said, and the thin, knowing smile that they both shared curved her lips.

She raised her head, eyeing the four of us with quick, sharp glances, her lips moving soundlessly and her skinny hands craned over the fire. The tongues of orange light split the shadows around her, and sparks floated like dust motes on the damp air.

I wasn’t sure if she was conjuring something or measuring us up to some inner vision, but my spine seemed to be trying to crawl away from under my skin. My toes tapped nervously at the inside of my boots, marking the urge to turn around and run from this place.

I glanced at Daveth, and found him white-faced and tight-lipped, totally still but for his eyes, that dark gaze flitting over every edge, nook and corner.

Alistair broke the silence with an incredulous scoff.

“Are we supposed to believe you were expecting us?”

The old woman straightened up, pulling her cloak tighter around herself with those red-knuckled hands, and surveyed the four of us coolly.

“You are required to do nothing,” she said, her voice the same hard, arch tone as Morrigan’s, but laced through with the cracks of age… and something that sounded almost like mischief. “Least of all believe. Shut one’s eyes tight or open one’s arms wide: either way, one’s a fool!”

Daveth’s composure cracked.

“She’s a witch, I tell you!” he hissed. “We shouldn’t be talking to her!”

“Quiet, Daveth!” Jory snapped. “If she’s really a witch, do you want to make her angry?”

The old woman chuckled dryly.

“There’s a smart lad. Sadly irrelevant to the larger scheme of things, but it is not I who decides. Believe what you will.”

I looked at Jory, wondering what she’d meant, and found him just as pale and nervous as Daveth. This had, I decided, not been a good idea. We should just have gone back to Duncan and told him we couldn’t find the treaties. After all, we weren’t invincible. We weren’t even fully Grey Wardens yet, and—

“And what of you? Does your elven mind give you a different viewpoint?”

I flinched. As I turned to meet the old woman’s gaze, the whisper of a cold, clammy breeze lifted my hair from my shoulders, and the sharp scent of pine trees and wet grass filled my nose.

She smiled at me, but it wasn’t a reassuring gesture; more like curious expectation, as if she was waiting to see whether I’d prove her right. Quite what she expected, however, was beyond me.

It certainly felt strange here, but what did that mean? For all Daveth’s stories and superstitious mutterings, I wasn’t sure I believed in witches. More likely a lonely old woman and her daughter, trying to stay warm and dry.

And yet… if they were wilders, where was the rest of their clan? Outcasts, as I knew well, usually had a reason for being disowned. Fair enough, in my experience, that hadn’t extended much beyond elven girls who got themselves into trouble with shems, or men who turned their backs on honest work and gloried in a life of shadows, but the principle was there.

So: apostate, lunatic, or legend? Reflected firelight glittered in the old woman’s eyes, and I wondered whether she and her peculiar daughter might not be all three.

“I’m… not sure what to believe,” I said warily, glancing around the clearing.

She laughed softly, a surprisingly gentle sound.

“A statement that possesses more wisdom than it implies. Be always aware… or is it oblivious? I can never remember.”

She shook her head and stared at the flames, suddenly looking like nothing more than a slightly batty old woman.

To my right, Alistair let out a terse, derisive chuckle.

“So this is a dreaded Witch of the Wilds?”

I glanced at him, ready to suggest avoiding that whole topic might be prudent, but I saw that even Daveth had seemed to relax, no longer staring wildly at every possible escape route like a cornered rat.

Nevertheless, whoever these people were, we’d come here on the promise of retrieving our documents, not establishing the grain of truth behind every local myth.

“Witch of the Wilds, eh?” The old woman chuckled. “Morrigan must have told you that. She fancies such tales, though she would never admit it. Oh, how she dances under the moon!”

She raised her thin hands, her knotted fingers curved into delicate shapes, throwing the shadows of a sinuous ballet back against the fire. I fought to keep the images of midnight rituals from behind my eyes, of moonlit skin and strange, feral howls.

“They did not come to listen to your wild tales, Mother….” Morrigan said shortly, folding her arms across the chest of that artfully tattered robe.

I blinked. Too easy to let the wraiths of dreams and phantasms weave their way into the mind in this place; there were too many stories, too many legends. I ached for the feel of stone back under my feet, and the crowded pulse of Ostagar that, at first, I had found so intimidating.

“True. They came for their treaties, yes?”

The old woman reached into the folds of her cloak and drew out a large, thick leather wallet, its surface cracked and crazed with age. She thrust it at Alistair.

“Here. And before you begin barking, your precious seal wore off long ago. I have protected these.”

“You—oh.” He took the wallet, and looked rather crestfallen. “You protected them?”

“And why not?” She wrapped her cloak back around her skinny body and sniffed, as if we were now far less interesting to her. “Go on. Take them to your Grey Wardens and tell them this Blight’s threat is greater than they realise.”

Alistair frowned. “Greater than…? Wait. What?”

The old woman shrugged, obviously not so bored as to resist playing with us one last time.

“Either the threat is more, or they realise less. Or perhaps the threat is nothing! Or perhaps they realise nothing!”

She laughed, showing a rank of brown teeth, and I could see him drawing breath to demand a proper explanation, so I leapt in.

“Thank you for returning them.”

Those dark eyes widened, the thin-lipped mouth curling into an amused little moue.

“Such manners! Always in the last place you look. Like stockings.”

The words were mischievous teasing, but her gaze was unwavering, and sharp as a flint.

“We should go,” I said carefully, looking at Alistair, “shouldn’t we? Duncan’s waiting.”

He blinked. “Right. Yes. We should—”

“Indeed,” Morrigan said, with no small hint of relief. “Time you left.”

The old woman tutted and shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, girl. These are your guests.”

She looked meaningfully at her daughter, then at us, and at last Morrigan gave an irritable sigh.

“Oh, very well.” She narrowed her eyes and curled her lip, in close approximation of something might have been a sarcastic smile. “I will show you out of the woods. Follow me.”

Without waiting for us, she strode off, leaving us to bob like fishing floats in her wake. I turned, ready to scamper to keep up as usual, when my wrist was caught in a hard, tight grip.

“Wh—?”

The old woman—who must have moved both swiftly and soundlessly to reach me from the other side of the fire—had a rather surprising strength in those twig-like fingers.

“Don’t forget this, dear,” she said sweetly.

Raising her other hand, she held out a flower to me: dead white, with a blood-red centre. Its wide, velvety petals swept back from a throat heavy with pollen, and the sweet, sickly scent of decay seemed to emanate from it.

I stared. The herb the kennel master had wanted… and which I had completely forgotten about, in the mess of other things we’d found out here. But how could she have known? How—

“Go on, then.” She nodded after my comrades, already heading out into the trees. “Best run if you want to catch up.”

“Thank you,” I murmured.

I took the flower and, as soon as she released me, I did run. Only too damn glad to leave that place behind me.

I glanced back once as we followed Morrigan through the never-ending twists and turns of endless vegetation, but I couldn’t see the wink of torches or the glimmer of flames.

Somehow, it didn’t surprise me.

She left us within sight of the gates of Ostagar, a brusque and wordless nod in parting before she disappeared back into the trees.

We stood there for a few moments, a lingering sense of unease—or perhaps mild embarrassment—in the air, until Daveth broke the silence.

“Well, that was interesting. Can you imagine if missy there hadn’t shown us the way back out? We might still be in there now, chasing trails all over the bloody forest.”

Alistair winced. “Yes. Well, we ought to get back to Duncan. Come on.”

We traipsed obediently after him. I followed on behind, my fingers going to the pouch at my belt, and the flower I’d stowed within it.

Still, there wasn’t much time to wonder at impossibilities now.

The Joining was almost upon us.

 ———————————-
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