Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this it? Was I a Grey Warden now?

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

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

After all, I was still alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you feel?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I… I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well,” I mumbled.

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

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

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

“Sure you’re all right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, then.

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

This was decidedly different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked.

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

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

Duncan nodded. “They are, your Majesty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then who shall light this beacon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I… Yes, your Majesty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? I won’t be in the battle?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing how the mind works in times of stress.

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

“Yes,” I said, inclining my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right. Come on!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Merien.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s move,” I yelled.

We did.

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

I could understand that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head disbelievingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a hope soon dashed.

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

Mind you, they burned just as easily.

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

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

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

They drag the survivors underground, and eat them….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I must have looked surprised, because the shem laughed.

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

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

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

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

Elves weren’t the masters of anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair nodded. “We have.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair nodded, but he didn’t look comfortable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daveth sniffed philosophically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

Not a column, then, but… an altar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daveth scoffed. “Are you blubbering again?”

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

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

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

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

Black as sin and poisonous… but not always fatal.

Those who survive grow immune to its effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stared at the chalice, aghast.

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

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

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

Perhaps, if I believed that, I could cope.

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

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

Duncan didn’t give an outright confirmation.

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

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

Would it have been better, had we known?

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

The way he screamed when I cut him.

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

I swallowed hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear squeezed my lungs, turning my breath to ice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The idea horrified me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am sorry, Daveth.”

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

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

This was not yet over.

“Jory.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no turning back.

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

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

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

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

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

Once, I had found that liberating.

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

Beyond that, I remember nothing but the pain.

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

After that, everything was darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not yet, at least.

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

 
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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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As we approached his fire, Duncan looked up and nodded to me.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re right, Duncan. I… apologise.”

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

Impressive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair nodded. “We will.”

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

And, with that, we took our leave.

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

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

Nobody laughed.

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was a long time ago, of course.”

Jory was the first to fall prey to the game.

“W-What was?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait. There’s something…. Oh.”

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

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

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

“Help… me…!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The knight was not so easily appeased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daveth broke the tension brewing in our little group.

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

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

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

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

I did not have to wonder for long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daveth, at least, took refuge in conversation.

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

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

And they told the truth.

“Hm?” I murmured, staring straight ahead.

He wasn’t put off.

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

“Bump ‘n’…?”

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

Not to mention, Father would have skinned me alive.

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

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

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

Daveth was waiting for an answer, all the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened then?”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I admitted. “So far, it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, jaw proudly set and head raised.

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

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

“Um. No, never.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

We bore east, the night drawing in ever closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on. Let’s just keep moving.”

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

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

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

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

“Over here. I think this is it.”

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

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

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

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

“Well, well, what have we here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can call me Merien.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody shems….

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

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

“Your mother?” Alistair began, drawing breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wished I’d never said anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctantly, I followed on.

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come.”

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

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

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

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

“I see them, girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair broke the silence with an incredulous scoff.

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

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

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

Daveth’s composure cracked.

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

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

The old woman chuckled dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed softly, a surprisingly gentle sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for returning them.”

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

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

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

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

He blinked. “Right. Yes. We should—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wh—?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” I murmured.

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

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

Somehow, it didn’t surprise me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joining was almost upon us.

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

 

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As I was passing the lower end of the army encampment, I realised I was hungry enough for even the dubious smells of the mess tent to pull at my stomach. I thought about eating some of the pound cake in my pack, and was considering stopping to get it out when a voice cut through the air and sliced right down my spine, the reaction laced with years of racial memory.

“You there! Elf!”

I flinched, but looked up when it became clear the shout was not for me. A group of warriors had stridden in and hauled up by one of the tents, accompanied by a pack of fearsome-looking mabaris, each one painted with strange designs in red, black and white. The men were unusual, too; their armour bore patterns that the king’s men did not show, and they carried heavy, bright axes… and a rather stronger sense of arrogant menace.

The elven messenger whom their leader had caught—a scrawny slip of a boy with messy blond hair and a thin, sharp nose—almost quivered under the shem’s scrutiny.

“What’s your name?” barked the warrior.

“Er, it’s P-Pick, ser.”

“Go tell Teyrn Loghain that the war party is ready to begin scouting. We’ll send word if we find anything amiss.”

“Y-yes, ser. Right away, ser.”

The boy scampered down towards the main body of the camp. His eyes met mine for a very brief moment, but the look on his face turned me cold. What had started as a smile—the recognition of one elf for another in a sea of humans, much as you’d find in the market back home—quickly palled and grew stiff. He averted his gaze and ran past me, like I wasn’t elven at all.

Just another soldier, bearing arms.

While I was busy nursing the sting of rejection, I had somehow managed to attract the warrior’s attention, for it was then at me that he boomed:

“Maker’s breath—another elf! What do you want?”

I could have simply squeaked ‘Nothing, ser!’ and gone on my way, but for some reason I didn’t. I lifted my head, stared at the large, dark-haired human with the proud, red-daubed wardog at his feet, and I found that I was more annoyed than afraid.

“You have a problem with elves?” I demanded.

Who was she, that argumentative, demented girl? And what in Thedas did she hope to prove?

The man snorted, somewhere between derision and amusement.

“Not in particular,” he said, folding his arms, “except for them being so thin-boned. You make good messengers, though, I’ll give you that.”

A desultory ripple of laughter trickled through the group. It should have been my cue to leave, but I stood my ground.

“You don’t look like the other soldiers in the army,” I observed.

“We aren’t,” he said smugly. “We are Ash Warriors.”

I glanced at the assembled men, their dogs, and the proud face of their leader. He smirked, and I supposed it was possible that my obstinacy could be mistaken for courage, at least by people such as these.

“And what does an Ash Warrior do, ser?”

I must have known I was pushing my luck, or perhaps I counted on the man’s vanity. Whatever my thinking, he pursed his lips before he answered, then inclined his head, as if accepting my curiosity. It was a small victory, of sorts.

“We harness the rage inside us, nurture it, and draw it out so we cannot fall in battle until our last foe is slain,” the warrior said, reciting the words like an oath. “It is a dwarven discipline, but we have adapted it to let us fight alongside our hounds.”

He reached down and slapped the flank of the dog at his feet. The mabari looked up, yawned lazily, and wagged its short stub of a tail, before fixing me with the most intelligent gaze I had ever seen on an animal.

“That is our way,” the Ash Warrior said proudly. “You see? I trust my hound with my life, as he trusts me with his.”

“I didn’t know that, ser. But… is a dog really that good in combat?”

He scoffed incredulously, as if I’d asked whether it was worth wearing breeches in cold climes.

“Is a…? Pah! A trained mabari hound is as dangerous as any sword. We do not speak of a city pet or those things that sit in an old woman’s lap!”

Muscles rippled beneath the dog’s short, sleek coat.

“I-I can see that, ser. And the war paint…?”

“The dogs use scent to distinguish us from our enemies. But the blood of battle can confuse them. So we paint ourselves with kaddis, which overpowers the blood, and also paint our hounds, so they know we are the same.”

“I see.” I frowned. “And you are preparing a scouting party, yes?”

“We are indeed. We will scout the Wilds tonight and watch the progression of the darkspawn horde. With luck, we’ll find and slaughter many stragglers. The hunt will be good if my hound survives the blood of his prey,” the warrior added, his face growing sombre.

The mabari looked up at his master, heavy pink tongue lolling from between vice-like jaws. My frown deepened.

“Survives the blood?”

Not the first reference I’d heard to the horrors of darkspawn blood, but I still didn’t fully understand… or maybe I just didn’t want to admit to my suspicions.

The Ash Warrior shook his head.

“Tch!” he muttered, as if to himself. “Bloody elf knows nothing…. Where’d they drag you out from, eh? Pumpkin farm off the Southrons? Darkspawn blood is poisonous, but not always fatal. Those who survive grow immune to its effects. The Wardens say the tainted blood drives even the survivors mad eventually… but not today. Today we hunt, and we kill.”

Perhaps it was the look in his eyes as he said that, perhaps it was the talk of poisoned blood and insanity. Either way, I wanted to be as far as possible from the Ash Warriors at that point, and so I mumbled my thanks, my bravery and outrageous audacity shrivelled to a shadow of all it had been.

~o~O~o~

Ostagar was huge, and I was still getting horribly turned around trying to find my way about the place. I passed back by the infirmary, from where I could hear the shouts of one of the injured men, screaming about the coming horde.

“They taint the land,” he was yelling, “they turn it black and sick! You can feel it inside…. They’ll come out of that forest, and spread! Like caterpillars covering a tree, they’ll swallow us whole!”

The poor man’s cries could be heard even over the cleric’s prayers, and I could make out the shapes of nurses rushing to quiet him… or, at least, to make sure his terror didn’t infect anyone else.

I didn’t know if I believed blood could be poisonous, or if the horde that people spoke of could truly corrupt the land. I struggled not to think of the genlock corpse I’d seen; it was too easy to imagine hundreds of those creatures swarming over everything, with those terrible teeth and the wicked, jagged blades the sergeant had warned us about. Dark weapons, with venom on their edges. The thought filled me with dread… and I supposed that was one of the most dangerous things we faced here.

As the dusk drew in, it brought the smell of fear with it.

I was heading towards the southern end of camp, the Magi tents to my back, wondering where I was supposed to find this other Warden, when I encountered a tall woman with her grey hair pinned back in a clean, severe style. She wore robes similar to those I’d seen other mages around camp in, but more than that I didn’t know. My first reaction was to avoid eye contact and step out of her way; the Magi might be on the same side, but they still alarmed me.

The woman smiled at me, though, and it would have been rude to pass her by. She looked me up and down, her keen blue eyes small and alert, but her expression one of calm and kindness.

“Greetings, young lady. You are Duncan’s newest recruit, are you not?”

I nodded, and began to suspect my likeness had been passed around before we got here. Either that, or there was a note stuck to my back.

The woman’s smile widened.

“Ah. Well, he’s not a man easily impressed. You should be proud. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Wynne, one of the mages summoned by the king.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said. “My name is Merien.”

“Well met, dear, and good luck to you on the battlefield. To us all, in fact.”

There was something in the way she said it that caught my ear. It wasn’t outright fear or lack of faith, but a kind of circumspection that suggested she knew more than most of what lingered out there in the Wilds.

“Will you be fighting beside the king?” I asked.

“Not precisely.” Wynne shook her head. “The Grey Wardens will be on the front lines, not the mages. Still, we have our parts to play. To defeat the darkspawn, we will have to work together. Although that’s not an idea everyone seems able to grasp.”

“You’ve faced darkspawn before, then?”

“You could say that.” A certain tightness around Wynne’s eyes suggested unpleasant memories, but her voice did not waver. “Stragglers, yes—but not the vast horde the scouts speak of.”

I wanted to ask more, but the look on her face put me off.

“King Cailan thinks the battle will go well,” I said instead, a question clumsily disguised as an observation.

“The king must always seem confident. His behaviour affects the troops’ morale.” The corner of Wynne’s mouth curled knowingly. “He does seem to find his enthusiasm easily, though. Reminds me of a puppy, and I say that with both respect and affection. He’s a fine man.”

It should have shocked me to hear her talk that way of the king, but there was something so apt in the image that I couldn’t help spluttering with laughter. Cailan was puppyish in his eagerness, and that was a good thing, wasn’t it? The men certainly held him in high regard, and that had to bode well for the coming battle, I supposed. All the same, I put my hand to my mouth, shielding my smiles.

Wynne tilted her head to the side and looked carefully at me.

“I wonder… how much do you know of the connection between darkspawn and the Fade?”

Confused, and my laughter quickly forgotten, I blinked at her. “Isn’t the Fade the land of the dead?”

“Well, yes.” She nodded. “Any time your spirit leaves your earthly body, whether it’s to dream or to die, it passes into the realm we call the Fade. It is home to many spirits, some benevolent, others far less so. At the heart of the Fade lies the Black City.”

“Which was once the seat of the Maker,” I said, with the full confidence of years spent listening to the Chantry sisters and their services. “Before the magisters of the Tevinter Imperium found their way there, and—”

“Tainted it with their sin, yes. I see you’re familiar with the Chant of Light’s explanation.”

Wynne smiled at me, but I wasn’t sure whether it was approval or pity I saw in those clear blue eyes. Did she think me a naïve fool?

If she did, she was probably right.

“You know, then,” Wynne went on, “that those men were said to have been turned into twisted reflections of their own hearts. The Maker cast them back to the earth, and they became the first darkspawn.”

I nodded slowly, listening less to what she said than what she didn’t say.

“So… you don’t believe what the Chantry says is the truth?”

“It may be true.” Wynne shrugged and pursed her lips. “Or it may be allegory, meant to teach us that our own evil causes human suffering. Still, it is as good an explanation as any, for now.”

“That is… interesting,” I said, aware somehow that I had been given a lesson, but not entirely sure yet of its meaning.

What did she want me to realise? The reality of my own reflection, or that not all truths were the same? Or was there perhaps some other, arcane meaning, some riddle I hadn’t quite seen in what the mage said? I puzzled over it for a moment, but Wynne chuckled softly, distracting me from the thoughts.

“Yes. Occasionally it’s wise to contemplate one’s actions. But I’m certain Duncan has more for you to do than talk to me.”

That was certainly true. The night was beginning to draw in. Up at the far end of the camp, the small pyre was flaming, kicking out a thick, noxious smoke as it consumed the genlock’s corpse. I blinked, and remembered I was supposed to be on an errand.

“I, um, I’m looking for another Grey Warden. I don’t know if you’ve seen—”

“Alistair?” Wynne smiled, and pointed towards the body of the old ruins, arching up into the dimming sky. “I think you’ll find him over that way, dear. And… good luck.”

“Thank you,” I said, and hurried off up the moss-encrusted stone steps.

I thought Wynne meant luck with the man I was supposed to meet. I didn’t realise until later that she understood the dangers I would face that night.

Of Alistair, I didn’t know what to expect.

Another stern authoritative figure like Duncan, I supposed, though ‘stern’ seemed perhaps an unkind choice of words. I knew so little about what I found myself involved in, yet I did understand that there were things Duncan could not tell me, and that—if he appeared aloof—it was not necessarily because he wished to do so.

Then again, maybe all Grey Wardens were like that. Maybe it was the weight of such terrible duties and burdens, crushing down on a soul over time, until everything seemed bleak. Was that what I had to look forward to?

I hurried on. Nearing the northern end of the ruins, I began to follow the sound of voices… and could not have been more surprised by what I found.

At the top of a flight of worn stone steps, backlit by the bones of ruined arches and touched by the softening dusk, a mage of the Circle—a large, portly man with bushy black brows set into a dark scowl—was mid-way through what my father used to call ‘a damn good cuss and bluster’. I hung back, considering it wise not to get in the way.

“What is it now?” the mage demanded. “Haven’t the Grey Wardens asked more than enough of the Circle?”

The human with him was young, blond, and wore both splintmail armour and a look of resigned, sardonic boredom.

“I simply came to deliver a message from the revered mother, ser mage,” he said, with barely concealed irritation. “She desires your presence.”

“What Her Reverence ‘desires’ is of no concern to me!” the mage spluttered. “I am busy helping the Grey Wardens—by the king’s orders, I might add!”

“Oh. Should I have asked her to write a note?”

The mage’s flabby jowls shook with indignation. “Tell her I will not be harassed in this manner!”

The human whom I assumed to be Alistair couldn’t contain an acerbic smirk.

“Yes,” he said, evidently enjoying baiting the man. “I was harassing you. By delivering a message.”

I wouldn’t have thought the mage’s scowl could get deeper, but it did.

“Your glibness does you no credit,” he grumbled, at which the other affected a look of hurt pride.

“And here I thought we were getting along so well! I was even going to name one of my children after you… the grumpy one.”

I folded my lips in tight to keep from laughing aloud. The mage looked fit to burst with righteous fury.

“Enough! I will speak to the woman if I must!” He threw his hands up—I half-expected sparks to shoot from them—and stalked furiously towards the steps. “Out of my way, fool!”

He strode brusquely by, almost colliding with me in his haste, and I hopped back, letting him pass in a whirl of fine silks and resentment.

Well. This wasn’t exactly the way I had imagined the Grey Wardens handled diplomatic interactions with other arms of the king’s forces, but who was I to question?

I looked curiously at the man I took to be Alistair, and was surprised to see him smiling.

“You know,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together.”

He was so far from what I’d expected that I forgot myself.

“You are a very strange human,” I said, without quite meaning to.

He snorted, but seemed amused rather than offended.

“You’re not the first to tell me that. Wait, we haven’t met, have we? I don’t suppose you happen to be another mage?”

I raised an eyebrow, emboldened. “Would that make your day worse?”

“Hardly. I just like to know my chances of being turned into a frog at any given moment.”

“Well, since I’m not wearing robes or wielding a staff….”

“Ah. Right.” His smirk grew sheepish, and he shrugged. “Still, you never know. These mages can sneak up on you.”

I laughed, despite myself. Stern, authoritative figure? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been wrong.

Alistair snapped his fingers, as if recalling some misplaced detail.

“Wait, I do know who you are. You’re Duncan’s new recruit, the elf from Denerim, right? I should have recognised you right away. I apologise.”

Briefly, I wondered how much word Duncan had sent ahead, and how much people had learned of me in my absence. I tried not to let it trouble me, however, and shook my head.

“No need. No offence taken.”

“Good.” He looked faintly relieved, and cleared his throat. “You, er, didn’t exactly catch me at my finest with the mage there. Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Alistair, the new Grey Warden, though I guess you already knew that….”

I smiled. Something about the way he said ‘new Grey Warden’ made me wonder if he wasn’t rather used to being the order’s general dogsbody, but I didn’t like to ask.

“I’m Merien. Pleased to meet you.”

“Right… that was the name,” Alistair said, though I doubted he’d really remembered. He smiled awkwardly. “Well, as the junior member of the order, I’ll be accompanying you as you prepare for the Joining.”

Accompany me? Was I a child, to be watched and monitored as I faltered my way through my first steps? Or did the Wardens just like to keep a tight leash on their recruits?

I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to mock me or put me at ease. If it was the former, I couldn’t blame him; there must have been a dozen things more preferable to baby-sitting me.

I cleared my throat. “You, um, don’t really need to do that, do you?”

Alistair grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to embarrass you.”

I was about to say that wasn’t what I meant, but then realised he was teasing me. A wash of embarrassed irritation flushed my cheeks at that, but I supposed the new recruits had it coming, and at least it was better than being treated like an elf… although, at the time, I barely realised I’d even had that sneaking, bitter little thought.

“Anyhow,” he said. “We should probably head back to Duncan. I imagine he’s eager to get things started. Unless you have any questions, of course.”

Naturally, I did, but that didn’t mean I knew where to start in asking them.

“It’s still all a bit… new,” I said lamely, as we began to make our way back down the steps. I didn’t really want to admit to being overwhelmed.

“I can imagine,” Alistair said, which annoyed me, because I very much doubted he could.

Sneaking a sideways glance at him, I wondered idly how old he was. Hard to tell with humans, but… young. Perhaps not all that much older than me.

He spoke well, and carried himself like a soldier—but not one of the rank and file. If I’d had to guess, I would have pegged him as the youngest son of some well-to-do merchant or minor landed wig. The kind of people who usually kept my kind of people around for cleaning their houses and pouring their wine, I supposed.

All the same, I was curious. Though, looking back, I cringe at how woefully naïve I was, I knew even then that the Grey Wardens were far from a military dumping ground for middle class whelps with pretensions to an officer’s career. Duncan had explained enough for me to understand that… and to still be quietly fretting over how in Andraste’s name I was supposed to fit in.

I’d been too long about my wondering, at any rate. Alistair caught me looking at him and smiled, amusement gleaming in his hazel eyes.

“Go on, then,” he said. “Ask away.”

Out of all the questions bubbling away inside my head, one rose up, butting against my tongue more urgently than all the rest. I frowned at the ancient, cracked paving slabs, my gaze tracing the lines of moss and decay along them.

“Um.” I cleared my throat. “This, er, battle everyone’s talking about….”

“Tomorrow, they say,” Alistair said helpfully.

I glanced up at him, amazed he could sound so calm.

“Well, the other Grey Wardens are camped down in the valley,” he said, nodding to the stretch of ground that lay beyond the parapet, far below the fortress. “With the king’s soldiers. King Cailan’s given us a position of honour at the vanguard, despite our small numbers. I think he’s actually excited to ride into battle with us. Maybe he thinks that’s what his father would have done, I don’t know.”

I blinked, suddenly reminded of the look on the king’s face when he spoke of bards and legends, and a great battle to end the Blight. The very thought somehow seemed less glorious now, and more redolent of mud, blood, and cold steel. I struggled to see the romance in it, and my brand new armour began to feel less well-fitting.

“Er. W-will I—?”

“Be participating? I… don’t know.”

Alistair smiled at me, and I took it for kindness, though I didn’t know why it should seem so strangely melancholy. Later, I would learn it was because he didn’t believe I was going to survive the night.

He looked away, glancing out towards the shadowed outline of the trees.

“I’ll tell you, it’s Teyrn Loghain we should be looking to if we’re to win it, not the king. Cailan wants his place in history, but the teyrn is planning the strategy.” He broke off, appearing slightly embarrassed. “Uh… that’s my opinion, anyway. I guess I should be thankful the king favours the Grey Wardens, but I know who’s keeping the lid on the pot.”

I nodded, still thinking of Cailan’s words; that hunger for… what? Recognition? Finding his place in history alongside his forefathers? I didn’t know, and it wasn’t my place to judge. Perhaps all his posturing really was just for the sake of inspiring his men—and maybe it would work.

I looked cautiously at Alistair. “What are the chances of success, d’you think?”

He turned his head, the dimming sun catching his profile, and almost hiding the way the corner of his mouth tightened before he answered.

“I’m sure Teyrn Loghain has the battle planned to the last detail,” he said, though his voice seemed self-consciously level. “Still… no Blight has ever been defeated with so little cost.”

We’ve won three battles against these monsters. Tomorrow should be no different.

Could it really be more than bravado? I hoped so.

Yet, I saw uncertainty lingering in Alistair’s eyes.

“And if we fail?” I asked.

He frowned. “If the horde isn’t broken here, Duncan says it will spread until it engulfs all of Ferelden. Then it would take an alliance of nations to fight it. Which would be bad,” he added, with what seemed to be that customary flippancy of his; something I wasn’t used to finding in humans. “However, neither the king nor the teyrn really seems to believe this is a real Blight, so… I don’t know. There have been several successful encounters so far.”

I glanced to where he’d been looking, away to the tree line, hazy with the thickening, wet fog of dusk.

“And how many darkspawn are out there?”

“Good question.” Alistair snorted. “Thousands? Tens of thousands? They’ve had centuries to build up their numbers.”

The forest seemed to inch closer somehow, pressing in on the camp from the lengthening shadows. I shivered, and knew that I hadn’t managed to disguise it.

We headed out of the ruins, back through the main body of the camp. The mess tent was serving, the smell of something gloopy and salty permeating the air, and my stomach griped to itself, enthralled even by the prospect of Mystery Stew.

I fell silent as we walked, which appeared to make Alistair uncomfortable.

“So, um, have you come far?” he asked. “Denerim, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

I had no wish to discuss it, but I shouldn’t have let myself sound so brisk. In the privacy of my own head, I clung to the excuse that I didn’t know how to talk to shems, but that wasn’t the whole truth.

“Right.” He nodded. “Thought that’s what Duncan… said. Um.”

I bit the inside of my lip, inwardly chastising my standoffishness. I should be making an effort, learning to interact with the people who would be my new comrades.

It was not easy.

A group of soldiers passed in front of us, on their way to the mess tent. They were engrossed in some loud, broad bit of banter, but I didn’t hear what it was. I just smelled oily leather, and heard the clink of metal and the jagged rush of male laughter, and my stomach pulled in on itself, tight and aching.

It lasted barely a moment. They walked on; we walked on. I glanced nervously at Alistair, wondering if he’d seen me flinch.

“So, how about you?” I asked, because somebody needed to say something.

“What, the fascinating story of my life?” He smiled. “You first. Did you want to become a Grey Warden?”

I hadn’t expected the question, but I supposed I should have done. Assessing the recruits was only practical, after all. Checking for chinks in their loyalty. Still… I wasn’t sure I knew the answer. I breathed in slowly, letting the smells of army rations, dirty straw, and close-quarters living fill me up, so there was no room for anything else.

Alistair was watching me, all silent enquiry and expectation.

“Well, yes, I suppose,” I said, avoiding his gaze. It was true, wasn’t it? It must have been, for I doubted I’d have preferred execution. “I… hadn’t really thought about it. But I do appreciate the chance I’ve been given,” I finished, perhaps a little tritely.

There weren’t words for the real truth. It was too big, too strange; uneven and complex, loitering beneath the shallows of my mind like a ring of black rocks.

Alistair nodded slowly, offering no opinion on what I’d said.

“Well, I was conscripted. Not that I didn’t want to join. I was training as a templar for the Chantry before Duncan recruited me. That was about six months ago now.”

I looked up  in surprise, my self-absorption washed away. A templar? Him?

I’d seen templars at the gates of the Denerim Chantry, but to me they were simply guards in a different uniform. Heavy plate, emblazoned with strange, semi-religious heraldry… we stayed out of their way. I knew of their vows, and their role in keeping watch over mages, hunting down those who tried to hide or escape from the Circle’s control, but precious little more than that.

Still, as I peered cautiously at Alistair, I had to admit he was not remotely what I expected—either for a Grey Warden, or a mage-hunter.

“Usually it’s not something you’re allowed to stop,” he said reflectively. “They don’t like to give you up. But joining the Chantry wasn’t my idea. My fate was decided for me long before that.”

Perhaps it was the slightly pensive bitterness that ran beneath his words, or the way he’d slowed his stride to keep pace with me, but I found myself reminded of a defiant, unruly boy, slouching along the street with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the cobbles with scuffed, ill-fitting boots. I looked afresh at my new companion.

He wore his blond hair cropped short which, I had always assumed, didn’t mean the same for humans as it did for us.

Traditionally, elven men started to grow queues or braids in adulthood. Short hair was associated with immaturity and youth—possibly another reason we called humans shemlens—or, in later life, with cutting the hair as a sign of mourning. Certainly, I remembered Father cutting his braid after Mother died and, for a while, I’d gone short-haired too.

Of course, fashion subverts conventions, and the younger men often competed with each other over who sported the shortest, most daring cut, preening over every razored nape and feathered fringe. Like Nelaros, I supposed, and I wondered briefly whether, had he lived, he’d have proven to be a dandy.

No point in dwelling on maybes, though.

I looked up at Alistair. “So, how did Duncan get you out?”

For a moment, I had the oddest sensation he was about to spin a tale involving rope ladders and tunnels dug with spoons, but he just shrugged.

“Duncan saw I wasn’t happy, and figured my training against mages could double for fighting darkspawn. The grand cleric wouldn’t have let me go if he hadn’t forced the issue… Duncan risked a lot of trouble to help me. I’ll always be grateful to him.”

Loyalty and warmth positively seeped from his voice.

I didn’t have much difficulty picturing the scene, though; I recalled the way Duncan had faced down the Captain of the Guard on my behalf. The ease, the grace with which he’d ridden roughshod over every law and protocol, without turning a hair.

Still, I was… circumspect. Thinking back to those tense, uncertain moments in the alienage—when my life hung by a thread, yet I’d been too numb to do anything but stand there like a fool—I remembered how so much had pulsed beneath the surface. Things I wasn’t even aware of at the time, like the words the hahren and Duncan had exchanged just before the garrison arrived, and the manner in which Valendrian had shaken his head…. Almost as if he’d been admitting defeat, bowing to some pre-arranged deal the Warden had offered.

I didn’t want to allow myself to think like that. The monsters that pressed in on this new life of mine were enough, without seeing conspiracies and intrigues behind every new face.

Instead, I nodded thoughtfully, and shot Alistair a curious glance.

“You didn’t want to join the Chantry, then?”

“No!” He shook his head fervently, then seemed to backtrack a little on his vehemence. The short sigh he gave sounded almost guilty. “I mean, it just… wasn’t for me. I believe in the Maker well enough, but I never wanted to devote my life to the Chantry. I spent years cooped up there, hopelessly resigned to my fate. Duncan was the first person who cared what I wanted.”

He stopped, and looked mildly embarrassed.

“You speak very fondly of him,” I observed. “That’s… encouraging.”

“Well, Duncan’s a good man. A good judge of character,” he added, giving me a sidelong look.

I wondered what that was supposed to mean. Backhanded compliment, or faith in his leader’s judgement, despite my initial appearance? I settled on not investigating the possibilities. The thought of trying to imagine how I must look to Alistair—particularly at the moment, with my motley collection of bruises and painfully obvious inexperience—was not inviting. I focused on Duncan instead.

“And he’s really the leader of all the Grey Wardens in Ferelden?”

Alistair smiled, convincing me that my parochial naivety must be showing again.

“Yes, he is… which he would say doesn’t mean much, as there aren’t many of us here. Yet. But that will change, given time.” He slipped me a sharp, curious glance. “And what about you? What do you think of him?”

“He seems like a kind man,” I said, consideringly. “Kind, but firm. I… I owe him as well. He saved me.”

I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be to talk about what had happened back in Denerim, but I wanted to, I realised. I wanted to say the words, make them feel real.

Duncan had saved my life.

“Hm.” Alistair nodded, a rueful smile on his face. “That sounds familiar. He’s done the best he can with what little he has… and that includes me, I guess.”

For once, he didn’t seem to be joking.

We were almost at Duncan’s fire, the great orange beacon of it blazing out from under one of the few intact domes in the ruin. Nerves gave rise to hesitancy, and my steps slowed. I could make out the silhouettes of Duncan and the other two recruits, gathered around the bonfire, and I knew they were waiting. I also knew that there would be no putting off the ritual that awaited, and that birthed an uncomfortable apprehension in me.

No shame in being scared, I told myself. There had been too much mystery and melodrama over the past few days… only natural for me to feel the pressure of it.

Yet this wasn’t just anxiety. If I had taken any lessons from the alienage, key among them was how to judge the mood of a place, how to taste the tensions and the threats smouldering beneath the surface. Back home, it could mean the difference between a smack in the face and a knife in the ribs. Here, I could almost smell the sense of foreboding.

“Um….”

We were approaching the Magi encampment, on our left. Still several good yards between me and whatever fate awaited. Alistair glanced expectantly at me.

“Ye-es?”

“So, er….” I tried for nonchalance, and suspect I failed. “What can you tell me about this ritual?”

He winced. “Not a lot. That is, I’m not supposed to—”

“Oh. Right.”

I noticed that the mages had retired, and the flashes of light and flame seemed to have stopped at last. I supposed they had to eat, like everyone else, though I’d quite gone off the idea of food. I peered up at Alistair, and found him chewing his bottom lip, as if caught in some moral quandary.

In a calculated and rather callous jab at whatever compassion he might have, I stopped and looked pathetically at him.

“So… you can’t tell me anything?”

It was the dastardly combination of scared-little-girl voice and big brown eyes that I used to pull on Father when I wanted my own way. Sometimes, it even worked.

Alistair looked pained and then—to my ignoble and private flash of triumph—visibly deflated. Perhaps it was the combination of voice, eyes, and black-and-blue bruises that did it.

“I… look, I can’t tell you much, all right?” He lowered his voice, glancing over towards Duncan’s fire before he spoke, as if he genuinely thought the man might overhear. “The Joining is… very unpleasant. I wish I could forget it, but I can’t. I don’t envy you what you’re going to have to go through.”

It probably served me right for pushing him. My mouth tightened, and I nodded slowly. At least he’d had the guts to tell me.

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Hey.” He smiled weakly. “If becoming a Grey Warden were easy, we wouldn’t recruit the best.”

I snorted, my gaze falling to the mud-churned, scrubby ground. In that small moment of silence, I heard flames crackle, and a distant roar of laughter; the sound of people at a meal together, breaking bread before the coming battle.

“You know,” Alistair said, ostensibly with an air of scholarly enquiry, and a none-too-subtle attempt at lightening the atmosphere, “since we’re talking about it, something just occurred to me.”

I dragged my gaze from the dirt and lofted an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Mm.” He folded his arms across his broad chest, and smirked at me. “It occurred to me that there have never been many women in the Grey Wardens. I wonder why that is?”

A few hours ago, I would have tried to read some kind of prejudice into that statement. Like a cornered cat, my thoughts would have been all claws and hisses. Instead, I just chuckled.

“Maybe we’re too smart for you.”

“True.” He grinned. “But, if you’re here, what does that make you?”

“Hm.” I looked over towards Duncan’s fire. “Just one of the boys.”

Alistair nodded sagely. “Sad, isn’t it?”

He caught my eye, and we laughed then. Both of us. The first actual laugh I’d shared with somebody since… what? Maker’s breath, since laughing with Soris about him marrying a girl who hid grain away for the winter. That memory, and all the others that fitted so uncomfortably beside it, pressed down like the weight of cold rain on the back of my neck, and the smile died on my lips.

“Come on.” Alistair jerked his head in the direction of the fire. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

 

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Six

 
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I will never forget my first full sight of Ostagar.

Though it had stood as a ruin for four hundred years, it was still impressive—and to me, at least—glorious. The style of the architecture, with all its Imperial domes, massive columns and great, carved blocks, seemed very foreign, but there was something reassuring about being back amongst stones and mortar, after all the strange, comfortless, open spaces I’d faced.

We rode up on the eastern side of the camp, and I could see the enormous gorge yawning between the two halves of the ruins, with a high tower rising at the southeast point. It was dark, grim, and curtained by massive arches and walls, as if the stones themselves were guarding against our arrival. There were few signs of life until we drew nearer, and a small band of soldiers jogged out to meet us.

Duncan reined his horse to a standstill. I struggled with Iron Neck, who had grown increasingly irritable over the course of the journey and now—despite hours of apparently not wanting to go any further—did not appear to want to stop.

“Warden Commander!” One of the soldiers bowed. “It’s good to see you, ser. His Majesty’s been hoping you’d arrive soon. He’s just beyond the Walk… no doubt he’ll want to speak with you.”

Duncan slipped easily from the horse’s back and passed the reins to the soldier. “Thank you. We will attend him directly. Would you arrange someone to deal with the horses? Have the rest of the things taken to the Grey Warden tent.”

“Of course,” the soldier said.

I felt him look at me, the unspoken question lingering in the air for just a moment, but then one of the other men came forward and took my horse’s reins. Dragging my pack with me, I dismounted clumsily, as sore and numb as ever.

To be elven in the company of humans is to be used to being the shortest one in the room—unless there happens to be a dwarf at the table—but I still felt unsettled at being in the centre of this group of men. I kept my eyes fixed on the ground, and almost flinched when Duncan touched my shoulder.

“Come.”

I shouldered my pack and glanced up at him, curious. We had made it with a few hours to spare before nightfall and, though the light was already thinning, it seemed the day was far from over. Any fond thoughts I might have entertained regarding hot food and rest began to dissipate, and I gave Iron Neck a farewell pat as the soldiers led the horses away.

I wondered how they’d fare among the mighty steeds knights probably had, and Duncan seemed to read my mind, for he answered without my having even asked the question.

“They’ll be packed off with the next messengers sent out in the morning. We don’t have much use for horses here; they scent the darkspawn, and it drives them into a panic. Just one of the things that has had to be considered against what is not, after all, a normal enemy.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I followed Duncan towards the first of the great arches that, once, must have formed an impressive gateway. All that remained now was stone, with a few hardy strips of plantlife clinging on between the cracks.

“Ah, I see His Majesty is keen to greet us,” Duncan observed, causing me to almost fall over my own feet.

I was to meet a king? The king? My knees threatened to buckle, but there was no time to go to pieces. From the old gatehouse, King Cailan was already striding towards us like a sunrise, resplendent in glorious gilted mail and armed with charm.

“Ho there, Duncan!”

He was not what I expected, inasmuch as I’d ever given any thought to the matter. Younger than I’d imagined a king would be, I supposed; all fine, white teeth and golden hair, tall and… magnificent, I had to admit. My body betrayed me. All at once, my shoulders hunched, my knees bent, and I shrunk in on myself, as small and invisible as an elf can be.

“Your Majesty.” Duncan bowed his head. “I was not expecting—”

“A royal welcome?” The king chuckled. “I was beginning to worry you’d miss all the fun!”

“Not if I could help it, your Majesty,” Duncan said dryly.

“Then I’ll have the mighty Duncan at my side in battle after all! Glorious!”

I ventured a look, curiosity ousting my apprehension. Cailan was a one-man whirlwind of confidence and enthusiasm, and its intensity worried me. I had thought kings were serious, arrogant types, who spent their time in deep matters of state and did not spare their smiles for common folk.

I appeared to be wrong, however, because the king was now smiling at me.

“The other Wardens told me you’ve found a promising recruit. I take it this is she?”

I swallowed heavily, unable to help but be reminded of my childhood books, and the legend of King Calenhad, the Silver Knight, and his magical white armour, which neither bow nor blade could penetrate, so long as he stood on Fereldan soil. As far as I knew, the man standing before me had that fabled blood in his veins and—to my tired and gritty eyes—was something a little more than simply human.

Silly thoughts, I told myself. Shems were shems, regardless of their ancestors, and stories were stories. And yet….

Duncan stepped forward. “Allow me to introduce you, your Majesty—”

“No need to be so formal, Duncan,” Cailan chided. “We’ll be shedding blood together, after all. Ho there, friend! Might I know your name?”

You could have blown me away with a breath. All those years of upbringing kicked savagely at me, but I dragged my gaze from the dirt, and looked full into that bright, shining face.

“I-I am Merien, your Majesty,” I managed.

“Pleased to meet you!” Cailan beamed. “The Grey Wardens are desperate to bolster their numbers, and I, for one, am glad to help them. I see you’re an elf, friend. From where do you hail?”

He seemed genuinely curious, no trace of brusqueness or mocking in his dazzling, expansive manner. I wasn’t sure how to respond and—with no wish to mention the matter of alienages—decided that broad brushstrokes were probably preferable.

“The, er, city of Denerim, sire.”

“As do I! Though I’ve not been in the palace for some time.” King Cailan’s expression grew sombre for a moment, and he leaned forwards, looking keenly at me. “Do you come from the Alienage? Tell me, how is it there? My guards all but forbid me going.”

I blinked, my lips numb and my tongue unwilling to move. Words floated before me, but I couldn’t grab hold of them.

In any case, what was I supposed to say?

Well, it stinks in the summer and freezes in the winter, we live like pigs in filth and, oh, yes… just before I left, I cut down a dozen men, including the arl’s son, for murdering the man who was supposed to be my husband, killing my bridesmaid, and raping my cousin….

No. Perhaps not. I chose diplomacy, as best as I was able.

“I would… rather not speak of it, your Majesty,” I said, bowing my head.

“Hm.” Cailan nodded thoughtfully. “One day I’ll see those walls taken down. Your people have suffered enough.”

I stared afresh. The words didn’t sound like empty promises, but how could I believe one who said them so lightly? On top of the bone-aching tiredness of the journey, and all that had preceded it, conflicting waves of gratitude and anger coursed through me. Yet the king was the very model of grace and good cheer.

“Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Ostagar. The Wardens will benefit greatly with you in their ranks.”

He actually bowed to me.

Cailan Theirin, King of Ferelden, son of Maric, and descendent of the Silver Knight, bowed to me.

For a moment, I forgot to breathe.

“Er. You’re too kind, your Majesty.”

He smiled again, and left me eddying in the full force of his charisma.

“I’m sorry to cut this short, but I should return to my tent. Loghain waits eagerly to bore me with his strategies.”

Another effusive, boyish grin. I only hoped his military tactics were as good as his people skills. Duncan cleared his throat.

“Your uncle sends his greetings and reminds you that Redcliffe forces could be here in less than a week.”

Cailan was already turning back to the camp. The dimming light framed him against the great span of the grey stone arches, and painted faint lines of dusky flame on the gilt tracery of his armour.

“Ha! Eamon just wants in on the glory. We’ve won three battles against these monsters and tomorrow should be no different.”

I glanced at Duncan. “I… didn’t realise things were going so well.”

The Warden’s face remained a study in careful blankness.

“I’m not even sure this is a true Blight,” Cailan said cheerfully. “There are plenty of darkspawn on the field but, alas, we’ve seen no sign of an archdemon.”

Duncan raised an eyebrow. “Disappointed, your Majesty?”

The king turned, backlit between the ruined imperial arches, his face bright with some inner fire I didn’t understand… and wasn’t sure I wanted to.

“I’d hoped for a war like in the tales. A king riding with the fabled Grey Wardens against a tainted god! But, I suppose this will have to do.” He gave us one last smile, still so brash and playful. “I must go before Loghain sends out a search party. Farewell, Grey Wardens!”

He nodded to us. Duncan and I made our bows, and watched Cailan sweep away. Once he’d left, I looked curiously at Duncan. The Warden shook his head, and gestured to me to follow him into the camp.

“What the king said is true,” Duncan said as we walked, our footsteps echoing on an avenue of cracked paving stones. “They’ve won several battles against the darkspawn here.”

I glanced up at the towering columns and ruined arches all around us, so still and silent. It seemed to me that I was learning the essence of politics: listening to the shapes between the words, instead of what was actually being said.

“Yet you don’t sound very reassured,” I said carefully.

“No.” Duncan’s mouth tightened. “I know there is an archdemon behind this. But I cannot ask the king to act solely on my feeling.”

“Why not? He seems to regard the Grey Wardens highly.”

We were nearing the huge stone bridge that separated the main body of the camp from the gorge. I could smell fires… and food, which made my painfully empty stomach gripe in anticipation.

“Yet not enough to wait for reinforcements from the Grey Wardens of Orlais,” Duncan said bitterly. “Cailan believes our legend alone makes him invulnerable, but our numbers in Ferelden are too few. We must do what we can and look to Teyrn Loghain to make up the difference. To that end, we should proceed with the Joining ritual without delay.”

It almost slipped past me, tired as I was. I frowned.

“What do you mean? What ritual?”

Duncan fixed me with those dark eyes of his, his face sombre and guarded.

“Every recruit must go through a secret ritual we call the Joining in order to become a Grey Warden. The ritual is brief, but some preparation is required. We must begin soon.”

No hot food, then. And no rest. I tried to block out the protests of my sore muscles and aching bones… and wondered if this was something else through which I had to make my way alone.

“I see. Am I the only recruit you have, or…?”

“No, there are two other recruits here already. They have been waiting for us to arrive.”

Guilt stabbed at me, stupidly and unnecessarily. It wasn’t as if I could have flown here from Denerim, after all. I pulled myself upright, determined not to let Duncan down.

“What do you need me to do?”

He smiled, a flash of the kindness I had seen in him on our journey.

“You have a little while yet. Feel free to explore the camp here as you wish, but please do not leave it for the time being. There is another Grey Warden here, by the name of Alistair. When you find him, tell him that we will be ready to begin preparing for the Joining. He will know what to do. Until then, I have business I must attend to. You may find me at the Grey Warden tent on the other side of this bridge, should you need to. And here… take this.” He passed me a folded paper bearing a hastily pressed seal. “Ask the quartermaster to fit you out. Show him that note, and he’ll give you everything you’ll need.”

I looked down at the small disc on the paper. It bore the symbol of some kind of winged, double-headed creature imprinted into the greasy red wax; a symbol very like the one that patterned Duncan’s surcoat.

The Grey Wardens’ griffon.

“Thank you.”

I bowed, and the corner of Duncan’s mouth curled.

“There is one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“You are allowed to look at people when they speak to you, you know.”

My cheeks prickled with heat, but I nodded, and made a point of meeting his gaze. He chuckled.

“Thank you, Duncan.”

“My pleasure.”

He set off across the bridge, his stride purposeful and long, and I stood for a few moments to get my bearings. Ostagar was clearly a very large place, and though the ruins were pitted with cracks and deteriorated chunks of masonry, it was still overwhelming.

From the bridge I could see the whole gorge, and understood the clear sense of the ruins rising from the mighty rocks, as if the fortress had been carved instead of built. The sky, roiling with dimming clouds and the ghost of a pale dusk moon, was wide and unmarked by the silhouettes of buildings that I was used to seeing above me. Beyond the perimeters of the camp, I could make out the tree line, the forest that fringed the Wilds, and the endless miles of flat, treacherous land that ringed Ostagar. I felt so incredibly small.

I began to cross the bridge, nervous of the parts of it long since lost to decay, and unable to stop myself peering through the gaping holes in the stone to the ground so very far beneath.

On the western side of the gorge stood a soldier in the king’s livery, leaning on a stout wooden pike. He nodded at me as I drew nearer.

“Hail! You must be the Grey Warden recruit that Duncan brought.”

I was surprised, but I rallied.

“Y-yes. Well met.”

He smiled genially at me, and glanced around us.

“This place hasn’t seen such bustle in centuries, I’ll wager. Need a hand getting anywhere?”

I looked at the man, taking in the pale, pudgy face beneath his leather helmet. Was he polite because I had come in with Duncan, or simply bored by his long, desolate watch? I didn’t know, but I was grateful to him.

“Possibly,” I said. “Ostagar seems a… large place.”

“Oh, it is.” He nodded. “Used to be a fortress, long time ago, so I understand. Back in the days when the Wilders used to invade the lowlands. You were just on the eastern side of the ruin. The Tower of Ishal is there, but Teryn Loghain’s closed it off until the battle. This side is the king’s camp. We got the Grey Wardens here, the Circle of Magi, the Chantry… you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody important.”

The soldier slipped me a sly grin, and I smiled back, though some of what he’d said had unnerved me.

“The Circle of Magi is here?”

“Oh, yeah.” He nodded. “Well, a few mages. They even brought some of those creepy Tranquil fellows with ’em. Give me the shivers, they do, way they talk… and their eyes. They’re just to the north, all bunched up with a herd of templars glaring at them. Can’t miss it.”

“I see.” The sound of baying drifted on the cooling air, and I glanced in the direction it had come from, suddenly curious.  “Do I hear dogs barking?”

“This is Ferelden, isn’t it?” He chuckled. “Yeah… the king has his kennels on the west side of camp. Stinks from all the hounds. These aren’t cute puppies, though—some of those dogs bite the darkspawn and get too much of that blood in them… It’s like poison. Slow, painful death. Terrible.”

I blanched, but my new acquaintance didn’t give me time to question him.

“Still, you’ll need to know the important stuff. Latrines are by the right here, just past the Magi tents. Mess is to the north… follow your nose, really, but if you’ll take my advice, stay away from the stew. The infirmary’s up the steps, near the quartermaster’s store; that’s just a little northwest of here.”

“Thank you. And, um, I’m looking for a Grey Warden by the name of Alistair? I don’t suppose…?”

“Try heading north. I think he was sent with a message for the mages.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “And good luck to you, miss.”

I smiled nervously. Miss? Perhaps, despite everything, there were some perks to being one of Duncan’s new recruits. I passed by the soldier and headed under the tall, covered arch, the remnants of one of Ostagar’s Tevinter domes, and into the body of the camp.

It was a maelstrom of activity, but very different to the kind of liveliness I’d been used to in the alienage. Here, everyone moved with purpose. Soldiers walked briskly, or stood in groups, and I saw with a mix of relief and discomfort the familiar figures of elven servants and messengers darting between the tents and encampments.

My mind drifted again to Nessa, and how worried she’d been by thoughts of coming here. It seemed her fears could have been unfounded; I saw several women among the soldiers’ ranks, which I hadn’t expected.

The ruined arches, domes and columns dominated everything, mottled with age and lichen, their sheer scale dizzying, but the many brightly coloured tents of the different encampments were a pleasing—if rather strange—contrast to all the grey stone.

It felt very odd to be wandering here, as if I’d stepped into the pages of a book of tales, like the ones Mother had given me. This place, these people… they were the bones of Fereldan politics and government. Arls, banns, knights, commanders, the king himself, and Teyrn Loghain! Liberators, defenders of our independence… heroes. Names I knew, in the way I knew the second-hand traces of history and lore that filtered down into our culture.

Story-telling in the alienage never had much good to say about the Orlesian occupation. To my father’s generation, they were slavers and oppressors, not to be spoken of, the same way some of the older people would spit at the mere mention of magic. To mine, born and raised after the Battle of River Dane, the horror stories were only stories… but the rumours lingered, both about the occupation, and Orlais itself.

I’d heard it said that, in Val Royeaux, there was an alienage no bigger than Denerim’s market square, and it held ten thousand elves who lived in filth and squalor much worse than ours. I didn’t know whether it was true or not.

Perhaps those stories—like the mean little opinions we nursed of humans—were our way of justifying ourselves, and the existence we had.

In any case, Loghain’s was a heroic name. The farmboy who had risen to become a teyrn, the star of the Rebel Queen’s Resistance, the brilliant strategist who’d freed the country from tyranny, and whose daughter was now Queen of Ferelden…. Surely, I thought, if there was a war to be fought against even as great an evil as the darkspawn, King Cailan had the right general for the job.

I decided I should head first for the quartermaster. If I was to be here, fighting alongside the army—and the thought filled me with gut-churning terror, because what did I truly know about warfare or combat?—I should at least have the right equipment. Clutching Duncan’s note in my hand, I headed in the direction the soldier on the bridge had shown me.

There was so much going in, it was hard to keep my bearings. Beyond one of the great Tevinter domes lay the Circle of Magi’s camp and, through the stone columns, came glimpses of the flashes of magical fire and energy that signalled the mages sparring, or practising their aim… or whatever it was they were doing. I had precious little experience of magic in any form, and must confess that it terrified me. Fear so often finds its way into the gaps ignorance leaves. I associated the Circle mostly with the Tranquils who could occasionally be seen in the market back home—their low, even voices, blank faces and eerie, dull eyes—and, beyond that, I was rather suspicious of all practitioners. They were something apart, something different, and what I perceived as their arrogance frightened me. To have that kind of power…. I saw it as dangerous, and let myself think no further than that.

I passed by the Magi encampment, my pace quickening. There were a number of Chantry priests and clerics here too, and I was much more comfortable with their presence. There was something familiar about the flashes of red and gold, glimpsed among the grey walls and columns, and the dark browns and dull metallic glimmers of leather and splintmail armour.

As I headed to the quartermaster’s store, I passed a rough wooden gantry from which a cleric was leading prayers. Several soldiers were gathered, listening, some kneeling… many white-faced and coldly serious.

“Soldiers of Ferelden, my sisters and gentle folk,” the cleric intoned, “we stand here on the eve of battle. Let us consider the evil before us. In their pride, the mages of the Tevinter Imperium sought to open a portal into the heavenly Golden City itself. They tainted it with their sin, and they were cast back into our world as darkspawn. They are man’s sins made flesh, an evil that spreads like an illness across our land….”

I hadn’t meant to stop and listen, but I found I had, all the same. The tale was familiar, yet today it echoed with so many new truths. It was no longer a myth, no longer just a story, a warning against greed and pride. I glanced at the faces around me, and wondered how many of them had already met with the kind of horrors I had yet to imagine. The cleric spread her arms wide and raised her voice, earnest and clear.

“To face them, we must first face the evil within ourselves. Let us bow our heads and beg the Maker’s forgiveness. Let us not be proud, so we may take courage against the darkness.”

I bowed my head for a moment amid the murmurs of assent and prayer, and felt so out of place. I tried to brush the sense of dislocation away; there was no use in fixing on how much I missed home now. I had no way of getting word back there, either letting Father and everyone else know how I was, or making sure they were all right—and they would be all right, I told myself, they would.

No, this was where I belonged, at least for now. And I had better get used to that fact.

The quartermaster’s store was nestled in the crook of one of the more solid parts of the ruin. What it once been—keep, barracks, or some more public chamber, I wasn’t sure—but it was now a hub of commotion. Wooden crates were piled high, and I was almost lost in the comings and goings of soldiers after supplies and equipment. Snatches of conversation stood out from the buzz like chance reflections on glass.

“What d’you mean he ain’t got no greaves?” one man’s rough, broad voice cried. “I need ’em! Look at this… falling off. Well, when’s the new armour expected, then?”

“And what good’s it gonna do against darkspawn, anyway?” chimed a second. “Have you seen one of ’em, close up?”

A third overlapped, apparently nothing to do with the first.

“How many, then? And none of that second-rate rubbish, mind….”

Close by me, two soldiers with their helms doffed pushed past, their words hushed.

“Psst… have you heard? Arl Howe’s forces are overdue, they’re sayin’.”

“Oi, don’t you go talking like that, Mikal. Sarge’ll have your guts.”

“I’m just saying. Word is the big push comes tomorrow. If they’re not here by then, where are we left? Eh?”

I was curious, and wanted to hear more—one of the few advantages of being largely ignored when standing in a group of shems—but I had been spotted.

“You there! Elf!”

The quartermaster was a large, burly man, red-faced and short-tempered. Standing in the middle of his wares like a ringmaster, he raised one meaty hand and pointed accusingly at me, bushy black brows drawn into a scowl.

“Where’s my armour?”

I automatically tensed, shoulders hunched and neck held tight, catching my breath and annoyed at myself for doing so.

“I-I’m sorry,” I stammered, holding Duncan’s note in front of me like a shield. “I’m not—”

The shem seized the note from me, squinted at it, and his entire face shifted.

“Oh.”

It was like watching a waterfall. All the supercilious crassness melted into confusion, and in turn that became a hasty mishmash of concern and guarded respect.

“You’re the one who arrived with the Grey Warden.” He blinked and looked apologetically at me, the excuses tripping over each other on their way out of his mouth. “Please forgive my rudeness. There are so many elves running about, and I’ve been waiting for— It’s simply been so hectic! I never thought…. P-please pardon my terrible manners. I-I am just the quartermaster, a simple man, no one special….”

It was a heady kind of pleasure, and thrilled me in a very ignoble way.

I had never had a human grovel like that to me before, and I added it to my fast-growing mental list of impossible things. I’d been bowed to by a king, had I not? For the briefest of moments, I felt invincible.

I met the quartermaster’s gaze coolly.

“Perhaps you should treat your servants more kindly.”

“Y-yes, of course. You’re very right.” He flourished Duncan’s note. “I’ll get your kit seen to right away, and perhaps you’d care to browse my… other supplies?”

The man lowered his voice, ushering me to the quieter end of the store, behind the wooden table that served as his counter.

“What kind of supplies do you have?” I asked.

“Arms and armour, for the most part, though I also have some… goods on the side I can provide. Strictly off the record, of course. To keep morale up, you understand.”

I suppressed a smile. “Thank you. I’ll take a look.”

The quartermaster seemed relieved. He tapped the side of his nose with one thick finger and nodded.

“So long as you keep it quiet.”

He drew a heavy, iron-hinged box out from under one of the tables, and set it down in front of me while he busied himself looking through crates and chests.

I opened the box, and bit down on a small gasp. It was a treasure trove like I’d never seen; packets of sweetmeats and dried fruit, wrapped in wax paper, sugarloaf and pound cake, herbs and spices… all kinds of things that, from what I’d heard, were eminently preferable to standard army rations. My mouth watered, my empty stomach clenching like a fist. I had the best part of five silvers to call my own—Valora’s gift to me before I left, tucked in beneath the clothes she’d packed for me—and I wasn’t sure I should spend it. I was still vacillating when the quartermaster came back, his arms full of armour in different sizes, and a leather pack dangling from his hand.

He set the lot down on the table, and smiled nervously at me.

“I, er, I’m afraid we might have to do a little trial and error here,” the quartermaster said ruefully, giving me a greasy smile. “I don’t have a lot of stock in your, um, size.”

~o~O~o~

It took the best part of an hour to get me completely outfitted. I’d never realised there was so much to it, but I soon learned otherwise. There were toughened leather boots that almost reached my knees (though they probably weren’t so high on most humans), their soles studded with nails, laces for said boots, and undersocks—two pairs, in my case, as the smallest available size was still too big. The leather-padded breeches I rather liked, and could have wished I’d had on the ride from Denerim. They went under what the quartermaster called a standard issue leather armour; a sort of tunic with a toughened breastplate and ornate tooling across the yoke. It didn’t fit properly but, once I was in and a few cunning adjustments had been made with a sharp knife and a few extra laces, it was surprisingly comfortable and lightweight.

A wide leather belt cinched around my waist, with plenty of room for anything I might need to carry, and the skirt of the armour—a fringe of mail rings and leather plackets—afforded mid-thigh modesty as well as a little extra protection. Shoulder and elbow guards completed the picture, and the quartermaster asked if I’d be shooting a bow.

“Um….”

I looked blankly at the man.

“Or crossbow? I don’t know rightly what your specialisation is, miss. Most of the Wardens I’ve seen round here go equipped for any eventuality. Got a lovely selection of blades, I have, and a right couple of beauties for bows. Genuine dwarven-made mechanisms, or best quality wood, long and short. Elm, ash… whatever your preference.”

How did I say I had no real idea what he was talking about? I swallowed, my tongue rough against the roof of my mouth.

“Er… could I see the blades?”

Definitely firmer ground. The quartermaster brought out a crate of weaponry, and I thought of the two worn kitchen knives I’d stashed in my pack before I left home, not quite knowing what I intended to use them for.

“Help yourself, miss.”

The man stood back, and I was certain he could not only tell my inexperience, but was laughing at it. I was determined not to look a fool, and I lifted out a sword with a leather-braided hilt and plain, dark scabbard.

Unsheathing the blade, I was struck by its quality, the lightness of the folded steel, and the balance of it. Like the sword Duncan had sent into the dark cells of the arl’s estate, this felt at once as if it was an extension of me, not some metal weight to be toted arduously on the end of my arm. The memories—still so fresh, though they were hundreds of miles away—filled my mind and, unthinking, I brought the sword around in a sweet, solid arc, testing the feel of it through the swing.

No dull smack of flesh this time, no grunt of pain. No screams. I could almost hear Mother pacing me through count after count, showing me how to see and feel the way an opponent was going to move, even before he knew it himself. I smiled.

“Y-yes….”  The quartermaster’s voice wobbled a little. “Very nice.”

I blinked and turned to look at him, unsure whether the man’s nervous expression was to do with seeing an elf armed and armoured, or— Well, I hadn’t even grazed him with the sword. What was there to be frightened of there?

I picked out a very nice pair of grey iron daggers and slid them into my belt, then took a look at the bows on offer. My inexperience aside, the longbow was out of the question, as the thing was almost bigger than I was, and there was no way I’d have been able to draw it. The shortbow looked more manageable, but I decided on the crossbow. The quartermaster explained at length about the superiority of dwarven-made firing mechanisms, and suggested I pay a visit to the butts at the western end of the camp, where the archery captain could tell me how supplies were running for knockback bolts.

“Knockback…?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, yes. Tipped with a little, ahem, somethin’ special,” he said, leaning furtively down to me. “Know what I mean? I don’t know if you’re versed in such things, mind, but… well, every little helps, doesn’t it?”

He ferreted in another of his crates for a few moments, and came out with another small box.

“Just a few, er, curiosities I happen to have acquired,” the quartermaster said nonchalantly, lifting the lid and showing me a selection of tiny vials and bottles, all in dark glass. “Got corrosives, venoms, magebane… all manner of things. Interested?”

I bit my lip. “Maybe later.”

“As you please. Now, you’ll want bracers, and gloves. Fingerless? Makes reloading that much easier, mark you. And, um, I’m not sure what you’ll want to do about a helmet….”

That was a good point.

Human ears are, to elven eyes, strange things, like the afterthought of a sculptor not given to concerning himself with details. For us, ears are important—at least as much as any other feature of a person. Even the homeliest girl, with dainty ears that are well set and nicely angled, can be considered pretty.

Mine, of course, had always been a little on the large side, and about as dainty and delicate as the rest of me, which was probably why I so keenly noticed good ears in others.

However, my insecurities were irrelevant. The inescapable truth was that helmets weren’t designed to accommodate elven ears… especially ones as wide as mine. I ended up taking a leather archer’s cap with me, cut high to leave room for a bowman to sight his arrow, with a leather chinstrap and flap at the back of the neck. I stuffed the thing in my new pack, and somehow hoped I wouldn’t need it.

Finally, I left the quartermaster, completely decked out in gear I knew must have cost more than a year’s earnings back home. My belt and back bore weapons, and my presence here as a Warden—albeit still a recruit—seemed to generate respect, which was new enough to me to feel like a dream.

And, of course, I had a few small packets of sugared pound cake stowed at the bottom of my pack. Few things can lift the heart higher.

I was heading out from the store and towards the west end of camp when I spotted a slim, dark-haired man trying to flirt with one of the soldiers: a blonde woman in heavy splintmail armour, whom he’d corned by the steps that led up to the infirmary.

“So… any last wishes I can help fulfil before you head into battle?” the man asked cheerfully. “Life is fleeting, you know. That pretty face could be decorating some darkspawn spear this time tomorrow.”

The soldier fingered the hilt of her sword in a meaningful manner, but it did little to dispel the man’s bright, chirpy tone.

“Shall I take that quiet glare as a no? Ah, well. Too bad.”

She strode past, muttering under her breath, and he turned to face me, still grinning optimistically. My heart sank, years’ worth of memories from the alienage reminding me of the letching we endured from grubby-pawed guards… but this man’s demeanour was not the same. He was sharp-eyed, tan-skinned, and quick on his feet, rather like the stray dogs we used to get on the midden piles back home.

And, oddly, even though he was eyeing me up, I didn’t feel threatened.

I was trying to decide whether that was due to his playful smile, or the large sword I now carried, when he spoke.

“Well, you’re not what I thought you’d be.”

“No?” I quirked an eyebrow. “And what did you think I’d be?”

“Well, not an elf. Yet here you are. Duncan’s third recruit, right?”

I nodded. “Merien. And you are…?”

“The name’s Daveth.” His grin widened. “It’s about bloody time you came along. I was beginning to think they’d cooked this ritual up just for our benefit.”

Perhaps, a little while ago, I would have apologised, or looked at the ground. Instead, I just shrugged.

“It was a long journey from Denerim.”

“Denerim? Really? You too?” Daveth chuckled. “Well, well. Small world.”

“What do you know about this Joining ritual?” I asked, not particularly wanting to dwell on my home city.

He edged closer, leaned in, and fixed me with a conspiratorial stare.

“We-ell… I happened to be sneaking around camp last night, see, and I heard a couple of Grey Wardens talking. So I listen in for a bit, and I’m thinking they plan to send us into the Wilds.”

I was nonplussed. “The Wilds?”

“Yeah.” Daveth looked at me as if I was an idiot. “We’re right on the northern edge of the Korcari Wilds here. Miles and miles of savage country. My home village isn’t far, and I grew up on tales about the Wilds. Even been in there a few times… scary place.”

I determinedly pushed away the thoughts I’d had on the journey, of bandits and monsters behind every tree. No. I was going to be brave, and worthy of whatever it was I was expected to do here. I owed Duncan that much in payment for my life.

Besides, I wasn’t totally convinced that Daveth wasn’t winding me up. I looked carefully at his narrow, poorly shaven face, and decided I wouldn’t be able to tell whether he was or not. Whatever else the man was, he was a trickster, and a clever one at that… and, human or not, I found I rather liked him.

“All right,” I said, playing along. “Why are the Wilds so frightening?”

“You don’t know?” Daveth widened his dark eyes. “There’s all sorts out there. Cannibals, beasts, witches, and now darkspawn. What isn’t to be scared of?”

He pulled a face, as if terrified, and I couldn’t help smiling. I suspected this man was a great deal braver than he pretended—or that he at least had the sense to identify and run from danger long before it caught him. He wore leather armour much like mine, though his seemed slightly different to the quartermaster’s goods, and was spotted with more grease stains. The carved pommel of the dagger at his hip definitely spoke of a more personal weapon than standard issue, and he wore a shortsword across his back.

Daveth shook his head. “Nah, it’s all too secretive for me. Makes my nose twitch. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Like we have a choice.”

Another conscript, I wondered? It seemed too soon to ask. I might only have been in the camp a short while, but already I realised that the army was very like the alienage; you didn’t ask questions of anyone to whom you’d mind giving your own answers, and you didn’t presume the right to pry before it was granted. I smiled at my fellow recruit.

“I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”

“Oh, I’ll watch your back.” Daveth chuckled, his gaze dropping to skim my figure.

I expected to be annoyed, or at least to blush, but it didn’t quite happen.

“Just don’t get too distracted back there,” I warned.

He laughed. “I’ll try to keep my wits about me. Anyway, I’ll be seeing you later, and then I guess we’ll all see what this ritual’s all about.”

I bade him farewell, and watched him go. That cocky stride was familiar to me, though I’d not seen it on a human before. He reminded me of some of the boys I’d grown up with in the alienage—that odd mix of pride and knowing, of cunning and sheer, blind guts. Dirty knees but perfectly combed hair.

I smiled to myself, and supposed that maybe I could get used to this new life.

Still, all this talk of the Joining ritual had me worried. As if the coming battle wasn’t enough to face. What would we be required to do? Prove our bravery, recite some strange, archaic oath?

I headed on towards the westerly end of camp, passing by the kennels on my route. The solider I’d spoken to earlier had been quite right; it stank of dog. More than that, though… there was the unmistakeable, sickly hint of illness. The baying of hounds grew louder, and I wanted to hurry on, but a voice called out to me.

“’Scuse me! Miss?”

I turned, and found a man in heavy leather gauntlets and a foul apron waving hopefully at me. His pouchy, haggard face split into a smile as I approached.

“Hello. Are you the new Warden? I could use some help.”

It still surprised me to be addressed that way—to be asked, not commanded.

I crossed to where the man stood, by one of the many wooden gates that led to the dog pens. Thick layers of bedding straw covered the cold, hard ground and, in the pen behind the human, I could make out the hunched body of an enormous dog.

“What’s the problem?”

The kennel master rubbed his chin with one gloved hand. “See here?”

He pointed into the pen, and the dog’s head immediately snapped up, a low growl of warning bubbling in its throat. I’d never seen such a strong, fearsome animal. Its massive shoulders supported a bull-like neck, leading to a wide skull and short, powerful muzzle with jaws like a vice. The legs were hard and compact, and the coat short, a brownish brindle through which the outline of every muscle showed.

“This here’s a mabari. Smart breed, and very strong. His owner died in the last battle, and the poor hound swallowed darkspawn blood. I have medicine that might help, but I need him muzzled first.”

“I don’t really know anything about dogs….”

The kennel master smiled awkwardly. “Well, it’s not what you know so much as what you are, really.”

I eyed the human suspiciously. “Sorry?”

An elf, I assumed. Quick and nimble… and no one would mind if I got bitten.

“You’re a Grey Warden,” the man said,  “or soon will be. They say the Wardens are immune to the darkspawn taint, so the most you’d have to worry about is a few toothmarks.”

This was news to me, not that it was all that encouraging. I looked at the hound, and the string of drool escaping from its immense jaws.

“And, er, just how smart is this dog?”

“They say, centuries ago, a mage bred them to be smart enough to understand what they’re told. They can remember and carry out complex orders. Most valuable dogs in the world,” he added proudly. “Trouble is, they generally imprint onto one master; re-imprinting them can be difficult. Of course, if I can’t treat this fellow, re-imprinting him won’t be an issue.”

The dog looked up at me from within the wooden bars of his pen, and let out a piteous whine.

“I’ll give it a shot,” I said.

The kennel master sighed, relived. “Oh, thank you, Warden. Go in the pen and let him smell you. We’ll know right away if he’ll respond. Let’s hope this works… I would really hate to have to put him down.”

He unlocked the gate for me, and I slipped through into the hound’s pen. The animal stank of pain and fear, and he looked at me dourly, head lowered and lips pulled back into a tooth-filled grimace. The growl was deep and unwavering, but the hound didn’t try to bite me. I held out my hands, palms first, and let him scent me. His wide, black nose wrinkled, but other than that he did not move.

The kennel master passed the leather muzzle over the gate. I edged gently forwards and, as quickly as I could, fastened the thing over the hound’s head. The dog let out a small whine, but did not struggle or threaten. I gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder, and slipped from the pen.

“Well done!” The kennel master beamed at me, looking more than ever like one of his wrinkle-snouted wardogs. “Now I can treat the dog properly—poor fellow. Come to think of it, Warden, are you heading into the Wilds any time soon?”

I brushed the lingering bits of straw and dog hair from my hands, and tried not to think of Daveth’s words about witches and cannibals. Would they really subject us to something like that? Some test of bravery, like schoolboys measuring their yards behind the boghouse? I hadn’t thought Duncan the type to put much store in whether we quivered at superstitions or not… which probably meant something else was in store. I pushed the thoughts away.

“I might be. Why?”

“There’s a particular herb I could use to improve the dog’s chances. It’s a flower that grows in the swamps here, if I remember. If you happen across it, I could use it. It’s very distinctive; all white with a blood-red centre.”

The kennel master smiled encouragingly at me, and I knew I wouldn’t refuse. It would have been like… well, kicking a puppy.

“All right,” I said. “Where in the Wilds would I find this flower?”

“It usually grows in dead wood that collects at the edge of ground pools. There should be plenty this time of year. I’d go meself, but there’s no one to watch the pens, and—”

“It’s fine,” I assured him. “I’ll see if I can find one.”

“Much obliged to you, Warden. In the meantime, I’ll start treating our poor friend here.”

As if on cue, the muzzled mabari looked up at me and wagged his stumpy tail pathetically. I smiled at the hound, and took my leave of the kennel master, promising I’d return as soon as I could.

It might have been the armour, or the unfamiliar sensation of being accorded a little respect, but I was starting to feel like a totally different person. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror in more than two days, but I knew the way I looked had changed. The bruises on my face—the late Lord Braden’s knuckle prints, plus the other various cuts and scrapes I’d acquired that horrible day—were still very tender, and must have risen to glorious shades of purple and blue by now, obscuring the uneven blotching of freckles that usually marked my cheeks. I probably resembled some kind of bar-room scrapper, I thought, almost laughing at the image. Either that, or the cheapest kind of petty mercenary.

Nevertheless, I felt… stronger. I’d survived this far, hadn’t I? Even if it didn’t feel real, I was still here, and that was something.

~o~O~o~

Up another set of steps, to the far end of camp, a large group of soldiers had gathered. The ruins of the fortress lay open to the elements here; the great arches and buttresses like the bare-picked bones of some huge beast. Below, the forest waited… and held who knew what horrors.

The soldiers seemed to waiting for some kind of address, so I thought it would probably be a good idea to slip in at the back and see what I could learn, painfully aware as I was of my lack of experience and training.

I overheard snatches of conversation as I slipped through the ranks, and for the first time I sensed how frightened some of these men and women were. King Cailan’s enthusiasm did much to bolster morale—as did his time spent drinking and dicing with the men, instead of hiding himself away in his tent, or so I’d heard—but it didn’t quell all of the whispers that flitted around the edges of the camp.

“You can never get the stink off, I swear,” one man muttered, as I edged past. “It’s poison, that’s what it is. We’re all going to get sick.”

“Psst.” Another soldier nudged the man next to her in the ribs. “I heard this is supposed to be the battle to send the darkspawn back underground. Do you believe that?”

Her comrade—a thin, tallish man with a ragged brown beard—gave her a blank look and then shook his head violently. His eyes were pale blue, and had something of the texture of undercooked eggs about them.

“I don’t know what to believe,” he said, his voice strangulated, as if he didn’t want to speak his thoughts. “We’ve won every battle, but there’s more of them each time.”

“Makes you wonder if them Grey Wardens are right. If—”

“I don’t wanna think about it.”

The first soldier snorted and folded her arms. “Sounds like the perfect time to get drunk, if you ask me. Hey, did you hear? The last scouting party made it back last night. Barely.”

The egg-eyed man had turned to face straight ahead again, and I wondered why she didn’t just leave him alone. Did humans really need the reassurance of knowing they were all as scared as each other?

“What d’you mean?” he whispered hoarsely, not looking at her.

“Only two of them made it,” the soldier said, her face grim, “and one of ’em was minus a leg. Said they encountered some darkspawn that was ten feet tall, with horns as long as your arm. The injured one died last night. They said his blood was already turning black.”

“Maker’s breath!” The man winced. “Where are they all coming from?”

She just shook her head, and said nothing more.

I stayed where I was, unnoticed and unacknowledged in the press of bodies. Behind us, archers were clustered at the practice butts, and the repetitive thwack of arrows thronged the uneasy quiet as the soldiers waited. I could make out a bundle on the flagstones at the front of the group, and I didn’t know what it was, except for the fact it smelled foul… like rotting meat and old blood.

It reminded me of the cheap butcher’s shop by the south market gate of the alienage, which always used to throw its slops into the gutters at closing time. Rivers of offal and thick, foul-smelling blood would seep down under the gate, mixing with the mud and filth, and on summer evenings the stench grew so bad it turned even strong men’s stomachs.

Movement in front of the assembled troops pulled me from my thoughts. A man in heavy mail and studded leather, his armour almost as worn and battle-beaten as his face, stepped up before us. I didn’t know who he was, but the way he held himself—and the way every face in the crowd turned at once to him, and every back straightened—told me he was a man of rank.

“All right, men, listen up.”

Silence fell across the group, and there were a few heel-clicks and cries of ‘Yes, sarge!’, followed by awkward chortles of laughter. The sergeant smiled grimly, and I caught a glimpse of the warmth and camaraderie that must, in less dire times, be a heartening component of army life. But, at that moment, nothing could distract us from the bundle on the stones.

The sergeant reached down and pulled back the foul, stained blanket that I now saw covered it, revealing a bloody corpse. It was smaller than elf-height, though stocky and clad in thick-splinted leather armour. I could make out a head, two arms, two legs… and there the similarity to anything familiar seemed to end.

The creature had clawed, gnarled hands, and skin of a putrid, greenish colour. Its head was bald, the ears less like an elf’s than a bat’s, ragged and thin. The face was damaged, and from what I could see contorted in a gruesome death spasm, but the mouth was open, showing ranks of wicked, fang-like teeth. That horrific, lipless maw gaped, wide as a trap and twice as deadly, pulled back tight over black gums. Beneath tiny, squinting eyes, nearly buried in folds of skin, the lower part of the face was more like a muzzle than anything else. The blood that marked the corpse—crusted around numerous wounds, and staining the creature’s armour—was thick and black, not from exposure to the air, but as if it had never been any other colour.

I was both terrified and sickened. Was this repulsive specimen a taste of what we would face in battle? I stared at the creature, trying to imagine how it must have moved in life, what it sounded like… how quick it was, and how dangerous. This new existence of mine—warrior, Warden, whatever I was to become—felt more than ever like a death sentence, and I struggled to believe it wasn’t all some sick dream.

“Now, listen,” the sergeant said, raising his voice as he pointed down to the corpse. “This wretched thing is a darkspawn. They’re strong and cunning and smart, but don’t listen to those old wives’ tales. They can be killed. Stick them with your sword enough, and they go down.”

A general shuffling of feet and bodies descended as the group craned for a better look. Murmured oaths and whispers of disbelief rustled through the crowd.

“Their blood is black as sin, and poisonous,” the sergeant said. “You hear? Don’t even touch it. You get tainted with that blood, and you may as well slit your throat. We’ve lost many dogs already. Had to muzzle ’em to keep ’em from biting. It’s a long and painful way to die.”

I thought of the kennel master’s mabari, and understood what the man had meant. I’d assumed it was just the pain that made the hounds vicious but, looking at this… thing, it seemed no small leap to imagine it could be so lethally corrupted.

“There are lots of darkspawn,” the sergeant went on. “Different kinds. Now, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but… it is true we’re getting reports of things we’ve never even heard of out there.”

That met with increased muttering from the soldiers. I heard one man’s voice, barely lowered and strained with panic:

“See? I told you—long as yer arm! They’ll kill us all…. Kill us, and eat us!”

The sergeant straightened up and scowled into the press of men.

“Oi! I want this nonsense talk stopped. Now. You understand? What are you, a bunch of fishwives, spreading gossip until you brown your smallclothes out of terror?” He shook his head wearily. “I will say this once more. We’ve seen nothing—I repeat, nothing—to suggest that the darkspawn drag our people underground to eat them. And I want this talk about enslaving survivors to stop immediately. All right?”

Assorted mumbles of ‘yes, sarge’ filtered through the soldiers, but a distinct sense of unease remained.

“Right, then. Back to our short friend.” The sergeant kicked the corpse savagely with the side of his boot. “This here is something called a genlock. They’re pretty common in the horde, but we have seen others much larger. We don’t know where these new darkspawn are coming from, or what they can do. All I can say is to use caution, and remember: there aren’t any we’ve seen that won’t die, once they bleed enough.”

I wish I could say it was a comforting thought. The sergeant went on to demonstrate the weak points in the creature’s armour, their vulnerabilities and the most significant dangers they posed. I stayed, watched and listened, and learned a great deal, though precious little of it even felt real.

“All right, that’s it. Now, we’ll be burning this carcass so it doesn’t infect anything. And as for you lot,” the sergeant added, “you take what you’ve learned here, and use it. Keep your minds focused on the battle. You fight for Ferelden, and for your king. Remember that.”

Slowly, the gathering began to disperse. A couple of soldiers started to heap wood together, and by the time I had explored the archery butts—and learned by sight the basic theory of how to fire a crossbow without flaying my fingers or shooting myself in the knee—the smell of wood smoke was already heavy on the air. The light was thinning, and the coming dusk brought with it a sharp chill, and a sense of foreboding.

As I walked back towards the centre of the camp, the Chantry clerics were still leading prayers from their rough wooden gantry. It unsettled me to realise that I heard them now with an altogether different, and rather bitterer ear. I had seen my first glimpse of the darkspawn—those things of legends and allegory, the sins of the magisters made flesh—and it had opened up a new world for me, full of darker things and colder realities than I had dreamt of before.

“Maker above,” the cleric intoned, “hear the prayers of your sons and daughters. We who betrayed your prophet Andraste now beg your forgiveness. Do not abandon us in our darkest hour. Watch over valiant King Cailan and guide him as he faces this terrible evil.”

Several of the soldiers, and many knights, were gathered at the foot of the gantry, some kneeling in prayer and others standing silently, their faces strangely drawn, blank in the way I have since learned tells of horrible memories that run close to the surface. I stopped, listened… and longed for a little of the warmth and comfort I used to get from the sisters’ words when I was a child.

“Watch over Teyrn Loghain and give him the wisdom to bring us victory against the scourge of shadows. Watch over Ferelden, the homeland of holy Andraste. Keep her people safe from the darkspawn. Let us bow our heads and offer prayers to the Maker, that He might find us worthy.”

Yes, I prayed. I don’t even really know what for; looking back, I know I didn’t understand what would come. I knew nothing of how battle worked, how messy and chaotic it all was, or what role I was supposed to play. I was frightened. If I beseeched the Maker for anything, it was probably to wake up in my own bed and be told I’d had a terrible dream.

The words were all there, of course. The Chantry has always given us endless words. There were words for contrition, words for humility… even words to pad out the promise of death with the hope of heroism. The cleric’s voice, clear and well-spoken, rang out around us all, like a bell tolling ships into the docks through the mist. I wonder how many of those men and women truly took comfort from what she said.

“We stand here in this hour, good folk of Ferelden, and we contemplate the death that may await. Death is no failure, my friends. Should it find you, you will not have failed your king. You will have served your Maker.”

All that new-found strength and courage of mine—buoyed up as I’d been, foolish child, by a few smiles and a little eye contact—began to ebb. I hadn’t really faced the possibility of my death, at that time. Not as such an immediate option. My head was full of the bloody genlock corpse and its serried ranks of jagged teeth.

The cleric’s words did not calm me.

“Die in this battle and when you stand before the Maker in the land beyond the Fade, He shall not find you wanting. Go not into death gladly, but with the knowledge that evil has been held at bay by your spilled blood.”

Did sacrifice truly work like that? Could the Blight be ended here? And did that prospect really help those who would be asked to lay down their lives for it?

“And, if you go to stand beside the Maker, go with our blessing. For you shall not be forgotten. My friends, let us bow our heads and remember those who have fallen and those who have yet to fall.”

I felt it, then. The grief and the terror of all those gathered around me. The soldiers and the knights in their mighty armour, great swords and bright shields slung across their backs. They seemed to me invulnerable, like the tall statues that were hewn from Ostagar’s ancient stones and lined so many of the fortress’ bridges and walkways. Impassive… impenetrable. But they weren’t. I could smell their fear, and their loss.

Three battles here already, Duncan had said. Each one a victory, but at what cost? And with what more to come?

I turned to leave, wanting to sneak quietly away from the gathering, but one of the priests shuttling between this informal open-air chantry, and the infirmary that lay up the next stairway, caught my eye. She smiled at me, a figure of calm and tranquillity in her red-and-gold robe, her auburn hair coiled neatly at the back of her neck. I was reminded of Revered Mother Boann, back in Denerim, who had tried so hard to stand between us and Vaughan.

“Ah! I suspect you are one of the new Grey Wardens.”

Was I really so recognisable? I supposed it was something to do with being the only elf in armour in the entire camp… or, at least, the only one I’d seen so far.

The priest inclined her head. “Will you accept the Maker’s blessing?”

I nodded. It would have been churlish to refuse and, in any case, I didn’t feel I was in much of a position to refuse help or benediction, whatever form it came in.

“I will. Thank you.”

She stretched out her palm, lowered her gaze, and uttered words I tried so hard to draw strength from.

“Then I bless you, Grey Warden, in the name of Andraste and the Maker above. May the Chant of Light carry your name to the ears of our Lord.”

I thanked the woman and, as I turned to leave, my path crossed that of a broad, stocky human in heavy mail. He wore a huge greatsword across his back, and his bare head bore large, doughy features that he stretched into an uncertain smile as he approached me.

“Greetings. You must be the third recruit we’ve heard about?”

His voice marked him out; certainly as different to Daveth, and about as far removed from the humans I was used to as it was possible to be. Well-spoken, educated… a knight, I guessed, though his armour was unlike that of most of the king’s men. I bowed my head.

“I am, ser. Merien Tabris. And you…?”

“Ser Jory is my name. I hail from Redcliffe, where I served as knight under the command of Arl Eamon.”

His introduction was like a salute, crisp and confident. It would have meant more if I knew of the place, or its lord. I didn’t say as much, of course, but nodded and fought all my body’s urges to bow and stare at the flagstones. Ser Jory’s next words, however, cured me of that compulsion.

“I wasn’t aware elves could join the Grey Wardens,” he said, in a rather arch tone. “Those camped in the valley are all human.”

It was not a direct challenge, but I rose to it as if it might have been. Duncan had brought me here, had he not? That surely meant I had just as much chance, or right, or opportunity as this man and—for the first time in my life—I wasn’t about to let anyone tell me otherwise.

“As far as I am aware,” I said, meeting Ser Jory’s gaze, “it is so.”

There was the smallest breath of a silence, the barest trace of defiance in the air between us. The only other humans I’d spoken to in such a manner had been Lord Vaughan’s cronies, and both of those bastards had ended up dead. A part of me blanched to think that this was what I might become; one of those dark, bitter elves who lashes out at their own kind as readily as at the shems.

“No.” The knight drew himself up to his full, and not inconsiderable, height. “Clearly, the Grey Wardens pick their recruits on their merits. I hope we’re both lucky enough to eventually join the Wardens. Is it not thrilling to be given that chance?”

His change of tack was graceful, and I felt a little foolish for my brusqueness. I nodded.

“Indeed, although I’m curious about the Joining ritual.”

“As am I.” Jory leaned closer, lowering his voice. “Has anyone told you about it?”

“Not to speak of, though Daveth said we might be going into the Wilds.”

His dark eyes widened, and his round, pudgy face creased into a look of mildly indignant concern.

“Truly? Well! I never heard of such a ritual. In fact, I had no idea there were more tests after getting recruited. I… well, I suppose I should go and prepare. I shall see you later, no doubt.”

“No doubt, ser.”

Jory straightened his shoulders—that trace of the salute, the military heel-click, still obviously present—and bade me farewell, until we met again to learn what was expected of us for this strange ceremony.

I watched him go, and supposed I should seek out the mysterious Alistair.

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