Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re right, Duncan. I… apologise.”

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

Impressive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair nodded. “We will.”

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

And, with that, we took our leave.

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

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

Nobody laughed.

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was a long time ago, of course.”

Jory was the first to fall prey to the game.

“W-What was?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait. There’s something…. Oh.”

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

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

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

“Help… me…!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The knight was not so easily appeased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daveth broke the tension brewing in our little group.

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

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

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

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

I did not have to wonder for long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daveth, at least, took refuge in conversation.

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

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

And they told the truth.

“Hm?” I murmured, staring straight ahead.

He wasn’t put off.

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

“Bump ‘n’…?”

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

Not to mention, Father would have skinned me alive.

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

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

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

Daveth was waiting for an answer, all the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened then?”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I admitted. “So far, it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, jaw proudly set and head raised.

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

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

“Um. No, never.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

We bore east, the night drawing in ever closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on. Let’s just keep moving.”

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

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

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

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

“Over here. I think this is it.”

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

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

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

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

“Well, well, what have we here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can call me Merien.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody shems….

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

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

“Your mother?” Alistair began, drawing breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wished I’d never said anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctantly, I followed on.

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come.”

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

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

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

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

“I see them, girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair broke the silence with an incredulous scoff.

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

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

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

Daveth’s composure cracked.

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

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

The old woman chuckled dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed softly, a surprisingly gentle sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for returning them.”

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

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

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

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

He blinked. “Right. Yes. We should—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wh—?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” I murmured.

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

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

Somehow, it didn’t surprise me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joining was almost upon us.

 ———————————-
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