Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Eleven

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

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

A candle, I realised slowly. A candle flame.

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

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

Only… I wasn’t at home.

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

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

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

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

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

Something had to be horribly wrong.

“Ah, your eyes finally open.”

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

“Mother shall be pleased.”

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

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

“Er….”

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

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

That thin-lipped smile curled against the firelight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is important is that you both live.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan….

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

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

“Are there any other survivors?”

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

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

“Tell me. Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a fond, and foolish, hope.

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

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

“Your clothes, such as they are.”

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

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

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

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

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

Morrigan gave one of those brittle, glittering little laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t believe it for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not I who decides….

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

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

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

We were all that was left.

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

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

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

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

“But why would he do that?” I mused.

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

“The archdemon,” Alistair said bleakly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blanched, but came back fighting.

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

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

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

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

I looked blankly at him. “Er…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alistair let out a long, low breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I winced. “I’m not. I-I won’t, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morrigan bowed her head. “I… understand.”

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything would be fine, as soon as reached Redcliffe.

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

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

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

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