Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Five

 
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As we put the market behind us, I trailed in Duncan’s wake and clung to the passing moments like a spider drifting on a breeze, desperately seeking somewhere safe to land.

I’d rarely ever been far outside the alienage gates; whole parts of the city were as uncharted ocean to me, never mind the world beyond it. Of that, the only knowledge I had came from books or stories. Duncan was not the sort of human I was used to, either… although, given the events of that day, that was perhaps no bad thing.

Still, I struggled. I had been brought up, when having to deal with shems, to hide behind stiff politeness and non-committal responses, yet I had so many questions I wanted to ask him. And, as I wavered between tradition and bravery, Duncan confused me further.

He was, I came to learn even in that short time, a kind and generous man, and the respect he showed me meant more than I could possibly express. After a lifetime of being almost invisible to his people, it felt very strange to be the centre of one human’s attention. Yet he didn’t push me. He didn’t ask questions about what had happened at the arl’s estate, or coddle me on our journey.

Later, I would wish that I had been able to open up more to him, but at the time I was nervous.

Perhaps part of me wanted to believe that, somehow, it had all been a trick, that I could blame what had happened on him. After all, Duncan had strolled into our day of festivities, Duncan had been the one to provide Nelaros and Soris with weapons, and Duncan had… saved my life.

It was an uncomfortable chain of thoughts.

The heavens opened as we passed the last of Denerim’s main gates, heading through the bustling throng of carts, trade wagons and travellers, and making for the thoroughfare that led down to the great West Road. It seemed to me that we were the only two people in the world trying to get out of the city instead of in.

To the south, and plainly visible through the needling curtain of rain, Dragon’s Peak rose clearer than I’d ever seen it before, the view unmarked by the city’s towers and parapets. It was a terrible, intimidating sight, accustomed as I was to a man-made landscape, a world of walls and wood, carved stone and plaster, not majestic natural features like this.

I stood and stared, buffeted by the press of people, and then had to scurry to catch up with Duncan. I’d never realised how much habitation there was outside the city walls, either. I’d always thought Denerim was the be-all and end-all of everything, a finite place encircled completely by its fortifications… like the alienage, only larger, I suppose.

Funny, the way you can let yourself think when you know no better.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. The bulk of the capital’s heaving throng of life and industry lay within the city proper but, beyond the walls, there were farmsteads, camps of itinerant traders, hustlers, bards and all other manner of people whom issues of space or dubious legality pushed beyond the reach of the city—and its guards.

I followed Duncan through this strange mishmash of bodies—humans of all kinds, dwarves, and elves, not to mention the ox carts, horses, and covered wagons—and, as we made our way down towards one brightly coloured wagon, he turned to me.

“I don’t suppose you know how to ride?”

“Ride?” Rain dripped off the end of my nose. “Er… horses?”

“Yes,” Duncan said patiently. “The journey to Ostagar would take many days on foot, and I do not think we have that long.”

It couldn’t be all that hard, I reasoned. I’d seen humans on horseback. Riding… horses. Great big, steaming, snorting beasts, standing several heads higher than me, usually. I swallowed hard.

“I, uh… suppose I could probably learn.”

Duncan smiled. “That’s the spirit.”

He led me off the thoroughfare, down towards the wagon, where a fat human in a greasy leather jerkin greeted him with a yellow, toothy smile.

“Ho, ser knight! Seeking a noble steed, are we?”

The shem didn’t even acknowledge me, not that I expected it. I stuck close to Duncan, and behind the wagon I could see a roped-off pen of sorts, housing several tethered horses of all sizes and colours. I knew very little about the animals, but I knew enough to notice the burly and discreetly armed men loitering about the pen’s perimeter. Even with my naïve eye, I doubted the horse trader was the most honest man in his profession, but Duncan had clearly had reason to come to him, rather than any of the ostlers within the city.

“I need two fast horses, Jonquin,” he said, “and quickly.”

“Two?” The shem frowned and then, as he looked at me, his face melted into a buttery sneer. “You’re gonna put an elf on an ’orse? I’ve never ’eard the like. Why, it’s like buying a pony for a donkey!”

Duncan said nothing, but the clear change in his stance—something in the way he drew himself up, straightened his back just a little more, and let his hand rest casually at his belt, just beside the pommel of his dagger—seemed to alter the very atmosphere around us. The trader’s face paled slightly, and that mocking smile shrivelled up like spit on a skillet.

“Of course, it’s your money. Your choice, naturally. I’m sure I can… uh….”

“Two horses,” Duncan repeated. “Fast ones.”

“Right you are, ser.”

It was an impressive display. In less than ten minutes, Jonquin had a pair of beasts picked out for us, and I watched Duncan inspect the animals. One was a huge, shaggy, black-and-white creature with feathered feet the size of dinner plates, the other a lean, rangy thing with a black mane and tail and a dull brown coat. It was the smaller of the two and, despite my nerves, I felt something of an affinity with it… perhaps on account of its plain, rounded nose.

Duncan seemed satisfied with the trader’s choices, and once money had changed hands—a fat purse of sovereigns, from what I could see—and the horses were tacked up and loaded with our packs, I was faced with the seemingly insurmountable problem of how to get up there.

My dress was only the first of my troubles. Duncan swung himself up onto the black-and-white horse with apparent ease and, having watched how he did it, I put my foot into the other’s stirrup and tried to do the same. The animal sensed my discomfort, backed up a few steps, and left me clinging pathetically to the side of the saddle like a limpet, eyes shut in terror as the world whirled around me. Still, my failure made me determined and, after another couple of tries, I managed to seat myself—albeit awkwardly and with very little modesty. I was just thankful that I had cold-weather smallclothes on beneath my dress, so my legs were at least partially covered.

Nevertheless, skirts bundled around my knees and the reins bunched clumsily in my hands, I managed to stay on as my horse followed Duncan’s down the thoroughfare and towards the crossroads. It was no drier, but certainly a faster mode of transport, even at the leisurely pace Duncan set. We quickly reached the fork that led to the West Road, with the sprawling hub of the docks and the expanse of the sea to our backs, and Dragon’s Peak rising dark against the sky.

I turned to glance back up the hill at the great, jagged bulk of the city, its ancient walls bulging out like the ill-fitting corsets of a fat old maid.

“Are you ready?” Duncan asked, drawing his horse level with mine.

The worries that teemed in my mind finally broke through the years of ingrained politeness and acceptance.

“Will they really be safe?” I wanted to know. “My family. I mean, not that I’m not grateful, but… I feel like I’m abandoning them. What if—”

“There is no turning back,” Duncan said, in that low, assured voice of his. “They will be safe enough, and you do much more to help your people by leaving than you could if you stayed. What would your execution have accomplished, hmm? Except a waste of talent.”

I wrenched my gaze from the rumpled silhouette of Denerim, and looked curiously at him. The trace of a smile seemed to linger behind that neatly clipped beard, but I didn’t feel all that heartened. Duncan clicked his tongue, urging his horse on towards the crossroads.

“Ask your questions, dear girl,” he said, as my mount followed his, and I struggled to stay upright in the saddle against that curious lilting motion. “And I will answer what I can.”

It was probably the best I could hope for. The rain was still falling steadily, but the traffic had thinned out and, as we turned onto the West Road itself, our horses walking companionably beside each other, I understood that Duncan was trying to make this easy for me.

Despite everything, I was able to feel grateful for that.

“I… I don’t even know what Grey Wardens do, what they are,” I said, which was true.

Improbable though it seems, given all I would face in the months and years to come, I had barely heard the word ‘darkspawn’ before. To me, they were myths, part of the fire-and-brimstone canticles the Chantry sisters rarely regaled us with in the alienage, and not a tale that overly concerned us.

Growing up, I’d always favoured stories of elven history, poring over snippets of legends about Halamshiral and Arlathan, the Long Walk and the Emerald Knights. Even the books Mother had given me—the colourful, populist histories of Chantry scholars like Genitivi and Petrine—had only mentioned the Wardens lightly, and then as little more than a relic of a mythical past.

“We dedicate our lives,” Duncan said, “to fighting darkspawn wherever they appear, doing whatever it takes to stop them. It is our only charge.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“Um… darkspawn?”

The horse’s swaying gait kept me perpetually off-balance, even as I tried to dredge through my memories of the sisters’ lessons. I recalled snatches of Threnodies—the destruction of the Tevinter mage-lords, the sins of pride and greed, and the Blights that had ravaged the world—but the last such peril had been hundred of years ago. Were those stories really true? And could something that terrible, that horrific, really be happening now?

It didn’t seem possible, but I wasn’t about to call Duncan a liar.

“Since the Imperium fell, the darkspawn have threatened to destroy the world four times over. Each time, the Grey Wardens have prevented that from happening. We watch, always vigilant, always ready to stand against them.”

Vague recollections tickled my thoughts; the magnificent Weisshaupt Fortress, carved into the living rock of the Anderfels. Old stories of griffons, and soldiers who—in the teeth of the First Blight—renounced the Imperium and stood against the darkspawn, uniting Thedas against the threat until the old god Dumat finally fell.

But… they were just stories, weren’t they? Or, at least, history so long since passed that it was as good as myth. The world had seen nothing of that kind for four centuries. As far as I was aware, all Fereldans had needed to worry about recently was the aftermath of the Orlesian occupation, and the struggle to rebuild a muddied, damaged nation.

I just didn’t see how these Grey Wardens fitted into that plan.

“You’re knights, then?” I asked. “Heroes?”

Duncan made a small noise somewhere between a scoff and a chuckle.

“Not precisely. We are an ancient order, that is true, but we come from all walks of life, all places. We are impartial, standing apart from politics and power. There are Grey Wardens all over the world, united by our common charge: to protect against the darkspawn.”

I nodded thoughtfully. Impartial… yet fighting alongside the king. I can’t deny my scepticism, though I didn’t voice it then.

“And what’s happening now? There are really darkspawn at Ostagar?”

“Yes.”

I hadn’t expected that. I’d thought Duncan would edge around an answer, not sound so definite. The smell of wet horse drifted up to my nose. For a moment, there was quiet between us, and nothing but the sound of hooves on the road, and the distant moan of the wind.

“You know what a Blight is?” Duncan asked. “An invasion of darkspawn, rising to the surface. It is happening now, and it must be stopped.”

I blinked at him through the rain. “But… why me? What can I—”

The words sounded petulant, and I broke off. It was a fair question, though: what could I do? When I’d woken that morning, I’d been a child, unprepared even for my own wedding. Now, despite everything that had changed, I was still a child… albeit with blood on my hands.

“It is my duty to seek out new recruits,” Duncan said. “And that is more important now than ever. There are only a few of us left in Ferelden, and we must not fail.”

It should have sounded melodramatic. It should have sounded like madness… but there was no doubting the solemnity of Duncan’s words, or the urgency in his voice. I believed him completely, and that terrified me. How on earth could I become a soldier? Stand against the kind of horrors I’d only ever heard about in stories?

I stared down at the rumpled, damp clumps of my horse’s mane.

“But I know nothing about warfare. I—”

“We do not pick our recruits for what they have learned,” Duncan said enigmatically. “We judge on potential.”

“Potential?” I echoed, confused.

“Yes.” He smiled. “Believe it or not, I had heard a great deal about you before we met. I had business that brought me back to Denerim, and I could not leave without seeing for myself what…. Well, without meeting you.”

Anyone else, and I would have assumed mockery. A frown crowded my forehead, nevertheless.

“How did—” I stopped mid-breath, realising what he must mean. “The hahren? Did he…?”

“Valendrian and I have known each other for almost twenty years,” Duncan said nonchalantly. “Since the time I tried to recruit your mother, in fact.”

The rain folded around me, and I wished I could have convinced myself that I’d misheard. The horse’s pitching stride made me feel unsafe enough; now it seemed that the whole world was tilting under me.

“You tried recruiting my mother?”

“I did indeed. Adaia was a fiery woman,” Duncan added, and his voice held the same traces of pride and affection I’d heard in Dilwyn and Gethon. “She would have made an excellent Grey Warden.”

Yet another thing I could hardly believe. Mother had certainly never mentioned it. What further mysteries had her life held, that she’d never wanted me to be a part of?

“I never made the offer, however,” Duncan said. “Valendrian convinced me it was better for her to remain with her family. As there was no Blight and thus no immediate need for recruits, I deferred to his wishes. But it seems she passed her training on to you.”

“The hahren told you that?”

Another one of those small, almost-smiles, and Duncan inclined his head.

“Even if Valendrian hadn’t informed me of the promise you showed, certain… events would have convinced me.”

I said nothing, vividly reminded of things I would have much preferred to forget. Again, twisted skeins of suspicion threaded their way through my mind. I knew, logically, it was ridiculous to imagine Duncan was in any way responsible for what had happened, but so much remained unanswered.

The questions prodded at me, wheedling and hard to ignore. Why had Vaughan chosen today to enter the alienage? Had he just been drawn to the hubbub of celebration, unable to resist the temptation to tear our rare happiness to shreds? Or had someone given him the idea, sent some word or message?

It was a stupid, desperate thought, born of doubt and distrust, but I wanted to believe it. If everything was Duncan’s fault, perhaps it would lessen the guilt I bore.

Still, there was something I had not yet said, trust or no.

“I haven’t thanked you, Duncan. For the… help you gave us today. Without you—”

“It was nothing, I assure you. Though I am truly sorry for what happened. If I could have intervened….”

“I appreciate what you did,” I said, not wishing to dwell further on the memories, in case they stuck themselves to the inside of my skull again and refused to leave me alone.

Even now, in the quiet moments between new revelations, I was convinced I could hear Shianni screaming.

“Was that why you were at the alienage?” I asked, desperate to fill my mind with something else, latch onto some other question while I remained able. “You were recruiting?”

“Indeed. I had not intended the circumstances to be so dramatic, but… I needed a Grey Warden, and I found one. That conscripting you saved your life was only coincidence, albeit a happy one.”

“So… elves can be Wardens, then?”

Duncan smiled, and I knew how silly I must sound. It was obvious, for why else would I be here? Yet, all the same, I couldn’t quite believe it. So many places didn’t even let us join the military or civic guard.

“In fact,” Duncan said, “some of our greatest heroes have been elven. The Warden Garahel, he who slew the last archdemon, was such a one. We need people like you.”

The confidence in his tone—the implication of faith in my untested abilities—surprised me, and I found it rather more unsettling than comforting, but I supposed that didn’t matter anymore. I was not a volunteer, after all. Duncan’s words reminded me of that.

I was a conscript and, in any case, I owed this man my life. If he decreed I must give it to the Grey Wardens, that was what I’d do, I supposed, though I wondered exactly what that would mean. Would I have to learn to fight, or would my role be the usual elven one, dedicated to fetching, carrying, and brewing tea? I thought of Nessa, and her family’s plan to labour at Ostagar… among all the human soldiers.

The rain slicked my cheeks, dripping from my nose, eyelashes and ears, and sliding down the back of my neck in cold runnels.

“Now,” Duncan said, his voice cutting through my thoughts. “We must make a little more haste. We will be travelling south through the hinterlands to the ruin of Ostagar, on the edge of the Korcari Wilds. You know of the place?”

I shook my head. Only stories; that the Wilds were a vast, uncharted bog, treacherous and terrible. I didn’t relish the prospect of heading there.

“The Tevinter Imperium built Ostagar long ago to prevent the Wilders from invading the northern lowlands,” Duncan said, urging his horse forwards. “It is an excellent defensive position, although it has been a ruin for centuries. The king’s armies are there, along with the few Grey Wardens we currently have in Ferelden. It’s fitting we make our stand there, even if we face a different foe within that forest… but the Blight must be stopped here and now. If it spreads to the north, Ferelden will fall.”

Duncan looked at me through the fine mist of rain. The droplets had settled on his beard and—not for the first time—I wondered how humans managed to grow face hair, and quite what its purpose was.

“Sit down firmly in the saddle,” he said kindly. “And don’t be afraid to hold on tight.”

My heart plummeted, but I nodded. So much for our gentle walking pace.

Duncan’s horse responded to whatever it was he did to it and, with a snort, broke into a fast, shambling gait that quickly became a canter. My mount skittered, keyed up by the excitement, and followed suit. I clung blindly on with every muscle I possessed, and prayed that the animal knew what it was doing, because I certainly didn’t.

~o~O~o~

We pushed the horses hard; Duncan obviously wanted to cover as much ground as possible before we had to make camp for the night. I couldn’t tell you much of the journey, having had my eyes closed for a lot of the time.

When, eventually, we broke pace again and gave the beasts a breather, my whole body felt shaken to pieces. The bruises, bumps, scrapes and whatever else I’d been nursing since the arl’s estate were giving me hell, and now I had a whole new set of painful reminders to add to my collection. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rests never seemed to last long before we were pushing on again.

Duncan promised we’d make camp for the night, but we were still riding when it grew dark. It was a wonder the horses could see where they were going—and a miracle I still hadn’t managed to fall off and break myself—though at least we seemed to have outrun the rain.

At last, we stopped for the night, and hauled in off the side of the highway.

Had I not been so saddle-sore, chafed, winded, shaken about and otherwise in more pain than I recalled ever being before, I would have found the energy to be frightened. Duncan built and lit a fire, and its flickering light cast dancing shadows on the ground.

The road stretched endlessly before us. I glanced around me, taking in, through the stagnant dark, the muted greens and browns, the soggy grass and mud, and the thick, dark stands of trees.

Even the air smelled strange.

I am told one of the key differences between elves and humans is in our senses. We can tell more by scent than they, I think, and we see differently… at least as far as recognising patterns or quick-moving shapes. We can hear at slightly higher pitches, and we’re definitely more sensitive to the cold. Back in the alienage, I grew up hearing those differences described as inequalities, and always angled in our favour. We were dextrous, agile, made for the finer details of life, where they were heavy, clumsy, slow and unobservant.

I learned quickly that this wasn’t true. While humans are physiologically different, their size gives them strength and durability, and their slowness I prefer to see as patience. Not to say that I haven’t met humans with reflexes as good, or better, than my own—they certainly can be fast if they wish! They also see better in the dark, somehow innately better able than us to pick shapes and textures out of the shadows.

That first night, I was almost blind.

Still saddle-shaped, I could barely move without my legs burning in agony, and I’d never felt so vulnerable. It was as if I had been pulled up by my roots and thrown to the ground to wilt and wither, and would never stand firmly again.

Duncan and I shared a simple meal of bread, cheese and dried meat before the fire. Well… simple for him, I imagine. I was ravenous, and it was more protein than I usually saw in a day.

“We must get you fitted out with proper kit when we arrive,” Duncan observed.

I tugged at the wrinkled fabric of my dress and said nothing, worried by the things looming large in my future. Armour, and battles, and things I couldn’t possibly fathom. It was not comforting.

Still, he was kind to me. We talked more, and I asked questions that, looking back, I am amazed Duncan had the patience to answer. I learned a great deal that night; the horrific history of the darkspawn, from the fall of the dwarves and the loss of the Deep Roads, right up to the Battle of Ayesleigh. It was century upon century of bloodshed and evil, and it was hard to hear.

Duncan also told me the story of the Grey Wardens, from Weisshaupt Fortress to their banishment by King Arland, and the eventual restoration of the order in Ferelden under King Maric, less than twenty years ago. He told me of the Wardens in other lands, and the ceaseless commitment to an enemy that festered beneath the earth, just waiting to erupt and taint the world. As I would later realise, Duncan shared far from everything, but he did at least address many of my curiosities, and with remarkable forbearance.

“So, if the Grey Wardens defeated the darkspawn during the last Blight,” I asked, “why couldn’t they be killed off completely? Once they’d been driven back underground?”

Duncan shook his head. “The darkspawn have controlled the Deep Roads ever since they defeated the dwarven kingdoms. Even if we invaded, we can only chase them so far.”

“Then how can the Blight be stopped?”

He stared wearily into the flames for a moment.

“We fight,” he said, his voice hollow. “The darkspawn are commanded by an archdemon… a powerful, terrible creature. Without it, they will flee back beneath the earth. And so, the archdemon must be destroyed—as the Grey Warden, Garahel, slew the archdemon Andorhal, and brought victory in the Battle of Ayesleigh. That’s how the last Blight was ended.”

I nodded slowly. I’d heard a little of the ballad that told that tale, and as I recalled it was pretty grim and mournful stuff.

the wind that stirs
their shallow graves
carries their song
across the sands

heed our words
hear our cry
the grey are sworn
in peace we lie

heed our words
hear our cry
our names recalled
we cannot die

when darkness comes
and swallows light
heed our words
and we shall rise…

I had never known the words were about Grey Wardens, much less ever envisaged that I would join their ranks.

The fire sputtered and I fed it more dry wood, gradually starting to warm up from the coldness of the rain earlier. I was even starting to get the feeling back in my legs, though my head still hurt.

“You should get some sleep,” Duncan said. “We still have a long journey ahead of us, and we cannot afford to break pace. It is important we reach Ostagar as quickly as possible.”

Sleep? On top of all that? And with more riding to look forward to?

I grimaced. Nevertheless, I had no strength to argue. I settled myself upon my blanket, head on my bindle and my cloak covering me, uncomfortable and unused to sleeping in these unfamiliar clothes—not to mention in such close proximity to a man to whom I was not related by blood or even race.

Duncan seemed to slumber almost at once, while I lay huddled there for what felt like hours. It was so quiet. The only sounds came from the trees, and the gentle shifting of the horses, tethered nearby. At home, there was never silence like this. Whatever was happening, something louder was always going on somewhere else. And there wasn’t all this space, all these strange sights and smells….

When at last my resistance weakened and I began to relax, everything from the past two days seemed to collapse in on me at once. My eyes smarted with the sight of Shianni’s pale, terrified face, Nelaros’ bloody corpse, and Vaughan’s mad, sadistic glare. The copper-salt tang of blood seemed to fill my nose and mouth all over again and I woke with a start, barely having even fallen asleep at all.

My clammy fingers fumbled beneath the neck of my smock, and closed on smooth, warm metal. Nelaros’ ring. I still had it, threaded onto a thin leather thong and hidden next to my skin. A small reminder of home, and a man who’d died trying to be brave.

I’d thought about putting it on my finger, but that didn’t seem right. We’d never actually said our vows, and I had no idea what Nelaros had really been like, anyway. For all I knew, he might have made a terrible husband. I bit my lip, and tried to blink away such horrible thoughts. It was wrong to think so ill, not just of the dead, but of one who’d given his life trying to help me. My head ached, and I had never felt more isolated, as if I would never now be anything but alone and frightened. I wanted to cry, but I was either too numb or too proud and, in the gloom, I looked across to where Duncan slept.

He wasn’t there.

I sat up, the fire’s banked embers giving off a dull, eerie glow that shimmered on Duncan’s armour, neatly stacked beside his bedroll. A little way off, I could make out his silhouette, and at first thought he was answering the call of nature, then realized he was simply standing, staring at the trees. He seemed smaller without all that plate on, and I caught myself wondering who he was—or who he had been, before pledging his life to this strange order; an order I would soon also give myself to. I hadn’t yet adjusted to that idea.

There were still so many questions, so many unanswered puzzles. Fears dogged me determinedly. Was I just giving everything up to be a servant? Everyone knew what happened to those who left the alienage. Not elf, not human, not nothing, as the boys used to say. Could I face a lifetime of that?

And what of this Blight? This unspeakable peril that—for some reason—neither I, nor anyone I knew, had any inkling of? I would like to say that, at that moment, I could not believe the world was in danger, but it was very dark, and I was camping by the side of the highway with a human I wasn’t sure I wanted to trust. Monsters lurked in every shadow.

I missed Father. I missed everything. Yet, as I watched Duncan slowly pace the perimeter of our camp, I felt a little less afraid. I thought he was guarding me. Later, I would learn that the voices of demons kept him from his sleep. I am thankful I did not know that then.

I must have slept at some point, because Duncan woke me before dawn. I covered with two blankets, not one, and I could see the tiredness in his face, though he sounded as sure and strong as ever.

“Come. We need to leave soon. There is much to do. Quickly as you can.”

I managed to nod and garble some sort of affirmation. It was still dark, and I remember wondering why the Blight could not have struck in midsummer. Still, I rushed through the undignified business of visiting the little girls’ bush, then gathered up my things, and was ready to leave by the time Duncan had finished lacing his vambraces.

As the first fingers of sunlight climbed over the treetops, we were already on the road. The horses were fresh, and they had an early morning frost under their feet. My tired, aching muscles protested painfully, but there wasn’t a lot I could do. We rode hard, and I saw little to nothing of whatever towns we passed by, clinging on as desperately as I was, as if sheer force of concentration could keep me from falling.

Several days passed that way, in a grinding agony of routine. I’d like to say my horsemanship improved, but sadly it did not.

I grew more comfortable around the animals, learned how to tack them up, groom them, pick their feet and clean their harness—not to mention the language of bunched hindquarters and irritable snorting that presaged a kick or nip—but my riding remained of the clinging-on-for-dear-life-and-praying kind.

As we went on, Duncan spoke less, and the journey developed an urgency I hadn’t really expected. While the light lasted, we rode, and when it failed we took a reluctant, perfunctory kind of rest.

The days fell into a hard rhythm of pushing the horses and slowly pace to let them rest, hours cleaved into blocks of blurred speed—all thundering hooves and cold air slicing at my face—and breathless, gasping pauses. During the moments of shallow comfort afforded by the nights, and the fires Duncan built, I tried to convince myself that my body hadn’t completely shaken apart.

On the fourth day, we seemed to be nearing the end of our journey, and it amazed me to see how much the country had changed around us.

The lush, wooded landscapes that flanked the West Road had given way to flatter, marshier land, and I supposed we must be nearly at these fabled Wilds.

The horses were growing weary and recalcitrant, our short breaks and night-time rests no longer enough to keep them fresh and fit. My mount, whom I had privately named Iron Neck—among several other choice epithets—for his tendency to put his head down and blatantly ignore any command I tried to give him, had become even bolshier than usual.

I consoled myself with the thought that we would be at Ostagar soon, but it turned out to be fond thinking.

Come first light, we were back in the saddle again, and riding hard for the south. Hour heaped on bone-juddering, tooth-shaking hour, filled with the pounding of hooves, until the light began to thin, and I guessed we had another night under the stars to look forward to.

It was then that, above the swelling horizon, I began to make out the dim shapes of a great rocky outline standing tall and proud against the sky.

“Ostagar,” Duncan said, and I thought I imagined the relief in his tone. “Come. There is much to do when we arrive.”

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