Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Seven

 

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

“You there! Elf!”

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

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

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

“Er, it’s P-Pick, ser.”

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

“Y-yes, ser. Right away, ser.”

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

Just another soldier, bearing arms.

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

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

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

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

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

The man snorted, somewhere between derision and amusement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Survives the blood?”

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

The Ash Warrior shook his head.

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman’s smile widened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve faced darkspawn before, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If she did, she was probably right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He snorted, but seemed amused rather than offended.

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

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

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

“Well, since I’m not wearing robes or wielding a staff….”

“Ah. Right.” His smirk grew sheepish, and he shrugged. “Still, you never know. These mages can sneak up on you.”

I laughed, despite myself. Stern, authoritative figure? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been wrong.

Alistair snapped his fingers, as if recalling some misplaced detail.

“Wait, I do know who you are. You’re Duncan’s new recruit, the elf from Denerim, right? I should have recognised you right away. I apologise.”

Briefly, I wondered how much word Duncan had sent ahead, and how much people had learned of me in my absence. I tried not to let it trouble me, however, and shook my head.

“No need. No offence taken.”

“Good.” He looked faintly relieved, and cleared his throat. “You, er, didn’t exactly catch me at my finest with the mage there. Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Alistair, the new Grey Warden, though I guess you already knew that….”

I smiled. Something about the way he said ‘new Grey Warden’ made me wonder if he wasn’t rather used to being the order’s general dogsbody, but I didn’t like to ask.

“I’m Merien. Pleased to meet you.”

“Right… that was the name,” Alistair said, though I doubted he’d really remembered. He smiled awkwardly. “Well, as the junior member of the order, I’ll be accompanying you as you prepare for the Joining.”

Accompany me? Was I a child, to be watched and monitored as I faltered my way through my first steps? Or did the Wardens just like to keep a tight leash on their recruits?

I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to mock me or put me at ease. If it was the former, I couldn’t blame him; there must have been a dozen things more preferable to baby-sitting me.

I cleared my throat. “You, um, don’t really need to do that, do you?”

Alistair grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to embarrass you.”

I was about to say that wasn’t what I meant, but then realised he was teasing me. A wash of embarrassed irritation flushed my cheeks at that, but I supposed the new recruits had it coming, and at least it was better than being treated like an elf… although, at the time, I barely realised I’d even had that sneaking, bitter little thought.

“Anyhow,” he said. “We should probably head back to Duncan. I imagine he’s eager to get things started. Unless you have any questions, of course.”

Naturally, I did, but that didn’t mean I knew where to start in asking them.

“It’s still all a bit… new,” I said lamely, as we began to make our way back down the steps. I didn’t really want to admit to being overwhelmed.

“I can imagine,” Alistair said, which annoyed me, because I very much doubted he could.

Sneaking a sideways glance at him, I wondered idly how old he was. Hard to tell with humans, but… young. Perhaps not all that much older than me.

He spoke well, and carried himself like a soldier—but not one of the rank and file. If I’d had to guess, I would have pegged him as the youngest son of some well-to-do merchant or minor landed wig. The kind of people who usually kept my kind of people around for cleaning their houses and pouring their wine, I supposed.

All the same, I was curious. Though, looking back, I cringe at how woefully naïve I was, I knew even then that the Grey Wardens were far from a military dumping ground for middle class whelps with pretensions to an officer’s career. Duncan had explained enough for me to understand that… and to still be quietly fretting over how in Andraste’s name I was supposed to fit in.

I’d been too long about my wondering, at any rate. Alistair caught me looking at him and smiled, amusement gleaming in his hazel eyes.

“Go on, then,” he said. “Ask away.”

Out of all the questions bubbling away inside my head, one rose up, butting against my tongue more urgently than all the rest. I frowned at the ancient, cracked paving slabs, my gaze tracing the lines of moss and decay along them.

“Um.” I cleared my throat. “This, er, battle everyone’s talking about….”

“Tomorrow, they say,” Alistair said helpfully.

I glanced up at him, amazed he could sound so calm.

“Well, the other Grey Wardens are camped down in the valley,” he said, nodding to the stretch of ground that lay beyond the parapet, far below the fortress. “With the king’s soldiers. King Cailan’s given us a position of honour at the vanguard, despite our small numbers. I think he’s actually excited to ride into battle with us. Maybe he thinks that’s what his father would have done, I don’t know.”

I blinked, suddenly reminded of the look on the king’s face when he spoke of bards and legends, and a great battle to end the Blight. The very thought somehow seemed less glorious now, and more redolent of mud, blood, and cold steel. I struggled to see the romance in it, and my brand new armour began to feel less well-fitting.

“Er. W-will I—?”

“Be participating? I… don’t know.”

Alistair smiled at me, and I took it for kindness, though I didn’t know why it should seem so strangely melancholy. Later, I would learn it was because he didn’t believe I was going to survive the night.

He looked away, glancing out towards the shadowed outline of the trees.

“I’ll tell you, it’s Teyrn Loghain we should be looking to if we’re to win it, not the king. Cailan wants his place in history, but the teyrn is planning the strategy.” He broke off, appearing slightly embarrassed. “Uh… that’s my opinion, anyway. I guess I should be thankful the king favours the Grey Wardens, but I know who’s keeping the lid on the pot.”

I nodded, still thinking of Cailan’s words; that hunger for… what? Recognition? Finding his place in history alongside his forefathers? I didn’t know, and it wasn’t my place to judge. Perhaps all his posturing really was just for the sake of inspiring his men—and maybe it would work.

I looked cautiously at Alistair. “What are the chances of success, d’you think?”

He turned his head, the dimming sun catching his profile, and almost hiding the way the corner of his mouth tightened before he answered.

“I’m sure Teyrn Loghain has the battle planned to the last detail,” he said, though his voice seemed self-consciously level. “Still… no Blight has ever been defeated with so little cost.”

We’ve won three battles against these monsters. Tomorrow should be no different.

Could it really be more than bravado? I hoped so.

Yet, I saw uncertainty lingering in Alistair’s eyes.

“And if we fail?” I asked.

He frowned. “If the horde isn’t broken here, Duncan says it will spread until it engulfs all of Ferelden. Then it would take an alliance of nations to fight it. Which would be bad,” he added, with what seemed to be that customary flippancy of his; something I wasn’t used to finding in humans. “However, neither the king nor the teyrn really seems to believe this is a real Blight, so… I don’t know. There have been several successful encounters so far.”

I glanced to where he’d been looking, away to the tree line, hazy with the thickening, wet fog of dusk.

“And how many darkspawn are out there?”

“Good question.” Alistair snorted. “Thousands? Tens of thousands? They’ve had centuries to build up their numbers.”

The forest seemed to inch closer somehow, pressing in on the camp from the lengthening shadows. I shivered, and knew that I hadn’t managed to disguise it.

We headed out of the ruins, back through the main body of the camp. The mess tent was serving, the smell of something gloopy and salty permeating the air, and my stomach griped to itself, enthralled even by the prospect of Mystery Stew.

I fell silent as we walked, which appeared to make Alistair uncomfortable.

“So, um, have you come far?” he asked. “Denerim, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

I had no wish to discuss it, but I shouldn’t have let myself sound so brisk. In the privacy of my own head, I clung to the excuse that I didn’t know how to talk to shems, but that wasn’t the whole truth.

“Right.” He nodded. “Thought that’s what Duncan… said. Um.”

I bit the inside of my lip, inwardly chastising my standoffishness. I should be making an effort, learning to interact with the people who would be my new comrades.

It was not easy.

A group of soldiers passed in front of us, on their way to the mess tent. They were engrossed in some loud, broad bit of banter, but I didn’t hear what it was. I just smelled oily leather, and heard the clink of metal and the jagged rush of male laughter, and my stomach pulled in on itself, tight and aching.

It lasted barely a moment. They walked on; we walked on. I glanced nervously at Alistair, wondering if he’d seen me flinch.

“So, how about you?” I asked, because somebody needed to say something.

“What, the fascinating story of my life?” He smiled. “You first. Did you want to become a Grey Warden?”

I hadn’t expected the question, but I supposed I should have done. Assessing the recruits was only practical, after all. Checking for chinks in their loyalty. Still… I wasn’t sure I knew the answer. I breathed in slowly, letting the smells of army rations, dirty straw, and close-quarters living fill me up, so there was no room for anything else.

Alistair was watching me, all silent enquiry and expectation.

“Well, yes, I suppose,” I said, avoiding his gaze. It was true, wasn’t it? It must have been, for I doubted I’d have preferred execution. “I… hadn’t really thought about it. But I do appreciate the chance I’ve been given,” I finished, perhaps a little tritely.

There weren’t words for the real truth. It was too big, too strange; uneven and complex, loitering beneath the shallows of my mind like a ring of black rocks.

Alistair nodded slowly, offering no opinion on what I’d said.

“Well, I was conscripted. Not that I didn’t want to join. I was training as a templar for the Chantry before Duncan recruited me. That was about six months ago now.”

I looked up  in surprise, my self-absorption washed away. A templar? Him?

I’d seen templars at the gates of the Denerim Chantry, but to me they were simply guards in a different uniform. Heavy plate, emblazoned with strange, semi-religious heraldry… we stayed out of their way. I knew of their vows, and their role in keeping watch over mages, hunting down those who tried to hide or escape from the Circle’s control, but precious little more than that.

Still, as I peered cautiously at Alistair, I had to admit he was not remotely what I expected—either for a Grey Warden, or a mage-hunter.

“Usually it’s not something you’re allowed to stop,” he said reflectively. “They don’t like to give you up. But joining the Chantry wasn’t my idea. My fate was decided for me long before that.”

Perhaps it was the slightly pensive bitterness that ran beneath his words, or the way he’d slowed his stride to keep pace with me, but I found myself reminded of a defiant, unruly boy, slouching along the street with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the cobbles with scuffed, ill-fitting boots. I looked afresh at my new companion.

He wore his blond hair cropped short which, I had always assumed, didn’t mean the same for humans as it did for us.

Traditionally, elven men started to grow queues or braids in adulthood. Short hair was associated with immaturity and youth—possibly another reason we called humans shemlens—or, in later life, with cutting the hair as a sign of mourning. Certainly, I remembered Father cutting his braid after Mother died and, for a while, I’d gone short-haired too.

Of course, fashion subverts conventions, and the younger men often competed with each other over who sported the shortest, most daring cut, preening over every razored nape and feathered fringe. Like Nelaros, I supposed, and I wondered briefly whether, had he lived, he’d have proven to be a dandy.

No point in dwelling on maybes, though.

I looked up at Alistair. “So, how did Duncan get you out?”

For a moment, I had the oddest sensation he was about to spin a tale involving rope ladders and tunnels dug with spoons, but he just shrugged.

“Duncan saw I wasn’t happy, and figured my training against mages could double for fighting darkspawn. The grand cleric wouldn’t have let me go if he hadn’t forced the issue… Duncan risked a lot of trouble to help me. I’ll always be grateful to him.”

Loyalty and warmth positively seeped from his voice.

I didn’t have much difficulty picturing the scene, though; I recalled the way Duncan had faced down the Captain of the Guard on my behalf. The ease, the grace with which he’d ridden roughshod over every law and protocol, without turning a hair.

Still, I was… circumspect. Thinking back to those tense, uncertain moments in the alienage—when my life hung by a thread, yet I’d been too numb to do anything but stand there like a fool—I remembered how so much had pulsed beneath the surface. Things I wasn’t even aware of at the time, like the words the hahren and Duncan had exchanged just before the garrison arrived, and the manner in which Valendrian had shaken his head…. Almost as if he’d been admitting defeat, bowing to some pre-arranged deal the Warden had offered.

I didn’t want to allow myself to think like that. The monsters that pressed in on this new life of mine were enough, without seeing conspiracies and intrigues behind every new face.

Instead, I nodded thoughtfully, and shot Alistair a curious glance.

“You didn’t want to join the Chantry, then?”

“No!” He shook his head fervently, then seemed to backtrack a little on his vehemence. The short sigh he gave sounded almost guilty. “I mean, it just… wasn’t for me. I believe in the Maker well enough, but I never wanted to devote my life to the Chantry. I spent years cooped up there, hopelessly resigned to my fate. Duncan was the first person who cared what I wanted.”

He stopped, and looked mildly embarrassed.

“You speak very fondly of him,” I observed. “That’s… encouraging.”

“Well, Duncan’s a good man. A good judge of character,” he added, giving me a sidelong look.

I wondered what that was supposed to mean. Backhanded compliment, or faith in his leader’s judgement, despite my initial appearance? I settled on not investigating the possibilities. The thought of trying to imagine how I must look to Alistair—particularly at the moment, with my motley collection of bruises and painfully obvious inexperience—was not inviting. I focused on Duncan instead.

“And he’s really the leader of all the Grey Wardens in Ferelden?”

Alistair smiled, convincing me that my parochial naivety must be showing again.

“Yes, he is… which he would say doesn’t mean much, as there aren’t many of us here. Yet. But that will change, given time.” He slipped me a sharp, curious glance. “And what about you? What do you think of him?”

“He seems like a kind man,” I said, consideringly. “Kind, but firm. I… I owe him as well. He saved me.”

I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be to talk about what had happened back in Denerim, but I wanted to, I realised. I wanted to say the words, make them feel real.

Duncan had saved my life.

“Hm.” Alistair nodded, a rueful smile on his face. “That sounds familiar. He’s done the best he can with what little he has… and that includes me, I guess.”

For once, he didn’t seem to be joking.

We were almost at Duncan’s fire, the great orange beacon of it blazing out from under one of the few intact domes in the ruin. Nerves gave rise to hesitancy, and my steps slowed. I could make out the silhouettes of Duncan and the other two recruits, gathered around the bonfire, and I knew they were waiting. I also knew that there would be no putting off the ritual that awaited, and that birthed an uncomfortable apprehension in me.

No shame in being scared, I told myself. There had been too much mystery and melodrama over the past few days… only natural for me to feel the pressure of it.

Yet this wasn’t just anxiety. If I had taken any lessons from the alienage, key among them was how to judge the mood of a place, how to taste the tensions and the threats smouldering beneath the surface. Back home, it could mean the difference between a smack in the face and a knife in the ribs. Here, I could almost smell the sense of foreboding.

“Um….”

We were approaching the Magi encampment, on our left. Still several good yards between me and whatever fate awaited. Alistair glanced expectantly at me.

“Ye-es?”

“So, er….” I tried for nonchalance, and suspect I failed. “What can you tell me about this ritual?”

He winced. “Not a lot. That is, I’m not supposed to—”

“Oh. Right.”

I noticed that the mages had retired, and the flashes of light and flame seemed to have stopped at last. I supposed they had to eat, like everyone else, though I’d quite gone off the idea of food. I peered up at Alistair, and found him chewing his bottom lip, as if caught in some moral quandary.

In a calculated and rather callous jab at whatever compassion he might have, I stopped and looked pathetically at him.

“So… you can’t tell me anything?”

It was the dastardly combination of scared-little-girl voice and big brown eyes that I used to pull on Father when I wanted my own way. Sometimes, it even worked.

Alistair looked pained and then—to my ignoble and private flash of triumph—visibly deflated. Perhaps it was the combination of voice, eyes, and black-and-blue bruises that did it.

“I… look, I can’t tell you much, all right?” He lowered his voice, glancing over towards Duncan’s fire before he spoke, as if he genuinely thought the man might overhear. “The Joining is… very unpleasant. I wish I could forget it, but I can’t. I don’t envy you what you’re going to have to go through.”

It probably served me right for pushing him. My mouth tightened, and I nodded slowly. At least he’d had the guts to tell me.

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Hey.” He smiled weakly. “If becoming a Grey Warden were easy, we wouldn’t recruit the best.”

I snorted, my gaze falling to the mud-churned, scrubby ground. In that small moment of silence, I heard flames crackle, and a distant roar of laughter; the sound of people at a meal together, breaking bread before the coming battle.

“You know,” Alistair said, ostensibly with an air of scholarly enquiry, and a none-too-subtle attempt at lightening the atmosphere, “since we’re talking about it, something just occurred to me.”

I dragged my gaze from the dirt and lofted an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Mm.” He folded his arms across his broad chest, and smirked at me. “It occurred to me that there have never been many women in the Grey Wardens. I wonder why that is?”

A few hours ago, I would have tried to read some kind of prejudice into that statement. Like a cornered cat, my thoughts would have been all claws and hisses. Instead, I just chuckled.

“Maybe we’re too smart for you.”

“True.” He grinned. “But, if you’re here, what does that make you?”

“Hm.” I looked over towards Duncan’s fire. “Just one of the boys.”

Alistair nodded sagely. “Sad, isn’t it?”

He caught my eye, and we laughed then. Both of us. The first actual laugh I’d shared with somebody since… what? Maker’s breath, since laughing with Soris about him marrying a girl who hid grain away for the winter. That memory, and all the others that fitted so uncomfortably beside it, pressed down like the weight of cold rain on the back of my neck, and the smile died on my lips.

“Come on.” Alistair jerked his head in the direction of the fire. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

 

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