Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Six

 
———————————-
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————-

I will never forget my first full sight of Ostagar.

Though it had stood as a ruin for four hundred years, it was still impressive—and to me, at least—glorious. The style of the architecture, with all its Imperial domes, massive columns and great, carved blocks, seemed very foreign, but there was something reassuring about being back amongst stones and mortar, after all the strange, comfortless, open spaces I’d faced.

We rode up on the eastern side of the camp, and I could see the enormous gorge yawning between the two halves of the ruins, with a high tower rising at the southeast point. It was dark, grim, and curtained by massive arches and walls, as if the stones themselves were guarding against our arrival. There were few signs of life until we drew nearer, and a small band of soldiers jogged out to meet us.

Duncan reined his horse to a standstill. I struggled with Iron Neck, who had grown increasingly irritable over the course of the journey and now—despite hours of apparently not wanting to go any further—did not appear to want to stop.

“Warden Commander!” One of the soldiers bowed. “It’s good to see you, ser. His Majesty’s been hoping you’d arrive soon. He’s just beyond the Walk… no doubt he’ll want to speak with you.”

Duncan slipped easily from the horse’s back and passed the reins to the soldier. “Thank you. We will attend him directly. Would you arrange someone to deal with the horses? Have the rest of the things taken to the Grey Warden tent.”

“Of course,” the soldier said.

I felt him look at me, the unspoken question lingering in the air for just a moment, but then one of the other men came forward and took my horse’s reins. Dragging my pack with me, I dismounted clumsily, as sore and numb as ever.

To be elven in the company of humans is to be used to being the shortest one in the room—unless there happens to be a dwarf at the table—but I still felt unsettled at being in the centre of this group of men. I kept my eyes fixed on the ground, and almost flinched when Duncan touched my shoulder.

“Come.”

I shouldered my pack and glanced up at him, curious. We had made it with a few hours to spare before nightfall and, though the light was already thinning, it seemed the day was far from over. Any fond thoughts I might have entertained regarding hot food and rest began to dissipate, and I gave Iron Neck a farewell pat as the soldiers led the horses away.

I wondered how they’d fare among the mighty steeds knights probably had, and Duncan seemed to read my mind, for he answered without my having even asked the question.

“They’ll be packed off with the next messengers sent out in the morning. We don’t have much use for horses here; they scent the darkspawn, and it drives them into a panic. Just one of the things that has had to be considered against what is not, after all, a normal enemy.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I followed Duncan towards the first of the great arches that, once, must have formed an impressive gateway. All that remained now was stone, with a few hardy strips of plantlife clinging on between the cracks.

“Ah, I see His Majesty is keen to greet us,” Duncan observed, causing me to almost fall over my own feet.

I was to meet a king? The king? My knees threatened to buckle, but there was no time to go to pieces. From the old gatehouse, King Cailan was already striding towards us like a sunrise, resplendent in glorious gilted mail and armed with charm.

“Ho there, Duncan!”

He was not what I expected, inasmuch as I’d ever given any thought to the matter. Younger than I’d imagined a king would be, I supposed; all fine, white teeth and golden hair, tall and… magnificent, I had to admit. My body betrayed me. All at once, my shoulders hunched, my knees bent, and I shrunk in on myself, as small and invisible as an elf can be.

“Your Majesty.” Duncan bowed his head. “I was not expecting—”

“A royal welcome?” The king chuckled. “I was beginning to worry you’d miss all the fun!”

“Not if I could help it, your Majesty,” Duncan said dryly.

“Then I’ll have the mighty Duncan at my side in battle after all! Glorious!”

I ventured a look, curiosity ousting my apprehension. Cailan was a one-man whirlwind of confidence and enthusiasm, and its intensity worried me. I had thought kings were serious, arrogant types, who spent their time in deep matters of state and did not spare their smiles for common folk.

I appeared to be wrong, however, because the king was now smiling at me.

“The other Wardens told me you’ve found a promising recruit. I take it this is she?”

I swallowed heavily, unable to help but be reminded of my childhood books, and the legend of King Calenhad, the Silver Knight, and his magical white armour, which neither bow nor blade could penetrate, so long as he stood on Fereldan soil. As far as I knew, the man standing before me had that fabled blood in his veins and—to my tired and gritty eyes—was something a little more than simply human.

Silly thoughts, I told myself. Shems were shems, regardless of their ancestors, and stories were stories. And yet….

Duncan stepped forward. “Allow me to introduce you, your Majesty—”

“No need to be so formal, Duncan,” Cailan chided. “We’ll be shedding blood together, after all. Ho there, friend! Might I know your name?”

You could have blown me away with a breath. All those years of upbringing kicked savagely at me, but I dragged my gaze from the dirt, and looked full into that bright, shining face.

“I-I am Merien, your Majesty,” I managed.

“Pleased to meet you!” Cailan beamed. “The Grey Wardens are desperate to bolster their numbers, and I, for one, am glad to help them. I see you’re an elf, friend. From where do you hail?”

He seemed genuinely curious, no trace of brusqueness or mocking in his dazzling, expansive manner. I wasn’t sure how to respond and—with no wish to mention the matter of alienages—decided that broad brushstrokes were probably preferable.

“The, er, city of Denerim, sire.”

“As do I! Though I’ve not been in the palace for some time.” King Cailan’s expression grew sombre for a moment, and he leaned forwards, looking keenly at me. “Do you come from the Alienage? Tell me, how is it there? My guards all but forbid me going.”

I blinked, my lips numb and my tongue unwilling to move. Words floated before me, but I couldn’t grab hold of them.

In any case, what was I supposed to say?

Well, it stinks in the summer and freezes in the winter, we live like pigs in filth and, oh, yes… just before I left, I cut down a dozen men, including the arl’s son, for murdering the man who was supposed to be my husband, killing my bridesmaid, and raping my cousin….

No. Perhaps not. I chose diplomacy, as best as I was able.

“I would… rather not speak of it, your Majesty,” I said, bowing my head.

“Hm.” Cailan nodded thoughtfully. “One day I’ll see those walls taken down. Your people have suffered enough.”

I stared afresh. The words didn’t sound like empty promises, but how could I believe one who said them so lightly? On top of the bone-aching tiredness of the journey, and all that had preceded it, conflicting waves of gratitude and anger coursed through me. Yet the king was the very model of grace and good cheer.

“Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Ostagar. The Wardens will benefit greatly with you in their ranks.”

He actually bowed to me.

Cailan Theirin, King of Ferelden, son of Maric, and descendent of the Silver Knight, bowed to me.

For a moment, I forgot to breathe.

“Er. You’re too kind, your Majesty.”

He smiled again, and left me eddying in the full force of his charisma.

“I’m sorry to cut this short, but I should return to my tent. Loghain waits eagerly to bore me with his strategies.”

Another effusive, boyish grin. I only hoped his military tactics were as good as his people skills. Duncan cleared his throat.

“Your uncle sends his greetings and reminds you that Redcliffe forces could be here in less than a week.”

Cailan was already turning back to the camp. The dimming light framed him against the great span of the grey stone arches, and painted faint lines of dusky flame on the gilt tracery of his armour.

“Ha! Eamon just wants in on the glory. We’ve won three battles against these monsters and tomorrow should be no different.”

I glanced at Duncan. “I… didn’t realise things were going so well.”

The Warden’s face remained a study in careful blankness.

“I’m not even sure this is a true Blight,” Cailan said cheerfully. “There are plenty of darkspawn on the field but, alas, we’ve seen no sign of an archdemon.”

Duncan raised an eyebrow. “Disappointed, your Majesty?”

The king turned, backlit between the ruined imperial arches, his face bright with some inner fire I didn’t understand… and wasn’t sure I wanted to.

“I’d hoped for a war like in the tales. A king riding with the fabled Grey Wardens against a tainted god! But, I suppose this will have to do.” He gave us one last smile, still so brash and playful. “I must go before Loghain sends out a search party. Farewell, Grey Wardens!”

He nodded to us. Duncan and I made our bows, and watched Cailan sweep away. Once he’d left, I looked curiously at Duncan. The Warden shook his head, and gestured to me to follow him into the camp.

“What the king said is true,” Duncan said as we walked, our footsteps echoing on an avenue of cracked paving stones. “They’ve won several battles against the darkspawn here.”

I glanced up at the towering columns and ruined arches all around us, so still and silent. It seemed to me that I was learning the essence of politics: listening to the shapes between the words, instead of what was actually being said.

“Yet you don’t sound very reassured,” I said carefully.

“No.” Duncan’s mouth tightened. “I know there is an archdemon behind this. But I cannot ask the king to act solely on my feeling.”

“Why not? He seems to regard the Grey Wardens highly.”

We were nearing the huge stone bridge that separated the main body of the camp from the gorge. I could smell fires… and food, which made my painfully empty stomach gripe in anticipation.

“Yet not enough to wait for reinforcements from the Grey Wardens of Orlais,” Duncan said bitterly. “Cailan believes our legend alone makes him invulnerable, but our numbers in Ferelden are too few. We must do what we can and look to Teyrn Loghain to make up the difference. To that end, we should proceed with the Joining ritual without delay.”

It almost slipped past me, tired as I was. I frowned.

“What do you mean? What ritual?”

Duncan fixed me with those dark eyes of his, his face sombre and guarded.

“Every recruit must go through a secret ritual we call the Joining in order to become a Grey Warden. The ritual is brief, but some preparation is required. We must begin soon.”

No hot food, then. And no rest. I tried to block out the protests of my sore muscles and aching bones… and wondered if this was something else through which I had to make my way alone.

“I see. Am I the only recruit you have, or…?”

“No, there are two other recruits here already. They have been waiting for us to arrive.”

Guilt stabbed at me, stupidly and unnecessarily. It wasn’t as if I could have flown here from Denerim, after all. I pulled myself upright, determined not to let Duncan down.

“What do you need me to do?”

He smiled, a flash of the kindness I had seen in him on our journey.

“You have a little while yet. Feel free to explore the camp here as you wish, but please do not leave it for the time being. There is another Grey Warden here, by the name of Alistair. When you find him, tell him that we will be ready to begin preparing for the Joining. He will know what to do. Until then, I have business I must attend to. You may find me at the Grey Warden tent on the other side of this bridge, should you need to. And here… take this.” He passed me a folded paper bearing a hastily pressed seal. “Ask the quartermaster to fit you out. Show him that note, and he’ll give you everything you’ll need.”

I looked down at the small disc on the paper. It bore the symbol of some kind of winged, double-headed creature imprinted into the greasy red wax; a symbol very like the one that patterned Duncan’s surcoat.

The Grey Wardens’ griffon.

“Thank you.”

I bowed, and the corner of Duncan’s mouth curled.

“There is one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“You are allowed to look at people when they speak to you, you know.”

My cheeks prickled with heat, but I nodded, and made a point of meeting his gaze. He chuckled.

“Thank you, Duncan.”

“My pleasure.”

He set off across the bridge, his stride purposeful and long, and I stood for a few moments to get my bearings. Ostagar was clearly a very large place, and though the ruins were pitted with cracks and deteriorated chunks of masonry, it was still overwhelming.

From the bridge I could see the whole gorge, and understood the clear sense of the ruins rising from the mighty rocks, as if the fortress had been carved instead of built. The sky, roiling with dimming clouds and the ghost of a pale dusk moon, was wide and unmarked by the silhouettes of buildings that I was used to seeing above me. Beyond the perimeters of the camp, I could make out the tree line, the forest that fringed the Wilds, and the endless miles of flat, treacherous land that ringed Ostagar. I felt so incredibly small.

I began to cross the bridge, nervous of the parts of it long since lost to decay, and unable to stop myself peering through the gaping holes in the stone to the ground so very far beneath.

On the western side of the gorge stood a soldier in the king’s livery, leaning on a stout wooden pike. He nodded at me as I drew nearer.

“Hail! You must be the Grey Warden recruit that Duncan brought.”

I was surprised, but I rallied.

“Y-yes. Well met.”

He smiled genially at me, and glanced around us.

“This place hasn’t seen such bustle in centuries, I’ll wager. Need a hand getting anywhere?”

I looked at the man, taking in the pale, pudgy face beneath his leather helmet. Was he polite because I had come in with Duncan, or simply bored by his long, desolate watch? I didn’t know, but I was grateful to him.

“Possibly,” I said. “Ostagar seems a… large place.”

“Oh, it is.” He nodded. “Used to be a fortress, long time ago, so I understand. Back in the days when the Wilders used to invade the lowlands. You were just on the eastern side of the ruin. The Tower of Ishal is there, but Teryn Loghain’s closed it off until the battle. This side is the king’s camp. We got the Grey Wardens here, the Circle of Magi, the Chantry… you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody important.”

The soldier slipped me a sly grin, and I smiled back, though some of what he’d said had unnerved me.

“The Circle of Magi is here?”

“Oh, yeah.” He nodded. “Well, a few mages. They even brought some of those creepy Tranquil fellows with ’em. Give me the shivers, they do, way they talk… and their eyes. They’re just to the north, all bunched up with a herd of templars glaring at them. Can’t miss it.”

“I see.” The sound of baying drifted on the cooling air, and I glanced in the direction it had come from, suddenly curious.  “Do I hear dogs barking?”

“This is Ferelden, isn’t it?” He chuckled. “Yeah… the king has his kennels on the west side of camp. Stinks from all the hounds. These aren’t cute puppies, though—some of those dogs bite the darkspawn and get too much of that blood in them… It’s like poison. Slow, painful death. Terrible.”

I blanched, but my new acquaintance didn’t give me time to question him.

“Still, you’ll need to know the important stuff. Latrines are by the right here, just past the Magi tents. Mess is to the north… follow your nose, really, but if you’ll take my advice, stay away from the stew. The infirmary’s up the steps, near the quartermaster’s store; that’s just a little northwest of here.”

“Thank you. And, um, I’m looking for a Grey Warden by the name of Alistair? I don’t suppose…?”

“Try heading north. I think he was sent with a message for the mages.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “And good luck to you, miss.”

I smiled nervously. Miss? Perhaps, despite everything, there were some perks to being one of Duncan’s new recruits. I passed by the soldier and headed under the tall, covered arch, the remnants of one of Ostagar’s Tevinter domes, and into the body of the camp.

It was a maelstrom of activity, but very different to the kind of liveliness I’d been used to in the alienage. Here, everyone moved with purpose. Soldiers walked briskly, or stood in groups, and I saw with a mix of relief and discomfort the familiar figures of elven servants and messengers darting between the tents and encampments.

My mind drifted again to Nessa, and how worried she’d been by thoughts of coming here. It seemed her fears could have been unfounded; I saw several women among the soldiers’ ranks, which I hadn’t expected.

The ruined arches, domes and columns dominated everything, mottled with age and lichen, their sheer scale dizzying, but the many brightly coloured tents of the different encampments were a pleasing—if rather strange—contrast to all the grey stone.

It felt very odd to be wandering here, as if I’d stepped into the pages of a book of tales, like the ones Mother had given me. This place, these people… they were the bones of Fereldan politics and government. Arls, banns, knights, commanders, the king himself, and Teyrn Loghain! Liberators, defenders of our independence… heroes. Names I knew, in the way I knew the second-hand traces of history and lore that filtered down into our culture.

Story-telling in the alienage never had much good to say about the Orlesian occupation. To my father’s generation, they were slavers and oppressors, not to be spoken of, the same way some of the older people would spit at the mere mention of magic. To mine, born and raised after the Battle of River Dane, the horror stories were only stories… but the rumours lingered, both about the occupation, and Orlais itself.

I’d heard it said that, in Val Royeaux, there was an alienage no bigger than Denerim’s market square, and it held ten thousand elves who lived in filth and squalor much worse than ours. I didn’t know whether it was true or not.

Perhaps those stories—like the mean little opinions we nursed of humans—were our way of justifying ourselves, and the existence we had.

In any case, Loghain’s was a heroic name. The farmboy who had risen to become a teyrn, the star of the Rebel Queen’s Resistance, the brilliant strategist who’d freed the country from tyranny, and whose daughter was now Queen of Ferelden…. Surely, I thought, if there was a war to be fought against even as great an evil as the darkspawn, King Cailan had the right general for the job.

I decided I should head first for the quartermaster. If I was to be here, fighting alongside the army—and the thought filled me with gut-churning terror, because what did I truly know about warfare or combat?—I should at least have the right equipment. Clutching Duncan’s note in my hand, I headed in the direction the soldier on the bridge had shown me.

There was so much going in, it was hard to keep my bearings. Beyond one of the great Tevinter domes lay the Circle of Magi’s camp and, through the stone columns, came glimpses of the flashes of magical fire and energy that signalled the mages sparring, or practising their aim… or whatever it was they were doing. I had precious little experience of magic in any form, and must confess that it terrified me. Fear so often finds its way into the gaps ignorance leaves. I associated the Circle mostly with the Tranquils who could occasionally be seen in the market back home—their low, even voices, blank faces and eerie, dull eyes—and, beyond that, I was rather suspicious of all practitioners. They were something apart, something different, and what I perceived as their arrogance frightened me. To have that kind of power…. I saw it as dangerous, and let myself think no further than that.

I passed by the Magi encampment, my pace quickening. There were a number of Chantry priests and clerics here too, and I was much more comfortable with their presence. There was something familiar about the flashes of red and gold, glimpsed among the grey walls and columns, and the dark browns and dull metallic glimmers of leather and splintmail armour.

As I headed to the quartermaster’s store, I passed a rough wooden gantry from which a cleric was leading prayers. Several soldiers were gathered, listening, some kneeling… many white-faced and coldly serious.

“Soldiers of Ferelden, my sisters and gentle folk,” the cleric intoned, “we stand here on the eve of battle. Let us consider the evil before us. In their pride, the mages of the Tevinter Imperium sought to open a portal into the heavenly Golden City itself. They tainted it with their sin, and they were cast back into our world as darkspawn. They are man’s sins made flesh, an evil that spreads like an illness across our land….”

I hadn’t meant to stop and listen, but I found I had, all the same. The tale was familiar, yet today it echoed with so many new truths. It was no longer a myth, no longer just a story, a warning against greed and pride. I glanced at the faces around me, and wondered how many of them had already met with the kind of horrors I had yet to imagine. The cleric spread her arms wide and raised her voice, earnest and clear.

“To face them, we must first face the evil within ourselves. Let us bow our heads and beg the Maker’s forgiveness. Let us not be proud, so we may take courage against the darkness.”

I bowed my head for a moment amid the murmurs of assent and prayer, and felt so out of place. I tried to brush the sense of dislocation away; there was no use in fixing on how much I missed home now. I had no way of getting word back there, either letting Father and everyone else know how I was, or making sure they were all right—and they would be all right, I told myself, they would.

No, this was where I belonged, at least for now. And I had better get used to that fact.

The quartermaster’s store was nestled in the crook of one of the more solid parts of the ruin. What it once been—keep, barracks, or some more public chamber, I wasn’t sure—but it was now a hub of commotion. Wooden crates were piled high, and I was almost lost in the comings and goings of soldiers after supplies and equipment. Snatches of conversation stood out from the buzz like chance reflections on glass.

“What d’you mean he ain’t got no greaves?” one man’s rough, broad voice cried. “I need ’em! Look at this… falling off. Well, when’s the new armour expected, then?”

“And what good’s it gonna do against darkspawn, anyway?” chimed a second. “Have you seen one of ’em, close up?”

A third overlapped, apparently nothing to do with the first.

“How many, then? And none of that second-rate rubbish, mind….”

Close by me, two soldiers with their helms doffed pushed past, their words hushed.

“Psst… have you heard? Arl Howe’s forces are overdue, they’re sayin’.”

“Oi, don’t you go talking like that, Mikal. Sarge’ll have your guts.”

“I’m just saying. Word is the big push comes tomorrow. If they’re not here by then, where are we left? Eh?”

I was curious, and wanted to hear more—one of the few advantages of being largely ignored when standing in a group of shems—but I had been spotted.

“You there! Elf!”

The quartermaster was a large, burly man, red-faced and short-tempered. Standing in the middle of his wares like a ringmaster, he raised one meaty hand and pointed accusingly at me, bushy black brows drawn into a scowl.

“Where’s my armour?”

I automatically tensed, shoulders hunched and neck held tight, catching my breath and annoyed at myself for doing so.

“I-I’m sorry,” I stammered, holding Duncan’s note in front of me like a shield. “I’m not—”

The shem seized the note from me, squinted at it, and his entire face shifted.

“Oh.”

It was like watching a waterfall. All the supercilious crassness melted into confusion, and in turn that became a hasty mishmash of concern and guarded respect.

“You’re the one who arrived with the Grey Warden.” He blinked and looked apologetically at me, the excuses tripping over each other on their way out of his mouth. “Please forgive my rudeness. There are so many elves running about, and I’ve been waiting for— It’s simply been so hectic! I never thought…. P-please pardon my terrible manners. I-I am just the quartermaster, a simple man, no one special….”

It was a heady kind of pleasure, and thrilled me in a very ignoble way.

I had never had a human grovel like that to me before, and I added it to my fast-growing mental list of impossible things. I’d been bowed to by a king, had I not? For the briefest of moments, I felt invincible.

I met the quartermaster’s gaze coolly.

“Perhaps you should treat your servants more kindly.”

“Y-yes, of course. You’re very right.” He flourished Duncan’s note. “I’ll get your kit seen to right away, and perhaps you’d care to browse my… other supplies?”

The man lowered his voice, ushering me to the quieter end of the store, behind the wooden table that served as his counter.

“What kind of supplies do you have?” I asked.

“Arms and armour, for the most part, though I also have some… goods on the side I can provide. Strictly off the record, of course. To keep morale up, you understand.”

I suppressed a smile. “Thank you. I’ll take a look.”

The quartermaster seemed relieved. He tapped the side of his nose with one thick finger and nodded.

“So long as you keep it quiet.”

He drew a heavy, iron-hinged box out from under one of the tables, and set it down in front of me while he busied himself looking through crates and chests.

I opened the box, and bit down on a small gasp. It was a treasure trove like I’d never seen; packets of sweetmeats and dried fruit, wrapped in wax paper, sugarloaf and pound cake, herbs and spices… all kinds of things that, from what I’d heard, were eminently preferable to standard army rations. My mouth watered, my empty stomach clenching like a fist. I had the best part of five silvers to call my own—Valora’s gift to me before I left, tucked in beneath the clothes she’d packed for me—and I wasn’t sure I should spend it. I was still vacillating when the quartermaster came back, his arms full of armour in different sizes, and a leather pack dangling from his hand.

He set the lot down on the table, and smiled nervously at me.

“I, er, I’m afraid we might have to do a little trial and error here,” the quartermaster said ruefully, giving me a greasy smile. “I don’t have a lot of stock in your, um, size.”

~o~O~o~

It took the best part of an hour to get me completely outfitted. I’d never realised there was so much to it, but I soon learned otherwise. There were toughened leather boots that almost reached my knees (though they probably weren’t so high on most humans), their soles studded with nails, laces for said boots, and undersocks—two pairs, in my case, as the smallest available size was still too big. The leather-padded breeches I rather liked, and could have wished I’d had on the ride from Denerim. They went under what the quartermaster called a standard issue leather armour; a sort of tunic with a toughened breastplate and ornate tooling across the yoke. It didn’t fit properly but, once I was in and a few cunning adjustments had been made with a sharp knife and a few extra laces, it was surprisingly comfortable and lightweight.

A wide leather belt cinched around my waist, with plenty of room for anything I might need to carry, and the skirt of the armour—a fringe of mail rings and leather plackets—afforded mid-thigh modesty as well as a little extra protection. Shoulder and elbow guards completed the picture, and the quartermaster asked if I’d be shooting a bow.

“Um….”

I looked blankly at the man.

“Or crossbow? I don’t know rightly what your specialisation is, miss. Most of the Wardens I’ve seen round here go equipped for any eventuality. Got a lovely selection of blades, I have, and a right couple of beauties for bows. Genuine dwarven-made mechanisms, or best quality wood, long and short. Elm, ash… whatever your preference.”

How did I say I had no real idea what he was talking about? I swallowed, my tongue rough against the roof of my mouth.

“Er… could I see the blades?”

Definitely firmer ground. The quartermaster brought out a crate of weaponry, and I thought of the two worn kitchen knives I’d stashed in my pack before I left home, not quite knowing what I intended to use them for.

“Help yourself, miss.”

The man stood back, and I was certain he could not only tell my inexperience, but was laughing at it. I was determined not to look a fool, and I lifted out a sword with a leather-braided hilt and plain, dark scabbard.

Unsheathing the blade, I was struck by its quality, the lightness of the folded steel, and the balance of it. Like the sword Duncan had sent into the dark cells of the arl’s estate, this felt at once as if it was an extension of me, not some metal weight to be toted arduously on the end of my arm. The memories—still so fresh, though they were hundreds of miles away—filled my mind and, unthinking, I brought the sword around in a sweet, solid arc, testing the feel of it through the swing.

No dull smack of flesh this time, no grunt of pain. No screams. I could almost hear Mother pacing me through count after count, showing me how to see and feel the way an opponent was going to move, even before he knew it himself. I smiled.

“Y-yes….”  The quartermaster’s voice wobbled a little. “Very nice.”

I blinked and turned to look at him, unsure whether the man’s nervous expression was to do with seeing an elf armed and armoured, or— Well, I hadn’t even grazed him with the sword. What was there to be frightened of there?

I picked out a very nice pair of grey iron daggers and slid them into my belt, then took a look at the bows on offer. My inexperience aside, the longbow was out of the question, as the thing was almost bigger than I was, and there was no way I’d have been able to draw it. The shortbow looked more manageable, but I decided on the crossbow. The quartermaster explained at length about the superiority of dwarven-made firing mechanisms, and suggested I pay a visit to the butts at the western end of the camp, where the archery captain could tell me how supplies were running for knockback bolts.

“Knockback…?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, yes. Tipped with a little, ahem, somethin’ special,” he said, leaning furtively down to me. “Know what I mean? I don’t know if you’re versed in such things, mind, but… well, every little helps, doesn’t it?”

He ferreted in another of his crates for a few moments, and came out with another small box.

“Just a few, er, curiosities I happen to have acquired,” the quartermaster said nonchalantly, lifting the lid and showing me a selection of tiny vials and bottles, all in dark glass. “Got corrosives, venoms, magebane… all manner of things. Interested?”

I bit my lip. “Maybe later.”

“As you please. Now, you’ll want bracers, and gloves. Fingerless? Makes reloading that much easier, mark you. And, um, I’m not sure what you’ll want to do about a helmet….”

That was a good point.

Human ears are, to elven eyes, strange things, like the afterthought of a sculptor not given to concerning himself with details. For us, ears are important—at least as much as any other feature of a person. Even the homeliest girl, with dainty ears that are well set and nicely angled, can be considered pretty.

Mine, of course, had always been a little on the large side, and about as dainty and delicate as the rest of me, which was probably why I so keenly noticed good ears in others.

However, my insecurities were irrelevant. The inescapable truth was that helmets weren’t designed to accommodate elven ears… especially ones as wide as mine. I ended up taking a leather archer’s cap with me, cut high to leave room for a bowman to sight his arrow, with a leather chinstrap and flap at the back of the neck. I stuffed the thing in my new pack, and somehow hoped I wouldn’t need it.

Finally, I left the quartermaster, completely decked out in gear I knew must have cost more than a year’s earnings back home. My belt and back bore weapons, and my presence here as a Warden—albeit still a recruit—seemed to generate respect, which was new enough to me to feel like a dream.

And, of course, I had a few small packets of sugared pound cake stowed at the bottom of my pack. Few things can lift the heart higher.

I was heading out from the store and towards the west end of camp when I spotted a slim, dark-haired man trying to flirt with one of the soldiers: a blonde woman in heavy splintmail armour, whom he’d corned by the steps that led up to the infirmary.

“So… any last wishes I can help fulfil before you head into battle?” the man asked cheerfully. “Life is fleeting, you know. That pretty face could be decorating some darkspawn spear this time tomorrow.”

The soldier fingered the hilt of her sword in a meaningful manner, but it did little to dispel the man’s bright, chirpy tone.

“Shall I take that quiet glare as a no? Ah, well. Too bad.”

She strode past, muttering under her breath, and he turned to face me, still grinning optimistically. My heart sank, years’ worth of memories from the alienage reminding me of the letching we endured from grubby-pawed guards… but this man’s demeanour was not the same. He was sharp-eyed, tan-skinned, and quick on his feet, rather like the stray dogs we used to get on the midden piles back home.

And, oddly, even though he was eyeing me up, I didn’t feel threatened.

I was trying to decide whether that was due to his playful smile, or the large sword I now carried, when he spoke.

“Well, you’re not what I thought you’d be.”

“No?” I quirked an eyebrow. “And what did you think I’d be?”

“Well, not an elf. Yet here you are. Duncan’s third recruit, right?”

I nodded. “Merien. And you are…?”

“The name’s Daveth.” His grin widened. “It’s about bloody time you came along. I was beginning to think they’d cooked this ritual up just for our benefit.”

Perhaps, a little while ago, I would have apologised, or looked at the ground. Instead, I just shrugged.

“It was a long journey from Denerim.”

“Denerim? Really? You too?” Daveth chuckled. “Well, well. Small world.”

“What do you know about this Joining ritual?” I asked, not particularly wanting to dwell on my home city.

He edged closer, leaned in, and fixed me with a conspiratorial stare.

“We-ell… I happened to be sneaking around camp last night, see, and I heard a couple of Grey Wardens talking. So I listen in for a bit, and I’m thinking they plan to send us into the Wilds.”

I was nonplussed. “The Wilds?”

“Yeah.” Daveth looked at me as if I was an idiot. “We’re right on the northern edge of the Korcari Wilds here. Miles and miles of savage country. My home village isn’t far, and I grew up on tales about the Wilds. Even been in there a few times… scary place.”

I determinedly pushed away the thoughts I’d had on the journey, of bandits and monsters behind every tree. No. I was going to be brave, and worthy of whatever it was I was expected to do here. I owed Duncan that much in payment for my life.

Besides, I wasn’t totally convinced that Daveth wasn’t winding me up. I looked carefully at his narrow, poorly shaven face, and decided I wouldn’t be able to tell whether he was or not. Whatever else the man was, he was a trickster, and a clever one at that… and, human or not, I found I rather liked him.

“All right,” I said, playing along. “Why are the Wilds so frightening?”

“You don’t know?” Daveth widened his dark eyes. “There’s all sorts out there. Cannibals, beasts, witches, and now darkspawn. What isn’t to be scared of?”

He pulled a face, as if terrified, and I couldn’t help smiling. I suspected this man was a great deal braver than he pretended—or that he at least had the sense to identify and run from danger long before it caught him. He wore leather armour much like mine, though his seemed slightly different to the quartermaster’s goods, and was spotted with more grease stains. The carved pommel of the dagger at his hip definitely spoke of a more personal weapon than standard issue, and he wore a shortsword across his back.

Daveth shook his head. “Nah, it’s all too secretive for me. Makes my nose twitch. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Like we have a choice.”

Another conscript, I wondered? It seemed too soon to ask. I might only have been in the camp a short while, but already I realised that the army was very like the alienage; you didn’t ask questions of anyone to whom you’d mind giving your own answers, and you didn’t presume the right to pry before it was granted. I smiled at my fellow recruit.

“I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”

“Oh, I’ll watch your back.” Daveth chuckled, his gaze dropping to skim my figure.

I expected to be annoyed, or at least to blush, but it didn’t quite happen.

“Just don’t get too distracted back there,” I warned.

He laughed. “I’ll try to keep my wits about me. Anyway, I’ll be seeing you later, and then I guess we’ll all see what this ritual’s all about.”

I bade him farewell, and watched him go. That cocky stride was familiar to me, though I’d not seen it on a human before. He reminded me of some of the boys I’d grown up with in the alienage—that odd mix of pride and knowing, of cunning and sheer, blind guts. Dirty knees but perfectly combed hair.

I smiled to myself, and supposed that maybe I could get used to this new life.

Still, all this talk of the Joining ritual had me worried. As if the coming battle wasn’t enough to face. What would we be required to do? Prove our bravery, recite some strange, archaic oath?

I headed on towards the westerly end of camp, passing by the kennels on my route. The solider I’d spoken to earlier had been quite right; it stank of dog. More than that, though… there was the unmistakeable, sickly hint of illness. The baying of hounds grew louder, and I wanted to hurry on, but a voice called out to me.

“’Scuse me! Miss?”

I turned, and found a man in heavy leather gauntlets and a foul apron waving hopefully at me. His pouchy, haggard face split into a smile as I approached.

“Hello. Are you the new Warden? I could use some help.”

It still surprised me to be addressed that way—to be asked, not commanded.

I crossed to where the man stood, by one of the many wooden gates that led to the dog pens. Thick layers of bedding straw covered the cold, hard ground and, in the pen behind the human, I could make out the hunched body of an enormous dog.

“What’s the problem?”

The kennel master rubbed his chin with one gloved hand. “See here?”

He pointed into the pen, and the dog’s head immediately snapped up, a low growl of warning bubbling in its throat. I’d never seen such a strong, fearsome animal. Its massive shoulders supported a bull-like neck, leading to a wide skull and short, powerful muzzle with jaws like a vice. The legs were hard and compact, and the coat short, a brownish brindle through which the outline of every muscle showed.

“This here’s a mabari. Smart breed, and very strong. His owner died in the last battle, and the poor hound swallowed darkspawn blood. I have medicine that might help, but I need him muzzled first.”

“I don’t really know anything about dogs….”

The kennel master smiled awkwardly. “Well, it’s not what you know so much as what you are, really.”

I eyed the human suspiciously. “Sorry?”

An elf, I assumed. Quick and nimble… and no one would mind if I got bitten.

“You’re a Grey Warden,” the man said,  “or soon will be. They say the Wardens are immune to the darkspawn taint, so the most you’d have to worry about is a few toothmarks.”

This was news to me, not that it was all that encouraging. I looked at the hound, and the string of drool escaping from its immense jaws.

“And, er, just how smart is this dog?”

“They say, centuries ago, a mage bred them to be smart enough to understand what they’re told. They can remember and carry out complex orders. Most valuable dogs in the world,” he added proudly. “Trouble is, they generally imprint onto one master; re-imprinting them can be difficult. Of course, if I can’t treat this fellow, re-imprinting him won’t be an issue.”

The dog looked up at me from within the wooden bars of his pen, and let out a piteous whine.

“I’ll give it a shot,” I said.

The kennel master sighed, relived. “Oh, thank you, Warden. Go in the pen and let him smell you. We’ll know right away if he’ll respond. Let’s hope this works… I would really hate to have to put him down.”

He unlocked the gate for me, and I slipped through into the hound’s pen. The animal stank of pain and fear, and he looked at me dourly, head lowered and lips pulled back into a tooth-filled grimace. The growl was deep and unwavering, but the hound didn’t try to bite me. I held out my hands, palms first, and let him scent me. His wide, black nose wrinkled, but other than that he did not move.

The kennel master passed the leather muzzle over the gate. I edged gently forwards and, as quickly as I could, fastened the thing over the hound’s head. The dog let out a small whine, but did not struggle or threaten. I gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder, and slipped from the pen.

“Well done!” The kennel master beamed at me, looking more than ever like one of his wrinkle-snouted wardogs. “Now I can treat the dog properly—poor fellow. Come to think of it, Warden, are you heading into the Wilds any time soon?”

I brushed the lingering bits of straw and dog hair from my hands, and tried not to think of Daveth’s words about witches and cannibals. Would they really subject us to something like that? Some test of bravery, like schoolboys measuring their yards behind the boghouse? I hadn’t thought Duncan the type to put much store in whether we quivered at superstitions or not… which probably meant something else was in store. I pushed the thoughts away.

“I might be. Why?”

“There’s a particular herb I could use to improve the dog’s chances. It’s a flower that grows in the swamps here, if I remember. If you happen across it, I could use it. It’s very distinctive; all white with a blood-red centre.”

The kennel master smiled encouragingly at me, and I knew I wouldn’t refuse. It would have been like… well, kicking a puppy.

“All right,” I said. “Where in the Wilds would I find this flower?”

“It usually grows in dead wood that collects at the edge of ground pools. There should be plenty this time of year. I’d go meself, but there’s no one to watch the pens, and—”

“It’s fine,” I assured him. “I’ll see if I can find one.”

“Much obliged to you, Warden. In the meantime, I’ll start treating our poor friend here.”

As if on cue, the muzzled mabari looked up at me and wagged his stumpy tail pathetically. I smiled at the hound, and took my leave of the kennel master, promising I’d return as soon as I could.

It might have been the armour, or the unfamiliar sensation of being accorded a little respect, but I was starting to feel like a totally different person. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror in more than two days, but I knew the way I looked had changed. The bruises on my face—the late Lord Braden’s knuckle prints, plus the other various cuts and scrapes I’d acquired that horrible day—were still very tender, and must have risen to glorious shades of purple and blue by now, obscuring the uneven blotching of freckles that usually marked my cheeks. I probably resembled some kind of bar-room scrapper, I thought, almost laughing at the image. Either that, or the cheapest kind of petty mercenary.

Nevertheless, I felt… stronger. I’d survived this far, hadn’t I? Even if it didn’t feel real, I was still here, and that was something.

~o~O~o~

Up another set of steps, to the far end of camp, a large group of soldiers had gathered. The ruins of the fortress lay open to the elements here; the great arches and buttresses like the bare-picked bones of some huge beast. Below, the forest waited… and held who knew what horrors.

The soldiers seemed to waiting for some kind of address, so I thought it would probably be a good idea to slip in at the back and see what I could learn, painfully aware as I was of my lack of experience and training.

I overheard snatches of conversation as I slipped through the ranks, and for the first time I sensed how frightened some of these men and women were. King Cailan’s enthusiasm did much to bolster morale—as did his time spent drinking and dicing with the men, instead of hiding himself away in his tent, or so I’d heard—but it didn’t quell all of the whispers that flitted around the edges of the camp.

“You can never get the stink off, I swear,” one man muttered, as I edged past. “It’s poison, that’s what it is. We’re all going to get sick.”

“Psst.” Another soldier nudged the man next to her in the ribs. “I heard this is supposed to be the battle to send the darkspawn back underground. Do you believe that?”

Her comrade—a thin, tallish man with a ragged brown beard—gave her a blank look and then shook his head violently. His eyes were pale blue, and had something of the texture of undercooked eggs about them.

“I don’t know what to believe,” he said, his voice strangulated, as if he didn’t want to speak his thoughts. “We’ve won every battle, but there’s more of them each time.”

“Makes you wonder if them Grey Wardens are right. If—”

“I don’t wanna think about it.”

The first soldier snorted and folded her arms. “Sounds like the perfect time to get drunk, if you ask me. Hey, did you hear? The last scouting party made it back last night. Barely.”

The egg-eyed man had turned to face straight ahead again, and I wondered why she didn’t just leave him alone. Did humans really need the reassurance of knowing they were all as scared as each other?

“What d’you mean?” he whispered hoarsely, not looking at her.

“Only two of them made it,” the soldier said, her face grim, “and one of ’em was minus a leg. Said they encountered some darkspawn that was ten feet tall, with horns as long as your arm. The injured one died last night. They said his blood was already turning black.”

“Maker’s breath!” The man winced. “Where are they all coming from?”

She just shook her head, and said nothing more.

I stayed where I was, unnoticed and unacknowledged in the press of bodies. Behind us, archers were clustered at the practice butts, and the repetitive thwack of arrows thronged the uneasy quiet as the soldiers waited. I could make out a bundle on the flagstones at the front of the group, and I didn’t know what it was, except for the fact it smelled foul… like rotting meat and old blood.

It reminded me of the cheap butcher’s shop by the south market gate of the alienage, which always used to throw its slops into the gutters at closing time. Rivers of offal and thick, foul-smelling blood would seep down under the gate, mixing with the mud and filth, and on summer evenings the stench grew so bad it turned even strong men’s stomachs.

Movement in front of the assembled troops pulled me from my thoughts. A man in heavy mail and studded leather, his armour almost as worn and battle-beaten as his face, stepped up before us. I didn’t know who he was, but the way he held himself—and the way every face in the crowd turned at once to him, and every back straightened—told me he was a man of rank.

“All right, men, listen up.”

Silence fell across the group, and there were a few heel-clicks and cries of ‘Yes, sarge!’, followed by awkward chortles of laughter. The sergeant smiled grimly, and I caught a glimpse of the warmth and camaraderie that must, in less dire times, be a heartening component of army life. But, at that moment, nothing could distract us from the bundle on the stones.

The sergeant reached down and pulled back the foul, stained blanket that I now saw covered it, revealing a bloody corpse. It was smaller than elf-height, though stocky and clad in thick-splinted leather armour. I could make out a head, two arms, two legs… and there the similarity to anything familiar seemed to end.

The creature had clawed, gnarled hands, and skin of a putrid, greenish colour. Its head was bald, the ears less like an elf’s than a bat’s, ragged and thin. The face was damaged, and from what I could see contorted in a gruesome death spasm, but the mouth was open, showing ranks of wicked, fang-like teeth. That horrific, lipless maw gaped, wide as a trap and twice as deadly, pulled back tight over black gums. Beneath tiny, squinting eyes, nearly buried in folds of skin, the lower part of the face was more like a muzzle than anything else. The blood that marked the corpse—crusted around numerous wounds, and staining the creature’s armour—was thick and black, not from exposure to the air, but as if it had never been any other colour.

I was both terrified and sickened. Was this repulsive specimen a taste of what we would face in battle? I stared at the creature, trying to imagine how it must have moved in life, what it sounded like… how quick it was, and how dangerous. This new existence of mine—warrior, Warden, whatever I was to become—felt more than ever like a death sentence, and I struggled to believe it wasn’t all some sick dream.

“Now, listen,” the sergeant said, raising his voice as he pointed down to the corpse. “This wretched thing is a darkspawn. They’re strong and cunning and smart, but don’t listen to those old wives’ tales. They can be killed. Stick them with your sword enough, and they go down.”

A general shuffling of feet and bodies descended as the group craned for a better look. Murmured oaths and whispers of disbelief rustled through the crowd.

“Their blood is black as sin, and poisonous,” the sergeant said. “You hear? Don’t even touch it. You get tainted with that blood, and you may as well slit your throat. We’ve lost many dogs already. Had to muzzle ’em to keep ’em from biting. It’s a long and painful way to die.”

I thought of the kennel master’s mabari, and understood what the man had meant. I’d assumed it was just the pain that made the hounds vicious but, looking at this… thing, it seemed no small leap to imagine it could be so lethally corrupted.

“There are lots of darkspawn,” the sergeant went on. “Different kinds. Now, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but… it is true we’re getting reports of things we’ve never even heard of out there.”

That met with increased muttering from the soldiers. I heard one man’s voice, barely lowered and strained with panic:

“See? I told you—long as yer arm! They’ll kill us all…. Kill us, and eat us!”

The sergeant straightened up and scowled into the press of men.

“Oi! I want this nonsense talk stopped. Now. You understand? What are you, a bunch of fishwives, spreading gossip until you brown your smallclothes out of terror?” He shook his head wearily. “I will say this once more. We’ve seen nothing—I repeat, nothing—to suggest that the darkspawn drag our people underground to eat them. And I want this talk about enslaving survivors to stop immediately. All right?”

Assorted mumbles of ‘yes, sarge’ filtered through the soldiers, but a distinct sense of unease remained.

“Right, then. Back to our short friend.” The sergeant kicked the corpse savagely with the side of his boot. “This here is something called a genlock. They’re pretty common in the horde, but we have seen others much larger. We don’t know where these new darkspawn are coming from, or what they can do. All I can say is to use caution, and remember: there aren’t any we’ve seen that won’t die, once they bleed enough.”

I wish I could say it was a comforting thought. The sergeant went on to demonstrate the weak points in the creature’s armour, their vulnerabilities and the most significant dangers they posed. I stayed, watched and listened, and learned a great deal, though precious little of it even felt real.

“All right, that’s it. Now, we’ll be burning this carcass so it doesn’t infect anything. And as for you lot,” the sergeant added, “you take what you’ve learned here, and use it. Keep your minds focused on the battle. You fight for Ferelden, and for your king. Remember that.”

Slowly, the gathering began to disperse. A couple of soldiers started to heap wood together, and by the time I had explored the archery butts—and learned by sight the basic theory of how to fire a crossbow without flaying my fingers or shooting myself in the knee—the smell of wood smoke was already heavy on the air. The light was thinning, and the coming dusk brought with it a sharp chill, and a sense of foreboding.

As I walked back towards the centre of the camp, the Chantry clerics were still leading prayers from their rough wooden gantry. It unsettled me to realise that I heard them now with an altogether different, and rather bitterer ear. I had seen my first glimpse of the darkspawn—those things of legends and allegory, the sins of the magisters made flesh—and it had opened up a new world for me, full of darker things and colder realities than I had dreamt of before.

“Maker above,” the cleric intoned, “hear the prayers of your sons and daughters. We who betrayed your prophet Andraste now beg your forgiveness. Do not abandon us in our darkest hour. Watch over valiant King Cailan and guide him as he faces this terrible evil.”

Several of the soldiers, and many knights, were gathered at the foot of the gantry, some kneeling in prayer and others standing silently, their faces strangely drawn, blank in the way I have since learned tells of horrible memories that run close to the surface. I stopped, listened… and longed for a little of the warmth and comfort I used to get from the sisters’ words when I was a child.

“Watch over Teyrn Loghain and give him the wisdom to bring us victory against the scourge of shadows. Watch over Ferelden, the homeland of holy Andraste. Keep her people safe from the darkspawn. Let us bow our heads and offer prayers to the Maker, that He might find us worthy.”

Yes, I prayed. I don’t even really know what for; looking back, I know I didn’t understand what would come. I knew nothing of how battle worked, how messy and chaotic it all was, or what role I was supposed to play. I was frightened. If I beseeched the Maker for anything, it was probably to wake up in my own bed and be told I’d had a terrible dream.

The words were all there, of course. The Chantry has always given us endless words. There were words for contrition, words for humility… even words to pad out the promise of death with the hope of heroism. The cleric’s voice, clear and well-spoken, rang out around us all, like a bell tolling ships into the docks through the mist. I wonder how many of those men and women truly took comfort from what she said.

“We stand here in this hour, good folk of Ferelden, and we contemplate the death that may await. Death is no failure, my friends. Should it find you, you will not have failed your king. You will have served your Maker.”

All that new-found strength and courage of mine—buoyed up as I’d been, foolish child, by a few smiles and a little eye contact—began to ebb. I hadn’t really faced the possibility of my death, at that time. Not as such an immediate option. My head was full of the bloody genlock corpse and its serried ranks of jagged teeth.

The cleric’s words did not calm me.

“Die in this battle and when you stand before the Maker in the land beyond the Fade, He shall not find you wanting. Go not into death gladly, but with the knowledge that evil has been held at bay by your spilled blood.”

Did sacrifice truly work like that? Could the Blight be ended here? And did that prospect really help those who would be asked to lay down their lives for it?

“And, if you go to stand beside the Maker, go with our blessing. For you shall not be forgotten. My friends, let us bow our heads and remember those who have fallen and those who have yet to fall.”

I felt it, then. The grief and the terror of all those gathered around me. The soldiers and the knights in their mighty armour, great swords and bright shields slung across their backs. They seemed to me invulnerable, like the tall statues that were hewn from Ostagar’s ancient stones and lined so many of the fortress’ bridges and walkways. Impassive… impenetrable. But they weren’t. I could smell their fear, and their loss.

Three battles here already, Duncan had said. Each one a victory, but at what cost? And with what more to come?

I turned to leave, wanting to sneak quietly away from the gathering, but one of the priests shuttling between this informal open-air chantry, and the infirmary that lay up the next stairway, caught my eye. She smiled at me, a figure of calm and tranquillity in her red-and-gold robe, her auburn hair coiled neatly at the back of her neck. I was reminded of Revered Mother Boann, back in Denerim, who had tried so hard to stand between us and Vaughan.

“Ah! I suspect you are one of the new Grey Wardens.”

Was I really so recognisable? I supposed it was something to do with being the only elf in armour in the entire camp… or, at least, the only one I’d seen so far.

The priest inclined her head. “Will you accept the Maker’s blessing?”

I nodded. It would have been churlish to refuse and, in any case, I didn’t feel I was in much of a position to refuse help or benediction, whatever form it came in.

“I will. Thank you.”

She stretched out her palm, lowered her gaze, and uttered words I tried so hard to draw strength from.

“Then I bless you, Grey Warden, in the name of Andraste and the Maker above. May the Chant of Light carry your name to the ears of our Lord.”

I thanked the woman and, as I turned to leave, my path crossed that of a broad, stocky human in heavy mail. He wore a huge greatsword across his back, and his bare head bore large, doughy features that he stretched into an uncertain smile as he approached me.

“Greetings. You must be the third recruit we’ve heard about?”

His voice marked him out; certainly as different to Daveth, and about as far removed from the humans I was used to as it was possible to be. Well-spoken, educated… a knight, I guessed, though his armour was unlike that of most of the king’s men. I bowed my head.

“I am, ser. Merien Tabris. And you…?”

“Ser Jory is my name. I hail from Redcliffe, where I served as knight under the command of Arl Eamon.”

His introduction was like a salute, crisp and confident. It would have meant more if I knew of the place, or its lord. I didn’t say as much, of course, but nodded and fought all my body’s urges to bow and stare at the flagstones. Ser Jory’s next words, however, cured me of that compulsion.

“I wasn’t aware elves could join the Grey Wardens,” he said, in a rather arch tone. “Those camped in the valley are all human.”

It was not a direct challenge, but I rose to it as if it might have been. Duncan had brought me here, had he not? That surely meant I had just as much chance, or right, or opportunity as this man and—for the first time in my life—I wasn’t about to let anyone tell me otherwise.

“As far as I am aware,” I said, meeting Ser Jory’s gaze, “it is so.”

There was the smallest breath of a silence, the barest trace of defiance in the air between us. The only other humans I’d spoken to in such a manner had been Lord Vaughan’s cronies, and both of those bastards had ended up dead. A part of me blanched to think that this was what I might become; one of those dark, bitter elves who lashes out at their own kind as readily as at the shems.

“No.” The knight drew himself up to his full, and not inconsiderable, height. “Clearly, the Grey Wardens pick their recruits on their merits. I hope we’re both lucky enough to eventually join the Wardens. Is it not thrilling to be given that chance?”

His change of tack was graceful, and I felt a little foolish for my brusqueness. I nodded.

“Indeed, although I’m curious about the Joining ritual.”

“As am I.” Jory leaned closer, lowering his voice. “Has anyone told you about it?”

“Not to speak of, though Daveth said we might be going into the Wilds.”

His dark eyes widened, and his round, pudgy face creased into a look of mildly indignant concern.

“Truly? Well! I never heard of such a ritual. In fact, I had no idea there were more tests after getting recruited. I… well, I suppose I should go and prepare. I shall see you later, no doubt.”

“No doubt, ser.”

Jory straightened his shoulders—that trace of the salute, the military heel-click, still obviously present—and bade me farewell, until we met again to learn what was expected of us for this strange ceremony.

I watched him go, and supposed I should seek out the mysterious Alistair.

 ———————————-
On to Chapter Seven
———————————-
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————-
Home
———————————-

Leave a Reply