CHAPTER FOUR - GLIMPSES OF THE PAST
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
Chapter Eight: Mission’s End
Her eyes, Neria noticed, was not quite as orange in the human form as they were when she was a bird. Closer to yellow. Her hair was as black as the raven’s feathers had been though, and her features handsome, almost masculine in their boldness, but beautiful all the same. She was a little taller than Neria, who herself was of above average height for an elf, and her small mouth was curled in an expression of contempt as she descended the steps. As for her dress – well, Neria could tell that it was not only magical ability that she and this shape-changing witch had in common. The dress was flimsy enough that Neria would have worn it with pride, consisting of a piece of cloth the colour of a dark, red, Antivan wine, casually falling over her breasts in such a manner as to cover as little as possible without being completely redundant and a cowl over the head. A necklace of raven-feathers and bear’s claws hung around a fair, long neck and were tied into armbands and in a belt around her waist, with a black skirt below that seemed to be made from leather.
“Are you a vulture, I wonder?” she went on, speaking a sing-song, accented voice that Neria assumed was how the Chasind spoke. “A scavenger, come poking amidst a corpse whose bones have been long since cleaned? Or merely an intruder, come into these darkspawn-filled wilds of mine in search of… easy prey?”
She continued to walk until she was at the bottom of the stairs, level with them.
“What say you, hmm?” she purred. “Scavenger or intruder?”
Realising that the men were too struck, either by fear or the natural law that said men lost their ability to speak coherently when presented with near-naked breasts, to reply, Neria piped up, “We are neither. The Grey Wardens once owned this tower.”
“’Tis a Tower no longer,” she pointed out. “The Wilds have obviously long since claimed this desiccated corpse.” She paused, and walked again, away from them this time, out towards the tottering archway they had entered through. “I have watched your progress for some time. Where do they go, I wondered…why are they here? And now, you disturb ashes none have touched for so long. Why is that?”
“Don’t answer her,” said Alistair, stepping forward. “She looks Chasind, and that means others may be nearby.”
“You fear barbarians will swoop down upon you?” she asked, raising her arms in a mocking gesture.
“Yes, swooping is bad,” said Alistair, matching her tone.
“She’s a Witch of the Wilds, she is!” exclaimed Daveth, finding his tongue from wherever he had lost it for the past few minutes. “She will turn us all into toads, she will!”
It was amusing to hear the smooth-talking Denerim cut-purse revert to the accent of a village farm-boy faced with what must be, for him, mortal terror. The ‘Witch of the Wilds’ was what rural Ferelden women in this part of the country threatened their children with if they did not behave. The fear, no doubt, ran deep. This woman was certainly a witch, and lived in the Wilds, but as of now, Neria saw no reason to fear her more than any other mage.
“Such idle fancies, these legends,” she responded with a dismissive smile. “Have you no minds of your own? You there, elf – women do not scare as easily as little boys – tell me your name and I shall tell you mine.”
“I am Neria. A pleasure to meet you,” was Neria’s answer, accompanied by the most disarming smile she could summon.
“Now that is a proper, civil greeting, even out here in the Wilds,” the Witch smiled back. “You may call me Morrigan.”
There was a moment there, the breeze blowing through the trees and dilapidated ruins, when Morrigan and Neria looked at each other, blue eyes and yellow, and the others seemed to grow somehow smaller, as though they would never share the understanding that two mages did, and could.
“Shall I guess your purpose,” said Morrigan, turning away again and walking towards Alistair. “You sought something in that chest, something that is here no longer.”
“Here no longer?” Alistair’s eyes narrowed as he looked upon her. “You – you took them, didn’t you? You are some sort of…sneaky witch thief!”
“How very eloquent. How does one steal from dead men, I wonder?” she shot back.
“Quite easily, it seems,” said Alistair, gesturing towards the broken chest. “Those documents are Grey Warden property, and I suggest you return them.”
“I will not,” replied Morrigan, her frown quite fearsome. “For it was not I who removed. Invoke a name that means nothing here any longer if you wish, I am not threatened.”
“Then who removed them?” asked Neria pacifically.
“It was my mother, in fact,” she said, raising her eyebrows with a half-smile.
“Well then, can you take us to her?”
“Now there is a sensible request,” answered Morrigan. “I think I rather like you. Follow me, then, if it pleases you.”
They began to walk behind the mysterious witch, Neria and Alistair in front, the other two trailing behind, Daveth obviously in a state of fear.
“I’d be careful,” whispered Alistair in Neria’s ear. “First it’s ‘I like you’ and then ‘zap!’ Frog time!”
Neria rolled her eyes.
“She’ll put us in the pot, she will…,” Daveth was whispering to Jory behind her.
“If the pot is warmer than this forest, it will be a nice change,” replied Jory.
Which was the most intelligent thing he had said since she had first laid eyes upon him.
Their walk was a long one – and also completely free of any encounters with darkspawn, wolves or any animal bigger than a rabbit. It made Neria not a little suspicious, but she kept her thoughts to herself.
‘Mother’ proved to be a grey-haired and wrinkled but otherwise hale and hearty woman in a faded green dress. There were faint indications of beauty behind those wrinkles, but one would have to have look very hard to find them.
“Mother,” said the black-haired Witch, “I bring with me four Grey Wardens who - “
“I see them, dear,” the old woman interrupted her. “Hmm. Much as I expected.”
“Are we supposed to believe you were expecting us?” asked an incredulous Alistair.
“You are expected to believe,” the woman said, a playful glint in her eye, “nothing. Shut one’s eyes tight or open one’s arms wide, either way one’s a fool.”
Neria knitted her brows as she tried to figure that out, while Daveth and Jory began to bicker about whether or not they should even be talking to her. Morrigan shook her head in disgust, but the old woman fixed a glassy eye on Neria and asked, “What about you, elf? Do you believe what they do, or does your woman’s mind tell you something different?”
Neria weighed her words.
“I’m not quite sure what to believe,” she said.
“A statement that contains more wisdom than at first appears,” chuckled Morrigan’s mother. “Always be aware, I say…or is it oblivious? I never can decide.” She sighed. “So much about you is uncertain, and yet, I believe. Do I? Why, it seems I do!”
Quite uncertain what to make of this seemingly random drivel, Neria looked hesitantly towards Alistair, who shrugged, and muttered, “So this is a dreaded Witch of the Wilds?”
“A Witch of the Wilds, is it?” cackled the old crone, on whose hearing, at least, age had clearly taken no toll. “Morrigan must have told you that. She fancies such tales, though she would never admit it. Oh, how she dances under the moon!”
It was Morrigan’s turn now to roll her eyes.
“They did not come here to listen to your wild tales, mother,” she said, still in the sing-song lilt.
“True,” said her mother, her voice suddenly quite lucid. “They came for their treaties, yes?”
She began to walk towards the small hut in which it seemed she and Morrigan lived. They could hear her continue to talk as she was inside and when she came out, holding some scrolls of parchment in her hand, she admonished them not to bother about the broken seals, saying they had worn off a long time ago.
“Take them to your Grey Wardens,” she said, “and tell them this Blight’s threat is greater than they realise.”
“And how do you know that?” asked Neria.
“Do I?” those old eyes gave her a piercing gaze, even as she chuckled again. “Perhaps I’m just a crazy hag with a penchant for mouldy parchment.”
“Well, you have what you came for,” said Morrigan, “time for you to go, then.”
“Do not be ridiculous, girl, these are our guests,” her mother cut in.
“Oh very well,” muttered Morrigan. “Come, I can take you back to the edge of the Wilds before the day is over. I know a shorter way.”
And with that, she began to march away. Neria looked from the daughter’s shapely figure to the mother’s still-cackling face, and stifling the questions she had in her mind, followed the daughter.
As it turned out, Morrigan led them well beyond the river, taking them through a path in the woods that Alistair swore was not on any map and brought them almost to the point where they had first seen the darkspawn.
“I shall leave you here,” she said, with a yawn. “Even you can find your way back to your fortress from here, I’m sure.”
Considering that they could just about make out the highest towers of Ostagar from where they stood, this was not an unreasonable assumption. Alistair winced as the Witch stepped away and almost quick as a blink, transformed into a raven and flew away before anyone could offer a thanks or a farewell. Not that anyone but Neria would have, of course.
It was already quite dark, and though Ostagar was within their line of sight, it was still quite a long way to walk, with the threat of wild animals and darkspawn ever-present, especially now that they would be going by the conventional route and not the secret paths shown by Morrigan.
“Camp,” he said. “We should get some rest and make for Ostagar in the morning.”
“As you say, fearless leader,” said Neria, and began to throw together some kindling for a fire. Alistair watched as she lazily put together just enough twigs as to form a little cone and snapped the flame to life. His own experience with mages was somewhat limited and overwhelmingly negative. He had gone on a few missions to hunt down Abominations – mages corrupted by demonic possession – and that was about it. Duncan had emphasised often the need for an effective magical counter to fight the darkspawn, and he knew that the other Warden corps – the ones in Orlais and the Free Marches, for instance – definitely had a few mages at least in their ranks. But Ferelden had a small contingent of Grey Wardens in the first place, and Neria, if she joined, would be the first.
“Who’s taking first watch?” asked Neria.
Jory volunteered, so Alistair went over and pitched his tent. They would be in Ostagar tomorrow, and in a day or two after that, they would face another darkspawn assault. If they were able to rout the horde again, comprehensively, he guessed that the King would then return to Denerim and allow Loghain or the Teyrn of Highever, Bryce Cousland, to command the forces he left behind. The Wardens would split between a contingent remaining at Ostagar while a few would return to Denerim to take measures to strengthen the order, liaise with the Grey Wardens in other Kingdoms and prepare an effective strategy to find and tackle the Archdemon.
The recruits, he knew, had not been told about the Archdemon. In fact, it was not something the Wardens often spoke about at all, outside of their own ranks. They would be told after the Joining, those that made it. He looked at the three – Jory hogging a leg of wolf, Daveth making some terrible jokes and Neria, looking at both of them with narrowed eyes – and wondered whether the two men would, or as far as Neria was concerned, should.
“You should get some rest,” he said, looking at the elf. “You’ve bandaged your injuries, I know, but some sleep would not hurt.”
She nodded obediently and went towards the tent that Daveth had put up. Alistair walked around for a little while, stepping into the darkness, listening for any sounds, hoping not to feel that inevitable sensation that accompanied the approach of darkspawn; a sort of calling sound in the head that was not really a sound.
When he came back, the fire had burned very low indeed, and Jory sat by it.
“Wake me up when you are ready to sleep,” said Alistair, moving towards his tent.
“We should not have stopped here,” said Jory.
“We should not have stopped,” he repeated.
“The road is not safe by dark. We would have had a lot of difficulty were a wolf or bear to attack us after nightfall,” said Alistair.
“But you cannot…not with her, not…now she will make me do it again, again, betray my Helena…”
“This does not involve me,” he said, and entered his tent.
But it did. He knew it did.
When his turn to keep watch saw him hear the sound of wolves baying close by, and he called out to the others to wake up and come out, he could not help but notice that neither Daveth nor Jory looked as though they had been sleeping, and Neria’s wound was bleeding afresh.
As they marched back to Ostagar in the morning, Alistair was feeling quite relieved. For one thing, he was looking forward to getting some decent cooked food – even the military cook seemed like a culinary genius compared to what he and the others had been making the past few days.
He was also glad to get away from his companions. Such camaraderie as their last few battles had established had evaporated due to whatever had happened in the tent at night – what exactly, he did not care to know. They had dealt with the wolves that attached their camp easily enough, but since then, neither Jory nor Daveth could even bear to look at each other, while Neria only spoke in cruel laughs and cutting remarks.
Ostagar’s tall wooden gate emerged before them, and the guard waved them in. Daveth and Jory went different ways – the Knight to the makeshift Chantry for some form of absolution for his sins with the elf, no doubt, and the cutpurse to the Quartermaster for a refill of ale.
“I'm going to speak to Duncan,” said Alistair. “You can rest for a bit until then.”
“I'll go give that flower to the kennel-master,” said Neria. “My arm could do with some proper healing too. You should come too, let’s visit Wynne.”
Alistair gave her a noncommittal nod and went on towards Duncan’s tent.
Duncan was reading a letter when Alistair reached his bright campfire. He got up to welcome the younger Warden and they embraced. It was a cold winter morning, and Alistair hoped he could get some warm tea soon. But this was a priority.
“I am glad to see you back, Alistair,” Duncan said. “I hope you were able to accomplish all that was asked of you.”
“We got the darkspawn blood all right,” said Alistair, handing over the small brown chest in which he had kept the stoppered vials.
“And the treaties?”
“Those too. Though – well, they were not at the Tower, Duncan.”
His mentor's eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“They were stolen?”
“I don't know – we were accosted at the Tower by a woods-witch who called herself Morrigan. She took us to her mother, who claimed to have saved the treaties and kept them safe for us. They were…apostates, certainly. Hedge witches.”
“That's...interesting. Did they seem harmful?”
“Actually, they helped us. This Morrigan woman escorted us back to camp, cutting our travelling time to a day,” admitted Alistair, and in a few brief words recounted the particulars of their encounter.
“So they seemed like harmless hedge witches, then?”
“I suppose so.”
“Maybe this is something we should look into after the battle with the darkspawn. Perhaps you can lead a small contingent of Wardens there to find out more about them.”
“I was thinking we should inform the Templars who are here already,” said Alistair.
Duncan shook his head.
“You are not a Templar any more, Alistair, and while these may be apostates, they are not who the Wardens fight against.”
Alistair found a kettle placed on a wooden table outside the tent, and poured himself a mug. It was hot tea. Just what he needed.
“And what do you think of our recruits?” asked Duncan.
Alistair hesitated for a moment.
“They know how to fight,” he said finally.
“Tell me about the Knight.”
“Jory is big, strong, and know how to swing a two-handed great-sword. He is not as stout in defence, though, and loses his footing in battle at times. Nonetheless, his power is undeniable. He could be an asset to our vanguard.”
“He isn't as good a lockpick as I would have expected,” Alistair shrugged. “But he does know how to wield a bow with accuracy and speed. Up close, he could handle his enemies in melee with knives as well. Still, he is a little too superstitious for my liking. He was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as we dealt with the hedge witches.”
“And the mage?”
Alistair poured out another mug of tea for himself before replying.
“She's talented,” he said at last.
Duncan knitted his brows.
“Is that all?”
“She appears to be a very powerful mage, Duncan,” sighed Alistair. “Given a little space to manoeuvre and time to cast a spell, she could mow down enemies like a vengeful demon. She's also likely as not to make a great battle commander. She has natural grasp for tactics, especially using a mage – which is something most of us don't, seeing as we do not often have mages in battle with us.”
“I am glad to know it. Irving mentioned she was the brightest student he had seen at the Tower in decades.”
“I also think she should not join the Wardens.”
“What?” his mentor’s eyebrows were raised.
“Let her go, get her a pardon from the Revered Mother and let her return to the Circle,” said Alistair.
“A strange assertion to make, Alistair, especially in light of what you have just said about her battle capabilities.”
“She’s a slave to the pleasures of the body, Duncan,” said Alistair.
“A fact which Irving warned me about, and I had occasion to witness on our road to Ostagar. Nonetheless, the Wardens’ mission remains defeating the darkspawn, not following a code of morality.”
“In the five days we were in the Wilds, her presence…,” Alistair hesitated for a moment, “caused some unrest. I shall not tell tales, but I do believe her presence in the Wardens could affect our camaraderie adversely. We are brothers in arms, our trust in each other is our strength. An elf as beautiful as her, and as broken as she is…”
“Morally broken, do you mean to imply?”
“No, that’s not it,” he frowned, trying to think of the right words. “I mean she’s had problems – bullying and abuse – and she has her way of coping with it, which…I suppose it is who she is now but I just think her instinct for pleasure and vengeance may detract from the purpose and principles we follow.”
“You're saying the order of Grey Wardens, a thousand-year-old institution, would be destroyed because of one elf?” asked Duncan, that gravelly voice neither mocking nor quite sharing Alistair’s apprehensions.
“I saw her seduce Ser Jory and play – play mind-games with him, vicious ones, belittling his performance, his manhood, his morals, all while doing what she could to ensure he would want to take her again. And then last night – I do not know what happened last night, but I think, that is, I suspect, that she seduced Daveth as well,” Alistair got the words out, somehow, while trying very hard not to picturise what he had just mentioned.
“So you would have me send her back to the Tower and certain punishment by the Rite of Tranquillity because men who should know better can't keep their hands off her?”
“Duncan, she's seventeen and beautiful. I would not blame a man for wanting her as much as I’d blame her for using that beauty in so careless and petty a manner – and surely you can get her a pardon?”
“You gravely overestimate my powers of persuasion. No, Alistair, I shall not forego a battle-mage, even were she not as endowed with potential as this one is.” Alistair opened his mouth to protest, but Duncan raised a hand to silence him. “If she is broken, my lad, it is for us, as Wardens and comrades, to mend her if we can. The Blight is not defeated by the power of our swords and staves alone, it is the trust and loyalty we bear for each other. If she makes it…past…the Joining, she will be one of us, and we will have to learn to deal with her.”
“As you say, Commander. You always did have a weakness for broken things,” muttered Alistair, finishing the second mug of tea, which had gone quite lukewarm by now. He could see a flash of golden armour in the distance, and quickly turned to Duncan. “May I be excused, then? I should see a healer about my injuries as well, not that they were too severe.”
Duncan nodded, and then walked away from him, towards the approaching King, just as Alistair passed out of sight behind the tent.
He was making his way towards Wynne's tent when he saw Teyrn Loghain walking with his retinue towards the Quartermaster. He stopped, waiting for them to pass. Then the Teyrn's eyes fell on him.
“Warden,” he said.
“Come with me.”
Alistair followed obediently. The Teyrn was more than a hero to him, like most who had grown up on the stories of Ferelden’s freedom struggle against Orlais, he idolized the man.
“You're – Alistair, if I am not mistaken?”
“Yes, sir. At your service.”
The Teyrn seemed to be grinding his teeth as he spoke.
“How long have you been a Grey Warden?”
“Just over six months, sir.”
“What do you think of this upcoming battle, then?”
Alistair paused. It was a tricky question.
“I am sure that you and his majesty have planned an appropriate battle strategy in consultation with Duncan, sir,” he replied.
“You have more confidence in us than we do, then. Did you know the King hopes to finish the battle in one fell swoop, with a crushing victory over the horde?”
“I suspect it may not be easy, sir, but no doubt you know best.”
They were now some feet ahead of the guards. The Teyrn addressed him in a low whisper.
“I know who you are, Alistair. I trust you will not forget your place, if things go ill for the King.”
Leaving the astonished Alistair rooted to his place, the Teyrn strode away. He was still standing there when Neria came skipping up to him.
“I'm better than ever,” she proclaimed with a girlish smile. She wore a white robe that was several sizes too large for her. Alistair guessed it belonged to Wynne.
“And you also seem to have run out of robes.”
“No, this is temporary. Wynne had to burn the robe I was wearing. I have a lot of spares in my pack in the recruits’ tent. All my cuts and burns are healed. No marks, even. Do you want to see my breasts?”
“Not that the offer is not…err…appreciated, but I think I would rather not. For the moment,” Alistair said, awkwardly.
“I was pulling your shapely leg. Anyway, you should go to her too.”
“Yes, I was, in fact.”
“Was that Teyrn Loghain I saw you talking to?”
“Grumpy, isn't he? Anyway, I ought to be getting changed so I can return this robe to Wynne.”
She scampered off in haste, leaving Alistair to walk bemusedly towards Wynne's tent.
He rested through the afternoon, and when he returned to Duncan's camp as dusk fell, the three recruits were there with the Commander. Duncan heard out their accounts of the expedition patiently, not letting on that Alistair had already told him everything. Neria had changed into a brief blue and black dress that began well below her shoulders and ended just above her knees, but at least did an adequate job of covering everything in-between. Alistair had never considered himself a particularly perceptive person, but as they spoke, he caught the self-importance in Ser Jory's account, the exaggeration in Daveth's and the guilelessness in Neria's. While they tried to drum up what they had done, she spoke of it all with excitement, trying to explain the thought process behind their fighting tactics. To Alistair's surprise, she was full of praise for his own fighting skills.
Finally, it was over, and Duncan asked them to take a good night's rest.
“Tomorrow, we shall have the joining ritual,” he said. “And then you shall truly be Wardens.”
They were just about to leave when a messenger peeked into the tent.
“A message for me, boy?” asked Duncan, as the elf caught his breath.
“Yes, ser, and also for the new Grey Wardens. The King requests you to attend him in his tent for the evening meal.”
“Now?” asked Duncan, surprised.
The elf nodded, and disappeared as someone called to him from an adjoining tent.
Alistair turned. Duncan and the recruits arose.
“What could this mean?” asked Alistair.
“The King must want to congratulate us,” said Jory self-importantly.
“Suddenly I feel very high-and-mighty,” laughed Neria.
Duncan allowed the others to walk a few paces ahead. Alistair knew his commander well enough to know when he, too needed to hang back.
“Do you think any of them will make it, Alistair?”
Alistair sighed, and shook his head. “Who knows what the Maker will decide. The King didn't congratulate me personally when I was recruited.”
Duncan shook his head.
“He doesn't want to congratulate them. You should know better, Alistair.”
“Neria?” asked Alistair.
“The King has an eye for beauty,” said Duncan, impassively. “And our newest recruit is well beyond the ordinary in that aspect.”
“I hope he knows what he's letting himself in for, then,” said Alistair.
“I’m more worried about her,” replied Duncan. “If he asks for her to be reprieved…”
“Does he know?” asked Alistair, sudden realisation dawning upon him.
“About the ritual.”
“Yes, the ruler of any country where we have an outpost usually does.”
Alistair bit his lip. Somehow he was not sure which thought disturbed him more – that possibility that Neria could soon be the King’s lover or that she might not become a Warden after all.
Nor did he understand why either should disturb him in the first place, but the mind is, he reminded himself, a strange thing.
[Anything you might recognise from playing Dragon Age: Origins is (c) BioWare. This work is not intended to earn any profit or make any money.]