CHAPTER FOUR - GLIMPSES OF THE PAST
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
CHAPTER EIGHT - MISSION'S END
CHAPER NINE - KINGS, DOGS AND DECISIONS
CHAPTER TEN - IN THE CHAPEL
CHAPTER ELEVEN - THE LAST OF THE WARDENS
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
CHAPTER EIGHT - MISSION'S END
CHAPER NINE - KINGS, DOGS AND DECISIONS
CHAPTER TEN - IN THE CHAPEL
CHAPTER ELEVEN - THE LAST OF THE WARDENS
A Dog, a Witch and a lack of wardrobe
In his dreams, Alistair saw faces. The severe-looking nurse who used to look after him at Redcliffe when he was a toddler. Arl Eamon, bearded and neat, always grand. The Arlessa, Isolde, unpleasant and haughty, her beauty a footnote in the unpleasantness of her conduct. The Chantry sisters who had taken him in when Arl Eamon had cast him off on Isolde's insistence. Sister Marta and Sister Creeda. The Templars who had trained him, with punishments and harsh words, and sticks too, when needed. Duncan, who had shown him another life, had given him a chance at glory and honour. Neria, beautiful and wilful, eyes narrowed in concentration. Morrigan, with her raven-black hair, dressed in rags and feathers and scornful yellow eyes....
He started up in shock and then reeled with pain as his head protested against the sudden movement.
“This one's come to, mother,” her clear voice sang out, setting off his headache again and making him clutch at it. “He seems surprised to find he has a head. Maybe you did wrong to not let the darkspawn sever it from the rest of his body.”
The old woman cackled somewhere at the back of the house.
“What am I doing here?” Alistair asked.
“You are here, in my hut,” said Morrigan, speaking slowly and clearly, like the Chantry sisters used to when dealing with a particularly dim-witted child. “Mother rescued you from the Tower in the fortress – Ostagar, you call it? - And brought you here for healing.”
“What happened? What happened there on the battlefield?”
The old woman emerged from the shadows, her cracked skin looking even more leathery in the low light.
“You saw what happened, lad. You don't need me to repeat all that to you now, do you?”
He had seen it. He hoped it had also been a dream. But no, that was too much to hope for. What was astonishing was that he was alive.
“How did I make it?” he asked.
“You fought,” she said. “When I reached the Fortress, it was naught but a scene of desolation. Not a soul breathing but the 'spawn, and they have no souls. Then I found you in the tower, beaten and bloody, but you had fallen after killing the creatures that had been fighting you, and that is what made the difference. So I brought the two of you here. I have some little skill left in my old woman's body yet. For here you are, hale and hearty or, at least, not a cripple,” she cackled again, in a rasping throaty way more like a cough by the time she had finished.
“Did you say two...?” he said, hoping against hope.
“On the other side of the partition,” said Morrigan. “Worse shape than you. Could still be some time before she is walking again.”
He nodded, and sat silent. Their mission was over, the Grey Wardens were finished, but it would be good if she made it. Somehow, he did not want to feel completely alone.
“She should be fine,” said Morrigan.
Alistair had been eating his porridge sitting by the side of the rivulet that bordered Flemeth's hut. It had been fully three days since he had regained consciousness himself. He had sat by Neria's bedside for most of that time, except when Morrigan and Flemeth were dressing her wounds or carrying out their healing spells. She looked peaceful with her eyes closed, innocent, even. Pert red lips, high cheekbones, that impudently beautiful nose. He found himself smiling often as he thought about her. It was easy to forget her wantonness when she was unconscious and looked like a child rather than a grown woman.
“You and she – get together after I saw you last?”
He had not heard Morrigan enter. This was probably because she had entered in the form of a cat. He shook his head.
“No, no, I’m just concerned for my comrade. There’s nothing else there.”
“I like her already. She seems to have good taste,” replied the Witch contemptuously.
Alistair groaned but didn't take her bait.
Once more the ghosts ran through her dreams. Jowan in the Tower. Duncan in the strange, unknown fortress. Shades from earlier days. In the Fade it all jumbled up like skittles, up in the air, and then fell to ground, broken, shattered, like she sometimes thought she herself was, in body and spirit. But it was comforting here. It even felt strangely safe.
She could, she felt, stay there forever.
So naturally, that was the moment when everything turned black before her eyes, and she fell, fell from the top of a tall Tower, a tower that was taller than either the Circle or the Tower of Ishal, and went down, past grotesque statues and faraway murals painted into the sky, or what passed for a sky here, and the lakes without water and the ships sailing through thin air, and crashed, or rather fell – too gently – into a comfortable bed. In the Korcari Wilds.
“Ah, your eyes finally open. Mother shall be pleased.”
Neria would have recognised that sing-song voice anywhere. She lifted herself up, off the pillow. The coverlet fell to her waist, and Neria noticed with some relief that her body was quite whole. She had been half-expecting to find holes where her vital organs used to be. Whatever her wounds had been, there was barely a trace left.
“Morrigan,” she said, through a mouth that felt dry.
“I am Morrigan,” said the witch. “And you are in the Wilds, where I am – was – bandaging your wounds. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Thank you,” said Neria, holding her head, which was aching not a little. The interior of the hut was plain, but the bed itself was soft and against the wall opposite her was a large bookshelf, against which Morrigan was leaning, still dressed in the rags she wore when Neria had first seen here. “But how did I get here?”
“Do you remember nothing of mother’s rescue?” the dark-haired woman frowned.
“Rescue? I…I remember the ogre, but…but we defeated him, and then…the beacon, we lit the beacon, but the darkspawn, yes, they came up while I wasn’t looking, and…didn’t we win the battle? We did light the beacon!”
“Then you have much to catch up on with your friend.”
“Alistair, I think his name is?” Morrigan shrugged. “He’s outside, he’s been quite worried about you, in fact…”
“You're all ri...,” he had been about to say 'right', when the Elf, naked as the day she was born, raced from the door of Flemeth's hut to where he was standing and flung her arms around him.
“See? I told you that you worried too much,” drawled Morrigan, walking behind her.
Somewhere in the intervening moments, Neria appeared to have realised she was nude. As Alistair had half-expected, this discovery did not discomfit her near half as much as it did him.
“I suppose I should find some clothes,” she said.
“If for nothing else than to avoid catching a cold.” said Morrigan. “We had to throw away the robe you were wearing. But there should be something of Mother's we can put on you.”
“I'd rather wear something of yours,” said Neria, eyeing Morrigan's barely-there rags appreciatively.
“You can’t because I’m wearing one of my only two blouses,” yawned Morrigan dismissively. “Now come inside.”
Alistair wondered how far the definition of ‘blouse’ would have to be stretched in order to classify what Morrigan wore as one, but kept his mouth shut.
Neria re-emerged ten minutes later in a dress that looked as if it was made out of sack-cloth.
“I look hideous,” she complained.
“Even worse, I seem to look funny,” Neria added.
“Well, it's this or nudity, and this isn't an Antivan brothel, so you'd better keep that thing on.”
“And now, Alistair…tell me what happened at Ostagar.”
Alistair looked at Morrigan. She and her mother had told him about the aftermath of Loghain’s betrayal – how the King’s troops had been decimated and all but a few who managed to get back into the fortress had been slaughtered in the valley. His voice faltered more than once as he spoke, but he managed to tell it all to Neria, and by the time he finished - which did not take long – the elf had buried her head in her hands, and was sobbing. He reached for her tentatively. She held his hand and pressed it, slipping from the tree-stump they had both been sitting on to the grass and then crying.
But she did not say a word and, for that, Alistair was, somehow, grateful.
“Ah, mother is here,” announced Morrigan loudly. Neria had fallen into a doze, as had Alistair, and it was the witch’s voice that jolted her to awakening.
“I must thank you,” said Neria, jumping up and running towards the old crone. “Morrigan says your healing and your rescue is the reason I’m – we’re – still alive.”
“Save your thanks, child, I did what I had to,” said the grey-haired one, her voice still as raspy as her daughter’s was musical. “You should look to the future, you know. You have much to do.”
“We…we do?” asked Neria.
“Well, who do you think is going to stop the Blight now?”
“Who? You mean…,” Neria and Alistiar looked at each other, expressions blank.
“I don’t see any other Grey Wardens here. Or in the rest of Ferelden, for that matter,” pointed out Morrigan’s mother.
“Listen,” whispered Alistair. “I know she’s a crazy old woman but…”
“I can hear you,” came the crazy old woman’s voice. “And my name is Flemeth.”
“Wait – the Flemeth, from the legends, the Witch of the Korcari Wilds, who Cormac…” began Alistair.
“A Flemeth, certainly, Warden, and does it matter?”
“I…I suppose not,” admitted Alistair.
“Have you looked at those Grey Warden treaties I gave you?” Flemeth asked, sharply.
“No,” admitted Neria.
“I have,” said Alistair. “They are treaties made by the Wardens in times gone by – three treaties, actually. One is with the Dwarven Kings, another with the Elves of the Dales and the third with the Mages of the Tower. The treaties say that they will help the Wardens in the event of a Blight.”
“Precisely,” said Flemeth. “Unite the land against the greater threat. The Dwarves and the Dalish Elves would provide you with armies and the Mages of the Circle with power.”
“It…it is what the Grey Wardens do,” said Alistair. “Unite the country against the threat…”
“But there’s just two of us, Alistair,” said Neria, “How do we…”
“And don’t forget Arl Eamon. He wasn’t at Ostagar, his forces are still intact. Eamon is a good man, Neria, he would join us too if I – if we – convinced him of our cause.”
“Why would Eamon…”
“Because I know him, all right?”
“Very well, but even so…”
“And you could command, with your tactical prowess and knowledge of magic, we could…”
“Alistair, what about Loghain? If he finds out we survived, do you think he will let us raise an army? He’d as soon think it is to fight him as against the darkspawn,” said Neria.
“In fact,” said Flemeth, “you might have to fight him before you fight the darkspawn, but I do not presume to tell you how to go about it.”
Alistair’s eyes were gleaming.
“Neria, this is our duty, it is, and you know it.”
She smiled at him, and nodded.
“Well, we should be getting ready, then. Neria, if you are fit to travel…”
“I am,” she assured him.
“I shall fetch my sword and travelling gear, you should get yours too…”
“Yes, but my clothes were all – in the fortress, in Cailan’s…”
“It’s just the two of us now, Neria,” said Alistair, with a sorrowful smile.
“Three,” cut in Flemeth.
“What was that?” asked Neria.
“Three. Morrigan is coming with you.”
Morrigan, who had been on the other side of the hut, emerged from the shadows just then, catching that last line.
“I am – what?”
“You’re going with the Grey Wardens, girl.”
“No I’m not!”
“Yes you are.”
“You can’t make me,” said Morrigan, the self-assured and disdainful witch a little lost in the background as the petulant daughter made an appearance.
“You’ve always said you wanted to go out and see the world, Morrigan. This is your chance.”
“But…mother, this is too sudden…”
The old hag’s face softened a little.
“This is the Blight they go to fight, daughter. There is no nobler purpose, no better fight. And besides, you knew this day would come.”
Morrigan gritted her teeth, and nodded.
“I give you what I hold most precious to me, Wardens. Do your duty,” said Flemeth, turning to Neria and Alistair.
“If you don’t want to come, Morrigan,” said Neria, “you don’t really have to.”
“I’ll come,” replied Morrigan. “But don’t expect me to listen to you or anything.”
“Maker forbid!” Alistair rolled his eyes. “Well, we should get started soon.”
“Yes, I’ll get my things,” said Morrigan, and both she and Alistair went into the hut.
Neria, however, waited where she was. When they were alone, Flemeth looked at her and smiled.
“You have something to say, do you?” she said.
“I do,” replied Neria, and walked closer to her, until the two women were barely a hand’s length from each other.
“Say it, then.”
“I believe you are Flemeth from the legends, the lover of an Arl and killer of thousands.”
The old woman did not flinch.
“And I believe you saved us not out of some noble desire to do good, but for your own reasons.”
“But I will not hold that against you. All I ask is – why do you not come with us yourself? You know this threat and what it means for Ferelden – indeed, for all of Thedas. You are clearly more powerful than either Morrigan or me.”
“If power was all that mattered, elf,” said Flemeth, “do you think I would have chosen to save you from that battlefield? Go, get ready. You have a long journey ahead of you.”
It was evening before they were quite ready to leave. Their backpacks were full, Alistair’s sword was gleaming and all that was awaited was Morrigan joining them.
“Did you mean it?” she asked suddenly.
“Mean what?” asked Alistair.
“When you said that we had to defeat the Blight.”
He looked at her, perplexed.
“Well, of course. Why else would I say it?”
“Well you also said you’d dance the Remigold for the King, and I don’t see you coming through on that.”
Alistair laughed. It felt good to do that.
“Well, my dancing would’ve got me executed. And…,” unwillingly, his mind went back to the battle, to when he had seen the King crushed like a clam in its shell by the Ogre, “I suppose that’s not going to happen anyway, what with Cailan being dead and all.”
“Yes,” she said, and if the expression in her eyes was distant, he could hardly blame her. She had memories with the man. Fond memories. Not that he would want to know more about that.
“Morrigan’s mother seems to think we can do it.”
“We are only two of us, Alistair,” she looked up at him, her expression earnest. “Two Wardens cannot stop a Blight.”
“We don’t know that,” he pointed out. “After all, it takes only one to chop off the Dragon’s head.”
“You know what I mean, Alistair.”
“Then what do you think we should do?” he asked. “Walk away? Go back to wherever we came from? You can do whatever you want, but as far as I’m concerned, we are Wardens – at least I am, and I intend to do what a Grey Warden is supposed to do, or die trying.”
When she looked at him, he thought he saw sadness in her eyes he had not seen before.
“I have nowhere to go to, Alistair, nowhere I ‘came from’. I can’t live a hedge witch like Morrigan and her mother, in hiding from the world. So – I’ll try and do it, if you’ll stand with me. We’ll raise an army – we’ll fight this fight. But I need you to promise I won’t be alone.”
He looked at her with a respect he had not felt before.
“Neria Surana, you won’t be alone. We have a responsibility to Ferelden – defeat the Blight, or find some way to hold it until the Wardens from Orlais or the Marches are able to come to our aid.”
“The snow will come down into the Frostbacks soon,” she pointed out. “It could be a long time before the Free Marches or Rivain could get involved. If Orlais does not come to our aid, it will be down to us and whatever help we are able to get out of…out of Arl Eamon, and the Mages and the Elves.”
“Won’t that be interesting,” he tried to laugh. “The Templar who left the Order and the Mage who left the Tower, trying to unite Ferelden.”
“And who even knows what Loghain is planning. He must be back in Denerim by now.”
He bit his lip.
“If he’s making a play for the throne, things will be difficult for us. Very difficult. Only Eamon has the political capital to take him on. Eamon and Bryce Cousland…”
“Teyrn Cousland is dead, Alistair. Did you forget – Howe said he was killed resisting capture.”
“Though now I wonder…I wonder whether this was planned by Loghain and Howe together. It’s certainly convenient that the second-most powerful man in Ferelden should be taken out just before there is a vacancy on the throne.”
“I don’t understand the politics of it,” admitted Neria. “But I need to know – Alistair – promise me will stand with me. You don’t have to like me, and you won’t approve of everything I do, but you have to stand with me. It’s ONLY US, do you understand that?”
“I…I do,” he said, surprised at her vehemence. “And don’t worry. We don’t have to agree with each other all the time as long as we can work towards our goal.”
“And there’s Morrigan as well. Maybe she’ll hold us together,” Neria said.
The beautiful dark-haired Witch appeared from the hut just at that moment and began to speak before either of them could hail her.
“You two need to understand I will have my own camp, away from the rest of you and you are not to come near it at any point of time. Also, I will cook for you if I must, but what I cook is my decision. And from time to time we will share that duty. I will not carry any of your supplies. And if the Templar thinks he can control me because he can pull down a Holy Smite on me, he is much mistaken. And now, when can we leave?”
Alistair and Neria looked at each other. Whatever else Morrigan was – talented witch, fighter and cook – being a pleasant travelling companion was not one of her virtues.
“Remind me again, why is she coming with us?” said an exasperated Alistair after Morrigan had made the fourth disparaging comment about his mental powers – or lack thereof - for the day. They were trekking through the forest, passing by the remains of an ancient Tevinter ruin, crumbling stone walls that had once been fortresses for the greatest Empire Thedas had ever known.
“Mother thinks I could be of use, remember,” said Morrigan. “Which is more than she felt about you.”
“Your mother is a crazy old bat,” pointed out Alistair.
“Well this crazy old bat saved both your lives, so speak of her with some respect.”
“Respect is not the problem. I'll respect her. I'll fear her, even. But she's still got bats in her belfry.”
“Will you two both shut up?” cut in Neria. “Because if you don't, I'll turn you both into toads.”
“Morrigan can probably turn into a toad on her own.”
“No, I cannot. I can turn into a spider, though. A big, huge spider that could eat you up, except I wouldn't because you'd taste terrible.”
“SHUT. UP.” Neria shouted.
Her shouting seemed to excite a resonant barking off in the distance.
“There's an echo here. Odd, given that there's no cliff-face or wind,” said Alistair gravely.
“That's an actual dog, Alistair,” said Morrigan, sounding like an indulgent nanny.
Sure enough, it was an actual dog. As they looked down the road, it came yapping towards them, a massive mabari with kaddis markings.
“Are we near Ostagar?” asked Alistair. “That must be one of the dogs that escaped from the slaughter. I hope it isn't tainted – Neria, what are you doing?”
Neria was, in fact, running towards the said hound, which leaped up at her in a transport of joy and affection.
“Why is that disgusting thing assaulting the Elf?” asked Morrigan.
“That's not a disgusting thing, that's Biscuit,” said Alistair, recognition dawning.
“Alistair, I know such things are difficult for you to grasp, due to...well, perhaps your nanny dropped you on your head as a child, I mean, who am I to speculate on such things? But that's a dog. A biscuit is a small, dough-based confectionary.”
“That dog has a name, is what I meant. Some dogs do, and bitches too. Like that dog is called Biscuit. You're called Morrigan.”
In the meanwhile, Neria and Biscuit were engaged in what Alistair recognised as baby-talk. She was also trying to give him a hug, which was rendered difficult by his having a thick neck and spiked collar.
Alistair too joined in the fussing, patting Biscuit affectionately and calling him a clever boy. Morrigan seemed to be trying to weigh whether she disliked the dog more than Alistair.
Suddenly the hound pulled back and growled, much to Alistair's surprise.
“What's wrong with you, buddy? Neria, I think he might have caught the taint...”
“No, he's warning us,” said Neria, watching as the hound slowly changed direction and crouched in an attacking pose.
“Darkspawn,” said Alistair. “Can't believe I let my guard down. Get ready to...”
But the two mages were ready already. Neria's shield was up. Morrigan too had her staff in a firm grip, eyes focussed straight ahead.
The darkspawn emerged from behind a sinking brick wall. Alistair counted two Hurlocks, four genlocks. No magic on their side.
It would be interesting to see the Witch in action. In the wilds, Alistair had found Neria’s magic acting as a multiplier to the fighting skills of Jory and himself and Daveth’s archery. Now they had two mages, but only he wielded a sword. Oh, and there was Biscuit. A mabari hound was as good as any sword, it was commonly said.
Indeed, it was the dog who showed his mettle first. In a trice, he was on the nearest genlock, bringing him down to the ground, crushing the armour at the chest. Alistair swung his sword, cutting off the genlock's sword hand, and dropped low, bending his knee, his shield up, as two crossbow bolts sped through the air and were embedded in it.
“Duck,” he heard Neria's voice, clear as a bell, and obeyed. The blast of fire flew over his head pushing back the hurlocks who were closing in on him.
Morrigan had not been idle either. He had seen her cast a spell, though he wasn't sure what it was – there was no accompanying visual effect. But he did notice that a couple of the 'spawn were looking groggy. Drunk, almost.
Still wary, Alistair got back on his feet and advanced, shield still before him. Another bolt came towards him, but he swerved in time. Biscuit had a second genlock by the calves. The bigger of the hurlocks had raised an ugly-looking axe over the dog’s neck. Alistair was about to break his stride and push at it, when an arcane bolt took out the Hurlock. Alistair was surprised when the hurlock went down like a sack of coals; he knew that an arcane bolt should not be that powerful on its own. Then realisation struck. Almost without thinking, he swung his sword, which was flaming red now, and struck off a hurlock's head. The Woods Witch did entropy spells. She had weakened the foes to such an extent that left them in no position to fight. He stabbed a genlock that looked as if it had one too many to drink. The dog ripped out the entrails of the last standing foe. Alistair plunged a sword through the genlock's heart. An act of mercy, of sorts.
“Not too bad,” said Morrigan, with a bored expression, walking on ahead. To Alistair's surprise, Biscuit followed, nipping playfully at her heels. She tried to look angry at the dog, with very little success.
Neria let Morrigan lead, walking warily behind.
“Are we likely to come across a lot more?” she asked Alistair.
“No,” he said, “Not immediately anyway. That was a splinter group, probably out to do some raiding and foraging.”
“What do darkspawn do, anyway, apart from killing people and destroying the soil fertility?”
“Isn't that enough?” asked Alistair.
“What is darkspawn society like?” she rephrased the question.
“We know little other than the origin story I told you back at camp. It is believed they have chieftains, of course, and they communicate as well in their way, though whether they have a defined language is unclear.”
Neria kicked a pebble moodily.
“How long to Lothering, Morrigan?” she called out.
“Seven leagues,” the Woods Witch replied.
“Darkspawn bands so close to Lothering already?” said Alistair. “The horde is some days behind, but not many. I think we will need to clear out of the village as soon as we can.”
“We only need to see what news we can get at the Tavern,” pointed out Morrigan. “There should be some bar wenches there you can pay to talk to you while we find out what's going on in Ferelden.”
Unable to think of a suitably witty response, Alistair pretended not to have heard. Neria's slightly dimpled cheek showed that she, at least, was not deceived.
They had to take the old Imperial Highway for the last three leagues of the walk to Lothering. The elevated stone roads harked back to the time when the Tevinter Imperium had spanned almost the entire continent of Thedas and ruled over Ferelden. Straight or winding, in such parts as it still stood, the Imperial Highway always represented the fastest way to get anywhere in Ferelden. They caught the road between Ostagar and Lothering, climbing the smooth stones up to the covered path.
A sprinkling of early snow powdered the road ahead of them. The Witch had a measured tread, surprisingly graceful and ladylike for one brought up in the woods as she was. Neria’s feet barely seemed to touch the ground but her waist moved seductively, almost as if she had trained to entice men, though the thick sack-like robes she wore reduced the impact somewhat. Alistair’s tread was heavy and measured, his armour’s weight telling.
The road should have been guarded, Alistair thought. Lothering was close enough to the Wilds that the Roads needed to be kept safe from the Chasind. With Darkspawn on the prowl, this was even more of a necessity. Instead, all they encountered on the journey so far were the occasional feral dog.
Until, that is, they actually came in sight of Lothering. Biscuit growled softly as he saw them, clearly visible from a distance, eight men standing in the snow. Slovenly, even armoured, it was clear that if these were all that protected Lothering, the town wouldn’t stand for long.
They seemed to have a Leader. Younger than the rest, not entirely bad-looking. He was the one who demanded the toll to allow them to enter Lothering.
“How much?” asked Neria.
“For each one of us?” she asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Why… of course, yes, per person,” he affirmed.
It struck Alistair that Neria may not have realised that these men were essentially extortionists.
“Neria,” he tried to whisper. Rather uselessly, because there were two of the bandits closer to him at that moment than Neria.
“We don’t have that much,” said Neria. “Morrigan – do you?”
“They’re bandits, trying to make a quick coin,” the Woods Witch said calmly and clearly. “There hasn’t been a toll to get into Lothering. Ever”
“Well, times have changed, Miss,” the leader said, with a lecherous look at Morrigan’s breasts. “What with a Blight approaching, you can never be too careful,”
“Was that a threat?” asked Neria.
“It sounded like a threat,” Alistair walked backwards, drawing his sword. He knew they were surrounded and outnumbered, but the bandits probably did not realise that they were up against two mages. If both Neria and Morrigan survived more than a few minutes into battle, the odds would even out quickly.
“Now, no one is being rude, Elf,” said the Leader. “Maybe we can work out something?”
“Look, we don’t want any bloodshed,” said Neria. “You’re just some poor idiots looking to make some money. We can give you ten silvers between us, but no more, we need supplies in the village and then we have to go on and fight the Darkspawn…”
“What Darkspawn? Are you like Grey Wardens or something?” it was not the leader who asked, it was one of the other men.
“Yes. Well, Alistair over there and I are,” said Neria.
“She shouldn’t be telling them that,” Alistair whispered to Morrigan. He was now clear enough from the bandits, who were surrounding Neria and Biscuit. Only one, a bowman, kept an eye on Alistair. They seemed to discount Morrigan, probably thinking her a harmless Chasind tribal.
“I don’t think she means them to survive,” Morrigan replied.
“What do you mean – she’s negotiating with them,” he said.
“Watch,” was her only response.
The announcement that she was one of the Wardens seemed to have created some dissension in the bandit’s ranks. At least two were of the opinion that Wardens were not to be ‘messed with’ in general, and should be allowed to pass through. Others were less generous. Their Leader finally seemed to have resolved the dispute when he broke through the chatter.
“We call it a Toll and not a Tip. That’s because everyone has to pay it. Now stop doddering and pay up. And you lot, if they aren’t paying, get at them!”
Swords were drawn. One of the men had an ugly looking axe as well. Morrigan lazily swung her staff from her right hand to her left.
Neria seemed unconcerned.
“You said we could work something out,” she said. “I do have a proposal.”
“Talk, Elf, and do it quickly, before I take your purse from your dead body.”
“Your men must be getting bored and lonely camping out here,” she said, in a breathless-sounding voice that Alistair could tell was kept specially for asking favours. “Surely they won’t mind…they’d like to help an Elf maid get some relief? You know what I mean…one by one,” her words came faster now. “Just – over there, behind the crates where you keep your loot. That IS where you keep your loot isn’t it? And then, if you like me, maybe I can stay with you? You’d like me, wouldn’t you? You’d like your own little toy, to use whenever you want?”
Alistair was shocked. He was about to protest, but Morrigan stopped him with a hand on his. He followed her eyes. Each and every one of the bandits’ attentions was on Neria now. He and Morrigan were completely unobserved.
“All you have to do is say ‘yes’, and let my companions go through. I’ll be good to you all, I will.” She was touching him now, stroking his cheek, holding his arm. “Do you want to take my clothes off for me? You should.”
“No, thank you,” said the leader. “You have a lovely face, but I prefer girls with a little more shape. Like that Chasind girl you got there. Maybe once we’re done with her we can stick it into that pretty mouth of yours.”
Alistair could hardly believe his ears. Neria was exquisitely shaped. What were they even…well of course, how would they know that? She was wearing Flemeth’s old smock. He knew what Neria looked like under the shapeless robe. They did not.
“You should have listened,” Neria said. “Now you’re going to get a Biscuit instead.”
“What’s that?” the bandit asked.
“Biscuit,” she repeated, softer. The dog gave a faintly-audible grunt.
“You hungry or something?” he asked gruffly.
“Oh, I don’t eat much,” she gave a big, guileless smile. “I prefer to swallow. But…well, I did offer.”
“Biscuit, this one,” she said, tapping the leader on his chest.
“Now!” said Morrigan almost at the same time.
She launched a spell, a cold spell, and then the bandits were engulfed in a freezing wind. The mabari hound had the Leader on the ground, feet on his chest, standing growling over his throat, as Neria had indicated.
Alistair had plunged his sword through the bandit closest to him before he even turned to face him, and the second was still trying to pick up his weapon when Alistair’s sword took off his hand, and then Neria swept them with fire. In what seemed like seconds it was all over. Four lying maimed or unconscious on the ground, three fleeing and the leader whimpering.
“Alistair, take their loot. We can return it to the people of the village,” she said, placing her foot on the fallen man’s chest. “And as for you, my man, I’m undecided.”
“What about,” Morrigan asked, peering curiously at the man.
“We could take him with us, he might be useful in the fight against the darkspawn,” Neria said, taking her foot off his chest.
“Do you think he could fight that well?” said Morrigan, seemingly weighing him up as he got back on his feet.
“Well, if nothing else, he can carry our backpacks.”
“I’m not coming with you!” the man spoke, “I am not fighting me any darkspawn.”
“Think about it,” said Neria. “Really. Think about your choices from now on.”
“I ain’t getting involved in fighting those critters! You can kill me, but I will not be fighting against darkspawn.”
“I will kill you, you know,” Neria said, calmly.
“No. I am not fighting no darkspawn. That is not what…” he slumped to the ground as the electric shock lighted up his nerves like a firework.
“Sad,” said Neria, as she took a skinning knife from her belt and thrust it quickly into his heart, putting him out of his misery.
Alistair came up to her now, his hands full of silver.
“Well, Neria. I see our second attempt to recruit new Wardens didn’t go as well as the first.”
“The first?” she raised her eyebrows.
“Biscuit!” he replied, and bent to scratch the hound’s ears.
Suddenly she laughed, and he laughed too, and they were both guffawing, even the dog.
Morrigan’s yellow eyes positively dripped contempt as she walked past them into Lothering.