(Warnings: foul language.)
After some makeshift cleaning and patching-up, the Warden group looked years older than they had that morning. Armor was patched with rags and cord, and stained with dried blood. Each Warden bore a bandage or two. Daveth was still limping, Jory’s shoulders were stiff. Bannon felt as if he’d been rolled by a couple of street thugs.
Bannon’s bow had taken a bad cut, and he feared it would snap if he tried to draw it. He and Daveth got into a discussion of how best to repair it, but both had to agree it would take some resin or laminate. Alistair suggested using tree sap, which was actually a brilliant idea. Except neither the humans nor the city elf had any idea which trees might yield some. After slicing a few random ones, they gave up.
The terrain became steeper, and the path they were following turned away from the lake. They continued along it, hoping it would lead to an easier way to the far shore. But it soon petered out into a rolling field, bordered by hills. “Great,” Alistair grumbled.
“Hey, guys…,” said Bannon. “Oh, listen; I’m gonna go… you know. Over in those bushes. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.”
“You couldn’t think of that before?” Jory complained.
“Just be careful,” Alistair said. “Don’t stray too far. There shouldn’t be any darkspawn about, but we don’t know what else could be lurking out here.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll scream if I need you.” The elf ducked through some underbrush.
“And don’t use any poison ivy for mop up!” Daveth called cheerfully.
Bannon pushed through the brambles until he thankfully found a tiny path winding through them. He zig-zagged up a steep rise, then the bushes ended at a steeper, rocky slope. Grabbing some of the outcroppings to help haul himself up, he hurried to the top. He only had a few minutes before the humans began to wonder where he was. He hadn’t given this magic wish thing much thought, but he was pretty sure the overlook was up here, and there was no harm in giving it a try.
He decided he would ask the spirit to free Soris. If it couldn’t grant boons like that, he’d ask for a magical ring of protection. That ought to come in handy during this war. And if that weren’t possible, a handful of gems would go a long way into buying such things.
Puffing from the climb, Bannon came out on a broad hump of land — yes, overlooking the lake. He stepped out onto a flat boulder, and came upon a pile of stones. These were dusted with old ashes. Well, he thought, someone believes this legend. But if it were true, wouldn’t it be more widely known? No, not if only a bunch of barbarians used it.
Bannon pulled out the pouch of ashes and scanned over the note one more time. It didn’t specify any magic words or ritual, so he just composed himself reverently and strewed the ashes over the stones. A faint breeze caught a puff of grey and carried it over the edge to drift down to the water below. Bannon leaned forward to peer down, hoping to see the water spirit rise.
Feeling stupid, Bannon opened his mouth to entreat the spirit (if the damned thing even existed), when a sepulchural voice grated from behind him. “Who dares summon Gazerath?”
With a smile, and all the humility he could muster, Bannon turned to face the spirit, words of sympathy and respect on his lips, the best to wheedle a gift out of it.
After the elf had disappeared into the bushes, the three humans stood around a few minutes. Alistair jiggled his leg nervously. “I wish he hadn’t mentioned that.”
Ser Jory sighed. “All right, but we’ll go in shifts. It’ll be safer.”
“Well, I call dibs on the first shift.”
Daveth jumped in with, “And I get second.” Ser Jory just rolled his eyes at them. “And you, Ser Big-Bladder, can go last.”
“Fine. At least we–”
He was interrupted by a scream. “Augh! Help!”
The trio jumped. “So much for safe,” Daveth grumbled. Alistair led the charge into the bushes. The thorny vines scraped at his armor, but he barrelled through them. The Warden and his charges scrambled up the rocky slope and burst out at the top to see Bannon menaced by a transparent shadow. The elf slashed at it with his blade, but it appeared to pass right through the wraith without any effect. The creature lunged at Bannon, its spindly talons flexed. It raked them across the elf’s chest, and Bannon was thrown backwards off the overhang. A scream followed him down, cut off abruptly, and then there was a splash.
Alistair’s eyes flew wide and he attacked. The wraith was more corporeal now, having pushed fully through the Veil from the Fade. The swords of the three humans quickly pierced it on all sides. It went down, dissolving into a dark grey mist and falling to the rock as ash.
Alistair dropped his sword and shield, and began yanking off his helm, his boots, and the heavier pieces of his armor.
“Do you think he can swim?” Jory asked, peering hesitantly towards the drop-off.
Alistair didn’t care; he wasn’t about to lose one of the recruits Duncan had entrusted him with, not without a fight. Hell, the little guy had saved all their asses less than half an hour ago! Stripped down to his arm and leg guards, shirt and pants, Alistair raced to the edge of the outcropping. He stopped dead, teetering on the edge, as a voice shouted from below: “Do not leap in to save me!”
“Bannon!” Alistair dropped to his hands and knees and looked down. The elf was several feet below, hanging from a spindly bush, his legs dangling in the air. “How did you–? What made that splash?”
“If you don’t get me back up there in ten seconds, you’ll never know!”
“Uh — right!” Alistair turned to the others. “Rope? Something?”
“Coming up!” Daveth dug through his satchel and produced some rope. “Thank you, slavers!”
In a few minutes, they had the elf back safe and sound — minus a few bruises and scratches. Bannon swatted Alistair’s hand away as the Warden tried to solicitously brush him off. Alistair bent and started putting his armor back on.
“What was that thing?” Daveth asked.
Alistair looked up while tugging his boots on. “Ash wraith. A minor demon from the Fade.”
“What was it doing here?” Ser Jory asked, looking around for more.
“I guess it took exception to me ‘watering’ its ashes,” Bannon said, gesturing at the stone pile. The knight snorted.
“What are you doing up here, anyway?” Alistair asked him — not accusingly, just curious. “I thought you were just going into the bushes a little way.”
“Well, I was,” Bannon replied. “But they were a bit thorny…. And I thought, you know, up here might be a good vantage point to get a look at the dome.” He moved back towards the edge and swept a hand over the vista. “Which it is. Look, there’s a hole in the roof on this side. If we had some kind of boat….”
Alistair stood up. “Give me a hand with this, would you?” he asked Jory. The knight moved to help him with the straps of his splint mail. “And what was that splash?” the Warden demanded from Bannon.
“I hit some rocks on the way down.”
Alistair had to admire the elf’s luck. Well, maybe not, considering that he managed to piss a demon off by… you know. That was just downright funny. In a non-funny sort of way.
The Templar studied the dome with the others, and had to admit defeat. It stood deep in the lake and, hole or no hole, they had no boat. He took a quick poll; the two humans knew how to swim — some. The elf did not.
“We’ll have to let Duncan know,” Alistair decided. “And… I don’t know, I guess find some way to get a boat out here.”
“You don’t still think those treaties are in there?” Jory asked incredulously. “They have to be washed away or soaked to mush by now.”
“Not if they’re in a sealed chest,” Alistair replied firmly. “It could be watertight.” He really hated letting his mentor down. With all the problems between the Grey Wardens and the Ferelden government, their low numbers and scarcity of recruits, those treaties could have helped Duncan immeasureably.
“Are we going back, then?” Daveth asked. “I haven’t killed my darkspawn yet. Not on my own, anyhow.”
“I don’t know why you have to be so picky,” Ser Jory complained again.
“I’m a connoisseur, ser knight! Of fine women. And hideous monsters.”
“Sometimes in the same night,” the elf chimed in. “He’s still looking for a female darkspawn.”
Alistair snorted a chuckle. “All right.” He cast around, trying to pick up traces of the Taint nearby. He didn’t think he felt anything, but something — call it a hunch — urged him to go on a little further. “Maybe this wasn’t the whole of the outpost. Maybe there’s… something else nearby.”
“We could head around the lake,” Daveth suggested.
Alistair squinted into the distance. The lake was huge, maybe almost a mile long. And the sun was nearing the tops of the western treeline. “I don’t think we have time for that. We’ll need to head back soon.”
So they made their way down from the outcropping and back to the field and hills. To their left, the slope climbed high into the sky. Footsore, they avoided that and continued in a southeasterly direction, their shadows ahead of them.
The Wilds seemed particularly quiet, until they startled a crow from its treetop perch. Cawing loudly in a rude complaint, it glided overhead and disappeared behind a knee of the tall hill. Alistair watched its flight a moment, then stopped. “Do you hear something?”
“Sounds like d– er, wolves,” Bannon said, looking in the same direction.
“But what are they attacking?” Daveth asked, when the beasts didn’t charge over the foothill towards them.
The four looked at each other. “Darkspawn.”
They charged up the slope. Puffing, Jory gasped, “I thought we were avoiding going uphill.”
“Less talk, more running,” Alitair gasped himself. He crested the rise and stopped, almost slamming into Bannon and Daveth. The elf had his sword out, the roge his bow, but it wasn’t drawn. “What are you doing?”
“Letting their numbers thin out,” Daveth said. He thrust his chin at where the darkspawn and wolves were battling it out. “Whoever wins, we still got to fight them.”
“Prefer fighting darkspawn,” the elf muttered.
Jory came wheezing up beside Alistair. “Sounds… good plan.”
“But they’re just innocent animals.” Alistair bit his lip. He didn’t want to see the wolves suffer, but… there were a lot of things in this war he didn’t like. Mabari sent barrelling into the darkspawn horde, biting Tainted flesh, getting split open on axes and swords; or men and women held down my comrades as they sawed off an infected arm or leg that even the mages couldn’t heal. People dying. Screams in the night as those who fell in battle, but weren’t quite dead, were dragged off to feed the Horde. “The darkspawn will slaughter them.”
“Good point.” Daveth said, clearly without Alistair’s depth of feeling. “I don’t mind evening up the odds a bit.” He raised his bow slowly. “And if I get a nice, clear shot….”
Alistair couldn’t see anything being clear in the tumult of fur and jaws, leaping bodies, falling swords. But the bowman apparently did, and he let fly. Daveth grunted in satisfaction as the shaft bored itself into a genlock’s flank. The darkspawn didn’t seem to notice. But Daveth drew again, missing once, but planting arrows in the genlock’s neck. If he played his cards right, he could slay this one right now. His target staggered to its knees.
In a few more moments, the wolves lay dead or dying, and the darkspawn turned on the Warden group. “Time to earn our keep!” Alistair grunted as he and Ser Jory ran to meet them. There was a rumple in the hillside, and the two forces clashed in the declivity between peaks. Bannon ran around Alistair’s off-side to surprise a hurlock when he appeared from behind the human’s shield. Bannon stabbed his sword into the darkspawn’s side, under its ribs, and the blade bit satisfyingly deep. The beast gurgled and died, and the elf looked eagerly for the next one.
All the darkspawn had wounds aplenty already, from wolf bites and arrows embedded in their stinking flesh. Alistair and Jory were making short work of them. Bannon slipped around behind the engaged creatures, stabbing and slicing at any weak, unguarded target. Now this was his idea of a fight! He grinned ferally.
Until a black arrow shaft whipped past his face and embedded itself in the back of his next target. Bannon whirled, crouching low. Two more tall hurlocks had crested the upper rise and were firing into the fray. Shit! he thought as he dodged, and arrow aimed at his heart took a gouge out of his left bicep. Suddenly, the ‘stand back and pick them off’ strategy didn’t seem like such a wonderful thing. He ran along the floor of the declivity, behind a screen of bushes. It was a long way around, but it was better than charging uphill into the teeth of the darkspawn arrows.
Alistair felled another hurlock and paused for breath. Daveth had joined them with his dancing blades, and between him and Ser Jory, they accounted for two more of the spawn. Something thudded against Alistair’s shield. “Archers!” he yelled in warning, bringing it up to protect his head. “Split up!”
Alistair ran to his left, away from the other two. Daveth followed. “Split up, my Great Nanny’s left teat!” the rogue spit. “You’re the one with the shield!”
“We can’t both hide behind it!”
“We can, if you just hunker down and let me get my bow out.”
So they did, and the shield really wasnt decent cover for two men, but Daveth shot from behind Alistair, and they were as small a target as could be.
One of the hurlock archers tumbled backwards over the hillcrest. Alistair suddenly noted the absence of the elf again. Blast it, if he were going to look out for the little fellow, he’d have to keep better tabs on him. As for Ser Jory, the knight lay face down in the declivity, crawling for the scant cover of some bushes. Alistair and Daveth were too large and tempting a target anyway; they seemed to be drawing all the fire. Alistair ducked as an arrowhead struck his helm just above his eye, drawing a spark as it skidded off the steel. He kept his head down.
Daveth finally dropped the last archer. A few moments later, Bannon appeared where the hurlock had been and waved the all-clear. Alistair unfolded himself stiffly with a grunt, his joints popping.
Daveth rolled his shoulders and put up his bow. “Let’s nAb me my ‘trophy,'” he said, “and go home.” They found the darkspawn Daveth had first brought down, and he proceeded to collect its blood. Ser Jory joined them, leaning on his sword to catch his breath. Alistair looked around for Bannon.
“Hey, guys!” The elf waved at them from the very top of the tall hillside. “Up here!”
“Oh, now what?” the hefty knight complained. Alistair gamely climbed the hill, Daveth behind him. Jory muttered a curse and followed laboriously, complaining underbreath all the way.
“I figure out what happened to that tower,” Bannon told them cheerfully as they neared the crest. He paused a moment to reflect how difficult it must be to lug all that bulky human weight up a hill, and thanked the Maker he was an elf. The humans staggered the last few feet to the top. Bannon could barely wait; he headed over towards the ruins he’d found. “Look, the tower wasn’t built down there. It fell over from up here, rolled down the hill,” he gestured broadly, defining the motion of the tower, like some gigantic felled tree; “and landed down there in the lake.” He grinned.
“That’s nuts,” Ser Jory wheezed.
“Maybe,” Bannon said, “but the foundation of the tower is still here.
The top of the hill was broad and flat and crowed with a ring of stone. The foundation of the tower did look somewhat like a tree stump, a few jags of wall sticking up at the far side like splintered wood. Part of a spiral ramp led down from nowhere to the rough floor that was overgrown with grass. One third of the ruin lay deeper than that, the floor torn away. “Best of all,” Bannon finished, gesturing grandly; “the vault is intact. Well, except for the roof and most of the walls. But that just makes it easier to get into.”
Alistair’s eyes lit up and he pushed forward to see. The Warden group picked their way over the ruin floor and down the inside wall. Age-loosened mortar had given way and let fall several clumps of stone block that served as rough steps. They rounded the one wall still standing and peered into the vault. Alistair let out an audible groan.
There was a chest in the vault all right, and it looked as if it had been a big, fancy one, too. But now, it was only so much kindling.
Daveth went over and nudged a piced with his foot, flipping it up to reveal a round design with stylized wings carved into it. “Would this be that Grey Warden symbol Duncan mentioned?”
“Yeah,” Alistair said glumly.
“That’s it, then,” Jory added. “Some bear ages ago smashed the chest and ate the treaties.”
“Or they blew away and some Chasind used them to wipe his arse,” Daveth added cheerfully. He went over and clapped Alistair on the arm. “Don’t worry, mate. Duncan said it’d be a long shot.”
“Yeah,” the Warden said again, still glum with disappointment.
“I don’t think so,” Bannon said. Ser Jory and Daveth looked at him. The knight’s face was full of impatience and ire. Bannon ignored him and went over to the broken pieces. “Why would a bear attack a chest?”
“Looking for food,” Ser Jory snorted, as if the elf were a dimwit. “There probably wasn’t anything left in it but dust, anyway.”
Bannon crouched and examined one of the wood slabs, running his fingertips over each side and edge. “This is thick veneer,” he said. He prodded the main shell of the chest. “And these hinges are set flush, so it probably was watertight. This,” he said, turning the raw edge of the wood towards them, “was broken recently. It isn’t mushy or soft at all. Besides, in this climate, moss and bugs should have gotten to it. No,” he mused speculatively. “this can’t be more than… I don’t know. A few weeks old.” He stood and turned to the gaping humans. Heh, he thought to himself, carpenter that! They stared at him a full minute.
“Well,” Daveth ventured slowly; “that still doesn’t rule out a barbarian with a big club looking for an arse-rag.”
Alistair shot him an evil look. “If this is recent, there may still be some clue as to who took them, and where,” he said hopefully. “Let’s have a better look around.” The group cast about, but none of them were real trackers, and nothing jumped out at them. After several minutes, they had to admit they were probably obscuring any sign that a professional could have read, if Duncan wanted to send another expedition up here. So they climbed back out to the ruin’s main floor.
They stood about a moment, checking their weapons and gear. Bannon had his helmet off to re-tie his hair back, but even so, he didn’t hear anyone come up on them.
“And what,” a chill voice cut through the air, “do we have here?” The Warden recruits turned to see a woman approaching them. She stalked down a ramp that led… from nowhere but open sky. Her boots were tall, dark leather, soft upon the ancient stones. Dark pants clung tightly to her legs, while a long skirt of leather straps quietly hissed and tapped together as her limbs moved. One arm was bare, decorated with a single leather strap bearing feathers and fur and beads; the other was sheathed in more leather, from the fingerless gloves on her hand to a small shoulder guard trimmed in black feathers that sparked green irridescence in the fading light. She wore no shirt, but a maroon fall of cloth that laid over her shoulders and covered her breasts and upper stomach. At her throat, more beads and claws hung on a leather strap, as well as a strand of hammered silver disks with incised patterns. Her dark hair was bound up. A crooked wooden stave was slung across her back. Her eyes were an eerie golden shade, almost glowing with inner light. “Vultures, come to pick clean bones long dead?” She pinned them with her unblinking cat-eyes. None of the men moved or spoke. Like a panther, smooth and confident, she walked between them to the rim of the ruined tower and turned back. “I have been watching your progress for some time, now. ‘Where do they go?’ I wondered. ‘What is it they seek, here in my Wilds?'” She paused now, hands on her hips, awaiting their reply.
“Don’t answer,” Alistair warned in a low voice. “She looks Chasind. There are probably others… watching.”
“Oh,” the woman replied, her keen ears having picked up his voice, “afraid a horde of barbarians will swoop down on you?” She gestured dramatically, raising her arms as if in attack.
“Yes…,” Alistair agreed sheepishly. “Swooping… is bad.”
Bannon shot him a look. “We’re Grey Wardens,” he said confidently. “We’re here to stop the Blight.”
“Just the four of you? All by yourselves?”
“There are more of us,” the elf assured her. “We are here on a mission.”
Then Daveth spoke up, his voice thin with nervous tension. “She’s a witch of the Wilds, she is. She’ll turn us into toads, for sure!” Ser Jory bit his lip, looking from his companion to the strange woman with widening eyes.
“Barbarians and witches,” she commented dryly. “What wild tales you believe.” She tilted her head and thrust her chin towards Bannon. “And you, elf? Do you believe such campfire stories?”
Bannon glanced left and right at the humans. Then he shrugged and looked up at the woman. “I’m just a back-street city elf. I don’t know anything about barbarians and cannibals and witches and mages.” He shrugged again, spreading his hands palm up. “If you want me to know, you’ll have to tell me.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. “And if I should say that I am, indeed, a witch?”
Bannon spread his hands with a soft smile. “Then you don’t need a horde of barbarians to threaten us.”
“Do I seem threatening?” She smiled a cold, snake’s smile. “Let us be cordial, then. What is your name?”
“Bannon.” He gave her a polte nod of his head and kept his eyes fixed on hers. It was difficult, not only because they were eerily cat-like, but because he felt for sue that the cloth she was wearing on her chest was in imminent danger of swinging wide and revealing more skin. But if he stared at that, he’d be in big trouble, he knew. “Pleased to meet you.” He smiled faintly, just a hint. If he overplayed it, it would seem glaringly fake.
“Well, it seems civilized folk can be civil.” She seemed to unbend a notch and her brow relaxed out of her lowered scowl.
Encouraged, Bannon gestured to his companions. “This is Alistair. And D–” He was suddenly cut off by the rogue hissing frantically, Don’t tell her my name! –“Dufus,” he recovered smoothly. “And Ser Jory.”
The knight sketched a slight bow. “Ma’am,” he said deferentially.
“You may call me Morrigan.” She crossed her arms over her midriff, cupping her elbows in her hands. “And you still have not answered my question.”
Alistair narrowed his eyes. “And you haven’t answered ours. Are you a mage? The Chantry demans an an accounting of all Mages in Ferelden,” he growled. “It’s the Law.”
“How odd,” Morrigan retorted, her voice dropping to another degree of chilly. “I thought you were a Grey Warden, but you sound remarkably like a Templar.”
“I was trained as a Templar before being recruited.”
“That explains much,” she retorted sourly.
Bannon stepped in before firebolts and swords started flying. “Look,” he said, putting a placating hand on Alistair’s forearm; “this is the Wilds. If she’s Chasind, that mean’s she’s not Ferelden. I’m sure they have their own laws.”
“The Kingdom of Ferelden encompasses this entire area,” Alistair argued hotly. Was this guy trying to get them killed?
Bannon turned to face him squarely, his back to the witch. His lip pinned under his teeth in intensity, he made a sharp slicing motion with one hand at his throat. Alistair’s face took on a mulish cast, and Bannon glared angrily at him.
“Look,” Ser Jory said, his eyes darting between his companions. “If she really is a witch, you want to make her mad?”
“Are you here on some sort of witch hunt?” Morrigan demanded. “Or are you merely in pursuit of that which is here no longer?”
“Here no longer?” Alistair frowned, picking up on the woman’s words. “As in they were here? And you took them? You’re some sort of… sneaky witch-thief!” Bannon could hardly believe his ears. Alistair was acting like a dog when another intruded upon its territory. The elf didn’t know what kind of training Templars had against mages, but Alistair clearly lacked a healthy fear of them. “Those treaties belong to the Grey Wardens,” the man growled. “I suggest you hand them over to us, right now.”
Morrigan’s scowl had returned. “Suggest all you like, fool,” she spat. “‘Twas not I who took them.”
“You–!” Alistair froze in mid-exclamation. “Oh.” At least now he sounded properly sheepish.
Bannon shot him another warning look. Then he turned to Morrigan. “Can you tell us who did?”
“‘Twas my mother.”
“Your mother?” all four men said at once. Morrigan arched a brow at them.
“Is that some kind of joke?” Bannon asked hesitantly.
“Only if you know my mother,” the witch answered cryptically, with a put-upon air. “Come with me, then.” She turned to slip out through a gap in the old ruin’s wall. “I will take you to her.” She turned back, her face in shadow except the brilliant golden eyes. “If you wish to ask for your treaties back, that is.”
“We shouldn’t go,” Daveth gulped. “It’s a trick! She’ll have us all in the pot, she will!”
“It can’t be worse than slogging through this swamp,” Ser Jory griped. “A good, hot bath sounds like just the thing about now.”
“It’s getting dark,” Alistair said hesitantly.
Bannon went after the witch, letting the others decide to follow or leave without him. “You want your treaties, don’t you? Well, come on.” He slipped through the gap in the stones. “Thank you, Morrigan,” he said softly to her.
The Wardens followed Morrigan to an overhung path that led to a clearing by a small pond. A chorus of frogs suddenly went silent as the group approached a small but sturdy shack.
“Mother,” Morrigan called out; “we have guests.”
A grey-haired old woman exited the shack. Her hair was worn mid-length and still had the thickness of a younger woman’s. And though her face and hands bore the wrinkles and gnarls of age, her step was light and strong, her spine straight. She didn’t seem to have any weapons, not even staff or wand. Her gold-grey eyes ran over the young warriors, making them shiver.
“Mother,” Morrigan said, turning to gesture at the men. “These are the Grey Wardens. The elf, Bannon. Alistair. That’s Ser Jory and…,” she stopped and fixed Daveth with a penetrating stare. “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
Daveth gulped audibly. “D-Dufus, mum.” He flushed.
“Dufus,” Morrigan repeated, turning back to her mother with a catty smile.
The old woman threw her head back and laughed. It sounded disconcertingly like a cackle. “And you can call me Flemeth.”
“Flemeth?” Daveth’s reddened face quickly drained to pale white. “The Flemeth?” His voice turned into a horase ghost of its former self. “It’s the Witch of the Wilds! I told you,” he moaned. “She’ll have us in the stewpot for sure!”
“Oh please,” the woman called Flemeth scoffed. “Why would I ruin a lovely dinner with you lot? I have your precious papers here….” She dug around in a large bag she had looped over one shoulder. “Somewhere…. And before you go barking at me, the magic seal wore off ages ago. I was keeping them safe for you.”
Alistair froze, his mouth half open, his hand half-raised as if to — well, start barking again. “Oh,” finally came out of his mouth. “You kept them safe.”
“I just said that, didn’t I?” Flemeth griped. “Not too swift, is he?”
“He’s a Templar,” Morrigan said.
“Former Templar,” Alistair interjected.
“That explains a lot,” said Flemeth.
“What does that mean, exactly?” Alistair demanded, scowling in confusion.
But Flemeth avoided the question by producing a stack of thick, folded papers and shoving them at the Warden. “Here, now. Be off with you, then. Don’t have time to be lollygagging around; you’re in such a rush.”
Alistair stared in disbelief at the treaties. Bannon stepped forward to thank Flemeth, and Ser Jory echoed his words.
“What a nice boy,” the old woman said, beaming at the knight. Then her face went blank and she looked away as if dismissing his existence. “So unimportant in the grand scheme of things,” she muttered. She closed one eye and stuck her tongue in one cheek, peering at Bannon. The elf tried to look as if he didn’t want to run away. “He’s a cutie. You must think I’m a dotty old woman.”
“I don’t know,” Bannon said carefully. “We’ve only just met.”
“First impressions are always the strongest, aren’t they?”
“Clever people can appear to be anything they want,” he answered.
This must have pleased her, for she broke into a grin. “What a silver tongue he has! Very dangerous!” Bannon wasn’t sure who she was talking to, but her attention seemed to focus on him again. “Are you ready to change the world?”
“Me? I… I’ll do my best.”
“That’s the spirit!” The old woman clapped him on the arm, and her hand felt as hard and solid as a dragon’s talon. “Well, didn’t I say you were in a rush? What are you waiting for?”
“It’s getting dark,” Ser Jory said. Daveth just squeaked in fear.
Flemeth skewered them with one eye. “Did you want to stay here the night?”
“No!” they all chorused together.
“Didn’t think so. Here, girl; take these poor lost waifs back home.” She cackled disconcertingly again and turned to disappear back into the hut.
Morrigan sighed. “Yes, Mother.”
Morrigan led them out a different way, the long way around the lake. The sun was down, only the western sky was lit. The lake reflected it and seemed to glow, but the ground and vegetation were but sooty shadows. The witch — or whatever she was — led them with a confident step. Bannon struggled to keep up. Strung out behind him, the humans stumbled and cursed and stubbed their toes on every rock and tree root.
The dark curtain of night drew across the sky, and stars peeped out faintly. Even the water grew black as pitch, but Morrigan didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps she really did have cat’s eyes.
Then someone pitched heavily into the dirt with a muffled oath. Bannon stopped and looked back. The humans were dark silhouettes against the dim landscape, helping each other up. “Wait!” Bannon called after the witch.
She turned back, and indeed her eyes were the only thing visible of her form. “What now?” she griped. “I thought you were in such a hurry to leave,” she said mockingly.
“She’s leading us to our doom!” Daveth whined. “Right over a cliff, she will! Or into a sinking pit.”
“She is not,” Alistair said. “We’re still near the lake. Sorta. I think.” Oh great, the guy who knew the way back was lost!
“We need a torch,” Ser Jory said.
“Such babes in the woods. Why didn’t you think of that?”
“We were supposed to be back before dark,” Alistair said.
“And it never occurred to you that you might fail? Is that short-sightedness or just arrogance?”
“Are you going to help us get out of here or not?” Alistair snapped.
“If you’re going to be ungrateful–!” Morrigan turned to Bannon. “‘Tisn’t all that dark. The stars are out. The elf can see fine. Can you not?”
Bannon moved a little closer to her, and lowered his voice. “Look, I know they are a pain. But you want to get rid of them as soon as possible, don’t you? They can’t go very fast bumbling around and tripping all over everything.”
“Hmmm,” she mused. “All right.” She raised her right arm and hissed something in a strange tongue. A ball of glowing green mist appeared above her hand. She cast it aloft and it floated above her head, shining a wan green light upon the ground.
Bannon drew in a breath, but Daveth gasped in panic. “I told you, I told you! She’s a witch she is! We should’ve run when we first laid eyes on her!”
Ser Jory and Alistair scrambled to their feet. The knight hissed, “Shut up! You really want to make her mad, now?” The Templar gripped his sword hilt tightly, but didn’t draw it.
“By all means,” Morrigan told them coldly; “if you wish to flee, do so now.” She gestured behind them. “That direction is as good as any.” She hooded her eyes and folded her arms across her midriff. “Those who wish to leave the Wilds may follow me.” She turned and continued down the path. Somewhere out in the darkness, something made a harsh roaring call.
“What was that?” Jory asked, eyes round as saucers.
“Was that a bear?” Bannon asked.
“Could be,” Morrigan said over her shoulder. “Marsh bears are rather small. But the mothers are taking their cubs out to forage this time of year. Best not to make them angry.” She resumed walking, and the magical glowing orb bobbed along in her wake, taking the light with it.
“Come on,” Bannon told his awestruck companions. Another bear growl convinced them to hurry after the witch.
“I’ll protect you,” he heard Ser Jory say to the pale Daveth. The thief seemed genuinely frightened. True, Morrigan was a very scary woman, with untold powers. But she and her mother were helping them, weren’t they? They didn’t have any reason to be killing Grey Wardens. Mysteriously spooky and evil was one thing, but elaborate charades? Why bother? Unless they were excessively bored out here all alone in the Wilds. It was enough to make anyone a little batty.
The group travelled in strained silence for quite some time. Then the witch stopped and collected her orb to herself, dimming its light.
“What’s going on?” Alistair demanded, blinking in the near darkness.
“Look ahead,” Morrigan said. “Do you not see the lights of your camp?”
They squinted and yes, there was an orange glow in the sky above the treeline. “Thank the Maker,” Daveth gushed. He scurried forward along the path. The others followed with a bit more decorum.
Bannon turned to the witch. “Thank you, Morrigan,” he said sincerely. “Are you going to be all right, returning on your own?”
“Of course,” she said with a wry twist of her lips. She pressed the glowing light between her palms and it snuffed out instantly. Bannon blinked away the afterimage, and the witch had vanished.
“Right,” Alistair said from slightly behind him. “Very creepy. You think she disappeared back to the swamp? Or maybe she was never here at all….”
Bannon rolled his eyes at the attempt to weave a ghost story. “No, I think she just turned invisible, and she can heeeeear you.” He stretched the words out with an eerie quaver. Alistair shuddered and got a move on. With a shake of his head, Bannon followed.