(Warnings: mild language, adult situations)
Bannon heard voices. He couldn’t make them out; they seemed to be in some distant underwater cavern. He heard a broken sobbing that gradually faded away.
Some indeterminate time later, he awakened. This time there was a woman’s voice, cold and clear as a mountain stream. “So, you’ve decided to rejoin the living?” A pressure lifted from his eyes and he blinked them open with a groan. He was in a humble firelit room. And standing over him, it was that woman from the Wilds. “M-Morrigan?” He pushed himself up on his elbows. The witch moved to help him, supporting him and propping a few pillows behind his shoulders. “Is this your house?” he rasped.
“‘Tis Mother’s house, yes,” she said. “How do you feel?” She moved away, crossing to the hearth.
“I- I’m alive?” Surely, this was the last thing he expected.
“Quite,” the witch assured him. “Though ’twas a near thing.” She ladled some stew from a pot over the fire into a bowl, then returned to the bedside. “We healed you. Well, Mother did most of the work; I know little of the healing arts.”
Bannon took quick stock of himself. He felt tired, weak, and a bit stiff. He ran a hand over his bandaged chest, wincing as he recalled black, barbed arrows thudding into him. But it didn’t hurt now. He took the bowl from Morrigan gratefully. “How did I get here?”
“Mother turned into a giant bird and plucked you from atop the tower. She flew down and brought you here.”
“You’re jo–. No, I guess you’re not.” Bannon put a spoonful of stew into his mouth, suddenly ravenous.
Morrigan shook her head. Then she said, “I hope you like that. The newt eyes are quite tasty this time of year.”
Bannon froze with the food halfway down his throat. He looked up at her, but she only returned his gaze mildly. He was going to choke to death, so he forced the food down with an audible gulp.
Morrigan chuckled. “You’ve done much better than your friend. When I played that trick on him, he spit stew halfway across the room.” She smiled. “Mother made him clean it all up before letting him have his clothes back.”(*)
Friend? “Alistair? He’s here?” Bannon devoured more of the stew. He was pretty sure those were just peas. But what the hell, he was starving, and city elves couldn’t afford to be picky eaters. “What happened at the battle?”
“The man who was supposed to respond to your signal quit the field.”
“What?” Bannon stopped, his mouth half open. “General Loghain? He…? He didn’t attack? Why? What happened? What about the king? And the Grey Wardens? We have to go back and find out.”
“There is no need for that. I had a rather good vantage point. ‘Tis too dangerous to return there, now.”
“If you were watching, unnoticed, we could use the same spot.”
“Not unless you can turn into a bird.”
Bannon frowned and shook his head. He ate mechanically in silence as she described the battle. The soldiers in the pass had perished. They had held off the darkspawn bravely, but the horde kept coming, unchecked. No army descended from the hills to reinforce them. They were slaughtered!
“The darkspawn overran the camp?” Bannon asked. Morrigan nodded. “What about… what about north of the camp? Where the elves were?” Did Loghain abandon them to die, defenseless? Or had they left with the army?
“I’m afraid I don’t know,” said Morrigan.
“Well, we have to find out!”
“Why?” she asked. He looked up at her. Her face was open and clearly unconcerned. “What could you possibly accomplish?”
“There could be survivors. Some who got away.”
“Aye, there are stragglers. But as I said, ’tis too dangerous–”
“What is dangerous? The battle is over. Did the darkspawn start living in our tents?”
“No, but…. Are you sure you want to hear?” Morrigan’s cat-eyes narrowed calculatingly. “Your friend became most upset when I told him.”
“No. I mean… I have to know.”
She crossed her arms over her stomach. “The darkspawn comb the gorge for bodies. Feeding, I think. Should they find any survivors however, they drag them away. I do not know where, or why.”
Bannon’s mouth went dry. He let the spoon plop into the dregs of the stew in the bowl. His appetite seemed to have deserted him.
Morrigan took it from his hands and set it on the bedside table. She perched on the edge of the bed and gently tugged the end of the bandages loose. “Let’s see how you’re doing,” she said. “Mother says the Grey Wardens have incredible healing capacity.”
“Does she know a lot about Grey Wardens?” Flemeth seemed to have a lot of interest in them, at any rate. Bannon wondered why.
“Perhaps she knew some Grey Wardens in the last Blight.”
Bannon frowned at her glib tone. Surely this was just another ‘old mother’ joke. No one could be that old. Morrigan didn’t look up from her work. She bent closely over him, her slender neck and smooth jawline filling his vision. He could distinctly catch her scent, a mixture of loam and moss and woman. Her fingertips were cool and gentle against his skin. Despite the turmoil of grim thoughts spinning through his mind, there was something about a woman slowly uncovering him that caused… stirrings. –Of a purely physical nature. He suddenly realized those bandages were all he was wearing.
“Does that hurt?” she asked softly as he tensed.
She slid the blankets lower, down into his lap, so she could reach the tail end of the bandages wrapped around his stomach. A bead of sweat prickled at his temple. Morrigan looked down on him. “‘Tis quite remarkable,” she said. He hoped she was talking about his chest! She touched his skin, running her hand lightly over the faded red marks that had previously been mortal wounds. She seemed oblivious to the effect her touch had on him. “I’ll tell Mother you’re fully recovered, then?” She turned her head and looked into his face.
Her brows creased slightly. “Though you seem to have a touch of fever, yet.”
Bannon licked his lips. “Wh-where are my clothes?”
“There, in the chest.” She tilted her head towards the corner by the chimney. Slowly, graceful as a cat, she stood up and looked down on him. Rather like a cat sizing up a rodent. “Did you want them now?” she asked. “Do feel free. ‘Tisn’t anything I haven’t already seen.” Er–! He didn’t think she’d seen it quite this way. “‘Twas I who undressed you and bathed you, after all.” All right, maybe she had!
“I…,” he gulped. “I’m very grateful, Morrigan. But,” he was very quick to add, “I think you’re right. I do feel a little… flushed. Perhaps I should rest a bit more.” Maker’s Mercy, how to get rid of this woman? “Can you let Alistair know that I’m all right? Please?”
“Of course.” She smiled faintly (mockingly?) and turned and walked out.
Bannon let out a breath. Then he flung the coverlet off and sprang for the chest. He dug out his breechcloth and pants. “Will you stop that,” he hissed. “What are you trying to do, get us killed?” He had no idea how angry the witch might be at him and his state — which was entirely not his fault! But he knew how shem women could get riled if an elf even looked at them sideways. Witches must be ten times worse. Or, hell, maybe she was desperate! Out here, all alone; her and her dotty mother. That thought put a damper on things! “You’ll get warts!” he hissed in final warning to his wayward anatomy as he pulled his clothes on.
A few minutes later, he ran into Morrigan and Alistair, just outside the door. “I told you,” the witch said imperiously, “he’s resting.” She turned around and scowled at Bannon. “That was a rather short rest,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
Bannon shrugged helplessly. “Well, I tried. I was just… too restless, I guess.” The witch rolled her eyes, tossed her hands in defeat, and stalked off.
“You… you’re alive.” Bannon didn’t recognize Alistair’s voice, it was so hoarse. Nor his face, which was haggard, his eyes red-rimmed. “I thought I’d lost you, too.”
Flemeth came over to them. “I told you, he’d be fine.” Her voice creaked like a great tree branch, making her sound stronger instead of weaker.
“It was a near thing,” Alistair said, still looking Bannon over as if afraid he might be a ghost.
“I’m all right,” the elf assured him. “Thanks to Flemeth.” He gave her a polite bow of his head. “And Morrigan.” He didn’t know where the young witch had gotten off to, but he didn’t want to bet she wasn’t listening.
“Duncan’s dead,” Alistair said suddenly. The light that had crept into his face at seeing his brother Warden died out. “Everyone… they’re all dead; all of them. The king…. Loghain left us to die.” His shaky voice gained strength at the last, the strength of hatred and betrayal. Alistair put his hands on his face.
“Easy,” Bannon said gently. “I know. Morrigan told me.”
“What are we going to do?” Alistair cried into his hands.
Bannon didn’t have an answer. But Flemeth did. “You’re Grey Wardens,” she said. “You’re going to stop this Blight.”
The elf stared at her. Alistair coughed a harsh, bitter laugh. “We are? Just the two of us?”
“It’s what Grey Wardens do. It’s what you are sworn to do.” Flemeth crossed her arms and fixed the former Templar with her grey-gold gaze. “It is the duty that cannot be forsworn. Isn’t that right?”
Bannon had to wonder again exactly how much the old woman knew about the order — and how she knew it. Alistair gaped at her, his face creased with worry. “But… we can’t do it alone! Two against the horde? Even for a Grey Warden, that’s impossible odds. No Grey Warden ever defeated a blight without an army at their back.”
There was an army, beating a hasty retreat northward as Bannon understood it. But he doubted catching up with them was a good idea at this point. He tapped a thumbnail against his teeth. “Isn’t there a Grey Warden headquarters? Somewhere?”
“There’s Weisshaupt, the home of the order,” Alistair said. “But that’s hundreds of leagues away, in the Anderfels.”
“There are no outposts that are closer?”
Alistair grimaced. “You have to understand, the Wardens were banned from Ferelden until recently. After they took part in a revolt against the king or something. Every Warden in Ferelden was here, at Ostagar. So the next closest would be the Wardens in Orlais. Duncan came from Orlais, when this nonsense started, as did most of the other Wardens.” The man sighed heavily, and rubbed his face. “King Cailen was going to request more Wardens, but there were… complications.”
“Politics,” Alistair spat. “Loghain and some of the older banns didn’t want Orlesians back on Ferelden soil.”
Flemeth said, “There are plenty of allies close to hand.”
Bannon got the idea she was trying to lead them to something, but he didn’t know what. Or why she just couldn’t spit it out. He stared at her, brow creased in puzzlement. She just rolled her eyes. “And I thought you were the smart one.” Bannon opened his mouth to protest, but had nothing to say to that.
Alistair was rubbing his head, making his short hair stand out in messy spikes. “We can go to Redcliffe,” he said, piecing together his thoughts as they took shape. “Arl Eamon is a good man. I know him. If we explain what happened here, how Loghain betrayed us, he could fight against him.” Alistair seemed charged by the idea. His head came up, his eyes alight. “He wasn’t here at Ostagar; he still has all his men!”
Bannon frowned in thought. “He has an army big enough to fight the horde?”
“No, but big enough to fight Loghain’s men. Arl Eamon can unite the banns; they’ll rally to him! He can call for a Landsmeet, and we can settle this score with Loghain.”
Bannon chewed the inside of his lip. He wasn’t sure what good it would do to have two armies fighting each other while the darkspawn horde still threatened the country, but the idea of it seemed to rejuvinate Alistair. The man had almost been a walking corpse. Now his voice was stronger, his cheeks had regained some colour. And one army fighting another to unite them was better than no armies fighting the Blight. He hoped. The elf glanced at Flemeth. She looked exasperated.
“It’s the Grey Warden’s job,” she said pointedly, “to call upon the forces of their allies in times of Blight.” Alistair stopped and looked at her, dumbfounded. The old witch slapped a hand to her face. She muttered something that might have been Chasind, or might have been magic. Bannon tensed to leap away as soon as she made any hostile moves. Instead she just groaned, “Why did I give you those treaties?”
“The treaties!” Alistair said. “They’re still there, in my scrip! I forgot all about them.”
“Obviously,” Flemeth growled.
Undaunted, Alistair contined, his excitement rising further. “The treaties give us the right to call upon aid from the dwarves, the Dalish, even the Circle of Magi. They have to help us!”
“Even though there’s only two of us?” Bannon asked skeptically.
“Especially since there’s only two of us!”
Flemeth huffed in irritation. “Don’t bother thanking me for keeping them safe for you.”
“Thank you, Flemeth; you’re an angel,” Alistair said with genuine gratitude.
“Ooh, flattery will get you everywhere, big boy.” She waggled her brows at him, then burst into cackling laughter as his expression turned to one of pure horror. “Now, down to business.”
Flemeth was determined to see them off within the hour. Alistair worried that Bannon was still too weak, but the elf assured him he felt fine. Well, he had been ‘resting’ for two days. The elf was a bit shocked to hear that.
They scoured the tiny home for supplies. There were spare winter blankets for bedrolls, but no tents to speak of. They commandeered an old oilcloth used for covering the woodpile and folded it into an awkward bundle. Flemeth gave them a hand axe and said something about a lean-to. Bannon looked just as blank as the human felt. Candle stubs, dried rabbit jerky, leather cord, a tinderbox, a battered pot, two pewter mugs… Flemeth didn’t seem concerned about stripping her home of anything. It finally dawned on Alistair — the old witch didn’t expect to be here come winter. That’s when reality hit him. They’d lost. They’d failed to stop the Blight, and it was going to eat up this land like a black rot festering on an infected limb. It wasn’t going to heal. It was going to keep spreading.
Alistair rubbed his eyes. They felt as if they had sand in them again, fierce pinpricks that made them water. He wished again for the hundredth time that Duncan were here. Duncan would know what to do. And the loss of the Grey Wardens ached like a missing limb. He’d really felt as if he’d belonged, for once in his life. Surrounded by Wardens, he felt like part of a family. Times had been rough, the future had been bleak. Maker knows, they faced death in every battle. But for several weeks, Alistair had been a part of something greater than himself. And now, he was reduced to nothing.
“Hey.” He felt a light tought on his arm. Alistair looked up; Bannon was giving him a concerned look. “Come on,” the elf said gently. “We need you.”
“‘We’?” Alistair joked darkly. “Like the whole country? The whole world?”
“Well, I need you.” Bannon dropped his mask of bravado. His dark eyes looked haunted, almost desperate. “I can’t do this alone.”
Alistair took firm hold of himself. The little g– the elf needed him. He nodded. “I guess–” He had to clear his throat, as his voice was still hoarse. “I guess we can’t just do nothing. Even if it is hopeless.”
Flemeth produced a pile of shirts from the depths of one closet. Men’s shirts, of all kinds and styles.
“What are you doing with so many men’s clothes?” Alistair asked.
“For all my male visitors, of course,” the old witch replied.
Alistair looked at Bannon, but clearly, neither one of them wanted to go there. Carefully, Alistair asked, “What are you giving them to use for?”
The old woman straightened up, a hand pressing her lower spine. “For you to wear when yours get dirty,” she said simply. “And then to tear into bandages when you get yourself beat up.”
“You mean, we should tear them up and roll them into bandages?”
Flemeth put a hand over her eyes. “Of course not! Then how will you wear them?”
Alistair was confused. He was used to carrying neatly rolled bandages in his pack. But Bannon said, “It makes sense.” So they rolled up the shirts to pack away.
Flemeth pointedly gave the elf a satchel of poultices and healing draughts. Because he, as she kept hinting, was ‘the smart one.’ Alistair didn’t argue. He was just glad he wasn’t the smart one, or they’d all be in trouble.
Morrigan reappeared. She seemed a bit ruffled by all the commotion going on in the house, but struggled not to show it. She suggested the Wardens best hope was to make for a small town just north of the Wilds, called Lothering. All they had to do was get to the Imperial Highway and go west. Of course, the witches didn’t have anything so handy as a compass. Morrigan rolled her eyes. “When you get to the hightway, you turn left.” At least these were instructions Bannon could follow!
“The Imperial Highway has branch that ends near Ostagar,” he said. “I don’t see why we can’t go back to the camp, raid some decent supplies — no offense, Flemeth — climb the norhern ravine, and slip past the darkspawn by going through the elven camp. There’s a forest up there at the edge, it would be easy enough to use for cover.” Not to mention, he could find out what happened to his people. If the army had abandoned them, he’d go straight after Loghain and rip the bastard’s throat out.
Flemeth said, “If you and your friend go anywherenear that horde, you’ll be killed.”
Alistair explained. “You know that trick we Grey Wardens can do, sensing darkspawn nearby? Well, they can sense us, too.” Bannon threw up his hands in exasperation. “If it’s a few stragglers, or even small groups, it could work. But a whole army? They’d swarm us like ants on a drop of honey.”
“So you want us to head into this wilderness until we hit the Imperial Highway, and just turn left?” Bannon asked Flemeth. “Without a map or a compass?”
The old witch stroked her chin thoughtfully. “There is one more thing I can give you, that will help you on your way.”
“We’d be most grateful,” Bannon said sincerely.
“I’ll give you my daughter.”
“What?” Alistair yelped. Morrigan sputtered.
“She is very precious to me, so be sure you keep her in one piece. Morrigan,” Flemeth turned to her gaping daughter; “guide these fellows and aid them on their quest.”
“I– but– Mother!” Morrigan bit down hard, gaining control of her voice and her words. “This isn’t how– this isn’t what I wanted.”
“You’ve seen them bumbling around the swamp. It would take them three months to find their way out, and that’s only if they don’t fall into quicksand, eat poison berries, get bitten by snakes, or eaten by spiders.”
Both Alistair and Bannon opened their mouths to defend themselves. But… what could they say? It was true. And eaten by spiders? Was she joking? Bears would be more likely, or so Bannon thought.
“But a Templar, Mother!”
“Former Templar,” Alistair put in.
Flemeth said, “All the more reason he needs help.”
“I….” Morrigan deflated under her mother’s imperial gaze. “Yes, Mother.” She took a breath and came to grips with her new job.
“We would be most grateful for your help, Morrigan,” Bannon assured her.
“Are you sure about this?” Alistair asked. He lowered his voice, even though the two women were right there within hearng anyway. “They’re… you know. Apostates.”
Bannon just stared at him. He had to be joking. They needed the help of these witches — mages, apostates, whatever you wanted to call them — and Alistair didn’t want their help because… what? They didn’t have a license to practice magic? “Do you know the way out of here?” he asked the human.
“Um, no.” Alistair mulled it over. “All right, then.” To Morrigan he said, “You can cook, right?”
She narrowed her eyes and said slowly, “Yes….”
Bannon nearly kicked the Templar — former Templar — in the ankle. This must be why Templars and mages didn’t get along. “You don’t have to cook,” he said appeasingly.
“Well, you missed your chance there,” Alistair said. “It’s charred rabbit from here on out. I’m a horrible cook.”
Bannon slapped his forehead. “You just put it in a pan and fry it on the stove until it’s done.” Honestly, how hard could it be? But Alistair and Morrigan stared at him. All right, so they didn’t have a pan, and there wouldn’t be any stoves in the Wilds.
Morrigan sighed in exasperation. “I’ll cook, if only out of self preservation. Speaking of which….” She turned to Flemeth. “Now, Mother, be sure not to scorch the porrige.(β) Again. Mind the fire. I wouldn’t want to return to find our home a smouldering pile of ash.”
“Bah!” Flemeth waved that off. “‘Tis more likely you’ll return to find this place overrun by darkspawn, devastated by the Blight.”
Morrigan’s face went white. Her voice trembled with actual emotion. “I… I didn’t mean….”
Flemeth awkwardly patted her arm. “No worries, child. I have plenty of tricks in me yet to avoid those stinking monsters.” The old witch squinted one eye and tilted her head up at her daughter. “Mind what I told you. Now be off. A storm is brewing.”
Morrigan nodded as if not sure of her voice. Bannon thanked the old woman once again. Without much ado, no fanfares of heroic speeches, they started off down the muddy path on their grand quest to save the country from obliteration.
*: Flemeth has clearly been watching too much of this video.
β: 500 Bloodsong Points if you know a story containing a warning about scorching the porrige. (Hover your mouse to see the answer.)