(Warnings: foul language)
Alistair slogged along the dirt path through the Wilds. He followed the witch’s heels, not having the will to raise his head further. His pack was a solid weight on his back, along with his sword. His shield was a familiar weight on his upper arm, where he carried it. These were nothing compared to the burden on his heart. He had finally, finally, found his place in the world. He was bonded to the men and women of the Grey Wardens. He belonged. He was one of them, and their purpose was clear; their calling noble. Alistair was proud to be a Grey Warden. He’d been a part of something important.
Now…. He stumbled on a half-buried rock. He had to keep going. His whole family of Grey Wardens had been wiped out. He couldn’t just give up everything they’d striven for. But how could he prevail where the entire order had failed?
Duncan would know what to do. Alistair tried to imagine what his mentor would tell him. But bringing up Duncan’s image, recalling his strong voice, only made his vision blur with tears. He swallowed them and tried to push those thoughts aside. That only left him empty. Grey and desolate like the lowering sky. Soon the trees would be bowed under the weight of the heavy clouds. Alistair felt the same.
Then he felt a hand on his arm. He looked over. Bannon had moved up beside him as they traversed an open spot along the path. “You know in the stories,” the elf said, “when the characters say ‘It couldn’t possibly get worse’?”
“And then it does?”
“Exactly. But I’m starting to feel just like that.”
Alistair sighed and ducked a wayward branch as the path narrowed again. “I think I know what you mean. I mean, I’m not going to tempt fate by saying it, but I don’t see how things could get any worse.”
Bannon nodded, but then he said. “Ah, Alistair… I have bad news for you?”
“What?” Alistair asked suspiciously.
“I’m not going to be able to pay back that money I owe you anytime soon.”
To his own surprise, Alistair laughed. “Okay, now you’ve ruined my day. This has to be the lowest of the low.”
Bannon grinned back at him, but then a stiff breeze ruffled his hair, and the two Grey Wardens heard a rushing sound behind them. They stopped and turned. “You had to say that, didn’t you?” Bannon griped, his grin vanishing. A thick curtain of rain was sweeping towards them.
Alistair saw a brief flash of what he thought was lightning when he turned back to ask Morrigan about shelter. When he blinked, the witch was gone, and a silver fox was running through the brush. “Did you see tha–?”
“Did she just turn into–?” the elf said simultaneously. He darted ahead. “Morrigan!”
Alistair ran after him. They got about five paces before they were drenched in rain. The fox led them on a merry chase through the bushes. Then she leapt up a steep incline and disappeared inside a large hollow tree.
The two Wardens panted up and bent to look inside. The fox was curled up cozily in the dark cavity. “That’s fine for you,” Bannon said, “but what about us?” The only answer he got was a flick of a fluffy tail as the fox tucked her nose under it and closed her eyes. “Fine.” The elf straightened and looked at Alistair. “We’ll just go on without you.”
“We will? I mean… but we’ll get soaked!”
“Alistair,” the elf said, blowing a puff of air up over his face to try to dislodge a wet hank of hair that had escaped from his helmet. “We’re already soaked.” Bannon turned and descended the short hillside, giving the Templar a beckoning wave.
With one more dubious look towards the hollow tree, Alistair followed, skidding carefully down the slope. “Won’t we get lost, then?”
“Not a chance!” Bannon said loudly. “I’m an elf! And you’re a Templar — or near enough. We have an excellent sense of direction.”
“We do?” Alistair glanced over his shoulder.
“Is she coming yet?” the elf whispered out of the side of his mouth.
Bannon grumbled underbreath. Then he said, again loud with confidence, “That’s right, I’m sure it’s this way!”
“Of course,” Alistair agreed loudly. “We don’t need any sneaky witch-thieves!”
Half an hour later, they were thoroughly lost. But at least they’d found a fallen tree that had a hollow under it. They squeezed into the little space and sat in the squelching mud, looking out at the grey and green world.
“So we’re lost then,” Alistair said.
“We’re not lost.”
“You know where we are?”
“I know exactly where we are!” The elf’s voice shook a little. He was prone to shivering in the cold and wet.
“Oh good,” said Alistair, unconvinced. “Where are we?”
“We’re in the Wilds.”
There was silence. A good bit of it. Then Alistair asked, “Do you think the witch can find us?”
“Oh yes.” Bannon nodded confidently. “In the Wilds, Witch of the Wilds. No problem.”
“Hmm,” Alistair said noncommittally. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way — you being my last and only friend in the world and all. But… I hate you.”
“Aw, come on,” the elf cajoled. “Didn’t I find us shelter?”
“This? Oh, this. This lovely mud hole under a cramped little log? Oh, no; this is smashing, really.”
“You wanted to be out of the rain.”
“I’m beginning to think your first idea was better. We were already soaked, so staying in the rain couldn’t do much more to us. Here, though….” Alistair shifted uncomfortably. “I think muddy water is seeping through the chinks in my armor. Not to mention chinks I have elsewhere, if you know what I mean.”
Bannon had no reply. A few moments later, he screamed. “Ahh! Spider!” He jumped back and tried to draw his sword, which was impossible in the tight space.
“What, this?” Alistair reached a cupped hand out in front of Bannon’s face and gently captured the small spider that was dangling from a thin line. “It’s just a little spider. I didn’t know you were afraid of spiders.”
“I’m not!” Bannon insisted. “But just… didn’t Flemeth say something about being eaten by spiders? Maybe it’s a flesh-eating spider.”
Alistair twisted to set the spider down, but then reconsidered. He didn’t want to sit on it, or have it crawling up into his armor. So he flicked his hand and tossed it into a nearby bush. The spider waved its spindly legs in indignation, then righted itself and scurried off, raindrops pelting leaves to the left and right of it like miniature catapult shots. “She meant giant spiders.” Alistair looked back. The elf just stared at him. “What?”
“Yes. They live in deep forests or caves and such.”
“Whoa, giant spiders? Like how big?” Bannon asked.
“I don’t know; I’ve never seen one. But big. You know. Giant.”
“Giant like the size of a house? They step on people like bugs? They eat twelve oxen in a single gulp?”
Alistair snorted. “No, of course not that big. Just… like, big. You know. Huge.”
“Big as your hand? Big as a rat? Big as a dog?”
“Well, big. You know… BIG.”
“You’re a real fount of knowledge,” the elf said dryly.
“Well, you can ask me about Andraste and the Chant of Light. That was the center of my teachings with the Chantry.”
“What’s the prayer for Andraste to come save us from the wilderness?”
“Hmm, let me think…. ‘For forty days and forty nights, the Armies of the Righteous travelled the barren deserts and the dark forests. Blessed Andraste called to her followers with songs of freedom. The Maker heard the Chant and blessed her followers with sweet rainwater. The plants of the forest and plains fruited for them, and the game was plentiful. And so the Exalted March passed through the Wilderness and came upon the seat of power of the Magisters.'”
“So we just need to call an Exalted March to get out of here?”
It began to grow dark, though the rain eased up. It was too damp for firewood. They Grey Wardens couldn’t think of any way to improve their meager shelter, though they did pull the oilcloth out to lay down over the mud. Then they got their muddy boots on it, but at least it seemed drier. They dug out the smoked rabbit legs and gnawed on them. By the time they finished, it was too dark to see a hand in front of their faces.
Hunkered down, Bannon said, “I suppose one of us should keep watch? And the other try to sleep, at least.”
“I can’t sleep,” Alistair said.
“All right.” Bannon shoved his pack up where the hollow met the tree trunk, his bow wedged beside it. He lay on his side, pillowing his head on the end of the pack.
“Oh, before you do,” Alistair said, “I should warn you about the nightmares.”
“Grey Wardens… especially those fresh from the Joining, have nightmares. It’s from the Taint.”
Bannon groaned. “Great. I don’t have nightmares enough?”
“Do you?” He heard Alistair’s voice shift as the Templar turned his head towards him in the dark. “What about?”
“Nothing. Personal stuff.”
“You want to talk about it?” Alistair asked gently.
“All right, then. I’d wish you good night, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Bannon just grunted in agreement. He doubted it, too.
The night was hell. Bannon drifted between chilly, wet mud and burning blood. People screamed at him, monsters shrieked. He tossed and jerked awake every time he almost drifted off. In the darkness, everything blended together until he suffered waking dreams and hallucinations he couldn’t escape.
He twitched and jerked. His eyes snapped open. He couldn’t see a thing. Then he heard a noise and held still, listening. There it was again, a low, keening sound. And sobbing.
The noise cut off abruptly, as if the human had held his breath to stifle it. Bannon pushed himself upright, rubbing his sore neck. “It’s all right,” the elf said into the silent darkness, his own voice hoarse. “Do you want to talk about it?”
The human sniffled. “I…,” he said in a tiny voice. “I-it’s… it’s just….” His voice dissolved into a whimper. Bannon reached out and gripped the human’s shoulder. The small contact seemed to break through the dam.
“The Wardens were my family. My whole family. I never… when my mother died, I… I just never fit in, anywhere. Duncan….” His voice strained thin. “Duncan was like a father to me. The only real father I ever had.” He put his hands to his face, changing the timber of his voice. Bannon squeezed his shoulder. “Now they’re… they’re gone. Forever. I can’t….” His body shook with sobs. “I can’t believe it. It’s so unreal. But here we are. I can’t wake up from this. And I don’t know how I can go on.” He hiccoughed and sniffled again.
“It’s all right,” Bannon whispered. “We’ll make it, somehow. Try to get some rest.”
Alistair slumped onto his side and curled up tighter. He hiccoughed brokenly a few times, then seemed to settle.
Bannon stared into the darkness, wondering just how they were going to accomplish anything at all. He felt very small. A tiny speck in the vast wilderness.
It dawned, if such a weak grey light could be called that, wet and dreary. Bannon crawled out from under the fallen tree and slowly unbent his limbs and spine. His whole body ached, and he was more tired than he’d been before the night had started. “Alistair, come on.” Creaking and groaning like an old man, Bannon knelt and fished out his pack and his bow.
Alistair hadn’t moved. “Alistair?” Great Maker, was the human dead? Bannon prodded the inert body with his bowstave. He called the man’s name again, panic creeping into his voice. “Alistair? Alistair! You stupid shem! Don’t you dare die and leave me all alone out here!” Bannon jabbed him hard in the ribs, eliciting a groan. “Oh, get up!”
Prodding, poking, pulling, he got the shem dragged out from under the tree. The ragged human sat in the mud. Bannon found some more dried animal meat and stuck a piece in his hand. “Eat!”
Alistair’s voice was a dried husk. “How?”
“Stick it in your mouth and chew.” Bannon tried to follow his own advice. All right, it was going to take quite a bit of chewing to make a dent in the hardened meat. He hoped he hadn’t accidentally pulled out the leather patches. He gave it a closer look. No, it seemed red and striated enough to be dried meat.
The paltry humor seemed to bring Alistair around a bit. He stared morosely at his share. “I mean….” He cleared his throat. “How are we supposed to defeat the Blight? There are only two of us.”
“Duncan once told me that being a Grey Warden….” Bannon gnawed thoughtfully on the jerky a moment, editing what Duncan had said. “You’re going up against an enemy who is bigger than you, stronger than you, outnumbers you, and even enjoys killing you. But you do it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.”
“I understand that. But the odds are a million to one against us. Literally!”
“It’s still the right thing to do.” Bannon surprised himself when those words came out of his mouth. “We can’t just sit here and die. If we die trying… at least we tried.”
Alistair nodded. “You’re right.” His voice was still brittle, his eyes still haunted. He gnawed absently on his meager breakfast.
“Besides,” Bannon said with practicality, “there’s two of us. How often have you ever heard people describe an impossible situation as a two-in-a-million chance?”
This caused Alistair to cough a slight laugh. “Ah, never, actually. I suppose that really doubles our chances, doesn’t it?”
“There, see? It’s practically a guarantee of success.” Bannon clapped the human on the arm and was rewarded with a faint smile. It would take some time to bring back his glib, irreverent self.
“So,” said Alistair, his voice a little stronger; “have you figured out where we are?”
“Still somewhere in the Wilds,” Bannon said confidently.
“Oh, that’s good.” The human at least made a stab at humor. “At least that’s one constant we can count on.”
Morrigan’s cold razor voice cut in. “Lost, are you?” The Wardens whirled around. The witch was standing on the trunk of the fallen tree. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have run off.”
“Run off?” Alistair growled. “You abandoned us!”
“Truly? As I recall, ’twas two stubborn males that I saw disappearing into the trees.”
“What did you expect us to do?” Alistair snapped. “Stand there in the rain while you sat there with dry… uh, fur and… and… stuff!”
Bannon didn’t stop Alistair from railing at the witch. Truth be told, he wanted to rip into Morrigan just as badly, but he had a better sense of self preservation. Let Alistair piss her off. At least it was bringing some colour back to his face. He let them snap and snarl at one another until they degraded into name-calling.
“You… sneaky, evil witch-fox!”
“All right, calm down!” Bannon interjected. He took a breath to rein in his own temper. “Morrigan, you know we are ‘helpless babes in the woods.’ You knew that when you took this job. In fact, that’s the whole reason your mother sent you, isn’t it? To help us?” The witch looked as if she were biting something. Something unpleasant. “Look, if you wan’t to go back and tell Flemeth that you lost us and we perished in the wilderness, fine. Just kill us quickly before you go!”
“Very well then,” she said. Both he and Alistair scrambled to their feet and backed up. She didn’t blast them with mage-fire, however. She folded her arms and said, “If you want me to teach you to survive, you will do what I say, as I say, when I say it. Is that clear?”
The Wardens glanced at each other. Alistair seemed about to protest, so Bannon cut him off. “We will.” He shot a look at Alistair. The former Templar didn’t like it, but he kept his mouth shut.
Morrigan jumped lightly to the ground before them. “Very well. The first order of business–.” She caught herself, stopped. Her nose twitched and a peculiar look came over her face. “The first order of business is to find some clear water.” She turned and marched off. “Get your gear,” she told them, stopping some bit away to wait.
Again, the two Wardens shared a look. Alistair tentatively took a sniff or two. Bannon shrugged at him.
They did feel better after a refreshing (all right, cold) wash-up in a clear pool. Alistair noticed Bannon giving him an odd look. “What?” the human asked. “Do I have something on my face?”
“Yeah….” The elf sounded almost disturbed.
Alistair bent and tried to see his reflection in the water. He turned his head this way and that, but he didn’t see anything in the ripples. He raised a cupped handful of water and scrubbed his face again, just to be sure. “Is it gone now?”
Bannon shook his head mutely.
“This isn’t some joke to get back at me for making you get blood on your nose, is it?”
“Well, where is it?” Alistair rubbed his face. The bristles on his chin made a rough scratchy noise. “Is it in my beard?”
“Your b–!” Bannon goggled. “How fast does that thing grow?”
Alistair chuckled. “Well, I have to shave it every day.”
“Every day?” The elf was truly flabbergasted.
“Yeah. It’s too bad the witches didn’t have any razors.” He rubbed the bristles again. They were going to itch, he just knew it. The elf was lucky that his folk didn’t grow beards. Bannon just stared at him in horror. “What? What’s wrong?”
“We could be weeks in this wilderness,” Bannon cried. “It’ll grow and strangle us all in our sleep or something!”
Alistair had to laugh. “No it won’t. Honestly.”
Bannon just shook his head.