The Wilderness (part 2)


 

The Wilderness


Slimy, and Totally Not Satisfying
——————————————————–
(Warning: this segment contains nausea-inducing descriptions.)

 

Morrigan brought back their pot, holding the lid in place. “Don’t say I do not take pity on you,” she told them. Bannon and Alistair had to mask their looks of enmity. Three days with little food but roots had taken a toll on them. Bannon had broken down and practically begged Morrigan to bring them some meat. She insisted he shoot his own game. It wasn’t as easy as shooting at pumpkins of course. Nor as easy as shooting at creatures that attacked you. Deer tended to run away. And squirrels were just too small and fast. Alistair’s brilliant idea was for Morrigan to turn into a deer and let Bannon shoot her. Bannon nearly shot him for saying that to the witch’s face, and this was probably her retaliation. Not that the idea didn’t become more and more appealing as the days wore on.

She set the pot down and moved back. Bannon remembered to thank her. Alistair just grabbed the lid greedily. “Oh!” The human shrank back with a cry. The pot was crawling with bugs and twisting worms. “That is not funny!” the Templar yelled.

“These are all prey you two could manage to catch on your own,” Morrigan told them. “If you want better food, you had best improve.”

Bannon frowned. “Can’t we cook them?”

“‘Twould turn them to a crisp. Tear off the legs first if the wriggling bothers you.”

Alistair looked a little green. “We could boil them?”

“Boiling sounds good!” Bannon quickly agreed.

Morrigan sighed in resignation and wandered off to wherever she wandered off to at night. Fortunately, the men had at least learned how to set up a lean-to for a shelter, and build a proper fire. Alistair went and got some water into the pot. “I think some slipped out while I was scooping the water,” he confessed as he returned.

“We can hope.”

They let the pot boil for a reasonable amount of time, trying to ignore their growling stomachs. Finally, they ventured a look inside. It was a soupy mass of insect legs, bodies, and soaked worms that had bloated and turned pale. Bannon swallowed his gorge and took up the spoon. Was it only a few days ago he wasn’t bothered by the thought of newt eyes in his stew? “She could’ve brought some frogs,” he said. “Lizards; something with a bit of meat on them.” His stomach whined and felt as if it were trying to claw its way out of his body. He closed his eyes and popped the cooled spoonful into his mouth.

It tasted like… cellar rot and flakes of bitter mold. Something crunched between his teeth, little flecks tickled across his tongue, and some bit of worm slithered around in his mouth. He leapt up, but didn’t make it far before spitting it out. At least he had the presence of mind to head away from their bedrolls.

“Right,” Alistair said. “I’ll just take your advice on this one.” He lifted the pot with a folded rag and took it off to properly dispose of the dearly departed contents.

Bannon sat on a fallen log by the fire while Alistair washed out the pot, conscientious of getting a tongue-lashing from the witch. The elf peeled the bark off a thin twig of red birch, stripped off the thicker, green inner bark, and put it in his mouth. It wasn’t nutritious at all, but it had a pleasant flavor that Bannon liked. When Alistair returned and sat beside him, he silently offered the other Grey Warden a piece. They chewed a while in silence, staring blankly at the flames.

“You’d think you’ve never eaten a bug as a child.” Morrigan’s voice came out of the darkness, making both men jump. The witch appeared in the fire’s light.

“I suppose that’s all you did as a little girl,” Alistair growled at her. “Eating bugs, playing in the mud.”

Bannon snorted, then rubbed his nose as if something irritated it. He was pretty sure he covered it well.

Morrigan’s gleaming eyes narrowed. “If you weren’t so slow and too stupid to catch your own prey….”

“If you didn’t starve us half to death in some kind of sadistic game–!”

“I haven’t got years to teach you all you need to know. If you want to learn quickly, you need to make an effort.”

“We are trying!” Alistair cried.

“Not hard enough.” Morrigan darted forward towards them. Bannon and Alistair vacated their seat, backpedaling. She flipped the fallen log over at their feet. Bugs squirmed away from the sudden exposure to air. A spindly black spider darted past Alistair. He jumped with a yelp. “You see,” Morrigan sighed; “too slow. Now here is something your speed.” She pulled a white, wriggling grub from the soft wood on the underside of the log. “Quite plump and juicy.” She squeezed it gently, making the hapless creature’s body baloon up between her forefinger and thumb. It secreted something dank and shiny from its nether end.

Bannon looked away. His eyes fell on the mass of grubs on the log, squirming like pustulent, fat maggots in a chunk of rotten meat.

“You’re not going to eat that,” Alistair told Morrigan in a challenging tone.

The witch cocked a brow, then opened her mouth and brought the grub to her lips.

“Oh-ho!” Alistair bolted. Bannon scrambled away. He didn’t make it much further than his other soggy pile before he doubled over and retched. He spat out the birch bark and some clear spit. Fortunately, his stomach was too empty to give up anything. The sound of Alistair vomitting nearby made him dry heave again.

Morrigan said, “If you prefer, I can transform into a wolf, eat a rabbit, and then return to regurgitate it for you, like the she-wolf for her cubs.”

The only reply was more retching.

The witch sighed at the grub still thrashing in her grasp. “No sense of self-preservation whatsoever.” She flicked the hapless creature into the fire. It curled up in the heat and gave a tiny whine as its insides boiled and split its skin. “If you haven’t died of starvation by first light,” she told her charges; “we’ll be moving out.” She turned and disappeared back into the darkness.

Bannon and Alistair crawled back to the fire, avoiding the damp spot where the log had been. Alistair kicked the wood further away from camp with a booted foot. “I hate that woman,” he said shakily.

Bannon just silently wiped his mouth. “A turtle,” he said a moment later.

“What?”

“We could catch a turtle. Turtles are slow.”

“Not if they’re snapping turtles,” Alistair said. “We have snappers up at Lake Calenhad. Those things can bite your foot right in half, including the boot leather.”

Bannon stared at him. “Is this another giant spider story?”

“No, they’re real! Giant spiders are real, too.” The city elf shook his head. Alistair was too tired to argue. “We should get some rest, then.”

“Wish we had something to drink,” Bannon muttered. He didn’t mean water.

“Amen to that.”

 

 

The Wilderness


The Wardens’ Nightmares
——————————————-
(No extra warnings.)

 

Alistair took first watch because he couldn’t sleep until he was literally falling over from exhaustion. Because then the nightmares came. He didn’t dream so often of the archdemon. These nights, his dreams were of Duncan and the Grey Wardens. Their screams as they perished. Sometimes he dreamt he was falling off the top of the Tower of Ishal, watching the beacon fire receding as he plummeted. Most times, he woke up trying to catch himself.

Sometimes he fell all the way down, past the cliffs, to land on the piled bodies of his former comrades. They were twisted and bloody, faces contorted in the rictus of their dying screams. Somehow, the fall didn’t kill Alistair, but he lay among the corpses, unable to move. Then the darkspawn would come and start dragging him away. If his own screams didn’t wake him in time, they’d start… eating him.

On other occassions, he only dreamt of Duncan. His mentor’s face would be drawn in pain and bitter disappointment. “You failed,” he’d say quietly to Alistair. “You failed me. I put my faith in you, and you failed every one of us.”

From these dreams, Alistair awoke with his face wet with tears.

Bannon, being an elf, had an easier time finding sleep — especially when his stomach was empty. Elven metabolism let them regain their strength with rest when food was scarce. He would sleep through nearly two-thirds of the night before the nightmares overtook him.

His dreams were often jumbled, incoherent. He dreamed of mindless violence, hatred, darkness. Of something hunting him. Something he couldn’t secape, because it was inside him.

Sometimes he dreamt of shems — Vaughn in particular — hurting him. Or his family. Great shadow mabari howled and chased him down endless narrow alleyways. When he was cornered, unable to defend himself against his larger attackers, he would hear a voice — a beautiful voice like his mother’s, singing. He thought it was her, but when he saw her, she was pale grey, with dead white eyes and blackened lips.

Let the darkness rise, the sweet song sang to him.

He would look at his hands, and they’d grow blotchy with some black stain creeping under his skin. Then his fingers would grow into long, scythe-like claws. He’d spring on his attackers, slashing, roaring, fangs bared.

And those shems would die. They’d die screaming, pleading, and he took dark joy in cutting them down. Triumph.

But then, he couldn’t stop. Sometimes he killed Duncan, or King Cailen. Sometimes, Alistair and Daveth. Then he’d come upon Shianni and rip her open as well. Shianni, Soris, his father, Valendrian, Alarith, Fyora, Marissa, Tamana, Charys…. His family, his friends, his community, and he just… couldn’t… stop.

Until he shrieked loudly enough to wake himself, heart pounding, mind reeling, stomach convulsing. It was their cue to switch watches.

Sleep was not truly restful for the Grey Wardens. Which is why Morrigan left them alone of nights. Because of ‘that racket.’

 

The Wilderness


The Hunt
——————

(Warnings: foul language)

 

The next morning dawned silvered in mist. When it was light enough to see easily, Bannon got up from his seat. Alistair wasn’t tossing in his sleep — yet — so the elf let him rest. He washed up at the nearby stream and topped off the waterskins. Then he went looking for Morrigan.

It was his job, it seemed, to keep the witch mollified. Alistair was incapable of being diplomatic.

“Morrigan,” he said as she stpped out of the mist. Somehow, she looked as clean, rested, and well-fed as a young woman staying at a fancy inn. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Yes?”

Bannon took a breath and dug out some of that subservient elf humility. “I want to thank you for helping us. It means a great deal to me that you’re here.”

“Is that so?”

His stomach gurgled in answer. “I’m just a city elf,” he said, ignoring it. “I’ve never even stood on a patch of ground that hasn’t been paved over. Or been able to look around and not see walls in every direction. I mean, stick me behind a tree; I’m lost!” He managed a poor, starving elf smile (it wasn’t hard). “I’m really trying as hard as I can. I really want to learn.” Did her cruel face soften just a fraction? Did she have a modicum of pity? Or was it just his hunger playing tricks on him?

“And Alistair?”

He was afraid she’d ask that. “I think,” he tread carefully; “Alistair has some more experience. Fishing, and hunting maybe. So he thinks he should be better at it than he is. He’s having a hard time admitting he isn’t.” Bannon shrugged. “He’s… you know.”

“A pompous, self-righteous, pig-headed Templar.”

Bannon nodded. “Not exactly the type to listen to a woman of your qualities.”

“Intelligent, competent, and independent. No doubt he feels intimidated.”

The great thing about playing Morrigan was the way she would fill in everything with exactly what she wanted to hear. It saved trying to guess what that was. Not that it was difficult. She wanted to feel superior. “He really doesn’t think before he opens his mouth.”

“Clearly.”

“But he knows we’d be lost without you — dead, really. He doesn’t mean the things he says.”

“He’d best learn to curb his tongue.” The threat in her voice was clear. Yes, that modicum of pity must’ve been a hunger-born hallucination.

“He’s just short-tempered because….” He dropped his head in despair. “We’re just so hungry,” he whined, tears nearly springing to his eyes. He was only half faking them.

“The faster you learn to hunt, the sooner you can eat.” Damn! Bannon clenched his teeth hard to keep them from grinding together. Morrigan turned away. “‘Tis how all nature’s young learn. Come, it is time to be moving.”

Bannon went and kicked Alistair awake, rather harder than necessary. There wasn’t anything for breakfast, except water. They were ready to travel in very little time.

 

Morrigan made everything a chore. She grilled them on what direction they were travelling, what plants they could eat, which was the best path to take. When they guessed badly or didn’t know, she belittled them. If they did manage to remember something properly, she said nothing. Not even the slightest word of praise or encouragement.

They rested a while at noon, sitting on a boulder. The two Wardens passed a waterskin back and forth, wishing the water were something more substantial to put in their bellies.

“Don’t waste that,” Morrigan said, helping herself to another waterskin. “We’ll be moving away from the stream for the next few days.”

“What,” Alistair grumped tiredly; “you won’t be able to make us bathe every day?”

Bannon nearly spit out a mouthful of water. “Deer,” he whispered. He shoved the waterskin at Alistair. “Deerdeerdeerdeer….”

“What?”

“Shh!”

“Wh–?” The Templar turned to where Bannon was looking. Two deer were standing forty yards away, heads raised and ears pointed right towards them. Alistair froze. All three of them froze.

One deer twitched its ears, then both turned and went back into the trees.

Bannon jumped up from his seat, his heart triphammering. Food! Food food, so much food — on the hoof!

“Well, go get them, fearsome hunter,” Morrigan sniffed.

Go shoot the deer! It was bigger than a pumpkin! If only they didn’t flee. All right, this was just like sneaking up on a mark to pick his pocket — no more. Bannon unbuckled his sword harness and shoved it at Alistair. He nocked an arrow and started forward. No, use that brush over there as cover.

He tried to sneak, but the tall grass kept swishing against his boots. He got to the stand of trees and could see the deer beyond, browsing at the grass. Closer, closer; too many branches in the way…. Slower, slower; don’t make a sound! A twig hidden in the high grass snapped under his boot. Two heads shot up, mid-chew, looking his way! Bannon flung himself behind a tree turnk, pressing his back against it, eyes squeezed shut. Don’t run, don’t run…. He remained perfectly still for ten seconds more. And another ten.

He opened his eyes and slowly turned to peer around the tree turnk. Yes, the deer were still there, moving as they browsed, angled away from him. First one, then the other raised its head to peer around while chewing. Keeping watch as the other bent for a few quick mouthfuls.

He tightened his grip on the bowstring. Should he try to shoot now, or wait and try to move into a better position? Either way could scare them off. His stomach twisted with a tiny cry. Hell, he didn’t have the patience for any more sneaking! He eased back from the tree, keeping it between him and the deer. He froze whenever one glanced his way.

He took a breath, drew the arrow back, and raised the bow in a smooth motion. He sighted carefully, carefully. It was going to move, SHOOT IT!

The bowstring twanged. The deer barked a whistling yelp and both shot off, leaping into the brush. No no no! He shot it! He hit it! It couldn’t run away now! He scrambled forward, drawing another arrow. He shoved through the bushes. Beyond the next screen of trees, he saw the deer disappearing into a gully. Shit! They were too fast!

He trudged back to the others, his mind berating himself already, far worse than Morrigan’s stinging words. He saw hope die in Alistair’s eyes as he came up to them. Still, the human composed his face in an encouraging mein.

“Well?” said Morrigan.

“I shot it, but….” Bannon opened his hands, then let them fall weakly back to his sides. “It ran away.” Alistair lowered his head, trying to hide his disappointment.

“You hit it, but did not kill it?” Morrigan asked for clarification. Bannon nodded. “Then we shall have to learn tracking.”

 

They spent the next several hours ‘tracking’ small splashes of blood, bent grass here and there. Bannon began to fear they would lose the trail in the oncoming dark. Or worse, that he’d break down and really beg the witch to help them, and she’d refuse again. After all this; it was just too much.

The sun went behind the trees, and the Wilds filled with a dim, even light. That’s when they sprang the deer out of hiding. Alistair yelled raggedly and charged after it with his sword. Hell, whatever worked! Bannon stopped and fired his bow. One shot, and the deer staggered. Another, and it fell over. Alistair dispatched it quickly with a blow to the neck.

“Try the liver,” Morrigan told them after instructing Alistair to gut the animal. “‘Tis soft enough to chew raw, and should be quite warm still.”

Bannon’s knife slid easily through the purplish-crimson mass once, twice. He tossed a slice to Alistair, and they stuffed the bloody morsels into their mouths, chewing rapidly. They shared a glance, and a brief smile. They were alive! Again!

 

The Wilderness


Survival
—————-
(Warning: foul language)

 

The chase had taken them off their intended course, but at least now they had food. It had taken hours to butcher the deer, working in torchlight as night came on. Then they had to cook the meat. The Wardens devoured half of it right there. Then they would have to carry the rest of it with them, but they didn’t mind the extra weight. Still, Morrigan prodded them onward, driving them with barely any rest. The smell of blood would attract bigger predators.

At last, the witch deemed they had made up some lost ground, then left them on their own to sort out a camp. They still were not near a stream or pool. Perhaps their odor repelled witches. They ate in silence. Bannon tried to save some of the meat for later, but he was just so ravenous.

“How much longer do you think we’ll be out here?” Alistair asked, sucking on a tooth to try to dislodge a shred of venison that had gotten stuck there.

“I don’t know. Another week?”

“I don’t know if I can take much more of this,” Alistair growled. “That woman… is a downright, cold-hearted, unmitigated bitch!

“And world’s worst teacher. What the hell is this? ‘Starvation will make you shoot better.’ Like how does that help anything?”

“Do you even think she knows what she’s doing?”

“No! Her solution to everything is to turn into a damned dog–”

“Fox.”

“–to find food or shelter. Or turn into a bird and fly away.”

“And eat bugs and worms.” Alistair shuddered.

“She’s an imperious pain in the ass,” Bannon said. He took a breath. “But you should stop antagonizing her.”

“Me? Antagonizing?” The Templar’s voice just spiralled higher and higher. “Me antagonizing her?”

“Don’t you realize how easy it would be for her to kill us?” Bannon rubbed his face. Just looking at the hairy shem made him itch. “All she has to do is not come back. Really, Alistair, didn’t you ever have to kiss up to nobles you didn’t like? When you were a serving boy?”

“Mmmm… no.” Alistair sat back, looking into the evening sky, the small fire’s light playing over the planes of his face, playing hide and seek in the thicket of his beard. He seemed about to go into storytelling mode. “When I was a young boy, working in the kennels, I always used to take the dogs out for an evening run. And I’d always wish upon the first start to appear.

“One night, I wished I were in a better place, and the star flew down from the sky. It was a winged mabari, all made of crystal and silver. I jumped on his back, and we flew away to the land of the winged mabari hounds. It was a magical land, of milk and honey, and cookie trees and marshmallow bushes….” Alistair paused and looked over at Bannon. The elf was giving him a pitying look. “What?”

“You’ve lost it, haven’t you?” Bannon laughed, sounding edgy himself.

Alistair laughed back. “Yes! Yes, I have!”

The two giggled like madmen for a minute or two. Then, sobering, Alistair said, “I really would lose it, if you weren’t here.”

“Come on, Alistair.” Bannon was embarassed by the sudden sentiment.

“No, seriously. I’d be a quivering gellid mass by now, if I had to do this on my own. Or,” he said after a moment’s consideration, “I would have killed that damned witch by now and I’d be in really big trouble. Growing a beard, eating bugs, becoming some kind of bear-man.”

“And that’d be different from this how?”

Alistair chortled. “See? That’s what I like about you — your sense of humor. Don’t ever lose that.”

 


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