(Warnings: foul language)
They began to run into pockets of darkspawn, just small scouting parties. Morrigan told (imperiously commanded) them to avoid engaging the beasts. They… mostly succeeded. In a huff, Morrigan pointedly reminded them that she had no healing magic whatsoever. She was damned good at freezing and incapacitating enemies, though. Alistair and Bannon quickly and viciously cut down any darkspawn that managed to get too close. They had their own grudge against the monsters.
One day they came upon a long line of hurlocks, dozens stretching across an open meadow. The creatures stood side by side, an arms-length apart, fortunately facing away from the Wardens. A small hill topped with some scrub gave their group some cover as they watched.
The darkspawn were not marching. They seemed to be slowly crossing the open space, raising their weapons and bringing them down on the ground before them.
“What are they doing?” Morrigan asked, her brow drawn in puzzlement.
“I don’t know,” Alistair breathed. He’d never heard of this kind of behavior. If they’d been true men, it would appear they were tilling the field.
“Are they digging a tunnel?” Bannon asked.
Morrigan said incredulously, “They’re… stabbing the earth.”
Alistair shivered. “They’re spreading the Blight,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“But why?” The witch’s normally steady voice seemed to hold a note of distress. “It’s just an empty field. It’s wild, not even cultivated; used only by animals. Why…?”
“Because that’s what they do,” Alistair said. “They are the enemy of all life. Th– oh, shit.”
Three hurlocks at the center of the line paused and turned, looking directly at the hidden group, as if they’d heard something. Or sensed it. The Wardens and the witch ducked back, but it was too late. The hurlocks roared a challenge, rallying the rest of the line, and they raced towards the hill.
Alistair skidded down the last few feet of slope. Bannon hit the ground next to him, running. The Templar looked back for the witch. She rose from a swirl of black feathers as an inky raven. Useless in a fight! “Don’t you abandon us again!” Alistair snarled.
The bird only winged higher into the air over the hill. With a harsh cry, she tipped her wings and angled left, then steadied. She hovered a moment, then slipped sideways again. Alistair looked to where Bannon was scampering off. There was a maze of thickets and gullies.
“Haak!” screeched the raven.
“Left!” Alistair yelled. He put his head down and pumped his fists to catch up with the elf. He clattered loudly enough, his weapon and shield bouncing and ringing against his splint mail; his pack thumping against his back. Behind him, the darkspawn began cresting the hill. They roared in black hunger.
Morrigan hovered high above the creatures, as if marking their location. Well, the Wardens could tell where the darkspawn were! Oh, wait… the point was to get out of range of sensing them! She cawed down to them, tipping her wings to guide them through the maze. Alistair quit looking back when he tripped and landed face-first in a bramble bush. Bannon helped him up, and it was mutually decided the more nimble elf should do the bird-watching. Alistair just concentrated on breathing. Running full-tilt in armor, loaded with a kit, was not easy.
It took a while, but at last, Alistair could no longer feel the darkspawn in pursuit of them. The two Wardens jogged along a gully, leaving the raven further behind. Shallow water splashed their boots as they moved. The gully led out on a bog full of dark water and clumps of green algae.
“Great,” Alistair huffed, silently cusing the witch. “Dead end.”
Bannon looked back, but trees had closed in at the endge of the water, and he couldn’t see the raven. “Maybe not,” he said, also huffing for breath. “We can wade.” He turned back to the bog. “There.” He pointed to their left. There was a huge tree that seemed to have some dry ground under it.
Cautiously, the elf stepped out and down into the water. It came up to his knee. “Sharp drop,” he commented. “Muddy. Slippery.”
“You’d best carry your pack over your head, in case it gets real deep real fast.”
“Is that a short joke?” the elf asked without heat. He took off his pack, and his bow, and draped them over his shoulders, holding them steady there in case he had to lift them higher.
Alistair did the same. If their supplies got soaked in brackish water, some would be ruined. Their lives depended on their supplies. And there were the precious Treaties as well. “Not at all,” he said, carefully following the slow progress of the elf as they felt their way along the edge of the bog.
Suddenly, Bannon stopped. “Alistair… tell me you were lying about snapping turtles.”
“Uhhhh….” The Templar looked around. This was a perfect habitate for turtles. “I– yes, I lied.”
“Maker, you’re a bad liar! You couldn’t say it so I’d believe you?”
“What? Snappers? Here? Nooo,” Alistair said brightly. “Probably a lot of quiet, little turtles. Harmless ones. All over the place. Good eating, too,” he added encouragingly.
They made it to higher ground, toes curled defensively every step, without incident. They decided to press on. The witch could find them easily enough, and they really wanted to lose those darkspawn.
They found a sheltered place to set up camp after a few hours. It was a good time to stop; both men were squelching in their soaked boots. They made a concealed fire, set their clothes and armor up to dry, ate half of their dwindling supply of venison, and discussed their next course of action. Finding North without the witch was no longer a problem. As long as it wasn’t to cloudy. It seemed reasonably certain that they could find their own way to civilization without dying. Avoiding darkspawn wouldn’t be too problematic, if they were alert.
Grudgingly, Alistair had to admit… Morrigan had managed to help them immensely. Yes. Well, it would still be even more helpful if she turned into a deer and Bannon shot her.
A few days later, the witch still hadn’t returned. They carried on the best they could without her. They’d finished the last of the venison two days ago. They’d tried to stretch it, but the meat was going to go bad, so there was no use waiting. They had managed to catch a turtle — the harmless kind — but frogs were too fast for them. And they dug up a few substantial roots today; Alistair was trying to cook them. Bannon had taken his bow to go hunting.
He’d been stalking a deer for what seemed like hours. His thighs burned from remaining crouched, but he moved with agonizing slowness through the brush.
He’d finally gotten close enough to be confident in killing it in one shot. Suddenly, the deer’s head snapped up. An arrow sprouteed from its chest, and it fell over, thrashing its legs. What?
Bannon turned his head. A group of soldiers moved up the hill, eager to claim their kill. More soldiers came out of the trees. It was too large to be a scouting party. And they were heading right for him!
The elf bolted.
Shouts rang out across the hillside. He’d been spotted! He zigzagged through the brush, following a faint game trail. The crash and yell of humans in pursuit came behind him. He was faster in the dodging and ducking of branches, so he gained some distance before hitting the clearing near the camp.
He leapt down into the declivity and started kicking the fire out, making Alistair leap to his feet. “Soldiers!” Bannon gasped. Smoke was still rising from the scattered embers. “Loghain’s men!”
“How many?” Alistair snapped, grabbbing his sword and sheild, sounding ready for a fight.
They heard the shouts. They ran. They ran like rabbits. Them, Grey Wardens! Dammit, there were only two of them!
Bannon led them through the trees and boulders, and skidded to a halt above the pond they’d been using for water. “Go,” he wheezed, gesturing. “Hide. Thicket.”
“I’ll go,” the elf pointed breathlessly towards the pond’s muddy short. “Leave tracks. Circle back.”
“I can’t let you–!”
Bannon shoved the Templar in the chest. “Go! They haven’t seen you!” Without waiting for a reply, he ran down to the pond and sprinted along the water’s edge.
Alistair cursed underbreath and charged the thicket of saplings and green bushes as if it were an enemy. Getting an armored human into such a branch-crossed space wasn’t easy. He shoved himself in with brute strength, snapping a great many of the branches in the process. Fortunately, the boughs were green and most sprang back into place, only slightly bruised. Alistair threw himself down to hopefully get out of sight. And… because his ankle got tangled up. But if he were lucky….
“I heard something!” Nope. Not lucky. “Over here!”
“There’s tracks over here!” another voice called out, further away. The group of soldiers were swarming all over. This was not good. Alistair daren’t move, lest he disturb the bushes and give away his location. Follow the tracks, he prayed. Go the other way. Bannon at least had a head start.
“Split up,” a commanding voice called out. “You two, check over there.”
Oh hell, they were heading this way! He couldn’t fight lying down, with one foot stuck. They’d capture him! Then what would they do to him? Were they loyal to Loghain, or would they believe the truth? Would they turn against their General?
The bushes shook and rustled, and Alistair wasn’t even moving. Then he saw a huge, fuzzy black head — a bear! It fixed him a long moment with a golden gaze. Alistair gaped. Morrigan? he mouthed, too frozen to even squeak.
The bear lunged forward with a roar, crashing through the thicket. She reared up, taller than a man, and slapped the closest soldier with a heavy paw. He screamed as he flew backwards and crashed heavily to the ground.
The bear roared again.
“Shoot it!” someone yelled.
“No, you idiot!” the commander’s voice yelled. “You’ll just make it mad!”
With another roar, the bear turned and ran off, its broad rump bobbing until it finally disappeared behind a rocky outcropping.
“Grab Tarkon and let’s move.” The commander started shouting orders. “You lot, get back here!”
“What about those tracks?”
“It’s probably just some barbarian. He ran away; he’s no threat to us. If we follow too long, we’ll end up surrounded by a whole tribe.”
The soldiers left well before dark. Alistair waited for Bannon before returning to their camp. Or, rather, their shambles. The soldiers had looted it of anything useful — their oilcloth, the cooking gear, the healing kits, blankets.
“They took our food,” Alistair said mournfully. Bannon’s stomach whined. “Dammit!” Alistair punted a burned branch across the clearing. “Why did the Maker leave the two most worthless and useless Wardens alive?” he shouted.
“Hey,” Bannon said, sounding insulted.
“Sorry,” the Templar said sheepishly. “But… we don’t know what we’re doing. We haven’t been fighting darkspawn for years. We don’t know anything about them — what they do, how they act, why they do those crazy things they sometimes do. Or better, how to thwart them! If Duncan were here, he’d know how to stop them. Or at least slow them down. He’d know how to deal with Loghain’s men. I just….” He slumped. “I don’t know. Why are we here?”
Bannon didn’t seem to have an answer. He picked up the remains of the fire and started putting it back together. Alistair sat bonelessly in the dirt next to it. “They took our food,” he said in a small voice, like a hungry child’s.
“‘Tis only a few days to the Imperial Highway,” Morrigan said as she came up on the meagre fire. “You know you won’t perish in so short a time.”
Alistair glowered at her. “They took everything! Even the waterskins! We don’t have any shelter if it rains!”
“You know full well how to build a shelter. And there are plenty of branches to hand.”
“They took the hatchet.”
“You didn’t keep it on your belt?” Morrigan asked him as if he were an imbecile.
“No,” Alistair growled. “And I didn’t have a waterskin or the potion satchel, or my entire pack on when we had to run for our lives!”
Morrigan shrugged, completely unconcerned. “‘Tis your own fault.”
“Why you–!” Alistair surged to his feet.
“Alistair!” Bannon snapped at him. The elf stood up. Alistair held himself in check, his fists clenched. Bannon turned to Morrigan. “He doesn’t mean it. He’s exhausted. He’s hungry and tired and scared.”
Morrigan didn’t appear to be moved in the least. Nor did she seem the slightest bit worried that an armed and armored man was on the edge of attacking her. She did sound miffed, however. “You might at least thank me for saving your life.”
“Thank you?!” Alistair spit in fury.
“Alistair!” the elf barked.
With clear, concerted effort, the Templar reined back his temper. “I… you….” Suddenly, he deflated again. “You’re right. You did save my ass. I’m grateful. Thank you.” Shame-faced, he sat back down.
Continuing to ignore him, the witch turned to Bannon. “You seem to have retained some of your tools” She flicked a hand towards the fire.
“Yeah… I have flint. And the hunting knife.” The elf shuffled uneasily under her cool regard.
Morrigan paced a half-turn around the rim of their camp site. Alistair hunched his head between his shoulders and strenuously ignored her. She said, “It doesn’t appear they took everything.” She toed a lump of dirt-covered cloth.
“They took the bandages,” Alistair grumbled; “but not the shirts.”
“I guess,” said Bannon; “they weren’t in need of a fashion change.”
Bannon said to him, “Well, we may get to Lothering looking half-starved and sporting heavy beards, but at least we’ll be nicely dressed.” This elicited another grudging snort of dark humor from the Templar. “What about the treaties, Alistair?” If the soldiers had taken those, the Wardens would have to risk trying to retrieve them.
“No, I have them here still; in my satchel.”
Pointedly, Morrigan said, “A fine place to carry a small hand axe.”
“Shut up, witch!”
“You do have swords with which to chop,” she said, ignoring him again.
“Swords are not for cutting wood,” Alistair grumbled.
“Yet will suffice in a pinch,” she countered. Alistair remained sullently silent.
Bannon asked, “How many more days to Lothering?”
“‘Tis two or three to the Highway, depending on how many more soldiers there are between here and there. Once on the Highway, it should only be a few hours walking.”
Three days without food. His stomach growled in protest. “What about water?”
“There are many small sources scattered about. Though ‘twould be better to be able to carry it with you.”
Right, would be nice, but since they had no waterskins…. “Will it rain?” Bannon tried to sound casual.
But he’d run up against the limit of the witch’s help. “What do you think?”
Bannon shrugged. His weather sense was horrible. “Maybe?”
The elf suppressed an annoyed grunt. He looked over at Alistair. They could ask the witch to help them, but the answer would likely be a scathing no. So he said, “Well, we’d better see about putting everything in order.” He went to check on the foundation sticks of the lean-to. They seemed intact, just scattered. Alistair got up and came over, then began helping him fit the forked sticks back together.
“A sound idea,” Morrigan agreed. She started walking off again. “Do remember to bathe in the morning. It may be the last opportunity for a few days.”
“I can’t,” Alistair griped; “soldiers might find me and I won’t have all my clothes and armor on.”
“‘Twould surely be the most effective way to scare them off.” With a gleam of magic and a swirl of feathers, she transformed into a raven and flew off, leaving no opportunity for retort.
“Bitch,” Alistair growled venemously, anyway.
Avoiding patrols of soldiers was a lot harder than avoiding darkspawn. The Wardens dearly wanted to attack Loghain’s men, but tired and weak as they were, and with no healing supplies, they couldn’t chance becoming injured.
So they hid, and they skulked, like hunted fugitives. They did, however, attain some modicum of revenge. While lying face down in a gully, covered by brush, they heard one of the soldiers complaining about the evil spirits haunting the Wilds. They’d heard inhuman cries in the night. Apparently, the Grey Warden nightmares were good for something. Alistair had to hold his breath to keep from laughing and giving away their hiding place. He almost passed out from it.