"Duck!" Alistair shouted. When that didn't work, he put a hand between Jory's shoulderblades and pushed him down. Daveth had already crouched down behind the remnants of an old wall. Zin was on his feet, of course, and firing arrow after arrow at the darkspawn, and they were firing back, which was the reason Alistair thought ducking was wise. Fire arrows buzzed about their heads like hornets.
Coming up again, Daveth leaned on the crumbling masonry and fired, too. One more genlock fell, and Zin spared a look for Jory and Alistair. "Well? Are you going to cower there all day? Let's go get them!"
He ran forward, and Alistair followed, muttering darkly under his breath and shoving Jory along. As soon as Jory realized he got to charge uphill at terrible monstrous creatures, to do him credit, he started moving of his own volition, apparently quite prepared to cut the darkspawn in half, at least if they would stand still long enough. "Another test?" he said as he went, and Alistair just shook his head, because that really wasn't what this was all about.
One genlock went down with an arrow in its eye. "Gotcha!" Daveth crowed from somewhere behind them. Alistair rammed the nearest one with his shield, shoving it forward onto the welcoming points of Zin's daggers.
"Get the other one," Zin called, spinning to behead a hurlock whose gorget could have fit better. "Andraste's scorched toenails, this is what we're here for."
When all the darkspawn lay dead, Alistair had to push Jory into motion again, since the man seemed to have gotten stuck in some inner monologue of horror, staring at the corpses. Zin was already moving, with Daveth at his heels. "This really isn't the best place to get separated," Alistair said. "I hear if people get lost out here in the Wilds, they're never seen again."
Jory threw him a nervous look. "Is that what's happened to our scouting teams? They say in the army camp that there's several of them haven't reported in, and you saw that poor man we met before--"
"The whole point of being a scout is knowing where you are," Alistair said. "Also where your own army is and where the enemy is. They're just not back yet to tell us where they are. But you're not a scout, we're not a scouting team, and the four of us should stick together. Or would you rather go off and face a group of darkspawn on your own?"
"No," Jory said and hurried on.
Alistair kept one eye on the three recruits and one eye out for more darkspawn, and wondered if that made him look cross-eyed. Then he wondered if that was one of the prices the Grey Wardens paid to be what they were. Then he bit his lip so he wouldn't laugh, because that probably wouldn't impress the recruits at all. Jory already had his doubts about this whole warden business, that much was clear, which was fair enough since Alistair had doubts about him. He just didn't seem quite right; Alistair tried to imagine a Jory-the-warden in the not too distant future, but he couldn't do it.
Much easier to see the disreputable Daveth as one, oddly enough. The doubts Alistair felt about Daveth had nothing to do with the man's commitment, nor his honesty -- he'd certainly been frank enough about his career as a cut-purse. Alistair just thought Daveth was too scrawny and unhealthy-looking; everything about him spoke of a past where he'd been ill-fed and too cold, and now he was shorter and slighter than he ought to have been. Maybe not sturdy enough to make it through.
The third one, though, that was the real problem. This... Zin. (And what kind of name was Zin, anyway? Was it short for something?) There was certainly nothing unhealthy or underfed about him. He was as tall as Alistair himself, more or less, and though he was lean, he was also well-muscled and strong, moving with athletic ease in his fancy light plate and switching from bow to daggers and back again effortlessly, as if he didn't even have to think about it. Someone, somewhere, had trained him well.
He'd moved up in the lead of their group as if the leadership wasn't even in question, certain that everyone would follow him and do as he said. And everyone did. Alistair did himself, though he couldn't have explained why. He was the real Grey Warden here, after all, in charge of these recruits up until their Joining. Possibly afterwards as well, Alistair thought uncomfortably. He... didn't like to lead. It made him feel awkward, remembering all the lectures in his youth about the dangers of putting himself forward.
Zin, on the other hand, obviously never even questioned that that was his role. Between the air of authority, the better-than-average equipment, and the crisp accent, Alistair would have pegged Zin as nobility; the Grey Wardens could recruit from every walk in life, after all.
Against that theory were the facts that Zin had a terrible haircut and a tattoo on his face, and used language that could set a chantry on fire. He also unlocked chests and picked pockets with a cool confidence that Daveth could only dream about. Alistair didn't know you could learn that sort of thing in a noble home. No one had offered to teach him at Redcliffe Castle, that much was certain. (No one had offered to teach him much of anything, there.)
Zin was calm and friendly, fearless and blunt. He also had a look in his eyes sometimes, when he thought no one was watching, that Alistair had only seen a few times before in his life -- once on a veteran warden ready to leave for his final walk in the Deep Roads, once on a woman in Redcliffe who'd come home after a trading trip to find her house had burned down with her children inside.
It wasn't a look that Alistair had wanted to see on anyone ever again. It also made him wonder about Zin's chances to make it to the Joining, let alone through it. This little excursion into the Wilds wasn't exactly harmless, after all. It required the recruits to be cautious and sensible.
"Don't you ever comb your hair, then?" Daveth asked.
"No," Zin said cheerfully. He ran a hand through his ragged, tousled hair, and Alistair wondered idly if his own would look like that if he grew it out; they had no particular physical resemblance otherwise, but Zin's hair was nearly the color of Alistair's own, perhaps just a shade lighter. Zin had bright blue-green eyes, though, and a slightly flattened, once-broken nose, and then there was that odd, asymmetrical dark brown tattoo on his face. Alistair tried to imagine the arl's son, back in Redcliffe, in about ten years or so, telling his parents he wanted to tattoo his face. Alistair couldn't imagine that the arl would approve. As for the arlessa, well, he thought it was entirely possible that Lady Isolde's head would explode.
So maybe he wasn't a noble, maybe he just sounded like one. He certainly had the skill to have stolen that equipment from someone. Maybe--
A familiar tingle went through Alistair, a sensation that was unease and certainty at the same time.
"More darkspawn," he said abruptly, and the recruits were alert at once, Daveth nocking an arrow and taking careful aim, and Zin doing the same, firing two times, three, and then launching himself with alarming speed at the hurlock who was about to stab Jory in the back. Those wicked daggers flashed, and then Alistair was in the middle of his own battle and had very little attention to spare for observation.
He did notice, though, that Zin got in the killing blow more often than not; those daggers were more precise and more deadly than Jory's massive swings and even Alistair's own swordwork. Which was nothing to sneeze at, if he said so himself, and getting better every day. At any rate, Zin would definitely be an asset to the wardens.
Well, as long as he didn't get himself killed before he made it that far, Alistair thought, seeing Zin charge straight at a genlock with a crossbow. That was the vaunted rogue subtlety, was it? Then Zin caught the crossbow bolt with his daggers and cut the genlock's head off.
Show-off, Alistair thought, with something almost like the beginning of fondness, and put his sword through the nearest hurlock.
Zin knew how to skin a wolf, too, which Alistair hadn't expected. (He hadn't really expected to be attacked by wolves, either, but at least it made a change from the darkspawn.) Daveth looked at the animals uncertainly, as if he knew something ought to be done, from his childhood so close to the Wilds, but not how to set about it; Jory was about to walk away without another thought; but Zin dropped to his knees and began the work, as neatly as you could do something like that, and offered to teach Daveth as well. He didn't offer to teach Jory, Alistair noted with a faint grin, even as he set to skinning himself.
"Is this... expected of a Grey Warden?" Jory asked hesitantly, taking off a gauntlet to slap at a midge on the back of his neck.
Alistair shrugged. "Duncan taught me. It's a useful thing to know."
Jory didn't look convinced. "Can you really eat those animals?"
Zin was the one who answered. "Oh, fuck no."
Alistair winced. That was another thing. Zin had a mouth on him that... well, he talked like Alistair would have expected Daveth to talk, if anything. Daveth had the street accent, but Zin had the vocabulary of a particularly foul-mouthed gutter brat, and regularly used the kind of expressions that the sisters teaching Alistair in the abbey school had done everything to stamp out.
Barracks language, Alistair supposed it was, though he certainly hadn't heard it in the templar barracks; everyone there was either very pious, or pretending to be. (Alistair himself fell firmly into the second category, but after the abbey school and the monastery, he could fake it with the best of them.)
"I see," Jory said, clearly not seeing at all.
"Wolves aren't food unless it's an emergency," Zin said. "They taste festering foul." Alistair wondered how he knew that. "But it's a shame to waste the pelt." He grinned and wiped away a smear of blood on his cheek with the back of his hand. "Fetch a decent price if you sell them, too."
"I wouldn't imagine someone like you ever being short of ready money," Jory said in the ponderous tones of someone who isn't used to it trying to be funny. Zin's face shut down completely, and he didn't answer, just looked down and went on working.
"The mayor of our village offered a reward for killing wolves for a while," Daveth said into the heavy silence, with unexpected tact. "Then we were overrun one bad winter and he had to stop because he couldn't afford it."
"Considering what things look like here, I'm surprised he could afford it to start with," Alistair said. "Or were wolves more scarce when you were a child?"
Daveth shrugged. "Don't really know, do I? They told us not to go out in the Wilds, the grown-ups did, and mostly we listened. There was one fellow in the village who'd show you where three of his fingers had been bitten clean off by a wolf. Makes a real impression on a child, that sort of thing."
"I bet you asked him for the story until he was tired of telling it," Zin said with a shadow of a smile. "We were always pestering the guards to tell us tales of their adventures, with plenty of blood and gore."
Well, that did sound like a noble's child, pestering the family guards. But he could just as well be the son of the housekeeper. Or perhaps he was talking about city guards, or...
"Nah," Daveth said, "I don't reckon he ever got tired of talking about himself. Reckon that wolf was the only exciting thing that ever happened to him." Jory made a disapproving face, but Alistair suspected that Daveth probably had the truth of it.
When they moved on, Zin paused for a moment to pick a flower and tuck it in with the pelts. That gave Alistair pause, because of all the things they were here in the Wilds to do, flower-picking was pretty low on the list. Zin caught his look and grinned a bit more convincingly. "I met the kennel-master back at Ostagar," he said. "He's looking for these flowers to make something for dogs that get the darkspawn taint."
"He's got at least one dog sick," Daveth put in, "maybe more."
"I'll get him to show me. Seems useful."
Alistair looked down at Zin's mabari, panting happily at Zin's heels. The sleek brown coat was already stained with blood.
"I thought your dog was supposed to stay with Duncan," Alistair said.
"Yes, Duncan probably thought so, too," Zin agreed. He patted the dog's flank. "We're used to hunting together. We've done a lot of that."
Zin shrugged. "Sometimes."
That, more than the accent, was what made Alistair think Zin was a noble. A man might steal arms and armor, trying to pass himself off as something fancier than he was, but no one stole a mabari. You could spot the people who'd tried by the missing hands.
They rested for a while in a secluded little glade that could have been quite pleasant, Alistair thought, if it wasn't for the reek of dead darkspawn and stagnant swamp water. He shared out the hard biscuits and strips of dried meat that he'd brought along from the camp stores. None of the recruits balked at the quality of the food, they just sat quietly together for a while, gnawing and slapping midges.
Jory swallowed the last of his biscuit with a sip from his waterskin. "I spoke to some of the other knights in camp," he said. "They said the king says this might not really be a Blight." He looked over his shoulder as if he expected to find a hurlock there.
"The senior wardens say it is," Alistair said. "If Duncan says it's a Blight, I don't need the archdemon to come over for tea and slaughter and tell me personally it's true." He didn't particularly want it to, either. The darkspawn they met out here in the Wilds provided enough stink and ugliness to last him a long time. An archdemon would be a lot bigger, a lot uglier, and a lot smarter, and he'd be happy to leave that to more experienced wardens.
Jory's brows drew together. "But doesn't the king listen to the wardens? He shows them great respect. If the wardens say it's a Blight, surely he ought to know."
"Maybe he's just not very bright," Daveth said. Jory drew himself up in outrage, biscuit crumbs on his chin and all, and looked as if he'd like to challenge Daveth to a duel.
"Maybe he's trying not to start a panic," Zin said, slipping the last of his dried meat to his dog. "Everyone in the Ostagar camp looks scared enough as it is." One corner of his mouth crooked up. "Though it's true that Cailan's not known for his devious ways."
That made Jory huff even more, and he looked from Daveth to Zin and back again. "You're talking about the king," he said. Alistair wondered if he'd challenge both of them. Then there was a sound of raspy breathing coming from thin air, Alistair's skin prickled, and they were under attack, fighting back to back rather than arguing amongst themselves.
They collected some more blood from the darkspawn once the fight was over. Alistair grimaced, because it wasn't a pleasant task, and he'd rather have been skinning wolves. He tucked the vial away where it wouldn't break and kicked the darkspawn into the pile with the others. Looking up, he found that Zin was watching him. "What do we need the blood for?" Zin asked. "It's kind of a weird thing to send us out to get. Weird and disgusting."
"You'll see," Alistair said, and he'd hated it when Duncan said the same thing to him, back when he'd been the bewildered recruit. "No, really, I can't tell you, but you'll see."
Zin didn't look any happier about that than Alistair had been. He didn't ask any more questions, though, not about that. Instead he petted his dog, which would have looked better if they hadn't both been spattered with blood, and plotted out the best course for them to take to the old warden outpost and its old warden treaties, the treaties they'd been sent to collect.
Alistair wondered about that. There had to be a reason why the wardens hadn't used the treaties earlier, but Duncan hadn't told him. The mages knew about their obligation to the Grey Wardens, he'd picked up that much, and Duncan had been by Orzammar before he'd gone to Highever looking for more recruits, so probably the dwarves knew as well.
It only made sense that the people who'd signed the treaties would have their own copies as well. But maybe the dwarves and elves and mages were reluctant to honor their obligations fully, and pretended to have lost their copies. Or maybe they actually had lost their copies. Or maybe...
Alistair shook his head. Maybe the king and his advisors wanted to win this battle against the darkspawn, which apparently they had trouble really believing was the start of a Blight, purely with their own army. But they had some mages called in already. The mages had come at the call of the king, not the wardens, but it couldn't make a difference, could it? Not that Alistair particularly wanted to be surrounded by more mages who'd look at him funny for his templar background.
The midges gave them less trouble as long as they moved; it was when they paused to look around that they got bitten. Or attacked. Or both. Alistair was so intent on checking for darkspawn that he completely missed the strange girl until she was standing next to Zin. At least, that had to be the reason; she couldn't have just popped up out of nowhere.
She was dark-haired and pale-skinned and dressed in what looked to be the rags of Chasind clothing, showing a lot more skin than Alistair thought was really seemly. Apparently the midges didn't bother her. She carried a mage's staff over one shoulder and looked as if she owned the ground she walked on, the air she breathed, and anything else she fancied.
Alistair, Daveth, and Jory drew together, all of them united in sudden distrust. Zin, on the other hand, made polite conversation until the girl unbent enough to say, "You may call me Morrigan."
Zin smiled. "We're looking for a cache of documents that used to be here. Do you know what happened to it?"
Of course she did. She'd probably stolen it, Alistair thought resentfully, taken the papers to stuff in some crack in her miserable hut against a winter draft. But what she said was that her mother had taken the treaties, and Zin immediately said that he wanted to meet her mother, then.
"Do you really think this is a good idea?" Alistair said. "She could lead us into, well, anything."
"She'll put us in the pot and eat us," Daveth muttered. "I know the stories."
"You can wait here," Zin said. "But our only chance to get those blighted treaties back is to actually go looking for them where they are now."
Since none of them particularly wanted to be left behind, they trudged along. Jory seemed to be content to follow Zin, but Daveth wasn't happy at all, and neither was Alistair. He didn't trust this Morrigan as far as the mabari could throw her, and the way Zin spoke to her as though she was a highborn lady he'd met at a party really annoyed him. She was a mage, an apostate in rags hiding out here in the Wilds, but she carried herself like a queen -- a particularly ill-tempered and supercilious queen.
She brought them to meet her mother. That sounded like such a nice, wholesome thing to do, except that they were trudging through a swamp infested with darkspawn and midges, and the mother was probably just as respectable and trustworthy as the daughter. Alistair didn't quite share Daveth's belief that they would end up in the pot, but he had to admit, Morrigan looked at the lot of them as if she'd like to squash them under her dainty booted foot, except for Zin, and she did rather look at him as if she'd like to eat him.
Well, she couldn't do that. Alistair didn't even want to imagine how he'd explain to Duncan that he'd lost one of the recruits to the dubious appetites of a swamp witch.
Morrigan's mother was completely unruffled when her daughter brought back four men and a muddy dog. All Alistair wanted was to get the treaties and then leave as fast as possible; Daveth, next to him, was tense and trembling like a deer about to run. Jory tried for stolid common sense, and Zin, blast him, kept on making conversation. With this old woman who showed less skin than her daughter but was just as ragged and twice as peculiar.
"Those documents belong to the Grey Wardens," Alistair said. "Give them to us and we'll go."
"Unless they decide to put us in the pot instead," Daveth said. He was the one who'd grown up in the Wilds, after all, Alistair thought uneasily. Maybe his fears weren't as fanciful as all that.
Jory shifted from foot to foot. "At least then we'd be warm."
"That's more sensible, but not sensible enough." Morrigan's mother shook her head. "They'll cling to their beliefs, no matter what they see and hear," she said, dismissing Alistair, Daveth and Jory with a cool yellow glance. "I suppose such steadfastness can be called commendable. And what about you, young man, what do you believe?"
"That you're crazy and dangerous," Zin said promptly, and Alistair wondered if it was too late to drown him in the nearest pool of water, or at least pretend he wasn't with them. Not that he didn't agree, but this probably wasn't the best time to say so. The old woman looked more amused than anything else, though. "And I believe you have something we need." At least he was trying to turn the conversation in a halfway useful direction. "Those treaties are very important to us."
"Oh, yes," Morrigan's mother agreed. "More than you know." She went to get them, and was pleased enough with Zin's thankyous that she told Morrigan to guide them back to the Ostagar camp. Alistair could have done without that, since Morrigan spent the whole way back looking at him like she was pondering what kind of frog to turn him into.
He'd rather have gotten lost on his own. But at least they had the treaties.
Every single Grey Warden in Ferelden was in the king's camp at Ostagar, and by now Alistair knew all of them by sight, if not by name. That made him realize again how few they were. Duncan was right, Ferelden needed more wardens. Alistair eyed his three recruits. Well, it was a start, anyway.
As soon as they turned over the fresh darkspawn blood, Duncan and the mage assigned to help the wardens went to make the very last of the preparations for the Joining. Alistair shepherded the recruits over to the old temple, as private a place as could be found in the middle of an army camp, where the Joining ritual would take place.
"I don't like this," Jory said. "All this secrecy and mystery-making, and now there's a ritual, too? Becoming a knight wasn't half as much trouble as this!"
Zin snorted. "Of course it was, unless you were knighted on the battlefield, which I doubt, since we haven't had any battlefields lately except for this one. Didn't you spend a night in vigil, and have all kinds of talks with older knights and chantry priests about your sacred duty and so on?"
"That was different," Jory said, trying to look dignified.
"He doesn't like it because of me," Daveth said. "Doesn't think the likes of me fit in with a grand ceremony, ser knight here doesn't." Daveth grinned like a fox. "Or he's just plain scared."
"I am not!" Jory and Daveth started squabbling in earnest, and Alistair was so intent on making sure they didn't come to blows that he almost missed Zin's attempt to sneak off.
He grabbed Zin by the arm. "This really isn't the best time for personal errands."
"I need to talk to the kennel-master," Zin said. "Seems more useful than standing here listening to those two have another Maker-damned argument."
That might be true, but it wasn't why they were here. They had more important things to think about. Alistair nodded to where Duncan was coming towards them, balancing the Joining chalice in his hands. "You can do that later," he said.
"Good, you're all here," Duncan said, setting the chalice down on a table Alistair had dragged in for the ritual. "The time has come for me to tell you about the Joining."
As Duncan began to explain the history of the Grey Wardens and the purpose of the ritual, Jory's ruddy face grew steadily paler and paler. The idea of drinking darkspawn blood, of deliberately exposing himself to the taint in order to master it, clearly didn't appeal to him at all. Daveth looked grim but determined at the idea. Zin's face showed nothing. Alistair wasn't going to break into Duncan's careful speech about vigilance and sacrifice, but he wanted to grab Zin by the shoulders and shake him, just to make sure he was awake and alive for what ought to be the most important moment of his life.
But Zin looked like a wood carving of himself, and Jory kept muttering under his breath, "Drink the blood of those creatures, I never, this isn't right, they can't really expect me to do that, this isn't..."
"Daveth, step forward," Duncan said, and Daveth squared his shoulders and stepped up and drank from the chalice.
Most of the time, Alistair liked being right about things; he thought most people did. At least, he'd never met anyone who liked being wrong. But being right was a lot less fun when it meant looking at Daveth's slow, choking death. That's how it took them, mostly, the ones that couldn't accept the darkspawn taint at the Joining: their throats closed up and they couldn't breathe. At least, that's what Duncan had told him.
Jory's death was even worse, though. Seeing Daveth collapse, Jory stopped muttering and started to back away, and when his name was called, he would have fled if his back hadn't been against the unyielding stone of the old temple already. Alistair winced as Duncan killed the man, quickly and efficiently and with an apology. Oh, that wasn't good. Duncan said he had seen recruits through many Joinings, in many ways, but Alistair didn't see how you could ever get used to something like that. Bad enough when the Joining itself killed them. Alistair fervently hoped he would never be called upon to cut down someone who decided to change his mind in the midst of it all. He wasn't sure he could do it.
Their third recruit, after seeing the two worst possible outcomes of this ritual, stepped forward when his name was called. Zin looked eerily unafraid, as if he honestly didn't care whether this would be his death or not. He drank from the proffered chalice and made a face at the taste, which Alistair remembered as, yes, disgusting. Then he folded up, all six lanky feet of him, with a thud and a clank, but at least he was still breathing.
One out of three. Alistair would rather have kept Daveth, to be honest, but there was nothing for it but to make the best of what the Maker had decided.
Alistair hadn't really imagined himself going into battle at Duncan's side, because there were more senior wardens with more right to such a position, for one thing, and Duncan would probably be with the king, for another, but still. He'd been pretty sure they would at least be on the same battlefield.
Instead he found himself sent off to one side to light a signal beacon, and it wasn't that he didn't understand how important the beacon was, how crucial to the battle it would be to have Teyrn Loghain's men charge from cover and take the darkspawn by surprise. Alistair got that. He did. But he was trained to fight, not to light fires. He didn't like being shuffled aside on an errand while other men, good men and women both, were fighting for their lives.
He also didn't like the rain in his eyes and the way Zin looked as he took charge yet again, fearless and fey, leading Alistair and a nervous mage and Zin's huge beast of a dog that was apparently called Serpent, of all things, into a huge stone tower that was inexplicably filled with darkspawn and disaster.
At least it wasn't raining there.