A raven curl continually fluttered in the cool breeze, loose from the neat plaiting, as Evelyn luxuriated in the view from the bridge. Taking the route through the mountains had been rough for her, as unused to sustained exertion as she was, and her feet throbbed up through her knees. Still, she could stand a little longer if it meant letting the immensity of the Korcari Wilds roll over her senses. The air was bitter as she inhaled deeply, leaving an acrid taste in her mouth, but she smiled all the same; this air wasn't stuffy or moldy, nor did the breeze carry the scent of lakewater.
The unrestricted world lay before her, she grinned to realize. This wasn't just the Korcari Wilds that spread in every direction, but the whole of Thedas that waited. The confined quarters of the tower felt positively claustrophobic in comparison, even more so with the constant templar surveillance. Maybe the tower had been the only home she'd really known, but putting it behind her was... liberating.
From behind her, a burst of wind captured her braid and flung it out in front of her, breaking her reverie. Another throb from her feet grounded her thoughts once and for all, and she sighed to leave her daydream of a free life. She still had responsibilities.
"There is another Grey Warden in the camp by the name of Alistair," Duncan had told her. "When you are ready, seek him out and tell him it's time to summon the other recruits."
"You mean the templar you recruited?" Her nose had wrinkled at the time, anxiety prickling her neck.
"Yes, him." Duncan smiled towards her warmly. "Perhaps you would feel more comfortable thinking of him as an ex-templar. He isn't like the men in your tower."
"Regardless of how comfortable I am, I'll seek him out for you, Duncan." Not quite knowing how to properly part ways with the man who'd felt much more like a mentor than a commanding officer during their trip south, she bowed out of respect for him.
He chuckled to see her manners. "Very good. The Grey Warden tent is on the other side of this bridge. You will find us there, should you need to." He then retreated across the bridge, leaving Evelyn to her business.
Given free rein to explore the camp, Evelyn had instead stopped midway across the bridge to stare at the scenery. She swept her braid back over her shoulder, smirking. Simple pleasures for a simple girl, she supposed. Well, no matter; she smoothed out her robes and faced the main encampment. It was time to find this Alistair person.
She grimaced at the prospect.
"Evelyn? Is that really you?"
In the midst of the chaotic throng of soldiers and warriors, Evelyn almost missed the familiar, warmer voice calling out to her. Her head swiveled as she tried to take in everything- men gathered around a platform, listening to a priest speak of the Maker; the mage encampment with its wild magical fluctuations, the mages preparing themselves in the Fade; runners and messengers sprinting across the camp between parties; a good-natured sparring match between friends- and she nearly stumbled to hear her own name.
There, by the tree adjacent to the mage encampment. Evelyn brightened to recognize her old mentor. "Wynne!"
"Come here, child!" Wynne beckoned her over, and smiled as Evelyn complied. Her eyes fell to the golden robes Evelyn wore. "My stars, they put you through your Harrowing already?"
"Oh, uh... yes." Evelyn tugged at her sleeve uncomfortably, her eyes dampening. "I passed my Harrowing shortly before I... I left."
"That was quick." Wynne raised an eyebrow. "But why would they send someone only just recently Harrowed? I would think they would send experienced enchanters to aid the King."
"I'm not here on behalf of the Circle, Wynne." She had to stop fidgeting so much. "I'm... here with the Grey Wardens."
"The Grey Ward--" Her eyes lighting briefly in surprise, Wynne nodded. "Yes, I see. So that's where he went. Well, I suppose congratulations are in order, then!"
Wynne cocked her head slightly. "You don't sound very happy with this development."
She stared at the dirt by Wynne's feet, unable to meet her gaze anymore. She pressed her lips together, wanting to tell her everything that had happened. She finally replied, "Things didn't end very well at the tower. I'm sure you'll hear all about it when you go back."
Wynne could imagine what went wrong. Evelyn's apprenticeship had been rife with problematic elements- alright, that probably wasn't a fair way to think of the poor dear's friends. Before leaving for Ostagar, Wynne had warned Irving about some suspicious behavior involving Evelyn's oldest friend; the apprentice, Jowan.
"Look at it this way, Evelyn," Wynne began kindly, "You have an opportunity to reach your full potential, away from the Circle and its templars. Whatever circumstances brought you here, I believe you are where you belong."
"I guess so," Evelyn agreed halfheartedly. "At the very least, it's good to see you again, Wynne. I hate to cut this short, but I'm awfully tired, and I still have to find someone around camp." She paused, then added, "Say, I don't suppose you know where I might find a Grey Warden, going by the name of Alistair? From what I understand, he's somewhat tall, blonde, takes excessive pride in his hair?"
"Ah, yes, Alistair," Wynne chuckled. "I last saw him heading north from here, past the quartermaster. He looked like he had a mission of his own, but I doubt it would take very long."
"Thank you, Wynne." After a second's hesitation, Evelyn lightly embraced the older mage, smiling. "I would love to talk more later, after my feet stop threatening to kill me."
Wynne patted her back fondly. "You take care of yourself, dear. This is still a dangerous situation. I'll be here if you need me."
"...I appreciate that." Evelyn grinned up at Wynne, before pulling away. "If you'll excuse me."
Wynne nodded, and Evelyn limped off northwards, scanning for the quartermaster Wynne had mentioned. Noticing the limp, and realizing how much pain the young bookworm must be in after such a long journey, Wynne closed her eyes and held out her hand in Evelyn's direction. The sharp throbbing in her heels and calves abated, and Evelyn grinned sheepishly over her shoulder at Wynne.
Shaking her head as she smiled in return, Wynne wondered what impression the newest Grey Warden would make on the young mage.
"What is it now?" The enchanter didn't even bother disguising his surliness towards the young man in front of him. "Haven't the Grey Wardens asked more than enough of the Circle?"
Alistair shifted weight uncomfortably. "I...simply came to...deliver a message from the Revered Mother, Ser Mage. She...desires your presence." Well, at least no one could claim he hadn't tried being cordial.
"What her Reverence 'desires' is of no concern to me! I am busy helping the Grey Wardens--by the king's orders, I might add!" The mage snapped, glaring at Alistair.
"Should I have asked her to write a note?" His eyebrow rose at the agitation being spat his way.
"Tell her I will not be harassed in this manner!"
Alistair grinned defensively. "Yes, I was harassing you by delivering a message!"
The mage glowered, and sneered, "Your glibness does you no credit."
"Here I thought we were getting along so well!" Alistair folded his arms over his chest, smirking. He'd had about enough of this 'shoot the messenger' nonsense. "I was even going to name one of my children after you... the grumpy one."
"Enough! I will speak to the woman if I must!" Sullenly wrinkling his nose in displeasure, the mage swept his hand dismissively at Alistair, turning to stalk away. He got only two steps before nearly colliding with the easily missed, petite woman who'd wandered over to the argument. Frustrated, the mage growled, "Get out of my way, fool!"
She stepped aside, watching him storm off with all the indignation usually reserved for nobility. Alistair sighed, disappointed that someone else got caught up in their petty quarrel; how unfair to take that out on the young woman! Putting on his best 'let's smooth things over' smile, Alistair stepped closer to her.
"You know, one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together," he remarked sarcastically, shaking his head.
He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, when she faced him again, but it definitely wasn't those striking blue eyes. They watched him, guileless but probing, clear and bright. Set in a softly rounded, heart-shaped, pale face, they stood out against her rosy complexion and dark hair. Alistair was pleasantly surprised at the flare of attraction at the sight of her, then inwardly chastised himself; after being surrounded by smelly, vulgar, manly men for so long, it didn't take much to impress him as being 'pretty'. 'Having used soap recently' would probably have done it for him, really.
She grinned at him, mirth glittering in her eyes. "Oh, yes! Times of crisis bring out the best in everyone!"
"It's like a party: we could all stand in a circle and hold hands!" Oh, thank the Maker, someone with a sense of humor! "That would give the darkspawn something to think about."
Giggling, and masking it behind her hand, she nodded her agreement. The fact that she was laughing- at his jokes, and not him, no less- had him grinning. So, contrary to what the Revered Mother had suggested, he wasn't just stepping on everyone's toes . In fact, he thought with a bit of perplexity, there was something oddly familiar about this girl.
"Wait, we haven't met, have we?" He raised his eyebrow, tilting his head. "I don't suppose you happen to be another mage?"
Her dark eyelashes fluttered as she blinked rapidly, and she looked down at the rather hard to miss, brightly colored robes she wore, wondering if she'd somehow changed clothes without her knowing. When she met his gaze again, her eyebrows pinched together in confusion. "Err, yes?"
His eyes widened as he followed her gaze down, mortified to notice the robes for the first time. How had he missed those? Maybe those eyes had arrested him more than he realized. Scrambling for an excuse, he silently blamed her lack of attention-grabbing bosom.
"Really? You don't look like a mage!" He blathered, cringing at exactly how inane he sounded. "Uh, that is... I mean... How... interesting...!"
As a telltale blush crept up his neck, the woman bit her lip as long as she could before laughing heartily. She had no more doubt that she'd run into Alistair. Duncan's kindly description of the lad had been apt, indeed.
Grinning, she chided playfully, "I can see how you might miss it, between the robes and the enchanted staff I carry. Perhaps it's a good thing you're no longer with the templar order?"
His good cheer evaporated quickly at that. So, she knew who he was, and had been sent to...what? Retrieve him? Details finally clicked together in his mind. "Ah, so you're the recruit from the Circle of Magi Duncan was talking about. I should have recognized you sooner, I apologize."
"No need for apology," she smiled blithely, "I should have introduced myself properly. I am Evelyn Amell. A pleasure to meet you."
She didn't hold out her hand to shake, though he saw her glance down towards his hands briefly. "Right, that was the name. I'm Alistair... though I suppose you already knew that." He raised his eyebrow.
"I pieced that together, yes." Her smile broadened. "Duncan told me a bit about you as we were traveling, and so far, you match what I pictured you to be."
"A blithering idiot, skilled at insulting mages?" He ventured, though the corner of his mouth turned up to hear that Duncan had spoken of him.
She seemed shocked at his self-analysis, then shook her head in amusement. "Someone who made me laugh for the first time in nearly a week. And believe me... I've needed it."
"I'm glad to be of service, then." Reconsidering whether she had been laughing at his humor or at him, Alistair now prayed it was the former. "Anyhow, if you're here, I imagine Duncan wants to get started with preparations for the Joining. Especially if he sent you to find me."
"What exactly is the Joining?" Evelyn tilted her head curiously. "What does it entail?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that," he dodged, distinctly uncomfortable. He wasn't good with withholding the truth, and he really hoped she wouldn't press the issue. "Let's just get back to Duncan."
"Actually, I was hoping to explore the camp a little more, first. " She fidgeted with the sleeve of her robes. "There's just so much to see! And besides, Duncan did say we had some time before we'd have to start. Maybe we could look for the other recruits? I'd like to get to know them!"
"You mean Daveth and Ser Jory?" He grimaced faintly.
"Yes, them. Can you help me find them? I don't think I would recognize them on my own." She looked through the pillars of the ruins to the larger camp, hands clasping. "There are so many people here! I wouldn't know where to start!"
"I...suppose I could, yes." He'd really been hoping to get back to Duncan, catch up with him, ask about how his long trip had gone. Well, there would always be time later, for that.
"Oh, thank you!" She grinned sheepishly. "It'll be nice to have someone to explore with, actually. I just know I'd get myself lost in seconds, otherwise."
"I know the feeling." Giving a tentative smile, he continued, "Well then, lead on. I'll keep an eye out for the others."
Beaming from ear to ear, Evelyn waited to see him start walking before taking the lead herself. Alistair wondered at Duncan's choice in recruiting this girl, if she couldn't even stroll around the camp alone.
The encampment swirled with activity, bright banners, and shining armor. Chatter between soldiers left snippets in Evelyn's ear as she passed, and occasionally, her vividly-colored robes drew attention to her, often through suspiciously narrowed eyes. She found herself relying on Alistair to anchor herself from being swept away in all of it.
And it wasn't just the bustling crowd or the constant noise, either. Once in a while, she tilted her head back to let the sun light her face. She'd freeze midstride, and let the breeze roll over her skin, rustle her robes; the smell of campfires and roasting meat, of men who hadn't bathed in weeks, sweat and filthy socks, of wet dog and dirt all intermingling in a delicious cocktail of scent.
When they encountered Ser Jory, Evelyn had to keep herself from bristling at his deeply mired 'traditional' attitude. His first comments to her had questioned whether the Grey Wardens even 'permitted' women to join their ranks, though he acquiesced to Duncan's judgment in recruiting her. Then, he uncomfortably struggled with the recognition of her status as a mage, and hastily excused himself after that.
As Ser Jory retreated off into the crowd, Alistair spotted the disappointment on Evelyn's face. So Ser Jory's discomfort with her magic did bother her. He cleared his throat, and asked, "By the way, I've been wondering... have you ever encountered a darkspawn before?"
There was a moment's pause after his question, before she met his gaze with an anxious smile. "No, I haven't. What Duncan has told me actually terrifies me. Have you?"
Alistair's eyes darkened as he remembered. "Yes. They... I wasn't prepared for how monstrous they are, that first time. I don't think anyone can be. I can't say I'm looking forward to fighting more."
A shiver took him then, recalling that warped and puckered face, the gnashing fanged grin, the empty, soulless eyes bearing down on him. When a light touch brushed his hand, he flinched back to the present, looking down to see Evelyn's smooth fingers resting against his. He met her gaze again, and found himself bewildered by the genuine sympathy there.
"They have been described to me as something out of nightmares. That you are still here, willing to fight after having encountered one, tells me that you are very brave." She smiled with quiet fondness.
"Well, that's one way to look at it, sure." He grinned uncertainly, pulling his hand from hers to grip the back of his neck in embarrassment. "I certainly don't feel very brave, but your opinion of me sounds better, so let's go with that."
Instead of laughing, her smile faded somewhat, but none of the kindness left her eyes as she looked at him. "Bravery is not the absence of fear, but what we do to overcome it. If not, then I'm a total coward." She giggled uneasily. "To be perfectly honest, I'm terrified. Everything here is so, so new, so big, so full of people... I've never experienced anything like this before."
Her candor astounded him. How could she be so open with him, so quickly? He'd never encountered such vulnerable sincerity before. "Never in your life?" His brow furrowed. "What about before you entered the tower?"
She winced, and put her hand over the corner of her mouth, one finger sliding along the faint groove there that had endured all this time. "I was four when I was taken to the tower. I think I lived in a big city, but if I did, I don't remember much of it."
Frowning, Alistair rubbed his chin. That was unusually young for someone to be taken to the Circle, but it would explain her aversion to the crowd so far. "I can see how this might be intimidating for you, then."
"Well, that's why I'm glad you're with me, actually!" She dropped her hand from her face, smiling back at him. "You're very good company."
"Really?" Once again, the defensive grin. "Huh. Well, that's a switch."
Seeing that grin, she stopped herself from asking further on why he looked so surprised she felt that way. The wall he kept raising to keep her at bay was working, for now; she wasn't in any mood to press him beyond his comfort zone. Instead, she shrugged wordlessly. She knew better than to fight against someone's instinctual mechanisms, having more than a few of her own.
The urgent, hoarse cry of a man in agony and terrified out of his skull drew her attention away from Alistair. There, by the trees- medical supplies and some injured, sick men. So there had been some casualties of the fighting, after all.
"I'm telling you- they're coming! Oh, it's worse than you know!" the man rasped, struggling to sit up despite attempts to get him to settle back against the cot again. Evelyn frowned, and drifted closer towards them; she was bothered by something in his tone. Besides, maybe she could help him.
After she moved away, Alistair watched after her, more confused than ever. There was no artifice in what she told him, he could read that much off of her. She was genuinely glad for his company, even as he'd been busy rolling his eyes at her constant distraction and hesitation. She kept puncturing his defenses, effortlessly, and complimenting him on things no one else saw in him.
He crossed his arms, his mouth twisting bitterly. Insightful or no, this easily terrified young woman was going to be a liability in the coming battle. She jumped at her own shadow! He suspected she had talent enough with her magic, if Duncan recruited her, but the heat of battle was going to cook her alive. What was Duncan thinking, bringing her to Ostagar?
He shook his head. There was no way this girl would make it as a Grey Warden.