Chapter 1: First Impressions
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.
Chapter 2: Of Heroes and Delinquents
While getting to know Alistair and the other new recruits, Evelyn has the opportunity of a lifetime to meet her favoritest childhood hero: Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir! Unfortunately, she doesn't make the best first impression.
"So, you were conspicuously quiet throughout our entire conversation." As Daveth departed, Evelyn playfully nudged Alistair with her elbow. "I understand you can't tell us anything, but I wonder how close to the mark he was to get you to lock up like that."
"Oh, I wasn't about to interrupt the two of you gossiping like a knitting circle," he smirked. "The sooner we get back to Duncan, the sooner you'll know what the plan is."
"Oh, fine!" She stuck her tongue out at him, then giggled. His eagerness to return to his Commander's side had not escaped her attention, even though he'd kept up pleasant conversation with her as she dragged him around the encampment. "I suppose I've delayed enough. Since you're much more familiar with the area, would you mind leading the way?"
"Not at all." He grinned, not even bothering to mask his enthusiasm as he started towards the Grey Warden camp. "I think you've seen just about everything there is to see around here, and then some. I've never seen anyone so fascinated by ancient architecture!"
"Oh, it's not just the ruins, though they are absolutely breathtaking," she explained quickly. "It's... everything. I look down, and there's dirt and grass beneath my shoes. I look out across the valley, and the trees, and the water, and it's so rich with life and energy. I look up at the towers, and the big expanse of sky beyond, and realize that the tiny swarm of black specks is really a flock of birds. And I envy them for their wings." By now, her rosy complexion was glowing. "If only I could fly!"
Glancing to her sidelong, Alistair felt a pang of guilt to have teased her interest in exploring the grounds. Had Duncan treated him so condescendingly when they'd left the monastery, he'd have been mortified! Her delight in such simple things was so... refreshing... compared to the somber mood around the encampment. Well, somber, except for King Cailan, he wisely kept to himself.
"Well, let's keep your feet to the ground for now, at least," he encouraged mildly, though he was smiling again. He wrestled with his concern over her competency as a Grey Warden anew; she was too naive to handle herself well in battle.
He spotted the great bonfire, freshly stoked upon Duncan's return, and pointed towards it. "You can use that to find your way back to the Grey Warden area, for future reference. Duncan will usually be around there."
"Oh! Well, that's a handy reference!" She grinned, and started towards it ahead of Alistair.
"It helped me navigate my way around when I first got here." Alistair chuckled, recalling his own early experiences getting lost in the encampment. "Though there were considerably fewer men wandering around, so it was easier for me-"
"Wow!" Just shy of reaching the bonfire, Evelyn halted, gazing past where Duncan and the other recruits stood. "Look at those tents! They're huge! And so colorful! And well-guarded!"
Hesitantly, and reluctantly, Alistair followed her gaze. "Yes, well... the tents of important people usually are."
"Important people?" Her eyes shone as they fell to him, wide and excited. "What important people?"
Alistair grinned awkwardly. "Well, uh... the bright, yellow one is the King's tent, and the greenish, orangey one belongs to Teyrn Loghain. I wouldn't-"
"Teyrn Loghain?" Evelyn popped with exuberance, "As in Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, The Hero of Riverdane?"
Taken aback at the sudden burst of energy from the young mage, Alistair leaned away from her enthusiasm. "Err, yes. That would be the one."
"Eee!" Oh, dear Maker, she actually squeaked. "I've read so much about him! Him and the legendary King Maric! I mean, not that there's a lot written about them, but-oh, anyway- you're saying The Hero of Riverdane is right there in that tent?"
"Well, I don't know if he's there right now, but-"
"Maker's Breath, Duncan mentioned he was here, but to think I'm so close to someone out of legend!" Evelyn paced quickly, her outburst having caught an amused glance from the Warden-Commander as he chatted with the other recruits. Alistair waved to him gawkily, then shrugged in apology for the delay.
"I'm sorry, but-" she grabbed ahold of Alistair's hand, peering up at him pleadingly, "I hate to put off my responsibility any further, but can we-- can we possibly see if..." her eyes glistened with tears, terrified of the prospect as much as she was excited by it," ...if we can get an audience with the Teyrn? Do you think we could?"
If he'd had any thought to tell her that they couldn't, it evaporated with her sudden proximity. "Sure, we could... try..." He glanced over to the tent, the corner of his mouth tugging up uncertainly, "Though, bear in mind, he's probably very busy."
"Oh, yes! I know- I mean, yes. He would be." And just as suddenly as she'd gripped his hand between both of hers, she withdrew again, edging closer to the tents before pausing again. That Loghain would be occupied made sense, given the king's lack of discretion regarding the danger at hand; he would have to compensate for a serious Glory Hound.
Barely keeping the skip from her step, Evelyn breezed past Duncan and his fire, giving a sheepish wave of acknowledgment. Alistair tagged along behind, anxiety grounding him even as it propelled Evelyn forward. See, he'd actually already encountered the Teyrn, and the experience hadn't exactly been a pleasant one. Whether or not Loghain had such an intense stare with everyone was beyond Alistair; the few moments they'd made eye contact had unnerved Alistair until his stomach nearly dropped out his feet. That stare had been deeply troubling, and Alistair suspected some wretched distaste had formed behind that icy gaze. Thinking of encountering that again, Alistair swallowed.
"Halt!" The one-word command from the posted guard worked as effectively as any spell, freezing Evelyn to the spot. "You approach the tent of Teyrn Loghain. State your business."
"Is the Teyrn inside?" Evelyn put her hand over her chest, wishing she will her heart to stop pounding. "I-Is he busy, at the moment?"
"He's inside, but..." The guard hesitated, "I don't think it's my place to discuss his activities."
"Well, I... well, uhm." Could she really ask this? Who was she, to demand an audience with someone so important? She was just one, tiny mage, afforded this chance at freedom. Yet, knowing the battle lying ahead, knowing that this might be her only chance to actually meet someone she'd admired from his legend- especially the rumors around the tower of his involvement before her time there- how could she walk away from such an opportunity?
"Is there a chance that we could speak with the Teyrn?" Alistair asked, sensing Evelyn's conflict.
"Unless it's something actually important, no, there isn't." The guard sneered at Alistair. "Teyrn Loghain has far more pressing matters to attend to than being harassed like this."
"Oh, please, ser!" Feeling her chance gliding past her, Evelyn sidled up to the guard, pulling out her dirtiest weapon; her Puppy Eyes. "I understand that it's your job to prevent unwarranted harassment, but....This man, this legend, has been a personal hero of mine ever since I was a child! I heard about him from those who were old enough to remember him in person. I've read the history books, I've marveled at his ascension to such high station, his kinship with the King! I only want to meet him, just once, just for a moment... unless... unless you feel I am truly unworthy of even that."
If the impassioned speech on her part hadn't been enough to convince the guard, the fragile look in her eyes, the faint quiver in her voice, and the nearness of a woman much softer to behold than the battle-scarred and determined soldiers- men and women alike- had a staggering effect on the guard's resolve.
"I suppose it's not too far out of line just to meet with the Teyrn... so long as it's quick." The guard nodded his assent, then turned to knock at the tent.
Evelyn beamed at Alistair. "Thank you, for asking! For some reason, the words wouldn't come for me."
" 'For some reason,' she says, as though it's not obvious why!" Alistair grinned back at her. "I think you have a bad case of hero worship, young lady!"
"Pfft," she blushed, but kept a defiant glint in her eye, "Young lady? I sincerely doubt you're much older than I am!"
"If you're older than seventeen, I'll give up cheese for a week!"
"I take it you're keen on cheese?" Oh dear, why was she smirking?
"I've got a distinct fondness for it, yes." His grin dimmed some- she wouldn't actually hold him to that, would she?
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, then. I'm nearly twenty-one," she proclaimed.
Both eyebrows shot up at that. "What, really?"
"Yes, really!" She giggled at his amazement- it wasn't an uncommon reaction. "No worries, I won't withhold your cheese or anything. People have always thought I'm younger than I am. I suppose it doesn't help that I've got the figure of a twelve-year-old boy."
She twirled to show off her slender physique, jokingly, patting her rump after she finished revolving, "It'd be nice if I had some cushion!"
"Ah, you must be Duncan's new Grey Warden," a stern, deep voice interrupted the both of them, turning Evelyn bright pink from head to toe. "Although any allusion to you lacking 'cushion' was conveniently left out of His Majesty's description of you."
"Ack!" Going ramrod straight at realizing just who had walked in on her banter with Alistair, Evelyn flung her arms to her side and went rigid in posture, staring in a mix of horror and admiration at her long-standing hero. There, standing before her, was the Teryn Loghain Mac Tir, looking every bit as he'd always been described; tall, imposing, austere demeanor... even down to the piercing blue eyes that held her pinned to the spot. Even so, there was a clear weariness to him, evident in the dark patches under his eyes and the dulled edge to his voice. This Loghain was real, and made of flesh, not stone.
After regaining her powers of speech by clearing her throat, she smiled weakly and asked, "The King spoke of me to you?"
"His Majesty could not contain his excitement after your meeting. How could I not hear of you?" Loghain glanced to the side, keeping his tone just this side of respectful regarding their king. "Apparently, you left quite an impression on him. He was bragging about how he would have his own personal Wilhelm- lack of personal golem notwithstanding."
"With all due respect to His Majesty, I hope that is not the case," Evelyn bit her lip anxiously, "I am not so eager as to rush into battle just yet."
Regarding her quietly a moment, Loghain nodded to himself. "You are from the Circle of Magi, are you not? The First Enchanter spoke highly of you. I can see why; if only King Cailan shared your wisdom."
"Ser?" Evelyn inquired, curiosity getting the better of her jumbled nerves.
"Nevermind." Loghain dismissed the thought, turning his attention away from his thoughts, and back to her. After a moment, it occurred to him that, despite her inelegant introduction to him, she met his gaze earnestly, and kept it far longer than men twice her age had. He raised one eyebrow thoughtfully. "Your recommendation from the tower was regarded as exceptional when your Commander received it. While I've felt that perhaps the Grey Wardens were not as relevant as Cailan thinks, perhaps you will lend them more relevancy."
"Hey, now--" Alistair nearly bit his tongue as that sharp glare fell on him. Instead, he gulped, and found the ground much more fascinating, deciding to stew on Loghain's comments until he was out of earshot, at least.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to return to my task." Loghain nodded to Evelyn. "I wish you luck."
The Teyrn left before either Alistair or Evelyn could add anything, disappearing behind the tent flap to resume his work, only mildly irritated at the interruption. Alistair scowled, not liking Loghain's remark about the Grey Wardens one bit, even as Evelyn stared after her childhood hero with eyes as wide as plates.
"What does he have against the Grey Wardens?" Alistair pouted, nudging Evelyn in collusion- because, clearly, she should feel offended too. "I guess he'll understand how 'relevant' we are once the darkspawn show up!"
Instead of matching his foul humor, Evelyn rested her hand on his arm, slowly drawing herself away from her shock to look up at him. "Tell me... did Duncan come to the tower because of a recommendation from the First Enchanter?"
"Err, yes, I think..." he stammered, caught offguard by her attention on him. He straightened his thoughts, and continued, "Yes. Duncan had lined up a few prospects for recruitment, but on such short notice, he didn't have time to go traveling Ferelden when things were already so dire. He made the decision to go to the tower based on a recommendation passed his way along with the mages originally sent from the Circle."
"I had no idea..." Shadows clouded over her eyes briefly, prompting Alistair to arch his eyebrow in response. After the moment passed, she smiled up at Alistair. "Speaking of Duncan... I think it's time we got back to another hero of mine."
After all the bluster and anxiety about meeting Teyrn Loghain, seeing the quiet joy in her smile and the sincere warmth in her voice as she spoke of Duncan stunned Alistair. While the other Grey Wardens, and other recruits, had respected Duncan, very few had considered him a personal hero. In fact, until just now, Alistair had been certain he was the only one who felt that way. Once again, he felt an echo with her; there should be nothing in common between a templar and a mage, or so he'd been assured. Yet, they'd both walked away from oppressive lives in Duncan's company, grateful for him.
Unable to think of what to add, he settled for smiling and nodding to her, allowing her to take the lead . Following along behind, his unconscious comparison of their situations sent a chill traveling down his spine.
"Honestly, this seems much more like busy work than it does any sort of preparation," Ser Jory insisted, keeping pace with Alistair. "Why do we need to collect those foul creatures' blood? Why can't we simply kill them, if this is about proving our merit and ability to work together?"
"Maybe they need the blood for something," Evelyn replied from the other side of Alistair, locking her fingers together as she walked.
"What could you possibly need something like that for?" Daveth chimed in from behind the three of them. "I thought that stuff only made you sick."
"Well, it's not like he's asking us to drink it, or anything. He just needs us to collect it." Watching the gate leading to the Korcari Wilds as they approached it, Evelyn missed Alistair cringing. "Sometimes, in magical rites, you need a sample of what you're hoping to defeat. Though... this borders on blood magic, if that's the case." She frowned to think of it.
"I guess you know something about magical rites, huh?" Daveth cackled to see Evelyn's head tip forward in embarrassment at the attention on her. "You're really not what I was expecting to see Duncan pick. I figured he went after, you know, delinquent types."
Ser Jory scowled back at him. "Delinquent? By what stretch of the imagination would you have considered me delinquent?"
"I don't know, maybe there's something you're not telling us?"Daveth shrugged.
"I am a knight of Arl Eamon!" Ser Jory exclaimed, indignant. "I am a married man! I have a child on the way, and I am here out of my duty to protect them!"
"Sounds pretty delinquent to be so far from your pretty wife and baby when they need you most," Daveth couldn't resist prodding the easily perturbed Jory, who reddened in the face of the teasing.
Evelyn decided not to let their argument escalate any further. "Well, I can't speak for Ser Jory, but I think I count as 'delinquent'. I know for sure that the Knight-Commander didn't think too kindly of how I left the tower."
"You?" Daveth asked incredulously. "Now what could sweet-faced little you have done that was so out of line?"
"...On second thought, I don't think I want to talk about it." For some reason, her eyes darted to Alistair as she spoke. The curious, surprised look didn't escape her this time.
"Ooo, so you're naughtier than you look!" Intentionally not clarifying what kind of 'naughty' he felt Evelyn was likely to fall under, Daveth let a lecherous grin slip into place. "I'm almost curious enough to try and pester what you did out of you now!"
"But you won't, because you're not a complete idiot?" Alistair intervened, annoyed at seeing genuine distress cross Evelyn's features.
"Right-o, Ser," Daveth sketched a salute to Alistair, whose eyes narrowed on him.
"I agree with Alistair. I do not believe it is right to harass a woman like that." Jory kept to himself that he'd much rather not antagonize the resident mage.
"Nah, it's much better to harass a woman like this-" Without warning, Daveth playfully rapped Evelyn on the arse, expecting a return slap to the face.
"Eyaaa!" Evelyn yelped, jumping forward and spinning to face Daveth. He kept grinning, having gotten this reaction before, too. The grin faded after tears came to her eyes, spilling out.
Alistair rounded on Daveth, true displeasure tightening his features. "Keep your hands to yourself, recruit! There is no call for that!"
"Hey, I only meant it as a joke, right?" He threw up both hands defensively.
"Do most of your jokes end with someone crying?" At that, Alistair glanced back to Evelyn, who was desperately trying to wipe her eyes clear, flushed in embarrassment. This was a deeper problem than just harassment; she'd been really spooked.
"I'm sorry, I just..." Evelyn dropped her hands determinedly back at her sides. "Daveth, please don't touch me like that again."
"Yeah, sure," Daveth replied warily, slowly lowering his own hands. "I was only joking."
Evelyn smiled to reassure him, but there was a bitter twist to it, and she was still shivering. Seeing this, Alistair meant to console her through a friendly touch to her shoulder, but the moment his fingers brushed against the fabric of her sleeve, she recoiled from him like he'd pressed a brand to her skin. She gulped, and nodded to him her assent to continue into the Wilds.
As Alistair obtained permission to leave the encampment from the gate's guard, Ser Jory thwacked Daveth upside the head to express his distaste for his actions. Passing through the gates, it was Evelyn who brought up the rear now, staring at the ground as she walked, still sniffling. Glancing over his shoulder at her, Alistair wondered what could create such a strong reaction to such a small, if wildly inappropriate, physical contact.
Chapter 3: Dangerous Encounters
Alistair, Evelyn, and the other recruits have their very first encounter with darkspawn, and zero in on the Warden's Cache in the Wilds...only to have some unexpected interference!
"What are you doing with that?" Daveth wisely kept his chin from falling onto Evelyn's shoulder as he peeped over it, but his curiosity still got the better of him to see her flipping out a small, leather-bound journal, tucking the loose-leaf note into its pages.
"...Perhaps it's overly sentimental of me... but I'd like to hold onto this." Her voice was low as she spoke, but still very clean in diction. "To let something like this slip away, unrecorded, forgotten..."
"Well, that, and those instructions looked like they might lead to something worthwhile," Daveth pointed out, recoiling as her eyes sharpened on him. "Plus, it'd be a shame to leave that to the darkspawn, doncha think?"
"I don't think we're in any position to try and reclaim material possessions that don't belong to us." Evelyn shook her head. "We have a task at hand, and enough danger to occupy us besides."
"The mage is right," Jory agreed, "What happened to that young man is unfortunate. I would not profane his death by adding robbery to his misfortune."
" 'The mage' has a name, Ser," she reminded Jory gently, smiling as she spoke. "And I would prefer it if you just called me Evelyn."
"C-Certainly." A slight bob of his head was all she got, before he set forward past her. She sighed; he was going to take some getting used to, wasn't he? He tightened up at every reminder that she was capable of magic.
"Over here!" A weak voice cried from not too far off. Jumping, not having expected to hear another human voice out in the Wilds, Evelyn searched for the source. There! A man, fighting his uncooperative limbs, stretched towards the four of them desperately.
Alistair broke into a light sprint towards the dying soldier, Evelyn only a pace or two behind him. The others followed suit, though with less urgency in their steps. With his longer legs giving him an advantage, Alistair reached the man first, supporting his fruitless floundering as he kneeled beside him. Evelyn sank opposite Alistair, her braid falling over her shoulder.
"Who...is that...? Grey....Wardens?" Peering up into the overbright sun, the soldier could make out two figures over him. He'd sustained several injuries, stabs and slashes that burned deep beneath the gashes, and he worried about the fever that had broken over him since the attack.
"Well!" Alistair smiled awkwardly. "You're not half as dead as you look, are you!"
"Alistair!" Evelyn hissed, swatting his arm. "Have some sympathy!"
"My scouting band was attacked by darkspawn!"The soldier moaned. "They came out of the ground... Please, help me! I've got to... return to camp..."
"Shh," Closing her eyes to focus as she curled her fingers against the man's face, Evelyn let her senses drift away from the world most people experienced; the waking world, the physical world. Her vision came into sharp focus in a bleary, smudged world trembling with life and energy. The sheer vibrancy of the plants and rocks and grass shocked her- so different from the lifeless, cold tower!- but as she strengthened her connection to this second aspect of herself, the part of her that saw her surroundings as veiled in the Fade, she returned her attention to the soldier.
There, in his stomach, and across his chest- blazing, red-hot streaks of fire, of pain! Summoning to her a thread of green, plucked from the stitching of life around her, Evelyn mentally wove it into the injuries. The thread of green energy surged, flooding through her in delicious warmth, and pouring into the soldier. The red, angry streaks absorbed much of what she tried to force into them, but gradually, they shrank to tolerable levels.
"That's amazing!" Daveth breathed, awed. He'd never seen real magic before. He'd felt the air shift when she did it, too- wasn't that something?
"Thank you..." Feeling the strength finally returning to his limbs, the Soldier stumbled to his feet. "I... I've gotta get out of here!" He hesitated, his eyes lingering cautiously on Evelyn, before bolting for camp.
"And here I was, getting excited that these bandages would get some use..." Alistair pouted playfully, standing alongside his mage companion.
"I'm sorry to have supplanted you, Alistair," she grinned, "But that is one of my areas of expertise."
"This is no laughing matter!" Jory interjected, pale. "Didn't you hear...? An entire patrol of seasoned men killed by darkspawn!"
Sobering from his amusement, Alistair looked to Jory. "Calm down, Ser Jory. We'll be fine if we're careful."
"Those soldiers were careful, and they were still overwhelmed." Jory's agitation grew with every word. "How many darkspawn can the four of us slay? A dozen? A hundred? There's an entire army in these forests!"
"There are darkspawn about, but we're in no danger of walking into the bulk of the horde," Alistair assured him patiently.
"How do you know?" Jory spat at him, "I'm not a coward... but this is foolish and reckless. We should go back."
"You have such little faith in us?" Evelyn cocked her head to regard Jory thoughtfully. "Do you really believe that Duncan would send us to sacrifice ourselves, after all the effort to recruit us?"
"Well, no, but-"
"Besides, is this not a test?" Her eyes brightened with her smile. "If we can overcome this danger, won't we prove that we're worthy of joining the Grey Wardens?"
"That's... true..." He agreed uncertainly.
"Know this: All Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn. Whatever their cunning, I guarantee they won't take us by surprise." Alistair kept a sidelong glance to Evelyn as he addressed Jory. "That's why I'm here."
"You see, ser knight?" Daveth grinned cheekily, "We might die, but we'll be warned about it first."
"That is... reassuring?"
"That doesn't mean I'm here to make this easy, however," Alistair insisted, "So let's get a move on."
With more than a few nerves rattled, the team faced the carnage from the attack with no small measure of dismay. While the others strolled past as quickly as possible, not caring to see more than needed, Alistair noticed Evelyn pass with far more consideration of the scene. The way her eyebrows were pinching together, and her arm shook, Alistair wondered yet again about the readiness of this woman to being recruited. As he watched, she clenched her fist to stop the shaking, and squared her shoulders, advancing to catch up with the rest.
Alistair opened his mouth with every intention of telling Evelyn to go back to the camp- she wasn't ready for what lay ahead- when he tensed. He could feel them; dark fingers at the back of his mind, someone humming a dreadful song.
Daveth caught Alistair looking around them wildly, and asked, "What is--"
A low, guttural growl rolled around them, from everywhere at once. The growl ascended louder and louder, as though some wretched beast were approaching their midst, but not even a shadow betrayed another presence in the clearing. Evelyn glimpsed Alistair staring at the ground in horror only an instant before it broke open, spitting gnarled claws through the wet soil.
Ser Jory squawked, drawing his sword, but lost his footing when his legs refused to cooperate with the rest of him. He toppled backwards into the mud, skittering away from the monsters before him. Daveth already had his daggers out, but froze straight to the bone when one loomed over him. The creature's cruel, fanged grin tore its head in half, leaving the remaining inflamed flesh to pucker around its empty, soulless eyes. Standing as tall as a human, bearing jagged weapons, it chuckled darkly to see Daveth's fear.
"No!" A sleek bolt of electricity darted from Evelyn's hands, catching to the tainted blade the sickly green monster menaced her with. The darkspawn-a genlock, Alistair recalled- gibbered, shaking while the electricity danced through it. Another bolt delivered enough of a shock to its system that when the genlock fell, it was down for good.
For one shining moment, Evelyn held her pose, her hands outstretched in the direction of the monster. She was frighteningly pale, but calm. Alistair marveled at her composure in the face of a darkspawn attacking her.
"Eeeyyaaaaaaah!" She screamed, her hands going to either side of her face and trembling, breaking her collected image in an instant.
"Jory, on your feet!" Alistair commanded, deciding not to be disappointed in her perfectly normal reaction. "Daveth, move!"
Alistair met the second genlock's assault with his sword, parrying it to one side while using his shield as a secondary weapon, putting all his weight into bashing the genlock into the broken dirt. Jory rolled out of the path of a downswing of the tall, humanoid darkspawn, and got to his feet; having a command to work with counted for a lot.
Daveth's daggers clanged against the looming darkspawn's armor. Cursing, he kicked the darkspawn in the chest to give himself more room to maneuver in. With the darkspawn off-balance, Daveth used his speed to his advantage, darting to flank the creature and aiming his blades at the exposed, vulnerable throat. Blood sprayed out through the gurgling scream, and the humanoid darkspawn collapsed.
The last of the darkspawn, a hurlock, rose its blackened greatsword to striking range, and charged at the Grey Warden. Having recovered her senses, Evelyn caught the monster aiming to decapitate their only lead in this mission. Spinning her staff to focus its enchantment of flame, she thrust the staff at the charging darkspawn, sending a burst of fire at its back. "Alistair!"
The fireburst was enough to throw its stride off, and Alistair- warned by Evelyn's call- turned in time to see it stumble, knelt behind his shield, and lunged to concuss the hurlock back again. Jory, watching the flow of battle, interrupted the hurlock's fall to the ground with a swift swipe of his own large sword, using all the power both hands brought his weapon. With a final shriek of pain, the hurlock separated into two, each half hitting the ground with a meaty thud.
"Is it over?" Daveth asked after a tense moment, realizing that the only combatants still standing were those on his team.
"Yeah..." Alistair replied, forcing himself out of his battle stance, keeping alert for any further signs of attack. "Good job, everyone. That could have been a lot worse. You work together much better than I thought. I imagine that Duncan would be proud."
Dropping her staff from a nerveless hand, Evelyn fell to her knees, the wet soil sputtering with the impact. Her palms hit the ground, but this seemed to be enough to steady her. Jory ventured over, resting his hand on her shoulder in what little reassurance he could offer.
"Calm yourself, dear lady. You handled yourself very well, for a woman," he warmly patronized, smiling as she tilted her head to look up at him.
"Says the man who fell on his arse in the heat of battle," Daveth interjected, smirking.
"...To the woman who stood her ground, faster than either of you," Alistair added, sheathing his sword.
Jory had the decency to blush at his attempt at chivalry coming out so poorly, and helped the mage to her feet, lightly clapping her on the back as he did so.
"Those things..." Evelyn muttered, shivering slightly.
"There are more about, so keep on guard," Alistair warned, staring to the south.
"So, is this the part where we drain the filthy buggers of our three vials worth of blood, like nitpicky vampires?" Daveth pointed at the fallen darkspawn.
"I'm fairly certain that nitpicky vampires wouldn't be drinking from this lot, given the choice," Evelyn countered.
Daveth grinned. "Oh, so you do have a sense of humor wrapped inside all that fluff!"
"I'm always saying funny things," she grinned sheepishly, "But yes, sometimes I mean to."
Alistair fished inside a pouch for a moment, before tossing one of the glass vials Duncan had given to him over to Daveth. "Go right on ahead, if you like. This is a good opportunity. Anyone else want to take their fill from these ones, or shall we wait for the next round of felled darkspawn?"
"I say we take what we need from these ones," Evelyn asserted, "The less we have to fight these things before we're actually Grey Wardens, the better."
"I agree. Let us finish this task and be on our way." Jory frowned down at the corpses at their feet; he couldn't imagine sticking his hands anywhere near these abominable creatures long enough to... euughhh, take their blood.
With a faint smile pinning back the corners of his mouth, Alistair flicked the other two vials to Jory and Evelyn. Jory jumped, and nearly dropped his, but Evelyn caught hold of the neck of the vial between two fingers, examining the glass container thoughtfully afterwards.
"Alright. You'll need to fill them all the way. We'll need every drop." Alistair returned his attention to the Wilds around him, sensing another group of darkspawn drawing closer. They would have to act fast, and he wasn't sure how much warning he was allowed to give them- Duncan's instructions had been very explicit, that he wasn't there to coddle them. He had to admit, though, that even after seeing Evelyn defend herself in battle, he worried at her being taken by surprise.
As they set about filling their vials, Alistair considered his particular concern for the young woman. He would have to discuss with Duncan later his perturbation about Evelyn's recruitment. If he was feeling this much anxiety over her safety, she was clearly not ready for the demands of being a Grey Warden.
He didn't know how to answer the little voice in the back of his mind asking if his concern didn't stem from something else.
After the last darkspawn fell with a sickening crunch from Jory's blade, Evelyn let the knot in her stomach slowly ease out again, panting heavily. All the spellcasting was beginning to take its toll on her, and she could feel her energy dropping below a reasonable level. She took to using her staff to prop herself up, leaning heavily. With a faint breeze at the back of her neck, she faced the crumbling wall behind her. "There, in the ruins..."
Checking in with Daveth, who'd been knocked aside by one of the darkspawn hard enough to struggle getting back on his feet, Alistair almost didn't hear the soft murmur calling his attention. Glancing over, he followed Evelyn's meaningful gaze, lighting on the chest settled uncomfortably amidst the rocks and grass.
"The cache!" His grip on Daveth tightened as they both stood.
"It only took three misguided ventures around the Korcari wilds for you to find it!" Daveth remarked, still wobbling a bit on his feet. "Duncan's directions sure do take the roundabout way, don't they?"
"Well, it worked out, didn't it?" Evelyn beamed at Daveth as the three men approached. "We were able to find that flower the Kennel Master described, after all. Besides, we got in some good practice fighting darkspawn!"
"Practical experience is a good thing, yes," Jory shrugged. "But perhaps it is better not to have to endure it by accident."
Alistair muttered under his breath- something about being a soldier, not a tracker- then grinned at Evelyn. "You're awfully upbeat, did you know that?"
"I am?" Evelyn blinked incredulously.
"Oh, just your take on things, at times." He waved the matter away with one hand, embarrassed at having brought it up. "It's refreshing, actually, having someone see the positive. And, well, you know, not criticizing my sense of direction."
Evelyn giggled. "I figured the other two had that much covered." Her expression softened. "But, thank you. I don't think I've ever been called 'refreshing' before."
I find that hard to believe. Alistair swallowed, gripping the back of his neck awkwardly as he purposefully looked to the chest instead of her. "At least we're here now. Let's take the treaties and go."
The men tried to walk past, but Evelyn grabbed a hold of Daveth's arm, frowning. "One moment. Your shoulder was hurt, wasn't it?"
"It was," Daveth replied with a touch of surprise. "How can you tell?"
Evelyn's gaze was on his shoulder, her eyes fogged with some unusual cast of light. "I can see it," she murmured, resting one hand over the offending injury. Within seconds, her hand was glowing, a light green shade, and the pain seizing his arm and back faded.
Flexing his arm, Daveth grinned at Evelyn. "Now that's new. I don't think I'll mind that now and again, especially from a pretty face like yours."
"It wasn't my face that healed you," Evelyn reminded him gently. "But thank you."
"You do realize, once we're all Grey-Warden-ized, and after this grand battle, we're going to have to adopt you as our personal pet, right?" he continued, ruffling his fingers through her loose curls. "We'll keep you safe from the big baddies, tease you mercilessly, and if you can put up with us just loving you to death, I think we'll get along just fine."
"She is not some animal, Daveth," Jory protested, frowning.
"Oh, sure, I know that," Daveth cackled. "I only meant that she'll be fun to have around."
Alistair coughed uncomfortably. "In case you've forgotten, we have a job to do here. Unless you want to keep pestering her until she bites."
"Oh, I don't bite." Evelyn grinned. "I just lick somewhat menacingly."
Alistair gave her a pointed look. "You know, I'm trying to stop him, but if you're just going to keep encouraging this..."
Daveth and Evelyn shared a laugh, and despite himself, Alistair joined them. Only Jory continued to look exceedingly uncomfortable at their joking- this was no time to kid around! There were darkspawn around them, and he was eager to get back to the encampment.
"Alistair's right, though," Evelyn ambled past him towards the broken chest. "With night approaching, I'm getting a little cold. Let's be done with it, then."
As she stooped over the cache, she frowned- didn't Duncan assure them that there was magical protection around the treaties? She sensed nothing coming from the long-abandoned cache. Peering inside, perplexity furrowed her brow; there was no sign of any treaties in the chest!
"Well, well. What have we here?" A smooth voice interrupted Evelyn, and she snapped around to face the source. A dark-haired woman, dressed in loose fabric and scraps of leather, descended from her perch in the ruins. Every step was graceful, elegant, and the intensity of her contemplative stare bore into Evelyn coldly.
"Are you a vulture, I wonder? A scavenger poking amidst a corpse whose bones were long since cleaned?" The faint smirk the woman wore dropped into something more fierce. "Or merely an intruder, come into these darkspawn-filled Wilds of mine in search of easy prey?"
The two women held each others' gaze for a long while; both assessing the other, connected by some string of fate each could only barely sense. When Alistair moved forward, putting himself partly between them, the string was plucked, and resonated.
Chapter 4: Where I Belong
The trek through the Korcari Wilds finished, Evelyn and the other recruits go back to camp to prepare for the Joining. Unfortunately, things don't go as smoothly as planned.
"I'm not sure whether you look more pale or more green." In the attempt to console her, Alistair defaulted to his sometimes misguided sense of humor while engaging Evelyn.
"Huh?" Her gaze lifted from the forest floor directly into Alistair's eyes, immediately open and curious in her confusion, which unsettled him quickly. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, I-I meant... are you feeling alright?" he stammered in reply. Smooth, Alistair.
"Mm," she twirled her finger around her sleeve as she walked. Ahead of them sauntered a moderately peeved Morrigan, the dark-haired Wilds woman, as she lead them back to the camp in the ruins of Ostagar, and trailing behind were Daveth and Ser Jory, neither speaking.
The Grey Warden treaties had been recovered, once the spell Duncan had insisted would protect them had worn off, by a woman that Morrigan called her mother. While Alistair was immediately suspicious of nearly everything that came out of Morrigan's mouth, Evelyn's request that she take them to see her mother won her some early favor with the witch. They set out immediately, trusting (or hoping) that Morrigan wouldn't lead them astray.
With all of the buildup and trepidation, encountering the old woman standing by her hut had been a let-down- well, at least for Alistair and Daveth. They'd expected a towering, statuesque, gruesome creature wrapped in feathers and furs, a crooked nose, and gnarled hands. Instead, while still plainly very old, the woman was still very human.
What the others couldn't grasp, and Alistair only vaguely sensed, Evelyn noticed straight-away; an impressive appearance would not have matched the power surging under the surface of the old woman's considerably more palatable mask. Evelyn knew, when they locked eyes, that this strange woman was staring straight through her. She bore her no contempt, but instead, smiled and nodded her acknowledgement; So you see me, she seemed to suggest. At least, what I'm willing to show you.
She returned the treaties with no argument, and only some cryptic words of either great wisdom or great madness. Evelyn had thanked her graciously, earning a gale of laughter from the woman, who affectionately mocked her respect for her. With the matter of the treaties settled, the woman insisted Morrigan escort them back to their camp, watching them with her unsettling gaze.
"I'm sure I'm just nervous," Evelyn finished her thought, smiling crookedly to Alistair. "I always had a certain plan for the future, back in the tower. I knew where I was going, what limits there were, what I was and wasn't capable of. Now, I have no idea if I'll even live to see tomorrow."
"That's a great conversation you're having," Daveth remarked from behind them, "But perhaps we could discuss survival after the big, nightmarish battle coming our way?"
"Yes, perhaps this is not the time," Ser Jory added.
"Sorry," Evelyn apologized over her shoulder, before focusing on the ground in front of her again. "I only mean... I'm not used to not knowing where I belong."
After a moment, watching sadness color her expression, Alistair beamed certainly. "Why, you're going to be a Grey Warden. Whatever else you are or were, that's where you belong now."
She stopped, briefly, and when he paused to look back at her, he was startled to see tears in her eyes. She sniffed, and resumed walking, hurrying to catch where she'd left off, but looked sidelong at Alistair as she asked softly, "...Do you really think so?"
Huh, now wasn't that strange? Alistair reflected back on his impression of Evelyn all this time; talented, maybe, but not prepared for being a Grey Warden. Far too easily frightened or overwhelmed. Perhaps a good friend, and certainly a lovely lady in her own right, but not Grey Warden material, per se. Yet, for some reason, he couldn't imagine the Grey Wardens without her, either. He smiled warmly. "Of course I do."
She answered his smile with one of her own, which pinched the tears from her eyes. She swept her sleeve over each eye, drying them as quickly as she could, but the smile remained. Already annoyed beyond reason, the witch in the lead sighed in exasperation, glaring back at the saccharine duo. Neither noticed.
Seeing the two talking to one another, their postures relaxing as they continued chatting with a subtle lean in towards one another, Jory smirked knowingly. Daveth elbowed him in the side.
"How long y'think before those two find an excuse to snog?" He kept his voice low, but couldn't mask the amusement in his tone.
"I do not think it right to gossip," Jory replied quickly, stiffly. Then, as an afterthought, he added, "...But even in the fires of adversity can affection blossom and endure."
"Tha' was right poetic!" Daveth chuckled. "Did you pull that from a book somewhere?"
"Probably," Jory blushed. "But the sentiment still applies."
Daveth frowned, putting his finger over his mouth thoughtfully. "...Do you think he'll still let us borrow her as our pet?"
"Actually, Duncan..." At first, Evelyn wasn't sure she had been heard, with her voice losing half its power after the first syllable. After all, when Duncan spoke, it was so clear, so confident; no one would dare ignore him. When the others all paused to stare at her, she swallowed, knowing that she had, indeed, spoken clearly enough. "I have something I want to take care of first- it should only take a moment or so. Can I join everyone over at the temple?"
"Are you sure you'll be alright alone?" Alistair asked, causing Duncan to raise his eyebrow curiously.
Evelyn did her best impression of a smile. "I should be; I'm just going over to the kennels. I think I've figured out how to get to the temple from there." Her eyes glittered with good humor. "I'll just use the bonfire as a landmark."
Recognition flared in Alistair's expression, and he grinned sheepishly, putting his hand to the back of his neck. Glancing between the two, Duncan stroked his beard contemplatively. The others exchanged another look, Daveth grinning knowingly.
"Very well. Be quick about it, though, we have no time to waste." Duncan nodded to Alistair, dismissing him. "We'll convene at the temple in just a few minutes, once I'm done helping the mages with the preparation for the ritual."
Evelyn turned towards the kennels, though she glanced back to the other recruits over her shoulder. Alistair smiled and gave a faint wave, prompting her to return it with only a few fingers, before continuing to the kennel. Watching her depart, Alistair was reminded to his orders by a nudge to the side by Daveth's elbow. Catching Daveth's grin, Alistair cleared his throat and started towards the very same temple he'd met Evelyn at earlier that morning.
"So, are you going to tell us what we're in for yet? Or are we still waiting to be surprised when Duncan springs it on us?" As he walked, Daveth cinched both hands behind his head, keeping himself to a leisurely pace after tromping about the Wilds all day.
"I'm afraid you're just going to have to wait for the surprise." Alistair only just kept himself on this side of an eyeroll.
"Why all this secrecy?" Jory frowned. "I do not understand; have we not passed all manner of tests? What more can be asked of us to endure?"
"There's a very good reason for all the secrecy," Alistair sighed, climbing the first ramp, the recruits only a step or two behind him. "Unfortunately, it's also a secret."
"We really ought to wait until Evelyn gets back before trying to pry this information out of him," Daveth chuckled to Jory. "One batting of those big blue eyes of hers, and I'm sure we could get him to spill."
"Now, what do you mean by that?" Alistair rounded on Daveth, taking his bait.
"Only what you want to take from it!" Daveth snickered as, even in the dim light of the moon, Alistair's face still darkened in a blush. "But, you have to admit, you cave a lot more easily around her."
"I don't 'cave' around her!" Alistair grumbled, purposefully stalking into the temple. "And no, nothing you- or she- could say will get me to tell you anything about this ritual. You'll find out soon enough anyway."
"I do not care for this. I've always been under the impression that the Grey Wardens were held in esteem for their great heroism. This secrecy, these rituals..." Jory's eyes darkened in suspicion.
Alistair glared out into the main encampment, frowning. Jory had every right to be suspicious, of course. Still, it grated him that for all of Jory's bluster about pride and glory in being a Grey Warden, he lost trust in the legendary order over a secret that needed to be kept. ...Didn't it? Alistair's face tightened in disapproval. He understood the reasoning behind keeping the Joining, and its effect on a Warden, a secret from the general public. But... a recruit, a member in all but ritual?
"Don't worry, Ser Knight. The worst they can do is kill you, and you were ready to do that already, weren't you?" Daveth shrugged.
Jory paled at the thought. "I would gladly die fighting any evil, if it meant protecting Ferelden. But this is no battle. There is no glory in being murdered."
Alistair flinched. "Ser Jory, you are working yourself up. Calm down, Duncan will explain everything when he gets here."
Jory scowled; he might just have to wait and see how much he trusted Duncan's word.
When Evelyn proudly brandished the white flower with the red center, the Kennel Master had been delighted. He very quickly set about his task preparing it for medical use, and asked Evelyn if she'd accept twenty silver for her help. She only shook her head and smiled, saying she didn't need reward for doing the right thing. The Kennel Master beamed, and asked her to come back later- after the battle. He would have to see about imprinting the mabari on her.
Strolling over to the temple, Evelyn pressed her fingers over her lips numbly. Her very own mabari? When the Kennel Master had asked her to muzzle the poor thing for treatment, she'd nervously climbed into the pen alongside a very sick, very large dog. He watched her cautiously, too weak to even growl at her. Softening her voice to the gentlest of coos, Evelyn held out her hand to the trembling dog, palm up, inviting him to take in her scent first.
He hadn't had the strength to sniff her out, but the gesture was enough to assure him that she meant no harm. Locking the muzzle in place, she lightly massaged the dog's ears, and planted a kiss on his snout. "You're a good boy."
Her eyes slid open to the present, lighting on her companions from their earlier trial in the Wilds. The gentle swish of her robes alerted them to her presence, and she paused at the entrance to the ruined temple. While Alistair brightened to see her, and Daveth grinned, Jory merely nodded her way.
"Uhm, h-hey," she blushed from the attention. "Did I really hold everyone up? If so, I apologize."
"Nah, we're still waiting on Duncan, too." Daveth shrugged.
"The more I hear about this Joining, the less I like it." Jory paced back and forth, unsettled.
Daveth's sneer turned cold, his patience running thin. "Are you blubbering again?"
"Why all these damned tests?" Jory demanded. "Have I not earned my place?"
"Maybe it's tradition." Daveth crossed his arms. "Maybe they're just trying to annoy you."
Evelyn huddled her arms around her, not liking the thread of hostility brewing behind both men. "I doubt they're trying to annoy anyone. This seems pretty standard fare for this type of ritual."
Daveth snickered. "I say trust the lady who knows a thing or two about special rituals."
"What do you mean, 'standard fare'?" Jory scowled at Evelyn. "Do you know something we don't?"
She cringed at the suspicion, shrinking a bit. "About the Joining, no. But we have a practice in the Circle, graduating an apprentice to a mage in their own right. Not a lot of information about it is available to apprentices, but it's because knowing too much in advance defeats the purpose of the test in the first place. The purpose is probably similar here."
"But is it not degrading, insulting to be kept in the dark?" He continued his pacing, not wanting to raise his voice at Evelyn, who was already anxious enough. "I just keep thinking about my wife in Highever, with a child on the way. If they had warned me..." he sighed. "It just doesn't seem fair."
Daveth's nose wrinkled in distaste as he frowned. "Would you have come if they'd warned you? Maybe that's why they don't. The Wardens do what they must, right?"
"Including sacrificing us?"
"I'd sacrifice a lot more if I knew it would end the Blight." Daveth returned easily.
While Evelyn didn't voice it, she found herself agreeing, internally. How many families already would never be whole again, thanks to the darkspawn? How many more lives would be lost tonight? And thinking of the Blight spreading across Ferelden, consuming the land, and reaching the tower... She couldn't let that happen. It had to stop here.
"You saw those darkspawn, ser knight. Wouldn't you die to protect your pretty wife from them?"
"Maybe you'll die. Maybe we'll all die," Daveth continued. "If nobody stops the darkspawn, we'll die for sure."
Jory shook his head. "I've just never faced a foe I could not engage with my blade."
"At last, we come to the Joining." Duncan's much calmer voice cut through the tension immediately, as everyone faced him on his approach. He walked with purpose, to the table, setting the chalice he bore down on the smooth stone surface.
The clink of metal echoed against the stone temple ruins.
The shrieking, reverberating cacophony wrung the blood from her veins, and she screamed in terror at the sound. Even worse, the longer she endured, the more it seeped into her, contaminated her, ate away at her. She could feel it cracking along her mind, roaming and probing. The screams numbed to a terrible hum, and just as she was revulsed by the invasive presence as it prodded her consciousness, trying to tear it from her, she felt an odd serenity, comfort, certainty in this song. Yet, her heart thumped, and she rejected, rejected this presence, no, it couldn't have her, it won't have her, no no NO-
"No!" She screamed, the cold air of the real world penetrating the warmth of her dream, casting the Fade to linger in the back of her mind again. Sweat poured in rivulets from her temples, soaking her hair, giving the silken fabric a clammy feeling against her skin. Her hands were clutched tightly around two others, belonging to the faces looming over her now.
"It is finished. Welcome." With no more joy in her survival than he took at Daveth and Ser Jory's deaths, Duncan somberly greeted Evelyn. He did not grip her hand in return, merely gave her the grasp she needed to steady herself.
Her gaze shifted over to the other, one she recognized more slowly through the aching, pounding headache; Alistair. The nightmare slipped further away, and reality became a pulsing blur. Struggling to stand- no, even just to move- sent agony through her. It felt like the marrow in her bones had been hollowed out and replaced with shards of broken glass, like her muscles were rough, dry parchment eroding away bits of her, like her skin was about to burst with every beat of her heart. Alistair's hand in hers held on very gently, warm and soothing.
When she was ready, he helped her to her feet, steadying her when- in her mind, at least- the ground pitched so violently she nearly tumbled off of it. She smiled gratefully up at him, her eyes still wet with the tears from her nightmare. He cleared his throat, though he didn't move his hands from her shoulders.
"Two more deaths," Alistair's head tilted forward. He'd known from the start it was possible that none of the recruits would make it, but that didn't make things easier. Daveth collapsing had been hard enough, but when Jory drew his sword on Duncan, Alistair had crumbled; there wasn't much chance of tiny Evelyn surviving the taint. Yet, here she was now, pale and weak, shaking and convulsively flexing her fists, and smiling at him. "I'm glad at least one of you made it through."
There was no mistaking that look in Alistair's eye, Duncan noted to himself. He would have to address that with him later. "How do you feel?"
"Well, outside the watery limp feeling in all my limbs, the furious headache, and the suspicion that if someone replaced my bones with stinging nettle strapped around blades, it would feel better than they do right now, I'm fine," Evelyn grinned weakly, wobbling a little more on her footing, but regaining her strength, slowly.
"I think you are the first to articulate the sensation so clearly," Duncan chuckled softly, answering her smile with one of his own.
"At least we know her sense of humor has remained intact," Alistair joked, still keeping one hand on her shoulder to help her stay upright.
"Yes, that much..." Her eyes darkened, and after a pause, she looked to Duncan warily. "I still can't believe... I mean... what you did to Jory..."
Duncan's shoulders fell as he glanced to the side, the weight on them more evident than ever. "Jory was warned that there was no turning back, as were you all. When he went for his blade, however, he left me no choice."
"I still don't see why you had to kill him," Evelyn frowned in displeasure at his response. "Are the Grey Wardens so invested in their secrets that there is no room for mercy should someone lose their nerve at the last?"
A flicker passed through Duncan's expression, and all the warmth died for a moment. The soulful brown eyes that peered back at her now were cold, devoid of the compassion he'd shown her thus far.
When he spoke, it was slow and even. "The Blight demands sacrifices from us all." Some measure of light returned to his expression, but the chill already settled in for Evelyn. "Thankfully, you stand here as proof they are not all made in vain."
Evelyn folded in on herself somewhat, wincing, adding in a mutter, "Aren't they?"
Glancing between the two of them uncertainly, feeling both an edge of defensiveness for Duncan's sake, and quietly agreeing with Evelyn's point, Alistair pulled her attention back to him with a gentle squeeze on her shoulder.
"Before I forget, there is one last part to your Joining," he smiled, searching about his person before producing a simple, inelegant necklace with a glass pendant. "We take some of that blood and put it in a pendant. Something to remind us..." His voice dropped slightly, as did his gaze. "...Of those who didn't make it this far."
He pressed the necklace into her palm meaningfully, and she accepted it, staring at the pendant. Without any hesitation, she brushed her braid over her shoulder, and began tying the necklace around her neck; the least she could do for Jory and Daveth was carry the weight of their loss with her.
Duncan waited until she'd secured her new pendant before speaking. "Take some time. When you are ready, I'd like you to accompany me to a meeting with the king."
"What? Why me?" Evelyn yelped, eyes wide.
Giving nothing more away than a smile, Duncan replied, "The king requested you specifically. The meeting is to the west, down the stairs. Please attend as soon as you are able."
With that, Duncan started in the direction of the meeting. Alistair hesitated, watching Evelyn curiously. Something nagged at the back of his mind, and he blamed Duncan for having planted it there. While Evelyn lay against the cold stone floor, trembling as the darkspawn taint spread through her, Duncan had pulled Alistair aside.
"Just be careful not to push the girl too far, Alistair," Duncan warned him. "I know you're a young man, but remember that your duty as a Grey Warden supersedes your personal desires. While in many ways she is much stronger than she looks, she is also much more fragile than you might think."
"Huh?" For the life of him, Alistair couldn't parse what it was Duncan was warning him about, but Duncan seemed content to leave it at that.
Seeing her now, still weakened, her eyes half-lidded as she watched after Duncan, he tried to figure out what it was that had knotted his stomach at Duncan's warning. Sure, he knew she was fragile, that had been one of his early concerns about her. In the moonlight, her paleness was all the more striking. Even more, he sensed the taint in her now; magically contained, still very fresh, but he could sense her presence all the more clearly.
He smiled. She was a full Grey Warden, and she had survived the Joining. That said a lot more about her than his fears regarding her inexperience would, and for the rest... he trusted Duncan's judgment.
She looked to him at his smile, and immediately glanced away. "I'm going to walk around camp a little while, until I feel a bit... like myself."
"Would you like me to join you?" Alistair's smile felt more forced by the second.
"....No." Without looking, she made her way down the ramp. "Thank you. But I need to be alone for a bit."
Standing in the ruined temple, now completely abandoned, Alistair felt an odd sinking feeling in his stomach. He understood why she might need a moment to herself, and hey, she'd endured his presence practically all day- of course she'd need a break from that. Still, he didn't like the sorrow darkening her features as she effectively dismissed him.
He only realized now, as he headed back into the camp, that he'd gotten used to the idea of someone genuinely enjoying his company.
Chapter 5: A Beacon in Darkness
The battle for Ostagar begins, but Evelyn is faltering more and more. Will she be able to complete the task handed her, or does she risk failure?
The camp had fallen eerily quiet in the last hour or so, after all the gathered armies had been sent to the battlefield to await their opponents; the darkspawn horde. A few fires still spat and crackled, dying without the attention needed to keep them going. Far below the fortress of Ostagar, in the valley beneath the bridge, the men and women brave enough to stand for Ferelden stood silent, a sea of metal and leather, of sweat, of smoke. The Revered Mother and her priests passed their final blessings, swinging their incense and murmuring the Chant of Light. The Maker would watch over them, they said repeatedly.
Sometimes a stray cough would break the quiet, or some faint sniffling from someone whose fear overwhelmed them, and they couldn't stop their tears. Standing amidst the King's men, the men from across the Bannorn, and Highever's polished contingent of soldiers, the Grey Wardens watched the proceedings even more somberly than the others.
They could feel it coming. The horde pressed on their senses in the same way the pressure from the coming storm was felt by the others. Among the more experienced Wardens, the whispers and fragments of the hivemind that all darkspawn shared formed The Song, and they had to reject the instinct to listen, to be commanded by it.
It wouldn't be long now. The stench of decay was already reaching the battlefield.
Passing by the now-emptied mage encampment, Evelyn halted mid-step, pressing her hand over the bridge of her nose. A faint sway took her, and the buzzing in her mind got louder, echoing and aching with each pulse. She staggered, and leaned one hand against a pillar to steady herself.
"Are you alright?" Already, Alistair was at her side again, hovering his hand briefly near her back before settling it on her shoulder.
"...Just a bit much..." Evelyn sighed, frustrated at her weakness. She wasn't sure what the buzzing was- it reminded her far too much of her nightmare after her Joining- but the events of the day were definitely catching up with her. "I'll be fine."
As she pushed off the pillar, and wobbled forward, having to pause again after a few steps, Alistair wondered if she really would. "Yeah, you're really inspiring confidence in that, the way you're walking."
Evelyn glowered at him. "Well, pardon me for being so weak! I've spent the last week doing nothing but traveling, spent all day romping about the Wilds and killing monsters of unimaginable horrors, and being deliberately infected with a disease that could just as easily have killed me."
"I didn't mean it that way," he replied quickly, his hands going up defensively. "I know this probably hasn't been your favoritest day of all time, and by all rights you should be resting now, recovering from everything. I only meant, well..." his voice quieted, almost to a mumble. "You shouldn't push beyond your limit. I don't want you collapsing on me."
She stiffened indignantly. "You could always just step over me if I get in your way. You wouldn't be the first."
A wounded look crossed Alistair's face. "Evelyn, I'm not condemning you... I'm just... worried."
The hostility in her expression eased away again, and she looked to the ground instead. "...I'm sorry. I'm just tired of being weak."
"You're not weak," he insisted firmly. "Duncan wouldn't have brought you here if you were."
She met his gaze again, the dwindling campfires nearby flickering in her eyes. Still, none of her spirit lurked behind them; only blank reflection and doubt. Well, no wonder; he wasn't exactly being sincere, passing off his confidence on someone else's decision, he realized.
He cleared his throat, and tried again. "Besides, I certainly admire your tenacity. If you have moments where you need help, you've already demonstrated that you're more than capable, at least to me."
Though no rosiness or mirth returned to her expression, she let a smile creep up on her. "...Thank you."
Before embarrassment at the flattery consumed her, she quickly resumed her progress towards the bridge. If she had a little more sureness in her gait, if she felt a little less weighted-down, she didn't connect it to the light in his eyes at her smile or his encouragement. Alistair followed after her, smiling to see the much-improved balance in her stride.
Just as they got to the edge of the bridge, however, they both halted. Something was coming. Alistair went rigid, peering into the sprawling valley, the Wilds. A foul mist had crept out, and there was a shift in the men below, the tension of a bowstring being drawn back. From the trees, the shadowy creatures bled from the realm of nightmares into the waking world, moving in unison, a tide threatening to wash over the land.
Evelyn gasped, both hands covering her mouth. The scant few darkspawn she'd fought before were dwarfed by the sheer immensity of the horde now. A raw edge of panic gripped her stomach- Maker there are too many how can we fight them oh Maker protect us we cannot survive this!- before she stumbled backwards into the support of Alistair's arm.
A long moment passed, where each army measured the other, and Evelyn only realized later she'd held her breath the entire time. Then, some unspoken signal seemed to pass through the darkspawn, and they surged, leaping and bounding in black giddiness. In response to the rush, Ferelden's army sent a volley of fiery arrows into the coming wave.
Undeterred, the darkspawn kept coming. They had the advantage of numbers, and knew it. Finally, spurred by King Cailan, the men and women serving Ferelden- no, all of Thedas- charged at their enemies, a battle cry gaining volume as more joined in.
Chaos broke out. Both sides unleashed everything they had, from catapults with flaming ammunition, to clashing blades. Flashes of fire and lightning swirled into full on storms, summoned by the mages from their protected position at the edge of the battlefield, and forced the darkspawn who were not immediately swept up in the destruction into a tunneled position, not allowing them to gain flanking advantage just yet.
Alistair saw Evelyn staring on in horror. She hasn't seen anything like this, he reminded himself before he started lecturing her. The first time he'd witnessed such a large scale battle, it'd taken everything in him to keep his legs locked in place instead of fleeing for cover. Still, they couldn't afford being swept up in the fighting like this. He gripped her arm to catch her attention.
"We need to get across!" He shouted over the cacophony below. "Now!"
Nodding wordlessly, Evelyn glanced across the bridge, which wobbled in her vision. One boulder crashed into a ruin far too close for comfort, galvanizing the both of them into a sprint. The men lining the bridge fired their ballistae- Ka-WHUMP!- as they passed.
Another boulder smashed into the bridge behind them, sending chunks of stone spraying in all directions. Several clanked against Alistair's armor, one smacking him in the back of the head, and one caught Evelyn's ankle. She stumbled wildly, but scrambled to keep her forward momentum.
"Keep going!" Alistair cried, hands out, ready to drag her back up if her feet fell out from under her. "I'm right behind you!"
Just as they neared the other side, yet another flaming boulder connected with the bridge, this time right at their heels. The stone shattered, chunks cracking bones and fracturing skulls of the nearby soldiers, and slamming both Alistair and Evelyn to the ground on impact. They would later count their blessings that they hadn't been standing, as the fragments that would have killed them whizzed just over them.
While Evelyn lay in a heap, disoriented, Alistair quickly crawled over, surprised at his panic. "Evelyn? Are you alright, Evelyn?" She gave no response, and he saw the cuts from some of the sharper stone shrapnel that had grazed her face. He shook her shoulder more roughly than he'd intended. "Evelyn! We need to keep going!"
At last, she turned her gaze on him, wide and unseeing. Then, life flooded back into her with understanding. "I'm fine! I-I-I think I was just stunned!"
Relief washed over Alistair, and he let his forehead fall to her shoulder. "Thank goodness! I was so scared you were hurt, I--"
"Come on!" She cried, rolling to her feet and dragging Alistair up with her. "We need to get off this bridge!"
He stared, and for an instant, time stopped. She stood over him, face bleeding, black curls wildly churning in the wind, her rounded, kind face set in grim determination, her eyes blazing bright in the flashes of lightning, her hand tugging his arm. The spark of attraction he'd felt when they'd met flared suddenly in stark contrast with the fears that had scrabbled at the back of his mind when she'd lain prone. Against the night sky, death only one wrong move away, her childish naiveté melting into composure, Evelyn was... beautiful..
Time caught up with him again, and he stumbled along with her to the safety of stable ground, his head reeling. This was definitely not the time to be thinking that way! And yet...
Jogging along after her as they hurried to the tower, Alistair watched her with very new eyes.
The trek through the Tower of Ishal had been an exercise in proving the law that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. From the moment Evelyn and Alistair had entered through the gate, they were met with the news that darkspawn had apparently already gotten inside the tower. Joined by a mage- whose eyes lingered on Evelyn in brief recognition- and Walter, the tower guard, they made their way in; the beacon had to be lit, and soon!
Nothing could have prepared Evelyn for the carnage strewn around each floor, getting worse as they ascended. Her resolve held together, enduring through waves of darkspawn despite the sickening familiarity she felt in them, until entering one chamber, where a heap of bodies had been piled in the center. It was the torso, limbless, headless, skewered ceremoniously on a pole, that did her nerves in. She fell to the side, and despite hating the sensation, emptied the contents of her stomach to the floor. She couldn't stop the tears for a long time, even after she stood and resigned herself to keep moving.
Her heart grieved at such tragedy, and even worse, the feeling that the situation would only continue to degrade nagged her every step, until now.
"Do you hear that?" Walter stared at the ceiling, his eyes wide with fright.
Alistair frowned, a mite paler than when he'd first entered the tower. "It sounds like a large beast tromping around up there. The growling..."
He and Evelyn exchanged a fearful look, confirming that they both felt the same thing; this wasn't just some large beast. In their mind's eye, a vague silhouette of something ghastly teased the edges of their vision. Repulsed by what she sensed, Evelyn grasped Alistair's arm, shivering.
He looked to her sympathetically, but sadly. "We have to light the beacon," he reminded her as much as himself. "They're counting on us."
Tears lined her vision, and she released his arm, stabilizing herself on her own two feet. She just had to do this one last thing... when they were done, she could rest. She could already feel the fingers of exhaustion pulling her down from her consciousness, and longed to give in. Instead, she nodded to Alistair, assuring him that she was fine- well, as fine as she could be.
He returned it, then faced the others. "Alright. I suspect we're going to run into some more trouble up those stairs. Walter, I want you with me at the front. Mage-"he tried to mask that he hadn't yet bothered to remember the poor man's name, "- keep an eye at our back, and prepare to roast any darkspawn that may surprise us from behind. Evelyn, I'm relying on you for firepower. Literally."
In answer, she raised one hand and clenched it, a ripple of flames enveloping her fist. "I'm ready."
A smile flickered over Alistair's lips, not quite reaching his eyes. His hand trembled when he turned to open the door, and he gripped the handle tightly to stop it. This staircase was devoid of darkspawn, fortunately. As they climbed the stairs, nearing the source of the thunderous footsteps, the occasional roar all the clearer the closer they got to the next landing, no one said a word.
The large door at the top of the stairs stood between the team and the room containing both the beacon and whatever monstrous creature awaited them. Sword already drawn, Alistair gripped his shield, preparing for what may be his last charge- though he definitely hoped not. Beside him, Evelyn held her staff- a simple wooden thing, etched with runes and a delicate leafy pattern- tightly in one hand. Glancing to her, he fought the temptation to instruct her to stay behind until they'd dispatched whatever they were facing. He told himself the temptation was because she already looked on the verge of collapse.
Not willing to let his nerves get the best of him, Alistair strode to the door decisively and kicked it wide open. Without giving himself the chance to hesitate, he surged into the room, cueing the others to join him.
What loomed in the middle of the chamber, however, robbed each of them of the strength to keep running, freezing them in horror. There crouched a creature easily three times Alistair's height, bent over the last of its prey. With a blood-curdling crunch, the beast tore the flesh away from the leg it'd been feasting on, and revolved slowly to face the pattering behind it. Its skin was a mottled dark-blueish grey, stretched taut over every muscle and sinew (more like cloth than something organic), sharp, jagged fangs protruding from its sneer, and the wicked horns twisted out from its skull, convincing Evelyn that a demon had loosed itself from the Fade.
The beast rose to full height, a mixture of drool and blood dripping from its mouth, assessing this pittance resistance mindlessly. Then, a roar- a world-shattering, drool-splattering roar that nearly split Evelyn's already aching head in twain. As she stumbled, sobbing in terror, she wasn't alone; both Walter and the other mage were recoiling. Turning white as parchment, Alistair managed to keep his shield and sword up by only a thin thread of composure left in him.
"Walter! Flank it!" Alistair commanded, charging forward to keep its focus on him. Smoothly, from years of training with a practice sword far less balanced than the one he wielded now, Alistair swept his blade across the arm reaching for him, eliciting a growl of pain from the creature- but no hint of it recoiling. Grimacing, he tumbled into a roll as the arm continued barreling down on him, just barely escaping its grasp.
Unfortunately, doing so meant moving out if its line of sight. With Walter closing in on the other side, and the other mage drifting to the shadows for his spellcasting, the only one left in the creature's range of sight was none other than Evelyn. Sensing their connection in the taint, it locked onto her, deciding this to be much easier prey.
Cursing under his breath, Alistair felt his heart clench in fear. Now in an equally flanking position to the creature as Walter, he signaled to the soldier across from him to follow his lead and bolted after it. No matter how fast he pumped his legs, however, there was no way he'd be able to stop it before it reached Evelyn. Damnit, he had to try!
Resisting the urge to quail and run, Evelyn spun her staff in her hand, activating its enchantments. Once the runes glowed, she concentrated on the spirit energy gathering in the staff, ready to be channeled outwards. Terror robbed her of focus as the fangs flashed white in her eyes. How could she do her magic?! Narrowing her eyes, clamping down on her fear, she unleashed a concussive bolt of spirit energy at the creature at point blank range.
"HUUUUUUUOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRGH!!" It roared, rearing back as the magic repelled him. This magic wasn't like that of its kin, and in a twisted way, it burned.
This delay was all the advantage Alistair and Walter needed. They leapt, each biting their swords into either side as deeply as they could thrust it in. From his corner of the room, the mage unleashed what he'd been summoning; a burst of cold, freezing the creature's flesh where it stood.
"Anngh!" Alistair cried, the cold catching his palms before he yanked himself away from the creature. Walter yelped in pain, falling back a few steps.
The air shifted in the room, and Alistair felt his blood stir at the sensation. The sense trained into him over the years studying to be a templar sang out urgently, putting him on alert. Unlike the spell cast by the mage still in his corner, this magic ran deeper than a simple short incantation; this was plucking threads from the very fabric of magic itself. The throbbing in his hands distanced as he watched Evelyn, her eyes half-lidded as the air around her thickened. Finally, her hand stretched out, holding the crux of power in her palm, and a pinpoint of light broke through.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alistair caught movement. Having regained sensation in his arms again, Walter made a mad grab for his sword, latching on and yanking with all his might. The sword, however, remained stuck in the monster's side, sealed in with the frost.
"Walter, no!" Alistair shouted. "Let go of it, now!"
The warning came not a second too soon, as Walter released the hilt at Alistair's order. The electricity crackling around Evelyn's hand finally erupted forth, streaking out towards the creature. Under normal circumstances, the best she could have hoped for was to attack its nervous system, disabling it long enough for further stabs and blows to kill it. With the twin swords embedded in it, however, the electricity found an entrance into some very vulnerable organs, cooking them in seconds.
Walter stared in horror; if he'd been gripping his sword at the time... he gulped.
Seizing the opportunity, Alistair tugged his sword out of the monster in one swift movement, backed himself up a few feet, then jumped straight at the creature- aiming for as much height as he could gain, given its height advantage on him- plunging his sword right through the heart and tackling it to the floor. Astride its chest, Alistair stabbed again, and again, twisting on the final thrust until he saw the creature spasm in death.
Evelyn's legs finally gave out, and her knees hit the stone floor. There was nothing left in her anymore, she could feel it, she'd spent everything. Even as she sank further into the darkness threatening to swallow her whole, she stared at Alistair with starry eyes. Where had he pulled that last move from? In full armor, no less!
He climbed off the monster, satisfied that he'd killed it, and spotted Evelyn folding under the weight of her own body, supporting herself on her slowly crumpling arms now. Startled, he hurried to her side. "Evelyn! Are you okay?"
"N-no, I... I'm..." Her eyes closed, and refused to open again. "I'm going to... to pass out... I think..."
"What?" Alistair cried, catching her as her arms lost the last of their strength. Kneeling as he was, he could only keep her upright if he held her against him.
"....Exhaust...ed..." she murmured.
"No no no, Evelyn, you got to stay with me now, we're almost done! But you have to stay awake!" Panic buzzed across his skull, and he shook her lightly, jarring her back from unconsciousness. "You can't give up now! You're stronger than that!"
Most of the light in her eyes had died by now, leaving only the smoldering warmth of dying embers in the depths of her gaze. She smiled up at him. "Having someone like you tell me that... c-certainly makes me feel better...."
His breath caught in his lungs at the soft way she spoke to him. He wondered if it was more the soothing balm of her tone or the high compliment she was paying him that got under his skin. Probably a combination of both, he would reason later.
She struggled to sit up on her own, then slowly stand, though every muscle was shaking dangerously now. Helping her to her feet, he looked to the others. "One of you, help keep her on her feet. I have to light the beacon. We've surely missed the signal by now." Once Evelyn was safely supported in her fellow mage's arms, Alistair stalked over to where the beacon sat, waiting to be lit.
"Could it possibly be too late?" Watching after Alistair as he threw the nearby torch onto the firewood set up in advance, Evelyn felt that same nagging doubt trickling through the back of her consciousness.
The flare took instantly, blazing up the beacon's tunnels to explode high above the tower. Hearing the distant but distinct Pop! of the signal was enough to set Alistair's jumbling nerves at ease. His task done, he moved back to Evelyn, concerned about her rapidly dwindling energy.
"Maker help us if it is," Alistair muttered, accepting her back from the mage (who merely raised an eyebrow at this; there was no need for Alistair specifically to hold onto the weakened Evelyn).
One glance at her troubled expression told Alistair enough about how deeply worried Evelyn really was over his response. "Hey now, the beacon is lit. If anyone can turn the tide in this battle, it's Teyrn Loghain. We just have to wait things out up here."
Instead of replying, whatever tenuous thread held Evelyn upright finally snapped completely, and she sagged in his arms. He sank with her, gently resting her on the floor, positioning one of his bags under her head so it wouldn't rest on the gore still coating the room.
"....Sorry... I..." She tried desperately to whimper out her apology before sinking beneath the surface of her exhaustion completely.
He smiled down at her. "Don't worry about it. We're safe, for the moment. You just-"
Of course, fate would have to make him a liar. Just then, the door slammed open, and a legion of darkspawn swarmed into the room. Before any of them could react, one hurlock had gutted poor Walter, and the mage found a spear impaled through his open mouth before he could cast any more spells.
"No!" Alistair screamed, jumping to a defensive position, prepared to take on every last one of them before they could get to the fading Evelyn. A sea of cruel grins filled his vision, and arrows pummeled into him, knocking him straight off his feet from the force. His sword clattered uselessly away from his numb grip, and as he succumbed to his injuries, he had only enough strength to turn his head and watch as the same arrows struck Evelyn through her chest and throat. She convulsed in agony, unable to even scream.
No no no not her I couldn't protect her why no -- help--
Darkness stole his vision from him, and he couldn't be more grateful.
Chapter 6: On The Precipice
Following the disaster at Ostagar, Evelyn realizes the nightmare awaiting her in the wake of such tragedy. Fortunately, she won't be mourning alone.
The bonfire crackled behind Duncan as he instructed the newest recruits on the mission handed them by the king. Evelyn glanced between her mentor and Alistair, unable to make out what was being said. She knew what they were saying, but every sound was muffled, like speaking through fabric.
Something was wrong.
Alistair smirked at her, and she smiled weakly back at him. She couldn't shut out the feeling of displacement, even with his humor inviting her further into the haze. She looked back to Duncan, who smiled at the two of them with his sad kindness.
Alarm suddenly panged in her gut, and she turned to the forest behind them- she could have sworn the Korcari Wilds were outside of the encampment, but here, they cast their shadows over the ruins. No, those weren't shadows- the darkspawn were pouring out of the forest!
The ground beneath the darkspawn cracked, a horrible black swelling that spread rapidly, tearing open the earth, the blackness of death and disease rupturing its skin. It spread to the sky, shattering the night and swallowing the stars, and wrapped around the camp, rolling under Evelyn's feet.
"No!" She cried, watching it catch to Duncan's armor. After observing his plight, he met her gaze purposefully. Still he smiled, still tinged with a deep sorrow, as the black cracks climbed over him, consuming him.
"Nooo!" This time, her screamed protest tore her throat. The cozy haze had turned into a clammy frost, her memory twisted against her. Her legs flailed, restricted by some kind of cloth that tucked under her partway, and she slammed a fist against the bed beneath her, making her slim frame jump on impact.
The sheets beneath her were soaked with sweat. Her curls, loose from her braid, tickled at the side of her face and swept over the pillow cradling her head as best it could. Oddly enough, while her feet were tangled up in the woolen blanket covering her, she felt an unfamiliar draft against her skin. How could a current get under a blanket--
Her eyes popped open, and she bolted upright, arms folding over her chest. What minor relief realizing that at least her undergarments still protected her from total nudity gave her was quickly swept away to see a figure standing not all that far off. Quickly, Evelyn nabbed the blanket at her feet and yanked it over her.
Blinking rapidly, two thoughts settled in one after another: one, that the unfamiliar, warmly lit room she found herself in now wasn't where she last remembered herself being; and two, that the figure returning a book to the shelf struck a chord of familiarity with her, though it was disjointed and vague still. The woman glanced sidelong at Evelyn, then faced her fully, her keen golden eyes seeing straight through the considerably more timid mage.
"Ah, your eyes finally open," the woman smirked, gliding to Evelyn's side with practiced grace. "Mother shall be pleased."
"I..." Her vision blurred as her head swam, and Evelyn fought to clear it again. "What's going on...? Where am I?" Glancing about the hut again, flashes of the monsters surging into the chamber played from her memories as an urgent reminder. Her head snapped up in alarm. "The darkspawn! What happened?"
The woman crossed her arms. "I take it, then, that you do not remember Mother's rescue?"
Snippets of memory churned under an all-encompassing darkness. As she spoke, her lashes shadowed her blue eyes to a cobalt. "I remember... an ogre... someone catching me as I fell... and the darkspawn...!"
" 'Tis likely Mother retrieved you not long after that, then," the woman replied.
"Your mother..." She didn't have to dig too deeply in her memory to recover the older, wizened face of the witch in question. Dazedly, she looked up to the woman again. "And you're.... Morrigan, right?"
"You are correct," she smirked in response, "I am so pleased to have left a lasting impression on you."
Swinging her legs off the edge of the bed, wrapping the blanket around her a little more, Evelyn resigned herself to stare at the floor. "I apologize. Everything seems so fuzzy right now."
Masking her impatience by pacing a bit, Morrigan smiled humorlessly to the young warden. " 'Tis understandable. Take your time."
"How..." Her mouth dry, Evelyn swallowed. "How did I survive? I recall blazing pain, arrows..." Her fingers brushed over her neck, and she nearly jumped to feel a freshly healing groove marring the otherwise smooth surface.
"Mother and I tended your injuries," Morrigan nodded, expecting this question. "It was close, but you will live. You and your friend both."
"My friend?" At this, Evelyn's head popped up. "You mean, I was not rescued alone?"
"Sadly, no. Why Mother felt the need to collect the dim-witted one who was with you, I cannot say, but he waits outside. As does Mother," Morrigan added meaningfully.
Alistair. The thought that her friend might have fallen because of her weakness, her failure to protect him, had been lurking in the back of her mind. Knowing that he still lived brought an immeasurable relief to her conscience. But, Morrigan had only specified the two of them... she glanced up at her. "What about the rest of the Wardens? The King's men?"
Hesitating for a moment, Morrigan asked haltingly, "Are you... certain you wish to know? This could be difficult to hear."
Evelyn's heart sank painfully, tearing down what little relief she'd garnered to learn of Alistair surviving. "....Yes. Please."
"Very well." Morrigan sighed faintly, shaking her head. "I had a good view of the battlefield. 'Tis a grisly scene, bodies everywhere. The darkspawn swarm them, feeding, I think. They also look for survivors and drag them back down beneath the ground. I-"
Gripping the blanket tightly, Evelyn stood, still only just reaching to the witch's neck, the fire in her eyes tempered only by her tears. "Why would you speak so bluntly? What a horrible thing to tell someone! "
Not a trace of sympathy could be found in Morrigan's golden gaze. "I told you this would not be easy. If you do not care to hear such things, do not invite others to speak them."
Whether it was the withering look in those cold eyes, or the dizzy spin from standing so abruptly, Evelyn sank back onto the bed. All those men... everyone! The swirling chaos of the camp, men laughing together, soldiers kneeling before priests in prayer, sparring matches and jokes and- and they were gone. Her hands shaking as she stared at them, Evelyn pressed them over her eyes as grief took her.
A loud braying sob filled the hut, followed immediately by more. Her unbridled sorrow could not pour from her fast enough, and only staggered, whimpering gasps could force the air back into her lungs again between sobs. Hot tears rolled from her palms, streaking down her arms, and she crouched forward until her head nearly touched her knees.
Morrigan made no move to console her. If she was going to put such weakness on display, Morrigan refused to encourage it with coddling. While she waited for the sobbing to taper off, Morrigan kept one eye on the pot over the fire.
Slowly, Evelyn sat straight again, her hands sliding from her face. For all of her anguish over the death of so many, she wondered if she wasn't mourning everything that had been stolen from her, too. She no longer had a home: She couldn't go back to the tower, not without being immediately branded an apostate and Greagoir eagerly brandishing the rite of tranquility against her; Without Duncan, there was no home in the Grey Wardens for her anymore. In a black fury, she cursed Morrigan's mother for saving her life, only to leave her stranded, completely and utterly alone.
Hiccupping once, she released her anger at the witch. Even if she saw no good coming from her worthless life being spared, perhaps Morrigan's mother had a reason for risking herself to save her.
When she spoke again, it was ragged and weary. "...How could this happen? We had a plan, a-a strategy! Teyrn Loghain himself came up with it!" Her fists clenched. "And now, even he, one of the greatest heroes Ferelden has ever known, has fallen-"
"Worry not about his fate," Morrigan interjected, unable to keep the irritation at the youngling's hero worship out of her tone, "He did not fall to this battle."
Evelyn's eyes shone with renewed vitality. "He lives? Then there is still hope! If there is anyone who could endure after such a calamity, it would be him! I-"
"Perhaps 'tis not the joyous news you seem to believe it is," Morrigan cut her off dryly. "He lives because he and his men quit the field instead of responding to your signal. They left before the darkspawn could close ranks around them."
The world slipped to some distant place, her blood and tears running cold. "What? Why would he-- that can't be true! Teyrn Loghain...He couldn't....!"
"Whether or not you believe it to be true, he clearly could, and did." Narrowing her eyes on Evelyn, Morrigan dared her to challenge her assertion.
"But..." Her eyes wide as plates, shining with fresh tears, Evelyn felt some final thread holding her together snap. Her hero... had betrayed them? "But we lit the beacon! We were supposed to light the beacon and he was supposed to-to--" She cradled her head in both hands.
" 'Twould seem your trust in him was misplaced," Morrigan shrugged, though she kept herself from immediate lashing range of the mageling.
Instead of lunging for Morrigan at her provocation, or self-righteously shouting her down, Evelyn glowered at the witch. The air in the hut shifted slightly, and Morrigan felt her pulse race to sense the change. The sudden heaviness of atmosphere, the pressure of her mana field, wasn't the transient anger of a slighted woman; this was a deep, raw rage, cultivated from more than just this recent wound to her heart.
"Leave me to dress myself," Evelyn ordered grimly. "Inform your mother I shall be out momentarily."
"...Certainly." Though curious as to what had caused such a change in demeanor, Morrigan was no fool. Pushing the young woman any further would not answer her questions. "Your things are on the chair. Mother was able to recover much of what you carried with you." With little more than a nod, she retreated out of the hut.
Standing again, this time being careful to avoid the rush to her head, Evelyn let the blanket fall away from her. Nearly naked, the light from the fireplace dancing against her skin, she stared at the golden robes she'd inherited shortly before leaving Kinloch Hold, pierced through and, despite an obvious attempt to clean them, still faintly stained with blood, but suitably patched for wearing. Beside it, the weathered and worn bag handed to her by Duncan himself, to replace the one that had come undone during their journey to Ostagar.
Her head tilted back, and she rested her wrist on the bridge of her nose as the sting of further tears prickled up again. No. No more tears. Please, Maker, give me the strength to stop crying, or I never will.
Cradled by the rolling swamplands, unspoiled by the taint seeping into the land around them, the clearing that Morrigan and her mother made their home in basked in the golden light of the setting sun. Here, the outside world was kept at bay for just a little longer. For a moment, there was an uneasy peace, a tense calm that waited to be disrupted. Reality was some distant dream, wrapped in a gossamer gauze.
As she stood in the doorway to the hut, charmed by the stillness and unwilling to break into it, Evelyn took in the scenery numbly. Morrigan had apparently disappeared after passing on Evelyn's imminent emergence from the hut, but her mother stood waiting, patiently, only a few yards away. Beyond her, a young man stared out into the distance across the swamplands, indulging in the same spell of peace that had captured Evelyn- and likely for the same reasons. Recognizing the silhouette against the sun, Evelyn watched Alistair with her hand resting over her heart.
The strange, dark gaze of the older woman found Evelyn, and her smirk broke the spell. "See? Here is your fellow Grey Warden now. You worry too much, young man."
The haunted look in his widening eyes as he turned to face her shot through Evelyn's chest as surely as the arrows had before. All of the confidence he'd draped himself with back in Ostagar, all of his humor and cheer, his vitality, had been stripped away. All that stared back now as he tentatively advanced on her - as though terrified she would disappear at a moment's notice- was a hollowed-out shell of the man Alistair was.
"You... You're alive!" He breathed out the words, rasping with a voice damaged by grief. With barely more than a huff of air, he chuckled faintly before continuing in awed relief, "I thought you were dead for sure!"
Oh no. The tears were starting again. Evelyn cupped her hands over her mouth and tried to blink them away, but more came. "Alistair, I--"
She was cut off with a squeak as his arms went around her, pulling her tightly against him. His embrace was the desperate cling of a man in need of an anchor, and while he almost released her after a moment, something compelled him to resume his grip on her- something in him refused to let her go. Much to her surprise, instead of the clawing urge to tear away from him, she found solace in his embrace. For a moment, the world was only the warmth, the vital comfort passed between two survivors.
"Thank the Maker you still live," he murmured, finally slackening his grip, holding onto her upper arms to look down at her. "I thought I'd failed you. Those arrows..."
"Failed me?" Evelyn asked incredulously. "Alistair, I'm the one who collapsed!"
"But I should have protected you!" He cried, distraught. "And if it weren't for Morrigan's mother, you would have died atop that tower- both of us would have- all because I wasn't paying attention to the darkspawn coming through the door!"
"Do not talk about me as if I am not present, lad," the woman in question warned, mildly nettled at having been momentarily forgotten by the two young ones in their relieved reunion.
Shocked, both Wardens remembered their surroundings with a start. Alistair glanced to the older woman sheepishly. "I didn't mean... but what do we call you? You nev- you never told us your name," he stammered out, self conscious under the scrutiny of her piercing eyes.
"Names are pretty, but useless." The woman waved off the very notion, then smiled darkly. "The Chasind folk call me Flemeth. I suppose it will do."
"The Flemeth? From the Legends?" Alistair's jaw went slack as he stared. "Daveth was right-- you're the Witch of the Wilds, aren't you?"
More irritation lined the woman's face at his question. "And what does that mean? I know a bit of magic, and it has served you both well, has it not?"
"Flemeth!" Evelyn stepped forward, regarding the older mage with newfound respect. That explained the strange aura Evelyn had been sensing around her all this time; she was no simple human mage! "...To have saved us, you have been most generous. You have my deepest thanks." Evelyn bowed faintly to the woman, much to Alistair's bewilderment.
Flemeth cackled. "There is no need to address me with such ceremony, however sincere your manners are, dear child."
"Your legend is well-known indeed, to have made it within the tower walls," Evelyn reminded her, straightening again. "I have read many an account involving you, and having met you... I believe them."
"Do not believe everything you read, dear. There is as much fabrication as there is truth in legends." Flemeth's gaze was a lance, piercing through Evelyn poignantly. "You have already learned that lesson with one of your heroes, have you not?"
Shocked into silence, Evelyn settled back a step, swallowing the bitter taste in her mouth at Flemeth's brutal reminder of betrayal. Alistair, barely following the threads of the conversation, caught on to the meaning of Flemeth's words, and scowled.
Sensing Alistair's posture stiffening, Evelyn spoke up again, though her voice was much softer now. "Why did you save us?"
Noticing the unspoken exchange between the two Wardens, Flemeth's smirk broadened. "Well! We cannot have all the Grey Wardens dying at once, can we? Someone has to deal with all these darkspawn. This is a duty that has always fallen to the Grey Wardens-- or did that change when I wasn't looking?"
"Of course that hasn't changed!" Evelyn frowned.
"But we were fighting the darkspawn!" Alistair protested. "The king had nearly defeated them! Why would Loghain turn his back on us?"
"Now that is a good question," Flemeth remarked, though her expression shifted to one of genuine pity. "Men's hearts hold shadows darker than any tainted creature. Perhaps he believes the Blight is an army he can outmaneuver. Perhaps he does not see that the evil behind it is the true threat."
Something in how Alistair's stance shifted when he muttered in reply to Flemeth caught Evelyn's attention. During their talks wandering around camp, Alistair had elaborated on the darkspawn, including their leader and false god, the Archdemon. Distantly, she felt the memory of horrific nightmares from her time unconscious pressing on her mind, and in the fading warmth of the early fall evening, her blood froze.
"What are we going to do?" Evelyn rested her hand on Alistair's arm as she asked him.
Dismay crossed his features. "Why are you asking me?"
Her eyebrows knit together in worry. "You've been a Grey Warden longer than I have. I just thought you might have an insight into it that I don't."
Alistair's head dipped forward as he stared at the ground, struggling to control his growing frustration. "I don't! I don't have any more idea what to do than you do!" His face tightened. "What can we do, anyway? Just the two of us, against an entire darkspawn horde?"
"Maybe we could contact the rest of the Grey Wardens," Evelyn suggested soothingly, unsettled by Alistair's hopeless agitation. "They would know what needs to be done, and it would give us enough strength to face... everything."
Alistair shook his head. "Cailan already summoned them. They'll come if they can..." His eyes narrowed, darkening to a sunless topaz. "But Loghain wasn't very good at hiding his contempt for the Grey Wardens around camp. I suspect he might take steps to prevent them from aiding us."
Evelyn considered his words. She fought the rise of bitterness in her heart, but voiced it anyway. "Do you think... he intentionally left the Grey Wardens to die?"
He growled his displeasure, "I don't want to believe that, but if that's true..."
"But that couldn't have been his entire plan," Evelyn argued, alarmed at the hatred flashing in his eyes, "What could the teyrn hope to gain by betraying the king?"
"The throne?" While answered distantly, the more he thought about it, the more Alistair came around to the idea. "He's the queen's father..." His mouth turned up in uncertainty. "Still, I can't see how he'll get away with murder!"
"You speak as if he would be the first king to gain his throne that way," Flemeth sneered. "Grow up, boy!"
Alistair bristled. "If Arl Eamon knew what he did, he would never stand for it! The Landsmeet would never stand for it! There would be civil war!"
A blank look washed out Evelyn's face. "Arl Whosit?"
Alistair raised an eyebrow at her questioningly. It's not as though he were referring to some obscure bann in a remote region of the Bannorn; Arl Eamon was a popular, well-known and even more well-liked noble. Before he could make a sarcastic remark on her lack of common knowledge, he bit the words back. Given her sheltered history until recently, it was perfectly understandable that she may not know who he is. Instead, he cleared his throat.
"Arl Eamon is a good man, a noble in every sense of the word." As he spoke, an idea came to him. "He wasn't at Ostagar... he still has all his men. And he was Cailan's uncle, I doubt he would stand aside to let the man responsible for his nephew's death go unpunished!" He brightened. "Of course! We could go to Redcliffe and appeal to him for help!"
Seeing even that little bit of energy returned to him, Evelyn beamed. "That sounds like an excellent idea!"
"Such determination!" Flemeth chuckled. "How intriguing."
Whatever good mood Alistair had from figuring out at least some plan of action evaporated at the old witch's sarcasm. He sank, and turned to Evelyn to admit, "I still don't know if Arl Eamon's help would be enough, though. His men alone wouldn't be enough to take on the darkspawn horde."
Evelyn smiled warmly. "It's a start, at least. Besides... don't we, as Grey Wardens, have other allies we can call on?"
"Of course! The treaties!" Alistair exclaimed, and by the light in his expression, he could have hugged Evelyn. "Grey Wardens can demand aid from dwarves, elves, mages, and other places! They're obligated to help during a Blight!"
"I may be old, but dwarves, elves, mages, this Arl Eamon, and who knows what else..." Flemeth crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow. "...This sounds like an army to me."
"So, can we do this? Go to Redcliffe, and these other places, and.... build an army?" Alistair asked Evelyn excitedly- not intentionally ignoring Flemeth, mind, but eager to get her stamp of approval on the plan.
"But we don't have the treaties anymore. We gave them to Duncan before..." Evelyn's voice sank, and she let things trail off. Reminded of the tragedy, Alistair's mood dampened drastically, and he resumed staring at the ground.
"Surely..." he ventured after a moment, "...Surely we don't truly need the treaties. We should be able to call on their aid against the Blight regardless. Why wouldn't they fight? This is their home, too!"
"But the treaties would give them no room to quibble over their obligation," Evelyn pointed out, frowning. "I mean, I'd like to believe in the people of Ferelden, but we have to plan for a worst-case scenario. Some people are so mired in their traditions they might not see the need to join the cause."
"This is... true..." His face fell. "But there's no way for us to retrieve them. They're out on a battlefield overrun by darkspawn. We may be Grey Wardens, but there's a limit to what we can do-"
A thick bundle of paper, bound in string, fell from the sky to smack Alistair atop the head. Before it could fall to the forest floor, Evelyn grabbed it in midair, clutching it carefully.
"Ow! Hey!" Alistair cried, looking up in time to watch a large raven swoop down from the sky.
Evelyn examined the papers, then gasped. "It's the treaties!" Glancing up again to the raven as it shifted; the feathers melting into hair and loose clothing, the black eyes turning golden, the hardened beak softening to a sculpted nose and soft lips. Within moments, Morrigan stared back at her, one eyebrow raised.
"Morrigan!" Evelyn exclaimed happily, "Maker's Breath, how did you find these?"
" 'Tis not difficult to surmise the location where important documents may be tucked away," Morrigan replied casually, sauntering closer. "The darkspawn have yet to effectively plunder everything of value from your encampment."
"Oh, thank you!" Evelyn flung her arms around Morrigan in a tight hug, tears in her eyes. "You didn't have to do that for us, but you did! Thank you so much!"
"Though your delivery could use a little work," Alistair muttered, rubbing the back of his head sorely. "Besides, how in the world did you know we would need these?" he added suspiciously.
Startled by Evelyn's embrace, halfway to having taken flight, Morrigan narrowed her gaze on Alistair. "Given your precarious position against the Blight, it does not take an exceptional intelligence to infer that you will need to gather what allies you can," she snarked. "Though I am not surprised that even simple logic eludes you."
Just as suddenly as she'd leapt at Morrigan, Evelyn withdrew again, frowning. "While I appreciate what you've done for us, please don't talk to Alistair that way. This is not the time for senselessly antagonizing one another."
"If you are quite done with your pithy diatribe," The witch scowled impatiently, "Do you not have more important things to do?"
Not impressed with Morrigan's denunciation of what must be her one and only friend in the world, Evelyn let what little optimism she'd dredged up from the depths of her despair fall by the wayside, and surprised Morrigan with the animosity written on her features.
"By all means, sneer at me. I've been sneered at my whole life, I can take a little more from someone like you." She jabbed her finger at Morrigan accusatorily. "But do not look down your nose at my friend! He has been a respectable young man and a good friend, whereas you are acting like a spoiled shrew!"
The flash of lividity that crossed Morrigan's face was matched only by the surprised delight on Alistair's to see Evelyn speak against her. Having said her piece, Evelyn seemed to recognize what she'd done, and anxiously recoiled a step.
"Well now!" Flemeth's grin peeled back her lips unnaturally. "It seems the tiny mouse has teeth after all!"
"So it seems," Alistair echoed, though his smile betrayed his approval.
"But I fail to see how my daughter was incorrect in asserting that you have a more important task at hand than lecturing her," Flemeth added coldly. This was enough to send spikes of ice through both Wardens, who sheepishly turned their attention on her, then each other.
After a moment, Evelyn gave Alistair a crooked smile, "We have the treaties now. We know what we need to do. What do you say, Brother? Are we ready to do our duty as Grey Wardens?"
He wasn't sure why the implied affection in calling him 'Brother' made his heart skip a beat, but Alistair beamed at her nonetheless. "I think so."
"How fortuitous that the only remaining Grey Wardens have decided to accept their responsibility against the Blight!" Flemeth crossed her arms in mock exasperation. "Clearly I made the right choice. But before you go running off into the horizon, there is yet one more thing I can offer you."
Watching her mother intently, Morrigan flinched when her gaze was turned on her. "Have you not done enough for them as it is? After all, their appreciation for your having saved their lives seems rather lacking. Should we not simply send them on their way?"
"The Grey Wardens are leaving shortly, girl." Flemeth smiled 'pleasantly'. "And you will be joining them."
"Such a shame--What?" Her triumphant smile crumbled at the realization of what her mother had just declared.
"You heard me, girl. The last time I looked, you had ears!" Flemeth chuckled.
"You're sending her with us?" Evelyn glanced between the two women, shocked. "Not that I wouldn't appreciate the help, but she doesn't seem particularly enthused over the idea herself..."
"Her magic will be useful. Even better, she knows the Wilds and how to get past the horde, as evidenced by her retrieval of your treaties," Flemeth pointed out.
"Have I no say in this?" Morrigan demanded, outraged.
"You have been itching to get out of the Wilds for years. Here is your chance." With no sympathy to her daughter's protests, knowing far better than her how much this adventure would be necessary in the long run, Flemeth turned to the others. "As for you, Wardens, consider this repayment for your lives."
"Not to.... look a gift horse in the mouth..." Alistair tamped back on his full protest, at least a bit, " ...But won't this add to our problems? Out of the Wilds, she's an apostate."
"These apostates saved our lives, Alistair, and tended to injuries that should have killed us," Evelyn reprimanded him gently, laying her hand on his arm to force his attention to her words. She was rather needled by the faint antipathy in his tone when he said 'apostate'."Nevermind that, were circumstances only a little different, I would be an apostate as well."
"You--?" His eyes widened, surprised. Glancing to their audience, he decided this wasn't the best time to inquire into Evelyn's meaning... but he made a mental note to address it later with her. "Nevermind. Point taken."
"Mother..." For the first time since they'd met, Evelyn was astonished to see Morrigan's eyes soften in intensity, as they silently pleaded with the older woman. "This is not how I wanted this. I am not even ready--"
"You must be ready. They need you, Morrigan. Without you, they will surely fail, and all will perish under the Blight." Flemeth, too, let her harsh face ease a bit as she added meaningfully, "Even I."
"I..." Her head tipped forward, defeated. "...Understand."
"And you, Wardens?" Flemeth addressed the two curtly. "Do you understand? I give you that which I value above all in this world. I do this because you must succeed."
"I give you my word, Flemeth, that I will not let her come to harm," Evelyn assured her calmly but with undeniable certainty. "Your faith in us... it means a lot. We will succeed."
"Allow me to get my things, if you please," Morrigan interjected brusquely, turning back to the hut. The mageling's sincerity was getting under her skin.
While Morrigan departed, Evelyn faced the setting sun, a million worries stirring her stomach and clenching her heart. No matter the brave face she put on for others, she knew that under it all, she was just a coward playing the part. The idea of facing the world, a thought that had thrilled her upon arriving at Ostagar, now terrified her to the core. There was no one in authority over her that could take the mantle from her shoulders, no one who could pat her hand soothingly, condescendingly send her back into obscurity. At the tightening in her chest and the furrowing of her brow, did she even want that?
She lifted her arms to wrap around herself, wanting to sink into her thoughts, but was stopped when one hand was captured. Looking first to the offending hand, then to the ones that grasped it, she followed the line up to a rather tender smile on Alistair's face. He gently squeezed her hand, the radiating warmth in his golden eyes more brilliant than the sun.
This time, her smile was slow, but gradually met his warmth. Cradled as delicately as her hand was, she tightened her grip on his, silently agreeing with his intent.
She wasn't alone.