High on a mountain covered deep with snow, beneath the frozen stars, the Ferelden landscape was visible in the far away distance. He sat beside me as we huddled near to the fire seeking some shade of warmth. Zevran shivered, his teeth chattering loudly, and leaning into my shoulder, told another story of an unbelievable assignment, a narrow escape, the obligatory wild sex, and, of course, impossible luck. Pretty standard fare for him, but as the Antivan seemed lonely and needed a distraction from the bitter cold, I let him talk without interruption. The elf went on to describe his quarters near the odoriferous tanneries, detailing the smells of leather curing in pits containing salt water or brains, dung, or urine depending on where in the tanning process a hide was. Scraps of hides were put into vats of water and the flesh rotted until it fell apart and was boiled to make a hide glue. No doubt the tannery had been on the outskirts of the city at one time, but despite the horrific smells, the city grew around it. The poor had their homes around it, and everything they owned became embedded with the stink of death and shit. From his highly detailed descriptions, I could nearly smell it from here.
It wasn’t until nearly the end of our watch that Zevran finally told me what was bothering him. “Your country is too cold for me, my friend. Three nights ago, Leliana, who, by the way, possesses the most beautiful round bottom I have had the pleasure of warming myself against since arriving in Ferelden, exiled me from her tent. You see, I was forced to take shelter from the blizzard and at first she was quite hospitable and generous with the blankets. She tutted as I shivered and allowed me to curl around her, strictly for warmth I assure you… However, I may have inadvertently startled her with…an ah - how do you say? - a ‘morning alertness’ that I was not quick enough to hide from her. So the entire company was awoken to her tantrum announcing that my presence was unwelcome in her tent, blizzard or no blizzard.” The elf poured another bowl of tea, and after refreshing my own, his brown hands shed their gloves to thaw long thin fingers around the bowl of steaming tea.
The Antivan, used to much warmer climes did not have the necessary gear to handle the extreme cold we were subjected to high in the Frostback Mountains.
Frankly, I was worried.
I gave a side glance to the Witch’s tent, that was always set up apart from the others a ways, as she valued her privacy over safety. The Crow followed my gaze and chuckled, “I tried that one as well. She seemed as welcoming as a spider is to a meal landing in her web and I hoped that at least I would be given shelter before being devoured. However, even with all of my clothes and socks on, my toes still felt like icicles through the fabric…and when I touched her with them, Morrigan sweetly offered to warm me with one of her fireballs. Truthfully, I nearly took her up on her kind offer, because at least there would be a moment of sublime warmth before the fact that I was on fire registered with my brain. No, I admit I was not thinking very clearly. This cold of yours has slowed my wits. And, unfortunately, as most prefer my skin without scorch marks, myself included, I think I’ll pass on her somewhat heated abuse of my person.”
Even though he had taken the first watch, my boy crawled out of his tent and tossed his heavy woolen cloak over his shoulders. As he strode out to relieve himself, just out of view of the camp, his gruff and growling voice ordered the elf and I both to bed. Apparently, he intended to take the next watch as well. The man had difficulty sleeping as his nightmares were particularly fierce, dreams, which if he was woken poorly, could take a bad turn. I made that mistake once and was grateful that he woke up in time before I had to defend myself. Zevran and I had both heard Alistair tell my newly made Warden that the dreams were worse for those Joined during a Blight. After watching him try night after night to rest an hour or two, I can attest to the truth of Alistair’s statement. My boy believed himself cursed, abandoned and forsaken by everyone he had loved. He had forgotten my presence and did not listen when I reminded him of my devotion, laying my head on his lap, leaning against his side, warming his feet or providing support for his back as he sat at the fire. He couldn’t even be distracted by my offers to let him rub my belly or throw a stick, as though I were still a puppy.
A wayward thought occurred to me and I got up and headed to the Warden’s tent, the blankets would still be warm from the human’s large body. Looking back over my shoulder and jerking my head, the Crow’s eyes grew large and the blond head shook, ‘no’. The elf whispered, “He will catch us. If he hates me now…” Despite an earlier confessed intention to come to Ferelden to die, he had been given purpose with the journey of the Blight. However, beyond returning the unwanted life and throwing some gear and supplies at the Crow, the Warden had yet to engage the assassin on any other level. A quaking shiver ran through the Antivan, and we both knew that he would not last the night without raising his body temperature. “Well, I suppose…how can it possibly get any worse? Just wake me so I can make my escape in a timely fashion.”
I agreed to his terms with a flick of ear and the rogue followed me. Sneaking in and leaving as much snow as we could outside, we clambered into the Warden’s bedding, which had retained some of its warmth as I had hoped. Snuggling close to the frozen Crow, I shared as much body heat as I could. As teeth chattered next to my ear, contrary to my agreement, I vowed not to wake him before the Warden returned. This one would not be allowed to freeze to death. My boy would have to see that his overwhelming anger at himself had caused him to be negligent in his duties to one who had sworn an oath to be a faithful vassal. I knew that it was a lord’s responsibility to take care of their people. This continuing neglect was causing harm to one that he was beholden to care for.
Opening an eye later, I watched as my boy entered his tent, the scent of the smoke from the campfire thick on his clothes. He looked at me and didn’t question my presence as I regularly slept in his bed or sought his company. He didn’t mind sharing a blanket or two - didn’t mind that is until it was discovered that we weren’t alone. I heard the beginnings of that growl, which he didn’t learn from me as I’m far too polite, begin to rumble in his chest. But when he reached into the blankets to haul out the intruder, the flesh he found under his hands was ice-cold and clammy, startling him, causing the anger to be forgotten for a moment. On my own, given my limited resources, I had only just been able to keep the Antivan alive, but he was frozen and barely breathing, his body going into the first stages of protective hibernation before true hypothermia’s dangerous grasp took hold.
Wearing everything he owned, and having tossed the green forest blanket over the top, the one he had been using as a cloak, the stranger to Ferelden’s cold, sought warmth by layering. Unfortunately he had trapped the cold next to his body…had he started out warm, layering would have been helpful, but his core had gotten too cold. Woken as a hand touched his face, teeth chattered and the assassin’s assessing eyes found mine, mournful, almost accusing, “My friend, you failed to keep your promise.” I wanted to tell him that it was for his own good, for his very life that I did not do as he had asked, but he had already turned to the Warden. Even shaking and sluggish with cold, his formal tone was steady, “Meldicion. A moment and I will be out of your way.”
My look was reprimand enough and I didn’t have to say a word as I lay my head back down, protectively above my friend’s face to try and trap the heat that leaked from there too.
“No,” my boy snapped, knowing he had been taken to task, and began to peel layers of clothing off of the elf and arranged them beneath and above the assassin. “Stay still.”
With the extra clothing providing insulation, we sandwiched the Antivan between us and together began to provide the necessary heat to actually raise the elf’s temperature. Drifting back to sleep I heard the Warden sigh, knowing that the man was reviewing his misdeeds and lapses so that this one - one who was his responsibility - would not die from lack of attention and care. This would not happen again, my boy would find a way to keep this one safe. The Warden had a good heart. Even in the depths of his despair and fear of being left alone and forgotten, he did not mean for anyone else to be harmed. It was for this that I continued to follow him and for this that I loved him. He was a good boy.
The little village we stopped at was full of scents, dogs, cats, children, and other mabari like myself. I left messages for them to tell them I was there. Smelled near one of the signposts a female I had lost touch with, I always wondered if pups had come from that coupling. She was a sweet little thing, I hoped she was still there and looked for signs of her wherever we went. Each one I sniffed was several days old as if she had just been there ahead of us. I wished to be allowed to roam freely so I could track her down, but both my boys agreed that this was not a good idea…I’m afraid that I had to concur.
That evening, my boys said that they were going to the tavern and I was to ‘stay at camp and guard’. So lying on some grass away from the women, I chewed on a large beef bone I had liberated from the pair of little not-men before it could be ruined by turning it into soup – what is wrong with some people? The Witch sought me out on her way back from a b-a-t-h. At first I thought she had been sent over to retrieve my prize. But she sat next to me, keeping her hands in view and instead, asked for advice.
Thankfully, her usual sarcasm was muted. “I must ask the Warden to kill Mother…to kill Flemeth.”
Having worried a bit of meat from the bone, I chewed thoughtfully and raised an eyebrow. Killing Flemeth? She was an old woman, unlikely to be any real trouble at all. I would admit that I did not understand all of the fuss. True, I would not run out to kill my own mother, even if I could find her, but maybe that was the Chasind way. What did I know?
“I am aware that ‘tis a most uncommon request. ‘Warden, ‘tis a certainty that I must press my thanks upon you for the book you found in that Chantry trap for all those imbeciles. Also, perhaps you might render a favour unto me? Yes, to kill Flemeth - my mother of course. ‘Twill be ever so simple. Also, I cannot accompany you on this task.’ Such a thing ‘twill go over so splendidly.”
At that last part, I nearly inhaled the bit of meat and began to cough.
Calmly getting to her feet, she fetched a dish and a skin of water from her pack and brought it to me. Kneeling, she poured some water into the bowl, which I gratefully drank. She really wasn’t a bad girl, she just bit the hand that fed her. She was afraid, probably because no one had treated her kindly before. My boys had, they found mirrors she liked and pretty collars she wore. Yet, like a dog that had been beaten often, she still held them at a distance.
“It is most unwise for me to accompany them. Mother will kill me.” She sighed, a very strange sound, worried and frightened, a sign of just how very discomforted she was. “What I mean by ‘kill me’ is that she intends to take over my body, occupy it like some...empty sack waiting to be filled no less! Which is much the same thing - I will no longer exist.”
My boy would think it was a trick, as it sounded like one to me too. Perhaps why she was running this by me first, before she talked to either one of my boys. The Warden was a reasonable man, but nice or not, he was one who didn’t trust her. However, she was similar enough to the elf, perhaps it was something he could hear without anger and suspicion taking hold first. My Antivan had more trust for her, perhaps he had worked with similar people enough to make a better judgement.
“For good or ill, the truth is what must be said - I will...” She paused nervously, a hand going to her throat, the other to my shoulder, eyes wide, “I will have to trust him to decide if ‘tis a thing he is willing to risk for someone he mistrusts as he wisely does of myself. I am naught but a Wilds Witch, an -” the word said, dripping disdain, masking the revealed fear, “apostate of minor use.”
The more I thought about it, I knew that my elf was the boy for the job. Getting the girl with him together in a way that didn’t cause questions, or invite anyone to come near, was going to take something drastic, something smelly, and something I didn’t want to spell.
I had taken to sleeping at the flap of the tent at night, guarding my boys as they tussled roughly, causing each other to yip, whine, snarl and growl playfully. Early on, this caused the old woman to fuss that her sleep was interrupted; a bad hound may have stolen her pantaloons from the laundry line and buried them out of spite, I however could not comment. My boys were happy and if anyone had a right to complain that their sleep was interrupted, it would have been me.
I took to avoiding dust baths that the elf gave me after we fought darkspawn and rolled in anything particularly rotten and wonderful smelling and began to sleep so that any small breeze would have to pass over me before reaching the witch. I was hoping to becoming so aromatic that she would complain and offer a b-a-t-h in a voice that invited the elf, who had taken it upon himself to give them. It wasn’t a great plan, but as my handwriting was so poor, it was not like I could write out an legible invitation. One night, my boy shamed me from his tent declaring that I ‘stunk’, and even though my other boy had been trying not to complain, his nostrils would pinch closed tightly whenever I got near. If my Warden, who could not smell dinner unless it was under his nose, could finally smell me then I knew that I was getting close.
My boy, the big not-man, the little not-man, and the other Warden, who had wonderfully smelly feet, stayed at what my boys called ‘The Peak’ to have some armour repaired and fitted. Several others wanted to gather plants in the woods, so I went with them to guard. None of them wanted me with them as I smelled so nicely. The pretty girl squealed when I came close and both she and the old woman ordered me away. I was beginning to wonder if I had tried too hard when something very very bad happened.
I saw the witch freeze and trotted silently to see what the problem was. My elf boy was digging at a root nearby and had smelled something that wasn’t me. His nose was flared wide sniffing the wind, his ears swiveling for sound of the terrible thing. I saw and smelled a skunk looking at the witch and growled low to warn it away, but it was not a wild creature anymore. The creature had eaten darkspawn and had been changed like my wolf and bear cousins. This was bad, very, very bad. I growled again as the witch slowly stretched out her hand to reach for her big stick. The skunk stamped its feet and arched its back, but it would not go away.
The Crow crept close moving quietly in the forest even with crunchy leaves underfoot, but a stick snapped, hidden in the forest litter and the skunk with tail alert turned its back to spray at the new noise. I leaped on it before it could spray my boy - he did not like smells, I knew this, which is why I had wanted to use it to bring them together. As the darkspawn skunk’s musk hit my face, I had thought that there was nothing worse than the spray of a skunk, I knew then that I was wrong. My eyes burned and I was blinded, but I bit it and shook it and broke the creature’s neck killing it, and then I cried as my face burned. I rubbed my head desperately on the ground and the leaves and cried and cried and cried trying to make it stop.
My boy told the old woman and the pretty girl, who heard my howls, to stay away. I heard him talk to the witch and both spoke to me in soft voices, but I cried loud and could not hear them. Fingers tugged on the leather of that which held my badge of being a good hound. My big boy had given it to me and showed me the badge, he had praised me as it was put on so everyone could see how good I was, but it had been sprayed too. Crying, I tried to sneeze the smell from my nose again and again, but the rogue would not let me stop to rub my face. As my vision cleared, I could tell we were just around the corner from the gate to ‘The Peak’ and the big not-man had rolled a large wooden barrel out. I knew the smell of it. The barrel had been prepared to make strange sour things that I do not like to eat. Why humans would make a nice crunchy cabbage into something nasty, I could not say. It is like making soup with perfectly good bone, a complete shame. A smaller barrel was set next to a crate I could not smell, nor with my running eyes and nose, could I read the word stamped on the side.
Wearing the old thin gloves they had been using to dig roots and harvest plants, things already touched by the musk, they checked me. When my boy took a little bit of elfroot and put some in my eyes to stop the terrible burning, I licked his gloved hand gratefully but then got the taste of the bad skunk in my mouth. My boy made worried sounds and made me nibble some of the raw elfroot, telling me to spit it out once it was all gummy and pulped instead of swallowing it. This I had had done since we began fighting darkspawn and I should not have been surprised that he noticed.
First the skunk’s oil had to be worked out before water could be added. My elf boy and the witch worked sand and dirt into my fur and talked gently to me as some of the oils were coated in the fine grit. Working together, the Antivan continued to tell me what a brave hound I was to have gotten in the way, and the witch girl took off my badge and said that it would be cleaned and returned, that I was still a good boy.
“Ahh, my friend, what a brave thing you did to save me from becoming as pungent and odoriferous as yourself. There is no shame as I would have wept too,” my boy’s voice warm with gentle approval. “I could not have imagined a scent worse than skunk until now.”
After the grit was rubbed into my fur, I was instructed to shake it out after they stepped far away. Giving several vigorous shakes the dirt flew from me and I could tell that much of the oil followed it, but not all. Opening the box of white powder, the witch began to work it into my back while the Crow scooped up the sour liquid from the barrel.
“Saleratus and vinegar should rid you from the rest of the oil, my friend,” he murmured as a ladle was poured over where the finely powdered dust had been applied and it began to bubble. Soft soap from the small barrel was then rubbed in and the b-a-t-h really began. I saw the dogs who lived at the Keep look around the corner of the gate and when they saw it was b-a-t-h time they ran away to hide so their turn would not be next. I was a very sorry hound.
As the task was unpleasant, and not just for me, to pass the time the elf asked of the witch’s book that she took every opportunity to open. Her lips pursed and I could see that she was considering this opportunity. I turned to nose her hand and without turning my head rolled my eyes to my new boy and wagged my splendid tail - and who cares if the old woman said it should be longer, what did she know? The witch girl knew then what I had done.
“We will speak of this later, you and I,” as she was somewhere between thankful and stern.
I couldn’t help but smile with pride at the good I had done.
Gnawing on a new bone, a big dragon bone, one I did not have to take from two little not-men and would not be taken from me with shame, in the light of the moon, I watched over my people as they settled down for sleep and knew we had done a very good thing that day.
When we had come back to camp earlier, the witch girl was almost happy to see us, although she did not show it. I had danced around her feet, fresh from a roll in some dirt to get the mother’s blood off of me. When my Warden came to tell her that the dragon mother was dead, the girl did not growl too much when she had thanked him. I sidled up to him so he could rub my head, but the witch girl would not when I offered her the same opportunity. Later however, when no one was watching, she left out some tasty herbs and purposely turned her back to pretend that she did not see me eat them. I knew she was grateful, so even though I didn’t want to, I even ate the minty leaf that everyone said made my breath smell better.
Yes, the bone between my paws was very tasty indeed, one of the best I had ever had. Although one time there was a roast in the pantry, but my boy found me just as some really big rats surrounded us... It was too bad really, that roast had made my mouth water.
I slept with, I mean, I guarded my bone that night. Come morning, my elf boy had the last watch, because he enjoyed being up early for some inexplicable reason. The witch was already up and about and he stopped to speak with her quietly. Except for my ears perking, I did not move and only listened in. The girl thanked my new boy and told him that she would do him a favour in the future, if only the Warden would accept it. When questioned, the witch girl would not say what it was, only that he would know it when it was time. It was a strange conversation and I stored it away.
Later that day, as we rested there in the Wilds, the pretty girl sat on a log next to me and began to tell me a story of yappy little dogs so small they could be put in a satchel and of a mentor that was hunting her. I was asked if I thought the Warden would help her. Teeth scraping on the bone, I wondered why my people thought I was the one they could tell their fears to. Would I not tell others when they had been less than truthful? Did I have the answers that they sought? I considered the pretty girl’s difficulty, weighed her options carefully, and agreed to help.
I am a good hound and I have a badge to prove it.