Episode 13: Shifting Into the Wilds
The gates of the camp closed behind Nicolette, Alistair, Daveth, and Ser Jory. Nicolette glanced at Alistair. Despite her training, the attack on her home, and the journey south to Ostagar, she still feared the Wilds. All of her life, the Wilds had always represented the unknown. No one knew what lay beyond its cold expanses, and very little knew what lay within it. Witches. Barbarians. Monstrous creatures. Wildlife. And now darkspawn.
Duncan had spoken plainly about the darkspawn. But even with his plain words, and her studies as a child, they sounded fearsome.
Yet all the fear clutching at her seemed to dissipate when she glanced at Alistair. He stood tall alongside her, scanning the wilds before them carefully.
“You see anything Ser Warden?” Jory asked, noting Alistair’s scanning.
The junior Warden turned to the group. “Let’s proceed.” He glanced at Nicolette and met her gaze, giving a half-smirk. Duncan’s words flashed in his mind: Don’t let yourself become distracted. We have a Blight to end. He turned away from Nicolette and rushed forward.
Within minutes, the sound of growling caused the group to stop and create a circle, backs to one another. Daveth pulled an arrow from his quiver and notched it to his bow, one eye closed to improve his aim. Nicolette stood next to him, scanning the underbrush. Scouting parties constantly had been attacked by wolves and other creatures of the wild. She only prayed Fergus had not been among them.
“There,” whispered Daveth, and let loose his arrow. A whelp of a dying wolf sounded back to them, followed by howls that the pack was attacking.
A wolf leapt out of the brush at Nicolette, but it quickly met Alistair’s shield. He glanced at Nicolette briefly before swinging his sword at the beast. The rogue slipped into the shadows of the forest, thrusting her blades at the animals from behind. Daveth stayed behind Alistair, using his bow as quickly as possible to bring down the wolves, kicking away any who drew too near into Ser Jory’s grand swings of a his greatsword.
The small group worked well together, and the remainder of the pack fled in fear. Daveth pushed the corpses to the side of the path, tying them together with twine from his pack. “When we come back through to the camp,” he told Nicolette, “I’ll drag these guys in with me. Wolf pelts catch a pretty coin, and the soldiers can use the meat.”
“Best practice to never waste anything,” Nicolette agreed. “My father taught my brother and I that.”
“Smart man your father.” Daveth winked and smiled as he stood. “Raised a smart and pretty daughter.”
Nicolette smiled, and blushed when she caught Alistair staring at the two of them.
“What’s that? In the distance?”
Ser Jory’s question saved Nicolette from further blushing as Alistair walked to a soldier crawling forward. The other three rushed to follow; Nicolette knelt by the wounded man, applying pressure to his bleeding gash.
“Who is that?” the soldier asked. “Grey Wardens?”
“Well he’s not half as dead as he looks, is he?” Alistair smiled.
Nicolette shook her head as she helped the man sit up.
“My scouting band was attacked… by darkspawn! They came out of the ground… Please, help me! I’ve got to… return to camp…”
The young Cousland put a supportive arm under his. “We can take you back.”
“No, no, it’s okay…” The soldier stammered. “If you just, bandage me up, I can get back myself.”
Alistair swung his pack in front of him. “I have bandages in my pack. Here.” He knelt next to Nicolette and wrapped the man’s injuries.
“Thank you. I’ve got to get out of here.” Alistair and Nicolette helped the man to his feet, and he stumbled in the direction they arrived from.
Ser Jory shuffled his feet as the party watched the man flee. “Did you hear? An entire patrol of seasoned men killed by darkspawn!”
Alistair raised his hand. “Calm down, Ser Jory. We’ll be fine if we’re careful.”
“Those soldiers were careful, and they were still overwhelmed. 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.”
Nicolette and Daveth exchanged a glance as Alistair stood definitely to the larger knight.
“How do you know? I’m not a coward, but this is foolish and reckless. We should go back.”
“We’re far from helpless here,” Nicolette interjected. “We’ll be fine.”
“I still do not relish the thought of encountering an army.”
“Know this: all Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn. Whatever their cunning, I guarantee they won’t take us by surprise. That’s why I’m here.”
“You see, ser knight? We might die, but we’ll be warned about it first!” Daveth joked.
“That is… reassuring?” The knight shook his head.
Alistair readjusted his pack. “That doesn’t mean I’m here to make this easy, however, so let’s get a move on.” He nodded to Nicolette and walked ahead.
Daveth kept an arrow notched to his bow and Ser Jory held so tightly to his pommel that his knuckles were white. Nicolette’s hands rested on the handles of her blades as her eyes jumped from the surrounding trees to Alistair and back again. She was trained to trust in her senses, but based on what Alistair said, the darkspawn would be sensed by him long before she would have a glimpse.
The group cautiously moved past broken wagons and tattered weapons. Yet no corpses. Nicolette’s stomach tightened. Where were the remains? Did darkspawn eat their victims?
Lost in thought, she missed Ser Jory stopping in front of her and nearly collided with the knight.
“By the Maker…” Ser Jory breathed.
“Poor sods,” Alistair agreed.
Before them was a natural land bridge arching their path, from it dangled the corpses of the soldiers, marred and hung by their own intestines. Nicolette’s eyes began to sting with pain and her throat began to close. Her thoughts turned to her brother.
Alistair glanced at her, wanting to reassure her, but froze, pulling his shield around. “Darkspawn.”
Vile monstrous creatures materialized from the tree line wielding cruel blades.
Despite all the books with illustrations Nicolette had studied, nothing could have prepared her for this.
One darkspawn, a Hurlock according to her studies, let out a blood-curling roar, causing the smaller genlocks to rush forward.
An arrow whizzed forward from Daveth’s bow, hitting the leading genlock square in the forehead. He fell but two behind him leapt over his corpse and charged Alistair. The Warden pushed them back with his shield, thrusting his sword forward to pierce the side of one. Ser Jory elbowed one genlock, and swung his mighty sword to wound several more. Daveth used his bow as a staff, knocking the genlocks away.
But the Hurlock kept up his bellowing, calling for more genlocks to appear from the trees.
Nicolette backflipped over a genlock, disappearing into the shadow. Alistair turned to dispose of the creature, but saw it fall, a small knife protruding from its throat. Another genlock jumped in his face, knocking him back.
The Hurlock, noting the leader of the human party – the Grey Warden – had his back exposed. Pulling out his heavy bow, he grabbed an arrow and aimed at the exposed back of neck. A wicked grin creeped across the hurlock’s gruesome face as he pulled back on the string.
A gurgle escaped him as a dagger protruded from his neck. Nicolette pulled her blade back out as the Hurlock fell to his knees. She spun, using her blades to decapitate the creature, and punted his head at the genlock swarm surrounding her team. The genlocks, flustered at seeing their leader’s head, lost any concentration and fell easily to the warden, knight, and thief.
Alistair looked at Nicolette and grinned.
“What a woman,” Daveth joked. “Lucky guy that gets her.”
“Lucky guy indeed,” the junior warden agreed.
Nicolette motioned to the corpses nearby. “We should cut them down and give them last rites.”
Alistair walked forward, looking up at the bodies. “We don’t really have time. We have to gather some of this darkspawn blood into these vials Duncan gave me…”
“Alistair,” Nicolette’s voice softened and quieted him. “We always have time to be humane.”
Daveth started scaling the land bridge. “Yes, ser warden. You and ser knight fill those vials, and I’ll work with our beautiful lady here to get these fellows down.”
“Thank you Daveth.” Nicolette smiled and went to help the thief.
A lone wolf sat in the underbrush, watching the small group bring down the corpses of the scout patrol. The wolf tilted its head as the blonde rogue nimbly climbed the land bridge, but its viewing became distracted by a slight rustle nearby. Another wolf sat there, its gold eyes staring intently at him.
Both wolves stared at one another. Well aware that something was amiss about the other. The golden-eyed wolf noted the black marks on the other wolf’s face. Almost as if a tattoo made out of fur. After a minute passed, the wolves quietly parted ways.
Alistair finished conducting the last rites over the deceased scouts. “We should continue forward,” he told Nicolette. “The sun is getting low in the sky. Time is running low.”
She nodded. “From the land bridge, I saw some ruins that matched the description you gave me of where the Warden Cache is. Just a bit further south.”
Ser Jory nodded. “We best be off. The temperature is getting lower with the sun.”
The group cautiously made their way further south, dispatching more small units of darkspawn and tainted wolves.
“Wait!” Nicolette called to Alistair before he stepped into the ruin. The junior warden froze in place as the young Cousland knelt by his side. Hidden under leaves before him sat an armed spring trap. “You almost lost a foot,” she whispered as she disarmed the trap.
“Lucky for me, you’ve got my back,” he replied with a smirk.
She grinned. “I suspect as a Grey Warden, I’ll have your back quite frequently.”
“Perhaps we should retrieve what Duncan asked of us so we can make that happen,” Daveth joked.
The group strode forward into the ruin, and paused in front of a broken chest. “That’s no good,” Nicolette whispered. “Not even lockpicked, but smashed open.”
“Well, well, what do we have here?” The group turned around to see a woman walking down the stairs toward them. “Are you a vulture I wonder? A scavenger poking amidst a corpse whose bones were long since cleaned? Or merely an intruder who comes into these darkspawn-filled Wilds of mine in search of pretty? She walked brazingly up to the four, Nicolette and Alistair placing themselves in front. “What say you, hmmm? Scavenger or intruder?”
“I am neither. The Grey Wardens once owned this tower,” Nicolette replied.
“Tis a tower no longer. The Wilds have obviously reclaimed this decimated corpse.” She shook her head and began pacing. “I have watched your progress for some time. ‘Where do they go,’ I wondered. ‘Why are they here?’ And now you disturb ashes none have touched for so long. Why is that?”
“Don’t answer her,” Alistair told Nicolette. “She looks Chasind, and that means others may be nearby.”
The woman scoffed and threw her hands in the air. “You fear barbarians will swoop down upon you?”
“Yes…” Alistair frowned. “Swooping is bad.”
“She’s a Witch of the Wilds she is!” Daveth exclaimed. “She’ll turn us into toads!”
“Witch of the Wilds? Such idle fancies, those legends. Have you no minds of your own?” She pointed to Nicolette. “You there, women do not frighten like little boys. Tell me your name and I shall tell you mine. Let us be civilized.”
“I am Nicolette. A please to meet you.”
“Now that is a proper civil greeting, even here in the Wilds. You may call me Morrigan.” She crossed her arms and tilted her head. “Shall I guess your purpose? You sought something in that Chest, something that is here no longer?”
“Here no longer?” Alistair asked incredulously. “You stole them, didn’t you? You’re… some kind of… sneaky…witch thief!”
Morrigan rolled her eyes. “How very eloquent. How does one steal from dead men?”
“Quite easily, it seems,” Alistair rebutted angrily. “Those documents are Grey Warden property, and I suggest you return them.”
“I will not, for ‘twas not I who removed them. Invoke a name that means nothing here any longer if you wish. I am not threatened.”
“Then who removed them?” Nicolette asked.
“Twas my mother, in fact.”
“Can you take us to her?”
Morrigan grinned at Nicolette. “That is a reasonable request. I like you.”
Alistair grunted. “I’d be careful. First it’s ‘I like you’…” he mocked a woman’s voice, “…but then ‘Zap!’ frog time.”
“She’ll put us all in the pot, she will,” Daveth agreed. “Just you watch.”
Ser Jory shivered. “If the pot is warmer than this forest, it’d be a nice change.”
Nicolette shook her head, and turned to Morrigan.
“Follow me then, if it pleases you.” The witch walked away into the trees. Nicolette followed, with Alistair and the others grudgingly following.
The small group followed Morrigan through the narrow-dry ground that bridged marshlands. A small hut sat in the distance with an old woman standing outside.
“Greetings Mother,” Morrigan called. “I bring before you four Grey Wardens who – “
“I see them girl.” The old woman looked over the four as Morrigan moved to stand behind her. “Mmm. Much as I expected.”
“Are we supposed to believe you were expecting us?” Alistair asked.
“You are required to do nothing, least of all believe. Shut one’s eyes tight or open one’s arms wide… either way, one’s a fool!”
“She’s a witch I tell you!” Daveth insisted. “We shouldn’t be talking to her.”
“Quiet Daveth!” Ser Jory told him. “If she’s really a witch, do you want to make her mad?”
“There is a smart lad. Sadly irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, but it is not I who decides. Believe what you will.” She stepped up to Nicolette. “And what of you? Does your woman’s mind give you a different viewpoint or do you believe as these boys do?”
“I’m no fool, if that’s what you’re asking,” the Cousland responded.
The woman chuckled. “If you must protest so quickly, perhaps I need not ask.”
Nicolette folded her arms.
“So much about you is uncertain, and yet I believe… do I? Why…it seems I do.”
Alistair and Nicolette glanced at each other. “So… this is a dreaded Witch of the Wilds?”
“Witch of the Wilds huh?” She laughed. “Morrigan must have told you that. She does fancy such tales, though she would never admit it.”
Morrigan put her hand against her forehead.
“Oh, how she dances under the moon!” Morrigan’s mother threw her head back in laughter.
“They did not come to listen to your wild tales, Mother.”
“True, they came for their treaties, yes?” The woman turned away. “And, before you begin barking, your precious seal wore off long ago.” She grabbed a bundle on a nearby bench. “I have been protecting these.”
“You?” Alistair exclaimed. “Oh… you… protected them?”
“And why not?” She handed the bundle to Nicolette. “Take them to your Grey Wardens. Thell them this Blight’s threat is greater than they realize.”
“Thank you for returning these,” Nicolette responded.
“Such courtesy!” The old woman laughed. “Oh do not mind me. You have what you came for.”
“Time for you to leave,” Morrigan agreed.
“Morrigan, do not be ridiculous girl. These are your guests.”
She sighed. “Oh, very well. I will show you out of the woods. Follow me.”
The group followed Morrigan away in silence. Nicolette turned back, attempting to steal a glance at the Witch of the Wild. But the old woman was gone.
Keene transformed out of mouse form in his tent, physically shaking at the trauma of scurrying away from mabari in the Ostagar camp. “Golden eyes on a wolf, I’ve never…” he mumbled. Then he opened one of his books to darkspawn blood and Grey Wardens.