Alternative Origins Chapter Two

by artrald

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*

It’s a costume, is what it is. I suppose that’s all any uniform is. They had a jerkin and gambeson to fit me that Peony’s brother told me straight-faced fell off the back of a cart and was never a poacher’s at all, of which I’m to wear the gambeson to get used to it, and the surcoat’s just straight grey so it wasn’t the matter of two minutes to cut one down, for all I’m wearing servant’s garb under it all. And I’m not so very much smaller than a shem woman that they won’t have a belt and baldric to fit me, and the strangest thing is walking with the weight of two blades openly at my belt and a longer one on my back all legal-like, and nobody calling me on it, and by the time it’s all issued and looked at and fitted and sorted and tended and worn and unworn and I’ve reassured Duncan that I’m taken care of, the light is fading and everything is grey.

I don’t use my tent, not on my own in a strange camp, whatever Peony said about these shems. There’s an old room round the back of the fort, where you always find the rats and servants, and there’s a hearth and there we find ourselves, and like my da used to say, wherever you go among the People you’ll always find yourself at home. And my grandda on my mother’s side was from the Amaranthine alienage, and I shuck half the hard-won costume to spend the night talking with second cousins and avoiding the whole subject of murder and why I’m here, just like they avoid the subject of the weapons I’ve not taken off. Just another maidservant in a brown kirtle, her day’s duty done, talking round the fire with a mug of neveryoumind and maybe even lifting the corner of a smile I meant.

And curled under a new grey cloak in a corner I don’t remember finding, I’m woken by a maid stirring up the fire. Well before dawn it is – well, I guess, some things dosn’t change. I’m halfway to helping before I’m politely but firmly told that to my vast surprise I have a dignity – and there are things as are beneath it – and this is one – yes, milady.

Maker’s breath, she called me milady. Not ‘my lady’, the human words of a noble’s respect. ‘Milady’, punctuation, the little mark in the world to show who’s who and where and why. World’s divided into those who speak that word every day and those who hear it, and there’s not been a day of my seventeen years I wasn’t the former, except those days where I’d rather spit than speak, but apparently nobody told my second cousin here. The kettle is gently taken from my paralysed fingers and I’m informed that milady’s dignity slept the night in her official tent over there and she should go collect it before dawn.

Apparently milady’s dignity has a cot that’s harder than the rush-strewn floor in the servant’s quarters, and a blanket that’s thinner than my cloak. I suppose I should pretend I woke here, and so I do – muttered verse from the Chant of Light, wash my face and hands, lace on my stiff new leather brogues, sort out the attire just so – and with the dawn I hear what’s probably supposed to be the clarion call of silver trumpets, and maybe it’s just that where the king is. Down this end there’s a big ugly bugger with a bugle, but the call’s clear enough. The music seems to speak, and what it says is none too politely to get your arse out of bed and dressed. And this morning, and in this costume, perhaps I’m feeling a little bit less of the wild animal and a little bit more of the person.

I suppose I do draw a couple of eyes as I step out into the dawn’s light in my new costume. Seems everybody has a job to do but me – h’m. And him – and him. Not one but three of us looking about blinking in the light. Didn’t see these two last night, but their tents are twins to my own and the only other ones that aren’t shared, and there’s a fourth that’s empty, it’s not hard to guess that these are the recruits.

And well, they’re both human men. One’s short, with a mud-brown mop of hair and a wisp of moustache on a fox’s face, and the other one’s tall, tall as any bigjob I met before or since, and his head’s as clean-shaven as his chin is. Fox looks me up and down, the first glance saying he didn’t miss that I’m an elf, the second saying he didn’t miss that I’m a girl, and he saunters over and makes a funny hash of the kind of polite bow I suppose humans make to one another. His accent makes him the southerner. “‘Morning, miss, I’m Daveth of Mistridge. Suppose you’d be the third of four?”

I incline my head some. I don’t need to look up to him very far – he’s got maybe half a foot on my four-foot-ten. “Kallian Dener. Did they say what we were to do with ourselves today?”

“Beyond breakfast, in a half-hour?” He purses his lips. “More training, would be me guess.” He indicates the giant with his head. “They’ve ‘ad me teaching ‘im, and turn about as was fair. I’d welcome a chance to test me eye.”

“Your… eye?” I meet his gaze for a moment, enough to see his eyes are a startling blue.

“Aye.” He rolls his shoulders back. “Think I’ve a mind to, later, if you’d consent. Never shot against an elf.” He waggles his eyebrows. “We could wager. What say?”

I give Daveth a wry grin. “Sorry to burst your hopes, human, but I’m as much of an archer as you are a laundress.”

He laughs with me, not at me. Score one for the costume. “Maybe we should do it anyway. I’d love to say I’d outshot every elf archer I ever faced.” The giant appears to have decided that we’re more interesting than whatever it was that he was thinking about, and he’s lumbering over. “Maker’s bride, his tread does actually shake the earth.”

Appears he heard. “All the better to crush you with, you little poacher.” The big man looks straight at my eyes – dammit, Kallian, don’t you dare look away – and gives an elegant and practiced bow. “Well met, my lady, I’m Jory of Wright’s Heath.” And where Daveth and I are looking vaguely dressed-up in stiff new-issued costume, on him it’s a little richer, a little softer, and a lot better-worn. Difference between being dressed as a noble, and being one, I suppose.

So, of course, I need to bite off the word ‘milord’. If it crosses my lips once, then forever more to this shem I’ll be a jumped-up scullery maid. Practically have to force myself not to bob. The right way to do it, the elvhen way, would be a deep nod, keeping eye contact all the while. “Well met, mi- uh. Ser. As you might have heard, I’m Kallian of Denerim.”

He looks down at me from his vertiginous height. “You aren’t what I expected of a Warden candidate, mistress Dener.”

“Oh?” That stung. I mean, I’m not what I expected, either. But I’ll be damned if I’ll hear it from a shem nobleman, not after being told we was all one under this grey banner of ours. I don’t bother hiding my reaction.

He stands his ground, of course. The costume might have made him take notice that I existed, but it’s hardly going to get him to treat me as an equal, not when he’s quite literally twice my size. “Are you not a little… short to be a Warden?”

“Don’t know. Clearly someone don’t think so. Aren’t you a little tall?” I can see Daveth’s backed away, wanting no part. Just about notice that one of the other Wardens, sitting polishing armour in the morning sun, is just coincidentally within a distance to interfere if there’s some kind of problem here.

The giant’s smile is slight. “The victor’s wreath of Amaranthine, ahorse and afoot, with lance and steel, says I’m quite short enough, sera.”

“And I’m sure we’re all most impressed -” not milord – “ser.” Great, now it sounds like I’m begrudging his rank from my lips. “And where I come from, like, I’m actually considered a bit on the large side.”

“I… see.” His brow suddenly wrinkles – it’s amazing, you can about see the thoughts racing through his head like clouds. “D’you know? Because Ser Daveth here didn’t, and I don’t know if you have tried to get anything from a Warden but a tale and a hint, but if you can you wreak better than I. Is it that we’re rivals, here, or fellows?”

The concept of being this big shem’s rival in a contest of arms – I shake my head. “The Commander wouldn’t pit you against me in any kind of a trial.”

Now it’s his turn to be stung, I suppose, and he replies with the exact same “Oh?”

Somehow, with the costume, with the weight of the sword on my back and the dirk I have at each hip, he’s not a threat I can’t face just with what I’ve got on me. It’s like it puts steel in me I didn’t know was there. Or finds it. Isn’t a Warden supposed to be bold? I give him a smirk. “You’d face me fair, would you, in the dark with naught but one knife between us? Or I’d face you fair, armour weighing more than I do with a blade longer than both my arms together? We’d either of us be fools. It’d be like, which of us is taller, or quicker? Nah. For sure we’re fellows, ser, and well met indeed.”

“Fair spoken.” He holds out a hand. I suppose it’s to shake, as they do. “Peace?”

And I bite my tongue and bid myself shake his hand, but I don’t offer to the smaller man, like, and I don’t trust my voice just right then.

*

They break their fast on bacon gruel, and they eat like, well, humans. I’ve a biscuit to myself and consider myself well fed. Duncan finds us after the meal, the royal breakfast table explaining his absence, and he’d have it that we’ll be formally inducted at midnight tonight – provided the order is satisfied as to our potential. A test? I meet Daveth’s eyes and shrug as Jory attempts to complain, loudly, in front of the unmoved Commander – something about having already proven himself, ten times over at least. Duncan has us split up – Daveth to the quartermaster with a list, me to ‘recover our training master from the wizards’, and Jory for whatever noblemen get instead of a proper bollocking.

Recover. The training master. From wizards? What? I suppose I never met a wizard before. I wonder what they’re like.

Their camp is the other circle just outside the army camp proper, and it’s funny, it’s like a double ring. Like a circle inside a circle. And the first guard I’ve met here who bids me stand and deliver. Armoured, he is, just like the nobles of the king’s court, and there’s every bit as many runes round every plate of that armour, and inside them there’s words, like. MAGIC IS MEANT TO SERVE MAN they say, from the Chant of Light, and more besides that I can’t make out at a glance. Templar, a real live one. Back home, templars are like militiamen grown fatter and richer but somehow holier – this one, though, he’s broad in the shoulders and square of chin and I decide his animal is the ox.

I tell him I’m here for Warden Alistair and he lets me grudgingly by. This outer circle, it’s less of a camp and more of a stockade of tents, a fortification where it so happens that some people live. A fortification that, I can’t help noticing, doesn’t really know if it points inward or out. And inside it there’s another ring, and the picket at the one entrance here is a man who’s soft-clad and soft-shod and there’s a tattoo of a star covering an old scar on his forehead. He meets my eyes for just half an instant and I can’t do it, I look away.

Because there’s nothing behind ’em. That’s a dead man, he’s just walking for some reason. Opens his mouth and his voice is dull, tired, calm, unnatural. “Please, allow me to direct you.”

“Warden Alistair. I’ve a-”

“The sky-blue tent, thirty yards behind me and to my right, was made safe for him; he entered it and has not yet left. Pray you keep to the paths, sera, and enter nowhere else, at risk of moral hazard.” He bows.

Moral…? I don’t ask in case he tells. And the tent I want is clear in any case. It’s the one with the yelling.

“…and I resent your implication that simply because your toothless old fart of a Commander is a royal favourite, that you have our automatic and personalised loyalty! And gratuitously, no less!” The human lady’s voice is as sharp and thin as a stilletto.

The other voice is a young man’s light tenor, and it’s got the patiently frustrated tone of someone saying something perfectly simple for the fiftieth time. “I’m sorry that you draw such implications from my commander’s requirements, enchanter, truly I am, but I’m afraid they are going to have to stand regardless of your assaults on perfectly inoffensive logic and verbiage. The king’s orders are that we add to our number; the part of your people is by your admission trivial to you, and by my assertion vital to us, and by law and treaty neither the king nor the Wardens are to be gainsaid. All that we gain by your arguing is each other’s continued company, a thing that you yourself have in my hearing called tiresome-”

“Are you threatening me, Templar?” Maker, that woman’s voice isn’t half piercing.

I can hear the sigh from where I’m standing. “No, madam, and I’m not a Templar, although I can see where you might become confused, the principal difference between their order and mine from your point of view being the distance from your tower – an error I’ll hasten to correct just so soon as I’ve a good and solid aye that would take all of one breath to speak, although I suppose a little longer if you suddenly developed an accent -”

She practically snarls. “Get out of my tent.”

“No, you see, that ‘aye’ was preceded by the letter M, rendering it tainted by association – would madam care to try again?”

“You know damnably well what our answer is.”

“It had better be in the affirmative, or I’m getting a second opinion.”

“You’ll get your stinking lyrium,” she growls. “And the Revered Mother shall hear of your insouciance.”

“I await her response with trembling terror, sera, seeing as she is neither my temporal nor spiritual commander and frankly you’d probably be better served complaining about something that isn’t a malapropism; regardless, please have yourself a fine day.” And I’m out of the way as a hard-muscled straight-backed blond young human who I suppose is Alistair takes a step backwards out the flap of the blue tent and turns straight for the camp gate.

He’s got honest blue eyes like a clear sky, his sandy hair is cropped short, and his square jaw is clean-shaven. I can’t think of an animal for him, offhand. Stops, looks right at me, and then at my costume – his own outfit’s not dissimilar, apart from the whole skirt-or-breeches thing. And he raises his eyebrows, and motions for me to follow him as he strides from the camp.

I open my mouth to talk but he shakes his head. “Hst. Shh.” So there’s not a word till we’re out of the mages’ camp and some way away, and then he turns and clicks his heels, giving a fluid respectful bow that I echo with a bow of my head like is proper, and neither of us breaks eye contact.

After a moment I notice that he isn’t blinking, so neither do I.

Few more moments. His eyes are watering. Mine too. Urge to look away is growing. He’s given up trying to pretend he doesn’t find this funny.

Goes on until the whole world’s one big afterimage, and he’s biting his lip to keep from giggling because that’d make him blink, and I’ve clasped my hands behind my back because otherwise they’d be starting to tremble. Damned if I’m letting the human get the better of me.

It’s a moment or two longer, and it’s long been an effort of will rather than of body, and – did you really wonder? It’s him that blinks first, and he laughs as he does it. I’m not laughing, although I’m breathing a little shallow as I rest my eyes. Just means something different to him, is all, but it’s not like he’ll see that. His laughter dies off a little as he realises I didn’t join in so much, but his smile doesn’t, it’s plastered on like it grew there. “Anyone ever tell you you have lovely eyes?”

I look at him like he can keep his opinions to himself. “Warden Alistair?”

“Guilty?” His smile doesn’t waver when I don’t visibly react to his attempt at a joke. Clearly got nothing to do with what’s going on in his head. “Barrel of laughs, you.”

“I’m to recover you from the people you were just talking to. Duncan wants to see you.”

He shrugs mock-helplessly. “Your quest is over; I’ll come quietly. I guess I was gone rather a while… Kallian, wasn’t it?” He stretches out a hand.

I look at it for a moment, and I can’t make myself. You people think it’s fear, and it isn’t. It’s just instinct, a natural thing. Something in the back of the head tells the animal in us that humans are big enough to eat us, and if it’s reminded? Perhaps now you understand how if I unclasped my hands behind my back they’d be shaking too hard for him not to notice. “It’s not done to shake hands, ser.”

He takes in a deep breath. “You know what I love about the Blight, Kallian?”

“I’m sure I couldn’t guess.”

“It’s the way it brings people together.” He gestures that we should continue walking. “Noble and commoner alike setting aside their crippling petty squabbles and interests; templars gamboling in the grass like lambs and wizards coming down out of their ivory towers and forgetting their love of mammon; elf and human alike learning to shake hands and make up for centuries of misunderstanding and abuse. All because of the sharing of one little mortal peril.”

I give him a sidelong look. “Are you for true?”

The smile turns genuine for half an instant. “Never.”

*

So it turns out that someone believes in dropping people in the water and seeing if they’ll sink. ‘Prove our mettle,’ says Duncan, and ‘a nice morning’s stroll for the four of us,’ says Alistair, and judging by the numbers and the arms on the humans guarding the gate we’re using, we’re walking into something between a deathtrap and the mouth of hell.

The mud on the forest floor makes me glad of my new boots. Nothing like a path, but at least it’s open, what they call light woodland. Again, not much chatter till we’re out of sight of the walls. When part of the good we do is the costume and the look of the thing, apparently keeping up appearances is important. The two big shems are in bright metal armour, Jory in halfplate and Alistair in polished brigandine, Jory with a longsword over his back that’s longer than I am, Alistair with a plain grey shield and a broad short blade at his left hip. Daveth’s in leathers, old and dull and much-repaired, but I can’t help but notice they make not a sound, and he chose a hip quiver over a shoulder one, and that bow is as old and well-used as Duncan’s swords were. And for all that it’s a fine source of confidence to me in the shem camp, there’s no getting away from the fact that every bit of my costume is new or at least pretending to be new, even the blades I’ve got openly. I left the bow and quiver in my tent. They want me to shoot like an elvhen, they’re going to have to give me a chance to learn to.

Alistair breaks the silence and his smile’s all gone. “So, lady and gents, while it’s show and pomp in there, it’s nothing but work out here; I hope you brought your aprons.” He’s not looking at my scowl. That’s got to have been a dig. “We’re going southwest, and yes, for those of you who lost your maps these are the Korcari Wilds. It’s a nice five-mile trek out to where we’re going, a jolly little ruin in the next valley over, and we’ll be picking up the pace soon as we can; if you can’t keep the pace, don’t hide it, we’ll slow, and I mean that.” He loosens his blade in its scabbard. “Normal times, this’d be Chasind country; even this close to Ostagar, there’s a tribe that claims this land, and they never struck me as the welcoming sort. But this last month, it’s been something else.”

“The Blight, ser.” Jory sounds none too keen. “I have spoken to the scouts. The woods are crawling with darkspawn.”

“Exactly.” He looks at each of us in turn. “Darkspawn don’t crawl, or not often; they run, they leap, they climb, occasionally they have a go at a bit of a saunter or sashay. They look a lot like people, but you wouldn’t mistake them, not if you saw their smiling faces. You’ll have heard horrible tales of their teeth and claws; a lot of it’s horse-dirt, they use weapons just like anything else with two thumbs. And they die just like people do. Despite what you’ve heard, they’re no harder to kill.”

“Just more dangerous.” Daveth makes a face.

“You’re talking about the blood curse?” A nod. “Mm-hmm. We Wardens can deal with it, but most people, they get hot wet red darkspawn blood in their eyes, on their tongue, or worst of all into a cut, and whatever it hit must come off, and no, that’s not a joke. You leave it, the man goes down with a fever, two days he’s on his back hoping he’d die and on the third he’s up and trying his damndest to spread it around. It’s a curse, it’s magic, the magi can cure it about as easily as you can cure life itself, and I mention it to say that we, the Grey Wardens, we are immune. And none of you three need worry about poisoning.”

“Just about hordes of monsters, springing upon us at any moment.” Jory’s eyes are a little wide, his ham-like hand straying to the massive hilt over his right shoulder at the slightest sound of the wood. He does that the whole way, he’ll be tired out by the time were halfway.

Alistair gives him a genuine, grim smile. “Ser Jory, the darkspawn cannot take us unaware. If there is any horde of monsters to be fighting, you have my word as a Warden: you’ll be forewarned, you’ll be on your feet and you’ll have the three of us at your side.” The giant looks unconvinced; he carries on. “I can sense them, ser, all Wardens can, and when you join us, you’ll learn to as well. The nearest darkspawn is near an hour’s travel south of here, it’s with five of its fellows, and it’s hunting rabbits.”

“Rabbits.” Jory’s voice is flat.

“If the darkspawn only ate people, ser, they’d starve long before they got out of the wilds. We don’t like to tell it, but the truth to be told is that they aren’t all that different from us, only a little uglier, or in my case a lot uglier.” His pauldrons move as he shrugs. “You’ll see.”

Suppose I ought to be at home out here, really. Elves and woods, right? Born to it? Well, I’m not. I like cobbles, flagstones, roof slates, wood floors, straw. Not mud. I don’t even really like the street. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can handle the walking just fine, and the only reason I’m not quieter than Daveth is is that my new boots creak some. But this isn’t my kind of turf, like. It’s just, well, turf.

Not that it matters, not with the humans jingling in their armour and talking like that. After a good while of discussing trivialities and irrelevances and generally trying to pretend to be friends, they fall to discussing how the four of us would fight. Just in case it weren’t obvious. Alistair to go after any big ones, Jory to form a solid centre, Daveth to put an extra arrow in anything that looks like an archer, or worse, a wizard, and me to –

Abruptly Alistair halts in midsentence, turns his head sharply, like he heard something none of the rest of us could. His eyes widen and his voice settles into the snap of a man used to giving orders. “Kallian, with me. Daveth, Jory, a mile down the hill, you’ll hear, soon as you can, please.” And he turns to set off down the hill at a jog.

“What is it?” Jory might be slow on his feet, but his blade’s out as fast as you like.

Alistair looks back just one moment and there’s the smile again, the one that means nothing. “Heroism. Stick together!” And he’s moving.

So am I. He goes at a bit more than a jog, moving easily, and I’m pacing him without really getting out of breath. He glances at me sidelong for a moment. “Faster?”

I show my teeth. It’d look like a grin, I suppose, but it isn’t. “Call this running, shem?”

“Hah.” He opens his stride and I match it, if not pace for pace, at least for speed. And when there’s a three-foot boulder in his way and he pretty much hurdles it, I realise why it was he told the other humans to lag behind. Daveth would be running this pace half-blind at full tilt, not good down a hill or for a whole mile. And Jory would do about a hundred yards before falling on his heavy-armoured face.

Meanwhile, for me and seemingly for the Grey Warden it’s a fair warmup. The mossy ground’s fair to run on, springy, and I’m not overburdened – and Alistair’s just ignoring the jingling weight of his own kit. I concentrate on the fall of my feet. I am not allowing him to make me look bad by having to pick me up off the ground.

The sound of a horn echoing through the woods and he swears, loudly enough to make me wonder if he turned an ankle or something, but he’s still running. “We’re going to be too late,” he spits. “Six of them there. Don’t know how many they’re hunting, but rabbits don’t blow on horns. Watch my back, don’t close with them, and don’t try and fight fair.”

“Just like your kind, then.” More running. My breath’s coming faster, now. No way this man has a longer wind than me, not in that armour and all. I hear the horn go again, a little more desperately. “Do this much, do you?”

“Well, you know. We were passing.” Movement, through the trees, down the slope. Dark shapes among the green, a little shorter and wider than men, dirty patchwork armour and notched rusty weapons. Three of ’em, and after a moment there’s the horn again and I see the human scouts who sounded it, shoulder to shoulder in stained brown leather, blades out.

“Don’t fight fair, you said.” We go either side of a tree. The Warden’s clearly planning on just going straight into the fight when he gets there. “There are six of them.”

“Yeah. No point waiting for them to fetch another half-dozen for you.” A moment, and his shield is on his arm. Another and his sword is out of its scabbard. He doesn’t slow down. I hear a yell from up ahead, high and afraid, and a snarl that’s like but unlike a dog who wants you out of his yard.

We’re maybe a hundred yards away when the three that were sneaking up behind the scouts fall on them with a roar, and Alistair lets out a war-cry of his own and puts his head down and charges. Y’know, straight into a fast-moving fight, too fast to be caring how he’s going to come to a stop.

They ignore him, and as I watch the six darkspawn tearing strips off the humans I’m not sure what he thought he meant when he said that they looked like people. They’re too short for humans and too wide for elves, and the straggly black hair is receding from their liver-spotted scalps, and that and their bandy-legged crouch would make them look like wizened little old men if it weren’t for the power in those heavy shoulders. I remember what I heard about poison and keep my mouth shut. And I leave it till the last moment to draw the blade from my back, a simple straight blade almost exactly the size and weight of the one I killed eleven men with back in Denerim. Come to think of it, only nine of them with the sword.

Anyway, just as the darkspawn are standing up from their grisly work, Alistair goes into the knot of them with his shield first. He might dance around like he’s weightless, but the darkspawn felt that impact like a falling star – the one he hits, he bears straight back into an oak tree and leaves fall from the impact. There’s a moment’s surprise to them, and that’s enough for him to put his back to the tree, for his blade to punch out all unsophisticated and take the guts out of the nearest of them. I get to see him over a nice row of backs, and as they go to pile on him I step in almost beside one of them and pull the broadsword’s chisel-sharp edge easily across the joints at the backs of its legs.

Well, they’re smarter than some men I’ve fought. The one beside me that I didn’t just hamstring wastes no time in ducking back with a snarl rather than either going for me straight or letting me get a blow in, and it points its chopper at me like it wants to fence. So there’s clearly one going for my back, like, and I don’t need Alistair’s warning as I dance back in turn and I’m facing two of them in the clear – not really what he meant when he said don’t fight fair, no?

But the shem doesn’t stick with his back to the tree like you’d expect, he goes on the attack without a pause. Not that I can watch him, not with two of them trying to introduce me to the sharp end. I’ll give that they’re fast, and if I’d a mind to meet their blows with my blade I’d probably do nothing but lose it, but they’re waving those things more like clubs than swords. And I know he said not to close on ’em, but he also said to watch his back and promptly put it against a tree. With the sword in my right hand, I flick a cut at the face of the one on the right to make him blink as I move inside the reach of the other one, passing him close as a May dance, if your contrary ever took a snap at you as you swept on past. I spin, low, of a height with the crouching darkspawn, and wait for the one I’d chosen for a dance partner to realise that the blood on the dirk that’s just now point-up in my left hand is all from that hole in its gut – but if it even knows then it doesn’t seem to care, and they spread to try and take me from both sides at once, and I take a couple of steps back, no hurry to finish this, not with one of them running blood like that and ignoring it.

I see Alistair swing a good hard strike straight down onto the one he must have knocked to the ground and then he turns up to make this two-on-two – the darkspawn look at him and at me and reckon that I’m the easier option, but I don’t give them the time to try that out. I step into the one coming on from my right, the one I bloodied, and let its whistling overhand cut go straight past my shoulder as I put the point of the broadsword in just under the bit of ironmongery it’s using as a breastplate and push hard.

And no human with three feet of cold steel through his gut would grab your hand at the wrist and have a go for your face with his sharp wet unbelievably yellow corpse-teeth – sheer revulsion makes me scream, it’s got nothing to do with terror, and I put the dirk in my left hand up under its chin with all the force of my body and bear my enemy over backwards still pushing.

Dimly I hear behind me the sound of a blade parting flesh and bone, and the thump of the last of them hitting the ground, and then slightly less so I hear the Warden’s voice. “You all right, there?”

It’s a moment before I can stand, and I’ve got to reassure myself that it’s dead before I’ll take the dagger out of its brain. I realise I haven’t answered, and I’m just in time turning and stepping back that I avoid a big armoured hand on my shoulder. I nod, because it’s better than a squeak, and he turns immediately away.

Yes. Remember why we were here? The scouts? He did. I practically trod on ’em. Without him asking I go round the darkspawn on the floor and make sure they’re done. And so when the other two finally get here, puffing like they just ran a mile, Alistair is on his knees next to one of the human scouts and I’m just standing up from the last of the darkspawn, bloody to the elbows and with spots on my surcoat, face and hair. But it’s okay. I’m allowed.

The humans are mostly interested in the dead humans, I suppose that’s not unexpected. I just set about cleaning the ick off my hands; I’m almost done when Alistair finishes giving them a bit of dignity. Daveth gives me a bit of a funny look; I raise an eyebrow and he shakes his head like he wasn’t really expecting me to act like the kind of people he’s used to.

“Leave some for us, next time,” offers Jory in what’s clearly supposed to be the kind of thing a warrior would say. Looking at him closer, I can see that he’s not really as old as he looked at first – I mean, he’s older than I am, but he’s a little too fresh-faced and unscarred to have been at his profession long.

I give him a shrug, anyway – I should probably be polite to these people I’m likely going to have to live with. “Tell you what,” I offer, “next time we’ll blow them a raspberry and lead them back so you don’t have to stretch your legs any further.”

“You’ll get your turn, big man.” Alistair nods down the slope as we set off again. “That horn will have summoned a proper raiding party. Things going well, it’ll be the one that was between us and where we were going, so we can go around them by the cunning strategy of staying downwind and not charging at them like a herd of cattle. C’mon, it’s just the far side of that ridge.” He bites his lip. “Unless I’m turned around again. I could have got turned around.”

“You didn’t,” remarks Daveth. “And I’m surprised at you, making light of being lost out here.”

Alistair grins. “I’ve got supernatural senses. And you’re with me.”

“I thought,” I note sourly, “that they only told you where the monsters were.”

He nods. “Uh-huh. And our lives as Wardens are divided into two parts – in the one, we’re only interested in finding them, and in the other, we’re only interested in them not finding us. It’s all I need!” The smile abruptly goes. “Except at the moment, of course, I can use my sixth sense like a bloody compass. South? Is where the darkspawn are. And everything else follows. C’mon.”

*

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