Winter, 9:30 Dragon, Brecilian Forest/Ferelden
The deep Forest was an uncanny place.
Outside, Ferelden was locked in bitter winter. The snow on the ground came up to a man's shoulders in places. Men huddled indoors and prayed to the Maker that the thaw would come before famine began to stalk the land.
In the Brecilian Forest, no snow or ice lay upon the ground. The land lay in a deep twilight under the dense canopy of the trees, with only tiny scraps of sunlight striking through the glades, or the clearings left behind by fallen giants. Even so, the air tasted quite mild, filled with birdsong and the sound of wind in the trees. Alaric couldn't decide whether it felt like spring, or maybe a wet autumn. The one thing it did not feel like was winter.
It was absurd. Less than a hundred leagues to the south stood Gwaren, cold and wind-swept all year round, and then a sea on which mountains of ice sometimes sailed north in the middle of summer. To walk in such a temperate forest, at this time of year, seemed an affront to nature.
Morrigan didn't like it either. She kept looking around uneasily, her fingers tense on her staff, looking as if she wanted to catch the forest-spirits staring at her back.
"This is a terrible land," she muttered, late one afternoon. "Whatever dwells here, 'tis a thing that stands outside of time, preserving a world in which men and women have no place. Perhaps a world that existed before men and women were."
"I thought an unspoiled wilderness would be lovely and peaceful," Leliana sighed. "Not like this. I have not a scrap of magical sense, but even I can tell the spirits of this place are angry, and thinking of blood."
"Nature isn't peaceful," said Alaric. "Every living thing survives by the death of others. Often it's a violent death."
"There is more to it than that," Morrigan told him, with some asperity. "Life and death are everywhere intertwined, 'tis true, but seldom do the birds and beasts act with rage. With malice. Something has happened here. Something dreadful."
"Do you think that explains the werewolves?"
Morrigan only shook her head uncertainly, golden eyes probing the shadows under the trees.
"The Dalish say that many battles were fought here, long ago." For once, Zevran sounded sober and thoughtful.
Alaric stared at the assassin for a moment. "I didn't think you paid much attention to Dalish tales."
Zevran shrugged, recovering some of his usual insouciance. "While the rest of you talked to that Zathrian fellow, I wandered the camp. Some remarkably pretty women in that clan, and a few were not averse to casual flirtation. I also sat and listened to the hahren for a while. One never knows where a useful tidbit of intelligence might turn up."
"Hmm." Alaric shook his head. "I missed a trick there. What did the hahren have to say?"
"The ancient elves lived here, so long ago that no one else remembers it." Zevran glanced upward, peering into the rustling canopy above. "When Tevinter came to this part of the world, the elves resisted them, striking and running, using the depths of the Forest to hide. Some of the human barbarians who refused to live under Tevinter's yoke did the same. Much blood was spilled, much magic was unleashed, before the Imperium was driven out of this land forever."
"Which means the Veil is likely thin and tattered, all through this land," said Morrigan.
As if in answer, there was a great shaking of branches and a groan of tortured wood. For the third time in as many days.
"Well, that would certainly explain the sylvans," said Alaric, drawing Spellweaver.
The walking trees were a constant threat in the Brecilian Forest. Dull-witted spirits sliding across the Veil, desperately seeking the weight and savor of life, only to find themselves possessing and possessed of trees. Alaric thought that he might be angry about that too. He still fought back, not wanting to lend his flesh to feed the sylvans' roots.
Of course, Alaric avoided the use of fire against the creatures. It was a handicap to set aside the most powerful magic he owned, rather like fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Still, he forced himself to think of it as a challenge. The angry trees were just as easily dissuaded by bitter cold, or a bolt of lightning.
Besides, whatever great spirit stands behind the Forest as a whole would probably react badly to the indiscriminate use of fire. Then none of us would walk out of here alive.
Four days from the Dalish camp, the Warden party arrived at the bank of a river. The water flowed southward, too wide and deep to cross, a barrier on the path into the heart of the Forest. An hour of searching turned up a ford, a place where the river was unusually shallow, with a small island in the middle of the stream.
Six manlike forms waited on that island, crouched low and staring at the intruders. Blocking the way.
"Werewolves," Alistair whispered.
"I'm sure they can hear you even if you whisper," said Morrigan, at her usual volume.
"Why are they not attacking?" Zevran wondered. "One expects such savage creatures to leap upon us the moment they see the chance."
"If they were humans, I would call that a parley line," said Alaric. "They know we're coming, but they aren't waiting in ambush. They're standing out in the open, where we can see them, in the middle of our only path forward."
"Werewolves do not parley," said Morrigan.
Alaric watched the werewolves for another moment, then nodded decisively. "Maybe these werewolves do. Come on. Hands away from weapons."
With that, he led the party out to wade across the shallow water.
Viewed up close, the werewolves did not present a reassuring appearance. Alaric noted fangs, claws, the bulk of dense muscle. Ears swiveled to point at him, eyes burned with hunger and rage. One of the beasts, the largest and most fierce in appearance, stood a pace in front of its companions. As Alaric approached, it stood to its full, considerable height.
Then the creature spoke.
"Hrrr. The watch-wolves have spoken truly, my brothers and sisters."
It was a strange voice, deep and hard to follow. The lupine mouth clearly had trouble reproducing the sounds of human language. Alaric also thought the beast's words sounded old-fashioned, even archaic. Yet it clearly spoke the King's Tongue.
"The Dalish send a human, of all things, to repay us for our attack, to put us in our place! What bitter irony."
A werewolf recognizes irony. A werewolf.
Alaric set aside his surprise, cleared his throat, and responded. "I am no servant of the Dalish. I have come because I need them to join a war against the Blight. Which means I need them hale and whole."
"The Blight? Hrrr. We have scented the corruption on the air, coming from the south. Who are you, to stand against such a thing?"
"I am Alaric, leader of the Grey Wardens of Ferelden."
"A Warden?" The werewolf crouched low, its claws flexing slightly, deep in thought. "It does not matter. These Dalish are doomed to suffer the same curse that we suffer. You had best leave the Forest and seek for allies elsewhere."
"I can't do that. We face impossible odds as it is. I need the Dalish."
"You cannot trust this one, Swiftrunner!" another werewolf objected. "He and his companions came from the Dalish camp. He has an elf with him. He spoke to Zathrian himself!"
Alaric nodded to himself. They were watching the Dalish camp the whole time we were there.
At the Keeper's name, the leading werewolf emitted a terrible snarling growl. "The old keeper himself sent you?"
"I spoke with Zathrian, yes. I will make up my own mind about what is best to be done." Alaric cocked his head, trying to read the massive werewolf. "You seem to hate the Dalish a great deal."
Swiftrunner snapped his massive jaws. "That we do! How dare they send you against us! Turn and leave, while you still have the chance!"
"Why? Why do you hate the Dalish? What have they done to you?" A thought struck Alaric. "What has Zathrian done to you?"
The werewolf erupted out of his crouch, standing tall and terrible, looming over Alaric. "Hrrr. You know nothing, Grey Warden! Nothing of us, and less of those you serve. You are a fool, and we are done talking. Run from the Forest while you can. Run back to the Dalish and tell them they are doomed."
Slowly, Alaric shook his head. "I don't wish to fight you, but neither can I turn back."
"I do not wish to fight you, Grey Warden, but neither can I trust you." The great beast turned to its companions. "Come, brothers and sisters! Let us retreat. The forest has eyes and ears of its own, and it will deal with intruders as it always has."
With no further ado, the werewolves turned and loped away, splashing through the far stream, vanishing in moments into the thick growth of the Forest.
For a moment, Alaric felt the weight of everyone's eyes on his back. Then he glanced over his shoulder and said, "We move on."
It wasn't that easy, of course. Swiftrunner turned out to be quite correct. On the far side of the river, the Forest turned out to be much more difficult than before.
Paths turned and twisted, always leading back to the river and never into the heart of the Forest. Branches reached down to get in the way, roots eased up out of the ground to trip and hinder. Damp moss hung from the lower branches, always ready to slap an unwary traveler in the face. Alaric began to suspect that the trees themselves were shifting position, when no one was watching them. The sylvans and the wild beasts seemed more intent and vicious as well.
Three days after the encounter with the werewolves, the Warden party emerged from yet another path, only to find themselves at the same river-ford where they had started. Zevran cursed venomously, and even the Sten was heard to mutter something pungent in qunlat.
"All right," said Alaric wearily. "Make camp."
On some evenings, the Warden party's camp had been a place of light and good cheer. Not this time. Everyone pitched tents on the river's shore, saw to their weapons and gear, and dipped into the dwindling store of food, all in a fog of weary discontent.
Alaric made the rounds to speak to everyone, as he always did. Then, last of all, he came to sit by Morrigan's fire.
"Well?" said the witch. "Have you a plan, or has this Forest defeated us?"
He shook his head, the picture of fatigue and discouragement. "Say nothing and make no sign," he mumbled. In ancient Tevene. "Agree to what I am about to ask. It is not what it seems."
The witch sat still, but her golden eyes narrowed with interest.
"It's been a long time, Morrigan," said Alaric aloud. "What do you say we spend the night in your tent, for a change?"
One elegant eyebrow shot upward. "Why, Alaric." Her voice lilted with ironic humor, playing along. "After all this time in your own cold bed, have you finally decided to seek mine once again?"
Alaric suppressed the grin that wanted to spread across his face. "Anything to take our minds off this damned Forest," he growled, for the benefit of the audience.
"I suppose there is some merit to that idea," she drawled. "Although as weary as you must be, I have my doubts as to your . . . performance."
Alaric couldn't help himself. He chuckled, shaking his head at her. "Believe me, Morrigan, I think you will be astonished at what I can manage."
"Then come inside, Grey Warden, and give me a demonstration." Morrigan rose with cat-like grace, and turned to slip inside her tent. Alaric followed.
Later, long after Morrigan's fire had burned down to its embers, two shadows emerged from the tent and slipped away into the darkness. They seemed to move low to the ground, sliding along on four legs rather than two.