3 Wintermarch, 9:31 Dragon, Brecilian Forest
For a night, and a day, and another night, two wolves slipped through the heart of the Forest.
The she-wolf led, being more familiar with their state, more at ease with the symphony of sounds and scents that came to them. She was an elegantly slender creature, with a silver-and-white coat and bright golden eyes, adept at slipping through undergrowth and finding scent-trails. Her partner was larger, his coat ruddier in color and his eyes sky-blue, content to follow her lead.
The Forest was easier for them now, in some ways. Wrapped in animal form, their busy human minds submerged, they raised no alarms or opposition. Trails that had bent away from the heart of the Forest when trod by two feet, remained quiet and honest for four. The she-wolf found the scent of werewolves on the breeze, and followed it to its source.
They did not speak. They could not. It didn't matter. They were wolves, with a rich language of posture and glance and small vocalizations. Perhaps it helped that in human form, they had begun to understand each other even without words.
When they were tired, they found a cozy, quiet den and curled up together, her head resting across his broad shoulder. Something in the back of her mind feared the contact, but most of her was wolf, and it wasn't natural for mated wolves to shrink from each other's touch. Before long, she let the comfort of his presence, his warmth, his scent lull her into sleep.
After nightfall, they rose, ears pricked up to catch distant sounds, noses testing the air. They set out once more, passing into the deepest, darkest forest, where no mere human had traveled in a thousand years.
The scent of werewolf was heavy on the night breeze. They even saw one or two of the creatures at a distance, moving in darkness under the trees, but their wolf-guises held and they were not challenged.
The moon rode high in the sky, brilliant and full, when they approached their destination.
There was a great glade, a gentle hill where no trees grew, scattered with the tumbled stones of a vast ruin. The she-wolf stopped in the darkness under the last trees, peering ahead, all her senses at their keenest. She growled softly when her partner thought to move ahead, calling him to stand perfectly still.
She could sense it: an ancient elven presence, traces of age-old magic, overlaid by the more recent stink of the werewolves that had made this place . . . what? A lair? No, a place of gathering, of community. Perhaps even a place of worship.
At the top of the low rise lay a table-stone, broad and flat, perhaps the last survivor of an ancient city square. There, a dark figure rested on a weathered stone seat, somehow in shadow despite the bright moonlight that fell on all sides of it. Not a werewolf. Something other. Behind the table-stone, deferring to its occupant, stood at least a dozen werewolves. Watching and waiting.
Shadows flickered, seemed to bend and twist. Suddenly a young woman stood in place of the she-wolf, pale skin and close-cropped black hair wrapped in Tevinter magister's robes, only her eyes unchanged. Those eyes narrowed, as she extended her human-mage senses, tasting the air.
They know we are here, thought Morrigan. They wait for something.
An idea came to Morrigan, outrageous, insanely dangerous. Yet at some level below conscious thought, her instincts approved.
'Tis a sacred drama, I think. The stage is set. All that remains is for the players to appear.
"Wait here," Morrigan whispered, running her fingertips through the ruddy fur of the wolf at her side.
Wolf-Alaric growled slightly, but made no move to interfere.
Morrigan stepped out of the shadows, into the moonlight of the open glade. She was aware of a dozen pairs of eyes in the darkness, watching her, not sure yet whether to be hostile.
Her staff she leaned against a fallen stone, with a muffled click. Her robes came away, her boots, her necklace and other jewelry, her smallclothes. She strode forth until she stood before the great table-stone, clad in naught but silver moonlight. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with scent: the grass under her bare feet, night-blooming hemlock, the strong, rank odor of carnivorous beasts hidden in the shadows.
The dark figure atop the table-stone made no move.
As if some music had begun to play that only she could hear, Morrigan began to dance.
Her feet flashed over the grass, taking her in a wide sunwise circle. She took care to bow low at each of the quarters, invoking the Powers, and then she moved on, never at rest. She whirled, stars and moon and dark trees describing dizzy arcs around her. Her back arched, arms flung high and low, describing a perfect line connecting earth to deepest heaven.
As she moved, she felt the magic of the place surging in her bones. The Veil was thin as parchment, currents of power flowing just beyond reach, a swarm of lesser spirits pressing close. She could hear a few of them whispering to her, tempting her, seeking a way across. As always, she refused to listen, but she worked her sense of their power and yearning into her dance.
Her arms praised, embraced, supplicated. She ended at the very foot of the table-stone, bowed in a pose of proud submission, her lungs pulling in great gasps of the night air.
There was deep silence.
Then she heard the creature atop the table-stone, as it rose from its seat and moved closer. Then it stepped down onto the grass, and the moonlight revealed it.
Morrigan's breath hissed through her teeth.
It had the appearance of a woman, short and slender, beautiful and terrible as the night, her body wrapped only in living vines and leaves. Small white blossoms peeked out of her long, black hair. Her eyes showed no feature, orbs as black as the gulf between stars. Every movement was perfection, beauty and grace.
On all sides, the werewolves bowed very low. Morrigan could feel raw power radiating from the creature's form, like heat from a furnace, barely hidden.
This may be the mightiest spirit I have ever encountered.
"Rise," said the creature that was not a woman, its voice like the wind in leaves. "Rise and tell me your names."
Morrigan rose, standing with all the dignity she could muster. Behind her, she heard footsteps – Alaric, crossing the glade in man's form to join her. He cast his cloak about her shoulders, to help stave off the night's chill, and she felt a moment of unwanted gratitude for it.
"I am Morrigan, daughter of Flemeth," she told the spirit formally. "My companion is Alaric, son of Damion, son of Fausten. We come to plead."
"I bid you welcome, mortals. I am the Lady of the Forest."
Alaric cleared his throat, a sign of unease that Morrigan could read. "I must admit, I was expecting another werewolf."
The spirit – the minor goddess – made an enigmatic smile. "No. That I am not. I applaud you, for finding a way to me without further bloodshed."
The werewolf named Swiftrunner bounded forward, eyes gleaming red in the moonlight, fangs bared. "Do not listen to them, Lady! They mean to destroy you!"
"Hush, Swiftrunner. These are no ordinary man and woman, defenseless against our attack. Even with their weapons set aside, they hold great power in their hands. Your lust for battle would lead only to the death of those you wish to protect. Is that what you want?"
Slowly, the great werewolf backed down, crouching in deference. "No, Lady. Anything but that."
"These outsiders have come to us in peace. She has even given up the trappings of civilized life, to stand before us naked and unafraid."
The Lady raised one hand, to touch Morrigan's cheek. She shivered at the touch, sensing the power behind the feather-light caress.
"She understands the deep magic of this place, she appreciates it, better than any outsider has in centuries. I think the time has come to set aside our rage and speak with them." The Lady focused her attention on Morrigan. "I apologize on Swiftrunner's behalf. He struggles with his nature."
"As do we all," Morrigan murmured.
"Truer words were never spoken." The Lady looked from Morrigan to Alaric, a glance that seemed to lay bare every pretension, every concealment. Morrigan's heart skipped a beat in sudden fear. "You struggle as well, do you not? Why do you punish yourself for that which is no sin?"
"I . . . do not understand." Morrigan knew, even as she stumbled over the words, that they were a lie. She sensed Alaric's sudden sharp glance, and ignored it.
"I think you do. No matter. Your nature and your fate are in your own hands. That is not the case for these creatures. Their nature is a curse, one that was forced upon them. There are things that Zathrian has not told you."
"How do you know what he has told us?" Morrigan asked. "How closely do your creatures spy upon the Dalish camp?"
"I have no need to spy upon Zathrian. I know there are things he would never reveal to you. He told you that he wishes you to destroy the source of the curse that afflicts his people. What he conceals is that he is that source. He created the curse."
Morrigan nodded, and sensed Alaric's sudden tension behind her. "Through you," he said, very certain.
"Yes. Centuries ago, when the Dalish first came to this land, a tribe of humans lived in the fringes of the Forest. They feared the Dalish, feared ancient legends of the elves who once lived here and built these ruins. For good reason, perhaps. They sought to drive the Dalish away. Zathrian was a young man then. He had a son and daughter that he loved greatly. While they were out hunting, the human tribe captured them both."
Swiftrunner stirred, his gaze downcast in shame. "Hrr. The humans . . . our ancestors . . . they tortured the boy. Killed him. The girl, they ravished and left for dead. The Dalish found her, but she learned later that she was with child. She killed herself in shame and despair."
Morrigan recoiled from him. "Those men deserved whatever came to them," she snarled.
"Indeed, they did," said the Lady.
"Zathrian came to this ruin," said Swiftrunner. He rose once more, looming over Morrigan and staring at her, the light in his eyes now silver and sorrowful. "He summoned a terrible spirit, calling on all the blood and pain that linger in this Forest from ages long gone. He bound the spirit to the body of a great white wolf. So Witherfang came to be. Witherfang hunted the humans of the tribe, one by one, until all were killed or transformed. So our forebears were accurséd, they and their children doomed to suffer for all eternity as twisted and savage beasts. They retreated into the heart of the Forest. There matters lay for a very long time."
"Until you found the Lady."
"In a sense. We found one another, Swiftrunner and I. Together we fought our way to sanity, soothing one another's rage. I found that there was beauty and peace in the Forest, not blood and suffering only. He discovered his name, and recovered much of his lost humanity. He brought others to me, and over time I helped them as well."
Morrigan frowned at a sudden insight.
"Why did you ambush the Dalish?" Alaric asked, gently. "For revenge?"
"In part. We seek to end the curse. The crimes against Zathrian's children were grave, but they were committed centuries ago, by those who are long dead. Once Swiftrunner's people and I understood all that had happened, we sought to reach Zathrian. Every time the landships came this way, we sent messages, asking him to come and speak to us. He ignored us. We will no longer be denied."
"Hrr!" Swiftrunner bared his fangs. "We spread the curse to his people! He must end the curse to save them!"
"Please. Go to Zathrian and advocate for us. Bring him here. If he sees us in person, sees the suffering he causes through his indifference, surely he will end the curse."
"I think not," said Morrigan, a chain of deductions finally reaching its end. "I think that he will never agree to end the curse of his own free will."
"We cannot know that. Surely his rage does not run so deep that he would permit his own clan to suffer!"
"I think it might . . . but 'tis not only rage that drives him."
Alaric stepped forward so she could see him, a pensive expression on his face. "What are you thinking, Morrigan?"
"Work it out, Alaric. This is a magic beyond either of us, but we can still reason through the logic of it, see how 'tis accomplished."
He frowned, and she could sense his mind at work.
Morrigan turned to the Lady. "You are Witherfang."
Swiftrunner leaned forward, a low growl resonating in his deep chest. All around, the werewolves rose, red eyes gleaming in the moonlight.
The Lady lifted a hand, rested it on Swiftrunner's shoulder. The werewolf stopped, quivering with tension.
"Two spirits of such power, in the deep Forest, opposed to one another? All the land would be ravaged and broken in your battle. Unless you are one and the same, and the battle is within yourself."
"It is so. Witherfang is my savage side, the force of hatred and destruction that Zathrian unleashed upon the world. Only when Swiftrunner came to me did I find healing and sanity. His reverence, and that of his people, taught me that I could be the Lady of the Forest as well. Yet Witherfang remains, only a heartbeat away at any given moment. You mortals are not the only ones who struggle against your nature."
"There's more to it than that, isn't there?" Alaric folded his arms. "We thought Zathrian might have been a blood-mage at some point in the past. He must have nearly bled himself dry to summon a spirit as powerful as you."
"Indeed. Such was his rage and despair when he called upon me."
"This spell is also how he has been able to survive all these centuries," said Morrigan. "If the curse ends, so will his life. Lady, I know not how much of his rage remains. 'Tis not the only issue at hand."
"Perhaps not. Yet I see no other way to end this, except through still more blood soaking the roots of the Forest. May we not at least try?"
Morrigan caught Alaric's eye. For once, she felt no resentment at the way he understood her without speaking. He gave her a slight nod.
"Yes, Lady. We will try."