A/N: Reports of my demise have been non existent. I apologize for the extensive delays.

Chapter 8 - An Affectionate Companion

It had taken them all night to make their way out of the Wilds. More than once, as she tripped and fell time after time in the marshes of the Wilds, Melwiliel marveled at Morrigan's knowledge of these woods, completely awed and humbled by her sense of direction and her ability to distinguish wetland from bog. Progress was slow, however, much to the swamp witch's disapproval, and every time Mel stumbled, the stern rebuttal was audible in the sharp 'tsk'. Weighed down by her heartache, pessimism, despair and her sodden robes, the elven mage felt the need to review the chain of events which had led her here.

Those long days, spent scurrying from one class to another, followed by quiet evenings during which she poured over countless scrolls and books… They seemed to have taken place a lifetime ago, and although she would never have admitted it, Mel still nursed the tender hope that she would wake up from all this, only to discover that all this nonsense regarding Blights and darkspawn had been but a dream, the product of a particularly vivid history book. No such luck so far. Gone were the earnest prayers for Jowan's safety; the young girl was now holding him responsible for all her woes, and resolved to beat him into a bloody pulp with her staff when she saw him next. *If* she ever saw him again, she amended soberly.

As Melwiliel lurched forward, irritating Morrigan even further, she suddenly noticed that Alistair was no longer in front of her. He was now beside her, observing her gingerly. Mel couldn't decide which was more annoying: that she had allowed her attention to waver, or that he was studying her as if she were some dangerous specimen.

"What is it?!" she snapped, a bit vexed.

"Well, … I'd offer a hand to help you steady yourself, but with that look on your face, I was afraid you'd bite me." His lopsided smirk did nothing for her mood, but she simply sighed and took the arm he held out. Melwiliel even managed not to cringe. In truth, his assistance was not required for long as the swamp soon gave way to greener lowlands, but it was certainly welcome. Between the toll her wounds had taken on her strength and the night's long walk, she was utterly exhausted. Alistair had insisted they should keep going, but now that dawn was approaching, Melwiliel had hoped for some respite.

"How much further, Alistair?"

The former templar's eyes were out of focus, as if he could see further away than any of them. "A little longer," he said simply, all traces of the earlier humor completely vanished.

She hoped it wouldn't be too long: her pack's straps seemed to be sawing their way through her shoulders, and she was certain she had never walked so much in her entire life.

Alistair was true to his word and called a halt before too long. The trio managed to find a dry patch and settled down around the fire pit Morrigan was digging. As the two Wardens spread out their bedrolls close to it, the Witch of the Wilds straightened, eyeing them each in turn.

"Well, if I am to travel with you, I suppose 'twould be wiser for me to replenish my herb stores. I cannot imagine either of you will go long without needing my potions." And with that, she vanished in the dense lowland vegetation, leaving two dumbfounded Wardens behind her.

It took them a few minutes to recover before they shifted and stared at each other in amazement.

"Does she truly mean to stay with us beyond Lothering?" asked Melwiliel.

"It sure seems like it."

They sat in silence, slowly digesting the implications. Gradually, the mage came to a realization.

"We *could* use the help, Alistair."

"What ?!" The former templar was positively fuming. "Have you gone completely insane? You know very well what amount of trouble that could get us in! She's an *apostate*, for crying out loud, and it's bad enough that…" He trailed off, looking rather sheepish.

"What's bad enough?" hissed the young woman. "That I'm an elf? Or that I'm a *mage*."

"Oh stop it, you know I didn't mean it like that," sputtered Alistair.

"Do I?"

"You know perfectly well there'll be a Chantry there, and possibly templars, and you know as I do what templars do to apostates, to mages outside the Circle!"

"And here I thought I was a Warden now!"

"You ARE!"

"Lovers' quarrels?"

Neither Alistair nor Mel had heard Morrigan's stealthy return, and such was their surprise that they didn't quite register her gratuitous joke at their expense. Alistair stood and Melwiliel followed suit soon after.

"Do you mean to travel with us, then? After Lothering, I mean" he asked, crossing his arms in front of him.

"'Tis the notion, yes. Was Mother not clear when she said 'take Morrigan with you'?"

"But I thought… don't you…" He faltered. "Help me out here, Mel."

"What he means to say is that we had understood that you would only lead us out of the Wilds and guide us to Lothering, no further." Melwiliel had tried to phrase that as diplomatically as possible.

"Well, of course, but 'tis my understanding that you are in great need of assistance. Besides, 'twas Mother's idea, and I intend to do as she commanded. You would not be foolish enough to refuse aid when it is offered?" The golden-eyed woman arched an eyebrow and shifted her gaze to Alistair. "Well… perhaps he would be" she amended.

Swiftly elbowing her companion in the ribs before he could protest, Mel did the only thing she could think of. Against her better judgement, she accepted.

"Well, it's settled then, Morrigan." And without missing a beat, she pulled her fellow Warden aside.

'Listen Alistair, I like it as little as you do, but she does have a point." The words tumbled out unceasingly. "We can't do this alone, and apostate or no, we're going to need *help*. Besides, remember what Flemeth said; I wouldn't be surprised if she had talents other than herblore."

The former templar just rolled his eyes and sighed. "We're going to regret this, you know."

"What choice do we have?" she whispered.

Those softly spoken words hung in the air, and Alistair could only nod soberly. They stood there in silence for a few minutes, the seriousness of their situation sinking in anew, as if the hours of trekking through the Wilds had somewhat lessened the urgency of their predicament.

"Maybe she can cook," quipped Alistair.

And then Mel swayed, lightheaded and drained.

"Maybe you should get some rest before we move on," he told her with a gentle smile. Mel found his tone mocking and a bit condescending, but she didn't have the strength to fight back.

"Yes, I think you're right."

After a brief rest, some water and rations, the three of them got back on the road. The notion was to reach Lothering before nightfall, if at all possible. Mel had removed her shoes during their break and putting them back had been almost more than she could bear. To add insult to injury, Alistair had actually looked at her askance, an eyebrow raised. "You're going to need real boots." As much as it grieved her to admit it, he had a point. Those shoes were made for Circle hallways, not Wilds marshes. They were even beginning to show signs of wear that only result from years of shuffling in the Circle's libraries.

At this stage, though, there was nothing to be done. Mel hoped they would be able to find a cobbler in Lothering. Barring that, perhaps some of the folk would be willing to sell theirs. As she pondered where she'd find new footwear, the young mage was completely oblivious to the rustling in the nearby vegetation. Only Alistair's cry of alarm pulled here from her reverie.

"Darkspawn!"

As she fumbled for her staff, she saw Alistair already had sword and shield at the ready. Off to the side, Morrigan was readying a spell Mel recognized as a hex of some sort. When two taller darkspawn burst out towards them, they were ready. Between Alistair's confident sword strikes, Morrigan's hex and frost spells and Mel's arcane bolts, the hurlocks were soon felled.

Alistair approached one of the darkspawn, turning it over gingerly with his foot. Curious, Mel joined him.

"How come I didn't sense them?" she asked, somewhat disappointed.

The young man looked up and stared at her blankly. "What do you mean?"

"When we went searching for the treaties, you said Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn. Well I'm a Grey Warden now, why can't I sense them?" It was all very new and incredibly puzzling to her. She didn't like that. "I couldn't feel a thing at the Tower of Ishal but I thought today…"

Unfortunately, Alistair wasn't very helpful. He just shrugged. "Well, it's different for everybody, and it doesn't always happen right away. And it'll be easier when you're faced with larger groups. There were only two here."

Mel shivered. "I'm not in a hurry to be 'faced with larger groups' again…"

"Yes, well, we won't have much of a choice, it's what Wardens *do*." Alistair reminded her as he bent over to clean his sword on the grass. "We better get moving. These could be scouts, maybe there's an emissary nearby, and-"

Once more, there was a faint rustling nearby. This time, the mage was immediately on alert.

"But I didn't feel anything!" sputtered the young man.

"Darkspawn aren't the only thing that inhabit these parts, you fool!" cried Morrigan.

The three of them waited, tensed and anxious, for what seemed an eternity.

Until a mabari hound jumped out, barking happily and bounding towards Melwiliel.

Sighing in relief, they eyed the new arrival. Morrigan lost interest rapidly, turning instead to some elfroot growing near the pathway. Alistair took a step back, crossed his arms and eyed the hound skeptically. Mel, however, was curious: she knelt to the ground and studied the large mabari. He seemed overjoyed to see her.

"I think he's from the kennels at Ostagar!" She held out a hand, which the hound eagerly sniffed before nuzzling against it. His little stump of a tail wagged so hard, she thought his entire body should be vibrating.

"Careful, he might bite," claimed the overly cautious Warden.

"Don't be silly, Alistair." The young mage felt a smile begin to curl her lips. "I think he likes me." She tentatively reached out, letting fingers touch fur, and started scratching. Mel hadn't thought it possible, but the Mabari's tail wagged even harder.

"Oh, you're such a good dog, aren't you?" she cooed. She hadn't thought *that* possible either, and yet here she was. "You came all the way from Ostagar to find us, didn't you?"

The hound gave a short yap, which very clearly meant 'yes'. "I think he was looking for you, specifically," added Alistair. "You do know Mabari choose their masters for life, don't you?" He sounded sullen, but she barely paid attention.

"I do!" exclaimed Mel, still looking and petting the dog. He seemed to like that, and it was incredibly cathartic after all that had happened. "It's called imprinting."

"Lucky you." Though Alistair was being sarcastic, she knew she was. Mabaris were war hounds, after all, and fiercely loyal to their masters. She already felt somewhat safer, as silly as that would've sounded.

Behind them, they heard Morrigan scoff. "How odd. We now have a dog and Alistair is still the dumbest one in the party."

Alistair rolled his eyes but said nothing.

"It's settled then, you're coming with us!" Mel took a quick peek. "So how are we going to call you, you good boy, you ?!" She had both hands behind his ears now. As she rubbed, she gave it some thought. "How about… 'Calenhad'? And perhaps 'Calen' for short?"

Alistair was bewildered. "You're naming him after a *lake*?"

"No," replied Melwiliel, somewhat annoyed. "I'm naming him after a *king*. Didn't the templars teach you anything?"

"Oh. Right." Well, at least he had the good sense to sound sheepish. The Mabari seemed to approve the name, so that was that. Her very own Mabari. Mel felt as if this whole endeavor was like something out of her books.

The Witch of the Wilds had long since finished her elfroot harvest and was growing impatient, though. "If you all are quite finished catching fleas from the mongrel, perhaps we could keep moving? Perhaps reach Lothering before nightfall?"

And they did. With one hand on her staff and the other curled in the Mabari's fur, Melwiliel walked in the small village of Lothering, a former templar and an apostate in tow.