A/N: A big giant thank you to Kosiah who helped me turn this story from a complete hot mess into something coherent and to Tarante11a for her insightful and helpful comments.
'Twas a beautiful autumn day, the kind that made it seem impossible to believe that Ferelden was on the cusp of a true blight with an ever-growing darkspawn horde. Although Morrigan knew it was a foolish indulgence, she couldn't stop herself from enjoying the bright afternoon sun, crisp air and vibrant leaves on the trees that arched over the long dirt road to Denerim. As she walked with the Grey Wardens and their companions, Morrigan was tempted by useless girlish whims, like shifting into a wolf to enjoy the earthy autumn scents, or a raven to soar above in the clear blue sky.
Marcus Amell's damned mabari war hound trotted alongside her, drooling and slobbering happily. The miserable beast occasionally bumped against her hip, in what Morrigan supposed was some kind of horribly misguided sign of affection. Usually, Morrigan shooed the mangy cur away, but on this day the weather made her feel generous, and if her hand occasionally strayed to the dog's meaty head for a pat or dug into her pack for a crunchy biscuit, the rest of the party was wise enough not to comment. Besides, the dog was better company, or at least much less irritating, than the rest of Amell's companions. Especially Alistair who walked ahead, telling Marcus yet another idiotic story about his boyhood at the Chantry.
"So then, Sister Marianne came running out in the courtyard screeching because her hair had turned green!" Alistair punctuated his words with widespread hands. "Once she found me, she tanned my hide and put me on chamberpot duty for a month. But truly, Marcus, it was worth it."
Marcus's plain features split into a grin. As he laughed, Morrigan's lips puckered into a scowl, fueled by the familiar twist of irritation over a friendship she did not understand.
"You are lucky that you weren't raised in the Circle, Alistair," Wynne said. "The punishments there are much worse."
"What they would do? Turn me into a toad?" Alistair cocked his head to the side as he considered the idea. "I think I would rather like being a toad. Much better than emptying chamberpots anyway."
"A toad would certainly be an improvement," Morrigan sniped. Both Grey Wardens looked back at her. Marcus sighed and shook his head, but that did not stop Morrigan from continuing. "Catching flies with your tongue would be a better use for it than prattling on like an overactive child."
"Says the woman whose personality improves when she changes into a big hairy spider," Alistair shot back.
The barbed retort died on her tongue when both Grey Wardens stopped abruptly, eyes flaring the eerie blue that warned of nearby darkspawn. The party froze and waited for Marcus's order. Even the foolish mabari stood quietly alert, twitching its ears in the direction of its master.
Alistair and Marcus drew their swords, making a slick, metallic sound that cut through the thick silence. The rest of the companions quickly followed suit.
Sten's violet eyes scanned the thick forest to the east and the rolling hills to the west. "How many, Kadan?"
"A hundred at least, coming from the east." Marcus gestured towards the trees. "They must have broken off from the main horde."
Oghren scratched his filthy beard with dirty fingernails. "It's about time we got some sodding action. All this quiet's been making me twitchy."
Shale's voice was an odd combination of smoke and stone. "I agree with the drunken dwarf. It has been too quiet since we left Redcliffe and I wish to crush more heads."
"Can we avoid them?" Morrigan wondered if she was the only one in the group with even a little common sense.
Alistair shot her one of his ineffectual glares, before turning to the man he followed like a lost pup. Even the devoted mabari was less dependent on Marcus than Alistair; although Morrigan had to admit this was less true now than when she had first met the pair of men. Morrigan thought the change was probably due to Marcus's influence more than any desire of Alistair's for independence.
"If we let them pass," Alistair said, "they're going to tear through everything and everyone in their path!"
"'Tis impractical to fight a battle now if we can avoid it, when we are so close to your goal." And close to her own as well. Morrigan was not about to let Alistair's conscience get in the way of her true purpose. "The Arl is waiting for us in Denerim to call the Landsmeet. Surely, uniting your country is more important than saving a few inconsequential peasants."
"Protecting inconsequential peasants from darkspawn is what Grey Wardens do!" Alistair snapped.
"Always heroics and never practicalities. Ferelden will be truly blessed when you are made King."
Alistair clutched his chest. "You wound me with your scathing wit. I think I may go cry now."
Marcus cut across their bickering. "Enough! The pack has sensed us and turned. They'll be on us in a matter of minutes. There's no avoiding them."
Sten gestured toward the rolling hills. "Then we should use the terrain to our advantage."
With one last warning look for the both of them, Marcus turned from Alistair and Morrigan to the Qunari, conferring with Sten about the best place to set up a defensive position. Morrigan and Alistair exchanged silent glares. Once a defensive spot was chosen, they all fell into place: Wynne and Morrigan behind the others. Marcus, who foolishly preferred to use a blade just as much as his formidable magic, stood at the head of the group next to Alistair.
The darkspawn pack did not bother to move quietly, and soon Morrigan could hear them in the distance, crashing headlong through the brush and trees along with their hungry grunts and gibbering growls. Even though Morrigan had faced darkspawn countless times over the last year that she had traveled with the Grey Wardens, she was still unnerved by the unnatural sounds they made.
In front of her, the mabari growled. The sound came low from deep within the dog's belly and Morrigan somehow found it reassuring, telling herself that it was only because it came from an animal not twisted by the taint. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with any real affection for the flea-ridden hound.
Marcus said in a low voice, "Hold, boy. Not yet."
The mabari let out a whine and looked up at its master, but it obeyed and held its ground.
When first wave emerged from the trees, Morrigan began to murmur a chant. On one side of her, she felt magic surge from Wynne, splitting and cracking the earth ahead of them and sending the darkspawn tumbling to the ground. On the other, she could hear Leliana firing off rapid shots, each twang of her longbow followed by a screech of pain from a darkspawn dropping to the ground. The air heated between Morrigan's hands and she released the fireball, sending it careening over the heads of her companions into the darkspawn midst, where it made a very satisfying explosion that lit their enemies on fire.
But still more came, right on the first wave's heels. They didn't slow down, trampling over their fallen brethren as they charged. The howling, snarling mob overwhelmed the small band of defenders, crashing into the melee line with the force of an an avalanche. And then, time crystallized into small, sharp fragments as Morrigan focused on staying alive.
She caught only glimpses of her companions. The giant Qunari hefting his enormous sword back and slamming the pommel into an enemy's face that exploded in a shower of blood and teeth. Frost magic flowing from Marcus's outstretched hand, followed by his striking sword shattering their foes into bloody, frozen pieces. At Marcus's back, Alistair, fending off no less than three darkspawn with Branka's heavy shield. Leliana, burying her flashing daggers into a darkspawn's back and the mabari ripping it's throat out when it fell to the ground.
A darkspawn lunged for Morrigan's face, sharp teeth snapping before the air charged and Morrigan let the lightning cascade through the darkspawn's body. The fighting continued, for how long Morrigan did not know. Until fatigue began to make it more difficult to launch her spells. Until her arms started to grow weary from the weight of her staff. Until her clothing was soaked with sweat and enemy blood. Until the companions were spread further and further apart and the darkspawn pressed closer and closer in.
Morrigan had just crushed the skull of another attacker with her staff when she felt the ground under her feet shake. 'Twas Wynne's spell again, or so she thought, until she saw Wynne herself, blue eyes wide, shouting and waving a warning that Morrigan could not make out over the roar of the battle. And then Wynne launched a bolt of raw arcane magic that zipped past Morrigan's ear towards something right behind her.
Morrigan turned in time to see the ogre's large hand come down, but she was not fast enough to stop its enormous, meaty fingers from grabbing her around the waist and picking her up in the air. The creature's fat fingers, each as thick as small trees, tightened around her, squeezing the air out of her lungs, splintering her focus and making it impossible to even murmur a spell in self defense. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the other hand rise, curl into a fist, and come straight for her head.
Morrigan swung her staff around and thrust the sharp end at the ogre's face. She felt, rather than saw, it connect from the shockwave that went up her arm. The ogre let out a furious bellow, its hot, putrid breath and spittle washing over her face, and then it hurled her to the ground. Morrigan's forehead slammed against something harder than dirt, and for a second she lay dazed, bruised and bloody as she struggled to regain her breath and her wits.
The ogre ripped her staff out of its fat, bloody cheek and charged again, moving faster than Morrigan would have thought possible for a creature that size. She scrabbled on her hands and knees, trying to get away, the fear of being crushed cutting through her haze of pain, fueling her instinct to survive. But the ogre bellowed and charged, and Morrigan realized she wasn't going to be able to get out of the way in time. She braced herself for the mighty blow she knew was coming.
But then the creature stopped, stood straight up, and howled. Its meaty paws clutched at its back and as it turned around, Morrigan could see the Mabari hanging from the ogre's back by the sheer strength of his powerful jaws. The ogre swung side to side, trying to shake the big dog off, finally managing to do so, but at the cost of having a giant strip of blue flesh tear off its massive frame. The Mabari landed easily on all fours and an eye-blink later sprang again. This time he went for the ogre's heel and the tender tendon at the base of the ankle. His teeth found their mark and with another tear of flesh and tendon, the giant horror fell, shaking the ground once more.
The Mabari moved in for the kill as Morrigan staggered to her feet on wobbly legs. The dog lunged at the ogre's exposed neck, but the ogre struck first, its enormous hand still clutching the jagged, bloody end of Morrigan's staff. It timed its strike perfectly, spearing the dog clean through its side and tossing both away like a broken toy.
The sound of pain the hound made was the most terrible thing Morrigan had ever heard. The anguished howl seemed to echo through the road-turned-battlefield, drawing everyone's attention. Every single one of them began to fight their way toward their fallen comrade.
Except for Morrigan. She knew that others like Wynne would be able to help the Mabari more now. As for her, she was going to make the ogre pay for what it had done.
Her fury helped her focus through the pain and exhaustion, as she drew the arcane energy into her body through her blood and flesh and veins until it reached the tipping point. One moment she was human, the next she was not.
Eight legs launched her high into the air at the ogre who was starting to sit up again. Morrigan landed directly on the ogre's chest, the sharp talons of her front two legs impaling its hairless blue flesh. It roared and tried to swing at her the way it had at the Mabari, but Morrigan was ready. Her mandibles opened and she spat her sticky web out of her maw, catching one thick arm and then the other in her web. And once the Ogre was secure, she skittered up to its bloated, disgusting, twisted face and took her revenge.
She spat acid into the giant's eyes and as it started screeching, she began to rip it apart with her mandibles and barbs, oblivious to everything else around her. At some point the ogre fell limp and died, but Morrigan continued to tear it apart until Marcus's deep, sharp voice cracked through her rage.
"Morrigan, stop! It's dead, dammit!"
She looked over at the arcane warrior, his image refracting in too many dark eyes. She wanted to spit her acid at him too, but the dark look on his face mirrored the darkness in her heart, and as quickly as it came, her rage was gone.
With a hiss, she moved off the ogre's body and released the magic, becoming mostly human once again. It took her a few seconds to realize that the battle was over. She tried to wipe the blood off her face with the back of her hand, but really only managed to smear it more. Marcus didn't say anything further, he just turned away and stalked over to where his dog lay on the ground, surrounded by the circle of their companions. Morrigan followed him in silence.
By the time they reached the others, Wynne was already snapping orders. Leliana and Zevran began to build a campfire, as Oghren brought out a cooking pot and filled it with clean water from one of their drinking skins. Alistair and Sten unfolded one of the tents from their packs, while Shale dragged crushed bodies away from their makeshift campsite, muttering about squishy bodies and their disgusting fluids as she worked.
Marcus and Morrigan knelt next to the wounded dog. Morrigan's staff stuck out of the Mabari's side still. When the Mabari saw his master, he whined and tried to lift his head, but Marcus soothed him by running his large hands along the dog's thick neck and murmuring soft, reassuring words.
Wynne's eyes met Marcus's. "I fear this wound is very serious, and I have little skill when it comes to healing animals."
"Just do what you can, Wynne," Marcus said in a voice hoarse. "And give me something to do. Please."
She nodded, and Morrigan blurted out, "I, too, wish to help."
Wynne gave her an appraising look. "Bring me my herb bag if you can find it, and as much boiling water and clean bandages as you can manage. Marcus, you can help me with the healing magics."
As Wynne and Marcus began to draw the energies necessary to help the Mabari, Morrigan went to fill Wynne's request. By the time she returned, Alistair and Sten had already pitched the tent around them, hiding the mages and the dog from view. Morrigan handed the supplies through the flap and bothered them no further. Her limited healing abilities, in addition to the cramped space of the tent, would just put her in the way.
The others gathered by the fire, the darkspawn bodies having been dragged to a gully not too far away. There was none of the usual camp talk that Morrigan usually tried to avoid. Words were few and terse as they set watch, settled in, and did the things that were necessary: establishing a perimeter, cleaning and oiling weapons and gear, setting up tents, making food, and anything else that would keep their hands busy. Anything else that would keep them from thinking about what was happening.
Morrigan found a nearby stream and cleaned herself the best she could, then kept busy by pitching her tent next to the others. For once she told herself it would be too dangerous to camp on her own, since there might be stragglers from the pack they'd just killed. It was most certainly not because she found her companions' presence comforting as she fretted for the life of a silly domesticated wolf.
Dusk came, and eventually so did full night. The moon had crept almost halfway across the star-strewn sky when the tent flap opened. Both the Grey Warden and the healer emerged, and Morrigan knew from the look on their faces that the dog was lost.
Leliana was the first to react, her piercing sob cutting through the shocked silence. She moved away blindly from the others as she cried, and for once Morrigan suppressed her urge to snap at the bard. Morrigan thought Marcus might rush after the girl, but it was the Qunari who moved first stopping her at the edge of the flickering firelight by putting a hand on her shoulder. When Leliana closed her eyes and leaned against his chest, he said just loud enough for Morrigan to hear, "The Mabari died like a true warrior. It was a good death."
Wynne blinked and looked up at Marcus. "I'm so sorry." The old woman tottered from exhaustion and Marcus slid his arm around her waist and held her upright.
"You did everything you could, and now you need to rest." He motioned to Zevran with his free hand. It was still covered in the dog's blood.
Zevran nodded and offered his arm with a flourish. "This way, my darling Wynne. You have done enough today, so let Zevran take care of you." The old mage took the elf's arm and let him lead her away.
Oghren rose, tossing the axe he'd been obsessively polishing to the ground. "Stupid, sodding, nug-humping, pants-stealing dog!" He bent and started digging through his pack that seemed to hold his never ending supply of disgusting spirits.
Shale turned to Marcus, her eyes glowing blue in the dark. "What does it wish to do with the creature's body?"
Marcus sighed and wiped his hands with a rag, scrubbing the spaces between his fingers. His hands and voice were steady, but the tension in his broad shoulders betrayed his pain and exhaustion. "We'll bury him over by those trees. I just need to..." he trailed off and shook his head.
Shale looked at the Grey Warden. "I will dig a hole and gather some stones while it rests."
"I'll help," Alistair said as he clasped Oghren on the shoulder and pulled him to his feet. "Go on, Oghren. You can help too."
"Get yer sodding hands off me, ya little pike twirler." He jerked his arm away and clenched the wine skin in his hairy hand. "I'm coming," he grumbled.
Alistair shook his head and watched the dwarf follow the golem into the dark, before turning back to Marcus. The bastard princeling wore the same expression that he'd had when he'd awoken after Ostagar. "I'm so sorry, my friend. I can't believe that he's gone."
Marcus nodded, his expression still blank, but his voice now thick. "I can't either."
Emotions that were unfamiliar and unwelcome flooded Morrigan. It made her furious. "All of this hand wringing over that Mabari. Ridiculous!"
Alistair turned to her. His face was twisted by anger and grief. "It's not ridiculous, and if you had any heart at all, you'd know that!"
Morrigan began to tremble, but she jerked her chin up to conceal her hated weakness. "It wasn't a wild thing worthy of respect, but a greedy, smelly and over-domesticated beast." Her voice broke. "'Twas just a dog."
Alistair exploded in a rage she had never seen before and would not have thought him capable of. "He saved your life, you horrible bitch! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Morrigan's voice rose, becoming more and more shrill. "I did not ask him to save me. The fool creature should have looked out for itself."
Alistair stabbed his finger at her. "He was probably the only one of us who actually liked you, but to you the dog was as inconsequential as any peasants that ogre could have ripped apart. I can't believe -"
Alistair stopped abruptly and gaped at her, mouth hanging slack. In another circumstance, Morrigan would have found his expression priceless, but at the moment it just caused more anger and confusion. She blinked at the two men staring at her. She didn't realize that she was crying until Marcus's rough fingers brushed her wet cheek.
"I... uh... I'm going to go help the others now." Alistair looked away and cleared his throat. "Right."
Alistair stalked off, to Morrigan's great relief, for she was certain she could not take any bumbling attempts at kindness that he might feel obligated to make.
Marcus cupped her face in his hand, and said softly, "It wasn't your fault. No one blames you, Morrigan."
Morrigan looked up at the man, who under a different set of circumstances she could have allowed to be more than just a warm body in a cold tent. She wanted to lean against him, to take real comfort from another person for once. She even wanted to give Marcus comfort in return for the pain she knew he must be feeling too. But there was too much between them for that now. Maybe there always had been.
For Morrigan, there were too many years of training by Flemeth, to whom men were just another resource to gather, use, and discard as necessary. For Marcus, too many years of teachings in the Circle by pompous, self-righteous scholars, breeding a mistrust of all apostate magics. And then there was Morrigan's true purpose which, once revealed, she knew he'd never forgive her for.
No, 'twas was best to keep at a distance, to spare herself from the pain that would inevitably come. But perhaps it was already too late for that. After all, she never expected to feel this kind of pain over one silly dog. It did not bode well for the future.
"Good," she snapped as she stepped back out of his reach. "Now leave me be."
Marcus's jaw clenched. He looked at her in silence for many long and agonizing seconds, before throwing the bloody rag he'd been clutching into the dirt.
"As you wish," he ground out, before turning and going after the others, leaving Morrigan alone by the campfire.
She stalked away in the other direction. A few heartbeats later, she was a sleek wolf running through the forest, circling farther and farther from the camp, toying with the idea of abandoning her mother's plan completely and disappearing into the night. But instead she stopped at the top of a nearby hill, where she could see the camp from a distance, watching and listening with her animal senses.
By the light of the makeshift torches that the dwarf and the elf held, Marcus carried his dog's body and laid the Mabari gently in the hole as the rest of the companions watched in silence. Leliana murmured some useless words about her Maker and then Marcus grabbed the spade and began to fill the hole. When others offered to help, he merely shook his head and said that it was something that he had to do on his own.
Eventually, he finished and the others helped build the cairn with the stones Shale had gathered. Then one by one they went back to the camp fire, except for Marcus, who sat on a nearby boulder and kept vigil over his lost dog.
Morrigan could contain her grief no further. She howled to the moon that hung in the sky above. It echoed down the hills and through the nearby forest. By the light of the moon, Morrigan could see Marcus stand when he heard the lonely sound. He looked toward the woods as though he was trying to make her out, but she moved away into the shadows. Eventually, with a shake of his head, he returned to the rock. For the rest of the night Morrigan prowled, letting the wolf's solitary, predatory nature push out her human grief as she hunted under the trees until the morning came.