"No, no, no sir! You're doin' it all wrong!"
Alistair glanced up from the cookfire, rocking back on his heels as one of the strange little men came puffing cross the clearing. They had met their new companions only that afternoon and still he had trouble telling the four little ones apart. This was the nervous one, the – well – the fat one. Right. Very welcoming.
Crouching down, he took the pot almost forcibly out of Alistair's hands. "Pardon my sayin' so, Mister Alistair, but don't you wanna be tasting it first?"
"No." He shook his head with a crooked grin. "Not at all, in fact."
Dipping the ladle into the pot, the hobbit – right, that was the word – grimaced. Still, he tried to force a smile, lips twisting painfully.
"If you don't mind me askin', sir… what is it?"
"Lamb?" If possible, the little man's eyes widened further.
"Some potatoes too, I think… a few roots maybe. It's an old Ferelden recipe. You take your ingredients, throw them in the biggest pot you can find and cook them until everything's this nice, uniform grey color."
Never had he seen such a look of horror.
"If-if it's all the same to you, sir… might I have a try? I've brought these spices from home, see? Nothin' special, but way I figure it—"
"—No one likes my cooking, do they?"
"Now-now I wouldn't say that, Mister Alistair. It's just that… maybe it could use and bit more seasonin' and…"
Alistair grinned. "It's okay. I was sort of… elected. No one else could be bothered." He glared across the clearing.
Morrigan, though, had her back to him, glowering down at a visitor of her own. She had slipped away to her tent on the edge of camp only to find it already occupied. The figure seemed to be well asleep, only a long, grey beard visible beneath his wide-brimmed hat.
"I suggest you remove yourself."
There was a faint snort, his head nodding lower.
"'Tis my tent and you are trespassing."
Still he did not stir.
"I know you can hear me, old man."
"And still you feel the need to shout." Removing the hat, he raised heavy-lidded eyes to hers, lips twitching beneath his whiskers.
"I will not be run off by some Chantry-leased—"
"—Mm. 'Chantry,' is it?" The old man pulled a pouch from his robes, busying himself with filling a long-stemmed pipe.
After a few moments of being ignored, Morrigan began to pace. "You come from the Tower, do you not?"
Still he kept his eyes to his work, tapping a finger against the bowl. "Tower? A tower, yes…"
"And you think that just because I am an apostate—?"
"'Apostate.'" He chuckled, seeming to roll the word between his lips as his whiskers puffed.
"'Tis funny to you, is it?"
"Funny? Hm." Taking a long puff, he blew a perfect ring of smoke, chuckling to himself as she swatted it away. There was riotous laughter behind her now, Morrigan's glare deepening as she stalked off into the trees.
Oghren watched her go, clapping his hand on the knee of the other dwarf. They had been sitting on the log for some time passing a flask between them. By the smell of it, it was probably best that neither of them tried to take to his feet.
"Not bad. Not bad at all." The older dwarf took a long pull, wiping the back of a hand cross his beard.
"My own recipe, y'know. Better'n anything else they got on the surface."
The strange elf crouched before them, resting elbows on his knees as he tilted his head. "It is like looking into a pair of mirrors. Did I not know better, I do not think I could tell them apart."
His companion snorted, dribbling ale into his whiskers. "Then you have obviously never experienced the camaraderie of dwarves!" He reeled with laugher, balanced only by Oghren's hand on his shoulder.
Oghren brought the flask to his lips with a snorting chuckle. "Whatsit they say? 'Dwarves will be dwarves?'"
"And elves will be elves." Seated on the ground before them, Zevran lay a lingering hand on the newcomer's arm. "We are creatures of strength… creatures of beauty, yes?"
Oghren's eyes widened, spluttering with laughter as he elbowed the other dwarf in the ribs. "Heh. 'Camaraderie.'" With a booming laugh, he toppled backward off the log.
The elf shook his head, eyes straying to the forest. "The trees are strange here. I know their names and yet they are silent."
"Ahh, I am afraid I have rather lost touch with my Elvish nature." Zevran smirked. "Perhaps you could show me?"
The other dwarf had almost righted Oghren, his renewed laughter threatening to pitch them both forward. As they made for the shadowed treeline, Zevran lay a guiding hand on the other elf's back, glancing back with a cheerful wave. "Farewell my stout, little friends!"
Stepping wide, they narrowly avoided the other pair of hobbits. They dashed cross the clearing with swords drawn, the larger of the newcome humans thundering along behind them. But his movements were slow, thrusts easily parried, his laughter mirroring their own.
"Well done, little ones! Well done!"
"For the Shire!" One of the hobbits waved his blade in the air as the other screwed up his features, darting close to give a swift kick to the man's shin. He collapsed in a chuckling heap, one of them pouncing promptly upon his chest. But the other had paused, blinking upward in wonder.
Shale gave a rumbling sigh, eyes narrowing as she glared down at him.
"Psst." Unable to pull his gaze away, the hobbit gave his companion's cloak a distracted tug.
The second hobbit turned from his tussle, mouth agape.
Even the human was watching now, sitting up to dandle an arm over his knee. "A most impressive creature."
"And I have watched It fight. It is… not without skill."
"You have my thanks." Stroking his beard, he came to his feet.
But still the hobbits stared wide-eyed, one shaking his head in wonder. "What are you?"
"I am a golem."
The other darted close, laying a hand upon Shale's leg. "Stone! Look, it's made of stone!"
The golem swatted, but the creature ducked away. "The tiny ones will stay away from me. They are pathetically easy to crush."
"But what is stone for if not for walking on?"
The second hobbit grinned. "Or riding on?"
"A splendid idea!" The human hefted both of them with ease, seeming not to notice the golem's deepening glower. "Just once round the camp, perhaps? If it's not too much trouble?"
Already the tiny creatures had taken hold, perching on Shale's shoulders, running grubby little hands over her crystals.
At the roar Leliana glanced up from her lute, but Sten was already there, he and the human bearing the hobbits out of harm's way. She chuckled beneath her breath.
Alistair sat beside her, offering her a bowl. Taking a hesitant sip, her eyes went wide. "This… this is good!"
He snorted, nodding across the fire to where another of the other hobbit was spooning stew into his sickly companion's bowl. "He made it."
"It's delicious! The best I have ever tasted!"
She giggled, but again her eyes strayed to the shadows, to the figure sitting silent and alone. Still his hood was pulled low over his eyes, gaze seeming to search the darkness as he leaned back against a jutting stone.
Alistair sighed. "Not too friendly is he?"
"His story is a sad one, I think. They say he is a king in exile, ever haunted by his fate." She smiled. "There will be great songs about him one day."
"Oh yeah? Is that how I'm supposed to act then? Skulk about in the dark, wallow in self-pity?"
She quirked a brow. "You do not do this now?"
"Oh, real funny."
"But he is… strong. I would love to tell his story."
"Riiight… I'll just… leave you to your staring then."
Leliana gave his arm a playful swat but did not take her eyes from the man.
As Alistair made his way back to the fire, he heard a rustling in the trees, saw the Elven stranger come sprinting free, turning back to the shadows with his bow drawn. Even that eternal grace seemed shaken as he sighted down the shaft.
"Oh come, I have not yet shown you the rest of my tattoos!"