Author's Note: This follows on, weirdly enough, from the first volume of Feasting on Dreams, which runs through my take on the City Elf origin up to the aftermath of Ostagar. Thanks to all who read and reviewed, and I hope you enjoy the next instalment of Merien's continuing journey. If you haven't read the first volume, it isn't necessary, but you can find it listed on my profile. Enjoy! ~ana

Disclaimer: As ever, I own nothing you recognise.

Feasting on Dreams: The Book of Merien Tabris


I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope.
~ Aeschylus, Agamemnon


It was going to be a long walk to Lothering, and the Korcari Wilds were every bit as inhospitable as I remembered. The damp and the cold permeated everything, a thin film of wet clinging to each branch and vine, and the smell of dank earth rising to greet me with every soggy footfall.

We trudged on into the night, no one saying much. Alistair was still silent, his face closed in and his eyes barely seeming to focus on the path ahead of him. I wanted to talk to him, to try and… well, offer some kind of comfort, I suppose, though I didn't know how. Was it enough to say that I'd lost people too? Probably not. The thing about grief is how it convinces you that your own experience is completely unique, no matter what anyone else has lived through. Selfish, in its way, perhaps.

Still, he worried me. The horrors of Ostagar were fresh and raw for both of us, but I remembered how he'd taken charge at the Tower of Ishal, and the look on his face when the men who'd so willingly followed him started dying.

Then, of course, there were the other losses. Finding out about Duncan, the king, and the rest of the Grey Wardens the way he had must have been difficult. He would bear guilt, and shame, and all other manner of scars that weren't entirely rational, but were no less painful for it. Wondering if he could have run faster, or been cleverer, or stopped it happening in the first place… and so forth, I imagined, and tried to blink the thoughts away.

Maybe it was part of the reason for his obvious antipathy towards Morrigan. Easier to blame the messenger—or the messenger's daughter, in this case—than chew on the bitter fruit of the message itself… not to mention the whole templar thing.

Back in the safe, stone walls of the army camp, he'd told me joining the Chantry hadn't been his idea. I'd given it little thought at the time; just assumed it was something the lower gentry did with spare sons they either couldn't be bothered, or couldn't afford, to marry off or equip as knights. Alistair certainly didn't seem the pious type, though he clearly harboured a deep-rooted suspicion of magic. I couldn't say I blamed him for that, though I reminded myself how little I really knew about my comrade.

Strange, when I thought of how many times he'd saved my life at the tower. Though large parts of the battle were lost to me, choked off in smoke-filled smears of memory, I remembered that. Him, hauling me up off a blood-slicked floor, and shoving me behind him when the arrows flew, and the darkspawn poured through the doors, intent on ripping us to pieces.

I'd never seen anyone fight like that. Whether Alistair had gained his training through the Chantry or the Grey Wardens, it was impressive—although, looking at him now, it was hard to believe he could actually swing a sword.

He'd barely spoken since we left Flemeth's hut, and almost everything he'd said before that had been bile and fury about Loghain's treachery and how we had to bring him to account for what he'd done. That… or sniping at Morrigan.

I hadn't expected that. They were like a couple of children, flinging mud at each other across the cobbles.

He didn't trust her—and, I had to admit, neither did I—but was it really sensible to make it so obvious?

I watched her as we plodded through rut after muddy rut, the trees dripping and creaking all around us. Just as when she'd led us out of the Wilds before, the night of the Joining, she took turns and twists through the trees that were hard to even see if you didn't know they were there. She never looked back to check we were still following, or to warn us about low-hanging boughs or brambles, or the inevitable horrible scuttling things that seemed to keep running over my feet.

I'd never liked bugs. Back home, we had far too many infestations of things, from fleas, lice and bedbugs, right up to woodworm, cockroaches, and those beetles that used to eat the ends out of timbers. Landlords would never pay to have them treated, even when the ceiling beams fell in, as had happened to a cousin of Father's once. That had been a memorable winter; nine of us, crammed in under our roof, with Aunt Elina's new baby screaming all night on an empty belly. Two months, they boarded with us, until they could find a new place.

Funny, how memories like that poke out at you from unexpected corners of the past. Here I was, slogging along in this forsaken wilderness—in armour that didn't fit and was riddled with arrow-holes and tears, and stained with the blood of horrific creatures that, until recently, I hadn't even believed were really real—and I should have been completely consumed with thoughts of what lay ahead of us. Alistair and I were the only surviving Grey Wardens left in Ferelden. We were facing the cold reality of a new Blight which, thanks to Teyrn Loghain, was coming at the worst possible moment… and all I could think about was the winter there was a plague of rot beetle in the tenements.

The ridiculous thing was that, now I was thinking about it, I found that I missed the alienage more than ever. I ached for the comfortable familiarity of worn wood, crumbling mortar, and the shadows of Denerim's skyline, with its patchwork of parapets and towers.

But we kept walking and, every time the breeze caught at Morrigan's robes, I thought of the sound of wet washing flapping on lines strung between cracked wooden window frames.

It made sense to follow her until we got out of the Wilds, though Alistair hadn't seemed able to let the matter pass without a muttered comment about lion's dens and, as he put it, waking up dead in time for breakfast.

I said nothing, not prepared to stand buffer between the two of them. Besides, part of me doubted his bluster was all to do with ambivalence towards mages. I supposed it was only to be expected. Her manner might have been more than a touch abrasive but, for all her unknown and potentially dangerous qualities, Morrigan was still a woman. That, at least, was undeniable.

It was in every detail of her appearance: the luxuriant dark hair, twisted into a wild knot on the crown of her head, the livid bands of shadow that graced her pale, proud face… the thick, tactile fabrics of her robes—feathers, furs, and leather set against soft, white skin—and the generous curves beneath them. If I'd noticed the plunging neckline and the barely contained, swelling bosom, augmented with glittering jewellery, it a pretty safe bet that her assets hadn't escaped Alistair's attention either. And, as far as I knew, all the bickering could have been some peculiar human courtship ritual.

I smiled to myself at that thought, as yet more muddy water seeped into my boots.


"Hm?" I blinked, realising that he was looking at me quizzically. "Oh… er, nothing. Just thinking."

Something wet and stagnant dripped off the trees that arched above us. Alistair wrinkled his nose.

"Right. Fond thoughts about decent food and dry socks, yes?"

I smiled, glad to catch a glimpse of the man I'd met at the army camp, still there somewhere behind those tired, dull eyes.

"Mm. Clean clothes," I added wistfully.

"Sausages," Alistair volunteered, gazing into the distance. "And cheese. I miss cheese."

I chuckled. "Anyone would think you hadn't eaten in a week."

"Well?" He quirked an eyebrow. "Would you call army rations 'eating'?"

He had a point. Back home, we were used to the realities of hunger, but there was a difference between having too little to start with, and doing whatever it was that the mess hall servers had done to perfectly good provisions.

I opened my mouth to reply, but Morrigan's voice cut across the damp air before I had a chance.

"You two may wish to save your salivations for later. There are still plenty of darkspawn we shall have to get you past before we can rest tonight."

"But… the horde will have moved on, won't it?" I furrowed my brow. "I mean, I know we're not in much shape to fight, but there shouldn't be—"


She gave a crisp laugh, then turned and looked back at us, her expression shifting slowly from enquiry to something rather more self-satisfied.

"Truly? You haven't told her, then?"

"Er, told me what?"

"My, my…." Morrigan shook her head. "How lax! Do the Grey Wardens teach their raw recruits nothing? How do they expect you to survive?"

"What does she mean?" I looked sharply at Alistair. "What—"

"All right, all right." He sighed wearily. "Look… do you remember me saying that Grey Wardens can… sense the darkspawn?"

"Ye-es," I said slowly, not sure I liked where this was going.

"Right. Well, it means that, in return, they can sense us."


"Yes." A weak, humourless smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Just one of the things you, er, should have been told. Would have been told. It's… normally not so much a case of just throwing you in at the deep end and… well, you know. After the battle, Duncan would've—"

Alistair's voice tightened, and he broke off, blinking hard. I nodded as sympathetically as I could.

"I understand. There's… time, anyway," I added hesitantly.

There wasn't, frankly. We were pushing ourselves hard, meaning to leave the Wilds behind us by dawn and make for Lothering, then Redcliffe, as quickly as possible. I still had it in my head that the Grey Warden reinforcements would be coming from Orlais and—if Alistair was right about this Arl Eamon, and we could expect his support—our job was to pass on the information we had, and the treaties, and let the experts take over.

If I'd known then even a half of what we would end up confronting, I would probably have fainted, face down in the mud.


Some way on, towards the edge of the Wilds, we came across the deserted husk of a Chasind village, the abandoned huts perched on their strange wooden stilts like despondent jesters. There was no sign of the inhabitants but, comfortingly, no sign of any bodies or bloodshed, either.

"They've fled the darkspawn, probably," Alistair said, casting a wary glance at the tree line. "Who knows how far north the horde's moved already."

Morrigan turned in a slow circle, almost as if she was sniffing the air.

"The place seems empty enough for now," she observed. "'Twould be sensible to see if there's anything left here we can use."

"What?" Alistair scoffed incredulously. "You're suggesting we do a quick spot of breaking and entering while we've got the chance?"

She looked coolly at the pair of us—standing there in our wrecked armour and bloodstained clothes—and shrugged dismissively.

"I care not what you do. Wait until we reach Lothering, if you desire, and purchase whatever supplies you require there."

I sighed, and dropped my pack to the ground, where it landed with a damp thud. "She has a point, Alistair. We haven't any money, anyway."

He gave me a disconsolate look, and I wasn't sure whether it came more from offended morals, or the fact that Morrigan had made a valid argument.

"Great," he said bleakly. "'Join the Grey Wardens. See the world. Loot the homes of the destitute.'"

I shot him a reproachful look. "Whoever lived here, it looks like they left by choice. They probably didn't leave much of value behind and, anyway, you don't think we're just a tiny bit destitute ourselves?"

He looked me up and down, and there must have been something amusing about it—the mud, the bits of twig, the ill-fitting armour falling off my skinny frame—because a small smile curled his mouth.

"You could say that, I suppose."

"If it eases your pricked consciences," Morrigan called, raising her voice as she stepped into the first hut, "we could always leave Alistair behind as payment. Who knows, someone might find a use for him. If they ever return, that is."

He snorted and, looking at me, narrowed his eyes mischievously. "Maybe we could make a break for it while she's occupied…."

"Only if she gets distracted by something shiny," I muttered, and we were both trying to disguise sniggers when she ducked out of the hut, carrying an armful of grubby hides.

I'd noticed that about Morrigan; for a woman who'd allegedly been raised in the fierce isolation of the Wilds, she was very particular over her looks. Her heavy necklaces and thick, silver bangles might at first glance have seemed to be tokens of arcane significance—there were certainly more than a few odd runes and sigils on show—but I smelled more than that.

Back home, girls used to fight like dogs over a good piece of dress fabric or a simple bit of jewellery and, though I might not have had much myself, I knew a gewgaw when I saw one.

We set to work, anyway, and the Chasind huts did eventually yield a few useful items, but not much more than blankets and a couple of cooking pots. I'd been hoping for something waterproof and maybe a pair of boots that might fit, but it seemed the Wilders had taken almost everything with them.

Still, it made for somewhere reasonably comfortable to stop for a couple of hours' rest. A little eerie, perhaps, but no worse than trying to bivouac under the trees. Nights in the Wilds were close, black, and very cold, and we couldn't risk lighting much of a fire. The wood was all too damn damp to get going properly, for a start.

Nevertheless, it was pleasant enough. The anaemic little fire's guttering was comforting in its way, and Alistair and I sat beside it, watching Morrigan prowl about by the trees.

"I think she's a shapeshifter," he said. "Watch. Any minute, she'll turn into a wolf or something, and bite someone's arm off."

I stifled a yawn. The first few moments of waking in Flemeth's hut and, for once, actually not feeling bruised, battered and exhausted seemed a long way off.

"People can do that? Mages?"

He was rubbing absently at the gold ring he wore on the forefinger of his left hand. At first I'd taken it for a signet or something but, now, with the firelight picking out the runes engraved into its bevelled surface, I could see it was no family crest.

"Mm," he said. "I've heard stories. It's not that uncommon among the Wilders. Their mages aren't like the Circle. It's a… different way of thinking, I suppose."

I shivered lightly. All I really knew of the Circle was what people said in the alienage; that elves and humans were raised the same there, no distinction made between them, and if that sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

To our suspicious eyes, the promise of equality—which probably wasn't real anyway, when you got down to it—wasn't worth the terrible act of taking a child from its home and family. The parallels with my current situation were not lost on me, and I grasped for something to take my mind off it.

"What is that?" I asked, nodding at Alistair's ring.

"Hm? This? Oh." He flexed his hand. "It's a worry token. I found it after one of the first skirmishes we had with the darkspawn in the foothills. See? They cast them in Orzammar. You're supposed to… think of your troubles, and the runes take them away. Return them to the Stone, or something. I don't know."

He obviously did; he was just embarrassed talking about it… or talking about it to me, at least. Still, the idea appealed to me, and I smiled.

"Does it work?"

"Right now? With the Blight and everything?" He smirked. "I could do with a couple extra."

The fire crackled softly, consuming one of the last bits of dry wood we had to feed it.

"I, er, noticed you wear a… a ring," Alistair said, gaze slipping back to the flames.

Unthinkingly, I touched my fingertips to the thin gold band that hung from the same chain as the pendant I'd received after the Joining. My thumb rubbed at the edge of it, the smooth surface warmed by my skin. Thoughts of blue eyes and tentative smiles returned to needle me, the familiar, slimy weight of guilt tugging at my chest.

"Just a… reminder," I said. "Of, uh, someone who didn't make it this far."

Alistair looked curiously at me, and I supposed batting his own words back at him like that was a bit trite, but I didn't have any of my own with which to explain.

Telling would have meant having to say what I'd done—what I'd seen done—that day at the arl's estate, and I didn't want that. If my old life was over, let it lie undisturbed. Better that than thinking about it… and thinking about all the things that might have happened to the people I loved since I'd left Denerim.

For a moment, I almost wanted to pull the ring off and throw it into the fire.

Yes, it was a reminder, and one I very nearly hated. I was tired of being gnawed at by blame, sick of resenting my survival.

"I'm… sorry," Alistair said softly.

I glanced at him, some non-committal response already halfway to my lips, but the look on his face knocked the words from me. He genuinely was, it seemed—though probably more from his own grief than on my behalf. All the same, I was slightly unnerved. Aside from Duncan, I'd never sat and talked with a human like this before, and it made me feel like the judgemental one.

"Thanks," I mumbled, and frowned uneasily at the dirt.


When dawn came—delicate fingers of rose streaking through the bruised, cloudy sky—we gathered anything we could use, or possibly sell, and headed on. By the time the sun had fully risen, we were almost out of the Wilds.

The air seemed to smell sweeter, and the mossy dankness of the forest gave way to wider, open spaces, unfolding into broad swathes of farmland. The rocky rises flattened away, and were replaced by softly undulating fields. The trees changed, too; no more thick, dense ranks of pine, but wide, airy oaks and beeches, all green- and gold-topped leaves, rippling in the breeze.

There were very few buildings, just farmsteads and barns nestled in the curves of the land. It was pretty, I supposed, but unsettling. The sky seemed too big and too open, and I felt vulnerable with all that space around me. I was also fairly convinced my feet were nothing but two giant blisters, wallowing in the boggy interior of my leaky, ill-fitting boots.

We followed a dirt track, pitted with wagon ruts, that curved alongside the boundary of a farm. The green stalks of some kind of crop waved lazily in the sunlight, and I was wondering idly what the grain was when Alistair halted, frowning.

"Did you hear something?"

I listened, but made out nothing beyond the soft rustle of the wind in the fields, and shook my head.

Morrigan tapped her foot impatiently. "When you have quite finished…."

Alistair shrugged. "I just thought—"

"Ah! Then perhaps that is what the noise was. The creak of rusted machinery, barely used, as it groans into life."

"Oh, shut up."

I dropped to a crouch, listening harder. He was right: there was something, and it was growing louder. A rhythmic, scratchy sound, like… something running.

A blur flashed through the undergrowth ahead of us and rounded the bend in the path. Definitely something running. Something brindled, and barking and—

"Wait!" I called, as Morrigan raised her staff.

The dog screeched to a halt a few feet away from me. It was a mabari, its short coat spattered with mud and what looked like blood, and its massive jaws open in a low-grade, grumbling growl. The hound bayed, his powerful forelegs lifting off the ground as he rose up with each deep-throated bark.

He turned and, ragged little ears clamped to his flat skull, pointed at the deserted strip of farmland ahead, hackles rising all the way along his spine.

"Oh, good," Alistair said, drawing his sword. "Darkspawn."

I swore.

It was no more than a few moments before they came crashing through the field towards us. No stragglers, these; more like an organised scouting party… or a hunting band.

They were all well-armed hurlocks, hung with gruesome mementoes of past kills, their foul bodies daubed with warpaint and crude tattoos, but their leader was something new. He wore plate armour, and a helmet with great iron horns curling from it… and he carried a double-headed battle-axe.

The pack stopped ahead of us, as if waiting for their leader's command. A horrible dread silence fell, broken only by the creature lifting one huge hand and drawing it across his throat, then pointing at us with something that sounded like the sinister gurgle of a laugh.

Alistair seemed to take it rather personally. He yelled, and the moment broke, shattering into confusion as we charged, they charged, and everything met in a brutal tangle in the middle of the track. The mabari hound was with us, snarling and slamming into the enemy, those great jaws biting and rending at every limb that came within his reach.

I ducked and wove with my cracked dagger, kicking the bastards' legs out from behind and going for the throats and eyes as they fell. It wasn't foolproof, but I took two out that way, before something blunt and heavy smacked down across my shoulders and knocked me to the ground. It turned out to be a hurlock that Alistair had just decapitated, and I found myself with a rather intimate view of his feet as he tackled the band's leader.

Metal scraped against metal, and the air turned rank with the stench of darkspawn blood and the griding, vile growls the thing made. I was just pulling myself out from under the headless corpse, eyes streaming and full of dust, retching with the proximity of torn and bloody flesh, when blinding white light burst overhead, and a wave of cold ripped through the air.

I flung myself down again, and rolled out of the way. I heard one of the hurlocks howl in agony, and Morrigan laughed delightedly. Mages controlling the elements was a new one as far as I was concerned; the way she made ice appear out of nowhere, trapping bodies and leaving them frostbitten and ragged, terrified me.

A pitted, rough blade hit the dirt just beside my head, and a hurlock's screaming face roared down at me, spittle and foul breath flying from its skull-like jaws as it stood over me. I clasped my dagger in both hands and stabbed upwards. Its wild, red eyes swivelled, looking down at the blade I'd stuck in its thigh, and I wrenched the weapon, opening up a gash from which that thick, stinking blood spurted readily. The creature grabbed me by the hair, raising its axe—and then pitched sideways in a flurry of blood and dog.

The mabari hound snarled and, with a wet, fleshy noise, ripped out a sizeable portion of the hurlock's throat.

"Good dog," I murmured breathlessly, hand clamped to my head as I struggled to get up.

I was seeing double and it felt like half my hair had been ripped out at the root, but I was alive. We all were… which was faintly surprising. Morrigan stood off to one side, looking impossibly unruffled, and Alistair was wiping his sword clean. The alpha hurlock lay dead amid its fellows, ice still riming its armour. My feet scudded out from under me, and I sat heavily in the churned, bloody dirt, panting.

"Small scouting party, by the look of it," Alistair said, though he sounded a little doubtful. "Everyone all right?"

"Clearly," Morrigan said archly. "I am not the one the darkspawn can smell as surely as week-old fish. You may thank me for saving your life later."

"Saving my— Wait, did you just say I smell of fish?"

She shrugged. "Merely as an example. However, if the shoe fits…."

Well, at least they were both fine.

The mabari came to stand in front of me, wagging his stumpy tail, and barked cheerfully. A tongue like a slab of bacon lolled from those heavy jaws, and the dog fixed me with the most intelligent expression I'd ever seen on an animal. Recognition dawned as I looked into those soulful brown eyes, and I grinned.

At least as smart as your average tax collector.

"This is the dog I helped cure at Ostagar!"

Alistair nodded. "He was probably out here looking for you. He's… chosen you. Mabari are like that. S'called imprinting."

The dog barked again, and looked pleased with himself. Morrigan groaned.

"Oh, no. Does this mean we're going to have this mangy beast following us about now? Wonderful."

"He's not mangy!" Alistair cooed, making a kissy face at the hound.

The dog cocked his head to the side and whined.

I reached out tentatively and ruffled his ears, rewarded with a tail wag and some happy panting and—before I could protest—a face full of slobber.

Morrigan tutted, and Alistair just laughed at me as I tried to get out from underneath my new friend.

"All right," I told the mabari. "You can come with us. Happy?"

He barked, and I couldn't help grinning, despite the mounds of dead flesh all over the track.


We dragged the bodies into a pile before moving on, and set light to them. Morrigan had suggested liberating some of the armour and weapons, but Alistair spoke for both of us when he refused, point-blank, to even think about using a darkspawn blade.

Once the flames were consuming the corpses, we struck out again, the peaceful serenity of the farmland ruined rather by the stinking curls of smoke.

Morrigan said we should reach Lothering by the mid-afternoon, barring any further incidents, and I clung to that thought. My feet were killing me. I wanted to talk to her about the darkspawn, though. I was curious to ask whether she'd faced them before, in the Wilds, and to see whether there was any tremor in that golden gaze when she answered me. She was far too unflappable for my liking.

However, I didn't get a chance. Now we were out of her domain, our mighty Witch of the Wilds was sloping along at the rear instead of striding ahead, stabbing at the ground with her staff.

The mabari hound padded purposefully along in front, occasionally criss-crossing the trail to snuff out interesting things in the hedges and undergrowth. I watched him as I walked, and grew aware of Alistair pacing companionably at my side.

"I wonder what his name is," I said, partially to myself and partially just to break the silence.

"What? The dog?"


Alistair shrugged. "No idea. It's usually something fearsome and imposing. Apparently, one of the old Alamarri clans once went to war over the name of their chief's favourite hound."

"Really?" I looked consideringly at the dog's muscular form, as he bounded off into the undergrowth in pursuit of a fly. "Hmm. How about Maethor?"

The hound backed of the bushes, shaking leaves and bits of twig from his head, and looked round at us. He gave a short bark and wagged his tail.

"See? He likes it," I said, as Alistair shook his head incredulously. "What? It's a good elven name. Means 'warrior'."

Maethor shook himself again, and snapped at a bit of leaf that dropped from his ear. Alistair snorted.

"Yes… well, if you're sure."

"If you think you can do better," I began, but he shook his head.

"Oh, no. I'm staying out of it. He chose you. Besides, I don't need the responsibility of a dog. I can barely look after myself."

I chuckled, pleased to see that self-deprecating humour of his returning.

"So many comments to choose from," Morrigan observed, from a short distance behind us. "I hardly know where to begin…."

A muscle twitched in Alistair's jaw. "Oh, I get it," he said, glancing back at her. "We're supposed to be shocked to discover you've never had a friend your entire life, right?"

"I can be friendly when I desire to," she retorted, catching us up apparently purely for the pleasure of glaring at him. "Alas, desiring to be more intelligent does not make it so."

I sighed inwardly. Were a few moments of peace too much to ask?

"She's calling me stupid again," Alistair complained.

"Oh, well done!"

"I'm not stupid. I was educated by the Chantry, you know. I studied history. They don't make stupid templars."

Morrigan scoffed. "No?"

I tried to tune the pair of them out, and looked up at the beautiful blue-and-white jumble of the sky, just watching the clouds scud below the thinly shimmering sun. It was warm, for the time of year. For a few moments, I could almost believe that this would all be over by the time winter came, but a light breeze was bowling along the track, tossing grit and the occasional leaf before it, and the thoughts didn't feel real enough to hold onto.

Squinting at the horizon, I made out what looked like the suggestion of buildings blurring it, black shapes against the hazy band of sky, and the possibility of the roadway extending alongside it, great stone arches craning up like steepled fingers. The Imperial Highway ran down the centre of the country like a backbone, a feat of engineering and masonry never quite equalled since the fall of the Imperium. It should speed our journey considerably… provided we didn't keep running into obstacles.

I clicked my tongue, and Maethor looked up at me expectantly, with a wag of his stubby tail. I still couldn't believe that: my own mabari hound. People would probably think I'd stolen him from somewhere, though I wasn't certain that was technically possible. A dog his size—and with teeth like that—didn't go anywhere he didn't wish to. Still, he'd certainly proven he could make himself useful.

Hefting my pack, I walked on, and it wasn't until the dim silhouettes of Lothering grew clearer ahead of us that I realised I was leading the two humans behind me.

A strange feeling, that, and one I wasn't sure I was at ease with. I was so absorbed in thinking about it that—until Maethor began to growl quietly beside me—I barely even noticed the wagons with the broken axles, left abandoned beside the track, and the scattered packing crates that lay smashed open on the ground.

We were less than a quarter of a mile from the village. The Highway's stone skeleton arced away to the left, curling around Lothering like some protective serpent. The plain above us held a peaceful view of farmland and a small mill, and there were trees, standing tall and proud, casting dappled shadows onto the grass.

And, into that stippled sunlight, from behind the cover of the busted wagons, a short, wiry man in studded leather armour strode, grinning cheerfully as he fingered the hilt of the shortsword at his belt.

My stomach dropped. Great. Bandits.