Night was falling. The stars over Fereldan burned too cold and too distant, and the moon that peeked through the hazy chalk blue sky was too slim. An icy wind numbed the faces of the Grey Wardens as they travelled along empty roads that took them home to Amaranthine. Frost had hardened the earth so that every footfall landed with an echoing stomp. The breath of the sturdy white horse clouded the air like fog, and the armour of the knight captain clattered like a set of heavy chimes. A wagon rattled behind them, and where once supplies had rested, now lay a shivering form swaddled in blankets.
"How are you fairing back here, Sigrun?" Lyna Mahariel, Commander of the Grey, asked of her injured friend. She walked alongside the wagon, her voice muffled by the scarf she had wrapped around her head so that only her eyes were left to the elements.
"It's not very painful. I think the cold is helping." The dwarf replied with her usual lightness, though her teeth chattered and the skin beneath her eyes was turning blue. Sigrun had a certain nonchalance about her own health, given that she had spent her happiest years pretending to be dead. But even her best effort to keep in good spirits could not conceal the fact that she was in a very bad way.
Her right shoulder had been nastily wounded during an ambush the night before. Bandits had attacked the camp boldly, perhaps trying to find some kind of glory in slaying wardens. The fight had been brutally quick, and for all their brilliant schemes the bandits had proven unskilled. But they had scored two good blows - the first was a torch that fell against the soft-wrapped packages of food and medicine packages that were supposed to last the five travellers for another two days. The second was the axe that had nearly cleaved through Sigrun's bones. Anders had done what he could in the way of healing, but the injuries required a more seasoned hand.
"Tell that weak-hearted mage up there to quit fretting," Sigrun smiled weakly, "He's worse than a dwarven grandmother."
Mahariel chuckled as happily as she could and returned to where Captain Garevel led the horse and wagon, and Nathaniel Howe and Anders trod solemnly nearby. The three of them looked like pallbearers at a funeral, no doubt convinced that only the worst was possible.
"How is she?" Garevel asked softly.
"Not well. I don't think she'll make it through the night without further aid." Mahariel answered, relieved that the howl of the wind was so loud. Her voice would not carry to the back of the wagon.
"I could cast another healing spell," Anders offered with a tremble of concern, "I can't promise it'll last past morning. But it would buy more time."
The mage was bundled in the winter robes of Tevinter. The same thick grey fur that rested on his shoulders in a hooded cloak also lined his boots and gloves. An ornate staff was strapped to his back, a satchel of lyrium potions slung over one shoulder. The playful smile that usually curled his lips had been replaced with a thin, colourless line. His gold-brown eyes were narrow with worry.
"We can press on to the farmlands," Garavel suggested, "Make camp there, or perhaps find a house that will take us. Anders can cast his charm then, and we might be able to get our hands on some clean bandages…"
"Nate, are there any towns or settlements around here?" Mahariel asked, weighing her options.
"I don't recall any towns, but things may have changed while I was in the Free Marches," Nathaniel shook his head, "The farms in this region are usually abandoned in the winter. The families move on to Highever or Denerim until spring."
Mahariel considered the options. They had precious little in the way of supplies, which would have been less troubling if they were all in good health. Or if the cold hadn't killed everything that couldn't travel north. The roads forked soon, one path was the long trail to Amaranthine, the other the shorter route to Highever.
"Heal her as much as you can. Even if it just lessens the pain in her mind." She turned to Anders, and he nodded and went about his task. A twinkle of blue-white light filled the darkening sky like the burst of a firework, but it lingered for awhile above the wagon.
"What's to be done?" Garavel asked.
"Take the horse. Ride with Sigrun and two flasks of water to Highever. Go as fast as you can and don't spare the animal. We'll continue on to Vigil's Keep. The food will last longer if it's just the three of us, and we'll travel faster without the wagon. Send word to Varel when you arrive at Highever." Mahariel instructed, her eyes grim, her voice tense and sharp.
"Are you sure I should go?" Garavel frowned, "Wouldn't the mage be better suited to it? To heal her on the journey should she need it…"
"No. Anders is doing all he can for her now, and he's not as capable a rider as you."
There was no saddle for the horse, so Garevel wound his hands into its blond mane. Sigrun was placed snugly between his chest and the base of the horse's neck. Wrapped among the blankets, so that his warm little body pressed against Sigrun's and his sandpaper tongue licked up at her face, was Ser Pounce-a-lot. The cat purred softly to comfort his ailing companion.
"See you at the Keep…" Sigrun murmured to her fellow Wardens, as the Knight Commander spurred the horse forward.
They watched as Garavel rode further and further down the road to Highever, until he was no more than a speck in the distance, and then they picked up all the food they could carry and started down the other road. For a long while, none of them spoke. The night darkened and the wind grew harsher. Clouds swirled above them, hiding the starlight and choking the slender moon.
"Maker's balls, it's going to snow on us!" Anders groaned, and his voice bounced off the freezing air like an echo. The wind rustled the fur of his hood, and the tip of his nose was so cold he thought it might fall off.
"At least a bit of snow would warm things up," Nathaniel Howe answered, shielding his grey eyes from the wind with his arm. His armour was made of supple leather, lined with sheepskin dyed black. His gloves were heavy velvet, so that he might draw his bow as needed, but they didn't offer as much warmth as he would like.
"You know what, though?" Anders replied, "I think I'd rather be more-cold and dry than less-cold and wet, with countless miles of blizzard to walk through. But that's just me."
"That's because you're wearing that silly hood." Mahariel answered, shouting to be heard through her scarf and above the howling winds.
They walked through the hills until the night became too dark to see through, and they had no choice but to make camp. The snow had made good on its threat by then, falling in tiny white flakes that stuck to everything they landed on. Including the inside of Anders's hood, where the wind had blown them to land around his face and the back of his neck. They melted into freezing water that trickled down his skin, and caused him to grumble colourful profanities under his breath.
The campsite they chose was beneath a thicket of trees just off the main road. They swept the ground with branches, and Anders tiredly lit a fire by magic. It flickered in a sphere that hovered just above the ground. Sometimes the flame licked out towards the sky, but for the most part it was obedient.
"You're getting better at that." Mahariel noted, sitting on a large stone at the base of a tree.
"Plenty of practice lately," Anders shrugged, "Seems like we're always making camp in the middle of nowhere."
The orb of flame beat against the wind that slipped through the tree trunks, and fought the spell with a sudden gust. The orange light danced in frantic tendrils over the corners of the wilderness, and with a dying triumph it fell to the ground. Defeated by the weather, the enchanted flame splashed like spilled wine before completely snuffing out. Darkness and the smell of burning dirt filled the camp.
More snow fell.
"Oh. Well. Shit." Anders grumbled.
Mahariel burst into laughter and reached a hand over to pat him on the shoulder.
"It was really pretty just before it kicked out." She said as sympathetically as she could.
"It's all this wind," Anders explained with a stony expression, "It bungles everything up."
"Shall I build a real fire?" Nathaniel asked with a smirk, trying to keep his own laughter contained.
"What do you mean by that? A real fire?" The mage demanded.
"You know, one that works," Nathaniel shrugged, "Made of kindling and logs and things."
"Mine worked! It was working terrifically until the stupid bloody wind got it!"
"I'll think you'll find that the wind won't get mine."
Before the argument could continue, a sound broke through the darkness. It rose above the shrieking wind and came from the western hills. It was a cry that rang with primeval purpose, chilling the spines of the winter travellers. It started low and rose and rose until it seemed to shake the trees and pierce the sky.
The long howl of a mad dog.
"Wolves?" Anders asked sharply, searching for a glimpse of the Commander's face in the darkness.
"Not like any I've heard," Mahariel said, "More like a mabari, if it were possible."
Growing up in the wilds of the Brecilian Forests, she had long become familiar with the sounds of wolves. She had heard them many times. The lonesome howl of a wolf trying to relocate the members of its pack, the high eager howl of a pup, the coarse and bitter call to arms when an enemy was near. The cry that they had heard was like none of those calls. It was vengeful. Searching. Hungry.
"Perhaps a feral one, or worse yet a…" Before Nathaniel could finish the thought, a glimmer in the distance caught his eye.
A square of amber light flashed suddenly in the distance. Beside it, a second square lit up, and then a third. The light travelled upward, filling square after square until the final row sat in the middle of the sky. They were windows in a tower, looming over the hillside like a beacon. Snow floated down behind it, a sparse white curtain that let the silhouette of its strange architecture stand out against night.
"I thought you said there was nothing in these parts?" Mahariel asked Nathaniel, in the incredulous silence which fell between them all. Nothing of the wilderness had implied that a settlement would be nearby. It made her uneasy.
"There isn't," He answered, "I mean, there's not supposed to be. There can't be - it would take twenty years to build a tower that tall."
"And yet there it stands. Looks like you were wrong about something, Nathaniel. Again." Anders said smugly, standing up and flinging his satchel over his shoulder. He held his mage's staff like a walking stick and set out to leave the campsite behind.
"What are you doing?" Mahariel asked, snapping back to her senses.
"Heading over there, obviously. I'm not staying out here to get snowed on and eaten by wild dogs and have my fire-making skills continually insulted by my alleged friends. Besides, a tower like that'll have a contingent of guards. Maybe they can ride to catch Garavel and offer aid to Sigrun." He strode confidently towards the road, knowing that even if they debated the issue for a few minutes, eventually Mahariel would catch up with him. And Nathaniel would follow Mahariel.
"Should we go after him?" Nathaniel asked. A story he had heard long ago was sitting on the edge of his memory, but he ignored it. If his foolishness had cost Sigrun precious hours, he would never forgive himself.
"I suppose we must." Mahariel nodded, gathering her gear and their pack of rations.
The fresh snow crunched beneath their boots as they caught up to Anders, who climbed the hill hastily and without looking back. As they drew closer to the mysterious tower, the strange wild howl filled up the night once more.