The Old Gods knew of the simple power behind the blood of the sacrificed, while the weaklings of today ignore it. They fear power, just as all feeble-minded fools do. The followers of the Old Gods drank the blood of their brethren, of the damned, of their mothers and their children as they reveled and writhed in darkness. Oh yes, my friend. There is power in blood. It is the distilled essence of life, of all life, from the dragon to the worm, the peasant to the king. The winners of wars are decided by blood, the heirs to thrones are decided by blood. When a girl becomes a woman is decided by blood, and a boy a man when he spills it in battle or on the hunt. Forgive me, my friend. I have gotten away from what it is I wanted to say. I do have a tendency to wax poetic, don't I? The Old Gods. The ancient magisters who sought out the Golden City. They knew the power. Yes, yes, they failed. But, my friend... No, no, don't struggle, be still. The Old Gods faded, and the magisters failed. But they do like to say that the third time is the charm.
No matter how long he walked, the farmhouse didn't seem to get any closer. It might just be because walking had become such a chore. Alistair's knee throbbed and swelled inside his armor. The darkspawn blade had gotten lucky, that was all. He'd deflected the blade off his shield, but the downward swing slipped behind the plate of the poleyn and damn near took off his kneecap. At least, he thought his kneecap was still attached. He hadn't bothered taking off his armor to check.
Toby had been carrying the healing poultices, so that was hardly an option. The young man had been dragged off the road and into the darkness by blight wolves, and his screaming had ended some time ago, long before Alistair had finished killing the small band of darkspawn that sprang out of the gound. Alistair wouldn't be able to find him, not until daybreak. If there was anything left of him.
The darkspawn were gone for now. The Grey Warden in him couldn't sense any more of them, but they had been here for some time. Signs of their taint stretched over the land like greasy fingers. It wasn't as bad here near Amaranthine as it had been in southern Ferelden. The land had not been completely spoiled. The farms here could recover. Considering who was in charge of keeping the Blight at bay up here, Alistair wasn't entirely surprised.
Was it a floating farmhouse? Was that it? Some sort of magical floating house that inched away every time you took a step towards it. Well, if his body couldn't reach it, his voice certainly could. He lifted his hand to pull off his helmet, and called out, "Is anyone there? I'm… not too proud to say I could use some assistance!"
The candlelight behind the vellum windows flickered and moved towards the door. It opened to reveal a lean woman with wide, haunted eyes. "Who's there?"
"My name is Alistair!" He took another careful, pained step forward. Nope, the house still seemed forever away. "I'm injured!"
"Maker, it's a Grey Warden!" The woman turned back to the house, "Ewing, it's a Grey Warden, get out there and help him!"
How did she- ah. Yes. The shiny new armor. Well, less shiny. Covered in dark, sticky darkspawn blood at present. But the crest across his chest was unmistakable: a brilliant white griffin, edged with blue. The Wardens had been in this area for months, and everyone was bound to recognize the symbol.
"I'm not going out there!" answered a man who was undoubtedly Ewing. "They're still out there, I don't care what no one says."
Alistair let out a sigh, pressing the tip of his blade against the road and leaning on it like a cane. "There are no darkspawn at present. I slew those I met. If I could just… have a place to rest for a few moments…"
The woman scowled at the man still hidden within the house, and she shook her head. She jogged to Alistair's side in a surprisingly short amount of time, lantern in hand. "Useless, that's what he is. Lean on me, pet. I'll get you inside."
Alistair tried very hard not to lean too heavily on her. Skinny as the woman was, he'd knock her over with the weight of his body and his heavy armor. With her aid, the house finally seemed to sit still, and he was shortly inside, sitting at the table. The house was small and modest, but clean and comfortable. A warm, homey fire blazed in the hearth, and the lid on a boiling pot of what smelled like rabbit stew clicked and rattled as the pot hung on a spit over the flames. A single bed, barely wide enough for two was pushed into the corner while a large braided rug covered much of the dirt floor. A simple home for simple folk. Definitely a step up from the dog kennels he spent most nights in as a child.
"Thank you. I really do appreciate this. I'll pay you for the trouble." The greave on his injured leg came off with some difficulty. The inside was coated with blood, and it adhered firmly to his trouser leg as it congealed into sticky red glue.
Ewing stood at the window, twitchy and ill at ease. He had a gaunt face and an uneven beard, dressed in simple clothes. "None of this was here before the Wardens arrived. Andraste's teeth, Clovis, don't offer him tea!"
Alistair looked back at the woman to see her setting a clay cup on the table before him, and filling it with hot water from a copper kettle. "He ain't a puppy," Clovis answered. "He won't follow us about the rest of his life if we feed him." She leaned back and gave Alistair a motherly smile, "He's a Grey Warden, he is. Least we can do for his kind. Now, let me see what herbs I've got for your injuries there."
"He's a fool is what he is." Ewing muttered back. "Thinks he's invincible, wandering the roads like this at night, all alone."
"Uhm, I'm right here." Alistair lifted his hand. "And I wasn't alone. My travelling companion was… well, killed. Probably." For a moment he envisioned poor Toby in a blight wolf's belly. He took a quick sip of the weak tea to wash away the sour taste the thought brought to his mouth. "And I was only travelling at night because-"
"Shut up, you ungrateful old bastard," Clovis hissed.
"What, me?" Alistair blinked at her.
"No! Him." She stabbed a finger in the direction of the scowling Ewing. "We're alive today because of the Wardens up at the Keep." Her head shook, "I ain't been to town since the attack, but they say it could have been much worse."
"Ah, right." Of course. He'd lost some blood. It was making him loopy. For a moment there he was ready to ask her how she knew he was a bastard. He refocused his attention on his knee. It was a deep slice, and left a bloody flap of flesh just barely attached. He grimaced in pain, and took a handful of raggedy bandages from the basket Clovis set before him.
Clovis went on, "You should have heard some of the things people were saying about the Warden Commander. I ain't met her, but they were saying it was all revenge on Rendon Howe, that she was going to punish all of us on his behalf. I never liked Howe, I don't owe him any loyalty. He was a traitor, he was."
Alistair couldn't help but smile at the mention of the Warden Commander. "I was only traveling at night because I thought I could reach Vigil's Keep within the hour." He'd gone without seeing Elissa Cousland for far too long. To be so close now, the idea of delaying another day was too much. All he wanted to do was see her alive and well, then scoop her up and kiss her until she was dizzy. He ran the scene over and over in his mind as they marched on the road to Amaranthine: the color of her eyes, the touch of her skin, the smell of her hair. Yes, there was that selfish desire to just hold her, but he'd seen black smoke on the horizon. Black smoke from the direction of Amaranthine. He'd spotted it when they were barely outside of Highever. From that moment on it was a nonstop determined march with light meals, no sleep, and lots and lots of walking. After a quick dinner of cheese and apples, he'd ordered Toby back to the road.
The smile faded. Toby's death was his fault. Selfish fool.
"Howe was a good man. Never did us any ill will," Ewing said, arms crossing.
This brought Alistair out of his momentary lapse into self loathing. He looked back up at Ewing with narrowed eyes. "Howe betrayed the King. Killed nearly all the Couslands of Highever. Imprisoned and tortured nobles and Templars that would have threatened Loghain's rule. And you stand there and call him a 'good man?'"
Some of the wind left Ewing's sails, and he stepped back from the Grey Warden. "He took care of his people," he finally stammered, then crossed the room to scoop up a pair of work boots, and busied himself removing caked dirt from the soles.
"As did the Warden Commander," Clovis hollered back at her husband. She clucked, and set a clay bowl of stew before Alistair. She sat across from him with a bag of dried herbs. "He's threatened by you, pet, that's all. A handsome young man in shining armor shows up at my door at midnight, he thinks you're here to sweep me away. Let's have a look there."
Alistair smiled at her, then chuckled, leaning back in the chair. "What happened here? I would have come sooner…"
"The siege is over, you missed all the fun." She opened a calico sewing kit and plucked a needle and thread from within. "Darkspawn attacked the Keep and the city. They've been roaming the countryside for weeks. Tavis, just down the road? Whole family was slaughtered by them, poor man." She clicked her tongue and shook her head, patting at his wound with a wet towel. "Anyhow, the Warden Commander, she saved the city, and the Vigil still stands. They say it was the dwarf that fortified the place, that it would have certainly fallen otherwise. Amaranthine is in sorry shape, but it would have been much much worse had she not been there."
He began to smile again, and let his heavy eyelids drop to picture Elissa in all her glory, slaughtering an armada of darkspawn. "She's a remarkable woman."
"You say that like you know her," Clovis' gaze flicked to his face. "Should I be jealous?"
Alistair chuckled, placing a hand over his heart, "I'm afraid so. I'm spoken for, dear lady." Maker, he was tired. To his bones. He shouldn't have pushed to get here so fast, but what choice did he have?
"Should have figured as much." She cut the thread with her teeth, and knotted one end. "Anyhow. Darkspawn have started to disappear now. Few stragglers, as you saw. But it all seems to be over."
"Mm." He was dimly aware of pinpricks at his knee, and he also reminded himself that he was every bit as hungry as he was tired. There was rabbit stew in the bowl beside him and warm tea and a warm fire, with yellow tongues licking up the chimney, and there was a warm soft voice telling him to rest, and Toby was terribly apologetic, that he didn't mean to fall behind. That he was sorry he didn't have the front of his torso anymore, but Elissa was at Alistair's shoulder and told him it was all right, to run along. There was someone in the basement they needed to see. She led him down a dark passage where Rendon Howe sat at a table, dining on blight wolf meat and making polite conversation, and making Elissa Cousland laugh. She took Alistair by the hand again and led him away, somehow into the Deep Roads where Toby was apologizing again, where the passages were lined with tall, blood-streaked vellum windows, where countless darkspawn strained against the opposite side of the windows with snapping jaws, waiting for the strength to build enough to break through and attack.
The dream got more pleasant from there, but still absurd, as dreams tend to be. In the morning the only bits Alistair could remember were the chatty Howe and the army of darkspawn waiting on the other side of the thin, red splattered divide.