Retelling the events of days past to the king was difficult at best for Rhys. Difficult bled into a strained voice and murmured apologies and hot cheeks, shamed by his own inability to speak of what happened without turning into a child. More than once, tears threatened to overwhelm him, but those were blinked back and swallowed up. Those tears clung to his throat, and when Cailan's hand rested on his shoulder, he didn't shrink away. Pride forced steel into his spine, but he did not move away or avert his glassy eyes.

"The Warden – Duncan... conscripted me." Rhys tapped his index finger on the table in front of them, shoulders hunched above maps that showed locations where scouting parties spotted pockets of darkspawn. They were everywhere, so many black marks on old parchment; the thought turned something in his stomach. He forced out a thin laugh and looked to Cailan. "So I'm to die anyway."

Cailan's smile was patient and warm. "I wouldn't say so, no."

When Rhys glanced back to the papers littering the table, the king reached forward and pressed a hand down to cover a good half of the nearby Wilds as a bid for his attention. "We have a better chance than many think to wipe out the darkspawn before the true Blight even begins. I've ridden out with some of my men, seen the things that threaten us. Some are them are the size of children, some of malnourished dwarves. Others take the shape of men, but my forces are trained and disciplined soldiers, fighting against a mindless horde that only answers the call of an archdemon that has yet to show itself."

Bending forward, he caught Rhys's eyes again, and his smile cut a confident curve into his face. "You will not die here, friend. You'll live to see Highever again, but only after Howe hangs for what he's done."

"A hanging?" There was something vicious in the Cousland boy's eyes, something lean and almost feral. Hate for the man he'd long thought of as a family friend was quickly nursed along the road, taking root silently with Duncan and Nathaniel at his back and Blossom at his heels. "I was thinking something more along the lines of a beheading."

Cailan's brows rose. And to his credit, his smile wilted only slightly. "We will cross this bridge when we find ourselves at it," he said, lifting his hand from the map to pat Rhys on his forearm. "For now, know that you will find your brother, and you will both have the land stolen from you returned. I fear there is nothing I can do for your parents other than promise you they will be remembered fondly." He paused at that, his jaw twitching as if he worked his next words around in his mouth, pressing them into a proper order. "Bryce was always very kind to me, always willing to dispense moderate advice when I only thought to act on a grand scale."

"That's my father," Rhys replied, forcing the words from his tight throat. "Always tempering those around him like a blacksmith when faced with a firebrand."

"Is that what we are, then?"

Cailan's face lit up again. There was comfort to be found here in this tent, away from the reality of a war camp and the Warden, away from Nathaniel and the constant reminder of his shared blood. Here, there was only Cailan. Five and a half years separated them in age, but he never minded, willing to spar with the king's son when no one else their age would take up a sword against him. Rhys's eagerness to prove himself mirrored Cailan's to a lesser extent and for vastly different reasons, but they found in it a certain unspoken kinship.

"Firebrands?" Rhys chuckled, shaking his head. "As if you have to ask."

He looked to the maps again, to the black marks threatening to overwhelm the forests around them. His studies taught him of darkspawn and of the unholy corruption they brought with them, of the Wardens who strove to end the Blight, of the valiant many who died protecting Thedas from the infestation. There were drypoint prints of darkspawn creatures, but they were nothing but ink and an artist's flair. This horde was a present danger, and they would be the ones fighting and dying because of it.

His thumb brushed over a curled edge of the thick parchment, a thoughtful expression overtaking his face. Cailan stood idle beside him, much tenser than before. As if he didn't want the focus to shift, as if he would rather be alone than speak of what was laid out before them.

"Are you so sure we will win this?" Looking to Cailan, a worried line deepened between Rhys's brows. "I don't mean to doubt you, but these numbers..."

Cailan brushed Rhys's hand away from the map before pointing a finger towards the stretch of black nearest them. "These are mostly genlocks, Duncan assures me. Squat little beasts. No matter their number, our Wardens can make easy work of them. There are scouts of a larger size scattered through their ranks, but these—" Cailan's index and middle finger smoothed over a cluster of black marks, "—these are not the darkspawn van. We will see those numbers tonight. I have heard they are marching towards us as we speak."

"Duncan spoke of the Joining," Rhys murmured. "Will we have time to gather what's necessary and return to the camp before the darkspawn are upon us?"

"I am not sure." Cailan moved away from the table, pacing a few steps away before turning back with a finger pressed to his lips. "You have the entire day before you. There are Wardens and soldiers enough to cut through the ranks. If you do not make it in time, we'll only be short five men at most."

"So you do believe we have a chance?"

Cailan nodded.

"At defeating the Blight, I mean. Four Blights, and it's taken more than a decade to defeat the archdemon every time. And with these numbers, that's what this must be."

"They will be defeated," Cailan said, his words clipped in a way Rhys was unused to hearing. They smoothed when next he spoke, careful to quash frustration before it flickered too brightly. "Our numbers are superior, and they will only grow once the other Wardens arrive. This Blight will be snuffed out as quickly as the darkspawn climbed out of their blasted hole in the ground."

This time, Rhys was the one who stepped away from the table, his hands falling away from the very things that aroused his suspicion. If Cailan believed they would claim Ostagar as a victory – the first and most decisive against the darkspawn horde in the history of Thedas – he could hardly question him, not when he'd only just arrived with no experience against this foe.

"I should meet with the others before heading into the Wilds," he said, shoulders squared along with his jaw. "If my brother and his party returns before I do..." Rhys paused, suddenly unsure of what to say. The dying wish of both his parents rung true between his ears, but telling a man that every love he held close to his chest was dead before a battle could only end poorly. "Don't tell him anything. I'll wait until the right time to give him the news."

Cailan peered into Rhys's face. He wore a smile again, a sad, resigned thing that only made Rhys ache deep into his bones. "Is there a right time to tell a man such a thing?"

"You're right, of course, but there is a wrong time."

The king nodded in understanding, and Rhys turned to leave, ducking out of his tent without so much as another word only to be reminded of where he stood. As a boy, he and the other children in the castle at Highever would stage Blights in the cobbled hallways and the crowded bailey. But the walls around them were always strong, the fortresses always secure. If not for the noise, the ruins of Ostagar weren't secure enough to keep passing wildlife away, much less darkspawn.

There was a shadow of strength all around, a reminder of the Imperium's former glory, but little stood now save for weathered arches and husks of grand towers. The walls around them were fit to crumble, though Cailan's men fortified what they could with wood and stone. If they were given more time, what could they build? Could they have restored Ostagar to its former state, a mix of Tevinter arrogance and Fereldan ingenuity?

Far off, Rhys could barely make out Nathaniel and Duncan. With them stood three others – two recruits Duncan spoke of only once while on the road, and one other Warden, armed in silver and blue.

The sight of the elder Warden sent his blood boiling. He deserved a choice. Being impressed into the Wardens was hardly fit for someone of his status. The idea of becoming a Warden disgusted him; the idea of being forced to join the Wardens after the decimation of his family and estate drove Rhys half-mad. He did not think less of those who chose to take up arms for the Warden, but being torn from defending his mother and forced into this...

He hated it. He hated Duncan, and he hated Nathaniel's father for a betrayal that forced the Warden's hand.

Taking a deep breathe, Rhys released it as slowly as he could.

Take what you have. Do what you can with the lot you've been dealt. Make your mother proud. Don't disgrace the memory of your father. Tell your brother the truth.

Cross the bridge when you come to it and not before.

Nothing could wipe the grimace from his face when he finally came upon the group, no reminders of duty or pride or even the memory of his mother's smile. There was a grimace on his mouth, and the grimace would remain.

"Sooo... now that we're all here," the younger Warden began only moments after Rhys joined the others beside the fire. "To the Wilds, yeah?"

"Remind me why we need'ta go out there t'get 'spawn blood?" The man who spoke was tanned, face worn with laugh lines and thick with black stubble. "Not t'state the obvious or nothin', but ain't they coming to us?"

The older, balding recruit spoke up. Jory was his name, if Rhys recalled correctly, it was the perpetually smirking rogue that he could not recall the name of.

"You want to gather blood while we're fighting a horde?" Jory shook his head. "You're mad, Daveth."

Nathaniel rolled his eyes. If possible, he seemed just as reluctant to do this as Rhys did, though he wasn't entirely sure why.

"You will go now." Duncan's voice was surprisingly curt. It made everyone snap to attention besides Rhys, who simply reflected Nathaniel's eyeroll. "We must Join you before the attack. You must gather the vials of blood under the eyes of a... well, normally it would be a Senior Warden, but as the rest of the men are busy scouting, I have chosen the opposite."

"Oh, stopped just shy of calling me a novice, Duncan." The blonde man grinned, nodding to Rhys. "I'm Alistair, by the way. I tried getting a little information out of your friend, but I don't think he likes me much."

Nate scoffed. "It's not my place to speak for him."

"Ri-ight." Alistair held out his hand toward Rhys, still keeping a smile on his lips. "Pleasure to meet you, at any rate. Duncan couldn't stop talking about how he wanted to recruit the youngest Cousland; I'm surprised he managed!"

Daveth's head snapped, having been focused on picking the peeling leather of his gloves before. "Aw, we got a bloody nobleman in the group? Sod it all."

"I won't be a nobleman for very long," Rhys muttered before taking Alistair's hand and giving it a firm shake. Even speaking to him, he didn't look the other man in the eye, instead choosing to level a piercing stare at the Warden in front of him. "As I recall, becoming a Warden makes sure of that."

He hated how childish he sounded, as if Duncan had snatched him away from his favorite toy instead of his entire world. But he refused to beat back whatever petulance stole into his voice. He had no reason to make himself more palatable to these people, not when they were just as eager to call him brother.

Duncan was, once again, completely unbothered.

"That is something we will speak of when the time comes." The Warden paused briefly, as if considering whether or not to say something. "For now, you all have your first assignment: to gather three vials of darkspawn blood. Each." Turning his gaze to Alistair, he inclined his head. "Ensure they're suitably equipped, grab the map from my pack, and you must find those treaties."

"Treaties?" Nate posed the question everyone was thinking.

"Slips of parchment I truly wish were not necessary," Duncan explained. "There was a time when the lands would rally under the Grey Warden's banner, but Ferelden has more cause than most to forget this."

Rhys huffed, shifting on his feet beside Alistair. "And you've misplaced such important documents." He did not stop there, though his voice lowered to a thick murmur about incompetence.

Cailan's belief in the Wardens was unwavering, and Rhys shared many memories of awe-inspiring tales of Warden prowess in battle and even in diplomacy. Perhaps the history books told the story true, but he had no reason to believe in the man in front of him, no reason to bite his tongue and follow through without dissent.

"I apologize for not being in Ferelden during the Warden's banishment."

Alistair was the only one who sniggered, earning him a glare from the young Cousland.

Sighing, Duncan continued. "They are hidden, well-protected by seals made long ago to react to tainted blood. There was once a Warden outpost here in the Wilds, hence why they have remained here. You will be out in the wilds, and therefore it is far more efficient for you to do this, as well as it acting as a further test of your abilities to follow simple instructions."

Alistair was quick to intervene, stepping between the older Warden and Rhys. "Hah, alright then. Remember the darkspawn? Nasty skin, sharp teeth? Can we go fight them instead of yelling at each other?"

"Ten silver on the poncy noble," Daveth said with a laugh, his grin revealing a gold tooth. "We could use some fun, aye? Let 'em go at it."

The slight rolled off of Rhys's back, rigid as it was, and he pulled away from the group, giving a sharp whistle to Blossom, who was standing at attention near the kennels. She'd been distracted by the ash warriors and their own hounds until she heard the piercing sound and saw Rhys walking towards her. She was clean now, all dark gray with a silver muzzle and twin strips of pale kaddis down her back, proud enough to separate herself from the hounds in the kennels and sporting none of the scars worn like badges of honor by the warriors' bests.

Rhys scratched absently between her ears when she finally fell into stride beside him. The others were already farther ahead, talking amongst themselves save for Nathaniel. Nate walking a few feet behind them, eager only to keep to himself. It was a desire Rhys was intensely familiar with.

The Warden chatted amiably with Daveth and Jory. Any attempts he made with the two other men were shut down by glares or just ignoring him. Once they began to make their way into the thick of the forest, however, Nate broke the silence.

"I think your brother's party might have come this way," he said quietly. "We aren't going too far off a recently beaten path."

Rhys nodded to himself. Despite wanting desperately to find his brother, he had nothing planned to say to him. Perhaps, "Hello, Fergus. Father got his way, and I've come to join the fight," would be enough. Perhaps it wouldn't. But the idea of facing his brother now and doing anything but falling to pieces seemed an impossibility.

Blossom scuffed her massive paws on the ground before lowering her head to sniff. Once she caught a scent, she moved forward, scouring the path in front of them after nudging Jory aside.

What she and the men behind her discovered was nothing short of a massacre.

The blood on the ground was black and cold no matter whose wound it escaped from, though the smell was enough to differentiate between human and darkspawn. Human blood smelled like nothing compared to the tar-like blackness pumped through darkspawn veins. The stench alone was enough to make Rhys's stomach churn, and the color drained completely from Jory's full cheeks.

Bodies – some human, some not – lay strewn over the ground, some broken and others simply bled. But there was one man, twitching and shifting on the ground and moaning in pain, that yet lived. He was wearing armor familiar enough to send Rhys shoving past Nathaniel and Alistair and Daveth; he was one of Fergus's men.

Rhys did not know the man by name, though his face was familiar even distorted as it was. Kneeling beside him in the trodden grass, he gave a cursory look to his injuries, spotting only a leg twisted into an impossible angle and a slice near his stomach, mere inches away from his gut. The wound would fester if he remained surrounded by this for any longer. Maybe it already had. Rhys couldn't tell beneath the layers of armor.

"Oh! Oh-h, thank the – thank the Maker you're here, m'lord."

So he wasn't concussed, not nearly damaged enough not to remember his face.

"The darkspawn, they overwhelmed us. Dragged half of them away. The soldiers what didn't die in the fight, at least." When the soldier took a deep breath to continue, he winced and clutched onto Rhys's arm. "Your brother – they took 'im, too. I tried looking for him, but he's not anywhere 'round here."

Nathaniel's brow creased, staring up at Alistair as the young Warden was scrounging in his pack. "The darkspawn take prisoners?" he asked, taking a roll of bandages from the man. "What could they possibly want with the bodies?"

Jory stood a good distance off, his already pallid face looking worse by the second, but Daveth was kneeling down in the blood and dirt to help get the soldier's armor off. "Food, prob'ly."

"I don't know," Alistair admitted, voice thin. The color was drained from his face, as well. "I... I'll have to talk to Duncan. I don't know."

"Well, you're incredibly useful then, aren't you?" Nate grabbed his canteen, pouring it over the gaping wound in the soldier's thigh. While the man was screaming, he passed Rhys a square of wool that Alistair had handed off in the interim. "Press this down on his wound. Firmly. Don't let up until I say. And keep asking him questions; the last thing we need is him to pass out and have to lug his body around the Wilds with us."

Rhys took the scrap from Nathaniel and pressed it just as he was told: firmly. "How many were you? If there were more than the dead here, your numbers must have been more than I assumed."

"There was ten of us," the soldier groaned. "A dozen, maybe."

"Jory," Rhys said, raising his voice to get the man's attention. "Do something useful and count the bodies, will you?" Once the recruit moved off to do as was asked of him, Rhys turned his attention back to the man. "Are you absolutely sure the darkspawn took my brother? Is there no chance you may be mistaken? Did you see it with your own eyes?"

The soldier looked close to fainting. Rhys dug his fingers harder against the wound on his thigh, his own teeth gritted in waiting. That woke the man up with another strained scream.

"I didn't! He's not – he's not here; I looked for him! Crawled all over, I did." The man grimaced, though whatever surly expression he might've worn in the face of such questions cracked into a whimper. "I tried... I tried as hard as I could to watch him."

Rhys's brows flattened above his eyes. "Why are we wasting our supplies on him? His leg's broken. A lot of good he'll do us when the darkspawn will get to Ostgar tonight."

"Maker's sake! How can you be so heartless?" Alistair sounded about as horrified as Daveth looked. "He's one of your own men!"

"Fuckin' nobility, all the same." Daveth huffed, moving to the soldier's head to elevate it. "Fuck 'em if they ain't as rich as you, huh? What're you gonna do went you ain't shit anymore, boy?"


Nate's voice was nothing less than a threat, one that shut the rogue up immediately.

"I am doing what I can for this man because I would see no more..." He hesitated, clenched his jaw, staring into Rhys' eyes before averting them. "He doesn't need to be another casualty."

Rhys's jaw twitched once and again before Nathaniel told him he could release the swatch of wool. Part of him rose above what Daveth said, but another lingered with narrowed eyes at the rogue, wanting nothing more than to say something. Eventually, that side won.

"This has nothing to do with how much coin is in the man's purse," he spat, the bridge of his nose wrinkling in a sneer. "It has everything to do with being able to fight." He looked towards Alistair, chin tilted up and his eyes bright with defiance. "And he is not my man. He fought alongside my brother, and I'm a Warden recruit." Once he was satisfied, he tossed the blood-stained fabric into Alistair's pack. "Neither of you know the first thing about me, so I'd suggest you keep quiet rather than prove yourselves to be idiots."

"There's ten." Jory interrupted, thick brows pinched over the bridge of his nose. "I think- I think there are drag marks? I'm... I'm not sure; I'm no tracker."

Nate sighed heavily, digging in his belt for a small jar of healing poultice; he dabbed the minimal amount of the cool salve on the wound and began wrapping it. "Of course you aren't."

Once the wound was wrapped, they helped the man to his feet.

"Can you make it back to the camp?" Nate asked. "We do not have the time to escort you back."

Alistair started to interrupt, but the soldier was already moving, albeit shakily. "I-I'll be fine, sers, th-thank you for th'chance."

"We should walk him back." The young Warden continued staring at the soldier even though his party had begun moving forward. "Can't we walk him back? It's no trouble."

Nate huffed, taking an arrow from his quiver and docking it in his bow. "This is who's supposed to lead us into battle against darkspawn?" He looked at Rhys briefly before continuing until he was peering over his own shoulder at Alistair. "Mending his leg was one thing. We gave him a second chance at survival; the rest is up to him."

"Do they have many bleeding hearts in the Wardens?" Rhys asked, his tone lighter than before and draped heavily in mockery. "It is a shame you weren't in Duncan's place. My mother might have been moved to save herself from being skewered on a sword."

"What are you talking about?" Alistair's face was scrunched in confusion. "I hardly think wanting to help a dying man make it the short distance to camp constitutes me as a bleeding heart. It's my weakness for wounded animals and adorable children that does that, thank you."

"Maker's breath," Nate muttered. "I hope you don't find yourself funny."

"If you don't laugh at yourself, you'll lead a very boring life, my friend."

The Howe just pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

Rhys shook his head, just short of caring enough to roll his eyes. "And just think, once the Joining's over and done with, we'll be brothers." His voice plateaued into monotone. "Oh, how long I have awaited the day to be Joined with those I share so much in common with."

Blossom stepped up closer to his side, her walk just as proud as his. It wasn't difficult to mark her as the product of Rhys's nurturing, her head held high and alert with no small amount of apathy directed towards the men at her back.

Rhys gripped at the hilt of his sword and turned around, continuing backwards on careful feet. "So where are these treaties? I'd rather suck the rot out of that poor soldier's wound than spend another minute in these Wilds."

Alistair removed the map from his pack, unrolling it in his hands. "Ah, right. There's a ruined outpost... here." He handed the map to Rhys, pointing at the griffon symbol. "We have to keep going through this clearing, past a lake, and we should start seeing your standard Tevinter ruins. You know, ivy, some white stone, the sense of dread, and the happy knowledge that it was all built on the backs of starving slaves!"

Daveth unsheathed his short sword, licking at his lips nervously. "Let's just get this done. 'Fore somethin' worse than darkspawn gets us."

"Worse than the darkspawn" seemed impossible. Even with the blood that soaked into Rhys's past few days, saturating him with gory images as well as grief, nothing he'd seen compared to what stretched out in front of him when they came upon the first group of them.

They were monstrously ugly, some squat and some taller than any human man, with skin that looked like melted wax, bulging awkwardly and sagging despite their lean musculature. Their armor was little more than scrap, bits and pieces cobbled together from the men they felled. More than once, Rhys and Nathaniel caught a glimpse of a familiar sigil, scarred by time and misuse.

Somehow, even with their twisted, ugly faces mere inches away at times, the smell was the worst, and living, breathing darkspawn smelled even more foul than the corpses. Each drop of black blood spilled by the recruits filled their noses with a stench strong enough to make them gag.

And they fought fiercely, gnashing sharp and broken teeth with every blow and only growing stronger with every moment the men did not fall. Their frustration led to careless error, incompetence causing more of their deaths than superior skill from the men who opposed them. The five of them fought valiantly even still. Rhys favored his sword more heavily than usual, stabbing and disabling rather than cleaving like Jory. Nathaniel took down twice as many as Daveth, whose skill relied heavily on distraction. Alistair, despite being the only Warden of the lot, took down two, both hurlocks, though one had use of magic.

They spoke little and argued even less once they came to blows. Rhys had less than nothing to say and was content with wiping bits of darkspawn flesh and bone off of his shield. Despite following Alistair's command, he took the helm, the winding paths of the map and the location of the outpost taken to memory.

Nathaniel followed close behind, always with an arrow ready to loose should they be flanked. The other three stayed close together; Jory was frightened beyond belief, but the others remained back out of an unwillingness to follow the young Cousland step for step.

All-in-all, though, the darkspawn they encountered went down with relative ease. They were stronger and smarter in numbers, Alistair had explained, especially with leadership.

Luckily, the young Warden had no need to explain what that meant.

It took them three hours and far more than the twelve vials of blood they needed to finally reach the ruins, and it was there they encountered the alpha.

The hurlock towered over his kin, thick with muscle, clutching a jagged battleaxe. There were others around him, but they did not attack. They gnashed their teeth, clawed at the ground, roared in a frenzy... but unlike the stragglers in the forest, they were unwilling to move. Not without a command.

Nathaniel struck first, an arrow flying into the eye of a hurlock and another already in the air by the time Rhys and Alistair began pushing forward, Jory at their heels. Blossom and Daveth moved to the side to flank them.

The alpha bellowed; the birds would have flown from the trees in terror had the Korcari Wilds not seemed void of life entirely. The darkspawn seemed to belong there. They were decay; they were violence; they were the cruelty of nature.

Thick, black blood seeped into the ground, as if the wilds were hungry for the tainted blood. Each darkspawn that fell only seemed to enrage the creatures more, until finally they were left with only the alpha, filled with arrows and littered with precise cuts from Rhys' sword and Alistair's shield, but the thing would not die.

It swung its battleaxe with the strength of bear, slicing gashes in shields and armor alike. Red joined the black on their armor easily enough, though the darkspawn blood seemed to envelope it entirely. Alistair fractured his shield arm by taking a blow meant for Rhys, shoulder-checking him out of the way when he noticed he had not yet recovered from a kick just a moment ago.

The young Warden's scream fanned the flames of the alpha. The creature dropped his ax and began clawing at them, wrenching off pieces of armor, digging into flesh as they stabbed and cut and shot.

When the darkspawn monster finally fell to its knees, and then to the ground, no one had the strength to finish the thing.

Nathaniel limped forward, out of arrows and with a sprained ankle from attempting to keep his distance

Finally, Rhys moved, standing over the alpha's body, chest heaving in labored breaths. The darkspawn was still hissing. Gurgling on its own tainted blood, it still wanted nothing more than to kill him.

The Cousland gripped the hilt with both hands and drove his sword into its skull.

"There..." Alistair winced, swallowing thickly. "There should be a marker. Or a chest. We- we might need to do some digging." He gave Rhys a small smile as he held his shield arm to his chest; Jory was assisting in hooking the unwieldy shield to his back. "See? Having a bleeding heart on your team isn't so bad, is it?"

"I could have taken the blow," Rhys replied without missing a beat, the arrogant lilt still in his voice despite the smirk that finally replaced the grimace.

It was gone soon enough, though, when the chest was spotted across the floor of the outpost. The thing was broken into pieces, sitting in the open air as if an open invitation to disappointment. Rhys spat out a curse and moved forward quickly despite the aching muscles in his legs. His heart still pounded in his ears, and he shouted in frustration when he realized there was nothing there save dusty, broken remains.

"So is this it, then?" he asked, turning around to face them. "We've come all this way for nothing. There are no treaties here."

Nate knelt down beside him, brow, furrowed. "They were taken." He pointed out a faint outline in the wood, discoloration. "Or whatever was in this chest was. I cannot say how long ago, but-"

There was a throaty chuckle, and all five men went for their weapons.

"Are you lost?" the hooded woman purred, nails skipping over worn stone as she made her way down into the ruins. "I would hope so, for if you're scavengers you're an Age too late for anything of value.

The woman removed her hood, revealing jet black hair, messily tied in a bun. Her skin was pale, lips painted a dark purple, and even from a distance, her golden eyes were noticeable. What clothing she wore was clearly patched several times over, a skirt and leggings of black leather, though they looked to be of different quality and from various sorts of hides as she slunk closer, seeming more predator than woman.

Rhys was the first to speak, straightening himself out into his full height and peering at the woman curiously. His grip on his sword was loose compared to the others.

"We are Wardens," he said, taking a step forward as she took her last. "Looking for the treaties that were kept in that chest, locked to anyone who is not one of us. You wouldn't have any idea as to where they might be, would you?"

"Would I?" she asked. Rhys stepped closer. "Do I appear to know the location of these scraps?"

Rhys arched a brow; the woman laughed, setting four of the five ill-at-ease. There was something odd about her, unsteady, like a strong wind could push her in another direction and a word could send her away. "And would you follow me if I claimed I did?"

One sword lowered, one guard dropped, and Rhys nodded, murmuring a, "yes," that only made the woman laugh again.