AN: This is my first fanfiction. Reviews are greatly appreciated, unless they are flames, then they will be ignored. If all goes well, I have an idea for a sequel involving the events of DA2. I will be switching between at least two POVs, possibly more, haven't decided yet. The first POV is Alistair's.
Disclaimer: Bioware owns Alistair (sadly) and all events involving Dragon Age and Thedas. I own Ayla and all events involving her world and origins.
Together or Not at All
Chapter One: Who Are You?
There were a lot of things that Alistair had expected to find when he led the three recruits into the Korcari Wilds. He'd expected darkspawn, of course; part of the whole reason they'd gone into the wilds was to collect three vials of darkspawn blood for the Joining. He'd also expected wolves and the like, maybe some soldiers from patrols that had been sent out, possibly even to run across a Chasind warrior or two. They had, in fact, run into a soldier already, that they'd bandaged up and sent back to the camp at Ostagar.
But as they came over the crest of a large hill, he saw something he had not expected at all: a lone woman, fighting darkspawn. He could tell almost right away that she wasn't Chasind; nor did she seem to be a soldier of the King's army. She wore articles of clothing different from what he'd expect of either.
She had flame red hair, hanging in a long braid down her back; she wore a sky blue tunic emblazoned with a white crest he couldn't make out from this distance; and she wore a black, hooded cloak and black leggings, though of what material, he couldn't tell from here. She fought with dual weapons, much as Duncan liked to do, except rather than a longsword in one hand and a dagger in the other, she wielded matching curved swords. She fought well; as he watched, she blocked the incoming swipe from a darkspawn to her left with the sword in her left hand, and then pivoted in a circle to stab it in the back with her right hand sword. As it fell, she sliced its head off with a clean swipe from her left hand.
Alistair could see more darkspawn coming from behind her. "Come on, let's help her," he urged to the three recruits, and they rushed forward to engage the darkspawn that were starting to surround her.
She saw them coming, but hearing the darkspawn behind her, she turned to engage them instead. Alistair came up next to her and shield-bashed a genlock to the ground then ran it through with his sword. Aedan, the recruit from Highever, came up on her other side, and sliced off another genlock's head with his greatsword. An arrow thudded into the eye of a Hurlock, coming from the bow the cutpurse, Daveth, wielded, at the same time as Jory, the knight from Redcliffe, struck at the Hurlock with his greatsword. The woman was engaging another genlock with her swords. Between the five of them, they soon had the band of darkspawn defeated without much trouble. Alistair noted with relief that he couldn't sense any more immediately nearby.
He wiped his sword off on the grass, then sheathed it before turning to the woman, who was now a little behind him. She fell into a defensive posture, swords up, facing him. Alistair noted that Aedan and Jory had put away their swords, although Daveth, further back, had his bow trained on the woman, waiting for Alistair to signal him. Alistair held up his hands, palms out, in a peaceful gesture, though he kept his shield strapped to his arm, just in case.
"Whoa, hold on. I've no wish to harm you, or fight you, if I can help it. My name's Alistair. What brings you to the Wilds?"
This close, since there was only about ten feet separating them now, he could see that she was downright beautiful. She had blue-green eyes in a delicate face, with a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and full pink lips that he found far more tempting than he should have. The white symbol on her tunic was a pair of white wings, crossed by two swords, not a crest he could ever recall seeing. The black cloak and leggings appeared to be made of fur, though what type he wasn't sure. He couldn't help but notice she had some rather nice curves, as well. Ordinarily, he'd be tripping over his tongue in the presence of such a beautiful woman, but because he was so curious about what she was doing here, he found himself surprisingly able to function.
She looked him over, assessing him with those eyes; apparently deciding he was no immediate threat, she dropped her stance, wiping off her swords as well, before sheathing them at either hip. "My name is Ayla, and I am not sure where I am," she admitted. "I . . . was in the woods near my home, and blacked out. When I came to, I was here, and was attacked by those creatures just before you came. Where did you say we are, exactly?"
What? Alistair thought. She must be joking, right? She blacked out in the woods and woke up in the middle of the Wilds? How is that even possible? He looked at her, thoughtfully, but her gaze seemed open and sincere. He couldn't see any sign that she didn't believe what she said.
"I realize how that must sound," she said, as though guessing what he was thinking, "but I assure you, that's all I can remember. I do not have the slightest idea where I am or how I got here in the first place."
"Well, you're in the Korcari Wilds, a swamp just outside of the ruins at Ostagar. Currently, the Wilds are overrun by darkspawn, as you can see." He nodded at the corpses surrounding them. "We're gearing up to fight the darkspawn horde at Ostagar. Most of the King's army is here, as well as the Grey Wardens. I'm a Grey Warden, myself; these three are recruits. That's Daveth with the bow, the bald one's Jory, and the one with the shiny armor is Aedan. We're fulfilling a couple of tasks in the Wilds before they can be allowed to join us."
Though she tried her best to mask it, he could see confusion in her eyes, though what about, he wasn't sure. Was she unfamiliar with the names of Ostagar and the Korcari Wilds, or had some of the rest of what he had said been confusing, as well?
"These creatures are . . . darkspawn, you say?" She nudged at the nearest corpse with the toe of her leather boot.
Alistair nodded. "Yes, you've never seen one?" It wasn't all that unusual for a person to have never seen a darkspawn. Usually they stayed in the Deep Roads, where the dwarves were, except for during times of Blight. In fact, he didn't think any of the recruits with him had seen one until they'd entered the Wilds.
"No, I can't say that I have," she answered quietly. "Nor have I heard of the places you speak of, I'm afraid. Could you tell me what . . . country we are in?"
Alistair could feel his eyebrows almost disappear into his hairline. She should at least have heard of the Wilds, if not Ostagar. Could she truly be so far from home she didn't even know what country they were in? Yet, she still seemed sincere enough, if entirely uncertain of how he would react. "We're . . in Ferelden."
He watched her for any sign of recognition at that name, at least, but he couldn't see any. He was getting a little disturbed now; there was no way she couldn't have heard of Ferelden, everyone in Thedas knew at least a little about it. Had she maybe lost her memory?
"I must be quite far from home," she said at last, "and I'm afraid I have no idea how to get back."
Alistair opened his mouth to ask all the questions that were burning holes in his brain, when Aedan spoke up. "Sorry to interrupt, Alistair, but we shouldn't we get moving? We don't have a lot of time before dark to find those treaties, and there's going to be another battle soon, isn't there?"
Alistair looked at the position of the sun, and cursed inwardly. Aedan was right; there weren't many daylight hours left, and they still had to find the old Warden outpost that held the treaties Duncan had sent them for as well. Duncan had told him to be back by dark, if at all possible, as the horde was readying itself for another attack.
He looked back at Ayla. He couldn't very well leave her here, alone in the Wilds, surrounded by darkspawn. Especially when she had no idea where she was or how to get back to where she belonged. No, he'd had have to bring her along, he decided. "Come with us. We have one more task to take care of in the Wilds, then we'll be heading back to the army camp. Someone there might know how you can get back home. I'd escort you back right now, but I'm afraid we don't have the time."
She nodded. "Yes, thank you, I think that would be best. I doubt I have much choice, after all. I don't think these darkspawn will be willing to give me directions."
Alistair laughed in spite of himself. There were few things he appreciated more than a sense of humor. "No, they're not a very talkative or helpful bunch. Well, shall we be going then?"
"Lead the way."
Alistair slung his shield onto his back, and continued on in the direction the darkspawn had come from, motioning for the others to follow. According to the old map Duncan had given him, the abandoned outpost should be somewhere in the northeast. The recruits all fell into step behind them, though Ayla walked alongside him.
"So, if you don't mind my asking," she began, "what did you say you had brought your recruits into these Wilds for, again?"
"Well, they're not exactly my recruits. I'm the most junior member of the Wardens, at the moment, and my commander, Duncan, asked that I accompany them on these tasks. It's basically a final test, as it were, until they are allowed to join. The first task we'd already completed before we ran into you." Thank the Maker, Alistair thought to himself. He wouldn't have relished having to explain to her why they were collecting the black ichor that passed for darkspawn blood into the vials. Because of that, he didn't bother elaborating. "The second task is to find an old Warden outpost we had to abandon many years ago. Duncan said there should be some treaties in a chest there, that will hopefully allow us to gather more aid to fight the Blight."
"And you think that those treaties will still be there?"
"Duncan said that they were in an enchanted chest, so they should be preserved, even if the rest of the outpost is not. I should tell you, also, in case you don't know, that if we run into more of the darkspawn, you should take care with their blood. If any gets into your own wounds, you would become tainted."
She looked over at him, raising an eyebrow. "Tainted? And what would that do to me?"
So she didn't know. Alistair had thought she wouldn't. There were so many things she should know, that were common knowledge, which she seemed to have no idea about. He had so many questions he would have to ask her when they got back to the camp. "It would make you ill; take over your body, until there was nothing left. From what I've heard, you may even change into a darkspawn yourself. There is no cure for it." Well, except becoming a Grey Warden, but he wasn't about to tell her that unless he had to. It would only complicate matters, anyway.
"That is . . . disturbing to hear. Thank you for telling me."
He nodded. "You're welcome."
They walked in silence after that. He imagined she was thinking over everything he'd told her so far, and he was concentrating on making sure they went in the right direction, as well as considering whom she could possibly be, and where she was really from.
As they made their way through the Wilds, they ran into several more roaming bands of darkspawn, which Alistair was always able to sense before they got too close. This gave them enough time to prepare, and they were effective enough not to sustain any serious injuries. Alistair handed out a few health poultices for the more minor wounds that they received. Finally, they spotted the ruins of a tower in the distance.
"That must be it there," Alistair said to the others. "Let's hope the treaties are still in there, as Duncan said."
They made their way through the ruined archway of the tower. "Let's split up and look around," Alistair told the recruits. "See if you can find a chest that might have what we're looking for."
They did as they were told; they all split up and began to search the tower. Ayla leaned against the tower wall, arms crossed, watching them. "Hey, I think I found it," Aedan called.
Alistair turned and walked over to the opposite side of the tower, the others following, to where Aedan was crouched before a chest that looked as if the top had been crushed. "It's empty," he said as they all reached him.
Before Alistair could say anything, he heard the sound of swords leaving their sheath at the same moment as a voice drawled, "Well, well, what have we here?"
Alistair whipped around. Ayla was behind him, turned towards the woman coming down the ramp of the tower, her swords drawn. The woman who had spoken was sauntering towards them. She was beautiful, he supposed, with dark hair pulled back in a bun, creamy skin, and a lithe, well-curved body. She seemed to know it, as well, for she wore barely anything to cover herself: a purple shirt, of sorts, which barely covered her breasts, and left everything else on her torso free, as well as a torn black leather skirt that showed flashes of legs. It was her golden eyes, cold, hard, and unyielding, which made her unattractive to him, as well as the fact he could feel her magic coming off her in waves, via his templar training.
"Are you a vulture, I wonder? A scavenger poking amidst a corpse whose bones are long since cleaned? Or merely an intruder, come into these darkspawn filled wilds of mine in search of easy prey?" The woman continued, unconcerned with Ayla's swords or the fact that five people were staring at her. Alistair's hand was on the hilt of his sword, himself.
"What say you, hmm? Scavenger or intruder?" She prompted when no one answered her.
"We are neither," Alistair answered her, since it didn't seem like she'd go away until he did. He didn't want to push a mage if he didn't have to. "The Grey Wardens once owned this tower."
"'Tis a tower no longer. The Wilds have obviously claimed this desiccated corpse. I have watched your progress for some time. Where do they go, I wondered, why are they here?" She had stopped directly in front of Aedan, for some reason, and seemed to be looking to him for her answer.
"Don't answer her. She looks Chasind, and that means others maybe be nearby," Alistair whispered to Aedan, sincerely hoping he was wrong about that fact.
The woman glared at him. "Are you afraid barbarians will swoop down upon you?"
Alistair rolled his eyes. "Yes, swooping is bad."
"She's a Witch of the Wilds, she is!" Daveth exclaimed, his voice cracking with fright.
The woman rolled her eyes. "Witch of the Wilds? Such idle fancies. Have you no minds of your own?" Suddenly, the woman turned her attention to Ayla, who had sheathed her swords, apparently deciding an attack wasn't imminent. Or maybe it was because he had yet to draw his sword, Alistair mused. "You there, women do not frighten like little boys. Tell me your name and I shall tell you mine."
Ayla blinked, glancing at Alistair briefly before answering, "I am Ayla, a pleasure to meet you."
"Now that is a proper civil greeting, even here in the Wilds. You may call me Morrigan." She turned her attention back to Aedan. "Shall I guess your purpose? You sought something in that chest, something that is here no longer?"
Alistair snapped to attention, anger burning in him. "Here no longer? You stole them didn't you? You're some kind of . . . sneaky . . . witch thief!"
Morrigan sniffed. "How very eloquent. How does one steal from dead men?"
"Quite easily, it seems. Those documents are Grey property, and I suggest you return them," Alistair snapped. His hand had tightened on his sword hilt, though he was doing his best not to draw it. He still couldn't be sure that there weren't other people lying in wait for some signal from Morrigan.
"I will not, for twas not I who removed them. Invoke a name that means nothing here any longer, if you wish; I am not threatened." Morrigan was glaring at him as much as he was at her, and he could easily believe she didn't feel frightened in the least of them.
"If you didn't remove them, do you know who did?" Aedan asked, calm and straightforward. Alistair glanced at him, surprised. Wasn't he worried about this strange woman who'd popped out of nowhere?
Morrigan looked back at him, as if equally surprised, and gave him a calculating once-over. "Twas my mother, in fact."
"Would you mind taking us to her, so we could get them back?" Aedan prompted.
Morrigan smiled suddenly. "There is a sensible request. I like you."
"I'd be careful," Alistair warned him. "First it's - 'I like you' - but then it's - zap! frog time." He heard Ayla laugh next to him, and couldn't help grinning in response.
"She'll put us all in the pot, she will. Just you watch," Daveth muttered from behind Alistair. He'd been going on about "witches of the wilds" since before they'd even entered the Wilds.
"If the pot's warmer than this forest, it'd be a nice change," Jory responded. That was probably the first brave thing he'd said since they'd started, Alistair mused.
"Follow me then, if it pleases you," Morrigan said, ignoring the other two recruits as she turned and began to walk away. Aedan followed her without hesitation, so Alistair had no choice but to follow him.
Ayla fell in next to him as they followed Morrigan through the Wilds, and Daveth and Jory picked up the rear. "You don't trust her, do you?" Ayla murmured to Alistair. They were a little ways behind Aedan and Morrigan by now.
Alistair shook his head. "No, she's a mage, and I have a feeling her appearance was a little too convenient."
"How do you know she's a mage?" Ayla asked.
"I have some training as a templar, so I can sense a mage's abilities," Alistair answered. He looked over at her, and seeing the question in her eyes, he answered it before she even asked. "Templars are an order of knights who are trained to . . . neutralize a mage's ability, in case they become a danger to themselves or others. They are put in charge of guarding the mages in the Circle, to keep everyone protected. I never actually became one, though, before I joined the Wardens."
She nodded slowly, as though considering what he said. He had the feeling she wanted to ask more, but instead she said, "I think you're right about her timing being a little too convenient. She's after something, but I do not think you have a choice in the matter, if you need those treaties, anyway."
Alistair sighed. "You're right. If there's a chance I can get the treaties back, Duncan wouldn't be happy with me for passing it up. I just hope that whatever she wants, it's not more than we can afford to give."
"I will help you with whatever you need," she promised. "It is the least I can do."
Alistair flushed. "Thank you, but I really . . . haven't done all that much."
"You've done more than enough," she answered softly.
Just then, Aedan whispered back to them, "Looks like we're here."
As they emerged from a stand of trees, they spotted a small, ramshackle hut sitting in the middle of the swamp. It looked hardly big enough for two people, yet Morrigan led them right to it. An old woman, wizened and frail looking, with grey hair and dressed in simple peasant's clothing, was waiting in front of the hut. Her appearance was deceptive, though. Alistair could sense a far greater amount of magic coming off her than what Morrigan possessed; more than he had ever sensed before, even from the First Enchanter that he'd met briefly. He could only hope she didn't want to use it on them, because he doubted his limited templar abilities would be of any use on her.
"Greetings, Mother," Morrigan called out as they approached, "I bring before you five Grey Wardens who –"
"I see them, girl," the old woman interrupted. "Mmm. Much as I expected. Except for you." She was looking at Ayla, Alistair noted with a jerk of surprise. "You do not belong here, as the others do, do you?"
Alistair looked at Ayla. She looked as shocked as he was, but she recovered quickly. "I am not sure what you mean."
"Are you not?" the old woman smiled. "You are not from here, and were brought against your will, if I am not mistaken."
"Do you know why I was brought here, or how I can get back?" Ayla demanded suddenly, her fists clenching.
"I cannot be certain," the old woman replied. "But it is likely you were brought because you were needed here, more than you were needed there. Where you appeared and who you first met, will have much to do with why you were brought, I think. As for how you can get back, perhaps when you have completed what you were brought here to do, the answer will show itself."
"But you don't know for sure, do you?" Ayla asked.
The old woman shook her head. "I am afraid I do not, but there is only one way to find out, is there not?" Before Ayla could answer, she turned her attention back to Alistair and the recruits. "The four of you, however, I was expecting."
Alistair snorted, though he was more disturbed than he cared to admit about the old woman's insight into Ayla. "Are we supposed to believe you were expecting us?"
"You are required to do nothing, least of all believe. Shut one's eyes tight or open one's arms wide; either way one's a fool!" The old woman cackled, looking carefully at each of them in turn.
"She's a witch, I tell you, we shouldn't be talking to her," Daveth hissed as her eyes passed over him.
"Quiet Daveth, if she's really a witch, do you want to make her mad?" Jory hissed back.
"There is a smart lad. Sadly irrelevant to the larger scheme of things, but it is not I who decides. Believe what you will. And what of you?" She turned to Aedan this time, who was still standing a little in front of the others. "Do you possess a different viewpoint? What do you believe?"
Aedan shrugged. "I'm not sure what to believe."
"A statement that possesses more wisdom than it implies. Be always aware or is it oblivious? I can never remember. So much about you is uncertain and yet I believe. Do I? Why it seems I do!" The old woman appeared to be ranting to herself at this point, having gone from relatively straightforward answers with Ayla to insane riddles and ramblings.
"So this is a dreaded Witch of the Wilds?" Alistair was amused in spite of himself. For all the old woman's impressive power, it seemed her mind was too far gone for it to be of any use.
"Witch of the Wilds, eh?" The old woman laughed. "Morrigan must have told you that. She fancies such tales, though she would never admit it. Oh, how she dances under the light of the moon!"
"They did not come to listen to your wild tales, Mother." For the first time, Morrigan sounded exasperated instead of coolly amused and in control.
"True, they came for their treaties, yes?" The old woman turned and took some scrolls out of a bag hanging on the wall of the hut behind her. She handed them to Aedan, who was nearest to her. Alistair tried to recall when Morrigan or themselves had mentioned the treaties to her. "And before you begin barking, your precious seal wore off long ago. I have protected these."
"You –" Alistair began, ready to berate her for stealing them until the rest of what she'd said penetrated his brain. "Oh. You protected them?" He couldn't hide the surprise in his voice. Why would a Witch of the Wilds bother protecting Grey Warden treaties?
"And why not?" The old woman said, waving her hand dismissively. "Take them to your Grey Wardens and tell them this blight's threat is greater than they realize!"
"Thank you for returning them," Aedan said, sweeping her such a courtly bow that Alistair wondered, not for the first time, exactly who he was.
"Such manners! Always in the last place you look, like stockings!" She laughed again at the looks on their faces. "Oh do not mind me; you have what you came for!"
"Time for you to go then," Morrigan said, sounding pleased.
"Do not be ridiculous, girl, these are your guests." The old woman glanced at Morrigan, significantly.
Morrigan heaved a sigh. "Oh very well, I will show you out of the woods. Follow me."
She turned away from the hut and began walking, in a different direction than the way they'd come. Once again, Aedan followed her without hesitating, and Alistair wondered why in the Maker's name he thought her so trustworthy. But, the sun was getting awfully close to the horizon, and if she could show them a faster way out, it would be for the better. With a sigh, he followed Aedan, and again, the others followed him.
Ayla fell in beside him again, but she was quiet. He assumed she was thinking about all the old woman had told her, and he didn't interrupt her. No, he'd wait until they got back to camp. He couldn't wait to ask her all the questions that were churning around in his brain. He'd have a good long chat with her as soon as he had the chance, he decided. For now, he'd just have to get back to camp and get these recruits through the Joining.