Royal Eruptions and Shape-shifters: Forerunners to... Cursed Elves?
Loghain was slumped in a chair in front of the fireplace, a glass of strong red wine clasped in his hand. His grey-blue eyes traveled from the papers loosely grasped in his opposite hand to the small crackling fire. Summer was indeed departing Ferelden and the evenings had grown cool enough that the fire was a welcoming warmth. He lowered the papers to his knees and lost himself in his thoughts. The news from those nobles that had allied with him was not good. Civil war was imminent and the Darkspawn attacks were becoming more and more frequent. The unrest was stretching beyond the breaking point and for all his brilliance on the battlefield, he was at a loss here.
There was a sudden commotion outside the door and he could hear both Anora's voice and Howe's sharp retort. His daughter entered his office without knocking and had clearly come straight from her quarters. She was wearing the pale blue robe he had given her some years ago and it was cinched tightly around her slender waist. Her blond hair was uncoiled and it tumbled around her shoulders, making her look much younger. He was struck for the thousandth time that he had produced this beautiful young woman and could only see himself in her at times like this, when she set her jaw stubbornly and her bright blue eyes flashed with anger. Howe slipped in behind her, his face flushed with annoyance, and he stepped forward to speak first.
"I'm sorry, ser, for the interruption," His voice was as slippery as ever and his gaze flickered briefly to Anora with a dark expression, "But she wouldn't allow-"
"Enough, Rendon," Anora was not going to be talked down to and she waved one hand dismissively at the self-appointed Teyrn, "Father, something has to be done about this. Ferelden is on the brink of civil war and don't act surprised that I know this. I am not a child anymore, I am a queen, and you can't expect to keep me in the dark. The nobles that have not gone back to their provinces are just waiting for a chance to prove a point and use me as an example. I will not be humiliated like this. Tell me you have a plan to ease the unrest."
"He doesn't have-"
"I wasn't speaking to you," Anora interrupted Howe once more, taking another step towards her father, "Well?"
Loghain surged to his feet, his own anger spiking sharply at his daughter's impertinent demands. She didn't shy away from him when he turned to meet her glare for glare and he couldn't help feeling that little stirring of pride in her fearlessness.
"I don't have to answer to you or any of the nobles," He replied sharply, hearing the careful enunciation that the wine had brought about, "You are not in any position to make demands of me."
Anora wasn't impressed. She studied the general with eyes that didn't miss much and her full lips parted a little.
"Are you... drunk?" She questioned with disbelief.
"And if I am?" He demanded and tossed the papers onto the low table beside the three bottles, two of which had long ago been emptied and the third less than half full, "That's not any of your concern either. Go back to bed, Anora, and leave this to me and the other nobles."
"I won't," She exclaimed, her face flushing with anger, "You can't brush me aside like I'm twelve years old again. This is ridiculous and I won't stand for it. The news-"
"Rumors!" Loghain barked, "Ferelden is behind me and I won't let you and your obsession with rumors stand in my way!"
Anora cooled just as rapidly as she had flared up at him and she crossed her arms over her chest. Her blue eyes locked on her father's and she was suddenly the spitting image of her mother: judgemental and superior.
"Rumors? That is your contention: that I am obsessed with rumors?" She repeated, "Tell me, General, was the desertion of Cailan at Ostagar a rumor?"
Loghain's face tightened, his eyes flickering. He turned to pick up his goblet again and was grateful that Howe didn't take it upon himself to answer Anora. The Teyrn would only make matters worse and he was smart enough to realize it.
"Don't ask questions that you are not ready to hear the answers to," He said quietly, his anger disappearing as images of his son-in-law flashed before him.
"I want the truth, Father," She persisted stubbornly, but her tone was much softer as she added, "Did you kill Cailan?"
He couldn't look at his daughter as he took a sip of wine and replied gruffly.
"Cailan's death was his own doing."
There was a sharp exhalation and then the quick clicks of Anora's slippers as she stormed from the room, slamming the door on the one man she had believed she could trust. Her world was rapidly shrinking.
The companions left Redcliffe two days later, after
Alistair had grudgingly committed himself to Eamon and Teagan's plan and Oghren
was sufficiently recovered. Wynne was much better as well, the time devoted to
resting restored her strength; and Ffion, kind of keeping her promise to
Alistair, couldn't prevent herself from pulling the enchanter aside and telling
her in no uncertain terms that they were in this war together to the bitter end
and she had no need to worry about not being allowed to see it through. Wynne
had been a little suspicious at first, but the Warden was quick to plant the
seed that she had been considering this since she saw the enchanter collapse.
The mage had smiled gently at her, touching her shoulder in a familiar,
maternal fashion and thanking Ffion warmly. Morrigan had once more approached
Ffion to remind her of her promise and the Warden had to reassure her even as
she mentally cursed that evening. The road south of Redcliffe, bordering the
Wilds, was not going to be easily traveled and the Arl hadn't liked their
decision, but couldn't give them a better option. He agreed with Wynne about
the location of the Dalish and the fact that the road was going to be the
So they set forth, Syd loyally plodding along behind them. Eamon had bemoaned the fact that he didn't have enough mounts for them and Ffion and Alistair both rejected his offer of those poor beasts he did have. Their contention was that the Arl would be busy enough garnering support against Loghain and allies for himself and Alistair, all the while calling the Landsmeet, so the horses would be needed more in Redcliffe than on an uncertain road with a group that was too large for them to be of any use. And Alistair added cheekily that with fall coming on, it made way too much sense to ease their travels; they were Wardens, after all, and their lives were supposed to be hell and damnation, right? His uncle had merely smiled fondly at him, saw that they were supplied with all they would need, and told them not to worry about the Landsmeet until they were actually entering the great hall in Denerim and facing down Loghain in person. And they did as he said.
In spite of the absence of horses, they made decent time, though they were plagued by the Darkspawn with a greater frequency the further south they trekked. The watches at night became a true test of keeping a keen eye, rather than a time to reflect on the past, present, and future; and the Wardens were jumpy and almost neurotic for the first few days, even Alistair. The taint was more wild and chaotic in him than it had been since he first Joined and, because of this, he wasn't the comfort to Ffion that he had been in her first days. Luckily, they had grown so used to one another that it was second nature, knowing the difference between their taint and the monsters'; but the rest of the companions were dependent on them, and a number of times the Wardens had tumbled from their tents, ready for battle before the one on watch even realized the enemies were closing in.
The most difficult thing for Ffion, Wynne, and even Alistair to get over was the sight of the burned out and devastated villages. More than half of those they came across had been abandoned long before the Darkspawn swept through, but those that weren't so lucky were horrible to see. In the first, it was clear that the Chantry had been the villagers' refuge and the monsters had simply torched the place when they couldn't gain entry. The people that were brave enough to fling themselves from the burning building had met with the Darkspawns' blades and their sprawled bodies had been left for the carrion. Ffion would have spent the entire day burying the dead, with Leliana and Wynne's help, had Alistair not stepped into the position of authority for the first, very brief time, and herded everyone along. He wished to give these poor people the dignity of a proper burial as well, but they just couldn't spare anymore time. Eamon was going to act swiftly, calling in old favors that couldn't be brushed away, and fueling the fires against Loghain instead of against other nobles, and they had to follow their own plan of winning over that last ally. And they weren't even a hundred percent sure where the Dalish were.
They were roughly ten miles out from the fork that would lead further south to Lothering and the ruins of Ostagar, when Ffion began to feel watched, particularly as evening began falling and the clouds rolled in to promise rain for the next day. She was walking next to Tilly, Alistair at her other side, each one companionably silent as they listened to Leliana tell an Orlesian tale of a mandolin player who had fallen in love with the emperor's daughter and she with him. The daughter was promised to an enemy's son in hopes of creating a truce and in spite of her family's attempts to keep her in seclusion, she heard the mandolin player's music and fell under its spell. The tale had everything one could hope for, (except sex, which Zevran and Oghren were quick to point out with utter disappointment). The Orlesian was just reaching the climax, where the mandolin player's mandolin, which held a magic that allowed it to speak only the truth, was serenading the daughter, who had been told her lover had deserted her and was on the verge of throwing herself from her father's roof, and telling her that he was not dead, when Ffion's attention was grabbed by an owl that settled in the top branches of a long dead tree. The whole of their surroundings was barren and disheartening and this owl the first wildlife that the Warden had seen for two days. She stared at it for a moment and wondered how she hadn't noticed the peculiar gold color of the owl's eyes right away, a gold that was very familiar... She fell into a thoughtful silence and had to keep herself from glancing at Morrigan to see if the witch had noticed the bird as well.
Darkness was falling in earnest now and they staked camp before they lost anymore daylight. It was Leliana's turn to make supper and soon, she had the dead, rather dank air suffused with the smell of her specialty: a hare and potato stew that was hearty enough to fill them up on small portions. Tilly hardly left the Orlesian's side as she cooked and Ffion settled by the fire, absentmindedly twisting a loose curl about her finger. She listened to the chatter going on around her and kept her ears open for any sounds of wildlife which, oddly enough, would be out of place in this terrible, empty wasteland that the Darkspawn left in their wake. Morrigan sat beside her as they began eating and took her chance when Alistair, who was perched on Ffion's other side, started talking to Wynne.
"'Tis good to see creatures returning to this place, is it not?" She asked amiably, but her gold eyes, so like her mother's and that owl's, were glittering knowingly, telling the Warden that she had seen and knew that that had been Flemeth observing them, "It is as I said."
Ffion stifled a yawn even as she felt a little uneasiness sweep through her. She wasn't sure she was ready to face off with Flemeth tonight, or ever for that matter, promise or no promise. But she nodded at the witch and wasn't given the chance to go into more detail. Alistair focused on his supper again and the talk drifted to the unimportant topics it usually did after a long day. No one seemed to want to sit up for too long, they had bypassed several little villages that day and most of them had been littered with bodies of the inhabitants and animals alike. It had taken its toll on all of them in its own way and Alistair was growing angrier and angrier with Loghain and his inadequate care for these people. Not that there was much to be done now. The only thing that could have prevented all of this destruction was if the general had not tucked tail at Ostagar and left the armies for dead, allowing the Darkspawn to sweep through like a tide of death.
Oghren offered to take the first watch and no one argued with him. He was much better about his drinking while he had responsibilities like this, but Ffion was quite sure that the Dwarf was a functioning drunk and that was why there hadn't been an issue yet, so it was let go. Ffion, as usual, took the second watch and arranged for Alistair to follow her. Morrigan sent her an alarmed look, figuring that she would be next so that Ffion was given more time to deal with Flemeth, but the Warden shook her head minutely. She knew what she was doing and the witch would just have to trust her. Only Tilly would be accompanying her and she couldn't help but feel that this was the right thing to do. If Flemeth had watched them approach, she would see Ffion sneak off from camp and meet her nearby, she was sure, which meant that the others would still be looked after. Not that it really mattered, the taint would give her ample time to get back and call the warning. And as far as killing the old witch, she still wasn't sold on that. Her plan for the moment was to simply talk to Flemeth, seeing as how the witch had saved her, Tilly, and Alistair at substantial risk to her own neck and that had earned a benefit of the doubt... at the very least.
She was still awake when Oghren called her name and after he had retreated to his own tent and started snoring, she sat for a moment, stroking Tilly's ears, feeling only Alistair's taint tugging at her, and waiting for a sign from Flemeth. Which came sooner than she had dared hope it would. There was a faint hoot from an owl a little ways off, back down the road they had been traveling and she held still, letting it hoot twice more before she was certain it was the witch. Tilly seemed to sense that there was something amiss and even Syd lifted his head and snorted softly. The Warden crept away from the fire, letting the moonlight show her the road's boundary, and praying that the clouds held off long enough for her to talk with Flemeth and get back to the warmth and comfort of her camp. She hadn't ventured very far before Tilly was whining softly and there was a rustling to her right. A small, rather dull flash of light was all she saw and then a familiar scratchy voice greeted her.
"So, child, back to curse my name at last? Or is there another meaning behind this late night visit?"
Ffion blinked in the dim moonlight, letting Tilly lean against her, and wishing she could see more clearly. Flemeth stood close by and the cloud that had obscured the moon was suddenly sailing away, revealing the witch a little better. She looked mostly the same, perhaps a little more threadbare and thinner than she had been, but her strange yellow eyes were luminous in the light and had lost none of their sharpness.
"Nope, the cursing ended a while ago," She answered in a voice just above a whisper, spreading her arms a little in a shrug, "For me, anyway. I'm not sure about Alistair, and this is about something else, yes. I'm here to ask you about the grimoire that had been taken by the Circle. I probably should have looked at it before handing it over to Morrigan, but I didn't really care and I had so many other things to worry about that... well, it didn't happen."
"Ah, so the lovely Morrigan thinks she has discovered my secret to eternal youth and has sent you to make sure she is not the next Flemeth," The old witch cackled, her eyes lighting up in amusement, "She finally believes that she has found someone to dance to her tune, but she's obviously mistaken. You have made no move to attack me and I don't think that you will."
Ffion bristled a little at how easily Flemeth read this situation and her automatic assumption that the Warden was nothing more than Morrigan's puppet. She mastered her tongue though and instead eyed the witch coolly.
"Are you suggesting that I dance to your tune instead?" She questioned and then pressed on before Flemeth could answer, "You know, never mind, I'll just tell you what happened. Morrigan does think that she's discovered your secret and didn't want to risk facing you again, so she asked me to confront you instead, kill you, and then take your real grimoire. She doesn't care how I kill you; she just wants you gone, out of her life, forever. I told her that I would look into this and promised to bring the book back, but I'm very curious and more than a little reluctant. I owe you a life debt, as does Alistair, and I'm not taking that lightly, but I can't break a promise either. So I decided to see if there is anyway to barter for that grimoire or something akin to it to simply appease Morrigan. I'm not going to risk losing her over something so silly to me, she's too valuable."
Flemeth studied the young Warden, seeing that her trials and the horrors she had witnessed had done nothing to kill that spirit that had so drawn the witch to her. Instead, it merely fortified Ffion's ambition and had given her an edge that would serve her well if she could only hone and perfect it. There was a darkness in the girl's past that was sending out thriving shoots to take over her future and she would need all her strength of mind to see it through. Helping her out now would also work in Flemeth's favor. If the Wardens and their allies won this war and restored Ferelden, they could prove to be detrimental to the witch accomplishing her own means and she was more than happy to strike a bargain.
"Agreed," She said briskly, never one to put up with beating around the bush, "I will give you my grimoire and you can take it back to that willful girl and then I will disappear. Tell Morrigan any story you wish, tell her I am dead and gone, put her mind at ease, and then get yourself back on your own track. The girl will be appeased and I can go back to watching and... waiting."
Ffion blinked at her, keeping the camp in the corner of her eye, and folded her arms over her chest. Her lips parted a little and she was speechless for a moment before finally finding her voice again.
"That's it?" She asked, "You're going to let it go just like that? There has to be a catch."
"Oh, there is, child, but it won't concern you," Flemeth pulled a big black book from the rumpled pack and handed it over, "The catch has everything to do with Morrigan and you needn't worry yourself."
Ffion took the heavy tome in the crook of one arm and arched her brows at the witch.
"All right, then, we have a deal," She debated extending her hand and figured Flemeth would merely laugh at her. She inclined her head instead and gave her a small smile, "I wish you luck, Flemeth, take care."
She was turning back to the camp and Flemeth's words were quiet and full of meaning.
"You too, Warden, and keep that light in your heart burning."
The next morning as they broke down camp in a misty rain,
Ffion approached Morrigan with the black tome in one arm.
"Here, Morrigan, I think you left this by the fire last night," She said in a helpful tone that gave nothing away, "I kept it in my tent so it wouldn't get rained on."
The witch turned to face her from her work of rolling her canvas tent again. She extended her hands without really looking at the grimoire and when she realized what she held, her gold eyes widened. From her kneeling position on the dead grass, she studied Ffion's expression for a long moment before she inclined her head.
"Thank you, Ffion," She finally said, her voice soft, "I would have hated to lose this again."
"You're welcome," The Warden was brisk, glancing behind her as the sharp smell of smoke stung her nose. Zevran was raking out the ashes of their fire and Sten tying a pack to Syd, "All's well that ends well, right? Let's get going."
She didn't give the witch a chance to corner her and ask for the details of how she had recovered the grimoire. She was sure that she could get away with the lie fairly easily, Morrigan was too happy to have the book to read anything in Ffion's face, but she just wasn't in the mood to play that game. Not when she was still trying to figure out why Flemeth had just let her have the thing. She would trust to the old witch's word that there wouldn't be any comeuppance for her and she could only hope that Flemeth didn't decide to teach Morrigan her lesson while the Blight was still ongoing. That was the last thing they needed.
The stretch of road that had meandered through the Darkspawn infested wasteland was finally crossing over into little copses of woods, and was looking more and more like it was the less traveled path. After roughly two weeks on the road, they had reached the Brecilian Forest and it was well worth the wait. The rain had only lasted for a few days, but the temperatures were still dropping and it was clear that their ideal weather was drawing to a close. But the Forest seemed more than ready for the change. It was a huge stretch of woods and had remained mostly uninhabited thanks to both the Dalish and tales of ancient magic, werewolves, giants, and other such monsters, which worked in its favor. The young, straight saplings intertwined with their ancient ancestors that towered over all, twisted and gnarled by time and the change of the seasons. There were animal tracks that led here and there through the woods and some brave travelers that had parleyed with the Dalish had left a worn path that wound back and forth through roughly the first eighty to hundred acres or so of the Forest. There were hardwoods and evergreens alike and the hardwoods were already preparing for the oncoming winter. Their leaves had taken on a golden sheen that dazzled against the evergreens' pine needles and danced in the bright, slanting sunlight. The birds that had not traveled to the warmer southernmost reaches of the Forest were singing in the late afternoon and Tilly startled a pair of does from a wide, grassy clearing that the merchant path skirted. The Mabari was absolutely in love with the Forest and she danced among the trees, chasing squirrels onto branches where they would perch and scold her, and trying to sniff out hares only to make them dive back into the ground.
"I wished to escape and live among the Dalish at one point in my life," Zevran spoke almost wistfully as his amber eyes roved the beautiful woods and late blooming undergrowth, "Shocking, yes?"
When no one else commented, Ffion decided to take the bait.
"A little," She answered and then grinned at him, "I can't imagine what you would have done to entertain yourself. With nothing to kill and knowing how devoted Dalish wives and husbands are to one another, you would have shriveled up into nothing."
Alistair snorted with laughter and Oghren grinned up at the Elf who was smiling wickedly at Ffion.
"I do not believe so," He replied easily, "The clans have become quite modern since I had that dream. When I was younger, the Dalish women were left to tend camp while the men hunted and sought out a new home. I would have been kept quite busy, in more ways than one, yes?"
Leliana and Wynne laughed with Oghren as Morrigan rolled her eyes and Ffion lifted her shoulders in mock defeat.
"So, who wants ta bet tha' the clan will 'ave somethin' for us to clean up fer 'em?" Oghren asked as they passed another sunny clearing and Tilly went tearing away after another squirrel, rounded its nesting tree, and returned to her lady.
"After what has already occurred, the bet is hardly worth the odds," Sten replied dryly.
"The Dalish are a proud people," Wynne was still their teacher, no matter what the topic; "I don't think they would want to draw outsiders into their problems."
"Those nug-humpin' deshyrs don' like t' ask surfacers either," Oghren grinned again and added, "Was tha' jus' a dream?"
"Yeah, I wish," Alistair snorted. All except that one Maker sent moment, yeah?
The little voice was cut short as Ffion chuckled, about to add her own two bits when Tilly interrupted them. The Mabari growled furiously and a half dozen Elves stepped from the trees, bows drawn and trained on the companions. They were dressed in thick hide armor which just barely covered the blonde that was stepping forward boldly. The tattoos decorating their faces were intricate and beautiful, though the intent was obviously to intimidate, and in their leather boots, they walked without making a sound. The blonde said something sharply in Elvish and Zevran was quick to answer her. She was surprised and rather disgruntled at the Elf's understanding and switched to the Common tongue as her eyes, as green as new growth, landed on Ffion.
"What business do you have here?" She asked, her accent thick but manageable, "We will not hesitate to cut you down if you wish us harm."
"Please, we only wish to speak with your Keeper," Ffion answered quickly, holding up her hands to show she wasn't remotely inclined to reaching for her weapons; though she was half tempted to grab Tilly's collar to prevent the Mabari from causing any trouble, "My name is Ffion of the Grey Wardens and I mean to ask your clan to fulfill the treaty that was signed with the Order and help us to end the Blight."
The Elf eyed her briefly and then held up one hand to her clan members. They lowered the weapons but didn't put them away. She knocked her blonde hair from her eyes and then nodded her head.
"Very well, follow," She was clearly trying to hide her inexperience with the Common tongue by using as few words as possible, "But remember, you are watched."
Ffion returned her nod and then gave her companions, particularly Sten and Morrigan, a warning glance. They didn't seem to need this and they followed after her without a word of opposition. The Elves led them still further into the woods as the slanting sunlight began to fade. The companions didn't attempt conversation with their leaders or among one another, really; and the Elves only spoke a word here and there in their own tongue. They seemed painfully aware of the fact that Zevran could understand them and that was what kept the talk to a minimum. So instead, the sounds of the Forest were more evident and the Elves led them from the path and in amongst the trees themselves, never misstepping, rustling the branches, or snapping any twigs. They trekked through the woods until the sun was setting in earnest and they finally reached the outskirts of the Dalish camp.
It was nestled in another large clearing that was scattered with a handful of the ancient trees. A few tents were staked but it appeared that most of the Elves slept outside, which made sense. These were a nomadic people and their tradesmens' stands were built with the sole purpose of being quick and easy to break down again. In a small dip at the other side of the clearing was a rough fence and inside was a herd of what looked like stags. Their coats were a rather dusky white that shimmered in the setting sun as they grazed peacefully on the lush green grass. Behind their velvety ears horns had sprouted, twisting and curling gracefully over their muscular backs. They were breathtaking and Ffion studied them avidly when Wynne's voice startled her.
"They're halla," She observed, "The old tales say that the Dalish warriors would ride them into battle and they are revered among the clans. The horns don't grow that way; their keepers carve and shape them into beautiful designs. If you can get close enough, you will see that each is different from the next."
"You have been taught well, for a human mage," A new voice answered Wynne's description, sounding impressed, "I did not think your Circle devoted much time to what remains of Dalish history."
The companions turned about to see that another Elf had joined them. Their guides were holding one fist over their hearts, inclining their heads to him. He was shorter than Ffion and Leliana both, but only just. His robes were immaculate, even with this nomadic living, and though his tattoos weren't as intricate as some of the others, they curled over his face with the same artistic grace as those of his peoples'. His head was shaved bald, which seemed rather odd for an Elf, and his eyes were a deep, calm brown. They held an ancient light and a weariness that was almost tangible.
"Well, they taught me the well known facts," Wynne told him, spreading her arms a little with a smile, "My curiousity and traveling did the rest."
The Elf gave her a nod and returned the smile, causing the rest of the companions to relax some. The smile was warm, tired maybe, but warm.
"I am glad to hear that," He studied each of them with a gaze that didn't miss much. His accent was rather strange: it almost seemed that he didn't have one, though there was a slight emphasis on his vowels and he had a peculiar trick of clicking his tongue after g's and l's, "Too much of the Dalish has been lost to this world and I am pleased to meet one that is so willing to teach others. I am Zathrian, Keeper of this clan, and Mithra tells me that you are Wardens seeking to fulfill our treaty with you."
There was just barely a hint that that was a question and Ffion stepped forward as Zathrian motioned for Mithra and her companions to depart. Behind the Keeper, a couple of clan members were lighting long torches that had been sunk into the ground and others heaped cooking and warming fires alike. The Elves chatted amongst one another and though some of the children giggled and argued, the adults seemed just as weary as their Keeper, just as morose, and Ffion could practically feel Oghren's exaltation in being right.
"Yes, my name is Ffion and this is Alistair, both of the Wardens," She said, pulling out the treaty rather mechanically, "And the rest are our companions, helping us to recruit aid in fighting the Blight. And, yes, we are looking to fulfill the treaty."
Zathrian took the paper in his hand, examining the seal and then handing it back to Ffion, his brown eyes suddenly shuttered.
"Would that I could promise you help, Warden," He said, confirming their suspicions, "But we are not in any position to do so."
"Yeah, like pretty much everyone else, it looks like you've had your own share of trouble," Alistair's voice was dry, "What are the odds?"
Zathrian's eyes flashed to the ex-Templar and Ffion was quick to step in. The staff that was slung over the Keeper's back could probably be in Zathrian's hands before Alistair could use his Templar trick to stop any magic.
"What happened?" She asked rather abruptly and then grimaced as she rephrased that more carefully, "I mean, is there anything we can do to change your mind?"
"Rewind the days and months and prevent a tragedy," Zathrian's tone was just as dry as Alistair's, but he seemed to respect Ffion's offer. He studied her briefly and then motioned with one hand, "Come with me, I will show you what ails us."
He started back across the clearing, towards a large, rather extravagant tent and skirted this. Behind it, a lean-to had been constructed out of animal hides and large swaths of fabric. The Keeper went to one corner and swept up a square of the fabric, revealing the interior. There were about a dozen cots lined within and each one held an Elf. There were oil lamps lighting this makeshift hospital and warm stale air escaped when that curtain was pulled back. Two of the Dalish, obviously healers, tended to the sick and they glanced up briefly when they realized they were no longer alone. A few of the Elves on the cots writhed in pain while the rest merely lay prone, some staring up at the ceiling in a dull stupor and the others comatose.
"What happened here?" It was Leliana that broke the silence, her voice horrified and her blue eyes pitying.
Zathrian dropped the curtain back again and hiding the sick from their view. He paced towards the warming fire where three other Dalish stood and spoke in an impatient voice.
"We have been in this part of the Forest for a fortnight now and would have pressed on long ago, but as you can see, that is impossible. Our hunters were attacked on the first night that we camped here. There were five that had gone scouting and only two returned, both bearing horrible bites from... werewolves," He swung about to look at the companions as though half expecting them to start mocking him. Sten arched his brows, but stayed silent, and Oghren's snorted laughter was cut short as Zevran elbowed him sharply. Zathrian was looking between Ffion and Alistair, going on when they met his gaze squarely, waiting to hear the rest of his account, "You are both Ferelden natives, it is clear in your voices. You must know the stories of these woods. There is an ancient magic here that my ancestors were a part of and now it has been disturbed in the most damning way possible. I have lost six of my most talented hunters to this disease and more are disappearing each day. We are ravaged by it and will be of no use to the defeat of the Blight."
"There's nothing that can be done?" Wynne questioned gently, her blue eyes straying back to the lean-to as a moan traveled over the sounds of fire and the clatter of dishes.
"I have one theory, but have not been willing to sacrifice any of the others to test it," He started pacing, speaking more deliberately so as to get it all out before they posed any arguments, "There is a white wolf, Witherfang, that lives in the middle of this copse we are in. He is an ancient spirit who has led the werewolves for a time beyond measure. If he were killed, his heart cut out and returned to me, I could end this cursed disease. I have the power to do so, but the power is useless without Witherfang's heart. The hunters are willing to do this for me, but I cannot allow it. Our numbers have dwindled and we need what hunters we have left if we are to survive."
"So are yeh gonna ask us or shoul' we jus' offer an' git it over with?" Oghren questioned, arching his brows at the Keeper.
Zathrian glanced down at him in surprise and then looked between Ffion and Alistair again. He had stopped pacing, but it looked like he wished he hadn't.
"I could not ask this of-"
"Then don't," Ffion interrupted smoothly, ignoring Morrigan's soft exhalation, "We'll camp here tonight and go into the woods to check this out in the morning. I won't make any promises for reasons that you understand, but we'll investigate. Any tricks to this section of the Forest?"
The Keeper forced himself over his speechlessness.
"Like I said, there is an ancient magic at work here," He repeated, "There is nothing specific I can warn you about, just... be careful. Not everything is what it seems in these woods. Please, feel free to camp within the clearing and there is plenty for all of us to eat if you wish to join us."
Ffion inclined her head and thanked him, herding the others back to a more secluded corner of the clearing. They staked their tents in relative quiet, Morrigan, Sten and Oghren displeased with this decision, but not voicing their doubts. They joined the Dalish for their simple fair of rice and venison, and found that the Elves weren't as stand-offish as they thought they'd be. The children were fascinated by Sten, and Tilly was in a bad way of becoming completely spoiled with all of the treats they gave her, giggling as she begged shamelessly. Wynne kept conjuring balls of light and bubbles that burst with the slightest touch of a finger for the youngest of the children while Leliana sat with the musicians, listening avidly to their beautiful, haunting music that seemed as much a part of the Forest as the wildlife. Zevran and Oghren were both quite enthralled by the ethereal beauty of the female Elves and the Dwarf drew a crowd of curious children who hadn't seen a Dwarf before. Morrigan remained silently aloof, while Ffion and Alistair talked with Zathrian and his First, a young Elf named Lanaya, who had been rescued from slavers when she was young. They didn't learn much more about the curse and no one seemed able to give them any concrete advice on what to watch for when they pressed on in the morning. So Ffion took it upon herself to give her companions the option.
"Listen," She said as they returned to their corner of the clearing, after prying Oghren from the group of children that had surrounded him as he played sleight of hand tricks and made funny faces at them, "If the Elves would let you and if any of you feel led to help them here, don't feel like you have to come along tomorrow morning."
They all exchanged glances except Zevran and Alistair. The Elf was sharpening one of his short swords, a clear sign that he wouldn't even consider staying behind, and Alistair crouched to examine his shield where it leaned against his tent. Wynne smiled gently at the Warden.
"I don't think the Elves would want us interfering here and none of us want you to go along without us," She replied.
The others nodded at Ffion; even Morrigan inclined her raven head before ducking into her own tent.
"All right, then," The Warden said briskly, pleased with their reaction, "No watches tonight, so let's just try to get some sleep."
The next morning dawned bright and clear and very cool.
The companions left the clearing in the dim half-light and were seen off by
Lanaya and a woodworker and merchant by the name of Varathorn who was able to
supply them with health poultices, arrows, whetstones, and a few other
essentials that they might need. Lanaya had offered to fence Syd with the halla
and though the beautiful stags welcomed him without trouble, he looked frumpy
next to their shimmering white coats. He was happy with the fresh grass,
however, and he nuzzled one of the smaller halla that immediately wanted to
play with him. The companions ventured into the Forest
on the eastern path and trudged along for a time in the early morning, listening
to the birds waking up around them and beginning their songs. The landscape
became hillier here and a lot of the time, the path they followed was hedged in
on either side with grass and shrub covered mounds. The dew soaked grass
softened their footsteps and it was such a peaceful hike that when Alistair and
Ffion both stiffened, coming to a stop, the others almost crashed into them.
"Darkspawn," Ffion murmured, reaching for her blades.
"It doesn't seem possible that they could be here in such a tranquil place," Wynne observed in a quiet voice as her staff was nestled into her palms.
"It's definitely not a human or Elf with the taint," Alistair replied as they edged forward slowly.
"No, it's not," Leliana fired her bow and a second later the Genlock that was clearing one of the rolling hills ahead dropped dead.
The other Darkspawn were cresting the hill now and their hoarse voices rose in unintelligible war-cries. The companions were ready for them and Tilly darted ahead with Alistair, Sten, and Oghren while Zevran disappeared from Ffion's side only to spring up in the midst of the monsters. The Warden hung back with Leliana, Wynne, and Morrigan and she was the one that called the warning.
"Wolves!" She shouted as a half dozen of the enormous beasts tore through the trees at them.
Only these weren't ordinary wolves. Their limbs were disproportionately long and as they attacked, they stood on their hind legs, towering about to Alistair's height. The Darkspawn were being driven back, but the added presence of the beasts was not helping. Sten, Alistair, and Oghren were floundering with these new foes and as Zevran drew the last of the Darkspawn away from them, one of the wolves dove at their Dwarf. Oghren was knocked off balance and fell heavily to the ground as the beast pounced on him and began tearing away at his armor. Wynne shouted and a second later, the wolf flew from Oghren and landed in a heap on the ground where it didn't move. Zevran dropped another of his tricks and the remaining four Darkspawn were enveloped in a thick smoke that hid them from view as the Elf cut them down. Sten and Alistair took on two of the wolves while Tilly bolted back to her lady as the others headed her way. Oghren jumped to his feet, his face red as anger swept through him and he was right behind the Mabari. The Dwarf's rage worked in their favor and the wolves didn't stand a chance with his wide, vicious swings.
"Are you okay?" Ffion quizzed as the last wolf was taken out and they had a chance to catch their breath.
"Eh, nothin' worse than wha' I'm used ta," Oghren replied shrugging away her concern.
Alistair prodded one of the wolves with the tip of his boot, studying it closely.
"One thing's for sure," He said, "Zathrian was telling the truth. I never thought I'd see a werewolf outside of the storybooks."
Leliana frowned at him as she slid her bow over her shoulder and cocked her head.
"You didn't believe him?" She questioned, "Even with the evidence of those poor Elves?"
Sten rolled his shoulders and moved to stand with Ffion, his hulking presence exuding an impatience that was tangible.
"That cannot be a surprise," His deep voice answered, "Why would someone hesitate to take advantage of goodwill and trust in the discord caused by this Blight? Can we move on now?"
Ffion smiled faintly, cleaning her red-steel short sword and sliding it home.
"Ffion?" Zevran's voice was rather faint, "Come, please, I need you."
She frowned, glancing around at everyone before she realized that the Elf was not among them. Her grey eyes scanned the trees and she finally spotted his hand waving from another dip in the path. His blond hair was just visible and the Warden hurried to him, worry gripping her heart. Their Elf was fine, but he knelt next to another wolf that lay prone on the path, its chest rising and falling shallowly. Blood had stained the grass deep crimson and as Ffion crouched beside Zevran, she saw that the wolf was close to death's door.
"She is part of this curse," The Elf said, "She-"
He was cut off as the wolf suddenly spoke in a broken voice and in that mixture of common and Elvish. The words took an effort and Zevran lowered his head to hers to catch what she was saying. Her voice was rasping and she broke off now and then with whimpers of pain that caused Tilly to whine softly. Zevran nodded his head a couple of times and responded in a quiet tone, his words gentle. His amber eyes met Ffion's as the wolf lowered her head, her eyes closing in relief and something akin to surrender. One of their Elf's hands went to his belt to pull out a wicked looking knife.
"She wishes me to end it," He told Ffion, "And I prefer to not see you covered in blood, my dear."
"Oh," Ffion glanced down at the wolf in pity, her lips parting, but it was quite clear that nothing could be done for her, "Right, of course."
The Warden moved back, tugging Tilly along with her and standing next to Alistair as Zevran murmured something to the wolf and then, with one quick, experienced thrust through the heart, ended her suffering. He cleaned his blade and slid it home before untying the thick woolen scarf that had been looped around her neck and getting to his feet.
"Her name was Danyla, her husband is back in the camp, and she wished to have this returned to him," He explained, folding the scarf, which had been lovingly and expertly woven, into a small bundle to tuck into his pack, "It appears they were both hunters, in different groups, and her party was attacked while his made it home safely. The curse, if she is to be believed and there is no reason to doubt her, is not a simple transformation... Quite obviously, yes? For her to choose death over it speaks volumes."
Ffion nodded, still looking at the beast in pity. This was suddenly made even more real, hearing that one of them was named, married, and had had a good life before this tragedy... She gave herself a mental shake, feeling the others looking at her.
"Right, so let's go and end this for them," She said and then pressed on down the path.
Leliana was looking sidelong at Zevran as they fell in behind the Warden. Her blue eyes gleamed with a knowing light and Zevran arched his brows at her suggestively.
"That was a very decent thing you did, Zevran," She told him softly, "Showing mercy like that."
The Elf shrugged away her praise.
"I was putting a dying animal out of her misery," He answered dryly, his amber eyes unreadable; "There is not much to read into that, lovely. And if you are willing to believe I am softening, think again. The only softening I wish for is-"
"That's enough," Leliana interrupted, not about to be baited as the Elf baited Ffion. Her eyes remained steady on his, "You are not the impartial killer you wish us to believe. Your true colors are beginning to show, no?"
Zevran glanced at Ffion's chocolate hair and let his gaze linger on that alluring swing of her hips, seeing her in the temple in nothing but her smallclothes... And then he winked at Leliana with a wicked grin, the implication clear there. She rolled her eyes and let out a mock long-suffering sigh, not in the least bit fooled, but quite amused.
The path went up a small incline and they were standing on what used to be a stone floor; the slabs were still visible through the moss and grass. The roof that had been overhead had collapsed long ago and the pillars that supported it were still there, partially covered with moss and crumbling with age. To their left was a short section of wall and a couple of headstones that had tilted until it looked like they would topple over completely. The path continued on ahead of the companions, but Ffion hesitated briefly, curious about the headstones. She took a half step towards them and Morrigan's voice stopped her.
"Wait, Ffion," Her gold eyes studied the place with some trepidation, "I do not like this. It is not a good idea to disturb anything here. The Keeper was right, there is an ancient magic over this place that only a fool would tamper with."
The Warden glanced back at her and then gave a nod. Wynne was on Morrigan's side of this issue and Ffion wasn't willing to go up against both of them.
"All right let's move on, then," She said and they left the ruined temple and old graveyard.
The path sloped back down and entered a wide dip with hills once more rising up on either side. Impossibly enough, there was a little battered tent staked off the path; a tent that had clearly seen better days. Beside this was a wide trunk and the fire-ring was laid in readiness for the return of the camp's owner; it was obvious that the place was deserted. The companions still approached it carefully and Tilly snuffled around at everything, most interested in the old stump that stood between the fire-ring and the path. She was sniffing like mad and wouldn't listen to Ffion's call of her name. Instead, she pawed at the earth around the stump's roots and whined quietly.
"Andraste's knickers," Ffion muttered, stalking to her hound, "Come on, Tilly, it can't be that interesting."
"Hold a moment, my dove," Zevran was at her side, cocking his head at the stump, and spotting the little opening at the base that Tilly was trying to shove her nose into, "She has found something, but I can't see what it is."
Morrigan let out a huff of breath and Sten grumbled in his own tongue, but ignoring them was now second nature to Ffion, and she hauled Tilly back so Zevran could crouch down and inspect the stump. He pulled away some of the growth that Tilly missed and groped in the little hole while sending a bright smile up at Ffion.
"There was something shining in here and I think our mercenary talk has had an effect on Tilly, yes?" He said, "Perhaps this will work in our favor... Now, the last time I had my hand in some dark, wet hole, I-"
"Wherever that happens to be going, just... no," Alistair interrupted as he moved to stand with Ffion. He couldn't understand this bond she shared with the Elf and he would be lying if he said it didn't make him insanely jealous, "I don't think any of us are in the mood."
"Oh no?" Zevran read the emotions perfectly in the ex-Templar's face and anymore, with what Ffion was coming to mean to him, he wasn't sure it would be so easy to step aside gracefully and let Alistair win their little Warden to him... no matter her growing feelings for her fellow Warden either, "Perhaps we should take a vote. I think that the others are fonder of my sense of humor than you believe them to be. Certainly they are more open to-"
"Enough," Ffion said tiredly, "Save the pissing contests for camp, when we don't have to work together to get through the day. Any luck?"
The Elf grinned, his amber eyes dancing as he let out a triumphant breath and extracted his hand. Holding his palm open, he let Ffion examine what he found. Tilly yanked herself away from her lady and bounded to Zevran, her nose going straight for his hand. She knocked loose a small acorn and began nosing it through the grass to Ffion's feet. She was just bending to pick it up when there was a sharp crack and a hoarse, frantic voice was berating them.
"Thieves! They sent you, didn't they?! But they won't win this one, I'll finally show them!"
The man that had shouted was probably younger than he looked, but his white hair was wild about his gaunt face and his frenzied expression emphasized the deep furrows in his skin. His clothes were torn and ratted and the stale smell of sweat and mud trailed behind him as he ran to his tent, conjuring a handful of abominations in his wake. Zevran jumped to his feet, dropping the little handful of items and sending them scattering across the ground. He was fighting shoulder to shoulder with Alistair as they defended Ffion and she was busy watching their backs with Tilly while the rest of the companions jumped into the fray. Sten leaped at the old hermit who slammed his worn staff into the ground, a bubble of pure energy surrounding him. The Qunari skidded to a halt and swung his sword, which merely bounced clear, and Morrigan came to his aid.
"Sten!" She shouted.
The witch knocked one of the abominations towards him and then transformed into a giant bear that knocked the hermit from his feet with one swipe of her paw. Oghren was ready with his battleaxe, seeming to materialize from the very air and as soon as the man was dead, the remaining abominations disappeared. Ffion was just diving at one with her swords ready and she was caught of guard, falling painfully to her knees. She swore under her breath, feeling Alistair as he came close.
"You okay?" He asked, one hand going under her elbow.
She smiled up at him rather wanly, letting him help her. His honey eyes were concerned and his hand supportive.
"Fine, that just... kind of caught me by surprise," She pulled away rather reluctantly and glanced around at everyone, trying to ignore the knowing gleam in Zevran's eyes, "Anyone want to take a guess at what his problem was?"
"His magic was old, like the Forest," Wynne answered patiently, watching as Leliana crouched to rifle through the hermit's pockets, "But it was clear he was a little..."
"Touched in the 'ead?" Oghren offered with a grin.
"Just that?" Sten was almost joking as he arched his brows at Ffion and Alistair, "What do you think that acorn means?"
Morrigan, herself again and brushing some dust from her blood-red top, spoke without looking up.
"Wynne said an old magic, yes? That acorn holds the same enchantment. There must be some meaning behind this."
Zevran had moved over to pick the lock on the trunk and Oghren was watching with interest.
"Yeh sure it's worth it?" He asked as the Elf inserted his slender lock pick and worked nimbly.
"There is only one way to find out, yes?" Zevran replied as the lock clicked and he tipped the lid up.
There wasn't much: just a few changes of clothes that the hermit had obviously never used, a small purse with a handful of coins rattling within, several wolf pelts, and three loaves of very stale bread. The Elf tossed these out for the birds and whatever else might eat them, pocketed the coin purse, and left the rest where it was.
They pressed on, the sun still rising steadily and warming as it slanted through the trees. There was a split in the path, one side leading into more of a clearing while the other was more forested. Ffion, thinking that more woods could possibly mean the center of the copse, turned that way. The hills fell away from the path in the thicker woods and they could hear running water as they ventured deeper into the Forest. They rounded a bend and were just about to cross a makeshift wooden bridge that spanned the rushing creek when Tilly began growling and three werewolves appeared to block the path.
Ffion heard the others pulling loose their weapons and she flipped her swords into her palms as the wolves stood on their hind legs and glared down at her. One of them stood forward, his eyes a startling bluish-green in the ruddy brown-furred face, and when he spoke, it was in the Common tongue.
"Hold, human," His voice was sharp and hoarse, "You will go no further. We have been watching you and know that you fight with skill. We don't wish anymore of our people dead."
Ffion studied him and it was on the tip of her tongue to ask him what the hell he was, if he wasn't an Elf, but she pushed the urge aside and instead arched her brows, her hands tightening on her swords.
"That would have worked better if your people told us at the beginning," She said dryly, "So there's another part of this story? Shocking. What's your role in it?"
The wolf drew himself upright and it was such a man-like thing to do, it surprised Ffion. His blue and green eyes, so vibrant, flashed with impatience.
"You are in no position to make demands of us," He snapped, "You don't understand everything in this tale, human; it would be wise to second guess that traitorous Elf. He hasn't been honest with you."
"And you are being honest?" Her question came immediately, her grey eyes fastened on his face, trying to read any expression in his gaze.
He snarled as a way of giving her a wicked smile and made Tilly growl even more fiercely. One of those long, hand-like paws waved at the two wolves behind him, and they were lowering to all fours, beginning to retreat.
"Yes, human, I am being honest," He sneered the words, "And to prove it, I will not attack you, just leave you with a warning. If you persist in this quest, all of you will die. Your fate is in your own hands."
The wolves took off, running gracefully as deer even though their long limbs appeared so ungainly. The companions relaxed a little, but didn't put their weapons away; no one could say for sure that the creatures had left them completely alone. Leliana was the first to speak, breaking the wondering silence.
"Well, what now?" She asked her voice soft as though the Forest itself was listening in on this conversation, "It is only his word that Zathrian was dishonest, but how can we trust anything any of them might tell us?"
"We can't," Alistair answered, glancing down at Ffion who looked thoughtful, the little crease between her brows evident as she considered the wolf's words, "Do you want to press on or go back and see what the Keeper has to say?"
She gave herself a little shake, touching the small lump in one of her belt pouches and knowing without a doubt that that the little acorn there would help to answer some of those questions.
"We'll keep going," She replied and slid her swords away. She carefully walked across the wooden bridge, feeling the slight give in the old, wet wood. Glancing over her shoulder, she warned, "Go one at a time, I don't know how much weight this can handle."
Tilly plowed across it and started snuffling around in the grass and the others crossed without trouble. They pressed on through the trees, finding a few more Darkspawn and a few groups of wolves. Luckily they didn't run into the problem of facing off with both groups at once and they reached the next fork in the path with relative ease. One fork led north for a short jaunt before turning towards the eastern portion of the Forest while the other continued to wind to the south, into a copse of oak and alder. Ffion hesitated for a moment and Tilly trotted on ahead, nose to the ground, inspecting the southern route. Her lady shrugged rather comically at her companions and then followed after the Mabari. The path was wide and grassy and the trees gradually grew closer to the borders of it. They had gone maybe halfway towards the copse when suddenly there was a creak and groan of timber as though a gust of wind had just blown through the trees. Morrigan shouted the warning, her staff erupting with power as two of the trees came to life. Impossibly, their roots formed two wads that resembled feet and their upper branches whipped through the air as they twisted to attack the companions. The bark of the upper portion of the trees was twisted and gnarled into what could pass for faces and Wynne and Morrigan were quick in their attempts to debilitate these monsters. Both of them conjured fire balls, hurling them into the uppermost branches while the others did their best against the strong trunks. The witch hit one of the weakened trees with her string of boulders and there was a tremendous crash as the rocks ripped the trunk in half and the tree hit the path. She let Wynne douse the flames with water as she focused her attention on the other tree and repeated her efforts. It worked just as well as the second time and Ffion was blinking through the smoke as she studied the trees in amazement.
"Wild sylvans?" She said in disbelief, "And here I thought it was just a joke. Who would've thought that demons would want to possess trees?"
"Maybe they just get tired of the hierarchy in their world and want a little peace and quiet?" Alistair offered with his crooked grin, making her chuckle.
"It looks like this path just loops back around, Ffion," Leliana was saying, looking beyond the wreckage of the trees and studying the path ahead, "Should we try that other fork instead?"
The Warden followed her gaze and studied the enormous oak that stood between the little stream and the path. It towered well over the other trees in its copse, its branches thick and gnarled by time, growing close together, and making for an excellent climbing tree. She stepped over the tree limbs in her way, sheathing her swords, and answering the Orlesian over her shoulder.
"Just hang on for a second; I want to see if I can spot anything from this tree up here."
They followed her and were within a few yards of the oak when it too began moving. Weapons in hand, the companions waited for the thing to begin its attack and stared in wonder as it spoke instead.
"What manner of beast be thee, that comes before this elder tree?" The tree spoke in a male voice that echoed through the Forest and rumbled through the roots. It seemed to sigh like the wind and it belonged to the rustling leaves, coming at the companions from every angle.
Morrigan and Wynne both let out soft gasps and the witch spoke first.
"A rhyming tree," She said wonderingly, "Flemeth spoke of such things, but they were merely stories. I never thought..."
Wynne finished that thought as Morrigan's voice trailed off.
"Another legend come to life," She murmured softly, "It's extraordinary."
Ffion felt that the tree was, well, sort of watching her from that whorl in the bark that resembled a face. She was confused by his question, but she took a stab at an answer anyway.
"What manner of beast?" She repeated as she sheathed her swords and straightened herself, eying the tree and wondering if maybe it couldn't see clearly, "I'm not a beast, I'm human."
"Ah, yes," The tree shifted with a creak of wood and a dull thud that rumbled through the ground beneath their feet, "I remember thy kind, so brief of life and all but blind, to the perils you cause, the lives you take. Such chaos is sown within thy wake. Allow me a moment to welcome thee. I am the Grand Oak, sometimes the Elder Tree. And unless thou think it far too soon, might I ask of thee a boon?"
"A boon?" Ffion cocked her head. The tree was fascinating and she couldn't help but want to hear it speak again.
"It wishes for a favor," Sten clarified, but his voice wasn't nearly as sharp as usual, "Like everyone else we have come across."
The oak straightened a little, creaking and swinging his limb-arms as though waving in agreement.
"I have but one desire, to solve a matter very dire," He replied, "As I slept one early morn, a thief did come and steal an acorn. All I have is my being, my seed. Without it I am alone indeed. I cannot go and seek it out, yet I shall die if left without."
Ffion smiled, pleased with herself for hanging on to that acorn. She dug into the pouch at her belt and tugged it out. Stepping forward into the oak's shadow, she extended her hand.
"Do you mean this one?" She asked.
One of the smaller branches reached down and Ffion gently pressed it into a knot that marred its young bark. The oak stood back again and sighed. When he spoke, his voice was softer, lighter; it was clear he was thrilled.
"My joy soars to new heights indeed! I am reunited with my seed!"
Alistair frowned in concentration at the oak and he stepped forward next to Ffion.
"You must have been... rooted here for some time," He said slowly, "Do you know where the werewolves came from? Or could you tell us where Witherfang is?"
"In the center of the Forest, the weres do dwell or so go the tales my fellows tell. But they cannot be followed there, the Forest doth protect the weres," The oak seemed happy to have company and was more than happy to answer their questions.
Ffion shifted her weight as Tilly leaned against her. A frown creased her forehead and she picked up Alistair's track.
"Protect them?" She quizzed, "Protect them how? What spell is over this Forest that would hide a clan of werewolves?"
"Perhaps weres use the magic to command the trees. All I know is they move as they please," He gave what could pass for a shrug and then added, "And for the magic... A great war perhaps, I cannot tell. I was not here when it befell, but many deaths here, all the same. And with the deaths, the spirits came. The spirits entered corpse and tree and most went mad, as thou canst see. The Forest had a spirit of its own, from back when its first seeds were sown. Perhaps she died of grief that day, or perhaps she simply went away. Or perhaps the weres are the ones to blame, for the day she left is the day they came."
The Wardens were thinking that one over and it was Wynne who made the observation.
"The spirit disappears and the werewolves come," She said softly, thinking out loud, "And Zathrian said that Witherfang has been leading the wolves for an age... Do you think that this spirit and Witherfang are one and the same?"
Alistair shrugged at her as Morrigan looked thoughtful and Leliana nodded her head in agreement. It was easy to see the wheels turning in Ffion's head and she looked up at the oak speculatively.
"You clearly have magic of your own," She said slowly, "Do you have anything that could maybe show us the way to the center of the Forest?"
"My wooden skin has some magic, see, and part of it I can give to thee," The oak's branches were waving again as it searched for the right branch to give to the companions. It finally found a suitable one and with a little snap broke it cleanly from a larger branch. Handing it to Ffion, he added, "Here it be. I hope its magic pleases thee. Keep this branch of mine with thee and pass throughout the Forest free."
Ffion felt the same little thrum of magic through this simple branch that she had felt with the acorn and she gave the oak a little bow.
"You've been wonderful," She said with a bright smile, "And your copse is lovely. I wish you many more years rooted here."
The oak bent into what was unmistakably a returning bow and stood back again. They could hear his roots shove through the earth as he nestled into a spot of sunlight.
"I wish thee well, my mortal friend," He said and his voice was much softer this time, "Thou brought my sadness to an end! May the sunlight find you, thy days be long; thy winters kind, and thy roots be strong."
Ffion smiled again and kept the oak branch clasped in one hand. She glanced behind her at the others and arched her brows a little.
"Let's go and see if the werewolves can top that."