Regardless of my personal feelings I knew that we would need both the healing and the rather explosive magic that Anders provided so I tapped him, Ohgren, and Sigrun to accompany me back the way we had just come. I visited Wade first and, while we distributed the rest of the things we had brought back to the others and hunted down what clean underclothes we could find, he completed the wonderful pieces he’d been making for the Wardens between bouts of sword crafting and armor making.
These, too, went to those who could use them best and the four of us turned back to the city with all haste. Anders joked that he felt like a giant in the company of three dwarves but a sharp kick from Sigrun shut him up pretty quickly on that subject. He maintained a running patter, however, mocking companions and enemies alike. We camped for a scant nap on the way, not bothering to do more than roll ourselves up in our blankets with our heads on our packs. Luckily it was mild out and, aside from the lack of a hot meal, we did not miss having a fire.
I had last watch and woke the others as the first light of dawn tinged the sky. We set off quickly and arrived at the outskirts in time to rescue a few villagers from a small band of the creatures, none of which appeared to have a brain it its head beyond the instinct to attack. While I debated with the Captain of the Guard our approach into the city proper a Darkspawn approached, talking as fast as its malformed mouth allowed. It was clear that it wished to speak to me and that it promised not to harm me, but we all remained wary, weapons at the ready.
It explained that it was a direct emissary from The Architect sent to warn me that The Mother intended to attack Vigil’s Keep directly while I was diverted in Amaranthine. It begged me to return over that same road once again to thwart her plans. Meanwhile I could hear the screams of the people in the city behind me. I could hardly leave in the middle of a battle to protect a garrison of people I had provisioned and partially trained myself, even if I did want to travel the same stretch of countryside three times in two days. I declined.
Much to my surprise, the Darkspawn agreed to fight for us in return for my sparing its life, anxious though it had seemed to get away moments before. I suppose any decision where the second choice is “or death”, particularly when it includes the strong likelihood of torture along the way, is pretty simple.
The five of us made our way into the city. The Mother had sent waves of the new and repulsive childer grubs through the sewers to spread the taint ahead of the invasion. Such intellect in a broodmother, creatures known for mindless consumption and reproduction, staggered us as much as the first encounter with those fanged worms had. We found Darkspawn and their grubs everywhere, battling city guards and feeding on unarmed citizens.
The combined stench of the taint, the blood they’d spilled, and the choking smoke coming from burning homes made my eyes stream. More than once I nearly attacked our new ally in my half-blindness. It was lucky it could talk and alert me to my error. The taint in my own body let me distinguish human from beast otherwise.
I thanked the ancestors that all of my other companions had Joined and enjoyed a similar advantage. More than once I saw guards spin and attack one another, unable to clearly tell friend from foe in the smoke. Such initial strikes were rarely fatal but we could afford few casualties if we were to keep the city from falling. The hesitation caused by this confusion prolonged the battles between the guards and their foes. The city’s troops were increasingly unwilling to attack at full force when they could not clearly see their targets.
It took hours, but we cleared the streets as best we could and emptied the smuggler’s cave beneath the inn. That bought us enough time to rest and eat in the Chantry where the survivors were being tended. It seemed no sooner had I set down my swords than a scout brought news of enemy reinforcements approaching from the east. We had a few hours before they arrived so we curled up on the stone floor to rest as best we could.
After Joining the Grey Wardens I’d started dreaming for the first time. At first it was only Darkspawn and the Archdemon, whispers and images and the occasional clear moment of an army massing in the Deep Roads or marauding through the Kocari Wilds. Though humans and elves dreamed their whole lives and likely would have understood what was happening, the first night such dreams came they terrified me. I had thought I was losing my mind and, had Alistair not been there to explain things to me, might have gone straight back to my exile thinking I’d been driven mad.
Ohgren had heard many of these conversations and knew what to expect but he ended up dreaming about more than just Darkspawnas well. We shared our nightmares with each other and, when Sigrun joined our little clan, the three of us discussed how exhausting it must be to be human or elf and have your sleep disrupted thus every night of your life. Naturally, I kept the more personal and pleasant dreams of my life with Alistair to myself.
But I dreamed on that cold stone floor of the night before we had marched on Denerim. I suffered again through the decision I had made, the conversation with Alistair sending him to Morrigan rather than taking what could have been the last of our time together for ourselves. Even in the dream I knew that my guilt from that night echoed the fear I had that I had doomed all at Vigil’s Keep by remaining at Amaranthine.
How unfair that the little rest I could have be so filled with the mental anguish I had been keeping at bay all afternoon. I longed for my childhood, with a soft bed and sleep as still and quiet as the stone walls that had protected me, though in truth I’d not give up what had become of me since. It certainly had been an improvement over the exile from which Duncan had rescued me. I’d have been sleeping on stone just as hard as this Chantry floor but every day would have been a battle for my life with no companions such as I had been lucky enough to find on the surface. Certainly I would never have been able to command armies and decide the course of a war that would lose or save the lives of thousands.
I woke knowing that I would have made both of those decisions the same again, guilt and fear notwithstanding. I’d never have been able to bring Alistair into battle where one of us would certainly die if I could change it. Nor would I ever turn my back on strangers who needed my help because of a distant threat to my ever-so-capable friends. The knowledge did nothing to ease my concerns about the tenants for whom I was now responsible or the companions I’d left behind, though I thought Nathaniel would appreciate the chance to defend his ancestral family home.
My doubts about my motivations had eaten at my resolve but reliving the conversation helped me to believe that the choices I had made about Morrigan’s shady ritual and defending Amaranthine had been the right ones. Perhaps there was something positive in this dreaming thing after all.
I had little time to contemplate as we rushed about, stuffing rations into our mouths and buckling each other’s armor back into place. I’d cleaned and sharpened my blades the night before so I slid them into place and stood by the barred door, waiting for the guards and my companions to be ready. Our timing was close: we met with the first wave of the horde not far from the Chantry steps. City guards joined us as we fought a pitched battle through the streets and alleys of the now-familiar city. My small company plunged into the smuggler’s cove beneath the Inn and cleared out yet another wave of creatures that, thankfully, I saw had not sailed in but were simply using the tunnel as a passage beneath the city’s walls. The idea that they could have organized enough to navigate the river into that hidden port had seriously concerned me.
We spent hours forcing the Darkspawn back to the gates. I despaired more than once of ever seeing the end of that army but finally we were back in the outskirts and the last general lay dying before us. For once I hugged Anders instead of the other way around. He had saved my life a dozen times over that day and my relief allowed me to thank him as physically as he would have me. He looked surprised for a moment, as I flung my arms around him and buried my face in his robes, but seemed happy to give and get a good squeeze of celebration.
“Why do I let you talk me into these things?” he asked. “I’d be safer back in solitary at the Circle. There wasn’t much cuddling there, though.” I became most uncomfortable with my position and backed off, blushing madly. Even that simple contact had felt wonderful, the most natural thing but so much less than I wanted.
I shook my head a little to clear it and looked around. Sigrun was pounding Ohgren on the back in excitement at our victory. The Architect’s messenger had not joined us in the Chantry, obviously, and I hadn’t seen it much over the course of the morning. I finally spotted it held at sword point by guards who’d spent the morning fighting for their lives with creatures almost indistinguishable from it.
It had kept its word and I could hardly do less than be true to mine. I had them stand down and released it to return to its master or follow some other path of its choosing. The men looked at me like I’d gone mad but this creature had fought its fellows as hard as any of them. Before it left it gave me the location of The Mother’s lair, a bargaining chip it had perhaps wisely kept to itself the night before. That gesture of goodwill, telling me after I’d had it released, cemented my decision to let him go. With luck I wouldn’t be forced to hunt it down and kill it later.