Trees. It was an odd thing to think about, but as the days went on Dale found that he was almost obsessing over trees. It was peculiar to him, being a dwarf (a surface dwarf albeit), that the sight of trees would be what he missed.
The road to from Denerim to Ostagar was long and winding, heading west then south just to the border of the untamed wilds. The journey took weeks by cart and caravan, passing through Bannorn, along the coast of Lake Calenhad, through the last settlement of Lothering. From there, the route headed almost due south along the imperial highway – although the term “highway” was very generous for what could only be described as a barely visible passage, overgrown and unkempt. The caravan stopped many times and the route seemed, at times, to loop back round north just to head south again. Whether this was by design or necessity was unknown to Dale. He was not expecting an explanation anytime soon.
There were four covered wagons in his party, each with a bird’s cage built in. Each cage could hold six prisoners, although they were not at capacity. He wondered if he’d made the wise decision, questioning now what was almost instinct at the time: the gallows or the Grey Wardens. It seemed simple enough at the time, but he couldn’t shake the notion that those that chose the Wardens only delayed the same end as those that chose the gallows. Still, he missed the companionship of Brock and Gunthar. They were cut-throats, murderers and thieves to be sure, but they were the closest thing he had to family. He’d spent almost as much time with them as anyone else in his life.
Dale was young for a dwarf, at least so he was told. At thirty-two, his beard barely dropped past his chin. He was born on the surface, a curse among dwarves – again, so he was told. He’d never known life under the earth, close to the stone. Surface dwarves weren’t allowed to return to a Thaig or true dwarven city, even if their birth was not their choice. He’d be considered below casteless, if there were such a thing. He’d curse his parents, if he even knew who they were. There was not much for it now, his road lie ahead. Ahead and south.
Behind him, a life of crime. Nothing as serious as what Brock used to brag about. Brock was a surface dwarf too, as tough and bitter as they come. To say Brock had a soft spot for Dale would be a mistake, but Dale could say he owed his life to Brock and several times over. However, Dale still had to fight, scratch and claw for every day with or without Brock. It was not so much an existence but rather survival and barely that. Dale knew more about hunger, cold and want than he did about anything else, not that he had anything else to compare it to. Still, he never hurt anyone in a permanent way and could say that he only took what he needed. Perhaps this is what led him to his decision and why it was so surprising to Dale that Brock made the other choice. Dale was packed up and sent off quickly too, without ever knowing for sure the final fate of Brock or Gunthar. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
His wagon carried two others. He wasn’t sure what their names were, Elbert and Brandon he thought, or something similar – no family names. This really wasn’t so much a sacrifice to Dale, he never had a family name. The wardens (although he didn’t know if the guards were even that, he only assumed) dissuaded any conversations. They weren’t cruel, like the guards in Denerim. Food and care were provided, more than he’d known but certainly not a royal banquet to be sure. Dale’s shackles were even removed after they lost sight of the city and the door to his cage left open. He hadn’t considered running, but he wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because he didn’t know where he was or where to go. Rather, he thought, as gloomy as the journey was, this was the best his life had been yet.
So, Dale spent the time observing the sights and sounds of the open country. Trees tall and mighty covered the early road and everywhere the din of wildlife. Sure, there were trees in the city and visible from it walls. The city elves even had a large tree they built their alienage around, right there in the middle of the slums. Still, it was different. You didn’t feel the enormous presence of a tree in the city, couldn’t be engulfed by its earthy smells. He never thought of the word “dwarf” to mean diminutive in stature until he rode up alongside a great evergreen, shooting fifty feet and more into the heavens. He never experienced something so pleasant and peaceful to him in his whole life than along that northern road among the trees.
Beasts he saw few of, but he certainly could hear the howls, snorts and rustling, especially at night. So much more than he’d expected. It made the city seem a quiet whisper in comparison. His vision has always been good at night, a gift of his dwarven heritage. He’d stay up many nights just taking it all in. He wondered how the trees grew so tall without fear of floating off into the sea of stars above. He’d not been afraid of that, being so close to the ground. Gunthar often complained of this fear though, the little he did speak. Gunthar was from Orzammar, a fact that Brock had to draw out of him forcibly. Gunthar never spoke of it besides that. Of the three of them, Gunthar was the least disreputable. There was even the rare occasion that Gunthar would be kind and charitable, though he’d grumble about it. Still, Dale knew he had slept some nights with a tiny morsel in his belly because Gunthar went without. Gunthar’s choice did not come as a surprise to Dale, though. It was almost welcome, like the end of a tragic tale.
Past Lothering, the landscape grew pale. Greens and blues were replaced by brown and grey. Trees started to die off, like the dwindling of a great empire. Only empty husks and twisted forms spotted the landscape, as if the land itself shared in Dale’s despair. And it was quiet. It had been days since he’d heard a sing song chirp of birds or light-footed flight of deer. The silence tightened around Dale, pressing him down. The company of the wardens was neither a detriment nor a comfort to him.
He’d heard stories and songs of the wardens, the sort that folks tell while under the inspiration of ale and wine: Grey Wardens and the blight, swords and sorcery, kings and dragons. In those tales, Wardens were heroes, towering and powerful. They’d stood against armies, an endless ocean of darkspawn and saved all the land from its evil. Few against many, Dale felt this way at oft a time, but never in the role of a hero. The wardens around him seemed honorable enough, but it was difficult to envision them sweeping down wave after wave of darkspawn. They were men and women just as he’d seen in Denermin. He heard that dwarves and elves were among their number, but none that he could see in this company. Perhaps it was all a ruse, and he’d find himself hanging at the end of a rope, just as Brock and Gunthar surely have, a kindred fate spanning hundreds of miles. But he didn’t think so. The wardens wanted him for something, at what he could only guess.
Ostagar was a few days away he was told. He could even make out remnants of the great castle and keep along the roadside. Just bits of stone walls and shingles, blasted away in some great battle or another. At passing they appeared nothing significant, as overgrowth reclaimed them back to the soil and ground. However, after study Dale could see angles and carvings that could not have occurred without the hand of man or elf or dwarf. The end of a journey, as with all things, came suddenly when it seemed so distant throughout.