Part Twenty-Three: Denerim – The Landsmeet


 

The Wardens and their entourage return to Redcliffe to confer with Arl Eamon. All of their allies are ready, all that remains is the human contingent of the kingdom. And so Eamon calls for the Landsmeet, and all the nobles quit their strife and convene at the castle in Denerim. King Cailen’s widow, Anora, is now reigning queen, with her father Loghain as the regent in charge.

 

Arl Eamon returned from checking in with the seneschal. “Everything is in order,” he told the Wardens’ group, mainly to reassure Alistair, who looked ready to bolt like a rabbit. “The nobles are assembling — most of them peaceably, thank the Maker. At least the civil war has been put on hold by the Landsmeet.” He released a tense breath. “We’ll have to test the waters, see who is allied with whom; how much support we can garner. And find out anything we can about Loghain’s dealings since Ostagar. He has many supporters in the Bannorn. We need to be prepared for when he shows himself.”

“When do you think that will be?” Alistair asked, fidgeting nervously. The mere thought of Loghain made him itch. He’d rather face the traitor in a duel than a political meeting.

“We can only wait and see,” Eamon told him.

“Perhaps now,” Valorien said quietly, looking past them.

The two humans startled and turned around. Indeed, Loghain was striding towards them from the main hall. At his right was his lieutenant, Ser Cauthrien, and at his left a hatchet-faced man. Eamon and Valorien stepped forward to meet him. Alistair hung back, clenching his fists at his sides.

“Teyrn Loghain,” Eamon said, trying to recover his balance. “This is quite an honor. I didn’t expect to be met by the regent himself.”

“And how could I not?” Loghain countered. “For a man so important as to pull everyone away from their estates while a Blight claws at the land.” He glared accusingly at the arl. Eamon steeled himself to stand his ground.

Valorien stepped forward and met the teyrn’s eyes unflinchingly. “If the Blight so concerns you, put aside your bid for power and ally with the Grey Wardens to end it.”

Ser Cauthrien bristled. “Watch your mouth, churl!” she snapped. “Your betters are talking.”

Loghain raised a placating hand to her, not taking his eyes from Valorien. “Always making demands, I see.” With a sneer, Loghain pointedly ignored the elf. “Eamon, you’d best keep your wild elf on a tighter leash. We do not need traitorous Wardens. The queen has her armies, and I command them.”

“Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been doing your job,” Alistair muttered.

“When I want the opinion of a royal bastard,” Loghain growled, bestowing a withering gaze on the knight, “I’ll let you know.”

Alistair fidgeted. “Well, you’re admitting the ‘royal’ part at least.”

“The Grey Wardens were not the betrayers at Ostagar,” Valorien said levelly.

“They Grey Wardens betrayed Ferelden, and led her king to his death,” Loghain replied just as implacably. “Naturally, you prefer lay the blame on me. If this is the best you can do, Eamon, you are wasting your time. A lot has changed since you’ve been ill.”

“Ill?” scoffed the arl, bristling. “Why not name your poison for what it was?”

The general shrugged that off without comment. “Your allies of Highever and Denerim are no longer with us.” He gestured to the man beside him. “Rendon Howe of Amaranthine now holds those arlings, and is teyrn of the northeast.” Howe’s mouth twitched in a smug half -smile as Loghain continued. “He has been an invaluable aid to me during this petty civil war. And don’t expect to find much support for this scheme of yours to supplant Anora with your bastard protege. She is a strong queen, and is more than capable of leading this nation against the Blight.”

“If she is so capable,” Valorien asked, “why does she not speak for herself?”

Loghain’s eyes flashed in anger. “You will learn to curb your tongue, elf! The queen has more important matters to attend to.” With that, he turned on his heel and strode out. Rendon Howe, apparently used to Loghain’s severity, nimbly dodged out of the way before he was flattened. He scurried after his master. Cauthrien favored Valorien with one more scathing glance, and followed.

“Gee,” said Alistair after they’d gone, “first we’re terribly important, and then we’re not. I’m hurt,” he growled in glib contempt.

“At least he is not going to try to contest your parentage,” the arl replied. “Either too many people know the truth, or he is just that confident we don’t stand a chance.”

Alistair grimaced. “I thought nobody knew about it.”

The arl gave him a defeated look, but did not reply. Instead he said, “Let’s retire to my estate. We have much to discuss.”

 

The Arl of Redcliffe’s estate was not far from the castle, and close to the marketplace. Eamon led his guests inside and ordered the servants to make preparations for them to stay there. “Let us meet in my study,” said Eamon to the Wardens and their allies, “then we can get settled in.”

“Give us a few minutes,” Alsitair said to him, putting his hand on Valorien’s arm. “We need to discuss some Grey Warden business, first.” He pulled the elf through a doorway into the library. Alistair swung the door shut, then turned and grabbed Valorien. He slammed the elf against a bookcase. “I told you,” he yelled in his face, “we will never ally with Loghain! How dare you offer to work with him again!”

Valorien’s eyes narrowed. The human panted, his face red with anger, his lips drawn back into a half snarl. Valorien glanced pointedly at Alistair’s hand on his arm. “Let go of me.”

Slowly, Alistair loosened his grip, then stepped back. “What the Hell were you thinking!”

“I was testing Loghain,” the elf replied levelly. “It was a trap.”

The knight’s expression faded from anger to puzzlement. “What?”

“I offer to work with him. Of course, he says no.” Valorien brushed at his sleeves to remove the creases. “Now we can say we tried to be reasonable.”

Alistair’s jaw dropped. “Politics!” he spit. He turned away in frustration, brushing one hand back through his hair.

“You cannot just come to the Landsmeet and say, ‘I am a good bastard and your hero is a traitor, so follow me,'” Valorien told him.

Alistair rounded on him. “You admire him,” he said, half question and half accusation.

“Didn’t you?” Valorien asked. “Before?”

The knight’s shoulders slumped. He turned away.

Valorien’s eyes cleared in understanding. “He was your hero…. A common farmboy who saved the nation and became companion to kings.”

Alistair remained silent for several minutes. He stared at the stained glass of the library window. When he spoke again, he’d regained control of his voice. “If Loghain wins,” he asked, looking over his shoulder, “you’re going to serve him, aren’t you?”

“I have to.”

Alistair straightened and nodded. “It’s all right,” he said dully. “Loghain’s thorough. He’ll definitely kill me to consolidate his power, so I won’t be around to see it.” He turned, but would not meet the elf’s eyes.

“I swore an oath,” Valorien explained. “Two, actually. I must fight the Darkspawn. Despite all else, Loghain seems determined to do that.”

“I understand,” said Alistair. “I just thought we could be friends.” He brushed past the elf, but Valorien stopped him with a grip on his arm.

“Do not let emotions cloud your judgement,” he warned. “That will be your downfall.”

The human shrugged him off and opened the door. He saw Morrigan standing there, leaning on the opposite wall. “What are you doing here?” he snarled at her.

She quirked a brow, but did not deign to move. “Wynne distracted the others, but I wanted to hear this meeting — not that it was so private, what with all that shouting.”

“Good, then,” Alistair snapped. “You don’t need an update. Maybe once the servants show you to your room, you can stay there!” He strode past her down the hall, face clouded.

Morrigan rolled her eyes and gave a dramatic heavy sigh as she straightened. “Such dramatics. I happen to think you are quite sensible,” she told Valorien. “And practical. You are a man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. I admire that.”

Valorien shrugged. “I do not have a personal stake in this kingdom, or its people. My only wish is to end this Blight upon the land and return to my own clan in peace.”

“You really don’t care who rules in Ferelden?” she asked him.

“I do believe Alistair will make a good king,” he said. He turned and proceeded down the hall.

“You must be joking,” said Morrigan. “Wait…,” she said to his retreating back, “that was an elven joke, wasn’t it?”

 


Work and Job and Stuff and Schedule


 

So far, I’m actually on schedule for publishing one post per week. So far, I’m still ahead of publishing in the writing and typing departments. I can see this ending, soon. :X

Firstly, I have decided that making illustrations takes up too much of my free time I could be using to work on actual cutscenes. On the other hand, on my ‘hobby’ list at work, I see “B&Z illos” listed. So, theoretically, I could do illustrations while I’m at my job, when I’m not doing my work. (Note: work and job are two different things. I just happen to do both at once. Don’t ask.) That is, I could do them, when I’m not doing other things, like…. oh, I might someday finish that Tailor Shop? And more tent interiors. And “Men in Drag.” (Really don’t ask.)

That’s in addition to my other passtimes, like jewelry-making, writing, personal projects on Second Life. Oh, and in addition to the work and jobs I’m supposed to be doing. (Looking for a writing job on oDesk. That’s difficult.) And, of course, my Second Life commercial projects.

Oh, and don’t forget actually writing the story! And updating my blog(s)… and… you get the idea.

On top of it all… (but wait, there’s more!) I am now addicted to horse racing online. So… I sorta need to spend a couple hours horse racing every day. But, I am getting better! I’m cooling down from that. Really.

And, if you recall, I said a while back I had a new weekly schedule that had two hours of writing worked into it. No? I don’t blame you. Well, I did, but that particular schedule is shot all to heck, and I haven’t made a new one.

 

So what’s the point? Uhm, look for a change in format soon, and a change in publishing schedule soon after that. I have also had a strange epiphany-sort-of-thing. I had been saying that years of RP in graphical venues had left my description and exposition writing a little withered. Well, a couple days ago I was working on Duncan & Bannon’s arrival at Ostagar, and now I’m starting to worry the opposite is true. I spent over 20 minutes trying to figure out how, exactly, Ostagar is set up.

Of course, what you see (and where you can go) in the game is a limited small slice of what “really” exists. There’s a whole army encamped there. The support and services (elves mostly). There’s kennels, stables, guard posts…. Anyway, I was trying to make Ostagar make sense with how I ‘sensed’ things being laid out. The first awkward hurdle is the bridge going from south to north to the encampment. Well, it looks/feels like it is going north to me! Although logic dictates it should be going north to south. And then on the far side of the main camp is the gate going into the Wilds. But I was sure that was the gate to the elven encampment. Or is that the gate near it, that goes to the army encampment? Not only that, but the darkspawn are attacking from the south, and they come towards the bridge from the side….

I figured it out, eventually, and worked that into the writing. But the point is… I probably could have gotten away with just leaving it with vague directions like the game. Just plunked Duncan and Bannon at the end of the bridge without saying how they got there. And mentioning the elven encampment without saying where it was. Or how the supply wagons get there.

I dunno, is it too much fluff? Too boring? I guess it’s only a couple short paragraphs, not a whole chapter or anything. Anyway, you guys don’t know, because that part isn’t published yet. But if you have an opinion when I post it, tell me.

Meanwhile, the Prelude chapter is almost over. There’s “The Road to Ostagar” part to publish in there. Then it’s on to the The Grey Wardens chapter, and that is where this exposition/description post will be. Two weeks from now, if I finish it. I’m not sure how much I want to put in that part, or where to cut the next part — ie: before or after meeting Alistair.

Oh yeah, and I should remember to add this new part to the main page…!

 


Murderous Rage


 
Content Warnings: foul language, violence, rape

 

Upstairs, the mansion was eerily quiet. Plush carpetry ran the length of the hallways, muffling footsteps. Where were the guards? Surely Vaughn would have himself heavily protected while he perpetuated his crime.

The two elves sidled around a corner — to another empty hallway. Then it hit Bannon. Vaughn wasn’t “perpetuating a crime,” he was having his little noble party for himself and his guests. Nothing untoward, or unseemly, and certainly not against the laws of man or Maker. Bannon’s blood burned.

As they moved down the corridor, they could hear the sobbing cries of a woman — was that Shianni? Bannon had never heard his cheerful cousin sound like that before — and the deeper voices of men, talking… and laughing. Bannon and Soris broke into a run and slammed open the door to the master bedroom.

“Show her again what elf whores are for!” Lord Braden was goading his companion, Lord Jonely, who had Shianni on the floor, her dress torn to rags.

“Get away from my sister, you filthy son of a bitch!” Soris screamed. He raised the crossbow. Bannon barely stopped him from loosing the bolt with a warning that he might hit Shianni.

Jonely scrambled around on the floor, trying to flee the crossbow’s sights with his pants binding his knees. He grabbed Shianni and rolled over on one hip, cowering behind her. “Let go,” she sobbed, struggling. But her strength had left her. The side of her face was blackened in one long bruise; blood trickled from her nose and lip.

Vaughn stood nearby, frozen momentarily in shock, his lips parted slightly. He was shirtless, and bore furrowed scratches across his upper chest. Shianni had clearly fought him to the last. Bannon pointed his sword at the man.

Braden rounded on the elves. “How dare you interrupt, churls!” The reek of brandy on his breath reached them. “We’ll have you whipped for this,” he sneered. “Guards!”

“Quiet, you idiot!,” Vaughn snapped, regaining his wits. “They’re covered in enough blood to fill a tub. What do you think that means?” he drawled, narrowing his eyes at Bannon.

Bannon narrowed his right back. “It means your men are dead,” he growled low. “Just like you.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s wise,” Vaughn replied calmly. “You try to fight us,” he threatened, his cold blue eyes boring into Bannon, “and more of your girls are going to get killed.” With a smirk, the bann turned casually, gesturing towards his cowardly companion on the floor. “Jonny can wring this little wench’s neck easily.” At a glare from his master, the lordling put his hands around Shianni’s neck.

Shianni whimpered, and Soris aimed the crossbow at Jonely. Braden took a half step towards the door, and Soris swung the weapon around to train it on him again. Sweat beaded on the elf’s brow.

It was Ferelden tradition that the weapon rack was placed by the door, so that when the lords — and their ladies, more often than not — sprang from their beds to defend their holdings, the weapons were at hand as they rushed out the door. When the elves had burst in, they had effectively cut the shems off from their weapons. But this stalemate wasn’t going to last. Bannon mentally encouraged his cousing to shoot. Shoot the bastard! Bannon had a clear avenue to Vaughn’s back. With the element of surprise, they could take these highly-trained noblemen. But it was not to be.

Vaughn turned back to face them. “You boys seem quite capable. I have sixty silvers there in that box on the desk.” He flicked a hand in that direction. “You take the money, and you leave the city — tonight. Resourceful fellows like yourselves could get quite far with such a generous sum.”

Sixty silvers was indeed a lavish sum that a clever elf could use to take himself far, far away. Bannon had always wanted to escape the city, though he doubted he could stand life as a Dalish elf. Perhaps he could hire himself out as a mercenary. At worst, he and Soris could just travel to Highever, or Amaranthine, and see what the alienages there had to offer. He had prayed to the Maker to save him from this marriage — but he never intended for anyone to suffer for it.

Bannon looked up from his thoughts at Vaughn. The shem hadn’t moved, but his smirk seemed more firmly affixed. Clearly, he had seen Bannon contemplating his offer. Bannon clenched his jaw firmly. “What about the women?”

“Oh, they’ll be returned, in the morning,” Vaughn said airily. “Not much the worse for wear, I promise you.”

“Let them go, now,” Soris growled.

“Or what?” Vaughn snapped back. “You’ll shoot me?”

Soris sighted at him down the crossbow’s shaft. “Don’t tempt me, shem.”

Lord Braden looked to Vaughn, clearly itching to make a dive for the weapon rack. The bann, picture of confidence despite his being unarmed and half-dressed, simply sighed dramatically. “You might actually succeed in killing one of us.”

Jonely said from the floor, “My lord–!”

Vaughn rounded angrily on him. “Oh get up, you sniveling toady! And for the Maker’s sake, pull your pants up!” The lordling released Shianni and scrambled to his feet, tugging at his clothes.

Braden shifted another half step closer to the door. Soris turned on him again. “Not one more step, shem, I swear!” Now the human began to sweat as profusely as the elf.

 

"Don't tempt me, shem!"

 

Vaughn turned back to them. “Even if you succeed in killing me, what have you really gained? When my father, the Arl of Denerim, returns from the war and finds his beloved son has been murdered, what do you think he’ll do?” He narrowed his eyes and stepped forward menacingly. “He will call for a Purge on your sorry little slum and start exterminating you like rats.”

Soris’ face went white. He and Shianni had lost both their parents in the last Purge six years ago. Armed soldiers would sweep through the alienage, hunting for criminals or dissidents, killing anyone who resisted or just anyone who was out on the street at the time. It didn’t really matter to the shems — the basic purpose of a Purge was to terrorize and punish the elven people for becoming too brazen. Keep your head down among shems, the saying went, or some lord is likely to lop it off.

Vaughn examined his well-manicured nails nonchalantly. Soris risked shooting a glance at Bannon. “What are we going to do?” he asked shakily.

Bannon closed his eyes, but he could still hear Shianni crying softly in her throat. He ground his teeth. Then he looked at Vaughn again. “Show me this money.”

As if aware of how much it made the elf want to run him through, Vaughn actually tried to surpress his smirk. “It’s right there on the desk.” He gestured, but made no move towards it. “See for yourself.”

Bannon sensed a trap. “You show me.”

The nobleman shrugged and walked over. A small, ornamental box sat there, one for holding trinkets or gems. He reached past the box, towards the edge of the desk, and Bannon sprang at him, realizing now that Vaughn’s weapon wasn’t on the rack, but propped up against the far side of the desk.

Vaughn whirled, suddenly a lot faster than his lazy demeanor suggested. He caught Bannon’s sword on his own blade. The weight of the elf’s charge slammed them both against the desk, which rocked and slammed against the wall. But the human was bigger and stronger. He shoved Bannon off him and pressed a counter attack.

Startled into motion, Braden lunghed for the weapon rack, and Soris triggered the crossbow. The bolt caught the human in the left shoulder and spun him back. That only slowed him down. Desperate, Soris swung the crossbow at the man’s head. Braden caught it, and they grappled.

Bannon backpedalled away from Vaughn, barely able to bat away the human’s precise cuts. The elf might have trained hard with weapons and streetfighting, but Vaughn was a nobleman of a long lineage of Ferelden warriors. He clearly overmatched his smaller opponent. Vaughn even grinned as they fought. Then, with a sweeping arc, he caught Bannon’s shortsword and deftly flung it out of the elf’s hands, without any apparent effort. The weapon sailed across the room, knocked against one of the tall bedposts, and fell onto the nightstand where it brought a vase of flowers crashing to the floor.

“Grandmother painted that vase,” the human growled, grinning maniacally. “Father is going to be pissed!” He slashed at Bannon, whose only recourse was to leap back. The leather cuirass barely slowed the blade as it cut across his chest. At least it wasn’t a serious wound — yet.

Braden yanked back on the crossbow and turned, trying to fling Soris around like a dance partner, but his wounded arm lacked the strength. Jarring it forced a grunt of pain from him. Soris hung on doggedly. Suddenly, instead of pulling, he leapt forward into the human. They both went down in a heap.

Braden twisted around under Soris and flung out a hand towards the weapon rack. It teetered and spilled a scabbarded sword to the floor. Though Soris fought to pull the shem back, the human snagged the blade and pulled it free. Unfortunately for him, grappling on the floor was not an ideal situation in which to swing a long weapon. The elf grabbed his arm with one hand and started punching him — anywhere: chest, ribs, face — with the other.

Vaughn cut and slashed, and Bannon barely ducked out of the way of the blade. He had a long belt knife, but he needed both arms free just to keep his balance. He backed up again and suddenly fetched up against a warm, solid mass. Jonaley grabbed him from behind in a bearhug. “I’ve got him now, my lord!” Bannon twisted desperately, but could not break free. “Finish him off!”

With a snarl, Vaughn lunged. Bannon’s eyes went wide, and he picked up his legs, letting his full weight drop straight down. Lord Jonaley was jerked forward and bent over. Vaughn’s blade sliced through his cheek and neck. The bann yanked back as soon as he realized his thrust had gone awry, but it was too late.

Jonaley screamed, and blood sprayed from his mouth and throat. Bannon scrambled out from under him, twisting aside. Shianni shrieked as the shem’s body collapsed onto the floor beside her, spasming in its death throes.

“You idiot!” Vaughn roared. He wasn’t smirking any more. His face twisted in rage as he turned on Bannon.

The elf didn’t wait for him; he had his knife out, and he attacked. For half a second, he beat Vaughn back with sheer ferocity, but soon the nobleman had him on the defense again. Bannon held the knife in both hands to keep it from being knocked out of his grasp. Vaughn hit harder and harder, and Bannon feared his blade would simply snap under the onslaught.

He had to do something to gain an advantage. He leapt aside, avoiding the next blow altogether. Vaughn overreached, but quickly compensated. Bannon cowered away from the bigger man. Breathing heavily, Vaughn raised his sword for a final blow.

Just at the apex, Bannon suddenly darted forward and kicked. He planted the toe of his boot into the human’s groin. Vaughn turned green and doubled over as breath whooshed from his lungs. But, realizing he was fighting for his life, he didn’t drop his sword. Sheerly by force of will, he lifted it again, straightening. Bannon grabbed his arm and moved in. With a snarl of his own, he kneed Vaughn hard once more, and then drove the knife up under his ribs. Soundlessly, the nobleman’s mouth opened, and blood poured out.

The sword finally dropped from his numb fingers, and the nobleman began to slump to the floor, his eyes glazed in an expression of bewilderment and pain. Impatiently, Bannon shoved him back and yanked his knife free with another splash of blood.

 

Bannon kills Vaughn

 

“Soris!” he turned to aid his cousin. Soris had pummelled Braden senseless and had his sword now. He stuck it several times into the bastard’s torso, until he stopped moving. “Soris,” Bannon said again, moving closer. “He’s dead. Come on.”

“They hurt Shianni!” the elf cried.

“She’s here,” Bannon said, cautiously approaching him. “She needs you.” Gingerly, he tugged at his cousin’s arm. Soris shook himself and moved to help his sister.

 

 

Bannon walked over and retrieved his borrowed sword, then crossed back to them. Shianni sat on the floor, clinging to Soris and crying into his shoulder. “It’s all right,” he kept telling her. “It will be okay.”

Shianni flinched at Bannon’s approach. “It’s okay; it’s me,” he reassured her. “They’re all dead.” He looked around a moment — Maker’s Mercy, the bedchambers were a mess. They’d best get out of here, fast. “Shianni,” he asked gently, but insistently, “Where are Nesiara and Valora?”

She pointed towards the back corner of the room. Upon investigating, Bannon found a nook extending off the main room, and a door. It was unlocked. Cautiously, he pushed it open, keeping his sword firmly in hand, but lowered. He didn’t want to accidentally skewer one of the ladies. Or get skewered by an attacking she-elf.

The room was small, more of a closet — or a cell. It was stone-floored and windowless. Valora and Nesiara sat huddled in the corner, on the floor, next to a mat covered with blood-stained rags. Another shem was in there with them, standing with his back pressed to the side wall, as if he were trying to push himself through the stone. He had blond hair that brushed his shoulders, and a small sprout of a moustache. Bannon pointed the sword at him.

“Don’t kill me!” the man shrieked, throwing his hands up.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Jacen. L-lord Jonaley’s brother.” His words started tumbling out as he wrung his hands. “He- he told me there was a party, that there’d be wh-whores. I didn’t know they weren’t paid! I swear! I didn’t mean to hurt anyone!” His knees were shaking. “Please,” he gulped. “I swear — I give you my solemn word — I won’t tell anyone you were here. P-please just don’t kill me.”

Bannon lowered the sword. Almost instantly, colour flooded back into the shem’s pasty face. He almost collapsed in relief. Bannon glanced at the women. They clung tightly to each other, frozen in fear or shock. He looked back at the young noble. “No,” he said, smiling slightly; “I believe you won’t.”

“You’ll not regret this, I promise!” Jacen moved towards the door. Bannon stepped aside as if to let him pass, but as the shem drew even with him, he shoved the sword through the human’s gut. Jacen’s eyes went wide in shock. He doubled over, exhaling a weak death rattle. One of the women let out a scream at the suddenness of the blow. Bannon pushed the corpse off his blade. He shoved it so it wouldn’t block the door.

The women seemed galvanized. They broke out of their paralysis and hurried through the door. Bannon followed them.

Soris had Shianni on her feet; they all huddled around him. Soris gave his cousin a hard look. “You didn’t have to kill him.”

“Oh, please,” Bannon snapped. “You believe his story?” He snorted. “Besides, he saw us, and the first thing he was going to do was go straight to the city guards.”

Soris bit his lip, but didn’t argue. “Let’s just get out of here and hope we don’t run into anyone else. You go first, I’ll follow with the women.”

Bannon first moved to the desk. He opened the small box; inside were two copires of the Kendell family seal. Bannon cursed — there wasn’t even any damned money!

 

 

They made it out of the estate and back to the safe harbour of the alienage without incident. They congretated in Cyrian’s home. Valendrian brought a nurse, who bandaged Bannon’s chest and saw to the boys’ other injuries as they stripped out of their stolen armor and bloody clothes. Then she went into the back room to tend to the women. It wasn’t long before Zack came looking for the Elder. The city guard was here. Hurriedly, the elves stashed the weapons and armor in the false bottom of one of the carpenter’s chests. Then they followed Valendrian out to face the guardsmen.

 

 

Most of the elves from the wedding were milling about beneath the Great Tree. They eyed the uniformed city guards with distrust. The guards, more than a dozen of them, stood in close formation as if expecting to be besieged. Bannon and Soris melted into the crowd behind Valendrian.

The guard captain was raising his voice, calling for order. Valendrian also raised his voice, to calm his people. Without the need for pushing and shoving, he moved to the forefront, and his human friend, the Grey Warden, appeared at his side. “What is this about, Captain?” the hahren addressed the guard.

“There’s been an attack on the Denerim estate,” the captain replied. He was solidly built, with a strong, shaven jaw. His voice remained level. “Several men were killed. The bann has been murdered.” The elven crowd around them milled about, and the guardsmen tightened their grips on their sheathed weapons.

Valendrian remained calm. “Why is it you have come here?” he asked the captain. “We are unarmed. Surely you don’t believe we perpetuated an assault on a guarded estate.” He spread his hands. “As for the bann being murdered… you know what kind of man he was like. Are you really surprised?”

The captain chewed at his lower lip. “The Reverend Mother told us Bann Vaughn interrupted a wedding here. We know that it must be someone from that ceremony.” He raised his chin slightly, speaking to all the elves. “If they turn themselves in, they will receive a fair trial.”

Soris glanced at Bannon. Bannon didn’t belive the slightest in the shem version of ‘fair.’ He kept his mouth shut, and so did his cousin. No one else spoke up.

The captain looked around at the crowd again. Then he appealed to Valendrian. “Please. We don’t want to have to start arresting everyone.”

“What proof do you have?” the Grey Warden spoke out. “You can’t go taking these people away, when they haven’t done anything. The Reverend Mother reported a crime committed by the nobleman himself. Perhaps you should investigate that matter.”

With a gloved hand, the captain rubbed his brow. “We could, except the bann is dead. And no matter what he’s done, it’s still a crime to commit murder.”

“Was he unarmed when you found him?” the Warden asked shrewdly. “Perhaps he wasn’t murdered, but slain in self defense.”

“No,” the captain admitted reluctantly. “But it isn’t up to me to decide that. There will be an investigation. A jury will decide. Elder,” he addressed Valendrian directly, “ser, would you please ask your people to turn the guilty ones in.”

“I am afraid I am unable to help you, Captain,” the hahren answered firmly.

“Then you leave me no choice.” The captain turned to the guards. “Arrest everyone here.” The guards snapped into motion, as did the elves. Many on the fringe of the crowd fled.

“Wait!” a shrill voice cut through the pandemonium. Everyone turned, and a path cleared as Elva forced her way to the front. “I know who did it! Those two!” Someone in the crowd tried to silence her. “No! They’ll bring down a Purge on us all!” the woman screamed back. She gripped the guard captain by the arm and pointed directly at Bannon and Soris. “Him. And him! Those are the ones. They were getting married. It was their women he took!”

“Seize them!”

The guards elbowed everyone else out of the way and took hold of the two cousins. “You are under arrest,” the captain called out, raising his voice above the angry milling of the crowd, “for the murder of Bann Vaughn, Lord Braden, Lord Jonely, Lord Jacen, and seventeen guardsmen of the Estate of Kendell.”

Bannon struggled in the grip of the two men holding him. He turned to the hahren, but Valendrian’s mouth was pinched into a thin line. There was nothing he could say or do. Bannon then shot his gaze towards Elva, but the woman had vanished again, crawled back under her rock. His guards tightened their grip on him; the one on his right shook him forcefully to warn him to stop struggling. This could not be happening! Of all the times for the damned guard to care anything about what nobles in the city did!

“Hold it, Captain.” It was the Grey Warden. The guard captain turned to face him with a glare. “I am Duncan, commander of the Grey Wardens at Ostagar. It is my right to conscript anyone into the Order.” He nodded solemnly at Bannon. “I hereby invoke the Right of Conscription on this elf. Release him into my custody.”

“You can’t do that,” the captain growled.

“I can, and I am,” the Warden shot back, his voice cold steel. “By the power invested in the Order by King Cailen.”

The captain gestured at his men, and Bannon was suddenly let loose. He stumbled over by his savior. But Soris was being chained, and led away. “Do something,” Bannon told the human.

“I’m afraid I’ve done all I can,” Duncan replied implacably. “This is best for him.”

“What are you talking about?” Bannon hissed angrily. “Use that conscription. Get him out of there!”

The shem looked down on him. “This isn’t charity,” he said. “Joining the Grey Wardens is dangerous; not everyone survives it. And don’t think I was only mouthing empty words to save your hide,” he added, turning to face Bannon squarely. “You belong to me now. And you’re coming with me to Ostagar to join the Order.”

“What!?” Bannon stared at him. The audacity!

“Pack your things, and say your goodbyes,” Duncan insisted, his voice hard. “We’re leaving in an hour.” He turned and marched back towards Valendrian’s house.

“Son of a bitch!” Bannon swore. He looked towards the gates. Already the guards and their prisoner were out of sight. The elves of the crowd melted away. Within minutes, he was alone in the shade of the vhenedahl. “Shit!”

 

"You belong to me, now."

 

 

He picked up his feet and trotted home. He stormed through the door, his ire raging out of control. Cyrian looked up in worry. “Bannon, what’s wrong?”

“Soris has been arrested,” he told his father. “That shem, the Grey Warden; he says he’s taking me to Ostagar.”

“Maker’s Mercy,” Cyrian breathed. His shoulders slumped, and he passed a hand across his face. “The Grey Wardens? You’re to become a Warden?”

“So he says.” Bannon snorted. “I can’t become a Warden! I can’t go to Ostagar, I have to–” He stopped, suddenly. “I….” What? What was there for him to do? Soris had been dragged off to Fort Drakon. No one broke into that fortress. Or if they did, they never got out. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to rescue his cousin, but… it was hopeless! “Dammit!” he cursed.

He grabbed a sack and kicked open the door to the bedroom to go pack his meager things. He startled Shianni, who let out a shriek. The nurse, who was still there sitting by Shianni’s bed, gave him a dark look. “I’m sorry,” he blurted. “Shianni, it’s me. It’s Bannon.” His cousin huddled against the pillows of her bed, curled up tightly, her head pulled in low. “I have to go away for a while,” he said to her. He opened the trunk at the foot of his bed and threw a bunch of stuff onto the counterpane so he could pry open the secret compartment and get out the armor and weapons.

“Bannon?” Her eyes peered out from dark shadows under her brow. “Where’s Soris?”

“He’s all right,” he reassured her, not looking up. “He had to leave for a little while, too.”

“I’m so sorry,” Shianni sobbed. “This is all my fault. I’ve been bad.”

“No you haven’t,” Bannon insisted. He dropped his stuff on the floor and went to comfort her. She shrank back with a cry as he tried to put his arms around her. Biting his lip, he drew back, then knelt next to the bed so he didn’t loom over her. “You have not done anything wrong. Don’t think that.”

“Vaughn’s going to get me.” She curled up even more tightly, pressing back into the pillows, shrinking behind her coverlet.

“No he’s not.” Bannon wanted to touch her, to take her hand — something — but he didn’t dare. “He’s dead, Shianni. He can’t hurt you ever again.”

“You killed him?”

“That’s right. I killed Vaughn.”

“Now you and Soris have to go away.” Tears leaked from her eyes. “I really messed up.”

 

Shianni cries

 

“It is not your fault. Soris and I would never–” He hesitated a moment; unsure what to say. He wanted to say they’d never let anyone hurt Shianni, but that was all-too-clearly not true. “We’d never abandon you,” he finished lamely.

Her eyes closed. The spirit departed from her voice, leaving it dull and lifeless. “But you have to go away.”

“It’s just for a little while,” Bannon lied. “We’ll be back. We love you, Shianni. You’ll see us again, when you get better.”

The nurse carefully touched Shianni’s arm. “You should rest now.” Again, she shot a pointed look at Bannon. Then she prepared a dose of medicine for Shianni. “This will help you sleep,” she said, encouraging her patient.

Bannon gathered his things, then slunk out of the room, feeling like a criminal in his own home. His mind was miles away from having to go to war, to join the Wardens, or go anywhere, but he figured he should see if there was any food to sustain him for a while. He startled Nesiara and Valora in the kitchen. “Sorry,” he mumbled again. “Are you… Are you going to be all right?” He should know better than to ask them if they were all right now. He didn’t really know what they’d suffered in the mansion. And they probably didn’t want him to know. He rummaged in the cupboard for a small wheel of cheese.

“Yes,” said Valora. “We… Well, we thought we’d take the dowry money and return to Highever.” She twisted her fingers nervously together in the awkward silence that followed. “I mean, it’s not like– That is, no one is blaming you. Or your cousin. Just–” She shrugged and bit her lip.

“Yeah, I understand,” Bannon said, not meeting either woman’s eyes. “Sorry,” he said again. What else could he say? He wasn’t the conquering hero, or the triumphant rescuer. He was a criminal. A murderer.

He met his father in the front room. Cyrian’s face was lined with pain. All the joy he had known, for just a few minutes at the wedding ceremony; it was all torn away. Bannon went to him. “I never meant for things to go so wrong,” he said.

“It’s not your fault, son. You did the best you could.”

Bannon slumped. “Sometimes that isn’t enough.” He swiped a hand across his face.

“Bannon, I have something for you,” Cyrian told him. “It’s a….” His voice faded out. Of course, a wedding present at this point would just be a ghastly joke. “Since you’re going to be travelling a fair bit. Going off to Ostagar and all.” The old carpenter’s voice caught in his throat for just a second. He covered neatly by turning and reaching under the table, and producing a pair of soft leather boots. “These… well, don’t laugh, but these were your mother’s.”

“Ladies’ boots?” Bannon grinned wryly.

“Well, you know how your mother was,” Cyrian said pointedly, with a sad smile of his own. “They’re sturdy, and serviceable. And not very frilly.”

Bannon chuckled. His mother hadn’t been one for any frills. “Thanks, Dad.” He tucked the boots into his bag, because he didn’t want to wait to put them on. “I guess… this is good-bye.”

The Tabris men hugged again, a long, silent time.

 

 

Then Bannon had to break away. He went out the door and practically flew down the steps — and almost crashed into the Grey Warden standing there. “Uhh….” He blinked up at the dark-haired man. Thoughts of dodging the Warden and hiding out in the rat-maze of the alienage flew straight out of his head.

“Well,” Duncan said. “Seems I was right; I didn’t think it would take you a whole hour to pack. You weren’t going anywhere, were you?”

“To meet you,” Bannon replied. Sincerely. Of course.

“Right. No sense wasting time, then. Let’s be on our way.”

 


Bloody Path of Retribution


 

Bloody Path of Retribution
————————————-
Warnings: contains violence, gore, foul language, references to rape and necrophilia

 

Bannon pushed the door open cautiously, then froze. The servants’ entrance opened on a small storage area, half filled with barrels. A few feet away stood the innner door. — And there was a shem standing guard right there!

However, the shem didn’t move. In fact, he wasn’t exactly “standing” guard, he was sitting on one barrel, wedged back between another stack of barrels and the wall. As Bannon held his breath, the white-whiskered guard let out a rumbling snore.

The two cousins breathed a silent sigh of relief and looked at each other. Bannon glanced at Soris’ crossbow and jerked his head slightly, indicating to him to shoot the guard. Soris’ eyes went wide and his mouth dropped slack in disbelief. Bannon frowned and shook his head in annoyance. The light-footed elf crept forward, his borrowed sword at the ready.

Bannon had never killed anyone before, but he didn’t dwell on it. His only concern was not making any noise as he dispatched an obstacle in his way. Without hesitation, he thrust the sword through the man’s neck. The guard’s eyes flew wide in surprise and shock. His mouth gaped and air rushed from his severed windpipe, but they did not connect into a death scream. With a gurgle, the shem collapsed, still party wedged upright on the barrel.

Soris eased the door shut behind him. “Did you have to kill him?” he whispered. “We could have snuck past.”

“Yes,” Bannon replied quietly, but firmly. “He was between us and the way out. We’ll need a clear path to take the women out of here.” He didn’t mention that they might be running for their lives at that time, pursued by who knew how many Kendell guards. No sense borrowing a garrison of trouble too early. “You sure you’re up to this?” Bannon asked his cousin. They were in hilt-deep, now. This was no time for second thoughts.

Soris took hold of himself and nodded. He closed his mouth firmly. “Yeah. It’s just… different when they’re not attacking.”

“The women won’t be attacking,” Bannon reminded him. “That won’t stop the shems from hurting them.”

Together, they passed the inner door into the large kitchen. Half a dozen elves bustled about the tables and the huge cookfire. A few of them looked up and stopped their work to stare. One girl let out a muffled squeak and fled to the pantry. Bannon put a finger to his lips, entreating the elves to keep quiet. As one, they all turned towards the cookfire.

There, a bulky, bald shem in an apron was busy harranguing another of the elves about the soup. He cut that off abruptly, perhaps sensing all those eye upon him or noticing the sudden lack of chopping and cutting noises. He turned quickly and scowled at Bannon and Soris. “Where is that delivery?” he blustered. “The bann will have a fit if his roast partridge hasn’t got the currant jelly sauce! Well, what are you just standing there for? Didn’t the Maker give you the sense He have a goose?” The way he was going on, the cousins couldn’t get a word in edgewise if they’d wanted to. “I swear! The Master can’t loosen his pursestrings enough to hire decent help? Giving you stupid knife-ears such opportunitis you do not deserve! Eh–?” The shem paused in his tirade to blink at them. “Where did you get those weapons? What have you been playing at?”

“Um, we found them,” Soris offered.

“Just outside, there,” Bannon quickly jumped in, “by the fence. We thought we should take them to the armory. Someone might steal them out there.”

“IMBECILES!” the cook roared. “Did you forget about the currant jelly entirely? The bann will have your ears for this, if I don’t get to them first! I’ll –!” The familiar sound of a glass bottle breaking over a shem’s skull filled the air. The cook’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he crumpled heavily to the floor.

 

The Cook Had It Coming

 

The red-haired elf behind him nimbly leaped out of the way. He tossed the broken bottle neck onto the shem’s paunch, where it bounced and rolled off. “I don’t know what you guys are up to, but he’s had that coming a long time.” He yanked at the strings of the apron he wore and shucked it off over his head. “And I don’t want to know what you’re doing here, but good luck!” He tossed the apron on the table and moved to follow the others who were already beating a hasty retreat out the door.

“Wait,” Bannon called after them. “Did you see them bring any elven women in?” The elf shook his head. “Where’s Vaughn’s chambers? Is that where he has his ‘parties’?”

The redhead grimaced and came back to them so he could lower his voice. “Upstairs, east wing, towards the back. Go across the main hall and turn right. Use those stairs.” He flicked a glance at each of them. “Maker help you, and I never got a good look at those dozen bandits who broke in here.” With that, he darted out.

“Great,” Soris moaned, “we just have to go through the whole estate. How many guards do you think are between us and there?”

“Quiet,” Bannon shushed him. He edged closer to the door leading out of the kitchen, cocking his pointed ear. He heard several voices beyond, talking jovially, as well as the clink of cups and platters. It reminded him that they’d never gotten to the wedding feast. Oh well, his appetite was ruined, anyway. “Sounds like half of ’em are in the dining hall,” he answered Soris’ question about the guards.

“If we burst through and surprise them?” Soris asked half-heartedly.

“We’ll get killed,” Bannon confirmed. If only the hahren had allowed more elves to come with them. But who would have? No one was as close to Shianni as her brother and cousin — no one close enough to risk their own necks. Nola only had one aged mother. And the women of Highever had no one at all. No one but their reluctant husbands. Bannon chewed his lip a moment. “I have an idea. Go into the pantry; see if there’s any strong-smelling liquor.”

While Soris did that, Bannon retruned to the entryway storeroom. He followed his nose to the acrid tang of a bowl of rat poison. Rummaging around in the barrels, he came up with a bottle of the stuff.

He returned to the pantry to catch up with Soris. “Ugh,” he said, catching a whiff; “have you been sampling them?”

“No!” Soris insisted. He held out a bottle of strong brandy. “How about this?”

“I don’t think the guards are allowed to have the good stuff.” Bannon turned to the mousey elf servant who was huddled in the corner, half-hidden by a cask. “Where’s the rot-gut?”

She edged out slightly, her watery brown eyes wide. Hesitantly, her arm stretched out, finger pointing to a shelf.

Soris nabbed a jug and pulled the cork. “Whew!” he exclaimed, nose wrinkling.

“Yeah, that’s the stuff,” Bannon agreed.

The duo performed a bit of quick alchemy out in the kitchen. They poured some of the rot-gut out onto the comatose cook to make room in the jug for the full dose of rat poison. Bannon put on the discarded apron. He tucked the shortsword down inside it, against his leg. The hilt stuck out, so he grabbed a hand towel and artfully draped it over the pommel.

“This is thin, cousin,” Soris said, watching him with a jaundiced eye.

“Come on, all my plans work,” Bannon insisted, forcing more confidence than he felt.

“What am I going to do with this?” Soris hefted the crossbow.

“Load it,” said Bannon, busy brushing off his apron and straightening his hair the best he could. “Keep the door propped open a little after I go through. If things go wrong, start shooting.”

“You’re going out there by yourself?”

Bannon shrugged. “It’s my ‘thin’ plan.” Soris nodded and stood back. Bannon pushed through the swinging door with the jug in both hands.

No one looked up. Good. Bannon started refilling mugs, his head down and his demeanor servile. Just another invisible elf servant, no more worthy of notice than the furniture. He kept his right side, where the sword hung heavily on his apron, away from the shems. The third fellow spared him more than a cursory glance. “Is that blood?” he asked, eyeing the gore spattered on Bannon’s pants.

“Yes, ser,” Bannon agreed quickly. “I was out slaughtering the pigs, ser.” He backed up, careful not to let the sword swing wide, and moved to serve the men on the other side of the table.

“There’s no blood on your apron,” the astute guard remarked, frowning in suspiscion.

“I’ve been having the most awful day, ser!” Bannon splashed liquor into the guards’ mugs as quickly as he could, for the first man was already quaffing his. He distracted them by prattling on in the most annoying fashion. “First, I tore my only pair of work pants. And then I was late, because I had to change. Cook was furious, and he made me go slaughter pigs. And there was no apron in the smokehouse! Then I–”

“Shut up you whiney knife-ears,” one of the men said. “Nobody cares about your damn’ problems.”

“Yes, ser!” The six men at the first table had been served. Bannon turned about to reach the near side of the second table. He started pouring poison into their mugs.

The observant guard snorted. “It was just gettin’ entertaining,” he griped.

“What did you think?” the first guard asked. “He fought the boys at the front gate and went on a killing spree?” He took another gulp from his mug, grimaced, and belched prodigiously. “Is it just me, or is this swill more godawful than usual?” The rest of the men grabbed their mugs and downed some of the drink, just to see.

 

"Is it just me, or is this swill more godawful than usual?"

 

Bannon turned with alacrity to get to the last three men on the far side of the second table. Hemmed in as he was, the sword thunked against on of the chairs. “Ow!” he yelped, hoping to disguise the sound of metal on wood. “So sorry, ser!”

“Watch it, you clumsy knife-ears!”

The first guard grabbed his stomach. The third had a queasy look crossing his face. “Something’s not right,” he said. “Did you…?” He peered blearily into his mug. To his left, the second guard belched deeply, and white foam flecked his lips, removing all doubt. “You poisoned us!” The quicker guards scrabbled for their weapons.

“Now!” Bannon yelled, flinging the jug at the nearest shem’s head and ducking down. He wasn’t taking chances with Soris’ aim.

A bolt shot out from the kitchen and planted itself in the back of the skull of a guard who had jumped up between the tables and into its path. He pitched forward, splashing soup everywhere. Only three guards hadn’t been served yet, those on the far side of the second table. Of those on the near side, the one on the right hadn’t touched his drink yet, the one nearest Bannon had had a taste — plus a faceful, and one lay on the table with a bolt in his brain. The six men at the other table were in no shape to fight. They writhed in their chairs, spilling out onto the floor, convulsing. One tried to vomit out the poison, but only managed to cough up blood.

Bannon pulled the sword free, slicing the apron string as he did so. Still crouching, he swept the blade low across the legs of the man nearest to him. It clanged against metal greaves, but the shem fell back off balance. Bannon cut upwards, under the man’s guard, and managed to stab him in the belly, though not deeply, owing to the leather cuirass he wore.

Another bolt flew past the guard’s face as he stumbled, and this one thunked into the chest of one of the last guards. Soris might not be hitting what he was aiming at, but he was doing a damned good job so far.

The last two hale guards charged around the table, weapons out and eyes full of murder. Bannon was still hemmed in by the tables, several chairs and a bunch of shem bodies, so he escaped the only way he could — he leapt onto the table top and whirled, aiming a kick at the first shem’s face. The man’s head rocked back as he staggered into the man behind him. Luckily, that guy was armed with a mace, or the first might have been impaled.

The half-poisoned shem lunged up onto the table, lumbering with clumsiness and weakness. Bannon turned and snapped his blade down on the back of the guard’s neck. It had the same effect on him as it had on the mabari whose spine he had severed. The man collapsed, paralyzed or dead.

“Are you out of your mind?” someone yelled. It sounded like Soris. Bannon did feel like a wondertale hero dancing around up here amidst the soup tureens. He leaped down on the far side just as the guard with the mace brought it crashing down where he’d been. Crockery shattered, and Bannon hoped there weren’t more guards within earshot. Another bolt whizzed by, over the guard who had lunged.

“Aim lower!” Bannon called.

“Get the archer,” the swordsman told his comrade, sending him off with a shove. To the other, with the wounded stomach, he gestured that they should circle the table and trap the elf between them. “Give it up, knife-ears,” he growled hatefully, stalking his target.

“Not when I’m winning!” Bannon grinned ferally. He was out of his mind! These two shems were going to jump him, two on one — what was he going to do?

A scream of anguish cut through the dining hall, and the guard going after Soris fell, clutching his leg. Bannon winced in sympathy. “Yep, that was aiming lower all right.”

And Andraste bless him, the swordsman couldn’t help but glance over for a split second. Bannon lunged. He, too, aimed low, noticing a lack of armor on the guard’s legs. The blade bit flesh, slicing through the man’s thigh. He cried out and went down. Bannon didn’t wait; he swung blindly at the other man. The guard caught the sword on his own blade.

Bannon backed and parried in turn. The man was weak, clutching his bleeding stomach with his free hand. He could take this guy! Suddenly, the other guard limped up, and Bannon found himself desperately blocking and backpedalling from the dual onslaught. They nearly cut him on several tries, but the billowing apron fouled their aim and their blades. And they forgot about Soris. The other elf had relieved the one guard of his mace and slammed the weapon into the shoulder of the guard on Bannon’s right. The man turned and for a minute, it was a pair of one-on-one fights. The wounded humans faltered, and finally the elves prevailed.

 

The Last Shems Fall

 

They stood winded, panting deep gulps of air that seared their throats. “Thanks, cousin,” Bannon gasped.

“That’s my job,” Soris bantered back weakly. “Bailing you out of all the trouble you get yourself into.” He turned his head back towards the carnage. A few of the shems still moaned in pain. He shuddered. “Let’s get out of here.”

Bannon shook his head. “Grab some armor, first.” Soris protested that it wouldn’t fit, and he would not wear bloodied armor. Nor would he touch the shems who were still twitching on the floor. Bannon cursed and moved as quickly as he could. He stripped the cuirasses from the two smallest guards, and shoved one at Soris. “Put it on,” he insisted. “It could save your life.”

He pulled off the apron and drew the armor on over his head. He struggled with the unfamiliar buckles and straps, cursing and chafing at this time wasted not moving. Finally, he just tied the straps to each other, as tightly as possible. He still felt as if he were wearing a leather barrel wrapped around his torso. Until he looked at his cousin, who was having a worse time. “Here,” he said impatiently. He wadded up the apron and stuffed it under Soris’ armor. They looked ridiculous, but at least they had some protection.

 

 

 

The two elves crept through the halls, Soris’ finger tight on the crossbow trigger. They met no one, save for an elderly elven woman brushing one of the carpets. Bannon put a finger to his lips again, and she remained silent, but decided to find some other, more out-of-the-way carpet to clean.

They passed the grand double doors at the front of the estate. There were no guards in evidence here, though there must surely be some posted outside.

Another oldster patrolled the east hall, strolling up and down its length rather than marching. Bannon and Soris positioned themselves in a small room off the end of the hall, then lured the guard in with some judicious noise. As the shem crossed the threshhold, Soris popped up from behind an armchair and shot him, while Bannon leapt from behind the door and finished him with a sword strike to the neck. They closed the door on the body and continued until they heard voices.

The hall was punctuated by a doorway. The two elves crouched on either side, listening to the guardsmen who had turned the corner just beyond.

“Drag her in here,” said the first, a young, clear voice.

“Come on, Polke,” grumbled a tired voice. “We gotta dump the body.”

“Then we can eat,” said the third, thick and low.

“After a little fun,” the first insisted. “You can’t let a pretty elf wench like that go to waste. The Lord won’t mind — he’s busy!” Soris’ face tightened in a scowl; Bannon gripped his sword harder.

The third voice said, “She’s dead.”

To which the first replied pragmatically, “She’s still warm! Just a few minutes.” There proceeded some dragging noises and a thump. Bannon dared a peek around the doorway; he saw one of the guards dragging Nola’s body into a side room. The other two looked on in disgust, but didn’t try to stop him. Bannon ducked back as they started to turn.

“Fine,” the tired grey voice said. “But you can finish hauling the carcass out by yourself. We’re gonna get us some eats.”

Bannon looked across at Soris and pointed at his head. ‘No Helmets,’ he mouthed clearly. Then he mimed punching himself in the head, and Soris nodded. The two elves pressed themselves against the wall beside the door.

“Sick fuck,” the low voice growled.

“She was pretty, though.”

The two shems walked through the door, and the elves swung their weapons at their unprotected heads. Soris’ mace crunched skull and his man went down. But Bannon’s sword deflected off the thick bone. The guard stumbled forward, cursing in pain. He started to turn and draw his weapon. Bannon swung hard at his neck, and blood sprayed out in a crimson fan. He squinched his eyes shut and turned his face as he got sprattered by the hot liquid. “Ugh,” he coughed quietly, wiping his mouth.

He swiped at his eyes to clear them, wishing he still had that apron. When he could see again, Soris was gone. An unmanly shriek came from down the hall. Quickly, Bannon ducked through the doorway and went to the side room, his heart in his mouth.

The shem was dead, in a compromising and completely unflattering position, with the fletching of the crossbow bolt sticking out from… well, to be fair, it was the biggest unarmored target facing the doorway. Soris had finished him off with a blow to the head and was busy vomiting in the corner.

Bannon backed up, looking a little green himself. “Come on,” he said.

Soris wiped his mouth shakily. “We should…. We can’t leave her like that.”

“No,” said Bannon. “When they come in here, I want them to see. See what’s been going on in here. See why we did it.”

“But… she….” Soris gulped.

Bannon skirted the grisly tableau on the floor and grabbed his cousin’s arm. He tugged Soris away. “She’s gone on with the Maker,” he said softly. “She’d want them to pay for what they’ve done.”

They exited the room and paused at the foot of the grand staircase, firming their resolve.

“We’ve got to get to Shianni and the others,” said Soris. Colour began returning to his cheeks as he looked up.

“Let’s hurry,” Bannon agreed; “but be careful. He’s bound to have more guards.”

 

 


B&Z Update & Outtake


 

Okay, it only took me 3 hours to do the Wedding Tableau illustration. I cheated and did Cyrian’s wedding photo Sunday night. So I made my deadline for posting a new section this week. HAH! Oh, I forgot to add it to the B&Z page. That, and I need to edit all the B&Z posts for conformity.

Meanwhile, I also have an outtake from the illustration session. I call this “Bannon goes Van Damme on Vaughn.”

I don’t know why, but sometimes working on a cutscene, the figures will go all wonky. This happened when I changed Bridesmaid#1’s expression to a worried animation. ::shrug:: Normally, the figures go all weird and stretchy (there’s another outtake like that from the Headgames shoot… somewhere on the blog here), but this one actually wasn’t too bad. And Vaughn really does need to get nailed.

 


The Uninvited Guest

The Uninvited Guest
Content Warnings: violence


 

“Never mind that, we have more trouble, cousin!” Soris stopped abruptly, and Bannon almost ran into him.

“A disaster to stop the wedding?” Bannon grumbled. What else could possibly go wrong? Then again… no wedding meant at least one more night of freedom….

“Some shem just walked in. He’s got weapons.” Bannon looked over to where Soris’ gaze led. There was some dark-haired man, complete with thick moustache and goatee, wearing some kind of white armor and kilt. Two weapon hilts protruded over his shoulders. The man’s face looked sun-worn, and his eyes gazed around with predatory intent. “Is that a Templar?” Soris asked. Templars occassionally marched into the alienage, searching for elven children with the talent for magic.

“Doesn’t look like the others I’ve seen,” Bannon mused.

“Well, let’s see if we can move him along before someone starts something. Your friends have been drinking,” Soris warned. “You know how they get.”

“They’re your friends, too.”

“Not when they’re drunk, they’re not!”

 

 

The shem stopped near the Vhenadahl, gazing up at the towering trunk. He wasn’t sightseeing, though. He turned before the two elf cousins got to him. He said nothing, but his dark eyes watched them, waiting for them to make the first move.

“Good day, ser,” said Bannon, adopting his unassuming elf demeanor. “Were you looking for someone? Perhaps we can help.” Or, ‘Move your ass out of our alienage.’

“No, thank you,” the human replied politely.

Soris fidgeted and looked at Bannon. This wasn’t going to go well, either, was it? Bannon spoke up again. “It is going to get crowded here very soon. That might make it difficult for you to… conduct your business?” He gave a slight smile and looked up into the shem’s face, giving him a good look at his innocent and trustworthy eyes.

The human stroked his beard a moment. “Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said with irritating calm.

“There might be a better place for you to wait,” Bannon suggested.

“We don’t want any trouble,” Soris added hastily.

“And armed strangers are usually trouble, is that it?” the human asked. Yeah, this guy had a real firm grasp of the obvious. “Don’t worry, I promise you I mean no harm.”

Bannon bit back a sigh. And yet, so thick. A canny thought entered his head. “Ser, there is to be a wedding here. It would go against our traditions to have weapons present.” He frowned thoughtfully. “A bad omen for the ceremony.”

The shem’s obsidian gaze fixed on him. “Diplomatic in the face of overwhelming force,” he muttered as if to himself. “Shrewd as to the motivations of others.” One brow arched upward. “Then appealing to my chivalrous nature and respect for tradition. Impressive.”

Bannon was taken aback. Did this guy just read him? He blinked, but before he could for a reply, the aged voice of the hahren came into the fray.

“Duncan! Are these boys harassing you?” Valendrian, the elder of the city elves, came strolling around the broad trunk of the Great Tree. His hair was grey, but still lengthy enough to be braided on either side of his face. Like all elves, he bore few age lines, just a hint around the eyes and mouth. His limbs were still hale, and his back straight, only a slight slump of his shoulders atesting to the weight his age and position placed on him.

The shem chuckled. “No, my friend. Just looking out for the peace and safety of their community.”

“Elder!” Soris exclaimed in surprise. “You know this sh– uh, human?”

Valendrian nodded. “Duncan, this is Soris and Bannon; the two cousins I told you about. Boys, this is the Grey Warden, Duncan.”

The elves looked at him anew in wonder. Grey Wardens were even more rare than Dalish Elves. Although most of them were shems, they were still heroes of all peoples in all nations. Well, they had been barred from Ferelden for several years, though no one seemed quite sure why. Before they could gather their wits and dozens of questions poured out, Duncan said, “Then I understand congratulations are in order.” He smiled.
 

The young and eager grooms


 

Bannon couldn’t stifle another groan. Soris shrugged helplessly, making the human show his teeth in a grin and chuckle all the more. “Ah, the young and eager grooms,” he teased them. “I hope I am not interrupting any escape plans.”

“Do you have any?” Bannon piped up.

Valendrian heaved a put-upon sigh. “No,” he answered for the Warden. “And you boys have preparations to finish.”

“But, Elder–”

“No, Bannon,” the hahren said firmly, cutting him off. “Whatever it is: no! Now go get dressed, and I want to see you back here in fifteen minutes! Soris, if he ‘gets lost,’ it will be on your head.”

The young elves sighed again. “Yes, Elder.” They trudged off towards their doom.

 

"Now go get dressed, and I want you back in 15 minutes!"

 

Behind them, the two old time friends had a moment to talk. Valendrian rubbed his temples. “I swear, that boy is the reason for my hair going grey.”

“He seems quite bright,” Duncan replied, his gaze not leaving the departing elves until they were out of sight. “Does he have weapons training?”

Valendrian bit his lip. “You know that’s illegal, my friend.”

“And you know that I am not affiliated with Denerim’s government, nor Ferelden’s.”

The elder nodded. “Yes,” he answerd the previous question without explanation. “Rather more than the others.” The elves could get away with “traditional” archery competition on Feastdays, but that was hardly enough to make them competent warriors — and no doubt the shems liked it that way. Though it was forbidden for elves to carry weapons larger than a dagger, and certainly against the laws for them to learn the art of swordsmanship, the hahren knew it would be cruel to withhold the knowledge of fighting and defense from his people. The truth of it was, the elves had a secret school. It was not meant as a weapon against the shems; its purpose was to give the elves the power to defend themselves during a Purge, nothing more. Ironically, if the shems ever discovered the existence of the school, that would give them cause to run a Purge through the alienage. Valendrian’s mouth twisted wryly. “Has it become that desperate, then?” he asked his friend.

Duncan bowed his head. “I’m afraid it has. But enough ill-omened talk before the wedding.” He looked up once more and brought his smile back. “I should take myself and my weapons away from this auspicious occassion. And I know you have important duties to perform. Perhaps a search party to organize,” he jested. Then his words became overshadowed once more. “We will speak of dire matters later.”

 

 

 

True to the day, the wedding was beautiful. Cyrian beamed with pride at his handsome boys — son and nephew — as they stood before the Priestess, ready to become men. Truth be told, the sparkle in his eye might be the result of an unshed tear of joy.

Bannon did look resplendent in his fine cobalt tunic. It matched smartly with his bride’s powder blue dress. She, too, was beautiful. She had long flaxen hair and periwinkle blue eyes. Who knows? Once he got to know her better…. His stomach did a slow somersault. He really hated being pinned down. ‘Relax,’ he told his rebellious innards, ‘we can handle anything life throws at us.’

“You look divine,” Nesiara murmured to him as he took his place by her side. She seemed happy, her smile genuine.

Bannon smiled back — it wasn’t as hard as he’d expected. “You do, too, my dear.”

Valendrian opened the ceremony with a speech about the freedoms Blessed Andraste had bestowed upon the elves. Mother Carson had come from the East City Chantry to give her blessings on the unions. Bannon glanced around — not, of course, looking for an escape route — but he caught his father’s eye. Cyrian looked almost ready to burst with happiness — something rare in the rocky life they had led. It gave Bannon a warm feeling under his ribs, like a ray of sunshine. He smiled back at his father and vowed to make the old man this happy as often as he could.

 

Cyrian, the proud father


 

He looked back towards the Revered Mother, but something beyond caught his eye, and that ray of sunshine inside him turned into a lump of cold iron and plummeted. Guardsmen in Kendell livery were crossing the square, shoving people out of their way.

Vaughn marched proudly in their midst, his eyes glinting with the lust for vengeance. Oh, no, thought Bannon. He can’t. Not even Vaughn would be so crass as to disrupt a wedding. Nor be so bold as to go against the Chantry. But Vaughn mounted the steps of the platform, just as Mother Carson turned to see what was causing such a commotion.

“Pardon me for interrupting, Mother,” Vaughn said jauntily; “but I was just having a party, with fine wine, delectable food — but then I noticed we were missing something. Oh yes, that’s right!” He snapped his fingers as if a thought had just come to him. “No whores! But look, here they are!” With a dramatic sweep of his hand, he indicated the bridal party.

“My lord!” the Revered Mother spat in outrage. “This is a wedding!”

“Oh, please!” Vaughn laughed. “You can dress up your pets and play tea party all you want, but they’re nothing more than animals, created to serve us.” He beckoned for his guards.

“Get behind me,” Bannon said to Nesiara, sheilding her with his arm. Vaughn was either drunk out of his mind, or Shi had truly rattled his brains. He’d never seen the bann act this demented.

“Grab those pretty brides; oh, that cute bridesmaid in the tight pink dress….” Vaughn turned, his eyes narrowed dangerously. “And where’s that bitch who bottled me?”

Shianni tried to slink behind the other maids towards the protection of her uncle and the hahren. But Vaughn’s lackeys cut her off. “Here she is, my lord!” Jonaley called out with glee. Braden grabbed Shianni’s arm and twisted it behind her. She cried out.

Two guards came to wrest Nesiara from Bannon. “Don’t you touch her!” One of them drew his sword and pointed it at Bannon’s chest. He froze. Nesiara reluctantly went forward with the other guard, too proud to be dragged around like some animal to slaughter.

“What do we do?” Soris cried in panic.

“Remain calm,” the haren’s voice rose over the mutters of fear and cries of pain. Valendrian’s face was colourless as whey, but more guards had their weapons drawn. If the elves rioted, there would be a bloodbath.

Reverend Mother Carson was the only one, being human herself, who dared stand up to the bann as his guards ebbed down from the platform. “My lord, this is an affront to the Maker!”

“Oh shut up, you dried-up old biddy!” Vaughn snapped. More than one person gasped at his open blasphemy against the holy woman. He actually shoved her aside.

Bannon stepped forward. “You won’t get away with this, Vaughn,” he growled. “When your father hears–!”

The nobleman whilrled suddenly in a rage and clubbed him across the face. The elf dropped, unconscious before he hit the wooden stage.

 

"You won't get away with this, Vaughn!"

 

By the time Soris could rouse Bannon, Vaughn had taken the women to his estate. Valendrian tried to keep his people calm. The hahren’s duty was to all the people of the alienage, and at the moment, Vaughn wasn’t actually thratening to kill anyone. Valendrian’s heart ached for the indignity the women would suffer, but he would counsel them as he had others before them. Sometimes it was the elves’ lot to suffer, but at least they would be alive. “The Reverend Mother has gone to fetch the city guard,” he told the worried elves crowding around him.

“What good will that do?” someone cried. “Vaughn has enough riches to pay them off!”

“He won’t even have to,” Bannon growled, getting to his feet. “With the king and the arl away at war, Vaughn’s in charge of the city. He gives the guards their orders!”

“I cannot condone an act of violence against the bann,” Valendrian said firmly, though his words were heavy with sorrow. “The safety of our people comes first.”

“If we don’t do something, no one will!” Bannon argued. “I’ll go by myself, if I have to!”

“Bannon, no!” Cyrian put a hand on his arm. “You can’t just march into the estate — you don’t even have any weapons.”

“I can find some!”

A dark-skinned fellow elbowed his way to the front of the crowd. “Hahren, I might be able to help. I work in the arl’s estate. I could bring someone in through the servants’ entrance.”

“Bannon and I will go,” said Soris. “They took our wives — and my sister!”

The human who had been with Valendrian earlier appeared as well. He came forward and said, “I have a few spare weapons.”

“Duncan, please,” Valendrian said. “This is not helping.”

“Surely you don’t believe it’s right for a crime like this to go unchallenged?” The Grey Warden fixed the elder with a penetrating gaze.

Valendrian dropped his eyes. “No. But only two shall go,” he added, his voice finding strength again. “The rest of you return to your homes.”

The Grey Warden produced a shortsword and crossbow from his pack. Bannon accepted the blade gratefully. “Why don’t you come with us?” he asked the man. “You’re a fighter.”

Duncan put his hands out in refusal. “I cannot take direct action. The Wardens’ welcome in Ferelden is precarious at best,” he said. “I, too, have responsibilities to the greater good, no matter what my personal feelings might be.” He paused, his eyes darkening in thought. “May the Maker watch over you,” he told the two elves solemnly.

 

 

The estate was a small palace sprawled behind its high wall like a pampered lion in its enclosure, with the grounds stretched out around it. Room enough for a dozen elven tenements, it was given over to a luxurious lawn with well-trimmed bushes and flowerbeds. In the back were the kennel runs, a modest vegetable garden, and even its own smokehouse. The estate had two gates. The larger main gate faced a broad, curving lane that led to the market. On the eastern side was a smaller gate, and this let out directly onto the alienage.

Bannon and Soris wrapped their borrowed weapons in rags, stuffed them into some old crates, and carried them up to the gate. Ian, the serving man, convinced the gate guard that Vaughn had sent them on an errand and that they were very late. The guard snickered, but said nothing as he let them through.

As soon as they were out of sight, the two cousins readied their weapons. They met no guards as they quickly traversed the length of the mansion to the back, but as soon as they got there, they realized why: Vaughn had left the dogs loose.

The Kendell family owned a large pack of mabari, but most of them had gone with the arl off to war. Vaughn personally owned two — a brindle male and a huge black bitch. The male spotted them first and charged with a growl. Soris put a bolt in its thick neck, but that barely slowed it down. Bannon managed to finish it off with the sword, though it was a messy job. The bitch took three bolts as the elves retreated around the corner. This time, Bannon waited for the dog to charge past him, then he swung the blade down across its back, severing the spine. The mabari’s hind legs collapsed, immobilizing it long enough for him to bury the swordpoint in its heart.

All three elves were shaking and panting; even Ian managed to go pale under his dusky skin. Bannon’s pants were spattered with blood, but there was no help for that now. Ian led them around through the gardens to the servants’ entrance on the west side of the building. He unlocked the door for them. “This is as far as I can take you,” he said, eager to quit this dangerous endeavor. “Good luck.”

 


Illustrations


 

I spent this weekend making some illustrations for the Bannon & Zevran story. If you want illustrations, then I want two weeks to do a post! I’m not a screen-cap hog (like, ::cough cough:: some people), so more than half of them are done in the toolset cutscene editor. Although some are taken directly from the in-game cutscenes. Which aren’t all easy to work with, you know. A lot of them are full of nekkie men, with mapping tags to be replaced by elves and brides and such at runtime.

I made six images. Two are screen-capped by recording parts of the game with FRAPS, then Print-Screened from Windows Media Player. Which at least is faster and less messy than trying to use FRAPS screen-cap, since that won’t work when the video is paused.

Two were made by editing a Single Player cutscene — a lot. One was grabbed by moving the camera in a Single Player cutscene, and one was made by substituting models in the cutscene I edited, and then I tweaking them around.

Now, two of those illos are for the next part. But I still need to do a portrait of Cyrian and an Errant-Knight-Style tableau of the wedding. And the next part being due, um, tomorrow? See, not gonna happen. Unless I keep posting the text and then inserting images later. Or maybe I can work on it in the evenings (or even downstairs at my job…), and shoot for a Friday posting. (The actual writing for the next part is done, btw. And the part after that. Gotta keep banking posts so I don’t fall behind.)

 

Tip: to get Print-Screen to be able to see the video and stop capturing plain black, you need to go into the Options: Performance, and turn off video accelleration. I don’t know as yet if it will work with other playback apps.

 

Tip: to get the Single Player cutscenes (and everything else) accessible in your own module, go to Manage Modules: Hierarchy. Check the Single Player option.
Note that opening the SP resources will still result in them being read-only. Open a local copy if you want to edit. I checked out the one scene I wanted to edit and save as a new cutscene, but I’m not sure if that is necessary.

 
PS: I know the caption background frames are crooked on some of the illustrations in the post… I want to send those to WP support as a bug report. (But they’re out of town this week…!)