The Road to Ostagar


 
Warnings: contains foul language

 

Bannon sullenly followed the Grey Warden out of the alienage and down to the city’s south gate. The sun gilded the simple brick and stone of Denerim in a warm light. Young children pelted through the streets, laughing and shrieking, in the playtime before dinner. Busy mothers travelled to and from the market, gossiping like a yard full of hens. The elf didn’t take any notice; he shuffled along with his head lowered, his shoulders slumped with the weight of his problems. He racked his brain for what he could have done differently. Could he have gotten there sooner? Saved Shianni, even Nola? Could he have rescued them all without killing Vaughn? He didn’t see how. Should he have taken the money and left the women? How could he? Shianni’s bruised face haunted him even now. What good would it have done? Vaughn would have gone right on abusing the elves any time he wanted to, and he would have soon stepped up into the arl’s position, holding ultimate power over everyone in the alienage. Living there would have become a complete nightmare.

‘Face it,’ he told himself; ‘you decided you didn’t care about the consequences, so now here they are. Deal with them.’

The two stopped briefly while Duncan informed the gate guard that this elf was with him and belonged to the order of the Grey Wardens. Bannon took a moment to look back. Except for a few ice-fishing excursions to the inner harbor, he’d never been outside the city’s walls in his life. He didn’t want to be maudlin about it — Maker knows, he’d dreamed of getting out of this gutter for years — but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d never see this place again. At one point in his life, that would have made him ecstatic, but now… how would he ever know what happened to Soris, or Shianni? Or how his father would fare? The nagging feeling of leaving dozens of things undone chewed at him.

“Let’s go,” the Warden said, breaking him out of his musings.

They passed under the shadow of the gate, and then out onto the road. The feeling of dread grew stronger within Bannon. He bit down on it, ground his teeth, refusing to be moved by foolish emotions. His eyes stung, and he was afraid if he looked back again, he’d actually shed a tear. So instead, he focussed his attention on the back of the man he was following. Directly between the shoulder blades. He let his impotent fury smoulder, drying his tears to ash before they formed.

 

 

Duncan was not unaware of this, and it didn’t take his heightened Warden senses to feel the heat of anger emanating from the elf. He had thought to catch up with the army’s baggage train before nightfall, but changed his mind. If he didn’t do something to defuse the situation, people were going to get hurt. In a warzone, people would die.

So it was still a few hours before dusk when Duncan found a promising camp site off the side of the Imperial Highway. He led his charge off the road and into the clearing. He tossed down his pack and faced Bannon.

“I am sorry there was nothing I could do for your cousin,” he said. Bannon didn’t bother trying to hid his sneer of contempt. The elf dropped his own pack with a snort of disbelief. Duncan forged on. “I can’t explain it to you now, but in the next few weeks you’ll come to understand. He is safer there, where h–”

“They’re going to execute him!” Bannon cut in with intensity.

“That is not certain,” Duncan argued back, trying to rein in the rise in his own voice. “There will be a trial.”

The elf stared at him in incredulous disbelief. “Just how do you figure it’s not ‘certain’?” he snarled. In agitation, he began pacing, gesturing and pitching his voice dramatically. “‘Oh, Arl Urien, your son has been murdered! And here is one of the elves who did it.'” Then he deepened his voice to play the arl’s part, “‘Well, perhaps we don’t need to execute him today.’ — ‘Oh, no, don’t execute him, ser; he claims it was that other elf who did it; the one we let get away.'” Bannon glared at Duncan. “Like they’ll mention that part.”

Duncan folded his arms during the performance. “Did Soris kill Vaughn, or did you?”

I did it!” the elf snapped, and his ire couldn’t quite drown out the pride he took from that act. “I killed Vaughn!”

“Then Soris is innocent,” Duncan reasoned.

“And that matters how, exactly?” Bannon turned away in disgust. “He was there. He killed enough shems, himself. They can’t get to me — they’ll settle for executing just him!” He ran his hand back through his hair in frustration.

Duncan pursed his lips and looked down at the ground. As discrediting to his race as it was, he had to admit everything the elf said rang true. “Would it have been better,” he ventured, “if I had brought him; if he died at Ostagar, slain and possibly eaten by darkspawn?”

“Yes,” Bannon shot back without hesitation. “At least he’d have a fighting chance!”

Duncan really hated arguing. Especially when it made him second guess his own decisions. But no, as a Grey Warden, he knew he had to trust his gut instincts. “Tell me something,” he said; “did Soris always do what you told him to?”

“No,” the elf replied glumly, stubbornly.

“Did he ever have his own plans, or did he merely follow along with you all the time?”

“What’s your point?” Bannon snapped at him, needled by the leading questions.

“Let me ask you this: If, when we first met, I had told you I was recruiting for the Grey Wardens, would you have jumped at the chance to join us? Would Soris have?”

This gave Banon pause; he stopped pacing to think a moment. “No. Getting out of a wedding by going off to war to get killed? Don’t think so.”

Duncan couldn’t fully supress a slight grin. “Not that desperate, hm?” The elf drew his lips down in response. Duncan said, “Joining the Wardens is a lot like an elf taking on a shem nobleman. You’re going up against a powerful enemy, that thinks nothing of your kind, thinks less than nothing of killing you — enjoys it, even. Who is bigger and stronger than you, who out-numbers you, who has every advantage over you.” Duncan flicked these points off on his fingers, then pointed directly at the elf. “But you do it anyway, because innocents are counting on you.”

“Then you should have taken Soris, too!”

Duncan bit his lip. He couldn’t blame the boy for caring about his family. “Like I said, I cannot explain it to you now. You have to believe me, I honestly don’t think Soris has what it takes to become a Grey Warden.”

“Bullshit.”

“He may have made a decent common soldier, but Wardens are not like the regular army. Each Warden must be a power unto himself. Not a follower.” Duncan suddenly changed tack. “Why did you tell me weapons were forbiddin at the wedding ceremony?”

A puzzled look briefly crossed Bannon’s face. Then a canny look as if he were contemplating lying. But he was quick, Duncan gave him that. With barely a discernable pause, he shrugged and said, “We were trying to get rid of you.”

Duncan chuckled. “I know that. But why that particular gambit? Surely some hardened ruffian would scoff at your ‘elven traditions.’ A bigot would have been more inclined to remain there out of spite. So why,” he insisted, “did you try to appeal to my honorable nature?”

This time, the elf frowned in full thought. “I don’t know,” he said hesitantly. “You didn’t seem like the scruffy ruffian type? Despite how ugly you are,” he added underbreath. Duncan didn’t interrupt his train of thought, for he could see Bannon was still analyzing the encounter even while he spoke. “I guess because you sort of look like a Templar — and they are all truth and light and crap. And you said you promised you weren’t going to cause any trouble like you meant it.”

The dark-haired Warden nodded. “So you judged me an honorable man, and decided that appealing to that honor would motivate me the strongest.”

Bannon shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”

“You were correct,” Duncan said. Then he added, “Since you know I am an honorable man, you have to believe I did what I think is best for Soris.”

The elf’s face twisted back into a snarl. “Fuck you,” he spat and turned away.

In a blink, Duncan drew his sword. The elf flinched at the sound, spun back around, and fumbled the shortsword out as the Warden advanced on him. “Attack me,” Duncan growled. Bannon backed up warily, keeping his sword out in front of him. “I said, attack me!” Duncan goaded him. “Show me what you learned fighting Vaughn.” The elf still held back carefully, not stupid enough to be pulled into such a trap. At least not yet, but Duncan knew how to read and manipulate people, too. “Come on! The guard said he died with a sword in his hand, so I know you fought him, instead of sneaking up and finishing him off as would have been the smart thing to do.” The human bared his teeth and let his voice spiral up another notch. “Stupid knife-ears! Thinking you could take on a human? Vaughn was ten times better than you’ll ever be! You only beat him by sheer, dumb luck!” With a disgusted shake of his head, he lowered his sword in contempt. “Or maybe it was actually Soris who killed him, and you just want to take the credit.” Luckily, he was only pretending careless indifference, because Bannon exploded into action.

Duncan parried, letting the fury of the elf push him back. Rage made Bannon clumsy, and he threw his sword into wasteful, wide arcs. Duncan easily dodged by tilting slightly to the right, then the left. His apparent effortlessness only made the elf more furious. He lunged, and Duncan jumped aside. He turned and smacked the off-balance elf soundly in the rear with the flat of his sword.

“Is that what you learned?” he called mockingly. “How to make a human laugh so hard he can’t hold his sword?”

With a roar of outrage, Bannon turned and cut low. Duncan barely stopped the blow — he’d forgotten just how fast elves could be. Bannon moved in and cut at his legs again. Then he switched to an overhead slash and aimed a vicious kick at Duncan’s groin. The Warden parried high and twisted his body, deflecting the kick with his thigh. Then he forced Bannon’s sword over and down to the ground. The elf didn’t fight it; he snapped his left fist straight to Duncan’s face. The Warden grunted; his head whipped back, and he lost sight of his opponent.

Bannon spun behind the human and, using the full momentum of his turn, smacked the sword across Duncan’s lower back. The Warden cried out and pitched forward, catching himself on his hands and knees. Before he could pick himself up, Bannon seized a fistful of his hair and laid the sword blade over Duncan’s neck.

“I learned,” the elf panted heavily, “that cutting the spine is the best way to drop anybody.” He paused, still huffing and not releasing Duncan. “I learned, a guy don’t wear a helmet, you hit him in the head. Mace’ll smash a skull, but blade tends to bounce off. So,” he took a deep breath, slowing his breathing further, “best place to hit ’em is the neck.”

Duncan also caught his breath and got a good look at this patch of ground. “You learned well,” he said carefully. “Are you going to kill me, now?”

“Not much point.” The elf released him and pulled the sword off his neck. He thrust it into the ground beside Duncan and moved away.

“You should clean your sword,” the human said, sitting back on his heels a minute.

“It’s your damned sword, you clean it.”

“I would like you to have it,” Duncan told him. “I’d like to train you to use it better, on our way to Ostagar, and to teach you to take better care of it.”

Bannon stood with his back to the Warden, staring into the trees. Finally, he turned and came back. He yanked the sword out of the ground. “Fine. But I am not your slave, or your servant, and you don’t own me! I’m not going to cook and clean for you, or pitch your tent.”

Duncan blinked. “Is that what this is about?” He pushed himself to his feet and sheathed his sword. “Bannon, I apologize for telling you that you belong to me. It seemed that you thought I was just blowing smoke to get you out of trouble, and I wanted to impress upon you the seriousness of this commitment. I spoke hastily, and perhaps chose my words poorly.”

The elf just stared at him. He stared so long, Duncan finally had to say, “What?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. I am serious, and I am sorry. Do you accept my apology?”

“Uh… sure.” Bannon shrugged. Clearly, this was a new experience for him.

“Thank you. Now, let’s see about setting up camp here.” Duncan cocked his head, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “Do you actually know how to pitch a tent?”

The elf snorted. “No.”

Duncan gave him a wry grin. “That’s all right; we don’t have a tent.”

“Where are we supposed to sleep?” Bannon asked incredulously.

“We’ll be fine out in the open. It’s warm enough, especially with a fire.”

“What if it rains?”

Duncan shook his head. “It’s not going to rain. Does it smell like rain to you?” The elf looked around suspiciously, his nose twitching as he tentatively sniffed. “Take a deep breath, Bannon,” Duncan said, smilling. “That’s fresh air.”

 

 

The fresh air smelled… well, green. Not the sickly sewer-sludge green of the alienage gutters at the height of summer, but a fresh, crisp green, like growing things.

There was a world of things Bannon had no experience with. Making camp itself contained dozens — not just pitching tents, but selecting the site, checking drainage, making a fire, digging latrines, preparing food, studying the weather, arraying a bedroll — even washing up was completely different, without wells or rain barrels or a basin for dishes. Duncan made him work, but he worked beside the elf, showing him how, explaining things patiently and tirelessly.

After all that, the last of the sun’s light faded behind the trees, and stars sprinkled the night sky. The world was very dark. Their small campfire painted orange highlights on the black canvas of the night, offering warmth in a small ring around its lively center.

Duncan had explained the care of his sword to Bannon. He’d spent some time scrubbing dried blood from the blade with a bit of sand. Now he polished it with an oilcloth. The task absorbed him. His eyes unfocussed as he gazed into the blade, watching the light flicker and gleam from the metal. His mind unfocussed as well, giving him some respite and calm. He startled slightly when Duncan spoke.

“Bannon, I want to ask you something.” The elf paused and looked over at him. “Would you join the Grey Wardens?”

Bannon frowned. “You’re giving me a choice?” He sounded skeptical.

Duncan shook his head slowly. “I do not have that luxury. This darkspawn uprising is indeed a true Blight. Soon, an Archdemon will arise, and we will need every able recruit I can muster.” The human didn’t sound frightened or apologetic. He only stated the truth. “Ferelden has far too few Grey Wardens.”

Bannon snorted derisively. “That hardly fills me with confidence.” He turned his attention back to his sword. “Since I don’t really have a choice, what difference does it make?” he asked bitterly.

“I want to know if you will join our Order of your own free will. Or if you will merely be dragged into it, full of reluctance and resentment. That is your choice.”

“And why should I join? What do I get out of it?” The old ‘what’s in it for me?’ People scoffed at it, tried to preach the virtues of selflessness. Well, Bannon thought it a damned good question. If this shem started spouting off about the greater good, the noble sacrifices, he’d wake up one morning soon needing to find himself some other chump.

Duncan pressed his lips together in thought a moment. Then he said, “You will be equipped, and trained to use arms. You will have the right to own and bear weapons. You will fight to defend the people of Ferelden — your people: your family and friends, the alienage, the city of Denerim — against horrors of death and destruction worse than any mere war. You will have the honor and accord granted to Grey Wardens. Which,” he added with a wry grimace, “I must admit, is not always the good will we would like it to be.”

“Gee,” Bannon retorted sourly, “it won’t make all the elf-haters suddenly worship and adore me?”

Duncan chuckled. “I’m afraid not.”

“Coulda sold me on that one,” the elf grumbled, but not seriously. “Do we get paid?” Hey, an elf’s gotta eat!

“Yes, we draw pay. It isn’t a princely sum, but you will have enough for supplies and gear, and some recreation, if you’re frugal.”

Bannon just looked at him, one brow quirked. Elves lived frugally, of course. It was called ‘being poor.’ He bent his head back down and busied himself with the sword a bit more, wiping the length of the blade to clear the oil from it. “If I get killed,” he asked, “will the money I’ve earned be given to my family?”

“Yes,” Duncan said quietly. “Your next of kin will be kept on record, should you so desire. And your money and belongings will be returned to them on the unfortunate event of your death.”

“Unfortunate, but likely.” Bannon shot him a look.

“I won’t lie to you.”

“Just like storming the arl’s estate, hm?” Bannon shrugged. “All right, sure. I’m in.” He lifted the blade and sighted down its length.

Ah, he seemed to finally score one on the unflappable shem. Duncan looked at him, mouth crooked in consternation. He gave his head a shake. “That’s…?”

“My answer, yeah.” He remained glib just to annoy the man futher.

“Uh, to paraphrase: ‘You don’t exactly fill me with confidence.'”

Bannon grinned. “What do you want? For me to leap to my feet, raise my sword heavenward, and swear by the Maker and Blessed Andraste that I ‘henceforth shall pledge my life and honor to the service of the Grey Wardens!’?” He punctuated the heroic speech by deepening and rounding his voice, imitating a knight in a street play. Then he gave Duncan a look of askance.

Duncan’s head dropped, bobbing on his neck. He rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “No. I suppose that’s asking a bit much.” Then the human looked piercingly at him. “But some form of sincerity would be most reassuring.”

Bannon shrugged again. “You know as well as I do — I don’t have anywhere else to go. Almost-certain death nonwithstanding, joining the Grey Wardens would be the best thing for me.”

The human nodded. He’d have to settle for that. “Well, let’s get some sleep.” He turned to his bedroll beside the fire.

“Don’t we have to keep watch?” Bannon asked with concern. They always kept watch in the stories.

“For what?” asked Duncan, already rolling himself into his blanket.

“You know — bandits?”

“Most bandits around here are human. Humans can’t see in the dark,” Duncan said. “So if there are any out there, stumbling around, flashing torches and lanterns, we’re sure to be wakened by them.”

Bannon looked around as he slid the sword into its sheath and went to his own blankets laid out on the ground. “What about bears?”

Duncan sighed and turned over onto one side. “There are no bears. They only live in the deep forest.”

“This is a forest,” Bannon insisted, eyeing the very dark, brooding trees beyond the campfire’s light.

“This is a woodland.” Duncan’s voice drifted over the murmuring crackle of the banked fire. He seemed to be losing some more of his unflappable patience. “We’re not twenty yards from the Imperial Highway; this is all farmland and pastures through here.”

“Aren’t there inns along the road? Why can’t we stay at one?”

“As I mentioned, the Wardens’ pay is not luxurious. You’ll have to get used to living rough.” Duncan shifted in his bedroll, as if trying to avoid something annoying that was keeping him awake. “Bannon, just lie down and go to sleep. I promise, nothing bad will happen to you.”

Bannon made a face. Like a shem’s promise meant anything to him? He sat down on the bedroll, clutching the sheathed sword. Still, Duncan’s argument about being honorable held water. The guy wasn’t out to kill him — he clearly wanted to save Bannon for the darkspawn. The elf slid down into the weathered blankets. He stared up at the stars, telling himself this was just a nice, quiet night out in the pastoral countryside.

 

 

Except… it wasn’t quiet. There must have been an army of crickets, becaue the night air was filled with their two-note song. Scattered breezes caused the leaves to rustle in the treetops. Nightbirds gave occassional calls. Something out there went scampering through the grass and brush, not caring how much noise it made. The worst of it was, there were no walls, no boundaries to separate the immediate noises from those far away. Bannon felt as if he were sleeping on an open stage, where anyone — or anything — could see him for miles around.

He didn’t sleep well, and he was not good company the next morning. Duncan insisted on another sparring match, and Bannon accidentally cut him across the upper arm. Immediately, he regretted his carelessness, and apologized profusely. Duncan shrugged it off, telling him those were the perils of working with unseasoned swordsmen. They hadn’t the finesse and familiarity with their weapons to use them without hurting someone.

Bannon pressed his lips together firmly. He didn’t mention that he’d been sparring for years in Alarith’s secret school. He ought to be much better at it than actual fighting. The truth was, he resented Duncan, despite their logical debate about it last night. Something within him wanted to hurt the man. Now that he’d actually killed, he seemed to have a taste for bloodshed. But it was best not to mention any of this. As patient and affable as he seemed, Duncan was still a shem, and Bannon “only” an elf.

They caught up with the army’s supply train by noon, and travelled with them on the ancient and crumbling Imperial Highway as it turned south towards the ruins of Ostagar.

 

 


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