Bannon went past the mages’ section, up a ramp to an old, collonaded area that still had parts of its thick stone roof intact. The elf he’d asked had pointed out this way. He neared a corner and heard raised voices.
“We will not stand for this harassment by the Chantry!” There was a dark-skinned man with tightly braided hair standing there. He wore midnight blue robes that fell in orderly pleats to his ankles. He bore a staff with a curled tip that was bound in brass. He was arguing with another man, a fair-skinned warrior in worn splintmail armor.
“Yes,” the second man retorted, in glib irony, “I was harrassing you, by delivering a message.”
“We are here at the King’s behest,” the mage snarled. “We are not here at the beck and call of her Holiness, or her pet dogs!”
“Oh, now you’ve gone an insulted me.” The warrior sighed dramatically. “Here I thought we were getting along so well. I was even going to name one of my children after you,” he said, his voice tinged with regret… until he added: “–the grumpy one!”
Bannon snorted in amusement, and the mage shot him an evil look. He spared a withering glance at the soldier. “Fine!” the mage spat. “Consider your message delivered.” He stormed off.
“You know, one good thing about the Blight,” the warrior remarked fondly, “is how it brings people together in the spirit of brotherly love and harmony.” His mouth crooked in a sardonic grin. Then he blinked and focussed on Bannon. “Sorry. Were you looking for me?”
“I’m supposed to find this Grey Warden named Alistair?”
The human beamed a smile. “That’s me! I’m Alistair, the newest Grey Warden. What do you need?”
“Duncan said I should find you; you’d show me around?”
“Duncan’s back?” The smile broadened in glee. The shem almost bounded off like a boisterous puppy. He seemed to catch himself at the last second. “Oh! You must be the new recruit?”
Bannon nodded. “Yes, ser. My name’s Bannon.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Alistair extended a hand, and Bannon was so shocked, he found himself taking it. The Warden shook his hand with a warm, firm grip. There didn’t seem to be any artifice to this guy. His face was open and honest, his dark blond hair in a short military cut. There was a bit of fuzz on his chin, a square patch below his lower lip. Maybe he wasn’t all that used to shaving. Although he looked fully grown, something about him seemed very young. Perhaps it was just naivete. “Did Duncan bring anyone else?”
“No,” said Bannon, his curiosity piqued. “Who else were you expecting?”
“No one, really,” Alistair replied, his voice dropping from its exhuberant pitch. “It’s just that we were hoping to get more recruits. There are only two others here, besides you.” He shrugged with a moue of resignation. “It’s difficult to find suitable candidates. Not everyone is cut out to be a Grey Warden.”
Bannon narrowed his eyes. “So I’ve been told.”
The human either didn’t notice his ire, or he just didn’t acknowledge anything that didn’t fit into his cheerful world view. “Well, let’s do the grand tour, shall we? I’m sure we’ll run into the other recruits along the way.”
The camp was fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Instead of even rows and straight picket lines, it was divided by segments of walls, ramps, clumps of trees, and occassional constructions the army had raised, like the kennels and the stables. Each chunk of ruin was given over to whatever purpose fit it best. The mages had a neatly-enclosed L-shaped segment, guarded by Templars. Blue light flashed through chinks in the walls as mages worked on enchantments. A raised stone floor was fortified with a canvas roof and served as a long-term hospital area. A broad apron between two gutted towers served as a drilling area and lookout post. The King and the General had massive tents near there. There was also a huge pen for the dogs of the King’s elite Ash Warriors.
Alistair gravitated towards the pen. Bannon followed, a faint line appearing between his brows. He didn’t like the way the big, hairy shems were looking at him. They were uglier than their dogs.
Alistair leaned on the fence, and Bannon tensed in anticipation of him getting his face ripped off. But the mabari war hounds just crowded around, heavy jaws agape, their stumpy tails wagging madly. Bannon edged closer, putting the Warden between him and the Ash Warriors. He was very careful of where he stepped. Alistair grinned down at the slobbering hounds. “Who’s the King’s best warriors?” A chorus of arfs anwered him. “Yes you are!” he simpered. Bannon forestalled rolling his eyes by hitching his pack up higher on his shoulder. Maybe that’d give Alistair a hint that they should get a move on. Then again, subtletly might be lost on this guy. Alistair turned and said to him, “You know, when I was a boy, I spent almost all my time in the kennels.”
“Really?” That was interesting. Not in and of itself — that was just downright weird. But Bannon realized Alistair must be of noble blood, to have lived somewhere with kennels full of mabari. His estimation of the shem dropped another few notches.
“Yes,” Alistair said with a happy sigh. “Good times.” Bannon just stared politely at him until he shook himself and said, “Well, let’s see about getting you settled in. The Quatermaster is this way….” He tore himself away from the hounds. “Do you need any supplies?”
“Uhm,” Bannon hedged, moving alongside him. “I don’t have any money, ser,” he said quickly, sounding poor and a little embarassed about it. Of course he had money; he’d left home with thirty coppers in his pocket, and he’d managed to gain a bit more with some judicious investments in dice games while he’d travelled with the army. But he needn’t mention all that. Not when there was a noble shem to fleece. Wouldn’t want to burden the fellow’s mind with too many details. “Duncan said you could fix me up.”
“He did?” Alistair looked puzzled.
“Well, he said we do get paid,” Bannon assured him hastily. “But I just got here, and I haven’t gotten paid yet…. Of course, I can pay you right back when I do.”
“Oh! Well, I’m sure I have something here.” The shem fumbled with his belt pouch. “How much do you need?”
“Well, I don’t know, ser.” Bannon poured on the trustworthy innocent look. “I do have some things to trade. And I do have a sword already.”
Alistair nodded. “Well, here.” He just handed the money pouch to Bannon without even counting it. Score! “If that’s not enough… I guess we can work something out to get you some credit as a Grey Warden. We’re important, you know.” He winked.
Bannon slowly grinned. Clearly, Alistair had spent more time in the kennels than working with the family ledgers. “Thank you, ser. I’ll give you your change right away.”
For a moment, the human grimaced uncomfortably. “Look, Bannon… you don’t have to ‘ser’ me all the time.” He looked a bit sheepish. “The Wardens don’t stand a lot on rank and ceremony. Besides which, I hardly rank anything. I was only inducted a few weeks ago.”
“Thank you, ser.”
“Just ‘Alistair’ is fine. Really!” The human chuckled lightly, and he really seemed to mean it. Duncan had said that Bannon only knew the dregs of human society, and that there were decent shems. Maybe it was true. Or, maybe Alistair was just the exception that proved the rule.
Alistair shook his head with a smile. He liked Bannon — not that that was unusual; there was hardly a person he couldn’t get along with. But something about the elf seemed… ‘out of place,’ he supposed. Then again, he was an elf, amidst a whole lot of big, armored humans. He had to feel a bit sorry for the little fellow. Alistair vowed to do his best to make Bannon feel more comfortable.
The Quartermaster was a burly man, his bare arms thickened from lifting and carrying heavy boxes; his leather apron stained with whetstone oil and leather polish. His “store” was a corner formed by a wall of crates turned on their sides to serve as shelving, and the brick back of the forge next to it. Rickety planks served as tables and the counter. The place was a beehive of activity as soldiers came to trade or make purchases; and elven servants carried weapons and armor for repair, or made deliveries. Alistair and Bannon waited their turn.
“There’s Daveth,” Alistair said, pointing over to a young fellow in battered leather armor. He carried a finely-carved bow of pale wood over one shoulder. “He’s one of the other recruits.” Alistair left the queue to go talk to him.
Daveth was chatting to one of his friends — one of his lady friends. Or, rather, one of the women warriors he was hoping would become one of his lady friends. Alistair wasn’t sure if this one was Johanna or Clarise. Whoever it was, she just gave Daveth a pitying look, turned up her nose, and stalked off. Daveth called gamely after her, “We’ll be in battle soon. Don’t put it off too much longer! Death could be just around the corner!”
Alistair came up beside him, though Daveth didn’t notice for a minute as he craned his neck to watch the woman until she was out of sight. “Oh, that’s going well,” Alistair cracked. The other human just shot him a look. “Duncan’s back,” the Warden said, quickly switching topic.
“Oh, good. Are we finally going to through with this initiation thing?”
“Soon,” Alistair assured him. The lanky recruit had been chafing under all the secrecy surrounding the Grey Warden Joining ritual. Alistair couldn’t blame him, but neither could he tell him the details. “There’s another new recruit, too; his name is Bannon.” He gestured back towards the Quartermaster’s stand.
Bannon had gotten up to the counter and laid out a pair of leather cuirasses — one of which had seen better days. Alistair wondered who had been wearing it when it got that slash through the chest, and if the poor blighter had survived. The Quartermaster was still busy counting coins into his cash box.
Suddenly, a thin, red-haired elf darted right in front of Alistair and Daveth. “Sorry, sers!” He skidded to a halt, almost colliding with the Quartermaster’s ample backside. “The packet from the Red Brigade,” he announced, almost dropping the bulky package as he wrestled with it.
“Dammit, Pik!” the Quartermaster growled, turning. “Didn’t I send you down there half an hour ago? Have you been dawdling again?”
“No, ser! The Ash Warriors –” Whatever he’d been about to say was cut off as the burly human cuffed him hard across the face. With a yelp, Pik did drop the package.
Bannon looked down at the ground under the counter, biting his lip so hard, Alistair expected to see blood start dripping from it. The Warden glanced at Daveth, who only shrugged uncomfortably. Alistair’s face clouded with a scowl.
The Quartermaster cursed again. “Pick that up and put it on the bench where it belongs! Then get that sword to Lord Darrien; he’s been waiting all day, you lazy knife-ears!”
“Yes, ser!” The elf scrambled to obey.
“We do not keep the lords waiting!” The Quartermaster turned and saw Bannon. “What are you doing?” he snarled. “That counter is for paying customers! Deliveries are to be neatly packed and placed on the bench.” He glanced at the hilt sticking up over Bannon’s shoulder. “And what are you doing with that sword? The soldiers’ things are not toys for you to play with!”
Bannon had quit biting his lip, which is a good thing, because Alistair was sure he could hear the elf’s teeth grinding from here. “I’m with the Grey Wardens,” Bannon growled at the Quartermaster.
“What? I’ll have none of your nonsense, knife-ears!”
Alistair and Daveth moved up beside the elf. “He’s with the Grey Wardens,” Alistair said in a low, forceful voice. Daveth didn’t say anything; he just glared.
“Uhm….” The Quartermaster blinked, and his eyes darted between the three of them. “I didn’t know they took — er….” He lifted his shoulders and shook his head. “Well, no one told me, did they?” he asked defensively.
Bannon reined in his temper. “It’s all right,” he told Alistair and Daveth. They eased back a little while the elf traded in the used armor bits for a set of elf-fitted leathers. Alistair also helped him pick out a few other useful things: bedroll, bandages, whetstone. The haggling back and forth between the Quartermaster and elf made him dizzy, though.
At last, Bannon had his new gear paid for and packed up. Daveth introduced himself and offered to help carry some. But Alistair wasn’t done with the Quartermaster. “I don’t know where you learned your prejudices, but you’d better start respecting your elven helpers more.”
“I’m not prejudiced, ser,” the Quartermaster insisted. “There are a good many fine elves, but… a lot of ’em, they have this attitude. Like they owe us payback for being slaves, hundreds of years ago! And they do it any way they can manage: being lazy, lying, stealing, shirking their jobs…. They don’t think they should have to work; they think the world owes ’em something. If you don’t keep a tight rein on them, they’ll walk all over you.”
Alistair just shook his head in disgust and walked off after the other two.
The Wardens had a secluded area behind the hospital and prison section. They got Bannon settled into a tent pitched in a small cul-de-sac where the recruits were stationed. They met a few of the Grey Wardens briefly, but they didn’t exchange many words. The Wardens actually seemed particularly cold to Bannon, and he got the feeling they didn’t like elves. He was clearly the only one recruited to join their little cadre.
Alistair went off to find Duncan, and Daveth took Bannon around to the mess tent so they could get some dinner. They ran into Ser Jory, the other new recruit. He was a knight from up north, a hefty man with close-cropped hair. In fact, the hair bristling off his chin was longer than the fuzz on his head. Bannon wondered who would find such an ugly, mixed-up combination attractive, but apparently Ser Jory was married, so shem women must. Some of them, anyway.
Bannon figured Ser Jory for some noble right away, judging by the laye of fat covering his muscles. Clearly, he had grown up in a household full of elven servants, and went out of his way to assure Bannon that he thought the elf would make a fine Warden despite being a lesser race. Bannon just adopted a dull-eyed look and subservient air that many of the elves used when interacting with humans. Really, sometimes that was the easiest way to deal with them. They were so fat and stupid, they couldn’t even comprehend how insulting they were.
Daveth was clearly of a lower class and not apologetic about it. He was lanky and lean, dark-haired and scruffy. He propositioned at least three of the women in the mess tent, and struck out on all counts. What an amateur, Bannon thought. He couldn’t imagine any woman, even a near-sighted shem, being attracted to a man with stubble all over his face. He looked like someone had dragged his head through wet gravel and some of it had stuck.
As evening drew on, the recruits returned to their area. As they passed the rows of tents and fires of the Grey Wardens, one of the grizzled veterans gave them a jug of ale. “To celebrate your last night,” he said cryptically. The three gave him puzzled looks, but Bannon thanked him all the same.
“What was that about?” he muttered to Daveth, as they entered their little enclave.
“The initation, probably,” the rogue answered back. “Hopefully we’ll get it done tomorrow, and this mysterious mystery nonsense will be over.”
Alistair was there, tending the small fire, and he welcomed them. “Yes, it’s true,” he told them as they settled around him. “Tomorrow, we’re to head out into the Wilds for the first part of the initiation ritual. By tomorrow night, you’ll be Grey Wardens.” The normally ebullient human glanced down as he said this, and Bannon got the sense there was something else he wasn’t saying.
Ser Jory said, “Finally!”
“Are you going to tell us what this ‘Joining’ is, now?” Daveth asked, pouring some of their gifted ale into a mug and handing it to the Warden.
“No,” Alistair said carefully and firmly. “So you can stop asking. And stop trying to get me drunk so I’ll tell you.”
“Give that back, then!” The rogue made a grab for the mug, and Alistair yanked it out of his reach, laughing. Bannon and Jory scrounged up some mugs for themselves, and comandeered the ale before the other two spilled it all.
Alistair sipped at his drink. “Duncan will tell you what you need to know, tomorrow morning.” Daveth asked him several more questions, but that’s all the young Warden would say on the subject. “Really,” Alistair finally insisted. “Don’t you have anything else to talk about?”
Bannon raised his mug, indicating he had one. “I was just curious,” he said; “How did you guys get into this job?”
“Duncan recruited me,” Alistair said, the warmth he felt for their leader clear in his voice. “I was in training with the Templars. If you can believe that.” He finished off his ale and held his mug out for a refill.
“He recruited me, too,” said Ser Jory, while Daveth was busy filling Alistair’s mug. “I’m a knight in Highever. I was at a tournament in Redcliffe. Best in my division,” he proclaimed proudly.
“The heavy-weight division,” Daveth interjected with a snicker.
The knight snorted. “Greatsword, you ninny.” He seemed a bit flustered, confused how to handle the rogue’s teasing. “Afterward, Duncan asked me to join the Grey Wardens. The need was dire, and I agreed.”
“I’m from Amaranthine,” Daveth said. “Well, not originally, but that’s where I ended up. I won’t lie: Duncan saved my neck from the noose — literally, and at the last minute — with that Right of Conscription.” He rubbed his neck, eyes darkening with the memory. “Yes, I’m a crook and a thief.” He brightened. “But now I use my talents for the good of mankind.” He chuckled slyly and winked. “Knights and rogues, defending the virgins! I mean, ‘virtuous’!” Daveth raised his mug and took a long gulp.
Ser Jory gave him another indignant snort. Alistair only chuckled. Then he looked at Bannon. “So what is it you do?”
Bannon glanced at each of the human faces looking at him with open curiosity. Hesitantly, he said, “I’m a carpenter.” He looked down at his mug. He couldn’t tell them the truth — if word got back to Arl Urien, neither the King nor the Grey Wardens would stop the powerful noble from taking him and having him executed.
The shems exchanged dubious glances. “And…,” Alistair probed, “why did Duncan recruit you, exactly?”
“There was a brawl,” Bannon said, not looking up. “I had the most knock-downs.” He shrugged uncomfortably.
Yet again, the humans exchanged looks. This was not doing a thing to win over their admiration. Well, he doubted that ‘Oh, and I killed a high-ranking noble’ would help matters any.
“Care to elaborate?” Alistair asked again, looking confused and embarassed at being confused.
Bannon took a deep breath and hoped the story he would come up with would satisfy them. “There was a wedding,” he began. “Actually, a double wedding.” He left out the fact that he was in it. “As it started, the one bride noticed on of the other bride’s bridesmaids had on a dress that she had wanted to buy, but she didn’t have enough money at the time, so she asked the tailor to hold it for her. He said he would, but she was late with the money, and his brother was courting the other woman, so he sold it to her, instead. Well, they started to get into that.” He didn’t bother elaborating or qualifying his pronouns. Confused shems asked fewer questions, for fear of looking stupid. Rapidly, Bannon continued. “Then it came out that the other groom’s brother had been making time with the other bride the night before. That’s when the real fighting broke out, and the families got into it, and there was quite a ruckus, and the cake was demolished. Well, anyway, I was the last one left standing when the City Guard got there, so they were talking about arresting me, but Duncan took care of that and brought me here.” He really didn’t mention the details of all that.
The humans stared at him, barely blinking, for two whole minutes. Bannon gave them the wide-eyed innocent look.
“Serious?” Alistair finally asked.
Bannon nodded. “Oh, I know street fighting,” he assured them. “I can take care of myself.”
Somehow, they didn’t look convinced. It hurt Bannon’s ego, but it was all for the best, really. If they heard rumors of him killing anyone, they’d be more likely to scoff. “Well…,” he added, feigning reluctance only partially. “I guess I could do with some sparring. If we have time.”
“Definitely,” said Alistair. He frowned into his mug.
Daveth grinned affably at Bannon. “I’ll show you a thing or two,” he offered.
“What, like stabbing people in the back?” Ser Jory accused with a moue of disdain.
“Not everyone can wield a huge blade, ser knight,” Daveth told him humbly. Then his hand darted out to poke Jory’s ample stomach. “Not all of us are big enough,” he teased. “We need some way to keep up.”
“Lay off,” the knight blustered, slapping at Daveth’s hand.
“So, hmm….” Daveth gave Bannon and appraising look, squinting one eye. “You’re a carpenter. Should we get you a hammer to fight with?” He laughed good-naturedly, and Bannon joined him.
“Well, I do carve wood, so I am good with knives,” the elf said with a grin.
“And a sword is just a really big knife!” The scruffy human grinned back. “We’ll have you sorted in no time!”
The army settled down for the night, like a vast dragon curling up to roost, twitching here and there, trying to get comfortable and relax. Alistair picked his way carefully in the dark to the orange glow of the Warden watchfire. Duncan sat at the mouth of his tent, staring into the flames. Harsh shadows carved lines of worry in his face. By daylight, he looked as strong and impassive as a marble statue of a guardian. But the night was unkind, and the cracks began to show. He seemed lost in thought, oblivious as the former Templar came up on him. Then he looked up, and his face softened with his fondness for his young protege.
Alistair smiled back and settled to the ground next to him, with a slight grunt. He waved off the bottle Duncan offered. “No thanks. I had my ration with the recruits.”
The Warden Commander nodded and set it down. “How are they getting along?” he asked. “Will they be ready for the excursion into the Wilds tomorrow?”
“Um…,” Alistair hesitated. “I’m not too sure about this new guy, Bannon.” He picked up a small clod of dirt and turned it nervously in his fingers until it crumbled into so much dust. Alistair liked Duncan a lot; they were good friends. But he couldn’t help also feeling intimidated by the older man’s rank and experience. It was rather like having a caring but stern father, or so Alistair imagined. Authority, he could deal with — behind the rigid discipline of the Templar Knights, or the cocky irreverance that was always just shy of real insubordination. But he also cared about Duncan’s feelings, and didn’t want to the man to think less of him. It was a tricky dichotomy to balance. “I was just wondering,” Alistair ventured cautiously. “I’m not trying to second guess your judgement or anything — but why, exactly, did you recruit him?”
Duncan nursed his mug of ale. Without looking up, he said carefully, “He saw an injustice. And at great personal risk, he set out to rectify that injustice.” He took a slow sip.
Alistair puzzled that one over. He couldn’t quite figure it out, so he pushed onward again. “At a brawl, at a wedding?” No, the picture was not becoming any clearer in the young Warden’s mind.
Duncan chuckled. “Something like that.”
Now Alistair gnawed at his lower lip. That, he understood: there was something they weren’t telling him. He shook his head. “Sorry, but I have to ask, if you want me to take care of these recruits.” Lead them, is what Duncan wanted. Alistair shied away from that thought. “I understand Templars and knights, and even hardened criminals, but… a carpenter?”
This time, Duncan hand to laugh out loud, though he kept his voice down in the darkness.
Alistair stopped his nervous fiddling and pressed his hands together, squeezed one fist inside the other. He tried to not feel angry; Duncan was not one of the bullies from Alistair’s childhood. He wasn’t laughing at him. Exactly. “Call me stupid,” he said, though it came out harsher than he meant; “I just don’t get it. Can he even fight? I mean a real fight, not brawling bridesmaids.”
Duncan laughed again at Alistair’s irrepressible wit. Then he coughed to collect himself and replied, “City elves aren’t permitted weapons and training. Well, unless they are retained by a noble family as house guards.”
“Meaning….” Alistair’s eyes flicked back and forth as he traced through his thoughts. “It’s illegal for carpenters to learn to use a sword.”
“Mm hm.” Duncan sipped at his ale.
“So… if he did learn, he wouldn’t come out and say so?”
Alistair mulled this over, then decided to just come out and say it. “All right, are you doing this enlightened mystic bit just to annoy me?”
“It’s the prerogative of crotchety old teachers everywhere, isn’t it?” Duncan said with a grin, his teeth showing white against his dark beard. “How else are we to supposed to amuse ourselves?”
“Ha-ha,” Alistair retorted, but without a sting. He suppressed his own smile. “So can he fight or not?”
“Yes. He can.” Duncan was serious once more. “I daresay he knows more about ‘real’ fighting than our illustrious knight.”
His young friend nodded. “All right. I trust your judgement.”
“You don’t need to, Alistair,” the Commander told him. “Test him for yourself. Trust your own judgement.”
“Well, I don’t want to waste time,” the Templar said quickly. “If he’s good enough for you, that’s good enough for me. I shouldn’t have questioned you.” Of course Duncan knew better! Alistair was the inexperienced one, with no worldly wisdom or knowledge to speak of.
Duncan sighed. “When are you going to learn to make your own decisions and to have confidence in them?”
The Warden sounded almost bitterly disappointed. Alistair deflected it with his ready humor. “When I don’t have crotchety old commanders to tell me what to do, ser!” He snapped out a silly salute with a swirling filigree and forced a laugh. Of course it didn’t escape him that they were on a battlefield, in a very real war, against a merciless foe. But he couldn’t imagine Duncan dead, he couldn’t think of it, because that way led to madness. If the unthinkable did happen, he would deal with it then. Or, more likely, he’d be dead. If any Wardens perished, it would be the younger recruits on the front lines. He took morbid comfort in this thought.
“Well, I should be getting to my tent,” he said, levering up to his feet and dusting his hands off. Another good thing about the Grey Wardens — they really didn’t stand on rank and formalities all the time. He didn’t need to wait for his superior to officially dismiss him. “Good night,” he told his friend. “Oh, and don’t forget, tomorrow night is card night!”
“Good night, Alistair,” said Duncan, a smile creasing his beard. “And I look forward to fleecing you all again.”