The Witch of the Wilds


 
(Warnings: foul language.)

 

After some makeshift cleaning and patching-up, the Warden group looked years older than they had that morning. Armor was patched with rags and cord, and stained with dried blood. Each Warden bore a bandage or two. Daveth was still limping, Jory’s shoulders were stiff. Bannon felt as if he’d been rolled by a couple of street thugs.

Bannon’s bow had taken a bad cut, and he feared it would snap if he tried to draw it. He and Daveth got into a discussion of how best to repair it, but both had to agree it would take some resin or laminate. Alistair suggested using tree sap, which was actually a brilliant idea. Except neither the humans nor the city elf had any idea which trees might yield some. After slicing a few random ones, they gave up.

The terrain became steeper, and the path they were following turned away from the lake. They continued along it, hoping it would lead to an easier way to the far shore. But it soon petered out into a rolling field, bordered by hills. “Great,” Alistair grumbled.

“Hey, guys…,” said Bannon. “Oh, listen; I’m gonna go… you know. Over in those bushes. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.”

“You couldn’t think of that before?” Jory complained.

“Just be careful,” Alistair said. “Don’t stray too far. There shouldn’t be any darkspawn about, but we don’t know what else could be lurking out here.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll scream if I need you.” The elf ducked through some underbrush.

“And don’t use any poison ivy for mop up!” Daveth called cheerfully.

 

 

Bannon pushed through the brambles until he thankfully found a tiny path winding through them. He zig-zagged up a steep rise, then the bushes ended at a steeper, rocky slope. Grabbing some of the outcroppings to help haul himself up, he hurried to the top. He only had a few minutes before the humans began to wonder where he was. He hadn’t given this magic wish thing much thought, but he was pretty sure the overlook was up here, and there was no harm in giving it a try.

He decided he would ask the spirit to free Soris. If it couldn’t grant boons like that, he’d ask for a magical ring of protection. That ought to come in handy during this war. And if that weren’t possible, a handful of gems would go a long way into buying such things.

Puffing from the climb, Bannon came out on a broad hump of land — yes, overlooking the lake. He stepped out onto a flat boulder, and came upon a pile of stones. These were dusted with old ashes. Well, he thought, someone believes this legend. But if it were true, wouldn’t it be more widely known? No, not if only a bunch of barbarians used it.

Bannon pulled out the pouch of ashes and scanned over the note one more time. It didn’t specify any magic words or ritual, so he just composed himself reverently and strewed the ashes over the stones. A faint breeze caught a puff of grey and carried it over the edge to drift down to the water below. Bannon leaned forward to peer down, hoping to see the water spirit rise.

Nothing happened.

Feeling stupid, Bannon opened his mouth to entreat the spirit (if the damned thing even existed), when a sepulchural voice grated from behind him. “Who dares summon Gazerath?”

With a smile, and all the humility he could muster, Bannon turned to face the spirit, words of sympathy and respect on his lips, the best to wheedle a gift out of it.

 

 

After the elf had disappeared into the bushes, the three humans stood around a few minutes. Alistair jiggled his leg nervously. “I wish he hadn’t mentioned that.”

Ser Jory sighed. “All right, but we’ll go in shifts. It’ll be safer.”

“Well, I call dibs on the first shift.”

Daveth jumped in with, “And I get second.” Ser Jory just rolled his eyes at them. “And you, Ser Big-Bladder, can go last.”

“Fine. At least we–”

He was interrupted by a scream. “Augh! Help!”

The trio jumped. “So much for safe,” Daveth grumbled. Alistair led the charge into the bushes. The thorny vines scraped at his armor, but he barrelled through them. The Warden and his charges scrambled up the rocky slope and burst out at the top to see Bannon menaced by a transparent shadow. The elf slashed at it with his blade, but it appeared to pass right through the wraith without any effect. The creature lunged at Bannon, its spindly talons flexed. It raked them across the elf’s chest, and Bannon was thrown backwards off the overhang. A scream followed him down, cut off abruptly, and then there was a splash.

Alistair’s eyes flew wide and he attacked. The wraith was more corporeal now, having pushed fully through the Veil from the Fade. The swords of the three humans quickly pierced it on all sides. It went down, dissolving into a dark grey mist and falling to the rock as ash.

Alistair dropped his sword and shield, and began yanking off his helm, his boots, and the heavier pieces of his armor.

“Do you think he can swim?” Jory asked, peering hesitantly towards the drop-off.

Alistair didn’t care; he wasn’t about to lose one of the recruits Duncan had entrusted him with, not without a fight. Hell, the little guy had saved all their asses less than half an hour ago! Stripped down to his arm and leg guards, shirt and pants, Alistair raced to the edge of the outcropping. He stopped dead, teetering on the edge, as a voice shouted from below: “Do not leap in to save me!”

“Bannon!” Alistair dropped to his hands and knees and looked down. The elf was several feet below, hanging from a spindly bush, his legs dangling in the air. “How did you–? What made that splash?”

“If you don’t get me back up there in ten seconds, you’ll never know!”

“Uh — right!” Alistair turned to the others. “Rope? Something?”

“Coming up!” Daveth dug through his satchel and produced some rope. “Thank you, slavers!”

In a few minutes, they had the elf back safe and sound — minus a few bruises and scratches. Bannon swatted Alistair’s hand away as the Warden tried to solicitously brush him off. Alistair bent and started putting his armor back on.

“What was that thing?” Daveth asked.

Alistair looked up while tugging his boots on. “Ash wraith. A minor demon from the Fade.”

“What was it doing here?” Ser Jory asked, looking around for more.

“I guess it took exception to me ‘watering’ its ashes,” Bannon said, gesturing at the stone pile. The knight snorted.

“What are you doing up here, anyway?” Alistair asked him — not accusingly, just curious. “I thought you were just going into the bushes a little way.”

“Well, I was,” Bannon replied. “But they were a bit thorny…. And I thought, you know, up here might be a good vantage point to get a look at the dome.” He moved back towards the edge and swept a hand over the vista. “Which it is. Look, there’s a hole in the roof on this side. If we had some kind of boat….”

Alistair stood up. “Give me a hand with this, would you?” he asked Jory. The knight moved to help him with the straps of his splint mail. “And what was that splash?” the Warden demanded from Bannon.

“I hit some rocks on the way down.”

Alistair had to admire the elf’s luck. Well, maybe not, considering that he managed to piss a demon off by… you know. That was just downright funny. In a non-funny sort of way.

The Templar studied the dome with the others, and had to admit defeat. It stood deep in the lake and, hole or no hole, they had no boat. He took a quick poll; the two humans knew how to swim — some. The elf did not.

“We’ll have to let Duncan know,” Alistair decided. “And… I don’t know, I guess find some way to get a boat out here.”

“You don’t still think those treaties are in there?” Jory asked incredulously. “They have to be washed away or soaked to mush by now.”

“Not if they’re in a sealed chest,” Alistair replied firmly. “It could be watertight.” He really hated letting his mentor down. With all the problems between the Grey Wardens and the Ferelden government, their low numbers and scarcity of recruits, those treaties could have helped Duncan immeasureably.

“Are we going back, then?” Daveth asked. “I haven’t killed my darkspawn yet. Not on my own, anyhow.”

“I don’t know why you have to be so picky,” Ser Jory complained again.

“I’m a connoisseur, ser knight! Of fine women. And hideous monsters.”

“Sometimes in the same night,” the elf chimed in. “He’s still looking for a female darkspawn.”

“Oy!”

Alistair snorted a chuckle. “All right.” He cast around, trying to pick up traces of the Taint nearby. He didn’t think he felt anything, but something — call it a hunch — urged him to go on a little further. “Maybe this wasn’t the whole of the outpost. Maybe there’s… something else nearby.”

“We could head around the lake,” Daveth suggested.

Alistair squinted into the distance. The lake was huge, maybe almost a mile long. And the sun was nearing the tops of the western treeline. “I don’t think we have time for that. We’ll need to head back soon.”

So they made their way down from the outcropping and back to the field and hills. To their left, the slope climbed high into the sky. Footsore, they avoided that and continued in a southeasterly direction, their shadows ahead of them.

The Wilds seemed particularly quiet, until they startled a crow from its treetop perch. Cawing loudly in a rude complaint, it glided overhead and disappeared behind a knee of the tall hill. Alistair watched its flight a moment, then stopped. “Do you hear something?”

“Sounds like d– er, wolves,” Bannon said, looking in the same direction.

“But what are they attacking?” Daveth asked, when the beasts didn’t charge over the foothill towards them.

The four looked at each other. “Darkspawn.”

They charged up the slope. Puffing, Jory gasped, “I thought we were avoiding going uphill.”

“Less talk, more running,” Alitair gasped himself. He crested the rise and stopped, almost slamming into Bannon and Daveth. The elf had his sword out, the roge his bow, but it wasn’t drawn. “What are you doing?”

“Letting their numbers thin out,” Daveth said. He thrust his chin at where the darkspawn and wolves were battling it out. “Whoever wins, we still got to fight them.”

“Prefer fighting darkspawn,” the elf muttered.

Jory came wheezing up beside Alistair. “Sounds… good plan.”

“But they’re just innocent animals.” Alistair bit his lip. He didn’t want to see the wolves suffer, but… there were a lot of things in this war he didn’t like. Mabari sent barrelling into the darkspawn horde, biting Tainted flesh, getting split open on axes and swords; or men and women held down my comrades as they sawed off an infected arm or leg that even the mages couldn’t heal. People dying. Screams in the night as those who fell in battle, but weren’t quite dead, were dragged off to feed the Horde. “The darkspawn will slaughter them.”

“Good point.” Daveth said, clearly without Alistair’s depth of feeling. “I don’t mind evening up the odds a bit.” He raised his bow slowly. “And if I get a nice, clear shot….”

Alistair couldn’t see anything being clear in the tumult of fur and jaws, leaping bodies, falling swords. But the bowman apparently did, and he let fly. Daveth grunted in satisfaction as the shaft bored itself into a genlock’s flank. The darkspawn didn’t seem to notice. But Daveth drew again, missing once, but planting arrows in the genlock’s neck. If he played his cards right, he could slay this one right now. His target staggered to its knees.

In a few more moments, the wolves lay dead or dying, and the darkspawn turned on the Warden group. “Time to earn our keep!” Alistair grunted as he and Ser Jory ran to meet them. There was a rumple in the hillside, and the two forces clashed in the declivity between peaks. Bannon ran around Alistair’s off-side to surprise a hurlock when he appeared from behind the human’s shield. Bannon stabbed his sword into the darkspawn’s side, under its ribs, and the blade bit satisfyingly deep. The beast gurgled and died, and the elf looked eagerly for the next one.

All the darkspawn had wounds aplenty already, from wolf bites and arrows embedded in their stinking flesh. Alistair and Jory were making short work of them. Bannon slipped around behind the engaged creatures, stabbing and slicing at any weak, unguarded target. Now this was his idea of a fight! He grinned ferally.

Until a black arrow shaft whipped past his face and embedded itself in the back of his next target. Bannon whirled, crouching low. Two more tall hurlocks had crested the upper rise and were firing into the fray. Shit! he thought as he dodged, and arrow aimed at his heart took a gouge out of his left bicep. Suddenly, the ‘stand back and pick them off’ strategy didn’t seem like such a wonderful thing. He ran along the floor of the declivity, behind a screen of bushes. It was a long way around, but it was better than charging uphill into the teeth of the darkspawn arrows.

Alistair felled another hurlock and paused for breath. Daveth had joined them with his dancing blades, and between him and Ser Jory, they accounted for two more of the spawn. Something thudded against Alistair’s shield. “Archers!” he yelled in warning, bringing it up to protect his head. “Split up!”

Alistair ran to his left, away from the other two. Daveth followed. “Split up, my Great Nanny’s left teat!” the rogue spit. “You’re the one with the shield!”

“We can’t both hide behind it!”

“We can, if you just hunker down and let me get my bow out.”

“Oh.”

So they did, and the shield really wasnt decent cover for two men, but Daveth shot from behind Alistair, and they were as small a target as could be.

One of the hurlock archers tumbled backwards over the hillcrest. Alistair suddenly noted the absence of the elf again. Blast it, if he were going to look out for the little fellow, he’d have to keep better tabs on him. As for Ser Jory, the knight lay face down in the declivity, crawling for the scant cover of some bushes. Alistair and Daveth were too large and tempting a target anyway; they seemed to be drawing all the fire. Alistair ducked as an arrowhead struck his helm just above his eye, drawing a spark as it skidded off the steel. He kept his head down.

Daveth finally dropped the last archer. A few moments later, Bannon appeared where the hurlock had been and waved the all-clear. Alistair unfolded himself stiffly with a grunt, his joints popping.

Daveth rolled his shoulders and put up his bow. “Let’s nAb me my ‘trophy,'” he said, “and go home.” They found the darkspawn Daveth had first brought down, and he proceeded to collect its blood. Ser Jory joined them, leaning on his sword to catch his breath. Alistair looked around for Bannon.

“Hey, guys!” The elf waved at them from the very top of the tall hillside. “Up here!”

“Oh, now what?” the hefty knight complained. Alistair gamely climbed the hill, Daveth behind him. Jory muttered a curse and followed laboriously, complaining underbreath all the way.

“I figure out what happened to that tower,” Bannon told them cheerfully as they neared the crest. He paused a moment to reflect how difficult it must be to lug all that bulky human weight up a hill, and thanked the Maker he was an elf. The humans staggered the last few feet to the top. Bannon could barely wait; he headed over towards the ruins he’d found. “Look, the tower wasn’t built down there. It fell over from up here, rolled down the hill,” he gestured broadly, defining the motion of the tower, like some gigantic felled tree; “and landed down there in the lake.” He grinned.

“That’s nuts,” Ser Jory wheezed.

“Maybe,” Bannon said, “but the foundation of the tower is still here.

The top of the hill was broad and flat and crowed with a ring of stone. The foundation of the tower did look somewhat like a tree stump, a few jags of wall sticking up at the far side like splintered wood. Part of a spiral ramp led down from nowhere to the rough floor that was overgrown with grass. One third of the ruin lay deeper than that, the floor torn away. “Best of all,” Bannon finished, gesturing grandly; “the vault is intact. Well, except for the roof and most of the walls. But that just makes it easier to get into.”

Alistair’s eyes lit up and he pushed forward to see. The Warden group picked their way over the ruin floor and down the inside wall. Age-loosened mortar had given way and let fall several clumps of stone block that served as rough steps. They rounded the one wall still standing and peered into the vault. Alistair let out an audible groan.

There was a chest in the vault all right, and it looked as if it had been a big, fancy one, too. But now, it was only so much kindling.

Daveth went over and nudged a piced with his foot, flipping it up to reveal a round design with stylized wings carved into it. “Would this be that Grey Warden symbol Duncan mentioned?”

“Yeah,” Alistair said glumly.

“That’s it, then,” Jory added. “Some bear ages ago smashed the chest and ate the treaties.”

“Or they blew away and some Chasind used them to wipe his arse,” Daveth added cheerfully. He went over and clapped Alistair on the arm. “Don’t worry, mate. Duncan said it’d be a long shot.”

“Yeah,” the Warden said again, still glum with disappointment.

“I don’t think so,” Bannon said. Ser Jory and Daveth looked at him. The knight’s face was full of impatience and ire. Bannon ignored him and went over to the broken pieces. “Why would a bear attack a chest?”

“Looking for food,” Ser Jory snorted, as if the elf were a dimwit. “There probably wasn’t anything left in it but dust, anyway.”

Bannon crouched and examined one of the wood slabs, running his fingertips over each side and edge. “This is thick veneer,” he said. He prodded the main shell of the chest. “And these hinges are set flush, so it probably was watertight. This,” he said, turning the raw edge of the wood towards them, “was broken recently. It isn’t mushy or soft at all. Besides, in this climate, moss and bugs should have gotten to it. No,” he mused speculatively. “this can’t be more than… I don’t know. A few weeks old.” He stood and turned to the gaping humans. Heh, he thought to himself, carpenter that! They stared at him a full minute.

“Well,” Daveth ventured slowly; “that still doesn’t rule out a barbarian with a big club looking for an arse-rag.”

Alistair shot him an evil look. “If this is recent, there may still be some clue as to who took them, and where,” he said hopefully. “Let’s have a better look around.” The group cast about, but none of them were real trackers, and nothing jumped out at them. After several minutes, they had to admit they were probably obscuring any sign that a professional could have read, if Duncan wanted to send another expedition up here. So they climbed back out to the ruin’s main floor.

They stood about a moment, checking their weapons and gear. Bannon had his helmet off to re-tie his hair back, but even so, he didn’t hear anyone come up on them.

“And what,” a chill voice cut through the air, “do we have here?” The Warden recruits turned to see a woman approaching them. She stalked down a ramp that led… from nowhere but open sky. Her boots were tall, dark leather, soft upon the ancient stones. Dark pants clung tightly to her legs, while a long skirt of leather straps quietly hissed and tapped together as her limbs moved. One arm was bare, decorated with a single leather strap bearing feathers and fur and beads; the other was sheathed in more leather, from the fingerless gloves on her hand to a small shoulder guard trimmed in black feathers that sparked green irridescence in the fading light. She wore no shirt, but a maroon fall of cloth that laid over her shoulders and covered her breasts and upper stomach. At her throat, more beads and claws hung on a leather strap, as well as a strand of hammered silver disks with incised patterns. Her dark hair was bound up. A crooked wooden stave was slung across her back. Her eyes were an eerie golden shade, almost glowing with inner light. “Vultures, come to pick clean bones long dead?” She pinned them with her unblinking cat-eyes. None of the men moved or spoke. Like a panther, smooth and confident, she walked between them to the rim of the ruined tower and turned back. “I have been watching your progress for some time, now. ‘Where do they go?’ I wondered. ‘What is it they seek, here in my Wilds?'” She paused now, hands on her hips, awaiting their reply.

“Don’t answer,” Alistair warned in a low voice. “She looks Chasind. There are probably others… watching.”

“Oh,” the woman replied, her keen ears having picked up his voice, “afraid a horde of barbarians will swoop down on you?” She gestured dramatically, raising her arms as if in attack.

“Yes…,” Alistair agreed sheepishly. “Swooping… is bad.”

Bannon shot him a look. “We’re Grey Wardens,” he said confidently. “We’re here to stop the Blight.”

“Just the four of you? All by yourselves?”

“There are more of us,” the elf assured her. “We are here on a mission.”

Then Daveth spoke up, his voice thin with nervous tension. “She’s a witch of the Wilds, she is. She’ll turn us into toads, for sure!” Ser Jory bit his lip, looking from his companion to the strange woman with widening eyes.

“Barbarians and witches,” she commented dryly. “What wild tales you believe.” She tilted her head and thrust her chin towards Bannon. “And you, elf? Do you believe such campfire stories?”

Bannon glanced left and right at the humans. Then he shrugged and looked up at the woman. “I’m just a back-street city elf. I don’t know anything about barbarians and cannibals and witches and mages.” He shrugged again, spreading his hands palm up. “If you want me to know, you’ll have to tell me.”

The woman narrowed her eyes. “And if I should say that I am, indeed, a witch?”

Bannon spread his hands with a soft smile. “Then you don’t need a horde of barbarians to threaten us.”

“Do I seem threatening?” She smiled a cold, snake’s smile. “Let us be cordial, then. What is your name?”

“Bannon.” He gave her a polte nod of his head and kept his eyes fixed on hers. It was difficult, not only because they were eerily cat-like, but because he felt for sue that the cloth she was wearing on her chest was in imminent danger of swinging wide and revealing more skin. But if he stared at that, he’d be in big trouble, he knew. “Pleased to meet you.” He smiled faintly, just a hint. If he overplayed it, it would seem glaringly fake.

“Well, it seems civilized folk can be civil.” She seemed to unbend a notch and her brow relaxed out of her lowered scowl.

Encouraged, Bannon gestured to his companions. “This is Alistair. And D–” He was suddenly cut off by the rogue hissing frantically, Don’t tell her my name! –“Dufus,” he recovered smoothly. “And Ser Jory.”

The knight sketched a slight bow. “Ma’am,” he said deferentially.

“You may call me Morrigan.” She crossed her arms over her midriff, cupping her elbows in her hands. “And you still have not answered my question.”

Alistair narrowed his eyes. “And you haven’t answered ours. Are you a mage? The Chantry demans an an accounting of all Mages in Ferelden,” he growled. “It’s the Law.”

“How odd,” Morrigan retorted, her voice dropping to another degree of chilly. “I thought you were a Grey Warden, but you sound remarkably like a Templar.”

“I was trained as a Templar before being recruited.”

“That explains much,” she retorted sourly.

Bannon stepped in before firebolts and swords started flying. “Look,” he said, putting a placating hand on Alistair’s forearm; “this is the Wilds. If she’s Chasind, that mean’s she’s not Ferelden. I’m sure they have their own laws.”

“The Kingdom of Ferelden encompasses this entire area,” Alistair argued hotly. Was this guy trying to get them killed?

Bannon turned to face him squarely, his back to the witch. His lip pinned under his teeth in intensity, he made a sharp slicing motion with one hand at his throat. Alistair’s face took on a mulish cast, and Bannon glared angrily at him.

“Look,” Ser Jory said, his eyes darting between his companions. “If she really is a witch, you want to make her mad?”

“Are you here on some sort of witch hunt?” Morrigan demanded. “Or are you merely in pursuit of that which is here no longer?”

“Here no longer?” Alistair frowned, picking up on the woman’s words. “As in they were here? And you took them? You’re some sort of… sneaky witch-thief!” Bannon could hardly believe his ears. Alistair was acting like a dog when another intruded upon its territory. The elf didn’t know what kind of training Templars had against mages, but Alistair clearly lacked a healthy fear of them. “Those treaties belong to the Grey Wardens,” the man growled. “I suggest you hand them over to us, right now.”

Morrigan’s scowl had returned. “Suggest all you like, fool,” she spat. “‘Twas not I who took them.”

“You–!” Alistair froze in mid-exclamation. “Oh.” At least now he sounded properly sheepish.

Bannon shot him another warning look. Then he turned to Morrigan. “Can you tell us who did?”

“‘Twas my mother.”

“Your mother?” all four men said at once. Morrigan arched a brow at them.

“Is that some kind of joke?” Bannon asked hesitantly.

“Only if you know my mother,” the witch answered cryptically, with a put-upon air. “Come with me, then.” She turned to slip out through a gap in the old ruin’s wall. “I will take you to her.” She turned back, her face in shadow except the brilliant golden eyes. “If you wish to ask for your treaties back, that is.”

“We shouldn’t go,” Daveth gulped. “It’s a trick! She’ll have us all in the pot, she will!”

“It can’t be worse than slogging through this swamp,” Ser Jory griped. “A good, hot bath sounds like just the thing about now.”

“It’s getting dark,” Alistair said hesitantly.

Bannon went after the witch, letting the others decide to follow or leave without him. “You want your treaties, don’t you? Well, come on.” He slipped through the gap in the stones. “Thank you, Morrigan,” he said softly to her.

 

The Wardens followed Morrigan to an overhung path that led to a clearing by a small pond. A chorus of frogs suddenly went silent as the group approached a small but sturdy shack.

“Mother,” Morrigan called out; “we have guests.”

A grey-haired old woman exited the shack. Her hair was worn mid-length and still had the thickness of a younger woman’s. And though her face and hands bore the wrinkles and gnarls of age, her step was light and strong, her spine straight. She didn’t seem to have any weapons, not even staff or wand. Her gold-grey eyes ran over the young warriors, making them shiver.

“Mother,” Morrigan said, turning to gesture at the men. “These are the Grey Wardens. The elf, Bannon. Alistair. That’s Ser Jory and…,” she stopped and fixed Daveth with a penetrating stare. “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

Daveth gulped audibly. “D-Dufus, mum.” He flushed.

“Dufus,” Morrigan repeated, turning back to her mother with a catty smile.

The old woman threw her head back and laughed. It sounded disconcertingly like a cackle. “And you can call me Flemeth.”

“Flemeth?” Daveth’s reddened face quickly drained to pale white. “The Flemeth?” His voice turned into a horase ghost of its former self. “It’s the Witch of the Wilds! I told you,” he moaned. “She’ll have us in the stewpot for sure!”

“Oh please,” the woman called Flemeth scoffed. “Why would I ruin a lovely dinner with you lot? I have your precious papers here….” She dug around in a large bag she had looped over one shoulder. “Somewhere…. And before you go barking at me, the magic seal wore off ages ago. I was keeping them safe for you.”

Alistair froze, his mouth half open, his hand half-raised as if to — well, start barking again. “Oh,” finally came out of his mouth. “You kept them safe.”

“I just said that, didn’t I?” Flemeth griped. “Not too swift, is he?”

“He’s a Templar,” Morrigan said.

“Former Templar,” Alistair interjected.

“That explains a lot,” said Flemeth.

“What does that mean, exactly?” Alistair demanded, scowling in confusion.

But Flemeth avoided the question by producing a stack of thick, folded papers and shoving them at the Warden. “Here, now. Be off with you, then. Don’t have time to be lollygagging around; you’re in such a rush.”

Alistair stared in disbelief at the treaties. Bannon stepped forward to thank Flemeth, and Ser Jory echoed his words.

“What a nice boy,” the old woman said, beaming at the knight. Then her face went blank and she looked away as if dismissing his existence. “So unimportant in the grand scheme of things,” she muttered. She closed one eye and stuck her tongue in one cheek, peering at Bannon. The elf tried to look as if he didn’t want to run away. “He’s a cutie. You must think I’m a dotty old woman.”

“I don’t know,” Bannon said carefully. “We’ve only just met.”

“First impressions are always the strongest, aren’t they?”

“Clever people can appear to be anything they want,” he answered.

This must have pleased her, for she broke into a grin. “What a silver tongue he has! Very dangerous!” Bannon wasn’t sure who she was talking to, but her attention seemed to focus on him again. “Are you ready to change the world?”

“Me? I… I’ll do my best.”

“That’s the spirit!” The old woman clapped him on the arm, and her hand felt as hard and solid as a dragon’s talon. “Well, didn’t I say you were in a rush? What are you waiting for?”

“It’s getting dark,” Ser Jory said. Daveth just squeaked in fear.

Flemeth skewered them with one eye. “Did you want to stay here the night?”

“No!” they all chorused together.

“Didn’t think so. Here, girl; take these poor lost waifs back home.” She cackled disconcertingly again and turned to disappear back into the hut.

Morrigan sighed. “Yes, Mother.”

 

 

Morrigan led them out a different way, the long way around the lake. The sun was down, only the western sky was lit. The lake reflected it and seemed to glow, but the ground and vegetation were but sooty shadows. The witch — or whatever she was — led them with a confident step. Bannon struggled to keep up. Strung out behind him, the humans stumbled and cursed and stubbed their toes on every rock and tree root.

The dark curtain of night drew across the sky, and stars peeped out faintly. Even the water grew black as pitch, but Morrigan didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps she really did have cat’s eyes.

Then someone pitched heavily into the dirt with a muffled oath. Bannon stopped and looked back. The humans were dark silhouettes against the dim landscape, helping each other up. “Wait!” Bannon called after the witch.

She turned back, and indeed her eyes were the only thing visible of her form. “What now?” she griped. “I thought you were in such a hurry to leave,” she said mockingly.

“She’s leading us to our doom!” Daveth whined. “Right over a cliff, she will! Or into a sinking pit.”

“She is not,” Alistair said. “We’re still near the lake. Sorta. I think.” Oh great, the guy who knew the way back was lost!

“We need a torch,” Ser Jory said.

“Such babes in the woods. Why didn’t you think of that?”

“We were supposed to be back before dark,” Alistair said.

“And it never occurred to you that you might fail? Is that short-sightedness or just arrogance?”

“Are you going to help us get out of here or not?” Alistair snapped.

“If you’re going to be ungrateful–!” Morrigan turned to Bannon. “‘Tisn’t all that dark. The stars are out. The elf can see fine. Can you not?”

Bannon moved a little closer to her, and lowered his voice. “Look, I know they are a pain. But you want to get rid of them as soon as possible, don’t you? They can’t go very fast bumbling around and tripping all over everything.”

“Hmmm,” she mused. “All right.” She raised her right arm and hissed something in a strange tongue. A ball of glowing green mist appeared above her hand. She cast it aloft and it floated above her head, shining a wan green light upon the ground.

Bannon drew in a breath, but Daveth gasped in panic. “I told you, I told you! She’s a witch she is! We should’ve run when we first laid eyes on her!”

Ser Jory and Alistair scrambled to their feet. The knight hissed, “Shut up! You really want to make her mad, now?” The Templar gripped his sword hilt tightly, but didn’t draw it.

“By all means,” Morrigan told them coldly; “if you wish to flee, do so now.” She gestured behind them. “That direction is as good as any.” She hooded her eyes and folded her arms across her midriff. “Those who wish to leave the Wilds may follow me.” She turned and continued down the path. Somewhere out in the darkness, something made a harsh roaring call.

“What was that?” Jory asked, eyes round as saucers.

“Was that a bear?” Bannon asked.

“Could be,” Morrigan said over her shoulder. “Marsh bears are rather small. But the mothers are taking their cubs out to forage this time of year. Best not to make them angry.” She resumed walking, and the magical glowing orb bobbed along in her wake, taking the light with it.

“Come on,” Bannon told his awestruck companions. Another bear growl convinced them to hurry after the witch.

“I’ll protect you,” he heard Ser Jory say to the pale Daveth. The thief seemed genuinely frightened. True, Morrigan was a very scary woman, with untold powers. But she and her mother were helping them, weren’t they? They didn’t have any reason to be killing Grey Wardens. Mysteriously spooky and evil was one thing, but elaborate charades? Why bother? Unless they were excessively bored out here all alone in the Wilds. It was enough to make anyone a little batty.

The group travelled in strained silence for quite some time. Then the witch stopped and collected her orb to herself, dimming its light.

“What’s going on?” Alistair demanded, blinking in the near darkness.

“Look ahead,” Morrigan said. “Do you not see the lights of your camp?”

They squinted and yes, there was an orange glow in the sky above the treeline. “Thank the Maker,” Daveth gushed. He scurried forward along the path. The others followed with a bit more decorum.

Bannon turned to the witch. “Thank you, Morrigan,” he said sincerely. “Are you going to be all right, returning on your own?”

“Of course,” she said with a wry twist of her lips. She pressed the glowing light between her palms and it snuffed out instantly. Bannon blinked away the afterimage, and the witch had vanished.

“Right,” Alistair said from slightly behind him. “Very creepy. You think she disappeared back to the swamp? Or maybe she was never here at all….”

Bannon rolled his eyes at the attempt to weave a ghost story. “No, I think she just turned invisible, and she can heeeeear you.” He stretched the words out with an eerie quaver. Alistair shuddered and got a move on. With a shake of his head, Bannon followed.

 


Video Work


 

On top of all that (see previous news post), I’m in the Ridiculously Awesome Zevran thread (or whatever it is called), and they have weekly writing prompts. This week is “crossovers.” So, crud, now I want to do some scenes from the Torchwood crossover. ARGH!

 

In video news, I think I forgot to mention I’m working on a new video. Or I mentioned it somewhere. I can’t remember any more. The “Rage & Desire” video. It’s going well. I hope the fade area layout doesn’t come with level FX, because I created a new area with just the layout to use in the cutscene. That hopefully won’t get all wavy and loopy. There is a control to set “Play Area Effects” to FALSE, but I noticed it doesn’t actually do anything in the actul game. Because I tried turning off the dust FX in “It Takes a Thief.”

I’m having trouble converting my inner vision to actual camera movements. The timing seems rushed, whereas in my head it seems slower.

Oh, and I got a “serious error”! A serious error that tells me it is a serious error and to DON’T TOUCH NOTHIN’ until I look up the serious error on the wiki. The serious error doesn’t exist on the wiki, however. :X Oh, it’s some sort of invalid curve whenever I try to create keyframes at the end of an animation to get it to smoothly switch to the base animation, instead of having one frame of T pose. I think it is because I am trying to damp an animation that has GAD turned on, and it is flipping out because it is not only an animation but it is moving the character as well.

As for the dire warning of not saving the cutscene in that state of Serious Error… I saved it as a new cutscene. It didn’t seem to bother it. But just in case, I did copy the newer camera edits from the second version of the cutscene back into the first.

And, whenever I try to keyframe and damp the end of that animation, it flips out again. So. Don’t try to squiggle-edit an animation with GAD. Or, at least save before you do, k?

 

Oh, and I also now have the strangest urge to create a machinima series entitled Dragon Age: The Genetic Opera. :X ::cough::

 


Part Twenty-Five: Denerim — Captured


 
(Warning: contains nudity and torture.)

 

Anora, Loghains daughter and widow of King Cailen, sends her serving maid to beg the Wardens to help her escape her father’s protective custody in Arl Howe’s estate. The servant can sneak them in, but complications pile up. First, the door to Anora’s quarters is magically sealed and they have to find the wizard to get it ‘removed.’ By, of course, removing the wizard. Who happens to be down in the dungeon with Arl Howe himself, and well…. our fearless rescuers kill them all. And happen to rescue a Grey Warden from Orlais who was being held down there, as well.

Right after they get Anora out of her room, Ser Cauthrien shows up in the front hall with about 15 of Loghain’s knights. Valorien closes the door on them and puts a trap on it. Then he tells Leliana, Wynne, and Tarroth to take Anora and her servant back down into the dungeons to cut around the knights while he keeps them distracted. (Gotta love those dungeons with multiple exits.)

Unfortunately, Valorien is captured by the knights and taken to the tower.

 

 

The locks of the great door rattled open, and Loghain entered with a handful of his knights, Ser Cauthrien faithfully at his side. The door boomed shut behind them. “You’re sure he’s unarmed?” Loghain asked the jailer as they approached the cell. Valorien stood in the center, clad only in breeches and shirt, waiting for them. He said nothing, only watched dispasionately.

“Yes, sir,” the jailer said.

“Open it.”

The man pulled a keyring from his belt and unlocked the door. He swung it open and stepped back. Loghain moved to enter the cell, but Valorien did not wait. He stepped to the doorway and met the teyrn there.

Loghain seized his shirt in one mailed fist and yanked the elf closer. “Where is Anora?” he snarled.

“Being held prisoner at Arl Howe’s estate,” Valorien answered coldly.

“Don’t play games with me! What have you done with my daughter!?”

“Seeing as she is not here in this cell with me, I cannot imagine how you think I have done anything with her.”

With a roar, Loghain clubbed him across the face with his other fist. Valorien fell against the iron bars. The teyrn turned and strode away from him. “This is what comes of elves not being taught their place! Strip him,” he ordered his men. They fell on the elf before he could regain his feet. “And don’t be gentle about it!”

Cauthrien seized Valorien’s arm and dragged him from the cell; one of the knights kicked him in the side as he tried to wriggle free. Two others seized his breeches and yanked them down over his legs. Cauthrien pulled roughly at one sleeve, and another knight seized the other. They tore the shirt from him. The knight who had kicked him gasped as they all fell back. “What is that?” muttered one.

Loghain turned to see what they were on about. He saw a huge scar cutting a swath across the elf’s back.

“That,” Valorien said as he pushed himself to his feet, “is the wound I received defending Ostagar.” He stood — one small naked elf amidst the armored men — unbowed and unashamed. The knights were silent, weighing the accusation that they had not fought in that battle.

Loghain growled. “Take him to the post.” The jailer shoved Valorien from behind. The elf moved past the knights without flinching. “Landry,” said Loghain then, annoyed that his man’s attention seemed to be more on the prisoner, he said it again, more sharply. “Landry!”

“Sir!”

“Take Dane, Harrod, and Barton and put together a handful of search teams. I want this city combed, and I want Anora found and brought back safely.”

“Yes, sir!”

“And here’s a hint,” Logain called after them as they left, “start at Arl Eamon’s estate!” He turned to watch carefully as the jailer chained Valorien’s wrists to the T-bar of the whipping post. The man looked back to him. “Go ahead and stripe him; he’ll learn soon enough.” The elf looked scornfully over his shoulder as the jailer took up the whip. Loghain beckoned Cauthrien to him. “There’s going to be trouble at this Landsmeet,” he told her quietly. “I want you to assemble the best and most loyal men into my personal guard. And Landry and his cohorts are off the list.”

“You don’t trust him?” Ser Cauthrien asked, wrinkling her brow.

“I don’t think I can trust anyone who’s been in contact with that elf. He’s a damned wiley opponent.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

 

After she left, Loghain returned his attention to the prisoner and his questioning. He strode forward to inspect the jailer’s handiwork. He was very good at his job; ten welts crossed the elf’s back as neat and even as if they had been drawn with a ruler. Valorien had not cried out, but Loghain was hardly surprised; that damned elf was stubborn.

He moved to Valorien’s side, where he could look the elf in the eye. The one that wasn’t swelling up from where he’d hit him, of course. “I want to know what the link is between the darkspawn and the Grey Wardens,” Loghain told him in a cold iron voice. “I want to know what power the Wardens have in Orlais. And you are going to tell me all that, and more. I want to know the secrets of the Grey Wardens!”

Valorien turned away, lowered his head. He made a soft sound in his throat, and Loghain realized… he was laughing.

Anger blazed within him. He turned to the jailer. “Again!”

The man nodded, and the whip hissed through the air. It cracked loudly across the elf’s back. Valorien gritted his teeth, but remained silent through another ten lashes.

“You’re stubborn, knife ears,” Loghain growled. “But you won’t last long. I’ll have your Warden secrets yet this day!”

And the damned elf only laughed again, even louder this time! The teyrn ordered another set of lashes. Now the criss-crossed welts began to bleed. Valorien slumped forward, leaning on the post for support. The pain made him gasp, but when Loghain questioned him again about the secrets of the Grey Wardens, he couldn’t help but laugh. This only made the teyrn more furious. “Put your back into it, man!” he screamed at the jailer.

Valorien gave up trying to suppress his cries. He closed his eyes and let the pain wash over him as the whip flayed his back and the blood ran down. Each bite of the lash forced a wounded animal sound from his throat. Loghain questioned him, his face purpling with rage. The angrier the teyrn became, the harder he tried to torture the secrets out of Valorien, the more ironic the whole situation became.

Loghain seized Valorien’s hair and yanked his head back to look him in the eye. “Talk, damn you, or I swear I’ll rip your ears off!” Valorien started giggling. Actually giggling.

“My lord,” the jailer said, “he’s gone delerious from the pain.”

“I’ll show you pain! Where are the irons?” He released his captive and moved towards the braziers.

“I haven’t put any on, my lord,” the jailer said hurriedly. “It will take a few minutes to–”

“Never mind,” snapped Loghain. He seized a pair of tongs and pulled a live coal out of the fire. Murder in his eye, he returned to his victim. He pulled Valorien’s head back again and raised the glowing coal.

“Not the face, my lord!” the jailer cried. “He still needs to be executed for the murder of Arl Howe.”

“Ren-na’i leis reheilythen,” Valorien said.

“What?”

“Ren-na’i…” the elf… coughed… slightly, “leis reheilythen.” (I don’t know any secrets.)

“So I can understand you,” growled Loghain.

Valorien only laughed. His laugh turned into a full-throated scream as Loghain pressed the burning coal to his ribs. “I am out of patience!” He didn’t let up; he shifted the tongs to sear another bit of flesh. Slowly, he moved upward, towards the tender skin under the arm. Valorien’s back arched and he howled in pain. Suddenly, his entire body shook, then he slumped in the chains.

“He’s passed out, my lord,” the jailer said anxiously. He was not eager to have his important charge die on his watch.

“I can see that!” Loghain threw the tongs on the floor, ignoring the skittering cinders that splashed his boot. “Put him back in his cell. I have more important things to tend to.”

“Yes, my lord.”

 

 

Meanwhile, Leliana and Anora pose as guards at the kitchen door on Arl Eamon’s estate until Loghain’s men are done searching the place. Of course, they don’t find her, just one seriously peeved Morrigan who doesn’t like knights breaking down her door.

At any rate, after they leave, Leliana and Anora tell Alistair and Eamon that Valorien has been captured. Leliana volunteers to sneak in and rescue him, with help from Tarroth. they manage to find their way to the dungeons.

 

“I don’t see any more guards,” Leliana whispered to the dog, “but we should be c–”

Tarroth let out a bone-shaking roar and charged across the dungeon. He charged straight for a man, not armored like a guard, who screamed. Tarroth slammed into him and started ripping, even as the man still screamed and thrashed.

Leliana darted in and closed the door, in case anyone heard. “Tarroth!” The dog dropped the bloody corpse and howled. He leapt to the door of one cell and started digging frantically at the rock and iron. Alarmed, Liliana ran over and looked into the cell. “Sweet Andraste! Valorien!?” The elf lay face down in the cell, unmoving, in a sticky pool of blood. Leliana darted back to the remains of the jailer and plucked blood-drenched keys from his belt. “Easy, easy!” she told the dog. She found the right key and opened the door. “Valorien?” The dog ran in, and she followed more hesitantly. Tarroth whined and licked the elf’s face. Valorien stirred and groaned.

“Here, can you move?” Leliana knelt down and dug around in her pack. She fished out a healing potion. “Try to drink this.” She eased him over on his side and held his head so he could swallow the liquid down. “Merciful Maker, they tortured you,” she breathed. Tears stung her eyes. Valorien… giggled. “Are you all right??” Leliana asked, wide-eyed.

“He’s been like that,” the man in the next cell said. “Laughing while they questioned him.” He shook his head in incredulity. “Must be an elf thing.”

Valorien pushed himself to his feet. “Yes. I am all right,” he said hoarsely. Tarroth licked his hand.

“I’ll find your clothes.” Liliana ducked her head and turned away.

Valorien took the keys from her and unlocked his neighbor’s cell. “You’re going to let me out?” the man asked. “You don’t even know what I was in for.”

“Does it matter? No one deserves to be here.”

“Maker’s blessing on you, thank you!”

 

 

They get out of there and manage to dodge Loghain’s knights enough to get back to eamon’s estate.

 

Alistair dropped the book he hadn’t been reading for the past half hour and jumped out of his chair. “You’re back! Are you all right?” The elf looked… well, the worst Alistair had seen him since he nearly died after Ostagar. He looked hollowed, almost fragile.

“I am… I will be fine.”

“What happened?”

Leliana said, “Oh, Alistair; his back was cut to ribbons.”

“They tortured you?” Alistair asked angrily. Valorien let out a dry chuckle. “You find that funny?!?”

“They wanted to know the secrets of the Grey Wardens.”

“But you don’t know anything about the Grey Wardens! I barely do.”

“That’s what is so funny. No matter what they did to me, I could not tell them.” He coughed out another small laugh.

“Is it true what the old man said?” Leliana asked. “You didn’t really laugh while they were hurting you?”

Alistair goggled at the elf, hearing this. “Are you insane? They could have killed you!”

“But you should have seen the look on Loghain’s face every time he asked me about the secrets, and I only laughed.” He started giggling again, then his body trembled.

“Loghain!” Alistair growled. He shook his anger off and looked at Valorien with concern. “You’ve been hurt badly. You should rest.”

“I need a bath,” the elf agreed. “And a nap, if there is time.”

Wynne strode in. “We’ll make time. Come on, let me help you.” She lightly touched Valorien’s elbow.

“Wait! Alistair, did they tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“About the Grey Warden.”

“What Grey Warden?”

Valorien took a breath, then explained excitedly. “In Arl Howe’s dungeon. We found a man — Riordan, I think his name was. He is a Grey Warden from Orlais. We freed him; he was wounded, I sent him to Brother Genitivi’s house.”

“The Grey Wardens from Orlais are here?”

The elf shook his head. “Loghain’s men stopped them at the border. Riordan came to the capital to find out why. King Cailen had sent a request for aid from Orlais and the Wardens there.”

Alistair ruffled his hair in frustration. “But they’re all the way back at the border! That’s even beyond the dwarven lands.”

“But don’t you see?” Valorien paused for another breath. “The only way Loghain’s men could have intercepted the Orlesians at the border is if he sent them almost immediately after Cailen sent his delegation. He couldn’t have done it after Cailen’s death, when he had been given power; he must have done it before. And the only way he could brazenly go against the King’s orders….”

“…is if he planned to murder the King all along,” Alistair finished. “Well I’ve been telling you that.”

Valorien nodded. “Yes, you are vindicated. But this is the proof we need to bring to the Landsmeet in order to convince them.

Alistair nodded slowly. “We’ve got to find this Warden and make sure he is protected. I’ll go to Brother Genitivi’s house and look for him. You rest.”

The elf nodded again, gratefully. He followed Wynne out.

 

 

CODA: Anora’s Promises
——————————————————————————
 

Anora’s serving maid opened the door and ushered Valorien into the queen’s temporary quarters. “You wished to speak to me?” Valorien said to Anora without preamble.

“Yes, I want to thank you for rescuing me.” She moved in front of him, her azure eyes seeking out his bluesteel ones. “I’m glad you are safe.”

“You are welcome.”

Try as she might, Anora could find no warmth in the elf’s eyes, nor hint of emotion in his voice. She clasped her hands nervously and forged on ahead, anyway. “I wanted to ask you about Eamon’s plan to pursue Alistair’s claim to the throne of Ferelden. Do you, yourself, think Alistair should be king?”

“I believe Alistair will be a good king.”

Anora bit her lip. “Alistair is a good *man,*” she admitted, pacing a few steps to the settee. “But I do not think Ferelden needs a good man to lead it. We need a strong ruler.” She returned, gesturing firmly with one hand. “We need someone who can settle the Banns and keep a tight rein on them. I have dealt with these men and women for years. Yes, Cailen was king, but I was not a decorative queen. We were equals in his eyes. We shared everything.” A shadow settled over her eyes. For a moment, she seemed lost in thought. Valorien waited silently. Anora took a breath and turned to face him once more. “I have nothing against Alistair, but I fear he maybe too… ‘nice.’ The Banns will want concessions and delays, they will pluck at him for favors, and I fear he will not have the heart to tell them ‘no.’ Do you see what I mean?”

Valorien nodded.

A small smile played at the corners of Anora’s mouth at this encouragement. “I understand you are the Chief Grey Warden in title. You may wish to consider giving the Wardens’ backing to me as the established Queen, rather than Alistair. Of course, I will honor the Grey Warden treaties and raise the army to your call to quell this Blight.” She looked at her hands a moment, lightly plucking at one finger, then another. Then she raised her eyes to Valorien again. “In return, as Queen, I can promise you a better treatment for your people. The city elves’ lives could be bettered, especially. Though,” she said, demurely lowering her lashes and shrugging one shoulder, “I suppose Alistair could offer you the same promises.”

Valorien’s eyes narrowed, very slightly. He thought back to the times Alistair could have offered him such assurances, but the human had not. Ever. He drew a breath. “Yes,” he said simply. “Yes, he could.”

Anora smiled again. “Well, give it some thought. As I understand it, Alistair doesn’t even want to be king.”

“And you wish to rule.”

“Yes,” she said firmly. “I do. I know I can make Ferelden strong again.”

Valorien nodded politely to her, almost a half-bow. “I will consider your words,” he said. Then he took his leave.

 


Random Stuff and the Mysterious Origins of Bannon’s Name


 

This week, the weekly post got posted a day early. This was due to my Brain (my online brain, not the wet-ware one) cutting off this section at the end because it was too long. So I had to post it in Bannon & Zevran’s forum in two parts, and reconstruct the ending.

The next part is also over 7 hand-written pages! Gah. And it is due next week and not typed in yet. Plus there are segments in different places, and some segments that are just outlines about who is saying what. My RSI is aching from so much typing, I think. Today my eyes hurt from eyestrain. It’s tough getting old! Will I fail to keep next week’s deadline? Stay tuned! Okay, well, don’t hold your breath or nothing. It IS a whole week, after all!

 

Now for some totally useless trivia. I have no idea where Bannon’s name came from. He just… came with it. Maybe I was going to make it “Brandon,” but that was too pedestrian or not Thedasian enough. I don’t know. But here’s the triviality part….

The other night, I watched The Gumball Rally on Netflix. (Yes, I still have Netflix. It’s cheaper than Blockbuster online.) It’s an ancient 70s movie about a whacky cross-country road race. I remember seeing it as a kid. I coulda swore Burt Reynolds was in it, but apparently not. I didn’t remember anything out of the movie, except the scene where the two top rival guys are cruising at exactly 55 mph under the bridge where the cop guy is waiting to arrest them for speeding. That was a classic.

On to the point. The rich guy running the show and winning the races was named Bannon! Mr. Bannon, actually. Was that stuck somewhere in the dim recesses of my brain? (With my propensity for remembering names (ie: I suck at it), I doubt it very much.) The guy kinda looks like Bannon. Dark hair, not as long, but wavy. But he has blue eyes; Bannon’s are definitely brown. And Bannon is definitely slicker than the guy in the movie.

Apparently, Bannon isn’t too uncommon of a last name. But I promise, he isn’t named after anyone with that moniker. …That I know of. If my brain knows, it ain’t telling me.

 


The Wilds — Darkspawn


 
Warnings: foul language

 

The foursome continued down the ridge, past the Tower of Ishal, which Alistair said was closed off due to some structural unsoundness. Well, more like a big chunk of the side was missing from part of it, one third of the way up. They descended into the ravine and passed the guard post set up at an opening in a thick pallisade wall. Beyond this was the camp of the army proper. Rows of tents were laid out, with large avenues between them to allow the army to pour out of the camp and onto the battlefield when needed. Plain canvas tents, some as long as a feast hall, stood nearby, ready to serve as hospitals to the critically wounded. Stockpiles of spare weapons and ammunition were stored neatly at intervals. In the distance, the smaller tents of the soldiers could be seen, grouped by the devices and colours of the Bann or Arl they served. These distinct sections continued up into the hillsides on the northern edge. The whole camp crawled with activity, and was as loud and dusty as any city.

The Wardens travelled through the central avenue, which was tramped down by countless boots and hooves and paws. Bannon kept glancing up at the hills, trying to espy the Denerim contingent under Bann Urien’s flag. Oh yes, it was here. It was so large, it snaked up one long hillside and another set of red and orange tents perched on the next hill overlooking it. That must be where the captains and the arl himself resided. Bannon looked away.

At last they came to the southern pallisade, which was made up of smaller logs than the first one. This wall was a defense of the army’s back side. It wasn’t as fortified as the west end of the ravine, where the darkspawn batallions had been throwing themselves, but it was carefully patrolled, in case the creatures decided to use any surprise strategy. So far, they hadn’t.

Alistair identified himself and his charges to the guards at the gate, and the Wardens were let past. Beyond the wall, cleared ground sloped down and away. Alistair put on his own helmet as the three recruits scanned the treeline that was a bowshot away. “Well, we’re here,” he said. “The Korcari Wilds. Be on your guard.” He gripped his sword and rattled it in its scabbard, making sure it was lose, but not drawing it.

Daveth pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow, and Bannon followed suit. The two looked at each other, then at Alistair.

“Don’t look at me,” the young Warden said. “I’m supposed to be observing you. Pretend I’m not here.”

“Quick,” Bannon said dryly; “no one’s looking, we can make our escape.”

“Ha-ha,” Alistair said back, just as dryly.

“Which way is southeast?” Daveth asked Bannon. The elf shrugged at him.

Jory rolled his eyes. “Don’t you know anything?”

“We’re city boys,” the rogue protested. “If there’s not a road sign….”

“There’s a pathway right through there.” Jory pointed. “You two should go on ahead so you can shoot anything you see without skewering us.”

The elf and rogue shared a look, then shrugged and headed towards the path. There were wagon-wheel marks, so this must be a route the army scouts took when foraging in the Wilds. Bannon kept an eye on the trees, wondering if this were deep forest enough for bears to live here. Not that any would roam so close to the camp. Or so he figured.

The trees were thinned on either side of the pathway, where woodcutters had harvested them. After several yards, the path turned around a small declivity and passed a hill. There, it opened up into a swampy field, dotted with scrawny little trees. The noise of the camp fell away, and all was quiet, except a few inquisitive chirps from insects.

Suddenly, something shot out of one of the bushes and streaked across the recruits’ path. Bannon brought his bow up and fired a wild shot at it, completely missing the squirrel as it scampered over a fallen log and up one of the saplings. Daveth jumped nearly out of his skin. “What are you doing?” He held his arrow against the bow with one forefinger and pressed his free hand to his chest. “You just shot at a squirrel!”

Bannon felt his eartips burning in embarassment. Luckily, no one could see under his helmet. “Hey, them’s good eatin’,” he countered. He turned away to retrieve his arrow so they couldn’t see his face.

“We’re not out here for hunting,” Ser Jory griped from behind him.

Daveth followed the elf on the arrow’s trail. “Do you actually know how to use that thing?”

“Of course I do!”

“What do you shoot at in an alienage, exactly?” the rogue prodded.

Bannon crouched and pulled the arrow out from where it had slid under the strands of a patch of tall grass. “Pumpkins,” he muttered. He prodded some dirt off the arrow’s head and, since it seemed none the worse for wear, put it back on the bowstring.

Ser Jory and Alistair walked up closer to the two. “Did he say pumpkins?” Jory asked.

“Hey, darkspawn are bigger than a pumpkin, aren’t they?” Bannon argued heatedly. He also didn’t mention the alienage children’s tradition of carving shem noble heads onto the pumpkins as targets, but he was thinking about it right now, oh yes.

Alistair drew his upper lip through his teeth in a moment of doubt. “Maybe you should make sure not to be shooting past us. When we get into the thick of some fighting,” he said charitably.

“I promise, I won’t shoot you in the ass,” Bannon said. Though… well, now he was thinking about that. He shook himself. “I’m not stupid.” They just stared at him with skepticism written across their faces. “Look, I’ve come in second or third in a couple of tournaments. I can handle a bow.”

Daveth was the first to cut him some slack. “Come on; he says he can shoot, he can shoot.”

Ser Jory sniffed. “You two are still going out in front.”

“We still only have your word that you can swing that ox-killer,” the rogue pointed out.

The knight reddened. “I have seven tournament championships to my name!” he roared.

“And archery tournaments aren’t good enough for me?” Bannon snarled. Who did that damned shem think he was?

“All right, calm down!” Yet again, Alistair tried to be the thread of reason in this group. But he sounded frightfully close to snapping. “The darkspawn are going to have an easy time of it, if you keep up this senseless bickering. We’re could get killed out here, unless you missed that point.”

“I should be the leader,” Ser Jory said reasonably, firmly. “I have the highest rank.” Bannon didn’t reply, he just turned and headed across the field where he could see more wagon ruts. “Where are you going, elf?”

That tore it! That one little condescending word — you elf: servant, beggar, slave, lowlife. Bannon froze, his shoulders tense; he was literaly bristling.

Daveth caught up with him. “Hey, take it easy,” the rogue told him in a low voice. “Alistair’s right. We have a job to do, and it’ll be easier with someone giving orders. Ser Knight can do it; I don’t envy him.”

Bannon half turned. “He said we were going in front.” He bit down on his words to try to keep his anger from escaping control. “I’m going — Did you hear that?” A low sound penetrated his consciousness. He couldn’t place it for a moment; it seemed out of place. “Sounds like a dog.”

Alistair and Jory marched up to them; the knight opened his mouth to retort. Bannon raised his bow in a flash and let fly into the bushes. “What are you doing?” Jory screamed. The elf didn’t have time to answer as several wolves sprang out of the underbrush and charged the group.

Daveth cursed and raised his own bow; Bannon was already firing a second arrow. They managed to fell two of the wolves before the beasts were on them. Daveth strategically retreated while Jory and Alistair drew their weapons. In a panic, Bannon dropped his bow and pulled out his sword. The fight was chaotic and bloody. Jory swung his heavy blade like a scythe, cutting through fur and flesh. Bannon backpedalled away from him and scooted behind Alistair. The Templar had a shield; that seemed like a really good idea about now. Claws scrabbled on the metal as wolves threw themselves against it. They began to swarm around Alistair’s off side, but Bannon was there, striking down at them like a butcher at the block. Snarls turned to yelps of pain. And then, growls of rage.

Teeth flashed, and Bannon struck out; metal crunched against thick bone and was deflected. The wolf landed hard on its front paws, bleeding muzzle low. Bannon swung hard, aiming to crack its spine. The sword bit deep and the beast collapsed, still snarling, bloody saliva dripping from its jaws, but unable to attack. The elf yanked on his sword, momentarily vulnerable. A deep-throated growl gave him little warning; one of the wolves leapt over its fallen comrade, its fangs aiming for his neck. Instinctively he threw his free arm up, barely intercepting the bite. The momentum threw the elf on the ground under the animal, and it began savaging him furiuosly. “Aaaigh!” he screamed, kicking uselessly. “Get it off, get it off, GETITOFF!”

In a splash of hot red, the wolf was torn away, ripping pieces of Bannon’s arm guard off and some of his flesh with it. He couldn’t see, but he rolled away and got to his knees. He shook blood out of his eyes, blinking furiously. Where was his sword? He grabbed it and pulled for dear life. As he got to his feet, the ringing in his ears faded, and as he looked around frantically, he saw all the wolves were down. Ser Jory was just pulling his sword out of the carcass of the one that had been trying to rip Bannon’s arm off.

The elf gulped for breath. “Thanks.” He cradled his torn arm against his stomach. The shock was wearing off, and it hurt like hell.

The wolf with the severed spine snarled; its front paws dug uselessly at the dirt. Alistair went over to it, a grim look on his face. His bloody sword flashed down on the beast’s neck, and with a pitiful yelp, the animal went still. “Poor bastard. Check on Daveth,” the Warden told Jory. The knight nodded and went to see to the archer, who’d been bitten on the leg. Alistair gently tugged at Bannon’s arm to look at it.

“I hate dogs,” Bannon said, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“They’re not dogs, they’re wolves,” Alistair said. Carefully, he unbuckled the one strap remaining on Bannon’s arm guard and pulled the leather away. He pushed the elf down so they could crouch on the ground while he took out a canteen to wash away the blood and peel the remains of Bannon’s sleeve off his arm. “It’s not that bad,” the man assured him.

“What happened to rational animals? That don’t attack armed men?” Bannon’s voice was shaking, and he wished it would quit that. Come to think of it, so was his hand, so he didn’t try sheathing his sword just yet.

“It’s the Taint,” the Warden answered grimly as he worked. The human looked up into Bannon’s stricken face. “Don’t worry, you won’t get infected from this.” He produced a wrapped poultice and tied it to Bannon’s arm with some bandages. Almost immediately, the pain ebbed. Then he strapped the armguard over the bandages, replacing the torn strap with another strip of cloth. Alistair fished around in another pouch and produced a dried plant stem. “Chew on this, it will help with the healing.”

Bannon took it and pressed it between his back teeth. It was slightly bitter and slightly minty, not too unpleasant. He took a breath and stood up. He felt better, and was able to get the swordblade into the sheathe on his back with a little concentration. Then he looked around for his bow, hoping it wasn’t broken. Plus more than half his arrows had spilled out when he’d been on the ground. Now he had to shove stinking wolf carcasses aside to find them. “It drools, it growls, it bites; it’s a dog,” he muttered to himself.

Alistair went to check on Ser Jory and Daveth. The latter was up and about, limping slightly. He bent to help Bannon without being asked. “Walk in the park, eh?” He grinned, chewing noisily on his own bit of medicinal plant. Bannon just shot him a look in answer. He rolled the stalk around in his mouth to the other side and bit down on it again. It leaked juice that was making the back of his tongue go numb. He chewed a bit harder, and indeed, his arm stopped throbbing.

Alistair looked down at the dead animals. “This is what a Blight really is,” he said solemnly. “Animals can get the Taint from eating Tainted meat, but they’d have to be really desperately starving to even look at it. When darkspawn mass in an area, the very ground becomes sick. The plants begin to blacken and die, and then a mist gathers; a miasma of evil.” The others watched him as he stared unseeing at the carcasses. “The Blight isn’t the army of darkspawn, it’s the Taint they carry with them; infecting the land, the animals, the people.”

“If one of these darkspawn bite us,” Jory asked nervously, “we’ll get the Taint?”

“Not one little bite, no,” Alistair said quietly. He looked up at the knight. “The Taint is strongest in the darkspawn blood. Even when you kill them, the ground where there blood was spilled sickens and dies. That battlefield, outside Ostagar? Before this is over, there will be enough Tainted blood spilled there to make that a barren desert for several generations.” The Warden looked saddened. Jory’s eyes widened and he took an unconscious step back. Alistair added, “Don’t worry. Grey Wardens are immune to the Taint. That’s one reason we are so important in combating the darkspawn.” He smiled slightly, shaking off his morbid cast and regaining some of his humorous nature. “Well, then! Shall we see about slaying us some real darkspawn?”

“And collecting Tainted blood?” Jory added distastefully.

Daveth grinned at him. “Just like picking poison berries! As long as you don’t eat any….” The rogue nocked another arrow on his bow, then looked expectantly at Ser Jory. “Whereaway, ser knight?”

“We’ll keep going,” Jory answered. He gestured towards the wagon tracks. “Follow the path.”

He didn’t sound all that confident, but Bannon had to admit, he was handy in a fight. He and Daveth went a few paces ahead, bows at the ready.

 

 

The Wilds were not a flat plane, like a city or fields of farms. The land was rough and sloped up and down. It was as if a giant clawed hand had raked through the earth. In places, huge piles of rock and slabs of stone formed impassable mounds. Trees clung together in tight copses, bristling with branches like a formation of spears. Streams and gullies trickled aimlessly between patches of standing water; here a good-sized pond, there an overly-large puddle. Daveth had been right about the ruins, too. Chunks of great stone arches rose up in rows out of the ground, like the picked-clean ribs of ancient monsters. They had the Tevinter style, like the buttresses holding up the Imperial Highway.

The group followed the worn path as it continued in a generally southeastern direction. As Bannon and Daveth came around a bend, they stopped short, spying something in the grass ahead. At first, Bannon wasn’t sure what it was, but it didn’t look natural. It was gleaming crimson within the green palette of the Wilds. As they approached, he could see it was a body. Definitely human, and wearing the chainmail typical of guards and soldiers of Ferelden. A cloud of flies rose from it.

“This can’t be good,” Daveth said as Alistair and Jory caught up with the two bowmen.

Alistair said, “This must be the missing patrol they were talking about in camp. Look there.” He pointed further along the path and sure enough, there was an overturned wagon and more bloody corpses. The four companions fanned out, looking for the attackers, but whatever had happened here was long over and done.

Bannon crouched by another body and waved away the flies. He tugged at the pouches on the soldier’s belt, and slipped a few coins and trinkets into his own. Then he moved on to another nearby. This fellow had a second pouch tucked into the first. Bannon untied it and prodded the neck open. He wrinkled his nose at the ashes inside. Probably that legendary “Ashes of Andraste” cure. The pouchstring had a bit of parchment tucked into it. The elf tugged that free and opened it.

Gazerath is a benevolent spirit of the lake. He read. Sprinkle the ashes of the dead at the outcropping overlooking the dome. In honor of his pact with his beloved mortal woman, the Spirit will grant one wish.

Bannon shrugged and tucked the pouch into his belt. It sounded ridiculous, but out here in the Wilds, who knew? According to the stories, this place was thick with magic. He got up to move on to the next body, when Ser Jory barked at him: “What are you doing?”

“Checking for survivors,” the elf replied smoothly. He didn’t stop to look up.

Daveth choked down a snort. “Good idea,” the rogue said. “I’ll check over here.”

The knight frowned at both of them. “Survivors, my foot! You just want to steal from them! It’s obvious they’re all dead!”

Just then a drawn-out groan came from the vicininty of the wagon. One of the bloody corpses dragged himself out from under broken boards. “Over… here,” the soldier gasped.

“Well,” Alistair said to Ser Jory; “he’s not as dead as he looks, is he?”

The Warden went to help the fallen soldier, and Jory followed, frowning. Bannon looked across at Daveth. The rogue looked just as surprised as he felt. Then both shrugged and returned to “checking for survivors.”

“We’re Grey Wardens,” Alistair told the soldier. “Where are you hurt? Here….” He unslung his pack and produced a vial of red liquid. “Drink this; it’s a healing draught from the mages.”

“Captain Mallon,” the man replied, gratefully accepting the potion. “Thank the Maker you’re here. I’m not that bad off… most of this isn’t mine,” he gasped, speaking of the blood covering him. “My leg….”

Jory took some more bandages from Alistair’s kit and started binding the man’s shin. “What happened?” he asked.

“Darkspawn,” the soldier spit, with a wince. “Took us by surprise. They came up out of the ground; appeared out of nowhere. We took a couple down, but…” He shook his head. “They were too strong.”

“Darkspawn did this?” Jory looked around nervously. He gave the bandages one more tug and knotted them quickly. He stood up. “They took out this whole patrol.” There were nearly a dozen men here. All dead, but one. Jory licked his lips in fear.

Alistair helped Mallon to stand. The captain clung to him a moment, pressing a hand to an oozing wound in his side. Gingerly, he placed weight on his wounded leg, and in a moment he was standing firm. He looked at the blood on his gauntlet. Compared to the dry crimson stains, there was barely any wet red. “That healing potion seems to have done the trick. Did anyone else…?”

Bannon and Daveth, having finished their rounds joined them. Both shook their heads.

“Damn,” Captain Mallon swore silently, his head bowed for the loss of his former comrades.

“What are we doing out here?” Ser Jory insisted. “We could be killed by these darkspawn at any moment!”

“Calm down, ser knight,” Alistair said placatingly. “We’ll be all right as long as we’re careful.”

“Careful?” A sheen of sweat covered Jory’s round face. “These men were careful! They’re still dead. A whole patrol taken out! What can the four of us do against that?” His eyes darted to each of them. Bannon folded his arms. Didn’t this shem say that cowardice in the face of the enemy was against his code or something? “I’m not a coward, all right,” Jory said firmly, as if reading the words from Bannon’s expression. “This just seems excessively dangerous. The whole darkspawn army could be behind those trees for all we know!”

“Listen!” Alistair insisted. He looked at each recruit in turn, holding their attention. “Know this: all Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn. It’s another advantage we have in fighting them. As long as I’m here with you, we won’t be taken by surprise. And believe me, if we come anywhere near a large group, I will definitely tell you we should be heading in the other direction.”

“There, see, ser knight?” Daveth said, smiling; “As long as we don’t let anything happen to Alistair, we’re good as gold.” Ser Jory shut his mouth firmly, but said nothing. He looked away, scanning the area for enemies.

Alistair turned to the soldier. “They way behind us is clear,” he said. “Do you need help getting back to the camp?”

“No, ser. I’m feeling fit once more,” Mallon assured him. “A little patch-up job is all I needed. I’ll be fine.” He nodded gratefully to the Warden, then headed back along the path. He moved stiffly, but did not seem to be limping very much. Bannon wondered what was in that potion, and how he could get some. He chewed speculatively at the plant fibers in his mouth. Come to think of it, maybe Daveth knew what it was called.

As he and the human rogue readied their bows once more and moved on, he decided to ask. The human told him it was Elfroot, but Bannon had never heard of it. Not that he knew anything about medicine or plants, save for a few vegetables. Daveth said it grew commonly all over Ferelden, but he didn’t know what it looked like while it was still growing, either.

 

 

The Warden recruits continued onward. The scouting trail petered out, and Bannon began to feel a little lost. Every green hill and tussock looked pretty much the same. The sun was still ahead of them, but kept rising into the sky as the day wore on, and he couldn’t always tell if it were moving or they were turning. Alistair and Ser Jory seemed confident enough that they were still heading in the right direction. Bannon made a note not to let them get killed, so they could take him back to camp. Otherwise, he might end up wandering around out here for days.

They came upon some more darkspawn a while later. “Watch out,” Alistair said low, drawing his sword and hefting his shield. “Up ahead.”

The recruits peered at a steep narrow hill lying on the ground like the spine of some animal. Three — no, four! — dark figures appeared cresting the top. Bannon and Daveth raised their bows and fired. The elf’s arrow fell short; he wasn’t used to shooting such long distances. But he compensated, and the darkspawn were bigger than pumpkins.

Unlike pumpkins, however, they shot back. A heavy arrow flew near Daveth’s head, making him flinch and spoil his aim. Bannon was already ducking back behind Alistair, who deflected an arrow with his shield. The elf scurried for cover under some trees and returned fire. The human rogue followed half a second later and crouched behind some bushes.

“We can’t stand here forever,” Alistair said, raising his shield again.

“Here they come!” Jory warned. Two of the shorter, stout darkspawn ran down from the hill towards them, weapons raised.

“Hit the others on the ridge,” Alistair yelled as he charged to meet them.

Ser Jory followed. “And not us!”

Do not shoot the shems in the ass! Bannon reminded himself. He grinned wickedly and aimed for the darkspawn archers on the hill. He barely twitched as an arrow thunked into the tree trunk a few inches from his face.

The two warriors engaged the darkspawn, blade to blade. Moving together, they made short work of the beastial creatures. Then the two ducked under the crossfire and ran up the hill. Bannon and Daveth had to stop shooting, so they ran forward, drawing their blades. By the time they got to the crest of the hill, they might as well not have bothered. Daveth gamely stuck his sword into the darkspawn engaging Ser Jory. The beast was already gouting blood from the champion’s heavy blade. It fell with a gurgle.

Alistair had his opponent down, felled by a blow from his shield. The Warden jammed his blade down into the darkspawn’s chest, stepping on its stomach to keep it pinned as it thrashed and expired.

The four stood panting for breath. The Wilds were silent, save for the blood rushing in Bannon’s ears. He looked down at the darkspawn as Alistair yanked his blade free. It was monstrous — it had the shape of a human, but the resemblance ended there. It had grey-black skin, like a rotted corpse. No hair, and its lipless mouth was full of long, jagged teeth. It’s eyes were murkey grey and pupilless.

Bannon rubbed his forearm across his nose. “Well, I can see how it isn’t hard to sense these things. They stink to high heaven!” Alistair chuckled dryly, wiping his blade on the ground. Bannon sheathed his, feeling a bit awkward and useless.

Ser Jory knelt beside the dead darkspawn, the stone vial in his fingers. “Grab some blood,” he told the other two. “We can have this mess finished with, at least.”

“We didn’t kill them,” Bannon said.

“I don’t see how it matters,” the knight grumbled. He stoppered the vial and tried to shake the dark crimson blood off his fingers.

Davith said, “Duncan told us to take it from one we killed ourselves. He said we’d know the right one.”

“Sounds like nonsense.” Jory heaved himself to his feet, still holding the blood-smeared vial gingerly between fingertip and thumb, as if afraid of getting it on him. His armor was already spattered, so Bannon couldn’t imagine why. The elf glanced at Alistair.

The young Warden was judiciously holding his tongue. Then he said, “We still have to find the ruins of the outpost. I’m sure there’ll be more darkspawn along the way.”

Daveth shrugged. “The day is young, yet.” He gestured to Bannon, and the two started retrieving their arrows. Only a few sticking out of the darkspawn weren’t broken or shorn off by a blade. They ranged further afield, checking the other corpses. And Bannon, of course, checking the grass and brush for his stray shots.

“These are called hurlocks,” Alistair said, loudly enough that all the recruits could hear him. “These big ones. The shorter ones, those are called genlocks.”

“I call them ‘ugly,'” Daveth muttered.

“What are female ones called?” Bannon lobbed the question up the hill. “So Daveth can ask one to his tent.”

“Hey!”

Chuckling, Alistair picked his way down the steep side of the hill. Ser Jory went the long way around, down the easier slope. “You know,” Alistair said thoughtfully, “I don’t know what a female one is called. Or if they have any.” He squinted down at the ‘genlock’ lying in the grass. “Or maybe females look just like the males. I’ve never really… well, you know.” He gestured at the darkspawn’s rags and bits of armor. “Peeked under the skirt, as it were.”

“Maybe the smaller ones are female,” Ser Jory ventured, his face wrinkled in disgust.

Bannon and Daveth looked at each other, pretty much the same expression on their faces. “No…,” the human drawled; “I’m not that desperate.”

“Yet,” Bannon said underbreath. The human just shot him a dirty look.

Ser Jory said, “We saw something past the next hill. It might be a camp or something.”

“Let’s check it out,” Daveth said eagerly.

The group went around the hillside. The camp, or whatever it was, was nestled in a declivity, guarded by an old oak. Three corpses hung from the broad limb of the tree. They looked human, but as old and rotted as they were, it was hard to tell.

“Do darkspawn do that?” Ser Jory breathed.

“I don’t know,” Alistair said. “Not that I’ve seen.”

Daveth said, “There are other hostile forces in these Wilds. Could be Chasind barbarians, warning people away from their territory.”

“But we’re Grey Wardens,” Bannon said, somewhat too loudly. “We defend all from the Blight.” The other sturned and stared at him. “What?” The elf shrugged. “Someone might be listening.” The group glanced around nervously, but no one — darkspawn or barbarian — showed themselves. Only a single crow cawed, almost jeeringly.

“Right,” Alistair said. “Let’s go, then.”

They passed under the tree and into the sheltered area beyond. It did look like a camp, or perhaps a scouting post. There was a ring of stones for a fire, a few piles of old sacking, a couple of chests, and three cages, now empty.

“Might’ve been slavers,” Alistair mused.

“Hope that’s them in the tree, then,” Daveth spit. Ferelden was a nation that had never had slavery. Most Fereldens found the idea distasteful.

The rogue made a beeline for the nearest chest and struggled to open it. It was locked. “Should be able to jigger this,” he assured his companions. “Just a second.” He slipped a narrow, flat bit of metal into the lock and rattled it.

“A crowbar might work better,” Ser Jory said derisively.

“You have absolutely no appreciation for finesse, ser knight. Besides,” Daveth said, jiggling the pick harder, “how would I fit one into my pants?” He gave a twist and the pick snapped off. “Damn!”

“Here, let me see.” Bannon nudged the grumbling human aside. From his utility pouch, he pulled one of his father’s skeleton keys. With a deft flick, he dislodged the broken pick from the lock, then he ‘jiggered’ it open. The bolt clicked back, and Bannon raised the lid of the chest with a smug grin.

Daveth narrowed his eyes. “You’re sure that you’re a carpenter, not a locksmith?” Greedily, he stared at the skeleton key.

“What?” said Bannon, the picture of innocence. “My father was a cabinet-maker. Some of them have locks, and sometimes they get stuck.”

“Riiiiiight. Well, you check if the other lock is ‘stuck’ while I take inventory here.” The human dove eagerly into the contents of the chest. Bannon went to open the other one. “You lot,” Daveth said to Jory and Alistair, “can poke through those sacks.”

The warriors looked at the pile. “Scavenge through a bunch of dirty slaver laundry?” Ser Jory scoffed. “What do you imagine we might find?”

“Loose change?” Alistair added.

“You never know what might turn up,” Daveth insisted. “Keys, for one thing. Not that we need those. Food, healing supplies….”

Bannon wouldn’t mind something for his arm. It didn’t hurt as much as before, but it twinged when he moved. They only scored a couple of boots, some rope, bandages, a battered old book — no real portable wealth. There was a silver ring, just a plain one with no design or gems. Or perhaps it was really only steel. Bannon slipped it onto his finger. At least it was something. The two shems poking through the dirty rags found… dirty rags. There was a sack of what might have been flour once, before moisture had seeped into it and it sprouted into a morass of mold.

Alistair and Jory gladly moved back out of the site, swords out, looking for whoever — or whatever — had strung up the three bodies. Bannon took a packet of brown powder to Daveth, to see if the rogue could identify it.

“Elfroot powder,” he said. Bannon had his tongue stuck in it before he added, “or Deathroot. Hard to say.”

“SPAUGH!” Bannon spit it out. Holy Maker, if he got poisoned, he was going to kill the thief!

Ser Jory and Alistair looked back in alarm. Daveth waved them off. “‘S all right! We’ll be there in a second!” Solicitously, he patted Bannon on the back. The elf gave him an evil look. “Sorry.” Daveth didn’t sound sorry in the least. In fact, his mind was on something else entirely. “Listen,” he said, hissing low, “you remember I said I was ‘justly rewarded’ for helping that deserter?”

“Yeah?” Bannon spit on the ground and tried to wipe off his tongue.

Daveth glanced around conspirationally. “He gave me a key to a chest in the camp.”

“That he was hiding where, exactly?”

“Never mind, it’s thoroughly washed off!” Daveth paused to glance around again. “If you help me divert some attention, we could get the goods.”

“Hold it, hold it!” Bannon pushed away slightly. “Steal from the army? You’ll end up in a cage right next to him!”

“No, no, no.” Daveth quickly waved that off. “It belongs to the mages. All you have to do is talk to one of those simple ones.” He tapped a forefinger against his skull to explain what he meant. “Just for a few minutes.”

“Are you out of your mind? The mages will do worse to you than stick you in a cage and hang you!”

“Only if they find out,” the irrepresible rogue retorted. “This is a golden opportunity! We have the key, so it isn’t even like stealing. No thief could pass this up.”

“I’m not a thief,” Bannon snapped. “I’m a carpenter.” He brushed past the human.

“So you’re going to rat me out, then?” Daveth growled.

The elf stopped and turned back. “Hey, I don’t know anything about any key you found in a latrine somewhere.” The human stopped scowling so ferociously, but he still looked disappointed.

 

 

They rejoined their companions and continued their journey. They encountered more small clusters of darkspawn and dealt with them in a similar fashion. Still, the archers hadn’t bagged their own personall darkspawn, as Daveth called it.

They came to a place where the ground sloped down to a large lake. A huge stone edifice, topped with a dome, lay partly submerged in the water. The top of the dome was greened with verdegris, and marble statues at least fifteen feet tall stood in recessed alcoves around the walls.

“Tell me that’s not the Warden stronghold,” Jory griped.

“I don’t know,” Daveth said. “Let’s ask the resident architect.” He turned to Bannon. “Does it look Tevinter to you?”

The elf shrugged. “I don’t think so.”

“He’s not an expert,” Jory snorted.

“Maybe not,” Alistair replied, “but I agree with him.”

“It’s more rounded,” Bannon said, defending his opinion. “The Tevinter stuff is angular. And their arches are pointed.” He raised a hand to indicate what he meant on the ruin. “Those arches have rounded tops.”

“Well that’s a fine mess,” the knight said. “We can’t swim into the ruins and pull out a bunch of papers.”

“It’s not all submerged,” Alistair pointed out, though he didn’t sound very hopeful.

Bannon studied the lake shore. This must be the dome the note talked about, but he didn’t see any outcropping overlooking it. The lake curved out of sight to the left. The far side was obscured by the dome — was it resting on the steep hillside behind it, or was it actually out in the middle of the water? The shore to the right was broken up with some rocks, and a bit further back, a bit of ancient wall. Trees screened everything beyond that. Bannon gestured that way. “That looks like the best way to go.”

The group made its way down the slope to the shore. It was muddy and dropped off sharply into the lake. Wavelets lapped quietly against the bank. The recruits picked their way around some boulders. They moved further from the shore, because the soggy ground sucked uncomfortably at their boots. They came upon a flat lane that ran between piles of stone and clumps of trees. The sward was covered in grass, but it felt like a road; perhaps paving stones lay beneath the ground. It ran to a wide stream extending out from the lake. A wall stood incongruously in the middle of the water, its columns marching down the waterway. A wooden bridge crossed it at a break in the wall.

“Well that looks pointy-Tevinter,” Jory said, gesturing forward. “Maybe they only made their domes round.”

Bannon ignored him. “Well that’s not Tevinter,” he said, pointing at two crude totems standing on either side of the grassy ‘road.’ They were wood and metal, bound together with leather straps. The struts were curved, like great teeth or tusks, and the metal was rusted and jagged. “Are those — what did you call those barbarians?”

“Those are not Chasind,” Alistair said, shrugging his arms to bring his shield down into his hand. “It’s darkspawn.” The Warden recruits prepared themselves for battle. “Stick together, this is a larger group than we’ve seen before,” Alistair warned them.

“Hang on, now,” Daveth said. “How many?”

Alistair peered forward, eyes unfocussed, for a minute or two. “I’m not sure. Two or three times as many as the other groups.”

“Should we go the other way?” Jory asked, licking his lips nervously.

“We haven’t had any problem fighting them so far,” Alistair said. “I think we can take them.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Jory growled, his voice tight. “Keep fighting more until we do get killed? What happened to ‘we’ll be all right if we’re careful’?”

“Careful like what?” Bannon lost patience with the ‘cautious’ knight. “Running home and hiding under the bed?” Ser Jory flushed crimson.

“Put a sock in it, you two!” Daveth snapped. Surprised, the other three stared at him. The rogue rolled his eyes dramatically. “Look, if we sneak up near that wall, and me and Bannon poke a few holes in ’em to get their attention, we can make them chase us over that bridge. It’s not wide enough for more than two of those blighters. It’ll choke them off.”

“That… sounds like a good plan,” Ser Jory said reluctantly. Alistair nodded.

Bannon and Daveth crept forward, bows held ready, keeping to a sparse row of trees along one side of the lane. The warriors followed them. There was quite a stretch of open ground between the end of the treeline and the near side of the bridge. They still hadn’t spotted any darkspawn. Water gurgled along the length of the stone wall, masking any noise beyond.

Daveth said to Bannon, “We’ll draw them out, let them chase us.” He glanced over his shoulder to Jory and Alistair. “When they start running over the bridge, intercept them right at the end, there.”

Bannon expected Ser Jory to protest the thief from giving orders while the knight was ‘in command.’ But he didn’t. He must’ve realized there wasn’t any better plan. The elf followed Daveth out into the open. The thief muttered something about wishing he had some traps, then he darted across the lane and turned, scanning past the ruined wall. He didn’t see anything.

Bannon saw a large darkspawn come into view, and he raised his bow. He didn’t fire right away. He studied his target, waited for the right moment. This one seemed particularly well-armored, but at least Bannon was only trying to annoy it and get it to lead its fellows in pursuit of him. It had a helm, too. Or at least, Bannon hoped those bristling horns weren’t actually growing out of the creature’s head.

The thing spotted him just a split second after he loosed his arrow. The shaft bounced off the armor, and Bannon shot another. The darkspawn roared and ran towards him. Perfect. This was easy! The thing had no way of shooting back at him, and he could stand here and pepper it with arrows as it tried to reach him.

But the fiend stopped at the far end of the bridge and growled, gesticulating as if trying to scare him off. Hah! Then something shot from the beast’s hand — not a bolt or an arrow; it was a green glob hissing through the air. It hit Bannon as he tried to turn, and splashed over his arm, chest, and face. The impact knocked him down, and sharp burning pain bit into his flesh. Acid! He cried out and scrambled backwards, but it would stick to him, eat through his leathers and his skin. In a panic, he tried to wipe it away, but… he was dry. He stared a moment. He still felt the pain. Magic!

“Look out!”

Another sizzling globule flew towards him. He twisted to his hands and knees, grabbed his bow, and pushed forward into a sprint. The acid hit him in the leg and he cried out. He forced himself onward. It’s just pain. There’s no damage. MOVE! He staggered back to the sparse cover of the trees. He stumbled against Ser Jory, his leg blazing with pain. The knight roughly steadied him. Bannon turned back just as Daveth ran up. Why hadn’t Alistair and Jory gone forward? Then he saw — “It’s not chasing us.”

“So much for that plan,” said Jory. “We’ll have to charge him. Hold the far end of the bridge.”

“Follow me,” Alistair said, already moving. “Stay behind my shield.” He and the knight ran forward, Daveth a few steps behind, ready to back them up. Bannon pulled out a fresh arrow and nocked it, then ran after them, still limping. He could see a few more darkspawn joining the first. The horn-helmed bastard turned and ran. Alistair and Jory pounded over the bridge. Daveth stopped at mid-span to shoot.

Bannon skidded to a halt, the rogue’s prior words coming back to him. “No, wait!”

It was too late. Alistair’s lead foot hit the dust on the other side of the bridge, and iron jaws snapped closed around his shin. He pitched forward, unable to catch himself. Jory barely turned to avoid tripping on him, but another trap closed on his leg. With a yell half war-cry and half panic, the knight of Highever swung his long blade over Alistair and hit one of the charging genlocks in the neck. It fell backwards, a fan of dark blood spraying out.

Alistair managed to get to one knee and brace behind his shield. “A little help, here!” he called out, brandishing his sword gamely.

Daveth cursed and shouldered his bow. He darted forward, ducking low as a few hurlocks began shooting at them. Heedless of his own safety, he threw himself down on his stomach and started working on dismatling the device holding the trap shut on Jory’s leg.

“Just hit the lever!” the knight screamed, fending off their attackers with wild swings.

“It’s not a bear trap, it’s a man trap!” the thief snapped back. “It’s going to take… umf… a bit of jiggering…”

“Jigger it! Jigger it!” An arrow skidded across Jory’s pauldron, and his voice rose in pitch. “Jigger faster!

 

 

Meanwhile, Bannon saw the whole fiasco unfolding in his mind a split second before it actually happened. They fell right into the trap they tried to spring on the darkspawn! “Frontal attack is bad,” the elf decided. He slung his bow back onto his shoulder and leapt from the bridge to a little islet of stone and mud that had formed by one of the pillars holding up the ancient wall. He hopped to a half-submerged stone slab, then another islet, working his way down the wall and hopefully around the flank of the darkspawn.

He came to an arched window — with the distinctive Tevinter point — and jumped onto the wide stone sill. Crouching low, he ducked through it. He was nearly pitched backwards into the water when the bow and sword hilt sticking up over his shoulder failed to clear the opening. Hissing a curse through gritted teeth, Bannon caught himself and ducked lower. He definitely preferred the modern, more open arches.

Bannon launched himself at the far bank. He hit the steep muddy slope on all fours and scrambled up. He had landed behind a pair of hurlocks shooting at his companions. Engrossed in their attack, they didn’t notice the elf. Bannon pulled out his sword. These darkspawn didn’t have helmets. He took a breath, aimed carefully, and swung at the neck of the closest one. The blade bit deep, and he ducked a fount of blood. He yanked the sword free and swung hard at the other hurlock’s head as it was turning. Metal cracked bone and the bladge wedged across the hurlock’s face. It roared and reared back. Bannon gripped the hilt with both hands and pulled it free. He thrust the point at the hurlock’s neck, immediately realizing it would do no good as the creature pulled away even as he extended. But the darkspawn opened it’s gaping jaws and lunged at him. The sword point penetrated the back of its throat and lodged there as it thrashed and went down, spewing blood. Bannon followed it down, throwing his weight behind his sword, not trusting the thing to die and be done with it. The sword sheared through gristle and bone, and into the dirt. The darkspawn flopped once and lay still. Bannon planted one foot across its cloven face and hauled back to free his blade.

He paused to catch his racing breath, looking around to see if more foes had spotted him. Then he heard a low voice speaking, almost chanting, in a twisted tongue. It made the hair on his neck stand on end.

 

 

Daveth grunted and finally jimmied the trap open, freeing Jory’s leg. “Don’t step on me!” The knight stood over the rogue as the latter wriggled forward to reach Alistair.

“Where’s Bannon?” Alistair asked. He raised his shield higher, angling it over his head as a genlock began hammering down on it with a blunt blade. The beast’s fanged grin seemed more wildly gleeful than usual, as if finally glad to have someone shorter than itself to beat on.

“Don’t know,” Daveth called back over the ringing blows. “Want me to go fetch him?”

“Damned elf ran away,” Ser Jory opined. He managed to drive back two hurlocks and yet another genlock, but his cheeks were red and puffing with effort. The darkspawn bled profusely, but the knight couldn’t stop for a killing blow. The second his long blade was fouled up in a carcass, the others would be on him like a pack of ravening wolves.

Annoyed by the relentless WHAM WHAM WHAM going on over his head (and was that genlock giggling?), Alistair raised his shield further and thrust out with his sword, burying the point in the darkspawn’s groin. The thing shrieked like a demonic pig and fell back. From under his shield, Alistair saw the hurlock mage. He hadn’t run all that far, and he was casting another spell.

Green witchlight seeped up from the ground and slithered about the Wardens. “What the hell is that?” Daveth screamed in a panic. It wreathed him from head to toe.

“Set your feet!” Alistair warned Ser Jory. “Don’t move, or you’ll fall!”

The witchlight settled into the ground and a slippery muck formed there. Jory stood firm, and the darkspawn staggered. One hurlock’s foot shot out from under him, and he slammed down on his backside. The knight brayed a laugh — he couldn’t help it; it was reflex.

The other two darkspawn stumbled against each other, trying to hold themselves upright as their feet slid in all different directions. “They’re fleeing,” Jory said, once he realized the direction they were trying to go.

Alistair’s face went pale under his helm. Still peering under his shield, he could see the hurlock mage raising its arms to call down more magic. Flames wreathed its right arm, which it levelled directly at the humans.

“Daveth,” Alistair said, his words spilling out rapidly in a panic. “I need you to put an arrow in that hurlock’s eye right now, or he’s going to set us on fire!”

The thief looked up from where he was lying on his side, half covered in grease muck, hands and tools tangled up in trying to release the trap. “WHAT!?”

 

 

Bannon crept around a low barricade of roughly-hewn logs the archers had been using as cover. The horn-helmed darkspawn was several feet away, facing away from him. The eerie chanting sound came from it. It raised its right arm, which suddenly burst into flame. Not on fire, but in command of it. The hurlock pointed at the trapped Wardens.

Bannon didn’t know what else to do — he couldn’t strike the darkspawn’s head or neck because of the helmet; he didn’t see any place to stab it through its carapace of armor — so he leapt forward and brought his sword down with all his might on the hurlock’s arm. The thing screamed and a gout of fire spat out at the ground. Hot flames rebounded upward at the two of them.

 

 

Alistair’s eyes widened further as they were saved at the very last second, and then both elf and darkspawn were obscured by a sheet of flames. The trap on his leg clattered open, and he leapt to his feet. He leaned down to Daveth, his sword arm crooked for the man to grab onto as Alistair hauled him to his feet. Daveth wasted no time drawing his blades and moving to Ser Jory’s side.

The three darkspawn recovered now that the grease spell had dried from the ground. They advanced, growling and snapping.

“You guys handle these,” Alistair said. “I’m going to help Bannon.”

 

 

Bannon jumped away from the sudden rage of the fire, and the darkspawn did too. The magical flame flashed and went out. He felt singed, but not too badly. He backed up a few steps, searching for good footing, then he held his sword in guard position like he’d seen Alistair do. There was no point in wildly attacking this darkspawn mage; he’d have to use his brains. The hurlock’s right arm dangled uselessly, though Bannon couldnt see any sign it was in pain. Hopefully, it couldn’t cast any more spells.

The hurlock pulled a long cudgel from its belt awkwardly, using its left hand. It advanced on Bannon, eerily silent. Bannon braced himself. Come on, what did fighting Vaughn teach you? He fended off a couple of swings, then jumped forward as the darkspawn raised its weapon for an overhead blow. Afraid of breaking his toe on some groin armor, Bannon planted the sole of his boot in the hurlock’s stomach and kicked hard. It staggered back, tipping sideways towards its wounded arm. Bannon followed with a horizontal swing and was rewarded with a splash of blood as his sword bit into flesh and rib bone. There was one place it wasn’t armored!

Bannon’s snarl of triumph was short-lived, because two genlocks came barreling around their leader, squealing for blood. He couldn’t let them surround him! He rushed the hurlock, which had barely recovered. The speed and fury of his wild attack could push it back for a second, give him a chance to duck around its unprotected side. He did so, but not fast enough or low enough, because he felt a heavy blow across his shoulders. The bow and scabbard harness took the brunt of the damage.

He only had one sword against three! He skipped sideways, because one genlock had gotten around where he couldn’t see it. He ducked under the hurlock’s club, but not low enough to avoid the genlock’s swing at his head. He fell to one knee trying to parry. Unable to move, he was a sitting target. He felt rather than saw the third darkspawn coming up behind him.

WHAM! Suddenly a juggernaut slammed into that genlock, and Bannon heard it go flying into the dirt. “Glad you could join the party!” Alistair said, grinning from ear to ear as he slashed at the other genlock menacing Bannon.

Bannon tried to think of a witty retort about stupid shems falling into an obvious trap, but decided to save it for later. Instead, he parried a strike at his head from the hurlock. The genlock turned to attack Alistair. Gritting his teeth, Bannon lunged upward at the darkspawn towering over him. His sword point wedged between a chest plate and stomach plate and bit hungrily into the tainted flesh beneath. Driving with his legs, Bannon shoved the blade into the beast’s black heart and toppled it over. The damned sword was stuck good this time; Bannon wrenched his arm trying to free it. He didn’t have time for this! He bent and grabbed the cudgel and whirled on Alistair’s opponent. A satisfying CRACK split the air as he hit the small darkspawn in the head. It staggered to its knees, and Alistair finished it off with a sweep of his sword.

Then he turned to the other genlock, scrambling to get to its feet. Alistair planted a boot in its backside and shoved it flat. “And… stay down!” the human yelled, thrusting his sword through its neck.

The Warden pulled his sword up and looked around. “Is everybody all right?” Daveth and Jory were limping and staggering, but still upright as they made their way over.

Daveth called, “Just tell me there’s no more waiting to jump us.” Alistair tilted his head as if listening. Then he shook it. “Then bust out the bandages,” the rogue groaned. “This was not fun.”

Bannon turned back to the hurlock and tugged at his sword. With some wiggling and a bit of cursing, it came free. Dark red-black heartsblood poured out of the hole it left behind. He stuck the blade into the muddy earth and pulled the stone vial out of his pouch.

Daveth whistled low as he saw Bannon collecting the blood. “You bagged yourself a mighty impressive one, mate.” He sounded almost jealous a moment, then seemed to shake it off. “Maybe you can get those horns mounted to display on your wall.” Jory and Alistair watched silently, the latter chewing on the corner of his lip.

Bannon stoppered the vial and put it away after wiping blood off the outside of it the best he could. He, like the others, was spattered head to toe with crimson stains. He pulled the sword out of the mud, glad to see that had gotten most of the blood off the blade. Alistair approached him.

“Um, you have a little smutch,” the Warden said, wiggling his fingers near his face. “Like right there. Looks like a red nose those festival clowns wear.”

Bannon didn’t immediately register the puzzled looks the other two gave him; he swiped his nose with his free hand. Then they started laughing. He frowned at them.

“Sorry,” said Alistair, a grin breaking out across his face. “I lied. But you do have one now!”

Bannon glared down at his hand; of course it was covered in blood. “Dammit, Alistair!” The human laughed and threw a rag at him as he started pulling bandages from his pack. Bannon wiped his face furiously. But damn, that was a funny one.

Alistair suggested they move away from the stench of the dead darkspawn, so they followed a path that led further along the lake shore until they found a spot where they could sit and tend their wounds. Bannon, the least hurt, fetched water from the lake in a leather bucket Alistair had folded in his pack. Alistair was his new best friend. Besides bandages and emergency healing potions, he also had some food tucked away in his pack. It was thin strips of dried meat, a bare step above boot leather, but it was welcome along with their brief respite.

“Well,” Bannon said, “I can definitely say I prefer being shorter than my opponent.”

“Not me,” Alistair said emphatically.

“I wish you hadn’t killed that one,” Daveth told him. “I wouldn’t mind claiming the giggling darkspawn as mine.”

Alistair turned to him. “Was he giggling?” The thief nodded. “I thought my hearing was going, with all that racket going on. Or I was losing my mind.”

“Do they do that?” Jory asked. “Laugh, I mean. Seems strange.”

Bannon put in, “The big one was chanting something. Some kind of words. It was creepy.” He shuddered.

“The language of magic.” Alistair nodded. Then he returned to Jory’s question. “They don’t really communicate in words. Some of them can do magic, obviously. But I’ve never heard or heard tell of a darkspawn laughing.”

“Would’ve liked to have seen that,” said Bannon.

“Trust me,” Daveth said, “it wasn’t funny.”

 

 


Converting to FanFiction.Net Format


 

This is an updated note to myself on how I go from my SMF to WP to FFnet, using my EditPad search and replace.

SMF ==> WP

[b] ==> <strong>
[/b] ==> </strong>
[i] ==> <em>
[/i] ==> </em>
[hr] ==> <hr />

[center] ==> <center>
[/center] ==> </center>
(doesn't work in WP)

\n\n\n\n ==> \n<p>&nbsp;</p>\n<p>&nbsp;</p>\n

\n ==> \n\n

Content Label Area:
close up blank lines.
add &nbsp; between--
  title and content
  content and notes
make sure dashes fit under title

Title:
WP doesn't like plain center tags.
try div align="aligncenter" and /div.
(nope) bah.

 

WP ==> FFnet

\n<p>&nbsp;</p>\n\n<p>&nbsp;</p>\n ==> \n<center>===#===</center>\n

\n ==> <p>\n

As of October 2012, you must add at the top of the file.
Save htm.
Submit document to FFN and Edit/Preview.
You can edit the document for as long as it 'lives' in your FFnet queue. (90 days.)

It won’t save the indenting, though. But it will save the italics. And hey, it isn’t all one long unbroken line. :X

 


Formatting for A Teaspoon and an Open Mind:

The biggest difference is, they use line breaks, not paragraphs. The P’s will cause double-spacing.


<p> ==> <br />

Copy and paste right from Editpad into the TOM story entry. There’s a separate box for the Author’s Notes. Use a leading break to drop down one line to start. You can leave out the BR’s up here.

 


The Mission


(no warnings)

Duncan met them at the Wardens’ watchfire. His whitened armor was cleaned of road dust, and the thick cloth skirting had been freshly washed. He almost looked like a tight-laced military campaigner, except for the roguish gold earring in one ear and his too-long hair tied back in a queue. As usual, none of the other veteran Grey Wardens were in evidence. Bannon began to think maybe it wasn’t just him they didn’t like. They must be one surly lot, he thought. He’d probably have more fun joining the Templars. His luck lately had been horrible.

“Alistair, a moment please,” the Warden Commander said quietly. The two took a few steps away from the recruits. “I’ve had complaints from the mage quarter,” Duncan said.

“That wasn’t my fault,” Alistair said quickly. “The Reverend Mother ambushed me. She knows the mages know I’m a Templar — ex-Templar, anyway. She did that on purpose.”

“She told you to sass the mage, did she?” Duncan inquired, pointedly raising a brow.

“Uhh….” Alistair scratched the back of his head, looking away guiltily.

Bannon said, “That guy was asking for it.” The two humans turned to look at him. Well, if they wanted a real private conversation, they were going to have to go further away! “Look,” the elf explained, “Alistair was just supposed to deliver a message, right? That mage gave him all kinds of grief about it.”

“He did,” Alistair asserted.

Duncan rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t care ‘who started it.'” He looked up and fixed them all — from Alistair to Jory — with a stern glare. “This is a Blight. And don’t let the camp rumors fool you, it is a true Blight. The darkspawn are a greater enemy than any other; we must stand together in this. Whether mages or Templars, elves or humans, nobles or commoners; we have to put aside our petty differences. As Grey Wardens, you especially are expected to put aside these prejudices and defend everyone equally.” His words had a biting strength to them.

“I apologize,” Alistair said, ducking his head sheepishly. “You’re right. I should have handled myself better. I am sorry.” He squashed a bit of inoffenseive dirt with his toe.

“It’s all right,” Duncan said more softly. “Now, let’s get down to why we are here today.” He faced the recuits squarely, and they gathered closer to attend his words. “I’m sending you four out into the Wilds.”

“Isn’t it dangerous out there?” Ser Jory asked.

Daveth glanced sidewise at him. “I think that’s the point.”

“Yes, it is,” Duncan agreed. “You three haven’t experienced combat together as a group. It will be best if you do so with small clusters of enemies, rather than on the battlefield when the armies clash.” Jory frowned, but said nothing. Daveth didn’t seem to care much about anything. Duncan had saved his life, and the former thief seemed content to let the man throw it away again, if he wanted. As for Bannon, he actually looked forward to getting out of this human-filled camp and meeting some creatures he could kill, instead of having to hold back. It would be a relief.

“Alistair will be observing how well you do; don’t expect him to do all the fighting for you,” Duncan continued.

“Just run out and kill a bunch of darkspawn, ser?” Jory asked. “And come back?”

Duncan shook his head. “I have two tasks for you to accomplish while you are out there. First, you will acquire three vials of darkspawn blood — one for each recruit.” He bent and retrieved said vials from a satchel. He handed one to each of them. The vials were made of stone, not glass, to withstand the rigors of the battlefield.

Bannon looked his over and tucked it into a pouch on his belt that held other tools and small necessities. “Seems like one darkspawn ought to have more than enough blood for this,” he muttered.

“You should take it from a darkspawn you have slain yourself,” Duncan told them. “You will know the right one.”

“Is this part of the ritual, then?” Daveth asked.

“Yes.”

“And you’re going to tell us–?”

“Absolutely nothing about it,” Duncan finished, sounding weary of this line from the rogue.

“Absolutely nothing about it,” Daveth said, almost at the same time. The two humans exchanged a pointed look. Daveth blinked and looked away first. “All right, all right,” he grumbled.

“Your secondary mission, but no less important,” Duncan went on as if there were no interruption, “is to search for the ruins of an ancient Warden stronghold.” The recruits’ ears perked up. This was an unusual assignment. “We’ve recently uncovered documents about the outpost here in the Korcari Wilds. It was abandoned a few centuries ago, when the Wardens became very few in number and no longer had the manpower to maintain it. However, there were treaties stored there; treaties granting aid to the Grey Wardens in time of Blight, signed by the powers of this realm. There are treaties with the humans of Ferelden of course, and also dwarves of Orzammar, the Dalish, and the Circle of Magi.”

“Some papers a few centuries old, in overgrown ruins?” Bannon asked derisively. “Like trying to find Andraste’s ashes in a desert, ainnit?”

“I’m sure there’s plenty interesting to find in an old Warden outpost,” Daveth said, winking greedily. Bannon rolled his eyes at him.

Duncan said, “The treaties were of utmost importance. They were very likely sealed in a vault, or magically protected, or both. The documents describe a chest they were housed in. It will bear the symbols of the Grey Wardens’ order.” He nodded to his protege’. “Alistair will recognize it if he sees it.”

“If I see it; that’s the trick,” Alistair said, nibbling on his inner lip. “How are we going to find this outpost if it isn’t there any more?”

“The ruins will be overgrown, but they will be large and not likely to be missed.”

Daveth cocked his head. “Begging your pardon, but I grew up not far from here. These places are full of ancient Tevinter ruins. A farmer can’t till his field without turning up some old coins, a few buttons, maybe a belt buckle. And lots of old stone statue bits.”

“These ruins will be newer than that,” Duncan replied. “And not Tevinter in design.”

“If you were an architect instead of a carpenter,” Daveth muttered to Bannon, “this’d be easy.”

The elf shook his head and asked, “Didn’t these documents have anything useful? Like a map?”

“No, unfortunately. But they were apparently east of here, perhaps a bit southeast. You should head in that direction.”

“That’s as good a direction as any,” Alistair said cheerfully.

Duncan gave the recruits another of his dark looks. Perhaps he didn’t like the way they seemed doubtful about their chances of finding the treaties. “Do you understand my orders as I’ve given them to you?” he asked with a cold edge.

“Absolutely, ser,” Ser Jory said tightly.

“Kill some darkspawn, collect some blood, dig around in old ruins for treaties,” Bannon said. He shrugged. “Should be a walk in the park.”

“Be sure you are back before nightfall,” the Commander warned them. He turned to the younger Warden. “Bring them home safely, Alistair.”

“I will,” he replied solemnly.

 

 

The foursome turned and moved away from the watchfire. “I can’t believe this,” Ser Jory growled. “More tests? Haven’t I already proven myself worthy when Duncan chose me as a recruit?”

“Relax, ser knight,” Daveth said smoothly. “Like Bannon said, it will be a walk in the park.”

“You just want to rob some old Warden tombs,” the Highever knight snarled back.

Alistair had to step in again. “All right, that’s enough. We should get ready to head out, finish up any business, and then we’ll meet… there.” He pointed. “By that bit of wall near the gate.”

“Very good, then.” Daveth took off like a shot.

“In fifteen minutes!” Alistair called out pointedly after him. The former Templar sighed to himself.

Bannon hurried after Daveth and caught up with him. “Hey, you don’t have a spare bow, do you?”

“Nope.” The rogue shot him a sidewise glance. “And don’t be eyeing Melinda, here.” He reached back and caressed the carved bowstave.

“Well, if you get killed and eaten by darkspawn, can I have your stuff?”

Daveth stopped and chuckled. “Of course, my friend!” He grinned wickedly. “After all, I won’t be needing it then. And,” he clapped Bannon on the shoulder, “should you perish, I’ll make free with all your stuff, as well!”

“Yeah, all right,” Bannon agreed, slipping his shoulder out of the rogue’s grasp. “But my money is going back to my family.”

For a moment, Daveth frowned thoughtfully at him. “You really have a family?”

“Yeah, why?”

The human shrugged. “I’ll have a family, someday.” He shook off his melancholy mein. “Oh look,” he said irrepressibly, “there goes one of my chances now! Cassandra…!” He trotted off after one of the women soldiers.

Bannon shook his head. He turned and retraced his steps back to the Warden tents to look for Alistair. He found the human in his small tent at the end of the row.

“Excuse me, ser?” Bannon leaned down to peer through the open flap.

Alistair looked up from the pair of socks he’d been pulling on. “What did I tell you about that ‘ser’ stuff?” he scolded affably.

“Sorry, uh, Alistair.” Bannon collected himself a moment. “I hate to bother you,” he said obsequiously, “especially since I haven’t paid you back yet from last time, but I was wondering if I could borrow some more money? I don’t have a bow yet. And, well, being an elf and all; I’d feel much more comfortable with one.” He didn’t mention that there wasn’t anywhere in an alienage to be shooting bows, so he was probably slapdash with one at best. But that ‘running away and shooting’ was sounding like a really good strategy about now.

“Oh.” The human frowned, pausing in thought. “I actually don’t have any more money,” he confessed. “But… I think I know where we can borrow a bow.” He finished changing his socks, and pulled on his boots. The socks from this morning (Bannon didn’t want to speculate on how soggy they were) got tossed into a pile somewhere in the dark depths of the tent. Was that… writing stitched on the socks? Maker’s Mercy, the guy had personalized, monogrammed socks!?

Bannon backed up as the human jumped to his feet and pushed out of the tent. It only took him a few minutes to find another of the Wardens and borrow a bow and quiver. Bannon adjusted it to fit with the harness for his sword, and to not tangle the string and blade as he tried to draw either one. As he did so, he followed Alistair to their appointed waiting spot. None of the others were there, so the two sat perched on the broken wall, watching the ceaselsess activity of the camp.

“Have you ever seen a darkspawn?” Alistair asked him. Bannon shook his head. The young Warden’s gaze unfocussed as he thought back. “I wasn’t prepared for how monstrous they were. When I first fought them. You’d think… I don’t know — they walk upright, they wear armor and use weapons, you’d think there’d be something human about them.” He shook his head, lowering his eyes to the dusty ground. “But there’s nothing. They don’t speak or have a language. Even an animal has some reason; an animal wouldn’t attack an armed man without regard for its own life.”

“And the darkspawn would? They’re not intelligent?”

“It’s not that they’re not intelligent.” Alistair stroked his little beard patch in concentration. “They’re cunning; they sometimes use strategy. It’s more like they’re driven.”

“Basically, you’re telling me they’re insane.”

The Templar nodded, his eyes lighting up. “That’s it, exactly!”

Bannon threw his hands up. “Great, so instead of slow, stupid enemies, they’re berserk.”

“More or less.” Alistair grinned sheepishly. “It’s not that bad, really. I just wanted to forewarn you. Even if they look remotely human, don’t hesitate to kill them. They’re not like us at all.”

The elf nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Bannon wasn’t worried; he had no problem whatsoever with slaughtering shems.

After another minute or two, the human said, “You want to lay bets on which one of the others gets here first?”

“Jory,” Bannon replied promptly. “Daveth is trying to make a family with as many women as he can before he leaves.”

Alistair chuckled. “Okay, not taking that one.” He brushed it off with a wave of his hand. “Though,” he continued thoughtfully, “it does take Ser Knight much longer to get all his armor on straight without his personal valet to help dress him.”

It was Bannon’s turn to chuckle as he shifted his weight on the worn stone. “You’d know more about that than me.”

“Me?” Alistair shot him a quizzical frown.

“Well, yeah.” Was it a big secret or something? Bannon couldn’t see how, so he just shrugged and said, “Aren’t you highborn?”

“Me??” Alistair’s brows shot up further. “You think I’m a nobleman?”

Now a puzzled look crossed Bannon’s face. “Aren’t you?”

“No!” Alistair half-laughed and half-coughed, shaking his head. “I’m not any nobleman! My mother and I were servants at Redcliffe castle.”

“What about… you didn’t you say you had dogs?”

“I was the kennel-boy!”

“Seriously?” Bannon gave him a scrutinizing look. He wasn’t usually so wrong in his impression of people.

“Yes, seriously.” Alistair shifted uncomfortably. “Whatever made you think I was noble born?”

Bannon shrugged, still trying to puzzle that out. “I don’t know, just the way you look? I mean, how you carry yourself.”

“Oh, that’s just Templar training.” Alistair relaxed a bit and made a dismissive gesture. “We used to have this instructor, Miss Cattiwick.” He stiffened his spine and thrust his chest out exageratedly. In stern falsetto, he said, “A good Tem-plah always has good pos-chah!”

With an appreciative nod, Bannon chuckled. “But aren’t noble brats usually the ones given to Templar training? How does a kennel boy end up becoming a knight?”

“Well, when my mother died, I was an orphan.” He frowned. “Arl Eamon, the lord of Redcliffe, saw to it that I was cared for. And it was decided it would be best if I were given over to the Chantry for training.” His frown deepened as he went on.

Bannon chewed his lip thoughtfully. The lord of the manor taking interest in a serving girl’s boy? He knew what that meant: the lord had probably taken an inordiante amount of ‘interest’ in the serving girl. Alistair was nearly glowering now, so Bannon innocuously asked, “What about your father?”

“Oh, he died in childbirth,” the Warden shot back glibly. Right, subject to be avoided, there.

“And you have that upper class accent,” Bannon said, switching back to more neutral ground.

“You think I have an accent?” The elf nodded at him. “Well, I think it’s more of a Redcliffe accent than anything,” Alistair said. “If I were really a nobleman, my posture would include me sticking my nose up in the air.” He proceeded to demonstrate. “And I’d be talking like this…” Here, he took on an arch, vaulted tone, precicely clipping his consonants and thoroughly nasalizing his vowels: “I say, old chap! Fetch me my tea and crumpets — toodle-pip! I saaay, the servants are rebelling, and the peasants are positively revolting, wot wot?”

Bannon snickered and Alistair was about to join in when a stentorian voice rang out behind them. “If the Grey Wardens have nothing better to do,” the general thundered, “the army could use some help digging latrines.”

Both Alistair and Bannon ducked their heads like guilty schoolboys caught hiding a frog in the teacher’s desk. They scrambled off the wall and stood respectfully facing Teyrn Loghain. The man was tall and broad-shouldered, a veteran campaigner, yet unbowed by the weight of his massive plate armor. His hair was dark and worn long, held back from his face by warrior’s braids. His eyes, too, were dark, and sharp as steel blades.

“No, ser,” Bannon said swifly.

“We’re just waiting for our comrades, ser,” Alistair added, his head so low he was nearly bowing to the general; “before going out on a mission, ser.”

Loghain glowered at him. “And you,” the teyrn said in a low, dangerous voice, “had better remember your place.”

Alistair paled. “Y-yes, ser.”

With a departing scowl for good measure, the general stalked off.

Busted!

&nbps;

It was a full minute before the two dared to breathe again. “That is one scary guy,” Bannon said in awe.

“Tell me about it,” Alistair replied, giving himself a shake that was mostly involuntary shiver.

“That was him, right?” Bannon asked, peering after the tall human. “Teyrn Loghain, the Hero of River Dane? The High General of the King’s Army?”

“That’s him,” Alistair confirmed, his voice still dry.

“Thank the Maker he’s on our side.” The elf began to relax again, though he noticed tension still in his companion. “He’s going out front, right? One glare and the darkspawn will drop dead of fright.” He mimed a wide-eyed scowling glare of doom.

Alistair chuckled gamely, though it sounded a little forced.

“So is it true what they say about him?” Bannon asked, drawing the Templar on.

“I don’t know. What do they say?”

“That he single-handedly freed Ferelden from Orlesian tyranny? That he killed an entire company of chevaliers with one blow?” Bannon watched the human. He was still staring blankly off after Loghain. “That he ripped off the Orlesian general’s head and — eh, you know — the rest?”

“Mm.” Alistair nodded distractedly. “Yeah, that’s all true.”

“Is it true he ate the captain of the chevaliers, armor and all, and spit out seven mighty Ferelden swords?”

Now Alistair rolled his eyes. “All right, now you’re having me on.” He gave the elf a serious look, only slightly ruined by a muscle twitch here and there as he tried to keep a straight face. Bannon just gave him the wide-eyed innocent stare until the human couldn’t handle it any more. “That armor he’s got on?” Alistair clarified. “That’s the armor he took from the chevalier captain. Since it doesn’t even have toothmarks on it, that’s clearly not true.”

“Ohhhh.” Bannon poked his tongue into his cheek and waited a beat. “Must’ve been the chevalier’s horse he ate, then. And it’s armor.”

“Now that, I can believe!” Alistair finally cracked a grin, and Bannon grinned back. “You know,” Alistair said, serious after a moment; “you’re all right.”

“You’re all right, too,” the elf told him.

“As opposed to five minutes ago, when you thought I was some stuck up nobleman’s brat.”

Bannon winced. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly.

“Don’t worry about it.” Alistair waved it off with a grin. It seemed nothing could shake his affable nature for long. “I hope Daveth and Ser Jory show up soon, or I know who will be digging latrines tonight.”

Bannon snickered, but he doubted the young Warden would follow through with the threat. He was far too good-natured. Still, he was pleasant enough, and had a ready sense of humor. Maybe things were looking up.

 

 

Shortly thereafter, Daveth came around one of the command tents and headed towards them. Ser Jory followed. The two were engaged in conversation.

“I thought charity was a knightly virtue,” Daveth was saying over his shoulder. “Or is that ‘chivalry’? I get those mixed up.”

“Cowardice in the face of the enemy is against the Code of Honor,” Jory replied heatedly.

“You’re talking about that deserter?” Alistair asked. “The one being held prisoner over by the hospice?”

“Yes, ser,” the knight answered. To Daveth, he said, “It’s bad enough they keep him lingering on, without you to torment him.”

“I wasn’t tormenting him,” Daveth explained. He clapped a leather helmet onto his head and tugged at the chinstraps as the group started heading for the bridge. “He asked for a bit of food and water, and I obliged.”

“They ought to just hang the poor sod and be done with it.”

Bannon put on his own helmet, making sure his bangs were all pushed back under it to keep them from getting in his eyes. He tugged his short ponytail to settle the leather tie under the back rim. “They ought to tie him out in front of the army when the darkspawn attack,” he interjected. He caught Ser Jory’s and Alistair’s winces.

“That’s a bit extreme,” Alistair opined. “Don’t you think?”

Bannon shrugged. “He ran away because he was afraid to fight them, right? Afraid he’d get killed. Make it more sure they’ll get him if he runs, then people wouldn’t run,” he pointed out. He tugged the chinstrap of his helmet tight and shook his head sharply to test the snugness. It didn’t slide around on his head, nor chafe his eartips. It was actually quite comfortable. The front was open, so it didn’t cut off his field of vision, except a short brim at the top. Sound was a bit muffled, but not as badly as he’d expected.

Daveth grimaced at his comment. “He says he isn’t a deserter.”

Ser Jory snorted. Bannon said, “Oh, he’s innocent, is he?” His tone was clearly skeptical.

“He says he was merely skulking around,” Daveth pointed out reasonably.

“Oh, clear proof of innocence right there,” Alistair quipped.

The group moved out onto the ancient bridge. The morning sun had crested a cloudbank and was glaring down on them. Bannon was grateful that the helmet’s brim shaded his eyes somewhat. Meanwhile, Daveth continued his defense of the imprisoned soldier.

“There could be any number of legitimate reasons for him to be sneaking around camp.” The rogue ignored his companions’ sounds of disbelief. “Maybe he was off to visit a lady friend.”

Alistair rolled his eyes heavenward. Ser Jory said, “Always on about that, aren’t you?”

“Well, not all of us are so fortunate to be married, ser knight.”

The Warden recruits moved to the side of the bridge as a patrol came in from the far end. The soldiers looked footsore and grouchy. “Well, we managed to scare off a few birds,” one muttered. “Nothing else can get up here; this run is a big waste of time.”

“Give it a rest, Taggert,” another replied. “I reckon the Hero of River Dane knows a thing or two about battle. If he says patrol the ridge, we patrol it.”

“If he said to wear your mum’s Feastday dress and prance about to distract the darkspawn, would you?”

The soldiers laughed, and their discussion faded as they moved on. In the quiet of their wake, Bannon said reasonably, “If he were sneaking off to see some woman, then she ought to come forward to save him from execution.”

“Maybe she can’t,” Daveth countered. “If she’s married to some other bloke or something.”

“Not worth letting your lover die.” The elf shrugged. “Unless she didn’t love him so much.”

“All right, maybe letting on would be worse than death for him.” Daveth warmed up to his constructed melodrama. “Imagine if she was married to the guy’s commander. A commander could make a soldier’s life hell. Put on the worst patrols, leading the most dangerous missions, not getting sent timely reinforcements….”

“Still sounds less dangerous than a hanging,” Bannon said.

“Well….” Daveth deflated somewhat. He couldn’t really argue with that. “At any rate, I’ve performed a good deed, and I feel justly rewarded.” He winked at Bannon.

The elf had no idea what that was supposed to mean. The prisoner was chained in a hanging cage with nothing more than a breechclout left to him. He didn’t imagine the guy had any money hidden about his person. Bannon just shook his head.