Warnings: mild language
A rope creaked incessantly in the stillness of dusk. The air was thick with moisture, making it hard for Bannon to draw breath as he wended his way though a forest of blackened posts and timbers. He pushed himself faster; he urgently needed to find the source of that noise.
He rounded a corner and stopped dead. He squeezed his eyes shut and jerked his head aside, but it was too late. He had seen the body hanging from the gibbet, dangling by its twisted neck; its face purpled; its swollen, blackened tongue protruding obscenely. “Soris,” he sobbed his cousin’s name.
“A fitting end for a murderer.”
Bannon’s head snapped up, his eyes narrowed in anger. Bann Vaughn stood there, his ginger hair immaculately groomed, his fancy clothes so neat, not a single thread out of place. And that smug nobleman’s smile on his face.
“He’s not a murderer,” Bannon growled. “I killed you! I did it!” Enshackled by the dream, he didn’t realize the incongruity of the whole situation. He just kept screaming at Vaughn until he woke himself up. “I killed you! I KILLED YOU!”
Bannon sat up in his cot, biting his tongue to keep from crying out. Just a dream, he told himself. They couldn’t hang Soris — there wasn’t anyone in Denerim with the authority to order executions at the moment. They would just hold him in Fort Drakon for now. Until Arl Urien returned. Bannon lay back down, passing the back of his wrist across his forehead to wipe away the beads of sweat that had just turned cold. Arl Urien was here, at Ostagar. If he learned what Bannon had done….
That wasn’t going to happen, the elf told himself firmly. Duncan hadn’t told anyone the circumstances of Bannon’s recruitment. The Grey Wardens were an autonomous military group; Duncan didn’t have any superior to report to, so who would he tell? Bannon wasn’t about to let anything slip. The elves from Denerim that had been there that day had left with the wagon train before the wedding had even started.
He took a deep breath and tried to relax. It didn’t help much, but he eventually dirifted off into a light, restless sleep.
He tossed and turned in his cot so much, that there wasn’t much point staying in it as grey dawn light filtered over the encampment. Bannon kicked off the blanket and got dressed. He pulled his new leather armor on over his shirt and breeches. It wasn’t brand new, but it was freshly-cleaned, and broken in. The buckles were unfamiliar, but he got them sorted out. This was much more comfortable than the shem armor he had made do with in the arl’s estate. It had matching knee and elbow guards, boots with reinforced shin plates. The gloves were thick on the backs of the hands, but thin on the palms, and fingerless, which allowed him the full dexterity of his fingers.
He buckled the harness of Duncan’s sword over it. Well, his sword, now. He’d spent some time on the way over practicing drawing and sheathing it. Sheathing it, especially; without skewering his shoulders in the process. He didn’t want to look like a completely incompetent idiot, after all.
Then he ran his hand quickly back through his hair, probably skewing the locks worse than they had been from sleeping, and ducked out of the tent. The cul-de-sac where the recruits’ were bivouacked was silent. Bannon moved quietly out of the area to explore the camp. There was a bit of mist this morning, diluting the sun’s light to a dull grey. After a stop at the jakes and a quick washup at a rainbarrel, his nose led him to the mess tent. The army cooks weren’t done boiling up batches of porrige, but a street rat who knew how to scrounge could come up with a bounty of leftover scraps from the night before. It was cold ham and day-old bread, but it was exceedingly rare to get meat for breakfast in the alienage.
He was about to sink his teeth into a thick sandwich cobbled together from the scraps and an old cheese rind, when a voice halted him.
“Where did you get that?” Alistair came up beside him, eyes goggling at the sandwich. The shem was almost drooling.
“Around the back.” Bannon flicked his head that way, and took a quick bite, before the shem got any ideas about appropriating his sandwich.
“Here I’ve been waiting twenty minutes for a bowl of mushy porridge!” The human scurried off, through the tent flap leading to the cookfires, probably to annoy the cooks. Bannon shook his head. Stuck up shem certainly never had to scrounge in the trash for food before. He continued to wolf down his sandwich.
Alistair reappeared a few minutes later with a tray. He set it down with a clatter right beside Bannon, and he took a seat on the bench next to the elf. The elf just gave him a strange look. Damn, this guy was friendly. Bannon edged away slightly as the human settled down, and he turned his attention to the last bits of bread and meat. Alistair slid one of two bowls off the tray and pushed it in front of Bannon. “Here you go.”
The elf looked at the steaming grey glop dubiously. “What’s this?”
“Either porridge or gruel,” the human replied with a glib smile. “I’m not quite sure what the difference is, exactly.” He also had a makeshift sandwich on his tray. He grabbed that with one hand and his spoon in the other, and began alternating which one he shoved into his mouth, barely pausing to chew. “Mmm,” he said around a mouthful, “fahnks foah the tip!”
“Sure.” Bannon didn’t know what to make of Alistair’s affability. On a gut level, he didn’t trust it. Surely the shem wanted something from him. Something tangible or worse, just some ‘entertainment.’ He speculated on what might be hidden in the gruel. He looked around the nearly empty mess tent for an escape. However, a half dozen of the Ash warriors bustled in. A few of them shot the elf dirty looks, but none said anything. Maybe Alistair’s father was some big lord who’d give them a boatload of trouble if they upset his doting son. Well, the young Warden was a better ally than those hairy brutes. Bannon turned to Alistair. “Oh, I haven’t gotten my pay yet, ser. But as soon as I do–”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Alistair waved it off. He put down his spoon long enough to grab up a mug and take a drink. “Are you going to eat that?” he asked, eyeing the untouched bowl in front of Bannon.
“No, I’m fine,” the elf said. “Help yourself.”
Bannon tried not to stare at the human shovelling food down his gullet as if he were trying to fill a barrel with a teaspoon. How was this guy not fat? The elf nibbled at his own sandwich crust, glancing surreptitously at the Ash warriors, who were now seated several feet away, and waiting for the cooks to bring the food out so they could line up and get their breakfasts.
“You know,” Alistair said, slowing down a bit. “You look how I feel. Have a rough night, did you?”
Bannon blinked. “Huh? Do I look that bad?” He combed a hand through his hair, and winced as his fingers hit a snarl.
“Not as bad as I do, I’m sure.” The human rubbed a hand back and forth over his head, and the short-cropped hair in front stood up crookedly. “I haven’t been sleeping so well since I joined the Grey Wardens.”
“Why not?” Bannon cocked his head in mild curiosity.
Alistair opened his mouth as if to say something, but one of those looks flashed across his face and he ended up just saying, “Oh, no particular reason. Just… well, I expect being in the army is different for you, too? From what you’re used to, I mean.”
Bannon thought back on it. Yeah, travelling the country roads, the Imperial Highway, camping out, carrying a sword…. “Definitely.”
“You’ll settle in; don’t worry.” The human smiled and used the crust of his bread to wipe gruel out of his two bowls until they were as clean as if they’d been polished. “Army-ing builds up an appetite, too,” he said sheepishly.
“I thought the Grey Wardens weren’t part of the army proper.”
Alistair waved his last bite of breadcrust as he swallowed a mouthful, then shoved the rest into his mouth and said, “Well, it’s a separate order; it’s not even Ferelden in origin. But we work with the army, we camp with them here, we work with the king.” He shrugged and swallowed again. “You know. Technicalities.”
“Everybody fights the darkspawn.”
“You know it.” The human nodded solemnly. Then he brightened again. “Duncan wants to meet us, about an hour after breakfast.” He paused to look around the mess tent. More soldiers and several mages were drifting in. The cooks were about to open the line, and the Ash Warriors crowded to the front, giving anyone who got in their way a surly growl. Like dog, like dog-handler. “Breakfast for normal people,” Alistair clarified with a conspirational grin. “How about some sparring practice beforehand?”
An excuse to back out of it danced on the tip of Bannon’s tongue. But then… he really did want to become better with the sword. Alistair might be bigger and stronger than he, and maybe the ‘friendly’ human just wanted a chance to pummel someone. Yet, if that were the case, putting it off til later wouldn’t do Bannon much good. No, no, better to hit the shem after he’d just stuffed himself to the gills and make him puke. Bannon suppressed a smile. “Sure.”
The Warden and the recruit vacated their table. They met Daveth and Jory at the front of the tent, and Alistair delivered their orders to meet Duncan at the alloted time. After that, the two were free to find a quiet corner of the ruins to practice in.
Bannon flicked his head to clear his eyes of sweat and lank hair, and focussed on his opponent. Alistair fought with longsword and shield, and if there was one thing that Bannon was learning, it was that he hated fighting against that combination. He couldn’t come at the off-side because there was a huge shield protecting the guy. Plus, it happened to make a decent battering weapon. Alistair had held back, but still Bannon had ended up in the dirt a few times. And attacking the weapon side? That was just asking to get skewered.
The elf frowned in concentration. If only he could get around behind his opponent, things would be a lot easier. Of course, there was no way Alistair was going to let that happen. Bannon circled, and the Templar-turned-Grey-Warden shuffled to face him, keeping his knees flexed in a low stance.
Bannon took a couple of half-hearted pokes at him, watching Alistair move his shield to intercept them. If the elf were bigger and stronger, he might be able to hammer on the damned shield til Alistair’s arm got tired — or broken. Well, that was never going to happen. Alistair deflected another poke, then lunged with his sword. Bannon parried, more out of a reflexive panic than any skill, and danced back. Alistair, instead of pressing the attack, drew back into the same ready position he started from.
Just then, things clicked for Bannon. He made another lunge for the Warden, and as soon as Alistair braced his feet to catch the impact on his shield, Bannon darted left towards the sword. He smacked the flat of his blade down hard on the Templar’s forearm guard, eliciting a yelp. He danced left again; now he was halfway behind Alistair as the human tried to turn to keep up with him.
It was tempting to smack the shem across his unprotected head. Alistair had suggested they forgo helmets so it was easier to see during practice. Of course, that also meant no striking to the head. Bannon suppressed the urge and settled for scoring a few taps on the Warden’s armor as they continued to turn. Alistair got annoyed and made a large backhand sweep. Bannon ducked under the blade while bringing his own sword up. The warrior’s forearm smacked into the steel. “Ow!” Alistair’s arm dropped and he jumped back. “Okay, I give!” He winced. “I need to use that arm later.”
“Sorry,” Bannon said, lowering his own weapon and straightening up.
“I hate when someone gets around my guard,” the former Templar said cheerfully enough. He shouldered his shield onto his back and sheathed his sword. Then he rubbed his forearm.
“I hate trying to get around it,” Bannon griped back at him. He sheathed his own sword and brushed some dirt off his backside. He turned as Daveth and Ser Jory strolled over to join them. Apparently, they had caught the last part of the match.
The scruffy rogue gave Bannon an encouraging grin. “You get yourself a second blade, you’d cut him up real good.”
“Probably just annoy him twice as fast,” the elf said deflectively. Still, he made note of it. He wasn’t sure he could parry a big human’s sword using just one hand. He grabbed up his helmet and looped it onto a carry-hook on his belt.
Alistair retrieved his own helmet then moved over to a nearby rainbarrel. He set the headgear down, took off his gloves and tossed them into the helmet, then scooped a double handful of water over his head. He shook his hair out vigorously, spraying little droplets over Daveth and Bannon. Jory hung back, out of range. The Warden moved aside to give the elf a turn at the barrel. Bannon splashed his face and slicked his hair back over his head. He dug around in his belt pouch for something to tie it back with.
Daveth said to him, “You’re pretty quick. I probably would’ve lost my head on some of those moves.”
“That’s not being quick,” Bannon said; “that’s being short.”
Daveth chuckled amicably, but Ser Jory let out a braying laugh. The guy must have a fondness for short elf jokes. Bannon ignored him.
“Short and quick does have its advantages,” Alistair added.
Unlike, say, big and fat. Bannon didn’t say it out loud. Daveth, however, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to insult the knight.
“Lay off!” Ser Jory snapped, reddening. “I am not fat, you stupid guttersnipe!”
“Hey, hey!” Alistair intervened, stepping halfway between the two men. “Take it easy.”
“‘Twas all in good fun, ser knight,” Daveth said jauntily. “No harm meant. I’m sure Bannon doesn’t mind if we call him short.” He shot the elf a wink.
Bannon put on his most sincere face. “Actually, I’m very tall for my height.”
Daveth and Alistair chuckled. The rotund knight from Highever just scowled. “It’s well past time we were to meet Duncan, isn’t it?” He stomped off towards the Wardens’ section of the camp.
Alistair turned to the other two. “Try to get along, all right? Our lives are going to be depending on one another.” He didn’t wait for an answer, but set out after Ser Jory.
“Absolutely, ser,” Daveth said. Then he lowered his voice conspirationally to Bannon. “Can’t be attacking a man who isn’t armed with a sense of humor, now can we?”
Bannon snorted dismissively. “So how do you handle a guy with a sword and shield?” he asked as they followed the others.
“Run away and shoot him,” the rogue replied.
“Oh, that’s helpful!”
“But true! In fact, it works on a great variety of opponents.” Daveth began to wax philosophical. “The more you can hurt your target and not be in range to get hurt, the better!”