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.
“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?”
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.
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.