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.”

 

 


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