The Joining


 
(Warnings: foul language)

Daveth and Ser Jory continued ahead, eager to report in and get some dinner. Bannon and Alistair caught up with them at the Warden watchfire.

“Is everyone all right?” Duncan was asking them. “Where is–? Alistair!” The human’s dark face brightened, and gladness filled his voice. “You’re alive! Thank the Maker! When night fell, I feared the worst.”

“No, we’re all fine,” the younger Warden assured his mentor. “But we’ve had the strangest encounter.” He described the old woman in the Wilds, and her supposed daughter, along with some colourful embellishments from Daveth. “I think they’re apostates,” Alistair finished. “In fact, I know that Morrigan is.” He seemed about to run off and — what? Tattle to the Templars?

Duncan held up a hand to forestall him. “Alistair, you’re a Grey Warden now.”

“But–”

“Templar business is no longer your concern.”

“–They could be dangerous.”

Duncan fixed him with a look. Alistair lowered his head. But like a dog with a bone, he just couldn’t let go of it. “But apostates, so near the camp….”

Daveth jumped in with, “They’re Witches of the Wilds. They lead travellers to their doom.”

“Well, they didn’t, did they?” Ser Jory grumbled at him in annoyance. “Those are just stories to scare little children.”

Duncan rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m sure they’ve been there for many years. There’s no reason to think they have any interest in harming us.”

“But–”

“Alistair, drop it.” The young Warden flinched as his master raised his voice.

“Yes, ser,” he said quietly.

In the awkward silence that followed, Bannon said, “There was something fishy, though.” Duncan turned to him with keen interest. Behind him, Bannon saw Alistair shoot him a look, just the briefest flash of jealousy. Stuff it, shem, Bannon thought; I don’t want to be your boss’ Best Boy. Aloud he said, “Flemeth — the old woman — said the magical wards on the chest had worn off a long time ago. But the chest was only broken recently.”

“How recently?”

“A couple weeks.” Bannon shrugged. “Not more than a month; maybe two on the outside.”

Duncan tapped his lower lip with a forefinger. “It was about six weeks ago the armies began arriving here.”

“So they took it to… what?” Alistair asked. “Hide them from the army?”

“It seems so.” Duncan thoughtfully stroked his beard. “In any case, they delivered the treaties to us. The Grey Wardens accept aid wherever it can be found.” He shot a look at Alistair. “And from whomever is willing to give it.” Alistair squirmed like a little boy being scolded.

Or whoever they can force into giving it, Bannon thought, remembering his conscription.

Alistair began to turn the treaties over to Duncan, but the latter forestalled him. “Hold onto them; I’ll look at them tomorrow. For now — was the first part of your mission also successful?”

“Yes, ser,” Jory blurted avidly, as if he’d been happy and eager to go along with it the whole time. Duncan asked for the vials and the three recruits produced them. Bannon noticed that the Commander scored the corks with his thumbnail, marking each one differently. Ser Jory said, “Will that be all, ser?”

“Maker, I hope,” Daveth added in decidedly un-military fashion. “I think I’ve got darkspawn blood in places the sun don’t shine.”

“And I’m starving,” Bannon added.

“I’m afraid that will all have to wait,” Duncan said. “The scouts have come in; we’re expecting a battle tomorrow.” His dark eyes flicked over them. “Your Joining will have to be tonight.”

“Trust me,” Alistair said, his glib tone betrayed by the worried look on his face. “You won’t want to eat beforehand.”

Duncan shot him a look, then said to the recruits, “Wash up quickly, then meet us behind the mages’ section. There’s a circular area there, with columns.”

Bannon remembered that as the spot he’d first met Alistair. “I know where it is.”

Duncan nodded. “Good. You have ten minutes. Alistair, you’re with me.” He turned and left, his protege shadowing him.

Daveth predictably shot off into the camp to get into who-knows-what. Bannon and Ser Jory headed towards the nearest rainbarrel. They didn’t have anything to say to each other, so each kept to his own thoughts.

 

 

“How are they shaping up, Alistair?” Duncan asked as they moved briskly through the camp to prepare the ceremony. The accoutrements were in Duncan’s tent, so they went there first to retrieve the small chest.

“Well, I’m not sure. I really don’t know how you ‘sense’ who is or isn’t strong enough.”

“What did I tell you about trusting your judgement?”

“Once I develop some judgement,” Alistair hedged. Duncan sighed forcefully, and Alistair bit the inside of his lip, hard. It hurt him to dissapoint his mentor like this. But what could he do? Pretend confidence? Swagger around all cocky and carefree while inside he was nothing? Nothing but the stupid kennel-boy, probably dumber than the dogs he tended. He still felt stung by the attention Duncan had paid to that elf. No, ignore that oaf Alistair as he tries to say those witches are dangerous. What does that idiot know? Oh, but someone else says something, of course Duncan listens.

Alistair mentally kicked himself in the arse. Several times. Stop acting like a big baby! You’re a Templar — a Grey Warden! he corrected quickly.

Duncan opened the ceremonial chest to check the contents, and tuck the stone vials of blood into a compartment beside the chalice. “Just report on your observations of the mission,” he told Alistair. His voice was low and calm as always. Not a trace of ire or dissapointment or impatience.

“Right. Um… I’m not too sure about that Ser Jory,” Alistair began. “He’s a good fighter and all, but… he complained a lot. Especially about how dangerous everything was.”

“Does he seem cowardly?”

“Not as such,” Alistair said, sucking thoughtfully at his lower lip. “Anyone in their right mind would be scared. It’s not like he tried to run away or anything. But I think I see what you mean about the others knowing more about ‘real’ fighting. I’m sure they’ve been in a few scrapes.”

Duncan nodded. “Did any of them show any leadership potential?”

Alistair blew a puff of breath through his cheeks, slowly. “Well, Ser Jory took charge on account of his rank. The other two didn’t seem to care or want it.” Not that Alistair blamed them! “But they don’t get along with Jory. I swear, I thought they darkspawn were going to sneak up and eat them while they were griping at each other.”

Duncan bit his lip and muttered a curse.

“They got sorted,” Alistair assured him quickly. “We fought well together. I guess they disliked each other less than being killed.” He thought a moment. “Daveth seemed the most steady,” he said. The rogue had a sense of humor, too. That was always good in Alistair’s book. “Um… do you have to use the exact blood they collected? I’m worried about the little guy.”

“Little guy?” Duncan quirked a brow. “He’s not little, he’s an elf.”

“Well, you know what I mean.”

“I do, but you’d better stop calling him that.”

“All right, all right. Just… It’s heartsblood. He took it from a hurlock mage.”

Duncan’s brows went up. “He killed one of the alphas?” Alistair nodded. “By himself?” The brows went up another notch.

“Yes. He saved our asses, too. We were caught in a trap, in the middle of a grease spell, about to be barbequed.”

Duncan rubbed his beard in thought, staring speculatively at the stone vial bearing the X mark. Alistair followed his gaze, waiting silently. Finally, Duncan shook his head. “We can’t play at being masters of fate,” he said softly. He closed the lid of the box and brushed his hand over it. “Was there anything else?”

“Only the funny bits,” Alistair said. “Those I can tell you over a pint after dinner.”

Duncan chuckled quietly. “The new Wardens can brag about their exploits, too.” Alistair didn’t reply. To talk about any other outcome was bad luck.

They exited Duncan’s tent. One of the senior Grey Wardens, Berkely, was standing outside. He looked at the chest, then into Duncan’s eyes. Duncan nodded once. That was all the communication the two veterans needed. Berkely nodded back solemnly, and went to speak to the Wardens.

 

 

Daveth surprised Bannon by not being late. The three stood nervously awaiting the Warden Commander and this Joining ritual. “I heard a rumor,” Daveth whispered, “that in part of this ceremony, they make us drink blood.”

“Oh, come off it,” Ser Jory grumbled. “You and your wild fireside tales. Next you’ll tell us they’ll make us strip naked and paint ourselves blue.”

Daveth wagged a finger at him. “Why did they have us collect darkspawn blood, then? Wasn’t just a lark.”

“We can’t drink that,” Jory said, aghast. “Alistair said it was deadly.”

“A true test of manly prowess,” Daveth insisted. He winked at Bannon. “Grow hair on your chest, it will.”

“It’s ridiculous,” the knight insisted, his face going pasty in the torch light. “I’m not drinking any poison or blood or whatever you have! I didn’t sign up for this!”

“Are you blubbering again?”

“I’m not blubbering!” Jory snapped. “I just don’t like this stuff and nonsense — sending us into danger for no reason. Poisoning us or who knows what! You might not care if you die, seeing as your life isn’t worth anything, but I have a wife, and a baby on the way.”

“That’s a cheap shot,” Bannon said.

Daveth stepped up. “No, he’s right. I’ll admit it. I spent my whole life stealing and lying, cheating my friends, ratting out my partners. When I was walking to that scaffold, I realized I was going to die and nobody cared.” He licked his lips briefly. “But now I have a chance to make a difference in the world. And I don’t mind dying for it. You’ve seen those darkspawn up close,” he said directly to Jory. “Wouldn’t you give your life to save that pretty wife of yours from them? Or so that your baby can grow up in a world free of the Blight?”

Ser Jory folded his arms, backing down from the strenght of Daveth’s convictions. “I don’t mind dying in battle. But expecting us to drink poison?”

Bannon said, “All the other Wardens have. Haven’t they?” He looked around for Alistair. He ought to know; and he was a new Warden, not hardened into their traditions and set in their ways. The elf could wheedle information out of him.

A moment later, Alistair did arrive, but he was accompanied by Duncan, precluding any more speculation. The recruits remained silent as the Commander placed a small chest on an old altar, opened it and laid out the ritual chalice and flask, and the three stone vials of darkspawn blood.

Duncan turned to them. In the darkness, his somber voice seemed to take on a greater weight. “You three have passed your tests, and are ready to join the ranks of the Grey Wardens. There is no turning back.”

Bannon felt the muscles along his spine tensing in nervous anticipation. He fidgeted slightly, beside Alistair. Jory did so too, and he kept shooting glances at the chalice on the altar as Duncan spoke. Even Daveth lost his cocky attitude.

“Since the time of the first Blight, the Grey Wardens have stood between the world and the darkspawn. In peace, vigilance; in war, victory; in death, sacrifice.” Duncan carefully uncorked the flask and poured what looked like very dark wine into the chalice. With it, went the contents of the first vial. “Since that dark time, Wardens have taken the Taint within themselves. We drink the darkspawn blood that we may become strong against them.” The Commander lifted his head, looking at the stars far above. “We do not have grand ceremonies, but we always say a few words before the Joining. Alistair?”

The younger Warden folded his hands and bowed his head. Bannon had never seen the jocose human look so serious. The elf clenched his hands, indeed all the muscles in his body, to suppress a tremor. “Join us, brothers and sisters,” Alistair said in solemn prayer. “Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten. And know that one day, we shall join you.”

The other Wardens did this, Bannon tried to reassure himself. Alistair did this. It was going to be fine. In the breathless silence, he could distinctly hear Ser Jory lick his lips and swallow nervously.

Duncan turned and lifted the silver chalice in both hands. “Daveth,” he intoned; “Join us.”

The other two stepped back reflexively as the rogue moved forward. He swallowed his own nervousness and took the chalice. He gulped the contents down quickly. The result was immediate.

He flung his head back, his eyes and mouth open wide. A strangled scream was all that issued from his throat. Duncan rescued the chalice from Daveth’s limp hands as he collapsed, choking, to his knees, then lay convulsing on the floor.

Bannon backed away further, and ran into Alistair. The human gripped his arm as if afraid he would bolt. And right now, that was sounding like a good idea.

“I’m so sorry, Daveth,” Duncan said softly. The scruffy thief twitched once more then went deathly still. The Warden Commander refilled the chalice, breaking the seal on the second stone vial. “Ser Jory,” he said, turning to the Highever knight. “Join us.”

Jory tore his gaze away from Daveth’s body, and his eyes snapped to the silver vessel in Duncan’s hands. “You poisoned him!” he blurted. “You– you can’t! I have a family. I can’t die!” He pulled his greatsword free.

Duncan kept his dark eyes fixed on Jory’s. He went into a fighting crouch. “Take the chalice, Jory.”

Bannon moved forward to do something, but Alistair kept a firm grip on his arm. He turned to the shem with a glare for him to let go. But Alistair only shook his head.

“I have a wife! A baby! You never said I’d have to– you never said anything about this!”

The knight lunged, and Duncan dodged the clumsy blow. The chalice was dashed to the ground, its contents spreading a red stain across the ancient stones. In a trice, Duncan was under Jory’s guard, a dagger planted in the man’s stomach. “I’m so sorry, Jory,” the Warden said quietly as he eased the man’s body to the ground against the low wall.

Duncan retrieved his dagger, and closed Jory’s bulging eyes. Then, his face expressionless as stone, he scooped up the chalice and returned to the altar. He set down the bloody blade and uncorked the flask. Alistair nudged Bannon, and the two skirted Daveth’s cooling body to approach the altar.

“Alistair, listen,” the elf said quietly.

Duncan said, “There is no turning back.” He opened the third stone vial and dumped the contents into the vessel. Then he took it and came forward.

“I’m not going to try to weasel out of this,” Bannon told him firmly. “Just let me say one thing to Alistair.” He didn’t bother waiting for permission. No doubt Duncan would rather stick him instead. So he turned to the Warden gripping his arm and said, “Look, in my tent…. There’s a letter I was writing, to my father. If I… If I don’t make it, can you see he gets it?”

Alistair blinked in surprise. He loosened his grip as well. “I will.”

“His name is Cyrian,” Bannon told him. “He lives in Denerim, in the alienage. Well, he’s a carpenter; just ask around, people know him.”

The human looked uncomfortable. Then he forced a smile. “You’ll be able to deliver it yourself,” he said. “Don’t worry.” Alistair nodded encouragingly.

Bannon turned back to Duncan and held his hands out for the chalice. “Bannon, Join us,” the Commander spoke the ritual words. The elf looked at the dark crimson liquid a moment. Just like standing up to a shem nobleman, he thought. You know you’re probably going to die, but you just can’t do nothing. Best not to think about it, he tossed it back.

The hot blood burned his throat, and he screamed. Blackness fell upon him like a ravening beast. He didn’t even feel his body hit the flagstones.

 

 

Fire engulfed him, wrapping him in heat, but it shed no light. The black flames roared around him, screaming the whisper of a word: BUURRRN! His blood boiled in answer; hot rage flowed through him. His face twisted in a snarl; his eyes opened. He saw the world dimly, as through a blackened glass. The world was burning.

Red flames lit the horizon, limned the underside of the blackened sky. As if in a dream, or carried on the wings of a dragon, Bannon flew over the city. Gouts of flame devoured the buildings. Shems ran, screaming, barely audible over the rushing roar of the fire. It encircled them like a wall, passed over them like a wind, leaving nothing behind but ash. BUURRRRNN!! Now the shems would pay! Bannon stretched out his hands, and the dark fire encircling them seemed to urge the flames below to spread faster, to burn hotter. Yes!

The fires swept over the city, over the walls, and swirled around the great tree. BUUURRRRNN!!! A finger of ice touched Bannon’s heart. That was Denerim — his home! My family!

“NOOO!” Bannon jerked upright, yanked out of the flames and back into consciousness. “No!” He thrashed around as if waking from a nightmare.

“Easy, easy!” Alistair tried to catch one of his arms, calm him down. “You’re all right. It’s all right!” Bannon froze, then looked around, eyes wide in panic. He panted for breath. “That was quick,” Alistair said. “How do you feel?”

The elf lowered his face to one hand. He took another shaky breath. Alistair kept one hand on his arm, helping to ground him, to come back to himself. Bannon swallowed thickly. “My mouth feels like it’s….” He put his hand to his mouth, scraped his tongue off with it. His glove and fingers came away smeared with dark blood. He gagged slightly and scrambled to his feet, wiping his tongue off again. He had to get the oily, sick taste out of his mouth!

“Whoa, easy! Don’t sick up.” Alistair watched him worriedly. “What happens if he throws up after the Joining? Does that count?”

“I don’t feel sick,” Bannon growled. “Just….” Duncan got him a dipper of water. The elf took it gratefully. He went to the edge of the ruins and rinsed his mouth out, spitting over the side into some bracken. How did he feel? He couldn’t describe it. How would you feel if you found a doorway in your home and suddenly you had three times as much living space as you’d ever known? How would you feel if you suddenly became aware that your shadow wasn’t just an empty shape on the ground, but another part of you, an extension of your self? There just seemed to be… well, more of him. Bannon shrugged. “Am I taller?” He moved back over by the Wardens, relinquishing the dipper. No, he was still staring at the middle of their chests. “I don’t know, I just feel….”

“Different?” Alistair supplied helpfully.

“Yeah.”

“You have mastered the Taint within you,” Duncan said. “Congratulations. You are one of us, now.”

“I hope the rest of this ritual involves getting drunk and passing out again.” Bannon spit on the ground.

“After we tend to our fallen comrades,” the Commander said, sounding older all of a sudden. “Bannon, you should take any equipment you need from Daveth. I think he would be honored for you to have it.”

Jealous, more like. Bannon’s eyes prickled — it must be the stench from the blood. It still coated his mouth, making him want to spit again. He crouched down by the contorted body and relieved Daveth of his sword and long dagger, and his beloved Melinda. He remembered joking with the rogue about inheriting his stuff. Well, here it was. Bannon shook himself. This wasn’t the time to be maudlin about some shem he’d barely known! The thief also had an assortment of trinkets and coins, and a key. Ah, the key to the mages’ storage chest. Bannon pocketed it.

Daveth’s armor would get sold back to the Quartermaster. Cleaned and repaired, then sold off to the next man to use it. Bannon piled it neatly, then arranged Daveth’s limbs in a restful pose.

“I’m glad you made it,” Alistair said softly, coming up beside him. “We are still so few. I was the only one to survive my Joining.” Bannon nodded. Alistair handed him a small locket on a chain. “One of the things we do,” the human explained, “we keep some of the blood. As a reminder of those who didn’t make it.”

Bannon looked at it. It wasn’t fancy, of course. But he’d never had jewelry before. He slipped the chain over his head. “Thank you.” Suddenly, his scalp prickled, and the fine hairs all along his arms stood on end. Something was coming. Something… big. He straightened and looked towards the ramp, where the feeling was coming from. Alistair rose too, and looked in the same direction. With a slight nod, he indicated Bannon to follow him over. The Grey Wardens were there.

Unbidden, they came up the ramp. When Bannon stood in their midst, he felt engulfed in something. Something bigger than he was. Something stronger. It was almost like being submerged in a powerful tidepool, but instead of feeling like a helpless victim, drowning; he felt as one with the tide.

A grizzled human extended his hand. “Berkely,” he said. “Welcome, Brother.” Bannon gripped his forearm in a warrior’s clasp. He could feel the man’s strength, almost as if it were flowing through him.

One by one, he met the Grey Wardens. The once aloof strangers welcomed him like family. He met them all, the men and women, he looked into their eyes, he learned their names. He was home among them; he was one of them. Completing the circle, he returned to Alistair and Duncan. Alistair clasped his hand warmly. “Welcome, Brother.”

Duncan extended his hand and waited. Bannon bit down on his bitterness towards the man. He gripped Duncan’s arm, and the Warden responded firmly. “Welcome, Brother. You are one of us, now.” Duncan looked past him and addressed the Grey Wardens. “We honor those who have fallen. Daveth, and Ser Jory Caufield, knight of Highever.” The Grey Wardens moved to tend to the bodies. Duncan said, “Alistair, Berkely, please see to this. I’m afraid I must be present at the king’s war council. Bannon,” he added, turning to the elf, “please accompany me.”

He didn’t wait for a response. Bannon shrugged to himself and followed.

 

 

“I hope you understand now,” Duncan said quietly, “my decision to leave your cousin where he was.”

Bannon clenched his teeth. “I don’t see how he has a better chance in prison.”

Duncan stopped and turned to him, fixing him with a hard look. “Do you actually believe Soris would have survived that?” He gestured back the way they’d come. “Do you?”

Again, Bannon bit back an argument and took a moment to think about it. Soris, and the nervous quaver in his voice at the wedding. Soris angrily defending his sister. Soris, beads of sweat on his brow as he levelled a crossbow at the shem nobles. Soris would do the right thing, if Bannon were there to help him. But could he fight darkspawn? Could he drink the Tainted blood and survive? “No. Perhaps not,” Bannon said, finally. “And if he refused to try, you’d just kill him, is that it?”

“That was necessary. A pledge to join the Wardens is a binding oath.”

“Join or die?”

“Yes. Once the Joining ceremony has begun –”

“You could have talked him into it,” Bannon interrupted. “I could have, if your boy Alistair hadn’t interferred.”

“That is not the way of things. The chalice must be taken by the will of the recruit.”

“I suppose there are different rules, then, for the conscripted?” Bannon snarled bitterly. “Because as I recall, I didn’t have any choice in the matter.”

“I gave you a choice,” Duncan said, fighting to keep his voice level.

“A bullshit choice! ‘Choose to join the Wardens, or choose to have your ass dragged into it.’ What the hell is that?”

Duncan rubbed a hand over his face. “I thought you understood what I was offering you. You did accept it.”

“Yeah.” Bannon looked down, deflated. “I guess I did.”

“The way of the Wardens is a hard one. We need to be so, in order to survive.” Survive the Blight, or survive the politics and decrepitness of not being needed for over four hundred years? Bannon didn’t ask. Survival was survival. Duncan turned to continue along their collonaded path. “We can discuss this further and argue all night if you wish,” he said. “But we are going to be late to the council.”

“I haven’t had a chance to get cleaned up. I reek, and I’m covered in blood.”

“This is a war council, not the Queen’s garden party. Let them see — and smell — the reality of what we face.”

Bannon followed the human. “I don’t know why you need me, anyway.”

“I chose you because you are good at reading people. I just want you to observe the king, the general, the arls and banns, and tell me what you think afterwards.”

 

 

A trestle table had been set up in what had once been a great hall in ages past. Torches in free-standing iron brackets lit the area, and the table itself was full of candles, illuminating the map that lay upon it. Elven servants scuttled in and out innocuously — trimming a candle wick, or bringing a bann a mug of tea. Duncan and Bannon approached swiftly.

Loghain, the imposing general, was growling about some arls and a teyrn who were conspicuously absent from the army. One of them had apparently sent his men with no one to lead them. King Cailen brushed it off lightly. On the eve of battle, he still sounded like a kid about to open a Feastday gift.

They broke off as the Warden Commander and his charge came upon them. “Your Majesty,” Duncan said with a swift bow. “I apologize for not being here sooner.”

“No apologies necessary, Duncan,” Cailen said with a smile. He turned to Bannon. “I understand congratulations are in order, my friend.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Bannon bowed, feeling a bit flushed by the royal attention. Get ahold of yourself! He’s just a big, stuck-up shem noble, except he’s bigger and more stuck-up.

Yet the king clasped his hand, unheedful of the dried blood on Bannon’s glove. Loghain wrinkled his nose, veteran campaigner that he was, but the king smiled. “It is good to see a son of Denerim in the Grey Wardens.”

Bannon felt the eyes of one of the powerful men at the table piercing him. It was Arl Urien. Shit! He kept his focus on the king, as was only proper. “You can count on me, Your Majesty.”

“Good!” King Cailen nodded and turned back to Duncan. “This is the outline for tomorrow’s battle plan,” he said, ushhering the Warden to the table. Bannon took the opportunity to move back into a shadow of the torches and watch silently.

“You and I will lead the forces of the Grey Wardens and the army,” King Cailen was saying to Duncan. He bent over the map, pointing. “We will hold them here. And when the darkspawn have committed their forces, Loghain will sweep in from the hills with the rest of the army. They’ll be crushed!”

Loghain said, “It is reckless of you to be with the forces trapped there in the pass.”

“Nonsense. I will be with the Grey Wardens.”

The old general sighed and muttered something about Maric. “Very well,” he said aloud. “It is a sound plan. Since Arl Urien is the only one of rank who deigned to show up…,” Loghain’s disgust at the missing nobles was clear; “He can lead the forces of Denerim and Highever at the king’s back. The rest of you will follow my banner.” He began assigning positions on the map to the various banns.

Great, thought Bannon. Tomorrow morning, he’d be with the Grey Wardens, battling for their lives against darkspawn. He felt a little queasy, and not from the Tainted blood he’d drunk. From what he understood, the small contingent of Wardens and men would lure the darkspawn into the pass between the two cliffs and hold them at the pallisade protecting the camp. There would be nowhere for them to run. If they broke, darkspawn would swarm into the camp itself. No, they were the bait in the trap. Bait usually got eaten. Yet Loghain had agreed to allow the king to fight there. Unhappily, but he’d agreed. So there must be something to this plan after all.

Now Cailen was arguing with a mage about a signal fire. Bannon paid more attention. Loghain’s troops, hidden in the hills, would not be able to see the battle in the pass. A signal fire was laid atop the Tower of Ishal. Once lit, the general would know to attack.

“One mage can easily light such a fire. Soldiers are not needed.” It was the mage Alistair had been ‘harassing.’ The grumpy one.

King Cailen vetoed him. “We will need all the mages on the battlefield.” Hell yeah, Bannon thought. Why waste a mage casting one fireball on a pile of sticks when he could be casting a whole lot of them on the darkspawn! Cailen turned to Duncan. “I want Alistair on this mission.” What the hell? Why waste a Grey Warden on it, either?

Duncan blinked once, the only sign he might be startled. “Yes, Your Majesty.” Bannon frowned in thought. Why would the king care which Warden was sent? In fact, how would a king from Denerim know the name of a kennel-boy from Redcliffe? But Alistair was the newest Warden, and the king clearly worshipped the order. He must’ve been following the young man’s career.

It was getting late, and Bannon’s stomach was hollow. Imminent death or not, he had barely eaten since breakfast. Without much ado, the war council broke up. Bannon followed Duncan back towards camp, when they were brought up short by a call behind them.

“Warden!”

They turned. As Bannon had feared, Arl Urien approached. Shit-shit-shit! He bit his tongue and schooled his expression.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name,” the arl said solicitously.

“Bannon, my lord.” He bowed.

“And… you’re from Denerim?” Urien wrung his hands. “Do you know anything? I’ve only had a message from the city guard. My son….” He bit his lip, his eyes wet. It wouldn’t do for an arl to cry. “Do you know what happened?”

Bannon gave the arl as sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, my lord. Of course we heard the rumors, but we were preparing to leave with the army.” He shrugged helplessly. “I’m afraid we don’t know any more than anyone else. I truly am sorry for your loss.”

The arl clenched his jaw and nodded, regaining his self-control. “They tell me they’ve apprehended someone they believe is responsible.”

“I hope they’ve captured the right man,” Bannon said carefully.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, just… the way it was worded. They didn’t say they captured the murderer.” Bannon shrugged. “Just ‘apprehended someone they believe is responsible’?” He laid a slight emphasis on the word ‘believe.’ “It sounds like something the guards say when they’ve failed to find the true criminal, but grab just anyone to keep their lord from blaming them. I’d hate to see an innocent man executed, and the real murderer go free.”

The arl’s brow wrinkled and his eyes hardened. “I will not rest until I get to the bottom of this! Justice for my son will be served, and I will have the truth.” He nodded. “Thank you, Warden.” Then he left to return to his encampment.

Your damned son got his justice served, Bannon growled inwardly to himself. Outwardly, he showed no sign of his thoughts. He did, however, allow himself to release a pent-up breath. At least the arl wouldn’t let them execute Soris until he got back to Denerim to question him. Bannon hoped.

“That,” Duncan said quietly, “was most impressive.”

Bannon shot him a look. “And what are you going to tell him?”

“Why would I tell him anything?” The Grey Warden shrugged and continued, Bannon in his wake. “Whatever your past, it doesn’t matter now. You’re a Grey Warden; all that is behind you.”

 

 

They returned to the Warden tents. Thankfully, there was indeed a ‘ceremony’ for getting drunk after the Joining. There was also food aplenty. Bannon and Alistair ate most of it. In fact, Bannon ate enough to burst. They told the story of Bannon ‘watering’ the ash wraith at least three times, each rendition more embellished than the last.

Finally, Duncan had to remind them that there was to be a battle on the morrow, and the rest of the army, at least, needed some sleep.

When Bannon woke up sometime the next morning, his head was fuzzy and aching. Alistair was insistantly and annoyingly calling him out of his tent. Finally, the elf threw his blanket off and yelled that he was awake.

He sat up and rubbed his head, trying to remember how he’d gotten to his tent at all. Had he been kissing some of the women? His eyes popped open and he looked around quickly. No, no women in evidence. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Shem women. He wondered if they were very different from elven women.

He dug around for his clothes. His armor still hadn’t been cleaned. He grimaced and unwound the bandage from his arm, and to his surprise, the wounds were no more than fading pink lines on his skin. Alistair told him later that was one of the benefits of being a Grey Warden. With plenty of food and some rest, they healed very quickly.

Bannon noted his crate of goods to be sold to the Quartermaster had been augmented with several vials of potions. Oh, right. He’d taken a late night drunken detour from the jakes through the mage enclave and found that storage chest. He didn’t know why he’d done it; it was a stupid thing to do. But he’d been drunk and angry at… he didn’t remember what, but it was unfair the Warden recruits had died. Anyway, it was too late to worry about the pilfered goods, now. If the Quartermaster asked any questions, they’d come from a slaver camp they’d looted in the Wilds.

After washing up, Alistair dragged Bannon to Duncan’s tent. There was food there for breakfast, and Bannon embarassed himself by shovelling in almost as Alistair. Duncan asked for Bannon’s observations on General Loghain and King Cailen, but the elf wasn’t sure what he could tell him. Did they seem to be getting along? Did Cailen heed the general’s wisdom? Bannon gave his impressions, then asked about Loghain’s muttering about Maric. Duncan explained it was a complaint about Cailen being reckless like his father. It was an old — and quite long — story.

Then Bannon asked about the Grey Wardens being bait and getting eaten in the trap. Alistair assured him that the Grey Wardens were worth twenty men apiece against darkspawn. He went on to describe being in battle against them — a real battle, as a full-fledged Grey Warden. He sounded almost as excited as King Cailen.

Bannon shot a glance at Duncan. Clearly, the commander hadn’t told Alistair he wasn’t going to be with the others. Duncan looked uncomfortable as Alistair rambled on until he had to stop for breath. Bannon feigned not to notice. Duncan explained to Alistair what his duties were to be in the upcoming battle.

“What?” Alistair yelped. “I won’t be in the fighting? That’s not fair!” His disappointed puppy look turned into a scowl. “Oh, I know what this is!” He suddenly bit back what he was going to say. Then he said, “I’m a Grey Warden! Not some… fire-tending… fire tender! You can’t keep me out of this battle! Send Bannon! He’s now the juniormost.”

Duncan kept his voice calm, but firm. “The king asked for you specifically. This is a royal order.”

“But….” Alistair subsided with a groan behind clenched teeth.

“Bannon, you will accompany him.”

“I don’t need a babysitter to look after me while I light some fire!” Alistair said hotly. “What do you think? I’ll burn my fingers or something?”

“That’s enough,” Duncan snapped. “You will await my signal at the top of the Tower of Ishal, and you will then light the beacon. Do you understand these orders as I’ve given them to you?”

“Yes, ser,” Alistair said glumly. Quietly, Bannon echoed him.

“You’ll have approximately one hour after the battle is joined,” Duncan told them. And with that, they were dismissed.

 

 


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