(Warnings: foul language)
The day had begun grey, the sun hidden behind piled clouds. The camp atop the cliffs of Ostagar was quiet — subdued. The regular army in the ravine below was already on the move, getting into position. Loghain and the king supervised. For the elite troops who would fight within the pass, they had to deal with the agony of waiting.
Bannon thought he’d go insane. He attcked his leather amor with a brush, flaking off a pile of blood red dust. Some of the other Wardens played cards. They didn’t bet, because no one could concentrate enough to play well. Every time an elven servant or messenger ran by, they all looked up, anticipating their ordres to move.
“You’re going to wear a hole in that, you scrub it any more.” Bannon looked up to see Berkely standing over him. “You shot that new bow of yours yet?” He meant Daveth’s bow, of course. Bannon shook his head, and Berkely told him to bring it.
He led Bannon to the great hall where the war council had been. Some straw dummies were propped up against the table, or tied to the empty torch brackets. Bannon realized it had been Berkely’s bow Alistair had borrowed for him. “Sorry about your bow,” he apologized.
“Better my bow than your neck.” Berkley shrugged. “Won’t be needing it in the battle anyway. Besides, I just borrowed Gerald’s. I trust,” he said, fixing the elf with a mock dire look, “that you at least brought back all my arrows.”
“Oh, no,” Bannon said, looking very sincere. “There were several crooked and broken ones in your quiver. I took those out for you.”
Berkley laughed. He strung his borrowed bow, fitted an arrow to it, and lobbed it easily at the targets.
Bannon tested Daveth’s bow. It was bigger than he was used to, a bit awkward to draw, but he handled it easily enough. Sighting at the dummies by the table, he couldn’t help but think of Arl Urien. If he could just put this arrow through the Arl of Denerim’s neck, all his worries would be put to rest. Murder the arl to cover up the murder of his son.
The bow twitched in his hands, and the arrow flew wide, clattering to the stone somewhere beyond the table. Bannon cursed. Berkely ‘tch’ed at him. “How can you be so calm at a time like this?” Bannon demanded. He wasn’t even going to be in the battle, and his nerves were jangling.
“Tensing up makes the bow shake,” Berkley said, lining up another shot. His breathing was slow and even. He exhaled and let fly. The arrow thunked into the head of the dummy on the left, and the straw man slumped to the ground from the impact. Wryly, Bannon noted that dummy had been where Loghain had stood. “Concentrate on the bow,” Berkley said. “It relaxes me, anyway.”
The day wore on, and Bannon cursed the slowness of war. It began to drizzle, and as the noon hour passed, it got even darker, the clouds looming thickly.
The messenger came, and with a shout, the Wardens burst into activity. They were gone in the blink of an eye it seemed. Bannon found Alistair. The human was in a foul mood. He kept griping to Bannon, but the elf ignored him. He paced in his own agitation, for a thought had occurred to him.
He could request an audience with the king. He was a Grey Warden now, he was somebody. After the battle, the king would grant it. King Cailen would listen to him. Bannon would explain about Vaughn, and all his ‘entertainments.’ Explain about the wedding, his fiancee’, his cousin. Yes, he’d confess to killing Vaughn, and beg the king to pardon Soris. Cailen would listen! He liked elves.
Bannon chewed at a thumbnail. Did he? Or did Cailen just smile and act friendly so Bannon would like him? The king never cared about what went on in the alienage before. Shit! All those smiles and empty words, a simple handshake, and Bannon was fawning all over the shem like a lapdog!
Dammit, but what if Cailen were sincere? He certainly believed in a dream world where Kings and Wardens vanquished archdemons together. Why not a brotherhood of elves and men? Bannon turned to ask Alistair about the king. The other new Warden had been here longer, he must know something. But Alistair was still scowling, sulking like a child. Bannon sighed in irritation.
Lightning cracked behind the ruined tower, and rain poured more heavily from the blackened sky. Something swept over the area — not the wind, not a sound, and not exactly a feeling — but Bannon knew, in his blood and his bones, the battle had been joined.
A horn sounded, and the archers lining the ancient bridge loosed a thick volley into the gorge below. The floor was nearly obscured in mist and rain… or was that the dark miasma of the Blight?
“Let’s go,” Alistair said. He shook rain off his helmet and ran forward behind the lines of bowmen. Bannon followed closely.
Suddenly, an orange glow illuminated the bridge before them. It grew, like the light of the rising sun. Bannon skidded to a halt. “Alistair!” he cried out in warning.
The fireball impacted the bridge, tearing away at the stone railing. Several archers were struck by the flames, their burned bodies throw back from the impact point. Alistair was knocked off his feet. He skidded a few feet and crunched against the opposite stone rail.
Heart in his mouth, Bannon ran to him. Thankfully, the fool shem was only stunned. Bannon helped him to his feet.
“Mages!” Alistair gasped.
The sky in the west glowed orange again. Alistair darted forward, but Bannon yanked him back as the next fireball skimmed the bridge, leaving the stones intact, but burning everything — and everyone — upon them.
Bannon shoved Alistair forward. The Grey Wardens ignored the screams of the wounded and dying. If they got killed before the beacon was lit…!
Fireballs impacted the bridge as they ran and dodged. Were the darkspawn aiming at them? Bannon pushed into a sprint at the end of the bridge. Another impact threw him to the unforgiving stone, Alistair beside him. Their breath was knocked out of them, but they scrambled forward like frantic crabs, afraid of another fireball hitting them where they lay.
They gained the solid ground on the southern cliff and stood panting for breath beneath the shelter of some pines. Suddenly, the trees burst into flame with a fearsome whoosh.
“They are shooting at us!” Bannon yelled crazily, eyes wide.
“Shit!” Alistair agreed.
The two Wardens ran for the tower.
They cut left onto the path leading to the Tower of Ishal, skirted around a stand of trees, and came to an abrupt halt. Instead of the empty doorway they were expecting, they found a battle. Six men, it looked like, were being torn apart by darkspawn. Alistair began to charge past Bannon.
“Hold it!” the elf barked. He pulled his bow out.
“I have to do something!” Alistair protested. “They’re– …dead.” The darkspawn, a collection of hurlocks and genlocks, turned on the two Grey Wardens and ran at them. “Here they come!”
“Hold!” Bannon raised the bow and fired, and again as fast as he could. This bow was a lot more powerful than the other. He dropped two of the spawn and crippled a third. “Now go!”
Alistair sprang at them with a roar. Bannon shouldered his bow and pulled out his sword and dagger. He moved to Alistair’s side, and they cut at the darkspawn with a fury. More darkspawn appeared to join the fray, but the Grey Wardens were not alone. A crossbow bolt thudded into a genlock’s shoulder. In a few minutes, the creatures were all dead.
A guardsman came up to them, a young elven mage in tow.
“What’s going on?” Alistair demanded. “How did darkspawn get up here?” And so quickly, Bannon thought.
The soldier shook his head. “We don’t know. They just appeared all of a sudden, coming out of the tower. It’s overrun!”
“What happened to the cliff patrols?” Bannon asked.
“We haven’t seen anyone else.”
Alistair gripped the man by his hauberk. “We need to get to the top of that tower and signal Loghain’s troops.”
The soldier licked his lips, but nodded. “Yes, ser.”
Alistair was already turning to the mage. “You. Do you know any healing spells?”
“N-no, ser. S-some protection.”
“Cast them now.”
The mage nodded and did so, gesturing at the three fighters as he wove the words of magic. His curly hair clung damply to his brow. His hands shook, and he clenched his staff with a white-knuckled grip.
“Don’t worry,” Bannon told him. “We’re Grey Wardens. Stay behind us, you’ll be safe.” Alistair shot him a doubtful look, but the words had the intended effect on the mage. He stopped shaking and firmed his resolve.
They headed into the broken tower.
The place was infested with pockets of darkspawn around every corner. The small group fought their way to the top. By some miracle, they all made it, torn and bloodied, but alive. The tower top was open, but bore a roof. A pile of oil-soaked wood stood in the center.
They made for it with haste, but a hulking monster stepped between them and their goal. It was a giant, thick-limbed and man-shaped, crowned by hard black horns. It roared at them, spraying spittle. Then it lowered its head and charged.
“Look out!” Bannon yelled, diving aside. Alistair jumped the other way and the thing rushed past them like a maddened bull. Its long ebony horns hit the mage. Bannon never knew his name, but he’d been bravely trying to cast a spell when he’d been gored and tossed aside, his innards trailing like red ropes.
The giant ogre swiped at the guardsman next. It grabbed him in one hand and yanked him off the ground. “No!” Alistair yelled. He ran full tilt and slammed his shield into the beast’s leg. The ogre threw the soldier to the floor with a sickening crunch. It struck at Alistair, who gamely engaged it, trying to cut the grasping hand without losing his sword.
The huge darkspawn had its back to Bannon. Perfect! He sprinted to it and sank both blades into the back of its left leg. Hell, that was practically as high as he could reach! It bellowed and twisted to look back. Bannon pulled his blades free in preparation of cutting it again. It kicked, and a hard foot the size of a handcart slammed into him. He flew backwards and landed on the rough stones.
“We’ve surely missed Duncan’s signal,” Alistair yelled. “Light the beacon!” He cried out as the ogre knocked him off his feet.
First, Bannon had to wait for his ribcage to remember how to expand again. He rolled painfully onto his side and set his weapons down. He had flint in his belt pouch. Hands shaking, he pulled it out, grabbed his dagger, and struck sparks from it. The tiny motes of light drifted to th soaked wood and winked out. Dammit! There had to be tinder, or a fire-starter! He shoved his hand under the edge of the woodpile and pulled it back. Yes, there was oil splashed on the floor. He smeared some out in a line and struck more sparks. The oil flared, and he jumped back to avoid setting himself on fire.
He didn’t wait to see the results; he could hear Alistair and the monster fighting, and the human was the one making all the pained noises. The elf snatched up his sword and ran behind the ogre again. This time, to avoid being kicked, he wrapped his arms and legs around its treetrunk of a shin and held on for dear life. He sank both blades into the flesh up to the hilt. The sword he left in as an anchor, the dagger he pulled out to stab and cut, repeatedly attacking the darkspawn flesh. Black blood gushed out.
The ogre howled in pain and tried to turn, to kick, to shake him off, but he grittted his teeth and held on gamely. As it twisted, it left one flank open. Alistair rammed his sword up under its ribs. Blood gurgled from its mouth, but it didn’t go down that easily.
At last, Bannon severed the tendons behind its knee, and it fell over. Alistair jumped on the damned thing, bearing down with his weight behind his sword. Bannon staggered back. The ogre thrashed and cast Alistair off, but it was in its death throes.
The Wardens turned to the beacon. The oil under it burned weakly, but it was enough to catch some of the wood above it on fire. Smoke billowed from several places in the pile. As they watched, panting, the flames leaped up with a whoosh. Alistair and Bannon were driven back as the greedy fire drove itself to burn higher and hotter.
They staggered to the edge of the tower. Alistair looked out, trying to catch sight of the battlefield, though it was too far to see. The Wardens’ bodies trembled; rivulets of blood ran down their limbs, some of it Tainted darkspawn blood, much of it their own. Had the beacon been enough? Had they reached it in time?
They looked at each other. They could sense the tide rising below them, and realized they’d never know. “It was an honor serving with you,” Alistair rasped. Bannon nodded, not trusting his voice. He took a deep breath and winced at the pain.
He headed for the stairway. Gamely, Alistair limped beside him. They were not going down without a fight. They were Grey Wardens.
The darkspawn burst through the doorway.