(Warnings: foul language)
They encountered the Imperial Highway late the next afternoon. The sky was darkening early with rainclouds. This section of the Highway was raised, but only eight feet or so. The Wardens clambered up a tree to get to the stone-railed surface of the road. Morrigan simply transformed into a bird and flew off.
The road was filled with knots and clusters of refugees. Some had ox-carts, but most carried their meagre possessions on foot, or a handcart at best. They were all heading steadily eastward. The Wardens turned west and made their way against the flow.
Bannon and Alistair asked for water. They only water they’d been able to carry that day had been soaked in the old shirts. Sucking the damp fabric let them extract some moisture, at least until it dried too far. Their requests were met with surly refusal. “Get your own!” “We have nothing to spare.” Alistair was even accused of being a brigand.
At last, a kindly old woman climbed down from the back of an ox-cart and gave them a waterskin. The grateful Wardens each took a deep drink.
Then a young man came scurrying around from the front of the cart. “Mother! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Extending aid to those in need,” she snapped.
The man snatched the waterskin from Alistair. “We are in need, Mother!” He pointedly wiped the spout off with his sleeve. “You lot, shove off!”
“If we can’t show the Maker’s kindness to each other, then the Blight ought to take us!”
“Get back in the cart, Mother!” The man threw the capped waterskin back in. “And I thought I told you lot to shove off! They’re nothing but thieves,” he growled, taking his mother by the arm and forcefully helping her back into the cart.
“Thank you, mum,” Alistair said in quiet gratitude.
“Good luck,” Bannon added. The Wardens turned and continued on their way.
“I wonder where they’re going,” the old woman mused.
“To cause trouble,” her son growled.
There came a lull in the eastward-bound traffic, and the Wardens continued in silence. They rounded a bend and travelled downslope towards what looked like some form of way station. The army was at work here. To the south lay a field of regimented tents, to the north a smaller camp surrounded by a stockade and under heavy guard. Helmeted guardsmen in brown and gold livery herded a knot of refugees up the road through a checkpoint. Beyond them, at the widest part of the road, people and vehicles were being divided up and ushered into various tents by knights in plate mail.
Bannon followed Alistair as the taller man pushed through the throng. A soldier, a short man with a bristling moustache stopped them. “Going the wrong way, friend,” he said, in a not-so-friendly manner.
“We need to get to Lothering,” Alistair said.
“Lothering’s being evacuated.”
“Yes, but we still need to get there.”
Bannon edged around Alistair. “It’s not illegal to go to Lothering, is it?”
“Uh….” The fellow pursed his lips, making his moustache stand up like a frightened wooly caterpillar.
“Right,” Bannon finished for him. “Since it isn’t, we’ll just go on through and be out of your way.” He slipped past the guardsman.
“You look very busy,” Alistair added.
“Hold it!” The guard grabbed Bannon by the arm. He shoved him over by the stone railing. “You lot wait here. And don’t move!” Grumbling curses, the soldier shoved his way past a knot of refugees, heading towards the center of the way station.
The Wardens leaned on the rail. A few fat dops of rain spat out of the sky. They looked over the northward camp with a sense of uneasiness.
Two knights came out of a tent. One was carrying a little girl. The other covered his back as a woman lunged after them. “It’s just a bruise!” the woman cried. “She fell! Children fall! It’s just a bruise! She’ll get better!”
A man ran out from the tent and seized her around the waist. “Let it go!” The woman shrieked and clawed and twisted to get away while he hung on doggedly. “You still have a chance!”
“She’s not sick!”
“You still have a chance! Think of your other children!”
The woman collapsed in a sobbing heap. The two knights silently took the child into a large tent on the western side of the camp.
“What are they doing?” Bannon asked.
Alistair slowly drew his lower lip through his teeth before answering. “Culling the ones with the Taint.” He nodded towards a pall of smoke that was rising up and mingling with the dark clouds. “They’re executing them. Burning the bodies,” he said quietly.
“Maker….” Bannon shook off a chill.
“They have to,” Alistair said, so softly he could barely be heard. “It’s like a plague. There’s no cure. No way to save them. The Taint will take them. Then it will spread.” He rubbed his face, glove leather making a rough, sand-papery sound over his beard. But his eyes were dry. It was as if he were wrung all out of them. “This is our fault. We failed. The Grey Wardens failed in their duty.”
“No,” Bannon growled. “Loghain failed to do his damned job!”
“Keep your voice down. You see that gold wyvern device on the flags? That’s Gwaren heraldry. These are Loghain’s personal soldiers.”
There was a traffic jam in the center of the roadway. Some self-aggrandizing idiot was refusing to move his wagon. Ser Landry rubbed the bridge of his nose with one gauntleted hand, feeling another headache coming on. Why did the nobles always think the rules were for everyone but them? They were a bunch of pampered children. Unlike, say, Teyrn Loghain, who had been born a common farmer. The Hero of River Dane had earned his titles, unlike these fools who had been granted them by sheer accident of birth.
“Everyone in your group is being sent into quarantine,” Landry explained for the hundredth time. “When anyone in the group is found Tainted, the whole group–”
“My group?” The nobleman’s round-featured face turned florid. “Do you think I let that filthy knife-ears anywhere near my wagon? My possessions? My person?!”
“Turn your wagon to the north ramp, Lord Kessel. After three days, you will be released from quarantine.” Ser Landry waved two more of his knights over.
“I will not! I demand to speak to your superior! You can’t do this to me!”
“I am in command here,” Landry growled, fixing the nobleman with a glower. The ass only puffed himself up like the frog who exploded himself in the story. Fine. Ser Landry ignored whatever it was he was going to say and turned to his men. “Clap him in irons and take the wagon into the stockade. I don’t have time for this.”
“What?!” the man yelped as the knights pulled him from his seat. He screeched, raving about who was going to hear about this, the local banns, the queen, the regent. No one paid him any mind.
Ser Landry turned as a guardsman trotted up, calling his name. He exchanged a quick salute with the man. Mulhoun wasn’t one to mince words. “Got a pair say they want to go in to Lothering. Human and elf. They look suspicious. They might be Grey Wardens.”
“Wardens?” Landry’s teeth clenched. “Where?”
Bannon and Alistair had turned away from the grey misery of the quarantine camp. They half-sat on the stone rail, heads tipped down to avoid having the sporadic rain splash them in the eyes. Bannon craned his neck to get a glimpse of the blowhard shem being shoved off to quarantine. At least the army was treating everyone equally.
An elven woman slipped around the back of the wagon. She looked around and spotted Bannon. She dashed over. “Excuse me,” she said politely. “My mistress left in the last ox-cart; she’ll be wondering where I am. We got separated.” She wrung her hands. “She’ll be so angry if I don’t get back to her soon.” She gave Bannon a soulful look of river blue eyes. “Can you help me?”
She was quite attractive, with strawberry-blonde hair. It was cut short in the front, but the rest was tied into two thick braids that ran down her back. She had a pretty face, soft lips… but Bannon could sense the Taint within her, like the faint whiff of rot on a bit of meat that otherwise looked good. He shot a look at Alistair, warning him to be silent. Then he smiled encouragingly at her and held out his hand.
With a big answering smile, she took it. He yanked her forward, turned, and twisted her arm around behind her. “She’s over here!” he yelled to the knights who had clearly lost something.
“Son of a bitch!” Bannon turned his hips so her heel caught him in the meaty part of his thigh, not his groin. Still, she kicked hard enough to make him wince with a grunt. She thrashed, and suddenly a knife was in her free hand. Bannon grabbed for her arm. He didn’t have very good leverage to keep her from swinging wildly at him. Fortunately, the knights ran over and seized her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. There was no helping her. She was already dead — or worse.
She whirled and spit in his face. “You lying, stinking shem-kisser!” A knight cuffed her across the face. Momentarily stunned, she stopped fighting, and they were able to drag her away.
Bannon wiped his face. It wasn’t the first time he’d been called that, with his talent for kissing up to shems, telling them what they wanted to hear. But it was the first time it had ever been true — he’d betrayed a fellow elf to the shem authorities. It was the only thing he could do, but it stung.
A blond-haired knight had returned with the bristly-moustached guard and a few other soldiers. “Thank you,” he said brusquely. “I am Ser Landry; I’m in charge of this outpost. Mulhoun tells me you’re travelling to Lothering. May I ask why?”
“We have business there,” Alistair said, since the question was directed at him. The soldiers ignored the elf. Bannon gritted his teeth and wished he could kick the shem. You didn’t say ‘business’! Now they’d think it was something shady.
“What kind of business?” the knight asked suspiciously. See!
Alistair looked blank. Bannon cut in. “Family business. Daveth, here; he has family there.” He shot Alistair a look. Hello? You’re Daveth!
Ser Landry said, “Is that right?”
“Uh, yes! Yes, my sister lives in Lothering.” Alistair nodded, warming up to his role. “We have to make sure she’s all right.”
“Lothering is being evacuated. You should wait for your sister further along.”
“But my sister is a Sister,” Alistair said. “I mean, she’s a Sister with the Chantry. She wouldn’t leave while there were still people there who needed aid.” Bannon was actually impressed with this story. The sister who’s a Sister. He’d have to remember that one.
The knight appeared to consider it, but the guardsman, Mulhoun or whatever his name was, spoke up. “They look like a couple of ruffians to me.”
It was true; they couldn’t hide their disheveled appearance. “We were lost in the Wilds,” Bannon said. Mulhoun shot him a dirty look for speaking out of turn.
“Were you at Ostagar?” Ser Landry asked pointedly.
“Yes.” It was the only plausible explanation. Soldiers at Ostagar, or thieves and looters lurking about. Bannon chose the one least likely to get them killed.
“Are you deserters?” Mulhoun growled.
“No!” Alistair snapped.
“Are you Grey Wardens?” Landry asked with a hard look.
“Grey Wardens? Hell, no!” Bannon replied heatedly. “We’re from Denerim, guards with Lord Burdock’s estate. We were up on the bridge,” he said quickly, launching a plausibly-detailed story before anyone could interrupt with bothersome questions. “One of them giant fireballs hit and — well, I got knocked out. I think they tried to drag me back to the hospital, but they must’ve lost me in the evacuation, because I woke up and it was dark, see? And everybody was gone. Or dead. And then I found Daveth here; he was wounded, and there were darkspawn all over, but we went out the back gate, you know? And ended up in the Wilds.”
Mulhoun glowered until Bannon finally shut up. “Your servant has a big mouth on him!”
“He’s not my servant!” Alistair snapped. “He’s my friend, so you better start showing him some more respect.”
There was an awkward silence, and Bannon bit the inside of his lip. The soldiers eyed the Wardens with even more suspicion. Bannon cleared his throat and stepped closer to them, lowering his voice. “Uh,” he said sheepishly, “Daveth here’s had a serious head injury. He lost a lot of his mates in the battle.” He rolled his eyes, not too unsympathetically, and tapped his pate. “He’s a little confused at times.” The men eyed Alistair again, and Bannon hoped they bought this line.
“What’s your name?” Landry asked the elf.
“Pik, ser.” Bannon tried to give them a sincere direct gaze, but it was difficult. He could smell food in the guardsman’s unsecured satchel. His eyes kept trying to bore into it, and his stomach kept grumbling.
Mulhoun growled low. “I say we should hold ’em. They might still be some stinking Grey Wardens.”
The knight’s eyes bored into them. But he said, “I don’t think so. I don’t recall there being any elves in the Wardens.”
“All the Wardens died at Ostagar,” Alistair said. He furrowed his brow in anger.
“How can you be sure?” Mulhoun demanded, squinting one eye up at the taller man.
“I saw it,” Alistair said. “From the bridge. They… the darkspawn overran them. Everyone in the ravine was killed. Everyone.” His voice went dark. He’d only seen it in his dreams, but the truth was still real.
“They led King Cailen to his death,” Landry said, his voice tight. “But they couldn’t escape their own trap. They got what they deserved.”
“Bastards,” Bannon agreed heatedly. Beside him, Alistair tensed, his fists clenched, his teeth ground. He said nothing, but hatred radiated off him like heat from a forge. The elf put a hand on his arm. “Easy, ser. You don’t want to start your nose bleeding again.” Bannon turned to the soldiers and whispered loudly, “Don’t want him to get worked up. He really hates those low-life scum who betrayed the king.”
The knight nodded, easing back half a step so he didn’t loom so threateningly. Mulhoun stubbornly folded his arms. Convincing the little terrier of a man wasn’t going to be easy. He started grilling them. “Why didn’t you come in with one of our patrols?”
Bannon glanced at Alistair to see if he were up to fielding these questions. The man only seethed in silent fury. Good. The elf said, “They shot at us, ser. They must’ve thought we were barbarians, or thieves, or something. So we ran away from them, ser.”
“How did you avoid the darkspawn?”
“We saw some.” Bannon shuddered. “We ran like hell, ser. We had to swing wide; that’s how we ended up too far east. We were aiming for Lothering.”
Mulhoun’s eyes narrowed. “How did you survive, two weeks out in the Wilds, on your own?”
Bannon opened his mouth, but wasn’t sure of a good answer to that one. Fortunately, he was saved from having to make a reply as Morrigan’s cool voice rang out behind him. “Because they are under my protection.”
Just as she appeared at the top of a broken ramp, she seemed to come out of nowhere and stride down the road towards them. The soldiers tensed, one hissed the word, “Chasind!” and several reached for their swords.
“Stay your weapons. I mean you no harm.” Morrigan finished her slow saunter to stand next to the Wardens. She levelled an icy glare at the knight and his retinue. “I have given my word to see them safely to Lothering; Lothering is where we are going.” Her tone brooked no argument.
Ser Landry studied her intently, but she did not wave under his gaze. The knight looked to the two men. “Shouldn’t you get back to your unit in Denerim?”
“They’re all dead, ser,” Bannon told him. Then the realization hit him: Arl Urien was dead! He pushed that thought aside to examine it later.
“We don’t have anyone,” Alistair said grimly. “Just my sister.”
“What’s her name?” Landry asked.
“Goldana,” Alistair answered immediately. Bannon flicked his gaze towards the man. He’d expected Alistair to need prompting or at least a moment to think on it.
“All right.” The knight’s brow smoothed as he came to a decision. “Mulhoun, escort them through the outpost.”
“But ser,” the guardsman prostested. “Shouldn’t we hold them for questioning?”
The knight rubbed his forehead. “We did question them. There’s no reason to hold them.” His pale blue eyes turned to the Wardens. “I don’t know what you’ll find in Lothering, but Maker watch over you.” He flicked his glance towards Morrigan. Politely, he bowed his head to her and stepped back, turning to offer them safe passage through the encampment.
“Yes, ser,” Mulhoun said grudgingly. He cast a suspicious glance at Morrigan, then told them to come on.
The guards went back to their posts, Ser Landry and his knights returned to their duties. The Wardens and the witch followed Mulhoun.
There were more soldiers at the west end of the outpost, guarding the road. There were a greater number of them here, and they seemed more belligerant. It was more likely some Tainted folk from Lothering and the southern holdings would try to get through here, than the other way around. Mulhoun muttered that his charges were to be allowed through. He turned to favor them with one more suspicious glare, but he found only Alistair and Morrigan. “Where’s your bloody elf?”
“Um, I don’t know,” Alistair confessed. He hadn’t really been paying attention to his companion. He’d been busy trying not to look like himself, because he thought he recognized some of the knights they had passed. The guardsman scowled furiously. To forestall any disaster, Alistair said, “He’s probably… you know.” He gestured vaguely. “He’ll be along any minute! We should just wait here. A minute. Or three.”
“Damned knife-ears,” Mulhoun grouched. He scanned the camp they had come through, but didn’t move to chase after Bannon. Just yet.
A knight in Gwaren livery and commander’s insignia came galloping down the road from Denerim. She slowed to a trot as the guards stepped back to allow her to pass. She dismounted at the command tent and tossed her reins to a knight standing nearby. “Tend my horse quickly,” she ordered. “I will not be staying long.”
“Yes, ser!” The knight saluted crisply, then he said, “Ser Landry is not in his tent, Ser Cauthrien.”
“Fetch him at once.” Cauthrien pulled her winged helmet off, shaking free her short ponytail of dark hair. “I bring orders from Teyrn Loghain.”
Bannon squeezed between a picket rail and the back of the commander’s tent. Despite the commotion out front, the back of the command tent was usually quiet, free of traffic, and out of sight. After all, the commander’s private latrine was back here — thankfully secured in its own small tent. The elf pulled out the half wheel of cheese he’d pilfered from Mulhoun’s satchel and began wolfing it down. It was some horribly smelly flavor, but he didn’t care.
He paused when he heard Ser Landry and that other knight, Ser Cuth-something enter the tent. She said she had orders from Loghain. The elf wanted to know what the mighty general was up to.
“Reports indicate that Lothering will be hit within three days,” the woman said. “The army is not slowing them down; we are suffering too many losses. Teyrn Loghain wants us to pull back.” Her voice changed volume slightly as she paced back and forth on the other side of the tent wall. “Your orders, Ser Landry, are to pack up and move your troops to Denerim. Immediately.”
“What about the quarantine? There are people who have just been placed there this hour.”
Silence followed this cold command. Bannon’s stomach gurgled, and he clutched it to try to get it to shut up. He stuffed more cheese down his gullet. Well, if he were discovered here, they’d probably take it away from him.
Ser Landry said, “And if they’re not sick?”
The woman’s tone was direct and clear. “Which would you rather? To kill a few healthy people? Or to let even one Tainted person into a crowded city like Denerim?”
With a sigh, the knight relented. “Very well. I’ll have my men do it at dawn. Then we shall be on our way to Denerim.”
“Very good.” The woman left the tent. Bannon thought he heard that Landry fellow leave as well.
He was certain when the knight came around the side of the tent and spotted him. Bannon jumped to his feet, clutching the last bit of cheese. “Wait!” the knight forestalled him. “It’s all right, Pik,” he said more gently. “Go ahead and finish.”
Bannon gulped down the food, nearly choking himself in haste. “It’s all right,” Landry insisted. He held out a satchel stuffed with a few supplies. “Here, I’d like you to take this to your friend.” The elf just eyed the packet a moment, then gave the knight a flat look. Landry let his hand drop. “Oh, of course. Mulhoun will think you’ve stolen it.” He rubbed his forehead again. “Sorry, I’ve been having– well, never mind.” Was he having a bad day? He was going to slaughter a bunch of people in the morning; couldn’t get much worse than their day. Still, the knight looked troubled. “I’ll walk you down there, then.”
Bannon licked crumbled bits cheese from his hands as he followed the knight. They quickly came upon the western guardpost, where Mulhoun was fuming and stomping around.
“You!” the irate guardsman sputtered, aiming a finger at the elf as if to spear him with it. “You stole my cheese!”
“Mulhoun,” Landry cut in smoothly; “have you been hoarding rations again?”
“Uh….” The man froze in mid-accusation, his mouth open. “Er, no ser!”
“Return to your post.”
“Yes, ser.” He scuttled off.
Ser Landry turned to Alistair and gave him the satchel. “It’s not much, I know,” he said apologetically. “Just….” Words seemed to fail him.
“Thank you,” Alistair said quietly.
Then the rain started pattering down in earnest. There was nothing more to say. The fugitives turned and started towards Lothering. The knight returned to his duties.
Alistair dug into the satchel. Cheese! Glorious cheese! He broke the small wheel in half and handed some to Bannon. The other half he started chomping on. “Looka thith,” he said, mouth full. “A razah! Oh, thanh the Makah!”
“You better not use that just yet,” Bannon said, taking a bit more time with his share of the cheese.
“How many people at Ostagar saw you hanging around with Duncan?”
The elf nodded. “Yeah, it’d be better if you were less recognizeable.”
The three of them walked on a bit in silence. Well, silent except for the sounds of starving men wolfing down food. The road continued in a steady downslope away from the outpost, and soon met the ground. Some trees gathered on the north side of the roadway, lending them a bit of shelter from the rain.
Alistair finished his cheese too quickly, and he watched Bannon finishing off his own rind. He tried not to stare, but… damn, that elf had some self-control eating so slowly! The former-Templar’s stomach growled in protest. “Listen,” he started, restraining himself from asking if the elf were going to finish eating that. “That was quick thinking, back there. I… well, I’m glad you took charge, because to be honest, I’m rubbish at that sort of thing. Actually, I was thinking….” Alistair nibbled his lip, shooting a glance towards the witch, who was remaining eerily silent behind them. This wasn’t going to be easy. If she said one word…! “I think you should be in charge. That is, in command as it were.”
Bannon gave him a quizzical look. “Me? What do I know about commanding?”
“What do you need to know? You’re just smarter than me.” Alistair sighed. “I’m really horrid at making decisions; I’m a terrible choice for a leader of anything. I’m a really terrific follower, though!”
The elf stopped. Alistair and Morrigan had to stop as well, and they faced each other. “You’re serious?” Bannon asked.
“Yes, I’m serious.” How could he make them understand? “I know I’ve been a Grey Warden for longer than you, but I don’t actually know all that much. It’s only by a few weeks, anyway. I can’t be in charge. I don’t know what to do.” Alistair’s eyes darted back and forth between the two. Puzzlement, contempt, uncertainty; that’s what he saw. “Look, if you put me in charge, I’ll just command you to be in command.”
“All right,” Bannon said, holding up a hand to make the rush of words stop. He handed the last few bites of the cheese rind to Alistair. “Go there, into those trees and find a place to wait for me. I’ll be back in a while.”
Confused, the Templar looked at the cheese. “What? Where are you going?” He looked up. The elf was already moving back up the road.
He half-turned while still walking. “Just do it. I’ll explain when I get back. Oh,” he added; “if I’m not back by nightfall, you should go on without me.”
Alistair just stared at Morrigan. The witch slowly raised one brow. Before she could find something scathing to say, he turned and found a broken spot in the stone railing where he could move into the trees. He shoved the cheese rind into his mouth.
The trees grew a bit thicker, then Alistair found a small clearing with a boulder. He contemplated sitting on the boulder, but that would mean getting more rain on himself. So he leaned back against a tree and waited.
“What do you supposed he’s up to?” Morrigan asked him.
Great, he was stuck here alone with her. “You don’t have to stay here, you know,” he told her. “We can find Lothering on our own from here.”
“I said I had given my word to see you safely to the village, and that is what I shall do.”
Alistair snorted. ‘Safely to the village’ my arse, he thought. Only if we don’t die of starvation, or exposure, or eating poisonous plants first…. He didn’t bother answering the witch’s first question, and she didn’t press him on it. Which was good, because he had no idea.