(Warnings: foul language)
Bannon went back and made free with the pompous Lord Kessel’s goods. After all, come dawn, he wasn’t going to be needing it. A fact he had to explain to Alistair when the uptight Templar started berating him for stealing from people in desperate straits. Like the Grey Wardens weren’t?
They travelled on sullenly in the rain. The clatter of hooves gave them just enough time to get off the road before a knight thundered past, coming from Lothering. Bannon had already dodged one heading west to the village; he wondered if it were the same one. Perhaps it was that woman who’d brought Ser Landry his orders. Was she looking for them? The knight hadn’t mentioned their presence, but if that bristly-faced terrier Mulhoun had caught her attention, he’d no doubt spilled his tale of suspicious Grey Wardens.
The rain had eased up into a grey drizzle when they came across the first huge break in the Highway. Half the road was in large stone chunks, piled up on the other half. The three companions picked their way past the breach. On the other side stood a wooden shack, and five grungy-looking men filed out of it. They almost looked as rough as Alistair, but these men had seen food and a razor in the past two weeks.
“Allo, allo,” the grizzled leader said cheerfully, stepping into the Wardens’ path with a raised hand. “We’re collecting taxes for the upkeep of this here King’s Highway.”
“Your king is dead,” Morrigan said sternly. “In case you hadn’t heard.”
The brigand nodded. “‘Tis in mem-o-reeum of our dearly departed ruler.” He grinned wide, showing a gap where he’d lost a lower tooth. “Don’t worry, luvvie, if you don’t have money, we do take services in trade.”
“We do?” the biggest fellow in the back asked.
“Shut up, Ox,” the leader told him wearily. “Now then, your valuables, if you please.”
Morrigan was busy glaring, so Alistair put his two coppers in. “For the ‘upkeep of the Highway’? Like that bit there?” The Templar jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“Takes a lot of money for a repair job that size.”
Ox said, “Repair job? I thought we was jus’ robbin’ them.”
The brigand leader slapped a hand to his forehead. “Can’t a body have a bit o’ fun at his job?”
Bannon nudged Alistair. “They’re highwaymen. Get it?” The Templar only rolled his eyes. Bah, wasn’t he the one who told Bannon to always keep his sense of humor? “Give them our fine-quality goods, there.”
“Those fine, high-quality items that Flemeth so kindly gave us,” Bannon reiterated with a pointed look at the bundle of cloth Alistair was carrying.
“Oh! Right!” He unslung it and handed it over to the bandit leader. The man grinned and started unwrapping the fancy shirts from each other. It would probably take him a few moments to figure out there wasn’t anything in the shirts but more shirts.
Meanwhile, Bannon opened his sack and started handing stuff to the other bandits. “Here’s a nice bedroll for you… leg of mutton for you…. Alistair, give that big fellow your shield.”
“My–? Are you sure?” The human looked at the elf as if he’d gone insane.
“Oh yes, he looks strong enough to hold it.”
Bewildered, Alistair obeyed, slinging his shield off his shoulder and handing it to Ox. Ox took it, looking just as bewildered. The big man turned it in his hands, gaping at it.
Bannon was still handing out presents from the sack. “And for you,” he said to a dark, twitchy thief, “take this!” He reached up, whipped out his sword, and brought it down in a vicious arc on the guy’s face. Bone crunched and blood spattered. Bannon kicked the guy to free his sword.
The bandits roared in fury, threw down the goods, and fumbled for their own weapons. Next to Bannon, the witch hissed an invective and a gout of flame unfurled from her hands. It engulfed the leader’s head. His scream was short-lived, as the fire burned away his mouth and throat, and his body collapsed, lifeless. The flames spilled around their target and licked towards the other brigands — not to mention Bannon! He dodged reflexively. Damned witch would kill them all!
The man behind the leader went down, the right side of his chest in flames. The other two were singed. Bannon took a swing at the nearest one’s neck. The man barely dodged, distracted as he was by fire and sword. Bannon pulled out his long dagger, knowing he would have to face two opponents and parry two blades. Morrigan wasted no time lancing the bandits with bolts of magic.
Meanwhile, Alistair drew his sword and attacked the man holding his shield. Ox tried to draw his weapon, but it was a heavy, two-handed maul. Like a child with his hand stuck in the cookie jar, he wouldn’t let go of his prize, and even as big as he was, he couldn’t wield the maul in one hand. Alistair made short work of him.
Bannon thought he’d be facing two opponents — perhaps he’d been fighting too many darkspawn. The two bandits turned and ran. The elf lunged after his target, but missed as his foot caught on something. Looking down, he realized it was twitch’s hand, grabbing him. The brigand snarled around the bloody cleft in his face. “Get them!” Bannon yelled to his companions.
Twitch was bringing his dagger to bear. Bannon thrust his sword down, his weight behind it allowing it to punch through leather armor and rib bones and into his chest.
Morrigan unleashed another white bolt of magical energy, and her target dropped with a scream. Alistair charged the other, skipping around a large crack in the roadway. Bannon shook off the hand grasping him and darted after the other Warden.
The bandit threw himself down and twisted to fix Alistair with a desperate look. “Don’t kill me!” He dropped his sword and raised his hands. “I’ll never do it again, I swear!” Alistair stopped, his sword raised. Moved by pity, he began to lower it. Bannon came up and without hesitation, thrust his sword into the man’s neck.
Alistair winced as the body slumped over. “He was surrendering!” the Templar snapped.
“Oh, come on!” the elf shot back. “He was trying to save his ass. You didn’t believe he’d really never rob anyone again, did you?”
Alistair bit his lip and looked down at the scruffy corpse. “I hate lying thieves,” he growled.
The Wardens returned to the site of the attack. Alistair insisted on draggng the corpses off the side of the road. Bannon let him do that while he talked to Morrigan.
“Fire?” he griped at the witch.
She sniffed. “I didn’t like the way he was looking at me.”
“They were holding our stuff!” The elf bent to start shoving things back into the sack.
“And what idiot started handing it all to them?”
Bannon straightened, giving the sack a good shake to settle the contents. “Come on, that was fu–!” He gave up with a sigh. “Alistair, you going to grab those shirts?”
“Not likely,” the Templar said sourly.
“What, those are highly valuable shirts. And they did just save our lives.”
“If I never see that paisley monstrosity again, it will be too soon.”
Bannon sighed and grabbed a couple of the shirts that had mostly managed to avoide being burnt, trampled, or spattered with blood. He shoved them into the sack, making a note to dry them out later. Then he went into the bandits’ shack. Everything they had pilfered now belonged to the Grey Wardens by right of conquest. Most of it was useless junk. There was a large chest. The lock was too large for Bannon’s small skeleton key, but the bandit leader had a lovely set of heavy duty lockpicks. As for the key, it might be anywhere. Bannon had the chest open in a trice. Most if it was in copper coin, but also a respectable mount of silver. Best of all were a few gold and jewelry trinkets — very portable wealth! The sack weighed three times as much when he was done.
Lothering was a little village that happened where the ancient Imperial Highway had broken down and became impassable. Traffic had to make its way through town to get past the break. A large inn was built to take advantage of this traffic, and several shops and farmsteads grew up around it. The Chantry, of course, had a presence here ever since there had been at least a dozen people to come to worship. From its humble beginnings, Lothering became a pleasant little community.
The Wardens and the witch stopped on the ramp overlooking the town. “It’s getting dark,” Alistair said, peering through the rain towards the lights. “We should head to the inn. I can’t wait to get a decent night’s rest.”
Bannon elbowed him and shot him a look. The elf turned to the witch, the Templar following suit. “Morrigan, I want to thank you for getting us safely to Lothering.”
“Um, yes. Thank you.” Alistair managed not to sound entirely like a petulant child forced to mouth the words. “But we can manage from here. I’m sure you’re anxious to get back to your mother.” That part sounded more hopeful than sure, and more of an excuse to get rid of Morrigan than anything.
“I’m not leaving,” she said.
“You’re not leaving?” Alistair goggled.
The witch crossed her arms and raised her chin. “I have seen what these darkspawn are like. I have seen what they are doing to the Wilds. Mother was right, they may simply overrun our house, leaving it a blackened wasteland.” She paused for a breath, carefully drawing a wet wisp of hair away from her face. “I wish to join you in your quest to defeat them.”
Bannon considred a moment. Then he nodded. “We’d be glad to have your help.”
“Um, excuse me!” Alistair said, instantly drestoying any credence to those words. “Can we discuss this a moment?” The Wardens moved off several paces. “Tell me you’re joking,” Alistair said low.
“Look, you’ve seen her in a fight. She’s worth two or three soldiers,” Bannon insisted. “We can use her.”
The Templar scowled, thrusting out his jaw in mulish ire. “Balanced, negatively, by the fact she may yet just kill us. Or — ” he was quick to add– “drive me mad enough to run her through.” At least he had the presence of mind to lower his voice to a whisper so the witch wouldn’t overhear that part.
“I can handle her,” Bannon said, slowly and firmly. “If you just don’t antagonize her into incinerating us. Do you think you can manage that much?”
Alistair ground his teeth. “Things will have to change.” He turned back to Morrigan. “If you come with us,” he told her, “you’re not in charge any more. You have to do as we say.”
“Of course,” she agreed with cool aplomb. “My expertise is in the Wilds, and in magic. In your quest as Grey Wardens, I am at your disposal.” She actually sounded the faintest bit humble, there. As cold and uncaring as she seemed on the outside, she must truly be disturbed by the thought of the Blight destroying her home.
“Well,” Alistair said brightly; “you can humbly serve and p– OW!” This last when Bannon elbowed him hard in the gut. Damn, but those metal plates hurt. He was going to have to find a stick or something to smack Alistair with.
“I will obey orders from the commander of the expedition,” Morrigan told Alistair pointedly. “Since you are too incompetent to lead.”
“I am not! I — uh….” Alistair got tangled up in his own lie, since that’s basically why he’d told Bannon to take the lead earlier. “I just don’t like to.”
“Oh, you are simply so weak that you enjoy submitting to someone junior to yourself in rank. That’s quite unusual in a Templar.”
“I am not! I do not!”
Bannon walked towards Lothering, clearly almost forgotten in the exchange. The witch and Templar followed, still bickering. The elf seriously hoped he could get these two a private room!
Actually getting to the inn wasn’t so simple. Lothering was overrun with refugees. A couple of townsmen acting as guards turned them away at the bridge leading into the village, yet again accusing them of being ruffians, or brigands, or something worse. Bannon expressed an openness to paying a bribe, but they scoffed at his silver coins.
So they picked their way through the mud of a ramshackle camp. Feral eyes stared at them from dirty faces. People clutched their meagre belongings tighter. The whole place smelled of sewage. It was, in fact, worse than the alienage in Denerim.
Bannon found a place for them to ford the stream and sneak into town. It didn’t help that the stream was clearly used as the latrines for the camp. The shems complained about the muck and the stench, but they couldn’t get much dirtier and wetter than they already were. Maybe the rain would wash them down some.
They made it to the inn; the place was packed. Smoke hazed the air near the high rafters; the smell of food, ale, sweat, and wet human filled the air. Every chair and bench was full. Some people even huddled under the tables, or on the floor, in the corners, on the stairs. The Wardens stood in the entry, blinking in the bright light, dripping on the floor. Morrigan wasted no time in going to the fireplace and pushing her way to a spot near the flames. A lot of her outfit was skin; it should dry quickly.
Bannon threaded his way through the crowd to the bar. He pulled off his helmet to let his ears unkink for a while. “How much for a loaf of bread and three bowls of stew?”
“Forty-eight silver,” the barman grumbled.
Bannon choked at the outragous price. He’d thought the bandits’ money had left them well-off, but at this rate…! He dreaded asking how much for a room.
The barman snorted at his reaction. “You don’t like it? Complain to that weasel Stafford. Food’s scarce these days.” He planed one hand over his balding pate. “Room is dear too, so don’t go asking. If you can find a place to sit, welcome to it.” He gestured at the crowded tables.
A burly soldier shoved his way to the bar on Bannon’s left. “Piss off, you grubby knife-ears.” Grubby? The man’s splintmail hadn’t seen a proper scrubbing in a while. Rust and dried blood caked between the plates. Another soldier bumped Bannon’s right arm roughly as he bellied up to the bar.
“I got money, same as you,” the elf growled low.
“Probably stole it, same place you stole those weapons, and your pretty armor.” The guy on the right tugged at the leather pauldron covering Bannon’s shoulder. The elf jerked his arm away, wary of being pushed into the first soldier. These were the fine soldiers of Ferelden, charged with protecting and helping the citizens? They weren’t any better than the thugs robbing people.
Alistair moved into a space quickly being created around the beleagured elf. “Leave him alone!”
The soldier on Bannon’s right kept a close eye on him, ready to stop him if he tried to draw his sword. The other one turned and gave Alistair a scathing once-over. “Hey, Knight-Seargent Pierce,” he called. “Looks like that scruffy man and his little elf Ser Cauthrien told us about.”
More soldiers appeared as the crowd melted further back. One wore the plate armor and insignia of a seargent, and the livery of Gwaren. Shit, thought Bannon. He carefully turned and started counting soldiers.
“You two,” the knight-seargent growled as he stepped forward. “You’re Grey Wardens!” The crowded tavern went deathly silent. All eyes turned on Alistair and Bannon. The glares ranged between wary to downright hostile.
“No we’re not!” Alistair insisted. Brilliant save, that.
The knight stopped two paces from him, glowering with hatred. Before he could do or say anything, a Chantry Sister pulled away from the crowd and stood beside the two men. She was short, with a waif-like face, and red hair neatly tied back. “Gentlemen,” she said, her voice soft, yet pitched to carry easily over the entire common room. “There is no need for trouble. Surely these men are simply more poor souls seeking refuge.”
The knight put out a hand. “Stay out of this, Sister. We don’t want anyone hurt, but you’ll get the same as these traitors if you try to interfere.”
“Just how are we traitors?” Bannon challenged him.
“Regent Loghain claims the Grey Wardens betrayed the king and led him to his death.”
“And you believe that?” Alistair asked. “The Wardens died defending King Cailen!”
“They failed in their treachery,” Ser Pierce insisted. “They got caught in their own trap and perished — as they deserved!”
“It’s Loghain who is responsible for the death of the king,” Alistair shot back heatedly. “He didn’t attack with the reinforcements!”
“It was a lost cause.” Pierce didn’t back down. “General Loghain recognized the trap and pulled us out. He saved all of us from slaughter.” If Alistair thought he could reason with this man, he was deluding himself. The knight was clearly loyal to their leader.
“Can I give him my shield now?” Alistair asked over his shoulder.
“Hell, yeah,” Bannon said. “Give him your helmet, too.” The knight had been eating, he wasn’t wearing his helmet. Alistair still had his on. If he just head-butted the guy, the rim of the visor would cave in his nose. But, judging by Alistair’s confused hesitation, Templars weren’t trained to fight that way.
“Grab the Wardens!” Pierce snarled. “Kill anyone who gets in your way!” His sword cleared the scabbard and met Alistair’s overhead in a ringing clang.
Bannon dropped straight to the floor as the soldiers lunged for him. They managed to bruise their hands on each other’s armor. Bannon didn’t bother going for the blades strapped to his back. He pulled out his belt knife and stabbed up under one man’s armored skirting and into his groin. It didn’t kill him straight away, but he dropped, and his screaming unnerved his comrades.
The elf dove against the other man’s legs, throwing him into several patrons crowded at the bar. Bannon used the reprieve to draw his sword and long dagger.
“Look out!” The redheaded Chantry Sister appeared at his side, a sword in her hand having materialized from somewhere. Bannon ducked and she deflected another soldier’s blade from his neck. Bannon had counted six of them. An arrow whizzed past his face from the direction of the kitchen. Make that seven.
“Morrigan! Archer!” The soldier Bannon had toppled got himself back on his feet with some shoving from the people he’d landed on. They pushed him right into Bannon’s swordthrust. The shock of the blade hitting armor ran up his arm. It also knocked the wind out of the soldier. Bannon cut across with his short blade, slicing open the man’s neck.
Two more closed in on him and the Sister. Another charged Alistair’s back while he was fencing with their leader. Flashes of blue-white magic blazed between bodies and struck their targets. “Stay down!” Alistair yelled at the panicked people. Some tried to flee, coming dangerously close to getting skewered in the fight. Most had the sense to dive under a table.
The Chantry Sister’s blade danced and rang against her opponent’s. She wielded it handily, but didn’t seem to be able to land any killing blows. The soldier called her something one really oughtn’t call the Maker’s nuns, and redoubled his attack.
When one of his companions joined the fray, she exploded into a whirlwind of blows. “I tried to be merciful!” she snarled viciously as blood flew. She opened one man’s neck; he fell with a shocked look on his face. She turned gracefully and stabbed the other through the armpit. Wheezing blood, he collapsed next to his comrade in arms.
Bannon knew if he tried to imitate her finesse, he’d be the one who got skewered. So he stuck to the basics: boot to the groin, stab to the chest, slash to the neck. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
Between their blades and Morrigan’s magic, they finished off all the soldiers. Alistair still fought the knight-seargent, blade to blade, shield to shield. Bannon and the Sister flanked him, presenting a unified wall of blades.
“Stop!” the knight cried. “I yield.” He lowered his sword and shield and dropped to one knee.
“Drop your weapon,” Alistair said, drawing back into a defensive stance. The knight complied, and Bannon bit back a curse. Not again!
The nun drew back as well. With a twirl of her blade, she shook blood from it and slid it into a sheath at her belt. “You have defeated him,” she stated, looking pointedly at Bannon and his blades. “He is no longer a threat to you.”
Bannon snorted. “The first thing he’s going to do is run off and bring more soldiers.” He hefted his sword to get a good bead on the man’s throat.
The Sister moved to block him. “You cannot kill him! He has surrendered.”
“We can’t afford to let Loghain know where we are.”
“Perhaps he will swear not to.” Her sea-blue eyes pleaded for mercy.
Bannon glanced at Alistair. The human bit his lip. He didn’t like this, but it was his own damned fault for accepting the knight’s surrender. “You heard him,” Bannon said low. “He believes Loghain. He is too loyal to let this pass.” Alistair licked his lips and looked away.
Bannon moved past the Sister, pressed close to the knight. The man was backed up against a table. Bannon gripped the top of the shield with his left hand, pinning the hilt of his long dagger against the rim. He pushed the shield down until the tip rested firmly on the floor, so he could look into the shem’s face. His sword he held firmly, but not threateningly. “So. Would you betray Loghain? To save your life, I mean.”
Pierce met his stare levelly. Sweat gleamed on his brow from the intense fight with Alistair. He slowly clenched his jaw. He swallowed.
“You’re loyal to Loghain,” Bannon insisted. “No matter what we say, or do, or come to an agreement over, you’re going to go straight to him and report, send more of his men after us. Isn’t that right?” He shoved his weight against the knight’s shield, shaking him. “Yes or no?”
Knight-Seargent Pierce made a decision. He lifted his chin proudly. “Yes. That’s right.”
Bannon struck, thrusting his sword into the man’s throat. Trust a knight to get all chivilrous over dying. “Unfortunate,” the elf growled, stepping back to let the body slump to the floor. He said it to make the nun feel better — as well as Alistair, and the tavern patrons still gathered within earshot. Louder, he said to everyone, “The Grey Wardens are not the betrayers at Ostagar. Loghain left the king to die. He withdrew the army so he could return to Denerim and seize the empty throne. The Wardens only want one thing: to end this Blight.”
He turned back to make sure the Chantry Sister wasn’t about to skewer him for murdering an unarmed man or something. She seemed mollified by the knight’s acceptance of his own execution. Alistair looked unhappy as well, but he had to know it was the best course.
“I apologize for interfering,” the nun said. Her voice had a strange lilt to it, giving it a musical quality. “I am surprised that an elf is a Grey Warden,” she said, looking at Bannon again. Then she gave her attention to Alistair. “But they must want to see the Blight ended, too, as much as anyone, I suppose.”
Alistair nodded politely. As a Templar trained in the Chantry, he was far too polite to interrupt or ignore the clergy. “Oh, forgive my manners once more,” she said. Did she apologize for treating Bannon like Alistair’s dog? Of course not. “I have not properly introduced myself. My name is Leliana.”
Bannon ignored her as she prattled on about the Maker and the Chantry. Let Alistair deal with her. He rifled Ser Pierce’s belt pouch, then moved to the other soldiers. He also went to check on Morrigan, who hadn’t deigned to give up her spot by the fire. He looked at the corpse sprawled at her feet. “That doesn’t look like a soldier.”
“I didn’t like the way he was looking at me.” She said it loudly enough that the others near the fire heard.
Again? Bannon shrugged. That was the witch’s business. He handed her a key that he’d gotten off one of the actual soldiers. “I’ve procured a room for you, for the night.” She snorted, but at least it was an appreciative snort. The townsman or farmer or whoever he’d been didn’t have anything of value on him.
“Some food would not be amiss,” Morrigan suggested imperiously, rather than, say, asking. “Or shall I go hunt in the night?”
“Just getting to that,” he assured her. She followed him back across the room. They paused in the middle of the carnage, where Alistair was still held hostage by the chatting nun.
Leliana’s sea-blue eyes caught upon Morrigan. “And who is this enchanting creature?”
“Creature?” Morrigan repeated with a frown.
Alistair jumped in. “Uh, this is Morrigan. She’s with us.” He didn’t say the word ‘unfortunately,’ but he hardly needed to. The implication of his tone was quite clear. The Templar turned to Bannon, possibly sensing the elf about to make another escape. “Leliana here has been telling me about this prophetic dream she’s had.”
“Yes,” the Sister agreed. “The Maker sent me a vision. I am here to help you.”
“Oh, the Maker sent you?” Bannon said cheerily. “Welcome aboard!”
“Then… you believe me?” Her whole face brightened. “Oh, I knew the Maker sent me a True Dream! A vision, that by serving you, I serve His holy plan.”
Bannon blinked. Oh. She was serious? Alistair stared goggle-eyed at him. Morrigan gave him a speculative look. “Perhaps your skull was cracked worse than Mother thought.”
Just to annoy them more, Bannon grinned. Hey, if the Maker wanted to send him a redhead to serve him…! “The Grey Wardens accept aid wherever it is offered, my lady.” He swept a graceful bow. Leliana’s smile widened, causing her cheeks to dimple. Alistair rolled his eyes.
Morrigan said, “Please. I thought you were procuring our food. Preferably before I become even more nauseous.”
Bannon returned to his vacated place at the bar. The barman was much paler than the last time he’d seen him. “I don’t want any trouble,” the man blurted. “Your business is… yours.” His eyes darted towards the cooling bodies. “But please….”
Bannon held up a placating hand. “Sorry about the mess,” he said pleasantly. “I’m sure whoever you get to clear out the bodies would be happy to have salvage rights on their weapons and armor.” The barkeep bobbed his head, his adam’s apple jumping up and down in counterpoint. “And,” Bannon coninued brightly, “I understand you’ve just had some rooms become vacant. Don’t worry about the keys, we have those. If you could just point out which rooms they are…?”
“Certainly, ser! Second floor; the one at the end of the hall, and the corner room next to it.”
Bannon also had the man send food up to their rooms. No mention was made of paying extra. Alistair was concerned the rooms would be shared, with so many people crowding the place and even sleeping in the halls. Bannon assured him that soldiers don’t share. The fact that they had two rooms meant they weren’t even sharing with each other. Hell, if he was going to steal rooms at the inn, he was going to get the best!
Leliana had a pack and a lute in a corner of the room — items no one dared touch after her display in the fight. She gladly accepted an offer to stay in Morrigan’s room. The witch seethed, but could say nothing. After all, she was a guest of the Grey Wardens as well.
They had to cross the crowded room to get to the stairs. They had no trouble whatsoever. People got out of their way. Bannon noticed the frightened faces, the eyes cast aside, and he tried to supress a smile that crept across his face. He’d just killed (murdered, in cold blood) a ranking shem knight in front of dozens of people. And no one dared do a thing about it. He felt like a beast — one of those heraldic desert lions. When they came prowling through, all the smaller animals stepped aside.
Of course, it was quite possible there’d be a contingent of Templars out front tomorrow morning, waiting to arrest him. He pushed that thought aside. For now, he was somebody. Somebody dangerous.
The corner room was quite spacious; it had two beds and a table. Bannon wondered if the soldiers had slept three and four in the rooms, or if Pierce had kept this one all to himself. The Wardens devoured at least four helpings of dinner. Even Bannon felt a little piggish, so he sent some silvers down with the barmaid to help cover the cost. Plus he had them haul up hot water and wash cloths. There was no tub, but after cold streams and ponds in the Wilds, the two men were in the lap of luxury.
Alistair scrubbed at his beard and contemplated himself in the small mirror over the wash basin. “Say, Bannon… I was thinking. Since Loghain’s men already recognized us anyway, um, can I…?”
“Oh please, yes! That thing gives me nightmares.”
Alistair grabbed the soap and razor. “Oh, thank the Maker!”
“You’re welcome,” Bannon quipped as he sorted through the loot, junk, and assorted shirts in the sack.
Alistair snorted. “Listen,” he said, carefully trimming his beard; “about this Sister Leliana…. You don’ actually believe the Maker speaks to her?”
Bannon shrugged. “No. Well, don’t you? You were trained in the Chantry, right? I thought you believed in the Maker.”
“I do! It’s just that the Maker does not go around talking to people.” He put down the razor and soaped up the bristles on his face. “We have a word for people who hear the voice of the Maker. It’s called ‘insane.'”
“Insane nun or not, I don’t see how you can complain about her. Not after Morrigan.”
“So you are serious about taking her with us?”
“Why not?” said the elf. “She wants to fight darkpsawn. Anyone who does has to be crazy, anyway.”
“Can’t argue with that.” Alistair tipped his head and drew the razor along his jaw. “But fighting isn’t something they teach the cloistered Sisters.”
Bannon shook out the damp shirts and draped them over the chair backs. He put Alistair’s favorite paisley one on the footboard of his bed. “You didn’t see her in that brawl. Oh, she can fight.”
“Maybe she’s not actually a Sister?”
“Probably not.” Bannon repacked their collection of belongings. He’d have to see about finding a sturdier pack tomorrow. When Alistair finished shaving, he tossed the human a full waterskin.
“What’s this for? They have fresh water here.”
“It’s Lord Kessel’s. And it’s not a waterskin.”
Alistair’s eyes lit up. “Wine? Oh yes, thank the Maker!” He popped the spout open and took a gulp. “Splaugh! For a Lord, he sure keeps cheap wine.”
Bannon shrugged — like he knew good wine? He leaned back on the pillows at the head of his bed, stretching out his legs. “You know, you missed a spot.” He tapped his chin, just below his lips.
Alistair rubbed a finger over his own chin. “Oh, that’s how I wear my beard. You don’t like it? It says, ‘I am a man. But I am subdued.'”
The elf thought it said, ‘I’m careless and I don’t know how to shave properly yet,’ but what did he know about beards? “I’ve seen worse.” That was no lie.
Alistair tipped his head back, his reddened, newly-shaven throat working as he gulped the wine. He lowered the skin and let out a prodigious burp. “Oh. ‘Scuse me.”
Bannon chuckled. He was such a Chantry-boy! “‘Salright. Hey, remind me sometime to teach you how to fight dirty.”
“Templars don’t fight dirty!”
Obviously! “You’re not a Templar,” Bannon reminded him.
“Grey Wardens fight dirty?”
“Grey Wardens get the job done.” Bannon waved a finger in his general direction. “You could’ve ended that fight with the seargent before it started. One headbutt to the face. Bam!”
Alistair made a face at that thought. “He was a damned good swordsman, though.”
“My point exactly. He might’ve coulda taken you.”
The Templar (ex-Templar) frowned and mulled over his wineskin. “Listen. I don’t… I mean, I asked you to take charge, and I’m not saying you were wrong, but…. I don’t know about killing people after they surrender.”
“Come on, Alistair. The guy admitted it, he was just going to turn around and try to capture or kill us again.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” he said placatingly. “And about the thief, too. Just… sometimes, some people deserve a second chance.”
“Look, don’t worry about it,” Bannon said. “If we meet someone like that, then sure.”
“Ah, good.” Alistair got up and put out the candles. He noticed the paisley shirt and shot it an evil look, but didn’t say anything. He turned the lamp on the stand between the beds down low, leaving the room dimly lit with a warm, comforting glow. The human climbed into his bed, propping himself up on the pillows, and the two Wardens drank their wine in companionable silence.
It reminded Bannon of home. Oh, it was bigger than home, with a much nicer bed, but it was four wooden walls, sturdy furniture, comfortable shadows, and the drift of voices from the crowd. He wondered what his dad was doing — snoring up a storm, probably. And Shianni… he hoped she was all right.
Arl Urien was dead, so he wouldn’t be screaming for vengeance over Vaughn’s death. Bannon tried to think that would be good news for Soris, but he just didn’t see how. There was no Arl in Denerim, so who would be in charge? Not the queen; the knight had called Loghain ‘Regent.’ That meant he was running the kingdom for his daughter, Queen Anora. Would Loghain declare pardons for all criminals held in Fort Drakon in celebration of his regency? Hell, no. He’d probably start ordering a lot of executions. Clear the place out that way.
Bannon drained his wineskin, looking for peace. He couldn’t do anything to help his cousin. He was far away, and Maker knew, he had his own problems staying alive. The wine didn’t last long enough. Bannon threw it angrily to the foot of his bed, then rolled onto his side, drawing the coverlet up over his shoulder.
Alistair’s voice drifted muzzily out of the darkeness. “Hey, Bannon…?”
“I wanted to say, I’m sorry.”
“I really lost it. After… after Ostagar.” The human’s voice was low, a bit slurred with wine, and carried a strained timbre. “Duncan warned me. We were in a battlefield, for Andraste’s sake; any one of us could die at any time. I- I should have handled it better. Especially with so much riding on us. I’m sorry.”
“I’d like him to have a proper funeral. One day. Duncan, I mean. He didn’t have any family.”
“You two were close,” Bannon said.
“Yes. He was like a father to me. Maybe he saw — eh, I dunno.” Alistair’s voice drifted. “Highever; I think he said he was from there. Maybe I’ll go there, someday. After all this is over. I’d like to build him a memorial….” After a moment, he came back. “Have you… ever had someone close to you die?”
“Yes,” Bannon answered. “My mother was killed.”
“It… it was years ago. It’s….” Bannon shrugged under his covers. “I didn’t handle it very well, either.”
Bed ropes creaked as the human shifted position. “Thanks for talking.”
Leliana sat in her bed, watching the dark-haired woman prepare for sleep. Morrigan pulled the pins from her hair, letting it fall in a midnight cascade down over her shoulders. “I could braid that for you,” Leliana suggested.
“No.” The other woman deftly twisted the hair into a loose rope that would keep it from going wild and snarling itself as she slept.
“You do have exquisite hair,” the Chantry Sister prattled. “Perhaps tomorrow we can try another style on it, yes? And I have plenty of make-up. I think I have a plum eyeshadow that will really make your exotic eyes shine.”
Morrigan rolled those exotic eyes. “I don’t think so.”
“But you do wish to catch the eye, yes? Of course you do. That brave fall of fabric, showing off your skin, looking almost bare from the rear.” The Sister smiled wistfully. “And that jewelry, drawing the eye to the center of your chest, where the cloth is artfully arranged to reveal just enough, hm?” She wrinkled her nose conspirationally.
Slowly, Morrigan turned to her. “Are you staring at my breasts?” she asked dangerously.
“But of course.” The waif’s sea-blue eyes blinked. “Is that not the effect you were trying to achieve?”
The witch ground her teeth. “Look here, Sister, I’ll make you a deal. You cut out the personal remarks, and you’ll wake up with all your skin intact. Deal?”
Leliana lowered her gaze and… was she pouting? “Very well. If you insist.”
Morrigan returned to the small mirror, regarding her reflection. She turned her head this way and that. Eyeshadow, hm? “I do not wish to look like a raccoon,” she said snippily. She tried hooding her eyes. Was that making the shadows darker?
“I promise, the effect will be bold, yet subtle.”
“Hm.” Ridiculous! Morrigan was already beautiful, what did she need painting and decorating for? “We shall see,” she said. Completely noncommitally, of course.