Lothering, Day (part 1)


 
Party Banter: The Bandersnatch

The next morning….

Bannon: Alistair, where’s that shirt that was hanging here?

Alistair: Oh… you know what? I think the window was unlatched last night, and a bandersnatch got in and, well, snatched it.

Bannon: Bandersnatch?

Alistair: Yes; they do that, you know. Very common around here.

Bannon: That’s a shame… I know how much you liked that shirt.

Alistair: Mm, yes! I’m heartbroken.

 

 
Lothering: Day (part 1)
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(Warnings: language)

 

The next day, Alistair and Morrigan were constantly getting into verbal battles over… just about anything and everything. Leliana followed quietly, wondering how long the two had known each other. They seemed quite embroiled. And that elf that was with them, almost every time they started bickering, the elf would just simply vanish. As the verbal fencing wound down, Alistair would look around in bewilderment and wonder where Bannon had gone.

By the time the elf appeared again, the two were having another spat. Bannon rolled his eyes. “Are they still at it?” he asked Leliana.

“Not still,” she clarified. “Merely ‘again.'”

“Do you guys need to go back to the room?” Bannon asked loudly. “Spend some time alone together?”

“What?” yelped Alistair. “Eeuw!”

“Certainly not,” said Morrigan with a shudder.

Leliana frowned in puzzlement. “You’re not lovers?”

“NO!” both of them yelled at once.

Morrigan said, “I’d just as soon kiss a toad.”

“You’ve probaby done that a lot,” Alistair shot back. “Along with eating bugs and worms. Real catch for any prince you discover.”

“Is that all you know of the world?” Morrigan purred with sickly sweetness. “Stories your mummie told you as a child?”

“Don’t you talk about my mother, you witch!”

Leliana turned to Bannon to comment… but the elf had vanished again.

 

 

It was amazing what people left lying around, guarded only by a cheap lock. Or simply tucked into an out-of-the-way corner or nook. You’d think people as desperate as the refugees in Lothering would keep a closer eye on their possessions. Then Bannon realized that the people here now were mostly squatters. They didn’t own any of the homes or shops, places with locks on the doors, so they had to make do.

There wasn’t any money, of course. So he ended up with a bulging sack of junk he thought maybe he could sell or trade. He found another sack (no decent carrying packs yet) and divided out what he wanted to trade away. The other sack, he dropped off on Alistair when he was checking up on their little group. Alistair and the witch were still going on about Templars and apostates, paying the elf hardly any mind. Which suited his purposes just fine. Industriously, he slipped away again.

“Where is it you are running off to, now?”

Bannon turned. The Chantry Sister, Leliana, was following him. She must’ve found the lovers’ quarrels less amusing after finding out they were just the squabbles of children. “I’m looking for that merchant,” he said.

“He has his wagons set up near the Chantry.”

“Oh.” Bannon did an about-face and headed in that direction. Leliana fell into step beside him. “So did you learn to fight like that in the Chantry?” he asked her.

“Oh no; of course not. I wasn’t always a cloistered sister, you know.” She brushed strands of red hair from her face. “Back in Orlais, I was a, well, a minstrel, really.” She smiled. “Songs and stories were my life. I was an artist, creating beautiful music, word-smithing….” Her words trailed off with fond memories. Her attention returned a few moments later, her words hardened, became less fanciful. “But, when a young woman travels alone, she must learn to protect herself, yes? Yes, of course!”

Bannon nodded. “Do you always fight in a robe?” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “I mean, do you have any armor?”

“Oh, no, I do not. As for fighting, I prefer to resolve conflict through reason, negotation, and compromise.”

“Well, that’s not going to work on darkspawn, trust me.” Bannon grinned wryly, trying to picture the delicate little woman reasoning with a hurlock. “Do you have any money? We should see about getting you something a bit more sturdy.”

“I have some coin, yes. Though lately people have been more concerned with paying for food, and have nothing left to give for song.”

The merchant — Stafford was his name, Bannon recalled — had three wagons drawn up near the Chantry wall. They were guarded by a trio of vicious mongrels. Not mabari hounds, but big enough and with long, toothy jaws. As soon as Bannon came near, they were barking and giving him the evil eye.

“Quiet, Slasher!” Stafford was a burly human, strong of arm, but going a bit paunchy in the stomach. He had a sharp face and small eyes; his black hair and close-cut beard held a faint oily sheen. “What do you want, knife-ears? Keep your grubby hands away from my goods.” His eyes shifted to Leliana. “Now what? More fanatics?”

He knew Leliana? “I’m with the Grey Wardens,” Bannon told the man. “We need some supplies. I’ve come to trade.” He hefted his sack meaningfully.

Stafford’s eyes widened a moment, with a flash of wariness that he quickly covered up. Good, he must’ve heard about the Wardens killing Loghain’s soldiers last night. That should make him easier to deal with. Then the merchant got a canny look on his face that Bannon didn’t like. “Grey Warden, of course. You seem quite capable — run off this rabble, and we can talk business.”

The ‘rabble’ consisted of a couple of farmers and a pinch-faced woman in Chantry robes. Ah, the other fanatic.

“We are not rabble,” the Sister snapped. “You are profiting from people’s misfortune!”

“I’m a businessman,” he growled back. “I have limited goods. The people decide what price they will pay.”

“You bought almost all your supplies from these very same people just last week! And now that they are in desperate straits, you sell it back to them at four times the cost!”

Leliana nodded. “All along the roads to Lothering, profiteers have been preying on the refugees.”

“Lower your prices,” the Chantry Sister said, “or be driven out of this town!”

“If I leave, there won’t be any supplies!”

“I should have the Templars seize all your wares and give them away!”

“You can’t do that!”

“Hold it, hold it!” Bannon cut in. The combatants quit glaring daggers at each other. He gave them a second to calm down, then spoke reasonably. “Look,” he said to the Sister, “if he lowered his prices, people with money would just buy up everything they could and turn around and sell it for even more. It won’t help anything.”

Leliana frowned at him. “You cannot be taking his side.”

“It’s not ‘sides,’ it’s the truth,” Bannon insisted.

“And if the Templars were to distribute the goods evenly?” the red-headed Sister asked. “Make sure that everyone is given what he or she needs?” The Chantry women moved closer together, forming a united front.

“They can’t,” Bannon said to quickly defuse the situation. “There aren’t enough supplies. Some will have to go without.”

“And the only criteria for who deserves these supplies is money?” Leliana wrinkled her nose in distaste.

Bannon looked at the other Chantry Sister. “You can’t use your authority with the Templars to rob somebody.” The woman dropped her gaze. “If the Chantry has money, and you want to buy him out and give it away, you’re welcome to.” He had her when he’d pointed out her threat to commit a felony. He tossed her a bone with the rest. The Chantry was as tight with its money as anyone else.

Stafford told the protesters to push off. Clearly, he was a genius at winning loyal customers. The Sister and the farmers slunk off, while Leliana just stood by and fumed. “Now,” the merchant said with a wide wolfen smile; “shall we see about your discount?”

“What, you’ll only charge me three times as much, instead of four?”

Stafford laughed, but he didn’t deny it, either.

They spent a great deal of time haggling. Bannon managed to secure sturdy packs, some camping gear, travelling supplies. Not too much in the way of food, that still cost too dearly. The Wardens would have to supplement that with hunting, though Bannon shied away from relying on that particular skill. Morrigan might hunt for them, now that they were in charge. Though she probably wasn’t joking about regurgitated meat.

Bannon also asked after a set of armor for Leliana, but Stafford said he didn’t have anything suitable, unless she was built like one of Loghain’s soldiers or was an eight foot giant. They’d have to make do scrounging for it elsewhere. With their luck, a woman mercenary or thief would attack them, and it would be settled.

They went back over the bridge to meet up with the others. Leliana said nothing. Judging by that little line between her brows, she was still miffed at him.

They found Alistair and Morrigan in the yard before the inn. Leliana marched right up to Alistair and started in on him. “Do you have any idea what this elf of yours has been up to while he is out of your sight?” Alistair’s brows went up; he took a step back and put up his hands defensively. The Chantry Sister turned on Bannon. “Tell him what you’ve done.”

“What did you do?” Alistair asked hesitantly.

“I got us a good deal on some supplies,” Bannon replied with a grin. “Not much in the way of food, but we still have a fair amount of coin. Once we get away from Lothering, we should be in good shape when we get to Redcliffe.”

“Oh,” said Alistair. “That’s good.”

Leliana’s eyes flared at Bannon. “You convinced Sister Amica to let that venal merchant bleed the poor people of Lothering dry!”

“I told you, if it wasn’t him, it’d be someone else.”

“‘Tis only survival of the fittest,” Morrigan inserted. No one bothered to remark on her attitude this time.

“The Chantry would have distributed the goods fairly to those most in need!” Leliana insisted.

Bannon rubbed his brow. Come on, shem-kisser, smooth talk her around to your side. But you know what? He didn’t feel like it. “Did you miss the entire conversation?” he said harsly. “There’s no way to distribute it fairly. Some of these people are going to die and trust me, starving to death is the least of their worries.”

“What do you mean?”

Alistair said gently, “Lothering is in the path of the darkspawn horde. In a few days, this place will be overrun.”

Her sea-storm eyes widened. “But… the army….”

“They’re pulling out,” Bannon said, and Alistair nodded. “We came through an encampment up the road. They got the orders to move out yesterday.”

Leliana’s mouth dropped slack. Certainly, the approach of the Blight was not news to her. Perhaps no one expected it so soon. “But… you are Grey Wardens. Can you do nothing?”

“Like what?” asked Bannon. “Stand on a hill and wave; tell the darkspawn the army went that-a-way?” He softened a bit. “There’s only two of us. Our Order was betrayed. The army’s gone home to roost in Denerim. I’m sorry, but we can’t save everyone by ourselves. We need to gather our allies, our own army, or the whole nation will be lost.”

Leliana dropped her head. “Like in my dream.”

“Yeah.” Bannon looked at Alistair. The human looked shadowed by the reminders of death and betrayal. Bannon handed him a large pack. “So, what have you been up to?” he asked on a bit of a brighter note.

Morrigan answered curtly, “We have been solving everyone’s petty little problems, and grubbing around for weeds.”

“We met the village elder,” Alistair explained. “Morrigan helped brew some healing potions to restock their supplies.”

“What ‘helped’? I did all the work.”

“Well, who was the one actually grubbing around and digging in the dirt for roots?” Alistair shot back.

“‘Twas the only task you were qualified for.”

Did these two never stop? Bannon bit back a grimace. The Wardens could have used some of those healing potions. Why had Alistair given them away? “Did you get paid?”

“Yes,” Alistair assured him. “Also, there’s reports of a large bandit gang lurking in the countryside just west of the cornfields. The Chantry is offering a reward for taking care of them.”

“In gold?” Bannon stroked his chin. He wondered if there was a similar bounty on the toll-road bandits.

“Yes,” said Alistair.

The elf tapped a finger against his lips a moment. “All right, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll go clear out the bandits — we have to go that way anyway; we don’t want them harassing us. Then we’ll get some lunch at the tavern and head out.” He looked at each in turn, and handed Morrigan the pack she was intended to carry. Give her less of an opportunity to complain. “Does that sound good? We really need to get out of here as soon as possible.”

No one had any objections. Alistair suggested leaving their packs in their rooms. Bannon was concerned about theft, but Morrigan assured them she knew a spell perfect for keeping intruders out of one’s room. At least half of the spell seemed to be glaring at the innkeeper and loudly warning him not to send any servants up there that he didn’t want incinerated.

Then they prepared to go bandit hunting. Bannon was glad to see Sister Leliana had a crossbow as well as a sword. That should keep her out of range of the thick fighting. It wouldn’t do for her to get her Chantry robes blood-spattered again.

As they passed the town’s farm gate, the hubub of the crowded town died down. From somewhere up ahead came a low chanting. The lane was flanked by a sturdy post and rail fence, and at the end of this stood a large iron cage. Inside the cage was a giant.

He stood eight or nine feet tall, thick horns on either side of his head brushing the top of the cage. He was broad and muscular with a thick greyish skin. A shirt stretched across his back and hung two-thirds of the way down his torso, unbuttoned. The arms had been ripped out in order to fit him even that much. It had probably been donated by a rotund farmer at the Chantry’s behest in their quest for a modicum of decency. He wore nothing else but a breechclout and a kilt made of a small blanket.

Bannon had never seen a qunari up close before. Sometimes, qunari mercenaries passed through the streets of Denerim, but seeing one up close usually meant you were about to die. He slowed his footsteps and stared at the creature.

The qunari’s deep, reverberating voice did not falter in its chant. He finished, then opened his grey eyes and glared out at the group. “I will not entertain you,” he growled. “You may leave.”

“How civilized,” Morrigan said. “A strong and noble creature caged and reduced to an amusement for the masses.” She nearly spit out her words with distaste.

Leliana said, “He slaughtered an entire family. The Templars captured him, and the Reverend Mother decreed this to be his punishment.”

“To wait here to be eaten by darkspawn?” Alistair made a face.

Bannon went up to the cage. “What are you in for?”

“Did you not hear? Because I murdered a family of farmers.”

“Are you guilty?”

“Do you mean to ask if I feel guilt? Or if I have done what they accuse me of?”

Bannon narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t get a read on this guy; his voice was flat, as if he didn’t care about anything. “Did you really do it?” he asked the giant.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The qunari narrowed its eyes, as if surprised by this question. “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” Bannon said slowly, thinking of a murdered nobleman’s son. “Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world.”

For a minute, those large grey eyes studied Bannon. The elf waited, looking back boldly. The giant sighed. “I lost my temper and killed them,” he said, without any inflection. “They… were only trying to help me. I am guilty. Does that satisfy you?”

“So you want to be left here for the darkspawn to eat?” Bannon leaned back from the cage. He was going to get a crick in his neck looking up at this guy. “That’s what they do, you know.”

“Yes.”

“Do you really think that’s a good way to atone for killing that family?”

“I will be dead. That will suffice.”

“But you’ll just make some darkspawn fat and happy. And then they’ll go on their merry way slaughtering innocent people.” Bannon tipped his head cannily. “Wouldn’t it be better if you were out of that cage, with a weapon in your hand, fighting the darkspawn? You’ll still be outnumbered and die, sure, but that way you’ll stop some of them, slow them down, maybe save a few lives.”

“Ye-es,” the qunari admited slowly. “That is true. But I do not think my captors will allow me that.”

Bannon shrugged. “Well, I’ll go talk to them.” He glanced at Leliana. “The Reverend Mother, right?”

“Uh, yes.”

“I’ll go talk to her, then.”

And so the bandits would have to wait until they had a little audience with the Reverend Mother.

Alistair caught up with Bannon as they passed the tavern yet again. “You know, Bannon… I’m not so sure it’s such a good idea to release an unrepentant murderer.”

“He’s not unrepentant. That’s why he let a bunch of farmers lock him up. Did you see the size of that guy?” Even Templars couldn’t get a qunari out of his clothes and armor without several of them being crushed.

“Yes, that’s what frightens me,” said Alistair.

“Look, he’s eager to make up for his crime by killing darkspawn. We’re going to run into a lot of darkspawn — right?” Bannon grinned. “He won’t be trying to kill us. We’ll keep him busy.”

“He didn’t say he’d come with us.”

“Oh… I think he will.”

 

 

The Chantry courtyard was crowded with families — or broken remnants of families. The Wardens picked their way through tight knots of misery and numb despair. Alistair felt his heart ache at the sight, and his guilt gnawed at him.

“Why are these people standing about?” Morrigan asked. “Don’t they realize this place is going to fall to the Blight?” The damned witch didn’t even bother to keep her voice down.

Alistair turned on her and growled, “They’re trying to find their families. They don’t want to leave their loved-ones behind.” To fall to the darkspawn, under their blades, and teeth.

“‘Twould be smarter to wait somewhere safer, would it not?” Morrigan wrinkled her nose at the unwashed urchins. Silver tracks of tears ran down their grubby little faces.

“If you lost your mother, wouldn’t you try to make sure she was all right?”

“My mother is quite capable of taking care of herself.”

Alistair had figured that for a losing battle before he’d even started. He couldn’t help trying to crack the witch’s cold demeanor. She must care about something. Didn’t she seem a tiny bit upset at the thought of her mother’s cottage being overrun? And what about her sympathy for the caged giant? Or was that just her being contrary again; siding with a murderer? Whatever it was, he decided this time not to get caught up in a useless argument.

“We’re all going to die!” a ragged voice cried. The milling crowd parted, drawing back from a dusky-skinned man; a Chasind, no doubt. “They’ll slaughter us all! Butcher us like cattle!” Grand. Someone Morrigan could agree with, clearly raving.

“Please, stop.” An older woman in Chantry robes strode towards the man. “You’re frightening the children.” One or two began crying, affecting the rest. The littlest began to wail, too young to understand all this pain and misery around him.

“Better to slit their throats,” the barbarian screeched, turning his wild gaze on the woman. “‘Twould be a mercy!”

Alistair had enough of these damned Chasind and witches and their cruel attitudes. He began to march over there, not realizing there was a restraining hand on his arm until Bannon gripped him harder. Frowning, Alistair looked down at the elf. Bannon shook his head and tugged the human’s arm again. Alistair set his jaw and shrugged the elf’s hand off.

His movements must have drawn the Chasind’s notice. “They’re here!” The man’s sunken eyes widened, showing stark white against his face. He raised a shaking hand, pointing right at Alistair. “The monsters are here among us! They’ll strip the flesh from our bones!” Spittle flew from the mandman’s lips as he contined to rail, crying doom and slaughter. No… not mad. And those dark circles under his eyes were not from lack of sleep. He carried the Taint.

Bannon moved halfway in front of Alistair. “Let the Templars handle it.”

The Templars, and you’re not one. Alistair ground his teeth.

The Chantry Sister, sparing a scathing glance in Bannon’s direction, summoned to Templars to escore the barbarian back to the refugee camp. Alistair tensed for a fight, but the man didn’t draw his war axe. He struggled in the Templar’s grip and continued ranting.

“He’s Tainted,” Alistair said, keeping his voice low. He didn’t want to panic the group, but they couldn’t let that man stay in contact with them.

“I know,” Bannon said. “But we can’t up and slaughter every bad-tempered nay-sayer we meet.” Hang on, did his eyes just flick towards Morrigan? Only, at that moment, the elf blinked, and when his eyes opened, they were looking at Alistair again. “Trust me, we’ll handle it. Be patient.”

Right, if they went about stabbing people here before the Chantry, in front of all these children, they’d never get an audience with the Reverend Mother. Alistair followed quietly to the Chantry door. The guards apparently knew Leliana, and on her word, the Wardens’ group was allowed in.

This small town Chantry was not a grand cathedral like those found in the cities, but it was easily the largest building in Lothering. The wide entry hall was lined with small dispensaries separated from the hall by low counters. These were where people came to deal with the Chanters. The hungry could entreat for food or alms, the sick could be tended. Anyone could buy a notice on the Chantry board, requesting aid. If the cause were worthy, the Chantry would supplement the rewards offered. The dispensaries were hauntingly empty, the Chantry having run out of food and medicine. The floorspace of the hall was lined with neatly rolled blankets. At night, the broken families and orphans would have a space to sleep.

A young country woman sat on a blanket, rolling a ball for her child. Alistair smiled as the little tyke toddled after it, nearly falling over the toy that was almost as big as he was. Then the Templar felt his heart sink as he imagined them both dead, torn apart by darkspawn teeth. With a shudder, he turned away. Maker, if they could just save some of these people!

The Reverend Mother was a middle-aged woman, her dark hair streaked with silver and coiled neatly at the nape of her neck. Two Templars stood guard outside her door, but they let the quartet pass without comment. Apparently, Sister Leliana was a legitimate Sister. Or at least the people of this Chantry thought so. Alistair didn’t think Leliana had taken her vows here; he got the impression she had travelled from somewhere else.

The Reverend Mother asked if they’d brought a tithe to the church. Alistair stepped forward and dumped half the coins from his purse into his hand. It wasn’t a lavish sum, but it was the best he could do. The Reverend Mother thanked him and asked what she could do for them.

“We’re Grey Wardens,” Bannon started.

The Reverend Mother grimaced and held up a hand. “That is not a wise thing to say so openly, young man. Not here and now, when the soldiers have been naming you traitors and placing a bounty on your heads.”

“They’re lying,” Alistair said. “Loghain is trying to blame his treachery on us.”

“Please, Your Reverence,” Leliana added; “I believe these Wardens to be truthful; men who can be trusted.”

Again the Reverend Mother held up a hand. “The Maker knows the truth, and there will be an accounting. But you would do well to tread softly.”

Bannon said, “You need to know that we are Grey Wardens, so you will heed us. There is a man outside, a Chasind barbarian, crying doom — do you know of him?” When the Reverend Mother nodded, he continued. “He is not just mad; he’s Tainted.”

“Grey Wardens can sense the Taint,” Alistair added.

“You must send the Templars to take him away and execute him. If you don’t,” the elf said, giving the church leader a dire look, “he could infect others.”

She bit her lip. “I will see it is done.”

“Burn the body, if you can,” Alistair said.

Bannon asked about the qunari prisoner. “He is a foreigner in our land,” the Reverend Mother said sadly. “But he does not deny having slain those poor gentlefolk. He does not seem… evil, or murderous, but he cannot explain why he performed such a cruel act. He seems contrite and willing to accept his punishment. I would not order his execution out of hand. So I have left it to the Maker’s will.” She sighed softly. “And yet, he has made no attempt to escape his fate.”

“If you release him into our custody, he has agreed to make reparations fighting the darkspawn,” said Bannon. “Surely it would be better for him to slay as many as he can, instead of feeding a few?” He smiled slightly at the gallows humor.

The Reverend Mother bowed her head. She took a leather cord from her neck, one that bore a great iron key. She handed it to the elf. “Take him, with my blessing.”

“Thank you.”

“Is there anything else?”

Alistair stepped up. “Reverend Mother, with all due respect, you have to get everyone out of Lothering as soon as possible. As in… now.”

“There are still the sick and infirm. And the lost. We haven’t finished packing supplies….”

“You don’t understand,” Alistair said desperately. “The army is abandoning Lothering. The horde will overrun this town in just a few days!” He wrung his hands in desperation. “Even limping and crawling is better than staying here.”

The woman paled. “The army is abandoning us?”

Bannon said, “I heard the orders given, myself.”

“Maker preserve us.” She put her face in her hands.

Alistair’s stomach knotted. “Is there anything we can do?” he asked hopelessly.

“I don’t know,” the Reverend Mother said hollowly. “Is there anything you can do?”

Alistair didn’t know. Short of building twenty carts and the oxen to pull them in less than an hour? Or summoning a flock of the legendary white griffons to carry people to safety? He clenched his jaw. You have to hold it together, he told himself. It’s going to be Ostagar all over again. Only it was worse this time, because he knew how it would end.

Bannon said, “We killed the bandits on the east road; it’s safe now to send small parties through there. There’s a break in the road, so don’t load up any ox-carts too heavily until they get past that point. The army checkpoint beyond that….” The elf shrugged. “They should be gone by now, too. Just head up the road to the next town.” Maker bless the elf for being practical at a time like this!

Galvanized, the Reverend Mother stood up. “We will do what we can, and trust in the Maker’s mercy. I must begin with the preparations, give the Templars their orders.” She looked at the group. “Is there anything else?”

Bannon shook his head and looked at Alistair. Alistair said, “May we have your blessing, Mother?”

“Of course.”

Alistair shot a glance over his shoulder. Morrigan rolled her eyes, but thankfully remained silent as she turned and left. Bannon knelt and bowed his head. Beside him, Leliana did the same, but turned her face heavenward. Alistair dropped to one knee, hand over his heart. He closed his eyes as the Reverend Mother intoned the blessings of the Maker and Saint Andraste. Maker forgive me, Alistair prayed silently; for all my failures. He knew that kneeling down had brought his face into a patch of light from the windows, but he couldn’t help but feel it was the warmth of the Maker’s touch. Give me strength, he added.

As they left the Reverend Mother’s office, he felt better. They hadn’t actually done anything, really, but they’d set wheels in motion. There was hope.

Alistair caught sight of Morrigan talking with two Templars. That couldn’t be good. Bannon saw them too, and the elf headed over to avert disaster. Better him than Alistair. Alistair would wait patiently outside and try not to break down in tears if the Templars decided to haul Morrigan away as an apostate. Tears of joy, maybe.

Then Alistair spotted the insignia of Redcliffe upon a shield. That man, with the thick brown hair and beard; wasn’t that… what’s his name? He was one of Teagan’s friends. “Ser Bryant?” Alistair called. The man turned.

A puzzled look crossed Ser Bryant’s face as his eyes scanned over Alistair, trying to place him. Then his eyes widened. “Alistair?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes, Ser Bryant. It’s me!”

The knight clasped Alistair’s arm. “Maker’s Mercy, when we heard about Ostagar….” He shook his head. “We heard all the Grey Wardens had perished.”

“They have,” Alistair said darkly. “My friend and I are the only ones left.” He turned and called, “Hey, Bannon! Come over here.” The elf was still talking with the Templars. He held up a hand to tell Alistair to wait. Leliana started to head over. Alistair turned back to Ser Bryant, unable to contain his burning curiosity. “What news of Redcliffe? We’re heading there; we need to speak to Arl Eamon. He wasn’t at Ostagar.” Alistair was babbling, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. He was equal parts giddy with excitement and churning with dread. “His troops didn’t arrive. Are they still at Redcliffe? Have they heard about Loghain’s treachery? Or the stories Loghain’s goons are telling?”

The knight held up both hands. “Whoa, whoa; slow down, Alistair.”

Alistair couldn’t help it. He explained yet again that the Grey Wardens were not the traitors. Maker, if Arl Eamon thought that– if he believed Loghain’s story…. “He has to know the truth,” Alistair insisted.

Leliana was at his side now, listening with her quiet intensity. Bannon and Morrigan came over as well.

“I haven’t been to Redcliffe since a week after the armies were mustered,” Ser Bryant said. “Arl Eamon took ill, deathly ill. No tonics, nor potions, nor even magic could heal him.” Alistair couldn’t believe his ears. Eamon, sick? Eamon was always strong and healthy as an ox! His mouth gaped, but he said nothing, letting the knight continue. “In desperation, the arlessa sent us on a quest to recover the Urn of Sacred Ashes.”

“Huh,” Bannon commented. “The fabled Ashes of Andraste? Fabled as in, not really existing?”

The Sacred Ashes were the remains of Blessed Andraste, the Maker’s mortal bride. Ages ago, Andraste led an Exalted March against the Tevinter Imperium. She freed the nations of Thedas from slavery, and founded the Chantry to bring the Maker’s light back into the world. Yet on the eve of victory, Blessed Andraste was betrayed and burned at the stake by the Tevinter Magisters. Her ashes were said to have been recovered by her loyal disciples and secured in a hidden temple. But that was all centuries ago, in ages past. If the Urn of Sacred Ashes really existed, wouldn’t it have been found by now?

Ser Bryant scowled at Bannon. “I’ve been tracking down a scholar in Denerim who has been studying the legends and artifacts. He may have uncovereed concrete information on where the Ashes might be.”

“We’re heading to Redcliffe,” Alistair said. Or so he hoped — if Arl Eamon were unable to help them…. He turned to Bannon. “I still think going there is our best course of action. We can assess the situation ourselves. Ser Bryant, have you any news on the arl’s current condition? Has it changed?”

Again, the knight had to almost literally use both hands to stem the tide of questions. “No, I haven’t heard anything. I still haven’t tracked down this Brother Genetivi. And if you’re going to Redcliffe, no, I can’t accompnay you. I have to turn north to Lake Town. But you can take my report to Arlessa Isolde.”

Oh. The arlessa. She’d certainly be pleased to see Alistair. Not. But pleasantries didn’t matter — this was a matter of life and death. Hundreds of lives and deaths!

Alistair looked at Bannon. The elf agreed they should continue to Redcliffe. Alistair gratefully took Ser Bryant’s written report, and placed it in his scrip with the Treaties. He blew out a breath. This was turning into a busy day!

 


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