On the Road


 
On The Road
————————
 
Content:
Rating: General
Flavor: Drama/Comedy
Language: i don’t think so
Violence: none
Nudity: none
Sex: none
Other: none
 
Author’s Notes:

This is one of the parts I warned you about where the characters just stand/sit around and chat. (Or walk around, as the case may be.)


 

On the Road

 

Morrigan lengthened her stride to keep up with the qunari. “Are you still confused, and think me not a woman?”

“No,” he replied, not looking at her. “You are a beast that wears the face of a man.”

“A beast now, am I?” She narrowed her eyes up at him. “I suppose that’s an improvement over a– never mind. But with the face of a man?” She frowned. “Are you calling me ugly?”

“Do not speak to me.”

“And why not?”

The giant stopped dead and turned, nearly clubbing Morrigan with his elbow as he did so. Sten glowered back at the Wardens. “I have heard you Fereldens do not chain your saarebas, nor sew their lips shut. But do you let this dangerous beast roam free? Where it will? When it might turn on us at any time?”

“Well,” Alistair said aside to the elf; “he’s pegged Morrigan again.”

Bannon aimed a smack at Alistair, not really connecting because he’d just bruise his hand. To Sten he said firmly, “This is Ferelden. We don’t enslave anyone.”

“I was led to believe that all your saarebas — mages, do you call them? — were penned in one place.”

“Oh, you mean the Circle Tower,” Alistair supplied. “Well… all legal mages are there, yes.” He narrowed his eyes at the still-glaring witch.

“Look,” Bannon said forcefully. “Morrigan is our ally. The only ones she’s a threat to are our enemies. Or –” and here, he shot a pointed glance at both Sten and Alistair — “anyone who insists on annoying her.”

Sten scowled down at the witch. “As far as I am concerned, you are a dangerous beast and not to be trusted.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” she shot back; “you’re just another fool Templar.”

“Great,” said Bannon, projecting a tone that both cheerful and hostile at the same time. “Now that’s settled, can we get a move on?”

The qunari turned and resumed his quick-paced march. Morrigan followed behind with Bannon, Alistair, and Leliana.

 

 

“I’ve been thinking,” Bannon said a bit later, at an opportune moment. “I think we should pool our money.” Alistair, Leliana, and Morrigan looked at him. He spread his hands in an open, honest gesture and explained. “The Grey Wardens aren’t exactly in a position to pay us any more. With a severely limited income, it would be more efficient for us to combine our resources so we can equip and resupply everyone.”

“That makes sense,” Alistair said.

“And who is meant to be holding all our money?” Morrigan asked.

“I think I should,” Bannon told her honestly. “I’ve had quite a bit of experience stretching pennies and eking out bargains. Unless you have a better idea?”

“I like to do a fair bit of shopping,” said Leliana.

Morrigan snorted. “You like to spend money on fripperies like make-up and shoes.”

“Well, but I do like to find a good bargain, yes?”

“As I understand it,” Morrigan said, not directly answering; “elves that live in the cities are so poor, even the beggars look down on them.”

“Yeah,” Bannon said with bitter humor. “That’s us.”

“Well,” said Alistair; “I’m rubbish with money, so I think it’s a good idea.” Ah yes, cross one more responsibility off Alistair’s list.

“Is there anything you’re not ‘rubbish’ at?” Morrigan asked him, clearly already having an opinion on the subject.

“Yeah,” Alistair growled. “Smiting apostates!”

“Funny, I thought you were kicked out of Templar training.”

“Guys, that’s enough,” Bannon snapped.

“Yes, please,” Leliana agreed. To the elf she said, “Would each person be able to have an allowance for personal use?”

“That’s a good idea,” Bannon said. It was a good idea. It would keep morale up, and his ‘minions’ could be rewareded with coin — if they had any to spare. “We’ll see how much we have when we stop for the night.” Bannon looked down the road, hoping it would be at an inn. Make that a deserted inn, everyone having fled the darkspawn. Cheaper that way.

 

 

They pushed as far from Lothering as they could that day. They stopped once, the Wardens sensing another band of darkspawn near the road. The cretures, two dozen or so, turned towards them. Bannon, Leliana, and Morrigan picked off most of them, firing down from the raised Highway. A few managed to climb the Imperial Highway’s struts. Sten, sighing in impatience, waited for them and clubbed each one as it finally made it to the rail.

Bannon checked their ammunition supply and decided the time and effort it would take to climb down and retrieve their arrows and bolts would be too great. None of them knew how to make arrows either, though Leliana hazarded she could figure out how to fletch one.

“I know who you can pluck for feathers,” Alistair said.

Bannon kicked him in the shin. Morrigan just glared.

 

 

They hurriedly set up camp in the waning light. They only had one tent. It was decided that Leliana and Morrigan could share it. Morrigan had other ideas, however. She set up her bedroll and her own small fire in a corner of the clearing. Sten eschewed the need for any shelter or bedding. No wonder his skin was so thick. Bannon and Alistair set out their bedrolls by the central fire.

Suddenly, Alistair gasped and flinched back. “It’s that shirt!”

Bannon moved to his side and looked down into the Templar’s bedroll. Sure enough, the paisley monstrosity was lying there in it. “Alistair,” he gasped, widening his eyes; “you told me a Bandersnatch stole it!”

“Yeah, I did,” the knight said, frowning in confusion. He cut a suspicious glance at the elf, who looked as surprised and bewildered as possible. Alistair collected himself. “I mean… It did! I-I have no idea how it got here.” He narrowed his eyes.

“You know what this means?” Bannon said dramatically. “It’s haunting you! The spirit of the Paisley Monstrosity. I’ve heard legends of such things in the alienage.”

“Legends of haunted laundry?”β

“It will not rest until you Wear The Shirt,” the elf proclaimed direly.

“Really?” Alistair said dryly. “Oh wait, I think….” Cautiously, he knelt by the bedroll. “Yes, I think I hear it calling me….” His face went slack, his eyes unfocussed. Slowly, he lifted the shirt. “Alistair,” he intoned, “Alistaiiiiiiir… Wear the Shirt. Become the Purple Monstrosity….”

Bannon gaped at him.

“Don’t think so.” Alistair balled up the shirt and tossed it over his shoulder.

The elf glanced to where it had landed, then looked back at the knight tidying his bedroll. “All right, but it’s on your head.” As he went to finish straightening his own kit, he noticed Leliana staring at them. She’d brought up the pot full of water to cook dinner.

“Do I want to ask what that was all about?” she said.

“Uh…,” said Alistair sheepishly, while Bannon scratched his head, wondering how you explained two Grey Wardens being goofy. Alistair made vague hand gestures. “It’s… you had to be there.”

“Well, I was here,” Leliana pointed out. “I still don’t get it.” Alistair and Bannon just shrugged. The bard sighed and gave up. “Bannon,” she said, “may I speak with you?”

“Sure.” He moved to her side. Alistair offered to help prepare the soup, so Leliana relinquished the pot to him.

She said to the elf, “I apologize if I inadvertantly insulted you. I did not realize you were the leader of the Wardens.” She twined her fingers nervously. It would have been a decent apology of she had stopped there. But then she said, “It’s just that you seem so young. It must be an elven thing.”

“Oh,” Bannon said jovially, “you mean you didn’t mistake me for Alistair’s serving boy?” Alistair coughed over the carrots.

A bit of colour rose in the Chantry Sister’s cheeks. “I… it wasn’t like that,” she stammered, until she brought her voice under control. “In Orlais, elves are held in high regard.”

Bannon softened. “Really?” He’d never heard of shems valuing elves, except perhaps as cheap labor. And even that stopped as soon as any shems complained of not having a job because of them.

She nodded. “Elves have a natural grace and beauty that most find aesthetically pleasing. They are highly sought after in the rich households of the Orlesian courtiers.”

Was that supposed to be a compliment? His brow creased. “They’re valuable because they look good with the carpeting and drapes?”

“No, that’s not it at all,” she protested. “Many are trained artisans, gifted with song and dance. Some of these talented elves make more money than human craftsmen.”

Bannon glanced at Alistair. The human was looking at him with a pained grimace. “So they look good with the decor and they’re good entertainment at parties?”

“I do not know why you insist on twisting my words,” she said, a small line appearing between her brows. “I only meant that while here in Ferelden, elves are seen as shabby, unskilled laborers, in Orlais they are held in higher regard. They are given choice positions, dressed in the finest fashions, kept in sumptuous chambers.”

“Ah, I see,” Bannon said, smoothing his features and calming her with a gesture. Dressed up in ribbons and lace, trained to dance and sing, the aesthetically pleasing elves were kept in the rich noble houses like pampered lapdogs. He wondered how many noblemen visited ther elven women’s sumptuous chambers to be ‘aesthetically pleased’ in private. Aloud he just said, “Yes, I understand now.”

“Good.” She smiled, dimpling prettily. “Oh, and….” She turned to fetch her purse from the tent. “The funds for the Grey Wardens.”

“Thank you, Sister Leliana.” Bannon tied the purse to his belt.

“Just ‘Leliana,’ please,” she said, moving to stir the soup. “I am not a fully-ordained Sister.” There was a big surprise.

For some. “Really?” Alistair asked.

“I was Affirmed,” she clarified. We reaffirm our faith in the Blessed Andraste, but no other vows are taken. I was staying in the cloister, where peace and sanctuary are given to all who seek refuge.”

“But why would you need refuge?” asked Alistair. “Were you running from something?”

“Oh, no. It was more like I was running to something.” She looked at Alistair. “I… had some turmoil in my life. A rest in quiet contemplation helped me find meaning and clarity.”

“You mean,” Bannon ventured, “your mission to aid the Grey Wardens?”

“Yes! Just so.”

Right. There was a load of manure big enough to hide a pony or two. Bannon would have to figure it out later. Whatever she was up to, her goals seemed to coincide with theirs for now. He’d keep an eye on her. Maybe Alistair could pry more information out of her; she seemed to get along well enough with him. Hah! What was he thinking? Bannon would just have to ingratiate himself with her. Yeah, maybe later.

“I should go check on Morrigan,” he said.

“Better you than me,” Alistair grumbled.

 

 

Bannon approached the outlying fire warily. He wasn’t sure of Morrigan’s mood, but if it were turning bad — worse — he’d have to do something to make her happy. Happier. Less murderous, let’s say. “Morrigan?” he asked deferentially. He smiled softly, his subtle and trustworthy smile. “Are you settling in all right?”

She fed some more twigs to her fire and dusted her hands off. “Yes. Just keep that qunari of yours away from any needles and thread.” The witch cast a dark look across the camp, where Sten was patrolling, prowling restlessly at guard. “And I thought the way the Circle treated mages was barbaric.”

“I won’t let him try anything.”

Morrigan arched a brow at this. “How do you propose to stop him? He’s easily twice your size.”

“Well, he’s honorable, isn’t he?” Bannon said. “The Reverend Mother put him in our custody, so he’s bound to do what I say.” Boy, he hoped! Morrigan looked skeptical. “Isn’t that what you said?” he asked her. “You called him a noble creature left as darkspawn fodder?”

She looked aside. “Well, that was based on a first impression.”

Aha, so she didn’t know anything about these foreign qunari. Bannon shrugged. “If all else fails, I suppose his head burns like any other.”

She smiled at that, genuinely pleased. Then her countenance darkened. “Just make sure your fool Templar doesn’t get any ideas.”

“Alistair knows he’s not supposed to be a mage hunter.”

“Be sure you keep reminding him.”

“I can handle him,” Bannon said firmly.

“Mmm,” the witch mused, raking her eyes over him. “Yes, you are too clever by far, aren’t you?”

“Ah, well, I try,” Bannon said with an ingratiating smile. He looked down at the ground, hoping she didn’t realize the full extent of his cleverness, or he’d be a very clever pile of ash. Best to change the subject. “You must be glad to get back to the open, away from all those people in town.”

“It is a relief to be away from those doomed fools,” she said.

Bannon looked up at the unexpected venom in her voice. “Morrigan,” he said slowly, not without a bit of worry, “you do know it’s people like that the Wardens are trying to save?” Why was she helping them?

“Not exactly like them, I would hope.” She frowned at his expression. “The Chasind have a saying,” she explained. “‘The gods help those who help themselves.’ If they wanted to survive, they should have made more of an effort, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” Bannon said hesitantly, thinking about his effort to save Shianni and the other women. A nearly futile effort. No — he mustn’t think that. If he hadn’t tried at all, things would have been much worse. Not for him; he’d be a free man instead of a murderer — but for the women.

“The Wilds has its own law,” Morrigan said, breaking into his thoughts. “Survival of the fittest. The strong survive, the weak perish. Do you not agree this is so?”

Again, Bannon thought back to his own experiences, his life in the alienage. The powerful shems, the ones with money, lived well. The elves, too poor to afford lavish meals, died younger. And then there was Liam. Once Bannon’s closest friend, Liam had become crippled, a beggar. Too weak to work. He’d died barely a year later. Bannon rubbed his face. “Yeah,” he agreed with the witch. “I do think it is true.”

“‘Tis such a relief to talk to someone with some sense.”

Bannon cocked his head at her. “Is that a compliment?”

“Only if you need to fish for them,” she countered, pressing her lips together to supress a smile.

“Not quite that desperate,” he replied shielding his own smile. Maker, she wasn’t flirting with him, was she? He shook his head. “But you don’t need to stay way over here,” he said. “There’s plenty of room in the tent. Leliana doesn’t mind sharing.”

Morrigan looked past him to the main camp. “I think not,” she declined. “You forget I know how disturbing the Grey Wardens are to those trying to sleep.”

“Ah, of course.” When they’d slept at the inn, the nightmares hadn’t seemed so bad. Whether it was the shelter of the walls, or the comfort of a real mattress, Bannon couldn’t say. He hoped they found more places to stay the nights. Somehow, he doubted it was in the cards. “Well, suit yourself,” he told the witch cordially. “As you usually do.”

She gave him another cat-like smile.

“Now about the money for the group funds…,” he prompted.

Her teeth caught her lip as she nodded. “And should I refuse to lend my money to the pot?”

He spread his hands. “You’re an independent woman,” he said. “If you wish to keep your own finances that is, of course, your prerogative. But,” he added with a slight moue, “if you do, I’m afraid we can’t provision you from the group stores.” Yeah… clever that, witch!

“Hmm.” She hooded her eyes. “Very well, then.” And just like that, she handed him a pouch full of silvers.

Bannon was surprised. “I didn’t expect this much. I mean, living out in the Wilds, I didn’t think you’d need much money.”

“We do not.” Morrigan shrugged. “Which is why it accumulates. Mother’s visitors often carry money with them.”

But they didn’t take it when they left? Bannon was far too smart to wonder aloud, but who would travel to such a Maker-forsaken mudhole to spend money on a whore? And… Flemeth? He suppressed a shudder.

“It’s not what you think,” Morrigan said slyly, reading his expression.

“Do I want to ask?”

“No. You really don’t.” She had that cat’s smile again.

Bannon nodded, any last traces of curiosity immediately doused. “Well, dinner will be ready soon. If you’d like to join us,” he said deferentially. “If there’s anything you need, let me know.”

“If there is anything I need and cannot acquire on my own, what do you think you could do about it?”

He spread his hands again, walking backwards towards the main camp. “I can’t promise anything,” he said. “But I could try.” He turned and continued back to the big fire. Stuck-up witch. At least he hadn’t given her a chance to order him to bring her meal over.

 

 

Bannon found Sten pacing back and forth across the track that led from the road to the clearing. He balanced his huge maul over one great shoulder pad. He must be glad to stretch his legs after being stuck in that cage for days. Bannon thought he might wear a trench in the ground. “Sten,” he said cautiously, for the qunari seemed a bit over-eager to smash something.

The giant quit pacing and faced him, his brow drawn low in a scowl. “Why this delay?”

“Well, it’s getting dark, and some of us need to eat and sleep. Qunari sleep, don’t they?”

“Yes.”

“And eat, I presume.”

Sten sighed. “Yes.”

“There you go, then.” Bannon smiled encouragingly at him. The giant’s expression changed not one whit. Oh well, best to carry on. “I was wondering if you are any good with a bow.”

“No.”

“Ah. Well, we can teach you. We could use some help with the hunting.”

“No.”

Bannon blinked. “No? Why not?”

“I am a warrior. The bow is not a warrior’s weapon.”

“We’re not going to fight,” Bannon said. “We’re just going to shoot some deer or maybe rabbits or something. If you’re worried about being embarassed, don’t be. You can’t possibly be worse than Alistair.”

“I am Sten of the Berasaad, the vanguard of the Qunari nation. I am a warrior, not a hunter.”

Vanguard of the stubborn nation. “But you could learn,” Bannon insisted.

“It is against the Qun.”

“What’s the ‘kyoon’?”

Sten straighened, appearing even taller than usual. “The Qun is our sacred text. It defines who we are and what each shall become.”

Bannon tilted his head. “A book told you that you’re a warrior?” he asked carefully.

“The Tamassrans divine each child’s place in life, based on his abilities. Every qunari fills the role he is best suited for. To struggle against one’s place in life is to go against the Qun, to disrupt the harmony of the world.”

Bannon shook his head. “And you can’t learn anything else? What about a hobby?”

“Why would I do anything else but that which I am most suited to do? And what is a ‘hobby’?”

“Something you do in your spare time. You know, for fun?” Bannon looked up into the stony grey face. “Uh… fun? You do know what that is, don’t you?”

“Fun…,” Sten mused. Then he scowled further. “The qunari do not have ‘spare time.'”

“You’re always warrioring?”

“Yes.”

Boy, this guy needed to relax. “All right, then. Keep up the good work.”

 

 

Bannon counted out a handful of silvers as he walked back to the fire. He hunkdered down next to Alistair and handed the coins to him.

“What’s this?”

“That’s the money I owe you.”

Alistair looked at him. Bannon looked back. After a moment, Alistair said, “You’re paying me back now, just as I’m about to hand over all my money to you anyway?”

Bannon grinned. “Yep.”

Alistair chuckled. “All right then. Can’t say you never paid me back.” He handed over his own money pouch, and the extra silver.

“No, you can’t.” Bannon went to sit on his bedroll and count the money. He’d never seen this much money before in his life. And the gold coins — they were so small! He tried to act nonchalant and not do anything crazy like scooping up the coins and letting them fall through his fingers like cold water. But they did glitter so in the firelight. He couldn’t help it if they reflected in his eyes. He counted three times — just to be sure, you know — then put them away.

The soup was bubbling merrily. Leliana stirred. Alistair changed the bandage on Bannon’s arm. It was well-advanced on its healing. The dog bites had been reduced to mere scratches, already scabbed over. Morrigan came over from her corner, offering Leliana a small packet of spices from her herb collection. Alistair bit his lip in worry, but Leliana beamed brightly at the witch and thanked her.

Sten came over a few minutes later, with that dwarven merchant they’d met earlier today. “Bodhan Feddic,” the garrulous fellow reminded them, “in case you’ve forgotten. When I saw your campfire I remembered your kind offer. My boy and I won’t be any imposition, but I’d feel a lot safter if you’d let us park our cart nearby.” He didn’t give them time to answer. “And, we’ve a mutton bone for the pot, to sweeten the deal.”

Alistair grinned. “Bodhan, you’re my new best friend!”

The dwarves parked in their own little corner of the clearing, away from Morrigan. Bodhan insisted on not travelling with the Wardens, but he was content to follow them around, scavenging any armor or weapons the Wardens’ troupe couldn’t carry with them. He even offered to sell them goods at a discount. Bannon wondered if they couldn’t just rent tents from him for the night. Or crate space to hault their camping supplies. But it wasn’t certain the little donkey cart could keep up with them, or that the dwarves wouldn’t just decide to go off in some other direction.

Still, the possibilities were there. They’d see what unfolded on the road to Redcliffe.

 

 

Party Banter: Demon Squirrels
—————————————————————–

Bannon: Alistair, where did that shirt go?

Alistair: Oh, some little woodland creatures dragged it off to line their nest or something.

Bannon: Are you sure it’s safe to leave it? Future travellers could be attacked by demon squirrels.

Alistair: ::dryly:: Oh yeah, a pair of paisley chipmunks. Scary.

Bannon: It’ll be on your head!

Alistair: I think that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

 


 

β: 800 Bloodsong points if you know where “haunted laundry” comes from.

Hover your cursor here to see the answer.

 


B&Z Upcoming Outline


 

Trying to organize things in my head, this is an outline of the next parts of the Bannon & Zevran saga that are coming up. (Or are up.)
 
Lothering (published)
In the Lion’s Den (published)
On the Road (written, typed in, not proofread/edited)
 
==Chapter 3: A Wolf in the Fold==
The Assassin (done)
Nightmares (not sure what is going on with this. i wanted this to evolve in the story, not become a summary chapter.)
Redcliffe 1 — arrival, Teagan, Murdoch
The Assassin on the Road (mostly done)
Redcliffe 2 — mini-missions, take a nap (partly written)
Redcliffe 3 — night attack
Redcliffe 4 — Teagan and the Castle
Redcliffe 5 — Connor
Redcliffe 6 — Aftermath
The Ambush

Now, if we’re lucky, some of those Redcliffe bits will be combined into one ‘part.’ And no, those aren’t the final titles. I’ll think of something. Hopefully. Yes, it says ‘take a nap.’ Yes, terribly important part of the tale. All the action-adventure of taking a nap!

Looking at the calendar, and projecting an every-other-week publishing schedule, plus combining RC2-6 into only 2 parts… that means The Ambush will occur on July 13th. An auspicious day for an ambush, to be sure, but cripes, that’s far away.

If I publish On the Road this week, and don’t skip a week when I get to parts that are already written, The Ambush can happen on June 8th or 15th or so. The big question is… can I get a write-ahead buffer built up during the weeks I already have something ready to go? If I can, I can continue a weekly publishing schedule indefinitely. And The Ambush can happen May 18th.

Let the betting pool commence! When will The Ambush happen?

 

::hears crickets::

Right, okay. But at least it’s sorted out in my head. The roadmap, anyway, if not the timetable.

 


In the Lion’s Den


 
CONTENT:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Drama
Language: mild
Violence: none
Nudity: none
Sex: none
Other: none
 
Author’s Notes:

This may not be the Loghain you expect. I’m not a big Loghain fanatic, but I like his character a lot. This may not be the Anora you know; I am so not followng the wiki on her — especially concering her mother.

I have also taken liberties with the Arls, arlings, Banns, bannorns, and the Bannorn. I have MUC (made up crap) in an effort to create some more detail. Bann Teagen does not appear here, since it makes no sense (even in the ephemeral timelessness of the Dragon Age world) for him to be there now and to get back to Redcliffe ahead of the Wardens.


 
In the Lion’s Den
 
Denerim

 

Loghain paced the length of the balcony like a lion surveying his territory as he dictated the requirements of Ferelden’s army to the assembled nobles. The one hundred and thirty-one banns of the Bannorn milled on the assembly hall floor. Loghain raked them with a stern gaze. “And I expect each of you to supply these men!” The banns chafed under the levy he set.

Arls and Teyrns, the high-ranking nobles, controlled several districts of Ferelden, but the vast heartland of the country was made up of a conglomeration of small holdings. The banns refused to be united under any arling, stubbornly intent on going their own way. Thus they formed the Bannorn with a capital ‘B.’ And bickered and feuded, allied and intermarried, and all-around represented the independant spirit of Ferelden. Normally, Loghain admired that. But someone had to bring this unruly pack to heel. He had to make them see the dire peril the nation faced.

“We must rebuild the army lost at Ostagar, and quickly,” he said, his military voice filling the hall. “There are those who would take advantage of our weakened state.” He waved, gesturing towards the west. There was no doubt he meant Ferelden’s old enemy, the neighboring country of Orlais.

The Orlesian Empire had occupied Ferelden for over two decades, until Loghain and King Maric, Cailen’s father, had led the uprising to overthrow them almost thirty years ago. Freedom had been hard-won, at the cost of many lives. Some of the younger nobles didn’t seem to understand this. Cailen had even once called Loghain paranoid. That foolish boy didn’t understand. Maric had only told him tales of glory and triumph, becoming a golden hero in the boy’s eyes. Cailen never understood the sweat and blood shed by desperate freedom fighters.

They’d only bloodied the beak of that great vulture, Orlais. It was sitting on its perch, eyeing Ferelden, waiting to see it stumble. Waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and finish it off. With darkspawn clawing at her flanks, Ferelden looked poised to fall.

Loghain would not let that happen — no, not while he still had blood in his body or sweat on his brow. “We need to defeat this darkspawn incursion, but we need to do it sensibly and without hesitation.” He stopped pacing and looked down at the assembly.

They muttered and whispered amongst themselves, drawing into different knots. One man stepped towards the balcony. He was young, about Cailen’s age, with his blond hair tied back in a warrior’s queue. Loghain recognized him as Oswyn Sighard of Dragon’s Peak. “May I speak?”

Loghain nodded once, and the crowd moved back to give Bann Oswyn room.

“Loghain,” he boldly addressed the general; “you have declared yourself regent to Queen Anora, and you have insisted we must band together under your leadership for our own good. But what about the army lost at Ostagar? Your withdrawl from battle was… fortuitous.”

There was a gasp from the crowd. Loghain heard Anora’s intake of breath from behind him to his left. The banns growled protests, some against the slander of Ferelden’s greatest hero, some… not so supportive.

“I have only said what is foremost in everyone’s mind,” Bann Oswyn said boldly.

Loghain leaned forard on the balcony rail. “Everything I have done,” he thundered, “Has been to secure Ferelden’s independence. I have not shirked my duty to the throne.” He straightened, looking over the entire hall. “And neither will any of you!”

“The Bannorn will not bow down to you simply because you demand it,” Oswyn cast back at him. The boy was tenacious. And the Bannorn was rebellious in the best of times. Loghain remembered Maric always saying that no king had ever gotten anywhere with the Bannorn by using an iron fist. Loghain had always thought him simply a weak king. Perhaps he had misjudged his old friend.

Perhaps sensing more support for his outlandish ideas, Oswyn said, “If my father were here… Or Arl Eamon, or even Teyrn Cousland, they would not stand for this!”

Loghain raised a hand sharply, almost as if to strike the boy from the balcony. “Enough! We do not need political in-fighting at a time like this. The safety of Ferelden and her people are paramount! I will brook no threat to this nation’s sovereignty,” he warned. “You will all do your duty!” By the Maker, he’d withstood a company of Orlesian chevaliers at the River Dane, he could keep the unruly banns in line long enough for them to defend their own country! He turned and stalked out, nothing more to say. This assembly was over. He’d given the banns their orders. If they disobeyed, they would be dealt with.

 

 

Anora approached the rail as her father and his loyal arls and guards departed. “Bann Oswyn,” she called down.

The nobleman turned and bowed. “Your Majesty. Forgive my bluntness,” he said as he straightened; “but your father risks civil war.”

“My father is doing what is best for Ferelden.”

“Best for Ferelden, or best for himself?” His face softened. “Your Majesty, you are Queen of Ferelden –”

Anora folded her hands. “I am a diplomat, Bann Oswyn, not a warrior. My father is a great hero of war. He knows what he is doing. Please, you must follow him to victory over the darkspawn.”

“Like the army at Ostagar?” Oswyn’s face grew cold and clouded once more. “Did he do what was best for Ferelden then? Did he do what was best for your husband?”

Anora flinched. Her father would never commit treason! What reason would he have? Cailen was his best friend’s son, and his daughter’s husband. “Your allegations are wrong,” she said firmly. “My father is a true patriot. The Bannorn would do well to heed him. Once the darkspawn are vanquished, he will step down.”

“I admire your conviction,” Bann Oswyn said. “But I’m afraid not all of us share it.” He turned to go. “By your leave, Your Majesty.”

Anora nodded and set her own feet towards her chambers. She scanned over the crowd as she turned. How many would oppose her father? Would they be so few that the others could sway them? She fervently hoped so, before Ferelden was torn apart by war.

 

 

Loghain put aside his heavy plate mail. With careful efficiency, he settled the pieces on the armor stand. The substantial weight of the armor had become such a part of himself lately that he felt almost disembodied without it. Like a spirit barely tethered to the earth, he might drift away at any moment. Then he frowned down at his clothing that had been rumpled under all the padding. He crossed to the wardrobe and pulled the doors open.

Though his rank of teyrn was second only to royalty, he eschewed having a valet. He was, after all, only a simple farmer at the core. Though he didn’t mind having servants to cook and clean the vast keep at Gwaren he rattled around in, the day he was too old and feeble to manage his own armor and clothes was the day after they put him in his grave.

Attired in a suitably somber grey, he went to the door of the Queen’s chambers. A glance at the guards posted outside was sufficient to send them to the end of the hall. Loghain rapped his knuckles on the door. “Anora?” He was met with silence. “Anora,” he tried again, raising his voice slightly. “I dislike having a conversation through a door.” He stood back and waited.

After a minute or two, when Loghain had to decide between yelling and walking off, the door opened. One of Anora’s handmaidens bowed and stood aside to let him in. It was that dark-haired elf from Orlais that he didn’t like. “I will need to have a private word with my daughter,” he said, dismissing her.

Anora came to the door of the inner chamber. “I will ring if I need you, Erlina.”

The handmaiden bowed towards each of them and left silently.

“Are you coming to dinner?” Loghain asked his daughter. He had raised her to be strong and independent, like Queen Rowena, Cailen’s mother. His wife had other ideas, however. Celia had seemed to think noblewomen should be more like Orlesian ladies, fine and delicate.

“No,” Anora said harshly. She came into the room, her porcelain brow marred with a firm line, her blue eyes sparking. “I will not have that toad Rendon Howe sizing me up like a prized heifer at auction! I will not marry his Thomas or Nathaniel or anybody! I am the Queen of Ferelden, and I’m tired of being treated like some war trophy! My husband is dead scant weeks–” She broke off and seemed to rein herself under control. “Oh, Cailen,” she whispered sadly.

Loghain moved to her and gently touched her chin to comfort her. He opened his mouth to say something, but she turned her head, breaking contact.

“Did you kill Cailen?” She looked up into his eyes.

He sighed. “I told you everything that happened,” he said softly. Everything except Cailen’s collusion with the Empress of Orlais. The empress had urged Cailen to put Anora aside in favor of a political marriage to none other than herself. If only Anora knew of Cailen’s treachery… but those documents had been lost at Ostagar. “Cailen’s death was his own doing. I told him it was too great a risk to fight alongside the Grey Wardens. If he had remained at my side, he would still be alive now.”

Anora dropped her gaze. This time, when Loghain put a comforting hand on her shoulder, she did not pull away.

“Are you sure you won’t come to dinner?” he asked again. “Rendon Howe is our strongest supporter.”

That was exactly the wrong thing to say. Anora’s eyes flashed. “Then you get in bed with him!” She turned and stalked back into her bedchamber. “My husband is dead! I’m in mourning!” She slammed the door.

Loghain bit his lip. It pained him to see her like this. He loved her dearly, but it was this type of temper tantrum that Celia had instilled in her. He heaved a sigh and turned to go. He had Howe to deal with. That man was coming dangerously close to overstepping his bounds.

 

 

Rendon Howe wasn’t much to look at. He’d never been very tall nor very broad, his nose was to strong, his chin too weak, and age had only shrunken and hardened him. He didn’t look like much, true, but underneath he was all sinew and steel. He’d fought under Loghain and Maric in the war to oust Orlais, and he was a ruthless butcher. Case and point was his crowning achievement — murdering his best friend’s family in order to take over the arlship of Highever. Such an act would never have been tolerated in a time of peace. But in-fighting amongst the nobles was not unheard of in Ferelden, and that arling was his, as long as he was strong enough to hold it. If any of the banns of the Highever arling had any objections, they hadn’t voiced them anywhere.

The fortunes of war had smiled again on Rendon when the arl of Denerim had perished at Ostagar, and the man’s only son and heir had been murdered. Howe had been the de facto ranking nobleman to step in and take that situation in hand, and with the Blight, there hadn’t been time for politicking. The arlship of Denerim had fallen into his lap.

Howe was dressed in slate blue, idly buffing his manicured nails on his shirt. He looked up as Loghain entered. “Will the Queen be dining with us?”

“No,” Loghain said, gesturing for the butler to begin serving. “She is still in mourning.”

“Ah, I see.” Howe approached the table. “I’m afraid I have bad news, sire.” Loghain grimaced, but was hardly surprised. He had a feeling he knew what it would be. “Though you have the support of the southern arls, and of course, the entire northeast –” the territory Howe controlled — “many of the independent banns will not accept your regency. They are already gathering their forces, as are your allies. I’m afraid it’s to be civil war.” Howe sounded perturbed, but he couldn’t quite keep the undercurrent of antcipation out of his voice. More war, more killing, more dying — more chances to glean power.

Loghain cursed softly under his breath. “Don’t those fools realize the threat the darkspawn represent?” He poured his own wine, not waiting for the servants. He took a gulp and sat down. “If only more of the old guard were alive, we wouldn’t have to deal with such petty bickering.”

Howe took his seat, fastidiously arranging his napkin as the food was laid out. He froze at Loghain’s words and looked over. “Is that a rebuke, sire?” He narrowed his eyes. Loghain wrinkled his lip. Pointedly, Howe said, “Bryce Coulsand was also a teyrn; the only man powerful enough to threaten your position. It could be argued that a general should not also –”

“Yes, yes,” Loghain growled, cutting him off. He knew the politics.

“As it is,” said Howe, “Arl Eamon has the only other claim to the throne.” His voice became dry as he efficiently sawed at his meat. “And I understand he has his own concerns occupying him.”

Loghain grunted noncommittally. He tended to his own plate.

After a few minutes, Howe casually broached another topic. “There is another concern, sire. There have been reports of Grey Wardens who may have survived Ostagar.”

“Nonsense.”

“Possibly. But the reports still keep coming in. I wonder if there couldn’t be something behind them.”

Loghain frowned in thought. Cailen had insisted on a Grey Warden to man the Tower of Ishal and light the beacon. Loghain had pulled the cliff patrols to give the darkspawn access to the tower. And yet, the beacon had been lit. Someone had been up there, not on the battlefield. “Damn.”

“Would you like me to handle it, sire?”

Loghain wondered a moment what Howe could gain from such an assignment. It seemed harmless enough. He shrugged and resumed eating. “Yes. Keep me informed.”

“By your leave, sire.” Howe bowed his head humbly.

 

 


Working


 

It’s been quiet on the non-publishing week here on the blog, but I am working on stuff! I have two upcoming for B&Z written out. This week we’ll see “The Lion’s Den,” featuring a little peek at what Loghain is up to. After that, some relaxing downtime with “On the Road,” which will help set up Bannon’s relationships with his companions.

And yes, you whiners! THEN we can get to the next chapter, “A Wolf in the Fold,” and Zevran will finally appear!

The bad news is… I’m kinda drawing a blank on Redcliffe. I have some interesting ideas to try out, but I’m not sure how to tie them all in. I might take a short break to let things get sorted out. While I do that, I can work on the dreaded Saw crosscrossover, and the Torchwood crossover. Although my brain needs to get its act together on filling the plot holes it’s creating….

 

I have finished (again, heh) Zevran’s head in Poser. I’ve managed to fix the ugly seam that was going up his nose and chin. And the ugly crease under his lips. I may have changed his nose a bit too much… :X The only question in my mind is, will Tryyn shoot me or give her stamp of approval? :X

With Zevran’s face, version 7, I’ve got another Poser image ready to render. Except I can’t get the Ambient Occlusion where I want it. Or, even the shadows and highlights. ::sigh::

I’ve also smoothed out the DAO rogue armor model and fit it to the M3 version of the boyz. I’m having a bit of trouble editing the joints of it in PP12. I’m not getting the results I want. Oh, but the Medieval Sets were all on sale at DAZ recently, so I have plenty of places to put them. When they’re not in vague indoor places, snogging, that is. :X

 


Poser Zevran Version 5a


 

okay, one more time! what’s wrong with his head now? no post-production, so yeah, his hair looks horrid.

 


Lust Kiss


 

Bannon & Zevran done in Poser & Photoshop. I got a bunch of free romantic/kissy poses from Renderosity by Structure. This set was called “Last Kiss.” But since it *isn’t* their last kiss… I changed it to “Lust Kiss.” I blame Zevran.
Enjoy!

 

Bannon & Zevran
"Lust Kiss"
© 2012 Bloodsong
You may not repost or use this image anywhere.
You may set it as your wallpaper if you like.

 

This is the first rendering I’ve done in Poser Pro 2012 with SubSurface Scattering. I don’t know as I was real impressed. It could be my skin textures don’t have enough texture to pop with the SSS. My second image done with IBL/AO, and I’ll tell you, trying to figure out how the render is going to look vs the preview is nuts.

I made Zevran’s hair by combining some poseable braids with an old freebie and chunks from the in-game hair model. Some of the texture I swiped from the Mon Chevalier hair (which Bannon wears). His hair still needs a tonne of work, so… I painted entirely new hair on top of it.

On a new layer, I used my X-shaped ‘hair’ brush to paint in mid-tone strands. Then the typical, medium dark tones, dark tones, then highlights. After all that, I smeared it over with the smudge tool, using all the layers (ie: the rendering of the hair I covered up). Wow, I think it turned out grand. The braid is not painted over, just the rest of it.

I tried the same treatment for Bannon’s hair, but it didn’t look so great. So I left his as rendered. I did need to fix parts where the ends of the hair got shoved into his body. REMEMBER: turn on the brush dynamics to get the fade-in/fade-out strands. Instead of brushing it out with the smudge tool, I picked up colour from the ‘solid’ hair and used the clone tool to paint the strands on. Then smudged the tips judiciously.

Other minor fixes I had to do were fixing Bannon’s eyes where the inside of the eyelids were over them? Adding his lashes and thickening up his eyebrow. Zevran’s too. Oh, smearing the inside of the lip where the inner mouth material meets the lips. And yes, I used Daio’s Secret Mr Contrast technique on it. And I never did figure out how to get strong shadows when and where I wanted them in the IBL/AO lighting. :X

 


Lothering Day (part 2)


 
(Warnings: language, violence)

Bannon followed the Alistair back outside. A stick. That’s what he needed, a really big stick! The idiot had spent all morning making a few coin, and then he turned around and gave most of it back! What part of ‘Wardens in desperate straits’ didn’t he understand?

Then Bannon had to rescue Morrigan from the Templars. Templars she was tempting to look at her in that way that made her burn people’s heads off. Honestly! She asked for it! At least she’d picked the head Templar. The one in charge of handing out bounties on bandits. He seemed genuinely grateful that Bannon had taken care of that little toll problem outside of town. The gold coins were a nice touch, too.

They exited the gate of the Chantry courtyard. “You guys go on ahead,” Bannon told them. “I’ll get the qunari’s gear.”

“You know where his clothes are?” Alistair asked.

“Oh, I have a pretty good idea.”

The elf approached the merchant’s wagons, setting off the damned dogs again. The oily merchant climbed out of his wagon, a fat sandwich in one hand. He screamed at the dogs to shut up.

“Stafford,” Bannon said, “give me that qunari armor.”

The man choked. “What? Give? Did you say give? I think you meant ‘sell,’ friend.”

“You said it was too big to sell,” Bannon countered. “Have you cut it up for scraps yet?”

“No.”

“I found the guy it belongs to. I said I’d bring it to him. So… if you don’t mind?”

“Hah!” Stafford nearly sprayed half his sandwich out of his mouth. “Not til I see the colour of your gold!”

Bannon shrugged. “All right then, I’ll just tell him you have it. He seemed anxious to get it back, so I’ll send him ov–”

“Wait, what? That great ox-head? He-he-he’s loose?”

Bannon nodded. “Yes, but I’m sure he’ll be reasonable this time. If you just explain it to him calmly, he won’t get angry like he did at that farmhouse….”

“No no no no!” Stafford threw his lunch to the dogs and nearly fell over himself getting the qunari armor out of his crates.

“Where’s his weapon?” Bannon asked judiciously.

“He didn’t have one. I swear!” The merchant didn’t seem to have any qunari-sized weapons either. The biggest was a sword, and Bannon doubted this giant could do more than pick his teeth with it. Perhaps the bandits would have something useful. Count on those bandits.

Bannon wrestled the bulky leather, straps, buckles, and metal plates into his arms and turned to follow his companions. Why didn’t he let Alistair come with him to carry this stuff? Oh, right; stupid shem would probably have paid for it.

“Oh, Warden!” Stafford called out after him. Bannon turned. “If you’re going out to the western fields, make sure you stick to the path behind the windmill. Crazy farmer’s got traps laid out all along the other.”

“Thanks,” Bannon said, heaving his burden up higher in his arms and turning towards the bridge.

“No,” Stafford said quietly to himself, grin spreading across his face. “Thank you.

 

 

“I am surprised you have returneed,” the giant said. He could have fooled Bannon, since the tone of his voice was exactly the same, his expression still stone. Oh wait, was that one eyebrow raised a fraction?

“The Reverend Mother has released you into our custody,” the elf explained as he unlocked the cage. Alistair handed the pile of qunari armor to the giant. He took it and draped it over the nearby fence, then dropped the blanket and ripped off the too-small shirt so he could start strapping the armor on. Alistair squeaked and turned around hurriedly. So did Leliana, red-faced. Bannon didn’t care, and the witch seemed particularly curious. The giant ignored them one and all.

The elf made introductions. “My name is Bannon. And that’s Alistair. We’re Grey Wardens. These are our companions, Morrigan and Leliana.”

“Grey Wardens,” the giant mused. “We have heard of these legendary warriors in Par Vollen.” He frowned down his nose at the small elf. “Clearly these legends are exaggerated.”

Bannon thrust his jaw forward, but said nothing. Did tall people really think they could command respect from those who could see up their noses?

“Is he decent yet?” Alistair griped. “I’d prefer to be insulted by someone fully clothed.” The Templar took a peek over his shoulder. “Oh,” he said, turning back around. “That’s better.”

The qunari slapped a fist against his chest plates, checking the snugness of the harness. Two broad plates covered his pectorals, overlaying a network of leather straps. Smaller plates, backed by flexible leather strips, covered the abdominal area. The back was similarly constructed, with interlocking spinal plates. The upper arm guards were huge, flaring up to protect the neck. More leather-backed plates guarded the forearms and legs. Studded leather straps hung from a wide belt to form a kilt. Sten didn’t seem to have a helmet. Bannon doubted anyone could reach the giant’s head, anyway.

“And what shall we call you?” Bannon prompted him.

“Is there a need?”

“If we are going to be travelling together,” Bannon started.

“What travelling? I understood I was to meet the darkspawn here.”

“As I said, we’re Grey Wardens. We fight darkspawn wherever we go. The Reverend Mother remanded you into our custody, remember? That means you go with us. And right now,” Bannon said, “we’re hunting bandits in these hills.”

The giant rumbled.

“Is that a problem?” Bannon demanded. His companions tensed and got ready to draw their weapons.

“If the Reverend Mother decreed it,” the qunari admitted sourly; “then it shall be done.” The Wardens relaxed a notch. “I am Sten,” the giant said.

“Do you follow the Chantry’s religion?” Morrigan asked. “You seem to set great stock by what this Reverend Mother says.”

“He is the leader, is he not? And in charge of my sentence.”

“Um,” Alistair said slowly, “she is, yes.”

“‘She’? That makes no sense,” said Sten. “Do you allow your women to roam freely and make decisions?”

Leliana indignantly crossed her arms over her quite female chest. Bannon and Alistair looked as if ready to tip-toe away. Morrigan handled the inquiry. “You’re talking to a woman now,” she pointed out. “As for ‘allowing’ us to roam and think for ourselves, that would imply we gave them any say in the matter.”

“You are not a woman,” Sten said. “You do not look like a female.”

Morrigan’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “You can’t tell?” She and Leliana exchanged glances. “What do I look like, then?”

Sten moved over to her and bent slightly to peer down at her chest. Was he nearsighted? He’d have to be, in order to miss Morrigans ‘femaleness.’ “Your attire indicates you are one of the soft painted ones who are always offering entertainment in the streets of your cities,” the qunari asserted.

There was dead silence.

A storm began brewing in Morrigan’s face. Too late to tip-toe away now, they should have run like hell. Bannon rashly jumped in between the witch and the giant. “Ri-i-i-ight,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “Little cultural misunderstanding, there. Heh-heh?”

“Clearly,” Morrigan said; “he has no experience with women.” She stalked off a few paces.

“All right,” said Bannon. “It’s getting past lunch time, and we’re not eating until we’ve taken care of these bandits.”

“Which of you is in charge of this expedition?” Sten asked.

“I am,” said Bannon. He caught a flash of red as Leliana’s head whipped around in surprise. Yeah, didn’t expect that, did you, Sister?

Sten said, “Very well. I shall follow.”

“Sorry we couldn’t find a weapon for you,” Bannon said. “The man who had your armor said you didn’t have any.”

“I do not.” The giant turned to the fence rail he’d hung his gear on. He grabbed it and yanked it out of the slots in the posts. Holding it by the narrow, whittled end, he slung the five-foot length easily up to rest against his shoulder. “This will do.”

Right. “Very good then,” said Bannon. “The bandits might have somethign better for you.” He turned to follow Morrigan. “Hey, not that way,” he called to her. “There’s traps up there; we’ll have to go the long way around the windmill.”

Huffing in irritation, the witch changed direction. The others hurried to catch up.

“This is great,” Alistair griped to Bannon in a low voice. “We free a murderer, the first thing he does is start vandalizing the town.”

“You can’t possibly complain.”

“Me? No! Complain? No-o-o-o. He’s the most normal one of the bunch!”

 

 

The bandits were no match for them, despite the fact the Wardens’ group were not a cohesive fighting unit. Morrigan threatened to freeze both Alistair and the qunari if they continued rushing their foes. Bannon utilized his bow, back with Lelaina and her crossbow, then switched to blades as the bandits rushed them. The bandits were not trained warriors, only desperate villagers and farmers. Nothing like facing darkspawn. Bannon was grateful his rag-tag group got in some practice with less lethal enemies.

At last, they worked out a strategy where Alistair and Sten would swing out wide, scattering to avoid archery fire, then wait until Morrigan had softened up the targets before charging to meet them halfway.

One of the bandits must’ve been a former blacksmith. He had a huge maul. Bannon suggested to Sten that he might like that better than his cracked fence rail. The dour giant didn’t seem happy about it, but as he never seemed happy about anything so far…. And Leliana was not happy with the piecemeal armor the thieves made do with. Bannon pointed out that not only were darkspawn not fashion-conscious, but also that her armor would match a lot more once it was all blood-spattered.

The bandits had amassed a vast pile of junk. Anything of value went into Bannon’s belt pouches. Anything useful, such as arrows or healing poultices, went into another sack. The rest got thrown into an old chest at the bandits’ base camp. Banon frowned at all the weapons and armor they had to leave behind; items worth a good bit of coin during a war, but there was just too much to carry. He gave the awkwardly bulging sack to Alistair.

Sten managed to rig his weapon harness to hold the great maul. Then he hefted the chest and balanced it on one broad pauldron. Bannon’s eyes flew wide, and then he grinned. He knew this guy would come in handy!

The sun had passed the high noon mark and was descending towards a patch of fluffy clouds. The hungry companions circled the windmill. Bannon and Alistair discussed how long it would take to get to Redcliffe and how many small towns they’d find along the Highway. The human estimated another two weeks. There weren’t any big towns between here and there, but there were several farming hamlets. Once the road swung northwest, they’d be out of the path of the horde.

“All right,” Bannon said; “once we sell these heavy items for some portable coin, we should be set.”

From just over his shoulder, Leliana said, “You can’t be thinking of giving these things to that man Stafford?”

Bannon half-turned and dropped back a few steps to argue with her. “He’s the only one with money.”

“He’ll only turn around and sell it even more dearly to people who can scarce afford it. We should donate our surplus to the Chantry.” Her lyrical voice turned soft and reasonable. “They will see it is given out to everyone in need. Don’t you agree, Alistair?”

The Templar startled slightly at being called into the discussion. “Um…,” he hedged, torn between the right answer as the Chantry had taught him and basic practicality. “Well, they are going to pay us for clearing out the bandits,” he offered.

Leliana shot Bannon a superior, righteous glare. Bannon said, “Look, if you want to buy armor in matching colours, and eat along the way, we’ll n–”

The elf and the bard nearly collided with the sheild across Alistair’s back as the Templar stopped dead. Now what? Bannon moved around the big lummox so he could see.

There were a couple of farmers and townsfolk standing across the path. Three, no four — no, wait, five, six…. “Can we help you?” Alistair said.

Bannon looked around quickly. More people filtered onto the narrow path behind them, and the elf saw some shadows moving in an abandoned farmhouse across the way. The men and the few women didn’t have any armor, only simple homespun clothing. They carried only farm tools, hoes and shovels, even one scythe, but they had the Wardens’ party neatly trapped. Better than the bandits had managed.

The man to whom Alistair had spoken said, “They say you’re Grey Wardens. I don’t know if you done those things to poor King Cailen, and Maker help me, I don’t care. There’s a price on your heads that would feed a lot of hungry mouths.”

Alistair said, “You could feed them better if you weren’t dragging us along to Denerim with you, friend.”

“Ah, Alistair,” Bannon said aside to him; “When he says the ‘price on our heads,’ I think he means that’s the only part they’re taking.”

“Oh.” The Templar frowned. “I suppose that would work.” He lowered the sack he was carrying and let it fall to the ground.

Leliana stepped up beside him. “Please,” she begged the farmer, her eyes soulful. “You are not warriors. We do not wish to hurt you.”

Bannon drew himself up and raised his voice so they could all hear. “Throw down your weapons, and you can walk away.” He shot a look over his shoulder at Morrigan. ‘Ice,’ he mouthed to her, hoping she got the message. Meanwhile, the villagers growled amongst themselves, trying to work up the nerve to attack. “This offer is good at any time,” Bannon yelled out, drawing his weapons.

Sten bent and lowered the chest to the ground with a heavy thump.

“They can’t stop us all!” the leader yelled. “Take them!” The villagers rushed forward.

Bannon moved aside to give Morrigan a clearer field of view. She sprayed an arc of freezing water and stopped the whole front line. The others behind them milled back hesitantly.

The group at the Wardens’ rear was not so lucky. Three met Sten’s hammerhead as the giant swung at them. They crashed backwards, thrown to the ground. Alistair turned and stood by the qunari. “Stop attacking us!” the Templar pleaded. He fended off a rake with his shield, but didn’t counterattack.

Leliana continued her pleas for reason. “The Wardens are the only hope for stopping the Blight! You only doom yourselves!”

Bannon turned as one of the women darted through the ice statues of her compatriots and attacked Morrigan. He stabbed low, and the blade sheared too easily through her thin clothing. With a wail, the farmwife collapsed, bleeding.

“Please, we don’t want to hurt you!” cried Leliana. Then a fist-sized rock thudded into her helmet. She pitched forward to her knees. More rocks began pelting down from the steep hillside. Alistair ran to stand over the fallen nun, heedless of the rakes and hoes raining blows upon his unprotected back.

Arrows began whizzing through the air, from the other direction. Two clipped Bannon, and one buried itself in his left bicept. Pain flared and he instinctivly reached over and snapped the shaft off. He immediately regretted it, as the motion caused the arrowhead to tear more of his flesh. Dammit, they were going to get cut to bits by a bunch of villagers with rocks! “Alistair,” he called; “archers in the farmhouse!”

“I can’t leave her!” The Templar stood stubbornly over the fallen Leliana.

“Dammit, they’re not shooting at –” Bannon couldn’t finish, because at that moment, a pack of dogs shot out of the farmhouse and dodged around all the combatants to target the elf. He froze a moment in panic at their ferocious barking and flashing teeth. “Help!” The three mongrel dogs split up as he took a swipe at them with his sword. The smaller ones darted in; one sank its teeth into his boot, the other jumped up and seized his wounded arm. The big shaggy one slammed into his back, throwing him to the ground. It clamped its jaws over his helmet. One huge fang pressed down over his eyes, slobber and hot damp breath washed over his face. Bannon’s vision blurred as the dog started worrying his head, shaking as if to tear it off. His own scream deafened him.

Strong heat poured over him; the scent of burnt hair and charred meat assailed his nostrils.

There were screeching yelps, and the weight got off him. Bannon drew a breath, started coughing, and glanced about as he shifted to get up. Leliana had regained her bearing and was shooting up at the hill. Alistair stood halfway between her and the elf, trying to shield them both from the archers. Morrigan came up on Bannon’s left and said something.

Bannon shook his head, both to clear it and to indicate he hadn’t heard over the yelping of the burning dogs. He swiped blood and drool out of his eye.

“They’re about to thaw out!” Morrigan shouted in warning. “We need to finish them now!” She meant the first wave of villagers, of course. The white ice coating them was growing clearer, losing its hard edges, dripping water. They might become emboldened at their archers’ success and leap into the fray. The Wardens would have to start slaughtering people in earnest.

Bannon ducked another arrow. Morrigan stood unconcerned as the shafts bounced away from her, so he crossed behind her. The farmwife he’d stabbed had managed to crawl towards one of the frozen men. Judging by the look of distraught shock in his eyes, she was his wife. The ice sheath coating him cracked as he struggled to move.

Bannon shook his head. “I’ll handle it. See what you can do about those archers.” He went up to the erstwhile leader of these people and raised his sword pommel. He struck the shem in the head, not enough to damage him too badly… but the ice sloughed off. Bannon’s left arm protested loudly, bleeding from dog bite and arrowhead, as he seized the man by the neck and pointed his sword at his face. “Tell them to stop,” the elf snarled. “Now!”

“Stop! Stop!” the man cried. “Cease fire! Stop fighting!”

The farmers threw down their wepaons. Some fled. Several shapes ran from the farmhouse. Bannon had to yell at Sten to stand down as the big qunari started to finish off one of the farmers whose leg had been broken by the giant’s weapon.

Leliana hurried to the wounded farmwife’s side, pulling out bandages. She was too late; the woman had stopped moving. With a crack and an angry cry, her husband broke free of the last vestiges of ice. “You filthy knife-ears! You killed her!” He lunged at Bannon with his club.

Irritated, Bannon flicked out his sword and cracked the flat against he man’s arm. Mostly the flat. Blood poured out of the shallow cut. With a yelp, the man dropped his weapon and cradled his arm to his chest.

“I’m sorry,” the elf growled. “She wasn’t wearing any armor.” You stupid shem! You attacked us, what did you think was going to happen?

“He didn’t mean to kill her,” Alistair said, moving to back up his fellow Grey Warden. “It was an accident.”

The man dropped to his knees beside his wife, blubbering. Leliana gently closed the woman’s eyes. The rest thawed out in short order.

Alistair moved around Bannon and started to look at the elf’s bleeding arm. He had to dodge a boy and a young girl who slid down the steep hillside and pelted over to the villagers’ leader. “Dad! Daddy!” they called, voices strained with worry.

Leliana turned and looked at them, aghast. “They’re children? I could have killed them!” She couldn’t have had a clear shot; she must’ve been aiming for movement between the boulders on the hillside. Her cheeks flushed scarlet and she strode over to the man and his two children. “Which one of you threw that rock?” she demanded. She pulled off her helmet, revealing a bruise on her right temple, extending alongside her eye. The eyewhite was tinged red. “You could have killed me!” The children shrank behind their father, the boy dropping his head guiltily. Leliana glared at the man. “What are you teaching your children? Does their mother know what you’re doing?”

The farmer bit his lip, then put his shoulders back. “She’s dead. Taken by the darkspawn.”

“And you stoop to their level?” Leliana raised her clarion voice and shot an accustatory glare at all those around her. “Attacking the Grey Wardens, the only hope this land has of surviving the Blight? No,” she snarled seethingly; “you’re worse than darkspawn! You still have free will, and this is what you chose? You are sinners against the Maker’s sight!”

“Leliana!” Bannon cut her off. “That’s enough.” To the villagers he said, “Take your wounded and go to the Chantry.”

“Give me your knife,” Alistair said, cinchging the knot on the bandage on Bannon’s forearm.

“What for?”

“Looks like the arrow’s hit the bone. I can cut it out or rip it out, whichever sounds less painful to you.”

Bannon swore, and gave the man his knife.

“Hold still,” Alistair warned. He glanced up at the looming giant approaching. “Sten, hold him still.” The qunari gripped Bannon in his huge hands.

“I don’t think th– AAGH!” Andraste’s Tits! It felt like Alistair cut and ripped! Quickly, the Templar bound up the arm.

“There,” Alistair said in his cheery wound-side manner. “A decent meal for lunch and that’ll be closed up by dinner.”

“Seriously?” Bannon stared at him. He knew the Grew Wardens supposedly healed faster than normal, but this….

“Yes, but considering the lack of good meals around here, it’ll probably take longer.”

“Then we’d best see about getting lunch before it’s all gone.” Bannon looked around at the villagers, helping their fallen comrades towards the town. Or mourning them in the dirt. “Alistair, Leliana, help these folks to the Chantry.” He knew those two felt bad about fighting commoners. “Sten go with them. Take the chest.”

The qunari grunted assent and went to hoist the chest back onto his shoulder. Leliana’s eyes shone gratefully for a moment, then she knelt by the bereaved husband. Her fire and brimstone ardor seemed to have been forgotten.

Morrigan curled her lip in distaste. “You’re not seriously going to help these people. After they attacked us? They deserve what they got.”

Bannon turned to her, but he didn’t argue. “Go to the tavern,” he told her. “Make sure our supplies are secure, and see what food you can wring out of them.”

She chafed slightly at being ordered around, but said nothing. After all, it should be an assigment she’d enjoy. She turned and stalked off. “Out of my way, fools!” she snarled at the limping villagers. They cleared the path.

“What about you?” Alistair asked.

“I’ll catch up.” Bannon eyed the smoking corpses of the dogs. One seemed to be missing. “I think I need a word with that merchant.”

 

 

“Stafford!”

The merchant dropped the chest he was loading into his wagon. It landed crookedly on the tailgate as he whirled. The man shoved back against it before it could fall. “Warden!” he gulped. “I’m a little surprised to see you.” He pasted a fake grin on his sweaty face.

“Alive, you mean?” Bannon growled.

Stafford recovered himself quickly and turned to shove the chest further into the wagon. “No… no, I just thought you were leaving town.”

“You sent us into an ambush.”

“Me? Ambush? No!” He turned back around, his whole demeanor ingratiating. “That idiot Giles thinks he can stop the darkspawn with traps. Everyone knows that.”

Bannon drew his lips back in a humorless grin. “Oh, I see. Your dogs just up and decided to join those villagers attacking us, did they? All by themselves?”

The man’s beady eyes darted to the empty spot under the wagons where the dogs usually were. No dogs, no protection from the knife-ears — he must’ve finally realized this. He licked his lips. “I… I don’t– they ran off. I- I don’t know where they are.”

“I think I do.” Bannon drew his sword.

Stafford put his hands up. “I assure you, good Warden, ser! I didn’t ha–” He stopped dead, his eyes widening. “Cutty?”

Bannon followed his gaze. The big shaggy dog had made its way back, crawling under the wagon, whining for its master. Well, it wasn’t shaggy any more, with most of its fur burned off, leaving raw, blackened skin exposed.

Aghast, Stafford moved towards the animal, but Bannon was quicker. The elf stabbed his sword down into the dog’s chest. With a high-pitched yelp, it collapsed, dead.

“Cutty!” the merchant cried.

Bannon planted a boot on the dog’s flank and yanked his sword free. He turned the blood-smeared blade on the merchant. He backed the shem up against the wagon. “You know what I hate?” Bannon snarled low. “I hate big, fat shems who train their dogs to attack elves.”

“I- I- I- I-!” Stafford’s eyes bulged even wider.

“Hey!” Alistair came up beside Bannon. “What’s going on?”

The elf didn’t look at him. Stafford’s eyes brightened with canny hope for a moment, then he realized Alistair was also a Grey Warden. “Ser! –Sers!” he began stammering again.

Bannon cut him off. “Stafford here was just going to the Chantry to donate his goods and offer his wagons to help transport the townfolk.”

“What!?” This, apparently, was a fate worse than death to the paunchy merchant. “Now see here!”

The elf pointed his bloody sword at the shem’s nose. “I could kill you right now and offer them your goods and wagons myself,” he hissed. “You think anyone would complain to see the last of your greasy hide?”

Stafford deflated. “I’ll… go now, then. By your leave… ser.” Bannon let him slink off while the elf found a patch of fur on the dog’s carcass to wipe his sword on.

Alistair said, “You can’t just go around killing everyone.”

Bannon carefully resheathed his sword, letting the sound of metal sliding home cover the grinding of his teeth. “He set us up for that ambush. He sent those villagers after us. He’s the one responsible for their deaths!”

Alistair chewed this over for a moment. Then he came to a decision. “It’s not the province of the Grey Wardens to mete out justice. Or vengeance, or what-have-you.”

Fine. While they were here, they might as well hash out a few other things, too. “When you put me in charge, was it only so you’d have someone else to blame when things went wrong?”

“What? No!” Alistair frowned. “But I never said I’d blindly follow you everywhere. I do have thoughts, you know. Opinions. And I never said I wouldn’t interfere if you did something wrong. Killing an unarmed mer–”

“Not that!” Bannon ran a hand down over his face. Dammit, his arm throbbed painfully, his face still stank of dog drool, he was tired and hungry, and he had a long way to go before he could collapse into a bedroll on hard ground. And he had to herd shems. Shems who didn’t obey him, or respect him, or even considered him worthy of a title like warrior or Grey Warden. And a giant qunari on top of it all. He huffed in annoyance. “In the fight. I told you to rush the archers.”

“I couldn’t leave Leliana unprotected,” the knight insisted.

“They were only throwing rocks!”

“Those children could have inadvertently killed her.”

Bannon clenched his fists to keep from throttling the man. “Kids throwing rocks and farmers with sticks!” he scoffed. “The only dangerous weapons they had were bows and arrows. You–” he thrust a finger against Alistair’s chest plates — “are the only one who could have taken them without being turned into a pincushion!” He turned away, pacing agitatedly. “You wanted me to send Sten? Having a bunch of arrows in his hide would not make him happy. He wouldn’t have spared any of them, even given the chance.”

“Well, no,” Alistair admitted uncomfortably. He shifted from foot to foot. “You’re right.” He dropped his head. “I’m sorry, ser. It won’t happen again.”

Bannon yanked off his helmet and ran a hand through his hair. “You don’t have to ‘ser’ me, Alistair,” he said, his anger draining away. Maker, it was like kicking a puppy. “And I do value your opinion — your help, when discussing strategy.”

“But not in the thick of battle,” Alistair added for him. He shook off Bannon’s protest. “No, you’re right. I didn’t see the bigger picture. I do apologize.”

“It’s all right. Go on back to the Chantry. Make sure Stafford doesn’t get lost on his way to ‘volunteer.'”

“Alright!” Alistair brightened, his rebuke forgotten, but not his pledge to obey better. “Aren’t you coming? They might have some of the elfroot stuff to help with that.” He nodded at Bannon’s bandaged arm.

“No, I’m fine. I’m going to see how Morrigan is doing with out lunch. Make sure the tavern isn’t a smoking crater.”

“We’ll meet you there.” Alistair gave him a quick nod, not quite a salute or bow, then marched off.

We’ll see how long that lasts, Bannon thought. He craned his neck to make sure the Templar was gone, then pulled out his lockpicks and popped open the merchant’s chest. Crap. That’s what was in it. The strongbox wouldn’t be here, something Stafford was just loading. It was probably somewhere in the front, under a bench…. Bannon poked around a few minutes, but didn’t turn up anything useful. He quit before a customer came looking for the merchant, or the Templars came to claim the wagons.

 

 

He washed up quickly at a rainbarrel outside the tavern. Adding ‘not getting a bath anytime soon’ to his list of grievances, he found Morrigan at a table inside and gratefully got off his feet. He sighed tiredly.

“Having a rough time, are we?” Morrigan asked.

“You have no idea,” the elf griped. “It’s like herding idiots!”

There was a pointed silence from the witch. Bannon glanced over. Her lips were pressed tightly together, her eyes sparking. Bannon pressed a knuckle to his forehead and chuckled voicelessly. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said, glancing sidewise at her from under his bangs. “Never mention city elves and Chantry boys lost in the wilderness, and I’ll stop complaining about idiots.”

“Not a chance.” But the witches lips curled up in a tight smile. “I doubt either one of us could hold to such an oath for long, in any case.”

He rubbed the bridge of his nose, and couldn’t help smiling back. “All right, how about one day? And one night. Tomorrow and afterwards….” He flicked his hand. “Anything goes.”

She stopped suppressing her smile, which softened her lips into a pleaseing shape. “Very well. Unless you slip up. In which case, you’re fair game.”

 

 

Lunch consisted of a thin soup. Alistair and Leliana reported on the evacuation proceedings. The two seemed optimistic. “By this time tomorrow,” Alistari said, cheerfully stuffing a crust of bread into his mouth, “this place will be a ghost town.” Bannon couldn’t argue with that. After all, once the darkspawn got here, they’d make sure of it.

Their respite was brief. They retrieved their gear, adjusted their packs and weapons, and set out. Morrigan gave her pack to Sten. “You want me to carry this for you?” the horned giant grumbled.

“That would be very sweet; thank you!” the witch simpered in mock gratitude.

Bannon gritted his teeth. As leader of this rag-tag band of lunatics, he’d wanted to pull that trick.

As they headed out the western road, they automatically arranged themselves in a loose battle formation. Alistair and Sten went in the lead, followed by the ladies, and Bannon brought up the rear. They kept an eye out at the choke point behind the windmill, but the area was clear. Someone had even removed the charred dog carcasses. Someone who’d probably have a meatier soup tonight. Bannon made a face. He didn’t like dogs, but he was still Ferelden. Eating them seemed… vulgar. He’d prefer rat meat any day.

They followed the hard-packed wagon ruts south between the fields. This road led to the stone ramp that connected with the westward-bound Imperial Highway. As they approached, the wind picked up, sweeping the group with a chill. No… Bannon realized as his stomach knotted, not the wind — “Darkspawn!”

They were ahead, on the raised Highway. Bannon and Alistair were already running forward when they heard someone cry, “Leave him, boy! They’re going to kill us!”

The Wardens crested the ramp to find a handful of darkspawn menacing two dwarves and… a mule? The Tainted creatures turned, hissing and snarling at their hated foes. Alistair crashed into the nearest without slowing down. Roaring a battle cry, he flattened a hurlock and knocked two genlocks staggering.

Bannon darted around Alistair’s left, sword and dagger stabbing at the beasts while they were vulnerable. There was a clod of dirt near the top of the ramp. Without breaking stride, the elf scooped up a chunk in the fingers of his left hand and flung it in the face of the hurlock closest to the two dwarves. The stupid thing had been starting to roar at him, and it caught a mouthful of dirt just as it inhaled. The clump disintigrated in a spray of particles, the tiny, gritty missiles peppering the darkspawn’s eyes. It gagged, hacked, and staggered back, trying to clear its vision. Bannon landed a kick to its midsection that doubled it over, then swept his blades across its unprotected throat.

The qunari was right behind them, sweeping his maul in deadly wide arcs. Together with the Grey Wardens, he cleared a swath through the darkspawn. Bannon raced around the edge of the skirmish, heedless of the jagged darkspawn weapons. Even the pain in his arm faded. At last, an enemy he could decimate without holding back, without fear of the consequences. He lashed out at one after another, hacking at arms, legs, any chinks in the armor. He crippled more than he killed, leaving them for the others to finish off.

After a few hazy moments — minutes? — of fighting, he and Alistair stood panting in the center of a scattering of bodies and blood. Sten dropped his hammer on the skull of a hurlock that was still kicking. There was a crunch like a giant eggshell breaking, and the thing flopped one final time.

“They die as easily as any other creature,” the qunari observed coldly.

Alistair blinked and shook himself. He looked around as if noticing his surroundings for the first time. He spied Leliana, splashed with blood where she’d entered the fray with her sword. “Oh, um,” he said, stowing his weapon and shield. “Make sure you wipe that blood off. Don’t let it get in your mouth, or any open wounds. It carries the Taint. Here….” He went to the Chantry Sister, his demeanor once more glib and cordial. “Are you hurt?” He fished around checking his pouches and pockets for a hanky.

Leliana produced one and began dabbing at her face. “No, I’m fine,” she said, wide-eyed.

Bannon rubbed a hand over his face, trying to smear a gout of blood off his cheek. He spit at the edge of the Highway.

“Grey Wardens are immune to the Taint,” Alistair explained. “But you’ll need to be careful. There’s no cure. Once the Taint gets inside you….” He ducked his head sheepishly. “Well, that’s bad.”

Bannon turned to the dwarves cowering beside their cart. “Are you all right?”

A brown-haired dwarf with short-trimmed beard straightened up and came forward. The other, a younger one with sandy hair and a broad moon face, clung to the donkey’s neck. “Did you say Grey Wardens?” the elder asked. “By the Stone!” He eyed the pile of Tainted corpses, which was all the answer he needed. “Name’s Bodahn Feddic, messires. This here is my boy, Sandal.” He turned and gestured.

“Toby!” the younger dwarf said.

“Yes, and our donkey, Toby,” Bodahhn said indulgently.

The beast in question was a white donkey with large patches of rust red. It sat between the traces, looking a bit wall-eyed. Bannon couldn’t tell if it was frighted out of its wits or if it just didn’t have any wits to be frightened out of. His eyes covetously examined the cart. It was smaller, lighter than an oxcart. But bigger than a handcart, plus it came with a beast to pull it. The Grey Wardens could use something like that. Bannon brought his attention back to the conversation between Feddic and Alistair.

Alistair was asking, “Why was the road closed?”

“Don’t know. But when I heard Loghain’s men up and left, I figured me and my boy could get through.”

“They were stopping people going to Redcliffe?” Bannon asked.

Alistair turned to him. “Apparently. Wouldn’t do to let any allies get through to Arl Eamon,” he said sourly.

Bodahn said, “They said the road this direction wasn’t safe. All the refugees had to head east. Well, I don’t know anyone out that way, and if there’s a Blight coming on, I want to be closer to Orzammar.” He glanced between the Wardens. “Just in case.”

Bannon said, “You’re welcome to travel with us. We’re heading to Redcliffe. Might be safer.”

Bodahn chewed that over a minute. “That’s very kind,” he said; “but your lives might be a bit more exciting than is good for my boy and me. If you know what I mean.” He narrowed his eyes shrewdly at Bannon. What? Did he think the elf was going to murder them and steal their cart? Honestly, they were harmless merchants, or so Bodahn claimed. Murder never crossed Bannon’s mind.

Morrigan came over to him. “I thought we were trying to put as much distance between ourselves and this doomed place as possible,” she prodded.

“Yes,” Sten agreed. “We are going.” With that, the giant turned and started down the Highway. The witch followed.

“Suit yourself,” Bannon said to everyone in general, since they would, anyway. He turned to go after his ‘followers.’

Alistair said to the dwarves, “Make sure you don’t linger here to long.”

“Safetly on the road,” Bodahn wished them with a wave.

“Bye-bye Grey Wardens!” the boy, Sandal, called after them.