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.

 


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