The Curse of Redcliffe


 
Content:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Drama
Language: a bit
Violence: none
Nudity: none
Sex: none
Other: religious discussion
 
Author’s Notes:

So tempted to call this part “Redcliffe: The Phantom Menace” :X

Thank the Maker for the dragonage.wikia, without which I would have to make up names for all these NPCs. And would give them entirely the wrong ones. (Like Mother Hannah, whose name I’ve already given to a mercenary with Zevran. So I had to make up “Chantrise” as a name. Gah.)


 
The Curse of Redcliffe

 

 

The road sloped down below a wall of living rock. The Wardens’ group crossed over the first bridge and headed towards the castle gate. Or, rather, the bridge gate. The castle was situated on a craggy island in the lake, connected by a long bridge of stone. On this shore, the bridge continued as a stone and timber passageway that ended at the cliff face. A heavily-barred portcullis was lowered in the entryway.

“That’s odd,” Alistair said. The party drew closer, but there was no one manning the mechanism to open the gate. “Why is it closed?” Alistair asked no one in particular. “Where is the guard. Halloo?” He pressed closer to the portcullus, trying to see down the bridge.

Bannon looked around, a bad feeling settling in his gut. They’d pinned their hopes of aid and an army on this Arl Eamon, the solution to all their problems. Life couldn’t be easy for once, could it? He spotted a man armed with a bow, coming up the road from the town. The fellow saw the group at the same time and broke into a trot.

“You! Have you come from the outside?” He slowed and they all turned to him. His eyes darted over their armor and weapons. Oddly, he didn’t have a cuirass, only bracers. “Have you brought help?”

Bannon glanced at Alistair, who seemed to be trying to shrink. So the elf stepped forward and said, “We’re Grey Wardens. We have urgent business with Arl Eamon.”

“No one sees the arl!” the man blurted in surprise. “No one goes to the castle — not since the curse started.”

Alistair and Bannon shared another glance. Bad feeling confirmed. “What curse?”

“Every night, strange creatures come out of the castle and attack us. We tried to send for help….” He glanced down the road past them, as if hoping for, well, more of them.

“Out of the castle?” Alistair’s concern overrode his reticence.

“What kind of creatures?” Bannon asked. Darkspawn? But how would they get into the castle first, then come out and attack the town?

The man shuddered. “Dead creatures. Folks reckon it’s the punishment of the Maker upon us.” He seemed to come to a decision. “If you’re really Grey Wardens, maybe you can help us. I should take you to see Bann Teagan.”

“Bann Teagan?” Alistair’s ears perked up. “Eamon’s brother? He’s here? Take us to him.”

 

 

The city of Redcliffe was nothing compared to Denerim. The main street was paved with the red cliffstone, but the rest were either hard-packed dirt, or overlain with wooden boards. Closer to the shore of the lake, these became elevated walkways, and in fact, some of them extended over the water, as did the houses, built on stilts.

There was no wall. The cliffs on one side and the lake on the other protected the town. There also didn’t seem to be an alienage, unless it was further down the shore. Bannon wondered where the elves lived. If it were cheek by jowl with the shems, it couldn’t be too comfortable.

Their guide led them past makeshift timber barricades to the courtyard of the Chantry. The ground here was layered with white gravel — crushed shells, actually. The church itself was built of pale fieldstone and whitewashed timber, lending it the bright gleam it sported amidst the reddish-brown of its surroundings. The courtyard was not quiet. Rows of men drilled with bow and arrow. Several people were scurrying inside the big double doors.

The archer led the Warden’s group inside, where yet again the Chantry had become a house of refuge for the wounded, the homeless, the fearful. So caught up were these people in their own misery, they barely glanced at the looming Sten or the exotically-garbed witch. Leliana broke away and went among them.

Bann Teagan was a man in his prime, with dark auburn hair and neatly cut beard and moustache. He wore fine armor of crimson-laquered chainmail with reinforced leather guards. He was beleaguered by a group of townsfolk. Teagen’s rich, strong voice carried over their babble. “No, I want all the stores brought inside…. Well stick them against the doors; the crates can double as a barricade…. We can’t retreat, to go outside is suicide.”

He issued them more orders, and a few dispersed. The Wardens’ escort approached him, boldly elbowing a few of the others out of the way. “Ser, these folk have come in through the barrier.”

Teagan’s hazel eyes alit on them with keen interest. “Well done — Tomas, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ser!” The archer straightened with clear pride at being recognized by his commander.

Bannon shot Alistair a look, wondering if he had any idea what this ‘barrier’ was. But the young man’s attention was fixed on the bann.

Alistair stepped forward. “Bann Teagan,” he said; “you probably don’t recognize me, at least when I’m not covered in mud.”

“Covered in…?” Teagan’s eyes widened. “Alistair?”

“Yes, it’s me,” the Templar said with a sheepish grin.

The nobleman seemed genuinely pleased to see Alistair — relieved, even. “Thank the Maker you’re alive! When we heard all the Grey Wardens had perished at Ostagar, we feared the worst.”

Mention of that fateful battle erased the smile from Alistair’s face. “Not all of them,” he said darkly; “but near enough. My friend Bannon and I were the only ones to escape.” He nodded at the elf. Bannon stepped forward and bowed his head to the nobleman.

Teagan’s sharp eyes sized him up. Bannon couldn’t read any conclusions in them. At least he didn’t sneer or make a comment about elves. Bannon also quickly introduced Sten and Morrigan. He looked around for Leliana, but she seemed to have vanished. Or she was well-camouflaged. She had chosen to wear her Chantry robes for the audience with the Arl, rather than her armor.

“But how did you get here?” Teagan asked. “The road is blocked off–”

“It isn’t,” Alistair said. He glanced at Tomas. “And what did you mean about a barrier? And what in Thedas is going on here? Has this to do with Eamon’s illness?”

“Tomas, go check on the road, see if the barrier has vanished.”

“Yes, ser!” With a crisp salute, the young man hurried off.

Teagan drew a hand down over his face. “Maker, where to start? Eamon fell ill… it must have been several weeks ago now. Nothing could cure him.” The bann paced a short distance, fueld by pent-up agitation. “Arlessa Isolde grew concerned — instead of sending our knights to Ostagar, she charged them with searching out the legendary Sacred Ashes.”

“Which may have saved their lives,” Alistair said darkly. “Ser Bryant told us this, back in Lothering.” He bit his lip, recalling that doomed town.

Bannon added, “He said he hadn’t any luck, so… the arl is still sick?”

“My brother has never been sick a day in his life,” Teagan said heatedly. “Someone must have poisoned him.”

“Loghain,” Alistair growled. “He must have known Arl Eamon would have opposed him, and that he was his strongest enemy.”

“But,” Bannon said, drawing them back on track, “that fellow, Tomas; he said you were being attacked from the castle. Just who is attacking, and how did they get in there?”

“We don’t know,” Teagan said in frustration. He stopped pacing and looked up towards the glow of the stained glass windows. “Three… was it only three nights ago? A sortie of creatures came forth from the castle. They were like dead men — skeletons with strips of flesh and skin still holding them together. And a strange glow, almost like ghosts. We lost so many that night.” The bann put a hand over his eyes. “Every night they attack, in greater numbers, while we lose more and more.”

“Why do you not simply leave?” Morrigan asked.

“Do you think we haven’t tried?” Teagan exclaimed. “We sent a rider with a message to call for aid, but a thorn barricade sprang up across the road. We tried to row out in the boats, but huge lake monsters arose and smashed them.”

“There wasn’t any thorn forest or barrier on the road,” Alistair said, looking at his companions for confirmation, in case he’d missed something.

Morrigan said, “‘Tis likely an illusion.” She tapped her lower lip thoughtfully. “But magic to create undead phantasms is much too powerful for an ordinary mage.”

“Blood Magic,” Alistair spit. “But that doesn’t explain why they’re attacking Redcliffe.”

“We haven’t been able to get into the castle,” Teagan said. “Any men we’ve sent have never returned.” He looked between Alistair and Bannon, the ragged edge of weary desperation clear around his eyes. “Is there anything the Grey Wardens can do to help us? Will you at least stand with us and fight? Everyone who is left… left alive, is coming to shelter here for the night. We’ll make our last stand at the Chantry gate.”

“We’ll do everything we possibly can,” Alistair assured him.

Morrigan said, “You cannot be serious. We should leave these doomed weaklings to their fate.”

Alistair whirled on her, his face darkening. “I’ve had just about enough of you! Shut up about how weak and stupid everyone is, and do something to help!”

Bannon stepped in before there was bloodshed. “Alistair.” He put a hand on the human’s arm. Then he turned to the witch. “Morrigan, go check out this barrier, whatever it is. If you can’t find a way to get through it, we’ll be stuck here the same as everyone else.” Alistair fumed beside him, but he had to couch it in a way the witch would understand. Besides, if she really couldn’t dispell the illusion, she’d have to face up to being as doomed as the rest of the weaklings.

Morrigan nodded curtly and stalked off in typical hauteur.

Bann Teagan said, “We are grateful for any help you can lend.” He outlined their final defense strategy, and directed them to coordinate with the town Mayor, Murdoch, and Ser Perth, leader of the small group of knights that had returned from the arlessa’s quest. Teagan went back to fortifying the Chantry and organizing the influx of refugees.

Bannon found Leliana on the way out, to fill her in on what they had learned. She listened intently, her storm-grey eyes wide. “The situation is dire,” she said. “Death awaits in the darkness. Light can help, but only heart can defeat it.” Bannon frowned in puzzlement, wondering what she was artistically trying to say. Leliana clutched his arm. “Beware the shadowed one.”

“Um….” He gently plucked her fingers from his armguard. “I will.”

She blinked and drew back. “What do you need me to do?” she asked, her tone now solidly businesslike.

“See if you can help with the defenders, here.” Bannon pointed out Bann Teagan to her. “If not, we’ll be outside with this Murdoch fellow.”

 

 

That Murdoch fellow turned out to be a sad-looking hound dog of a man, with bushy, dark moustache and muttonchops. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for days, and he probably hadn’t. “Arrows are next to useless against ’em,” he was telling Sten and Alistair. “‘Less you hit ’em in the head. Smashing or cutting will do. Then they fall into dust.”

Sten grumbled to Alistair, “There are no darkspawn here. Why do we remain?”

“We have to,” the Templar explained. “We have to help these people.”

The giant was not moved. “You are Grey Wardens. You fight darkspawn. Not phantoms.”

Alistair sighed in exasperation, then brightened when he caught sight of Bannon.

The elf went right over to the qunari. “Sten, you’re a warrior, right? So if pirates or invaders attack a coastal village, you go and fight them. Right?”

“Yes.” There was a trace of hesitation in the qunari’s deep voice. Perhaps he sensed a trap.

“Well, if you fight them off, but a fire breaks out, do you just stand around while the buildings burn and say, ‘We’re warriors, we fight pirates, not fires’?”

“Of course not. That would be stupid.”

“Well, these people are our allies,” Bannon pointed out. “If we want them to help us fight darkspawn, we have to help them fight this curse — or whatever it is.”

Sten grumbled unhappily, but, “Very well,” he said.

That disaster averted, Bannon turned his attention to Murdoch. The mayor explained their situation.

Most of the town guardsmen and half the knights had been killed in the surprise attack on that first night. They’d made up the numbers with able-bodied men and women, but they were not trained fighters. The phantasm army seemed to grow each night as the defenders were whittled down.

It didn’t make sense. What did they want? No one could get into the castle to find out. Whoever controlled the undead army hadn’t issued any demands. And if all they wanted was to take over the town, why not let the townspeople run away?

The knights of Redcliffe were posted at the windmill, standing guard, watching the castle and acting as the first line of defense. Murdoch’s other problems included a lack of supplies — weapons and armor, and the blacksmith refusing to work. There was also a little band of mercenaries, holed up near the docks, who refused to help in the fight. They were led by some dwarf named Dwyn.

Bannon decided a look around wouldn’t hurt. Not that he was a military strategist by any means, but he knew a bit about facing bigger foes and fighting dirty. Not to mention how to hole up and hide when armed forces swept through your town looking to exterminate you.

He told Murdoch to divide his troops in half so they could rest in two shifts — whether they thought they could sleep or not. Tired and inexperienced men were twice as bad as rested ones. He sent Alistair to coordinate with the knights. Murdoch found Bannon a guide, a young elf with a short mop of blond hair, named Anselm.

 

 

He led the Warden and qunari the blacksmith’s shop. The door was locked, the shutters closed up tight. Bannon banged on the door. “Hello?” He glanced at Anselm. “What’s his name?”

“Owen.”

“Hello, Owen?”

“Go ‘way, Murdoch!” a deep voice bellowed from within.

“I’m not Murdoch,” Bannon began to explain.

“Go ‘way!” The voice meandered into a baritone warble. “Go ‘way, go ‘wa-a-ay; way awa-a-ay–!” It cut off suddenly. Then there was silence.

The two elves looked at each other. Anselm shrugged. Bannon wondered if Leliana wouldn’t be more suited to this particular job. He rapped on the door again. “Are you still there? Owen?”

“Are you still there?” the voice echoed groggily.

Bannon rolled his eyes toward a passing cloud, taking his patience in a firm grip. “Yes, we’re still here. We– look, this is kinda hard, talking through a door, here.”

“Oh!” Something bumbled around within and the latch was drawn. “Swipe me for a tarpon, where’s me manners?” The voice — Owen — slurred as Bannon eased the door open. “No call bein’ rude….” He trailed off uncomprehensibly.

Bannon led his companions inside. It was dark, only one feeble oil lamp burned low. Owen was a hulking bear shape in the shadows. He turned around. “Oy! Who let you in here?”

“You did,” Bannon said quickly. “Remember?”

“Eh? Oh.” Owen swayed forward and blinked blearily down at him. “You’s an elf. Din’t know you’s an elf.”

“Didn’t I sound short through the door?”

“Huh?” An aromatic cloud of breath washed over Bannon with the human’s exhalation. Right, don’t try to joke with an inebriated blacksmith.

Sten said, “I thought this was a blacksmith. Why does it smell like a brewery?”

Anselm replied, “He’s been on a bender since this all started.”

“A what?”

Bannon waved for them to shush. “Owen, I’m with the Grey Wardens.”

“Cor! Streuth?” The man’s eyes brightened. “Are you here to save us from this curse?”

“Well, we’re trying,” Bannon said, shoving a foot in the door of rationality in the blacksmith’s mind. “But we need some help. We have a lot of armor that needs re–”

“No no no no! That lout Murdoch sent you!” Owen started wailing. “‘E won’t save my lovely Valena! She’s gone. All gone. Far an’ awa-a-ay…!” Big, fat teardrops rolled down the man’s face to splash onto his tunic.

Bannon hesitated to console him. The man might breathe on him again, and he’d pass out. Why didn’t he send Leliana on this job? “Who’s Valena?”

“Me own lovely daughter, Valena. Gone up to the castle she did, to be a lady. Her Maw woulda been so proud!” He started sobbing again, collapsing onto a stool and laying his head on his arms on the edge of the forge. “Me precious baby girl is trapped up there and no one will go save her!”

“But everyone who’s tried to get into the castle hasn’t come back.”

“They’re all dead!” Vincen wailed. “My baby’s gone! I have nothing left to live for.” He buried his head in his arms again.

Bannon rubbed his forehead. How was anybody supposed to rescue his daughter if she were dead? Maker, he’d let them all die if he could just get rid of this damned headache.

Sten said, “It is your duty to perform your job. This… sentiment is useless.”

Which just went to show why Bannon was stuck with this job. “Ignore my unsympathetic friend, here,” he said placatingly. “Look, the Grey Wardens will go up to the castle after we defeat the attack tonight. We can look for your daughter then.”

Owen looked up with wet, red-rimmed eyes. “You’ll bring her back to me?”

“We’ll do whatever we can,” Bannon vowed.

“No!” One ham-handed fist pounded the edge of the forge. “No, that’s what Murdoch said, and he ain’t doing nothing, ain’t he?” The blacksmith glowered stubbornly. “You promise me! Promise me you’ll bring my Valena back to me.”

Bannon hesitated. It wouldn’t do to agree too easily, it would sound like a cheap lie. “Are you sure that’s more important than finding out who is causing this evil? Of rescuing Arl Eamon?”

“Yes! Well… no.” Owen sniffled guiltily. “Well… you can do all that first, but promise me you’ll bring back my Valena!”

“All right, I promise.” Bannon looked Owen in the eye. “But first, we have to defeat this phantasm army. And to do that, we’ll need–”

“Arms and armor!” The blacksmith shot to his feet, mostly steady. He ran around like a whirlwind, throwing the shutters open, pumping the bellows, pulling various chains and tossing tools into some sort of chaotic order. “Arms and armor!” he yelled towards the townsmen practicing in the Chantry yard, like a battle cry. Or perhaps that was his usual market pitch. “Made and repaired by the best blacksmith in Redcliffe!”

“You’re the only blacksmith in Redcliffe,” Anselm pointed out.

Owen rounded on him. “Nobody else can run a smithy here, acause I’ll out-do ’em every time, an’ they won’t have no custom!”

“Right, right; that’s what I meant!”

Bannon snagged the young elf by the collar and dragged him out the door before Owen conscripted him to help with the bellows or other scutwork. “Come on,” he grumbled. “This was so much fun, we might as well find Dwyn.”

 

 

Morrigan walked back up the road that zig-zagged down the stone cliffs. She wondered how she’d gotten into this mess. Oh, she didn’t mind travelling with the Grey Wardens — once they’d gotten the rules straight. And she didn’t mind the fighting. She’d just never realized they’d have to deal with so many people. It seemed simple enough: the Grey Wardens would fight the darkspawn, along with the army. Anyone not capable of fighting ought to be hiding, or fleeing. Or at least stayng out of the way, but no! How did these people survive? From what she’d seen of Lothering and Redcliffe, they didn’t.

She met that town boy on his way back. “It’s still there,” he informed her.

“This I shall see for myself,” Morrigan said. She was not one to trust the dull and addled senses of an ordinary man. She brushed past him.

“Just be careful,” he said, before scurrying back to town to report. As if she were some weak and helpless girl! Morrigan grit her teeth and exhibited mighty restraint in refraining from a reply.

She quickened her pace as she passed the upper bridge and the road grew more level. It seemed clear as far as she could see. Perhaps the illusion only worked on dim-witted creatures. In which case, she should have brought Alistair. Morrigan wrinkled her nose. Oh no, any break from that insufferable idiot was a blessing. How did she end up burdened with that fool? Ah, right: Mother’s Grand Scheme. Morrigan shook her head. If only the Spirits hadn’t conspired to make Alistair one of her targets. The elf was all right. Bannon seemed rather afraid of her. Of course, he was no idiot.

Be careful what you wish for, Morrigan mused. She had wanted to leave the Wilds and that tiny little hovel. Get out, see the world. Get far away from her mother. Flemeth spent a great deal of time away from her home, since Morrigan had grown old enough to fend for herself. But being cooped up even a few days with that batty old coot was enough to make Morrigan just as–

Morrigan jerked to a halt, a bare armslength away from a wall of thorny vines. It hadn’t been there before, it had just… appeared, between one step and the next, in the blink of an eye.

“‘Tis surely an illusion,” Morrigan said aloud. She glanced about self-consciously. Great, talking to yourself. The first sign of a mind getting a little wobbly on its hinges. Morrigan shook that thought off and eyed the thick growth, willing herself to see through it. The waxy green vines and long, black thorns refused to yield.

She should just ignore them and walk right through, if she were so confident it was an illusion. They only had power if you believed in them. If any sliver of doubt lodged in your mind…. Morrigan eyed the thorns bristling towards her; seven-inch spines with needle-sharp points, aiming right at the tender flesh of her chest.

She turned away with a huff of frustration. She scowled ferociously, but when she turned back around, it was still there. She closed her eyes and pictured the empty road. Before she could second-guess herself again, she thrust her left arm forward.

“Ah!” She cried out and yanked her hand back. Blood welled up from a deep puncture at the base of her thumb. Amplexus! she fumed, employing one of Flemeth’s favorite expletives. She pulled a bandage from her kit and wrapped it around her hand.

Morrigan stepped back, scanning the thorn wall. It spread across the entire road, two wagon-lengths at least, tall as three men, and so dense that not a scrap of the landscape beyond could be seen. The witch started to feel uneasy. No mortal power could fashion such a thing, not instantaneously. Morrigan clenched her jaw and pulled her staff from its sling. She pointed the enchanted ironwood at the thorns and hissed a spell. Fire spewed out from the staff and clutched at the vines. But they were too green to burn. The fire died, leaving faint singe-marks on the thorns.

Morrigan bit her lip and tried another spell, spraying the wall with ice. Nothing could withstand cold. Frost thickened over the vines and thorns, turning into a brittle crystal shell. Morrigan swung the butt of her staff at the frozen plants. They failed to do so much as even crack. It was like striking a full grown oak tree.

Morrigan tried one of the city elf curses. “Shit!” She cast about one more time for a solution. The rock walls on either side of the road were not readily scalable. She crouched low. No, not even a space between the vines and their roots where a fox or hare could slip through. “Shit,” Morrigan said again, rather liking the vulgarity of the simple word. But she would still have to admit defeat. She didn’t like it — not one bit. Whatever was at the heart of Redcliffe’s curse, it was very powerful. Perhaps even stronger than Flemeth. That thought was most frightening of all.

Morrigan turned back.

 

 

There were no less than six locks on the door, and even after Bannon got those sprung, there was a chain. Sten bumped it with his massive shoulder plate and the door broke open, bringing them face to face with a livid dwarf.

“What in the Name of the Shattered Stone do you think you’re doing? Busting down my door!”

Bannon blinked and shrugged. “You didn’t answer, we thought the place was empty.” He smiled ingratiatingly and tried to push his way in, but two burly humans with crossbows pointed their weapons at his nose. “Oh, good! You have weapons.” Bannon noticed more and bigger mercenaries in the back of the room. Dwyn did have his own miniature army. “See, we’re recruiting all brave fighters to–” And suddenly he was talking to a slammed-shut door. “… Right,” he called through the thick wood, “No brave fighters here, then?”

“I done told Murdoch it ain’t got nothin’ to do with us! Their be-damned ancestors want to lay a curse on ’em, let ’em!”

“So you’re just going to cower inside there, hiding under your beds?”

“You’re damned tootin’, skinny-shanks!”

A fierce hammering and clattering rang out from the door as those within started boarding it up.

Bannon shrugged and turned to Sten. “If those are qunari mercenaries, don’t they have to fight if they’re paid? Isn’t that what the Qun says?”

“They are Tal Vashoth,” Sten said with a glower. “They have no honor.”

“They’re who?”

“Those who have abandoned the way of the Qun.”

“Qunari who don’t follow the Qun?” Bannon asked.

“They are not qunari!” Sten growled heatedly. “They are Tal Vashoth.”

“The Tall… right, guys without honor. Got it.” Whatever and whoever they were, they weren’t any use. Bannon dusted his hands of the whole mess. To Anselm he said, “So where’s the store?”

 

 

The store was a bust; the townsfolk of Redcliffe had looted it of anything useful. All that was left were a couple of books, some jars of buttons, and a passel of barrels that stank to high heaven. Fish oil, Anselm explained, for lamps. Well, for cheap lamps. Rich folk could afford more refined oil. Bannon jimmied open the till. At least the looters had honestly been trying to survive. He scooped the coins into his pouch. He handed Anselm five silvers and the elf shut his mouth as fast as he’d opened it. Sten, of course, didn’t care if Bannon helped himself to… funds for the Grey Wardens’ army.

Outside, they caught up to a boy lugging a large broadsword towards the Chantry.

“That warrior is too small,” Sten said. “He should be sent back to the creche.”

“How about you let me handle this,” Bannon suggested. “What’s your name?” he asked the boy.

“Bevin. Who are you?”

“I’m Bannon of the Grey Wardens. Where are you going with such a big sword?”

“It’s my father’s sword. I’m going to fight the evil creatures and save my sister. I’m a proud warrior, like my father.”

Like his father used to be, Bannon figured. He noticed Sten about to say something else unsympathetic. He cut the qunari off. “Sten, why don’t you and Anselm go on ahead? See if Alistair is back at the Chantry yet.”

When he was alone with the boy, he said, “Don’t mind him, he just doesn’t think short people like us are any good at fighting.”

“Well, I can fight,” Bevin said stubbornly.

“I bet you can,” Bannon said with a grin. “That sword looks a bit big for you though. Here,” he drew his own sword; “go like this.” He held the blade out at arm’s length, angled just slightly up from horizontal.

Bevin pulled the big sword from its scabbard. Or rather, pulled the scabbard off the blade. He held it out in both hands, not quite strong enough to lift it in one.

“Right, good. Now let’s lop off a monster’s head.” Bannon drew his arm back, stepped forward, and swung. His blade whistled through the air in a tight arc. Then he moved well back in case the boy accidentally flung the broadsword out of his hands.

Which is almost what happened. The weight of the sword almost tore it out of the boy’s grip and threw him staggering off balance. His face crumpled up as he fought back tears. “It’s too big!”

“Well,” said Bannon placatingly, “maybe now. But when you grow up, it will be a good size for you.”

“But how can I fight? My sister needs me now,” the boy wailed. “Father’s gone and– and they took Mother, too.”

Bannon sheathed his sword and then unfastened his long belt knife’s sheath. He handed it to Bevin. “Take this, it’s just your size.”

“Wow,” the kid breathed. “A Grey Warden’s weapon?” His eyes went wide over the gift. “For me? Really?”

“Sure,” Bannon said with a crooked smile. It was really only a city elf’s long knife, which had seen better days before Vaughn had nearly destroyed it with his sword.

Bevin juggled the knife, the sword, and its sheath awkwardly a moment, until Bannon helpfully took the latter to hold for him. Bevin affixed the knife sheath to his belt like a sword’s, and experimentally pulled the blade out and give it a few quick cuts. “It’s not very fancy,” he said, his enthusiasm ebbing. “What are these marks?” he asked, peering at the dents Vaughn had left in the blade.

“No, it’s not fancy,” Bannon said; “It’s made for fighting, not for show. And those are from darkspawn teeth.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes, he was the biggest, ugliest, and meanest son of a bitch you’ve ever seen.” The boy flinched at the bad language, but Bannon gave him a conspirational smile, warrior to warrior. “Then I stabbed him right in the heart with that very blade.”

“Wow!”

Bannon laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s been cleaned since then. No Tainted blood on it.”

The boy’s eyes drank in the ‘legendary’ Grey Warden blade. “Does it have a name?”

“Splinter,” Bannon replied solemnly. Very small, very annoying, and — as a carpenter’s boy could attest — very painful.

“Splinter….” Reverently, the boy sheathed the knife. He looked sadly at the sword Bannon still held. “But… my dad was a guardsman — I mean knight. That was my grandfather’s sword before then, too.”

Bannon handed the sheathed sword back to him. “Bring it to Mayor Murdoch; he needs all the weapons we can spare. And tell him you’re ready for duty; he should have an assignment for you. Double-time, soldier! Redcliffe needs its defenders!”

“Yes, ser!” The boy flung a salute and scampered off.

Bannon breathed a long sigh. Finally, a moment of peace, without someone hounding him about anything. He’d better get moving before some old lady asked him to help her across the street. “I need a drink,” he grumbled.

 

 

Bannon found Leliana on the Chantry steps, talking to a knight. Sten waited nearby, managing to look both bored and impatient with the same blank, stony look on his face he always had. “How is everything going with the Chantry?” Bannon asked. “Have you seen –?” He blinked at the knight. “Alistair? Did you get a promotion?”

The young human flushed with a sheepish grin. He wore the light plate of the Redcliffe knights, with a chain hauberk. “The knights have… a few spare suits of armor.” The smile vanished from his face. “This used to belong to Ser Andrew.”

Bannon nodded solemnly. He turned to Leliana. She gave him a dark look. “May I have a word with you in private?” she asked.

The elf looked around at the crowded courtyard; the townsmen practicing, older children scurrying to and from the blacksmith’s shop with weapons and bits of armor, the few straggling families pushing by to move into the Chantry. “Doesn’t look like it,” he said. He shot a glance at Alistair. The former Templar looked uncomfortably at his boots. He must know something, but he kept his mouth shut.

“Fine,” Leliana said. “Do you want to explain to me why you gave a child a weapon and told him to fight in this battle? What were you thinking?”

This again! Why was he not surprised? “I was thinking,” he growled, fighting to keep his voice level, “that Murdoch could use a good sword, and that he might be smart enough to assign the boy to defend his sister from inside the Chantry, where he would be safe.”

Leliana bit her lip and lowered her head. Bannon continued viciously. “What did you want me to do? Steal his father’s sword? Tell him he’s useless and doomed to die?” He snorted. “That’s Morrigan’s job.”

“I’m sorry,” Leliana said. “I’m afraid I’ve misjudged you again. I really–”

“That’s fine,” Bannon cut her off impatiently. He rubbed his forehead. “Where is Morrigan, anyway? Has she come back yet?”

“Maybe she escaped that barrier,” Alistair said egarly. “And she ran off never to return.” He smiled with humor.

“That would be really bad,” Bannon said, in no mood for jokes. He asked them again for the status of the Chantry and the knights.

Bann Teagan had things well in hand at the Chantry. The knights were prepared for tonight’s assault. There were only sixteen left; they didn’t believe they’d live to see the dawn. If their sacrifice would save the people of Redcliffe, they wouldn’t mind so much, but they held little hope that the curse could be ended by mere fighting.

“The knights have asked the Revered Mother for a blessing before this last… before this battle,” Alistair finished, chewing his lip in concern. “But Ser Perth says she’s refused them, and that’s shaken their morale.”

Bannon cursed underbreath. Leliana said, “Why does she refuse them?”

“I don’t know, but I gather she’s lost her faith in the Maker.”

“All right,” Bannon said. “Leliana, can you talk to this Revered Mother?”

“Of course.”

“Alistiar, go to the knights and tell the leader to come down here.”

Alistair blinked. “Me? I don’t have any authority to be ordering knights around.”

“You’re a Grey Warden,” Bannon told him. He huffed with impatience. “Never mind. Anselm!”

Bannon called for the elven youth again, and he appeared from the ranks of the militia. He’d gotten himself a bow from somewhere. “Yes, ser?” he asked with an eager grin.

“Anselm, go run up that hill and find the knight– what’s his name?”

“Ser Perth,” Alistair supplied.

“Find Ser Perth and tell him the Grey Wardens want him to come down to the Chantry yard for a strategy meeting.”

“Yes, ser!” The boy’s grin widened. What elf couldn’t wait to order some knight around? He ran off to do so.

A moment later, Morrigan appeared and came over to them. “The situation is dire,” she reported.

Bannon grimaced. “Try to keep your voice down.”

“I don’t see how it matters; they are doomed whether they know it or not.”

Alistiar growled, “Haven’t you ever heard that ‘Ignorance is Bliss’?”

Morrigan arched a brow at him, new understanding dawning on her features. “So that explains your perpetual cheerfulness.” Alistair’s face reddened.

“We don’t have time for this,” Bannon snapped. “Morrigan, just tell us what you’ve learned.”

She confirmed the existence of the barrier, and its impenetrability. “This is no mortal magic,” she warned, keeping her voice low as requested. “And worse than Blood Magic.”

“An abomination?” Alistair asked. Bannon didn’t know what that was, exactly, but by the look on the Templar’s face, it was bad.

“Whether ’tis a mage with a demon thrall, or the other way around, I cannot say. But mark my words, a demon is involved.”

“We have to get into the castle,” Leliana insisted.

“That’s not going to happen today,” Bannon said. “There might be a chance after the battle.” If anyone is left, he added to himself. “All right; Leliana, Alistair, you speak with the Revered Mother. Sten, Morrigan; we’re going to meet with the mayor and the knight commander. If you can think of any strategy to give us an edge, it would help.”

 

 

“Revered Mother Chantrise,” Leliana said, with a courteous bow to the Chantry leader. “May we speak with you?” Alistair, beside her, bowed with a hand to his heart.

The Revered Mother was a tall, thin woman. Her long brown hair was drawn back into a loose braid. “You are not a Sister with this parish,” she observed.

“No, your Reverence. I am Sister Leliana. This is Alistair, a Grey Warden.”

“Has the curse been broken?” the Revered Mother asked. “Is Redcliffe free?”

Alistair said, “I’m afraid not, Revered Mother. But we are hoping to get to the bottom of this after the battle.”

“Are you from Redcliffe? You look like one of our knights.”

Alistair ducked his head sheepishly. “I am from Redcliffe, but I’m not a knight. I was training with the Templars before I became a Grey Warden.”

She nodded. “What may I do for you, Warden?”

“We’ve come to beseech the Maker’s blessing for the knights.”

Mother Chantrise’s eyes darkened. She turned away, her neck bowed. “The Maker has no blessing for us,” she said hollowly.

“You’ve lost your faith?” Leliana asked gently. She had a considerable amount of experience with that.

“I have seen the horrors. I have seen good people trapped here, doomed to die.” She paced a short turn, and stopped to look out the thick, rippled glass of her office’s small window. “The Maker has forsaken us.”

“That’s not true!” Alistair siad.

Leliana laid a hand on his arm. “Revered Mother, the knights still hold to their faith. It would mean a great deal to them. It would give them heart, courage, and strength to face these foes.”

“You want me to lie?” Chantrise turned back to them. “Speak empty words to thin air? How is that to help them? False hopes, nothing more would this bring.”

“It would mean so much to them,” Alistair said. “Can’t you bring yourself to do it just for that alone? These men are likely to die tonight.”

“I have nothing to give them,” Chantrise whispered, her voice like dry leaves on the wind.

“Alistair, let me speak to her alone, please.” Leliana looked at the Warden. He chewed his lip, then nodded. He walked out to the main altar and knelt, joining the others in prayer.

Leliana moved to Chantrise’s side, touched her elbow. She looked up into the woman’s face. This might be me someday, she thought. An older, wiser woman, the faint brush of age around her eyes. Would it be so hard to keep the faith in a jaded world? But Leliana knew the touch of the Maker. “There are many who believe the Maker has forsaken us,” she said. “Is that not what the Canticle of Threnodies teaches us? That man desecrated the Golden City of heaven and were cast down, shunned by the Maker, yes?”

The Revered Mother nodded.

“It seems to me there are those in the heirarchy of the church that would profit greatly if the Maker were absent from the world, and stayed that way.”

Chantrise gasped. “That’s blasphemy!”

“No, it is not.” Leliana pinned the woman with her gaze. “Blasphemy is to speak out against the divine. The leaders of the Chantry are mere mortals, yes?” She knew she was on thin ice with her radical views, but the Revered Mother had already lost her faith in her god. “I do not believe the Maker would be so petty and cruel as to abandon His creation. And to demand we cross the world, speaking the Chant of Light over all the lands before he will deign to forgive us?”

“It is what the Chantry teaches us.”

Leliana pressed forward intently. “It is what the words of men say. What does your heart tell you?”

Mother Chantrise closed her eyes for a long moment. She clasped her thin hands together at her breast. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “Why would we suffer so, if it is not the Maker’s plan?”

“Why would the Maker curse Redcliffe?”

“They say it is because the Arlessa, Lady Isolde, refused to send the knights to combat the Blight. That instead, she sent them on a selfish errand.”

Leliana tilted her head. “To save Arl Eamon from his illness?” How was this selfish?

“Yes.” Mother Chantrise looked at her. “What is one man’s life compared to saving thousands from the Blight? No prayers nor magic could cure the Arl. They say it is his fate to die now.”

Leliana had to admit she had no answer to that. “She must love her husband very much.”

“She loves his power,” the Revered Mother said harshly. “Without it, Redcliffe would not accept an Orlesian arlessa’s rule.”

Ah, politics and religion. The world was never easy; not all love and heroism as the bards painted it. Leliana bowed her head in personal guilt. But she had put that behind her and had taken up the Maker’s work. “The curse is not from the Maker’s hand,” she said. “We believe an abomination is the cause.”

The Revered Mother blanched. “How- how do you know this?”

The Chantry held itself responsible for controlling every mage in Thedas, for protecting them and the world from their demonic possession. It wouldn’t do to tell her about an apostate like Morrigan. “Alistair,” Leliana said.

“The Templar who became a Grey Warden.” Mother Chantrise looked to where Alistair knelt, head bowed in piety.

Leliana nodded. “Your Reverence, I do not believe the Maker has abandoned us. A creator does not shun his creation. A father does not cast out his children, no matter how wayward. The Maker does not live in the dry parchment of books or in the thin air of words. The Maker dwells within our hearts.” If only she could make this woman see! “The knights will take comfort in your blessing, if you can find the Maker within your own heart. It shall awaken the spirit of the Maker within theirs, and it will help us to conquer this evil.”

“And… if I cannot feel the Maker’s presence?” She looked down at her shaking hands.

Leliana took the Mother’s hands in her own, gently. “What is faith, but the conviction in things we cannot physically touch?” She placed Chantrise’s hands upon her own bowed head.

Hesitantly, the Revered Mother said, “Walk in the spirit of Light, Sister.”

Leliana felt a faint warmth washing over the Revered Mother’s cool hands. The spirit within her leapt. Something passed between the two women, but in which direction, she could not tell. Leliana looked up. Mother Chantrise’s eyes held a new spark.

“I… I can do it, then.”

“Yes, Your Reverence. You can make all the difference in the world.”

 

 

“All right,” Bannon said to the assembled leaders; “I want someone to jam the gate. Cut some logs, wedge them through the portcullis holes.”

“It’s already locked from the inside,” Murdoch said.

“Well, we want it locked from the outside. If they can’t get to us, they can’t hurt us.”

Ser Perth said, “We will hold them as long as we can at the gate, then fall back to the end of the lane, where the windmill stands.” He crouched to sketch the layout of Redcliffe’s road in the dirt.

“That is not a secure point,” Sten said. He appropriated the knight’s stick. “A better choke point is here, at the bridge.”

“We can fall back, if we are overrun at the mill.”

The giant shook his head. “No, there is a steep section in the road just past the mill. You would not have good footing, and your enemy would be above you.”

“I see your point, ser giant.”

Bannon flicked hair out of his eyes. “If we could get them bunched up at the gate, maybe we could burn them all. There’s oil in th–”

“No,” said Ser Perth.

“No way,” Murdoch said, shaking his head. Bannon looked at them questioningly. “We tried that,” the hounddog-faced mayor said. “The second night.” He shuddered.

Ser Perth said, “Fire can destroy them, but they aren’t slowed down by it. We set them alight and… they just kept coming. They closed with us, burning like vengeful spirits.” He swallowed thickly. “I lost eight men that night.”

Murdoch said, “Fire ain’t going to work. Hacking them to bits is the only sure way. Sometimes taking their heads off, or an arrow to the brainpan.”

Bannon chewed his lip. “I have an idea…. Where’s the carpenter’s shop?”

 

 

The Wardens oversaw the final battle preparations. There was nothing more to be done, not by them, and it was time for Bannon’s enforced second shift to get some rest. The Wardens and their companions made their way to the inn overlooking the town. The elf’s head was pounding, and he hoped a little wine would ease the tension and let him rest. And maybe, just maybe, the daylight hours would protect him from the night horrors of the Archdemon whispering into his mind. He’d just about kill for a few hour’s peaceful rest.

 

 


&nbps;
Afterword:
—————————–
 
Alistair: “The knights have… a few spare suits of armor. This used to belong to Ser Andrew.”

If you look at the list of animations in the DAO toolset, you’ll see a few labelled ‘Andrew;’ apparently the ones for the endgame where Alistair is with Anora. It’s my guess that Andrew was the character’s working name before they changed it to Alistair. Much for the better, in my opinion.
 
Ser Perth: “Fire can destroy them, but they aren’t slowed down by it. We set them alight and… they just kept coming. They closed with us, burning like vengeful spirits.”

This is a remark about what happens if you use the oil in the game. Brilliant plan, right? Right, if only the stupid knights and your stupid companions didn’t RUN INTO THE BURNING TRAP and DIE A HORRID DEATH from it.

 


Working on Stuff


 

The post I’m supposed to publish tomorrow is HUGE. But… it’s mostly done. And mostly proofread. There’s just this one scene in it that I’ve been trying to do for a week and a half, but it won’t go. I’ve got it halfway done, I suppose. It’s not really clicking very well. ::sigh::

The post for next week is mostly done. Um, halfway done? I want to change the beginning around a bit. And I have to add some more info.

Meanwhile, my brain has been busy/distracted with doing more scenes and plotting for the B&Z/Torchwood crossover. And another Torchwood story that… actually has nothing to do with B&Z. Interesting.

 

In the art arena, I posted “Best Buds” (and “Best Buds II”) over at deviant Art. (They’re supposed to be viewed in sequence to get the proper impact.) I’m STILL not happy with Poser Bannon & Zevran. The other day, I threw my Michael 3’s into a scene, started with two Bishonen heads, and worked on them without using ANY references whatsoever.

When I was done, I thought I had some good looking elves. Not an exact Zevran replica, but, you know, a reasonable interpretation of him. And I thought Bannon looked even better. … Until I put the Bishonen versions into the Best Buds scene. And they managed to look HIDEOUS. More hideous!

::sigh:: So I don’t know. Bishonen Zevran’s face worked a lot better with the expression morphs than Zevran 7’s. I suppose I will have to go ahead and try other images I want to do, try each set in them. Battle of the elf faces.

 


Alistair’s Confession


 
Content:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Drama
Language: a bit
Violence: none
Nudity: none
Sex: none
Other: none
 
Author’s Notes:

Bet you didn’t see this coming. ;P


 
Alistair’s Confession

 

 

The road to Redcliffe was lined with vast boulders of the sandy-reddish stone that gave the arling its name. It picked its way through great rock outcroppings until it opened up on a flat-topped hill overlooking the lakeside town. The ground sloped down sharply towards the vast lake. A small river ran down the steep hillsides, falling in a pair of cascades. The road into town criss-crossed the river with two wide stone bridges as it made its way down towards the shore. An old fieldstone wall edged the hilltop, and the companions moved near it to get a look at Redcliffe itself.

Although the arling held sway over several bannorns south of Lake Calenhad, Redcliffe was not a grand city like Highever or Amaranthine. It was, in fact, more of a really large fishing village. The river ran swiftly under the millhouse waterwheel. The companions could see the timber buildings crowded together on the shore, and the large Chantry that seemed to gleam amidst them.

Alistair looked down on the rooftops of his home town. His heart lightened to be somewhere so familiar, but his stomach grew heavy with dread. Sometimes, it wasn’t so good to be in a place where everyone knew all about you. His companions turned and headed for the road while he lingered a bit longer. It wasn’t making his burden any lighter.

“Wait!” he called out, a bit more sharply than he intended. The others turned back; Leliana and Bannon with concern on their faces, the witch and the qunari merely annoyed. “Look, um…,” he said, walking closer to them so he didn’t have to raise his voice. “Before we go into Redcliffe, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“What’s wrong, Alistair?” Leliana asked gently. Her sea-grey eyes were soft with compassion.

“Nothing’s wrong, exactly,” he said. Uncomfortably, he shifted his weight from foot to foot. He rubbed his forehead with the heel of one hand, then brought it down firmly and clasped it in the other one. He interlaced his fingers and twisted his gloves against his skin. “All right, there’s no really easy way to go about this, so I’ll just say it: I’m a bastard.” He dropped the words like a crate of nails. “And before you start in with the jokes,” he added quickly, shooting a glance at Morrigan, who had just opened her mouth, “I mean the fatherless kind.”

That shut the witch up. Leliana nodded in sympathy, and Bannon folded his arms and looked down. He almost looked bored. Sten simply said, “That is not physically possible.”

The bard explained to him, “He means his mother was not married to his father. In our society, it is important to have official family ties.” Alistair dug the side of one foot into the soft dirt. He really hated this. Leliana turned to him. “It is nothing to be ashamed of, Alistair. You haven’t done anything wrong.” She placed a hand on his forearm, and he looked up at her gratefully.

“So Eamon is your father” the elf said impatiently. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“What? No!” Alistair blinked in surprise. Why did everyone think that? Oh, well… he supposed it made sense; his mother had been Eamon’s servant. “No, Eamon isn’t my father.”

“Well, who is, then?” Bannon asked.

“Uh…,” Alistair ducked his head and scratched his nose, somewhat deflecting his mumbled words. Even the elf, with his sharp ears, had to lean forward and ask him what he’d said. “Maric,” Alistair confessed miserably. “King Maric. Um, Cailen was my half-brother.”

Leliana’s eyes widened. Bannon threw his arms up in the air. “Oh, I see! You’re not nobility, you’re royalty!” He turned away in disgust.

Now it clicked — Bannon was annoyed at him because he’d told the elf he wasn’t of noble descent. Oh, this was not going well. “No, no! Look, I didn’t lie to you! I’m not of noble birth or royal descent or any of that. My mother was a servant. I was a kennel-boy!” he insisted desperately.

Leliana tightened her grip on his arm. “But you are a descendent of the Theirin line. Alistair, you’re the king,” she breathed in awe.

“I’m not!” Alistair’s stomach clenched. “I’m not the king! I was never meant to be king! Cailen was king; I’m nobody!” He pulled his arm from Leliana’s grasp and ran his gauntleted hand back through his hair. “It was drilled into me, very clearly, that I was never to be eligible to take the throne.”

“Then why are you bothering us with this?” Morrigan asked, her annoyance quite clear.

Alistair released his breath with a huff. “It’s just… with Loghain seizing power and this entire mess, Arl Eamon might try to use this. He might suggest putting me forth as rightful candidate for the throne to strengthen our own position.” Especially if Eamon were still very sick. Alistair felt a chill. He honestly never had wanted power and glory and the responsibility for an entire nation. He certainly didn’t want it now! The thought made him queasy. Didn’t he have enough problems figuring out what he wanted to do with his own life? The mere thought of having to direct this rag-tag band as it went about the Grey Warden business was enough to make his stomach eat itself alive with worry. Thank the Maker he wasn’t the last Grey Warden left. “I just… didn’t want that to come as a shock to you all,” he finished lamely.

There, that was over with; for what it was worth. Sten couldn’t care less, for which Alistair was grateful. Even Morrigan’s opinion hadn’t shifted one way or the other, she still hated him. What a relief. Bannon was pissed, but Alistair was sure he’d get over it. The other Warden certainly knew Alistair wasn’t a pretentious oaf. If anything, he was a humble, common, hard-working, bumbling oaf.

It was Leliana that had him seriously worried. She fixed him with her open grey gaze, seeming to see something beyond him. “Alistair, by the right of succession, you are the king.”

“No, I’m not!”

“What about the prophecy?”

“The–? What prophecy?” he asked, but he had a sinking feeling he knew the answer to that.

“The one that says Ferelden will never fall, not so long as a descendent of King Calenhad’s bloodline rules the nation?” Oh, yeah; he was afraid it’d be that one. Her stare was making him feel very uncomfortable. “You must take the throne, or all of Ferelden may be lost.”

“That’s just… nonsense,” he insisted. “It’s not a real prophecy. It’s just a saying people made up.” He edged past her to follow the others, who had returned to walking down the road.

“It is your destiny, Alistair,” Leliana said quietly, sending a shiver up his spine. He sincerely hoped that wasn’t the Maker speaking through her.

He hurried to catch up with the others, and hoped that other uncomfortable things between him and Eamon wouldn’t also come up. Yes, it was always good to come home… until your ugly past reared its head and embarassed you in front of your friends.

 


The Assassin on the Trail


 
Content:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Action/Adventure
Language: no
Violence: yes
Nudity: no
Sex: no
Other: no
 
Author’s Note:

Do not ask me to explain how the Dragon Age elastic time works, because I have driven myself bugnuts over and over trying to figure it out. Things happen when I say they happen, and take how long I say they take. And if I don’t say exactly, it’s because… time is elastic in Thedas.


 
The Assassin on the Trail

 

 

Ferelden was a huge country, compared to Antiva. Zevran began to wonder if they would even be able to find two Grey Wardens in the vastness of it all, or if they would just criss-cross the land aimlessly searching for months. If the Wardens left the roads, they could vanish. Hopefully, they weren’t that smart. The assassin wondered what he would do in their situation, not being owned by anyone and his entire order being destroyed. Disappearing sounded very enticing. But then again… what would he do with himself in obscurity? Killing was all he was good at. Well, killing and whoring, but killers earned more respect than whores. The Wardens, it seemed, just might try to rebuild their order, starting at Redcliffe.

First, the assassin and the Black Wolves would have to pass through Lothering. It was unlikely they could pick up the Wardens’ trail there, as that doomed village was due to be sacked any day. They didn’t make very good time; the refugees flooding east on the ancient highway had slowed the progress of the wagons. When they came upon small groups setting up camp for the night, the mercenaries dispatched them and loaded their paltry goods onto the wagons. Zevran chafed at this robbery, but the damned mercs were making a tidy profit along the way. And even more when they sold back some of the foodstuffs to other refugee groups, who were desperate enough to pay anything for a moldy half wheel of cheese or some leather-tough strips of dried meat.

At last the road was clear, and they drove the oxen hard. Lothering was a ghost town, picked clean like a corpse left to the crows. There was evidence of darkspawn in the half-eaten corpses strewn in the Chantry yard, and some of the strange, twisted-bone totems standing in the fields. A bleak miasma clung to the ground, like a dark fog. The mercenaries kept alert, with arrows nocked, as they moved to get the wagons around a break in the ancient Tevinter highway. They hauled the wagons up the ramp to the west side of the highway, crunching over strewn bones.

As the third struggled up the slope, the oxen began lowing. One of the rear guards spat a curse. “Darkspawn!” Several dark humanoid shapes loped across the sward towards them. The guard loosed an arrow at them, with no effect.

“Leave it!” Zevran snapped at the men pushing at the wheels of the last wagon. “And stop wasting your ammunition on those things. Run!” He leapt into the back of the second wagon. Hannah and her older brother were already taking the reins of the first wagon, getting the panicked oxen to run in the same direction.

Only two of the Black Wolves didn’t heed him; the rest raced for the two wagons pulling out. “That’s half our gold,” screeched one of the dawdlers. The last wagon slipped sideways off the ramp and the back wheel wedged firmly in place. The oxen screamed in panic and flailed their hooves, trying to run.

“You’re going to get eaten!” one man shouted back, leaning over the back of the wagon and extending a hand to those running close behind. They hauled them up, but didn’t slow down for the two stragglers.

The rear guard got his head split open by a tall Darkspawn with an axe. The twisted creatures swarmed over the cattle, ripping bites out of them while they still kicked and screamed. A few moments later, the same thing happened to the last man running after them. “So much for them slowing down for that,” grumbled one of the Black Wolves next to Zevran. The man nocked an arrow and let fly. It hit the target, but the Darkspawn kept on coming. Others began firing. They brought down two.

Zevran shook his head. He fished down under the tarp and came up with a clay jar filled with oil and sealed with wax. With his firestriker, Zevran lit the rope fuse. He stood up in the jouncing wagon, keeping his knees loose so he didn’t get thrown. He lobbed the grenade into the mob of pursuing Darkspawn, and it exploded into a fireball, dismembering several and setting the rest on fire.

The big human turned to him. “What was that about wasting ammunition?”

“What? One grenade?” the assassin scoffed. “Better than the two dozen arrows you were throwing at them.”

 

 

They got several miles out of the spooked oxen, stopping only at full dark. The beasts and wagons looked ready to drop and fall apart, but hopefully they would hold together until the assassin could set up an ambush. There wasn’t any sign of further Darkspawn pursuit, thank the Maker. The Black Wolves set up a quick camp, and one of the more handy fellows did some repairwork on the wagons.

The next day, they caught up to a garrulous dwarven merchant plodding along with his little donkey cart. He was heading to Redcliffe, he said. They traded news from Denerim with him, and he claimed the Grey Wardens had saved him and his boy back in Lothering, and so he was following them. Apparently, the Wardens tolerated him in their camp at nights, and he knew a lot about them and their plans. Zevran tried not to grin like a cat with the keys to the canary cage. He could hardly believe his luck. Well… no, truth be told, he’d always been extremely lucky and was glad of it. Still, it always managed to surprise him.

The dwarf confirmed Howe’s speculation that the Wardens would seek allies in Redcliffe. He even gave them directions on which fork in the road to take, and best of all, there was only one road in and out of Redcliffe. The assassin thanked him graciously, and they whipped up the oxen, sensing their prey close at hand.

 


Work This Week and Upcoming


 

This week will be another Zevran post, though relatively short. Next week looks to be a rather long haul, with the gang messing around in Redcliffe. I’m a little excited now, to be doing the Redcliffe battle. I thought it was going to be boring, but the ol’ brain has come up with some epic Lord-Of-The-Ringness scenes for it. It should be pretty cool. Of course, none of them are written yet… :X They’re cooking in the back brain.

And for all you annoying Zevran fans (you know who you are :X ), you will be ecstatic to know that Zevran will make a couple more cameo appearances before The Ambush. Okay, maybe not ecstatic, but happy, at least! I hope!

Despite a lot of stress and problems I’ve been having this month, and a rather severe bout of depression that has killed off my artistic creativity, writing has continued apace. Therefore, I’m still confident with the mid-May target for The Ambush.

 


This belongs here, because I can’t make a post template.

Nightmares


 
Content:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Drama
Language: bad
Violence: yes
Nudity: none
Sex: none
Other: none
 
Author’s Notes:

i wanted this to be less of a summary and more of an idea that was expressed along in the story. however, doing the latter would involve a lot more scenes of stopping to camp, meeting more npc townspeople, and probably three months worth of the story not going anywhere! yeah, i know you hate it!

so this got turned into something half and half.


Nightmares

 

 

As the Grey Wardens moved further away from Ostagar, Alistair’s nightmares seemed to diminish. Yet for Bannon, they only grew worse. Every night, the visions tormented him. Darkspawn hunted him relentlessly, and the unseen Archdemon called to him. People he hated taunted him; people he loved turned on him. They drove him mad, mad with rage. He’d thrash about, screaming in his sleep.

Alistair would try to drag him awake, risking the elf’s fist across his face. The Templar tried switching watches with him, waking him up before the nightmares. But afterward, Bannon would have to return to sleep, knowing the dreaded claws were waiting to seize him.

His lack of restful sleep made him viciously short-tempered. Even Morrigan had to complain to Alistair about it. Bannon turned to drink to help him sleep. Alistair could only watch helplessly as the elf staggered into his tent (rented from Bodahn) and tried to pass out as quickly as possible, perhaps in a stupor so deep, even the dreams couldn’t find him. It didn’t work. And the hangovers didn’t improve his disposition any.

 

 

Bannon sat at watch on a large rock near the center of camp. His companions lay sleeping quietly in a circle around the dying fire. The night was black, not a star shone in the sky. The embers cast a red glow. Bannon’s head hurt. He raised his wineskin to wet his throat, but it was empty. Again. Damn.

He looked over his companions, sleeping peacefully. Not a care in the world, no. He did it all. Keep watch, Bannon. Protect us, Bannon. Buy supplies, pitch the tent, find our way, get us money, cook the meals, wash the dishes. What was he, their damned elven servant? He raised his wineskin to wet his throat, but it was empty. Again. Damn.

Damned shems. And damned big, grey, horned stubborn shem, too. They were all alike. Bannon’s head hurt, and it was getting hot. He raised his wineskin to wet his throat, but it was empty. Again. Damn.

He pitched the wineskin to the ground and drew his sword. The metal was soothingly cool to his hand, his forehead. For a moment, anyway. He lowered the blade and started sharpening it. The rhythmic glide of whetstone on steel sounded quietly through the camp.

Bannon looked over at Alistair. The former Templar lay on his back, spawled comfortably, his chest rising and falling slowly. Peacefully. Bannon grit his teeth in jealousy. He had to be careful. The last time Alistair had shaken him awake, the elf’s eyes had snapped open. He recognized Alistair right away, realized where he was. Half a blink later, he’d slugged the shem right in the face. Bannon didn’t think Alistair realized he’d done it on purpose. He was a bit slow. But it had felt so good, unleashing his frustration on the hapless shem. He should do it again.

Bannon froze. His head snapped up. There was a faint sussuration at the camp’s perimeter. As if something large but infinitely stealthy circled them. Bannon didn’t sense anything. No darkspawn. The air was just getting hotter, growing redder from the smouldering embers of the fire.

Bannon found himself standing over Alistair, looking down at the sleeping human. His constant, nagging companion. I can’t lead, I can’t cook, I can’t count. I can’t make any decisions. Help, I can’t tie my bootlaces by myself. Slugging the whining shem had felt really good. But not as good as this.

Bannon rammed his sword down, punching the blade through Alistair’s unprotected chest. The human twitched once, then his last breath escaped him with a small wheeze. Blood spread out from the body in a dark pool, glinting red in the crimson light.

Then his heart started hammering. He looked over at Morrigan’s sleeping form. No no no no, NO! The witch would kill him, could kill him with a snap of her fingers! Bannon lunged and thrust his sword into her soft body. She jerked, a gasp bringing a spatter of blood to her lips. Her body collapsed back with a thump.

That had been a bit noisier than Alistair’s death. Leliana and the qunari began to stir. No no no no, NO! Sten was much bigger than he was, he could crush Bannon in his bare hands! The elf sprang at the qunari and started hacking desperately at the tough hide. The blade jarred against thick bones as Sten raised his arms to fend off the blows.

“Bannon, what are you doing?” Leliana screamed. “Stop it! Stop!”

His blood burning, his head splitting, he couldn’t stop. He had to fight for his life. Bile rose in his stomach as the darkness came to life around the camp. Bannon roared in triumph. His brothers would save him!

No! Darkspawn inundated the camp. They’d rip him to shreds! Claws tore into him, and he screamed….

 

 

“Bannon! Snap out of it!” Someone was shaking him. Alistair. Alistair was yelling. Bannon’s eyes flew open. Alistair flinched back, reflexively throwing his hands up to ward off a punch to the face.

The elf slumped, his eyelids drooping tiredly. He was knackered. He fumbled around for the wineskin he’d dropped.

Alistiar turned back to the others. “It’s all right,” he told a worried Leliana and frowning Sten. “Go back to sleep.” He turned back to the other Grey Warden. Bannon was trying to catch the last drops of wine on his tongue when Alistair grabbed the skin from his hand. “Have you been drinking again?”

“Goddammit, Alistair,” the elf snarled raggedly.

“You fell asleep on watch,” Alistair snapped, starting to lose his patience. He shook the wineskin. “This is not helping.”

You’re not helping,” the surly elf growled. He ground the heel of his hand against the bridge of his nose.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair said, relenting. “I don’t know how any of the others learned to block out the nightmares. I don’t know why they don’t affect me so badly.” Bannon muttered something insulting to the Templar’s intelligence, but Alistair ignored that. He did harden his voice, though. “It’s just something you have to work through. It’s part of being a Grey Warden, along with the shortened life span and not being able to have children.”

“What?!” Bannon’s head snapped up and he regretted the movement instantly. Still, he fixed the Templar with a glare.

“Well, it’s not that you can’t have children,” the Templar explained. “It’s just difficult for a Warden. Nearly impossible for two Wardens to conceive tog–”

“Not that!” What the hell was he prattling on about? “What is this about a shortened lifespan?”

“Oh, didn’t they mention…?” Alistair backed up slightly. Mention? Oh, no, nobody mentioned these things! Bannon stood slowly, his brow creased in anger. “I guess there wasn’t time,” Alistair said hastily. “Well. You know in the Joining, you drank darkspawn blood — Tainted blood.”

“Duncan said,” Bannon growled slowly, “I mastered the Taint within me.”

“Ye-e-es,” Alistair replied, still backing away slowly. “But it’s still there. Eventually, your body won’t be able to fight it off any more, and–”

Bannon cut him off with a curse. They’d killed him! He’d joined the Wardens to escape death and they’d just bloody killed him! Even after he’d survived their damned Joining! “Andraste’s Tits! I didn’t sign up for this!” He shoved past Alistair. “I quit!”

The Templar stood blinking a second, then turned and caught up to him. “But you can’t quit!”

“Watch me!” He didn’t stop to gather any of his gear or supplies, he just started walking off. He didn’t care where he went or if he survived, he just needed to get out of there!

Alistair trotted after him. “Bannon. Bannon! You can’t quit!”

The elf turned on him. “I did not agree to any of this! Duncan–”

“Don’t you say a word about Duncan!” Alistair cut in viciously.

“You’re telling me he told you all this before he handed you that chalice?”

Alistair bit his lip. “Maybe,” he hedged. “Look, all I heard was ‘get out of the Templars’ and I didn’t care about anything else.”

“Andraste’s Ass!” Bannon raked his hands back through his hair on either side of his head.

“Look,” Alistair told him seriously. “Even if you do quit, even if you run away…. That won’t stop the nightmares. Or anything else. It’s in your blood, now. If you go and suffer….” He gesticulated, trying to find the words. “All this? And don’t fight to stop the Blight, the Archdemon? It will all be for nothing!”

Bannon sighed, his whole body slumping. “Shit.”

“No matter what happens, I’m with you.” Alistair moved closer, putting a hand on Bannon’s arm. His voice was weighted with sincerity. “We’re Grey Wardens. I’m your brother. I’ll never abandon you.”

Bannon looked up into his friend’s face. “We’re stuck in this together, hm?”

“Yep!”

“And how long until I die of the Taint?”

“What, that? Oh, decades.” Alistair waved it off airily. “Fifteen, twenty years, maybe. There’s no sense worrying about it now. First, we have to survive that long. And the odds of us even living through this year alone are… what?”

Bannon tipped his head. “A million to two?”

“There, see?” Alistair brightened. It seemed nothing could quench the spark within him for long. “Nothing to worry about!”

The elf sighed, and trudged back towards the camp. “Thanks, Alistair. You should get some rest. I’ll take this watch since I missed mine.”

“That’s all right; I’ll sit up with you.” He fended off a sharp glance from the elf. “No, it’s just that I’m not tired right now.”

Bannon nodded. “Thanks. Again.” He sat and propped his back up against the boulder. Alistair crouched by the fire, stirring the embers and adding another branch. Bannon had to admit, whatever the man may lack in smarts, skills, tolerance for witches, and abilities with cooking and bootlaces… he more than made up for in loyalty. Bannon grimaced. And he hadn’t exactly treated Alistair very well. He would have to try to make up for it.

 


The Assassin


 
The Assassin
—————————
 
Content:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Drama
Language: some
Violence: referenced
Nudity: none
Sex: referenced
Other: mature themes (racism, rape, prostitution, murder, alcohol use)
 
Author’s Notes:

Yes yes yes, finally! Zevran Fan Club, shaddap! :X

I have no idea what “Hannah and Her Brothers” is about, or even what it is. Gang name lifted from a Xena episode. I find it easier to remember names that way, so sue me :X


 

The Assassin

 

 

Iron grey clouds crouched over the city of Denerim. A cool storm breeze fluttered the studding sails. The captain cursed and bellowed orders to his men to get them to the docks in the chancy changing winds.

Zevran stood on the starboard side, a little back from the bow and out of the way of the sailors. He was an elf, smaller than the burly shems like all his kind, but there was no mistaking the rounded bulge of his biceps above the elbow guards of his studded leather armor, nor the sculpted lines of his thighs where they were bare between the leather kilt and the straps securing the kneepads above the worn leather boots. He was no household servant or simple laborer — he was an Antivan Crow, one of the deadliest assassins in the world. Well the most deadly really, if you wanted his opinion.

A few stay wisps of pale blond hair blew across his face, which he ignored. Most of his shoulder-length hair was pulled back behind his pointed ears, tied with two warrior braids that formed a circlet behind his head. His skin was a natural deep bronze that few could achieve without baking their skin to leather under the sun.

He had a sloped forehead, long straight nose, and a strong jaw; all of which gave him a perpetual air of belligerent cockiness. Or perhaps it was the other way around — his lifelong defiance in the face of adversity had shaped his features as he’d grown. The left side of his face was marked with a tattoo, three filigree lines that swooped from his temple to halfway down his cheek. They had been black when he’d gotten them at sixteen, almost looking like fresh-painted ink. But in the five intervening years, they had faded to a purplish cast under the surface of his skin.

Zevran squinted his narrow amber eyes as the squall breeze cut towards the ship. He turned his head slightly to avoid a splash of spray kicked up by the plunging bow. He didn’t bother to move, not even when the rain started pattering down on the deck. It was only rain. Chillier than Antivan rain to be sure, but it suited his mood.

He’d come to Ferelden for only one purpose: death. A very difficult and obscenely expensive contract had come to the Crows from this country — this very city, its capitol: Denerim. Naturally, the Crows had sent their best assassin to handle it.

The Ten Pegs nosed into port, guided by pilot boats. The berthing and docking were tedious maneuvers, and Zevran went below to gather his gear. The rain grew thick and miserable for a while, but by the time he was ready to disembark, it had lessened into a steady drizzle.

Some self-important, rich shem reached the top of the gangplank at the same time as Zevran. The assassin cut him a sideways glare, and the man suddenly remembered he had some reason or other to stand on the deck another minute or two. Zevran never made any attempt to hide his profession, though outside of Antiva there were actually a few sad people entirely ignorant of who or what an Antivan Crow was. But the haughty shem and his yapping wife had both suddenly taken ill after a misplaced comment about elves knowing their place, and only the dullest of sailors on board had no clue how that might have happened.

Zevran stepped off the bottom of the gangplank and shouldered his bag. His weapons he wore openly, and he had little concern for any guards stopping him.

“State your name and business,” the tired and soggy port clerk recited.

“Zevran Arainai,” the assassin replied. He had a flavorful Antivan accent, unlike the dull heavy tones of the Fereldens. “I am here for a job.”

The clerk glanced up from his manifest for a moment, then bent and scribbled on it.

“Can you direct me to the residence of the Arl of Denerim?” Zevran asked him.

This earned him another curious glance, but the man must’ve had his interest surgically removed years ago. “Take Port Street to the Market. Can’t miss it from there,” the clerk said tiredly. He turned away from the Antivan to deal with the other passengers, clearly dismissing him.

Zevran flicked rainwater out of his eyes and resettled the pack on his shoulder, then set out towards the city. Shirtless elves darted through the rain, hurrying barefoot across the slick planks of the docks to offload cargo. There didn’t seem to be as many of them as usual, and their numbers were filled out by young human males, their necks and shoulders reddened by exposure to the sun.

Off the docks and onto the cobbled streets proper, there was even less traffic. Zevran wrinkled his nose. The sailors had all joked about Ferelden smelling of wet dog, but the Antivan hadn’t credited it. Ferelden was known for its famous wardogs, but certainly they weren’t so numerous as to make the entire country stink. No, no, it must be the rain, and the city streets. Muddy water gurgled in the gutters and darkened the cobbles. In many places, the road was uneven. Such untidyness would never be tolerated in Antiva City — not in the quarters where the rich moved about, anyway. A pang of homesickness flashed through the assassin, but he quashed it. One place was as good as any other. All cities had their sewers.

He found a boarding house — too small to be called a proper inn — squashed between a warehouse and a money lender’s office. He didn’t have much coin of his own, and he didn’t intend to stay long, so he took a cheap room. He secured his pack there, in a strongbox he augmented with a poisoned trap. Then out he went again, carrying only his weapons and a small satchel of important documents.

The rain had begun to taper off, though more threatening clouds lurked over the city’s rooftops. Zevran found the huge Market Square easily enough. There were several gated egresses. One was heavily guarded and led down a wide avenue towards a fortified castle. Another opened on a courtyard of a large estate, but it belonged to some country arl, not that of Denerim. Armed with more vague directions (honestly, he began to think half these people didn’t know north from south)*, Zevran circled the Market until he came to the alienage gate. This was easily recognizeable by the high wall it was set into, and the distinct aroma of sewage that came from the bridge just beyond it. Oddly for this time of day, the gate was closed, and four men guarded it rather than a solitary bored soldier.

The elven assassin ignored them and approached three beggars huddled by the wall. “Spare a coin, friend?” The most well-fed looking one approached, hands out. “I was at Ostagar,” he continued. “Darkspawn done et half me foot.”

Zevran chuckled. Nothing like beggars who kept up with current events. “Actually, perhaps you can help me.” The eyes of all three narrowed. Ignoring their suspicion, he said, “I am looking for the Arl of Denerim’s estate.”

“Are you gonna rob him?” demanded the youngest, a tow-headed boy barely in his teens. “Are you a Dalish?”

“Shut up, Shane,” growled one of his elders as they shifted uncomfortably, eyes darting towards the gate guards.

“Actually, I am half Dalish,” Zevran said. “And the arl is paying to have a job done. As for robbing him, the Antivan Crows always deliver the money’s worth.”

“There’s a job?” The youth’s hungry eyes brightened. “What kind of job?”

“Murder, you idiot,” the third beggar growled. “Antivan Crows are assassins.”

“Really? You going to kill Howe?” The boy sounded just as eager about that as he had been about the job.

“Shut up, you daft blighter,” snarled ‘Half-Foot.’

“I’m sure I won’t be killing anyone you know,” Zevran assured the boy slyly. He folded his arms and leaned his weight back on one leg, exuding the deadly confidence of his trade. “You do know the way to the residence of the man in charge of this city, no?” he drawled. A silver coin appeared between his fingers and he toyed with it idly.

The third beggar, clearly the brains of the bunch, moved forward. “Past those two streets on the left.” He pointed. “Take the third. Follow the wall til the gate.”

Zevran tossed him the coin and set out. The directions seemed odd, but they were accurate. Somewhere along its length, the alienage wall became the wall guarding the estate of the Denerim Arl. Why anyone would put a noble estate up against the festering slums of the elven quarter was beyond the Antivan, but… these were Fereldens.

The gate was closed. The guard challenged Zevran, who produced the letter requesting his presence, marked with the Arl’s seal. She shrugged and let him through the postern gate. He crossed the courtyard and approached the large double doors. He had to doge aside quickly as a troop of guards emerged.

They milled about at the bottom of the steps, checking their weapons. Their leader, a sharp-faced man with a thin black moustache, exited behind them, clapping a helmet onto his head. “All right,” he barked in a no-nonsense tone as he pushed through them, “our quota today is two dozen ears. Trouble-makers only! They go down easy, just put the fear of the Maker into them.” With a snap of his wrist, he signalled them to move out.

One of the guardsmen in the back leaned towards his comrade. “How many of the elven whores you think we can get to go down easy?” He sniggered.

“All of ’em!” his portly companion boasted. “I got my ‘fear of the Maker’ right here.” He patted his codpiece with a grin.

Zevran sneered as he slipped inside the doors before they closed. Amateurs. A Purge explained why the alienage gate was closed in the middle of the day. The workers, elven servants with jobs, would all be out. Only women and children would be at home, and the old and infirm, as well as those elves who worked within the alienage, shopkeepers and craftsmen and the like. And, of course, the unemployed — beggars, thieves, drunkards. The trouble-makers Rendon Howe wanted eliminated. It was a ruthlessly good plan, Zevran had to admit, as much as it disgusted him. But it was not his concern.

Hell, if the Fereldens wanted to kill off all their Grey Wardens and let the Blight overrun their country, that wasn’t his concern either. Except where it was his job to do that particular killing-off.

The butler, a properly dour old man, escorted the assassin to the Arl’s study after he had once again produced the letter with the Arl’s seal. “Zevran Arainai,” the butler pronounced, “Antivan Crow.” His imperturbable demeanor seemed a touch perturbed at the ‘title.’ Zevran smirked inwardly. It wasn’t the abject fear and respect he got in Antiva, but it was a start.

Rendon Howe was an older man with iron grey hair neatly trimmed above his ears. The cut did nothing to flatter him, as his ears stuck out ungracefully. His eyes were watery blue and close-set, his chin weak, and his nose… downright rat-like. Along with those ears, he would have made an excellent clown, if he didn’t constantly look as if he were gnawing on something unpleasant. His clothing was cut in a severe style, the colours muted greys and blues. The boots were practical, and he wore a rapier at his hip. His pinched face pinched even further as he turned to look over the assassin. “You’re an elf,” he said simply. His tone implied volumes about how little he thought of that fact.

A smile spread slowly across Zevran’s face. So many retorts for that, so little time. “You wanted the best, and that would be me.”

“And alone?” Howe sniffed, which only reinforced his likeness to a nose-twitching rat. “I rather expected more for this ridiculous price.”

“Only one can be the best.” The elf shrugged. “The Antivan Crows guarantee success,” he emphasized. “And speaking of said ridiculous price…?”

Howe sighed in annoyance and resignation, then sent for the money. Two of his house guards lugged in a steel chest and thumped it carefully down on the desk. The senior of the two produced the key and opened it — it was filled with gold coins.

“Really,” Zevran drawled, “it is so much easier to count it when you pile the coins neatly before dumping them into the chest.”

“It’s all there,” the arl growled.

Zevran spread his hands. “Procedure,” he said simply. “I am not in your employ until the contract is signed, and that will not happen until I am satisfied the Crows are being properly paid.”

Howe summoned his butler, whom he sent after his exchequer secretary. Truly, the man must have a servant for every task. Perhaps even separate ones for washing and folding his breechcloths. While they waited for the secretary to come in and begin stacking the coins, Howe extended him zero courtesy, and Zevran did his best to annoy the noble shem.

“They say Ferelden is much colder than Antiva,” the elf said lightly, his accent distinct. “Perhaps that also extends to a certain lack of hospitality. Some wine offered while we wait, for example.” He cocked his brows at the reticent shem. “No? Ah well, perhaps I will serve myself.” Zevran moved easily to the sideboard, selected a silver goblet, and poured wine from a crystal decanter. It was a deep burgundy; very nice. He raised the goblet, but didn’t get it halfway to his mouth when he heard the distinct sound of steel slowly sliding from a sheath. He froze, arm bent, and half turned. To his surprise, the guards hadn’t moved. It was Howe who had drawn his rapier.

“Put your lips on that goblet,” the human threatened, “and you’ll be picking them up off the floor.”

Zevran raised his brows. He glanced from the sword to the guards, who still hadn’t moved, except to rest their hands firmly on their weapons. Behind him, the sound of coins clinking into piles had stopped. Then, self-consciously, it started up again.

The assassin smiled and relaxed, lowering his hand but not replacing the goblet. “You know,” he said jovially, “usually when a client wants to test my skills, they throw a useless lackey at me.” He tipped his head towards the two guards. Howe’s narrow gaze never left his face. “I don’t make a habit of killing the client to prove a point,” he told the man. He turned back to the wine and got it nearly to his lips when he froze again, Howe’s blade at his neck.

“Put it down,” the arl ordered calmly. “Sit down. And wait until you are summoned.”

Slowly, Zevran lowered the goblet. He set it down with a gentle thunk. Howe pulled back, holding his blade relaxed but ready. “Didn’t they mention,” he said, “that in Ferelden, the nobles are not powdered and pampered pets, but warriors hardened in battle?”

“Must have slipped their minds,” Zevran confessed, only half as cocky as he could have been. “Makes sense. Dogs take after their people, do they not?”

“Sit down.”

Zevran shrugged. He’d meant it as a compliment. He turned away from the arl and walked to a chair by the wall, swaggering just enough to show he wasn’t doing it just because he’d been ordered to. He plumped down deliberately in the chair, leaned back like a cat stretching lazily out in the sun and, just to piss the man off, propped his muddy boots up in the low service table.

The guards tensed, clearly awaiting orders to teach this knife-ears a lesson. But Howe didn’t even twitch an eyelash. He’d just get the elven servants to clean it up. The bastard.

Howe sheathed the rapier. True to his boast about Ferelden nobles, he handled it professionally. “I will need to present you to the Regent,” Howe told the assassin. “I do hope you have some modicum of courtly manners.”

“Only a Regent?” Zevran waved it off carelessly. “I have been in the company of Princes. Of course, usually it’s standing in a pool of their blood, but ah.” He shrugged flippantly.

He actually made Howe grit his teeth. Point for him! “I am speaking of Teyrn Loghain — the General of all Ferelden’s armies, father and Regent to the Queen Anora, and ruler of this country.” His eyes glittered. “If he disapproves of this plan, you’re going home with nothing.”

“I don’t think the Crows will be too happy with that,” Zevran threatened.

“No,” Howe agreed. “Your employers will be most unhappy if you fail to secure this highly lucrative contract.”

Slippery, oily, greasy rat bastard. Zevran shrugged with nonchalance. “I concede your point.”

“Well, then. I believe your coin is ready to be counted.” He looked to the balding man behind the desk.

The exchequer secretary nodded. “Yes, my lord,” he said crisply.

Zevran glided lightly out of the chair and came over to inspect the shining columns of gold. “I can’t help but notice you have a great many Orlesian coins,” he pointed out.

“Left over from the occupation,” Howe replied smoothly.

“Orlesian coins are six grains lighter than Ferelden coins.”

“It buys the same amount,” Howe said a bit harshly.

“In Ferelden, yes; perhaps even in Orlais.” Zevran fixed the arl with a pointed stare. “But this coin is going to Antiva, where its only value is the gold weight.” He told the secretary, “Separate out the different coins.” Turning back to Howe, he said, “If you want to pay in Orlesian coin, you will have to make up a six percent difference.” Was the nobleman gritting his teeth again? Oh good! Before he left, perhaps he could push the man into fully grinding them. “It appears at least eighty percent of your payment is in Orlesian gold. That should be about 124 coins to cover it. Unless you wish to use Ferelden coin, in which case, 100 will suffice. Your man can do the calculations.”

The secretary looked at Howe, licking his lips nervously. The arl scowled at the man, who then scribbled a few moments on a bit of paper. “Uhm, that’s correct, my lord.”

Howe rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Very well. Sandin, see the Antivan gets the proper amount of coin to fulfill his contract.”

“Yes, my lord.”

 

 

When the accounts were settled, the coin was packed back into the strongbox. Howe’s guards would be responsible for getting it to the Crow Masters in Antiva, and Howe of course would be responsible for any mishap that might occur to it. All that was needed were the signatures of the clients on the contract.

“When can we meet with this Regent of yours?” Zevran asked.

“I will arrange it for later today. Do you have lodgings?” Not that Howe was offering any. Zevran nodded. “Leave the information with my butler; I’ll send someone to collect you when you are needed.”

Zevran performed an Antivan court half-bow, which was actually deep by Ferelden standards. “As you wish, my lord.” Like most city elves, he was able to affect a subservient tone and manner, even while imagining the Arl performing several anatomically impossible acts with some of his rodent ancestors. Whether Howe was mollified, or not fooled in the slightest, he gave no indication at all.

 

 

And so Zevran found himself in Denerim with a lot of time on his hands. He hated waiting. He paused at the edge of the Market and looked towards the alienage gate. The three beggars were nowhere in sight. Zevran shrugged. It was too late to warn them about the Purge, anyway. Most likely they already knew — from some astute servant at the estate — which is why they were outside in the first place.

The Antivan splurged a few coppers on a meat pie, rightly guessing that the fare at his ‘inn’ wouldn’t be up to par. The pie was actually good, with a flaky crust and well-spiced meat. Not as spicy as it was in Antiva, of course. Then it started raining again, and he headed back to the shelter of the boarding house.

The front room’s desk doubled as a small bar. The assassin sat on a stool and the shem girl on duty came over to him. “Watered dog piss,” he ordered. The barmaid grinned, but didn’t seem surprised in the least. She poured him a mug of…. Zevran sipped it. Yeah, he’d guessed right. He dropped a copper on the bar.

The girl set her fingertip on the coin and pushed it back towards him. “On the house,” she said, smiling again with a cute little wrinkle to her nose. “We don’t get many strangers in here.”

“Oh, really?” Zevran snorted. “A piece of crap lean-to on the way from the waterfront? I can’t imagine any locals come here often, either.” He took a gulp from the mug, figuring if he could throw it past his tongue, he might not taste it as much.

She grimaced, but persisted doggedly. “I mean your kind.” Oh, of course! Elves. “Where are you from? Tevinter?”

“Antiva.”

“That’s desert, ainnit? They say it gets hot up there.” She leaned forward on the bar, twisting a hank of hair around one finger.

Zevran took another gulp of his drink. “The desert gets cold at night,” he warned, fixing her with an icy stare. Unfortunately, she took it quite the wrong way.

She smiled again and leaned over the bar so he could get a good view of her less than impressive cleavage. “You want your bed warmed? I can arrange for your stay to be on the house, too.”

Zevran slammed the mug down on the bar. “Do I look like a whore to you?” he snapped. She jumped and shrank back. He reached over his shoulder and pulled his sword out. He pointed it at her, and she backed up against the shelves. “Does this look like an instrument of pleasure that a whore would carry around?”

“No!” she squeaked.

“Stupid bitch.” He sheathed the sword. “Give me the jug.” She blinked dully, and he had to repeat himself before she fetched the jug of swill from under the bar and handed it over.

He took it up to his room. He didn’t bother paying extra for the whole jug — the single copper he’d left was more than it was worth. Besides, he was on a budget, wasn’t he? His Crow Master had paid his way and given him a stipend for supplies and mercenaries. That didn’t include fine board and lodging, drink, or whores.

Zevran looked at the gaping maw of the jug. He wanted to get drunk badly, but reckoned that would be a bad idea when he had an appointment with the Regent — ruler of all Ferelden and blah blah blah. Maybe he should have taken the bargirl up on her offer but… he grimaced in disgust. Since he had made the mistake of falling hard for one particular woman, he hadn’t been able to take as much pleasure in them as he used to. The expensive whores of Antiva hadn’t been able to take his mind off her, and they were professionals. Some simpering Ferelden girl, smelling of dog, looking to bed an elf — he would have to be drunk for that to have any appeal. Maybe if she had been a boy….

“Shit,” said Zevran, staring down into the jug again. “I hate waiting.”

 

 

Howe’s man had come to get him in the late afternoon, when it was nearing dinner time. The arl looked more the warrior there at the castle, with his blade strapped across his back along with a wicked hatchet. He wore leather armor, though his was dyed and dressed, and edged in polished steel. Apparently, silks and satin were not the thing at the Ferelden royal court. Zevran had to give them grudging respect. He gave the arl a short bow, little more than a dip of his head. To Howe’s credit, he didn’t harp on the elf’s “courtly manners.” So they entered the Regent’s study in a state of detente.

The Regent was not holding court at the moment, though perhaps he had been, for he was in full plate armor — not the thing for even Ferelden Kings to lounge about in. The tall, dark-haired man busied himself with the wine decanter as Howe approached with Zevran.

“My Lord.” Howe approached Teyrn Loghain like a man offering a placating steak to a lion. “I believe I may have a solution to the Grey Warden problem.”

Loghain turned and his steely gaze swept over Zevran. The elf stepped forward confidently. “The Antivan Crows send their regards.” He showed his teeth in a faint feral smile.

The Regent looked over at Howe. “An assassin?” he snarled, clearly without respect for that ancient profession. He shook his head in disgust.

“Against Grey Wardens,” the arl replied, “we will need the very best.”

Zevran chuckled faintly. “And the most expensive.” Howe shot him a look and the cocky assassin grinned at him. Loghain missed the byplay entirely, for he had turned back to his cluttered desk.

“Sire.” Howe moved up beside him. “When one is faced with an infestation of rats, one does not confront them with honor and steel. One uses poison, or whatever other means necessary to eradicate them.”

Loghain sighed. “Very well. We do not have the manpower to spare to hunt these vermin down. The ratcatcher will have to do.”

Zevran bristled at the lack of respect, but bit his tongue. All he cared about was getting this job. It wouldn’t do to fidget impatiently while the powerful men read and signed the contract, so he kept an iron grip on his self-control and stood in an attitude of relaxed poise, examining his fingernails. At last the ink had dried and the contracts were sealed. The deed was as good as done.

The assassin couldn’t wait to get to business. He peppered Howe with questions as they left the castle. How many Grey Wardens had survived? Was he sure there were only two? What were their specialties? Their dispositions? Where might they go? Who were their allies?

Apparently, one of the Wardens was an elf. Zevran had never been contracted to kill an elf before. Of course he had no problem with it — a job was a job. He’d killed elves who were working as guards to his targets, and the occassional servant or slave who couldn’t be counted on to keep quiet during an infiltration. It was only very rare for an elf to rate high enough as an actual target. In fact, Zevran had never heard of such a thing. If anyone wanted an elf dead, there were plenty of cheaper and easier means than hiring the Antivan Crows. This contract would surely go down in the annals of the Crows as something extraordinary.

Reports from Lothering indicated the Wardens weren’t alone. They had a woman travelling with them, and perhaps had gathered more followers. That meant a difficult fight. Ferelden women, unlike their Antivan counterparts, were known to be fierce warriors with blade and bow. Still, the men were bigger and stronger, so it was just as likely that magic was involved. Any woman in a dress could fell half a dozen swordfighters with a fireball, if she had magic.

Luckily, Zevran found a mercenary company headed by one such woman. Her name was Hannah, and she was an apostate — on the run and hiding from the Circle of Magi. Which was always a bonus, because he wouldn’t have to explain his request to hire a mage to a bunch of nosy Templars nor pay the Chantry a usage tax for such services. Hannah had three brothers, all warriors and fiercely loyal to her. They, in turn, kept the dozen or so other fighters in line. This worked out well for the elf, as the men were used to deferring to someone smaller than they were. It was always a trial to have to prove oneself to a bunch of muscle-bound shem fighters just to get them to follow orders. With this company, simply called the Black Wolves, Zevran dealt with Hannah, and she cracked the whip on her followers.

They secured three wagons, loaded them up with provisions and tools of their trade, and set out west on the Imperial Highway. On the hunt at last, Zevran felt more alive than he had in weeks. Which was ironic, considering his quarry was the most deadly he had ever faced.

 

 


 
Author’s Afterword:

I don’t know if the whole thing about Zevran checking Howe’s payment makes any sense whatsoever. But heck, I wanted to give them something to interact over. We’ll overlook any little logic inconsistancies, shall we? :X