Other: children are slain
They *were* going to have gotten to the Tower by now…. my brain had other ideas, though. Actually, I think this section came out pretty cool.
Not to be confused with the ‘Way of the Assassin’ in Assassin’s Creed. Special props to King Diamond! \../,
The Assassin’s Way
The shriek plagued them with its cries all night. It never moved in close enough for the Wardens to get a strong sense of it; it never stayed still. Its scream could rip out of the night at any time, from any direction. The companions slept fitfully, if at all.
Exhaustion weakened them, and two hours of silence before dawn lulled them. That’s why they were slow to react when Leliana was attacked on her trip to the outhouse. The beast knocked her down, savaged one arm, but leapt away when the others ran out. It fled into the misty morn.
Alistair scooped Leliana up and carried her to the smokehouse. “We need water!” he called out. “Hot water! Build up the fire!”
“I’m all right,” Leliana insisted. “I can walk. It only bit me in the arm, Alistair.”
“There’s darkspawn blood all over you.”
“Yes, I managed to hit it with my belt knife.”
Bannon brought over bandages, but Alistair set them aside. “We need more water; we have to clean this wound.” He held Leliana’s arm down, despite her protests, and poured a mug full of water over the bites. “I don’t think it was trying to kill you,” he told her. “I think it tried to infect you with the Taint.” Her eyes flashed wide and she went pale. She stopped protesting his ministrations.
Bannon said, “We need to be careful, this thing isn’t the same stupid as the other darkspawn. Stick together. Don’t go anywhere alone.”
“I agree,” said the assassin from the doorway. Bannon nearly bit his tongue off in surprise. Zevran continued, oblivious to the tense reactions his sudden appearance caused in the group. “This creature, it is behaving most like an assassin. Studying its targets, striking at the weakest point — no offense to your fighting skills, my dear.”
Leliana nodded, tight-lipped. Alistair turned and scowled at the assassin. “I thought you were tied up.”
“It’s all right, Alistair,” Bannon cut in, seeing Zevran’s grin. “I untied him.”
“And gave him weapons?” Those, too, were obvious, sheathed in the assassin’s weapon harness.
“Well, you weren’t watching him very well.”
“Sorry.” Bannon moved past he others, pushing Zevran back into the barn. “We’ll go check for tracks near the outhouse. Morrigan, can you please take Sten to the well for more water?” He didn’t wait for the witch’s acknowledgement. He dragged Zevran towards the main doors. “What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed.
“I was not joking when I said this shriek is working like an assassin. And, its most likely next target would be the one left alone, unguarded, tied up, and helpless.”
Bannon winced. “Sorry.”
Zevran merely shrugged. “You left me unguarded, and the knot was in reach of my hands. It took little effort to untie myself.”
“And what are you trying to do? Get me in trouble?”
“You? You’re far too quick for that.” Bannon grimaced, and Zevran grinned. “Good choice, deciding to give me back my weapons.”
“Shut up!” Bannon pushed the barn door open and slipped out. He drew his sword and dagger. Zevran, who had followed him, danced back several paces, out of reach of the blades. Bannon frowned at him. “I’m not going to attack you.”
“I don’t know you that well.” The assassin pulled out his own swords. “Do you sense this shriek?”
“I don’t know you that well, either,” Bannon countered, narrowing his eyes at the long blades. “But this thing doesn’t care whose side we’re on, it wants to kill us all.” He looked off past the smoking rubble of the farmhouse, feeling uneasy about taking his eye off the elf who was contracted to kill him. It might be true he’d changed sides, but his escape act this morning left Bannon feeling uneasy about trusting him. Nevertheless, Zevran was definitely interested in self-preservation, and that would have to do for now. “No,” he said, focusing on the problem at hand; “I don’t sense him.” He didn’t let his guard down, though. Not the way that thing had jumped him in the fight yesterday.
He gave a jerk of his head to beckon Zevran along and started on the path to the outhouse. The assassin moved behind him, out to the left, his attention also on their environs, searching for sight or sound of the shriek.
They made it to the outhouse. There wasn’t much in the mud; a few splashes of blood, an imprint of a triple-tined claw.
Then they heard the scream. Both elves jumped, tensing to fight, but the sound was distant — away past the other side of the farmstead.
“Well,” said Zevran, relaxing first, “this is good. And here we are safely at the outhouse.” He moved to the door of the little shack.
“You’re sure there’s only one of them?” Bannon asked, stopping him in his tracks.
Zevran pursed his lips. “The time and distance between the calls last night was never impossible for one creature to manage.” His brows furrowed. “Unless they were working in tandem, to hide their numbers. Do darkspawn do that?”
“Duncan told me they’re not stupid, just insane.” Bannon turned his back to the outhouse, scanning the nearby treeline. “I still don’t sense anything.”
“Well, good. You keep watch, then.” Zevran sheathed his weapons and disappeared inside the little building.
“You couldn’t just go against the side of the barn?” Bannon griped.
“To be sure,” Zevran’s muffled voice replied. “But I prefer a civilized, comfortable, and quite cozy private facility.”
“You are a pampered slave.”
“I was a pampered slave,” the Antivan bit back, his accent hissing on the sibilants. “Now I’m stuck here with you.” Bannon shot the outhouse door a glare. “Perhaps you can sing, so I know you are still out there, and haven’t been waylaid by this darkspawn assassin.”
“I don’t sing. And maybe you can shut up, so I can listen for it sneaking up on me.”
The assassin took his sweet time. He came out looking quite refreshed. Not one to waste any opportunity, Bannon took a turn while Zevran bickered.
“If I do get attacked, will you spring forth to save me?”
“Without even pausing to pull up your pants? My life could depend on it, you know.”
“Your life might have a problem, then,” Bannon grumbled.
“This is yet another reason I prefer a kilt!”
“Shut up and stand guard!” Maker’s Breath, this guy could argue from sunup to sunset!
The group swiftly prepared to leave. Leliana was pale, but her wound was cleansed to Alistair’s satisfaction. Morrigan direly warned that they were completely out of healing potions, and unless they found a crop of un-Tainted elfroot, they were going to remain that way. Leliana readied her crossbow, her arm too injured to swing a sword. “I can still fight,” she declared.
Alistair took Bannon and his shadow, Zevran, aside. “Make sure you stick close to the women. This thing might go after them again, especially now that they’re more vulnerable.” He took the opportunity to give the assassin a pointed stare.
“Actually,” Zevran said, “we should take the lead, while you and Sten guard the ladies. Don’t you agree, mi patrone?”
Bannon tapped his lip in thought. The assassin smoothly continued explaining his strategy. “Since we are dealing with a stealthy foe– something, I remind you, with which I am intimately familiar– is why you brought me along, no? So, we must expect traps. We elves will scout ahead, the better to espy any faint, subtle traces that indicate such traps.”
Alistair eyed the assassin with thinly-veiled suspicion, his gaze resting on the two sword hilts protruding over Zevran’s shoulders. He looked at Bannon and said bluntly, “Are you sure now is a good time to trust this guy?”
“This damned shriek thing is going to kill us all,” Bannon said. “If he kills us now, there goes his shot at getting his money, or his wine, women, and song; or whatever it is he gets out of it.”
“Is true,” Zevran agreed quickly with a smile. Bannon had to wonder what he sounded like when he lied, because when he told the truth it sounded as insincere as all the other bullshit he was always spouting.
Alistair didn’t look happy about it, but he kept his mouth shut. Bannon said, “Zevran and I will keep an eye out for these traps, and a lookout for this darkspawn. You and Sten will be stronger protection for Leliana and Morrigan, anyway.”
The morning was damp and misty, and utterly silent. They’d managed to salvage Zevran’s rain cape, though it was heavily stained. Bannon’s was a lost cause, shredded and ripped. The assassin felt smug with himself, another triumph over the thief, until it started raining. He couldn’t put his hood up; he didn’t want to cut off any field of vision, nor muffle any sounds. That, coupled with how he’d lowered the neck of the cape to leave his sword hilts free, meant that the chilly rain soaked his hair and spilled down his neck. He might as well not have bothered with the damned thing. Actually, the contrast between his dry arms and wet neck probably made the discomfort worse.
The road led northwest; it was rutted by wagon wheels and, of course, muddy. The shriek kept silent, no doubt to unnerve them, a feeling Zevran determinedly shrugged off. Several times. The Wardens were jumpy as well.
The road dipped down into a hilly woodland. The elves rounded a bend and came to a halt. A pile of logs and boulders lay stacked on the road at the narrowest point between two ridges. They didn’t appear to have naturally fallen there. Bannon and Zevran shared a look.
The others caught up with them momentarily. “Oh look,” said Alistair; “This must be one of those faint, subtle signs that says ‘Hello! I am a trap!'” Zevran shot him a flat look. The human Warden shot it right back.
“Clearly, we are meant to take that footpath around the copse,” Morrigan said disdainfully.
“Clearly,” Bannon said, “we’re not doing that.” He looked up at the rubble. “Anyone fancy a climb?”
“Can we not confront this creature and he done with it?” Sten asked.
“Go into a trap?” Alistair asked.
“It worked well for you last time, no?” Zevran quirked a grin at the human.
Bannon said, “Are you advocating going into this trap?”
“If we wish to destroy this creature? Then yes. Going into a trap with eyes wide open is almost as good as avoiding it.”
“Did you forget,” the witch asked, “that we have exactly zero healing magic? Need I remind everyone how many potions we needed after the last trap we were in?” Here, she gave Zevran a poisonous look.
“What if,” Alistair said, “the trap is that it’s so obviously a trap that we go into the trap while trying to avoid the trap?”
Zevran stared at him. “Try not to strain yourself thinking.”
Bannon rubbed his face. “It depends on how smart this thing really is. Leliana, what do you think?”
“I would definitely prefer to avoid fighting,” she said. “Yet also I fear injury if we try climbing. If we become fatigued and scattered, we shall be less effective if we end up having to fight anyway, yes?”
“This thing could be anywhere — hell, it could be sitting between these two routes waiting for us to pick one. I think we need a third option.”
“Like what?” Alistair asked him.
Bannon shrugged. “Instead of turning left or going straight, how about we turn right?”
Banon led them back along the road, past the head of the footpath, to the spot where the hills started to rumple the ground. It was no trick at all to walk up the gentle slope here. All they had to do was keep heading west, he assured his companions. They had to wend their way through the trees and around dense clumps of underbrush.
Easy enough for a woodsman, with the sun clearly showing the proper direction. For a city elf under heavily-clouded skies, not so much. At least there wasn’t any sign or sound of that shriek. He’d probably lost it, as much as he’d lost the rest of them.
Then he saw another rise ahead, and a glimpse of lighter sky beyond. He could get up there and get the lay of the land. Maybe ask that blasted witch which way was West. If he were lucky, he’d spot a Chantry belfry or the roofs of some town. Or that mage tower. Weren’t they supposed to be close to there by now?
The slope was littered with fallen sticks and old, wet leaves that cracked and crunched under his boots. The tree line was so close, but he couldn’t see past the ridge until he got up on the edge.
“Do you know where you are going?” Zevran asked, moving up at Bannon’s left shoulder.
“Of course I know where–”
Bannon’s foot broke through a thin layer of leaves, followed closely by the rest of him, as it turned out there wasn’t actually any ground under the litter. Branches snapped, and he hit a muddy slope, then tumbled down. His only consolation was that the assassin had fallen right behind him.
Zevran rolled and sprang to his feet, drawing his swords. Bannon staggered upright, pulled out his own weapons, and looked around.
“Are you two all right?” Alistair’s voice called down.
“‘Tis alright if the answer for Zevran is ‘no,'” Morrigan added.
“We’re fine,” Bannon called back. He spat out a dead, wet leaf. More clung to his armor in haphazard patches, Zevran’s too. “Get down here; I think this might be a path through the hills.”
“Uh…,” came Alistair’s voice.
“We’re not using the route you took,” Morrigan supplied.
“Well, find something!” Bannon lowered his voice. “Shems, I swear.”
Zevran snickered. “This, of course, was all part of your brilliant plan, no?”
Bannon swiped at the leaves plastered to him. Some fell off, but more just shifted around. “At last, you’re starting to realized my true genius.”
“Pfft! We should scout around a bit; it will take them forever to find a way down.”
“Yeah…. And why is the sky so bright, here?”
They managed to regroup without any broken or sprained limbs. They headed in what was hopefully a southwestern direction to try to reconnect with the road. And the stuff making the sky so bright? Spider webs.
The giant spiders descended from above. They were dark, mottled with lighter patterns of green and brown, and not so giant as to swallow a house. They were about the size of a donkey, but lower to the ground, much leggier, and much faster.
As the first three descended on the group, Zevran whipped out his swords with a grin. “Shall we compete for points?”
“All right, I’m game!” Bannon leapt at the lead spider before it got all its legs on the ground. He drove his sword through the hard chitin behind its head. Then he jumped aside as it turned on him, and he slashed at the forelegs. Zevran had a clear shot at its exposed abdomen. Gooey ichor splashed the ground, and the beast squealed as it collapsed.
Bannon whirled quickly to the next spider. More were dropping out of the trees, but he didn’t care. They were big and stupid, not Tainted, and beating the green glop out of them improved his mood immensely.
As the spider turned towards him, he saw Zevran out of the corner of his eye, darting in to strike at it. Bannon danced back, waiting a moment while the spider turned to this new threat. And when it did, he slammed his sword into its flank.
Bannon spied the one Zevran was battling now and circled around it. The two elves continued weaving curved paths through the battle, changing dance partners, pulling attackers off each other, exploiting openings that were created. Spiders squealed and died. This was more fun than tossing little house spiders into the fire!
The elves moved quickly, trying to score the most kills. In a few brief minutes, they’d run out of spiders. They stood, huffing for breath, and looked back. A trail of spider corpses led back to their companions. The shems stared, gaping. Bannon’s grin notched up. “Well, come on,” he told them. Zevran laughed as they turned to continue down the path.
“That was five for me,” the assassin said. He wiped his blades on his rain cloak. Why not? It was ruined already.
“That was four for you. I had five.” Bannon helped himself to a corner of the cloak. Zevran jerked it back, but Bannon tightened his grip and managed to keep ahold of it long enough to finish cleaning his weapons.
“I killed that big one.”
“You stabbed it after I killed it.”
“No, it was not dead when I killed it,” Zevran insisted.
“It was dead enough after I killed it. Twitching its legs after it’s dead doesn’t count as alive.”
“A coup de grace is a valid kill!”
“Oh, fine!” Bannon tossed up his hands. “You had four and a half, then.”
“Well, if I had four and a half, you certainly did not have five!”
“Guys!” Alistair broke in. The others had caught up with them. “Stop arguing!”
Bannon and Zevran looked back at the Templar. They shrugged and moved to scout ahead once more.
“Boy, shems really know how to kill a good time,” Bannon muttered. Zevran grunted in agreement.
“There! There! There!”
“Alistair,” Morrigan growled, “yelling ‘there’ and pointing is no help whatsoever!”
The small group was arrayed across the narrow path in battle formation, weapons out, tensed for the attack. The attack that so far had not been forthcoming. The Wardens had sensed the shriek’s rapid approach, warned their companions.
“Shut up,” Zevran snarled, “and let us listen for its movement.”
That proved fruitless as well. The forest was eerily silent. Alistair’s eyes darted, trying in vain to penetrate the thick brush. Bannon had his bow half-drawn, straining for a glimpse of the damned thing. He wished he could pinpoint the shriek’s location and kill it in one blind shot, but his Warden senses didn’t work like that. There was only a flowing wave of uneasiness, vaguely attuned to one direction. “We can’t stand here all day,” he muttered.
“Then you are not well-disciplined warriors,” said Sten. The qunari stood solid as a rock. Maybe that’s why they were grey, they were part stone.
“If we retreat,” said Leliana, “it will surely spring upon us.”
“That might actually be useful,” Zevran said. “At least then it will be in range of our blades.” He had opted not to use his bow.
Bannon said, “We should move in there and try to fight it.”
“No,” Sten said sharply.
“I concur,” Zevran added. “We would be split up, scattered among the thick trees. An assassin would love that.”
“Then we’re back to standing here all–” Bannon raised the yew bow and drew back the arrow. The others tensed at the Wardens’ agitation.
But again, the damned thing did not attack. It didn’t even let out its trademark screech. It moved about and then… just seemed to melt away. The strong feeling of wrongness faded, but Bannon still felt uneasy. “Alistair?”
“I think it’s moved off.”
“You ‘think’?” Morrigan repeated.
“Well, it’s rather like smelling something,” the Templar tried to explain. “It doesn’t just stop, it… lingers. It could be hovering just outside of our range to sense it. Or maybe it’s trying to circle around.”
“Either way,” said Leliana, “it is an opportune time to move, yes?”
“Yet not a good time to drop our guard,” Zevran added.
Bannon slowly released tension on the bowstring. “All right: Morrigan, Leliana, start moving out. Keep your weapons ready. Zevran, scout ahead. Sten, guard the center. Alistair and I will guard the rear.”
The group moved out in ragged formation, while the two Wardens strained themselves for any clue what their enemy might be doing, or thinking. Slowly, Alistair and Bannon followed the rest. After moving on a while, they relaxed a notch or two. Not completely, as they were sure as soon on they let their guard down, the thing would jump them.
“You let Zevran go first?” Alistair said hesitantly. “By himself.” Not quite accusingly.
“If there’s any trap or ambush up ahead, he’ll be the first one in it.”
“Ah.” The Templar actually brightened at that prospect.
“You really don’t trust him?”
“Not one bit.” Alistair shot him a sidewise look. “You don’t, do you? He’s just waiting for us to drop our guard.”
“No…,” Bannon said slowly. Though Zevran had saved him from the shriek. He hadn’t even been properly armed — in fact, he shouldn’t have been close enough to do anything at all. But if he had been sneaking up to do Bannon in, why had he kicked the shriek in the face? Bannon shook his head. “I trust him to want to stay alive. Against darkspawn, that means he’s with us.”
“So… the only time we’re not in danger from him is when we’re in worse danger from everything else?”
Bannon grinned darkly. “There, see? We’ve got nothing to worry about from him!” Ah, the advantages of leading the charmed life of the last of the Grey Wardens.
They reached the next farmstead sometime in the afternoon. The companion’s nerves were so strung out by the harrying of their invisible stalker, that even Sten seemed twitchy. They were tired and hungry, but they stopped at the farmstead gate. They looked across the yard with forboding, waiting to hear the assessment from the Wardens.
“Oh hell,” said Alistair. With a shaking hand, he unlatched the gate.
“We could simply go around,” Zevran said,his voice flat in the heavy air.
“We have to…,” Alistair said quietly. He swallowed. “If there’s any chance that someone hid… survived….” He gripped his sword. All of them had their weapons out– they hadn’t bothered sheathing them, with the shriek’s threat always imminent. His shield was too heavy to carry all day, so he left it on his back.
Bannon moved up silently on his left, and they went up the path to the farmhouse. It didn’t take a Warden’s senses to pick up the Taint. The smell of rotting meat rolled across the yard. At least there weren’t any mad cows to attack them. There were several large lumps scattered around the yard, wet, maroon pieces crawling with flies. They’d apparently donated some bones to the six darkspawn totems that stood guard before the porch. Cattle bones, cow skulls… most of them, anyway.
Alistair focused on the door. It hung slightly ajar. The Taint emanated from inside so strongly, it was almost a physical force. He pushed ahead, inside to the common room.
There were bodies here, slumped over the table, spilling from the chairs. They were blessedly still.
The others filed in behind him, spreading out, except for Sten. Leliana moved to the hearth, where a huddle of small bodies lay, gathered around their fallen mother. A soft whimpering sound made Alistair freeze.
Leliana put her crossbow down on the table and hurried forward. “Here, child. Oh, you poor thing.” She reached for the small girl crouched near the bodies. The child whipped around and snarled. Leliana reared back with a cry. The girl’s face was barely human, her gums blackened, her teeth thinned to needles. Her dead grey eyes flicked from Leliana to Alistair.
Her eyes widened, her face went lax, transforming from beast back to a ghost of herself. Alistair stood rooted to the spot as the girl moved towards him. She recognized him, or rather, the Taint within him. Her soulless eyes seemed to fill with hope, with longing. She lifted her arms out to him, a silent plea.
Hesitantly, not sure why be was doing this, he reached down with his left arm. He circled it around the child and lifted her. She clung to him, wrapping arms and legs around his torso. He wasn’t sure for a split-second that she wasn’t going to rip out his throat. But she pillowed her head against the cold plate of his chest armor.
Alistair swallowed thickly. He could feel her small body against his, not from body heat, but from the Taint. She recognized him as a kindred spirit. His vision blurred. Maker, the child had to die. But he was at a loss. How? How could he do it without hurting her? His right arm hung lax at his side, sword pointing down.
Bannon saw his fellow Warden go pasty white. He, too, knew what had to be done, but… it was just a little girl, not some ravening monster.
Everyone remained frozen, trying in shock to process the tableau. Bannon edged back until he nearly bumped into Zevran. “You’re an assassin,” he said low; “You know how to kill someone quick and painless?”
“Si.” Zevran kept his voice low as well.
Bannon jerked his head, indicating for him to go do it. Zevran carefully sheathed his weapons and walked over to the Templar. Alistair turned, eyeing him warily.
“Is all right,” the elf said softly. “Just hold her.” He reached out and stroked the girl’s hair, murmuring gentle assurances. He touched her cheek as she looked up to Alistair. A moment later there was a muffled crack as the assassin twisted her neck. Alistair made a hurt animal sound in his throat. He clutched the body close to his chest.
Another mewling growl drew the attention of the others down to the hearth again. The infant at the farmwife’s breast was… feeding. Leliana gasped and turned away. Zevran moved forward, but the witch was closer. She grasped the tiny Tainted boy in her hands, intending to wring its neck. But the thing twisted and sank its fangs into her hand. With a cry of shock, she dropped it.
Zevran’s hand shot out and drew the knife from Morrigan’s belt. He knelt and gripped the child’s head, pinning it face down. He raised the blade and brought it down sharply, piercing the infant skull with a wet crack. The body went limp.
Zevran stood and offered the knife back to the witch. She refused it and turned away. She stalked out the door, face pale, raising her injured fingers to her lips.
Bannon ran after her and grabbed her arm. She glared at him like a riled cat. “It’s Tainted,” he warned her. He pulled her down the steps, towards the well. “Sten!” he called. The giant followed them. “Keep watch,” Bannon told the qunari, and Sten moved a few feet away, scanning for enemies.
Bannon grabbed the handle and started winching the bucket up from the well. He hoped the water hadn’t been somehow Tainted. Morrigan waited, still and silent, clutching her wrist, blood oozing from the bite. Her face was hard, shuttered against any emotion, but whiter than Bannon had ever seen it.
He said nothing, but pulled the bucket over. It brimmed with water, fresh and clear. He carefully poured it over the bite wound. All of it, which took a minute or two. The cold water slowed the blood flow and leeched colour from Morrigan’s skin.
“Keep an eye on that,” he told her. He noticed the gooseflesh prickling her skin. He rubbed her arm briefly, hoping he didn’t lose a limb for his trouble.
The contact seemed to steady her. “I hate children,” she said, her voice a bit uneven.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he replied, keeping his voice neutral. He let the bucket drop back into the well. “You think it’s safe to light this one up?” he asked, nodding at the farmhouse.
Morrigan turned back to look it over. “The barn is a bit close,” she said. That will likely go up as well. There is no wind, so I doubt it will jump to those trees. The ground is soaked; it should be fine.”
“Whenever you’re ready,” Bannon said.
“I’m fine.” The witch headed back to the house.
Bannon called to Sten and followed.
The shriek didn’t attack. Bannon didn’t know why. Alistair and Leliana were still in shock over the Tainted children. Bannon kept Sten and Zevran on their toes, and tried not to think about the Taint. The shriek was more likely to kill them; he had to focus on that. Perhaps the shriek was waiting for them to become more scattered. Or perhaps it hated and feared fire. They’d left the farmstead before the house had been engulfed, but the smell of smoke followed them.
“Do you often kill innocents?” Alistair said darkly to the assassin.
“Innocents?” Zevran shrugged it off carelessly. “There are no innocents. Everyone is guilty of something.”
“What could those children possibly have been guilty of?” Alistair’s voice was filled with sorrow, and a trace of anger.
“You’d be surprised what children are capable of,” Zevran muttered, but he didn’t confront the knight about it. He dropped back a few paces to walk beside Alistair. “You mean, do I kill those I am not contracted to? Unarmed bystanders, children, family members, and the like?” He shrugged again, ignoring Alistair’s fierce scowl. “It happens.”
“And you don’t care?”
“Everyone dies, Alistair. If not by my hand, then something else, no? Disease, accident, old age, a fall down the stairs…. What difference does it make?”
Alistair rounded on the elf, halting the group’s progress. “You’re nothing but a heartless, cold-blooded murderer!”
Zevran bristled up at the taller human. “Murderers,” he said in a tightly-controlled voice, “are amateurs.” He met the man’s accusing glare without flinching. “And is it so much better to kill random people in hot blood?” He moved to push past the Warden-Templar, but Alistair
tensed, his hands balling into fists. Zevran’s instincts screamed at him to attack the shem — if Bannon hadn’t confiscated the witch’s knife — No! He couldn’t kill the Wardens. Not now!
Before the situation exploded, Bannon interposed his body between them, facing Alistair. “Hey!” The Templar wavered, but wouldn’t strike his fellow Warden.
“What did you want?” Zevran sneered. “To run them through with your sword? To leave them to die of the Taint, slowly? Eating th–?”
“Shut up, you son of a –!”
“Alistair!” Bannon yelled. “That’s enough! I told him to do it, to do it quickly so they wouldn’t suffer.”
The Templar crumbled; he put his face in his hands. “We couldn’t save them,” he sobbed. “What use are we?”
“Pull yourself together,” Bannon told him firmly, but more gently. “That shriek is still out there, stalking us.” He shot a scathing look over his shoulder at Zevran. “We’re going to scout ahead again.” Before the assassin could open his mouth, Bannon grabbed him by the arm and dragged him off.
“Death is not always unwelcome,” Zevran insisted.
The Antivan bristled again. As if it were his fault Alistair had upset himself! Really, a man with so weak a stomach had no place in a military order. “Personally, I prefer my way,” Zevran said, ignoring his patron’s command. “To die fighting, slain quickly by blades. Is much better than lying abed, wasted from disease, or withered and infirm from old age. Do you not agree?”
Bannon didn’t answer. Perhaps he thought about it.
The next farmhouse was not far; they could still see the smoke rising over the treeline. There were several pigs in the yard, thankfully quite dead. And the farmhouse was blessedly empty. These farmers must have been able to flee before the darkspawn arrived. That didn’t stop the darkspawn from trying to corrupt whatever they could. Cabinets had been ransacked, and any food that had been left behind had been spoiled.
“Oh-ho!” Bannon cried, clapping a hand over his nose and mouth. “I didn’t think anything could smell worse than darkspawn Taint.”
Zevran wrinkled his nose. “Darkspawn piss.” He remained unperturbed, probably by sheer force of will.
Leliana and Morrigan had already backed out of the house. “We are not going in there,” the witch informed them.
“We have to check,” Alistair insisted, his own voice muffled with his gauntlet. “If there’s any chance of survivors….”
“They’d have to be passed out,” Bannon said, his eyes watering.
“Have fun with that,” Morrigan said. “We three shall investigate the barn.”
There weren’t any survivors, nor corpses for that matter. The barn doors had been left open; the plowhorse and probably some goats had been taken or turned loose.
“The barn looks good for camp tonight,” Alistair reported a while later. “Leliana found a root cellar. We still have no meat, but at least we’ll have fresh turnip and potato. Mmm, yummy.” His voice remained flat, but at least he had the energy to be glib. “Morrigan found some of that elfroot herb at the edge of the fields. She commandeered Sten to go with her to harvest it.”
“You need to go with her,” Bannon said. “That shriek could go for them.”
Alistair nodded. Before he could move off, Zevran came around the corner of the barn, clanking with chains and metal contraptions. “Wardens! I have found just what we need — traps!” The Antivan grinned. “We shall lay a trap for this wily beast. All we need is some live bait.”
Alistair frowned. “Meaning…?”
“Wardens can sense the darkspawn, no?” Zevran looked between the two of them. They nodded. “And, as I understand, the reverse is also true. But — it is also true that darkspawn cannot sense the rest of us, si? So, here is what I propose….” He moved past Bannon and Alistair a bit and pointed to a far corner of the property. “We place these traps there, with you–” he glanced at Bannon– “sitting amongst them, our live bait. I shall sneak up and lie in wait nearby, in my perfectly camouflaged cloak.” Here, he turned to show off his rain cape, which by now was more mud than oilcloth. “When the shriek attacks, it shall be caught in a trap, and you and I will dispatch it. Clever, no?”
Zevran and Bannon looked at Alistair. He turned to Bannon. “You can’t be thinking of going through with this.”
“It sounds risky, but it’s not a bad plan.” The former Templar did not look convinced. “We have to kill this thing,” Bannon insisted. “We’re going to have to lure it out somehow.”
“Can we have a private Grey Warden conference?” Alistair shot the assassin a dark look. “And where is Leliana? You didn’t leave her alone, did you?”
“She is not five feet away, in the barn– oh, very well.” Zevran gave up at the Templar’s stony look and went back into the barn with his traps.
“You can’t be thinking of trusting him– at a time like this?”
“Well, you guys have been getting rather friendly of late.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Not… Not that! I mean… Just maybe because you’re both elves?” Alistair didn’t come out and say it, but what he meant was clear. Would Bannon have treated a human the same way? “You’re trusting him awfully fast– letting him run around with weapons? Letting him use you as bait? He was trying to kill us just a couple of days ago, and probably still is.”
Bannon chewed his lip. If a shem had tried to assassinate him… the bastard would be dead. But the circumstances would have been different! A human wouldn’t have been a slave. “You think he’s playing me?”
“I don’t know,” Alistair said unhappily. But it was clear that’s what he was thinking. “Look, if these Antivan Crows are going to kill him just for failing his mission, imagine what they’d do to someone who actually changed sides.”
The Templar had a point, a very good point. Bannon shook his head, not wanting to believe he could be so easily duped. “I told you, he can’t kill us now. He doesn’t stand a chance without us.”
“It’s only one darkspawn. Maybe he thinks he can escape it.”
“And I still think that luring the shriek out will be our best chance to kill it.” Bannon rubbed his brow.
“And I still think he could leave you out there and let it kill you, while he sneaks back around and kills me.”
“You can keep watch from the barn.”
“Watch what?” Alistair said in frustration. “Watch him stab you in the back? What good is that going to do?”
“You, Leliana, and Morrigan can watch. Leliana has a crossbow, Morrigan can cast magic. Between the three of you, you can take out whichever one of them kills me.”
“Can’t we have a plan where you don’t die?” Alistair asked.
Bannon sighed. “I’m not going to die. I’ll be careful.”
“Why can’t I be the bait?”
“Your armor is too heavy,” Bannon hedged. “It might not want to attack you. And–” he said, cutting off any further argument– “if you go without armor, it might get suspicious.” He didn’t want to try to explain the ‘deal’ he’d made with the assassin to kill him first. Of course, Alistair probably didn’t want Bannon to die because that would leave Alistair in charge. The elf rubbed his face and quashed that uncharitable thought about his fellow Grey Warden. “After we deal with this shriek, I’ll take Zevran’s swords away from him. You can tie him back up and watch him.”
Alistair didn’t say anything, he just exuded unhappiness.
“What?” Bannon prodded. “You want to just kill him now? For no reason?”
Alistair dropped his gaze. “No. No, I guess not.”
“It’ll be fine, Alistair,” Bannon said, feigning confidence.
And so that’s how he ended up out here, huddled in Alistair’s rain cape, sitting on a stool, in the dark and the drizzle, surrounded by traps he hoped not to step in. Waiting tor a darkspawn to jump him, or to be stabbed in the back by an assassin in the grass. Wondering if he’d been conned by the Antivan. Wondering if he was just plain out of his mind. Everything Zevran had said or done could be a lie, an act. Or it could all be true. Well, that was stretching credulity; some of it could be true. Some of the important parts. Dammit, Bannon was an accomplished liar, he should be able to spot one easily.
The only feeling he’d gotten from the Antivan was one of camaraderie and cooperation. Oh, it wasn’t perfect; he complained, he annoyed. Bannon was confident the assassin truly wanted to escape the Crows and aid the Wardens. Confidence. That’s what a conman was all about. Shit!
Bannon got a sinking feeling in his stomach. Then he realized it wasn’t from his train of thought– it was the Taint. Bannon let his head droop further, pretending to be asleep on watch. He generated a snore to alert the assassin– Zevran’s brilliant idea.
Now all they had to do was wait.
What the hell was it waiting for? It should run up on him swiftly, before his sense of it ‘awoke’ him. Unless it was circling around the barn? Trying to catch the others unaware?
No, Bannon felt the Taint growing stronger. He gripped the sword hidden under his cape. Just stay still, don’t tense up, wait–
A shrill scream drilled through his skull, and the thing was on him, its heavy weight on his back throwing him to the ground. The breath was knocked out of him, but he thrashed as best he could to avoid the wicked claws. The shriek’s jaws closed on the cloak’s hood instead of his neck. It started savaging him, growling. Yeah, there was another cloak Bodhan wasn’t going to return the down payment on. Bannon let out a cry and tried to free his arms. Dammit, where the hell was that–?
Another scream split his ears. The darkspawn dropped heavily on him, knocking the breath out of him again. Hot, thick liquid spattered over his back and the ground. Then the weight was shoved off him.
“Are you all right, mi patrone?” Bannon could only groan. “Well,” Zevran answered cheerily, “it didn’t step in the wolf traps– quite dexterous that; you should have seen it leap! But no matter, for our baited trap has worked perfectly. Do you not agree?”
Zevran sheathed his swords and bent to help Bannon up. “Come on, a nice dry bed of straw awaits you! Be careful where you step,” he called cheerfully over his shoulder to the approaching Templar. “The traps are laid quite thickly.”
“Are you all right?” Alistair’s voice cut in. He grabbed Bannon’s other arm, and he and the assassin got the elf to his feet.
“I’m fine,” Bannon groaned. “I think I landed on my sword.”
Alistair looked shocked, but Zevran just laughed. “At least not on the pointy end! Come, Alistair, there is no need to glare at me so. Did I not say my trap would work? You should trust me more.”
The three of them walked back to the barn.
Zevran’s elation at the success of his brilliant plan (but of course– were not all his plans successful?) came to an abrupt, untimely end when Bannon asked– no, commanded– him to relinquish his swords. Zevran frowned. “Have I not earned the right to keep them? Fighting for you, beside you, these past few days?”
“You’ve done well,” Bannon said. “Thank you for saving me from that shriek. Twice.” His voice didn’t warm up, however. “Now that we’re not in danger from darkspawn attack, I think it’s more prudent for you not to have them.” He held out his hand. “Weapons. Now.”
Zevran glanced aside at the scowling Templar. “As you like.” He sighed quietly and unbuckled his weapon harness. He handed it over.
Bannon took the swords over to stash them safely with the other supplies. Alistair remained, and Leliana helped him with the knots used to tie Zevran’s hands behind him. They tied him to a post in the back of a stall, with a short rope. “A little gratitude for removing that bothersome shriek would be nice,” he grumbled.
“Thank you, Zevran,” Leliana said lightly.
“You will all sleep better tonight for sure, all thanks to me.”
“I doubt that,” Alistair said. “Now shut up and go to sleep.”
Zevran sighed and lay down in the straw. “Well, I shall sleep quite soundly.”
Zevran jerked awake. His hands were bound tightly behind him. He lay on one side, on the well-polished floor of the Master’s office.
“You’ve failed me, whelp.” Master Farkus’ voice rolled down from miles above him.
“I– no, I have not failed, Master,” Zevran said, trying in vain to get himself upright.
“You know the penalty for failure.”
“No!” Zevran tried to control his panic. He couldn’t be lying here helpless! He struggled to bring his arrogance and confidence to bear. “For a mere setback? A delay, nothing more! You can’t afford to kill me, I am the greatest assassin in all Antiva! There will never be another like me. You know it!”
Farkus’ laughter was like the rumble of thunder. His meaty hand clutched Zevran’s hair and yanked him upright. “Do you think? Look!”
And then they were in a dingy warehouse, musty old straw strewn on the floor. A ragged band of little elf children stood clustered together, all skinny legs, big eyes, and pale faces. The girls had softly-pointed ears, like new flower buds unfurling. One freckle-faced boy had long ears sticking out from his thatch of hair, looking like a puppy that hadn’t grown into his features yet.
“A dozen for two silver,” Master Farkus bragged. “Your kind is cheap enough, little whore.”
Zevran began to protest, but his throat was dry. Now it was Mistress Sabrine, Crow Master of Induction, who had her hand fisted in his hair.
“You now belong to the Crows,” Mistress Sabrine told the children, her voice like a razor. “You will obey the Crow Masters. You will learn your lessons. This is what happens if you fail.” She yanked Zevran’s head back. “This is what happens if you betray the Crows.” The knife in her other hand flashed out and cut deeply across Zevran’s throat. His blood splashed the wide-eyed little elflings. Several screamed. They’d never been this close to death before. Zevran’s body dropped lifeless to the straw, and the world went black, but he could still hear the crying of the children.
Zevran jerked awake. His hands were bound tightly behind him. It was dark; he couldn’t see where he was, but he could feel the hard-packed floor beneath him, he could smell the musty straw. The Crows had him, and he was going to be executed– slaughtered– to teach the littles to fear the Crows. He started thrashing, yanking at his bonds, though the ropes cut and abraded his wrists. He had to escape!
Then there was a rustling, the scrape of a blade against a scabbard, and a black shape loomed out of the darkness. “What are you doing?” It pointed a sword at him, and Zevran froze.
“I… Warden?” Zevran looked up. There was a lantern somewhere, burning low. He could make out wooden beams overhead. Now he remembered where he was. “Warden… Alistair. I had a dream. A nightmare, nothing more.” He swallowed and licked his lips. “I was not trying to escape.”
The dim light was at Alistair’s back. Zevran couldn’t see his expression. He didn’t move the sword from where it pointed at Zevran’s neck. Would the human use it? Bannon had offered the man a knife to slit Zevran’s throat when they’d first captured him and had him tied up at their mercy. Alistair had been too much of a soft-hearted coward to actually kill a helpless foe. That was before he’d seen the assassin’s handiwork. Zevran swallowed again. He did not make any other move. The more passive he was, the harder Alistair would find it to kill him.
Then a cry startled both of them. Not the shriek; that was dead. It was Bannon, having nightmares again. Alistair moved off. For a moment, Zevran considered redoubling his effort to escape before the Warden came back. He slumped in his bonds. No, there was no point in that.
After a few minutes, some sleepy murmurings, some cranky grumblings, the two Wardens came back to loom over him again. “What are you doing?” Bannon asked him flatly.
“I had a dream, as I said.” He blinked as Alistair raised the lantern to let the light fall on his face. “A nightmare, and l was thrashing around a bit. You know how it is.”
“Nightmare about what?” Bannon knelt down beside Zevran. He leaned over him and tugged at his bonds to test them.
“I dreamt the Crows had captured me and were going to kill me.” Zevran decided sweetening the deal with a little levity couldn’t hurt. “I wouldn’t try to escape from you, my dear handsome Wardens. You can tie me up and have your way with me any time.”
He blinked in shock when Bannon turned and took a rope from Alistair. He didn’t think they’d take him up on that! Oh, but of course the Denerim elf only wrapped it around Zevran’s legs, tying him more securely.
Zevran wondered why the other elf was so paranoid. They’d been getting along very well. He rather liked Bannon. He was handsome (not quite so handsome as Zevran himself, of coarse), daring, funny…. then Zevran recalled Alistair giving him black looks, calling him a murderer. The last two Grey Wardens in Ferelden, they must be rather close. Yes, Zevran would have to work on Alistair. Once both of the Wardens trusted him, then he would be free to… well, do whatever he needed to.
This was more fun than tossing little house spiders into the fire!
–omg, I can’t believe any of my characters could be this ignorantly cruel! bannon, you’re such a… a GUY!
“Oh-ho!” Bannon cried, clapping a hand over his nose and mouth. “And I thought they smelled bad… on the outside!”