They WERE going to get to Lake Town by now. I swear. It’s not my fault. Too much talking. And Alistair cooked…. They’ll get there next chapter, I promise! (You hear me, Brain? Get them there next chapter!)
The Road to Lake Town
The sky to the east began to lighten; it glowed a pale, watery gold. Above the black ink of the tree line, scattered clouds caught the light of the unseen sun and turned rosy pink. Bannon paused to look up at the moment of beauty in this time of turmoil. As he moved forward and came around the corner of the barn, he could see a sooty smudge where the pall of the smoldering farmhouse still stained the sky.
He found Leliana there, too, standing outside the doors of the barn, watching the light grow. She startled as he came up to her. A fleet smile sprang to her lips to hide her embarrassment.
“Sorry,” he said quietly. He hadn’t realized he’d been moving so silently.
“It’s all right. I was only contemplating the nature of evil, and the Maker’s divine will.”
“You mean the darkspawn? And the Taint.”
She nodded solemnly and returned to regarding the glowing eastern sky.
Bannon frowned to himself. “Doesn’t the Chant of Light say the Maker created the darkspawn?”
“‘And so it is the Golden City blackened with each step you take in my Hall,'” she quoted. “‘Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting. You have brought Sin to Heaven and doom upon all the world.'”
“Yes,” he said slowly, not sure this was a safe topic. He believed in the Maker, though the divine never really played any active part in the day-to-day life in the alienage. “So the Maker cursed the magisters who invaded the Golden City, turned them into darkspawn and then threw them back into the world, to prey on us. That doesn’t make sense. It’s the rest of the people that are suffering in these Blights.”
Leliana turned her spooky gaze onto him and spoke harshly. “The Maker granted us the means to defeat the darkspawn, to stop the Blight. Yet the pettiness of mortal man squandered it.” She scowled off into the trees. “Loghain has much to answer for.”
Bannon couldn’t argue with that.
A moment later, Alistair appeared, towing a limping Zevran by a rope still tied around one wrist. The assassin’s left arm hung limply while he rubbed it. “Walkies,” Alistair grumbled tiredly, and he handed the assassin’s leash to Bannon before going back into the barn.
He looked at the Antivan elf. “You all right?”
“Oh, to be sure,” Zevran agreed with a bite to his cheerful tone. “My arm has gone pleasantly numb from lying on it all night. I would caper about in joy as I look forward to stabbing pins and needles, but I have to take a piss.”
“As long as you’re happy,” Bannon sniped back. He wasn’t about to let the elf make him feel guilty. To Leliana he said, “I’ll see you in a bit.” He tugged Zevran’s leash.
“Perhaps next time you can tie me spread-eagled to four posts,” Zevran griped. “That might be more comfortable.”
“We can try that,” Bannon said mildly, earning a slit-eyed glare.
“Hopefully it will be in a proper bed. Though a bit of comfort seems too much to hope for with the Grey Wardens.”
“So sorry, your pampered slaveness.”
The… ‘discussion’ was fortunately cut short by their arrival at the outhouse. After that brief respite, Zevran’s limbs were all back in working order. His mouth, of course, never seemed to have any difficulty. Alas.
“I do not see why these ropes are necessary.”
“You’re our prisoner,” Bannon reminded him.
Zevran groaned. “I thought we went over this! Have I not proven myself to you yet?”
“Think about it,” Bannon said. “Exactly how much of your story can I verify?”
“Uh….” Zevran thought it over a few moments. “You know the Antivan Crows are a guild of ruthless assassins.”
Bannon nodded. “That’s right, Leliana told us. I believe you both mentioned that once the Crows take a contract, the mark always dies. Therefore you– ruthless assassin that you are– are still trying to kill us.”
“But what about the ruthless Crows who are out to kill me, now that I have failed?”
Bannon wagged a finger at him. “We only have your word that is true. Besides, it doesn’t make sense.” Zevran started to argue again, but Bannon cut him off. “Oh, sure, if we had kicked your ass and you slunk away, and we went around telling everyone how we beat the unbeatable Crows, then I could see it. But who are we going to tell?” He shrugged and looked around pointedly at the empty barnyard. “Hell, you bump us off now, who is even going to know that you failed?”
Zevran chewed his lip a few moments. “And my desire to escape my enslavement to the Crows?” he asked quietly, his gaze on the mud at his feet.
Bannon rubbed his chin. “Well, the best I can do is get Leliana to verify they have elven slavery in Antiva. As for the rest….” He shrugged again.
Zevran nodded. Then he looked up. “I will continue to prove myself, then. You… you must think there is some chance I am telling the truth, or you would have dispatched me.”
Bannon thought back on that fateful decision. He had to wonder what he’d been thinking! Suckered by an elven slave sob story. Damn. He gave no indication of what he was thinking. Instead he only said darkly, “That’s still an option.”
There was grain in the barn, coarse animal feed. This morning’s porridge (or gruel) was going to be rather chewy. Alistair sat beside the small fire outside the barn doors, stirring the pot slowly, not really watching. He tried to shake the cobwebs of sleep from his mind, and to forget his dreams of Tainted children. He hadn’t been able to face them, to kill them. He rubbed his face.
The qunari settled beside the fire. Kneeling down, the grey giant was still taller than Alistair. “Morning, Sten,” the Warden said, trying to brighten things up. “Did you sleep well?”
“Must be nice,” Alistair mused to himself. He waited for the qunari to pick up the conversation, ask the same questions in return. That, however, was not forthcoming.
Alistair sighed and stirred the porridge. He’d decided that’s what it was. It sounded much more appetizing than ‘gruel.’ Gruel sounded somewhat like ‘glue’ and a whole lot like ‘cruel.’ It sounded like something grey and lumpy they fed to condemned prisoners in the dungeons. ‘Porridge’ was a much happier food. So tasty that little girls braved the wrath of bears just to eat some. Mmm! Though his concoction looked more like the aforementioned grey lumps, he figured the first step towards tastier food was giving it a pleasant-sounding name.
The qunari’s voice startled him. “Do your teachings advocate restitution, or revenge?”
“Uh… teachings? You mean the Chant of Light?”
“When I killed that family, your priest sentenced me to die,” Sten continued, his voice low and steady. “My death, in payment for the deaths I caused.”
Alistair nodded. “Murderers are usually executed, yes.”
“Yet your leader suggested otherwise. To repay those deaths by saving the lives of others.” Sten turned his head and looked down at Alistair. “It sounded like a more noble idea.”
“Well, it is.”
“Yet, it is as you said: we have failed to save any of the inhabitants of these farmhouses.”
Alistair let the ladle fall against the side of the pot. His shoulders slumped. “That’s right.” If only– what? If only they’d been faster? More numerous? If only they’d left Redcliffe earlier? If only the Grey Wardens had held at Ostagar. “But,” he said slowly, looking up at the qunari’s hard visage, “do you think dying in that cage would have been better? For anyone?”
“Hrm,” the qunari rumbled as he thought it over. “No. Yet I still do not feel my debt has been paid.”
“You do feel guilty, then.”
Alistair hadn’t really believed that, not before. But he could hear the tinge of regret in Sten’s voice. “Why did you do it, then?” he asked impulsively. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Sten bowed his head. “I was mad.”
“Mad? At a family of farmers?”
“I was mad with rage, and I was….” Sten closed his eyes. Alistair thought he was going to say ‘afraid,’ but to his surprise, the qunari said, “I was ashamed.”
“Ashamed? But… what for? Because you lost a battle?”
“We were defeated in battle, yes. There is no shame in that. But…. I lost my sword, but I did not die. I lost my soul, and yet I live.”
Alistair frowned; he’d gotten lost on that last turn, there. “Your soul? But how can you–?”
“My sword is my Asala, the defining construct of my being. The concrete symbol of my place in the Beresaad. It is part of me, my soul.”
“But can’t you just get another sword?”
Sten sighed. “No. My Asala was forged for my hand alone, given to me as I was ordained to serve in the Beresaad. There is no other like it.” He shook his horned head. “You basra do not understand.” He stood, suddenly towering over the human. “Those people were only trying to help me. They tended my wounds even though I was a stranger. I….” He looked around at the barnyard, the buildings, the fire and the bubbling pot. “I do not deserve to take comfort in the homes of these families. I will go on patrol.” He pulled his great maul into his hands and strode off.
Alistair shook his head. He couldn’t understand the qunari’s philosophy or religion, but he sympathized with how he felt. Then he yelped as he realized the gruel was starting to scorch. He scrambled to try to salvage breakfast.
“Maker’s Breath, Alistair!” Bannon said, wrinkling his nose. “What did you do to breakfast?”
“It’s just a little scorched on the bottom.”
“A little?” Bannon eyed the black chunks that stuck out of the lumpy grey glop in his bowl. Then he noticed there were significantly fewer in the Templar’s Warden-sized serving. With a scowl, he grabbed Alistair’s bowl away from him and shoved his own bowl into the man’s hands.
“Hey,” Alistair protested, making a grab for the good serving. “That’s mine; I cooked, I get the first pick!”
“You cooked, so you’re responsible for this mess; you eat it!” The Templar gave up in chagrined defeat. “Where’s Morrigan’s bowl?” Bannon asked him. “I need to see her this morning.”
“Ah!” Alistair’s eyes lit up. “This is Morrigan’s.” With a grin, he produced a bowl that at first looked empty. But that was an illusion created by the large black disk inside it. Alistair had apparently taken great pains to pry the thickest, hardest chunk of burnt gruel out of the bottom of the pot in one piece. It was as thick as a plank of wood.
Bannon gave him an exasperated look. “I need to see her and not die.” He grabbed another bowl and began judiciously picking black slabs out of it and replacing them with spoonfuls of plain, unadulterated glop from his own bowl.
Alistair huffed in defeat, but brightened again quickly. With a smile of wicked triumph, he shoved the black bowl at the assassin. “This must be yours, then.”
Zevran shot Bannon a desperate look, a mute plea for intervention. Bannon lowered his head over his own task, letting a lock of hair fall like a curtain so he could pretend not to have seen.
“Ah well,” the Antivan said slowly, taking the proffered bowl. His voice lightened considerably. “It is better than some of the things I had to eat as a Crow trainee. And look!” He plucked the disk out of the bowl with his fingers. “I do not even require a spoon. You are most gracious, Alistair. I give you my most heartfelt thanks– or, in the tongue of my forefathers, matraen shallotte, ir din!”
Bannon suppressed a cough and nearly choked himself to death. He looked up in time to see Zevran actually gamely take a bite out of the edge of the disk.
“Oh, thank you,” Alistair said. “I mean– you’re welcome.” He handed a bowl to Leliana, while the three of them watched Zevran chewing crunchily, a big fake smile plastered on his face. Finally, Leliana huffed and plucked the burnt gruel out of Zevran’s hand.
“Honestly, Alistair; this jest has gone on long enough.” She flung the offending disk away. “You wouldn’t feed that to a dog!”
“No, no, my dear,” Zevran assured her, having somehow managed to swallow the charcoal he’d been chewing. “As has been pointed out to me numerous times, I am the prisoner of the Wardens. They may torture me as they see fit.” He sighed with a laudable note of self-pity.
Bannon squashed his guilt, recognizing the bald-faced ploy. He glanced up as Alistair squirmed. Leliana pointedly gave Zevran her bowl, which Alistair had considerately prepared to be mostly black-flake free.
“Besides,” the assassin said with a laugh; “I really have eaten worse. But I shall not ruin your appetite with the lurid details.”
“That is considerate, thank you,” Leliana said, deftly cutting off Zevran’s leer.
Having slapped together a peace offering for Morrigan, Bannon got up to take it to her.
He brought the hot food inside the barn, like an offering of a slab of meant to a big, slavering mabari, hoping the beast would be placated and not just encouraged to take his hand off. The witch took her bowl with a quiet thank-you. “Don’t thank me just yet,” he warned. “Alistair cooked.”
She rolled her eyes. Bannon plucked a charcoal chip out of this gruel and used it like a piece of toast to scoop up a lump. He chomped on it and made a face. Ugh, how could the assassin stand to eat even one bite of this stuff? Not to be shown up, Bannon choked it down.
He glanced over and noticed Morrigan’s eyes sparkling, her cheeks slightly dimpled as she chewed her own breakfast. He flushed slightly. “Mm, boy,” he said flatly; “Alistair’s cooking: nothing like it in the world.” This prompted an unladylike snort from her as she attempted to keep her mouth closed while laughing.
“Listen,” he said seriously, “we should reach that town today, and the Circle Tower this afternoon, or tomorrow.”
“And I was wondering if you’re going to go with us.” He used his spoon to break up some of the larger chunks in his gruel, into smaller pieces that would be easier to stomach. He hoped. “From what Alistair says… well, he believes all mages in Ferelden are supposed to be locked up there.”
Her face darkened. “What do you believe?”
“Look, I know you’re not Ferelden, so that doesn’t apply to you. But there’s supposed to be a lot of Templars there. I can see how that might make you… uncomfortable.”
“Templars are fools,” she scoffed. “Sometimes a pair or small group of them would come after Mother and I. When I was a little girl,” she said, here eyes softening in memory, “Mother would look at me and grin. ‘Templars,’ she’d say, and off I would scurry, out into the swamp. A helpless little waif, crying for her mummie, lost and alone, boo hoo.” She wiped an imaginary tear from the corner of her eye. “And the Templars would follow me, deeper into the Wilds, straight into Mother’s traps. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized what danger we were in if they caught us.”
“Your mother used you as bait?”
“‘Twas all a game to me, then. I thought it great fun.”
“Killing Templars?” Bannon couldn’t blame the old witch for defending herself. But using a little girl– her own daughter!– in that way? That was cold. It was beyond cold.
Morrigan stiffened in offense. “She made them disappear. She treated it like a game so a child would not learn fear. I do not fear Templars. They are simply men, easily fooled, distracted by anything feminine enough.” Here, she straightened further, emphasizing her charms (and displaying the magic that kept that loose cloth in place over them). Bannon studied his bowl before he got ‘distracted.’ “And so dulled by that nonsense the Chantry fills their heads with, they wouldn’t know what to do with any sort of independent thought.”
“Whoa, whoa; all right,” Bannon said, keeping his head down and his voice soft, until she calmed a bit. “I know you don’t like Templars or the Circle. If you don’t want to go in there, it’s no problem. You don’t have to decide now,” he added quickly, to forestall more protestations.
She narrowed her eyes. “Just make sure that fool Templar friend of yours doesn’t get any ideas.”
“Alistair? He wouldn’t do that,” Bannon assured her, wondering if that’s exactly what Alistair was thinking. He changed the subject. “Anyway, as promised, everyone will be getting three silvers from the group fund, to spend in town. I know you need a new belt knife.”
“The assassin doesn’t sill have mine, does he?” She gave Bannon a judgemental glower.
“No,” he assured her; “I took it away from him. Actually, I threw it into the fire. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I do not,” she said, mollified.
“I’d give you Zevran’s, but I can’t be sure it isn’t dipped in poison.”
“I will procure one, thank you.”
They finished eating, then Bannon wanted to check on Morrigan’s hand. She unwrapped the bandage. The wound looked a lot better. Pink and raw as it was, at least it wasn’t sickly black.
“The elfroot poultice has helped it greatly,” Morrigan explained. “There is no infection.”
“Good.” Bannon took the bandage and began to re-wrap it.
“I’m quite capable of doing that myself,” she snapped.
“All right,” he said mildly. He sat watching her awkwardly try to tie the bandage with one hand.
Finally, she sighed in annoyance. “Fine; if you’re just going to sit there, you might as well make yourself useful.” She thrust her hand at him.
Careful to keep his expression neutral, Bannon complied. He didn’t know whether to score this one as getting into the witch’s good graces, or as annoying her without getting hurt. The former was probably too optimistic.
Bannon gave everyone their share as they packed up to move out. He thought the qunari might refuse, saying that taking money was somehow against the Qun, but Sten just accepted his coins silently. Of course, the assassin wanted to know where his share was.
“Only our allies get a share,” Bannon told him.
“Not,” Alistair put in, “say, assassin’s trying to kill us. Who might use it to buy a dagger to cut our throats while we sleep.”
Zevran sighed. “I do not need to buy a dagger– I have a collection of fine weapons.” He shot a slit-eyed gaze at Bannon. “If only they were returned to me. I would certainly only spend my pay on whores. Nothing more dangerous than that.”
“Does the phrase ‘fat chance’ hold any meaning for you?”
At first, Zevran seemed about to start on one of his day-long arguments. Then suddenly he heaved a deep sigh and slumped. “Very well, mi patrone. I suppose three silvers is rather too cheap to get a quality whore, anyway.”
Bannon gave him the smaller bow. Leliana also informed Zevran that she had excised anything dangerous from his pack, and so he could carry it himself again. He thanked her profusely in honey-coated sarcasm. Bannon resisted the urge to whack him upside the head as they started down the road.
Morrigan told Zevran, “You ought to be more grateful to those who spared your life.”
“But I am grateful! Did you not see me being grateful? I shall redouble my efforts!” This elicited a groan from Leliana and Alistair. Zevran ignored them and made eyes at Morrigan. “Shall I shower you with gratitude in your bed tonight?”
“Any unwanted pests I find in my bed shall be consigned to the fire.”
Zevran sighed dramatically. “You are a cruel, cruel woman,” he lamented. “But how am I to please you if you do not tell me what you like, hm?”
“Shutting up would be a start.”
“Dying would be perfect.”
“But then I would be unable to serve and protect mi patrone and his band of loyal companions.”
This time Bannon joined Leliana and Alistair in a collective groan. The witch couldn’t have just left it at shutting up, no! That might have worked for a good quarter hour or so. Perhaps if they didn’t talk to him…. But he had an opinion on everything. And didn’t mind sharing. A lot.
Finally, the elf’s obsequiousness prompted a question from Alistair. “What’s a ‘pat-trone’ anyway? Why do you keep calling Bannon that?”
“Ah,” Zevran answered happily, “as you know, assassination contracts are the bread and butter of the Antivan Crows. But some of the larger, older cells have a patrone— what you would call a patron. The patron funds some of the cell’s running expenses, and in return, any time the patron needs someone removed…,” he spread his hands. “They only need make a formal request of the Master.”
“Wouldn’t that be more expensive in the long run?” Bannon asked, wrinkling his brow.
“Perhaps. It depends on how many ‘problems’ one needs taken care of. The other benefit, of course, is that the cell will not accept any contracts against their patron.” Bannon shot him a look and Zevran nodded. “‘Twould be bad business, no?”
“What if another of these ‘cells’ gets a contract for the patron?”
“Ah, that can be a sticky situation indeed. I have heard tales of very loyal cells going to defend their patrone, but they ended up being wiped out.” Zevran frowned to himself a moment, examining the implications that held for his current situation. Then he shrugged. “The best tactic would be for the patrone to send his cell after his rival directly.”
Bannon grit his teeth in frustration. “Well, I did try to send you to kill Loghain, but oh, no, you couldn’t do that.”
“An unwise use of resources,” Zevran said, waving it off. “I am not an entire cell, after all. If I were, I could do what you ask. By myself? Somehow, I do not think your dour general is a target I am likely to be able to seduce.”
“We don’t do that in Ferelden,” Alistair said, wrinkling his nose.
The human wrinkled his nose further. “That whole… men thing.” The assassin snorted at that. “Men and women get together. That’s normal.”
“You were in the Templars, si? In the barracks, with all men?”
“Did not any of these men seem very friendly together?”
“No?” Zevran insisted. “No two fellows always together; constant, close companions?”
“They were just friends!” Alistair’s eyes widened as he grew flustered by the assassin’s implications. “Th-they took a vow of chastity, for Maker’s sake!”
“Did this vow state they would never have sex with anyone or anything ever again? Or did it merely say they would not ‘have relations’ with women?”
Alistair’s face went florid. He stuttered. “W-w-well, that’s what it means!”
“Trust me, Alistair. You may never had seen or heard of it here in Ferelden, but it does happen,” Zevran said a bit more gently. “I tell you what. Let us, you and I, go to the brothel in this town. I will ask if they have a boy for me, and I will bet you whatever they charge that they do.”
The thought of going to a brothel by itself made Alistair gibber, never mind the rest. Bannon saved his fellow Warden. “You don’t have any money to bet.”
“Whose fault is that?” Zevran griped.
“The guy who decided to attack us,” Bannon shot back.
“Oh, I shall blame Loghain for this, then.”
Bannon lengthened his stride, the conversation over from his point of view. The assassin trotted to catch up to him, because he was certainly not finished. “I would only need money if I lose the bet,” he pointed out. “Which I shall not.”
“Alistair doesn’t have the money, either.”
“Oh! That’s right! You hold the purse strings to this little company.” Zevran grinned. “So would you care to take up the bet? You could set Alistair’s mind at ease.”
Bannon sighed. “No bet. No brothel. No whores. No money. You got that?”
Now it was Zevran’s turn to sigh. “Just what I need, a patron who is no fun!”
Bannon: “Does the phrase ‘fat chance’ hold any meaning for you?”
5000 Bloodsong points if you know who originally said this one! If you’ve ever heard of ‘Wizards & Warriors,’ you’re okay in my book! Dirk Blackpool said this to Vector once, when they were drunk, and Vector suggested Dirk let him have his monocle back for a minute.