Special thanks to Eaten By Dragons for help with plot conundrums about Soldier’s Peak and Levi’s expedition. Without which, this chapter might STILL be unfinished!
The Spoiled Princess
It was easier said than done, for Bannon to put his family and his home out of his mind. But Zevran’s admonition not to look weak in front of the shems stung him, and he was nothing if not an accomplished actor. His new armor made him feel much better, as well. It fit him properly and was tinted steel blue. His hair had grown out and reached his shoulders again, his face no longer said ‘LOSER,’ and his helmet, which was definitely not made of a leather bucket, didn’t chafe his ears. Zevran tried to wrangle it off him, but it didn’t match the assassin’s orange-tinged brown armor, anyway.
He talked with Wynne in the evenings. He flat out told her he didn’t want to talk about his family or the Alienage. She surprised him by bringing up other topics of conversation. Mundane things, really. About the weather, what he learned in the Grey Wardens. She never preached at him, which was unexpected. She did make him think a lot, though.
When they got back to Lake Town, most of the refugees had gone. The place looked like the streets of Denerim after a Solstice festival: trampled. The road was churned to mud, the grass along the verges flattened. Scraps of awnings littered the streets where the standing market had been. The whole town seemed suddenly empty.
The directions Wylem had given them led to the west side of town, down a curving road that led to a hill overlooking Lake Calenhad. The broad-shouldered hill was topped by a cozy-looking inn and an old mill.
“The Spoiled Princess Inn,” Leliana announced. “Oh, how charming!”
“Brother Genitivi should be here,” Alistair said hopefully. “Or the innkeeper might know where he’s gone next.”
The inn was just as quaint and cozy inside, with bright white-washed walls hung with small tapestries and a painting of Lake Calenhad and the Tower. It had a wide back porch that overlooked the actual lake. The opposite shore was too distant to be seen; it looked like the water touched the edge of the world.
The companions wiped their feet in the entryway, then dispersed into the common room. It was a too early for the dinner hour, but there were a few handfuls of patrons at various tables. Bannon looked around, hoping to pick up some local gossip or news.
The barkeep was regaling Leliana with the fascinating history of the inn’s name. Something about his sister, who threw the whole business over so she could become a minstrel in Denerim, while he was stuck here doing all the work. Well, that was a spoiled princess for you.
Then Alistair said, “We’re looking for a man named Brother Genitivi. We were told he was staying here.”
“No,” the innkeeper said quickly. “He’s not here.”
“Are you sure? He’s a scholar. He would have spent a lot of time up at the Circle Tower.”
“No, there’s no one here by that name. You must be mistaken.”
Wynne said, “Do you know where he’s gone? He wouldn’t have left without letting people know how to reach him.”
The innkeeper was shaking his head.
“Perhaps you thought he was a mage,” Leliana said helpfully.
“I told you no, and you really need to stop asking questions.”
Bannon flashed some coin, but the answer was the same. He huffed in frustration and moved away from the bar. His companions gathered around.
“What are we going to do?” Alistair asked. “Brother Genitivi is our only lead on the–”
Bannon cut him off before he started going on about the Sacred Ashes of Andraste. They didn’t need to advertise. “We’ll just have to go back to the Tower. That guy you were talking to there, maybe he knows more.” He led everyone back out the door.
“Could we come back here for dinner, perhaps?” Leliana asked. “It is a lovely view.”
Wynne said, “I would like that as well.”
With as helpful as the owner had been, Bannon wasn’t inclined to give him any patronage. “Didn’t you see enough of the lake from the Tower?” he asked the mage.
“We don’t really get to it from the inside,” she replied wistfully. “The windows–” She yelped as Zevran flew past her and slammed Bannon to the ground.
“Ow! What the hell!?”
An arrow whizzed out from the trees and struck Alistair’s shoulder. He cried out and pulled his shield around. Two more arrows thunked into it. He jumped forward and crouched in front of the elves.
Zevran rolled off Bannon and pulled out his bow. He let loose an arrow into the foliage. Bannon tried to get to his feet while staying down, which wasn’t easy. He was saved from having to test his own archery skills when Wynne called forth and energy barrier between them and their attackers.
“Ice,” she called to Morrigan.
The witch moved forward to Alistair’s left and unleashed a cone of frigid air towards the side of the road. Sten charged forward, dangerously close behind the spell, Leliana at his heels. Bannon pulled his blades and nodded for Zevran to cut to the right. “Alistair?” he called.
“Wounded, here,” the Templar called back with a strained tone.
The elf left him in Wynne’s care and followed Zevran into the fray. A giant stone fist lobbed over the bushes and smashed the frozen attackers. Sten waded in with his warhammer, pulverizing those on the left fringe. Zevran gamely stabbed one of the ice statues on the right, but only managed to chip it. With a grunt of effort, Sten smashed the last two.
“We might have wanted to question them,” Bannon suggested.
“Then you need to specify at the start of battle.” The qunari shouldered his maul and walked back to the road.
Bannon turned to the assassin who had saved his life, again. “How did you know there was an ambush?”
“I always think there is an ambush at a blind turn in the road.”
“You didn’t when we came up this way.”
“I did. But they were not here then.” Zevran shrugged.
Bannon looked at the thawing chunks of assailant. They’d all been shems, he was pretty sure. “Leliana, do you recognize anything about them? They don’t look like your typical bandit gang.”
“Their clothing is too fine for that,” she agreed, crouching by more of the remains. “They almost appear to be Chantry robes, but I do not recognize this emblem. It looks almost like wings.”
Bannon pulled a medallion from the neck of one of the fallen. “What’s this?” It was brass, struck with the symbol of a creature entwined with a pillar, wreathed in flames.
“It looks like a dragon,” the bard said, frowning in thought.
“Are you sure it is not a snake?” Zevran asked. “It looks quite phallic to me.”
The bard and the thief both rolled their eyes in unison. They relieved the mystery attackers of any other coins and jewelry. They all bore the medallion with its odd symbol.
The trio returned to the group. Alistair was testing the flex of his arm under Wynne’s supervision; Morrigan was wiping blood from her belt knife.
“You all right?” Bannon checked with the other Warden.
“Good as new, thanks to Wynne,” Alistair confirmed.
“You could be grateful for my help,” Morrigan griped.
“I might, but you took far too much sadistic pleasure in it.”
It seemed Morrigan didn’t have a ready reply to that, so Bannon plunged into the momentary pause. “Before we go all the way up to the Tower, let’s go back and see if the innkeeper knows what this is.” He held up the medallion.
The innkeeper didn’t look up right away when they came back in. When he saw them fanning out and lining up at the bar, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “You’re back,” he said stupidly.
“You seem surprised to see us– alive,” Morrigan growled.
Bannon dropped the medallion on the bar. “Just tell us what you know about this.”
The man’s eyes bugged out further. “Where did you get that?”
“Off your dead friends,” Bannon said.
“Wait– no! You killed them?” He looked from one to the another of them. “Oh, thank the Maker! They’re not my friends,” he quickly assured the impatient group. “They came in here a fortnight ago; they moved in; they just took over the place! They threatened my family if I didn’t do what they said.”
“What did they say?” Bannon prompted.
“Just that if anyone came here asking questions about a Brother Genitivi, or Andraste’s Ashes… I was supposed to say I didn’t know anything, and alert these people. Disciples, they called themselves. Then every few days or a week or two, other knights– ” he gestured at Alistair– “would come in, asking.”
“You sent them into an ambush, without warning them?” Alistair asked with a scowl.
The tavern keeper flinched back. “I didn’t have a choice! They were watching me all the time. My son is only three years old– they threatened to kill him in the most horrible way!”
Bannon put a hand on Alistair’s shoulder and steered the conversation back on track. “So you do know this scholar Brother Genitivi? And where he went?”
“No!” The man threw his hands up in frustration. “There was never any scholar here, by any name.”
Bannon spit a curse. “Then why the hell did Genitivi’s assistant send us here?”
“Because he is not Genitivi’s assistant,” Zevran said.
“Shit!” Bannon slammed a fist on the bar.
“I’m sorry!” The innkeeper hastily backed up.
“It’s not your fault,” Alistair said soothingly. He shot a look at Bannon.
“I really am grateful that you’ve gotten rid of them.”
“How grateful?” Bannon asked. This earned him a scolding look from Wynne, but she said nothing when they scored a free meal on the porch overlooking the lake.
“All right,” Bannon said, to bring his troops to order after the grand luncheon. The innkeeper’s wife had indeed been generously grateful with her cooking, and even the Wardens felt stuffed. But he couldn’t sit around sipping tea and admiring the view any longer. “Alistair, you should go up to the Tower and see if the mages know any more about Brother Genitivi and where he might have gone from here. The rest of us can split up and ask around at the other local inns and taverns.”
He surveyed the group with an eye to dividing them up to avoid interpersonal conflicts. No mages with the qunari. “Leliana, take Sten.” No Circle mages with Apostates. “Zevran, go with Wynne; and Morrigan, if you’ll accompany me, please.”
“We can meet back here this evening,” Alistair suggested.
“No, we can meet back at the town gates in an hour and head out,” said Bannon.
“But we just got here. Bodahn won’t be ready to leave yet.”
“We don’t have time to wait.”
“We don’t know how far ahead of us Genitivi might be. These people could already have him,” Alistair said. “If it’s more than a fortnight, one night won’t make a difference.”
“Especially if they have already killed him,” Zevran pointed out.
Morrigan said, “I’m sure your new friends would be willing to gives us an excellent price on rooms for the night.”
Bannon looked around at the group. “You all want to stay here tonight?” They nodded. “All right.”
They finished with the handful of taverns and inns in short order. The lack of results frustrated Bannon to no end. “Some of the places have closed down, or changed owners since the refugees passed through,” Leliana explained.
That left Alistair’s lead as their only hope. He wasn’t back from the Tower yet, so Bannon procured rooms for everyone, and sent Leliana to tell Bodahn they were leaving in the morning. Everyone else was at liberty until dinner.
Bannon tagged Zevran to go out and spar with him. There was a broad, flat area between the inn and the mill.
“You know,” Zevran said harshly, “the next time you go running off with a mage, you take the preaching old harridan and give me the sexy young minx!”
Bannon chuckled and turned to face him, stepping backwards as they continued into the field. “What’s the matter? She too tough for you?”
Zevran’s only answer was a sour face. Bannon pulled out his sword and tossed it lightly over to his left hand. He swung it in a loose pattern. He’d been working up the strength and dexterity of his left hand; soon he could try a longer blade with it. Maybe he’d try that today. “Come on,” he said to the assassin, who was dragging his feet. “If you’re so mad about being stuck with Wynne, maybe you can beat me this time.”
“I’m not going to spar with you,” Zevran said.
“What? Why not?” Bannon turned to face him in concern.
The assassin folded his arms. “Because I believe it is high time we had that archery competition and found out just who is the true owner of the white yew bow. You cannot complain that we do not have enough room this time.”
It was Bannon’s turn to make a sour face. The assassin was right, he’d run out of excuses. He flourished the sword one last time, caught it in his right hand, and sheathed it smoothly.
There was a woodpile against the side of the inn. The elves commandeered some of the logs for targets.
Zevran, of course, bested Bannon easily.
“Well, I think that proves my point,” the assassin gloated.
“That just proves you’re good with that bow. You might do worse with this one.”
“Hand it over, and we’ll see!”
Bannon gave him the white yew and took Melinda in exchange. They went to retrieve the arrows. Bannon only collected the brown-fletched ones, leaving Zevran to go chase Bannon’s stray shots.
Bannon waited patiently for the grumbling assassin. He did better in the second round, since he was warmed up, but Zevran beat him yet again.
“Well?” the assassin insisted.
“All right, you win,” Bannon grudgingly agreed. “It’s yours.”
“It’s too much bow for you to handle, admit it.”
“Not a chance.” Bannon went to collect his arrows again.
“And fetch mine, since you lost,” Zevran called after him, emphasizing the last bit.
“Yeah, yeah,” the Denerim elf grumbled, but complied. The assassin seemed to be in a better mood when Bannon brought the arrows back.
He decided to practice some more, since he needed it, and they didn’t always have a good spot to do so when they camped. Zevran lurked about, apparently with nothing better to do.
“So tell me what it’s like, being a Crow,” Bannon said, after shooting a few arrows.
“Like what? The harsh training? The brutal punishments?”
“No, like killing people.”
“You mean murder?”
Bannon glanced over his shoulder at the assassin’s bitter tone. “Murder is for amateurs,” he quoted. “You must have had some wild adventures on your missions. Or at least made up some self-aggrandizing tall tales when you got back.” He smirked at Zevran’s glare and nocked another arrow.
“Would you like me to detail the effects of lanthraxus poisoning? I watched a man go through all seven stages, once.”
“Yeah,” Bannon agreed readily, with a bloodthirsty grin. “That sounds interesting.”
“You’re truly a twisted person,” Zevran said. “Perhaps some other time.”
Bannon lowered the bow and turned around. “What is wrong with you?”
The other elf’s brow creased, and he chewed at the corner of his lip a moment. He shook himself and said carelessly, “Ah, is nothing. I–”
“Hey, guys!” Alistair came around the corner of the inn and waved for them to come over. They gathered up their arrows and went inside.
“This is Levi Dryden.” Alistair introduced a rugged-looking human, his swarthy skin sun-weathered, his brown hair worn in warrior braids. “This is Bannon, the man I was telling you about.”
If this shem were surprised that ‘the man’ was an elf, he didn’t show it. “Grey Wardens, it’s an honor.” His voice was deep and as rugged as his looks, and held no trace of deceit or flattery.
Still, Bannon was worried. “Who said we were Grey Wardens?” He shot an accusing look at Alistair.
“Actually, the Templars,” he replied hastily.
“They all speak of your deeds of valor in saving the Tower,” Dryden said. “Were there really Blood Mages?”
“Yeah.” Bannon grimaced. “And you’re here because…?”
Alistair jumped in. “Duncan’s promised him a Grey Warden expedition to Soldier’s Peak.”
The elf pinched the bridge of his nose. Of course Alistair would be all over that. “Look, Ser Dryden, you have to understand: Duncan is dead, along with the rest of the Wardens. And we have a lot of important matters to deal with to save Ferelden from the Blight.”
“Of course, Ser Bannon.” His manner was deferential, but his eyes gleamed with eagerness. “I understand completely, but I believe this expedition could be beneficial to your cause.”
“You should really hear him out,” Alistair added. “I think this could be worth our while.”
Bannon fended off the tide of enthusiasm from the two men. “All right, let’s go inside. I’ll listen.”
Dryden barely touched his mug of ale before he started in on his story. “My great-great-grandmother, Sophia Dryden, was commander of the Grey Wardens in the day of King Arlend. Back then, people believed that the Wardens were a throwback to an earlier time, an Order that had outlived its usefulness centuries ago.
“King Arlend was the one who banished the Wardens from Ferelden. No one knows exactly why. There was a civil war at about the same time, much worse than the one going on now against Loghain. Anyway, the records of the Wardens and the king’s banishment were lost.
“Because my family, the Drydens, supported the Wardens, King Arlend stripped us of our land and titles.” He tipped his head in an ironic salute to fate. “We used to be nobles, we did. We had an arling between Highever and Amaranthine, with seven bannorns…. Ah well, they’ve all been incorporated into other estates, now.”
He sipped from his mug to wet his throat. “Drydens are a tough lot. Patriotic. We stuck it out in Ferelden despite being in disgrace. Eventually, we became merchants, pretty successful ones. But we’ve always revered our grandam Sophia Dryden. Passed down stories of her brave deeds and tales of the Grey Wardens. Don’t know as any of ’em are true or not. But ever since I was a boy, I’ve had a yearning to find out. There must be records up at the old Grey Warden stronghold at Soldier’s Peak. King Arlend must have done something to incite rebellion against him. Maybe he had no just cause to take our land and titles. Maybe… I don’t know, maybe it’s just a boy’s dream, but my family name could be reinstated.”
Bannon said, “Or maybe you ancestors were traitors to the crown.”
“And that may be.” The man nodded. “All I ask is the honest truth. If your folk were cast down, wouldn’t you want to know the real reason why? No offense, ser elf.”
Bannon let the racial politics slide. “So why don’t you go to this stronghold and look for your records? What do you need us for?”
“Well, the road up there is dangerous. Soldier’s Peak was always remote, and since the Wardens were ousted, it’s been abandoned. The passage was always narrow, and then there were rockslides that made it nearly impassable. As for what’s beyond, no one knows. Could be wolves and bears up there, a dragon nesting. Or bandits could have found a way in; holed up in there. Could even be Dalish. I can’t afford a full, armed expedition with no expectation of profit. That’s why me and Duncan had a deal, see.
“After the Battle of Ostagar, Duncan was going to send some of the Wardens up there with me. I’d get to hopefully find out the truth about Sophia Dryden, and the Wardens would have access to anything in the keep they could use to combat the Blight. And if our findings exonerated my family, and good King Cailen saw fit to restore our lands, then we’d grant the Order use of the stronghold once again.”
Levi frowned in to his mug. “Of course, well… the king… and poor Duncan….” He gathered himself and looked at Bannon. “But I figure this could be mutually beneficial to us. Perhaps even moreso, now. What with Loghain putting a bounty on your heads.”
“We really don’t have time for an expedition,” Bannon said. “We have to get back to Denerim as soon as possible.”
“Well, I can help. I know a shortcut to the North Road from here.”
“Through the Bannorn?”
Bannon shook his head. “No, our guide said that trying to cut through the small roads of the Bannorn would take much longer than going up to the North Road.”
“Well, that is generally true. But we won’t be crossing through the Bannorn, just taking a different road up to the highway. I can save you a good day off your trip. Maybe two, if I don’t spare the horses.” He glanced at everyone in the group. “I have wagons enough to take you all.”
Bannon’s ears perked up. With this shortcut and the one near Amaranthine, plus horse-drawn wagons, they could cut their travel time to Denerim in half. “All right, that sounds good. You take us to Denerim, then we can see about this expedition.”
Levi frowned a bit. “The pass to Soldier’s Peak is right on the way. We can head up there, then on to Denerim.”
“No, hang on. I’m trying to get us to Denerim faster. Not stop for side trips.”
“Just one day. That’s all I ask.”
“You don’t even know what’s up there. We could get stuck for days. Hell, we could get killed.”
“Well, that’s my price for taking you to Denerim.” Levi folded his arms as he leaned back in his chair. “An excursion to the Peak.”
Bannon grit his teeth and was ready to cut the human loose. Then Alistair leaned over and asked, “Can we have a Grey Warden conference?”
The two Wardens went to the back corner of the common room. Bannon braced himself for an argument.
“You’re not seriously going to turn him down?” Alistair began without preamble. “I think this is important. We should do it.”
“Why? Just because Duncan promised? We don’t have time, Alistair.”
“But it’s a stronghold. If Loghain’s men come after us, we’ll be able to hold them off.”
“We cannot just sit up there in our snug stronghold waiting for soldiers to attack us. We need to be out here, fighting the Blight.”
“But don’t you see? This could help us do that.”
“There are Grey Warden records up there,” Alistair said. “There might be crucial information on Darkspawn and how to best defeat them. You and I, we don’t know anything about them– how they think, the things they do — or might do. Or there could be information on slaying the Archdemon. Hell, maybe it’s allergic to daisies! We’d never be able to figure something like that out on our own.”
Bannon rolled his eyes. “That’s a bit of a stretch.”
“That was just an example.” Alistair was really building up momentum. “Plus, there could be Grey Warden supplies and gear up there. Weapons and armor, specifically designed– even enchanted– to be more effective against Darkspawn. And magic. Duncan once told us a story about these amulets that could hide a Warden from Darkspawn senses. Do you know how valuable that could be?”
The elf stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Yes, I could think of a use or two.”
“There might even be information on how to do the Joining ritual. You know how insane is is to try to combat a Blight with only two Grey Wardens. We could recruit others! Build a– well, an army is a bit much to ask, but a brigade. A platoon!”
Bannon was not so enthusiastic. “You think the others would want to join the Grey Wardens? Become Wardens?” He looked back at their companions. Leliana and Wynne seemed engrossed in whatever story Levi was telling now. The others, not so much.
“Well…,” Alistair said, looking in the same direction. “I don’t know.”
“Leliana might. If the Maker told her to.” Bannon contemplated slipping a talking mouse into her tent at night. Alistair chewed his lip. The elf turned to him. “But the Joining is dangerous. I don’t think we can afford to kill off half the people who are willing to help us fight.”
“I suppose. But I still think it’s worth it to have a look at this Soldier’s Peak.”
“I agree. It would be worth it if even some of those things are up there. That’s a big ‘if’ to gamble on. If we lose our lead on Brother Genitivi, we’ll lose our one, slim chance to find the Sacred Ashes. Arl Eamon would die. Do you really think this detour would be worth more than his life?”
Alistair studied the boots of his Redcliffe knight armor.
“I’ll agree to go up there if we have time, when we have time,” Bannon said. “But unless we do end up with a whole brigade and can spare some people for the expedition, this Levi is going to have to realize we might not be able to get to it for some time.”
Alistair nodded glumly.
“It’s the best I can do,” Bannon told Levi. “You have the promise of the Grey Warden commander, the same as you had from Duncan. But when it will happen… I’m sorry, I just don’t know.”
The man chewed it over and clearly didn’t like the taste of it. But he was no worse off than he was before, so he agreed.
Then the question was, what were they going to do about Bodahn? Leliana went with Bannon to talk to the dwarven merchant. They knew he was keen to take some swords and other metalwork to Redcliffe, which Bannon encouraged him to do. He even offered to outright buy their tents and some other supplies they rented, and pack them in Levi’s wagons. This seemed to make up the dwarf’s mind. He’d much rather tag along with the Wardens and learn this new shortcut than go alone with his son into the southern quarter of Ferelden.
And so, the next morning, their caravan set out.
“You seem surprised to see us– alive,” Morrigan growled.
—500 Bloodsong points if you saw Morrigan doing her Scar impersonation. ;)