Alternative Origins Chapter One

by artrald

Up

Next

*

The tall, broad human in the grubby silver armour holds up his hand, and everything stops but me.

You see, two of the shems have me by the arms. Even at this point in my tale, right near the start, like, you’ve got to realise a thing – We don’t like being touched. None of us do. Natural thing. Bad reaction. Shallow quick breathing and pounding heart, like a rabbit who’s seen a fox – although to me, right, rabbits come in cages and foxes live in alleys –

Well, maybe not a rabbit, quite. They freeze. I don’t. These two big bully-boys in brown and yellow have me by the upper arms, which are bare on account of how this day began with something that was supposed to be a celebration and I’m still in a frock. Simple enough to twist so the two of them are in a knot, and I hit one man’s knee just at the back with the side of my light-shod foot and in a clatter of armour I’m a free woman again. Three quick steps away from the crowd of humans while they’re still figuring out that the little bloodstained chit ain’t in that pile of armour that just went down – at least a girl can run in a slitted skirt –

A clear ringing voice. “Da’len!”

Shit. I freeze. You’re wondering why, I guess, just like the men with the weapons. Kind of simple. While I might run from my da or an uncle, while I might pretend to ignore a mate on the street – that was the Keeper said that. In front of everyone and all. And he said it in our language, not theirs. Means he means it. I can’t go against him and still be me. It’s an elf thing. Don’t expect you to understand. No, I’m not translating for you. If you don’t understand, you aren’t meant to.

But the big guy, the one not in the bann’s shitstain uniform, he does. He moves fast, like, faster than I could’ve, and then he’s between the crossbows – did I mention those? – and me. His voice is deep and rich and sweet, like dark honey, and it’s what he says that freezes me in place just as sure and certain as the keeper did, and just the same way. “Mos yironnos, keeper. Dear girl -” ain’t nobody calls a body that and means well for them, not even a crazy human who speaks elvish – “where exactly are you running?”

Speak when spoken to. The lessons are ingrained. Every one’s hard to buck. I sound sulky, the teenager I am. “Away.”

He smiles. It’s odd, his face suits that, for all the warrior’s scars and seams. I couldn’t place the man’s age. “And then?”

“What d’you want.” The humans, they just hear a disobedient girl. My mates, they hear the undercurrent. I get cold and quiet just before I get violent, not loud and verbal like a human. It’s another way we’re not you.

But to my surprise he takes a step back, spreads open hands. I could run. I could run. I’d be over that gate and into the slums before anybody but him could follow – and I’m guessing I know back ways he couldn’t fit down in that armour, for all he’s shown he could outrun me. But then what? The human’s right, shem that he is. I could run, but if I started I’d never stop. I couldn’t show my face back here, not with the keeper spoken against me like that. I can see the tree of the Alienage behind them. We’re just at the entrance here. If I go over that gate I’m naught better than a human street rat. And this man fixes me with a stare for a sec, like he sees right through my head, and he nods quietly. “It’s not what I want. It’s what I don’t want.” He turns his head to the keeper. He’s ignoring the militiamen here, the ones who still have their crossbows levelled at me, waiting twitchy for orders from a sergeant who’s very clearly not moving till the big guy says. He doesn’t use the elvish word he clearly knows, the one that’d be an insult on his lips. “Valendrian, sir. You understand that this young woman stands accused of serious crimes?”

Yeah. That’s what they call it when you put down a mad dog around here. I grit my teeth. The keeper, the hahren, inclines his head. He’s far enough away from the big human that he doesn’t have to look up to him. And damn it all, that’s respect in his voice. “I do… so understand, yes.” He doesn’t mention the reasons I did it, all seven of them standing there with big eyes, a little foxed perhaps in May frocks just like mine, only without all the blood, but damn the humans to all the hells, there were nine of us when we got ourselves dressed and ready this morning –

The human’s still talking. “And you understand that without my intercession, this day will not end well for her?”

Valendrian nods. My da’s standing by him. Clearly was in his house when I got back, when I found the shems waiting for me. We meet eyes, just for an instant, I can’t stand more than that. His are bloodshot. Mine must be like a couple of holes punched right into hell.

And the human finally turns to his fellow, to the sergeant-at-arms, and he clears his throat.

And the militiaman says, “You can’t be serious, milord. Now, I didn’t see it with me own eyes, but they say it was eight men she-”

“Are you somehow implying, sergeant, that I’d have a moment’s trouble with this young lady?” Now, anybody but him saying that, there’d have been sniggers. But somehow, not him. The words, somehow he pulls them off.

“Uh, no, ser, I-”

“So you must be saying that the Banner of Denerim is unwilling or unable to live up to its… obligations?” His smile is still pleasant. “Or is it perhaps that you’d like me to speak the words, exactly?”

The sergeant nods a couple of times and his armour jingles. “Just so’s I can say it to the cap’n with truth, like.”

The mystery man inclines his head. “With your permission, elder?”

My da won’t look on. What the hells is going on here? The hahren nods.

And our man doesn’t raise his voice, just makes it a little sharper around the edges. “And thus in the presence of the local representatives of signatories to the Treaty of the Wardens – of the King and of the Council – I invoke the right of Conscription. In time of Blight, as this is, the commander of the Grey Wardens of Ferelden, as I am, has to him appointed the especial right to impress into the service of the Wardens any individual who he feels meets the specific criteria for such service, and so on, and so on at length. Release the prisoner into my custody, gentlemen.”

Cold water down my back. Whoever these ‘wardens’ are – this was politics. The usual kind. The kind where the People are ploughed under and the humans are driving the team and plough. And now I understand the look on my da’s face.

Damn them all. I’m bought and sold.

*

The human is building a fire. I’ve said not a word, nor he, not more than he needed to get out the city. I’m not chained, like, but I don’t need to be. Not when he showed he could move so fast I hardly even saw him. Not when the hilts of those blades he wears are worn and beaten with long use. We’re only a couple of hours out of Denerim, but the light won’t last so long. And where would I go? I’m an alley cat. Wouldn’t know how to catch a rabbit if it was sat on my nose. The books say that to the People the wilds are like market day and pantry all together, but about the only thing I know is what an elfroot plant looks like, and that only because it’s a vegetable patch weed.

“It’s my observation,” he says to the empty quiet air as he methodically lays out the kindling, “that a body will eventualy tire of such things as silence in company, and being unintroduced. And, more’s the point, of being covered head to toe in blood, and severely underdressed even for mild weather.”

That earns his broad back a scowl.

“By the by, I do believe I left a cache here, before I came into the city. A body might find something useful there – fork of a dead tree, eleven feet up, just over there – I fear much of it will not fit, but I suppose that’s not unusual.” He indicates with his head. “The river’s not a hundred yards.”

“And your eyes are as good as your sword-arm is.” My voice is a little bit like a snake’s would be, if a snake could talk. I don’t quite hiss at him.

“For half a crown in the docks, girl, I could have had all to ‘see’ that I required, tailored to any taste I should express and served however I wished.” His voice remains even and pleasant. “This journey will take us a little over two weeks, if the weather holds, and it will rapidly become tedious in the extreme if you continue in your assertions. I’ll have you desist.”

That was an order. Who the hell does he think he is. I curl my lip. He’s not even watching.

“You shall suit yourself, of course.” He finishes laying the kindling and begins to arrange larger pieces of wood. Every motion is exact and careful. “You’re free to go, incidentally. Denerim is two miles back the way we came; the Bannorn are west of here, and I’m sure that your fame hasn’t spread sufficiently that you’d find every man’s hand against you there. The Brecilian Forest, of course, is due south – but if you’re planning to run there, your best bet is the royal highway, at least until the second time it turns west, and such a journey would be very like travellling by my side – I’m headed for Ostagar.” He flips open his tinderbox. “There’s two weeks’ worth of trail rations in the pack, although it isn’t as if the hunting is poor this time of year. Although I suspect that you might have better luck with that if you didn’t smell of the spilled blood of eleven men and a dog.”

“Nine men, three foul rabid… creatures. I won’t insult the wild beasts by borrowing their names.” I close my eyes a moment. “The dog lived.”

“Do you know who they were?” He speaks gently, his back still to me.

“Shems. What’s one more or less?”

“You don’t believe that.” The flint strikes the steel.

“Don’t I?”

The flint strikes the steel. “Girl, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t monsters in this world. As it happens, I’m one of those best placed, absolutely best placed to tell a body about their ways and habits. But I’d ask you kindly not to give a mortal man more than he deserves by calling him by their name, either.” The spark catches. He blows on it for a moment, begins to feed the flame, just like a little hearth. “The one you so dislike was the son of the -”

“Bann of Denerim. I have eyes, shem.”

“Fair enough – my name, by the way, Duncan, not ‘shem’, which I’m given to understand is an ethnic slur.” He balances a larger piece of wood over the flame and sits back a little. “I asked you where you were going, my girl, and you didn’t know – let me bequeath you an answer that used to be my own.”

“Not ‘your’ anything.” Bare teeth. Mine are sharper than yours.

He turns briefly and meets my eyes. “It’s a politeness, and given that I’ve no name for you-”

“Kallian Dener.” It’s built in. I lower my gaze instinctively, Maker damn it. I force myself to look back into his soft brown eyes.

“There we go. Kallian – I’m offering you a place.”

“Got one, ser.” I narrow my eyes. “Thanks ever.”

“Truly?” He raises an eyebrow. The urge to look away is growing. Like a cat. I hate this in me. “I can’t give you that place back, Kallian. The moment you raised your hand, the moment you wouldn’t back down? They had to be rid of you. You can’t kill them all.”

“It’s not right.” I turn away to hide the fact that I can’t make myself keep looking at him. Kick a rock, and I’m reminded forcefully that I’m months past due a new pair of boots. “He wasn’t but a rabid animal. And he goes a-hunt, and for bloody once his game stand up and say they won’t stand it, and-”

“No, Kallian.” I scowl, but I shut my mouth. “It’s not right. But this is the best we can do.”

I stare at the rock I kicked. “What is.”

“You’re alive. The slayer of the bann’s son, of his two best friends and his household guard – and they don’t get to hang you, and the bastard will hurt no more women, and for you I can only offer that I have more monsters for you to end.”

“What?” I still don’t look at the human.

“Did you think I went to all this trouble for a new domestic, girl? For a cook, maybe, or a washerwoman?” He snorts. “I was at the Chantry. Interviewing templars with a view to offering them a chance to do good in the world rather than guarding dried-up relics and persecuting troubled teenagers. I heard someone shout that a killer elf was on the loose in the Bann’s house, that his guard were all dead, and while they yelled that the Bann’s son was dead and the big men in the expensive armour sat and wondered about having it let out around their fat arses I decided that I’d go to the obvious place. Spoke to your father and the keeper, heard about half of the story – and then who came in but a young lady in nothing but a party frock, drenched in the blood of eleven men and having a serious think about taking on another twelve all at once.” He shrugs, and I can just about see that out of the corner of my eye. “I decided I’d rather have one good candidate for the Wardens than ten poor ones.”

“And I don’t have a choice.”

He turns back to the fire and begins to build it up. “There’s a map in the pack, up there – I assume you can read. My word on it, you’re free to do whatever you wish.” A very slight pained note to the voice. “But whether you go or you do not, girl, please would you go and wash?”

*

The first thing I took from that pack was a knife. Both my hands are equal, so I fight with the one people don’t expect. But the important thing is that the first thing I took was a knife and I strapped the sheath to the calf of my left leg where I could reach it even on my knees.

I made sandals of the shoes in the pack, because they didn’t fit, but still I got blisters. Must be I looked ridiculous – the gear he’d stashed was for a male shem, six inches wider on the shoulders and twice that taller in height – but I could hack a foot off the bottom of the tunic and at least it was better than a party frock, and I had my own shift to wear under it once it dried, nobody cares about old bloodstains on your underwear. The belt went round me twice. No armour – I’d have dumped it, anyway. Hacked my hair short rather than try to get the blood and tangles out, and dared him to comment. It’s auburn anyway, colour of dried blood.

Two weeks’ travel, good roads in clear spring. Weather held, pretty much. I wasn’t great company, but it was like Duncan was fine with that. If he’s the head of a knightly order, why’s he travelling on his own?

Eh. I guess I’d never have stuck with a company of shem warriors, even with the old man. Better to take my chances in the wild.

Most days and all the evenings he’d take to talking. He didn’t like to bang on about one thing for two nights running, or even two stories running. He told the stories of the Wardens like stories – not true things, just campfire tales – of the Blights when the darkness came up from under the earth and the Wardens rode out to kill the archfiends at the army’s head. He told of the dwarves – not the fat well-groomed self-important merchant types familiar to me, but the real dwarves, the ones who say the world ends where the sunlight starts, the ones who delved the Deep Roads and whose cities put the humans to shame before the darkness came, the ones whose every day and night is a Blight. He told me all the stories you’d tell a kid, I’d guess, or rather, the ones you might tell a human kid, the ones you’d teach a bann’s son (spit) because they were all from life, because one day they’d need to know of this, and I got the feeling that it wasn’t unwelcome for him that I was there to tell. There was this powerful sense of loneliness about him, but not a weakness – lonely in the sense of a great mountain peak, or an eagle high in the cold sharp air – but it was true, at least for him, that he tired of silence. Might be as I listened some, and all.

And he taught me other little things. Not like I’d teach a kid, you know, not to repeat and repeat and explain, but he took his time and did everything proper, and I found myself copying. Showed me how you’d snare a rabbit, showed me how to string a bow, but it was him doing the shooting. He had me lighting the fire, for instance, because he’d found something I did as quick as he. Occurs, looking back, that he was trying to make me feel like I was doing this on my own purpose, and not because he said.

Was eleven days before he handed me a long straight stick wordlessly and showed me in about half an hour why there hadn’t been a sword in that pack, although he allowed that I was tolerably quick. For an answer I snapped the stick in half and went for him street-style, and got close enough to marking him in my first few moves that proper reflexes kicked in and I found myself disarmed and on my arse in a moment and half, and that drew a smile he didn’t think I saw.

He never did teach me to fight like him. Said I clearly knew enough to be dangerous, which would be enough for now, and he wasn’t teaching me anything that I would have to unlearn in a couple weeks’ time after I’d formally joined the Wardens, because apparently you can’t do that on the road. Mysterious. He liked mysterious.

And it might sound to you like I was forgetting home, and family, and what I’d done, and to that I’ll only say that you bloody try doing that in two weeks with nothing to talk to but yourself and a human. Just doesn’t make a good tale banging on about how I stared at the sky and wondered if it was raining on me and my da alike, until Duncan actually told me to get my idiot ears under cover before they froze. Okay?

The road meandered. Back then, I wasn’t over interested in where. Roads just go forwards. You get on at one end and off at the other and you’re in a different town, right? Pah. We walked in just over two weeks pretty much half the length of Ferelden – Denerim’s on a river in the north-east, and Ostagar’s the southernmost fort on the Highway, last outpost of civilisation before the Wilds. And the Blight came up in the Wilds.

*

Ostagar. The Tevinters built it – if you’re like me and grew up without a history book, they’re not the most recent empire to own us (that was Orlais, which was recent enough for my da to tell stories) but they’re the one before that. This fort was a big stone middle finger to the Chasind, the barbarians of the south, and to Elvhenan – my people – who had this place before the humans had figured out how babies were made. You walk around this place, you can feel the weight and pressure of the years. There’s a cliff here, pretty much, a fortification that could just about be natural if you squinted, and on it there’s a wall that looks scarcely younger and a pair of towers, the northern one missing its roof and half the wall.

The Fereldan – that’s us, long live the king – the Fereldan army has occupied the fort, repaired the south gate and put a flag on everything that can damn well carry one, and the ragged arse-end of the baggage train fills the bailey behind the slightly crumbling walls like a rat’s nest. The place has the smell I’m just realising has been absent for the past two weeks, a bit like the stench of unwashed human writ large, the familiar stink of the city, hanging over it like a pall. And the pickets out this side, well, even I can tell they’re a little bit greener than the grass they’re stinking up. They look us up and down, an old soldier in battered well-worn kit and an elf girl wearing what’s clearly his spares, and I’m all prepared to have to sneak round, like. But the guy in a quartered surcoat, rusted mail and supposed charge of things does his best to snap out an order to come to attention, and the soldiers do their best to obey, and Warden-Commander Duncan didn’t even have to give his name.

And I’m glad of Duncan’s tales, like, pretty much at once. Because this is straight out of one. He walks in, still dusty from the road and with his pack on, and the guard snap to attention, open gates and make way like he rode in in full regalia at the head of a company of knights. And I note the runner they send for the important men, and I note that he’s a knife-ear like me. Rats and muck aren’t all you get wherever you find humans playing dress-up.

Running feet, indecorously quick. Maker’s breath, that’s a strong man – he rounds the corner at a flat run in full armour, shining like burnished gold, his long golden hair not quite all restrained by the golden circlet he’s wearing, his handsome noble features – well, no, actually, he looks a little bit like a horse and a lot more like a human – split with an expression of sheer delight, and I’m out of the way like a breath of air as this young human who’s absolutely got to be nothing less than royal throws his arms around Duncan with a delighted laugh and spins him around like a long-lost brother, and like they both weigh nothing at all. “Duncan! I was beginning to fear you’d miss all the fun!”

Back on his feet, the Warden starts to go to one knee, but the young man stops him with a hand on the shoulder. (I’m confused. Is he expecting me to kneel? I settle for just being ignored.) “Warden-Commander Duncan, I told you last time. No Warden need show obeisance at my court.”

Duncan nods, perhaps a little too deeply; “As your Majesty wills. You’re well, I see?”

“I am!” It’s like a puppy. A dangerous puppy. Gamboling around in armour I’d struggle to lift a single plate of. “The darkspawn have been brought to battle twice in any number – they tell me our losses were small. But we had word from the scouts this morning.” He completely ignores Duncan’s raised eyebrows and meaningful look at the soldiers around, a less than subtle hint that there’s a reason you don’t trumpet everything you hear to the skies. “The main mass of them is on the move, now. We’ll bring them to battle before the walls – I’ve seen the plan, and it does look jolly. And you and I can stand side by side against the fiends. Like something from one of your tales.”

“Indeed, sire.” And even after two weeks in Duncan’s company I can sense the mild disapproval in his tone. He does everything mildly. “You still intend to take the field, then?” But take this sort of hand with a puppy and it’ll walk all over you, and that’s just what this king is doing. Suppose you get to do that if you’re king.

The more measured tread of the king’s retinue is approaching. It’s like a wall of steel, the banns and arls and knights or templars or whatever they are, all in full armour – and here and there the flushed and sweating faces of those unable to afford the magic to make that plate no more of a bother than a spring coat. If I’d been born a human, I guess I’d even know who any of these people are or who they’re supposed to be, more than ‘bow if you see armour’. Meanwhile the king’s assuring Duncan that no harm can possibly come to a man who takes the field alongside the supernatural power of the Grey Wardens.

Because that’s absolutely how the tales go.

One of the council steps forward and gives a bow that surely isn’t deep enough – doesn’t a king trump everything, so you need to bow as low as you can? And if the king looks like a horse, this man looks more than a little like a raven. “Sire. The privy council meeting?”

“Yes, yes, in a minute. Pray get started without me.” He flaps a hand and the raven steps back, perhaps affronted. Hard to tell on a man in sixty pounds of rune-carved steel. And then the king flicks his eyes in my direction. “And who’s this, Duncan? I was told you’d be returning with new recruits – did you come on ahead of them?”

Duncan winces, very slightly. “In matter of fact, sire, you are looking at my ‘recruits’. Your Majesty, King Cailen, first of that name, may I present Kallian of Denerim.”

So a lot depends on how I react, and I’ve clearly got the initiative. I choose a smile and a slight nod. After all, we were just told not to give obeisance, and king or not, he’s still a bloody shem. I do just about retain the brain in my head not to speak first.

The king’s smile is brilliant, and has clearly charmed the pants off women from here to Antiva and back again. “Any friend of the honourable Duncan is most welcome at my court – and a recruit of the Wardens, no less. I’d heard that he was searching Denerim for the perfect candidate – you must have performed some great feat of valour, that he found you alone worthy of all the people of that city.”

I catch a bit more of a wince from the Warden-Commander, and from here I can almost feel him willing me not to kick the royal puppy. So I put my head a little too far to one side as I look up at him, on purpose doing something that’d be uncomfortable for a human. “Guess you could say I did. Weren’t doing it to impress.”

He tosses his head in what he obviously thinks is a regal nod. “Please, I’d like to hear your tale.”

Damn it, I’ll meet his eyes if it kills me. “Killed eleven men to put down a monster. Human sort. Rich. Bann’s son. Law done nothing. He took up a taste for elf girls, like.” I blink. “So that stopped.”

His pale eyebrows go right up. “Bryant Vaughan of Denerim, you mean. I know the man – always thought there was something foul ab-”

“But you didn’t look, did you?” I take half a step forward without realising I’ve done it. “You didn’t lift a finger, and if that was his first little ‘hunt’ then I’m a bloody carthorse, difference is, unlike you bastards my people stick together and get off our upholstered bloody arses when we-”

Duncan says my name, softly, and I realise I just called the King of Ferelden a bastard to his face in front of his council and my new commander, and it’s easy, it’s so damned easy to shut my mouth and look down.

But the king holds up a hand, his expression troubled, and turns his head to the side. “Loghain. Did we know this.”

The raven-faced man demurs. “Sire-”

“It’s blackmail-quality material on the heir to the banner of Denerim, don’t tell me you’d need your book, did we know.”

If I cared, I’d realise I’ve made no friend here. “Of course we knew, sire.”

The king purses his lips. “And I’d wager this isn’t the only such thing we know, my teyrn.”

Loghain scowls, or rather, his naturally occurring frown darkens further. “I wouldn’t take that wager, sire, but need I remind you-”

Cailean snaps around in an instant and doesn’t raise his voice, and perhaps just for one moment he actually looks like a man – “Loghain mac Tir, my teyrn of Gwaren, I may be young, I may lack what an older man would call seasoning, but I will not be shamed in my own court. And by a woman, and by an elf. It’s in the oath of knighthood, for Andraste’s sake, the one we all took on bended knee, my blade is the Maker’s justice. When the fun is over here, my teyrn, you and I and your little book, we are going to sit down and have a conversation. Clear?”

Capitulation, or something like it. Maybe. He bows. “As daylight, sire.”

“And have a pardon drawn up for, who was it, Kallian here. I know she doesn’t need one, as a Warden, but it’s the principle of the thing.” The king turns back to me. “And we shall see what good can be made to come of your sisters’ misfortune. Is honour thus satisfied, my lady?”

Not your anything, I don’t say. “Depends if you come through on that, now, don’t it.”

He meets my eye levelly and nods. “It does.” To Duncan he says, “If this lady’s sword is half as good as her tongue, Commander, I almost feel sorry for the darkspawn.” And as he receives with grace the murmured as-your-majesty-pleases, he decides he will catch the increasingly broad hints from his council and return to the pathways of command. He reaches for my hand to kiss it, doesn’t falter as I don’t let him touch me, and simply bows politely. “Affairs of state, Duncan, lady. I must away.” And he is, like a force of nature or an overexcited hound puppy, and Duncan breathes again.

So, clearly I’m for it. Or maybe, not. I just follow Duncan till we’re out of sight, and eventually he breaks the silence.

“The king.”

“So you said.” I keep my voice neutral.

He nods slowly. “Your opinion?”

“He’s younger than I am.”

He looks me up and down. “I doubt it. He’s twenty.”

“Then he’s got three years on me in body, but spirit’s anyone’s guess. He really in charge?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“And the Blight, it’s as big and as bad as they say.”

He just nods.

“And we’re really going to have to take the field. Next to him.”

“You noticed that, I gather.”

“Lot of people going to die, I’d wager. Man’s an idiot.”

“He has a good heart. And he’s the spit and image of what a king should be.”

I shrug. “I’ll allow he’s pretty, and he speaks pretty, but my head ain’t so turned. Ignores his council, talks about stories, bounds about like a bloody ferret. Why I asked if he’s really in charge, like. A body should do something, no?”

He gives me a slightly sharp look. “I’d watch where you voice that last. They banned our order once, you know. Why there’s thirty-nine of us in the country, and not hundreds like there should be. Politics was why. We unseated a king, once, and the new king unseated us for gratitude.”

I look away. “Fine. So we’re, like, knights then? Noble rescuers of distressed damsels and pretty idiots in gold armour?”

“But without the politics.”

“At least we’ve got a castle or something?”

“Not for a century. We travel – the Circles, the Chantries, the castles and towns. Anywhere the Deep Roads come near the surface you get darkspawn, and anywhere you get them is where we should be. Bringing me neatly to today.” He gestures simply, pointing to one of the sets of grey tents in a circle a little apart from the main encampment. “The king has had me call every Warden in Ferelden here, all thirty-nine. And the regional commanders and I have each undertaken to bring a candidate for Joining.”

“So I’m not the only new recruit?”

He shakes his head. “Should be four of you. Denerim, Lothering, Amaranthine and Redcliffe – that’s east, south, north and west, and each can bring as many as they will, but it’s likely to be one each.” He looks up and squints against the sunlight. “Except that there’s no flag for the commander from Redcliffe, and Arl Eamon wasn’t with the privy council, so my guess is that we’re short one. Tradition says we do you all at once, but I suspect that in this instance tradition is going to have to go and hang – we’ll do the three we have, I’d think, and the man or woman from Redcliffe when they show up.”

“‘Do’?” I raise him an eyebrow. “Sounds like you’re planning on more than a little light hazing.”

His expression ices over. “You shall see.”

“More mystery.” I make a face. “Lovely.”

*

The camp of the Wardens smells different. Cleaner, less overpoweringly human. The man on guard is short and narrow for a shem, wrought all of sinew and rawhide, and against the fashion for a man who must be all of thirty, he’s got a full beard. His armour is of an unfamiliar make – hells, what do I know about armour. It looks nothing like the stuff the king’s cronies had, anyway. He salutes Duncan with a clenched fist to his segmented breastplate and Duncan replies with a bow, so I curtsey, it’s bloody automatic. Damn them. Smile sweetly.

But we carry on through. The camp’s a loose circle, and there are tents already prepared, and there’s one prepared for me and nobody else is supposed to share it. I guess I can’t hide my surprise; Duncan just remarks that a Warden is a Warden, not a man, woman, human, elf or whatever else it was they were born.

And I guess that if those fine words are truth, then all those people who aren’t human men have just… not applied, or something. I guess one of them might think the Wardens were a varied bunch – there are six regional accents round camp, all unfamiliar, and they all vary a bit in colour, height, apparel and outfitting – but basically I go right from being a shadow at Duncan’s left hand to being an alley cat on her own somewhere she doesn’t know.

I meet a succession of the Wardens, each I suppose distinctive, and Duncan goes through introductions I don’t hear because I’m busy sizing them up, noting distinguishing features like choice of weapon and preferred sword-hand, checking my exits, thinking almost loud enough to hear that my closest choice of weapon isn’t the knife strapped to my calf but the one in their boot –

And I suppose eventually it gets through to Duncan that his little shadow’s looking at each new Warden like they’re a mad wild dog who ain’t frothing just now but ain’t chained down neither, as it gets through to him that the Wardens are looking at him and me like someone brought a wolverine round camp on a string and he’s expecting them to pet it, and he takes me aside and sits me down on pretext of getting us a meal. The table’s apart from the others. The food’s surprisingly not bad. And well, maybe once I’m breathing a little slower he starts talking. “I suppose you’re going to say that of course I should have seen you’d be frightened.”

This food’s too good to wolf it, never mind that I’m hungry. Not even grit in the bread. Frightened? Is that what this is? I was planning as much escape as self-defence, I suppose. I don’t look up. “It’s not scared, human. It’s sensible. Like you said, I can’t go back, not now the wolves know I know what my teeth are for. They can see I’m a danger, and it’s not like I can’t see that right back.”

“You like comparing people to animals, don’t you,” he rumbles. “Seems to me that’s one of the problems. We’re not animals, Kallian, we’re h- we’re people, and we’re all in the same danger, all in it together, and we quite truly can’t afford to be divided. And whatever you might see out there -” he gestures out of the little Warden camp and towards the keep – “a Warden is a Warden is a Warden, and if everyone else has forgotten, well, we’re all in this together.”

Or something. He goes on for a bit more time in the same vein. In fact, you know, I don’t really notice when he gives up with the talking and goes to talk to someone, beyond knowing that he’s not twenty paces away and no human is closer to me than that. What? The food is really good. There are things in this stew that I’ve never tasted proper, and things I’ve only ever met on plates I was serving, and –

I notice when a woman sits down opposite me, though. She’s a couple of handfuls of years older than me, dressed in work clothes, cap and apron, attitude of no nonsense. Oh, I’d better add for my audience, she’s an elf, so to most of you she’d look eighteen and skinny and foreign, even if the cap hides her ears. She looks me up and down and gives half a grin. Her accent, Amaranthine. “Not quite like home cooking, is it. I’ll be sure and tell cook you liked it, shall I?”

“Do.” I swallow the mouthful of food, don’t quite return the grin. My eyes flick to the humans and she raises her eyebrows, like, what can you do. I guess it’d be impolite to keep silence. “Kallian Dener.”

“Peony Amaranth, Kallian; anther anat-isha.” The elvish words make me put down my fork, just like she intended. She’s talking like this is her home. “I’m steward to this bunch of bigjobs. The Commander said that you were maybe feeling a little like you needed to find your feet.”

Blink. “You. Steward? That’s, like, housekeeper?”

“Uh-huh – my boss is the Commander, by his hand and seal.” She nods proudly. “It’s a pretty good life with ’em – they aren’t bad as humans go. They know where big hands don’t belong and a Warden doesn’t get drunk. And I hear you’re to be joining?”

“So do I.” I make a face. “Not to be giving offence to your boss, Peony, but I think he’s loopy in the head. He said he wants me for one of him, not one of you, if you follow.”

Again a businesslike nod. “I heard. It’s happened before, you know. There are elf Wardens in all the fireside tales.”

“For true.” I raise an eyebrow.

“Cross me heart.”

“Bloody hells.” Another spoonful of the food. It’s still just as good. An obstacle looms toward my mind out of the imagined near future. “Uh, that means I’ll need, like, shoes and all, and it’s not like I’ve money to pay -”

She hides a smile. Reminds me of an auntie. “We’ll set you right. Can’t have you wandering around making the order look bad, after all.”

“Oh, so you’re getting me a big old hat and a mask and a pair of stilts and all?” Just a little sharp edge into my voice and she frowns.

“Now, now, miss, I’ve got instructions. The king’s not the only one as thinks we’re people walked straight out of the old tales, and I don’t know if you know about armies, but a bit of story’s worth more than all the gold of Orlais to a man who thinks he might die on the morrow. Stories say the Wardens are all the people of all Thedas, together against the darkness, and much as Duncan tries he’s still a silly old shem with a beard that went out of fashion before you was a nipper. Whereas you’re-”

“A pretty bit of tale?” Nearly done with this bowl of stew.

“People talk that way to anybody with our surcoat on, miss, and just you see what happens.” She’s got a list on a wax slate. “Which you get two of. Duncan didn’t send ahead that he was bringing someone so slight, so it’s doubtful any in the camp can fix you with a real set of armour, not in an evening, but I’ll take you to see me brother and he’ll find something to make shift, and arms and all. Can you shoot?”

I shake my head. “I can string a bow, but I never shot one. Used a crossbow before, but never to practice with, like.”

“Mm-hmm. You’ll have a bow anyway, of course, whoever heard of an elf without one in a tale, don’t let him let you go without picking one out, and remember the strings and arrows and so on. As for clothes, we’ll settle for something that fits for today, and see if we can’t have you looking a proper Warden by the time they make you one – and boots are easy, we’re well supplied. Can you ride?”

Blink. “What, like, horses?”

“No, girl, great flying griffons. Yes, horses. Can you – I’ll put that down as a no. Makes it easier at least, you won’t want a mount we wouldn’t have for you anyhow.” Seeing I’ve finished, she takes my bowl and spoon straight out my hand. “And another thing. No housework for you, no cleaning or cooking. For one thing, you don’t know your way around, for two- what?” Because that does casuse me to shake my head and smile a little.

“That’s not your worry. Been no work of that sort out of me for weeks now, like.” Deep breath. “I’m a murderess, Peony, Duncan conscripted me almost right off the gallows. The shems know I’m not an obedient little lamb no more, I’m a danger. I’m not looking out because I’m scared of ’em. I’m looking out because they’re on to me.”

She snorts. “Well, I weren’t, and if you’re telling me the bigjobs are better informed than the People where you come from, you’ve got another thing to learn about the army.” She gives me another appraising look up and down and abruptly changes the subject, her manner suddenly very much that of Duncan. Or is it that he copied her? “I think you’re a size two, but let’s be sure and get the measure.”

*

Next