Alternative Origins Chapter Four

by artrald

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*

This month it’s the king’s pleasure to be awake and working before reveille, so that the nobles can be back to their regiments and giving orders as they assemble; this means it’s everyone else’s pleasure as well. About the only man who seems to be perfectly awake and sharp at this time is the Warden-Commander – unnatural for a fellow to be alert before the sun rises, but the teyrn of Gwaren supposes it’s just as unnatural as everything else about the funny little man.

Not that Loghain mac Tir could be said to be a follower of fashion. Giving the king what he wants to see is simple politics and good sense, and the fahion to wear one’s battle-plate everywhere is a handy protection against unfortunate mishap, but there’s just something about the way that Duncan does it that makes very clear that he just happens to be in the same place as the Privy Council, rather than a member.

Also, the infuriating man insists on arguing good sense, which right now is more inconvenience than usefulness.

“Your Majesty, I understand the thrust of your argument, but the premise is more at home in a tale than a council of war.” Duncan firmly removes the markers representing the Grey Wardens and the king’s household guard from their position in the middle of the field before the gates of Ostagar; he places himself atop the gates and hands Cailen’s marker to him. “An unexpected sally from the gates of a castle that is besieged can be good tactics in a war with a conventional foe, as we all know, but to open our front door half an hour into an enemy assault and put your own person in the middle of the battle would be little more than an elaborate and messy method of surrender.”

The king frowns. “But I am extremely distinctive, Duncan, and you and your men look just like my rank and file from a distance. Surely the archdemon would look upon our spearhead and see me exposed, and take the opportunity to swoop down upon us and try for a quick end to the war?”

The sheer depth of misunderstanding… Loghain winces inwardly. If the last few weeks have convinced him of anything about his son-in-law, it’s that the father’s patient instruction went in one ear, through the space in the middle occupied by honour and chivalry without actually intersecting with anything phsyical, and out of the other largely unscathed. But even so, perhaps this needs just the smallest little push – “Your strategy is brave, sire,” he rumbles, “and bold. And certainly the idea that the Grey Wardens should serve as a comparatively unobtrusive addition to your own household guard is well enough. But -”

“But,” seizes Cailen, “we can turn this about! Fine, let the Wardens hold the gate – the best place for the archdemon to send itself tactically would be there at the head of its force. But rather than having them guard me, it would be surely an even better lure if I were ‘guarding’ them?”

It’s easy enough to feign sudden comprehension and object on spurious grounds. The Warden-Commander, to his credit, seems to understand the art of the possible; he doesn’t bother fighting it, passes on from this just as quickly as he can, as the tactical irrelevance that it pretty much is. After all, gold armour or no, the darkspawn are hardly disciplined enough to be able to redeploy to cut out targets of opportunity, and that’s even assuming that the king matters one whit either to them or the war. And his shrewd eyes on Loghain are surely thinking only that perhaps the father-in-law would be a better catspaw than the king – too late, my foreign friend. Too late.

The plan itself is not vastly different from that originally suggested by Duncan, and relies on that very fact. The darkspawn army is large but ill-disciplined, the Warden scouts reporting a count of a little more than eleven thousand in this horde – far too large to bring to battle in open field, and especially given the royal army’s probable lack of superiority in magic. The spawn do not invest and besiege when they encounter fortifications, or so the histories say, but instead they assault with complete disregard for their losses. Combine these, and the walls of Ostagar become the perfect trap – a target that cannot be ignored, that will hold a vastly disproportionate number of them in place, and the foe’s lack of discipline and good command makes it nearly impossible to pull out of a bad situation. So quite simply, the walls are an anvil against which to crush the foe. With the Wardens saying that there is no other large darkspawn force within a week’s march, a relatively simple flanking operation will lure the ‘spawn in; a third of the Bannorn levies, the king’s household guard and the Wardens (who he insists on referring to as a separate unit, despite there being only forty of them) hold them in place, and the cream of the Fereldan army, the other four thousand including nearly a thousand horse under the teyrn of Gwaren and the arl of Amaranthine, will be the hammer.

It’s not clear whether or not Duncan relishes being stuck in the anvil until relieved – he seems to meet it with the same calm fatalism with which he meets everything else – but he does bang on rather about the correct procedure to be followed upon encountering the enemy general, this ‘archdemon’ thing. Apparently he’s convinced that only he can kill it. Makes them promise not to try. Well, he’s welcome to it.

The signal to drop the hammer will be the ancient beacon of the southern tower of Ostagar. The mages’ representative tries to make the case that her people would be best placed to make any kind of signal, given that they can do it with a gesture and a word – a potential threat, of course, for they would not even need to stand on the tower to give a signal so unambiguous that every man in the army would see it – but it is simple enough to plant the seed of doubt with a seemingly innocent question to her templar as to a mage’s likely stability of mind in the event of a battle.

Thus reminded and mistrustful, no commander alive would entrust the pivotal task of the entire strategy to magic. The king nods in an attempt at sagacity and says that the mages are best placed helping to bring the hammer down – well done, Cailen, you can take a hint. And then a viable alternative could be provided – what about the young Warden with whom the king was so taken? Surely such a pivotal task could be assigned to the army’s most trustworthy?

Unexpected for Duncan to agree so strongly, and say that such a responsible duty would be a perfect fit for his two youngest – but still incorruptible and somehow supremely competent – Wardens. Under… other circumstances, that sort of thing would bear further investigation.

As it is, it hardly seems worth the expense, really.

What is it that they say? The die is cast? Not yet, perhaps. But the die is most definitely loaded.

*

“No.” Alistair plants his feet solidly and the arrogant lift of his chin is something he must have learned from the noblemen among the – among us. “Commander, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I will not be-”

“Disobedient. No, you won’t.” Duncan’s voice doesn’t change in intonation. Doesn’t rightly need to. “The horde approaches; they will be here this afternoon, by nightfall at the latest. You will climb the southern tower and observe their progress, and if you should take the opportunity to enlighten your charge concerning the uses of the sixth sense, so much the better. The moment the darkspawn commit to their assault, you will light the beacon.”

“And then I’ll sit around with my thumb up my arse teaching my student the finer points of navel-gazing and the categorisation of bellybutton fluff, while my brothers and sisters-”

“Thank their stars that there’s someone in this benighted army who will do what they’re told without complicating matters.” Arguing with Duncan is a little like arguing with a thunderstorm or the tides. His will be done, and your choices are to bend with it or be borne along regardless.

“Aye, and you gave her a babysitter and all.” Alistair gives me the tiniest of glances. “And not one who was brought up to hear an order and give a nice quiet yes-milord rather than being specifically raised, trained and led to believe that when it comes to it what matters is that you do the right thing-”

I get there before the Commander, loud enough to cut over what he’s saying. “Oh,” I say, and he wasn’t expecting me to; he looks at me. “A cloud. It looks a little like a griffon. Isn’t that a thing. It must have distracted me.” And my voice suddenly grows sharp brittle edges. “Because I certainly didn’t hear that implication that somebody just made, not from the lips of some know-nothing shem who’d like to be preaching we’re all the same and none of us so proud.”

“See?” He looks from me to Duncan. “She doesn’t like it either. So you can-”

“She has a name,” I snap, “and a brain, which is more than some this morning. And ‘she’ is following orders. Not for reasons like someone might have been accused of while I weren’t paying attention. But because damn your eyes to the Fade but this is Commander Duncan as spoke, and if you say he’s ever done a thing to make you doubt him then I’ll call you a liar to your face, and don’t tell me you don’t owe him better than you’re giving.”

Alistair opens his mouth, and he shuts it again, and he looks at the commander and grits his teeth. “You’re living through this, sir. I can tell already.”

Duncan raises an eyebrow. “Nothing is sure. Except your pronouncement – because…?”

“Because next time, sir, my place is at your side. I’m not good. I’m amazing. You trained me yourself. You spoke highly of me, yourself. And I will not stand to be shielded and sidelined like this when the rest of us are in harm’s way, or what good was it my even surviving that Joining?”

A moment, and something passes between them that’s unspoken. History. And Duncan nods. “So be it. Now get the two of you armed, and get to the wall. Better to be bored waiting than the alternative.”

*

I’ve never had the opportunity to investigate it before, but apparently I don’t like heights. The tower is higher from the top than it is from the bottom, or rather, it certainly feels it when you get there. It’s a square thing, built by the Tevinters, but the floors inside are wooden, and every subsequent group to occupy the tower has ‘improved’ the insides until it’s a mishmash of ancient and petrified timbers. Three different entries at different levels, two of them once having been windows, no single staircase to go all the height, and no single purpose to the whole tower. It isn’t continuous with either the modern walls – Orlesian – or the keep; only the very upper levels are any use for a firing plarform, unless the fort is somehow being attacked down the royal highway: the lower levels descend into the rock of the fortress escarpment itself, and the whole thing is a bit inexplicable. Or so Alistair relates as we climb. About the best guess is that this is supposed to be a mages’ tower, or a last-ditch defensive point.

After quite a while he realises that he’s doing all the talking.

“You’re still mad at me.” He opens the door for me, mostly garnering me funny looks from the men – apparently this layer is a quartermaster’s today – clearly they’ve never seen such a strange creature as a heavily armed elf in a warrior’s attire. Like a sheep started walking on its hind legs and carrying a sword.

“It’s perfectly natural.” I reach the next door before him, and then stand there pointedly to make him open this one.

“I’m a Warden,” he growls, “and so are you. That’s supposed to-”

“Oh, not you as well.” More stairs.

“I’m sorry?”

I turn abruptly to face him on the landing, step inside his personal space, way too close, and he takes a step back and bashes against the wall with a clank. “Why’d you do that?”

“Now tell me with a straight face we’re the same.” I turn and start back up the stairs. “A thing doesn’t become so just because you say it.”

He colours. “You’re misrepresenting me.”

“But why’d I do it? Or why could I? Why d’you open doors for me and why are you watching my arse?”

“I’m not watching your arse!”

“Why not? Is there something wrong with it?”

He splutters. Point to me.

We come out of the stairwell and up into the top of the tower. Ten men in here checking arrows and crossbows. The view – I guess it’s something, if you can make yourself forget about the whole ‘down’ thing and the fact that nobody ever made an elf with wings. I round on Alistair. “But, now, you can’t complain. You can’t put it down to a flighty woman or the strange behaviour of an elf. We’re all Wardens, we’re all the same. So if we’re all the same, why does Duncan put us up here? And why don’t you look at him like you’re wondering whether he’d break in a strong wind?”

Misstep. He turns a superior gaze on me. “Two questions with the same answer, little one. Duncan is the Commander, and we? Are not.”

Oh, he’s just ingratiating himself like nobody’s business today. “Are you calling me short?”

“You are short.” He looks down on me. “But what I meant to say was far more tied-up with your lack of seniority, ‘little one’. Do you have no respect to show your teacher?”

“Earn it.” I kind of realise that the human men-at-arms are trying not to stare, though it’s none of mine if they do. “If we’re all the same.”

“I will, then. See if I don’t.” He pauses for a moment, sets his jaw. “I watched you fight, yesterday. In the forest.”

“And?”

“Your technique is terrible. You hold your sword like a mop, you watch the foeman’s point not his body and you move your feet like you’re dancing at a country fair. If you’d been fighting anything nearly as fast as you were, they’d have handed me your head on a plate.”

“And whose fault is that?” Yeah, the shems aren’t even bothering to pretend they’re not watching this, now.

“Doesn’t matter.” His tone of voice is that arbitrary arrogant bray I’m used to hearing from any shem who thinks he can get away with it. “What matters is that I’m on record as being your first teacher. And so your performance reflects on me. And if Duncan saw me holding a sword like that, I’d be climbing towers and lighting beacons rather than fighting battles for a whole week.” That meaningless smile of his again. “So we check the beacon’s ready to go, and then I saw a storeroom back that way that was mostly empty, and we’ve got hours, and I can feel the horde approaching, so it’s not like it can make us late. What say?”

And roughly speaking, that was the fateful decision – that was where it all started – but I’ll come to that.

*

Amazing thing, money. A silver penny’s the size of your thumbnail. Walk into a traveller’s inn anywhere on the old Tevinter highways and you’ll get a seat at the board for that penny, and anywhere in honest Ferelden it’d get you a roof over your head for the night and all. Talk to the king’s master of coin – well, talk to his wife, man’s an idiot – and you’ll hear a silver penny quoted as the value of a strong labourer’s broad shoulders for a day. Go to a sailors’ alehouse in Denerim and you’d barely get yourself a flagon of strong beer and a hunk of bread and dripping for that penny – then again, heh, the sailors aren’t exactly there for the provender.

But right here and now, fifty of those tiny scraps of metal buys a man’s eyes and ears, or more precisely the lack of them, and he didn’t ever see the man go past him and he didn’t ever hear him come back, and you know what? The best thing about these pennies is that you get them back again when the man’s safely sleeping the sleep of ages in what was once a coal-cellar. Thus laundered, a good little crow’s expenses go in his pocket, and what the teyrn of Amaranthine doesn’t know can’t hurt him.

There’s a draft here, now, blowing downwards through the postern gate, exactly as ordered. Another door, a little further in, is spiked a careful few inches open. If even a crow can catch the spoor of the fort’s inhabitants, surely the foe can do so. And now to climb.

The tower is badly designed. No quick way up or down, so you’d think it was built to be defended from assault, but the ground floor’s indefensible and the next one up’s pretty poor. What stairs there are, are wide and easy; the men of Ferelden are no bigger than men anywhere else, and you’d need two abreast to hold any of these doors, and not easily either. No surprise that the Fereldans haven’t even really made it ready.

But the employer, he had a real bee in his bonnet about one of the defenders in particular. ‘Tall man,’ the crow was told, ‘broad of shoulder, blond of hair, a little younger than the king, even. He’ll be at or near the top of the tower. Know him by his stone-grey surcoat. And don’t assume you can take him.’

Heh.

But he isn’t there, anyway, not at the top of the tower. Nobody looks twice at a crow, not one going up a ladder with something as innocuous as a bucket of water. And it’s quite hilariously simple, what the crow is there to do, and so it is trivially done.

And it’s on the way back down that the crow is drawn to an open door by the clash of steel.

And, well, would you credit it. Bright blades cross, turn and cross again, two of them, and while the swords could be brothers their wielders are a vastly mismatched pair. The man, well, the employer’s description didn’t give him the credit he was due: apparently somewhere in Ferelden breeds them handsome, strong jaw, noble brow, blond short hair, powerful build, a man to slay a room with a glance – or set it aflame. And he’s got more than a foot on his partner – a tiny slip of a thing, the grey surcoat seemingly miniature and endearing, the blade almost comically outsized in her hands. Too slight and small and surefooted for a boy, it must be a woman. But the way she moves! It’s poetry. A man could write forever and not be satisfied. To see her sparring, like this, you wouldn’t call her pretty or plain – you couldn’t see her to judge, for she is the storm while the big man stands at the eye.

Oh!

She isn’t just a short, slender human. She’s an elf. The first Fereldan elf the crow has ever spied acting anything like a real woman. And as she holds her head still a moment, as she spins like a dancer to bring the oversized blade around from one blurring clash to another, eyes serious and intent, she’s lovely.

The spell is broken as the man voids her blow with a blurring step back and catches her blade in the instant she’s off guard, a simple catch and twist in the direction she’s weak in and the sound of the blade clattering to the floor drowns out her frustrated swearword. A realisation – her technique, it’s actually not that good. The two of them are not sparring for true: they’re alternating high-low-left-right, from seconde to quarte and back, clearly working on her form. But the speed and grace – ah! –

The slight click as the door pushes to is masked by the clatter of blades. A little oil and the lock is a willing co-conspirator. The crow’s expression is for a moment just a little wistful: to be locked for even an hour in a room, alone, with either of those! But a crow’s labours, they are never at an end.

The guards do not pay the crow two looks. The horses are picketed over here, those that remain – for most have already gone, away with the flower of Fereldan nobility. It would be a child’s mistake to steal a horse – but a crow must travel somehow, and where better to hide one’s pony than among its cousins?

The trace is slipped; the saddle is light; it is not far to Lothering. Not as the crow flies.

*

The other problem with sparring with someone nearly as stubborn as I am is that neither of us knows the meaning of the word ‘stop’ – and I’ve learned something else important, which is that either everything I own got much lighter overnight or my endurance has improved as much as my strength. My tunic is sticking to my back with sweat by the time that Alistair finally calls a halt with a raised hand, but neither of us needs more than a moment to catch our breath.

“Do you hear that?” He tilts his head.

I do much the same. No – I hear nothing more than the sound of people, shems simultaneously both bored and worried. “Hear what?”

“I suppose it won’t have started yet, not if your appetite hasn’t improved. The horde. They’re in the trees out there. Thousands of them. And not even lunchtime.” His voice ripples very slightly with tension, more on the level of stage-fright than the fear of battle. “We should get up there. If we can’t help the fighting, at least we can give moral support.”

“I could learn to shoot. It’s not like we’ll have anything but time and arrows and targets.”

“We can’t exactly have the darkspawn run over and tell us how your shot fell, now, can we.” He snorts and walks over to the door.

Which won’t move. He pulls a little harder. Nothing. Puts his forehead against it for a moment and swears quietly. “Fearghus. Fearghus Cliffe, you irritating unreconstructed little sodomite.”

I frown. “Explain?”

“Warden Fearghus. I swear, the next time I see that little streak of diarrhoea I’m going to introduce him to the joys and possibilities of owning an extra orifice. Or maybe fit him out with a little something in black and blue. He was the youngest at my Joining, made sure I wouldn’t be wasting Warden Alejandro’s time after I survived, like I’m doing with you.” He grinds his teeth. “And he took up the long-lost-elder-brother thing long after it was funny – see, we’re both fatherless men from the same town, so clearly there’s a great warrior and lover out there with a girl in every port and two in Redcliffe, and he’d always back that with ‘and given my own endowment of talent, my lad, you’ve got it in you to be one hell of a swordsman’. And, well, it would be pretty much exactly his idea of the second most hilarious thing that ever there was to lock me in a storeroom with any technically eligible female he could convince.”

“Put me down as unconvinced, shall we.” I narrow my eyes. “Remind me again of the punishment for striking down a fellow Warden?”

He snorts. “There’s a grate in the floor, over there. Does it move?”

“What’s that, the mighty Grey Warden defeated by a mere storeroom door?” I give the little grate a disparaging glance. “Mortared in, and even if I could fit myself down it, I’d have to leave the armour and you wouldn’t have a prayer. Door opens inwards, right?”

“Right.” He kicks it with casual force and it shudders, but doesn’t give. “Iron-banded oak, and the hinges are proper. I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn my back.”

I blink. “What?”

“I’ll just turn my back and examine this wall over here while you display evidence of an unladylike upbringing.”

Shake my head. “Foul language and spitting in public isn’t likely to embarrass it open.”

He looks at me straight. “Warden Kallian Dener, are you telling me that you’re the only elvish kid who ever grew up unable to pick a lock?”

“Got any picks, have you, ser slanderer? Remember I came here in what I stood up in, and that out of Duncan’s pack. The only things truly mine in a mile’s circle of here are a blood-caked May frock and neveryoumind.”

“Unless you can pick a lock with your neveryoumind, I truly don’t mind -” he kicks the door again –

“Don’t do that, you bloody great animal, you’ll bend the lock bar. And then we’ll really be buggered.” I give the lock a look. “Well, I’ll tell you this for naught, you was wrong about who locked us in here.”

“Oh?” He has sense not to crowd.

“Unless your Fearghus is the type to oil a lock to stop it clicking.” I wrinkle my nose. “Linseed oil, too, none of your pig’s grease. Any idea -?” I stop talking, and I do that because the blood has drained from Alistair’s face entire. “What?”

He swallows convulsively. “W-what would you need to get that door open in a hurry?”

“One straight pin and one bent one, crochet hook’s good. I can use a bodkin for the straight pin.” And there’s one in my right hand.

He blinks. “How many knives do you have? Exactly?”

“More than you can see, but none with a hook point on them.” I poke the lock experimentally. “Three pins on this, and it’s oiled and all. Child could do it. Anything thin and long and even a bit curved would work.”

“Said the revered mother to the templar.” He casts about the room despondently. Inventory: three slightly sad and deflated sacks of oatmeal and a little cask of now-rancid butter. Not a fish-hook, not a pin or needle, not a piece of wire. “Shit.” The toecap of his boot strikes sparks from the wall and I flinch; he hears me move and turns, and his eyes kind of widen at the way I’m suddenly this coiled dangerous creature with a bright blade.

“Will you not?” I take a deep breath and turn back to the door. “I’m thinking, here -”

We both heard that. That was a scream. Not a scream of someone in terror. That was the high thin scream of someone who’s never going to make any other noise ever again.

“The bloody hellfire was that?”

Alistair grimaces. “The reason we need this door open? You know I said I could sense them?”

“And I noticed you’re keeping that to yourself as to where they are?”

“Because you’d work noticeably faster if I warned you that they were directly beneath us?”

“I’m not working at all without a -” Sudden idea. I turn and make for the cask of butter. “How many?”

“Uh. Approximately?” There are more noises from outside, more cries. Shouts. Someone ringing a bell. “Enough? Call it a round three dozen? And there’s something else with them.”

“Lovely.” I chop my dirk down sharply across the edge of the cask, like I’m whittling, but I’m going for something just thick enough to be stiff. The blade catches and I get something that’s thick enough, but maybe an inch long. “Bugger. Say – what d’you shave with?”

He blinks. “Sorry?”

“Shave, Alistair. I know you must do, either that or you’re even younger than you act. What do you use?”

“A straight razor?”

“Got it on you? Mind me hurting it?”

He shakes his head. “It’s in my tent. What do you need?”

I hold up the failed piece of wood I chipped off the edge of the cask. “This thick, three inch long, like.”

“Huh – stand back?”

I do as he asks. He takes aim with his sword. And now, if he was a true warrior from out of the tales, there would have been a shining arc of steel and he’d have cut me my splinter of wood. And, well, there’s a shining arc, and there’s splinters of wood, all right. Most of the tales aren’t quite so heavy on the foul rain of reeking rancid butter, though.

But I’ve got my splinter, and my bodkin, and I kneel down in front of the door. Eventually I get the damn thing aligned right. The splinter’s not really long or stiff enough for this and the dagger’s not just too thick but sharp as a chisel on the edge. One pin – two – thr- no. Again. One – two – no. I swear under my breath. The damn thing is covered in foul-smelling grease and now so are my fingers and it’s the wrong bloody shape. I wipe them.

“Hurry up, Kallian, you do not want to know how close those things are -”

“Would you like to come over here and do this?” One pin. Two – no. One. Two. Three – I engage the lock with my narrow-bladed bodkin dagger and twist – and the bloody splinter snaps. I spit a rude word at it in elvish and very nearly give the door a boot myself. Go back and get another splinter. At least there are some to choose from. Kneel down. One pin. Two. Three. Engage, lift, and begin very slowly and carefully to twist, the blade and the splinter of wood holding the tumbler in place – sudden feeling like somebody’s got their eye pressed to the far side of this keyhole –

Alistair yells a warning and I dive myself back from the door as something hits the door from the far side with sufficient punishing force to snap the lock and slam the door against the wall. I hardly see what it is – an impression of something human-sized and savage, bigger than the little ones I saw before – before Alistair has its throat out with a sweep of his blade. But you never get just one bloody thing, do you? A second starts trying to come into the room, and a third, and a fourth behind them, stuck in the door for a moment, and the moment is just long enough for me to get my long heavy blade into my left hand, and then they’re on us, or trying to be.

We’re forward side by side. Try to take me in close quarters, will ye? I’ve met humans worse than you, so-called monster. A dozen frantic heartbeats later and Alistair’s tale is three and mine’s two and we’re in the corridor. Shouting from the direction of upstairs – sanity and strategy be damned – we meet one another’s eyes and then we charge.

*

The gates of the fort of Ostagar are new, and to the experienced eye of Warden-Commander Duncan they don’t look right. The timber is barely seasoned, the craftsmanship – while not shoddy – at least somewhat hurried, and the massive bars that hold them shut don’t quite seem to sit easy in their grooves. The Tevinters didn’t believe in murder-holes and machicolations, meaning that it’s easier to attack the gate and harder to defend it, but the last couple of weeks the army’s engineers have been doing their best with wooden hoardings. Even so, the Fereldans’ best efforts are dwarfed by the vast scale of the walls of the ancient fortification.

A bit like the defenders, really. There’s less than a quarter of the army here, and while they’re well stocked for a defence of these walls, it’s very few of them have ever fought a battle like this. Conventional warfare just doesn’t include them, most people being far happier to invest a siege and rely on the comparatively cheap and dependable weapons of boredom and privation. In short, the whole plan relies upon a rapid and disciplined response from Loghain’s flanking force, because without them the fort will never stand.

While the king doesn’t have the sense to keep his mouth shut, at least he’s somewhere where this won’t matter. History will doubtless record that his speech atop the walls was an inspiring miracle of oratory; he certainly thinks it was. Feels a little hollow to cheer long-live-the-king as the horde break the trees.

Duncan looks to his brothers in arms and sees that all is as prepared as it can be – hmm. A breakaway from the darkspawn lines, doubtless seeking the fortress’ postern gate. He’d examined the thing himself, yesterday – the original stone door still in evidence, rune-hardened, tougher than the walls around it. They’ll be disappointed, but it won’t stop them trying.

He can feel the archdemon, out there, drawing the mind’s eye like a compass to a lodestone. He can’t see it – the texts say it should be physically distinctive, disagreeing as to how – but the largest thing in the horde that he can see in the trees is an ogre, a foe familiar to anyone who’s walked the Deep Roads.

Like a wave to the seashore they come, and the king’s raised arm brings down the first wave of missiles, of bolts from scorpions and ballistae, of arrows. Briefly and impiously Duncan wishes the revered mother hadn’t decreed that either all the mages went with the flank or none did – what he wouldn’t give for a few elementalists to wreak some havoc in the packed ranks, a couple of abjurers to stop them even getting to the gates.

Ah, well; if they look like they’d be useful now, just think what they’ll be like later. He’s not the best archer the Wardens have, but he’s far from the worst; the longbow sings. Thirty-eight archers isn’t a great deal, but when they know what they’re shooting for it isn’t bad; the archdemon’s will may direct them broadly, but it’s more like an excess of fighting spirit than a hive-mind. They rely on tactical commanders and relays like anyone else, and the Wardens are shooting for the nerves, the eyes and ears, the chains of communication of the horde. When the cavalry arrives, ideally the only darkspawn to know they are there will be the ones about to die.

The horde have roughly woven ropes and rusting chains with them, and uprooted trees for makeshift ladders, but it’s largely to give them something to do; the fortress escarpment makes the walls vastly tall from this direction, nearly higher than a spawn with a grapnel can throw. The main thrust of the offensive is a great ram, a thing they must have brought with them from the deep roads, a great hunk of solid metal borne by four massive horned ogres. The rain of arrows does barely a thing to their thick hide, but the scalding water and boiling oil they have over the gates are more than effective; maddened by pain they can’t shrug off or bat away, the ogres tear frenzied at their handlers and one another until they have to be put down by their own side –

It was a distraction.

Duncan sees it too late, leans out at an incautious angle to loose an arrow almost directly down at the little darkspawn in the black cloak concealing itself against a corner of the gate, but by the time the humming bowstring sends the arrow flashing to pierce the emissary’s black heart the magic is already worked.

And there’s a sudden overpowering smell of mushrooms and soil and a spiderweb of little black and brown cracks spreads from the corner of the door, not up over the wood, just over the great stone hinges, and a roar from the horde, and driven by the suddenly focused will of the archdemon the darkspawn surge forward to literally throw their weight against the doors.

“What are they doing?” The king has to shout for Duncan to hear him.

The Warden-Commander frowns. He gestures to his men and a squad of them step back from their archery. “They’ve weakened the hinges. They’ll push the gate open now. They’ll be crushed, but there are always more of them.”

He nods. “So what do we do?”

“The walls are still very nearly impregnable.” Duncan nods to the second gate, to the space between the two that would once have been covered by a gatehouse. “The inner gate isn’t so strong, but they’ve got to come at it through that alley. We kill them there. We fill the gate with their dead. We stuff their mouths with death.”

“And if they breach the inner gate?”

“I seem to recall a young man of my acquaintance talking about heroism, earlier?” Duncan’s teeth are very white. “The Wardens hold the alley with cold steel until the engineers can put the gate back.” He glances up at the tower. “And we won’t need to do it for long. The signal will be going out very soon now. The darkspawn have committed, I can feel it.”

*

This tower, I can see what Alistair meant. Not really set up right. At least it’s working in our favour, now. The spawn work out what’s going on and try to give themselves a rearguard, but there aren’t real choke points and even the staircases are wide. He’s taken a shield from one of the dead spawn, a little misshapen thing but still effective. We go through them quickly, but really, not quickly enough. I can hear cries and the clash of weapons ahead of us – the last staircase is held by four of the larger darkspawn in a parody of shieldwall, and though Alistair and I deal with them quick as you like and mount the stairs together, we’re still too late. It’s in the middle of the tower room at a half-crouch, taller than a tall man, wide across the shoulders as my arms outspread, horned and massive and apelike, a predator, a killer, atavistic, savagery unrestrained. I feel Alistair falter at my side.

To me – eh. It’s too big, too savage, there’s no room for it to be scarier. Barely worse than facing a big shem unarmed. It looks at us – it sees us in a way it didn’t really see the human guards – and it bares its tusks and roars fit to rattle the tower.

I go left. No sense waiting for it to move. I dance in to flick a cut out at its hamstring and it slams a heavy fist out at me that I dive under with only the barest inch to spare. Alistair yells defiance at it, I guess he’s trying suddenly to steady his nerves, and goes right – his blade opens a thin red line on its back, but it ignores him entirely.

Well, sunshine, your breath stinks. No way am I landing a decent blow on the thing without closing, so I try and feed it a dummy, weave to my right and then move in left, drawing on the full measure of the strength and blurring speed that the darkspawn blood has lent me. And okay – looks a little bit like the damn thing has a brain. I weave, I step in, and it doesn’t try and match my speed, it’s just there with the back of its hand like it’s flicking a fly, and I hit the ground and roll to my feet and the wall hits me high in the ribs and sweet Maker is it a long way down from this window –

I suppose that I hurt, too – just give me a moment, here –

Alistair’s blade flashes in the light and the thing howls and rounds on him. What I should be doing at this point is going for its ankles – don’t care what you are, if you’re built like a humanoid the backs of your legs are vulnerable – but I waste precious time getting my breath. He leaps over its first swing like a jumping jack, sways backward from the second, but it’s trained reflex that has him catch the next blow on his shield.

Idiot. He’s spun nearly half around and hits the floor harder than I did – the ragged shout he lets out when he hits the floor tells me he’s got broken bones for his troubles, and the ogre leans over and reaches down to flip him over with an ungentle hand. Finally I get myself moving, although my head’s still spinning, yell something wordless at it and try and put my blade up and through its lungs with a two-handed thrust. The sword goes in about a foot and sticks, and the massive thing snarls as it turns, going for me with the same backhand that knocked me over last time. I drop the weapon and stick with leaping over the blow to avoid it, hand on the thing’s massive shoulder to steady myself, and I try and put the point of my bodkin in under its jaw. It takes a snap at me – I’m quick enough to put a cut in the roof of its mouth – then it tries to strike me with a knee and I get my foot onto it and use the impulse to spin me up and over its head. No way I’m good enough to cling on its back, but I stab the bodkin into something as I go past, leave it in, roll and come up with two more blades.

You’ll be a bloody pincushion by the time I’m done with you, you bastard, see if you won’t. I don’t make the mistake of going low again, I let it come for me – it’s trying to grab me by the arm – and I spin with it, opening a couple of long slices on its forearm, bloody, but nothing vital. I dance backwards out of its reach and it suddenly comes for me again in a rush, cornering way too fast, and there’s a wall behind me. I kick off, try to go over it again, but it tosses its head and the jerkin saves my guts being torn out by its twisted horns but something explodes in my right side as I land. “Alistair?”

“I thought you weren’t after my approval?” He’s hardly moved, focused on pulling his injured hand out of the ruin of the gauntlet and borrowed shield. “You’re doing fine!”

The ogre comes for me again and this time I dodge the right way, back into the middle of the room. I am faster than it is. Just not by as much as I’m used to. “Little hand, here?”

“You know what you are?” In a sudden movement he has his sword back in his good hand and he’s on his feet. “You’re funny.” The movement in its peripheral vision got the ogre’s attention. It goes to rush me, abruptly turns and makes straight for Alistair. He doesn’t try and get in the way this time, instead moving aside in a tightly controlled spin that whips the edge of his blade out and draws a long red line on the beast’s flank. “Maybe you should consider a career as a court jester.”

Enraged, it follows up its attack, but he continues to move, staying a few inches ahead of its claws each swing and flicking out continual probing attacks at the thing’s face. Not sustainable, because there’s absolutely no room for error, but it gives me the opening I need. Come here, you bastard.

I time my lunge to coincide with one of Alistair’s flicks for the eyes. My blades aren’t long enough to go for the ankles easy, so I go for the kidneys instead – it sways sideways as I dance forward, trying to put both Alistair and me in front of it, but as it does so Alistair lashes out with a booted foot and catches it in the side of the knee, it tangles its feet in one another for an instant and it goes down.

I’m behind it before it knows which way is up – as it rebounds to its knees it’s my height – and I go for it immediately, one dirk aiming for the neck on either side. It twists – but this only means that while one of the two points glances off the fused bone across its shoulderblades, the other one goes in the hollow of its neck. It gives a strangling roaring cry and hits me at the bottom of the ribcage with one massive elbow – the world goes white and there’s a terrible splintering crunch from my right side and I can suddenly taste blood as I try and stay on my feet and get away from the thing.

Sweet Andraste, it’s standing up. It’s standing up again, taking Alistair’s raining blows on its forearm, laying it open to the bone, but it’s standing. It’s got a broadsword stuck a foot in its side, a bodkin to the hilt in its back, it’s streaming blood in half a dozen places and it’s got my dirk all the way through its neck and it’s still moving. What does it take to kill this thing?

Alistair spins all the way around and brings his blade down from shoulder to hip with a hoarse animal cry and opens up a massive cut in the ogre, and it still snakes out a sucker-punch that he can’t quite avoid and catches him in the gut – he folds around its hand, the breath driven out of him – it overbalances – it falls on its face and the tip of my dirk comes out the back of its neck.

A moment’s silence. It’s dead. We killed it. My back is against the wall. I’m warm and sticky down my right-hand side and I can’t seem to catch my breath and I’m just shivering. Alistair’s on his knees on the floor, puts his good hand down, coughs several times, eventually wobbles to his feet. He seems to have forgotten his hand as he walks over to me and his eyes are very wide as he sees the blood on my lips.

His voice is hoarse. “Don’t you dare die on me, girl -” he coughs – “My student. Looks bad. Even had to give you a. Hand.” He tries to give his meaningless smile. “No battles for you. Bread and water for a week.”

I meet his eyes. Make a noise and it’s unintelligible. Try again. “Beacon?”

He looks out at the walls for a moment, narrows his eyes. “Yes. Right.” He turns, walking a little more steadily as he goes. “Make this mean something.” The beacon’s operated by pulling a lever; there’s a chain attached, goes to a bowl full of oil that lives above a brazier that’s kept just above the middle of the fuel. Pull the lever and the hot oil drops onto the hot coals and catches. Foolproof if the brazier’s hot, and we checked that earlier. He reaches out and there’s a clank and a rushing sound.

Then nothing.

He blinks. Walks to one of the windows, leans out, looks up. “I say, I say.” His voice is not at all humorous. “What do you get when you pour a bowl full of hot oil onto a brazier that some spineless goatbuggering arsehole has gone and put out?”

“Bloody shem. Stop whining. Torch.” I can’t breathe properly; I have to cough to clear my lungs. The pain is like a rusty saw. Tears to my eyes. “Downstairs there’s got to be a torch.” Breathing in hurts. “Ladder, there. You can take it up. Light it by. Hand. Go on.”

He looks at me a moment. “I’m not leaving you alone.”

I narrow my eyes. Stand up. When did I sit down? No matter. I stand up. I don’t even need to lean on anything. “‘Kay.”

“Not what I-” and suddenly the world isn’t pointing in the right direction – “crap!” He’s caught me, lowering me gently to the floor like I weighed nothing. His hands come away bloody. “Dammit. Look. Stay there, all right?” He stands up.

Don’t worry. I’m not going –

any-

*

The scout canters forward, the sweat-streaked flanks of his palfrey heaving, and Loghain guides his own mount to meet him. The teyrn’s voice is clipped. “Report.”

“Milord.” He clears his throat. “It’s all gone wrong, ser. The darkspawn are everywhere. Far more of ’em than we heard. I saw with my own eyes the gates fallen, and no signal on the tower.” Concerned muttering around the circle of the army’s commanders. “And the king, ser, the king.”

“What about my son-in-law, yeoman?” Loghain’s expression is at once clouded with deep concern.

“I saw him, ser, I saw him surrounded by them. On the battlements.” He blinks and looks down, clearly overcome. “And then he was a dead man, ser.”

“You mean, you saw him struck with an arrow?”

“No-no, ser.” He shakes his head. “But he was down nonetheless.”

The teyrn’s eyes darken and his brow furls. “You have excellent eyes, my good man. I charge you tell me. Who is the blackguard that struck down our king?”

The yeoman meets his liege-lord’s eyes. “I don’t know his name, ser. But I could pick him out of a crowd of a thousand. Swarthy, he was, Rivaini perhaps, shorter than you, ser, with a neat little salt-and-pepper beard?”

“I should have known,” Loghain growls to himself. “Duncan, you traitorous bastard, I’ll have you for that myself.” He sits up straighter in his saddle. “Well, signal or no, I’ll not wait an instant longer. There’s no way they can hold for long if the gates are down.” He raises his voice to a battlefield bawl. “Make ready!”

And a second scout bursts from the woods. Dried blood decorates a long shallow cut down the flank of his lathered mount. He’s panting as he rides up, and there’s dried blood down the side of his face. “My lord! My lord!”

Loghain wheels to look down at him. “Speak.” The man hesitates. “Quickly.”

“Ser, news from the pickets, milord.” He pants. “We’re attacked. Darkspawn. Overwhelmed. Don’t know numbers, ser, but it’s not a few.”

“Darkspawn?” Bann Veane scoffs. “There were no more within a week’s ride, yesterday.”

“You mean, in the same way the Grey Wardens were our allies, yesterday?” Loghain curls his lip. “I’ll trust no words of that pack of Orlesian stooges.” He sets his jaw, turning to his second-in-command and their subordinates. “But this changes nothing. Howe, you’ll have the left wing as we go in; much will depend on the speed and power of our initial assault. The infantry will -”

“Ser, we can’t.” Arl Howe’s voice is quick and urgent. “With the scouts reporting a second force to the south, we’re effectively pinned. If we move to support the King, we’re surrounded-”

“I’m not an idiot, Amaranthine.” Loghain looks out to the west, towards the tall beacon tower that’s the highest point for miles. “But what would you have me do? Our king-”

“Is dead, ser.” Howe leans forward, softly insistent. “Our duty is to the living, the four thousand lives we can save.”

The teyrn of Gwaren doesn’t answer for a moment, a muscle working in his jaw as he stares at the tower of Ostagar, at the pinnacle from which no flame yet rises, the very picture of a hard decision.

Then he shakes his head. “They will pay for this day, Howe.” He spits the words. “The chance to crush the Blight, and all they see is an opportunity to seize material power. I won’t stand for it, hear?”

“I’m right, ser.” Howe’s voice barely carries to the assembled officers, a hushed audience.

Loghain bares his teeth. “I know.” His voice is half a snarl. “May the Bride of the Maker forgive us.” One last look back to Ostagar. “Do it, Howe. I’ll take us north. Take your flank and see what can be saved of the supplies. We’ll regroup at Veyence.”

Their eyes meet, grieving, resolved, and Howe nods once. “It will be done, ser.”

The orders are relayed as the troops begin to move; Loghain and the heavy cavalry take the rearguard, alert for harassing pursuers. It will be a long march north.

And as they move out, a little lonely light flickers at the top of the southern tower of the fortress of Ostagar.

Clearly it must be on fire inside, or something. It’s well known to history that the Wardens failed to light the beacon.

*

The gate is long gone.

Three times since the darkspawn have taken the gateway, three times the wave has broken over the barricade that the Fereldans threw up in its place, and three times sharp bright steel has shown the darkspawn the difference between the king’s finest and Duncan’s Grey Wardens. The Wardens’ equipment is piecemeal and individual, the encompassing grey uniform tabard crucial to allow recognition between allies, as each man wears a different style of armour and carries a different weapon, a different size and style of shield. And they fight like men possessed – a blow with a simple footman’s mace lifting a human-sized darkspawn off its feet and hurling it four feet, a broadsword flickering out like a serpent’s tongue and taking the throat from a jeering spawn with a spear, the Wardens’ shieldwall holding fast where the solid oak of the gate had warped and twisted. And with them and behind them the king’s guard, their hearts buoyed by the presence of these warriors of legend, with pikes and halberds and long weapons to punish the lapping waves of the bestial foe for every time they dare to impact the shieldwall.

It’s a holding action. They can’t keep this up forever – blades chip and break, arms tire, shields break, men are wounded, and even Grey Wardens eventually tire – but they don’t need to. The beacon is lit. The cavalry are on the way. They are on their way. This is not forever. But oh, for one mage, one single solitary wizard to put a symbol of fear on the outer gate and raise a wall of stone on the inner one –

A devastating piledriver of a shock in the press of warriors, like a battering ram against a gate, and the shieldwall wavers. The creature that tries to push through is an ogre, a massive horned thing nine feet in height, scarred, pincushioned, but the arrows and bolts have merely enraged it. Every Warden knows how you fight these things – you dance with them, you wear them out, you give them the death of a thousand cuts – but they don’t exactly have that luxury here. It takes their coordinated efforts no time at all to bring the beast down, kneecapped, hamstrung, its throat slit, but by the time it falls – the wall of grey shields is parted in the middle.

Duncan sees the danger and there’s nobody left to send but himself. Discarding his bow, he leaps from the wall directly into the press, blades already coming free in a deadly silver arc, and he doesn’t slow down for an instant as he works to slay the things faster than they can come at him. Without a shield he can’t hold them back by main force – but by the Maker, he can make them regret trying it on.

And a creditably short time later, there’s the shock of friendly warriors surging forward to take the strain before he’s overwhelmed – the man who steps up beside him is tall and broad, the runes on his armour burnished bright, the great lion-hilted two-handed blade light in his hands. King Cailean shows his teeth as he demonstrates that here, at least, is a field of endeavour for which he has a true genius. And what a knight he’d have made! Of course, the enchantment on his plate puts him head and shoulders above anyone who must carry the weight of their case on their shoulders rather than on their purse, but his swordsmanship and his strength are honestly won, and the experienced Duncan adapts immediately to fighting at the side of a warrior who knows what he’s doing with a blade that’s taller than some men.

And yes – all right. If you must. It is the stuff of which legends are made. The King of Ferelden and his Warden Commander, shoulder to shoulder against the darkness, holding the breach with sheer valour and strength of arms to take the burden of the battle onto their own broad backs.

But every tale has an end. And without the reinforcements, without the hammer to bring down upon the slavering horde still falling over each other to throw themselves against the Fereldans, there was only ever one way that this one was going to play out.

And there is no bard to see the fall of noble Cailean, and it is not recorded how mighty Duncan avenged him, or where he met the end of his strength, or where lies his corpse.

*

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