16 Cloudreach, 9:31 Dragon, Vigil's Keep
Even before dawn, Alaric felt the presence of the darkspawn, like an itch that he couldn't locate and couldn't scratch. He rose, splashed some stale water on his face, and went to scratch at the flap of Alistair's tent. He found the uncrowned king similarly restless.
"Somewhere to the west," Alistair guessed, rubbing the back of his neck, "and moving fast."
"I wonder if Grey Wardens who've been in the Order longer than us get a better sense for where the darkspawn are?" Alaric mused.
"That's what I was always told. Duncan, and some of the others who had been in for many years, they seemed to be able to sense even a small band a long way off." Alistair shook his head, and turned to one of the officers standing on watch close by. "Captain Hawkwood. Rouse the men, see to it they get a hot meal before daybreak. I want to reach the Vigil by noon."
Sunrise saw the king's party thundering up the Pilgrim's Path.
Alistair had a conroi of twenty knights, along with about twice as many mounted men-at-arms, and Alaric and his companions. Leliana and Zevran turned out to ride as if born in the saddle, Wynne was surprisingly adept, and even Alaric had finally managed to acquire a little horsemanship. Finding a beast fit to carry the Sten had been a real challenge, and Oghren only managed to stay aboard his pony after he was half-drunk. Only Morrigan refused to ride, but then she could spend most of the day in falcon's form, soaring high above and providing aerial reconnaissance.
They encountered their first darkspawn an hour after daybreak, a group of four hurlocks chasing a terrified peasant. Under Alistair's command, the knights and men-at-arms formed a flying wedge that simply ran down the foe. Alistair took just long enough to acknowledge the crofter's thanks, and then they were moving once again.
Soon, they were seeing more and more of the foe. Their progress slowed, as they engaged in a series of sharp little engagements.
Alaric kept scanning the horizon to the southwest, the rolling hills and fertile river valleys of the arling of Amaranthine green in the spring. He began seeing more signs of the darkspawn, smoke rising here and there, never enough to suggest a big conflagration. The king's party also met more bands of peasants, fleeing down the road in the direction of Denerim.
Darkspawn! Thousands of them!
"I'm just not sensing that many," Alistair said after one such party had been sent on its way. He shook his head, puzzled. "This can't be the main horde, can it?"
"If the Archdemon were here, we wouldn't be in any doubt about it," said Alaric. "I imagine scared peasants count each darkspawn many times over."
A few minutes later they saw it, on the horizon up ahead: a far greater column of smoke rising into the sky. The road wavered back and forth as they rode, but it seemed ever to lead them toward the base of the pillar of fire.
"Captain Hawkwood!" Alistair shouted. "How far to Vigil's Keep?"
"No more than a league ahead, sire!" answered the captain.
"Double time!" commanded the king.
"Argh, m' poor biscuits," muttered Oghren.
The horses moved up to a fast trot, as they passed along one gentle curve in the road, then another. Then they scaled a low ridge-line, and at its height they saw the Hafter River valley open out below them. The massive pile of Vigil's Keep sat on its looming stone promontory, just this side of the river. Below the keep, right on the shore of the river, Alaric saw the small town of Vigil's Watch.
The town was burning. Even from a mile away, Alaric could see darkspawn moving in the streets like maggots in an open wound. He saw mercifully little sign of human victims. Perhaps they had gotten enough warning to evacuate into the castle.
"Two, three hundred of them," said Hawkwood after a professionally quick glance. "With ogres."
"Well," said Alistair, with a grim smile on his face. "Time to earn our princely wages."
To Alaric's surprise, most of the knights and soldiers within earshot broke out into laughter.
It seems our fresh-minted king has a way with the men. Who would have guessed?
"Form line!" Hawkwood's trumpet-like voice rang out at Alistair's nod of command. "At the ready, charge!"
Heavy cavalry does not charge at the full gallop the moment it sees the enemy. Horses are powerful animals, but not even the mightiest beast can carry a knight in full armor for over a mile at a dead run, not and be of any use in the fighting at the end. Instead, the cavalry line forms, moving at a trot that the horses could maintain for hours if need be. Then, at a shouted command, the line steps up to a canter. Then to a full gallop – but only in the last moments before impact. Just in time to develop the full earth-pounding momentum that makes a cataphract charge such a deadly instrument of war.
Of course, any infantry formation unlucky enough to be the target of such an attack has whole minutes to see what is bearing down on it, to hear the thunder of hoofbeats, to feel the earth itself begin to shake. A forest of lance-points and sword-edges gleams in the sunlight, ready to tear out men's lives and leave them so much bleeding refuse in its wake. Small wonder that many an infantry line will quail and run, rather than face such a calamity.
The darkspawn neither quailed nor ran. They turned and charged the onrushing line, undisciplined as always.
They paid the price.
Alaric made no attempt to ride in the front of the line. Alistair might have been trained as a knight, but none of the rest of his party could match that skill. The mage knew perfectly well that if he tried, he would likely fall off his horse at a critical moment. Instead he followed close behind the charge, waiting until its momentum had been spent and the knights were fully engaged with the darkspawn. Then he dismounted, and led the rest of his companions into the fray on foot.
Dozens of darkspawn had been destroyed in the first onset. Now the knights fought from horseback, towers of defense in the middle of the melee, swords slashing and stabbing from above. Alaric's people waded in, blade and arrow and spell, picking off any of the foe that the knights missed.
It was a true battle, bigger than any Alaric had ever before fought, bigger than Redcliffe or anything in the Deep Roads. Ostagar had doubtless been a much larger engagement, but he and Alistair had been far from the front lines there. Alaric very quickly discovered the chaos of battle, where no man could be certain of what was happening, only guess based on the ebb and flow of combat in his immediate vicinity. The Warden settled in to fight, and command his immediate companions as best he could, and stay alive.
I have to trust that Alistair knows what he's doing. Or at least that Hawkwood does.
The line advanced into the town, mowing down the darkspawn, taking surprisingly few casualties along the way. Even the ogres proved no more than a minor challenge. Alistair slew one, the Sten another. Oghren – almost pathetically happy to have his feet on the ground at last – took out a third with a burst of raw ferocity.
The enemy seemed scattered and disorganized, never massing for a charge. As if the mind that animated them was elsewhere. Even in the middle of the fight, Alaric already realized the truth.
The Archdemon isn't here. This is nothing but a distraction.
They knew they had won when they drove the last of the darkspawn out the far side of town, toward a thick forest that grew on the south slopes of the castle mount. Then there came the deep, bawling music of horns, and a flight of arrows began to cut down the last of the fleeing monsters. When the first squads of Dalish archers advanced out of the woods, Alaric tossed Spellweaver up in the air and caught it by the hilt with a shout of triumph.
Within an hour, the Dalish had occupied Vigil's Watch in force, and solid ranks of Redcliffe men began to appear on the south road. Off in the distance, Alaric could hear music, deep, strange, heart-stirring as it grew slowly louder. The sound of three thousand dwarves, singing a marching song in their own language.
The town secure, no more sign of the darkspawn in the country around, there was finally time to deal with the castle. Alaric took on the role of herald, riding up to just beyond arrow-shot, the royal banner of Ferelden in one hand.
"Vigil's Keep!" he called. "Open, in the name of the king!"
A woman stood forth on the battlements, leaning out between two of the merlons, peering down at Alaric. She was armed and armored, but wore no helmet, her chestnut hair bound up in braids that coiled at the back of her head. "Who in the Void are you, and what cause have you to march onto Howe lands without leave?"
Alaric stared at her, trying to match the image to the descriptions Captain Hawkwood had provided.
Esmerelle Stanton, he decided at last. The Bann of Amaranthine city, and one of Rendon Howe's loyal vassals. Where are Howe's sons?
"I am Alaric Kieran Amell," he shouted aloud. "Warden-Commander and Chancellor of Ferelden, and herald for his majesty, King Alistair Thierin, first of his name. By order of the Landsmeet, the Howe family has been attainted for treason, their holdings reverting to the crown. You are required to yield up this castle to royal authority at once."
That provoked consternation from up above, muttered argument among the men on the walls. Bann Esmerelle withdrew for a moment, then reappeared, looking out over the town and the road from the south.
Take a good look, Esmerelle. In an hour, you're going to have over seven thousand soldiers camped on your doorstep. Including some of the best archers and siege engineers in the world.
"None of the Howe family are here," the bann called at last, contempt in her voice. "In their absence, I cannot yield up this castle to any passing brigand who claims royal patronage. Especially from a king whose very name I have never heard before."
"Is that your final word?" Alaric called.
"It is. What do you plan to do about it?"
Alaric laughed, a flow of clean mirth that echoed off the stone walls of the keep. "Nothing at all, Bann Esmerelle! If you refuse to open your gates to a royal order, thus marking yourself as an outlaw and traitor, then this army will simply march away in the morning. When the Archdemon and the darkspawn horde arrive, to destroy this keep and the city of Amaranthine, there will be no one to defend you. I wish you joy of it."
With that, Alaric turned his horse and began to ride away. Slowly.
One. Two. Three . . .
Alaric turned, an expression of complete indifference on his face. "What is it, Bann Esmerelle?"
"Ferelden is finally fighting the Blight?"
"That is correct." Alaric turned his horse, and moved back to his original position. "Hear me, men of Amaranthine! Loghain Mac Tir is dead. Rendon Howe is dead. Ferelden is under the rule of a new king of the Theirin line, accepted by the assembled nobles of the realm. The Landsmeet has sworn fealty to him, and he has the support of the Grey Wardens. He is betrothed to our beloved Queen Anora, and the two of them lead us against the Blight. You can be part of that, or you can choose to cower behind your stone walls until the darkspawn overwhelm you. Choose swiftly, for King Alistair will waste no more time on you!"
More shouting from atop the walls, the sound of a furious debate. Bann Esmerelle did not seem to be having everything her own way. Or perhaps she was beginning to be convinced.
Alaric was not at all surprised when the gates began to open, a few moments later. He signaled with the banner, and a hundred soldiers, Redcliffe men and Dalish elves, moved quickly past him into the castle. Ready to politely, but firmly, take it away from the last remnants of Howe's control.
The rest of the day was full of activity, so full that Alaric could barely steal a moment to eat or to close his eyes in a quiet corner.
Alistair had to secure the Arling of Amaranthine, conscript Howe's troops into the army, and sort out which of Howe's vassals and retainers could be trusted. He had to see to quarters and provisions for the allies, and start preparations to integrate that force with the royal army as soon as it arrived. He had to read dispatches from the capital. None of which, it seemed, could get done without his captains and his valued Chancellor to assist.
It was almost a relief when a rider came pelting into the castle courtyard just before sunset, exhausted, his horse covered with foam and almost completely foundered. Alaric emerged from the castle at the clamor, to see who had arrived in such haste.
Riordan. He must have located the main body of the horde.
Alaric found all the leaders of the army in a conference room on the ground floor of the castle, waiting to the Grey Warden's report. Alistair, Eamon, Teagan, Irving, Greagoir, Mithra, and Kardol all clustered around a big table in the center, where a map of Ferelden had already been spread out.
"What news?" Eamon asked.
"Riordan is wolfing down a bowl of soup," Alaric told him. "He hasn't eaten in three days. I didn't want him to collapse in the middle of his report."
"Little chance of that," came Riordan's voice, as the Grey Warden entered the room. "Although I am grateful for a hot meal. It is a relief to see you unharmed, Warden-Commander. You as well, Alistair . . . or should I say, your majesty?"
"I'm still not used to that," Alistair admitted. "To you, I'm just Alistair."
"Just so. My brothers, my friends, I have terrible news. The darkspawn that attacked here were only a small part of the horde. The Archdemon is marching upon Denerim."
"Maker's breath!" Teagan turned to the map table. "Show us."
"I rode south and west of the city, past Dragon's Peak, seeking the main body of the horde." Riordan pointed to a spot on the map, then placed a black dragon-marker a short distance away. "Three days ago, I found the Archdemon itself, here, moving slowly toward me. I shadowed the horde for several hours before turning to ride away. There can be no doubt."
"How quickly can the darkspawn reach Denerim?" Eamon demanded.
"Four days, perhaps five if we are fortunate." Riordan looked up from the map. "I took a risk, and rode as fast as I could to Denerim before I sought you out. I ran two horses almost to death along the way, but Queen Anora has been warned. When I left the city, she was engaged in evacuating the populace by land and by sea, leaving behind only a small force to hold the walls as long as possible."
Alaric stared at the map, measuring distances in his mind. He glanced up at the others who had more military experience, and saw the same grim truth written in their faces. "Alistair, I don't see how we can possibly get back to Denerim with the army in time."
"A forced march . . ." Alistair ventured.
"That would be unwise, Sire." Greagoir frowned at the map. "The allies have already marched a very long distance, and we need to reprovision before we move on. When we rendezvous with the main royal army, it will take time to integrate the two forces. It might be possible to return to Denerim before the horde attacks – just before – but then the army would be nowhere near its full strength."
"Exhausted, hungry men are helpless men," agreed Eamon.
Alistair and Alaric exchanged a glance, and then the king nodded slowly. "Nothing to be done about it, then. There's no way to save Denerim."
"This might actually be a stroke of luck," Alaric said, still watching the map, as if hoping to find a new solution there.
"I don't see how."
"It will take time for the darkspawn to storm the walls. More time for them to capture and destroy the city. Even the main horde will not be able to do these things quickly." Alaric looked up at the king. "That's time in which the Archdemon is not doing something else. Not searching for us, not moving the horde somewhere so that we must find it again. It will still be there, in Denerim, when we arrive with a combined and battle-ready force."
"You're saying this is our best chance," said Alistair quietly.
"Alistair, it may be our only chance." Alaric sighed. "We're on our own. No help from the rest of Thedas. We have to win on our first attempt, because win or lose, there's nothing in reserve."
The king nodded, obviously setting aside his reluctance. "Then that's how it will be," he said, and it had the strength of a command. "We go back to Denerim, as quickly as we can without sacrificing readiness at the end of the march. We attack the horde . . . and that's when we Grey Wardens do our best to reach the Archdemon."
One by one, the rest of them agreed.
"Then let's get it done," said Alistair. Teagan immediately saluted and left the room. Most of the others followed, off to prepare their respective contingents for the march. Only Eamon remained behind, studying the map and shaking his shaggy head.
Riordan cleared his throat. "Your majesty. Warden-Commander. If we are determined upon this course, there is something we must discuss."
Eamon glanced up, the ghost of a smile on his lips. "Something only for Grey Wardens, by the sound of it."
Riordan made a polite little bow. "That is so, my lord arl."
"All right. Your majesty, Ser Alaric, I will go and help make sure we are ready to march at daybreak. I suggest the three of you get some rest while you can. We're all going to need it." Eamon left the room, closing the door behind him, leaving the Grey Wardens alone.
Alaric sat down in a chair, picking up one of the unused map markers and toying with it in his fingers. "You're being very mysterious, Riordan."
"I apologize, Warden-Commander. I assumed you had already been informed, else I would have told you this before we all departed from Denerim."
"More Warden secrets that Duncan never got around to telling us, I'm guessing." Alistair leaned against a nearby wall and folded his arms. "All right, Riordan, tear off the bandage and be done with it."
"Tell me, have you ever wondered why the Grey Wardens are needed to defeat the darkspawn?"
"The histories I've studied suggest that only a Grey Warden can deliver the Archdemon its death-blow," said Alaric. "We know which Grey Wardens ended the Second, Third, and Fourth Blights, by slaying the Archdemon in each case. Until that was done, the Archdemon might be defeated, but it always returned."
"That is correct. What the histories do not say, because it is a mystery of our Order, is what happens to the Grey Warden, and why." Riordan took a deep breath. "When the Archdemon is slain, the essence of the beast, its soul, passes through the taint to the nearest darkspawn. It is reborn anew in that body, and before long it takes its accustomed shape once more. Thus, the Archdemon is all but immortal."
Alaric nodded, feeling a sudden hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach.
I think I see where this is going.
"But if the Archdemon is slain by a Grey Warden," Riordan continued, "the essence passes to that Grey Warden, instead."
"That doesn't sound very healthy," Alistair muttered.
Riordan shook his head, compassion on his face. "It is not. A darkspawn is an empty, soulless vessel. It can accept the Archdemon's essence without harm. A Grey Warden cannot. The Archdemon's soul is destroyed . . . and so is that of the Grey Warden."
"Meaning, the Grey Warden who kills the Archdemon dies."
"Thus, ending the Blight. Yes. It is the only way."
"Then the answer is obvious," said Alaric firmly. "I will take the final blow."
"What?" Alistair stepped out of his relaxed posture, standing in the middle of the room, bristling with outrage. "You can't be serious!"
Riordan smiled. "It warms my heart to see such courage, brothers, but do not hurry so to sacrifice your lives. If possible, the final blow should be mine to take. I am the eldest, and the taint will not spare my life for much longer in any case. But if I fail, the deed must fall to one of you."
"If it comes to that, I am willing to take the blow," said Alistair.
Alaric shook his head. "That must be the last resort, Alistair, and you know it. Ferelden needs you."
"Not that much." Alistair shook his head ruefully. "I know, I spent so long not wanting to be king, and now that I do, I might have to give it up. But what would be the point of being king if I didn't do my duty for my country?"
"What about Anora?"
"Low blow, brother. You know as well as I do that Anora will be fine, even if I die in battle. Besides, for all we know she's already carrying my heir."
Alaric did a double-take. "You mean . . ."
"She insisted," said Alistair, suddenly looking both pleased and very uncomfortable. "Besides, a betrothal is as good as a marriage for the legitimacy of an heir. As she explained to me. At length."
Alaric laughed, all the tension suddenly flowing out of him, leaving behind nothing but a kind of serenity. "All right, Alistair, you win. You get to heroically give up your life for your country. But only if Riordan and I both fail, and I for one intend to have that Archdemon's head."
Slowly, Alistair grinned.
"Good," said Riordan. "The two of you may be young in the Order, but no one deserves your places in it more. Never doubt that. I am deeply proud to have known you both."
"I guess this is it, then," said Alistair. "We had better get some rest. I'll see you both once the army is ready to march. I guess this all ends soon, one way or another."
"That it does, brother. That it does."
After Alistair and Riordan left, Alaric sat alone in the room for a long time, staring at the map table. After a while, he thought to look at the map marker that he had almost forgotten in his hand. It turned out to be the small figure of a mage, carved out of some blue stone, wearing enchanter's robes and holding a staff.
Here I am, he thought. At the end of the adventure, it seems. Not much hope that I'll survive the last battle, and live or die, nothing will ever be the same.
So be it. I have done the best I knew how to do. I doubt any man in Ferelden could have done more. I will not fear to meet the Maker.
Slowly, he rose from his chair. He carefully set the little mage in the middle of the map, commanding all of Ferelden from its central position. Then he gave the figure a jaunty salute, and went in search of the room that had been set aside for him.
Where he found someone waiting, standing alone by the fire in the hearth, her back to the door.
"Do not be alarmed," said Morrigan. "'Tis only I."