AN: Okay, so for starters, this story is *completed* I should be updating weekly, probably on Fridays. But all the story is written out; no chance of abandonment. Secondly, Niamh is pronounced "ni-ev." It's Irish. I'm sorry.

Chapter One

Battle of Ostagar

Carver sat just outside the orange and gold command tent, listening to the heated argument within as he pretended to cook his food. He'd mainly been catching a word or two at a time, and what little he heard dismayed him greatly; he had an urge to yell at the whole camp to please shut their faces so he could hear the rest. Between the noise of sparring, weapon repair, and too many soldiers without anything to do, the cacophony nearly drowned out anything else.

"You cannot ask it of me, Cailan. I refuse!" That raised voice was Teyrn Loghain, commander of all the forces that weren't Wardens. But what—

"And I tell you it must be, Loghain. The battle is unwinnable. You say so yourself. I've already arranged for my things to fall into Warden hands. Other than that …." The king trailed off.

Unwinnable? How could that be right? And if that were so, why was Loghain not spiriting the king away, to keep him safe? Carver's stomach twisted. Something had gone terribly wrong here.

Loghain's voice dropped so that Carver had to strain to hear it. "But with you at the forefront? How does that help anyone? You cannot—"

"Carver!"

Oh, not now, Miranda.

"Carver," she called again, striding through the camp. Soldiers parted to let her by as she used her inimitable Miranda Hawke swagger, the light glinting off her twin daggers as her hips rolled.

He wondered briefly if he could hide on the other side of the command tent, and still hear the rest of the argument. Too late, she's spotted me. Seeing him, Miranda made straight for him, blue eyes dark and stormy.

"Carver, I must speak with you now."

Carver glowered. Whatever condescending advice his older sister had come to impart, he didn't need it. "Why don't we wait? One of us might not survive the coming battle, and then we won't have to have this conversation at all."

She merely waited, one hip cocked to the side, her gaze solid and unflinching.

"All right," he griped, getting up before her glare could make him squirm. He left the fire and his cold food; he wasn't hungry anyway. Perhaps some dog would wander by and steal it; they were supposed to be penned, but it seemed as though hundreds of the things roamed free, not just through the Warden camp, but through the army camp, as well.

Apparently, his ruminations slowed him too much for Miranda's purpose, as she snagged his arm to move him along faster.

He swallowed his anger at still being dragged away by the arm like a wayward child and he pulled away, but stomped after her as she led him some distance from the tents. She kept moving toward the edge of camp, dark trees beyond them looming like sinister sentinels. Carver tried to remember to keep his temper with her. It did him no credit, he knew; and more than one person had suggested that he went looking for things to be angry about, rather than stumbling upon real aggravations. He'd show them. He'd be patient and bear things solidly, and there would still be plenty of reasons to be angry.

"We're far enough," Carver snapped. She had led them about as far as one could go while still being in the camp, stopping by the pens of those damn dogs. They yapped, throwing themselves against the wooden barriers in some kind of exultant fury. Why in Andraste's name would anyone willingly keep these things?

"Look around, Carver. What do you see?" Miranda watched him, seemingly willing him to understand something.

He hated these games she played, always pretending at teaching him something, rather than speaking her mind. "It's an army camp. Right next to us—" He paused grinding his teeth. "Right next to us is the mabari pen, which apparently, no self-respecting noble or warrior can do without." As if summoned, another of the damn beasts wandered by outside the pen, sending the ones inside into a desperate frenzy.

Miranda crossed her arms, still watching him. "Well? What else?" she asked, her tone clipped and terse.

Sighing, Carver actually looked around this time, making some token effort. He saw soldiers preparing for the coming battle. Some tended armor and weapons, ensuring that their gear would be ready. Others sparred, with magic or weapons or both. Others still made food, ate, or milled about aimlessly. Some of those last kept glancing at the command tent where Cailan conferred with Teyrn Loghain, a conversation on which Carver had so recently been eavesdropping. They'd look away, shift, turn, and end up facing that same command tent again.

More unnerving, a large contingent of the soldiers, both regular army and Wardens, were praying. Alone or in groups or led by a Chantry sister. A good deal of praying. A lot more, in fact, than there should be before an average battle.

"They're scared," he said finally, unable to deny it.

His sister nodded, favoring him with a small smile. "Do you know why? Have you been listening to the gossip?"

"Miranda, please! You know I don't listen to idle gossip." Carver rolled his eyes, hoping she wouldn't ask about listening at tent flaps. Not looking at her, he heard her disappointed sigh—for maybe the thousandth time in his life—and his muscles tensed. He found himself wanting to hit her. This conversation had already worn his patience thin enough to fray.

Calm yourself, Carver. Goading Miranda into thrashing you in front of the entire army helps nothing.

Miranda's smile had faded, fleeting approval gone already. "You ought to," she told him. "If you did, you'd know what the scouts' reports said. Like everyone else does." She glanced to the nervous, unsettled mess of men and women, and Carver followed her gaze, a heavy pit settling into his stomach.

"What did they say?" he asked, forcing the words through numb lips. He knew the result, even if he didn't know the exact reports. The result was Cailan in his tent, telling Loghain they couldn't win. Telling him that, and then asking … something the Teryn was unwilling to do.

"Everything, as usual." Miranda shrugged. "But picking through the wild tales and obviously made-up stories for the kernels of truth inside …. The darkspawn aboveground outnumber us by at least ten to one. The archdemon—"

"Wait, above ground? What do you—"

Miranda continued, not pausing for his interruption. "The archdemon isn't with them. Talk is, he's still underground. The tower—" She pointed without looking, her eyes focused hard on him "—has not yet been secured, and word is there's darkspawn in tunnels underneath. If he even shows, I've gathered it's vital we have a Grey Warden to kill it, but if we're surrounded by darkspawn and it doesn't show, we won't have a Warden left. We don't have thousands. We don't even have hundreds." Her eyes blazed, and she trembled lightly. "What does all this add up to, to you?"

Carver's shoulders dropped. "You're saying we can't win." The words dropped from him hollowly, landing in the mud in front of them. Ten to one above, and more coming in from the tower inside their own camp. Every Warden in Ferelden plus the king. And if the darkspawn were close enough, there wasn't even time to retreat.

"There you go, little brother." She threw an arm over shoulder, pulling him close; the pretense at affection was worse than the patronizing tone. "Now, come on. We can't do any good dying here. We're going to go to Mother and Bethany and we're going to get our own to safety. Mother still has people in Kirkwall." She took two steps, and Carver followed in automatic obedience a moment before he balked, unwilling to go further.

"No." He threw her arm off him roughly; she half-stumbled and the look of disbelief on her face would sustain him for years, he knew … if he lived that long.

"What do you mean, no? You have a responsibility to your family—"

"No!" She had grabbed him again, fingers digging into his arm, and he wrenched away from her. "I also have a responsibility to my king, as you seem to have forgotten. If you want to run back home, I won't stop you, but I'm staying to do my duty."

"Carver …." For once, Miranda seemed to have no idea what to say. She looked away, speaking to him, but facing out into the Korcari Wilds, where the darkspawn would soon emerge and overwhelm them all.

"Carver, anyone who stays …." She trailed off, as if realizing it did no good; his mind was made up.

"Give my love to Bethany and Mother," Carver said, his tone softening a little. "I'll … I'll be after you soon."

"I … I will, Carver. We'll likely leave Lothering right away."

Carver nodded, and Miranda turned to go. She stopped, however, and turned back to fling herself into him. Her arms clutched tight around his neck, and Carver realized—for the first time, somehow—that she was shorter than he; she'd always seemed so much bigger.

Reluctantly, he returned the embrace, unsure of quite how to do it.

"Vivat Hawke, little brother." Miranda pulled back, and Carver noticed, with a sickening shock, that her eyes looked wet. He'd never seen her cry, and he didn't think he could handle it now; he studied the ground in front of him.

"Vivat Hawke. I'll be with you again soon, sister." He forced the words out past a lump in his throat; surprised and dismayed to find himself nearly in tears, as well. Then she turned her back walked away, threading through the soldiers who should be bustling, but instead shuffled about as if in a foggy dream.

A moment later, she was gone, a deserter even if she hadn't quite left the camp yet, and Carver realized he was alone, another first in his life. No more older sister telling him what he should do, no Bethany prompting him him to curb his "surliness," as she put it. No mother managing to look mildly disappointed, yet unsurprised, at every word or deed of his.

Just Carver Hawke, and he had just made the first independent decision of his life. He was going to remain with the army, do his duty, and almost certainly die for it.

Carver's chest tightened. He gasped for breath, but it wouldn't come. He had a sudden urge to fling away his greatsword, strip off his clothes, and lie down so he could breathe. Their numbers, which had sounded so inadequate when Miranda explained it, now felt overwhelming. The press of so much flesh, the smells and sounds of so many people, closed in on him. If he didn't get out, away for a moment, he wouldn't survive for the darkspawn to kill him.

Pushing toward the gate that led into the Korcari Wilds, Carver felt as though he were swimming upstream. With broken fins, and genlocks and hurlocks with poison weapons trying to stop him, rather than simple bears.

"Oy, ser?"

Carver kept moving, hardly hearing. He had to get to the gate, the gate, the gate. It was just on the other side of the pen, but the pen seemed to stretch out endlessly, leagues and leagues of dogs throwing themselves at the wooden fence. The hounds' baying echoed hollowly, bouncing back at him from all directions. His heart thumped loud and strong, sending pulses of blackness across his vision. In a moment, he'd pass out, and the way his lungs clenched now, he'd die unnoticed and unremarked, worthless and aimless and ending up a corpse that would only waste the time of some real warrior who'd have to move him.

"Ser!" Someone plucked at his sleeve, barely holding him, but Carver found himself strengthless, unable to pull away.

"Are you going into the wilds, ser? Only I have a sick hound here, and the Wardens were too busy."

"What?" The words reached him, but they were fuzzy, muted by the roaring of the blood in his ears. He couldn't make hide nor hair of it.

"The dog, ser! Darkspawn tainted, she is, but I could help her. Only I need a flower from the wilds. White flower, with a red eye. If you were headed that way—"

"All right, fine, yes." Carver jerked away, still feeling weak and mewling, but now having a use. He could get away from this horrifyingly crowded camp, find the flower, and save one blasted mabari. For the next day or so, until the darkspawn killed it, along with everyone else. White flower, red eye. White flower, red eye.

He headed out the gate, nodding at the guard, and stepped into air that suddenly felt fresh and open. He breathed deep, the painful tightness in his chest finally abating. He took a few more deep breaths just because he could, and set out walking.

He was unsure now why he'd been having such a problem back in the camp; the air couldn't be that different on two sides of a wooden gate. He'd never experienced anything like that before.

Oh, well. At least it's me staying here to die, and not Miranda. She'll take care of the family, and I can either get run through by a hurlock or suffocate on camp air, and it won't make a difference to anyone.

Satisfied on that issue at least, Carver headed out into the wilds, his eyes sliding over the landscape in search of his only purpose right now, a white flower with a red eye. To delay a dog's death by as much as a single day.

It only took him half an hour to find the blossom the mabari-keeper wanted. Carver grabbed it, placing it carefully into his pack; he didn't want to get back to find out it wouldn't work if pre-crushed. He eyed the path with mistrust. He knew he had to go back. He'd already decided he wasn't leaving, so he could do nothing but return, now. Go back to camp, save the dog, and die when the darkspawn hit. He drew a deep sigh, shoulders slumped. Then he paused. Did he hear something?

Turning back toward the wilds, he saw a group at some distance. Not darkspawn; people. They walked spread out, unconcerned, not paying much attention to their surroundings. He was able to make them out as they grew closer. Out front, a woman dressed like the wild folk who lived in the area. Behind her, several men that were either knights or soldiers. And behind them … she looked up, grinning when she saw him. Long, delicately tapered ears poked through shoulder-length red hair. Markings on her cheeks and forehead gave her away as one of the Dalish; although, being a full head shorter than anyone else marked her even more clearly. She skipped ahead of the group, fleet and nimble and coming straight toward him.

She skidded to a halt in front of him. "Hello," she said.

"Carver, I'm Carver," he told her. He stuck his hand out, but she only looked at it curiously, tilting her head up at him.

Then realization hit her. "Oh! It's a handclasp greeting. I know about those." She reached out, grasping his arm firmly. She still held him when the others arrived.

"Well, there we are, then," the dark-haired woman said. A staff slung across her back identified her as a witch. "Your camp lies ahead. I trust you can find it from here."

"That's Morrigan," the elf said. "I'm Niamh. This is Alistair. The others—"

"Are completely unimportant in the long run," Morrigan interrupted. "The rest of you have business to which you must attend. I suggest you see to it. I have preparations to make, as well."

With that, the witch left; Carver hardly noticed, still stuck on the red-haired nymph. Niamh, she'd said. Neee-ev, he thought, rolling the sounds around in his mind.

"Are you another Warden recruit, then? Lucky we brought extra … ah, supplies." The man she'd called Alistair smiled at him, friendly. The other two looked surly and uncomfortable; perhaps they didn't like being dismissed as unimportant.

"You're headed back to camp?" Carver could go with them, perhaps. Find out why the Dalish girl was here, in the company of such soldiers.

"Yes, let's go," Niamh said. She tripped ahead, bouncing from fallen log to rock, a playful imp gamboling through the swamps. Carver found himself smiling without knowing quite why.

They separated at camp, Niamh explaining that they had some sort of ritual to attend. Carver left them, wondering at his plodding feet. He gave the flower to the mabari-keeper without comment, and by now it was late enough to retire to his tent. Niamh had promised they would have a party after they won the battle. She'd be on the warden side, but they would meet, she had assured him.

§

Horns sounded before dawn, bringing the entire camp awake and out of bed. Carver swore, throwing his armor on. He was with Loghain's forces, and they needed to be away from the fort, waiting for the signal before coming in and crushing the darkspawn forces in a pincer maneuver. His spirits had risen from yesterday; all these warriors in armor, surely they weren't so bad off as Miranda had said. Besides, there were multiple new wardens being added. Anything that swelled their limited numbers could only be to the good.

When the order came, Carver marched with the others. Then he waited with the others. He'd listened to the gossip today, and apparently Niamh and Alistair would be climbing the tower to send the signal. The moment it was given, Loghain and the other half of the forces would annihilate the darkspawn forces. Maybe the archdemon would show, and they could end this whole Blight today.

Distantly, the sounds of battle began, carrying over the hill to where Teyrn Loghain's armies waited, blind. Carver kept his eyes on the tower. Come on, Niamh. He remembered Miranda's dark words about darkspawn under the tower; he hoped they hadn't—there!

The signal flare rose, a crimson streak across the sky. Metal murmured as every soldier shifted his position, ready to go do their part of the battle finally.

"Sound the retreat," Loghain ordered.

What? Carver gaped in disbelief. That could not be what he had truly heard; half their forces, with the entirety of Ferelden's Grey Warden force as well as the king himself were down there, about to be killed. You couldn't win with only half a pincer.

Loghain's second-in-command must have had the same idea, as she stood arguing with them.

"Sound. The retreat," Loghain said again, loud enough to carry quite a distance down the line. Horns called the sad, disjointed notes that meant they were commanded to leave the field, and soldiers began to move away.

"Wait," Carver said, rooted to his position. "Wait, we can't leave them." A few soldiers glanced his way; more simply kept walking, a few bumping into him, hard, when he refused to move. Carver fought his way out of the line, unable to credit that so many would abandon everything at such a critical moment.

What would Miranda do? Carver didn't know. But he had to do something. "Soldiers of Ferelden!" One or two looked his way, pausing in their retreat march. "I have made an oath to defend my king! You have all done the same. I, for one, do not intend to abandon them when they need us. I, for one, will fight!"

Resounding silence greeted him. Well, speeches are clearly not something I can do. But, after a moment, a soldier stepped out of line; then a second, and a third. "With me, with me," Carver called, drawing his sword and running, towards the battle, intent on saving king, and country, and wardens. Perhaps the whole world, if this were a true Blight.

Halfway to the battle, before they could see more than glints of striking metal through the trees, a roar sounded, and through a break in the trees, Carver spotted an ogre at some distance, waving around what looked like a rag doll in—

Oh, no. The golden armor was unmistakeable. Their king struggled in the clutches of an ogre.

We must save him! Carver pushed himself to sprint faster, but before he'd closed the distance, an echoing howl sent a shudder through his men, and a half dozen shrieks descended upon them. Carver saw the man beside him taken down in a gout of blood, then something hit his back, taking him to the ground. Metal screeched as the thing rent his armor, leaving deep gashes that sank into the flesh beneath. He rolled, trying to force it off him, but the shriek had him pinned, straddling him. Black blooms exploding across his vision obscured everything, and when it lunged for his face, he barely got his left arm up in time to stop it. It seized the arm instead, and the last thing he felt was the thing's fangs ripping through his gauntlet and forearm, the bone crunching within its powerful jaws.

Well done, hero. We couldn't have done it without you.