It took four days to reach the bronze cliffs of Redcliffe; much longer than I'd liked. But we'd been forced to detour as Darkspawn patrols had come after us. One group had even attacked in the middle of the night. Had Alastair and I not felt something amiss, we could well have ended up as corpses. The beasts were starting to sense us more easily, their numbers strengthening, and that chilled me. Was I taking too slow a course, causing needless delay? Was I endangering Ferelden with such inefficiency?
I closed my eyes. No; it was not my fault a Mage had grown too power-hungry, nor that the Dwarves were too preoccupied to appoint their own King. I could only push through one step at a time. There was no place for guilt.
So why then these constant feelings of inadequacy?
"Elissa, can we talk for a moment?"
Alastair touched my shoulder, and it took all my willpower not to jump. I hadn't heard him approach. The others were still a little way behind, so I looked at him and nodded. It would do good to quell my errant worries.
"Of course," I said. "What is it?"
Alastair swallowed and glanced at his feet.
"There's…um, well there's something I need to tell you, before we see the Arl," he mumbled. "I, uh, well, I probably should've told you this sooner."
I raised a brow. He was being unusually evasive.
"You already told me that he raised you," I said.
"That's not all there is." Alastair took a breath, collecting his thoughts. "There was another reason the Arl took me in. I told you about my mother, but the thing is, my father…"
He was interrupted by loud footfalls, followed by a large belch.
"Ancestors, this place is too close to the sky!" Oghren grumbled, covering a hand with his eyes. "Can't believe this is the kind of dump you human nobles are so proud of." His eyes wandered to a building half-buried in the rocks. "Least there's a tavern…"
"The fortifications seem suited for the landscape," Sten said, studying the buildings.
"Too quiet for my tastes," Zevran butted in. "Where is the bustle, the chatter, the life?"
I flashed Alastair an apologetic look. We'd have to continue our conversation later.
"We'd best take a look," I said. "Come on."
I took the lead, heading onto the main bridge. A young man was standing there, keeping watch. He was armed with a bow, but was clearly no soldier. The paths were near-silent, and my heart tensed. Something wasn't right.
"You there, travellers!" he called. "You should not come this way, unless you've come to help us?"
I exchanged a glance with Alastair.
"What do you mean?"
The man stared at us.
"You mean, you don't know?"
"No, we don't," I said, my unease rising. "We just know the Arl is sick, and wish to see him."
"He could be already dead for all we know!" the man exclaimed. Alastair's eyes widened. "Look, let me explain…"
By now the others had caught up, so we listened to his tale. He was barely able to keep the tremor from his voice.
"We've been attacked by malevolent creatures," he said, "and every night they push us further back. We have no way to defend ourselves, as most of our soldiers are searching for the Urn of Sacred Ashes, and we can't reach the castle!" He held his temples. "We don't even know what's going on…"
My fist clenched so hard I was sure my nails would leave marks. Maker's breath, why must there always be something else? We did not have time for this nonsense!
Leliana nudged me, and I took a breath. Now was not the time to reveal my frustrations. I'd have plenty time to blow them out later.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "What can we do?"
"You'll help us?" The young man's eyes lit up. "Then let me take you to Bann Teagan. He'll want to see you."
"The Arl's brother?" Alastair blinked. He still seemed in shock.
"Told you the elves would've been a wiser choice," Morrigan muttered.
"Alright, let's see what he has to say," I said.
We followed the young man down the steep path to the Chantry. The way overlooked the entire village, and I could appreciate Zevran's earlier point. The houses were deserted, the lakeside silent, and all that stood in the square were a handful of archers. Redcliffe might not have been as large as Highever, but this degree of quiet was too much. Everything seemed so dead.
"I don't like this," Leliana murmured, glancing around.
"Me neither," I added. "Maker knows what we must face this time."
One glimpse inside the Chantry told much of the story. Amidst the Chantry priests huddled frightened children, anxious mothers and frail old men. The pews had been moved aside to create more room, and Andraste's Flame scented the air with wispy smoke. A few villagers cast their sight on us, but quickly turned away. Their eyes held no hope.
The young archer led us to a tall man with brown hair, who bore a sword and shield. His bearded face was creased with worry.
"Bann Teagan, we have visitors," the young man announced.
The Bann turned to us, his expression weary.
"Is this necessary?" he asked. "Forgive me, travellers, but our village is in crisis right now. I don't mean to be unkind, but if you were hoping for quiet lodgings, might I suggest you look elsewhere."
Alastair frowned, stepping forward.
"Bann Teagan, do you remember me?" he asked.
The Bann stared for a moment. His eyes widened.
"By the Maker, is that you, Alastair?"
"It's been a long time," he greeted sagely. "Although last we met I was covered in mud."
The Bann managed a smile.
"I do indeed recall," he said, "although it seems a lot has changed. Are you a Templar now?"
"No sir," Alastair said. "I am a Grey Warden, as is my companion Elissa here. We've come seeking Arl Eamon's help against the Blight, and against Loghain."
The Bann grimaced.
"Yes, I understand the gravity of the situation, no thanks to Loghain trying to start a civil war as the Blight ravages Ferelden," he sighed. "But sadly we have our own problems. I trust Tomas has informed you of the night attacks we've suffered?"
"Yes," I said, taking charge. "It seems mysterious dark creatures come from the castle and assault the village."
"That is correct," Bann Teagan said. "Tonight again we prepare to face them, but we are not hopeful. So many lives have already been lost, and I have too few skilled swords to hand." He bowed his head. "Warden, I know the Blight weighs heavy on your shoulders, but as things stand I am in desperate need. I cannot promise much in the stead of my unwell brother, but if you can help us, I will do everything in my power to aid you."
I hesitated. I was not keen for another wild goose-chase. A quick glance to Alastair and Leliana, however, brought shame to such thoughts. If I could not help an ally in time of need, what right did I have to call upon them myself?
"Of course," I said, hoping my pause was not too obvious. "Even if we were not seeking the Arl, I would offer my assistance."
"Thank you," the Bann said, managing a small smile. Alastair smiled as well, while Morrigan bristled and muttered under her breath. It was probably just as well I didn't catch it.
"What would you have us do?" I asked.
"Please speak with my soldiers outside and help them get ready," Bann Teagan said. "Once you've completed preparations, return to me, and we will plan our defence."
I nodded. "As you say."
We bade the Bann farewell and left the Chantry. Once we returned to the open, Morrigan hissed.
"You must be mad, Warden," she grumbled. "Do we really have time to fight legions of the undead while the Darkspawn ravage more and more of the land?"
"We need the Arl's help," I said, my tone firm. "In case you've forgotten, Loghain has the sway of the kingdom, and even with the Dwarves, the Mages and possibly the Elves, it will not be enough to stand against the Blight. We have to win over the remaining nobles if we want to stand a chance."
"And every moment we dawdle we let the Darkspawn numbers grow," Morrigan challenged. "Soon even the whole of Ferelden will not be enough, and then what?"
I halted and spun around.
"Don't try my patience, Morrigan," I said coldly. "I have made my decision and will stand by it. If you wish to continue complaining, I suggest you seek company elsewhere."
Morrigan blinked, taken aback. Her expression soon returned to normal, but for a moment I wondered if I caught the hint of a smirk.
"…good." She tossed her hair back and slunk towards the archers.
I let out a breath. I was used to Morrigan's occasional questioning, but this had been something else. Why her sudden challenge? I must have revealed my uncertainty too much.
"Never mind her," Wynne said, picking up on my demeanour. "It is right we help these people as best we can."
"Yes. I owe the Arl so much," Alastair added. "I'll do whatever it takes to see him back in good health."
"Right," I said, pushing my hesitations aside. "We'd best speak with the soldiers, then."
The sun was sitting below the lake by the time I returned to the Chantry. Through a bit of exploring and negotiation, I'd managed to conjure up a defence plan with the soldiers, although in honesty I wasn't very hopeful. If the creatures were as relentless as had been described, we would be in for a long night. Still, our presence had reignited a spark in the villagers, and I prayed it would be enough to see us through.
"There you are," Leliana greeted, waving. Alastair, Morrigan and Wynne were with her, along with Duke, my mabari hound. "Is everything ready?"
"As much as it can be," I said. "Sten, Zevran and Oghren are moving the oil barrels as we speak, and it looks like Owen has finished his repairs, too."
"So now we wait for the fireworks," Alastair murmured.
"Indeed," I said. "Morrigan, you and Duke stay here and protect the Chantry. The others will join you when they've finished moving the barrels."
Morrigan cast a dry look to my hound, but she shrugged and took her position. The rest of us walked up the hill. All the while Alastair's eyes were intent on the castle walls. I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. This place had been his childhood home.
Bann Teagan was waiting at the top of the path, joined by a few archers.
"Greetings, Warden," he said. "My men tell me all is ready. I cannot thank you enough."
"The battle is yet to come," I warned. "You can sing our praises once…"
I was cut off by a shout from the barricade. I looked towards the castle. A dark mist had started to appear above the battlements, and a shiver ran down my spine. They were coming.
"Take position," I said, drawing my swords. "Leliana, Wynne, focus on ranged attacks. Alastair, follow my lead. Do not let the creatures get past the barricade."
"Understood." Alastair drew his sword, his shield braced in his other hand. "Maker watch over us." Leliana's bow creaked, and Wynne raised her staff. Bann Teagan called to the rest of his men and joined my side, his jaw set.
A brief silence followed, and then the most awful shriek reached my ears. It made the screams of the abominations seem like birdsong. Next came the rattle of bones and armour, and finally I saw the first one: a haggard corpse of melted flesh, its eye sockets gaping behind a rusted helmet. It rushed down the hillside, sword raised, and let out another howl.
Yelling, I charged ahead. My dagger ran through the sinews of its neck, and it collapsed to the ground, lifeless. Sadly, there were many more to make up for it. The soldiers cried out, rushing forwards, and soon the world was a mess of cackling corpses and hacking blades. The mist thickened, but my swords swung true, running through corpse after corpse. Still they kept coming, and sweat pooled down my back. How many of these things were there?!
Finally the rush calmed, and a soldier yelled victory. I leant on my knees, catching my breath. My blades were plastered with blackened blood. By the Maker, that was…
"Another wave!" cried Alastair, plunging into the mist beside me. I snapped my head up, swords readied. The howling returned, but it was getting harder to see where it was coming from.
I dived, hitting the ground as an arrow of flame sailed overhead and sank into the chest of the walking corpse ahead. It staggered, and I swept my leg, knocking it to the ground. My blade found its home in its throat, and it stopped writhing. Grimacing, I removed my sword and made to venture into the mist. Their numbers seemed to be slowing. If we could drive them back…
I glanced over my shoulder. A soldier was running up the path, his eyes wild with terror.
"They're coming from the lake and heading for the Chantry!" he cried. "Please, they're going to break through!"
Swearing, I sheathed my swords and ran after him. Morrigan and the others would need help, and Alastair, Leliana and Wynne could handle the ones here.
This was going to be a long night.