Yes, it's all Bioware's. And I don't think I need to say it again.

Chapter 1: The Lightning-Struck Tower

The rain had stopped at last. The reek of blood and evil mixed with the scents of sweat and leather and steel. A haze of wood smoke, burnt flesh, and incense hung in the night air, as the sodden pyres slowly consumed their dead. The darkspawn were being hauled into a huge pile at some distance away. They would be burned, too, and the ashes and charred bones buried in a pit that the elves would dig tomorrow.

Victory was theirs, but the time for celebration would come later. When the darkspawn had realized themselves defeated, they had lashed out, and in one final, savage attack, had slaughtered every Grey Warden on the field.

The tall warrior brooding over the valley of Ostagar felt deep relief—even some surprise —at the overall casualty rate. Apparently the darkspawn had focused on the Grey Wardens to the exclusion of much else. Any death was a loss for Ferelden, but it was all blood well spent today. The darkspawn horde had been taught a lesson it would not soon forget.

"Ouch! Maker's Breath!" the young king nearby protested. "Loghain! This healer will be the death of me!"

The female mage was too old to be impressed by the complaints of someone young enough to be her grandson.

"Leave the bandage on until tomorrow morning, Your Majesty. The wound otherwise might become infected."

"Oh, very well," sulked Cailan. "I daresay I'm better off than many…" His eyes grew misty. "Better off than...than…" His voice trailed away into regret.

The mage gave him a compassionate look and a bow as she left.

Loghain snorted, and turned back to his contemplation of the killing field beyond.

Somehow Cailan had survived. Loghain was not at all sure how he felt about that. He had prepared himself for Cailan's death. The foolish boy insisted on standing with the Grey Wardens, even after Loghain had warned him, time and again, that the darkspawn horde was dangerous. Apparently the darkspawn horde had concluded that Cailan himself was not.

He knew he had failed with Cailan. Maric and Rowan had failed with Cailan. Cailan, upon whom they had pinned all their hopes, lived in a fantasy world of myths and legends, and clearly believed that the universe would always make exceptions just for him. Cailan's recklessness would kill him eventually, and Loghain had resigned himself to it since they came south on this mad campaign.

And since he had resigned himself, he sometimes wished that Fate would just get it over with. If only Anora would give him a grandchild! He could make a fresh start, and raise the child the way a ruler of Ferelden should be raised…

But his royal son-in-law was still very much alive at the moment, sitting on a folding camp stool not six feet away. To Loghain's irritation, Cailan was fussing with the bandage on his head, and moaning once again about that bastard Duncan.

"I can't believe they killed him like that! It was — horrible!"

Loghain held his peace, and did not ask what kind of death in battle was not horrible. The Grey Warden commander had taken a score of darkspawn with him. He was an impressive warrior — Loghain had always acknowledged that—but in the end they had swarmed over him, knocking Cailan unconscious.

Actually, while the dismemberment and decapitation had been messy, the end had been fairly quick, which made it a good death, as deaths in battle went, Loghain decided. He hoped he would be so lucky.

"And the way they went for the Wardens after you charged, Loghain. Every Grey Warden in Ferelden gone. Just — gone! It was as if the darkspawn knew exactly who they were! They must have known who they were, somehow!"

That was a thought to give one pause. Loghain had little use for the Grey Wardens, but the deliberate targeting of them could be ominous. If this was a Blight—which he did not believe for a moment —but if it was, then some unknown power had taken preemptive steps to eliminate the darkspawns' ancient adversaries.

"My lord!"

"What is it, Cauthrien?" He turned to the tall young woman striding through the marble archway.

"Sergeant Darrow reports that there was darkspawn infiltration at the Tower of Ishal. He says they've finished off the last of them, but the creatures seem to have come from below and killed most of the men stationed there."

Cailan was up and pushing past Loghain, his blue eyes wide with horror. "What about Alistair — and the new Warden?"

"Wounded, but not seriously, Your Majesty. From what Darrow gathered, the Wardens arrived at the Tower to find it already taken. They knew they'd never get to the top in time to signal us if they had to fight their way up the stairs, so the girl found some rope and scaled the Tower from the outside, while Alistair and a few of our surviving men cleared it out room by room. The girl got to the top and lit the beacon, and apparently had a scrap with an ogre. The place is a shambles, I hear, but the darkspawn are dead or fled."

"Climbed the Tower?" Cailan wondered, eyes already agleam with the joy he felt at tales of derring-do. "That's—heroic!"

Loghain considered the Tower, a pale spectre in the filtered, smoky moonlight. The flying buttresses...the ledges...yes, he could see that someone very brave and very resourceful might manage that. He might have managed it himself, long ago, before he took to wearing heavy plate. That was clever of the girl, he granted. Clever to think of a way to get the job done, instead of slogging up hopelessly through the darkspawn, only to be too late.

His thoughts flinched away from what might have happened if she had been too late.

Instead, he coolly remarked, "It appears, Cailan, that there are still Grey Wardens in Ferelden."

"Here's a blanket," Bronwyn Cousland told the half-naked Alistair. "You need rest. We both do."

She had known her new comrade hardly more than a day, but they had already survived a lifetime of adventure together. He seemed such a boy to her, dazed and heartbroken at the news that his mentor Duncan was dead. She was cold and shaking and still bloody terrified, but she was the one able to think and plan.

So she had led Alistair into the large and opulent tent of the Teyrn of Highever, which was to her like a homecoming. Fergus had brought it with him, along with most of the Highever men and their baggage train. Her brother's traveling chests were here, comforting assurances that she still had a family. That her father's personal belongings were not here — and now never would be — was something she would avoid thinking about as long as possible.

The startled tent guard was even a man she knew by name —Siward, from a freehold not far from Highever Castle itself. He had shouted a welcome when he saw her, and soon the word of her safe arrival had spread through the remains of her father' brother's soldiers and servants.

"I need to go to the Wardens' tent," Alistair mumbled, stripped down to linen shirt and smallclothes, nearly asleep on his feet. "I've got to take care of things for Duncan…"

"You can take care of them in daylight," Bronwyn said sharply. Alistair was in no shape to face the relics of his dead friends. She spread out the blanket herself, and found a cushion on a folding chair for him to use as a pillow. "Lie down."

He remained standing, swaying slightly, eyes glazed. Bronwyn hissed in annoyance, and snatched a spare shirt of out of a chest to towel off Alistair's short, spiky blond hair.

"Ow!" he complained, when she bumped a bruised spot.

"Do it yourself, then," she said, chucking the shirt at him. "I'm not up to playing nursemaid." She sank onto the chair, her aching head in her hands. She was so cold. If she ever had the strength to remove her armor, she would have to see if Fergus had brought anything that might fit her. She had fled Highever without even a change of linen.

Her big black mabari, Scout, padded into the tent and gave himself a mighty shake. Water spattered around him in a halo of mist.

Bronwyn growled at Alistair, "There now. Try it Scout's way. I really don't care."

"Can't," he groaned. "My head might not stay fixed to my neck if I move it too much."

The tent opening rustled again, and a white-haired mage popped her head through. The candle on the trestle table flickered, casting wild shadows on the inside of the tent.

"I heard that you were wounded. What can I do to help?"

Bronwyn thought she had a remarkably soothing voice. The mage stepped into the tent, looking with concern at the stained bandages wrapped around Alistair's right arm.

"My name is Wynne, if you do not remember it."

"Yes...Wynne..." Bronwyn answered, distracted. "Forgive my lack of manners. I'm a bit tired, I confess. Please come in. We should be most grateful for some healing. Alistair is still bleeding, and the darkspawn weapons might have been poisoned."

Mages were certainly wonderful creatures, Bronwyn thought for not the first time. Wynne had already persuaded Alistair to lie down on the blanket, had removed the makeshift bandages, and under her spells, his torn flesh was knitting into soundness.

"My lady?" one of the elven Highever servants — Dariel — she remembered, made an appearance, and stood timidly awaiting orders. "My lady? It is you! We heard you were in camp, but you hadn't come to the Highever tent…"

"I'm here now," Bronwyn said wearily. "I want some hot wash water, as soon as possible, and I want you to see if there's anything to eat. Oat gruel will do, if nothing else — for my mabari, too. Or fruit. Or cheese…"

"Cheese…" Alistair murmured dreamily.

"— and there must be some wine about." She stumbled up and groped into one of the partitions in the back of the huge tent. "Yes! Thank you, Father," she whispered. To the servant, she said,"Take this and warm it up a bit. There must cups somewhere. Hot wine is just what we need. Three cups, since I imagine that you, Healer, would be glad of it as well."

"That is very kind, my lady," Wynne agreed, covering the dozing Alistair with another blanket. A teyrn's wine was something to savor. It might even be Antivan. She took a moment to assess the other Grey Warden.

"I should have a look at those bruises on your throat, I think."

Bronwyn roused herself from her mental puddle of misery and exhaustion. "Yes ... thank you. A good idea. My shoulder is not very comfortable, either…"

Wynne's gentle hand was on her brow, and almost instantly she was murmuring, "Shock. We must get you out of your armor."

Bronwyn flung out her arms. "Be my guest. I don't see how I'm going to do it myself, actually. My fingers are so stiff..."

The weapons were removed and the armor unbuckled. The wet leather was stubborn, but eventually Bronwyn was divested of her chain mail and wrapped in a luxurious fur coverlet filched from Fergus' cot.

Bronwyn sat quietly, enjoying being looked after. Scout rested his muzzle on her knee and generously allowed her to scratch his ears. Gradually, she began putting behind her the terrors and urgencies of the battle: the roar of thunder, the screams of the dying, the feel of rain-slick stone under her boots as she scrambled up the side of the Tower. The bone weariness of her shoulder and arm as she threw the bloody rope with the makeshift grappling hook again. And again. And again.

She was no hero: she knew that now. Lightning had struck nearby when she was two-thirds up the side of the Tower, almost paralyzing her with fear. She had stupidly looked down, and had remembered the time she dropped a jar of strawberry preserves on the stone floor of her bedchamber. Would she have looked like that jar, had she fallen? She could see it before her now: splintered fragments, seeping a thick crimson into the remorseless earth below; an object so completely altered as to be unrecognizable…

Then, at last, the summit attained. A smirk at danger vanquished as she leaped from the window ledge into the beacon chamber. And then saw the ogre.

And the ogre, turning, looking back at her…

She made her mind a blank, watching the pretty lights of the healing spells. Another spell, and she felt herself grow a little warmer and more herself. She must ask the hard questions now, and not hide like a child behind her nurse.

"So it's true?" she asked Wynne. "The other Wardens...fell?"

"I am sorry. It was a terrible thing to witness."

"Poor Alistair. They were like his family. And it really seemed the darkspawn sought them out on purpose?"

"There can be little doubt of it."

Scout gave a low, mournful whine.

Bronwyn blew out a long breath. "That...can't be good."

"If I may say so, the attack on the Tower might have been in hopes of slaying the two of you. The darkspawn would thus have destroyed all the Wardens with one blow."

"But the King is all right?"

"Knocked aside by the darkspawn. A bump on the head that should be gone by tomorrow. Our casualties otherwise are lighter than anyone could have hoped."

"That's something, at least."

The servant, bless him, arrived, with three fellow elves just behind. Dariel carried a tray of apples and cheese, sliced to bite size, arranged with a generous helping of crisp, thin oat cakes. His fellow bore the pot of hot wine, and poured it into silver goblets engraved with the arms of Highever. Another set a good-sized basin of reasonably warm water on the table. And Scout was not forgotten, for there was a bowl of clean water and another bowl with the kennel master's best mix of chopped meat and oats.

Bronwyn dismissed them. "Thank you. That will be all for tonight. Get some rest, for we shall have much to do tomorrow." After the servants were gone, she cocked her head at Alistair, wincing as her muscles objected. "Do you suppose he's asleep? All the more cheese for us."

Very drowsy, Alistair murmured, "I always wake for cheese…"

He stirred, and forced himself up to a sitting position. Wynne passed him a goblet and held the tray of food for him. Bronwyn noted that he chose the Rainesfere Blue and the smoked Amaranthine first. A man of taste, it seemed…

There were footsteps outside the tent. The guard called out a challenge in a low voice.

"You approach the tent of the Teyrn of Highever. State your business."

A deep voice, flavored with a hint of Gwaren, rumbled back, "Are the Wardens here? I've a message from Teyrn Loghain."

"My lady is weary, and a Healer is with her and the other Warden. Can't it wait?"

"It's all right, Siward," Bronwyn called. "I want to hear what the Teyrn has to say."

A big ginger-bearded soldier shoved the tent flap aside, and gave a curt nod as he entered. Under heavy brows, he glanced about the tent, and his curious, interested gaze paused on Bronwyn and the bandaged Alistair. No doubt he had been asked to assess the condition of the Grey Wardens, as well as send word to them.

Scout looked up briefly from his feasting, and evaluated the visitor. Apparently he sensed no threat, for he uttered a "Whuff!" and returned to the contents of his silver bowl. The soldier eyed the mabari in his turn, rather admiringly, and then said his piece:

"Teyrn Loghain's compliments, Wardens. He has learned of your good service in the battle. On the morrow he and the King will take counsel together, and he wishes the Wardens to be present, if their wounds permit."

Bronwyn felt herself flush, warmed by the pleasure of being acknowledged by so great a man. "My congratulations to the Teyrn on his victory. I shall certainly be there," she assured the soldier. "And Alistair, too, I believe…"

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Alistair added thickly, trying to talk with his mouth full of oat cake and apple.

Bronwyn rolled her eyes. She turned to the soldier once more. "The hour is late, and I thank you for your trouble. I remember you from the Tower, when I was coming down... What is your name?"

Surprised, the man turned red and stammered, "Darrow. Sergeant Darrow, my lady— er — Warden. At your service."

"Well, Sergeant Darrow, I believe we have a bit of hot wine left. Will you drink an old Highever health with us on this occasion?"

"Don't mind if I do, my lady."

A cup was produced, the wine poured round once more, and Bronwyn lifted her silver goblet in salute.

"To the victorious dead!"

No one else in the tent was from Highever, so Bronwyn was confident that they did not know the rest of the saying:

"—Poor bastards. Better them than us!"