Introduction: A Note on Time

There are basically three time streams in Dark Ritual which I think are best described as the past, the recent past and the present. The simplest dividing lines between them are the Slaying of the Archdemon which took place in the twelfth month or Cassus/Haring of DA (Dragon Age) 9:31 and the fourth month or Eluviesta/Cloudreach DA 9:33 when Neriya returns to Denerim after leaving it for the first time.

Anything happening prior to the slaying of the Archdemon is the past, anything happening between the Slaying and Neriya returning to Denerim is the recent past and events happening thereafter are the present.

My big book on Dragon Age says that there are twelve months in the Fereldan Calendar, each month has thirty days and a High Name used by the Chantry and scholars (who tend to belong to the Chantry, anyway) and a Low Name used by the general population. They are:

Month High Name Low Name

1st Verimensis Wintermarch

2nd Pluitanis Guardian

3rd Nubulis Drakonis

4th Eluviesta Cloudreach

5th Molioris Bloomingtide

6th Ferventis Justinian

7th Solis Solace

8th Matrinalis August

9th Parvulis Kingsway

10th Frumentum Harvestmere

11th Umbralis Firstfall

12th Cassus Haring

Chapter 1

Dragon 9:34 Eluvista/Cloudreach

Brecilian Forest

The deputy sub steward of the royal household in Denerim could not understand why the King had decided to travel to the Brecilian forest at that time of year. By all accounts he was a sensible man and usually well-informed, did he not know that it was almost a full two months before the grouse season? Of course, the forest was full of halla but even the deputy sub steward was now aware that diplomatic niceties vis-à-vis the Dalish elves would not permit a hunt of halla, even if there were a desperate need for a cull. Then there was fishing, but again that was better in the salmon spawning season... As for rabbits, there were always rabbits but then rabbits, like rats, could be found everywhere and anywhere, hardly necessitating a full-blown expedition to the far off forest...

If the deputy sub steward were to be fully honest with himself what most aggravated him was that the King's sortie was that his wife was just beginning to recover from the birth of their third child and he had hoped that they would be in a position to resume marital relations within the next few weeks. The King's unexpected little excursion and the preparations for it, Maker bless his socks, put paid to that.

As he had anticipated the first day after their arrival was pure boredom but hard work with all the setting up of the temporary household. The ground was still frozen even though it was spring and it took some time to pitch tents and set up fires and turn a bare piece of earth by a stream into something resembling an encampment.

The second day was a little more entertaining, at the beginning, at least. The deputy sub steward, for some reason he was unable to fathom, was invited along to the King's delegation to the Dalish elven settlement.

The King was in his hunting apparel, a rather fetching shade of green, that clung lightly to his good muscular figure, and went quite well with his short cropped blond hair and light hazel eyes rather than in his royal robes, officially greeted the lady Lanaya the current Keeper of the settlement.

She was actually rather attractive, for an elf, that was, thought the deputy sub steward. Although slight in height, she seemed somewhat more solidly build than most elven females with wider hips. Her face was rounder and she even appeared to have dimples. Her eyes were a beautiful shade of blue, her skin as pale as milk, even her facial markings were becoming, emphasizing her fetching, smooth features rather than crowding them.

The King began by making a little speech. He read it very carefully from a small piece of vellum he drew from the sleeve of his tunic. This was strange for the King who was, for the most part, an off the cuff, impulsive, orator, and all the better for it, too. However, this speech was in what the deputy sub steward assumed was Dalish, this impressed him greatly. From what he was told later, the deputy sub steward understood that it was something about how in the new Ferelden all the different nations were to work together in peace and harmony and how this was make everyone stronger and more prosperous. The King had pronounced variants of this same speech everywhere he went for about the last two years.

The deputy sub steward who had not a little training in the obscure art of customer service, also took the opportunity to observe the response of the half dozen or so of Dalish dignitaries present at this speech. They all appeared to be working very hard to remain hieratic and coolly disaffected but his reading of the slight fluctuations in their body language indicated that they too, were impressed.

Once he had finished Keeper Lanaya, or whatever her official title was, leaned towards the King and said in perfect Fereldan:

"Alistair, as always, welcome..."

They then exchanged ceremonial kisses, or at least he assumed they were ceremonial. The King apparently took this opportunity to whisper something in her delicately pointed ear. The deputy sub steward would later swear that he saw a sudden blush creep into her cheeks in reply.

There followed an exchange of gifts. These, the Deputy sub steward knew more about these because he had been directly involved in their procurement. "Dwarven crafts and goods for the elves, and elven crafts and goods for the dwarves. And some of our own stuff, whatever that is, thrown in", the King had pronounced. So the household stewards had scoured the local markets for dwarven goods and used the Denerim palace commercial grapevine to suggest to any dwarven merchants about the area that now might be a good time to visit the capital.

Several mornings were thus spent with the King reviewing the goods preselected by the stewards. It was the King himself who had chosen the diamond pendent. A single diamond, translucent, white, exquisitely cut, with just a hint of pale blue throughout, on a plain, silverite, chain. The deputy sub steward recalled distinctly the King holding it up to the light from the windows in the high hall and nodding approvingly to the Head Steward as it glittered in his hand seeming to illuminate all of itself what was until then a gloomy Denerim day.

After he had handed over the other gifts, the King produced this one, holding it up to the light as he had done in the great hall. The expression on Keeper Lanaya's face was difficult to read but the deputy sub steward thought the emotion it most closely expressed was sheer astonishment. After a few moments she mumbled something to the King and turned around. The King gently lowered the pendent over her head and clasped it at the nape of her neck, taking good care, it seemed, not to touch her.

Then there was a picnic or some sort of feast outdoors. The food was too herby and did not have enough salt. The cheese, however, was excellent and he overheard the King say as much to Keeper Lanaya. She seemed pleased and flushed again, the jewel shining at her breast. Dalish ale, on the other hand, was far too weak, and did not compliment the cheese well. The deputy sub steward noted he much preferred the dwarven brews. But he soon found himself reaching for more of the feeble ale when the poetry recitals and the detailed narration of intricate elven legends and lore began. And never seemed to end.

Eventually after a few hours, even the King, who had been provided with an interpreter and who earlier appeared to listen with some enthusiasm, began to look bored and visibly drooped at the end of the table. By then evening had began to fall, the deputy sub steward together with others in the royal retinue and some delegated elves lit torches and proceeded to escort the King back to his camp.

Then it began to rain. The party members' heavy warm clothing became after little more than half an hour a freezing, water-saturated mess. The King impatiently removed his woollen cloak, shoved it into the arms of his knight escort, Ser Lawler, took a torch, and picking up the pace began heading towards camp splashing through the fresh mud at a lively trot that his retinue tried, with the exception of Lawler, mostly in vain, to match.

The rain cleared up over night and dawn came fresh and sunny. The King woke up rather late and said he wanted to try his hand at fishing. The problem was that although some primitive fishing rods had been packed, there was no-one at camp who had more than a rudimentary knowledge of fishing.

Lawler picked what he thought would be a likely spot and he and the King and several others having baited their hooks with dried bread, did their best to cast off. "Now what?" asked the King.

"It is my understanding that now we wait."

"But for how long?"

Lawler shrugged. So they waited for about an hour and then decided to cast off again. After about twenty minutes more, the King asked to be brought some books, buried the rod in the river bank and began reading reclining against a tree trunk testily telling Lawler that if the fish wouldn't do the courtesy to bite he didn't feel he should do them courtesy of waiting for them to.

There was some fuss when one of the knights felt a tug on his rod and managed to hoist a fish out of the water but the fish was so small that it would hardly satisfy a kitten.

At that point the King said he was fed up and headed back to camp for an early lunch.

That afternoon the King sent word around camp that instead of training as he usually did with Lawler, he would pay a bounty of 20 sovereigns to any one who could beat him in a fight.

This was the first time since coming to the throne a little over two years ago that the King had made an offer of this kind. Many of the knights knew very little of him personally, he seemed more given to mingling with the commoners, and even elves, dwarves and mages rather than with the aristocracy, but then most of them in turn spent most of their time sequestered in their estates, far from Denerim. It was probably because of this that many of the knights who took him up on his offer expressed their dissatisfaction within Lawler's hearing when it became clear that the rounds were to be undertaken with wooden swords and shields. Lawler simply limited himself to a wolfish grin in response.

In any event for the gentlemen concerned it turned into a rout, a rather humiliating rout. None of them had grasped until that afternoon just how much of a brawler their new king was. But he soon showed them. As well as good body strength, some relative speed and an undeniable talent with a shield and sword he also deployed insults, street fighting and what they considered to be general loutish behaviour to devastating effect.

As the King pointed out later that evening over more than a few casks of wine, high dragons, darkspawn, maleficari, abominations, summons, bandits, assassins, thugs or even Lawler, understood nothing of etiquette, civility or fair play when it came to fighting: "They just want to take you down, so you bloody well better take them down first and do it fast" he concluded.

Someone mildly pointed out that darkspawn etc had no verbal skills and therefore didn't care that you had just called their granny *uh-hum* a whore or their father a vagrant. The King explained that it was all a matter of tone of voice and posture.

The only one of their number who managed to come out of it with any dignity whatsoever was Oswyn, one of the sons of Bann Sighard of Dragon's Peak. It was rumoured that at some point prior to the end of the Blight he had been held captive by Bann Howe (yes, that Howe) and tortured. In any event he had not been able to walk properly since being freed from the dungeon, although it seemed he had done a lot of work on his upper body strength and overall agility since. The King had offered to take a handicap for their bout but Oswyn had refused. There had ensued a very heated and rapid exchange of blows with both shield and sword as the King attempted to get through Oswyn's guard and Oswyn sought no less vehemently to deny him. Eventually the King had prevailed though he acknowledged that it had been a close run thing and asked that evening for a toast to Oswyn, who had blushed rather fiercely, when this had readily been forthcoming.

On the fourth day the King decided to go for a run after breakfast, initially it seemed he planned only to take his mabaris, Mince and Meat and his knight escort. Several more of the gentlemen expressed an interest and in due course he was prevailed upon to set out with a small party. The deputy sub steward was much relieved that he wouldn't have to service their amusement for at least half a day, anticipating that they would be out for a few hours, withdrew to his tent for a well-deserved mid-morning nap.

He was wakened around midday by a hubbub that indicated the party's return. The King, zipped through the middle of camp with Mince and Meat at his heels, equally excited, yelling that the last man into the stream would be a smelly genlock, whatever, that was.

He was peeling off his clothing as he went and the deputy sub steward who was still feeling a little groggy, despondently began to collect them following in his wake. When he got to the edge of the stream completely naked, he jumped in. Mince and Meat, far more sensible they, stood on the bank growling.

In twenty minutes there were half a dozen rowdy, naked, men cavorting in the icy stream. Of the men only Lawler refused to get in, standing fully dressed by Mince and Meat, the King appeared to be berating him, calling him a coward and saying something about his tiny dick looking even smaller. Lawler was responding indignantly calling the King (!), an arrant fool and saying that he couldn't very well defend him in the brook could he? Someone, probably in revenge for a humiliation sustained the day before, put paid to the argument by dunking the King from behind.

At that point one of the camp boys, the infant son of one of the washerwomen, came up to the deputy sub steward from behind and desperately started tugging at his sleeve. "What is it, lad?" said the deputy sub steward but the child just stared up at him apparently mute with despair.

Too late, the deputy sub steward turned round and saw Keeper Lanaya and several of her courtiers in very colourful garb advancing on them rapidly.

The deputy sub steward would later blame his slowness to react on the fact that he had not yet fully recovered from his nap. Of course, the fact that he still had his arms full with the King's sweaty belongings did not assist.

The result was that Lanaya, and her company sailed past before he could barely get a word out of his mouth. She then stopped dead.

"Alistair… What are you doing in the river?"

"Keeper… How wonderful to see you… And you've brought all your gentle ladies too…"

The King approached the river bank a few paces careful to ensure that the water depth still covered his modesty. Lanaya bent politely towards him.

"You're going to have to give me a moment here…" he muttered.

"Of course."

Keeper Lanaya made a subtle signal to her ladies and they withdrew from the edge of the stream. One of them apparently made some remark and suddenly the air was full of quiet laughter. It was quite unlike human laughter, less harsh and raucous, more like a fluttering breeze through fresh spring leaves. Quite delightful to hear.

But the deputy sub steward could not dwell for long on that and rushed to the King's tent, dumping the clothes on a table. He ran out, and started to issue orders: "Cordial, biscuits, chairs for the ladies. And bring some bloody towels, big ones!"

It was not until the morning of the fifth day that something of note happened. About half an hour after dawn when the shadows of the forest and hoarfrost still lay thick upon the ground and when the deputy sub steward had just began his morning round to ensure that the braziers were lit and breakfast porridge was being prepared.

A deep sound suddenly permeated the valley, shattering the dawn silence and the feeble birdsong. It was something similar to a hunting horn of the lowing of cattle, possibly the halla in rut? But no, it was much more modulated and controlled. As he turned stunned from the valley to encampment the deputy sub steward saw lights suddenly being kindled in every tent. Following that sound the dawn seemed to attain a greater stillness than just before and the deputy sub steward had barely began to convince himself that he had not heard what he had heard, that it had been some kind of auditory hallucination when the sound resonated again.

King Alistair had always be been an early riser so it was no surprise when he burst out of his tent wearing his nightclothes under the same woollen cape he had discarded in the downpour a few days before and that the deputy sub steward had taken care to ensure had been thoroughly dried without it shrinking. He stood in the middle of the clearing in his slippers facing towards the woods as if waiting for something. The second wave of sound did not appear to perturb or surprise him. Ser Lawler now stood quietly at his right shoulder.

More silence and then a final burst of sound and there was a sudden movement from the woods. Too near not to have been seen before, something broke forth in a blur from the still darkened tree line. Even the king took a step back.

Two shapes. A knight on a horse in full armour including visor and a smaller, hooded, form sitting side saddle on something resembling an ass or a donkey, almost huddled against the knight.

Insofar as the deputy sub steward could make out in the poor light, the knight's armour was blotched in a diversity of drab colours grey, brown but above all green with no discernible pattern. His helmet was horned, like a chasind helm, and in one hand he held a heavy, dull sword. The other figure remained bunched up beside him, enveloped in a dark cape. The knight opened his arms holding the sword aloft.

"What do you want?" The King had spoken and he sounded both unimpressed and impatient, with the slightest edge of a threat. Suddenly the deputy head steward realized the clearing was full of armed soldiers forming a protective arc around the King.

"I bring a gift" the voice was deep and unnatural.

"A gift?" The King looked surprised: "What gift would you bring a king at this hour of the morning?"

"A gift more precious than his life"

The knight then leaned towards the other figure and seemed to speak to her. A her. The deputy sub steward saw a pale face and a blond plait fell in front of it from the hood, something in the sharp features told him she was an elf but not one of the ones from around here, there were no tattoos on her face. A city elf, then.

She passed the strange knight a bundle that she held tightly in her arms. The knight took it then quietly held it up in front of him. Bowed his head towards it and seemed to whisper something. He passed the bundle back to the female elf and looked at the King.

"Approach. Alone"

"If this is some kind of trick..."

"This is no trick, Ser" the deep voice dripped with contempt.

The King took two steps forward. Lawler followed him. The King turned around and said a few words. Shaking his head the knight escort stepped back. The King walked towards the mounted figures until he stood in front of them. It was too strong to say he swaggered but there was some sort of boldness to his steps.

Very quickly the female elf slipped from her saddle and walked towards the King gently handing him the bundle. The deputy sub steward estimated that she was a good 50 cm shorter than the King.

The King looked down at the bundle and looked up again quickly, stunned, all confidence melting away from his demeanour.

Then things happened very fast. The pair reeled around their mounts to leave. Lawler moved very quickly and stood once again at the King's shoulder. The King handed him the bundle and started to run behind the pair. The Knight Escort in turn looked shocked. The King started shouting. The soldiers seemed too surprised to react.

"Zev, it's Zev, isn't it? Where by the darkspawn is she, where is she?"

The strange knight turned around in his saddle:

"I know you not…"

But by this time the King had almost caught up with him and was grabbing for his foot in the stirrup.

"There is a note. Read it…"

The soldiers at last came to life. The deputy head steward over the din of weaponry and twenty soldiers arming would later say that he heard the knight say to the King, in a much gentler tone than before:

"… No less is expected of you, Alistair"

The King's hands fell to his side:

"And I shall do no less."

The King then turned on his heels and headed towards Lawler who was still standing transfixed on the spot. He made a shooing motion for the soldiers to withdraw. He held out his hands and the Knight Escort passed him the bundle wordlessly and walked ahead of him as was his wont to ensure the way was clear. The King pulled the bundle close to his chest and began to stride towards his tent in Lawler's wake. As he passed, the deputy sub steward could swear that his eyes were red and his cheeks were wet. Just before entering his tent, the King did a sudden about turn.

"You" he said to the deputy sub steward "Eoin, isn't it?"

"Yes, sire" said the deputy sub steward trying his best to recall how to bow and settling for a simple nod. A strange snuffling sound came from the bundle the King still clasped to his chest. By instinct, it seemed, the King used his free hand to gently pat it.

"Those horses"

"Yes, sire"

"I want a dozen. In Denerim. Six months. Give you time to settle with your wife and new child, I guess, though eventually, you'll have to travel. Do so. Spare no expense."

And he turned again and went abruptly into his tent with his Knight Escort hot on his heels.