Of Arms and Armor
A/N: This is more of a mood piece than anything: King Cailan and all those fallen at Ostagar needed it.I also changed some things here and there from how it played out in the game, to fit better into telling.
The usual disclaimers apply: Bioware owns everything, except Giovanna, who is my responsibility.
The snow is crisp and cold and blankets everything like a funeral shroud.
It's eerily quiet when they wake up and look at each other over the furs and blankets piled up on the cots pushed together in her hastily erected tent. They set up their last camp at the edge of the forest under a copse of pine trees, and the bent branches, already laden with snow, sheltered them from the worst of the storm that passed over them in the night.
"It's time, then." Alistair says, and Giovanna nods. Neither of them slept much, waking often while tossing and turning in the throes of the nightmares that plague their rest more and more often now, and there are deep dark circles under their eyes and grim lines at the corners of their mouths. They dress quickly, pulling on their heavy quilted arming jackets, smoothing out the folds and untangling the laces with practiced ease. Their armor is neatly stacked in the corner where they left them. Long gone the days of iron, even steel, their rune-inscribed plates now barely require treatment to keep them free of blood; rust is never an issue.
Giovanna traces her fingers down the delicate etchings on dragonbone as she lines up each piece; next to her Alistair is doing the same. This morning, like so many before, they will help each other into armor. This morning, like so many before, they'll emerge from their tent to face whatever the day brings together.
This morning, however, is unlike than so many others before. This morning they are back where it all began. They are back where they met.
They are back to Ostagar.
The sabatons go on first, tying the short laces to their boots carefully and tight. Then the greaves and cuisses: red-and-silver dragonbone for her, gold-chased and blued veridium for him. The cuisses are pointed to the arming jackets, and they both pull tight on the black cords making sure they fit snugly but don't cut into the other's thighs.
"Good?" Alistair asks as Giovanna crouches down experimentally, extending a leg forward and making a sweeping circle back. She nods, and watches as he carefully does the same, mindful of the small space in the tent.
The thick gambeson comes then, buttoned tight over the chest and hips. Normally, Giovanna muses fleetingly as she watches Alistair's hand securing the wide plaque belt around her hips, she'd be all giggles and smiles over him fumbling with her clothes, but not now. Not here. Here, there are no smiles, no jokes—they are both quiet, speaking only in curt sentences and affirmatives as the breast-and backplates are buckled on, followed by the hipplates, and then the arms, carefully attached to the gambeson by means of thick waxed cords hanging from the garment.
As they add the gorgets, they watch each other's eyes. Giovanna still thinks Alistair's amber gaze is the most soothing thing she'd ever seen: her fingers slow down on the leather buckles of the neck plates as she gets lost in his eyes again, head tilted sideways as she regards him, standing in front of her in a vision of grim veridium glory, the Warden griffon on his chest. Her hand comes up slowly, trying in vain to smooth his hair down: that unruly mop of gold-red curls that resists all effort to keep it orderly. He answers with a lopsided attempt at a grin, fingers coming up and gently touching the side of her face, as if committing those high cheekbones and stubborn jaw and straight nose into memory.
No words need to be spoken: they both said everything they had to last night, with fingers, lips and skin sliding against bare skin, with the sighs, moans and cries of love's ancient language. They are one, they are together: lovers, Grey Wardens, bastard prince and teyrn's daughter. Warriors before battle, ready for what the day, this return to Ostagar brings, they grab their gauntlets, helmets and weapons last, before exiting the tent and stopping by the tiny fire where Sten and Wynne awaits.
They are the only ones Giovanna has asked to come with them; the rest awaits at Redcliffe, ready to make a last excursion to the West to visit the remote village of Haven where the reclusive Chantry scholar, Brother Genitivi might be pursuing his leads to Andraste's Ashes. Before they went, though, they needed to do this, and they are here now—following a lead from a royal bodyguard who survived the Battle of Ostagar.
"Good morning." Wynne is wrapped up in a thick woolen cloak and a warm knitted scarf around her shoulders, neck and head. Her gloved hands cradle two mugs with steaming tea, and she hands them to the Wardens. "I thought you might need these."
"Thank you, Wynne." Alistair nods, inhaling the sharp scent of tea leaves and honey. "Nothing like a proper morning beverage before a massacre of darkspawn, I tell you."
"That's my boy." Wynne manages a wan smile; her face is pale, the wrinkles in the corners of her clear eyes deeper than usual. She also had a bad night. "Sten made porridge." she says, and sounds vaguely apologetic about it.
"Maker preserve us." Alistair mutters, glancing at the qunari, who returns the look with a gaze Alistair terms Number Three Unfathomable—he categorized the stoic soldier's facial expressions during long evenings when they shared watch and there was nothing to do but listen to the night and stare at each other. "Must be the end of the world, then."
"Must you be always jesting?" Sten rumbles, slopping thick porridge into wooden bowls and handing them out. They'd done this countless times during their travels, so both his moves and the verbal exchange are quick and efficient—nothing is wasted: not a drop of porridge on the ground, not a word of idle chat to break the silence.
Giovanna doesn't feel like she should say anything either: she nods her thanks to Sten as she takes her breakfast and sits down on the log pulled next to the fire. Her eyes cloud over with memories; they are too close, and this scene with the fire and Alistair sitting next to her with a bowl and a tin mug in his hand is too much of a reminder…
"You know, one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together." The Grey Warden sits down next to her, cradling a mug of steaming tea. The fire crackles and Giovanna startles, so quiet was his arrival.
"You are a quiet one, aren't you?" he observes, glancing quickly at Duncan on the other side of the fire. "I noticed that about you earlier. I suppose you were not recruited for oratory skills… but then again, none of us were." He grins towards their commander. "Except me. Devastating good looks and equally devastating silver tongue, killing darkspawn by talking them to death. Right, boss?"
"Just hit him, Giovanna, if he gets annoying." Duncan shakes his head, half-amused. "We're quite an informal lot, but Alistair here skirts the limits sometimes with his sparkling personality."
She nods and takes a sip from her own tea. Her throat is still raw and the wound is painful, although healed now, thanks to the mage Duncan led her to as soon as they arrived to camp. Her limbs ache from days of fast riding and sleeping on the ground, and she finds the young Grey Warden sitting next to her rather annoying in a way she found the young puppies in her father's kennels annoying—over eager, all limbs, happy to please, unaware of their own power. She leans over to pet Poppy who's lying across her feet, pinning her to place so she can't move. He is always the exception, though, she thinks, remembering how from barely walking age, this one was so much more serious than his littermates.
"Penny for your thoughts." There he goes, chattering away again. Giovanna's mouth purses into a thin line as she considers Alistair. "No, seriously. There were, like, some huuge clouds on your forehead, and I'm not sure I'd want to get drenched by the rain that…Ow!" He stops and jerks his hand to the back of his head. "You hit me!" he says, almost petulant and stares at her with large amber eyes, disbelieving. "You really hit me."
"Alistair." Duncan's voice is sharp, and he stands up from his log, beckoning. "A word, please."
"Uh-oh." Alistair rises, still rubbing his neck where Giovanna's gauntleted hand left its mark. "That doesn't sound good…May I…"
"Alistair." Duncan is almost growling; Poppy lifts his head lazily and stares at them. "Now."
"Sure, Commander." The young Warden apparently isn't entirely devoid of his senses, Giovanna muses, watching the two of them drawing back from the circle of the fire a bit. She's sure that Duncan will talk some sense into him: during their travel together she gained some measure of that dark, lean man to know that he's fiercely protective of those he takes under his wing, and although she's not sure what he sees in Alistair, she knows that he regards him fondly. And at the rate the junior Warden is going now, she'll surely kill him even before her own Joining.
It would be a pity, though, she reflects, picking up a long stick of wood and rummaging around in the fire. He seems like a basically decent fellow; and, judging by the well-worn armor and sword he wears, he's more than experienced as a fighter. She hopes that serves them well the next day when they brave the Korcari Wilds for their mission to reclaim those Grey Warden documents and the ingredients Duncan wishes for the Joining the precise nature of which only Alistair knows.
The man needs to do something with that unruly hair, and mend his torn shirt, though, she thinks fleetingly, scratching Poppy behind his ear. One would think Grey Wardens pay more attention to their appearances…
Giovanna's musings are interrupted by a sudden movement from Alistair in the present: he drops his mug and bowl, draws a long, loud breath and his sword and shield are out and ready by the time the hot tea finishes trickling from the dropped tin to the snow.
"Darkspawn!" he hisses, eyes narrowing, and Giovanna feels it right then, too—the stirring at the edge of her consciousness, the tugging feeling of the creatures' group mind… a swirling, chaotic mess, subtly laced with that strange music she knows all too well by now, the one that haunts her dreams almost every night now, dissolving into the scream of a mad god-dragon.
It's a small squad, but very determined. Obviously scouting at the very edge of Ostagar's ruins, they stumbled into them purely by accident, and now pay the price—the two Grey Wardens pent-up fury erupts as they both sprint towards the hulking shapes at the edge of the treeline, and even before Sten could get there with Asala, they make quick work of half of them with short, savage sword thrusts and violent blows of their shields. Then the qunari cleans up the rest with his two-handed sweeps and Wynne finishes off the archers lurking in the shadows using her magic.
"There." Alistair says, slightly panting from exertion as he cleans his blade with some snow and slides it back into its scabbard. "I think we worked pretty well together here…"
Giovanna nods; her fingers run through her armor quickly, searching for any straps or clasps broken. She can't find any, so she straightens and looks back at their campsite.
"Let's move out." she says curtly, nodding to Sten. "Well fought."
"Kadan…" The qunari inclines his head and stands still as Wynne's healing magic washes across his arm in a cool blue rush where a darkspawn arrow found its way between pauldron and rerebrace. "I'm ready."
They make quick work of the tents and assorted camp gear, pack everything on the horses and set out, slowly advancing between the trees. It's eerie, the silence and the snow-covered ruins and the quietness after the harshness of their fight earlier. Giovanna lets Sten take the van: this was, after all, for what the qunari warrior came to Ferelden. He's surprisingly nimble and moves quietly; she has learned that during the year they fought together. She flanks Wynne with Alistair as they trudge in the snow, calling up her memories of the layout of the army camp amongst the fallen masonry of the Old Empire.
"It's different now." Wynne says after a while; there's literally no noise but the cawing of some crows perching on a couple of trees, and the sound of their boots crunching the snow. "It's… so clean and pristine. As if…" She doesn't finish; her hand falls helplessly by her side, the other clutching her staff, and Giovanna knows that she remembers just as well as her. The mage's looking at the remains of what once was the encampment of those from the Tower. It's almost directly opposite of where the Grey Wardens lodged, and, as Giovanna glances quickly at Alistair, she catches a brief, almost imperceptible twitch of pain on his face. She knows that he remembers, too, and she can't help but reach out with her gauntleted hand and touch his arm briefly, letting him know wordlessly that she, too, will never forget.
They have to fight several bands of darkspawn in the ruins before they reach where Elric Maraigne, their source of information hid the key to the royal treasure chest. It's there, hidden in a crack at the base of a half-fallen statue of some long-gone Tevinter hero… and not too long after that the broken remains of the half-permanent structure they out of habit called King Cailan's Tent, although it was more of a sturdy loghouse, come to view. It's hard to believe there is anything even remotely intact in there; after all, the enemy had several months to thoroughly plunder this site to excavate anything worthwhile. But for some reason this chest, half buried under some fallen lumber and roofbeams, scorched by fire around the edges, remained unopened and undisturbed, bearing the Theirin coat-of-arms and a sturdy lock that opens smoothly after Alistair turns the key in it.
"Oh." He exhales with a soft sigh of surprise as he reaches in, and lifts out a silk-wrapped long bundle. The silk slides off to the ground and the faint sunlight filtering through clouds of snow and rafters bared to the cold winter air glints off faintly glowing yellow runes as Alistair pulls out a long blade from its sharkskin scabbard.
" Andraste's knickers!" he swears, holding the sword so gently as if he's afraid it would break. "The royal blade…?"
"Maric's sword." Giovanna remembers, with painful clarity, seeing it at the king's side during her family's visits to Denerim and Maric's into Highever: she even recalls, how Fergus, bold and unabashed Fergus, has asked the king to see it unsheathed, as he heard about it 'glowing in the dark'. "Cailan left this here, before the battle…? That…" She doesn't finish the thought, but looks into Alistair's eyes, and they both reel back from the implications.
They talked about this, back on that warm day by the Dalish camp: the fact that Cailan sent the two of them explicitly to that mission in the Tower of Ishal to light the signal beacon. The barely-Warden new recruit, and the six-months-into-being-a-Warden ex-Templar, both relatively untried and certainly not the best suited for such an important task. She recalls some sour glances from the leader of the Mage Tower delegation upon Cailan's pronouncement; he probably hoped that he'd…
"Alistair…" she whispers, taking a small step backwards and suddenly she feels just a bit dizzy. "If Cailan left this here; if he didn't carry it to battle with him…" She swallows, and feels her throat constrict, the old wound flaring up painfully at the memories. She sees her companions turn towards her; Sten's stoic face reflects some concern now, hearing the naked emotions in her voice; Wynne is clearly shaken, sensing the importance of what's happening… and Alistair, the love of her life, Alistair, the bastard prince, the hiding heir of the king whose blade he is holding, he is standing there with so much emotion in his amber eyes that it's almost too much to bear. She doesn't want to continue, but it's too late; she feels her Cousland honesty propelling her, the words coming out almost choking, as her merciless logic churns out the inevitable conclusions. "He sent you to the Tower or Ishal; he left his sword here; he allowed his personal guard to escape the battle with the key to this chest. He wanted you to survive. He wanted you to find this. He knew there was something wrong." Bending over the chest, she plunges her hand in and pulls out a bundle of documents, thrusting them to Alistair's hand. "Maybe these will help as well."
"Best to be quick about that." Sten growls, slight disapproval in his voice. "I don't think we should stay here more than…" But as soon as he says it, Giovanna again feels the tug of the group consciousness, like wires attached to her eyeballs, and drawing Starfang in one quick motion, she straightens from peering into Cailan's chest.
"Again." she growls, and her companions step aside almost reflexively, as she gathers her anger around herself like a cloak, almost visibly. Her long strides carry her outside the ruined loghouse, amongst the slowly creeping darkspawn, and the others almost have to run to keep up with her. A giant hurlock towers over Alistair as soon as he clears the gaping doorway, and he throws up Maric's blade, still held unsheathed in his hand, to block the crude iron sword thrusting towards his head. Asala almost sings in Sten's hands as he swings the two-handed sword to clear a bloody path towards where Giovanna dances her lethal dance with Starfang and her Cousland shield worn openly with its crest blazing in the midday sun. Behind them all, Wynne brandishes her staff and searing bolts of lightning descend from the sky with ear-splitting thunder: Wynne narrows her eyes as she directs the tempest she called forth towards the edge of the opening where she detected the presence of a magic user. An emissary stands there flanked with archers guarding him, with the purple glow of death magic around him ready to be released. The bolts of white lightning strike with ear-blasting sound as they connect with iron armor and weapons, and two of the hurlocks topple to the ground right there, clearly dead before they can release any arrows. The emissary staggers but stays on his feet, throwing his head towards the sky and howling obscenities as he readies another spell. Wynne is prepared, though: she changes her grip on her slender staff, makes a complex gesture with the other, and the earth shakes and rumbles under the emissary's feet, tossing him to the ground like a stray leaf. He tumbles along with his remaining archers, clutching at tree stumps and masonry to steady themselves, but to no avail; and Wynne keeps pounding them relentlessly with balls of frost and shots of pure magical energy shooting from the tip of her staff, until the earthquake stops and Sten is there in two impossibly long strides to finish them off.
Giovanna stops, her blade still raised mid-high at the ready; there are no more enemies. Her breath is labored and there is sweat dripping from her forehead as she looks around, quickly assessing the situation. She wills her heartbeat to slow down, her breathing to become even, to step out of the warrior-trance, the strangely slow and yet lightning-quick time of the battle. Next to her, Alistair is busy cleaning Maric's sword in the snow, muttering under his breath. Giovanna knows that this is how he copes with the tension of fighting; his release is this almost whispering litany of jumbling sentences, a stream-of-consciousness that she gave up understanding a long time ago. It became a kind of constant background to her, something that she can't ever imagine being without after fighting. She, on the other hand, remains silent as she and Sten examine the dead darkspawn for anything valuable. This is the dark side of their existence, the one that the once-proud daughter of Teyrn Cousland used to despise, but now endures with the grim practicality of a survivor. To survive is to find their means wherever they can: be it accepting commissions to find deserters from a mercenary company or stripping dead enemies of their equipment. And while she suspects this is something her father might understand, she doesn't have to like it.
"Kadan." Sten touches her shoulder and she looks up at him as he inclines his head towards the corpse of the emissary, lying there where Wynne's spells fell him. "His armor." the qunari says, and Giovanna's eyes widen as she understands.
She is almost stumbles as she hurries over, bending to kneel and fumble with her gauntleted fingers to loosen the straps of the cuirass and pauldrons, holding her breath and squeezing her eyes half-shut against the reeking corpse. Darkspawn starts to decompose almost as soon as they die, they had to learn that early, and she'd really rather not have this particular armor get soiled any more that it already is.
"Is that...?" Alistair stops next to her, his voice slightly shaky. "Cailan's...?" She nods, looking up at him sharply and he kneels on the other side wordlessly, helping her to finish removing their fallen King's golden plates from the darkspawn emissary.
As she scrubs at the golden chasings of the breastplate frantically with a fistful of snow to clean off the black grime, soot and fluids, she has to bite her lips to keep the almost physical pain at bay that she feels at the memories, come unbidden at the sight of that armor...
They were greeted by a couple of sentries earlier as they neared the ruins that loomed on the horizon since the morning. Giovanna's head hurts, her leg muscles are like razorwires from the miles and miles and miles of relentless riding on hard terrain she's not used to; her neck wound, despite all of Duncan's efforts with poultices and herbs, has not really healed yet; she feels like there is something moving underneath her clothing and she really would rather not scratch anywhere right now. This last sentry station they are welcomed by someone she didn't expect to see... at least not until after she found a bath and a change of clothes.
"Your Majesty..." Duncan kneels on the ground, bows his head, and Giovanna has no choice but follow suit, although she is dizzy and weak. "We didn't expect a..."
"...A royal welcome?" King Cailan Theirin is resplendent in his golden armor. He tosses his head so his fine blonde hair goes flying about his handsome, clean-shaven face and laughs heartily. The two bodyguards and the three other men, wearing the Grey Warden griffon embroidered on their tunics, watch him with barely contained amusement. Cailan has that effect on almost anyone. "Duncan, there's no need to be so formal." He reaches forward and clasps the other man's arm, hoisting him to his feet. "I can certainly greet the Warden-Commander of Ferelden and his latest recruit if I so choose..." His large amber eyes alight upon her and Giovanna's nausea increases. "By the Maker!" Cailan breathes and rushes forward, lifting her up as if she would weigh nothing. "Giovanna? Bryce Cousland's youngest? Is this really you?"
"Cailan..." Her throat is on fire and she can barely croak out his name. She clutches at his arms as if they were lifelines anchoring her to reality after the nightmare of the last weeks. "Pardon me, Majesty..." she whispers, raising one hand to the grimy silk scarf wrapped around her neck. "I'm..."
"By Andraste, Gio..." Cailan's eyes are clouded with concern as he calls her by the old nickname he gave her as a child. He still holds her, and she draws strength from the cool steel of his breastplate where she rests her flaming cheek. "You...you are the new recruit? What happened? Where is Bryce and his troops?" He lifts her chin with a gauntleted finger and his breath hitches as he takes her appearance in. "You are wounded...?"
"Castle Cousland is burned to the ground, Majesty. "Duncan's voice: like the tolls of the bells in the Chantry over the dead. "Teyrn Cousland and Teyrna Eleanor are dead. Arl Rendon Howe's troops have taken Highever by treachery."
"No..." Cailan whispers; Giovanna has never heard Cailan, always boisterous, always confident Cailan this shaken. "Bryce... no." he mutters, and Giovanna suddenly feels like she can take no more. The world starts spinning faster and faster, Cailan in his gold armor its shining center... and as she allows herself, at last, to slip into unconsciousness from fatigue, blood loss, pain and grief, in a small corner of her mind she is glad, infinitely glad that it's the golden King of Ferelden catching her and holding her broken body to his chest like a small, wounded animal that at least found its shepherd after wandering in the wilderness...
They find the other pieces on four more enemy leaders across the ruins during the day. After the second one, Alistair's post-battle mutterings become louder. Giovanna can make out words now, half-sentences jumbling together, even. "Divided it up..." he whispers above the corpse of another darkspawn general, wearing Cailan's ornate gauntlets on his deformed hands. "Spoils of war...as if they were the victors...as if they ever could..."
He never stops the muttering after that, just has small pauses in his quiet monologues, and Giovanna starts to seriously fear for his sanity by the time they reach the actual battlefield. By that time they fought themselves across resurrected skeletons, more elite darkspawn troops, underground tunnels filled with spiders and a necromancer and its resurrected ogre, and so she hardly has time to discuss it with him. It, however, starts to bother her enough that she is about to lay a hand on his shoulder to drawn him aside and have a word, when she feels his entire body to go rigid as he glances across the field towards where the first line of the royal lines stood on that fateful dawn. Giovanna hears his breath hiss out of him with a small cry, and then Alistair is suddenly off, he is running, in the snow, across the skeleton-strewn horrors of the battlefield of Ostagar, running by the corpses of the darkspawn necromancer and his resurrected ogre with Duncan's sword and dagger still embedded in its chest, by Sten who just straightened up from finishing tying the last knots on a bandage on his arm, past Wynne rooting through her shoulder pack for some lyrium to replenish her magical energies...He runs, stumbling and almost falling in his full armor, and Giovanna, as she narrows her eyes trying to make out the shapes of the something there at the edge of the ruins feels all the blood leaving her face and her limbs go icy cold recognizing what's there. And then can't help herself and her limbs move as if of their own volition, faster and faster, almost to the rhythm of her wildly beating heart, almost as fast as the thoughts in her head, chasing each other and falling and colliding and finally coming to windless rest in the numbing silence broken up only by the great sobs of Alistair as he falls on his knees by the crude cross where the half-rotten naked corpse of Cailan, his brother is nailed up like some obscene sacrifice to a cruel, capricious and mad god whose cries hunt their dreams every night since they last met the golden King here on the field of Ostagar.