CHAPTER 22: The Road Less Traveled
Anders was having one of those days. If not lifetimes.
He was starving, parched, exhausted, and not nearly far enough from the wretched Circle! And on top of that, his aches had aches. Very little could make his day worse now, and it was still a Monday.
Well, that wasn't quite true. He wasn't dead. Or worse, Tranquil! He still had full use of his hands, his mind, and his magic! He was still alive and not caged for once! Not at the Circle and not in the templars' tender (or tenderising) care - that was what counted!
And the best thing of all, the latest bastard who'd caged him, the one with the key to said cage, happened to go down right within reach. Anders didn't even have to use spells to get to it. A bit of distraction, a lot of luck, and he was on the better side of the bars.
Not that that put him entirely out of trouble; that'd be just too unlike his luck. Oh well.
Anders bared his teeth in a manic grin as he raised hands and staff and just let fly with all the frustrated fire that the late, un-lamented templars had kept strangled in him for almost all his life.
Magic! Yeahhhh! Magic's a beautiful thing to have in a fight, and have I ever GOT it, you ugly fuckers!
He poured a torrent of flame at the growling, skulking duo of darkspawn that had just taken down the last of the templars. They stank, even from all the way across the room, even before they caught fire, and he was pretty sure they both wanted to eat him, and not in the fun way either. Anders wasn't fond of pain in his personal life, not even with the most appealing of partners, which these two nasty bastards certainly weren't. Even a garden of roses and a whole barful of booze wouldn't change my mind! No, I'm not locking lips or any other bits with the likes of you, ugh, not with mouths like that! Oi, don't even try that move on me, Baldy! And you, Scabby, did you like that? Did you? Hot enough for you? HA!
The creatures screamed and thrashed in flames, smoke improving their reek to the smell of badly charred barbeque, before they collapsed into piles of ash.
GOT 'em! Who's next? Come on Come On COME ON! Anders readied another spell, holding wildfire in his bare hand like a ball ready to throw. Just TRY me! I'm hot stuff! Too hot for ANYONE to hold!
Two men stepped through the doorway. Not monsters. Not templars: the lack of glorified tin cans and gratuitous smiting was a dead giveaway. Not anyone familiar. Decent company, in these parts? Huh. Whod've thought it!
Anders barely had time to extinguish the flame spell and look non-threatening.
"Hi! Er, I didn't do it!" He grinned and winked roguishly at the younger one in splintmail: at least he looked friendly, unlike the sour-faced sod in black with the bow. "Some help here, just in time, yeah?"
The older one rolled his eyes but the younger one returned his smile. A farmboy's smile it was, sunny and wholesome, shiny as fool's gold. Hel-lo, handsome! Things are looking up at last.
"I mean, these guys," Anders gestured at the pile of templar corpses, and gave his best 'just your average harmless mage, not a murderous maleficar, I swear' grin, "they helped a little, before they all tragically died. Of darkspawn," he rushed to clarify, showing his empty hands, "Nothing to do with me, mostly it was their own incompetence. Such a shame, really! Though Biff there made the funniest gurgle as he went down."
Not even a smile at that. Really? Tough crowd. Best keep my head down and not rattle any chains, not with those weapons still drawn.
With a bark, an enormous hound dripping with blood and mud bounded in, past the farmboy and the charred darkspawn. The beast shoved his cold wet nose right into Anders' crotch, snuffling around like Anders was a juicy sausage all his for the eating. Anders' eye twitched as he gave the slobbery monster a cautious shove disguised as a pat. Hooray, just what the day needs. Dogs. This overgrown pup's the farmboy's best friend, no doubt.
Mind you, it paid to be nice to people's pets. Especially when you were still at the ouchy end of their weapons. Anders did his best to put on a polite smile. "Now, now, aren't you a fine specimen? Please don't eat me." No! Especially not those bits, they're my favorites!
The grouchy one with the bow snapped "Dog!" and at last the overgrown mutt sat back.
Wow, talk about your imaginative names! Anders snorted mentally, even as he widened his ingratiating smile. "Er, Anders here, nice't'meet you, Dog." OK, so, in my case unimaginative helps. It's not as though I actually want them to remember me once I'm out of here.
Something rattled outside. The hound stopped slobbering, let out a gruff snort, and bolted out of the room toward the next target.
"Come on, if you're helping," the farmboy called, turning away as his companion followed the hound out.
"Right behind you," Anders paused to grimace and wipe muddy fur off his sleeve. Great, I don't just have to give those two the slip, now I've got to throw a tracking hound off my scent as well!
Ugh, dog people! That said everything about Ferelden: every blighted muddy mile between here and the ocean.
"Ninety-five genlocks all gotta go!" Whoosh! Slam! Oghren swung his axe to get the blighter to back off a bit, "Ninety-five genlocks all inna row!" He bellowed as he buried his axe in its chest with a satisfying crunch, and got ready for another swing. "Cut this'n down, slice it in rounds, now y'got ninety-four genlocks t'go!"
Or is it ninety-three already? "Bleargh!" Oghren's mouth felt like a dry sock stuffed itself into it and wiggled all the way down his throat.
Fighting's thirsty work! There's gotta be a drink left somewhere round the cellars. The situation was so dire, he'd even accept a second helping of whatever ditchwater passed in these parts for a proper brew. Foul stuff, but at least it burned its way down as he gargled. Had a pretty good kick to it, too. Just enough to wake a guy up and rinse the taste of last night's drinking out of his mouth.
Hm, what's that ruckus from the corridor? Did those bumbling good-for-nothings Dworkin and Voldrik somehow find their way out of a paper sack with their heads all the way up their arses? Riiight!
"Hey, there's someone fighting over here!" someone down the corridor called out.
No shit! Oghren blocked a genlock's blow, and sliced a pretty diagonal gash from his ear to his chest. Blood and squishy stuff - can't be brains - gushed out like wine'n'porridge. The genlock toppled down in a pile, his head in two pieces. Yeah. That'll stop you. "Hold on to yer knickers, ye lilyarsed bunch 'o cowards, Oghren's got it AAALL!"
The rest of the spawn cowered in the corner now, 'cept for that fat spawn in a funny hat that hung back. Oghren glowered. You're next!
Just before he swung his axe again, the door was knocked down by humans in armor.
More guards, or templars. Wait, come to think of it, they don't sound like that bunch. Don't look like 'em either. Hang on, don't I know that one? Isn't that...
At the entrance stood his third favorite drinking buddy! The chatty one. The lightweight. When Oghren used to drink at the campfire, that one fell asleep before finishing his first tankard, but he still managed to eat his way through Oghren's cheese supply like a starved bronto the next day.
"By the Stone, Alistair, m'lad!" Oghren tried to keep his eyes open. This time Alistair brought with him what looked like a small army of Future Favorite Drinking Buddies, and quite a lot of them: identical twins. Oghren squinted - four, five... six, not quite seven of 'em. Hic. If I can count to seven, I'm not nearly drunk enough.
At Alistair's side, besides a twin Alistair stood Solona's Dog and his doggy twin - and here Oghren had to blink to make sure he wasn't too terribly drunk or dreaming - and then was a pair of humans who looked weirdly like Loghain, only he was in full archer's gear. How'd those four - Oghren squinted even more until the world came into focus - er, two - ever go from trying to kill each other to killing the spawn?
Wait, wasn't there a wedding in Denerim or somesuch? Alistair's wedding. To the Queen! Amanda? Amara? Anora, that's it. Fantastic set of jugs for a human! Heh, heh. Alistair, you lucky man. I'd put on a friendly face for her daddy too, for a glimpse of what's under the royal skirts.
Behind them, concluding the party, cowered a squirrelly blonde. Pretty enough, kinda familiar, if fuzzy around the edges. Mages, like tavern wenches, all looked the same.
Oghren hmphed. As far as a rescue party goes, that's not half-bad!
...I'd rescue 'em all again any day!
Oghren swung his axe high to show the remaining sorry spawn what for, and nearly tumbled on the downswing.
Alistair wasted no time in stepping up to Oghren's side: just the thing to make the genlocks cower and his killing pile grow. Good, good. That'll teach 'em good and dead. Just as Oghren got back into the swing of things, an arrow whooshed by and stuck in the fat spawn's eye socket, nailing him to the wall, right out of reach of Oghren's axe swing.
"Hey, that's my kill!" Oghren yelled gruffly, but things kept on going downhill from there. Seemed everywhere he swung his axe, the spawn were already dropping like flies, chopped down by swords, arrows, spells, you name it, everything but a good ol' satisfying thwack of his own mighty weapon. Puffing and snorting, partly in dizziness from all that swinging his axe with nothing to bury it in, but mostly in disappointment, he wound down his swipes at last and settled for one last swing at the nearest wooden pillar, to bury his axe in to clean the blade.
Now where were we? If I remember right, someone still needs a proper welcome!
"Alistair!" Oghren roared, and tumbled forward in a good honest effort to embrace his favorite fighting comrade. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!" Just the man I need. Fine drinking company tonight! Just thinking about it lifted the achy fog from Oghren's brain. And Alistair might not even be the first lightweight to go down. Loghain holds his spirits, but it's gotta be a pushover to drink that mage under the table. "You won't believe these kitchens. Not a single drop of proper ale. But I've got plans now. Plans!"
"Um, Oghren. You can let go now." There was a pat on his shoulder and a croak. Humans! Too squishy.
Oghren loosened his grip and instead focused on finding and gripping his axe, leaning on it instead of on Alistair. "When the spawn showed up, I thought, 'Just you lot wait 'til a proper Warden gets here, and ye'll all be spittin' teeth outta yer arses!' An' here you are!"
"Yeah, we've... well, good to see you too, Oghren. Really good!"
"We need to celebrate! Properly. With whisky! Haven't seen you since... hic... since the first round o' funerals up n' th'City." Oghren shook his head. "But, enough of that. How's married life treatin' ya?" He stared up at the lucky sod and winked. "IfyaknowwotImean. Eh-hehe."
"Um, good! About that..." Alistair looked slightly shifty, and suddenly pinker than a sunburnt nug. A bit too suspicious. "There was no wedding - no royal wedding anyway. So yeah, not that kind of married life... I mean, uh. Sort of. By the way, you recognize my - er, ..."
"Commander," the other man interrupted, in a voice as dry as a wineskin after Oghren had wrung it out.
Fuck a bronto! It is Loghain! Oghren had had his doubts; what with the confusion of battle, and up to now, Loghain had always lived in a shiny tin can with a sword'n'board. I'd've bet good sovereigns I'd never see him arse up in a little black leather number, crawling around yanking spent arrows outta every spawn in sight. What's with that bow anyway? What sorta shite makes a real warrior, a general, give up proper metal weapons for a sad little bunch of pointy wooden twigs? Bah! Who can tell if he still even knows how to hold his booze like he used to?
"Yeah, yeah, he'd better not to get too comfortable here." Oghren grumbled to Alistair. "B'tween you and me, he's better off in th'City. Now that th'Queen herself turned you out on your ear, she's probably on the prowl for something bad." He grinned at that particular thought. "Just sayin'."
Did Loghain just growl? Doesn't matter. "S'pose you can stick around for the night." he waved magnanimously at Loghain. "It's a big Keep, enough for aaall m'friends. Just don't get in my n'Alistair's way and there'll be no trouble."
"Oh, there'll be trouble," There was a gushy squelch of another arrow being pulled from a corpse. Arrows. Ha! A bunch of oversized toothpicks. And then Alistair moved in front of him and blocked the view.
"Hold up, no! NO! Let me talk to him, I've got it under control. Oghren what - what are you even doing here?"
"Drinking, of course! Ale n' mead," Oghren paused for a particularly strong burp, "n' rum. All gone now. But I got myself a new plan." He squared his chest, leaned on his axe and declared. "Was thinking I'd try m'hand at becoming a bona fide Grey Warden. N' here you are. Just the man to help me out!"
"We need to keep moving." Loghain snapped, far too bossy for someone with twigs for weapons. "Leave him. How did he even get in here?"
"Dunno..." the blondie in the back shrugged. Oghren caught a glint of a gold earring on her. "He was here when I was... er, let in." Can't believe that dwarf wasn't kicked out by the servants, the judgy stare and the high-and-mighty pose she struck seemed to say without saying.
"Hey, Alistair, who's the mage?" Oghren scowled at the mouthy thing in a skirt far too long for a young leggy lass. Alistair did look pretty guilty back there about the wedding. Well that explains things. Oghren squinted. "Girlfriend?" He squinted some more. Too flat-chested, poor thing. Ahha! His grin widened. Mages, everyone's in a skirt and without a proper beard on 'em, you can never even tell what's what 'til the ale flows, and they're dancing on the table kicking their legs high enough to see if the knickers are frilly or not. "I know I know, don't tell me." He let out a triumphant laugh. "Boyfriend! Well, well, you lil' pike twirler, you! I knew you had a secret. Should I leave you two alone?"
Alistair spluttered, red as a ruby. Behind him, Loghain looked positively green. Serves him right, not keeping an eye on that daughter of his. Too late now. Bet all it took a few winks and a flash of thigh, and you've gone and lost the lad to Blondie over here for good.
"Wo-ow!" The mage - a lad for sure, far too mouthy for a lass - pitched in first, all bitey like a caged cat. "A dwarf that smells like a brewery and spews shite, you never see that anywhere these days."
"Huh, lookit here, Alistair, you've got yourself a mage and a comedian. Funny, thought those normally died young," Oghren just had to mutter, to have the last word with blondie. But first things first. He turned back to Alistair: "So, how 'bout it? The Grey Wardens, they sure could use someone of my calibre. Ri-ight?"
"Er, I don't know if that's a good idea to discuss right now," Alistair stammered. Shy lad he was, but easy to persuade. "Listen, what happened here anyway?"
Oghren shrugged. "What with the Keep's keepers and the servant girls, and the templars... It's a Summerday party! Everyone was here. Even the spawn showed up."
"When did that happen exactly?"
"Oh, sometime after the party. Give or take a few drinks. Or weeks."
"And where is everyone now? Oghren, think! Where are they? The rest of the servants, the guards, the staff?"
Oghren waved his hand around, feeling far too sobered up for such a morning. "Your guess is as good as mine, m'lad. Not everyone can take the heat of the battle like us real warriors! Especially not around the spawn."
The look Alistair exchanged with Loghain was far too sombre and dry. What was the point of guessing what happened to the servants when it was all so clear, and Oghren felt the sudden urge to crack a few darkspawn skulls open just to quench his worry and his thirst.
"Cheer up, friends, the day is young and there's still grog somewhere in this shithole. It'll be a bloody pity to let the darkspawn have all the fun 'round here."
Safety's in numbers, Anders told himself. Even if the crowd he was currently numbered among included a leering drunk dwarf, a grouchy old commander with terrible taste in dog names, and a Warden named Alistair who had apparently had something scandalous to do with the Queen herself.
Speaking of disappearing into a crowd, Amaranthine's close! Has to be. Got to keep my head down for now. If I'm lucky, I'll be slipping out of their clutches as soon as possible. After I ditch these three, I'll have to find Namaya in town as soon as possible. Break my phylactery. Catch the next ship out and off to the open seas I go!
Where would I go to? Tevinter, where all mages are free... Oh, but wouldn't Rivain or Antiva be amazing... Even Kirkwall would be better than here! I could see about maybe breaking Karl out.
As soon as they're distracted - and that can't be too hard around that drunken oaf - I'm out of here! Off to far far away, and there's got to be somewhere in Thedas far enough or inconvenient enough where the Chantry won't bother chasing after one unimportant runaway.
Anders had never had allies in a fight before, and it was really refreshing to be able to stand back and watch, flicking an occasional fireball when needed. The mutt and the warriors - one and a half of them if you counted the drunken dwarf with an axe, took all the heat of battle. It was so much better than Anders fighting alone, ducking the brunt of the blows all the while.
It was such good luck too, since 'round the side corridor in the Keep was a viper's nest of darkspawn. Hey, Anders thought absentmindedly, admiring Alistair's sword work from behind, You've got moves. But watch out for that short one in the hat, looks like he's working up to a mean spell. Lucky for you I'm faster.
BOOM! HA, TAKE THAT! Don't like being trapped in a flame ring, do you? YeahyeahYEAH, suck on a fireball!
Anders squinted and covered his nose and mouth with his collar. He was rapidly finding out that one bad thing about fire spells in close quarters was all the smoke they left behind. Ugh. I am never eating well-done meat again.
"That's enough." A sharp point in the middle of his back stopped Anders mid-spell. "Put it out."
Ack! The archer! Where'd he come from? He was way over there last I looked. But yeah, it's probably best to stop before I set the roof on fire.
But the flames were already going out, and that wasn't Anders' doing at all.
From what he could see in all the smoke, Shorty, trapped by Anders' flames, was cut down by Alistair. Then the fringe of the dampening, silencing, muffling wave off the grinning man reached Anders and hit him fast enough to put out any leftover sparks of flame lingering on in his fingertips.
Cleansing chant! Not aimed at me, thank the Maker, just edgeshock, from over there, right where... Oh shit!
Alistair's a templar.
Fuck! It took all of Anders' strength not to bolt at once. Lucky I never actually admitted to being an apostate! What do I do? They're probably both with the Chantry! Since when did those bastards get sneaky enough to ditch the tin cans?
Even with magic dampened, Anders had a few tricks up his sleeve so mmmaybe, with luck, he could take Alistair by surprise while he was distracted with darkspawn, but the old sod in charge just had to be all fired up on Lyrium with eyes that blue, and even if not his quiver was still full enough to shift the odds out of Anders' favor. No use wasting time dreaming of open seas, Anders had real priorities now, like not getting turned Tranquil, and figuring out the fastest escape route out of this shitstorm of a Keep.
"Don't even think of running," came a growl from the shadows. Anders' heart nearly jumped out of his chest. They know! The sneaky sod was right behind him, another arrow ready.
"Andraste's flaming knickers! Watch where you point that! You can accidentally kill a man with an arrow to the arse, you know," Come on, I've gotta keep my voice level, keep it friendly, tell another joke. Quick! As long as he talked, that helped get them past the OHSHITGONNADIE part of the conversation.
"I'd rather Alistair didn't take friendly fire," the archer snapped, blue glare fixed on Anders. "Including spell fire from an unpracticed hothead. Do we have a problem with that?"
"Hey, worry about the drunken dwarf dervish!" Anders yelped, "My aim's fine!"
The archer looked far from impressed. "Not 'fine' enough. No more fireballs. Concentrate on keeping us healed. And stop their arrows."
Anders gulped at the pointed arrow tip. Before one of mine stops you, went unspoken but crystal clear. He really didn't want to become a target practice dummy today, or any day, especially at such short range. Especially by someone who clearly meant business. And, OK, maybe he could be a bit more careful from now on, just to keep paranoid sods at bay.
So at least it looked like Broody didn't have issues with magic per se, just Anders' attack spells. But those were the most fun! Anders' shoulders slumped, resigned. "Yeah yeah, healing spells," he sighed, "I know a few. Count on it." The way that dwarf swings his axe, one of us will need limbs reattached by the time it's all over.
"Loghain?" Alistair called out, from the doorway, and it was all so informal for a soldier speaking to his commander. Definitely not templars. "All clear. But there's a big group outside."
The man - Loghain apparently - turned, casting around like a predator scoping out prey, sensing something far past the walls of the room that Anders couldn't possibly see or hear or smell. "At least a dozen. More above us."
Well, that's just creepy. Never heard of templars knowing where darkspawn are. Must be Grey Wardens, like the dwarf said. The books spoke of Grey Wardens having mages in their ranks, free mages! Anders had never actually met a Warden before, but he did know of one. Rivaini guy, used to come through every couple of years, to visit the First Enchanter. Never went anywhere without those blades of his, even the library. We were all curious why he kept coming by, it's not like the Circle got many visitors.
Grey Wardens were all right as far as Anders was concerned. Alistair. Loghain. Big names like that, they might be more than all right, maybe they won't hand me over to the Chantry, maybe they can even help me.
Maker knows, with my phylactery sitting around on a shelf just waiting to be traced right back to me, I need as many allies as I can get!
"Hey," he tried his luck. "Do you two know this Warden named Duncan? I've never seen him do this thing you do!" It was a friendly attempt at chatter. Anything to stop them from seeing him as a threat, to keep those arrows and those magic dampening chants aimed the other way. "...then again, not many darkspawn around 'til recently."
He expected some answer: maybe a cheerful 'yeah, he's a good man', but most likely confused denial, because really, though Anders was a mage he didn't know the name of every fellow mage in even his own Tower. But instead Alistair turned, his face far too pale, as if all the blood had drained from it. He opened his mouth as though he had something to say, or to ask, but couldn't quite get the words out.
Loghain somehow managed to look even more sullen. "Yes," he snapped over his shoulder, before walking over to Alistair and clasping his arm briefly.
The room grew so awkwardly quiet you could almost hear the dust settle. Anders tried not to stare too obviously.
Er, wow. OK, noted! Duncan's a No-No. ...Or maybe this is how Grey Wardens always are before a fight, or after one. Surly. Tense. Who knows? Wardens are a weird lot, by all accounts. Secretive.
Luckily, that loud dwarf could be counted on to break an awkward silence, or apparently, any silence at all. "So why are we stopping? Onward, friends, let's go introduce some more darkspawn arses to my foot!" He swung his axe in an unsteady arc and Anders winced. "We'll clear our way to the wine cellars first. It'll be ale o'clock soon, and then we'll break for wine 'til the whisky hour!"
If I'm still alive by the whisky hour... Please, please, please let there be a whisky hour, to make up for all the risky hours before!
It didn't take the skills of a seasoned battle tactician - or even your average mabari hound running with his hunting pack - to see the problems involved in leading a team of an axe-swinging drunk, a hot-headed, jumpy mage, and Alistair in the middle of it all, trying not to show how badly shaken he was. Well, who can blame him?
Of all the names Loghain hadn't expected - or more to the point, wanted - to hear, especially now, from a stranger, Alistair's long-dead first Commander was near the top of the list.
For something that started off so well, the sooner this day's over the better. The last thing Alistair needs in the heat of battle is Duncan's name thrown in his face. He's been through enough already.
"Hang on," Alistair cried, "This one's still alive." A guard sprawled in the hallway could've passed for a corpse, at least before he stirred a little.
When Alistair kneeled beside him, he croaked, "Help. They took Varel."
"Didn't see. Damn darkspawn."
"Can you do anything for him?" Loghain threw over his shoulder at Anders, hoping he'd be useful enough to know a few stronger healing spells.
"Sorry..." The mage stepped back. "He's beyond healing. Maybe a shot of whisky for the pain?"
"I like the way you think," Oghren drawled. "Got any for me?"
"This isn't a joke!" Loghain snapped.
The man gasped out some more words between panting breaths, "Came at us... outta nowhere... Spawn in charge... Has magic... Talks."
"A talking darkspawn?" Alistair and Loghain exchanged worried looks, "That can't be good."
Things didn't look good for the dying man either, he was ranting, quieter and quieter, about his blood burning, about his vision going dark, until he was only strong enough to draw a few final breaths. Logain had witnessed firsthand what darkspawn corruption did to an ordinary human. Something he and Alistair, as Wardens, had survived unaffected. At least when it comes, it claims them quick.
Loghain looked down at the corpse of a man who was most certainly not prepared to deal with the darkspawn... Such a pointless loss. We're too late to save this one. Let's hope Varel is in better shape when we find him.
If this is the worst of it, and I'm leading a team of unprotected men into battle, how long do our allies have until their blood boils? He assessed the Taint: not too strong here. Not yet, but will they be driven mad by prolonged exposure?
When this battle is over, will I have to make them decide to drink death for a chance at life or sanity?
Loghain knew he fought well with Alistair, but with an organized threat at the Keep, especially a talking one, it was clear that they needed more recruits. Maker! I can't imagine having to manage that drunken thug of a dwarf.
The mage too was a walking timebomb. I've got to watch him. He's completely unused to fighting in a team. What's worse, the smoke and glare from spells were visibility hazards, unpredictably impairing Loghain's own battle effectiveness. And if Loghain saw one more spell flung haphazardly in Alistair's direction while he was too absorbed in combat to duck, he'd turn that mage over to the templars himself.
It was clear that only he and Alistair stood much chance of defeating the immediate threat. Let's just hope the rest won't be a hindrance. We can't afford to lose now.
It had always been the cornerstone of Loghain's self-sacrificing life, that all the good he had done and all he had achieved, had been done for Ferelden, for the country Maric and Rowan had fought for.
And yet, now, as he rushed to the ramparts of the Keep his daughter had given him as a wedding present, with his beloved Alistair on one side and his good mabari hound on the other, with a band of fighters (however ragtag) at his heels, that lofty and lonely ideal of fighting for Ferelden was the last thing on his mind.
If not for Ferelden, what am I fighting for now? His mind wandered, just for a second, to the promise of a warm, clean bed large enough for two, with bedposts sturdy enough to withstand even Alistair's most impassioned struggles. Can't rally the troops with that, he thought with a smirk, but it's what I'm fighting for!
How faraway, but how welcome the idea of that bed seemed now.
It's our Keep. Anora's present. Our new home. A home we can hold and build into something truly worthwhile. And I'll be damned if a pack of darkspawn, talking or not, is going to take that away from us!
Of all the places the Blight has ruined, I will not let it claim another, not while I stand.
"Be taking this one gently. We are wishing no more death than is necessary," the creature drawled, every word a taunt.
"Necessary? As if your kind has ever done anything else," Varel spat, forced to his knees by the heavy gauntleted hand nearly crushing his skull. A blade dug a warning into the skin at his neck.
It's good I'm here of all places. A good, honest death, what's one more for a place that was supposedly built on thousands of bones. Vigil's Keep has been around for a long time, and, Varel was quite sure, she'll keep standing long after he was gone. A pity I won't see her liberated of this scum. He was just beginning to enjoy his duties once more, after Arl Howe's reign of tyranny ended. Then the darkspawn attack had cut it short, but it had been a good run. A fair one, if short. He was quite enjoying the news from the capitol lately, with Queen Anora in charge.
"Others will come, creature. They will stop you."
A man's fortress was his everything, and that home was well worth dying for. With a darkspawn blade at his throat, and the hard stones of his home at his feet, Varel was ready to meet in the Fade those who he couldn't save from Howe's dungeons, to say his apologies at last.
This was the closest he'd come to death since settling down here after his fighting days. So he'd never been so happy to hear the sound of armored feet running closer, the bark of a warhound and a distant: "Loghain, there!"
Of all the people... why did it have to be Loghain Mac Tir!
And who's the fool with a deathwish ordering the General around? Despite what they said about Grey Wardens, Varel knew one thing, military rank wasn't entirely erased, not even by the Joining ritual.
The monster spoke, addressing Varel, taunting him still, but it didn't matter. What mattered was the ring of swords and of real human words.
"Whoa! It is talking!" someone else exclaimed.
"Well, let's shut it up already," a gruffer voice called out.
Varel heard the first arrow meet its mark with a dull thud, and then his captor tumbled to the ground, arrow in his gut; his heavy blade, which a second ago was at Varel's neck, dropping right there. Varel crawled toward it. Gotta get out of these ropes and help them.
His rescuers, an odd crew of four, and a hound, were in a whirl of combat. Five of us now, he thought, as he cut himself free and grabbed the heavy darkspawn blade, and with the experience of an old soldier, swung and sunk it down, severing the previous owner's neck with his own weapon.
He stood, captive no longer, seasoned soldier's instincts kicking in despite years of retirement from the military. Loghain Mac Tir, strutting in and saving his life with a platoon of vagabonds, was the last man Varel thought he'd be happy to see. But Varel was still alive, alive in a free Vigil's Keep, and the spawn were rapidly overwhelmed and cut down.
They all circled around the spawn leader: he held out the longest, a stubborn porcupine of arrows, until he finally went down.
Varel dropped the clumsy darkspawn blade and walked up to his rescuers, staring at the archer in black. It was Loghain, all right. The armor was all wrong, but the face was unmistakeable.
"Commander," Varel gritted out, slow and grudging, "I owe you my life."
"Varel, I presume. You in charge here?"
"Yes, I was." As much as anyone in Howe's megalomaniacal shadow was ever in charge of anything.
Loghain nodded. "Seneschal Varel then."
Loghain. Howe's old ally. Reinstating Varel to his former position with a word. Is that all it takes? Once a General, always a General. Or Warden-Commander now, according to the Denerim gossip. Warden or not, even speaking Loghain's name left a bad taste in Varel's mouth. Men like Loghain were only good at drawing up borders on a map and fighting wars over them.
This Keep deserves better than war, Varel thought, a Keep is a home to many. And what do people like Loghain possibly know of home or of peacetime? I hope he and his won't stay long once the Keep is cleared. Visitors from Denerim never do. City folks aren't built for the simple life.
Things will be back to normal soon enough.
"That's the last of it, good boy," the young soldier in Loghain's command grinned at his hound, his happy voice breaking into Varel's foreboding thoughts of life past the darkspawn siege. "You can stop licking. There's no more blood left on me, go get Loghain!"
Loghain, completely unlike any General Varel had ever seen or heard of when faced with such a total absence of basic military discipline, just rolled his eyes and drawled, "Leave off."
"What? You don't want your armor to get all crusty and stiff!" The youngster widened his cheerful beam.
Loghain's eyes narrowed to lethal slits. "If you're so concerned about my leathers, you can oil them yourself." he growled. "Later."
"Yes, ser!" the young man replied, breathless and flushed with apprehension.
Varel felt relieved. That's much more like it. A bit of military discipline will do that insubordinate young recruit the world of good.
"To Solona, Ancestors keep her - or I suppose the Fade will now, you staff-twirling types, yer not much for the Stone." The dwarf took a gulp which drained a good two thirds of his mug. "And here's to Alistair! Never should've let him leave in a huff, that one time, poor lad... th'Chantry did a number on him already, and he didn't deserve to get left out of the biggest battle Denerim ever seen! And - to you - 'cause today, thanks to me, you lucky, lucky lad, you finally get to taste your first proper drink, eh-heh? Worry not, Oghren will sort you out. Yer welcome!"
Anders snorted. 'My first proper drink?' Maker's hairy bollocks! This cheeky bugger's never even heard of potions, has he? Lucky you can walk under tables, chuckles, 'cause you're about to get drunk under one! He conveniently iced the mug's sides then set a lovely little flicker of blue flame dancing on the surface for a great big show, before downing the lot in one long, slow draught.
"Now, now, don't get hasty," Oghren lectured smugly. "Scrawny young thing like you, sweetcheeks - hah! - Cheeks! Bare as a nug's arse, you poor lad. Two mugs, tops, and it'll be the end of you for the night. You've gotta savor what you've got, hic - while you've got it. And I stiiiiiill got it! Look at me, at the end of the day, m'fine, juuuust fine, no matter what Felsi says, good enough to hold up my axe and break another cask after of all that drink-"
"Whoa, whoa, slow down, watch where you swing that thing!"
Oghren squinted at Anders, tilting his head and casting an unfocused glare in his direction. His wet mustache twitched.
"Mages! Lightweights, the lot of you. What else do I need to slaughter to find proper drinking company in this place? Loghain! Huh, wonder where he's slunk off to? The night's still young, and it's not like his daughter's going to be any less single in the morning. Watch out, daddy!"
"Hush! Look, no need to wake the entire Keep. You wanted whisky hour, you've got it!"
"You? Ha, you and - hic - what army? Lemme tell you aaall about armies!"
Oghren lasted another hour before he reclined too far back on his chair, and the chair tilted and fell flat on the floor with Oghren in it, mustache still wet with ale, snoring up a storm.
Anders hmphed and took the glamour off his latest mug, revealing it to be still quite full. "Berserkers! Just can't hold their liquor worth a damn." He sniffed the mug and wrinkled his nose. "Ugh. What is this, pickled mabari piss?"
Whatever it was, it put Oghren out for the night, and with the farmboy and his commander nowhere to be seen, Anders had a pretty good chance of making himself scarce and getting to Amaranthine. They might look around a bit, but they probably won't go to too much trouble, or look too far. It's not like they've got a lot of people to spare searching. Not like I matter to them. Give them a few days, they'll hardly remember me.
And Oghren here is far too drunk to point me out from any other mage, or probably any other human.
It was close to midnight when he made it past the guards and to the servants' gate, unwilling to risk even a spell spark to light his way, when he stumbled into something steady, and warm, and hard.
Not darkspawn. Not a corpse.
It shoved at him with a wet nose, and whined.
Anders gasped and stepped back, readying a spell, but in the faint glow of his magic, he saw the insufferable hound roll over and present his belly.
The dog bounced up and gave another possibly friendly whine-pant. His tongue stuck out, splattering a ridiculous amount of drool everywhere.
"It's Dog, isn't it? Well, I am a cat person," Anders informed the overgrown beast. "And that's just one more reason I won't get along with your masters, wherever they wandered off to."
The dog lifted one ear at that, and then brought his chest and head low to the tip of Anders' toe, wiggling his hauches all the while.
"And you're certainly more pleased with having masters than I am. Let me through."
Dog pounced after him, all slobber and eagerness and an occasional far-too-noisy bark, and pulled the edge of Anders' robe back toward the keep.
"Shh!" Anders sighed. "Fine, fine. Best get you back inside before you go off chasing every other runaway apostate from here to Amaranthine: the next one may not be so friendly. Oh, come on! I'm going, I'm going. Why can't you be a nice, small, quiet kitten?"
The dog was undoubtedly a stubborn one, and it wouldn't do to start his journey off the wrong foot, with a mabari warhound the size of a pony having a noseful of Anders' scent to track him by.
Since I'm not going anywhere tonight, best find an empty bed. Can't be a shortage of those already. … mmm, in a place this big, a room all of my own, wider than the barracks, with wide open windows, locked doors, and no one watching me sleep. Wouldn't that be nice?
With the moon rising over the trees, Anders could barely see the glinting outline of the Keep's battlements above him. They were far too low to seem really ominous and threatening; they looked nothing like the Circle tower.
It's a long way from Tevinter, and the place is a bit short of naked dancing girls or boys, but I suppose it'll have to do for now.