It was a starless night, full of nothing but darkness. A heavy fog rested upon the narrow finger of the Waking Sea and all the land around it. The rhythmic, tranquil lapping of oars against the water echoed against the grey and black shadows. From the curved wooden prow of the small boat hung a glass lantern that swung back and forth with the rocking of the small and steady waves. Though it gave off a soft circle of light, it was hardly enough to help the ferryman's navigation. And so he rowed by instinct and memory, and prayed to his Maker that the water stayed as calm as it was.
It was a terrible night to be crossing into Orlais.
The two passengers who rode the boat were obviously warriors, and obviously Fereldan. One was a dwarf with a long flaxen beard, golden plate armour and a royal blue cape thrown about his shoulders. On his right hand sat the signet ring of House Aeducan, and in his sheath was a dwarven greatsword so finely crafted that it would make any king of the surface green with envy. He travelled with a man who wore a weathered but well-kept set of armour that shone a dull silver; it had served him well since the rebellion, and he had never seen purpose to replace it. His hair was dark, and his eyes shone with a sharp intelligence, though there was an unmistakable tiredness to him - and a hard, bitter edge to his stare.
"I must admit," The dwarf said with an amused smile that tugged on his beard, "I never would have been able to foresee this moment in my life."
"Travelling by boat?" The human replied gruffly.
"If you must know, there was a time where travelling by boat not only seemed unlikely, but more of a dark threat than an idle imagining. However, you will find that I was referring to the fact that I am travelling with you, ser - of all people - to Val Royeaux."
"My fate has come as a great surprise to me as well, Lord Aeducan. I doubt that there was anyone who wagered their gold on it and won."
"I myself lost three sovereigns." Remarked the ferryman, as they pushed through the fog and drew near a small dock. He ably threw a loop of rope around an old stump of wood and tied it in place, and held the boat steady as his passengers went ashore.
"Is there boarding hereabouts?" The human asked, peering through the cold murkiness but seeing nothing.
"Only one inn on this side of the border," The ferryman answered, "But if you stay on the road, and you're not too weary, you'll make it to Val Foret before dawn breaks."
"Thank you, my good man," The dwarf smiled, and dropped three gold coins into the boatman's hand, "For the trouble we've caused you."
The Fereldans listened to the splashing of the oars as the boat disappeared backwards, and they walked forwards. On most nights, if they had wanted passage back across for some reason, they would have only had to light a lantern and place it on the dock. But the weather permitted no such thing, and whether they liked it or not, they were trapped on the other side of the sea. So they began to make their way down the road.
"I suppose the sensible thing is to go straight through to Val Foret." The dwarf mused, as the outlines of trees greeted them through the silver mist.
"I'd much rather find the inn on our side," The human replied, "The fewer nights I have to spend in Orlais the better."
"It might be an idea to sleep now and journey further tomorrow," The dwarf nodded, "And I must confess that the clouds hang too low for my liking tonight, and call to mind old fears of falling into the sky."
They did not walk far along the road before coming upon the inn itself. A shabby old building, with wooden walls built from the logs of the forest nearby, and heavily barred windows in desperate need of cleaning. It had a look better suited to a prison than any kind of lodgings. The door was closed to keep out the fog, but the welcome light sat in the front window, and the sound of off-key drunken warbling drifted from within. Hanging from the signpost was a flat piece of wood that had been painted with the inn's name.
"The Broken Skull?" The dwarf rose an eyebrow, "I shall never understand how your people come up with these things."
"There could be mountains nearby that resemble a broken skull," The human explained, "Or perhaps it was inspired by a local legend."
"Whatever the case, it's not a very welcoming moniker for a place to sleep."
The human turned the knob of the door and found that it was locked, though the boisterous song still sounded from within. He knocked loudly and shouted:
Finally, there was a rattle of keys and the door opened slowly with a long creak. The face that peered out was that of a large, middle-aged man with a bald head and grey moustache. He held a candle in an iron holder, and looked over the two travellers on his doorstep. Curiously for an inn-keeper, he seemed displeased to find them there. But he waved them inside with a grudging gesture.
"Your names?" He asked, locking the door behind them.
"I am Lord Aeducan of the Grey Wardens, good ser. But what of it?" The dwarf asked, looking at the innkeeper with a skeptical eye. Most places were either pleased enough with his coin not to ask questions, or knew him by reputation before he arrived.
"It is a strange night for travellers, and there are more bandits than soldiers in these parts. I am a cautious man, and look for no trouble," He turned to the human, "And what are you called by?"
"Loghain Mac Tir."
This answer stunned the innkeeper, who looked at the travellers with wide eyes and a strange quality of reverence. He nodded, as if accepting some truth recently established in his mind, and looked over his shoulder towards the dining room.
"There are three other guests tonight," He said with a note of conspiracy in his voice, "But I haven't given them their rooms yet. Perhaps I can arrange for the two of you to have the largest chamber, unbeknownst to the others. I would ask for no extra gold."
"A most kind offer," Aeducan shook his head, "But we would not dream of taking the lodgings of those who arrived before us. Whatever you can provide in the way of a small room would be more than suitable, though we would greatly prefer one with two bunks if you can manage it."
"A dwarf of excellent manners," The innkeeper smiled, and his face was taken with a sudden twitch, "Very well, if that's how you wish it. But come, first you must have something to eat."
The dining room was lit by only a few candles sitting on rough-hewn tables, most of which were empty. One of the walls was decorated with the heads of halla, whose impressive pale antlers curled up and out towards the ceiling, and whose staring lifeless eyes caused a shiver to run up Aeducan's spine. It was an unusual sensation for him, since he was in no way a squeamish man or sensitive about death. Beneath the heads were the three other guests, with tankards in their hands, talking in loud, vulgar voices. Their table was covered with puddles of spilled brew, their cheeks were flushed and their demeanour was shameless. As they watched the Fereldans walk into the room, they cheered at them in slurred Orlesian words and toasted nothing in particular.
The innkeeper glanced at the drunkards with contempt as he showed his new guests to their seats. On the other side of the room.
"I'm sorry you had to come tonight," He said quietly and shook his head, "Can I offer you a drink?"
"Indeed?" Aeducan grinned, "I'm surprised that you would have anything left on tap after serving those fellows. Mead, then, if you have some."
"Mead," Loghain scoffed disdainfully, and turned to the innkeeper, "An ale for me. Fereldan ale."
The innkeeper nodded happily, a thin smile twisting the features of his face, and went away.
"It is worth noting that the finest mead in all the world comes from Orzammar, and Orzammar is in Fereldan. So there's no need for you to act superior about the matter."
"I am not the one who has an air of superiority, Lord Aeducan." From the corner of his eye, Loghain watched the innkeeper pour the drinks and prepare two plates of the evening's meal, "What do you make of that fellow?"
"He certainly seems to think highly of you. The news from Denerim must travel slower than we do. You will have to make him a present of your signature before we leave."
One of the Orlesians shouted a lewd punchline, causing his companions to spit their drinks on one another, pound the tables with their fists and roar with laughter. The innkeeper cringed suddenly at the sound, and his face pulled once more with his strange twitch.
"See how he does that? The tic of his mouth?" Loghain asked under his breath.
"Yes, I noticed it before," Aeducan nodded nonchalantly, "Perhaps he has a disease of the nerves, or some old wound not properly healed."
They were each brought their tankard along with their supper. A slice of roasted boar, some boiled cabbage and half a potato apiece. It was far more grandiose than either traveller was expecting from so small a tavern, and in such a disadvantaged location. The innkeeper placed a loaf of bread on their table and pulled up a chair.
"I don't believe that you've given us your name, ser." Aeducan noted, trying to be as accommodating as possible. In truth, he wanted to eat quietly and head to bed as soon as possible, but the rowdy Orlesians would have prevented that anyway.
"Most people call me Tenancier." He shrugged.
"Do you have many guests? A strange location, right between the docks and Val Foret." The dwarf pursued cheerfully, as Loghain quietly tucked into his meal.
"Few men visit twice." Tenancier twitched as he replied, and chuckled softly at his answer.
"How long have you lived on this border?" Loghain asked, "You're old as I, at least. You must have seen something of the rebellion."
"Yes, indeed. I saw a great deal of the rebellion, more than I care to burden you with," A fire was in his eyes, and he lowered his voice to near a whisper, "You are a great man, Loghain, of that there is no doubt…"
"Nothing but doubt plagues my name, landlord. I am great no longer."
"I will hear no such thing from you! You are a hero and a patriot!" Tenancier gasped, and spoke further in low and impassioned tones, "Far greater than the Orlesian swine across the room! They are making their way to Denerim, where the land is cheap since the Blight and the repair work is plentiful. They will take Fereldan homes and Fereldan jobs, as their fathers stole from our countrymen before them."
Tension hung thick in the air, and Loghain glanced towards the carousing trio of youths who now sang a low sonorous song together. Though they seemed little more than the usual wayfarers, ghosts haunted the air around them. Memories of battles they were too young to have fought, deeds they had never done.
"Well…" Aeducan broke the spell, "I'm off to bed. We'll be on the road early in the morning, since we have quite a bit of ground to cover and my companion refuses to travel by horse."
"Rightly so. I will show you to your room." The innkeeper stood from the table and led the Grey Wardens up the stairs.
The hallway of the Broken Skull was dark and narrow, and the candle in Tenancier's hand cast strange, stretching light upon the walls. A smell lingered in the air, almost like pickled vegetables and singed hair mingled with the unmistakable sulphur of lingering magic. As though some faulty spell had been cast upon a side of oxen beef. It was a foul odour, and Aeducan wondered if the bars on the windows would mean that they could not open them to air their room out. The innkeeper stopped in front of one of the doors and opened it with a long creak. Inside were two low, firm beds with little in the way of blankets upon them; there was a wooden table, a chair and a chest of drawers. To his relief, a window looked out onto the forest, but to his disappointment, several bars on the outside sealed it shut.
Tenancier lit a single narrow candle with the one he carried, bid the two goodnight and disappeared back down the hall. Loghain shut the door behind him, and looked puzzled.
"What has you so vexed? The smell?" Aeducan asked, sitting on the bed he preferred and removing his heavy golden boots.
"No. I've slept in less comfortable places with much worse atmosphere in my day," The human shook his head and looked around the room, "But this door has no lock of any sort. There's a rack across the jambs for a bar, but I don't see one."
"Then we will have to sleep in an unlocked room," Aeducan replied blithely, "Keep your dagger at hand, and best leave your mail on."
"Hmph." Loghain scoffed, and began to ready himself for bed.
From downstairs, the songs of the Orlesians quieted into mumbled conversations and the occasional burst of hearty laughter. Soon, only two voices spoke to one another, for the third fellow had passed out. Aeducan lay upon the hard, unpleasant mattress and stared restlessly at the rafters. Sleep would not find him, for some reason or another.
"Perhaps I could take apart that chair and use some piece of it to bar the door…" Loghain said, sitting upon his bunk in a state even more unsound than that of his fellow Warden.
"By the Ancestors, you are paranoid!" Aeducan grumbled, sitting up to examine the chair in question, "It will not do, the legs are too short and the back is too square. Go to sleep."
"And if someone should creep up here in the dead of night and kill us in our beds?" Loghain replied, "What will you think of my paranoia then, good dwarf?"
"I will have returned to the Stone, and will not care a whit either way."
"The table is a good size. It might do," Loghain mused without regard to Aeducan's sentiments, "Lend me your sword for a moment."
"You aren't going to let this go, are you?" The dwarf groaned and stood up, "Take the candle, then. We shall go and see if there is a bar in some other room. Quickly, before anyone else makes their way to bed."
"Don't judge me so harshly - I simply have no ambitions to be murdered in my sleep. For the life of me, I don't know why you should find that strange."
They snuck into the hallway, stepping lightly so that the floorboards gave no creaks or heaves. The sounds of the Orlesians had died down completely, and the two potential thieves silently worried that soon someone would come upstairs and find them lurking about, or stealing wooden planks. The first room they checked yielded nothing of interest, nor did the next. A clatter from downstairs stopped them in their tracks, followed by a second and a third. When no further sounds followed those, they resumed their search. The candle in Loghain's hand burned with a deep orange glow, so that the shadows around them were as thick as walls.
Finally, they came to the third room. Upon opening the door, they were greeted with a stronger wave of the strange odour that filled the whole of the second floor. It hit them suddenly, and Aeducan struggled to not succumb to the sputtering cough that it gave him. In greater quantity, it was close to the smell of a battlefield in a noxious swamp, or so the dwarf imagined, and he placed a hand over his nose and mouth.
On the far side of the room was a narrow door that looked to lead to an alcove or closet, and across it sat a large metal bar. Aeducan gestured at it with an impatient wave of his hand.
"Take it and let's hurry away from here!" He whispered, and wrinkled his nose with disgust.
Loghain stepped forward, his bare feet touching something sticky on the floor. The smell and the silence triggered an old instinct of his, and he half-guessed what was about to happen. When he removed the bar from the alcove door, it swung forward on a broken hinge. The inside was pitch black and almost empty, save for the shape on the floor. Slowly, and with the cold hand of dread upon his neck, he lowered the candle and looked into the face of a corpse.
The body was blue and putrid, the source of the odour now apparent, though it was not the usual stench that accompanied a dead man. He was dressed in an expensive set of robes, made of fine velvet and silver embroidery. His empty hands grasped tightly at the air like claws, and his face was twisted in an expression of pure terror. A heavy chain fastened his ankle to the floor. The wound that had killed him was obvious, for his skull was cleft messily down the center.
With a weary sigh, Aeducan knelt down to the chain and felt along it for the weakest link. With all of his warrior's strength, he pulled it apart and set the lifeless body free as best he could. It had been there too long for anything to be done about the hands or to close the eyes, but the dwarf felt as though he had to put some small piece of it right.
"Do you imagine there is some darker reason that this place is called the Broken Skull?" Aeducan whispered over his shoulder.
"Let's return downstairs and ask that question of our host." Loghain replied coldly.
"First I will retrieve my sword, breastplate and boots. I shall not meet him unprepared."
The silence of the place became much more ominous, the candlelight somehow less sufficient, as they gathered their weapons and made their way down. Through the windows, moonlight was lingering amidst the fog and casting a silver pallor on the night. As they rounded the corner into the dining room, they were greeted by a grisly sight.
The three Orlesians were dead. Their heads had been cut off, and sat upon the table where they had been drinking, so that their blood mixed with the spilled beer and dripped onto the floor. Two of their bodies were slumped against the bar, with red stained sacks tied around the stumps of their necks.
"By the Maker…" Loghain whispered, and Aeducan tightened his grip on his sword.
A trapdoor was open behind the bar, leading into the dirt basement below. They could hear Tenancier's heavy footsteps as he made his way back up the stairs to the dining room. He was covered in blood, and held a meat cleaver in his hand. When he spotted them, waiting for him with weapons at the ready, he seemed more surprised than anything else.
"I thought you were asleep," He said in a casual, almost merry voice, "I didn't disturb you, did I? You will have to pardon the mess, I was hoping to get it out of the way by morning."
"We found the body upstairs," Aeducan said carefully, "The one chained to the floor."
"Oh! That is a shame! Whatever were you doing in that room? And I could have sworn I locked that alcove," The murderous innkeeper replied, "What you must think of me! But I can easily explain, for you see, the man upstairs was an Orlesian apostate. I was worried that he might conjure some spell of escape, so I chained him up before I executed him. He did throw magic at me, thank the Maker it missed, but the smell of it has stayed."
"Why?" Loghain asked, unable to wrest his gaze from the three heads on the table, "Why do this?"
Tenancier seemed taken aback by the question, his face twitched twice in quick succession and his expression was one of deep sadness and confusion.
"But, I thought…" He said, "I thought that you would understand. These men were all Orlesians."
Aeducan glanced with some uncertainty at Loghain, but his countenance did nothing to give his thoughts away. Tenancier smiled weakly with his explanation, and when the two Wardens gave him no response, a wildness overtook him.
"Look," He said frantically, pulling his sleeves up and revealing deep scars that wrapped around both of his wrists, "Look at what they gave me! There are scars on my ankles as well, and my back is covered with lashes that will never fade. But the deepest scar is the one upon my mind - where remain the wounds of six years in a dungeon, sleeping on the cold wet ground, starving, suffering. And what was my crime? Being Fereldan and nothing more!"
"But surely, these three…" Aeducan began to say, but Tenancier let out a burst of laughter that rang of pure lunacy.
"All Orlesians, dwarf! Don't you understand? I have declared war upon them for what they did to me, and that war will never end. No Orlesian lifted a finger to aid me when I suffered most, none listened to my pleas for mercy, none showed me any kindness. And now they reap their rewards!"
"Do you not see how monstrous this is?" Aeducan asked, "You cannot expect us to let this continue. I have many an Orlesian friend, some who aided in saving our lands from the Archdemon itself - would you wage your war against them?"
"I cannot expect a son of Orzammar to understand," Tenancier shook his head sadly, "And if you will not leave me to my work, then I fear I will have to kill you."
"Wait!" Loghain barked, but he was too late.
Tenancier leapt forward, swinging the cleaver towards Aeducan. The blow missed by a hair, and the dwarf stepped neatly to one side, his blade catching the light as he brought it to bare. But the innkeeper had madness on his side, and swung wildly and unexpectedly. The cleaver sliced through a portion of the dwarf's beard and clanged loudly against his breastplate. Tenancier swung it again and again, in rapid succession. He screamed with all of his blood rage, his eyes bursting from his skull and white spittle dripping from the corners of his mouth. He was in too close for Aeducan to land a good blow of his own, to the dwarf's great frustration, and the rapidity of the attack gave him few options.
In a burst of sharp and desperate speed, Loghain struck forward and pressed his sword between Tenancier's shoulders. The point stuck through the madman's chest, and he stumbled against the Warden with the force of it. A hollow breath cleared his lungs and blood bubbled from his chest as the blade was withdrawn, and the innkeeper collapsed onto the floor.
With the empty confusion of a wounded animal, he looked around the room for some explanation of what had befallen him. When finally he looked upon Loghain and his bloody sword, he let out a low and mournful wail.
"You…" He stammered weakly, "You… are… a traitor…"
Loghain knelt beside the dying man and answered him:
"I am," He took Tenancier's hand, "And I am sorry, my countryman."
The innkeeper let out one last pitiful cry and died with a look of great sorrow upon his face.
Aeducan let out a heavy sigh. His shoulder ached from the fighting, and he looked down at the his heavily scratched armour and mutilated beard.
"Oh, sod!" He declared.
They gathered their gear, and placed all the bodies in the basement where Tenancier had been preparing to hide them. Loghain took his sword and scratched out the sign, to show that the inn was closed, and they agreed to inform the authorities of the incident when they arrived at the border crossing. It was just nearing dawn when they struck out onto the road, with tired legs and sleepless eyes. The fog had all but disappeared, leaving only a faint trace of grey mist to obscure the distance and make the nearby forest seem at once too close and too far for comfort. The sky looked as though it intended to be dreary the rest of the day, and threatened to rain on them before they reached Orlais.
"A curious piece of business," Aeducan noted, "I thought for certain that I was done for."
"And why would you think that, Lord Aeducan?" Loghain asked, as though he did not care to hear the answer.
"It struck me as impossible for you to disagree with the man, and so you would have little option but to stand by and watch me die. He was absolute murder with that cleaver of his."
"Murder, was he? A tasteless choice of words." The human scoffed, and in the distance a crow cawed to announce the coming of morning.
"In this case, I grant you that," The dwarf nodded, "And I yet wonder why you ran the poor lunatic through."
"There is no answer that will satisfy you, I fear. But I will tell you that you are wrong. Though I wished desperately to agree with him - to be able to inform you that had you not been present, I would have pressed forward and let him go on killing in remote obscurity - I could not. Why that is, I'm not certain. Perhaps I grow soft with age, or perhaps I wished to end his suffering more than the lives of a few more Orlesians."
"You still hate the Orlesians, then? It was out of no sympathy for the victims?"
"No," The human replied, "I hold no sorrow in my heart for the dead mage, nor the three youths slain last night, nor anyone else he may have killed before. I will never yield to the blindness of sympathy towards a nation of oppressors and cowards, who would at any moment return to our cities and slit our throats."
"You did it to save me, then?" The dwarf chuckled, "Since our friendship has grown to mean so much to you."
"Endeavour not to take this too personally, but that was not the reason, either," The human replied, "It was how he spoke of the war he waged - it would seem that he was clinging to the past, but he was not. The past clung to him. One day, a man stops fighting in the war… but the war never lets him alone."
They walked in the breaking light for a few moments, thinking of all that had passed in the night. Neither of them were as young as they had once been, and their bones ached from the lack of true rest. Strangely, given their opinions of not even a full night before, the both of them were almost eager to get to Val Foret and a pair of soft beds.
"I wish you to know, Loghain," The dwarf said, "I shall always hold you responsible for the loss of my magnificent beard."
"It will grow back." The human raised an eyebrow at him.
"But it will never be the same."