Warning: foul language
The raised Imperial Highway grew more cracked and worn as they travelled south. Several points were reinforced with timbers to prevent the loss of wagons. Finally, it knelt down like a great beast on the verge of dying and buried its head in the ground. The army had built ramps to ease the transition down to the trampled earth. Duncan and Bannon moved ahead as the wagon masters began organizing their teams to descend.
There was an outpost of soldiers guarding the ramp. They did not delay the passage of the Warden and his charge, because messengers had already been through.
The army was encamped in the foothills at the base of a steep cliff. Bannon could see ancient Tevinter towers above them, rising towards the pearl grey clouds. From this distance, they looked whole and majestic, like the grand castles in the wonder tales. He shook his head. No doubt they were as broken and crumbling as the highway. Useful to an extent, but full of cracks and holes.
Bannon and Duncan made their way between some winding hills, screened with a few trees. Then they came out onto a rough plain. Clearly, it was the site of a recent battle. Broken arrows and scraps of armor littered the ground. Unconsciously, they quickened their pace as crows jeered at them from a twisted old tree crouching on a hillock.
They moved east, towards the southern end of the ruins. There was a great divide between two cliffs, spanned by a monumental bridge. Stone pillars as large around as a house rose a hundred feet towards the sky. The stone bridge rested on delicate-looking arches borne by the pillars.
More of the army was encamped in the ravine; the Warden and his recruit passed many guards patrolling the area, and several ranks of soldiers drilling with weapons. They continued unchallenged up a narrow path that climbed the southern cliff. This section was more overgrown, the ruins filled with dirt and bits of wall worn down to rounded nubs, somewhat like gravestones.
"The main camp is in the ruins on the other side of the ravine," Duncan said. He led Bannon along a broken path littered with upturned paving stones and pieces of statuary. They came out on what appeared to be an old piece of the Imperial Highway that widened out onto the bridge they had seen from below.
"Isn't there an easier way to get there?" the elf griped.
"Easier, yes. But not as fast." Duncan walked several paces out onto the bridge, then leaned his elbows on the stone railing. Bannon wasn't sure he'd want to try that, as cracked and old as it was. There were some rather large chunks missing from the bridge further down the span. He moved a bit past Duncan, peering at the army over the edge. "The soldiers are camped on the grounds below; the bulk of the army," Duncan explained. "The elite, the officers, the Grey Wardens, and the mages are up here. To the north is the elven encampment." The human cast a sidewise look at Bannon, as if reading his thoughts of sneaking off there. "There's a switchback that the wagons use, back where we left the supply train. The enemy can't get to it without going through the whole army first. Your people are well-protected."
"Valuable resources, hm?" Can't let the darkspawn destroy the food, supplies, and servants.
Duncan lowered his head. He seemed to hesitate a minute, then he said, "You have a rather limited range of experience with humans. Forgive me for saying so, but where you're from, you only come in contact with the dregs of human society. Not all humans are so hateful and contemptuous towards elves."
"Ah," Bannon said, nodding thoughtfully. "There are all those nobles," he pointed out. "Fine, upstanding humans. Dote on their elven servants. Oh, like, say... Vaughn. Now there's a fine prince of a-"
Duncan whirled quickly on him. "Hold your tongue!"
Bannon opened his mouth to tell the shem where to stick it, but Duncan flicked his eyes past Bannon, towards the far end of the bridge.
The elf turned. A group of armored men was marching towards them at a quick pace. Their breastplates gleamed, even in the overcast light. The men wore golden capes, and the fellow out front must have been someone important, for his armor was gold-burnished. He wore no helmet, and his shoulder-length golden hair rippled with each step he took. His oval face was accented with strong angles of brow and jaw. His crystal blue eyes danced as he drew up to them. "Duncan!" he called, smiling brightly.
The Grey Warden moved to the center of the bridge, giving Bannon a surreptitious hand signal to hang back. Bannon didn't begrudge him; this was clearly one of the noble fancy-pants he had been about to insult. The elf faded into the background.
"Your Majesty," Duncan said. Did he actually sound nervous? "I didn't expect-"
"A royal welcome?" The golden shem beamed brightly. "I got the word from the lookouts and came to meet you." His blue gaze flashed at Bannon. "And this must be the new recruit you mentioned."
'Your Majesty'? 'Royal welcome'? Shit! It was the King of Ferelden! Bannon dropped to one knee, head bowed. "Your Majesty," he said contritely, hoping the king hadn't noticed his lack of swift obesiance.
"Please, friend," King Cailen said, stepping forward. "There's no need for that. The Grey Wardens are a noble order, honored by myself, like my father before me." He reached down and helped Bannon to rise. The king actually touched him! Touched him with his golden gauntlets! Bannon was overwhelmed. Never in his wildest dreams could he imagine talking to the king. And the king treating him like a friend. Damn! It's good to be a Warden! Cailen smiled as if understanding the bemused expression that must be plastered on his face. "What is your name, friend?"
"Bannon, Your Majesty."
The king nodded. "I am glad Duncan has found a worthy recruit for the Wardens. Thank you for joining us in this fight." A little less official-sounding, he said, "I am concerned about the poverty of your people in Denerim. When we win this war, I will be looking into reforms to improve the lives of the elves, and bring down the alienage wall."
"You are too kind, Your Majesty," Bannon said humbly. By the glances a couple of the guards were shooting at each other, they thought so, too.
The king turned his attention back to Duncan. "You've missed another battle, my friend; two days ago. The Wardens fought like beasts at the front!" Cailen grinned, though a worried look crossed Duncan's face. "None were killed," the exuberant ruler assured him. "We beat back the darkspawn again. But the Archdemon hasn't shown itself." His expression sobered and he stroked his jaw thoughtfully. And unspoken question passed between King and Warden.
"It will, Your Majesty," Duncan said with ominous certainty.
"I hope so. It will be just like the tales." He turned to face the western horizon, gesturing for Duncan to stand beside him. The Warden moved to comply, his face sternly schooled. "The King doing battle with the Grey Wardens at his side. It will be glorious!" Just then, the clouds broke up a little, and broad swaths of light speared down towards the battlefield. For a moment the tableau did look like a painting of the triumphant heroes of old. The king's armor gleamed. As for Duncan's, well, the Warden was still covered in road dust from the journey.
"Well," the king said; "I'm late for a meeting with Loghain. I'd better hurry back before he sends out a search party again." He looked over to Bannon a moment. "Good luck, friend," he said sincerely. "Duncan, I will see you at the strategy meeting tonight."
Duncan crossed his wrists before his chest and gave the king a Ferelden bow. Bannon quickly copied him. Apparently, this was one formality the Wardens were not exempt from. The king signalled to his guards, and led them back across the bridge. The elf watched them go.
"Did the King of Ferelden just say he hoped there was an Archdemon coming to ravage his country?" Bannon asked, as the entourage vanished from sight.
Duncan rubbed his temples. "You must understand, Cailen is a young king. Whose father indulged him when he was a boy." When Bannon didn't say anything, but just kept staring at him, the Warden added, "He's a good man. It's only a pity his father died so suddenly. But Maric always was one for adventures," he mused regretfully. King Maric, Cailen's father, had set out on an expedition to foreign lands, but his ship went down in a storm, all hands lost. That was only a few years ago; Bannon remembered the city of Denerim going into mourning. Duncan broke out of his own musings and started across the bridge. "Teyrn Loghain is still the general of Ferelden's armies. Have no fear, his experience and wisdom will temper our king's enthusiasm. Fortunately, you won't have to deal with either of them. Your one concern as a Grey Warden is stopping the Blight. No matter who is in charge, our job is to slay darkspawn and the Archdemon."
Bannon couldn't argue with that, so he followed Duncan without comment. The Warden briefly described the camp layout, then told Bannon he was on his own to explore. The shem probably couldn't wait to get rid of him. He told the elf to go find someone named Alistair. Apparently, he was the Warden in charge of the new recruits. "And do stay out of trouble," Duncan said, with a threatening look. "This is an army camp; they are not so lenient as civilians."
Bannon just rolled his eyes. What did this guy think, he was stupid? The impatience to part company for a few hours was mutual. He wandered off in the opposite direction, eager to find out where he was sleeping tonight, and where he could stow his gear. Come to think of it, weren't the Wardens supposed to provide him with gear? A proper set of leathers, not these bulky things he and Soris had stripped from dead guards.