In the Bannorn
The name of Bann Loren's town is made up. If it makes any difference whatsoever.
In the Bannorn
Bannon and Zevran rode up front in the first cart with Levi; Morrigan and Sten sitting in the back. Levi's cousin Mikhail drove the second wagon behind them, with the rest of the companions. Bodahn and his son tailed behind with their donkey cart. The road was dirt, but well-packed. There was a chill of promised rain in the air, but for now, they didn't have to contend with any mud. Bannon had envisioned galloping horses, racing under the whip. But apparently, Levi had something more of a steady amble in mind when he'd said 'don't spare the horses.'
Bannon wasn't sure they were actually moving faster than they would be on foot. He suppressed the impulse to jump down and see for sure. He had to keep an outward calm in front of the shems.
About midday, the forested road opened out on the fields of a village. A few goats wandered them, but no one was tilling. Had they gone in to beat the rain? Still, some of the fields should have been started. Especially closer to the village proper.
"Where is everyone?" Bannon wondered aloud.
"Fighting in the war," Levi said. It was a moment before the elf realized he meant the civil war against Loghain, not the war against the darkspawn. "This is just a small hamlet. The able-bodied left, and everyone else moved up to the town of Khenter."
They passed more fields and farmsteads. The skies grew darker with lowering clouds, threatening rain, but so far, not delivering. The road sloped uphill, and in a few more hours, they came upon a crossroads and turned towards Khenter.
Khenter was a walled town, but nothing approaching the size of Denerim. It's wall was made of thick timber; only the foundation built of mortared fieldstone. It had a wide double gate with wooden scaffold towers overlooking the cleared approach. The gates were closed, and four guards stood loosely arrayed before it. They wore yellow and tan livery marked with a crimson bird.
"Those are Bann Larkstraven's men," Levi remarked, pursing his lips. "From the Amaranthine arling."
"What are they doing here?" Zevran asked.
"Looks like the Civil War has come to Khenter."
The guards made no overtly-threatening moves when they came to ask Levi who and what all this was. He kept the answers short and simple - they were a small band of traders making a run to Amaranthine. They had taken this road as a shortcut, to save themselves some time and money. Yes, they'd heard rumors of Grey Wardens in Laketown, but hadn't seen anything to back them up.
Bannon and Zevran kept their heads down, unobtrusive elven workers. Sten remained stoically silent, except for a complaint about more delays.
One of the soldiers made an ill-advised comment about Morrigan not looking like a caravan guard, to which she tartly replied, "I am Chasind. We have no need to shield ourselves in heavy, cumbersome gear, like a tortoise in its shell. Believe me, if I wanted you dead, you would be so before you had a chance to blink." This was apparently the sort of saucy threat people expected of barbarians. The soldiers chuckled, if a bit uneasily, and opened the gates.
"Come with me," the guard captain told Levi. "Commander Soldaina will want to look you over."
It was a short walk along the main road to the town square. People were gathered there, mostly older women and younger children. Judging by their pinched faces and narrowed eyes, they weren't here for a festival. Bannon looked to the raised scaffold where a row of bodies hung on a gibbet. Judging by the fine clothing, they weren't common bandits, and one was too small to be more than an adolescent child.
As the guards led the wagons around to the council building, crude placards that hung on the bodies became visible. 'TRAITOR' and 'GREY LOVER.' Bannon's blood ran cold. He leaned closer to Levi, his belt knife prodding the merchant in the ribs under the cover of his arm. "You didn't mention this shortcut was full of the Wardens' enemies," he hissed.
"Easy, friend," Levi said, a bead of sweat appearing on his temple. "I didn't know. These men weren't here before."
Now they were, and the Grey Wardens were in the thick of the civil war, surrounded by enemies. Bannon looked to Zevran, who had also gone on alert. Their eyes met. Bannon tipped his head at Levi, and the assassin nodded. He sidled closer to the merchant, the better to be his 'bodyguard.'
Bannon sheathed his knife and slipped off the seat. He moved casually towards Mikhail's wagon, checking the rope stays on his way past. He climbed up onto the second wagon, displacing Leliana to sit next to Mikhail. He looked back at an ashen-faced Alistair. "They don't know us. You're Daveth, and we're caravan guards."
The Templar gulped. "Right." He put his helmet on.
"Try to talk like a dockworker," Bannon told him, to give him something to focus on besides worrying about being caught. As for himself, he slid closer to Mikhail. "Don't try anything that will get us killed. I guarantee you'll go first."
"We didn't know," the man replied in a tight voice. "I swear."
The doors of the council building burst open, drawing everyone's eye. The people stifled their cries to half-choked gasps as four men hauled another in chains down the front steps. The prisoner couldn't stand on his own, his twisted legs would not support him. He fell heavily to the dust with a weary cry. He had bloody scraps of rags that barely covered him; the rest of his skin was crusted with dirt and scabs, burns and bruises. He lay on the ground, propped on his elbows, his chest rising and falling with a hitch at each breath.
The commander, a short, robust woman, appeared in the doorway and addressed the crowd. "This man served our king at Ostagar. Yet he took money from the Orlesian rats who infiltrated our nation under the guise of the Grey Wardens. Miserable scum who took the opportunity of Ferelden's peril to lure King Cailen into a trap!"
Bannon glanced down to where Alistair's hand gripped the edge of the wagon bed. The elf thought he could hear the wood splintering. He didn't dare say anything. Alistair knew the stakes - and the odds. Bannon kept the knifepoint at Mikhail's ribs.
"This man, this traitor, has information - proof of the Grey Wardens' treason."
The man struggled to draw a deep breath. "The Grey Wardens are not traitors!" he managed. He lifted his head, but one of the soldiers lashed out with his boot. Bloody mucous sprayed in an arc as the prisoner collapsed.
Soldaina looked down on him, her spine straight, her hand clenched on the hilt of the longsword by her side. "Elric Maraigne, you have refused to confess and to present this evidence. By command of Bann Larkstraven, liege to Arl Howe, servant of the Regent Loghain Mac Tir, I sentence you to death by exposure. Should you change your mind and render full confession, we will grant you the mercy of a swift execution." She raised her voice to the assembled crowd. "Should any attempt to lend succor to the traitor, they shall share his fate." Her voice echoed from the surrounding buildings into silence broken only by the grunts of the guards dragging the prisoner to the cage, and his involuntary moans of pain.
The iron-barred door clanged shut, and the winch squealed as they hoisted the man-cage to the level of the scaffold.
"Return to your work!" Commander Soldaina ordered.
Shaken from their stunned silence, the people broke into clusters and departed, under the eyes of the watchful soldiers.
"Ser," the gate guard addressed the commander. "These merchants are requesting permission to pass through the bannorn on this road." He said something else as she came down the steps, but Bannon didn't catch the words. Soldaina stopped abruptly and eyed the wagons with an appraising look.
This can't be good. Bannon glanced aside and saw that Bodahn had come abreast of Mikhail's wagon and was chewing his moustaches in concern. "Let's see what the commander says," Bannon said to Mikhail, with a nudge. "Stay with the wagon," he told the others.
Levi, his cousin, Zevran, Morrigan, Bannon, and Bodahn gathered to meet the commander. She and the captain were discussing their option of seizing the goods instead of buying or trading for them. Shit. Bannon shot a glance at Zevran. The Antivan pursed his lips in a frown. If they fought, they'd be overwhelmed, and then either outright killed or imprisoned. If they gave up without any resistance... Soldaina might conscript them anyway. Shit. How were they going to get out of here?
"You have an 'interesting' selection of guards," the Commander was saying to Levi, although she was staring at Morrigan.
"Beggars cannot be choosers," the witch replied, staring straight back. Great, another problem they didn't need.
"Are you carrying weapons?" Soldaina asked. She tore her gaze from Morrigan and fixed Levi. "As goods I mean, of course."
Levi licked his lips, trying to figure out how best to answer that question. But then Bodahn spoke up. "We have the finest dwarven-made weapons, specially designed for fighting darkspawn. An excellent resource to help you in your war against the Blight." What? Bannon could strangle the short merchant - now was not the time to be putting on the sales pitch about how much the soldiers wanted to confiscate their goods! He refrained from attacking, with effort. Bodahn went on. "We were searching for a new trade route between Orzammar and Amaranthine, to bring heavy dwarf-forged weapons into Ferelden and return with staples and finished goods."
The commander got a crafty look on her face, and Bannon decided to put his dwarf-strangling plans on hold. Come on, he thought. You want a constant supply of weapons and food, so don't blow it by slaying the golden goose, here.
Soldaina nodded. "We would like to see what you have to offer, before you carry on. Captain, fetch the quartermaster."
"Stay with Levi and the wagons," Bannon mumbled to Alistair, acutely aware that an elf giving orders to anyone, let alone a knight with military training, would arouse far too much suspicion. He endeavored to slouch more and appear to be scratching his nose. "Keep Sten with you."
"What about...?" Alistair didn't dare say it. "We can't just leave him like that." His gaze drifted towards Zevran.
Bannon pursed his lips, then beckoned the assassin over. "I'll handle it."
"You'll just have to trust me, Alistair." Bannon grimaced. "I mean, Daveth."
Alistair nodded and went to practice his dockworker accent on Sten, his face a mask of stone as he tried to conceal his worry.
Bannon walked with Zevran a little way away from the approaching knot of soldiers. "Poison," he whispered. The assassin handed him a small vial. Bannon tucked it into his half glove. Then he handed Zevran a few coins. "Ask Master Levi for permission to go on liberty," he said in a more normal tone of voice.
"Maybe Morrigan will go with you."
"I should be so lucky." With a wink, the Antivan headed back to the first wagon.
Bannon went towards the donkey cart, where he witnessed a case of merchant envy.
"I've studied smithing for twelve years," Mikhail was saying to the quartermaster. "My blades are as fine as any dwarven make."
"No offense, m'boy," Bodahn told him, "but it's not dwarven steel if it isn't made by dwarves." He then pulled out one of the crude darkspawn swords. Bannon nearly choked. Mikhail looked too stunned to say anything, which was fortunate.
The quartermaster took the blade with a puzzled look. "This is dwarven make?"
"Absolutely! The weight and spine of this blade is designed specifically to do the most damage to the hardened Tainted flesh of the darkspawn." Bodahn started spinning a tale of his cousins and their smithing skills, and experience with the darkspawn deep under Orzammar. He was one hell of a salesman.
Now all Bannon needed to do was come up with a very dangerous plan to talk to this prisoner.
Bannon was worried about Wynne's part in his plan. Leliana, he had the sneaking suspicion, could spin a lie with such coolness and calm that butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. But he couldn't explain an old woman's presence with a group of caravan guards, not without painting her as an apostate, or making the commander suspicious as to why the Circle Tower was so interested in helping them.
So he asked Leliana to give Wynne her Chantry robes, and she would be the nun to give the prisoner his last rites. Leliana and Bannon would accompany her. Wynne was a bit shocked at the thought of impersonating the clergy, but Leliana assured her the Maker would approve, and Bannon pointed out how devout Wynne was anyway.
Then twenty different things could go wrong with their plan to visit the prisoner. If Commander Soldaina didn't allow the local clergy to see to him, why would she let some suspicious road travelers do so? Would the guards refuse to let them near? Would they hover too closely for Bannon to get a surreptitious word with the prisoner? This plan was thin - exceedingly thin.
But he hadn't counted on Wynne's power. Oh, not her mage power, but the power of a grey-haired old woman to call a hardened soldier 'young man' and fix him with a glare that made him feel like a five year old boy again.
They bypassed gaining Soldaina's permission - she was still busy with the quartermaster and Bodahn. The guards didn't dare accuse Sister Wynne of not having the Maker-given right to be there. She invited them to join in the prayers for the condemned man, and they cleared out in a hurry, giving the nun and her assistants plenty of room.
"Young man?" Wynne moved closer to to the hanging cage. "Elric?" The prisoner lay slumped against the side, piled in a careless heap like a discarded doll. Wynne shot a warning glance at Bannon, then went to touch the man. "Maker's Blessing be upon you."
The elf bit his lip and hoped the guards didn't notice the healing light under Wynne's hands. "That's enough," he hissed after a few moments.
Elric groaned and stirred. His effort to shift to a more comfortable position only resulted in a grimace, so he quit.
"Elric? That is your name, isn't it?" Wynne asked gently.
He peeled one eye open. "I'll not fall for this trick. The Chantry did nothing to defend the people of this bannorn."
"The Chantry must remain neutral," Leliana said.
"We're not from this bannorn," Wynne added.
The prisoner didn't bother to respond. Bannon looked at Wynne and pulled a waterskin from his belt, giving her a quirk of his brow.
She nodded. "Give the poor soul some water," she said, loud enough for the guards to hear, if they were eavesdropping. "I can't hear him confess his sins."
"Yes, Sister." Bannon hurried to comply. He tipped the waterskin to the man's lips. He sputtered a bit then managed to get some down.
"I am Elric Maraigne, faithful honor guard to King Cailen," he grated out. "No traitor."
Wynne circled her arms, then folded her hands in prayer, Leliana following suit. "Maker, we beseech thee on behalf of our brother, Elric Maraigne. Shrieve him of his sins. Look upon his life in balanced judgment, O Maker..."
Bannon leaned closer. "We're the Grey Wardens," he muttered, wondering how he was actually going to prove that.
Elric snorted. "Sure you are."
"There are only two of us left. We were sent to the Tower of Ishal to light the signal." That wasn't exactly privileged knowledge, but the king's personal guard ought to know of it firsthand.
Elric narrowed his one good eye. "The king asked for one of the Wardens by name."
"Alistair," Bannon supplied. "He and I are the only survivors. These other people are helping us." He nodded at the women, then made sure his hands were folded in prayer, his head bowed.
"You're... you're that elf. From the war council." Elric's eyes brightened.
Bannon nodded. "What 'proof' was the commander talking about?"
"It's proof of Loghain's treachery," he growled low. "If they get their hands on it, they'll destroy it."
"Where is it?" Bannon fidgeted as Wynne and Leliana began to repeat the supplication. There wasn't much time.
"Ostagar, locked in a strongbox in King Cailen's stores." Bannon worried for a moment that the prisoner was another one with a key secreted on his person, but fortunately, he'd had the foresight to hide the key, in a crevice of an ancient Tevinter statue at Ostagar. He told Bannon how to find it.
"We'll get Loghain," Bannon promised. He slipped the vial Zevran had given him to the prisoner. "Wait 'til sunset. If you can."
The man's eyes shone. "Thank you." Louder, he said, "Thank you, Sisters of Mercy."
"Maker bless you and keep you," Wynne said.
They turned to leave, and Bannon found himself nose to splintmail with a guard. The man snatched the waterskin out of his hand. "What's this you've been giving him?"
"You try to slip him something, you can take his place up there!"
Wynne stepped up. "He acted on my orders."
The soldier slapped the waterskin against Bannon's chest. "Then he won't mind drinking it."
Bannon let a bit of his annoyance show through as he grasped the skin and took a long drink.
The soldier snarled in disappointment. "Finish up your business and get out of town." He shoved against Bannon's shoulder as he passed. The elf stumbled a bit, to let the shem think he was bigger and tougher and so intimidating. Bannon could shove a dagger into his ribs easily enough, if he wanted to. Hell, he could probably punch through the splint mail, with his Grey Warden strength.
Leliana moved to his other side and wrapped her hand in his. "Easy," she murmured. "He's not worth it."
"Wha-?" Bannon grimaced, realizing he must have let more of his feelings show than he'd meant to. "Sorry."
"Let us find the others," she said, not releasing his hand. "We still have a way to go before we reach Amaranthine."
"Right." He went with her, leaning close. The more the soldiers speculated about illicit caravan guard love affairs, the less they would think about Grey Wardens.
They returned to the wagons. Levi and Mikhail were re-covering their goods and latching the tailgates. It seemed the soldiers were only interested in Bodahn's 'dwarven' weapons. "We should leave the little sodder behind," Mikhail grumbled.
"That 'little sodder' saved us all," Leliana reminded him. He had the grace to look chastised.
"Head out of town and wait along the road," Bannon said quietly. "We'll catch up to you." The merchants nodded and moved to lead their teams through the streets. Wynne elected to go with them. "Where'd Zevran and Morrigan get to?"
Alistair and Sten shrugged, and the elf wished for his stick again. "All right, they couldn't have gotten far. Let's do a bit of sight-seeing."
Bannon turned the corner, then suddenly ducked back, hissing a curse. He bumped into Alistair, who had to stagger back a couple of paces to keep his footing. Leliana and Sten halted.
"What is it?" Alistair asked worriedly.
Bannon leaned out to get another look. "Zevran got caught trying to filch something." He cursed again. "The guards are here." The elf turned to Alistair quickly, forestalling any of the Templar's questions. "Alistair, go get him." Bannon fished his coin pouch out of his cuirass and plucked out five sovereigns. "Just walk over there and smack him. Pretend you're our mercenary captain." Alistair just gaped at him as he pressed the coins into his hand. "Give some of those to one of the guards, but don't let the other see how much."
"If we have this much gold, why was he-?"
Bannon waved the question off impatiently. "Just go get him. Sten, go with him."
"I will not pretend to be some Tal Vashoth mercenary," the giant growled in distaste.
"You don't have to," the thief quickly assured him. "Just be yourself." The qunari did not look mollified. On the other hand, he scowled no more nor less than usual. To Alistair, Bannon said, "There they go! Go get them before they get to the gaol."
Alistair marched towards the guards and their captive, Sten a looming presence behind him. "You there," the Warden called out, "stop man-handling my manservant!"
The two guardsmen and the elf quit struggling and stared at him.
"What did I tell you, you stupid knife-ears?" Alistair blustered. "We're not thieves! We're mercenaries. We do get paid, you know!"
Zevran cringed and ducked his head. "Sorry, ser," he whimpered.
"I tell you," Alistair said to the guards. "You can take an elf out of the gutter, but you can't take the gutter out of an elf."
The guards relaxed a few notches and chuckled. Alistair certainly had an authentic military air about him, and the towering qunari 'mercenary' was quite convincing. Alistair smiled in what he hoped was a comradely fashion and took the opportunity to slip the one guard two of the gold coins. "I don't want to trouble you gents with him. This ought to cover any damages and fines he's incurred."
"Well,...," the greedy guard temporized.
"Oh, of course." Alistair nodded and passed over one more coin. "And for your trouble." He nabbed Zevran by the arm while he was at it. "Come on, you! Just you wait 'til we get back to camp!" At first he didn't think the assassin was going to come with him, the way he resisted. "Come on," he growled, yanking harder. "I'm not bailing your ass out of jail!"
Zevran cringed and came to Alistair's side like a whipped dog. "I'm sorry, ser! It won't happen again, I swear!" The guards snickered.
"Sorry about that," Alistair told them, then turned to make his escape before anything could go wrong.
The three made their way directly, but unhurriedly, towards the road out of town. Alistair shot a worried glance to his left, where the Antivan slogged along beside him, the picture of servile misery. He really wished he could see the other side of the elf's face to make sure the tattoo was there - because he was seriously worried they'd rescued the wrong person. There was no way this timid elf was Zevran the cocky assassin.
They got further along, almost out of the town, and Alistair couldn't remain silent in the ruse any longer. "Are you all right?" he muttered out the side of his mouth.
"Yes, ser," the elf sighed dejectedly. "I am only being dragged back to camp to suffer the punishments of your personal whim." That almost worked, but the next sigh had a distinctly wistful air.
Alistair unwound a notch. He'd never thought he'd be comforted by the Antivan's misplaced lust towards him. After they got past the town gates and a bit further down the road, Alistair told him, "That wasn't my idea. Bannon told me to smack you, actually."
"Why didn't you?"
Alistair blinked and looked at him. "What, seriously?"
"It would have been more convincing," Zevran replied glibly.
"I was a little worried about later retaliation," the Templar said. "Knives in the back, murder in the dark, poison in my food. That sort of thing." The assassin chuckled. "You really wanted me to smack you? I could smack you now."
Zevran grinned. "No, no, no, my friend. That opportunity has passed. You smack me now, I'm sure one of those terrible things that you fear would indeed happen to you."
Alistair heaved a dramatic sigh, though his heart wasn't in it. "I'll remember that for next time."
The sound of rapid footsteps came up from behind them. The three companions turned, Sten reaching hopefully for his maul. It was only Leliana and Bannon, who seemed to have found Morrigan, catching up to them. The elf glanced at Zevran, then Alistair. "Good job," was all he said. He moved past them to continue on to find the Drydens' wagons.
Zevran and Alistair looked at each other. "Stop manhandling my manservant?" the assassin complained. "What the hell was that?"
"It worked, didn't it? Better than getting caught in the first place," the knight sniped back. "Why were you trying to steal something anyway? We have money!"
"Practice!" the assassin replied cheerfully. "One day, we may not, you know."
Alistair rolled his eyes and continued down the road.
Leliana spoke up. "I thought 'you can take an elf out of the gutter, but you can't take the gutter out of an elf' was rather catchy, myself."
Alistair chuckled as it was Zevran's turn to roll his eyes. "That was a good one. Can you set it to music?" This got a groan out of the assassin. "Call it 'The Assassin's Adventures as a Would-Be Thief.'" Leliana laughed lightly.
"Alistair," Zevran warned. "Remember those bad things that might happen to you? Getting closer to coming true, my friend."
"All right, I'll stop teasing you."
"Since you can't handle it."
Alistair: You there! Unhand my... handmaiden! Wait...
Alistair: Unhand my handyman?
Bloodsong: ::coaching from off camera:: Manservant!
Alistair: Oh. ::sets up again:: You there! Unman my manservant!
Guard #1: Then he will be a handmaiden! ::laughs::
Zevran: No no, go back to me being a handyman!
Alistair: Wait, what is this line?
Bloodsong: ::goes over and shows Alistair the script:: 'Stop man-handling my manservant'!
Alistair: Ohhhh... 'man-handling!' Gotcha.