Warning: Avernus proposes a method of dealing with Morrigan that some might find horrifying. He doesn't mess around and has no morals.
Hawkes Over Ferelden
Part 5: Seven Wardens
If one had to hold a fortress against the darkspawn, Redcliffe Castle was the place to do it. Two days before his message reached Loghain in Lothering, Howe briefed his officers as darkspawn marched on Redcliffe.
"We can't hold the village," Howe said briskly. "And there's no need to try. No one lives there, but the darkspawn don't know that. They're in for a nasty surprise."
A number of scouts and couriers were hidden in various sites a few miles away, primed to know the various signals the mages would send up. If Howe needed to get a message to Loghain in Lothering, some would likely get through.
Afternoon had faded to a red-tinted twilight by the time the enemy appeared. Howling darkspawn rushed down the hill into the bowl-shaped little valley that was Redcliffe village. The hurlocks were out in front, followed by the bandy-legged genlocks. Then came the mage emissaries, and after them thundered the ogres. Once down there, they milled about, confused.
Then the archers and mages on the heights above the village to the north west stood up behind their earthwork fortifications and began their own attack. Arrows found their marks; magic froze Tainted bodies, and then shattered them. Ogres staggered to a halt, paralyzed, and then toppled, groaning, to the hard-packed earth. Archers kept up their steady shooting until nothing below them moved.
"Not bad," Howe remarked. " A nice little killing field. We'll try that again. Send out the scouts."
By the time a full moon rose on the scene, two more waves of darkspawn arrived, and were dealt with in a similar fashion. The second wave was more numerous and far more dangerous. Some of the darkspawn lived long enough to scale the hill and leap into the ranks sheltered behind the earthworks. Screams, blood, and knifework followed. Howe lost some men, but the darkspawn were decimated.
It hardly mattered, more were coming: a vast dark wave lit by torches and fireballs. Ogres bellowed, heaving boulders up toward the defenses. One of the boulders hit a squad of archers dead center, and rocks, shattered logs and broken bodies tumbled down the hill. There was no resisting this onslaught.
"We'll have to fall back, my lord!" shouted Captain Chase.
"Then we'd better do it now!"
The men of Amaranthine pounded up the hill, in good order, and trotted across the heavy drawbridge leading to the castle courtyard. With its position on high ground, as technically on an island at the south end of Lake Calenhad, one could completely cut Redcliffe Castle off from ground attack, by raising the drawbridge.
Rendon Howe then gave the order to do exactly that.
From his position on the battlements, he could laugh at the darkspawn. Not even the ogres could heave boulders up this high, though they were trying and failing. It was entertaining to see the boulders rolling back and crushing the enemy. Howe's soldiers and mages, on the other hand, had no problem shooting down into the teeming horde. Working together, the mages had raised a storm of ice and lightning that slaughtered scores of the monsters. As they fell, other darkspawn moved in to replace them, and they, too, were fried and frozen.
Too stupid to be dismayed, darkspawn dashed themselves against bedrock, and tried to climb up to attack their tormentors. A few scrambled up as high as fifty feet, which only made it easier to target them. Mages cast magical wisps of light down the sides of the cliffs, illuminating the squirming darkspawn below.
"Look at them!" Howe exulted to his captain. "Fish in a barrel! I can hold this castle against ten times the number! A thousand times the number! With our supplies, I can hold Castle Redcliffe forever!"
As if in answer to this boast, a curious thudding noise drew their attention. Howe frowned. It sounded something like wind filling a ship's sails, but there were no ships nearby in the dark and silent lake below.
The sound came closer, a heavy, rhythmic downstroke out of the darkness. Howe turned on the battlement, squinting to see, but only blackness was before him.
A huge, black shape was silhouetted against the moon.
"The Archdemon!" a mage screamed, wild and shrill.
Purple flames issued from the sky, blasting the courtyard gate of Redcliffe castle apart. They rolled on, inexorable, destroying the raised drawbridge and its housing. Masonry tumbled into the valley.
"Mages!" Howe roared. "Signal the scouts! Archers! Shoot that thing! Shoot it! Shoot it!"
A hissing volley of arrows flew forth at his command, but it was dark, and the Archdemon was fast.
"Watch for the flames!" shouted a sergeant, more quick-witted than the rest. "Track it that way!"
Some of the arrows found their mark, but it was not enough: not nearly enough. Mages shot their coded series of red and blue flares into the sky. By now, the lookouts must have seen them. There was no time for more; now they must fight.
A mage tried a chain-lightning spell that lit up the sky like daylight for a brief blink of time. In that moment, the Archdemon, Tainted and terrible, was seen bearing down on the battlements, straight for the furious, shouting little figure with the raised war axe.
Rendon Howe, so sure until then that he could kill anything that stood in his way, had a moment of terror before the jaws closed on him. After that, it was agony.
But his armor held somewhat, and with the strength of rage, he managed to land an axe blow on the Archdemon's snouth, shearing off a foot-long strip of bloody hide. The Archdemon threw back its head with a squeal of pain, dropping Howe. The fall broke the arl's back.
Howe blinked in disbelief, grateful for the sudden cessation of all feeling. He was unaware of the terrified, faithful men around him, reaching out to save him.
Darkness... I really will die! Amaranthine... Without me, Thomas can't hope to survive.
"Nathaniel..." he groaned.
Captain Chase, trying to drag him to a doorway, paused. "What's that, my lord?"
"What's he saying?" demanded Captain Lowan.
Howe liked his lips. On a thread of breath, he whispered. "My son...Nathaniel...Amaranthine..."
A crash followed as the Archdemon landed on the battlements beside them, bellowing in triumph. Chase was struck by flying debris and knocked unconscious. Lowan was seized up by the dragon and shaken like a rat. His shattered body was flung aside, flying into darkness, arcing down, down to the frenzied darkspawn far below. The Archdemon roared again, and its white, diseased eyes fixed on Howe, lying helpless. Its head moved closer, and the jaws opened once more.
"Maker spit on you!" hissed Howe, with a last burst of defiance. "Someday a man like me will kill you and your whole filthy race!"
Bones and armor crunched together, and it was over.
The good thing about traveling with their own wagon from Denerim was that this time there was nobody from Maric's Shield to tell tales about what the Wardens were hauling.
While they had left most of the gold at Soldier's Peak, they had brought enough for their needs, and they had also carried with them a great store of magically-maintained armor and weapons. Everyone got something. All the Wardens got embroidered grey tunics to proclaim their affiliation, which was especially handy for the mages. Hawke and Alistair had new armor. Oghren's armor was already splendid, but he was more than satisfied with a new battleaxe of silverite: eerily light and utterly lethal.
Their little band, despite the terrors facing them, was in fairly high spirits. They traveled at the vanguard, alert for darkspawn. They were so focused on darkspawn, that they were nearly oblivious to everything else.
"Wardens!" shouted a soldier. From the far right ranks a sergeant hustled a man forward.
The newcomer appeared exhausted, and was dressed in stained and ragged clothing, with a tattered, hooded cloak flung over all. His face was hidden, and he slouched along as if going to his own execution. As he reached them, he stumbled and fell flat on his face.
"Here now, is he hurt?" asked Anders, pushing his way toward the man.
"Dunno. Looks done in. Says he's got a message for Warden Alyson." The soldier shrugged, and went back to his own company.
"Let's get you on your feet." Anders gripped the man under his arm and heaved him up. The hooded fell back, and Anders dropped the man with a yell.
"Jowan! You bastard!"
Hearing the name, Alyson ran up to see.
"Jowan? Is he here? Let me get my hands on him!"
Of course, once she saw him lying in a pitiful heap on the ground, she forgot about anything other than helping him. To Anders' great disgust, she fell to her knees, smoothing his hair back from his face.
"Jowan! Are you wounded?"
Anders growled, "Alyson, this idiot nearly got you killed!"
She made a face at him. "Don't just stand there! Fix him!"
Alistair came looking, wondering where Alyson had run off to.
"Who's this? Do you know him?"
"This is Jowan," she said briskly. "Alistair, meet Jowan. Jowan, meet Alistair. Alistair and I are going to get married, if we live through this. Jowan and I," she explained to Alistair, "grew up together at the Circle. He's my oldest friend."
"Er... nice to meet you," Alistair managed, peering down.
"Unnnggghh," Jowan replied, with a weak smile.
Avernus leaned over to Hawke. "Another recruit?"
Hawke shrugged, not averse to it, but wanting a chance to speak to the man himself. "Maybe."
The Wardens gathered, pulling Jowan up again, since they had to get moving, or be trampled by the ranks behind them.
"I'm all right," Jowan gasped, staggering a bit. "Been running. I saw you at a distance when you went through those hills back there, Alyson, and I had to tell you what's going on. You're going to Redcliffe, right?"
"That's where the horde is," Alyson agreed. "How did you know I was a Warden?"
"I didn't," he replied, nonplussed. "Are you?" He stared at the grey and silver tabard. "You are."
"Anyway," he said, "I was on the run, but when I saw you I turned back."
"Wait," Hawke interrupted. "Are you saying you came from Redcliffe?"
Jowan nodded, still breathing heavily. Avernus looked at Anders and cleared his throat. Anders clicked his tongue in annoyance, but immediately started casting healing and rejuvenation spells.
"I was there," Jowan admitted. "The Arlessa had me locked up."
Alistair was wild to know more. "You were there when everything happened? Was Connor really an abomination?"
"I don't know about that, but I think he was the center of the problem. He only wanted to help his father, but it all went wrong. The Arlessa thought I'd done it, but I hadn't! She...tortured me... and then I was locked up in the dungeon, and they forgot about me. A few days passed and I ran out of water, and then these things wandered downstairs." He shuddered. "One of them was the jailer. His head was split, but he was walking! They couldn't get at me through the bars of my cell. I was desperate, so... I set them on fire. Then I sort of... pushed my bars away."
"Well done!" Alyson enthused. "I knew you'd be a great mage if you really tried!"
"With a little extra help!" Anders snorted.
Hawke whispered to Avernus. "He's rumored to be a Blood Mage. He must be the one that Alyson helped escape."
Avernus looked pleased, like a fond grandfather.
"Yes, well..." Jowan ducked his head. "It turns out I'm stronger than I look."
"And then what?" Alistair demanded. "Did you get out through the castle?"
"No!" Jowan burst out. "I didn't dare! The undead were everywhere! I didn't know what to do, but while I was hiding I found a passage in the dungeons that led the other way, a long way away from the castle. I followed it along all the way to the mill across the bridge. It was daylight, and I made a break for it. I found some food in a house, and then I hid at a deserted farm when some soldiers came through. I thought I'd go north, but I couldn't make up my mind... and then I met up with this dwarf merchant who told me some of what was going on. He talked a lot about the Wardens and the mages and the dwarves. I came out to look, and I saw you, Alyson. I thought you needed to know about that secret passage... I mean... I owe you..." His words died away to a mumble.
"You certainly do!" she agreed. "You got me in awful trouble!"
"But the information could be very useful," Hawke said, stepping in. "I'm Hawke, another Warden."
"The Warden," grunted Oghren.
Hawke shrugged. "Tell me all about this secret passage."
Loghain hated sharing the stage with the Wardens.
Really just with Hawke, of course, who had annoyingly found some rather handsome armor on his travels north. The allies insisted on having orders relayed through him. It could have been worse. Hawke was a charismatic young lout, in his rather sullen way, but he was not a noble. He had neither riches nor retinue nor ancient family name to make him a personal threat. Better that Hawke be the face of the Wardens than one who looked far too much like Maric.
It was vital to keep Alistair sidelined as much as possible. No need for him to become more recognizable and popular than he was. Once the darkspawn were disposed of, neither Anora—nor Loghain himself— needed a rival for the throne. The mages, while well regarded by the allies, would never capture the imagination of the army as a whole, though the Amell girl was spirited and attractive. And Anders, too, come to think of it, resembled Maric...
No, he would not even think about that.
But Hawke was an annoyance. He was well-known and well-liked throughout the army, who saw him as one of their own. The loss of his brother had created sympathy for him. The allies uniformly admired him. King Bhelen had extolled his virtues in a long letter. Hawke could have made trouble, had he a power base.
Luckily, he did not: just a few misfits, and half of them mages.
He was useful for the moment. There was plenty of time to deal with Liam Hawke and his Wardens.
The old man Avernus was a nonenity: just a dusty archive with useful information, and clearly too feeble to be of any account in battle. He did, however, have a certain morale-building quality. The soldiers, sentimental fools that many were, liked the narrative: an old man, exiled by the Orlesians, returning to his homeland for a last desperate battle. Loghain did not expect Avernus to be able to keep up on the forced march to Redcliffe.
And yet he did. Even at the speed they were moving, all the mages seemed fit and unwearied. Loghain, had he not been so distracted by everything else, would have wanted to look into it.
Hawke himself was suspicious, and asked Avernus outright how he was managing it.
The old man gave him a death head's grin. He murmured, "How do you think, dear boy? Blood Magic, of course."
Hawke's eyes widened, and he felt a sudden chill. His mouth opened, and then, instead of stupidly echoing Avernus, he looked about them in panic, so see if anyone had heard.
"Don't be a baby, my lad," Avernus reproved. "All the bystanders are hearing us talk about the weather. Yes, really. Come now! I would expect Alistair to be scandalized, but I expect better of you. Blood Magic is a tool, like any other. I've had two hundred years to study it, and I think you'll like what I can do with it—especially to the darkspawn. It's also handy," he smirked, "for giving our own people a nudge when they need it."
"Well... Loghain, not to put too fine a point on it. Suspicious man, that, but not suspicious enough, as it happens. I hadn't the least trouble getting hold of some of his laundry. Absolutely reeking of sweat. Sweat is surprisingly useful. Nearly as specific as blood itself. Of course, there was a bit of blood there, too."
"You're performing... Sweat Magic... on Teyrn Loghain?"
"Not yet, but all in good time. It's all lumped under the label of Blood Magic. All sorts of bodily fluids can be used. In fact..."
"Do I want to know?"
Avernus found him very amusing. "I think you will, some day."
Jowan had nowhere else to go, and was afraid of being blamed for the fiasco at Redcliffe. Hawke sensed that he was not telling them the whole story, but did not press the matter. At Avernus' urging, he was conscripted, shoved into the Wardens' covered wagon, and summarily Joined. He spent hours sleeping it off, as they trundled westward.
There was a halt, late in the day, so they could catch a few hours rest before the last push. Tents were pitched, and a hasty meal gulped down. Jowan was helped out of the wagon and smiled shakily at his new comrades. Hawke headed off to his own tent, while most of their party chatted at the campfire. Alyson and Alistair had already gone off together. Hawke sighed, feeling a bit lonely.
And in his tent, Morrigan was waiting. With a remarkable offer.
Morrigan stiffened in surprise, offended by the blunt refusal.
"I did not think you such a fool."
Hawke was tempted to go for his dagger. He was certainly not that lonely. "You're the fool, if you think I'm going to be used in any kind of ritual cooked up by your and that mother of yours." He gave her a hard stare. "If this was what you wanted all along, you could have tried making friends, instead of being a complete bitch from the day I met you."
"So, you demand some sort of sentimental attachment? Who would suspect such delicacy of feeling from a mere farmboy? I could always go to one of your companions."
"Fine. You do that. Shall I call Oghren? I sure he'd give you what he's pleased to call a 'roll.' And we both know that 'delicacy of feeling' is not anything that would inconvenience you."
Her eyes flashed. They were very fine eyes indeed. Hawke felt a brief pang of lust, imagining what it would be like to bed such a beauty. Gritting his teeth, he got his body under control.
Apparently, she did not like his counter-offer.
"Oghren is not acceptable," she hissed. Her expression changed, grew cruel and cunning. "I did not think you so eager to die! Is it guilt for the death of that brawling young lout, your brother?"
He would gladly have killed her for that, but had a better idea.
Biting his lip, he said. "There's something in what you say. Wait here," he said, and strode out of the tent, looking for the best advice available.
"I need to talk to you privately," he whispered to Avernus.
"Did she say that? Really?" The old man was very amused.
"Is it true, do you think?"
"Oh, yes... I've heard the theory. It might well be valid. Of course, it entirely defeats the purpose of the Grey Wardens, and leaves us with a reborn Old God who may or may not prove a greater threat than the darkspawn themselves. However, if your only goal is to die in a few decades rather than right now, yes, I suppose it might work."
Hawke scowled at Avernus' very different way of looking at time. He supposed a two-hundred year old man might not be impressed by the additional life span Morrigan offered an ordinary Warden.
"So it might work the way she says?"
"Would the Warden striking the final blow survive? Perhaps... perhaps.. But, my dear boy, as far as it is possible to plan such an event, I have every intention of making the final blow myself. Surely you understood that?
"Yes... but... we need you. I need you," Hawke objected. "We need your brain to put the Wardens back on their feet. We need you to help deal with Loghain when all of this is over. He still might have us all killed, just because he can."
"I really think you'll be quite all right. My notes are at the Peak. You know what you need to do with the Archdemon's blood. If Loghain still doesn't want the Wardens in Ferelden, then I advise you to take him at his bloody-minded word, and leave—or at least appear to do so. He won't be around forever. Furthermore, there's the matter of the Thaw. Whoever rules in Ferelden will be desperate for Grey Warden assistance when they find they're still going to have a darkspawn problem for the next twenty years or so. Leave. Have a jolly holiday in Cumberland or Ansburg, and then when they beg you to return, do some hard bargaining. You'll find them remarkably pliable, I suspect."
Hawke took a deep breath. "What you say makes sense. I still would rather you lived through this, but if you don't we have something of a plan. But what should we do about Morrigan now?"
"Well... I suppose you could try saying no."
"She might sneak back and seduce someone else. Anders, maybe. Or..." he tried not to smirk. "...Oghren."
"If you're worried about that, the simplest thing is to kill her, of course. Right now. Ah... don't like that one, I see."
"All right. Do the dirty deed with her, take advantage of the ritual, and once the Archdemon is most sincerely dead, kill her then."
"I don't want to kill her. She really has helped us."
Avernus sighed. "Then hold her nose and pump some silphium tea into her. I know just the recipe. She'll miscarry, and the Old God will go where all good Old Gods ought to go: far, far away, beyond even the Fade. Mission accomplished, as they say."
"It wouldn't jump to a darkspawn?"
"Of course not. It would be cleansed of the Taint. Its dear little soul, now pure as the driven slush, will toddle off to the Maker. If you like that sort of fairy story."
"I think she'd kill us, if we tried that."
Avernus blinked, not quite seeing the difficulty. "Not if you kill her first."
"Couldn't we give her the potion... without her knowing about it? And anyway, she might try to leave right after we're done killing the Archdemon."
"Really, Hawke! You are most demanding and soft-hearted. Yes, I could give her a bit of a nudge, she'd sleep through the whole thing, and then awaken to a bitter, but perfectly natural-appearing disappointment. She might not even know she has miscarried for some time." He rubbed his white and stubbly chin. "It is tempting, I suppose, to let the child be born... for study... for Science... But, no." He shook his head. "It's far too dangerous. For all we know it would emerge fully conscious and able to destroy us with powers we can only guess at. Pity. It really must go, I'm afraid."
Hawke thought it still sounded cruel, but the world certainly did not need an Old God taking over. Kings and nobles were quite bad enough.
"I might dislike her, but I don't want her dead. Thanks."
He turned to go. Avernus had a few last words of advice.
"Just... don't... wash after you're done with her. I'll need...traces..."
Morrigan was too smug to notice how much more smug Avernus was. Hawke tried to put the entire degrading episode out of his mind and concentrate on the upcoming battle. Not too far ahead lay Redcliffe.
Scouts made the first contact with the horde. The army, moving swiftly, reached the trampled, broad swathe that marked the main body's movements. They marched up over a rise, and then another, and soon they saw the Archdemon, perched on the shattered battlements of Redcliffe Castle, licking its chops.
So the castle had fallen. This was definitely not good. The Archdemon had a private eyrie beyond the army's reach.
Hawke requested a moment of Loghain's time. Alistair came along, because at Jowan's plea, they were going to make up a story to deceive the Regent yet again.
"You know of a secret passage into the castle," Loghain demanded. "Why have you not told me before about this?"
Alistair turned red. He was a terrible liar, but Loghain had such a low opinion of him that he put Alistair's embarrassment down to his well-known bashfulness and dislike of Loghain himself.
"Well, we thought the castle would be all right, so it wouldn't matter." He burst out, "And I didn't want to do anything to help Howe!"
Hawke elbowed him.
"All right," Alistair said sullenly. "I wasn't supposed to know about it. It was a Guerrin family secret, but I was curious as a boy and I used to explore. One time I followed Bann Teagan into the dungeons and found out about it. If I told anybody it wouldn't be secret anymore. For all I knew they'd kill me if they thought I knew about the passage. I don't think even Arlessa Isolde knew about it. Connor couldn't have known, or he would have had his monsters using it to attack."
"All right." Loghain stood still, a steel-armored statue, thinking it over. "A secret passage from the mill on the heights to the castle dungeons. You can come up from below and surprise the Archdemon. How many of my men do you want to take?
"None," replied Hawke. "This is a Grey Warden mission."
Loghain gave him a brief grimace of disgust. "See that you don't waste the opportunity for glory, Warden Liam."
"It's not a matter of glory," Hawke replied, trying to rein in his temper. "It's a matter of putting an end to a threat."
"Then be off with you." Loghain turned his back on them. Alistair glared at him, and Hawke, glaring himself, drew his friend away.
"What a bastard," Alistair sputtered.
"What you said," Hawke agreed. "The darkspawn aren't the only threat I'm worried about."
Loghain's strategy had always been to pin the horde down, enabling the Wardens to get a shot at the Archdemon. This new scheme was simply a variation on the plan. The army, using the natural terrain of Redcliffe, lured the horde toward them, destroying them as they charged uphill.
A core group of mages—including some of the Dalish Keepers— focused on that, bombarding the creature with long-range spells: ice spears, crushing curses, draining hexes.
The dwarves engaged the darkspawn on the left. Darkspawn were a tough and aggressive enemy, but a blunt instrument. All they knew how to do was rush at an enemy, and the darkspawn archers simply stood their ground and shot until someone targeted them and took them out. They had no idea how to use the landscape to their advantage, and they were completely without imagination. The Archdemon could command them, but could not control a large enough number of darkspawn simultaneously to execute complex maneuvers.
And down there—down in the bowl of the village—what in the Maker's name was going on?
Hawke burst out laughing.
"Look at that! They're attacking each other!"
A mob of darkspawn seemed to have gone mad. Madder than usual, anyway. One of them, an ogre, turned on his fellows, trampling them underfoot, smashing them to paste with enormous fists. Others rushed away to attack the horde from the rear, hacking away.
The bizarre, self-destructive behavior of the darkspawn spread throughout the horde. Hawke glanced at Avernus, who was sweating, his scrawny hands white-knuckled on his staff, his eyes shut in concentration. Anders looked over and paused. He flushed, briefly outraged, and then looked over at the suicidal darkspawn and shrugged.
"Whatever. As long as it's just darkspawn."
Clearing out that mass of darkspawn made the way open for getting to the mill. The Warden party made a dash up and through, while the Dalish gave them cover.
And once inside the mill, they shoved aside the heaps of straw, and there, exactly where Jowan had described it, they found the secret door.
The eight of them sneaked through the passage, once they locked and barred it behind them. There was nothing more frightening than spiderwebs through the first half, though Hawke thought nervously about the weight of the water over their heads.
Then they reached a panel in the wall and moved it aside. The rest of the tunnel was much more finished, and they could all stand up comfortably. It stank, for littered about were some corpses: the burned remains of the reanimated dead.
"That was my cell," Jowan said softly, pointing. "Follow me. The stairs are this way."
He crept up the curving staircase and pushed open the door.
And was nearly shot dead on the spot.
"Who are you?" shouted the panicked, harassed officer.
"We're Grey Wardens," said Hawke. "Teyrn Loghain sent us to infiltrate the castle and kill the Archdemon."
"Good luck with that!" sniped a wounded soldier, slumped against a wall. Anders hurried over to see what he could do for him.
The Archdemon, it seemed, had not quite taken all of Redcliffe Castle. Many of the defenders had fled inside and downstairs, and the Archdemon had not yet succeeded in knocking down the entire structure. Perhaps it simply could not be bothered.
Captain Chase—for that was the officer's name—explained.
"Now and then we pop out, and a mage gets off a spell or the archers a volley. We try to do what we can. It's a losing proposition, though. The Archdemon has us pinned down. Eventually the darkspawn will manage to scale the heights and attack us here, or they'll simply let us starve, unable to escape."
"That's not so impossible now, though," pointed out one of Howe's mages, a frail-looking elf improbably called Sketch. "If the Wardens got in, we can get out."
"I'm not sure getting out will be as easy as getting in," said Hawke, "and that was hard enough. We're going to attack the Archdemon outright and try to bring it down. Anything you can do to help will be appreciated."
Avernus interposed. "But the Wardens must be the ones to kill the creature. Only they can. However, you can help by distracting it or injuring its wings. If we can trap it here so it cannot escape, we will succeed."
"It's going to sense us soon, if it hasn't already," Hawke told them. "We've got to move fast."
Chase nodded. "I'll send out a scout to see where it is right now. There are fifty of us left. We'll do what we can to help. I won't let my arl's death go unavenged."
"Has it been wounded?" asked Avernus. "Has its blood been spilled anywhere within this castle?"
"The arl skinned its nose before it killed him," said Chase, narrowing his eyes. He could guess what the old mage was hinting at. A dodgy business, but worth it if they could kill the thing and get out of here alive to tell the tale. He nodded thoughtfully. "I can get that bit for you."
"Don't touch it yourself," cautioned Hawke.
Avernus was grinning, more like a death's head than ever.
Avernus made his preparations, and Jowan, after a bit of hesitation, joined him. He spoke briefly with Avernus, too low for anyone to hear. So too did Alyson, tossing her head at Anders.
"We're going to save all these people, AND all our allies outside, AND all Ferelden, AND all Thedas, whether Thedas likes it or not. That's worth compromising a few principles."
"But where does it stop?" he challenged.
"Today," she said, perfectly reasonable. "All I need is today." She turned to an outraged Alistair and gave him a kiss. "Just for today."
"If you're sure..." he said, sharing an uneasy look with Anders.
"I'm sure," Hawke said, rudely interrupting the emotional scene. "We're going to kill the Archdemon, save the world, and go home, if we can find such a place."
"Excellent!" Avernus approved. "Three is a powerful number. We can do great things with three mages working together."
They burst out onto the ruined battlement like a clap of thunder. Before the Archdemon was entirely aware of their presence, Anders led Howe's mages in freezing its wings and trapping it in a crushing energy prison. A very nasty, very large phylactery was used to force the Archdemon, inch by inch, toward the open courtyard at the base of the steps to the castle gate. On the other side of the courtyard was the ruined bridge and below, an abyss where swarms of darkspawn squirmed and squabbled. Hawke, Alistair, and Oghren distracted the Archdemon, shouting and capering before it like lunatics.
Then the real work began. Avernus, Jowan, and Alyson held the phylactery aloft, and began chanting.
Hawke understood almost none of it. It was Arcanum, and his father had taught Bethany the basics of the language. Hawke caught a word here and there, and tried not to listen. It made him feel unclean; like worms were crawling on his skin. But it was working. The three mages were livid with stress, and they reeked of lyrium. It was frightening and intoxicating at once. Anders stood by, ready to heal anyone who needed it. Behind him, Morrigan lurked, unwilling to participate in the ritual, but ready to profit from it. Hawke refused to look her in the eye, knowing what was planned if they succeeded today.
The Archdemon tried to throw off their control, thrashing, screeching, flapping impotently. It snapped at them as it passed by, its drool spraying the broken stones. Hawke stepped back, disgusted.
"Shouldn't we at least give it a hack?" grunted Oghren, dissatisfied.
"Don't do anything to disrupt the mages," Hawke ordered. "We'll have plenty of darkspawn to hack at once the Archdemon's down."
Staggering, the Archdemon fell off the wall and down into the courtyard. The mages' chant rose to a triumphant shout, ending in a wild yell—
—And the Archdemon's head exploded.
"What a frickin' mess!" Oghren complained.
Anders was still agape, Tainted matter dripped from his robes. Two of the three mages who performed the ritual had fainted, and Anders pulled himself together enough to tend to them.
Hawke jerked his head at Alistair, and they jumped down to the courtyard to have a look at the carcass. Alistair stabbed the dead Archdemon in the belly. A horrible stench ensued, as stored gasses and excrement burst forth.
"Bad idea," groaned Alistair, dashing away to the other side of the corpse. "Bad, bad idea!"
"Hah!" Oghren doubled over in a guffaw, and then swung his axe at the shattered remains. "Had to do that much for my own self-respect!" he explained.
Morrigan had been struck by a chunk of flying bone, and was also down and out. One of Howe's mages crept out to help her, carefully avoiding the splashes of Archdemon painting the castle.
"No, no," Avernus said, striding forward, waving the mage away. "We'll see to her. What we really need at the moment are clean, empty barrels!"
Bereft of their God, the darkspawn were reduced to a purposeless mob. Loghain closed the pincers, and the darkspawn who did not flee were trapped and slaughtered. The creatures charged again and again, in useless attempts to break out. Again and again, they were mowed down by magic, by arrows, by sharp, bright steel.
When the dust settled, Howe's survivors were greeted as heroes, and gave all the credit to their Warden rescuers.
In fact, the Wardens were hailed throughout the entire allied force. Promises of future support, generous gifts, even pleas to Join met them at every turn. Hawke and his friends smiled and bowed, and made a long list of people they would consider for the order. The prospective recruits were told to present themselves at the Compound on the army's return. Right now, the Wardens were riding a wave of acclaim. Avernus advised them to make the most of it.
There was tragedy as well as triumph. A young woman, the ally of the Wardens, had been wounded in the battle, and was unconscious, being treated tenderly for her injuries.
And a Grey Warden had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Hawke, Alistair, and Avernus reported to Loghain.
"Our latest recruit, a mage named Jowan, is dead, my lord," Hawke said, his voice heavy. "He fought very bravely. His last spell must have been the final blow, for as the Archdemon perished, he toppled down insensible. It was as if his heart just stopped."
"This Jowan..." Loghain scowled. "You knew him well?"
"Hardly at all," Hawke said sadly. "I wish we had known him better. "He volunteered to join us yesterday. He knew Anders and Alyson from the Circle, of course, but where he had been since his escape will be forever a mystery. He had promised Alyson the whole story, but that will not happen now, of course. He will be burned with honor, and his ashes sent to Weisshaupt, where he will lie among the other Warden heroes."
Loghain shrugged. "As you like. The Archdemon is dead now. It's all one to me what you do."
"That's... not entirely true, my lord," said Avernus, with a faint inscrutable smile, his hand in a pocket, twirling an unseen object. "The darkspawn on the surface will remain a problem for some years. The Grey Wardens will be very, very busy."
Loghain's glare grew unfocused.
"Yes... yes... I suppose so. Do as you like, then. I have work to do."
"We must all return together to Denerim," Hawke said. "Ferelden should honor all its heroes. Anything else would be outrageous."
"And we need wagons," Avernus added, his voice dreamily persuasive. "Lots of wagons for our barrels."
Morrigan awakened before they left for the return trip. Horrified to find herself naked and vulnerable, she sat up with a gasp, looking around her at the circle of Wardens surrounding her bed.
"Easy there," Anders soothed. "You gave us quite a scare. You're going to be all right now, but you mustn't overdo things."
"What happened?" she demanded, trying not to show fear. She could remember nothing of the battle. She could not even remember going through the tunnel.
"You were hit in the head by a chunk of Archdemon vertebrae, and it gave you a hairline skull fracture. Then you fell pretty hard and sustained damage to your kidneys. You're not Tainted, so don't worry about that. You should be fine, but you need rest. We've fixed up a wagon for you to lie down in on the way back to Denerim."
"You should come with us, Morrigan," Hawke said, his voice grave but not unkind. "I know you said you wanted to go your own way after the Archdemon was settled, but you really need to rest and heal. You know you're welcome at the Compound for as long as you like."
"Do come back with us," Alyson urged. "It will do you good."
Offended at the hint of patronizing generosity, Morrigan glared back at the other woman.
"I am perfectly well, I assure you." Lifting her chin haughtily, she said, "I do, however, require my clothes and other possessions. I shall leave—" she glanced at the window "—before sundown. Do not think to follow me."
"Wouldn't dream of it," grunted Oghren.
Anders was still unhappy. "I really don't advise that, as a responsible Healer. At least stay with us for a day or two. You were really pretty badly hurt."
"Or if you do not wish to remain in our company, traveling in a jolting wagon," added Avernus, his voice gentle but convincing. "Remain here at Redcliffe with the garrison until you are completely recovered. They have orders to see to your comforts."
Her head aching, Morrigan eased herself back onto her soft pillows. "Perhaps I shall do that. Where are my belongings?"
"Right here," Anders assured her, pointing to the trunk at the foot of the bed. "It's all there, and more, too."
"Yes," said Hawke, very seriously. "We owe you a great deal, and we won't forget it. We're leaving early tomorrow morning, but Anders can look in on you until then. Farewell then, Morrigan. Take care of yourself and—" he broke off, overcome with emotion, and left the room. Avernus followed him.
Once they were back in the hall, Avernus patted Hawke's arm.
"Well played, my boy. Well played indeed. She'll never know it was us."
"You know," Hawke said, his face bleak, "that might have been the only child I ever could have had."
"No," Avernus contradicted him. "Due to that sinister ritual, it was nobody's child. It was a lethal monster that would have been a plague on Thedas. The Old Gods, after all, were not a kindly race. And you will have children, I'm sure, with the right woman at the right time."
A young woman emerged from a bedchamber just at that moment, and Hawke bumped into her. The little bundle she was holding fell to the floor.
"Sorry!" Hawke said, bending to pick up the scattered belongings.
"Thank you kindly, ser," the girl replied. She was quite pretty: red-haired and well-shaped, though she looked strained and tired. Hawke tried to place her, as he handed her back her things.
"You're not one of Howe's soldiers..." he said, feeling stupid.
"No," said the girl, her face tight. "Only his whore. The name's Bella. I've been told to vacate the premises."
Avernus gave Hawke an old man's wicked grin and passed on to the Warden quarters.
Further conversation with Bella revealed that she was the only survivor of Redcliffe village. The only survivor, in fact, of Redcliffe.
"I was so grateful when Arl Howe's men found me," she said, a little bitterly, her eyes wet with tears she scrubbed at. "I thought my troubles were over! What a laugh that was. The Arl no sooner set eyes on me, but I was hustled to his bedchamber so he could have his way with me. Told me it was him or all the rest at once. What could I do?"
Hawke ground his teeth, thinking of nobles in general and Arl Howe in particular. "You did what you needed to do to survive. Like the rest of us. And you did survive. Arl Howe's dead, after all, eaten by the Archdemon."
That made her laugh a bit through her tears. "Right! And I heard that devil choked on him!"
"Pretty much. What will you do now?"
"Don't know. I guess I'll go back to the tavern, if there's anything left."
"Er... there's not anything left of the village, Bella. It's all burned and trampled. The darkspawn didn't leave anything at all. Couldn't you stay here... in the castle?
"What? And be a barracks whore? No, thank you. I'll take the road... maybe find a new inn to work at. I'm not afraid of hard work."
"Why don't you come back with us?" he offered. It was crazy and impulsive, and would be inconvenient, but it sickened him to leave this girl to her fate. "With us Wardens, I mean? We have a compound in Denerim that needs looking after."
She was tempted. "I'll cook and clean," she said firmly. "Not anything else."
"That's fine," he said. "Let me introduce you to the others."
The Wardens' wagons were covered with canvas and heavily laden, mostly with barrels of blood, rolls of hide, and bundles of bone. Two wagons had different loads. One was full of gear and victuals. Bella drove that one, eager to prove her worth with camp cooking and general chores.
The other, driven by Hawke himself, also contained gear: mostly crates of loot, including one very long, well-ventilated box. Avernus rode with Hawke in that wagon, and so was there to respond, when there was a soft rapping sound.
He climbed into the back of the wagon, and whispered to the long box, "Be quiet!"
A plaintive voice from inside asked, "What time is it? Isn't it night yet?"
"No, it isn't! Read your books!"
Hawke grinned to himself. Warden Jowan had died heroically, slaying the Archdemon. Warden Levyn would be a part of the Wardens for years to come, and would soon join Avernus in the safety of Soldier's Peak, where no one could trouble him. After all, the Grey Wardens of Weisshaupt had no way to distinguish one pile of ashes from another.
By the time they returned to Denerim, others had already arrived. Arls Vaughan, Bryland and Wulffe were waiting. A lot of other nobles were there as well, though not Thomas Howe. Rendon's heir was dead under suspicious circumstances. There were whispers of the Crows. However, Nathaniel and Delilah Howe were said to be in the city, and awaiting a decision as to their fate.
The Wardens were overjoyed to make it back in one piece to the Compound. There was still no word from any other Warden outpost. Hawke shrugged. Useless, the lot of them. He then sought permission to see his mother and sister. Instead, they came to see him, shown to the Compound by their guard, who awaited them at the entrance. Hawke thought that perhaps the Queen was not so bad after all. Or maybe she had more important things to worry about.
"My darling!" cried Leandra Hawke, "You're safe!"
Bethany's greeting and hugs were quieter, but no less heartfelt. There was quite a bit of rejoicing, especially by Warden Levyn, who had recently joined them. Bella was introduced to the Hawke women, but Hawke made clear she was not a mere servant.
"She's a brave woman," he told his mother. "The only survivor from all of Redcliffe. Of course, there's nothing left for her there. Her home was destroyed."
Leandra looked Bella over very carefully. Of course she was not good enough for her son—nobody could be—but she was exceptionally pretty and seemed good-natured. Perhaps she might do, with a little polishing...
And almost immediately, the Wardens were summoned to a special session of the Landsmeet.
"I'm not going," said Levyn.
Hawke laughed. "No, you're not. Good thinking. Someone needs to hold down the fort, so to speak."
"Have a look at the library," Avernus advised. "It's in complete chaos."
The rest of them suited up in their very best for hobnobbing with the great and powerful. Hawke and Avernus, Alistair and Alyson, Anders and Oghren: six of Ferelden's seven Grey Wardens.
Queen Anora presided, and much of the first part was devoted to praising the generalship of her father. Hawke forebore to roll his eyes. Loghain had done the job. The darkspawn were broken. So, yes, the man deserved recognition for it. Hawke disliked him heartily, but there was no quarreling with facts.
And then it was the Wardens' turn.
"Special honor must go to those who led the final charge against the Archdemon!" cried the Queen. "Lords and Ladies, I present to you the Grey Wardens of Ferelden!"
Hawke might even have got a big head about the loud applause, had he not understood how fickle this crowd could be.
They all bowed. Queen Anora called Hawke forward for special recognition.
"Warden Liam Hawke," she said, "it is to you, as the leader of this intrepid band, that I particularly address myself. Ferelden owes you a great debt that it can never repay—"
Hawke wondered if that meant that Ferelden would not even try.
"—but," added the Queen, "be assured that you and your order will be richly rewarded in days to come. Think well on any particular boon that Ferelden's Queen can grant you!"
Well, that was a little more promising. Hawke managed his best fake smile, bowed again, and stepped back to join his comrades.
Then the real fun began. Avernus narrowed his eyes, his hand in his pocket, no doubt wishing he had phylacteries for them all.
"My lords and ladies," Arl Bryland called out, "the Blight is broken, but the darkspawn will remain a problem. Ferelden will need a strong leader to see us through the coming years. It is time to talk seriously about the succession. We must choose a king, and we should choose him today."
"Ferelden," Loghain snarled, "has a Queen."
"Ferelden has a Queen Dowager," Wulffe said. "The widow of a ruling King. Not a ruling Queen herself. Not a Queen Mother either. If she had a child, it would be different. She's not of the blood of Calenhad, Loghain, and that's a fact."
"And neither, Loghain," added Arl Vaughan, "are you."
"There is only one choice, at this point," said Bryland. "The son of the man who should have been king, Bryce Cousland. Lords and Ladies, I present to you Fergus Cousland, Teyrn of Highever, scion of the blood of Calenhad, who fought bravely at Ostagar and in the Southron Hills for his country!"
The doors in the back opened, and a tall, black-bearded man in shining silverite armor strode in. The Landsmeet exploded.
Hawke really thought he would burst out laughing at the look on Loghain's face. Then, looking again, he decided it really was not all that funny.
On the other hand, he quite liked looking at Teyrn Fergus. He was just as surprised as anyone else to find out that a Cousland had survived. It was a nice twist in the tale, and another fling at Rendon Howe.
"Lords and Ladies of Ferelden!" Teyrn Fergus had a good voice: deep and resonant. "My countrymen! This is a day for rejoicing. We are victorious over the Blight, and many lives have been saved that might have been lost but for courage and wise leadership. I will be the first to give credit to Teyrn Loghain, general of Ferelden's army. I would be remiss, however, if I did not add my voice to those raised in thanks and praise to the Grey Wardens of Ferelden!"
Hawke was pleased at the cheering. In fact, these nobles cheered louder for him than for Teyrn Loghain. Of course, quite of few of them did not like the Teyrn, whereas they had nothing against Hawke.
Avernus was pondering the matter.
"Loghain or Teyrn Cousland?" he quietly asked Hawke.
Hawke had to think quickly. He had liked Arl Bryland all right when he'd met the man in South Reach. The people of Highever had liked the Couslands. If Teyrn Fergus lost here, he was probably as good as dead, because Loghain would never forgive this challenge.
And on the other hand, he did not like Loghain, who had bullied him and threatened his family and put Carver in a position that led to his death. Loghain was a fine general, and possibly even a great man, but Hawke did want him ruling Ferelden and deciding what what would happen to Hawke, his friends, and his family.
"Teyrn Cousland," he decided.
Avernus nodded. "The Couslands and the Wardens have been allies in the past." Discreetly, he twirled the phylactery in his pocket.
And so it was that there was a vote, and Fergus Cousland was named King of Ferelden. Queen Anora was furious and indignant, but her father, referring to his long service to Ferelden and his belief in their free way of life, submitted to the decision of his peers. He resigned the office of Regent and of Commander of the Army, and gave quite a decent speech about supporting the new King.
"I will go to Gwaren," said Loghain, "and see to the needs of my people there."
The Dowager Queen was of course his heiress, and would return with him to Gwaren. Anora looked as if she could have spit nails. It made her a very eligible woman, of course, but Hawke did not envy the man who married her.
Teyrn Fergus—now King Fergus—then took over the session, and among other things told Hawke to attend a meeting of the Royal Council, to be held on the morrow.
They left the chamber, generally pleased with how things had fallen out. On the way back to the palace, Hawke came face to face with none other than Ser Cauthrien.
She looked like someone had killed her dog.
"I can't believe it!" she said, her face strained. "After all he's done... those ingrates... to retire him to Gwaren like an old warhorse put out to pasture..."
Hawke sighed, fighting a last pang of jealousy. It had been a foolish fancy. She never had cared a pin for him. It would always be Loghain.
"Maybe it's time for someone else to step up," he said, trying to put a generous gloss on it. "Maybe it's time Teyrn Loghain didn't have to do everything. He's not a young man. Other people have a duty, too."
She was clearly not hearing a word he said.
"I'll resign my commission, of course," she rambled. "The army is no place for me, if it has no place for Loghain Mac Tir!"
"You'll go with him to Gwaren?"
That, she did hear.
"Of course. He'll need my support. The Queen needs me. The poor Queen!" She shook her head. "To be tossed aside like that!"
Hawke had never cared for Queen Anora, who had never even troubled herself to grant him an audience and had locked up his mother and sister until Loghain had told her not to. And what exactly had she done to win the war, anyway? Not a thing, as far as he could see, but sit safe in her castle, dressed in silks and eating cakes, while the commoners suffered.
"Well," he said, tired of the conversation. "I'm sure she'll find something to occupy her time. I don't suppose," he said, making a last attempt, "that you'd consider Joining the Wardens instead? We're going to be pretty busy with the Thaw, fighting the darkspawn left on the surface."
She stared at him as if he were insane.
"Join the Wardens?" she echoed, incredulous.
"Yes," he said, annoyance spiking. "Join the Wardens and fight the darkspawn. Protect the people of Ferelden, even the ones who don't have a fancy handle to their name."
Her lip curled. "You should be ashamed of yourself, after all he's done for you!"
She turned on her heel and walked away. Hawke managed a bitter smile. Perhaps he should ask Avernus to nudge Loghain into proposing marriage to Cauthrien. They deserved each other.
Hawke brought Avernus and Alistair with him to the Council meeting. Avernus, because they might need nudges to get what they wanted. Alistair, because the young Warden, between his happiness with Alyson and his relief over the events of the Landsmeet, had told Hawke a very interesting bit of information.
"The son of Maric? Really? And you let Teyrn Fergus... But now you'll never be king!" Hawke said afterwards.
"I never wanted to be king," Alistair shrugged. "I just want to be a Warden. I love being a Warden. If they'd proposed Loghain, I might have felt guilty, not putting up a fight... but Teyrn Cousland's a very fine man, by all accounts. I wouldn't know how to be a king anyway. It's all worked out. Alyson and I are going to look up my half-sister, here in Denerim. Maybe she needs help. Alyson knows how to be tactful."
So here they were, shown into the Council Chamber, which like the rest of the palace was very nice and posh and expensive. Hawke looked about with a sardonic smirk, thinking how many people could have been fed and clothed with what had been spent here.
"Warden Hawke." King Fergus greeted them with a smile. "And Warden Avernus... Warden Alistair. My warmest thanks to you all. We have been discussing how best to reward you."
Loghain was looking grumpy. Possibly someone had proposed something particularly nice.
The King glanced around the table.
"It has even been proposed that the Arling of Amaranthine, once the domain of Arl Howe, be given to the Wardens for their support and maintenance. The commander of the Wardens would thus be Arl of Amaranthine."
Hawke's jaw dropped in utter horror.
"No!" he croaked.
The King's smile turned puzzled. Alistair gasped. Avernus gritted his teeth.
"Sorry, Your Majesty," Hawke apologized. "It's just... Grey Wardens shouldn't have titles. We're just Wardens. That's all we need to be."
Fergus was touched. "That's an admirably altruistic sentiment."
Loghain, at the end of the table, snorted. "Hawke dislikes nobles. He'd think it hypocritical to be one."
King Fergus raised his brows.
Hawke refused to lie about it. "I have not the least desire to be a noble. All I ever wanted was a farm and a quiet life and for my family to be safe. I've never asked for anything else. I was conscripted into the Wardens and I've tried my best to do my duty. Our job was to kill the Archdemon, and we did it."
"Hear, hear!" approved Arl Wulffe. "Well done, I say! Personally," he added in a growl to Arl Bryland, "I think he's just the sort of noble Ferelden needs!"
Hawke plowed on. "But our job isn't over. We can't sit around, playing nobles and settling land disputes while there's a single darkspawn loose in Ferelden. We're warriors. We've given this a lot of thought. What we'd like is clear title to our old fortress up in the Coast Mountains."
"Soldier's Peak," Loghain put in, his eyes blank. "That's the name."
"Right. Soldier's Peak. We'd like that and a bit of land to support us. Enough for some pasture and a farm or two. That's all we need and all we have time to manage. With that, we can keep the Wardens fed and fielded. The Compound is Denerim is fine, and a good base when we need to be consulted, but Soldier's Peak will be our home."
"Isn't it a ruin?" asked Arl Bryland.
"It's not so bad, my lord," said Hawke. "We can fix it up with some work. None of us is afraid of hard work," he added, unconsciously echoing Bella. "We don't need anything fancy. We'll want our proper tithes, of course, but we don't need an arling."
Arl Vaughan could hardly believe what he was hearing. He asked, "Do the rest of you agree to this? You really don't want Amaranthine?"
"We agree!" Alistair's voice was firm and clear. "We didn't do what we did for honors or land." He narrowed his eyes at Loghain, who did not look his way.
Avernus smiled and shrugged. "How does one put a value on slaying an Old God? Our order is precious to us, my lords, not wealth and power. And there are two Old Gods yet unawakened. It does not do to forget that. The Grey Wardens will always be needed."
"Well," said King Fergus, eyeing Hawke with curiosity, "I've never heard of anyone turning down an arling before. You're a principled man, Warden Hawke. Proud, too. All of you: proud and principled. I think it's going to be interesting, working with you." He spread his hands.
"All right, then. Soldier's Peak it is. I'll send some surveyors out, and we'll give you a demesne to support your order. I daresay we can carve a bit off Amaranthine for you." He grinned. "Just enough, and not too much, for proud and principled Wardens."
"And there's just one other thing, Your Majesty," said Hawke. "I'd like permission for my mother and sister to be released from Crown custody." It was all he could do to keep his temper, thinking of it. "Now that I think I've proved my worth and loyalty beyond question, perhaps it's not necessary for them to be kept under guard at the Palace. I'd like them to travel north with me."
Loghain looked away. King Fergus glanced at Arl Bryland, not quite understanding the situation, but making quite a clever guess.
"Of course," said the King. "Now that the crisis is passed, there is no longer any reason for them to stay, if they wish to go. Don't you agree, Teyrn Loghain?"
Avernus did not even have to use the phylactery.
"Their movements are of complete indifference to me, Your Majesty."
"Excellent," said the King. "What an agreeable session we've had today." He sighed. "Tomorrow will be a different matter, as we consider the fate of the heirs of Arl Howe. That is of some interest to you Wardens, as the Arl of Amaranthine will be your neighbor to the east. Tomorrow, however, is another day. For now, take our thanks with you, and our assurances that you will have all that you asked. If it proves a little more than that, try to be gracious."
They did not congratulate themselves until they had retrieved both Hawke ladies and everyone was safe and gathered in the compound.
"Soldier's Peak!" said Anders. "I hope it's not too awful."
"I lived there quite happily for many years," Avernus said blithely. "There is a tower for mages there. In my day we had what amounted to our own, independent Circle. We could do that again."
A slow smile brightened Anders' face.
"It sounds wonderful," said Levyn, trying not to stare at Bethany. He thought she was incredibly pretty.
Oghren lifted his head from his mug of ale and spoke.
"I might be joining you folks later on. I've got some business at an inn by Lake Calenhad. There's a girl who might be persuaded," he leered, "to let me carry her off."
"Er... Oghren..." Alistair said nervously. "Aren't you already married?"
"Hmmm... "Oghren cocked his head. "So you'd rather I brought Branka to Soldier's Peak?"
"No!" yelped Alistair, horrified. "I didn't mean that!"
Alyson squeezed his hand. She grinned at Oghren. "I'm sure your second marriage will be far happier than your first!"
They all laughed. Hawke looked around. His family, his friends, a home. He would still have to fight for them all, through unknown battles and labors ahead, but at last, everything he had dreamed of was within his grasp.
And there would be no nobles at Soldier's Peak.
End Part 5, and of Hawkes Over Ferelden
Notes: special thanks to Blinded in a Bolthole, who suggested that Avernus might want to make off with the Old God Baby—for Science!
Afterwards: Morrigan was devastated when she found she had miscarried, but she believed that it really had been due to her wounds. She headed west, and, as in many of the epilogues, eventually found a place for herself at the court of the Empress of Orlais. Not for all that long, however: for civil war is at hand there.
The Dalish were granted some land in south, and in a place so uninhabited as to give them hopes of staying there for a few generations. Branka eventually did send her golems to Ferelden, and King Fergus has found them extremely useful in maintaining order. He generously gave two to the Wardens. The mages, for their service, have been granted considerable freedom, and the Rite of Tranquility is under review by King Fergus, due to evidence that the Chantry has in effect been using it to effect a form of slavery in Ferelden, which is, of course, illegal. The Chantry has made threatening noises, but King Fergus has made some very clever alliances.
Nathaniel Howe was confirmed as Arl of a reduced Amaranthine. Captain Chase gave testimony to what amounted to a deathbed statement from Rendon Howe, naming Nathaniel as his heir. Delilah was married to Arl Wulffe's eldest son. Habren Bryland married Vaughan Kendalls, and yes, they were a thorn in Fergus' side. Fergus himself married a clever and charming Nevarran princess, Porphyria van Markham, forging a useful alliance there. The Crown retained the teyrnir of Highever, intending it for a second child.
Redcliffe was slowly rebuilt. Its rule was given to one of Fergus' loyal supporters from Highever, Ser Naois Gilmore.
Anora never planned to remarry, but an event changed her mind. Out of the blue, her father married Ser Cauthrien, making that famous woman warrior Teyrna of Gwaren. To Anora's horror, they actually dared to reproduce. Teyrna Cauthrien bore Loghain two sons and another daughter, and Loghain himself bid fair to live to be a hundred. Anora, who still had an impressive dowry, exerted herself, and managed to land Arl Naois, whose wife and nephew/heir had died during the troubles at Highever. Thus she ended up as Arlessa of Redcliffe, and some unkind remarks were made about ways in which this Arlessa resembled her predecessor. She was, however, far more hard-working and competent. She even managed to produce three sons. It was not a particularly successful marriage, as a marriage; but it was a pretty decent partnership.
And Hawke and company, of course, had to face the Thaw, the Architect, and the Mother. They did so with aplomb, and without the assistance of the Orlesians. Eventually, word came back from Weisshaupt, praising dear dead Warden Jowan and confirming Hawke as Warden-Commander. Oh—young Mhairi survived her Joining, due to the improved potion. Merrill eventually came to them, tossed out of her clan due to her messing about with the Tainted eluvian. Avernus, of course, immediately recognized the eluvian for the danger that it was, and destroyed it. Other lost souls and wanderers Joined their ranks.
Kirkwall, without Hawke, was sacked by the Qunari. The Viscount was killed, along with most of the Circle, including Knight-Commander Meredith. A new Exalted March of Chantry, Nevarra and Marchers formed to eradicate the Qunari threat. This event alleviated much of the tension building with the mages, who were essential to the success of the Exalted March. Not a great deal was left of the city when it was liberated in 9:36. However, the survivors, including one Varric Tethras, are optimistic. Fenris finds it impossible to be optimistic, himself, but as he slew the Arishok, he has gained quite a bit of notice and recognition, and now owns his grand townhouse free and clear. Another who filled the decimated ranks of the nobles was Charade Amell. Isabela made a fortune from the sale of the Tome of Koslun.
I'll write more Dragonsteeth in future, but I need a short break to work on original fiction. Thanks to all my readers and reviewers for their clever, useful comments and suggestions!