Thursday, 21 September 2017

Chapter Seventeen - Pride and Shame, a Dragon Age Fanfic






Chapter Seventeen


  
Lake Calenhad stretched out before them. The largest inland water body in Ferelden – probably in all of Thedas – was dark and turbulent here, its waters murkily lapping against the shores on one side, and against the island that housed the still-imposing Circle Tower on the other.

There had once been a road connecting the mainland to the Tower, a bridge built by the Tevinter Imperium when it had ruled over Ferelden. It had long since fallen into disrepair. A small jetty and the little ferry-boat it housed was now the only way to get to the Tower. A village had sprung up around it, little more than a few scattered houses and the big tavern, The Spoiled Princess, which was always full of people either having business at the Circle Tower or stopping over on the way from Redcliffe to Denerim. The plan was to hire a room for Leliana at the Princess and for Neria to go alone to fetch help from the Tower. It would be faster and more effective than announcing themselves as Wardens, she had pointed out, and the ferry boat that went across the lake could never carry an injured Leliana in any sort of comfort.

Neria had spent exactly one night in the Princess. It had been when the Templars had brought her to the Circle as a child. They had arrived well after darkness had fallen, and she had been put to stay in a room in the Tavern with one of the Templars watching her at all times, as had been the case all through the journey. She had missed her mother terribly. She remembered crying herself to sleep thinking about her.

As Neria looked at the Tavern, she wondered when she had forgotten her mother. She barely remembered what she looked like now. She had had golden hair like herself, Neria remembered that, and was beautiful too, but not so dark as Neria was. She wondered if her mother was still in Denerim, at the alienage. Had she found companionship again? Employment? Children? Maybe she had another family now, and had forgotten the daughter who had gone to the Circle all those years ago, just as the daughter had forgotten having a mother.

“Who was your mother, Alistair?” she asked, as they walked from Bodahn's wagon towards the Tavern.

He seemed surprised at the sudden question.

“Serving-girl in Redcliffe Castle,” he replied. “Died when I was born. Haven't I told you before?”

“I probably was not paying attention,” she smiled. “What about Leliana? Who do you think her mother is, or was?”

'She's cagey isn't she?” said Alistair. “She's clearly Orlesian, and noble too, if the accent is anything to go on, but she never lets on a word about anything beyond that.”

“Except that Orlesian nobles don't end up as Chantry sisters in a one-horse town like Lothering.”

“You never know where you could end up,” shrugged Alistair. “I certainly didn't think I'd be the last of two Wardens in Ferelden, fighting a Blight side-by-side with a couple of crazy mages.”

Neria scratched her nose thoughtfully.

“Do you fancy Leliana?” she asked.

#

Alistair stopped and turned to look her in the face. He could make out Morrigan and Sten directing a servant who had come down from the Spoiled Princess with a stretcher to carry out Leliana from where she had been sleeping inside the trade wagon. Biscuit was marking his territory on a wooden post that showed the way to the dock. And then there was Neria, smooth, bare dark skin, shoulders, torso, stomach, legs, all that perfection, the flimsy robe covering only the barest minimum, bright blue eyes, dirty blonde hair pulled tightly back into a ponytail, a few strands falling over her forehead nonetheless, asking him if he liked Leliana? Of course he liked Leliana, who did not? She was pretty, she was adorable, she had an amazing figure and she was devout – the girl you wanted to take home and kiss and admire. But she was not Neria. Neria with the nonchalant disregard for convention, Neria who seemed to live and breathe desire, Neria whose fire was unquenchable, Neria who disgusted and inflamed him in equal measure.

“Yes, I mean, I hardly know her, but she seems a nice sort,” he said, trying to put it outside his mind.

“She is lovely, isn't she?”

“She's also funny, and friendly and full of life. At least she was, until…”

“What about Morrigan?” They were walking again now, towards the tavern.

Alistair chuckled.

“I'm told there are men who rather get off on being told what miserable specimens of humanity they are. I'm not one of them.”

“Do you think she actually likes anyone?” wondered Neria.

“The dog, probably. And she seems to have the hots for Sten, or is pretending to.”

“Ah well, Qunari men, you know. Reputation. I want him too, but he's not shown any interest in either of us.”

Alistair rolled his eyes.

“Oh, should've remembered. Neria-fucks-anything. Well, maybe he rides his horse on the other side of the road.”

Neria groaned.

“I suppose you thought that was a funny euphemism.”

“What about – maybe he stirs his tea in the other direction? Butters the other side of the toast?”

“Please stop,” she pleaded. “And let me point out, I haven't tried to seduce you.”

“Yes, I wonder why,” a touch of resentment now entered his voice. “Am I that distasteful? Or do you despise me just as much as Morrigan does and are just better at hiding it?”

“That's unfair, Alistair!” she exclaimed, with a vehemence that surprised him.

“Is it, though?” he countered. “I seem to remember an elf who, after being taken by two men in the Wilds, taunted them for not being able to satisfy her, but still made no offer to the third man who was, in fact, present.”

“Would you have?” she shot back. “You, who were sneering at me with contempt and disgust the whole time.”

“I don't know,” said Alistair. “I don't know, you – you looked incredible at that moment. I don't know what I would have done.”

“Well you’re always handsome, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be offering myself to you all the same.”

She strode off towards the pier, leaving him standing in place. He remained there until Morrigan came and asked acerbically if he was trying to look like a statue of King Cailan.

#



“And Loghain has declared the Wardens traitors to the Crown and ordered a bounty on their heads,” said the old man sitting next to the bar table, sharing the latest gossip with the customers.

Alistair chuckled as he recalled the clumsy amateurs who had, indeed, tried to collect the 'bounty'. Even without Leliana, he and the rest had made short work of them. Morrigan, who was feeding Biscuit scraps of bacon near the fireplace and trying to look very hard as if she was not enjoying it, had transformed into a very scary-looking Wolf. It had been more for the shock effect than anything else, but worked beautifully, with Alistair and Biscuit embarking on a slaughter while Neria picked off the injured bounty-hunters with arcane bolts.

“The Templars wouldn't consider themselves beholden to follow Loghain's orders, you know. Not unless they were endorsed by the Grand Cleric of the Chantry in Denerim,” said Alistair softly to Morrigan and Sten. It was fifteen minutes since Neria had left in a huff for the pier and Morrigan had expressed concern the fact that she had not taken Biscuit along. “Neria should be all right.”

“Did you say Neria?”

The old man had spoken, and now setting aside his audience, he walked over to where they sat, Morrigan and Alistair facing each other with a mug of ale in their hands, Biscuit between them. Sten sat at a table a little distance away with Bodahn and his son, who was watching the bubbles in the ale his father was drinking, quite fascinated.

“I'm sorry, you might have mis-heard,” said Alistair, cursing himself for speaking out loud. The last thing he wanted was a situation like Lothering where the peasants of the village tried to collect the bounty and got themselves slaughtered for it.

“I'm sure you said Neria,” the old man dropped his voice. “You can tell me, I knew her when she was in the Tower. Became a Warden, didn't she? Blonde hair, dark skin, tight stomach, always ready for a pounding?”

“Sounds like her,” Alistair admitted. The man was white-haired and had a slight paunch and did not look armed. It was more than likely that he would have heard about Neria if he had lived in the village. No doubt stories carried across the water.

“Is she here? I wonder if she remembers old Kester. Good times we had, her and old Kester,” he chuckled.

“Don't tell me,” Alistair sighed. Clearly Neria's standards were even lower than he had suspected.

“Oh yes. I mean, not with me, but one hears things. And you need not worry about her in there. Half them Templars in there would sooner 'ave Neria on her back under them than shut up in prison.”

Alistair was not sure what to think of that particular answer.

“And the other half?” asked Morrigan with a grin.

“On them fine knees, of course. That mouth of hers is mighty sinful, I’m told,” Kester gave a roguish wink.

“So how do you know her?” asked Morrigan conversationally. “I didn't know the mages were allowed to visit the village.”

“They ain’t,” said Kester. “I go over to their side. I'm the ferryman, see. Leastways I was until Gregoir came and took my boat away from me and gave it that Templar Caroll to manage. Crazy feller, that Caroll. Came from Denerim last month. Bit touched in the head.”

Morrigan and Alistair looked at each other in alarm.

“Right, come on, let's go,” said Alistair, getting to his feet. “Morrigan, stay here and look after our invalid. Sten, come with me, our leader has gone expecting an old man who was soft on her and instead is up against a crazy Templar from Denerim.”

“I heard the man speak,” said Sten, who was already fastening his great-sword on his back.

“Let's go.”

Biscuit followed, his tail still and eyes wary.

#



The pier looked much the same as she remembered. The little boat did too, and the Tower across the water was as ominous as it had appeared when she had first seen it as a eight year-old child.

Apart from a man in Templar armour at the end of it, she couldn't see anyone there. There was no sign of Kester the ferryman.

Neria impatiently walked towards the Templar. He was a ferret-faced young fellow with carrot-coloured hair.

“Hello?” she said. “Are you waiting for him too? Damn it, where's Kester?”

“Kester should be hanging around near the Spoiled Princess,” said the Templar, keenly observing his nails.

“When is he getting back then? I need to get across.”

“Couldn't rightly say. Could be sooner, could be longer. Could be not at all.”

Neria stamped her foot angrily. That made him raise his head and look at her. And gasp.

“Ooh, Neria!”

“Ooh me, yes. Who are you?”

“Name's Caroll. Recognised you from the likeness in Cullen's locket. Arrived from Denerim last month,” he chuckled softly, as if he had just said something very funny.

“Well, I need to get across, Carroll,” she snapped.

“No! I've one job, and one job only, and by the Maker's shiny gold cutlery, I will do it!” Carroll responded, just as vehemently.

“What are you babbling about?”

“That's right, yes sir. One job. I will do it.”

Neria took a deep breath and spoke slowly. She had seen Templars suffering from lyrium poisoning and could identify the symptoms.

“Carroll, can you explain to me in simple terms why you have taken Kester's place and why you're not taking me across?”

He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“Because Gregoir told Kester to take a break for a while and gave him forty silvers! Then he gave me an oar and said to me 'Carroll', he said, 'You man the ferry and don't you ferry anyone across but us Templars, see.' That's what he said and that's what I will do, yes sir.”

“Is there a problem at the Tower?” asked Neria.

“The Tower is the problem,” said Carroll with a buffoon-like grin.

“Listen, Carroll, a woman, a woman who is very dear to me,” Neria began, “is dying. I need to bring a healer back here from the Tower. Wynne, if she's still alive, Anders if he is…and so please, don't waste any more time and get a move on…”

“Wynne came back from Ostagar,” Carroll grinned, rocking back and forth on his feet.

“I'm delighted to hear it!” said Neria sincerely. “So now can we please - ?”

“No. I've one job, and one job only, and by the Maker's flowing long beard, I will do it!”

For a moment Neria contemplated setting Biscuit on the Templar and finding Kester and getting him to take her across. But she wouldn't make any friends going to the Tower with a dead or injured Carroll left behind.

“Listen, Carroll, I know you think you're doing your job, but I am a Grey Warden now, see. You must have been told about how Warden Commander Duncan came to the tower and recruited me. Well, now I have these treaties that require the Circle to lend its aid to us Wardens on request.”

She fished the Treaty out of the bag slung around her back. Carroll took a long hard look at it.

“Oh, a Grey Warden treaty! So you're supposed to be one of those. Well, I've got some papers too! They say I'm the Queen of Antiva! What do you have to say to that?”

Apparently he found this a very amusing joke, because he chuckled again.

“Well, look, if you could identify me from the likeness in Cullen's locket,” said Neria, taking a step closer to him. “Surely you've heard the other stories as well.”

“Oh yes. And oh no! I know you, devil elf-woman and your wiles. I know you are a seductress and temptress and seamstress. I've got one job, and one job only, and by the Maker's dull silk sandals, I will do it!”

Finding nothing in the names he called her that she could plausibly deny, Neria stuck to being persuasive.

“Well, I do modify my own robes, it's true, but come on, Caroll. You can take me across can't you? What harm could I possibly do? I'll let you have me however you want.”

“You're too eager to get across. What do you mean to do, evil demon of desire and tailoring?” his eyes narrowed.

“I just told you, I have a sick friend and Wynne is the only one who…”

It was at that moment that Alistair and Sten came running up to the pier, followed closely by Biscuit. Caroll reacted by drawing his sword and screaming, “Seek not to intimidate me with your sewing, your body and your fair-haired friend and his Qunari giant! I will not fail! I've got one job, and one job only, and by the Maker's bright shining toes, I will do it!”

“Neria!” exclaimed Alistair, drawing his sword in turn, “Are you all right? Drop it, Templar!”

Sten had his sword in hand as well. Biscuit bared his teeth in an angry grin. But Neria remained unmoved, her staff still slung across her back.

“It's all right, Alistair,” said Neria. “Caroll, I don't want to hurt you. Alistair here is a Templar-trained Grey Warden who could cut you to pieces in a minute. Sten can lift you up and break your spine as easy as drinking a mug of ale. And the mabari will be biting chunks off your face before you can say 'Boo'. But they won't do any of those things, because if you don't ferry us across in the next five minutes, I'll push you into the water first.”

“Hah! I can swim!” said Caroll triumphantly.

“Maybe you should look into the water,” said Neria.

Caroll slid his eyes right without moving his head. The water underneath them was frothing. Bubbles rose to the surface. He swallowed nervously as the steam rose from the surface.

“The whole lake?” he asked, a reverential note entering his voice.

“Just ten feet around the pier,” she admitted. “But if I'm able to get my hands on my staff before you bring down a Holy Smite upon me, who knows what I could do? By the way, is your armour feeling warm? Do you feel stuffy inside? Sweaty? Maybe my dog can have some roast Templar for dinner.”

Biscuit hung his tongue out of his mouth. Caroll sheathed his sword and began to pull the rope, bringing the ferry-boat close to the pier.

“Right, so, err, I'll take you across. This way, please.”

Neria stepped into the boat.

“I'm coming along,” said Alistair. “Sten, join Morrigan at the Inn. They may need protection there.”

Biscuit jumped into the boat as well.

“Full house,” grumbled Caroll, picking up an oar.

“Full boat,” said Neria thoughtfully.

“Listen, about that offer of yours…”

“You had your chance.”

“Oh well,” sighed Caroll, a grin spreading across his face. “I've never done it before you know, and Templar Captain Ser Brodriger told me you've got many skills and not one skill only, and by the Maker's clean white pillow-case, now I will never do it!”

#

The gates to the Circle Tower were massive, iron-lined wood, older than the Tevinter Imperium. As Alistair entered, Biscuit at his side, he had a definitive sense of being very small.

He had expected to enter into a passage or a Hall. Instead he seemed to have wandered into an infirmary. Men – mostly Templars, lay wounded or dying on the floors, as other men tended to their wounds. There was a smell of ointment and healing potions heavy in the air. A few Templars stood, silent and helmed, their faces invisible. At the other end of the passage were massive wooden gates just as large as the one he had come through, shut and barred with massive iron latches. He felt their eyes upon him as another man approached, wearing the Templar armour with the tree symbol on the chest-piece, grey haired and bearded.

“My respects to you, Knight Commander Gregoir,” said Alistair, bowing. He had seen him once at Redcliffe. It was the visit when he had met young Cullen as well and they had sat in the Tavern talking about the Chant of Light and a beautiful little Elf girl who made Cullen struggle so much with his vows of celibacy.

“Who? What's this, who are you? Did I not specifically tell Caroll not to…Seldon, go see what the idiot is up to. Or, just…oh, forget it.” Gregoir seemed to bark rather than speak.

“I am Alistair, Knight Commander,” said Alistair politely. “Alistair the Grey Warden. We have come seeking the aid of the Circle of Magi in the fight against the Darkspawn. Surely you have heard about what happened at Ostagar. Right now, of course, I would be content if you could send a healer with us across the lake…”

The old Templar cast a piercing gaze at Alistair.

“I know what happened at Ostagar. I also know that Teyrn Loghain has declared all Wardens traitors to the crown and responsible for the death of King Cailan.”

Alistair was about to open his mouth to defend himself, when Gregoir raised a hand.

“And I also know better than to believe that nonsense. Alistair – were you not an initiate at the Redcliffe Chantry?”

“Yes, that would be me,” admitted Alistair.

“The resemblance is certainly striking,” said the Knight Commander, in a softer tone. “Well, lad, you've come at rather a bad time. You won't find the help you're looking for here. Look around.”

“Is something wrong?” asked Alistair.

“Demons, boy. Demons running riot through the tower. I don't know how it happened exactly, but Uldred was mixed up in it, and now I have sealed the gates – what you see of us in this Hall is all that I have with me now.”

“And the mages?” Alistair's jaw dropped.

“Dead, or dying, or possessed by demons, more likely.” Gregoir shook his head grimly. “I have called for the order from the Chantry in Denerim to carry out the Rite of Annulment.”

“Wait, what?”

“There is no choice. We do not know what is going on beyond that door. I don't have the men to go in there to rescue any innocents who might have survived. Once I have the authorisation from the Grand Cleric – and reinforcements - we will raze the Tower to the Ground. If even a single demon gets out of here and makes it to the mainland…well, boy, you have your Darkspawn to worry about. I've got my demons. I can't risk it!”

Alistair shuddered where he stood. The Rite of Annulment was effectively a death sentence to every living mage in the Circle. It was the most powerful weapon in the hands of the Templars and only invoked in the most extreme circumstances. If Gregoir had already asked for it, the situation inside must have been dire indeed.

“If you need supplies or healing potions, we have a few, though we can spare precious little. But then you'd best be on your way.”

Alistair shook his head wordlessly. So this was it. No Wynne, no magical healing, no life for Leliana and no help from the Circle of Magi in fighting the darkspawn. In a day or two, or however long it took for the missive to reach from Denerim to Lake Calenhad, there wouldn't BE a Circle of Magi in Ferelden. He turned to leave.

“Just a moment, Alistair.” Gregoir said. “I heard that all the Wardens had died at Ostagar, barring you – and a mage. Would that mage be an Elf girl called Neria Surana?”

“Yes,” said Alistair, turning and speaking cautiously.

“Well, she did right to stay away and send you here. She was a curse upon the circle, a morass of sin. It's unfortunate she survived Ostagar. But perhaps the Maker thought that having her die a martyr was too bright a fate for one such as she, the filthy little whore.”

“Someone call for me?”

Neria was walking – sashaying in, rather, hips swaying, running a finger around her lips. Mercifully she had not taken pity on Caroll and decided to let him have her, or else Alistair felt they would have a tough time explaining any visible marks of their activity.

“You!” Gregoir spat out the word as if it was a curse.

“Me,” she said. She spread her arms out, resplendent in the light of the torches, bronze skin glistening. “Miss me, boys?”



Her presence had certainly caused a sensation around the room. Bleeding, injured Templars were staring at her, transfixed. Clearly this was an audience she had under her thumb.

“What's going on here?” she asked, her voice just as assertive as Gregoir's in its own way.

“Rite of Annulment,” said Alistair, before Gregoir, who looked on the verge of an apoplectic fit could speak. “Demons have broken through from the fade, casualties are high and Gregoir thinks there is no other choice.”

“I've lost over fifty men in there,” said Gregoir, gnashing his teeth.

“Surely Irving is trapped in the tower too!” exclaimed Neria, serious now. She had not suspected things had gone so wrong. “You can't be suggesting that he is fallen prey to a demon! Or Wynne for that matter.”

“If they are in there, they are surrounded by demons! Are you going to go in there and rescue them, then?” Gregoir sneered. “Or are you going to corrupt my men in your own way, just as the demons of the fade corrupt the mages?”

“Call off the Rite of Annulment, Gregoir,” she said, taking her staff in her hand. “And I will go in there and get the survivors out, Templar and Mage alike. If not, I will stay right here and ask your men to tie you up so you can watch while I…corrupt them, as you call it.”

“You're outnumbered, Neria,” he scoffed. “I'll have you drained of mana and dead before you make a move against me.”

“No, Gregoir, No, you won't. Because you're a sensible man and you know the darkspawn are a greater evil than anything, even the Demons in this tower, and you won't kill me, because then you'll have to kill Alistair, too. And you don't want to be known as the man who ended Ferelden's chances of resisting the Blight. We are the last Wardens in Ferelden, Gregoir, the very last, and you know it!”

Gregoir hesitated. Alistair thought he could guess what the old Templar was thinking. He was not sure of the allegiance of his men, most of whom had surely partaken of the pleasures Neria could give, apart from the undeniable fact that as a righteous man, Gregoir could not ignore the fact that there was a Blight in Ferelden and the Wardens were the only chance Ferelden had of ending it.

If she went inside the Tower, at least her fate would be taken out of his hands.

“Fine. If you bring Irving before me, safe and sound, I will call off the Rite. You have twenty-four hours.”

“That's settled then. Come on Alistair. Biscuit, to me!”

As the gate to the inner corridor of the Tower creaked open, Alistair leaned in and whispered to her.

“Do you really think we can sort out this…mess on our own?”

“If we walk away, we sign Leliana's death warrant. Besides, the Tower was my home, and I mean to save it if I can. You know, I've always fancied confronting a desire demon,” she replied with a nervous laugh.

“All you need to do is look in a mirror, my lady.”

The voice that spoke was behind them. Two Templars there, inside the closing gates. The one who had spoken was a handsome man with long black hair.

“Why, Ser Brodriger,” said Neria, smiling, “what are you doing here?”

“Following you, Neria. We will help you fight whatever is inside.”

“Gregoir will excommunicate you for this, you know.”

It was the other one who answered, an older man with curly red hair.

“A Templar's job is to fight evil magic, not stand by and watch as innocents die with the guilty. Gregoir can take a hike. It will be an honour to fight at your side. Ser Deveron, at your command.”

She touched the man's cheek. The look in her eyes - an amalgam of lust, gratitude and pride, made Alistair shake his head with wonder at the contradiction that she represented, a mix of nobility and goodness and wantonness that he just could not reconcile in his mind.

“The rewards will be great, Deveron, and the pleasure will be mine as much as yours,” she promised, her eyes moving down to the magnificent body that the Holy Sisters so proudly displayed, and then locking with his again – all that was needed to make him, and the others imagine what she meant.

“Good to have back-up,” agreed Alistair.

“What's the threat of demonic possession before the attractions you have on display?” winked Ser Brodriger.

“Or, to put it differently,” said Neria, swirling, the skirt of her robe rising as she did, showing off her toned upper thighs, “What's the Rite of Annulment before the charm of Neria Surana? And now, we have a Tower full of Fade demons that we have to eradicate.”

#