Chapter Three - Faces Old and New
Ostagar turned out to be big. Very big. The alienage at Denerim, where she had grown up, was practically in the shadow of the castle of the Arl of Denerim, but that castle was nothing compared to the structure that emerged before their eyes as the fourth day after they had separated from Tegrin broke. It was embedded into the side of a hill, with the Korcari Wilds, vast, foggy swamplands and forbidding to the South. Powerful curtain walls with turret-like outcroppings could be seen from a distance, with soldiers standing vigil in them, looking towards the swamplands. Duncan hailed the sentries at the tall gates that led into the keep itself, and they passed through, Neria attracting appreciative stares as was, to be fair, only to be expected. With much fewer people on the road and the need to keep a low profile obviated, she had been able to use her magic to keep herself warm, which naturally meant dressing as though she were lying on the sandy beaches of her home country of Rivain rather than trudging through the frosty forests of Ferelden.
“Here we are,” said Duncan, as they approached a section of the castle’s imposing wall that connected two peaks of the hill, like a bridge.
“Can I get a warm meal now?”
He rolled his eyes, and would probably have made a snide remark about the values of suffering and hardship in order to become a true, valuable member of the Grey Wardens, when the appearance of a group of men seemed to surprise him into silence.
“King Cailan, I was not expecting a…”
“A royal welcome? I was beginning to worry that you were going to miss all the fun.”
The one who spoke walked in the middle, surrounded by two burly men in steel plate. Neria barely noticed them, though – for this one, the man who spoke, resplendent in gold-plated armour, with a broadsword strapped to his back, long golden hair and warm brown eyes – was occupying all her attention. So this was King Cailan. Well, she had heard the occasional Templar visitor from Denerim speak about how handsome he was, but not expecting to ever meet him in person, had never paid much attention.
She was paying attention now, all right.
“Not if I could help it, your majesty,” said Duncan, his gravelly voice a contrast to the King’s slightly higher pitch.
“Then I shall have the mighty Duncan at my side in battle after all,” the King said, with a broad smile that made Neria’s legs turn to blancmange. “I take it this is the Grey Warden recruit the others told me you had found in the…”
For the first time, he seemed to look at her, and his mouth seemed to move, but no words came out. Neria tried to curtsy, ended up bowing, and felt thoroughly embarrassed, but not nearly as much as the two soldiers accompanying Cailan, who seemed not to know where to look, as the King seemed to be drinking her in with his eyes.
“This is Neria, your majesty,” Duncan’s voice broke in like an ice-pick cracking through the silence. “She is a mage from the Circle.”
“Honoured to make your acquaintance, my lady,” said the King, his composure apparently restored, with a slight bow.
Neria mumbled inaudibly in response.
“I’m sure you must be remarkable to have impressed Duncan so despite your young age,” he went on. “I am proud to lead a campaign against these monsters with the Grey Wardens by my side, and prouder still than you will soon be one of them.”
“I honour think am in turn,” mumbled Neria, hoping that the jumble of words did not actually reach his ears.
“And now I fear I must cut this short, or Loghain will be sending out a search party,” said Cailan. “I will see you soon, Ducan, and you as well, I hope, my lady.”
Duncan stopped him as he left to talk about the imminent arrival of Arl Eamon of Redcliff, one of the three most powerful nobles in Ferelden. Cailan laughed, and some more banter ensued, which Neria would have paid rather more attention to had she not been dreaming up images of making love to the King. Eventually, however, the object of her fantasies removed himself from her line of sight, and she was left with Duncan again.
“I take it there is no point in asking you what you thought of the King,” he chuckled.
“Oh, I, he’s certainly very impressive,” said Neria, trying to regain a measure of self-control.
“And I fear, not a little overconfident. Cailan is a good man, but he is swayed by the thoughts of glory and the lore of the Wardens, which makes me wonder whether we might not be served better through more level-headed leadership.”
“Teryn Loghain?” asked Neria, as they began to walk across the bridge.
“A better military commander I doubt Ferelden has seen in generations. He is here too, as you might have heard the King say.”
Teryn Loghain was was indeed, a legend. Side-by-side with King Maric, the peasant-turned-soldier had fought for and won Ferelden’s independence from the Orlesian empire. Maric had granted him the Terynir of Gwarren as a reward, and married his son, Cailan, to Loghain’s daughter Anora. On Cailan succeeding to the throne, some five years ago, Anora had become Queen, and Loghain the King’s most trusted advisor.
“Then we will benefit from his experience and Cailan’s enthusiasm,” she smiled.
“It’s good to see you optimistic.”
They had stopped walking. A part of the bridge had collapsed, but there was still ample space for four men to walk alongside. Elsewhere, two ballistae were mounted between raised stones.
“Is that where they come from?” she asked.
“Yes, they advance in a horde, little by way of tactics, but with speed and force. Some are more intelligent than others and exercise some sort of command, but nothing like the discipline you will see in any good military. That’s why we have been winning the battles – their numbers grow with each assault, but they lack tactics.”
“The King seemed to think this is not truly a Blight.”
“It is,” said Duncan.
“How do we know that…”
They stood in silence for a few moments more.
“You should seek out Alistair. He should be somewhere about the camp.”
“What’s an Alistair?” asked Neria absent-mindedly, already looking eagerly towards the rising fog in the Wilds.
“He’s a Warden. One of the last to join us before the campaign began. There’s two more recruits as well – Daveth and Ser Jory. Why don’t you find them all and meet me at my tent so we can proceed with your Joining?”
That brought her wandering mind back.
“A ritual – and a test – all recruits must complete before becoming Wardens,” said Duncan.
“You never mentioned anything about…” she began to protest, but something about the way he was looking at her – wistfully, almost – made her stop.
“You will know,” he said, softly. “And you had better wear your cloak. This is an army camp.”
“Well well, little one, what strange fate brings you here?”
Neria found the Senior Enchanter standing by a tree, a little apart from the other mages who had been sent to take part in the war effort. Templars stood by, keeping a close eye on them all. With their helmets on, Neria had no way of knowing if any of them were former conquests of hers.
“It seems I’m to be inducted into the Grey Wardens,” she replied. “Oh Wynne, I’m so happy to see you here.”
“The Grey Wardens! And what did you do to impress Duncan so?”
“Got into a spot of trouble,” Neria admitted.
“I thought it might be something like that.”
Neria told her in whispered tones of the events that had brought her here, and Wynne gave a sympathetic hearing before relating the events that had unfolded in the campaign thus far. There had been three major battles against the darkspawn thus far, and the armies of Ferelden had one every one handily. Still, the horde only seemed to grow larger, which made Wynne, at least, believe that they were truly facing a Blight and not merely an unusually large raid.
Neria would have liked to remain longer, but one of the army regulars came to ask her to take a look at some injured soldiers, and with promises to meet soon, they parted.
At one of the castle’s courtyards she came across a Sergeant taking drills, and hung back to listen in. He was speaking about the different types of darkspawn they were likely to encounter – Genlocks were what the shorter creatures were called, while Hurlocks were taller, though both were just as powerful and dangerous. The latter could also, in some cases, wield magic and act as commanders, which meant one had to be a tad more cautious in dealing with them. Killing them was no different from killing any other creature, though. Arrows and swords would do the trick, and so would magic, properly used. It made her wonder what made the Grey Wardens special, and whether there was something to the order beyond being in existence specifically to deal with this threat.
“You, elf! What are you doing here?”
She turned, startled. It was a merchant of some sort, perhaps a Quartermaster, given that this was an army camp.
“Go tell Ser Garlan his sword is ready,” the big, round-faced man rasped out. “Lounging around camp like the whole lazy lot of you.”
Neria gave him a half-smile, pushed back the cowl covering her head and unfastened the brooch that held her cloak together, though not removing it completely. The robe inside was a dark shade of blue, pure muslin, and cut scandalously low, the neckline plunging to barely an inch about the belt around her waist. It had been a present from a Templar lover who had come from Kirkwall. She wore around her neck a simple but elegant gold necklace with an enchanted amulet, a present from a fellow-mage who was the son of a wealthy Bann near Highever. In her ears were emerald-drop earrings which she had claimed from a fellow-student in exchange for first defeating, and then keeping quiet about the demon she had summoned in the library.
In short, accoutrements as far removed from the coarse shirts and breeches of the elf servants who were scampering around camp as it was possible to be.
“Ser Garlan, did you say?” she asked, taking the sword from his hand. It was a heavy hand-and-a-half, and she barely managed not to lose her footing trying to hold it up.
“You are not the elf I was looking for,” said the Quartermaster. It was a statement, not a question.
Neria looked at him and shook her head.
“You are a Grey Warden mage.”
“You are not going to give that sword to Ser Garlan.”
“You are right about that.”
“And you’re not going to return it to me either.”
“Right again,” said Neria.
“I should have realised you’re one of them Grey Wardens, I suppose,” he said. “I don’t suppose an apology would make you return that to me?”
“It wouldn’t,” said Neria. “But why don’t you give me that sturdy-looking satchel you got there and I’ll return this and we shall promise to forget all about this?”
“Oh, certainly, certainly,” he said, and moved to pull the satchel she had indicated from the pile of goods behind him.
“And those vials.”
“And is that wine I see over there?”
The Quartermaster turned to look at her. She gave him her most winning smile and removed the cloak, putting it into the new satchel. It would have taken a far, far stronger man than him to have resisted either the smile or the display she put on.
He gave her two bottles of wine.
He gave her two bottles of wine.
“You’re a Templar.”
“You like to state the obvious.”
“Duncan said you were a Warden.”
“I am a Warden, and I was a Templar before I became a Warden, though technically I did not take my vows, so I’m not entirely sure what that makes me. A Temp-Warden? No, that sounds like I’ll be carrying messages and mixing herbs like a common elf.”
“A Wardar? No that just sounds like someone belched. Anyway, I see my sparkling humour makes no headway with you, and thus I cease my attempts to elicit a smile from the lady. Duncan summons us, do you say? Well, follow me, and we shall answer these summons.”
Alistair had turned out to be a lad not much older than herself, with brown hair and eyes and dressed in plate, carrying a sword and a wooden shield. She had found him in conversation with one of the Circle mages, Enchanter Bargoah. ‘Conversation’ was actually being a little disingenuous, it was an argument that was on the verge of getting ugly when Neria’s arrival interrupted them. Bargoah recognised her, naturally, and by the time she had finished explaining that she was her because she had been chosen to join the Wardens, tempers had cooled enough for the older mage to do what Alistair had asked him to. But she had heard Bargoah refer to Alistair as a Templar, and that had rankled. Templars were not her friends. Lovers, yes, victims of her arrogant sexual superiority, definitely, but comrades? No.
“You know that I’m a mage, right?” asked Neria.
“I was listening to you speak to the ugly fellow we just left.”
“You’re a mage-hunter.”
“I’m not. I never took the vows, as I just told you. I trained in the skills needed to neturalise magic, yes, but I’m not actually a Templar and I do not feel a divine need to strike down all mages. Not – not that that is all Templars do, we only hunt down mages who are have been corrupted by demons of the Fade.”
“You said ‘we’,” pointed out Neria.
They had reached the makeshift infirmary where wounded soldiers groaned or slept, tended to by sisters of the Chantry. For a fleeting moment their long orange-and-yellow robes with the sun emblazoned on the chest recalled Lily to her mind, making her scowl. To the right, a Chantry system was uttering benedictions, with soldiers kneeling before her. One man, a large fellow with a receding hairline and blunt features, caught sight of Alistair and advanced towards them.
“Good sir, has our fellow-recruit arrived? I ache with eagerness to complete this Joining ritual and take my rightful place among the Wardens,” he said, addressing Alistair.
“Your wait is over then, Ser Jory. This is Neria, a mage of the circle.”
“I did not know the Grey Wardens recruited women,” said the man, eyeing her.
“I did not know they recruited idiots,” said Neria, without batting an eyelid.
Alistair winced, and was about to make some sort of explanation, when he – and Neria- realised that Ser Jory had not heard the remark. His eyes, occupied in ogling her exposed skin – of which there was plenty – had been using too much of his faculties to allow his ears to function quite properly.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” he said, tearing his eyes way with some effort and looking firmly at the top of her head.
“I said I am sure there are women in the Grey Wardens already,” muttered Neria.
“There are, in fact,” said Alistair. “Ser Jory, if you will make your way to Duncan’s tent, we shall meet you there presently.”
He left, a little reluctantly, it seemed, but he left all the same. Neria sighed and reached into her satchel for the cloak.
“Probably a good idea,” muttered Alistair.
“And bad for morale. Have you eaten?”
“No,” she admitted.
“Well, come on then.”
She fumed in silence for a bit, as they made their way to the kennels.
Daveth turned out to be a wiry fellow with a bow strapped to his back who was flirting with a pretty blonde soldier who did not seem particularly amused. He seemed unaffected by her rebuffs though, and was still smiling when Neria and Alistair approached him.
“Alistair, my good fellow,” he said, turning towards them a face that, though carrying a stubble and not classically handsome, as Cailan, or even Alistair were, was nonetheless attractive, “is our long wait over? Is the new recruit come? Is he to be our saviour?”
“Ask her yourself,” said Alistair.
Daveth’s eyebrows shot up. Whether he would have ogled her as Ser Jory had done had she not been modestly covered from head to toe, with only her face and a few locks of hair visible, she could not say, but on the whole, she thought not. Daveth gave the impression of someone who would be a lot smoother than that.
“Well, you’re not what I thought you would be,” he said.
Neria narrowed her eyes.
“And what is that exactly?”
“Why, such a spectacularly beautiful woman, of course. Charmed to meet you, I’m Daveth. And now I suppose our Commander must await our presence. Let us go, shall we?”
[Anything you might recognise from playing Dragon Age: Origins is (c) BioWare. This work is not intended to earn any profit or make any money.]