Monday, 4 May 2015

The Last of the Wardens

The Last of the Wardens

“Your majesty?” she whimpered, before passing out again.

She saw his eyes again when consciousness stirred within her in the afternoon, but it was only for a few moments. When Neria finally came out of her stupor, it was twilight, and it was the Templar Alistair and Duncan leaning over her.

“I'm happy you made it,” she heard Alistair say.

Senses returned slowly. Then memories. And then she recoiled, tearing her robe on the stony ground.

“You killed...you killed Jory!” she exclaimed.

“His life was forfeit when he drew the sword, Neria,” said Duncan gently.

Alistair helped her to her feet. She staggered as the images formed in her mind. Daveth convulsing as he died, Jory shouting, refusing to drink the foul potion of darkspawn blood mixed with who-knew-what-else, drawing his mighty broadsword, and dispatched in a matter of seconds by Duncan who moved faster than he had any right to.

She wondered what would have happened had she refused. Cailan had asked Duncan to let her out of the Joining, but she had refused to take that choice. And then, she realised that the Joining itself could kill you, when she had seen Daveth, the cutpurse, the thief, the man without honour, stepping up to take the drink from the chalice first, saying what he did about the need to destroy the threat that hung over Ferelden – and died in horrible pain for it.

She had a feeling that, once she had seen what happened to Daveth, there was no way out. Something about the expression in Duncan's face – who gave no hint that he had spoken to Cailan about her – told her that there was no way out, royal intervention or not.

Alistair pressed her staff into her hands. She held on, leaned her weight on it. As always, the wood was comforting. Duncan had left, she could see him trailing off into the distance. The bodies of Jory and Daveth had been removed, but she could still see the streak of blood on the white pillar where Duncan had run his dagger through the Knight's armour.

“Are you all right?” Alistair asked.

“The screaming,” she said, closing her eyes. “What was the screaming?”

“I'll tell you about it, you need to rest now,” he said gently, leading her down.

She was barely at the foot of the steps when she saw him coming, running towards her, golden armour and golden hair.

“Darling! They just told me! They said the others died and you had fallen into a stupor. Are you all right? Did you?”

“I'm a Grey Warden,” she said, before she passed out again in his arms.

X----X-----X-----X

She rested for most of that day and the next. Cailan was with her most of the time. Very solicitous. Duncan visited once. Alistair a couple of times. Once a massive mabari hound – the one she had helped feed the medicine to, she recalled – woke her up by licking her arm. The King's guardsmen had been changed, the two she had seduced the night before her were off on duty in the Tower of Ishal, Cailan told her. The King had been unremitting in his attentions, and for a change, Neria was not demanding more.

Once she almost set the bed on fire. Since the stupor had worn off, she was feeling stronger, as if something in the ritual had enhanced her magic as well. She went to the backside of Cailan's tent and experimented with the water in his bathtub. She warmed it. She froze it. She took it to boiling and then froze it. In the end the tub cracked and she had to apologise very profusely to the elf woman who came running to scold her for that piece of business.

By evening she was wandering the camp. The mabari was nipping at her fingers behind her. She met Wynne again, who congratulated her quite sincerely. They discussed the potential effects of the joining on her magical potential. It was intellectually stimulating. Then she spent some time with the Ash Warriors and their mabaris, letting her own play 'fetch' with them – she had started calling him “Biscuit” and assumed he belonged to her, though the kennel-master said he wouldn't properly be hers until they had fought together. That would be great, she thought to herself – a game-changer. A trained mabari hound was a fearsome fighter, easily equal to a human warrior, and the best of them were beasts who struck terror into their opponents hearts.

The other Grey Wardens avoided her, she noticed. Occasionally she heard a whisper of “King's Mistress”. Elsewhere, “Elf whore”. She paid no attention.

Alistair caught up with her as she strolled back to the King's tent.

“I wanted to ask how you're feeling now,” he said.

“I'm fine, Alistair. I've been fine since I awoke,” she replied. They entered the King's tent.

“You have been subdued,” he pointed out.

She sat on a chair and gave a sardonic laugh.

“Just as you have been a picture of exuberance. Tell me, templar, when you survived your joining, only one of you died, am I right? How did you feel? Happy? Elated? Proud?”

“I'm not a templar,” Alistair cut in. “And – no, I felt sorry for her, the one who died. Her name was Byrna, she was a Knight from Highever.”

“And Daveth was a cutpurse from Denerim and Jory a Knight from Redcliffe. They were our companions, Alistair, and even if it was only once, they were my lovers. I'm...sorry for them, I'm a little angry too. You never told us the price, neither you nor Duncan.”

“If we told you the price, would you join?” said Alistair, sitting on a chair opposite her.

“Daveth and I never had a choice, Alistair. It was the Wardens or the gallows for him, it was this or being made Tranquil for me. But Jory did. And I suppose you did too, and...”

“It's easy to think we have a choice, Neria. Jory had a choice to drink from the chalice or draw a sword. He went with trying to attack the Commander of the Wardens.”

She shook her head.

“Well, they weren't the first lovers I've had that died. There was a boy from Gwaren, failed his Harrowing. Killed two Templars.”

“Which one of these was...,” began Alistair, before cutting himself off.

“No, not all three,” Neria glowered at him. “Only the mage.”

They sat in silence for a while.

“You know what I hate, Alistair?” she said abruptly. “It's you thinking I don't care. You think that I am some sort of callous succubus who is only interesting in using men, that it would not have affected me to see Daveth and Jory die before my eyes. Anyone else and you would have attributed it to grief. But no, Neria is not allowed that privilege, is she?”

“Ah, why is everything so difficult with you? You're reading too much into things. I was merely worried. But then you don't seem to understand that a person can be interested in you other than sexually.”

She looked away from him, refusing to answer.

X----X------X------X

“What's she doing here?”

Neria knew that voice – and that smug face – all too well. Senior Enchanter Uldred, the most unpleasant presence in the Tower, barring the Templars, probably.

“She is here at my invitation, Senior Enchanter,” said Cailan mildly.

“Why don't we call in some camp followers as well? Make it a regular party?” muttered the Revered Mother.

“Isn't it nice when mages and the Chantry get along?” said Neria with a sunny smile. Both Duncan and Cailan chuckled.

The bonhomie did not last long. The darkspawn horde had been sighted. Final strategies were being drawn. Loghain had drawn out the battle strategy. A pincer attack of sorts, Neria supposed. The King and the Wardens would break the Horde's assault on the Fortress itself, while Loghain and the bulk of the forces under the King's banner would be held back in abeyance to flank and crush them from behind, from their position to the east.

“Timing is of the essence. The beacon in the Tower of Ishal must be lit in time for the Teyrn's forces to move in,” Ser Cauthrien was saying.

“I have my men in the Tower, they will take care of it. The Wardens on the ground must give the signal clearly,” said Loghain.

“If it's that important, we should send our best. Duncan, send Alistair with Neria here to the Tower to ensure it gets lit.”

“Me?” Neria looked up, startled.

“With Alistair, yes. This is too important a job to leave to ordinary soldiers,” said Cailan.

She was about to protest, when she caught Duncan's eye and held her tongue. Uldred argued against the King's choice, as did Loghain, but the King held firm. They disbanded moments after. In the distance, they could hear the booming of the darkspawn drums, their unholy cries.

Neria scampered, trying to keep up with Duncan.

“Duncan, what was that about?” she asked.

“The King has given you an important task, Neria,” replied the Commander.

“But...will Alistair and I be involved in the fighting then?”

“Not if the fighting goes well.”

They were near Duncan's camp now. He barked orders to his lieutenants. Finally, she was left with Alistair and Duncan. Then he told the former Templar the task the King had assigned to them.

If Neria had been surprised, Alistair was furious. But it was to no avail.

With Duncan's blessing in their ear, the two youngest Wardens began to make their way towards the Tower of Ishal. It stood on the other side of the Fortress, across the front wall, below which the horde would charge.

“He wants to keep you safe,” said Alistair. “He still means to make you his mistress, Grey Warden or no.”

“I told him that was not possible until the archdemon was defeated.”

“Well, from the size of the horde our Scouts report, who knows but that the dragon may show itself. And then it will be over, with no glory for you or me. You had to go and seduce the dumb sod.”

“I did no such thing!” Neria lashed out. “He took – carried me to his tent! And for that matter, he asked you to be on this with me by name. What's it about you that's so special, Alistair?”

“My wit and charm is irreplaceable, of course,” said Alistair.

They were approaching the gated entrance to the curtain wall.

“Liar. You were heir to titles – something. Who are you really,  Alistair?”

“My Lady,” said Alistair, drawing his sword, “I am heir to the position of scullery maid at Redcliffe Castle. However, as I would most assuredly look terrible in a scullery maid's dress, I prefer to remain a Grey Warden.”

He smiled at her. She couldn't resist a laugh.

Then they broke into a run.

Duck, run, sway. The distance was a long one to crossing the wall to the other side. The Imperial forces manned the wall, firing arrows down at the horde. A ballista jerked near the middle of the curtain, spitting fire below.

“Look at the bloody size of it!” gasped Neria, sighting the horde.

“Keep running,” said Alistair, pulling her by the arm.

But she had looked, she could not help it. Ostagar's walls were about fifty feet high, and looking down all she could see was an endless sea of flares held by darkspawn. It seemed to extend well back, towards the Wilds. The Wardens' forces were dwarfed by comparison. She could make them out, pressed against the wall. Their only advantage was the support from the Fortress itself, and from the archers and mages stationed behind.

They were half-way across. She thought she had glimpsed her Cailan, resplendent in plate armor painted with gold. It was a comfort to know Duncan was close to him, though, she had seen the bearded man, white armour on dark skin just like hers.

“Mangonel!”

It was a soldier on the ramparts who had spoken, or rather shouted. Moments later, she saw them – great balls of fire flying through the twilight sky, right at them. They were firing stones, huge stones, somehow lit on fire – somewhere, Neria's intellectual side was already working on how that might have been managed by the darkspawn emissaries – and it was clear that Ostagar was no longer equipped to face that. Once upon a time the dwarf-built fortress has withstood the successive assaults by the Chasind, but the barbarians had never had seige weapons.

Two stones flew over them, crashing back towards the snow and stone behind them. Then another one crashed at the stone in front of them and both Neria and Alistair were thrown to the ground.

“How did they get siege weapons?” said Neria, dragging herself to her elbows.

“Mindless horde...no idea,” breathed Alistair.

They got to their feet. Four bowmen had been manning the walls. Three now lay prone before them, partly buried under the rubble The last limped back to position and drew his bow. She had seen the three men dying and kept running. Seeing the fourth, with his leg shattered, leaning against the parapet, still firing an arrow, for love of his King and Country, was too much for her. Neria shuddered, her body wracked by sobs.

“This is war,” said Alistair. “We press ahead.”

They pressed ahead, stepping through brambles, dead bodies, severed limbs and fallen weapons. Smoke filled the air. They had reached the barricade that led to the Tower of Ishal. Neria and Alistair stopped. The air was full of smoke. Nonetheless, Neria took a deep breath. In a day, the air would be putrid. But now, she needed to hold herself together.

“Darkspawn! They are everywhere!”

It was a soldier, a foot-soldier, wielding a mace. Behind him was another, with a crossbow. She did not have to be particularly perceptive to know that they were fleeing.

“What do you mean, man?” said Alistair.

“In the Tower,” said the man, panting. “They broke through the lower levels in the Tower of Ishal, they've taken the tower, the bloody...Tower. Our dead are everywhere.”

“Hold on, hold...you're saying the Tower has fallen?” said Neria.

“Fallen,” repeated the soldier.

“Then we are taking it back.”

Alistair looked at her. She stood a head shorter than him, but she was standing ramrod straight, straighter than her gnarled staff. Her hair was tied into a pony, her blue eyes sparkled and that skin, smooth and dark, seemed to smoulder. In that moment, he had little doubt that she would, actually, take the Tower.

“Let's go, then,” he said.

X-----X-----X----X

“it's a big tower,” said Neria.

Tired, bloodied, spattered with gore, a naked steel sword in his hand, Alistair still managed a smile.

“The beacon should be behind that door,” he said.

How many darkspawn had they killed climbing up? He had lost count a long time ago. Emissaries, hurlocks, genlocks...they had taken all that was thrown at them and cut through. He was in awe of Neria. From the base of the Tower to this, the sixth level, she had marshalled them – a crossbow, a mace and a sword – masterfully. Fire, ice and pure arcane energy was deployed to devastating effect. His sword was a flaming blade, cutting through armour and gristle alike. The soldiers with them were average fighters, Jory and Daveth had certainly been more capable, but Neria was managing them well. She was even using healing spells better than before.

“How late are we?” she asked.

“If the Wardens are still holding out, we may still be in time,” said Alistair.

“It's a small room, the signal room. Can't be too many of the creatures in there,” said the crossbowman hopefully.

They ascended the steps. It was silent inside. Somehow this disturbed Alistair.

“Shield up, Neria,” he muttered.

She nodded, and he saw the faint shimmer as her arcane shield surrounded her, without breaking her stride.

Alistair pushed the door open.

What confronted him made him sick to the stomach.

X----X------X-------X

Neria stood rooted to the ground. Floor. Tiles. Whatever that was under the stylish sandals she wore. Her eyes, always so fine, large and beautiful, were goggling.

The creature before them was hideous. Ten feet tall at the very least, with thick, cracked grey skin, armour consisting of bits of leather thrown together seemingly at random, horns sticking out of its head, tiny little eyes gleaming with malice...it was on ogre. She had heard Alistair talk about them, but had not imagined they would be quite so real, close up.

And that wasn't even why she was frozen, or why Alistair was retching, or the crossbowman had fainted, or the other soldier was, she strongly suspected, soiling his breeches.

It was eating a dead soldier, a headless soldier, whose torso was in its right hand, whose head...was somewhere in its gullet, and it was...burping, noisily and if such a thing was possible, malevolently.

It threw away the eaten man's body, or what was left of it. The mace-wielding soldier turned and fled. The ogre grunted, reared, and then began to advance on them. Somehow, Neria stood her ground. To her relief, Alistair did too.

“Cut the leg and run left,” she said. Then she ran right.

She was behind the ogre. Alistair's sword cut through it's leg and then he barely escaped it's grasping hand – a huge, gnarled hand – and made it to the other end of the room.

The ogre roared, and grasped the crossbowman who was stirring on the floor.

Neria took a deep breath – stink notwithstanding – and then unleashed the full fury of her power into a paralysing spell.

The ogre stood rooted.

Alistair ran at it, jumped and plunged his sword into it's back.

Then it moved, slapping Alistair off the ground. She watched with a grimace as the Templar was thrown halfway across the chamber.

Ice was her next weapon, a chilling bolt aimed at it's feet.

It slowed, but still marched inexorably towards her. Still, it wasn't gunning for Alistair, that was what mattered. She ran again. Not straight, no. Zig and zag, keep it distracted. It swiped at her. Thorns and brambles and fire had burned the edges of her robes. If it had been it's original length, she would have been caught. She shot an arcane bolt at it, it was a distraction again. She saw Alistair stirring out of the corner of her eye.

Her mana was low. She needed a potion, but there was no time to stop and unstopper a vial. She saw Alistair run at it, weaponless, only a shield in hand. She lost her footing then, stumbling, almost to the floor. The ogre's filthy fingers, each one the size of her own shapely arm, closed around her waist.

Alistair crashed into the ogre, shield first. He was spatially aware enough to know not to hit the ogre squarely from behind, coming upon it in a swinging motion from the right. Even Alistair's strength was not enough to topple the creature, but it did stagger, thanks to the cut on it's leg he had inflicted before, and Neria was able to lurch out of harm's way. Almost equally importantly, he got his hand on the hilt of the sword that was stuck in it's back and was able to pull it out just before the ogre swung around, dragging him a few feet.

Neria unstoppered a vial of mana potion and poured all of it down her throat. There was no time to feel the surge of energy as it flowed through her veins. The ogre struck the floor, sending Alistair toppling to his back. Neria was thrown as well, just as she was about to get back up, but she pointed her staff from the floor at the ogre's face and let fly a cone of fire. The creature may as well have been made of stone for all the good it did. Neria rolled again, avoiding the impact of it's foot.

Alistair stuck out his sword wildly, nicking it's hand, but the creature's grip was on him, pressing his armour, crushing him, or so it seemed to Neria.

She summoned up all the magical energy that she could, and let fire a blast of electricity right at the ogre's head, focusing on it's ugly, gnarled horns.

The crackle of the lighting from her staff was followed by a crack as it's right horn split, and then it screamed and dropped Alistair, putting the hand on it's head. Alistair was dazed but conscious. With the last of her magic, she cast a healing spell at Alistair before her outstretched hand dropped to the side and she lost consciousness, completely and totally drained.

As Alistair got on his feet, he saw the ogre bellow with pain and rage, threshing wildly. He felt warm, his pain rapidly disappearing, and it felt like her, though it was just her magic, powerful but comforting. He stood and raised his sword.

The ogre was staggering. Alistair could see a trickle of blood drip in a line between it's right horn and ear. It was not a time to hesitate. With a cry, he leaped onto the ogre, pushing his sword through it's chest, then drawing it out, ignoring it's screams, thrusting again into it's neck, and finally hauling itself over the leather patch that it had over it's shoulder and plunging the sword through it's ribs.

It crashed, rather than fell, Alistair still on it's back, face forward. He held on to the sword, which hit the ground before the ogre, and the impact threw him off. He landed a few feet away from the dead creature.

He ran over to where the Elf lay, pressing his healing poultice to her nose. The salts generally served to revive a fallen companion, and it worked in this instance as well.

“Is it over?” she asked.

“It's dead,” he said. “Your last spell seems to have cracked open its skull. I only had to put it out of it's misery before it's wild swings killed us both.”

“The other two?”

“It crushed the bowman to death. The other one – who knows where he fled to.”

“The signal! It's not too late is it? We need to light the beacon!”

“Light it,” said Alistair. “Pray to the Maker we are not too late.”

She pulled out another vial of potion. Alistair limped over to the door to the outer balcony. He was sore, battered, his ribs felt like a touch would break them, but he was in one piece, and functioning. He supposed he had the Elf to thank for that. Behind him, he saw her direct a flame blast at the signal beacon. From the balcony he could look down on the fighting.

To his relief, the Warden's line still held. He could make out the King and Duncan with the rest of the Warden's, in dire straits, but still standing. They were sore pressed, their number seemed no more than half of what they had started with, but they still held, which meant that their fight to the top of the Tower had not been too late.

The signal fire lighted up above him.

He could see the Elf lean against the balustrade, exhausted. Narrowing his eyes, he looked towards the left, from where he knew Loghain and Ser Cauthrien would soon emerge, sowing the darkspawn ranks with death and confusion. Close to seven thousand, of whom fully a thousand were armoured knights. The size of the horde was immense, of course, far larger than anything he had expected, but training made a difference, and leadership too. Under Loghain, he knew the troops of Ferelden would not lose their discipline or courage, whereas the darkspawn lacked the fortitude to hold in the face of a dual onslaught. He had seen that happen three times in the course of this campaign itself, after all.

The minutes ticked by. Nearly all the horde's siege weapons had been destroyed. Up on the Fotress' curtain wall, a few archers still held manfully, firing down, hitting almost every time. Nobody was manning the ballista, though. Where was Loghain?

He saw an ogre close on the Wardens. A mabari leapt in it's path, but the ogre simply brushed it aside. He wondered if it was Neria's little fellow. What did she call him? Biscuit. Silly name for a dog. But where was Loghain?

Cailan, bright and golden, with his massive two-handed broadsword, charged at the ogre, it's steel gleaming in the moonlight. Alistair had to clutch the railing of the balcony as he saw his King picked up off the ground as easily as the King used to pick up Neria, and crushed – squashed – pulped – in his armour. He let out a cry of horror as Cailan's body was flung aside like a rag doll. Ferelden was without a King, and where was Loghain?

He watched as Duncan raced towards the ogre, leaped at it, plunged a sword and dagger through it's chest. THAT was how to kill an ogre. Speed. The Warden Commander twisted the blades into the ogre's body, and fell with it, easier than he had. He could make out Duncan's armour as he raced to the fallen King. He thought he saw Duncan look towards the east. Where was the main body of the army? Where was Loghain?

In his heart, Alistair knew the answer. He looked, and thought he saw the lights move away, rather than towards the battlefield.

He saw Duncan, the man he had come to regard as a second father, as his mentor, as his leader, set upon by five darkspawn.

He saw him hacked to death.

He saw the Grey Warden line break, and each of them slaughtered.

“Neria,” he shouted. “Neria, come here – this – you must see this, we need to go there, we need to get in the fighting, we...”

He turned, to see more darkspawn, in the Beacon chamber, coming up the stairs.

Three arrows flew, and three arrows pierced the body of the most beautiful creature he had ever known, one through her arm, another through her belly and the third above her groin. She lay on the floor, her eyes closed. She had had beautiful eyes, he told himself.

He fell to his knees and looked back at the battlefield. It was unmistakable now. The remainder of the King's Army – the seven thousand-odd marched, back onto the Imperial Highway, away from the fighting.

There was Loghain.

There was the hero of Ferelden.

The darkspawn closed upon him. He drew his sword. He was the last of the Grey Wardens, and he would give the 'spawn a fight to remember.






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