Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Chapter Thirteen: Pride and Shame, A Dragon Age fanfic





Chapter Thirteen – The Lay Sister

“Well, there it is. Lothering. Pretty as a picture.”

Neria wiped the tears that had been rolling down her cheeks. Laughing had been cathartic. Somehow, the pain of the previous days seemed to have become just that little bit less…pointed, if that was the word. She walked with Alistair to the edge of the parapet. Lothering lay stretched on the land below them, curving right towards a brook, out onto farmland and re-joining the Imperial Highway.

And ‘pretty’, it certainly was not. The village seemed to consist of a few straggling buildings and huts mired in squalor, caravans surrounded by people and makeshift tents all over the place. The whole village was in essence a transit camp for people from the surrounding lands fleeing the darkspawn. A Chantry stood about a mile from the Highway, the biggest structure visible. A rivulet passed through the village, and on the other side of it, just past the ford, she could make out a square wooden structure that could only be the Tavern.

“We are going to sleep there?” asked Neria, raising her nose distastefully.

“We are on the road now,” said Alistair, amused. “We lay our head wherever we find a safe place.”

“I thought it would be a nice village with a comfortable Inn,” she moaned. She was really looking forward to sleeping on a bed after three nights on the road.

“More likely the Tavern will have a few rooms overflowing with refugees who are paying more for a night than we have between the three of us. Even counting what we got off these misfits,” said Alistair.

“Speaking of misfits, this isn’t one of ours,” came Morrigan’s voice. She was bent over the body of one of the dead men.

“What?” Neria asked.

“This one,” said Morrigan, her hand on the chest of an armoured corpse, half-buried in snow. “We didn’t kill this one.”

Neria peered closely. The body wore white armour, full plate, like an anointed Knight, with a red castle on a shield painted on the front.

“No, he’s been dead a while,” said Neria, leaning down and brushing away the snow with her hand. The Knight did not seem to have anything valuable on him.

“He’s from Redcliffe,” said Alistair. “That armour is quite distinctive.”

“Anyone you know?”

Alistair squinted.

“I don’t think so. Any clue what killed him?”

“Guess the bandits got him. Whatever he had on him must be a part of the loot we got from them,” said Morrigan. “That’s nice locket though.”

“Morrigan, maybe we shouldn’t disturb the dead,” began Neria, but the Witch had already wrenched the locket from the dead man’s neck.

“Let’s go the village,” said Morrigan, dropping the locket into her pouch, with a defiant glare at Neria.

Alistair met them at the foot of the stairs. They were in a large open field, caravans crowding one side of it. Young children ran around as their parents were trying to cook or wash. There was an air of quiet desperation hanging in the air. It did not take much thinking to classify them as refugees. On their left stood a few peasants who looked better off, at least in terms of their clothing. The natives of the village, perhaps.

“Let’s try to ask around,” said Morrigan. “The village tavern is on the other side of the water.”

“We could ask at the Chantry,” suggested Alistair.

“What a brilliant idea, Alistair,” sneered Morrigan. “We are travelling with an apostate mage, so the first place we must pay a visit to is the Chantry, which is chock-full of Templars on the lookout for apostate mages.”

“I thought you’ve been here before and made it out alive,” said Alistair.

“I didn’t knock on the Chantry doors either.”

“Let’s just ask this nice-looking man over there what’s going on,” sighed Neria. “You two, put a lid on it.”

Scrunching up her pretty mouth into an expression of disgust, Neria walked over to a fair-haired man of middle age who seemed to be lounging about near one of the picket fences in the field closest to them.

She tried to adjust her old-woman smock, put on her brightest smile, and walked over to the man. He was a farmer, that much was evident from his build and clothes.

“Excuse me, kind ser,” she said, in a soft, innocent voice. Alistair looked on, quite amused. In that horrible borrowed-from-Flemeth dress, she was really cramped for style. The Farmer looked positively disinterested.

Whatsit[U1] ?” the man was gruff.

“We were fleeing from the darkspawn horde, kind ser, and would like to know if there’s place to stay in Lothering…”

“Stay?” the man snorted. “Look around you. People living in the fields. Our fields. Shitting in them too. That’s how much place we have to stay!”

“What about the Bann of Lothering? Isn’t he making some sort of provision for refugees?”

“The village is just waiting to be overrun,” said the man, sounding gloomily pleased with himself. “We’ll get nothing here. The Bann of Lothering abandoned the village and left with Teryn Loghain for Denerim. They’re hemmed in, with Ostagar and the impending Darkspawn threat on one side, and bandits preventing them from getting on the road to Denerim on the other.”

“Is there a tavern where we could go then? We have a little silver.”

“There’s a tavern, yes. It’s got people sleeping on the floors and tables. And of course you have silver. How else could you get past those bandits on the Ostagar Road? Don’t make a difference. Can’t get a place to sleep for however much silver yah got.”

“Well, we got rid of them, actually…” said Neria.

“You what?” his expression changed. Not for the better, Alistair thought, looking on from a distance.

“Got rid of them. The Bandits. Killed most, drove off the rest. Surely, sir, you can give us a place to spend the night? We’ve done good for the village?”

“Those Bandits were the only thing keeping Lothering from being overrun with the worst sort of riff-raff. At least they ensured only the right sort of refugees came in – the ones with silver! Now we shall have Elves and Chasind trawling all over…”

“I’M AN ELF!” shouted Neria. “And I could…”

“Don’t think I did not notice,” the farmer said contemptuously.

She could feel the anger boiling inside her. Or it may have been just that the thick gown of Flemeth’s was warm even in the snow. She clenched her fist. Alistair began to walk briskly towards her. Mercifully, before he needed to intervene, the Elf turned and walked back towards him, though he could almost make out steam rising from her hair.

“I need to change my clothes,” she said plaintively. “We are going to the tavern.”

“Or we could get back on the road and head to Redcliffe,” said Alistair.

“Redcliffe? Why would we head to Redcliffe?” cut in Morrigan.

“Because that’s where Arl Eamon is,” said Alistair.

“But this man Loghain is in Denerim isn’t he? Shouldn’t you be going after him?”

“Well yes, he will be in Denerim, but he’ll have his army with him. We can’t go after him there.”

“What good will it be raising the country against the darkspawn if it’s ruled by your enemy?” said Morrigan.

“I just don’t see what we can do about Loghain for the present,” said Alistair. “As for Arl Eamon, I don’t even really know how he will react either. Will he join us because we say so? But I just can’t think of anything else. It’s up to you, really, Neria.”

Neria opened her eyes wide as she realised that three pairs of eyes were looking expectantly at her. True, one of them was canine, but Biscuit was looking as serious as the other two. She was used to being stared at, especially when she walked around the Circle Tower in one of her outfits which showed off her stomach, or highlighted her cleavage, or was short enough to show off her legs, which was all of them really, but...

“Why am I the one who has to decide?” she said, “I take hours deciding what to wear, you expect me to decide our campaign strategy?”

“Yes, Alistair,” Morrigan taunted. “Are you not the senior Grey Warden?”

Alistair blushed.

“I’ve just never been good at being a leader,” he confessed. “And Neria – you’re smarter than I am, you know. I’ve seen you handle battle strategy.”

“Oh, I…well, I mean this is different isn’t it. This is more like…like Andraste, damn it! Uniting the warring factions of Ferelden against a great enemy…I don’t even know if we CAN!”

“Someone has to take responsibility, Wardens,” said Morrigan. “And it’s not going to be the dog. Don’t forget I am only here because my mother sent me to help you.”

“Not me,” said Alistair, sounding as frightened as she had ever heard anyone. She had seen him charge into a group of heavily armed darkspawn without the hint of fear, but the idea of leadership seemed to put the fear of the Maker into him.

Neria sighed. For a moment she wavered. She thought of who she was. A Rivaini Elf, destined for a life of servitude, plucked out of the alienage because of her magic, abused, ridiculed, desired, adored, hated. A moment away from a death sentence, being redeemed, being the King’s mistress, being as good as dead. And then, life. A life granted by an apostate witch, a terrifying legend who should not exist in the real world. She and Alistair, of course. Handsome, powerful, devout, human Alistair. The man all of Ferelden would love to see as their leader, she didn’t doubt. Why, he even looked a little like the dead king, all chiselled features and strong shoulders. He was the hero of this story. Arl Eamon would back him, the Banns would flock to his banner, the Elves of the Dales would rather back him than a City Elf like her, the dwarves certainly had no cause to love ANY elf, and they were notoriously casteist. Ferelden needed Alistair. Unfortunately, it seemed Alistair would rather it was stuck with her. 

“Very well then, my followers. We go to the Tavern in Lothering.”

“We should get back on the road,” said Alistair earnestly. “Lothering is lost, you can see it on the people’s faces.”

And then her hands were on his neck, teeth clenched, eyes flashing fire.

“You’ve just put me in charge, mister. Now, walk, or I melt the flesh from your face.”

And then Alistair shivered, suddenly feeling colder even then he had when he had slept on the floor in the Redcliffe Chantry where he had spent so many bitter nights. Her grip relaxed, Neria pursed her lips and walked on determinedly. Biscuit yipped merrily behind. Morrigan hesitated, but followed. Alistair cast a longing look at the Imperial Highway, but then dragged his steps in their direction as well.

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The Tavern was housed in a sturdy wooden building just to the right of the bridge connecting the two halves of the village. Families had pitched little tents almost to its steps. Men stood with wooden mugs, quaffing thin beer and talking, women sobbed and held their children tightly.

“You’d better not go inside,” an old man wearing a grimy peasant’s shirt told them as he stepped out of the door and closed it behind himself.

“Why not?” said Neria, her nose quivering with defiance.

“’Ere, no need to get miffed, missy,” the man said. “There’s some soldiers in there, Loghain’s men they call themselves, but I would sooner vouch for them being rogues. They’re on a quest to find Grey Warden traitors who deserted from Ostagar, they say. Getting drunk and harassing the women is more like.”

“Grey Warden traitors? What do they mean? Did any others survive?” said Alistair, puzzled.

“They mean us,” said Neria.

“You? You’re Grey Wardens?” said the man, eyebrows raised.

“I really need to wear a more convincing outfit,” muttered Neria.

“Well, let’s see these poor men to the end of their quest,” said Morrigan grimly.

At first glance the Tavern looked like any other in Ferelden. There were two levels, with a staircase leading up to where two bards played a jaunty tune. Below, a few people sat at tables eating what looked like potato stew, but most stood, holding mugs and talking. Alistair noted several Chantry brothers and sisters, wearing the signature red-and-yellow robes emblazoned with the half-sun of the Maker. One, a red-head caught his eye, a pretty woman with striking red hair and an upturned nose, as she earnestly tried to tell something to a woman in rags who Alistair guessed was a prostitute.

The soldiers were easy enough to identify. Though almost every man there bore a knife or even a sword, only four were armoured fully, three in chain mail and one in full plate. They spoke loudly, clearly drunk.

“We have orders from King Loghain himself to bring the Wardens to justice!” the man in full plate was saying. “And if you won’t give them up, we will put the village to the sword!”

The man being addressed was an old farmer, a true ancient, who looked old enough to give Flemeth competition.

“I bain’t seen no one, ser,” he whimpered.

“A Elf and a man, one an apostate and the other a rogue Templar, they must have been through Lothering. They were seen, we were told as much by our informants, they murdered some men just outside of your village.”

“That would be the bandits who fled,” said Morrigan. “They must have run into this lot entering the village from the other side.”

“I told you we should have just passed through,” muttered Alistair.

“Alistair,” said Neria, “These are Loghain’s men. You haven’t forgotten who Loghain is, have you?”

It was like seeing a man wake up from a long sleep. Alistair’s eyes, which had been dull and sleepy since they had been at Flemeth’s hut, suddenly lit up. It gave quite a fillip to his face. And while Neria wouldn’t have sworn to it, even his butter-coloured hair seemed to stand on end a bit.

“Was it us you were looking for?” said Alistair in an impressively stentorian tone.

The man in full plate armour, presumably the Captain, looked at Alistair for a few seconds, sizing him up. He clearly thought little of Neria and Morrigan, women as they were, one dressed like a particularly unfashionable grandmother and the other in a way that was bizarrely provocative.

“Are you the Grey Wardens? You’re wanted traitors! Deserters!” he said, once he was confident he had his opponents outnumbered.

“It’s Loghain who should be called in for desertion!” responded Alistair. “It’s Loghain who abandoned his King and saved his own hide!”

“Lies, barefaced lies!”

“Actually, I’ve grown a little stubble these last few days,” pointed out Alistair.

Neria’s eyes darted around the Tavern’s main hall. Of the four soldiers, the one who was addressing Alistair, was dressed in heavy plate and carried a greatsword. Another wore chainmail and carried a mace. Two others wore light armour and carried bows. The main problem was the bystanders. It was a crowded tavern, and while the exchange between the soldiers and Alistair had already put most of those present on their guard – almost everyone was surreptitiously edging backwards and trying to get behind a chair, table or railing – there was no way she could unleash a fire spell without causing considerable collateral damage.

Meanwhile, the Captain was a bit thrown off by Alistair’s insolence and hesitated for several moments before responding in harsh tone,

“You can keep your jokes to yourself, Warden. Now put down your weapons and come quietly.”

Alistair laughed, drawing his sword.

“I’ll put my weapon down your throat and then you’ll be quiet,” he said.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, is there any need to argue? I’m sure this is all a great misunderstanding.”

The voice came from the left, musical and beautiful, with the accent of Orlesian nobility. Neria turned, expecting to see a gorgeously-attired lady. Instead she saw the red-headed Chantry sister, looking quite distraught.

“Stay out of this, Sister,” said the soldier Captain.

“Like I said, you’re mistaken, these can’t be the Grey Wardens! This man bears a Templar’s ring, and the Elf, she’s just a little girl, barely sixteen.”

“Nineteen!” said Neria indignantly, trying to stand taller and thrust out her breasts – a move rendered ineffective by the fact that her smock hid her figure very effectively.

“In any case, Sister, you’re mistaken. We are most definitely Grey Wardens,” Alistair said it with a flourish and a smile. “And now, you’d best step aside.”

He spoke just in time, as the Captain swung the ugly greatsword at him, close enough to the Chantry sister that if she had not heeded Alistair’s warning and ducked backwards, she’d have been deprived of her lovely head. As it was, the greatsword’s arc was was interrupted by a ringing contact with Alistair’s shield.

And then it was on.

One of the first things they taught young mages at the Tower was how to safely cast magic without hurting bystanders. Neria had to recall all she had ever learned as she tried to cast controlled spells without burning down the entire place. The safest spells in such situations were usually entropic or paralytic rather than elemental, which put her at a disadvantage, given that Neria’s own strong suit was fire spells. [U2] Morrigan had no such problems – she quickly paralysed two archers before they could fire off an arrow. Neria fired an arcane bolt at Alistair’s assailant, making him stagger and fall, but before Alistair could strike the killing blow, one of the archers recovered from the paralysis spell and shot an arrow at the Warden, sending him reeling.

Neria directed a flame burst at him, controlling it to a very narrow cone. If any of her teachers had been there, she thought, they would have been very impressed indeed at that one. It singed the bow out of his hands and set him clutching his burned limb as he crumpled to his knees.

Just as she turned her attention to Morrigan and Biscuit, the kitchen door burst open from the inside. To Neria’s dismay, three soldiers emerged, and quickly surrounded the mabari hound, holding him at sword’s length. None dared to strike Biscuit, whose growling was clearly making them rather fearful, but as long as they were there, Biscuit did not dare to make a leap. The man with the mace had managed to disarm Morrigan, her staff lying useless several feet away from her. Neria was about to aim another arcane bolt at the man when she became aware of a movement to her left, and saw the second archer, now recovered, and aiming an arrow straight at her.

She ducked, and rolled to the side, wincing as an ugly crunch from Morrigan’s direction told her the Woods Witch was, at the very least, badly injured. A howl from Biscuit was worse news still, the archer had shot an arrow at the hound and hit his left flank. Moments later, a sword grazed his neck and another cut him at the shoulder.

Neria cursed. Out in the open she would have evened the odds with a fireball. In here, it would be disastrous. She focussed her energy and swung out with a Cone of Cold, temporarily freezing three soldiers and Biscuit too, in their places. She was almost finished, her energy levels ebbing. But she had not counted on the man with a mace, who with an evil smile, swung his mace at the hound. A hard enough contact would shatter the hound to pieces of bloody, chunky ice.

“NO!” screamed Neria, mustering the last of her energy, aiming an arcane bolt, and seeing it shoot past the man and hit harmlessly against the wooden wall.

And just as it did, an arrow whistled past Neria’s cheek and into the man’s neck. His mace dropped from his hand, as he fell forward, coughing blood in a gush onto the floor. Startled, Neria looked behind her to see the bow of the man whose hand she had burned in the Chantry sister’s hand. The red-head was not looking at Neria, though. She nocked another arrow and shot, this time taking the soldier Captain through his eye. Alistair was still fighting three men – until an arrow through the neck of one made it two, and Alistair crushed another with this shield. The third fell to his knees, begging for mercy, as did the maimed soldier, holding up his charred fingers.

Neria helped Morrigan to her feet. There was no bleeding that she could see, but Morrigan was clearly in excruciating pain.

“She needs healing,” said Neria. “Alistair, we need to find a place…”

“Where did a Chantry sister learn to fight like that?” Alistair’s attention was clearly elsewhere.

The redhead simpered.

“I was not always a Chantry sister, you know,” she said. “And I think you should look to your friend’s injuries.”

“She isn’t my friend,” Alistair assured her. Morrigan did not react, which convinced Neria that her suffering must be even worse than she had thought.

The barkeep helped Neria lay Morrigan upon a makeshift bed made of straw in the kitchen.

“Are you really Wardens?” he asked as Neria rubbed some ointment from her pack on Morrigan’s ribs.

Alistair and the Chantry sister were speaking to the soldiers who had surrendered. From what Neria could make out Alistair favoured a summary execution while the Sister was persuading him to let them go. She was vaguely aware that the barkeep was repeating his question.

“Huh?” she said, distracted.

“You don’t have to worry about me tattling,” he said reassuringly. “My father served, you know. We are no enemies of the Wardens here, nor are we friends of Loghain.”

“She’s not a Warden,” said Neria, avoiding adding that Morrigan was an apostate. “Though the two of us are. And Alistair…” she raised her voice at his name.

Alistair and the Sister turned to look at her as she rose.

“We are Wardens,” she said in a clear, ringing voice. “Let nobody here entertain any doubts on that count. Our brethren fought bravely to the last man and woman against the Darkspawn while Loghain led his forces away from the killing fields of Ostagar.”

There was a tense silence.

“Just…look, just let us go,” said the man with the charred hand. “We will not tell anyone about you, we promise.”

“Oh but you will,” said Neria. “You will tell Loghain that you found the Wardens and that we told you we are coming after him.”

“You want me to let them go?” asked Alistair.

“Of course,” she said, teeth bared in a cruel grin. “How else will Loghain know what you mean to do to him when you meet him?”

Alistair smiled as well at that. Neria turned her attentions back to Morrigan while her companion described in graphic details how he intended to give Loghain a slow and painful death.

The men were long gone when Neria finally felt satisfied that she could suffer Morrigan to walk on her own. The Woods Witch had to lean on her staff, but she said she was all right, and Neria did not think it wise to try and force her to lie down.

“We need to find a place to spend the night,” said Alistair. “I would have suggested heading out of the village and making camp on the road, but not with one of us in this condition.”

Neria nodded. She had already begged the barkeep to try and arrange a bed for them, or at least for Morrigan for the night, but he had pleaded utter helplessness in the face of the refugees already having packed his tavern well over capacity.

“We will have to request one of the farmers or look to the Chantry,” said Neria.

“Not the Chantry,” said Morrigan weakly, staggering towards the door.

Neria followed quickly, putting her arms around Morrigan's shoulder. Alistair cast a last, longing look at the Chantry sister and followed. Biscuit, looking surprisingly upbeat for someone who had been at the receiving end of a bludgeoning, trotted behind.

They were almost at the passage when the musical voice rang out behind them.

“Stop!”

Neria turned to look at the Sister.

“You're going to fight Darkspawn, yes,” she said. It was more statement than question, but Neria nodded.

“You have to take me with you.”

Once again it was a statement. Neria looked at Alistair, a little bemused. Though she clearly had great skill with the bow, her accent, her appearance both spoke of a life spent as a noble. Neria's working hypothesis was that the woman was either an aristocrat who had had a child out of wedlock and hence been sent to the Chantry or a religious nut who had made a virtue out of giving up her life of luxury to take orders. Whichever it was, she would be singularly unsuited to a life traipsing through Ferelden on little more than hope and determination.

“You fought very well, Sister,” said Neria. “And I do not deny your archery would be of help to us, but surely you are better helping these people here and staying with the Chantry? Our path –” she measured her words carefully – “is likely to be an unpleasant one.”

“You don't understand,” the Chantry Sister said. “I can best help these people by fighting the Darkspawn, yes? The greatest threat to the Maker's people are those filthy creatures. I would be doing my duty.”

“What about your vows?” pointed out Alistair. “The Chantry would never allow it.”

“I have not taken my vows,” she replied. “I am a Lay Sister. I was to take my vows once we got to Denerim, but that…that's not as important as this, it cannot be.”

Neria and Morrigan looked at each other in puzzlement.

“A Lay sister is someone who is placed on a sort of probation by the Chantry,” Alistair explained. “It's quite common for the Chantry to ask an adult volunteer to serve without taking their vows for a while before they are made Initiates.”

“Nonetheless, while I appreciate the offer, I really do…,” Neria said, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice.

“Besides, the Maker told me to.”

Neria gaped at the redhead. Morrigan smirked. Alistair muttered “Crazy. The pretty ones always are.”

She was definitely very “pretty”.  Slightly shorter than Morrigan, paler too, her skin beautiful, the few freckles on her cheeks only adding to her beauty. Her red hair were parted on the left, and cut in bangs, kissing her neck as they fell over her cheeks. She was full-breasted too, the Chantry robe fitting tightly on her bosom. As she bent to pat Biscuit's head and let him lick her fingers, Neria noticed that she had scars on her arms and wrists. Her wide green eyes betrayed an eagerness to please and perhaps a touch of naiveté, but nothing about her indicated that she was anything other than sane.

“No, I know how it must sound to you,” she said. “Let me explain. I had this dream…”

“A dream, did you say?”

“Yes, I know it must sound like madness, but…”

“You can stop right there, I think,” interrupted Neria. “What's your name?”

“Leliana,” came the response.

“Good to have you on board. I'm Neria and this is Alistair. You've met Biscuit already. And the Chasind girl over there giving you the evil eye is Morrigan. The thing is, I had a dream too.”

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