Kingsway, 9:30 Dragon
It took a few moments for the prisoner to realize there was a commotion at the distant entrance of the mine. His lead-heavy arms continued to swing the pick into the rock before he finally noticed the disused voices of his fellow prisoner-miners raised in question. Usually they were all too tired to talk beyond grunts, and the guards discouraged those energetic enough to attempt conversation with strategic applications of the flat sides of their swords.
There was no one stopping them now; the guards had left their posts, drawn by the shouting, but since the prisoners were still chained together, their legs shackled, none of them could take any further advantage of this unprecedented breach of discipline.
He straightened as much as he could in the cramped confines of the tunnel, feeling the aches in his back, shoulders, arms and legs, which had only been held at bay by numb exhaustion and the tedium of the labor. Comprehension returned slowly, his wits drifting back like leaves floating by on a lazy river current.
"Varel! Where are you?" a familiar voice called. "Come out!"
Through the fog of weariness, it took a heartbeat or ten to remember his own name, much less that of the one calling him, before a memory surfaced. "Lowan?" Varel said, or rather, croaked. He licked his cracked, dry lips and peered at the bright dot of the mine entrance.
Next to Varel, one of several political prisoners Arl Howe had forced to labor here said in a thin voice, "Do you know him?"
The one who had been picked that day to bring the ore they mined to a waiting cart stepped close and urged, "Go and see what is happening. Maybe... maybe we'll all be freed." This suggestion raised a flurry of whispers amongst the others.
"And how do you know it is not a summons for my execution?" Varel muttered.
Still, even that might be better than being trapped underground for much longer, where his memories of the sun, the stars, and the sea were faint and growing fainter. The salty smell of the ocean, the fishy odors of rotting vegetation on the shore, the pounding of surf on the cliffs: those, too, were worn thin.
All work had stopped since the disturbance, and the guards had not returned to force them back to it. Since he was chained together in a line with the other prisoners, they all had to shuffle out of the narrow tunnel in order to allow him to answer the summons. Since every one of them was as starved for fresh air and sunlight as he was, they were not too loathe to do so.
There were five men ahead of Varel, and since the tunnel was only just wide enough for their bodies, with barely enough room to swing their picks, he could see little but the back of the man in front of him. The only indications they were moving in the right direction were the increasing slope, a gradual lightening of the gloom, and a strengthening draft that brought tantalizing scents of the surface world.
Finally he reached the mine opening, and stood there, blinking in the blessed sunlight as someone took his pick away, and straightened up to his full height under the sky for the first time since he had been forced into the mine. The bones of his spine creaked and cracked as he did so, and pinpricks of pain marched all up and down his back. He did not close his eyes, even when they watered, and breathed in air that was clean and crisp compared to the musty stink of unwashed and sweaty bodies below.
Maker's breath, the colors! They were so vibrant and riotous, the dizzying combination struck almost like a blow to Varel's senses. He stared at the trees, the grass, the sky, Lowan's escort, their horses, the nearby Tevinter ruin, and was almost overwhelmed by the infinite variety of hues and textures and shapes after seeing nothing but gray rocks, gray dirt, gray ore for... how long had it been? He actually did not know. Judging from the changing colors of the trees, it must be near to Harvestmere now, perhaps the end of Kingsway, and he had been punished and imprisoned just after Summerday. Five, six months, at least. It seemed like forever.
He only moved when the prisoner behind him poked him into motion, but his eyes continued to drink in the sun-drenched surroundings, and he filled his lungs with the crisp autumn air of the Wending Wood. As if in a dream he shuffled where he was directed, leaving room for the rest of the prisoners, and he was so preoccupied he almost did not notice the captain walking up to him.
"You, get the others free of these blasted chains," Lowan was saying to the mine guards gathered around him. "And you, fetch me a chisel and hammer - I know you must keep some tools around here. Stand still, Varel, we'll have you out of those soon."
"What is happening?" Varel said as he watched the other man take the tools and crouch down to strike the nails holding the shackles closed around his ankles. Though he could feel the hammer blows and hear the sounds of metal being struck, nothing seemed real. "Am I to be hanged, after all?" Numb as he was, the prospect was not as frightening as it should be.
Lowan stood, handed off the tools, and tossed the filth-covered chains away. "I don't know, but I received a message from Queen Anora to free all of Arl Howe's prisoners and to recall all of his troops not performing any essential duties to the Vigil."
Varel stared at the other man, then glanced aside as the last of the miners stumbled out, blinking in the sun, to be helped by the soldiers out of their bindings; shaggy and gaunt, like bears woken from their winter sleep, they looked as stunned and confused as he felt. "Were you not stationed in Highever? I think I recall you telling me..." It was like something remembered from a fever dream.
"That fool Chase got himself killed - the how and the why of it is muddled, not that I care - and I was next in seniority. It seems I'm in charge now." Lowan grimaced; perhaps he realized the magnitude of his new responsibilities - or thinking of the fate that had befallen his predecessor.
It took a moment to dredge up the name; Varel's brow furrowed as he thought back. Chase had been one of Arl Howe's favorites, a cruel man who did his lord's bidding without question, no matter how questionable - especially if it was questionable.
He was not used to talking so much; the scant water and food distributed in the morning had been a long time ago. Licking his chapped lips and trying to swallow in his dry throat, Varel said, "Is there any water? Anything to eat?"
"Of course - I should've realized the guards would keep any prisoners half starving. I'll get you something after you clean up first. But you must hurry."
Lowan pointed him to a barrel that collected rainwater for the mine personnel's use, and spoke to the foreman while Varel stripped out of his stinking rags, and poured bucket after bucket of clean water over himself. It was so cold it left him gasping and made his teeth chatter, but he did not stop until the worst of the grime was washed away in his first bath in months.
"I'm afraid you'll have to eat in the saddle," Lowan said as he handed Varel a spare tunic and leggings he had confiscated from some luckless guard's belongings. "I know you hate riding, but I want to return to the Vigil by sundown."
"But what about the other prisoners?" Varel asked, glancing at the men now milling about in confusion at the mine entrance. They had been given their things back, what little they had before they had been forced to labor below.
Lowan shrugged. "They're free to go, as long as they don't make trouble. Leave that," he called to the mine guards, who were moving to a pile of barrels stacked inside the mine entrance.
"But it's our food and ale, ser," one of them said.
"We won't be able to shift that lot without a wagon, so the prisoners or miners can have them, for all I care. I brought provisions enough to get us to the Vigil, though not if we waste any time here." Lowan's sharp tone brooked no further argument, and it snapped the mine guards into quick obedience.
At the captain's hand signal, a sergeant from his escort took charge, and soon the confused milling of both prisoners and guards was transformed into an organized withdrawal.
"You're truly leaving the mines completely unprotected?" Varel said.
"Can't be helped - orders are orders. The foreman doesn't like it one bit, of course, but I have no choice in the matter." There seemed to be much weightier things on the captain's mind than the displeasure of miners.
"The arl won't like it," Varel said, and was astonished when Lowan's only response to the warning was a distracted grunt. Despite his exhaustion, the other man's atypical response spurred his sluggish thoughts into reluctant motion.
Varel was hustled to a mount being held by one of Lowan's escort, and saw spares being given to the mine guards; it was clear the captain had anticipated the need. More were attaching bundles to a few packhorses, which he realized were the mine guards' belongings.
Feeling as bewildered as a man set adrift in the sea, Varel put a foot onto the linked hands of a soldier who boosted him up onto a bay gelding, who also helped to adjust the stirrups. He did not have proper boots - none of the prisoners did - but hopefully the rags he had bound about his feet would last the trip. Finished with her work, she handed a packet up to him before turning to other duties. He unwrapped it to find a small loaf of hard journey bread and cheese, a feast compared to the slice of dark, rock-hard horsebread served once a day in the mine.
As soon as everyone was mounted, Lowan led them to the road, moving from a trot to a canter. Varel, never expert at riding horses at the best of times, jounced uncomfortably in the saddle before he caught his balance. He knew he should be asking questions, but his mouth was full of the food the soldier had given him, and now he was doing his best not to wolf the humble trail rations down like a starving dog.
It was only after his belly was full that Varel wondered if the food had been given, not only to feed him, but to stop his mouth. Legging his horse with clumsy expertise up to the head of the column, where the captain was in the lead, he asked, "Why are you really here, Lowan? You were supposed to be garrisoning Highever, were you not?"
Lowan glanced back and around to see if anyone else was in earshot, and seemed to relax, willing enough to talk now. "A royal command, like I told you, signed by Queen Anora herself, summoning me from Highever. I only took enough for an escort; the rest of my troops are still there."
"Was the summons that urgent?"
"Yes, but we've also been plagued with troubles of one sort or another - I suspect deliberate sabotage in many cases - since we took Highever. Mysterious fires, soldiers lured into the forest disappearing without a trace, animals run off in the night, deliberate obstruction when I tried to investigate. I wish my troops were half so organized! So I had to leave most of them behind just to keep order. I'm relieved to get away, to be honest."
Varel could not muster much sympathy. "I am not surprised. By all reports, the Couslands were well liked."
Lowan glowered at him, and said, "I'm expecting one of Queen Anora's representatives to show up in a few days at the Vigil. I'll get more instructions."
Varel frowned as he uncapped the flask of ale the captain had given him. "But not from Arl Howe? Not even a note? That is... out of character." He was still too much in the habit of discretion to criticize the man in public.
The other man snorted. "Arl Howe would never let anyone else command his own people, not even the queen." He did not speak for a moment. "I'm not sure what to think, when there's been no word from him since the regent made him teyrn of Highever and arl of Denerim -"
Varel stared, too distracted by the other man's words to appreciate the brilliant colors of the Wending Wood. "What? What regent? What in the name of the Maker has been happening in Denerim?"
"Oh, that's right, you wouldn't have heard the news." Lowan's already grim face hardened. "They say King Cailan is dead, killed by the darkspawn at Ostagar, and Teyrn Loghain declared himself regent for Queen Anora."
"Andraste wept," Varel breathed, stunned by the news, and then was baffled by it. Queen Anora had reached her majority; she was no child who needed a regent. What was Teyrn Loghain playing at? He set that aside for the moment and said, "What... what was the king doing at Ostagar? There is naught but an old Tevinter Imperial fortress there."
Lowan told the rest, and each piece of news seemed to knock Varel further and further off balance: the Grey Wardens had asked the king to gather an army to stop the darkspawn horde forming in the Korcari Wilds, only for them all to be overrun and routed; the Grey Wardens had been blamed for the king's death, and, by order of the regent, were to be hunted down for their treachery. Arl Howe had been supporting Teyrn Loghain during these crises, and had been given the teyrnir of Highever as well as the arling of Denerim as rewards for his service.
Rewards for the arl's treachery, more like, Varel thought with a dark scowl. One man simply did not accumulate that many titles in such a short amount of time through merit and honorable deeds. He wondered what Loghain could have been thinking, giving such a dangerous concentration of power into the hands of a man as unscrupulous as the arl.
"But there's been no word at all for a fortnight and more," Lowan said, when he had finished. "And you know how Arl Howe is when he's away in Denerim - always sending a courier once every two or three days for news and to pass along instructions. Like he doesn't trust us to do what needs to be done." His jaw worked, and he spat to one side.
"Perhaps he is simply too busy with his new estates to deal with his own arling's business. A new teyrnir and another arling is a great deal for one man to assimilate at once." Varel's voice sounded unconvincing even to his own ears.
"Maybe," the captain said, but he sounded dubious.
Varel gathered up his scattered wits as he plugged the flask and handed it back to the captain. "All right, Lowan, tell me what I'm really doing here. You know I was to be hanged once Arl Howe returned."
Lowan averted his eyes, staring straight ahead. "You may not consider me a friend anymore, Varel, but you should know better than to think I'm sending you to your death." He squared his shoulders and turned to look Varel in the eye as best he could. "I know I don't have a right to ask this, but I need your help."
Hands tightening on the reins, Varel looked away, frowning as he watched the road between his horse's ears. He did not want to remember the last time he and Lowan had spoke, did not want to remember what his friend had done to him, even though Lowan had been forced to do Arl Howe's bidding; though his mind knew that Lowan had had no choice in the matter, his heart still considered it a betrayal of their trust and friendship.
"I suppose it depends on what you think you need my help with," Varel said, breaking the silence after their horses had gone at least a mile. In the midst of armed soldiers, he felt exposed; he was weaponless, without even a dagger, even though Lowan had not had him bound nor guarded.
Lowan sighed, looking relieved; perhaps he thought Varel would start hurling accusations right then and there at him. "The queen's orders made it clear that I'm in charge of the arling, at least for now, even if there's been no news of the arl. But you know me, Varel, I'm just a soldier! What in the name of the Maker do I know about running the arling, or, or the household affairs at the Vigil? I know how to organize a fortified camp, but not much else beyond that!"
"What about Arl Howe's seneschal, Aren? Is he not at the Vigil? Or did he accompany the arl?"
At the name, Lowan spat again over the side of his horse. "That useless fool - he went to Denerim with the arl, of course. It's not as if he can flatter and toady up to Arl Howe from a distance, after all. Even if he stayed behind, he would just make a mess of things - you know and I know that the only reason he got the position was because he's related to Bann Esmerelle - some cousin or other - and agreed with everything the arl said and did, not for his ability."
"There are others -" Varel said.
Lowan interrupted him. "None as experienced as you. You were trained by Arl Howe's father's seneschal, and everyone in the Vigil and the city knows and respects you -"
"What, even after I was disgraced in front of everyone?" Varel said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Lowan winced and reddened, the thin, horizontal scar across his cheeks and nose standing out white against his skin. After a moment's silence he said, "Yes, even after that - more so now than before, whether you believe me or not. Look, Maker knows I can't force you to help me, but I need you - the arling needs you. The housekeeper has been doing her best to hold everything together, but that's not her duty - she's in over her head, and she knows it. I know it. She's a good woman, but she's been threatening to quit if I don't find someone to help her soon. I'd rather she didn't - a good housekeeper is hard to find."
Varel sighed. "And if I refuse?" he said, curious as to what the captain would do then.
"Then I'll let you go. I'll give you a bit of money, and I'll even escort you wherever you like," Lowan said in a resigned tone. "Refugees have been pouring into the north for months, to Highever and Amaranthine, but I know you have friends at the port - I'm sure you could find a berth on a ship sooner rather than later."
Lowan did not press him any further, and Varel was left to his own thoughts as they rode through the forest. After an hour, they stopped at a stream to rest and water the horses, pausing long enough for a quick meal. Though he had eaten his fill earlier, he did not refuse the strips of salted meat and journey bread a soldier passed out, though he declined the offer of a skin of watered wine for fear of what it might do to his scattered wits. He was aware of the curious glances the captain's escort gave him, and saw them talking to the mine guards; Lowan noticed, and ordered them off, keeping them all busy at various chores.
When they mounted their horses again, the soldiers seemed to take it for granted that Varel would ride alongside the captain. A little way down the road, Lowan said, "We will reach the Vigil soon, Varel, so I suggest you make your decision - I'd rather not get into any arguments with anyone who recognizes you. I left Rullens in charge, and he should be able to keep them quiet long enough for you to have a good head start. If they fear the arl's censure - and I wouldn't blame them if they did - they won't be best pleased with me if they know I released you."
"You don't seem bothered by the idea," Varel said, raising brows.
The captain had his family to think of, after all, and he had been bitter indeed at how the arl had all but threatened them to command his obedience. He suspected Lowan knew something more than he had said, something he would not divulge yet.
Lowan shrugged. "I gather there's been some sort of trouble with the queen, and there have been rumors the Grey Wardens hadn't all been wiped out at Ostagar. If that's so, I think the arl will have bigger problems to worry about than one man who's been amply punished already." He leaned towards Varel, and said in a lower voice, "There've been whispers that not all the Couslands died at Highever, and one of them is after the arl, bent on revenge. Some even say she's one of the Grey Wardens still alive. If that's true, I think my lord hasn't been sleeping all that well at night."
Varel thought that Lowan did not look to have slept well himself. "You were the one in charge of the assault on the castle - is there any truth to the rumor?"
Grimacing, Lowan muttered, "All were accounted for, but for a woman, hardly more than a girl, Teyrn Bryce's only living daughter. We never found her body, nor the Grey Warden who stayed as their guest that night. Her mabari wasn't there, either. What we did find were plenty of dead soldiers they had left in their wake. Lord Fergus had left for Ostagar already, but there's been no news of him, and I've kept an ear out. If the arl had planned something for him, I don't know of it."
Varel wondered if the captain worried about being called to account eventually for that night's treachery. Well, Lowan had been acting under orders from his liege lord, however repugnant those orders had been. But if there really was a survivor of the massacre, they might not agree.
The captain's voice broke into Varel's thoughts. "There's the boundary marker," he said, nodding towards a cairn they were approaching. "We'll be out of the forest in another hour, and onto the North Road, on our way towards the crossroads. Now's your chance to tell me where you want to go: north to the city, or east towards the Vigil?"
Taking a deep breath, Varel held it before releasing it and his answer, like an arrow from a bow; there had never really been any doubt as to what he would choose. He had not given up when Arl Howe had done his best to drive him away, and he would not give up now, when his liege lord was absent, leaving the arling and its affairs in disarray.
"To the Vigil, Captain - it sounds like there is a great deal of work for me to do."
Lowan smiled for the first time that whole journey, and clapped Varel on the arm. "I'm glad. We'll get you outfitted - your clothes, armor, and sword were stored, and I saved what I could of your things from being tossed onto the rubbish heap."
Despite his reservations and memories, Varel was still touched by Lowan's unexpected thoughtfulness. He was about to express his gratitude when Lowan's lips twisted into the most cynical smile he had ever seen.
"Don't thank me, Varel. You'd probably still be rotting down in that mine if I didn't need you so desperately, and you might well curse me before all this is done."