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Exalted

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Warlord Miran watched as the contingent of templars overwhelmed his hunters. The templars were heavily armed and had platemail to the teeth, while his hunters were mostly skirmishers -- just the bows on their backs and leather skins for protection. Standing against them had been brutal. They had fortified their camp as well as they could, but this damned shemlen war was bleeding everywhere. They battered his clan for weeks now, unrelenting in their search for fugitive apostates, and his hunters were exhausted. They were losing this fight, and he faced losing the clan if they didn’t move.

All over a war they weren’t even part of.

The camp was set in an isolated valley outside of Wycome, but even that wasn’t safe from the conflict. It was now in shambles. The halla ran back and forth in their pens, distressed over the loud noises and cries. Aravels burned and a large amount of their food reserves were being cut down with axes by the templar forces. It was savage. Most of the clan were not hunters; non-combatants who spent their time practicing weaving and and herbalism and halla keeping. Clan Silure was relatively peaceful and very small. They had never drawn attention from the Marcher cities, and had good relations with the human traders. This was senseless violence.

He pulled back on his bowstring and let an arrow fly in the ranks of the templars. It did little good. Miran watched helplessly as he saw another hunter fall; a young one, the vallaslin fresh on his face. He had been a promising talent. Now he would feed the worms of the earth. Senseless.

“Miran!” he heard his Second yell from behind him.

“What is it?” Miran asked as he drew his bow again.

“The reinforcements from Lavellan are here! They need your permission to hunt,” he responded. Miran marveled briefly at Den’s ability to irritate him in the most dire situations, but nodded his affirmation anyways. His Second ran to give them their permission, and Miran let another arrow fly.

He waited in earnest as his hunters held back the templars with their lives while Lavellan played games with tradition. This was war, not some petty matter of hunting territory. They were wasting precious time -- and lives -- by trying to keep face. Probably not even trying to keep face. If he knew Den, it was one of his dramatic gestures that would make a good hearth story for the other clans who heard about it. The Silures, pressed against the wall, templars nearly wiping them out, but Lavellan remembered the Old Ways, calling on the rights of hunt, and swept in to rescue the drowning Silures in a grand entrance.

Miran sighed deeply, almost positive this was the case. He vowed not to complain though as he saw the hail of arrows fall on the templars engaging his hunters like rain in a storm. The templars were caught by surprise, and nearly a quarter of them fell down within the first wave. His hunters turned and saw their approaching allies and gave up a mighty cheer. There was a fighting chance now.

“Miran! You look like shit!” Den called to him as he jogged down the hill leading towards their campgrounds.

“I’ve been fighting almost non-stop for two days. What’s your excuse?” Miran shot back, his face opening to a wide grin.

Den let out a round of his infamous booming laughter and held onto his now expanding gut. As much as he didn’t like it, Den’s laughter was always contagious, and he found himself chuckling along. Better than brooding over what he couldn’t change, he supposed.

“About time you showed up,” he said as he patted him roughly on the back, “We couldn’t hold out much longer.”

“That bad?”

“Worse,” Miran replied, “You know we aren’t fighters. My hunters aren’t prepared for this kind of onslaught.”

“Maybe you should have prepared them, Miran. The humans don’t stop being humans just because your clan doesn’t ascribe to more aggressive war policies.”

Den gave him a sympathetic look and the easiness of their conversation lifted immediately.

“Oh, fuck me,” he muttered.

The Maiden of the Hunt walked down the hill towards him now, her Shadow and the elite hunters of their clan behind her, dressed in full armor, well prepared for any battle that came her way. Miran knew right away she was the one who made the show of asking for permission to hunt. It meant he was inviting her to take over. He had hoped that War Lord Den would be the only one leading the reinforcements; the Maiden had not patient with faltering hunters in the Free Marches as of late.

“I’d prefer not to, if it’s all the same to you,” she said as she approached, “What’s the situation?”

He sighed heavily and felt a rush of burning in his ears, “We’re trapped against this hill. My hunters have held their ground, and the bulk of the camp retreated, but the templars have been relentless. That hail of arrows gave the hunters a reprieve, but we’re not out of the woods yet. There was a whole contingent of those lyrium-crazed bastards behind this attack.”

She nodded, her lips pursed. Her eyes gazed over the remnants of their camp, where most of the battle took place now, and she turned to her Banal’ras standing behind her.

“The incursion isn’t large. Provide another round of suppressing fire and then engage them directly. They should all be dead within the hour.”

The grim-faced looking Shadow leaned his head to confirm her instructions and addressed the waiting forces.

“Hunters! On my mark!” he shouted, raising a hand in the air to signal. The band took positions and drew their bows.

“Steady….” he waited for several heartbeats, his signaling hand still up, “NOW!”

They all released at once, and a shower of arrows fell on the waiting templars. He watched with awe as another quarter of them went down one by one, sharp death barrelling down from the sky . Their death cries were the sweetest music, and shouts of joy rang across the ruined camp, his hunters relieved at the timely aid.

“By my lead Lavellan!” the Shadow ordered, and set off down to the camp to flank the remaining templars. The hunters followed him with a discipline that made Miran jealous, and he reflected on all those years ago when he had tried to bring the Shadow into Clan Silure before he had been oathed to the Maiden. Maybe they wouldn’t be in this predicament if that had happened.

“Miran,” the Maiden addressed him, pulling him out of his thoughts, “We need to talk. Follow me.”

He glanced at War Lord Den, who wouldn’t meet his eye, and slumped his shoulders as he made his way up the hill to where she had no doubtedly set up camp. This ‘talk’ would not be good.

Unsurprisingly, his suspicions were confirmed when he saw a makeshift pavilion set up for her overlooking the battle below. She had been in complete control of this since she had arrived, and he cursed himself silently for thinking she wouldn’t show up when he sent the original distress call for reinforcements.

“This is a disaster, Miran,” she started as she sat in a folding chair that had been set up in the pavilion, “We met up with Keeper Iranal on our way in; she said half your hunters are wounded and there are twenty dead. That is far too much.”

“You don’t need to tell me, Maiden. But we aren’t equipped for this, you know that.”

She picked up a cup sitting on a small table next to her and took a sip, “Are you equipped to take in apostate mages who ran from the circle in Tantervale?”

He shouldn’t be surprised she had found that out, but he was anyways. He wouldn’t let her use that against his clan, “They were children! What were we supposed to do?”

She frowned in irritation, “Send them to a clan that can handle templars. We have the resources to take on these small contingents with little loss. Your hunters are not trained to handle Chantry forces.”

“There was no time! The children only found us two months ago. We had planned to reach out to other clans, but the templars caught their scent before we had a chance,” he argued. Miran may have failed at a lot of things in this, but taking in the apostates was not one of them.

“They must have means to track them,” she mused. She signaled for a runner near the pavilion, “War Lord Den is overseeing the battle. Tell him that he needs to go through every templar body to search for phylacteries.”

The runner brought his fist to his chest, bowed slightly, then took off with a sprint.

Miran marvelled at the efficiency and had the smart sense to let her take over for him instead of trying to get back out into the fray. He sighed heavily, and sank to the ground in front of her chair as exhaustion began to sink in. The battle would surely be won. She had everything under control. He could afford it now.

“Look Elain; I know you think we can’t handle ourselves, but this was not something we expected. We’ve taken in flat ear refugees before without the humans coming down on us like this.”

“I know, Miran,” she said, “And the Silures aren’t the only ones suffering from this war. Clan Unether’al dealt with hostile mages that escaped the purging in Kirkwall. Thank Mythal that you did not have to endure that.”

“So I heard,” he responded, shuddering at the stories of the demons taking over the bodies of those desperate souls, “What does Lavellan plan to do? You can’t keep coming to every Marcher clan’s rescue.”

“No, we can’t,” she agreed, her voice softer now, “The Diceni are noticing that our hunters are over-extended, and they are very interested in taking our northern hunting grounds.”

“Keeper Paeris is always reaching for things he can’t have,” he said to her, knowing full well the rivalry between the two siblings. He hoped the slight criticism would soften the blows she had in store for him, “But even the Diceni are bogged down with the templar-mage war. The humans have a way of making life harder for everyone.”

Her lips curved into a smile, “That they do.”

They spoke of inconsequential politics for a while, the spectre of battle hanging over them both. It was small talk to fill the time while Lavellan helped the Silures take back their grounds. They discuseed where the Arlathvhen would be held now that the Diceni were High Clan of the Free Marches, the movements of Clan Orovir, the fate of Clan Unether’al, whether or not High Council would be called to make plans for this shemlen war. It keep the tone light, but Miran’s anxiety was making his gut burn.

“So what now?” he asked her. He was afraid to know the answer, but he thought it best to get it out of the way. She took another drink from her cup, deeper this time, and swirled it in her hand thoughtfully.

“Now, we finally make the leap into a more permanent partnership between Lavellan and Silure. Your clan is in no position to defend themselves,” she answered sternly, “And unless you want to face extinction, you and Keeper Iranal should consider the terms very carefully.”

His throat was suddenly swollen and dry and he let out a hoarse cough. Without hesitating, the Maiden passed him her cup, and he drank the cool water she had inside. It soothed his throat, but the burning in his gut didn’t go away.

“We’ve gone over your terms before, Elain. The Council will not agree to them; you know this.”

“They have no choice in the matter now,” she argued, tapping her fingers impatiently on the armrests of her chair, “Clan Silure stands on the brink of destruction. Your hunters aren’t equipped for war, your reserves are destroyed, and your aravels are burning. If it’s not the templars, it will be raiders or Tal-Vashoth or smugglers or slavers that will wipe you out. We are offering a way for you to survive.”

“You’re offering a deal no better than the Diceni offered, and we won’t take it!” he raised his voice, “Clan Silure will live free or we will die free. We won’t pay tribute to Lavellan simply because the Maiden wants it.”

Her lips drew into a thin line and her brow creased in thought, “You’re angry over the loss you’ve endured in this attack. I only ask that you think on it today. I know how indecisive your Council is, so the matter will take some time. Use that time to reflect on what it more important; your pride or your existence.”

“Elain!” War Lord Den interrupted them as he approached the pavilion, covered in blood and smiling widely, “They’re all dead. What a good fight! Been a long time since I saw a fight like that. Nothing like taking on soldiers with actual training!”

“Glad we could accommodate you,” Miran smirked at him, but didn’t feel the good-natured jesting they had earlier. This ultimatum was weighing on him heavily.

“DId you find phylacteries?” she asked him.

Den plopped himself down on the ground next to her, reaching across her and grabbing a bottle of wine on her table. He took a deep drink and let out a sigh of satisfaction at the taste.

“Yeah. They’re destroyed. We also found something very interesting,” he pulled out a rolled piece of parchment that had been sealed in wax and handed it to her. She unrolled it and began to read.

“These are orders to cease all engagements. There’s going to be a meeting of some kind in Ferelden. They’re calling it a ‘Conclave’. It’s headed by the Divine herself.”

She let the parchment roll back up, “Interesting. We need to bring this up in Council. Deshanna will be very invested in finding out what happens at this ‘Conclave’.”

“An end to this war, perhaps?” Miran suggested. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Banal’ras approaching her small encampment.

“Who can say with humans?” she handed the parchment back to Den, and he slid it in his belt, “You should worry less about this meeting and more about what we talked about. Go tend to your hunters. They need to know that you are as part of this as Lavellan is.”

It was a dismissal, and he knew that there would be no further arguing. He had given her permission to hunt on the Silures grounds, and now, living without the stern eye of the Maiden overlooking them would be harder and harder. He left her small pavilion, giving his goodbyes and thanks, and walked back to the camp that had been nearly overrun just a few short hours ago.

The hunters were celebrating and organizing what was left after the attack. Mounds of preserved food were stacked and protected, but it was only a fraction of what they had. Five large aravel were burned beyond saving, and two may be salvageable, if they had access to the materials. Clan Silure did not.

Miran knew she was right, as much as he hated it. This was a death knoll. Harboring the apostates had been too big of a risk, and now they would lose what little autonomy they had. As the hunters chatted excitedly over the bravery and skill of the Shadow and the Lavellan hunters and the benevolence of the Maiden, he knew it was only a matter of time before Council agreed to her terms.

So the saying went in clans of the Free Marches: Whatever the Maiden wants, she gets.

---

 

“How was the battle?” Elain asked Revas as he returned to the camp. He had blood on him, but none of it was his own. She would not show her relief, but she felt it keenly.

“Quick. These templars are fighting blindly,” he dropped an amulet the knight-captain leading the group had been wearing on her lap,”They don’t know what to do without a leader to guide them. And I think they were low on lyrium. It’s why they were hacking through the Silure’s supplies; looking for their fix.”

“Barbarians,” Den muttered on the ground next to her.

“It just proves that the Silures need to come into our fray. They’re an easy target for templars who don’t have the Chantry supply lines anymore.” She turned the blood-stained amulet over in her hands. It was the symbol of the Chantry, a sunburst. It looked as if it had been gilded, but the gold had been chiseled off and sold. All that was left was the cheap metal filling it. Shoddy craftsmanship for a barbaric order.

“I think their Council will be more open to it now,” Revas said, “Twig and I talked to their hunters after their fight. Thanks to a little persuasion, a lot of them think you’re single-handedly saving the Silures.”

“Good work,” she complimented him, “But that’s just their hunters. The clan is largely artisans. I’d have Vhannas reach out to them, but Miran and Iranal are still bitter over not getting you transferred back when I was on my trial in the mountains.”

He laughed, “I don’t blame them. I just killed four templars myself. They wouldn’t be in this mess if they had me.”

“I’m sure they have entirely different messes they would need help out of it they had you,” she smiled widely at him.

The hour was getting late, and Elain stood up from her chair and stretched. She needed to return to her own clan to let them know the news of the battle. And the news of the Conclave. The first would be cause for celebration. The latter would cause much debate; one that she was eager to participate in.

“Take care of things here, Den. Revas and I will ride back ahead and let the Council know how it went. Make sure you have the our hunters camping with theirs. Get them used to the idea.”

“Of course,” he accepted her order, “Stay away from the main roads. Templars could’ve been waiting for backup. And make sure to tell your mother I send all of my love to her, Revas.”

“For fuck’s sake,” he muttered as they turned and walked away from Den’s contagious laughter.

As they left the camp and the commotion of the aftermath of the battle, Elain inhaled the harvest air deeply. The smell of the burning aravels still lingered in the wind, but for the most part, it was clean and cool, and helped clear her mind. She had wanted to participate in the fighting herself; give the hunters a show. But Miran needed to be turned, and she didn’t trust Den to convince him. She hoped her ultimatum would be enough.

Once they were far past the bustle of the battle, far away from prying eyes and ears, it was safe to speak with Revas about the true state of things.

“How well are their hunters trained?” she asked him.

“Better than I expected, worse than we need,” he replied, “We’ve gained a lot of battle-ready hunters, but Paeris still has an army compared to our militia. We can’t depend on the Silures to turn his eyes away from our territory.”

“He’s only doing it to scare me into giving up ground and losing face,” she complained, “Then he gets to sweep in and save Clan Lavellan from the inadequate Maiden with his army and his War Lord and his Hand of Vengeance.”

“Or maybe since he’s taken in so many displaced clans, he actually needs the extra territory to help them survive?”

She furrowed her brow and scolwed, “I can’t believe you're taking his side! You know him. It’s always about his stupid schemes and plans!”

“I’m not taking sides,” he shot back, “I’m just saying not everything is about you all the time, Elain.”

“Hmph,” she crossed her arms over each other and lifted her chin. She wouldn’t give him the dignity of an argument. She knew her brother better than anyone, and she knew what he was capable of.

They approached her waiting halla, and without warning, he grabbed her by the waist and lifted her onto the mount. She let out a surprised gasp, but once she was settled, she rolled her eyes at the dramatic gesture. He rested his forearms on her lap and set his chin on them.

“We’re going to be traveling for a couple of days back to our camp. All alone. I’d really like it if you weren’t mad at me for pointing out that Paeris isn’t out to get you all the time. It would make the trip much easier,” he looked up at her expectantly from her lap.

She wanted to stay cross, to hold a grudge. He was always trying to convince her Paeris’ interventions were not as big of a deal as she made them seem, and it infuriated her. To Revas, this was just a silly game between siblings, and he didn’t see the bigger picture. The future of the Clans in the Marches -- even all of Thedas -- was at stake. She truly did want to stay mad, but he was covered in the blood of the humans he killed on her behalf, and once again, she was reminded of the selflessness in which he served her.

“Fine,” she let out a deep sigh, “But one of us needs to take him seriously. He could undo all the work we’ve done.”

He lifted his head and grabbed the reins of the halla, guiding it towards the beaten forest path. “I doubt that. He has Threlen to contend with when it comes to making decisions for his clan. No one goes against you.”

“Now you’re just trying to flatter me.”

Looking over his shoulder, he flashed her his widest grin, “I did say we were going to be alone right? Just you and me? For the first time in weeks? It would be a waste if you were upset with me.”

She returned his smile, “Then by all means….flatter me.”

He stopped leading the halla and grabbed one of her hands.

“You already know you are the most beautiful..” he kissed her knuckles, “...intelligent..” he kissed her fingertips, “...ruthless…” he turned her hand over and kissed her palm, “...uncompromising woman alive. What more is there to say?”

Elain cupped his face with the hand he held, his fingers still clutching hers.

“You could say ‘I love you’,” she said quietly and leaned down to press her mouth to his. She returned his kisses with a sweetness she only let him see, and he brushed his free hand through her hair in contentment.

They drew apart before they might be seen by some wandering hunter, and continued traveling the scarcely used paths in the forest that were covered in the fallen leaves of autumn. Despite the war and the unknown future it might bring, they were just happy to be going home. Together.