Mid-Haring, 9:31 Dragon
Stretched out on the road behind him, the merchant caravan Reynard de Chernalle had built through years of hard work glittered like the jewels of a duchess in the winter sunshine. He himself was arrayed in travelling clothes of the finest quality, his rather portly frame cushioned against the weather by a quilted wool doublet decorated with a fine embroidery of spring flowers. Two days out from Jader, and the road still curved in easy loops along Gherlen’s Pass through high pastures thickly shadowed with snow. To either side loomed the white-dusted reaches of the Frostbacks, the gateposts of the border between the Orlesian Empire and the little country that had once been its easternmost province. Birds chattered in the mast pines that bordered the road. From his horse Reynard spied the tracks of fennecs eager to return to the warmth of their dens before the next storm. None of the men in the train failed to notice the front of pale, bloated clouds that rolled towards them from the Waking Sea on the back of a chafing north-easterly, and none of them were pleased about it.
Reynard sat straighter in his saddle to better catch a first sight of Ferelden as he capped the brow of the last rise in the road. From there, it was all downhill into lush, unspoiled valleys and thick forests that hunkered down under a grey haze of fog. Unlike the majority of his countrymen, he liked coming to Ferelden, even despite the weather. Its dogs, its stories, and the tenacious nature of its people possessed a welcome authenticity after the delicate pretensions of the minor Orlesian nobility he usually had to deal with. Most of all, he found the opportunities for trade in this former backwater very much to his tastes, and hoped an early arrival before midwinter would help him get the jump on his less adventurous rivals.
After the occupation thirty years previously, any merchant wishing to trade goods in Ferelden had had to make expensive detours through the Free Marches to avoid the prejudice of a population in which resentment traditionally lingered for generations. Clever traders, such as Reynard himself, had learned how to coax profits from these detours, but the gains had been small in the face of the risk to goods crossing the Waking Sea.
The peace treaties signed by good King Cailan four years earlier had changed things, however. Reynard had caught the turning tide, so to speak. He had traded in extortionate handling fees and sailors’ wages for a string of pack mules, wagons, and opportunities for wayside business. He had built good relationships with the merchants in Ridderby and Lakehead and every settlement in between. In less than half a decade his caravan had swollen to three times its original size – and if the rumours in his home city of Val Chevin were to be believed, soon there might be even greater profits to be made in Ferelden. The thought brought a smile to his thin lips.
A gust of wind tugged at the fur mantle of his riding coat, bringing an acrid mixture of smoke and pine balsam to his nose. Beneath him, his usually placid mare shied sideways, tossing her head with a snort. Only once he managed to steady her did he notice the spiked timber barricades that blocked the road ahead, defending a guard post that looked newly built, and which certainly hadn’t been there at the beginning of Hervestmere when he had made his last return trip to Orlais to resupply. He brought one hand to shade his eyes and squinted down the road.
“What do you make of it, Thomas?” he asked as the captain of his private guard trotted up to join him.
The man halted his gelding and scowled in the direction of the garrison of distant, shouting figures. Unlike his employer, the mercenary captain had a gruff appearance. His dark hair and beard were worn long, whether to obscure his features or to terrify opponents in combat, Reynard was unsure, but his weapons were well maintained and the discipline with which he kept his men in line spoke of a military background. While he rarely spoke, when he did it was with sound judgement and complete authority.
“I don’t like it, Ser,” Thomas grunted. “Best hang back and let me handle it. These look like unsavoury sorts.”
Reynard nodded. “I’m inclined to agree. Still, they’re probably just here to improve the road and are weary of being stuck at an out-of-the-way post like this.” He chuckled, imagining what young men might get up to with limited entertainment in the dark winter months. “I’m sure a friendly halloo will put their minds to rest that we’re not bandits.”
“All the same Ser, I advise you to be careful,” Thomas replied, unconvinced.
Busy smoothing the rumples in his coat, Reynard gave only a cursory acknowledgement of the warning as the mercenary cantered back to inform his soldiers of the blockage ahead. Knowing his employer’s penchant for striking up bargains along the road, Thomas would wait to order swords drawn, but his men would be prepared in case the meeting devolved into a confrontation. It was what he was paid for.
As Reynard rode closer, he busied himself by listing inventory in his head, running down a list of things bored soldiers might need. Most of his caravan was loaded with items geared more towards the nobility, and he never traded in flesh, but some of the herbs and delicacies in his wagons were difficult to find in Ferelden, and might go down well. He became so absorbed in working out what he would sell he failed to notice the peculiarity of the banner draped against the flagpole.
“Halloo there, my good man!” he called out when he was near enough to offer his most winning smile. “We are in for a blizzard before the day is out, do you think?”
A man with a weathered face and grimy, mismatched armour stomped out of the guard house, the longsword strapped to his belt the only serviceable thing about him. When he approached, Reynard’s hand twitched as he curbed the instinct to reach for the nosegay in his breast pocket.
“Papers!” the man barked through a mouth half-full of yellowed teeth.
Beaming wider, Reynard reached into his saddlebags and handed over the trade permits authorised by the Val Chevin Merchants’ Guild. “There you are, good Ser, I am sure everything is in order.”
The man hocked and spat. “You Orlesian?”
“Out of Jader,” came the reply. “Though I do not –”
“What you got in the train?”
“Well, all sorts of things, really,” Reynard answered, somewhat perturbed by the soldier’s brusque manner. “I trade furs, fabrics, spices, trinkets for the ladies,” he added with a wink. “This is my fifth year on this road. Bann Reginalda and Bann Ferrenly are both firm friends.”
The winning smile faltered as the soldier continued to riffle through the permits, scanning the lines with insolent disinterest, content to let the silence grow strained enough for the foreigner’s cob to shift its weight and whicker. He started when another rider cantered up to join the conversation. This one was practiced handling a horse, and the flint-like chips of his eyes showed no trace of fear as he edged in front of his master.
“Is there a problem here?” Thomas asked, polite enough but with a hint of steel that couldn’t be ignored.
Reading the mood, Reynard glanced back to see his company of guards arrayed in tight formation around the caravan, hands on sword hilts, their faces set with grim determination beneath their helmets. With their trained eyes they saw what he had failed to notice – a single flash of metal from within the forest, shadows of trees roving beyond their roots. They were waiting for the ambush. Dread settled like bad meat in Reynard’s stomach as he turned around and watched the strange battle of wills unfolding before him.
From beneath the leather brow of his cap, the soldier squinted upwards, sucking on one of his few remaining molars like a farmer contemplating the chance of rain on the harvest. Thomas stared back, implacable. Both of them seemed to have forgotten the merchant’s existence.
“I asked if there was a problem,” Thomas repeated.
“These papers are invalid.” The soldier held the permits high and opened his hand, letting them drop into the mud before grinding them into the ground with the heel of his boot. He leered. “’Fraid that means we get to inspect your cargo. Make sure you’re not carrying anything… undesirable, like.”
“Now see here –!” Reynard spluttered.
Thomas cut across him. “What writ do you have to authorise a search?” he demanded. “This caravan is sanctioned by Her Imperial Highness Empress Celene, and is under the protection of King Cailan. You have no authority to do this.”
The smirk spread wider across the soldier’s pockmarked face. Beneath his brows, the pale eyes glinted with malice.
“It’s Cailan has no authority here. On ‘em, lads!”
Before he could even process the words, Reynard heard the breathy swish of loosed arrows and screamed as his back exploded with agony. His mare reared and flung him into the roadside muck, where he rolled and lay gasping for breath like a landed fish. Shouts of fear and rage flashed in the air around him. When he mustered enough strength to look, he saw many of his men already dead, his drivers pinioned to their seats by crudely fletched arrows, and the guards felled by sword strokes from the bandits that had broken from the trees. Only Thomas held his ground, fighting off three at once with Orlesian curses fit to quell demons in their tracks.
Reynard reached out through the haze of his pain to try and warn his captain about the fourth man charging in behind him, but the arrows had pierced his lungs and his cry fell from his lips as a cough. As his vision dimmed, the wind picked up, bringing with it the first flecks of snow from the storm. Above the battle, unnoticed, the banner on the flagpole unfurled to reveal, not the scarlet War Dogs of the king, but a golden Drake on a field of black – the sigil of Loghain Mac Tir.