There wasn’t much time left; already Fereldan’s Armies and her Battlemages from the Circle in Kinloch Hold gathered at Ostegar to prepare for a fight with the blighted darkspawn. Duncan knew rumors abounded that the creatures bubbled up from somewhere deep in the south, likely with the Chasind tribes, but his own observations claimed a little otherwise. It was why he was here, deep within the wintry Frostbacks at the steps of Orzammar instead of in Ostegar right this second. King Cailen expected some sort of glory battle while Duncan expected a Blight with all that entailed.
Duncan knew that in order to convince Cailen the severity of the truth of the Blight, he had to gather evidence beyond secrets of the Grey Warden Order. To tell the young king that you dream of the Archdemon's whispers and calls at night was not the best way to gain a person’s trust, no matter how true that very statement was. It was the best way to gain a sword in your back, however.
Duncan sighed, and murmured, "Something about this Blight seems different from the rest," to himself. The rest of course being what he knew in tales and stories that others of the Order had shared over time. He nodded once to the guard posted at the gate, who nodded back.
The Grey Wardens of Fereldan's ranks were still far too thin, and Duncan knew that this Blight wouldn't be easy. No Blight ever was if the stories and histories he’d read and been told before were true. Of course the last time Duncan heard of the tales was back in Orlais before he’d been thrust into the mantle as the Commander of the Fereldan Grey Wardens which consisted of himself and—well, the royal bastard who was as prone to potentially fall onto his own sword when left on his own as he was to being baited by naughty Chantry Mothers. Which, Duncan admitted, he’d readily started this trip in full knowledge of the what the disaster-child was like and still left the boy behind. He rather hoped Alistair remained out of trouble.
Best Duncan knew Alistair could end up seduced and knock up some poor girl in his absence. Given the boy’s parentage—Duncan pinched the bridge of his nose and passed the threshold of the Hall of Heroes and into the Commons. Yeah, he didn’t want to think about the messes that Maric and Fiona could get themselves into once upon a time, and how much Alistair was their son.
With a sigh Duncan made his way toward the Diamond Quarter, intent to speak to King Endrin Aeducan and hopefully get a better idea what the darkspawn in the Deep Roads were doing. Perhaps he'd even have time to step into the Deep Roads and see the situation first hand. At the very least a report from the Dwarven Kingdom should satisfy Cailen as to the coming severity ahead, or so Duncan hoped.
"Atrast vala, Duncan! What a surprise!" greeted Denek Aeducan, quick enough to stop Duncan in his tracks outside the Palace proper. They clasped hands. "This is the proper greetings for your people correct?"
"Ah, yes. Stone met and blessings on your house, Denek Aeducan," Duncan returned, somewhat stiffly. He was still not used to visiting the Dwarves despite his frequency of doing so ever since he ‘inherited’ Fereldan. There were no surviving Dwarven cities in the Deep Roads in the rest of Thedas, only Orzammar remained in the South now, and they were vastly different from the surface Dwarves that the Wardens mostly dealt with in Orlais—and vastly different from the rumors of the Dwarves out of Kal-Sharok in the North. "I said it right this time I hope?" he asked after a second as amused faces stared back at him.
"Oh yes, you did," Gorim nodded. "I apologize for milord; Bhelen has given us some food for thought."
"I can speak for myself Gorim," Denek interrupted with a tense smile, "but yes, what Gorim says is correct. I merely have much on my mind. Afterthe Proving we'll be heading off on an expedition to the old Aeducan Thaig."
"The Proving?" Duncan blinked. "Ah, being held in your honor I take it?"
"Yes," Denek nodded. "I trust you will attend?"
"I am sorry, Prince Denek, but I am afraid I must speak with King Endrin as soon as possible."
Denek frowned and shook his head. "I am sorry, Duncan, but my father has retired early. He has not been feeling so well, lately. Come. You can watch the Proving and discuss your concerns with my brother, Trian."
Duncan fell quickly in line with Denek and Gorim. "Something concerns you, I take it?"
"Yes," Denek replied. He smiled to the merchants sweetly as he led Duncan from the Diamond Quarter.
"Are you sure you wish to bring this to the Grey Warden's attention?" Gorim hissed between his teeth.
"Is it a matter that the Warden's should be aware of?" Duncan questioned. He refrained from the old nervous tick to bite his lip, a bit worried that perhaps the darkspawn decided to advance upon Orzammar at the same time as they began to move upon the Blight. It wasn’t unheard of for such a two-pronged attack, but the last one had been at least two Blights prior and wiped out most of the last few thaigs that surrounded Orzammar in the South and Kal-Sharok toward the North.
"It is not a matter of darkspawn, although I understand your Order has a rapport going with my father," Denek said. "We are concerned that his sudden illness is not...natural."
"Blight sickness?" Duncan guessed. It wasn’t entirely unheard of and the Endrin Duncan knew liked to head off into the Deep Roads on expeditions himself from time to time so it very well could’ve been, although most of the dwarves these days held precautions against the blight sickness that the darkspawn carried. They were mostly unproven in effectiveness aside from word of mouth claims.
Denek licked his lips, "Uncertain," he murmured. "Whatever it is, he is getting steadily worse. Bhelen is sowing doubts that it is my brothers handling, but Bhelen forgets that I've known him since he was attached to our mothers skirts. Ambition is in his nature, and poisoning would be right up Bhelen's halls. Unlike Trian."
"I am unsure if this is something I can help you with, my friend. I'm afraid unless there is darkspawn involved I cannot do much," Duncan said after a moment of contemplation. "I do need to speak with King Endrin as to the state of the Deep Roads, although given his state of illness perhaps it is better to ask elsewhere. Yourself, maybe?"
"I would not be of much help, although Trian might," Denek nodded. "You can ask him at the Proving. I am not expecting anything from you, at any rate, merely a willing ear and perhaps a word or two. Dwarva matters are, as always, handled internally. Bhelen, or Trian, will not get away with murder if that is indeed the case."
"I suppose my concerns can wait for now," Duncan agreed, albeit reluctantly. "Your brother will be present at the Proving?"
"Both of them, yes, unless Trian chooses to head off on the expedition early. It will be an honor to have you there, Duncan," Denek nodded.
"The honor is all mine," Duncan nodded back politely.
It didn’t click at first, not until later, but as Duncan waited for the Proving, and then watched the matches, he realized the young dwarven woman with no house who laughed at his greeting after she stared rather oddly at him, would make a good Warden. He himself after all had been practically nothing more than a thief on the streets, and then a murderer, before his recruitment into the Order. This dwarven child had all the makings and perhaps more of a Warden, and some part of Duncan said that she might even be strong enough to survive the Joining.
However, the Warden had other matters to attend to, and so for the time put the matter of the strange casteless dwarf out of mind. His gaze slid to Trian, word of his concern on his lips, but the young prince held up a hand.
“After the Proving, Duncan,” he said with a wide smile. “I like this dwarva.”
“She is talented,” Duncan said softly and turned his gaze back to the Proving. The crowd cheered wildly and it took a minute for the Grey Warden to realize the young dwarven woman won. She bowed, played up to the crowd, raised her blades and hollered and hooted cheerfully.
Trian stood and moved toward the edge of the balcony. Duncan watched as he bade the woman reveal her face. A chill sweep through his bones. He knew somewhat that dwarven politics were an odd thing, and that a casteless in a Proving was something of taboo. As it was a Proving in honor of Prince Denek it was even more dangerous for the girl to have done something like this. He wondered what reason she could’ve had for this—because of all the dwarves he’d met Duncan knew they took such things very, very seriously.
The idea, the merit, of a good Warden being wasted here turned Duncan’s stomach. The girl took away her helm and tossed it. She barred her marked face proudly and showed teeth in response to the gasps of horror from the crowd. Brave, Duncan noted, foolishly brave perhaps. The potential burned within him—the Fereldan Wardens needed recruits and here a prime one practically fell into his lap.
“I am castless!” the woman roared, and met the murmur and cry of outrage with a defiant raise of her head.
Duncan stood. He felt ready to defend her. Blighted information about the darkspawn or not, Duncan wouldn’t turn his back on someone so talented! Especially not with a Blight already here and the Order reduced to Alistair and—well, just Alistair really.
Trian didn’t give Duncan a chance to speak up. He yelled, “Guards! Take this,” here Trian paused, his voice a low growl of utter disdain, “filth away!” Denek and Bhelen rose alongside Duncan, one with a frown of contemplation, the other looked inscrutable. Duncan sucked in a breath and quickly followed after Trian. He couldn’t waste the moment.
“Milord, hold your men, I pray you,” Duncan beseeched. “This warrior has beaten what your best has to offer, is that not what this Proving is for?”
“You honor us with your presence, Warden, but this Proving was in honor of my brother, Denek, and his accomplishments.”
Duncan barely withheld his wince. Obviously he said the wrong thing give Prince Trian’s abrupt sentence, and the sour look the man gave him in return.
“There are laws that have governed the Proving for thousands of years,” Bhelen interceded. He moved to stand next to Trian. Duncan tracked the motion with a keen eye. “This woman is no Warrior. She is Casteless, rejected by the ancestors.”
“Her very footsteps poison the ground she stands upon,” Trian continued coldly. “She has no place here.”
“Brother, this Proving is in my honor,” Denek interrupted. He came to stand next to Duncan. He looked beseechingly at Trian. “She has become Champion, fought better than the Warriors themselves. I see no reason why we cannot honor her prowess in the arena by letting her live, foolish her decision may have been.”
“The laws are there for a reason, Denek,” Bhelen shook his head. “I know you feel pity for these...but be that is it may, we cannot change the laws of our people, the will of our ancestors.”
“Bhelen is right, Denek,” Trian raised his hand to silence Denek. “The law is the law. Prowess or no, this casteless filth has broken it. The ancestors have spoken upon her, she knew her place well enough. There is nothing we can do, she is nothing here.”
“Aside from being your Champion,” Duncan shook his head and turned away, his plans to speak with Trian about the Darkspawn movement in the Deep Roads completely forgotten. Instead Duncan worked on a plan to save the young dwarven from her fate, and perhaps gain a new warden in the process.
Duncan held his hand to his chin, there must be something he could use to get the poor girl out of this mess. Although when he had gone to question the guards of her location, she had been missing. Bought, traded, bribed into a new location that Duncan was unaware of. It troubled him to no end.
“Atrast vala, Duncan.”
Duncan turned, surprised to see Denek here, and without Gorim.
“Prince Denek, to what do I owe this visit?” Duncan asked, lowering his hand from his chin.
“You seek to recruit the Champion of my Proving, or have I read you wrong?” Denek replied. He carefully shut the door behind him and stepped over to the fire. He stood next to Duncan who blinked, eyes slightly widened in surprise. “Ah, so I was right then.”
“There is not much I can do without knowing where she is,” Duncan murmured.
“Yes, the Carta has been rather successful in cleaning up their own mess,” Denek scowled. “However, Bhelen has brought word of an assassination attempt upon Baraht. Trian has gathered guards to head this off. I fear they will be too late.”
“Assassination...I see,” Duncan murmured, folding his arms across his chest.
“If you hurry, you might just receive that which you seek,” Denek continued.
“And why, pray tell, would you help me? As I understand it this has been something of a scandal for your Proving,” Duncan pointed out.
“Bhelen plans something, what I do not know,” Denek reiterated. “In either direction I am likely to end up like a nug on a roast.” Denek licked his lips. “She fought bravely, and deserves a chance to put her skills to use. I know your Order is low on recruits, and I hear tales of a possible Blight. You need all the fighters you can get, even a lowly casteless.”
There was a pause, a beat, and then Duncan clasped Denek on the shoulder.
“Thank you my friend,” he said, “I will not forget this kindness,” and departed.
Duncan came upon the party just in time; he slipped through the Dwarven guards up to Trian’s side to interrupt what looked to be the beginning of an interesting dialogue.
“Yet again it appears she has proven her bravery and skill, Prince Trian,” Duncan said smoothly.
“Duncan,” Trian greeted, coolly. He looked stiff. Bhelen stood beside him and twitched with the faintest hint of nervousness.
“That is quite beside the point,” Bhelen shook his head. “Bravery, and skill aside, this...casteless thug has just murdered one of the Warrior caste. This cannot go unpunished.”
“The Grey Wardens search through all of Thedas for those with the potential to join our ranks, and quite by chance it appears as if I have found such a recruit,” Duncan rebutted smoothly. His words cut across Bhelen and grabbed the attention of the dwarven woman.
“What are you saying?” she interrupted before Bhelen or Trian could get a word in edgewise. Her words were hard a stone and her gaze shrewd despite the guard that surrounded her and another Casteless.
“Let me make my offer formal, then,” Duncan nodded to her. “I, Duncan of the Grey Wardens, extend my invitation to join our Order.”
“This woman is wanted for treason!” Bhelen snapped. “Surely you jest.”
“I do not,” Duncan continued to address the dwarven woman in front of him and pushed past his slight annoyance at Bhelen’s interruption. “This offer would require you to head to the surface lands, thus leaving your people, but it does offer you a chance to combat the darkspawn and thus strike a blow against the Blight.”
“If I wanted to combat darkspawn I would join the Dead Caste in the Deep Roads,” she laughed. The guards around her shuffled with the slightest hint of nervousness.
“Nadia, you can’t be seriously thinking of turning down being a Grey Warden!” the dwarf beside her groaned. Duncan noted how he glanced worriedly at the guard, and then at the two Prince’s. “Stone, you must have hit your head harder than I thought if you think that’s a good idea!”
“What about Rica, Leske? What of my sister?” Nadia snapped back.
“Oh, don’t worry about her, ol’ Leske’ll take care of her,” Leske grinned in response. Nadia rolled her eyes. Duncan continued to watch the by-play with interest, although his gaze slipped over toward Trian who held himself stiff and closed off, and then to Bhelen who seemed to grow more nervous as the two dwarves talked.
“It’s the surface, Leske, you know what they say about the surface,” Nadia hissed.
“It’s sure bright, and smells like food, but nobody cares about your Caste or lack-there-of,” Leske countered sharply.
“I’m not even surprised you’ve gone up before.”
From behind the group another dwarven woman approached. Duncan eyed the hands of the guard who twitched at the approach—another Casteless. This would get out of hand soon if the poor woman didn’t come to some conclusion soon. Duncan didn’t desire to forcefully conscript her—forceful conscription always sat wrong with him somehow. Yet if needs must—well, Duncan gave it another minute or so before he needed to affirm his offer was not, in fact, an offer.
“Nadia you're a fool if you don’t take the offer!” Rica, Duncan guessed as the woman slapped a hand against—Nadia, was it?—against her sister’s back. “Otherwise I might just kill you myself for your idiotic stunt with the Proving.”
“But you, and Mother,” Nadia hissed back. She eyed the other woman with undisguised worry.
“Don’t worry,” Rica replied. “Everything is well in hand.”
Duncan tilted his head and leaned to one side, the only open sign of curiosity he otherwise displayed despite the glances he’d given to the group.
“Have you decided?” Duncan asked. He’d rather the girl make the choice herself instead of the need to force her. There remained weeks of travel and other locations Duncan needed to look in on, and one potential recruit he already planned to make as he moved across Fereldan in preparation for the battle at Ostegar.
“Stone, fine!” Nadia huffed, and threw up her hands. Both Leske and Rica grinned. “Fine, you win, I agree.”
Duncan smiled, and the relief felt good. “Then in front of these witnesses, I hereby welcome you to the Grey Wardens. Know that you are worthy and wanted. Now, we must depart. I have spent enough time here already. Goodbye, my friends.” Here Duncan turned to the Aeducan’s and their guards, and then walked off without another word.
Faintly Duncan could hear Bhelen hiss, “Trian he can’t do that!” only to be silenced with a, “Peace, brother,” from Trian who seemed to relax with the declaration of Nadia now a part of the Wardens.
Halfway on the route to Highever where Duncan planned to look into a potential recruit for the order, he remembered his original goal in his visit to Orzammar. Nadia and her potential talent and the sudden need to get out into the sun after a day spent under the earth had completely wiped what he sought from his mind—and now it was far too late to do anything about it.
“Flames take me!” Duncan hissed between his teeth, and then waved a hand when Nadia looked to him curious over the campfire. “It is nothing.” Nothing aside from the detailed proof of a Blight he’d hoped to obtain now utterly wasted. At least Duncan had weeks of travel to put together a decent, convincing argument before his chores and tasks were done. That is if he could remain on task an not get distracted like—well, like with Orzammar.
“If you say so,” Nadia snorted. “Crazy old human.”
Duncan paused, and then sighed. Wonder of wonders, this one had a mouth.