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Of Gods and Men

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12th of Ferventis, Dragon Age 9:30

Silence reigned in the halls of the Dwarves.

It was a deathly silence, one that stirred an uncomfortable feeling deep within the pit of Xanthos’ stomach. Normally, the palace was echoing with the cries of the nobility, feeling slighted at being outplayed by other Houses. The servants would rush from one end of the palace to the other, carrying out their tasks in an effort to obtain praise from their patron houses. The House warriors would stand dutifully at attention, occasionally stopping to chat with passing servant women.

Yet there was none of that here now. The quiet was enough to prompt Xanthos to stop his letter in its tracks. He lowered his quill and recused himself from his desk, carefully concealing it to keep its contents hidden from any potential spies within the palace.

Our halls are not just built with stone, nor do they solely support the Stone. Every inch of these walls is covered in eyes and ears.

The words of his mother Rhea echoed in his head. Words that were oft repeated by Trian, when the two of them were younger. Xanthos opened the door and peered outside slowly, and saw no one within the hall to his left or right. He closed the door once more and made his way to the chest at the foot of his bed. As he secured the scabbard and his sword to his side, he began to roam the halls.

“Hello?” he called out. “Is anyone here?”

Silence.

Fear swelled within him. There was no reason for the palace to be so empty. Where were his brothers? Where was Gorim or Caellach? Where was Father? Slowly he crept, feeling an intruder and burglar in his own home, until he reached the main hall. The doors were closed, adding more to the sense of foreboding. As he sheathed his weapon, he placed his hands against the thick wood and pressed his ear against it.

At first, he heard nothing. He could not tell if this was a good thing or not, so he focused, more intent. Then, he could make it out. It was low, barely at the edge of hearing, but it was there. Growling, guttural and grotesque. And then he knew. Somehow, the Darkspawn had taken the palace. Anger consumed Xanthos, his grip on his sword tightening. He couldn’t charge in blindly,

There were thirty of them that he could see on one side of the room, mainly comprised of the taller Hurlocks, wielding wicked looking blades. The genlocks prowled back and forth on all fours, with large pieces of metal strapped and tied to their bodies to crudely serve as armor. And all throughout the hall there were signs of battle. Corpses lay scattered around the tables. The guards fought to the last man, but it did little. The nobility fought with what little they had, and more besides, but they were overwhelmed. For every Darkspawn killed, three more bodies of dwarves lay on the floor.

The Genlocks began to strip the armor and weapons from the fallen. But nowhere did Xanthos see signs of his brothers, his father, or even Gorim. Closing the door, he knew that if he was to have any hope of success, he must sneak out of the city. But if the palace had been taken… surely the entire city had fallen as well.

Then he felt a hand squeeze his shoulder and turn him around suddenly. He quickly unsheathed his sword, narrowly stopping when the blade brushed up against orange chin-hairs.

“My lord Aeducan, I know I am not the prettiest Dwarf out there, but I am nowhere near Darkspawn levels of ugly.”

Gorim’s voice was so welcome a relief that Xanthos hugged him tight and pushed him into a dark corner.

“What happened? How did the Darkspawn get in here?”

Gorim shook his head and pulled Xanthos down the hall towards the larder and kitchens.

“There’s no time to explain. We need to meet up with the others.”

Relief washed over Xanthos. Immediately he wanted to ask who was still alive, how many there were, what weapons they had on them. He began formulating some plan of action. Perhaps the citizens were holed up in various buildings. The army could’ve pushed through to the Deep Roads, to some of the rendezvous points.

He would not allow his people to become a footnote in the annals of history. He would not allow the Dwarves to perish, alone and forgotten, cast adrift upon memory’s shoals. They would fight, they would persevere, and they would not only survive but thrive again.

As Gorim pushed Xanthos into the kitchen, the prince couldn’t help but see that the dinner hadn’t been brought out. Roast nug was left to languish, with creamy deep mushrooms and dishes made from crops traded with the surface. Having not eaten anything since he’d awoken, focused so much on his duties, he grabbed a leg and began to eat. As he ate, a handful of men and women came out of the larder.

There were only a dozen of them. Two were scouts, probably in service to one of the lesser of the eighty noble houses. One of the scouts looked like a Vollney warrior. One was a Silent Sister, marked with the tattoos of House Astyth upon her face, partially concealed by her heavy black bangs. One was a servant wielding butcher’s knives, trembling in fear. The rest were warriors drawn from his House and other main Houses, evident by the crests engraved upon their armor.

“Is this everyone that survived?” Xanthos asked, in utter disbelief.

Gorim nodded solemnly.

“This is everyone I was able to find. There may be more, but right now the streets are crawling with those creatures.”

“Even if we retake the palace, we won’t be able to hold it. Our only hope is to find my father and brothers, and anyone else, and retreat to any of the points Trian considered rallying points. I doubt the army would’ve been annihilated.”

Xanthos upturned a container of salt and used his finger to draw an outline of the throne room, with two blocks of coal serving as the tables. Everyone gathered around as they planned to listen to the prince’s strategy. Gorim stood off to his side, ever the faithful Second.

“There are two doors to the throne room. The front door is still unlocked, but I imagine the Darkspawn -- imbeciles that they are -- have locked the other one.” Xanthos grabbed an apple in his hand and continued. “They would destroy us if we were so impulsive.”

“What are you thinking, my lord?” the Vollney warrior asked.

Xanthos pointed with his free hand towards the trembling servant. He asked if he still had the keys to all the doors within the palace on his person. When he nodded, he looked down at the table. Every grain of salt could represent a Dwarf that had fallen in the history of the Deep Roads. Every father that fought to defend his homeland, every mother that cried at a son or brother or comrade-in-arms, every child that grew up homeless or starved to death in the Deep Roads.

“Gorim, you’ll take the servant, the Sister, and half of the others. If there are still crossbows in the armory, take them. When that door is unlocked, unlatch it slightly wait until you see the Darkspawn charge towards the main door. Then--.”

Gorim turned, a look of shock plastered across his face. “My lord… I cannot let you do that! I am sworn to be by your Second, by your side at all times. I am meant to be your Shield.”

“Right now I need you to be my lance. We must strike at these vermin while the element of surprise is still ours.”

“Understood.”

“When you see them charge forward, rush in and fire as many bolts into them as possible. Then seek cover. The throne room is certain to be chaotic.”

Everyone nodded at the plan, cognizant of their roles in the coming battle. Slowly they crept their way through the halls, with Xanthos taking point. Xanthos pressed himself against the wall and peered around the corner. Within moments a Hurlock that was patrolling started to make his rounds toward the prince, and Xanthos pulled a dagger from his hip. When the Hurlock passed the corner the prince grabbed it, pulling its head down and slitting its throat, with his armored hand keeping the beast from crying out. The black ichor spilled forth like a fountain.

Xanthos took his group towards the door as planned. It was still ajar slightly, and Xanthos waited several moments until he was sure the other group was in position. Looking back, he mused at how when things grew dire for the Dwarves, House allegiances always fell to the wayside. Breathing in heavily but calmly, he gripped his sword and shield tight and flew through the door, shouting a war cry that echoed throughout the stone.

The Darkspawn all turned in unison and stared in shock briefly before roaring in their harsh, guttural tones. Xanthos slammed his shield into a nearby Genlock, shattering its jaw. Jagged teeth went flying everywhere, mixed with blood and spittle, as the creature lifted its gargantuan hands to its mouth in horror. In the distance, sitting on the throne of his father, a Hurlock Alpha locked eyes with him. Around him were bodies of dead Dwarves, mutilated, arranged in grotesque fashion like they were little more than marionette dolls

“Go! I’ll take out their leader!” he shouted. He surged forward, ignoring anything in his way, slicing his sword into whatever Darkspawn he could. So distracted were they by the enraged Dwarf that they did not even notice the other door open, with Gorim’s squad slaughtering their foes.

The Alpha slowly rose from his stolen throne and picked up a giant hammer made of bone and stone welded to a long piece of metal. With one swing he cleared the area around the throne of the corpses. Their mangled bodies flew through the air, with one falling on top of one of the scouts.

“Come and meet your death.” it snarled, beckoning him. Its voice was so savage lesser men would run terrified of it. But Xanthos stood his ground. He knew he would not last long against a beast like this. All it would take is one impact to bring him down. The two of them moved their feet in lockstep, watching each other. It was as if the entire battle around them didn’t exist. There was only the two of them.

It swung its hammer across the air, hoping to end the fight in one fell blow. Xanthos rolled forward and stabbed his dagger deep into the beast’s thigh. It growled out in pain, and with a metal fist punched the Dwarf hard. Xanthos rolled onto his back, dazed, and as his eyes opened he saw the beast raise its hammer again. Not wishing to give it satisfaction, he thrust his foot into the creature’s groin. The beast clutched its crotch, and gave Xanthos the time he needed to attack. Back on his feet, he swung his sword in one motion upwards, just barely catching the skin beneath his helmet and below his eye.

The Alpha stumbled backwards, it’s head now grotesquely hanging together by inches of intact flesh. The sword was deeply embedded within. With its one free hand it dropped the hammer and picked Xanthos up, intent on biting into his neck.

“Orzammar will never fall to the Blight, you bastard!” Xanthos shouted, and he gripped the sword. With all of his might he pushed it through and finished what he had started.

As they both fell to the ground, the prince rose, taking stock of the wounds he’d suffered. He had failed to notice the crossbow bolt in his hip, or the one in his left arm, that the darkspawn fired into him. After removing the bolts and treating the wounds, he took the time to study the carnage that lay around him. The most prominent lords of the Houses were all mutilated nearly beyond recognition. Their faces had been torn to shreds, but Xanthos recognized their distinctive armor. Some of the dwarves had tried to shield the children, but their charred bodies kept the prince from being able to tell if they were men or women. In the corner of the room was a Genlock emissary that had been killed before they stormed into the throne room. He looked around and saw that Gorim and eight of the others were safe, finishing off the wounded, but within moments his eyes caught the sight of something he wished he hadn’t seen.

Trian’s head on the table, staring at Xanthos.

“Why, dear brother? Why did you betray me? Why did you fail your family?”

Xanthos tried to shut it out but the voice grew and grew. Shadows swarmed around the throne room and time ground to a halt all around him. He closed his eyes and blocked out his ears, but he could feel the darkness enveloping him. The voice grew louder and louder, accompanied by the cries of the dead Dwarves and the echoes of battle.

“My lord? My Lord Aeducan!” Gorim called out, but his voice was drowned out.

“Stop it…. I’m sorry… I should’ve known…”

“My lord! My lord! My lord Aeducan!”

“Stop it…”

 

~0~0~0~

 

“My lord Aeducan!”

Gorim’s voice finally broke through, awakening Xanthos from his nightmare. His eyes slowly opened and he rubbed the sand from them. Gorim sat on the edge of the bed, his hands pressed against his liege lord’s shoulders. Concern was all over his face.

The nightmares had become more vivid lately. Though he did not go to the realm the surface-dwellers called “the Fade”, he and his people still dreamt nonetheless. Some days, he wished he could just have a night without any such visions. His mind played upon his stress and brought to bear his worst fears.

“Gorim…”

“You were shaking in your sleep, my lord. Another nightmare?”

“Yes.” he said sitting up. His long black hair hung down around his face and eyes, a ragged mess that was collected into knots and tangles. He pushed away the covers and went over to the wash basin, cleaning away the grime and sweat from the night. Gorim said nothing as his lord was fully exposed, and that wasn’t surprising. The two of them had been on the front lines in recent expeditions together, grown up together, and been friends for years.

Even so, Gorim felt the need to inform his lord of the latest in a series of happenings.

“Lady Nerav sends her regards, and hopes you’ll still be able to attend dinner with her later tonight. Ragthar Bemot hasn’t been able to keep his escapades hidden from his family, so there is opportunity to use that against him. As for Caellach, we still have not heard anything from him, but he should be back today.”

“Any other news?”

“The Grey Wardens are soon to arrive, looking for recruits to join their order.”

Xanthos’ curiosity was piqued. In the midst of recovering from his nightmare, he had forgotten entirely that the Wardens were on their way, passing up Gherlen’s Pass at this moment. They were invited by the king to attend the feast celebrating Xanthos’ commission as Commander. The Warrior Caste had lobbied the Assembly for the right to host a special Proving, where the winner would be able to join the fabled order.

He figured they were another two weeks away from arriving before the gates, at most. He had met their commander, Duncan, only a few times before. And those brief moments were when he was far younger. But from his recollection, Duncan was a solemn man, prone to quiet contemplation. There was a kindness in him that had been shaped by a dark history.

As Xanthos took a towel to dry his face, he stared into the mirror. All he could see was the face of doubt, gazing back into him.

“Gorim, we are going to go on a little trip.”

Gorim nodded, knowing full well where they were planning on going. Quickly he turned and left, closing the door behind him. Where they were going, no one within the Diamond Quarter could know. If the prince was to be seen in Dust Town, House Aeducan would be caught in a scandal. It was bad enough that Bhelen routinely went down there, without giving a care as to who saw him.

Xanthos lingered for a moment, looking at the scars on his bronzed chest in a small mirror he kept near his basin. His fingered traced through the hair along their paths, but he knew time was precious. Immediately he got dressed in secondhand armor he’d bought from someone in the Smith Caste, hoping to blend into the Warrior Caste ranks. Donning his helmet, his identity was hidden from view from all but the most perceptive of people. To cement the ploy, he went with a cliche trick of stuffing pillows under the blankets to look like he was still asleep. As far as anyone was concerned, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Xanthos slept such irregular hours that everyone in the palace had learned to leave him be, especially after that incident with the servant and the roast nug.

Nerav would no doubt stop by later. She was one of the few people he allowed to be privy to his machinations, and she was nothing but supportive. Often, she would give him some ideas. Indeed, this whole Dust Town trip had been something they both concocted.

With Gorim in tow, they made their way to Dust Town, the city that never sleeps.

That was not something most sensible people took pride in. There was no life to this decaying ruin of a city within a city. The homes were a mishmash of dilapidated, poorly maintained, ramshackle buildings that traced their history back to the founding days of Orzammar, when all it focused on was mining and trading with the surface.

The people here now struggled to find a sense of warmth and comfort in this poverty stricken area, where fires roared and tattered blankets were legion. One would think that a city built atop the lava, so careful with every carved bit of rock so as to not collapse upon itself, would have no shortage of warmth for all involved... but Dust Town ran past the lava flows. And despair often chilled the soul.

The destitute and the downtrodden kicked their heels in anger and coughed from sickness, and what few guards were posted to maintain a token presence kept their distance... always close at hand to the steps leading to the Commons. Many of the denizens, weary with a forlorn sense of hope, stared at passersby with opened hands begging for just a copper or two -- even if they were begging from people no better off then they were.

Still, that said something about the nature of these people, Xanthos thought. They all struggled together and thus they all banded together. Would that the rest of Dwarven society could say the same.

Gorim was obviously uncomfortable, that much Xanthos knew. He didn't care much for the casteless, viewing them the same as everyone else: criminals who confirmed what everyone thought about them by running with the Carta. But the reality was that these people were just trying to survive in the only ways they could, short of leaving for the surface.

"Why do we keep coming here, my lord?" he asked, keeping one hand at the ready on his sword.

"You know the reason why, Gorim."

Gorim sighed and dropped the matter, but his tension was no less relieved. He glared at every Dwarf with a brand he passed, and they returned the sentiment, but he never fell too far behind from the prince.

Xanthos knew he was playing a dangerous game by coming here, but he also knew that the casteless would be fools to try anything. Were something to happen to him, Dust Town would be razed to the ground, destroyed utterly. And besides, he was not one to sit around and wait for the ground to open up beneath him.

These levels were old, no question. So old that Orzammar had all but consigned them to the deepest corners of their memories, dark and forgotten, but he knew. He knew that they still connected to the Deep Roads and that they could be used against them. He knew that the Darkspawn, now in control of their once grand and majestic empire, could stumble across the old mining tunnels and carve through the rock.

And what would happen then?

The beasts of shadow and blight would pour through the rock, killing all within their wake. The screams of the casteless as their blood poured through the city streets would serve to illuminate the minds of the upper echelons, but they would be galvanized to action too late to make any difference.

Perhaps he was worrying for no good reason. Perhaps the passages had been sealed up already, or perhaps Trian had made plans for this already when he would become King. Yet try as he might to forget it, he could not help but relive his nightmares.

Gorim seemed to sense his disquiet however.

“My lord, is something the matter?”

“Hm? No… no... everything is fine Gorim. Thank you though.” Xanthos said, hoping the matter dropped. He knew otherwise though.

“My lord, we have been friends for many years now. And I know when there’s a thought that rankles you.”

A grin passed over Xanthos face as he brushed some strands of his long black hair out of the way. He never could hide things from his Second. Mother -- Ancestors guide her soul to rest -- had always said that he should trust his Second with his life, and if you couldn't do that then how could you trust yourself?

“Less than one month.” he said, looking up at the Diamond Quarter, the map he’d made of Dust Town crumpled tightly in his fist. “That’s how long until my commission. Yet some days I wonder, Gorim, if we are merely delaying the inevitable.”

He continued looking up at the homes of the nobles, and almost felt as if it was taunting him. Is that what the casteless felt when they gazed up at it? So close at hand, yet so incredibly far away? A promise of redemption they felt they could never achieve? He could make out the statues of the Paragons, standing triumphantly over the city, as they held up the roof of the city. He could make out the prominent estates of the deshyrs and the nobility, and if he tried hard enough he could even hear the hustle and bustle of the people.

Gorim raised a quizzical eyebrow, but said nothing to break the silence.

“How much ground have we lost and how much have we gained?”

“There is still time to change, my lord. There is still hope. If the whispers hold true and you become king, you will make them understand.”

Xanthos wondered at that. Truly, he did. He was not one for bouts of melancholy, but he was never one to ignore every possible outcome to a situation. And as prince the weight of the city was always on his shoulders. Many would look to him for leadership in the coming days. Leadership he knew he could provide, but some small voice in the back of his head told him that he could not change who his people were.

It was only when Gorim placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder that Xanthos was reminded that he was not truly alone.

“If I become king…” he repeated, walking forward. There were whispers in the Assembly lately that he should be named heir to the throne. Trian was four years his senior, and it was from Trian in part that he learned most of what he knew of the dwarven court. But Trian had been seduced by Bhelen’s venomous tongue, and was no longer the brother Xanthos chose to remember. Rare was the sight of the warm smile that calmed Xanthos when he lost his favorite childhood toy. Gone were the praises for uncovering lesser houses’ schemes. Now, any time Trian looked at Xanthos, anger and jealousy were apparent in his eyes.

And Xanthos’ heart broke.

Ancestors… tell me, what should I do? Shall I kill one brother to save the other? Mother… how I wish you were still here to whisper in my ear.

Deep down, he knew he had to do something. But for all the contempt and hatred he had saved for Bhelen, he could not bring himself to cut off the serpent’s head. Perhaps Trian -- the true Trian -- could still be reached, could still be saved. He had seen evidence of it. Trian’s anger would flare at times, but Xanthos could calm those fires. He only needed to dig deeper.

So lost was he in his own musings that he didn't even notice the group that assembled before him, nor Gorim’s cries of warning, until it was too late and he fell down on top of the one. As Gorim helped him to his feet, the band of rogues turned to look at their two new visitors. They were thugs, that much was plain to the eye, but well-armed thugs. Even though the casteless were forbidden to bear arms, these weapons -- once discarded -- were repaired to suitable degree.

There were seven of them, all told, with two of them hanging near the back with crossbows. Three others tried to seem unimportant and blend in the shadows, no doubt getting ready for a scuffle. The other two were your average warriors, or so they tried to make themselves out to be, but they most likely had very poor training when they always had the threat of force on their side. Anyone could maim a scared merchant or a crippled old man, but a true warrior was something else.

Their shields bore no familiar clan heraldry, but instead the symbols of the Carta, proud to be counted among their number. It didn't matter.

Beraht's minions, it seems.

“Move.” was all Xanthos said.

Their leader, a big brutish Dwarf who was missing eight teeth at least, laughed loudly. He marched over to stand in front of Xanthos, and looked down on him. There was perhaps half a foot’s difference between the two. Evidently, whatever this man had been eating, it had done him well to make him one menacing looking Dwarf.

He’ll do.

“Did you hear that, boys? One of the Diamond Quarters’ elite wants us to move. Not enough that they take the good part of town, and shove us off to this squalor. No… now they want to take what scraps we have.”

The brute spit upon Xanthos, clearly unaware of just who he was talking to. If this was just some low member of a lesser House, they might get away with a heavy beating. Xanthos wiped the spit from his face and looked at it with a sense of being completely unimpressed. As the thug looked down on Xanthos, he smiled a sinister toothy smile, lacking much of his front teeth.

“Do as my lord says.” Gorim said sternly. By this point his sword was in his hand. As the casteless Dwarves began to laugh in his face, Xanthos had begun to grow irritated.

“My patience is wearing thin. You will step aside or I will make you step aside.”

“Go ahead and try.”

“Do not say no warning came.”

At once Xanthos unsheathed the dagger he kept at his hip and took the taller Dwarf by surprise, piercing his thick leather armor. As he recoiled, the prince held his dagger against the throat of the injured Dwarf. By this point the others were over their shock and drew their weapons, but Xanthos forced his captive to fall into the crowd. He then raised his shield to take two crossbow bolts fired at him.

Gorim took advantage of the chaos to dispatch two of the fighters left immobile on the ground. By this time the gargantuan leader of the group stumbled to his feet. He pulled a mace from his side and, despite the fact he was bleeding, lunged at the prince’s second. Gorim saw him from the corner of his eye and raised his shield to take the blow, but the impact caused him to fall on to his back.

If Xanthos had been any other man, he would need to have looked for a new Second. But he saw the rogues moving within the shadows, hoping to avoid the true fight. Xanthos threw his shield into one and charged at them both. They began to harry his own assault with a pincer attack of their own, but Xanthos easily dodged and parried their attacks.

Gorim got up now and, seeing the tall branded warrior try to move towards Xanthos, he fought him to keep him occupied. The amount of blood the Dwarf had lost was too much for the adrenaline to compensate for, and his movements were slow and dulled. Gorim was easily able to avoid the mace now, having used the one good strike he had to learn more of his fighting style. He had focused more on power, unused to having any sort of foe that did not die within the first few minutes of battle.

Gorim dodged the downward strike meant to crush his head and cut the Dwarf’s tendons in his arm. Immediately his weapon fell from his hand as he held his arm, crying from the pain. Xanthos had taken down the rogues and, seeing their comrades beaten, the others turned and tried to flee. Xanthos would not let anyone live he did not want to, able to tell tales of how they were beaten. He pulled two throwing axes from his person and threw them each into the backs of the fleeing archers.

None of the other casteless in the vicinity dared approach, dared to help. The guardsmen had been so far away and near the stairs to the Commons that they perhaps thought Xanthos and Gorim were just more casteless. Foolish given the quality of their armor, but he was not responsible for the choices of men.

“So then…” Xanthos said, turning to the tall Dwarf. “What am I to do with you?”

He began to stroke his beard as Gorim began to take stock of the corpses -- what their weapons were, if they had any sort of information useful to Xanthos on them, and so forth. Intermittent glares of hatred and winces of pain were all the Dwarf on his knees could muster. Finally, Xanthos dug into his pouch and pulled out a small vial of crimson viscous fluid and offered it to him.

“So… poison? No courage to do the deed yourself?”

Xanthos shook his head.

“If I had wanted you dead, believe me, you would not be able to talk back right now. I offer you redemption. You and the rest of the casteless are more then what you think you are. Drink this and know that from this day forth, you are my man within Beraht’s Carta. If you value your life, you will do what I tell you and tell me all you know.”

The Dwarf looked at the vial, then to Xanthos, then back to the potion. With great reluctance, he took it and downed it like it was deep ale. Within moments, the wounds on his arm and his stomach began to mend themselves, and Xanthos offered him his hand. The casteless warrior took the prince’s hand and picked up his mace. For a moment, he contemplated striking at Xanthos. The prince could see that much.

But the prince also saw the thought flowing in his mind.

That a noble had spared his life and saw him not as a tool… not as an animal… not as garbage. He saw a person.

“What do you want me to do?”

“My friend here will give you details. You will not meet with me. You will meet with my agents at predetermined spots. At midday every day, you are to be here. You will wait for twenty minutes for instructions. If none come, then go about your work until the following day, and so on and so forth.”

Content, Xanthos turned and began to leave, with Gorim following on his heels. The other Dwarf stood there, confused for a brief moment, before going about his own business of burying his comrades in as fine a tomb as a casteless can truly achieve. Which isn’t much. It usually amounted to either being thrown in the stripped mines or tossed in the lava flows. Too many of the casteless seemed to believe that they were nothing, it seemed.

As Xanthos walked towards the stairs, he saw a young casteless that caught his eye. He had crimson hair and a nose that had clearly been broken many times. He was dressed in thin leather armor and kept multiple daggers and knives on his person. He was fidgeting with one in his fingers, but neither of them said anything.

 

~0~0~0~

 

“You certain it was him boy?”

Beraht sat behind the stone desk he’d had some of the most prominent artisans of Orzammar craft for him, intricately carved with a series of Dwarven runes. Said runes were inlaid with lyrium to give it a natural light for him to see what he was doing, protected by a thin layer of glass to prevent inhalation of the vapors. He didn’t even raise his head from counting his sovereigns.

The crimson-haired Dwarf from earlier just stood at the door, completely focused on his report. As far as he was concerned, Beraht was little more than a cave tick trying to upjump himself onto the vermin in the Diamond Quarter, bleeding and sucking everyone dry. But he couldn’t come out and tell him that, much as he wanted to. For now, he’d smile and nod and do his duty. One day, it would pay off.

“Yes. I saw the prince as I was coming out of Alimar’s.” he said. “Speaking of, here... your coin Beraht.”

As Beraht looked up, the Dwarf took a pouch from his hip and tossed it to Beraht. Quickly, Beraht poured the contents out onto the table and began counting. He always did this, making sure he wasn’t cheated by those he “protected” or anyone working for him.

“Good to see at least some people within Dust Town know their place.”

Beraht had always been of the mind that all he had to do was beat someone down constantly, and they would never rise up against him. Darius knew better. One of these days, Beraht would get what was coming to him because he’d shit on the wrong Duster. And if that day came, Darius hoped to be able to watch.

“I have no idea why the prince visited Dust Town. Ancestors, only way I knew it was him was because of that Second of his. But that fool often prowls around the Commons enough times that I remember his face. Wasn’t unusual for him to run some errand and say “this is for the prince”.”

Beraht nodded as he slid the coins back into their pouch. He pulled out an even smaller one and tossed it to Darius. Same payment as usual. Ten to twenty silvers. Barely enough to really see his family through. Lately he’d had to take to keeping the coin hidden within his house, so that Mother wouldn’t spend it all on mosswine and Deep Ale.

“I see.” was all the crime lord said.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Nothing, you sodding fool!” Beraht shouted out, standing up tall. His face was flush with anger. “You think the prince is just some shaft rat we can shake down for coin?”

That was not at all what Darius meant, but nuance was lost on Beraht when it came from people he didn’t see as worth much. Frankly, Darius doubted he even cared. He just liked to make a show of himself, Darius surmised. Nothing worse than a Dwarf who was full of himself.

Just then a knock came at the door and in sauntered a big, lumbering Dwarf that made Beraht seem like a child. Darius recognized him as Thendor. He wasn’t Darius’ favorite Dwarf, but he had a distinct sense of honor about him that was rare in the Carta. He was missing most of his teeth, having sold them for a few extra silvers whenever the opportunity presented itself. His hope was to save enough to move to the surface. Darius wasn’t planning on ratting him out to Beraht. If the fat bastard couldn’t figure it out on his own, it was his problem.

He then dismissed Darius, telling him that they’d discuss the matter later. He left them both to their meeting and hoped to return home. With luck, Rica was back from the Diamond Quarter now. And if he was really fortunate, he’d find a nug on the way home.

Alas, he had no such luck. The streets were utterly nugless. As he passed the threshold into the palace Brosca, in all of its slummy glory, his eyes passed around the room and noticed it was empty. Until, that is, his mother true to form groaned from under the table. In her hand was a bottle of mosswine, dry as a bone.

“Whozzat?” she managed to slur out, half-conscious. “Love, did you return to me? Did you come back from the surface?”

“No mother…” Darius said for the hundredth time. “It’s your son. Darius.”

“Oh.” she said. Her tone was both disappointed and annoyed. She tried to crawl her way out from under the table but couldn’t even stay still. Despite her feeble protests, Darius helped her into the bed, where she promptly passed out. Afterwards, Darius retired to the main room and sat at the table. He fiddled with his knives on the table, scratching away at it absentmindedly.

It wasn’t long before Rica came into the house, holding a couple of sacks in her arms, and placed them down on the table. They weren’t large but as she put them down, Darius could see that there were various things to eat in there. Deep mushrooms, cheese, lichen bread, and potatoes. At the very least, they’d eat well for a few days by making a stew.

“Hello brother.” Rica said warmly. She walked over to get the fire started for supper.

“Been busy, eh?” he said, helping her prepare dinner. “Where did you get these things? We don’t have the coin for it.”

“Oh… you know…” Rica said, as nonchalantly as she could muster. “One of the merchants said they were all going to go bad and she just gave them to me.”

She was lying. He could tell that much. She always had a tell when she was lying. That way she would adjust her hair gave her away, or how she’d fidget ever so slightly. They were the kind of things most people would just ascribe to simple nerves, or just behavioral ticks. But he’d picked up on her cues ever since she lied to him about the bronto and the pudding at the one feast Beraht threw for the Carta, many years ago.

Not that it was a pleasant moment, that feast. But those were thoughts for another day. At the moment, he didn’t press the matter. Rica would tell him in time, he knew. Or he’d find out on his own.

Within a couple of hours they’d made a savory stew and sat down to eat it. The smell wafted into the bedroom and their mother stirred, coming out for a bowl. Just as quickly as she’d served herself, she vanished again to be left alone.

“Mother seems worse than usual.” Darius said between bites.

“The mosswine is really getting to her.” Rica replied. “The sadness too. She would never tell you but she hates how she is, how hard she had to work for scraps.”

Darius said nothing, silently sipping away at a cup of water they had to boil to dispel any foulness. Most of the wells in Dust Town that tapped into the rivers were polluted. Many of the residents had also taken to tossing bodies in numerous wells, but at least had the decency to put up commonly interpreted signs for the residents. No one in Dust Town wanted to see the children die from poisoning.

When Darius had finished the last remnant of his stew, he took the clay bowls away and cleaned up dinner. As far as what they normally ate went, this was something that made them feel like nobility.

“One day we will eat like this every day, brother.” Rica said. She gently placed her hand on his shoulder, but Darius brushed it aside. She flinched slightly, and when he turned to apologize she shook her head. She understood too, even as she saw how lifeless his eyes looked.

“I should see if Beraht needs anything…” he said solemnly. Before he left, he gave her a quick hug and left. Duty called.

Duty always called.

Chapter Text

15th of Ferventis, Dragon Age 9:30

For once, Xanthos was glad to step forth out into the Diamond Quarter. Any other day, and he might have just wanted to take a dagger to his throat, dealing with all the nobles who wanted the prince’s opinion on this matter or another matter. But after today, it was all a welcome relief.

Trian had reached new levels of aggression, culminating in a loud screaming match between the two of them before Xanthos had left the palace. He was concerned for his brother’s wellbeing, of course – but his own mind was troubled, too. The Shaperate was one of the few areas that would calm his mind, especially before the Assembly meeting that was to come.

Indeed as he stepped foot into the great halls of the Shaperate, with its white walls and marble pillars glowing with lyrium runes, each one telling a different chapter in the saga of Orzammar’s history, Shaper Czibor offered a warm smile.

“Welcome child. It gladdens my heart to see you here. Your presence…”

“...will be recorded in the Memories.” Xanthos interjected fondly, remembering the long spent days studying under Czibor’s tutelage. “How fares Lord Harrowmont?”

“He is well. Lady Tercy will have a child, it seems. Pyral was overcome with happiness when it became apparent.”

The prince gave a nod of recognition, allowing himself a small smile at the news. It was all he could afford – there was a price to being a prince, after all. Still, he made a mental note to send a letter of congratulations to the heads of House Harrowmont, and to raise a toast to them at his commencement feast. In these trying days, hope was as rare as diamonds and twice as precious. Every faint glimmer of it was worth celebrating.

He moved to examine some of the books the Shaperate had. Many of the tomes he had read several times by now, but the feeling of knowledge in his hands set his mind at ease like nothing else. Without it, he felt lost, unable to be the man he wanted to be.

“Well… color me shocked. The prince has his face buried in a book.” a voice rang out..

Xanthos lifted his head and looked around the room, breaking into a smile as he saw a dwarf making his way across the Shaperate to him. He had dark brown eyes and cropped hair and a thick goatee, dressed in silverite dwarven plate armor forged by House Turana. There was a rugged countenance to him, weathered by many years of service, as if little would surprise him anymore.

“Caellach!” Xanthos shouted, placing the book down on the table. He took the time to give his old friend a warrior’s welcome. “I had not realized you were back!”

A wide grin spread across Caellach’s face, and he laughed as he gripped Xanthos’ forearm, slapping his free hand on the prince’s shoulder. “Got back a few hours ago – figured you should be the first to hear what I found.”

“How fare the Deep Roads?”

Caellach’s expression shifted from one of welcome to one of disgust. He lowered his hands to his sides and clenched them into fists.

“Mostly quiet. The darkspawn are spread out further, but even so where we found pockets of them it was bad. The vermin are three times as cunning.”

Xanthos sighed, feeling a grim certainty settle in his bones. Caellach’s report was just the latest in a series of them -- nearly two decades worth, all suggesting the same thing. Bownammar’s loss was the catalyst for the king’s renewed efforts, for it was felt deep within the strata of dwarven society.

“The Blight has come.” After a moment of reflection, he looked his friend in the eye. “Your other mission… was it successful?”

Caellach shrugged. “Hard to say.” he answered, thoughtful. “We found a camp that could have been Branka’s -- but it was old, forgotten.”

“Could be something?” Xanthos prodded. His friend nodded after a moment.

“There’s more. We did find a map and scraps of notes.”

Xanthos slammed the book he was holding shut with vigor. The sound echoed throughout the Shaperate, causing Gorim to look over at him in alarm. No one else seemed particularly bothered, each focused on their own duties, but he would not risk any ears he did not know.

He glanced over at Gorim, who was standing dutifully, ever the watchful protector. Noticing his lord’s gaze, Gorim walked with his prince and Caellach towards a room in the far back of the Shaperate. It was old and filled with archives from the earliest days of Orzammar’s history. Within the center of the room was a circular table made of stone, with a thick layer of dust on top of it. It hailed from the time of Calenhad, a gift of honor to commemorate the newly forged relationship between the fresh country. Very few remembered its existence within Orzammar, but that was fine.

Why would they anyway? Calenhad was long dead, his dream of a united Ferelden already come to bear. No one from the surface remembered it.

Caellach latched the door behind them and laid the map out upon the table. No one in the Shaperate would have an issue with Xanthos coming back here. The three dwarves convened around the table, with the flickering embers from the torches bathing the table in their shadows.

“This is the map you found?” Xanthos asked, focusing on the matter at hand.

“Yes.” Caellach pointed towards a small thaig to the north of what was once Caridin’s Cross. “Velrun Thaig was as far as we were able to get with our provisions, but this is where we found everything.”

“Velrun?” Gorim asked, puzzled. “Why there? They were wiped out before Caridin even forged his first golems.”

Caellach merely shrugged and pulled out the scraps of notes he’d found and laid them out. The cold damp air of the forgotten caves had quickly eaten away at most of the papers, but enough was still legible to make things out. Xanthos took one of the pieces in his hand carefully, reading over each scribble twice over.

“It says here she believes that Velrun was used by Caridin as a drop point for injured golems. Someone would take them towards a repository. A place where smiths could maintain them properly.”

“Do we have any idea where it could be, my lord?” Gorim asked his prince.

“Branka seemed to narrow it down to three locations. Gorsten, Karzsen, or Vundahar thaig.”

Xanthos placed the paper back down on the table and walked away towards the back of the room, leaving Gorim and Caellach to stand in silence. The second son played the history of the three thaigs in his head, as far as he or anyone else knew. He needed to understand which one Branka felt most confident in. But to wrap his head around a cracked Paragon’s was trying, to say the least.

His hands fidgeted with the necklace he wore around his neck, of a gleaming azure crystal that his mother once gave him.

All three of the thaigs were separated from each other by hundreds of miles. If he gave the Assembly any sort of indication that turned out to be useless, House Aeducan would be shamed by the disgrace. Gorsten thaig was closer to lyrium veins, vital to powering the Golems. Vundahar thaig was more defensible, built as an impregnable fortress over a flowing river. Between the options, he was certain Karzsen thaig was ruled out.

Then he remembered. Only one thaig out of these three had also established key pacts with mining and merchant families.

“Vundahar.” he said, turning around. “Caellach, head over to the Assembly. Inform Steward Bandelor that you have returned with information concerning Branka. When the Assembly convenes later today, he will ensure you are able to speak.”

Caellach bowed his head and turned on his heel, his footsteps leaving faint echoes within the chamber. Xanthos took the time to look over the map of the old empire, torn and broken as it was. The light from the torch behind Xanthos cast the map in a fractured and obscured glow. Orzammar gleamed in the light, a tiny bright spot amidst the darkspawn.

 

~0~0~0~

 

“This session of the Assembly is now convened. All rise for the king” Steward Bandelor proclaimed, as a guardsman in the back rang a gong.

Xanthos looked around the chamber of the Assembly, studying the faces of the eighty deep lords representing their houses. Everyone of the eighty lords in the Assembly had brought two items with them: a staff of authority and a weapon. The princes too had come armed and armored. For Trian, it was his prized silverite maul, the one he had bashed in the brains of a Hurlock Omega with many years ago. For Xanthos, it was a fine silverite longsword and shield. Bhelen had a mace at his hip, but Xanthos knew his little brother had a dagger ready and waiting.

The princes hadn’t always been allowed to watch the Assembly – their father had changed his mind when Xanthos’s oldest brother, Trian, had argued that the princes could only learn so much from dusty books, instead of watching history in action.

Xanthos studied his brother now. Once so open, and fierce, Trian’s face was now closed and inscrutable. Bathed in the light of the lyrium chandelier overhead, his face seemed to be hewn from the very Stone itself. He stared down the deep lords from the right side of the king’s throne, gazing at them all warily. Some that noticed were instantly made uncomfortable, but many met his gaze and gave a nod of recognition with a warm, albeit forced, smile

The king, for his part, showed up not in armor but in royal robes… with the heavy gold crown of Orzammar high upon his brow. Though he was in his later years, he moved with the grace and poise of a man half his age. He stood from his throne overlooking the Assembly and walked towards the center of the room, dignity to be found with every step.

The light from the lyrium chandelier enveloped his form tenderly, and his shadow seemed to stretch all across the chamber. In one moment, a man stood as tall as a mountain.

“My lords and ladies of the Assembly,” he boomed. “Welcome. What is the first matter?”

Lord Klaret was the first to stand up, his fine black hair peppered with gray. His face was solemn and looked exhausted, yet he kept himself strong and did not waver. He brought to bear a proposal that Merchant caste dwarves had lobbied for. Many had begun to find trade within the thaig to be limiting, with surface dwarves coming by only twice a year at best. Thus, House Klaret -- being a patron of certain affluent merchants -- offered to have the Assembly vote on a measure to allow them to leave the city and trade in Fereldan or Orlesian cities.

Endrin placed his arms behind his back as he listened to every word the old lord said. He had certainly rehearsed his speech, Xanthos thought, as he rarely found the need to stop for breath or pause, save for dramatic effect. When he had finished, he bowed his head and remained standing, eager to hear the king’s opinion on the matter.

“And I suppose you want your own merchants to facilitate this endeavor?” Lady Rumold said accusingly. Her voice was as cold as ice as she glared at him. “Why should we trust you?”

“This proposal would see all of Orzammar benefit!” he snapped back. “The gold and goods the city would see pour in would allow us to regain some of her lost glory!”

“Has your mind finally gone from the lyrium dust you keep on you?” Lord Ronus Dace interjected. “You think I’ll stand here and let you keep on like this?”

“And so we should just accept the status quo?” Lord Klaret demanded. “Orzammar must change with the times!”

“You would bankrupt our houses on a fool’s errand of an expedition! I have half a mind to bring to bear another proposal with you involving my axe!”

Xanthos could see Steward Bandelor shaking his head in the distance, while his father calmly stood in the middle of things. Even as the arguments escalated back and forth, he never broke character. Trian too simply watched. Bhelen happened to be asleep, or rather, he pretended to be. But Xanthos watched the proceedings with as eager an eye as he could muster.

While Lords Dace and Klaret and Lady Rumold were certainly the loudest of the bunch, they were by no means the only ones arguing. Soon all the rest joined in and the guards were desperately trying to get a handle on the situation before violence erupted.

Trian leaned over to whisper in his brother’s ear. “Do you see this little brother? This is what our family has had to contend with.” His voice was calm and reasoned, if tired of it all. There was not a hint of malice to be felt. “Sometimes I do wonder how Father is able to withstand it.”

“It has taken more of a toll on him since Mother passed.”

Passed. As if she had simply died in her sleep. The words came out so casually that it still held as sharp a point as ever, taking their hearts by surprise. But perhaps that was the more comforting thought, the lie they told themselves so that they could sleep. Even if the two of them knew the truth. The memory lingered in their minds and Trian’s face turned into a scowl and looked into the distance. There was a vast silence between the two for a while that seemed to stretch the length of the Deep Roads, before Trian continued.

“Do you see what is going on here, dear brother?” he asked, eager to shift the conversation away from the thought of their mother. Xanthos could only agree.

“Despite Lord Klaret’s protests, he wants his merchants to be the ones in charge of such a venture. They would no doubt stop by Denerim and visit House Dace’s contacts, stealing them out from under them. And so they would return richer than ever.”

Trian nodded, a small grin forming its way upon his face. He closed his eyes and chuckled under his breath.

“You have learned well, little brother.” he said.

“I had a good teacher.” Xanthos returned, looking towards Trian. Their conversation was interrupted by the banging of a staff upon the stone.

“Enough!” Endrin roared at the top of his lungs. Finally tired of hearing the endless back and forth, he looked around the room. All eyes were now turned towards him, the chaos in the room hushed to a whisper. “We will put the matter to a vote. Each deshyr will cast a stone into the bin. Black is for yes, and white is for no.”

As was tradition, Steward Bandelor stood in the middle of the room now, with a bin placed on the ground before him. His gaze was ever watchful for deceit, and it took several minutes for the deep lords of the Assembly to finally cast their ballots. It took just as long for them to be counted.

“The tally stands at forty in favour, and forty against. Tis a tie,” Bandelor called. There was a murmur in the Assembly, and Endrin raised his hand for silence.

The king shook his head. “As there is no consensus on which way the proposal should go, it will be placed to the side and revisited another day.”

“The next matter will be brought to bear by one Caellach Valdras, returned from the Deep Roads expedition into Geldahar thaig.”

All eyes in the Assembly turned to the giant doors as two guards heaved with all their might to open them, and in strode Xanthos’ friend. Dressed in the same armor he had come back in, he matched the lords’ own put-upon airs with his very own. The king returned to his throne, eager to hear the words of the commander. So far as anyone knew, the mission to Geldahar was routine and the report would not have needed to be made before the Assembly.

Trian, startled by the new arrival, stood up with a look of disdain upon his face. Even Bhelen had dropped the act, now wishing to see things play out, as he opened up his eyes. Caellach took a deep breath and began.

“Your Majesty and honored lords and ladies of the Assembly… I bring news of the utmost importance. It concerns the Paragon Branka.”

A fresh wave of gasps erupted from everyone in the room. Besides Xanthos, his brothers shifted. True to form, Trian frowned, whilst Bhelen chuckled under his breath. ‘Bold move, brother mine,’ he muttered, and Xanthos shrugged.

“Did you find her body?” Trian called out. His voice echoed throughout the chamber, and he stood, unflinching as all eyes turned to him.

“No. But after securing Geldahar thaig from the darkspawn, we pressed forward. While it was beyond the scope of our mission, our provisions and manpower were strong enough to allow us to do more. We carved our way deep into Velrun thaig, where we found signs of her trail. An old camp of hers, with notes and tools left about. As well as an old map.”

“A map?” one lord repeated incredulously.

“Yes my lord, a map.” Caellach never took his attention off the prince and the king. “She seemed to want to find an ancient thaig, believing it held a cache of golems.”

Now everyone was interested. Xanthos smiled at how easily they were eating it up.

“Where was this thaig?” Trian asked, doubt showing on his features. Xanthos couldn’t blame him for his doubt. If he hadn’t have known Caellach for years now, he might have written it off as just a wild nug chase. No one had even heard of such a place before.

“Vundahar.”

The word hung charged in the air. The Assembly could not even think on where to go from here, as lords whispered into their colleague’s ears. Endrin seemed to be deep in thought, stroking his beard, and Xanthos leaned forward in his seat. He took it upon himself to move things forward, whispering in his father's ears.

“Father, I believe we should…”

Before he could finish his thought, the doors burst open. Two guardsmen were violently thrown down the steps as a dwarf with bright red hair and a long, twin-braided and messy mustache, stormed into the room. His face was flush with anger and his skin ruddy with drink. In his hand was a double-bladed battleaxe, with the crest of House Kondrat displayed upon its haft.

“Endrin, you old sod!” the new dwarf barked. “You and I are going to have a talk!”

“Oghren, you dare interrupt the Assembly?!” Trian had now grabbed his maul and moved down towards his father, taking his position in front of the throne. Hastily, Xanthos and Bhelen followed suit.

“Shove it up yer ass, prince!”

“Guards!” Steward Bandelor exclaimed. Within moments a dozen veterans led by Gorim and Caellach surrounded him.

“I want to know what this blighter is going to do about Branka!” he said, pointing his axe towards the king. “Two years! Two sodding years and not one of you stone-forsaken shits has done anything!”

“Oghren…” Xanthos began, but the normally drunk dwarf silenced him.

“No! Nothing from anyone but the king!”

Endrin was, to his credit, stoic and stone-faced. Whatever was going through his mind, Xanthos couldn’t say. He paused for a time, before moving off the stone dais and walking towards the intruder. Oghren glared at him, as if he were not his king. But then, Oghren only wanted his queen back.

Endrin stood half a foot taller compared to Oghren and Xanthos could see that the king was looking down upon him. The warrior swallowed nervously, but did not move back. His battleaxe rested against the floor in his hand. The king clenched his fists and opened them. Xanthos thought he was merely trying to contain his fury.

And then Endrin hit him.

It was a clean strike. Oghren had to have seen the fury in the king’s eyes. That he didn’t duck was either a testament to his resilience and still lingering loyalty to his king… or he just didn’t give a damn. Oghren rubbed at his jawline, then spit blood down upon the floor of the chamber, as he locked eyes with the monarch.

“You disrupt these proceedings. This I could ignore. You make demands of your king. This I could forgive. But for you to disrespect my sons... you will either stay in the back of the chamber and remain silent or I will have the guards throw you in a cell.”

There was silence. The dwarf’s grip upon his axe tightened. Xanthos could see a simmering rage boiling inside the man, but he would not act upon it. He was not that far gone, even if he did not know what to do. Finally, he grumbled in discontent as he lifted his axe and walked over to the side of the room, standing behind some nervous deshyrs.

“My son,” Endrin said, turning to Trian. “What do you believe our course of action should be?”

“Well,” Trian began, stroking his beard. Xanthos had to give it to him -- even with all of the disruptions in today’s Assembly, he had managed to keep his composure.“Before we were interrupted, I was uncertain of what to do based on the information.” He gestured at Oghren. “But with our friend’s interruption, I believe it is in our best interests to form an expedition to search for the Paragon. We have more information than we did three months ago -- we may yet find her.”

Xanthos nodded his approval, as did the king.

“All those in favor?”

Eighty hands rose in unison. Some out of opportunistic scheming, others out of altruism, others still out of fear. But it mattered not. In the end, they would set out into the Deep Roads. Xanthos looked over and saw the fearless warrior of House Kondrat, shock on his face. So he hadn’t believed they’d search, after all.

Steward Bandelor then called for a recess at the king’s behest. As Xanthos gathered his things and walked up the steps past Trian, he saw a look of utter disdain upon his brother’s face.

 

~0~0~0~

 

He had nearly reached his quarters within the palace when a hand grabbed him and pressed him up against the wall. Xanthos looked down to see Trian, his face almost puce with rage.

“By the Ancestors Xanthos, what the fuck are you planning?” he snarled.

Beside him, Gorim stepped forward, his sword unsheathed, ready to defend his charge. Xanthos waved him away with a free hand. “Brother, let me go.”

“Bah!” the prince barked, spittle flying from his mouth and landing upon his brother’s face. His hold upon Xanthos was growing tighter and tighter as his anger surged. “You expect me to believe you had no hand in this?”

“I have no idea of what you’re referring to.” Xanthos said. He was calm and did not resist. Trian leaned in close, his blue eyes burning with hate as he lowered his voice to a hiss.

“Not until you tell me the truth, brother. Do you expect me to believe that that cuckold Oghren the sponsor for your friend getting as far as Velrun? You will have to try again. You may have fooled the other lords and ladies with that display, but do not expect it to fool me.”

The prince released his vicegrip on his brother and Xanthos began to dust him off. True, it was part of his plan, and that Trian had so easily deduced it was also part of his plan. He was not aiming for some grand and convoluted show of trickery and deceit. What he wanted, his brother could not fathom, but in time he would see.

“You are right.” Xanthos admitted. “It was my little scheme.”

Trian let out a noise of indignation.

“You wish to lead this little farce and gain further glory, all for yourself. You care nothing for family or honor.” Trian said. With one last contemptuous look he spat at his brother’s feet in disgust and turned to leave, storming off.

“Wait.” Xanthos cried out. “I did this for you.”

Trian stopped in his tracks and looked up from the ground, but did not turn to face his brother again. The two of them stood only mere feet from each other, yet it felt as if a great crevasse stood between them, and only Xanthos was the one trying to cross it. But one day, Trian would make the first step. Until that day, Xanthos would not give up.

Trian sighed in exasperation and rubbed at his temples before grabbing his maul, hefting it onto his broad shoulders.

“You should get to bed, brother.” he said wearily. “There is… there will be much to do in the coming days.”

 

~0~0~0~

 

The crown prince couldn’t sleep. Again. Even as Jaylia Helmi laid against his bare skin, nestled against his shoulder and sleeping peacefully, he found that he could not stop thinking. He looked down at her intermittently, her dark brown locks gracefully sliding against her rosy cheeks and button nose. Her leg was cast over his body and wrapped around him, so that he couldn’t escape.

He wasn’t sure if he wanted to.

He looked over across the room and stared into the roaring fire in the fireplace, the smoke being filtered out of the palace. The books he had been reading sat by the table, still on their pages. These days, reading brought little joy to him. Very little excited him as it used to. Only battle seemed to still have that sweet savor to it… yet he wondered how long that might last.

Jaylia rolled over onto her side and he took the opportunity to leave the bed. He strolled through his room as naked as the day he was born, and pulled on a red silk robe with gold trimmings imported from the surface, before sitting at his desk. Several letters sat unopened, petitions from many of the nobles hoping to curry favor with the new prince.

He felt an incredible sense of disgust as he looked at them.

Steepling his hands to hold up his head, he couldn’t fathom where things had gone so wrong. Once, the family was happy and united. Now… they were slowly drifting apart. He was busy as heir, trying to deal with the many problems Father had placed upon him and leading the men in various military expeditions. Xanthos was free to be seen among the people and they loved him for it, all warm smiles and heartfelt words, while Bhelen simply slept and whored and partied his way through life.

And Father, Ancestors bless him, was no longer the man Trian looked up to. He had become more reserved and focused on ruling, at all other expense, ever since…

“Mother.” It was little more than a whisper, as if he dared not speak the word aloud.

He opened up a small drawer in the desk and pulled out a golden locket, inlaid with diamonds. He personally found it to be a gaudy and vulgar display of wealth, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. Opening it, the small portrait stared back at him, with a kind smile and beautiful blue eyes. Her black trestles were done up in a bun and he could see the similarities between Xanthos and her. He took more after their father, both in looks and in actions.

She had been the rock upon Father’s rule. Oh, he may have been the most respected ruler in generations, but it was only through Mother’s hand that he was able to endure it all. She could soothe any inferno of rage that Endrin suffered in his youth.

But when she fell ill, Endrin fell into despair. He had rarely visited her, so intent on handling the nobles, and all he could say to justify it was that “she understands”. Understands… as if they were simply busy with different schedules and couldn’t find the time to meet near the lava flows. Trian shook his head. Ten years had passed since the poison took hold of her, since his father had been left alone, and he could remember every day in vivid clarity. He could remember how her pulse weakened. He remembered her convulsing uncontrollably, her breathing so hard on her that she could not help but moan in pain.

Xanthos and Trian visited her every day. Bhelen had still been just a boy of eight, unable to fully grasp the significance of what was happening. But the two brothers knew, and it was one of the few times they worked together, and eventually found out who had administered the poison. Justice was swift and brutal… but they were never able to find anything more than the messenger. Whoever the mastermind was had gotten away with it.

Endure… endure the storms to come my children.

Her last words haunted Trian, forever lost to his understanding. He had spent hours and days going through her notes in her study. He contacted everyone she was ever friendly with that she trusted. Even her second didn’t know what she had meant. To this day, he felt as if he would never understand.

I did this for you.

Now Xanthos’ words echoed in his mind. Why he would go to all this trouble, he couldn’t say. After having retired to his room, he reflected and realized that his brother wanted Trian to make a strong show of force before the lords of the Assembly, to solidify his place as heir further. If the expedition was successful, no one could doubt his leadership. Could he have been wrong about his brother? Were all of his fears and insecurities unfounded?

If so, than Trian was a fool. He could feel his heart and his brain wrestling with each other. What if this was merely a wild nug’s chase, a false lead meant to lure him out into the Deep Roads, where upon he would never return? Would Xanthos take advantage of his absence to remove Trian as heir? Would his brother hire an assassin to stab him in the back, or would he be brazen and bold enough to do it himself?

Growing frustrated, Trian tossed the locket back into the drawer, slamming it shut. With another rough movement he pushed aside all of the letters on his desk until they decorated the floor. All of this startled Jaylia awake, and she sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“Trian... are you alright?”

“Fine.” he grumbled.

“Come back to bed. You need your rest.”

“I said I am fine.” he repeated. He honestly wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince more. She didn’t let up though and walked over to him, grabbing him by the hand and practically dragging him back to the bed. One of the things he loved most about her was her determination, and she kissed him deep upon the lips and unfurled his robe. Their tongues danced upon each other. Her hand reached around his manhood, gently caressing it until he became hard, but his mind was too far in another realm for him to continue. He gently pushed her aside. “I cannot Jaylia… not tonight.”

Sadness brimmed in her hazel eyes, but she understood and they laid down again in bed. This time, Trian gently curled up against her soft, warm breasts as she ran her fingers through his hair.

He would not sleep, this he knew. But there was still some peace to be found, at least.

 

~0~0~0~

17th of Ferventis, 9:30 Dragon Age

The Deep Roads smelled of death and ruin.

That wasn’t surprising to be honest. Xanthos hardly expected them to smell like sunshine and rainbows… though he had never seen one before. Or even the sun. All he had ever known were the Deep Roads, ancient and crumbling.

Still, there was a cloying smell in the air that always made the second son gag. The veteran soldiers laughed to themselves, and Trian had merely said that you never truly get used to it. You just learn to endure it.

Xanthos had spent a good portion of the night researching Vundahar thaig. King Valtor’s notes were haphazard, but he had written of seeing it firsthand. According to what little the Shaperate had, Valtor had traveled south from Orzammar, under what was Gherlen’s Pass.

That was honestly about all they had to go off of.

The night of research had been a bust. All he had to show for it was a pale tinge to his normally bronzed skin, and drooping eyes sore from reading. Gorim had been concerned, and once the prince had joined with the expeditionary force had brought him a draught of deep mushroom and lyrium dust. Distilling it, and inhaling the incense, would allow his mind to function at near full levels.

Trian was in command of this mission, as Xanthos wanted. A full company of two hundred dwarves, not counting Xanthos, Gorim, Oghren, or Caellach. Oghren had practically forced himself into the group as they were leaving Orzammar, shouting at the princes that if they were going to search for a missing Paragon, they needed someone who knew how she functioned.

Trian was hard-pressed to argue the point, but he was adamant that the man keep his drinking to a minimum.

The men were camped on the remains of one of the old highway thoroughfares, the road still in modest condition to travel upon. Rockslides had fallen and obscured much of the path, and some of the great pillars had snapped in half. Statues of the Paragons fell by the wayside, shattered. The lava flows bathed the group in an orange glow, yet they could not escape the dread that came with walking these once majestic halls, now turned into a giant tomb. The ghosts of the past seemed to linger here in this place, where all time had stopped.

All around the men were fortifying the area, clearing rubble and debris from the main road and turning it into barriers for the archers to stand guard at. Patrols were routinely going back and forth, mission reports being filed, while the quartermaster was taking stock of the provisions. The few smiths that had tagged along for the journey were busy repairing some of the weapons, and at least one could be overheard talking about armoring the brontos. To round it all off, a shaper had decided to join them, chronicling every little detail he could pinch together in his fat fingers.

“Greetings your highness.” came a soft voice from behind. Adal Helmi sat by the fire, dressed in a beautiful suit of dwarven chain, forged from blue steel. The crest of House Helmi was emblazoned upon the breastplate in shimmering silver, and she wore beneath it a dwarven gambeson. Her brunette hair was tied back in a bun. “Are you doing well?”

“As well as can be expected. How are you, Adal?”

“There are worse ways to spend the days.” she said, picking at a piece of fried nug from the fire. “I am glad my mother allowed me to join you.”

“As am I.” Xanthos said. Adal was fierce in battle with the daggers she carried, but for today she had brought along a crossbow too. Daggers were messy, she told Xanthos. And with the darkspawn, you didn’t want to risk their blood getting everywhere.

“Pardon my asking, but what brings you out here?” Caellach inquired. “If you are to be captured…”

Adal shot Caellach a menacing glare out of the corner of her eye. The warrior from House Valdras immediately regretted opening his mouth and went back to quietly eating his dinner.

“Rest assured, if any darkspawn captures me, I will not let them take me alive to turn me into one of those… things.”

“It was by Jaylia’s insistence that she come.” Trian added, approaching the campfire. “Though I suspect that had Jaylia not suggested it to their mother, Adal would have.”

Trian, despite his clear exhaustion, still looked the clear pinnacle of dwarven royalty. His expertly hand-crafted dwarven massive armor was packed with gems, the garnets and alexandrites shimmering all over in the light of the roaring fire. As usual, Trian hefted his maul atop his shoulders, never letting it out of his sight. His blue eyes shone with an intensity unlike any Xanthos had ever seen before.

Adal calmly sipped away at her water, ignoring the fact that she had needed help to come this far. When she had finished it off, she excused herself and made her way to a basin enchanted with frost runes that replenished itself with purified water.

Shortly thereafter, Trian called together the main commanders of the forces as well as his brother to go over the plan. All of them stood around a stone slab thrown atop debris, while Trian busied himself by speaking to a couple of scouts who had returned. When they had finished, he dismissed them with a curt wave of his hand and cursed in exasperation, before slamming his fist down upon the cold hard rock.

“Problems, brother?” Xanthos asked.

“Of course there are problems!” he bellowed. “The scouts tell me that what caverns are not blocked by cave-ins are teeming with darkspawn, ready to collapse them upon us. Only one path remains open and it leads to the great bridge of Khazandar.”

That could only mean one thing. The blight-filled vermin were watching the army, aware of their every step. Xanthos had felt as if he was being watched hours into their journey, but he had put the thought out of his mind and chalked it up to mere paranoia. But if the darkspawn were trying to force the army into one path…then the men were being corralled like livestock.

“What do you intend to do?”

“I will be damned if I let those beasts dictate where I send my men. We know what they are trying to do.” Trian moved atop the debris and gazed out at the makeshift camps. Fires were roaring, the soldiers desperate to stave off the chill in the air. They were all laughing and telling stories. Trian took a deep breath and exhaled.

“Men! Listen to my words!” he shouted. The vigor in his voice silenced all the noise in the vicinity. “We are to make for Khazandar! Those black bastards will rain death from above upon us, but let us show them that this is our domain… and we shall brook no trespassers!”

Every soldier in the camp cheered on, shouting out and raising their tankards and mugs high. All at once the camp began to pack up the supplies and within half an hour they had begun to march. The army held a slow and steady pace as Trian led the men, always looking around at his surroundings with caution. The passage was narrow, such that the men could only march two at a time. Spider webs adorned the walls and ceiling, and a low hiss could be heard. Xanthos feared that such creatures may try to swoop down and abduct the men.

Yet the spiders, if they were still alive, did nothing. Eventually, the passage opened up. Xanthos saw a great bridge, wrought of black stone, that stretched hundreds of feet. Below him, his eyes saw a vast blackness, unfathomable. No light emanated from its bottom, for it seemed to stretch on forever. Above them, the rock had been carved away into a ceiling that glittered with gems and ore. And across the bridge stood a great fortress stood, with the statues of Paragons at its towering doors.

Trian held up a hand, signalling his men to halt. Nodding to his brother, Xanthos took from his pouch a device called a “spyglass”. He had taken great pains to buying it from the last surface merchants to come to Orzammar, and he held it up to his eye. In the distance, stalking the ramparts, were dozens of hurlocks. Every one had their cruel longbows in hand, arrows nocked. Moving his sight towards the entryway, he saw that it was devoid of any ground forces.

Putting his scope away, Xanthos returned to his brother’s side. At this point, Trian had directed the men to form a shield formation, to block any arrows from piercing them on any side. This was the safest course of action Xanthos knew. They would march slowly, until they reached the great doors on the other side of the citadel.

It didn’t take long for the darkspawn to notice. For a long time, all was still and silent upon the bridge. Yet once they had reached the halfway mark, sharpened arrows darkened their line of sight, and the men held fast and kept their shields raised.

“Push forward!” Trian commanded.

Arrows descended like a storm, pummeling the great shields of the Dwarves, and bounced off. The darkspawn’s growls could be heard, annoyed that they were facing such fierce resistance.

The door was now in sight. Trian issued an order for his men to begin opening it when they were beneath the ramparts, safe from the onslaught. Within moments, the great metal gears began to slowly grind and turn, the first activity they’d seen in centuries. Great steel beams raised themselves as first the iron portcullis retracted itself. Then, the doors began to slowly swing open.

With the army poised to storm through, none were prepared for when a massive Ogre burst through, ripping the doors from their rusted hinges. Its hide was shielded by a patchwork of armor. Bits of shield and metal walls were tied to its skin by rope. Through the now broken threshold, more darkspawn began pouring through. The great beast flung the gateways at the dwarves, who scrambled to dodge it. Nearly a dozen dwarves were thrown off the edge of the cliff, sinking into the abyss.

“Bring it down!” Trian ordered, pushing his men past the beast. “Archers! Aim for the knees!”

Adal led her men, seasoned crossbowmen all, and all of them began firing at the beast. With one swing of its left arm it knocked soldiers through the air. Xanthos led Gorim and Caellach up towards the ramparts, for they could scarcely fight with so little room. When the darkspawn caught sight of the black-haired dwarf, he raised his shield to shrug off their attacks and surged forward like a wild bronto. The vermin began to quickly crowd together.

“Gorim! Caellach! Now!” Xanthos cried out. He was struggling to keep the beasts at bay. What few were in front tried desperately to pierce his hold. Their sharp daggers cut away at his cheek, but he did not budge. Immediately, the beasts cried out in pain as they were set ablaze, writing uncontrollably. Caellach and Gorim were lobbing grenades of antivan fire behind their lines. Xanthos then used their strength of numbers against them, pulling back his weight, and they toppled forward. The three dwarves finished off what darkspawn remained.

“Brother!” Xanthos called out. He looked below the ramparts to see dozens of dead dwarves. The gargantuan ogre held two dwarves in its hand and bellowed a roar to send chills down even the hardiest of veterans.

“Let them go!” Trian demanded. He had crept up a platform and leapt off. With a swing of his maul he brought it down upon the beast’s head, disorienting it. Its grip upon the dwarves loosened and they fell, eyes open yet lifeless and still. Xanthos would not let his brother fight alone and jumped upon the beast’s exposed back. His sword plunged deep into its skin. The ogre tried desperately to grab a hold of Xanthos, but he deftly avoided the attempts, jumping down and rolling on the ground. Grabbing his shield, he charged into the wounded beast’s knee. The bolts that had pierced the skin were now driven deep, and it fell to its knees.

Seeing their liege lords fighting valiantly, the men rallied around them and brought it low. It could do nothing as it was swarmed on all sides. Finally, Trian crushed its head with a series of blows from his maul.

Xanthos pulled his blade from the beast’s back and drove it deep within its heart, just to be safe. They did not need the creature somehow rising again. The remaining darkspawn were now running in terror after seeing the ogre fall. Trian would not let a single one escape, and ordered Oghren to charge with two dozen warriors to kill them all. Satisfied at how the battle ended, Xanthos walked over and gave his brother a hand.

“How many dead?” Trian asked solemnly. He took his brother’s hand and his face was filled with remorse as he surveyed the battlefield.

“Fifty-eight, by my reckoning.” Xanthos answered, just as sadly. “Eighteen are wounded.”

“We make camp here. I want men on the ramparts and round the clock work on repairing those doors. Have the healers tend to the wounded.”

“Yes brother.”

 

~0~0~0~

 

It was hours before everything was taken care of. The healers had done all that they could for most of the wounded. But as Xanthos had walked among the bedrolls, where the wounded lay, he knew that half would not make it through the next few hours. Three were showing the signs of bleeding internally, while the others had come into contact with the ogre’s blood. It would be a slow and painful death.

Meanwhile the rest of the army was afar, preparing their next meal. They sung more songs of glory and honor and laughed vicariously, but Xanthos knew it was merely to not dwell upon the pain of what they had sacrificed. Adal had traded in her cup of water for one of ale. Caellach was whittling away at a piece of wood he bought before the expedition, as he always would.

Trian, on the other hand, was off on his own. He had dropped his armor and set up a training dummy, and was now striking at it aggressively with a sword he picked up from one of the corpses. His fury could be felt even as Xanthos approached from behind.

“The healers have done all they could, brother.”

Trian gave no response. All he would do is swing his sword at the false soldier before him, grunting every now and then. His attacks grew even more violent as he went on, until he was unable to contain his rage and wedged the sword deep within its sternum.

“I am a damn fool!” Trian swore, kicking the dummy to the ground.

“You could not have known there would be an Ogre.” Xanthos reassured him. He placed his hand upon his shoulder, but Trian batted it away. He wheeled around and stared at his brother, and fire burned within those deep blue eyes of his.

“It is my job to know! My duty as prince and commander of our armies demands that I know!” Trian dropped down to the ground, cross-legged, and Xanthos sat beside him. Beneath the fury was the feeling of failure and shame.

Xanthos didn’t know how to respond. He merely looked out at the camp, trying to make sense of it all. For a long time the two of them simply sat in silence. Trian refused every attempt and offer at food he was given. The younger son grew increasingly annoyed however at Trian’s melancholy, even as he understood.

“If you let this weigh you down, brother, you will not be honoring the memories of those who gave their lives today.”

“And what would you have me do? We came out here on a fool’s errand, chasing a Paragon that is most likely dead.”

“I would have you be the man I have always seen. The one who held off waves of darkspawn three years ago all by himself while his men fell back to safety. The man who fought for eight hours straight in the Provings, without rest or aid, and was crowned the victor. You even fought without a weapon for the final bout. The man who told me a loss is only a defeat if you give up. The man who”

Trian said nothing. He merely looked off into the distance, so Xanthos continued and hoped to break through.

“Do you remember the time when I was seven and Jerrik’s baby bronto ran amok in the Commons?”

“As I recall, someone was holding a nug racing tournament there for his birthday.” Trian recollected flatly.

“Still upset that Ser Whiskerface lost. He had it!” Xanthos remembered, slightly bitter. He collected his breath. “I remember how that bronto toppled over three merchant stands before it finally stopped.”

“You say that as if it just sat down on a whim. What I remember is that that “baby bronto” -- as tall as a merchant stand at that point, lest we forget -- ran straight for Mother.” Trian said. He was trying to not smile at the memory, but it was a losing battle.

“True. Mother stared that bronto down and by the Ancestors, that had to be the only time I have ever seen a charging bronto stop dead in its tracks.”

“I do not envy the poor sods who had to clean up the mess. All that shit...”

The fond memory of that day led the two of them to burst into tears laughing. It was all they could do to keep from rolling on the ground, even as some of the few soldiers within earshot glanced back. Eventually, when they had regained their composure, a soldier came up and told Xanthos that his friend Caellach had called him for something. So the second son took his leave of his brother. He was content that Trian could still laugh.

When he arrived at the fire though, Caellach was nowhere to be found, so Xanthos sat and waited for him. He did find it peculiar that Caellach had not come himself with whatever news he had, but he put it out of his mind. Within a few minutes, the man in question arrived back with a few other warriors at his side, one of which held something in his hands. Upon seeing the prince, he seemed shocked.

“Funny, I was just about to send for you, my prince,” he said. “Some of the men found a weathered journal. Branka was here. And she found Vundahar.”

Normally Xanthos would have wanted to know more but those words he began with what caught his ear.

“What do you mean ‘you were just about to send for me’?” he asked. “A soldier came and told me you had asked for me.”

Caellach was confused by that statement and Xanthos immediately knew something was off. Something uneasy coiled in Xanthos’ gut. His heart began to race in his chest. ‘Gather your men,’ he ordered, already turning back to see Trian, returned to work at his defenseless foe.

Behind him, a hunter stalked his prey.

There was no time to waste.

Xanthos quickened his pace, determined to stop this craven. He hadn't expected it to happen so soon.

“Trian, look out!”

It was a terrified cry, and Xanthos threw himself towards his brother as the soldier raised his sword in defense.

‘Death to the princes!’ he roared, before the prince tackled him to the ground. Trian whirled at the call just in time to see the men fall, grappling. There was a blur as Xanthos smacked his head on the stone, but he lashed out, catching the soldier in the stomach. The man stumbled backwards as the prince staggered to his feet. His vision was swimming and a strange pain took hold of his side, but he had enough bearings to raise his blade against the traitor’s sword. With all of his might he pushed against him and Gorim finished the deed by bashing his shield into him, sending the dastard plummeting to his death into the abyss.

"May the Stone reject your traitorous body." Gorim spat

“Always… gotta pull your ass out of the fire, eh Trian?” Xanthos joked, before his body started to convulse violently. Trian ran to catch him. “Long... live... the king...” he managed to say quietly before passing out in his brother’s arms. Trian saw the dagger meant for him in his brother’s body, coated in a green fluid as Xanthos’ blood ran down the lyrium engravings.

“Damned fool.” Trian muttered. He was wracked with turmoil now, unsure of what to do. Gorim stood there, helpless, desperately holding his liege lord’s hand. Trian sat there, frozen in time like a statue, wrestling with what choice he should make. His mind told him to raise his sword and slay Gorim and Caellach right there, and then he would be rid of the fears once and for all. No more worries about being supplanted. He could say he fought off their attacks and they would be branded traitors, stricken from the Memories.

But he knew he could do no such thing. There were too many eyes. If his brother were to die, it would be on the way back. And the danger would be over. Trian would rule, unchallenged. That was how it must be, how it should be.

Yet his heart said otherwise. His heart showed him all of the memories that he and his brother had shared. The smiles and jokes given when all of Orzammar’s clocks would ring their gongs in the evening. The training sessions in the dead of night or the many field expeditions they’d gone on. Gorim sensed his hesitation but said nothing. He merely gave Trian a contemptuous look. The crown prince checked his brother’s pulse and found his breathing to be shallow and ragged. His heart brought to bear a fear he did not wish to consider. The dagger was poisoned, with the same concoction used on their mother.

When Trian rose, he walked past Gorim. He ignored what the man said as he carried his brother in his arms.

“Gather the men.” he ordered. “We return to Orzammar. And fetch a healer!”

Chapter Text

20th of Ferventis, 9:30 Dragon Age

Bhelen was finding it hard to concentrate. He had been at his desk, in his bedroom, for hours upon hours with a book detailing King Bemot’s reign in his hand, looking at the same page over and over again. Every word he read felt like it may as well have been written in Tevene.

In the end, he chose to close the book and set it aside.

His mind turned to the events of the day before.

~0~0~0~

19th of Ferventis, 9:30 Dragon Age

It was nice to be able to just relax for once, Bhelen mused.

He was in bed, the white satin sheets draped gingerly over his body, with Rica cuddling him. He gazed down at her and saw she was sound asleep and smiling. She was a ruby, pulled up from amongst the ash and rubble of the slums, and he couldn’t help but enjoy her voice when she sung at the Paragon Branka’s fete two years back. It had captivated everyone in attendance and for a moment in time no one even remembered that she was casteless.

Now she was his.

It was enough to make him smile. One day, she would bear him a son, and she would live like this for the rest of her days. He would see to it that she never had a worry in the world. But for now, he merely wanted to dwell in his room and drift back to sleep for just a little bit longer. Father would not need him for a while yet. After all, not having to hear Trian remind him he needed to be “more discreet and uphold his responsibilities as heir rather than act so shamefully” was a boon he wanted to enjoy for as long as possible. His duties as second to Endrin could wait some more.

A fist pounded upon the door.

Or perhaps not.

Sighing, Bhelen kicked the covers away before sitting up. Whoever was interrupting his quiet time should really learn how to come by at a decent hour. Through it all Rica did not stir, somehow, even as he grumbled rather loudly to himself. If Orzammar itself collapsed into the lava, Bhelen was sure she would sleep through it. But he would let her sleep. He dressed himself in the first pair of breeches he could find and slipped on a pair of sandals, before opening the door.

Bhelen scowled at the Captain of the Guard as he caught him being distracted by Rica shifting in the background. As the man opened his mouth, trying to speak, he found only empty air would escape his lungs.

“Out with it.” Bhelen ordered.

“Y-yes your highness. As you ordered, my men will be less… hostile to the casteless.”

“And?”

“Your Highness?”

“This is what you interrupted me for?” Bhelen scoffed. With a wave of his hand he dismissed the man.

Yes, he was happy that the casteless wouldn’t be targeted by the guardsmen, but that was not worth bothering him. A simple paper report summarizing it would have sufficed, or coming by at a decent hour. He had scarcely had a morning cup of coffee, imported from Antiva, to brighten his disposition before being bombarded with details about work.

But, if nothing else, this would go a long way towards cementing his position amongst the casteless. It was the little steps that mattered the most. Too long had his people wasted away their time with backroom deals and violent tendencies. The truth of the matter was that they didn’t want to step up and take charge of things. They couldn’t. They were weak. All of them.

They were like the surface animals that blindly followed whoever held the stick. Sheep, if Bhelen remembered correctly. That sounded right.

And sheep needed a shepherd.

He closed the door and walked over to the bed, as Rica began to open her eyes. She was as naked as her name day, breasts exposed to the world. Smiling, he leaned over and kissed her on those lustrous lips of hers. Within moments he found himself getting hard as the stone around them, as her hand stroked his shaft. When he pulled his breeches off again, he climbed on top and locked his fingers together with hers, and rubbed his cock against the lips of her cunt. She moaned beneath him and whispered inside his ear to put it in, so he did. He began to move slow at first, letting her savor every inch of him as he did the same with her.

He moved his left hand down and began to rub against her, feeling the wetness between his fingers. She bit down on her lips as he kissed her neck, cursing and begging him to stop in a tone that truly said keep going. She had enjoyed it the first time, she’d said. She always did. With every thrust he felt her ample bosom press up against his chest.

“Don’t stop, my prince.” She whimpered, wrapping her legs tightly around him, clawing at his back with her nails. Ancestors, the pain felt good. “Keep g-g-goooo…. Ooooh.”

She began to struggle for words as his cock pressed inside of her with more vigor then he had ever used before. Her back arched as her fingers fell and clawed at the sheets. With one last, great kiss Bhelen released his mental hold and felt his seed erupt inside of her.

Panting, he rolled over and began to catch his breath. She was in a state of shock and euphoria. Her eyes were glazed, lost in the ceiling that seemed so distant above them. But he was now wide awake. He chose to leave Rica in her ecstasy as he made his way to the washing room. The nobles in the Diamond Quarter had long since had the old aqueducts run through their estates to give them access to fresh water, all brought forth from the Aedros Atuna river.

In truth, the aqueducts were falling apart. The river was far out from Orzammar, abandoned ages ago, like so many other things. Now the once grand works that ferried water to the thaigs were left to crumble. That they still pulled fresh water was nothing short of a miracle. Yet no one in the Assembly would ever dare making one tied to the surface. All Bhelen had ever heard when the motion was brought up was that the water “would not be safe, as it came from the sky”.

Preposterous.

When the bath was filled, he pressed his hand against a pane of glass, shielding a lyrium rune from direct contact. Bathed in the red light, Bhelen stepped into the tub and immersed himself in the water as it warmed up. He felt his muscles relax and the tension leave his body as he submerged himself deep beneath the water.

It was nice to enjoy the little things, he supposed.

When he came back up for air, he saw out of the corner of his eye Rica heading towards the door. If that useless sod of a guardsman was bothering them again with trivialities, he was going to have the man flogged. But it wasn’t worth disrupting his bath. He scrubbed away the sweat and filth from his little… escapade, then gently ran a linen cloth over his face. He untied the braids in his beard and washed all the hair as thoroughly as he possibly could.

If there existed one thing dwarves prided, it was their beards.

More than sense, apparently.

After ten minutes passed, he removed himself from the tub and dried himself off, before sliding open a grate that would drain the water. Dressed and ready for the day, he began to walk towards Rica again, only to stop mid stride. It wasn’t the guardsman.

It was Vartag.

Bhelen could sense a mix of emotions going on. His jaw was clenched shut as he entered his prince’s room. His nostrils flared. Anger. It was a pointless thing to display. It made a person reckless. And beneath all that anger, the man was trying to conceal his apprehension.

“Rica, leave us.” Bhelen spoke, not taking his gaze off the man. When she hesitated, Bhelen cast her a stern look. Immediately she set off to run a bath for herself. “What is it?”

“The expedition has returned.”

Ah, so that was it? They were back sooner than Bhelen had thought. He would have liked to believe that meant things went well, but the way his manservant was acting he had a sinking feeling of what was going on. His stomach twisted itself into a knot as he scrambled for his armor, hastening to secure it as he stormed through the halls. He did not even wait around long enough to give Rica a kiss goodbye.

It was not long until he encountered their father charging forth like a wild bronto as well. Unarmored and exposed, the king did not care one wit, as Bhelen could tell. He no doubt thought people would be fools to strike him on the street.

It wasn’t long before they moved through the Diamond Quarter, guardsmen and sworn warriors in tow behind them. As the nobility noticed the commotion, they could not help but follow suit. To father’s credit, Bhelen thought, he did not make his own fears evident in the city proper. He marched like a king, keeping the Aeducan name strong, warhammer held tight in his hands. That was how it must be. That was always what Father did. He kept the legacy intact.

No matter the cost.

Before long they made it to the Commons, where a throng of people were gathered around, eyes watching and peering towards the gates that led to the ruins of the dwarven kingdoms. Children pulled at their parents’ tunics, eager to see what was happening. Bhelen turned to the captain of the guard, momentarily casting aside his irritation at the man.

“Disperse the crowd. Gently. We need not have a riot form.”

The guardsmen promptly handled the situation, and as the crowd parted Bhelen’s eyes saw a man step forth towards the stairs. His hair was unkempt, disheveled, and all around showed the signs of having not been washed or cared for in days. Trian’s blue eyes were hollow as they were cast downward at the black-haired dwarf in his arms and his stern face had only two readable emotions: shame and failure.

Trian had returned with what was left of the company, their dear brother nestled in his arms. His armor had been stripped, stored somewhere in the caravan, while his ribs were wrapped in bandages. He had been wounded, Trian said, by an assassin’s dagger.

Not that Bhelen needed it spelled out for him. He could deduce what happened. He was there when they came back. He saw the looks in the mens’ eyes. Despite their losses… despite how they had come back empty-handed… every single damned one of them looked at the princes with more than a simple mentality of serving the throne. They were impressed. Impressed at how Xanthos did not hesitate to take the blow meant for his brother, rather than sacrifice someone of lower status. Impressed at how Trian fought darkspawn with his brother on his back, even as it slowed him down.

It was outrageous. The damn fool was given praise and adulation no matter what he did. He could piss in a keg and the citizens would drown their throats in it, calling it the sweetest honeyed wine to ever pass their lips. But Bhelen would never know that kind of love. Even when Xanthos failed, he succeeded.

It was maddening. It was infuriating. It was inconceivable how Bhelen had helped his brother grow more powerful. And if the faces of those around the prince were any indication, everyone was delighted. Not by his incapacitation, but by his virtue. The Assembly would lavish heaps of praise upon Xanthos behind their deliberations.

Father, however, did not share the look of awe everyone else held. Bhelen had seen him fall to his knees, using the warhammer he wielded in battle for support. Both Bhelen and Pyral looked to give him someone to lean on. In that one moment where the king saw his unconscious son, he had aged twenty years. Father was heartbroken as they gradually walked towards the Diamond Quarter. Endrin’s voice boomed with authority, but few would have noticed the tears that fell.

As Bhelen watched the medics take Xanthos from his brother’s arms, he felt a slow coil of rage flicker in his stomach. He’d hoped the assassin would have managed to kill at least one of them.

 

~0~0~0~
20th of Ferventis, 9:30 Dragon Age

 

Yet all of this was easy to see and understand.

What puzzled him… no, what utterly confounded him, was the why behind his brother’s actions. Xanthos was at the best of times an enigma. He earned the love of the people, of the army, of the nobility… and they were turning against Trian for it. They would turn against Bhelen too. And he had the gall to try and make Trian the stronger candidate with that little bit of showmanship the other day! It was all just to make it more believable when the Assembly chose him.

And yet he threw himself upon the assassin’s dagger? Why? What could he have possibly had to gain from a close call with death? He could have easily dealt with the assassin without risk of injuring himself. In fact, that he chose to do what he did was the more suspicious route. There was the poison to consider after all. Bhelen had not intended for there to be poison used, or at least not the same as was used on their mother when he was but a boy.

At the time he hadn’t grasped the significance of what happened. All he knew was that Mother was sick. It wasn’t until years later that he understood. Vartag was told to find someone to perform the deed on Trian recently, but surely he didn’t…?

No.

It was a foolish thought that only a weak-minded man would ever contemplate.

He had known Vartag for years now. The man was there for him when mother had died. He was there to take in Bhelen’s tears as he buried his face in the man’s shoulder. He had been the rock that Bhelen had stood upon. He would not dare dishonor the man by assuming such things.

Bhelen snorted. He had little time for such outlandish notions. “Vartag!” he called. Better to speak about what he knew for certain, for now.

Bhelen had more important things to focus on, so he called in the man himself.

Within moments he strode into the room, closing the door behind him. He was dressed in fine dwarven chain mail, forged from silverite, and reinforced with steel plates and in his arms was his great-grandfather’s barbute.

“You called for me, my prince?” he asked, moving inside Bhelen’s study and closing the door behind him.

Bhelen stood up from his desk and began to pace, stroking his beard as he spoke..

“So, it seems that one of my dear brothers now clings to life, and the other is clinging to his bedside.” Vartag shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.

“Your highness, forgive me. My choice was…less than stellar.”

Bhelen shook his head. “Should you fail me again, you had best hope that I only care to banish you.”

The young prince’s second winced at the venomous words in the toneless voice. Failure was not something he liked to bring forth to his sworn lord. He could not abide being useless. Sweat began to drip down his brow while his hands quivered. For a minute, his face shifted to that of a wounded dog, before he regained his composure.

“I also want to state that I did not know about--”

Bhelen raised a hand to cut him off. “I do not care about that. At this moment, my brother Trian hovers over my brother’s bed like an old woman. He dares not to leave his side.”

“But not your father?”

“Father is as he always has been. When tragedy strikes he buries himself in his work.” Bhelen said. He was even surprised at how entirely unable he was to conceal the malice in his voice.

“So… what shall we do now?”

“For now,” Bhelen began, “We simply wait. I will not feed my brother’s gambit by sending another assassin to try and finish him off. What we need now is to use this time and minor setback to our advantage. The expedition to show the lords my brother’s command -- should he recover in time -- will be where we strike… but we must do so without any more missteps.”

Vartag’s apprehension showed in how his hands shook ever so slightly.

Bhelen began to think to himself. Father had begun talking lately of the glory of the Paragon Aeducan, and it was clear that he wanted to groom Xanthos for the throne -- even if before the lords of the Assembly the prince was making a strong case for Trian.

Xanthos would be in command of a couple dozen men within a week, presuming of course he did not die. A reasonable number to begin his first official command with. Chances were that another noble would be assigned to his retinue. Someone of high moral standing, daring valor, and a willingness to earn the Ancestors’ favor. House Dace was too greedy, obsessed with their coin. House Helmi would be the obvious choice, but they would do anything that solidified the strong ties between the two Houses.

More to the point, such a position would be delegated to a lower member of a lower house, as this was a prime opportunity to increase their own prestige. So he needed someone inconsequential, but with enough status as to not direct undue eyes.

And then it became apparent just who, among Bhelen’s many allies, he needed to have assigned to his brother’s group..

“Vartag.” Bhelen said, turning to face the man. “I have to see Father. I need you to relay a message to our young friend. You know the one. And see what you can do to… improve my brother’s condition.”

With a nod, Vartag left the room.

You do not get to win that easily, brother.

 

 

~0~0~0~

 

Ancestors, how Xanthos could get anything done in this room was beyond Trian’s understanding. The elder prince had nearly tripped over the wooden chest that sat in the middle of the room when he’d first entered. Papers were strewn haphazardly not just all over the desk, which Trian could understand, but books were off of their shelves and in piles all around the massive bed.

Xanthos may have been a scholar, but he had never kept anything neat of his own. Somehow he made it all work, but it was a unique mind that lived in chaos with discipline.

Somehow.

At least Xanthos took diligent care of the crystalline sculpture depicting Orzammar. It dwelled in the corner of the room, bathed under the light of the lyrium and torches on the walls. It was only one of a few to exist in Orzammar.

His gaze lingered on that work of art for a few minutes because Trian found it hard to look at his brother like this. Weakened, vulnerable, and in great agony. Stripped bare of his clothes, he laid there with fresh bandages around his body.

He had stayed by his brother’s bedside for each day since they had returned, holding Xanthos’ hand in his own. He truly did not know why he was here. There was nothing he could do. The herbalist said the poison was just as potent as ten years ago, and that he could not make an antidote without knowing precisely what was used to make it, to the exact amount, and even then, it was not a guarantee.

Trian was glad when the herbalist ran out into the halls, even if it was because the prince angrily threw his glass at the man.

The servants had brought by a bowl of hot soup and cleaned up the shards, but by now the meal had chilled. Trian imagined they meant it for him and not his brother, but food was low on his list of concerns now. Even sleep was unimportant to him. He wanted to be with his brother in all moments of the day. If he died, he would die with at least one family member by his side.

Gorim sat by a chair near the door, using a whetstone to sharpen his sword forged from red steel. He had been quiet all throughout the march home and volunteered for scouting patrols. Whenever they fought darkspawn, deepstalkers, or the other creatures in the Deep Roads he fought like a madman. He clearly blamed himself for failing to protect the prince. And rightly so. Trian had chastised him all the way home. Gorim said nothing. He had merely walked in silence and anger.

Even so, he would not falter again.

If nothing else, Trian could say he admired the man’s devotion to duty.

Father, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Hardly surprising. To a degree Trian felt sorry for him. The King was old, and the stress of the last few years was beginning to show on his already lined face. To have another member of his family struck down would finish him. Still, it was no excuse

No father should be away from his child when they lay ill and dying.

In the corridor outside Xanthos’s bedchamber, soft footsteps echoed upon the stone. They shifted, halting for a moment outside the door before a knock resounded through the wood. Once, twice.

“Father?”

The door swung open, and Bhelen’s face appeared. “No such luck, brother.”

At least he, for all of his desires to live lasciviously, had enough of a mind to show up to show his love. Gorim’s face deepened into a scowl and his movements with the whetstone became harsher.

“How is our brother?” the youngest son asked. The concern in his voice seemed genuine.

“Stable… for the moment. It is only because of his damned stubborn streak that he has not yet died.”

Bhelen nodded as he stood beside the eldest prince. He gazed down at the prince, contemplating what he should do next. He then looked towards the uneaten bowl of soup.

“You really should eat, you know. Father shouldn’t lose two sons to stubbornness.”

Trian huffed, but a little warmth crept towards his youngest brother. He had a point; Trian had barely slept since the attempted assassination.

His limbs felt heavy and numb. His eyes had begun to sag, with dark wrinkles forming under them. He had started to doze off every now and then, forcing himself awake after about twenty or so minutes.

Bhelen pulled up a stone chair beside the bed and sat next to the crown prince. The two of them stared at their brother’s awkward breathing, each gasp a desperate struggle for air.

“I have Vartag looking into if he can find out anything. Ten years have gone by… surely the herbalists have discovered some panacea.”

“Ancestors, I hope so.”

Bhelen turned from his seat. “Gorim, would you be so kind as to fetch my brother a glass of water? And perhaps reheat his soup.”

Gorim’s eyes narrowed as he rested his sword against the wall. Slowly, the middle prince’s second picked up the tray of soup and left the room.

When Gorim was out of sight, Bhelen leaned in to Trian and whispered in his ear.

“I do however find it odd that this all happened.”

“As do I.” Trian answered. “How did we let the assassin sneak into the company so easily? Who was he working for?”

Bhelen shook his head. “You misunderstand me, brother. I question not the appearance of the assassin, but the place of his appearance.”

Trian’s head snapped up, a fierceness in his gaze.

“What are you getting at Bhelen?” Trian shot back, barely keeping his own voice inaudible.

“Think about it brother. You are gone from the city and he goes with you. An assassin sneaks into your company and tries to kill you with a poisoned dagger.”

“But the man failed. Xanthos saw to that.”

“So you think. But what if this was all part of his plan? Either way, he comes out victorious. Either the assassin strikes you and you die, and Xanthos can spin any tale he wants to come off as the tragic yet noble prince who lost his beloved brother… or he has a sudden pang of regret and stops the assassin, being hailed as a hero in the process. But how can you trust that he won’t try again?”

Bhelen sighed before continuing. “You know this hurts me as much as it hurts you. Xanthos is our brother, our kin. I would never have suspected him of such treachery.”

Trian weighed the words carefully. They did seem to have merit, but he did not know where his heart stood. His mind told him that it made sense. Xanthos could have been playing a long and drawn out game with the Assembly, courting nobles behind Trian’s back. He had seen the signs. Bhelen had informed him of others. And this was hardly the first attempt on Trian’s life. There had been numerous others. Yet the investigations had all been closed, suspects found and dealt with. How many were the result of Xanthos’ plotting? Did he only go on the expedition to ensure it succeeded?

“He did kick the assassin off the cliff…” Trian added hesitantly.

His mind was churning. Bhelen clapped him by the shoulder, a brief moment of solidarity. “If – when he wakes, we will have ample opportunity to question his motives. But until then, put it aside.”

He rose to his feet. “Perhaps I am wrong after all. After all, I do not have a mind for politics like the rest of my kin.”

As the door swung shut once more, Trian was left alone with his thoughts.

He could not deny that these fears were those he’d conjured up himself. And if Bhelen, for all his irresponsible nature, was able to see such vile trickeries… then perhaps Trian was not so paranoid after all. His hand began to tightly squeeze against his brother’s, and a surge of emotions began to flood through him. Anger, hatred, sadness, fear.

Trian was a fool and Bhelen was right. It made sense. Xanthos wanted Trian away from the city so that he could have him killed in secret. When he found out that the assassin was moving too quickly, Xanthos tried to save face and was wounded for it by his own treachery. If his poor choice hadn’t come back to haunt him, Trian could’ve died when they were all alone. Then Xanthos could’ve killed the assassin himself and played the hero. Trian would just have been buried in the tombs of the Aeducan kings, another victim to the eternal war.

And Xanthos would have usurped his seat. He had to give his brother credit, he had everyone fooled. As far as everyone saw, he was the dutiful son, supporting the heir. But behind closed doors, who knew what he was plotting. Perhaps this was all part of some gambit of his. Perhaps even as he laid in bed, his agents were carrying out his will.

But what of the poison? Xanthos would not and could not have counted on that being used. If he knew of it, he would have brought an antidote or dealt with the assassin in a more proper fashion. Which begged the question that if he had hired the assassin, who provided the poison?

Trian shot up from his chair, utterly disgusted. None of this makes sense. He grabbed his maul and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

 

 

~0~0~0~

 


“Thank you all for meeting me here on such short notice.” Caellach began.

He stood before everyone that had gathered around the table in the back of the Shaperate, dressed in a gray cloak. The dim light from the torches concealed their identities, but he knew who they all were anyway. Lady Nerav Helmi had come with her brother and sister, Denek and Adal. To have all three sibling in the Shaperate would have raised suspicions, and Caellach had asked that they found an alternative. Neray concealed her face beneath a hooded cloak. Beneath the dark cloth glimmered the sheen of emerald silk. Adal, as expected, had arrived in full armour, with a closed helmet to hide herself. Of course, Denek hadn’t bothered in anything nearly so suitable. It made a begrudging sense – only two of the siblings needed to hide their faces, really.

To his right was Baizyl and Renvil Harrowmont. They were esteemed warriors within the city and Renvil had laboriously fought for diplomatic reforms towards the split between Kal-Sharok and Orzammar within his own family. His amber eyes unnerved many, but he was a steadfast ally to his friends. And Baizyl had been a good friend of the prince’s since he had helped him with some secret of his some years ago.

Jerrik Dace was going to be late, but at least he had sent the message ahead with his trusty bronto Snug. A more than peculiar sight within the Shaperate, the bronto’s heavy breathing echoed through the room as it lay nestled in the corner of the room.

To his left was Kardol of the Legion of the Dead. His grizzled, no-nonsense demeanor was evident upon his face, clearly unused to such backroom dealings. But that the man had shown up was due not just to the respect the prince had earned on a joint mission years ago, but how he was willing to gauge all scenarios if it served the interests of the city.

Only one person hadn’t shown up. Not at all surprising that Frandlin Ivo wouldn’t be here. Caellach believed the man to be the weak link from the beginning.

“We were led to believe the prince would be here,” Denek said.

“He would have met you if he was able, but as you are no doubt aware--”

“He’s incapacitated.” Nerav finished, with a tint of sadness in her voice, before steeling herself again. “But that is perhaps all the better.” In this room her voice rang with the power that the future queen of Orzammar would wield.

“Forgive me, my lady, but what the fuck?” Kardol blurted out.

“Excuse me?”

“What the fuck makes you say this is better?” he emphatically demanded.

“It gives him plausible deniability,” Renvil clarified. “All eyes are focused on two places right now: the royal palace and Tapster’s Tavern.”

“So whilst most regular business deals happen in the Tavern, we can conduct this…whatever it is here, without worry of eavesdroppers,” Denek exclaimed, finally understanding.

“What a load of sod. Fools and their politics.” Kardol said under his breath.

“The point is, we have a lot to handle in a brief amount of time.” Caellach said loudly, regaining control of the room before a fresh political war broke out. “The prince asked me to speak for him should something happen to him, so consider my words to be his. He was injured in the Deep Roads because of an assassin’s dagger. The blade was poisoned.”

The reactions in the room were palpable. Kardol shook his head, annoyed at the ever-warring game of the nobility taking out another good man. Nerav had kept her face stoic and stone-faced, indicating she had already known the details. The Harrowmonts were disgusted, but not surprised. And the others all gave their own share of discomfort or displeasure. Caellach was hardly going to spend the rest of this meeting studying their body language.

“So what is it that the prince needs of us?” Nerav asked.

“In short, your support. This assassin was not the first to attempt to remove him or Trian from play. Bhelen has been moving to usurp his brother’s seat in the Assembly for years now. All of you have known the second son for a long time. He has helped many of you or your families go back long enough that words need not be said, but they should not be forgotten.”

Caellach then began to walk around the room. For all his inexperience with politicians and for all his disgust of their workings, he had picked up enough to know that he had to command authority. Even in a room full of the prince’s friends, they had to respect him. They needed to look at him and not see a Warrior caste dwarf, but a prince of Orzammar, for that was who he represented.

And it had to be him. If Gorim was not by the prince’s side, everyone in the city would have found that peculiar. But a regular sworn arm of House Aeducan making the rounds around the Diamond Quarter was not nearly so strange. So he continued speaking.

“Bhelen will no doubt try and get the two to kill each other. If that happens, the prince will do his best to save his brothers. But he may not succeed. If he doesn’t…”

Caellach let his statement remain unfinished. He wanted them to come to their own conclusions, think of it on their own. Not because the prince did not trust them, nor because Caellach wanted to gamble with the prince’s life, but because they needed to believe he was not forcing their hand.

“The Wardens will be meeting up with us in the Deep Roads the day of the prince’s first command. I can see to it that either my boys or the Wardens get him out of any mess he or Trian may be exiled into, if it comes to that.”

“Good. That’s one worry off of his mind.”

“I will volunteer to be under his command. If anything goes wrong, he will need as many honorable voices as he can muster,” Renvil added.

“That may not be enough.” Nerav butted in. “I imagine someone like Bhelen has been working in the shadows for some time. If that happens, should he become heir, it will be up to all of us here to protect the city.”

“Listen, lady, I’m just a soldier. My axe is meant for one thing and that’s killing darkspawn.” Kardol broke in.

“You owe him,” Nerav fired back. “And would you trust the Legion in the hands of that child?”

“Lady, I would gladly help out the prince. But politics is not something I care to get involved in again.” He said firmly. He ended up casting his eyes off to the side, uncomfortable at a memory he had brought to bear.

Kardol was a man of stubborn practicality, as level as the foundations upon which the city was built. He was tough as granite and would commit only to those courses of action that seemed in the best interest of his men, the city, and him -- in that order. But that was why the prince liked the man. Though he took the words of the legion to their core seriously, he would not waste his time on fools’ errands, unless he had no other recourse.

As the soon-to-be queen and the veteran commander continued arguing back and forth, Caellach looked over at the bronto. It had bounced between raising its head in curiosity and drifting back to sleep, but now it seemed utterly bored of it all. Did brontos even get tired of things? Just how smart were they? Were they as smart as the humans’ mabari?

Questions for another time, however. It seemed like he would have to spell things out after all to keep everyone in the room from turning it into a miniature Assembly.

“Kardol, just keep the darkspawn at bay no matter what.” he said, before turning to the Helmis. “Should the king die, he will name a successor. If that is Bhelen, you three need to spearhead an effort to stop him. One candidate is all that’s needed… which brings me to you two.”

Renvil and Baizyl then focused their attention on Caellach. “Pyral seems a strong enough person, able to believably contend for the throne. If you can convince him to run, we can keep things from spiraling out of control.”

Everyone seemed alarmed by what he’d just said, the implications settling in. Silence stretched on for what seemed like hours, coating the room like a thick blanket. On all of their faces, eyes were wide open

“You… you mean for us to risk a civil war!” Adal shouted. “That is madness! Surely the prince would not support this!”

Caellach shook his head. “No, this is not a civil war we are starting. We need to control how things proceed. If we are careless, it will descend into chaos. The Assembly would have no compunction over fighting over the throne, every House looking out for their interests. There will be death, of that I am certain. But if our Houses do their part… we can survive. All we need do is from here on keep an eye on Bhelen and his machinations.”

“If that’s the case… there are two things I would care to bring up.” Denek interjected. His chin was resting in his hand as he held up his arm with the other. “The first is that should the Assembly become deadlocked, trade will ground to a halt. Which I imagine is why the prince wanted Jerrik here.”

Caellach nodded at the shrewd man’s deduction.

“Snug!” Denek barked, prompting the bronto to jump to attention and walk a few steps. “We should probably tell Jerrik about all of this. Tell him he needs to ply the surface merchants to begin hastening their first trip to Orzammar of the year.”

Within moments Denek scrawled a note and stuffed it in the bronto’s thick black leather harness and nodded to the bronto.

Snug huffed twice, which everyone could only assume meant it was agreeing to do what it was told. Denek gave it a few pets on the head and off it went, once again startling the shapers. Thankfully, no shelves were knocked over by its thunderous and pounding steps. Caellach had to wonder just how it was going to relay such information, but Jerrik was not a man to make stupid decisions. A bit on the silly side, to be sure, as this display made clear… but not stupid.

“And the second thing?” Kardol asked, clearly irritated.

“You all should know that Bhelen had one of his men approach me.”

Nerav wheeled on her brother as those words left his mouth. Her icy stare was enough to make Caellach regret what had been said. Denek merely gave her a quick glance and a flick of his wrist to tell her to put away her queenly gaze.

“When?” Baizyl asked.

“About an hour before the meeting. The man was clearly trying to get me to convince my mother to support whatever the prince tried, in return for certain… favors and concessions.”

“Good to know. At any rate… I think we all know what we need to do.” Caellach said, ending the meeting on a high note. “The last order of business is getting the prince up and about again. So if you all will excuse me, I have one more errand that I have to attend to.”

 

~0~0~0~

It stank.

Really, really stank. Fuck. What was that?

There, behind the rubble. A limp arm, most likely the source of that stench. Poor sod. Another one left down in the dark to die.

Holding his breath, the dwarf moved further into Dust Town, hoping to ignore the delights of the morning. Still, for what it was worth, the week hadn’t been total shit. Beraht had only asked him to do some minor business in the Commons, and even doing the baker’s ‘taxes’ had been a breeze.

Shit. Darius paused for a moment as the thought sunk in. Today was his first day off in…stones, he couldn’t even remember.

It wasn’t like he worked for Beraht day in, day out – true, the leader of the Carta was about as kind to his men as the Legion were to darkspawn, but he seemed to like Darius, for whatever it was worth. Well, like was a bit too strong a word. He was an ‘investment’, so Beraht said, although Darius figured it was more his sister who was worth paying the price for.

Still, some days were better than others – and with that in mind, he decided to at least try and enjoy himself. Shoving his hands deep into his pockets, the red-headed dwarf began to saunter along what passed for a path down in the shit heaps.

It was hard to ignore the desperation in the air, he decided as he walked. To his left were heaps of rubble and cloth and Darius flipped them a coin as he walked. It gleamed as it spun into the air, and the piles of rags erupted into crazed life, skeletal hands clawing and croaky voices screeching as they fought for the copper. To his right, two leering women flapped their hands towards him, squawking and cackling.

‘I’ll set you right, mister! Just come over here and I’ll sort ya!’

‘Nah, nah, don’t go to her! She’s got fleas, salroka! I’ll show you a good time instead! You won’t walk straight after!’

Darius slowed, glancing at the women. Old, wasted, and covered in dirt. ‘Not today, ladies,’ he answered, and continued on his way. As he walked down through the broken buildings, a few dwarves moved through the shadows. The tattoos on their faces gave them away as Carta men, and he kept his distance. Beraht didn’t like it when his henchmen were too buddy-buddy with each other.

Eventually, he slowed to a halt. Ah, shit. Who was he kidding? There was nothing new in the slums that he hadn’t seen before. Darius looked towards the stairs that led to the Commons, scowling at the sight of the guards that kept the gates locked tight. Fuckers. Like life wasn’t hard enough down here. More than once, Darius had seen the guards recoil in disgust from a beggar, or taken ‘taxes’ from a prostitute. Hell, they’d even tried to get him once, before they’d realized he was ‘one of Beraht’s’.

Stepping up the pace, Darius began to move towards the stairs. He could already see the guards scowling as they realized he was heading their way.

‘Back off! I’m – I’m warning you!’

Head turning sharply, Darius frowned as he saw a young woman standing against another group of dwarves. They each had some sort of weapon; a club, a rusty sword, even a half-battered mace. With the shoddy state of them, and their armor barely held together, Darius relaxed. Not Carta men – just your run of the mill daily thugs.

Still, he wandered a little closer, idly listening to the threats of the thugs. The woman seemed to be holding her own, but the men were stepping closer and closer.

‘This bit is our territory,’ one snarled, pointing at her with his sword. ‘We told you once to fuck off. And what happened?’

He made a motion, and another – a dwarf with greasy black hair and a matted beard – darted forward to behind the woman. She shrieked, and Darius saw her gray eyes fill with fury as the thug reappeared with a hostage in tow.

The little boy was covered in snot and tears, and he shivered as he clutched a ragged piece of cloth. The dwarf sneered as he produced a dagger, and pressed it to the child’s throat. The boy’s eyes went wide, and Darius saw red.

Behind the woman, he saw, too, a little girl, her pigtails matted, her face full of terror for her brother.

“These children have done nothing wrong!” the woman cried. “They’re innocent!”

“Innocent? They live ‘ere in the filth, with the rest of us. No one’s innocent down in the dirt,’ the leader retorted. “We told you to leave. We’ll not have some bitch and her whelps trying to take what’s ours. And just to make it clear…this is what happens when you don’t listen.”

He nodded at the black-haired dwarf. “Do it. Make him bleed.”

The dwarf grinned, leering. “My pleasure.”

Darius had always had good aim.

With a crash, the black-haired dwarf fell to the ground, blood spraying from the newly opened face as the dagger sank through his throat. His grip falling apart, the little boy wriggled free and dashed to the woman, who put him behind her with his sister.

As one, the dwarves turned to see Darius leaning against a wall, twirling a pair of daggers in his hands. “And here I thought even the lowest of the low don’t hurt kids.”

The leader of the thugs turned an interesting shade of red. He spluttered, and Darius tutted as he shook his head.

“Surely your mother taught you to play nicely with others?”

He got a growl for that comment, and the thug raised his rusted sword. “Kill the bastard,” he snarled. His gang gave a yell and rushed towards Darius, who grinned.

“Bring it.”

As they rushed towards him, the young woman shepherded the children away. Darius watched them leave from the corner of his eye. Good. A little more space to send these thugs to the Ancestors. He planted his feet firmly, widening his stance. Come and get me.

One of the thugs gave another shout, pulling ahead of the others, swinging little more than a sharpened stick. Darius watched him raise it into the air, and darted forward, rolling hard to avoid the spear and plunging one of his daggers into the man’s back. The dwarf cried out, stumbling to his knees, and Darius finished the job, slicing his throat and sending blood everywhere in a satisfying spray.

His comrades slowed for a moment, uneasy at the sight of blood spraying from their former friend, before charging towards Darius again. With a grin, the rogue raised his daggers – catching the blade of one dwarf whilst using his left foot to push another back. Soon enough, the dance of death had begun, and Darius was whirling, using all his strength and speed to keep himself intact.

‘Is that it?’ he panted, finally pushing the remaining dwarf back against a crumbled wall. ‘I’ve had nugs that were more persistent than you lot.’

He snarled at him, wild rage burning in his eyes, and the leader pushed off from the wall, launching himself towards Darius. Caught a little off guard, Darius went crashing to the ground, the leader straddling his stomach with a wicked laugh. His head clanged against the ground and Darius groaned, stilling with the pain.

‘When I’m done with you, I’m gonna gut those brats and leave their corpses resting on ya,’ he spat. Darius flinched away from the drool and tried to push the dwarf away, but it was no use. He was well and truly stuck. The weight of the man’s fists buried themselves into him, too many times to be counted.

The leader leered as he drew a rusted knife from his belt. ‘This is for my boys,’ he grinned, and Darius felt sick as he saw the state of the other’s teeth.

‘Perhaps next time you can chew some mint leaves in their honour,’ he choked out, spitting up blood, and was rewarded by another spasm of rage in the other’s eyes.

Suddenly, the leader grunted, his back arching as he stiffened, then toppled to the side, crumpling face-first into the dirt.

Slowly, Darius sat himself up, his vision blurred, his ears ringing from the blow. There was a crossbow bolt sticking from the man’s shoulder, and as Darius watched he began to claw at the dirt, pushing himself back up. Seizing his final dagger from his belt, Darius lunged, plunging the blade into the fleshy neck. Blood spattered his face, momentarily blinding him, and he wiped it away, feeling the stickiness already as it began to dry.

‘Thank you.’

He turned to see the blonde dwarven woman from before, resting a crossbow against her hip. ‘It’s no matter,’ he answered, slowly getting to his feet. ‘I was bored, going for a stroll…you livened up my morning, is all.’

‘Even so. They would have killed us.’ Darting forward, she offered him an arm. Darius accepted it gratefully, and they began to move, slowly, down the alley, towards the waiting children.

‘So. A crossbow?’

The woman gave a wry laugh, guiding him towards a shattered building. The top floor was missing a roof the way the leader had been missing his teeth, but the lower level looked sturdy enough.

‘You realise this is Dust Town, right?’ she retorted. ‘Girl’s gotta be prepared in this shithole.’

Darius snorted, wincing at the pain in his ribs. The woman shook her head. ‘Sit here. I’ll get some cloth.’

The mysterious woman sat him down against the wall gently while she went and got some clean cloths, or as clean as anything in Dust Town ever was. Dipping the rag in a bucket of water, she went to work, clearing dried blood and dirt away from his new wounds.

“They your kids?” he asked.

The kids she was guarding seemed to be playing now, as if they hadn’t just seen one duster kick the sorry daylights out of a bunch of others. Darius would be lying if he said it didn’t make him feel just a bit wistful. The woman turned her head back to gaze at them briefly before resuming her mopping.

“Not mine, no. Found ‘em wandering the streets, all alone. Figured they’d need a mother or something. But we always have to move on.”

“The Carta.”

The woman nodded as she began to take off his armor. “Yeah. Beraht doesn’t like people squatting in his buildings. And now he’s got some rivals? We’ll have to sleep on the streets.”

He said nothing. What could he say? Pity was the only coin the people in Dust Town had, and everyone had enough of it to last a lifetime. Instead, Darius glanced over at the little boy. His carroty hair was being mussed by his sister, who was giggling at the frown on his face.

They seemed to have completely forgotten about what they’d just witnessed.

When they saw him looking at them, they seemed to flinch slightly. The little boy hid behind his sister’s body.

“It’s okay,” the woman reassured the children. “He won’t bite. Come on over and say hi.”

Reluctantly, they walked over to him.

“Hey there, kids.” Darius grinned at them, and the woman shook her head quickly. Oh. Right. Fuck! Okay, don’t give the kids nightmares Darius. Stupid idiot.  

“Hello,” they said in unison, suddenly quiet. Then the little boy moved out of cover and walked over to the young casteless man. “Thank you, salroka.”

The way he had a hard time pronouncing salroka was almost too adorable for Darius to bear, and he could only smile at them, his heart twisting.

‘Just promise me that you’ll look out for each other in the future, okay? No matter what happens – promise that you’ll have each other’s back.’

The boy looked over at his sister, his eyes bright with laughter. “Really?” he asked. “I don’t think anyone would want a loud sister like her!”

“Well better to be loud than to be an annoying little monster!” she snapped back. “I’m stuck with you!”

The boy stuck out his tongue before darting away as his sister gave chase. They ran about, their laughter ringing out amongst the rubble. Darius looked at the woman, and snorted, another bloody grin appearing on his face. She smiled back, her own laughter bubbling to the surface.

Not bad for his first day off.

 

~0~0~0~

Frandlin Ivo was not a very complicated man.

At least, he liked to think so. Born the second son of Lord Ivo, he was afforded every advantage dwarven elite could possibly achieve. The finest foods, freshly imported from the surface, were brought to his table. The sumptuous tastes sent his taste buds soaring to new heights. The things the surfacers came up with, such as jam, were to die for. There was blueberry jam and plum jam and raspberry jam. There were so many different flavors.

His family ensured that his armor was forged from the best silverite money could buy.

Women swooned over his good looks, with his dusky skin and well-groomed black beard. His thick muscles, broad chest and shoulders, and suave voice drove them to him more often than his brother Wojech would have liked, if only because it finally gave him some healthy competition -- as he no doubt would have told you.

And the younger son was set to take part in his own Provings soon, to earn prestige for his house. He was to take part in the upcoming expedition.

Yes, all in all, Frandlin Ivo liked to think he wanted for nothing compared to most people. He wanted to believe that he was doing okay.

He truly wanted to believe that.

But he had stood in front of his washing room’s mirror, naked as the day he was born, staring intently at his face. He could feel his own eyes watching him, judging him, mocking him. His mouth twitched in anger. For the past couple of weeks, he had found it hard to sleep. At first he was steady, but as the days counted down his sleep became more and more elusive. He could see it in the dark shadows beneath his eyes, visible even against his already dark skin. His face looked more weathered by the lines around it.

There were times when he didn’t even recognize the man that stared back at him through the glass. This was one of those times. He couldn’t stand to bear the scrutiny of the gaze, so he grabbed his bedsheet and covered the mirror. Yet he still felt as if the air in the room was wrong.

Within moments he pulled on a linen shirt and a fresh pair of breeches.

“Glain!” he called out.

The door opened and in walked a young dwarven warrior. So young, in fact, that he was still just a boy. Glain was ten years Frandlin’s junior, having just earned his battle status in a recent proving. He had shown his mettle, and the anticipation to fight the darkspawn was plain upon his face.

“Yes, my lord Ivo?” he exuberantly asked. His big, soulful blue eyes still bore the hope and innocence of someone who had not killed in the name of the ever-changing game of dwarven politics, whether for himself or those he was sworn to.

Frandlin said nothing. He only cast his gaze over towards his armor, but the implication was clear enough. Glain began the long process of helping Frandlin put it on. First his chainmail shirt, then the greaves, then the poleyn, the cuisses, followed by the fauld, plackart, and cuirass. His vambraces, gauntlets, and pauldrons came last. Satisfied, he grabbed his full helm and put it on, obscuring his face from the world.

Suddenly, the door almost burst off its hinges. When the shock wore off, Frandlin caught sight of his unwelcome guest. A rough-looking snake of a man, armed to the teeth, with a wicked grin that reminded Frandlin of some form of vermin. His armor shone under the light of the lanthorns in Frandlin’s room.

“Vartag.” Frandlin’s disgust was almost palpable

The intruder threw up his arms, but that smile didn’t leave his face. “Whoa there! Is that anyway to greet me, pointing a sword at my face?”

Frandlin hadn’t even realized that he’d grabbed his weapon, but tentatively he lowered it once the shock wore off. Nodding his thanks, Vartag walked over to a nearby stone chair and sat down, steepling his fingers.

“My, how House Ivo’s best are a jumpy lot! Though I suppose I understand. After all, Frandlin, you look absolutely dreadful. Are you getting enough sleep? My mother always said a proper dwarf goes to bed early, sleeps like the stone, and eats his cave beetles.”

Frandlin’s icy glare set the room’s temperature down to near uncomfortable levels.

“What do you want?”

“Down to business! But I was hoping we could catch up, maybe have some tea and crumpets.”

“Sorry, fresh out. You should have stopped by last night.”

“Disappointing.” Vartag sighed and hung his head. Frandlin’s eyes couldn’t have rolled harder if he’d tried. “Oh well… I suppose we should get to business then.”

“Thank the Ancestors.” Glain added sarcastically. Vartag glared at him, dropping his false smile and replacing it with a deep scowl. Glain merely returned the gesture. Inwardly, Frandlin couldn’t help but laugh in his mind at the boy’s audacity.

“You might want to keep your little pet on a tighter leash, Frandlin.” Vartag turned to face the impertinent young man. “The adults are talking, boy.”

Glain, whether through a pitiable sense of stubbornness or an admirable sense of integrity, neither apologized nor spoke up again. All he did was wear an expression of contempt on his face, like it was in fashion.

“So far you have done a lot of talking, but you have failed to actually say anything.”

“My my! So hostile, my dear lord Ivo. But fear not, I bring good news! Your most beloved prince desires your services.”

Frandlin took on an incredulous look. He narrowed his eyes and took great care to keep his breathing under control, even as every one carried the anger that raged inside of him. It simmered and boiled, his lips twitching, but his voice was cool and even.

“Is he unable to do anything on his own?”

“Careful, prince. You would do well to remember your place.”

“Get to the point then, Vartag. I grow weary of this entire visit. Why would I help your master?”

The prince’s second shot up and walked past Frandlin, clapping him on the shoulder. He turned his head to whisper his sweet nothings. “You have an opportunity to achieve glory for your House, prestige for yourself, and a grateful prince.”

Frandlin could sense the poison dripping from his honeyed tongue, even as he continued.

“The mines you back are drying up and your warriors have been reduced to little more than children. Try as you might, the other Houses still see you as irrelevant. I offer you a chance to show them the mettle of House Ivo”

Frandlin Ivo was an ordinary man. Yet as his gaze went back to that mirror, he found himself asking a question all men eventually turn to. What are they, ordinary men, willing to sacrifice to meet a goal? Even covered as it was, he could feel some part of him piercing his very soul. But weighed against everything else, he swallowed his fears and reservations.

There could be no half-measures.

“Fine. What do I need to do?”

~0~0~0~

Gorim still had trouble accepting it.

Xanthos laid in bed, unconscious, barely breathing. Gorim found himself feeling even more useless. Sod it all! If he woke up -- no, when Xanthos woke up -- Gorim was going to give him a piece of his mind. How could he have been so sodding reckless? Gorim would have happily taken the blow instead. He should have taken it. He should be the one lying motionless. That was his duty.

Xanthos had planned out so much and now it was being thrown away. Sure, he had contingencies in place, as he always did, but did he even know that it would be the same poison?

No.

If he had known he would have been more careful. He would have had Gorim or Caellach in hiding watching Trian at all times when he was unable. The poison had failed to show itself for many years. Driven as they were, he had failed to find whomever was truly responsible. If the prince had known it would resurface, all the herbalists would have been questioned. Jerrik would have monitored the imports. Sod, even their own man in the Carta didn’t know anything about it, and he knew the price of holding back!

Ancestors, if they had known, they would have done so many other things before and during the mission.

It was enough to make his head spin.

Sod it all, if the prince saw Gorim like this he would have told him in that cheerful tone of his to quit being a worrywart before his pacing dug a trench in the middle of the palace. He laughed bitterly and sighed before walking to stand at the door, watching Trian sit at the edge of the bed. Whatever the man’s faults -- and they were many -- Gorim could see that deep down he did love his brother. When Gorim had returned with the food, Trian had vanished. But Gorim stayed at his post. When the clock tower bells within the city tolled and signaled the end of the day, it was not long before Trian returned with a fresh dilution of elfroot extract to mitigate the poison’s effects.

Seeing such fraternity in the midst of adversity made Gorim think of his own father, and how he was an only child. The man had suffered a grievous wound defending Endrin from an assassin’s blade eight years ago, and the wound never healed properly, so he was forced to spend the rest of his years at home.

Funny. It was not until this moment that Gorim considered both of their parents had been struck down from their position by a blade.

Gorim often asked him why he only ever had one child, but the only answer he ever received was “The will of the Ancestors gave me one child for a reason.”

A sudden knock at the door drew Gorim out of his daydreaming. Vartag Gavorn entered the room. Gorim never liked the man, always willing to do whatever his master wanted. He was little more than a hound, itching for whatever scraps to be fed to him from his master’s hand. The eldest Aeducan child did not budge an inch, eyes intent on focusing their attention on his brother.

“My lord Trian,” he began. “I found a curative for your brother.”

Trian jerked his head up suddenly and wheeled around, grabbing the man’s shoulders tightly. Gorim could see the desperation in those pallid blue eyes. They were as weary as Gorim’s. They struck him as less than a shadow’s and less than a man’s.

“How did you come to find what we could not?!” he cried out in a mix between joy, anger, and utter relief. Spittle flew out and coated Vartag. His wince brought Gorim some small measure of joy.

“Prince Bhelen had me talk to every herbalist in the city. I even contacted my cousin Dougal and he gave me some leads. One thing led to another and well… here is an antidote.”

Trian made to grab the vial immediately. He held it up to the light, examining its contents. Gorim could see that it was violet in color. But he could not help but feel suspicious at just how… fortuitous this all was. Never had any herbalist known of any possible leads. Two were even convinced by Xanthos to inform him first if any news came to the fore.

“My lord, if I may?” Gorim intervened.

“You may not.” Trian snapped. He turned his head and sneered. Gorim paid him no heed for once. He understood how the man felt and by the Ancestors did Gorim want to believe the solution had surreptitiously fallen into their lap.

But he had been alive long enough to grow wary of anything that was not expected.

“How are we to know that the prince will not be negatively affected by this?”

“Silence!” Trian yelled. He had traded Vartag for Gorim, pushing him up against the wall. His arm was braced against his throat. “I will not let my sibling’s second tell me what to do!”

“Apologies, my lord.” Gorim managed to croak out. “May I at least try it first, so that if it does not work, the prince’s life will not be wasted?”

Gorim glared down at Vartag, suspicious of everything about him. Likewise was the favor returned for Vartag held contempt for how the man interfered in all of their plans.

“How would we even do that?” Vartag asked. “We don’t even have the poison.”

“We have the dagger.” Gorim answered venomously. He pointed to the bedstand by the prince. On it sat the dagger they had pulled from the prince’s torso, wrapped in cloth so no servant would cut themselves on it. All of them looked over at it.

Trian was aghast at what he had heard though. His eyes went wide from the shock. “No, I will not allow it!” he bellowed. “You may be my sibling’s second, but I will not allow you to be so undisciplined and reckless!”

Gorim knew that if the prince were awake and healthy now, he would point out to his second that beneath all that bluster and bravado Trian did -- in some odd measure -- care about Gorim.

“Trian, please.” Gorim spoke with a sudden tint of regret in his voice. “I failed him once. But if this… belated act can in some way make up for that failure, I will not hesitate.”

“So you should die to satisfy your own guilt? Have you lost your mind?!”

“No. Quite the opposite. Should it fail, then it is better that I die and you continue the search, hoping for a miracle. Better that than live with the guilt of believing you killed your brother all for nothing.”

“Trian… his words make sense.” Vartag added, seemingly in earnest.

Reluctantly, Trian nodded his approval and released his hold on Gorim.

Dusting himself off, Gorim walked over and picked the dagger up. It was made from solid steel with a curved wooden grip, inlaid with images of crows circling a corpse, and a pommel fashioned from obsidian.

The incision he carved was small, but it burned like fire. Did Xanthos endure this without even the slightest hint betraying his pain before the effects took hold? If so, he was a stronger man than Gorim, for in moments he found himself crying out from the pain.

“Gorim!” Trian cried out. His voice was foggy. All of Gorim’s senses began to blur and dull. His vision swam and the figures he saw began to double. He could hear them shout for him to calm down from the pain but it felt as if the words came to him from the ends of the Deep Roads itself.

It wasn’t long before he fell to the floor and began convulsing. He heard Vartag remark that his skin was flushed. Gorim struggled and gasped for air, but found it a fight he was not winning. When his spasms finally ceased, Trian gently lifted him in his arms.

“Drink up Gorim.” he said, pressing the vial against his lips. The taste was sweet upon his lips as he finally blacked out.

Chapter Text

21 Ferventis, Dragon Age 9:30

The first thing Xanthos noticed upon his senses returning and his mind sharpening once again was the feeling of a hand clutching his own. It was rough and calloused. The incredibly strong grip began to crush the life from the prince’s fingers, but he endured it.

The second thing he noticed was that his appetite was utterly ravenous, in stark contrast to his normal hunger. And he could feel, somehow, that his waist had thinned. But that was hardly surprising, considering he’d been unconscious for a few days he surmised.

The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was that Trian was asleep, head nestled against the covers. He had been surprised to gaze down and see that Trian’s hand was the one clutching his. He could tell by his un-princely visage, that Trian had not gotten much sleep at all in the time between the assassin’s dagger piercing Xanthos and now. He had hardly even groomed himself, his beard showing signs of becoming knotted and his hair slick with oil. His clothes were covered in dirt and dust.

Xanthos tried to remember all that had happened. The last thing he remembered, he had foiled an assassination attempt on Trian’s life. The hired blade was sent flying to his death into the black void that awaited him. Whether the Stone would accept him or not was not exactly high on the prince’s list of concerns. But beyond that, the prince couldn’t remember much, though he was able to gleam enough.

Judging by how he was in bed, stripped down to his smallclothes, he had been rendered unable to do much of anything. The wound had not been that serious, he recalled, so it must have been laced with poison. Sure enough, when he tried to sit up, he felt his muscles were noticeably weaker than usual. His entire body ached all over, so he settled for just laying there like a heap of discarded rubble, staring at the ceiling.

But it wasn’t just any poison, Xanthos figured. He had taken a precaution as the army marched. His herbalist contacts had provided him with antidotes to every known poison used in Orzammar and he had made sure to follow their directions on how to take them without conflict. So that meant that the only poison that could have affected him was the one that killed mother.

By the Ancestors, was Bhelen so dead set on going through with it that he would resort to gaining that vile concoction? Was he that far gone? How had it come to this? Father had to know what was going on. He was many things, but he was not blindly stupid. Willfully obtuse to the reality of things he did not want to accept, certainly, but he had to have always known deep down what was happening.

The more the prince thought of it, the more his head began to hurt. He clenched his free hand into a fist and slammed it into the endstand by his side, not realizing that he’d knocked over an empty glass. As it shattered, Trian snapped to alarm and looked around the room for a threat, before his eyes settled on his brother.

Their eyes locked.

Trian’s mouth stood agape.

“You know,” Xanthos muttered with a raspy breath. “Sitting here with your mouth open is not exactly becoming a prince of Orzammar.”

The beaming smile and deadpan tone to his voice was enough to bring the heir and scion of House Aeducan back to his senses.

“Neither is lying about for days on end sleeping.”

His tone was gruff, as it usually was, but no malice seeped into it. Rather, it was filled more with an undercurrent of relief.

“You know I need my beauty sleep, Trian.”

“Then you had best get a few more hours in.” Trian teased.

Xanthos’ pout could put even the youngest and most precocious children of the Diamond Quarter to shame. Coupled with those sad blue eyes, he certainly pulled off the image of a wounded animal. Trian merely shook his head in disbelief, before he howled with laughter. Soon enough, Xanthos joined in and the room resounded with the echoes of their fraternity.

It wasn’t long though before Xanthos stopped. “Making me laugh… you really... are an ass Trian. You know how much it hurts to do that?”

“I am sure you can survive such tribulations.”

Xanthos absently waved his free hand and grumbled to himself, before looking around the room. “Where is Gorim?”

“I saw him roaming about, gathering the pieces for the armor you are to wear for your commission. He is very devoted to you.”

“For getting some armor?” Xanthos asked incredulously. “That is hardly anything worth your praise. Your standards are about as high as the Frostbacks.”

Trian shook his head. His eyes settled on a distant point against the far wall, but for all anyone knew he could be staring out past it into the abyss. Releasing his hold upon his brother’s hand, he slowly rose from the chair and walked to the other side. The glass fragments were everywhere and Trian worked diligently to pick them up, piece by piece.

“You were poisoned. But it was not any poison. Somehow, the poison that killed mother found its way back into the city.”

“I know.”

Trian glanced back and narrowed his eyes. “You know?” he asked skeptically.

“If it had been any other poison, the healers would have easily cured me.” he said, deliberately omitting his own foresight during the expedition.

“Hmph. At any rate, the reason why I praised Gorim’s dutiful nature is because of how far he was willing to go for you. When the cure was discovered at long last, he did not hesitate to offer himself as a test subject.”

“I see…”, Xanthos’ voice trailed off. The sheets crumpled in the prince’s clenched fist, something Trian’s face took note of.

“At any rate, brother, you should get your rest. The Wardens will be here in a matter of days and you need to be at your best.”

“Yes Mother.” Xanthos said sarcastically.

Trian’s smile was an honest one, with not a touch of sadness or smugness behind it. Those were the moments that lifted the second son’s spirits. Orzammar was too wrapped up and mired in its political intrigue to the point that they forgot about what really mattered.

What use is power if you stand alone with it?

When Trian left the room, Xanthos peeled away the bandages and inspected his wound. There would be a scar, but it had not pierced any vital organs. No doubt they had rubbed elfroot mixtures upon the wound when changing the bandages. Perhaps even forced his body to drink such concoctions. He pulled away the covers and sat up slowly, ignoring the pain in his side as much as he could.

There was much to be done. As he planted his feet on the ground, he used his right hand to steady himself on the end table. His legs quaked uncontrollably. The end table began to shake as his hands pressed down upon it, desperate to steady himself. The poison had not only rendered him comatose, but had severely atrophied his muscles. Even the healers, who had no doubt massaged his muscles to stimulate the blood flow, could not have stifled the effect it had.

Standing upright, he began to take a step towards the looking glass. Then another step. Each one took more effort then the last, his feet weighing as much as a Golem’s. The weight was so bad that he fell to the ground hard.

This was going to be more of an issue then he thought.

Cursing, he pulled himself up and sat on the floor, before dragging himself around the bed to the chair Trian sat in. Getting in it was easy enough, he could see. Getting out… well…

“Oy!” he bellowed, the cry echoing through the chamber. “Someone get in here!”

The door swung open and in walked Gorim, arms filled to bursting with every bit of armor required for Xanthos to wear at the feast. Upon seeing the prince awake and well, all the accoutrements fell to the ground with a loud clang. He stared, dumbfounded, mouthing silent words of shock. Xanthos’ eyes merely looked down at the armor, seemingly unfazed.

“Careful Gorim, if you dent that armor my father will have you shoveling Snug’s shit for House Dace for a week.”

In normal circumstances, Gorim might have given a retort of his own, but here he could only stumble forward and fall to his knees, clasping his prince’s hands in his.

“Forgive me, my prince. I failed you. I should have--”

“Hush Gorim, it’s alright. I made the decision. I should apologize to you, for giving you cause to worry and doubt yourself.”

“But…”

Xanthos shook his head.

“I will hear no more of it. I failed you and that is that. Now, if you could, I really am in need of a walking stick.”

Gorim immediately stood up, wiped the tears from his eyes, and ran out of the room to find one. Xanthos watched, sighed, and closed his eyes.

It’s going to be a long road from here on out.

 

~0~0~0~

 

Even in the pits of Dust Town, word had spread. Every duster and their mother was going on about how the prince had lived, how he was wide awake now. Merchants were throwing a sale on their items to celebrate, but as far as Darius was concerned the prince was just another noble. And all nobles were the same.

A bunch of useless cave ticks.

He supposed he could raise a pint of ale in the prince’s name, but not out of any love for him. More for the effect it would have. If the prince had died, he was certain the guardsmen and nobles would have found some way to blame the people of Dust Town. The Warrior caste would have come down upon them with a righteous fury, as the hammer crashes into the molten iron upon the anvil.

Darius was glad he did not have to see anything of the sort happen. A war between Dust Town and the upper districts would be completely one-sided.

He was seated in the far back of Tapster’s Tavern, away from the hustle and bustle of the other castes. They had given him the evil eye when he walked in, but said nothing. No one dared say anything to a member of the Carta, for fear of Beraht’s reprisal. Even Corra, the woman that owned the place and who was not shy about voicing her distaste of Darius, let him pass. Nonetheless, Darius knew he wasn’t safe to act a fool. Beraht had his own eyes and ears within these walls.

All news passed through Tapster’s, after all.

Everyone was going on about the latest Proving matches and their opinions about who would win the coming one to celebrate the command the prince would be given. The smell of roast nug and bronto steak was thick in the air, mixing sumptuously with the scent of freshly baked lichen bread. Tankards slammed into one another as ale spilled forth onto the floor, with roudy songs drowning out the noise of those talking.

Moreover, Darius chose the far back not for its isolation, but for its view of everything. He had a prime view of the door, able to see who came and went, and his back was directly facing the wall. He had learned a long time ago not to leave any opening exposed and risk death or injury.

Especially in a bar full of drunks carrying weapons. Even Beraht’s name could only do so much.

As it happened, he saw the door open as someone came in, cloaked under a tattered hood. Corra, who up until now had been cleaning the bar of spilt ale, raised her head and looked at the figure. They were clearly nervous, that much Darius saw.

Though he couldn’t hear what she said, he saw the woman point the newcomer in his direction. As they hurriedly tried to avoid all the movement of drunks and idiots, Darius tossed his ale back and let the cool refreshing liquid glide down his throat, doing his best to ignore the dirt that was mixed within, and then slammed the tankard down. Wiping away the remnants from his mouth with his arm he slid out from the booth and walked to the hooded stranger.

“This way.” he said. He didn’t even cast a look back to see if they followed.

Sliding past the bartenders and into the kitchen, he held the door open for them. Within, Beraht sat down upon a large keg. It was one of many he’d ‘imported’ into the city using his connections topside. He seemed to be deep in laughter as he had a woman clad in leathers on his lap, before looking to the door.

“Well, well… was beginning to think you wouldn’t show.” he said. The woman stood up and took her place by his side.

Jarvia. The name tasted like bile upon his lips. She stood there, smug and content, but if he had to admit anything it was that he preferred her over Beraht. Where Beraht trampled upon the Carta members like they were little more then cave beetles, Jarvia at least did her best to ensure those under her command did alright.

Her strong jaw was locked in place, teeth grinding in slight annoyance, as she fiddled with the daggers on her belt. Her dark brown braids, thick round nose, and piercing grey eyes had a devilishly cute quality to them… if you didn’t mind that devil dragging you down into hell with it.

Still, he only preferred her by a slight margin, as it was well known that Beraht was drilling in her mine. She was just as complicit in everything as he was.

As the person he escorted removed their hood, he saw that it was a woman. Her thick black hair was tied into two short pigtails. Her deep blue eyes, button nose, and round face could fool a person into thinking she held innocence, but in Dust Town innocence was one of the first things to go. And she had lost hers at the same time as he did -- upon birth -- when he saw the mark of a casteless upon her right cheek.

Darius could hardly keep his eyes from popping out of his head in shock.

“Boy, you wanna have her polish your sword, do it on your own time.” came Jarvia’s scathing comment, before turning to the woman. “Girl, what’s your name?”

“Sigrun, ma’am.” she muttered.

“Speak up!”

“Sigrun.” she said louder.

Beraht rose from his seat and took a leg of nug in his hands before biting into it. He took no time to close his mouth, intent on savoring it to the last bit as loudly as he possibly could. “I have a proposition for you, Sigrun.”

As he finished off the leg, he tossed the bones to the wayside before he pulled from a sack in the corner a beautiful statuette, made from the purest gold. Only the deep lords would make something like that, so eager to display their wealth. And of Paragon Bemot to boot.

Darius didn’t know the Paragon from a hole in the ground, but he’d heard the whispers on the streets. House Bemot had lost their prized statuette and were turning the entire city upside down to find it. Guardsmen were eager to frisk down anyone they suspected of hiding it.

Evidently, Beraht was the reason why it was missing. What he planned to do with it or why he took it in the first place, Darius didn’t know. Maybe the man was going to melt it down and make himself a crown… or a great golden cock to fuck Jarvia with. It would send an insulting message as well that would be a source of comedy between them -- House Bemot reduced to cuckolds for Beraht and Jarvia. Darius hoped for the latter item, loving nothing more then to take it and shove it down his throat or up his arse until he bled. Let the bastard choke on his greed.

Beraht tossed the statuette to Darius. Catching it, he passed it along to Sigrun at Jarvia’s signal. “You work in Mischa’s shop, is that right?”

Sigrun nodded.

“Good.” Beraht said. “I want you to hide this in there.”

Sigrun looked up in dismay before stepping forward. Darius stepped forward on his own, not because he expected her to try anything, but because he had to.

“I can’t! She’s been nothing but a friend! I’d be betraying her!”

Beraht narrowed his eyes and sneered, stepping towards her. Between the two of them, it was almost shocking how much he towered over her. “‘Can’t’ is not a word that’s in my vocabulary. Anyone can do anything. What you’re saying is you won’t.”

“See, that’s not a good thing.” Jarvia added in. “When people say that, tragically some accidents happen to those close to them. It’s like a curse. Beraht’s only looking out for you.”

Sigrun’s face widened in horror as she grasped what they meant. Darius had to fight every urge within his body not to turn around and deck Beraht for threatening her friends and family. He clenched his fists together and tried to breathe through it, but just the mere presence of the man so close to him made it difficult.

“Mischa seems like a good woman with a good head for business. I’d hate for this curse to fall upon her.” Beraht said with false sincerity.

Tears were forming up in Sigrun’s eyes before she lowered her head.

“I’ll… I’ll do it.” she said, giving in. There seemed to be no fight in her, not on this, and Darius couldn’t fault her.

“Good girl. Boy, escort her back out.”

Darius took her by the arm and walked with her as she began to cry.

“Let’s go…” he said. His tone was full of both compassion and sadness.

When the two of them finally reached the door, Sigrun had halted in place, causing Darius to stumble forward. The woman was remarkably strong for someone so tiny.

“I’m not doing it.” she said.

Darius looked at her quizzically as she wrenched her arm free. The tears flowed freely from her eyes but she stared up at him with a strength and resilience she had carefully concealed. But it was a fool’s strength. No doubt she told him because she trusted in him to not say anything to Beraht. And in that, she was right, but his silence alone wouldn’t be enough.

As she stormed out of the tavern and down the stairs, he chased after her and dragged her behind the building to where a group of Servant caste women were washing clothes. Flashing his eyes at them, the three women knew not to approach him, though they spat on the ground as they backed away and left.

“Listen to me.” he began, letting go of her. She wrapped her arms around her body, closed her eyes, and tried not to continue crying. “I get how you want to fight Beraht. I do too. But you need to do what he says.”

“And when will it stop if I do?” she snapped back.

“I dunno.” Darius rubbed at the back of his head, sighing.

“Someone needs to take a stand against him.”

“Look at me!” Darius shouted, arms tightly squeezing hers as he forced her to look at him in the eyes. “I’ve seen what Beraht’s done to those who refuse him! It’s only a matter of time before their lives go to shit, worse than Dust Town. And trust me, he will kill your friend… in the cruelest ways you or I or anyone could imagine.”

“So I have to choose between betraying my friend and being his slave… or doing nothing and fearing for her life every day.” Sigrun’s voice was tinged with a deep sense of melancholy.

Darius nodded. He could feel the fight truly leave her body and he let her go. She ran off without a second thought but he knew that she would do it. He hated himself for convincing her to do something she didn’t want to, but better that the statue be hidden there for a few days until House Bemot felt it was gone from the city entirely.

Anger boiled within and he slammed his fists against stone and wooden crates kept behind the tavern. Then once more, again, and again, and again. He kept going until blood poured down his hands and the pain was almost unbearable, before lastly throwing a large basin of fresh water as far as he could toss it.

The jeers and derision from the cowering members of the other castes didn’t reach his ears as he stormed back into Dust Town.

 

~0~0~0~

 

23 Ferventis, Dragon Age 9:30

 

The week was proving to be filled with more to do than Trian had anticipated. Xanthos’ recovery had at least abated some of the slack he and Bhelen would have to pick up in his sibling’s place, but even that only allowed so much. Xanthos was confined to bedrest with minimal movement around the palace, per the healer’s orders. Leeches were often used to remove any excess blood that was still contaminated with the poison.

Trian shuddered at the mere thought of having those foul, slimy, and disgusting creatures from the surface touch his skin.

He was neck deep in studying the old treaties signed in the reign of Eithnar Bemot. He had looked at them before in his studies, but with the coming arrival of the Wardens he felt it was paramount to brush up on them again. He was shocked to discover that Bhelen’s name was among those who had checked the treaties out.

Perhaps there’s hope for him yet.

Father’s mood had also lifted considerably, when the news reached his ear in the middle of the Assembly. Trian had taken over the Assembly’s duties alongside Lord Harrowmont then as the king excused himself, and was glad for it. For once, their king acted more like their father. And now, with the Wardens so close to arriving, they needed to prepare.

Duncan had sent word ahead with one of the merchant convoys, saying he was planning to look for a recruit to join the order. A Glory Proving had to be organized to demonstrate the strength of the Warrior caste. And Trian was no fool. The Wardens had twenty years to take on recruits as much as they wanted from Orzammar. For them to do so now meant they were urgently looking for recruits.

This, coupled with the reports of the Fall of Bownammar and all the thaigs that fell in the intermittent years, could only mean one thing. The Blight was attacking the surface.

Trian felt no sense of relief at the thought of what was happening. While the Darkspawn were thinned out, their front lines were still on the cusp of falling. But perhaps, if father could be persuaded, the full army could be mobilized to take advantage of this and work alongside the Wardens to reclaim territory. Moreover, they had to uphold their word with the Wardens. They promised them aid to fight the Blight and Trian would be damned if the Dwarves would backslide on that promise.

He was on his way to see Father in his chambers to discuss the treaty when he saw a young boy -- perhaps no older than thirteen years -- standing about with a confused look on his face. He was covered from head to toe in filth and tattered rags, with matted brown hair, innocent green eyes, and a thin gaunt face. Trian thought him a casteless for a brief second, but more as likely he was an unwanted orphan. How he had come into the palace was a question that rankled the crown prince.

“Boy, what are you doing here?” Trian barked.

“I… I was… supposed to hand a gift to the new commander, m’lord.” the boy muttered, looking around nervously.

“Hrmph. I am your prince, not your lord.” Trian’s irritation was beginning to grow at being disrespected, but he chose to let it pass for now as he turned. “Very well, see to it that you do not tarry here long.”

“Oh… my apologies m’lo-- my prince. But, you could hand the gift to the new commander, couldn’t you? Please?”

Trian turned on the young boy and pressed his palm against the stone wall, looking down directly. Trian’s eyes held nothing but ire and righteous indignation. The boy cowered and pressed himself back up against the wall. “I am NOT your messenger. You dare ask your prince to serve you?”

“N-no my prince. Forgive me.” The boy began to slide past Trian and run towards the door, and Trian ordered the guardsmen to ensure that he left without any issue… as well as to keep an eye on him. When he disappeared beyond the corner, Trian rubbed at the corner of his eyes. Exhaustion weighed him down like chains, but the foolish boy needed to see his prince not appear weak.

The idea that anyone could just ask Trian to perform a task for them was incredible in its gall. Was Trian so thoroughly lacking respect in Orzammar that people thought they could walk all over him? He couldn't let this stand. He would find out the truth of the matter.

After meeting with Father.