Chapter 1: An Unwelcoming Welcome
Bloomingtide, 9:08 Dragon Age
Teagan ambles off the Haelia’s gangplank before dawn, unfettered by luggage and anxious to reach his brother’s estate.
The Denerim docks reek of old vomit and wet dog. An unwelcoming welcome.
Let’s just get this all over. With luck, he can take the Haelia home. He’s missed the tournament, but he and Cador could salvage the rest of the season.
The stench of his native land doesn’t improve. Picking his way through the heaving market, his nose stings and his eyes water at what passes for “clean” in Ferelden. Not that Orlesians are much better: they just cover their fug with perfumes. Southerners.
Gagging for fresher air, he dodges pushy dwarven hawkers and carts clattering along cobblestones.
His purse is lifted, almost skillfully, then retrieved after his throwing dagger finds its mark in the scoundrel’s shoulder.
He introduces himself to the snowcapped Estate guard three times: slowing the words and drawing out the vowels like taffy, trying to be understood. Finally, there’s a glimmer in the old duffer’s eyes and the gates swing open.
* * * * * * *
“I’m not interested in politics, Eamon.”
Eamon nods like he heard, then pours him another glass of wine. With breakfast. “This is your birthright as a Guerrin.”
The alleged wine claws his tongue and throat even after he swallows. Eamon’s twitchy wine steward was a pikeman in the war, and he hasn’t broken himself of the habit of trying to kill men.
“Why wait six years?”
“Because you were twelve. You’re eighteen now. I was eighteen when I returned. That’s young, but old enough. You know everything you need to rule a bannorn.”
“Everything, except how they work.”
Eamon sips his caustic wine. “You watched Aunt Thalia handle Ansburg as much as I did. There could be no better teacher.”
Teagan shrugs. It’s on her advice I’m here. Maker, why am I here? Sunlight bleeds through the dining room windows and onto the table and its fare. Rude fare, compared to Ansburg. Passable bread and cheese, but very little fruit. He doubts the cook - yet another veteran - has ever heard of oranges. Still. The Guerrin Estate is a significant improvement over the market outside its gates. At least everybody bathes here, or I’d be flat-out on the floor and Eamon would still be waffling on.
“… last bann was Branan. He died at the beginning of the Occupation, Maker rest him. The village has managed with an elders’ council for nearly seventy years, but they must be getting on. Rainesfere will need a bann for stability. Rainesfere will welcome you. There should be very little to do.”
“Then send your wine steward. He probably knows more about crop rotation than wine, anyway.”
Eamon scowls from behind his bushy Ferelden beard. He looks tired.
* * * * * * *
The Palace is vast. All the mirrors are swathed in black velvet.
Four years of black velvet. One more to go.
The General is tall and colourless. Dour as the rain and the mud.
“So good of you to come,” he drawls, “though I’m sure she’d have appreciated a visit sooner.”
“I wasn’t told she was sick until after the funeral.” It was the first letter he ever got from Ferelden that she didn’t write herself.
* * * * * * *
Cailan’s tall, for five. Or is it six? Still tall. Blond, like his father. Golden, like all Theirins.
But his eyes aren’t Theirin-blue.
They recall the sky over the rolling grasslands of Ansburg. A family whose name means ‘golden’ in ancient Tevine.
When Teagan speaks with Cailan, his own eyes look back at him. Glad to see him. Hungry for conversation.
They discuss big boats and shiny swords. They both like horses.
When he leaves, he promises the tall little boy he’ll visit soon. They’ll go riding. Maybe even hunting.
* * * * * * *
Rowan is in the garden.
Elegant in marble, The Perfect Queen, sitting among the roses she apparently loved.
Eamon finds him. “She looked so much like Mother.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
* * * * * * *
Redcliffe’s wine cellar is based on a dare.
It’s muggy. The dining hall windows are open to catch any breeze, including the one that pushes the smell of smoking fish and wet dog into the room.
Eamon was truthful. It’s not politics. It’s his new wife: devoted, but Orlesian.
Six years after he breaks the Orlesian chokehold on Redcliffe, Eamon gives his freeholders an Orlesian arlessa, then acts surprised when they twist his balls.
Before Teagan can point out the obscenity of Eamon’s folly, Eamon declares Teagan “Bann of Rainesfere” and pushes a crumbly letter into his hands.
Teagan’s face tightens into a scowl as he reads the words of the last Bann of Rainesfere. A dead man’s words. Now, Bann Branan’s title and lands all pass to him with a wave of Eamon’s gracious hands. So why does it feel like he’s looting the man’s corpse? Teagan did nothing to liberate Ferelden. Boyhood pranks involving Orlesian merchants and copious amounts of horseshit can hardly count.
Eamon refills Teagan’s goblet. “Oh, come on! What would you do with yourself if you went back?”
“You mean, ‘went home.’” Teagan cradles the letter between his palms and stares ruefully at his goblet. It took him over an hour to drain it of that vengeful vinegar, and seconds for Eamon to refill it with more.
“Redcliffe is your home. You were born here.”
“I’m from Ansburg.” Ferelden wasn’t safe. Ferelden made us both orphans. How can he just erase sixteen years?
Eamon snorts and drains his own goblet.
“If I were home,” Teagan insists, “I’d be in Starkhaven. There’s a tournament.”
Eamon sighs. “You’re entering the Grand Tourney?”
“In a few years. When I’ve gained more weight. But in the meantime, I’ll compete in the smaller tournaments.”
“You can do something better than any Grand Tourney right now.”
Teagan glowers at his goblet and folds his arms. Here it comes.
“Little brother,” Eamon’s voice is smooth. Practised. Apparently, arls do a lot of public speaking. He wears the veneer of a confident statesman, and Teagan idly wonders how important Redcliffe actually is. “You could use your skills to do some real good.”
But the longer he sits in the oppressive dining hall, the less Teagan wants to be swayed to his brother’s side. “Real good, stuck in some village on the frontier?”
“Dammit, Teagan, grow up!” his bellow slaps the stone walls. “You have duties. I have duties. Right now, my duty is to prevent you from becoming a wastrel. Yours is to listen to me: find a yourself a girl and settle down. In Rainesfere.”
“I’m not interested in girls, Eamon.”
“Oh Teagan, I’m well aware of your interests. Do you think I’m stupid? That just because I’m not in Ansburg, I don’t know about your carryings-on? Do you have any idea how damaging the scandal would be to Aunt Thalia?”
Teagan’s stomach twists around the bitter wine. He grips the arms of his chair and stares at his brother. He’d done his damnedest to be discrete, so either Eamon caught a whisper and he’s bluffing about the rest, or he really does know all. Teagan would never be able to look Aunt Thalia in the eyes if she knew. Uncle Otto would make himself sick trying to soothe her. After all their unstinting kindness, Teagan owes them better. Perhaps it would be better if he spent some time away from Ansburg. Enough time for the scandal to be inevitably crushed under the weight of others’ scandals.
“Before you think to pursue your interests here in Ferelden, you might consider how much it cost Father to keep House Guerrin intact.”
Maker’s blood, House Bloody Guerrin. Teagan doesn’t belong in Ferelden. He should go home. Take his chances with the scandal - Cador said he’d help him kill any gossip. He could tell Aunt Thalia that he gave Eamon a fair hearing and refused him to his face. It’d be the truth. Except that he owes a little boy a visit soon. And except that he knows Eamon needs him more than he’ll admit. Typical Eamon. He might actually know all of Teagan’s filthy laundry, but not that he can read a map. Rainesfere watches a long track of the Imperial Highway uncomfortably near the border with Orlais. Given the anger at Eamon’s Orlesian wife, Teagan is the only person Eamon can trust to be Bann of Rainesfere. After all, wastrels don’t raise armies against their elder brothers.
“If the bannorn needs help, I’ll stay for a year.” With luck, I’ll find somebody acceptably unambitious to take my place.
“You should grow a beard while you’re here. You look like you’re still twelve.”
Chapter 2: An Old-Fashioned Custom
Justinian, 9:08 Dragon Age
Ser Garrett couldn’t possibly be mistaken for twelve. He’s too tall. Too burly. Almost bearlike. He sports a meticulous goatee and a head of thick, dark hair pulled back by braids. A paragon of Ferelden masculinity. He’s even a veteran of the Rebellion, and he isn’t yet thirty.
Part of Teagan wants to dislike him out of principle, but Ser Garrett speaks with an ease that Teagan lost somewhere between Ansburg and Denerim, so he's grateful for the conversation. It makes waiting for their horses and equipment less tedious.
Ser Garrett’s people fished Calenhad’s northern shoreline until the Chevaliers came with torches. They might have attacked as a way of punishing the local bann, or it might have been random, Ser Garrett doesn’t know. He does know that he was nine. And that he got his baby sister to the Denerim Chantry, across rough, warring country, without provisions and on foot.
(When Teagan was nine, he and his cousin Cador dropped a bucket of horse muck onto the roof of a visiting merchant’s carriage. That the merchant was Orlesian was coincidence.)
The boy Garrett then joined the Northern Army. His commander, an Arl Urien, liked his grit and took him on as squire.
After the coronation, Maric knighted him for assorted acts of bravery. Had he stayed in Denerim, Ser Garrett could cover himself in honours. But when Maric asked his men for a volunteer to be his youngest brother-in-law’s second, Ser Garrett stepped forward. Like now:
“Do you think you could bounce that down EACH and EVERY step?” Ser Garrett’s voice slices through the commotion and a harried squire chases after the pot skittering along the courtyard flagstones. “Andraste’s roasted toes, Barton! Did you order everything to be juggled before it’s loaded?”
Barton is Eamon’s seneschal. He’s a squat man in his mid-fifties with strawlike hair and a scraggy beard. He wears face powder - the first Teagan’s seen of the stuff since he boarded the Haelia in Wycome. It’s an older man’s fashion - one of dozens that Uncle Otto ignores - and it’s supposed to look sophisticated, but all Teagan can see is how the stuff cakes in the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. Whenever he has to talk to Barton, he fights the urge to scrub the seneschal’s face clean.
“Ser Garrett,” Barton soothes, “they’re trying-”
“-If they knew what they were doing, they’d be less trying. At this rate, we’ll be lucky to beat the first frost to Rainesfere.”
Teagan grins. Cador would like him. Surprised at the pangs of homesickness, he frowns and fights them back.
“It’ll be sooner than that,” condescends Barton, “don’t you worry yourself, lad.”
Ser Garrett bristles. He snakes a brawny arm around the seneschal’s shoulders. Lifts him a few inches from the ground. He speaks slowly. Louder. Like Barton’s senile and deaf: “this is Bann Teagan Guerrin, not a snotnosed stable hand. Remember that. It’s safer.”
Barton sputters an apology.
Teagan nods slightly. Barton’s been calling him ‘lad’ since they met a few days ago.
Ser Garrett drops Eamon’s seneschal, who scuttles back into the castle.
Once alone, Teagan leans slightly toward Ser Garrett. “You’ve held command positions.”
“I have. Though mainly in His Highness’ service.”
“Maric couldn’t praise you enough. I’m grateful for his generosity, but I’m confused by yours: why should you leave a promising career in Maric’s service to bind yourself to Rainesfere and it’s boy bann?”
“I, er. I thought a quieter life might better suit me and Violet.”
Violet. The baby sister. Now a companion to a wealthy dowager in one of the newly-returned noble houses. It’s a comfortable, respectable position. No sensible girl would abandon it without reason. “When’s she due?”
Ser Garret stares at Teagan with eyes far older than thirty. “Haring.”
Teagan wonders if he’s blundered into the one situation where Fereldens don’t like plain speaking. Unable to take his words back, he presses onward, “I’ll send you to Denerim before long. Bring her back with you.”
“According to Eamon, all Rainesfere needs is the breath of youth and a woman’s touch.”
* * * * * * *
Everything smells of pine. Calenhad sparkles, silver and mythic. To the west, the Frostbacks tower over the mighty forest and scrape the sky. It feels good to be riding again. Even this head-shy gelding on indefinite loan from Eamon’s stables.
They reach the Rainesfere crossroads before mid-morning. Other than the birds, there is no sound. Other than the trees, nothing stands.
But by their reckoning, they should see the village. It should be small. Almost too small to be called a village, but it should still be there.
They dismount. Teagan pulls his map from a saddlebag. “A village doesn’t vanish.”
They both scowl at the map Teagan holds out.
Garrett double-checks the distance then stares, squinting, at the sun. “M’lord-”
“Very well: Teagan, I’m sure we’ve travelled for long enough.”
“Agreed. But you’ve still spent all morning with the only man in Ferelden who can get lost travelling in a straight line. Just think: you fought a war for this.”
Garrett huffs. “Did the Arl say that Rainesfere was on the lake, or up the pass?”
“By the lake, near the pass.”
They hunch over the map.
The horses wicker.
Something hard jabs Teagan’s back. He whirls.
“State your names and business!” demands a voice from the region of his hips.
Teagan and Garrett look steeply down, into a pair of round brown eyes set in a gaunt face. A little boy, menacing them with a pointy stick.
Garrett recovers first: “I’m Ser Garrett, knighted by King Maric the Savior himself. This man with me is my liege lord and yours, Bann Teagan Guerrin.”
The boy narrows his eyes and doesn’t lower his stick.
Teagan’s stomach twists. First a missing village, now a child with a spear - Maker, what’s happened here? “We want to help.”
His sharp brown eyes dart between Teagan and Garrett, taking them in, before he finally lowers his crude weapon. “Name’s Malin.” He holds out his hand to Teagan.
Who takes it, noticing that there isn’t any dirt under the boy’s fingernails. His shirt is neatly patched and cut-down from a larger size. He’s tall, for five.
“It’s my job to watch for bandits,” the boy proclaims, “but you’re dressed too fancy and you make too much noise.”
Teagan reaches for his mount’s bridle. The gelding tosses his head, but Teagan’s quicker. He does his best to comfort the gelding. He’d been counting on - once they got to Rainesfere - having nothing but time to help the poor fellow past whatever nonsense Redcliffe’s stables has done to him. Now, with the presence of children - why hadn’t he considered a village with children? - the gelding’s head-shyness feels dangerous.
“Those are big ponies,” the boy observes.
“That’s because they’re horses,” Garrett explains, holding his mare’s bridle.
“Do you feed them something special to get them that big?”
“No, lad. Horses just grow bigger than ponies. Like ravens and crows.”
Malin nods sagely. The Frostbacks are home to both birds. He reaches up to pet the gelding’s nose.
“Careful,” Teagan warns as the horse stamps, “he’s head-shy.”
“Don’ you worry, Headshy,” Malin croons, satisfied with stroking the beast’s neck, “if you horses eat the same fare as ponies, we got plenty. He’s a pretty dancer.”
“Er. Yes, he is,” Teagan marvels at how the boy’s mind works.
Garrett, whose mare is respectably called Thunder, simply chuckles.
“Will you take us to the elder’s council?” Teagan asks.
* * * * * * *
On the southern bank of the burbling Sulcher River, swans wander between fire-scarred fieldstones and saplings. The forest reclaims Calenhad’s shore even as three ancient turf houses huddle against it.
This, apparently, is Rainesfere: long-since picked-over and left for dead.
Teagan doubts his brother’s ever clapped eyes on the Sulcher River.
Malin’s right: the horses have plenty to graze.
* * * * * * *
Instead of an elders’ council, Malin brings them to a gathering of adults working around a small campfire on the far side of one of the ancient turf houses. The fire burns so low, they don’t see the smoke until they see the hearth.
There’s a large, lidded pot sits in the embers. The smell of home cooking hovers in the air.
Soft chatter and kerchiefs. Cut-down shirts under stout leather vests. Like women.
Rough leather trousers and boots. Knives sheathed at their sides. Like huntsmen.
Twigs snap underfoot.
The adults look up. Reach for their knives.
First Garrett, then Teagan raise their empty hands. Stand behind the little boy who brought them and wait as seven pairs of eyes slice them open.
* * * * * * *
The eldest, Aine, is a boney woman with mouse-brown hair. She looks younger than Garrett, but seems older. She speaks for the group.
“Why’re you here?”
“The Arl wishes to bring stability to Redcliffe.”
“Why now?” Aine assesses Teagan with ice-chip eyes.
Teagan casts about for a repeatable answer. If their menfolk ever show up, it might be easier to explain. He and Garrett shift their weight, resting their hands on their pommels.
The women’s eyes snap to their hands on their weapons. The one closest the cookpot - a redhead - slowly grabs a nearby frypan. The brunette beside her pulls a sling from behind her back. The two women with raven-black hair on the other side of the fire draw their knives and slide forward, shielding the smallest: a towheaded slip who’s frozen to the spot.
Something in Teagan’s gut squeezes. There's too much ... wrong here. He carefully lowers his hands to his sides. “Because Malin’s too young to watch for bandits.”
“We make do here, boy.”
Teagan wishes Eamon had told him about the beard before he left Ansburg. It would’ve given him a couple weeks’ head start for his beard to not grow.
“Where are your menfolk?” Garrett presses.
Aine huffs. “With the Maker. Our fathers and uncles died defending their children from the Chevaliers six years ago.”
“And your brothers?” Teagan asks before he can stop himself.
The tallest woman - auburn hair, lanky and the only one not openly hostile - points toward Lake Calenhad. “Rocks in their pockets.” She watches Teagan closely, cautiously. Nods silently when he bows his head in reflexive grief.
“So,” Aine’s crisp voice interrupts, “why does this fucking Arl care about us now?”
* * * * * * *
Shady side of the ancient turf house. Crouching underneath the only un-shuttered window. Teagan decides he won’t mention anything about eavesdropping to Eamon. He might get the wrong idea.
Door opens. Closes. Gets bolted.
“The littlins?” Aine asks.
“All safe,” reports the newcomer. The redhead with the frypan. “And watching the horses graze. The mare pooped, so they’ll have a story to tell.”
“Did you see Them, Lissa?” Aine presses.
“No,” says Lissa, “and I don’t give a fiddler’s fart what They’re doin’.”
“With luck, they’ve fallen down a hole.” Teagan thinks this is the brunette sling-wielder.
“If only,” Aine agrees.
“He’s too young to be Bann,” insists sling-wielder, “he can’t even grow a beard.”
“Greer’s right,” says Lissa.
Teagan sighs. He can’t help the beard. Unlike Eamon, who started shaving in earnest sometime in his early teens, Teagan still barely shaves.
Beside him, Garrett laughs silently. “It’ll come,” he whispers, “it’s no slight on your character - mine was slow, too - it’s just old-fashioned custom for the bann to have a beard.”
“-if he’s a noble, then it don’t matter how young he is, Greer,” protests the lanky woman with auburn hair, the one who didn’t seem afraid of them, “he’s the Arl’s brother. The Queen’s brother. He’s Bann.”
“Blood don’t matter, Orla. What if his head’s soft?” sling-wielding Greer makes a good point.
“Didn’t seem so,” assesses Orla, “just … sheltered. And maybe a little foolish.”
“Fair assessment,” Teagan whispers to Garrett.
“Supposing he is the Arl’s brother-” says another woman - one of the raven-haired knife-wielders.
The women make sounds of assent.
“-should we be supposing the Arl does care about here?”
“No, Nell," says Aine, "if the Arl gave a shit, he’d be here himself. He dug out his baby brother from wherever they’d planted him and sent him. We’re all of us on our own.”
“D’you think he’s done wrong?” This isn’t Nell, but the other raven-haired knife wielder. Teagan suspects they’re sisters.
“The Arl?” snorts Aine,” let me get my list!”
“No, our new Bann. Maker, what’d he do to get dumped here?”
“Maker’s breath, Jess, what’s wrong with here?” demands Nell.
“Nothing, for us,” says Jess, “but did you see his fancy boots? Don’t think they’ve ever been muddy before. Wherever they planted him, it was … fine and soft. Listen to the way he speaks! Not just that weird accent, but the gentle words he uses. Like Brother Tonnald, all educated. Fine and soft! But he’s done something. Something bad. That’s why he’s here. So the Arl can keep an eye on ‘im.”
Silence settles as the women try to imagine what unspeakable evils might deserve Rainesfere as punishment.
“If you had a moustache right now,” Garrett whispers, “you could twirl it. That’s what the finest theatre villains do.”
Teagan smirks. “I’ll be sure to do that when it grows in,” he promises.
Orla is the first to speak, “No. I don’t think he’d seem such a fool if he weren’t honest. He might’ve done something, but nothing we need worry about.”
“You want to believe him,” accuses Jess.
“I don’t think that’s so bad. You said yourself he seems educated. I keep thinkin’ ‘bout the littlins. We had more when we were their age.” Orla sounds … tired, Teagan decides. In fact, they all sound tired.
“And this has nothing to do with how the Arl’s brother looks?”
Orla snorts. “Tsk! You’re the only girl for me, Jess.”
The women laugh - quick as a cloudburst and Jess loudest of all.
“It probably does have to do with his looks,” admits Orla, “and I’m sure it’s just because I miss Owen so hard … I know he’s not the same fellow - he’s got queer, foreign eyes. But I wonder if this one puts me in mind of Owen because the Maker wants us to trust ‘im. Can’t we just let ‘em stay and see if they’re any good? I miss the way this village was. For nothing else, I want to hear new damned stories.”
The women mumble a begrudging agreement.
“Isla, you’ve been quieter than usual,” Aine prompts the seventh woman.
“What if,” Teagan strains to hear her. This must be the towheaded slip. “What if the something bad he’s done is … what if he hurts women?”
“Isla-” Aine sounds worried.
“No,” insists Isla, her voice rising in pitch as she voices her fear, “What if he’s like that? What if they’re both like that? What if the bloody Arl sent us more?”
“Teagan,” Garrett whispers, his face earnest, “please believe I would never do that to a woman. To anyone.”
He nods back, “I believe you. Nor would I.”
“-no, no, no. We don’t let that happen,” Nell says.
“And that’s ‘cause we’ll kill ‘em first,” Lissa hisses.
The women rumble their agreement.
“Exactly,” affirms Aine, “the first sign of trouble, I promise, we’ll slit their throats.”
“We can’t be strong enough,” insists Isla, “we can’t ever-” Her voice muffles into somebody’s bodice.
A couple of them hum a lullaby.
“We can if they’re asleep,” Aine’s voice is hard, “We could do it quick and painless and soundless, like slitting a pig. Remember those? And if they cause trouble before we can stop ‘em, whoever they wrong gets the first stab. I promise.”
Teagan swallows hard. It’s not even his second day as Bann, and he could have his throat slit tonight. He turns to Garrett. “Is this an old-fashioned custom, too?”
Chapter 3: Stout Hearts, Strong Place
The women have ten children between them. All Malin’s age.
Three girls. Seven boys. All too young for Teagan to consistently tell boy from girl.
Their clothes are no help: they all dress like Malin.
Nor are their mannerisms: they move like Malin. Quiet and careful through the cool, green ferns, heads bobbing in and out of the dappled light, mistakable for fennecs.
The key is their names.
Which would be simple, except Teagan can’t remember any except Malin, who explains, in a hush, that they can stretch the midday meal by foraging swans’ eggs and something called Sulcher berries.
Aine and Orla follow them to the riverbank.
They bring their knives.
* * * * * * *
The burbling Sulcher screens their words from little ears.
“Couldn’t you leave?” Teagan would have. No matter the injury, no matter the season, he’s sure he would have left. Better to leave and live than stay and remember and ... he pushes the notion of Orla’s Owen out of his thoughts. Tilts his head so he doesn’t have to see the silvery lake.
“And go where?” Aine’s ice-chip eyes assess Teagan. “Anyway, I grew up here. That’s why I didn’t and don’t leave.”
These women are so much shorter than Teagan. And the trees. And the mountains. A few more years, they’ll be shorter than their sons. He lowers the smooth, grey branches lower so everyone can pluck the purple berries off with sticky, practised fingers.
“When I was a littlin, it could be hard here. But for them that chose it and worked for it, it was a good life. It was never harsh before.”
“I don’t mean to make things worse.”
“You won’t.” Her voice is so hard, Teagan thinks of pigs.
“I’m sorry we … we must have startled you. Uh. This morning.” He frowns at the river, certain he can’t say anything more insipid.
“What do you want, Teagan?” Her voice is hard, but her eyes aren’t. No longer ice-chips, they’re simply grey. And tired.
He takes a deep breath. “I need a village.” Sort of. Eamon thinks he’s entrusted one to me, at least. “What do you need?”
“Why do you care?”
“You happen to already be in the village.”
She tilts her head to the side. “The Arl already visits, y’know.”
“Usually during harvest. Smug bastard. He’s never asked me what we need.”
“But when I arrived, I was sure Eamon must not realize what’s happened here.”
Aine scowls. “He wouldn’t be the first arl to lie.”
“No,” Teagan knows that most noblemen lie. He hates it. He thought Eamon hated it, too. At least, he did in Ansburg, when they were boys. In Ferelden … truthfully, in Ferelden, Teagan’s known Eamon for less than a month.
Aine watches Teagan. He’s been told - by Eamon, in fact, that his face is easier to read than a Chanter’s Board. “People can change,” her voice is soft. Pitying.
Teagan nods slowly, vacillating between loyalty and betrayal. He needs to speak to his brother, but it will have to wait.
* * * * * * *
The children don’t scream or shout.
They use birdcalls.
Two thrushes for “mealtime,” three for “bath.”
The chick-dee’s own warning call to “hide.”
A raven croaking to “come home now.”
It confounds bandits.
They don’t hide from everyone, Aine insists, just those they don’t know.
Or those they know as raiders.
“The Wilder folk can be the worst. Sniffin’ around come harvest. If we’re slow getting everything into the cellar, they’ll make off with whatever provisions they can lay their hands on, and that makes for a lean winter. And now …” her eyes stray along the trees above them, to where the Sulcher cuts its path down through the forest.
Her frown tightens. She moves away from the children and lowers her voice. “Now … we haven’t seen hide nor hair of old Dermot. He hunts and traps around here. Lisbet, his missus, was a healer. They came down after the attack and patched us all up. Nothing else they could’ve done. Lisbet midwifed us and taught Isla all sorts. She went to the Maker last spring. We invited Dermot down here - he’s a cantankerous bugger, but the littlins love him and he’s been nothin’ but good to us. But he wouldn’t leave. Anyway, he brings us down his hides and pelts and we work ‘em. Nothing fancy, but we’re good. By Summerday, Dermot’s up north selling ‘em at one of the crossroad markets. He brings us back what we can’t forage or hunt or grow. He’s never late.”
“But he is now?” He keeps his voice as hushed as hers.
“I’ll make you a deal: if you refrain from slitting my throat tonight, I’ll check on Dermot first thing tomorrow.”
She offers Teagan her hand: handshakes are another old-fashioned custom. “Deal.”
* * * * * * *
Garrett neatly stacks their armour and weapons with the horses’ tack in the shelter of a crumbly stone wall.
Thunder and Headshy graze a short distance away, underneath young aspens in the long, golden sunlight.
He wades into Calenhad’s cool shallows, his trousers rolled past his knees.
The four strongest children cluster near his treetrunk legs. He and Jess wade as far as they dare and toss his hammock into the water.
Both were born to fishing. They gently shush the excited children. Show them how to pull the new net taught. How to wait.
Jess shares what she knows of the shoreline. Garrett tells her of his short boyhood near Wutherford. He beams at Teagan watching them from shore.
Teagan didn’t bring a hammock. So confident I’d only spend a day or two in Denerim. Teagan Aurum, you’re an ass.
Rather than be a useless ass, he decides to set up camp.
* * * * * * *
Once free from their sacks, the canvasses sear Teagan’s nostrils with the stench of old sweat and mildew. Caught between coughing and gagging, he hopes they’ll reek less once they’re up and the clean air moves through them. And it should move easily enough: the damnable things are ripped.
The tents were Eamon’s idea. Just in case the villagers couldn’t find an extra bed. Teagan picks over the conversation and unpacks the planks and stakes. He hadn’t really been paying attention. He can’t recall Eamon’s exact words, but he’s certain that Eamon believed there would be more hospitality in Rainesfere than the women can possibly provide.
As it is, Teagan and Garrett are at the mercy of whatever Barton packed.
He finds a flat patch of land, dragging the canvasses at arm’s length.
Malin follows in his wake, hauling battered tent pegs. Begging to help.
The boy’s like a dagger: stout and keen.
The canvas and boards have a will of their own: jerking out of place, smacking Teagan in the ass, splaying across Malin’s small frame. It’s less like building something and more like wrestling a floppy bear. It couldn’t smell any worse. But with every setback, Malin roars with laughter. By the time they actually erect two proper tents, they’re sweating.
* * * * * * *
Teagan dumped the rest of the equipment under a tree. Unsorted.
Now it’s neatly arrayed between two children with bright, whisky-coloured eyes and curly black hair.
The first has freckles dappling her nose and forehead: “you don’t got any provisions,” she scolds, “not even salt. So you better be nice to Mumma-Isla. She cooks our food.”
The second dimples when she speaks: “your pot’s too thin on the bottom.”
“Is that bad?” Teagan kneels in front of the girls, assessing what he and Garrett have. It isn’t much.
They nod earnestly.
“Then I’m grateful to you both for your help,” he says, just as earnestly. “Did you notice any bedding?”
They shake their heads and fiddle with the inadequate pot.
Teagan sighs. He eyes the horse blankets folded neatly over the crumbly stone wall.
* * * * * * *
Moira has the freckles, Rowan the dimples.
Teagan suspects that half the daughters of Ferelden are named Moira and Rowan.
“The girls here are named for queens,” Malin proclaims from atop the pile of leaves they’ve gathered for bedding. “‘Cept Rina. She’s just named for an arlessa.”
Rina wears her hair in two auburn-coloured braids as thick as her wrists. She offers Teagan a waterskin.
“Ah, well. Arlessa Marina was Queen Rowan’s mother,” Teagan pauses for dramatic effect and takes a long, grateful gulp from the waterskin. “Did you know?”
They didn’t. The girls flutter with this news.
“Mumma says,” ventures Rina, “Mumma says ‘Lessa Marina was pretty. She saw her. When she was bigger than me, Mumma saw her. Did you see her?”
“I did,” Teagan says, not exactly lying.
“She came through here,” Orla sits beside Teagan. “Because the whole arling had a bad harvest.”
Rina snuggles against her mother’s side. Moira and Rowan join her.
Even Malin, who fidgets like a blown leaf, suddenly stills. “There was a sickness on the grain,” he prompts.
“There was! And it would’ve been a starving winter, except Redcliffe Castle’s grain stores are vast. Deep and wide like a dragon’s treasure hoard. The Arl - Arl Rendorn - he ordered those stores opened and shared out around the arling, and that should have been that. Except it wasn’t. Somebody got greedy, and instead of sharing the grain, he tried to sell it to the poor folk it was meant to help.”
The children grumble. Teagan nods in agreement.
“We would’ve starved for sure. Except Arlessa Marina was clever. She caught that bastard out and put a stop to him. The Arl punished him proper for mistreating his people. Then, to make sure everybody got some grain for their winter stores, Arlessa Marina her very sweet self travelled to each and every single village to see it got done. That’s how we got our grain. And that’s how we saw her.” Orla turns to Teagan, “did she ever tell you?”
“No, she …” Teagan shrugs.
Orla bows her head. “When did the Maker call her?”
“I’m told, the day after we arrived at her family’s home in Ansburg.”
“How old were you?”
She nods. Turns back to the children. “And do you remember how Arlessa Marina had to go away? So she could protect her two littlins?”
“Well, Bann Teagan here’s the Arlessa Marina’s smallest boy. He grew up strong and proper far, far away in the Free Marches. And now he’s back to make sure we don’t have any more starving winters.”
Teagan winces even as he smiles. Maker, what am I doing here? He should be training. Winning this season’s lesser tournaments. Getting a little drunk with Cador. Singing to the night watchman. Not playing saviour on the far edge of Thedas.
Moira pats Teagan’s hand. “You forgot to bring the grain, too.”
* * * * * * *
The sun’s light clings to the tips of the Frostbacks as they finish their evening meal.
The women wander off in groups of two or three, then return to sit around the roaring campfire, combing each others’ wet hair with their fingers like the Tevinter goddesses on Aunt Thalia’s favourite urn.
Garrett and Teagan take turns telling the children a few stories.
Teagan knows more: his childhood was longer, with more time in study (whether he wanted it or not), but Garrett’s bolder. He sings readily, laughs fitfully, even coaxes a smile from stern-faced Aine.
When Nell and Grete insist on bedtime, the children fuss.
“Hey now,” Garrett insists, “You listen to your mamae. Off you go. We’ll be here when you wake tomorrow morning.”
They trudge after Lissa into the turf house.
Teagan closes his eyes and leans back, out of the fire’s warmth and into the cool mountain air. There must be dozens of ways a freeman could pick up a few words of elvish, but somehow he doubts that mamae would be among them. He’s never really thought about elves. Why would he? It hardly matters who pours the wine, so long as the goblet is refilled.
Except now, it might matter.
But how much? Their bellies are full tonight because of Garrett. They’ll be full tomorrow because of him, too: he taught half the children to fish with his own hammock, and as they trundled off to bed, they were making plans for an early start. Garrett dug them a pit oven with his shield. Surely, Garrett’s actions count for more than whatever nonsense they’ve all been told about elven blood.
If Teagan says this, is he standing up for Garrett or bullying them like any other nobleman? Aunt Thalia never bullies. Even with the military might of Ansburg at her disposal, she never bullies. She simply trusts. Until now, Teagan didn’t realize how difficult simply trusting could be.
Beside him, Garrett shifts his weight.
Teagan doesn’t move. Doesn’t look up at his companions around the fire. He can imagine.
Garrett’s probably staring into the flames, inwardly kicking himself for uttering a single word.
A Look is likely passing from woman to woman as they size Garrett up. Again.
Depending how they feel about elves, Aine might be staring at Teagan’s naked throat in the firelight and wishing she hadn’t promised him one more day.
Teagan isn’t surprised when Aine breaks the awkward silence: “So Teagan, is there an alienage way up in Ansburg?”
Garrett’s breath catches.
“There is,” Teagan stretches his long legs in front of him, toward the fire, determined to remain calm.
“I’ve never been.”
“Hm. I hear there’s one in Den’rim.”
“I imagine there is.”
“Is there one in Hi’ver, Garrett?”
Teagan opens his eyes and watches his second: a man ten years his senior, a master of weapons, a veteran knighted by the King for acts of honour and bravery, who in a single day proves both how badly Teagan and Rainesfere need his help and how freely he’ll give it. This man nods sheepishly, like he’s been caught scrumping apples.
“I’m sure it’s still there. I only know that when the Chevaliers burned the docks, half of it went up in flames. Everybody ran.”
“All the way to Calenhad’s northern shore,” Aine offers.
In the firelight, the women’s faces are unreadable.
“Takes a stout heart to survive that sort of thing,” Orla’s voice is gentle, “don’t you think, Teagan?”
“I do. The sort of stout heart that makes any place strong.”
Jess hasn’t taken her eyes off Garrett. “You remember what they used to say ‘bout elves when we were littlins?”
Nell nods, tying off a braid, “Bad luck. Bad omens.”
“But the fancier the house, the more they wanted elf servants.” Jess shakes her head.
Nell shrugs. “I suppose it’s ‘cause they’re prettier.”
“Well, la-di-dah-di-dah,” Greer smirks, screwing her pretty features into an exaggerated scowl. “So if they’re so busy bein’ pretty and servin’ up in the big houses, they’re still only gettin’ a half-day off a week. If they’re lucky. I remember that: the girls working at the big houses barely had time to come home for a home-cooked meal before they had to run back.”
“It’s true,” Nell and Jess agree.
“So where in the Maker’s good world are elves finding all this spare time to be responsible for dandruff an’ dead livestock?”
Orla snorts. The women stifle their laughter, eyes darting to where the children sleep.
“Seems to me,” Aine drawls, “the only evil we’ve ever known here has been at the hands of our fellow humans.”
Chapter 4: Haunting and Hunting (NSFW: minor smut, TW: game hunting, TW: canon-typical violence)
Teagan watches stars wander through the rips in his tent.
Tired past sleep, he lets his mind drift past his bed of leaves and the ache in his back.
She feels close. Her eyes, nearly as black as the night sky … and her … smile.
Warm silky skin. Heavy black hair. Nimble fingers gripping, stroking. Her throaty chuckles when he whimpers, aching … the puffs of breath as she nibbles his ear. She smells of … floral and spice and the musk of her own arousal. She tastes even better. Everything and all he needs. Salty-sweet and softest musk. She twines her sensuous body around him. Her rapturous moans. Maker, the sweetness of her.
Her serrated laughter.
“Oh, Puppy, do you hear yourself?”
The night air is sharp. The stars cold.
Hours from dawn at the foot of the Frostbacks.
He tastes salt and blinks the tears out of his eyes and into his ears.
He doesn’t understand how he was so mistaken.
Or why, since he left, he should be haunted by Her. He doesn’t want to remember.
* * * * * * *
Noblemen have few survival skills.
But Teagan can hunt. He’s an outstanding shot.
Unlike other noblemen, Teagan can really hunt. Like a freeman - without hounds or hawks or servants - thanks to his freeman-born Uncle Otto.
He leaves well before dawn. The air crisp, the shadows long and chill. The first notes of birdsong just beginning to soften the world.
Alone. On foot. Tracking. Into the dense trees towering overhead and up the steep rise, toward Dermot’s cave.
He bathes in handfuls of leaf mould - sweet-smelling and nearly-soil - smearing as much of the forest onto himself as he can. Masking his scent, obscuring his face.
He crouches, waiting, in the shadow of a granite outcropping when dawn finally breaks across the sky and into Lake Calenhad. The same colour as Rowan’s roses. The same colour as sunrises over the rolling prairie back home.
He doesn’t wait long.
Six velvet bucks, homeward bound after foraging all night in Rainesfere’s overgrown orchards.
He nocks an arrow and waits.
The deer wander into the narrow clearing. They’re all in range. Utterly unaware.
Teagan’s eyes slide to the furthest. The stag: heavily-muscled with broad, ornate antlers. Even under velvet, they’re impressive. Humbling. When the rut comes, this beast could be king of the forest. Until then, there are nearly twenty people in Rainesfere depending on the success of Teagan’s hunt. The only thing saving the stag is the buck wandering between him and Teagan: younger but heavy. Not a prize like the stag.
But this hunt’s success can’t be measured by prizes.
He draws and waits. The stag moves from behind his target. If the arrow goes through - Teagan prays it will - it won’t injure any of the others. He takes a slow, deep breath, willing the beast further into view.
He aims. Willing it to expose it’s broadside to him. He needs the lungs. To take the wind out of this animal before it can flee.
He aims. It takes another step. Then another. Teagan lowers his aim, slightly, and prays for a clean shot.
The bowstring sings.
The bucks pound into the forest.
Except one. Teagan’s arrow found it’s mark and now rests in a tree. The buck at his feet twitches, eyes wild, gasping for breath it cannot hold.
Teagan kneels beside the beast, left hand steadying, right hand unsheathing the knife at his side. He murmurs his apologies and gratitude even as his blade finishes the kill. He waits - it feels like an age, but he knows from experience that it’s seconds - until the buck bleeds out. Until it’s truly gone. He cleans his hunting knife and replaces it. Picks up his bow, retrieves his arrow from the tree. Slings the buck’s carcass over his shoulders.
Dermot’s cave is not far.
* * * * * * *
The cave marks the point where the Sulcher River spills over a series of rocks the size of druffalo. During the spring thaw, the meltwaters flood the lower Pass at this point, obliterating it for a month.
But by Justinian, the river roars down the falls and into the river, alongside the broad track of Sulcher’s Pass. Dermot’s cave offers a clear view of the river and pass below, but as he approaches it, Teagan slows.
Even as the water falls into the Pass, a thin column of smoke rises from it. A campfire.
The smell of bacon drifts toward him. His stomach snarls: he hasn’t eaten since supper, but he can wait. He might have a bigger problem.
Nobody should be camping in Sulcher’s Pass.
He places the carcass and his longbow just inside the mouth of the cave. He’ll check on Dermot after he’s seen into the Pass.
He crawls to the edge of the cliff, careful to stay in the cool shade of the trees.
It is indeed a camp. Of twenty men that he can count, though their stout tents could certainly accommodate twice that. Some of the men are armed with swords and armoured, but not with any livery Teagan recognizes. They practise drills like professional fighters. The others lounge on low camp chairs lined with white furs. Winter furs, such as Dermot would have amassed. Several of these men are masked. Orlesians. Teagan glowers. If Eamon bothered chasing these bastards up the mountain passes when they retreated, would they be so bold now?
He can’t hear what they’re saying over the roar of the falls, but he watches a man at the cooking fire wave at somebody further down the Pass. A fellow about Garrett’s age appears from downhill. An archer. He takes two mugs of something from the cook and heads back downhill. A watch on the approach from Rainesfere, then. The process repeats: the cook waves a young archer over, the archer leaves with two mugs. And a watch on the approach from Orlais. So bandits. Four archers, twenty swordsmen at least. Suddenly suspicious, Teagan scans the rocks above the Pass: nobody. He scowls. All eyes are on the Pass itself because they’re confident nobody’s watching from above. Bastards. He slides back from the edge and sits up.
He stares at the cave. He’d hoped that he might find old Dermot blind drunk or laid up with a broken bone or simply cleared out. Now … now the situation looks worse for the old man.
* * * * * * *
Inside the cave is a door.
Was a door.
Once thick and wooden and carved with mabari. Now hewn in two and dangling from its heavy iron hinges. Beside it, the shuttered window is punched open from the outside. Both are set into a strong stone wall. Teagan wonders vaguely if Dermot installed the wall because Lisbet asked him to, or if he did it as a way of encouraging her to stay.
In the morning sunlight, Teagan sees shattered crockery scattered on the floor, the splintered remains of a few chairs and a dusty bundle of dried spindleweed hanging over the stone hearth. Lisbet probably hung that up for drying.
He steps carefully, anxious to not make anything worse, if that’s possible. Halfway through the front room, Teagan realizes he’ll need more light if he’s to make it down the passageway. He rummages through the pouch at his side until he finds his tinderbox. He pulls out the jasper and firesteel, lights the charcloth, feeds the sparks with a few stems of Lisbet’s spindleweed and begrudgingly lights one of the longer splinters of chair on fire.
The room floods with light and the dense, clean smell of burning spindleweed.
The spatter up the walls of the passage and onto ceiling are unmistakable. Brown with age, but still obviously blood. He isn’t sure how much, but it’s certainly enough. Teagan’s stomach churns. He’s glad it’s empty. This is where poor old Dermot went to the Maker. On the floor of his own home, at the hands of an axe-wielding bastard.
He doesn’t want to go further into the cave. But the bandits in the pass might have missed something. Something small, or something simple. Like sewing needles or thread. Too mundane to bother stealing, but a boon to the women in Rainesfere.
At least they had the decency to take Dermot’s corpse to a pyre. Although that was probably less about human decency and more about not wanting to meet it shambling around with Maker-knows-what from the Fade inside of it.
The first room is a ruin of smashed crockery and slit bags. Dried herbs - medicine - trampled into unrecognizable heaps. No longer a store room. A firkin of ale sits empty on its stand. Teagan grimaces. Murder must be thirsty work.
The second room was the bedroom. The stout bed, fashioned from logs, is carved with more mabari and a tree motif that it shares with the heavy door. The naked mattress is slashed, but the bed is as intact as the door. The bedroom hearth is smaller than the front room, but it’s generous. And necessary: even in Justinian, it’s chilly. The room is stripped, but at least destruction seems to have slowed. Teagan scowls. What? Too drunk to do a proper job of pillaging?
It can’t be noon, and he’s exhausted. Dermot and Lisbet, he’s decided, would have been older than Uncle Otto and Aunt Thalia, but they were no less cherished. How is he going to tell Aine what’s happened? Should he tell her all, or try to spare her? And what about the other women? And the children?
He sits on the edge of the bed, facing the somber little hearth and staring at his pathetic splinter-torch.
If he closes his eyes now, he could probably sleep for a week.
And who would care? He doesn’t belong here, at the ass-end of Thedas. The Ferelden frontier, where every day isn’t just a struggle, it’s a fight. He’s trained to fight in tournaments. For sport. For show. For pride. Not for real. How did he ever think he could help?
His shoulders sag.
It’s so clear now: it was a mistake to come back. He knows nothing of Ferelden. He’ll always sound like a foreigner. He’ll always reason like a Marcher. He’s too young to be Bann. He can’t do anything. And they don’t trust him. He doesn’t blame them: he didn’t earn Rainesfere, it was handed to him. He couldn’t earn Rainesfere.
Teagan sighs slowly and watches his breath, white and ethereal, swirl in front of him. So cold, I can see my breath. In Justinian. He shivers as something chill and heavy shuffles behind him on the bed.
“No,” rasps a voice next to his ear, “no Maker.”
Teagan freezes. Is freezing. He stares out the corner of his eye at the ruined form looking at him through Dermot’s sightless eyes.
Ragged arms wrap around his neck.
Teagan can’t breathe. The air pierces.
Dermot’s broken mouth moves closer. Blows icy air into his ear. The rasping voice continues, “Oh, Puppy, do you hear yourself? How can you take yourself so seriously when you sound so ridiculous? Poor little Puppy.” The wintry arms tighten. “Don’t you remember?”
The night is starless. Moonless. The rain is bleak. Raw. I wander through that alleyway naked until I find where she tossed my clothes. But I only find the one boot. It takes me hours to walk home barefoot, and I’m glad for the downpour. I don’t deserve to be dry. I can’t stop crying. All the way home, like a child. I scale the walls to avoid the guard and sneak into my room like a thief. My feet and fingertips are bleeding. Better that than bear the shame of … Maker, I could be hanged for this. I should be hanged for this. But I can’t face … but Cador is here. In my room. He’s built a fire in my hearth. And he says … he …
The memory slides away from Teagan. Close. He’s so cold. Colder than that night. Colder than he’s ever been. Numbing. Draining. His throat aches when he pulls the frigid air into his body. He chokes on the cold. Coughs weakly. Even as it hurts to reach for the memory, Teagan grasps it.
Cador built a fire. Roaring and warm. He warned me, months earlier, that something seemed off. At the very beginning, he warned me and he was right. But he doesn’t say that now. He doesn’t gloat. He never gloats. Not worthy … no. He says I made a mistake. And I shouldn’t despair. Cador embraces me. My brother. He sits me in front of the fire. He makes me warm …
Teagan’s eyes catch on the splinter-torch burning dully in his hands. He flexes his fingers. He can feel the wood: firm and ragged in his hands. He clenches his jaw. Grips the little torch. Prays, wordlessly, for a clean shot.
“Poor little Puppy,” rasps the voice. Its lips graze Teagan’s ear, trailing frost.
He rams the firebrand into the creature’s face.
It shrieks. Claws at the splinters and fire.
Teagan lunges himself at the doorway. Slams the heavy wood shut behind him. Hauls himself up and reaches for the bolt. No bolt. Wrong side. In the dark, he fumbles.
Heart pounding in his ears. Drowning out all else.
Throwing daggers on his belt. Three. A birthday gift from Cador. He drives them into the oak, panic giving him power, pinning the door into its own frame.
Jumps back in time for the door to thump.
Sprawled on the stone floor, sobbing, he hears the wailing. Feels the ice reaching out for him. He stumbles backward. Down the passage, into the front room. Out the ruined door.
The sunlight is dazzling.
And flooded with birdsong.
Teagan sits on the warm ground, leaning against the rock of Dermot’s cave and squints at the clouds until he can fill his lungs with the summer air.
He shivers and shakes. The cold rolls off him.
It could get out. I can’t fight it. Neither can Garrett. Those bastards in the Pass deserve it, but they couldn’t fight it. That would be worse than leaving it. We need Templars. They’re the only ones who can help.
He whimpers. All I wanted to do was help.
He hugs something to him. Hard and straight but also soft and heavy: his longbow and the buck.
* * * * * * *
Isla makes an embrium poultice to heal the ice burns on Teagan’s back. She avoids his eyes. Avoids his reach. She places the pot - his inadequate, thin-bottomed pot - just inside Garrett’s reach before darting back to the cooking fire.
Garrett calmly applies the warm salve, rubbing it gradually into Teagan’s neck and back while Teagan quietly describes his morning to him and Aine through mouthfuls of plummy Sulcher berries. By the time he’s done, Aine’s frown creases her entire face and she holds herself tightly.
“We need to get the bandits out of the Pass before the Templars come. If the bandits weren’t willing to share it with Dermot, they’ll hardly accommodate the Chantry’s soldiers. I just need the day to recover.” He flexes his back. Isla’s poultice is a minor miracle. He can already feel sunlight soaking into his body.
“Teagan, you’ll need longer than a day to prepare. And more of you to fight forty men.”
“It’s really more like twenty-four, perhaps thirty.”
“You’ll still need longer. And more people.” Aine stares dolefully at the trees above them.
“No, he won’t,” Garrett hands Teagan his shirt. “Teagan can take fifteen, I can take fifteen.”
“No, it’s what we train for,” Garrett insists, “and we can probably whittle them down before having to engage them directly. We just need to think of something cute.”
“No. That’s final.” She sounds final. And sensible. And experienced.
But also, to Teagan, wrong. “I am not yours to protect, Aine. And neither is Ser Garrett. I’m supposed to be Bann. This is why I have all that fancy armour and all those weapons and a gigantic second who can probably bend me in half.”
“Sure. Laugh. But we can’t help you.”
“I’d rather you not. You’re not warriors and there’s enough for you to do here.”
Aine’s eyes narrow. “What do you want for it?”
Teagan sighs. “Not a damned thing. My entire reason for being here is to help you. This is what a bann is supposed to do. I won’t sit on my hands until the bandits realize you’re here.”
She nods slowly. “I’ll talk to the others. We’ll set a watch. And keep the littlins close for the day.”
Teagan nods, grateful. “Now all we need to do is think of something cute.”
“It’s too bad we couldn’t use the demon,” Lissa ventures between sips, “y’know, lure it down to ‘em. Dermot would’ve laughed his ass off.”
Greer snorts and nods. “Disgustin’, but true. Bit warped was old Dermot.”
The others sigh and nod at the pale green liquid in their cups.
“If it were a bear, I’d agree. Even a wounded bear could be lured, but a demon’s too risky. It wasn’t mindless, and it was very strong. At least … to me,” Teagan admits.
“Then it was strong,” Garrett warns. “And it’s most likely to attack whoever frees it. Best for all that it be a Templar. Nothing gets past that lot.”
“Can it hurt us from here?” It’s Jess asking, but Isla’s pressed against her, holding her hand with white knuckles.
Teagan’s mouth dries at the thought of the demon in the cave. It’s attack is a blur, but he knows it caught him by surprise. He cannot forget the shock on Garrett’s face when he staggered back to their camp as a gibbering, shivering mess. Or how Garrett had to hold him in his burly arms while he wept and trembled like a child. Some Bann.
Neither of them told the women about any of that.
For morale’s sake, they say, but whether it’s theirs or the women’s, they don’t say.
So Teagan lies. Sort of. He certainly wishes he’d actually paid attention to the scant instruction his assorted tutors gave regarding the Fade: Four Things about Demons Not Taught by the Chantry. The lesson even rhymed to make it easier to learn. But between him and Cador, it devolved into a dirty limerick. Teagan can remember the limerick, but it has nothing to do with demons. “No. I believe it’s physically trapped. It gave me the impression that it … likes heartache and hopelessness, so I suggest we all guard against such feelings until the Templars arrive.”
Garrett grins at Teagan. Perhaps he remembered the lesson, after all.
They toast Dermot with the elfroot tea Isla made for the old huntsman’s wake. Made so that Teagan, weakened, can join them. He’s not a healer, but he understands that much. That he’s being included. Trusted.
It’s the finest drink he’s ever had, and he dozes even as he tries to follow the conversation.
“… did well, getting a young buck. The smaller antlers are better for fancy buttons and whatnots.” Greer sits on Teagan’s right, sharing his log by the fire.
“Oh, Maker’s balls,” Lissa mourns on his left, “you’re not going to make buttons now are you?”
Small, careful fingers - probably Isla’s - reposition the poultice on Teagan’s back and gently smooth it down.
“No. I’ll wait for a sunny winter’s day. Thank the Maker, but the cold air seems to keep the stench down. Besides, Dermot had the saw for that. If it’s not in his cave, then it’s with them in the Pass.”
Teagan forces himself awake. “We’ll look for tools when we’re done there.”
Garrett grins at him from across the fire. “Of course, Bann Teagan.”
“But in the meantime,” Teagan swallows down a yawn, “please make a list: all the tools you might need, for whatever purpose. Once the Pass is secured, Ser Garrett will go to Redcliffe for the Templars and … supplies.” His eyes flicker shut before they can question him.
The sun bakes into his bare shoulders. The wind sighs through the trees, blowing northern warmth and the smell of pine along Calenhad’s western shore. His sleep is deep and mercifully empty.
* * * * * * *
The children stay close. Quiet. Busy. Their fingers weaving grass between reeds like birds flitting through trees. Only baskets, but they beam. Proud their skill impresses Teagan. It’s some sort of game. Aine says she’s keeping score, but the prize is lunch, and nobody in Rainesfere goes hungry.
Teagan’s charged with resting the day. Quietly.
Orla’s charged with making sure he stays put. She busies herself mending his leather coat. The back has gashes. They match the ice burns on his back.
But she doesn’t mention them. Teagan couldn’t account for them, anyway.
Orla pretends she doesn’t notice how Teagan shudders at the damage and simply repairs the coat.
“You’ll need this tomorrow,” Orla warns, “leather’s light and strong and a good deal quieter than chain. Bit too fancy for hunting, even if it is dyed green,” she mumbles to herself, “never thought I’d see green … probably check the chest for something simpler, then you could keep this only for good.”
He sits on the ground for a change, leaning cautiously against the log, cushioned by Headshy’s blanket. Garrett wants him to think up “something cute” while he’s off stalking the outskirts, but Teagan’s at a loss. He’s never pulled a fatal prank before, but he knows, for it to work, it has to be something that would leave Cador speechless.
He can’t think of anything.
He needs to think without thinking.
So he pulls his sketchbook and charcoal from his saddlebag. Aunt Thalia didn’t weave baskets, so she taught Teagan and Cador to sketch. After a few lessons, diagrams featured heavily in their more elaborate pranks.
Malin and sandy-haired Bryn conspire over their basket handles. So different from Teagan and Cador, but exactly the same. The perfect subject for a sketch to send back to Ansburg. Teagan smirks to himself and leafs over to a clean page.
Orla stares at the page draped over Teagan’s knees. “Bless, but I thought you didn’t know what your lady mother looked like?”
“I don’t. Why?”
She jabs a calloused finger at the sketch. “Who’s that, then?”
“Oh … I just … it’s the statue of Rowan in the palace garden. I thought I might use it for reference. For a painting. Does she look like our mother?”
“She looks how I remember the Arlessa. You got educated in sketching and painting?”
“Among other things.” Teagan leaves the boys to their trouble for now, and shifts his attention to Orla. Unlike a cold statue, her whole face participates in everything she says, like she’s acting out the emotions of every statement she ever makes. Her strong auburn eyebrows trace the lines of a swan’s wing, and they move just as often.
And when he shows her the sketch he’s done, they raise.
Beneath her eyebrows, her soft brown eyes grow misty. She carefully takes the sketch book. “You’d think I was some grand lady from this.” Her fingers reverently trace the empty corners of the page. “Can all noblemen do this?”
“It’s considered more important for girls. The art lessons were supposed to have a civilizing influence on me.”
Orla smiles and sniffs.
Teagan pretends not to notice.
But the children do. They abandon their baskets, clustering around Orla and the sketch book.
Then they cluster around Teagan. For their own sketches.
First in small groups, then larger, dragging the women along, assembling themselves around their mothers, mimicking the family portraits of noble Marcher families. Portraits that none of them have ever seen.
At some point, Rina wedges herself between Teagan and Orla. “Do you know how to dance?”
“I do,” Teagan admits to the little girl who leans against his chest and watches the charcoal surreptitiously trace Isla’s straight nose. She’s challenging. Far less expressive than Orla, and she won’t sit for him. Indeed, she actively avoids him and Garrett, yet diligently tends Teagan’s ice burns. Now that she’s returned to the campfire with fresh embrium for another poultice, he’s determined to sketch her so she’ll be in the book with the others. All seven sisters together.
“Well?” Rina presses.
* * * * * * *
It’s lively. A circle with lots of twirling. No bothering with stuffy boys’ or girls’ parts, just a dance. Another way to keep the children close and occupied, but only if he twirls with them.
Orla’s mending sits forgotten across her knees. “Bless, but you’re loud when you rest quietly.”
“It’s only the Remigold.”
“They used to dance that in these parts, back when there were dances. You remember, Aine?”
Aine nods stiffly. “Daylight dances, ‘cause the Chevaliers assumed anybody out with the moons was a spy. Or a smuggler.”
“We were all littlins,” explains Orla, “but we’d go when the dances were here. Just to see the lasses.”
“They were lovely,” Aine confirms, “with their hair all fresh and curly. Lovely dresses, now that I look back. But when we were littlins, ribbons were the thing. Bright colours, all the way from Hi’ver. The lasses’d get ‘em three for a pot of honeyed berries at the crossroads market. Ribbons long enough to wrap their waist twice. So when they came home, they’d cut ‘em shorter, to put in their hair. Then they’d trade. So a lass could have two or three sets of ribbons, all from one pot of berries.”
“And us littlins usually wore ‘em all at once. As many colours as we could find.”
“How many did you have?” Teagan catches Moira before she twirls herself too close to the fire.
Orla’s laughter bubbles. “Maker’s mercy, far too many. My brother called me Knothead on account of the ribbons.”
* * * * * * *
The chest is charred and battered. No lock. Never had one. Nothing inside is precious enough for a lock. Not to outsiders, anyway.
Orla rummages until she finds the faded ribbons, tucked between the sturdy hunter’s coat that might fit Teagan and the only extant dress in Rainesfere. She sighs when she sees it and gently lifts it out. It smells of pine and pressed flowers.
“Are the dresses different in Den’rim, now?”
“Different from what?”
Orla tsks, holds it against herself. It’s little more than a homespun shift, and might have been dyed pink, before time faded it to a dull brown. It’s long. Even for a woman tall enough to graze Teagan’s nose with the top of her head.
“Ah … I wasn’t really paying attention.” He’s being truthful, sort of: the dress popular in Denerim, and indeed throughout the Bannorn, seems to render the wearers quite busty. During his trip to Redcliffe, Teagan never bothered wondering why or how, he simply appreciated the end result as politely as he could.
Orla smirks, reading Teagan’s face far too clearly for his comfort. “I’ll assume not.”
“Er. Whose dress is it?”
“Nobody’s. We found it the spring after the fire. Not a speck on it, if you can believe. Don’t know why we kept it.” She holds it at arms’ length, then folds it, her calloused fingers reverently tracing the yellowish flowers embroidered on the bodice.
“It’d be baggy, but you could wear it, if you wanted.”
“Me? Maker, no. Hardly practical ‘round here.”
Teagan grins at a stray thought. It would certainly render Cador speechless.
I've had to split chapter 5 into a few installments, because there's only so much scene-cutting and re-writing I can do before I start frowning. And there should never be frowning: it's fanfic! :D
I hope you enjoy anyway. ;)
Chapter 6: The Wastrel's Assessment
Not as baggy as he’d thought.
The sleeves split over his shoulders and he bites back a curse of frustration: the children are just outside the door.
It takes Orla and stout, sweet Nell nearly an hour to fix what’s left of the bodice after they peel it off him. Another hour to scavenge the sleeves from his own ripped shirt and add them. Their soft laughter sounds like distant birds.
* * * * * * *
The dust glints in the long sunlight streaming through the un-shuttered window.
The women stifle their giggles into snorts and insist he spin around.
“Skirt’s a bit short: you look like a tart.”
“A tart with knotty shins.”
“Nice knees, though.”
Peals of laughter.
Aine alone is sober. “You’re too flat. Obviously flat.” She grumbles and unlaces the snug blouse enough to stuff wadded rags against his chest. She ignores the shrieks of laughter as she tries to shape the makeshift breasts into … breasts. “Teagan, you need to get close enough.”
He nods. Maker, Cador would piss himself laughing at this. It’s going to work.
Orla wipes the tears from her eyes and sniffs. “But how do you plan on wearing your leather coat under that?”
They stare at him. No coat. No armour.
“For me to get close enough they’ll have to believe what they see.” He ignores the panicked looks they exchange. He knows this can work. Besides, Garrett will be with him.
Orla reaches across Aine’s shoulders and pulls at Teagan’s braid. “Your hair’s wrong. Too mannish.” She pulls it from its fastener and unbraids it. Gentler than he ever is. Runs her fingers through it until it hangs in curls in front of his face.
Aine smiles. “Maker be praised.”
Orla grins. “And thicker than most men, too. Even youngsters.” She ties a ribbon around his head, fastening it into a bow just above his left ear. “This is one of the last Hi’ver ribbons. Gotta look pretty.”
Now serious, the women nod critically. Pick at the dress. Try to soften Teagan’s figure.
When he moves, the padding in his chest slips and puddles onto the floor.
“Wait,” huffs Nell. She bundles Teagan into her own vest. Another snug fit, but it gives him a secure place to stow the wadded rags. “Now you can have a bosom. We big girls gotta stick together.”
Teagan smirks down at Nell, grateful for what protection the leather may provide.
The women stand back. Finally approving.
Orla opens the door and Garrett fills the portal. His face splits into a grin. “My lord, when I said ‘something cute,’ I wasn’t actually thinking of your good self.”
“When this gets to Eamon-”
“-Not from me!” Garrett declares.
“Nor us!” the women insist.
“Be that as it may, when this story gets to Eamon, because all stories about me do get to Eamon, I want two changes made. First, I want to be described as ‘roaring drunk,’ and second, I want a buxom blonde on each arm and possibly one on my lap.”
* * * * * * *
The women gape at Malin. Horrified.
Teagan stares at the boy kneeling before him: head bowed, offering up his own sharpened stick. He doesn’t dare took at the boy’s seething mothers. Doesn’t dare look at the other boys, who follow Malin’s lead. Instead, he scrambles for a refusal the dogged little boy and his brothers will understand. Spots his longbow. Unstrung, it’s slightly longer than six feet.
“Rise, Malin of Rainesfere,” Maker, when did I wander into a pantomime? He stands the longbow beside the little boy. “And grasp the tip of my bow.”
Malin’s smile falters, but his eyes don’t dim. He tries, and fails, to reach the tip looming above him. “I bet if I jump-”
“-No. When you can reach the tip of my longbow while standing, I will take you on as my squire and train you. Not before.”
“But I could be a good fighter for you,” he protests through welling tears.
Teagan kneels beside Malin. “You will be. But first you must grow. And study. Will you do this for me?”
Malin nods, wiping his nose on his arm.
Was this how Eamon left Redcliffe? Tearfully? Begging Father to let him fight?
* * * * * * *
Teagan huddles under the old hunter’s coat in the gloaming’s chill. Clouds and drizzle veil the stars, but he knows they’re there. His eyes are gritty with fatigue, but he must not doze: it’s his watch.
He fidgets with his signet and strains his eyes on the forest’s shadows, listening carefully to the Sulcher’s nighttime song.
The silhouettes around the low campfire in the corner of his eye move. Isla and Greer herd the children to bed. Malin’s squawks carry, thready, over to Teagan. Orla wraps an arm around Jess’ shoulders. Garrett helps himself to another cup of Lissa’s tasteless-but-hot tea.
He and Garrett will make a dawn attack. At dawn, the watch will be tired, the rest will be unarmoured and unarmed. And the sun will be in their eyes.
It should go well.
But if it doesn’t … Teagan examines the thought. Not hopeless: practical. He’s a skilled warrior, not an idiot. He knows here are many far better than him, so it’s possible that he will fail, and he must consider that possibility.
If captured, they’ll know by his signet that he’s a nobleman. They’ll stick him in some damp, dismal hole - possibly in Orlais - until a ransom is paid either by Eamon or Maric. Even a nobody like Teagan can fetch a high enough ransom to set a man up for a year.
But if they know he’s a nobleman … most of those don’t travel without servants and sundry costly comforts. The bandits will be eager to claim such a camp. But they’ll find Rainesfere instead.
On the other hand, if he isn’t wearing his signet, they won’t know who he is. They’ll simply stick him, like Garrett, and dump his stripped corpse into the Sulcher for disposal. Bandits tend to have lazy minds, and it’d be easiest to dismiss them both as a couple of chancers. Dead chancers. They’ll still want to scavenge their camp and supplies, but such a search might delay a day.
The underbrush rustles slightly. Aine coughs softly from the darkness.
“Already?” he whispers.
“You need your sleep.” She sits next to him on the fallen tree. So close, he can feel her warmth along his side.
“Then I will. But we must talk, first.” He presses his signet into her hand. “Should we fail, take your sisters, take the children and take Thunder. Go to the Redcliffe Chantry and ask them to fetch Eamon from the castle. Give him this.”
“What about Headshy?”
“He’s not named Headshy, Aine. He is head-shy. He won’t let you bridle him, so leave him. You’ll lose too much time otherwise.”
“And if I fall in battle, I’ll spend an eternity at the Maker’s side regretting that I couldn’t spare the time to cure Headshy. I think he was ill-used as a cart-horse during the last of the Rebellion, and my brother’s idiot seneschal - nevermind. Just remember, if we’re not back by the time Satina rises, you pack up and walk out. Take the highway - it’s the easiest terrain, but take it in the dark before dawn. And take it quietly. If Ser Garrett survives, he’ll follow.”
“And we’re supposed to just leave you?” She pulls away. Tries to press the signet back into his hands.
Teagan takes Aine’s small hand, opens it, places the ring on her palm and closes her fingers over it.
“I believe we’ll prevail. Garrett’s been fighting nearly as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve trained my whole life for exactly this sort of fight. But I’m not stupid. Something unexpected could happen. If it does … I need to know that you’ll evacuate. That everybody will be kept safe. I know your past meetings with Eamon haven’t gone well, but he will need to know what happened. Everything that happened. Give him my signet and tell him I only wanted to help. And if I’d been here six years ago, I would never have …”
“No. He doesn’t get to hide behind name or title: what Eamon did six years ago was sloppy and inexcusable. Tell him also that I’m the same age now that he was then and it’s my wastrel’s assessment that his treatment of Rainesfere for the past six years has been utterly shameful.”
Quiet enough and for long enough that Teagan begins to wonder if she’s been listening.
Then she leans against his shoulder and pats his hand. “I’ll set a watch for you both. If you’re not back by Satina’s rising, I promise, we’ll walk out. But on one condition.”
“You wake me before you go. You need a woman to double-check that thing you’re wearing. Make sure you've got a ribbon in that hair of yours.”
“Of course. I’ll want to feel pretty.”
Chapter 7: This Plague Needs Burning (TW: canon-typical violence)
Well, howdy strangers! It's been some time and I'm sorry for that, but it was unavoidable. As you can see, I'm back now :) AND I see there are subscribers - you delightful optimists, you!
I hope this was worth the wait.
It’s a knight’s duty to arm and armour his lord before battle. In the chill and waning moonlight between their two ripped and leaky tents, Garrett - already armed and armoured - tucks the sheathed and freshly-sharpened daggers into Teagan’s boots and straightens his bosom.
“I’m hardly girded like the heroes of old. I doubt the Alamarri warrior queens wore ribbons in their hair.”
“Probably not. But they commanded a host of thousands, and you’re stuck with just me.”
“I’ll take you over a host.”
Garrett grins and holds up the small shaving mirror so Teagan can fix the bow behind his ear. “Then, my lord, you must be glad for cunning, rather than numbers, and follow in the unsung Ferelden tradition of pulling the enemy’s trousers up over his ears.”
* * * * * * *
Dawn settles into Sulcher’s Pass after the first notes of birdsong. Sunlight pierces the tall, thick pines. The bandit camp on the rise above them makes little sound. There is no thin column of smoke from a cooking fire, and no smell of breakfast.
Even after last night’s drizzle, the river runs fast and shallow. It’s simple enough to ford it and climb onto the Pass itself.
But that’s not what they’ll do.
Teagan straightens his skirt and shoulders his longbow like a yoke.
Garrett loops the children’s tall baskets on either end. With luck, Teagan will look smaller in comparison. “Remember,” Garrett breathes, “just … wander into the river like you got business there, and catch their eye. Do your best to be, uh, pretty-”
“-Are you saying I’m not pretty?”
“You have a good personality.”
* * * * * * *
Teagan’s feet are soaked and freezing by the time he realizes that the bandits on watch are actually asleep on their feet. From this distance, he could drop them both. Then they’d never wake to raise an alarm. But if one of their comrades happens to be looking in their direction, it would give them up immediately. Better they be seen to wander off.
He positions himself behind a large copse of river grass, and crouches a little. He pulls a few arrows from one of the baskets, and sinks the heads into the soft riverbank.
He can’t sing or hum or speak without giving himself away. But he can whistle. He starts softly. An old Orlesian tune with racy lyrics. It’s not, Teagan assumes, the sort of song a nice girl would know.
Halfway through the first chorus, a scuffling on the Pass ahead betrays one of the bandits. He’s a pockmarked fellow about Teagan’s size and Garrett’s age. His leather armour is worn and dull. Cracking in places. And it’s not just Orlesian, but Orlesian Army. Given its condition, Teagan judges the man to be a either a deserter or never a soldier: no man of discipline would ever neglect his own armour so badly.
What drives a man to such a life? Pity wells, unbidden and unwelcome, in Teagan’s chest. This is another human being. He means to look this human being in the eye and kill him. Destroy him. Maker, are all warriors … murderers at heart?
The Orlesian’s own bow is slung on his back. His dagger is sheathed beside a full quiver at his hip. He stares at Teagan through the copse of grass, straining to see anything between the spears of sunlight and the dense dappled shadow.
Teagan tilts his head, catching his tatty ribbon on a spear of sunlight. He watches the shadow of his own curls dance across the Orlesian’s chest and sways a little to the tune he still whistles.
The Orlesian leers.
Teagan’s stomach flips. He remembers: he’s crouching, ankle-deep in river mud, in a dress because men like this sacked Rainesfere. More, there’s a demon squatting in an old man’s body because of this very pack of bandits. Men like this are a plague. This plague needs burning.
Teagan bows his head demurely, shrinking behind the copse.
The bandit stops. Shuffles on the path. Hesitating.
Figures, I’d get Thedas’ only bashful Orlesian. Teagan peeks at the bandit from around the copse, teasing, and begins whistling again. Still softly, but slower.
Encouraged, the Orlesian unfastens his breeches, steps toward the copse and hits the ground with an arrow in his eye almost before Teagan’s bowstring sings.
Teagan grabs the corpse by the ankles and yanks it over to him, behind the copse. Once confident it’s hidden from view, he starts whistling again.
When the second bandit shuffles down the Pass, Teagan parts the grass and waves daintily at him.
This bandit bounds toward the girl by the river.
Teagan’s second arrow finds its mark in another Orlesian eye socket.
This time, Garrett helps him dump the corpse beside the other one.
“Nicely done,” Garrett rummages through the bandits’ pouches and pockets.
Teagan nods, trying not to look at the bodies. At what he did. “Now we take the other thirty head-on?”
Garrett huffs triumphantly and unfastens the Orlesians’ quivers. “Not necessarily,” he passes a quiver over to Teagan. “Smell.”
Sickly-sweet and sightly nauseating. Teagan stifles a yawn.
Garrett pulls the quiver away and fans Teagan with his hand. “Remember how I said the Orlesians fired Highever’s docks and it spread to the Alienage?”
“Well. This - shit - this is how: blood lotus root mashed up until it’s goo and soaked in cheap spirits. The fire burns hot and spreads like bawdy rash. And - I know this sounds daft, but it seems to stick to whatever it’s burning.” He pulls a few arrows from the quiver: they’re soaked, as are the rags tied behind the arrowheads. “You think you could shoot these?”
Teagan nods. “I’ll need one of their bows.”
Garrett frowns, confused. “But your bow’s vastly superior.”
“Oh, without question. But theirs are strung a little looser. If they’re to stay lit, flaming arrows need to fly a little slower.”
The older man grins broadly. “So that’s why fancy lordlings get lessons.”
“Amongst other things.”
Garrett hands Teagan his sword belt and one of the Orlesian bows.
* * * * * * *
The rocks above the bandit camp afford a clear view of Dermot’s cave on the other side of the Pass.
Teagan stares into its shadowy maw. His stomach knots with dread. It’s still in there. Waiting. Oh Maker, it could wait forever. The burn scars between his shoulders ache.
Garrett clamps his shoulder, pressing him against the rocks. “Not a good time for vertigo, Teagan.”
He nods. Forces cool morning air through his nose. Holds it. And watches the camp. It’s finally rousing. A skinny, scruffy elf stumbles into the middle of the campsite, scratching his balls and dragging the officers’ camp chairs from one of the large tents at the farthest corner of the site. Likely a storage tent.
Rapidly, the air fills with the honks, gargles and hacks of a couple dozen men performing their morning ablutions.
Garrett tilts his head, listening. Shrugs. Whispers, “Not thirty. Aine was right: forty.”
Teagan tries to swallow, but his mouth is dry. It shouldn’t be: melee competitions are usually double that many. After a lifetime of training, he knows that heavy melee is realistically only five at a time. Six at most. He can prevail against six at a time. He’s done it. Hundreds of times. Usually twice a week. Like any Marcher nobleman, he’s well-versed in the martial arts. Like any Ferelden man, he’s always made the most of his larger frame and prevailed.
Today, he won’t be buying his opponents ales by way of apologizing for their cracked ribs or broken noses.
Today, he isn’t properly armoured.
And there's a brisk draft breathing up his skirt.
Below them, the cook ministers to the fire, coaxing what he can from the embers before feeding it dried twigs. Before long, the smoke will make them both sneeze or cough.
Right. Work to do.
They have a plan.
First, Teagan will drop the second watch with his own bow as efficiently as he did the first.
Facing into Sulcher’s Pass, the second watch are awake, but no less lax than the first: they’re using their helmets as stools. Without their helmets, the backs of their necks are exposed. Teagan’s arrows find their marks before either bandit realizes what’s happening. Nobody in the camp hears the bowstring over the usual morning racket.
Second, they will make more smoke.
Garrett hands Teagan the Orlesian bow and lights a dried twig, holding it carefully out for Teagan’s use.
From the twig, Teagan lights his arrow and targets the legs of the dead men. In a few minutes, the arrows in their quivers will ignite, then erupt in a spatter of flame. If Garrett’s right, the resulting blaze will block the Pass into the Frostbacks. Teagan watches the smoke from the dead watchmen drift away from camp and up, into the Pass. He targets a few copses of river grass beside camp. By the time the fire blocking the Pass is underway, the copses will flood the campsite with smoke and - hopefully - drive the Orlesians into the Ferelden swords waiting for them.
Before they climb back down, Teagan lights the officers’ fur-lined camp chairs. For Dermot.
Once back in the Pass, Teagan lights a copse of grass close to the path.
“Insurance,” encourages Garrett. Another way of evening their odds.
Teagan abandons the Orlesian bow. Draws his sword. Takes his shield from Garrett, and waits behind the growing smoke screen.
* * * * * * *
The first two die before they can wipe the smoke from their eyes. Gashes in their necks like second mouths. Left to litter the Pass.
The next two trip over the first two. Beheaded as they grope to stand. Quick, clean strokes of two swords in tandem.
They’re alike, Teagan realizes, he and his Knight. Both tall. (Garrett’s taller.) Both powerful. (Garrett’s stronger.) Both use their sword like an extension of their arm. Effortlessly. Like dancers.
But Garrett fights with hard-learned experience and the dark embers of anger burning in his belly.
And Teagan must trust Garrett’s battle sense, because after the first four Orlesians, he loses track. It’s like running drills, but redder. Warmer. Stickier. The air tastes of iron and acrid char and - strangely - cake, but Garrett promises that’s the blood lotus fumes.
Teagan chokes back the nausea with the thought of Dermot’s splintered door. And sticky little hands plucking Sulcher berries from a lowered branch.
They haven’t seen any officers.
But there will be.
Orlesians are pretentious and predictable: even overwhelmed by smoke and the camp in uproar, the “officers” will bow to the dictates of pride and rank and put on those absurd masks, rather than let their men - their fellow cutthroats - see them barefaced.
“Five left,” Garrett’s been counting.
Somebody coughs inside the smoke. A stumbling run toward them. Calling out in Orlesian to somebody behind him. “[It’s not that heavy, so stop dragging your ass!]”
Teagan smirks: an officer. “Garrett,” he rumbles, ignoring his smoke-scratched throat, “our axeman’s still missing.”
Garrett nods, ready.
“[Over here! The air is clear!]” Teagan shouts into the smoke, suddenly thankful to Aunt Thalia for insisting he was smart enough to learn languages.
Garrett grins broadly at the younger man. “Fancy lessons indeed.”
The officer - wearing bright chain armour with the rank insignia of a captain of the Orlesian Army and a chipped half-mask with a gold leaf bird’s beak and a ruby beauty mark - stumbles out of the smoke. His sword is drawn, but for show. He starts at the pile of bodies in his path. “[What is the meaning of this?]”
“It means you’re in Ferelden, you tin-plated bastard!” Teagan swings.
Bird Beak blocks, parries and bubbles with laughter, “For a dog-humper, you’ve got style! Who’s your seamstress?”
Teagan smirks, glaring down into the mask’s eyeholes. He sees wrinkles: for all his bravado, Bird Beak is not a young man. “Your mother.”
Bird Beak shakes his head and tsks, “So crude. Typical Ferelden, but still disappointing. Seriously, this little … manoeuvre is one of finesse. You’ve saved me the bother of sacking this worthless lot, and I thank you. We could use men like you. Together, we could all become very rich.”
“By Andraste’s fiery ass, do you think we’re bandits?”
“Ah, non! Not mere bandits, my blasphemous young friend,” his voice is almost leisurely, even as his eyes dart between Garrett and Teagan’s swords, “bandits with great potential.”
Garrett snorts. Repositions himself as Bird Beak shuffles toward the river.
“Ah, bof, I’m not a bandit. I’m the law.”
“There’s no law in the Frostbacks,” Bird Beak sounds confident.
Teagan’s eyes narrow. Where are the other four?
“Besides, we have the right to hunt here. Redcliffe gave us that right.”
Teagan’s sword dips. What? He … no. Eamon wouldn’t. Not after fighting to regain Redcliffe, he wouldn’t just … but how much fighting did he actually do? Teagan was twelve. Across the Waking Sea. Neither expected nor expecting to ever leave Ansburg. The only news he ever got from Ferelden were Rowan's letters, and she was busy Queening at Maric's side and having Cailan ... she would have she left Redcliffe's liberation to Eamon.
Bird Beak nods, grinning. “Oh my dear fellow, it’s a good life! Find some forsaken patch of Ferelden, ignore the reek of wet dog, get permission from the local Dog Lord and hunt the whole summer. No need for wearing dresses, unless that’s your thing, of course. And twice a year, you could cross into Orlais - there’s a wonderful little brothel in Jader I know you’d -”
Even through the mask, Teagan’s fist breaks Bird Beak’s real nose.
Bird Beak squeals. His sword clatters on the rocky ground, but he's caught between staunching his own blood and checking his mask for damage.
“I don’t believe you’ve met Bann Teagan,” drawls Garrett. “You’re on his lands and he’s taking the old trapper’s death rather hard.”
Bird Beak groans. His voice is wet with half-swallowed blood, “we should’ve killed that old coot before he had the chance to bark.”
“You did,” Teagan snarls, “and now I have a demon walking around in his corpse and stinking up my hills.”
“- it’s in the hills?” Bird Beak eyes the top of the Pass.
“Yes, but that’s no longer your problem.” Teagan swings his sword up in an arc.
“Now!!” Bird Beak’s shout is triumphant.
Teagan holds the sword, mid-stroke, above Bird Beak.
A woodpecker drums a greeting to the morning forest.
Garrett smirks and squares himself for an assault from the smoke-filled Pass.
Whatever trick Bird Beak had planned, it doesn’t come.
But Teagan’s sword does.
Bird Beak’s head rolls downhill, along the pathway. The mask stays on.