"He's not coming back out, I tell you!" stated a pimply-faced man, shaking his head with finality, "It's been an hour and a quarter since he went in. He's done for."
The townsfolk, huddled together in the midst of the ruins and rubble, watched the gaping black hole of the entrance to the tunnel in silence. A fat man dressed in a yellow smock shifted slightly from one foot to the other, cleared his throat and pulled his wrinkled cap from his head.
"We have to wait a bit longer," he said as he wiped the sweat from his sparse eyebrows.
"Why wait?" snorted pimply, "There in the caves lurks a basilisk, or have you forgotten, burgrave? Anyone goes down there, that's the end of them. Have you forgotten how many have died down there already? What are we waiting for?"
"This was the agreement, wasn't it?" murmured the fat man uncertainty.
"An agreement you made with a living man, burgrave" said the pimply-faced man's companion, a giant of a man in a leather butcher's apron, "He is now dead, as surely as the sun shines in the sky. It was plain from the beginning that he was headed towards death, like all the others before him. He didn't even take a mirror with him, only a sword - and everybody knows you need a mirror in order to kill a basilisk."
"At least we've saved some coin," added pimples "there's no one to pay for taking care of the basilisk. You might as well go home. As far as the sorcerer's horse and baggage... well it would be a shame if they went to waste."
"Yes," said the butcher, "It's a fine old mare and the saddlebags are full. Let's take a look."
"What are you doing?"
"Shut up, burgrave. Don't get in the way unless you want a punch in the face," threatened the pimpled man.
"A fine old mare," repeated the butcher.
"Leave the horse alone, my darling."
The butcher slowly turned around towards the stranger who had suddenly appeared from behind a collapsed wall, just at the back of the audience gathered around the tunnel entrance. The stranger had thick curly brown hair and wore a dark brown tunic under a puffy cotton coat and tall riding boots. He had no weapons. "Step away from the horse," he repeated with a menacing smile, "What have we here? A horse and saddlebags belonging to another and yet you eye them greedily and paw through them. Is that honourable?"
Pimply slowly slipped a hand inside his overcoat and glanced at the butcher. The butcher gave a nod and signalled toward the crowd, out of which stepped two strong, close cropped, youths. Both carried heavy clubs, like those used to stun animals in the slaughterhouse.
"Who are you?" demanded the pimply-faced man, whose hand remained hidden inside his overcoat, "to tell us what is and isn't honourable?"
"That's none of your business, my dear."
"You carry no weapons."
"That's true," the stranger's smile grew even more poisonous, "I don't carry weapons."
"That's no good," pimply drew a long knife out from inside his coat, "Too bad for you you're not armed." The butcher also drew a blade; a long hunting knife. The other two men approached, brandishing their clubs.
"I don't carry weapons," responded the stranger, not budging, "but I'm always armed." From behind the ruins, two young women stepped out lightly and confidently. The crowd quickly parted, retreated then thinned out. The girls smiled, flashing their teeth, and blinked. They had blue stripes tattooed from the corners of their eyes to the tips of their ears. Lynx pelt clad their strong muscles from thigh to hip and their bare arms curved above their mail gauntlets. From behind the mail-clad shoulder of each rose the hilt of a sabre.
Pimply got down on one knee and slowly, very slowly, placed his knife on the ground. From the hole in ruins came a rumble of stones, grinding, and then from the darkness there emerged two hands clutching the jagged edge of the wall. Following the hands, a white head appeared, the hair powdered with brick dust, a pale face and then, finally, shoulders, above which stood the hilt of a sword. A murmur escaped the crowd. The alabaster-haired man straightened and pulled a strange shape from the hole; a small, odd looking body covered in dust and blood. Holding the beast by its long lizard-like tail, the man tossed it to the feet of the burgrave without a word. The burgrave jumped backwards and tripped on a fragment of wall, his eyes glued to a curved bird-like beak, webbed crescent- shaped wings and claws like sickles on its scaly feet. Its slashed throat, once carmine, was now a dirty red-brown.
Its sunken eyes were glassy.
"Here's the basilisk," said the white-haired man as he brushed the dust from his trousers, "As agreed, that'll be 200 lintars, good ones, not too worn. I will check them, I'm warning you."
With shaking hands, the burgrave produced a large purse. The white-haired man looked around at the townsfolk, his gaze resting on the pimply-faced man, his discarded knife at his feet. He also noticed the man in the brown tunic and the young women in the lynx pelts.
"It's always the same," he said as he took the purse from the burgrave's nervous hands, "I risk my neck for a few measly coins and you, meanwhile, try to rob me. You people never change, damn you to hell!"
"We haven't touched your bags," the butcher muttered, backing away. The men armed with the clubs had long since hidden themselves in the crowd, "Your things have not been disturbed, sir"
"I'm glad to hear it," the white-haired man smiled. At the sight of his smile, which bloomed on his pale face like an open wound, the crowd began to disperse. "And that is why, brother, you have nothing to worry about. Go in peace. But go quickly."
Pimply, backing away, was about to run. The spots stood out on his pallid face making him look even more hideous.
"Hey! Wait a minute!" called the man in the brown tunic, "You've forgotten about something."
"What's that... sir?"
"You pulled a knife on me."
The tallest of the young women, who stood waiting with her long legs apart, turned on her hip. Her sabre, drawn faster than the eye could see, cut through the air. The head of the pimply-faced man flew upwards, tracing an arc before disappearing into the gaping hole. His body rolled stiff and heavy, like a freshly felled tree, amongst the broken rubble. The crowd cried out in unison. The second girl, her hand on the hilt of her sabre, turned agilely, covering her back. It was unnecessary - the crowd rushed and stumbled through the ruins towards the town as fast as their legs could carry them.
At the head of the crowd, leaping impressively for such a fat man, was the burgrave - slightly ahead of the butcher.
"A beautiful strike," commented the white-haired man coldly as he shielded his eyes from the sun with a black-gloved hand, "A beautiful strike from a Fog Warriors sabre. I humbly bow before the skill and beauty of free warrior women. I am Cullen of Ferelden."
"And I..." the unknown man indicated to a faded coat of arms emblazoned on his brown tunic representing three black birds aligned on a field of gold, "I am Borch, also called Three Jackdaws. And these are my bodyguards Tea and Vea. At least that's what I call them because their true names are a tongue twister. They are both, as you so finely guessed, Fog Warriors."
"Thanks to them, or so it would seem, I still have my horse and belongings. My thanks to you, warriors, and also to you, noble lord.”
"Three Jackdaws. And I'm no gentleman. Is there anything keeping you in this region, Cullen of Ferelden?"
"Nothing at all."
"Perfect. In that case, I have a proposition. Not far from here, at the crossroads on the road to the river-port, is an inn called The Pensive Dragon. The food is unequalled throughout this whole region. I'm on my way there now with the intention of dining and spending the night. It would be an honour if you would accompany me."
"Borch," replied Cullen , white head turning away from his horse, looking into the bright eyes of the stranger, "I'd like you to know so that there be no misunderstanding between us. I'm a Templar ."
"I thought as much. And you said that as if you were saying, I'm a leper ."
"There are some," Cullen replied calmly, "that would prefer the company of a leper to that of a Templar ."
Cullen can see in his mind's eye a small little elf who does not think so. She pulls him out of bed and demands to learn to fight. She has gotten better as he taught her. And he does teach her everytime he goes back to the Templar stronghold. Skyhold. A safe place; a strong place. A place built by elves and taken over by Templars eons ago.
Where else would they hide her but here?
"And there are others," replied Three Jackdaws with a smile, "who would prefer the company of sheep to that of young ladies. In the end, all I can do is pity them. I stand by my proposal."
Cullen took off a glove and shook the stranger's outstretched hand, "I accept. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Let's be off then, I'm starving."
The landlord wiped the uneven surface of the table with a cloth, bowed and smiled. He was missing two front teeth.
"Yes..." Three Jackdaws stared for a moment at the blackened ceiling and watched the spiders walking playfully across it., "First... some beer. On second thoughts, a keg of beer. And with the beer... what do you recommend, my dear?"
"Cheese?" the landlord suggested uncertainty.
"No," frowned Borch, "Cheese should be for afters. With the beer we'd like something sour and spicy."
"At your service," the landlord smiled even wider. His two front teeth were not the only ones that he lacked, "How about eels marinated in garlic and vinegar, or green pickles..."
"Perfect. For two please. And after that, some soup. Like the one I ate last time with the mussels, small fish and other crap floating in it."
"Yes. Next, roast lamb with eggs and onions. Then about sixty crayfish. Throw some fennel into the pan, as much as you can muster. Then ewe's cheese and a salad. After that... we'll see."
"At your service. Is that for everyone? All four of you?"
The tallest of the Fog Warriors shook her head and patted her belly significantly, accentuating the way her linen shirt clung to her body.
"I forgot," Three Jackdaws winked at Cullen, "The girls are watching their figures. Landlord! Lamb only for us two. Bring the beer and eels immediately, leave the rest for a while so that the other dishes don't get cold. We didn't come here to stuff our faces, just to spend time in pleasant conversation."
"I understand completely, sir," replied the landlord, bowing once more.
"Understanding - this is an important quality in your line of work. Give me your hand, my beauty," gold coin jingled and the landlord smiled as widely as possible.
"This is not an advance," specified Three Jackdaws, "it's a little extra. Now get back to your kitchen, my good fellow."
It was hot in the alcove. Cullen loosened his belt, removed his doublet then rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, "I see you're not troubled by lack of silver," he said with a quick sweep of the inn as he spoke, "Do you live by the privileges of knighthood?"
"Partly," Three Jackdaws smiled in answer and didn't elaborate. They made short work of the eels and quarter of the beer barrel. Although the Fog Warriors were obviously enjoying the evening, they did not drink much of the beer. They spoke together quietly until Vea suddenly burst into throaty laughter.
"Do the girls speak the common language?" asked Cullen as he watched them out of the corner of his eye. Carver had often joked that his older sister had somehow gotten a former Fog Warrior as a husband. He had been in training when the wedding happened.
"Badly. And they're not exactly chatterboxes, which is nice. How's your soup, Cullen?"
"Cullen ..." Three Jackdaws gestured with his spoon and belched, "returning for one moment to the conversation we had whilst on the road: it's my understanding, Templar, that you wander from one end of the world to the other, killing any monsters you meet along the way - for pay. That is your job, isn't it?"
"More or less."
"What if somebody personally appeals to you to go somewhere specific? Say to carry out a special order. What do you do then?"
"That depends on who's asking me and what they have in mind."
"And the wages?"
"That too," the Templar shrugged after taking another drag of his beer deeply and happily since it was warm and the last warm meal he had was long ago, "everything becomes more expensive if you want to live well as one of my magician friends likes to say."
"Quite a selective approach, and I would say very practical. Yet there is a certain principal underlying it, Cullen. The conflict between the forces of Order and those of Chaos, as one of my wizard friends likes to say. I imagine that you always take missions that involve protecting humans from the Evil that is all around us. Undoubtedly this places you on the good side of the fence."
"The forces of Order, the forces of Chaos... what grand words, Borch. You want at all costs for me to place myself on one side of the fence in a conflict that all regard as eternal, a conflict that's been going on since before we were born and will continue long after we're gone. On which side should the blacksmith place himself in this business? Or the landlord who hurries to bring us roast lamb? What, according to you, defines the boundary between Chaos and Order?"
"It's very simple," Three Jackdaws looked the Templar right in the eye, "Chaos represents a threat. It is on the side of violence and aggression. Order, on the other hand, opposes it. That is why it must be protected and needs someone to defend it. But let us drink and make a start on this lamb."
Cullen narrowed his eyes at those words and the clear dismissal tacked on at the end. This man reminded him of a another man he had the misfortune of meeting,
Still concerned for their figures, the Fog Warriors had taken a break from eating to devote themselves to drinking at an accelerated pace. Vea leaned on the shoulder of her companion, and murmured something in her ear, her braids brushing the tabletop. Tea, the shorter of the two, burst into laughter, her tattooed eyelids blinking merrily. Carver had met back up with his sister and her husband. He said the man was lean and covered in white ink on tan skin. Said his sister and him spoke to each other in looks and few words. He said that they loved each other.
"Well," continued Borch, gnawing on a bone. "Let us continue our conversation, if you'll permit. I see that you prefer not to take sides in the conflict between the forces. You just want to do your job."
"But you cannot escape the conflict between Order and Chaos. In spite of your comparison, you're not a blacksmith. I saw how you work; you enter an underground tunnel and come out of it with a small, mangled basilisk. There is a difference, my pretty, between shoeing horses and killing basilisks. You've already indicated that you'll journey to the other side of the world to slay a certain monster if the pay is worth it. Let's say a fierce dragon destroys—"
"Bad example," interrupted Cullen, "You see, the boundary becomes blurred already. I don't kill dragons, in spite of the fact they no doubt represent Chaos."
"Why is that?" Three Jackdaws licked his fingers and then shook his head before exclaiming, "But that's outrageous! Surely of all the monsters, the dragon is the most dangerous, vicious and cruel. Most terrible of all the reptiles. It attacks humans, spits fire and it even steals virgins! Haven't you heard enough stories about that? Is it possible that you, Templar , do not have a few dragon slayings in your list of accomplishments?"
"I do not hunt dragons," Cullen replied dryly, "Giant centipedes, yes. Dracolizards, dermopterans but not real dragons, greens, blacks or reds. Make no mistake about it."
He had told a little girl a story about fighting a dragon but it a lie. She hadn’t cared at all. To her to fact that the story had a dragon and a hero was enough. If only life was really like that. Then he and all the others would be just as respected as any lorded knight. He wouldn’t have to stay away for so long and do such laborious work for little pay. He would be able to stay close to the only home he had ever known. Close to his little girl.
"You astonish me." replied Three Jackdaws, breaking him away from his thoughts, "But nevertheless, I get the message. Enough talking about dragons for now. I see something red on the horizon; undoubtedly our crayfish. Drink up!"
They noisily broke the shells with their teeth and sucked out the white flesh. Salty water, stinging painfully, ran down to their wrists. Borch served up some more beer, scraping the bottom of the small cask with the ladle, while the Fog Warriors amused themselves by watching the goings on around them. They laughed unpleasantly at a soothsayer on the next table over and the Templar was convinced that they were looking for a fight. Three Jackdaws also noticed it and waved a crayfish at them threateningly. The girls giggled, Tea blowing him a kiss and giving him an ostentatious wink.
Her tattoos made the gesture slightly macabre.
"They truly are wildcats," murmured Three Jackdaws to Cullen. "They must be watched all the time otherwise, in less than two seconds flat and without warning, the ground is likely to be strewn with entrails. However, they are worth all the money in the world. Did you know that they can..?"
"I know," replied Cullen, nodding. "It is difficult to find a better escort. Fog Warriors are born warriors, trained in combat from a very early age."
"I wasn't talking about that." Borch spat a crayfish pincer onto the table. "I was thinking about their performance in bed."
Cullen watched the young girls out of the corner of his eye. Both smiled and Vea seized a shellfish, as quick as a flash. She cracked the carapace with her teeth and blinked as she regarded the Templar . Her lips glistened with the salty water. Three Jackdaws belched loudly.
"So, Cullen," he continued, "you don't hunt dragons, green or otherwise. I'll bear it in mind. Why categorise them by these three colours, may I ask?"
"Four colours, to be precise."
"You only mentioned three."
"You seem to have a great interest in dragons, Borch. Is there a particular reason?"
"I'm just curious."
"These colours are the customary categorisation, although not a precise one. Green dragons are most widespread though in fact they are rather gray, like dracolizards. To tell you the truth the reds are more red brown, the colour of brick. The large dark brown dragons are usually called black dragons. Rarest of all are the white dragons. I've never seen one. They live in the far North, apparently."
"Interesting. Do you know what other types of dragons I've heard of?"
"I know," replied Cullen, swallowing a mouthful of beer. "I've also heard of them: the gold. But they don't exist."
"But how can you be sure? Just because you've never seen one? You've never seen a white one either." Borch argues with him,
"That's not the point. Across the seas, in Seheron and Tevinter, there are white horses with black stripes. I've never seen those either, but I know that they exist. The golden dragon is a myth, a legend; like the phoenix. Phoenixes and golden dragons do not exist."
Vea, leaning on her elbows, looked at him curiously.
"You certainly know what you're talking about—you're a Templar ," said Borch drawing some more beer from the small keg. "However, I think any myth, and legend, can contain a grain of truth that sometimes can't be ignored."
"That is so," confirmed Cullen, thinking of the lovely woman who had pleaded with him to take her baby. The baby that now demands sword lessons and stories from him, "but that is the territory of dreams, hopes and desires: it's about the belief that there is no limit to what is possible, just because there is sometimes a wild chance that it might be true."
"Chance, exactly . It may be there once was a golden dragon; the product of a single, unique mutation."
"If that's the case, that dragon would've suffered the fate of all mutants," the Templar bowed his head, "It couldn't survive, because it's too different."
"Now you oppose natural law, Cullen! My wizard friend was in the habit of saying that each and every being can prevail in nature in one manner or another. The end of one existence always announces the beginning of another. There is no limit, at least when it comes to nature."
Cullen raises an eyebrow at him, "Your wizard friend was a huge optimist. There is one element he didn't take into consideration; errors made by nature or those that play with it. The golden dragon and all the other mutants of its species, even if they have existed, could not survive. A natural limit inherent in them has prevented it."
"Mutants..." the muscles in Cullen 's jaw tensed, "Mutants are sterile, Borch. Only legends permit what nature condemns. Only myths can ignore the limits of what's possible.”
Three Jackdaws remained silent. Cullen saw that the girls' faces had suddenly become serious. Vea quickly leaned towards him, embracing him with her hard, muscular arms. He felt her lips on his cheek, wet with beer.
"They like you," said Three Jackdaws slowly, "The devil take it, they like you!"
"What's so strange about that?" replied the Templar , smiling sadly.
"Nothing. But a toast is necessary. Landlord! Another keg!"
The landlord itched at the back of his ears and replied sheepishly but firmly, "Not that much. A tankard at most."
"Make that two tankards!" shouted Three Jackdaws. "Tea, I must leave for a moment."
The Fog Warriors picked up her sabre from the bench as she rose before inspecting the room with a tired glance. The Templar noticed several pairs of eyes sparkle with greed at the sight of Borch's overstuffed coin-purse, but nobody dared to follow him as he staggered in the direction of the courtyard. Tea shrugged before following her employer.
"What's your real name?" asked Cullen of the girl who remained sitting at the table.
Vea smiled revealing a line of white teeth, much of her shirt was unbuttoned as far as the last possible limit of decency allowed. Cullen did not doubt for an instant that her demeanour was designed to test the resistance of the other patrons in the room.
"That's beautiful." The Templar was sure that the Fog Warriors now gazed at him doe-eyed, seductively. He was not mistaken.
"Why do you ride with Borch? Warriors love of freedom is well known to everyone. Can you tell me?"
Cullen took a sip of beer, "Hmm, what?"
"He is..." the Fog Warriors wrinkled her brow while she tried to find the right words, "He is the most... the most beautiful."
The Templar shook his head. The criteria used by women to assess the desirability of men had always been an enigma to him. Three Jackdaws burst into the alcove re-buttoning his trousers and gave a loud command to the landlord. Tea, two steps behind him, feigned boredom as she looked around the tavern, the merchants and the mariners present avoiding her eyes. Vea sucked at a crayfish while casting the Templar knowing glances.
"I'll have another order of eel for everyone, braised this time," Three Jackdaws sat down heavily, his still open belt jangled, "I'm tired of crayfish and I'm still hungry. I have reserved
you a room, Cullen. You have no reason to be wandering this night. Let's have some more fun. To your health, girls!"
" Vessekheal ," Vea replied, holding up her glass. Tea blinked and stretched. Her lovely breasts, contrary to Cullen 's expectations, did not burst out of her shirt.
"Let's have some fun!" Three Jackdaws leaned across the table, and slapped Tea on the behind, "Let's party, Templar, Hey! Landlord! Over here!" The landlord quickly approached them, wiping his hands on his apron. "Do you have a large tub? Like one for washing linen in: solid and roomy."
"How big, sir?"
"For four people."
"For... four," repeated the landlord smiling widely.
"Four," confirmed Three Jackdaws, pulling his full coin-purse out of his pocket.
"We'll find one for you," promised the landlord as he moistened his lips.
"Perfect," replied Borch, all smiles. "Order one and bring it up into my room and see that it's filled with hot water. Get to it, my dear chap, and don't forget beer and at least three tankards." The Fog Warriors laughed and winked at the Templar .
"Which do you prefer?" asked Three Jackdaws. "Huh, Cullen ?"
The Templar scratched his head.
"I know it's a difficult choice," continued Three Jackdaws with a knowing air. "I also have trouble sometimes. Well, we will decide when we're in the tub. Hey, girls! Help me up the stairs."