It was no life for an honest man, Sergeant Aelric said. William wasn't sure what that meant, but he hadn't liked to ask. He hadn't been brought up to ask awkward questions… especially not of blokes what were bigger'n him.
That had been on the first few days of the march north to Denerim. There were fifteen of them, all told, from the village. Fresh new recruits, well-scrubbed and eager. Most of the boys he'd known since childhood.
It was a sore goodbye, but a lot of mothers, sisters and sweethearts came to wave them off, and there was crying and the waving of damp hankies… and some of the boys cried too.
He didn't cry, although his sister did come to wave. She stomped halfway up the hill to the cliff gate and fetched him a dirty great clomp around the earhole, an' all.
You bleedin' idiot, William! What'd you want to go and join the bloody army for, anyway? If I find out who put that fool idea in your head, I'll gut 'em like a soddin' whitefin!
Devora didn't normally cuss so much unless she was upset.
You come back safe, you hear me? Or I'll… well, you'd better, ain't yer?
He'd nodded and promised he would, and pretended that he hadn't seen her wipe her eyes on her apron.
It was a slow journey, on account of Sergeant Aelric had to go via every town and village the recruitment drive had touched and pick up the lads who'd put their mark to the king's call. More joined every day, and before long they were marching up the Highway like a proper army… only Sarge didn't think it was marching at all, or so he said.
They were a bunch of pantywaists, Sarge said, and the sooner they got to Denerim and had their full military training, the better. That was when he'd said to William that it wasn't a life for an honest man. They'd hauled up by the side of the road, fresh out some grubby little speck of a village that you wouldn't even find on a map, and Sarge had pulled out his chewing baccy, and said… well, that.
He'd offered William some baccy, too, but he didn't take it. The smell made him feel sick, and Devora would've fetched him an 'ecky good thump for spitting like that back home.
Anyway, they'd been marching and marching, and William had horrible blisters. From time to time, they stopped at villages and outposts along the road. That was good—there was hot food that didn't taste of mud and rainwater, and actual beer to drink, and some of the girls in the taverns were prepared to be quite friendly to a bunch of brave lads off to fight for Good King Cailan.
In Lothering, they even found a mail coach.
It was a pretty little place, William thought. Lots more farmsteads around than in Redcliffe, and no pervasive smell of fish. Different colours… muted greens and browns instead of the bare, hard russet of the cliffs, and the sharp blue of the sky.
Didn't feel like home, though.
Sarge had a word with the coachman. Turned out there were quite a few letters and packages for the boys on their way to be soldiers. He passed them out in the tavern, and they all sat there, laughing and smiling in the candlelight, reading smudged words from home and drinking watered-down beer.
It is two days now since we said goodbye, and blow me if it don't seem quiet as a midnight chantry in the house.
Grandpa says to wish you well, and that he is very proud of you. He is fine, and so am I, though it was a very long day on the quay today. I had to do all of Millie Clearwater's gutting on account of her sitting and moping into her hankie about Davrin Jossop having gone off with the rest of you—and you can tell him that, and all. Millie says he didn't even kiss her goodbye.
How is life in the army treating you, Will? I hope they're good to you. Promise me you'll take care of yourself, and you tell me if there's anything you need.
Be good, and be brave, and we'll all be thinking of you. I know you might not be able to write for a while, until you're settled, but we shall be waiting to hear. And let us know how the training goes and—when it's done and you have your orders—where you're going, if you can say.
Maker keep and bless you, brother.
Your loving sister, Devora
William read the letter slowly, brow furrowed in deep concentration, his thick fingers loosely hooked on the rim of his clay mug.
The air was greasy with the light of tallow candles, and crowded with laughter and chatter.
Eventually, William begged a stub of pencil from the tavern keeper, turned his sister's letter over—paper being hard to come by, and Devora's round, careful script only having filled one side—and thought about what to say.
We are on the road. It is still a long way but Sarge says we will have to get a move on if we are going to get to Denerim before our tonkers drop off.
It is good you are all right. I am fine. Please send more socks when you can. You cannot have enough socks in the army.
Davrin says it weren't his fault about Millie. He says she's not sensible like you, but you can probably talk her round.
I will let you know when we reach the city. I hope everything is all right. It is not at all like home here, but the beer is better than Lloyd's.
Maker keep you.
Your brother, William
He paid to pack it off with the mail coach, not knowing when it would reach Redcliffe, but hoping it wouldn't be too long.
And, in the morning, they marched on. There were whispers of refugees coming up from the south—wilder folk and travellers, people said, fleeing the fighting in the wetlands.
Rumour had it the King's men were up against some dark threat down in the Wilds… something more than the usual skirmishes that resulted from tribal arguments or feuds between rival lords.
Sarge went crazy when he heard the lads talking about it, though. Gossip was for fishwives and widow women, Sarge said, and he'd knock seven shades of shit out of any man he caught spreading it.
He'd do it, too, William reckoned.
Sarge said it wasn't their place to wonder about that kind of thing. They were soldiers, or soon to be, and there oughtn't to be room in a soldier's head for worrying about things that didn't concern him. And, at this point, whatever was or was not being held at bay down in Ostagar did not concern them. In any case, it was probably nothing.
William believed his sergeant, and stopped thinking about the rumours.
Not all of the lads did and—when Davrin Jossop asked him what he thought was going on at Ostagar—William said he didn't.
"Don't what?" Davrin asked.
They were marching again. William was getting used to it now, the rhythmic thud of boots and the feel of feet biting into mile after mile of road… it was mindless, and soothing. But for the blisters, he rather liked it.
"Er. I… don't," he said, his brow creasing as he glanced at Davrin.
The other lad was skinny, compared to William, but then people back home used to say that so was Princess Matilda, Geraint Perkins' evil-smelling old pig… and that bloody thing was the size of a sideboard.
He couldn't help the way the Maker had made him.
"What? You don't think?" Davrin smirked, his grubby blond hair tousled by the chilly, gritty breeze. "Can't say I'm surprised, yer thick bugger."
He laughed, so William smiled too. The lads took the piss a bit, but they were a good bunch.
More letters caught up with the company somewhere further along the Highway, when they were footsore and tired, and the flat lands of the Bannorn were not dotted with nearly enough villages and taverns to break up the journey.
They came in thick packets this time, days and weeks of correspondence sandwiched together.
Sergeant Aelric gave William a fat, squashy package, and he eagerly ripped open the brown paper, his face splitting into a broad grin as he looked at the contents.
There was a letter, too.
I have had your letter this past Tuesday, though I don't know how far on you are now. I hope the journey goes well… or perhaps you are already at the barracks.
In any case, here are the socks you wanted. I have double-stitched the heels and toes. I hope you're keeping well, and wearing your vest. Grandpa and I are fine. He's had a bit of a cold since last week, but it hasn't gone to his chest.
Things continue the same here. Old Perkins' pig got out again and has eaten all the turnips in the garden. I swear I'll butcher the bloody thing myself if he don't learn to keep it under control.
I hope this letter reaches you soon, and I will write again shortly.
Maker watch over you.
Your loving sister, Devora
It started to rain as they left the last village.
There weren't so many recruits joining the march anymore. William didn't really wonder why.
He tucked the letter carefully inside his jack and—wriggling his toes luxuriously within the woolly confines of his new, dry socks—pulled the laces tight on his boots, and got ready to march again.
Sarge said it'd be only another couple of days to Denerim.
Sarge said they'd be at the barracks soon, and then their troubles would really start, oh, yes they would. Sarge said they were 'orrible, lazy little buggers, and would learn the true meaning of hard graft, on account of they was in the army now, oh, yes they was.
He tended to smile when he said it, though.
Denerim was very impressive. They could see it on the horizon long before they got there, and it made the lads frisky, like dogs scenting home… only their thoughts were running more towards warm beds, hot ale, and the possibility of young ladies who might be persuaded to friendliness.
Still, it was a big place. Everyone seemed a bit subdued when they marched through the gates. All the crowds, and the high walls, and all those people looking at them…. A few people applauded, and one girl blew a kiss at Davrin Jossop, but mostly they just stared.
Things felt homelier in the barracks, William decided.
It took a while to familiarise themselves with everything, of course. The mess, and the latrines, and all the other important things. Where you eat, where you shit, and where you sleep, as Sarge put it. Anything beyond that, they could deal with in the morning.
The first night was strange, though.
He knew the other lads felt it too, because they were all talking loud and laughing hard. Davrin sat on the end of his bunk, stripped down to his shirt and breeches, and told a joke about a mage, an Orlesian chevalier, and a dwarven warrior who all walked into a tavern.
William didn't understand the ending, but it must've been dirty, because everybody laughed, so he joined in.
After lights out, he heard Davrin pretending not to cry.
The training was hard, but William enjoyed it. Sarge said they had six luvverly weeks of it to look forward to before they got their orders and decamped with their new detachments… and Maker help whatever poor sod got lumbered with them.
Sarge'd miss 'em when they were gone, William reckoned.
He got hold of some paper after the first couple of days, and wrote to Devora to tell her all about it, full of excitement at the fact that, for the first time in his life, he was actually good at something.
She'd be proud of him, William thought, his chest swelling at the prospect.
So, he wrote, and while he waited for her answer, his days were full of drills and yomps, and learning things about armour and weapons. Sarge said he'd never seen anyone put such a shine on a pair of boots, or take a windlass apart so fast and put it back together the right way round.
Pride and security filled the empty spaces of William's existence, but couldn't obliterate the uncomfortable itch at the back of his brain.
Something wasn't right.
Eventually, Dev's letter came.
I had your letter. Grandpa and I are so proud of you! I am happy to hear you're settling well. You be careful, though, won't you?
We are well, but Grandpa still has a touch of that cold. Also, there has been some terrible news from the castle. I'd not write of it, but I don't know how long it takes for news to reach Denerim, and I thought you ought to know, if you don't already.
Arl Eamon has fallen sick. No one knows what ails him, but word is he took ill suddenly, and his healers can't do anything. They've sent a message to the Magi for help, and Owen said his daughter—you remember Valena, don't you?—said the arlessa has been praying like a zealot. It hasn't done any good so far.
But, perhaps you'll remember Arl Eamon in your prayers. Mother Hannah says we all should.
Oh, and there's another bit of news. Millie Clearwater has got herself in trouble. I hope Davrin bloody Jossop is proud of himself. Old man Clearwater says he'd damn well better get himself back to Redcliffe before the babe comes, else he's going to drive his ox cart all the way to Denerim and fetch the bugger himself. Perhaps he can ask for leave, and get here in time for the wedding?
I hope we will see you on leave sometime soon, as well.
Maker bless you, William,
Your loving sister, Devora
PS – are you all right for socks?
It was troubling news.
William sat on the edge of his bunk with the letter folded in his hands, lower lip caught between his teeth.
Poor old Arl Eamon. And poor old Davrin, he reflected. Millie was a pretty girl, but her father had a hell of a temper.
Still, it wasn't really his affair. There oughtn't to be room in a soldier's head for worrying about things that didn't concern him… just like Sarge said.
Sarge said, if he was lucky, he might get a placement in the King's First Division, and might even be able to join the next detachment heading down to Ostagar, if the fighting down there lasted long enough.
He thought about writing back to Devora and telling her that, but he supposed she might not understand. It was easy to forget, but Dev was still a girl, and might worry unnecessarily about him going to the front line.
Her next letter arrived within a week, which was unusual.
I'd not write again so soon, for I'm sure you haven't had my last yet, but we have had grave news in the village. I don't know if you shall get this letter, or….
Lady Isolde has sent the knights to search for—you won't believe this—the Urn of Sacred Ashes. Can you imagine? I think she's gone mad. Maybe that's what the arl's got. Maybe they've all gone mad, I don't know. They're saying he might have been poisoned, and it's something so dark that magical healing can't raise him.
Socks enclosed. You didn't say, but I've been knitting, so I thought I'd send some.
Your sister, Devora
Who'd want to poison Arl Eamon?
William contemplated it while he pulled his new socks on. He didn't know, but it was a terrible thing.
He considered talking to Sarge about it, but William knew the man's opinion of gossip. Was this gossip or news? He wasn't sure how you told the difference.
Instead, he concentrated on his drills, and wondered what to say to Devora.
News was starting to filter up from the south. King Cailan's army had the enemy on the run, they said. It was a barbarian horde from deep in the Korcari Wilds, so word had it. Some blokes said there were darkspawn in there, but William wasn't sure that was true. A lot of people said it couldn't be. A few stragglers might be conceivable, perhaps, but there hadn't been any real number of darkspawn on the surface for four hundred years. They'd all been wiped out by the old griffon riders, hadn't they? The stories said so. They didn't exist anymore, except as tales to frighten children.
William remembered how Ma used to say darkspawn ate naughty little boys and—when she'd gone to the trouble of getting the zinc tub in and filling it in front of the fire, and he still wouldn't take a bath—she'd say they liked smelly ones best. They cracked open their skulls and scooped out the brains, she said, and picked their teeth clean with the arm bones, afterwards. It always got him in there, soaping and scrubbing.
Sarge had recommended him for special training as a crossbowman. Devora would be pleased about that, William thought. He should write and tell her.
All the business at the castle would most likely have blown over by now.
Only… the days kept ticking by, and he didn't hear anything.
Barracks life was different to being on the road. William didn't see so much of the other Redcliffe recruits as he had before. Still, he knew they were all worried. He saw Davrin Jossop in the mess hall, and he had a dirty great black eye, which William discovered was from gossiping.
Surprising how dangerous that could be.
"Have you heard?" Davrin asked him, all the same.
William prodded his plate of grey and brown mush. Something that might have been a pea—he hoped so, because anything else that shade of green really shouldn't have been in there—glooped by beneath his spoon.
"Arl Eamon's sick, or dead," Davrin went on determinedly. "They say no news is coming out of Kinloch Hold, either. Redcliffe's locked down. Something's going on, and nobody knows what."
William chewed thoughtfully.
"Dunno," he said.
"You dunno nuffin'," Davrin grumbled. "On account of bein' fick as pig shit."
"Ain't," William denied mildly.
"Well…." Davrin changed the subject. "The arlessa's sent the knights away, ain't she? Wozzer Shawgrove reckons it's an Orlesian plot. Some relative of hers is gonna come in and try to take over the arling."
"Dunno," William said.
Davrin gave an exasperated sigh. "Well, they might. And we ain't there to stop 'em, are we? I don't like it. Don't like it one bit."
William nodded slowly.
"Nah," he said.
A few days later, a very small scrap of paper arrived in mail call, along with a letter for Davrin, and a package for one of the lads from the other side of the lake.
William didn't open it at once, on account of it being a busy morning.
There was talk all over the city about what had at happened at Ostagar.
When he finally found Sergeant Aelric, William could have sworn the man had been crying. He was pale, his eyes red-rimmed and ringed with dark shadows. Both of his sons had been serving in the King's company, William recalled.
Later, he read his sister's letter in the sober quiet of the mess hall.
Nobody was talking, or eating that much.
I don't know if you'll get this. We don't know if anyone's out there anymore.
I love you, brother. If I've ever been sharp with you, I'm sorry. After Ma died, I only wanted to look after you, and with Pa gone you've not had anyone to keep an eye on you, I know. I keep thinking about all the things I might have done differently.
Redcliffe needs help, Will. Something's wrong at the castle. Something evil.
Nightfall comes, and horrible, terrible things come down from the cliff. There's this smell on the air, like sulphur and dead flesh, and… we don't know what to do. Hiding won't be enough for long.
Murdock's raising a militia. A lot of people fled the village after the first attack, but there are those of who can't or won't leave. This is our home. We'll do what we can, but we are few, and not equipped to fight.
Stay safe. With the Maker's grace, we'll see you again soon.
He didn't know what to make of it.
In William's experience, horrible, terrible things stayed in storybooks. But, then, also in William's experience, whole armies didn't get massacred on the battlefield by the treachery of a small group of insidious griffon riders.
Everyone knew what the Grey Wardens had done at Ostagar. The messengers that rode up from the south were full of the news, and all of Denerim was still buzzing with it.
Nobody had wanted to believe it at first. The King… dead. All of them, except Teyrn Loghain's men, wiped out. Gone, easy as blinking. It barely seemed possible.
A few fights had broken out in the barracks. Some of the older blokes—the captains and the veterans, a few of whom had fought under Maric's banner at River Dane—said it must be wrong. A… mistake on the teyrn's part, perhaps. The Grey Wardens wouldn't have done that. They were heroes, an order of warriors with only goal: the destruction of the darkspawn.
Only, for them to have been there at all, fighting beside Cailan… well, didn't that mean there had been darkspawn at Ostagar?
Rumour said yes, and more than just a handful of stragglers, but rumour couldn't be properly trusted. Rumours led to fear and hasty conclusions, and no one was going to be the first to say it sounded like a Blight. After all, that was impossible.
Still, no one seemed to know what had really happened, just that the whole thing had been a mess, a plot… a catastrophe. But for the teyrn, there might not have been any survivors at all.
Next to that chilling thought, Redcliffe's troubles hardly seemed like much. At least, not to the people who'd never lived there.
Davrin Jossop wanted to run straight back home and find out what was going on, but they couldn't do that. As Sarge put it, they were in the army now.
Besides, no one really seemed to believe it. There were a dozen reasons—excuses, maybe—for what the thin trickle of information suggested. It was a sickness, probably. People thinking they saw things that weren't there. Frightened of shadows.
William furrowed his brow. He didn't know which he disliked more: the idea of his family being at the mercy of monsters, or them being left alone in a village racked by a plague of the mind.
Of course, they shouldn't be room in a soldier's head for things he couldn't do anything about. That's what Sarge had said… only, Sarge had been a lot quieter over the past few days. He didn't even seem to enjoy shouting at Davrin anymore.
William traced the letter's hastily scrawled words with his thumb. Devora didn't scare easily. She was a fighter, his sister. A strong, brave, capable girl.
And the letter was dated nearly a week ago.
Nothing he could do, then.
Nothing at all.
Not that the knowledge helped.
Sarge said everything had changed, anyway. Sarge said most of the recruits would have their training cut short. The need now was for bodies, not experts. A firm presence, and a lid on the panic that threatened not just the city, but the whole damn country.
Sarge caught William out by the back of the bunkhouse, just as he was on his way to report for duty in the mess hall.
"How d'you like the army, then, boy?"
William nodded once, crisply. "Ser! Yes, ser. Very much, ser."
Sergeant Aelric gave a grim smile and pulled his baccy pouch off his belt.
"Yeah, well you can knock that off, for starters. Go on… at ease."
William linked his hands behind his back and set his feet apart, his gaze fixed exactly three-quarters of an inch past the sergeant's left earlobe.
"Thank you, ser."
Sarge sighed wearily. "You're a good lad, William. I don't s'pose you know what's goin' on up on the hill?"
"Word is, Teyrn Loghain's going to declare himself Regent. We're bleedin' lucky he pulled out of Ostagar the way he did," he added. "Otherwise who knows what would be happening now."
If there was an ulterior meaning in the man's words, it was lost on William.
"Well…." Sergeant Aelric spat a small glob of something vile and brown onto the ground by William's foot. "How'd you like a crack at a real military career, my lad?"
William's brow creased, and his gaze wavered a little, tracking to the sergeant's weathered, sunburnt face.
"I'm talking about the opportunity to join the new k— the regent's retinue, son. He needs men like you. You've got the makings of a fine soldier, and this could be just what you need."
William's frown deepened. He thought he'd just go where he was ordered. He hadn't realised there was the possibility of decisions. The silence hung heavy between the two men, and he was aware of Sarge's narrow grey eyes, working over every detail of his face.
"Dunno," he said, at length, quickly adding: "Ser."
"Well, think about it, will you? Who knows," Sergeant Aelric said, chuckling wheezily to himself, "you could make officer grade. Wouldn't surprise me in the least, lad."
He spat again, and started to walk away, pausing only when he realised William hadn't moved.
"Oh, by Andraste's knick— Dismissed, soldier!"
"Yes, ser." William ripped off a salute. "Thank you, ser."
He reported, as he'd been going to do, and puzzled over the exchange while he peeled his way through a bucket of potatoes. The smell of boiled meat and cabbage permeated the air and, though he couldn't see much out of the small, grimy window, William kept staring through it.
In normal circumstances, he'd have asked his sister what to do… only Devora wasn't here.
After mess duty, he went down to the chantry, and sat quietly at the back, gazing up at the silent, impassive, sculpted face of the Prophet, wondering how you went about praying for something not to have already happened.
Sarge turned out to be right about Loghain, of course. That wasn't surprising to William, and he and the lads were among the crowds who turned out in the streets—amid all the flags and hastily erected bunting—for the official announcement, and the teyrn's first public appearance as regent.
The man was a hero. A living legend. He was the flesh-and-blood embodiment of everything it meant to be Fereldan: the face of their national character, in all its bluntness and bravery and sheer, bloody-minded obstinacy. The old folk remembered him as the poor boy done good, the military genius who'd given those Orlesian bastards the two-fingered salute… and the palpable feeling in the city was that he deserved this.
At last, this was Loghain's moment, his rightful due. The spiritual successor to King Maric, some people said. Oh, not that Cailan hadn't been a good king. He had the blood for it, naturally, and he'd been popular. Very easy on the eye when it came to state occasions, and he had the common touch right enough… but his wife was the brains of the operation, and no mistake.
William wasn't sure what to say to that. He smiled, and cheered when everyone else did, and thought quietly to himself that Teyrn Loghain looked older in person than he did in paintings.
Devora's letter came a week later, the creased outer paper spotted with grease and watermarks, and the corners ragged and crushed.
His fingers shook as he opened it.
I don't know how much news has reached you, if any. There is so much to tell! I hardly know where to start.
Rest assured, Grandpa and I are all right. The village is safe, but it has come at a heavy price.
For days, we were fighting those… creatures. Rotting corpses that walked, intent on nothing but killing and destruction. At first, we didn't believe it could be happening, but the damage they caused was real enough.
Murdock organised a militia. They weren't indestructible, those things, but they weren't easy to kill, either. Many of our boys are dead. I helped Mother Hannah get the old folk and the children into the chantry. Night after night, Will, barricaded in there, just waiting while those things poured down from the castle and slaughtered everything in their path.
Bann Teagan, the arl's brother, came to stand with us… not that there was much he could do. There wasn't much any of us could do, save laying out the dead when dawn came. Everything just stopped, like we were all holding our breath for the night to come, and praying we'd still be there in the morning.
It went for the best part of a week, William, until we thought our deaths were inevitable, like we were just waiting until there was no one left to stand between us and those creatures. Every night, we hid in the chantry, listening to the terrible sounds from outside, and every morning we had to face what was left….
That was when they came. We hadn't seen anyone from outside in days—the gates were locked, and there was no one watching the road. Tomas said they came up from the Highway… travellers like you've never seen.
Grey Wardens, or so everyone says. Can you believe it?
Outside the bunkhouse, it was raining. The bunting that no one had bothered to take down yet dripped forlornly, the determined thrum of the weather beating a tattoo on the empty parade ground.
William's brow wrinkled into a heavy frown. He'd never known Devora to write so much. There were pages of it, the words squashed up small to fit in. It didn't sound like madness, though.
Still, it didn't sound… safe, either.
Everyone said the griffon riders were traitors. Grey Wardens killed the king, and the regent—Maker bless him—had pulled his men just in time, seeing their plot for what it was. Everyone knew that's what had happened. And it made sense, didn't it?
They'd barely been back in the country twenty years. They were a brow-beaten, jealous wreck of the order they'd once been, desperate to scrabble for what crumbs of power and influence they could hope to snatch. If what they'd done hadn't been an outright, intentional betrayal, then it had been foolishness, itself a crime to the soldier's mind.
Besides, everyone knew the Grey Wardens were Orlesian lapdogs. That's what people said and—after their long years of banishment—that stood to reason, didn't it? Out there, over the borders, building up their numbers and plighting their allegiance to that foreign she-dog Celene… and they probably had, an' all.
They certainly didn't swear themselves to any Fereldan king. Everybody knew that. They said it was because Wardens were impartial, dedicated only to fighting the darkspawn, but William didn't believe it. All men took sides, whether they knew it or not. And, in his view, to stand apart from Ferelden was practically the same as standing against it.
He chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully, and wondered whether he should take Dev's letter to Sarge.
Only… would traitors really crawl out of the wreckage at Ostagar, only to lend aid to a piddling little village like Redcliffe? That seemed a strange thing to do, especially when—as far as William could see—they ought to be high-tailing it across the mountains, back to their Orlesian masters.
Teyrn Cousland's daughter, Isobel, is one of them. They say the other is a bastard son of King Maric's, but frankly I couldn't see the resemblance. Anyway, they had an Orlesian woman with them, and the biggest mabari you've ever seen.
Tomas said, when they came up on the bridge, he thought they were bandits or bounty hunters or something—come to take advantage of our troubles and pick the village's bones clean—but they didn't take a penny from us. He said they told him they wanted to see the arl, and when he said his lordship was ill, and we had our own troubles anyway, they went straight to Bann Teagan and offered to help.
William sucked his teeth. Orlesians, right enough. And there were rumours about the Couslands, too, saying how their failure to commit enough men at Ostagar had done almost as much damage as the Grey Wardens.
He didn't know whether that was true. People said Teyrn Cousland himself hadn't been at the battle, and his eldest son was reported among the dead, according to some of the first published lists.
The thoughts swirled slowly in William's head, but it seemed to him that either the teyrn's whole family were traitors, or— Well, what sort of a man would have let his son ride to war with an army, knowing what he was supposed to know about its impending betrayal?
They drove back the creatures that night—killed so many of them the bodies were piled up ten high when dawn broke. There were still losses… but we survived. And not only did the Wardens save us, but they went up to the castle to rescue the arl and his family.
Bella, that girl from the tavern, says she served them ale when they came back. She says they were talking about a demon, and about blood magic…. It's all too horrible to think about, but—though Arl Eamon still lies sick—there have been no more attacks. We're safe, and we can set about repairing the damage, and seeing the dead off right.
Now the gates are open again, we're hearing odds and ends of news, but it don't all add up. Is it right that Teyrn Loghain's put a price on the Grey Wardens' heads after what happened at Ostagar? I can't believe it.
I don't know what went on down there, Will, but I do know all that's left of Redcliffe owes its survival to the Wardens. And, if anyone can save Arl Eamon's life, it'll be them.
You'll know more than us about what's going on in Denerim, and if there's any truth to what they're saying happened at Ostagar. Thing is, Will, after what we've seen of them here, I don't believe the Grey Wardens could betray the king—but why would the teyrn say they had unless it were true?
I can't pretend to understand it and, Maker forgive me, I'm sure I don't care about the details. I'm just thankful Grandpa and I are still here. You've been in my prayers as well, brother, and I hope we'll see each other again soon. I fear for the future. The Grey Wardens say this is another Blight. If that's true, a damn sight worse may come for us than we've already suffered, and I want you to promise me you'll be careful, William.
Also, there is one more bit of news I must tell you before I close. I am to be married.
I know this may come as a surprise, on account of I wasn't courting when you left, but—what with the walking dead and everything, and us all thinking we were about to be murdered in the street—well, it makes you think a bit differently about life.
You know Tomas, don't you? About your age, red-brown hair, stammers slightly when he's nervous… used to be Trader Musgrove's porter, until he closed up shop and went to Orzammar.
We have an understanding, and we mean to wed by Satinalia. I'll let you know when we set a date and—if you can come—it'd mean the world to all of us.
Maker bless and keep you, my brother.
Your loving sister, Devora
Well, you never did know.
William sat for a while, frowning at the worn floorboards. Generations of men must have been through here, he thought. Year after year, wearing down the wood as they built up their lives, caught in the middle of becoming something new… something more than they'd ever been before.
Sarge said he could have a real future with Teyrn Loghain. Sarge said it would be the making of him. He'd be passing out top of his group, Sarge said, and even though the training was being cut short, that was still an honour.
Trouble was, did William want that honour?
Outside, the rain beat repetitively on the hard, compacted ground, thudding like the echoes of a thousand feet.
William folded Dev's letter up carefully, brushing his thumb against the faded and smudged penstrokes on the front of the outer paper. He tucked it into his jack and, after a moment, rose from the bed, the thin mattress creaking beneath him.
The army didn't afford a great deal of privacy or room for personal possessions, but he had a footlocker. About as much as he'd ever had at home, really. He didn't need more than that, anyway.
William took advantage of the bunkhouse being empty and changed slowly. He wanted to be sure he didn't take anything he couldn't be rightly said not to own. The weapons had to stay, then, which was a terrible shame, as he'd been getting very attached to the new model Burkiss & Grimshaw cranequin, with its smooth steel lath and beautiful, fine-grained yew stock… but it wasn't his.
Neither was the armour, so that got left on the bed, which he took care to make properly—sheets tight enough to bounce a copper off, the way they ought to be—before he piled everything up next to the single, thin pillow.
Just the clothes he stood up in were left, and the meagre little bundle he'd had with him the day he started the march.
William shouldered the bundle and took a last look around him, hearing the ghosts of voices trace the empty room. He'd miss it, he knew. The lads, the life… and everything else.
Still, it wasn't hard to get out. Not when you knew the routines. The barracks ran like clockwork, every little cog and gear turning on in its own way, and nobody really looking further than his own watch.
He skirted the backs of the huts and the walls, but took care to look like he knew where he was going, and had a purpose. No skulking. Nothing drew attention like someone trying not to draw attention.
It was easy enough to slip out of the side gate behind the latrines, which led into a network of service alleys and tip points for rubbish and slops, though not so easy to hold his breath against the smell. Still, he walked on, yard after increasingly foul and squashy yard, and tried not to be sick.
William didn't know much of the city beyond the barracks, and he found that first moment of stepping out into the market district an intimidating, dislocating experience.
Yet nobody stopped and stared at him, no one glowered as if they knew he shouldn't be here… as if they knew what he was doing.
He walked straight out of the gates, a mist of raindrops sheening his skin and plastering his hair to his forehead, and less than half an hour later he was lost among the flow of carts and bodies on the road. Just another face in the traffic.
William didn't think of it as desertion. There oughtn't to be room in a soldier's head for things that didn't concern him. That's what Sarge said… and he was right. Everyone said William was thick, anyway, and didn't understand nuffin'.
Well, he understood this.
He was going home and, when he got there, he was heading straight up to the castle and offering his services in Arl Eamon's name.
You couldn't desert an army you didn't believe in, William decided. If you didn't believe in it, and you didn't trust it, then there was nothing left to run away from.
He supposed Devora had been right all along. If he'd wanted to play at soldiers, she'd said, he could have just put his mark to the arl's guard. He hadn't had to listen to the recruiters that came through from the valley… hadn't had to be swayed by all that talk about the king's call for aid.
Only, sometimes, William reflected, a call came that you had to heed. It spoke not to your ambitions, or the thoughts you knew you had, but the things deep inside you—the ones you didn't know about until they woke you up in the small hours of the night, and you realised you'd been wrong.
He hadn't been wrong to want to serve King Cailan, to stand for his country against whatever threat was coming. He wasn't wrong now, either… on account of how threats can come from inside as well as out. And man had to do what was right, didn't he? He had to follow what he believed.
William lifted his head, eyes narrowed against the rain. Perhaps Sarge had been right after all.
It was no life for an honest man.