Chapter 1: Act I: Honour
Charging Beyond the Grave
The lives and deaths of the Bull's Chargers.
Act I: Honour
The entrance to Orzammar was as imposing and solemnly majestic as Rocky had described it. Austere granite columns soared above the thickly frosted tips of the pine trees and struck into the thin, pale sky. Doors as tall as any monument in the gilded capital of Minrathous soared above their heads, clamped tightly shut against the chill of the mountain air, aptly demonstrating the naval-gazing attitude of the isolationist dwarven nation. Hewn into the side of a Frostback mountain, it was a testament to the unparalleled engineering mastery the Dwarven race wielded. Unbidden, a smile tugged at Krem's chilled and chapped lips at the memory of Rocky roaring with laughter by the campfire in the wilds of Denerim. He'd guffawed spittle and tears all over his bushy black mustache as Krem had wielded on him in hot embarrassment, having found out from the polite yet sniggering merchant dwarves the Chargers had camped with that night that dwarves did not actually stand on top of each other, like a fifty-foot totem pole, to carve their monolithic crafts like Rocky had said.
A roar erupting from right beside him wiped the stupid, out-of-place grin off his face. Right now, the imposing doors of one of the most secretive nations of Thedas were doing a damn good job of echoing the shouting match at the top of the dais and deafening them all.
"He defended the chokepoint you were supposed to hold-"
"History repeats itself, Qunari. The cloudgazer embarrassed himself and caused untold damage yet again with his 'accident'-"
"-he saw your legionnaires buckle under the darkspawn and actually did something about it-"
"All he did was blow himself up, just like six years ago-"
"AND SAVED ALL OF YOUR UNGRATEFUL ASSES-"
That one almost deafened Krem as badly as the explosion had and through the gray, static haze blanketing his mind he quickly realized that the Chief wasn't going to play nice anymore. "What the Iron Bull is trying to say is that the explosion was no accident," Krem interceded smoothly. He smiled politely down into the Orzammaran ambassador's ruddy and impressively hairy face and continued blandly. "Rocky is - was, one of the Chargers' best strategists and a quick tactician. His defense of the choke point in the Deep Roads - a difficult position to hold in strange and close quarters against the darkspawn and the rift demons - salvaged both the Legionnaires and the Inquisition forces and allowed them to retreat, serrah," he pointed out.
The dwarf scowled, his braided mustache quivering with indignation over his embroidered gold tunic. "Call him what you will, but Czibor Tadakor was always stone-blind. We lost original records when he exploded the Shaperate and we are still sorting out all the caste legalities because of his little mistake," the dwarf spat out with venom. "The geneologists are as bad as a chitterling nest! So save your breath, surfacer. Orzammar will never cleave the exile back into the Stone."
"You're crucifying him over his past. That should hold no bearing now, six years later, when he died defending your nation, his home," Iron Bull said quietly. The ambassador's beady amber eyes scrutinized the hulking Chief of The Iron Bull's Chargers, wary of his suddenly muted tone. Krem resolutely watched the squat and corpulent dwarf, knowing that the Chief would never give in to the temptation to squelch the condescending ambassador. That they even managed to get an audience with someone from Orzammar was astounding, even if it were insulting to conduct it outside the front door as if they were not even worth an invitation into the foyer.
The burning and heavy hand of guilt clamped around Krem's throat slowly. Here they were debating the patriotism of Rocky's... accident when the fault lay with him and the Chief for even allowing it to happen. Krem blinked and composed himself, once again grateful that the armor and polite mask he wore propped up the semblance of appearing normal.
"Without him you would still be fighting the darkspawn and the demons leading up to Orzammar from the Deep Roads," the Iron Bull continued cuttingly, "a stalemate that you were losing for eight months. He saved what pitiful soldiers and legionnaires you had left, and gave the Inquisition enough time to finally close that damned rift. A little thanks should be in order."
The dwarf crossed his arms, bristling in the Chief's shadow and blind to the ridiculous height difference; he was cloaked in Orzammar's power and ignored the threat of an angry and grieving eight-foot-tall Qunari when most were much more prudent with their words. Rocky would have been egging the Chief into squishing the self-important dwarf into a snot-trail from the sidelines. "All anyone saw was that he broke rank and leveled the tunnel, a tunnel leading to an unexplored thaig and untold Dwarven history. There's no proof that it was intentional or not," the dwarf sniffed, "which is why I brought up his history to explain his character. And I don't care if you are with the Inquisition-"
"We aren't here on Inquisition business," Krem said quickly. No way would the Chargers drag the Inquisition back from Skyhold into a personal spat with Orzammar and risk their tenuous alliance. The Inquisitor had done enough already, risking her life by venturing into the tunnel with only three companions to seal the rift. "The Bull's Chargers are here on Rocky's behalf as his friends. We only want to fulfill his last rites. He wanted his remains kept in his family holdings when he 'finally went out with a bang'. That's all."
The dwarf's thick mustache twitched and he sighed, pinching the bridge of his bulbous nose. "Look, Charger - the Shaperate's memory is long and its grip on the Assembly stronger, and the Tadakor clan have no voice there. There is no one who will vouch against Harrowmont's decree that no exile will be a citizen again."
"And there's no way to reach the Tadakors and tell them about their exceptional sapper?" the Chief asked guardedly. "We aren't asking for much, and we're not even asking for a lot of space," he said, turning to point down at the center of the dais. Dalish, Skinner, Grim and Stitches were loosely standing in a row, holding what was left of Rocky's prized belongings and Rocky's battered traveling tankard.
The dwarf peered at them in confusion, then stared in outright bafflement at the silver seal and black ribbon which universally marked a container as an urn. "You keep his remains in a tankard?" he asked, a strangled hint of laughter in his voice.
Krem's jaw creaked as he ground his teeth, firmly reminding himself that they really needed to let the dwarf live. But it was hard to bear this amount of abject condescension and insult, and it warred with the years of holding his tongue at home in the presence of his mother and the years he'd served in the Tevinter army. At least he wasn't alone in fighting to keep his tongue between his teeth - the Chief was doing that thing, the breathing patterns which glaringly meant that he was just barely holding on to the end of his rope. Krem carefully schooled his face into a blank mask, reminding himself that this noble moron didn't know what the oak-and-copper tankard had meant to Czibor Tadakor, to Rocky. Let him laugh like a boor - though it may be the last thing he did.
The dwarf read their stony faces, grimaced then shook his head, the sunlight spraying off his golden threads. "All messages go through me, and I have specific orders from the king. I can't even pass on what we speak of to his family, let alone smuggle an exile's ashes inside."
"Would some grease help things along?" the Chief's horns bowed as he cocked his head and asked quietly, knowingly. "I have some gold that-"
The dwarf burst with laughter. "No," the dwarf wheezed between chuckles, "you cannot afford to buy out dwarves, of all peoples. You cannot afford me let alone overturn Orzammar. You surfacers - ha!"
The Chief coldly surveyed the laughing ambassador decked out in dwarven finery with his lone eye, his scarred face unreadable. But Krem caught the corner of his notched lips dip down and his shoulders sag, the wind escaping his sails. A hot buzzing was filling Krem's head - he'd thought, they had all thought, that if Orzammar had heard about how Rocky had sacrificed himself for all of them that they would grant his humble final wish. They'd all learned to avoid even remotely talking about Orzammaran politics with the sapper around since he'd heatedly start on one of his rants again which were mostly comprised of wild gesticulations and spitting curses which usually ended with a bar fight of some sort. But the Chargers had also noticed how Rocky would turn in the direction of the Frostbacks each night, seeking out Orzammar before heading to his bedroll. As much as the sapper had griped about the 'rock hermits', he'd missed his home.
Krem's careful control over his emotions was starting to buckle. This noble prat, Rocky's whole nation, would turn away and refuse to recognize the exile's sacrifice. He cast about for any other angle, but in the end, they were just a small mercenary company. Granted, they were contracted to the Inquisition, but in personal matters they had no power to leverage against the isolated Dwarven nation. And he knew that the Chief would never ask the Inquisition for influence, and Krem suspected that the Inquisition would refuse anyway since they needed all the political support they could get in order to take down Corypheus.
The thin veneer of composition cracked and a storm broke over the Chief's craggy face. The ambassador's small eyes bugged wide in alarm and he started to reach to the Dwarven guards stationed at the Orzammaran entrance. But without another word, the Chief turned on his armored heel and stomped down to the rest of the Chargers.
"Yes, serrah, thank you for hearing us out," Krem scrambled to say, trying to smooth over the Chief's rude exit and not meaning a single word, "the Bull's Chargers appreciate your time." The words left a nasty taste in his mouth and only the thought of Skinner's stink eye kept his spit in his mouth. Rocky hadn't been the only one who had learned political manners the hard way.
The dwarf harrumphed at the forced pleasantries. "You're most welcome. Orzammar extends its condolences for your loss, and thanks for your role in restoring our defenses. Since the terms of our contract were technically fulfilled, your payment will be sent to the Inquisition - reparations for the damages caused withstanding, of course. Atrast tunsha."
Enormously regrettable and justified razor-sharp curses aimed to cut down the dwarf's pretentiousness and unbelievable indifference nearly wagged from Krem's tongue when the doors to Orzammar creaked forth and golden light spilled out. Heat and the tang of molten metal fanned out from the gap, just wide enough to allow the ambassador to quickly retreat. Krem glimpsed impossibly high vaulted ceilings and intricate gold statues, displaying Orzammar's impressive power and wealth. Krem's stomach dropped as crushing disappointment settled in with the realization that Orzammar had never meant to seriously consider their petition. The Dwarven nation had no need to seriously placate them - they had only sent the one ambassador out in order to shoo the Inquisition-related annoyance from their doorstep to save face with their political ally.
In Krem's mind, Rocky rolled his pale jade eyes under his cocked, heavy brows. The sapper's rumble of a voice said sarcastically: Sure, we have the best foyer of any nation, but sometimes it's just lacquered nugshit. Party in the front and sad, dusty poverty in the back.
The doors closed with finality, and Krem was left alone at the entrance steps. He could see why Rocky had flipped between pride of his homeland and drunken belligerence. After all the years of listening to Rocky gripe about Orzammaran politics, he'd thought that maybe the resident-alchemist-and-sapper-by-trade had exaggerated - but if the nation couldn't accept a single urn of ashes of a former citizen who had died to defend it... he'd have to give Rocky more credit than he'd thought.
"Looks like we'll have to take up Lavellan's offer after all," Dalish sighed resignedly when Krem limped down to the Chargers. The lovely Dalish elf cradled the battered tankard to her waist, tears trickling freely down her fair cheeks. With a sharp pang, Krem remembered that she and Rocky had had something, something they hadn't defined to their inner group. It had just started a few months ago, so tenderly new and nebulous. They'd all wondered how a star-crossed romance between a dwarf and a Dalish elf would work out and had teased them mercilessly, marveling at how Dalish could coax a blush out of the unflappable dwarf. The two together had formed a duo frighteningly adept at pranks during their courtship, despite their conservative background cultures. The memory of Dalish beaming a smile down into Rocky's eyes crinkled in merriment strickened Krem's throat.
"Bury him at Skyhold? You're shitting me," Stitches retorted with a jackal's white grin. The older Fereldan healer had been bitingly curt since they'd escaped the collapsed tunnel; he was mourning by pouring his anger out into the absurd world that had stolen his best friend. "He started clinging to the rocks up in that gods-cursed frozen mountain again like when we first met him, thinking that he'd fall into the sky." He jabbed a scabbed finger at the tankard, "he would curse us if we buried him on top of a mountain."
"What other choice do we have?" Dalish replied hollowly, cradling the tankard closer, "we can't make them bury him in his family holdings and none of us have any land." The pale sunlight traced the hollows of her cheeks and the deep purple bruises ringing her neck from the battle two days ago.
Skinner's obsidian eyes glinted with a thoughtful light as she studied the impenetrable mountainside entrance, seemingly lost in her thoughts when she spoke up. "The Dragon's Breath? The one with the nug jerky," she suggested, an uncharacteristic note of hesitance in her customary blunt manner.
Grim snorted and Stitches let out a disbelieving guffaw. "A pub? Yeah, Rocky loved nug jerky but not enough to be buried with it under a piddled pub floor."
The Denerim elf's ruby lips peeled back in a deadly snarl. "What do you suggest? All you do is tear everyone else's-"
"Dalish, I know we've talked about this before, but have you thought of a burial place for Rocky?" Krem asked the sniffling mage gently, "you knew him best in these past few months."
The mage shook her head, her pale unkempt hair haloing around her. She bit her lips, staring at the doors. "I wish we'd never gone down there," she choked out in a fierce whisper.
The Chief abruptly walked away past the surface merchant dwarves and their stalls to the edge of the forest beyond the dais. Krem halfheartedly began to argue against her when she interrupted him. "I know it's not entirely the Chief's fault," she confessed haltingly to the ground, a tear sliding down to the tip of her pert nose, "sure, he pulled us out in the nick of time but no one had a clue what to do down there. We never had a job so deep under before..."
"And the rock-heads weren't telling us what was happening on their end," Stitches muttered bitterly under his breath, glaring at the dwarven shopkeepers. "How were we s'posed to coordinate? We didn't know a blighted thing - they needed help and we couldn't even see half the time-"
"I saw." Skinner wrapped her arms tighter around herself, her expression crumpling, "I saw the dwarves fall to the demons near the rift and the darkspawn snapped 'em up. We would've been eaten alive in the dark with that point wide open-"
"I can't stop seeing the flash," Dalish said numbly, steel-blue eyes wide and unseeing, "when the - the bomb went off. And he just... flew apart in pieces-" Stitches hushed Dalish as Grim wrapped her into a tight embrace.
"It wasn't an accident," Stitches insisted adamantly, practically pacing a trench into the dais and glaring at the Orzammar entrance. "His experiments didn't always work, but he was damned good at his job. He was brilliant with alchemy and cooking; he could always read the land. He took down that noble's wall with one bomb since he saw the fault line in it. They can't say that he just made an amateur mistake - he knew exactly what he was doing..."
Rocky had been an alchemist by profession and a sapper by trade. He'd always been tinkering with something at odd hours of the day and night, usually up to his eyebrows in strange-smelling powders and tankard in hand. Every single Charger had learned to give the resident alchemist a wide berth when he was in one of his tinkering moods; they'd quickly learned to dive at the ground when a customary small explosion rocked the air from his tent with a curse on their lips. He'd retort that they should be thanking him for their excellent reflexes and that he should charge for the practice he gave them. The effect was usually ruined when he was stamping out his burning tent or bedroll, although in the last few months Dalish had been fire-proofing them with magic, earning them more support from the Chargers. They had also learned to accept his cooking, as bizarre or questionable it may have looked or smelled. The Chargers would prank new recruits by tasking them to assist Rocky with cooking, a task they quickly learned to avoid for fear of vomiting no matter how delicious it turned out to be.
The muted burning and drowning flared again in the horrible silence; the memories and leaden air were suffocating him. "I failed him," Krem said faintly, feeling an echo of the numbing horror. "I should've-"
Skinner interrupted by gripping his shoulder and with a cutting glare. "Not again, Krem," she scolded without fire, her deep and rich voice tinged with sadness. "You did right. You got us out. Rocky chose to go back."
Dalish wouldn't meet his eyes, but she was nodding at the ground. Stitches was chewing his tongue, but he nodded tightly too. "He was a grown-ass man. You had three groups to oversee in the dark and we all heard you call. No one's blaming you, Lieutenant." The use of his rank instead of his name was lost on no one, and Krem knew that while Stitches wasn't blaming him, he hadn't entirely forgiven him either. The older and dark-skinned man had been against the mission from the start - he'd always hated the Blight and the darkspawn. Fighting in uncharted territory in the Deep Roads and losing his best friend meant Stitches may never forgive Krem and the Chief for leading them down there.
At the time, undertaking a mission on behalf of the Inquisition sounded like a fantastic way to boost their reputation, especially since they had the rare opportunity of working with the recluse Orzammaran dwarves. Krem had personally vouched for it. They'd win influence for the Inquisition to further peace across and under Thedas, the Chargers would be swimming in exotic Dwarven gold, wine and songs. Everything would be planned and taken care of, the Orzammaran diplomat had said...
The Chargers had swelled with pride as they descended into the pitch-black Deep Roads entrance by a lift, the fading sunlight shimmering on the Inquisition emblems sewn onto their armor. Pride had transformed into wonder as they stared in awe at the ancient Dwarven remnants deep under the surface, ensconced in amber gaslights. Shadows plunged beyond the cliffs on either side of the wide bridges they marched over, faint echoes returned from the cavernous ceilings. Far-off glimmers from lyrium veins twinkled gently in the dark; it had felt like the velvet night sky had nestled warm and close under the mountains. The scale and breadth of the Deep Roads were almost unimaginable and surpassed any level of ambition Krem had expected; the ruins may be collapsed, but they alluded to a scale of majesty Krem had not seen even in Tevinter... they had all been walking over a whole and self-sufficient world on the surface without a clue. Krem had expectantly looked over at Rocky, the self-appointed 'Dwarf Guide' who'd jokingly promised a thorough tour including all the nug breeds they came across for an explanation. But the alchemist had been silent, his rough-hewn features pulled into an unfathomable combination of pain and happiness, unshed tears gleaming in his eyes as he watched the ruins rise up out of the shadows. The Chargers had quickly looked away, allowing him a private moment, remembering that this was Rocky's first time back into Dwarven territory since his exile.
All Void broke loose after they'd met with the last survivors of the Legion of the Dead and the grim warriors of Orzammar. Even with their numbers, they had been unprepared for fighting blindly in the tunnels. The sickly yellow-green light from the rift had thrown writhing shadows of the demons and darkspawn on the walls of the once-majestic Deep Roads; it had been impossible to count the endless monsters marching in and out of the shadows towards them, impossible to discern orders over the inhuman screeches echoing in a din over the clashes of battle. More alarming were the screams of panic and terror and Krem had known that some were from the Chargers, those who had never fought in pitch blackness, those who were felled without seeing the monster that killed them. Cold sweat chilled the back of his neck when he'd realized that the darkspawn were intelligent enough to target their torches and stamp out any flares they'd lobbed into the tunnel, that they were far more adept at killing in the dark than the pitiful and naive surfacers. These darkspawn were nothing like their withered and aimless cousins in Old Crestwood; they were a focused and coordinated army. Each Charger's pride and certainty had long since faded, and each had fought only for survival.
Krem had initially been afraid of blindly striking out and slashing a fellow soldier; but he'd been more terrified of being captured as a potential brood mother from one of Rocky's horror stories, kept alive and sane to birth monsters forever miles underground. That had been his secret fear, the terror that kept his shaking blade swinging more than defending his comrades. Light flares exploded - the icy fear would retreat when he could see the monsters but he could read the shadowed battle and knew that they were losing badly. Chargers and dwarves shouted in the dark, needing help and he'd wracked his brains when it wasn't paralyzed by blindness and panic for something, anything...
Something had boomed and harsh, bright light had thrown the tunnel into stark relief. Glistening, decayed grey flesh and oozing yellow sores dripping from skeletal ribcages were highlighted and suddenly it was easy to behead the blinded darkspawn. Demons screamed as swords found weakpoints then burst into ghostly green flames, disintegrating into the Fade once more. But the light also illuminated the flood of eerily human darkspawn pouring down the tunnel towards them and the demons walking through the rift to march alongside them - Krem hadn't needed the Chief's horn signal to retreat. The battle had been lost a long time ago and the light only served to help them realize that fact.
Amidst his calls to his platoons to retreat and fending off the darkspawn, Krem had glimpsed a short shadow stumble against the tide of retreating soldiers; towards the chokepoint just before the rift. The flare had begun to die so he hadn't paid much attention, instead focusing on counting heads and buying time for the Chargers and darkspawn to retreat back up the tunnel. He'd willed his feet to stay planted in the cavern instead of following everyone else back up the tunnel, away from the poisoned fangs and monstrous talons until he'd bought every second he could-
And then there was a distant shout, a smudged short shadow by the ghoulish green light of the rift holding something aloft. Larger shadows twisted into horrifying silhouettes were closing in - everything swallowed by darkness. He'd scrabbled behind him for the wall, trying to follow the Chief's horn, when an explosion from behind him knocked him forward off his feet and shooting pain up his right leg, white light burning his vision, the groan of the granite walls cracking and collapsing in slabs, burying the darkspawn and demons behind them - relief...
...until he'd completed a head count on the blessedly dusty ground on the surface. Then he'd remembered that lonely, little shadow.
"How are they?"
Krem startled out of his reverie, finding that he'd wandered away from the group to stand just a little behind and to the left of the Chief, his customary position. The Chief leaning against a young tree, the trunk groaning under the formidable weight as the Qunari watched a bird flit through the branches of a nearby pine tree, scarred and still-bloodied face unreadable.
"Mourning," Krem answered dully.
"One from the Throat Cutters. Three from the Archers."
The Chief's horns scraped a low-hanging branch as he nodded. The news wasn't surprising with sixteen of the Chargers wounded and one of them dead.
"And any of you?"
"No." He'd never leave the Chargers and he'd never leave the Chief - he didn't think any of the inner circle would. He'd follow those horns and the accompanying stupid puns anywhere. But this time...
"How are you holding up?" the Chief asked. He almost sounded like he was asking about the weather.
Krem shifted on his feet, chewing his tongue. "Guilty. Like I sent him down there. But, sometimes, it... it doesn't seem real," he confessed, knowing that he should be drowning in sorrow like the rest of the Chargers. And sometimes he did. But out of the tunnels and in the bright sunlight, surrounded by trees, it almost felt like the whole disaster had been a nightmare sent from the Fade. He'd caught himself pouring seven tankards of mead last night instead of six and wondering where Rocky had gone off to without his usual drink in hand before realizing his mistake. Someone had accidentally detonated a flash bomb in the camp that morning and Krem hadn't been the only one who had reflexively hit the ground and shouted 'DAMNITROCKY!' Krem had seen Stitches' look of shock and agonizing realization before the older Fereldan man had angrily swiped his face and stormed away.
Horribly, sometimes he'd stare at Dalish's slumped shoulders or the grief in Grim's face and look into himself to realize that he felt nothing for them. It was usually so easy for him to reach out to someone and know exactly what they were feeling, to empathize with them... and if it didn't click right away, he'd listen to their hardships and walk in their shoes to connect with their heart. But sometimes, in the last few days, he'd suddenly wonder why he was making an effort to cheer the Chargers up when it didn't matter. They'd get to the next tavern and Rocky would burp a greeting from his customary seat by the bar, well into his third mug of mead. The brief episodes of disbelief made it hard for him to connect with the Chargers and Krem felt monstrous during those moments.
The Chief looked over at him, his bloodshot eye softening with understanding. "Don't force it," he said cautioned, "it'll come with time. Nothing will get you on to everyone's shit list faster than if you pretend."
Krem nodded, still feeling like he was dishonoring his fellow Chargers and Rocky's memory. "How're you, Chief?" he asked, needing to talk about something else. He cast a critical eye over the Chief. The Chief had had no time to mourn - Krem had watched and helped him to salvage the situation, help the wounded, locate and cremate Rocky's remains, talk with Orzammar and Inquisition representatives... he knew for a fact that the Chief had had no time to shave and had barely slept in the past few days, let alone have private time to mourn one of the founding members of the Bull's Chargers. Rocky had been one of the mercs who had followed the Chief from their previous mercenary band. Looking at him now, Krem could see the toll it was taking in the dull tone of the Chief's grey skin, the way he seemed to slouch into himself, the bags under his eye. He looked... not old, but he looked his age in his fading thirties. Krem had overheard the Chief refuse further healing for the nasty, green-tinged gashes from Stitches, insisting that the others were looked after first despite the risk of 'some Fade bullshit' infecting his wounds.
The Chief shrugged his massive shoulders under the equally massive pauldrons he wore. "Not much better. Things should have been different," the Chief muttered, scratching his scraggly chin. "It's too little, too late now, but we'll play by our rules next time. No more of this sub-contracting bullshit. We get an equal say at the table or we won't take the job."
Krem couldn't help but snort in disbelief at that. It truly was far too little and much too late for such a costly sacrifice. Sure, they'd met their objectives, but Krem was just so... disappointed in himself and the Chief,even though he knew that Stitches and Skinner were right. Rocky had chosen to return. But he still felt like a rotten sack of garbage for letting it happen.
"Look, Krem," the Chief sighed, tilting his head down to rub his temples just below the roots of his horns, "yes, we should have looked out for them better. Yes, the conditions were against us. Point is, enjoy the guilt. It means that you're shaping up well. But don't disservice Rocky - he chose his own path, too."
Krem was just opening his mouth to argue when he spotted the moisture in the Chief's lone eye between the gaps of his thick fingers. His mind was stuttering on a question when the Chief swiped his face and gave a mighty sniff, straightening up.
"I should've invested in a bit of land," the Chief muttered hoarsely, watching a bird fly away, "so at least we'd have that for Rocky. That's another lesson."
Krem closed his mouth and nodded, his own throat suddenly clogged with dammed tears. He wouldn't cry, not when the Chief needed the moment more than he did; the Chief had always listened to his worries and had dispensed both advice and a handkerchief when Krem had needed it most. At the same time, Krem marveled at the moment; he'd never seen the Chief shed a tear before. It was like he'd peeled back a layer of the Chief's tough skin and spied an equally struggling peer for just a fleeting second. The formidable Iron Bull that he admired was fundamentally flawed, which he'd known, but he both rued the cracked illusion of impenetrable strength and savored that he wasn't alone.
Krem cleared his throat and scrambled for a reply. "We never had to worry much about this before," Krem pointed out, when his brain had caught up. "We've only have six die on us since the Chargers formed. Their families took them back."
The Chief tapped his heel, a sign that he was fed up. "I saw that something like this might happen, but didn't prepare for it," he muttered, a note of apology in his tone. "Didn't think it likely. No chance of getting Rocky's ashes in there and we can't just stick his urn in a hole around here and call it a day. What did Dalish say?"
"Not much. Someone suggested the Dragon's Breath."
The Chief snorted with derision. "It'll have to be Skyhold, then. Shit, he's gonna come back and haunt our asses forever."
Normally, he had a fountain of smart words at the ready. Instead, he just closed the small gap between them and slipped his hand into the Chief's and gave it a brief squeeze.
The Chief looked over at him, then grabbed him around the shoulder in a crushing sidelong hug. Krem gave an unmanly squeak from the many half-healed battle injuries and scrambled to find his footing again when the Chief let go. They shared a grin.
"Look, Chief," Krem said, patting the Bull's midback (the highest point he could reach), "accident or not, Rocky bought us the time we needed. He was our brother and we'll do right by him - with a resting place and lessons."
They rejoined the Chargers who had known Rocky best, still loosely grouped and staring off, unfocused in different directions. "Let's get back to Skyhold," the Chief announced, sounding normal again. "We'll put Rocky to rest. Shout if you have any better ideas. Let's move out."
They passed the outhouse that the surface merchant dwarves used when they weren't hawking their wares around the Orzammaran dais. Stitches shot a thin half-smile to Dalish. "Remember when Rocky blasted the outhouse wall down?" Stitches hedged, pinching his nose theatrically.
Skinner grinned, the glint returning to her obsidian eyes. "Bad for the naked arl and maid; good for business."
A rueful smile crept across Dalish's fine features. "I told him not to use the felandaris essence, it caused that nasty side effect that we had to pay for-"
"Like that cough syrup he tried to make for me? I had the runs for days."
"No one can read your notes, Stitches. At least Rocky tried to make your concoction, but honestly, it's better to read tea leaves than go through your journal-"
Skinner had halted from her usual forward scout position in the front. She stared dead ahead into the trees and said distantly, "I won the bet."
They slowed down. Krem looked askance at her. "What bet?"
Realization dawned on Stitches' face. "Andraste's pits, the one about how much mustache he'd blow off the next time..."
Krem vaguely recalled the bet they'd placed the night before the Deep Roads battle. Rocky had been threatening to experiment with powder ratios again before passing out with his tankard in hand at the table. They'd all done the usual and placed bets on how much of his own mustache the sapper would singe off, with Skinner forecasting that he'd turn the whole thing to a line of ash.
They looked at each other, Skinner actually looking vaguely horrified. Until a snicker escaped the healer. "That is so dark."
"Right up Rocky's alley, really," the Chief said dryly with a wink at Dalish. A ghost of a smile tugged her lips and for the first time in days, the haunted look vanishing from her crystal blue eyes for the first time in days.
"Well, at least we'll all end up in the same place in the Void," Krem joked with a bittersweet grin as he flipped a silver to Skinner.
They laughed, bickered and traded small stories about Rocky as they trekked. They mourned Rocky's delicious but deadly-looking cooking. The company sapper had been a good listener and had enjoyed long talks into the night. They'd learned tactics to prevent the dwarf from having nine drinks or more, since at that point he'd corner someone and moan about Orzammaran politics. And as stony as the dwarf seemed at times, he was quick to investigate an interesting detail and was happy to keep his hands busy, whether it was meticulously organizing his alchemy powders and materials, making soap and poultices with Stitches, or mending traps with Dalish. Often, he'd get carried away and start experimenting with the task until the Charger he was 'helping' shooed him off. They all vividly remembered when Rocky had tried to help the Chief make a fire pit for a massive bonfire and had ended with exploding the campsite in order to quickly make the pit bigger. Grim and Krem had been enlisted to interest the dwarf in more benign activities, but Rocky had quickly grown impatient with sketching and sewing. The two hadn't minded - it had only been a matter of time before the alchemist would creatively make their hobbies dangerous.
The thick and cloying shroud of grief slowly gave way to an aching lightness that spun from the stories they shared about Rocky, each recounting their favorite memory and joke from the sapper. Czibor Tadakor may have been exiled into becoming Rocky of the Chargers, but he'd never been without a family.
The Chargers paused amid the rocky trail and waited with a faint sense of amusement for the surface dwarf swaying under a large sack to catch up with them on the trail. The stocky dwarf puffed and gave broad, gap-toothed smile as he caught up to them. "You need these bricks," he said matter-of-factly as he thrust the bag into Krem's arms.
Krem sort of took it without meaning to and almost buckled under the surprising weight. The bag definitely felt like it held a ton of bricks. "Why?" he asked, completely nonplussed.
"To honour family. It's part of the burial rites for dwarva. Returns them to the Stone," the dwarf said, thrusting his chest out proudly.
Grim cut the string knotting the bag closed while Stitches looked like he was about to breathe fire. "You vultures couldn't wait to hawk at grieving-"
The dwarf cheerfully waved away Stitches' words. "They're free," he said, his forest green eyes creasing as he smiled. "They're from my family. Well, relatives of relatives of relatives of my family from down under. You know how caste families go."
"We don't. Who are you?" Skinner asked flatly. She'd quietly flanked the dwarf, seemingly nonchalant as she crossed her arms. Only the Chargers knew that it was to easily access the daggers hidden up her sleeves.
"I am a Galridin. Related to the Tadakors, nine times removed," he answered, dusting off his broad hands and glancing back up the trail. "I'm just a merchant dwarf offloading excess merchandise." He beamed into each of their faces, his olive skinned cheeks creased into a smile. His jade eyes twinkled underneath his thick, deep brown hair. "Enjoy the bricks."
The dwarf scampered back up the trail, leaving the bemused Chargers behind with a cheerful wave.
"Should we... stop him?" Stitches asked faintly.
"No," Krem said and called to Skinner and Grim, who had begun to follow the Galridin. He'd pieced together why the dwarf had looked so familiar and hope was starting to stir in him.
They crowded around and peered at the shimmery grey brick that Grim pulled out. Veins of silver shot through the granite and a symbol was chiseled into one side. At a glance, all the bricks inside the sack were all the same.
Wordlessly, Stitches pulled out Rocky's mangled belt buckle and laid it on the bricks, the sun glancing off the same symbol etched into the underside of the buckle. Rocky had painstakingly etched that same symbol into all of his belongings after finding that not all the Chargers respected personal property as fastidiously as he did. They all stared at the gift, dumbstruck in the middle of the mountain trail.
"But what do we even do with them?" Stitches asked, plainly confused. "And how did his family even know-?"
"Does it matter?" Dalish asked. Her cheeks were flushed a delicate pink and her watery smile wavered. "They risked a lot by smuggling us some of their family stone."
Grim rearranged the bricks so that they stacked like an open box and then beckoned to Dalish. Almost reverently, she set the tankard within. It fit perfectly. Tears were streaming down Dalish's face now, and she beamed up at the Chief when he patted her back comfortingly.
"I think there's just enough to seal it inside," Stitches exclaimed as he slung Grim into a sidelong embrace. "But will this return Rocky to the Stone?"
"It's better than just burying him in dirt at Skyhold," Krem pointed out. He felt lighter, a buoyancy ballooning in his chest. "We'll be able to honour Rocky properly, after all."
The Chief regarded the bricks thoughtfully, tapping his heel. "Hopefully he won't haunt us anymore. Let's bring all this back home."
Note: so, apologies for not working on my other fics... but this is one of those stories that just popped up and would not leave me alone while I was agonizing over the others. It should be short-ish! Please leave a review =)
Chapter 2: Act II: Duty
Charging Beyond the Grave
The lives and deaths of the Bull's Chargers.
Act II: Duty
Keening cries carried on whipping gales of wind shredded through the din of the crowd. High and haunting, eagles circled expectantly over the roughly-hewn stadium hunkered in the rusty mountain summit as the simmering copper sun slowly sank behind the black gauze of smoke furling from Arl Dumat. A thin blanket of clouds curled just below the lip of the stadium, skating on invisible currents above the landscape of Thedas. Shadows stretched past the murky Urthemiel Plateau to the pale dunes of the Western Approach, blanketing the forests of the Dales to the snowy peaks of the Frostbacks, a back-breaking fortnight's journey away. Krem couldn't believe that they'd actually made it, had actually tracked Grim all the way to the right secluded mountain in the secretive Gamordan Peaks, to the right legendary Avvaran tribe... and still in the same place they'd started in.
Something trod on his foot and Krem glanced over at Stitches and immediately hissed, "Don't even think it."
"How can you stand it?" the healer hissed back, jittering on the spot. "We could run down there and-"
"It's not what he wants-"
One of the burly Avvar behemoths draped in mountain lion fur and striped with blue war paint turned and scowled at them. A slender elbow jabbed Krem in the ribs and from Stitches' undignified squeak, he'd also been told to shut his mouth. He scowled at Dalish as she retracted her elbow and she shot him a warning look in return, mirrored by Skinner just beside her.
The disgruntled Avvar reached for his Dwarven sword with a broken-toothed sneer when an eagle wheeled away from the flock and sluiced down with a fierce keening cry, hooked talons aimed at the masked shamans below. Skinner cut off her strangled curse when a pale blue barrier bloomed just above the stadium, deflecting the eagle harmlessly.
The blue-painted behemoth side-eyed another, tapping a salami-sized finger on his sword hilt. "Did the shaman say - are the spirits... uneasy?"
The female Avvar to his side was smaller, but no less muscled. And much taller than any normal human woman Krem had ever encountered. She shook her head, "that eagle is not part of the sacred flock. I heard that it's his pet."
The surrounding Avvar muttered about angering the sacred beasts in their thick mountain burrs. Krem had to suppress a smile and snuck a glance to his right - Dalish caught it with tense, twinkling blue eyes while Skinner watched the eagle with undisguised pride on her severe features. On his other side, Stitches was flitting his alert gaze from one Avvar to another. The Chief sat on Stitches' far side, pensively studying the stadium battleground.
Cheers erupted as the Wyvern clan thane marched into the stadium center, the feathers woven into his braids blazing in the evening light. He was built like a barge and looked like he could take down one of the large mountain cats that prowled the Gamordan peaks with his shield-sized hands. By his side walked a slim, black-haired man in what looked like snakeskin armor, who Krem could only assume was the thane of the Nathair clan. Both faced the crowds and bellowed greetings that he could barely make out over the shouts. He wasn't interested in their words - none of the Chargers were. They stood in their designated row silently, ignoring the din, waiting.
The synchronized pounding of the drums swelled as the far door of the stadium battleground swung open and a single man clad in heavy armor loped to the stage. The sun struck his shoulder-length mane into a burnished gold as he ascended the steps with fluid ease, illuminating his quicksilver eyes from between the stripes of blue paint emblazoning his chiseled features. He held his head high and squared his shoulders before the shouting crowd, his scarred throat bare.
A slow grin split the solemn Avvarian's face at the high, keening cry of the careening eagle overhead and familiar features broke through the crumbling blue paint. Grim smiled as the eagle flapped away from the augurs' shields once more, then spotted the Chargers in the crowd. He simply nodded to them, and they tightly nodded back - any sound would have been lost in the din.
Throats tight, they watched Grim turn to face the thanes, the last rays of the sun gilding the scarlet ropes which tied his naked hands behind his back.
True night had settled between the whistling Gamordan Peaks, the darkness as thick as the air was thin in the dizzying cliffs. All he had by way of light was the frigid glow from the stars and the spark way down below where the Avvar were celebrating something around a bonfire - the Chargers had (stupidly) decided to forego a lantern, in case the light attracted the attention of the crazy tribe which called this damned rock their home. But the stars were barely enough for him to tentatively set one foot in front of the other on the tightrope that spanned across the yawning chasm, his hands in a death grip on a second rope at waist height. Racing gales of shrieking wind grabbed at him and his pack, determined to shove him off the slim rope down into the fathomless shadows below into a bloody pulp-
FUCKstopthinking, just stop. THINKING. Focus. Horns uphornshornsup-ohshitshitohshitohshit!
He was gonna die in the middle of these nowhere mountains on a no-name mountain ridge on the ass-side of Thedas without ever seeing his parents again. The threadbare tailor's daughter whimpered in Krem's head, gabbling that even magisters had no place defying the gods by walking through the sky in full armor before he could shut her up. How long had he been stuttering along this rope on frozen stumps? He couldn't remember. The world had narrowed down to the thin, shuddering rope, silver and slender like spider silk and seemingly as fragile, and his bare feet with icy toes curled in fear, inching along interminably and he would not look to either side. Sure, he had a harness securing him to the highrope but he had little faith in what now felt like a loose garter of rotten thread, a laughingly empty promise in the face of certain death. When did he start walking? Ten minutes ago? Ten years ago? He'd probably been born on this gods-cursed rope that would not stop bucking over what was most certainly the Void itself and his knees were gonna buckle any second and why was it getting darker SHIT if the wind pulled at his pack again that was it it would all be over-
Time fractured as his feet blindly stumbled over something, terror throttling his throat as he lurched and fell - only to WHAP onto solid ground a split-second later. He screamed.
Distantly, he heard someone laughing. "Why are you screaming now? The hard part is over."
He felt his numb and dumb body wrestled away from the plummeting ledge until he finally shook loose from the terror. Hair as pale as moonlight teased crazily by the wind and merry blue eyes emerged from the dark.
"We're not all elves who can flutter on tiptoes through the treetops," Krem gasped, swiping the sweat from his brow. Judging from the light from Dalish's staff, the cave carved into the cliffside was stark and didn't offer more than shelter from the wind and rain. He didn't care - just the fact that it had a solid floor melted his bones in relief.
"We can't all be perfect," Dalish teased, lighting the way into the shadowy depths of the cavern
Krem tried to quickly unhitch himself from the highrope. "You mean, like that time you got your bow stuck in that-"
"Nothing! Skinner, there'd better be the biggest lock on that cell door for making me prance over certain death," he croaked, following behind Dalish.
"No locks," Skinner's rich, smoky voice answered from the depths of the cave.
Krem paused. "What? What in the void did you need me over here for, then?" he demanded incredulously. She should have sprung Grim from the lonely prison cell carved high in the sheer cliff-face and back with the other Chargers across the gap by now. They had to get out of the Gamordan Peaks faster than a magister slit a slave's wrist before the bloodthirsty mountain tribe found them. Again.
"Well, the rope won't hold the Chief up, so we called for the third best thing," Dalish answered, gracefully leading him deeper into the cave. Skinner's glowering face materialized in the cold light of Dalish's 'bow'. Like Krem and Dalish, she was swathed from head to toe in thin black fabric to erase herself into the backdrop of the starry night. Skinner's ruby lips were mulishly set in a sour expression as she beckoned them to follow.
"He won't come," she said accusatorily as they walked further into the quieter recesses of the cave. She thrust her pointed chin at a far corner, and as they got closer, Krem could make out a large, bizarrely misshapen figure . The lantern light illuminated feathers and quicksilver pinpricks-
Krem jumped in his boots and swore when the figure screeched and unfurled massive wings. For a moment, it looked like a demented winged chimera paced the dark corner on its hind legs. A wickedly curved yellow and black beak dove in and out of the light until they got close enough to illuminate the large, russet-brown eagle restlessly shuffling side to side on its perch.
Dalish snorted at Krem's shudder and Skinner clucked her tongue. "Enough," she commanded, offering her own wrapped forearm to the feathered fiend. "Come, Damsa, give them room," the city elf crooned in that special voice she reserved only for animals and very sharp knives.
Krem rolled his eyes then squeaked as he was swept up in a tight embrace. Even in heavy armor, Krem was lifted off his feet as the burly mountain man affectionately hugged him with a wide, white smile. Krem could just make out Grim's grey eyes, silver in the blue light, from under his long mane of blonde hair and above the thick reddish beard that would have brought tears of pride to Rocky's eyes.
"Grim, you big idiot," Krem couldn't help the surge of rueful affectionate as they broke apart and he beamed in return. "Why didn't you walk over when we first shot the rope? Stitches and the Chief are waiting across the way and the guards might check on you soon, so we better get moving."
Grim's sunny grin faded a little, and he ran a large hand over the thick white scar ribbed around his throat in thought. Krem took the opportunity to check the Charger over; overall, he didn't look worse for wear. The mountain tribe had thrown the burly blonde swordsman in the cave with nothing more than a knitted shirt and pants - which wasn't too bad since Grim could melt an icecap off a mountain. He looked a little shabbier than he had two weeks before when he'd disappeared abruptly from their midst in Skyhold. No chains, whip marks, obvious deformities... he was actually being treated better as a captive by a tribe of barbarians than some of the nobles they'd crossed before.
"He won't follow us," Dalish accused the swordsman, a bite of annoyance in her tone. "And we can't leave that way," she said, pointing her staff to the cave entrance.
Krem thought she was just pointing to another cave wall, then did a double take. The faint light sketched what looked like a huge boulder rolled to block the cavern entrance, so large that he could see no gaps around the edges. That explained why Skinner hadn't been able to get Grim out through the front door - there was no door. And also, there was no way she could move that on her own. Krem set his pack down, a little disgusted with himself. It didn't look like the prison break was going to go as planned. And all the stuff - lock picks and potions and gear - that he'd carried over was fairly useless against a rock.
But while the back of the cave dropped in a sheer face to certain death below, most prisoners didn't have a band of mercenaries to rescue them with a highrope, magic, and the Chief.
"Well, we still have the highrope. And since you were the one to teach us how to walk the highrope..." Krem trailed off, raising his eyebrows at Grim expectantly.
Grim's lips thinned and he shook his head, sitting his burly mountain ass down, looking for all like he'd grow roots out of it. Krem knew that look - they'd do better to bring peace between Tevinter and Par Vollen than shift Grim's stance. He briefly contemplated if Dalish could freeze him and they'd somehow tie him into a harness to pull across the rope for all of two seconds before he gave up on that stupid idea. And Rocky wasn't around to threaten him with explosives in his food anymore...
Krem propped his fists on his waist, faintly knowing that he looked like his mother but didn't care right at this moment. "Grim, get your huge ass up and on to that curst thread back to sanity. Why did you even hike out to the middle of - y'know what, that's not even the important part. You met the very nice Avvar tribe out here, right? You must've, they welcomed you into this very cozy cell here. They want to kill you. Murder you stone-dead with those very nice Dwarven swords they somehow got and I have no idea why, but we need to leave. Now."
Grim just frowned at him, then pointed to each of them and jabbed a thick finger back at the highrope insistently. Krem crossed his arms and felt an oncoming headache. "You know we're not leaving without you," Krem said with exasperation, "so get up and let's get going already."
Grim was doing his best impersonation of a rock, and Krem knew from experience that he didn't have the patience to outwait him. They'd all tried before. Embarrassingly. "Skinner? Think we could just shove the rock aside?" he asked hopefully.
The city elf just scoffed and went back to preening the eagle with her fingers and didn't give him a second glance. Dalish tittered and Grim lifted a heavy brow in a skeptical look. Krem sighed and trudged over to the ledge resignedly. He gauged the bonfire and dancing shadows of the tribe to be, hopefully, far enough. He'd have to risk it.
Sticking chilled fingers under his tongue, he gave a sharp whistle that wove through the winds to echo off the peaks.
There was a pause. "What?" someone called from the dark.
Krem planted his fists on his hips. "I need Stitches over here to bust Grim out," he hollered back.
Another pause. "No, thank you?"
He pinched the bridge of his nose and prayed for patience. "You get over here or hold the rope so the Chief can!"
There was a jumble of sounds, then only the howling wind. The relative silence stretched so long that Krem started scanning the skies, wondering how much of the night they had left. "Hold yer horses, I'm comin'," the surgeon called resignedly.
A scream and many curses later, they helped Stitches scramble onto the ledge, trying to stifle their laughter at his method of crossing the chasm - which involved falling, getting caught by the safety rope, then pulling himself along underneath the ropes like an upside-down spider gifted with the mouth of a sailor. Which sounded much more terrifying than the trembling Ferelden scrambling onto the ledge. The healer was equally unimpressed by the sight of the boulder and Grim's impersonation of it.
"You want me to what?"
"Just get into place and push on my count."
"You got me and these elfy string beans. We're never gonna make no difference."
"You got a different suggestion?"
Sigh. "Where do you want me?" Stitches, shaking like a leaf, took his place beside the Chargers and braced his shoulder against the boulder.
"On three," Krem grunted. "One, two-"
"Blasted nuglets," Dalish gasped, swaying away from the stubborn boulder. It hadn't moved an inch in the five times they'd thrown their weight at it. By the ledge, Damsa fluttered her wings and made that keening-panting noise that meant she was laughing.
"How the void did those barbarians roll this thing in place?" Stitches moaned, slumped against the wall with sweat pouring down his temples.
Grim, who hadn't budged an inch to help them, held up four fingers.
"Great, why'd you call me over if it took four meatheads as beefy as Grim to budge this thing?" the Ferelden surgeon demanded to Krem. "We need the Chief on this end."
"Sure," Krem panted, "you hold the rope. I'll tell your wife about your dumb idea and she won't even hate me for it."
Stitches cast a look over their group, then over at the rope. The Chief had shot it over with a longbow and the arrow had embedded into the ledge. With her own 'bow', Dalish had magicked roots to spring from the shaft and burrow into the rocks, further reinforcing the highrope. But while it was adequate for humans and elves, it would snap under a heavyset Qunari in armor. Short of conjuring a golem, they'd never be able to hold up the Chief's ass.
The surgeon rubbed his temple and deflated. "Fine... stuck between a rock and a swan dive," he muttered, casting a baleful eye at the boulder, "wish we had Rocky's boom... I mean, good ol' Qunari gaatlok," he corrected himself meekly when he spotted Dalish's grimace. Skinner threw him a dirty look. It had only been in the last few months that the bounce had returned to the elf's step.
"Well, he would have brought down half the mountain, like back in Denerim," Dalish said airily with a fond smile. "The point is to vanish without a trace, and Rocky was about as subtle as the Chief chasing after Dorian."
"Right," Stitches said, rounding on Grim with a pointed finger, "why on Thedas did you leave Skyhold when we'd just crushed Corypheus and put the sky back together-"
"Sister." The word was barely a whisper.
They whipped their heads around to stare at Grim, unsure if they'd actually heard what they thought they'd heard.
"My twin," Grim admitted, his voice guttering between a deep rasp and a hoarse whisper, "she died."
"Fen'Harel enansal," Dalish muttered, sketching a closed eye across her forehead. Even Skinner looked wary.
But that wasn't the most interesting bit to Krem. "If your sister died, and you decided to come all the way here to mourn her... then the tribe here is your... family?" he asked hesitantly. The mountain men and women, who looked like they could give the Qunari sten a run for their money, hadn't looked overjoyed to have a long-lost relative return into the fold and even less pleased to have Grim's adoptive family show up on their craggy doorstep. Krem cast an appraising look over the resident defender of the Chargers and had to admit that it wasn't a surprise that he came from mountain Avvar stock. Damn. He owed the Chief some money.
The pale blue light cast deep shadows over the harsh angles of Grim's face as he nodded, staring resolutely at his fists carefully laid on his knees.
"They're your family?" Stitches demanded, aghast. "And they threw you in here to rot? After your sister died? Why?"
Grim seemed to turn inwards, the silence under the whistling wind stretching out. Krem could see Dalish and Skinner exchanging looks out of the corner of his eye. Despite his name, Grim was not usually recalcitrant; that banner belonged to Skinner. But Grim had always been tightlipped about his family and how he'd left them only to appear like an apparition one night by the Chargers' campfire, blood spilling down the front of his leather jerkin from the gaping slash in his throat and a large egg under an arm.
Krem waited for an answer, hoping that they hadn't come all this way for Grim to shut them out. They all knew that there was more going on here than Grim had ever let on, and he couldn't shake the feeling that they'd stepped into something that they had no right to be in.
Not that that had ever stopped the Chargers before. But this was different. This was one of their own.
Grim sighed, tipped his head back against the cool stone wall and shrugged.
"We have all night," Dalish quipped, settling in beside Stitches for Grim's story.
Krem glanced at the night sky framed by the jagged cliff entrance. "We don't, actually," he muttered, "we only have a little time-"
"Less than an hour til sunrise, and the guard check," Skinner added. She was little more than a pair of blinking obsidian eyes watching from the shadows at the outskirts of Dalish's staff light.
Something of the shadow when he'd first loomed into the light of their campfire seven years ago arose in his deep-set eyes as he shook his head. "Alive. Aine was thane," he said hoarsely, "of Wyvern hold. Died two weeks ago."
"Wyvern hold?" Dalish asked, perking up from her sprawl by the boulder. "The Cult of the Sky? It's real?"
Chagrin creased across the angular planes of Grim's face. He gave the excited Dalish elf a measured look then nodded hesitantly.
"You have got to be shitting me," Dalish breathed, using her favorite shem phrase. "It was my favorite story about the Avvar when I was a child-"
"Story for another time, Dalish. As long as we live after this," Krem said hurriedly. The starry sky framed in the cavern mouth was slowly fading from black to a deep indigo, heralding the dawn. "Grim, I'm sorry your sister died. But this doesn't make sense - if she was thane of this tribe and you are her twin brother, then why'd they lock you up here?"
"Y'know they want to kill you, right?" Stitches added, bewilderment and worry tainting his rapid words. "Sky Watcher said you were returning to the sky, and Dalish said that means death. And the tribe - your tribe because apparently you were one of those barbaria- I mean, Avvar - said the same when we could get two words out of them that weren't shouting-"
Grim sliced a hand through the air, cutting off Stitches' words deftly. "Aine was marked to return," he growled, his face set into intense and serious lines. "It is my duty." He pointed a blunt finger at his own chest, jaw set stubbornly. "Only blood left."
"Return?" Skinner echoed from her seat by the ledge. Damsa had climbed up her lap and was busily inspecting the elf's pockets for hidden treats.
Grim crossed his arms over his chest, stretched his head back and closed his grey eyes. He ghosted his fingers from the center of his chest, up the thick column of his throat, fluttered them out from his open mouth and towards the starry sky - then plucked a pinch of the air, drew it across the space between them to press it into the center of Krem's chest plate with an open hand.
Goosebumps rippled up Krem's skin. The Chargers had a few Avvar barbarians in their ranks, but he'd never heard about 'returning' from them. Stitches shifted uncomfortably. "...this ain't one of those Avvar possessions, is it?" the Fereldan healer asked hesitantly. "I hear their shamans sometimes do that, but I also know that I know nothing about it, so I just want to make sure-"
"It isn't," Dalish snapped curtly. "When the Avvar die, their spirit ascends to the Lady of the Skies, she who guides them into the afterlife. It is rare when someone is marked to Return, which means that when that person dies, a rite is performed where a piece of their soul is bound to this world so that they may follow it back and be born again. It is a rare honor, and only blood relatives may perform the rite to save their family's spirit."
"Why kill blood for the honor?" Skinner asked shrewdly, voicing the question on everyone's mind. At that, Dalish seemed to falter and she shot Grim a questioning glance.
Grim shook his head, the calloused tips of his thick fingers coasting below the collar of his shirt to finger the woven necklace he was never without. The thick, careworn red cords were woven in a plait of loose knots, long enough to loop around his neck twice. Little frayed patches were held together with stitches that Krem had sewn to hold the cords together more than once after a skirmish. He'd almost refused to fix the necklace after the first time, after Grim had roared at him when he'd attempted to unravel the knots in order to fix the cords properly. But the way Grim had critically inspected each mend then traced each of the forty-nine knot reverently with a pained smile had changed Krem's mind. It's why Krem always kept scarlet thread in his kit.
"I..." Grim faltered, then looked them in the eye resolutely. "I was banished. From here, eight summers ago. To come back here is to die, for me."
"For killing?" Skinner asked. Her terse words were softened with a bittersweet look of understanding.
Grim grimaced, his hand clenching into a fist around the cords. "Accident. Mostly. Nathairian whelp challenged me for my Elorra's hand," he whispered hoarsely, steel eyes focused somewhere far away. He held up the plaited necklace above the collar of his shirt and pointed to a single knot. "Marriage. Undo one knot, earn one year." He carefully tucked the necklace back into his shirt and rubbed his throat again, staring into the shadows.
Krem held his breath and chanced a glance at the others, seeing that they were just as riveted as he was. They had all edged away from the boulder and sat close to Grim, prison escape forgotten. The swordsman looked a little discomfited by all the attention. They'd never heard so much personal history from the mostly-mute man - and it hadn't been at all what Krem had expected. They had all speculated, at one point or another, about Grim's mysterious past. Krem had personally thought Grim had been an outlaw with a checkered past - many of the Chargers had started out on the wrong side of the law. His own past wasn't squeaky clean as a military deserter.
Dalish scooted to Grim's side, drawing her knees up under her arms, eyes wide with fascination. "You had a fiancée! What was Elorra like?"
Grim tousled her hair fondly. "Saw Elorra dancing at a tribes meeting... she danced like a landed fish," he said with a gruff chuckle, laugh lines fanning out from his crinkled eyes. "But she was caring. She saw me outside of my twin-bond with my sister. Saw me as just Riordan ar Iolar O Wyvern," he continued thoughtfully. "Soon, we started the marriage ceremony and asked for the Lady of the Skies' blessing. Elorra made fifty knots, all loose. She was more than I dared to dream."
"But...?" Krem hedged when the silence stretched. The sky was lightening from black to crushed indigo and he couldn't have left now for anything.
"Undid the first knot. Then the Nathair came," Grim muttered, hand closed into a fist around the necklace. "Nathair warrior wanted Elorra's hand. Wyvern hold owed Nathair a blood-oath. My sister bargained for a trial of the sky instead of handing Elorra over." He gestured to the highrope, eyes hooded in shadow. "Cross a highrope and retrieve an eagle's egg. I won. He attacked," Grim ran a thumb across the thick scar ribbing his throat, "I defended. He fell. He was Nathair thane's son."
"Bet that didn't go over well," Stitches murmured shrewdly.
"Politics," Skinner spat venomously.
Damsa chose that moment to hop over to Grim, running a curious beak over his hip in search of the strips of jerky he usually kept there for her. Grim scooped her into his lap and patted her head fondly as she glared at everyone else. "Wyvern hold owed a debt. Aine secured exile instead of an eye for an eye," Grim whispered, hair falling into his curiously calm face again. "But an exile is slain if he shows his face again."
"That's an absurd rule," Dalish argued hotly, "you came back to return your sister - their previous thane's spirit. Isn't it akin to saving her life since her spirit is to live again? Surely there should be an exception."
"We can still get Grim out of here, we have time-"
"-guard change should be here soon-"
"-think we'll clear the trail before noon?"
"We'll make a stand if we have to-"
"-magic a distraction-"
"-arrow a distraction-"
"No," Grim said firmly, cutting a broad hand through the air. "I must return her spirit at dawn. The augur cannot keep her spirit much longer. There is no other way."
"You're just going to sit around and let your family kill you?" Stitches argued incredulously. "How can they do that to you - is it even worth it-"
"IT IS," Grim boomed, his voice cracking like thunder. "It is an honor. My duty from the cradle. I will not leave Aine's spirit to wander for longer than it already has. Leave."
Krem grit his teeth, despising how his insides squirmed. The Chief could fix this. He could always figure his way into a loophole. The Chief would be able to convince Grim to come back to the Herald's Rest and con some naive templar into drinking under the table and out of a sovereign.
But this was Grim's sister. And her spirit. Krem may not sing the chant as often as he should, but he knew enough not to mess around with someone's soul. Grim was a grown man who had made his choice as soon as he'd vanished from his customary seat by the Skyhold tavern fireplace two weeks ago. And judging by the resolute glint in the older man's eyes, he had accepted the consequences of returning his twin.
"Alright. Chargers, let's get going."
Stitches and Skinner rounded glares at him incredulously. "We're not leaving him," Stitches said disbelievingly.
Krem was already picking himself off the cavern floor stiffly and reaching for his pack. "He's made his choice. I don't understand this Return stuff much, or barbarian traditions at all really, but he's not coming and we can't make him."
Dalish was nodding as she gathered her bow and wrapped her cloak tighter around her lithe figure. "We're asking him to trade his life for his sister's," she said softly, eyes on her hands worrying her staff. "Would you not want to save your family's spirit, too?"
Stitches huffed and glared at the cavern wall. Dalish hadn't said it outright, but they all knew how Stitches' first wife and unborn child had died during the Fifth Blight and how he'd been a wandering drunken mess when they'd found him in Orlais. He'd only stopped screaming awake at night after he'd married Elaine and the birth of his son last year. Even with a new family, he made yearly trips to Emily's grave and burned incense every month for her and the child. They all knew that he'd seize the chance to lay their spirits to rest.
The surgeon got to his feet, marched to the highrope then whirled around and pointed at Grim. "When - if you change your mind, you give us the signal. We'll get you then. Got it?"
Grim seemed to appraise his hostility then gave a single nod. Stitches relaxed a bit and gave him a tight smile. "We'll see you after the... ritual, possession or whatever. Just hold those horns high."
[The following evening]
The signal hadn't come. Not during the Returning ritual, where they watched Grim clapped in chains disembowel his sister's body and bury something under her remains in a sky burial under the watchful eye of two dozen Avvar barbarians. Not during his long wait as carrions flocked to the burial site and slowly carried his sister off into the sky. Stitches had retched in a nearby bush and the elves had turned shades of green while the Chief watched stonily. None of the Chargers present would forget the ritual.
The signal hadn't come when the Chargers had submitted themselves to the clan as his family. They'd been stripped of all weapons with hands bound together, then herded to the stadium built into the mountain crater. They waited, constantly aware of the surrounding barbarians and the weapons hidden against their skin.
Grim did not make a fist with index and pinky fingers raised when he ascended the steps. He smiled at the Chargers, then turned his back to the stadium of bloodthirsty barbarians. Stitches jabbed his elbow excitedly into Krem's side when the Wyvern thane freed Grim from his bonds - then furiously cursed when the thane handed him a broken longsword. The Nathair thane waited for Grim in the center of the battleground, Dwarven steel gleaming scarlet from the setting sun.
Grim met his foe without armor and a broken longsword in battle. He had his size and strength, but the Nathair thane was as quick as a striking snake. The battle was quickly over.
Krem thought that he could almost smell the blood from their row when he realized that he'd bitten through a part of his tongue, and blood trickled from his aching fists. They would see the matching raw chafe marks on each other's wrists later.
An Avvar - perhaps Grim's relative - lead them from their row and the Chargers descended into the battleground, trailed by a lone keening eagle, to collect their fallen and give him his own sky burial.