Chapter One - The Road
She woke up with a groan. Every jolt the dwarf Tegrin's ox-cart gave along every inch of the road seemed to go straight to her bones. The novelty of being outside the Tower for the first time since she had been brought there had worn off pretty quickly. The Tower was comfortable. The road was most definitely the opposite.
She brushed the locks of thick blonde hair that had fallen across her forehead away. It was nearing dusk, so she had slept for an hour at least. Given that she had not been sleeping at nights for a while now, these stolen naps were like gold.
Duncan had found the dwarf merchant heading towards Denerim within a day of their leaving from the Lake Calenhad docks and, in exchange for a few silvers, he had agreed to take them along for as long the road was on the route to Ostagar. If the dwarf had felt any surprise at seeing a Grey Warden travel with an elf mage, he hadn't shown it. He was a man of very few words, was Tegrin the dwarf.
Not that Neria minded. In her present state of mind, all she wanted was peace, quiet, and an opportunity to escape. Or that was what she had wanted until the Fade-dream she had just had.
“Are you all right there, miss?”
The old woman who had asked the question was a fellow-passenger. Tegrin was the kind of man who would not pay for mercenary guards to accompany his caravan if he could afford it, so he carried passengers who had their own guards instead. Neria travelled with Duncan, as formidable a man as you could hope to find in Ferelden, and the old woman travelled with her son, Cogren, who was tall and broad, and by virtue of being called up to join the military at Ostagar, was also a soldier, as far as that went, though you could not really scrub the farm boy out of him. He was to accompany his mother to Denerim first, though, so they would only travel together for another night; it was on foot from there, unless they could find someone else to tag along with.
“I’m fine,” Neria tried to give a little smile.
“You were sobbing in your sleep, miss,” the woman persisted. “You have been for some days now.”
“Dreams,” muttered Neria. “It’s nothing.”
Now that was a lie. A big one. It was not nothing. But the old woman had no way of knowing Neria was a mage, or that she was on the verge of being put to death when Duncan saved her life by recruiting her, or that it was her very best friend in the world who had put her in that situation to begin with.
How long had it been? Ten days or twelve? Days melted into each other under the open sky, with no lessons to learn, no experiments to conduct, no usher to call for the apprentices to go to bed, and no men for her to fuck senseless. It did not matter how many exactly, except that she had been that many days suffering this torment of anger and resentment, and all because of Jowan.
It had been a bitter pill to swallow, Jowan’s betrayal. She had trusted the man implicitly when he swore he had nothing to do with blood magic, that the accusations were unjust, and that all he wanted was her help with a simple thing so he could escape with his life and live quietly on a farm with the woman he loved, the fat cow named Lily.
After all, he was Jowan. The lad who had welcomed her to the apprentice quarters with a ready smile that first night when she had been scared and aching to see a friendly face. The boy who had been happy to share his knowledge with her as she took her first steps into the study of magic. The comforting arm on her shoulder when she had cried herself to sleep, hating every moment, missing her old life in the Denerim Alienage. The man who had been delighted when she had made rapid progress in her studies, surpassing him, the man who had always been ready with a joke and words of comfort when she had doubted the Harrowing would be too much for her.
The man who should have been her man. Not Lily’s. But no, for all the men she had seduced, she could not count Jowan among them.
Well, you certainly fucked me over when you killed those Templar with blood magic – no one wanted to believe I was not complicit after that, except Irving and Duncan.
On second thoughts, Duncan probably didn’t care whether she was innocent or not, he just wanted to recruit a mage to his cause, and Irving would have let her get away with anything; she had been his favourite student by some distance. “Neria is the most outrageously talented apprentice I have seen pass these doors in thirty years,” Irving had said about her once. Jowan had heard him say it, to a visiting friend from the Circle at Kirkwall, and come right over and related it to Neria. The happiness in Jowan’s voice had seemed so genuine, so unselfish, that she had felt certain that he and she would end up together eventually - whenever he came to his senses and stopped rebuffing her and mouthing that nonsense about ‘we are better off as friends’.
“When we stop for dinner, let me make you a little potion from some herbs I have,” the old woman said, and Neria snapped back into the present. “It will help you to sleep.”
“You’re an alchemist?” asked Neria, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. It was not magic, exactly, but the making of potions was a job requiring a high amount of skill.
“I have dabbled a little,” she chuckled, and nodded her head. “Now we must hope my idiot son has not lost the ingredients.”
Neria smiled back, but her mind was elsewhere again. She wondered when she had lost Jowan. It would have been easy to blame it on that simpering fool Lily, but Neria knew that would be unfair. She and Jowan had begun to drift apart long before that. She wondered if there was more to his loving Lily – a chaste acolyte of the Chantry - than met the eye. Had he been a prude? It was unusual among mages, who, almost in reaction to the Templars strict vows of celibacy, tended to adhere to a more relaxed moral code. She herself, of course, had smashed the code to smithereens long ago.
“The man you’re travelling with – is he your father?”
“Who? What? No,” said Neria, and bent the cowl of her cloak back to show her elf-ears, long and sharp. Most people could tell even without looking at the ears, really, elves tended to be slightly smaller in stature and have more delicate features, though that was somewhat true of the half-elven children as well. The ears were unique to her race though, and marked her out as one of the lesser people of Thedas. She reflected that she should not have shown them to the old woman. People tended to assume…
“Oh, I understand,” the old woman tittered.
“We are Grey Wardens,” said Neria sharply. “I’ve been recruited to fight the Blight.”
That made the crone’s eyes open wide. For the most part, the people of Thedas looked down upon elvenkind. They were not quite ‘people’. The men were seen as drunks, good for nothing but servile tasks, and the women, well elf women were often very attractive, which made them very popular whores, though no human would contemplate ever marrying one. The only category of people who were less fortunate were probably mages, who were feared and hated outright for the perceived danger of being prone to possession by fade-demons.
Neria, of course, was an elf and a mage. Talk about winning the game of chance right there.
“Your son did not march with the rest of the men?” she asked, wearily.
“Bann Teagan allowed our farms to be harvested,” the crone said, “he said there would be a Blight of hunger if we did not bring in our crops. Cogren is my only son, and so we waited until the wheat was cut and sold.”
“I can understand that, yes,” said Neria.
“If I may ask, Miss, are the Grey Wardens not supposed to be mighty warriors?”
“So the legends say,” agreed Neria.
“You seem a little young to…”
“You know how it is with elves,” said Neria, “you never can tell how old we are.”
The fact was, she was young. At seventeen, she was one of the youngest in the Circle at Ferelden to graduate from apprenticeship to being a Mage. But one never knew how people would react in the outside world to being told the person they were travelling with was cursed with magic, let alone that she was relatively inexperienced at handling it. Duncan had advised her to remain inconspicuous as far as possible and try to hide being a mage.
“Cogren wanted to join the Wardens too. Maybe he will get a chance when he reaches Ostagar, if the battle is not over by then. He’s a fine warrior, he is. He once beat down old Bilker the miller in a wrestling…”
As the crone droned on, Neria allowed herself to drift back to her days at the Tower. It was not like her to hide her power, any more than it was to hide her beauty under an ugly cowl as she had done since getting in the ferry that took her and Duncan across Lake Calenhad. She was used to being looked down upon all her life, which meant that anything that gave her an advantage was to be used and exploited - whether it was her undoubtedly prodigious magical talent, her status as the favoured student of the First Enchanter, or her considerable physical attractiveness.
She had enjoyed, with almost diabolical derision, seeing the boys who had heaped insults on ten-year-old Neria for being an elf when she had first come to tower struggle to concentrate on their studies or even sit comfortably when the fifteen-year old Neria cavorted past them in little more than her smallclothes. She had enjoyed the glares of jealousy on the faces of the women who used to beat her when they were girls as she gleefully preened before the mirror, letting down her dark blonde hair, standing naked, her dark skin glowing even in the dimly-lighted apprentice quarters.
Jowan didn't like it when she did that. Jowan, who had fought to make boys stop insulting her when they were children. Jowan, who would take her to Wynne for healing when he saw the bruises that the girls had given her.
He used to get angry, as would Wynne. They would both ask her to tell them the names of those who had done it to her, but Neria always smiled beatifically and refused. What names would she give, anyway? She was the only female elf apprentice in the tower. Every other apprentice had, at some time or the other, treated her as something less than human. Except, of course, Jowan. He would tell her it wasn't 'fitting' that she carried on the way she did, that her dalliances with the male apprentices would not stay hidden forever, that Irving's protection would count for little if Knight-Commander Gregoir caught her fucking – ‘making love’ would have been a gross misrepresentation of what Neria did - with his Templars, that even her formidable magical powers would not protect her if all the other apprentices ganged up against her.
But it had been too much fun.
Flirting outrageously with Cullen the Templar, that poor virginal boy, watching him twist in his plate armour, often running away when she, little tiny Neria, looked up at the Templar in his massive armour, batted her lashes and whispered, "Wouldn't you like to find an empty room somewhere?"
Lighting a fire under the bath with a snap of her fingers and casually disrobing before it while the other girls huddled into their furs in the winters when the Lake around them froze over. The long luxurious baths while she soaped her dark Rivaini skin even as the other girls, who she knew could not light a controlled fire if their lives depended on it, struggled with their ice-cold water, but could not bring themselves to ask her help.
Those meaningless little trysts with the boys in those sheltered, shady nooks that seemed to have been placed around the Tower for no other purpose.
Enjoying seeing those same boys who had laughed about her being brought to the tower helpless with desire as she coolly dictated to them what they could and could not do. Allowing them their release while she kept a bored, almost disinterested look on her face just to torment them into trying harder.
The exquisite look of gratification on their faces when they finally released their seed for her – it made her laugh. It was her turn to insult them then, of course. Payback for what they had said to her, in a way.
"Finished already? You could have waited until I woke up at least," she had said to one. And to another, who was leaning against the wall, trembling with exhaustion and pleasure while she knelt before him, "What? Did you miss your aim or something?" she had said, in reference to his having spilled himself all over the floor.
Not that she didn't derive any joy from these little sessions, of course – she did, but she would be damned before she let the men she was with know that. Jowan had never come out and said he did not want her to do any of that, that if she did, he would be with her, give her the love she so craved from him. She would have stopped, if he had. Surely he had feelings for her too. He must have had once, Neria told herself, for all that he had called her 'sister'.
She had begun to listen to Jowan – she had consciously decided to 'clean up her act' as her Harrowing came near. Neria had it all planned out – once she was a full-fledged mage, she would come out and confess her feelings to Jowan. They could not get married, as such, but mages co-habiting as a couple in all but name was not uncommon as long as they did not have children. Such fond hopes! But they had kept her going - well, at least until Lily the virginal initiate, white-skinned and black-haired had come to the Tower’s chapel.
That was when she and Jowan had actually started spending less time together. With her Harrowing drawing close she had begun work in earnest on her fire and lightening spells and started spending more time with Senior Enchanter Leborah, the only Elf among the Circle's upper echelons. She wondered if that was around the same time that he'd started to learn about Blood Magic. Ironic, that being with a Chantry initiate, knowing the forbidden nature of their bond should have been the impetus that drove him to turn his back on everything that he had learned and take to practicing a form of magic that was evil, intrinsically evil.
"Will you take something warm, my dear?"
Neria snapped out of her reverie. The cart had stopped, and the old woman had asked the question at least thrice without a response.
“Yes, yes please, I think I must have fallen asleep,” she said.
They set up a camp and a fire, and Neria watched as the old woman threw the herbs and water into a pot. They were having trouble keeping the fire going, and it was getting cold now. Neria could have lit up a perfect campfire as easily as snapping her fingers, but that would have militated rather too strongly against Duncan’s instructions. Her staff was kept wrapped in a cloth with the rest of their gear and she wore a thick fur robe over the flimsy dresses she favoured for the freedom of movement and lightness they afforded which was so essential to quick spell-casting. That, and the fact that they showed off exactly how magnificent her body was.
"Thank you," she said, gratefully accepting the cup of tea she was offered.
"We'll be camping here for the night," announced Tegrin, stroking his beard,
"and after that, I make for Denerim, so anyone heading south will have to part company in the morning."
"There are bandits in these parts, Tegrin," said Duncan, "if you mean to camp here, we shall have to keep watch through the night."
"Yes, well, you're the Grey Wardens," the dwarf said dismissively.
"Somehow I thought it would fall to us," Duncan said with the wry smile that she had seen on his face so often already. He was a striking man, his skin nearly as dark as Neria’s own, and with a glossy black beard and long hair that he tied in a bun behind his head. A few wrinkles and streaks of grey in the beard let her peg his age at closer forty than thirty. Irving had introduced him to her as the Commander of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden – it had been the day after she had passed the Harrowing and attained the rank of a full-fledged Mage of the Circle. She had spoken to him a little, curious about the rumours of a Blight starting in the south, and flirted a little too, overtures he had gently rebuffed. The Wardens were an order of Knights spanning almost every country in Thedas, with a headquarters far away in the Anderfels, their sole mission being to stand against the darkspawn wherever they should emerge. They also had the right to recruit anyone to their cause, whether a condemned murderer or a King – a right they used rarely and only in extraordinary cases, for as Duncan told her, it was a power best used sparingly.
He had used it to save her. When she, Jowan and Lily had emerged from the Tower storehouse with the stolen vial of Jowan’s blood, retrieved so that he could escape without being tracked down, Duncan and Irving had stood there with the Templars. Even as Neria had tried to protest their innocence, or at least repentance, the Templars moved in to strike them down and Jowan had reacted with extreme force, cutting his hand and turning the energy released into a wave of force that left them all prone on the floor, with two of the Templar dead.
That was the last she had seen of Jowan.
In a daze, she saw Knight Commander Gregoir clap irons on Lily and move to do the same to her. She had held out her hand helplessly, knowing that it was over, her dreams, her life as she knew it was over, that only death or the Rite of Tranquility awaited her, when Duncan’s voice had rung out:
“I’ll take her for the Grey Wardens.”
She blushed, hoping it did not show on her cheek. She had not really thought about what that meant, the fact that he had used that power to save her when he could have recruited a much more powerful mage, a more experienced one, like Uldred, or Irving himself, or even Wynne.
"I'll take first watch," she volunteered.
The others stared.
"You, but you're…" began Cogren.
"You'll find the girl quite capable of keeping watch, young man," Duncan said, before she could respond, "so that's settled, then."
She gave a little sigh as Cogren left to make his tent and another for his mother. Tegrin was taking the oxen to graze and Duncan sipped some brandy from a stone bottle quietly. She had not slept at night anyway. She dreamed of Jowan all too often, reliving those moments, breaking into the vaults, the creatures she had had to fight down there, spiders and animated skeletons and possessed suits of armour…
“Why me, Duncan?” she asked. “Why did you save me?”
He squinted towards her.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I saw a younger girl about to be pilloried for the crime of loyalty to a friend and I thought the Grey Wardens could do with some of that. Loyalty is all we have, young Surana. Loyalty and commitment. The Blight, unchecked, devastates everything. It renders the land fallow, it makes the people into ghouls and the animals in dread manifestations of themselves. It is an evil that needs to be fought, and only we – only we can truly end it.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ll know when the time is right,” he responded, and then walked away to put up his tent, leaving her pouting.
She discarded the fur as she moved closer to the fire. It had been suffocating her anyway. Warmth and a reason to stay awake. That was worth something.
[Anything you might recognise from playing Dragon Age: Origins is (c) BioWare. This work is not intended to earn any profit or make any money.]
NEXT CHAPTER - TO OSTAGAR
[Anything you might recognise from playing Dragon Age: Origins is (c) BioWare. This work is not intended to earn any profit or make any money.]
NEXT CHAPTER - TO OSTAGAR