Title: The Grey Path
Author: The Phoenix King
Game: Dragon Age: Origins
Summary: Humanity's last hope isn't even human. Called upon to walk a path of blood, valour and duty, Sagramor Tabris must raise an army, rise to power and find his inner strength if he is to save Ferelden from the Blight.
Overall Rating: M/R
Disclaimer: Dragon Age characters, settings, and all in-game dialogue property of Bioware.
Chapter One: A Day for Celebration
"Why do the humans hate us?"
The sparse fire that burned in their tiny hearth had just about died when Sagramor asked his mother the question, startling the older elf from her reverie. "What do you mean, son?" Adaia asked her only child, beaming with pride as the young man practiced his letters.
"Why do the shemlen-"
"You know how I hate that word," Adaia interjected, frowning at the use of the derogatory word for humans.
"-I mean, the humans. Why do they hate us so much, push us around like they do? We shouldn't have to settle for living in the alienage, and we shouldn't have to let them mistreat us. Why do they do it?"
Adaia examined her son for a moment, severe grey eyes looking back at her. He was so earnest, so committed, so dutiful. He was everything a mother could ask for, and deserved far better than what life had given him. Of course, such could be said about all the elves of the Denerim Alienage. "I don't know, son. And even if I did, you think such things could be justified by that?"
"I suppose not," the young man said, pale, nimble fingers closing the book. "It just seems really unfair, that's all. You're a great warrior, Father is hard-working and smart, and Grandfather fought in the Rebellion. All that should mean something."
"You're right, it should. Sometimes though, as much as we might wish it, the world does not reward people as they deserve."
"Like Nimue," Sagramor replied, downcast.
"Yes, like Nimue," Adaia said, moving to comfort her son, the floorboards creaking beneath her feet. "Listen to me, Sagramor. This world we live in is often a terrible place and it may take much from you, Maker forbid. But you must never let it take your compassion, your honour or your sense of right and wrong. You may be tested, you may be challenged, but at the end of the day, you have to decide if you are going to be a good person. No one else can make that decision for you. Promise me, son, that whatever happens, you will choose to be a good man, and that you will never give up hope."
"I will, Mother, I promise."
"Good," Adaia said, giving her child one last final hug. "Now, son, you need to wake up, or else you're going to die."
"What?" came Sagramor's startled response, any further questions halted as he coughed blood onto his mailed fist. Collapsing onto cold, bare stone, the young elf watched as his mother began to fade away. "No, it's not my time yet."
"Goodbye, son. I know you'll make me proud," the echo of his mother said. "Now stand up and fight, or all of Ferelden burns."
The young elf groaned, shaking off the delirium that came with such a violent impact, the blow having caused him to take leave of his senses. For the second time that night, he coughed blood onto the stone, propping himself up with his two-handed sword and rising on unsteady legs.
"Sagramor, for the Maker's sake, get up!" Alistair's voice cut through the haze.
The hideous roar echoed off of the tower's confining walls, and Sagramor leapt aside, barely dodging the massive chunk of stone ripped from the very structure. The impact was neigh-deafening, while the young elf could only stare in horror at the scene before him.
Snarling in rage, the ogre scattered aside the tower guards like stray insects, sending a half-dozen armoured soldiers flying. One of the guards, bolder than the rest, drove his spear into the meat of the darkspawn creature's thigh. It repaid him in kind, grabbing the hapless soldier in his meaty fist and ripping off his head with a single bite, massive fangs tearing through flesh and armour with ease.
Alistair charged forward, shield at the ready. With every bit of strength the ten-foot tall monster possessed, it hurled the headless corpse at the advancing warrior. Alistair tried to evade the impromptu missile, but too late; it struck the leading edge of his shield, wrenching him about and sending him to the floor.
No. Not like this. Not after all I've done and everything I've gone through. It won't end here! I won't let it!
Roaring his own battle-cry, Sagramor Tabris raised his mother's greatsword and charged towards death, glory or whatever else awaited him on top of that cursed tower.
A few weeks earlier...
Sagramor fidgeted nervously as his father buttoned up the collar of his bright wedding tunic. "Damnation, father, how I am supposed to breathe in this?"
"You'll manage, son," Cyrion Tabris chuckled, beaming at his offspring with pride. "How do you feel? Are you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be, I suppose," the young elf admitted, straightening out his attire. The collar was too small, pinching even his lanky neck, while the clothing in general was stiff and itchy despite the high quality of the bright cloth. Then again, it was a wedding outfit, and he supposed that such things were not designed to be comfortable. For the elves of the Alienages, marriage was the final step on the road to adulthood, the boundary that defined who was a productive member of the community and who was a child. It was the road that any respectable elf would have to take eventually; wed, raise a family, and become a contributing part of their tight-knit community.
Logically, Sagramor knew this, just as he knew that arranged marriages were the norm, and that taking a spouse from another alienage was encouraged to promote genetic diversity and expand family links. Moreover, he was well aware of how much money his father had spent preparing for this. Compared to most humans, Cyrion Tabris was barely above a pauper, but amongst the impoverished and downtrodden of the Denerim Alienage, he might as well have been the King of Ferelden. "I'm just nervous, I suppose."
"That is to be expected, and it's an entirely natural reaction to this," Cyrion moved to reassure him. "I'll be the first to admit I was a bundle of nerves when I first met Adaia! I don't think I settled down until a month later!" he laughed, the mirth dying quickly on his lips. "Oh, your mother would be so proud of you."
"I know, and thank you." A pause followed, full of reflection before he composed himself. "Shianni said that Soris would be waiting for me, I should check in with him before the ceremony begins," he explained, quick-witted grey eyes checking his image in the house's old mirror one last time. A wiry young man was reflected in the glass, his gaunt and narrow face giving him an almost noble, sculptural look, while his body possessed a lean, taut strength that was not readily apparent at first glance.
"Fair enough. I'll see you out there in a little while. After all, the sooner this wedding starts, the less chance you two have to escape." As Sagramor turned to leave, Cyrion cleared his throat nervously. "One last thing before you go, son. Your martial training, the swordplay, knives and whatever else your mother trained you in, best not to mention that to your betrothed."
Sagramor sighed in frustration, having long since lost patience with such warnings. Adaia had not been like many of the alienage women; while they focused on matters of hearth and home, his mother had been a warrior born, and trained her son to protect himself in a world where elves were constantly looked down upon and exploited. Even after her death several years earlier, he still followed the training routines she had introduced, frequently practicing with her old greatsword until the strain of wielding the blade brought him to exhaustion.
It had been illegal, of course. The humans who governed Ferelden's capital city of Denerim had long ago made it clear that elves who bore swords would die upon them, and on more than one occasion Sagramor had flirted with that punishment when a patrol of guardsmen nearly discovered him practicing in a back-alley. Like so much else, the freedom to bear arms was forbidden to the elves. Even so, Sagramor knew he was not the only one to have a weapon hidden; every so often the guards found a cache of bows or daggers amongst an elf's possessions, or Elder Valendrian would scold a dissenter for displaying a sword in public and risking the garrison's wrath upon them all. For Sagramor though, it was worth the risk. Adaia had died in battle with some of the city guards, defending herself nobly against their oppression and brutality, and he had vowed to never allow anyone close to him to be hurt in such a manner. "I take it you didn't mention anything."
"Well, it's not exactly something that would have made it easy to find a match for you. We don't want to seem like troublemakers, after all. Adaia made that mistake," came the conciliatory response.
Sagramor would have none of it. "The humans that killed her made an even bigger one." A passing sorrow came over him, the pain dulled by time and distance, but not eliminated. "Mother was a great warrior, and she deserved better."
A weary smile crossed Cyrion's worn and weatherbeaten face. "Yes, that she was, and she did. Well, go on then. I still have some things to do, and Soris is no doubt waiting for you."
"Of course, father. And thank you for everything."
Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, Sagramor Tabris. Might as well get it over with.
As Sagramor stepped into the light of the early morning sun, his thoughts turned back to Shianni's words as she roused him. "Your bride, Nesiara, she's here early!" his cousin had gushed, dragging his weary bones from the rickety old bunk bed where he slept. Shianni had been in a joyful mood; she had always been one to look on the bright side of things, and was thrilled by the wedding and the merriment it would bring.
Marriage, he mused, avoiding a large puddle where the path towards the alienage square had begun to crumble and moving past the freshly-painted walls of the local orphanage, by far the most well-maintained building within their district. Was he truly ready for this? He had a paying job that would help support a family, and his father had contributed a small sum to help him start his new life, but beyond that, he was out of his depth. Matters of courtship and affection were not utterly unknown to him; there had been shy looks by interested maidens, clumsy dances beneath the vhenadahl tree, soft kisses and caresses in darkened corners, but the idea of siring children with some woman he never met before was unnerving. He could think of a few local girls he could see himself settling down with, but a complete stranger? That would take some getting used to.
The alienage square was a symphony of voices and colours as hundreds of elves gathered for the ceremony, the sounds of laughter, conversation and drunken song reverberating through the limbs of the vhenadahl and against the numerous buildings that surrounded the square. Banners and lengths of brightly-coloured cloth hung from windows and branches, while opposite the rickety wooden stage, trenchers and bowls of food had been laid out on some old tables. The elves of the alienage had little to be cheerful for; theirs were the shortest lives in Denerim, the labours the most demanding and thankless, their conditions most impoverished and squalid. So when an opportunity for joy did come around, they always made sure to make the most of it.
For this was their home. It was a labyrinth of tenements, barns and shacks that even the meanest human peasant would turn his nose up at, a walled island in the middle of the city, encircled by canals and the mighty Drakon River itself. It was a place both of refuge and segregation; where the elves could live amongst their own kind and be protected from the outside world, while the guard sealed the gates after nightfall and ruthlessly punished anyone caught without. It was the only world Sagramor had ever known; his knowledge of what lay beyond extended only to the city walls, and some days he would stand at the docks, watching the ships come and go and wondering to what exotic places they travelled. The rest of Ferelden, much less Thedas, was the subject of books and daydreams, and once he was wed, that is all it would be.
Not for the first time, he wondered if there was more to life than this, if all he could accomplish was to raise a family and scrape a living as best he could; if there was a chance to make himself into someone better than he was, to become greater. Now he supposed he would never find out.
"Is that young Sagramor I see? Hello, dear," came a woman's voice, and Sagramor turned to see an older couple approach, their eyes blooming with recognition. "Won't you say he looks like Adaia, dear? Especially around the eyes."
"I don't see it," the husband replied, clad in a plain brown shirt and pants. "Besides, love, he probably doesn't remember us."
"Do I know you?" asked Sagramor, searching his memory for the pair. "Wait, I recall that you were one of my mother's friends, ma'am, though I've forgotten your name."
"That's alright, dear," she responded in a pleasant, motherly tone. "It is still good to know you remember us a little bit. I'm Dilwyn, and this is Gethon. You're right, we were friends of your mother's, though we haven't seen much of you since she, well..."
"She wanted you more than anything," Gethon added. "It's sad she never got to see you all grown up."
"It's alright," Sagramor answered. "I miss her too."
An uncomfortable silence followed, before Gethon elected to change the subject. "So, are you excited for your big day?"
Sagramor shrugged. "To be honest, I'm a bit nervous, but once it's all done, I'm sure things will turn out well." A thought came to mind, and his curiosity demanded he voice it. "My cousin Shianni said my intended was here early. By any chance, have you met her? What's she like?"
"Well, she's a very beautiful girl," Dilwyn declared, relieved that he seemed to be accepting his betrothal so well. "Talented too; her family lives in Highever and she's an excellent craftmaker. And she's quite friendly and caring; I think you two are going to be very happy together."
"And there's no magic in her line too, don't forget about that."
"Gethon!" came Dilwyn's indignant cry.
"I'm serious!" Gethon defended himself, explaining in a patronizing fashion. "You don't want them to end up like the Suranas, do you? Their only daughter taken to the Circle and the parents dead from the grief and shame before the year was out?"
Mention of his childhood playmate and friend brought a taste of rancour into his voice. "If I had a child as wonderful as Nimue, mage or not, I would be proud," he declared, his expression daring them to prove him wrong.
"I'm sure you would, but the templars would still take her away, no matter how you felt. You'd be better off without the heartbreak, young man."
Dilwyn elbowed her husband gently in the ribs. "We just wanted to see you today and express our good wishes. It means the world to us to see you happy."
"Thank you," Sagramor said, giving a small bow of appreciation. Reservations about marriage aside, it didn't justify turning aside their goodwill or genuine sympathy. "I definitely appreciate it."
Rubbing his side, Gethon took the hint his wife gave him, reaching into his pocket. "We've saved a bit of money for this day. We'd
we'd like you to have it, to help start your new life."
Sagramor's grey eyes widened as Gethon deposited a full fifteen silver coins into his hands, more money than he'd ever held in his life. "This...this is very generous. I can't accept this," he said, but Adaia's old friends would have none of it, gently closing his fingers over the precious coins. "Are you certain about this?"
"Trust us, we'll get by. You're young and soon you'll have a family of your own, so you need it more than we do," Dilwyn reassured him. "It'll be alright."
"If you're sure," Sagramor mumbled, putting the money away. Fifteen silvers was a considerable sum for the alienage folk, and Maker knew how long the two had been saving up. "Thank you. Honestly, this is great; I'll try and put it to good use."
"We know you will," Gethon said. "Maker bless you." The rumble of a cart drew his attention, and the older elf frowned disapprovingly. "Now, that isn't good at all. I wonder what they're thinking, leaving the Alienage during a wedding!"
'They' turned out to be a small family of elves; husband, wife and daughter, their meager possessions piled onto a rickety old handcart, tattered cloaks wrapped around their bodies as they prepared to set out for the road. "What's going on, Nessa?" Sagramor asked the red-haired girl standing in obedient silence next to the cart. "Is everything alright?"
"Everything is fine, Sagramor," the girl replied, stepping back as her father looked up from securing their baggage. "We're
just leaving, that's all."
Nessa's father, a greying, weathered and imperious man, elaborated. "The human who owns our building has decided to convert it into a storage space for some of the city's merchants. We can't afford to stay anywhere else, so we're leaving Denerim. We're heading south to the army camp at Ostagar; there's some paying work there as labourers for the King's forces."
"That's quite a distance," Sagramor replied, trying to remember the details about the place he had heard in stories or read in his old atlas. It was a crumbling fortress established by the Tevinters centuries ago, an old ruin many leagues to the south that bordered a hostile wilderness full of barbarians, witches and monsters. They had all heard the rumours of war brewing to the south, of King Cailan rallying the armies of Ferelden to combat some threat, but few of them had paid such attention to it. It was a human matter, after all, and far removed from the confines of the Alienage. "Wouldn't it would be better to move to another alienage, or find work closer to here?"
"We would like to, but going to another alienage is difficult. Travel and bribes cost money, and there's no guarantee that we'd find anything. No, we're striking out for Ostagar," the old elf said in a tone that discouraged dissent. "We wish you all the best in your marriage, young one, but we must be off."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Sagramor persisted.
Nessa's father scoffed at this. "You're just a child, you can't help us," he said dismissively. "Just enjoy yourself and forget about our problems. Come on, everyone."
"Just a moment, father," Nessa interjected as the group made to leave. "I just need to speak to Sagramor in private."
Before her parents could object, Nessa was leading him by the arm into the alley behind the square. A feral cat snarled at the pair before slipping in the gap between two shacks, and Sagramor felt Nessa's petite body go rigid with tension. "I apologize for my parents; they're too proud to accept help, much less ask for it."
"I wasn't offended, Nessa, I'm more worried about you. What's the matter?"
"It's about this journey to Ostagar," she explained, eyes downcast. "My parents will labour in the army camp, and they'll expect me to do the same. And I wouldn't mind that, but...I don't like the idea of being surrounded by a bunch of human soldiers who haven't seen a woman in months." Her lively complexion paled at the thought, and Sagramor felt her small arms tighten around him. "I'm just really scared, that's all."
"Maybe I could convince your parents to let you stay? My father would be more than happy to take you in, and I'd be able to support you a bit after the marriage."
Nessa shook her head. "My father would never agree to such a thing; he's too frightened of losing me, and too proud to admit that he needs assistance from others. Besides, you'll have a wife soon, perhaps even a child! You wouldn't be able to support me for long, and it would be unfair to ask your father to do so."
"Then while I do have the power..." Sagramor said, placing ten of his newly-won silver coins in her hand. "Take them. It should be enough to help your parents find a new place."
"You can't be serious!" Nessa gasped, eyes darting between the money and her rescuer. "Where did you get this much money?"
"I'm always serious, Nessa, especially when it comes to helping my friends. If your parents ask, say you received an anonymous donation. If they really give you trouble over it, then I'll straighten them out."
Nessa gave a short laugh of relief, and the coins vanished into her apron pocket. "We could end up staying here and starting a business, or maybe go to Highever and find work there. Oh, thank you, Sagramor!" she said, throwing her arms around his neck. "You saved my family, I love you!" A small blush crept over her cheeks as she realized what she just said. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend..."
Blushing himself, Sagramor moved to reassure her, "I'm actually quite flattered, Nessa, I means a lot to here you say that. I just..."
"I know. Well, I certainly hope your bride appreciates you; you deserve it and more," the girl said, giving him a swift peck on the cheek. "No matter what happens, Sagramor, thank you for everything." The crunch of fallen leaves made her start, and she gave a small curtsey before departing, flushed with embarrassment.
"Sorry, cousin, was I interrupting something?"
Giving an exasperated sigh, Sagramor turned to see the cheeky grin on the face of his cousin Soris. "It's not what you think. I was just giving her some money to help her family stay in the city."
Soris gave a small chuckle. "And the fact that you danced with her during the Solstice festival this year had nothing to do with it?"
"Well, what was I supposed to do, cousin?" Sagramor demanded. "Let her family drag her off to some distant battlefield full of shemlen soldiers?" As much as he hated to admit it, Soris' words possessed a measure of truth. He doubted whether he would do the same for the caustic-tongued Elva, or Nessa's parents had the girl not confessed her fears.
"That's my cousin; always stopping to help people," Soris admitted wryly. "So, care to celebrate the end of our independence?"
"It might not be all that bad, Soris."
Soris scoffed at this notion. "For you, maybe. Apparently, your bride is a dream come true, while mine sounds like a dying mouse."
"I'm sure she's a nice girl," Sagramor reassured him as the two walked back to the square, greeting well-wishers as they passed.
"Yeah, for the next fifty years, I'm going to be stuck with a nice girl who hides grain for the winter."
"It's Ferelden, cousin, and this in the alienage. A bit of foresight for the winter isn't a bad thing." Sagramor paused for a moment, lost in thought. "Dilwyn and Gethon mentioned Nimue when I spoke to them."
Soris shook his head, bemused at his cousin's dour nature. "And you immediately started wondering how she's handling life in the Circle, and if we'll ever see her again. Cousin, Nimue is gone. Even if she did try to escape the Circle, we have trouble enough without the templars breathing down our necks. I miss her too, but she left when she was seven. She probably doesn't even remember us."
"You're probably right. Forgive me; I'm just feeling a bit nostalgic today." Shaking aside his concerns, Sagramor looked over to see Shianni beckoning the pair over, his red-haired cousin accompanied by the rest of the bridal party. Amongst them, a brown-haired girl admired the bright pennants of celebration, while next to her, a lovely young woman with locks of gold examined him with undisguised interest.
It was then that Sagramor saw the humans approach. There were three of them, their fine clothes and jewelled scabbards betraying them as members of the nobility, and they strutted towards the women with the arrogance born of wealth, privilege and contempt for the lower orders. To his horror, one of the shemlen immediately seized the closest bridesmaid, chortling nastily as he groped her, disdainful of her pleas. "It's a party, isn't it? Grab a whore and have a good time!" An absolutely despicable laugh passed the nobleman's lips, and his gaze fell upon Shianni, who stared back defiantly. "Savour the hunt, boys. Take this little elven wench here, so young and vulnerable..."
"Touch me and I'll gut you, you pig!" Shianni spat, backing away as the shemlen approached. "I'm warning you!"
"Please, my lord!" said one of the wedding guests, holding up his hands for peace. "We're celebrating a wedding!"
The lead human stormed over to the speaker, delivering a savage backhand. "Silence, worm! If I wish for the opinion of some disease-ridden knife-ear, I will ask for it!"
Hearing him utter the racist term caused Sagramor to step forward. "I know what you're thinking, cousin," Soris whispered urgently, "but maybe we shouldn't get involved."
"It's going to escalate even if we don't step in, and I won't let these humans mistreat us. Especially Shianni."
"Oh, why do you always have to fix things?" the red-haired elf declared with exasperation. "Fine, but let's try to be diplomatic then, shall we?"
Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Sagramor moved to approach the belligerents. "Is there a problem here, my lords?" he asked neutrally, his grey eyes examining the three for any sign of an imminent attack.
"What's this? The two grooms come to welcome me personally?" the lead human mused, giving a mocking sneer. "Tell me, which one is yours? Is it the redhead or the blonde?"
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave here, my lord," Sagramor stated calmly, holding his ground, staring upward into the human's eyes. "This place and these people are not for you, and I'd ask that you leave us to our celebrations."
"Get a load of this elf, Vaughan!" another of the humans crowed, a heavyset figure that looked like he'd been enjoying life's pleasures considerably. "It's like an Orlesian puppy pretending to be a mabari!"
"And a disrespectful one too, Braden," the third added. "We should teach him a lesson!"
Doing his damnedest not to show any fear or concern, Sagramor spoke once more. "We are not your toys, my lord, to be broken and discarded at a whim. This is our home, these are my friends, and you are unwelcome here. I will not tell you again." Instinctively, his hand slowly moved to the hilt of the long knife he always kept on him. It was not a very dangerous weapon, the largest any of the elves were permitted to possess, and more appropriate for chopping up vegetables than striking a breathing target, but he reckoned it could do enough damage in the right place. "Leave."
Vaughan laughed derisively at the young elf's defiance. "Do you have any idea who I am?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Sagramor saw Soris give a horrified shake of his hands. "Shianni, don't-"
Vaughan turned, just in time to see Shianni swing a full bottle of mead at his skull. The girl had put all her strength into the blow, shattering the pottery and sending the depraved nobleman to the ground, poleaxed and drenched in liquor. "Not bad for a knife-ear, huh, you ass?" she snarled.
"Are you insane?" Lord Braden demanded, the jowls of his heavy cheeks trembling with indignation. "This is Vaughan Kendells, son of the Arl of Denerim!"
Shianni's eyes widened in horror. "What? Oh, Maker..."
"Perhaps his father should have taught him some better manners," said Sagramor, moving to shield his cousin and the bridal party. "Now take him and get out of here, I won't ask again."
"Oh, you've got a lot of nerve, knife-ears!" the third noble said, lifting Vaughan up as they beat a hasty retreat. "This'll go badly for you! All of you!"
As the humans departed, a tense silence descended over the wedding party and beyond. Conversations were stilled, and no few elves looked in fear towards the alienage gates for sign of reprisal, or scornfully at Shianni for daring to strike back. "Oh, I really screwed up this time," the red-haired girl moaned, looking decidedly guilty and unwilling to meet the eyes of her cousins. "I'm so sorry for spoiling everything; you're getting married, and I had to go and cause trouble for you."
"You had every right to defend yourself, Shianni," Sagramor replied in a calm tone. "Don't stress on our account."
"It'll be alright," Soris added, trying to appear confident. "He won't tell anyone an elven woman took him down."
"Soris is right, he'd become the laughingstock of Denerim. Everything will be fine, Shianni, I promise."
"I hope so," Shianni replied, sounding distinctly unconvinced. A quick glance showed that her dress and arms were stained with mead, and the girl wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"I should get cleaned up."
Shianni departed back to Cyrion's home, and the two young men were left alone with their brides-to-be. "Is everybody else alright?" Soris asked.
"I think we're just shaken," the brunette answered, glancing down the path. "What was that about?"
"Looks like the Arl's son started drinking a bit early," said Soris with a nervous laugh. "Well, let's not let this ruin the day. Sagramor, this is Valora, my betrothed."
"A pleasure to meet you, Valora," Sagramor declared, giving a courtly bow to the girl, who curtsied in return. "And this must be Nesiara, if I recall your name correctly, milady," he said, addressing the blonde woman, who smiled in return.
"Ah, so you remembered," teased Nesiara. "I am lucky to finally see you with my own eyes; I have heard a great many things about you."
"Some of them good, I hope," Sagramor replied, provoking a gentle laugh from her. She was quite beautiful, he realized, and a deep blush spread over his gaunt features. "I hope there weren't any problems on the road from Highever."
"Oh no, the journey was safe, if a bit bumpy. I did notice that there were a lot of soldiers on the Coast Road though. Is that normal?"
"I don't think so. I've never left Denerim myself, but it's probably a result of the army assembling."
"Yes, I've heard some rumours about that," Nesiara said. "Do you know why that's happening, who's attacking?"
"It's not the Orlesians," came his reply as the group made their way to the pleasant shade beneath the vhenadahl tree. "Any invasion they launch would come over the Frostback Mountains to the west, or by the Waking Sea in the north, like they did when they conquered Ferelden during the Blessed Age. From all the rumours I've been hearing, the King is taking his forces south to the Korcari Wilds, so it might be an attack by Chasind barbarians. Still, I haven't really heard anything concrete about it, just a few details."
"You speak of these things with such knowledge, Sagramor," Nesiara said, evidently impressed. "Why is that?"
It was Soris who answered. "I would have assumed the matchmaker would have told you; our Sagramor is a bit of a scholar. He's one of the only people in the alienage who keeps books for other than burning in the winter."
"Really? What sort of books?" Nesiara asked, now genuinely intrigued.
"An old atlas detailing the lands of Thedas, for starters. A few historical tomes and stories, like the ascension of King Calenhad or the battles of the Fourth Blight. Then there are the most leisurely tomes; I have both the Tales of the Black Fox and the ballad of Ser Isaac of Clarke." He gave a somewhat embarrassed blush at the mention of the more plebeian books. "My parents thought that giving me the best education possible was important, so I could find better opportunities than simply working on the docks."
"And have you?"
"To an extent. I have a job as a clerk's assistant at one of the city's major trading guilds. It's mostly just fetch-and-carry work, but they needed someone literate to find the right records, and elves work hard but cheap." Sagramor gave a small shrug. "It's not a teribble job, to be honest, and even though I don't make nearly as much as a human in the same position, it is something, so between that and your craft skills, I think we'll have a stable future together."
"I am relieved to hear that. May I be honest with you, Sagramor?" Nesiara inquired.
The girl looked uncomfortable for a moment before she posed her question. "The matchmaker your father hired spoke very highly of you, and I have no doubt he was telling the truth. But I've heard a rumour..."
"About my training with a sword?" the dark-haired young elf asked, receiving a worried nod in reply. "Nesiara, listen to me. I was taught how to fight by my mother so that I might be able to defend those I care about; believe me when I say I'm not the sort of person to go out looking for trouble, okay? I promise that I would never knowingly put you in danger."
"I understand, it's just that..." Nesiara said, biting her lip thoughtfully. "Could it get you into trouble with the guards?"
"It could, but I'm much rather be prepared to defend us if necessary, and I know how to hide the sword so they won't find it. Trust me," he said, giving her a reassuring smile.
"I'm sure you're right. And thank you for trusting me with this, Sagramor. I know we've just met."
"Husbands should be faithful and honest with their wives," the young elf stated. "I must admit, I don't think I'm quite ready for marriage yet, but I'll do my best for your sake. I just hope I am worthy of you."
"Cousin, we should let them get ready," Soris' voice interjected, gesturing towards the gate towards the city marketplace.
"Well, I think the hahren wanted the ceremony to happen as soon as possible-"
"Cousin," Soris replied, firmly enunciating every word, "we should let them get ready."
Something in his tone made Sagramor pause, and he turned to the women, keeping his voice pleasant. "Soris is right, we should give you both some time to prepare yourselves. Would you mind checking in on Shianni for us, make sure she's alright?"
"Of course," Nesiara said. "We'll see you in a few minutes then."
As the women departed, Sagramor turned to Soris. "Trouble?"
"Maybe, cousin. Another human just came in through the marketplace gate. Could be one of Vaughan's, or just a random troublemaker."
Following his cousin's gaze, Sagramor spied the stranger walking through the path towards the Alienage square. He was a human of middle-years, perhaps closer to fifty judging by the grey hairs that had begun to pop up in his dark, short beard. His dark skin suggested he was Rivaini in origin, while dark hair had been pulled into a short ponytail, keeping it clear of the ears that were pierced with gold rings. More relevant, however, was the elegant yet functional silverite armour he was clad in, complete with heavy mail boots, greaves and gauntlets, while a simple longsword and a pair of long daggers were sheathed at his waist. The composite bow slung over the shoulder also spoke to his martial skill, and he had no doubt that the human was no stranger to violence and battle. The newcomer carried himself with a composed and confident bearing, almost a noble one, but the knot of anxiety Sagramor had been carrying ever since he awoke returned with a vengeance. "What's a human doing here?"
"With all those weapons, do you think he's a soldier?" Soris asked.
"No, he bears no tabard with his lord's heraldry, no crest on the armour, nothing." Was he a sellsword, perhaps? Some landless mercenary in Vaughan's employ, come to wreak revenge on behalf of his master? "We should head him off before he causes any trouble. Maybe convince him to leave before he hurts someone."
"Actually, I think it's the lads that might start things," Soris opined as the two made their approach. "Wine is flowing, and after what happened with Vaughan, I think a few of them are angry enough to do something stupid. Let's do this quickly."
The two young elves made their way to the newcomer, who was standing respectfully near the vhenadahl tree and greeting those who walked past. Most of the Alienage's inhabitants, however, were steering clear of the stranger, their eyes staring fixated on each other or their food, lest he take offense to being stared at by elves and become violent. As Sagramor approached, the stranger's dark eyes seemed to glimmer with...recognition? Who is this man, and what is he doing here?
"Good day," said the human, giving a polite bow. "I understand congratulations are in order for your impending wedding."
"Do you have business here, human?" Sagramor asked bluntly, watching the stranger with a hawk-like intensity. "If not, I would ask that you please leave, for this is a private ceremony."
"I'm sorry, I have no intention of leaving."
Soris gaped at this, glancing about fearfully, but Sagramor held his ground against a human for the second time in less than half an hour. "As am I, but the fact of the matter remains is that things are tense here, and while I don't want to attack you, there are others who would."
The human chuckled at this. "Surely it has not escaped your notice that I am both armed and armoured. Any conflict, whether against yourself or these people you speak of, would be rather one-sided, do you not agree?"
What's he up to? Sagramor mused, weighing the human's words. On the surface, he seemed to be interested in nothing more than goading the elves, but something was amiss... "Might I ask what your business is, ser? Perhaps I could help you complete it, so you could be on your way?"
"Interesting," the human stated. "He keeps his composure, even when facing down an armed and unknown human. A true gift, wouldn't you say, Valendrian?"
"I would say the world has far more use of those who know how to stay their blades," the Elder of the Denerim Alienage said, nodding in relief towards Sagramor as he shook the human's hand. "It is good to see you again, my friend. It has been far too long."
"Elder, you know this man?" Sagramor asked in confusion. "I'm sorry, had I known you were a friend of the Elder..."
"It is quite alright. I was hardly forthcoming, and for that I apologize. I wanted to see how you reacted to the unknown, and you did so admirably. Just as your mother did."
"May I present Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden," Valendrian introduced the newcomer. "I would ask that you treat him as an honoured guest, for he is both a friend to me and our people."
"Of course, Elder," Sagramor replied, heart leaping. A Grey Warden! Here!
Of all the tales Sagramor had read over the years, those of the Grey Wardens were amongst his favourite. The fall of the Golden City was a cornerstone of the Chantry's teachings, and by this point Sagramor could recite the core of the tale by heart: how the depraved magisters of the Tevinter Imperium had sought to usurp the throne of the Maker, how He had cast them back to earth as the nightmarish darkspawn in punishment, how the darkspawn had quickly multiplied and launched a terrible war against all of Thedas that lasted for some two hundred years.
...How in the world's darkest hour, the Grey Wardens emerged; an order of noble heroes from all races and backgrounds, warriors and mages, barbarians and kings, dedicated to fighting the darkspawn wherever they existed. It was thanks to the Grey Wardens that this First Blight had been beaten back and the world saved, as it would be for the following three Blights. It was the Grey Wardens who stood vigilant against their threat for the past thousand years. They were the greatest warriors on Thedas; resolute, skilled and utterly without fear. And one of them was standing right before him.
"But my question remains unanswered," Valendrian asked, snapping Sagramor out of his awestruck state. 'Why are you here, Duncan?"
"The worst has happened: a Blight has begun. King Cailan summons the Grey Wardens to Ostagar to fight the darkspawn horde alongside his armies. I am here in Denerim on a recruiting mission, to find aspirants worthy of joining the Order, for every last one will be needed to defeat the Blight."
"A Blight..." Sagramor breathed, struck numb with horror.
"But that can't be right, cousin," Soris interjected. "The darkspawn are just myths! Stories!"
And what stories they are, Sagramor thought, recalling all he knew of the past Blights; of the endless armies of darkspawn that emerge from the Deep Roads to lay waste to entire kingdoms, of the sickness they carried which poisoned people and animals and earth and sky alike, of the populations of entire towns dragged underground to Maker-only-knew what fate, of the decades of war and blood and sweat and toil of many nations needed to defeat them and drive them back into their lairs. The thought of such an evil being unleashed upon Ferelden suddenly made any concerns or worries about marriage seem petty indeed.
"Yes, I had heard the news," said the Elder. "Still, this is an awkward time. There is to be a wedding- two, in fact."
If Duncan was offended at the Elder's unusually curt tone, he didn't show it. "So I see. By all means, attend to your ceremonies. My concerns can wait, for now."
"I'd like to talk to Duncan a bit more, if you don't mind, Elder," came Sagramor's request, receiving a frosty glance from Valendrian. "Just for a few minutes. I don't even think the Mother that the Chantry is sending is even here, so we do have some time."
Valendrian gave a frustrated sigh, but did not refuse him. "Just a few minutes, Sagramor. But, for the Maker's sake, don't be late for your own wedding!"
The Elder left to oversee the celebrations, and Duncan raised an eyebrow at his old friend's behaviour. "I must say, I've never known Valendrian to be this impatient."
"Me neither," Sagramor added. "He seems rather anxious to get this whole wedding done and over with." He paused for a moment, seeking for the right words. "Duncan, you said you knew my mother? How?"
"I met Adaia about twenty years ago, just before you were born. I had come to Denerim seeking recruits to join the Grey Wardens, and she happened to cross my path. Your mother was a fiery woman, bold and courageous. She would have made an excellent Warden."
"I never made the offer," Duncan explained. "Valendrian convinced me it was better for her to remain here with her family. As there was no Blight, and thus no immediate need for recruits, I deferred to his wishes. But it seems she passed her training onto you, am I right?"
"Did the Elder tell you that?" Sagramor asked sharply.
"In part, just as I've learned of Adaia's death through many sources as well. You have my condolences for your loss. I know several years have passed since, but..."
"No, it's alright, Duncan, and thank you. It seems my mother led a richer life than I had ever thought." His mother, a potential recruit for the Wardens. He knew first-hand how good a swordswoman Adaia had been, but it was unexpected all the same. Did she ever regret not joining the Order? Staying home and raising me? It was a sobering thought that he quickly shoved aside, for he knew he had a tendency to brood, a compulsion he strove to fight whenever possible.
"I know what you're thinking, and if I may be so bold, I don't think your mother regretted a single moment with you. She raised a child to be proud of."
"Boy, does that Elder Valendrian like to talk," Sagramor quipped, pleasantly surprised. Duncan was certainly more compassionate than most humans, even some of the other elves, but for all his polite words, Sagramor knew that the Grey Warden would be a terror to all his foes.
Duncan chuckled. "No, just my own insight." A flash of russet and cream coloured cloth caught his attention. "Ah, it looks like the priest is here. Please, attend your ceremonies. We will talk more later."
"I still can't believe your mother was nearly recruited into the Wardens," Soris exclaimed as the two rushed for the old wooden platform next to the vhenadahl tree. "And this talk about a Blight? Do you think Duncan's right?"
"Well, if anyone would know the signs of a Blight, it would be the Grey Wardens," Sagramor stated. "Let's just hope they can keep it contained."
"Oh, no," Soris moaned.
"I know that look."
"That look!" Soris exclaimed, gesturing at the slightly wistful expression on Sagramor's face. "You're hoping he'll recruit you, aren't you? That if you join the Wardens, you won't have to get married!"
"Soris, that's not going to happen, alright?"
"But it is what you want, isn't it?"
"That's not-" Sagramor gave a long sigh, leaning back against the closest wall. "Listen, Soris, joining the Wardens would be interesting, but why in the name of the Maker would Duncan want me anyways? This is Denerim; between the city garrison, the various knights and lords who live here, and all the travellers coming from abroad, many of them capable of fighting, the Alienage is the last place he'd look to find a capable recruit. And even if he did want me as a Warden, the hahren won't let him. Why do you think he's so insistent on pushing this wedding forward immediately?"
Soris paused at that. "You think he knew Duncan was coming?"
"Most likely. If Duncan's been in the city for a while, eventually the Elder would find out. This is my home, Soris. If I didn't leave with Pol when he ran away to find the Dalish, then why would I now?"
"Oh, the Dalish, I had completely forgotten about that option. Run away to live with elves who live free, why didn't I think of that?" he chuckled. "I'm sorry, cousin, I shouldn't have doubted you."
"And I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. Like it or not, I'm here to stay. After all, how could I leave my favourite cousin?"
"Thanks for making me feel special, Sagramor."
Sagramor gave a mocking snort. "Who said I was talking about you? I meant Shianni."
Laughing at the jest, the two elves finally made it to a large wooden stage assembled next to the vhenadahl, with the grand majority of the Alienage's population gathered around for the ceremony and feast. The bridal party was already present, Shianni amongst them, the worst of the stains having been removed her white bridesmaids dress. "Good, you're both here! That would have been quite a scandal if you two were late," she said, her voice cutting through the chatter of the audience, smiling brightly and seemingly none the worse for wear from her confrontation with Vaughn. "And here I was worried I wouldn't make it time. You have any idea how hard it is to clean out mead stains from white cloth?"
"I'm sure you found a way," Sagramor said, "you always do. Thanks again for being here."
"Hey, I couldn't exactly just stand back and let my cousin get married without being here to suitably embarrass him," she teased, giving him a gentle hug. "This is so exciting!"
"Soris!" Valora exclaimed joyfully. "There you are. I was afraid you'd run off."
"No, I'm here, with fellow groom in tow," Soris replied, blushing as the girl took his hand in her own. "Ready, cousin?"
"As much as I'll ever be. Good luck to you," said the dark-haired young elf, beaming alongside his own intended.
Silence fell as Elder Valendrian took to the stage. He had been the leader of their walled community since his thirties, a surrogate father, mayor and source of wisdom for so many people, so the Alienage folk took heed as he spoke. "Friends and family, today, we not only celebrate this joining, but also our bonds of kin and kind. We are a free people, but it was not always so. Andraste, our Maker's prophet, freed us from the bonds of slavery, gave us the chance of a life free from subjugation. As our community grows, remember that our strength lies in commitment to tradition and to each other. Now, I invite Mother Boann of the Chantry to invoke the Maker's blessings upon this wedding."
The priest of the Chantry stood forward next, a young human woman with reddish-brown hair and clad in the ceremonial robes of the faith, smiling with genuine benevolence. She was one of the few members of the Chantry who deigned to come to the Alienage on a regular basis, and while the majority of her fellows were content to chastise the community for their apparent sins, she had devoted her efforts to improving the literacy of the elves. Sagramor had learned his letters due in no small part to Boann's efforts, and he maintained a respectful silence as she spoke the words of union, his heart pounding with fear and exhilaration as Nesiara's hand met his. "In the name of the Maker, who brought us this world, and in who's name we sing the Chant of Light, I-"
"I'm sorry, Mother, but I have to interrupt for a moment," came the sneering, oily voice, and Sagramor felt his mouth go dry with fear. Oh, Maker, not him again! Not now!
Pushing and shoving his way through the crowd of watching elves was none other than Bann Vaughan, accompanied by the highborn sycophants who had accompanied him earlier...and a full score of grim-looking spearmen, the green-and-white crest of Denerim painted on their shields. Elves quickly scattered before the company, with those too slow to escape being knocked out of the way by the guards, all of them armoured in chainmail and leather and ready to unleash violence on the slightest provocation. "Milord, I- this is unexpected," Boann stammered. "Have you come to give your well-wishes to these unions? I am certain that the Maker would look favourably upon such an act."
Vaughan gave a cruel chuckle, stomping his way onto the stage. "Sorry to interrupt, Mother, but I've having a party, and we seem to be running dreadfully short of female guests. And since this wedding seems to be overflowing with them, I, as the heir to the arling, will assist this dump by relieving you of your surplus."
"Milord!" the priest cried in horror and indignation. "This is a wedding! A sacred affair-"
"If you want to dress up your pets and have tea parties, that's your business," Vaughan retorted, staring down the woman of the cloth. "But don't pretend that this is a real wedding. After all, only people can get married, right?" He turned towards his fellows, a lecherous grin adorning his lips, and Sagramor's blood went cold. "Now, we're here for a good time, aren't we, boys?"
"Yeah, just a good time with the ladies, that's all!" Lord Braden crowed, grabbing one of the bridesmaids, a slender, pale girl named Nola. The crowd gasped in horror, but the presence of so many guards kept the elves at bay. "Bet this one could use a man in her life!"
Laughing, Vaughan cast his eyes over the bridal party the same way a butcher might examine different cuts of meat. "Let's take these two, the one in the tight dress...and where's the bitch who bottled me?"
"Here she is, Lord Vaughan!" said a weasel-faced noble by the name of Jonaley, as he seized Shianni. "You should have minded your own business, girl, now you're going to get it!"
"Let me go, you stuffed shirt son of a bitch!" the red-haired girl cried, struggling in vain as a pair of guardsmen dragged her away.
"Get your hands off her!" Sagramor roared, rushing forward. Vaughan had prepared his guards for trouble, however, and the young elf wheezed as a spear-butt struck him hard in the stomach. More proceeded to drag off the weeping, helpless women, while the increasingly-frantic crowd was held back by yet more guards. Reeling from the blow, Sagramor tried to rise, only to receive a swift kick in the ribs for his trouble. "Let them go, damn you," he coughed, dragging himself forward. Shianni, Nesiara...I won't let them take you!
Vaughan stepped on the young elf's outstretched hand, inciting a small cry of pain. "Ah yes, and here is the uppity runt who thinks he's worthy of speaking to me. Don't worry, I'll return whatever's left of them in time for the honeymoon."
"You're dead, Vaughan," the dark-haired elf snarled, propping himself up so his hate-filled eyes could meet the nobleman's. "You, your friends, your guards, you'll all die screaming for this! Every last one of you!"
"I live in fear," Vaughan sneered. "Back to the palace, boys. We'll send the women back intact," he stated, a lecherous grin spreading. "Mostly."
The pressure on his hand eased, and Sagramor went wild, throwing himself forward with utter abandon. The belt knife was torn from its scabbard, and he gave a howl of triumph as the blade slashed deeply into the side of Vaughan's face, screaming in rage. The crowd became a frenzied animal, elves pushing and shoving at the armoured soldiers in a desperate attempt to reach the captured women, the spear-butts and cudgels of the humans forcing them back, Valendrian and Boann desperately pleading with the soldiers to leave the women be. Sagramor lunged with the knife again, aiming for Vaughan's heart, but more guards came at him from all sides. A mailed fist slammed into the side of his head, and the guards fell upon him en-masse, striking with their spear-shafts and boots. "Leave him alive!" Vaughan barked, slapping aside Jonaley's hand as he tried to examine his wound. "Let him live with the knowledge that the Alienage is mine to do with as I please, his whores included!"
Sagramor opened his mouth to reply, but a solid kick to the forehead ended his defiance. As he slipped into tortured unconscious, he could clearly hear the screams of the women, echoing, fading, until everything was darkness...