Monday, 28 August 2017

Chapter Fourteen: Pride and Shame, a Dragon Age Fanfic

Chapter Fourteen – Rescue and condemnation

For a moment, when Neria saw Leliana's eyes light up with what might have been happiness - but just as easily could have been a touch of madness, she almost regretted her words. But dreams – she, of all people, should know that dreams did not have to be ridiculous, for was it not the dream that she herself had first had, on the road to Ostagar, about Duncan and the Blight which convinced her to stay and join the Wardens?

Biscuit seemed to be happy about the decision at least, because he ran to her and jumped, presumably for joy, and landed on a table three feet away, knocking over a merchant and two barmaids.

“I will do my best to help you always!” Leliana squealed. “I can sing and tell stories and if we find a lute I can play it too, and I can take the dog for walks and…”

“Just try not to shoot Alistair by mistake and we'll be fine,” smiled Neria, determined to make this work.

“Hang on, we are keeping her?” Alistair asked.

“Yes of course, I mean if she says the Maker is on her side, then he's going to be on our side too,” said Neria with a perfectly straight face.

“And I thought we are already full up on crazy,” Morrigan snapped. Neria wondered how much of her irritation was from the cloying sweetness of the redhead's voice and how much from the pain she must have been suffering.

“Morrigan, didn't you say the whorehouse has been converted to a makeshift hospice?” Neria said sweetly, ignoring her comment. “Let's take you there, shall we?”
She ignored the Witch's flashing eyes as she and Leliana, who blithely took Morrigan's other arm, stepped out of the Inn.

The Hospice was a poorly-equipped place, with a Chantry Mother in charge, but they seemed sincere enough, and once they saw Leliana, nobody questioned them on where they had come from. Neria had to give them some healing potions from her own stock, but she grudged it little when she saw how many refugees were sick or wounded.

“You will have to leave her here for a night at least,” the Mother informed them, and though Morrigan protested that she was fine, Neria over-ruled her and told her to stay until she was fully healed while the rest of them looked around some more.

“We will set up camp somewhere and visit you in the morning,” said Alistair. “Morrigan should be safe enough. There's about time for us to visit the Chantry and see if they have any news from Denerim.”

“Where is somewhere? I want a bed to sleep in,” said Neria.

“There isn’t a bed for hire in the village,” pointed out Alsitair.

Neria was about to reiterate her objections to an outdoor camp, when Leliana interrupted, “I'll stay with Morrigan. I can tend to you and look after you and…”

“Oh bother! I'd rather have the bloody mutt here with me then,” said Morrigan. “At least he talks less.”

Biscuit responded by barking gratefully.

“I was going to leave him anyway,” said Neria. “To protect you. You can do that, can't you, old boy?”

Biscuit's response was an almost-offended little yowl, as if he was surprised she even needed to ask.


Alistair followed Neria and Leliana back into the village. As evening fell, the squalor of Lothering seemed even worse than it had when they arrived. The light breeze coming over the river that passed through the village did nothing to carry away the stench of the camps' filth; it only seemed to add to the cold. Alistair shivered a little. Neria seemed perfectly comfortable, but then she was wearing a thick smock, and in any case, she seemed immune to cold, though how she managed that he had no idea.
Leliana was several feet ahead of them, softly singing a song.

“Neria,” he whispered urgently.

She raised a single eyebrow.

“What made you agree to have her join us? I mean she seems a great archer and stuff, but that thing about the dream, and the Maker talking to her…”

“I thought you seemed to rather like her,” she smiled, the dimple in her cheek making an appearance.

“Well, she's…ahem…attractive and all, but you know, kind of…,” his voice trailed off.

“Off her rocker?”

Alistair nodded.

“And who isn't? You and I – we started out to save Ferelden from the darkspawn and overthrow Loghain with the help of no one but a snarky hedge witch and a mabari hound. We're already crazy, Alistair,” she laughed. “If we had any sense – if we were RATIONAL about it, we would be making a beeline for Orlais, or the Anderfels, anywhere but here. But we aren't, because we…we have honour and want to do our duty as Grey Wardens. Now that's crazy. And Morrigan – she's so beautiful and intelligent and she knows more spells than I ever learned and she's with us too, because her mother, who is DEFINITELY insane, has asked her to! Alistair, if Leliana thinks the Maker talks to her, that's probably the most sane reason any of us in this little group of ours has to be fighting the Darkspawn. Except maybe Biscuit. He's with us because he expects we'll feed him!”

She was still laughing – or sobbing, he couldn't tell which – as she walked away from him and caught up with Leliana.

Then she stopped, turned around, and said, “Besides, did you see how Biscuit likes her? She's got to be all right, Alistair.”

“Of course I'm all right,” said Leliana, not missing a beat in her song.

Alistair shrugged and followed. They were heading towards the outskirts of the village now, where a few Chasind refugees appeared to be engaged in a scuffle with a farmer.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Scouting the outskirts,” Neria replied. “Anything's better than being in here with the rest of the refugees.”

They were just outside the village now. It was still light enough for Alistair to distinguish a large Windmill in the distance. About halfway there was a large object that he could not quite make out. It looked like an obscenely big birdcage.

“If you’re scouting for a place to set up camp?” said Leliana. “We don’t have a chance.”

“Why? It can't be worse than it is inside,” pointed out Neria. “And don't worry about the cold, I'm very good with fire.”

“No, no, it is not the cold,” Leliana said - ignoring Alistair who had just said “Did the Maker object” – “It's the bandits. The fields are awash with them!”

“Fade take it! More bandits!” said Neria.

“Why do you think the refugees remain holed up in this village?” pointed out Leliana. “They cannot go South where the horde is, and they cannot go North unless a large caravan is being outfitted for fear of bandits. There are at least four large groups between the village and the Imperial Highway.”

They were still walking. As the cage came closer, Alistair realised that it was no birdcage, but rather a prison for humans – and had an occupant. A very large occupant.

“That…actually explains a lot,” Neria was saying. “That farmer I spoke to said as much. I think our course is clear, then. We will need to deal with those bandits, won't we?”

“Yes,” said Leliana eagerly. “We would be helping the villagers and saving them from the darkspawn! There are many bandits, but all of us together, we can take the bandits on, can't we?”

“We will have to try,” said Neria, biting her lip. “We will have to. I suppose that's also what Grey Wardens do.”

“Look, that's all very fine,” Alistair's voice broke in, “But we should do that by daylight. For now, we had best get back to the Village and away from the extremely scary thing in the cage.”

“What scary…” said Neria, and then her eyes fell in with Alistair's and upon the cage.

In the case was a man – or something like a man – broad shouldered and muscled, at least eight feet tall. His skin was a deep brown and on his head was white hair arranged in meticulous rows. The face was intelligent but a touch bestial, with small yellow eyes focussed on Leliana and a large mouth, teeth bared. He wore dressed in rags, rags that were disintegrating. And yet, scary as he was, Neria could not resist looking at his powerful arms and legs and feeling a degree of admiration.

“The Qunari! It's still alive!” exclaimed Leliana.

Qunari. So that was what he was. She had heard about them, of course, read about them in her studies at the Tower. Massive, powerful creatures, who had invaded Thedas twice and only been defeated by the union of all the nations in the continent – and that too, barely. Moreover, it was the Qunari who effectively ruled most of her native Rivain. She must have seen some as a child, she told herself, but this was the first she was seeing as an adult. She knew that many elves and humans of Rivain had chosen to follow the Qun religion too. Qunari in Ferelden, however, tended to be rare, and only the occasional exile from the native land could be found, it was said, plying a mercenary’s trade.

But there was something else that bothered her about this creature.

“Where are the horns?” she asked.

He turned his head towards her. She wasn't sure if she caught a spark of surprise or anger in his eyes. Opinion was divided on the nature of the Qunari. Some writers dismissed them as slavish followers of a dangerous orthodoxy, while others wrote of their intelligence and sense of justice. Opinion was unanimous on their extraordinary prowess in battle, however.

“Some of us do not have them,” the Qunari said, in a low gravelly voice.

“He killed eight members of a family on a farmhold,” said Leliana, speaking rapidly. “It was the Revered Mother's decision to leave him alive in a cage out here. She said it was the Maker's choice whether he should die. That was…twenty days ago.”

“Nineteen,” the Qunari corrected.

“You have been here nineteen days?” Neria gasped.

“I am in my own purgatory. I hope it will be over soon,” he replied.

“Why did you kill eight…whatever it was?” asked Alistair.

The Qunari refused to answer; instead directing his gaze at Neria again.

“Did you say you were Grey Wardens?”

“Alistair here is, and I am,” Neria responded.

“I had heard that the Grey Wardens were peerless warriors,” said the Qunari. “It appears not all rumours are true.”

“What the…I’ll show you who’s a peerless warrior…” began Neria, pulling forth her staff, but Alistair held her hand.

“It’s not worth it, he’s a dead man already,” he muttered.

“Less dead and more left to die like a dog,” replied Neria, but put the staff away.

“He does not deserve to die like this,” said Leliana. “Even for what he did. To die of starvation in a cage like an animal…”

“Would you like me to give you a quick death?” Neria asked.

“That would not be an expiation for what I have done,” came the response. “I do not deserve a quick death.”

“What did he do, again?” said Neria. “Slaughter an entire family?”

“Yes, but…when it was over, he simply waited there to be taken in…I think he regrets his actions – doesn’t he?” said Leliana.

“I committed an act of violence which was unnecessary and worthy of punishment,” the Qunari said, in a monotone.

“Neria, why don't we recruit him as well?” asked Leliana. “We know the Qunari are mighty warriors. Surely his strength would be of use in our mission.”

“You just said he was a mass murderer!” said Alistair.

“And he wants to suffer for it. Can't you see, this man regrets what he did! The Maker has kept him alive far longer than anyone should remain so – surely you can see it is fortuitous, this, your meeting him.”

“Fighting darkspawn is as likely to kill him as staying here,” admitted Neria. “Even you can’t deny that, Alistair.”

“Is the craziness contagious? What’s wrong with you?”

“And we are not farmhands and children. Even if he IS dangerous, I think we can handle him,” went on Neria.

The Qunari's mouth twisted slightly at that, as though he did not believe that to be the case.

“In following you, it is indeed possible that I may find my redemption,” he said. “As Grey Wardens, you will fight against the Darkspawn threat. That is an objective worthy of Sten of the Beresaad. But the woman – the old woman – she confined me here. I will not leave without her will.”

“He means the Revered Mother,” explained Leliana.

“Strange scruple for a creature who murdered a family to have,” said Alistair.

Neria shook her head.

“It says something about him, Alistair. He does have scruples. Leliana, do you think the Revered Mother would release this…Sten…if we requested her?”

“She would if I requested her,” said Leliana.

“Then you should. Alistair, go with her, would you?” she dropped her voice as the redhead walked away and added, “Thirty silver. She might be a Revered Whatever, but she will expect a bribe.”

“A 'small donation' she will call it, I know,” Alistair whispered back. “But will you be safe out here?”

“If I see bandits, I'll throw a fireball and run,” she assured him. “Our friend here can burn in turn.”

Once Alistair was out of sight, she turned her attention back to the creature.

“So would you care to tell me why you're in there now?”


“I could just leave you in there,” she pointed out.

“You would not be wrong to make that choice.”

“But I won’t. If she releases you, you will be marching under me. I lead this group. You should answer my questions!”


She let it hang heavy for a while. Minutes passed, and the shadows grew longer. Tired of standing, Neria sat on the hard ground. It hurt. She tried to change her sitting position. It still hurt. It was getting dark now. Already all she could see of the Qunari was his outline and his eyes.

“Does the Darkness make you uncomfortable, Elf?” it asked.

Neria laughed.

“No, Sten. It does not. The hard ground makes me uncomfortable.”

A scoffing sound from the cage.

“Don't the Qunari fear magic?” she asked.

“We abhor magic. We do not fear it.”

“You don't have magic, do you, just like the dwarves?”

“We do,” came the response.

“There are no records of Qunari magicians fighting humans.”


“You don't talk much do you?”


“Do you groan?”


“Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall.”


“A somewhat chatty brick wall.”


“And that jibe about ‘peerless warriors’…I’ll make you eat your words, you know.”

“How does one eat words? You elves are strange creatures.”

Neria sighed. In the distance, she could see Alistair and Leliana walking towards them. The Lay Sister had changed into some sort of armour, as far as she could tell.

“Why have you agreed to join us, Sten? Clearly it is not only to be free.”

“How do you know it is not?”

“Because the lock is rusted,” Neria shrugged. “You could have broken it with your hands at any time, at least before you were starved to this condition. You chose to be confined.”

“And now I choose otherwise. Do you always talk this much?”

 “I am trying to understand you, that's all.”

“You are not capable,” he replied, just as Leliana and Alistair came up to her. Leliana had indeed changed into leather armour, studded with iron.

“The key,” said Leliana, holding it out. “The Revered Mother agreed to release him to you on your responsibility as a Grey Warden. I'm sorry we are a little delayed – I had my old armour lying in the Chantry storehouse, so I…”

“That's fine,” said Neria curtly, taking the key and putting it in the lock. It was rusted, as she had observed, but the lock did come off with a little jiggling. The Qunari stepped out of the cage unhurriedly.

“It will be night soon,” said Alistair. “And we still haven’t settled what to do about making a camp for the night.”

“Leliana, you can find us a bed in the Chantry, can't you?”

“I rather think I exhausted my stock of goodwill with the Revered Mother by insisting on Sten’s release,” murmured Leliana. “I mean, she’d let me stay, but I don’t know as I can get the same favour for others.”

“She was sort of biased against our big, silent friend,” said Alistair, trying to avoid Sten's baleful gaze. “Not happy about us wanting him to be let go, but…I sort of gave her the impression we’d send him off to wade into crowds of hurlocks.”

“Maybe we will, at that,” said Neria.

“Which still doesn’t resolve what we do for the night,” pointed out Alistair.

“Maybe we can get a farmer to take us in,” said Neria. “Some of them must have their houses just inside the village and might have an empty loft.”

“Except Farmer Merker, the others have already let out their houses,” said Leliana. “And he’s a right pain in the wrong places.”

“Well then,” said Neria. “We are getting this Farmer Merker to take us in,” she said.

“There’s a slight problem there,” said Leliana. “He really is a pain, and he hates elves…a bit racist, you know.”

“The one who hates Elves?” asked Alistair. “Wouldn’t happen to be standing just opposite the first refugee camp as you enter the village from the Wilds, would it?”
“What did he look like?”

“Fair hair, about forty, nose like a turnip,” said Neria.

“That's Farmer Merker all right. Wouldn’t give you a room for any amount of money.”

Neria pursed her lips.

“He’s giving us a room.”

“I’d say that’s highly unlikely,” said Alistair.

“Leliana, where will I find him now? Still glowering at the refugees?” asked Neria, ignoring him.

 “You'll find him swilling drink at the Tavern now,” said Leliana.

“Very well. Leliana, when you put on that armour, what did you do with your Chantry robe?”

“It’s…back at the Chantry, with the rest of my things.”

“You don't need it now, do you?”

“I…suppose not,” said Leliana.

“Then go and fetch it, would you?”


“Yes. Go.”

“Alistair, there was a merchant near the Chantry,” she said, once Leliana had left. “Take Sten with you and buy him some armour and weapons. And a pair of scissors, if you can get one.”

“What are you up to, Neria?” asked Alistair.

“You'll see,” she replied.

The merchant near the Chantry turned out to be a profiteer who had been charging the villagers exorbitant prices for goods he had bought off them before they had realised the darkspawn threat was real. Alistair had managed to persuade him – by hinting that he either lowered his prices or Alistair would lower his height by the length of his head – to change his pricing policy and then bought some plate armour that managed, with some hammering, to fit Sten reasonably well. He found a pair of scissors as well, for which the merchant was content to charge him nothing provided Alistair just left him alone.

He returned to find Neria standing where he had left her, leaning against a wooden fence. Leliana was standing next to her, and the two seemed to be having a very friendly conversation.

“There you are,” she said, as he approached. She took the scissors from him and they began to walk towards the Tavern. Just outside, she stopped.

“You three can wait for me in the tavern. I think there’s a little space behind the tent there where I can work in peace.”


Inside, Alistair’s eyes sought out, and quickly found, the farmer who Neria had spoken to earlier, Merker or whatever his name was, talking loudly as he drank his ale. There was a small group of men around him, listening to him babble about how the ‘authorities’ would soon take care of the ‘stupid darkspawn’ and how the whole problem was being exaggerated to force people to take in elves and Chasind and such vermin.

He tried not to listen and sat with Leliana at a table that someone offered her. Sten stood in the shadow, wearing a hooded robe so as not to be easily recognised. The Orlesian’s voice soon seemed to take him away to another place, as she told stories about the Wilds and about Orlais and even one or two about the Wardens.

“How do you know so many stories?” he wondered. “Not that I’m complaining, of course.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “I was not always a Chantry sister, you know, I was a bard, in fact.”

The moment she said, she seemed to bite her tongue and looked down at her mug, a little confused, and then smiled again and drank.

“A Bard!” Alistair raised his eyebrows. And well he might. Bards, he knew, were not just travelling minstrels. Or rather, they were, when they were from Ferelden, the Anderfels or anywhere else in Thedas. But when they were from Orlais, they were members of one of the most elite factions on the continent. Orlesian bards were trained spies and even assassins.

“Did I say a bard?” she simpered. “I was exaggerating, of course, I mean I learned a lot of stories from a bard. I was a lady’s maid and she often entertained, you know.”

Alistair was not quite sure what to believe, but his doubts would have to be laid aside. Indeed, nearly everything on his mind had to be laid aside, for Neria had just arrived.

 As she came into view, standing in the door, a hand resting on the doorframe, the whole room seemed to catch its breath, and Alistair was no exception. Only Sten seemed unaffected, unless a slight flicker of his right eyelid was anything to go on.
Gone was Flemeth's ugly grey smock. Gone was its shapeless iniquity on her beauty. In its place was what had once been Leliana's Chantry Robe. Only it was barely recognisable even as that any more.

The sleeves were gone. So were the shoulders. And most of the front and back. All that was left were two broad strips that covered Neria’s nipples and a very little of her breasts, crossing above her navel before dissolving into a belt. Shoulders, neck, side, back, stomach – all of it was on display, and this being Neria, was very worthy of display.

She had burned off most of the lower half of the robe, leaving it ending a foot above her knee, showing off her slim, muscled legs. Neria's hair was tied up in a high ponytail, with little strands caressing her neck. Her staff was strapped into its sling at her waist, and her left hand was placed provocatively on her waist.

Every eye was upon her, every eye was open wide.

But she had eyes only for one man. In the silence,  her wooden sandals clattered loudly upon the floor. Leliana, Alistiar noticed, looked part-apprehensive and part-admiring.

Neria stopped in front of Farmer Merker. He was not a tall man, sitting on that chair, his head was about level with her belly-button. Alistair got the impression he was not breathing.

Without a word, she placed her foot on his breeches, a hand on his cheek and locked her eyes with his.

“Farmer Merker,” she said, after holding the pose for several moments. “I think you can find a room for my companions and me for tonight.”

Farmer Marker gibbered. Alistair thought he caught the word 'wife'. He looked like a man struggling with his better self. Neria's fingers were tracing circles on his neck. It was an unequal struggle.


That night, Morrigan slept on a comfortable bed, the potions given to her to alleviate her pain ensuring she had a dreamless sleep.

Biscuit slept with his head on a Chantry Brother's foot. The Brother had a terrible night of it, with the weight on his limb, but Biscuit was remarkably comfortable.

Leliana slept soundly in Farmer Merker's spare room, quite oblivious to the sobbing of Farmer Merker's wife next to her.

Alistair slept, after a long time, on a bed. It was in the Farmer's barn, but he had a warm blanket over him. There was a smell of horses lingering in the air, but he found it quite pleasant.

Sten slept on Alistair’s right, and woke occasionally when Alistair snored, but nothing else marred his peaceful slumber.

Neria slept, naked as she always preferred it, in the comfort of a warm cotton-stuffed mattress bed.

Twice during the night, she heard Farmer Merker whimpering as he pleasured himself looking at her, but she didn't bother to open her eyes. She knew what a man helpless with desire looked like. The comfort of a bed she had almost forgotten.