CHAPTER FOUR - GLIMPSES OF THE PAST
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
CHAPTER EIGHT - MISSION'S END
CHAPER NINE - KINGS, DOGS AND DECISIONS
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
CHAPTER EIGHT - MISSION'S END
CHAPER NINE - KINGS, DOGS AND DECISIONS
Chapter Ten: In the Chapel
Statues of the prophet Andraste and her followers, mostly broken, run-down, missing arms or a head. A long table. A goblet nearly the size of Neria’s head. A frosty chill in the air. Duncan, looking as alert as ever and dressed just as immaculately in his armour and with the two daggers at his back. Alistair, looking as though he would have liked another hour of sleep, but present nonetheless. Daveth and Jory, eager-eyed, even impatient for what was to come next.
These were the things Neria saw as she climbed the stairs leading to the chapel ruins.
“We Grey Wardens pay a heavy price to become what we are,” Duncan was saying. “Fate may decree that you pay your price now, rather than later.”
Her appearance made him look – made them all look. She wore a simple long green and white robe that was too large for her – one of Wynne’s, to whom she had paid a visit for the birth-control potion before coming there.
“I did not expect you,” said Duncan. “The King made it quite clear that…”
“And I made it quite clear to the King that I have come too far now not to see this through. My path leads me here,” she said, and then turned her gaze to Alistair. “That is my choice. I choose to be a Warden, if fate so wills it.”
“Very well, then. Alistair, would you step this way please?”
The two Wardens stepped behind the long table, and Neria joined her fellow-recruits, standing near a statue of the prophet, just out of earshot from the other two.
“The more I hear about this ritual, the less I like it,” Jory was muttering.
“Are you blubbering again?” snapped Daveth.
“Why all these damned tests? Have I not earned my place?” asked Jory, frowning.
“Maybe it’s tradition,” growled Daveth. “Maybe they’re just trying to annoy you.”
“Calm down,” said Neria, wondering what had passed between these two men over the course of the night that led them to be at each other’s throat like this. Something to do with her and their shameful act in the Wilds, perhaps? Well, that was their problem. She bore no regrets.
“I only know that my wife is in Highever with a child on the way,” said Jory, “if they had warned me…it was so…it just does not seem fair.”
“They didn’t warn you about what exactly? That I’d be here? That you wouldn’t know better than to show your base desires and bigotry to me? Or it is just that the thoughts of glory were more seductive than the real prospect of facing danger in the service of humanity?” asked Neria, her tone cool and collected.
“And would you have come if they had warned you?” asked Daveth. “Maybe that’s why they don’t – the Wardens do what they must!”
“Right. Including sacrificing us?” the big coward said, ignoring Neria’s jibes.
“I’d sacrifice a lot more if I knew it would end the Blight,” said Daveth.
“He makes a good point,” said Neria, softly. “Come, whatever has gone before, let us face this trial, at least, in the right spirit.”
“I’ve just never faced a foe I could not engage with my blade before,” muttered Jory.
“At last, we come to the Joining,” Duncan’s voice broke in upon them. He walked towards them and beckoned them closer to the table. “The Grey Wardens were formed during the first Blight, when humanity stood on the verge of annihilation. The taint of the ‘spawn had made millions into mindless ghouls and devastated life and livelihood. No hope remained as dwarf and elf, noble and peasant, master and slave, warrior and mage, all succumbed to its power. So it was that the first Grey Wardens drank of darkspawn blood and mastered the taint.”
“We…we’re going to drink the blood of those…those creatures?” mumbled Jory.
“Yes, Jory,” Duncan strode up to where Jory stood. “As the first Grey Wardens did before us, as we did before you. This is the source of our power and our victory.”
“Those who survive the joining become immune to the taint,” added Alistair. “We can sense it in the darkspawn and use it to slay the Archedemon.”
“Those who survive?” Neria asked. She had known it, somehow, somewhere, of course.
“Not all who drink the blood will survive, and those who do are forever changed,” said Duncan. This is why the Joining is a secret. It is the price we pay.”
“Well, I survived a Harrowing,” muttered Neria.
“We speak only a few words prior to the Joining,” the Commander went on. “But these words have been said since the first. Alistair, would you wish to say them?”
The fair-haired former Templar bowed his head, as though in prayer to the Maker, and began to speak in a slow, clear voice.
“Join us, brothers and sisters,” he intoned. “Join us, in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us, as we carry out the duty which cannot be forsworn. And should you perish,”- Neria could not help but notice that Jory stole a glance at the large goblet – “know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten…and that one day, we shall join you.”
Neria shivered, a sensation that had nothing to do with the cold. She was about to step up, eager to get it over with, yes, but wishing just as much to not have to see with her own eyes what happened to the others.
But Duncan had other plans.
“Daveth, step forward,” he said.
The cut-purse held out his hands and the goblet was placed in them. He looked at the murky draught, dark and still, for a moment and then, closing his eyes, put the chalice to his lips and took a sip, then a little more.
Duncan took the goblet from his hands as Daveth stepped back. Neria could see the beginnings of a smile touch upon his lips and she too was about to smile in turn, when all of a sudden he tottered where he stood. Clutching his head, Daveth reeled, and Neria thought she saw his eyes turn milky white, as though a film had formed over them, and then with a scream, he collapsed.
“Maker’s breath!” exclaimed Jory, behind her, but Neria hardly noticed him. Daveth was writhing, groaning, the very sound choking in his throat.
“I am sorry, Daveth,” said Duncan.
The writhing stopped. Daveth was still. Alistair bent and touched his wrist, and shook his head. Neria felt a lump in her throat, but she said nothing. With a shudder, she blew on her hands, not so much to make them warm as to assure herself that she was alive.
“Step forward, Jory,” came Duncan’s voice. Neria tore her eyes away from Daveth’s prone form to look at Jory step backwards for every step Duncan took towards him.
“But I have a wife, a child…,” said Jory, drawing his sword.
What is the fool thinking, thought Neria. Does he plan to kill Duncan – and Alistair too?
“Had I known,” the Knight moaned, “had I only known…”
“There is no turning back,” said Duncan, calmly, but he placed the goblet on the table.
“No!” said Jory, waving the sword in Duncan’s face. “You ask too much, there is no glory in this.”
Neria reached out and touched Alistair’s arm, holding it, for support, for comfort. Jory took a swing towards Duncan, who swerved easily out of the way. Jory’s eyes were haunted, fearful, and guilty, and in that moment, she knew he was a dead man. Duncan drew his weapon, a dagger barely a third the length of Jory’s broadsword.
Jory’s blade, that had so often found its mark among the darkspawn, shearing armour and cutting flesh, severing limbs and piercing bodies, flailed against empty air.
As smoothly as cutting a cake, Duncan’s knife locked against Jory’s sword and swung it around, making it twist in the Knight’s hand. Then, quick as a flash, the men were closeted as though in an embrace, and the dagger was embedded in Jory’s ribs.
“I am sorry,” said Duncan, as he pulled out his blade and let Jory’s corpse fall to the ground. “I am sorry.”
Neria shook, watching the blood ooze from Jory’s wounds, forming a pool on the stone floor of the chapel. On the statue of Andraste, in the aspect of the Mother, a spatter of blood had fallen on the white stone surface of the Prophet’s robe. With a scream, she reached for Alistair, and he held her shoulder.
“But the joining is not yet complete,” she could hear Duncan’s voice, and it came as though from a distance, somewhere far away. “You are called upon to submit yourself to the taint for the greater good.”
He held out the goblet, and Neria took it, stepping away from Alistair.
Barely thinking, not daring to think, not wanting to think, she put it to her lips. Bitter it was, and it made her tongue smart; her head seemed to catch fire, and she tottered, reeled, staggered onto her knees. She saw a white light before her eyes, and – how was it she could still hear – Duncan said, “From this moment on, you are a Grey Warden.”
She lost her balance completely now, and her hands touched the floor, but still the white light as all she could see – and then…and then, she saw it.
A neck as tall as the Circle Tower, scales black and red forming wings broader than the courtyard of Ostagar and teeth as big as Neria herself, it was a dragon, and it seemed – it seemed to roar right in her face.
“It is done,” she could hear Alistair’s voice. “You are a Grey Warden.”
Her eyes closed. Now, there was only darkness.
“Your majesty?” she whimpered, before passing out again.
She saw his eyes again when consciousness stirred within her in the afternoon, but it was only for a few moments. When Neria finally came out of her stupor, it was Alistair and Duncan who were leaning over her.
“I'm happy you made it,” Alistair’s voice grated against her ears, but she was not unhappy to hear it all the same.
Senses returned slowly. Then memories. And then she recoiled from them, tearing her robe as her nails dug into it.
“You killed...you killed Jory!” she exclaimed.
“His life was forfeit when he drew the sword, Neria,” said Duncan gently.
Alistair helped her to her feet. She staggered as the images formed in her mind. Daveth convulsing as he died, Jory shouting, refusing to drink the foul potion of darkspawn blood mixed with who-knew-what-else, drawing his mighty broadsword, and dispatched in a matter of seconds by Duncan.
Alistair pressed her staff into her hands. She held on, leaned her weight on it. As always, the wood was comforting. Duncan had left, she could see him trailing off into the distance.
“Are you all right?” Alistair asked.
“The screaming,” she said, closing her eyes. “What was the screaming?”
“I'll tell you about it, you need to rest now,” he said, gently. “Come now, I shall take you to the Warden’s tent. You were asleep on that stone floor for an hour.”
She was barely at the foot of the steps when she saw him coming, running towards her, golden armour and golden hair.
“Darling! They just told me! They said the others died and you had fallen into a stupor. Are you all right? Tell me you are all right…”
“I'm a Grey Warden,” she said, before she passed out again in his arms.
She rested for most of that day and the next. Cailan was with her most of the time. Very solicitous he was, too. Duncan visited once. Alistair a couple of times. Once a massive mabari hound – the one she had helped feed the medicine to, she recalled – woke her up by licking her arm. The King's guardsmen had been changed, the two who had serviced her the night before were off on duty in the Tower of Ishal, Cailan told her. He himself had been unremitting in his attentions, and for a change, Neria was not demanding more than his gentlest caresses.
Once, she almost set the bed on fire during a particularly vivid dream, but was able to put it out with an ice spell. Since the stupor had worn off, she was feeling stronger, as if something in the ritual had enhanced her magic as well. She went to the backside of Cailan's tent and experimented with the water in his bathtub. She warmed it. She cooled it. She took it to boiling and then froze it. In the end the tub cracked and she had to apologise very profusely to the elf woman who came running to scold her for that piece of business.
By evening she was up and about, wandering the camp. The mabari was nipping at her fingers behind her. She met Wynne again, who congratulated her quite sincerely. Then she spent some time with the Ash Warriors and their mabaris, letting her own play 'fetch' with them – she had started calling him “Biscuit” and assumed he belonged to her, though the kennel-master said he wouldn't properly be hers until they had fought together. Well, that would be interesting indeed. A trained mabari hound was a fearsome fighter, easily equal to a human warrior, and the best of them were beasts who struck terror into their opponent’s hearts.
The other Grey Wardens avoided her, she noticed. Occasionally she heard a whisper of “King's mistress”, “elf whore” and “harlot”. She paid no attention.
Alistair caught up with her as she strolled back to the King's tent.
“I wanted to ask how you're feeling now,” he said.
“I'm fine, Alistair. I've been fine since I awoke,” she replied, pushing aside the flaps and entering the tent.
“You have been subdued,” he pointed out.
She sat on a chair and gave a sardonic laugh.
“Just as you have been a picture of exuberance. Tell me, Templar, when you survived your joining, only one of you died, am I right? How did you feel? Happy? Elated? Proud?”
“I'm not a Templar,” Alistair cut in. “And – no, I felt sorry for her, the one who died. Her name was Byrna, she was a Knight from the bannorn.”
“And Daveth was a cutpurse from Denerim and Jory a Knight from Redcliffe. They were our companions, Alistair, and even if it was only that meaningless, sordid thing, they were my lovers. I'm...sorry for them, I'm a little angry too. You never told us the price, neither you nor Duncan.”
“If we told you the price, would you join?” said Alistair, sitting on a chair opposite her.
“Daveth and I never had a choice, Alistair. It was the Wardens or the gallows for him, it was this or being made Tranquil for me. But Jory did. And I suppose you did too, and...”
“It's easy to think we have a choice, Neria. Jory had a choice to drink from the chalice or draw a sword.”
She shook her head.
“Well, they weren't the first lovers I've had that died. There was a boy from Gwaren, failed his Harrowing. Killed two Templars.”
“Which one of these was...,” began Alistair, before cutting himself off.
“No, not all three,” Neria glowered at him. “Only the mage.”
They sat in silence for a while.
“You know what I hate, Alistair?” she said abruptly. “It's you thinking I don't care. You think that I am some sort of callous succubus who is only interesting in using men, that it would not have affected me to see Daveth and Jory die before my eyes. Anyone else and you would have attributed it to grief. But no, Neria is not allowed that privilege, is she?”
“Ah, why is everything so difficult with you?” said Alistair, shaking his head. “You're reading too much into things. I was merely worried. But then you don't seem to understand that a person can see you as something other than an object of desire or hate. The world is not divided only into those who hate you and those who desire you.”
She looked away from him, refusing to answer.
At night, Cailan came to her again, and this time she was ready for more than a caress. With violent passion she took him, and did not let him rest until she had stretched his strength as far as it could go.
She let him lie, pulled on her tiny violet robe and stepped out of the tent. Few people stirred other than the sentries near the bridge. Apart from Cailan’s personal guard and a few of the nobles, she had come to realise, few people realised that she was a Warden; most seemed happy to assume she was a prostitute or at best, one of the mages, for she did not wear the Warden colours of blue and grey and usually dressed more sluttily than the actual whores. She did not mind much, they would know better when she fought, perhaps, or not even then. It was not important, or at least so she tried to tell herself. As the King’s woman, whether whore or not, she was mostly spared the harrying that attended the other camp followers, however, and that was something.
She found her feet had led her to the ruined chapel again. Away from the bulk of the camp, with no braziers or torches to provide light, she found the statues of Andraste imposing, even a little frightening, tall stone women looking down upon her. She thought of what she knew about the Prophet, about her birth in a Almarri tribe, her marriage and subsequent enslavement, her leading the slave rebellion against the Tevinter Imperium. The Elves had fought with her, it was said, under their leader Shartan, another former slave, and together they had nearly brought the greatest Empire in the history of the world almost to its knees.
It was her faith that had united them all – elves, the tribes and the slaves. Where the world believed in the Old Gods, who took the aspect of dragons, angry and fearsome, she spoke of a benign deity known as the Maker. The Old Gods were false, she said, deceptions wrought to inveigle humanity away from the true path, and humanity had indeed been deceived. The Maker had turned his face away from his own creation, disappointed at their heresy, but in Andraste he saw a true faithful, and would stand with her and it was he, she said, who gave strength to her voice and power to her arm and it was he who truly led that vast army of men and women with disparate interests until they were knocking at the very gates of Minrothaus, the Capital of the Imperium.
But it was a man who betrayed Andraste, her own husband, who allowed her to be captured and slain by the Imperium, but the Maker works in mysterious ways, and from her sacrifice was born her religion, the followers of Andraste, who would go on to become the dominant religion of the whole of Thedas.
Nine hundred years later, the shadow of Andraste loomed large over Thedas, just as the moonlight cast a long shadow of the statues across the stone floor. In Orlais, the Andrastian religion had its Grand Cathedral, in every capital city its satellite Cathedrals and in virtually every town and village a Chantry.
Oh, and in every country a Circle of Magi.
The Tevinter Imperium against which Andraste had led her people in the Ancient Age had been ruled by powerful mages, indeed the very foundation of the Imperium was magic. Magisters, they were called, the most powerful of the mages of Tevinter and the ones who held its true political power. They sacrificed to the Old Gods and shed blood in their glory. When Andraste died, her husband repented his betrayal and fought with renewed vigour as the military commander of the rebellion. Minrothaus was too powerful to fall, but nearly all the rest of the Thedas was freed, from the Anderfels to Ferlden itself. Over two hundred years, the Cult of Andraste grew and grew, until Kordillius Drakon ascended the throne at Val Royeaux, declared himself an Emperor and made the tenets of Andraste the official religion of his Empire. The Divine grace of the Maker would return to the world, it was said, when all of Thedas turned towards him and accepted him as the true God. But that was not their only tenet.
Magic had contended against Andraste, mages had killed her, and thus magic was evil. It was a force of corruption in the world, and needed to be curbed, controlled, made to submit.
So, in every country, there was a Circle of Magi.
Where mages could be corralled and watched over by those trained in depleting their magical energies and inured to the prospect of killing anyone who was a mage. Where mages were taken from family and forced to learn Chantry dogma alongside their magical skills. But mages are people, and people will make the best of a situation and in the Circles, the mages studied and learned and tried, for the most part, to teach. In closed cloisters and stuffy rooms, in locked chambers and musty libraries they honed their skills, hoping to one day pass a Harrowing and then be granted permission to go out in the world, undertake some useful duty for the Chantry or for a lord or King.
Of course, if they did not return to the Circle within the stipulated time, there was always the punishment to follow.
For mages, you see, had to be bound to the Circle of Magi.
“Contemplating the image of the Prophetess?”
She had been sitting, cross-legged, on the floor, her back leaning against a railing. She turned to look at the speaker, though she knew who it was. Duncan’s voice was unmistakable.
“Thinking about what it means to be a mage.”
“Magic exists to serve man and never to rule over him,” Duncan quoted from the Chant of Light.
“And how do we serve man by being locked up in towers and holds?” wondered Neria.
“A question to which you will have many answers, depending on whom you put it to,” said Duncan.
“Tell me, Duncan, the Grey Wardens were formed before Andraste’s time, am I right?”
“Yes,” he said.
“But they joined the Chantry when Drakon established his empire.”
“The Grey Wardens accepted Drakon’s patronage, but we have always been a secular force – our membership, as you may have noticed, includes dwarves and even some elves from the Dales.”
“Because we do what we must to defeat the Blight, and everything else is secondary?”
“The darkspawn do not distinguish Andrastean from heretic when they range across the lands, Neria.”
A few moments of silence followed, moments that became minutes, and suddenly Neria felt uncomfortable, sitting there. The aspect of Andraste the warrior, with a sword between her feet, was frightening. The aspect of Andraste the protector, holding a shield in her hand, no less so. Even the statue of Andraste the merciful brought with it no comfort.
“I should get some sleep,” said Neria, getting back to her feet.
“You should,” said Duncan. “Sleep well, too. The Darkspawn will be upon us ere sundown tomorrow.”
“Have they been spotted?” she asked, turning as she was about to descend the stairs.
“They have been sensed,” Duncan replied, without turning. “By tomorrow morning, they will be spotted.”
His eyes were fixed upon the statue of Andraste the Mother. Maybe he derived comfort from it, robed and unarmed, but this statue – she could see the stain of Jory's blood on it, even now, even in this light, a dark, ominous discolouration. As she watched, a cold wind swept across the courtyard. The statue’s head, already ravaged by the depredation of time and weather, tottered and fell, the sound of it crashing and rolling reverberating around the quietness of night.
It was the one that frightened her most of all.
[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.]