DRAGON AGE: THE CALLING (Chapter 1)
In the absence of light, shadows thrive.
--Canticle of Threnodies 8:21
Less than a year earlier, the only way Duncan would have seen the inside of a palace would have been at the sword-point of a prison guard. Perhaps not even then. In Orlais, lowly street thieves didn't receive the benefit of a judgment handed down personally by the local lord. There, the best one could hope for was a bored magistrate in a dingy courtroom as far away from the glittering estates of the aristocracy as they could manage.
But this wasn't Orlais, and he wasn't just a street thief any longer. He was inside the royal palace in Denerim, the capital city of Ferelden . . . and he was not particularly impressed.
The city was gripped in the winter winds that blew in from the south, and Duncan had never been so cold in his entire life. Everyone in Ferelden wrapped themselves up in thick leathers and furs, trudging heedlessly through the snowy streets, and yet no matter how much clothing he wore he could still feel the chill right down to his bones.
The palace was little better. He had hoped for some warmth here, at least. Perhaps a few mighty hearths with fires blazing, enough to keep the place toasty warm. But no, instead he was left sitting alone on a bench in a hall with frosty stone walls that loomed high overhead. There were probably pigeons nesting in the wooden rafters, judging by the filthy floors, and he saw little about in the way of ornamentation. These Fereldans liked their doors large, solid, and made of oak. They liked their wooden sculptures of dogs and their smelly beer and they even seemed to like their snow. Or at least that was what he had been able to tell in the day or so since he'd arrived.
What they didn't like were Orlesians. There had been only a handful of palace servants and functionaries that passed through the hall while he waited, and all of them had shot him glances that ranged from suspicion to outright hostility. Even the two elven maids that came through with shy eyes and nervous twitters had stared at Duncan as if he were surely about to run off with the silverware.
Still, it was possible that all the looks might have had nothing to do with the fact that he was from Orlais. He didn't look the part, after all. His swarthy skin and mop of dark hair marked him as Rivaini, for one. The black leather armor he wore was covered in straps and buckles, running all the way up his arms and legs in a manner far removed from the more practical local style. Not to mention the twin daggers on his belt that he didn't bother to hide. None of those things marked him as a reputable person, not by Fereldan standards.
Really, if anyone was staring at him it should have been for the grey tunic he wore, adorned with the symbol of a rearing griffon. In any other nation in Thedas that griffon alone would have drawn raised eyebrows and nervous glances . . . but not in Ferelden. Here it was all but unknown.
Duncan sighed listlessly. How much longer was he going to have to wait?
Eventually the great wooden door at the end of the hall swung open and admitted a female elf. She was petite even for her kind, almost waiflike, with short mousy brown hair and large expressive eyes. She looked annoyed, as well, which didn't surprise Duncan in the least. As a mage, she would have drawn more stares even than he. Not that she dressed much like a mage, eschewing their traditional robes for a hauberk of finely meshed chain and a long blue linen skirt, but she did carry her staff with her. It was polished white, with a silvery ball clasped in a claw at its end that gave off a constant and diffuse flow of magical power. She brought it everywhere.
The elf strode across the hall toward him, her boots clicking on the stone floor loud enough to echo. Her annoyed expression gave way to amusement as she reached him.
"Still here, I see," she chuckled.
"Genevieve would cut off my feet if I went anywhere."
"Ah, poor Duncan."
"Shut up, Fiona," he snorted. His rejoinder lacked heat, however. He knew the elf probably did have some sympathy for him . . . well, a little, perhaps. Maybe a smidgen. There simply wasn't anything she could do to help him. He sighed and glanced up at her. "Did you see the Commander?"
Fiona nodded soberly toward the door behind her. "She's still negotiating with the captain of the city watch, thanks to you."
"Negotiating? She does that?"
"Well, he's negotiating. She's staring him down and not budging an inch, of course." Fiona regarded him with a raised eyebrow. "You're rather lucky, all things considered, you know."
"Yes, lucky," he sighed, sinking dejectedly back down onto his bench.
They waited for several minutes, the mage leaning on her white staff next to him, until finally the sound of voices approached from beyond the doors. They slammed open and two people entered. The first was a white-haired woman, a warrior in formidable-looking plate armor that covered her entire body. Her face was sharp and worn with many years of command, and she strode with the powerful confidence of one who expected no impertinence and usually found none.
The second was a dark-haired man in the resplendent yellow robes marking him as First Enchanter Remille of the Circle of Magi, the ranking mage in Ferelden. It was perhaps odd, then, that his pointed beard and the waxed curls of his mustache marked him as an Orlesian. The sort of man, Duncan assumed, that believed he could fare far better away from the Empire, even if it meant assuming a position of authority in a backwater nation that had thrown off Orlesian rule only eight years ago. At least in this case, his belief seemed to be correct.
The mage simpered after the warrior, and she did her best to ignore him. "Lady Genevieve"--he wrung his hands nervously-- "are you certain--"
She paused, spinning about to glare at him. "You may call me Genevieve," she snapped. "Or Commander. Nothing else."
"My apologies, Commander," he quickly assured her. "Are you certain that was necessary? Your order does not wish to antagonize King Maric, after all. . . ."
"We have already antagonized King Maric." Genevieve shot a withering glance in Duncan's direction, and he did his best to shrivel up out of sight behind Fiona. "And our order will bow to no authority, especially not some foolish watch captain who believes he possesses more power than he does." She cut off further protest by marching over to where Duncan sat.
He avoided her glower. "I trust you are satisfied?" she demanded.
"Maybe if I'd gotten away with it."
"Don't be a child." Genevieve gestured sharply for him to rise and he reluctantly did so. "We did not come to Ferelden to engage in nonsense, as you are well aware. You are no longer the boy I found in Val Royeaux. Remember that." She took his chin in her gauntleted hand and raised his head until she was looking him in the eye. He saw little more in her expression than checked rage layered in disappointment, and his face burned in embarrassment.
"I hear you," he said glumly.
"Good." She let him go and turned back to the hovering First Enchanter. "I trust the King is ready to see us, then? We won't have to come back?"
"No, he'll see you. Come."
The mage led the three of them down a long and dark hallway. If anything, it was even colder here than elsewhere, wind whistling through cracks in the walls. Duncan was certain he could spot frost, and his breath came out in white plumes. Just brilliant, he groused to himself. We came here to freeze to death, apparently.
They reached a large antechamber, a place filled with a scattering of dusty chairs that he imagined might at other times hold whatever nobles awaited their audience. Four others rose and stood at attention as they entered: three men and a dwarven woman, all in the same grey tunics as Duncan. Two of the men were tall warriors dressed in the same bulky plate armor as Genevieve, while the third was a hooded archer dressed in leathers. The dwarf wore a simple robe underneath her tunic, though naturally she was no mage.
The First Enchanter barely paused, sweeping past them and throwing open the enormous double doors that led into the throne room. Genevieve went after him and waved impatiently at the others to follow.
The throne room was slightly more impressive than the rest of the palace. Duncan did his best not to gape and stare as they walked in. The vaulted ceilings in the chamber rose at least thirty or forty feet, and the room was large enough to hold hundreds of men at once. There were galleries on each side of the room where he could imagine dignitaries shouting angrily at each other while the crowd below shouted and jeered. Or did Ferelden not work like that? Perhaps their gatherings here were dignified and quiet? Perhaps the court danced a great deal and this was a place where they held fantastic balls as they did in Orlais?
It seemed doubtful. The throne room had a dour look to it, and felt so empty he rather doubted there were many gatherings here at all, never mind balls. Tapestries hung on the walls, most in dull colors depicting scenes of battle from the days of some long-forgotten barbarian king. Dominating one of the walls was a massive wooden carving, a scene in bas-relief depicting a barely clothed warrior slaying what looked like werewolves. An odd choice, he thought.
The throne at the very end of the hall was little more than a massive chair with a high back, topped with what looked like a carved dog's head. It looked small up there on the large dais, raised above the floor by a small number of steps and flanked by bright torches. But one certainly couldn't miss it.
There was a man sitting casually on the throne, and Duncan wondered faintly if that was supposed to be the King. If so, he looked like a man who hadn't slept in a long time. His blond hair was unkempt and his clothing was hardly what Duncan would call regal, consisting of a rumpled white shirt and ...