A prelude to the Blackmarsh quest

First Chapter::His Father's Son

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17. In the Shadow of Blackmarsh

The frozen snow crunches under their feet, still steaming where the darkspawn blood and bowels stained it.

Rapidly breathing, Nathaniel freezes still for a moment, reaching the Warden sense to reveal the yet living bearers of the Taint.

Feeling none, he turns to his companions for confirmation; after a series of curt nods, they make for the ruins of the estate.

The road runs between the damaged fences and barns: it seems that no human thing is safe from the darkspawn hatred. The bare maples seem untouched: before his inner eye, Nathaniel can still see them providing shadow on that summer day when father took him along to inspect his lands. Back then, the fields were alive with the sounds of scythes, calls and singing; cows and sheep added to the hustle, the clattering of the windmill…

No sound in the silence of death now, not even the crows.

As expected, the main building within the stockade is the site of the greatest destruction, and tragedy. They barely absorb the sight – the darkspawn passion for hanging and disembowelling left no-one and nothing intact – till the presence of the taint surges from behind the row of barns and sheds.

The ensuing fight is vicious but short.

Glancing over the desecrated bodies, Nathaniel wonders which one used to be the plump goodwife, who welcomed her Lord's son with strawberries and cream.

The belated revenge on her murderers is all he can offer in return.

In pairs, they quickly search the estate, returning to the Commander to confirm what everyone already knows: no survivors.

The lad who brought the plea for help on a foaming horse, is the only one, and Nathaniel is more than glad that it is not his duty to tell him that the help couldn't have made it in time. Knowing Ned Cousland, he is sure that the boy will at least be spared the grisly details.

Looking around, Anders is paler than the snow: for all his levity, the mage has a compassionate soul, and the sight of so much death takes a toll on him.

And so does on the Commander, though the brooding silence and the pressed lips are the only indication.

With the help of the soldiers assigned to guard their horses, they gather the remains into the building – humans in one, darkspawn in another – before they put torches to the thatched roofs.

Only fire can cleanse what darkspawn have defiled.

In the spring, the fields will have to be checked for corruption.

They leave in gloomy silence, hunching in the saddles against the chilly wind.

In silence they ride on, until, to Nathaniel's surprise, the Commander checks his horse and falls in step next to him. "Tell me, Nathaniel: what do you know of Blackmarsh?"

Puzzled by the question, Nathaniel shakes his head. "What everyone does, I suppose? One day, the place was thriving, the other, everyone was gone. They say it is haunted now and nobody in their right mind would go within ten miles of it."

A lopsided grin. "Any specification as to the nature of the hauntedness?"

"The usual stuff – the damned souls of those who vanished there. Strange sounds, strange lights…. Father used to say –" Realizing the lapse of his tongue, he feels blood rushing to his cheeks.

After a moment of intently watching the road, the Commander sighs and shrugs. "Go ahead. I do realize that… you have other memories of him. What did he tell you?"

What did he tell?

The man who used to be his father used to tell stories on winter evenings, when the early setting darkness drove the children to the light and warmth of the fireplace. Cradling little Delilah on his knees, with Thomas and Nathaniel leaning against his shins, father would tell all kinds of stories, changing his voice to fit different roles, or dropping it low to add to the mystery.

But that was a long time ago, when the children were very young, and as the time went on, he told stories less and less, until he ceased altogether.

Gulping to overcome a sudden tightness in his throat, Nathaniel concentrates on recalling the long-forgotten tales. "It was under the Orlesian rule. The town prospered from fishing and trade, and as a desirable fief, it fell to a baroness from Orlais. She was supposed to be a strikingly beautiful woman but of wicked and dark heart, who used the blood of young maidens to sustain her own beauty. One day, her sins finally prevailed and the demons took her away to the Fade."

"And the rest of the folk?"

Nathaniel shrugs. "If something mysterious did happen there, it would not be surprising if everyone got scared and left for good. Even more so if, as I presume, they murdered the baroness and fled to avoid repercussions."

"Outlaws do not tend to leave their earthly possessions behind."

Nathaniel bites his lip, realizing how the story went about dinner being left half-finished on the table, the plough and horses abandoned in the fields. He frowns. "So, you have heard the tales. You would actually believe it – I mean, the version about people simply… vanishing? Why?" Shifting uncomfortably in the saddle, he glances at Anders and Velanna over his shoulder. "What kind of magic would that be, then? Would such a thing be even possible?"

"Who's to tell?" the Commander replies complacently. "I've seen a man tie his life-force to a curse, and sustain both his life and the curse for centuries, long after those who had harmed his kin were already dead. Who knows which powers this baroness dabbled in and what she may have achieved?"

Were it another man, Nathaniel would dismiss the story as mere embellishment, but with Cousland, nothing is ever so simple. The sudden interest in forgotten histories provokes a sense of unease. "Are you suggesting that we should investigate what happened at Blackmarsh? I thought we had enough trouble on our hands with darkspawn alone, even without ghosts or demons or baronesses."

He receives a wry smile. "I'm catching at straws." Glancing back over his shoulder, at the pillar of the dark smoke against the darkening sky, Cousland's lips gain the hard set once more. "This cannot be allowed to continue, yet I have absolutely no clue what to do or where to go… except for this one which I considered totally improbable. I hoped that you might come up with something…" A sigh. "It seems we're for some more winter travels again."

Spurring the horse, the Commander returns to the front, leaving Nathaniel to ponder over the unappealing prospect, while yet another persistent thought keeps creeping in: 'I've seen a man twist his life for the sake of vengeance…'

Unwittingly, Nathaniel pulls his cloak closer: the memory of the older Cousland is even more chilling than the wind. It has been a fortnight since Astrid returned from Highever, indignant over being made to wait before the gate in the cold, only to be sent away without an answer.

Nathaniel never dared to ask her about the Commander's reaction to that, nor did he allow himself to ponder what Ned may have written to his brother.

No use to dwell on things he cannot change – be it the hatred of Fergus Cousland, or a winter trip to the land of haunting nightmares.

He was the one who made the choice to serve, after all.

Unsurprisingly, he is the only one to accept the prospect without rumbling, as turns out when the Wardens gather around the map, with cups of mulled wine to drive away the chill that has dwelt in their bones ever since the return from the Turnoble estate.

Even less unsurprisingly, Oghren is the first to voice his disapproval: "A sodding swamp? That Kristoff of yours can't have been right in his head, I'm telling you! No dwarf with as much brains as nug shit would ever make an exit from the Deep Roads within a swamp! How would you even dig a tunnel through bogey land, huh?"

"There are actually some hills in the area," Anders remarks, studying the painted landscape. "However, as the Commander has said, the attack pattern does not point to Blackmarsh as a centre. Based on the numbers of occurrences, I'd say they issue from somewhere here."

'Somewhere.' The mage's broad gesture encompasses all of central Amaranthine, give or take a couple of miles here and there.

"Kristoff could not draw on the information from the recent attacks," Ned Cousland points out. "Yet, even if his assessment of Blackmarsh was wrong, there must have been something he considered important enough to investigate. Perhaps he found a clue why the darkspawn haven't withdrawn underground… or why they started to talk. Or, that these reasons are, in fact, one and the same."

The reminder of their encounter with the Architect brings about an uneasy silence, affecting even Velanna, who up till then was looking out of the window, not even pretending interest.

Nathaniel quickly averts his eyes, so as not to draw her attention: the bad weather which confined them in the Keep brought Velanna's moods to daunting depths, and the fact that their first mission outside the Keep in weeks was not exactly successful, was of little help, as well.

Anders pokes at the pile of sketchy documents on the table. "I wish the guy left some more substantial notes. I agree with Oghren: what made him think that Blackmarsh had anything to do with darkspawn? Plus, how do you intend to find a single man in miles of empty countryside? A single dead man, if may I remind you?"

"Kristoff was a veteran," Varel remarks from where he is seated, somewhat aside from the Wardens. "He may have been belated for a reason."

"According to what that wench in the tavern said, he intended an approximately one-month trip," the Commander says softly, "and he's been gone well over three. After such a time, his chances would be slim at best. Truly, I do not expect to find him alive, or to find him at all. Yet, whatever research he was carrying out, we should at least try to follow. We will establish a base as close to Blackmarsh as possible – this…" he leans closer to the map, "… Narrowdale… should be a convenient spot. Thus, we could gradually make a thorough search of the area."

With a grunt of disdain, Oghren raises and empties his cup – ale, of course, not mere wine. "You may as well thoroughly search yer ass and find just the same piece of shit even without scrambling in a swamp, I'm tellin' ye. A complete waste of time."

Instead of being offended, the Commander actually flashes a grin at the dwarf. "Not complete. Even if we don't find Kristoff or darkspawn, I'd still like to investigate this part of the arling and see if I could put it to some good use. I hear that Blackmarsh used to be a busy port once – and I am perfectly sure that our dear Bann Esmerelle will be thrilled at the prospect of competition for the docks of Amaranthine, should we manage to reopen it."

Nathaniel cannot help but feel his lips curve: the image of Esmerelle's reaction suddenly makes the winter travel somewhat more appealing. His improved mood quickly dissipates, though, as Oghren sputters the new share of his ale at the Commander's next words. "In two days? Damn it, you've been planning this all along?"

The smile he receives in answer urges him to sputter a line of colourful invectives, at which Ned Cousland raises a brow while pulling an innocent face: "What, you're gonna miss an appointment with a new supply of ale?"

I am going to miss Astrid's return from Denerim. And she will not be pleased to miss a proper goodbye, that's for sure.

Shifting in the chair to suppress the sudden tension in his groin, Nathaniel eyes the map. The Commander is right, of course: the weather has become stable, with milder frost and a decent portion of sunshine, and a good chance of remaining so for a good couple of days. "Do we set out directly for Blackmarsh?"

The answer is not particularly surprising. Some things are too good to last: a truth Nathaniel has learned over the years, and so, two days later, he takes his place in the troop heading for Amaranthine.