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The Center Cannot Hold [Solo, Complete]

Cauthrien

Warden-Constable of Ferelden
Staff member
Canon Character
Grey Warden
Post DAI Timeline
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Posts
316
#1
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

OOO

((Kingsway, 9:30; Ostagar))

Something was wrong.

The sun had set, bringing with it a darkness that seemed almost to have weight. Part of it was the smell, Cauthrien knew. Darkspawn killed in the previous three battles had been left on the plain before Ostagar to rot, along with those of their own fallen that they had been unable to recover. The stench had increased steadily, along with the buzzing of flies, until the air was thick with death.

It was a tactic often used in more traditional warfare: show the enemy the cost of attack, force his soldiers to march over the corpses of their fellows, and you robbed them of will and fighting spirit. The enemy they faced now, however, cared nothing for such deterrence. Kill one darkspawn, or a dozen, or a hundred, and the rest would keep coming without missing a step. Killing them all was the only way to stop them.

This was what they planned to do tonight: lure them down onto the plain to the smaller force waiting there, and then attack them from the rear with the bulk of the army. The plan seemed sound enough, but she still found herself beset by a growing sense of unease that had her fighting the urge to pace.

She did not pace, mind you. The commander of Maric’s Shield, the right hand of General Loghain Mac Tir could not be seen to pace. Hedid not pace, standing as still as a stone atop the rise overlooking the plain, with the rest of their forces out of sight below the level of the rise: a human flood, waiting to be unleashed.

She had never seen him pace, or show any other sign of unease, and he did not now, but the Maker knew that she wanted to.

It was more than the increasingly urgent reports from the scouts about the steadily growing size of the darkspawn horde that approached. Loghain was adamant that, since no archdemon had shown itself, this could be no true Blight, but the reports of thousands – thousands – of the creatures moving out of the Korcari wilds were nonetheless unsettling.

It was more than the fact that she and the rest of the Shield were up here, instead of at the King’s side. Maric would never have acceded to Loghain’s almost casual request, but Cailan had always treated his honor guard as an inconvenience, something to be eluded whenever possible, like a boy ducking away from the watchful eyes of his nanny. And he was a boy, for all that he was almost as old as Cauthrien, herself. A boy, playing at war, and the Grey Wardens were his newest toys.

She had no fault with the men themselves. They were competent fighters, and had more than proven their abilities against the darkspawn, but their insistence that this was a Blight, without being able to offer anything in the way of proof, was frustrating, to say the least, and the fact that it was they who guarded the King of Ferelden now, instead of the score of men and women who had worked long and hard to earn that privilege and duty, was no small irritant.

But if she was irritated at Cailan for allowing them to be reassigned, she was even more irritated at the one who had made the request for that reassignment, and that, more than anything else, lay at the heart of the unease that made it an act of will for her to stand as motionless as her commander.

She had known him for fifteen years, spent the last six as his second in command, and while he might display no outward signs, she knew that something was not right. She knew why he was so set against allowing the Orlesians to send their chevaliers, and she had to agree: if they admitted such weakness to their former conquerors, they all but invited a second invasion. If not from Orlais, then from some other nation.

The Commander of the Grey, Duncan, had favored caution and greater forces: holding a defensive position and waiting for the forces of Redcliffe and Rainesfere, if not the Orlesians. Cailan had blithely rejected the notion and, when Loghain had seemed on the verge of adding his support to Duncan’s position, had used the Orlesians to bait the Teyrn into agreeing to the battle. And Loghain … had let him. In matters of military strategy, the Hero of River Dane was leagues beyond the young King of Ferelden, and yet, he had allowed himself to be outmaneuvered, overruled.

And then, he had taken away Maric’s Shield, and done so without consulting its commander. Technically, Cauthrien answered only to the King, but Cailan had responded to the suggestion with an almost negligent shrug and nod before turning to add his own enthusiastic voice to the Grey Wardens’ talk of battle tactics. She’d little choice then but to follow Loghain, bringing the rest of the Shield with her and leaving the King they were sworn to protect in the care of a scant two dozen men that she’d known less than a fortnight.

None of it made sense.

Since their first meeting, Loghain had always been willing to explain to her the thoughts that lay behind his decisions, but he had refused her queries since leaving the King, his face set in lines as hard as stone, and his grey eyes as cold and distant as the frozen wastes that lay beyond the Wilds.

And now, the torches came into view: not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands. An ocean of fire, advancing as relentlessly as the tide, and Cauthrien felt the first stirring of real fear. Not for herself, for it was a soldier’s duty to fight and die, but for the King and the other souls who would meet this tide first.

And still, Loghain did not move.

“Maker’s blood, ser!” She turned her head to meet the gaze of Tremayne, her own second. He and the rest of the Shield stood in tight formation at the head of the army, and in each of their faces, she saw a mirror of her own rising fear and urgency. “I’ve never seen so many darkspawn together before!”

“We should be with the King,” Cailleach, the only other woman in the Shield, muttered, brown eyes flashing in rebellion.

“We were given an order, and we follow it,” Cauthrien reminded her, then added, “but when the signal comes, we get to the King and stay with him until the battle is done.” All eyes turned with hers to the Tower of Ishal, watching hungrily for a signal fire that had not yet been lit.

“On my command,” she told them quietly, looking from one to the next, seeing nothing but grim determination and trust in their eyes as each nodded in assent. They had worked, lived and fought side by side for six years under her command, and she had long since proven her fitness for the position in their eyes. They had followed her without question into battle after battle; they would follow her into this battle, and to whatever outcome awaited them all.

She stepped forward, stopping just behind Loghain’s right shoulder and watching as the sea of torches resolved into recognizable forms: the squat, burly genlocks; the taller, lankier hurlocks; and scattered among them, the massive bulk of the ogres. Not charging forward blindly: walking in a controlled advance that, while admittedly not as organized as a trained military unit, was nonetheless far more disciplined than she had ever thought them capable of, and all the more unsettling for it.

Her eyes turned to the forces massed outside the walls of Ostagar, easily picking out Cailan’s golden armor in the torchlight. She felt a spark of anger that the Wardens would let him expose himself so, but she knew that he would have done the same had Maric’s Shield been guarding him. He had never been one to stay in the background.

She did not hear the command, but the sky was suddenly thick with arrows, arching upward from the lines of the defenders and falling in a deadly rain upon the advancing darkspawn. Many fell, but those behind stepped over the dead and dying as though they did not exist, advancing inexorably, their numbers seeming scarcely reduced.

Twice more, the rain of arrows rose and fell. Then, the mabari warhounds were released, baying savagely as they raced across the rapidly narrowing space between the two armies and attacked the darkspawn without hesitation…and died.

Torches were tossed aside, and rusty, nicked blades swept from tattered sheaths as the darkspawn horde broke into a lumbering run. A shout, audible even at this distance, rose up from the lines of the defenders, and suddenly, the humans were charging forth to meet their foes.

Cauthrien’s mouth was dry, her heart pounding as she fought the urge to pull the Summer Sword from its scabbard and join the fray. Never before had she stood and watched while a battle of any size was joined. Nor, so far as she knew, had Loghain Mac Tir; she risked a glance at him, wondering how he could remain so still, and froze. She had never before seen the expression that he wore now: anger, grief, a terrible determination, and something that she could not name, something cold and frightening that made her look away.

The two sides came together in a clash of steel that was almost immediately echoed by the first screams of dying men. A low moan rose from the ranks behind her; they could not see, but they could hear, and they knew that the battle had been joined without them.

Cauthrien could see, and what she saw stole her breath. Perhaps five hundred had remained before Ostagar with the King, including the Grey Wardens. Loghain commanded another two thousand, but the darkspawn horde stretched across the hills as far as her eyes could see, those who died replaced almost before they had fallen. Their weapons might be poorly made and maintained, but they could still kill with them. The forces below were almost laughably outnumbered, and would be, even after the two thousand at her back entered the fight. Five to one? Ten to one? More? Did it matter?

They were all going to die tonight.

So be it. Her eyes scanned the chaos of the fight below, slipping dispassionately past the fallen until she picked out the gleam of gold amidst steel and blood. Cailan, surrounded by Grey Wardens, was hacking his way through the darkspawn, wielding his two-handed sword like an extension of himself. Her gaze dropped to the terrain, picking the route she would take to fight her way to his side.

“Prepare!” she called out, heard blades being unsheathed behind her as unit commanders took up the call, sent it sweeping through the ranks. Loghain’s head snapped around, his eyes flashing in an anger that she did not understand. She turned to the Tower of Ishal, thinking that perhaps it was the delay of the signal that was the cause of his ire, felt her heart leap as bright flame burst from the tower’s peak, blazing golden against the night sky.

“Sound –” She had already begun to turn, her mouth open to give the command to charge, when his words brought her up short, “-the retreat.”

“What?” She spun back, disbelieving, sure she had misheard him, but he remained motionless, his sword sheathed at his side. “Ser, we can’t –”

His hand shot out as quickly as a striking snake, closing around her arm in a grip that was painful even through the armor, and in his eyes, there was only that cold strangeness and an implacable resolve. The clash of wills was brief, the outcome all but preordained. In fifteen years, Cauthrien had never disobeyed an order from Loghain Mac Tir.

She dropped her eyes, her stomach roiling, trying to ignore the sounds of battle and the screaming imperative of duty as she turned to give the command to retreat.
 
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