What Have We Here

Orzammar: A Tainted Proving

With just enough time to make his way to the Proving, Faren found his pal Leske talking to that crazy nug seller, an established "vendor" in Dust Town. That showed just how desperate Dusters were. "What are you doing?" he asked Leske as he stepped away from the guy.

"Aw, the whore I was with last night said she'd always wanted one for a pet." Leske shrugged. "Too bad I had to pay for the whore or I mighta had enough to buy her one."

Faren's brow drew together and he started to tell Leske that he was as crazy as the nug guy, but he just sighed instead. "Let's get to the Proving," he said quietly. He patted his upper chest where he usually hid stuff in a hidden inside pocket. "I got the pass right here. You got the 'extras'?"

"Yeah," Leske confirmed as he gave the small, hairless, almost featureless, squeaking creatures one last glance. Faren decided that Leske was on the narrow side of sane. As he marched off toward the stairs to The Commons, he realized it was one of the many things in his life that he'd just have to endure. He also wondered if this whore was the one who told Leske that the tightly braided rows on his head—the rows that gave him a perpetual headache—looked sexy.

Just after making their way up the dilapidated ramp from Dust Town to the Commons, the pair got pulled to the side by a guy who wanted to give them money for their teeth. His "business" was transplanting duster teeth into nobles who were losing theirs. Faren glared at the guy. "Sod off, you parasite."

Leske pulled Faren back from doing more than just throwing some insults and told the guy, "Hey, I might be back later. Don't mind him."

The tooth vendor dusted down the front of his tunic while harshly sighing. "The … parasites … I have to endure to ply my trade." When Faren looked to break free from Leske's grasp, the dwarf stepped back and added, "I have a legitimate business here and will have you arrested if you threaten me, brand!" He turned to Leske. "Keep him away from me and I'll give you two silvers per tooth."

"Done," Leske said with a smile that lacked two teeth already. "See you later!" After shuffling Faren away, he said. "You need to put that temper on hold, salroka. We won't be able to do this job if you get thrown in prison before we even get there."

It took a few minutes, but Faren had to admit that sometimes the sane broke through in Leske. "Fine," Faren growled, but he had a smile on his face. Leske chuckled and released the hold he had on Faren's arm.

As they walked across the bridge to The Proving grounds, all three of the guards stationed at the door pulled their weapons. "You brands have no business here. Go back to the crack you crawled out of before we show you that lesson the hard way."

Faren smiled as he presented their passes. He knew Leske would be proud. "We got business with one of the fighters, if you would be so kind as to kiss my sodding ass and open the doors." One of the first guard's buddies held him back. That caused Faren to wonder if he looked that stupid when Leske had to hold him back.

"Let 'em go. Whoever was stupid enough to give 'em those passes will pay for anything they do inside." With that, the three guards stepped to the side and let Faren and Leske in.

Once inside, Leske let out a low whistle. "So, this is how the rich spend their time and coin." Even though they were deep below a lot of stone, there wasn't a speck of dirt anywhere in the main entry area. The wall sconces were shiny and fully lit. The stonework on the walls and floor was polished to a shine. Damn blinding shine. Those blessed by a caste were either horrified to see two brands walking around or they pretended not to notice them at all.

As they were making a circuit around the huge room, Leske tugged on Faren's arm. "I heard from Jarvia that a Grey Warden was in Orzammar. One o' them humans is him, ain't it?" he whispered. "Give you ten coppers to talk to him."

"Why would I want to talk to him?" Faren knew next to nothing about the Grey Wardens, except that they actually chose to fight the darkspawn … but the armor the guy was wearing looked pretty good … and useful, too … must be a lot of hidden pockets in those fancy leathers and brigandine. The two long daggers on the man's back had nice shiny runes on them.

"Why?! The Grey Wardens are always looking for good fighters … good as you, Faren … you could get out of here and make a life for yourself." Leske chuckled. "And, send your pay back here for Rica, your mom and me to live a good life."

"Yeah, I'd rather stay here and keep an eye on you all." He gave the Warden a long look, sighed and shrugged. "Let's just do this and be on our way before the 'spawn-humpers at the door decide to frame us for something," Faren growled. "Keep listening to the talk around us and see if we can get a lead on where Mainar's and Everd's rooms are."

Surprisingly, some merchant's son named Varick turned out to be a huge source of information. He had cornered the Warden and was filling him in on the fighters, where they were given warmup rooms and how it made a difference on how the betting went based on the servants who worked the rooms, how much ale each contestant had had that morning already … on and on. He said something about Everd, but Faren couldn't make it out. When he learned all he needed to know about the fighters' locations, he and Leske headed to the far side of the hall.

Before they could enter the hallway, that Grey Warden quickly stepped up and cut them off. Damn, that human was fast and quiet! If he stayed here too long, Beraht would drag him into the Carta.

"I noticed that you were quite interested in the conversation I was having just then," the Warden said. "I'm here to meet as many dwarves as I can and I haven't met anyone with facial tattoos yet. My name is Duncan."

Faren glanced back at Varick and was relieved to see that the talkative gambler had simply moved on to another Proving fan…likely without missing a beat. "I'm sorry, Duncan, but we got business with a patron inside. Maybe after the Provings today." He nodded, turned quickly and walked down the hallway to the fighters' rooms. However, he didn't miss that the Warden had sized him up already: glance to his hands, his armor and his weapons.

Fortunately, Duncan was called to the Proving Master's balcony and didn't have the time to further pursue the two casteless heading toward Everd's preparation room. Good thing, too, because when they cracked open the door, they saw Everd rolling on the floor. He was so drunk he didn't even know where he was. His smacking lips and thrusting pelvis indicated he was caught in a lichen ale-induced dream. At least it was a happy dream.

"Deepstalker steamin' shit, Faren," Leske hissed as he closed the door behind them. "He's supposed to win! All the sod's doing is dreaming about winning with some whore."

"I can see it, Leske," Faren grumbled. "We need to get to Beraht and tell 'im to change his bets."

"It's too late, salroka. The bets are already down." Leske looked around and his eyes fell on the armor stand, on it one of the finest sets of armor any brand had ever seen. He walked over to it and removed the full helm. "You could wear this and no one would know it was you."

"Now, I know you've inhaled too much coal smoke, Leske." Faren huffed and sat on a stool by the door.

"You got skills," Leske continued, undaunted. "You could win with the guy you're going up against under the influence of Beraht's potion." He held out the helm. "Get it on while I drug up Mainar's water."

Faren gave Leske a long, hard glare, but he had no other ideas. Without a word, Faren started to get dressed in armor no doubt passed down from father to son for generations. With an ear-to-ear grin, Leske left to handle the other matter. If Faren got discovered, the armor would be thrown in the lava for being disgraced by a brand. If Faren were lucky, he'd be in the armor when they threw it in. Rica was gonna laugh her ass off tonight.

Sereda definitely wanted to be part of the Grey Wardens. She respected their mission and liked the wardens who were in Orzammar. Duncan was a capable leader and the rest were friendly, curious and accepting … something she realized she desired more than anything.

She was pleased when Gorim asked her about going along with the Grey Wardens the next day. She gave him a few ideas on how to sell it to her father and Ivo, but he had a few of his own. She was sure he'd be successful. The Princess wasn't stupid enough to think Gorim had been won over to the wardens and she knew that he would be earnestly looking for ways to dissuade her.

But, she was grateful to go with the wardens instead of that mealy-mouthed Ivo and his contentious house who jerked him around like a rock puppet. She also knew Ivo was a friend of Bhelen's and didn't relish being caught alone in the Deep Roads with him.

Ancestors! Her father would be horrified at just how much she hated being a noble.

Sereda stepped into the adjacent royal viewing box before the first bout started. Trian grunted a greeting with his perpetual scowl. She knew he had a wonderful smile that lit up his eyes, but she hadn't seen that smile in years. She said quietly, "Trian, we need to talk."

He shot her a dark glare, but a quick glance around to the nearby crowd watching for any sibling controversy stopped him from an angry response. "What about?" he asked through gritted teeth.

Sereda knew there were a bunch of noble gossips' eyes on them, so she smiled and leaned close. "I wanted you to know that I'm going to join the Grey Wardens."

Trian turned quickly, the surprise evident on his craggy features. Then, he laughed. The deep, hearty laugh that reminded Sereda of days past when she would do almost anything to please her big brother. And, there was that good smile. There and gone in mere moments. "Good one, Sereda. Tell that to all your deshyr admirers over there," he said with a fake smile and angry eyes. For most, that would be difficult to pull off, but Trian was a pro.

She nodded toward Duncan and the wardens in the Proving Master's box. "Ask Duncan. He'll tell you. It's the truth," she explained. "I'm going with them tomorrow to scout for signs of an Archdemon while you, father and Bhelen go to clear the Deep Roads around Aeducan Thaig in preparation for the barrier door to be installed."

Trian sat back and furrowed his brows. He looked like he was making a difficult decision … the kind where none of the alternatives were good ones. He stroked his beard as he glanced toward Duncan, who caught the glance and nodded in return. "I thought you were going to handle the bypass around to the north."

"Gorim is going to ask Frandlin Ivo to lead the group handling that route and then meet back up with you all at the Thaig with reports tomorrow evening. The alarm circuit is his idea, so I doubt he'll refuse." Sereda looked into Trian's eyes. They were no longer dark and dangerous … at least not directed toward her, at the moment. She bit back the icy retort she was getting ready to throw back at him.

"That little shit of a thaig crawler," Trian said under his breath. Sereda could actually hear his teeth grinding. By the time he was king, Trian would need a full set of new ones.

"Who?" Sereda had a pretty good idea to whom Trian was referring but wanted him to tell her more than a name. She wanted to know why he was disparaging their little brother.

"Bhelen told me you had arranged to confront me early and try to kill me." His tone was matter-of-fact and scary, to tell the truth. "He obviously didn't know you wouldn't be leading the group to the north." To no one nearby, he added, "Careless of you, little brother."

"Well, I only made the decision a short time ago," Sereda explained. "Actually, even Father doesn't know I've made a firm commitment yet, even though he gave me leave to make the decision myself."

The Proving Master announced the first bout, the young Everd against the skilled Mainar. "Do me one last favor, Sereda," Trian asked as the two combatants walked to the center of the ring. "Don't tell them yet. Ask Duncan if you can go out and come back to the rendezvous point tomorrow afternoon. We'll confront Bhelen together."

This was the part of her family life she hated. She never knew whom to believe. Was Bhelen trying to frame her while he had Trian killed? She knew Trian had certainly been irrationally angry enough to kill her tomorrow without giving her a chance to ask why. Or, was Trian trying to set her up to take a fall after he went ahead and killed Bhelen first? She looked toward Duncan and smiled. A witness was what she needed and she knew just who to recruit.

"What the Stone is wrong with Mainar?!" Trian hollered, same as everyone around.

It brought Sereda back to the bout at hand. Everd had defeated the seasoned warrior, Mainar. She smiled. She liked Everd a lot. He was young and brash and made her laugh. He was a lot like Gorim when he was younger. Thinking of Gorim made her smile more. She hoped he would join the wardens with her, but knew it would be a lot to ask.

"The next bout is with…" The Proving Master introduced Everd's next opponent. This was going to be a tough fight. Adalbo was a master of most weapons and moved in his armor as if it weren't there.

When he went down, there were a few disappointed calls, but the acclaim for Everd was growing around the ring.

Sereda saw quite a bit of gold changing hands among the nobles in the audience. She wondered if some adventurous ones were wagering on the young long shot against Lenka. Sereda would never want to take on a member of The Silent Sisters. They were skilled, trained constantly and were dedicated to fighting…so dedicated that they cut out their own tongues to demonstrate their determination. When Lenka's unconscious body hit the sandy floor of the ring, the place erupted in cheers for Everd and the Proving Master was unable to stop it.

The only thing that did stop it was a staggering drunk walking out into the middle of the ring, "Hav' w' starded?" Indignation should have drowned out the man except Sereda noticed that the drunk was Everd! At the same time, one of the Proving guards said the same thing to the Proving Master. "Hey, thass m' arm'r!" Everd said as he staggered toward the imposter at the center.

Trian snorted. "The armor didn't just win by itself. Some warrior caste joker is going to have hell to pay for this one … and then, he'll have my wager on any future bouts."

Since the royal box was technically part of the Master's box, the Master overheard Trian. He cleared his throat. "Whoever you are, take off your helm."

The fighter replied, "I ain't gonna take off any helm. I won fair and square." His accent was rough and uneducated. Sereda knew this wasn't going to end well when she noticed Trian narrowing his eyes and giving the Proving Master a warning glare.

"Take off that helm or the guards will take it off for you!" he commanded with a nod to Trian that he would handle the situation.

The fighter reached up with both hands to remove his helm. The entire arena was dead quiet as he did. All wagers as to his identity had already been made. Sereda swore that if the audience stands had been lower, there wouldn't have been any sand left on the arena floor from the intense intake of breath when his face was revealed. The man had greasy dark red hair, disheveled from the helm, a dirty beard with two mismatched braids on either side of his chin…and a brand that marked the entire left side of his face. Casteless!

"I'm of no caste or clan," the man shouted and then pointed up to the stands. "And, I beat all of your champions!"

"Guards, take this man to a cell!" the Master got out before bedlam erupted. Trian stormed out. Sereda didn't know if it was because of her news or Bhelen's or the Proving. The Master turned to Duncan. "Grey Warden, I must apologize for this outrage. This brand disregarded everything this Proving stands for."

Duncan looked more than a little confused, as well as displeased. His response surprised Sereda and every dwarf within hearing range, including Gorim who had just run in. Duncan said, "That dwarf … is your champion!" Then, he and his wardens left the Proving grounds, Duncan looking straight ahead and Gavin laughing to some unspoken joke. The other three humans just looked confused. As they walked by, Alistair was overheard to say, "But, he won, didn't he?"

"Well, I hear that was certainly one of the more interesting Provings in a long time," Gorim said to Sereda as he stepped up next to her. "Still want to belong to a group of surfacers who don't care about our traditions?"

Sereda spun and gave Gorim a fierce glare. He was right, of course, but Duncan only knew the dwarven way as colored by Gavin. But, why should they care about the archaic traditions of Orzammar! Plus, she was still angry at Bhelen and Trian. Gorim was just the nearest target.

"Traditions?!" she harshly whispered, close enough to his face to see a bit of fear dart across his face. "Like the one where one brother tries to kill off his sister and pin it on his older brother? Like the one where we finally get an adjacent thaig cleared only to have constant bickering over whether the smith class or the artisan class get credit for the plans for or the appearance of the barrier door? Like the one where you and I could never marry no matter how much we love each other? Like that, Gorim?!" She took a harsh, quick breath. "I think I can live very well with a group of surfacers who don't care about those traditions." She turned on her heel and added as she walked out, "Don't bother following me, Second. I can find my own way home."

She was pleased by the dumbstruck look on Gorim's face.

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