Alternative Origins Chapter Fifteen

by artrald

Previous

Up

Next

*

In the event, Prince Bhelen is quite prepared to speed us on our way. He says that he’s quite aware of the Warden habit of making impromptu expeditions into the Deep Roads, and perfectly happy to send us with supplies and equipment – he’d send more, but Duncan always refused offers of company. (Damn straight, says Alistair.)

What he does do for us is open his armoury – apparently he has a number of ‘artistic’ pieces that might be of use, by which apparently he means that you could outfit a small human army from what he has in stock. Yes, he’s spending money on us like it’s water – but he’s getting something for it. Given we reflect on him, not just our success but our appearance, it’s to his benefit that when we go down into the Deep Roads we look like it was his idea to send us.

The humans take what advantage they can – and, well, a weapon catches my eye. A beautiful thing with a brass-bound hilt and a blood-red blade, a four-foot long-handled sword that’d make a fine weapon indeed for an elf who’s stronger than she should be, and Bhelen laughs to see that of all the things in here I’ve picked out his eldest brother’s sword and makes me a gift of it on the spot. After all, he says, nobody ever got a chance to use it in anger, and he prefers an axe himself.

And any doubt I ever had that Bhelen killed his big brother goes from me like cold mist. There is no sentiment to this man, no sympathy, no humanity, just a good idea of what those things look like. Bhelen is a psychopath. Do we really want to support this man? What choice do we have?

Bah.

Alistair has a quiet word with Wynne, and then the two of them give all of us a short briefing on the darkspawn blood curse. It’s apparently not quite true that it’s incurable by magic – it’s just that doing so is, as Wynne puts it, a complete and utter pain. She’s worked up some precautions – there’s a spell she uses during plagues and things, to keep out bad air and contaminated humours, and what is cursed blood but a contaminated humour by another name – but it’s not perfect, and it’s best to avoid exposure. Zevran, a little wide-eyed at the mention of curses, recovers his composure by patting the heavy quiver he’s carrying and saying that it’ll give him the chance to practice one of his two great inherent talents.

(Two talents? He smiles wickedly and says that well, he is Antivan, and modesty prevents him discussing the other in great detail. I’m about the third person in the group to realise what he’s on about and blush to the roots of my hair, so, before Morrigan and after Wynne – I’m also not unconvinced that Alistair thinks that Zevran was on about being a master thief…)

Suitably outfitted and prepared we meet Oghren at his ex-wife’s front door; his harness encases him entire in overlapping plates of blackened steel, and his shield has the fetching combination of bronze and grey. Leliana asks him smilingly if all the good colours were taken, and he laughs and tell her she’s right in one.

And so we descend. Fed up of architecture by now, but even so, those gates are impressive. Seven gatehouses, seven gates, seven legions, Oghren remarks, and not a single tavern or knocking-shop: this is the most humourless place you ever saw, he says, and Alistair will grudgingly admit that it’s certainly made his top ten list of loveless mausoleums, and the dwarf chuckles.

Each gate’s set halfway up what looks like a sheer cliff-face, with a narrow switchback stair up to it like the approach to a keep; each chamber between gatehouses has murder-holes in the ceiling; it would slay an army to bring them here if the dwarves didn’t want them. Each gatehouse is like a little town of its own, like the baggage train of Ostagar if they traded their tents for stone warrens.

So mostly what this means is, there’s a bastard of a lot of steps. I’d been expecting some trouble with the guards, or at least a little do-you-know-who-I-am, but no, they know who Oghren is, the noble colours if nothing else, and we’re nodded through –

What is that?” I’m sorry, I know I should have my dignity on. But among the dwarves on guard at this, the sixth gate, is something seven foot tall by five wide, rune-carved and… is that stone that it’s made of? And it’s encased in steel and it’s got that feel that magic things do, that their existence is perfectly natural and logical and unquestionable and yet not quite real. I’m not the only one staring – Morrigan actually can’t take her eyes off it, and Wynne’s pointedly not looking at the thing.

“What, they don’t have giant murderous magic statues where you’re from?” Oghren smirks. “It’s a golem. Easier to laugh at Warrior Caste stories about heroes and glories when yer up in the smoke, even if there ain’t any smoke there any more. Harder to see why they really think that. But then you see things like the golems. That there statue has been protecting and serving practically since they built these doors. Big damn heroes don’t come any bigger.”

“Or any more damned.” Morrigan shivers. “Just so that everybody is aware – that thing is a person. There is a soul in it, a genuine thinking individual. Please tell me he – I think it’s a he – was a volunteer?”

Oghren snorts. “You think Paragon Caridin would have made a giant free-willed murder-statue out of someone he didn’t trust to point the murder in the right direction? You think that anybody could stop one of those from doing whatever the hell it pleased?”

She narrows her eyes. “Many humans would have made an argument about morality, there.”

“Many humans couldn’t say you good morning without lying twice,” I comment. “Self-interest, I can believe.”

“Mm.” She tears her eyes off the golem. “Can we be gone, yet?”

*

Alistair walks by my side at the front. “Permission to speak,” he says quietly, and I glance at him sidelong and nod shortly. “Uh. I know that you’re upset with me for, um, for reasons -”

“Say something or shut up.” And the tone of his voice doesn’t prick me to hear it. Human. Remember?

“Yes, of course. Right. Can you, that is, do you hear them yet? The voices?”

The voices. The talking, the constant quiet noises off, I’d been doing so well, damn him- I concentrate on the stairs for a moment, on walking, forget the bloody whispering – “They kept me up. Last two nights.”

“Damn,” he says to himself quietly. “Look. Are you all right?”

“Course,” I hiss. Idiot. “Till you said aught, anyway. I suppose there’s a secret way of keeping ’em out of my head?”

“You don’t want them out.” He’s looking at me, so when I look at him in surprise I meet his eyes and I’d forgotten how blue – “They’re the enemy. You can hear where they are. With practice, what they’re doing.”

I shake my head. “I can do which direction. That’s about it.”

“Okay.” His voice is like… Stop it. Idiot girl. “We can practice this evening. Should help you sleep.”

“I sleep fine.”

“Uh, you just said you didn’t. For one thing, the bloody archdemon woke us at dawn again.”

“Dammit, Alistair-”

“This is important.” He clenches his fists. “I’m sorry, and when you’ve finished learning we can go right back to being unhappy in one another’s direction from a distance. But right now, we have a need for you not to freak out when you see our enemy. All right?”

Blink. “You ever seen me freak?”

“Yeah.” Deep breath. “I’ve had that pleasure. You woke from a nightmare and if any of us had been within ten feet we’d have got ourselves a nice new smile. You going to do that when something screams in your head, something nobody else can hear?” He’s repeating something that he heard once. Advice that turned out to be good.

“No.” I bite my lip. “Uh, look. Depends where. Loud noise in my ear, I will duck.”

“So you should, it’d save your life.” He nods. “Which is why we learn to tell how far away they are. I’ve never been to Orzammar, but I have been to the Roads before – we train down here.”

“‘Kay. How?”

“For now, just get yourself used to them. And if you’ve got to guess where one is, guess that it’s right behind you. Better, well, better paranoid than dead. Right?”

“I grew up not far from the gutter,” I say completely without intonation. “Paranoid ain’t so well defined.”

“Down here, the only things we can trust are one another. But I suppose that’s been true since we walked in the door.” He takes a deep breath, in and out. “Yeah, I wasn’t very polite last night, but it’s, uh, more than, uh. I don’t know how I offended you back in Redcliffe, but whatever it was, I didn’t, I didn’t mean it. I can’t think of anything I’d deliberately do or say to offend you like this, because you’re scary and you have knives, so. I’m sorry, and I’m prepared to accept your terms for peace?”

He…  wait. He thinks I’ve been pissed off at him since -?  I rack my brain for the last time I spoke to him when I didn’t have to, and remember what those words meant to him – Congratulations, girl, slow clap, a village somewhere is missing its idiot. Let a few more steps pass before I can trust what’ll come out of my mouth. “It’s nothing you did,” I eventually manage to say while not looking over to see how he took the words. “I deal with my problems by fixing them, you can tell you haven’t hurt me because I haven’t hurt you back. Right?”

“Did you just say ‘piss me off and I cut your face?”

Half a smile despite myself. “Glad we have that straight.”

“I swear that Antivan fellow is a bad influence-” Joking tone or no, the big man shuts his mouth as I round on him. “Uh. Open mouth, remove foot?”

I keep the tone light. It was a joke. I can take a joke. “Would you actually like me to cut your face?”

“No, sera.”

“Sure? No trouble.”

“Quite sure, sera.”

“Right.”

*

Oghren refuses to tell us the true destination till we’re out the last gate, something about walls having ears. And this gate, well, even I could have told you there were no darkspawn here, but this is the first set of defences that’s been fully and heavily manned, like they’re outright expecting the spawn to pour out of the darkness any moment.

The cavern outside the gate has a real name for sure, a name that no doubt evokes the great crumbling graven reliefs of fork-bearded faces older than the castle at Ostagar, the fortifications that would catch this hall in unceasing crossfire, the metal-clad gates that stand tall and wide and unscarred and new, the lyrium runes on their inside not so much hidden by the shadows as devouring the light. But to those who stand here against the night, this is the Boneyard, and its floor is a bleached and unsteady ivory.

I’m expecting our mages to be treading wincingly careful on the bleached bones of a thousand years of failed sieges, but they’re fine. No ghosts here, I remark, and Wynne says that nothing ever died here that would leave one, as neither dwarves nor darkspawn would. Still bloody creepy to me, I say, and Morrigan replies she’s more worried about scavengers than spirits.

And Oghren finally gives us a direction. Two days’ travel, he says – it’s a secret door in a bit of old dwarven ruins, one you’d normally never get anywhere near because of what lives in ’em. And he points, and yup – there are voices the way he’s pointing, a crowd of ’em, and Alistair asks conversationally what the plan for a camp full of darkspawn is, and Oghren fingers the heavy ball-headed mace on its loop on his belt and says he’ll try and leave one for the rest of us.

You’d expect the bits of the Deep Roads closer to Orzammar to be better maintained – like how you sweep your own doorstep – but apparently the dwarves don’t consider the state of these tunnels to be their concern. The whispering voices I can hear, some of them are definitely downward and some definitely upward – while the Roads themselves are pretty flat, to hear Oghren tell it, there’s a thaig or a ruin or just a darkspawn burrow every few miles, and they tend to extend upward and downward – a typical dwarf thaig would have the warriors on the same level as the entry, then things that make smoke go below that and things that make liquid waste or dust go above it, so that the exhausts and the spoil are easier to ship out. This leads him to the old joke that of course the laws are all shit, they come from the top of the thaig, and of course the complaints are all smoke, they come from the bottom.

No, he doesn’t ever stop telling ’em. Be thankful he’s keeping it clean, because there are ladies present – a statement pretty much tailor-made to set Wynne and Leliana against him in a contest of who can tell the most objectionable joke, while Alistair pretends he doesn’t understand half of it, Morrigan doesn’t understand half of it, and Zevran and I make like we’re not with these crazy people.

We leave the great long cavern of the Deep Road and take a side-tunnel that Oghren indicates, reading from a map labelled in his own language; he starts the spiel about going into enemy territory, darkspawn lurking in every shadow, and so on. I don’t need to smirk at him – Alistair stops him right there, points out the five nearest clusters of darkspawn, gives rough distances and his best guess at what they’re doing, and Oghren picks his jaw up off the floor and then says that he suddenly sees why we keep the big guy around.

For all that, though, we don’t hang about, and it’s not like our hands are ever far from our weapons. More than darkspawn live down here – strange crimson plants thrive under the faint eerie light of the ancient dwarven street-lamps, and strange sinuous colourless creatures are there to eat them, and Zevran warns quietly of bigger things in the darkness, staying away from the pool of light from Wynne’s staff and the lightstones Bhelen gave us.

There’s time for contemplation, in the cold gloom with the humans huddled close to their light and everyone who can see down here with their eyes out looking for trouble. Somehow the whispering of the voices makes more sense down here. I don’t know how I know, right, but they’re talking of places like this, the stream of their alien thoughts playing over the familiar landscape of – of – stomping grounds they wouldn’t normally have because all the grown-ups, all the dominant ones are gone? I could be wrong. I could. But that’s the feel of it. The cat’s away, and what I can hear is all the mice.

Morrigan’s eyes are slitted and green, and there’s a little dot of green light nestled on the end of her staff; she moves like a cat, too, smooth, sure, and nearly as quiet on her toes as I am. Leliana’s got a sword drawn, a blade she got from the dwarves – for the first time since I’ve known her, her equipment matches, blackened blades, blackened metal rings on blackened leather, black gloves, and I’ve got the feeling she’d have blackened her face and all if she were on her own.

Zevran and I are out away from the light with our backs to it – the gloom is little hindrance to us. My eyesight and hearing are better than his, I think, but he’s got training I lack, and he’s got a better shot than I have at telling something that’s stalking us from something that’s hiding from us. You know what? I’m quieter than he is. I could probably sneak up on him without too much problem. I save that for a prank in future. Sometime it’s not all deadly serious. (Yeah. When would that be?)

There are a couple of incidents. Nothing major, or at least nobody hurt. None of us but Oghren and Alistair had thought to look up, and neither of them spotted the jumping spider in the ceiling – first we know of it is when a dark shape with far too many legs drops down, and it’s sheer chance that it drops on Morrigan. She screams, but the noise ain’t human, and her shape ain’t either – whatever the hells it was that she turned into, it turns out that it was a bit much for that spider, and it scuttles away fast as it bloody can. Alistair and Oghren are facing her wide-eyed, shields at the ready, scrabbling for weapons, but she’s shivering as she takes her own shape again. Slowly and carefully she packs eldritch limbs together into a vaguely humanoid shape and then compresses them by an effort of gathered will back into her own shape, even managing to do all this and come back with all her clothes on the right way around, still shivering, breathing hard.

So when she’s got her breath back a little she asks what the everliving perdition it was that just jumped on her, and Oghren just says that whatever it was, it got the shock of its sodding life, and she gives a slightly hysterical giggle and says that it wasn’t the only one. I ask quietly what it was that she took the shape of – her eyes are a little hollow as she says that she doesn’t know either, and Wynne asks if she’s okay, and Morrigan just answers that well, she has to be.

And there’s the point when Alistair steps on a bit of ground that Leliana had walked over just fine and it gives way, and his feet find no purchase as he tries to leap backward – luckily he only falls five or so feet, there’s a burrow underfoot full of long writhing colourless worm-things, and we don’t waste time waiting to see if they think we’re good to eat – Leliana drops down beside him and they shrink as much from the lightstone in her left hand as the blade in her right, while Oghren braces his own footing and gives the big man a hand up as if he weighed no more than I. And we all tread a bit more careful after that. Not exactly friendly territory, this, be it never so pretty in a gloomy kind of way.

*

We make our camp in a cavernous ruin that Oghren identifies as once having been the equivalent of a coaching inn; it’s got no water, nothing remains of its enchanted warmth or light and the floor’s unbroken stone, so it’s abandoned and dark, and after a brief search Morrigan declares it to have no hidden depths, so we kindle ourselves a fire at the entrance and arrange watches.

Zevran makes a slightly comic put-on of being jealous as I sit down beside Alistair to start working on the voices in my head. (Shut up, girl, you’re not comparing the two of ’em, one of the two is not allowed, remember, and the other one’s clearly both interesting and interested.) And concentrating on the voices means you aren’t concentrating on anything else around here –

Why is it so hard to listen to his voice and hear the words rather than just relaxing into the sound of it? Lucky Alistair’s as sharp-eyed as a big blond housebrick.

There’s a trick to it, listening for the enemy. Try and pick out the words and you’re fooled. They’re creatures of instinct and emotion and they can’t keep their mouth shut. You let it in, feel what they’re feeling rather than hearing what they’re saying. You learn how to listen to that and how not to, because some of what they’re feeling, you don’t want to – you keep yourself in control – and you learn to work out what they must be doing by how they feel about it. And the rest of it just comes. And to sleep? You do what I did the moment I could and you take every part of you out of the stream of their thoughts and you have the best sleep you’ve had for weeks, and you don’t feel someone curl your cloak round you so you won’t freeze come morning –

*

Wynne arranged it so the two mages had a watch to themselves in the middle of the night. She’s up already when it’s their turn, and Morrigan uncurls from her spot by the fire (she’d slept in human shape) and comes to sit beside the enchanter, blinks herself a pair of cat’s eyes the better to see with.

She arches an eyebrow at Wynne, and the older mage raises a hand and the circle she drew in the dust raises and their voices won’t carry to sleeping folk.

“Subtle,” remarks the witch.

“Not sure I particularly needed to be.” Wynne is knitting something, she’s not decided what yet. Keeps the fingers nimble.

“Yes. I know. I panicked.” Morrigan looks out into the dark quiet. “That shape was a recurrent nightmare of mine a while ago.”

“Power unleashed in strong emotion-”

“I am aware of the whole text of the speech you are about to give. It is as if I have heard it before.” She stretches out a crick in her neck. “The crack in the door gets wider and wider every time. Reach for a thing in passion and you cannot put it aside at leisure. I am not quite aware of whether you would make the obvious, inappropriate joke at this point. But, as they say, fool me twice and shame on me. Quite literally, that won’t happen again. The point of the exercise is to become sufficiently experienced before one begins to lose touch.”

“And how experienced is that?”

Sidelong look. “How would you deal with a spider in your face?”

“My staff has an all-purpose repulsion spell.” The staff is in the crook of Wynne’s arm just now. “To be honest, while it was put there to deal with situations like that one, mostly what it’s been used for in its lifetime has been people who need reminding that an attractive and unchaperoned young lady with a funny metal walking-stick is an attractive and unchaperoned young lady who can kick your testicles up through your ears. But the point is, my reflexes are deliberately trained to reach for something-”

“Safe?”

Wynne snorts. “If I wanted safe, I’d have chosen Tranquility. ‘Inextensible’, I was going to say. Something that won’t damage me if I reach too hard. It’s something we teach – it’s an actual use for the tradition that says that the staff is both badge of honour and mark of accreditation, that every mage has a staff. I’d go so far as to say that I’m very surprised to see a lack of a similar reaction in you – to react to a sudden threat without a specific spell in mind is an apprentice’s mistake where I – do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“If I may ask one back.”

“Of course. My question – your age. How old are you, Morrigan?”

“Um.” Morrigan considers. “At what age do human girls develop the ability to form coherent memories that are accessible in later life?”

“Early. Maybe five? I’m not exactly an expert. Anatomy, yes. Child development – d’you think they let a mage near a child unless they have to?”

“Then I am maybe eighteen. And no, my mother never told me exactly. I remember exactly thirteen winters.” She raises her eyebrows at Wynne’s evident surprise. “What? You thought me younger, and concealing my youth?” She looks down at herself in a slightly shameless fashion. “I suppose I should feel myself thoroughly complimented. No, this is my true shape-”

“No, dear, I thought you older.” Wynne falls easily into the professorial tone. “I have read books written by an individual known as Morrigan or ‘the’ Morrigan, variously considered the eldest, the youngest and the only daughter of the Lady of the Long Years, known in the south as Witch of the Wilds. They deal mostly with what we might call forbidden magics – a study on abominations supposedly obtained by having one chained up in one’s laboratory; a directory of demons; a treatise on shapechanging, clearly ab intra; a manual on immortality, and the degradation required to reach for it – but the youngest is really quite old. And given your evident familiarity with shapeshifting and – pardon me – your intuitive grasp of the theory of magic, I’d made the fairly natural assumption that you were she.”

Morrigan puts her head on one side to think. “You do have a little-known name of my mother’s quite correct – although it was the elves gave her it, she says, and she prefers the way the elvish word rolls off the tongue – but while I can and do read things, I swear I have never perpetrated such a thing as a written book. Out of interest – how old would that make me?”

“A hundred and forty.” Wynne looks at the young witch straight. “Your natural healing talent puzzled me, because it did not fit with a woman who would engage in some of the… work I read of, and your little display at dinner the other evening was definitely that of a young woman, but some people are like that. But you do say that you are the youngest daughter of the Lady of the Long Years?”

“Only daughter, she has always maintained. Every little girl goes through a phase of wanting a sister, she told me, every little girl who does not have a sister. But I had no sister; it was unlikely that I ever would have a sister; there would be no sister.” Morrigan swallows. “I clearly remember growing up. I know that ten years ago, my body was not adult, and today it is – you were out by a factor of seven – I will ask my mother, when I see her. It never seemed important, my age.” She shifts in her place, uncomfortable. “Thank you, for raising that inconsistency, I shall share the results of any investigation with you, and, well, I should like to see those books, and let that be an end to it for now?”

Wynne nods. “My curiosity is assuaged for the moment.”

“Time for mine.” Morrigan clears her throat. “A personal question in return, I believe you agreed to.”

“I did, yes.”

“Um.” She suddenly looks distinctly uncomfortable. “Well. Men.”

“More of a… problem than a question, yes?”

Don’t be dense, says her expression. “Your evident – or at least implied – success.”

“Hmm?”

“Er. How? I understand the mechanical aspect; I am a student of nature, as befits anyone who’d make claim to being a wise one. But I must confess, I have no idea how one persuades anyone else to go along with one’s own plans. It seems to me that it is exceptionally difficult to plan for in the general case where one requires, well, another person.” She frowns at Wynne’s ill-concealed amusement. “Well may you smirk – I swear our kind  has it over-complicated.”

“Mages?” Wynne’s voice is mild.

“Humans. There are occasions I wish I were an owl or something.”

“There are occasions you are an owl or something, dear.”

“I am uninteresting to animals while their shape, though to them I must look much like a demon of desire in the flesh. They are wiser than we, I think. But you are deflecting me.”

“No, mostly I’m amused.”

Morrigan bridles. “Yes. For why?”

“I should have gone second.” Broad smile. “Because nobody could have mistaken the young lady who asked that question for an ancient and storied witch.”

*

Next