Alternative Origins Chapter Sixteen

by artrald

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*

I’d forgotten what the enemy looked like. In my head they had got taller, stronger, nastier. These things are the size of dwarves – in fact, that’s what they remind me of most, thin scrawny wasted dwarves. And just as I know where they are, they know each other – they’d know me, most like, if they were looking. If they built that camp they’re using then I’m no judge – cooking hearths, it’s got, like the spawn don’t use, and defensive barricades, looks like it was set up around a stone altar that’s absolutely the secret door that Oghren says Branka was after. They’re eating, right now, and looking straight at ’em gives me in the back of my head the slimy feeling of it in the gullet and the foul taste of the slightly spoiled meat, and the foulness of it makes my fingers itch to wring their bastard necks. Crossing swords with them ain’t going to be pretty.

Huh. Funny. My hands used to shake when I was apprehensive, but today they’re steady as a rock. I report to the others and Alistair confirms not just the numbers I’m giving but that there aren’t any more of them hiding. Four dozen of ’em, maybe. I sketch the camp roughly in the dust and Wynne says their numbers will help them less than they think – it’s not a frontal assault, right, it’s making them come to us. No emissary leading these darkspawn – they’re runts, second-stringers really, the weak or the twisted – so our archers will focus on anything with a bow.

So we don’t try anything clever. Lights hooded, we take a gap between a couple of massive bits of rubble where they won’t be able to get behind us, and as one of their lookouts sees a glimmer and cries the alarm, Morrigan lifts her staff and a little thin finger of lightning reaches out and touches the spawn and it falls, and the noise makes my ears ring and Zevran winces but holds his aim steady.

The ground betrays them as they start to come for us – Wynne’s speaking quietly but confidently to the stone, recalling that proper ground is wet and sticky and holds your feet, and isn’t a proper footing at all, and we uncover our lights and Zevran and Leliana set about a little bit of an archery contest, and Alistair and Oghren and I stand with six foot between each of us and show the darkspawn what we can

The darkspawn scream for my blood and I scream back and suddenly I’m not holding a line, I’m forward and into them. The blade of Trian Aeducan is light in my hands like a willow switch, and the edge gleams blood-red in the light even before I wet it to the hilt. They throw themselves into the fight gladly and joyously and without any thought for their own selves, and there’s a little bit in the back of my head where I can see every blow and I can tell where I need to come back for a second, and Alistair needn’t have been worried about me freaking, because it’s not like I see their battle-lust and flinch from it – I take it. I snatch it from their soon-to-be-dead bloody hands and I rub their noses in it until they die of it.

Wynne has to drop her rock-to-mud spell pretty sharpish and Zevran makes a joke about a shooting gallery being no fun if you tie the targets down and more to the point a darkspawn can’t defend itself really well when its legs are mired to the knee in stone and this isn’t a fight, it’s a slaughter. A shield meets my blade and I kick the spawn in its kneecap and shove the shield with my shoulder and finish it with my point when it goes down –

So I’m standing in the middle of the camp and I can’t sense anything near me that ain’t dead and I’m looking around to double-check that we got them all, and Alistair’s there too, out of breath, and the others are coming up behind, and everything smells of blood and he catches my eye and he says, “So, did you, how’d you say, plan any of that?”

Oghren’s looking at the two of us with a new respect. I wipe blood from my left hand and use it to clear stinging sweat out of my eyes. Out of breath. Sweating. Bloody to the elbows and some of it’s mine. Stings, on my back, on my arm, on my right leg. Wait, Alistair said something. I shrug. “Worked, didn’t it?”

He looks me up and down. “Apart from the part where you, you-know, went screamingly insane, charged a dozen of them by yourself and turned them to small chunky pieces in about the time it took me to catch up?”

“And what about that didn’t work?” Looks like I don’t need to wipe the dwarvish blade clean – the liquid just beads and runs off it.

He snorts. “The bit where they nearly did you the same back?”

“Everyone’s a critic.” I sheathe my blade.

“I did say, don’t freak. Did I not say that you would have the temptation?”

“Freak, yourself.” Deep breath (ow). “It worked. I’ll do better next time.”

“You’d better.” He sees me limping and offers me a hand, which is ignored. “Our advantage over them is our minds – yours seemed to be taking a little break back there.”

“Was I or was I not extremely effective at killing the darkspawn?”

“If there had been an ogre there, I’d be burying you right now.”

“Wasn’t.” Okay, I was trying for ‘reasonable’ and that was ‘sulky’. Blame the injuries. Where’s Morrigan?

Sigh. “Kallian-”

“I get you. I’ll do better next time. No, I wasn’t planning to do that. Satisfied?”

“No. But it’ll have to do.”

*

The door opens on a stair, and a foul smell comes out, and Oghren shoves his lightstone through, blinks, and swears at length in the low growling drawl of old dwarvish.

I’m second through the door. Death, this place smells of. Two dead bodies sat on the stone steps; a man and a woman in full, battered dwarvish armour, brown and grey beneath the dried blood, Oghren’s colours. The dwarf puts his back to the wall and lets his helmet tink against it as he lets out a long breath.

“You knew ’em?”

“Uh-huh.” Oghren pokes the nearest one with his toe; the body keels over onto its side. “Annet and Carak, my dear lady wife’s bodyguards.” He sighs. “Well, I suppose it shows we’re on the right track.”

“What, and they were just… left here?” Alistair steps through and peers at the bodies. “They were covered in wounds.”

“More’n that.” Oghren shakes his head. “There were maybe three people Branka kept closer than this pair, shadin’ to two when I got myself discarded. She didn’t go to the sodding bathroom without one of ’em on guard. And they’re true warriors, not nobles playin’ soldier. Any fight they lost ain’t a fight that anythin’ walked away from.”

“And they’re on the inside of a closed door.” Morrigan kneels beside one, oblivious to the stench. “The woman dragged the man through. Darkspawn blood, look, on the threshold, no mistaking that trace of magic even if I didn’t have some right here to compare. Dwarf blood on the door-handle. It’s a little bit like a story.”

“And if it was them doing it…” Oghren shakes his head. “I’ll bet you I know where the rest of that camp went.”

“Hold the door for me, I’ll only be a little while?” Leliana has a last sweep of the camp and then steps inside. “Is that like Branka?”

Oghren shrugs heavily. “Broadly speaking. You don’t hang about on a treasure hunt, and if they found no darkspawn inside right away, well. She’d have left them to fortify the door and taken her assistant inside.”

“I see.” Leliana holds up her lightstone and looks at the walls of the passage, clear bare stone, and then down at the steps. “So we are looking now not for a whole expedition but one woman?”

“Always were.”

“Some of us might have been looking for your family, and all.” Morrigan stands and brushes herself off. “You think them dead?”

“We’re wasting time,” growls the dwarf, and he pushes himself up away from the wall. “If anyone’s alive down there, my word on it, it’ll be that bloody woman.”

“So what is, you know?” Alistair looks meaningfully down the stairs. “Worth however many lives?”

“Oh.” Oghren slings his mace and leads the way. “Caridin Thaig.”

Morrigan makes a strangled noise. Leliana asks – “Caridin? The one you mentioned in the same breath as the golems?”

“Uh-huh.” He’s silent a moment. “His creations. Greatest enchanter of history, he was, closest thing we ever had to an actual mage. You were gonna make a list of Paragons, you’d start with Aeducan, but you’d end with Caridin. Branka was obsessed. After all, here’s someone better than she is. The location of the front door of his thaig’s not too secret – it’s under a rockfall that makes anything you’ve seen look like a child’s sandcastle – but Stones alone know where she found the map to the back door.”

“And she ‘as reason to believe that Caridin’s thaig has Caridin’s secrets?”

“Mm.” Oghren runs a gauntleted finger down the smooth stone of the wall appraisingly. “The secrets of creating a golem. Enough to bet all her people’s lives. Hells, if we find ’em, the historians will say she’s right.”

“And on that alone, she took the whole house? Civilians and all?”

“Didn’t say where she was going, either. Just upped and left, said come ye who will, and twenty-eight people said hi-ho then and shouldered their picks.” He snorts. “Bugger-all civilians in the house anyway. A noble who can’t pick up an axe and make a showing in the arena is a noble basically wihout privilege – you can  counter-sue all the livelong day and argue yourself blue in the face, but if anyone says ‘trial by combat’ you’ve got to go for it. The house was her and me and her other assorted hangers-on and personality cultists – truth be told, m’girl, if she jumped into a bottomless pit, they wouldn’t even ask how she was getting out before joining her.”

“Right.” There’s a door, bigger than man-height, ten foot wide, unornamented, a little way ajar. I take place on one side of him, Alistair the other. “So. Caridin Thaig What are we expecting, in here?”

He snorts. “Anything.”

“Except darkspawn.” Alistair taps his nose. “No darkspawn. Limited how bad it can be, given that.”

“Have you heard of tempting fate?” The dwarf shakes his head in disbelief, then takes a deep breath, braces himself and kicks the door open.

*

In the event, mostly dust. Rock dust, grey-brown and fine, and heat. The very stone under our feet is quite suddenly warm. I’ve seen enough dwarven barbicans to know one when I see one, even if they were as ornate as a noble’s jevelbox and this is plain as smooth stone.

And the dust is disturbed. Zevran cries for us all to halt just as soon as he sees – did truly none of us ever learn to track? – and Morrigan drops to a cat’s shape quick enough to get Oghren to flinch.

Two dwarves came through here, armoured, both of them with minor injuries, one carrying something heavy. They didn’t come out. Zevran identifies something else – something with no smell at all, he says thoughtfully, something with big feet – Morrigan jumps up to an arrow-slit, peers, sneezes a couple of times and then drops back down, landing on her toes in human shape.

“Wynne,” she says, “you’ve met it more than I have-”

The older woman nods. “I thought I smelled something. Unrefined lyrium. Basically raw magic, the dreams of the earth if you’re being poetic. The air, the dust, it’s raddled. Even more than in Orzammar. Have a care with that magic of yours; the wind could change and you’d get yourself stuck like that.”

Morrigan mutters something about this being what you get for telling the truth about your age, and Wynne makes like her age has blunted her hearing; Oghren’s talking. “If this really is Caridin’s place, then this wasn’t a lyrium mine. It was the reason for lyrium mines.”

Zevran leads the way for us now, slinking smooth and silent as ink in water. Two people came this way, and something else, something without a smell to it, something that has Oghren raise his eyebrows and ask if we’re sure about all that having happened at once, and Zevran doesn’t say anything impolite but he and I do make sure Oghren catches the cold look we give.

No decoration here. It’s plainer than the corridors. All the other dwarf stonework has carvings, decoration and such, but this is bloodlessly functional. Clearly we’re coming in the back way, some sort of sally-port or bolthole; the dwarves’ tracks are making a beeline for something on a lower level, but there are others of the strange tracks that nobody’s going to put a name to until we find one of the things that makes ’em, although by now nobody’s doubting. All going the same way, agree our two trackers, and it’s the way we want to. Suspicious?

Anyway. These stairs – it’s not till I see Oghren complain that I realise. The steps are too tall. I’m used to it – in my world, steps are always too tall. But in a dwarven thaig, whose builders would’ve been my height or a little less? I call attention and by this point Oghren says that there’s absolutely no doubt what we’ll find, and there’s a little gleam in his eye I hadn’t been expecting that says he thinks he’s going to like it.

Beginning to think that Bhelen’s not the only dwarf with a bloody odd set of priorities in their head.

*

Okay. Zevran clicks his fingers and hisses for quiet. His hand flickers through a sign I don’t recognise – quiet sigh at our blank looks – holds up two fingers, folds down one, and gestures meaningfully at a side door.

You know? I should have picked that up – in the sudden quiet I can hear breathing. Not sounding good, either. No sense of darkspawn from that direction, of course. We’ve got ourselves one of our dwarves.

Zevran and I ghost in first, stepping so soft we barely disturb the dust, but someone’s swept this room clean, stopping right at the doorway like a sulky housemaid determined to do only and exactly what she’s told. It’s a workroom, with a sand-table and a metal desk with a funny angled top onto which a curling leaf of much-scraped parchment is held with a couple of bits of lodestone, an ivory pen in the well beside it – and then somebody seems to have set themselves up a camp for two people in the corner of the room, bedrolls and blankets and packs and all, and not a thing for heat – still a little over warm up here, after all.

And we needn’t have bothered with such quiet, because the dwarf in one of the bedrolls is quite asleep. A woman, youngish and pinched-looking compared to the dwarves I’ve met, mouse-brown hair all braided up, a blindfold drawn firmly down over her eyes against the light. Her shallow breathing rasps unpleasantly.

The question of an ambush or alarm got rid of, I lean back into the stair and beckon for Oghren, and he purses his lips for a moment when he sees the woman before nodding.

“Assistant,” he mutters softly. “Adores her; could be useful to wake.”

No reaction of his own. Is it just that all dwarves are this cold? “You want to do it? She’ll know your face?”

He nods, stumps over without a pretence of quiet and gives her a poke with his toe. “Hespith. Wake up, lady, you slept in.”

“Ohh.” Her eyes are an iridescent beetle-wing blue as they flutter open, and she coughs and it don’t sound healthy. “Is it time, yet?”

“What’s that you’re blathering?” His tone is a smidgen gentler than his words.

“Branka?” She moves a little, turns her head to look up at the armoured figure. Coughs again.

“Guess again.” He bends down to her and frowns a little. “Uh. Wardens? I think we’ll need that healer of yours.”

*

“All right.” Wynne helps the dwarf woman into a sitting position. She looks her patient in the somewhat unsteady eye. “What you need is food and drink, as much as you can stomach, and bed rest. What I’ve put on you will get you that far, all right?”

The woman smiles gently. “It is all right. I didn’t need your help-”

“Balderdash.” Wynne frowns. “If you were human, I’d say the odds were evens that you wouldn’t have woken up on your own, way you were. When did you last eat?”

She shakes her head. “You don’t understand.”

“I do.” Oghren’s expression is level and his voice is measured; he’s got the expression of a man halfway through lifting the bag of jewels out of the safe. “How long will the spell keep?”

Wynne makes a face. “Until she next dreams. Magic doesn’t take well to dwarves, it’s the lyrium in their bodies, like templars.”

“Right.” He hunkers down so he can look in Hespith’s eyes. “Feel like sayin’ what happened? Where the lady is? What’s up, here?”

The thin little dwarf pulls her blanket closer around her shoulders. Her face is aglow with a kind of fanatical certainty. “History shall say that the greatest thing any of our families ever did was to beget sons and daughters who helped us make it through that door. History shall – we did it, Oghren, we did it, we won. Branka shall have saved us all.”

Oghren scowls and tries again. “Look, you nug-faced little – Where. Is. Branka.”

“The workshop, of course. Working on our salvation.” She sighs dreamily. “With Caridin.”

Blink. “With who?”

“Paragon Caridin. He met us at the door. You must know he lives here. He’s been very helpful.”

I’ll say this for Oghren, surprise don’t make him freeze. He shoots to his feet and makes unceremoniously for the door and the other dwarf is only slower because her blankets are in the way; not clear if she’d be trying to stop him if she could, but he’s going at the kind of stumping inexorable pace that most of the brick walls I know wouldn’t like to try and stop.

*

We follow. The dust is thicker down here, but it’s only disturbed in the one direction, so even I could work out the way to go. Around a couple of corners, through an arch, down more tall stairs – by now we can hear hammering, and a woman’s cold clear voice giving instructions –

There’s a door, and unlike the others in here it’s closed, and unlike the others in here there’s something guarding it. Like a dwarf of Alistair’s height the golem stands, the size of the ogre we killed at Ostagar, hands the size of my ribcage, its skin carven brown stone wrought with shiny green writing I can’t read, its face crudely chiseled away to leave a blunt craggy inhuman flatness, and it holds up a massive hand.

“No entry.” Its voice you’d expect to be deep and stony; it’s a surprisingly sharp contralto.

“That’s nice,” Oghren growls. “I’m a deshyr of the Assembly of Orzammar, here to see the head of my house on business of state. By the Law, by the King in Assembly and the Paragons themselves I bid you stand aside for me.”

“Screw the King,” the golem says conversationally. “Screw him with a rusty bardiche, sideways. Bugger the Assembly with a radish, wipe their butts with the Law, and it wouldn’t be the first time either. You can stick your ‘orders’ up any three of your favourite orifices and I’ll help you find yourself a hammer to help’em get comfortable.”

“Listen, friend-”

“No, you listen.” The golem looks down at Oghren and makes a ball of a fist by its side. “I’ll make it real simple for you. Take one step toward my post and I’ll hit you so hard you’ll be shitting out your front teeth, you digusting excuse for the flyblown produce of a diseased asshole. I owe Orzammar less than I owe the fifteen-pound crap I left in the barracks privy five hundred fourteen years ago, and I like it less. You got me on that, son?”

Oghren’s weapon hand doesn’t even twitch. Not that it’d help if it did. “You mind answering me something?”

“Fuck your momma.”

“Did Branka order you to hold the door, or did Caridin?”

The golem raises one massive fist and actually takes a quick step forward, and I’m not the only one to tense ready for a fight – Oghren just stands there, completely unruffled. It stops, three feet from him, cocks its head slightly. “Huh.” It uncurls the raised fist and puts that hand on its giant stony hip. “Branka did. You here to grandstand, you and your little topsider friends?”

“Nope. Did she give orders about defending her person?”

If the golem could scowl, it would. “Her wellbeing. All of us.”

He nods. “Those orders binding on you somehow?”

“Ya-huh. Sucks the big hairy one, let me tell ya.”

The other dwarf bristles, behind him, but Oghren ignores that entirely. “Right. Because me and my friends here, we’re here from Orzammar specifically to ensure her wellbeing.” His tone of voice drips with insincere sweetness and light and the golem makes a noise that might be something like an unpleasant laugh.

“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” It looks over the rest of us. “As you are a deshyr of our most ancient and respected ally, it would be my unmitigated pleasure to grant you and your friends unrestricted access to this door that for reasons of the preservation of the good lady Paragon’s safety in event of emergency I have been forced to keep unlocked.” It takes two neat steps to the side, chillingly light on its massive feet, and gives a salute with a fist over where its heart would be if it had one.

Oghren mirrors the salute with much the same air and pushes the great doors unceremoniously open. Heat spills out, and orange light. It’s like one of those fanciful paintings of the Maker’s forges in here.Larger than life and louder and dustier, and the place is full of golems – what are there, twelve of ’em in here? Looking clearer, the place is laid out in a semicircle around a raised central area, and the orange light and dry baking heat in the room are rising from banked square holes in the floor, like furnaces, but the smell is that of brimstone rather than smoke.

There’s a dwarf on the dais, full leathers she’s in against the heat, looking closely over something on the great anvil there, but she’s not wielding the hammer – there’s a golem doing that. Every few moments she glances over at one of the golems and calls out a new instruction in a loud, clear, icy cold voice, the kind of voice polished steel would have if it could talk.

“We right?” I murmur to Oghren.

“Three guesses,” he says, and starts to stump over to the dais. The golems – it’s funny. If it was people working this place you’d expect them to look up. They don’t. They look deliberately to their tasks, like I’d do back home if I was sweeping a floor and a customer walked by in a bottle-throwing rage. It’s only when he gets right up to it that the dwarf Hespith sees the thing on the workbench up there – it’s vaguely humanoid – and says in a loud aggrieved voice that we said it was time and it isn’t, we went and woke her up for no reason (what?) that Branka looks up from the work, pushing up smoked-glass goggles to reveal a face only a gold-digger could love. Her expression is entirely unmoved.

“I was under the impression,” she says loudly and distinctly, “that I had specified that my work could not be interrupted for any reason. Continue exactly like that,” she throws over her shoulder at the golem working at the anvil she’d been looking at.

“Don’t you ignore me.” Oghren steps up onto the dais to look Branka in the eye, and I can see eleven golems downing tools and moving softly to places they could be dangerous, and the frail Hespith puts a hand on his arm that he ignores.

“You’re interrupting.”

“That’s your response?” Oghren’s voice is every bit as loud as his ex-wife’s. “You know they tried to have you declared dead? When they found darkspawn camped in the place of your sodding expedition? You know?”

“Then they’re idiots, and will learn.” Her eyes flick to the other dwarf. “Hespith, you know you shouldn’t be stressing your system in your condition; our supplies will only barely support you for long enough as it is. Go to bed immediately.”

“Yes, Branka.” She drops Oghren’s arm and just turns and starts to walk away. What is it with this woman?

The hard-faced Paragon looks back to Oghren. “And as for you-”

“You are coming with us.” His expression is just as implacable as hers. “I’m taking you away from here.”

“You aren’t.” Branka flicks her fingers to the half-circle of golems. Zevran and I are watching them rather than her – they’re moving soft as pussycats stalking mice, if a pussycat was seven or eight foot tall. “I’m sure your surfacers are quite up to the challenge of a few darkspawn and assorted cave-fish, but let’s really not be moved to irrationality over who’s got the force here.”

Oghren’s mouth twists like he ate something spoiled. “Your little toy works, I see.”

“We knew that before we left Orzammar,” she sneers. “Chance is for amateurs. And it’s not like it’s a new design, either – designs were right there in the Shaperate in beaten bronze, the idiots never throw anything away. Go home, Oghren. I’ll be back soon enough.”

“No.” The golem working on Branka’s forge is the one to speak. Between one blow of the hammer and the next it lays the tool down and turns, its voice deep as distant thunder. “Paragon, you cannot allow them to leave.”

She doesn’t even look at it. “I did not order you to cease.”

The tone of its voice is that of an aged man speaking to a much-loved but unruly granddaughter. “Not to disagree, Paragon, but you did. Your standing orders to all of us to make our best efforts to safeguard your wellbeing override your casual instruction to carry on with my work.”

Her eyes narrow, looking at us, calculating. “Go on.”

It gestures to Zevran. “Perhaps you have no experience of topsiders, Paragon, but I do: an elf who wears Grey Warden colours but carries a bow is an elf who can draw, aim and loose an arrow before any of us can do more than shout a warning, an arrow with more than enough force to be deadly. If they are here to kill you, Branka, you must have us restrain or otherwise incapacitate them immediately. Or you will die the instant you turn your back.” It shrugs. “In fact, I am surprised you are still alive.”

Another of the golems speaks up. Its voice is a woman’s, middle-aged and mellow. “Caridin speaks truth, Paragon. If they mean you ill, we are unlikely to be able to stop them, especially now they know that our overriding order is to ensure your wellbeing.”

Oghren’s eyes widen as he looks from Branka to the massive form behind her and it’s a moment before he can muster a sound. “c-Caridin?”

She shrugs. “He was here. Is it true that you brought assassins, Oghren? You’d raise a hand to a Paragon, even if it weren’t your own? In fact, that’s a fine question – why are you here? I left you at the bottom of a barrel; I left you supplied with such barrels for life. And here you are, squeezed into your old armour and with mercenaries at your back-”

“Bugger that. You’re using Paragon sodding Caridin – one of the two greatest dwarves who ever put hammer to iron – as a forge-wright?”

“I’m clearly getting nothing useful out of you.” She shakes her head. “Answer my question or I’ll have you ejected and get myself back to my work.”

“Fine.” Oghren grits his teeth. “The king is dead, Branka, the Assembly is deadlocked and we need your vote.”

That cracks the mask. First flash of emotion she’s shown and it’s irritation. “You came all this way – you interrupted my work – for that? You need me to come and decide which of the squabbling Aeducan brothers gets to wear a decorative hat?” She curls her lip. “Idiot. Fool. Let the Aeducans choke on their own stupidity. Begone before I have you removed, husband mine.”

Caridin – if that’s his name – the forge golem, he raises his voice. “Paragon, I warn you. If the Assembly is deadlocked and that man is your husband, your death is as good as your vote.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Thank you, Caridin.” Puts a hand to one of the tools hanging from her belt, a curious cylindrical rod of carven onyx. “Eject them,” she says, and her voice has a flatness, a curious unreality to it, and it’s a moment before anything moves –

My reflexes are fastest, bar the golems’. I’m already by Oghren’s side as he starts moving – he’s going for her by the throat, and the great golem Caridin is already going to put himself between the two dwarves. Zevran has an arrow to his bow and drawn in a flash and flicker, but with Oghren and me in the way there’s no clear shot.

I go by under the golem’s massive right arm and I’m after the rod on Branka’s belt as she starts to back away, throwing a pathetic slap of a punch at me right-handed – from behind me there’s the terrible crack of the golem’s fist striking Oghren’s armoured gut – I get Branka’s wrist by in my left hand, try and unbalance her toward me but she’s not coming, and my other hand closes on the rod and it’s bloody chained to her and every golem in the room just dropped everything to go for me.

Shit.

She grabs my hand over the rod, rather than my wrist, and I feel my bones creak in her grip. No matter that I’m maybe a bit stronger than her, the Wardens’ curse doesn’t make you weigh any more, so she’s maybe three times me, and all she needs to do is hold me still for the golem to smash.

Guess she wasn’t expecting the hard bit of my forehead in her nose. Something breaks but she doesn’t move – I duck just as Caridin makes a grab for me and his massive hand goes over my head – Branka’s trying to twist my hand, to make me drop the rod, and I think I must have yelled something like “Let go!” and my voice echoes strangely flat.

And Caridin stops absolutely dead for a second and cocks his head and asks “Of what?”, and Branka’s eyes widen, and suddenly she’s throwing herself at me as I waste an instant realising that the rod just sort of works, no command word or mystic rune or anything. The shock of her impact pretty much bowls me over and she’s trying to headbutt me – I get a foot in her gut and throw her over me; she tries to roll away with the rod still attached to her and I lose my grip on her other wrist; keeping my grip on the rod nearly pulls my arm out of its socket.

We roll to our feet together; I come up with a dirk in my free hand and she with some kind of spike-headed hammer in hers, and she snarls “Don’t just stand there!” and the golem next to me looks down at the two of us and moves quickly and smoothly –

To phlegmatically just stand somewhere else as I stab Branka through the wrist and the vice of pressure on my hand gives way. “Stop,” I say loud and clear, and the golems – who now you come to mention it, seem to have been getting in one another’s way just fine in their apparent haste to come and help – come as one to a dignified and motionless halt.

She lunges for me with the hammer and I sway out of the way, a yank on the chain of the rod pulling her a little off-balance, but it was a feint – she drops the hammer and wraps her good hand around the end of the rod just long enough to look at me with mad eyes and say “Kill.”

And the massive golem standing just behind us brings its hand down blurringly fast with bone-crushing force.

On Branka.

*

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