Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-Four

by artrald

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*

The bastard isn’t dead. It fell out of the sky hard enough to crack stone and send masonry tumbling and it isn’t dead. Its wing is broken. It’s not flying down from there, but it lives. It sits back on its haunches and lets loose a brassy screaming roar and the horde redouble their assault on the walls.

Course, it’s in a bit of a bind. If the fall had only killed it, it would find itself a new body and then either throw itself into the fight again or show us a clean pair of heels.  If it hadn’t broken its wing, same thing again. As it is, though, it’s cut off from anything that might have the power to heal it, and it can’t fly out of there.

And you’d have thought that getting in would be a problem. Denerim’s a walled city: the horde have been considerate enough to come at the city from the end with the castle in it, rather than coming at the town end the way men might, but that’s the side we’re coming from –

But Maker’s breath, the gate is down. Or at least the outer one. The barbican is swarmed. A mage could stop it up, but the mages are fighting for their lives outside the wall in the wreckage of their tower, no good to anyone – I can feel the will of the archdemon, just drawing the spawn toward the gate like the tide coming in. There’s still a lot of the bastards between us and the walls, but they’re crowding for the gate – I reckon we could get up the wreckage of that tower, and Alistair agrees.

Morrigan has me dismount so that she can cast, get us in shape to try, and may I just say again that riding hard hurts, and don’t make me go into detail – I’m about to complain when I see the state that she’s in, complete disarray, wild hair falling unevenly around her shoulders, just about turned up with her tunic on, soaked like we all are from rain and sweat, mostly covered in mud. And she looks at us and just dares us to comment as she speaks her spell, a seven-pointed star drawn in the air with one finger and the last three words as a hoarse ragged shout, hammering her fist against thin air in the centre of the star with each word and it’s a starburst between my eyes like she hit me with that fist, and suddenly nothing hurts except my head.

Okay. We’ve got a place to go, we’ve got a thing to do, nothing in the way but a few hundred darkspawn. Leliana says we’ll never get through all of that; Alistair smiles like a shark and says don’t be so sure. And Morrigan glances at the horde, back at me. “Mad,” she says with the corner of a smile. “All mad. Barking and raving. Danger to yourselves and those around you.” And her form shifts like ink in water and flows back up into her horse’s shape. “Worst thing is,” she says, and shakes herself head to tail, “I think you are becoming infectious. So: shall we?”

And, well, it’s like this. A horse is a pretty damned big animal, and heavy. To stop one, when it’s moving, it takes a lot. To break a charge, you’re looking at a practical forest of sharp things and a wall of shields and a lot of bodies, or the horses just keep on going. And while the other end of the horde might have that sort of thing – this end really doesn’t. Even if they were looking our way, which they aren’t. Alistair’s had actual training for this. Maybe he’s even fought on horseback for real. Leliana hasn’t, but her horse knows what it’s about and she’s at least a decent horsewoman. Meanwhile, Morrigan’s only really an indifferent horse, but she’s got the advantage of being really quite a lot smarter than one.

The key is just to keep going – we get up as much speed as we dare, Morrigan not complaining of the tightness of my grip as I just concentrate on staying mounted, and it might be that the spawn can hear our hoofbeats over the battle’s din, but they surely don’t hear us in time. And into them and through them and outright over them we go, and the witch was right. Madness, this is. Suicide. I just hold on and hope I’ll live to tell Alistair this was the worst idea he ever bloody had.

Alistair has his short-sword drawn, laying down the odd cut to left or right, not slowing, just trying to keep going – after all, the spawn he’s riding at don’t know there’s all of one knight in this charge. If we stop, we’re dead. At least we can see where we’re going. At least we can see the light that one of the mages is using to dazzle their attackers. Leliana and I aren’t trying to fight, we’re just concentrating on staying on, keeping moving, not giving them time to realise what’s going on before we’re gone.

And it’s the damnedest bloody thing. It’s not a darkspawn, it’s not a failure of skill or of power. We’re a hundred yards from safety and it’s a bloody hole in the bloody ground. First I know of it is a shriek from behind me, Leliana’s voice, and Morrigan flicks her head to the side and then a moment later I come so very close to coming off past Morrigan’s ears as she digs in her hooves and tries to turn around.

No. No, you idiot, don’t stop, this is suicide. I guess I must have yelled that, because Morrigan stumbles, moves for just a moment like a horse couldn’t possibly do without breaking something and then she’s surging forward, half-blind, just trying to get out of here. The only way onward is forward. I can’t look round to see what happened to Leliana. I’m barely staying on Morrigan’s back as it is. No thought. Just hold on. Hold on. I hear her shout something that I can’t hear.

And then abruptly my support is gone. My hands clutch at empty air. Falling, no time to think, I try and roll rather than land on my feet. Come up covered in mud, my sword already drawn. Not surrounded by darkspawn. The light is to my left. Wynne‘s here. Morrigan’s back to her own shape, so much cleaner than she should be, the mud falling off her as she turns to look breathless back out at – We’re through. We’re through the lines. Congratulations, Wardens, you’ve got past the army and into the last stand. Wynne holding up the light on the end of her staff, five mages, four templars, the three of us and Alistair’s horse.

And Leliana isn’t there. She isn’t with us. What I heard must have been – please, Maker, no. Not like this.

“Go!” Morrigan yells. She’s planted her staff in the ground and the end of it is taking on a green brightness to match Wynne’s pearly white. When Alistair and I look at one another and hesitate, look out in the direction Leliana has to be, she shakes her head. “Our problem. Dragon to slay. Catch you up. Go!”

And I meet Alistair’s eyes helpless and he nods grimly and we do as she says.

*

To lose sight of the goal, it’d be easy. This city, last month, it was my entire world. I was born here, I was going to marry here, raise my family, live out a whole domestic little life within sight of the heart-tree and die surrounded by grandchildren in the house I was born in. And the horde isn’t just at the door, it’s opened it and it’s making a damn fine job at coming in. I daren’t glance in the direction of the alienage, of my home. I daren’t look to see if the gates are locked, if the walls are holding, if the place is all right. I can smell fire and I tell myself it’s torches and cookfires and battle-magic and not people’s whole lives. Maker protect ’em, because I can’t. Or, you know. I can. I could. I could turn round. I could get down off this wall and I could go hold the alienage gate. Ain’t a spawn alive that could hold a candle to me one-on-one in one of those alleys. I could kill ’em all day till they got bored of dying, and Maker help me, that’s what I want. But I do that and sooner or later we’re all up the spout, so, well, I don’t do that.

The army, the defenders, they’re scattered. The archdemon hit every leader it could find. Some of them are outside the walls, even. Much of the walls themselves are held. But the barbican is swarmed and there are darkspawn inside the city – some streets are being held by bloody great shieldwalls and hardly attacked while just nearby you’ve got little knots of warriors hopeless and surrounded on all sides and the whole thing, the whole damn thing is a mess. The darkspawn are trying to get through and into the keep, that’s where the archdemon wants ’em, but they’re only getting through in dribs and drabs. You know, this might just work.

Alistair slips, behind me, nearly falls, and I catch him. It’s wet, here, slick.  Rain. Come on. Not losing you as well. Can’t do this alone. There’s the keep, look. Door’s open, even. And he snorts and says that’s supposed to be a bad thing, isn’t it?

Down from the wall is easy. There are spawn in the courtyard before the keep, archers on the walls, on the upper floors still working their hardest to feather them. They don’t seem to know what their shields are for. I can hear the dragon roaring, still, up on top of the keep, I can feel its mind, it’s directing its troops, it’s got a damned good view from up there and they can hear it just fine. Down we come, leaping down from the wall like it wasn’t twenty foot tall. Alistair in shining steel, me in black and grey, and our blades are thirsty. I tell him to watch my back, and he nods all businesslike, and we make a start.

Yeah. If I just keep a lid on it, keep thinking, don’t feel, it’s easier. Not so hard to stop myself dropping everything and just killing and killing until there’s nothing left and bathe myself in their blood. The darkspawn here are mostly the bigger types, big as shems and just as clumsy on their feet. I recognise the colours on some of these shields, I recognise ’em from some of the banns I saw at the Landsmeet. Looted, they are, and as I said the spawn really don’t know what they’re doing with ’em. I guess they were expecting someone slower. Well, now they’re dead.

Through we go. Not trying to kill every one of ’em. Dead and dying shems we’re passing as well as darkspawn, but not as many as you’d think: they’re pulling back in good order, says Alistair. I can feel another wave of spawn has broken away from the fighting in the streets and they’re coming in after us. I can feel the ogre in front of us that broke this heavy door open, but the shems had already pulled back, used the time to prepare the next position. I hear the hammer of its giant fist and under it the splinter of wood. I hear the jeers of darkspawn and the yells of men. There’s a barricade across an archway, decorative little windows doing double-duty as fortifications, men behind it with spears and shields and crossbows, maybe two dozen of the darkspawn.

And, well, we killed an ogre before, right? I meet Alistair’s eyes looking for a little reassurance and he’s sort-of looking at me the same way, and I show some teeth and he gives that boyish smile of his that isn’t a lie and it’s not a joke, it’s just that sometimes you’ve just got to laugh. And we step out like it’s a tournament exhibition and the ogre turns around and its challenge is a thundering roar.

I lead. The thing comes straight at us, deceptively quick, and I dance to my right around it, feel rather than see the backhanded swat it sends at me and go around it in a blurring spin that rakes the tip of my blade across the back of its knee, but doesn’t bite deep enough to hurt it properly. As it starts to turn Alistair goes for it with a double-handed thrust, trying to put his point in under its arm where it can’t be so well armoured, but it sweeps its arm back across and makes him duck, and that lets me get in a plain simple chop that parts flesh and splinters bone and sheds blood, but the thing pretty much ignores it.

I hear a darkspawn’s excited thoughts right behind me and I twist aside without thinking, the smaller creature’s blade whistling down an inch from my back; I carry on the spin to cut down my attacker, take out another one squealing with a thrust, flash away from the one that tries to leap on me. They’re trying to isolate me, to get me away from the ogre.

Meanwhile Alistair’s giving ground, letting it swing for him and stepping easily outside its reach, taking easy shots at anything it leaves exposed. It’s bleeding from its arms in half a dozen places. But of course, it doesn’t care. Doesn’t even particularly care about living. More spawn on the way. All it needs to do is drag out the fight till we’re drowned in ’em. I flash forward and into the circle of smaller spawn around me, hitting the one in front of me in the chest with my pommel and spinning around it as it reels; kick it back into the others and turn once more to bring the edge of my crimson blade across the back of the ogre’s knee in a draw-cut.

And as it staggers it sprouts a crossbow-quarrel in the side of its neck from the direction of the barricade, and Alistair takes advantage of its distraction to land a wide cut across the thing’s belly; it screams and I sink my point in where the kidney would be in a human, and it comes out of the other side of the chest and the ogre topples forward.

With my sword still bloody stuck in it.

The spawn are on me in a moment, but I’m not exactly defenseless. I catch an axe-haft with crossed daggers, but the force of it carries me and the spawn over backwards; the bastard thing makes a good enough shield against the others for the moment it takes me to kick it off me, and suddenly this all feels very familiar, a lot of them, one of me, close quarters and my blades are shorter than theirs.

Course, a human’s a bit less likely to bite you, and a bit less likely to hurt when it does. Let’s say I’m glad of the armour I’ve got on. And a human will pull back from getting a cut that’ll kill him if he don’t get it bound up, will at least curse and limp from a stomp that I felt break toes, will care about more than just the impact if I put my knee in his cod hard enough to take him off his feet.

Then one of ’em just goes down in a spray of blood. Another loses its head. Okay, fine, Alistair’s working faster than I am. Blame the sword. Third one turns to see what’s going on, and I put both blades in the small of its back and practically take it in half. Alistair finishes that one off and takes down a fourth as I’m winding up to go for it; I weave around him calling him a thief, take the one going for his back and he claims that one counted as his. Ten swift heartbeats later and we’re standing in the middle of twenty dead spawn and an ogre.

Someone calls long-live-the-king and the shems give a ragged cheer and I give him a little joke of a curtsey and he smiles for me. That will go in the bards’ tales. But we mustn’t tarry. They let us over the barricade and I tell ’em of the spawn following us and their leader curses, and it’s upward, then, as quick as we can.

*

Whole place shakes. I guess there is rather a dragon on the roof. Another flight. Whole bastard thing started on a tower. Did I mention how I hate human stairs?

“How do we want to do this, then?” Alistair’s a couple of steps behind me, but his head’s about level with mine.

“Well, I thought we could start with killing the dragon, if that sounds right?”

He doesn’t even smile. “Stick together and cover one another, or spread out? Call for support, or do it just the two of us?”

“You’ve seen that thing. Archers might help. Spare swords will just die. You go right, I’ll go left, try and keep it between us. Any idea what kills a dragon?”

“Us, allegedly.” He shakes his head. “We know it’s agile. We know it’ll use its own pain against us. We know it doesn’t breathe fire. Put holes in it. Don’t overextend. Don’t think we can tire it out. Look out for the sharp bits.”

“And Maker forbid we get other darkspawn up here, but if we do, they’re yours.” My voice brooks no argument. “You’re quicker at killing them.”

Top of the stairs. I stop, just one moment, turn, and he and I are far too close. “I, uh.” He looks into my eyes and his face says everything his mouth can’t. “Don’t suppose I could talk you into trading places, could I.”

“Sure,” I breathe. “You go left.” And I put a hand on his breastplate and he covers it with his. “Come on. Let’s kill ourselves a dragon.”

*

The humans came up here as if they were hunting or something, with great long heavy boar-spears and with archers. You’d think it’d be a slaughter, and to be honest it was that. There have got to be half a hundred dead shems here at least, and the dragon’s still alive and kicking. It’s feathered with a dozen arrows and it’s even got a hole in its breast where a spear struck it, but it’s been killing ’em as fast as they’ll come, and the ground is uneven with the dead and slick with blood and rainwater.

But at least someone sensible got here before they ran out of huntsmen. Oghren is here, full armour and shield, and he’s got them to pull their idiot arses right back and stop putting arrows in it, because all they’re doing is pissing it off. It’s got its back to us right now, hunched over some broken masonry, looking down and out over the fight: he’s managed to persuade it they’re not a threat. He’d come here to tell ’em not to kill it; he stuck around to get ’em to stop dying. And by everything he believes in, he’s glad to see us.

I swallow hard. Alistair’s smile has gone. We’ll go for the dragon. Arrows? Arrows are good. Spears are less good. Dying is right out.

And a little mousy brown bird flutters in out of the gloom and mists into Morrigan’s shape, leans on her staff and asks where lightning comes in?

Alistair’s got enough of his sense of humour left to say that correctly directed lightning is good, and Morrigan draws breath to reply hotly when she sees the twinkle in his eye and makes herself smile. And she calls light to her staff and that makes the dragon look round –

I can feel the instant when it sees me and Alistair and it knows us for who we are. On an impulse I bring my blade up before me in a duelist’s salute. It dips its head a moment, acknowledgement.

And Morrigan hits it on the nose with a bolt of lightning.

We move in the same instant, half blinded by the flash, deafened by the thunder, but I can feel the bastard. It’s stunned an instant, the lightning and thunder doing more to hurt the creature’s sensitive eyes and ears than its scaled hide. It’s off its guard and it’s off its balance.

And that’s pretty much why we survive that first instant. Ignoring the mage for the distraction she seems to be, the dragon strikes forward like a snake might, and it’s hardly slower than a viper for all that it’s the size of a house. Goes for me. Its head is nearly as big as I am. I twist aside like I did from that ogre, going to land a long sweeping cut on its neck, but it flicks its nose and its muzzle smacks me in the gut and knocks me rolling. Alistair swings for it from the other side, going for the uninjured wing, and it just folds it back out of the way, then punches out for his face with the claw on the wing-joint as he recovers his balance and it’s all he can do to duck ungainly.

I fetch up hard against a dead shem, carry on the roll and come to my feet, already ducking the strike that I can see coming –

That was a dummy. Tricked by a bastard thing the size of a house. Alistair’s ducking another blow from that massive wing – doesn’t see the dragon whip its head around under itself until it’s nearly too late, by instinct he brings his boot up, lands a stamping kick on its nose and he’s flicked up into the air.

Meanwhile I’ve got to its broken wing. I know this hurt you before, you bastard – I bring down my blade right on the break on its wing. Scales part. Bone splinters. Black blood sprays. And the dragon screams.

It had been going for Alistair – can’t get out of the way if you’re tumbling through the air- but it settles for punching him with its good wing as it swings its head back around and he flies flat through the air and slams into a wall with the sound of cracking stone. Morrigan steps across between it and him – shields, she can do – as the dragon tries to get me the way it got Alistair.

And I’m ready for it, and I lunge at the same moment it does, flash past its head as I did before, weave to the side as it tries to flick me away and it looks like we’re dancing, then abruptly it rears up, arching its neck up out of reach of my blade as I pass under it and only the very tip of my swing bites. And Oghren yells and a half-dozen bowstrings sing at once and some of those arrows even sink in – and Morrigan shouts loud and incoherent and the whole world goes white as lightning strikes not five feet over my head.

The dragon, it recovers its senses faster than any of us. It strikes out at Morrigan in the moment before she can have those defences of hers back up – she puts her free right hand up childlike, get away from me – and it snaps its massive jaws shut neatly around her arm.

Alistair moves. Past the witch, hilt low by his right hip, point up, and the black blade scores along the bony armour of the dragon’s face and catches on a crack between scales and bites. All his strength in that lunge, and the blade goes in a good six inches and the dragon flinches back hard and fast and Morrigan is pulled over forward and all before she’s drawn the breath to scream.

And as the dragon pulls its head back I change my own target, stop trying to get under it again, turn to try and put my own point in at the corner of the massive jawbone. But the head is moving too fast – the point catches just under the dragon’s chin and the massive shock of the impact drives me to a knee even as I can feel the blade parting dragonhide, and in all of the edge of an instant an irresistible force tears the hilt out of my hands and the dragon rears upward and away from us with my sword stuck all the way up through its jaw and out through its nose.

I’m sure that bards everywhere will be cursing the way I don’t yell at the dragon, ask it for my weapon back, make a joke of this. It’s the way my friend is lying in a quickly growing pool of her own shockingly bright blood curled around what used to be her arm letting out these terrible choking sobs as she tries to summon the power to save her own life. Takes the humour right out of it, I hope you’ll fucking agree. I put my toe under the haft of a discarded human spear, flick the heavy thing up into my hand, comically oversized in my hands but it’s a weapon.

I’m sure you’re supposed to use these things in both hands, or brace them or something. But maybe I’m not listening right now. I take a couple steps forward as Alistair circles warily, waits for the thing to strike – he thinks the dragon’s in a lot less distress than it looks. I’m not really thinking at all. I’ve got the spear at its balance point, overhand. There’s a whole dragon there for me to put it in. I gather momentum – I put my whole strength behind it and all the weight I have –

Well, Alistair was at least half right. The dragon’s front right claw comes down open over me, pretty much the gesture Morrigan used, its palm hitting me in the chest, the spear glancing useless off its scales and falling from my hand, and it slams me down on the ground on my back and then it tries to throw me to the side like so much trash. But even winded, I manage still to catch onto its clawed finger as it lets me go, nearly jerks my arm out of its socket but I hang on. Dirk in my other hand – more dwarven steel for you, you bastard – and I put the point in between its rope-like tendon an its ankle bone and I twist.

Alistair’s yelling something at it about letting me go, comes in with a flicking cut up where its arm meets its body, ducks the wild swing of its claw and reprises with a stab in between two great scales that would’ve been much deeper if it hadn’t snaked its head down to try and sideswipe him. And he dances back and some instinct makes him clash his sword against the blade sticking up out of its mouth and we both can feel that hit home as the dragon tries to scream through the mouth I nailed shut.

I leave the dagger in the dragon, drop off and roll to my feet as it goes to put all its attention on Alistair. It swipes for him with a claw – he darts back, trying to keep toward the side with the broken wing – it goes for him again and I see my chance and go for its back.

Nice handhold, here. And I can see the bloody great hole Riordan was digging trying to get at something vital. Longest blade I’ve got to hand is the one Duncan gave me. I hammer it down into the wound and the dragon doesn’t even twitch.

I can’t see what’s going on in front of the dragon, it’s reared up to keep its head out of Alistair’s reach. Oghren calls out again and there are more arrows, some of them sticking in or tearing holes in the unbroken wing, some shattering against scales or glancing harmlessly away.

The tip of my dagger scores and scrapes along a bone that might as well be solid steel plate. Sticking this in again, it’s not going to work. Riordan was bigger than me and stronger, and he couldn’t manage it. But when Riordan was on the dragon’s back, it wasn’t covered in arrows for handholds – maybe if I went for its neck? I hang on for a moment, looking for a route.

And Alistair thinks he knows the dragon’s reach now: he dances back from another blow from the dragon’s talons, just outside its swing, and abruptly it blurs forward just another ten inches and what he would have narrowly avoided instead catches him full-on. His armour saves his life, but the impact still takes him off his feet; he lets out a single harsh cry as he falls and the dragon is after him in the same instant. I move as it does, letting go Riordan’s dagger and kicking off an arrow-shaft to go up the thing’s neck as Alistair goes to roll to his feet –

Pain. My left arm, my right hand, my jaw, my face, my tongue – like it’s punching me in the face with its own agony – and I make myself cling blindly to its neck as I bite off a scream and Alistair roars like a bull and the sound is cut off by the terrible sound of the dragon’s claws striking metal. It wasn’t even after me. It just wanted him blinded for one single moment.

It draws back its talon to strike again, Alistair there sprawled on his back stunned and helpless. And a sharp voice rings out across the battlement, more of an animal trainer’s snap of command than a cry of despair, “No!”

And a flicker of green light swirls down the length of Morrigan’s staff. She’s still there in a heap, her arm still a ruin – Maker, I can see white bone there – but she’s got her staff raised defiant and the light of battle in her eyes, and the dragon jerks its claw back as if stung and snakes its head to look back at her as if in surprise.

Which was all I needed. I can see the brass-bound hilt of my blade. I put my toes against one of the spikes on the thing’s neck and there’s a moment when I’m holding onto nothing at all and this ain’t exactly graceful or elegant, but my hands close around the hilt under the dragon’s chin and by reflex it tosses its head and all I need to do is hang on.

As my weight tears the red dwarven blade free of the dragon’s head in a shower and a spray of accursed blood.

*

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