Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Seven

by artrald

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*

Bethany

It had begun as a game, using the sense for details the Gift grants me to very very quietly work out who was about to order what. No outward sign of magic unless I’m stretched right to the limit. The Chantry teach that a mage has a sense for your secrets: as usual, it’s a little bit of a lie. This mage has a sense for details, for small things, for what’s important about her surroundings, for the things that would be the only things that we’d be seeing if this were a dream. And right now, that sense was telling me I had four pairs of eyes on me, and at least two of them reckoned that the one who didn’t bring a weapon was the real danger.

From Tobias’ first description of who the witch Flemeth wanted us to meet as part of his service to her, I was expecting either ragged unwashed peasants or slightly sad brigands or both. Living in the woods free and masterless sounds romantic, but it’s the freedom to die in a ditch that it sounded like they had. You can’t eat hallowed lore or clothe your children in the ancient songs of your people. And the first Dalish elf I saw didn’t do much to disabuse me. Tobias was watching the person, the weapon; I was noticing that he wore no armour, one single shapeless tunic in peasant green, rope belt, no hose, bare feet. The others kept to the woods as we followed the one we could see. Four of them watching us, I think.

I suppose that to them we must have been pretty intimidating: brutish ogres with a known habit and form of violence towards their kind. I saw a giant once, in the Lowtown market, and even though the great horned creature had been behaving just the same as any other civilised being, the raised hackles and distrustful stares I noticed that day were just the same as what I could feel pointed at my back as we followed this little low switchback path that had all of us ducking our heads.

The camp itself – well. I’d expected another clearing, but the elves had set themselves among the trees and cleared as little of the undergrowth as possible. And I hadn’t smelt their cook-fires or seen the smoke, and indeed I do suspect we’d have walked almost right past this place and been none the wiser if we’d not been led here. And even then, walking through what I could sense was home to maybe fifty people and more, I could hardly see half-a-dozen with my eyes. And while not exactly quite silent, the camp wasn’t far off: those elves that spoke to one another did so in whispers, in their own language, and without taking an eye off us.

We were led to a little clean-swept campfire circle where logs had been neatly set like benches for what reminded me strongly of an audience chamber; we were invited politely to sit and wait; clear that Aveline would have a dozen questions for Tobias not to answer before talking to this ‘Marethari’, clear too that Tobias actually knew far less than you’d suppose. My shoulder-blades itched: I knew damn well there was someone either right behind me or right above me, dead still, dark eyes fixed on me, soot-blackened blade already drawn –

“Well met,” said a woman’s voice, and if there had been a ceiling here I’d’ve hit it. Eyes wide open, concentrating so hard I was starting at shadows, noting every twitch of a leaf, submerged entirely in this nightmare of being stalked by these fierce deadly shadows of elves and I’d missed entirely the little woman leaning unconcerned against the tree right in front of us. I crammed my hand over my mouth to stop my intake of breath turning into a scream.

Aveline, too, had flinched, her right hand on the hilt of her peace-bound sword in the time I’d taken to blink; Tobias hadn’t moved at all, but he’s the type who freezes still when he’s surprised. And then he smiles broadly, which was what he did next. “Well met. Do I assume I speak to Keeper Marethari?”

The elf smiled. “Only you can answer that, Tobias who conjures with old names.” She stepped away from the tree and came and sat down, and here indeed was someone well-dressed: the walnut brown of her long tunic glittered with fine threads of what had to be rose-gold in the embroidery, patterns looping endlessly into and over one another in a way that would be the envy of the finest Orlesian tailor. A long, brown tattoo after the same style curled under her chin and up the left-hand side of her face and up into her brindled hairline, and her face was neither old nor young. And she sat, simply, and folded her hands and looked none of us in the eye, and said, “So, conjurers. What would it be that ye’re here to gain?”

“Straight to it, I see.” Tobias began to tease off the leather glove he was wearing on his left hand. “And they say the art of small talk is dead.”

“It is.” She sniffed. “I can only suppose that it must have met a -” And as his glove came off, her demeanour changed entirely; she put her head almost entirely on its side, snapped her gaze round to fix on his hand, opened her big sleepy eyes wide. “What is that?”

Tobias turned his hand to show off his ring, you know, that silver signet ring of Flemeth’s that he always wore. “This?” He held it out and the elf recoiled a little. “A little token from she whom I-”

“It’s more than a token, human, as well ye’re aware.” She looked up into his eyes a moment. “You are who ye claim, I’ll grant that. Your mistress’ words?”

He nodded. “Simple. I’m to bring this to the Place of Rest and have your people’s funeral rite spoken, and I was led to understand this isn’t unexpected.”

“It’s not, at that.” She sat back, and clearly she was restraining the urge to get that thing as physically far away from her as possible. “You understand that I’m asking a price for our assistance?”

“My mistress neglected to mention.” Tobias smiled faintly. “And yet, how am I not surprised?”

The elf matched his smile. “It’s like for like, naught you can’t do: I’ll not have such as her in my debt. The one who will perform your rite, she’s on the summit path. Careful with her, because the world’s only got one of her – heh.” She flicked her eyes up to match his for a moment with just the tiniest trace of mirth. “I don’t think it could handle another. She’ll be coming with ye thereafter, and our price is to see her safe.”

He blinked. “I’m to take her away with me?”

“Aye. Her own will, it is, and I’ll see her safe while she’s still my responsibility. I’d like you to give her passage to the city, show her around a little perhaps, and deliver her to the elder of the alienage.”

“It’s, uh. Not exactly the place I’d choose for a relaxing sightseeing tour if I were one of your people?”

A tiny frown. “A misunderstanding, I fear. Her will is to leave us. Permanently. Ye’ll see her safe to our kin?”

We can do that.” Tobias tucked his glove into his belt. “So. Which way to the place?”

“Do have a little respect, there’s a good human.” Marethari unfolded herself from the log and raised her voice just a little. “Ochel?”

‘Ma nuven’in, hahren.” I’d seen the elven woman standing seven feet behind Tobias; clearly he hadn’t. “Come, humans. And watch your step, aye?”

*

The path shadowed a little splashing stream as it wound its way up the side of the hill, trees growing at tenacious angles up from cracks in ancient stonework – and from the age of the trees, the steps and the half-collapsed little walls and arches must have been half as old as the mountain. Our guide melted away into the trees as we met the first little ancient bridge over the stream, and there sitting cross-legged on a rock with her back toward the whole world was a thin scrawny dark-haired elf in a simple undyed tunic, and when Tobias cleared his throat politely she squeaked and fell off the rock sideways.

Tobias started to take a step forward to offer a hand, and Aveline took his elbow to stop him; the elf pulled herself into a little coiled knot on the ground, wary eyes on us, and when we did not fall upon her ar once she stood with what was clearly intended to be dignified grace and clasped a hand before her in a strange gesture that looked to be some sort of ceremonial salute. “Anderaan atisha’an el’vhena, s’era’ma falen,” she said, her diction clear and precise like a teacher demonstrating a point, her eyes fixed on the floor about a foot in front of us. “Emma Merrill sule’vi da, ai ma’falen’an dirth se’vhai, shemlen: se’ai da?” And after just the slightest pause, like she’d been expecting us to butt in, she added more slowly in what was clearly a talking-to-foreigners voice, “Se’ai era falen’an dirth da?”

“Aveline?” Tobias whispered from the corner of his mouth.

“Only word I recognised was ‘humans’,” she muttered. Tried a smile, spread empty hands. “Do you speak our tongue, sera?”

The little elf considered. “I speak this tongue, if that’s what you’re getting to?” An owlish blink. “Only, I just wanted to let you know that I do really mean what I’m saying because otherwise you might think that I wasn’t bothering to do it all properly and that would be a terrible first impression for me to make and you must understand that I’ve never really met your type before, not to speak to, so you’ll just have to excuse it when I sound a little unfamiliar or go on a bit.” She paused, possibly for breath. “So? Do you?”

Tobias raised his eyebrows. “Do we what?”

Se’dirth falen’an o-or at least dirth atisha’an da? Only it’s half a mile’s climb or better and if I stand here all day wondering if you’re going to do something horrible to me while you dance around the matter then I am afraid the clan won’t think much of any of us, not that that’s hard or that anyone gives a gnat’s if you do? Apart from me, of course, clearly I don’t want to be-”

“You’re quite safe with us, whatever those words mean.” Tobias gave her a slight bow, keeping his eyes on her. “I’m Tobias; these are Bethany and Aveline, and we’re not here to hurt anyone. I’m here doing an errand for the one that your people call-”

Aiyah!” The elf’s eyebrows shot up. “Dread Wolf, you want her to hear us? I mean, I know your mistress, it’s on your face like your nose, and there’s being safe around people and then there’s conjuring with names, and the two don’t look one to me – uh.” She settled, bit her lip. “I’m supposed to take you to the halam’an. Those words that you used, that’s how your type tell someone that you aren’t a worry to them?”

“Pretty much, yes.” Tobias nodded to the track. “Uh. Lead on?”

“Oh! Of course!” Abruptly she smacked herself in the forehead with the heel of her hand. “You don’t speak elvhen – how dumb am I? The name of this idiot is Merrill, and the other thing I said was that I’m coming in peace, although you guessed that already, I’m thinking, and thank you a great deal for your forbearance.” She bent down and picked up a little leather satchel from behind the rock, which she slung carelessly over a shoulder. “D’you prefer to talk, on the trail, or to be silent? I prefer to talk, see, only this clan – I wasn’t born to this clan, you know, I was ‘prenticed here – a lot of them would rather have the time to meditate on glories lost or something and I wondered if you were the same?”

“D’you ever stop talking?” Aveline mostly sounded amused, which made two of them: I didn’t really know what to make of this miniature chatterbox.

Merrill flashed a smile, gone almost as soon as it appeared. “To breathe, sometimes, and often to eat or drink. My mother always said I had a gift. I’ll lead the way, but I don’t know how sure your feet are, so we’ll go the route with all the steps. Our ancestors used to live near here, you know, cut these steps out of the mountain back when the whole slope was one of our burial grounds. It’s a dumb idea to pitch so much as a tent here, let alone that termite mound you call Kirkwall – always wondered how the place didn’t fall down of its own accord, but I suppose I’ll see soon enough. Onwards!” She started up the steps, and despite her size it was astonishing how fast and sure-footed she moved, and somewhere between bemused and confused we followed.

*

It was a nice enough climb; the stream fell prettily through a bed that was probably a culvert once, and there was a sense of cool quiet peace to the whole place that even the others remarked on. The elf, as predicted, chattered on about anything and everything that came to mind – surprisingly erudite for a glorified outlaw, and painting a picture of a scholarly debate about the purpose of a variety of the structures we passed – and I was beginning to wonder if the tribe were getting rid of her for any more reason than her incessant talking.

Anyway, as we climbed, and as I was getting a little out of breath, the sensation which had been one of gentle peace was growing and deepening. Peace. Quiet. Stillness. Emptiness. And as we kept climbing it kept growing worse, like I wasn’t walking on the ground at all, like thin ice over a deep blue lake, like a rickety bridge over a bottomless chasm, like standing on the edge of a cliff and looking straight down –

“Do you feel that?” I cut across Merrill’s rendition of a story supposedly older than Kirkwall. “Aveline?”

“A little, like I said.” She took a long deep breath. “Peaceful. Still. Almost – I don’t know.”

“Almost like this was a holy place, once.” Tobias’ voice was hushed.

“Not holy,” Merrill said quietly. “The gods never had a thing to do with this place.”

“Need we be on our guard?” Aveline’s hand dropped casually to her hip.

Merrill shrugged. “I’ve never heard of humans up here before. And would your mistress send you up into danger so?”

“Not my mistress,” I said, quietly, carefully. “And I think she’d laugh out loud at the thought. Just – look. Be careful, all right? What I can sense is like looking down and seeing a hundred yards of drop onto razor-sharp rocks and dark bottomless water.”

We climbed on another little while, even Merrill somewhat subdued. Then, “So you’re Gifted?” she said unconcernedly as we crossed a little bridge over another waterfall and I tried not to think of depths and falls.

Gritted teeth. “I am, yes.” I made it across the bridge and resisted the urge to cling to something large and solid.

“Oh, good. I was wondering which of you was.” She had hushed her voice a little, but the tone was still determinedly bright and cheerful. “And in that case, it’s only courtesy to offer. There’s a door ahead. I know how to open it, but you’re the guest, so professional courtesy says you can if you-?”

Blink. I shook my head. “Uh! No. No, I’d rather not try and magic creepy ancient ruins, if you don’t mind.”

“For sure.” She ducked her head. “Tobias, wait up a moment: we’ll stop by that arch just there? The one you can’t see?”

Tobias and Aveline, of course, froze at that one; it was Aveline who threw Merrill a sharp look. “I’m sorry, I can’t quite make out where the arch that we can’t see is supposed to be?”

But the elf was irrepressible. “Oh! You’re stood right there by it, is all.” The thing didn’t look any different from any of the other ruined bits of stonework around, and yes, I could see it just fine – an unassuming dull grey arch of stone half clogged with rubble and dirt, and behind it what looked like a dull unassuming clearing with a stone table in the middle. It seemed nothing special, until Tobias experimentally waved his hand through the arch, causing a spike of pain to strike me right between the eyes and that unpleasant vertiginous feeling to try and make my gut drop me through the floor –

And as he made to wave his hand back through, suddenly Merrill was there – one instant she was right next to me, the next she’d grabbed his wrist, and she’d hardly seemed to cross the space between them, and she’d sunk her nails in nearly hard enough to draw blood. Met his eyes a moment. “Enough of that, please,” she said, and her affable tone of voice didn’t change appreciably. “Would you poke so at a starving weasel?”

He frowned. “What is it?”

“Oh,” she said offhandedly, loosening – but not releasing – her grip.  “This is the gate to the halam’an. I assume you were told how to behave?”

“Let’s assume not, shall we?” Aveline held herself as still as she possibly could.

“Oh. Fair warned, then. It’s a – I’m sorry, I don’t really know the translations of the words. A thin place? You might say it’s haunted, and d’you suppose the spirits of the ancient elven dead are going to be pleased to see the people who taught them what death was? The answer’s no, and we’re not going to be finding that out, because you’re not going to be doing anything other than your business, or you’ll get left to fend for yourself, sulevi’an?” She showed her teeth. “Because I’d be running for my life and soul, is why. We’re going in there for one thing, look you: we’re going to do it and we’re going to leave. Your sister will back me up?”

… Haunted? Was that what I was seeing? I settled for nodding what I hoped was wisely.

“Creepy ancient graveyard: no poking. Got it.” My brother never did know when to let it go.

“All right.” She dropped his arm and gave him a little push. “Back a pace, then, please.” And she clasped her hands in front of her, cracked her knuckles and then sank a sharp little tooth into the corner of her fingernail.

No – no. She couldn’t possibly have been –

She was. She was. The elf pressed out a drop of blood, reached out her finger – the others probably didn’t know what they were seeing, but you can damn well bet that I did. She was whispering to herself in her own language as if trying to call something to mind, and I could feel the same feeling of a great dark wave that I’d felt from Flemeth’s magic. The little droplet of blood was bubbling, boiling on her fingertip, and with a slightly sick feeling I could see more blood flowing out of the tiny cut and boiling off into the air as she whispered. And the vertigo, the depth that I’d been feeling, it started to recede. Her breath started to come faster, her hand shaking a little, her eyes very wide; I felt the temperature physically rise as every leaf and flower within sight started slowly to turn to face her, as the shadows seemed to lessen and wane, as the whole world around us seemed somehow to come awake.

And the doorway, that I’d seen as grey stone, seemed to weave itself solidly into existence. She’d chosen – and it was deliberate, I was sure – to cover it in bindweed, with cute little white flowers bursting forth and all of its heart-shaped leaves trained to her rather than the sun, the rubble blocking it transfigured into a little wicker gate that she unlatched and stepped through, turning on the soft mossy ground the other side to beckon, sticking her bleeding finger in her mouth.

Had I really seen that? Was that blood magic? The bugbear of the Chantry, the most dangerous thing any thinking creature could possibly do, and she’d pulled it out and put it away like a cat’s claw and all it did was make the whole place burst into beauty and life? Meanwhile Tobias stepped boldly forward; Aveline looked at me as if to ask how dangerous it was, and the best I could give her was raised eyebrows and a worried shrug, and she gritted her teeth and stepped in as if to say that we’d come this far. So I followed – what else was I going to do? – and as we stepped through into the ancient graveyard I tried to clear my mind, tried to be prepared for anything, like slipping a peace-knot quietly off a weapon.

*

Haunted – I can see why Merrill said it, but it’s not the word I’d have chosen. I’m sure that Tobias and Aveline just felt a little unsettled, hairs on the back of the neck, that sort of thing: to me it was like falling into a waking dream. Their minds would fill in for them that the sky was blue, that the sun was shining, that they could still hear the birds in the trees and the sound of the waterfall, that this little clearing was actually only fifty feet across, that the edges were stone walls on the one side and gnarled trees on the other: none of it was true. The sky was no particular colour. The light in the sky was less than half the sun’s responsibility. And any one of us could have set out from here in any direction and walked straight off the mountain and probably kept going.

To me, we were stood on a flat little bit of mountainside that was also a dream. The Chant speaks of the Fade as an ocean: if that’s true, well, we were standing on the beach with the surf lapping at our toes. There was a distinction here, between Fade and real – but you could almost literally put your hand through it. And I could hear them, the dreams, the demons. They were just out there, just the other side of the earth and the sky. They’d heard the door opening, and I tell you for true, it was enough to make you want to turn right around, slam that door and run.

But we were here to do a thing. That altar was real, and the ring that Tobias slipped off his finger was real, and Merrill shook her head rapidly as he offered it to her to hold, and he put it on the altar with a very solid very real little click.

“So, uh.” Tobias couldn’t take his eyes off the ring. Clearly repeating something he’d memorised. “I hereby commit this… ring to the silence of memory. My friend and companion has it been, but now it will go where I do not wish to follow.” He moistened dry lips. “Ha’hren, I would speak the words, but this is a fallen age and they are forgotten. I would ask you to speak them for me.”

Merrill nodded solemnly. “Emma nuven’in, da’len.” She shaped an odd sign over the ring with her hands, then touched her fingertips together before spreading her hands palm-down over the altar in the manner of a priestess giving a benediction, and she began to speak in a slow, low, measured tone in her language. And the mental image for me was of someone building a tower, each word clicking into place like  another brick in the wall –

A familiar feeling, a soft moment, and as she spoke, the ring was beginning to unravel, flowing out across the altar like smoke, stopping at the edges of the flat surface, swirling and gathering and flowing to take shape, and I could have told you even before it was obvious that the shape was that of a woman’s body, concealed as if by a sheer dark cloth. And then it began to get hot – I could feel the heat from where I was – Tobias took a couple of steps backwards, and Merrill took one hand away from the benediction to twist it into a gesture of warding.

An instant of bright light and furnace heat and the elf danced back from the altar with a squeal, her ward holding for just the barest instant she needed to get her head down; the impression just for a moment of the beat of a pair of great wings; and when it all faded, there was a familiar old peasant woman sitting on the scorched and blackened altar, swinging her legs and looking for all the world as if she’d been there since the beginning of time.

In the same instant, Merrill let out a gasp of shock – her eyes widened and she knelt and put her forehead against the floor. Tobias bowed; notably, of course, Aveline didn’t. I split the difference and bowed my head, and the evil old woman who’d stolen my brother mostly just chuckled.

“Has somebody dropped something?” Flemeth sounded ever so amused. “Go on, get up. Do me a favour and then bend the knee, would you?”

Tobias spread his hands as he straightened up. “You’re just full of tricks, aren’t you. I assume something happen to the body I saw you using last?”

One eyebrow twitched. “Perhaps. You might call it a bit of a family feud; someone’s not half so clever as she thinks she is, and the worst part of it is that I think that that someone might be me; nevertheless, your part is over and done, and for your loyal service I’m grateful. At least some of the young can be relied upon to do what they’re supposed to.” She snorted. “Bah; pay me no heed. You’ve done your part, and I trust that you’re handling payment for the service that the little mah’el has given me?”

“They are.” Merrill got back to her feet, but her eyes were still firmly on the ground. “The Council of the Dales wishes nothing of such as you.”

“Then they shall have just that.” Flemeth stretched out her neck and back with a chorus of pops and crackles. “Merrill of no clan, there’s no obligation between us, but in trade for the trouble I’ve put you to, a word of advice -”

Her eyes downcast, the elf nevertheless cut in. “If it’s the same to you, I’ll find my own way.”

“Take it for what it is, girl. And the rest of you, as well.” She swept her eyes over the rest of us. “We are standing on a precipice, a confluence of change. Of destiny, you might say, as if it existed. That moment. Seek it out. Watch for it. And when it comes?” She met Tobias’ eyes and winked. “Remember that it is only when you fall, that you find out whether or not it is that you can fly.”

“Thank you, elder, but it’s as I said.” Spots of colour rose in the elf’s cheeks, but she didn’t raise her eyes from the floor. “If we need wings, we’ll have them our own selves.”

Flemeth gave a snort. “There’s no helping those who won’t be helped. But all things being as they should be, dear children? I doubt that our paths shall cross again.”

Tobias smiled, bowed slightly, and kept his lip buttoned tight. And if my idiot brother was keeping silent, there’s no way I was making a peep, and Aveline surely thought the same; again, the ancient witch seemed most tickled by the care with which we were acting.

And she got up from where she was sat on the altar and she cracked her knuckles much as Merrill had done not two minutes ago, and then as she breathed in there was a great rushing wind and a column of smoke up and behind her, and then there was a moment of brilliant glorious plumage and the beat of a pair of great wings, and she was gone upon the winds.

*

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