Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Eleven

by artrald

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*

Merrill

So perhaps the first interesting thing about the expedition down into the deep ancient places where no sensible living person has any business being, is that I went along at all.

And I suppose it’s fairly obvious that I asked a price, and while the money would go on to be quite useful and the – what’s its dwarvish name – the lyrium I asked for would definitely be worth having around, everyone knows just as well as I do that you can’t buy an elvhen, for all that you can pay one. No, I went partly to look out for Aveline, but partly because I was just plain bored. My personal work had somewhat stalled, and my work as mah’el – while important, and all – it wasn’t exactly what you’d call an entertaining challenge.

Though I wish Tobias had introduced me to this other mage friend of his before I met him in public where we were both obliged to pretend we knew all about the other. I mean, I’d met powerful mages before, and as you might have gathered I’m not short of strength myself. But this man’s aura followed him like a cloak, the world just ordering itself around him as he moved, as he spoke, the magic practically spilling from his skin. The dwarves it just washed over, of course, and I doubt Tobias even noticed, but it made Aveline skittish enough to ask me along, and it put my own teeth on edge. And Anders raised an eyebrow and said that he’d heard of the magic of the Dalish before but he’d never thought he’d see any, and I just smiled and said that in an ideal world we’d get through this without any magic at all, and he chuckled like an elder who’s heard a young hunter ask what’s so terrible about a bear, anyway.

The entrance to the Roads was a couple of days north and west of Kirkwall, a deep sea-cave. The mage Anders led the way, navigating from what appeared to be hand-scrawled notes in an ancient and abused notebook, but it found us the cave easily enough. Lost a few hours waiting for low tide so we could get the handcarts in without getting them all soaked. Handcarts, they had, not pack-animals –  there’s not a horse or mule or bullock alive that wouldn’t balk at the Roads, and this was apparently the way the dwarves had done it since forever. Vast amounts of food they’d brought, feed my old clan for a month that would – apparently a dwarf eats even more than a human. Just brought home to me just how far we’d be going away from the sun. And the rest of ’em just walked blithely into the cave, didn’t even note the last time they saw the sun: I stared right into it, burned the sky into my mind so I could call it back in my dreams, then scampered to keep up.

Heh. Lot of elvhen don’t like being reminded we’re little compared to the rest of the world. Me, I don’t mind at all. Might be the way I grew up among the People. Might just be the way that I’m a little peculiar in the mind. Still, down here all the natural advantages were on my side. The old dwarfish door was four foot seven tall, same wide. They had to carry the handcarts through skew-fashion, like nothing so much as getting furniture through the front door of a new house – you had to laugh, really, although beside Anders nobody had a sense of humour.

And it was dark the far side, of course. I didn’t miss a step, just kept going, and again it was clear Anders was watching to see how I worked magic, because he followed me ahead as the others were manhandling the other handcart through. And eventually in the pitch black he looked down at me and said that he’d forgotten just how stiff-necked the elvhen were, and I asked him what he meant, and he gestured aimlessly to the darkness. And I reminded him that I could see perfectly – my eyes are pretty good even before you consider the way I don’t necessarily need to use them.

And that sense of humour came back and he shook his head as he muttered an evocation and light came to halo him like he was some sort of living lightstone. Such power in him, there was, or such arrogance – he’d summoned twenty times too much light.

And he sustained it, as we went. Maybe we just had another person who hated the dark. Certainly he kept his weapons close enough. No staff, did he have – just a sword, sharp and serviceable, and a quarter-staff that perhaps you’d take for a mage’s staff if you’d never seen one. But it was just a stout straight stick, bit like the one I had, I suppose.

The Deep Roads. Suppose you know more about them than me, really. Back when Elvhenan was still the world’s great power, they say, the dwarves were digging their cities deeper and deeper, until our roads were just too far above and inconvenient for them to use to get about the place. So they dug some new ones, and they called them the Deep Roads. And the Ages turned and the darkspawn came and the dwarves withdrew closer and closer to the surface, and the Deep Roads remained, these vast caverns and halls that are to the dwarves what the Dales are to us, although it’s only humans who took our Dales (or, as the joke goes, it’s only darkspawn who took the Roads).

The Shaper took the lead now, a funny scarred little type in a robe like a mage’s only richer, and she had a leather case with what looked like a navigator’s tools and she didn’t speak more than the odd muttered word. Dirty great scar across her throat under that scarf, I sensed more than saw. Never gave her name or her tale, she didn’t, and it didn’t seem right for me to ask, and nobody else did either. And for all the dwarves’ odd comments that they could absolutely have done what she was doing, whatever that was, it was pretty clear that the Shaper and her maps were our track, our guide, our lifeline.

The first day or two, the Roads really were road-like: a wide paved track under vaulted stone, high ceiling, sometimes sloping a little up or down, and save for our own light, pitch-black. Cold clear running water in a gutter one side of the road, quite literally an underground stream in a culvert. I found a dead lightstone and showed the others, delighted: this place had been alone and empty and un-looked-after for longer than Kirkwall had been a city, and wasn’t that something? And Bartrand told me to shut up, from which I conclude that some people just have no poetry in them at all.

Our camp was in the middle of the Road, pretty much, literally just kindling a couple of fires on the stone and cooking and then hauling out bedrolls literally on the rock floor itself – and more unnatural yet, they didn’t put the lights out. Said something about needing the light to keep animals away, although I couldn’t smell anything – and to be brutally honest, anything that couldn’t smell this expedition half a mile off didn’t deserve to find any sort of prey at all. The dwarves blindfolded themselves to sleep; Anders did likewise – of course, this wasn’t his first trip down here – while the other two humans said that roughly speaking they’d be buggered if they were doing that. I shrugged: I’ve got that gift some mages have where I can fall asleep anywhere.

The watches were evenly spread between everyone who wasn’t helping pull a handcart – eerie it was and silent, and the unnatural brightness really didn’t help. Darkness was soaked into the very stones. The lightstones might have been letting everyone use their eyes, but this wasn’t a place that light was supposed to be; I could feel it, not so much pushing, more like just a steady constant knowledge that every little bit of brightness and warmth and life was alien and unnatural and wrong. You hear tales of the dwarves and the way they give a name and a voice to the Stone that’s all around and above them, and it makes no sense when you’re around a campfire in the woods or amid the bustle of the city. Stone’s dead. But down here, in the dark, in the great vaulted depth? Perhaps I began to see. Still made spiders walk up and down the spine.

Third day, we started to go down. A great vast open shaft there was, a pit with a road that spiraled around the outside, and into the walls were cut spirals and geometric shapes and stranger designs, and from some of them there were still the dregs of enchantments that must have rivalled for age any of the works of Elvhenan I’d seen. In its day this place would have shone like the sun, I said, and the Shaper looked at me and gave me a thin-lipped little smile and nodded.

And Varric struck up something quite unlike his usual repertoire of overactive tales, quiet words in meditative rhythm, the old language of the dwarves, like but unlike the tongue they speak in Ferelden and Orzammar today. Anybody’s guess what he meant by it, and it went on for the longest time, good couple of dozen verses, his voice carrying, but not so far. And the dwarves seemed to love it, for all that the rest of us had no idea; to the humans it was just so much noise, meanwhile I didn’t begrudge them their people’s song, for all that I wished that maybe it was a bit livelier.

And I didn’t sing them anything back, no. For the one thing, the only song I know to be about underground is the one about Sylaise carrying the secrets of fire fire out from the earth’s heart, and I thought that maybe the dwarves would be resentful; for another, Varric wouldn’t be out of place at a king’s fireside, while my voice is a little like a reed whistle. And people lost interest in playing twenty-questions about the second time the answer was ‘a rock’.

It took us a whole day to go down that spiral, and we didn’t go all the way to the bottom: some great ancient calamity had put a great crack in the wall, and some later people had put a road down what felt somewhat like the bottom of a ravine and somewhat like the jaws of some great stone beast, and our path was down that.

And this was my first sight of a vein of lyrium – just there, raw and blue in the rock, pulsing, sleeping, dreaming, heedless of the light it shed – and my first sight of anything that lived in the Deep Roads was the plants like strange unlovely ferns that plastered the walls of the ravine for a dozen yards either side, raising dark-red leaves that almost looked bloodstained up towards that tenuous glimmer of light.

But there was a track through the plants, beaten down, as if animals had been this way, large ones: it couldn’t have been more than a few days old, but wasn’t so recent that I could catch a scent. First sign that we weren’t alone down here. I pointed it out, and Anders cut in before anyone else could.

The locals. The squatters. The reason we packed our weapons. Apparently while his senses aren’t nearly as good as mine for seeing in the dark, he can make out the darkspawn just fine. And out there they were. A lot of them. Too many. And we were headed straight for them.

*

Anders

Darkspawn. Crawling in the back of my head making a sound like rats in a nest. Little ones, these, malformed and misshapen, too weak or stupid to take and hold a decent territory and not worth the archdemon’s time making footsoldiers of them – so when the Blight ended, they were largely unmoved. And they still eat flesh if they can get it, they’re still dangerous in numbers, their blood’s no less poisonous – so when I reported that we had probably half a thousand of them in the area, I got the properly shocked response.

Except from Tobias. He just grinned, and said that if we’d wanted easy we’d have stayed at home – and that made Varric chuckle and Bartrand get the maps out, and then the Shaper asked me in her hoarse whisper for how many and where, and got out a thing like a sextant to turn my distances and directions into locations on the map.

And there was no way through, exactly as I’d reported to start with. No way that didn’t have a risk, either a risk of discovery or a tunnel marked unsafe – and the dwarves all agreed that they’d rather the darkspawn than a potential cave-in, and if a dozen experts all vote the same way they’re probably onto something, and that was that.

We chose the smallest nest, a camp of fifty of the things set up in what the map called a garden. The elf went ahead, scouting on silent feet in pitch darkness, again without even the slightest whisper of magic about her where even a templar wouldn’t have begrudged a spell or two; she came back with as much to say about the statues of the garden as the nest of spawn, but the map she sketched was quick, accurate and to scale, and she’d have gone on to draw each statue if we’d let her.

The plan called for getting past under the noses of the spawn, given their numbers, or at least driving them off rather than killing them all; everyone kind-of looked at me at that one and I nodded in what I hope was a sage fashion. Darkspawn in their homes don’t concern Justice at all, and as I said already, I never gave a damn about the Wardens’ real cause, just the way they didn’t stop at fighting evil if it wore another face. What, they expected me to fly into some kind of frothing rage at the slightest mention of darkspawn? Anyway, I didn’t.

That garden – the elf was right about it being more than a bit pretty. It had been built as part of a way-house, a caravanserai, a stopover on the long trek down from one thaig to another, and even with only the faintest glimmer remaining of the ancient enchantments that must once have filled the place up with a sourceless pearly glow, the place was beautiful. You’re used to thinking of dwarven work as heavy, utilitarian, solid – these sculptures were finely wrought, fantastic beasts and glorious heroes and tumbling acrobats depicted down to the last scar and wrinkle, work so fine that you’d hardly believe it was carved and not simply petrified from life.

Which I suppose it could just about have been, if the spell had also turned the heroes’ eyes to quartz, their teeth to marble, made inclusions of their scars and rock-wool of their beards. There was enchantment to these statues, old and subtle and nearly faded, but given that Justice couldn’t give a damn about it I’m guessing it was just to stop them falling apart under their own weight.

Not that there was a lot of time to stop and smell the marble roses, though. The darkspawn camp was in the old wayhouse itself, a foul crawling nest of them that even the others were starting to be able to smell; the air in here wasn’t still, and we were as downwind as possible with our lightstones well hooded. Varric had just blithely ordered me and the elf to take charge of containing any problem that did arise, as if either of us knew where the other’s strengths lay or even what each other’s magic looked like; all she’d said was that we shouldn’t get between her and them if that happened, but surely that’s true of any mage and any problem.

We picked our time well, moving out when the majority of the spawn were asleep; must have been midday on the surface. No hunters abroad, just a few sleepy guards, and them not the sharpest of knives. And I’ll say this for the dwarves, they can move pretty quietly when they have to. I mean, I expected not to be able to see the elf – she moved like a shadow, and with about as much noise – and I expected Tobias’ tread to be noiseless, but neither the porters nor their handcarts made more than the slightest scuffing sound as we moved, slowly, carefully, in nothing but silence and darkness.

And it was the damndest thing. Four of the five handcarts were away and clear, and the fifth one was being carefully steered around a little pot-hole that would have made an echoing clunk under an errant wheel, and its porter was looking where his feet were going rather than at the handcart. And an errant frond of fern that he’d just ducked under brushed onto the cover of the lightstone at the back of the handcart, and I saw it just too late – and the little canvas cover caught on the frond and as he took another step the whole place was suddenly illuminated with a bright, illogical, and blindingly obvious white glow – and I felt it as the darkspawn guards registered that over there somewhere they’d seen –

My reactions have never been slow, and the Wardens’ curse has sharpened them to the point that I could quite cheerfully catch a striking snake by the head, but magic takes time to work. The first spell that leapt to my lips was one handed down from apprentice to apprentice, technically an evocation – a spell for hiding one’s sneaking self from prying eyes by simply drenching the area in darkness. With an apprentice’s fervent desire not to get caught behind it, it might douse a torch or a few square feet of corridor, make you a shadow to hide in. With the trained focus and power of an adult mage behind it, though – the lightstone was glowing for maybe two or three frantic heartbeats before a cloak of shadows fifty feet across settled down over us like a blanket.

But what I was doing, it wasn’t exactly the main event. The elf’s reflexes were a little slower than mine, but she’d clearly had her spell much closer to hand. And just like mine, it could be described as an evocation that was quick and sure and a little bit dirty. But where when I say that of my spell, I mean that it was apprentice-work, something so shoddy and rough that I’m half ashamed to be the author, thrown together in a moment because I knew that it would work. Whereas when I say if of hers, I mean something quite different. It was quick like an arrow from a drawn bow. It was sure, like a dagger-thrust under the ribs. And it was dirty, because I know of precisely two things in this world that would make a bright eye-watering spike of strength out of nowhere like that, and like hell does an elf have that much lyrium to throw around on the off-chance.

That was life-force. The elf had burned off a tiny portion of her own life-force to lend a searing unstoppable chaotic power to her spell, and I felt it strike home and I felt it burst the eyes of all four darkspawn guards open like grapes squashed underfoot. Blood magic. The idiots had brought a blood-mage.

In the moment, of course, there was nothing for it but to stick together. A moment and I had a basic divination to let me see where I was going – Aveline and Tobias had gone back to back in the dark, and I warned them in a whisper before taking Tobias’ wrist and leading them out of there. The elf was doing much the same for the porters. And the darkspawn – all I could feel was their confusion and pain, their conviction that they were being attacked by something invisible and terrifying, and two sighted ones joined the blind ones to block the door while the others scurried out of their bolthole. But they’d be back soon enough.

The darkness stuck where it was; it’d fade on its own. Around two corners and a few hundred yards down a tunnel that didn’t look too unstable, we stopped to breathe in what was once a crossroads, cautiously uncovering a lightstone just like the one that had given us away, and pretty much in the same moment the elf and I were staring at one another.

The little cut just next to her thumbnail had a drop of blood just welling up in it, and her other hand was free, fingers already curling in a defensive gesture; I pretty much mirrored her. “Explain yourself,” I growled, for want of anything more creative.

“Well, I see no darkspawn. No pursuit.” Her voice was quiet and level. “Am I wrong?”

“All I see is something more dangerous.” The light around my right hand deepened, the lightstone seeming to grow dim in response. “And don’t try and tell me that was an accident, what you did there.”

“It wasn’t.” She narrowed her eyes. “You can tell, see, by the way we’re all still breathing. What did you do, anyway? Darkness? Which gives us more trouble than them?”

“Far better than endangering all of our lives-”

“Who’s endangering?” She hadn’t blinked.

“I don’t know. Let me just call on my vast store of learning on blood magic to-”

“No. No, exactly. You don’t have the first bloody clue what I did except that you don’t understand it, and already you’re calling me a danger.” She made a disgusted noise in her throat. “And you people call us the savages.”

“Blood magic,” I said quietly, my defensive spell still ready to go. “It corrupts, it enslaves, it breaks. The wielder as much as the target. The rush of power is euphoric. Addictive. Physically and psychologically. Bad as lyrium, but it’s cheap as water and literally at your fingertips your whole life. How am I doing so far?”

“You mean aside from how you’re a bloody fool of a shem who just dismissed someone he doesn’t know as a weak-minded idiot?” She showed her teeth like a cat, and that wasn’t a smile. “If the only time you ever see this sort of magic is when people like you drove some poor bastard over the edge, then no bloody wonder-”

“Not like me.” The words came up tasting of bile and my focus wavered dangerously, the light gathered around my hand pulsing in time to my words. “Nothing like me.” I bit my lip, stamped down hard on the thought, got a lid on it lest Justice decided he was being insulted and escalated in a hurry. “You ask me not to lecture you on your magic then turn right around and tell me about the victims of the Chantry? For fuck’s sake. Did nobody tell you I’m one of them myself?”

“No.” Her eyes narrowed. “No, that little detail passed us by. For clarity, then? So we don’t keep on at misunderstanding one another? They might call me First rather than Keeper, but where the Art is concerned I left apprenticeship behind a good double handful of years ago. And if that spell of yours just now was anything to judge by then I could give you lessons, you understand me?”

“I understand that I just saw you reach first and easiest for a tool that’s sharper on the handle than on the blade.” I seem to recall there was something about elves and looking them in the eye, but this one seems perfectly happy to stare me down. “We don’t teach of the danger of blood magic because the Chantry want us to – I couldn’t give a flying one whether the Maker hates it, loves it, cleans his teeth with it every morning – all I know is what I’ve seen for myself.” I bit each word off in turn. “Blood magic is madness.”

“I saved all of us from a fight with four dozen of those creatures, look you, and I did it with a spell that was old already when your people learned of the Gift at all. Yes, I used a drop of my blood. You’d rather I called lightning, and deafened us all and fetched every creature for miles? Maybe I could have used earth instead of air, and brought the roof down on us?”

“Maybe you could’ve let me handle it, if you didn’t know a spell for it?”

“And how fine a job of work you were doing-”

“Enough.” I hadn’t even noticed Tobias until he’d stepped physically between us. He hadn’t raised his voice – he just sounded… reasonable. Like he was talking about a dinner-table conversation rather than a potentially deadly argument. “We’re most of a mile underground. There are umpty thousand bastards waiting behind us with sharp sticks and sharper teeth. You really want more trouble right now?”

So I turned on him. “Blood magic is trouble. Pure bottled trouble. What I want is less of it.”

The elf didn’t quite bare fangs and hiss, but it wasn’t far off that. “You much in the habit of bringing a dog and then barking yourself, shems? You’ve barely got the first idea about magic, let alone-”

“Now hang on just one minute-”

“Excuse me.” Again Tobias hadn’t raised his voice – it was just somehow more penetrating. “Merrill, what I’ve done is bring two dogs, and I’ve been watching them sizing each other up and wondering whether I need to tether them at opposite ends of camp or just go fetch a bucket of water. Now I’ll say this politely, all right? Once more.” He held up five fingers, looked at the two of them in turn. “More rock above us than the tallest mountain I ever saw? Ancient carven ceilings held up by crumbling enchantments of dubious solidity? Unknown creatures out there in the dark, never seen the light? Vast hordes of ugly buggers howling for our blood? You two squaring up for a punchup? One of these things is not like the others; one of these things is not the same. Solve your issues or shelve them, it’s all the same by my reckoning. But you’re going to do one of those two, or so help me, I will throw an actual bucket of water on you. Understand?”

Merrill narrowed her eyes. “Once upon a time there was a hunter. She proposed to go to the woods with a dar’misu, a bor’asaan and her fists and teeth. Did she carry the dar’misu because she worried about being waylaid by a tree? Of the tools she bore, only the bor’asaan is a tool of hunting. But I tell you for a true thing that you will never find one of my People a-hunt without her blades, if she owns them. I understand you, Tobias. But Anders is asking me to peace-bond my blades in the house of my enemy, and that I won’t.”

For crying out loud – “Tobias, I don’t know her from Andraste, but you know as well as I do, that sort of magic is a danger. You want me to trust-”

“I want you to trust me.” His eyes bored into me. “Merrill will keep the metaphorical sharp things sheathed, and you will refrain from starting a fight that will probably get us all killed.”

I didn’t look at her. “I can deal with that.”

“Merrill?” He turned to the elf, and she gritted her teeth.

“If we do have an emergency, look you, I won’t have the time to hold back for the sake of hurting someone’s feelings.” She looked from him to me. “But you won’t see more of ‘that sort of magic’ from me if there’s a way we can do without. That’s the furthest I’ll offer.”

“Suppose it will have to do.” I bowed my head to her: anyone who’s spent any time with the Warden of Ferelden knows that an elf won’t shake a human’s hand. And like that the moment was done, and we went on, and if neither Merrill nor I turned our back completely on the other from that moment on, well, that’s only to be expected.

*

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