Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twelve

by artrald

Previous

Up

Next

*

Varric

It was another day’s slog down the Roads, down tunnels that were getting older and more decrepit by the mile, till we got to the gate of the old thaig. Human structures this old are either refurbished things like Ostagar and Kirkwall, or they’re mossy old ruins with maybe the occasional pile of rock that might once have been something or other. But the Roads have been abandoned halfway to forever, and the only weathering they see is the touch of rockworm and redfern and deep mushrooms, or the gentle drip of water. This place – well – it’s not like it’s my birthright in particular, not more than any dwarf’s got a right to recover the ancient treasures of our people, but it resonates, you know? It sings to me.

And what it sings is to get in, get out and get liquid. My people, especially back in the oldest days, we were a little bit richer than the fevered dreams of avarice. You know how Orzammar is wealthy? Right. You’re seeing us in our twilight, and you’re seeing a city that could buy small kingdoms, and an army that could raze them. When they talk about the gold-fever of the dwarves, people assume it’s all about the stuff buried in the few remaining workable mines, about the paltry adulterated crap that the humans use for coins. They think it’s something supernatural that makes us lust for treasure and dig for gold and magic. And by and large? Nope. We just know our history. And a score down here is enough to set a dozen people for life.

Anyway, where was I? Treasure. Yes. That gate. Right where the Seeker said. Twenty hours’ march northwest of the Nameless Stair, a mile and a quarter below ground, close enough to the earth’s heart that the Stone itself is warm as your skin. The Road opened out into a chamber that reminded me of the Boneyard of Orzammar. Great carven faces stared down at us from the rock, faces captured in perfect detail down to the last scar and wrinkle, Paragons of old, no doubt, Paragons so old I didn’t know their faces, and every one of ’em wore a crown. The walls were sheer, smooth, polished, untouched by the ravages of age. The whole chamber lit not by lightstones but by bright tongues of flame tethered by inscribed circles of runes on curved mirrors, and the humans’ intake of breath as they realised that those things must be of gold rather than brass was just amusing. And the doors. Each one thirty feet high by eighteen feet across, sheathed in onyx, sealed – if the histories were true – by a mechanical lock, a lock that would remain sealed even if its enchantment failed. A lock opened by an ancient metal key, silvery in the flames’ light yet itself untouched by time, and you would not believe what the Chantry charged me to get the thing verified when I didn’t believe that something that looked and felt like steel would be mirror-bright after a good couple of dozen centuries.

We approached in a rough sort of hush. Suddenly it was real, you know? Suddenly it was right there in front of us. And Bartrand was the first to speak.

He looked around at us with a broad grin, and called a halt right there. Base camp, he said. No knowing what’s right inside that door, but until we turned that key it had no way of knowing we were here either. Well ahead of schedule, we were – easily long enough that we could take a couple of hours to set up base camp, get some food into us, and look the place over for unpleasant surprises. And – yeah. I don’t think anyone thought when they were enchanting these great flaming golden mirrors, that some enterprising fellows would be balancing a pan over one of them and treating the company to a nice hearty stew.

But here’s the thing, and I pointed it out to the others while we were feeding our faces, because if I was going to have to be nervous, I was sure as Stone going to spread it around. These circles, these flames. It’s not a lost art. You find them in Orzammar. Below the city proper, in the great terraced field-caverns where the city’s tables are furnished. The light from a lightstone is excellent for many things, but it’s terrible for growing anything other than redfern, and while you can survive on redfern, I wouldn’t call it living. But long ago someone figured out that the light and the warmth of a tethered flame are quite natural, and will sustain a greater variety of life, and that is what feeds the dwarvish people.

So roughly speaking, given that the fading glimmer of the lightstones of an ancient statue garden was enough to choke the whole damn place in ferns – and here we’d found a giant cavern thoroughly lit by what passes for natural light – where was the life? This place should’ve been a garden. We should’ve had to cut our way through with axes. But the only living thing that any of us had seen – and the elf confirmed it as I spoke, right down to tiny insects and green slime under rocks – was us.

And it was Tobias who chuckled and said that he’d had happier thoughts on the eve of a job, but the tension in the air didn’t exactly fade as he says it, you know? Anyway. Base camp was erected around one of the golden mirrors, under the beard of one of the probably-Paragons.

Anders knelt down twenty yards from the door, anointed his brow and his eyes with water from a little flask, spoke in a sing-song voice what I’d swear blind was a snatch of an obscene little ditty, and opened eyes that shone very briefly white: shaking his head to clear it, he said that nobody had opened the door for the last five centuries at least, and the enchantments on the doors and the walls – though separate – fit together like mortised joints. Just as magically opaque as they were physically opaque. The elf raised an eyebrow, licked a finger, held it up with her eyes closed and her body held entirely still and rigid, and then shook her head and proclaimed that whoever taught him to divine in terms more apt to woodworking than magic was an offender against art itself. But at least the two of them agreed on the basics – the door was just as solid as it appeared, it was designed to be opened, and any hidden surprises weren’t on our side of that door.

So we took the usual precautions, if anything about this trip could be called ‘usual’. Shields and weapons were broken out and distributed to Bartrand and the porters, and Aveline took the left-hand end of their double line just as they’d practiced; I got Bianca nice and warmed up, checking every enchantment on her over twice, winding her string back the initial time by hand and setting a heavy sharp bolt to the string; Tobias amused himself doing a parody of the same with his bow, to a snigger from Bartrand; and the mages gave each other the I’m-watching-you look and would’ve taken either side of our formation until it was clear that none of us would willingly stand between the two of ’em. Everyone knew which way they were running in the event of fire or dragon or something, and everyone was ready for anything, or at least was prepared to claim it.

And so the Shaper drew forth the bright polished key, stepped forward, turned in the lock, and -click. Nothing more. My front door sounds more secure than that. The Shaper cleared her throat noisily, reached forward, laid her hand on the door and pushed: and under the gentle pressure of her hand, these thirty-ton slabs of onyx-sheathed granite moved smoothly and silently open.

And the key pulled itself irresistibly into the door and the keyhole closed itself, click, just like that. Okay? Creepy door. Probably worth wedging that –

And then the door got itself far enough open that we could see inside, and the scene was enough to strike you dumb. I know, different age and all, but the doors of Orzammar, all of them, go through a barbican, a fortification, a defence at least; the front door has seven. We were expecting some kind of fortress. But this place? Looked like the door opened right into a throne room.

Again the place was lit with fire, and again it was completely lifeless. The air was hot and dry and smelled a little of smoke, like it came from a furnace or kiln or something; it was warm enough in here to raise an immediate sweat. Statues lined the walls, just as you’d expect – but as we cast our eyes over them, I wasn’t the only one to make a face. Something had gone very wrong here.

The mark of quality in dwarven art is accuracy to life. The statue garden, the faces of the crowned heads outside, down to the picture of Tethras my brother has over his desk at home. Weird stylised figures are for humans; abstract representative stuff is for elves. Ask a dwarven child to draw its mother and you’ll be in for a wait while the kid mixes up the proper shade of flesh tone.

So when I say that the statues down the hall were strange of proportion, spindly and asymmetrical like no creature I’d ever seen, I don’t mean to compliment the ancient dwarves on their artistic imagination. I was literally on the look-out for something too thin and pointy to be a human or even an elf, with a strange angular body and sharp-clawed fingers in parody of hands, and I was cursing the way the statue didn’t include something for scale. Because some dwarf saw it, and cared enough to put up a twelve-foot statue of it, and I didn’t know if it was actual size or a scale model. I muttered something to this effect, and Anders nodded shortly and added that whatever it was, it wasn’t spawn.

At the far end of the room there was a dais – if this was a human place I’d say an altar, but my people don’t bow the knee to inanimate objects; clearly it was a dais in place of a throne. Little alcove behind it in the centre, little figurine statue thing in the centre, about the size of my fist. And Bartrand, for all his talk of taking it slow, the moment he got in there he was forging onward with a will. No danger having shown itself when we first opened the doors, clearly none was to be had; it was he that reached the dais first, he that stepped up onto it and took down that little idol from the alcove, and turned to the rest of us.

“Lyrium,” he said, and his eyes glinted in the firelight. “Refined lyrium, raw and unfixed. Pure by the colour, solid by the weight, say four pounds nine, barrelhead price of something like three and a half crowns the ounce.” He regarded the thing with a smile, and raised his voice to fill the hall, the hall that had been silent since time immemorial. “Messeres, I am holding in my hand the better part of three hundred crowns. But more than that. More indeed. Because my eyes lit upon this sweet little piece the moment I stepped foot through those doors; because it’s for damn sure I’m not the sharpest-eyed man in the box; because it was easily and quickly accessible, and for a dozen other reasons I’m sure you can conjure? This place is whole. This place is unspoiled. We are the first creatures through this door for an entire age of the world’s turning. My lords and ladies, we’re rich; beyond imagining we’re rich; beyond understanding, we’re rich.”

“To the tune of one ugly-ass statuette, we’re rich.” I shook my head. “Stick to the plan. A mage clears each chamber for entry. Go nowhere alone. Touch nothing we can’t carry off; touch nothing we aren’t sure of; make noise as you go. An arrow in the back often offends, you get me?”

*

Merrill

So although I’d heard tales before of the gold-lust of the dwarves, I hadn’t really thought just how hard it would take them. And it wasn’t actually gold, not really, like Bartrand actually climbing on top of that gold-plated altar to loot that idol from its place of honour, not with respect, not because it was holy or because it told him an ancient story but because it was worth more than its weight in gold.

I mean, he and all the other dwarves were acting like this had been an audience chamber, some kind of sign of mortal authority, when it was plain as the nose on my face that this was an ancient temple. Their gods, their business, I supposed, whether they’d forgotten or no – but it did rather bring home just how much we and they aren’t the same. I mean, every day we say how we’re not just little pointed-eared humans, but at least the humans know the sacred from the profane, at least they acknowledge they aren’t the authors of their world, for all that they have some funny ideas about what that implies. But the ones we’re really unlike are the dwarves.

Though looking at the statues of their gods, looking at the little unlovely statuette that Bartrand was still holding in his hands, turning it over and over like a talisman, I did somewhat feel just a bit glad that the people I’d followed into darkness had abandoned these gods.

So, yes. We split up into halves somewhat, and Aveline watched my back and Tobias watched Anders’ as we went carefully on in search of that treasure they wanted. The place was built on a grand scale, great tall doors and high ceilings, square at the top, not arched like a proper roof. Polished stone and ugly murals of ugly dwarves working lovingly detailed tools of craftsmanship and art; a nice patterned mosaic on the floor which the Shaper seemed to think was a map or something, and copied in detail; and every time there was an opportunity, we took the biggest door available and headed upwards. Dwarves put their important people at the literal top of the place, and they keep their strong-rooms close.

But what we found right at the top, well, Varric was slightly doubtfully calling it a palace, but even the humans were calling it a temple. And again, the gold, the jewels were for ostentation rather than for wealth, studded into the statues and laid into the art. Nowhere could we find a treasure-room – but in what I’d call the fane of the temple and the dwarves were calling the throne room, we found treasure. More of those statuettes – again the dwarves were handling them, because they could touch lyrium without worrying about nightmares driving them from sleep for weeks after. Bartrand kept hold of them, wrapped them in linen and packed them in a bag he had. The rest of the stuff here, the dwarves didn’t know what to make of it, but I know an altar-service when I see one. Whoever these gods were, they wanted a bowl of water, a bowl of wine, and a bowl of what I’d guess that knife was for –

And I said that, and Varric told me to keep the creepy tales for the tavern, and I said we weren’t likely to find one for another week at least, and he said no, exactly.

So Bartrand and the Shaper took the valuables in hand and carried them off to base camp while the rest of us kept looking, and I tell you quite honestly I assumed that everyone else had seen because nobody asked where they were or seemed to do anything that wanted them to be around, and nobody asked after them. The rest of the upper tier of the thaig was great open echoing caverns, statue gardens, what I guess would be the ancient dwarfish equivalent of gardens and parks. There was even a fish-pond, black and limpid as tar, the surface not quite still, and I warned everyone to keep a good spear’s length from that edge: I wasn’t prepared to swear that the things that I could sense living in those dark waters were anything so normal as a fish.

And the place was huge, if the size of the open spaces was to be believed. I noted the ancient and crumbled enchantments that would have made the ceiling give as much light as the sky on a clouded day, and mentioned that the place would have been bright and airy once: not a bit of it, smiled Varric. Note the inlaid line across the threshold of the temple, the one with the entirely faded enchantment of a purpose I couldn’t define? That would have been to keep the air of the temple sweet. Most of the smoke of the thaig’s forges would have been directed outward, but look at the black facing on these statues: once upon a time this place was thick with it. You wouldn’t have been able to see more than one or two of those statues at once: don’t think of a wide open space, really, think of a great perpetual stinking fog-bank populated by strange blackened statues of haunting beauty, pierced by the odd path or walkway that had been enchanted to repel the bad air, like a maze with walls of noisome mist.

So dwelling on who would build a place like that on purpose, we took the great wide stair down from the temple plaza, and there almost immediately we started to find signs of the thaig’s decay. Because there were stones missing from the stair, great dark holes like some giant creature had been chewing at it: and Anders cast a little divination into the hole just so he could put words to how bad it would be to fall down that, and then he paled and said that the hole under that stone went approximately all the way down, hundred yards at least, and half the staircase was hollow underneath. And the dwarves muttered to one another, although again, not so much in superstition or fear for their own safety as in the worry that their potential treasure was at the bottom of a hole.

And we went on; the stair led down to what the dwarves were calling the estates of the nobles, and if I reckoned that priest was more like the word, I didn’t really like to say. I’m used to being asked to keep silence, and you get a feel for when someone really means it and when they’re just saying it, you know, and all my talk of priests and idols was getting Varric seriously unsettled, so I shut my mouth. But still, this place didn’t have enough servants’ chambers for nobility, not unless they lived somewhere other than where they worked, and all the pretty faced outward towards their visitors and there was none left for private, and that said ‘priest’ to me.

But at long last we did find a strong-room, and the enchantment on the door that would once have threatened agonising death had faded to just a mild sting; I earthed it with a simple charm and without a fuss, Varric went at the door with what I’d have called a thief’s tools anywhere else, and a little while later he grinned with professional pride and spun the lock open.

And inside? It’s funny what the eye is drawn to. Give one glance to each of us, and have us describe it, and you’d get a few different answers, I’d think. Varric, now, he’d say it was our goal, just sitting there packed in boxes to take away. The humans, from their reaction, their eyes went straight to the four ancient mouldering chairs sat there askew on one side of the vault, one richly dressed skeleton sat neat and silent upon each. Me, I was drawn to one of them in particular, skull lolling to one side, hands folded in its lap as if it had just that moment sat down to sleep. What sort of person locks themselves in a treasure vault? What sort of person sits up and folds their hands to die? This isn’t a place you tell ghost stories in: this is a place you tell ghost stories about. Except, of course, you don’t get dwarf ghosts.

Still, we all figured I was better off keeping my eyes out than lending my arm to fetching and carrying. Yes, there was treasure. A lot of it. I wasn’t actually over interested, beyond palming a diamond because I could use one for my personal work. Gold is heavy; jewels in the numbers and sizes we’re talking about here are heavy, and I’m only little. So I stood there and just  wound myself up inside my head, till I could feel the air in every part of the whole place like the blood in my own veins, till I was twitching at every noise and breath and movement of air unless I could place its source, till I could feel the tides of the Fade, the great veins of lyrium dreaming their way through the rock under and over and around me, till I could begin to just about feel the dark quiet pulse of –

of what? –

I fell back into wakefulness with a gasp and a twitch and a noise that I bit off before it was really much more than a squeak. Heads looked around, the others sort-of stopped, everyone looked around for the danger. And no, it wasn’t right there, not right then. But all our feeling that this place wasn’t quite abandoned – hmm. Yes. Somewhere, down there, I’d seen it just for a moment, and I didn’t think it had seen me.

And Anders raised his eyebrows, and I felt him looking around in a worried kind of a way and I heard him saying that he couldn’t see anything.

So I told them all what I’d seen, that we weren’t quite alone here, and Varric looked at our haul of gold and gems and said let’s have this lot back to base camp at least, so if we had to cut and run it wasn’t a total loss.

And I shouldn’t have smiled at that. It wasn’t a joke.

*

Next