Fear & Surprise, Chapter Nine

by artrald

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Blessed are they who stand before
The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.

Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow:
In their blood the Maker’s will is written.

4 Benedictions 10-11, Chant of Light
attributed to Andraste, Bride of the Maker

*

My pride at our first couple of victories lasted for about as long as it took for Krem to cast an eye over my kit that evening as he helped me disarm; I knew that slight frown, I’d used it myself. It meant ‘congratulations, my lord, you’ve made it home piss-drunk and thrown up in your boots: now let’s get you cleaned up’. Was enough to get me to raise an eyebrow. “Go on, then,” I said. “What’s the news?”

“Jenny,” he said quietly – he never gave her orders – “could you take his lordship’s blade to the smith with my compliments and get it unfucked, please?”

She looked from him to me. “Y’don’t need to hide it. What you’ve got to say.”

“Was that a ‘no’ I just heard?”

She scowled. Stood. Grabbed the weapon with a poor grace. Left. Krem sighed. “Bollocks. I’ll get another snake in my bed for that one.”

I blinked. “Snake?”

“Not a poisonous one.” He smiled crookedly. “As I found out after throwing the fucking thing halfway home to Tevinter. Don’t sweat it, ser – coming from that one, it’s a token of affection. Anyway: what I was here for. You clearly know just how bad you were with that thing.”

“Never picked up a sword like that before.”

Appraising look. “Uh-huh. My lord, permission to be truly fucking blunt? And I don’t mean permission, I mean, I’m going to be.” He planted his feet. “You ride like my mum and you fight like her mum. You’re a butterball, you never wore armour before – shit, you even had to borrow a sword. Mynah had a quiet word with my boss about fixing all of that, and of course you know where bullshit comes from and where it goes, and so now I’m not just playing squire, I’m training you and all. And so either I’m learning magic or you are, because what the fine lady wants is that you’re not a complete embarrassment by the time it comes that someone needs you to use that sword for real. And no, I don’t count targets that have been actually pegged out for you by your maid.”

“So you’ve been appointed the sad and difficult task of teaching me how to be a man, that it?”

I tell you, my big fucking mouth. Krem’s smile vanished, and just for a second there was an expression on his face that would happily have gutted me and put my head on a pike; he took a deep breath and composed himself before saying anything else. “Tomorrow, and every day we’re not riding out, you and I will be watching the sun rise from where the Sanctuary used to be. Then we’ll have breakfast back at the bottom of the hill. And then we’ll get properly to work. You understand?”

“Uh, some days I might have other duties, playing the noble, that kind of thing?”

“You’ll do as you please, I’m sure.” His voice was still level, tightly controlled – what the hell had I said? “Woman like that was going out of her way to cover for me, ser? I’d fucking make time. See you in the morning.”

And, uh. Yes. Any training hurts.

But in this case I think it meant to.

*

It wasn’t all demons and the walking dead, though, that we were fighting. And even striking off the odd engagement with people bearing the apostates’ broken-circle banner or the flaming sword of the templars – often just ordinary people not too different to our own soldiers, people someone had convinced that we were dangerous heretics or potential oppressors, people we gave every option to back down and tried to spare where we could – the countryside of western Amaranthine was starting to break down into lawlessness entirely.

And, well. People looked more and more to us. We were solving the demon problem, or we said we were – why couldn’t we solve the looters and the scum at the same time? I’m sure a lot of them got completely the wrong impression, when I had Cassandra deal with everything I could – I wasn’t quite brainless enough to stay on my horse. But this was another bit of noble behaviour I couldn’t do, so I watched the princess do it and took notes. And you’d think that her no-nonsense bullheaded attitude would win us no friends – but to be quite honest, the justice could’ve been delivered by an actual snarling bear and the people would have been happy.

So it wasn’t so unusual when we rode past a village to see a few men hanging from a tree in nooses. What was unusual was that we hadn’t done it. Cassandra brightened considerably at that, insisted on a detour – asked with what for her counted as distinct eagerness which way the arlessa’s people had gone – and got a funny response. Not ‘people’. One man. And he didn’t claim to be anything more than a Warden. And we were to leave him alone, because if the arlessa hadn’t sent him then the Maker must have. He didn’t hang those people alone: he’d convened a trial and the villagers had carried out the sentence. He’d given them a pile of weapons that used to belong to a nest of bandits, shown them how to use them, and rode on. West. Yesterday. Right towards our red pin.

So it was without surprise that we found that the curl of smoke near our red pin – a rift in the middle of the highway, into which a merchant and his guards and his caravan had apparently driven – wasn’t more than a campfire, a grey palfrey grazing nearby. Broad man sat at it, wearing a shabby grey brigandine and keeping the cold out with a long shabby grey cloak. Mostly what I could see under the cloak was a voluminous black beard.

He didn’t rise as we rode up; he did call out to us though, to watch ourselves with those horses. Bull gave the order for his men to dismount – I followed Cassandra.

She reined in a polite distance from the fire, looked down at him. “Thanks for the warning, friend,” she said, “though we’re more in the habit of giving them than getting them. I’m Cassandra Pentaghast of the Inquisition; this is Lord Trevelyan.”

The man still didn’t rise. Amazing that after a month of being his nibs, that bothered me – but of course, in Ferelden the Wardens bow to no one. “Warden Blackwall,” he said, and he pushed back his hood – pugnacious features, crooked nose, piercing grey eyes, tangled black hair. He indicated the wreckage of the caravan. “This your pile of crap?”

“If I could find the owner, I’d be there rather than here. But someone has to sort this out.”

“Mm.” He undid his cloak, surged to his feet. The man must have been solid muscle. “Want a hand?”

“Take my side, Warden. I lead from the front.”

“Not on a horse you don’t. They go-”

She dismounted like she had wings. “Crazy. Then five minutes later you have another embodied demon.” She turned to me. “Shall we, my lord?”

I swung down and once more managed not to plant my face. “Right behind you.”

The stories of the Wardens have them fighting like, well, demons – performing supernatural feats, cleaving armoured men in half with a single blow, breaking skulls with a single punch – I guess that it’s just not that easy to describe for a tavern audience what a really, really good fighter looks like. The monster hunter had a grey kite shield and a short heavy-bladed cleaverlike falchion, and he moved with a kind of restrained careful accuracy that was no less effective than Cassandra’s fury. And again, Iron Bull led the charge against the walking corpses, where his size and power were an overwhelming advantage, and again Cassandra took on the big bastards, because the only people in this world who train to fight such monsters are the templars and the dragon-hunters – well. And the Wardens.

I did my bit. Not as if it was routine, don’t get me wrong, but it still felt like a bit of a joke. There they were risking their lives. And here I was, all dressed up as a better man, coming along behind and taking the credit.

Did that like a bloody champion, though. Closed the rift. And the Warden watched the creatures fall, all of them, saw the green light fade like I’d captured it into my hand, and was just shaking his head as he came over to me cleaning his blade.

“Do a lot of this, do you?” His accent was rough, rural, Fereldan. “Mage, huh?”

“I’m no mage.” I opened my left palm, showed him the green light and he narrowed his eyes. “I was saved when the Sanctuary of the Ashes fell. Don’t know by what, although people have taken some pretty terrifying guesses. Apparently, uh, whoever saved me gave me authority to close the rifts.”

He raised his bushy eyebrows. “Did they, now? That’s awfully nice of them.” A bit of a smile. “And why are you doing it?”

I blinked. “Have you seen what these rifts are doing?”

“I might’ve. But you’re a foreigner, Trevelyan of Ostwick. Long way from home. Why not just take your pet chevalier and go? Trust in good Fereldan templars to sort this out?”

I met Cassandra’s eyes and she raised her eyebrows, shut her mouth and let me get on with it. “Dozen reasons, let’s start with the simple one – the templars can’t do what I can do. Sure, the demons fear them, they can actually put the things down and make them stop moving – but there are always more demons and there are not always more templars.”

He shrugged. “Always more darkspawn, too. More than ten thousand of the bastards for each greycloak, they say. See that stopping us? See us backing down? See us askng someone else to go for us? So why are you spending your own blood?”

“Warden, I’m the only one who can do this. Neither the templars nor the mages nor anyone else I’ve ever met can do this. I have no choice.”

“Yes, yes you do. You could go home. You could run and lose yourself. You could hide under a damn rock. You haven’t. Why?”

“Are you not listening? If the Inquisition fails, we’re fucked. None of this will matter, it’ll be -” I waved my hand vaguely around at the wreckage, the corpses. “This. Just like this. All over. It isn’t going to matter that I was over there rather than over here.”

He frowned. “So, it’s not faith. It’s not compassion. It’s not glory. It’s not really even duty. It’s because it’s who you are. Because nothing else makes sense.”

“If you want. Yes.”

A nod. “When this is over, ser, if you need a place to run, if you need something else to be, you just found it. You understand. We’d have you.” … Uh. Did he just…? He sheathed his sword and made to turn away.

“Wait, ser.”

He stopped. “This is where you ask me to join you.”

“Actually, no.” I tried an ingratiating smile. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with your commander; she’s not returned my letters. Could you perhaps do us the favour of an introduction?”

A snort. “Fat bloody lot of good it’d do you: I don’t know the woman from Andraste. I work alone.”

“Very well, ser.” I raised an eyebrow. “Were you asking me to invite you to join our cause? Any man with your skills would be more than welcome.”

He met my eyes for a long quiet moment. “I wasn’t. I don’t give a damn whether you’re a bunch of heretics or not, but I swore an oath to defend the innocent: I’ll not trail about after you like a damn terrier when I can do good elsewhere. If you need me for something specific, find me: I’ll come. Otherwise?” He nodded in the direction of the wreckage. “Those people had families. I’ll find them. Ask for me in Redcliffe.”

*

“So,” Solas mused, poking at the glowing scar on my hand with a little ivory rod. “What else have you found out about it?”

I gave him the look one reserves for crazy people – “It… doesn’t hurt as much as it used to?”

“Indeed?” His unexpected smile was warm. “You have not tried to put it to some kind of use?”

“I’ve closed half a dozen rifts since we got back, if that’s-”

“It isn’t.” He raised his eyebrows. “What does it do when you hold things in your hand? When you grasp the hilt of a blade with expectation of use? When you draw a bow?”

“I’m right-handed. And I don’t shoot.”

“A knife, then?”

“I eat one-handed.”

“What does it do when you show it to your friends, even?”

“I try not to, to be honest.”

He looked at me straight. “You’re telling me that you have completely ignored the thing – not poked it, not prodded it, not tried to get anything out of it or shift it, not put it to use – for an entire month?”

“I, uh.” I coloured a little. “I use it to see my way in the dark, sometimes. It’s actually quite-”

And he laughed, a good proper belly laugh as if I’d told him the most marvellous of jokes. “A nightlight! I shall remember that for ever, Maxwell; I shall write it in the Fade where any with the wit to understand it may delight: but seriously, now. You have not tried to put it to use?”

“No?”

Another peal of laughter threatened; he couldn’t prevent a smile. “And they call me crazy.”

“They do? Who?” I sat forwards. “They shouldn’t be. Most of the rest of what we’re doing is-”

“I am aware. Don’t worry: I didn’t mean here or now.” He took the rod away, let me have my hand back. “You’ve done a good job of keeping it clean; all else notwithstanding, would that all patients were so biddable. How are the resources coming?”

I made a face. “The mages are polite, but hell will freeze over before they bare their throat by giving that kind of resources away. The templars have called me a heretic and accused me of corrupting their rank and file, but they are led by the nobles’ younger sons and daughters; Josephine thinks that a few words in the right ears could get them to talk to her at least. And the king of the dwarves will sell us all the lyrium we need – at a rate that goes from ‘extortion’ to ‘outright buggery’ depending on how much of a favour we owe him.”

“Black market? Dwarvish organised crime is-”

I winced. “Apparently black market lyrium dealers offended Varric’s mother or something. All he said was that nobody will find the bodies, but that he isn’t getting it all his own way, and no success yet. So, uh.” I glanced out of the window at the Breach. “How long?”

He shrugged his thin shoulders. “I could close the thing tomorrow if I were prepared to abandon my principles; I could close it tonight if I had, oh, four or five hundred humans prepared to die and were willing to suffer worse personally.” He turned, leaned on his desk, staring at the thing. “I suppose it is too much to ask that you might have heard further from your goddess?”

“Solas, would you please try not to be a heretic quite so loudly within a few hundred yards of a dozen templars and a witch-hunter?”

“Bah. Semantics. This isn’t my first language, you know. But it’s a shame – in all seriousness, I could use her help. A god could close this, or one of the zero functional elu’vi’ain there are in this world, or a literal half-ton of lyrium, if Minaeve’s workings are to be believed – or -” He turned away from the window with a hiss of frustration. “I work magic, not miracles. I can see the problem, and looking at it from further different angles changes precisely nothing.”

“But the problem is just one of resources, even if it’s a ludicrous amount? Enough lyrium and it goes away?”

“The problem is power.” He scowled at his notes. “In or out, I will not be able to say until it is well begun. This was an accident, remember, it was not the intended outcome – if the casters lived, then they succeeded in tying the thing in a knot before it could consume them: we’d need to rapidly and safely get rid of that power to close the Breach, like lancing a boil, and of course if we failed we’d never live to know our mistake. If the casters died, then it is because their working took all they had and then started eating its surroundings: we’d need to provide power, like closing a wound. Luckily, both solutions would need the same resources.” He turned completely around, leaned against his desk, looked at me again. “It’s not worthless, you know. What you are doing. So far, we have no word that anything truly dangerous has taken advantage of one of those rifts: the less attractive we can keep that prospect, the better.”

“Anything… truly…?”

“The Beyond – excuse me, the Fade – is not inhabited solely by bad dreams and scraps of memory. The spirits – demons, I swear, your language – come in as many different types as the beasts of the field.”

“And so far all we’ve had is fieldmice?”

“Fieldmice, frogspawn, the odd rabbit or finch.” His smile was not reassuring. “As yet, no foxes, no wolves, no eagles; be aware of the possibility. And to stretch the metaphor? There may be dragons in there. Your kind – or, rather, if you’re calling me and Jenny the same kind, I’ll call you and the Tevene the same kind – worshipped them, you know, quite before the chantries and the circles.” He nodded to the window, to the hole in the sky. “There isn’t a spirit in the Fade that couldn’t have smelled that obscenity clean across the world, and while our little patch-job will throw them most thoroughly off -”

“Hang on. You’re talking about the old dead ‘gods’ of Tevinter?”

“Even so. The Old Gods are supposedly dead, locked away, sleeping or otherwise an ancient and absent bogeyman for everything in the world to be a preferable alternative to.” He raised an eyebrow. “Every major source I have agrees on that, practically to the letter, but that isn’t surprising: the Chantry takes a violent dislike to things that disagree with its canticles. You’ve met the guardians of your Maker’s truth, Ser Maxwell; how much do you trust them and their ilk with the fine print of history?”

“Consider me motivated,” I said, and he smirked. “But about your work. Is there really no way it can be done cheaper?”

He crossed his arms a little defensively. “If there weren’t, I would not still be working: I would have presented you with the bad choice and had done with it. Trust me, Lord Maxwell. We will have a solution in time. The resources you can provide me will determine how much you will like the solution.”

I made a face. “I suppose that will have to do. And how are you? You hardly leave this room, I’ve not seen you at meals, and I don’t see a bed in here.” I kept my tone light. “Can’t save the world if you’re falling over tired.”

The smile was a bit more genuine. “Do I look that bad?”

“Honestly? You look the picture of health. But -”

“There is only one of me; yes.” He looked away. “I have been an outlaw long enough to be uncomfortable when people know where and when I let my guard down.”

“Sure. It’s just – I’m told there’s magic to keep from sleeping, and I’m told that it’s very much not something anyone should be doing, and…”

“What would you do if I said that I hadn’t slept in a month and more? Send me to bed without my supper?” He shook his head. “Thank you for your concern; I’m sure it’s well meant, but it’s unnecessary. Suffice to say that I am as strong as I need to be.”

“Only, Vivienne said-”

The elf pinched his forehead. “Maxwell, please. One set of the Enchanter’s misconceptions is enough. I sleep, I eat, I drink, I piss just like any other creature. You will never see me doing any of that, but I’m perfectly aware of my own needs: my word on it, your fears for me are unfounded. If I wanted you to count the cost of something I did, I’d enumerate it to you; if I haven’t, there likely isn’t one that we need to care about, and let that be an end to it. Yes?”

“I was only trying to look out for you.”

“Congratulations. You succeeded.” He bowed his head a little theatrically. “Now go and get me that lyrium.”

“And keep a weather eye out for dragons and bogeymen.”

“Real ones, imagined ones, among the clouds or under the bed.” The corner of the smile turned crooked. “Get on with you.”

*

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