Fear & Surprise, Chapter Fifteen

by artrald

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*

And as the black clouds came upon them,
They looked on what pride had wrought,
And despaired.

The work of man and woman,
By hubris of their making.
The sorrow a blight unbearable.

7 Threnodies 10-11, Chant of Light
attributed to Andraste, Bride of the Maker

*

The watchtower at the mouth of our little valley had been flying a little terrified flame; I don’t know how long it had been flying it for. Not that it was my job, but I’d had – better things to look at.

Till the flicker in the corner of my eye caught my attention as I looked: but it wasn’t a little flame that had made Josephine put her hand over her mouth and back a half-pace away from the window, that had made me swear so loud. The whole thing was on fire.

And now I’d seen that, as I watched, that wasn’t the only movement. Like a stain of ink across the snow-blanketed valley they were, but no ink could glitter so in the moonlight – I froze –

“Go,” Josephine said. “Throw your mail on.” Her voice was almost steady.

“Josephine -”

She turned to me and her eyes and the tone of her voice said something quite different from her words. “I’ll send Jenny up, Harry. Go on.”

My nightlight still glowed. Somehow it seemed unfair, now that I thought of it, hurriedly hauling on the gambeson and tightening it, the straps going a good bit tighter than once they had. Solas had said the mark would go away when the Breach did, but the Breach was nothing but a bad memory and my hand was still scarred. I hauled the familiar weight of the haubergeon over my head like a tunic.

Somehow Jenny was already into her own patchwork gear when she opened the door: wordlessly she took up my breastplate and in near silence we armed me. She nodded businesslike. “So this is the powers of darkness come, is it?”

“That or the temperance league.” I forced a grin for her. “We’ll sort them out.”

“Sure.” Her voice wasn’t, but without a trace of mockery. “D’you know if him upstairs still got work for us? Or was that it, like, on the hill up there?” She fidgeted. “We done here, Herald?”

“Done?”

Done done.” She drew a finger across her throat. “Over. Paid off. Out of it and down the river, like.” She looked away. “D’you know?”

I shook my head. “I can’t imagine the Bride was going to look me in the eye up there and send me back if she knew I was literally about to die, you know?”

“Right. Sure.” Jenny nodded. “But you seen how many there is up there?” She finished the last strap. “It’s like the valley went all black. I’ve only got the two dozen arrows.”

“You’ll just have to find some more, then.”

She looked at me funny. “Here. You for true, like? Or is that just more shem noises? You jesting?”

“I am still a human, you know. Herald or not.”

She snorted her opinion of that, looked me briefly in the eye. “I’m packed, reckoned you’d’ve forgot, so there’s one for you and all. Track up over the hill, I found. Can’t get a horse out, but we’ve-”

“Hang on. You think we’re leaving?”

“You’d say we’re sticking?” Her eyebrows went further up. “You seen what’s up there? You know how many we’ve got, right, and most of them clear as a tosspot? Can’t you figure, like?”

“Cullen’s been planning this defence for the last-”

“Aye, and I’m sure, and I know for a Maker-blessed fact that shem can’t figure. Sure, we’re down and they didn’t mean for it and that’s fine. So we brush off, right? Up the hill and over it?” She looked up at me a little plaintively. “But I promised. Keep you alive I said. And I have, and I still can, because we leave.”

“I know, Jenny.” The weight of my armour, my borrowed sword. The weight of Josephine’s words and the smell of her perfume. The people who I sure as hell couldn’t have taken with me, the ones who left their fields to come and buy us enough time for what we did that day. I’m not sure what it actually was that made me say it. “But we’re staying.”

She closed her eyes. Few more moments of complete silence. I was worried she’d snap and actually hit me, for all that she was such a tiny little thing. Then she opened her eyes, slowly, opened her hands. “Shem and his cur running. From a wolf. Fast it is, faster than him anyroad. Cur could be off, but it didn’t, and they’ll be caught. So he says to his cur, get ‘im. And the cur turns barking and it’s the shem that’s off and free.”

“Melodramatic, much?” I shook my head. “Jenny, you’re not the only one here who knows what they’re doing. Cassandra and Cullen and Bull -”

“And not you.” She showed her teeth. “You know war? You seen it, ever? ‘Cause little Jenny? She has. She does. And I’m saying it for you straight. You want to see dawn tomorrow? We buy a brush. We rabbit.”

“And if that’s what Cassandra and Cullen and Bull say, then we go. Otherwise, Jenny, we stay. I’m not just going to abandon them.”

“Fine. Right.” She turned away, opened the door with slightly unnecessary force. “Let’s go see them wolves, then.”

*

“Report,” said Cassandra shortly, and she wasn’t talking to me. Harding was there, our chief of outriders, and she was pulling off her riding gloves: she wasn’t wearing her armour, I realised, must have gone the moment the alarm was called.

And she was shivering, and that wasn’t all the cold. “Worse than it looks, my lady. They’re not much for horse, but that’s a whole sodding army out there. They’re all down the back of the rise and into the vale behind. I’d guess seven hundred in the van, five times that behind, and there’s another two hundred foot and fifty horse on the south-east road.” Harding’s voice was even and steady, but her hands shook, and Cassandra traded a glance with Cullen. “Makes four and a half thousand. Good order they’re making, for all they’re practically marching through a snowdrift. And, uh.” She swallowed. “Well equipped, sera. I think they’re marching their best people on the van and the flanks, but, uh. Only because who can fit out four and a half thousand in mail and steel without us knowing?”

Josephine, still in her pretty dress, spoke up crisply. “It’s not the crown. Highever would’ve literally written ahead, and Amaranthine’s never in her life called up her people without going ahead with her Wardens. I don’t suppose you saw any colours, what with the dark?”

“Dark’s no issue, not with snow on the ground, not for me. One banner, my lady, just one they had. All over.” Harding took a deep breath. “Everywhere, every tabard, every pennant, ladyship. Flaming sword, it was. Point downward, simple blazon, no charge, no nothing. ”

And the entire room pretty much looked as one at the man standing right there whose hurriedly buckled-on breastplate still bore that exact symbol, and Cullen frowned. “Doesn’t make sense. Point down means you’re a communicant martial – it’s a badge of rank, not a banner. There aren’t half that many in the whole kingdom with the right to wear it.”

“We’d… have… heard if there had been March declared, or if someone had tried to pretend there were, o-or something insane like that.” Josephine bit her lip. “I have twenty people who would have told me, and our mages would have been told by their fellows, and Nightingale-”

“Quite.” The spymistress crossed her arms. “I know for certain that Amaranthine, while the banns have been told to raise their musters, hasn’t called them together. Redcliffe, again, the banns are far too busy keeping order in their own lands to pull this. Gwaren is quiet, apart from the templars having pulled all of their people back to Therinfal.”

“Out of interest.” Cassandra raised her eyebrows. “Therinfal. Say they did there what we did here, and they had all the templars who’d deserted their posts elsewhere, and they took the Sword of Hessarian as a symbol like we did with the Seeking Eye, no matter that it makes no sense.”

Cullen nodded slowly. “They’d have taken most of the town as well as the castle, but they could have done it. Harding, I assume they aren’t hiding a siege train behind that hill?”

“No, ser. Barely enough train for a march from Therinfal, let alone a march home.”

“And it’s not as if they have mages – all right. Enough dancing around it. They’ve got the numbers to walk up, take axes to the gates and drown us in their dead. They didn’t pack to come home. They weren’t fazed to see the hole in the sky closed.” He looked Cassandra in the eye. “They’ve sent no parley, and they’re carrying no torches. If there wasn’t snow on the ground we’d never have seen them. And we’ve some reason to expect them. Sera, you’ve the authority.”

She nodded. “I do. Vivienne?”

The enchanter nodded. “We’re borderline exhausted, but as you’ve outlined, failure is a worse option than miscasting. I’ll handle it personally.”

“Suitable. Harding, get your people out of the way. Bull, the Chargers have the gate -”

*

They would have heard it coming.

Our little valley was full of them, dark against the snow, seemingly endless they’d come. And we waited. Vivienne waited until the vanguard was almost at our walls. And the spell she used wasn’t much. I’d expected a flash of light, a sheet of flame – but all it was was a clap of her hands and half a dozen quiet words in Orlesian and for a moment everything held its breath.

And then the thunder rolled. Except that thunder goes away. And this didn’t. It mounted echoing in upon itself, it built and built into a thunderous roar, the sound of the whole side of a mountain getting up and deciding it would rather be downhill. Ostwick’s not on a mountain. I’d never seen an avalanche before, never seen it coming downslope like a wall, a white wall on the move, a brisk stroke of the Maker’s broom to sweep the world clean and leave nothing but uneven whiteness, the earth itself turning against the interlopers, to wash their stain from –

A harsh voice spoke, from the valley, from the darkness, and it was like it gave answer to the thunder. A hard voice, a deep voice, a foreign voice, and it didn’t sound like it was more than conversationally loud, but I heard it across half a mile’s open space and over the roar of the avalanche. I didn’t know what it said. But Dorian heard those words and he turned flatly white like someone had walked on his grave.

And the avalanche parted, the thunderous wave of white split down the middle by some great wedge that we could not see. Cries there still were, and screams – either that cold penetrating voice hadn’t been able to save all their people, or much more likely it just didn’t care. After all, the avalanche had to go – somewhere

The sound of the displaced torrent of rocks and tree-trunks and snow against our walls was a wave on the shoreline, a great hollow roar and a terrifying shrieking splintering as the stockade gave beneath that deflected force. Here and there we saw bright  flashes of light, our own exhausted mages saving untold dozens of lives with their own countermeasures – Bull and his men were suddenly visible coming up the rise, leading the force we’d had at the gate, seeking higher ground – and Dorian pointed dumbly as, impossibly, the templars kept right on coming. Half of the vanguard had been swept away in a heartbeat, losses to make any warrior quail – and for crying out loud, they were marching up and over an irregular layer of snow and debris half a dozen feet thick, and their own dead to boot – but on they came, and our stockade was good as broken.

And then they stopped. Ten feet short of where our walls had started. And that cold hard level voice spoke to all of us from the air, and each of us heard it in the tongue and the accent of our home. And I recognised it. I had seen it. Behind the canvas backdrop of the whole world. It was the magister who had brought the ball of thorns.

“Assembled worthies,” it said, with the pitch and timbre of the practiced orator. “My good and dear friends. My name is Corypheus; I am by way of being an archaeologist and a collector.” Felix and Dorian met one another’s eyes and split up, walking in opposite directions, to try and divine the speaker’s location between them. “To speak… frankly? There is a thing here that I desire; there is a thing here that I wish to collect.” It was so infinitely reasonable, that voice: it might as well have been describing its order for breakfast. “You may render it to what remains of your walls, and our business is concluded; otherwise, I suppose, my allies and I shall feel we rather have to go and get it.”

I could see Bull and some of his men coming up the slope. I could see the enemy, their front ranks now toiling through deep powdery snow and wreckage to form ranks. The clear cold voice kept right on talking. “That thing is the left hand of Ser Maxwell Trevelyan, the heretic you call Herald of Andraste.” My mouth went dry. “Living, even, for preference. The one who brings me that hand will live the rest of their life in the fashion of the king or queen of their choice: and that does include little Max himself, should he have a sudden attack of sanity.” A brief pause and a mote of sickly orange light flashed up from the ground to hang watching among the clouds. “Oh; I should have said. I shall tarry until this star of mine descends to the earth.”

A moment we all stood there silent, then a babble of voices and action. Varric staring slack-jawed out at the darkness, his hand over his mouth. Dorian and Felix walking smartly back to compare their measurements. Cassandra staring grimly into the darkness as if trying to count up enemy losses. Josephine turning her face to the wind and speaking fiercely and quietly to nobody in particular. No clue if the mage could hear her. Lump in my throat.

Iron Bull came striding up the hill and his deep voice cut through the biting wind by far more honest means than the mage’s had. “It’s now or never,” he was saying. “Hit him.”

Cullen frowned. “Need I remind you -”

“I know, curse you. But we’ve got to hit him.” The giant nodded to the ruin of our stockade. “Dogfucker out there didn’t need a parley; didn’t care about his army just now; from what I can hear they’re still fannying about – he’s fucking stalling us. Right now the front of that army’s a raw bleeding open wound, thanks to that avalanche. They’re vulnerable, and he thinks they’re vulnerable. I’ll take a hundred people and -”

“Die gloriously and unsung, is what you’d do.” Cullen shook his head. “The enemy may be tired out and out of good order; none of us are exactly on top form either, and your mercenaries and my two dozen templars are still the only people who could hold a candle. Bride’s sake, man, you can’t sally out with the only qualified defenders we have.”

Bull growled to himself. “We don’t do it, Templar? We let them form up? We might as well bend over and kiss ourselves goodbye. There are seven soldiers out there for every one of ours. They get a chance to make their numbers tell? I’d rather die with glory than without it-”

“Cease.” Cassandra turned to us, put her back to the scene. “Varric, you recognised the name. Maxwell, you recognised the voice. What is this man?”

“He’s-” The dwarf’s voice shook. “Dead. Fucking dead. I – we – put that deformed bastard six feet under, I shot him right in his black little heart, Tobias Hawke made dogfood of him, Merrill Kirker burned him. He’s ashes, he’s dust and sodding ashes, I watched the fucker die, I wrote a story about it. Hawke and the Legacy.” He moistened his lips. “Mage he was. Good one, in the way a man who shoots his brother from five hundred yards is a good shot.”

“He was at the Sanctuary,” I said quietly. Amazed to hear that I sounded less terrified than Varric. “That voice – he was one of the ones who murdered the Divine, he – I have no idea how he survived, but I guess I did…”

She curled her lip. “Very well: so the templars have battle magic. Mages: please tell me you can give me something to work with.”

Dorian shrugged. “I reckon I’ve located the bugger, but our histories are littered with what happens if you get into mage-duels with southern templars around. I start on him, they break my magic, I’m toast. Vivienne?”

The tall lady grimaced. “I’m spent, or nearly. Solas was barely standing before this began. The Circle mages put their last drops into stopping the avalanche taking all of us along with our wall -”

“Fine,” Cassandra hissed sourly. “One apprentice healer, half a dozen enchanters as exhausted as they are assorted, and one newly minted magister. Numbers are not on our side. Troop dispositions say that if we don’t hit them as soon as we can, we’re all dead. And we’ve nothing to hit them with.”

And I couldn’t stop my mouth any longer.

“Something else we’ve got,” I said, and they all looked at me like I’d gone insane, and there might’ve been a reason for that. “We’ve got what he asked for.”

Dorian looked around as if he’d just remembered I existed. “I don’t think he’s just going to keep his word, old fellow.”

“Sure. I do know what I’m saying. And you do know, right – I’m expendable, now. I’ve -” I swallowed – “I’ve done the bit that you needed me alive for. Now I’m just another warm body in an expensive coat.” I gestured out across the people standing there watching all of this unfold. ‎”But, but that lot. And you, come to that. Awful lot more likely you get to walk away from this if he thinks he’s getting what he wants. No?”

“No,” said Iron Bull. “Better dead than slaved. Trust me.”

No, idjit.” Jenny stepped out of my shadow to stare up at the giant a moment, ducked her head, and threw an almost throwaway gesture up towards the hill behind the chantry. “Path up there, ain’t there? Scramble, like, for our numbers. But we c’n do it. And he said. He said this evening.” She flicked her eyes at me. “He lives. Bride said. Rest of us, who knows.”

“They’d see us.” Cullen looked from me to the others. “Half a thousand people up and over that hill, they’d see us. You really think they’re going to wait and let us do that?”

And Felix spoke up. “You know? I think they just might.” He looked to Dorian, who was opening his mouth. Shook his head. “No, let me finish. Cullen, Cassandra – we know the holy warriors have a sense for illusions. How good is it?”

“Impeccable,” said Cullen promptly. “If any of them have a right to wear that symbol. There’s no way you can conceal an illusion from them.”

“Yes, yes. I’ve such a sense myself. Doubtless this Corypheus fellow has one as well.” Felix smiled. “But, ah – can they see through it? Or merely know that an illusion is there?”

“I…” Cassandra raised her eyebrows. “I can, but I’m not a templar – you know, that might actually – all right. This actually looks like a plan. Maxwell.” She turned to look me square in the eye. “Are you sure about this? Are you precisely sure? Do you understand what the consequences of volunteering would be?”

“Is there another plan?” I swallowed hard. “How many people live if I don’t?”

She looked me in the eyes a moment, turned to Felix. “How many of our mages do you need?”

He glanced nervously upwards at the slowly descending light in the clouds above. “No time to teach. I can cast this, but the only other caster would be Dorian, and with the best will in the world he’s spent.” Looked at me. “Which means I’m going to be inside it, which means it’s two of us. Two of us standing off nigh-on five thousand.” He gave me what was supposed to be a smile, I think. “They’ll sing of this.”

“They bloody won’t.” Dorian planted the butt of his staff in the dirt. “Three of us, it’ll be.”

Felix turned on him. “Oh, don’t be a bloody fool, Dorian-”

“No.” Cassandra’s voice was as bitter as the wind. “Spent or not, we’ll need every mage if this fails. Felix. Enact your spell, as quick as is sure. Maxwell, Felix is turning you over; stall. Everyone else, with me. Get them moving.”

Josephine stepped forward in a swirl of cloak as we all turned, grabbed me by the wrist. Looked me in the eye for a good solid moment, unreadable. I didn’t say anything. She bit her lip. Tried to say something. The words didn’t come out.

And she let go, and she went with the others; and that was that.

*

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