Fear & Surprise, Chapter Seventeen

by artrald

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*

A single, massive blow upon the door. The hinges twisted and splintered; the lock-bar was bent and broken; and as the thing fell from its hinges, there in the archway stood none other than Hawke himself, majestic chin out-thrust, muscles rippling, his roguish eyes glittering in the half-light, and he paid me but a wink before turning his gaze firmly upon my foul and twisted captor.

“Finally, misshapen bastard, your time has come!” Slowly the puissant hero drew the shimmering steel of his enchanted blade, slowly he turned it and the candlelight caressed the blade and lit its tip with a star. “Sealed by grim Wardens with the blood of my ancestors, this place might well have been: and yet all too often you’ll find that such a warding shall yield most excellently to the good and righteous boot of the scion of the line, no? And for my next trick, ser, I’ll put it to your arse.”

“Ha!” said the beast Corypheus, and he turned his hunched back to where I lay and dark magic crackled about his long-fingered hands. “I spit on you, ser: you are but a mortal, and beauty alone never saved mortal flesh from defilement; only thank-you, for opening my door. Leave me, now; leave me to this dwarf, and my unspeakable appetites, and I swear upon my power that when I come to my reign of terror, you shall be the last to die.”

Hawke simply chuckled, shaking his tousled head in mockery. “You must think me the simplest of idiots alive, if you’d think that I’d take such a deal – from you, or anyone.” He raised his point with a practiced flick. “Now take the length of my steel, ser: and trust me, you’ll not find it lacking.”

There follows a dozen pages worth of poorly choreographed fighting filled to bursting point with remarkably creative innuendo. It is never explained where the supposedly captured dwarf gets his crossbow from, except that it lets him have his turn at fighting (and thus his share of the innuendo), nor is it accurately explained why the villain was not simply obliterated with magic the moment that became possible – or, to be frank, how the dwarf got into the sealed chamber of the ancient Warden tomb in the first place. The only artistic merit – and I stretch the term to breaking – would be where the protagonist trips and the evil one nearly has him, save for the intervention of the lovely lady du jour, thus beauty saves this mortal flesh et cetera. The scene ends thus –

Then at last, bloodied, shot through, scorched and broken, the beast Corypheus knelt there at Hawke’s steel-shod feet: and unsmiling he rested the point of his reddened blade under the foul creature’s chin. “Your kind always loses, demon; your type always will. The darkness has no power that we do not give it. And frankly, ser, what you’ve given up is not worth what you’ve gained.”

And the fiend chuckled foully, and looked up into Hawke’s clear blue eyes. “I’ll be back,” he gurgled, and blood dripped from his mouth as he choked out the words. “You cannot touch me. I am free.”

“I hereby declare bullshit, ser.” Hawke’s blade flashed one final time, and the creature’s head rolled, and his foul stinking blood fountained. “My fellows? We are done here.”

“Just wait a moment, milord.” The mage Meral stepped forward, her lovely brow furrowed with concern. “There be tales of his kind, and of the ways that even at the last they’ll evade a strong warrior and a good blade. If you’ll permit me?”

‎Hawke arched an eyebrow. “It’s a long way to the nearest crossroads, my dear, and I packed neither stake nor hammer.”

She giggled, then, and she avoided his eye. “Oh, no, ser. It is quite simple, what to do.” She placed her cupped hands to her cherry-red lips, and she blew upon them as one would blow on tinder, and a warm and cheeky glow blossomed there to match the one on her cheeks. “Kill it with fire.”

The Hawke And The Legacy, Varric Tethras
glossed ‎for the Seekers of Truth by Cassandra Pentaghast‎

*

“You.” It was hardly an appropriate greeting, but the young man was too cold, drunk and pissed-off to be polite even as the fine lady was too ‎out of breath to be offended. “The Herald.”

Josephine cast him a look. “What about him?”

“Who’s the detail?”

“Sorry?”

“On picking him up.” Krem wondered if fine ladies in the south knew the words he was using. “Who goes and gets him?”

There was silence for a moment, the two of them trudging side by side up the snow-blanketed stair.

“That’s not – the plan.” The words tasted like snow and ashes.

Krem threw the southerner a funny look. “You mean to say – bugger’s staying? He’s not coming with?”

“That’s exactly what I mean to say.” Her voice had sharp edges that glittered in the darkness. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept.”

“Once or twice,” he said, and the snow crunched. “Expendable. ‘S funny.” His breath hissed out without anything recognisable as humour. “Not usual that word applies to the people at his end of the line.”

‎The cold cut through Josephine’s usual polite filter. “I’m glad that someone is seeing the-“

“Not sure who that is.” Krem caught the lady’s elbow in the same moment she slipped and set her back on her feet. “Watch out, there. Long way back up this hill.”

“For the record, he volunteered.” Dropped his arm the moment she could. ‎”This is his plan.”

“Is it, now.” The path took another switchback turn. “Fancy. First thing the man does for himself in this world and it’s the last thing he ever does. So to speak.”

“I imagine that if you have a point, you’ll make it at some point.”

“Beg leave to speak freely, my lady.”

“You weren’t?”

“Cute.” Krem marshalled his words for‎ a moment. “Lot of work, that was, for a man who never got to use a single moment of it.”

“Does it look to you as if I wanted this, soldier? Does it?” She was too tired to yell. It just came out as a deep, endless weariness. “I had plans for that man, you muscle-bound idiot. Oh, no, you’ve wasted a few months’ good work and a few mornings’ sleep you won’t be getting back in a hurry.” She shook her head. “Some of us lost that and more. There were livelihoods and reputations and – futures – hanging on that man.”

“Well, that I don’t know. But just to say, my fine lady, that the next time you need someone getting up at ungodly hours of the morning to run up and down a mountain, the next time you need someone teaching sword and saddle, the next time you’re after someone teaching half a dozen years’ instruction in as many weeks? The next time you need a friend making in a hurry? You do it your damned self.”

“Noted, Aklassi.” She swallowed any further retort. “That will be all.”

*

I woke up, and that was a damned surprise.

Freezing. Shivering. It was dark down here, but for the familiar green glow of my brand. This might’ve been somebody’s cellar, for all I could see: stone walls, stone roof, and I ‘d somehow rolled out of the way of the fall of snow and debris that had filled half of the place and quite readily explained how I got here. Still covered in armour, I was, though a couple of those straps had broken and my gauntlets were long gone, and my breastplate tried to throttle me as I attempted to sit up –

Some ungainly and unpleasant and undignified minutes later, and I was free of all the bits that were trying to actually kill me; I celebrated by flopping on the floor in my chainmail shirt and wondering if there was a square inch of my hide that wasn’t bruised.

I shivered, again, more violently. Fuck, but it was cold. Couldn’t stay here. Not dead. Not dead. Let’s see if I couldn’t keep that true until morning at least – if it was morning already, I could settle for living till the one after, I really could.

World spun as I got onto my knees, then up onto my feet. Didn’t throw up: reckoned that was a bit of a victory. Shone my light experimentally up at the way I’d fallen in: what did we reckon?

We reckoned that part of that wreckage was a dead Templar. Two-for-two in not disgracing myself: not bad. But I wasn’t getting up and out that way any time soon.‎ Jammed solid and full of dead people: let’s not. Glumly I surveyed my prison –

There. It wasn’t much more than a drain. But there it was. Hands and knees in the freezing cold cellar mud – I mean, what choice did I have? Was I supposed to sit here and wait for a rescue I was nigh-on certain wouldn’t actually come? – I crawled.

The ceiling opened out after what felt like a mile or so, probably wasn’t but a couple of dozen yards. My breeches were now soaked in freezing mud, my gloves no better. And now I was in what I suppose had to be a sewer.

Sewers go to rivers. Rivers end up outside. That was all my addled mind could come up with. There wasn’t a flow to the muck in here. I just vaguely remembered that the others had fled uphill, and so uphill I went.

Can’t honestly say how long I walked. My feet were freezing. The rest of me had mostly headed from pain through into numbness, which was a blessing. Shivering. Seeing by the light of my hand. Ever upward in the dark. Somewhere at the end of this was something that would make this all right. All I had to do was keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. And surely I’d climbed enough for a dozen mountains by now.

Cold, on my face. Wind. Wind comes from outside. I wanted to be outside. I’d forgotten why. But I followed my nose, headed into the wind, just walked towards it, towards some glorious magic that would make everything better, that would solve all problems and somehow make me warm once more.

Snow stung as it landed. One flake, then a dozen. It was snowing. More than that. My poor little nightlight was blanketed, was swamped in whiteness: I looked out into the snowstorm, heard the howling of the wind, resolved somehow that the rest of the Inquisition had gone up and so all I needed to do to find them was to walk uphill.

And of course, within a dozen steps I was predictably, hopelessly, impossibly, stupidly lost.‎

*

“I can’t believe it.” Josephine was practically dwarfed by the winter cloak she had on. “I – I cannot believe we truly did that.”

“Sorry to say.” Leliana had thrown a borrowed cloak over mail and everything and her face could barely be seen under the man-sized hood as she huddled as close to the pathetic little fire as possible. “But we’re not out of the woods yet. Yes, we have escaped the mousetrap; yes, we have climbed a hill. And now we have half a thousand people halfway through freezing to death on the top of a hill, rather than half a thousand people being slaughtered by an army that couldn’t possibly exist. You do realise that if the ruins of the Sanctuary weren’t here we’d be entirely without shelter.”

“Funny; you think perhaps I might have noticed.” She shivered. “And in my rational mind I know we’re lucky even so. No battle, and fewer casualties than we could have dreamed of-”

“So far,” said the spymistress darkly.

“Fine, yes.” Josephine stared into the guttering flames. “But I still can’t believe we gave him what he wanted. Even as a ruse.”

“It worked. And they did volunteer.”

Menuda gilipollez,”  she hissed, withdrawing further into the shadow of her hood. “The Tevene, perhaps. ‘Lord Maxwell’ never volunteered for a thing since first I met him.”

Leliana scowled. “By the time your agent is standing right there raising his hand and demanding to stand up and be counted, Mynah-”

“Fabulous. So not only have we deliberately and coldly sent our supposed friend out to die unspeakably at the hands of the actual, literal forces of darkness, but now it is additionally my fault?”

“What – that the man we were trying to teach the definition of a number of words, decided to actually apply some of them?”

“That’s all very well for you to say,” Josephine said, spitting the words out like venom. “You get your martyr. Almost as good as a Herald. Better, even, if we play this right.” She rested her chin in her gloved hands. “Having made a liar out of an innocent man, we listened to him when he told us all that he wanted to be a hero. You do know, don’t you? That he wasn’t ‘expendable’ in the slightest? That -”

“Excuse me for having other things in mind than your plans-”

Josephine’s voice rose half an octave. “Would you like to be reminded how many people are relying on me for-”

“Silence.” Cassandra’s voice had most of the tone of a slap in the face; Josephine snapped her mouth shut and Leliana looked away. “It was not our only option. We could instead have had me standing there under that illusion, instead of Maxwell. I am no templar, but neither would I have been helpless – between me and Felix, the fiend might have fallen, and even if we had failed, we could have held him back long enough. We could have had Varric standing there for support, who claims to have shot him down once, and concentrated the mage’s efforts solely upon countering the fiend’s defenses against arrows. We could have had Felix mire him and lead him a dance. We could have had Cullen, Blackwall and Iron Bull hold the bottom of the stair. But you know the thing that all of them have in common?” She met Josephine’s eyes. “We didn’t do that.”

“No.” Josephine hunched herself deeper into her cloak. “We sent out Maxwell to go and martyr himself while we got ourselves away free. We gave him the impression he was good for one thing; he did it, and then of course he called himself expendable; his task was done. And then we just let him go.”

Let the blade pass through the flesh. Let my blood touch the ground. Let my cries touch their hearts. Let mine be the last sacrifice.” Cassandra pushed back her own hood. “Canticle of Andraste. There are two stances that are supportable, if the Bride herself went to her death to save others. Either nobody is indispensable, or everybody is.”

“And now you are instructing me as if I’m one of your novices. I’m not a child, Raven-”

“No?” The Seeker’s expression softened, just a little. “Then you can recognise when we’re all dog-tired, freezing cold, pissed off and badly in need of a stiff drink we don’t have, and you can leave the recriminations until we’re not all in serious danger of going on a little expedition to join the Herald-”

“Y tu puta madre,” Josephine spat. “A curse on the Templars. A curse on everything that ever moved or crawled upon the earth.”

“A curse upon Tevinter,” said Leliana quietly. “And a curse upon this bloody, bloody snow.”

Cassandra scowled out into the dark. “Screw this. We’re doing no good sitting around here chewing on one another. I’ll do the rounds. See if there’s anything to be done.” She stood abruptly. “Keep myself a little warmer, at very least.” And she left in a swirl of cloak, and the snow outside continued to fall, and their tiny fire guttered, and Leliana and Josephine staved off the boredom and the night’s cold dark by finding new and more creative things to curse.

*

Another little fire, another little outbuilding with holes whistling in the walls, another little knot of survivors. Something between fellow-feeling and necessity and That Look in the eyes of every one of Them – and every single person around the fire needed nothing more than the capital letters to identify exactly what that meant – had brought the lot of them together in this one place, seven exhausted footsore mages shivering in ‎a place nobody else had wanted because the roof didn’t hold together.

Fiona had fixed that. Crude work she would’ve winced at on any other day – a laborious little shield over the holes, a thump on the roof to cover them with snow, one word to melt it, another to freeze it into a solid little dome of ice before her safe endurance ran dry and the shield buckled.

The others had worked to make it livable – Dorian had a spell to still the air and keep out the biting wind, and the fire that Solas built (methodically, silently, by hand, out of sticks and scraps) burned disproportionately warm and didn’t so much need‎ feeding as the occasional poke.

The girl Minaeve, what power she had as yet unspent, had left uncomplaining and gone out among the survivors to see what it was that she could do. She did come back, just about – blindly she stumbled into the cloak Dorian had hung up over the doorway, and catching her as she collapsed had nearly borne him to the floor. There was enough room to lie her down; her lips were blue, and her fingertips, but they’d strength left between them to take care of frostbite at least.

“They will live,” Fiona offered. “Or most will. She laid enough charms against frostbite there to cover most of those without properly warm clothing. Forty-one fires there are, not counting ours, although not all will still be even embers by morning. We won’t be able to stay here a second night, if only because of the ‎lack of fuel.”

“Solved problem,” said Dorian, nodding towards the fire. “No good to man nor beast tonight, but surely between us we can rustle up a few dozen fires.”

“What, on this mountaintop? Enjoy walking on a freshly splinted bone, do you?” Solas flicked Dorian a glance. “Are you not the author of that text on rift magic they tried to feed me?”

He nodded. “An academic interest, only, until relatively recently. There aren’t many who’d even know its name in this language -”

“I translated the proper name, as, I’d imagine, did you.” Solas removed a stick from the merrily crackling fire, replaced it in a different position and the warmth deepened. “The book. Was that actually your own work?”

“Every word, as a matter of actual fact.” Dorian’s moustache twitched. “My name for the field is something else entirely; and you’re barking up the wrong tree entirely if you’re about to accuse me of stealing secrets from tombs.”

“Invented all that magic for yourself, did you? Maybe you also believe your people came up with your script?” Another stick was removed from the seemingly random assortment and slid back in: a shape was emerging in the centre of the fire. “Your home was built of the rubble of a city that would’ve stolen your breath and your heart, by the paltry broken descendants of the people who  built it, under the whips of those who-”

“Yes, yes, structural and ingrained privilege, a good couple of thousand years of history, old grudges, old ties, old battles, never forget, never forgive.” Dorian held out his hands to the fire’s warmth. “Now, Vivienne, over there. My people oppressed hers nearly as hard and much more recently than yours -” the elf Fiona hissed in a breath – “assuming, yes, that you were born in the Dales, not under a heart-tree. And the Grand Enchanter – why, there’s hardly a thing she stands for that Tevinter hasn’t tried to fit bodily into its fanged and dripping maw upon one occasion or other.” He looked slowly around the circle of them all. “So right now, while we’re all too knackered to make anything of any of this, let me make one thing absolutely perfectly crystal clear. All right? Not in my name they didn’t.”

Solas simply looked away, but it was Fiona who replied. “Dirtharel da,” she said, and met the human’s eye for a moment. “Rich little man from luxury’s lap who’s taken a distaste: my heart, it bleeds. Three years, the war’s been. Thirty months you have had to register an interest in people wronged by your fathers, thirty months to stand up and get them thinking. Three years to do what Alexius could have done in a week, and don’t tell me it only worked because he was looking to abuse it.”

He winced. “What can I say? You’re not wrong. And you know? Give me those years again and I’d live them largely the same.” Looked down at his fair uncalloused hands. “Or alternatively I could not, and the Venatori would’ve taken my work and Alexius’ and poor Felix’s and you’d be right here, optionally with my sorry brainwashed carcass leading the charge, except that that would be the ashes of the whole world falling down outside and not just a lick of snow. No, my dear, I’m not on your side. But I am on the Inquisition’s, or more properly, it is on mine. I was on this side before bebilosarics – I’m sorry, ‘rift magic’ – was more than a little floating sphere of applied blasphemy in my thaumaturgic triangle. ‎‎So on that basis, and frankly on the basis that you and I have something in common that the keeper of the vhenadahl you were born under will never know as more than a tale and a song? Let’s not hate each other, shall we, and say we did?”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Fiona, and her voice was cold. “All the hate, all the mistrust, all the resentment and its causes – oh, that was someone else. You did none of it; none of it is your responsibility. And let us have a treaty; let us have a truce; let us have -”

“Oh, knock it off.” Vivienne sat forward, looked from one of them to the other. “We here stand for all the magic of the South. Our common cause is written no longer on the sky, but it’s no less of a danger. I’ll eat my hat and any ten others you’d care to name if the Venatori will take this lying down, and I don’t choose to do so either. And here we are, together, tired, hungry, spent, and yet we argue and needle at the slightest provocation?  I’d have it stop.”

The elf shook her head. “You, Vivienne? Working with apostates? Dalish? Tevene? ”

“Circle or apostate or whatever. If one of those here will vouch for them. I’ll take help, I’ll seek allies anywhere any of us would, I’ll trust them to spend their power for our cause as they can, and as I shall myself. In the name of the Seekers and so the Inquisition, I ask you to say the same.”

Dorian nodded almost too quickly. “Done. Until those that tore the hole in the sky are stopped, if that be a week or a month, a year or forever, we’ve one cause.”

Fiona compressed her mouth into a firm line. “My enemies are the Inquisition’s enemies, but the Apostasy comes‎ first. I won’t abandon my people and I won’t give you people carte blanche to let people into my strongholds.”

“My dear, the last thing I want is for you to leave those people.” Vivienne smiled faintly. “I’d rather hoped you might recruit them.”

“And you support my terms to Cassandra when she asks my people to keep the Rule of the Circles and we refuse.”

“Within reason.” The tall lady inclined her head. “You know my stance on the forbidden magics-”

“And share it, even still. Bride knows, though we can’t truly afford to turn down new friends if they aren’t actually out to kill us all or drive us insane.” Fiona looked to her people and they resolved. “In the name of the Apostasy, then: done.”‎

‎Solas sat back from the fire, apparently satisfied with his work. “Pretty words for scholars of ashes and pilfered tombs. For my own part? I’ll take your truce: my conditions are two.” And his eyes reflected the firelight like a wolf’s. “First – respect is valuable, and one shouldn’t give it or expect it for free. And second? Talk history as you will, but you will not expect me to ignore it: ask me to speak for the Dalish again and I’ll act like one, and nobody wants to see that.”

“But you can talk to them, can’t you?” Vivienne ‎leaned forward. “Get the Council-”

Solas snorted.

“No?”

The corner of his mouth twisted. “They disapprove of me and my ilk, or possibly it’s me that disapproves of them.‎ You’re thinking, perhaps, of the aid the Dalish gave the Wardens in the Blight?”

“I don’t know what I’m thinking,” she said, “if we’re to be honest. But I think I want the Council of the Dales inside and pissing out.”

‎”I think the Council of the Dales soil their own den first and foulest.” Solas smiled, briefly, without showing teeth. “I’ll not plead their cause to you; I’ll not sully my tongue with it. But I can put yours to them, and damned to the lot of them. Good enough?”

Vivienne nodded,  wearily. “I think we’ll be hearing a lot of that last.”

*

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