Fear & Surprise, Chapter Eighteen

by artrald

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Apologies for lateness. My inspiration took the bank holiday off.

*

Shadows fall, and hope has fled
Steel your heart: the dawn will come.
The night is long, and the path is dark
Look to the sky, for one day soon
The dawn will come.

The shepherd’s lost, and his home is far
Keep to the stars: the dawn will come.
The night is long, and the path is dark
Look to the sky, for one day soon
The dawn will come.

Bare your blade, and raise it high
Stand your ground: the dawn will come.
The night is long, and the path is dark
Look to the sky, for one day soon
The dawn will come.

Hymn of Midnight
trad. Orlesian
supposedly sung on the night of the Retreat from Haven

*

The sensations of my body had long ago faded.

I was still on my feet, putting one weary before the other, lifting, putting them down. But that wasn’t real, not truly. It was a dream, a waking dream. I could not see anything, not really. Snow was trying to stick my eyelids closed, and obscuring all that I could see regardless.

All of this was a painting, I came to realise, a mummers’ backcloth, it wasn’t real. All my life I’d called the one side ‘real’ and the other ‘dream’. None of it was one or the other. I floated onward aimless, lost, through the whiteness.

Something somewhere inside me realised with an empty detachment that I was freezing to death. That wasn’t real, either. It was just another picture on the backcloth.

I was going to die. Funny. That had mattered to me when I’d run from Corypheus. It had mattered when I was lying in the muck under Haven. It didn’t matter any more. Nothing mattered. I wasn’t making decisions any more. I was just walking.

And the cloth was getting thinner, it was wearing thin and stretching, less and less like stout canvas and more like spider’s web.  Uphill. I was going up.

‎And there was a sound. It came to me on the wind. It came to me like the light’s dawning. It was ‎the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I knew the tune. Somehow I knew the tune. I’d heard it before, so many times before, and just then I didn’t know where from. Voices, so many voices, upraised in song. Not the sweet voices of chanters. Proper voices, human voices, real voices, and they were singing.

I turned. I followed the sound. The ground uneven under my feet. Felt like I was tangling in cobwebs. I raised my left hand, I brushed them aside. And I walked towards the singing and I saw the first glimmers of light.

*
‎Around the mages’ fire they heard that and all of them turned their heads as one, and in the same moment Solas stood and gathered up his staff. Vivienne tried to tell him that he was exhausted, that he couldn’t possibly help with whatever that was. ‎ For answer he raised an eyebrow, and then he was out the door and into the‎ snow, fleet as a fox.

The man at the picket was called Frad Bowman, scarecrow-thin and scarecrow-scruffy, and he scratched idly at his head and laid a wary eye on the will-o-wisp he’d seen out there, a flicker and play of green barely seen, and he fingered his whistle, and a moment later he swore as a shadow went past him out into the night – a shadow carrying a little mote of blue light on the end of a stick – and his nerve went.

Cassandra heard the whistle’s blast and moved, throwing her cloak back to free her sword-arm. She’d gathered half a dozen to her side by the time she reached the picket, looking out into the snow, seeing the abrasive flicker of the green light that couldn’t possibly be a rift, hissing to the man beside her to go and get Iron Bull now.

‎Quick feet, strong hands, and the figure was borne up. The snow had settled in his mail; his matted hair was frozen and his fingers were bare and blue, but when Cassandra leaned in to see if he lived, his breath was warm and snowflakes melted on his face. Quickly it wasn’t two hands that the mage was lent, but a dozen; the man was brought quickly in and laid beside what passed for a fire. Another moment and Solas looked disparagingly at the guttering heap of embers and it spat and crackled and a brave little flame flowered: before any could stop him he grabbed his patient’s clenched left hand and he thrust it into the fire.

‎‎*

It was pain that brought me back to myself, pain like cold toes in steaming water. My fingers, my toes, my face. I was filthy, I was damp, and I was literally giving off steam – I was lying on the ground next to a guttering little fire, and afterimages danced in my eyes and ‎the air was so cold that it stung to breathe it, and the heat was somehow coming from inside me. Nerveless I lay there while the pain kneaded at my bones and my hand throbbed and I wondered where I was and whether I was dead.

“Will he live?” There was little chance that I was dead, though. No sensible and sane Maker would put the righteous Sister Cassandra into the same afterlife as me.

“Of course.” The second voice’s tone was more than a little sniffy. “He is stronger than he looks, but I shall watch him nevertheless and give what care I can.”

“You cannot simply heal him?”

“But of course. Why did I not think of that earlier? Allow me to set about that at once.”

There was a cold pause.

“With your permission, master mage, I shall conduct others to see for themselves that he lives?” Sounds were beginning not to make sense any more.

“With your permission, Lady Seeker, I shall remain here and attempt not to make a liar of you?”

Solas laid a hand on my brow. There were other sounds. Other things happened, but they seemed to matter less. The pain was beginning to recede. Maker, I was tired.

*

It was later.

I was warm and dry, and I was dressed in fine light soft clothes, and a light wire circlet held back my hair; I sat in a high-backed chair at the head of a long light airy hall in a place I did not know, and for sure I was dreaming.

The man sitting to my right was accoutred much as I was, though his shadow was far larger than he, and less humanoid; he smiled to me in a friendly fashion and I knew him, though not how I knew him, not until he opened his mouth and it was Solas.

“I’d welcome you back to the land of the living,” he said, with an air of witticism. “But, well. When you wake, I suppose.”

“How?”‎ It felt like I wasn’t quite in command of what I was saying. “My brand?”

“The same.” The merest crease of a frown – “You used it. Likely without even knowing what it was that you were doing. To light your way, I suppose?”

“Yes.” Somehow it seemed insufficient. “It was dark. I’ve been using it for light ever since-”

“Indeed.” His eyes danced. “Congratulations, Herald – I can’t express what you did in words that your beliefs will accept – I suggest you lay the blame at the feet of your religion’s prophet, rather than claim the power was yours to dispense.” The smile was spreading, slowly. “The great and the depraved of all of Thedas would beat a path to your door – besides, of course, the typical destiny of humans who’d rather their life had no ending is not exactly something to which a young fellow might aspire.”

“Where am I?”

Solas glanced around the great hall. “I suppose you don’t mean the prosaic answer. Your body sits in the ruins of the Sanctuary of the Ashes, right now, and looks very much like death warmed up, and there is arguably a reason for that.”

“And I am here to heal?”

“Hardly.” He smirked. “Walk with me.”

We walked in the garden, a formal garden in a quadrangle; the sky was very blue, though the sun was low. “It seems to me,” said the elf after some space of companionable silence, “that you are come to a decision.”

I raised an eyebrow in unconscious imitation of him. “Seems to me I made one.”

“Oh?” He turned to regard me. “Why d’you feel you volunteered, Maxwell? Right thing to do? Man’s duty? Pretty lady asked you, perhaps?”

“Not quite.” I snorted. “Matter of fact, I’m pretty sure the pretty lady took mortal offence.”

“Indeed? I take it you had another good and compelling reason for that, then.”

I looked him straight back in the eye. “Nobody else had a better plan. And it worked. And, yes. Tell me it wasn’t the right thing to do. Tell me any of the others of them could have done that.”

He looked at me funny for a moment longer, turned away. “Certainly I’m not dead yet, so, I approve. But all these reasons – all of these thoughts of honour and obligation and duty and right and so on, that I’m pretty sure the sot with the wine-jug and the distinct resemblance to his master would find about as familiar as the far side of the moon – it sounds like you open your mouth and I’m hearing Cassandra, or Josephine, or at best Krem or even, occasionally, my own self. ‎And not you.”

“I’ve never known you not to have a point, Solas.”

“All right: my point.” We turned a corner and there was a door, and it was covered in incongruous frost, and it was filthy and it was rotten and it hung crooked on its hinges. “It is the last watch of the night. Wake now, warmed and refreshed, and I can have you to a place where nobody knows your name by the time they realise you are gone. From there, you head east. Take ship for Kirkwall from basically anywhere on the east coast. Go overland up to Ostwick and be home and safe within a fortnight.”

“Safe?”

Solas made a face. “Corypheus cannot track you by magic, and-”

“Not what I mean. If the Inquisition falls, what happens? Have the stakes truly lessened since Cassandra said that no amount of running was far enough?”

“And again you open your mouth and others’ words come out.”

“You’re staying. Clearly you think there are good reasons.”

“This is my fight,” he said, simply. “Is it truly yours?”

I snorted. “It’s been made very clear to me that I’ve no choice on that score.”

He shook his head firmly. “No. No. Absolutely not true; I’ll guarantee it. You put yourself out for me, down there, risked your life against my safety. I’ll do you the same back, if need be.” His gaze was piercing, and his shadow ranged behind him ten feet tall. “For the third time of asking, human, and the last: my word on it, this choice is free. I very much fear that the path you are on is more nightmare than not. I offer you the chance to wake.”

“For the third time, then.” I drew a deep, imaginary breath. “No.”

“Heard and witnessed, Lord Maxwell.” A crooked smile. “A little advice, then, if you’ll take it.”

“Presumably this is where you tell me that they are relying on me, that I need to live up to it, that I need to step up and lead when they ask me to?”

He chuckled. “Nothing so ethereal, O Herald. I’m simply here to say that if you let these people stay another night in these ruins, then they will turn to the mages to provide by magic what they can’t provide by foraging. And either we will – and then we will be in trouble, for there’s a reason we didn’t do the same tonight, that had nothing to do with our tiredness – or we won’t – and then we will be in trouble, for your army will freeze to death.”

“So we move?”

“We must. I have a destination, half as old as the hills themselves. Before the Tevene drove the Alamarri from the coast road and made it safe for them, the dwarves of Orzammar sent their caravans to Orlais through a pass high in the mountains. The old road is three days west of here, and the pass perhaps another day north after that; at the top of the pass there is a hold, a border castle built by the second emperor of Orlais. I cannot speak for its condition today, more than that it stands and no lord claims it: but the location is almost unassailable, and the walls still stand at least. The road will be hard; there is little decent shelter, and we will need to lean heavily on our magical support. It will look like a stupid decision.”

I raised my eyebrows. “And you’re relying on me to convince them.”

“No,” he said, simply. “I am relying on them to follow you.”

“So I lie to them. Tell them the Bride came to me and-”

“Absolutely not.” He folded his hands. “Trust me, Maxwell. Don’t explain, don’t convince, and most certainly do not lie about religious revelation. Simply say, ‘go west’, and go.”

“Just like that. And why, pray, will they follow?”

” You walked out of the blizzard and the ruin of Haven; you lived; you shouldn’t have. For that, as illogical as it is, they will trust you – once. They will follow – once. And you will lead them west, and their trust will be borne out; and you will have planted just enough in their hearts to allow them to start to believe.” His eyes were so very like a wolf’s. “And it is not a habit of mine to allow myself to remain indebted.”

I woke.

*

They were arguing, when I walked in. We couldn’t possibly stay there, at the Sanctuary, because we were hideously exposed and there was literally no more fuel; we couldn’t possibly move, because there was basically no shelter and approximately no path; we’d lost nobody last night, but that wouldn’t last; we had basically no supplies and nowhere to forage, and –

West, I said.

They looked at me. Cassandra raised an eyebrow and asked me if I had seen the state of our people

West, I said. We were going west. And I took Solas’ advice, and I didn’t explain, and I didn’t argue, and I didn’t lie. I just stated it, just said it as if it was a truth nobody could gainsay.

And nobody did.

It was miserable. But what choice did anybody have? Varric and Blackwall and a bunch of our toughest doubled back to see what could be recovered from the ruin of Haven. I made some excuse or other to attach Solas to the scouts – better safe than sorry on that score. And the rest of us? West.

Shelter was rudimentary and pretty damned far between, given an abject lack of tents and such. But surely with magic all our problems would be solved? Not a bit of it. The mages did their best, but the only one of them who seemed to be working anywhere near their actual field of expertise was Vivienne, who must have worked a thousand charms against frostbite in those three days. The Grand Enchanter was fundamentally a battle-mage by training and inclination, and the mages she’d brought to help Solas were experts in the esoteric and occult who’d never slept a night rough in their lives before the Apostasy.

Dorian shrugged and said that he’d perfectly good spells to make shelter, but of course they’d been designed to deal with camping out in sunny Tevinter. Haven was the furthest south he’d ever been and the first time he’d ever been into a tall mountain, and a spell to keep the sun off and the rain out turned out not even to stop the snow, let alone the biting wind. But he could make magic circles that could contain any fire and the Grand Enchanter could set bonfires that could use stone and ice for fuel, so between the two of them they furnished us with all the fire we needed.

But it was still miserable, and poor conditions and exhaustion sapped at the spirit like nothing else, and of course we’d nothing to eat, and that’s not exactly useful conditions for people trying to pat you on the back and see if you’re all right. The rank and file of the Inquisition just focused on putting feet in front of the other, in following the rest; I walked with the half of the Chargers who weren’t with the scavenging expedition and tried to look like the people in front of me were following me, too; and neither on the trail nor around the blazing blue unnatural mage-fires did we have the energy spare to talk about anything other than the very immediate. But Josephine wouldn’t meet my eyes, and somehow we always ended up at different fires.

The third morning, when our scavenging party returned with burdens scraped mostly from the dead Templars’ baggage train, they were greeted as heroes. The discovery of the ancient road, half-lost to the ages, right where I’d pointed to it, was neither here nor there: what the people cared about, and I pretty much counted myself among them, was the prospect of proper shelter tonight and perhaps even a ration of food.

And the old road climbed, turning and rising steeply beside a river, and it was at noon on the fourth day that we saw – and I had just about the presence of mind to keep my face impassive and the swearwords off my lips. Solas had said it would be ‘a hold’, and I don’t know what I was expecting, but this –

It was like it had always been there, like it was part of the mountain itself. Solid. Ancient. Unassailable. Literally astride the pass. From what I could see, nothing but time had been at those walls; I could hardly believe that anybody could have built a place like this, let alone abandoned it. If there ever was a place in the world to stop running, it seemed to say, it was somewhere inside those walls.

And it was abandoned – cold and empty, left to the elements and the animals, the portcullis rusted, the doors long gone, open in many places to the sky – but the place was sound and there was water in the wells, and I saw in Cassandra’s eyes just what she was seeing in mine – that if Corypheus had come to us here, and not in Haven, then we’d have stood him off if he’d brought ten thousand.

And I said idly that it needed some work, and she actually smiled at that one, and said I wasn’t wrong. And she asked if I’d like the honour of giving this place a name.

And that is why the castle of the Inquisition is named Skyhold.

*

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