Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Eight

by artrald

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*

The blood-curse of the Grey Wardens is one of those things that should really be part of basic education for any serious scholar of the arcane or occult, and has instead become the most trembling of secrets for no more reason than the irrationality of humanity.

It is a dirty, dirty thing, as nearly every work of life-magic is or becomes: more so, even, because it was conceived in desperation by the dregs left behind after the ruin of the armies of southern Tevinter in the First Blight, because it was the last desperate effort of people literally facing annihilation. If that were somehow not enough, consider that the mages who propagate it are uniformly criminals and malcontents thrown to the Order as a more-ethical alternative to execution. In other words, it is a minor miracle that it functions at all.

Ah – but what is it? Functionally – a link from Warden to Blight, that one could compare to an open door with a welcome mat, and a curse that to stretch the metaphor slightly is a spiked and poisoned pit under the welcome mat. The curse is a fairly standard one, differing only in that it hits the Archdemon at its weakest: the link, however, was an attempt at cleverness, a one-way link whereby the Warden can hear their enemy enough to track them and not enough to become them, and like any other ‘cleverness’ with the magic of life it deteriorates over time.

In short, it is a death sentence. The ‘pit’ is ‘dug’ first, in the laying of the curse, and then the link is made: if the link is too broad and easy, the Warden dies instantly as the curse scents the archdemon and triggers like an empty mousetrap. The pathway widens and deepens over time, and thus this misfire will happen eventually to every Warden: thus the sustained and prolonged effort they all make not to die in their own beds, thus the conviction that even their novices feel that the order is a viable alternative to a death sentence. Over time, this widening has become mythologised as the slow awakening of the archdemons in the Deep Roads and their calling to the darkspawn and thus the Wardens: every Warden dreams of a Blight coming in their lifetimes, as a weapon dreams of being used rather than gathering rust in an armoury, and thus this is the story they tell, and it is arrant falsehood.

The lessons of the Wardens’ curse are many and varied, but the first is this: marry in haste, repent at leisure.

The Morrigan
On the Magics of Healing and Life
last copy burned by the Circles of Magic in 8:12 Blessed

*

Hahren.” Kallian’s pronunciation had the stilted care to it that marked someone who’d studied under the worst sort of Dalish. “Aneth’ara.”

Aneþ ara, ða’len; andera’an atisha’an.” Solas had chosen the garden, for this meeting. He cast a wan shadow in the moonlight. “You passed my test, I see.”

The Warden blinked. “Test?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “I deliberately allowed you to imagine that this castle’s masters had falsified the message I sent for you with the Morrigan. I wanted to see how much you cared.”

Wary arch of an eyebrow. “And you believe that is how much?”

“Enough to seek me: not enough to break from your duty to do it. And of course, not so much as a whisper to the quicklings.”

“Would it have helped?”

He simply made a quiet noise of amusement. “I do recall saying that you passed. I’m called Solas, by the by: I am he who patched the hole in the sky.”

“Your message spoke of great need. Now, the one I’ve seen, the one the Herald showed me, it’s about humans alone. Bunch of-”

“D’you live in this world, mistress Dener? D’you consider that maybe your people live in the shemlen’s house, and much good their pointed ears will do when it comes down about them?”

“Aye, and I’ve used those same words before to such as you, so you needn’t throw ’em in my face. You were speaking for the Inquisition alone, though?”

“Stubborn, you are. What if I was?”

“Then who are you, hahren, that ain’t Dalish without vallas’lin all tattooed on his face, who never learned his elvhen words under a heart-tree, whose like Morrigan has never met? You ain’t saying you came from the Circle, not when you called for me in the name of all that’s ever been holy. In my life I’ve spoken for the shemlen before our people, and I’ve done it because the Wardens made me their ambassador. By what token d’you do the same?”

He dropped from the wall, landed facing her, and his shadow filled the whole rest of the garden. “You’re a smart girl,” he said. “Why d’you want to know, and not just guess, or take me at my word, like the rest?”

Her voice was very cautious. “Because the words I learnt under a heart-tree translate the name you gave me as a word. And I’ve met creatures that call themselves that, and they’d speak elvhen like they were born in Arlathan itself, and around them the world goes mad.”

“Does it, indeed?” He tilted his head. “What does your little friend think? Did she bring you here knowing you thought so of me?”

“She swore blind you weren’t, as a matter of actual fact, but she’s not infallible. And who else calls himself Pride for a name?”

“Who indeed, mistress Dener?” He met her eyes, a challenge. “The humans of the south give their town’s name to children whose father is unknown or hidden, and every elf they own wears it as an ancient and unfunny joke-”

“Careful,” the Warden said softly.

“Right back at you,” said Solas. “My own reason is much like yours. I’ve little enough that’s mine; I’ll be damned if someone will take what is left.”

“The cityfolk are called after their alienage and use old elvhen names; the Dalish use the same names and no surname at all. Tevinter call us names like you’d give a dog, pedigree and all. The qunari give you a secret name that tells you your lineage, but your name you go by tells your place in the world and naught else. That’s the whole world I’ve spoken of, there, and nobody uses a name that’s a word in elvhen. Where are you from, lethallin?”

She’d only ever seen that arrogant lift of the chin in human nobility before. “You call me cousin?”

“Always preferred your side of the family,” she said promptly.

“What, no denials, no shame, no offence? Is this where my people have come?”

“I’d trade my human blood for water in an instant, cousin. But if you’re looking for shame, and you’re looking at me and at mine and at what we do to live, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”

He looked her a long steady time, then, without speaking. Abruptly he turned his back, started to pace. “Warden Garahel of the Fourth Blight had barely more of the line of Arlathan in him than you do, and the People of the Dales were more than happy to call him a king of old reborn – once, of course, the hero was safely dead. While you, I suppose, they’ve turned away at their door, or would have if they owned any, and they’re a little sad in their hearts that you can name both your parents. For them it matters, who your parents were: they’d say that’s what makes you what you are.” He reached the far side of the little garden and turned, his eyes bright in the shadow. “To you and yours, what you are is what you say you are, but there’s a list to pick from, and woe betide the wrong choice. To the Tevene, what you are is what you’re good for, or as they’d put it,what you’re worth. To the qunari, also, you get to choose what you are – but you’d better put your money where your mouth is or they’ll ask you again.” He paced back towards her, his tread utterly noiseless. “D’you want to ask again your question?”

She shrugged. “It’s one and the same to you, what I say: you’ll answer as you will. I touched a nerve: I meant to.”

He snorted. “Impertinence.”

“That is what young people are for, hahren.”

“And yet you ask your elder the name his mother gave him, and the lineage that made her, and you’ll not take a riddle for an answer.”

“You’ve a thing you’ve decided to tell me, I’ve no idea what. And now you’re poking me to see if I’ll dance.”

Again his wry quick smile. “I’m poking you to see if I recognise what I see, ða’len, and never you mind why.”

“Well, by now you do or you don’t.”

“Quite.” He’d come close enough to touch, in the wan moonlight. A human would’ve had trouble seeing. He walked around her, and it wasn’t clear what it was that he was looking at. “I was born under the vhenadahl in Vaiethari in northern Saix’e, to Ishƿa and Mortaine Estƿaða, and Solas is for one reason and another not the name they gave me. But knowing my homeland, knowing my family name and even my heart-tree: it’s not enough, is it. Your straight answer’s useless and what you should have asked for was the riddle.”

She turned to face him, nothing but earnest on her face. “Will you give me that, hahren? If I tell you you’re right, as you know y’are?”

His eyes smiled. “You are quite unlike Garahel, you know. He was a very short man, stocky almost, and his voice was surprisingly deep. He’d no discernible principles, most especially around women he found attractive; he had less than no loyalty to his kin, and left behind him half a dozen halfblood children he never knew; he was a terrible loser and a worse winner. He’d not even the conception of honour. But he was a passionate man, and he’d sworn an oath to destroy the darkspawn long before the Wardens offered him a place: and he was a born leader, of the kind our people no longer needed, even a century and a half ago.” A quiet whuff that might have been a laugh. “And he could drink an old man like me under the table.”

Her eyes widened slightly; she bowed her head to him. “Hahren-”

“Hush,” he said, still merry. “That secret is yours, now, little niece: fair traded, and nothing owing. But it is a secret.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“You’ll need ’em to eat,” he said, as if he made a very great joke. “But still. You passed my test. Do I pass yours? Do I live up? Are you certain that a man who took the name Arrogance isn’t a demon named Pride?”

She coloured. “I am, hahren.”

“Solas, please.” He smiled like a wolf. “The name will serve as well as any.”

*

So the delegation that rode out with the Warden ended up being a full company’s worth, and at her insistence we couldn’t wait for Blackwall. The Bull and the Chargers for muscle, me and Josephine to talk to nobles, Dorian and Varric to testify about red lyrium, Jenny to watch my back, and Solas because, in his words, he was curious – the Maid drew the line at templars, said they’d give the wrong impression. Adamant was a week and a half west of us on the good Orlesian roads, if you didn’t dawdle. The windswept hills and wooded dales of Dirthavaren, the starkness of the Dragons’ Reach (which Solas wryly said had a misplaced plural, considering the solitary habits of high dragons), and the rolling farmland of Tirashan all blanketed in dowdy winter.

The journey was long, dull and grim as winter itself: there’s a reason most people don’t ride right across the kingdom in deep winter. Admittedly, most people don’t have mages with them. Dorian said a few words over every tent we raised and the air around it quieted and stilled and warmed, and Solas quietly laid each fire when our party made camp, and the wood somehow caught like tinder and burned long and hot. Mind you, Dorian still complained like anything, about the cold and the mud and the rain and the food, until Kallian threatened to give him something to justify his complaints and he shut his face.

The Maid – who, it turned out, hated that nickname for pretty obvious and justifiable reasons – was a good enough travelling companion once the ice was broken, though to be fair that took us most of a week. It was Josephine who eventually got us on first-name terms, and she did it by singing. Apparently the elf had a singing voice that a priestess would be proud of and a wide repertoire, and shortly thereafter Josephine had a roaring trade going on in the songs of our respective homelands, and I suppose that if such an ally for the Inqusition could be bought for the price of learning half a dozen songs in hideous Fereldan gutter cant, well, that was time well spent.

Adamant Fortress was tall, boxy and ancient. I mean, there have been five Blights and they happen about once a century and this fortress was gifted to the Wardens during the First Blight, that’s how old it was, and for all that time it had been the heart of the Grey Wardens of Orlais. The walls looked poorly founded and unstable to me, the square towers old-fashioned and cumbersome, but as Dorian related, the runes and wardings carved into its every stone made it every bit as solid as a more conventional place. It surveyed Tirashan from atop a tor that looked like some enchanter had taken a hill and carved all away but its grey and granite heart, and blanketed by snow and rime it looked as inviting as a morgue. Nobody paid us more than a few furtive glances as we rode through the villages in its shadow: at least there were people here and they didn’t look to be more than duly worried of us. So far, so good.

We were challenged at a gate at the bottom of the tor, by a lad only just coming into his beard: but he wore the grey, and beyond a twist to her mouth at seeing such a young man in the order’s service, Kallian did him all the courtesy she’d have done a twenty-year veteran. He raised an eyebrow to the size of our party, and her expression didn’t admit questions. None of us missed the place’s defences, the narrowness of our path, the places for hoardings, the overhang of the walls above, the murder-holes. The first layer of Adamant’s defences was the rock itself, and Dorian mentioned idly that it was like the place had been built by people who could fly.

Of course, it is said that in the First Blight the Wardens could indeed fly, that they had found and tamed the griffons of the Anderfels, the better to fight a dragon that refused to land on request: but everyone knows that all the griffons are dead. The icy path was just wide enough for two horses, but we dismounted and took ourselves up it single file, and each of us privately swore we’d never come back here with an army. At least all of Krem’s lessons had been doing me some good: I was hardly out of breath at all.

We walked through the upper gate and straight into an argument. Kallian had been first, of course, and apparently the lad at the bottom hadn’t accurately communicated that he’d let her in with a small army in tow, and she was now engaged in pulling rank: I didn’t need Josephine’s raised eyebrow to know that the elf’s response told us more than a dozen protestations of friendship that she was taking this deadly seriously. She wasn’t prepared to enter her own allies’ keep without strength at her back.

Which meant that this could get ugly, and quickly. Glad to have the Chargers: the casual swagger they brought to the whole affair was a perfectly good cover for being ready for anything, and if there was anyone who could make a Grey Warden think twice it was Iron Bull.

Dorian had secreted himself behind me, coincidentally with the bulk of the Chargers between him and the four Wardens in the courtyard. His soft voice reached my ears alone. “Don’t want to worry you, old chap.”

“Failing so far,” I said just as quietly, while playing the confused dignitary. “Go on?”

“This place. To my senses? It stinks like a slave-pit’s midden. You put your hand on this morning, right?”

“Bollocks,” I muttered. “I think I left it in my other pair of gloves.”

“Only I’m pretty sure there’s an emanation here, a rift.” He cleared his throat. “Below us and ahead, guessing a dungeon or storeroom. And notice how the eldest of these buggers-” he indicated the stony-faced Warden guards – “is barely out of training? And no mage on duty? Something rotten here, old boy.”

“Long ears,” hissed Josephine through an ambassadorial smile, and we shut up just in time to have Kallian round on us, scowling.

“Score’s this,” she said baldly. “Commander Clarel’s indisposed, we’re seeing Warden Jeremias, the châtelain, in the upper hall.” Impatience written in face and manner. “I told ’em our business couldn’t wait, so we see him right now, travelling clothes and all: Iron Bull and three others play honour guard for you and your witnesses.”

Josephine frowned. “What’s the man like?”

“An utter cockhole?” The elf made a face.”Fourth cousin of the Empress, thirty years’ seniority, and how everyone knows it. Killed someone in a duel over a lover when he was seventeen, got given the choice of the Wardens or the road. Void only knows how we found him worthy, but we did, and that’s infallible. He does have Clarel’s ear.” She raised eyebrows as if to say this wasn’t what she wanted, and Josephine nodded imperceptibly.

“You shall have to forgive the Herald,” my beautiful companion said as we started up the tall steps and through the heavy narrow iron-bound gates into the upper ward. “He’s a Marcher, and learned the formalities of Orlesian only recently.” And she turned to me and said in an undertone in Fereldan, “Is there anything that was just communicated about which you are unclear?”

I replied in the same language, deliberately leaning on my Marcher accent. “Reckon I got the plain and simple, at least.”

“Hmm,” she said, with a slight frown. “I shall expect your support, then?”

Meaning, of course, that she was planning something; I nodded.

*

The courtyard of the upper ward was unexpectedly large and open, and there was unmistakably what had once been a stable here despite the complete impossibility of getting a horse up the stairs we’d just climbed: as I said, gryphons. Then it wasn’t up that we went into the keep proper, but down: the greater part of Adamant was carved into the rock itself. Used as I was to the tall archways and airy halls of Skyhold, the corridors felt more than a little claustrophobic; here was a castle built first and foremost as a fortress, and they’d not assumed that the defences had to stop with the lower ward. Light was provided in the dwarven style, glowing runes blazoned irregularly on the walls; I suppose that half a thousand years is a great deal of time to fill your castle with enchantment.

The upper hall was the size of my own great hall in floor space, but the ceiling was much lower and the floor was wood: my guess was that they’d divided an older, larger cavern up into pieces and built a new floor halfway up. Place was done up very similarly as well, set up to hold court: three young Wardens served for guards, and in the big chair was the biggest human I’d ever seen. Must have been six foot six, massive arms and shoulders, practically no neck, heavy brow, and a seamed face that reminded me of nothing so much as a mastiff. And he remained in the chair a good few insolent moments before he rose to make his bow to Kallian, and it was quite clear to all of us that his bow was only to her as we were introduced.

To which – well. If Josephine had been a mage, the man would have been a shadow on the wall. Her own curtsey was perfect and proper and correct, and as she rose she said in a conversational tone of voice to Kallian, “So, who is this man’s superior?”

“Commander Clarel, I’m afraid.” The elf half-smiled. “There is very little ceremony among my order; I’m afraid you’ll have to take us as you find us.”

“I see.” She turned to the châtelain as if she’d only just seen him. “We’re come on behalf of the Inquisition bearing a message of great import for your lady; we’ll see her in here, if you’d be so good.”

Jeremias snorted as he sat back down. “That’ll be a while. Maid said you’d a thing that couldn’t wait.”

“Indeed. Perhaps you’ll have someone sent up who might understand us? A mage, perhaps?”

He shook his head. “Busy. I’ll-”

“Same place, perhaps?” Thin smile. “Perhaps you could conduct us.”

“Perhaps I could conduct you up your own perfumed arse.”

I nodded to Kallian while Josephine glared speechless. “This isn’t the welcome you’d led us to expect, Lady Commander, but we’re not here to learn your secrets, I’m sure. Perhaps you could have Lady Clarel send up a scholar of some kind, when you find her?”

“Should’ve been one in that chair.” The elf walked right up to the chair’s actual occupant, only a little taller standing than he was sitting down. “Hoy, mush. Wash your mouth and hear their case like a proper nobleman. These lot go away unhappy and we kiss goodbye to sleeping indoors and eating hot, hear?”

He sneered. “Don’t need more orders from you, da’lethan.

And the elf went from stillness to violence faster than an eye’s blink. I’m not sure that anyone was expecting her to punch him in the face hard enough to bounce his head off the back of the throne, and on the rebound she hit him again harder and sent it over backwards. Our honour guard closed in around us; the Wardens on duty were looking at us, not at the fight. The châtelain rolled, but somehow Kallian had got around the throne faster: he stood up into an elbow strike and then she was kneeling by his shoulder holding him by the hair. “I’m sorry, shem-for-brains, I didn’t quite hear that. Perhaps you’d like to repeat what you called me. Perhaps it wasn’t an insult to my mother. Perhaps it was ‘my lady’, and I just didn’t quite hear you right?”

“Fuck you, sister,” he said, tearing his head free of her grip and pushing himself up from the floor with unstoppable strength: she pivoted and gave him a pointed, metal-shod toe in the cod, and as he doubled up she hit him on the back of the head again and down he went.

Then she slammed his head into the floor again, harder. “You done, arsewipe?” He snarled. She hit him again. “Really want some more?” This time it was a kick in the side of the head. “I can go all day and night, you know.”

“So the boys all tell me.” He rolled, still agile in spite of the punishment he’d taken, and somehow he was on his feet: he threw a kick at her and she just turned slightly so it wouldn’t hit somewhere vulnerable, braced herself, and you really do have to be an idiot to try and kick someone in full armour while not wearing steel boots. We all heard his foot break, and then she hit him in the fork for a second time with her elbow and slammed her fist upward into his jaw. And then she’d dropped him on the floor on his back and she didn’t try to talk to him again even once he’d stopped moving.

And we kind of stood there in a sort of shock. Even the other Wardens were looking unnerved. The Maid looked at us and just sort of smiled faintly. “Told you he was a cockhole. Years I’ve wanted an excuse to do that.” She nodded towards the door that led onwards and downwards into the keep. “Shall we?”

“Lady Commander.” The guards had stepped to bar the way and the one of them who’d been able to grow a proper beard was the one to speak. “For true, we’ve orders from Commander Clarel herself. Not for the Sixth Blight can we open this door, not for you yourself, and to any Warden we was to say -” he winced, expecting another explosion – “Exigency.”

And, well, when Kallian was intending to swear rather than simply using the words as punctuation, apparently her creativity was a true sight to behold; there should be some sort of prize. I noticed four languages going past, and just about apprehended that this was mostly an expression of surprise and frustration – and when had the guards received these orders?

“Night before last, my lady, A little before midnight. We’re to keep this door for three days -”

“Then there’s little time to waste.” She glanced to me. “Formally, Lord Herald, the Grey Wardens request the aid of the Inquisition. Open me this fucking door.”

Three blades started to hiss from the scabbard.

Kallian stepped swiftly and smartly forward on my left and Iron Bull on my right, and both of them did pretty much the same thing: admittedly Kallian’s hand on top of the Warden’s sword stopped him out of respect and intimidation, while Iron Bull did it by sheer strength and leverage while casually lifting his man off the ground with the other hand. Third one drew his blade entirely and found himself facing down Krem who’d done the same; from nowhere Varric levelled a small and wicked-looking crossbow; this was about to get really quite nasty.

Then the mages stepped in. Solas’ shadow expanded until the whole of the room behind him had gone black, and his eyes filmed over black; the words he whispered left literal trails in the air that dropped first the sword-wielder and then the other two in their tracks. In the same breath Dorian turned to the door we’d come in by, raised his hands to it imperiously and and in firm tones ordered it to shut itself and stay that way.

Garnering him a distinctly unimpressed glare from Solas. “They’ll have heard that,” came the sour hiss. “Did you want to maybe summon a guardian made all of lightning? Sound a golden trumpet, perhaps?”

“Whatever floats your coracle, old chap. Can you not feel the emanation directly under your feet? Don’t think maybe they’ve got bigger things on their plate than a little abjuration?” Dorian turned to the door. “Wizard-locked, Iron Bull, stop trying to haul it open. Step back, will you?” And he gathered light to his right hand, spilling out from his pores and under his fingernails, and touched his hand to the keyhole: the door slammed itself open with some violence and Solas winced in the fashion of a woodsman hearing his blundering companion step on yet another dry twig.

“Exigency?” I asked Kallian, as the wooden staircase spiraled its way down before us.

“Reference to a conversation we had by letter. Long story short, we’re late but not too late.” She pushed her way past Iron Bull into the lead. “I hope. Be ready to talk, and ready not to, aye?”

*

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