Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty

by artrald

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*

The metaphor to use for a magical duel would be that of sword and shield: without defensive wards or mage-armour, one is simply a target, and without offensive workings or a staff, one is simply a barrier. And just as a mundane warrior cannot truly accomplish two things at once and must combine defence and offence to be successful, so must the battle-mage: therefore just as in a mundane duel, the key and centre of duelling is tempo and initiative. To lose control of a fight is to lose the fight. The reason that we carry a staff is then that it offers the ability to construct an offence out of nothing and without incantation; the reason that we wear mage-armour is that it offers static wardings that are difficult or impossible to unpick with a single thrust, thus narrowing the conceptual angle of an opponent’s attack.

The vast majority of spells that we study, then, are a combination of offence and defence, and assume that tempo is on the caster’s side: tempo having been initially established by use of the staff, quicker to cast and simpler to target. The basic principle is that the incoming lance of power is deflected onto a static warding, preferably mage-armour, by a spell whose effect on the foe is designed to shock and stun, to confuse or befuddle, to dispel temporary wards or otherwise reinforce an existing advantage in tempo. An opponent who is reduced to hurling transitory broad-spectrum abjurations need only be unlucky once to lose the fight; the quick spectacular knockout punches beloved of tavern tales are comparable to the fool’s mate in chess, to wit, useful only upon novices. A duel is not a footrace: consistent and steady is the way.

I advise, however one note of caution to those who struggle too hard to obtain tempo, those who focus over hard on subtlety, those who take the above advice as they would the Chant of Light. Nobody is immune to a sucker-punch. No ward will block the knife you weren’t expecting. I have literally seen mage-duels won with a slap to the face.

preface, The Paradoxes of the Duel, third edition
9:32 Dragon
ed. First Enchanter Wynne of Ferelden Circle

*

The bloody dragon had done something to the clouds.

They were lower than they were supposed to be, darker, heavier, and as Dorian and the others walked out onto the battlements the rain was now beginning to come down in earnest. Not that it’d make the magic harder – a fireball is a fireball – but it’s just a little bit harder to hit something if your footing isn’t as steady, if you’ve got water streaming in your eyes, if you’re soaking wet and freezing cold. Varric and any other archers would have trouble even seeing the thing as well, but to a mage its power would make it stand out like a star in a darkened sky.

If only they had been looking in the right direction.

The creature came out of nowhere. It had come in low, skimming the trees: entirely possible the whole thing with the clouds had been one big distraction. And if Lady Clarel had had a mortal’s reflexes, that would have been the end of them there and then, as the dragon lashed its wickedly bladed tail-tip down at them as it came up over the battlements. She met the blow with an evocation of force from her staff and the deflected power slammed out against the castle’s magical wards with the hollow boom of a storm-driven wave against sharp rocks. Up over the battlements it glided, looking for the hole it had come out of – then abruptly its wings flashed and it rolled, pulling itself sideways and away.

Solas had drawn a new circle, marked out on the stones of the upper court with nothing more than scorch marks, laid around the hole in the floor like a net over a trap. The Wardens were moving out onto the upper wall and the towers, novices sent to the armouries coming out with crossbows, with viciously barbed billhooks or even grapnels. Demon or no, if it was using wings to fly, they had to be a weak point.

The Wardens didn’t just hunt drakes for the fun of it. Every one of them had experience against a monster with wings. No point even trying to shoot at the thing as it banked and came back around – they all knew without being told how agile even the slowest and heaviest drake was in the air. They readied their aim as it folded its wings and stooped back down toward them like a hawk, and not a single Warden lost their nerve.

Dorian was another story. The spell was in his mind, an auger of a working, a counterspell designed for the one purpose of hooking into a defensive working and holding it apart. He knew intellectually that he should hold on, that they had to work together or fail, that their best chance was to ground it.

But that thing was just so big and so fast, and it was coming straight for him.

And he missed.

And so Clarel’s firebolt simply glanced from the dragon’s wing. Bolts scattered from the thing, deflected from what looked like a coating of thick glass. Down it came into Solas’ trap like it was doing it on purpose, and with a shout that hurt the ears the elf closed the circle and green fire leapt to the heavens as Iron Bull leaped from the wall bringing a sledgehammer down on the dragon’s wing joint in an unstoppable two-handed arc –

The hammer shattered, head and handle.

Every bolt, every blade, every hook was turned and harmless.

And the runes of Solas’ circle screamed fire to the air and the wards of the castle creaked and the binding snapped permanently and unbreakably and forever shut –

But it passed straight through the dragon and it was not bound, and for that one moment Solas stared, his face slack in frozen horror.

And it struck at him, once, with its head, and there was no more time to think. He twisted, fast as a shadow before the light, and it missed him by a hair and smashed a ten-foot breach in the wall. He spoke a spell that hurt the ears to hear and in response it hissed a word that ate the sound out of the air, and he ducked another crushing strike by a handsbreadth and rolled to his feet trailing eye-twisting shadows.

Iron Bull had regained his feet, streaming blood from an iron splinter that had pierced his armour, ripping his side-sword from the scabbard, getting in the way, trying to at least give the dragon something to think about. Contemptuous the dragon struck, ignored the qunari entirely, and Solas flicked his fingers as it did so – seemed to do nothing at all, the dragon’s claw smashed Solas’ shield of shadows and sent him tumbling. But Iron Bull’s sword struck home and somehow the dragon’s defences tore before it like fine cloth stretched taut.

Iron Bull roared like his namesake as the weapon bit home and the Wardens were not slow to follow his lead. Three hooks bit into the dragon’s wings: two more Wardens leaped down after the joints of its shoulders. Clarel from the top of the walls threw a hammering spike of flame. Dorian spoke to the dragon’s wounds and they ripped themselves open streaming filth. And Varric’s crossbow sang and the steel bolt buried itself deep in the creature’s back.

Screaming it leaped away from them, as much as flew, ignored the gaping streaming gashes in its wings, in its neck. Straight up, and its tail lashed and severed the Wardens’ optimistic ropes as it went. Nearly ignoring physical harm. Barely behaved like a thing with a physical body at all.

It rolled right over, stalled its wings, pretty much turned a backflip in its own length. Came down again hunting for Solas, arrowing straight for the tiny creature who’d had the temerity to try to bind it. He stood, and sparks crawled from the stones and from his hands and from the very air as he planted his staff, and Dorian winced – the sheer eyewatering power the elf had, just like the Warden, and here he was wasting it on a ludicrously over-telegraphed evocation an apprentice could’ve evaded. Clearly the dragon agreed, as it arched casually around the forked tongue of lightning that lashed fruitlessly into the sky –

But the lightning had never been aimed at the dragon. And as the spell caught into the magic-heavy stormclouds, Dorian’s mouth fell open as he hurriedly reversed his opinion of Solas entirely –

Over the next five heartbeats, the beast was struck by lightning more than a dozen times. Each time from a different direction, each time striking the same point: why aim for the dragon’s flesh, when it had Varric’s barbed steel crossbow bolt stuck fast in its back? And it twisted, and was struck again; it rolled, and the spell was not shaken: another tangled skein of lightning struck past the beast and forked unerringly back into the same spot as its fellows. And ten times more power came down than Solas had sent up, as his spell twisted the dragon’s own unnatural storm into a rod for its own back.

Blackened, scorched, twitching and smouldering, its wings in tatters, the dragon plummeted: it hit the very centre of the upper court like dead meat and its beaked muzzle slid nearly as far as Solas’ lightly shod feet. And as one of the Wardens cheered loud Solas hissed for silence, his free hand raised clawlike, sparks racing and dancing between his fingers, his eyes wide and dark, hardly daring to breathe.

And it stood. It stood back up. It discarded its shattered body and grew itself another in the same breath, and this one bore only the vaguest slightest resemblance to a dragon, and the humans were silent in their shock and their fear such that Varric’s loud “Oh, for fuck’s sake” echoed and re-echoed around the courtyard.

And it smiled with the largest of its mouths, and an eye winked at the dwarf, but its attention was on Solas: and it spoke, and somehow each person there heard its sweet voice in the language of their home.

“Hello again, little wolf.” And its very words made the skin crawl. “I had hoped that maybe you might have learned since last we met, you and I.”

The courtyard was silent, bar for the quick little insistent noises of Varric reloading his crossbow as quietly as he was able. And Clarel was staring at the thing and she wasn’t blinking and she’d bit right through her lip. Solas raised his head, and the shadows streamed out behind him, and he spoke, and there was an iron control under his words. Somehow it was perfectly natural that all those present should understand him, though to see his mouth move, he used no tongue spoken by humans. “This is not your place. This is not your hour. These are not your people. Posture as you wish, old one. I defy you. Begone.”

The dragon chuckled, a sound like knives and broken glass. “No, no, I don’t think so. I think I like it right where I am. Your defiance means as little to me as your magic.”

“For the second time I say, old one.” There was sweat on Solas’ brow. “You are dead. You are no more. This is but a shade. Your return is unwelcome. Begone.”

And Clarel had her staff held horizontally in front of her and she had bowed her head, and blood was running from both sides of her mouth and dripping from her hands as she whispered, and around her all had gone very, very dark, and nobody noted, nobody noted her at all.

Varric dropped his quiver, his hands were shaking so much. Bolts spilled all over the floor. He fumbled one rattling into the groove. The other mortals were frozen, utterly frozen in place. Iron Bull was letting out a deep bass growl with every breath but couldn’t move. And the dragon spoke again. “Oh, my dear little fellow. You never were so funny as you believed. Whatever gives you reason to think that you’ve the power to affect so much as where I choose to rest my gaze?”

Solas hissed and his lips drew back from his teeth. “You are unwelcome. You are foreign. You are uninvited.” And at that word he tapped the stone of the castle, lightly, and the entire place rang like a silver chime, and it was like the very walls flexed. “Begone.”

But the dragon did nothing but laugh once more. “Oh, but this is too precious.” And it smiled broadly. “Dear boy, I was invited.”

Solas’ eyes widened.

And everything happened at once.

Varric loosed at the exact same moment the dragon struck. Solas fell backward and rolled, the dragon missing him by the narrowest of margins: behind him its blow shattered the stones of the castle wall and as Varric’s bolt struck home the elf leaped away, making for the gap, falling with a cry into the castle’s lower ward and out of the dragon’s sight. It followed – Solas landed and rolled, came up in a wolf’s shape and bounded forward faster than any mortal creature. The dragon struck across the courtyard, ignorant of all else, and Dorian’s spell went wide – Solas leaped twenty feet up onto the barbican and without an instant’s hesitation cast himself off the far side.

The dragon leaped.

And Clarel’s voice was suddenly all that anyone could hear, and what she was saying on bloodstained lips was, “Die and burn!”

And she broke her staff. And to the lands of Adamant Fortress it was for a moment as if the sun had risen again, and against it was outlined the shape of the dragon, its wings spread, its mouth opened wide.

And the wreckage that had been a dragon shattered its way through the barbican and fell still burning from the face of the granite tor.

*

So to explain exactly what happened here, I’ll have to explain that for some bloody reason we’d decided we couldn’t leave our horses. One of those decisions that made sense at the time. Looking back, couldn’t tell you why the hell.

And have you ever tried to lead a dozen terrified horses out of a stable in what sounded very much like a thunderstorm with extra screaming?

Suffice to say, while the Chargers were ready to go – and I’d cried to the first lot to go, on the somewhat irrational basis that they could clear the damn way for me – we, uh. Weren’t. And it didn’t help that Krem was limping and it really didn’t help that we were only slightly less scared and crazy than our poor horses.

But we got the stable door open, and they hauled the barbican gate open, and Krem grabbed my jerkin and hauled me back suddenly as the horses decided that that way was freedom and went for it in a confusion of terrified horseflesh – there were voices amid the thunder, now, voices that penetrated the ear and spoke like they were in a fairytale, and with Kallian in the lead the knot of us made our move for the barbican –

A crashing splintering noise behind us and above, a high loud cry, and a huge dark wolf came pelting across the lower courtyard and made an impossible leap up onto the barbican tower –

a gigantic dark terrifying shape perched on the upper wall, that had to be the dragon, and it leaped straight for us and I’m not afraid to say that I screamed like a little girl as I turned and started to run –

and everything went white and it was like the whole world hit me in the face at once and we were falling.

This was it.

I just remember thinking that there was no way anything could survive a fall from this height.

The ground was coming up enormous and unstoppable and I put my hand out as if somehow that would stop me –

*

If he stopped, Cassandra reasoned, she would quickly overtake him.

If she stopped, for example to water her horse, then she’d only to mark his trail. All she’d lose would be a little distance. She wasn’t in a hurry. She just wanted to catch him.

Once she’d established that she wouldn’t catch him that first day, then provided she went longer than him each day –

and he wasn’t a Warden, wasn’t superhuman, not a mage, not a demon, not a monster, just a man –

she’d catch him eventually.

After all, the terrain was relatively open and it was the middle of winter. Where was he going to go?

Apparently? West. Keeping off the imperial highway, sticking to much-rutted roads of honest mud. Almost as if he wanted to be followed. Or he just wasn’t going where the highway went.

The third day, and she’d gained a great deal on him. It was working. He had to know by now that she was chasing him. After the first evening he hadn’t made a fire. He’d have had only what was in his saddlebags by chance, whereas her own had been packed for a chase by Nightingale: the lack of food would begin to tell on him soon, though it was likely he’d at least a bivouac with him to sleep in: she did. But he’d have to slow down – before the weather closed in, if providence was kind. He’d have to, and she’d catch him.

But providence was not kind. The rain fell in solid sheets from clouds of Warden grey. A rain-cloak she had in her saddlebags. She’d not tracked a miscreant alone in such weather for half a decade, but the skills were still there. She’d catch him.

Unless she’d passed him. Had she passed him? All he’d have had to do would be to pull suddenly off the road and wait. All she’d have had to do would be miss a few crucial signs in the pouring rain and the fading light. She shivered and whispered another verse of the Canticle of Trials.

No! There. He’d stopped to water his horse, stood beside it in the rain. Bent down, here, to fill a waterskin most likely. The bank was churned up. He’d slipped, it looked like, fallen in the stream. Got out; mounted; rode off. Her pang of sympathy was ill-placed. He’d be easier to catch, now. Besides, it wasn’t as if she wasn’t also soggy and miserable. Light was really fading, now. She made camp the next place she could.

The bivouac was freezing cold and no matter the contortions she made to avoid getting her bedroll wet, a certain amount was inevitable. That night woke her four times, shivering. The first time she sang the Chant, starting with the first verse of Trials and going until she couldn’t keep her eyes open. The second time she cursed the name of the miscreant she was pursuing, to bring her out here in the freezing bloody cold and the wet. The third time she woke, a thought struck her and she rejoiced and thanked the Maker: if she’d this much hardship with raincloak and trail rations and a bivouac, how much more had her quarry with only what he’d coincidentally been able to steal, and fallen in a stream on top of that?

The fourth time, she repented of her earlier joy, and shivered and clamped her jaw against chattering teeth, and prayed that she might at least find the poor man alive.

And only then did the Maker let her sleep.

She woke on that fifth day of her pursuit, ate sparingly and packed up the pathetic little camp. It was still raining, and she thanked the Maker for her horse, to whom a little mud was nothing. Found the tracks she’d marked with a couple of sticks last night, oriented herself, and set off.

Two miles later she found where he’d left the road.

He must have had to. By her reckoning he’d fallen in the river yesterday midday, which put this about an hour and a half later. She scowled and didn’t think of the state he must have been in, to deliberately stop half a day early when he’d known he was being pursued.

Which put him maybe an hour ahead of her, and however cold and miserable she was, he had to be worse. It would end today. She mounted once more, set off following the tracks he’d left plain as day –

Something caught against her as if she’d ridden into a low branch. Instinctively she pushed back, tried to brush it off. Wasn’t working. Her horse kept moving and she couldn’t, she was caught – the cold dulling her wits – not a branch, a rope –

The horse reared as she tumbled backward from the saddle.

Getting her blade out was as natural to her as rolling with the fall. She caught the flash of movement, hardly even registered what it was; moved smoothly to sweep the descending cudgel to one side, hit her attacker in the chest with her shoulder and followed up with the pommel of her sword.

But he wasn’t there. Gave ground the moment she parried him, stepped smoothly around and the blow he dealt her right shoulder sent pain up and down her arm, though she kept hold of her blade. If she got the opportunity to turn this into a fencing match, her quicker deadlier weapon would have him in a moment: instead he threw a swift kick at her while she reeled and when she stepped back he surged forward and grabbed her sword-arm. Deadly with that blade she might be, but he was larger than her and heavier, and she’d have a significant disadvantage if it came to fists.

And she seemed to collapse before him and his own momentum betrayed him: she grabbed his other arm, planted her toes in his belly and dumped him neatly in a bush, rolled to her feet as her sodden cloak tried to strangle her. And her sword had gone flying.

But however much the cold had slowed her, he was worse: and she got to him before he’d done much more than get himself the right way up.

He was halfway out of the bush when she pushed him down into the mud on his face. Threw a kick for his kidneys and he twisted, taking the blow with his elbow against her shin, his follow-through sending her off-balance, and rather than fight it she dropped her elbow into his back: for one instant he was stunned and then she had his wrist.

And larger and heavier he might have been, but she was on top of him and an armlock is an armlock.

They both of them lay there for a good few panting breaths. Then he struggled, made a creditable attempt to escape, but she knew her business, pulled the lock painfully tight. “Don’t make me break your damned arm.”

“Cassandra.” Blackwall sagged. She didn’t let up the pressure: oldest move in the book, that was. Eventually he made words come out. “Thought it’d be Nightingale.”

“If I’d sent Nightingale, all I’d have got back would’ve been a dead man.”

He shook his head. His beard was filthy with mud. “All you’ve got here.”

“Bullshit.” She grabbed his unresisting left wrist, brought his hands together behind his back. “Still got breath to sing the Chant.” Brusque trained movements meant she didn’t have to think. “Still got life to give the Maker. Tell me your name.”

Abruptly she moved off him, physically manhandling him around, rolling him over so he was sitting and she was kneeling behind him in the mud. “You know my name,” he said dully, as she transferred both his wrists to one of her hands, had a loop of rawhide off her belt and bound them expertly.

“I don’t.” She tested the knots. He hadn’t clenched his fists to give him room to slip them. His hands were corpse-cold. The routine kept her voice professional. “Spill it.”

He shook his head mutely.

“Why?” She stood, walked around him so she could look him in the eye. The rain was still beating down and the bare branches above them were precious little shelter. “What possible reason can you have for not telling me?”

“Family.” He didn’t look up. “Not bringing them down with me.”

Of course. She hunkered down next to him. “First name is good enough. Don’t make me repeat what I already know is a lie.”

“Thom.” He met her eyes briefly. Felt like he’d kicked her in the stomach. “Nurse called me Thom.”

“It’ll do.” Her teeth tried to chatter. She was utterly plastered in freezing cold mud and he was worse. “So, Thom? Why run? Why do this to-” she bit the word off. “To yourself?”

He shook his head. His voice was slurred. “Don’t exactly have a track record of. Good decisions.”

She snorted. “You can say that again.” And the man shivered, once, convulsively, and she frowned. “Look, let’s get ourselves out of the rain before you freeze. Where were you hiding?”

“Show you.” Listless he nodded in the direction he’d come from. She had to lift him to his feet by main strength, but at least he’d just about walk. He’d apparently found a great fallen tree, mostly dry in its shelter, embers of an attempt at a fire: it’d do. She sat him down next to the fire; she whistled sharply and both horses came to her, as she knew they would. Didn’t turn her back on him. She’d old scars from assuming a compliant prisoner was not a danger to her.

Her cloak might have been soaked mostly through and stiff with mud, but it was at least warm. She put it around him and he hardly reacted and she cursed his idiot name, whatever it actually was. She shivered.

Tinderbox from her saddlebag. Embers. She found the pitiful little stack of dry-ish pieces of wood he’d been using. They’d need more than that. Pulled a couple of other likely-looking bits out of undergrowth and stacked them to dry out as the flames caught.

His lips were actually turning blue. Idiot, idiot, idiot. She instructed him firmly not to freeze to death. Saddlebags, right there. His. She dug through them. No food, of course. Most of a skin of water. Bedroll, wet. Bivouac, same. Spare tunic.

Spare tunic for an elf.

She swore viciously at him and went through her own saddlebags, pulled out a dry tunic of her own. Moment of looking stupidly between it and her prisoner, his wrists tied securely together –

Her hands fumbled, shook and slipped, and the ties had swelled in the wet. She snarled and used a blade. At least the idiot wasn’t fighting her. His tunic came off, soaked and muddy and stinking, and his skin was freezing cold, but the dry clothing at least went over him. The inside of the cloak wasn’t that wet and it’d be warm, and he was as close to the fire as was safe.

The rain was easing. She recovered her sword, wiped it down best she could, put it away. Tethered the horses. Found some wood that had a chance in hell of drying out before she needed to burn it. Set some of their wet things to dry on the far side of the fire. The physical activity would keep her warm.

And when she’d run out of anything to do, she settled down next to her prisoner beside the fire and mostly to herself she sang the Chant.

*

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