Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Six

by artrald

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All these words were written before midnight Monday THAT TOTALLY COUNTS RIGHT

*

The Exalted Plains, two days’ ride south from Mirmende, the ninth day of Nubulis

The short version, messere Herald, is that where you and your people really want to be right now is roughly where I am.

The Red Templars are well ahead of you. Malcontents do not go away simply because the leader declares an end to the uprising: they had people at Halamshiral and spread what I assume is a plausible set of lies concerning the events there. The rifts that I hear being trumpeted about: around here, messere, it is common knowledge that you cause them personally, with your evil hand. The people who stood up quickly enough to defend the oppressed of Dirthavaren are the same people being recruited here, and just like you they claim a holy cause, and just like you they will take anyone, and the voices of the White Chantry must keep silence one way or the other.

My guess is that where they are happening, the atrocities are over relatively quickly and witnesses are obliterated: clearly you and yours cannot be trusted, look what lies you make up.

I do not know where the Enemy himself is. Have you noticed that nobody who works for him will use his name? Perhaps it is literally a thing to conjure with: this may be superstition but caution costs one nothing. His mages, the best word for them would be ‘intoxicated’, often literally. Those that are not themselves Tevene imports are apostates, hedge-witches and Circle escapees having the absolute time of their lives, working miracles and solving every problem they come across with magic, saving lives, righting supposed wrongs, mending the broken. Red lyrium is in open use, or I assume it is red: alternatively someone is beggaring their treasury to make it look like it is.

As for numbers it is difficult to gauge: perhaps a hard core of five to seven hundred, half of those being Tevene imports and half genuine Chantry-trained templars, travelling in half a dozen bands. But the country is not against them, here: that is why you have few reports of rifts here. Should they need to do what they did at Therinfal, they would have a massive pool of recruits, many with recent experience in the Dirthavaren rising.

The Dalish are neither blind to this nor ignorant of the implications, and trust the Red Templars not at all: but they distrusted your previous emissary, so they tell me, and fobbed him off. On the back of this missive find a gift of information concerning locations and movements. They say that the Red Templars likely make for the halaman of Midlere: if that elvish word means nothing to you, ask Seeker Nightingale.

The elves gather their people already, and it is a measure of how seriously they are taking this that they spoke to me of using magic of their own. They can harry and slow the foe, but are unequipped for battle: I have convinced them to allow me to summon you as their enemy’s enemy. I have made much of you and yours, messere: I recommend not arriving in the appearance of weakness.

Yours ever,
Hawke

Post scriptum: The scouts report sightings of a dragon. Please tell me the goatfondler doesn’t have a pet dragon. This is enough like one of Varric’s tales already.

letter from Tobias Hawke to the Herald of Andraste via the mages of the Inquisition
archived Nubulis 12, 9:41 Dragon

*

“So, as I said. There is no place named ‘Midlere’ that I know of, but Lady Kallian did say that the red pins here marked out an ancient road of your people, and that would lead into the area Hawke mentions.” Nightingale traced the line around the Frostbacks and down as Kallian had done before, irregularly pockmarked in rifts cordoned or closed. “The route she describes is likewise in none of our books, but I am led to believe that means nothing: do you…?”

Solas lean over the table and the irreverent thought crossed my mind that we should really have got him a box to stand on. A moment later he scowled, looked up at us. “You do realise that the only reason I even know that this is a map is that you have told me it is one? It is annotated in a script I cannot quickly read, and the shapes bear no resemblance to the geography that I know.”

“Allow me.” I still didn’t know much about Morrigan, the witch who Nightingale called an old friend and Solas was treating as an apprentice. Vivienne had taught us that shape-shifting was the worst of danger signs in a mage, and I was quite sure that I had seen a cat with her exact shade of hair and eyes around the castle – but then again, anyone vouched for by both Nightingale and Solas was someone I’d think twice and again before doubting. She flicked her finger over the map, roughly outlining the coast. “We are looking at the map upside-down; north is here. The coastline, here, is the wrong shape, but their sailors use different charts. This pin is Haven, this one Skyhold, so these glyphs here are the Frostbacks. Orlais to the right, that is, the west, Ferelden to the east, Hawke reports he is here-”

“Wait, those are the Frostbacks?” Solas tilted his head. “Then this, here, denotes the Anderfels? Do Orlesian cartographers not know how to draw curved lines?” He snorted. “No wonder Skyhold was uninhabited: an explorer working by this map would miss it by miles. This here is the March of Tears, then? This line, a river?”

“That is the border of Dirthavaren.”

“But the lands granted by Andraste to Shartan stretched from…” He squinted. “No, I see. It is an article of faith for you people that imperial highways and various other terrain features are straight lines, and you know the angles at which they… This is risible.” He cast an irritable glance at Cassandra. “Your pins are assigned to locations by what means?”

“Nearest town or landmark, direction and distance. We do have compasses, Solas.”

“I… see.” He didn’t bother hiding his smirk. “And I do suppose that this means I should rather be impressed with Lady Kallian for seeing the pattern than with you for not doing so. But regardless. Midlere, you say? A halam’an? There’s no such thing in the Exalted Plains: the Circle vandalised the ancient graveyards in Orlais centuries ago. Salted the metaphorical earth.” He shook his head. “Might your adventurer be rendering Myðal’aïr, perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” said Nightingale. “He’s as much experience with the Dalish accent as I, and I might mistake the one for the other if I only heard it once.”

“Barbarian,” he said without rancor. “But if we assume that the keeper he’s speaking to is more than usually credulous, it’s -” his expression curdled – “plausible. More than plausible. Some basic assumptions – most principally that there is nothing I’ve missed…” He turned to the witch with a slight air of irritation. “Morrigan, these landmarks – that mountain is Xarþa?”

“That is ‘Montsarte’ in Orlesian, and yes, it is.”

“There is a place that a credulous Dalish keeper might describe with the words halam an Myðal’aïr , somewhere around eighty li north-east by east of the summit of Xarþa.”

“Twenty-five miles.” Morrigan took a pin and at a nod from Nightingale pushed it in. “What is this I’ve just marked?”

“A place that our enemy might think that he could use.” Solas raised an eyebrow. “Some might call it a war grave. Some might call it a heap of haunted wreckage.”

“Indeed?” said Cassandra. “And Corypheus disturbing it would be undesirable?”

“Offensive, certainly.” Solas pinched the bridge of his nose, elegantly. “And if nothing else, it means that we can arrange to meet him again. I suggest you instruct the arl of -” he pointed vaguely at the map.

“That is Lake Celestine,” said Nightingale without the trace of a smile. “We shall see to that side. You agree that we will need local forces, then?”

Solas pursed his lips. “Fight a war like a duel of honour and you will lose it. If the Dalish are speaking of using magic to solve this problem, we will be seeing as many of them converging on this as are within easy travelling distance, but to think of them as a fighting force is to consider a rabble of brigands as the same. Hawke speaks of nigh-on a thousand enemy: were I you, I would be ignoring the ability of the Dalish to provide a force.”

She nodded, as if to ask him not to teach her to suck eggs. “You can guarantee that our mages will be at less of a disadvantage against Corypheus than we were at Haven? Dragon or no?”

Solas frowned down at the map as if it had personally done him insult. “Trust me.”

*

This was the largest force the Inquisition had ever sent out. Practically denuded Skyhold to do it. You read of armies going impossible distances at impossible speeds by magic, and think of a cloud coming down and swooping them up, or some kind of portal opening for them in the very air, or a witch turning them all into geese and flying south in one long flock: and it’s not like that at all. The mages of the Inquisition – ‘apostate’ was a word we’d quietly discarded – weren’t necessarily archmages or enchanters or people of world-shaking skill. But with Vivienne and Fiona at their head they raised a marching-song that ate the road under our feet and left us no worse than a day’s ride, and all those little unanticipated niggles that eat an army’s time and resources and morale somehow… didn’t.

Building a bridge by magic isn’t something that every mage can accomplish – anyone with the power can move that much stone, earth or wood, but bridging a river or a ravine solidly enough for an army to pass and without building an accidental dam is a touchy matter that asks foratruly singular combination of skills in one person. That, or you need an artist like Varric with a dwarf’s inhumaneye for detail and proportion, and a mage like Dorian, used to working from diagrams that weren’t that different from architectural plans. The roads that we passed, the rivers that we crossed, we left better than we found them: and thus it was that we made a forced march of five hundred miles in less than two weeks, and arrived in the Exalted Plains of southern Orlais relatively fresh and in good order.

The Dalish, the feral elves, held that this was their ancient home, the cradle of civilisation carved from the wilderness by the archmages of old, the summers sweetened, the winters blunted by magic that lives even to this day. Then again, said Solas, the Dalish of Ferelden held that a benighted ruin in the Brecilian Forest was the one true birthright of the elvish people, and the Dalish of Nevarra said the same about the forested slopes of their holy mountain: and every elf that ever built what they thought was an ara’vel and parked it in a forest glade had a good and reasoned argument to call their home the Dales. The Dales: traditionally a name reserved for somewhere with a little more geography, no?

But this was for certain where the humans had made war on the elves?

Oh, certainly, said Dorian: at least twice. The place was called Exalted because of the Second Exalted March, when the Chantry took offence at the pagan ways of their erstwhile allies and cast down every trace of history they could find. But long before, the humans of Tevinter had seen the fading splendour of the elves and stolen it for their own, and brought their flavour of civilisation to this place at the point of an enchanted blade. The elves might have carved the hills and shaped the valleys, but this had been human land for longer than people had known the Maker.

And he was fishing: and Solas smiled, and would not be drawn, save to nod to a sharp peak that we could see on the horizon. The tale is told, he said, that that peak is that shape because some human took a dislike to the face that it used to bear. A human might cast an eye upon this place and see the natural beauty of a land well tamed and harnessed – the Dalish raise their children to see rather what was broken, what was lost. But he would not speak of what it was that he himself saw, or didn’t.

There were downsides to using magic, of course, and we’d chosen to take them on the chin. For all that it is right there in the first stanza of the Chant, for all that everyone from the Anderfels to the ocean knows those words and their tune, the people of the South don’t hear ‘magic is meant to serve humanity’ and think that mages should be using their gift for good. They hear that mages are bad. And the only places they’ll have heard of magic are in tavern tales of evil witches and noble Templars, or in the Chant where it’s the tool of the unbelievers.

And more than the rarity of a competent and righteous mage, that’s why magic has always been the Chantry’s tool of last resort. The common people, the people for whom all of this is being done, they fear it and like as not they hate it. And to see our mages not just working their power for us but riding at our head – well – that hope that we’d had, of being able to speak the Chantry’s displeasure and take Corypheus’ base of recruits away from him, the odds were looking longer by the day. They looked at us and they looked at our foes, they heard us speak and remembered what our enemies had said, and until it was far, far too late they would see not a bit of difference between us. And of course for every truth we told, they had told a believable lie in its place.

At least we had done a competent job in picking our reinforcements. The Second Legion might not have been stuffed with battle-hardened veterans, but the defining feature of their officer corps was trustworthiness. The Venatori’s scouts had found them before we did, and of course they’d impersonated us – it’s not like our uniform was difficult to forge, and the Red Templars were full of people who’d know the signs and signals of the Chantry well enough to fool even quite a competent layperson. But of course Nightingale had a Seeker at the general’s side, and you don’t stay one of Empress Selene’s generals if you don’t have a brain in your head and an ear for lies.

We met the Dalish, too, our outriders coming across their scouts and both sides agreeing to a stand-off while people were summoned to talk. Solas and Dorian and I rode out to greet them, and our parley was polite if tense, and the only person to speak a word of elvish was Dorian. The hard eyes of the little folk swept over Solas like he was nothing more than a short human, and for his part I saw nothing other than complete contempt. We traded information for assurances that yes, we were their enemy’s enemy: we made promises on behalf of the Second Legion that turned out to be a bastard to convince the humans to keep. I asked for a war-council, so that we might at the very least not trip over one another – they talked right over me like I was an idiot, but at least Dorian managed to arrange signs and signals for recognition, and ways that they might be changed, such that the knives and the arrows in the night came only for our enemies.

And, though on Hawke’s advice we’d avoided the local settlements, we caught our first sight of the enemy: our outriders happened by complete accident across a group dressed and accoutred very much as they, and both groups obeyed their standing orders and turned and ran immediately. Harding’s opinion, and Nightingale shared it wholeheartedly, was that we couldn’t possibly assume that they were any less clever than we, and Cassandra held that if she were in charge of the Red Templar forces that night then she’d be throwing caution immediately to the winds and pushing for the objective.

And so it was that we set our course. We could go faster than the Orlesian troops when our magic was taken into account – Vivienne asserted that we were likely faster even than the enemy – and thus we’d make straight for the most likely path for them to use. We’d be badly outnumbered if they drew upon conscripts like they’d done for Haven, but they had very little time if they wanted to use that tactic. All we’d need would be a good defensive position, for the Second Legion had misled the enemy as to their location, strength and frankly allegiance. All we’d need, at worst, would be to pin the foe in place long enough for the chevaliers to drop the hammer. And then all we’d need would be to deal with the dragon and with Corypheus himself. Simple, really, when you put it like that.

I believe there’s a word to use, at this point. Something about plans, and what happens when they meet the foe?

*

“You’re joking.” That tone in Josephine’s voice was one that would reliably send bystanders running for cover. In me – Bride knows why, possibly literally – it provoked nothing but curiosity. The quicker I found out what it was about the world that she didn’t like, the quicker I could fix it – I kept myself out of sight, out of the lightstone’s pool of illumination –

And, well. Talking like that to a mage, that was absolutely another thing that would have people ducking. Solas had his head cocked, eyebrow raised, possibly deliberately emphasising his inhuman nature. “Oh, please.” The tone was as warm and kind as polished obsidian. “Do me the courtesy of assigning me a little respect, will you, if you’d expect me to do the same.”

She shook her head, disbelieving. “You really do think of us as nothing better than playing-pieces, don’t you?”

“And yet, of us all, I am not the one who openly talks of the practice of politics, espionage and murder as a game.” I don’t recall the last time that I’d seen that sort of flash of anger from the elf. “I was a man grown before I saw my first human; it’s an effort to cause my mental image of ‘person’ to look anything like you people, and yet I make that effort. I recall you complaining concerning the Herald’s nature as volunteer or not: I have personally given the man the opportunity to vanish from our schemes without a trace and go back to whatever life he led before, while you have literally entrapped him into your own plans to the point of arranging a marriage for him, and you have repeatedly and bitterly complained when he is endangered because of the impact that it would have on you. So, no. I fear, my lady, that I do not see that you have the moral high ground here.”

“Because, clearly, a mutually beneficial alliance that lifts him out of poverty and keeps that same spectre from my own door is exactly the same as a scheme to Max we were just talking about you.” The suddenly-donned, heart-stopping smile was nothing but armour.

“Yes, I heard.” I pretended I hadn’t been hiding. “Is there some sort of problem?”

“Apparently I am a liability.” She shot the elf a venomous glance. “Apparently it is a critical requirement that your behaviour during the forthcoming action must be unaffected by undue concern for my welfare, to the point that I should curtail my work here and go and be useless at the Second Legion’s general staff.” Hang on. That wasn’t what she –

Solas raised both eyebrows. “Apparently you have got out of the habit of listening to others during your brief spell holding authority, Lady Josephine-”

“If you would like me to go away and leave you to your actual disagreement,” I said with perhaps a little over much emphasis, “all you need do is ask.”

I was perfectly aware Josephine could blush on command. “I…” Her eyes flicked from me to Solas and back again, and she was suddenly nothing but earnest. “Max, were you aware that Solas had enchanted your hand?”

Blink. “I’d have had to have been blind and deaf to miss him doing it,” I said. “Turned it from a wound to what it is today, with needle and thread.”

“And you were, you were quite aware of the purpose of this enchantment.”

“Stopped it bleeding, stopped it hurting to use.” I shrugged. “Seemed to enrage our archenemy beyond bearing. I think ‘what have you done?’ was his turn of phrase.”

“So, in short, you never asked. Never occurred to you.” She was mostly talking to Solas, I think. “You were fed just enough words to make you feel like you didn’t have to ask more. The picture felt complete. Your mind made up for itself any gaps that there were, and you didn’t notice that there was more gap than picture, yes?”

“It is magic, Josephine. Exactly how much do you think I would have understood of an explanation?”

She shook her head. There was something unreadable in her eyes. “One thing would have been enough: just one thing would have done it. And if I could comprehend it, Max, then you could – except, of course, that now Solas is going to justify to the both of us why it was that I am only now hearing about this – a full four months after it was done?”

“And this very argument is insufficient reason?” Corner of a smirk. “For fanatics, my lady, the Chantry are awfully attached to the lives of their people. Of course, this is understandable to a point: those individuals are typically heavy investments, but unlike, say, the Tevene, they are also in the habit of befriending their catspaws. I was under the perfectly accurate impression that you and your friends would react with just as much shock and horror to an unacceptable victory as they would to a-”

“Would you mind awfully not talking around the matter?” Solas frowned as I interrupted him. “I’m perfectly aware that we’re putting my life in danger: that’s why it’s called war, rather than, say, a nasty argument. What is this sudden contention?”

“There is no way we can lose,” Josephine said, but she said it as if she was announcing that a friend of hers was deathly ill. “You have always been integral to the plan, yes. But, ah-”

“This will do nobody any good: you are aware of that.” Solas gave a long-suffering sigh. “But to prevent the sense being twisted: it is simply this. If you die, Max, then Corypheus is not long for this world: it’s inescapable.”

*

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