Fear & Surprise, Chapter Forty

by artrald

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*

The role of the wolf in elvish myth is a fundamental one. In modern times, of course, the analogy of the wolf pack and the Dalish tribe is a facile one: but any scholar of elvish lore knows that across ancient Arlathani culture it is the single most common animal to be depicted in their art, after the elves themselves and far more common than their herds or their prey. The wolf was considered the exemplar of the virtues of endurance, loyalty and constancy, without the deliberate cruelty inherent to a thinking being; in the elvish tradition of representative art, to depict someone as a wolf was a high compliment.

So why, then, is the only elvish god ever to be so portrayed the trickster figure, at once friend and adversary to the rest of the pantheon? Why is the betrayer-god the wolf, and not the god of loyalty, say, or the hunt?

It would be inaccurate to pretend there was a universally acknowledged answer to this question. Asking a Dalish keeper, of course, is as unhelpful as asking a revered father why Andraste’s death was required for the conversion of Tevinter to the Chant: their answer is simply that the truth is not required to conform to our notions of narrative.

Vestrel of Minrathous writes in Upon the Faith of Arlathan that the answer is in the name ‘Lying Wolf’, that is, the god of betrayal is the wolf that is inconstant, disloyal and generally lacking in the elvish virtues. But if this is true, then Fen’Harel is literally the only one of the elvish gods whose portrayals mean the opposite of what they would mean in secular art.

Meanwhile Arhaz of Llomeryn in his widely regarded History of Barbarian Myth claims that the modern understanding of Fen’Harel and even the Arlathani word harel are changed from the meaning they would have had in ancient Arlathan: that it is not that the betrayer-god is the wolf, but that the wolf-god somehow became associated with betrayal and lies in the folk-memory of the elves, and there are certainly no shortage of tales that paint the figure so.

But one hardly need, as Arhaz does, suggest that these creatures genuinely once existed, that one or other of these tales is founded in truth. For it hardly takes a mighty intellect to suggest that the event that precipitated these was the fall of Arlathan in the face of the rising Tevinter empire and the loss of those same virtues that once the wolf embodied. It hardly takes a great imagination to believe that the elvish slaves might see a rump state bereft of constancy, loyalty and endurance and conclude that their fall was due not to any failing of the state itself but to some great, divine betrayal….

excerpt, From Dalish to Dales: Elvish Art and Custom
Magister Gereon Alexius

*

I don’t know what I was expecting. Something grand, I suppose. Something massive and cyclopean and hieratic and all sorts of other words that mean ancient and terrifying. But what there was was almost unsettling in its mundanity. Small room, mosaic floor, one chair, suppose it had a bit of a throne thing going for it, a chalice of water sitting on one arm of the chair. But, I mean, Josephine’s office at Skyhold was better appointed than this and larger. Solas was walking like he was treading on broken glass, and the other mages were clearly taking care, but to me this place just didn’t have that air of foreboding about it. It felt almost – backstage.

Solas spoke, and quietly, as if not to disturb something sleeping. “The supplicants remained in the Hall of Winter and Midnight, spoke their case. The priests heard it, and then they would come here.” He gestured to the chalice. “They would drink, and they would see. They would walk out and declare judgement.”

“So, what do we do?” I whispered. When in doubt, copy the one you followed in here.

“We?” He bowed his head. “I do nothing, and you watch your step for fear of me. Oaths I’ve sworn, my word gone from me a long time ago. But I am not alone. This place is… holy. I do not think that you want it to be.”

“But you are, what, sworn to stop it being desecrated?”

“I am,” he said. “But I did not come here accompanied by imbeciles – or at least, not by three imbeciles.”

“The chalice is nonmagical,” pronounced Dorian. “Of course, the book of the Chant is nonmagical, too: but ancient elvish religion has always been assumed to be rather more direct and pragmatic. The stuff inside?”

“Hmm.” Morrigan tilted her head in a decidedly inhuman fashion. “The throne is enchanted only as the walls are, against age. The stuff… inside the chalice… Yow!” And Morrigan blinked rapidly and made a face that reminded me of nothing so much as a cat that had bitten into something horrid. She put a hand out, steadied herself on the wall. “Silence and perdition, what’s in that?”

Dorian was a little more circumspect. Looked to Solas for permission (the elf didn’t move, as if pointedly not looking), and then whispered half a dozen words of Tevene, stuttered to a halt.”Mostly water,” he said. “I think it’s a decoction of some kind of entheogenic, somehow maintained fresh, mushroom tea, to you and me. No enchantment on the cup, though, as I said.”

“Blind as a mole, you.” She ran a moistened finger over her eyelids, whispered a dozen words in some foul barbarian tongue, reached out tentatively –

Solas was the only one who didn’t duck at the harmless white flash.

“Conditional response,” said Dorian softly. “It reacts differently to you and to me, the outer layer clearly some kind of concealment. A sort of primitive contingency nest, somehow still active after-”

“Primitive, yourself.” Morrigan was still blinking her eyes to clear them. “There are four layers at least still active, and I’ve some notion that it’s faded somewhat: and yet it’s not an enchantment, it is a transient spell.”

“For values of ‘transient’ that exceed the age of human civilisation.” Dorian shook his head at it in mild disbelief. “Do you suppose the place remains holy if it’s unpicked?”

An almost disappointed twitch from Solas. Morrigan shook her head. “It’s effectively the only thing-”

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me.” She looked at me mildly, as if to ask why I was even still there. “Seems to me we’re doing this wrong.” I stepped up before the throne, beside Solas. “We’re in someone’s house and so far all we’ve done is discuss the decor. Right?”

Morrigan flushed, and for a moment her expression was that of a student caught in a trivial error. “Um. Y-es.” She cleared her throat. “Just, well, making sure you could see what you, well, just making sure you knew your environment, as it were.” A slightly nervous glance at me. “You are the holy man here, after all.”

And I tried to imagine someone sitting in the chair. An elf, she’d be, finely and strangely dressed, regal and without the nervous air of the elves I’d grown up with, and I looked her in the imaginary eye once and then I bowed to empty air. “Mythal, Lady of the…” shit, what did she actually do… “Moon and of Justice, I bring greetings as Herald of the Maker’s Bride. You’ve heard what is going on. You’ve seen us fight someone who’s your enemy like he’s ours. Hell, you know him better than we do, for your eye is…” something something, tip of my tongue… “long and your reach is sharp?” Solas’ pained expression in the corner of my eye. “He’ll come here again, the Elder One, and, and if he does everything will be awful.” I swallowed. “But you are wise, and you will have a way to make that not be. A-and my Lady is proud, and she is great, but I’m neither, and I’m in your house, milady. And it’s surely not outside the bounds of, of bounds if I asked you for some… help?”

“Well, well, well.” And that was genuine surprise and even something like warmth in Solas’ soft voice. “A petition. A prayer, be it never so artless. I’ve literally no idea how she will take that.”

“So uh.” I stood there motionless. “Solas, I swear to you that this question has nothing to do with-”

“While we live, Max-”

“R-right.” I looked at the empty throne. “What do we do now? I mean, i-if she answers.”

“I’ve told you already,” he said with a cat’s grin. “Get on with it.”

“Elvish rituals are usually almost foolproof, if you follow the steps.” Dorian frowned. “Door opened in ritual manner, sanctum entered respectfully, petition made. Wrong order, but that doesn’t matter to this rite?”

“Even so.”

“Right.” Dorian nodded to the chalice. “So to get your oracular experiential-” he caught Solas’ glance – “I mean, to get the ‘answer’ to your ‘prayer’, the next step is to pick up the chalice and drink the holy hallucinogen.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Dosed for elves, of course. Do we have a volunteer for high priest of the lady Mythal in this fallen age?”

I blanched. “I, uh. Think I’m taken.”

“Well, old chap,” said Dorian, “there’s a list of things you don’t do in ancient ruins and ‘deliberately consume poisons crafted by the ancestral enemy’ is on it. Morrigan, your own smart pace to the rear?”

She moistened dry lips. “I… it is something I have never done, and altered states of consciousness tend to interact poorly with… I dislike being out of control, I’ve a series of spells and contingencies that would interfere fairly vigorously, but I… They can in principle be unravelled.” She glanced nervously at Solas. “I assume that if our guide were permitted to do this for us, he would have.”

“Do not ask me that again,” was Solas’ answer. Perfectly reasonable of him, I felt. “Be very sure that you mean what you do and say in here. One thing I will say, though, is that the ‘poison’ of which you speak is there solely to open a door that would otherwise be battered down.”

Morrigan bit her lip. “I could make myself susceptible to that. Dorian, as far as I see it we’re neither of us unsuitable?”

“Wild horses, winged porkers and no way in all bastardry, does that clear my position up?” He shot the chalice a jaundiced look. “We already know the magic doesn’t like me: you want to mess up our only chance? You’re Chasind, aren’t you, Morrigan? One of the few peoples who a putative elvish deity or chained spell-contingency might legitimately not remember with hatred?”

“I’m as Chasind as Solas is,” she retorted. “But… Well.” She said the words with every evidence of distaste. “Somebody has to do it, and at least I don’t deny that she exists.” A glare in my direction. “I expect you to recall in future that you owe me for this. Strictly speaking, it could have been any of the three of us.”

“Unquestionably,” I said, but she was no longer listening as she started unspeaking her spells of protection with the careful self-conscious air of a warrior stripping off first armour and then clothing in public, though little changed about her to my eyes. When she didn’t stop at three, Dorian raised an eyebrow; when she was still going at nine, Solas smiled a quiet smile. Of course there were thirteen.

“Catch me,” she said to me, “should I fall.” Then she knelt carefully before the throne and reached for the chalice. “Lady Mythal, there are none in this fallen age and this place who’d be worthy to speak for you. So in the presence of those here who I’ll not name, and on the understanding that it remains my own to retrieve when we’re done, I pray you allow me to lend you what voice I have.” And she swallowed a deep draught from the thing and replaced it as hastily as she could manage.

*

“It’s curious,” said Morrigan hollowly. “This mushroom is one with which I am familiar, or at least second-hand. Its effects are supposed to blossom in a good, uh, a, twenty to thirty sul’ain, about half an hour, but there is a spell of creation here, to ram this down my throat properly. I can actually feel… it… accelerating, it’s, uh… Excuse me.” She turned, abruptly, and sat down leaning against the empty throne of Mythal, head thrown carelessly back, looking at the ceiling with an unfocused empty stare.

“So the draught affected you, then? It works?” I looked down at her carefully, as if she was about to dispense ageless wisdom and judgement at any instant.

“Nnnh. Definitely. Yes.” She rolled her head from side to side a little. “This is – It is a little like that time I was – drugged – but all I can see so far is the scrapings of my subconscious and the foam of the nearby…” She flinched. “Fade, have you ever looked, really looked into the shallow Fade?”

“You still with us?” Dorian said warily.

“Yes. Sulevian da,” she slurred. “Emma elvi’ra ma falennan dith’an atishaan, I do suppose.”

“She says,” said Solas in a tone of voice suggestive of humoring an elderly relative, “that she thinks the draught is working on her, and that its principal goal is the establishment of peace and quiet in which to talk: to which I’ll add that she’s speaking a hideous street patois.”

“Have you know I learned it from ‘n actual elf,” she said distantly. “Little dear, come you why to this mausoleum lost under a snowdrift of time?

I squared my shoulders and cleared my throat, but Dorian stopped me with a shake of his head. “That was just an echo,” he muttered. “If this is fishing, she just caught an old boot.”

“Rockpool,” slurred Morrigan, “fishing in a rockpool with my fingers. Give me a little while to – old boot, yourself, mortal.”

Dorian gulped. “Uh. No offence meant, I’ve no experience with situations in which ecstatic hallucinogens produce lucid interactions with -”

I elbowed him and he shut up. “Speak, my lady: your supplicants hear you.”

I can see that, boy.” Lines, the wrinkles of age, were showing on Morrigan’s face and that was how she’d always been. “I must say, though, I’m unimpressed. Both of you men perfectly able to do this and you’ve made the girl do it as if she were your personal slave?” She sniffed. “And you’ve no conception of the consequences of that. To the void with gallantry: is bravery dead, as well? Is loyalty?

“We thought only of what would be most respectful, my lady.” I bowed my head elf-fashion. “I offer apology if this has offended.”

Is it not rude to lie where you hail from?” Still staring at the ceiling, her face contorted into a parody of a witch’s smile. “Regardless, to business. You say that the creature you killed will return, and that you’re unwilling to defend this place, and that you’ve no plan that will survive contact with him a second time. That a fair summary?

“That’s, uh. Yes, my lady,” I stuttered.

Well, then.” She narrowed her upward-turned eyes. “This place. How’d you learn of it?”

“Our, our enemy was headed straight for it.”

A slight frown. “And the People: they still use this place, they still hold court here?

“No, my lady.”

Good!” She clapped her hands and looked straight at us and Dorian and I flinched. “I was beginning to believe you did not know how to speak without dissembling. You mean to tell me that this mouldy old ruin is a vital part of a plan to do untold damage to the world we share?

Dorian answered for me. “Pretty much, my lady. You’re familiar with the concept that the metaphorical can occasionally be made literal if you’ve but where to stand? It’s my belief that Corypheus wishes to identify himself with your worship and then break every rule he can, right here, and turn the metaphorical breach into a real one using the fading echoes of the last time he did that.”

Corypheus, you say?” Her eyebrows went up. “I do like it when people actually name their foes, it makes conversations so much easier. The magic you speak of is ancient indeed: one doubts that this world still contains the art to avert it, so you speak of…” she trailed off, tilted her head, very much like the elf she wasn’t.

Dorian spoke once he was sure he wasn’t interrupting. “Physically averting it. Making it such that he can’t do it because the tools don’t exist.”

You can’t cast someone out of a throne that isn’t there?” She folded her arms. “Have you thought through what you just asked, child?

“No,” I butted in. “No, sera, we, we haven’t. Maybe it’s different by your lights, but speaking personally, I’m not in the habit of praying for divine intervention for problems I can solve myself.”

A throaty purr of a chuckle that somehow belonged perfectly to Morrigan. “No, no, I suppose you aren’t. Square the circle, O Mythal, cut the halla deer in half and let both halves live, have the mortal enemies abandon their feud and share their inheritance in peace.” And in her eyes was a look of such ancient and long-suffering experience as to leave me feeliing about half an inch tall. “And nobody ever asks what would be the consequences if the impossible were accomplished whenever the people wanted.

“Make it so the circle can be squared, and suddenly you can’t use numbers to count things?” Dorian said.

Not atrocious.” There was a swirl of mist and Morrigan was standing, though Morrigan hadn’t worn her hair long and usually looked about half that age, and the two of us shrank back from her. “Oh, stop it,” she said. “If I were truly what Dorian fears, you ought to have started running well before now.” She brushed a flurry of dust from her robe. “The consequence for the action you ask for is insupportable. I’ll not give up what is here. That’s enough to tell you what to do, no?” Her expression, that of a tutor setting a perfectly reasonable question.

Dorian frowned. “Because of course you can’t just tell us-”

Because,” and she leaned on the word, “you’re not worthy to carry that solution out if you can’t work out what it is.

“Of course!” The Vint threw up his hands in frustration. “World on the line, risk of another Breach worse than the first, ancient horrors sauntering around Orlais on sabbatical from their storied tombs, and we aren’t worthy-”

“What is here,” I interrupted. Dorian looked at me like he was the only sane man in the world. “Lady Mythal, I think I’m missing something fundamental. What is it that is here? What is it that you refuse to give up? Can it be moved?”

And another demonic smile split Morrigan’s face. “I can see why she likes you: whether it can be moved is an entertaining question. It isn’t me, but without it I couldn’t be who I am: I can share it, but I can’t give it away.

“Power,” I said almost without thinking, and in the same instant Dorian said “Knowledge,” and we looked at one another, and it struck me that hadn’t Solas said they were the same thing?

A snort. “And there, I think, in a nutshell, is both why you people rule Thedas and why you shouldn’t.”

Dorian frowned. “Wisdom, then, I suppose: is that what you want us to say? That what you wish to protect is the act of worship this place enables, not the place itself?”

She looked at him as if he were a particularly dense student.”And therefore…?

“An oracle. You wish us to provide for an oracle of yours somewhere else.”

Her brows descended. “Is the book of your Chant holy?

“No,” I said, automatically. “It is the Chant itself that is holy.”

Just so.” She spread her hands with an elegant flutter. “One of those present shall take up the chalice, and this time they shall drain it: and they shall go forth from here as my –” she looked disparagingly at Dorian – “What passes for a language among quicklings is foul. Oracle is the word.”

Dorian cleared his throat. “And presumably this deal isn’t what you’d call negotiable.”

I remind you of who asked for whose assistance,” she said, and her voice was cold. “If Corypheus is allowed to come here with the place undamaged, he shall tear the Veil as widely and as hard as he can. The alternative course – to desecrate this place yourselves, to pour the chalice on the floor, no? – had you wished for that to happen, you were ill-served to draw my eye. One of you will volunteer; they will not be worse off for having done so. How would you put it?” That wasn’t a smile. “Knowledge. Power. That order of thing.”

“And servitude at best,” he returned. “Do you know what we teach, Lady Mythal, concerning spirits and deals with them?”

A snort of disgust. “For the last time, quick one, I and mine are no more spirits of the Fade than your own Maker’s Bride.

“For that matter, old one, I always wondered about her.”

But even if it were true,” she said, and she loomed over us in sheer presence if not in physical size. “The point is that this must happen. Even if you believe you are sacrificing one of you three to a fate worse than death: it must happen, or we all lose. And I could survive in the world that would come and you could not.”

“But,” I stammered, “your own people-”

Would be dead and worse.” Morrigan’s body drew itself up haughtily. “It is therefore that I am even dealing with you.” Her eyes glinted. “So choose.”

I swallowed hard. “Uh, my lady. Can we talk with Morrigan? It would not be fair to-”

Her reaction is the same as it was when she became my voice,” she said drily. “She believes it exposes her to risk that would be unacceptable in any other situation. She is unwilling, but at the same time she is physically capable of it: and sometimes one must do things one does not wish to. She wishes to remind you that she believes you are under an obligation to her, and of other irrelevant facts I’ll not speak.” An odd note to her voice. “She is so very afraid.”

Dorian nodded, slowly. “We’ll remember her. Solas, you know her best. I’m sure we shall have a way of memorialising martyrdoms when this is done; I’m sure she’s not the last.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Just like that?”

“Should we rehash what we said before she took that draught?” Dorian shook his head. “You are Andraste’s: you may not do this. I am our expert on vevilosarics and Tevene magic in general: I should not do this, even before we consider that I flatly refuse to. And she’s physically and mentally capable, even though it’s not particularly nice for her.”

“In other words,” I said, perhaps a little callously, “you’re unwilling and afraid, too. And here’s someone you could send in your place. I’m afraid that I just don’t believe your argument, that your unique skills are more useful than hers. Can you shift your shape?”

“Solas can,” he returned. “It’s rare, true, but it’s not what I’d call-”

“Solas understands your rift magic, too,” I said. “Yes, he likely wouldn’t teach, whereas you could: right now that’s a higher class of problem.”

“For crying out loud, she’d be the first to call herself an apprentice without formal-”

“Dorian.” I looked him straight in the eye. “If what you mean is ‘I can’t, don’t make me’, then say that. There are two other people here. Do you think I have not been listening when Vivienne’s spoken about the need to help a mage stay on an even keel mentally?” Deep breath. “But one of us has to, and all three of us can, and don’t pretend there’s an obvious choice.”

He looked away. Abruptly couldn’t meet my eye. Didn’t speak immediately. Chewed on his lip. At length he made himself say it. “I can’t, Max.” He shot a guilty look at Morrigan. “Don’t make me.”

I nodded. Turned to the witch and to the presence that held her like a hand-puppet. “Mythal, I am the Inquisitor, the head of our order. This is my decision and I take moral responsibility: you understand?”

She inclined her head. “Even so.”

“And Morrigan has done enough.” I bowed to her. “I should be honoured to take up the duty you have outlined.”

Truly, indeed?” The apparition’s eyebrows shot up and if that wasn’t surprise on her face she was an excellent liar. “Is that your.. .final answer, Herald of the Maker’s Bride?

I opened my mouth and in that instant something invisible had seized my voicebox: I could barely breathe, let alone speak. I put a hand to my throat.

And Solas broke his silence, and his reluctant voice had the same resonance that it had when he had called Tobias Hawke a fool. “Ta em’an da,” he said. “Mine.”

A pause. Distinct, it was, and icy. Morrigan’s vacant eyes came to rest upon the elf, and the very air between them wavered, as if it too wasn’t so thrilled about being in the way. “I wonder, young one,” she said, and frost formed on her breath and spidered out on the floor around her feet, “whether you might not have mentioned this little fact earlier.” She inclined her head.

“Crude of me to play this card, I admit,” he nearly whispered, and his quiet voice assaulted the ears as if he’d screamed. “I’d assumed that you’d have exercised your famous and arbitrary high-handedness and simply chosen the obvious candidate.” Was that a smirk on his face? “You’ve changed – old one.”

You haven’t,” she snapped. Turned to me, and I couldn’t meet the pitiless stare behind Morrigan’s empty gaze for more than an instant. “Thank your mistress for me, but I must decline,” as if I hadn’t literally just heard her and Solas talking. “The conduct I’ve seen in all four of you has been noted and remembered: and only recall this when you would be otherwise surprised by my oracle’s actions in future.

And she reached behind her without looking, and grabbed the chalice and drained it dry, and then her eyes rolled up in her head and she fell nerveless into my arms.

*

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