Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Nine

 
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After the cold and the wet and the general weirdness of the Wilds, I was so glad to be back at Ostagar that, at first, I didn’t notice how the camp’s atmosphere had changed.

I felt it as we headed in, though: a new focus, a dour kind of determination that might have seemed bleak, had it not been for the sheer amount that was still going on. No rest tonight, I surmised. Not for us, and not for the regular army.

Perhaps keeping the men’s minds busy steeled their courage. I didn’t know, but I rather wished there was something around to my bolster my nerves. As a rule, I didn’t drink much—as with so many things, Father didn’t approve—but I’d have taken a stiffener then, if it had been offered.

At Alistair’s suggestion, we took five minutes before meeting back at Duncan’s fire. He seemed purposefully vague, and avoided meeting my eye, which meant I couldn’t help but think of what little he’d told me about the impending ritual… and how very ‘unpleasant’ it was. I suppose he wanted to give us a last gasp of freedom, of a kind, or perhaps he just wanted a chance to gather his own courage.

In any case, I left Daveth and Jory bickering near the quartermaster’s store, slipped away to visit the ungodly horror of the latrines, and made myself as presentable as the amount of mud, dead leaves and bits of twig stuck in my hair would allow. An experimental flex of my jaw confirmed the bruising I still carried—although beginning to heal—was far from gone, and I had plenty of new bumps and scrapes to add to my collection.

Such was the life I had to look forward to, I supposed, wondering hazily whether Grey Wardens got any proper martial training after their initiation.

I paid the kennel master a visit, and gave him the flower the—no, I wouldn’t think of her as a witch, I told myself. That the old woman had given to me. Yes, that was safer. Time to dwell on the improbabilities later, when everything might seem just a little more sane.

He was delighted, and I didn’t tell him how I’d come by the thing. He wrinkled up his big, scarred snout of a face, beaming widely, and suggested I come back after the battle, with a view to imprinting the mabari on me.

I must have looked surprised, because the shem laughed.

“We-ell,” he said, “it’s likely he understands you’ve helped him. Mabari are at least as smart as your average tax collector.”

I smiled wearily, amused both by the joke and the fact that, to this man, the coming battle appeared to be nothing more than an inconvenience, getting in the way of the important business of looking after his hounds. Not to mention, he barely even seemed to notice what I was.

Leaning on the wooden gate, my aching body glad of the rest, I looked down at the sick mabari. He was still muzzled, great strings of drool sliding from his heavy jaws, but he gazed dolefully at me, and wagged his stumpy tail.

It was unheard of for someone like me to own such a beast. Mabari hounds were a mark of nobility and worth; their masters were great men… or at least wanted to seem so.

Elves weren’t the masters of anything.

The hound cocked his head to the side and gave a curious little groan, deep in his barrel-like chest. I reached forward and scratched his ears.

“Thanks,” I said, nodding at the kennel master. “Maybe I will.”

“Good.” He smiled, apparently satisfied, before a small frown settled between his bushy brows. “Oh, and… y’know. Good luck.”

I smiled back, my mouth tight and the familiar dull weight of tension tugging at my gut. Nebulous fears and imaginings—of both the ritual and the battle ahead—swirled in me, but I couldn’t put it off any longer.

Once I caught up with Daveth, Jory, and Alistair, we headed through the camp to Duncan’s fire, and I tried not to see the pinched, white faces of soldiers awaiting the call to arms. The priests were leading prayers again, and the only stillness in the camp’s whirl of activity was centred on those who gathered to listen, in a grimly determined hush.

“So you return,” Duncan observed. The firelight burnished his dark skin, and seemed to lend a slightly apprehensive cast to his face. “Have you been successful?”

Alistair nodded. “We have.”

“Good. I’ve had the Circle mages preparing. We can begin immediately.”

Again, I could see the ripples of unspoken communication between them; shared knowledge and silent questions that the rest of us couldn’t fathom. The fire crackled, as if pushing restlessly against the tension in the air. The flames warmed my cold, numb cheeks, but the heat tasted dry and sour.

“Um, there was a woman at the tower,” Alistair said uncertainly. “Her mother had the scrolls. They were both very… odd. I think they may have been apostates.”

He glanced briefly at me, then the other two recruits, and I wondered whether—in some small, daft way—he was playing for time. Maybe he just wanted back-up.

I said nothing, in any case, thinking it wasn’t my place to offer opinions… perhaps not even knowing what I thought, anyway.

“Be that as it may,” Duncan said, casting a look at all of us, “Chantry business is not ours. We have the scrolls; let us focus on the Joining.”

Alistair nodded, but he didn’t look comfortable.

Ser Jory cleared his throat, drawing himself up in that stiff, affected way of his, which had convinced me humans didn’t know how to read each other half as well as elves did. Strange, when there was so much more to interpret. Back in the alienage, we used to joke about their gross, blatant physicality—the way they sweated, how hairy they were, and plenty of less delicate comments besides—but I’d started to appreciate that maybe it was more complex than that.

It would have been only a small exaggeration to say I could smell the fear dripping off the man.

“Now will you tell us what this ritual is about?” Jory demanded.

The firelight glinted on his armour, and Duncan’s face remained impassive. After a beat of silence, he inclined his head very slightly.

“I will not lie. We Grey Wardens pay a heavy price to become what we are. Fate may decree that you pay your price now rather than later.”

“You’re saying this ritual can kill us?” Daveth blurted.

Duncan nodded solemnly, confirming what we must have all suspected.

“As could any darkspawn you might face in battle. You would not have been chosen, however, if I did not think you had a chance to survive.”

I didn’t look at my comrades. I didn’t look anywhere except the fire, watching the logs at its heart crack and glow, flame licking along their length and splitting the surface of the wood with a soft pop.

Duncan made an extremely practical point. And, besides, a chance was a chance. It was more than I would have been granted, had I been left to the city guard.

I wondered about my companions, though. Daveth, like me, had been given no option, but Jory… my throat tightened at the thought of the choice he must have faced. Had he had any idea what he risked when he made it?

Falling in battle was one thing, but to die without even making it to the front line…. Sure, he’d be just as dead either way, but if it offended my sense of fairness, I could only imagine how the knight felt.

Daveth sniffed philosophically.

“Well, in for a silver, in for a crown, as my dear old mum used to say. Let’s go. I’m anxious to see what all the fuss is about.”

I looked at him through the skittering blocks of firelight. I’d already suspected he was brave, so it shouldn’t have surprised me. He caught my eye, and winked.

Tired, incongruous laughter left my lips; that dry, hoarse chuckle didn’t even sound like me.

“Yes.” I nodded. “We’ve come this far, so—”

“I agree.” Ser Jory cut across me, pulling his shoulders back. “Let’s have it done.”

Duncan inclined his head, a small movement that carried a great deal of meaning.

“Then let us begin. Alistair, take them to the old temple.”

~o~O~o~

‘Temple’ seemed a generous description for the quiet, bleak part of the ruins to which we were led. It lay towards the north end of camp, jutting out from the massive foundations of the cracked, jagged walls—almost overhanging the gorge, like the prow of some white stone ship—roofed by the remnants of a huge dome, and barred with the bones of broken columns.

A great stone block dominated the circular space, and at first I took it to be another fallen pillar, like the ones scattered all over camp. The more I looked at it, though, the more it seemed to have been differently carved. Beneath the moss, sweeping channels and curving lines chased its surface, strange patterns worn into the stone.

Not a column, then, but… an altar?

It seemed a sinister thought, and I suppressed a shudder, not quite knowing why.

A grey stone parapet bounded the space, beyond which, on the far side of the chasm, the Wilds stretched out in the darkness, prowling around us. The sky was pricked with the frail gleam of early stars, and the thin sliver of a watery moon had begun to rise, staining the horizon. A torch had been wedged into one of the cracks in the walls, and it cast a rough, guttering light against the stones.

Patterns were carved into the slabs underfoot, as well. They were barely visible through the wear of ages, and the creeping encroachment of the straggly, tiny-leaved plants that seemed determined to grow here, clinging bitterly to even the most inhospitable places.

I tried to follow the shapes of the carvings, make out what they had once been, but it was impossible. I knew next to nothing about what a Tevinter temple might have been used for, anyway. The satirical songs and pamphlets that regularly did the rounds in Denerim caricatured the Imperial Chantry as a corrupt, power-grubbing institution, dominated by the magisters of Minrathous and in thrall to magic… not that I’d ever paid much attention.

I rather wished I had, now. Not that thinking about it was doing much of a job of distracting me from what lay ahead.

“I just don’t see why we must endure all these damned tests,” Ser Jory complained.

I blinked, dragging my attention from the floor to the drawn, anxious faces of my fellow recruits.

Alistair stood by the entrance to the temple. Once probably a grand doorway, it was now a crumbled arch, leading to a ruined colonnade, below which the rest of the camp sprawled. He wasn’t looking at us; waiting for Duncan, I supposed, as we all were.

I wondered if the mages that had been mentioned before would be present for the ritual. It left me uneasy. I was unused to magic… and afraid of it, if I was honest.

Ser Jory took a couple of irritable paces across the flagstones, his boots echoing in the quiet. We could hear almost nothing of the camp’s bustle up here, and I wasn’t sure why that should be necessary.

“Have I not earned my place?” he demanded. “And why this secrecy? It seems so—”

He was doing it again, I observed; trying to cover fear with bluster, like a vain woman trying to hide rotten teeth by refusing to smile.

Daveth scoffed. “Are you blubbering again?”

The knight blanched. “I only know that my wife is in Highever with a child on the way. If they had warned me—”

“What?” Daveth snapped. “You wouldn’t have come, brave ser knight? Maybe that’s why they don’t.”

Jory drew breath, some argument probably already marshalled on his tongue, but Alistair shifted slightly and cleared his throat. We looked towards the archway, and saw Duncan approaching. As one, we pulled to attention, squabbles tamped down and misgivings temporarily swallowed.

His steps were slow and measured, that bright armour that had so captivated me the first time I met him glimmering under the torchlight, though his face was sombre. He carried a large, ornate, silver chalice in his gloved hands, and my gaze was drawn to it, a horrible sense of realisation stealing over me as things began to slip into place.

Black as sin and poisonous… but not always fatal.

Those who survive grow immune to its effects.

It made sense, didn’t it? If darkspawn were the twisted reflections of men, then they had to be confronted to be defeated. No mirror could be broken without being faced, and no corruption cleansed without acknowledgement of its true extent.

Yet, other whispers followed those early thoughts, my mind teeming with terrors and uncertainties too unsteady to put names to.

The Wardens say the tainted blood drives even the survivors mad eventually….

Duncan crossed to the stone altar and placed the chalice down upon it, if not with reverence, then with a solemn respect.

“At last,” he said, turning to face us, “we come to the Joining.”

Those dark eyes rested on each of us in turn as he spoke, his clipped accent lending an exotic gravity to the words.

“The Grey Wardens were founded during the first Blight, when humanity stood on the verge of annihilation. So it was that the first Grey Wardens drank of darkspawn blood and mastered their taint.”

Duncan paused for a moment, allowing us to digest the statement. Jory was the only one who spoke.

“We’re… going to drink the blood of those… those creatures?”

He stared at the chalice, aghast.

“As the first Grey Wardens did before us.” Duncan nodded, and glanced at Alistair. “And as we did before you. This is the source of our power and our victory. Those who survive the Joining become immune to the taint. We can sense it in the darkspawn, and use it to slay the archdemon.”

The atmosphere had grown taut and thick, the prospect of what we faced now irrevocable, and painfully real. I felt a strange, numbing clarity, such as I hadn’t known since… well, since that day at the arl’s estate, I supposed.

It was the cool, lucid awareness that, whatever happened, everything I had known before was gone. Whether I lived or died, I was fate’s creature now, bound to chance, or—maybe, like Father had said on the day I left—some strange, ineffable plan.

Perhaps, if I believed that, I could cope.

I heard Daveth’s voice, tight and slightly distant.

“Those who survive?” he queried. “It’s true, then? That stuff’s poison?”

Duncan didn’t give an outright confirmation.

“Not all who drink the blood will survive,” he said, “and those who do are forever changed. This is why the Joining is a secret. It is the price we pay.”

It silenced Daveth; it silenced us all. Earlier that night, we might have exchanged nervous glances, but that felt strange and deceitful now. I didn’t want to look at the men I had assumed would become my comrades, afraid that somehow my assumptions had already cursed them.

Would it have been better, had we known?

Thoughts of home tugged at my mind like riptides. Incongruous, splintered flashes of memories: Father, smiling at me with joy and pride in his eyes when we danced together one Summerday, years ago—the way we should have danced at my wedding—images of Shianni, Soris, Andar, and all the other cousins and relatives who’d been my life up until that day. Mother, the last morning I’d seen her alive. Nelaros, Valora, poor Nola… all that blood, and the blood that had run onto the cold stone floor as Vaughan begged me not to kill him.

The way he screamed when I cut him.

Blood… it ran through everything, sure enough. I blinked, trying to stop the memories that surged beneath the surface from curdling, but it didn’t work. The taste of happiness gave way to a bitterer tang, and I could see nothing but the hideous faces of darkspawn, the stink of death and decay lodged in the back of my throat. My stomach clenched at the thought of what I would have to do, and bile burned my gullet.

I swallowed hard.

“We speak only a few words prior to the Joining,” Duncan said, his voice low and calm, “but these words have been said since the first. Alistair, if you would?”

Alistair stepped forward. He bent his head, hands clasped, and began to recite the words.

“Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand, vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten, and that one day we shall join you.”

It had the feel of prayer about it—so earnest and unwieldy and impassioned—and it seemed to pull the air in close around us, as if shards of the past were pressing into the present, and drawing us on to a future that was uncertain, and darkly forbidding.

Duncan lifted his head, and took the silver chalice up once more.

“Daveth,” he said softly, “step forward.”

Fear squeezed my lungs, turning my breath to ice.

Daveth didn’t hesitate, though all traces of his customary swagger and bravado were gone. I’d found it hard to guess his age before—he hid too much beneath the slick, shiny shell he’d so carefully constructed for himself—but he seemed younger now, all sinew and tight-wound strength.

I realised I was clenching my fists so tightly that my nails had bitten red half-moons into my palms.

Duncan held the chalice out, the torch’s flickering orange flame dancing on its engraved surface. Daveth nodded at him, and raised his hands to take hold of the wide, deep swell of the cup. They only shook a little.

I barely breathed, afraid of what to expect, and ashamed of the small worm of guilt within me that knew, deep down, I would rather watch his death than face my own.

I choked the thought, pushed it back into the darkest parts of my head, willing it to wither away, willing Daveth to be all right. I bit down hard on my tongue as he brought the chalice to his lips, and I tasted blood.

His eyes screwed up tight, Daveth drank full and deep. A grunt of disgust left him as he tore the chalice away from his mouth. Duncan leaned forward and took it from him, his face a mask of taut control. Only his eyes betrayed his concern; the fractured light caught at a dozen different things within them, too brief and complex for one who’d seen as little as I to unpick.

A flash of anger at the man streaked through me. How many recruits had he shown kindness to over the years? How many had he carried and coaxed, rescued and saved, only to give them death?

Even then, I knew that was unfair. It was a childish flare of rage and injustice, and it battled with the sting of tears behind my eyes as Daveth began to change.

He coughed, the vile gloss of that blackened, corrupted blood bubbling between his lips. At first I thought he just couldn’t keep it down—and I couldn’t blame him, with the stench of darkspawn bodies still fresh in my mind—but it was more than that. His skin was pale, his breath coming tight and fast, and his eyes seemed unfocused. A sheen of sweat broke out across his brow, his mouth working around a series of slack, empty shapes, as if he wanted to speak, but couldn’t.

The sergeant’s warnings rang in my head. Don’t touch the corpses, don’t let the blood get on your skin…. It killed the dogs, didn’t it? And yet we were to believe it was possible to overcome that foul taint, to… what? To take it into ourselves, and subsume it? Conquer it? Allow it to become part of us?

The idea horrified me.

Daveth staggered backwards, doubled over in pain, clawing at his throat. Half-choked noises, somewhere between coughs and ragged, heaving gasps, seemed dragged from him like rotten teeth.

We were silent; so silent that the stones seemed to echo with our breaths.

He cried out, clutched at his head and then at his stomach, hunching over as if some invisible fist had sunk itself into his gut. I stiffened, torn between the desire to flee and to try and help him. Neither Duncan nor Alistair had moved, so I guessed there was nothing that could be done to make this easier. Hard though it was, all we could do was watch.

Duncan’s face was still stiff, solemn… keeping whatever he felt at that moment locked deep within him.

Alistair was not as skilful; his horror and pain were plain to see. I understood now why he’d seemed so conflicted when I’d asked him about the Joining, and how difficult it must have been to spend time with us, knowing what we would face, yet being allowed to give nothing away.

Had it gone on any longer, the anger I felt might have slipped into hatred. I might have thought Duncan purposely cruel—both to us, and to his protégé—but the thoughts were knocked from me.

Daveth screamed, his head thrown back in a violent spasm, his body clenched and bent into a twisted, awful shape, as if his very flesh was trying to crawl away from the pain. An unnatural film covered his eyes, turning them milky white, blind to everything but the agony that consumed him.

The sound that left him was horrific: a bestial, shapeless howl, racked not just with physical pain, but such terror, such primal fear…. I didn’t want to know what it was that tormented him behind those sightless eyes.

His entire face twisted around the cry, and his mouth was like a ripped hole, blood leaking from its corners. I couldn’t be sure whether it was darkspawn or his own but, as we watched, his scream became a death rattle.

Daveth dropped to his knees, moaning and choking like a wounded, rage-blind animal and, as the last grunt of pain left him, he fell forward onto the stones, dead.

The very best I could think was that at least his suffering was over.

The terrible noises we’d heard from him had ceased so abruptly that the silence seemed thicker, and more oppressive. When Duncan spoke, the words barely touched the stones, lost in the billowing, terrible quiet.

“I am sorry, Daveth.”

I dragged my gaze from the recruit’s corpse and saw that it was true. After his careful blankness, I wasn’t expecting the clear pain and regret that etched Duncan’s face. Even on the long ride from Denerim, I hadn’t seen him look so tired.

And yet, when he raised his head, he was the Warden-Commander once more, his eyes hard as coals… and the tainted chalice held tightly in his hands.

This was not yet over.

“Jory.”

Duncan’s voice was firm, but low. Not a command, just a statement of fact. There was no choice being given here, no opportunity to question or refuse.

I looked at the knight, took in his white, sweaty pallor and his eyes, no more than twin pools of blackness, wide in his broad, open face. His lips trembled as he tried to force words between them.

“But… I have a wife. A child! Had I known—”

“There is no turning back,” Duncan said, in that same quiet, even tone.

I glanced at Alistair and found him tight-lipped and motionless, staring at the far wall, as if he could pretend that none of this was happening; that Daveth wasn’t dead, Jory wasn’t being a fool, and— well, none of it was true. I recognised the look. I’d had it once before.

“No! You ask too much,” Ser Jory said, his voice breaking as he began to back away. “There is no glory in this!”

Alistair closed his eyes.

I watched Duncan set the chalice down, and draw a slim, curved dirk from his belt. The sound it made was soft as a lover’s whisper.

Jory drew his own weapon, and I could scarcely believe it, though I knew how powerful a master fear could be, and how anybody who still had something to live for—someone to live for—would chance impossible risks for them.

I could still see us all trudging through the cold dampness of the Wilds, with him talking about his pretty wife, and Daveth teasing him for being so bloody soft.

The sweat stood out on his cheeks and forehead, though his stance was that of a well-trained warrior. He backed away until he could get no further, trapped by the cold stone wall. I held my breath. I had seen the look on his face far too often—desperation tempered to insanity in the flames of panic.

Duncan’s blade winked in the darkness, torchlight glimmering on the metal. I had never seen him wield a weapon, but I was not surprised at his skill. It carved an easy and graceful arc that parried Jory’s reckless, impulsive strike and, with one pivot, Duncan was close enough to deliver the fatal blow.

It was quick and clean, up under the ribs and through the core of him, leaving Jory with barely more than a breathless gurgle and a faint look of surprise.

He sagged in Duncan’s arms, and the Grey Warden held him as his final breath rasped against the stones.

“I am sorry, Jory,” he said gently, easing the knight’s body to the ground.

I stared at the corpses of the two men I had thought would be my comrades. It hadn’t seemed as if my life could change more radically than it already had. Bride to murderer, condemned to conscript… no sooner had I begun to think that I might carve a new existence here at Ostagar, than this….

Duncan sheathed his weapon. Jory’s blood spattered his surcoat and armour, and he wiped the back of his gloved hand across his mouth. When he took the chalice from the altar once more and turned to me, his dark eyes held the affirmation I now fully understood.

There was no turning back.

“The Joining is not yet complete,” Duncan said, holding out the chalice. “You are called upon to submit yourself to the taint for the greater good.”

The scattered shadows and jagged teeth of torchlight melded before me and, when I stepped forward, it felt like a dream. He held my gaze, and the twin glimpses of reflected flames burned in his eyes.

I stretched out my hands. The chalice was cool against my palms, its engraved surface traced with strange, swirling patterns. It seemed to shiver beneath my skin, and the stench of the foulness within rose to embrace me, even before I looked down into its blackened, vile depths.

The blood was thick and dark, sticky and flecked with congealing lumps that clung to the rim of the chalice. It stained the dull silver interior, greasy and fetid, and held the stink of death and decay… a sickly, ghastly sweetness that nauseated me, and took me back to those hours in the Wilds, facing death on the edge of a blunt iron axe.

I took a shallow, quavering breath, and wished I hadn’t. The rank smell filled my nose and mouth, and bile rose in my throat. Some numb, vague, half-thought filtered across my brain: that, whether this act brought immediate death or merely deferred my sacrifice, I had nothing left to lose.

Once, I had found that liberating.

I closed my eyes against the contents of the chalice and, bringing it to my lips, drank as deeply as I could manage. The blood flooded my mouth, and I gagged, choking on the stink, the taste, the texture…. It burned, searing my tongue and gullet as I struggled to swallow.

Beyond that, I remember nothing but the pain.

It began in that first tainted gulp, burning through me like a rotten flame, but soon it took hold of my whole body. The chalice fell from my hands, a bright flash of silver that smeared itself across my vision as the world swam out of focus. I could neither see nor breathe… barely even aware I existed at all, except as one flayed, tortured nerve. I’m sure I screamed.

After that, everything was darkness.

There was nothing but the pain, and the void. I plummeted, in agony, and fell into flames. My screams melded with other cries—the raging of unseen warriors, and the unholy roars of great, awful beasts.

I didn’t understand where the sounds came from, or what they were, but they terrified me. My vision began to clear, swathes of thick, sulphuric fog lifting, and revealing horrible, twisted shapes that rioted before me, grotesque and bloody. The smell of charred flesh was all around me, and I was convinced I was being burned alive. There was no ground, no sky… just walls of blood-red rock, teeming with darkspawn. Everything was blood and death and horror, yet part of me felt elated—the horrific glee of the kill, bloodlust and flesh-craving ravening in a mind that was not my own.

In amongst the vice-like spasms of pain that still gripped me, I could feel something else. Something more terrible. I looked up, but not with my own eyes.

What I saw, through the fractured glances of hundreds of hungry, raw, shapeless minds, was the form of a great, black dragon. It was enormous, dominating the choking earthen tomb that held whatever this strange us-me-them… thing was, this sense of an alien presence inside my head.

Its massive bulk seemed constrained by the canyon, as if its talons had cut furrows into the rock over the passage of years, the way a prisoner’s chains carve scars into his wrists. The greasy light of torches caught at its hide, picking out vicious spikes and spurs, and the swells of muscles whose power I couldn’t even imagine.

The creature rolled back its head, spread its wings and roared, and its putrid breath seemed to make the rocks quake. The sound was more than a noise; it was something tangible, like a jagged saw blade, or the sharp, irresistible pain of a wire cutting into skin. It buzzed through every nerve and swallowed every thought until nothing existed but the simple fact of existence itself, the moment of blood and triumph and living, bound up with a hunger and a raw, violent yearning that I did not understand, despite the fact it pounded in my body—that it was my body, until the point where I began to feel myself falling away.

I screamed again, frightened of falling, and frightened of losing myself, but there was no end. It went on, as nightmares do, in that horrific, inevitable looseness of time, inescapable and agonising.

I was sure that I would go mad, or that I already had done. Perhaps I was dead, my body lying prone on the cool stone, beside the crumpled corpses of the two other would-be Wardens.

Was this what Daveth had endured before he died? His screams, his white, blind eyes as the taint took him… I seemed to live it over again, believing I could hear him in the roar of the corrupted throng.

We were to master it, Duncan said. Shame no one had suggested precisely how.

Yet it was Duncan’s face that I thought of then. Dark, inscrutable, knowing…. He held secret so much, guiding where he could, forced to risk placing his trust in those he believed could uphold it.

All his talk of sacrifice and victory echoed hollowly in the blood-churned, stinking mire. Part of me wanted to awake just to slap him in the face, though another part of me knew I’d never have dared.

But… I was me, I realised. Still me, even in the smoke and the roar, and even thick with the stench of death and rotting flesh. I clung to that, weathering the pain and the confusion, and the never-ending screams.

I was not dead. Not yet. And, while there was breath in me, I would not break.

Not yet, at least.

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