Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eight

 
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We met up with Leliana and Morrigan, as promised, down by the lakeside. They’d found the house belonging to Dwyn, the dwarven trader, though apparently he refused to even open his door.

“He was really quite unreasonable,” Leliana said disapprovingly. “I didn’t think there was any need to be rude. Especially in front of a child.”

I looked at the small boy, smut-faced and wearing ragged short trousers, upon whose shoulder she had her hand.

“Er. Yes,” I said doubtfully. “Is this…?”

“Tell the nice lady your name,” Leliana prompted. “Go on.”

The child stared up at me, big-eyed, and looked as if he might wet himself.

“B-Bevin,” he stammered.

I smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Bevin. My name’s Merien. Are you going to go back to your sister now?”

He nodded sullenly, and stared at the ground. Leliana squeezed his shoulder.

“Indeed,” she said, smiling serenely. “He has had quite enough of hiding, haven’t you?”

“’s, m’m,” the boy mumbled.

I had no idea where she’d found him, but the poor mite looked cowed and terrified. Small bits of straw clung to his hair, and his knees were grubby… henhouse, perhaps? In any case, I doubted that, for all Leliana’s good intentions, he was much buoyed by yet another woman in robes telling him what to do.

“I am going to take Bevin back to the chantry, and make sure he doesn’t run off again. He’s promised. We decided your poor sister has enough to worry about, no?”

He glanced up nervously, the edges of tears clinging to his voice.

“Y-Yes, ma’am.”

“All right.” I nodded. “Um, well done. We’ll see you there.”

Morrigan tutted as Leliana began to lead the boy away, back up to the relative safety of stout walls and weeping women.

“Yes, yes. Lovely. Shall we next begin rescuing kittens from trees?”

“Look, the dusk’s setting in,” I said briskly. “Shall we just—”

“Oh, eager to get to the fighting, are we?”

I winced. “Hardly. Did you find out anything useful?”

She shrugged, feathers rustling at her bare shoulders and jewellery clinking gently. There were moments when, for all her claws and vinegar, Morrigan reminded me of nothing so much as an ill-tempered magpie. She turned her head away, glaring out towards the lake and offering me nothing but her pale, hard profile.

Lake Calenhad did present a beautiful view… or it should have done. I’d never seen such a vast stretch of water, and the low sun turned it to a rippling pool of molten gold. Flashes of light caught at the water, the sky huge and endless, wreathed with the deepening shapes of clouds and the whole basin framed by the steep walls of those red, hard cliffs. Small boats were moored or hauled up all along the shore, and the jetties were packed with barrels and spooled nets, testament to the normal course of business here, ruined by the madness that had spilled across it.

“These people are superstitious fools,” Morrigan said coldly. Golden eyes scanned the horizon, and the suggestion of derision curved her delicate upper lip. “They speak of the dead returned to claim vengeance on the living, of a god wreaking punishment upon them.”

“They think it’s the Maker?” Alistair sounded incredulous. “Why would—”

“I do not know,” she snapped. “Ask me why the ocean is wet, why don’t you? What is clear is that the Veil has been sundered in this place. There is something… powerful.”

“Something?” I echoed.

Morrigan sighed irritably and turned to face me, with the air of someone explaining a simple truth to a young and rather dim child.

Something had to have made them into corpses. No… spirits are always there, pushing against the boundaries of the Fade, seeking ways into this world.”

“Demons, you mean,” Alistair muttered darkly, giving her a look shadowed with distrust.

Morrigan sneered. “Call them what you will. They… hunger for it. The weaker ones may find a way through and, unable to distinguish between what is living and what simply has lived, possess corpses; dead flesh which has no will to resist them.”

I tried, and failed, to suppress a shiver. “We’re going to be fighting demons?”

Her dark-painted lips twisted dismissively. “Of a kind. The stronger ones rarely bother with such pointless endeavours. They seek more sophisticated prey. But, still, the numbers the men here speak of are… concerning.”

Her face had grown tense and sombre, and her eyes flickered with something not unlike apprehension. If Morrigan was worried, I had the horrible feeling the rest of us should be terrified.

“Blood magic,” Alistair murmured, apparently to himself. “I’d bet on it.”

For once, she didn’t outright disagree. Her jaw tightened, and the suggestion of some barbed comment seemed to play at the corner of her mouth, but she said nothing. I frowned.

“Why—?”

“Call it a hunch,” he said dryly, gazing steadily at Morrigan. “Summoning demons, causing untold death and destruction… all those things maleficarum tend to do.”

I could have cut the air between them with my dagger. She glared, eyes two slits of ochre-yellow malice set like jasper chips into the swooping band of shadow that ran across her face. Even so, I felt a strange surge of sympathy for Morrigan. True, magic frightened me. Her magic, and the whole concept in general, though I knew I owed my life to it several times over; both Flemeth’s healing, and her daughter’s more violent arts. Yet, since the Wilds, she hadn’t shirked a single fight—not the darkspawn, the bandits, or even Loghain’s men. Any of those times, she could have disappeared as easily as mist, left us on our own… but she hadn’t. Neither had I seen her use anything I would have called foul magic, though I supposed I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway. Perhaps it was, or perhaps she had the arts of illusion and glamour down so well that she could hide any truth she chose.

Painfully aware of my ignorance, I didn’t stand up for her. I had an inkling that apostate and maleficar might not always be the same thing, but my grasp on the matter was shaky, and I shied from the potential argument. Instead, I sighed wearily, and suggested we turn our attention back to the fast-approaching night, and everything that it would bring.

Alistair tried raising Dwyn, but no amount of banging on his door yielded anything more than a muffled ‘sod off’.

I nodded to Morrigan. “I think, this time, fireballs are acceptable.”

A small smile split her painted mouth and she stepped forward, fingers already flexing around a pinpoint of light that swelled and crackled in the palm of her hand. Alistair hopped hurriedly out of the way as she fed the pulsing flame into the lock and, with a loud crack, the door jarred off its hinges. I was grateful no one appeared to have noticed me jump at the noise.

Morrigan raised her staff in both hands and, rather elegantly, prodded the heavy wood. It creaked and, almost in slow motion, fell in.

It would have been comical, had we not found a heavily armed dwarven warrior and two very large, tattooed men standing inside. Understandably, perhaps, they didn’t look pleased.

“Wonderful,” the dwarf said acidly. “I hope you’ve got a damn good reason for busting down my door.”

I looked at the splintered bits of doorframe, still fizzing with residual magical energy.

“Well,” I said, hearing the manic, brittle cheerfulness in my tone, “we did try the polite way.”

Smart mouth, Father would have said. You never learn….

The dwarf glowered at me. I’d never met one of his kind face-to-face before. There used to be traders in the market in Denerim, and a few travellers from the west, but none that I’d really seen close up. It had been Father’s opinion that they were not to be trusted—unscrupulous thieving bastards was his preferred turn of phrase—but he’d never said exactly why and, as I wasn’t supposed to listen when the men were talking around the fire of an evening, I could hardly ask.

I looked down curiously at the dwarf. He was a clear foot shorter than me, which was a novelty in itself, and stocky, with his dark hair and beard bound into intricate braids. Small, dark eyes glittered beneath heavy, scowling brows, and his wide nose wrinkled as he sneered at my insolence.

“Hmph. So you did. Well, if we’re being polite… the name’s Dwyn. Pleased to meet you. Now get out.”

One of the thugs at his side was elven. I hadn’t noticed that before, registering just the strange, blocky tattoos that ran over both men’s arms and faces, and the tell-tale bulges beneath their plain, workaday clothing, that spoke of weapons not so much concealed as held in readiness. We saw people like them back home, too; close to curfew, the night-crawlers always started to come out of the woodwork.

I glanced briefly at the elf. There was no glimmer of recognition there, and nor should there have been. Wherever his home had originally been, he’d cast it behind him even more emphatically than I had mine… and I wanted to be appalled at the sour little twist of judgemental anger that flared in me. Who was I, to make those assumptions? I dragged my gaze back to Dwyn, and shook my head.

“Murdock says he needs you for the militia.”

“So what?” The dwarf snorted. “You’re recruiting for him? I’ll tell you what I told Murdock: I’m not risking my neck for this town.”

The small fire burning in the stone hearth belched out a crackle. It was the only light set in the room, though there were plenty of brackets for candles along the walls. Behind me, lazy, dusty sunlight poured incongruously through the hole where the door should have been, and it outlined Dwyn and his heavies in coronae of milky gold.

Outside, distant footsteps scuffled on grit. Murdock was shouting to one of his men and, below us, I assumed, the lake was lapping steadily at the jetty’s stilts.

“Isn’t there any way we could change your mind?” Alistair asked. “He said you were a warrior. You could help these people. You could—”

“Get myself killed? Huh… fighting’s the reason I left Orzammar. Why would I get involved with this? I’m a merchant now. Right, boys?”

The tattooed men smirked unpleasantly. “Yur,” one grated. “Respectable an’ everyfink.”

“So you’ll just stay shut up and here and watch them die?” Alistair demanded, his tone hardening as his patience evidently wore thin.

“No,” Dwyn said evenly. “Usually, we bar the windows and sit it out in the back room. Don’t see a thing.”

His words bristled with a humour so dark it passed all the way through irony and came out somewhere in the region of cold, bitter truth. The same bone-clenching weariness clung to these men as permeated the rest of the village, but the dwarf was entitled to want to save his own skin… whether we liked it or not. I exhaled a tight breath of frustration.

“There’s nothing we can say, then? Nothing we can offer?”

The elven heavy at Dwyn’s shoulder gave me a look of open, unabashed appraisal, curled his lip, then glanced at Morrigan and loosed a grubby, throaty chuckle. I swear I felt the ice in her glare—it was a wonder the air itself didn’t freeze over.

Dwyn folded his arms, the leather-gloved fingers of one hand drumming on his sleeve.

“I doubt it. Of course, if you really wanted to make it worth my while….”

“We could talk to Bann Teagan,” Alistair suggested, leaping on that first chink of hope. “Put in a good word for you. Think of the goodwill, the… possibilities for a man in your, er, position if, let’s say, he were to cut the market licenses you pay for trading in Redcliffe?”

He was clutching at straws. Even the briefest glance around the house showed it was little lived-in, and I guessed the back room Dwyn had mentioned lay behind the heavy, locked door I could see past his shoulder… and it was probably stacked full of dubious wares. I very much doubted the dwarf took much notice of local bye-laws and trading rates, especially when the village—with all its outside smokehouses and loose-planked little jetties—had so many useful places to hide goods, and the cliffs no doubt led to a plethora of hidden paths. We had smugglers where I came from, too.

Sure enough, the dwarf’s brow creased in amused derision. “Huh. Keep tryin’, friend.”

The thugs were growing restless, and the atmosphere in the cramped little house was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I glanced at Morrigan, uneasy with the firm grip she had on her staff, and the sharp, alert expression in her eyes, both so at odds with the calmness of her posture.

“All right, well… what about gold?” Alistair said, a hint of desperation clinging to the words. Dwyn might be an arsehole, but it didn’t take a genius to see that, especially with his heavies on hand, he was an arsehole with enough muscle and experience to make a real difference when the sun went down. “Would that convince you?”

Dwyn snorted. “Are you serious?”

For a moment, I was sure it was going to end badly, but Alistair stood his ground.

“Yes. Would it?”

“I won’t even stick my head out my door for less than five sovereigns,” the dwarf said obstinately. “Up front, mind you.”

“Five…?” Alistair looked crestfallen. “W-We don’t have that kind of coin. But these people are desperate. They need—”

“Here.”

I’d barely known I was doing it; action without conscious thought, no proper decision…. My fingers had moved to the chain that hung around my neck, bearing both the pendant I’d received after my Joining, and the ring Nelaros had made for me. Two warm, smooth metal surfaces, alike in their terrible reminders of loss and burden. Sometimes, they seemed to weigh more than my whole pack.

I fumbled a bit as I unfastened the clasp, pulled the ring from the slim silver chain, and held it out to the trader.

“This is the only gold I have. Take it.”

Dwyn appeared surprised, but he didn’t resist as I dropped the ring into his hard, calloused palm. He peered at it briefly, then gave a short bark of laughter.

“Huh… you’re kidding, right? This is just scraps of gilding. Barely got half the weight of a sovereign!”

Heat blazed in my cheeks, and I fought not to blink, not to admit to the embarrassment, the humiliation. Of course, I thought bitterly, it stood to reason, didn’t it? Nothing of ours had any value outside the alienage. The hours Nelaros had worked, the months squirreling away enough material from the off-cuts at his father’s forge… laughable.

I clenched my jaw, forcing the anger down. Best leave it buried deep, I told myself; I’d need it later.

“All right.” I looked at Alistair, willing him to back me up. “Then we’ll get the money from Bann Teagan. He’ll see you paid… whatever you want.”

It was a risk, but I imagined—hoped, rather—that Alistair’s prior acquaintance with the bann would be enough to ensure he paid up and didn’t make me a liar. He must have caught the meaning in my glance, because he nodded.

“Wh—? Oh. Yes. Absolutely.”

Dwyn looked dubiously at us, turning Nelaros’ ring thoughtfully in his fingers. The sneer dropped from his face and, from the quiet curiosity with which he stared at me, I suspected he’d been expecting some kind of protest about the value of the ring. Maybe it was worth more… I had no idea. There was a long silence, taut and full of things beneath its surface. Dwyn shook his head, his expression an unreadable façade of dwarven resilience, with whatever he really thought locked tight away beneath.

“All right. If Teagan gives me his word, you’ve got yourself a deal.” He nodded gruffly, apparently oblivious to the heavies exchanging nervous glances above his head. “You’re getting off easy, but I guess you’re right. This town does need a hero… so long as you’re going to be out there too when the sun goes down. I’m not fighting for a lost cause, you hear me?”

“We will,” I promised. “And thank you.”

Dwyn grunted and tossed the ring back to me. More shocked than anything, I nearly didn’t catch it.

“Maybe do the thanking later… if we survive. And you can have your wedding ring back, girlie. Come on, boys.”

They trudged out towards the square, and we followed. I could feel Alistair’s gaze on the back of my neck, and I knew he was bursting to ask me something, but I didn’t want to give him the opportunity. I didn’t want to talk about anything.

~o~O~o~

A sharp chill underscored the growing dark as we made our way back up to the village square. It sent nerves coursing through me, the way the smell of frost sends horses skittish and jumpy, and I couldn’t shake the undeniable sense of foreboding. Demons and walking corpses… it didn’t seem real. Still, I reminded myself, up until that first encounter in the Korcari Wilds, I hadn’t believed the darkspawn were more than stories.

Murdock was pleased to see us, his former brusqueness tempered with guarded optimism—not least, I suspected, because Owen had finished the repairs, and now Sten stood among the militiamen, towering above the ranks and looking like some sort of gigantic warhorse, in a patchwork of armour made from leather, chain, and odd ends of metal plate strung together across his massive frame. His expression suggested that the entire palaver was beneath his dignity, but I thought he looked impressive. I also thought about what the people of Lothering had locked him up for, and tried not to dwell on it. Marching with a murderer at my back had not made for an easy minute since we’d freed him, but neither had Sten given the slightest indication of being a blood-crazed psychopath… and we would be glad of him tonight, I felt sure.

Leliana was there too, although I almost didn’t recognise her. The travel-stained Chantry robes were gone, replaced by grubby, patched leathers, much like those the militiamen wore, and I guessed a product of Owen’s rapid repairs. Her hair bound back into a tight, rather severe ponytail, she had a longbow and a full quiver slung across her back, and the well-polished hilts of steel daggers glinted at her hips. She smiled and waved at us, but there was something altogether harder and sleeker about her, and it unnerved me.

We left Morrigan and Maethor outside the chantry, the pair of them looking out of place amid the flurrying activity of the militiamen, and Alistair and I slipped inside, buffeted by the ragged press of people now streaming into the building. A low hum echoed off the walls. It was the buzz of frightened chatter; tens of thin, over-eager voices. Children, mainly, and the women trying to quiet them. Too many white, pinched faces… too many who knew what to expect from tonight, I thought.

Alistair went to brief Bann Teagan, and secure the promise of payment for Dwyn, while I sought out Mother Hannah. I found her in a side chapel, helping an old man lay out bedrolls for himself, his wife, and a small pack of grandchildren… or perhaps they weren’t all his. The little ones almost didn’t look like humans; a great sprawling gaggle of them, skinny and bright-eyed. A burst of pensive nostalgia tugged at me and, when the priest looked up and, with a nod, began to pick her way across the crowded floor, I blinked rapidly and cleared my throat.

“Your Reverence.” I bowed my head.

She nodded. The revered mother was an elderly woman, though age sat on her like a fine gauze rather than a sharp-edged burden, and it had certainly not dimmed the intensity of the grey eyes that now regarded me coolly.

“You are the other Warden,” she observed.

“Um….” I supposed I was and, for the briefest moment, almost the last words Duncan had said to me echoed in my mind: I expect you both to be worthy of that title. I pulled my shoulders back and met the woman’s eye. “Yes.”

Mother Hannah smiled thinly. “You are of elven blood, and a stranger, yet you defend a home that is not your own. We are grateful for that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t help?”

She put a slim, red-knuckled hand, traced with proud-standing veins, upon my arm, and guided me away from the side chapel and back into the main body of the chantry. The statuary—the carved figures of old kings and heroes, and the perfect, marble face of Andraste—peered silently down at the throngs of the dispossessed. I couldn’t help wondering if the Maker really was watching.

“Many elves would say that humans would not do the same for them.”

Mother Hannah’s voice was low and gentle, but matter-of-fact… and she had a good point. We’d have been right in our assumption, as well, I suspected.

“Perhaps,” I said diplomatically. “And perhaps I am a Grey Warden before all else.”

She smiled again, wider this time, though it was still a careworn, tired expression.

“Perhaps,” the priest echoed. “Now, what can I do to assist you, Warden? We have precious little, as you can see, but if I can offer any aid….”

I glanced around at the crowded ranks of villagers. Near the altar, I caught sight of Alistair talking earnestly with Bann Teagan. The nobleman appeared to be frowning—discussion of Dwyn’s payment, I assumed—but then he shook his head, cracked a chary, disbelieving smile, and clapped Alistair on the shoulder. Agreement, it seemed… and the tail end of a gesture that, once, might have been the tousling of a muddy, boyish head. I turned back to the priest.

“Just how safe is the chantry?” I asked, lowering my voice.

Her lips thinned; as clear an answer as I might have had. “It is the sturdiest building in the village, but we have taken several nights of attacks. In truth, I… I do not know how much longer the walls will withstand it. Once the doors are locked, Murdock’s men will barricade us in, and we must pray those defences hold.”

I nodded. “Right. And, er… Ser Perth said he’d asked you for holy protection, for the knights? He seems a devout man.”

The worry in Mother Hannah’s face turned to mild irritation, and she tutted.

“Oh, that man…! I am sorry, but what Ser Perth asks is not in my power to grant. Prayer is one thing, but he seeks the assurance that his men have the Maker’s protection in some tangible, physical sense. I cannot—”

My gaze fell to the silver symbol that hung from her neck: a circle, with a blazing flame at its heart. It was familiar. We’d had one on the wall at home; rough-carved from holly wood. When I was little, Mother taught me the comforting litany of prayers to say in front of it… and I couldn’t quite remember when all that had slipped away.

Down both sides of the nave, people were beginning to light candles and tapers—small glimmers of hope to last through the night to come—and I fancied I could see the light reflected in the holy flame, bringing the polished surface to life.

“Morale is a powerful thing, Mother,” I said softly. “As no doubt the Prophet found when she led her armies against the Imperium.”

The priest narrowed her eyes. “Do not presume to bandy theology with me, Warden,” she said, though her tone was not entirely hard. “I will not lie to those men, or tell them I have power I do not possess.”

I inclined my head. “Of course not. But if you can help them, if you can give them a means to find strength in their own faith—”

She sighed tersely, and those thin fingers reached up to touch the shimmering flame. “Very well. I see your point. We… have a box of these symbols in the back. I shall have them sent to Ser Perth at once. And you, Warden? How fairs your faith?”

It was a small, sharp barb, tacked onto the resignation of her words, and it took me by surprise.

“I….”

I truly didn’t know. It was a nebulous, peculiar thing, of which I had not thought in a long time, though I supposed I should. I’d believed once, hadn’t I? When I was younger, and Mother Boann’s well-meaning outreaches had not seemed patronising, because all I saw were women with well-dressed hair and beautiful clothes, who smelled of flowers and hardly seemed like humans at all.

I wondered why I hadn’t prayed since my conscription. Or since the arl’s estate, since Ishal… since Lothering, and all the loss and devastation. If I couldn’t manage to beg forgiveness for my own sins, surely I could manage to feel something for those who had lost everything.

Mother Hannah looked steadily at me with those calm grey eyes.

“Will you take a blessing?”

I nodded, suddenly humbled when I’d tried to be so clever, and bowed my head. The priest placed her palm upon my hair, and her voice was low and soft, yet the words rang with clarity they hadn’t held for me in a long while.

“Blessed art thou who exists in the Maker’s sight. Blessed art thou who seeks His forgiveness. Blessed art thou who seeks His return. Blessed is the Prophetess, His daughter, sacrificed to the holy flame. May the Chant reach the Maker’s ears and tell Him of our contrition.”

Behind my closed eyes, there was only darkness. There was no warm glow, no enveloping feeling of love or trust. Instead, I felt the edges of old wounds begin to open. I could smell the clean scent of firewood, and soap, and Father’s old leather jerkin, and I remembered dogs barking and children laughing, and the long, long walk down to the water pump.

“In Andraste’s name, I call upon the Maker to watch over His child and creation. Watch over her path, O Maker. Give her light in darkness.”

I opened my eyes, and candle flames danced across my vision, burning the shadows and the memories away. I blinked, smiled my thanks at the priest, and assured her that we would do all we could for Redcliffe tonight.

“I do not doubt it,” she said. “Maker watch over you.”

“And over you,” I murmured mechanically.

Alistair was waiting for me by the doors; they were preparing to close them, with heavy wooden bars ready to be hauled across. Dozens of pale, frightened faces watched us go. In the midst of them, Bann Teagan stood, the revered mother at his side, his face set with grim resolve.

We didn’t speak as we made our way back out into the square. The others were waiting. Murdock’s small band of men were in readiness, prepared to hold fast in the centre of the village, and all that remained was for us to get back up to the mill and take our place beside the knights.

After that, all we could do was wait.

~o~O~o~

The sunset should have been beautiful, especially from the top of the ridge. The whole sky was alight, burning in flames of golden orange and bruised with soft fingers of purple, the delicate fronds of lace-white cloud fanning out into trails that passed the sun’s sinking, burnished face as gently as the breath of sighs. It melted behind the cliff, liquid gold painting the hard, red earth and catching against every glint of mica in the rock.

We waited. The air stank of oil and apprehension. The soaked barricades stood between us and the route down from the castle, and unlit torches wavered in the hands of militiamen shaking with fear.

Ser Perth and his knights stood at our back. Dwyn and his boys—duly paid up, it appeared—were there too, and altogether I supposed we made a pretty formidable force. The question was whether that would be enough. The sails of the windmill creaked in the still dusk; there wasn’t enough wind to turn anything, much less shift the stubborn sense of foreboding that hung over us all like the smell of rotting meat.

I kept my eyes fixed on the narrow path ahead, and the blind corner that led up to the castle. It must have been cut from the cliff that way for a specific reason, once. Choke points, in case the villagers rose up against the arl, or insurance against the threat of foreign invasion or something. It was easy to forget that, until the years just before my birth, Ferelden had been an occupied land. Easy, too, for me to forget that all these great lords and their castles were for something more than show. Leliana had probably been right when she said there was blood in the bedrock of this place. Of course, that might as well be true of anywhere.

My thoughts were rambling, I told myself. Nerves. My fingers itched to draw my blade, just to feel the weight of something in my hand and know I wasn’t defenceless… yet we had to pace ourselves. This would be no quick skirmish.

“Whatever happens,” Alistair said quietly, “hold the line. All right?”

I glanced at him, and found his face intensely serious, an unsettling focus in his expression. I nodded.

“Good. The longer we can hold without having to fall back, the better. Ser Perth reckons there’s a good few hours’ burn time in the barricades… if that actually holds them up much.”

“Hmm.” I grimaced, not heartened by the thought of unstoppable walking dead that also happened to be on fire. “I think I’m sticking to the ‘hack until it falls over’ plan, myself.”

He sniggered, and we drew a couple of odd looks from some of the knights. Not much to laugh about, really, I supposed. The last streaks of gold raked their way across the sky, the clouds shadowed into shelving banks of purple-blue, and night drawing close behind them.

It reminded me of that long, damp dusk at Ostagar, where the lines between the marshy dankness of the Wilds and unsettled sky were so blurred that nothing ever seemed certain. No clear division of night from day, light from dark… just the cold and the wet, and the mud. We’d been out in the forest for what felt like days, only to face the etched stones of the ancient temple, and all the mysteries within it. I almost shuddered at the memories, wrought as they were now into a strange, complex mix, packed tight away among things still too painful to unpick, too big to fully comprehend.

There should have been time for it. Duncan had meant there to be. A long, slow induction that would have equipped me for whatever the future yielded… not that even he would necessarily have foreseen this. Undead pouring down the cliffside. A village in desperation, and Arl Eamon probably already dead… what would Duncan have done? I wondered briefly, and put the thoughts aside, knowing I might as easily ask what it was like to stand on the moon. I didn’t think like him; I was no commander of men, no great tactician. I was just blindingly lucky to still be alive, and bloody well determined to keep it that way.

It was almost dark. I dragged in a deep lungful of air, and it was greasy with oil, and rough with the faint breath of sulphur.

They were coming.

The fog was the first sign of it, as Ser Perth had warned us. We could see it begin to billow at the top of the cliff, and the shout went up. The militia were running to their posts, and I could hear the sound of the last bars going down over the chantry doors, the heavy clang of iron and wood drifting up from the square below. To my right, Leliana was murmuring a quiet stream of prayer, and Ser Perth gave the order to light the barricades.

Two of the militiamen stumbled forwards, flint, tinder and torches at the ready. The oil went up quick enough to singe their eyebrows and, in seconds, the carefully stacked fires were roaring. I could see a thin band of dark rock above the dancing flames, heat haze making the air shimmer, and my vision was pricked by the light. Too easy for my elven eyes to catch at the pattern of the flames, and too hard to pierce the shadows so far beyond them. I hated the shadows.

Still, we waited. It was unbearable, interminable… every time I thought I saw something, and nothing came. The darkness, the fog, the indescribable tension—it seemed it would never end, until Leliana drew her bow, the first to sight something moving at the top of the path.

“Here they come!” she cried, loosing an arrow.

I didn’t even see where it hit. I expected whatever she’d struck to cry out, but heard nothing beyond a faint thud, and the suggestion of something scrabbling on the gritty slope.

Later, I would realise that made sense. They were already dead. What need did these creatures have of rattling, ugly breaths, of roars or screams? The things that inhabited the flesh-shells were mostly already mad, too far gone to understand the power of speech or communication, or to have forethought enough to terrify us with it.

Nevertheless, there would be something about the silent ranks of walking corpses that would stay with me for a very long time. Longer, even, than the stench of the damn things.

The first wave of them came out of the fog in a strange, shambling gait, too awkward to seem remotely human, but too fast to leave any doubt over their intent. Some of them walked—as far as the term could be applied—on the edges of their feet, or on their ankles, the usual rules of anatomy disregarded by whatever was inside them. The arms and necks of many were disjointed, the angles all wrong… but all of them had once been people. That was far more obvious—more chillingly evident—than I had hoped it would be, and I was not prepared.

There were men and boys, women… even a few elves, probably once servants at the castle. What clothes they had hung in bloody tatters, and their flesh was little better. Skin and hair had begun to peel from a few, unseeing eyes rotting in their sockets and foul, leaking mouths held slack, giving the impression of creatures that found their way by scent, like blind pups butting their way towards the warmth of a bitch’s teat.

All around, steel sang as weapons were drawn. I had a blade in each fist, but I felt far less comforted by the fact than I’d hoped I would. Leliana and the others armed with bows loosed the first assault, and a few of the creatures went down, but they didn’t stay there. They clambered up again, slow but unstoppable, and they just kept coming, faster than it seemed dead flesh should ever be able to move. It had been just moments since I had my first glimpse of them through the fog, yet they were already at the first barricade, and I could make out the shapes of more pressing on behind.

The creatures—because it was so much more preferable to think of them like that than to accept the fact that, once, they’d had names and families—definitely burned… but the fire barely seemed to slow them, and they certainly didn’t treat it as more than an inconvenience. They just kept coming, pushing on with dead hands outstretched, some clutching weapons and others armed only with the singular determination of destruction. The smell of filthy, rotting flesh filled the air—almost as bad as the stench of darkspawn, I thought, although a different flavour of corruption—and it was tinged with the vile stench of charred fat and meat, enough to turn the strongest stomach.

Sten gave a warcry in his own tongue, and it broke the silence and the tension. Everything shattered around me. The shadows and the leaping flames, the knights’ burnished armour and their holy symbols, and the ungainly, terrifying ranks of undead all became part of a mad, kaleidoscopic vision through which I was running, my mind a clear, silver strand floating somewhere high above my body.

We charged, meeting the corpses as they lurched through the fire, and ending them as thoroughly as blades could allow. It was messy, gruesome work, especially after the barricades had slowed them. I encountered body after body, furnaces of hot, foul breath burning from blistered mouths, eyes like shelled boiled eggs and skin singed through to red, glistening muscle over which no pulse beat, and no blood flowed. After a while, the stench got so far down the back of my throat that I stopped retching… until the little boy with maggots where his tongue should have been.

I wanted to close my eyes, to stop seeing the differences in their faces, the different heights and shapes, and just hack blindly until it was over—and, if there truly was a Maker, and He had any mercy whatsoever, it had to be over soon—but I learned to be alert. Just not quickly enough, as it happened.

The thing that lurched out of the fire towards me had once been a tall, strong, young man… probably one of those who’d died trying to defend his village, not that it was possible to tell for sure now. The hair had all been burned from his head, only the last scraps of toughened leather armour clinging to his body. He swung at me with his right arm, and I parried, the force of the blow jarring my shoulder and almost dislodging my footing. I brought my dagger back, readying a strike under his ribs, the blade of my sword still buried in dead, mottled flesh. The unblinking, slack-mouthed corpse stared down at me, and then slammed his left fist into the side of my head.

“Watch it!”

Alistair’s voice came through a muffled fog as I pitched to the ground, for the first time truly understanding the full meaning of the phrase ‘dead weight’. My vision was blurred, the fractured shards of torchlight piercing unnatural pulses of bright blue and purple that burst in front of my eyes. I rolled, instinctively, the world still spinning above me in a dull roar, and the corpse that had sent me flying hit the gritty earth beside me… minus its head.

I hauled myself up on hands and knees, spat, and felt the distinct wobble of a loose tooth. The metallic taste of blood furred my tongue, and I could feel a wet trickle making its way down the side of my head.

“Sod,” I muttered, pulling my sword out of the now rather-more-dead undead, and giving the thing a hard kick on my way to scrambling up.

I glanced fuzzily at Alistair. Bloodied and panting, shield lacquered with gore and soot streaking his face, he nodded. I returned the gesture, assuring him I was all right, and we parted ways again. I lost sight of him somewhere in the next wave of the assault, and there was nothing but the firelight glancing off the knights’ bright armour, and the perpetual thuds, crunches and raw, graunching sounds of steel on flesh. It was endless; a vital, dark song that wound itself so deeply into my blood that, when the next lull in the attack came, I was shaking so much I could hardly stand. It wasn’t fear. Well, not completely. It was… like nothing I’d ever experienced.

I’d known bloodlust—the true desire to cause pain and to revel in the power to inflict it, and to end the life of another being—and, that day that felt a hundred years ago, back in the arl of Denerim’s estate, I had tasted its bitter, addictive fruit. At Ostagar, I’d fought in arms for the first time and learned what it was like to drive myself beyond what I thought I could do, to push beyond everything in the blind determination to survive. This was different. I was part of a team, and we had a goal, a strategy against an enemy that was identifiable, and knowledge we could use…. It was an edge I was not accustomed to having.

On the right flank, Maethor stood with two of Ser Perth’s knights, ready to mop up anything that got around the barricades. The mabari’s short brindled coat was filthy, though most of the blood didn’t seem to be his. His lips were pulled back, full-blown snarls and barks breaking from deep within the heavy body, those massive paws skittering on the earth as he all but danced in place, flanks shivering with excitement.

To the other side of the barricade, Morrigan was set well apart from the rest of the ranged attack; a whirlwind of sparks and violence, her black iron staff rimed with ice and her pale skin almost glowing in the darkness. She sent bolt after bolt into the encroaching lines, and though the things we fought had no capacity for fear, she terrified me.

“Maker’s breath!” exclaimed Leliana, somewhere behind my left shoulder. “How many more of them can there be?”

I turned, shaking my head and feeling the drying blood pull at my hairline.

“Don’t know,” I said with a wince. “How many have we…?”

She wrinkled her nose, and I glanced at the piles of hacked, mutilated bodies. Hard to count kills when it was difficult enough to work out how many bits belonged to the same corpse.

Dwyn’s boys had started to help the knights shift the… remains, I supposed we should call them. It was undignified, but the majority got thrown onto the barricades or heaped up as makeshift defences in their own right. The worst part of it was that I didn’t even manage to feel horrified. I just sheathed my blades and pitched in, grabbing whatever became available—leg, arm, half-shelled head or bit of torso—then lifting and throwing as if we were doing no more than stacking firewood.

Still, the flames burned on. The extra supplies Alistair had commandeered from Lloyd’s cellar, combined with lumber cannibalised from some of the abandoned shops and cottages, extended the life of the barricades considerably. I couldn’t even smell the stink of oil and burnt flesh anymore, but then I couldn’t smell anything.

“A-Are they still up there?” one of the militiamen asked in a tense whisper.

“Maybe it’s… stopped,” another said, his voice pitched high with frail, brittle hope. “Maybe there aren’t any more.”

To my right, Dwyn grunted and spat onto the bloody earth. “Fat chance of that. They’re there, all right. Can’t you smell ’em?”

Murmurs of assent ran through the men. I said nothing. After tonight, I very much doubted I’d ever be able to use my nose for anything but sneezing.

But, we were back to the waiting. Cold, uncomfortable, unbearable waiting. I clenched and unclenched my hands, trying to stop the shaking. My legs wanted to wobble and twitch, so I took to pacing to keep them steady… and myself as calm as I could manage. Wounds were bandaged, though we’d been lucky, and it seemed no one was seriously hurt. A few of Ser Perth’s knights kissed their holy amulets and offered thanks to Andraste and the Maker.

When the next wave came, we were tired, but ready.

Stars pricked the velvet night with cold, violent clarity, bidding to outshine the fat, pitted quarter of the moon. The barricades were burning with thick, greasy flames, belching soot into the chilly air. The creatures came in fewer numbers now, knots and gaggles instead of the massed ranks that had hit at first.

Morrigan fell back to the rear of the group, looking sweaty and exhausted. Knowing nothing of magic or the wielding of it, I didn’t understand how much the assault had taken out of her, and there was no time to stop and ask.

The creatures kept coming. I was numb, and the world was grey and muffled. I saw flesh, not faces, and I worked my way through body after body, their weight and their stink pressing in on me until there was nothing left to feel but the pounding of blood and the rough, jagged resistance of steel dragging through meat.

The worst of them was a young woman—or something that had once been one—tottering down the cliff path, half-rotted, in the remnants of a white gown. Clumps of blonde hair hung raggedly from what was left of her head, and putrid skin peeled from her breasts and arms, the flesh sloughed away from her ribcage to reveal the white glare of bone. She raised her arms and—caught between the fire and the pale dance of the moonlight—there was something hypnotic and terrifying about her. She swayed towards us, dead eyes rotted to black pits in the remains of a mottled face, and she held more power than the entire first rush of the corpses combined.

Sten cleaved her in two with one enormous blow… not that there was much of her to resist his sword. I saw one of the knights drop to his knees and clasp his hands in prayer, but then Leliana distracted me, darting across the path to clamber up onto the rock, peering up towards the castle.

The thick, sulphurous fog still wreathed the ground, adding yet another layer of filth and stink to the ridge, and making it near impossible to see what was up there. She leaned forwards, bow in her hand, a delicate figure painted in outlandish, flickering shadows, like some pagan goddess of war. That she was more than a simple Chantry sister had been evident from the start, but that night I saw just how much lay hidden beneath her veneer of cheerful, pious humility.

She jumped lightly down from the rock, shaking her head. The soot-streaked flame of her hair swished emphatically, and those ice-blue eyes were narrowed into shrewd, suspicious slits.

“I can’t see anything. It looks like there are no more up there, but… they could be waiting. How long is it before dawn?”

“Too long for it to be this quiet,” Ser Perth said grimly. “We must not grow complacent.”

He ordered his men to clear more of the bodies, and I slipped back to see Morrigan. She still looked pale, weary—drained, I supposed was the word—though she clearly felt well enough to savage me for taking the trouble to enquire after her health.

“Do I bother you with pointless questions?” she snapped. “What do you think, that magic comes at no cost? That my energy is as boundless as your ignorance?”

She gripped her staff tightly as she rose to her feet, scowling imperiously at me as if I couldn’t see how heavily she was leaning on the thing… or how that ample, elegantly framed bosom of hers was rising and falling to the strained rhythm of ragged, painful breaths. I held her gaze, watching the barricades’ fires dance on those amber discs and, just for once, Morrigan was the one to look away first.

“I… will be fine,” she muttered gracelessly. “Just let me catch my breath.”

I nodded, and I would have asked more irritating questions, but the cry went up as another knot of corpses shambled down towards us. Sten was at the front of the line, tackling them magnificently. Owen had fitted him out with a greatsword that would have been enormous on most humans—another of those things I’d barely seen outside of storybooks, and the heroic tales of knights in tournaments and battles—and, though he certainly didn’t dwarf the blade, the qunari wielded it with impressive ease. There was barely anything left for the rest of us to mop up, not that I really minded.

The respite didn’t last long. Just as we were being drawn back into committing ourselves to the latest wave of the assault, shouts and alarms broke out below, and one of Murdock’s militiamen came pelting up the path behind us.

“They’re attacking from the lake!” he yelled, gasping for breath. “They’re almost at the barricades! Quick, we need help!”

There was a horrible moment of indecision, ripped through with the twang and hiss of arrows flying, and the jumbled mess of fighting.

“Go!” Ser Perth yelled. “We have the path!”

Alistair nodded and barked orders. Leliana and two other archers were to fall back to the midsection of the ridge; Ser Perth’s men would hold their position with Dwyn and his boys, and the rest of us would plunge to Murdock’s aid. I didn’t think, just reacted, water-weak legs scrambling beneath me as we ran down the ridge, greeted by the sight of the undead swarming in on the village square. There were dozens of them; that same jerky, unnatural gait, those broken, misshapen bodies… the militia had already fallen back to protect the chantry, and the taint of desperation soured the air.

A rain of arrows flew over us, but served only to slow the creatures down. In the centre of the square, opposite the chantry doors, a huge bonfire burned. Flanked by the barricades it was one great, towering pyre of flame, casting a guttering, uneven light into the darkness… and providing, in its own way, an undeniable gesture of defiance.

Sten ran forwards, raging like some wild beast, and scythed through three of the corpses in a single stroke, severing limbs and heads like ears of corn. I should have been revolted. It should have been frightening, but I’d gone past that. I was wrapped in the hard, mouldering heart of something overwhelming and all-consuming, and I followed him with my weapons drawn and a wordless, furious warcry wrenched from my throat.

We dived headlong into the fray. It was chaos; bloody, dark, rampant chaos. No one had expected the creatures to come the way they had… but then they’d never been held back so effectively at the ridge before. It was impossible to know whether it was some kind of tactical decision on their part, or the mindless surging of insects, intent of swarming through any available chink. There was hardly an opportunity to discuss it rationally.

Morrigan let loose a tremendous blast of magical energy that knocked a dozen of the creatures to the ground—and a goodly number of the militiamen—and we set about the same grisly, methodical business as before.

It was worse down here. There were too many hidden corners, too many ways for the things to come. Over and over again, we thought we had them pushed back, only for some putrid, ravening corpse to lunge at us from behind a wall. I started to think they were coming out of the lake itself—who knew how many had drowned in there over the centuries?—but there was little room for fantasy with so much fighting at close quarters.

I took a bad blow to my shoulder; felt the armour part company and the blood start to flow. Pain cinched my left arm tight to my body, left me one-handed and awkward. The thing that faced me had once been a dark-skinned human, the remnants of black curls still clinging to his ravaged scalp. The shadows sculpted unimaginable horrors into the crevasses of his dead flesh. Hard, cold fingers dug at my skin, ripping hanks of my hair out at the root as unseeing eyes rolled in a rotten skull. Crusted, dry blood, too old to be from this battle, caked the corpse’s face, and I could have sworn it sought not just to wrest the life from me, but to feast on whatever was left behind. Yellow, stained teeth snarled and snapped, and the sickly, putrid mockery of breath—the vapours of death, not life—washed over me.

I yelled as I hit the ground, pulled my legs up and, sticking my feet into the creature’s middle, used the bulk of its weight to roll it over my head and towards the large bonfire in the middle of the square. The flames caught surprisingly quickly and, as cinders and sparks leapt into the cold air, the corpse lumbered back out of the fire, still burning. One of Murdock’s men, a man with a grey beard and pouchy, dark eyes, pushed out of the melee behind the corpse and clobbered it across the back of the head with his mace. It spun, attacked… and no matter how many times I saw it, I couldn’t get used to the terrible ease with which the things could inflict such horrible damage. The man’s arm was almost pulled from its socket and, as he crumpled to the dirt, screaming, the creature reached down, like it could just pluck the flesh from his face. Perhaps it could. I didn’t give it the opportunity, though severing the head from the creature’s shoulders was a hard, unforgiving endeavour, and I ended up clinging on to its back as it bucked in circles, trying to throw me off. The last traces of dying flames burned my leg, though I barely felt it.

Finally, the deed done, the corpse pitched to the ground and I followed suit, blade, hands and most of the rest of me befouled with the grease and vileness of rotten flesh. The militiaman lay a foot or so away, a rivulet of blood tracking its way into his beard. He turned his face to me, his cheeks sweat-damp and trembling. I crawled over, my mouth full of grit and dust and my head ringing. He needed healing; badly dislocated arm, wounds to his head and one leg. A burst of ice lit up the night above me and—with a visceral, shattering thud—I heard a shield smash into a frozen corpse, probably rendering it as effectively decapitated as any sword could. I yelled for Morrigan, not sure she could even hear me, and not sure I could get to my feet again yet.

“Help’s coming,” I said to the militiaman, my hand on the thick leather that covered his rapidly panting chest.

Or, at least, I tried to say it. I suspect, if the man was aware of anything at all, it was a wide-eyed elf gibbering at him with the slurred words of an early concussion. Still, a whirl of feathers and black cloth heralded Morrigan kneeling beside me, her staff biting into the thick, grimy dust.

“What?”

I turned my head, and found those golden eyes unnaturally bright with what I could only think of as hunger. The witch’s pale face was a twisted gasp, her lips curled and baring neat, white teeth.

“Help him,” I shouted, pointing to the fallen man. His breathing was growing ever more shallow. “He needs healing!”

The curled lips bent into a sneer, and her gaze hardened. “I am no healer! You know this. I….”

“Please!”

Had there been more time, more space to breathe, I’d have realised the look that crossed Morrigan’s face in that briefest of seconds was one of nervous indecision. She rarely did anything in which she was not confident of success and, later, I would understand why.

She looked away abruptly, and laid her hand on the man’s pallid head. Another of the corpses broke through between the barricades and, seizing my dagger, I staggered to my feet and lurched towards it, neither waiting to thank her or to judge her success. I heard the militiaman screaming, but by the time I’d helped take down the interlopers that threatened the line, it had stopped and—as I could plainly see—he was rising to his feet, helped by Morrigan and Tomas, the lad who’d first met us on the bridge.

I shot Morrigan a bone-weary but sincere nod of gratitude. She could do more than she knew, I remember thinking… which turned out to be naivety of the worst order. She just shook her head, then raised that black iron staff and loosed a furious flare of ice towards the western side of the barricade, stopping another two undead in their tracks, and allowing Sten to bash them into oblivion with his greatsword. I winced and looked away. Frozen chunks of flesh littered the ground, and I could only imagine what they’d be like when they thawed.

The numbers dwindled after the first hour or so. I had privately decided that, whatever evil this was, there couldn’t be a single dead body left at the bottom of the lake, or in any graveyard or paupers’ field for a hundred miles. We’d cut our way through so many, I was sure I’d see nothing else when I closed my eyes… probably not for the rest of my life. The moon had passed its way across the sky; it couldn’t be that long until dawn. As breaths were caught and wounds were quickly, temporarily bandaged, I cherished the wisp of a memory from home. Mother used to tell a story about the moon and her lover: a mortal man who had been cursed by a magister, and doomed to wander eternally without rest. The moon loved him so that she wrought herself a chariot of stars, and followed him every night, though she could never catch him. I couldn’t remember how it ended. Not well, I assumed. Stories never seemed to.

When the creatures came again, they appeared to be warier. They lingered on the gangways, held back at the corners of the streets and alleys that ran between the square and the lake’s edge. It was as if they were taunting us. Hisses and groans left them like catcalls, and their oddly angled arms jerked, bodies twitching in horrible, impatient pulses. A few of the militiamen, fired up and not thinking, started to run out into the network of blind turns and dark shadows, but Alistair was out at the front of the line, yelling at them to hold their positions. Murdock weighed in behind him, threatening to cut the balls off the first man who moved, and that seemed to get their attention.

It was a tense, ugly stand-off, with Leliana, Morrigan, and the rest of those armed for ranged combat sending short volleys across the dirt. They didn’t do much except apparently enrage the creatures and, when they finally did come blundering towards us, they crashed against the barricades with such ferocity that I thought we’d all be dead by morning.

After that, there was one more wave, light in numbers but as horrendous as anything that had gone before. We were tired, numb… and determined. They fell as the others had fallen, and the darkness seemed to be fading. The chill of night was giving way to the dampness of a coming dawn, and the shadows paled against the outlines of trees and rooftops. Up on the ridge, I could make out the flames of torches, and the black shapes of Ser Perth and his men.

“It’s over,” one of the men said, his voice cracking with disbelief, and he was rapidly shushed.

“Ain’t over ’til sun-up,” someone else said, and every pair of eyes seemed to turn to the east.

We stared for what felt like hours. Nothing. The darkness still wreathed the village and, though no more corpses came, the waiting was unbearable until finally, as we watched, the sun began to rise beyond the silvery horizon, breaking the surface of the lake into a thousand glittering planes.

A worn, ragged cheer went up from the militamen, and I dropped to my knees, watching the tentative veins of pink thread through the bruised, purple-blue underbelly of cloud. At that moment, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

The coolness of the morning bathed my face, damp air breathing new life into aching, stale lungs. We were all still here, still alive… we’d done it.

It was the first victory I’d ever known.

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Volume 2: Chapter Nine
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