Rob finds there are certain upsides to battling a zombie horde. Dealing with a whiny noblewoman is not one of them. Also, mages are scary.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 7: What You Can’t Have)
‘She wasn’t kidding. We’ve been fighting honest to god zombies. Zombies. Seriously. This is my life now.’
Rob slammed his shield into the creature in front of him, grunting with satisfaction when its bones crunched and it crumpled to the ground. Having learned his lesson earlier, he raised his sword and severed the corpse’s rotting head from its shoulders. ‘Should it bother me that I’m fine with doing that?’ he wondered. The warrior glanced down at the zombie’s putrid remains, knowing that now it couldn’t hurt anyone else. He shrugged. ‘Meh. It doesn’t. Oh well.’
Wearily, he scanned the area for another foe, and found none; Leliana had just neatly put an arrow into the last straggler’s eye. Rob sat heavily on a crate, wiping his arm across his brow to clear it of sweat and other things he’d rather not think about, and threw the redhead a congratulatory grin.
He, Aedan, Alistair, and Morrigan had come down to help the militia after they’d stemmed the tide of horrors up the hill. With the last enemies dead, Aedan was already checking their forces, noting any who needed healing, and delegating others to set up pyres to dispose of the remains. Rob approved. Whatever the man had been like before becoming a Warden, it was clearly in his blood to be a leader. He spoke briefly to the party about their lodgings and plans, and then sent Rob and Alistair to check the Chantry.
When Alistair made to pull open one of the huge doors, it didn’t budge. “They’ve barred it. Smart,” he noted, pleased. He pounded on the door. “Teagan! It’s Alistair. The fighting is over; open up!”
A heavy scraping noise signaled the bar’s removal, and Teagan called them in. Alistair frowned in confusion when the open door revealed a solid wall of wood with a narrow opening at the far side. With a shrug, the Warden edged into the building, blinking, and Rob heard his exclamation as he cleared the door.
As Rob followed, his eyes adjusting to the gloom, he heard movement to the right and saw Teagan sheathing his sword. Further in, Raven rose from behind the pew she’d been using for cover and lowered her crossbow. There was no sign of the villagers until Raven called out; then they boiled in from the far end of the Chantry, anxious for news. Alistair spoke, his voice easily carrying over the murmurs. “People of Redcliffe! The undead have been defeated! There have been a few injuries, but all of your brave defenders yet live. You are safe.”
Even as tired as he was, Rob couldn’t help but feel buoyed by the wave of elation that followed. Teagan was joyfully clapping Alistair on the shoulder as Raven joined them, beaming. “I would hug you,” she told Rob, “but you’re covered in ick.” He rolled his eyes. “I suppose I’m washable,” she laughed, flinging her arms around her brother. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Do all of us get hugs? I’m covered in the same ick he is,” Alistair said playfully. Raven froze like the proverbial deer in headlights before turning to give Alistair an awkward embrace. Her blush was so hot she could’ve doubled as a sunlamp. Rob tried valiantly to stifle his snickering, but Rae shot him a glare that made it clear he’d failed. He shrugged, unrepentant.
Alistair, who Rob decided was the poster child for being oblivious, gave the flustered woman a cheerful grin, then turned to the bann. “I’m glad your wall of pews wasn’t needed, Teagan, but it was a good idea.”
“Agreed, but it wasn’t mine. The lovely Lady Raven felt if we were the last line of defense, we should have a plan for it. She’s the one who suggested we bottleneck attackers and funnel them through a narrow opening.”
Impossibly, Raven colored further, though Rob couldn’t tell if it was from the praise of her plan or the smooth bann calling her lovely. He smirked. This zombie battle thing was starting to feel worthwhile.
“It was nothing, really,” she protested. “I’ve just play-er, read about a few…um, scenarios where slowly channeling enemies into range of traps or weapons was an effective tactic. I thought it might help.”
Alistair’s gaze had swung back to Rae, full of surprise and approval. In an effort to prevent his sister from spontaneous combustion, Rob mentioned the party had been given rooms above the tavern, and Aedan wanted them to sleep as soon as possible so they could deal with the castle in the morning. Bann Teagan refused to keep them a minute longer after that, and shooed all three of them out.
They emerged onto the site of the battle, and Raven’s color flipped from red to green like a faulty string of Christmas lights. “Ohh…I see you were…all very busy.” She swallowed forcefully, glancing skyward.
“You okay?” Rob asked softly.
“I…yeah. I’ll…be fine,” she mumbled, looking for a clean spot to walk across the black and slimy ground.
Surprisingly, Alistair noticed her reticence. “Here, let me help.” Without further warning, the bronze-haired warden leaned over, placed his arms behind Raven’s back and beneath her knees, and plucked her off the ground. She literally squeaked, frantically clutching around his neck, her eyes blank with shock. He carried her over the mess without seeming effort, and set her down gently on the path toward the inn.
‘Show-off,’ Rob thought, but only until he realized he needed to remind his sister to breathe. She stared up at the Warden like the train of her thoughts had not only derailed, but plummeted off a bridge into a lake full of jam. Rob elbowed her and she blinked. “Um,” she said intelligently.
“That was nice of you, Alistair,” Rob prompted.
“Yes! That! I…I mean…you didn’t have to…I’m much too heav—um. Yes. Anyway, thank you, Warden.”
Alistair laughed. “Come now, we’re all friends here, aren’t we? None of this stuffy title business.” With an air of solemnity only slightly ruined by the twitching at the corners of his mouth, he extended his hand to Raven. She took it nervously, and he bent and kissed the back of her hand with a comically broad flourish. “Eet ees seemply delightful to meet you, ma cherie,” he said, in a terrible Orlesian accent. “Ma name ees Comte Alistair Roquefort de Cheese. And you are?”
“Raven,” she giggled, disarmed by his silliness.
“Excellent,” he said with satisfaction. “And I’m glad we’ve established the friends bit, since I forgot my gauntlets were still covered with, as you so eloquently put it, ‘ick’…so now it’s probably on your hand. But we’re friends now, so you can’t be mad.”
Her nose wrinkled at the thought, and she gave him a mock-glare. “Ew. I suppose I’ll let it go this once, but only because we’re friends.” They both laughed.
‘Yes,’ thought Rob with a broad grin. ‘Having to fight the zombie apocalypse was definitely worth it.’
Late the next morning, the group reassembled on the hill, yawning and sore but blessedly free of ick. As Aedan and Teagan strategized, Alistair stood slightly apart, gazing silently at the intimidating stone fortress.
At breakfast earlier, Leliana had been alight with curiosity about Alistair’s childhood in Redcliffe. His answers, pleasant at first, had slowly become strained; Raven had noticed and deftly changed the subject. “Redcliffe has such fascinating history; did you know one of the only times it was ever conquered was by Ferelden’s first king? It’s a shame we don’t have more stories from that time.” Leliana, ever the bard, had immediately left off her questions and launched into tales of King Calenhad the Great. But evidently, Alistair’s troubled thoughts hadn’t left him.
Rob went to stand quietly beside him. “You know, it’s funny,” the Warden said after a moment. “Arl Eamon gave me a home here when I was a child, but the arlessa hated me and made me miserable. When I was ten, she finally got me sent away for Templar training, and I was miserable there, and all I wanted was to be back here. Now here I am again, but everything is all wrong, and I almost wish we’d never come.” He glanced at Rob with a self-deprecating laugh. “Some people are just never satisfied, eh?”
“Alistair. You got a shitty deal as a kid, but in spite of that, you turned out to be a good guy who puts his life on the line to help people. That’s pretty amazing. And feeling upset, scared, or pissed off sometimes doesn’t make it any less amazing. It just makes you human.” Rob thought a moment, and then added with a snort, “I swear, you’re as bad as my sister.” A nod of his nod indicated Raven standing over by the others. “I keep telling her that having occasional feelings is okay, but she’s too stubborn to agree.”
Alistair blinked. “Your sister? But…I thought…”
“Oh, right,” Rob said, feigning chagrin at his accidental-on-purpose revelation. “You thought she was my boss; I forgot. Yeah, we told everyone that while we were traveling. Seemed safer to be a scholar with a hired guard than a couple of stupid Marcher kids wandering around unsupervised.” He shrugged with a grin. “Besides, she’s the oldest; she always thinks she’s my boss anyway. It wasn’t much of a stretch.”
“No, I kind of figured—actually, you know what? It doesn’t matter what I figured. Clearly I’m an idiot.” Alistair coughed in embarrassment. “Just don’t tell Morrigan I confessed to it; we wouldn’t want her to die of elation right before we have to assault the keep.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Rob laughed.
An opulently-dressed woman ran out of the castle, right into the midst of their planning session. She turned out to be Arlessa Isolde, the arl’s wife, and she trembled weepily like the world’s worst damsel stereotype. Rob disliked her immediately, but if he hadn’t, he certainly would’ve started to after she treated Alistair like extra-ripe roadkill. Raven’s hostile glare said she’d have been quite happy to backhand the sniveling woman right off the nearby cliff.
Isolde begged Teagan to come back to the castle with her – alone – but dodged any explanation of the situation or how she’d managed to escape. Raven spoke coldly into the silence that followed. “You know this is obviously a trap, right?”
Ultimately, after a flurry of discussion, Bann Teagan decided to return with the arlessa. Everyone agreed it was a trap, but the bann hoped he’d be a distraction so part of their group could infiltrate the castle through a hidden tunnel. Once the gates were opened, the rest of the party could bring Redcliffe’s knights in to assist.
Rob’s estimation of the bann rose at that. During the defense of the village, he’d assumed Teagan was just a useless rich dude who expected others to protect him while he stayed safely indoors flirting with people’s sisters. But now, although he was well-aware he was walking into danger, he did it without hesitation. Huh.
After fending off the attack on the town, retaking the keep was almost easy by comparison. The only tense moment was when Aedan, Alistair, Morrigan, and Hohaku reached the courtyard. Rob watched through the heavy wooden gate as they came to open it…but of course, nothing could be that easy.
Skeletal archers creepily assembled themselves from the dirt, along with more zombies and a twisted undead parody of a knight he later learned was called a revenant. It had some weird magic that yanked everyone off their feet and into sword range. That was bad enough, but it also kept them from opening the gate or dealing with the archers. Alistair and Aedan did well enough, but Rob knew Morrigan’s miniscule scraps of fabric wouldn’t hold up long against flights of arrows. He punched the gate in impotent fury.
Leliana and Raven, on the other hand, calmly took action. They drew their weapons and fired through the holes in the gate, eliminating the skeletons in short order. Leliana paused then, hesitant to draw on the whirling melee around the revenant…but Raven’s crossbow could be loaded and held ready more easily. She aimed, and waited, and the next time the revenant knocked everyone down, she put a bolt in its neck. While it groped blindly at its throat, Aedan slid around to deliver a vicious backstab, and the fight was over.
Aedan was grinning at the two archers as he pushed the gate lever. “Thanks for the assist…and nice shot,” he said to Raven with a wink. He just laughed when Rae flung back a haughty reply:
“See, I told you I could help.”
“Indeed, dear lady. I shall never doubt you again.”
“Oh, yes, one lucky shot from a safe distance, while others fight for their lives, is a clear indication of a peerless warrior,” Morrigan scoffed. “Why, I’ve no doubt she can defeat the darkspawn single-handedly; the rest of us may as well scamper off to pick daisies.”
Rob rolled his eyes and smirked as the mage blatantly fished for compliments. Alistair was less amused. “Oh, I’m sorry; were you threatened by the idea that you aren’t the center of all creation? If you feel such a need to take up floral arranging, don’t let us stop you. We’ll struggle along somehow, aided only by Raven’s refreshing ability to be bright and charming, instead of being insufferably hateful like certain apostates.”
Trying to hide his amusement, Aedan intervened. “As entertaining as this is, nobody’s picking flowers just yet. We still have to find Bann Teagan and the arl.”
Grumbling, Alistair and Morrigan ceased bickering as they all headed in. Rob did, however, take time to nudge Rae and whisper, “Bright and charming, huh?”
She smacked him, but it was totally worth it.
They’d found Bann Teagan easily enough. He was bouncing around like a fool, being mind-controlled by a demon that had possessed the arl’s son Connor. The arl had been poisoned on the orders of that asshole Loghain, and Eamon’s resulting illness had scared the young boy…and since he was a mage (surprise!), that led him to accept a demon’s aid to save his father.
A brief skirmish freed Teagan, at least, from the demon’s control. Connor, temporarily lucid, ran off to hide. The rest of the keep was secured. Facts were reviewed. The arlessa squirmed, and whined, and squirmed some more, and his sister’s usual steadfast calm finally ran out. Her rant was almost too quiet to hear, but every word held knives.
“Shut up, Isolde. Just shut up. If anyone has no fucking right to an opinion here, it’s you. This whole nightmare is your fault, because you’re a fucking hypocrite. You’re all about supporting the Chantry’s rules and showing off how pious you are, right up until it’s your son who’s going to get taken away by the Templars. And then suddenly the rules don’t apply to you.”
“You chose to hide Connor’s magic. You hired an apostate to tutor him…and, big shock, an escaped blood mage wasn’t teacher of the year. Eamon was poisoned by the tutor you hired. And because of that, your untrained mage son…a child, for fuck’s sake…got tricked into hosting a fucking demon. And – this is the best part – it raised its victims as undead puppets to go kill their own friends and neighbors. So many of them died last night that the ground was slick, because it couldn’t soak up any more of their blood.”
Raven paused, blue eyes sparking with fury. “I’m sure the Grey Wardens will do what they can to fix your mistakes. But whatever happens, you remember this, Isolde; you remember this every time you see an empty bed or a fatherless child in this town, because those deaths are on you. If you pray hard enough, maybe the Maker will forgive your selfish hypocrisy. I don’t.”
Shaking, Raven turned and stalked out of the room, leaving a silence broken only by the arlessa’s sobs.
Rob felt ill.
He’d barely listened as Aedan agreed to ask the Circle of Magi to help fix the kid. The mage who poisoned the arl had turned over a new leaf, and swore he could keep the kid under control until they got back. Teagan arranged rooms for them. Aedan told everyone to be ready to leave for Kinloch Hold in the morning.
None of that helped unwind the tangle of his thoughts.
Magic hadn’t bothered him much at first; it mostly seemed cool. Bethany Hawke’s healing spells were awesome. Elemental spells like fireballs were just a flashier kind of ranged weapon. Morrigan could weaken and confuse enemies, which weirded him out a little…until he equated them to things like tear gas or pepper spray. All in all, he’d taken it in stride.
And then he saw Teagan being mind-controlled into hopping around like an idiot. He heard Connor talking with a creepy-ass voice that wasn’t his own, because he was a mage and made a deal with a literal demon. Not in some dumb horror flick, but actually, really real.
The idea of some creature making him a prisoner in his own body freaked him right the fuck out; not only no, but hell no. Suddenly he understood why some people here said magic was a curse. He went to find Raven to talk to her about it, but when he found her staring into space in the arl’s study, he remembered how upset she’d been. “Hey,” he called softly. “You okay?”
She rubbed a hand over her tired eyes. “Oh, hey. Yeah, I’m fine…as much as anybody else, I guess. Were they mad that I yelled at the arlessa?”
Rob snorted. “Hardly. Alistair tried to comfort her, and she quit blubbering just long enough to bitch at him. After that, Teagan and Aedan both ignored her; they seemed to think she deserved what she got.”
Raven smiled faintly, fidgeting with the silver chain she was holding. “I didn’t mean to go off like that. I mean, I was always annoyed by the arlessa when I played the game…not just how she was mean to Alistair when he was little, but how she tried to blame everyone else for her mistakes. But after last night, when all those people…” Her voice broke, and she swallowed hard. “I just couldn’t listen to her make excuses for that.”
“I don’t blame you. She should have followed her own damn rules. No wonder they send mages off to be locked up, when they can end up doing shit like that.”
Raven looked sharply at him. “No, that’s not the answer either. I mean, I get that this whole demon thing is messed up, believe me. And this all went to hell because Isolde decided to stick her fingers in her ears and go ‘lalala’ instead of sending Connor for training. But sending a kid to school shouldn’t be the same as sending them to life in prison. Think about Bethany Hawke. Should she be trapped in a tower, even though she’s never done anything wrong?”
Rob, troubled, wasn’t ready to answer that, so he changed the subject. “Well, if one of the books in that tower helps us get home, we won’t have to worry about it. Aedan says we’re leaving in the morning.”
“Good; I’m ready to get out of this place. Maybe we’ll get lucky and at least make it to the Circle without any more major malfunctions.”
“Dammit, Rae,” he laughed tiredly. “Why would you go and jinx it like that? Thanks a lot.”
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 9: The Eye of the Beholder)