The Warden has questions, and he’s not the only one.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 12: What Doesn’t Kill You)
“So, that university in Markham…that’s where you’re from, you said? Did they invent those…unique home décor choices I saw in your Fade dream?”
Rob closed his eyes for a moment, before glancing at Aedan. The Grey Warden’s expression was calm but expectant. ‘Well, that didn’t take long,’ he thought.
It was their first full day out of Kinloch, and other than the merchant and his son who planned to meet up with them that evening, the rest of the party was on the road ahead. Alistair set an easy pace in consideration for the still-weary Circle mages, even though it allowed both Leliana and Zevran the leisure to pester him endlessly. Behind them, Irving and his two assistants chatted with Wynne. Morrigan stayed close to interject snide remarks, while Sten watched all the mages with deep distrust.
Rob and Aedan brought up the rear. At least they weren’t likely to be overheard, he supposed.
“Ha, yeah, pretty crazy what kind of weird stuff that demon came up with, huh?” Aedan just raised an eyebrow. ‘Worth a shot,’ the warrior groaned inwardly. “Fine, I’ll explain…but you’re not gonna believe me.”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?”
Rob took a deep breath. “So, the reason for the weird stuff that demon bastard stole out of my head is that I’m not from here.” The Warden opened his mouth as if to speak, but Rob cut him off. “And by here, I don’t mean Ferelden, I mean Thedas.”
That got the Warden’s full attention.
“Me and my sister – oh right, I should mention Rae’s not my boss; she’s just my bossy sister – anyway we’re from a place called Earth. About three weeks ago, we woke up near Lothering with no idea how we got there, or how to get back. Not my best day ever, to be honest. That’s why Rae wanted to stay back at Kinloch; she’s trying to research what happened.”
The skepticism was plain on Aedan’s face. “You’re from a place called ‘Dirt’…sorry, ’Earth.’ And it’s…what? Another realm? A weird place like the Fade? A different world entirely?”
“Beats the hell outta me. My sister’s the one who figures shit out. I just do what I’m told.” Aedan gave an incredulous snort, and Rob laughed. “Scoff all you want, but truth is truth. Nobody is more confused about this than I am.”
“Okay, let’s say for a moment that I believe you. So the odd contraption the older lady in your Fade vision was using was some strange kind of magic?”
“The demon thought so, but only because it didn’t understand how stuff worked, and screwed it all up. We don’t have magic. We use…ah, machines, I guess would be the best way to explain it. Like, you know how a crossbow uses levers to do something that would usually take a lot more work? Our machines are like that, but…more complicated. The things you saw were the demon’s interpretation of machines we use to keep food cold, or make it hot.”
The Warden scratched his chin beneath his dark goatee while he pondered this. ‘Please,’ thought Rob, ‘let him focus on Earth and not Thedas…’
But of course, it was futile to hope for such a huge blind spot from someone as sharp as Aedan. “So if you’re from some world without magic, why did Raven want to research at the Circle Tower? For that matter, why did you even join me in the first place?”
The warrior rubbed his forehead, trying to remember how Raven had explained things to Marian. “Believe it or not, this is the weirder part,” he chuckled weakly.
After a half hour or so of questions, most of which were answered with, “I dunno; you’d have to ask my sister,” Aedan finally fell silent. Hesitantly, Rob asked, “So…are we good, or do you think I’m batshit crazy?”
Aedan glanced thoughtfully at Rob. “I don’t see what bats have to do with it, but you’re definitely crazy. But I believe you. It’s far too bizarre to be made up.”
“No joke,” Rob snorted. “You…do understand why we want to keep it secret, right?”
“Because people would think you possessed or mad? Yes, I can see how that would be inconvenient.” The man’s usual sarcasm was present, but muted. “I will need to give this more thought, however. If you’ll excuse me?” With a nod, the Warden sped up, striding toward the front of the group.
Rob wasn’t alone for long before Alistair fell back to join him. “Andraste’s knickers,” he grumbled, “I didn’t think I’d ever have reason to be glad I grew up an orphan, but if Leliana is what a big sister is like, maybe I’m better off. At least the arl’s horses and hounds didn’t poke at me with constant questions about everything under the sun while some unnecessary elf stood around making jokes.”
Rob burst out laughing. “I can tell you from personal experience that it’s actually a lot worse. On one hand, a real sister doesn’t have to ask as many questions, because she already knows everything. But on the other hand, a sister doesn’t have to ask because she already knows everything. And the worst part is that her advice is usually right.”
Alistair tilted his head. “Is Raven so difficult, then?”
“Heh. Not always; sometimes she sleeps.”
The Warden laughed. “I can’t picture that at all, the way she looks after everyone, and always seems so sweet…ah, calm, she seems calm, I meant.”
“Right. Calm, you meant.” Rob’s nostrils twitched as he tried not to snicker; Alistair was as subtle as a fifty foot billboard, and obviously thought of Rae as some gentle nurturing damsel. It showed how little he’d gotten to know her. Getting tossed out of her element and into Thedas had unsettled her, sure, but she was still herself underneath. Rob smirked at the idea of anyone treating his sister as docile and powerless. No matter how much she thought Alistair was dreamy, if he tried that she’d clock him upside the head within a day.
“I guess she’s usually calm…but it’s mainly because she’s analyzing fifty different things at the same time to figure out what makes everyone tick. Some people play chess with pawns; my sister plays chess with life. It’s a damn good thing she’s a decent person, because she’d make a really vicious villain.”
Alistair looked confused as he tried and failed to integrate that statement with his mental image. Rob decided to cut the guy some slack. “Anyway…I’m sure she’s not sorry to be missing out on Redcliffe Round Two. You grew up as a…stableboy there, you said? What was it like before all this?”
A shadow passed through the man’s eyes for a brief second, before the jester mask snapped back into place. ‘Hiding feelings with humor,’ Rob thought. ‘Ugh, no wonder he and Rae get along. If they ever do hook up, they’ll have five tons of emotional baggage and a world-renowned stand-up comedy routine.’
“You’ve met Isolde,” Alistair said dryly. “She’d be the first to tell you that her humility is surpassed only by her charm.”
“Really?” Rob deadpanned. “Because I thought she was kind of an obnoxious bitch, myself.”
Alistair laughed. “And yet, I was the one who got to sleep in the kennels. Ironic, isn’t it? But it really wasn’t all that terrible. Before Isolde came along, Eamon and Teagan were kind enough. And afterward…well, the beasts didn’t throw great birthday parties, but they were excellent listeners. And pillows. And they weren’t Isolde, so that was a major point in their favor.”
Then, with a reluctant sigh, he relented. “To be fair, the woman was at the end of her rather limited wits. The gossip when Eamon married her was brutal; some people even accused her of being an Orlesian spy.” At Rob’s snort of skepticism, he smirked. “What, you don’t think she could be shrewd and sneaky? Maybe that’s part of her devious master plan! Step one: marry arl, step two: sentence bastard child to life of misery, step three: victory for Orlais, muahaha?”
“Sounds about as logical as her other plans.”
“No argument there. At any rate, she shipped me off to the monastery at Bournshire, where I went on to be a spectacularly mediocre templar recruit until Duncan rescued me from my horrid fate.”
“Is that how you knew that templar at the Circle?”
The Warden’s golden eyes darkened. “Cullen, yes. All my life, everyone’s seen me as a bastard. Nobles act like I’m not good enough for them, and commoners act like I think I’m too good for them. But Cullen…he just saw Alistair.” He looked away, fidgeting with one of his gauntlets. “Maker, I hope he’s all right.”
Rob laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Hey, it may take time, but Rae will do everything she can to help him sort through it.”
“What if he won’t talk about it?”
“You clearly underestimate my sister’s stubbornness. She won’t push him, but she has this look she gets…I can’t explain it, but it just makes you feel like you should stop and think hard about whatever you were doing, because it was probably stupid.”
Alistair snickered. “Does that tie in with the bit where she’s usually right?”
But there was no answer, because Aedan and Leliana shouted a warning, they were under attack, and Rob saw his very first darkspawn.
At first glance, the creature resembled an orc from that game Raven used to play; on closer inspection, it was smaller and a lot stupider. Its head was hairless and misshapen, like a half-rotted lime wearing an absurdly broad set of shark’s teeth. An ill-fitting suit of primitive armor adorned randomly with spikes utterly failed to protect it from Leliana’s arrows.
But that was only the beginning, and soon dozens of the greyish creatures swarmed into view, fouling the air with the thick, choking stench of sickness and death. There were taller ones, with mottled, raw-looking faces and bulging eyes, as if they’d been skinned alive and then wedged into armor. Another variety popped up out of nowhere before Zevran cut it down; the thing looked like somebody took the head of a rabid Doberman and stuck it on two feet of torso and twenty feet of claws. Aedan appeared behind one wearing a helm that made it look like it was cosplaying an angry metal cockatoo. Rob’s amusement faded when he saw the creature’s mage staff; evil plague monsters shouldn’t be able to throw fireballs.
But speaking of mages…
Fighting alongside Morrigan had become somewhat routine for Rob by that point, and other than the one time she’d turned into a huge creepy-ass spider, most of her magic had more subtle effects. Fighting with Wynne in the tower hadn’t been that different; she focused on protecting and healing others, just as she was doing now. But Irving and the mages he brought were something else entirely.
The two younger enchanters, twins named Sandil and Dennith, fought with impressive seamlessness, flinging the forces of nature around in ways that made the soldier from Earth gape in awe. One man caused the very ground beneath the charging foes to pitch and reel. The monsters fell…and before they could regain their footing, there was a burst of incredible heat, and a spray of fire shot from the other man’s hands, leaving nothing in its wake but charred corpses and, surprisingly, the clean smell of ozone. The speed and ferocity with which they fought was astounding.
They were nothing, however, compared to Irving.
The First Enchanter had struck Rob as ancient and feeble-looking, and he’d assumed the man was in charge mostly because he was an elder. But in the midst of battle, Irving became someone else entirely.
Arcane winds circled the old man’s form, and with each gust, the horde of misshapen monsters was forced back with grotesque squeals of pain. Then the air was torn by an ear-splitting crack, and a bolt of lightning arced between the creatures, leaving nothing but a twitching, smoking mess. Irving was awe-inspiring in a way that CGI artists would kill to imitate.
Rob’s survey of the situation had only taken a few minutes, but he wasn’t the only one whose attention had been caught by the mages. Morrigan watched them with an intensity that suggested she was analyzing their spells for future study. Her desire for knowledge was nearly her undoing.
Another darkspawn emerged, having circled the battlefield looking for an advantage. The beast’s armor was heavier and better-fitting than that of its brethren, and it wore a helm adorned with wide, aggressive horns. The huge, wicked-looking mace it carried was made of bloodstained bones…and it was aimed for the back of Morrigan’s head.
With a shout of warning, Rob leapt for the creature, slamming into it at full force with the shield that covered him from shoulder to hip. With the jarring staccato notes of an overtaxed snare drum, he and the darkspawn crashed to the ground. By the time he regained his footing, Morrigan was casting, and his enemy froze in mid-motion. Rob plunged his sword into the now-unguarded gap beneath the creature’s uplifted arm, and when it fell, he slashed its throat. Panting with adrenaline, he turned to the next foe.
Finally, he saw the last darkspawn fall…and if he had ever been tempted to think of Alistair as just some goofy dork with a crush on his sister, he wasn’t anymore.
The huge fiend (an ogre, he later learned) was probably twice the Warden’s not-inconsiderable height and three times his mass. Though liberally decorated with scorch marks and arrows, it roared in slobbering defiance. But with a mighty leap, the former templar speared it through the heart and rode its thrashing corpse to the ground. In a final display of precise strength, Alistair yanked his sword free and rammed it to the hilt into the screaming creature’s giant eye.
Once the battle was over, they found a stream to camp near, and called a halt. The Circle mages were all desperately exhausted, fighting so soon after their ordeal at Kinloch, and there were enough other minor injuries among the rest of the party that no one felt the need to push the issue. After helping to gather and burn the darkspawn corpses so their foulness wouldn’t spread, Rob was more than glad to take his turn in the river, cleansing the filth from his body. His freshly rinsed clothes were drying along the bank as he dove deeper into the pleasantly cool water; when his head broke the surface, the slight breeze warred with the warmth of the late afternoon sun on his face.
“I wish to make it clear that I did not require aid against that darkspawn, warrior. No doubt you think yourself quite the hero, springing to the rescue of a helpless little female, but I quite assure you such a creature was no match for one such as I.”
Morrigan stood on the bank of the stream, looking down at him with customary haughtiness. He stepped closer to reply, and his shoulders and upper torso emerged dripping from the water. If he hadn’t been looking right at her face, he might have missed her wolf-yellow eyes flicking down his body.
But he’d seen, and the thought of messing with the arrogant mage to get a reaction was way too entertaining to resist. (She’d removed her fighting leathers and somehow wore even less clothing than she usually did, but that was completely irrelevant). Rob took a few more steps forward into an unobstructed patch of sunlight; the waterline was just above his hips, and he could feel the air playing over his damp chest. She blinked.
“Aww, and here I was hoping my epic leap into the jaws of danger impressed you. I saw that monster and thought, ‘Finally, here’s my chance to catch the eye of that beautiful mage, even though she’s clearly far too good for someone like me.’” He brought a dramatic hand to his heart; the water he’d cupped in his palm trickled lazily down his body, followed by her gaze. “Alas, I see my brilliant plan has failed.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to label it a failure,” Morrigan said, the corner of her mouth twitching upward.
Rob edged forward as close as he could without exposing himself. “Oh?” he flirted, trying not to burst into laughter. “So there might still be hope, even though I’m obviously just some brainless slab of muscle waving a sword around?”
She raised an eyebrow. “A ‘slab of muscle,’ yes. ‘Brainless’ remains to be seen. Compared to Alistair, you are a genius, but then, so is the dog. As far as your foolish insistence upon flinging yourself into harm’s way for my supposed protection…I might be persuaded to change my mind on that score, if you come to my tent later and review it with me. In detail.” Her eyes, which previously had skated down his body unawares, now roamed his skin with slow, deliberate heat.
Their conversation had brought her just barely within arm’s reach, and the seductive purr of her voice dared him to an action he hoped he’d live to regret. “What if we review it now?” he asked. Grabbing her hand, he tumbled her against him into the water.
Her eyes gave an angry white-hot flash, like lightning piercing the night sky, but then, with her hand splayed against the slick damp of his chest, she seemed to reconsider. Sun-bright eyes met azure from a nearness that stole their breath, and Rob felt all remnants of his taunting burn away as the wet fabric of her skimpy tunic brushed against his bare skin.
The heated moment stretched out like warm taffy. As if by some unseen signal, they lunged for each other, their lips crashing together with the unexpected ferocity of two people who’d faced death and survived. Her skin slid against his where the deep vee of her tunic bared her body, and her hands, devoid of shyness, smoothed trickles of water over his naked back.
He bit her bottom lip, and she groaned; that small slip in her typically steely composure made him eager to see her fully lose control. His hand, which had been resting at her hip after he’d pulled her into the stream, slid slowly up the front of her body, and the dark-haired mage arched against his palm.
“Hey Rob, Bodahn and his son turned up and offered to clean our armor, thank the Maker. So whenever you’re done washing up, if you want to talk about those sword drills –” Alistair choked mid-sentence as he came down the path into view of the river, and the former templar turned red to the tips of his ears. “I…uh, I’ll just, um, go back to camp then, shall I? Yes. Right. I’ll do that.” He left at almost a run.
Rob laughed against the smooth skin of Morrigan’s neck. “On second thought, maybe having this discussion in your tent would be better after all.”
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 14: Before the Dawn)