elyssacousland (elyssacousland) wrote in swooping_is_bad,
elyssacousland
elyssacousland
swooping_is_bad

There and Back - Chapter 123

Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Three: Closing Doors

I stared out into the distance for a few moments, trying to get a sense of how many darkspawn were out there; it was far too dark for me to tell, and as always in the Deep Roads, my Warden sense wasn’t working right. I cursed; I could do nothing – not about the door, or the horde.

I turned back the way I came and crept back through the darkspawn-infected hallways and caverns. Fortunately the ogre hadn’t moved, however most of the hurlocks and genlocks had pressed up closer to the corner nearest the makeshift barricade the soldiers had been building. The Withered was standing with a small clump of hurlocks, growling at them in what I could only assume was some sort of darkspawn language. He was out of my way, so I ignored him for the moment.

Sneaking through the throng to round the corner and reach the barrier must have cost me a decade of life expectancy; there were times I was close enough to feel the unnatural heat radiating off the creatures as I wended my way through. If one of them had moved at the wrong time, even just to swing an arm, I would have been caught. My only consolation was that the Wardens were nearby, and would be able to attack without delay if I had shouted. But I remained lucky; I could see a couple of genlocks sniffing around with confused expressions as the air near them stirred, but none of them touched me.

Past the darkspawn, there were a couple of corpses left lying on the ground; I gathered there must have been another skirmish between darkspawn and the forces of good.

I rounded the corner to discover that, in my absence, the Wardens and Legionnaires had set up a post on this side of the makeshift barricade. That must have been when the skirmish happened. Obviously they knew the darkspawn weren’t far, and the darkspawn clearly knew the Wardens’ location also; they were at an impasse as each side debated what to do. A flimsy shelter had been assembled, allowing the forces standing there to at least avoid arrows; Fargrim, most of the Legionnaires, more of Nate’s soldiers, and Solona and Anders were standing there when I walked up.

The two mages patted me on the shoulders as I passed them, and I shot them a tremulous smile; Fargrim, the rest of the dwarves, and the soldiers all stared at me, mouths open, speechless. I’d have giggled if I hadn’t been so terrified. The dour, pale-haired second-in-command left his fellows there and followed me as I ducked through the barricade.

I walked directly into Alistair’s arms when I straightened on the other side; he held me protectively, his handsome face going from relief to concern as he felt me shaking. Now relatively safe, the enormity of what we faced suddenly crashed down on me,. What are we going to do? I vaguely heard questions being asked by Fargrim and Trevian, and Leliana’s sweet lilt responding, but I couldn’t even understand the words as I just clung to Alistair and tried not to pass out. I was gasping great, big gulps of air, I realised, and I consciously tried to slow them down and pull myself together.

Finally my shuddering slowed to a halt, and Alistair put his hands on my shoulders, pushing us apart enough that he could see my face. He’d been talking to me, clearly, trying to calm me down, and only now did his voice filter through to my conscious mind.

“Love? Hey, it’s okay. You’re safe now.”

I shook my head, clearing it. “No. I’m not, and neither are you. None of us is safe.”

I prepared to tell him everything I knew: perhaps fifty or sixty darkspawn between us and the barrier door, including at least one disciple, and one ogre who appeared…smarter than the average; a completely broken barrier door that would take more than me to repair; hundreds of darkspawn just on the opposite side of the door.

I looked around, finally remembering that there were others around who perhaps shouldn’t be hearing what I had to say; Leliana had apparently shooed them all away while I had my meltdown, and was standing at a short distance, guarding us from eavesdroppers. I smiled gratefully at her, and she nodded back, uncharacteristically serious. She saw me lose it; she knows we’re in trouble. The only other people within range were the Legion of the Dead leaders Trevian and Fargrim, Nathaniel, and Varel.

Alistair blanched as I told my story; Nathaniel and Varel grew still, faces grey. Trevian swore loudly in dwarvish, his meaning obvious even without understanding the language. All the while I spoke, Fargrim stared at me, barely listening, from outward appearances, but instead looking at me – through me, it felt – as though what I looked like, who I was, was more important than what I was saying. His gaze never faltered, though his expression remained unreadable; I thought the derision he’d seemed to regard me with before was absent, but that could have been my imagination, or a trick of the dim light. I tried to ignore him and focus on Alistair.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” I finished. “We can’t fight that many, and we can’t repair the barrier door without a fight. I can get to the door, but it’s going to be obvious if I start tinkering with it, and honestly nothing I can do is going to make the difference.” I gulped a breath, closing my eyes in horror. “We’re going to be overrun. The Vigil is going to be overrun.”

There was a long moment of stunned silence as everyone let that sink in. After everything, we’re doomed. It was a close fight not to cry.

Finally Alistair spoke. “What if…maybe Dworkin? Bury them all under a ton of rock and debris. They’ll dig through eventually, but it buys us enough time to deal with them…”

Trevian replied, “Too risky. You should have seen that maniac’s explosion in Kal’Hirol. You’re not unlikely to lose the whole Keep to a sinkhole. No, better we hold this barricade for as long as possible while you send messengers to that king of yours. Maybe Queen Sereda could even be convinced to help?”

“That will take weeks. The army is fragmented by now; it will take time to mobilise any sizeable force. We’ll never hold that long with our current forces; everyone needs to eat and sleep sometime. And Amaranthine will pay the price if we can’t hold the Vigil.” Nathaniel’s voice was bleak, resigned. He thinks we’re going to die. He turned to Varel. “Send messages off to the king and Orzammar. Evacuate the civilian population at the Vigil and send letters to evacuate Amaranthine. We will hold as long as we can, and the last to fall will trigger every explosive Dworkin can rig up to buy the army time.”

“No.” The rough voice of Fargrim startled me, and I turned to look at him in surprise. “This is why the Legion exists. This is why the Ancestors allowed the Wardens to save us. We are not losing this fight.”

Trevian stirred. “’Grim…”

“No, Trev. We can do it.” He turned to Leliana and gestured. “Bring Voldrik over here.”

When the auburn-haired dwarf arrived, expression dour as always, Fargrim turned to me. “Describe the door.”

Taken aback, I described the state of the barrier door hesitantly, from the disconnected metal rods to the door itself hanging slightly askew.

Fargrim turned to Voldrik. “How long?” When the engineer blinked in confusion, he clarified, “How long to fix it?”

Voldrik considered. “With a bit of help and a lot of luck, half an hour. An hour without luck.”

Fargrim nodded. “We can do it. We can buy an hour.” He pointed at Nate. “Your soldiers are going to get their blades wet today.” He turned to me. “You’d better be right about this, Princess.”

Alistair bristled, but Fargrim ignored him and began laying out his plan.

***
Less than an hour later, every melee fighter that could be spared was assembled on the far side of the barricade, leaving only archers, led by Nathaniel, watching the gate. Leliana had been dispatched on the fastest horse in Nate’s stables to find Aedan; other messengers had been sent to Denerim, Amaranthine, and the Pilgrim’s Path for Conrad. Every shield that could be found or improvised was equipped; even I held a small, round, wooden shield on my left arm, the weight uncomfortable and yet somehow comforting.

I’d had only a moment to cling to Alistair, despair and hope warring with each other as I kissed him desperately. And then we were formed up and I could barely even see him.

He and a handful of the more experienced soldiers led the formation. Out to either side of him in a loose wedge, every soldier Nathaniel could spare stood shoulder-to-shoulder, several rows deep. Anders and Solona stood behind Alistair, ready to cast, with every Lyrium potion we could scrounge up in the backpacks they carried. And behind them came the Legion, with me and Voldrik sandwiched in the middle.

The plan was the best we had; the wedge would go in like an icebreaker, forcing the darkspawn to divide down the middle and make a gap. In their wake, the Legion of the Dead would charge through. I’d seen the tactic before, in reverse, down in Bownammar; the Legion were the ones making the hole for the Wardens, then, but the concept was the same.

The entire Legion shield wall, led by Fargrim, would go first through the gap to plow through any darkspawn that didn’t get sidelined by the soldiers; they wouldn’t stop until they’d passed the barrier door. The other Legionnaires – rogues and two-handed fighters, led by Trevian – would follow to defend from behind, staying on the near side of the door. Voldrik and I would be in the middle, him to repair the door, me as a last line of defense for him if all else failed.

The goal for the shield wall was to hold the narrow hallway beyond the barrier doors until Voldrik had the mechanism working, then retreat just as the door swung shut. The other Legionnaires would help fight the sixty-or-so darkspawn on the near side, keeping them off Voldrik. I’d be able to move more freely, dividing my time between aiding Voldrik, holding the hallway, and helping out the Wardens and soldiers as needed.

It was a terrible plan. A truly, dismally, horrible plan…but it was all we had. Dworkin had rigged the hallway near the barricade with explosives as a last resort, and a small group of soldiers would remain at the barricade to trigger them if everything went south.

We knew the casualties would be high. No one said it, but the grim determination in everyone’s eyes made it quite clear that no one was oblivious to the cost. I wondered if any of the shield wall would survive. The alternative, however, was unthinkable.

Courtesy of one of the Legion’s rogues, who was rather disturbingly obsessed with poisons, each woman and each Warden in the fight had a suicide capsule secreted in their armor somewhere. If captured, the poison would cause instantaneous death through massive hemorrhaging; we wouldn’t give the Architect more Warden blood to work with, nor the darkspawn more Broodmothers, if we could help it. The necessity of such a measure frightened everyone almost as much as the horde we would be facing.

I wondered if I’d ever see my husband or my brother alive again.

Once everyone was assembled, with a brief whispered prayer to any god that would listen, we began to march.

At first, things went to plan. At the entrance to the large chamber containing most of the darkspawn, the formation paused to allow Solona and Anders to rain down ice and destruction on the waiting ‘spawn. They weren’t able to do Storm of the Century – Solona’s lightning abilities weren’t that great, and there wasn’t enough time for the casting. Instead, while Anders alternately froze and boiled darkspawn where they stood, Solona cast mass paralysis to keep them all standing within the area of effect, and then dropped something called a death cloud. The screaming of darkspawn was deafening, and I breathed a slight sigh of relief. Maybe we can do this after all.

And then it all went to hell. As soon as the spells stopped, the left-hand side of the wedge charged prematurely, leaving the right-hand side following in their wake, confused and trying to catch up. These are not the seasoned fighters Kardol’s men were; their inexperience shows. Alistair, supposed to be on point leading the offensive line, ended up being pulled off centre by the slower troops on the right and stuck behind the soldiers as they hit the darkspawn. I lost sight of him entirely in the confusion. No gap was created, and the Legion had nowhere to go as the fighting swirled off into chaos.

With a shout, Fargrim and the shield wall drove into a group of darkspawn on the left, trying to make a path for themselves. It would have been successful, except the ogre I’d seen earlier took that opportunity to charge, scattering the dwarves like leaves in a strong wind. Voldrik and I dove out of the way, landing up against a slimy, taint-covered wall beside Trevian and Fargrim, who were frantically trying to reorganize.

Alistair, with Solona and Anders in tow, surfaced briefly; Anders slowed the ogre with ice, Solona locked it in some sort of nightmare, and as I was dragged away by Fargrim, I saw Alistair drop his shield and leap up to drive his sword into the monster’s neck.

Trevian was arguing with Fargrim, who held my arm in a vice grip. Finally nodding, the Legion commander turned and shouted out commands in dwarvish; the Legion slowly reformed into a wedge, Trevian and the others leading now while the shield dwarves snuck off to the side or followed in behind.

Fargrim shook my arm to get my attention. “Can you get Voldrik to the door?” he demanded. “You’re good at sneaking, right? Can you take him with you?”

I looked around the room, seeing clumps of men and darkspawn fighting, the ogre already down and my Wardens nowhere in sight. The edges of the room were largely unoccupied, and none of the darkspawn spared a glance at the three of us standing alone.

I nodded, unhooking the shield and pressing it into Voldrik’s hands, then drawing my second dagger. “I think so. They’ll see him, but I’ll see them first. We can creep around the edges of the fighting.”

Fargrim gave me a stoic smile. “Then we’ll meet you on the other side of this mess. The shield wall are going to split up and try to make our way there alone while the others draw attention. Don’t start on the door until at least one layer of shield is between you and the horde on the other side.”

I nodded, and gesturing to Voldrik, crept down the wall as Fargrim barreled into a nearby genlock and was swallowed by the fighting crowd.

Keeping Voldrik well behind me, I moved along the wall carefully, eyes scanning the writhing, shouting mass of darkspawn and soldiers. I’d catch a glimpse, every now and then, of someone I knew; once I thought I saw Alistair’s shiny helmet, but I lost it again just as quickly. Corpses were everywhere; there were more darkspawn than human or dwarven, but there was no shortage of either.

Every time a darkspawn strayed too close to where I was leading Voldrik, I’d motion for the dwarf to stop and sneak in behind, slitting throats and disabling with kidney shots like I’d been taught. When I was sure the creature was dead, I’d gesture to Voldrik and start creeping along again. It took much longer than it would have alone; every now and then a darkspawn would spy Voldrik and try for an easy kill. Even carrying my shield, the engineer looked like a helpless target. Each time, I’d divert, taking the ‘spawn by surprise and ending them before they reached him.

We finally reached the barrier door; a double-handful of dwarves had formed a thin shield wall, and when they saw us, they moved into position two deep just past the barrier door. Voldrik, looking pale but determined, dropped his bag of supplies and began frantically working on the door mechanism.

I stood nearby, darting in and disabling or killing darkspawn who strayed near us, but the worst of the fighting was at the opposite end of the chamber near where the disastrous wedge had fallen apart.

At first, the shield wall stood unmolested; there must have been some sort of signal the darkspawn were waiting for, because despite the noises Voldrik’s tools made, none of the horde approached. Legionnaires trickled in one-by-one; probably two-thirds of them had arrived when Fargrim finally showed up. The blond dwarf was bleeding from a nasty scalp wound, but waved me off when I offered to at least bandage it.

“The ladies like a scar, Princess. Leave it be.”

The other Legionnaires within hearing distance chuckled, but I could see despair in his eyes underneath the forced humour. He leaned in and whispered so I was the only one who could hear, “We’re all that are coming, I think. Lost a lot of good men trying to find our way here. We will hold that hallway with our last breaths, if need be – just get that door fixed.”

I nodded, and he stepped into place with the rest of the shield wall crew, ready for whatever came. Voldrik asked me to help him hold things a few times as he hammered, and the door mechanism was starting to look more like the functional one I had seen in Orzammar.

Trevian and some of the other Legionnaires had finally made it through the chamber and formed up to protect Voldrik as he worked; he and I exchanged grim nods briefly before he turned back to the fight.

Suddenly there was a shrill whistle of some sort, from the far end of the room – the darkspawn ranks had thinned out dramatically, and despite a staggering loss of life on both sides, it had become obvious that the darkspawn in the chamber were going to lose. The sound, an unearthly sort of scream I’d never heard before, cut off abruptly; I glanced up to see the Withered run through from behind by Alistair as the last echoes rang through the chamber.

The damage was done, though; from the hallway beyond us, howling and screeching echoed as the horde finally gathered itself for a push. I turned and watched the first ranks of darkspawn sprinted down the hallway, breaking themselves against the shield wall like waves against a cliff. They were defeated almost too easily, but I knew that wouldn’t last. Like the cliff, eventually the waves would break it down, and I didn’t think our shield wall had years before it crumbled. The one saving grace was the narrowness of the hallway, compared to the massive dimensions of the cavern beyond; it took only five dwarves to completely block the hallway, and the darkspawn couldn’t attack en masse or get around to flank the shield wall.

It was uncomfortably reminiscent of the Spartans defending the pass at Thermopylae, and I could only hope it would be enough.

“Hurry, Voldrik,” I muttered, more plea than demand; he grumbled something under his breath in return, but I didn’t miss the increasing urgency in his movements as he worked.

I heard the cry of the first dwarf to fall; I flinched, but the shield wall held, and the dwarf in the second rank stepped forward seamlessly into the hole to keep fighting. More darkspawn filled the hallway behind, almost trampling each other in their eagerness, but still the dwarves persevered.

“Voldrik…”

“Blast it, woman, do you think I’m taking my sweet time with this? Hold that spring in place, would you?”

My daggers already sheathed in anticipation, I jumped to the spot he indicated, still distracted by the fighting behind me. A quick glance showed most of the first rank of dwarves had been killed.

“Almost,” Voldrik mumbled, cursing briefly before, with a triumphant yell, he hammered something into place; the door, which had been leaning against the side wall, lurched upright with a metallic groan.

“Got it?” I asked. The ginger dwarf nodded, and I cheered. Turning around, I shouted back at the men behind me. “Fargrim! Retreat!”

I heard him acknowledge me, then shout out orders to his men; he counted to three, and they all took a step back in unison, some of the darkspawn falling forward onto the spears in surprise. He counted again, and the dwarves took another step.

One of the dwarves fell. The last one in his row stepped forward, but no one with a spear remained behind him. Two more steps, and three more dwarves cried out and disappeared from sight. They were ten feet from the door. Then eight.

When it was down to a single rank of dwarves between the door and the horde, Fargrim turned. His head wound was bleeding profusely, his visage frightening, but the bleak, resigned expression was even more so.

“We aren’t going to make it. Close the door.” Even over the din, I could hear him like he was right beside me.

I shook my head in denial. There has to be some way, some chance. Maybe if they collapsed the wall and sprinted? Voldrik fumbled at the door behind me as I shouted at Fargrim to hurry.

The dwarf beside Fargrim fell. The dour leader nodded at me once, seemingly trying to reassure me, and shouted one last time.

“Run, Princess. Run!”

Voldrik grabbed my arm and half-helped, half-dragged me over the threshold before slamming his fist against the mechanism that closed the door. With a grinding sound, the door began to swing shut. I looked back, helplessly, as Fargrim and the other dwarves were dragged down by a handful of genlocks; my last vision was his face, calm, almost serene as he was overcome.

And then the door clanged shut.

I resisted dropping to my knees or crying out; I’d seen so much death at the battle against the Archdemon that I thought I might have been hardened against it, but it felt like I had a ragged hole ripped in my guts anyway. Voldrik clapped me on the arm, and we stood together, stunned, for a brief moment of silence.

I finally turned to see the battle was over. While we’d worked on the door, the soldiers and Wardens had destroyed the last of the darkspawn inside. Groups of bloodstained, exhausted soldiers were circulating, slitting throats and ensuring all the darkspawn were dead; others dragged the corpses to opposite sides of the chamber – the darkspawn piled for burning, the humans and dwarves much more reverently laid out for funerals later.

The carnage had been incredible. Roughly sixty darkspawn corpses made a huge pile, and while the human and dwarven dead numbered less than a third of that, it was still a staggering loss of life. At the far end, I could see Anders and Solona working on the wounded, but I couldn’t see Alistair anywhere.

I instinctively eyed the growing number of bodies up against the wall before I could stop myself. No, he can’t be dead. Even I can’t believe life could be so cruel. I resolutely looked away and headed towards Anders, assuming that if anyone knew where my husband was, he would.

I worked my helmet off as I went, my curly brown hair clumped together by sweat and Maker-knew what else. I was stopped part way across by Trevian. “I saw,” he murmured, reaching out to pat my hand. “Don’t feel bad. He’d have wanted it that way.” He studied my face for a moment – I was scowling, brows furrowed, poised to speak – and chuckled sadly. “We’re already dead, remember? It was their choice. All of them. We gave them the option to stay on the inside if they wanted. They all knew they wouldn’t be coming back.”

I sighed, suppressing my tears for later. “Doesn’t make it better, I’m afraid.”

He smiled softly. “I know.” He looked a hundred years old in that moment; I wondered how many friends he’d lost in the Deep Roads. “Come on; your husband will be frantic, I’m sure.”
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