The mountain air was chill with dawn, and muffled in a blanket of patchy fog. Valorien moved through the mist, Tarroth at his side, until the stone golem materialized. The elf looked down at the war hound. “You should stay with Alistair.” The dog’s jaws parted slightly and his ears tilted back, showing what he thought of that idea. “Very well,” the elf said resignedly. He gave a gentle tug at the rope in his hand, and the leashed nug shuffled closer, snorting at the unfamiliar grasses, and shaking condensed dew off its snout.
“I do hope this interminable wait is almost over,” Shale grumped. “Is this dragon a large enough creature to squash me, do you think?” she added more cheerfully.
Valorien paused to give it some thought. “She is large, but I do not think she would have sufficient weight to crush stone just by standing on it. She does breathe fire, however.”
“That should not be of much concern, unless it is hot enough to melt stone itself. Though I suppose in the cold mountain air…. Rapid shifts in temperature are not comfortable.” The elf nodded sagely, and Shale continued musing. “It might be interesting to face a creature that has a very good chance of actually doing me serious damage. Much more exciting than being invulnerable.”
“Do you wish to die, Shale?” Valorien asked quietly.
“Not in such drastic terms,” she replied. “Actually, I already am dead — or at least the woman I was before is. But oblivion would be a nice respite, for a time anyway. What is it like to sleep?”
“Sleep can be comforting.” He frowned, idly resting a hand on Tarroth’s head. “Though it has not been since I was Tainted.”
“It must be nice to become completely oblivious to the world once it becomes too overpowering. Just to close one’s eyes, and have everything go away, rather than always being aware and watching all the time.”
“Have you tried closing your eyes?” Valorien asked her.
“What? All night?” Shale cocked a stony brow. “What an odd idea. But I do not see how not seeing would make the passage of time less boring.”
“When we return, I shall teach you how to meditate.”
“What is this ‘meditate’?”
“Meditation is the art of relaxing and clearing your mind,” Valorien explained.
The golem hmphed. “Somehow that sounds even more boring. But what is the difference between that and sleep?”
“In meditation, one remains conscious.”
“Very well. Perhaps I will try it.”
The sound of footsteps grew closer, and two figures appeared from the fog — but it was Leliana and Alistair. Valorien tipped his head in a querying look. Before he could ask after Wynne and Morrigan, Alistair said, “They’re getting ready.”
“You don’t think we’d let you leave without seeing you off?” Leliana asked. Valorien opened his mouth slightly, but seemed at a loss for what to say. Leliana smiled and looked down. To cover any awkwardness, she crouched and began skritching Tarroth vigorously on either side of his neck.
“You’re sure you won’t change your mind?” Alistair asked.
“I am sure,” the elf replied. He watched Leliana and the dog for a moment. Then he said, “Perhaps you can convince Tarroth to change his.” The dog snorted powerfully, and Leliana flinched and stood, wiping dog drivel from her face.
“Oh, we wouldn’t want to make it too easy for me or anything,” Alistair griped. He looked at the dog. “You could help me wash the breakfast dishes,” he said enticingly. Tarroth snorted again. “Everyone’s a critic.” Alistair threw up his hands and looked skyward.
Morrigan’s voice floated out of the mist. “As a last meal,” she said, slowly walking up to them, “it would only make the condemned more eager for his execution.”
“Well, here’s hoping the dragon eats you, then dies of indigestion,” Alistair snapped back.
The witch ignored him and went to Valorien. He asked her, “Wynne is coming as well?”
“She is, or — as I’m sure I pointed out — I would not be here.”
“Remember what I told you. If you escape, make sure Wynne goes with you.”
“I said I would.”
“Give me your word,” Valorien insisted.
Her eyes widened with affront. “I will not be beholden to you.”
He didn’t back down. “Give me your word.”
“I cannot guarantee such a thing.” Morrigan bristled and paced back and forth. “I do not make promises lightly.”
“I do not ask them lightly,” the elf replied gravely. “Promise me that if you return to the camp, it will be with Wynne accompanying you.”
She stopped pacing and turned back to him. “What do you expect me to do? Knock her out and carry her over my shoulder?”
“I am sure you can manage something.”
With a sub-audible growl, Morrigan chewed her lip. She folded her arms tightly over her chest. Valorien fixed her with his gaze of implacable steel. She glared back at him, but he was unmoved. “Fine,” she spat. “I give you my word, that I will do my best to see that Wynne returns with me. But I cannot be responsible for extenuating circumstances.”
“That will do,” Valorien told her. In a softer voice he added, “Thank you.”
Morrigan turned away, and Valorien looked back towards Alistair and Leliana. Wynne had joined them, and apparently had heard at least part of the conversation. A line of determination creased her brow between her eyes. She stepped forward.
“You will leave with Morrigan,” Valoiren told her pre-emptively.
“Fine,” the older mage said. “But I will be the one to decide when it is time to retreat. Not her.”
Morrigan turned with a huff of protest, but Valorien forestalled her with an upraised hand. To Wynne, he said, “Morrigan will decide. You will retreat with her. If it becomes necessary.”
“And if I do not agree?” Wynne folded her arms and looked up at him.
“Then you will not accompany us.” His tone was final.
“Fine,” the mage said curtly.
“Give me your word,” the elf said. Wynne sputtered a protest, but Valorien insisted. “Morrigan has given her pledge.”
Defeated, Wynne’s shoulders slumped. Heavily, she said, “I promise, I will go with Morrigan if she retreats.” She turned on the witch. “Make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Morrigan sniffed haughtily. “As the healer, I believe making sure that doesn’t happen is your job.”
“All right;” Wynne said, straightening herself with determination; “I’m ready.”
They made their good-byes and departed, climbing to the peak that sheltered the dragon lair. By the time they exited the temple ruins, the sky was cold and clear. Valorien stationed Wynne near the doorway, though she protested she couldn’t see from there. “You will be able to move up when the dragon lands,” he told her. Morrigan he left at the end of the ruined wall, and Shale took up a position along the side of the ring of columns that circled the open-air altar. Valorien had Tarroth stand with the golem.
He himself went to the altar and tied the nug’s lead rope around it, and set the small beast atop it. Then he stepped back well away, and sounded Kolgrim’s horn. The mournful toll echoed from the mountain peaks, then died out. Anxiously, each member of the group scanned the sky. Tarroth gave a low warning bark, and the dragon appeared, gliding down from the heights. Valorien steeled his nerves.
The dragon appeared to float weightlessly on the wind, giving its wings an idle flap to steady its trajectory. It banked towards the altar, and reared back above it, backwinging for one beat, then two, as it looked down at the offering and the elf standing nearby. But it did not descend. The scaly neck stretched out, and the taloned hind legs kicked at the tops of the columns to give the beast impetus to lift off again. It circled the area of the altar, then dropped down to the wide passage behind Shale.
The golem and warhound turned, but the dragon gave a trumpeting call and charged forward. It stretched out its neck past the two and spat a jet of flame at the elf. Valorien was immediately engulfed, but he ducked his head and dove behind the scant cover of one pillar. The nug squealed and launched itself off the altar fast enough to snap its singed lead rope.
Morrigan shrugged to Wynne, who had moved up beside her. “Well, that was a short negotiation.” The witch raised her staff and launched a bolt of lightning at the dragon’s head. Wynne didn’t waste breath in a reply, but began casting protectives spells upon Valorien and Tarroth.
Valorien pressed his back against the pillar, and brushed at the small flames clinging to his leathers. The drakeskin shrugged off the fire with ease, but he had to be careful, for it did not cover him completely. He drew his bow and nocked an arrow, then stepped out into the fray.
Tarroth and Shale attacked the dragon’s left flank. The warhound sank his teeth into the back of the dragon’s foreleg. Shale punched the beast in the ribs with stony fury. The dragon turned into their attack; its head snaked around, causing Morrigan’s bolt to merely graze its neck. The dragon shook off the mabari and swiped at Shale, sending her staggering back. It snapped at the golem, with the crunch of fang on stone. Angrily, it reared back with a roar. Just then, another bolt from Morrigan slammed into its back. The dragon screeched and twisted around like a snake. Eyes blazing, it charged the mages. As it did so, a casual flick of its tail caught Shale and Tarroth and flung them towards the columns like a pair of dice cast from a hand.
Wynne cast out her hand and a great stone fist rammed into the dragon’s snout and shattered. The beast stopped dead in its tracks, rearing back.
“Stop attacking,” Morrigan yelled at her; “you’re just pissing it off!”
The dragon snapped its head forward and spat out another jet of flame. “Oh!” screamed Wynne, diving to the cold paving stones. Her robes caught on fire. Morrigan turned to shield Wynne, trusting in her amulet to keep her from burning. She crouched and began beating at the flames. “Never mind that,” Wynne said breathlessly as the dragon ran up on them, “DO SOMETHING!” Morrigan turned and cast the fastest spell she could. Unfortunately, it was also one of her weakest.
Back at the camp, Oghren nursed his head with another wineskin filled with dwarven swill. Leliana and Alistair sat tending the fire by poking it idly with sticks. Alistair contemplated how much he hated waiting around while there was a battle being fought somewhere else. These thoughts led him back to Ostagar. He had so wanted to be with Duncan and the other Grey Wardens, along with the king’s elite, taking the brunt of the Darkspawn attack. He was hurt when Duncan gave him the job of a minor runner, to be far away from the battle with little risk to his own life. He’d felt Duncan was sweeping him under the rug, away from his half brother, King Cailen. But then the simple run and signal job turned out to be more dangerous than the actual fight. With the Darkspawn swarming in the tower, it hardly seemed possible that he and Valorien and the two brave guards would get out of there alive. And yet, here they were.
Or at least, here he was. Once again denied the chance to fight, once more thought to be too precious for anything else than to be put on a shelf. He rubbed his face. That must have been Duncan’s real reason for sending him to the tower. Keep the last two scions of the royal line separated, to insure a better chance of one of them surviving to carry on with the mantle of leadership. “Thanks a lot, Duncan,” Alistair thought bitterly; “You know how much I hated the idea of ruling anything.”
His musings were interrupted by a commotion up the trail. The three companions rose to their feet. Alistair pulled his sword. Then, a very tired and sweaty nug galloped on its short little legs into the camp. With a wheeze and a grunt, it collapsed by the fire, panting. Leliana went and knelt by it. “Oh, the poor little thing!”
Alistair and Oghren looked back up the trail. Their gazes both lifted past the treetops, to the mountain’s peak. The wind picked up. “Wynne?” Alistair called. “Valorien?” There was no answer.
Out of the side of his mouth, Oghren told Leliana, “Put the nug down, sister. Start packin’.” He tucked his flask back under his beard and pulled out his battleaxe.
“Why?” the bard asked. “What is it?”
The dwarf told her, “The nug didn’t get eaten by the dragon. Which prolly means your friends did.”
Valorien peppered the dragon’s head and neck with arrows, trying to distract it from its intended prey: the two downed mages. The dragon was not co-operating. Wynne screamed for Morrigan to do something, and the witch cast her hand up at the beast. Just as it prepared to bite down on them, a little swirl of snow drifted around its head, and the whole dragon paled with frost. It froze in mid-strike. Valorien bent his bow as far as his strength was able and launched an arrow at the dragon’s head. The steel point cracked against the dragon’s brow, and one frozen horn splintered and fell to the ground.
“Wynne, get back!” Valorien shouted. He didn’t need to, the older mage was scrambling away to safety already. Morrigan ducked under the dragon’s neck and took off in the opposite direction. Shale and Tarroth ran up behind the dragon, just as it shook itself out of frozen lethargy. The golem delivered a mighty smack to the tail, just as the dragon screamed and launched itself back into the air. “It is weak against the cold,” Valorien called to Morrigan; “Do it again!”
The elf nocked another arrow and tracked the dragon as it circled. He loosed four or five arrows at it, and it came at him. The elf stood his ground as the huge beast backwinged, hovering over him a moment, then dropped. With a bend of his knees, he avoided the dragon’s ribcage smashing into his skull. He didn’t pause in loosing another arrow into the beast’s chest. The dragon was confused by his lack of self preservation; apparently, it hadn’t meant to land on him. It tried backing away and turning, but before it could locate its prey, it was harried from the flank by the perseverence of the golem and war hound.
The dragon twisted back the other way, trying to strike its attackers with claw or tail. Valorien ducked again, and sank an arrow into a soft crease under its foreleg. The beast screamed again. Morrigan ran up while it was distracted. “Get out of the way!” she screamed in warning. Valorien dove out from under it and rolled up near her side. Still on one knee, he had another arrow ready. Morrigan extended her hands and barked a spell; a blast of frigid air shot from her locus and enveloped the dragon. Once again, hoarfrost whitened the creature with a crack like shifting ice. Not wasting time, Tarroth rammed into the dragon’s foreleg; Shale pounded it with a mighty stone fist and cracked its haunch. Valorien launched his arrow at the crease behind the beast’s head where it met the neck. A shower of frost and ice chips spat out from the impact point. Most of it was frozen dragon flesh.
The beast shuddered under another attack, and began to collapse. It also began to thaw once more. Limping, it dragged itself slowly away from its attackers. Valorien buried another arrow in its neck behind the skull, and the dragon collapsed, dead.
The companions stood panting in exertion and disbelief for several minutes. “Shale,” Valorien called, “are you all right?”
“Is he all right?” Morrigan coughed. “He doesn’t have any bits a dragon would want to eat.”
Shale came around the dragon’s hindquarters. Ignoring Morrigan and her confused pronouns, the golem answered Valorien. “The fire was not bad, and fortunately the ice did not strike me. My stone is quite sound.”
“Good.” Valorien turned to Tarroth who bounded over to him from the other side of the dragon. “Well done,” he told the dog, giving the mabari’s head a pat. Wynne hurried over to see to to Tarroth’s bruises and cracked ribs.
Morrigan huffed a breath that condensed on the chilly air. “Well, I’m fine too; thanks so much for asking.”
Valorien turned to her. “An excellent job, Morrigan. Thank you.” His sincerity was plain, and this seemed to mollify her somewhat.
Valorien took some of the dragon skin for the armorer in Denerim. Then they returned to camp.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Morrigan snapped as she came up the path. “We’re not gone five minutes, and you decide to pack up and slink off without us?”
“Morrigan!” Alistair, Leliana, and Oghren all turned at once. Even Alistair sounded almost happy to see her. Well, perhaps relieved at least. “Where’s Wynne?” the Templar added quickly. “What happened?”
“The rest are straggling behind. No, they’re fine,” she insisted, peppered by questions. “No, they’re not dead. Yes, we killed the dragon. It was rather easy, after all.” Finally annoyed beyond her breaking point, she shoved past them and yelled at Sandal, “Put all those exactly back where you found them!” The young dwarf bowed and scraped and started unpacking what he’d been packing. Bodhan scurried over to rescue his son from the witch.
Just then, the rest of the dragon slayers came into the camp. “Valorien!” Leliana cried, running to him. “Thank the Maker you’re safe!” She tried to fling her arms around him, but he was carrying a rather bulky (and somewhat bloody) roll of dragon skin. She settled for awkwardly throwing one arm around his shoulders. He didn’t seem inclined to drop his bundle and return her embrace, so she gave up. “You must tell me everything that happened,” she insisted. “I must write this down! Oh, I should have gone with you…!”
“So you slayed the dragon, huh?” Oghren said. “Good on ya! Let’s celebrate! With a feast…. Now, where’d that nug get to…?”