Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Horses, and the Smell of Snow

For those interested, this is my Dragon Age: Asunder Creative Writing Challenge entry - placed in the top five, yay! I was a bit reticent to post it prior to Bioware announcing the winners, but here it is. All are welcome to enjoy, comment, tear to bits. 


Horses, thought Martin suddenly. Horses, and the smell of snow.
He stared at the book before him, frowning, black eyes running over the same sentence again and again, snared in a memory. Around him, the Library bustled with the processes of teaching and learning, the rules of silence kept really more as guidelines; apprentices muttered to themselves, jotting down notes with one hand, turning pages with the other; groups of mages argued and bickered round and round about the minutiae of magic, never ultimately seeming to achieve anything other than mild laryngitis.
It had been… Maker, it had been over twenty years now, since he had even been around a horse, or seen snow. Snow never came to this part of the Free Marches – too close to the ocean, and on the wrong side of the mountains for anything but clouds and constant rain. And horses were no good here: if you wanted to commit suicide in Kirkwall, they said, ride a horse: if the fall down the cliffs didn’t kill you, the horse landing on top of you certainly would.
Twenty years, and still he could smell the sweat of the beasts, feel the shifting heat of them under his hand, against his cheek, see the breath of them fountaining into the frozen winter air. He glared through the page, at the unwelcome memories, breathed deeply, and shut the book sharply.
Martin was a Ferelden in the Free Marches, but more than that, he was a mage. At age five he had been sent not to the Ferelden Circle of Magi at Lake Calenhad, but to Kirkwall, across the sea, for reasons unbeknownst to him. He suspected dryly that his family simply wanted as much distance between them as farmer’s money could buy. He no longer remembered his surname, like so many others in the Circle, and had long passed the point of caring. The Gallows was his home now, his fellow mages his siblings, the Chantry his mother and the Templars his ever-present father.
Self-invention, that’s what mattered here. You could become anything you wanted. Almost anything.
So why did he feel so bloody hollow?
A flutter of turquoise movement across from him brought his attention back to the present. Faelta.
Martin needed Faelta for everything she did, for the patience she showed him, for the judgment she never passed on him, for the innocence that she miraculously never seemed to lose… and he hated her for what she was.
“Why do you wear your hair that way?” he muttered, glaring at her long, sharp ears jutting through her pale blonde hair.
“I like it back,” she said breezily, seating herself diagonally from him. “Hello to you, too.” Faelta had grown up in the Alienage here in the city, though she never spoke of it. She was beautiful, but he couldn’t stop himself from thinking how much more beautiful she would be if her blue eyes were not quite so large, if her pretty nose was not quite so high-bridged, if her chin was not quite so daintily pointed. Her beauty was animal, alien, but he saw the looks she drew from other men, and felt a smug, fierce sense of protectiveness that was the closest thing to love he felt towards another creature. She was the most valuable thing in Martin’s life.
Faelta gently laid an armful of antique scrolls across the table. “There’s been word from Ferelden that a Blight has begun,” she said with an edge of caution.
Martin shrugged. “Let the whole place burn,” he said distractedly. “May every one of them be slaughtered.”
The elf cocked her head, frowned, but said nothing. An escalating argument a few tables away concerning the differences between inversal and oversal repulsion hexes highlighted the solid silence between them.
Martin shifted in his seat, leaned forward, looking down at the pointless book between his hands; his dark hair fell across his troubled face. “Do you believe the Maker punishes you for your sins?”
She stared at the table, then sighed.
He persisted. “Do you?”
“Of course… I suppose. Doesn’t it say so, you know, in the Canticle?”
“The Chantry says a lot of things,” he said guardedly. “It all seems like driftwood, after a while.”
Faelta looked away. “Sometimes driftwood is all you have to keep you afloat, and there’s nothing so bad about that,” she said, her voice softened by sadness.
Martin, enthralled with his own crisis, failed to notice. “I know. I know. I just can’t bring myself to cling to it. It’s just prolonging the inevitable. I think I’m being punished.”
“What for?”
He answered without hesitation. “For being a mage.”
The elf’s long hands began to pick through the yellowed scrolls. “You’re talking nonsense.”
He shook his head in rising frustration. “If you don’t understand, I won’t be able to explain. It’s as though I’m tied to a thousand lead weights. It’s like I’m deep, deep under water. It’s like being wrapped in wool, stifled. I don’t know how to get out of this. It’s killing me, but I can’t leave.”
“Martin, you sound like you’re depressed.”
He laughed scornfully, explosively. “That may be the least helpful comment I’ve ever heard in my life, ever. Of course I’m depressed, you stupid, useless idiot. This is fact. It’s not something I have proven able to deal with on my own. And if you can’t help me, then leave, or find me someone who can.”
“There’s no reason to get hostile!” Faelta whispered sharply.
“There is! Do you know why? Because anger and discontent are the only emotions I can still actually feel! Because this hot, sinking sensation is better than the numbness I feel most of the time! Being pointlessly angry is a thousand times better than the knowledge that in order to function outside of my own skull I have to encase myself in a shell of, of…” He stopped, faltering, stumbling over the weight of his own emotions.
She stared, being, he felt, purposefully obtuse.
Martin pushed on, as though the thoughts were poison that needed to be purged. “We were born wrong, you and I. They tell us that we were born wrong. Why? How can power be wrong? I’ll tell you Faelta – power can only be wrong when it’s in the wrong hands. You and me – we are the wrong hands. When mothers tell stories to their children, we can never be the heroes. We were built wrong.”
The elf closed her eyes, then opened them a crack, staring at the ancient scrolls in her hands.
“You feel the pain of it, don’t you? The ache? The pain has… it’s alchemized me into a numb being. I’m a shadow! I can touch nothing, anymore. I give nothing meaning. I’m a slave to my birth, a shadow of a man.” He paused. He halfway wanted to cry, but no tears came. “Barren land,” he whispered. “A shadow over barren land.”
Faelta shook her head ever so slightly. “I didn’t come here to have this kind of conversation with you.”
“No. But you’ll stay, and you’ll listen, because you’re you.”
“You’re very self-centered, you know that?” Faelta’s nostrils flared, though she continued to stare at the scrolls before her.
“I would rather be dead, than what I am right now,” he muttered, and meant it.
“So why not kill yourself, like all the others?”
“I’m afraid to.”
“Then stop complaining.”
“I don’t know any other way to ask for help.” Martin could scarcely believe the words that were pouring from his mouth in fits and starts, recognized them as near nonsense, but they were the truth, and as such he could only be mildly ashamed of them.
Faelta stood, her turquoise robes fluttering. She tried to gather the scrolls into her arms again, dropped several, tried again. “You… you’re… you have no idea what you’re asking,” she murmured, not looking at him. “You wouldn’t know help if, if it grabbed your arse and kissed you hello. Shut up, Martin. Kirkwall’s different since Guylian was hanged, since the Viscount was replaced, and if you’re wise you’ll shut up.”
“Don’t leave,” he hissed, threatening. “Don’t you dare!”
But she was gone, the silence solid between them.

News arrived that evening of his mother’s death. Laughter rose in his throat, but he swallowed it, barely keeping it down. The Templar who had brought him the letter watched him carefully. “Are you alright? Do you need a moment?”
Martin stared blankly at a point just above the Templar’s left ear.
The Templar seemed nonplussed. “You may petition the Knight-Commander for permission to attend the funeral, if you wish,” he said, almost encouragingly.
The mage smiled suddenly, a flash of light in a dark room. “No, I don’t think I shall, Ser Sullivan,” he said politely. “But thank you.”
When the Templar had left, Martin read the letter again. Death by water buffalo. This time the laughter could not be stifled, and he buried his face in his pillow, his mad guffawing sounding almost like sobs.

Ser Sullivan was losing at Diamondback, but drunk enough that it didn’t bother him much.
“Firault, you bastard! I’d swear you’re cheating!” he chuckled, throwing down his paltry hand with the others as the Knight opposite him raked in his winnings.
“Cheating!” exclaimed Ser Firault, his swarthy face split with a winner’s grin. “Watch what you say around here, Sullivan, you never know who might be listening.” The table’s other two occupants snickered in agreement.
Sullivan finished off the dregs of his ale. “Be careful what you hear, as well, I say. Listening can make you as guilty as speaking these days.”
Firault sat back, counting coins and shaking his head quietly in the manner of one who agrees but doesn’t necessarily want to be seen agreeing. “Indeed. Only yesterday I was on duty in the library and overheard a rather unfortunate conversation between that dark-eyed Ferelden fellow, apprentice, what’s his name? Face like an underdone egg. Always a bit mopey.”
“Oh – Martin, I think.”
“Yes, between him and that pretty elf girl he’s always got at his elbow. Faelta.”
Sullivan began thumbing tobacco into a pipe. “Huh. I took Martin a letter just last night. Turns out his mother’s dead. Trampled by a raging water buffalo.”
Firault shook his head. “Only in Ferelden. If there truly is a Blight, it’s no small wonder they picked that Maker-forsaken place to start.”
Sullivan looked thoughtful. “He is a bit of an odd bird, though, that Martin. He didn’t seem too put off by the news. He almost… seemed like he wanted to laugh, you know?”
Firault shrugged. “Well, that’s not uncommon. Many of them are orphaned or sent away from home at young ages. Why should they have an emotional connection to the people who dumped them like dirty laundry on the Circle’s doorstep?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Sullivan said, running a hand through his red hair. He blew a series of smoke rings at the wooden ceiling beams. “What did he say, out of curiosity?”
“Oh, this and that. Lad needs some guidance, if you ask me. Seems depressed. Talked about,” Firault sighed heavily, “power being in the wrong hands, and all that.”
“Ah. Too bad. Your deal, by the way.”

A heavy hand on his shoulder woke Martin from a deep sleep just before dawn. He sat bolt upright, gasping into the darkness. A man’s voice, kind but businesslike, shushed him.
“Easy, lad. Up with you now. There’s been a decision. This way.”
Without further explanation, the hand took Martin firmly by the upper arm and urged him out of bed. Martin had no choice but to slide from the warmth of his sheets, onto the cool stones, and follow the Templar, shivering in his nightshirt. In the darkened hallway, another Templar fell into step on Martin’s other side, and Martin began to feel panic blooming inside of him, choking his questions.   
He was led through a series of locked doors and unfamiliar hallways, to a large, high room with no windows. Candles flickered at intervals along what may have been the outer edge of a spell circle, though it was impossible to tell in the darkness. The scent of magic put an edge on the air; Martin’s face drained of color as they led him to the center of the circle of candles, and held him there, trembling.  
“Martin Killbourne,” a woman’s voice boomed from a dark balcony above him. Martin realized with a jolt that she had used his family name. “You have been judged by this Order, and the authority vested in it by the Divine Chantry, to be of too weak a nature to undergo the Harrowing, and therefore it is determined that you shall be made Tranquil, as is your right and your duty.”
“Tranquil,” he repeated numbly. No laughter, no tears, no danger, no dreams.
 He became aware of the sound of weeping. There, by the wall, Faelta sat with her knees to her chest, shaking with tears. “I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I just told them the truth. I’m sorry!” A shadowy figure lifted her, led her away, her sobs silenced by the slamming of a door.
Martin noticed suddenly that the Templars on either side of him had backed away, leaving him alone at the center of a growing, brightening beam of white-blue light. “No… there’s been a mistake,” he mumbled, panic making his vision blur. “I’m not weak, I j-just need a little help, I…”
“Yes, Martin. You do need help. We’re helping you.”
“Why?” he managed, his dark eyes wide, staring hard into the shadows. “Why?”
“The weak mage becomes a target for demonic possession. A possessed mage is an abomination, and abominations cannot be allowed to live. By making you Tranquil, you will no longer need to concern yourself with such a fate. You’ll be safe. You know these things, Martin,” the woman’s voice chided gently. “You know you are not strong enough to resist possession. Let us help you.”
His sweaty hands balled themselves into fists; his heart was beating hard at his ribs like a caged animal, desperate.
“Please, don’t struggle. We don’t want to have to take measures, now do we?” The voice was calm, soothing, delicately patronizing, the way he always thought his mother must sound. He found his fists loosening, his muscles relaxing into the steel grip of the strange white light; urine ran down the inside of his leg, dripping from his toes to the floor as the strange magic lifted him, held him, inside the glow.
His final thought, as the white-hot light burned into his wide-open eyes, branding him, filling him, spilling from his fingertips, his nostrils, his gaping mouth, was of horses, steaming and stamping, and the sharp, metallic smell of snow.
Killbourne! a voice screamed in his head. My name is Martin Ki –


  1. Well, I had a nice comment, but when I hit "Publish," WordPress told me I needed to sign in (I already AM signed in) and I, of course, lost my entire comment.

    Anyway ... I love this. And I comment on very, very, VERY few stories. Mostly because 90% of them are ... not so great lol But this was amazing. Is amazing.

    My heart is still beating fast. Amazing.

    Your story makes me feel better about losing. I bow to you!!

    1. ^This is motomotogirl from the BSN forums, btw :)

    2. I humbly thank you for reading my entry, and for your most awesome comment - I can't get rid of the stupid smile on my face, heh. I'm really glad you enjoyed it - I never win anything, so I'm still kind of waiting for the "jk, lol" email. Lurking in the creative writing contest thread was the most fun I've had being a creeper in a long time! :D

  2. Wow, this is an incredible story and worthy of its place in the top 5. The description of Martin's memories of the horses and the snow was so evocative I could almost smell the horses and feel the chill in the air. His depression and the faltering way he struggled to voice what he was feeling was very moving and the end almost made my heart stop! I don't know why, but I hadn't expected them to make him tranquil.

    Well done, and congratulations on your placing.

  3. Man, that was a classic example of 'I SO didn't see it coming at first' but it was perfectly logical in a very Kirkwallian way. Your prose style is perfect for this story: not heavy, but elegant and very evocative with just a few words. I could see that courtyard. And I'm cold now. Thank you for writing this sooo much.