There and Back
Chapter 1: Dreams
I walked, hobbled really, trying to hurry. Back to my house. Back to the safety of my four walls. Back to the room I wished I could stay in forever. The bags in my hands seemed to grow heavier with each step, and I was out of breath from hurrying. Cursing, I shifted my grip on the damned groceries again. As happened more and more frequently lately, a wave of dizziness washed over me, and I abruptly lurched to the side, plowing into another unfortunate pedestrian. The man swore, barely keeping his feet, and I shuffled away as fast as I could with blurry vision and ringing in my ears. For once, I didn't even hear the insults hurled at me, that three-letter word that had been used to humiliate me since my earliest childhood memories - fat. Not that it was untrue, I normally thought to myself whenever someone muttered that epithet in my direction, but why was it any business of theirs? This time, the pounding in my head completely blocked it out, and I passed around a corner out of sight without even realising I'd been insulted.
Initially, my dizzy spells had only lasted moments, but they had been getting worse; I had fainted, a few times, and woken in an ambulance or hospital, but at first if I could stay on my feet they would just pass. A million tests, a dozen doctors, and no one had any answers. The fainting spells were becoming more frequent, lasting longer, and the last time I'd been unconscious for an entire day. My therapist, the one I'd reluctantly agreed to visit after the third hospital trip, had decided they were panic attacks. I hadn't thought of myself as someone prone to panic before they started. I certainly was, by now. When the dizziness hit, I would try anything - breathing into a paper bag, sitting with my head between my knees, I had even tried alcohol. Once, mortified at myself, I even tried a joint, all with no effect. I took the medication the therapist recommended, which only made me nauseous.
It became a nightmare for me to leave the house. The embarrassment of waking in hospital was too much, so I stayed behind closed doors. Once I had even been robbed, waking on a street corner with no purse, no wallet; that was the proverbial last straw. With no family, and a recent layoff with a severance package that would keep my rent paid for a while yet, no one noticed when I blacked out if I never left home, and eventually I would wake, stiff, with a full bladder and an empty stomach, and things would be normal again. Until the next time.
But I still needed groceries. I no longer drove, not trusting myself not to black out behind the wheel, and that left me with walking to the nearest store. It wasn't all that far, but I hadn't been one for exercise since childhood, and I found even the few blocks left me panting. And that was assuming I made it there and back without passing out. Which it seemed I wasn't going to be able to do, this time. Careening around the corner, I found a bench up against the side of the building I was passing, and sank onto it, groceries still in hand. I fought the feeling, struggled to stay awake, but felt the blackness take me anyway. My body slumped to the side, as I dropped the grocery bags, and remembered nothing else.
The things I hadn't told anyone about the blackouts were the dreams. My therapist and a variety of frustrated emergency room doctors already thought I was crazy; I certainly wasn't going to make that worse by explaining the dreams that haunted me while I was unconscious. I justified that by assuring myself they were nothing other than the random firings of nerve cells in my too-imaginative brain, and trying to ignore them. After all, even coma patients who woke after years of unconsciousness reported dreaming, right? But the dreams were too real. I had started needing more and more time to recover from them; when I woke I was unsure who I was, where I was. The dreams felt more real to me than being awake.
The first dream I could remember, the first blackout, I saw the dragon. Massive, evil, such a dark red it almost appeared purple, the beast flew over me. The wind from its wings battered against me, knocking me over, its roar deafening me. I had scrambled to get away, scraping my hands on the rocks beneath me, feet scrabbling for purchase, until I made the mistake of looking down and realising that it was not rock shards I was sliding over, but jagged pieces of bone ... I woke in the back of an ambulance, my blood curdling scream almost causing the paramedic who was driving to careen off the road. It had only taken a few seconds to figure out where that dream had come from - with the layoff, and nothing left to do after sending out resumes, I'd been playing computer games to kill time. One game in particular, really - Dragon Age: Origins. Convinced I'd just overdone it on the fantasy, I tried to put the dream out of my mind as much as possible.
The next dream was about darkspawn. I was in the deep roads, from the same damned game, watching from above as the horde marched. The sheer number of disgusting creatures was overwhelming, the smell of rot and decay rising to assail my nostrils, the sound of thousands of feet roaring, the high-pitched calls of the shrieks barely discernible above the rest of the din. I watched for what felt like hours, waking finally in the emergency room, apparently only unconscious for about an hour. I shuddered, remembering the oppressive aura of true evil that rose from the horde, but again, I put it down to too much time in front of the computer, too late at night. I put aside the game for a while, thinking perhaps I just needed a break from that sort of dark fantasy. I watched romantic comedies and re-read favourite books, but it made no difference. The dreams kept coming with each blackout, and eventually I returned to the game.
As I isolated myself further, avoiding leaving the house for fear of public blackouts, I played more and more. Having nothing else more compelling to do, when I finished the game, I started again. I played first as a human, then as an elf, a dwarf. I played the mage origin twice, trying different tactics each time. I resolved not to look up the outcomes of any of the decisions, and tried all the different ones. Support Harrowmont once, Bhelen the next time. Kill the elves, kill the werewolves, try to find a compromise. Kill Loghain, or recruit him. Take Morrigan's deal or don't. Romance Alistair, or Zevran, or giggle as I tried to manage a lesbian relationship with Leliana. Deal with the devastation of Alistair sacrificing himself to save me, or watch him cry over me at my funeral if I saved him. I tried them all. My favourite was playing a human noble, a rogue, and ending up as the Queen of Ferelden, even though poor Alistair hated it. But he was so sweet, so kind, so noble ... I played the romance scenes with him over and over, falling head over heels with the handsome templar. It was a good thing, I decided, that I don't have any close friends to see me pining away over a fictional character in a computer game. I'd never live it down.
I read the books by David Gaider, and while they were interesting in their own way, they weren't as compelling as playing the game. Though knowing who Alistair's mother was threw me, for a bit. I pictured him as being huge ... how could he be half elven? Elves were supposed to be tiny. I knew the children of elves and humans looked human, but I figured the height might at least be affected. I didn't dwell on it.
And in between, the blackouts. The dreams. Sometimes I would have more-or-less pleasant ones; images of Alistair's childhood in Redcliffe Castle, or Leliana as a youngster singing for an older woman I assumed to be Lady Cecilie, the Orlesian noblewoman who raised her, or Morrigan's fumbling first attempts at shapechanging. Sometimes they would be full of demons and abominations, darkspawn and undead. However, I couldn't help but notice that with each blackout, the dreams were becoming longer, more detailed, more real, and the actual world felt more and more like a dream. I knew I should have been terrified, but somehow, I couldn't bring myself to care that much. It wasn't like I was leaving anything of importance behind, like anyone would truly care if I didn't wake up. It was only the inconvenience, the embarrassment of the blackouts that caused me any real grief.
This dream was the most immersive of all, I thought to myself as I looked around. I was standing in the middle of a field, wearing my jeans, jacket, and t-shirt, dark hair flowing down my back, with my feet crammed into my ill-fitting cheap shoes. The scent of wild flowers tickled my nose, as well as a whiff of manure. I looked around to see a busy farm-hold in the distance, and without any other ideas, I walked in that direction. The act of walking brought me up short; I hadn't realised, but this body I was inhabiting was definitely not my own. I stopped and looked down, realising that instead of the roundness of my stomach, the flare of my hips that I was used to, I found a long, lean body, with small breasts high on my chest, slim hips, and thighs which didn't touch when I stood. Despite my changed body, my clothes fit fine, which seemed strange. For the first time in a long time, as I walked, I did not feel out of breath, my legs didn't burn with effort. As I returned to crossing the field, I felt slightly giddy, even skipping a few steps, until my feet started to protest. I ended up having to sit down and take off my shoes, walking the rest of the way barefoot. Smiling, I stepped onto the well-packed dirt in front of the small farmhouse.
I could hear children, somewhere in the distance, giggling and laughing as they chased each other and played juvenile games. There were dogs barking, and the sound of chickens and pigs, and I wandered around, wide-eyed. Being born and raised in the city, I had never been to a farm before, but this looked ... rustic, even to me. There was no paved road, just a dirt trail leading to the farmhouse. I saw no cars, no trucks, but there was a large cart that I assumed could be hitched to a horse. I could hear no tractors, and could just distinguish men, in the fields, harvesting some sort of plant by hand. I wondered if they could be Amish. I had never seen anyone Amish, but knew that they did not accept modern technology at all.
I wandered further, coming up on the small farmhouse. It too was primitive, made out of stone and wood. There was only one small window, and the glass was warped, yellowing and thick, like pictures I had seen of ancient cathedrals. The roof was thatched - I did a double take at that - and thin smoke was curling up out of a chimney. I didn't go up to the door, deciding to look around more first. Passing around the side of the small building, I came upon two women hanging damp laundry onto a line. They didn't see me approach, and I paused, examining the women in surprise. One of the women was young, perhaps barely eighteen, while the other was older. The older one had a young baby strapped to her hip with a blanket. They were chatting away as they hung laundry, and the unusual, obviously hand-sewn clothes drew my attention.
I was distracted from examining their clothes when I realised I could overhear what they were saying.
"Isn't it exciting, mother?" asked the younger woman. The enthusiasm in her voice made me adjust her age estimate down by a couple of years. "The King will be marching past in the next couple of days. And Loghain, the Hero of River Dane. And an army of Grey Wardens!"
"Don't let your father hear that tone when you talk about men," admonished the older woman. "Maker knows he'd tie you up in the barn and never let you out again." She smiled, taking the sting from her words.
"Oh, mother, the stories all mention how handsome King Cailan is. I just want to see him. See if it's true."
"And try to catch his eye, no doubt. Don't give me that look, girl, you can't fool me. I'd recommend you set your sights a bit lower. I suspect Queen Anora would have a swift and probably unpleasant response to anyone getting attention from the King. Don't underestimate that woman; she's ruthless." Both women giggled, but the younger one paused, suddenly looking nervous.
"I was thinking about ... going to Ostagar. Trying to get a job as a servant or cook or some such." Her mother dropped the trousers she was trying to hang, staring at the young woman in shock. "Wait, hear me out. Look, Maker knows we could use the silver. I am certain they could use extra hands, helping to prepare, and ... isn't it our duty? To help the King, in any way we can, in a time of Blight? Da's letting Dylan go, to join the army as a recruit, he could accompany me there and make sure I'm safe, and..."
She trailed off under her mother's gaze. The brief silence left me time to think, to try to process the information I'd just heard. A King? A battle at ... Ostagar? I knew I'd been dreaming about Dragon Age, but hadn't expected this level of detail, from a dream. These pieces weren't a part of the game! There had been no mention of this young woman, or this Dylan. Somehow my sleeping brain was providing details, and ... back story? In a setting created by a game designer. Weird.
A sudden scream of terror brought me back to what was happening. Glancing around, I noticed the young woman staring out into the fields, hands pressed over her mouth, as she took a deep breath to scream again. I followed her gaze, and gasped. Rising up, out of the ground, were darkspawn. One of them had already attacked, its wicked sword being pulled out of the body of one of the men I had seen harvesting grain. Another was fighting a second man, who was using one of his farming tools - a scythe, I realised - as a weapon, parrying desperately. More creatures surged to the surface, spreading out and engaging the other men in the field. Seeing that they had the men outnumbered, several of the creatures turned towards the young woman's scream and headed toward the farmhouse.
Reality setting in, the mother grabbed her daughter, shaking her until she caught her eye, and then screamed at her. "Run! Keep running and don't look back. Go find the King. Tell him what happened. Go! Run, girl!"
With a shove from her mother, the girl finally turned, and started to run away. She stumbled as she ran, not even noticing me as she sprinted past, around the house and out of sight. I was still frozen in place, staring at the horror of - oh God - Genlocks and Hurlocks up close, as the mother unhooked the baby from her waist, settling it in the laundry basket, and running over to tuck the basket into the shelter of the wall of the house where it would not easily be seen. Grabbing a large stick, she stepped out onto the path her daughter had run down, and I finally realised she was preparing to fight. Darkspawn. Alone. With a stick.
Looking around desperately, I noticed a pitchfork leaning against the wall, and ran over to grab it. I realised I did not have enough time to run away - my hesitation had cost me that - and now had no choice but to fight. I grabbed the implement and ran up to the woman's side, heart pounding, feeling like I was going to vomit. Keep it together, Sierra. The woman didn't even acknowledge me, she was so focused on the approaching darkspawn. I frantically searched my mind for anything I knew about fighting, coming up with very little. I was briefly disgusted with myself for never watching martial arts movies, when the darkspawn arrived. No time left to think, I struck out at one with the pitchfork, scoring a hit on his face from my superior reach, and the creature bellowed in pain.
The darkspawn seemed to give me a wide berth after that, instead attempting to surround the unfortunate woman beside me trying to defend the road long enough for her daughter to run. She swung her stick with determination, obviously much better trained with a weapon than I, but with all the crowding around her, there was only so much she could do. I tried to help any way I could, hacking as a hurlock lifted his axe to cut her down, black blood squirting out through the openings my pitchfork made in his back, slashing the sword arm of another, just trying to keep her whole. She had blood running down her face, and some sort of wound in her side - not all of the blood on her homemade linen dress was hers, but enough of it was. More and more of the darkspawn were coming, and I realised they had finished off the men in the fields. We are losing.
I heard an odd noise behind me, and turned my head for one moment. The whole scene seemed to pause as a tall, gaunt, twisted figure, a parody of the hurlocks in front of me, unfolded from the ground. He wore strange, blood red, piecemeal armour, and an elaborate though shabby headdress. An Emissary, I realised, and my heart sank. It had been hopeless before, though I had refused to acknowledge it, but now I was forced to. We were through. The Emissary was chanting, and the hair on my arms stood on end, goosebumps rippling my flesh, as I felt the magic building. I turned back to yell at the woman to run, just in time to see her cut down by a darkspawn sword.
I screamed, a howl of rage and fear and anguish, and felt something change in the magic aura behind me. As tears flowed down my cheeks, a flash of white light expanded in a circle around me. The hurlocks and genlocks around me howled, then flew back from me, some of them landing on the ground, some slamming up against another surface, like the wall of the house, before sliding down to join their brethren in the dirt. None of them rose again. I turned to see the Emissary still alive, though down on the ground behind me. He looked ... confused, would be the closest I could come to the emotion expressed on his corrupted face. Blood trickled out of one ear, though he didn't seem to notice it.
"What did you do?" It asked. I had forgotten that Emissaries can speak, and the gravelly voice was like nails on a chalkboard. It raised its arms, chanting, then gasping as nothing happened. "What are you?" It screamed now, raising its arms again, and finally released from my stunned paralysis, I stomped over to it and drove the pitchfork into its chest with all of my strength. Black ichor squirted out, again, and I realised my jeans were entirely ruined. Black blood dripped off the hem and was smeared across my chest, but nowhere did I see any of my own, red blood. I was, amazingly, unharmed.
The Emissary fell back, and I stood over it, panting, tears still streaming. Convinced it was dead, I finally straightened and surveyed the farm-hold. Nothing moved. The darkspawn were dead, the grass turning brown around them where they lay. There was no sound - no more children playing, no more talking, no more screaming. Everything was desolate silence. I screamed once, sinking down beside the body of the woman I'd fought to save. Too late. Why did it have to be too late? I held her hand and sobbed, guilt washing over me. Why hadn't I done something? What had even happened? It was clear the Emissary hadn't seen anything like it before, and obviously, neither had I.
A soft-pitched cry disturbed me from my mourning. The baby! Another thing I'd forgotten. I hustled over to the spot where his mother had hidden the basket, and there, amidst the still damp laundry, I found a tiny, sweet, smiling face. I picked him up, gently - I had never held an infant before, had no idea whatsoever what to do with him. In foster care I'd had numerous younger foster-siblings, but the youngest had been toddlers. He smiled at me, reaching out and grabbing a handful of hair. I smiled back. I sat him back in the basket, feeling somewhat less desolate. It had been too late to save his mother, the rest of his family - but he, and perhaps his sister, would live.
The stink of blood was in my nose, the metallic taste in my mouth; I decided that the least these people deserved was to be buried with some respect. And perhaps I would burn the darkspawn corpses as well, before they tainted anything else. I went into the house, searching until I found some blankets, some water, and something I assumed was kerosene, and dragged my finds outside. Back inside for a moment, I found a chamber pot and did my business. Outside, I drank some water, and carefully dripped some into the baby's mouth as well; he giggled as it ran down his chin. I pulled his mother's body out from amidst the darkspawn, crossing her arms on her chest and closing her eyes before I covered her with a blanket.
Setting off into the field, I found the rest of the bodies, and slowly, laboriously, pulled them all to lie beside her, before covering them as well. The bodies of the children left me sobbing, again, tiny bodies laid between the larger ones of their family. The task was gruesome. Finally, surrounded by four children and five adults, I found a shovel and began to dig. I knew I wouldn't manage to make graves as deep as I wished, but something was better than nothing. I dug, and dug, eventually realising that I would be exhausted long before I had enough individual resting places. I decided that the family would probably forgive me for one communal grave. The baby was remarkably well behaved during this, though I had to scrounge through the family's kitchen to find something to feed him a couple of times. I dug through the evening and into the night, finally sitting down, planning to rest for a few minutes before continuing. I leaned back against the wall, briefly holding the sleeping baby, and fell fast asleep. I woke when the full rays of the sun were beating down on me, a tiny fist pulling on my hair. Startled, I realised that falling asleep in the open in an area that darkspawn frequented was horrendously stupid, but somehow we had survived, the tiny baby and I, despite that.
I fed him again, and found some cloth diapers to change him into. I'd have given anything for some safety pins - or some huggies. Disposable diapers were definitely a luxury I'd have paid for right then. Tucking him back into the basket of laundry, for want of a better option, I finished the hole I had been digging and gently placed the first body in it. As I was reaching for the second, I heard noise in the distance. Pausing just briefly to listen, I realised what I was hearing was horses. Lots of horses. And they were coming fast. I was quite sure that darkspawn didn't ride horses, and had no desire to try to explain to whoever was coming who I was. I tucked the baby, who was sleeping again, under the laundry, back into the space his mother had shoved him before the attack. Not knowing what else to do, I crept out into the field, finding a spot devoid of blood, that had yet to be harvested, and lay down, hoping the high grass would hide me.
In a couple of minutes, the cavalry finally arrived. I saw the young woman from the day before, and she was being escorted by a contingent of heavily armoured, armed men. She was crying as they came around the house, seeing as no one had answered her calls as they rode up. The armed men quickly cleared the house and farmyard, determining no darkspawn were about, and no family members still lived. And then the baby squalled, and the young woman dashed over to grab him out of the basket, hugging him desperately to her breast and sobbing. One of the men kindly took her aside so she would not have to stare at the bodies of her slain family, and she shuffled away.
I was close enough to hear snippets of the conversation, and determined that the man in the golden, shiny armour was indeed King Cailan. He was as good looking as advertised. That thought made me smile, just a little. He and a couple of his men looked around, trying to determine what had happened.
"There must have been someone else here. Look. All the bodies laid out neatly, and covered..."
" ... and someone has changed that baby's nappy, or I'm Andraste's husband."
"But how could someone have survived? Maker, look at the number of them."
" ... an Emissary. Have you ever seen simple farm folk survive an Emissary?"
" ... seen an Emissary killed by a pitchfork?"
"Could a darkspawn have done it and run?"
" ... eat the dead. They don't bury'em."
"Why in Andraste's name would anyone bury them?"
" ... an elf? One of the Dalish?"
" ... get a pyre going, and burn those darkspawn too."
I scrubbed a hand across my face, eyes gritty. Stupid, stupid. People in Ferelden don't bury their dead. How could I forget?
" ... even oil, here, just waiting."
" ... whoever did it. Strange they'd leave - the reward..."
" ... maybe an Apostate? That might..."
Finally, they finished building a pyre and burned the dead. I watched as the flames burned into the night, as the men finally gathered up the young woman and her brother and headed out. As the last of the men rode off into the night, I stood, bowing my head by the pyre, tears streaking down my face.