Chapter 1: Play Date
At last did the Maker
From the living world
Make men. Immutable, as the substance of the earth,
With souls made of dream and idea, hope and fear,
- Threnodies 5:6
Brecilian Forest, Ferelden
Blue eyes met amber in an uneven battle of wills as the man tried to gauge the five-year old's sincerity.
"You promise you'll go straight home?" Leon asked the boy, giving him a stern look that seemed out of place on the man's normally artless face. Leon's boyish countenance, with his thatch of bright blonde hair, vacuous blue eyes and ready smile, along with his modest understanding made him an unlikely authority figure for a boy like Malcolm, who at five years had a precocity that was almost preternatural. Malcolm's sincere attachment to Leon, his protector since birth, typically made these differences in intellect moot; however, today, Leon was outmatched.
"I promise! I just want to wash off some mud first. Mama won't like it all over her clean floor." Malcolm smiled with what he hoped was just enough mischief at the thought of his mother's dismay over so much mud.
Leon chuckled, having witnessed Marian Hawke's lectures about mud in the past. "Good idea. Okay then, straight home with you." He looked across the village square toward Merrill's tidy cottage, already anxious to be away.
Unbeknownst to Leon, Malcolm was just as anxious to leave but was much better at hiding it. "I promise. I'll go in a minute. But, you should take them to Merrill before they wilt." Malcolm tried his best to sound helpful, and innocent, hoping Leon wouldn't guess that he'd purposely conjured Merrill's favorite flowers.
"I… all right, Malcolm. I'll see you tomorrow. But, no magic while I'm gone. Understood?" The former templar placed a hand on top of Malcolm's red-gold curls for a moment and then started toward Merrill's cottage, Fereldan wild roses grasped in hand.
Malcolm waited for his guardian to round a corner before slipping away from the stream's edge and into the forest. He felt bad tricking Leon, but it was the only way. Malcolm had already felt the call vibrating insistently through his bones for some time now.
The forest was strangely still as he hurried through, like the trees themselves had quieted their leaves from rustling in order to listen. It wasn't long before he also heard it: a voice, singing with such soaring majesty that the birds had fallen silent in the branches overhead, also listening.
Although Malcolm didn't know a word of Old Tevinter, he still somehow understood the meaning of the song. It sang of the rhythms of life within the wood, the turning seasons, and the magnificence of nature, while also pulsing with ancient power. Guided by the unearthly voice, he soon arrived at the sunny glade where his friend sat waiting.
The boy had long golden hair that gleamed in the sun and equally golden eyes that watched the sky as he sang. But what was most striking about the boy was his remarkable beauty, which almost bordered on the effeminate, given his delicate features and slender build. He had the coltish proportions of a twelve-year old who was neither child nor teenager, but his eyes appeared older than the stones upon which he sat.
The boy was seated on a toppled stone marker that long ago had been reclaimed by the wood, its original purpose now obscured with colorful circles of lichen and moss. Gathered around the broken stone were several forest creatures drawn in by the boy's song. A doe and two fauns stood watching with liquid eyes. A raccoon blinked sleepily from its den inside a nearby tree hollow. A pair of chipmunks stood up on their hind legs just in front of the boy, swaying slightly with the song. An old grey wolf sat next to the boy like a dog at heel, wagging its tail while the boy stroked its head. Malcolm stopped at the edge of the clearing, not wanting to disturb the scene.
When the golden-haired boy's song came to an end, he smiled at Malcolm and beckoned him closer. The animals melted back into the wood as Malcolm drew near, leaving only the wolf. Malcolm's fingers started to twitch as he watched the boy continue to pet the grizzled wolf, which for all the world seemed to be enjoying itself. "Can I pet him, too?" Malcolm asked.
In answer, the older boy looked into the wolf's eyes and then turned back and nodded. "He says that you may."
Malcolm inched closer, still wary of startling the creature. Tentatively, he reached out and scratched the wolf's ear. Soon the wolf's tongue was lolling out in a canine grin. "Does he like me?" Malcolm asked the boy.
"He does. You do not hear him?"
Malcolm scrunched up his face, listening hard, but heard nothing. He shook his head. "I guess I don't know how."
"Hmm. Strange. Well, perhaps I can teach you to listen properly. Maybe that can be our lesson for today." The older boy tilted his head to one side. "It took you longer to come this time."
"Sorry, Earth," Malcolm said. "It was harder for me to get away. There's no school today, just Leon watching me, so I had to… um… to…"
Earth smiled at Malcolm's nickname for him, finally resigned to it given the five-year old's difficulties pronouncing his real name. "You lied?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess." Malcolm twisted the hem of his tunic in one hand, worrying at a thread that had come loose.
"It bothers you that you lied to this… templar."
"He's not a templar."
"His mind always feels like a templar's."
"He's… well, he's not one anymore. Like my papa, they quit. They just protect our village now."
"But, this Leon, he monitors you."
"He's my guardian. He takes care of me." Malcolm felt another twinge of guilt that he had tricked Leon, although it really took so little to convince the man to dote on Merrill anymore. Malcolm's mother expected the couple to get married any day now.
"He stops you from using your power."
"He makes sure I'm safe. That the demons don't come for me. For my magic. He's… he's like my second papa."
Earth tilted his head to the side again in puzzlement, strange yellow eyes unreadable. "I do not have even one father. Why would you possibly need two?"
"Well… you must have at least one? Right? Everyone has a father."
"Mother says she is all I have ever needed. And, 'tis true." The older boy cleared his throat, wishing to change to the subject. He ran a critical eye over Malcolm and asked, "Why are you covered in mud?" As he spoke, Earth realized that he sounded just like his mother when she disapproved of something, which was most of the time.
Malcolm shrugged. "I was playing in the mud by the stream. Mud pies."
"Mud… pies?" Earth's nose crinkled in disgust. "Do you truly eat such things?"
Malcolm laughed. "Yuck! Of course not! It's just pretend. You never just… play in the mud?"
"What would be the purpose?"
"Um, to have fun, I guess. The stream mud is the best. It feels… silky between your fingers. It's my favorite for pies. But, too goopy for throwing." He nodded sagely, knowing that he was an expert on mud, that even his friend Rosalind would admit that.
Earth took a pinch of dried mud from Malcolm's shoulder and rubbed it between his fingers. All he could tell was that it was dirt, finely grained like silt, but dirt nonetheless. "Interesting." He briskly brushed his hands together, ready to start their lesson. He scooted over on the stone marker. "Here, sit down. So, have you any experience with wolves?"
"Not really. We have a mabari and my friend Rosalind has a regular dog. He smells, though. Our mabari sort of talks, but not really."
Earth frowned, not fully understanding, and wondered yet again at his patience with the five-year old. "'Tis… similar, I suppose, in some respects. Dogs, after all, were bred from wolves. But they have lost their connection to the Earth."
"'Tis a bit like instinct, which dogs still have, but also… more. To hear him, all you must do is recognize that connection. Here, take my hands, and let me show you."
Earth held both of Malcolm's hands, and as he always did with their lessons, he also reached out with his mind for a combination of showing and telling. He showed Malcolm how to open his thoughts to the riot of bright souls surrounding them, guiding and nudging him while also explaining. Malcolm could never tell if Earth spoke these words aloud or shared them silently, mind to mind.
Earth helped Malcolm focus in on the old grey wolf, whose soul glowed a bright blue. The wolf was connected with tenuous glowing strands to the rest of his pack as well as to the diffuse blue radiance of the land around them, which underlay everything.
Malcolm looked around with this new awareness, seeing that the entire forest was bright with a tangled web of these blue lines, connecting all living things. The brightest of all, in fact almost incandescent in the depth of his soul and his many connections to the living world, was his friend Earth. Malcolm observed the boy's glow in awe for a moment before attending again to the lesson.
When they released each other's hands and opened their eyes, Earth watched Malcolm expectantly.
"That's amazing. Everything is connected. The whole forest. Even me. And, you, only more so."
"Yes. Yes, that is it. Exactly. Well done." Earth gave him a slow, proud smile. It comforted him to remember that this was why he spent his time on the little boy, because he was quick and very perceptive at times.
The grey wolf turned his head toward Malcolm. Greetings, little one.
Hearing the wolf, Malcolm crowed in delight and clapped his hands. This startled the creature, who shied away and glanced accusingly at the older boy.
Earth grinned at them both. "Be at peace, grey one. Malcolm is merely… showing his enthusiasm. Albeit loudly."
"Um, sorry." Malcolm tried to remember his manners and so swept an awkward bow at the wolf. "Howdoyoudo, Ser Wolf?"
The wolf's jaws opened in a canine laugh. I do well, little one. He stepped toward Malcolm, sniffing him once. Curious. You are different from other humans. Like him. He looked toward Earth. But… also not like him.
"I am a mage, Ser Wolf."
Yes. But, it is something else. The wolf merely looked at him enigmatically and then stood up. I must go. The pack awaits.
Earth inclined his head at the wolf. "You have honored us. Thank you and farewell."
The wolf took a step closer to Malcolm, looking him in the eye. It is good you are his friend. His destiny is a burden. He will need such friends as you in the times to come. The wolf then turned and ran into the wood.
Malcolm watched the wolf until he disappeared and glanced at his friend. "What does he mean?"
"I do not know. I did not hear him." When Malcolm looked confused, Earth continued, "He can choose who hears him. So, it seems what he said was just for you."
Malcolm flushed. "He… he said he is glad we're friends."
Earth was slightly taken aback by this. "Friends? I… Yes, I suppose… I suppose you are my… friend." Friend. It was an unfamiliar word, rolling uncomfortably off his tongue.
Malcolm laughed at the look on Earth's face. "You aren't sure?"
Earth didn't like being laughed at so spoke more harshly than he'd intended. "Friends are luxuries for the foolish and the idle. All one truly needs is one's self."
"I… I didn't mean…" Malcolm looked slightly frightened at this abrupt turn in Earth's mood, making the older boy relent.
Earth sighed, looking down at his slender hands. "What I meant to say is that… when one has no other friends, it can be difficult to recognize such a rare thing."
"Oh. Um. It's okay." Malcolm screwed up his face, thinking. "You know, if you want… maybe my friend Rosalind could come play with us next time...? I think you'd like her."
"Ah, thank you for the offer, Malcolm, but no, I think… with one friend, I am already doing quite well. Plus, my lessons are for you alone."
"Why?" Malcolm had long wondered about this, why this remarkable boy had sought him out so many months ago, calling to him with his enigmatic song and ancient power.
Earth's eyes slid away to the pitted surface of the stone marker, wondering that himself. Finally, he shrugged one shoulder, giving the only answer he had. "You are... like me. Different. Special."
Special. Of course, Malcolm's mother had always told him he was special, but that's just what mothers were supposed to say. Hearing it from Earth, though, was different. Malcolm felt a tingle run down his spine, suddenly knowing this to be true in the way that sometimes he just… knew things. "Special how?"
Earth gave another one-shouldered shrug. "We merely are. We have a stronger connection to the Earth. Did you not see it yourself just now?"
Malcolm looked again the interlocking blue web around him, but instead of focusing on the near blinding light that was his friend, this time he looked at himself and the strong link he also had to that web. "I… suppose."
"You must also notice you are different from the others you know. Can your friend Rosalind call on the winds to do her bidding?"
"Well, yes, she has magic, too."
"But do the winds whisper back to her? Does she hear the ravens grumble about the crosswinds? Does she sense the far ocean tremble from that shift in the air? Does she feel the moon shine down her approval?"
Malcolm thought about this. He always knew when the weather was turning before anyone else, since he usually could hear the giggling of the silly breezes heralding the change. And, the moon had always been his friend, perhaps his first, comforting him on the darkest of nights when his dreams turned frightening or demanding. But Rosalind had never mentioned anything like this. "Do— do you speak to the moon, too?" Malcolm asked.
"Sometimes. What does she say to you?"
"She tells me not to be frightened of my dreams."
"What does she say to you?"
Earth looked away, eyes distant. "She tells me… not to be frightened of my destiny."
Earth looked back and grinned in an effort to shake off the somber turn of his thoughts. "'Tis something I try not to think on and will certainly not dwell on now." He stood up. "I am afraid I must go, too, Malcolm. There is a change in the wind."
"Oh. Okay." Malcolm tried to hide his disappointment. "Well, thank you for my lesson today."
"It was my pleasure. I am afraid it may be some time before I can come back again. But, I will come."
"What if… I need you?"
"Just speak my true name to the winds. They will find me." Earth smiled kindly. "'Twill be good incentive for you to finally pronounce it correctly."
Malcolm took a deep breath, scrunched up his face, and then said slowly, "Earth-them-eel."
Urthemiel inclined his head and smiled. "Close enough. That will always find me. Farewell, my… friend."
He then walked gracefully toward the center of the clearing and raised his hands to his sides. Malcolm heard a faint rushing sound and then the air danced and shimmered around his friend. In an instant, the boy disappeared, replaced by a radiant golden dragon with smooth iridescent hide, sharp golden spikes running from his head down his back, and bright golden eyes. The dragon extended his wings gracefully in preparation for flight, sending dancing arcs of light and color across the clearing as the late afternoon sun scintillated off the delicate golden sails.
"Urthemiel," Malcolm whispered. Dragon of Beauty.
The dragon looked over his shoulder at Malcolm and nodded his head. Then, with a powerful sweep of his massive wings, he was aloft and flying away toward the south.
Malcolm pushed his food around on his plate, feeling the tension that reigned at the dinner table. He had arrived home at a run, just barely in time for dinner, but he could tell by his parents' silence that somehow they knew something of his adventure today.
Marian was cutting up his little sister Elleni's food when she finally addressed him in a tight but deceptively neutral voice. "So. Leon tells me he sent you home over two hours ago."
Cullen looked up from his food, watching for Malcolm's response. Malcolm returned his gaze, adopting the same solemn expression while his mind raced for a response. It was moments like this that their resemblance was striking. Malcolm had his father's amber eyes, fair skin, and reddish gold curls, although Cullen's hair was more closely shorn in the style from his days as a templar. In a similar way, three-year old Elleni took after her mother's dark hair and grey eyes and had even started mimicking some of Marian's more authoritarian mannerisms.
"I was playing in the mud at the stream," Malcolm said evenly.
"I went by the stream on my way home," his father said. "The mud pies were there, but you were not."
Malcolm schooled his expression as he nimbly adjusted his story. "Well, I had to go into the forest to find the deeper pool. To… to get the mud off, because I didn't want you to be mad, Mama, and… well… I sorta… started to play again." He smiled sheepishly and let his guilt show a little, supporting his alibi.
His father grunted and went back to eating, considering the matter closed.
Marian looked up at her son at last, still struggling to contain the last vestiges of her panic at his seeming disappearance. "You know, it may seem perfectly safe here in the village, but it's important we always know where you are, Malcolm." She shared an uneasy look with her husband. They had gone back and forth about the idea of making a phylactery for Malcolm in order to track him if necessary, but so far had opted against the Chantry's hypocritical blood ritual. This latest episode might have changed her mind.
"I'm sorry! I should have come straight home, like I promised Leon. I'll tell him I'm sorry."
Marian nodded slowly. "You do that. You know how guilty he feels when he thinks he has let us down. He feels so bad that now Merrill may not see him for the next month, and that I blame on you, serah." She gave him an arch look.
He hadn't considered that. "I'm sorry, Mama." He hung his head, feeling truly contrite now.
Marian sighed and then gave Malcolm a smile that was only slightly forced. "So, did Rosalind join you in this illicit expedition into the forest?"
"Sometimes all one truly needs is one's self," he found himself saying.
Her eyebrows shot up at this answer and she shared another look with Cullen, this time amused. "True enough. And yet, sometimes one needs one's friends. Especially when wandering through the forest."
Malcolm smiled to himself at the unintentional truth in his mother's words and started to eat his food. "Yes, Mama."
After a moment, Marian started to eat as well. She then looked over at her husband. "So, what's this I hear about a dragon flying over the woods today?"
Shocked, Malcolm kept his eyes glued to his plate, listening intently.
Responding to the skepticism in Marian's voice, Cullen said, "Donnic saw it, too. Not the biggest I've seen, but it was by far the most unusual. It was golden."
"Hmm, I didn't think they made gold dragons. How odd," Marian said with a frown. "I hope she isn't planning to nest nearby. That's the last thing we need."
"Well, if so, it's lucky we have the mighty, dragon-slaying Champion of Kirkwall here to protect us." Cullen smiled at her proudly.
She laughed. "Given how out of practice that Champion is, I sure hope it doesn't come to that."
Worried for his friend, Malcolm did, too.
You should tell her the truth.
Malcolm started in surprise, wondering from where this new admonishment had come. Looking around, he saw the greying mabari hound laying before the hearth look straight at him. Stretching his new awareness, Malcolm saw the mabari's faint blue connections for the first time.
You should tell her the truth, the dog repeated.
Shush, you, he whispered silently back. You know I can't tell anyone. Especially now.
I think she would understand. They both would. The golden one is an important friend for you. For all of us.
He scowled at the dog, wondering again what the animals knew that he did not.
Later that night, Marian was tucking Malcolm into bed when he thought it would be prudent to ask a few follow-up questions. "Mama, why do you think the gold dragon would be starting a nest nearby?"
"Well, since it's the first we've seen of her and she was a bit on the small side, I can only guess that she's a young dragon searching for a spot to nest. More mature high dragons tend to stick close to home."
"Um, why do you think it's a girl dragon and not a boy dragon?"
"Because boy dragons don't fly." She laughed. "And thank the Maker for that. You've heard the story enough times of how I fought a high dragon, right? Part of what made that so challenging was that you have to fight her and her whole harem. Hatchlings, male drakes, adolescents. There's a reason so many legends are told of dragon slaying. It's hard."
He frowned, trying to get back to his original point. "Boy dragons never fly?"
"Nope. They don't even have wings."
"And there's never been even one who did?"
"Weell... I... Um, I don't know." Like every other mother of an inquisitive child, Marian struggled with her less-than-omniscient knowledge for a satisfactory answer. "I suppose... an Archdemon is technically a boy dragon with wings. So, there have been a few."
He nodded. I knew it, he thought to himself. "What's an Archdemon?"
Marian tried to decide how much she could tell him. "Archdemons are ancient, fearsome dragons that were once the Old Gods worshiped in Tevinter. The tales say there were seven and that the Maker trapped them underground. The darkspawn constantly seek them out there, following the ancient dragons' call. Whenever they succeed in awakening one, the dragon immediately becomes corrupted and turns into an Archdemon. It then leads the darkspawn to the surface to wage war on the people of Thedas, starting a Blight. You've heard of the Hero of Ferelden, right?"
He nodded. "Right! The Hero of Ferelden saved us by slaying a mighty dragon!"
"Exactly. The dragon was the Archdemon Urthemiel, and when he died, the Fifth Blight was ended. Queen Elissa saved us all."
A chill went through Malcolm upon hearing these words. "Urthemiel. Dragon of Beauty," he murmured.
She nodded, amazed yet again at the unusual things her son picked up. "That's right. Who told you that's what Urthemiel means in Old Tevinter?"
"Um, oh... I don't know," he stammered.
"Malcolm, you don't have to look so worried. There's no way the dragon your father saw was an Archdemon. I'm sure we're perfectly safe."
He tried to appear reassured, while his mind spun at these revelations. "I know, Mama. Anyway, I bet that dragon was just passing through."
"I'm sure you're right." She kissed his forehead. "Now, time to sleep."
He lay awake for some time after his mother left, considering the strange coincidence that his friend was named after one of only seven flying male dragons in existence. And, a dead and evil one at that. The gibbous moon outside his window tonight had no words of comfort.
Chapter 2: Dream and Idea
In Darkness eternal they searched
For those who had goaded them on,
Until at last they found their prize,
Their god, their betrayer:
The sleeping dragon Dumat. Their taint
Twisted even the false-god, and the whisperer
Awoke at last, in pain and horror, and led
Them to wreak havoc upon all the nations of the world:
The first Blight.
- Threnodies 8:7
The night sky was obscured with roiling clouds as the battle raged on the castellated roof of the prison tower. A sea of soulless, tainted darkspawn threw itself in single-minded hatred at the dwarven, human and elven allies who struggled to hold the line. At the center of the chaos was a fierce black dragon that radiated malevolence. Its form was gnarled and twisted from the darkspawn corruption with its bones standing out in relief from its rotted flesh and punctuated by long, wicked spikes. Its dead eyes, dimly gleaming like the cold, distant stars, were trained on the warrior who had just given it a seemingly mortal wound. The warrior backed up warily from the dragon and tiredly drew off her helmet, revealing blonde hair confined in two tightly braided buns at the nape of her neck. A flash of lightning reflected off the engraved griffon on her spattered silver and blue breastplate. She dropped the helmet to the ground with a clatter, her every motion screaming weariness, and turned back to the wounded dragon.
The creature crouched in obvious pain and watched carefully for the woman's next move. She gritted her teeth and then abruptly ran full tilt toward it, grabbing a discarded sword along the way. Upon reaching the dragon, she slid the sword along the underside of its long neck while it weakly tried to snap at her. She spun out of the way and, with all her might, stabbed the sword into the juncture between the dragon's neck and head. A blinding light flashed out in all directions, throwing her to the ground, and the air around the tower exploded.
Just as the dark bulk of the dragon settled to the flagstones, breathing its last shuddering breath, a golden light stirred from within it. The golden blur grew, fluttering delicately like a heartbeat. The blur coalesced, growing broad, glowing wings, and stretched its graceful neck up to the open night sky. The bright golden dragon was still somehow transparent as it leapt into the air, leaving behind the tower and the cold remains of the dark, twisted dragon. It soared through the clouds, seeming to revel in its freedom, its sudden lightness of spirit. With a flip of a wingtip, it then headed toward a lone figure standing still atop a rise just outside the ravaged city.
Drawing near, the dragon was inexorably drawn to the figure, which turned out to be a dark-haired woman with strange yellow eyes. Something about the woman seemed to call to it like an unearthly beacon. The golden dragon hovered above her for a moment as she looked off in the distance toward the burning city, unaware of the ghostly creature hovering so nearby. Then, with a silent trumpet, the dragon folded its translucent wings and fell into a steep dive toward the woman.
She did not seem to see the plummeting dragon, but as it reached her, it seemed to pass through her, instantly dissolving into a swirl of golden sparkles that spun around her and then disappeared. The woman stumbled briefly, gasping and shuddering at the invisible contact while leaning over with her hands braced on her knees. After taking a few deep breaths, she straightened. She then smiled curiously, almost triumphantly, and placed a protective hand over her belly. A belly that was not yet distended from the child growing within.
Then, everything was flooded with a warm light. Arms wrapped around Malcolm and someone was holding him gently and murmuring softly.
"Shh, Mama is here. Everything is okay. Malcolm, it's okay. Mama is with you." From within his mother's embrace, Malcolm found he was shuddering with sobs. His throat was hoarse from shouting, and his face was wet with tears.
Looking over his mother's shoulder from where she held him, Malcolm saw his father stumble half-dressed into the room. Cullen tiredly rubbed the sleep from his eyes and moved to comfort Elleni, whom Malcolm apparently had awoken with his cries. "Shush, 'Leni. Go back to sleep, little love. Mal will be all right. Time to sleep."
"It's just a dream, sparrowhawk. It's okay," Marian murmured, stroking Malcolm's back as he clung to her.
All he could manage to gasp out between his hiccupping sobs was, "Dragon."
"It's all right. There are no dragons here. You are safe. It was just a dream. It wasn't real." She continued to murmur soothingly and rock him.
He let himself be comforted and soon his racing heart started to calm back down. But, he also knew that, while it had been a dream, his mother was wrong. It also had been real. All too vividly real. The remarkable details of a battle he'd never even heard described. The bravery of the fair Queen Elissa, whom he'd never seen. The death of the dark dragon and the rebirth of something old and beautiful—that had an uncanny resemblance to his friend Urthemiel, the golden dragon. He knew that he had seen the night the Hero of Ferelden stopped the Blight. And, apparently unleashed something startling. He closed his eyes and burrowed his face against his mother's neck, trying his best to block out these confusing images.
When Malcolm woke the next morning he heard his parents arguing about the dragon. He could tell from their hushed voices that they were trying not to be overheard.
"…and I'm not convinced that it's that big of a threat," his mother said.
"It cannot hurt for us to just take a look. Donnic and I will take a unit of the Watch and scout out the valley. We'll be discreet, but we're better safe than sorry, Marian."
"I just don't want any more talk about dragons around him. His imagination is overactive enough as it is. I'm not sure we can handle another bout of night terrors. All I'm saying is… there's no need to unnecessarily frighten him, especially if the dragon is already long gone."
"But, we don't know that for sure. Not until we report back with whatever we find." There was a pause. "Marian, he will be fine. We'll just have to keep the dragon talk to a minimum." Malcolm could hear the smile in his father's voice, sure that that would be the end of the argument since his mother rarely prevailed against that smile.
As Malcolm walked into the kitchen, his parents immediately fell silent, oblivious to the fact that he'd already been able to hear them from down the hall.
"Your breakfast is on the table, Malcolm. Then, Leon will be by to take you to school," Marian said.
"But, I don't need—"
Her stern look cut off his complaint. "You brought this on yourself, young man. You're not walking alone today. In fact, I doubt you'll have even two minutes alone in the near future. You know how Leon is. You can take the templar out of the Circle, but sometimes you can't take the Circle out of the templar."
"Now see here!" Cullen complained in a wounded voice.
Marian patted her husband's cheek patronizingly. "Present company excepted, dear." She grinned at him, clearly unrepentant, and then turned back to Malcolm. "And, don't forget—"
"I know, Mama. I will say sorry." Malcolm wasn't looking forward to facing Leon today, feeling terribly ashamed of deceiving him.
Malcolm felt even worse when Leon remained silent as they walked to school. He glanced furtively at Leon several times, but Leon kept his eyes on the path, disappointment clear in the rigid lines of his body.
For as long as Malcolm could remember, Leon had been watching over him. Leon used his templar training not only to help Malcolm keep control of his magic but also to keep him safe in general. Leon did that for all the mage kids in their village, serving as the head watchman for their school, but with Malcolm it was more. Marian sometimes called Leon his "personal templar," which was sort of confusing to Malcolm since Leon wasn't a templar anymore. Apparently, Leon and his father once had been templars together in far-off Kirkwall, but when all the Circles rebelled, they had settled here in the Brecilian Forest to start a new kind of Circle. Or, that's the way his father described it. Malcolm wasn't sure what made it new, except that he got the impression that the old Circles weren't terribly happy places.
He couldn't stand having Leon mad at him, so finally he stopped and sank down onto a boulder along the path.
Leon stopped a few steps past. "What are you doing? Merrill is expecting you at school."
Malcolm took a deep breath. "Leon, I'm so sorry I didn't go straight home yesterday."
Leon's face clouded. "You should be. You made me a promise. A man is only as good as his word, Malcolm."
"I know. I just got… distracted. I meant to go right home when I promised." Malcolm felt the urge to cross his fingers behind his back as he lied yet again. He felt horrible, but in his heart he knew that he just couldn't reveal anything about his friend Earth. Not yet.
"Well, you mustn't do anything like that again. You are given quite a bit of trust here in the village. By your parents. By me. You must strive to be worthy of that trust."
"I will. Really I will."
"Well, all right then," Leon said gruffly, inwardly pleased that they could put this episode behind them. "Let's get going. I don't want Merrill even more cross with me."
Malcolm dutifully followed. "Did she… at least like the flowers?"
"Yes. Until she found out that I'd chosen her above my duty. Then… I don't know. It's like she was suddenly reminded of our differences again. And that mages don't belong with templars. Sometimes… it feels like I can't win."
Malcolm slipped his hand into Leon's and gave it a squeeze. "Well, Mama would say that, of course, mages belong with templars. Don't worry, Leon. Merrill loves you. This just shows you how much she cares."
Leon laughed. "Let's hope so. Perhaps she'll be over it today."
When they arrived at the village's modest school house, however, they quickly realized that was not the case. Merrill's lips were narrowed in a grim line as she watched them enter. "I was beginning to worry that you had lost your charge again, templar."
Leon winced. She only called him that when she was angry. "But, Merrill—"
She tossed her head, causing the intricate braiding in her long dark hair to flip back over her shoulder. "Don't you 'But, Merrill' me! Ahem." She wordlessly pointed to his usual spot against the back wall.
Leon shared a beleaguered look with Malcolm, who grimaced in commiseration, and then slumped off to his guard post at the back of the classroom.
Merrill's bright green eyes turned back to Malcolm and the delicate elven tattoos on her face suddenly made her look uncharacteristically fierce as she stared him down. "Don't think you are completely blameless here, sparrowhawk. Leon rarely falls into trouble without you having pushed him first." Malcolm's eyes widened and he started to protest when she cut him off, speaking in a low, serious voice. "You must take better care with his boundless loyalty to you, Malcolm. It's a precious thing you take for granted." Then she walked away to bring the class to order.
He didn't really have a chance to focus on the strange dream until they started their magic lesson that afternoon. Since they were again covering something he'd mastered long ago, he took the opportunity to replay the dream's confusing events in his mind's eye and puzzle out their mysteries. He was sure that the dark dragon was the Archdemon. But, it was the golden dragon he was most interested in. Was it real? What did it have to do with the dark-haired woman he'd seen? Did it have something to do with his friend? It was definitely some kind of vision… or something… of the past. But he wanted to know more.
Merrill had started walking around the room while the students practiced freezing pinecones, correcting here, praising there. When she approached Malcolm, she raised her eyebrows in question at his still unfrozen pinecone. He flushed. "Merrill, you know I can do ice spells. That's baby stuff."
Hearing this, his friend Rosalind at the next desk stuck her tongue out at him, the pinecone in her hand also unfrozen. She was a year his senior but had only very recently manifested her magic. He gave her a cheeky grin back.
"Malcolm!" Merrill's eyes looked around, hoping none of the other students had overheard him. "Just because you're more adept at some things doesn't mean others are less worthy for having to work at them. Nor does it mean that you don't still need to practice these things."
"Merrill, how did the Blight end?"
She blinked owlishly at the abrupt change of subject. "The Grey Wardens defeated the Archdemon."
"But, how? Where? Can you tell me more of the details? What did the Archdemon look like? How was he killed?"
She sighed, knowing that Malcolm wouldn't stop asking until she gave him a real answer. "The final battle of the Blight was in Denerim, Ferelden's capital."
"But where in Denerim?" he pressed.
"Let's see." Her brow furrowed as she thought. "I heard that the Archdemon was forced to land on top of some tower. At Fort Drakon, I believe."
"A fort? I thought it was a prison?" Malcolm asked with a frown.
"Um, yes. Fort Drakon does happen to be a prison, with a tall tower. That's where the Hero of Ferelden confronted the dragon."
"What does she look like?"
Merrill wondered at these odd details he was asking about, but she dutifully tried to answer. Queen Elissa is tall with long blonde hair that she is normally seen wearing up. The Archdemon was black and twisted, and its body was covered with long spikes. Yes, it was undoubtedly evil, having been corrupted by the darkspawn taint. Its goal was extinguishing all life in Thedas. There was apparently a bright explosion at the moment the dragon died. It could be seen for a great distance around the city. No, there were no other dragons around, black, golden, or otherwise.
Eventually Malcolm was satisfied, but by then it was time to move on to the next lesson. Assuming that the boy was just trying to get out of practicing ice spells, Merrill never guessed at any ulterior motive.
That night Malcolm dreamt again. This time, he saw the dark-haired woman with yellow eyes again, but she seemed slightly older, her hair longer and worn down where it brushed the small of her back. With her was a small boy with bright blonde hair who held her hand while they walked along a riverbank. The woman sang a short song about poisonous flowers and how to recognize them by color. The toddler smiled, clapping his hands when she ended the song. The boy's eyes were the mirror of hers, but there the similarities ended as otherwise his coloring was fair and golden. Urthemiel's coloring.
"Mama!" He threw his arms around her.
She gave a small smile and gently disentangled herself. "Mother," she corrected.
His face fell. "Mother," he repeated dully.
A nearby butterfly caught her eye, so she motioned toward it, murmuring something. It immediately soared closer, finally alighting upon her finger. She slowly brought the butterfly down to show the boy. "See the butterfly, Urthemiel." It was almost like a peace offering to the boy, who immediately clapped his hands in delight. Unfortunately, this startled the butterfly into flying away.
Urthemiel frowned sadly. He then closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. When he opened them, the butterfly flew back to him. It alit on the boy's hand, pumping its wings slowly as he grinned. It was soon joined by a second butterfly that attached itself to his fingertip. And, then another. The boy giggled as suddenly, dipping and dancing in the air above him, were hundreds of butterflies.
The woman's eyes widened in astonishment, and not a little fear, at her son's remarkable show of power.
In a blur, Malcolm now saw a cold, stone room. Resplendent banners edged with gold lined the walls and golden sconces cast the room into a bright contrast of light and shadow. A man with golden hair sat in an uncomfortable-looking gilded chair with his face buried in his hands where they were propped on his knees. Sitting next to him was the Hero of Ferelden, Queen Elissa, sitting with more poise, but also with a frown on her face.
"It isn't only our concern, your majesties," said one of the sour-faced ministers facing them. "The whole kingdom awaits news of an heir."
The Queen glanced at her husband briefly. "We thank you for bringing this concern to us. But, I believe we are done discussing it for today. Thank you, gentlemen." She nodded her head once, and the ministers took their cue and quietly shuffled out of the room.
"Alistair, we need to talk about it."
He groaned. "Do we have to?" His voice came out muffled from between his hands.
She smiled fondly. "I'm afraid so, love."
Finally, he sat up. "I just don't see why what happens in our bedroom has to be anyone's business but our own."
"We've hidden from the topic for too long ourselves. They're right to question and so should we. We've always worried that two Grey Wardens together might not be able to have children. Perhaps, after three years, it's time to stop hoping."
He frowned. "I'm more worried they'll find out about… the other… child," he said in almost a whisper.
Her face closed off and her eyes darted around the room to make sure no one was within hearing distance. When she spoke, her tone brooked no argument. "That one has nothing to do with us. Not anymore. Morrigan successfully saved our lives, so her ritual must have worked. The Archdemon's soul must be caged inside her baby. End of story."
He suddenly looked guilty and was unable to look her in the eye. "But, what if… what if what happened with Morrigan was my one… shot? What if her child is the only heir I'll ever have?"
"Alistair, I wouldn't think of it as an heir. Morrigan is not the sort of person who would swoop in and wrest a kingdom from you. That's much too… worldly a concern for her. She made it very clear; she wants to be left alone. So, I doubt you'll ever even meet this child."
"A witchy, evil, Old God child that… that looks like someone I hate," he muttered.
She snorted. "Witchy, certainly. But, is he still evil?" She shrugged. "Morrigan says the child is an innocent, for all he has the ancient soul of an Old God. But who really knows. I honestly hope we'll never find out." Her face spread into a slow, warm smile. "What we need to focus on is how to make another one. One that looks like you and me…" She cocked an eyebrow at him, which finally made him smile. And blush.
Malcolm's eyes snapped open, staring at the dark shadows rippling across the ceiling of his bedroom. Another dream. It was still puzzling, albeit less frightening this time. He had no idea where these dreams were coming from, but they seemed to want to tell him a story. Apparently Urthemiel's story. Was it an omen? A warning? Was his friend a threat? If he was an Archdemon, was another Blight coming? Should he tell someone?
Be at peace, boy.
Malcolm blinked and looked outside his window at the moon.
There is no need for you to be frightened, the moon continued. Gather knowledge where you can.
He snuggled back under his covers, turning on his side. The moon was usually right, so he tried to stop worrying and go back to sleep.
The rest of the week progressed in a similar manner. Each night he had another dream about Urthemiel. Some were repeats of what he'd already seen, some expanded on new things. He also learned quite a bit from Merrill, who took his questions as a cue for a lesson about the ancient religions of Tevinter and the Old Gods. The information he gained from her lessons and from his dreams began to intertwine, until he started to wonder if he was dreaming about things he heard at school or if school was merely mirroring his strange dreams.
Malcolm was fascinated to learn that Urthemiel had been worshipped in Tevinter as the god of beauty. Their largest festival was the Festival of Urthemiel, which celebrated art, life, nature and beauty for twelve days. Urthemiel was considered the patron of artists and musicians, and he was always represented as a golden dragon. That made him sound like he was good. But then, if he was good, why would the Maker cast down the Old Gods? The Chantry said the Maker turned away from humanity because they worshipped these gods. The original sin. Merrill had a hard time explaining that part, especially since she wasn't an Andrastian herself. Even his father, who had been raised in the Chantry, couldn't really explain it when pressed.
Leon continued to watch him like a hawk and shuttled him to and from school. Normally Malcolm wouldn't mind, since Leon was a constant fixture in his life, but it gave him no time to himself and thus no real chance to process everything he'd learned. Plus, he was becoming increasingly anxious to talk to Earth. He needed to try to learn the truth of all these strange revelations, but there had been no chances to slip away and call his friend.
Malcolm lay in his bed, not yet able to fall asleep after several hours of trying. Listening to the sounds of the night normally soothed him, but tonight he couldn't even see the moon since it was barely risen. He reached out to the wooden dragon figurine on his bedside table, running his hand down its long smooth neck. The dragon appeared poised for flight with its graceful wings just starting to unfurl. Rosalind's father Jen had carved it for him amid all the excitement over the golden dragon sighting. Although the figurine was only a quick wood carving over dinner one night, it was incredibly beautiful and lifelike, a tribute to Jen's remarkable skill which some thought was merely another manifestation of his magical talent.
Malcolm heard his parents retire to their room, and their voices carried with unusual clarity tonight. "...think it's official, our son is now dragon crazy," Cullen said with a chuckle. "Did you hear the questions he asked me at dinner tonight? The Chantry always makes the Maker's will seem so black and white, but Malcolm actually had me questioning why He would imprison the Old Gods."
"I know. Leon said it is all he can talk about at school this week, too. You saw his new dragon?"
"Jen mentioned he had carved it for him. He said dragons are all Rosalind is talking about, too."
Marian sighed. "So much for my protecting him."
"As someone was once very fond of telling me, ahem, you can't protect him from everything."
"I know," she said sullenly.
"Marian, at least he is no longer frightened. He hasn't had any more bad dreams. I think in this case, knowledge is power."
There was a pause before Marian continued. "And you're sure there was no sign of the dragon?"
"None. But, not to worry, we will be ready for it if it returns. I can't recall… did I tell you that someone else on the Watch has also faced a dragon before? Yes, so I think we'll be more than prepared. That dragon won't stand a chance."
This decided Malcolm. He had to talk to Urthemiel. Malcolm wasn't entirely sure if it was more to warn his friend of the danger or to confront him once and for all about who he really was. But, either way, it was time to call on the golden dragon.
Chapter 3: Hope and Fear
The Old Gods will call to you,
From their ancient prisons they will sing.
Dragons with wicked eyes and wicked hearts,
On blacken'd wings does deceit take flight,
The first of My children, lost to night.
- Silence 3:6, Dissonant Verse
Malcolm knew that finding a chance to slip away from Leon was going to be tricky. Even worse, he would again be breaking every promise he had made to his guardian. If he got caught this time, he feared he would be grounded until adulthood. Or worse. It took him several anxious days before he found his opportunity.
Like all Dalish elves, Merrill had close ties with nature. So on nice days she would occasionally hold class in the forest. Sometimes it would be a lesson on ancient Dalish magic or natural history, other times it was just an excuse to get out of the classroom. One morning on the way to school, Leon mentioned that their class would be headed into the wood that day. "Merrill says mushroom season is starting, with all the rain we've had," Leon said, smiling that private smile he didn't seem to realize he always wore when he talked about her.
Quickly deciding this was his chance, Malcolm stopped dead in his tracks. "What is it?" Leon asked.
"I… I forgot my dragon at home. I have to go get it!"
"Are you sure you need it today? You won't want to carry it through the wood—"
"Yes," Malcolm insisted. "I… I told Rosalind I'd bring it. I'll be right back! It'll just take me a minute." He realized it would be a hassle to carry it around today, but it was the only distraction he could think of on a moment's notice.
Leon sighed. "Fine. Run."
Malcolm ran, but instead of running inside the cottage, he ran into the wood beside it. Reaching out with an urgent thought, he woke the dog snoring next to the hearth inside. Then, he took a deep breath and called to the wind.
It took seemingly forever to respond, but soon it was giggling and whirling around him, tousling his curls and murmuring in his ear. Malcolm took another deep breath, forcing himself to concentrate, and said very distinctly, "Urthemiel." The word seemed to reverberate with power as it left his lips.
Urthemiel. Urthemielurthemielurthemiel, the breeze babbled as it swirled away and then headed southward, the direction Earth always flew. Now all Malcolm could do was wait for his friend's call, hoping he would hear it before anyone else caught sight of the brilliant dragon.
Treachery does not become you.
Malcolm turned around and looked into the accusing eyes of the awakened mabari hound, who sat with the wooden dragon held delicately in his jaws. Malcolm couldn't help but wonder if it had been easier before he'd tapped into the blue connections. Before the animals could speak to him. Or chide him. I know, he told the mabari. But I have to talk to him. This is the only way. He took the dragon from the dog. Thank you for bringing it. The dog nodded and trotted away.
Malcolm thought he had made it back to Leon without raising suspicion, until his guardian suddenly eyed him curiously. "What?" the boy asked nervously.
"Here," Leon said, reaching down to the small satchel he always wore. He quickly removed a few sundries, and after shortening the long strap, he looped it over Malcolm's shoulder. "Put the dragon in there so it doesn't get lost today."
"Th— thank you." Malcolm tucked the dragon inside it and smiled gratefully. Leon ruffled his hair with an answering smile and they continued on their way to where the class was meeting at the stream.
When Malcolm finally heard the call whisper to him later that day, he found that slipping away from his lesson was also easier than he had expected. Merrill was teaching them about the wild mushrooms that grew in the wood and had soon released them to explore on their own. Once he had drifted far enough away from the other students, he steadily made his way toward the meadow, after a while running to make better time.
When he burst out into the clearing, he saw the golden dragon sat in its center sunning himself. Malcolm felt a moment's panic that someone would see his friend in this form, but upon catching sight of Malcolm, Urthemiel immediately shimmered and assumed his human form.
Earth's eyes quickly noted Malcolm's agitation as he approached. "I heard your call. What troubles you?"
Malcolm thought of all the carefully constructed sentences he'd rehearsed in his head for confronting his friend, but instead he blurted, "Are you evil?"
Earth frowned in obvious confusion. "Come again?"
"Boy dragons can't fly. Unless you're an Archdemon. And the Archdemon from the last Blight was named Urthemiel. So… so… you must be the Archdemon. Admit it!"
Earth could only stare at him. The air around them seemed to have picked up a chill.
"Are you evil? Are you here to… to… lure me into darkness? To… to… start another Blight?" Malcolm demanded.
"You cannot possibly be serious."
"I've been having dreams this week. Visions. About you! The Hero of Ferelden defeating the Archdemon in Denerim. Your mother, the woman with the black hair and yellow eyes, leaving the burning city. You were born just after the Blight ended." Urthemiel still said nothing, so Malcolm continued. "Your father is King Alistair!"
This finally got a reaction from Earth. His face sharpened in anger and his golden eyes narrowed. "That is not true," the boy said in a voice that had become dangerously soft.
"I saw it!"
"I have no father."
"Of course you do. You must. It seems that your mother did some ritual with the King that saved the Grey Wardens, ending up with you. Somehow you have the Archdemon's soul."
A flicker of fear flashed across Urthemiel's eyes as these words struck a chord in him. When he spoke again, it was with much less certainty. "No. That cannot be true. I have no father. Mother would have told me something like that." He swallowed nervously and took a small step back, betraying another flutter of emotion. Something like panic.
"How else could you do the things you do? You're one of the Old Gods, reborn somehow! Try to deny it!"
"I…" With a heavy sigh, Earth sat down dejectedly in the dirt, his shoulders slumping. "I am uncertain that I can deny it. Although, I do not know why… or how… it could be so."
Earth looked so defeated, with his head bowed and his eyes clouded with doubt, that Malcolm now felt guilty for attacking his friend. He sat down next to him on the ground.
"All I know is that I was born of my mother." Earth's eyes remained trained on the ground while he spoke in a listless voice. "But, I do have strange… dreams. They are like… memories, almost. Of darkness and an eternal weariness. A hauntingly beautiful song that unsettles the spirit and speaks of endless longing. And… I think… the song might be mine. I see burning rivers and stony trenches. Grotesque creatures groveling. Humans... attacking. Pain." Suddenly, he rubbed his neck just behind his ear. He looked at Malcolm, a dawning horror in his eyes. "Do you think it could be true?"
"I don't know. From what I've learned, it sounds possible."
"Can you... can you tell me what you have learned? Mother has never spoken of any of this to me." For the first time since Malcolm had known Earth, the remarkable boy sounded lost… and frightened. So Malcolm proceeded to share everything he had gathered that week, feeling odd that they had swapped roles and he was now the knowledgeable one.
When Malcolm had finished, Earth remained silent, his inner turmoil apparent on his face. When he finally spoke, it was in a rush, as if he didn't want to think about the implications of his words. "So, do you think I might be evil?"
Malcolm thought about everything he had seen, the conclusions he had drawn, and the theories that he had developed. Observing his friend's unease, he decided that he needed to calm his concerns. And settle his own doubts, once and for all. "Well…" He stopped a chewed his lip. "The Archdemon was definitely evil. But apparently that was all because of the darkspawn who corrupted him… er, you. But, it seems that when it—you—um, died, the corruption in you also died. What was left… Earth, it was beautiful, like how you must have been as an Old God. Golden and pure. Like you are now."
"But did you not say that the Old Gods were thought to be evil as well?"
"I don't think that's true about you. No matter what the Chantry says. You stood for beauty and art and music. The things that feed the soul. How could that be evil?"
Urthemiel wasn't quite convinced. "I… I do not know."
"And, I think that, somehow, I'd be able to tell," Malcolm said with growing confidence. He took Earth's hand. "You honestly don't seem evil to me, Earth." He shrugged. "Maybe getting an Old God's soul is just a… a gift to appreciate. And, share with the world."
"A gift." Urthemiel considered this, doubt still lingering in his eyes. "When my mother speaks of my destiny, she sometimes calls me a gift to the world, whatever that entails. Nevertheless, 'twould be a comfort to think of it so." He shuddered. "But to have such a connection to something so twisted and evil. 'Tis disconcerting." Urthemiel rubbed at that spot on his neck again.
Still regretting that he had caused his friend's sadness, Malcolm had a sudden inspiration. He drew out the small wooden dragon from Leon's satchel and put it in Earth's hands. Earth's eyes flew in astonishment to Malcolm's. "What is this?"
Malcolm grinned. "It's… you. More or less."
Urthemiel's fingers traced over the graceful wings, a small smile growing on his face. "'Tis beautiful."
"Yes, it is. A friend made it for me this week. I want you to have it."
Urthemiel let his fingers explore the fluid lines of the dragon for a moment more, delighting in its elegance, but then he sighed and handed it back. "Thank you for the thought, Malcolm, truly, but I cannot take this. 'Twas intended for you."
"No, you should keep it." Earth grinned. "To be honest… I do not know how I would explain finding such a treasure." He then reached out again to touch the dragon where it lay in Malcolm's hands, running his finger reverently along the long neck to a spot just behind its ear. "You know… I actually have a scar that matches the wound from my dreams. The one you describe from the Warden."
"Really? Can I see?" Malcolm's eyes darted to Earth's neck as the youth almost unconsciously rubbed it again.
"No… 'tis only in my dragon form. The robins first told me of it."
"Seriously? Can I see it? Please?"
"Um, I guess so. Stand back." Urthemiel stepped out into the middle of the clearing and swiftly transformed into his dragon form. Malcolm stowed the toy dragon and then cautiously approached the life-sized version, still strangely timid next to the awesome creature. Urthemiel dipped his head, exposing the spot just behind the long, bony horns on his head. Looking closely Malcolm could now see a large jagged scar there, shaped almost like a sunburst. It was the only blemish on the dragon's smooth, gleaming hide. Can you see it? Urthemiel asked him silently.
"I can." Malcolm reached out tentatively to touch it, running his fingers over the dense scar material. "It… it looks like it hurt."
Urthemiel turned his massive head back toward Malcolm, his jaws opened in what was surely a dragon grin. From what little I seem to remember, I believe it did. I—
Suddenly a piercing shriek rent the stillness. "Malcolm! Maker, no!" Before either of them knew what was happening, an arcing bolt of energy shot toward them, burning and crackling as it struck Urthemiel's wing. He immediately reared up on his hind legs, roaring in pain and flapping his wings awkwardly while a sickening burning smell wafted through the air.
Malcolm was buffeted to the ground, but when he got back to his feet, he saw his mother descending upon them from across the clearing, her face contorted in fury. Her eyes were glowing silver and she held her shining mage's staff aloft while muttering some arcane incantation. From out of the woods behind her streamed the village Watch led by his father and Leon, crossbows already taking aim at Urthemiel.
Concerned for his friend, Malcolm sprinted back toward Earth. But, with a painful thud that drove the air from his lungs, Malcolm fell to the ground, having run smack into the shimmering sphere that had abruptly materialized around him. Catching his breath, he scrambled to his feet and tried to push his way through the protective shield. He cried out for everyone to stop, pummeling the shield with his fists, but no one was listening to him. Kicking and screaming with angry tears starting to run down his face, he watched in horror as the watchmen, led by his parents, began their attack on his friend.
Urthemiel tried to take off into the air, but his damaged wing wasn't strong enough. Instead, he dodged and retreated from the flurry of bolts flying at him, most of which uselessly bounced off his thick hide. He snarled in anger and fear as the humans approached him. In a last-ditch attempt to intimidate them instead of roast them, the dragon roared and belched fire into the sky. But, then he was howling again in pain as a maelstrom of crackling lightning manifested around him and numerous strikes hit home along his tail and his sensitive wings.
"No, no, no, no!" Malcolm's cries went unheeded as the guardsmen closed in on the injured dragon. Marian was at their center, striding vengefully toward the dragon, hands still crackling from the release of energy. At her side was Cullen, fully armored with sword and shield at the ready. Leon skidded to a halt just outside the shimmering barrier around Malcolm and then took up a defensive position between him and the battle.
In a mighty bound that strained his scored wing, a panicked Urthemiel managed to leap away from the locus of lightning strikes raining down on him. Watching his attackers close in again, his eyes narrowed dangerously. But, before he could finally retaliate, a wall of blue flame erupted around him, cutting him off from his attackers. An ear-splitting bellow revealed a second dragon circling overhead, larger and darker with reddish underwings and a magnificent rack of horns atop her head.
The larger dragon landed in front of the fire barrier around the golden dragon, rising up on her haunches with a mighty roar and buffeting the humans back with powerful sweeps of her wings. But, like Urthemiel, she didn't attack.
Marian scrambled to her feet. "No! Hold your fire. Hold your fire!" she yelled. "Cullen, tell them to stand down!"
Cullen looked at his wife in confusion. "But—"
"Just do it. I know this dragon." With that odd declaration, she ran toward the creature. She stopped just in front of the new dragon, easily within striking distance if it chose to attack. Instead, it shimmered and in its place stood a statuesque woman dressed all in leather and wearing a curious iron crown that held back her long silver hair.
The women stared at each other in silence, measuring. Cullen ran up beside Marian and tried to step protectively in front of her, shield raised.
The older woman looked curiously at Cullen. "Hold, templar." Her eyes swept over him. "Hmm, so you have slipped your Chantry's leash, only to accept another." She glanced at Marian, then back at Cullen, and smirked. "It suits you."
Marian put her hand on his arm, met his eyes briefly, and then wordlessly stepped around him to face the woman.
The silver-haired woman spoke first. "So we meet again, child."
Marian nodded. "It's been a long time, Flemeth."
There were gasps behind them as many recognized the name of the legendary Witch of the Wilds. Leon muttered to himself the witch's Dalish name: "Asha'bellanar."
Flemeth laughed, a carefree, booming sound that filled the meadow. "Has it? Perhaps it has. When I last saw you, you were set to make the world shake before you. And, now here you are. Hiding away from it… and its problems."
Marian couldn't help but feel slightly offended. "I only seek to protect my own."
"A sentiment I can well appreciate. So. Are we now to be at odds?"
"Only if your dragon tries to harm my son."
Flemeth arched an eyebrow. "Then perhaps you should stop trying to harm my grandson."
"Grandson?" Marian gasped.
Flemeth looked over her shoulder at the golden dragon. "Urthemiel, we have had quite enough of that now."
The blue circle of flame disappeared and the golden dragon inside it sank down until all four feet were on the ground. He dropped his head, looking as chastened as such a magnificent creature possibly can. Then, he also transformed back to his human form, causing more gasps and murmuring from the guardsmen. Embarrassed at being found out by his grandmother this way, Earth stalked toward them with shoulders slumped. The picture of mortified adolescence.
Marian was finally starting to guess what Malcolm was doing here—and from whence his dragon obsession had really come. She met Leon's gaze where he still stood on guard beside Malcolm and, after a mutual nod of acknowledgement, released the shield surrounding her son. The boy stumbled as the glowing wall of energy he had been leaning against vanished. He then tried to run over to his parents, but Leon quickly grabbed his arm and then marched him over at a more circumspect pace. When they drew near, Leon released Malcolm into Marian's waiting arms. She clasped him to her tightly for a second and then grudgingly loosened her grip. Keeping a careful hand on Malcolm's arm, she turned back to Flemeth and the scowling, golden-haired youth, who had finally joined them.
Urthemiel stood next to his grandmother, holding one arm somewhat tenderly. A faint blush suffused his fair complexion and he kept his eyes focused on his feet. In contrast, Malcolm watched them wide-eyed, his gaze darting around the circle at his friend and the collection of disapproving adults.
Flemeth placed her hand gently on Urthemiel's shoulder and sighed. "My foolish grandson, Urthemiel. His mother also has been unaware of his… extracurricular activities. It seems he has been visiting your boy for some time now. Teaching him the old Earth magics." She laughed heartily. "Some might say just like the Old Gods surreptitiously taught magic to the Tevinter magisters of old…" She laughed again as if appreciating some private joke. "What an interesting parallel."
Marian, Cullen and Leon all gave Malcolm an accusatory look. He immediately cringed, betraying his guilt.
"You should not blame your son. Some friendships are destined. Whether at this point we think them prudent or not." Urthemiel shifted uncomfortably under the sudden force of Flemeth's stern gaze.
"Destined? So will the world shake for him, too?" Marian asked warily, unable to mask completely her underlying fear.
"I would say that we all have a destiny. Only some have more impactful roles." Flemeth's eyes darted to Urthemiel as she said this and then turned back to Marian. "Now, in your case, heroic child, it seems you did leap into the abyss as I advised… and then you again retreated into safety."
Marian frowned and opened her mouth as if to dispute this.
Flemeth instead turned to Malcolm. "But then, situations do evolve." She nodded. "Yes, now I see it. Tell me, young man, will you be ready for your role when the time comes?" Her gaze was suddenly bright and intense.
Malcolm looked into the witch's eyes and for a split second felt like the ground had fallen out from beneath him. Instead of glowing blue connections to the world, she was a blazing inferno that seemed to shine everywhere at once. Bright, like Urthemiel, but deeper and older, with multiple layers and shades. Then, suddenly Malcolm's vision blurred and he saw another scene. It was Urthemiel in his dragon form, but clearly older from his enormous size, more developed horns upon his head, and longer spikes along his tail. Standing beside him on a hillside, one hand resting on the dragon's forearm, was a young man with shoulder-length, curly red-gold hair and amber eyes. Approaching the pair from down the hill was a rising tide of darkness. From within the dark heart of the faceless horde flickered the hint of colossal, shadowy wings. The adult Malcolm defensively raised a glowing staff as he and Urthemiel prepared to face the horde… together, but otherwise alone. Then, as suddenly as it began, the vision was gone and Malcolm's eyes cleared. A vision of the future. His and Urthemiel's. Malcolm wondered how he could possibly ever be ready for such a frightening challenge, whatever it was. Then, despite his now racing heartbeat, he looked up at the witch and in a strong voice said, "I will."
Flemeth nodded once and then to Marian, said, "Do not judge him too harshly. Your boy has spirit. He will need it for what is to come."
Marian's calm façade finally cracked, giving way to the creeping fear. "What do you mean? What have you seen? Is something coming for him?" She took a step toward the witch, her worry making her aggressive.
"Calm your fears, child. He has time. Luckily, we all do. Which is why it is now time for us to depart. Say goodbye, Urthemiel."
"But—" Urthemiel began, but stopped when Flemeth shook her head. Their eyes locked and for a moment it looked like he might rebel. But then his shoulders sagged again in resignation.
"I am sorry, dear," Flemeth said in a low, strangely gentle voice. "It is not yet time for you to rejoin the world. It is not ready. And neither are you."
He nodded disconsolately and then approached Malcolm. Uncomfortably aware of all the eyes watching him, Urthemiel was silent at first, eyes downcast. "Goodbye, Malcolm," he said quietly. "I… I have never had a friend before. I…" He finally looked up at the boy. "I am honored to call you such. Thank you."
Malcolm's eyes filled with tears. "But… no. Wait! Will… will I ever see you again?"
Earth fidgeted and shrugged one shoulder. "One never can tell. But, I think this is goodbye… for now."
Malcolm's eyes swung around at the circle of adults, accusing, pleading, but saw no allies. "But… but, that's not fair! Earth is my friend!"
Marian ran her hand gently down his arm, wishing she could make it easier for him. "Mal, it's… probably for the best."
"You will see each other again." Flemeth chuckled. "In fact, it seems very little can keep you two apart for long. But now is too soon."
Suddenly, Urthemiel asked, "Malcolm, may I see the toy dragon again?"
Puzzled, Malcolm pulled it out of the satchel and handed it over. Urthemiel took the toy, turning it over several times in his hands. Then he closed his eyes and the air around him seemed to tremble although there was no sound to be heard. The surface of the wooden toy undulated and a sparkling ripple ran across it. When Urthemiel handed the toy back, Malcolm blinked several times at the brilliant sheen of the dragon which now gleamed a bright gold.
Earth gave him a lop-sided smile. "Something to remember me by."
Malcolm looked wonderingly at the newly golden figurine, but then his face fell as he looked back at his friend. Without warning, he threw his arms around Urthemiel, causing the older boy to freeze in uncertainty, unsure how to respond to such physicality. "I'll miss you," Malcolm choked out.
"And I you. Another time, my friend." Urthemiel stepped back, touched Malcolm's shoulder with a smile, and then nodded to Flemeth.
Flemeth's eyes swept over the assembled villagers once before she and Urthemiel silently turned and walked away. Once they were in the open center of the meadow, they each shimmered brightly and then spread massive wings and took flight. It was several minutes before any of the earth-bound humans broke the awed silence that had fallen.
Malcolm lay in his bed that night unable to sleep. The soft breeze outside his window murmured of reddening leaves and the approaching autumn chill. But, instead of soothing him to sleep, the sibilant forecasts kept his mind focused on what was to come and the disconcerting portents he'd seen that day. He still didn't understand them or know if he should be frightened. The fact that Earth probably would have been able to explain it all to him just made him sad again.
Curiously, his parents had said very little to him about the incident so far. Dinner had been a quiet affair. Leon and Merrill had joined them, but everyone had been rather subdued and avoided all mention of the dragons. The only other indicator that all was not quite as peaceful as it seemed was the way that Merrill had not relinquished hold of Leon's hand even once throughout dinner.
Learning that Leon had faced Asha'bellanar without her had shaken Merrill. Their reunion had involved rebukes, tears, and reassurances, sometimes all at the same time. But, one positive outcome to the day's events was that the couple now seemed to be fully reconciled again. With Merrill clinging to his right hand, Leon gamely tried to eat with his left, to mixed results that the rest of them politely ignored.
Marian couldn't hide her concern about Flemeth's cryptic comments and so was clearly distracted throughout dinner. Cullen watched her out of the corner of his eye and finally resorted to what Marian called unfair tactics to get her to laugh and come back to their conversation. Only little Elleni was completely unaffected by the unspoken tensions and held her own gabbling conversation with the unanswering dog.
A sudden glint of light in the darkness drew Malcolm's eyes back to the golden dragon sitting on his bedside table. He reached out and ran his finger down its smooth neck, marveling again at how warm it felt instead of the cold, metallic feel he expected. Almost as if it were a real dragon, warmed from within by infernal fire. Already gracefully proportioned, the figurine now looked fluid and dynamic with its gold patina. He half expected to see it take wing around the room.
As he ran his finger down the smooth wing, he thought he felt it flutter slightly beneath his hand. Looking at it more closely, he was astonished to see the dragon turn its head toward him and blink its suddenly bright golden eyes. Inside his head he heard Urthemiel's voice: Are you asleep?
No. Can't sleep yet. Are you okay?
Yes. Grandmother has healed me. And you?
Well, I haven't been punished. Yet.
Grandmother has promised not to tell Mother. So long as I follow her rules, she says. Malcolm heard the sigh in Urthemiel's voice. I am sorry, Malcolm. I think I had not really anticipated how the adults would respond to our meetings.
No, I'm sorry, Earth. I was going to warn you about the Watch. My parents thought you might be a dragon looking to nest nearby.
Urthemiel snorted. Ah, yes, a mindless nesting female is much more dangerous than a reborn Old God looking to save the world. It saddened Malcolm to hear the bitterness in Urthemiel's words.
So… Malcolm paused, not sure how to ask. The future I saw. Was that the destiny you talked about? To confront some… some future evil.
Urthemiel sighed again. Yes. He paused and then in a more hopeful voice added, But, at least it seems I am not to be alone.
Malcolm realized that this thought comforted him, too. Nope. It seems we're in it together. I suppose… sometimes one needs one's friends.
Earth gave a low chuckle. I suppose that is true.
Malcolm grinned into the darkness. So, okay, you've got to show me how you're doing this thing with the dragon!
This made Urthemiel laugh. Oh, that. Certainly, but you should wait to practice it. Mistakes can be… rather loud.
And why do you know this?
My friend, you have no idea. You think Grandmother looked angry today…
Malcolm stifled a gurgle of laughter and then settled in to listen to the story, while the newly risen moon beamed down at him.