[This is a more or less direct transcription from Mathdor’s dream session; minor things have been edited for readability, and to compensate for Mathdor’s own view of the situation. Thanks and kudos to Amimain for providing the opportunity for this!]
For a few seconds, Mathdor was convinced that he was awakening prematurely; he could feel what he thought was his conscious mind resurfacing, and he groaned inwardly, for it was still dark, and it could not possibly be time to rise yet.
But even as he fought the sensation, he became aware of another: heat. Heat, and then light, and he realised with a rather unpleasant shock that he was, in fact, rapidly becoming present in the most vivid dream he had ever encountered—because this place, this was definitely not where he had gone to sleep.
He was standing, alone, in a sheltered hollow encircled by pillars of stone. A large pyre blazed brightly at the center of the shrine, but the blooming light it cast died at the feet of the horse-headed pillars. Beyond the circle, he could see nothing but a vast expanse of darkness, and would have bet a fair amount of coin that there was nothing but darkness out there. He swayed a bit as the lighting played with his vision, blinking and shaking his head, trying to peer past the pyre into the shadowy void, but got absolutely nowhere with that.
As he stood there, completely still, trying to collect himself, he slowly became aware of a figure materialising on the other side of the flames. It was tall, larger than life, dressed in a colourful motley stitched with gold and a long, merry jester’s hat perched on its head. A white porcelain mask decorated with curls of glittering red and gold obscured the face from view, but the eyes were still there, eyes deep and knowing and impossibly familiar.
Mathdor drew in his breath and turned quickly, his instincts kicking in even here, warning him of the presence of others appearing around him. He shielded his face from the light of the pyre with one raised hand and took a few steps back to better his view. His eyes squinted and narrowed.
To his left he saw a woman, and though small and stoop-backed, she, too, was somehow regal. Her clothing and decoration were strange to Mathdor—northern, tribal—and two thick white braids hung over her shoulders down to her hips. To his right was a figure more familiar to him, for she had the unmistakable bearing of a Rohirric shieldmaiden. Her light hair was swept up in a severe bun, and her face was angled and stern. She was wearing gleaming platemail that looked to be of both silver and gold.
Mathdor let his eyes dart from one figure to the other, taking in the stance and appearance of each despite his increasing confusion. Any number of comments filtered through his mind, but he clamped his mouth shut and resisted the immediate urge to be flippant.
And just when he thought things had gotten strange enough, he felt the presence of another someone behind him; he whirled on his heel again, feeling suddenly very cornered in this small space. He was met by a ruddy, very Dalish face—a man with short, choppy brown hair and dressed in sleeveless studded leather. He’d lost a hand somewhere during his lifetime, for on his left stump of a wrist was a simple steel hook. He had a well-worn sort of sense about him, and despite an objectively likeable face, Mathdor had no inclination to start a friendly chat.
Silence fell, for what felt like a small eternity, and then the robed man (The Bard, a strange voice in Mathdor’s head told him, as though it was something he’d known and long forgotten, he must be The Bard) began to speak.
“Mathdor Ward,” he said, and his voice was smooth and warm. “The four of us are known to you, though you choose to believe otherwise. It is time that you hear us.”
Mathdor gave The Bard a rather flat look. “Aye? I’ve a good memory for faces, you know. Don’t recall yours.”
“You are young,” said the old woman, her voice thin and rasping. Mathdor noticed that her eyes were milky white—a seer? “You are blind yet to the consequences of your inaction, though you do not always have to be.”
Mathdor opened his mouth, but was cut off again by the shieldmaiden.
“You endanger the lives of your comrades and family with your refusal to believe the whole truth.”
Her voice was harsh, but not as harsh as her words, and Mathdor felt his features tighten in response. He kept silent.
“Look, kid,” came the Dale-man’s voice from directly behind him, and he turned again wordlessly, feeling a vague note of indignation at being called kid, “what my dramatic contemporaries are trying to say is that your skepticism won’t get you anywhere. There are things out there—old things, powerful things—that you think aren’t real. Point is, all of them, and all of us—we’ll exist whether you believe it or not, and if you choose not, well…”
“…the rest of your journey shall be uphill,” finished the old woman, “and through thorns.”
Dramatic contemporaries, all right, thought Mathdor irritably. His eyes narrowed again as he focussed on the seer, and then he said quietly, “If you exist whether I like it or not, why should my choice make any difference?”
Almost as soon as he said it, though, he rather wished he hadn’t; aloud, the words sounded weak and childlike—apathy, the coward’s defence.
“Because sight is a choice,” the woman answered.
“And you have chosen to see naught but what is behind you,” added the shieldmaiden.
Mathdor shifted his weight ever so slightly. He was still facing the Dale-man, who seemed to pose the best possibility for non-cryptic conversation—which, given the current circumstances, wasn’t much of a comfort. “Aye, maybe,” he said slowly, “but at least I can start to leave things behind now.”
That much, at least, he was convinced of—that he had reached and rounded a turning point when he had turned his back on Esgaroth again, and since then he’d somehow felt freer because of it.
The other Dale-man reached up and scratched at his stubbly chin with the side of his hook. “Let me break it down for you: we can help you, but only if you let us.” He grinned, and gave a deferential nod. “You’re a big tough guy like me. I get that. Maybe you don’t need our help, or maybe you don’t want to ask for it. But going through life angry hurts everyone you love. I learned that the hard way.”
Mathdor looked hard at him for a long moment, and then let out a sudden humourless laugh. “Big tough guy?” he repeated, the corner of his lip twitching. “You must be looking for Gaelyn. I’m the one who left—the one who ran away.”
And though he’d said it to himself many times before, it suddenly touched him again, here, with more rawness than it ever had, and he clenched his hands tightly as though that might possibly keep it from showing.
The one who ran away.
The one who plotted the death of stranger.
The one who stayed silent.
The one who deserted all, and himself last.
His gaze dropped. For a moment, none of the figures spoke, but there was a strange sense of knowing, of understanding, that drifted from them.
Pieces of it all began to flash through his mind again, all in the space of a single moment and yet infinitely longer than that in his head; he thought of Dagrún, and the warehouse by the docks; of Rainer’s grinning face and Eitri’s laughing one, both gone, both silenced for their knowledge; of Gwen, of the daughter lost and the one in her place; of Audan and Coroline, and the consequences already emerging; and then, strangely, of his father, and that tale, that family history he’d never cared about until very, very recently…
He looked slowly up again, saying nothing.
“We are here for you always,” said The Bard at last. “Your acceptance of us will set you on the path towards wholeness.”
Mathdor bit his lip, tasting blood, and looked around at them, then at The Bard last of all. “Who are you?”
“We are Fionwe,” they said, all in unison, and their voices braided together were deep and hollow, like wind over the mountains.
A rush of sensation—the feeling of sunlight, the intangible smells of sand and basil—suddenly enveloped him, and he shut his eyes for a moment, his breath becoming sharp and unsteady. After a few seconds he swallowed, hard, and forced himself to look again.
The four figures began to speak in turn, each gaze settling on him.
“Not every secret can be spoken.”
“Nor every effort done.”
“Not every villain can be broken.”
“Nor every battle won.”
By the time they had finished, Mathdor had recovered enough to mutter, “Oh, that was clever.” But he managed no more, for three of the four abruptly faded into darkness, taking the pillars with them. He turned slowly on the spot, feeling an odd mixture of relief, disappointment, and pure irritation. Now he was left only with The Bard, and the flaming pyre between them.
The Bard’s face was as invisible as ever behind his mask, but he sounded like he might be smiling as he said, “Mathdor Ward, your lesson is acceptance. Only when you embrace it will your path be clear.”
Mathdor opened his mouth to respond, but, as with the others, the figure melted away before he could speak, along with the pyre. Now, there was nothing but warm, seemingly endless darkness around him; he extended one hand hesitantly into the blackness, but encountered nothing, which wasn’t so much frightening as it was nerve-wracking.
But while he could see nothing except darkness, he suddenly had the feeling that he was not alone in this void—there was someone else here, reaching for him, holding him, its invisible arms latching around his neck as a child might have done. He felt his breath catch in his throat.
He knew after a moment that it wasn’t her—it was far older than her, in its own way—but how he wished it could be, the tiny girl with the auburn hair. His eyes grew startled in the blackness, and he stilled, one hand still partially extended, filled with the sudden fear that to move would be to shatter this moment forever.
How long he—they—remained like this, he didn’t know, nor did he really care. It was as though the presence with him had only to touch him to dissolve all his usual barriers, leaving him exposed to its complete familiarity. And he found, too, that for once, he could neither struggle nor run, and at any rate felt no inclination to do so.
After an unknown length of time, he felt a pair of invisible lips brush against the top of his head, and then a voice, stirring something deep inside of him:
“If you spend your whole life glancing over your shoulder, all you will ever do is stumble.”
The words still echoed in his ears when he woke suddenly. His eyes were very wide, his breath trembling, and the scar that all of Thragan’s healing couldn’t prevent was stinging on his arm.
[For anyone interested, the scar on Math’s arm is from an occurrence many months back, details of which can be found here.]