A Long Hunt: Chapter 2
Templars, Mages, and Magisters, Oh my! Adventures in the Hinterlands, wrapping up after the events of “In Hushed Whispers.” A long campfire tale, yogi Solas, and drinks with Dorian – among other things.
Rating: Teen and up, SFW. Warnings for minor character death (referenced), alcohol use, mild PTSD flashbacks.
Elvhen translations based on the excellent work of FenxShiral. Any errors are my own.
Elvhen words & phrases:
vheraan – lion
da’len or da’lan – child. Da’lan is feminine, but da’len (masculine) seems to be used pretty ubiquitously.
Durlahn’banise – the mountain lion. means “quiet smoke”
El’u – the fennec. means “secret”
lethal’lan – blood kin, clan mate, very close and dear friend
prear’tunashre – piece of shit
Tevene words (Bioware):
kaffas – shit
“Uggh,” Cassandra groaned in annoyance. “I am just requisitioning some horses from Dennet the next time we come out here.” The tall dark-haired woman was currently sitting chest deep in a creek, where she had landed after a huge templar brute had charged her. It had been the desperate move of a dying man, and it was his blood that turned the water crimson around her. Grabbing the templar’s leg as she stood, the Seeker dragged his body to the bank, stomping out of the water. Her sword wobbled obscenely, protruding from the man’s gut, and Varric snickered.
The dwarf, the elf, and Elisara stood on a grassy embankment leading down to the small river running through the middle of the Hinterlands. Solas was examining one of the dead templars, and Elisara still had an arrow nocked that was recently aimed at Cassandra’s opponent. Water ran from the Seeker’s armor, and plastered her short hair to her head. Her helm had been knocked off in the Templar’s rush. Her withering gaze was indiscriminate, raking across all three as she yanked out the sword.
Varric’s snicker turned into a snort as her glare settled on him, and the dwarf could barely keep himself from laughing outright as he waved a hand toward the woman’s head.
“You’ve, uhh, got a souvenir there, Seeker.” He snickered again. “Lovely accessory, brings out the fury in your eyes.”
Elisara grinned and suppressed a chuckle as spindleweed fronds slapped against Varric’s back a moment later. The stern warrior usually intimidated her a bit, in spite of the fact that Cassandra now seemed to mostly accept the elf as a trusted ally rather than a hostile prisoner. Moments like this helped to keep them all grounded. We’re all just people, she thought. Powerful people in a ridiculous, insane situation, but people nonetheless.
They were always searching the bodies of the fallen, looking for anything useful. Anything that might keep the Inquisition soldiers alive a little longer… or keep the four of them from falling on the battlefield. She glanced at Solas as Cassandra continued to mutter under her breath. Quiet as always. I’m still not quite sure what to make of him sometimes, she thought with a crooked smile. But he certainly knows what he’s about. It’s such a challenge to guess what he’ll say…
“Solas, did they have enough spindleweed at the Crossroads, or should we add Cassandra’s piece to our stores?” The elf was crouched only a few feet away, facing her, but she called out loud enough that Cassandra and Varric could hear. The Seeker’s rolling eyes were practically audible, accompanied by the dwarf’s chortle.
Solas rested his forearms across his thighs, perfectly balanced on the balls of his feet, and the corner of his mouth turned up appreciatively. The Herald was the only one looking at him, and he could tell exactly what she was up to. Elisara’s eyes betrayed her mischief, a sly twinkle to accompany the almost imperceptible smile. She is toying with me just to see my reaction, he thought. Why does she want to know? Why does she care? Mmmmm… I have always enjoyed a bit of mischief.
“I am certain that any extra supplies would be most welcome, Herald.” He paused just long enough to see the rueful shake of her head. An appreciative grin spread wide across the elf’s face as he continued, however. “It is likely that the plant will have only become more potent after gracing the Seeker’s dark locks.”
“That is… I do not know whether that is intended as a compliment or not, Solas.” The Seeker sounded annoyed. Perplexed.
“It certainly seems to be one, Cassandra. I supposed your hair is just as lofty and blessed as any part of the Right Hand of the Divine, ” Elisara responded innocently as she tugged off the Templar’s helm. “Perhaps we should arrange a few tests when we return to Haven, just to be certain it’s true.”
Solas and Varric’s laughter joined another groan from Cassandra, with the elf shaking his head in amusement.
Does she realize how much her actions bind them together, I wonder? Solas mused to himself, watching the Herald’s casual behavior. Or is it just a defense mechanism, seeking kinship with those outside her clan? I can only hope that it will serve her well, instead of compromising her decisions.
Unsurprisingly, the warrior was not taking the good-humored joking entirely in stride. She glowered at Elisara as she stomped to retrieve the plant, angrily flinging it toward the two chuckling elves.
“How can you three make jokes when we’re in the middle of a war zone?”
Elisara’s eyes went wide as the plant flew toward them, directly at the back of Solas’s head.
“Solas, du-” she tried to warn him.
The wet plant hit the blessed Herald of Andraste square in the face, and she promptly fell on her ass.
“Well, shit.” Varric’s typical response fell in profound silence.
Everyone was staring at Elisara as the leathery red plant dropped into her lap, sliding sideways as one frond caught on her ear. Wisps of blonde hair were sticking out of her braids in every direction. At least it didn’t smell bad. Her bright green eyes flicked between Solas and Cassandra, her expression unreadable. The elf was in exactly the same position as before, having simply shifted effortlessly out of the plant’s path.
One eyebrow quirked upward in question as the Herald focused on Cassandra. The woman’s eyes were wide, mouth open in shock. Her hand was still extended toward them, almost as if to call back the thrown plant.
“Your Worship, I am so sorry, I did not intend it to hit you…” Words tumbled out of the Seeker’s mouth in a flurry of mortified chagrin. She started pacing in agitation as she spoke. “Please forgive me, I acted in anger, thoughtlessly. I am so frustrated with this mess with the templars, and fighting the mages is-”
“Cassandra, stop.” Elisara folded one long leg beneath her as she spoke, in an attempt to look slightly less like a graceless druffalo. Her tone was calm, but held a note of quiet command. The elf’s slender brows turned down in consternation as she searched the other woman’s gaze. She is so damn serious all the time, Elisara thought. It will tear her to pieces.
“Would you rather I tell you that this Templar is probably young enough to be your son?” The elf’s words rolled out in a quiet fury, her eyes locked on the Seeker’s dark ones. Confusion joined the shock on Cassandra’s face.
“Should I rage and flail at the loss of the two elves that stood among the last group of apostates that we fought? Is it better that I fuel your anger, your frustration, and my fury at how gods-damned bloody ridiculous this war is? Do you need a reminder of how many good people are being lost every day? How many innocent people have lost their homes and lives because of demons flooding through every damn rift in this blasted land?” Still seated on the ground, the words nonetheless hit Cassandra like arrows shot from her bow, and the Seeker took half a step back.
Elisara paused, taking a moment to rein in her own emotions.
“Is that what you truly want, Cassandra?”
“We…” the woman faltered. She wasn’t accustomed to being on the defensive in an argument, and the elf’s words struck her deeply, painfully. “We need to remember the sacrifices of this war, the people-”
Elisara cut her off. “Do you think that we do not remember?” The words held an edge, and she gestured sharply to punctuate the harsh sentiment. She sat with her back tall as she rested one arm on her bent knee, still seated with the spindleweed plant in her lap. Everyone has lost, she thought, if we drown in our despair and our rage.
Solas’s gaze shifted between the Herald, Seeker, and Varric as the rush of the water once again filled the silence. Slipping easily into old habits, he catalogued their reactions dispassionately, studying them each. He was good at reading people’s true feelings – he’d had to be.
Seeker Pentaghast – embarrassed, agitated, and still in such pain. Such frustration she feels at every death, every failure a personal mark against her.
Varric – impressed, entertained, and slightly uneasy. About provoking the Seeker’s ire, or the Herald’s, I wonder. Perhaps both.
The Herald – if intensity was itself an emotion, I would read it every line of her body. It was passion. An intense need to give no less than her best to the Inquisition, and to these people… no matter what that meant. Touches of pride and chagrin. Simmering anger. Understandable, he thought, given what had just transpired.
The Seeker’s eyes softened, regret tingeing her hard features. “Forgive me, Herald. I understand now, I think.” The woman took a deep breath, shoulders slumping a little as the tension of the argument slowly drained away. “It is just that I am… ill-accustomed to such levity on the battlefield.” I should be the most accustomed to war and death, the warrior thought to herself, and here I am whining and snapping worse than a green recruit.
Elisara’s mouth turned up in a slight smile as she nodded sharply to Cassandra, acknowledging the apology. “As I am still ill-accustomed to battlefields, I fear. Death and loss have too often been my companions though, and I have seen many succumb to grief and rage.” Her smile turned wry as she continued… “It was also you who started throwing plants, I might add.”
“I have no excuse for my actions.” She folded her arms across her armored chest with a slight huff, defeated.
“And you need none.” All eyes turned to Solas as he rejoined the conversation. He met the woman’s eyes squarely, his voice clear and confident.
“Each one who stands to face the darkness finds their own path through troubled times. The walls crash down around them, the forest burns to ash, tears of grief rip pieces from their heart, and yet they do not walk alone. Let them be strong with you, Seeker of Truth, and see their wit and passion shine.”
He saw renewed confidence and determination on both women’s faces, despite the blood-soaked ground that they all trod. Elisara held his gaze for a few long seconds, with a slight nod of thanks. Bitterness tinged his heart at her silent praise, even if the words he spoke rang true. He felt like a hypocrite, calling on them to stand while veiling his own strength and purpose.
“Well damn, Chuckles.” The dwarf’s rough voice broke in smoothly, as it often did when a moment lasted a bit too long. “Apparently you’re trying to steal my wordsmithing title away from me.”
Solas couldn’t help but laugh, his breath tumbling out in a light chuckle that had earned that very nickname. Even Cassandra smiled, though she was careful to school her face before turning to face the dwarf.
“Let us move on then, so that we can hopefully ‘stand together’ somewhere dry and comfortable before nightfall. We have a Grey Warden to find, remember?” Elisara was glad to hear no trace of the woman’s earlier ire in the words.
“Allright, allright, I get it Seeker. No more soppy streams for you.”
At least the banter is back to normal, Elisara thought, with a shake of her head. I hope that Warden Blackwall is worth the effort.
Solas continued rifling through the assortment of odds and ends that he had found in the Templar’s belt pouch. A few coins, a small wooden carving of a Mabari hound, two folded sheets of parchment with notes… It has been a long time since I last spoke words such as those, he thought. Words crafted to inspire, to bind, to lighten heavy hearts. Every face was a shining spark of freedom, a clear and brilliant chance to stand against all that they once held dear… and now they are all gone, it seems. Lost to time, lost to dreams, lost to the running strides of a wolf that did not recall what once the elves had been.
The Herald’s soft voice broke into his melancholy reverie. Solas met her questioning gaze with a small, quick smile to mask the pain in his heart.
“Old memories, Herald, that is all.” Memories of standing alone amidst shattered ruins, he thought bitterly.
He looks as though he saw much suffering in the Fade, amidst the triumph and wonder that he speaks of, Elisara thought. Can he have truly spent most of his life wandering through old memories, lost in ages long forgotten? It was a familiar feeling, taking on the burdens of others, and it seemed that he had done so as well.
She stood then, laying her hand on Solas’s shoulder as she headed uphill to join their companions. Stormy blue-grey eyes met hers – guarded, hard, and sharper than usual. It reminded her of the night in her cabin, arguing about the Dalish, and she understood. This is a deeper wound though, she mused as her eyes searched his. He gave her nothing in that moment, despite his earlier words of hope. His long fingers unconsciously traced the Mabari figure over and over, but she saw only a wall of isolation tougher than any barrier spell.
“May we learn from those memories then, and take heart from your words, Solas.”
They heard him long before they saw him.
Deep baritone commands rolled across the water toward them from near a building with fishing docks.
“Remember how to carry your shields! You’re not hiding, you’re holding, otherwise it’s useless.”
Elisara glanced at Seeker Cassandra, raising an eyebrow as they rounded the southern edge of the lake, heading back north.
She shrugged in response, “If this is not the Warden, then we ought to recruit him anyway. He can join Cullen in his daily routine of yelling at the troops.”
Varric sniggered behind them, “Maker knows they need all the help they can get. Every new soldier does.”
The Inquisition had been steadily acquiring refugees as the weeks passed by in an exhausting rush, and several had eagerly shared rumors of a “burly, black-haired man” who had appeared recently. Roaming out of the woods to fight against templars and mages alike, he was also openly helping anyone who wasn’t involved in the fighting that still engulfed the region. “It’s alright, I’m a Warden,” seemed to quell the concerns of most who had encountered him. Well, those that weren’t already dead, anyway.
They smell of drying fish made Elisara smile slightly to herself, bringing back memories of spending nearly two years out in the wilds after her father died. The weir that she had constructed was simple compared to the lengths of net that hung blocking their view, but it had been effective… I wonder if I’ll ever have the chance to spend time out here without rifts and death scarring the land. It was hard for her to feel what was true, her connection to the land muddled by the constant chaos. Another time, she thought. This is not my land… not my rivers.
“Blackwall? Warden Blackwall?” Calling out seemed a wise choice as they rounded the docks and the cabin came into view at last. A thick padded gambeson covered a broad back that was pacing back and forth in front of three simply armed young men, local farmers’ sons by the look of their tanned faces and rough clothing.
The man spun toward her as she trotted forward, her companions not far behind. He held a large sword and a round shield, and the speed with which he charged toward the Herald had magic swirling into Solas’s hands, and she heard the accompanying rasp and click as Cassandra and Varric sprang to the ready as well.
“You’re not – how do you know my name?” Quick, powerful strides across the grass, eyes flicking to the others, assessing.
Something in his bearing made her hold her position, weapons sheathed but ready. A long dagger was strapped to her thigh for just such an occasion, and her fingers brushed the hilt. He stopped less than a stride away, eyes boring into hers.
“Who sent y–” She heard the familiar sound of an arrow in flight as the warrior spoke, and his shield arm snapped up instinctively -WHUNK- the arrow head protruded through the wood. Her own bow slid into her hand just as swiftly, and she was already nocking an arrow as the shield snapped down again.
“Raghh!” He glared into the trees along the lakeshore, where several men were poorly concealed, and then glared back at her. “That’s it. Help or get out, we’re dealing with these idiots first.” Wood hit soil as he tossed the shield to the ground. As he spun the weapon, settling easily into a two-handed grip, Elisara realised that the sword was longer than she’d seen any of the other warriors use. It was more than half the man’s height, but it whistled through the air with considerable speed.
“Conscripts, here they come!”
The battle could barely be called such, with the half-dozen or so attackers falling quickly to the five of them. Although the young men did stand their ground, surviving the rush of bandits and drawing them toward the more experienced combatants, she was fairly certain that the conscripts were nearly as wary of Solas as of the marauders. Cassandra had predictably been the only one of the four to close into melee range, pinning them all between herself and the dark-haired man. He flinched once, ducking to the left as she sent an arrow skimming over his shoulder to take one of the bandits in the throat. Blood spurted from the wound, coating the fingers that clawed at his neck as he collapsed to his knees, sword forgotten. The greatsword plunged through his thin armor a moment later, and the clawing stopped.
The young men were still wild-eyed as Blackwall shook his head, stabbing the sword into the ground. The quiet sounds of the forest slowly returned as she watched him kneel beside one of the fallen bodies.
“Sorry bastards.” His voice was a disgusted rumble, and he shook his head again as he stood.
“Good work conscripts. Even if this shouldn’t have happened. They could’ve – well, thieves are made, not born. Take back what they stole. Go back to your families. You saved yourselves.” They were now looking around in awed relief as the warrior addressed them sternly, arms folded across his broad chest.
He turned away from them then, walking back toward where Elisara’s motley crew was gathered. His eyes narrowed, visage still stern. “You’re no farmer, why did you know my name? Who are you?”
The man had soft grey eyes, she realized, and she smiled at the irony.
“I’m here investigating Grey Wardens for the Inquisition. We’re seeing if their disappearance has anything to do with the murder of the Divine.”
“Maker’s balls, the Wardens and the Divine?” He immediately began pacing back and forth, obviously agitated. Cassandra shifted closer to Elisara, despite the fact that the man’s sword was still several paces away.
“That can’t – no, you’re asking, so you don’t really know. First off, I didn’t know they disappeared. But we do that, right?” Sharp gestures punctuated his comments. “No more Blight, job done. Wardens are the first thing forgotten. But one thing I’ll tell you; no Warden killed the Divine. Our purpose isn’t political.”
“I’m not here to accuse. Not yet. I just need information.” Blunt and straight to the point. She appreciated how quickly he caught on, and her confidence that the man would be a valuable ally grew. Well, I’m assuming that he didn’t help plot the Divine’s death, I suppose. “I’ve only found you – where are the rest?”
He shook his head. “I haven’t seen any Wardens for months. I travel alone, recruiting. Not much interest because the Archdemon is a decade dead, and no need to conscript because there’s no Blight coming. Treaties give Wardens the right to take what we need. Who we need. These idiots forced this fight, so I ‘conscripted’ their victims.” Shrugging his broad shoulders, he crossed his arms over his chest. “They had to do what I said, so I told them to stand. Next time they won’t need me. Grey Wardens can inspire.”
Elisara saw his eyes close briefly, and a note of reverence came into his voice as he bowed his head. “Make you better than you think you are.”
“Do you have any idea where the other Wardens could have gone?” She shifted her stance slightly as she continued her questions, moving so that she could see Solas more clearly. He was standing off to one side and staring hard at the Warden. He wasn’t quite glaring, but she recognized the stiffness in his posture, his staff held tightly and down at his side, rather than comfortably resting on the ground. The elf was agitated about something, but he had been withdrawn since the incident with the Templars earlier that day…
“Maybe they returned to our stronghold at Weisshaupt? That’s in the Anderfels, a long way north. I don’t really know.” None of this makes sense, he thought. I’d see Andraste dancing naked in the Chantry before the Wardens would abandon their duty. There must be something else going on, and I’m going to get dragged into this mess.
“Can’t imagine why they’d all disappear at once, let alone where they’d disappear to.” He groaned inwardly at how blithely stupid his words sounded, and started mentally cursing himself. Just shut up already you sodding idiot, that’s just going to make her more suspicious. Bloody honor. Bloody Warden legends. Bloody Orlais, so you understand more than anyone ever expects you to. Bloody elf staring at you with bright green eyes…
The “bloody elf” huffed her breath out in a frustrated sigh, stowing the longbow on her back. This was going nowhere, and now the man was just scowling into the air. She glanced at Cassandra, but even the normally suspicious Seeker mostly looked disappointed as she sheathed her sword on her hip.
“It’s been a pleasure, Warden Blackwall, but this didn’t help at all.” Elisara nodded sharply at the stocky man in a blunt, less than polite farewell, and angrily stalked over to begin retrieving her arrows and two of Varric’s bolts from the fallen bodies. The “conscripts” hadn’t touched them.
Behind her, Varric shook his head with a sardonic grin as he stowed Bianca on his back. The movement caught Blackwall’s attention, and his gaze shifted between the three of them as the elven woman stalked off. He saw a brief flare of green light from the corner of his eye, and his heart lurched as he realized that all of the rumors… they might be true. Maker’s breath, if this ‘Herald of Andraste’ actually was roaming about the Hinterlands… He had to. Curse him for a fool, but he had to try.
“Inquisition… agent, did you say? Hold a moment.” He hesitated as he took a few steps toward her. The glow on her hand was gone, but the glare of those green eyes fell upon him again.
“The Divine is dead, and the sky is torn. From the rumors I’ve heard, you have no idea why any of it happened. I know my Order had nothing to do with it, but it sounds like we should.”
He looked resigned now, determined. Elisara’s eyes softened as he continued. I suppose the legends must have at least a little basis in who these men and women actually were. What was their mantra… Vigilance and sacrifice were all that she remembered. The Warden stopped in front of her, again only a pace away. It made her very aware of his presence, but not uncomfortable.
“Events like these, thinking we’re absent is almost as bad as thinking we’re involved.” He met her gaze, resolute. “If you’re trying to put things right, maybe you need a Warden. Maybe you need me.” I should have stayed in the mountains, he thought. This is going to be the death of me, but I have to do it. Wardens epitomize duty… standing strong no matter what comes.
In War, Victory. In Peace, Vigilance. In Death, Sacrifice.
“Warden Blackwall, the Inquisition accepts your offer.” A small, fierce smile was on her face as she extended her right hand toward him. Her forearm was slender and strong as he clasped it against his own. I might even come to like her, he thought. She’s fierce.
“Good to hear. We both need to know what’s going on, and perhaps I’ve been keeping to myself for too long.” He bent in a slight bow as he released her and stepped back. “This Warden walks with the Inquisition.”
Darkness was falling fast an hour later as they returned to the campsite north of Lake Luthian. Cassandra was mostly dry again, although not entirely warm yet. She sat somewhat warily beside Blackwall, feeling more vulnerable than usual without any armor at all to protect her. The heavy padded gambeson she wore beneath her breastplate had been soaked half through, despite how little time she was in the water. The icy creek had flooded beneath her armor around her neck when she landed on her back, so she had been battling the discomfort for nearly half a day. The Seeker leaned closer to the campfire, glancing over at the man as he rested back against the log she was sitting on.
“Have you been in the Hinterlands for a long time, Warden Blackwall?” The few belongings that the Warden had collected from near the cabin spoke of a life spent alone in the wilderness. Leliana had given them little information about the man, but the way he spoke did not quite match with his rough-hewn, woodsy appearance. If I had not seen him fight I might have doubted his identity entirely, the Seeker thought wryly.
He shrugged one shoulder as he finished the bread roll that he was eating. “Yes, I suppose so, or thereabouts. Borders are a bit more fluid, out in the wilds. I have a hard time just barging into a village without good reason, so I mostly kept to myself. Stayed out of the way until I was needed.”
Although he had loosened his collar a bit and laid the greatsword along the log behind him, he seemed slightly uneasy now that they were in the camp. His eyes seemed to never stay still, shifting to watch each of them in turn as if they were unusual beasts. Grey eyes snapped sideways and his shoulders tensed as Varric sat down with a polishing cloth on the next chunk of log, a short vertical piece for just one person.
“Been awhile since you’ve been in the world, hasn’t it?” The dwarf asked with a knowing grin. He started unloading bolts from Bianca’s shaft, wiping each steel head with the oiled cloth before setting them aside.
Blackwall laughed softly, a deep sound that rumbled out of his broad chest as he smiled in chagrin. “Is it that obvious?” Lines fanned out at the corners of his eyes, softening his tough appearance just a little.
“Ha! Warden, you jumped less an hour ago, when that ram leapt nearly straight over your head from the cliffs.” Shaking his head in amusement, the firelight flickered off of the dwarf’s jewelry as well as Bianca’s well-polished trappings.
“Aye,” Blackwall continued, “for the past several years I’ve been on my own. Darkspawn or ruffians crossed my path, they died or were recruited. The ruffians, anyway… no conscripting darkspawn.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes and gave a rather un-ladylike snort from the log behind his back.
“Maker, I sound like a bloody recruit.” He sat up straighter, resting his forearm across his bent knee. “Look, until you and your Inquisition soldiers started nosing around down here, the only friendly faces I’d seen in nearly a year were simple folk just happy not to be dead.” The man’s thick black eyebrows and beard leant an imposing edge to his words as he looked from one to the other.
“No Blight, no new orders, no problem.” The clipped words came out a bit harshly, an edge of anger obvious to those listening. “I was fine on my own. I did what any Warden ought to do, and if I answered to no one but myself for a while, so be it.” I am not some noble’s lackey, he thought darkly, begging for commands to follow, standing silent in a corner to wait on their whims. Never again.
Elisara had been watching this exchange from across the campfire, and saw a deep, hard-edged resolve in the Warden. An uncomfortable pause followed the man’s words, and she drew every eye to her as she spoke.
“I’ve been there too, Warden. Months in the wilds, and you’ve spoken so little that it seems like you might have forgotten how.” That hard, defensive gaze locked onto her own though the flames. “You are the only one to catch yourself if you fall, and the only one to die if you fail. It feels as if there are no laws but your own, until the world itself knocks you down. Then you learn to hear the trees and the bears, instead of just your own mind.”
The elf found herself smiling softly, the corner of her mouth turning up in fond reminiscence. Arms wrapped around her knee, leather boot tucked firmly against the log beneath her, she relaxed as she spoke. She had not shared much of her life from before the Conclave, but now seemed as good a time as any.
“At least, I did. Most dalish elves spend more time in the wilds than other peoples, so perhaps it was simpler for me to ease back into life with my clan when I finally did return to them. Although, for a time I truly did speak mostly with wild creatures… and lived only by the rules that govern all life.” She heard quiet footfalls behind her, from the trees near the edge of the camp.
“Sounds like a story worth telling, Herald.” Solas stepped into the ring of light, fading easily out of the shadows. The muted colors of his clothing and soft fabrics always seemed to suit him, with any sharp, bright bits of metal and bone standing out all the more starkly. He was the only one besides Cassandra who had already removed their armor, she realized as he joined her on the log.
“A worthy use of a campfire indeed, my lady.” Blackwall looked more curious than wary now, the flames flickering between them.
“Whoo boy, I wondered what it would take to finally get a tale out of you!”
The only surprise in Varric’s enthusiasm was that Blackwall had spoken first… ahead of the drama-loving dwarf. Cassandra just started running an oiled cloth over her sword, a slight drop in her shoulders the only hint of her relief at the broken tension.
Solas watched her wrap her left leg around her ankle, foot now resting by her right hip on the log. She settled her weight comfortably despite her perch, clasping one hand around the opposite wrist as her arms encircled her upright leg. It was much like an old pose called ‘lord of the fishes,’ and her easy grace again brought a small smile to his lips as he recalled old memories. He wondered idly if he remembered any of the old forms he once had practiced so often…
“A short version, rather than the two-year version, perhaps?” Elisara said with a soft laugh. Her comment drew chuckles from the three men as well, and a wry smile from the Seeker.
“Well, my father would have been fascinated by the strange events of late, as he was the Keeper of Clan Lavellan.” She smiled, eyes sparkling in the firelight as she thought of the tall old elf, “I have no idea what he would have been able to do, but he probably would have turned the clan over to his First and been here with us now – that I do not doubt. He was built like an oak tree, with a mind as sharp as a raven’s. His spirit passed beyond the Veil many years ago, but it is his wisdom both as Keeper and father that guides me to this day.”
“Despite the fact that I was not a mage, and thus would never be called upon to lead our clan, my father and I were close. My mother died when I was but da’lan, a young girl, and losing him was very difficult for me.” Elisara’s bright green eyes took on a sad, almost haunted look for a moment, but she blinked quickly and continued the story. “Combined with the fact that his successor, Keeper Deshanna, and I do not work well together, I needed to be elsewhere. Far away from my clan, away from mischief, politics, and Dirthamen’s secrets.”
“Oh you just love the Inquisition, don’t you Herald?” Varric snorted.
“Varric!” Cassandra snapped, glaring.
Elisara just smirked and continued past the interruption. “I despaired over my loss, was furious with the new Keeper, and knew far more than most elves about… well, everything, or so I told myself at the time. So I left. It would certainly have ended badly if I had remained.”
“For more than half a year I simply roamed the wilds of the Vimmark Mountains, hunting only what I needed and planting new herbs and trees throughout the area, at least where I could. Culling diseased plants, helping injured animals when it was sensible… these were all things that I had done in the past as well. The Free Marches are small compared to Ferelden, but they are a land that I know well. Occasionally one group of humans or another would settle in too close to my campsite, and I would simply pack up and move on. Despite how often Clan Lavellan had traded with humans, there was even less reason for me to interact with them than with the Dalish. The hunting parties of my clan were also easily avoided, for the most part. Few would have been skilled enough to find me, and every one of those few knew and shared my grief.”
“A strange winter set in that year, with waves of cold blowing in behind days of rain, freezing the soil and the plants alike. There was a young hart that had not survived the night’s cold in the mountains, and it was already beginning to freeze where it lay. My plan was to gather what I could from it and retreat to a cavern to the east, where I was camped.”
She glanced at Cassandra and the pieces of armor that were spread over half of their fire circle, still drying. “The winters are colder here, certainly, and you know how treacherous icy rock can be. My pack was full of meat, with the hart’s skin rolled and tied to the side. One of its antlers had been badly cracked near the base, likely from a fight with an older bull hart. I had snapped it off with my hatchet and tied it to my pack as well, and-”
Blackwall’s guffaw interrupted her now, even muffled by his hands as he dragged them down his face, head shaking back and forth in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? The entire antler? Even a young hart would be… and you’re only…” One broad, calloused hand gestured vaguely at Elisara, the movement clearly indicating his thoughts about the strength of the lean elven archer coiled in her seat across the fire.
“It was nearly as long as I am tall, yes.” She shrugged one shoulder as the warrior continued to shake his head, one hand still covering his thick moustache and mouth as he propped that elbow on his knee. If his sword was any indication, the warden could probably carry two of her and still battle darkspawn without showing the strain. Sighing at the willfulness of her younger self, she continued. “I was making my way along the edge of the cliff between the remains of the hart and the entrance to the cavern… very slowly, determinedly, and quite recklessly, as I look back at it now. It should probably have been 3 trips, including one for the antler alone, and I knew better.”
“The rain began again, turning the patches of slick, icy rock into oiled glass. My back was bowed with the weight and the antler was awkward, but it also weighed half as much as the skin on the opposite side of my pack. I was muttering a steady stream of curses at myself even before the rain started, have no doubt.” She shook her head, blowing out an exasperated breath. “Oh, dread wolf take me, I was so stubborn. I was furious with myself for being stupid, but my pride would not allow me to put down the pack and start over.”
“I came out from beneath one of the scruffy trees that extended from the cliffs, took three or four steps on bare rock instead of soil, and the smooth, worn soles of my leather boots slipped on the ice.” She heard Cassandra’s sharp intake of breath, and Elisara glanced down and wiggled the toe of her dirty, but far less worn, leather boots. “My hip and shoulder hit the ground, the weight of the pack pulling me over onto my side as I fell. The path was just steep enough that I slid back and sideways, toward the edge of the cliff. Rocks, the tree with my feet, I tried to grab anything that I could reach, but the pack was too much and I went over.”
She glanced up through the trees, the cool evening breeze ruffling the strands of her hair where they had escaped from her braid. “The sky was remarkably clear, despite the rain. I remember staring up at the stars when I woke in the rocks below, my leg throbbing. The fall hadn’t been more than twice the height of a man, and a luckier elf would have just landed on the pack of meat with bruised dignity and scraped fingers.”
“Instead, there was an outcropping of rock halfway down that had broken my fall… and broken my thigh. There was loose scree underneath me, and I had slid for a short distance on the pieces until my foot caught between two larger rocks. Momentum and the weight snapped my ankle, but it stopped me from sliding farther, I suppose.”
A log cracked from the heat of the fire, sending up a shower of sparks into the stillness.
“My fingers were freezing, half numb as I tried to maneuver my arms out of the pack’s straps. All I accomplished was that the antler let loose enough so that I slid and wrenched my ankle further. Pain arced through me, and I passed out.”
The silence hung for a moment, her companions undoubtedly wondering how she had come to sit before them now. Cassandra and Blackwall both looked concerned, their furrowed brows easy to read. Varric’s speculative look was more challenging, as her eyes shifted to him. He was waiting for the twist, she realized. Storyteller that he was, he could sense that something unusual was coming. Solas had turned toward her while she rambled, and the firelight cast half of his face in shadow. Interested, listening intently to her tale… but that was it. Anything more was caught behind the inscrutable mask he so often wore.
Elisara held the elf’s blue eyes for another few heartbeats, and her voice was soft when she spoke. “I awoke in near darkness. My skin felt clammy, and something was wrapped tightly around me. Musk and fur flooded my senses as I slowly became aware of my surroundings, and in the faint light I could see a dark silhouette. Compared to my last waking memory I wasn’t cold, but the temperature could not really have been called comfortable.”
“Trying to move my arms and legs didn’t help… all I could feel seemed to be my own damp skin, and there was the fur around my face. After a moment I recognized the smell. It was the hart that I had butchered. The damp, clammy material that pressed against my skin was soft and heavy, the hair brushing my chin was short and coarse. Again, my mind went to the hart, and it clicked… I was lying naked in the dark, wrapped in the raw skin of the beast that had dragged me over the cliff.”
“That is some weird shit… ”
The three companion’s reactions tumbled over top of one another from across the fire, and she laughed. Cassandra’s face was priceless, as she sputtered and her eyebrows went in five directions at once.
They had no idea.
“A breeze must have blown into the cavern then,” Elisara continued with a secretive smirk still playing over her lips, “because the light in front of me flared and my muddled mind recognized it as my own campfire. The silhouette turned to look at the embers as well, and its eyes caught the glow and reflected it back at me. Huge, feline eyes. I froze, but its attention was already drawn. The cat sat up, staring at me with glowing yellow eyes, and it quickly paced toward me. Moving, I recognized the shape of an enormous mountain cat at least as large as myself. My heart was racing as it sat down beside me and stuck its muzzle in my face, but I could barely move inside the heavy pelt.” She leaned forward over her knees, catching their eyes as she paused for the space of a breath.
“Its ears perked up as it sniffed me, and it sounded delighted when it spoke.”
‘You are awake! How wonderful! I did hope that you would wake soon.’
Varric and Blackwall glanced at each other and back to her in confusion, as if they had just missed the punchline of a joke. Beside her, Solas tilted his head curiously.
“The cat spoke?” he queried drily, but she only smiled. Shapeshifting in Thedas was certainly rare, but not unheard of.
“Its strange words still ring clearly in my mind, as does its enthusiasm.”
‘Are you fixed now? You were broken, but you should not be broken now. Are you warm? The fire was better before, but it keeps changing.’
“The voice was primal, earthy, and bit rhythmic. I could see the cat’s ears flicking back and forth, alternating between excitement and annoyance. It was still only a black shape, but my eyes were slowly adjusting to the dim light.”
‘Are you a cat?’ I asked, ‘Or am I simply dead?’
“There were new sounds behind me, like a small animal scurrying around, and something bounded onto my fur-wrapped body.”
‘Right now I am a cat, and it is glorious. Do you want out of the fur? Others of your kind I have seen wrap themselves in fur when they shake with cold as you did.’
“Whether I was dead or alive did not matter at that moment, as this creature seemed to hold my fate in its paws.”
‘Yes… yes please let me out.’
“Before the words were fully formed the cat and the small creature were pushing and tugging at me, unrolling me from the pelt.”
“Cold stone hit my back, and I gasped in shock, but I felt more alive than ever before. Nothing hurt, and yet I clearly recalled the shooting pain of my leg from when I lay broken on the rocks. I flinched as tiny clawed feet ran across my bare stomach in the dark, and flailed instinctively as the whiskered maw nudged my face. The cat jumped back as my arm connected with its head, and the small one dove off as I scrambled to my feet, moving toward the fire.”
‘Wait! Just… just wait a moment.’
Her hands darted up as she spoke the words, the gesture pleading, holding the creatures back as she had then. It has been a long time since I shared this story, Elisara thought.
“The cat’s eyes glowed again from deeper in the cave, catching motes of moonlight from outside the cavern. There was just enough light that I was able to find a few small branches that I had gathered for firewood, and the rekindled fire filled the enclosure with light within a few moments.”
‘I am often bad at waiting, you should know,’ the feline voice called out as the fire rose and flickered.
“Staring back at it, I saw the most impressive mountain cat imaginable. Its chest was every bit as wide as yours, Blackwall, with legs as thick as my own. Sleek, dark grey fur covered its body, camouflaging it against the stone. There was a large fennec perched behind its head, peering intently at me, whiskers twitching.”
“I took a deep breath…They had to be shapeshifted.”
‘Who are you? How did you save me?’ The cat perked up even more at my questions, glad the wait was over, I suppose.
‘I do not have a name, Wild-walker, but the cat thinks of himself as Durlahn’banise, and his stealth and prowess have shown it to be a sensible name.’
‘But the cat is talking right now… you are talking right now.’
‘No, I am talking as saving you was something I wished to do. To know if I could, if I could join the pieces, fix the leaks, mend the mixed up parts so you were whole again.’
“Apprehension started truly creeping in then, jumping in the pot to stew with confusion and adrenaline.”
‘Are you… possessing… the cat?’ I asked carefully.
‘Of course! Yes, the word you use matches.’
“It sat up excitedly as it spoke those eerie words, its tail twitching back and forth at the edge of the fire’s glow. The fennec ran over to me then, bounding onto my shoulder and winding around my neck. I really wasn’t sure that I should trust it any more than the possessed cat, and my fears were justified when a low, smooth voice sounded next to my ear.”
‘Fear I feel from you, Wild-walker, but it does not understand. You feel the emotions of prey. But you are not our prey.’
“I rather think that I just gave in at that point. I sat down on the cold stone, not bothering to move over to the pelt despite the chill on my bare skin. Twisting toward the fennec, I saw that it looked perfectly normal in the firelight. No glowing eyes, no wisps of dark smoke oozing from its body… and the cat seemed the same as it paced toward us.”
Elisara could feel Solas’s gaze boring into her, the intense scrutiny making her skin tingle. She refused to look at him, but felt the corners of her mouth turn up in a small smile anyway. The fade-wandering mage was the least of her worries, given that she was effectively confessing that she had ‘dealings with spirits and demons’ to a Seeker, a Warden, and one of the biggest gossips in Thedas.
‘Are you still broken? El’u, you agreed that it no longer seemed broken.’
“I never would have been able to describe what a petulant mountain cat ought to sound like, but I heard it then.”
“Cats have no respect for personal space, if you’re wondering. This creature certainly didn’t either.” Elisara’s face broke into a wry grin as she continued, enjoying the fascination and horror that played across the faces of those listening. “It moved like a smooth breeze, and the huge eyes and whiskers flickered all over my face. It was certainly acting like a curious beast.”
“My heart was still racing, but the fact that it at least acted like a cat was somehow comforting. The fennec seemed like it might have a name at least, if that was what El’u referred to. I focused on that, trying to ignore the cat’s intense scrutiny.”
‘Little one, is your name El’u?’ I asked.
‘Yes.’ It replied promptly. ‘I am swift and quick and sly and dart and grab and keep, and I am less new than the Speaker.’
‘The Speaker. The one who speaks, who helps you speak with voice of fur and voice of feather.’
“Everything that El’u said seemed smooth, one long line of words, and yet their meaning seemed quite clear.”
“Larger than my own hands, the cat’s paw scooped under my arm and started moving it around, inspecting my chest and stomach. If I hadn’t been so on edge it would have been hilarious, because its whiskers tickled. I was still scrutinizing the fennec on my shoulder, hoping my thoughts made some type of sense soon, hoping that I would hear something that turned far from: ‘I’ve been rescued by a demon-possessed mountain cat and its friendly fennec.’ ”
“Truly, it was a magnificent cat. It stared me straight in the face as it sat down in front of me, and its thick grey pelt rippled and shone in the flickering light.”
‘Fixed, you are.’ The golden eyes narrowed, pupils thinning despite the low light. Its voice was much firmer. ‘One creature, no holes, no breaks. Do you not feel fixed? Did I take too many pieces off? Is there some piece inside that I need to see and fix to make you whole? I need to know, to see, to find the answers… ’
‘What answers? What pieces?’ I asked apprehensively, leaning away as the conversation turned dark again. ‘Wait, do you mean my clothing? Why is my clothing gone?’
‘Clothing… Yes, the thought matches!’ It was excited again, whiskers and tail twitching, which was noticeably better than ominous glaring. ‘I did not know how to fix those parts of you. They seemed too different, too many edges, so I tried removing them as I have seen others do. It seemed to work… your shape made more sense. You were one single creature then, an elf.’
‘You don’t make sense! What are you? If you are a demon trying to tempt me, you’re doing a terrible job of it. How am I talking to a fennec and a mountain cat?’
‘What am I? Curiosity is the idea in your mind that matches who I am. Why would I tempt you? Should I tempt you to do something new, so that I can know more, see more, feel more? Can I not do that on my own?’ It sounded genuinely confused.
‘Tempting you would be new, but you do not think well of it. Your mind becomes sharp, in ways that I do not understand, like when I spoke of Durlahn’banise. Do you want to talk to him? It is through his paws and claws and teeth that I was able to save you, after all. Wild-walker’s shape did not make sense, did it El’u? Forms do not move and twist and change here, I cannot shape them the same, and that is new too!’
“The questions streamed out in the cat’s smooth, rumbling voice, with a wave of familiar emotion – wanting to know, learn, explore, see, and feel.”
‘Curiosity?’ I interrupted it, ‘Are you from the Fade? Are you a spirit?’
‘Yes, of course. You are surprised! But happy. That is good. It is easier to learn when you are happy.’
“All of this was starting to make a strange kind of sense, tugging on the edges of old tales from my father, resonating with bits of lore long buried about the Land of Dreams. Not everything in the Fade is evil – after all, most peoples believe that our own spirits pass through there when we die.”
Three of her listeners looked on the edge between enthralled and horrified, Elisara saw. She shifted her body just enough to see Solas from the corner of her eye. There was something soft in his expression that she had not quite seen before… longing? She filed that thought away for later.
“It all made perfect sense then, although it may seem like a wild tale to the four of you now. E’lu started chattering about how helpful he had been in removing my clothing, undoing buckles, pulling at cloth – now that was an odd thing to hear, I assure you–” Blackwall chuckled, shaking his head.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Cassandra was blushing, her cheeks noticeably red even in the dim firelight. “It strains belief a bit much to have been ‘rescued’ by a demon-possessed mountain cat and a talking fennec!”
“Oh?” Elisara grinned innocently, “Don’t you want to find out how they got me up to the cave? Why I could understand them?”
“It touched your mind, did it not?” Solas broke in from beside her, a hint of amusement in his warm voice. That small, quiet smile turned up the corners of his lips as their eyes met.
“Oh most definitely. Touched, poked, rummaged, sniffed, and ogled no doubt, given how incessantly curious it was.” No one save the Seeker seemed to be objecting, so she continued the story. “Apparently the spirit had been attracted by me a few days earlier, curious about having seen me alone in the mountains as the winter storms set in. When it saw me go over the cliff, it investigated and knew just enough to realize that I would die without help. It was quite excited to share the story, curious about what I thought.”
‘Wait!’ it said excitedly, as it started to explain, ‘this will be easier if I am not a cat. They are wonderful, but Durlahn’banise is getting… agitated. Another new emotion! How delightful.’
“As it finished talking a warm yellow light started expanding around the cat, still sitting in front of me. It paused, the cat’s golden eyes blending into the gently swirling halo for a moment. All at once the whorls condensed beside Durlahn’banise, and two separate beings sat before me. The shift in the presence of the mountain cat was immediate…” Elisara shook her head, awe and respect evident in her voice. “If you have ever been face to face with any large predator then you know what I mean. His eyes narrowed at me appraisingly, and over 20 stone of solid muscle rippled as he stood to stretch.”
“The voice was the same… the attitude had shifted to one of utter confidence instead of cheery enthusiasm.”
‘Greetings, mighty Durlahn’banise.’
‘Rrmmm… I like the sound of my name in your voice. It is good that we saved you, though the meat you carried was a tempting meal.’
“I remember feeling almost giddy talking to the huge cat, even as my eyes kept flickering to the swirling orange spirit that had orchestrated this whole endeavor. How many times had I wished to speak to the creatures that I shared the wild spaces with? It truly did seem a waking dream. Durlahn lay down beside the fire, seemingly content to stare at us.”
“A yellow hand blurred and sparkled as it waved back and forth. The spirit’s voice was brighter, much more like that of a young child. It matched the tone of exuberant enthusiasm that had been present from the beginning.”
‘It’s true! I so very much wished to see if I could fix you, to talk to you, find out why you fell over the cliff, but I did not know how to do so. Instead I found someone else strong that I could talk to – him and him!’
“Again, the hand was a blur as it pointed briefly at the cat, followed by the fennec still curled over my shoulders.”
‘Thank you… all of you.’
“The very furry tail tickled as it waved over my bare chest and shoulder, making me jump. I reached up to pet E’lu in apology, but never took my focus from the spirit.”
‘While that explains how I ended up here in the cave – Durlahn’s strength – and how you… simplified… me by removing my clothing – El’u’s cleverness – How is it that I am talking to all of you now?’
‘You are speaking a language that they can hear now, one that you did not know before. I have not changed them, only convinced them to help me learn of you. Speaking as they do comes naturally, but now you all hear the meanings in your minds.’
“Say what?” Varric’s sarcastic confusion echoed her own raised eyebrow as she glanced around the fire, but this time it was Solas who chuckled. It warmed her heart to hear it after his dark melancholy earlier in the day.
“A hundred words, each in their own language, can all be tied to the same idea in the speaker’s minds. Most would probably think you crazy if they heard you speak to the vheraan, wouldn’t they?” Solas explained.
“Exactly. As we talked more I realized that I could hear the growls and chripps that I was actually saying, and not just what they meant in my head. Their names had stuck out as different only because my mind knew them to be such. Curiosity seemed to understand me regardless of what language I used, and it was quite entertained when I began swearing in elven, finally having wrapped my mind around the concept that Solas just eloquently described.”
“It went on like that for weeks, chatting with Curiosity about how clothing and other mundane things work outside the Fade. Durlahn enjoyed the comfort of his new den, and a ready supply of hart meat, and I learned about how they had healed me, and explored my newfound abilities while the storms coated the mountains in more ice.”
“I remember that winter,” Varric said, “it was the most brutal the Free Marches had seen in nearly a century. You ought to have died at the bottom of that cliff.”
Elisara looked wistfully into the darkened forest, smiling nostalgically. “Curiosity would periodically sense other creatures in distress and flit out into the storm to bring them in. I’d gain their trust, talking to them and chatting about… well, whatever they wanted to chat about. Squirrels are ridiculously talkative. In return, the spirit learned everything that I could feasibly teach it.”
“You know what the truly magnificent thing was about that weather, Varric?” He cocked his head curiously. “The land was fine. I could feel it, from some part of what the spirit had done to me. It had bonded me to the land itself as well as to the creatures living there. Like a healer can sense an illness, or a warrior feel the unease of their opponent, the land tugged at my senses as though it were a living being.”
“It is alive, in truth. And it was quite content with the icy weather, just dormant. A sleeping giant beneath our feet.”
She fell silent, letting her words hang in a quiet, reverent moment, broken only by the crackling fire. The faint look of longing had returned to Solas’s face, but he said nothing, unsurprisingly.
“You’re a bit older than you seem, aren’t you Herald?” Something in her eyes told Blackwall that he was right, and he felt respect for this woman slowly settling in like an old friend.
“Perhaps,” the elf answered slyly. “How old do I seem to you, Warden?” She had been underestimated a lot in the past, and there was no accusation in his tone, only curiosity.
The man answered quickly, his head tilted slightly as he considered her. “Perhaps 20 by your appearance, I should think.” He hadn’t even tried to hide his surprise at discovering that she really was the ‘Herald of Andraste’ upon reaching the Inquisition’s camp. He’d hoped the green mark had been his imagination, but now he thought that he was beginning to understand why she was their leader.
She smirked. “I fell off that cliff 12 years ago, and physically I haven’t changed much since. Well, except for this mark linking me to the Breach in the Veil. The land likes to keep you once it gains a firm enough hold.” Her heart warmed with the thought – she kept the land, and it kept her. “So you are correct, I suppose… I do still look like I’m 23.”
They were all staring at her, she realized abruptly, and unease crept up her spine. Fenedhis, Dirthamen curse my wandering tongue. When will I learn to keep quiet? They will think I’m touched in the head…
“You must be joking.” Cassandra looked incredulous and still mildly horrified. The oiling cloth hung unattended from her hand, and Elisara nearly laughed at the woman’s discomfort. She really did not deal with the demon/spirit situation very well.
“Of course not Seeker, she is no mage.” Condescension tinged Solas’s patronizing words, and she blanched as they hit her like a blast of ice.
Elisara’s eyes narrowed and Solas turned to look at her as he saw her scowl.
“It. Is. True.” Each word dropped like a stone, hard and fierce. “Never have I claimed to be a mage.” Solas’s narrow brows pulled toward each other in mild confusion as she met his gaze, and she realized too late that the elf’s words had been directed at Cassandra. They had struck her harshly nonetheless.
“Perhaps I will resume aging in time, or if the spirit who helped me meets with some ill fate, but I doubt it. The only power I have is given by the land itself, nothing more. No fireballs, no magic runes, no enchantments… just little things.” His eyes flickered in surprise, and she looked away then, and sighed. These were the same people who had nearly behead her for killing the Divine, why had she expected more of them now?
“Give her a break you two,” Varric’s cheery voice broke in, “after all of the crazy shit we’ve seen, who are we to say that her story’s not true?” He gave the elf a grin when she met his eyes, gratitude evident. “It’s a damn good tale either way.”
“I’ll second that, my lady,” Blackwall’s deep rumble broke in. “Remind me to tell you about the bear, sometime.”
“I certainly will.” She managed a weak chuckle, still disheartened by Solas’s apparent amusement regarding her experience with Curiosity.
They all settled back into their evening routines, Blackwall heading to his bedroll first. Elisara sat silently staring at the flames, chin resting on her knee. She felt a bit withdrawn after sharing so much with the others, but was too unsettled to sleep. Never would she have expected Solas to discount her word, to dismiss her friendship with the spirit. It made no sense, and apprehension sat with sorrow on her shoulders as she avoided looking at the other elf.
Hours later, a gentle hand on her shoulder jolted her awake. The fire was burning low, and she must have fallen asleep. Her eyes darted to the person attached to the hand, finding herself facing Solas as he sat beside her on the log. High above them the moon shone brightly, and he could easily read the hurt that flickered across her face.
Her opinion of me should not matter, Solas thought. Why do I care that she is upset? His lips tightened in mild annoyance as she quickly glanced away from him. “What did I do that angered you, Herald?”
“You are the last I expected to doubt the truth of my friendship with Curiosity, Solas.” Gazing straight ahead into the glowing coals, her voice sounded cold and raw with emotion. The abrupt awakening combined with her irritation, making her snap at the elf, and she felt her neck flush in agitation.
“I do not doubt you, lethal’lan.” A crease formed between his brows as he tried to parse out where she had gotten such an mistruth. “You are one of few to whom I have spoken about my own close relationships with spirits in the Fade.”
Her eyes flicked back to him, then away. “You sided with the Seeker.”
“I did no such thing. If the others heard my statement as such, then they are mistaken.” Now he sounded affronted, and his words were crisp and matter-of-fact. “You are no mage, to claim such talents naturally, and your own demeanor showed clearly that it was no joking matter.”
Her shoulders sagged a moment later, and she dropped her head against her arms with a small, relieved laugh. “I don’t even…” she trailed off, shaking her head.
“Ah, so I was correct then. Perhaps you will share more now that the others are asleep?” His light chuckle accompanied gentle fingers squeezing her shoulder before he let his hand drop.
She met his eyes then, surprised at both the question and how strongly she felt the loss of his touch. “Thank you… it is rare that anyone really believes me, even on the rare occasion that I share that particular piece of my history.” She stretched her legs out briefly before turning toward Solas, letting her leg fall across the log between them, tucking her foot behind her opposite knee. “What else would you wish to know?”
His eyes caught the moonlight, and her heart fluttered at the smile that she could just barely see ghost across his lips. “Everything.”
The sun was just beginning to lighten the sky as Solas stole a quick moment to himself while the Herald spoke with the Inquisition’s scouts, planning out their route for the day. She intended for them to finally press northward into the heights surrounding Redcliffe to meet with Fiona, the leader of the rebel mages. Away from the press of tents around the encampment, he found a level, open expanse of rock and stripped off his sweater. Folding the comfortable garment before setting it aside, he began moving through a smooth routine of stretching, dredged up from memories that he had not touched in a few thousand years. It felt surprisingly good to return to something old and familiar, and he knew that he would find himself invigorated and relaxed. He needed this.
Focus, sharp and clear.
He shifted his weight onto his hands and stretched from waist to shoulders, feet and hands pressing firmly into the ground, only a handspan apart. The dark green sleeveless shirt fit him closely, curving down over the small of his back and abdomen, but rising over his hips so as to not constrict movement.
Rock, gritty and raw beneath his fingers.
Raw like the pain in her eyes last night, at his perceived betrayal. His next few breaths were particularly forceful as he continued through the patterns. She was an invaluable tool because of his magic welded to her hand, he reminded himself, but an unwelcome distraction.
Comfort, balanced and suspended in the air.
They had talked through the night, with an ease in them both that he knew was rare. It was an unexpected pleasure to find another soul that enjoyed peacefully interacting with spirits and with the flow of the world. She tempered his disdain for the shadows of people that inhabited this world, balanced him in a way that he would never have predicted.
Strength, hard and unyielding like the stone.
His muscles flexed as he stood inverted on his forearms, a lean elvhen tree, rooted and secure. Did he think less of her because she was willing to bend, helping others and giving back? No, he did not. Long legs had pressed against his thigh as they sat in the early hours of the morning, warm and strong, curled and flexible.
Tranquility, calm and serene.
Slowly he reversed the pattern, his breath smooth and even as he reminisced on their shared tales of spirits. She was at peace with having been saved, and even briefly possessed, by a spirit, although there was much she had not told the others. The serenity of that connection with Elisara settled unbidden in his heart as he stood, palms outstretched at his sides and face tilted up toward the rising sun. It ached a bit, but in a good way, much as the comforting burn of stretching a rarely-used muscle. He closed his eyes and sighed out a long slow breath before stepping forward to pick up his sweater. There would be a reckoning if he allowed the dalish woman into his rebellious heart, and he knew it.
“That was a disaster.” The Herald had finally put enough distance between Redcliffe and themselves to speak of the mess, apparently. “I don’t care how smooth that Tevinter mage was, a magister in Redcliffe controlling the rebel mages with time magic is pretty high on my list of messy situations to find. And that doesn’t even include Enchanter Fiona’s complete lack of knowledge that we were supposed to meet!” The elf was fuming, rambling half to herself as they rode northwest into the mountains, heading back to Haven.
Elisara and Varric were at the back of the group, and the dwarf was gamely letting her continue venting about the failed meeting, nodding and comisserating as needed. He was probably the only one that could keep up with the stream of commentary, and it was better that she talked it all out for the first time now instead of with her advisors. The two archers were constantly on alert, so their animated discussion while guarding the rear of the group wasn’t really a concern. Inquisition scouts or soldiers had clearly passed this way quite recently as well, going both directions.
Oddly, Solas and Cassandra were riding together in the front of the group, with the elf effortlessly guiding them along the increasingly familiar trek from the Hinterlands. The human’s scowl often matched her dark, aggressively unruly hair, and Solas was generally fine with letting the Seeker be. She could potentially be quite troublesome if riled against him.
He was surprised when she spoke to him, although her question wasn’t exactly unexpected. “Solas, if you do not mind me asking, what do you believe in?” There was actually a mild scowl on her face at that very moment, her lips pressed into a tight line despite her obvious curiosity.
“Cause and effect.” The elf’s response was immediate, confident and smooth. “Wisdom as its own reward, and the inherent right of all free-willed people to exist.”
“That is not what I meant.” She let out a small huff of irritation and guided her horse around a treacherous section of tree roots.
“I know.” His voice was gentle, taking the bite out of his words. “I believe the elven gods existed, as did the old gods of Tevinter. But I do not think any of them were gods, unless you expand the definition of the word to the point of absurdity.” He paused slightly, watching the Seeker as they rode. “I appreciate the idea of your Maker, a god that does not need to prove his power. I wish more such gods felt the same.”
“You have seen much sadness in your journeys, Solas. Following the Maker might offer some hope.” The wistful hope in her own voice was evident, confident in her own beliefs yet doubtful of her ability to convince the unusual elf.
Solas gave her a small smile, his eyes kind. “I have people, Seeker. The greatest triumphs and tragedies this world has known can all be traced to people.”
“I suppose that is a sensible view to hold, Solas. Following good people leads to good results, regardless of divine providence.” Her voice was firm.
“Do you think that those involved in the destruction of the Kirkwall chantry were all terrible people?” The elf responded quietly. “Those that destroyed the Temple of Sacred Ashes?
“I did not say that. The mages and the templars have both collected many issues over the centuries. Certainly there were good but misguided people on both sides.”
“Ah. How do you propose we distinguish the misguided from the truly evil?” For the sake of debate, he could overlook her adherence to a religion and a ‘god’ that he had inadvertently helped to create.
“We find them by their deeds, Solas.” Her voice took on a reverential tone as she continued, “ ‘Blessed are they who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter. Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just. Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow. In their blood the Maker’s will is written.’ It is that simple.”
“You know better than that, Seeker,” Solas chided sternly. “How would you judge a corrupt politician who funds an orphanage with ill-gotten gold? Are they wicked? A devout chantry sister who has no means of helping worshipers suffering under a tyrant? Is she not righteous?”
“Ughh. Neither of them are truly champions of anything at all, mage. The politician falters on their path by taking the gold in the first place, even if they use it for a good purpose. If the sister were truly devout, she would seek justice and protect the people she serves.”
“Ahh, you would have the orphans suffer and chastise the sister for her lack of political agency?” He raised an eyebrow at her as she passed him to traverse a narrow switchback along the path. This route was shorter than that used by caravans, but more treacherous. “Do you not harm the innocent and righteous?”
“They are not the leaders we should seek to follow.” She scowled, her disapproval evident. “Find the people who take others from harm without seeking gain for themselves. Those who risk much to see justice done – there you will find the Maker’s will.”
“I see.” His voice was cool and even, revealing nothing as he quietly twisted the barb in a little further. “The thousands of people who died in Andraste’s revolt fell in defense of a just cause, but those killed when the Black Divine reformed the Chant of Light were brutally sacrificed for power. Andraste was good, while the Imperial mages were misguided or evil.” The Seeker wasn’t as blindly naive in her views as some, but she did still try to pretend that her clean idealism was actually a feasible goal to reach for – it wasn’t. For centuries beyond counting he had seen dark and light shatter into a thousand shades of grey, and those who understood the true costs of change accomplished the most.
The look she gave him was decidedly odd, as though she were looking for poison in a tray of sweets. What on earth was Solas trying to say? He’s just made my argument for me, Cassandra thought. “Yes! Only a misguided fool would think that change comes free of costs, and a wise leader knows this. Andraste sought freedom from beneath the violent, oppressive hand of the Imperium and their Old Gods. She led a righteous revolt. The Circle of Magi in Tevinter sought to raise themselves above everyone else, with mages taking up places of power under the Maker’s worship as they did under the vile dragon gods of old. The corrupt magisters waged a bloody war to promote their own interests.”
“Your judgement of their merit is biased by your own perspective, Seeker. Could you not also say that Andraste used devious and mysterious means to gain power, raising her people above the established rulers of the Imperium? That the mages, oppressed and shackled by the Circle of Magi, sought freedom from the violent, Templar-enforced Chantry doctrine?” He simply watched her evenly, a faint smile playing across his lips.
It started to snow, the colder weather seemingly summoned by the Seeker’s frosty glare.
Andraste had indeed pleaded with him to make her people more powerful, Solas recalled contemplatively, yet the ocean of difference between Tevinter slave and magister was so vast as to define injustice itself. It was not possible to judge a course of action wholly good or evil, as so many wished to do. The best champions of all seek to balance the scales, though wild, unpredictable swings could, clearly, be the result. It falls to those who know the truth, see the patterns, to gently tip the scales again when the opportunity presents itself. Tilted far from the spires of Arthalan indeed, he thought, the voice of the Dalish ‘Herald of Andraste’ drifting to him on a cold gust of wind. The sound twisted like a knife in his scarred, ancient heart.
Neither pair was paying much attention to the Warden trapped between them, and in truth he was glad to just listen and ride along. It felt good to be part of something, instead of just pretending to be.
It was very late. The bottle of mulled wine was nearly empty, but she kept staring into the flames dancing in the fireplace. Red, searing, wild, like the tainted lyrium. Hours had passed since they had returned through the time portal, and the ruler of Ferelden, Queen Anora, had been gracious enough to allow the small Inquisition contingent to remain at Redcliffe castle for the night. She was not so accommodating of the rebel mages, who were already bound for Haven, trailing a raven’s message. Magister Alexius was in the dungeon, restrained and under heavy guard.
Blood on the stones, Solas and Blackwall crumpled on the ground.
Snapping of bones, Leliana’s pale face, defiant to the last.
Elisara shook herself free of the images yet again, but they were seared into her mind. She would not let it happen. Not like that. The memory would fade and she would use this pain to steel herself for the coming battles, but for now it just burned. They were all looking to her for guidance, for inspiration, for salvation, and she was determined not to let them down. She tossed her head back as she downed the last drink of wine in her cup, wiping away another tear as it ran down her face. Crying was exhausting, and she’d already done her fair share this evening, once she had escaped to her room where no one else would see.
Blackwall, solid and weathered, soft grey eyes. Solas, confident and mysterious, blue eyes changing like a stormy sky. Intimidating, resourceful, reliable. The magister won’t know much of them, she remembered thinking, and I can trust them if this Tevinter mage, Dorian, turns on us. She saw again the solemn look of inevitable sacrifice that the two men had shared in that dismal future. Duty. Loyalty. Acceptance. Knowing that she would have done the same did not help, it just hurt worse. The pain was more intimate.
“Though darkness closes, I am shielded by flame.” Leliana’s defiant voice, icy and devout.
“You move, and we all die!” Dorian, working desperately to cast a spell that shouldn’t exist.
Her fingers clenched around the empty cup, and she wanted to smash it to the floor. She hated breaking things though, and she sat it on the floor to remove the temptation. Heavy ceramic probably wouldn’t even shatter satisfactorily, she thought. Fingers slid into her disheveled hair as her head fell down into her hands, and she let out an exhausted, frustrated sigh. The long braids were a mess, as they often were at the end of the day, and she didn’t give a nug-humping shit about it.
“Elisara?” Footsteps sounded outside the door, and a smooth cultured voice called her name softly. Dorian. She sighed, and considered remaining silent. Half of the people I’ve known for two months still call me ‘Herald’ or ‘Your Worship,’ and a charming Tevinter altus uses my personal name after less than a week.
“Come in,” she sighed again. At least I know he’s trustworthy after this time-travel disaster. No one would go through that by choice.
“I saw the light beneath your door and figured, ‘Ah, who wouldn’t love the company of a delightful mage after a day of terror and nightmare.’ ” Quietly pushing the door open, he lounged against the frame, arms crossing casually over his chest. A quick grin accompanied the sarcasm in his voice, in spite of everything. The firelight shone on the gold bands in his opulent clothing, impeccably – and improbably – spotless.
She laughed, even if it was a short, incredulous laugh, darker than any real laugh had a right to be. Shaking her head, “You really are something-” she hissed quietly in pain as the mark on her hand sparked violently for a heartbeat. Scowling at it, her lips pressed into a thin line as it subsided quickly. She shook her hand to scatter the itchy, static feeling that always followed its use, and returned her sharp green gaze to the mage darkening her doorway.
“Wine?” She gestured at the second chair that sat by the fire. “I certainly needed it after today.”
Dorian pushed off from the doorframe and strolled to the chair, pushing the door mostly shut behind him. “No thank you, I’m not sure I can handle any more Ferelden swill tonight.”
“It’s an Orlesian red, mulled with spices and orange rind.” She poured herself another cup and glanced from the bottle to him again.
His eyes narrowed as he settled into the chair. “Hmm, a dalish elf with good taste? Is it possible?”
She was already glaring at him, her gaze flat and clearly annoyed. Then, the sparkly bastard leaned forward, fingers outstretched toward her cup.
“May I?” The raised eyebrow and smirk were supposed to be charming, she was sure, but combined with his presumptuous attitude, it was shitty, egotistical, arrogance.
“No, you may not.” She snapped. “Why ever would you wish to drink after a mere dalish elf? Surely the People have nothing that you’ve not already stolen for the grand Imperium.” The bitter sarcasm practically splattered on the floor as it dripped from her words. Insulted, exhausted, hurting, overwhelmed, and slightly drunk. She didn’t need to deal with this right now, and considered throwing him and his shiny moustache right back out of her door. Arrogant prear’tunashre, she sulked, putting the bottle back on the floor with a thunk.
“Ooo, my tender human heart is burned.” His mocking pain quickly turned to apology, and he managed to give the appearance of a courtly bow while still sitting in the chair. “Please forgive me my dear, in truth I know very little of the Dalish, or any elves outside of Tevinter, save for poorly written books. It was a shameful, sad attempt at humour, and beneath us both.” He really did look sincere, and the drama reminded her of Varric.
“May I please try the wine, your most illustrious and magnificent Worship, so that the shining Herald of Andraste might, in her divine grace, deign to prove me wrong?” The hand was back out, elegant, ringed fingers politely beckoning for wine from the barefoot, disheveled elf.
She tried to fight it, she really did. The giggles that started bubbling out of her were completely out of her control however, and they dissolved into quiet, steady laughter that just wouldn’t stop. Shaking her head as a tear rolled down her face, she handed over the cup of wine before she laughed it onto the floor.
Wiping away the tears, Elisara pulled her feet up into the high-backed chair and wrapped both arms around her knees. She rested her cheek on her knees as the laughter finally ran out, watching Dorian swirl the wine, smelling it and considering it with great interest. Good gracious, it was just mulled wine. Well, it was good Orlesian wine she’d lifted from Arl Teagan’s cellars, and it was a particular mix of spices that clan Lavellan often added to all manner of drinks…
He finally took a drink, leaning back in the chair and staring contemplatively into the fire. Hmm. It was actually pretty good. He wasn’t quite certain why he had imposed upon the Herald so late, but his mind had been filled with glowing, eerie red lyrium every time he closed his eyes. As a result, he had been roaming the castle for hours, even after the bitter Ferelden “beer” had worn off. He took another drink, wishing he’d found the Herald and her wine sooner.
“I will freely admit that this is quite good, Elisara. Much better than dreams of degenerate magisters and world-destroying demons.”
“Or poisoned friends, lyrium burning in their eyes as they fall to demons’ claws.” She sighed, melancholy quickly creeping back in. “Sacrificing themselves in one desperate attempt to send us back in time…”
“Don’t do this. You cannot focus on what we saw, save for how it can help us stop the Elder One and the Venatori.” He held her eyes, staring at her intently. “It worked, Elisara. Our friends are not dead, and Alexius is not completely lost.”
She nodded, cheek still resting on her knees. She knew that she needed to let it go, if it was possible.
“Trust me, it’s bad enough to be haunted by the past.” He glanced away, recrossing his legs as he stared into the fire. “Don’t let the future haunt you as well.”
There was a story there, she was sure of it. Another time, perhaps. “At least you won’t be haunted by my dalish wine, it seems.” Her smirk was wan, but genuine.
“Most certainly not my dear, although there is a flavor that I cannot quite place.” Another drink, followed by a shake of his head a moment later. “The orange, yes, and familiar spices that taste of cider, but there is a odd bite. Sharp, spicy, a good bite – not the bitter kaffas in the beer I drank earlier. Perhaps it is the vintage itself.”
“Probably the rashvine.” Yep, the shocked look on his face was worth it.
“Not a bit. Rashvine is in several potions that my father used to make, and roasted rashvine root makes an excellent spice.”
“No, you are teasing me just to exacerbate the fact that I like your wine. You have triumphed, there is no doubt.” Dorian’s dark eyes narrowed as he cautiously took another sip from the nearly empty cup. It was entertaining to see his confidence slipping away. “The truth, please. Is there truly rashvine in here?”
“A simple elven hunter wouldn’t dare lie to a mighty Tevinter mage, now would she?” Elisara grabbed the bottle, impishly holding it out toward the human. “Would you care for more?”
He stared at her hard for a moment, then a grin spread across his handsome face. “You cheeky little… It is true! Yes, I will have a bit more.” Looking around, he failed to spot another glass. “I do seem to have stolen your glass though – is there another or am I drinking alone?”
“Oh now you care that you’ve taken my things.” She shook her head ruefully, softened by a smile. “Here, give me the cup.” Pouring about half of the remaining wine filled his glass, and she sat back with the bottle. Why did she always end up letting loose with people when they finally got her alone? She really needed to work on this whole decorum thing sometime. Eventually.
She raised the bottle in a salute, the firelight flickering through the red glass. “To days that shall never come.” He laughed as she tilted the bottle to her lips, taking a drink.
“A toast worth repeating, Herald.” Smiling widely, he raised the glass and drank as well. Even his teeth sparkled. “To days that shall never come, and the hands that will make it so.”
Chapter Index: A Long Hunt
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