This was a horrible, filthy country— forever damp, reeking of rubbish and dog, and everyone hated her the moment she opened her mouth. Somehow, for some reason she couldn't fathom, this was a punishment from the Maker himself. Perhaps the Chantry was correct, and she was to be tortured simply for being a mage.
If this was what Fereldans called summer, she was loath to linger until winter. Tugging her robes tighter around her freshly scrubbed body, Magali settled gracefully on a blanket laid out near the fire. She should retire to her tent, rest in preparation for their continuing journey to the Wending Woods, but she could not stomach one more day without a bit of beauty.
The others would snicker, she had no doubt, or leer. She cared not. The three men stank of old sweat and mud (and worse, in the dwarf's case), and the fact that she preferred her skin to be smooth and sweetly scented did not make her less able to flay a darkspawn alive with the power of her will alone. Femininity was not necessarily a forewarning of weakness, as the women of this dismal land would do well to discover.
She had never seen such women— tall and hard, with hair cut brutally short and largely unadorned. Certainly, Orlais had its share of strong women. Her Imperial Majesty was only the most obvious example, but there were others too numerous to count. Yet nearly every one of them maintained a civility and exquisiteness that merely added to her power.
It was unfair to paint all Fereldan women with the same grubby brush, she knew, but from what she had seen their nobles were delicate finches— pretty if somewhat dull plumage but no real bite— and their battle maidens strove to be men. It was discomforting.
Opening her small, intricately carved box, Magali lifted the dark blue bottle with great care. It was unlikely she would be able to replace these items, were something untoward to happen to her small supply. Until she could find a trader who carried Orlesian goods, she would not even be able to properly mix her own. Suddenly, such a trivial thing she had taken for granted seemed so delicate and precious.
Privacy would have made this more enjoyable, but her tent was thin and the wind was high. No, she would sit by the fire and if any of her new Wardens took issue with it, she knew more than enough curses in their harsh language to rebuke properly.
Oghren had passed out for the evening, only half inside his crookedly pitched tent, and from the deep rumble of his snoring, she assumed he would be dead to the world for some time yet. That left only Anders and Nathaniel to ogle her— her fellow mage would only subject her to the kind of harmless lechery she was accustomed to, and the Howe seemed far too dour to cause much of a fuss. It was not a perfect situation, but it was not the most terrible she'd found herself in that day either.
Her skin already smelled lightly of vanilla and jasmine from her soft goats' milk soap, and she did not relish the thought of running out of that. She'd seen what passed for soap in her new home, and while it might be effective at scouring away a few months worth of grime, she was less than eager to try.
She'd slipped her nightdress on under her robes when she'd climbed out of the pleasantly crisp water of the nearby river— the Hafter River, Nathaniel had informed her— and with practiced ease she undid the clasps and slid her arms free of the soft, enchanted fabric. The nightdress was simple, cream coloured linen with a hint of lace at the scooped neckline, but still she heard Anders whistle appreciatively from across the fire.
Rolling her eyes, she did not dignify the exclamation with any other response, nor did she even glance over at the two men as she pulled the stopper free from the blue bottle. More vanilla, with hints of subtle florals and spices alien to these climes, mingled with the warmth of the fire. Pouring a small amount of lotion into her palm, she began to smooth the cool, silky crème over her bare arms.
The only place in Thedas the Orlesians looked down their collective prissy noses at more often than Ferelden was the Free Marches— something about the barbarous lack of organised government, or so the rumour went. Regardless of the reason, having lived his entire life in one backwater or the other, Nathaniel's exposure to Orlesian culture had been limited. He'd read his history of course, but Fereldan accounts of their former conquerors were invariably biased.
He hadn't been lying when he'd said he had expected Grey Wardens to be more impressive. The four of them who'd managed to manhandle him into that cell had been strong, but not quick enough, and now this woman, their commander… Nathaniel didn't know what to think of her.
He'd hated her, at first. She hadn't killed his father herself, but the Wardens had, and it was her bad luck she was the only one within the reach of his ire. That she was curt and condescending and all those foul things he'd been taught to expect from Orlesians was simply fuel on the acrid fire deep in his gut.
But then she'd given him back his effects, along with his grandfather's bow of all things, and he was completely stymied on how he was meant to respond. He'd learned Delilah was alive, and the Commander had ordered them to be on the road to Amaranthine that very day. She was still brusque and sharp, still insisted without any reservation that his father had deserved his fate, but apparently she had some kind of heart as well.
All tolled, it made hating her quite difficult, and Nathaniel was nearly ready to just stop trying.
He was fletching arrows by the firelight, ignoring the animated discussion Anders was having nearby with his troublesome cat, when she returned from her excursion to the river. It was past sunset, dark but not pitch-black, and he was mildly impressed at the softness of her footsteps as she glided back into the glow of camp.
Perhaps she'd been less prickly before all that unpleasant business at the Vigil— he'd heard the battle, the screams and the inhuman roars he now knew were darkspawn. Had the Commander known those Wardens? Had they been her friends?
Had she lost someone important to her in that massacre?
Nathaniel could hardly presume anything about the strange, foreign woman. The only thing he'd been able to deduce thus far was that she was terribly good at surprising him.
Now, for instance. He had begun watching her surreptitiously when she'd returned, but he'd hardly expected anything like this. The fabric of her robes shimmered as it fell away, and for a moment Nathaniel completely forgot he was meant to be covert in his observations. He was reminded sharply, quite literally, when Anders' crude whistle startled him out of his staring and the movement made him nick his thumb just slightly on his hunting knife. There was only a hint of blood, but the pain brought him back to reality.
Orlesian Magister robes hid much, it seemed. She was a… striking woman, and he was a twit who had been living as a monk for too long. Foolishness.
Stamping down his natural but unwelcome reactions, Nathaniel continued carving a nock into the spruce shaft he'd managed to stain with a small red blotch. Then, when the peculiar and uncomfortably alluring smell invaded his nose, he could not help but look up again.
"You bloody tease," Anders was saying, with humour and lechery lacing his words in equal measure. "Did you need someone to get your back, dear lady? I've been told I've got warm hands."
The skin of her slender arms, all smooth and milky pale, was dewy with whatever lotion she was applying, but it was her expression that drew his attention. She looked, for the first time in their acquaintance, content.
Surprisingly, she merely smiled at her fellow mage, while her long fingers moved to spread a thin, glistening layer over her shoulders and collarbone. "Ah, but I would not wish Ser Pounce-a-lot to become jealous. Thank you for the selfless offer, however."
Her accent was thick, and her admittedly dulcet tenor had only served to grate on his nerves when she'd first confronted him in his family's former home. She was the same woman now as then, the same bitter bitch who'd denied him both his vengeance and his freedom, but who did not for a moment deny him the self-indulgent whim of visiting the sister he'd been convinced he had lost. This woman, the Commander of the Grey, she spared him the gallows but condemned him to a slower death, all the while gifting him with mementoes and fragments of his former life.
A sister. A bow. A stupid bloody vase that once sat in his mother's salon.
He was slowly being driven mad.
"It's not enough the darkspawn can sense us, I suppose." He hadn't really considered what might come out of his mouth, were he to speak, until he was already talking. Without warning, he was suddenly incredibly irritated. "We are to make certain they can smell us as well. Lovely."
Anders gaped at him. "You— Andraste's lacy white knickers, you're an insane person. Don't listen to him, Commander. Dabbling about with all those poisons has clearly made his brain go soft."
She murmured something in Orlesian, sounding wholly unconcerned, then reached down and slid the hem of her shift up her calves and over her bent knees. Maker's breath— "I can indulge myself occasionally," she said in the King's tongue, bending forward to remove her boots and begin rubbing lotion on her slim ankles. "Or I can succumb to homesickness, become as drab as your gloomy countryside, and fall into ill-humour. Considering the options, I have made the sensible choice, yes?"
What had been a promising arrow, with a clear, straight grain running through the shaft, was harshly tossed into the fire. "I've yet to see you be especially sensible, Commander."
There wasn't any reason for his anger to flare like this— she'd done nothing but bathe, for goodness' sake. It wasn't as though she were leading them all about the arling on some frivolous jaunt, or insisting on hours to primp and preen as he remembered his mother doing. It was a struggle to bring his breathing back under control when he was drowning in spice and flowers, but he managed. Her relaxed manner barely flickered at his outburst.
"Then you are dull-witted, or simply inattentive. I did not think you an imbecile, but such is life." She was careful to shift her nightdress about, keeping her modesty intact as she stretched out one leg to smooth lotion along the curve of her calf. Nathaniel could not see any hair on her legs, just miles of unblemished flesh. Was it a practice of mages to remove such hair, or perhaps an Orlesian trend? He was certainly not about to ask.
It would make the skin feel softer, he imagined— no, he imagined no such thing. He would not imagine anything.
Anders snorted with amusement. "Seems quite attentive now, doesn't he? You're, well, you're drooling a bit there, Nathaniel."
"You're delusional," he growled, refusing to rise to the juvenile bait. There was a reasonably sized pile of arrows at his feet, and the pitch had likely hardened enough on the sinews, so he decided to move on to trimming the fletches— a decision that was not influenced at all by the thought he might overpower the scent of her lotion with the stench of burning feathers.
Thankfully, Anders shut his mouth after that, content to sit and leer overtly with that foolish cat curled up sleeping on his chest. Nathaniel hardly cared anymore; he was too busy with real work, useful tasks that would help keep them all from being eaten, Maker willing. Imperfect fletching meant his aim would be off, and that could make the difference between putting an arrow through a genlock's eye instead of through her swanlike neck.
Mages, of course, could hardly understand such trifling things. They could bring down nature's own fury with nothing but a fancy tree branch, or even barehanded. What would she care for dull blades and dried bowstrings?
Running the smouldering stick along the edge of one pale goose feather, feeling the foul, pungent smoke fill his nostrils, Nathaniel tried to lose himself in the unpleasant task.
"Mm," Anders purred eventually, sounding more like a giant cat himself as the night drew in upon them. "In all seriousness, lady, you are a lovely thing."
"Here, perhaps," she said softly, softer than Nathaniel had ever heard her speak. He did not look up from his chore. "In Orlais I am quite plain. Not that your Fereldan women are not pretty, but Orlesians are all like… brightly feathered birds, yes? All elaborate colours and jewels, where I have always preferred to be more simple, if still womanly." Womanly, yes. He'd certainly never met a man, not even an Antivan, with legs quite so... womanly. "It is strange to be away from home, where all is so different. Not terrible, but strange."
He heard Anders shifting about, and the cat's annoyed mewing at the disturbance— without much conscious thought Nathaniel found himself glancing over. Her hair was down.
"Have you never been out of Orlais before?" She looked very different with her hair untied, loose around her face and shoulders. He hadn't really considered how long it must be, to make such a large, neat fist at the nape of her neck, but now that it was free…
She shrugged at Anders' question, rippling the deep copper curls. Very red and very long, spilling down her back, and Nathaniel swallowed thickly. His father would be rolling in his pauper's grave at the thought of his only remaining son taking such a fancy to an Orlesian woman, a mage, and a Grey Warden at that—
But his father was dead, and the twisted monster Rendon Howe had become suffered a traitor's death. A death he deserved. Nathaniel trusted his sister's word more than he trusted a young boy's faded memories of a heroic father. He trusted Delilah's account of a jealous, spiteful man who'd lost himself in the same horrific desires that had put such shadows in their mother's eyes.
Once, not that long ago, he'd prayed every night to be half the man he thought his father was. Now he searched desperately through his own mind for some solid memory to reassure him he hadn't imagined it all.
Magali— the Commander— had taken up another small glass bottle, this one squatter and dark green, and was pouring a few drops of what looked like some kind of pale golden oil into her palm. She rubbed the glistening liquid between her hands as she began to speak.
"I spent some time in Jader after my Joining." With ease borne obviously of habit, she stroked her fingers lightly thought the hair at her temples, then carefully pulled the great cascade of it over one shoulder. "That is barely Orlais. But no, this is my first time truly away." Hair was meant to be washed in order to get oil and dirt out of it— it made no sense to add oil after a bath. Still, whatever she was doing seemed to melt away tangles and snares, all the while adding a burnished sheen and yes, another subtle layer of scent to the proceedings.
"I nearly made it to Jader once, the fifth time I escaped the Tower." If the Commander noticed the way Anders had moved a bit closer, she did not react. Nathaniel seethed silently. "I thought I'd try to buy passage on a ship to Nevarra, then disappear up into Tevinter, but I didn't want to risk travelling the trade route. The templars caught me after weeks of freezing my bum off in the Frostbacks, lost and miserable— I was almost glad to be taken back that time."
Rubbing her hands together again, she picked up a simple wooden comb and began dragging it gently though her curls. "You would have been killed long ago in Orlais, I think. Our Chantry laws are rather harsh, especially when Val Royeaux becomes involved."
The thought visibly dampened the man's good humour, at least a bit, and with a small sigh he began to cuddle his cat closer under his chin. "Well, perspective is good, I suppose. What's the Orlesian stance on apostates in the Grey Wardens?"
She laughed quite warmly, which was not an expected reaction by any means. "My mentor in the Order was a powerful maleficar, Serkan. He came from Minrathous, or so he told me. What a handsome man he was." Nathaniel did not trust blood magic, and he knew Anders was at least somewhat discomforted by the concept as well. The Commander spoke of maleficarum as if they were ordinary people… handsome people. "So long as those of us on the wrong side of the Chantry keep to the smaller cities, there is rarely any trouble. It helps that Her Holiness the Divine would like to imagine the Wardens do not exist at all, especially the mages."
Nathaniel realised too late that he'd been watching the exchange intently, the smouldering stick in his hand having long burnt out to nothing. He could smell vanilla and flowers again, and it tweaked at faint, happy memories deep in his mind. He remembered the servants sneaking him sweet cakes after he'd been banished from a feast for speaking out of turn, letting him sit near the hearth in the kitchen to keep warm rather than return to his lonely bedchamber. Adria's hair had smelled like flowers sometimes, especially in summer, and she would always hold him close after he scraped his knees bloody climbing trees, even as she scolded him.
Damn it all, he'd met lyrium-addled dwarves whose minds didn't wander so easily. He needed to concentrate.
"But you're not a blood mage, Magali," Anders said, his voiced tinged with questions, and Nathaniel found himself wishing fervently that she would finally snap and take the man to task for prying. He knew there was a thorny harridan lurking somewhere inside her.
She was still combing her hair slowly, and Nathaniel felt something clench in his gut at the way her neck arched and her eyes fluttered closed. "No," she replied. "It is not a path I would take willingly, though if necessity demanded such a sacrifice… Alors, I am a Grey Warden, after all."
Fine, if this was how it was to be, he had a few inquiries of his own. For reasons he was unwilling to examine, he needed to see if she were as amenable to answering him as she was Anders.
"How long have you been a Grey Warden, Commander?" he asked quite civilly, leaning in to relight his stick in the fire. Regardless of anything else, he still had a half dozen unfinished arrows waiting beside him.
Now she looked at him, while his earlier rudeness hadn't even earned him a glance. He felt pinned by her sharp, icy blue gaze, and almost burned his hand. She was dangerous, and he was a horse's arse.
"Nearly five years." Something hardened behind her eyes as she stared him down. "And before you begin being snide, I will remind you that your Hero of Ferelden had been a Warden for not even two years when he ended your civil war and slew an archdemon. I was recruited because I was already quite formidable, and that has not changed."
Having rediscovered even a hint of her caustic side brought him no satisfaction, and he shook his head carefully. "I was not going to be snide," he murmured, picking up an arrow. "And unless the Wardens make a habit of recruiting children, I hardly expected you to have a decade or more under your belt." Goose feather curled and smoked, and he could still feel the weight of her attention, unwavering even as Anders attempted to break the tension with some off-colour joke.
By the time he finished his task, smoothing the last of the neatly trimmed feathers with his scabbed thumb, the camp had grown quiet again. One cautious lift of his head, and he saw her deftly plaiting her hair, twisting it into a thick copper cord trailing down her spine. The result was softer than usual, with a few tendrils still framing her face, but he had no doubt she would be her familiar dour self by the time they packed camp the next morning.
This Magali was some other animal entirely, and Nathaniel could feel a headache brewing between his brows.